On our first evening in London, Vignis led me to a little Greek restarant on Rathbone Street, just off the Tottenham Court Road. It was brighter and more cheerful than our lunching place, and we were seated next to the front window. Some of the food was Cypriot, not very different from the corresponding Greek dishes, but with a little twist here and there.
Just as we were pitching in to the moussaka, Vignis said suddenly,
"I've learned a lot from Mac, even if we aren't getting on too well these days. I don't know exactly how he got his start, but I know how he's managed since then. He just makes it clear to anyone he meets that he's decided in advance exactly how much he's going to compromise. Occasionally it's quite a lot, and it's often almost none. But, either way, Mac never has to re-adjust his own plan."
"He can do that because of his position and his presence."
"Well, we're here and he isn't. There's nothing to keep us from taking control."
"Sigiloff and MacRitchie were really quite deferential today. I think they'd follow any reasonable orders we gave them."
"Yes. And I already know Mr. Stewart of the L.M.S. Railway. When I talked with him on the phone today, he sounded very friendly and forthcoming."
Mr. J. G. Stewart was the chairman of a committee whose members were drawn from all the major English railways, and whose job it was to co-ordinate all their operations in London with our own. Vignis then said,
"I told him I was sure we'd have a strong contingent of railwaymen over here very soon. I don't know that we will, but I wanted to be decisive."
"I'd say that that's a safe bet."
"I'm sure Mac intends this to be a great enterprise with lots of money and lots of GER railwaymen coming over. The only trouble is that he's probably only been in Huntington a day or two. How long will it take him to get to a point where he can give us assurances?"
"Probably not very long. I know that he's been corresponding with Atwater and John Henry. They've probably already done most of the preliminary work. John Henry may have already recruited a force of volunteers. Mac can give one of those speeches of his, and that'll be it."
"I hope so."
Vignis then gave me a different sort of look and said,
"I think Mac might have intended for you to be in charge here all by yourself. But I know how to manage lots of things. Will you let me be an equal?"
I agreed happily. I would have agreed to much more than that.
Being Americans, we had come for dinner at six, when the restaurant was empty and the street nearly so. However, we took a long time over our food and coffee as we watched a London evening begin in the late sunlight.
As the activity picked up, the couples coming down the street looking at menus in the windows seemed happy. After all, the choice between the food of many lands is always a pleasant one, to be prolonged until the urgency of one's hunger finally forces a choice. The only oddity in the present situation was that, judging by all the papers and the conversation in the streets, the majority of these happy people expected to be bombed in fairly short order.
There hadn't been much bombing of civilians in the previous war, but what little there had been set an ominous precedent. German blimps had come over London, massive slow things which could carry an extremely heavy bomb load and drop it accurately. They had come at night, and they would drop sticks of bombs which might carpet a whole street, a bomb falling on almost every house. While not many houses in the aggregate had been destroyed, the loss of life in the pockets of destruction had been great. That much was remembered.
The other evidence had come from the Spanish Civil War. Everyone had seen pictures of the German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica, not to mention parts of Madrid. It looked as if whole districts had been laid waste, and that by only a small fraction of the Luftwaffe.
Many reasonable people expected that London would be mostly destroyed. Moreover, they expected that gas would be used on a mass scale, gas bombs being dropped either with the high explosive or afterwards. Gas masks were being manufactured in the millions, and it looked as if the average citizen's best bet would consist in hiding from the bombs in the subways while the heavier-than-air gas seeped down. With luck, one might be able to dash up the long flights of stairs in the darkness after the attack was over, but before the concentration of gas overcame the effectiveness of one's mask.
The fashionably dressed and rather glamorous people in the restaurant looked as if such thoughts were far from their minds. Vignis and I whispered about these things, she saying,
"They don't look like people trying madly to enjoy what little time there may remain for them."
"No, indeed. They look quite calm and relaxed."
"But, then, what about us? We may be here when it all starts."
"Even if we are, we can live in railway cars, and move out of the way of trouble."
"That's assuming we have enough warning and know where the attack's coming. We certainly won't be safe, but we probably don't look any more worried than these other people."
"They may also think they can take precautions of some kind. Perhaps we all believe that it'll be other people who'll get killed."
The next morning, Vignis and I met in the hotel dining room. Breakfast was a quite extensive affair, and, while some of the traditional English dishes bordered on the repulsive, we both did ourselves quite well. It was while we were eating that a uniformed functionary, possibly a footman, came up with a telegram. It was from Mac, and it said that a thousand GER railwaymen would be arriving on three ocean liners, the first group in ten days. I asked,
"Should you call Mr. Stewart and tell him?"
"We're having lunch with him tomorrow. Anyway, I think we should decide some things before we talk with him at all."
The telegram, which had actually been addressed to me, also gave the necessary details for drawing on our credit. The upshot was that we could spend any reasonable sums in housing our men and purchasing supplies. Vignis said,
"We may have to just rent rooms for them until we can arrange something more permanent."
"Whatever we do, we'll have to be careful. It'll be like quartering a foreign army. That's always a problem. The soldiers go out with the local girls, and the local boys resent it. Fights start, and the situation can deteriorate. The fact that most of our men will be black will just increase the tensions."
"The best thing might be to quarter them in converted railway cars as soon as possible. We could then just move them if there's trouble."
"Wherever we put them in London, there won't be a population of a thousand girls who aren't already spoken for. Not unless there's something terribly wrong with them."
Vignis then exclaimed,
"I know! London's full of refugees, mostly Jewish, from Germany and Austria. Let's hire the girls to work for us and let nature take its course."
"We next have to think of work for them to do. We can't advertize for concubines."
"Well, we'll need cooks and general housekeepers, but, right off, there'll be a big job, converting whatever old passenger cars we can get hold of into attractive homes. It'll be a little like what I did for you back at the beginning."
At this point, one of the waiters, without being asked, placed milk in our teacups. It seemed a good time to leave.
We spent the morning circling greater London in a variety of trains, some electric and some steam. Sigiloff had given me a large railway map with the route our trains would take clearly marked. No passenger train traversed that route in its entirety, but, by going back and forth and around, we could travel over most of it.
There were many sharp curves and a few steep little grades. The viaducts were often even with the upper floors of the surrounding houses, and there were a great many bridges over other lines and roads. The overall impression of the circular lines around London was that they had been chiselled carefully under, over, and around obstacles in order to disturb as little as possible. Indeed, the route was so tortuous and the connections so many and various that, even with the excellent map, we often had trouble determining our position.
We stopped for lunch in South Tottenham, and found a tiny little place in a crowded shopping street. Once seated, Vignis said,
"I rather like all these cozy little places all put together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but it's awful to think what would happen in a bombing. There's nowhere a bomb could fall without killing dozens of people."
"Yes. Our route also has its problems. The bridges are small targets and not too likely to be hit, but there are all these cuts with brick buildings stacked up on each side. A bomb could easily knock houses down across the tracks."
When we finished lunch, we climbed back up to the station and stood on the plank platform. It wasn't long before a diminutive steam locomotive burst suddenly into sight and drew its coaches briskly up to the platform.
As on some of our previous rides, we were the sole occupants of a compartment which didn't connect with the others. Vignis joked,
"I bet young couples who don't have anywhere else to go ride these trains at night."
"I'm sure they do. If I understand the system, you can buy a platform ticket for a penny, take a train to a distant suburb, take a train back without leaving the station, and then exit at the original station with your penny ticket."
"So you can have an hour or more of privacy for a penny each. I'm sure you're not the first to have thought of that."
"Of course, the privacy could be interrupted at each station, and someone could get on at any point."
"The young might find that exciting."
"Did you do things like that with your boyfriends?"
"A little. But I always had in the back of my mind what Father would say if he found out. I kissed, but I kept all my clothes on."
It was amusing to imagine Vignis as a teen-ager with her boy friends. She would have been a good girl, father or no father, but a certain amount of mischief is always allowed. Bringing my mind back to the present, I pointed out,
"These compartments will provide good accomodation for our people. One of these padded benches amounts almost to a bed. All you have to do is hang curtains over the windows."
"I was hoping to provide something a little more generous. If we gave each person a compartment for a bedroom, we could take out one bench, make the other into a proper bed, and have room for a chest, a small desk, and a chair. Then, we could put, say, five people to a coach and take out the other partitions for a common living room. The corridor coaches, unlike these, have a bathroom at the end. We could put in a shower next to it."
Having a typical middle-aged urinary system, the advantage of not having to go off somewhere to a bathroom in the middle of the night was particularly evident to me. Even though the young might be able to sleep through an entire night without such disruptions, corridor coaches with plumbing should be provided if possible. It then occurred to me that the toilets would drop directly on to the track. If we were going to leave them in one place for any length of time, more extensive plumbing would be needed, not to mention a connection to the water mains. I was sure that those problems could be solved fairly easily, and didn't bother Vignis with them.
The meeting with Mr. Stewart was set for a restaurant in South Kensington, a place where many curved streets meet within a few hundred feet, no two of them coming together at right angles. After some confusion, we found a little place huddled under a large green awning over which there was a sign reading "Cafe Incognito." In the foyer there was a large photograph of Mata Hari, the famous Javanese dancer and spy.
I could see immediately that Mr. Stewart was a man who enjoyed himself most of the time. Young for his position, probably under forty, he was tall with thinning sandy hair and a pleased expression. He greeted Vignis enthusiastically, but was more relaxed with her than most men managed to be. Then, when she introduced us, he actually addressed me as "sir." As we proceeded to our table, Mr. Stewart waved at the pictures of spies on the walls and said,
"I wish people like these would come and spy on our railways. They're certainly worth spying on, but I can't imagine Mata Hari perched on an overpass with notebook and binoculars."
"I suppose we'll just get the little gray men in raincoats."
As we were seated, Vignis suggested,
"The Mata Haris may attach themselves to Sigiloff and MacRitchie."
Mr. Stewart replied,
"I don't think they'd get very far there. If anyone's incorruptible, it's those two."
"Then, you're satisfied with the work they've done here?"
"Very much so. I think it's only because of them that we have a plan that has a reasonable chance of working."
Then, catching Vignis' expression, he smiled and added,
"I know they take a bit of getting used to."
"I can see that MacRitchie is a man of great ability. But Sigiloff, surely ......"
"He provides the perfect, I was about to say, counterweight to MacRitchie."
We all laughed at the image, but Stewart continued,
"Sigiloff understands more fully than anyone else, either American or British, that we have very little time, and must work with what we have. Most Americans, and a lot of other people, understandably want to put different couplings on our freight cars. But that would take years when we may have only weeks. It's really Sigiloff who's defined the possible and convinced everyone to accept a single plan."
I had trouble imagining Sigiloff speaking to a committee and convincing it of anything, but, seeing my puzzlement, Stewart explained,
"It's really the demonstrations he's organized. Even after just the first one, there weren't many doubters left."
We gradually discovered that Sigiloff had put on a series of what must have struck the English railway executives as railway extravaganzas in the middle of the night.
The first one had occurred the previous September, before there were any re-boilered locomotives. Sigiloff and MacRitchie had taken three pairs of old Midland express passenger engines, hurriedly converted them to oil fuel, and coupled them cab-to-cab. They had then taken an eighty wagon coal train from Acton Wells Junction to Feltham faster than one had ever gone before.
Part of the shock value had consisted in the fact that those engines had never been considered suitable for anything more substantial than the light passenger trains of the nineties. All of a sudden, a couple of Americans had shown them that a commodity about to be consigned to the scrap heap was as good as money in the bank.
While it would have been MacRitchie who had solved most of the technical problems, I began to realize that Sigiloff would make a good host at a railway demonstration. His habit of rushing around mumbling continuously would add tension and excitement to the whole thing, and would also be taken as a sign of solicitude for his guests. Americans were already assumed to be bizarre and uncouth, but, when one tried so hard and so obviously to please, he would be judged to be much better than most other Americans.
Whatever had happened on those previous demonstrations, we were to have a chance to see one ourselves. Stewart remarked,
"As you probably know, we're going to have what will amount to a full dress rehearsal tomorrow night."
"Sigiloff mentioned something, that must have been it."
"We start at midnight so as not to interfere with ordinary traffic. I hope that's not too late for you."
We assured him that it wasn't, and asked for details.
"This will be the first time that we've used six locomotives spread through a train, and that presents a considerable problem of signalling and co-ordination."
In order to add a separate channel, they had had American locomotive whistles added to the English ones on each locomotive. The two were so different that it was impossible to confuse them, and the one would be used to signal braking while the other would be used for acceleration.
The emergency stop was a continuous blast on the American whistle from the lead locomotive. It would be repeated by each engine as it applied maximum brake. If the lead engineer wanted only to slow, he would apply brake and sound, say, two short blasts. The next engine would also brake, and would sound one short blast. The next engine would brake, but not sound his whistle at all. In general, each engine would brake and sound one less blast than the one in front, so that five blasts would cause all the engines, including the sixth to brake.
"One virtue of this system is that all the drivers, front to back, will be able to hear all the signals. If the lead drivers lets go, say, two blasts, the ones in the rear, though not called on to brake, will ease off their throttles a bit. Similarly, the second driver, knowing that the next one won't be braking at all, won't brake very hard. If the lead driver really wants to stop, he can keep giving off more signals, up to and including a continuous blast."
The signals to apply power, given with the English whistles, would work in an analogous way, the starting signal to be a long continuous blast. As Stewart said,
"It should even be possible for the lead driver to close up the train and keep contact between all buffers by braking the first few engines with his American whistle and signalling for power from the rear ones. Braking will always take precedence over power, so he can do this by giving two American blasts and five English ones. The two engines behind him, being told to both brake and accelerate, will brake. But the next three will get only power signals, and will keep coming on."
It would be essential to keep this sort of control of all the engines, since engines surging suddenly apart could easily break couplings. But whether the signalling system would work to that degree was hard to guess. Seeing my reservations, Stewart said,
"We'll find out some things tomorrow night. And then, if it works, it'll be a matter of training the drivers. Since there'll be a different lead driver between each two stops, they'll all have to be brought up to standard."
This fact led us to the matter of the GER railwaymen who were soon to arrive, and would have to be so trained. Stewart said,
"Your General Atwater wrote me that they've been training on some Midland engines which Mr. Garner sent over and left there. When they're re-boilered, they're tricky. Their power to weight ratio is so great that, in starting a train, the drivers are liable to just spin uselessly. It takes practise, and we'll hope that they've had enough. For the rest, we'll just have to work them in gradually."
I hadn't known that our men had already started training, and the image of the old Midland engines pulling a cut of box cars across the Indiana prairie was an arresting one.
It was then that Vignis asked Stewart if he could produce some four hundred old corridor coaches to house our people. He appeared a little surprised.
"Four hundred, you say? Well, we certainly have disused and little-used coaches all over the country. I'm not sure offhand just how many there are, but I'll send out an SOS today and start collecting them at Brent and Neasden. They'll be in all sorts of conditions. We've also got a lot of old non-corridor coaches that we can re-partition."
Vignis then explained our plan in its entirely. When she got to the part about the refugee girls, Stewart laughed and asked,
"Have you told Sammy about that?"
"He'll be immensely relieved. He's been worried about it for months. I shouldn't wonder if he's had some difficulty sleeping at times."
"Yes. We thought that a thousand men, all arriving in the same neighborhood at almost the same time, might create a serious imbalance."
"Actually, I should think the problem might be that they'd find the wrong girls in London. Your procedure should largely solve that problem as well."
On that happy note, we settled down to serious eating and less serious conversation.
It was only when we had returned to Charing Cross, and were walking up Villiers Street, that Vignis said to me,
"We're all competent to do our jobs. MacRitchie, Sigiloff, and Stewart will see to it that the trains run without a hitch, and you and I'll found a railway community here. These are all things we've done before."
I echoed her mood, but with some misgivings. Organization in time of war is an entirely different matter, even apart from direct enemy action. And, of course, there remained the question of whether the system would still work when a large part of it had been damaged.