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The Railway Children.

by Edith Nesbit.
Age Rating 10 Plus.

Start of Story

And then it was time for the next train, and he got into it with many good-byes and kind last words. "Well," said Peter, when they were left on the platform, and the tail-lights of the train disappeared round the corner, "it's my belief that we've lighted a candle to-day--like Latimer, you know, when he was being burned--and there'll be fireworks for our Russian before long." And so there were. It wasn't ten days after the interview in the waiting room that the three children were sitting on the top of the biggest rock in the field below their house watching the 5.15 steam away from the station along the bottom of the valley. They saw, too, the few people who had got out at the station straggling up the road towards the village--and they saw one person leave the road and open the gate that led across the fields to Three Chimneys and to nowhere else. "Who on earth!" said Peter, scrambling down. "Let's go and see," said Phyllis. So they did. And when they got near enough to see who the person was, they saw it was their old gentleman himself, his brass buttons winking in the afternoon sunshine, and his white waistcoat looking whiter than ever against the green of the field. "Hullo!" shouted the children, waving their hands. "Hullo!" shouted the old gentleman, waving his hat. Then the three started to run--and when they got to him they hardly had breath left to say:-- "How do you do?" "Good news," said he. "I've found your Russian friend's wife and child--and I couldn't resist the temptation of giving myself the pleasure of telling him." But as he looked at Bobbie's face he felt that he COULD resist that temptation. "Here," he said to her, "you run on and tell him. The other two will show me the way." Bobbie ran. But when she had breathlessly panted out the news to the Russian and Mother sitting in the quiet garden--when Mother's face had lighted up so beautifully, and she had said half a dozen quick French words to the Exile--Bobbie wished that she had NOT carried the news. For the Russian sprang up with a cry that made Bobbie's heart leap and then tremble--a cry of love and longing such as she had never heard. Then he took Mother's hand and kissed it gently and reverently--and then he sank down in his chair and covered his face with his hands and sobbed. Bobbie crept away. She did not want to see the others just then. But she was as gay as anybody when the endless French talking was over, when Peter had torn down to the village for buns and cakes, and the girls had got tea ready and taken it out into the garden. The old gentleman was most merry and delightful. He seemed to be able to talk in French and English almost at the same moment, and Mother did nearly as well. It was a delightful time. Mother seemed as if she could not make enough fuss about the old gentleman, and she said yes at once when he asked if he might present some "goodies" to his little friends.

The word was new to the children--but they guessed that it meant sweets, for the three large pink and green boxes, tied with green ribbon, which he took out of his bag, held unheard-of layers of beautiful chocolates. The Russian's few belongings were packed, and they all saw him off at the station. Then Mother turned to the old gentleman and said:-- "I don't know how to thank you for EVERYTHING. It has been a real pleasure to me to see you. But we live very quietly. I am so sorry that I can't ask you to come and see us again." The children thought this very hard. When they HAD made a friend--and such a friend--they would dearly have liked him to come and see them again. What the old gentleman thought they couldn't tell. He only said:-- "I consider myself very fortunate, Madam, to have been received once at your house." "Ah," said Mother, "I know I must seem surly and ungrateful--but--" "You could never seem anything but a most charming and gracious lady," said the old gentleman, with another of his bows. And as they turned to go up the hill, Bobbie saw her Mother's face. "How tired you look, Mammy," she said; "lean on me." "It's my place to give Mother my arm," said Peter. "I'm the head man of the family when Father's away." Mother took an arm of each. "How awfully nice," said Phyllis, skipping joyfully, "to think of the dear Russian embracing his long-lost wife. The baby must have grown a lot since he saw it." "Yes," said Mother. "I wonder whether Father will think I'VE grown," Phyllis went on, skipping still more gaily. "I have grown already, haven't I, Mother?" "Yes," said Mother, "oh, yes," and Bobbie and Peter felt her hands tighten on their arms. "Poor old Mammy, you ARE tired," said Peter. Bobbie said, "Come on, Phil; I'll race you to the gate." And she started the race, though she hated doing it. YOU know why Bobbie did that. Mother only thought that Bobbie was tired of walking slowly. Even Mothers, who love you better than anyone else ever will, don't always understand.

Chapter 8. The amateur firemen.

"That's a likely little brooch you've got on, Miss," said Perks the Porter; "I don't know as ever I see a thing more like a buttercup without it WAS a buttercup." "Yes," said Bobbie, glad and flushed by this approval. "I always thought it was more like a buttercup almost than even a real one--and I NEVER thought it would come to be mine, my very own--and then Mother gave it to me for my birthday." "Oh, have you had a birthday?" said Perks; and he seemed quite surprised, as though a birthday were a thing only granted to a favoured few. "Yes," said Bobbie; "when's your birthday, Mr. Perks?" The children were taking tea with Mr. Perks in the Porters' room among the lamps and the railway almanacs. They had brought their own cups and some jam turnovers. Mr. Perks made tea in a beer can, as usual, and everyone felt very happy and confidential. "My birthday?" said Perks, tipping some more dark brown tea out of the can into Peter's cup. "I give up keeping of my birthday afore you was born." "But you must have been born SOMETIME, you know," said Phyllis, thoughtfully, "even if it was twenty years ago--or thirty or sixty or seventy." "Not so long as that, Missie," Perks grinned as he answered. "If you really want to know, it was thirty-two years ago, come the fifteenth of this month." "Then why don't you keep it?" asked Phyllis. "I've got something else to keep besides birthdays," said Perks, briefly. "Oh! What?" asked Phyllis, eagerly. "Not secrets?" "No," said Perks, "the kids and the Missus." It was this talk that set the children thinking, and, presently, talking. Perks was, on the whole, the dearest friend they had made. Not so grand as the Station Master, but more approachable--less powerful than the old gentleman, but more confidential. "It seems horrid that nobody keeps his birthday," said Bobbie. "Couldn't WE do something?" "Let's go up to the Canal bridge and talk it over," said Peter. "I got a new gut line from the postman this morning. He gave it me for a bunch of roses that I gave him for his sweetheart. She's ill." "Then I do think you might have given her the roses for nothing," said Bobbie, indignantly. "Nyang, nyang!" said Peter, disagreeably, and put his hands in his pockets. "He did, of course," said Phyllis, in haste; "directly we heard she was ill we got the roses ready and waited by the gate. It was when you were making the brekker-toast. And when he'd said 'Thank you' for the roses so many times--much more than he need have--he pulled out the line and gave it to Peter. It wasn't exchange. It was the grateful heart." "Oh, I BEG your pardon, Peter," said Bobbie, "I AM so sorry." "Don't mention it," said Peter, grandly, "I knew you would be." So then they all went up to the Canal bridge. The idea was to fish from the bridge, but the line was not quite long enough.

"Never mind," said Bobbie. "Let's just stay here and look at things. Everything's so beautiful." It was. The sun was setting in red splendour over the grey and purple hills, and the canal lay smooth and shiny in the shadow--no ripple broke its surface. It was like a grey satin ribbon between the dusky green silk of the meadows that were on each side of its banks. "It's all right," said Peter, "but somehow I can always see how pretty things are much better when I've something to do. Let's get down on to the towpath and fish from there." Phyllis and Bobbie remembered how the boys on the canal-boats had thrown coal at them, and they said so. "Oh, nonsense," said Peter. "There aren't any boys here now. If there were, I'd fight them." Peter's sisters were kind enough not to remind him how he had NOT fought the boys when coal had last been thrown. Instead they said, "All right, then," and cautiously climbed down the steep bank to the towing-path. The line was carefully baited, and for half an hour they fished patiently and in vain. Not a single nibble came to nourish hope in their hearts. All eyes were intent on the sluggish waters that earnestly pretended they had never harboured a single minnow when a loud rough shout made them start. "Hi!" said the shout, in most disagreeable tones, "get out of that, can't you?" An old white horse coming along the towing-path was within half a dozen yards of them. They sprang to their feet and hastily climbed up the bank. "We'll slip down again when they've gone by," said Bobbie. But, alas, the barge, after the manner of barges, stopped under the bridge. "She's going to anchor," said Peter; "just our luck!" The barge did not anchor, because an anchor is not part of a canal-boat's furniture, but she was moored with ropes fore and aft--and the ropes were made fast to the palings and to crowbars driven into the ground. "What you staring at?" growled the Bargee, crossly. "We weren't staring," said Bobbie; "we wouldn't be so rude." "Rude be blessed," said the man; "get along with you!" "Get along yourself," said Peter. He remembered what he had said about fighting boys, and, besides, he felt safe halfway up the bank. "We've as much right here as anyone else." "Oh, 'AVE you, indeed!" said the man. "We'll soon see about that." And he came across his deck and began to climb down the side of his barge. "Oh, come away, Peter, come away!" said Bobbie and Phyllis, in agonised unison. "Not me," said Peter, "but YOU'D better." The girls climbed to the top of the bank and stood ready to bolt for home as soon as they saw their brother out of danger. The way home lay all down hill. They knew that they all ran well. The Bargee did not look as if HE did. He was red-faced, heavy, and beefy.

But as soon as his foot was on the towing-path the children saw that they had misjudged him. He made one spring up the bank and caught Peter by the leg, dragged him down--set him on his feet with a shake--took him by the ear--and said sternly:-- "Now, then, what do you mean by it? Don't you know these 'ere waters is preserved? You ain't no right catching fish 'ere--not to say nothing of your precious cheek." Peter was always proud afterwards when he remembered that, with the Bargee's furious fingers tightening on his ear, the Bargee's crimson countenance close to his own, the Bargee's hot breath on his neck, he had the courage to speak the truth. "I WASN'T catching fish," said Peter. "That's not YOUR fault, I'll be bound," said the man, giving Peter's ear a twist--not a hard one--but still a twist. Peter could not say that it was. Bobbie and Phyllis had been holding on to the railings above and skipping with anxiety. Now suddenly Bobbie slipped through the railings and rushed down the bank towards Peter, so impetuously that Phyllis, following more temperately, felt certain that her sister's descent would end in the waters of the canal. And so it would have done if the Bargee hadn't let go of Peter's ear--and caught her in his jerseyed arm. "Who are you a-shoving of?" he said, setting her on her feet. "Oh," said Bobbie, breathless, "I'm not shoving anybody. At least, not on purpose. Please don't be cross with Peter. Of course, if it's your canal, we're sorry and we won't any more. But we didn't know it was yours." "Go along with you," said the Bargee. "Yes, we will; indeed we will," said Bobbie, earnestly; "but we do beg your pardon--and really we haven't caught a single fish. I'd tell you directly if we had, honour bright I would." She held out her hands and Phyllis turned out her little empty pocket to show that really they hadn't any fish concealed about them. "Well," said the Bargee, more gently, "cut along, then, and don't you do it again, that's all." The children hurried up the bank. "Chuck us a coat, M'ria," shouted the man. And a red-haired woman in a green plaid shawl came out from the cabin door with a baby in her arms and threw a coat to him. He put it on, climbed the bank, and slouched along across the bridge towards the village. "You'll find me up at the 'Rose and Crown' when you've got the kid to sleep," he called to her from the bridge. When he was out of sight the children slowly returned. Peter insisted on this. "The canal may belong to him," he said, "though I don't believe it does. But the bridge is everybody's. Doctor Forrest told me it's public property. I'm not going to be bounced off the bridge by him or anyone else, so I tell you." Peter's ear was still sore and so were his feelings. The girls followed him as gallant soldiers might follow the leader of a forlorn hope.


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