THE CELESTIAL RAILROAD
BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.
NOT a great while ago, passing through the gate of dreams, I visited that region of the earth in which lies the famous city of Destruction.
It interested me much to learn that, by the public spirit of some of the inhabitants, a railroad has recently been established between this populous and flourishing town and the Celestial City. Having a little time upon my hands, I resolved to gratify a liberal curiosity by making a trip thither. Accordingly, one fine morning, after paying my bill at the hotel, and directing the porter to stow my luggage behind a coach, I took my seat in the vehicle and set out for the station house. It was my good fortune to enjoy the company of a gentleman - one Mr. Smooth-it-away - who, though he had never actually visited the Celestial City, yet seemed as well acquainted with its laws, customs, policy, and statistics, as with those of the city of Destruction, of which he was a native townsman. Being, moreover, a director of the railroad corporation, and one of its largest stockholders, he had it in his power to give me all desirable information respecting that praiseworthy enterprise.
Our coach rattled out of the city, and at a short distance from its outskirts, passed over a bridge of elegant construction, but somewhat too slight, as I imagined, to sustain any considerable weight. On both
sides lay an extensive quagmire, which could not have been more disagreeable, either to sight or smell, had all the kennels of the earth emptied their pollution there.
"This," remarked Mr. Smooth-it-away,
"is the famous Slough of Despond - a disgrace to all the neighborhood; and the greater that it might so easily be converted into firm ground."
"I have understood," said I, "that efforts have been made for that purpose from time immemorial."
"Very probably - and what effect could be anticipated from such unsubstantial stuff?" cried
Mr. Smooth-it-away. "You observe this convenient bridge. We obtained a sufficient foundation for it by throwing into the Slough some editions of books of morality, volumes of French philosophy and German
rationalism, tracts, sermons, and essays of modern clergyman, extracts from Plato, Confucius, and various Hindoo sages, together with a few ingenious commentaries upon texts of Scripture; all of which, by some scientific
process, have been converted into a mass like granite. The whole bog might be filled up with similar matter."
It really seemed to me, however, that the bridge vibrated and heaved up and down in a very formidable
manner; and spite of Mr. Smooth-it-away's testimony to the solidity of its foundation, I should be loath to cross it in a crowded omnibus, especially if each passenger were encumbered with as heavy luggage as that gentleman and
myself. Nevertheless, we got over without accident, and soon found ourselves at the station house.
This very neat and spacious edifice is erected on the site of the little Wicket Gate, which formerly, as all old pilgrims will recollect, stood directly across the highway, and by its inconvenient narrowness, was a great obstruction to the traveler of liberal mind and expansive stomach.
A large number of passengers were already at the station house, awaiting the departure of the cars. By the aspect and demeanor of the persons, it was easy to judge that the feelings of the community had undergone
a very favorable change in reference to the celestial pilgrimage. It would have done Bunyan's heart good to see it.
Instead of a lonely and ragged man with a huge burthen on his back, plodding along sorrowfully on foot while the whole city hooted after him, here were parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood setting forth toward the Celestial City as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a Summer tour. Among the gentlemen were characters of deserved eminence, magistrates, politicians, and men of wealth, by whose example religion could not but be greatly recommended to their meaner brethren. In the ladies' apartment, too, I rejoiced to distinguish some of those flowers of fashionable society, who are so well fitted to adorn the most elevated circles in the Celestial City. There was much pleasant conversation about the news of the day, topics of business, politics, or the lighter matters of amusement; while religion, though indubitably the main thing at heart, was thrown tastefully into the back-ground. Even an infidel would have heard little or nothing to shock his sensibility.
One great convenience of the new method of going on pilgrimage I must not forget to mention.
Our enormous burthens [burdens], instead of being carried on our shoulders as had been the custom of old, were all snugly deposited in the baggage car, and as I was assured, would be delivered to their respective owners at the journey's end. Another thing, likewise, the benevolent reader will be delighted to understand. It may be remembered that there was an ancient feud between Prince Beelzebub and the keeper of the Wicket Gate, and that the adherents of the former distinguished personage were accustomed to shoot deadly arrows at honest pilgrims while knocking at the door. This dispute, much to the credit, as well of the illustrious potentate above mentioned, as of the worthy and enlightened directors of the railroad, has been pacifically arranged on the principle of mutual compromise. The Prince's subjects are now pretty numerously employed about the station house, some in taking care of the baggage, others in collecting fuel, feeding the engines, and such congenial occupations; and I can conscientiously affirm that persons more attentive to their business, more willing to accommodate, or more generally agreeable to the passengers, are not to be found on any railroad. Every good heart must surely exult at so satisfactory an arrangement of an immemorial difficulty.
"Where is Mr. Great-heart?" inquired I. "Beyond a doubt the directors have engaged that famous old champion to be chief conductor on the railroad?"
"Why no;" said Mr.
Smooth-it-away, with a dry cough.
"He was offered the situation of brakeman; but to tell you the truth, our friend Great-heart has grown preposterously stiff and narrow in his old age. He has so often guided pilgrims over the road on foot that he considers it a sin to travel in any other fashion. Besides, the old fellow had entered so heartily into the ancient feud with Prince Beelzebub that he would have been perpetually at blows or ill language with some of the Prince's subjects, and thus have embroiled us anew. So, on the whole, we were not sorry when honest Great-heart went off to the Celestial City in a huff, and left us at liberty to choose a more suitable and accommodating man. Yonder comes the conductor of the train. You will probably recognize him at once."
The engine at this moment took its station in advance of the cars, looking, I must confess, much more like a sort of mechanical demon, that would hurry us to the infernal regions, than a laudable contrivance for
smoothing our way to the Celestial City.
On its top sat a personage almost enveloped in smoke and flame, which - (not to startle the reader) - appeared to gush from his own mouth and stomach as well as from the engine's brazen abdomen. "Do my eyes deceive me?" cried I. "What on earth is this? A living creature? If so, he is own brother to the engine that he rides upon?"
"Poh, poh, you are obtuse," said Mr. Smooth-it-away, with a hearty laugh. "Don't you know Appolyon, Christian's old enemy, with whom he fought so fierce a battle in the Valley of Humiliation?
He was the very fellow to manage the engine, and so we have reconciled him to the custom of going on pilgrimage, and engaged him as chief conductor."
"Bravo - bravo!" exclaimed I, with irrepressible
"This shows the liberality of the age. This proves, if anything can, that all musty prejudices are in a fair way to be obliterated. And how will Christian rejoice to hear of this happy transformation of his old antagonist. I promise myself great pleasure in informing him of it when we reach the Celestial City."
The passengers being all comfortably seated, we now rattled away merrily, accomplishing a greater distance in ten minutes than Christian probably trudged over in a day.
It was laughable while we glanced along, as it were, at the tail of a thunderbolt, to observe two dusty foot-travelers in the old pilgrim guise, with cockle shell and staff, their mystic rolls of parchment in their hands, and their intolerable burthens [burdens] on their backs. The preposterous obstinacy of these honest people in persisting to groan and stumble along the difficult pathway, rather than take advantage of modern improvements, excited great mirth among our wiser brotherhood. We greeted the two pilgrims with many pleasant gibes and a roar of laughter; whereupon they gazed at us with such woful and absurdly compassionate visages, that our merriment grew ten-fold more obstreperous. Appolyon, also, entered heartily into the fun, and contrived to flirt the smoke and flame of the engine, or of his own breath, into their faces, and envelope them in an atmosphere of scalding steam. These little practical jokes amused us mightily, and doubtless afforded the pilgrims the gratification of considering themselves martyrs.
At some distance from the railroad, Mr. Smooth-it-away pointed to a large antique edifice, which, he observed, was a tavern of long standing, and had formerly been a noted stopping place for pilgrims. In Bunyan's
road-book it is mentioned as the Interpreter's House.
"I have long had a curiosity to visit that old mansion," remarked I.
"It is not one of our stations, as you perceive," said my companion.
"The keeper was violently opposed to the railroad; and well he might be, as the track left his house of entertainment on one side, and thus was pretty certain to deprive him of all his reputable customers. But the foot-path still passes his door, and the old gentleman now and then receives a call from some simple traveler, and entertains him with fare as old-fashioned as himself."
Before our talk on this subject came to a conclusion, we were rushing by the place where Christian's burthen fell from his shoulders, at the sight of the cross. This served as a theme for Mr. Smooth-it-away, Mr.
Live-in-the-world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, and Mr. Scaley-conscience, and a knot of gentlemen from the town of Shun-repentance, to descant upon the inestimable advantages resulting from the safety of our baggage.
Myself, and all the passengers indeed, joined with great unanimity in this view of the matter; for our burthens [burdens] were rich in many things esteemed precious throughout the world; and especially, we each of us possessed a great variety of favorite habits, which we trusted would not be out of fashion, even in the polite circles of the Celestial City. It would have been a sad spectacle to see such an assortment of valuable articles tumbling into the sepulchre. Thus pleasantly conversing on the favorable circumstances of our position as compared with those of past pilgrims, and of narrow-minded ones at the present day, we soon found ourselves at the foot of the Hill Difficulty. Through the very heart of this rocky mountain a tunnel has been constructed of most admirable architecture, with a lofty arch and a spacious double track; so that unless the earth and rocks should chance to crumble down, it will remain an eternal monument of the builder's skill and enterprise. It is a great though incidental advantage, that the materials from the heart of the Hill Difficulty have been employed in filling up the Valley of Humiliation; thus obviating the necessity of descending into that disagreeable and unwholesome hollow.
"This is a wonderful improvement, indeed," said I.
"Yet I should have been glad of an opportunity to visit the Palace Beautiful and be introduced to the charming young ladies - Miss Prudence, Miss Piety, Miss Charity, and the rest - who have the kindness to entertain pilgrims there."
"Young ladies!" cried Mr. Smooth-it-away, as soon as he could speak for laughing. "And charming young ladies!
Why, my dear fellow, they are old maids every soul of them - prim, starched, dry and angular - and not one of them, I will venture to say, has altered so much as the fashion of her gown, since the days of Christian's pilgrimage."
"Ah, well," said I, much comforted, "then I can very well dispense with their acquaintance."
The respectable Appolyon was now putting on the steam at a prodigious rate, anxious perhaps to get
rid of the unpleasant reminiscences connected with the spot where he had so disastrously encountered Christian.
Consulting Mr. Bunyan's roadbook, I perceived that we must now be within a few miles of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, into which doleful region, at our present speed, we should plunge much sooner than seemed at all desirable. In truth, I expected nothing better than to find myself in the ditch on one side, or the quag on the other. But, on communicating my apprehensions to Mr. Smooth-it-away, he assured me that the difficulties of this passage, even in its worst condition, had been vastly exaggerated, and that, in its present state of improvement, I might consider myself as safe as on any railroad in christendom.
Even while we were speaking, the train shot into the entrance of this dreaded valley. Though I plead guilty to some foolish palpitations of the heart during our headlong rush over the causeway here constructed,
yet it were unjust to withhold the highest encomiums on the boldness of its original conception, and the ingenuity of those who executed it.
It was gratifying, likewise, to observe how much care had been taken to dispel the everlasting gloom and supply the defect of cheerful sunshine, not a ray of which has ever penetrated among these awful shadows. For this purpose, the inflammable gas, which exudes plentifully from the soil, is collected by means of pipes, and thence communicated to a quadruple row of lamps along the whole extent of the passage. Thus a radiance has been created, even out of the fiery and sulphurous curse that rests for ever upon the valley; a radiance, hurtful, however, to the eyes, and somewhat bewildering, as I discovered by the changes which it wrought in the visages of my companions. In this respect, as compared with natural daylight, there is the same difference as between truth and falsehood; but if the reader has ever travelled through the dark valley, he will have learned to be thankful for any light that he could get; if not from the sky above, then from the blasted soil beneath. Such was the red brilliancy of these lamps that they appeared to build walls of fire on both sides of the track, between which we held our course at lightening speed, while a reverberating thunder filled the valley with its echoes. Had the engine run off the track, (a catastrophe, it is whispered, by no means unprecedented,) the bottomless pit, if there be any such place, would undoubtedly have received us. Just as some dismal fooleries of this kind had made my heart quake, there came a tremendous shriek careering along the valley as if a thousand devils had burst their lungs to utter it, but which proved to be merely the whistle of the engine on arriving at a stopping place.
The spot where we had now paused is the same that our friend Bunyan - a truthful man, but infected with many fantastic notions - has designated, in terms plainer than I like to repeat, as the mouth of the infernal
region. This, however, must be a mistake, inasmuch as Mr. Smooth-it-away, while we remained in the smoky and lurid cavern, took occasion to prove that Tophet has not even a metaphorical existence. The place, he
assured us, is no other than the crater of a half extinct volcano, in which the directors had caused forges to be set up for the manufacture of railroad iron.
Hence also is obtained a plentiful supply of fuel for the use of the engines. Whoever had gazed into the dismal obscurity of the broad cavern mouth, whence, ever and anon darted huge tongues of dusky flame, and had seen the strange, half shaped monsters, and visions of faces horribly grotesque into which the smoke seemed to wreathe itself, and had heard the awful murmurs, and shrieks, and deep shuddering whispers of the blast, sometimes forming itself into words almost articulate - would have siezed upon Mr. Smooth-it-away's comfortable explanation as greedily as we did. The inhabitants of the cavern, moreover, were unlovely personages, dark, smoke-begrimed, generally deformed, with mis-shapen feet, and a glow of dusky redness in their eyes, as if their hearts had caught fire, and were blazing out of the upper windows. It struck me as a peculiarity that the laborers at the forge and those who brought fuel to the engine, when they began to draw short breath, positively emitted smoke from their mouth and nostrils.
Among the idlers about the train, most of whom were puffing cigars which they had lighted at the flame of the crater, I was perplexed to notice several, who, to my certain knowledge, had heretofore set forth by railroad
for the Celestial City.
They looked dark, wild and smoky, with a singular resemblance, indeed, to the native inhabitants, like whom, also, they had a disagreeable propensity to ill-natured gibes and sneers, the habit of which had wrought a settled contortion on their visages. Having been on speaking terms with one of them - an indolent, good-for-nothing fellow, who went by the name of Take-it-easy - I called to him, and inquired what was his business there.
"Did you not start," said I, "for the Celestial City?"
"That's a fact," said Mr. Take-it-easy, carelessly puffing some smoke into my eyes. "But I heard such bad accounts
that I never took pains to climb the hill on which the city stands. No business doing, no fun going on, nothing to drink and no smoking allowed, and a thrumming of church music from morning till night.
I would not stay in such a place, if they offered me house-room and living free."
"But, my good Mr. Take-it-easy," cried I, "why take up your residence here of all places in the world?"
"Oh," said the loafer with a grin, "it is very warm hereabouts, and I meet with plenty of old acquaintances, and altogether the place suits me. I hope to see you back again, some day soon. A pleasant
journey to you."
While he was speaking, the bell of the engine rang, and we dashed away after dropping a few passengers, but receiving no new ones.
Rattling onward through the valley, we were dazzled with the fiercely gleaming gas lamps, as before; but sometimes, in the dark of intense brightness, grim faces, that bore the aspect and expression of individual sins or evil passions, seemed to thrust themselves through the veil of light, glaring upon us, and stretching forth a great dusky hand, as if to impede our progress. I almost thought that they were my own sins that appalled me there. These were freaks of imagination - nothing more, certainly - mere delusions, which I ought to be heartily ashamed of; but all through the dark Valley, I was tormented, and pestered, and dolefully bewildered with the same kind of waking dreams. The mephitic gases of that region intoxicate the brain. As the light of natural day, however, began to struggle with the glow of the lanterns, these vain imaginations lost their vividness, and finally vanished with the first ray of sunshine that greeted our escape from the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Ere we had gone a mile beyond it, I could well nigh have taken my oath that this whole gloomy passage was a dream. -
- Concluded in Part 2