Story type: Literature
” Among these million Suns how shall the strayed Soul find her way back to earth? “
The man was an engine-driver, thick-set and heavy, with a short beard grizzled at the edge, and eyes perpetually screwed up, because his life had run for the most part in the teeth of the wind. The lashes, too, had been scorched off. If you penetrated the mask of oil and coal-dust that was part of his working suit, you found a reddish-brown phlegmatic face, and guessed its age at fifty. He brought the last down train into Lewminster station every night at 9.45, took her on five minutes later, and passed through Lewminster again at noon, on his way back with the Galloper, as the porters called it.
He had reached that point of skill at which a man knows every pound of metal in a locomotive; seemed to feel just what was in his engine the moment he took hold of the levers and started up; and was expecting promotion. While waiting for it, he hit on the idea of studying a more delicate machine, and married a wife. She was the daughter of a woman at whose house he lodged, and her age was less than half of his own. It is to be supposed he loved her.
A year after their marriage she fell into low health, and her husband took her off to Lewminster for fresher air. She was lodging alone at Lewminster, and the man was passing Lewminster station on his engine, twice a day, at the time when this tale begins.
People–especially those who live in the West of England–remember the great fire at the Lewminster Theatre; how, in the second Act of the Colleen Bawn, a tongue of light shot from the wings over the actors’ heads; how, even while the actors turned and ran, a sheet of fire swept out on the auditorium with a roaring wind, and the house was full of shrieks and blind death; how men and women were turned to a white ash as they rose from their seats, so fiercely the flames outstripped the smoke. These things were reported in the papers, with narratives and ghastly details, and for a week all England talked of Lewminster.
This engine-driver, as the 9.45 train neared Lewminster, saw the red in the sky. And when he rushed into the station and drew up, he saw that the country porters who stood about were white as corpses.
“What fire is that?” he asked one.
“‘Tis the theayter! There’s a hundred burnt a’ready, and the rest treadin’ each other’s lives out while we stand talkin’, to get ‘pon the roof and pitch theirselves over!”
Now the engine-driver’s wife was going to the play that night, and he knew it. She had met him at the station, and told him so, at midday.
But there was nobody to take the train on, if he stepped off the engine; for his fireman was a young hand, and had been learning his trade for less than three weeks.
So when the five minutes were up–or rather, ten, for the porters were bewildered that night–this man went on out of the station into the night. Just beyond the station the theatre was plain to see, above the hill on his left, and the flames were leaping from the roof; and he knew that his wife was there. But the train was never taken down more steadily, nor did a single passenger guess what manner of man was driving it.
At Drakeport, where his run ended, he stepped off the engine, walked from the railway-sheds to his mother-in-law’s, where he still lodged, and went up-stairs to his bed without alarming a soul.
In the morning, at the usual hour, he was down at the station again, washed and cleanly dressed. His fireman had the Galloper’s engine polished, fired up, and ready to start.
“Mornin’,” he nodded, and looking into his driver’s eyes, dropped the handful of dirty lint with which he had been polishing. After shuffling from foot to foot for a minute, he ended by climbing down on the far side of the engine.
“Oldster,” he said, “’tis mutiny p’raps; but s’help me, if I ride a mile longside that new face o’ your’n!”
“Maybe you’re right,” his superior answered wearily. “You’d best go up to the office, and get somebody sent down i’ my place. And while you’re there, you might get me a third-class for Lewminster.”
So this man travelled up to Lewminster as passenger, and found his young wife’s body among the two score stretched in a stable-yard behind the smoking theatre, waiting to be claimed. And the day after the funeral he left the railway company’s service. He had saved a bit, enough to rent a small cottage two miles from the cemetery where his wife lay. Here he settled and tilled a small garden beside the high-road.
Nothing seemed to be wrong with the man until the late summer, when he stood before the Lewminster magistrates charged with a violent and curiously wanton assault.
It appeared that one dim evening, late in August, a mild gentleman, with Leghorn hat, spectacles, and a green gauze net, came sauntering by the garden where the ex-engine-driver was pulling a basketful of scarlet runners: that the prisoner had suddenly dropped his beans, dashed out into the road, and catching the mild gentleman by the throat had wrenched the butterfly net from his hand and belaboured him with the handle till it broke.
There was no defence, nor any attempt at explanation. The mild gentleman was a stranger to the neighbourhood. The magistrates marvelled, and gave his assailant two months.
At the end of that time the man came out of gaol and went quietly back to his cottage.
Early in the following April he conceived a wish to build a small greenhouse at the foot of his garden, by the road, and spoke to the local mason about it. One Saturday afternoon the mason came over to look at the ground and discuss plans. It was bright weather, and while the two men talked a white butterfly floated past them–the first of the year.
Immediately the mason broke off his sentence and began to chase the butterfly round the garden: for in the West country there is a superstition that if a body neglect to kill the first butterfly he may see for the season, he will have ill luck throughout the year. So he dashed across the beds, hat in hand.
“I’ll hat ‘en–I’ll hat ‘en! No, fay! I’ll miss ‘en, I b’lieve. Shan’t be able to kill ‘n if hor’s wunce beyond th’ gaate–stiddy, my son! Wo-op!”
Thus he yelled, waving his soft hat: and the next minute was lying stunned across a carrot-bed, with eight fingers gripping the back of his neck and two thumbs squeezing on his windpipe.
There was another assault case heard by the Lewminster bench; and this time the ex-engine-driver received four months. As before, he offered no defence: and again the magistrates were possessed with wonder.
Now the explanation is quite simple. This man’s wits were sound, save on one point. He believed–why, God alone knows, who enabled him to drive that horrible journey without a tremor of the hand–that his wife’s soul haunted him in the form of a white butterfly or moth. The superstition that spirits take this shape is not unknown in the West; and I suppose that as he steered his train out of the station, this fancy, by some odd freak of memory, leaped into his brain, and held it, hour after hour, while he and his engine flew forward and the burning theatre fell further and further behind. The truth was known a fortnight after his return from prison, which happened about the time of barley harvest.
A harvest-thanksgiving was held in the parish where he lived; and he went to it, being always a religious man. There were sheaves and baskets of vegetables in the chancel; fruit and flowers on the communion-table, with twenty-one tall candles burning above them; a processional hymn; and a long sermon. During the sermon, as the weather was hot and close, someone opened the door at the west end.
And when the preacher was just making up his mind to close the discourse, a large white moth fluttered in at the west door.
There was much light throughout the church; but the great blaze came, of course, from the twenty-one candles upon the altar. And towards this the moth slowly drifted, as if the candles sucked her nearer and nearer, up between the pillars of the nave, on a level with their capitals. Few of the congregation noticed her, for the sermon was a stirring one; only one or two children, perhaps, were interested–and the man I write of. He saw her pass over his head and float up into the chancel. He half-rose from his chair.
“My brothers,” said the preacher, “if two sparrows, that are sold for a farthing, are not too little for the care of this infinite Providence–“
A scream rang out and drowned the sentence. It was followed by a torrent of vile words, shouted by a man who had seen, now for the second time, the form that clothed his wife’s soul shrivelled in unthinking flames. All that was left of the white moth lay on the altar-cloth, among the fruit at the base of the tallest candlestick.
And because the man saw nothing but cruelty in the Providence of which the preacher spoke, he screamed and cursed, till they overpowered him and took him forth by the door. He was wholly mad from that hour.