Select the desired text size
The Railway Children.
Chapter 1. The beginning of things
by Edith Nesbit.
Start of Story
Age Rating 10 Plus.
They were not railway children to begin with. I don't suppose they had
ever thought about railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne
and Cook's, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud's.
They were just ordinary suburban children, and they lived with their
Father and Mother in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa, with coloured
glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a
bath-room with hot and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and
a good deal of white paint, and 'every modern convenience', as the
There were three of them. Roberta was the eldest. Of course, Mothers
never have favourites, but if their Mother HAD had a favourite, it might
have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an Engineer when he
grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.
Mother did not spend all her time in paying dull calls to dull ladies,
and sitting dully at home waiting for dull ladies to pay calls to her.
She was almost always there, ready to play with the children, and read
to them, and help them to do their home-lessons. Besides this she used
to write stories for them while they were at school, and read them
aloud after tea, and she always made up funny pieces of poetry for their
birthdays and for other great occasions, such as the christening of the
new kittens, or the refurnishing of the doll's house, or the time when
they were getting over the mumps.
These three lucky children always had everything they needed: pretty
clothes, good fires, a lovely nursery with heaps of toys, and a Mother
Goose wall-paper. They had a kind and merry nursemaid, and a dog who was
called James, and who was their very own. They also had a Father who was
just perfect--never cross, never unjust, and always ready for a game--at
least, if at any time he was NOT ready, he always had an excellent
reason for it, and explained the reason to the children so interestingly
and funnily that they felt sure he couldn't help himself.
You will think that they ought to have been very happy. And so they
were, but they did not know HOW happy till the pretty life in the Red
Villa was over and done with, and they had to live a very different life
The dreadful change came quite suddenly.
Peter had a birthday--his tenth. Among his other presents was a model
engine more perfect than you could ever have dreamed of. The other
presents were full of charm, but the Engine was fuller of charm than any
of the others were.
Its charm lasted in its full perfection for exactly three days. Then,
owing either to Peter's inexperience or Phyllis's good intentions, which
had been rather pressing, or to some other cause, the Engine suddenly
went off with a bang. James was so frightened that he went out and did
not come back all day. All the Noah's Ark people who were in the tender
were broken to bits, but nothing else was hurt except the poor little
engine and the feelings of Peter. The others said he cried over it--but
of course boys of ten do not cry, however terrible the tragedies may be
which darken their lot. He said that his eyes were red because he had a
cold. This turned out to be true, though Peter did not know it was when
he said it, the next day he had to go to bed and stay there. Mother
began to be afraid that he might be sickening for measles, when suddenly
he sat up in bed and said:
"I hate gruel--I hate barley water--I hate bread and milk. I want to get
up and have something REAL to eat."
"What would you like?" Mother asked.
"A pigeon-pie," said Peter, eagerly, "a large pigeon-pie. A very large
So Mother asked the Cook to make a large pigeon-pie. The pie was made.
And when the pie was made, it was cooked. And when it was cooked, Peter
ate some of it. After that his cold was better. Mother made a piece of
poetry to amuse him while the pie was being made. It began by saying
what an unfortunate but worthy boy Peter was, then it went on:
He had an engine that he loved
With all his heart and soul,
And if he had a wish on earth
It was to keep it whole.
One day--my friends, prepare your minds;
I'm coming to the worst--
Quite suddenly a screw went mad,
And then the boiler burst!
With gloomy face he picked it up
And took it to his Mother,
Though even he could not suppose
That she could make another;
For those who perished on the line
He did not seem to care,
His engine being more to him
Than all the people there.
And now you see the reason why
Our Peter has been ill:
He soothes his soul with pigeon-pie
His gnawing grief to kill.
He wraps himself in blankets warm
And sleeps in bed till late,
Determined thus to overcome
His miserable fate.
And if his eyes are rather red,
His cold must just excuse it:
Offer him pie; you may be sure
He never will refuse it.
Father had been away in the country for three or four days. All Peter's
hopes for the curing of his afflicted Engine were now fixed on his
Father, for Father was most wonderfully clever with his fingers. He
could mend all sorts of things. He had often acted as veterinary surgeon
to the wooden rocking-horse; once he had saved its life when all human
aid was despaired of, and the poor creature was given up for lost, and
even the carpenter said he didn't see his way to do anything. And it was
Father who mended the doll's cradle when no one else could; and with a
little glue and some bits of wood and a pen-knife made all the Noah's
Ark beasts as strong on their pins as ever they were, if not stronger.
Peter, with heroic unselfishness, did not say anything about his Engine
till after Father had had his dinner and his after-dinner cigar. The
unselfishness was Mother's idea--but it was Peter who carried it out.
And needed a good deal of patience, too.
At last Mother said to Father, "Now, dear, if you're quite rested, and
quite comfy, we want to tell you about the great railway accident, and
ask your advice."
"All right," said Father, "fire away!"
So then Peter told the sad tale, and fetched what was left of the
"Hum," said Father, when he had looked the Engine over very carefully.
The children held their breaths.
"Is there NO hope?" said Peter, in a low, unsteady voice.
"Hope? Rather! Tons of it," said Father, cheerfully; "but it'll want
something besides hope--a bit of brazing say, or some solder, and a new
valve. I think we'd better keep it for a rainy day. In other words, I'll
give up Saturday afternoon to it, and you shall all help me."
"CAN girls help to mend engines?" Peter asked doubtfully.
"Of course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys, and don't you
forget it! How would you like to be an engine-driver, Phil?"
"My face would be always dirty, wouldn't it?" said Phyllis, in
unenthusiastic tones, "and I expect I should break something."
"I should just love it," said Roberta--"do you think I could when I'm
grown up, Daddy? Or even a stoker?"
"You mean a fireman," said Daddy, pulling and twisting at the engine.
"Well, if you still wish it, when you're grown up, we'll see about
making you a fire-woman. I remember when I was a boy--"
Just then there was a knock at the front door.
"Who on earth!" said Father. "An Englishman's house is his castle, of
course, but I do wish they built semi-detached villas with moats and
Ruth--she was the parlour-maid and had red hair--came in and said that
two gentlemen wanted to see the master.
"I've shown them into the Library, Sir," said she.
"I expect it's the subscription to the Vicar's testimonial," said
Mother, "or else it's the choir holiday fund. Get rid of them quickly,
dear. It does break up an evening so, and it's nearly the children's
But Father did not seem to be able to get rid of the gentlemen at all
"I wish we HAD got a moat and drawbridge," said Roberta; "then, when we
didn't want people, we could just pull up the drawbridge and no one else
could get in. I expect Father will have forgotten about when he was a
boy if they stay much longer."
Mother tried to make the time pass by telling them a new fairy story
about a Princess with green eyes, but it was difficult because they
could hear the voices of Father and the gentlemen in the Library, and
Father's voice sounded louder and different to the voice he generally
used to people who came about testimonials and holiday funds.
Then the Library bell rang, and everyone heaved a breath of relief.
"They're going now," said Phyllis; "he's rung to have them shown out."
But instead of showing anybody out, Ruth showed herself in, and she
looked queer, the children thought.
"Please'm," she said, "the Master wants you to just step into the study.
He looks like the dead, mum; I think he's had bad news. You'd best
prepare yourself for the worst, 'm--p'raps it's a death in the family or
a bank busted or--"
"That'll do, Ruth," said Mother gently; "you can go."
Then Mother went into the Library. There was more talking. Then the bell
rang again, and Ruth fetched a cab. The children heard boots go out and
down the steps. The cab drove away, and the front door shut. Then Mother
came in. Her dear face was as white as her lace collar, and her eyes
looked very big and shining. Her mouth looked like just a line of pale
red--her lips were thin and not their proper shape at all.
"It's bedtime," she said. "Ruth will put you to bed."
"But you promised we should sit up late tonight because Father's come
home," said Phyllis.
"Father's been called away--on business," said Mother. "Come, darlings,
go at once."
They kissed her and went. Roberta lingered to give Mother an extra hug
and to whisper:
"It wasn't bad news, Mammy, was it? Is anyone dead--or--"
"Nobody's dead--no," said Mother, and she almost seemed to push Roberta
away. "I can't tell you anything tonight, my pet. Go, dear, go NOW."
So Roberta went.
Ruth brushed the girls' hair and helped them to undress. (Mother almost
always did this herself.) When she had turned down the gas and left them
she found Peter, still dressed, waiting on the stairs.
"I say, Ruth, what's up?" he asked.
"Don't ask me no questions and I won't tell you no lies," the red-headed
Ruth replied. "You'll know soon enough."
Late that night Mother came up and kissed all three children as they
lay asleep. But Roberta was the only one whom the kiss woke, and she lay
mousey-still, and said nothing.
"If Mother doesn't want us to know she's been crying," she said to
herself as she heard through the dark the catching of her Mother's
breath, "we WON'T know it. That's all."
When they came down to breakfast the next morning, Mother had already
"To London," Ruth said, and left them to their breakfast.
"There's something awful the matter," said Peter, breaking his egg.
"Ruth told me last night we should know soon enough."
"Did you ASK her?" said Roberta, with scorn.
"Yes, I did!" said Peter, angrily. "If you could go to bed without
caring whether Mother was worried or not, I couldn't. So there."
"I don't think we ought to ask the servants things Mother doesn't tell
us," said Roberta.
"That's right, Miss Goody-goody," said Peter, "preach away."
"I'M not goody," said Phyllis, "but I think Bobbie's right this time."
"Of course. She always is. In her own opinion," said Peter.
"Oh, DON'T!" cried Roberta, putting down her egg-spoon; "don't let's be
horrid to each other. I'm sure some dire calamity is happening. Don't
let's make it worse!"
"Who began, I should like to know?" said Peter.
Roberta made an effort, and answered:--
"I did, I suppose, but--"
"Well, then," said Peter, triumphantly. But before he went to school he
thumped his sister between the shoulders and told her to cheer up.
The children came home to one o'clock dinner, but Mother was not there.
And she was not there at tea-time.
It was nearly seven before she came in, looking so ill and tired that
the children felt they could not ask her any questions. She sank into an
arm-chair. Phyllis took the long pins out of her hat, while Roberta took
off her gloves, and Peter unfastened her walking-shoes and fetched her
soft velvety slippers for her.
When she had had a cup of tea, and Roberta had put eau-de-Cologne on her
poor head that ached, Mother said:--
"Now, my darlings, I want to tell you something. Those men last night
did bring very bad news, and Father will be away for some time. I am
very worried about it, and I want you all to help me, and not to make
things harder for me."
"As if we would!" said Roberta, holding Mother's hand against her face.
"You can help me very much," said Mother, "by being good and happy
and not quarrelling when I'm away"--Roberta and Peter exchanged guilty
glances--"for I shall have to be away a good deal."
"We won't quarrel. Indeed we won't," said everybody. And meant it, too.
"Then," Mother went on, "I want you not to ask me any questions about
this trouble; and not to ask anybody else any questions."
Peter cringed and shuffled his boots on the carpet.
"You'll promise this, too, won't you?" said Mother.
"I did ask Ruth," said Peter, suddenly. "I'm very sorry, but I did."
"And what did she say?"
"She said I should know soon enough."
"It isn't necessary for you to know anything about it," said Mother;
"it's about business, and you never do understand business, do you?"
"No," said Roberta; "is it something to do with Government?" For Father
was in a Government Office.
"Yes," said Mother. "Now it's bed-time, my darlings. And don't YOU
worry. It'll all come right in the end."
"Then don't YOU worry either, Mother," said Phyllis, "and we'll all be
as good as gold."
Mother sighed and kissed them.
"We'll begin being good the first thing tomorrow morning," said Peter,
as they went upstairs.
"Why not NOW?" said Roberta.
"There's nothing to be good ABOUT now, silly," said Peter.
"We might begin to try to FEEL good," said Phyllis, "and not call
"Who's calling names?" said Peter. "Bobbie knows right enough that when
I say 'silly', it's just the same as if I said Bobbie."
"WELL," said Roberta.
"No, I don't mean what you mean. I mean it's just a--what is it Father
calls it?--a germ of endearment! Good night."