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The Railway Children.

by Edith Nesbit.
Age Rating 10 Plus.

Start of Story

It was Aunt Emma, too, who had aired all the sheets ready; and the men who had moved the furniture had put the bedsteads together, so the beds were soon made. "Good night, chickies," said Mother. "I'm sure there aren't any rats. But I'll leave my door open, and then if a mouse comes, you need only scream, and I'll come and tell it exactly what I think of it." Then she went to her own room. Roberta woke to hear the little travelling clock chime two. It sounded like a church clock ever so far away, she always thought. And she heard, too, Mother still moving about in her room. Next morning Roberta woke Phyllis by pulling her hair gently, but quite enough for her purpose. "Wassermarrer?" asked Phyllis, still almost wholly asleep. "Wake up! wake up!" said Roberta. "We're in the new house--don't you remember? No servants or anything. Let's get up and begin to be useful. We'll just creep down mouse-quietly, and have everything beautiful before Mother gets up. I've woke Peter. He'll be dressed as soon as we are." So they dressed quietly and quickly. Of course, there was no water in their room, so when they got down they washed as much as they thought was necessary under the spout of the pump in the yard. One pumped and the other washed. It was splashy but interesting. "It's much more fun than basin washing," said Roberta. "How sparkly the weeds are between the stones, and the moss on the roof--oh, and the flowers!" The roof of the back kitchen sloped down quite low. It was made of thatch and it had moss on it, and house-leeks and stonecrop and wallflowers, and even a clump of purple flag-flowers, at the far corner. "This is far, far, far and away prettier than Edgecombe Villa," said Phyllis. "I wonder what the garden's like." "We mustn't think of the garden yet," said Roberta, with earnest energy. "Let's go in and begin to work." They lighted the fire and put the kettle on, and they arranged the crockery for breakfast; they could not find all the right things, but a glass ash-tray made an excellent salt-cellar, and a newish baking-tin seemed as if it would do to put bread on, if they had any. When there seemed to be nothing more that they could do, they went out again into the fresh bright morning. "We'll go into the garden now," said Peter. But somehow they couldn't find the garden. They went round the house and round the house. The yard occupied the back, and across it were stables and outbuildings. On the other three sides the house stood simply in a field, without a yard of garden to divide it from the short smooth turf. And yet they had certainly seen the garden wall the night before.

It was a hilly country. Down below they could see the line of the railway, and the black yawning mouth of a tunnel. The station was out of sight. There was a great bridge with tall arches running across one end of the valley. "Never mind the garden," said Peter; "let's go down and look at the railway. There might be trains passing." "We can see them from here," said Roberta, slowly; "let's sit down a bit." So they all sat down on a great flat grey stone that had pushed itself up out of the grass; it was one of many that lay about on the hillside, and when Mother came out to look for them at eight o'clock, she found them deeply asleep in a contented, sun-warmed bunch. They had made an excellent fire, and had set the kettle on it at about half-past five. So that by eight the fire had been out for some time, the water had all boiled away, and the bottom was burned out of the kettle. Also they had not thought of washing the crockery before they set the table. "But it doesn't matter--the cups and saucers, I mean," said Mother. "Because I've found another room--I'd quite forgotten there was one. And it's magic! And I've boiled the water for tea in a saucepan." The forgotten room opened out of the kitchen. In the agitation and half darkness the night before its door had been mistaken for a cupboard's. It was a little square room, and on its table, all nicely set out, was a joint of cold roast beef, with bread, butter, cheese, and a pie. "Pie for breakfast!" cried Peter; "how perfectly ripping!" "It isn't pigeon-pie," said Mother; "it's only apple. Well, this is the supper we ought to have had last night. And there was a note from Mrs. Viney. Her son-in-law has broken his arm, and she had to get home early. She's coming this morning at ten." That was a wonderful breakfast. It is unusual to begin the day with cold apple pie, but the children all said they would rather have it than meat. "You see it's more like dinner than breakfast to us," said Peter, passing his plate for more, "because we were up so early." The day passed in helping Mother to unpack and arrange things. Six small legs quite ached with running about while their owners carried clothes and crockery and all sorts of things to their proper places. It was not till quite late in the afternoon that Mother said:-- "There! That'll do for to-day. I'll lie down for an hour, so as to be as fresh as a lark by supper-time." Then they all looked at each other. Each of the three expressive countenances expressed the same thought. That thought was double, and consisted, like the bits of information in the Child's Guide to Knowledge, of a question and an answer. Q. Where shall we go? A. To the railway.

So to the railway they went, and as soon as they started for the railway they saw where the garden had hidden itself. It was right behind the stables, and it had a high wall all round. "Oh, never mind about the garden now!" cried Peter. "Mother told me this morning where it was. It'll keep till to-morrow. Let's get to the railway." The way to the railway was all down hill over smooth, short turf with here and there furze bushes and grey and yellow rocks sticking out like candied peel from the top of a cake. The way ended in a steep run and a wooden fence--and there was the railway with the shining metals and the telegraph wires and posts and signals. They all climbed on to the top of the fence, and then suddenly there was a rumbling sound that made them look along the line to the right, where the dark mouth of a tunnel opened itself in the face of a rocky cliff; next moment a train had rushed out of the tunnel with a shriek and a snort, and had slid noisily past them. They felt the rush of its passing, and the pebbles on the line jumped and rattled under it as it went by. "Oh!" said Roberta, drawing a long breath; "it was like a great dragon tearing by. Did you feel it fan us with its hot wings?" "I suppose a dragon's lair might look very like that tunnel from the outside," said Phyllis. But Peter said:-- "I never thought we should ever get as near to a train as this. It's the most ripping sport!" "Better than toy-engines, isn't it?" said Roberta. (I am tired of calling Roberta by her name. I don't see why I should. No one else did. Everyone else called her Bobbie, and I don't see why I shouldn't.) "I don't know; it's different," said Peter. "It seems so odd to see ALL of a train. It's awfully tall, isn't it?" "We've always seen them cut in half by platforms," said Phyllis. "I wonder if that train was going to London," Bobbie said. "London's where Father is." "Let's go down to the station and find out," said Peter. So they went. They walked along the edge of the line, and heard the telegraph wires humming over their heads. When you are in the train, it seems such a little way between post and post, and one after another the posts seem to catch up the wires almost more quickly than you can count them. But when you have to walk, the posts seem few and far between. But the children got to the station at last. Never before had any of them been at a station, except for the purpose of catching trains--or perhaps waiting for them--and always with grown-ups in attendance, grown-ups who were not themselves interested in stations, except as places from which they wished to get away. Never before had they passed close enough to a signal-box to be able to notice the wires, and to hear the mysterious 'ping, ping,' followed by the strong, firm clicking of machinery.

The very sleepers on which the rails lay were a delightful path to travel by--just far enough apart to serve as the stepping-stones in a game of foaming torrents hastily organised by Bobbie. Then to arrive at the station, not through the booking office, but in a freebooting sort of way by the sloping end of the platform. This in itself was joy. Joy, too, it was to peep into the porters' room, where the lamps are, and the Railway almanac on the wall, and one porter half asleep behind a paper. There were a great many crossing lines at the station; some of them just ran into a yard and stopped short, as though they were tired of business and meant to retire for good. Trucks stood on the rails here, and on one side was a great heap of coal--not a loose heap, such as you see in your coal cellar, but a sort of solid building of coals with large square blocks of coal outside used just as though they were bricks, and built up till the heap looked like the picture of the Cities of the Plain in 'Bible Stories for Infants.' There was a line of whitewash near the top of the coaly wall. When presently the Porter lounged out of his room at the twice-repeated tingling thrill of a gong over the station door, Peter said, "How do you do?" in his best manner, and hastened to ask what the white mark was on the coal for. "To mark how much coal there be," said the Porter, "so as we'll know if anyone nicks it. So don't you go off with none in your pockets, young gentleman!" This seemed, at the time but a merry jest, and Peter felt at once that the Porter was a friendly sort with no nonsense about him. But later the words came back to Peter with a new meaning. Have you ever gone into a farmhouse kitchen on a baking day, and seen the great crock of dough set by the fire to rise? If you have, and if you were at that time still young enough to be interested in everything you saw, you will remember that you found yourself quite unable to resist the temptation to poke your finger into the soft round of dough that curved inside the pan like a giant mushroom. And you will remember that your finger made a dent in the dough, and that slowly, but quite surely, the dent disappeared, and the dough looked quite the same as it did before you touched it. Unless, of course, your hand was extra dirty, in which case, naturally, there would be a little black mark. Well, it was just like that with the sorrow the children had felt at Father's going away, and at Mother's being so unhappy. It made a deep impression, but the impression did not last long.

They soon got used to being without Father, though they did not forget him; and they got used to not going to school, and to seeing very little of Mother, who was now almost all day shut up in her upstairs room writing, writing, writing. She used to come down at tea-time and read aloud the stories she had written. They were lovely stories. The rocks and hills and valleys and trees, the canal, and above all, the railway, were so new and so perfectly pleasing that the remembrance of the old life in the villa grew to seem almost like a dream. Mother had told them more than once that they were 'quite poor now,' but this did not seem to be anything but a way of speaking. Grown-up people, even Mothers, often make remarks that don't seem to mean anything in particular, just for the sake of saying something, seemingly. There was always enough to eat, and they wore the same kind of nice clothes they had always worn. But in June came three wet days; the rain came down, straight as lances, and it was very, very cold. Nobody could go out, and everybody shivered. They all went up to the door of Mother's room and knocked. "Well, what is it?" asked Mother from inside. "Mother," said Bobbie, "mayn't I light a fire? I do know how." And Mother said: "No, my ducky-love. We mustn't have fires in June--coal is so dear. If you're cold, go and have a good romp in the attic. That'll warm you." "But, Mother, it only takes such a very little coal to make a fire." "It's more than we can afford, chickeny-love," said Mother, cheerfully. "Now run away, there's darlings--I'm madly busy!" "Mother's always busy now," said Phyllis, in a whisper to Peter. Peter did not answer. He shrugged his shoulders. He was thinking. Thought, however, could not long keep itself from the suitable furnishing of a bandit's lair in the attic. Peter was the bandit, of course. Bobbie was his lieutenant, his band of trusty robbers, and, in due course, the parent of Phyllis, who was the captured maiden for whom a magnificent ransom--in horse-beans--was unhesitatingly paid. They all went down to tea flushed and joyous as any mountain brigands. But when Phyllis was going to add jam to her bread and butter, Mother said:-- "Jam OR butter, dear--not jam AND butter. We can't afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays." Phyllis finished the slice of bread and butter in silence, and followed it up by bread and jam. Peter mingled thought and weak tea. After tea they went back to the attic and he said to his sisters:-- "I have an idea." "What's that?" they asked politely. "I shan't tell you," was Peter's unexpected rejoinder. "Oh, very well," said Bobbie; and Phil said, "Don't, then." "Girls," said Peter, "are always so hasty tempered." "I should like to know what boys are?" said Bobbie, with fine disdain. "I don't want to know about your silly ideas."


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