“The Sloven” is a classic railway horror story written over a century ago by Stefan Grabiński (1887–1936). Dubbed the ‘Polish Lovecraft’ or ‘Polish Poe’, Grabiński pioneered fantasy fiction in the early 20th century, creating some of the most remarkable and scary horror stories in the genre. He was especially interested in spiritualism, paranormal activity, demonology and… the railway. In 1919, he published The Motion Demon (Demon ruchu), a book of short stories connected by the theme of railway travel: the unexplained catastrophes, ghost trains, abandoned stations and unearthly creatures. The book was very well received by both critics and readers, and remains Grabiński’s most acclaimed and popular work some 100 years after its publication. “The Sloven”, a story about eerie premonitions and imminent catastrophes, comes from that volume.
After making the rounds of the coaches charged to his care, the old conductor, Blazek Boron, returned to the nook given over exclusively to his disposition, the so-called “place designated for the conductor.”
Wearied by an entire day of tramping through the coaches, hoarse from calling out stations in the fog-swelled autumn season, he intended to rest a while on his narrow oilcloth-upholstered little chair; a well-earned siesta smiled worthily on him. Today’s trip was actually over; the train had already made all its evenly distributed and short distance stops and was heading to the last station at a fast clip. Until the end of the trip Boron would not need to jump up from the bench and run through the coaches for several minutes to announce to the world, with a worn-out voice, that such and such station is here, that the train will stop for five minutes, ten minutes, or an entire lengthy quarter hour, or that the time has come to change trains.
He put out the lantern fastened to his chest and placed it high above his head on a shelf; he took off his greatcoat and hung it on a peg.
Twenty-four hours of continuous service had filled his time so tightly that he had eaten almost nothing. His body demanded its rights. Boron took out victuals from a bag and began to nourish himself. The conductor’s grey, faded eyes settled on the coach window and he looked at the world beyond. The glass, rattling with the coach’s tossing, was constantly smooth and black—he saw nothing.
He tore his eyes from the monotonous picture and directed them toward the corridor. His glance slid over the door leading to the compartments, went to the wall of windows opposite, and rested on the boring beaten pathway.
He finished his “supper” and lit a pipe. He was, in truth, still on the job, but in this area, particularly before the final destination, he did not fear the supervisor.
The tobacco was good, smuggled at the border; it smoked in circular, fragrant coils. From the conductor’s lips spun out pliable ribbons and, twisting into balls of smoke, they rolled like billiard balls along the car corridor; in the next moment thick, dense spools unreeled from his lips to drift lazily upwards like blue stalks and crack like a petard at the ceiling. Boron was a master at smoking a pipe.
A wave of laughter flowed from the compartments: the guests were in a good mood.
The conductor tightened his teeth in anger; words of contempt fell from his lips.
“Commercial travelers! Tradesmen!”
Fundamentally, Boron couldn’t stand passengers; their “practicality” irritated him. For him the railway existed for the railway, not for travelers. The job of the railway was not to transport people from place to place with the object of communication, but motion in and of itself, the conquest of space. Of what concern to it were the trivial affairs of earthly pigmies, the endeavors of industrial swindlers, the obscene allocations of tradesmen? Stations were present not to get off at, but to measure the distance passed; stops were the gauge of the ride, and their successive change, as in a kaleidoscope, evidence of progressive movement.
The conductor glanced with similar scorn at the throngs pressing through the car doors; he observed with a sardonic grimace the panting women and feverish-with-haste gentlemen pressing on heads, necks, amidst shouts, curses, sometimes jabs to get to the compartments to “occupy a place” and beat out their companions in the sheep-like run.
“A herd!” he spit out between his teeth. “As if the world depends on some Mr. B. or some Mrs. W. arriving ‘in time’ from F to Z.”
Meantime, reality stood in striking contrast with Boron’s views. People still got on and off at stations, still pushed with the same fierceness, and always for those same practical reasons. But the conductor also retaliated against this at every opportunity.
In his area, which took in three to four cars, it was never crowded, that horrible infliction of the mob that destroyed the will to live in his colleagues and was a dark stain on the horizon of a conductor’s grey fate. What measures he used, what paths he took to reach this ideal, unrealized by others in his profession, no one knew. The fact remained that even in times of the greatest attendance, during the holidays, the interior of Boron’s cars betrayed a normal look; the passageways were clear and in the lobbies one breathed in fairly good air. Supernumerary seating and “standing room only” spots the conductor did not accept. Severe with himself, fastidious in his job, he knew also how to be unyielding to travelers. Regulations he observed to the letter, at times with Draconian excess. Quibbling didn’t help, ruses, swindles, or the deft slipping into the hand of a bribe—Boron could not be bought. He even took legal action against several people who tried this; one individual he slapped around for the insult, managing to get off lightly before the railway authorities when the matter was brought up before them. Sometimes it would happen that in the middle of the ride, somewhere on some squalid stop, on some miserable little station, in an open field, he would politely but firmly showed the door to a hoodwinking “guest.”
Only twice in the course of his long career did he come upon “worthy” passengers who fulfilled his ideal of travelers to some extent.
One of these rare specimens was some nameless vagabond who, without a penny to his name, had occupied a first-class compartment. When Boron demanded his ticket, the ragamuffin explained that he didn’t need one because he was riding with no specific aim, just for the hell of it, from an innate necessity to move. The conductor not only acknowledged the reason, but also gave the compartment over to his exclusive use and took solicitous care of his guest’s comfort for the entire journey. He even treated him to half of his provisions and lit a pipe with him amidst a friendly chat on the subject of travel as change.
The second similar passenger he met several years ago between Vienna and Trieste. He was an individual named Szygon, apparently a landowner from the Kingdom of Poland. This sympathetic person, besides being certainly rich, had also sat down in a first class compartment. Asked where he was going, he answered that in point of fact he himself didn’t know where he got on, where he was bound for, and why.
“In that case,” Boron remarked, “perhaps it would be best if you got off at the nearest station.”
“Eh, no,” countered the unique passenger, “I can’t, upon my word, I can’t. I have to go forward; something is driving me on. Draw up a ticket to wherever it pleases you.”
The answer had charmed him to such a degree that he allowed the man to ride to the last station for free and didn’t bother him anymore. This Szygon apparently had the reputation of being a lunatic, but, according to Boron, if he was mad at all, then it was a madness with panache.
Yes, yes—there still existed in this wide world splendid travelers, but what were these rare pearls in an ocean of riff-raff? At times he would return with longing to these two wonderful incidents in his life, caressing his soul with the memory of exceptional moments. . . .
He inclined his head backwards and followed the movements of the blue-grey layers of pipe smoke hanging in the corridor. Above the rhythmic clatter of the rails was drawn out slowly the rapids of hot steam, driven through the pipes. He heard the gurgle of the water in the tank, he felt the warmth of its pressure along the edges of his utensils: the objects were warming up, for the evening was chilly.
The lamps at the top momentarily blinked their lighted eyelashes and died out. But not for long, for in the next moment the zealous regulator automatically injected a new dose of gas that fed the weakening burners. The conductor became aware of a specific, heavy scent, slightly reminiscent of fennel.
The smell was stronger than the pipe smoke, more pungent, and it clouded the senses.
Suddenly it seemed to Boron that he could hear the tread of bare feet along the corridor floor.
“Thud, thud, thud,” the naked feet thumped. “Thud, thud, thud.”
The conductor already knew what this meant; this was not the first time he had heard these steps in a train. He tilted his head and glanced into the dark car. There, at the end, where the wall broke off and retreated to the first-class compartments, he saw for a second his typically naked back—for a second that back flashed, taut as a bow and drenched in eyelash sweat.
Boron shuddered: The Sloven once again had turned up on a train.
He had noticed him the first time twenty years ago. It had been exactly an hour before the terrible catastrophe between Znicz and the Dukedom of Gaja, in which over forty people perished, not counting a great number of injured. The conductor was thirty-years old then and still strong-nerved. He remembered the details exactly, even the number of the unfortunate train. At the time he was conducting in the last cars and perhaps that is why he survived. Proud of his newly acquired promotion, he was taking home in one of the compartments his fiancée, his poor Kasienka, one of the victims of the disaster. In the middle of a conversation with her, he suddenly felt a strange unease: something was drawing him strongly out into the corridor. Unable to resist, he went out. At that moment he saw, at the exit of the car’s vestibule, the vanishing figure of the naked giant; his body, grimed with soot, drenched in a sweat dirty from coal, gave off a stifling odor: there was in it the smell of fennel, the stench of burning smoke, and the scent of grease.
Boron threw himself after this figure, wanting to intercept him, but the vision vanished before his eyes. He merely heard for some time the thud of naked feet on the floor—thud, thud, thud—thud, thud, thud….
Within an hour the train crashed into an express from the Dukedom of Gaja.
Since that time the Sloven had appeared before him two more times, each time as an announcement of a disaster. He saw him the second time several minutes before the derailment near Rawa. The Sloven was running on the car roofs and giving him signs with a stoker’s cap that he had snatched off a sleepy head. He looked less threatening than on that first occasion. And somehow there had been no loss of life, merely a few minor injuries.
Five years later, riding the passenger train to Bazek, Boron saw him between two cars of a freight train heading in the opposite direction and bound for Wierszyniec. The Sloven was squatting on a buffer and playing with the chains. His colleagues laughed at him when he drew their attention to what he had seen, calling him crazy. But the near future proved him correct: that very night the freight train, going over a bridge, tumbled into a chasm.
The Sloven’s omen was infallible: whenever he showed up, disaster was certain. These three experiences strengthened this conviction in Boron and shaped a deep belief connected with the Sloven’s portentous appearance. The conductor felt a professional, idolatrous veneration toward him, and feared him as a deity of evil and menace. He surrounded this vision with a special cult; he formed an original view of this being.
The Sloven resided in the organism of a train, filling its multi-segmented frame, pounding unseen in the pistons, sweating in the locomotive boiler, tramping along the cars. Boron sensed his proximity—a presence permanent, continuous, albeit not visible. The Sloven lurked in the soul of a train; he was its mysterious potency during times of danger: at the moment of a bad presentment, he disengaged from it, thickened, and assumed corporeal form.
The conductor considered it needless, even laughable, to oppose him; any potential endeavors to ward off a disaster he foretold would be futile, obviously in vain. The Sloven was like fate….
The renewed appearance of this oddity in the train, and right before the train’s final destination, put Boron in a state of great excitement. At any moment one could expect an accident.
He got up and began walking nervously along the corridor. From one of the compartments came the hubbub of voices, the laughter of women. He came closer and looked inside for a few seconds. He dampened the gaiety.
A man drew back the door from a neighboring compartment and leaned out his head.
“Conductor, is it far to the station?”
“In half an hour we’ll reach our goal. We’re coming to the end.”
Something in the intonation of the answer struck the questioner. His eyes paused for a long moment on the conductor. Boron smiled mysteriously and passed on. The head disappeared back inside.
Another man exited from a second-class compartment and, unlocking the corridor window, looked through it at the space beyond. His confused movements betrayed a certain unease. He raised the window and withdrew to the opposite side, to the end of the lobby. Here he dragged on a cigarette several times and, throwing glances at the butt, went out to the platform. Boron saw his silhouette leaning against the safety bar in the direction of travel.
“He’s examining the area,” he muttered, smiling maliciously. “Nothing will help. Accidents will happen.”
Meanwhile the nervous passenger returned to the car. Spotting the conductor, he asked with forced calm: “Has our train already crossed with the express from Gron?”
“Not yet. We’re expecting it at any moment. It’s possible that we’ll cross it at our final stop: it might be delayed. The express you’re referring to is coming from an adjacent line.”
At the moment, a loud rumble resounded from the right side. Beyond the window, a huge mass whisked by, belching flying sparks; after it, flashed a chain of black boxes lit up with cutout quadrangles. Boron pointed in the direction of the already disappearing train.
The uneasy gentleman, heaving out a sigh of relief, took out a cigarette and offered it to the conductor.
“Let’s have a smoke. Genuine Phillip Morris.”
Boron put his hand to the visor of his cap.
“Thank you very much. I only smoke a pipe.”
“Too bad, because they’re good.”
The traveler lit up a cigarette by himself and returned to his compartment.
“Heh, heh, heh! He sensed something! Only he calmed down too quickly. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
But the successful crossing disturbed him a bit. The opportunity for an accident went down one degree.
It was already 9:45—in fifteen minutes they were scheduled to stop at Gron, the end of their ride. Along the way there was no bridge that could cave in; the only train coming from the opposite direction that they could have crashed into had been successfully passed. One should then expect a derailment or an accident at the station itself.
In any case, the Sloven’s prognosis had to come true—he was bound to it, he, Boron, the old conductor.
This didn’t concern the passengers, nor the train, nor his entire little self, but the infallibility of the barefooted oddity. Boron depended immensely on maintaining the Sloven’s dignity against skeptical conductors, on preserving the Sloven’s prestige in the eyes of unbelievers. The acquaintances to whom he had several times related the mysterious visits took the affair from a humoristic point of view, explaining the entire story as a hallucination, or, what was worse, the ramblings of someone who had drunk too much. This last conjecture hurt him especially, as he never imbibed in alcohol. Several railwaymen considered Boron a superstitious eccentric and not quite right in the head. Also called into play to a certain extent was his honor and healthy human reason. He would have preferred wringing his own neck than living through the Sloven’s failure….
In ten minutes it would be ten o’clock. He finished his pipe and went up some stairs to the top of the car, to a windowed cupola. From here, from the height of a crow’s nest, the surrounding area lay during the day like the palm of one’s hand. Now the world was plunged in dense darkness. Stains of light fell from the car windows, whose yellow eyes skimmed the embankment slopes. In front of him, at a distance of five cars, the engine sowed blood-red cascades of sparks, the chimney breathed out white-rose smoke. The black, twenty-jointed serpent glittered along its scaly sides, belched fire through its mouth, lit up the road with encompassing eyes. In the distance, the glow of a station was already visible.
As if sensing the nearness of the yearned-for stop, the train summoned all its strength and doubled its speed. Already the distance signal flashed phantom-like, set for clear passage, already semaphores were extending friendly arms in welcome. The rails started to duplicate, crossing in a hundred lines, angles, iron interweavings. As if in greeting, switch-signal lanterns to the right and left descended from the night shadows, station water-cranes, wells, heavy levers extended their necks.
Suddenly, several feet before the riotous locomotive, a red signal appeared. The engine threw out an abrupt whistle from its bronze throat, the brakes screeched, and the train, checked by the frenzied exertion of counter-steam, stopped right before the second switch signal.
Boron ran down and joined the flock of railwaymen who had gotten off to check the cause of the interruption in movement. The signal operator who had given the danger signal explained the situation. The first track, on which they were to ride, was temporarily occupied by a freight train. The switch had to be shifted and the train set onto the second track. Usually this maneuver is carried out at the signal-tower with the help of a lever. Meanwhile, however, the underground connection between it and the tracks had experienced some trouble, so the operator had to carry out the shifting outside with the aid of a key to get to the control switch.
The calmed crewmen returned to their cars to await the all-clear signal. Something riveted Boron in place. With a wandering gaze he looked at the blood-red signal, as if stupefied he listened to the grating sound of the rails shifting.
“At the last minute they discovered the problem! At almost the very last minute, some 300 meters before the station! So, was the Sloven lying?”
Suddenly he understood his role. He quickly advanced to the signal operator, who was now changing the color of the signal to green.
One had to divert this person from the switch at all cost and force him to leave his post.
Meanwhile, his comrades were already giving signs for movement. From the end of the train passed from lips to lips the cry: “All aboard!”
“Wait! Hold on!” Boron shouted.
“Signalman!” he said half-aloud to the railwayman, who then stood at attention. “I see some tramp in your tower.”
The signal operator became alarmed. He strained his eyes in the direction of the little brick building.
“Hurry up!” insisted Boron. “Get going! He can play around with all the levers and upset the crossing!”
“All aboard! All aboard!” rang out the impatient voices of the conductors.
“Hold on, damn it!” protested Boron.
The signal operator, conquered by the power of the voice, the particular strength of the command, dashed toward the tower. Boron, taking advantage of this, grabbed the switch control and reversed it, connecting the rails to the first track.
The accomplished maneuver was deft, swift, and quiet. No one noticed.
“All aboard!” he shouted, withdrawing into the shadows.
The train moved, making up for time lost. In a moment the last car was already slipping into the semi-darkness, dragging after it a long trail of red lights….
After a while, the confused signal operator ran up from the tower and looked carefully at the position of the switch control. He didn’t like something. He raised a whistle to his lips and gave a three-tooted distress signal.
Too late! For a terrible crash from the station shook the air, a deafening, hollow boom of detonation, then a hellish racket, turmoil, and whining; wails, weeping, and screams were interwoven into a single wild chaos with the clash of chains, the cracking of shattering wheels, and the battering of mercilessly crushed cars.
“Collision!” murmured pale lips. “Collision!”
From The Motion Demon (NoHo Press, 2014), translated by Miroslaw Lipinski.