The first time I noticed this small, gray-haired man, I was seated on the train, looking out my window. He was hurrying along the platform, carefully carrying a large cardboard box. When he appeared a second time, a third, and then a fourth, always with the same scurrying haste and the same box, my curiosity was aroused. Once he had boarded the train he invariably made his way to the empty front carriage where he sat, aloof from his fellow passengers, the box held firmly on his knees.Sherlock Holmes would have solved the mystery of what was in it at once, but I only found out the day the little traveler nearly missed the train.
The green flag had been waved, the whistle blown, and the door was about to close when along he rushed. The ticket collector grabbed him; he dropped the box; I caught it; and he was heaved aboard.
“Never jump on a moving train,” the ticket collector said sternly. “Never!”
The man was too breathless to reply, but meekly followed me as I carried the box for him to his customary seat. “Some run!” he wrought out at last.
“A close shave,” I agreed. He had begun to eye me closely, as if weighing me in the balance: Could he trust me with a secret?
“Perhaps,” he began tentatively as the train rattled out of the Central, heading for the country. “Perhaps,” he said, tapping the lid of the box, “you’d like to know what’s inside.”
“I certainly would!”
“I don’t think that I could be arrested for what I’m doing.”
“What on earth are you doing?” I asked, more curious than ever.
He half-opened the box. What did I expect to see? Certainly not what I did: two bedraggled, grimy-winged pigeons huddling together, peering out at us. He replaced the lid, watching my reaction.
“Do you breed pigeons?”
“Well, not exactly, though it might come to that.” He paused, obviously eager to confide.
“Do tell me how,” I begged.
“It all began with books,” he said.
“But where do the pigeons come in?”
“They come in later. I had such a dreary job, you see, standing behind a counter all day, selling things like clothespegs, dusters, boot laces, and mothballs — not very inspiring. When my boss left me in charge and no customers came, I’d sit reading all the adventure stories I could lay my hands on — escapes from the Gulag or Colditz, rescues from Devil’s Island, but especially from the Bastille. My favorite was a book called The Scarlet Pimpernel. This Pimpernel saved prisoners during the French Revolution. He’d turn up just as the tumbrels came rolling along to the foot of the guillotine, somehow managing to snatch victims from the jaws of death.”
“But where’s the link with those pigeons?” I insisted. “Oh, here’s my station.”
“Mine’s the last one on the line,” he said. “I’ll tell you next week.” He waved to me and held up his box as a pledge of the next installment.
A week later there he was, eager for more talk. “Last year was a milestone; I became an old-age pensioner,” he continued. “No more mothballs or shoelaces! I started to come to the Central to look up at the departures board and dream of the places I might travel to. It was then that I noticed the pigeons, not lined up for the guillotine, perhaps, but doomed to a lingering death from starvation. Some had trailing wings, others broken beaks, withered claws, depending on travelers for crumbs. Remember the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda, always waiting for his turn in the healing water — someone always got in before him? The pushing pigeons were just like that, always nipping in first for food.”
“I’ve never thought of the Central as Revolutionary Paris or the Pool of Bethesda, but it’s an interesting analogy.”
He chuckled at that. “I thought that if I smuggled pigeons out of town and freed them in the country, it might not be heroic but at least it was a beginning.”
“You’re a benefactor of the railways,” I told him. “Plenty of people object to pigeons flying in their faces and skimming over their heads. You should be rewarded for smuggling services!” The idea delighted him.
“Perhaps you’ve noticed how worried most of those travelers look, mainly about money and the fear of losing it or not having enough,” he began. “All I need is my old-age-pensioner ticket — fifty pence return — and there’s happiness!” he exclaimed.
“They should all take to pigeon smuggling,” I said.
“There’s quite a skill in it,” the little traveler said. “First you pick out your pigeon — the most starved and persecuted. At first I would get flustered, and the pigeon panicked and pecked. I soon learned, however, you scoop it up, fold the wings closely together, gentle but firm, then pop it into the box.”
“Doesn’t anybody ever catch you at work?” I asked.
“Never. There’s the advantage of being small. I’ve become part of the Central landscape. Who would take me for the Scarlet Pimpernel! To make it more like those exciting rescue stories, I’d pretend that the station police were after me and run for the train as if my life depended on it — you’ve seen me.”
The spring weeks of travel to the country were filled with his happy chucklings and tales of adventure on the rails. “One day I opened the box a chink to see if my two birds had enough air, and out they flew, perching on a very neat businessman, sound asleep over some computer thing. He woke to find a pigeon roosting on his shoulder, another on his knees. They took some catching, feathers flying. He forgot all his stock-exchange calculations in the chase!”
“When you get out into the country, what do you do then?” I asked.
“Ah then!” His face lit up with a blissful smile. “I walk over the fields and into the woods. Then I sprinkle some grain and lift out my bird. I open my hands, and up he soars into the clear air, a country bird not a city one. There’s nothing to beat that moment.” A kind of cheerful comradeship had grown between us, so that I almost expected our talks, as we traveled countryward, to continue indefinitely. I might even learn the gentle art of pigeon smuggling. Then, all at once, he was no longer there. For a long time I kept expecting to see him come fluttering and flapping along, bird-like, clutching his precious box, but he never came.
Now when I stroll through the beechwoods around our village and a silvery-gray cloud of pigeons rises up from feasting on beechnuts, I think: The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Central rescued them! I was not likely to forget him.