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The Railway Children.

by Edith Nesbit.
Age Rating 10 Plus.

Start of Story

"We can do without the beastly mutton," said Peter; "bread and butter will support life. People have lived on less on desert islands many a time." "Of course," said his sister. And Mrs. Viney was sent to the village to get as much brandy and soda-water and beef tea as she could buy for a shilling. "But even if we never have anything to eat at all," said Phyllis, "you can't get all those other things with our dinner money." "No," said Bobbie, frowning, "we must find out some other way. Now THINK, everybody, just as hard as ever you can." They did think. And presently they talked. And later, when Bobbie had gone up to sit with Mother in case she wanted anything, the other two were very busy with scissors and a white sheet, and a paint brush, and the pot of Brunswick black that Mrs. Viney used for grates and fenders. They did not manage to do what they wished, exactly, with the first sheet, so they took another out of the linen cupboard. It did not occur to them that they were spoiling good sheets which cost good money. They only knew that they were making a good--but what they were making comes later. Bobbie's bed had been moved into Mother's room, and several times in the night she got up to mend the fire, and to give her mother milk and soda-water. Mother talked to herself a good deal, but it did not seem to mean anything. And once she woke up suddenly and called out: "Mamma, mamma!" and Bobbie knew she was calling for Granny, and that she had forgotten that it was no use calling, because Granny was dead. In the early morning Bobbie heard her name and jumped out of bed and ran to Mother's bedside. "Oh--ah, yes--I think I was asleep," said Mother. "My poor little duck, how tired you'll be--I do hate to give you all this trouble." "Trouble!" said Bobbie. "Ah, don't cry, sweet," Mother said; "I shall be all right in a day or two." And Bobbie said, "Yes," and tried to smile. When you are used to ten hours of solid sleep, to get up three or four times in your sleep-time makes you feel as though you had been up all night. Bobbie felt quite stupid and her eyes were sore and stiff, but she tidied the room, and arranged everything neatly before the Doctor came. This was at half-past eight. "Everything going on all right, little Nurse?" he said at the front door. "Did you get the brandy?" "I've got the brandy," said Bobbie, "in a little flat bottle." "I didn't see the grapes or the beef tea, though," said he. "No," said Bobbie, firmly, "but you will to-morrow. And there's some beef stewing in the oven for beef tea." "Who told you to do that?" he asked. "I noticed what Mother did when Phil had mumps." "Right," said the Doctor. "Now you get your old woman to sit with your mother, and then you eat a good breakfast, and go straight to bed and sleep till dinner-time. We can't afford to have the head-nurse ill."

He was really quite a nice doctor. When the 9.15 came out of the tunnel that morning the old gentleman in the first-class carriage put down his newspaper, and got ready to wave his hand to the three children on the fence. But this morning there were not three. There was only one. And that was Peter. Peter was not on the railings either, as usual. He was standing in front of them in an attitude like that of a show-man showing off the animals in a menagerie, or of the kind clergyman when he points with a wand at the 'Scenes from Palestine,' when there is a magic-lantern and he is explaining it. Peter was pointing, too. And what he was pointing at was a large white sheet nailed against the fence. On the sheet there were thick black letters more than a foot long. Some of them had run a little, because of Phyllis having put the Brunswick black on too eagerly, but the words were quite easy to read. And this what the old gentleman and several other people in the train read in the large black letters on the white sheet:-- LOOK OUT AT THE STATION. A good many people did look out at the station and were disappointed, for they saw nothing unusual. The old gentleman looked out, too, and at first he too saw nothing more unusual than the gravelled platform and the sunshine and the wallflowers and forget-me-nots in the station borders. It was only just as the train was beginning to puff and pull itself together to start again that he saw Phyllis. She was quite out of breath with running. "Oh," she said, "I thought I'd missed you. My bootlaces would keep coming down and I fell over them twice. Here, take it." She thrust a warm, dampish letter into his hand as the train moved. He leaned back in his corner and opened the letter. This is what he read:-- "Dear Mr. We do not know your name. Mother is ill and the doctor says to give her the things at the end of the letter, but she says she can't aford it, and to get mutton for us and she will have the broth. We do not know anybody here but you, because Father is away and we do not know the address. Father will pay you, or if he has lost all his money, or anything, Peter will pay you when he is a man. We promise it on our honer. I.O.U. for all the things Mother wants. "sined Peter. "Will you give the parsel to the Station Master, because of us not knowing what train you come down by? Say it is for Peter that was sorry about the coals and he will know all right. "Roberta. "Phyllis. "Peter." Then came the list of things the Doctor had ordered. The old gentleman read it through once, and his eyebrows went up. He read it twice and smiled a little. When he had read it thrice, he put it in his pocket and went on reading The Times.

At about six that evening there was a knock at the back door. The three children rushed to open it, and there stood the friendly Porter, who had told them so many interesting things about railways. He dumped down a big hamper on the kitchen flags. "Old gent," he said; "he asked me to fetch it up straight away." "Thank you very much," said Peter, and then, as the Porter lingered, he added:-- "I'm most awfully sorry I haven't got twopence to give you like Father does, but--" "You drop it if you please," said the Porter, indignantly. "I wasn't thinking about no tuppences. I only wanted to say I was sorry your Mamma wasn't so well, and to ask how she finds herself this evening--and I've fetched her along a bit of sweetbrier, very sweet to smell it is. Twopence indeed," said he, and produced a bunch of sweetbrier from his hat, "just like a conjurer," as Phyllis remarked afterwards. "Thank you very much," said Peter, "and I beg your pardon about the twopence." "No offence," said the Porter, untruly but politely, and went. Then the children undid the hamper. First there was straw, and then there were fine shavings, and then came all the things they had asked for, and plenty of them, and then a good many things they had not asked for; among others peaches and port wine and two chickens, a cardboard box of big red roses with long stalks, and a tall thin green bottle of lavender water, and three smaller fatter bottles of eau-de-Cologne. There was a letter, too. "Dear Roberta and Phyllis and Peter," it said; "here are the things you want. Your mother will want to know where they came from. Tell her they were sent by a friend who heard she was ill. When she is well again you must tell her all about it, of course. And if she says you ought not to have asked for the things, tell her that I say you were quite right, and that I hope she will forgive me for taking the liberty of allowing myself a very great pleasure." The letter was signed G. P. something that the children couldn't read. "I think we WERE right," said Phyllis. "Right? Of course we were right," said Bobbie. "All the same," said Peter, with his hands in his pockets, "I don't exactly look forward to telling Mother the whole truth about it." "We're not to do it till she's well," said Bobbie, "and when she's well we shall be so happy we shan't mind a little fuss like that. Oh, just look at the roses! I must take them up to her." "And the sweetbrier," said Phyllis, sniffing it loudly; "don't forget the sweetbrier." "As if I should!" said Roberta. "Mother told me the other day there was a thick hedge of it at her mother's house when she was a little girl."

Chapter 4. The engine-burglar.

What was left of the second sheet and the Brunswick black came in very nicely to make a banner bearing the legend SHE IS NEARLY WELL THANK YOU and this was displayed to the Green Dragon about a fortnight after the arrival of the wonderful hamper. The old gentleman saw it, and waved a cheerful response from the train. And when this had been done the children saw that now was the time when they must tell Mother what they had done when she was ill. And it did not seem nearly so easy as they had thought it would be. But it had to be done. And it was done. Mother was extremely angry. She was seldom angry, and now she was angrier than they had ever known her. This was horrible. But it was much worse when she suddenly began to cry. Crying is catching, I believe, like measles and whooping-cough. At any rate, everyone at once found itself taking part in a crying-party. Mother stopped first. She dried her eyes and then she said:-- "I'm sorry I was so angry, darlings, because I know you didn't understand." "We didn't mean to be naughty, Mammy," sobbed Bobbie, and Peter and Phyllis sniffed. "Now, listen," said Mother; "it's quite true that we're poor, but we have enough to live on. You mustn't go telling everyone about our affairs--it's not right. And you must never, never, never ask strangers to give you things. Now always remember that--won't you?" They all hugged her and rubbed their damp cheeks against hers and promised that they would. "And I'll write a letter to your old gentleman, and I shall tell him that I didn't approve--oh, of course I shall thank him, too, for his kindness. It's YOU I don't approve of, my darlings, not the old gentleman. He was as kind as ever he could be. And you can give the letter to the Station Master to give him--and we won't say any more about it." Afterwards, when the children were alone, Bobbie said:-- "Isn't Mother splendid? You catch any other grown-up saying they were sorry they had been angry." "Yes," said Peter, "she IS splendid; but it's rather awful when she's angry." "She's like Avenging and Bright in the song," said Phyllis. "I should like to look at her if it wasn't so awful. She looks so beautiful when she's really downright furious." They took the letter down to the Station Master. "I thought you said you hadn't got any friends except in London," said he. "We've made him since," said Peter. "But he doesn't live hereabouts?" "No--we just know him on the railway." Then the Station Master retired to that sacred inner temple behind the little window where the tickets are sold, and the children went down to the Porters' room and talked to the Porter. They learned several interesting things from him--among others that his name was Perks, that he was married and had three children, that the lamps in front of engines are called head-lights and the ones at the back tail-lights.

"And that just shows," whispered Phyllis, "that trains really ARE dragons in disguise, with proper heads and tails." It was on this day that the children first noticed that all engines are not alike. "Alike?" said the Porter, whose name was Perks, "lor, love you, no, Miss. No more alike nor what you an' me are. That little 'un without a tender as went by just now all on her own, that was a tank, that was--she's off to do some shunting t'other side o' Maidbridge. That's as it might be you, Miss. Then there's goods engines, great, strong things with three wheels each side--joined with rods to strengthen 'em--as it might be me. Then there's main-line engines as it might be this 'ere young gentleman when he grows up and wins all the races at 'is school--so he will. The main-line engine she's built for speed as well as power. That's one to the 9.15 up." "The Green Dragon," said Phyllis. "We calls her the Snail, Miss, among ourselves," said the Porter. "She's oftener be'ind'and nor any train on the line." "But the engine's green," said Phyllis. "Yes, Miss," said Perks, "so's a snail some seasons o' the year." The children agreed as they went home to dinner that the Porter was most delightful company. Next day was Roberta's birthday. In the afternoon she was politely but firmly requested to get out of the way and keep there till tea-time. "You aren't to see what we're going to do till it's done; it's a glorious surprise," said Phyllis. And Roberta went out into the garden all alone. She tried to be grateful, but she felt she would much rather have helped in whatever it was than have to spend her birthday afternoon by herself, no matter how glorious the surprise might be. Now that she was alone, she had time to think, and one of the things she thought of most was what mother had said in one of those feverish nights when her hands were so hot and her eyes so bright. The words were: "Oh, what a doctor's bill there'll be for this!" She walked round and round the garden among the rose-bushes that hadn't any roses yet, only buds, and the lilac bushes and syringas and American currants, and the more she thought of the doctor's bill, the less she liked the thought of it. And presently she made up her mind. She went out through the side door of the garden and climbed up the steep field to where the road runs along by the canal. She walked along until she came to the bridge that crosses the canal and leads to the village, and here she waited. It was very pleasant in the sunshine to lean one's elbows on the warm stone of the bridge and look down at the blue water of the canal. Bobbie had never seen any other canal, except the Regent's Canal, and the water of that is not at all a pretty colour. And she had never seen any river at all except the Thames, which also would be all the better if its face was washed.


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