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The Railway Children.

by Edith Nesbit.
Age Rating 10 Plus.

Start of Story

"Yes, so do I," said Phyllis, shaking and squeezing the muslin in quite a professional manner. "NOW we squeeze out the soapy water. NO--we mustn't twist them--and then rinse them. I'll hold them while you and Peter empty the bath and get clean water." "A presentation! That means presents," said Peter, as his sisters, having duly washed the pegs and wiped the line, hung up the dresses to dry. "Whatever will it be?" "It might be anything," said Phyllis; "what I've always wanted is a Baby elephant--but I suppose they wouldn't know that." "Suppose it was gold models of steam-engines?" said Bobbie. "Or a big model of the scene of the prevented accident," suggested Peter, "with a little model train, and dolls dressed like us and the engine-driver and fireman and passengers." "Do you LIKE," said Bobbie, doubtfully, drying her hands on the rough towel that hung on a roller at the back of the scullery door, "do you LIKE us being rewarded for saving a train?" "Yes, I do," said Peter, downrightly; "and don't you try to come it over us that you don't like it, too. Because I know you do." "Yes," said Bobbie, doubtfully, "I know I do. But oughtn't we to be satisfied with just having done it, and not ask for anything more?" "Who did ask for anything more, silly?" said her brother; "Victoria Cross soldiers don't ASK for it; but they're glad enough to get it all the same. Perhaps it'll be medals. Then, when I'm very old indeed, I shall show them to my grandchildren and say, 'We only did our duty,' and they'll be awfully proud of me." "You have to be married," warned Phyllis, "or you don't have any grandchildren." "I suppose I shall HAVE to be married some day," said Peter, "but it will be an awful bother having her round all the time. I'd like to marry a lady who had trances, and only woke up once or twice a year." "Just to say you were the light of her life and then go to sleep again. Yes. That wouldn't be bad," said Bobbie. "When _I_ get married," said Phyllis, "I shall want him to want me to be awake all the time, so that I can hear him say how nice I am." "I think it would be nice," said Bobbie, "to marry someone very poor, and then you'd do all the work and he'd love you most frightfully, and see the blue wood smoke curling up among the trees from the domestic hearth as he came home from work every night. I say--we've got to answer that letter and say that the time and place WILL be convenient to us. There's the soap, Peter. WE'RE both as clean as clean. That pink box of writing paper you had on your birthday, Phil." It took some time to arrange what should be said. Mother had gone back to her writing, and several sheets of pink paper with scalloped gilt edges and green four-leaved shamrocks in the corner were spoiled before the three had decided what to say. Then each made a copy and signed it with its own name.

The threefold letter ran:-- "Dear Mr. Jabez Inglewood,--Thank you very much. We did not want to be rewarded but only to save the train, but we are glad you think so and thank you very much. The time and place you say will be quite convenient to us. Thank you very much. "Your affecate little friend," Then came the name, and after it:-- "P.S. Thank you very much." "Washing is much easier than ironing," said Bobbie, taking the clean dry dresses off the line. "I do love to see things come clean. Oh--I don't know how we shall wait till it's time to know what presentation they're going to present!" When at last--it seemed a very long time after--it was THE day, the three children went down to the station at the proper time. And everything that happened was so odd that it seemed like a dream. The Station Master came out to meet them--in his best clothes, as Peter noticed at once--and led them into the waiting room where once they had played the advertisement game. It looked quite different now. A carpet had been put down--and there were pots of roses on the mantelpiece and on the window ledges--green branches stuck up, like holly and laurel are at Christmas, over the framed advertisement of Cook's Tours and the Beauties of Devon and the Paris Lyons Railway. There were quite a number of people there besides the Porter--two or three ladies in smart dresses, and quite a crowd of gentlemen in high hats and frock coats--besides everybody who belonged to the station. They recognized several people who had been in the train on the red-flannel-petticoat day. Best of all their own old gentleman was there, and his coat and hat and collar seemed more than ever different from anyone else's. He shook hands with them and then everybody sat down on chairs, and a gentleman in spectacles--they found out afterwards that he was the District Superintendent--began quite a long speech--very clever indeed. I am not going to write the speech down. First, because you would think it dull; and secondly, because it made all the children blush so, and get so hot about the ears that I am quite anxious to get away from this part of the subject; and thirdly, because the gentleman took so many words to say what he had to say that I really haven't time to write them down. He said all sorts of nice things about the children's bravery and presence of mind, and when he had done he sat down, and everyone who was there clapped and said, "Hear, hear." And then the old gentleman got up and said things, too. It was very like a prize-giving. And then he called the children one by one, by their names, and gave each of them a beautiful gold watch and chain. And inside the watches were engraved after the name of the watch's new owner:-- "From the Directors of the Northern and Southern Railway in grateful recognition of the courageous and prompt action which averted an accident on --- 1905."

The watches were the most beautiful you can possibly imagine, and each one had a blue leather case to live in when it was at home. "You must make a speech now and thank everyone for their kindness," whispered the Station Master in Peter's ear and pushed him forward. "Begin 'Ladies and Gentlemen,'" he added. Each of the children had already said "Thank you," quite properly. "Oh, dear," said Peter, but he did not resist the push. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he said in a rather husky voice. Then there was a pause, and he heard his heart beating in his throat. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he went on with a rush, "it's most awfully good of you, and we shall treasure the watches all our lives--but really we don't deserve it because what we did wasn't anything, really. At least, I mean it was awfully exciting, and what I mean to say--thank you all very, very much." The people clapped Peter more than they had done the District Superintendent, and then everybody shook hands with them, and as soon as politeness would let them, they got away, and tore up the hill to Three Chimneys with their watches in their hands. It was a wonderful day--the kind of day that very seldom happens to anybody and to most of us not at all. "I did want to talk to the old gentleman about something else," said Bobbie, "but it was so public--like being in church." "What did you want to say?" asked Phyllis. "I'll tell you when I've thought about it more," said Bobbie. So when she had thought a little more she wrote a letter. "My dearest old gentleman," it said; "I want most awfully to ask you something. If you could get out of the train and go by the next, it would do. I do not want you to give me anything. Mother says we ought not to. And besides, we do not want any THINGS. Only to talk to you about a Prisoner and Captive. Your loving little friend, "Bobbie." She got the Station Master to give the letter to the old gentleman, and next day she asked Peter and Phyllis to come down to the station with her at the time when the train that brought the old gentleman from town would be passing through. She explained her idea to them--and they approved thoroughly. They had all washed their hands and faces, and brushed their hair, and were looking as tidy as they knew how. But Phyllis, always unlucky, had upset a jug of lemonade down the front of her dress. There was no time to change--and the wind happening to blow from the coal yard, her frock was soon powdered with grey, which stuck to the sticky lemonade stains and made her look, as Peter said, "like any little gutter child." It was decided that she should keep behind the others as much as possible. "Perhaps the old gentleman won't notice," said Bobbie. "The aged are often weak in the eyes."

There was no sign of weakness, however, in the eyes, or in any other part of the old gentleman, as he stepped from the train and looked up and down the platform. The three children, now that it came to the point, suddenly felt that rush of deep shyness which makes your ears red and hot, your hands warm and wet, and the tip of your nose pink and shiny. "Oh," said Phyllis, "my heart's thumping like a steam-engine--right under my sash, too." "Nonsense," said Peter, "people's hearts aren't under their sashes." "I don't care--mine is," said Phyllis. "If you're going to talk like a poetry-book," said Peter, "my heart's in my mouth." "My heart's in my boots--if you come to that," said Roberta; "but do come on--he'll think we're idiots." "He won't be far wrong," said Peter, gloomily. And they went forward to meet the old gentleman. "Hullo," he said, shaking hands with them all in turn. "This is a very great pleasure." "It WAS good of you to get out," Bobbie said, perspiring and polite. He took her arm and drew her into the waiting room where she and the others had played the advertisement game the day they found the Russian. Phyllis and Peter followed. "Well?" said the old gentleman, giving Bobbie's arm a kind little shake before he let it go. "Well? What is it?" "Oh, please!" said Bobbie. "Yes?" said the old gentleman. "What I mean to say--" said Bobbie. "Well?" said the old gentleman. "It's all very nice and kind," said she. "But?" he said. "I wish I might say something," she said. "Say it," said he. "Well, then," said Bobbie--and out came the story of the Russian who had written the beautiful book about poor people, and had been sent to prison and to Siberia for just that. "And what we want more than anything in the world is to find his wife and children for him," said Bobbie, "but we don't know how. But you must be most horribly clever, or you wouldn't be a Direction of the Railway. And if YOU knew how--and would? We'd rather have that than anything else in the world. We'd go without the watches, even, if you could sell them and find his wife with the money." And the others said so, too, though not with so much enthusiasm. "Hum," said the old gentleman, pulling down the white waistcoat that had the big gilt buttons on it, "what did you say the name was--Fryingpansky?" "No, no," said Bobbie earnestly. "I'll write it down for you. It doesn't really look at all like that except when you say it. Have you a bit of pencil and the back of an envelope?" she asked. The old gentleman got out a gold pencil-case and a beautiful, sweet-smelling, green Russian leather note-book and opened it at a new page.

"Here," he said, "write here." She wrote down "Szezcpansky," and said:-- "That's how you write it. You CALL it Shepansky." The old gentleman took out a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and fitted them on his nose. When he had read the name, he looked quite different. "THAT man? Bless my soul!" he said. "Why, I've read his book! It's translated into every European language. A fine book--a noble book. And so your mother took him in--like the good Samaritan. Well, well. I'll tell you what, youngsters--your mother must be a very good woman." "Of course she is," said Phyllis, in astonishment. "And you're a very good man," said Bobbie, very shy, but firmly resolved to be polite. "You flatter me," said the old gentleman, taking off his hat with a flourish. "And now am I to tell you what I think of you?" "Oh, please don't," said Bobbie, hastily. "Why?" asked the old gentleman. "I don't exactly know," said Bobbie. "Only--if it's horrid, I don't want you to; and if it's nice, I'd rather you didn't." The old gentleman laughed. "Well, then," he said, "I'll only just say that I'm very glad you came to me about this--very glad, indeed. And I shouldn't be surprised if I found out something very soon. I know a great many Russians in London, and every Russian knows HIS name. Now tell me all about yourselves." He turned to the others, but there was only one other, and that was Peter. Phyllis had disappeared. "Tell me all about yourself," said the old gentleman again. And, quite naturally, Peter was stricken dumb. "All right, we'll have an examination," said the old gentleman; "you two sit on the table, and I'll sit on the bench and ask questions." He did, and out came their names and ages--their Father's name and business--how long they had lived at Three Chimneys and a great deal more. The questions were beginning to turn on a herring and a half for three halfpence, and a pound of lead and a pound of feathers, when the door of the waiting room was kicked open by a boot; as the boot entered everyone could see that its lace was coming undone--and in came Phyllis, very slowly and carefully. In one hand she carried a large tin can, and in the other a thick slice of bread and butter. "Afternoon tea," she announced proudly, and held the can and the bread and butter out to the old gentleman, who took them and said:-- "Bless my soul!" "Yes," said Phyllis. "It's very thoughtful of you," said the old gentleman, "very." "But you might have got a cup," said Bobbie, "and a plate." "Perks always drinks out of the can," said Phyllis, flushing red. "I think it was very nice of him to give it me at all--let alone cups and plates," she added. "So do I," said the old gentleman, and he drank some of the tea and tasted the bread and butter.


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