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The Railway Children.

by Edith Nesbit.
Age Rating 10 Plus.

Start of Story

"Now," said Peter, taking hold of the largest flannel petticoat. "You're not"--Phyllis faltered--"you're not going to TEAR them?" "Shut up," said Peter, with brief sternness. "Oh, yes," said Bobbie, "tear them into little bits if you like. Don't you see, Phil, if we can't stop the train, there'll be a real live accident, with people KILLED. Oh, horrible! Here, Peter, you'll never tear it through the band!" She took the red flannel petticoat from him and tore it off an inch from the band. Then she tore the other in the same way. "There!" said Peter, tearing in his turn. He divided each petticoat into three pieces. "Now, we've got six flags." He looked at the watch again. "And we've got seven minutes. We must have flagstaffs." The knives given to boys are, for some odd reason, seldom of the kind of steel that keeps sharp. The young saplings had to be broken off. Two came up by the roots. The leaves were stripped from them. "We must cut holes in the flags, and run the sticks through the holes," said Peter. And the holes were cut. The knife was sharp enough to cut flannel with. Two of the flags were set up in heaps of loose stones between the sleepers of the down line. Then Phyllis and Roberta took each a flag, and stood ready to wave it as soon as the train came in sight. "I shall have the other two myself," said Peter, "because it was my idea to wave something red." "They're our petticoats, though," Phyllis was beginning, but Bobbie interrupted-- "Oh, what does it matter who waves what, if we can only save the train?" Perhaps Peter had not rightly calculated the number of minutes it would take the 11.29 to get from the station to the place where they were, or perhaps the train was late. Anyway, it seemed a very long time that they waited. Phyllis grew impatient. "I expect the watch is wrong, and the train's gone by," said she. Peter relaxed the heroic attitude he had chosen to show off his two flags. And Bobbie began to feel sick with suspense. It seemed to her that they had been standing there for hours and hours, holding those silly little red flannel flags that no one would ever notice. The train wouldn't care. It would go rushing by them and tear round the corner and go crashing into that awful mound. And everyone would be killed. Her hands grew very cold and trembled so that she could hardly hold the flag. And then came the distant rumble and hum of the metals, and a puff of white steam showed far away along the stretch of line. "Stand firm," said Peter, "and wave like mad! When it gets to that big furze bush step back, but go on waving! Don't stand ON the line, Bobbie!" The train came rattling along very, very fast. "They don't see us! They won't see us! It's all no good!" cried Bobbie.

The two little flags on the line swayed as the nearing train shook and loosened the heaps of loose stones that held them up. One of them slowly leaned over and fell on the line. Bobbie jumped forward and caught it up, and waved it; her hands did not tremble now. It seemed that the train came on as fast as ever. It was very near now. "Keep off the line, you silly cuckoo!" said Peter, fiercely. "It's no good," Bobbie said again. "Stand back!" cried Peter, suddenly, and he dragged Phyllis back by the arm. But Bobbie cried, "Not yet, not yet!" and waved her two flags right over the line. The front of the engine looked black and enormous. Its voice was loud and harsh. "Oh, stop, stop, stop!" cried Bobbie. No one heard her. At least Peter and Phyllis didn't, for the oncoming rush of the train covered the sound of her voice with a mountain of sound. But afterwards she used to wonder whether the engine itself had not heard her. It seemed almost as though it had--for it slackened swiftly, slackened and stopped, not twenty yards from the place where Bobbie's two flags waved over the line. She saw the great black engine stop dead, but somehow she could not stop waving the flags. And when the driver and the fireman had got off the engine and Peter and Phyllis had gone to meet them and pour out their excited tale of the awful mound just round the corner, Bobbie still waved the flags but more and more feebly and jerkily. When the others turned towards her she was lying across the line with her hands flung forward and still gripping the sticks of the little red flannel flags. The engine-driver picked her up, carried her to the train, and laid her on the cushions of a first-class carriage. "Gone right off in a faint," he said, "poor little woman. And no wonder. I'll just 'ave a look at this 'ere mound of yours, and then we'll run you back to the station and get her seen to." It was horrible to see Bobbie lying so white and quiet, with her lips blue, and parted. "I believe that's what people look like when they're dead," whispered Phyllis. "DON'T!" said Peter, sharply. They sat by Bobbie on the blue cushions, and the train ran back. Before it reached their station Bobbie had sighed and opened her eyes, and rolled herself over and begun to cry. This cheered the others wonderfully. They had seen her cry before, but they had never seen her faint, nor anyone else, for the matter of that. They had not known what to do when she was fainting, but now she was only crying they could thump her on the back and tell her not to, just as they always did. And presently, when she stopped crying, they were able to laugh at her for being such a coward as to faint. When the station was reached, the three were the heroes of an agitated meeting on the platform.

The praises they got for their "prompt action," their "common sense," their "ingenuity," were enough to have turned anybody's head. Phyllis enjoyed herself thoroughly. She had never been a real heroine before, and the feeling was delicious. Peter's ears got very red. Yet he, too, enjoyed himself. Only Bobbie wished they all wouldn't. She wanted to get away. "You'll hear from the Company about this, I expect," said the Station Master. Bobbie wished she might never hear of it again. She pulled at Peter's jacket. "Oh, come away, come away! I want to go home," she said. So they went. And as they went Station Master and Porter and guards and driver and fireman and passengers sent up a cheer. "Oh, listen," cried Phyllis; "that's for US!" "Yes," said Peter. "I say, I am glad I thought about something red, and waving it." "How lucky we DID put on our red flannel petticoats!" said Phyllis. Bobbie said nothing. She was thinking of the horrible mound, and the trustful train rushing towards it. "And it was US that saved them," said Peter. "How dreadful if they had all been killed!" said Phyllis; "wouldn't it, Bobbie?" "We never got any cherries, after all," said Bobbie. The others thought her rather heartless.

Chapter 7. For valour.

I hope you don't mind my telling you a good deal about Roberta. The fact is I am growing very fond of her. The more I observe her the more I love her. And I notice all sorts of things about her that I like. For instance, she was quite oddly anxious to make other people happy. And she could keep a secret, a tolerably rare accomplishment. Also she had the power of silent sympathy. That sounds rather dull, I know, but it's not so dull as it sounds. It just means that a person is able to know that you are unhappy, and to love you extra on that account, without bothering you by telling you all the time how sorry she is for you. That was what Bobbie was like. She knew that Mother was unhappy--and that Mother had not told her the reason. So she just loved Mother more and never said a single word that could let Mother know how earnestly her little girl wondered what Mother was unhappy about. This needs practice. It is not so easy as you might think. Whatever happened--and all sorts of nice, pleasant ordinary things happened--such as picnics, games, and buns for tea, Bobbie always had these thoughts at the back of her mind. "Mother's unhappy. Why? I don't know. She doesn't want me to know. I won't try to find out. But she IS unhappy. Why? I don't know. She doesn't--" and so on, repeating and repeating like a tune that you don't know the stopping part of. The Russian gentleman still took up a good deal of everybody's thoughts. All the editors and secretaries of Societies and Members of Parliament had answered Mother's letters as politely as they knew how; but none of them could tell where the wife and children of Mr. Szezcpansky would be likely to be. (Did I tell you that the Russian's very Russian name was that?) Bobbie had another quality which you will hear differently described by different people. Some of them call it interfering in other people's business--and some call it "helping lame dogs over stiles," and some call it "loving-kindness." It just means trying to help people. She racked her brains to think of some way of helping the Russian gentleman to find his wife and children. He had learned a few words of English now. He could say "Good morning," and "Good night," and "Please," and "Thank you," and "Pretty," when the children brought him flowers, and "Ver' good," when they asked him how he had slept. The way he smiled when he "said his English," was, Bobbie felt, "just too sweet for anything." She used to think of his face because she fancied it would help her to some way of helping him. But it did not. Yet his being there cheered her because she saw that it made Mother happier. "She likes to have someone to be good to, even beside us," said Bobbie. "And I know she hated to let him have Father's clothes. But I suppose it 'hurt nice,' or she wouldn't have."

For many and many a night after the day when she and Peter and Phyllis had saved the train from wreck by waving their little red flannel flags, Bobbie used to wake screaming and shivering, seeing again that horrible mound, and the poor, dear trustful engine rushing on towards it--just thinking that it was doing its swift duty, and that everything was clear and safe. And then a warm thrill of pleasure used to run through her at the remembrance of how she and Peter and Phyllis and the red flannel petticoats had really saved everybody. One morning a letter came. It was addressed to Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis. They opened it with enthusiastic curiosity, for they did not often get letters. The letter said:-- "Dear Sir, and Ladies,--It is proposed to make a small presentation to you, in commemoration of your prompt and courageous action in warning the train on the --- inst., and thus averting what must, humanly speaking, have been a terrible accident. The presentation will take place at the --- Station at three o'clock on the 30th inst., if this time and place will be convenient to you. "Yours faithfully, "Jabez Inglewood. "Secretary, Great Northern and Southern Railway Co." There never had been a prouder moment in the lives of the three children. They rushed to Mother with the letter, and she also felt proud and said so, and this made the children happier than ever. "But if the presentation is money, you must say, 'Thank you, but we'd rather not take it,'" said Mother. "I'll wash your Indian muslins at once," she added. "You must look tidy on an occasion like this." "Phil and I can wash them," said Bobbie, "if you'll iron them, Mother." Washing is rather fun. I wonder whether you've ever done it? This particular washing took place in the back kitchen, which had a stone floor and a very big stone sink under its window. "Let's put the bath on the sink," said Phyllis; "then we can pretend we're out-of-doors washerwomen like Mother saw in France." "But they were washing in the cold river," said Peter, his hands in his pockets, "not in hot water." "This is a HOT river, then," said Phyllis; "lend a hand with the bath, there's a dear." "I should like to see a deer lending a hand," said Peter, but he lent his. "Now to rub and scrub and scrub and rub," said Phyllis, hopping joyously about as Bobbie carefully carried the heavy kettle from the kitchen fire. "Oh, no!" said Bobbie, greatly shocked; "you don't rub muslin. You put the boiled soap in the hot water and make it all frothy-lathery--and then you shake the muslin and squeeze it, ever so gently, and all the dirt comes out. It's only clumsy things like tablecloths and sheets that have to be rubbed." The lilac and the Gloire de Dijon roses outside the window swayed in the soft breeze. "It's a nice drying day--that's one thing," said Bobbie, feeling very grown up. "Oh, I do wonder what wonderful feelings we shall have when we WEAR the Indian muslin dresses!"


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