22 DECEMBER 1866, Page 9


"ipEW people think perhaps how odd a result is caused by the r suburban Railway system, in this,—that it brings the paths of so many men's lives into a brief daily coincidence, without really giving them any claim either on each other's friendship, or even acquaintanceship of more than the most superficial kind. From all quarters of the country the curves by which a mathematician might represent men's careers on earth, come sweeping down to suburban railway stations, then coincide for a certain short distance of an hour's or half-an-hour's travel, and then diverge again to all quarters of the central city, to reunite in the evening for the same brief space as they tend homewards again. A very superficial contact with the very same men repeated daily, often

for years and years together, sometimes without leading to the interchange of a single word,—while faces, manners, and voices grow as reciprocally familiar as if they belonged to members of the same family,—and seldom indeed leading to real intimacy, is a social influence the character of which has, perhaps, more to do with the production of that weak solution of general intelli- gence and information now known as public opinion,' than we have ever fully realized. The influence exerted even by the mere

voice in which "the men in the train" mention a piece of poli- tical news, the effect of the brief " damned nonsense " with which they criticize an article, the advantage which easy first-

impression judgments have in a railway carriage over anything which it requires the apparently pedantic statement of a principle to bring out,—all tend to the rapid formation of a superficial, ill founded, and yet dogmatic public opinion. A man who feels that his view is the view of his railway carriage, that Rich the banker, and Smith, M.P., and Search, of the Civil Service,—the only men

who buy the Times at the station,—all agreed about it, while only a dejected consumer of the Star ventured a grunt of dissidence, has a sense of buoyancy, of swimming on corks, in further pro- pagating the same view, which no " calm inquiry" could ever have given him. He talks with authority, with a vague belief that the ' common sense' of the nation is at his back, which is very reassuring to him and is instructive to listen to To a silent man, Railway familiars are truly useful, as giving , hints as to the genesis of public opinion. It becomes a labori- ous study, however, if a man has any such regard for truth as

to feel an impulse to correct flagrant blunders of fact ; besides, cor- rections of this nature are unwelcome in railway carriages, and almost always throw a wet blanket over the tiny flame of a public opinion in its infancy ; and there is a sense of cruelty about inter- fering as a stranger to quench the ' sweet young life.' Then there is a conventional limit, beyond which a man can scarcely go in a railway discussion without getting beneath the thin stratum of received common sense, beneath which he reaches the stronger stuff of moral principle,—or, more indelicate still, of immoral principle, — neither of which men like to disclose to the daily circle of mere public-opinion manufacturers. This has a tendency to make a false-bottomed public opinion,—a public opinion formed on super- ficial side issues of taste, or what is called common sense—and is much oftener common prejudice,—very popular in railway carriages.

Thus far Railway familiars are useful, even if not agreeable,— especially to men not too much disposed to reject an opinion

merely because it is evidently caught up from a superficial view

of what is easiest to state to a miscellaneous society of half- acquaintances. Society can never be pleasant in which you do not know, but only guess, your men, and in which any deeper thrust which would lead to knowledge is almost a breach of etiquette• But there are sides on which this familiarity without knowledge is amusing and vexatious by turns. It is the only phase in which a naturalist can study men exactly as he would study animals,— with that same perfect external intimacy with their ways, hours, habits, attitudes, voices, physical peculiarities, and that same blank ignorance of the real inside view which they take of things. And this railway opening for such observation, encourages the growth of such a naturalist love of prying into human habitats and modes of outward existence, just as you would study the habits of bees or of herons. There is a man on one of the lines into London commonly known as "The Spy," for his perfect intimacy with the habits of the animals which frequent his train. But he is not a spy, only a naturalist,—though one perhaps, as Wordsworth says, who

would peep and botanize upon his mother's grave.' We have heard him describe a man of this kind most accurately somewhat thus :—" Habitat :—low marshy soil near the River ;—joins in the flight of men of passage to the Bushey Station soon after sunrise in the winter months ; has a nest under the seat in the railway car- riage from which he will at times produce twenty or thirty news- papers, which this active creature gathers in his daily flights ; has

defective sight, and will often fail to recognize another man of passage who ought to be perfectly familiar to him ; crosses the water usually in the same company, and has been seen lurk- ing about till his ordinary companion appeared ; migrates into the country again about sunset in winter, but has been met late at night in the town ; usually carries a black pouch, overfull, which.

he has been known to drop into the road ; violent to railway

officials." Nay, this accurate observer of the habits of men of passage, who delights as much in his vocation as ever did Water- ton in observing the habits of snakes or monkeys, has been known to spread as mere naturalist's news,—just as you would record seeing a kingfisher dive or a hawk pounce on a pigeon,—that he had seen such and such a passenger by the 9.5 up train bring his bag into collision with a milk can in the Westminster Road, and offer compensation on the spot to the injured milkman. And he inquired through a " mutual friend," only from scientific curiosity, what the compensation was. No minutia) can be too small for the interest of these new railway naturalists. If there is a ruffled feather in a bird, a true Waterton will observe it, and if there is a shadow of heat or discomposure in a man of pas-

sage, such a naturalist as we have mentioned would have it in his note-book at once. These men are, of course, still few. Perhaps there is not above one or two on each line of railway. But their s is a habit of mind which is naturally developed by these super- ficial contacts and distant intimacies. The present writer has even himself noticed with a sense of profound weariness that his attention fixed itself as regularly as the day came round, on the cotton wool with which a man-of-passage with large red ears would insist on stuffing them. As regularly as the revolving heavens, at a certain hour in the morning, this speck of cotton wool in a large ear, like a spot on the sun, would rise above the horizon, and if you completed your orbit round him, the other ear shone fiercely with its central wool on the other side of the face; and the regular joke about the umbrella or missing umbrella was made, and no allusion to the great fact which occupied the morbid mind of the observer,—the cotton wool,—was possible ; and again and again memory wept over the number of recurrences of the same phenomena in the same order, without any possibility of remonstrance on the circumstance which loomed larger and ever larger in the imagination. Then, too, how soon the boisterous, jocular man, who has friends who ask him at each station, What crib is this ?' with immense exultation in the wit of the question, palls upon you when you see that his boisterousness may go on for years and years longer, without once giving you a chance of demonstrating to him that, being what he is, he ought to be a dejected man, and not so full of self-gratification. Half-know- ledge of this sort gives at times a morbid craving for a good thrust at a man to see what he is really like, and whether the sawdust, the stuffing, in his character, is • after all more apparent than real. But you cannot cut the doll. You must go on noting his habits long after you know them,—and without enjoying them as you would seeing a squirrel run every day up a tree at the same hour, or even a blackbird with his yellow bill coming hopping down for his worms. There is all the habitual- ness and none of the fascination attaching to our observation of a different race of creatures from ourselves. The red-eared man with cotton wool in his ears is a much higher type of creature than the robin which flies off triumphant with a bit of wool to his nest ; but there is no equal pleasure in marking the ingenuity of the contriv- ance with which he has stopped his ears to prevent cold, and also to diminish, let us suppose, the vibrations of his infant child- ren's cries. Even the man who is always late, and who dashes in at the last moment with his breath at least a minute behind him, is not a natural-history study at all of the same interest as the cat which is always too late for her supper, and always disappointed afresh at its disappearance. Railway familiars can never quite have the interest of mere creatures, with their unexplained ways, for us. We know them too well, as far as we know them at all, and the only interest of them is beyond the point at which we can study them. When you have noticed that an old white owl builds inthe ivy on the church and flies out every night at such an hour, you seem to know something of him ; but when you know that the bald-headed gentleman who takes an Indian silk handkerchief out of his hat to blow his nose directly he gets into the 9.5 train and always buys a Standard, regularly returns at 5.15 in the evening, and puts his handkerchief into his hat before getting out of the train, you do not really know anything except a stupid fact about him, which you soon begin very unfairly to resent. The habits of men, in this sense, are after all an unremunerative study. Only very idle men will fail to regret the terrible compulsion upon them to note these things day after day, with an ever greater sense of the unmeaningness of a succession of human events which recur as regularly as the clock.