A Golden Wedding, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

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.

"Startlin' at first, hey?" he said, bravely winning back his composure: "but 'tis wunnerful what control the driver has, they tell me. They only employ the cleverest men—"

A rattle and roar drowned the rest of his words, and he blinked and leant back, holding the woman's hand and tapping it softly as the engine rushed down with a blast of white vapour hissing under its fore wheels, and the carriages clanked upon each other, and the whole train came to a standstill before us.

The station-master and porter walked down the line of carriages, bawling out the name of the station. The driver leaned out over his rail, and the guard, standing by the door of his van, with a green flag under his arm, looked enquiringly at me and at the old couple on the bench. But I had only strolled up to have a look at the new train, and meant to resume my fishing as soon as it had passed. And the miller sat still, holding his wife's hand.

They were staring with all their eyes—not resentfully, though face to face with the enemy that had laid waste their habitation and swept all comfort out of their lives; but with a simple awe. Manifestly, too, they expected something more to happen. I saw the old woman searching the incurious features of the few passengers, and I thought her own features expressed some disappointment.

"This," observed the guard scornfully, pulling out his watch as he spoke, "is what you call traffic in these parts."

The station-master was abashed, and forced a deprecatory laugh. The guard—who was an up-country man—treated this laugh with contempt, and blew his whistle sharply. The driver answered, and the train moved on.

I was gazing after it when a woeful exclamation drew my attention back to the bench.

"Why, 'tis gone!"

"Gone?" echoed the miller's wife. "Of course 'tis gone; and of all the dilly-dallyin' men, I must say, John, you'm the dilly-dalliest. Why didn' you say we wanted to ride?"

"I thought, maybe, they'd have axed us. 'Twouldn' ha' been polite to thrust oursel's forrard if they didn' want our company. Besides, I thought they'd be here for a brave while—"

"You was always a man of excuses. You knew I'd set my heart 'pon this feat."

I had left them to patch up their little quarrel. But the scene stuck in my memory, and now, as I walked down the platform towards the single figure on the bench, I wondered, amusedly, if the woman had at length taken the ride alone, and if the procrastinating husband sat here to welcome her back.

As I drew near, I took note of his clothes for the first time. There was no white dust in the creases to-day. In fact, he wore the workhouse suit.

I sat down beside him, and asked if he remembered a certain small boy who had used to draw dace out of his mill-pond. With some difficulty he recalled my features, and by decrees let out the story of his life during the last ten years.

He and his wife had fought along in their new house, hiding their discomfort from each other, and abiding the slow degrees by which their dwelling should change into a home. But before that change was worked, the woman fell under a paralytic stroke, and their savings, on which they had just contrived to live, threatened to be swallowed up by the doctor's bill. After considering long, the miller wrote off to his only son, a mechanic in the Plymouth Dockyard, and explained the case. This son was a man of forty or thereabouts, was married, and had a long family. He could not afford to take the invalid into his house for nothing; but his daughters would look after their grandmother and she should have good medical care as well, if she came on a small allowance.

"So the only thing to be done, sir, was for my old woman to go."

"And you—?"

"Oh, I went into the 'House.' You see, there wasn' enough for both, livin' apart."

I stared down the line to the spot where the mill-wheel had hummed so pleasantly, and the compassionate sentence I was about to utter withered up and died on my lips.

"But to-day—Oh, to-day, sir—"

"What's happening to-day?"

"She's comin' down to see me for an hour or two; an' I've got a holiday to meet her. 'Tis our Golden Weddin', sir."

"But why are you meeting her at this station instead of Tregarrick? She can't walk, and you have no horse and trap; whereas there's always a 'bus at Tregarrick."

"Well, you see, sir, there's a very tidy little cottage below where they sell ginger-beer, an' I've got a whack o' vittles in the basket here, besides what William is bringin'—William an' his wife are comin' down with her. They'll take her back by the last train up; an' I thought, as 'twas so little a while, an' the benches here are so comfortable, we'd pass our day 'pon the platform here. 'Tis within sight o' the old home, too, or ruther o' the spot where the old home used to be: an' though 'tis little notice she seems to take o' things, one never can tell if poor creatures in that state hain't pleased behind all their dazed looks. What do you think, sir?"

The whistle sounded up the valley, and mercifully prevented my answer. I saw the woman for an instant as she was brought out of the train and carried to the bench. She did not recognise the man she had married fifty years before: but as we moved out of the station, he was sitting beside her, his face transfigured with a solemn joy.