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The Railway Children.

by Edith Nesbit.
Age Rating 10 Plus.

Start of Story

"You'll know some day," said Peter, keeping his own temper by what looked exactly like a miracle; "if you hadn't been so keen on a row, I might have told you about it being only noble-heartedness that made me not tell you my idea. But now I shan't tell you anything at all about it--so there!" And it was, indeed, some time before he could be induced to say anything, and when he did it wasn't much. He said:-- "The only reason why I won't tell you my idea that I'm going to do is because it MAY be wrong, and I don't want to drag you into it." "Don't you do it if it's wrong, Peter," said Bobbie; "let me do it." But Phyllis said:-- "_I_ should like to do wrong if YOU'RE going to!" "No," said Peter, rather touched by this devotion; "it's a forlorn hope, and I'm going to lead it. All I ask is that if Mother asks where I am, you won't blab." "We haven't got anything TO blab," said Bobbie, indignantly. "Oh, yes, you have!" said Peter, dropping horse-beans through his fingers. "I've trusted you to the death. You know I'm going to do a lone adventure--and some people might think it wrong--I don't. And if Mother asks where I am, say I'm playing at mines." "What sort of mines?" "You just say mines." "You might tell US, Pete." "Well, then, COAL-mines. But don't you let the word pass your lips on pain of torture." "You needn't threaten," said Bobbie, "and I do think you might let us help." "If I find a coal-mine, you shall help cart the coal," Peter condescended to promise. "Keep your secret if you like," said Phyllis. "Keep it if you CAN," said Bobbie. "I'll keep it, right enough," said Peter. Between tea and supper there is an interval even in the most greedily regulated families. At this time Mother was usually writing, and Mrs. Viney had gone home. Two nights after the dawning of Peter's idea he beckoned the girls mysteriously at the twilight hour. "Come hither with me," he said, "and bring the Roman Chariot." The Roman Chariot was a very old perambulator that had spent years of retirement in the loft over the coach-house. The children had oiled its works till it glided noiseless as a pneumatic bicycle, and answered to the helm as it had probably done in its best days. "Follow your dauntless leader," said Peter, and led the way down the hill towards the station. Just above the station many rocks have pushed their heads out through the turf as though they, like the children, were interested in the railway. In a little hollow between three rocks lay a heap of dried brambles and heather. Peter halted, turned over the brushwood with a well-scarred boot, and said:-- "Here's the first coal from the St. Peter's Mine. We'll take it home in the chariot. Punctuality and despatch. All orders carefully attended to. Any shaped lump cut to suit regular customers."

The chariot was packed full of coal. And when it was packed it had to be unpacked again because it was so heavy that it couldn't be got up the hill by the three children, not even when Peter harnessed himself to the handle with his braces, and firmly grasping his waistband in one hand pulled while the girls pushed behind. Three journeys had to be made before the coal from Peter's mine was added to the heap of Mother's coal in the cellar. Afterwards Peter went out alone, and came back very black and mysterious. "I've been to my coal-mine," he said; "to-morrow evening we'll bring home the black diamonds in the chariot." It was a week later that Mrs. Viney remarked to Mother how well this last lot of coal was holding out. The children hugged themselves and each other in complicated wriggles of silent laughter as they listened on the stairs. They had all forgotten by now that there had ever been any doubt in Peter's mind as to whether coal-mining was wrong. But there came a dreadful night when the Station Master put on a pair of old sand shoes that he had worn at the seaside in his summer holiday, and crept out very quietly to the yard where the Sodom and Gomorrah heap of coal was, with the whitewashed line round it. He crept out there, and he waited like a cat by a mousehole. On the top of the heap something small and dark was scrabbling and rattling furtively among the coal. The Station Master concealed himself in the shadow of a brake-van that had a little tin chimney and was labelled:-- G. N. and S. R. 34576 Return at once to White Heather Sidings and in this concealment he lurked till the small thing on the top of the heap ceased to scrabble and rattle, came to the edge of the heap, cautiously let itself down, and lifted something after it. Then the arm of the Station Master was raised, the hand of the Station Master fell on a collar, and there was Peter firmly held by the jacket, with an old carpenter's bag full of coal in his trembling clutch. "So I've caught you at last, have I, you young thief?" said the Station Master. "I'm not a thief," said Peter, as firmly as he could. "I'm a coal-miner." "Tell that to the Marines," said the Station Master. "It would be just as true whoever I told it to," said Peter. "You're right there," said the man, who held him. "Stow your jaw, you young rip, and come along to the station." "Oh, no," cried in the darkness an agonised voice that was not Peter's. "Not the POLICE station!" said another voice from the darkness. "Not yet," said the Station Master. "The Railway Station first. Why, it's a regular gang. Any more of you?"

"Only us," said Bobbie and Phyllis, coming out of the shadow of another truck labelled Staveley Colliery, and bearing on it the legend in white chalk: 'Wanted in No. 1 Road.' "What do you mean by spying on a fellow like this?" said Peter, angrily. "Time someone did spy on you, _I_ think," said the Station Master. "Come along to the station." "Oh, DON'T!" said Bobbie. "Can't you decide NOW what you'll do to us? It's our fault just as much as Peter's. We helped to carry the coal away--and we knew where he got it." "No, you didn't," said Peter. "Yes, we did," said Bobbie. "We knew all the time. We only pretended we didn't just to humour you." Peter's cup was full. He had mined for coal, he had struck coal, he had been caught, and now he learned that his sisters had 'humoured' him. "Don't hold me!" he said. "I won't run away." The Station Master loosed Peter's collar, struck a match and looked at them by its flickering light. "Why," said he, "you're the children from the Three Chimneys up yonder. So nicely dressed, too. Tell me now, what made you do such a thing? Haven't you ever been to church or learned your catechism or anything, not to know it's wicked to steal?" He spoke much more gently now, and Peter said:-- "I didn't think it was stealing. I was almost sure it wasn't. I thought if I took it from the outside part of the heap, perhaps it would be. But in the middle I thought I could fairly count it only mining. It'll take thousands of years for you to burn up all that coal and get to the middle parts." "Not quite. But did you do it for a lark or what?" "Not much lark carting that beastly heavy stuff up the hill," said Peter, indignantly. "Then why did you?" The Station Master's voice was so much kinder now that Peter replied:-- "You know that wet day? Well, Mother said we were too poor to have a fire. We always had fires when it was cold at our other house, and--" "DON'T!" interrupted Bobbie, in a whisper. "Well," said the Station Master, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll look over it this once. But you remember, young gentleman, stealing is stealing, and what's mine isn't yours, whether you call it mining or whether you don't. Run along home." "Do you mean you aren't going to do anything to us? Well, you are a brick," said Peter, with enthusiasm. "You're a dear," said Bobbie. "You're a darling," said Phyllis. "That's all right," said the Station Master. And on this they parted. "Don't speak to me," said Peter, as the three went up the hill. "You're spies and traitors--that's what you are." But the girls were too glad to have Peter between them, safe and free, and on the way to Three Chimneys and not to the Police Station, to mind much what he said.

"We DID say it was us as much as you," said Bobbie, gently. "Well--and it wasn't." "It would have come to the same thing in Courts with judges," said Phyllis. "Don't be snarky, Peter. It isn't our fault your secrets are so jolly easy to find out." She took his arm, and he let her. "There's an awful lot of coal in the cellar, anyhow," he went on. "Oh, don't!" said Bobbie. "I don't think we ought to be glad about THAT." "I don't know," said Peter, plucking up a spirit. "I'm not at all sure, even now, that mining is a crime." But the girls were quite sure. And they were also quite sure that he was quite sure, however little he cared to own it.

Chapter 3. The old gentleman.

After the adventure of Peter's Coal-mine, it seemed well to the children to keep away from the station--but they did not, they could not, keep away from the railway. They had lived all their lives in a street where cabs and omnibuses rumbled by at all hours, and the carts of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers (I never saw a candlestick-maker's cart; did you?) might occur at any moment. Here in the deep silence of the sleeping country the only things that went by were the trains. They seemed to be all that was left to link the children to the old life that had once been theirs. Straight down the hill in front of Three Chimneys the daily passage of their six feet began to mark a path across the crisp, short turf. They began to know the hours when certain trains passed, and they gave names to them. The 9.15 up was called the Green Dragon. The 10.7 down was the Worm of Wantley. The midnight town express, whose shrieking rush they sometimes woke from their dreams to hear, was the Fearsome Fly-by-night. Peter got up once, in chill starshine, and, peeping at it through his curtains, named it on the spot. It was by the Green Dragon that the old gentleman travelled. He was a very nice-looking old gentleman, and he looked as if he were nice, too, which is not at all the same thing. He had a fresh-coloured, clean-shaven face and white hair, and he wore rather odd-shaped collars and a top-hat that wasn't exactly the same kind as other people's. Of course the children didn't see all this at first. In fact the first thing they noticed about the old gentleman was his hand. It was one morning as they sat on the fence waiting for the Green Dragon, which was three and a quarter minutes late by Peter's Waterbury watch that he had had given him on his last birthday. "The Green Dragon's going where Father is," said Phyllis; "if it were a really real dragon, we could stop it and ask it to take our love to Father." "Dragons don't carry people's love," said Peter; "they'd be above it." "Yes, they do, if you tame them thoroughly first. They fetch and carry like pet spaniels," said Phyllis, "and feed out of your hand. I wonder why Father never writes to us." "Mother says he's been too busy," said Bobbie; "but he'll write soon, she says." "I say," Phyllis suggested, "let's all wave to the Green Dragon as it goes by. If it's a magic dragon, it'll understand and take our loves to Father. And if it isn't, three waves aren't much. We shall never miss them." So when the Green Dragon tore shrieking out of the mouth of its dark lair, which was the tunnel, all three children stood on the railing and waved their pocket-handkerchiefs without stopping to think whether they were clean handkerchiefs or the reverse. They were, as a matter of fact, very much the reverse. And out of a first-class carriage a hand waved back. A quite clean hand. It held a newspaper. It was the old gentleman's hand.


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