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ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH
by
George Hoey

The first thing that I remember was Carlo tugging away,
With the sleeve of my coat fast in his teeth, pulling as much as to say,
“Come , master, awake, and tend to the switch, lives now depend upon you.
Think of the souls in the coming train and the graves your sending them to.
Think of the mother, and babe at her breast, think of the father and son,
Think of the lover, and loved one too, think of them, doomed every one.
To fall, as it were, by your very hand, into yon fathomless ditch,
Murdered by one who should guard them from harm,
who now lies asleep at the switch.”

I sprang up amazed, scarce knew where I stood, sleep had o’er mastered me so,
I could hear the wind hollowly howling and the deep river dashing below.
I could hear the forest leaves rustling as the trees by the tempest were fanned,
But what was that noise at a distance? That I could not understand.
I heard it at first indistinctly, like the rolling of some ruffled drum,
Then nearer and nearer it came to me, and made my very ears hum.
What is this light that surrounds me and seems to set fire to my brain?
What whistle’s that yelling so shrilly? Oh God, I know now, it’s the train!

We often stand facing some danger, and seem to take root to the place,
So I stood with this demon before me, its heated breath scorching my face.
Its headlight made day of the darkness, and glared like the eyes of some witch,
The train was almost upon me before I remembered the switch.
I sprang to it, seizing it wildly, the train dashing fast down the track,
The switch resisted my efforts, some devil seemed holding it back.
On, on came the fiery-eyed monster, and shot by my face like a flash,
I swooned to the earth the next moment, and knew nothing after the crash.

How long I laid there unconscious were impossible for me to tell,
My stupor was almost a heaven, my waking almost a hell.
For I then heard the piteous moaning and shrieking of husbands and wives,
And I thought of the day we all shrink from, when I must account for their lives.
Mother rushed by me like maniacs, their eyes staring madly and wild,
Fathers, losing their courage, gave way to their grief like a child.
Children searching for parents, I noticed, as by me they sped,
And lips that could only form nought but ‘mamma’
were calling for one perhaps dead.

My mind was made up in a second - the river should hide me away,
When, under the burning rafters, I suddenly noticed there lay
A little white hand; she who owned it was doubtless an object of love,
To one whom her loss would drive frantic, tho’ she guarded him now from above.
I tenderly lifted the rafters and quietly laid them to one side,
How little she thought of her journey when she left for this last fatal ride.
I lifted the last log from off her, and while searching for some spark of life,
Turned her little face up in the starlight, and recognised - Maggie, my wife!

Oh, Lord, thy scourge is a hard one! At a blow thou has shattered my pride,
My life will be one endless night-time with Maggie away from my side.
How often we’ve sat down and pictured the scenes in our long happy life,
How I’d strive through all of my lifetime to build up a home for my wife.
How people would envy us always in our cosy and neat little nest,
When I would do all of the labour and Maggie should all the day rest.
How one of God’s blessings would cheer us when some day I p’r’aps should be rich,
But all of my dreams have been shattered while I lay there asleep at the switch.

I fancied I stood on my trial, the jury and judge I could see,
And every eye in the courtroom was steadfastly fixed upon me.
And fingers were pointed in scorn, till I felt my face blushing blood-red,
And the next thing I heard were the words, “Hung by the neck until dead.”
Then I felt myself pulled once again, and my hand caught tight hold of a dress,
And I heard, “What’s the matter, dear Jim? You’ve had a bad nightmare, I guess.”
And there stood Maggie, my wife, with never a scar from the ditch,
I’d been taking a nap in my bed, and had not been asleep at the switch.
 
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