Short Stories · The Magazine Rack

Short Story: A Subway Romance

A 1924 illustration of a woman, dressed in a blouse and skirt, stands before a news stand, gesturing. A dark shawl hangs over her skirt, knotted at the hip, and she wears a silk handkerchief on her head. Illustration from the short story A Subway Romance.
“How much are the chocolate bars?”

Today’s short story, “A Subway Romance” appeared in The American Needlewoman in December, 1924. Written by Rose Henderson, this story is in the public domain. Henderson was an accomplished writer whose stories appeared in several of the story-printing publications of the day.

Keep in mind that this is an antique story, posted as it was written. It is a product of its time. It may contain terms and ideas that we find outdated or offensive. For ease of reading the story will appear here as a three part series. This is Part I of the short story, “A Subway Romance”.

A Subway Romance

To the New York crowds pushing and swirling through the Ninety-Sixth Street subway station, the man in the glass-windowed stall behind the candy, newspapers and magazines was hardly more human than the penny-in-the-slot weighing machines, or the chewing gum boxes with dirty mirrors at their tops and a row of coin slots below. He seemed like another mechanical convenience, a pair of hands that made change deftly or reached down a magazine that somebody pointed out. In the noisy, garish gloom of the subway station people pointed at what they wanted a good deal of the time, or they merely threw down their money and took their choice.

Nick Barnes had arranged his stall to suit the haste and directness of his customers, who, in their turn, were mere marionettes to him. With thousands whirling past him, hour after hour, it was seldom indeed that anyone spoke. They knew the prices of their favorite magazines; and the packages of chewing gum and candy in the pasteboard boxes bore conspicuous price labels. Conversation with the man behind the wares was a needless waste of time and energy. They didn’t even look at him. Rushing from local to express, and from express to local, they saw only his ands and the things he sold.

Even if they waited hectically before his booth watching for the Bronx express to come shrieking in, they looked at the magazine covers and read the newspaper headlines. And their impersonal attitude seemed natural enough to Nick. He was equally indifferent to the crowd, though often lonely for a real friend.

Dreaming in the subway

If anyone had paused to study the face above the deft hands he would have been surprised at the dreamy remoteness of Nick’s long, brown eyes. Looking out over the stampeding crowds, Nick saw strange and remote scenes blossom into life down the dim arch of the subway tunnel. He saw, for instance, a pine-shaded trail leading through the Rocky Mountains, an oil-packed automobile road bordered with lupin and California poppies, a golden expanse of Dakota wheat fields, a sloping-roofed farmhouse, gray with rain. The pictures were dim and elusive, to be sure, but they held Nick’s mind with a kind of placid enchantment while his hands gathered in the pennies for papers and chewing gum.

He had always possessed this facility of detachment, of living in places far remote from his real surroundings. It was a source of much pacific enjoyment, though as a rule the tranquility was broken, sooner or later, by a sudden fling at actual adventuring.

There were boyish wanderings when he deserted the slant-roofed farmhouse and the school across the fields. At first they were one-day excursions, a fishing tour up Gipson’s creek, or blissful idleness in the great meadow behind his father’s barns. For hours at a time he would lie in the clover, looking up at the clouds that flocked across a midsummer sky. Then came the insistent wanderlust of his early manhood and his tramp from Kansas to California, his season in a fisherman’s deserted shack on the Pacific Coast, his gold-hunting period in Alaska.

Singurlarly, his love for the open road was balanced by an almost equal delight in sheltered seclusion. Sometime he had always returned to the old farmhouse, loitered through the grassy orchard, loped along the meadow, helped with the work for a time and then went on again, down the long hill to the main highway, out through the grain-covered prairies to the little town where he took the train, if he happened to have money enough, traveled to a strange neighborhood, worked, dreamed, and traveled on.

Moving to New York

In one of these home visits he found his mother stricken with a sudden severe illness. The doctors recommended a New York specialist. Nick had a little money saved from his Alaska venture. He had always adored his mother. So the two came to New York, she to linger for a year in the specialist’s sanitarium, and Nick to sit dreaming in the underground world of the subway station. She had been dead for two years. Still Nick stayed on, seldom stopping to wonder at his strange docility, only half alive to the swirling activity that isolated his retreat.

But just as it seemed that the city’s intricate energy had caught him like a dazed gnat in the corner of a gigantic web, the latent wanderlust stirred within him. He looked at the pushing mobs and longed to escape them. He became conscious of the narrow confines of this booth and felt foolishly imprisoned. The pictures of his fancy still wavered confusedly along the subway vault, but they no longer soothed him to passivity.

Colors of October

It was a day in early October when the awakening came. The magazine covers were aglow with autumn colors. Women were wearing furs for warmth instead of for style only. The wind blew fresh from the river in the early morning when Nick left his fiurnished room and went down to unlock the news stand. The air in the subway was heavy and chilling. Nick sat humped on his stool behind the candy boxes, skimming through an adventure story. The trains shrieked and clanged and roared through their black-walled caverns. Lights flashed and glared. The crowds poured up and down stairways, pushed in and out of iron doors, swirled about the windows of Nick’s booth, threw down coins for candy or reading matter and swept away, dissolving continually into new eddies and currents.

Nick closed the magazine and remembered the frost-covered leaves around his camp in a Canada forest. He looked up at the subway roof where his memories visualized most effectively, but his eyes were caught by the flare of a crimson sash like a bit of gay foliage in the dark masses of the crowd. It was a Gipsy shawl, worn about lithe hips and knotted at the side. A yellow blouse, a brown skirt, brown stockings and moccasins completed the costume, with a red silk handkerchief forming a cap set jauntily over curly dark hair. The girl was strikingly handsome in the garish costume, with huge gold rings in her ears. She returned Nick’s stare with a keen, level glance that make him flush self consciously.

Then she stepped in front of the little piles of gum and candy.

“How much are the chocolate bars?” she asked.

To be continued…

This short story, “A Subway Romance,” will be continued. Watch for the next installment. Discover what happens with Nick in the short story A Subway Romance.

Browse through another issue of The American Needlewoman at the Internet Archive.