I’ve never lived anywhere out of hearing range of a train; the whistles and, especially in winter, the chuggachuggachug of the wheels are often the last sounds I hear before sleep and the first ones I hear should I wake in the wee hours.
Also, I love roses.
Which may be why I fell in love with this story, from W. B. Herbert’s 1989 book Railway Ghosts and Phantoms, the first time I read it. Trains and roses and a romance cut short by death all appeal to the morbid romantic in me.
In that hot summer of 1906 Charlotte Campbell was only nineteen and about to travel from home for the first time, some fifty miles by train, to interview for a position as a nanny to a small boy at Winstable Hall, the seat of the Anderson-Hunts, a family of the minor nobility.
The train she was to take arrived at the platform, and a young, blond, very handsome young man jumped down from the engine. When he saw Charlotte, a bit overawed, standing there waiting to board, he smiled at her and asked, “How far are you going?”
“Wiltham,” she stammered. “I have–I have an important interview there. For a job.”
“That’s all right, then,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll tell you when to get off.” Then he went off with an oilcan and began oiling the driving wheels.
Charlotte boarded the train, excited at the prospects ahead of her and intrigued by the kind young man. She took her seat in the first compartment and sat with her head out the window, watching goods being taken off the train and replaced with others. Among the things taken off were boxes and boxes of red roses, presumably for a flower market. As the conductor shouted All aboard!, the handsome young fireman leaned over the door of the compartment and handed her a single red rose. “For you,” he said. “By the way, I’m Albert.”
“Oh, thank you!” Charlotte said, blushing. “No one’s ever–”
But Albert was gone, hopping aboard the engine. When they reached Wiltham, he came back and opened the carriage door. He helped Charlotte off first. “Good luck,” he said. “I hope you get the job.”
As it happened, Charlotte did get the job. She had a day a week off, and would ride the train back to her home to spend the day with her parents. On those days, she was happy to see Albert; they talked over the door to her compartment until it was time for the train to pull out of the station, and again when she disembarked.
A year or so after she took the position of nanny to little Edward Anderson-Hunt, she was allowed to take the little boy with her to visit her parents. They had a pleasant day with her family, and–joy!–Albert was fireman on the return run, and she introduced the two. Albert was as cheerful and kind with Edward as he was with her.
Albert already had the door to the compartment open for Charlotte and Edward to enter and take their seats, but Charlotte lingered a moment or two to speak with him.
While her attention was otherwise engaged, disaster struck.
Edward was fidgety, as small boys often are. He had a large rubber ball with him, and–to the disapproval of those already seated in the carriage–he was tossing it about. Charlotte, seated by the window talking to Albert, told Edward to stop, whereupon the little brat threw the ball out the window. It bounced off the railing around the platform and under the carriage. Before either Charlotte or Albert could react, he dashed out and crawled under the carriage, between the wheels, trying to retrieve the errant ball.
As Charlotte herself scrambled out and under the carriage, the driver gave the green light for the train to pull out. She had worked her way partway under the carriage, with Albert trying to help her pull Edward out of danger.
It was all over in a heartbeat: the train, despite Albert’s desperate shouts, pulled forward, crushing both boy and nanny beneath the wheels.
A heartsick Albert applied for and got a post on another train, far from the Wiltham run.
And passengers on his old train began to report a strange sight: a lovely young lady, standing on the platform or seated in the first carriage behind the tender, obviously looking for someone. As the train pulled out, she would vanish. Often, after she was seen, the carriage would be filled for several minutes with a strong scent of roses.
Years passed. Charlotte’s sad spirit had not been seen in some time, and word had come that Albert had enlisted at the beginning of what Brits still call the Great War–World War I–and had been killed in France, saddening all who remembered the cheerful young fireman.
And so, the two young lovers were together again, on the other side.
Or were they?
Just before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, a passenger train stopped to take on water at the station where Charlotte and her Albert had first met. A young fireman hopped off the engine to oil an axle box. When he straightened up, he saw a young woman and a small boy sitting in the first seat of the carriage. They looked oddly out of place, in their Edwardian clothes, out of style for three decades now, but the fireman–like another young fireman on that train, long ago–was a friendly sort. As he went to speak to the pair, they were gone as if they had never been there.
Unsettled, the fireman told an approaching guard about the pretty young woman and the little boy. The guard smiled and said gently, “That’s just Charlotte and the little boy she was nanny to, looking for Albert. We’ve seen her many times.” His smile grew broader as he sniffed the air appreciatively. “Smell the roses?”
The young fireman could only nod.