Two young mothers, exchanging notes on the age and weight of their infants, had left me alone in a railway carriage to resume my perusal of the morning’s criticisms of the Geneva speeches. Then a young man entered and prepared to establish himself comfortably in a corner seat. After disposing of his bags, and before he sat down, he took a pipe out of his pocket and enquired of me — “Do you object to me smoking?”
Now I did object. I do not dislike tobacco in itself, but I avoid smoking compartments and am particular in selecting one not so marked. I would have given a good deal to have been able to reply with quiet dignity, “I chose a non-smoking compartment because I prefer it. If you wish to smoke, there is ample provision for you further on.”
But insolent assurance always has us at a disadvantage. I shrank from the implied reproof to ill-breeding that such a reply would have given, and merely gave a side glance at the fellow who, by the way, was “well put on” and might have been a commercial traveller — and shook my head slightly. He sat down, and lit up.
At a station farther on another man got in and a lady of refined appearance, who took a seat opposite to me. The second man, seeing the first one enjoying a pipe, produced his and without a “By your leave,” stuck his big boots on the opposite cushions and prepared to enjoy his smoke in a luxurious manner. I endeavoured to catch the eye of the lady opposite, but she gave no sign. The atmosphere became suffocating .
The first man had promptly closed both windows on entering, the sun streamed in upon me, and the September morning being very cold I was wearing winter wraps. The smell of the smoke became almost unendurable, so that at the next stop I opened our window and pretended to look out but really to refresh my lungs.
When we started again I looked enquiringly at the lady opposite. As she was facing the engine, the draught would blow in upon her; but she made a furtive sign — apparently she had as great a dislike as myself to entering into conflict with our ill-bred companions — that I was to fix the window half open: “So close!” she breathed, wiping her neck with her handkerchief. And there was poor number one fast asleep in his corner, buttoned to the neck in a thick macintosh, his pipe fallen on his knee.
But not for long, unhappily. He awoke and, after looking around him for a minute or two, he had the audacity to say, “Would you mind shutting that window?” — the window on the women’s side, mind you. That refined looking lady actually rose and closed it, while I turned and gave him a steady look, which he returned with the most complete and smug complacency. Quite obviously that young man with the well-oiled fair hair had no notion that he owed any consideration to women; they existed to minister to his bodily comfort, and to obey his commands.
The next time the lady’s eye met mine, it was lit with the faintest smile, as at the vagaries and caprices of a child. I wonder if she would have agreed with me that our duty to that young man, and to society, demanded that we should claim our equal rights in a travelling compartment.