My Travels With Mr. Bierce
© 2012 Kirby Sanders
My name is Jeremiah Stein. Long have I held sorrow in silence, but as age approaches and the scent of my own passing is on the breeze, I feel it is time to speak of a most singular companion, friend and employer.
In 1913, I was a cabin boy — a junior steward – on the Crescent Line railroad that served between New York City and New Orleans. It was a poor job, but suitable for a young man in search of adventure. The railroad allowed us passage but no pay with the proviso that we saw to the needs of travelers in the First Class sleeper and cabin cars. We worked for tips alone – and the occasional meal if we got in good with the kitchen staff in the dining car. The railroad provided us with a uniform coat and cap to signify our affiliation with the railroad proper. If we were remiss in our services, the Master Steward and the Conductor held power to strip us of hat and coat and put us off the train at any regular station. I was never remiss in my duties.
In October of that year, an elderly gentleman boarded the Crescent in New York and it was my fortune (for good or ill) to meet him at the platform as the cabin car was boarding. I recall him as a thin but strong man –elegant and obviously well heeled – but aloof and by his demeanor not someone with whom to trifle.
“Pardon me, sir,” said I to the gentleman. “May I carry your things and assist you in boarding?”
He stared directly into my eyes for what seemed an eternity – as though he were looking through me. He inspected my uniform stem to stern more thoroughly than ever did the Master Steward before responding “Yes, young man, I believe you may”.
His boarding ticket indicated he would lodge in the cabin car suites with passage all the way to New Orleans – and right to disembark at any station and rejoin the train later. A very expensive ticket, indeed! He indicated what I thought was a small amount of luggage for such a trip and told me to deliver him and the bags to the appropriate suite. Whether out of fear, respect or the expectation of a generous tip, I moved quickly to serve his wishes.
I showed him to his suite — a handsome accommodation with bedroom and a sitting parlor — and delivered the luggage with all appropriate haste. He said not a word until he was ensconced in his rooms. Thereon I stood (as is custom) with palm outstretched indicating the expectation of tip for service.
He turned and stared through me again. “You have done well, young sir. What is your name?” he asked.
“Stein, sir,” I stammered. “Jeremiah Stein.”
“Well, Master Stein,” he replied, “would it be possible to locate a bottle of decent whiskey on this train?”
“Indeed, sir! Yes indeed. The bar car ……”
“I do not care to go to the bar. Can you go and bring one back to me?”, he interrupted.
“Indeed, sir. Yes, indeed,” said I.
“Go then and do that,” he replied. “If I am in need of other services on this journey, may I rely upon you to assist?”
“Indeed, sir. Yes, indeed.”
The gentleman reached into his pocket and handed me fifty dollars. Fifty dollars!! A king’s ransom. “Bring me the whiskey,” he said, “and keep the rest. I shall call for you if I require further assistance.”
The train jolted forward, throwing us both a bit off balance. The journey had begun.
Said I, “May I be so bold as to ask your name, sir?”
Said he succinctly and quietly “Bierce. Ambrose Bierce. Go and get the whiskey.”