It Takes Women To Run a Railroad

JOHN NORMAN HARRIS August 18 1956

It Takes Women To Run a Railroad

JOHN NORMAN HARRIS August 18 1956

It Takes Women To Run a Railroad

Count Otto Steinhügel had the tracks and the scenery, but no train and no money. Then he met Renee's rich admirer, and the wackiest railroad you ever saw was in business -almost

JOHN NORMAN HARRIS

It was Elspeth Hunter who told me that the headwaiter at the Scherzo Café was really an Austrian nobleman of ancient family, and she added, almost with a throb in her voice, that it was marvelous how he retained all his vast dignity even after his lands, castles and paintings had been sheared away from him. So I knew at once that the Herr Graf Headwaiter was a likely candidate for lionhood at Elspeth's next party, since she tends to collect interesting people.

The Scherzo Café is something new in Toronto, a place where you can buy twenty different kinds of coffee, ranging from a dime per cup up, and a dozen different kinds of pastries, which you consume in an authentic European atmosphere by the light of a guttering candle. After the evening show you have to fight your way in, because European atmosphere is highly valued in Toronto.

Soon after Elspeth had confided this information to me, 1 fought my way into the place one evening and saw the nobleman with my own eyes. He really was a noble-looking fellow — slender, erect, and wearing a white imperial and an eyeglass. You could imagine him sitting at the Imperial Council table with Metternich, or conducting an intrigue with Talleyrand, and he therefore made a very adequate headwaiter for an establishment like the Scherzo. And what’s more. 1 found that I knew him.

"Hello. Otto,” 1 said casually.

He stood bolt upright like a startled rabbit, and glared at me: then he bowed from the waist, seized my hand, and greeted me with Old-World courtliness.

"Mr. Ramsay!" he said. "So gratifying to see you once again, and under so much happier conditions."

1 agreed wholeheartedly. Our last meeting had been different. At that time he was a prison-camp guard, and 1 was one of his charges. He had been even leaner then, and 1 had been skeletal. No, I had no desire to punch him in the nose or make reprisals for atrocities he had committed. In fact, Otto was probably the worst guard the Germans had. He brought us eggs and onions and information, which he traded for Canadian cigarettes and chocolate. He was so useful to us that we saved him from being posted to the Russian front. We reasoned that he might be replaced by a more energetic and efficient guard, so when he told us that he was being sent to the front because of his general uselessness, we helped him, by letting him find a little tunnel which we had decided to abandon. Wherefore the camp Kommandant not only decided to keep him, but also made him an Unteroffizier.

Beautiful peasant girls met the train at every village. “Lovely girls,” mused Otto. “We brought them from Vienna.

“Otto,” I said, “I must know about your railway. Otherwise 1 will denounce you and humiliate you.”

"Nobleman my foot,” I said to Hlspeth, when next I saw her. “The fellow was a restaurant waiter in Vienna.”

"Now aren't you a nasty, cynical, unbelieving type.” she said. “Always pulling something down! I have a good mind not to ask you on Friday—Count von Steinhügel is coming, and lord C harles Purbank.”

lí hlspeth has a fault, it is a slight weakness for titled foreigners. If she had inherited a dime store she probably would have married them by the dozen.

"Purbank? Who’s he?” 1 demanded. "He’s an English horticultural expert, and lie’s coming to judge the dahlias and things at the (lower show. We met him on the boat two years ago. Now try to tell me lie’s a phoney! Honestly, he’s a yell! He’s really a dear, in his bumbling way.”

Luckily I didn’t get a chance to complete my debunking, because 1 don’t really like to kill romance, and as it turned out. Lord Charles Purbank was able to establish the bona fides of the Graf von Steinhügel to the complete satisfaction of almost everyone.

They met in Elspeth's living room, and it was a reunion of old friends.

"Steinhügel, my dear fellow,” Lord Charles said, the minute he laid eyes on Otto. "Gad, it must be thirty years —but I’d know you anywhere. Jolly nice running into you like this—1 mean, small world, what?”

Von Steinhügel bowed and expressed his pleasure, though in a slightly stiffer manner.

"Old business associate of mine,” Lord Charles explained to those around. "Are you still in the railway business?”

"No longer." Otto explained graciously. "1 am in the restaurant business, and I have reached the rank of headwaiter. 1 have learned to carry a napkin on my arm with the best Herr Obers of Europe!"

He laughed so infectiously that everyone joined in. although l ord Charles added that it was jolly hard lines, chap having to take up a thing like that late in life. But the Graf would have none of it—life was ever gay for him. 1 could see that Elspcth was deeply moved.

Otto was able to be present only for an hour or so, because he had to turn up at the Scherzo for the after-theatre rush, and, after he left, Lord C harles Purbank gave us a little ot his history.

"Remarkable chap,” he said. "No end of a big bug in the Austrian railways. Wish they’d get him to run the blasted socialized railways at home. Knows how to do it, you know. They really do one well on the railways in Austria. I shall never forget one trip 1 made with Steinhügel — absolutely incredible, really."

"What railway was that?” somebody asked.

"Biowed if 1 can remember the name!" he said. "And 1 should, because I was actually chairman of the beastly thing.”

“Where did the railway run?” I asked him.

“Oh, in Austria—through mountains. Magnificent country! Bad This and Kleines That—you know, little places, flocks of jolly nice girls in peasant costumes, and the food and wine they served on those trains was absolutely incredible. Unforgettable experience.”

“What became of the railway?”

“Oh—inflation—shortage of money— decline in tourist trade—general economic conditions.and all that. It went broke, actually. Pity. It was a dashed good railway, if I do say so. People seemed to blame me for the fiasco, but 1 pointed out, with indefeasible logic, that 1 had certainly done my part, which was selling the beastly debentures and that sort of thing to British investors. 1 certainly sold a lot. judging by all the people who were after my scalp afterward! 1 actually had to go and live in the Pyrenees for a year or so!"

Lord Charles had later found his niche as a gardening expert, and was actually writing a gardening column for a weekly magazine, so for the rest of the evening the talk was of dahlias and gillyflowers, when I would far rather have heard about the railway.

SO I took pains to get hold of Otto, and pump him further about his railway career. He agreed to come downtown on the subway and meet me lor lunch, at an exclusive open-air restaurant, namely the Island ferry. You buy some sandwiches at a drugstore, and possibly a bottle of milk, and consume them on the ferryboat going to Centre Island. When you get there, you sit on a bench and smoke a cigar until the next ferry comes, whereupon you return to your office. It is the greatest luxury that downtown Toronto affords on a nice August day, and costs about eighty cents all in.

"Otto," I said, when we had found a seat on deck. "As 1 told you, I demand to know all about your railway deal with Lord Whatsit. Otherwise 1 will expose you, denounce you, publicly humiliate you.”

"Ah! Blackmail!” he said cheerfully. "Well, I don’t mind. I will tell all, as they say. It was all so long ago—it was a different world. 1 met Lord Charles in a night club in Vienna, and rescued him from an embarrassing situation. He had asked a lady to drink champagne with him, and unfortunately she had accepted. Her husband was a knife thrower in one of the acts, and she was the lady at whom he threw his knives. He was furious! 1 intervened — 1 knew him well. Later that night I conveyed his Lordship back to his hotel, in a helpless and happy state.”

"Promising start,” 1 said.

"Indeed it was. As I was going through his wallet, I came across his card, and I drew in my breath! He appeared to be the very man whom my associates in the railway business were seeking.”

"Was the knife thrower one of them?” "Of course! His name was Hansi. We were partners in all things. 1 used to calm his fiery tempei when gentlemen made overtures to his wife—she wasn’t really his wife, she was his sister, except for business purposes. I would make him a handsome present of money, which I collected from the gentleman, and he would return half.”

“A nice little business,” 1 said. “How does it tie in with railroading?”

“Oh,” he said. “The railway. It was called the Bad Kurshalt Eisenbahn Gesellschaft mit Beschränkter Haftung, and it was bankrupt. Another partner of mine found that we could get control of it almost for the asking, but the trouble was, what to do with it? To be frank, it was no damn goot!"

"Something of a drawback,” I suggested.

“No! Otherwise, how could we have got hold of it? So 1 invited him to a directors’ luncheon while he was still in Vienna—Lord Charles. 1 mean—and explained all about our dilemma. We wore frock coats, and we were very impressive —only Hansi, the knife thrower, could not be present for obvious reasons. 1 was not a count then, only Hoch wohlgeborener Herr G eheimrcit von Steinhügel. and I was managing director of the Bad Kurshalt. I offered the chairmanship to my noble English friend, and he was really touched. He accepted with tears in his eyes. And what is more, he was a man of ideas.”

"No!”

"Yes—I remember he said. By jove, if we wish to sell debentures and whatnot in England, we shall have to do something about the name—can't call it Bad Kurshalt, you know; have to make it Good Kurshait!'

"We all nodded sagely, and said that we could tell we picked the right man. So we changed the name to the Kurshalt and Ansheim Eisenbahn. We gave him all kinds of books on railways to read, and briefed him very thoroughly. His job was to go to England and float a debenture issue. These debentures were to pay for capital expansion, rolling stock— and other things. For this purpose, we had to have a prospectus, printed on expensive paper, and it had to be good. And, Gott im Himmel, it was vortrefflich.' Lord Charles did it almost all by himself—we only inspired him.”

"He is still inspired when he talks about it,” 1 said. "He wants you to go and run the socialized railways of Great Britain. How did you manage it?”

"Ah—there is the story,” he said. By now we were sitting on a bench beneath one of Centre Island’s elms. "We took him for a tour of our right-of-way. He inspected the entire system. And we left nothing to chance!

FIRST of all, we were able to rent the private train of the old Emperor Franz Josef for a very low figure. There was a lawyer on our board who handled that. The furnishings were the height of luxury. We told him this w'as the chairman’s private train, with which one day he could tour all Europe. It cost us something to paint it up and get it in condition. We stocked it with the finest wines and the finest foods. And. for his added comfort, we hired a special housekeeper, or hostess, to supervise the arrangements.”

"And who was she?” I asked.

"Oh. she was a lovely woman,” he said. “Charley had confided to me that there was a Miss Molloy, Renee Molloy. who was a dancer at, I believe, the Trocadero. whom he admired more than any other girl in the world. We wired Miss Molloy a generous offer, all expenses paid, if she would accept the job as housekeeper during the tour of inspection. She accepted without the slightest delay. You can scarcely imagine his delight when he climbed aboard the train and saw her there!”

I admitted that imagination boggled at the scene.

“So we were away for a happy trip.” he continued. “1 will always remember that trip! By the time we got going, it was spring—ah!—those mountain slopes, the villages, the wine.”

“l ord Whatsit seems to have happy memories of it too.” 1 said.

“And so he shoot! We helped him write the prospectus, but Lord Charles put in the poetical parts of it. He told how he traveled for six days on that railway, going from one end to the other. He described every station, every village, and the lovely Tyrolean girls in their colorful peasant costumes, who rushed out and sang on the platforms when we stopped. He described the magnificence of the rolling stock—by a strange coincidence, he mentioned that it was worthy of an emperor. He said the food on the train was equal to the cuisine of the finest hotels in Vienna. (Rudi, the chef at the Majestique, was given shares in the railway for coming along.)

“But why should I tell you all this? Lord Charles tells it so much better. Here, 1 brought along the prospectus. Handle it carefully, it is the only copy known to be in existence.”

He handed me a prospectus, on the cover of which there appeared an excellent lithograph of a Tyrolean scene, with a railway winding its way around mountains. Inside there were balance sheets and plans, and a historical sketch of the line. There were impressive photographs of the directors—a whole page was devoted to Lord Charles, and Otto’s picture was alone sufficient to inspire confidence in an investing public.

But the main feature of the book was a charmingly informal little article entitled Memoir of an Inspection Tour: by the Chairman.

I was met by the directors and the senior operating officials at the terminus of the line (his Lordship stated in part) and was most impressed with the painstaking attention to detail with which the tour was organized. No effort was spared to provide every comfort for the official party . . .

“She was extravagantly pretty,” Otto said dreamily.

. . . and the chief engineer was most emphatic in giving instructions that all should go according to schedule . . .

“He was not the chief engineer.” Otto said. “He was the fellow we rented all the tablecloths and silver from, on credit, and he insisted on being taken along so he could keep his eye on them.”

... As Shakespeare has said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” (1 continued, reading aloud), and it was both pitiful and amusing to witness the embarrassment of the officials when the train would not start at the scheduled time. It appeared that mechanical trouble had developed in the locomotive, which was bad luck when every effort was being made to make a good show for the chairman! But the speed with which repairs were effected and the train put in motion bespoke a high state of efficiency in the maintenance department . . .

“We wanted him to leave that part out, but he could be very stubborn,” Otto said. “The mechanical trouble was the coal merchant wanting cash. We had no coal in the tender, but I persuaded him to give us credit by inviting him to join the party, so all went well. We got over eighty letters, mostly from clergymen, pointing out that it was Burns, not Shakespeare, that said that thing about the mice.”

. . . The line wanders through valleys and along mountainsides where the view is ever changing, ever more magnificent, and yet there is something strangely uniform about it (the prospectus continued), and every village, with its little Bahnhof, its picturesque Gasthaus, has its bevy of charming peasant girls, who rush to the platform to welcome one with songs and garlands of flowers! Imagine the embarrassment of a phlegmatic and respectable English gentleman when attacked by these maidens, all striving to kiss him!

“He hated it,” Otto said, “but he put up with it through his sense of duty.”

... In sidings along the right-of-way I counted scores of goods vans loaded with wine in cask, cheeses, cattle, leather and other goods, the produce of the industrious peasantry in this prosperous mountain region, and the officials informed me that there is still a great field for expansion .. .

“Which was perfectly true,” Otto said.

.. . The standard of maintenance at the stations is high, and might put many of our own English country stations to shame. At every station one finds clean, freshly painted signs clearly indicating the name of the village ... “There was a very good r^o.i for that,” Otto said. “You see, the line only went for eighty kilometres—about fifty miles—and there were only five stations. So we had men painting new' signs all the time. Naturally they w'ere fresh. All those goods vans, too, they were the same ones over and over. We paid a peasant to drive his cows into them whenever he saw the train coming back. Wc went up and down that line I don’t know how many times!

“There was a train running ahead of us too—the one that carried the Tyrolean peasant girls w-e brought from Vienna for the trip. That was the train that the coal merchant wanted to ride on. They were lovely girls too. The advance train would come to a station, put out the man with the new station sign, put the girls on the platform, and then move into a siding until the local ceremonies were over. Then we would get Lord Charles back on board, and pour a whiskey and soda to hold things up till the girls could run ahead to their train.

“Sometimes we slept on the train, some nights we would stay at a hotel, but all the time there was party. His Lordship had a remarkable capacity. When we wrote the prospectus, he was very pickheaded, and had to have his article in just the way he wrote it. We thought it would be terrible, but it made quite a sensation in England.”

HOW about Miss Molloy?” 1 asked. “You never said anything about her.” “Oh. that was very romantic.” he said. “After couple days Miss Molloy got me on one side and said. ‘What’s the game?’ Chust like that! I told her she was getting her money—cash, too—and shoot mind her own business, but she kept at me, ‘What’s the game?’ She could tell the peasant girls were the same at every station, but not Charley. And that girl —so lovely, too—she tried to blackmail us. Us!

"1 asked her what she wanted. ‘Charley,’ she said. ‘He needs a wife to protect him from scoundrels like you, and I’m just the girl for the job. 1 always wanted to be a lady!’ She said I had to help her, or she’d ‘spill the gaff!’ Well, she didn't need much help. They were married at the British Embassy in Vienna when we got back. And they lived happily ever after.”

"Did they?”

“Natürlich! When 1 was a guard in that camp, there was one of your people would get the English society magazines and 1 saw them. In one of them one day 1 saw a big picture of Renee—Lady Charles Purbank—in a big floppy hat, with old gloves and a pair of schnippers, trimming things in her garden.”

"And what about the debentures?” “Oh, Charley sold a lot of them in London. He was very sincere, which is half the battle, as the Americans say. But unfortunately that lawyer in our syndicate, he was a crook.”

"No!” 1 said.

"Yes, he ran off with most of the money, and left us with a railway. There was a lot of trouble in England about it, and Charley had to get out for a while. So did I. He went to Spain, I heard, and I went to Algeria, with the French Foreign Legion. I would have been better to stay and do my term in prison.”

"Fley!” I said. "There goes another ferry. I’ve got to get back to the office. Come on down to the dock. What are you going to do now. Otto—remain a headwaiter, or are you going back in the railway business here?”

"Well,” he said, "I am a good waiter. I was a mess waiter at the general staff of the K. und K. army in nineteen hundred fourteen. And 1 am also a railway executive. The CPR says its revenues are falling off—I might get the job to be their representative with the Board of Transport Commissioners. 1 could take them on a little trip through the Rocky Mountains, maybe! Would you come along?”

"Which train do 1 get to ride in?” I said. "I borrows to ride up front with the peasant girls.”

“Ah. they were real nice girls." he said. “But I don’t think there is a place for me in the railway business here. I am i»jv Tidying the uranium-mining busi-

ness. 1 think there may be scope in it for my talents."

I assured him that there was ample scope, and we caught the ferry and returned.

A few days later I ran into Elspeth downtown, and she seized my elbow in a viselike grip.

“Well, the wise cynic!” she said. “You were the one who was trying to tell me that Otto von Steinhügel was a phoney. Now wasn't it luck that 1 ord Charles Purbank turned up? He knew the facts —so don’t you be so quick to blacken a man’s character again.”

"Elspeth." 1 said. "1 was wrong. I will hereby certify that Otto is a truly noble character, and Lord Charley can vouch for the facts—all the facts. But let me give you one tip: if you find Consolidated Steinhügel among the unlisted uranium stocks, invest cautiously, dearie, and read between the lines of the prospectus.” "Now whatever gnomic sepulchral thought lies behind that silly statement?” she asked, but 1 had broken her grip, and I melted away into the crow'd. +