The Guilty River
2. The River Introduces Us
I stood alone on the bank of the ugliest stream in England.
The moonlight, pouring its unclouded radiance over open space, failed to throw a beauty
not their own on those sluggish waters. Broad and muddy, their stealthy current flowed
onward to the sea, without a rock to diversify, without a bubble to break, the sullen
surface. On the side from which I was looking at the river, the neglected trees grew so
close together that they were undermining their own lives, and poisoning each other. On
the opposite bank, a rank growth of gigantic bulrushes hid the ground beyond, except
where it rose in hillocks, and showed its surface of desert sand spotted here and there by
mean patches of health. A repellent river in itself, a repellent river in its surroundings, a
repellent river even in its name. It was called The Loke. Neither popular tradition nor
antiquarian research could explain what the name meant, or could tell when the name had
been given. "We call it The Loke; they do say no fish can live in it; and it dirties the clean
salt water when it runs into the sea." Such was the character of the river in the estimation
of the people who knew it best. But I was pleased to see The Loke again. The ugly river,
like the woodland glade, looked at me with the face of an old friend.
On my right hand side rose the venerable timbers of the water-mill.
The wheel was motionless, at that time of night; and the whole structure looked--as
remembered objects will look, when we see them again after a long interval--smaller than
I had supposed it to be. Otherwise, I could discover no change in the mill. But the
wooden cottage attached to it had felt the devastating march of time. A portion of the
decrepit building still stood revealed in its wretched old age; propped, partly by beams
which reached from the thatched roof to the ground, and partly by the wall of a new
cottage attached, presenting in yellow brick-work a hideous modern contrast to all that
was left of its ancient neighbor.
Had the miller whom I remembered, died; and were these changes the work of his
successor? I thought of asking the question, and tried the door: it was fastened. The
windows were all dark excepting one, which I discovered in the upper storey, at the
farther side of the new building. Here, there was a dim light burning. It was impossible to
disturb a person, who, for all I knew to the contrary, might be going to bed. I turned back
to The Loke, proposing to extend my walk, by a mile or a little more, to a village that I
remembered on the bank of the river.
I had not advanced far, when the stillness around me was disturbed by an intermittent
sound of splashing in the water. Pausing to listen, I heard next the working of oars in
their rowlocks. After another interval a boat appeared, turning a projection in the bank,
and rowed by a woman pulling steadily against the stream.
As the boat approached me in the moonlight, this person corrected my first impression,
and revealed herself as a young girl. So far as I could perceive she was a stranger to me.