The Lights of Jerusalem
A charming little romance of a railway fireman, who fell in love with a country maid, whom he used to pass daily on his run.
THE railway line between Worcester and Hereford runs along the foot of the Malvern hills; then, as their bold chain drops behind it, the train makes its way between successions of small fields, heavily hedged, of orchards and hop gardens, the former much in the majority; a green, cramped, fertile land full of suggestive corners, snug and a trifle sly. It has an intimate unheroic charm and a wealth of detail for appreciative eyes.
Joshua Gunn appreciated it, though he would have been at a loss to give reasons for his feeling, being a man of few words. His circumstances were not conducive to talk, for he was fireman on the engine of a Great Western train—a local train which ran between the two county towns. He, the engine-driver, and the guard saw more of that immediate stretch of country than any three men alive; but while Joshua looked out on it with pleasure, it scarcely existed for the other two, for the guard was a politician and read the Western Mail in his van, and the driver was indifferent to everything but his engine.
Gunn was a quiet, dark, young fellow of eight-and-twenty, with a reputation in the livelier part of his little world of being dull, for hardly anyone knew what his interests were or
what he thought about. He did his work well and interfered with nobody, and he lived, in company with a signalman, the only person with whom he was intimate, on the outskirts of Hereford town.
When the train had almost done its journey from Worcester it reached a spot at which the permanent way ran along an embankment, and here Joshua’s loyal interest in the surroundings of his appointed course would culminate. No matter what were his duties on the engine, he would contrive to be free when the embankment came in sight and the green elevationswung itself into line as they rounded the curve preceding it. The young man would lean out, with the wind of their rush blowing on his dark face, and gaze down upon the picture which had captured his fancy.
Just at this spot, close under the embankment, one of the fields had merged itself with surprising abruptness into a small, thickly-planted orchard, and not twenty paces in from the beginning of the trees, was a tiny black-and-white-timbered cottage of two storeys, standing apart with the compact detachment of a doll’s house. The apple-trees pressed up to within a few feet of its walls, their gnarled stems crowding thick about it like an escort round a state prisorsr; and in
the dusk of their myriad leaves and branches its whitewash, crossed with black timbers, seemed to be glimmering through a green twilight. The windows were small, and looked even smaller and more secretive from the height at which Joshua saw them; and at either side of the worn stone threshold there stood, in summer, one of those tall orange lilies, called by the neighboring country folk, “The Lights of Jerusalem.” To Joshua they were like two stiff golden angels guarding the door of this diminutive paradise of his imagination. He admired flowers and he knew many of their names ; for the signalman with whom he lived had a plot of garden at the foot of his box which the fireman often envied him.
Through every change of season Joshua Gunn observed the little dwelling—under the leafless 'boughs of winter, in the ethereal greenery of spring, in the full-blown opulence of summer, in the time when the reddened apples burned round it like fiery globes; but the time when it pleased him most was at June’s end, when the Lights of Jerusalem were kindled by its threshold.
For a long time it chanced that he saw no sign of life about the place, except the smoke stealing upward and a clothes-line stretched between two apple-trees; but one day as he leaned over the engine’s side a girl was in the garden. She wore a large apron over her dress and her fresh face turned up as she shaded her eyes to look at the passing train. Her light hair shone in the sun. It happened that he saw her three times in one week— twice in the garden strip under the windows and once at the back of the house beside the row of beehives ; and on the last occasion some impulse made him take off his cap and hold it above his head as the train ran by. The girl hesitated, and then made a timid sign of greeting with her hand; Joshua was near enough to see her face and the shy smile upon it.
That little ceremony had gone on for eight months. Sometimes the girl would be in the garden, sometimes at
tbe door. Sometimes she was not to be seen; but in any case the fireman would lean out and hold up his cap, for he could not know whether she might not be watching him go by from behind the diamond panes.
One day, when Joshua’s engine had reached Hereford, it was sent back on the up-line in the interval between its two journeys to take a few trucks with a gang of workmen to the embankment. Some rails were to be unloaded, for there were repairs to be done at the spot above the orchard ; and as the bí akes were put on and the train slowed down the young fireman promised himself an idle half-hour in which he might see the timbered cottage at closer quarters. When the unloading was finished the engine and trucks were to go on to a siding a little farther forward while the rails were being stacked, and there steam would be shut off until it was time to return for the men.
The driver was a fat good-natured individual, averse to exercise, and Joshua knew that during his wait he would sit on the foot-plate and smoke, and that it would be a simple matter for himself to get leave to stroll back to the green banks. He would be able to get quite close to the orchard, perhaps to within speaking distance of his unknown acquaintance. His mind was full of the idea, and he considered over and over again how he shoula accost her and what he should say supposing that he had the courage to address her at all. Perhaps she might not come out of the house; perhaps she was absent. He had not seen her as he passed in the morning. He imagined a dozen obstacles to the meeting for which he hoped.
His heart beat a little as he neared the place, for he was a shy man. He had easily got the permission he wanted; but when he saw the smoke rise from the apple-boughs he had half a mind to turn back, and as he looked at the coal-dust on his hands he wished very heartily that stoking were a cleaner occupation. He reflected with dismay that the girl whose friendly
greeting had been the point of interest in his daily journeys for so long had never been near enough to him to know what an unattractive-looking fellow he was; and this estimate of himself disheartened him a good deal, because he did not guess how far it was from being a just one.
When he reached the embankment he stopped, his anticipations scattered to the winds. The one chance on which he had not counted had risen up to undo him.
The garden was full of people and the uniform hue of their garments gave him a sharp thrust of horror. They were black from head to toe, and they surrounded a dark object resting on rough trestles placed just outside the doorstep. It was evidently waiting for something, the sombre assembly that had descended like a swarm of devastating insects on this secret pleasure-ground of his own to blot out its beauty with their presence. The only spots of color were the bright Lights of Jerusalem, set like living torches beside the unpretentious pageant of death.
The young man stood on the bank looking blankly down, his hands droped at his sides. He dared not go near to intrude upon the handful of mourners, though from over the hedge below the line he could have asked the question which tormented him. Details spring with an irony all their own to the minds of those in suspense, and he reflected that he need not have been concerned by his blackened coat an coal-stained hands. Everything was black now. The clang made by the rails as the workmen piled them in a heap sent a harsh note booming into the air.
Then his trouble lifted from him, for the cottage door opened and the well-known figure came out between the Lights of Jerusalem. She turned the key, putting it in her pocket, and her companions raised the coffin and carried it out of the garden.
As she followed them she looked up at the line, and, perhaps from habit, Joshua's hand went up to his
cap; and though he dropped it halfway, afraid, instinctively, to force his recognition upon her at such a moment, he saw her smile.
When the humble procession had passed oüt of sight he went back to the engine in a kind of dream. But it was a dream with a definite purpose. In three days it would be Sunday, a free day for him, because the local train did not run. He would start from Hereford and walk along the line to the cottage, a bare seven miles, and he would at last see and speak with this girl face to face. He could not know the exact nature of the catastrophe which had happened to her. but he understood that, in its grip, she had still held to their unspoken friendship, and that the tacit bond had emerged from it, a thing which present calamity had not been able to break. He scarcely knew what he meant to do when he should meet her, but he felt as if a gate had opened. And through the gate he would go.
On Sunday morning Joshua rose to find Hereford enveloped in the mist of coming heat, and at half-past eight he dropped on to the permanent way beyond the signal-box on the Worcester line to begin his seven-mile walk alongside the sleepers. He had shaved with particular care and had scrubbed himself till not a trace remained of the coal-dust of the week. He wore his dark-grey Sunday suit, and even the ill-made clothes could not take much attraction from his grave brown face or make his slight figure quite uninteresting, for the touch of reserve and refinement which kept him a little aloof from the rougher part of his kind showed through inferior tailoring and looked out of his observant eyes.
The metals stretched on into the quivering greyness of the hot day as he tramped along, and the sun climbed higher. On either side spread the green landscape of western England, rich and chequered. The ox-eye daisies were out at the sides of the line and the red sorrel and the clover; and above the round heads of the last, misty clouds of tiny butterflies hung like an
innocent miasma. It was almost n o’clock when Joshua reached his goal, and, descending the embankment, slipped through a weak place in the hedge and approached the cottage door.
The smoke still rose from the chimney, but there was neither sound nor stir within, and, having knocked unsuccessfully, the young man went into the orchard. The row of beehives was in its place, and as he stood lookiing at them and debating what he should do, the sound of a bell came to him through the hot air. He listened, smiling at his own stupidity. Of course—she was at church !
He hastened through the garden, followed the sound, and came out on a narrow country road. In front of him a stout woman was pressing forward, book in hand, with consciencestricken haste, and in the wake of this unconscious guide he soon found himself at the lych-gate of a small squaretowered church. The woman bustled through the churchyard and was lost in the deep shadows of the porch. The echo of her creaking boots filled it as she entered.
He followed her to the inner door, stepping like a thief, and peered in. The prayers had long begun, and his eye searched the kneeling congregation for the figure he wanted and stopped at a row of cross-seats facing the aisle on the hither side of the chancel arch. The girl was there; he could see her attentive profile above her book and her bright hair. He knew her at once, and her unrelieved black clothes confirmed the recognition. He drew back stealthily and went out into the churchward, for there was no vacant seat near the door.
It was a rather-badly-kept place, for the canopies of the yew-trees shadowed groups of tombstones, ancient and grotesque, which stuck at many different angles from the coarse grass. As he turned to examine the church he noticed that a slab of stone jutted out from the wall, running along it like a bench. He sat down on it to wait as patiently as he could till the end of the service.
From inside the building came the drone of collective voices saying the Lord’s Prayer, and soon after he heard the sound of the congregation rising. Suspense began to weigh on him, so he got up and wandered about, reading epitaphs with a half-mind that scarcely took in their significance. Then the organ began, and the words of the hymn carried him back to the house in the orchard.
“Jerusalem the golden,” sang the voices ; and at these words the two tall orange lilies by the doorstep rose before Joshua, who stood still, staring at the inner vision.
He awoke from his abstraction to see a black figure emerge quickly from the porch.
She was coming towards him, her eyes blind with tears. No doubt something in the service had upset her and she had fled, unable to control herself. Joshua was standing in the shade of a tree, but with the light of the blazing noon on her wet eyes she seemed not to see him.
He walked, quickly forward and stood in her path.
“It’s me,” he said simply.
She stopped, drawing a long, quivering breath.
“Pm here,” said Joshua. “It’s me. I saw you from the engine.”
Then he took her hand and led her to the stone bench. She went with him, unresisting.
He had not supposed that she was so pretty, for, though her eyes were swollen and her face blurred and marked by weeping, these things could not obliterate her good looks, But Joshua scarcely gave that a thought, nor did he realize for a moment how extraordinary his behavior might seem to her, considering that he was a stranger. The only thought in his mind was that she was in trouble and that, for some perfectly unexplained but imperative reason, she would cnng to him. Her sobs slackened as be sat silent with his cap pushed back from his brow and his hand closed round hers, as if it were the most^ natural
thins; in the world; behind their backs, b 37
on the inner side of the church wall, the sermon had begun and the parson’s solitary tones were in monotonous possession.
She looked up at the young fireman with the confiding simplicity of a child.
“It were the hymn,” she said at last, “’twas about Jerusalem, and I thought—I remembered—the Lights o’ Jerusalem by the doorstep. I’ve, seen them there all my life, but there’!i be no more o’ they for me, soon.”
“You be going away, then?” asked Joshua.
“Father’s dead,” she continued. “He’d never left his bed for four years. I minded him. He couldn’t see nothing but from the window where his bed were. But the interest he’d take ! He'd call me in from the garden and ask how it was all looking, and how the birds were building, and about the currants and the flowers and the apples. He could tell the shape of every tree, though he hadn’t seen them for so long. And he liked the trains too. He could just see you where he was lying, an’ no more, when the train went by the white post on the bank. It made him feel a kind of cheery-like to know you were coming. “Twenty past eleven, Winnie.” he’d say to me. “It’s time for the engine.”
‘Then he knew me,’ said the young man reflectively. ‘Strange that I never thought of anyone else being behind the windows. I only thought about you and the Lights of Jerusalem when we came round the bend.’
Inside the church the parson’s voice had stopped, and a general stamping and rustling proclaimed the end of the sermon.
T must go. They’ll be coming out, and I don’t want to meet them,’ said the girl, rising quickly.
‘I’m coming with you,’ said Joshua.
They walked back hurriedly to the cottage, for the dispersed congregation was almost treading on their heels ; and she told him, with a primness that was in odd contrast with their unconventional attitude, that she
did not want the neighbors to see her with a stranger so soon after the funeral. The road was empty, and they went along side by side talking as though they had known each other for years. He learned she was to leave her home at the end of the week and take service with the wife of a small innkeeper in Hereford1
‘You must be going, or they’ll see you,’ said she, as they stopped by the orchard.
They stood for a minute without speaking.
‘I’ll look for you going by to-morrow,’ said the girl ; there’ll be only a few days more now.’
‘But I’ll be near you in Hereford,’ said he.
Her face brightened.
‘My dear,’ said Joshua suddenly, ‘mind you this. I mayn’t be the sort o’ feller that’s likely to please a giri, but I’m a man that’ll wait—and I’m to be made a driver next year. You can’t tell what it’ll be like at the inn. Maybe you’ll be happy, maybe not. But in any case I’m waiting. An’ the first day you say “Come,” I’ll come for you. It’s funny, 'but it seems somehow as if you belonged to me. Could you like me, do you think?’
‘Oh, I do,’ she answered simply. ‘But you must be going. I hear them talking on the road.’
They clasped hands, and he left her. But at the end of the garden he came back.
‘Oh, Winnie!’ cried the man who would wait, ‘you won’t let it be long?’
‘No,’ she said shyly.
‘Promise,’ said Joshua.
Then he turned away, stepped through the hedge, and ran up the side of the embankment. At the top he stood, holding up his cap. She was smiling at him between the Lights of Jerusalem.
When his slim figure had vanished down the line she went into the house and. sitting down, hid her face in her hands.
But not to cry.