On the very spot which the railway station has usurped, with its long slate roof, wooden signal-box, and advertisements in blue and white enamel, I can recall a still pool shining between beds of the flowering rush; and to this day, as I wait for the train, the whir of a vanished water-wheel comes up the valley. Sometimes I have caught myself gazing along the curve of the narrow-gauge in full expectation to see a sagged and lichen-covered roof at the end of it. And sometimes, of late, it has occurred to me that there never was such a mill as I used to know down yonder; and that the miller, whose coat was always powdered so fragrantly, was but a white ghost, after all. The station-master and porters remember no such person.
But he was no ghost; for I have met him again this week, and upon the station platform. I had started at daybreak to fish up the stream that runs down the valley in curves roughly parallel to the railway embankment; and coming within sight of the station, a little before noon, I put up my tackle and strolled towards the booking-office. The water was much too fine for sport, and it seemed worth while to break off for a pipe and a look at the 12.26 train. Such are the simple pleasures of a country life.
I leant my rod against the wall, and was setting down my creel, when, glancing down the platform, I saw an old man seated on the furthest bench. Everybody knows how a passing event, or impression, sometimes appears but a vain echo of previous experience. Something in the lines of this old man’s figure, as he leaned forward with both hands clasped upon his staff, gave me the sensation. “All this has happened before,” I told myself. “He and I are playing over again some small and futile scene in our past lives. I wonder who he is, and what is the use of it?”
But there was something wanting in the picture to complete its resemblance to the scene for which I searched my memory.
The man had bent further forward, and was resting his chin on his hands and staring apathetically across the rails. Suddenly it dawned on me that there ought to be another figure on the bench–the figure of an old woman; and my memory ran back to the day after this railway was opened, when this man and his wife had sat together on the platform waiting to see the train come in–that fascinating monster whose advent had blotted out the very foundations of the old mill and driven its tenants to a strange home.
The mill had disappeared many months before that, but the white dust still hung in the creases of the miller’s clothes. He wore his Sunday hat and the Sunday polish on his shoes; and his wife was arrayed in her best Paisley shawl. She carried also a bunch of cottage flowers, withering in her large hot hand. It was clear they had never seen a locomotive before, and wished to show it all respect. They had taken a smaller house in the next valley, where they attempted to live on their savings; and had been trying vainly and pitifully to struggle with all the little habits that had been their life for thirty-five years, and to adapt them to new quarters. Their faces were weary, but flushed with expectation. The man kept looking up the line, and declaring that he heard the rumble of the engine in the distance; and whenever he said this, his wife pulled the shawl more primly about her shoulders, straightened her back, and nervously re-arranged her posy.
When at length the whistle screamed out, at the head of the vale, I thought they were going to tumble off the bench. The woman went white to the lips, and stole her disengaged hand into her husband’s.