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The Railway Children.
by Edith Nesbit.
Start of Story
Age Rating 10 Plus.
"I don't know what it is," said Peter, "but it isn't French. I know
that." Then he saw what it was that the crowd had for its centre. It
was a man--the man, Peter did not doubt, who had spoken in that strange
tongue. A man with long hair and wild eyes, with shabby clothes of a cut
Peter had not seen before--a man whose hands and lips trembled, and who
spoke again as his eyes fell on Peter.
"No, it's not French," said Peter.
"Try him with French if you know so much about it," said the farmer-man.
"Parlay voo Frongsay?" began Peter, boldly, and the next moment the
crowd recoiled again, for the man with the wild eyes had left leaning
against the wall, and had sprung forward and caught Peter's hands,
and begun to pour forth a flood of words which, though he could not
understand a word of them, Peter knew the sound of.
"There!" said he, and turned, his hands still clasped in the hands of
the strange shabby figure, to throw a glance of triumph at the crowd;
"there; THAT'S French."
"What does he say?"
"I don't know." Peter was obliged to own it.
"Here," said the Station Master again; "you move on if you please. I'LL
deal with this case."
A few of the more timid or less inquisitive travellers moved slowly and
reluctantly away. And Phyllis and Bobbie got near to Peter. All three
had been TAUGHT French at school. How deeply they now wished that they
had LEARNED it! Peter shook his head at the stranger, but he also shook
his hands as warmly and looked at him as kindly as he could. A person
in the crowd, after some hesitation, said suddenly, "No comprenny!" and
then, blushing deeply, backed out of the press and went away.
"Take him into your room," whispered Bobbie to the Station Master.
"Mother can talk French. She'll be here by the next train from
The Station Master took the arm of the stranger, suddenly but not
unkindly. But the man wrenched his arm away, and cowered back coughing
and trembling and trying to push the Station Master away.
"Oh, don't!" said Bobbie; "don't you see how frightened he is? He thinks
you're going to shut him up. I know he does--look at his eyes!"
"They're like a fox's eyes when the beast's in a trap," said the farmer.
"Oh, let me try!" Bobbie went on; "I do really know one or two French
words if I could only think of them."
Sometimes, in moments of great need, we can do wonderful things--things
that in ordinary life we could hardly even dream of doing. Bobbie had
never been anywhere near the top of her French class, but she must have
learned something without knowing it, for now, looking at those wild,
hunted eyes, she actually remembered and, what is more, spoke, some
French words. She said:--
"Vous attendre. Ma mere parlez Francais. Nous--what's the French for
"Bong is 'good,'" said Phyllis.
"Nous etre bong pour vous."
I do not know whether the man understood her words, but he understood
the touch of the hand she thrust into his, and the kindness of the other
hand that stroked his shabby sleeve.
She pulled him gently towards the inmost sanctuary of the Station
Master. The other children followed, and the Station Master shut the
door in the face of the crowd, which stood a little while in the booking
office talking and looking at the fast closed yellow door, and then by
ones and twos went its way, grumbling.
Inside the Station Master's room Bobbie still held the stranger's hand
and stroked his sleeve.
"Here's a go," said the Station Master; "no ticket--doesn't even know
where he wants to go. I'm not sure now but what I ought to send for the
"Oh, DON'T!" all the children pleaded at once. And suddenly Bobbie
got between the others and the stranger, for she had seen that he was
By a most unusual piece of good fortune she had a handkerchief in
her pocket. By a still more uncommon accident the handkerchief was
moderately clean. Standing in front of the stranger, she got out the
handkerchief and passed it to him so that the others did not see.
"Wait till Mother comes," Phyllis was saying; "she does speak French
beautifully. You'd just love to hear her."
"I'm sure he hasn't done anything like you're sent to prison for," said
"Looks like without visible means to me," said the Station Master.
"Well, I don't mind giving him the benefit of the doubt till your Mamma
comes. I SHOULD like to know what nation's got the credit of HIM, that I
Then Peter had an idea. He pulled an envelope out of his pocket, and
showed that it was half full of foreign stamps.
"Look here," he said, "let's show him these--"
Bobbie looked and saw that the stranger had dried his eyes with her
handkerchief. So she said: "All right."
They showed him an Italian stamp, and pointed from him to it and back
again, and made signs of question with their eyebrows. He shook his
head. Then they showed him a Norwegian stamp--the common blue kind it
was--and again he signed No. Then they showed him a Spanish one, and
at that he took the envelope from Peter's hand and searched among the
stamps with a hand that trembled. The hand that he reached out at last,
with a gesture as of one answering a question, contained a RUSSIAN
"He's Russian," cried Peter, "or else he's like 'the man who was'--in
Kipling, you know."
The train from Maidbridge was signalled.
"I'll stay with him till you bring Mother in," said Bobbie.
"You're not afraid, Missie?"
"Oh, no," said Bobbie, looking at the stranger, as she might have looked
at a strange dog of doubtful temper. "You wouldn't hurt me, would you?"
She smiled at him, and he smiled back, a queer crooked smile. And then
he coughed again. And the heavy rattling swish of the incoming train
swept past, and the Station Master and Peter and Phyllis went out to
meet it. Bobbie was still holding the stranger's hand when they came
back with Mother.
The Russian rose and bowed very ceremoniously.
Then Mother spoke in French, and he replied, haltingly at first, but
presently in longer and longer sentences.
The children, watching his face and Mother's, knew that he was telling
her things that made her angry and pitying, and sorry and indignant all
"Well, Mum, what's it all about?" The Station Master could not restrain
his curiosity any longer.
"Oh," said Mother, "it's all right. He's a Russian, and he's lost his
ticket. And I'm afraid he's very ill. If you don't mind, I'll take him
home with me now. He's really quite worn out. I'll run down and tell you
all about him to-morrow."
"I hope you won't find you're taking home a frozen viper," said the
Station Master, doubtfully.
"Oh, no," Mother said brightly, and she smiled; "I'm quite sure I'm
not. Why, he's a great man in his own country, writes books--beautiful
books--I've read some of them; but I'll tell you all about it
She spoke again in French to the Russian, and everyone could see the
surprise and pleasure and gratitude in his eyes. He got up and politely
bowed to the Station Master, and offered his arm most ceremoniously to
Mother. She took it, but anybody could have seen that she was helping
him along, and not he her.
"You girls run home and light a fire in the sitting-room," Mother said,
"and Peter had better go for the Doctor."
But it was Bobbie who went for the Doctor.
"I hate to tell you," she said breathlessly when she came upon him
in his shirt sleeves, weeding his pansy-bed, "but Mother's got a very
shabby Russian, and I'm sure he'll have to belong to your Club. I'm
certain he hasn't got any money. We found him at the station."
"Found him! Was he lost, then?" asked the Doctor, reaching for his coat.
"Yes," said Bobbie, unexpectedly, "that's just what he was. He's been
telling Mother the sad, sweet story of his life in French; and she said
would you be kind enough to come directly if you were at home. He has a
dreadful cough, and he's been crying."
The Doctor smiled.
"Oh, don't," said Bobbie; "please don't. You wouldn't if you'd seen him.
I never saw a man cry before. You don't know what it's like."
Dr. Forrest wished then that he hadn't smiled.
When Bobbie and the Doctor got to Three Chimneys, the Russian was
sitting in the arm-chair that had been Father's, stretching his feet
to the blaze of a bright wood fire, and sipping the tea Mother had made
"The man seems worn out, mind and body," was what the Doctor said; "the
cough's bad, but there's nothing that can't be cured. He ought to go
straight to bed, though--and let him have a fire at night."
"I'll make one in my room; it's the only one with a fireplace," said
Mother. She did, and presently the Doctor helped the stranger to bed.
There was a big black trunk in Mother's room that none of the children
had ever seen unlocked. Now, when she had lighted the fire, she unlocked
it and took some clothes out--men's clothes--and set them to air by the
newly lighted fire. Bobbie, coming in with more wood for the fire, saw
the mark on the night-shirt, and looked over to the open trunk. All
the things she could see were men's clothes. And the name marked on the
shirt was Father's name. Then Father hadn't taken his clothes with him.
And that night-shirt was one of Father's new ones. Bobbie remembered its
being made, just before Peter's birthday. Why hadn't Father taken his
clothes? Bobbie slipped from the room. As she went she heard the key
turned in the lock of the trunk. Her heart was beating horribly. WHY
hadn't Father taken his clothes? When Mother came out of the room,
Bobbie flung tightly clasping arms round her waist, and whispered:--
"Mother--Daddy isn't--isn't DEAD, is he?"
"My darling, no! What made you think of anything so horrible?"
"I--I don't know," said Bobbie, angry with herself, but still clinging
to that resolution of hers, not to see anything that Mother didn't mean
her to see.
Mother gave her a hurried hug. "Daddy was quite, QUITE well when I heard
from him last," she said, "and he'll come back to us some day. Don't
fancy such horrible things, darling!"
Later on, when the Russian stranger had been made comfortable for the
night, Mother came into the girls' room. She was to sleep there in
Phyllis's bed, and Phyllis was to have a mattress on the floor, a
most amusing adventure for Phyllis. Directly Mother came in, two white
figures started up, and two eager voices called:--
"Now, Mother, tell us all about the Russian gentleman."
A white shape hopped into the room. It was Peter, dragging his quilt
behind him like the tail of a white peacock.
"We have been patient," he said, "and I had to bite my tongue not to
go to sleep, and I just nearly went to sleep and I bit too hard, and it
hurts ever so. DO tell us. Make a nice long story of it."
"I can't make a long story of it to-night," said Mother; "I'm very
Bobbie knew by her voice that Mother had been crying, but the others
"Well, make it as long as you can," said Phil, and Bobbie got her arms
round Mother's waist and snuggled close to her.
"Well, it's a story long enough to make a whole book of. He's a writer;
he's written beautiful books. In Russia at the time of the Czar one
dared not say anything about the rich people doing wrong, or about the
things that ought to be done to make poor people better and happier. If
one did one was sent to prison."
"But they CAN'T," said Peter; "people only go to prison when they've
"Or when the Judges THINK they've done wrong," said Mother. "Yes, that's
so in England. But in Russia it was different. And he wrote a beautiful
book about poor people and how to help them. I've read it. There's
nothing in it but goodness and kindness. And they sent him to prison for
it. He was three years in a horrible dungeon, with hardly any light, and
all damp and dreadful. In prison all alone for three years."
Mother's voice trembled a little and stopped suddenly.
"But, Mother," said Peter, "that can't be true NOW. It sounds like
something out of a history book--the Inquisition, or something."
"It WAS true," said Mother; "it's all horribly true. Well, then they
took him out and sent him to Siberia, a convict chained to other
convicts--wicked men who'd done all sorts of crimes--a long chain of
them, and they walked, and walked, and walked, for days and weeks, till
he thought they'd never stop walking. And overseers went behind them
with whips--yes, whips--to beat them if they got tired. And some of them
went lame, and some fell down, and when they couldn't get up and go on,
they beat them, and then left them to die. Oh, it's all too terrible!
And at last he got to the mines, and he was condemned to stay there for
life--for life, just for writing a good, noble, splendid book."
"How did he get away?"
"When the war came, some of the Russian prisoners were allowed to
volunteer as soldiers. And he volunteered. But he deserted at the first
chance he got and--"
"But that's very cowardly, isn't it"--said Peter--"to desert? Especially
when it's war."
"Do you think he owed anything to a country that had done THAT to him?
If he did, he owed more to his wife and children. He didn't know what
had become of them."
"Oh," cried Bobbie, "he had THEM to think about and be miserable about
TOO, then, all the time he was in prison?"
"Yes, he had them to think about and be miserable about all the time he
was in prison. For anything he knew they might have been sent to prison,
too. They did those things in Russia. But while he was in the mines some
friends managed to get a message to him that his wife and children had
escaped and come to England. So when he deserted he came here to look
"Had he got their address?" said practical Peter.
"No; just England. He was going to London, and he thought he had to
change at our station, and then he found he'd lost his ticket and his
"Oh, DO you think he'll find them?--I mean his wife and children, not
the ticket and things."
"I hope so. Oh, I hope and pray that he'll find his wife and children
Even Phyllis now perceived that mother's voice was very unsteady.
"Why, Mother," she said, "how very sorry you seem to be for him!"
Mother didn't answer for a minute. Then she just said, "Yes," and then
she seemed to be thinking. The children were quiet.
Presently she said, "Dears, when you say your prayers, I think you might
ask God to show His pity upon all prisoners and captives."
"To show His pity," Bobbie repeated slowly, "upon all prisoners and
captives. Is that right, Mother?"
"Yes," said Mother, "upon all prisoners and captives. All prisoners and