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The Railway Children.
by Edith Nesbit.
Start of Story
Age Rating 10 Plus.
"I do wish you wouldn't," was all they said.
"Go home if you're afraid," said Peter; "leave me alone. I'M not
The sound of the man's footsteps died away along the quiet road. The
peace of the evening was not broken by the notes of the sedge-warblers
or by the voice of the woman in the barge, singing her baby to sleep. It
was a sad song she sang. Something about Bill Bailey and how she wanted
him to come home.
The children stood leaning their arms on the parapet of the bridge; they
were glad to be quiet for a few minutes because all three hearts were
beating much more quickly.
"I'm not going to be driven away by any old bargeman, I'm not," said
"Of course not," Phyllis said soothingly; "you didn't give in to him! So
now we might go home, don't you think?"
"NO," said Peter.
Nothing more was said till the woman got off the barge, climbed the
bank, and came across the bridge.
She hesitated, looking at the three backs of the children, then she
Peter stayed as he was, but the girls looked round.
"You mustn't take no notice of my Bill," said the woman; "'is bark's
worse'n 'is bite. Some of the kids down Farley way is fair terrors. It
was them put 'is back up calling out about who ate the puppy-pie under
"Who DID?" asked Phyllis.
"_I_ dunno," said the woman. "Nobody don't know! But somehow, and I
don't know the why nor the wherefore of it, them words is p'ison to a
barge-master. Don't you take no notice. 'E won't be back for two hours
good. You might catch a power o' fish afore that. The light's good an'
all," she added.
"Thank you," said Bobbie. "You're very kind. Where's your baby?"
"Asleep in the cabin," said the woman. "'E's all right. Never wakes
afore twelve. Reg'lar as a church clock, 'e is."
"I'm sorry," said Bobbie; "I would have liked to see him, close to."
"And a finer you never did see, Miss, though I says it." The woman's
face brightened as she spoke.
"Aren't you afraid to leave it?" said Peter.
"Lor' love you, no," said the woman; "who'd hurt a little thing like
'im? Besides, Spot's there. So long!"
The woman went away.
"Shall we go home?" said Phyllis.
"You can. I'm going to fish," said Peter briefly.
"I thought we came up here to talk about Perks's birthday," said
"Perks's birthday'll keep."
So they got down on the towing-path again and Peter fished. He did not
It was almost quite dark, the girls were getting tired, and as Bobbie
said, it was past bedtime, when suddenly Phyllis cried, "What's that?"
And she pointed to the canal boat. Smoke was coming from the chimney of
the cabin, had indeed been curling softly into the soft evening air all
the time--but now other wreaths of smoke were rising, and these were
from the cabin door.
"It's on fire--that's all," said Peter, calmly. "Serve him right."
"Oh--how CAN you?" cried Phyllis. "Think of the poor dear dog."
"The BABY!" screamed Bobbie.
In an instant all three made for the barge.
Her mooring ropes were slack, and the little breeze, hardly strong
enough to be felt, had yet been strong enough to drift her stern against
the bank. Bobbie was first--then came Peter, and it was Peter who
slipped and fell. He went into the canal up to his neck, and his feet
could not feel the bottom, but his arm was on the edge of the barge.
Phyllis caught at his hair. It hurt, but it helped him to get out. Next
minute he had leaped on to the barge, Phyllis following.
"Not you!" he shouted to Bobbie; "ME, because I'm wet."
He caught up with Bobbie at the cabin door, and flung her aside very
roughly indeed; if they had been playing, such roughness would have made
Bobbie weep with tears of rage and pain. Now, though he flung her on
to the edge of the hold, so that her knee and her elbow were grazed and
bruised, she only cried:--
"No--not you--ME," and struggled up again. But not quickly enough.
Peter had already gone down two of the cabin steps into the cloud of
thick smoke. He stopped, remembered all he had ever heard of fires,
pulled his soaked handkerchief out of his breast pocket and tied it over
his mouth. As he pulled it out he said:--
"It's all right, hardly any fire at all."
And this, though he thought it was a lie, was rather good of Peter. It
was meant to keep Bobbie from rushing after him into danger. Of course
The cabin glowed red. A paraffin lamp was burning calmly in an orange
"Hi," said Peter, lifting the handkerchief from his mouth for a moment.
"Hi, Baby--where are you?" He choked.
"Oh, let ME go," cried Bobbie, close behind him. Peter pushed her back
more roughly than before, and went on.
Now what would have happened if the baby hadn't cried I don't know--but
just at that moment it DID cry. Peter felt his way through the dark
smoke, found something small and soft and warm and alive, picked it up
and backed out, nearly tumbling over Bobbie who was close behind. A dog
snapped at his leg--tried to bark, choked.
"I've got the kid," said Peter, tearing off the handkerchief and
staggering on to the deck.
Bobbie caught at the place where the bark came from, and her hands met
on the fat back of a smooth-haired dog. It turned and fastened its teeth
on her hand, but very gently, as much as to say:--
"I'm bound to bark and bite if strangers come into my master's cabin,
but I know you mean well, so I won't REALLY bite."
Bobbie dropped the dog.
"All right, old man. Good dog," said she. "Here--give me the baby,
Peter; you're so wet you'll give it cold."
Peter was only too glad to hand over the strange little bundle that
squirmed and whimpered in his arms.
"Now," said Bobbie, quickly, "you run straight to the 'Rose and Crown'
and tell them. Phil and I will stay here with the precious. Hush, then,
a dear, a duck, a darling! Go NOW, Peter! Run!"
"I can't run in these things," said Peter, firmly; "they're as heavy as
lead. I'll walk."
"Then I'LL run," said Bobbie. "Get on the bank, Phil, and I'll hand you
The baby was carefully handed. Phyllis sat down on the bank and tried to
hush the baby. Peter wrung the water from his sleeves and knickerbocker
legs as well as he could, and it was Bobbie who ran like the wind across
the bridge and up the long white quiet twilight road towards the 'Rose
There is a nice old-fashioned room at the 'Rose and Crown; where Bargees
and their wives sit of an evening drinking their supper beer, and
toasting their supper cheese at a glowing basketful of coals that
sticks out into the room under a great hooded chimney and is warmer and
prettier and more comforting than any other fireplace _I_ ever saw.
There was a pleasant party of barge people round the fire. You might
not have thought it pleasant, but they did; for they were all friends
or acquaintances, and they liked the same sort of things, and talked
the same sort of talk. This is the real secret of pleasant society. The
Bargee Bill, whom the children had found so disagreeable, was considered
excellent company by his mates. He was telling a tale of his own
wrongs--always a thrilling subject. It was his barge he was speaking
"And 'e sent down word 'paint her inside hout,' not namin' no colour,
d'ye see? So I gets a lotter green paint and I paints her stem to stern,
and I tell yer she looked A1. Then 'E comes along and 'e says, 'Wot yer
paint 'er all one colour for?' 'e says. And I says, says I, 'Cause I
thought she'd look fust-rate,' says I, 'and I think so still.' An' he
says, 'DEW yer? Then ye can just pay for the bloomin' paint yerself,'
says he. An' I 'ad to, too." A murmur of sympathy ran round the
room. Breaking noisily in on it came Bobbie. She burst open the swing
"Bill! I want Bill the Bargeman."
There was a stupefied silence. Pots of beer were held in mid-air,
paralysed on their way to thirsty mouths.
"Oh," said Bobbie, seeing the bargewoman and making for her. "Your barge
cabin's on fire. Go quickly."
The woman started to her feet, and put a big red hand to her waist, on
the left side, where your heart seems to be when you are frightened or
"Reginald Horace!" she cried in a terrible voice; "my Reginald Horace!"
"All right," said Bobbie, "if you mean the baby; got him out safe. Dog,
too." She had no breath for more, except, "Go on--it's all alight."
Then she sank on the ale-house bench and tried to get that breath of
relief after running which people call the 'second wind.' But she felt
as though she would never breathe again.
Bill the Bargee rose slowly and heavily. But his wife was a hundred
yards up the road before he had quite understood what was the matter.
Phyllis, shivering by the canal side, had hardly heard the quick
approaching feet before the woman had flung herself on the railing,
rolled down the bank, and snatched the baby from her.
"Don't," said Phyllis, reproachfully; "I'd just got him to sleep."
* * * * * *
Bill came up later talking in a language with which the children were
wholly unfamiliar. He leaped on to the barge and dipped up pails
of water. Peter helped him and they put out the fire. Phyllis, the
bargewoman, and the baby--and presently Bobbie, too--cuddled together in
a heap on the bank.
"Lord help me, if it was me left anything as could catch alight," said
the woman again and again.
But it wasn't she. It was Bill the Bargeman, who had knocked his pipe
out and the red ash had fallen on the hearth-rug and smouldered there
and at last broken into flame. Though a stern man he was just. He did
not blame his wife for what was his own fault, as many bargemen, and
other men, too, would have done.
* * * * * *
Mother was half wild with anxiety when at last the three children turned
up at Three Chimneys, all very wet by now, for Peter seemed to have come
off on the others. But when she had disentangled the truth of what had
happened from their mixed and incoherent narrative, she owned that they
had done quite right, and could not possibly have done otherwise. Nor
did she put any obstacles in the way of their accepting the cordial
invitation with which the bargeman had parted from them.
"Ye be here at seven to-morrow," he had said, "and I'll take you the
entire trip to Farley and back, so I will, and not a penny to pay.
They did not know what locks were; but they were at the bridge at seven,
with bread and cheese and half a soda cake, and quite a quarter of a leg
of mutton in a basket.
It was a glorious day. The old white horse strained at the ropes, the
barge glided smoothly and steadily through the still water. The sky was
blue overhead. Mr. Bill was as nice as anyone could possibly be. No one
would have thought that he could be the same man who had held Peter by
the ear. As for Mrs. Bill, she had always been nice, as Bobbie said, and
so had the baby, and even Spot, who might have bitten them quite badly
if he had liked.
"It was simply ripping, Mother," said Peter, when they reached home very
happy, very tired, and very dirty, "right over that glorious aqueduct.
And locks--you don't know what they're like. You sink into the ground
and then, when you feel you're never going to stop going down, two great
black gates open slowly, slowly--you go out, and there you are on the
canal just like you were before."
"I know," said Mother, "there are locks on the Thames. Father and I used
to go on the river at Marlow before we were married."
"And the dear, darling, ducky baby," said Bobbie; "it let me nurse it
for ages and ages--and it WAS so good. Mother, I wish we had a baby to
"And everybody was so nice to us," said Phyllis, "everybody we met. And
they say we may fish whenever we like. And Bill is going to show us the
way next time he's in these parts. He says we don't know really."
"He said YOU didn't know," said Peter; "but, Mother, he said he'd tell
all the bargees up and down the canal that we were the real, right sort,
and they were to treat us like good pals, as we were."
"So then I said," Phyllis interrupted, "we'd always each wear a red
ribbon when we went fishing by the canal, so they'd know it was US, and
we were the real, right sort, and be nice to us!"
"So you've made another lot of friends," said Mother; "first the railway
and then the canal!"
"Oh, yes," said Bobbie; "I think everyone in the world is friends if you
can only get them to see you don't want to be UN-friends."
"Perhaps you're right," said Mother; and she sighed. "Come, Chicks. It's
"Yes," said Phyllis. "Oh dear--and we went up there to talk about what
we'd do for Perks's birthday. And we haven't talked a single thing about
"No more we have," said Bobbie; "but Peter's saved Reginald Horace's
life. I think that's about good enough for one evening."
"Bobbie would have saved him if I hadn't knocked her down; twice I did,"
said Peter, loyally.
"So would I," said Phyllis, "if I'd known what to do."
"Yes," said Mother, "you've saved a little child's life. I do think
that's enough for one evening. Oh, my darlings, thank God YOU'RE all