"And I've no business here. I'm an engine-burglar—that's what I am," she thought. "I shouldn't wonder if they could lock me up for this." And the train was going faster and faster.
There was something in her throat that made it impossible for her to speak. She tried twice. The men had their backs to her. They were doing something to things that looked like taps.
Suddenly she put out her hand and caught hold of the nearest sleeve. The man turned with a start, and he and Roberta stood for a minute looking at each other in silence. Then the silence was broken by them both.
The man said, "Here's a bloomin' go!" and Roberta burst into tears.
The other man said he was blooming well blest—or something like it—but though naturally surprised they were not exactly unkind.
"You're a naughty little gell, that's what you are," said the fireman, and the engine-driver said:—
"Daring little piece, I call her," but they made her sit down on an iron seat in the cab and told her to stop crying and tell them what she meant by it.
She did stop, as soon as she could. One thing that helped her was the thought that Peter would give almost his ears to be in her place—on a real engine—really going. The children had often wondered whether any engine-driver could be found noble enough to take them for a ride on an engine—and now there she was. She dried her eyes and sniffed earnestly.
"Now, then," said the fireman, "out with it. What do you mean by it, eh?"
"Oh, please," sniffed Bobbie.
"Try again," said the engine-driver, encouragingly.
Bobbie tried again.
"Please, Mr. Engineer," she said, "I did call out to you from the line, but you didn't hear me—and I just climbed up to touch you on the arm—quite gently I meant to do it—and then I fell into the coals—and I am so sorry if I frightened you. Oh, don't be cross—oh, please don't!" She sniffed again.
"We ain't so much CROSS," said the fireman, "as interested like. It ain't every day a little gell tumbles into our coal bunker outer the sky, is it, Bill? What did you DO it for—eh?"
"That's the point," agreed the engine-driver; "what did you do it FOR?"
Bobbie found that she had not quite stopped crying. The engine-driver patted her on the back and said: "Here, cheer up, Mate. It ain't so bad as all that 'ere, I'll be bound."
"I wanted," said Bobbie, much cheered to find herself addressed as 'Mate'—"I only wanted to ask you if you'd be so kind as to mend this." She picked up the brown-paper parcel from among the coals and undid the string with hot, red fingers that trembled.
Her feet and legs felt the scorch of the engine fire, but her shoulders felt the wild chill rush of the air. The engine lurched and shook and rattled, and as they shot under a bridge the engine seemed to shout in her ears.
The fireman shovelled on coals.
Bobbie unrolled the brown paper and disclosed the toy engine.
"I thought," she said wistfully, "that perhaps you'd mend this for me—because you're an engineer, you know."
The engine-driver said he was blowed if he wasn't blest.
"I'm blest if I ain't blowed," remarked the fireman.
But the engine-driver took the little engine and looked at it—and the fireman ceased for an instant to shovel coal, and looked, too.
"It's like your precious cheek," said the engine-driver—"whatever made you think we'd be bothered tinkering penny toys?"
"I didn't mean it for precious cheek," said Bobbie; "only everybody that has anything to do with railways is so kind and good, I didn't think you'd mind. You don't really—do you?" she added, for she had seen a not unkindly wink pass between the two.
"My trade's driving of an engine, not mending her, especially such a hout-size in engines as this 'ere," said Bill. "An' 'ow are we a-goin' to get you back to your sorrowing friends and relations, and all be forgiven and forgotten?"
"If you'll put me down next time you stop," said Bobbie, firmly, though her heart beat fiercely against her arm as she clasped her hands, "and lend me the money for a third-class ticket, I'll pay you back—honour bright. I'm not a confidence trick like in the newspapers—really, I'm not."
"You're a little lady, every inch," said Bill, relenting suddenly and completely. "We'll see you gets home safe. An' about this engine—Jim—ain't you got ne'er a pal as can use a soldering iron? Seems to me that's about all the little bounder wants doing to it."
"That's what Father said," Bobbie explained eagerly. "What's that for?"
She pointed to a little brass wheel that he had turned as he spoke.
"That's the injector."
"Injector to fill up the boiler."
"Oh," said Bobbie, mentally registering the fact to tell the others; "that IS interesting."
"This 'ere's the automatic brake," Bill went on, flattered by her enthusiasm. "You just move this 'ere little handle—do it with one finger, you can—and the train jolly soon stops. That's what they call the Power of Science in the newspapers."
He showed her two little dials, like clock faces, and told her how one showed how much steam was going, and the other showed if the brake was working properly.
By the time she had seen him shut off steam with a big shining steel handle, Bobbie knew more about the inside working of an engine than she had ever thought there was to know, and Jim had promised that his second cousin's wife's brother should solder the toy engine, or Jim would know the reason why. Besides all the knowledge she had gained Bobbie felt that she and Bill and Jim were now friends for life, and that they had wholly and forever forgiven her for stumbling uninvited among the sacred coals of their tender.
At Stacklepoole Junction she parted from them with warm expressions of mutual regard. They handed her over to the guard of a returning train—a friend of theirs—and she had the joy of knowing what guards do in their secret fastnesses, and understood how, when you pull the communication cord in railway carriages, a wheel goes round under the guard's nose and a loud bell rings in his ears. She asked the guard why his van smelt so fishy, and learned that he had to carry a lot of fish every day, and that the wetness in the hollows of the corrugated floor had all drained out of boxes full of plaice and cod and mackerel and soles and smelts.
Bobbie got home in time for tea, and she felt as though her mind would burst with all that had been put into it since she parted from the others. How she blessed the nail that had torn her frock!
"Where have you been?" asked the others.
"To the station, of course," said Roberta. But she would not tell a word of her adventures till the day appointed, when she mysteriously led them to the station at the hour of the 3.19's transit, and proudly introduced them to her friends, Bill and Jim. Jim's second cousin's wife's brother had not been unworthy of the sacred trust reposed in him. The toy engine was, literally, as good as new.
"Good-bye—oh, good-bye," said Bobbie, just before the engine screamed ITS good-bye. "I shall always, always love you—and Jim's second cousin's wife's brother as well!"
And as the three children went home up the hill, Peter hugging the engine, now quite its own self again, Bobbie told, with joyous leaps of the heart, the story of how she had been an Engine-burglar.
Chapter V. Prisoners and captives.
It was one day when Mother had gone to Maidbridge. She had gone alone, but the children were to go to the station to meet her. And, loving the station as they did, it was only natural that they should be there a good hour before there was any chance of Mother's train arriving, even if the train were punctual, which was most unlikely. No doubt they would have been just as early, even if it had been a fine day, and all the delights of woods and fields and rocks and rivers had been open to them. But it happened to be a very wet day and, for July, very cold. There was a wild wind that drove flocks of dark purple clouds across the sky "like herds of dream-elephants," as Phyllis said. And the rain stung sharply, so that the way to the station was finished at a run. Then the rain fell faster and harder, and beat slantwise against the windows of the booking office and of the chill place that had General Waiting Room on its door.
"It's like being in a besieged castle," Phyllis said; "look at the arrows of the foe striking against the battlements!"
"It's much more like a great garden-squirt," said Peter.
They decided to wait on the up side, for the down platform looked very wet indeed, and the rain was driving right into the little bleak shelter where down-passengers have to wait for their trains.
The hour would be full of incident and of interest, for there would be two up trains and one down to look at before the one that should bring Mother back.
"Perhaps it'll have stopped raining by then," said Bobbie; "anyhow, I'm glad I brought Mother's waterproof and umbrella."
They went into the desert spot labelled General Waiting Room, and the time passed pleasantly enough in a game of advertisements. You know the game, of course? It is something like dumb Crambo. The players take it in turns to go out, and then come back and look as like some advertisement as they can, and the others have to guess what advertisement it is meant to be. Bobbie came in and sat down under Mother's umbrella and made a sharp face, and everyone knew she was the fox who sits under the umbrella in the advertisement. Phyllis tried to make a Magic Carpet of Mother's waterproof, but it would not stand out stiff and raft-like as a Magic Carpet should, and nobody could guess it. Everyone thought Peter was carrying things a little too far when he blacked his face all over with coal-dust and struck a spidery attitude and said he was the blot that advertises somebody's Blue Black Writing Fluid.
It was Phyllis's turn again, and she was trying to look like the Sphinx that advertises What's-his-name's Personally Conducted Tours up the Nile when the sharp ting of the signal announced the up train. The children rushed out to see it pass. On its engine were the particular driver and fireman who were now numbered among the children's dearest friends. Courtesies passed between them. Jim asked after the toy engine, and Bobbie pressed on his acceptance a moist, greasy package of toffee that she had made herself.
Charmed by this attention, the engine-driver consented to consider her request that some day he would take Peter for a ride on the engine.
"Stand back, Mates," cried the engine-driver, suddenly, "and horf she goes."
And sure enough, off the train went. The children watched the tail-lights of the train till it disappeared round the curve of the line, and then turned to go back to the dusty freedom of the General Waiting Room and the joys of the advertisement game.
They expected to see just one or two people, the end of the procession of passengers who had given up their tickets and gone away. Instead, the platform round the door of the station had a dark blot round it, and the dark blot was a crowd of people.
"Oh!" cried Peter, with a thrill of joyous excitement, "something's happened! Come on!"
They ran down the platform. When they got to the crowd, they could, of course, see nothing but the damp backs and elbows of the people on the crowd's outside. Everybody was talking at once. It was evident that something had happened.
"It's my belief he's nothing worse than a natural," said a farmerish-looking person. Peter saw his red, clean-shaven face as he spoke.
"If you ask me, I should say it was a Police Court case," said a young man with a black bag.
"Not it; the Infirmary more like—"
Then the voice of the Station Master was heard, firm and official:—
"Now, then—move along there. I'll attend to this, if YOU please."
But the crowd did not move. And then came a voice that thrilled the children through and through. For it spoke in a foreign language. And, what is more, it was a language that they had never heard. They had heard French spoken and German. Aunt Emma knew German, and used to sing a song about bedeuten and zeiten and bin and sin. Nor was it Latin. Peter had been in Latin for four terms.
It was some comfort, anyhow, to find that none of the crowd understood the foreign language any better than the children did.
"What's that he's saying?" asked the farmer, heavily.
"Sounds like French to me," said the Station Master, who had once been to Boulogne for the day.
"It isn't French!" cried Peter.
"What is it, then?" asked more than one voice. The crowd fell back a little to see who had spoken, and Peter pressed forward, so that when the crowd closed up again he was in the front rank.
"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 Maidbridge."
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 'being kind'?"
"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 police."
"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 crying.
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 Peter.
"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 should."
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 stamp.
"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 at once.
"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 to-morrow."
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 him.
"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 tired."
Bobbie knew by her voice that Mother had been crying, but the others didn't know.
"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 done wrong."
"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 for them."
"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 purse."
"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 again."
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 captives."
Chapter VI. Saviours of the train.
The Russian gentleman was better the next day, and the day after that better still, and on the third day he was well enough to come into the garden. A basket chair was put for him and he sat there, dressed in clothes of Father's which were too big for him. But when Mother had hemmed up the ends of the sleeves and the trousers, the clothes did well enough. His was a kind face now that it was no longer tired and frightened, and he smiled at the children whenever he saw them. They wished very much that he could speak English. Mother wrote several letters to people she thought might know whereabouts in England a Russian gentleman's wife and family might possibly be; not to the people she used to know before she came to live at Three Chimneys—she never wrote to any of them—but strange people—Members of Parliament and Editors of papers, and Secretaries of Societies.
And she did not do much of her story-writing, only corrected proofs as she sat in the sun near the Russian, and talked to him every now and then.
The children wanted very much to show how kindly they felt to this man who had been sent to prison and to Siberia just for writing a beautiful book about poor people. They could smile at him, of course; they could and they did. But if you smile too constantly, the smile is apt to get fixed like the smile of the hyaena. And then it no longer looks friendly, but simply silly. So they tried other ways, and brought him flowers till the place where he sat was surrounded by little fading bunches of clover and roses and Canterbury bells.
And then Phyllis had an idea. She beckoned mysteriously to the others and drew them into the back yard, and there, in a concealed spot, between the pump and the water-butt, she said:—
"You remember Perks promising me the very first strawberries out of his own garden?" Perks, you will recollect, was the Porter. "Well, I should think they're ripe now. Let's go down and see."
Mother had been down as she had promised to tell the Station Master the story of the Russian Prisoner. But even the charms of the railway had been unable to tear the children away from the neighbourhood of the interesting stranger. So they had not been to the station for three days.
They went now.
And, to their surprise and distress, were very coldly received by Perks.
"'Ighly honoured, I'm sure," he said when they peeped in at the door of the Porters' room. And he went on reading his newspaper.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
"Oh, dear," said Bobbie, with a sigh, "I do believe you're CROSS."
"What, me? Not me!" said Perks loftily; "it ain't nothing to me."
"What AIN'T nothing to you?" said Peter, too anxious and alarmed to change the form of words.
"Nothing ain't nothing. What 'appens either 'ere or elsewhere," said Perks; "if you likes to 'ave your secrets, 'ave 'em and welcome. That's what I say."
The secret-chamber of each heart was rapidly examined during the pause that followed. Three heads were shaken.
"We haven't got any secrets from YOU," said Bobbie at last.
"Maybe you 'ave, and maybe you 'aven't," said Perks; "it ain't nothing to me. And I wish you all a very good afternoon." He held up the paper between him and them and went on reading.
"Oh, DON'T!" said Phyllis, in despair; "this is truly dreadful! Whatever it is, do tell us."
"We didn't mean to do it whatever it was."
No answer. The paper was refolded and Perks began on another column.
"Look here," said Peter, suddenly, "it's not fair. Even people who do crimes aren't punished without being told what it's for—as once they were in Russia."
"I don't know nothing about Russia."
"Oh, yes, you do, when Mother came down on purpose to tell you and Mr. Gills all about OUR Russian."
"Can't you fancy it?" said Perks, indignantly; "don't you see 'im a-asking of me to step into 'is room and take a chair and listen to what 'er Ladyship 'as to say?"
"Do you mean to say you've not heard?"
"Not so much as a breath. I did go so far as to put a question. And he shuts me up like a rat-trap. 'Affairs of State, Perks,' says he. But I did think one o' you would 'a' nipped down to tell me—you're here sharp enough when you want to get anything out of old Perks"—Phyllis flushed purple as she thought of the strawberries—"information about locomotives or signals or the likes," said Perks.
"We didn't know you didn't know."
"We thought Mother had told you."
The three spoke all at once.
Perks said it was all very well, and still held up the paper. Then Phyllis suddenly snatched it away, and threw her arms round his neck.
"Oh, let's kiss and be friends," she said; "we'll say we're sorry first, if you like, but we didn't really know that you didn't know."
"We are so sorry," said the others.
And Perks at last consented to accept their apologies.
Then they got him to come out and sit in the sun on the green Railway Bank, where the grass was quite hot to touch, and there, sometimes speaking one at a time, and sometimes all together, they told the Porter the story of the Russian Prisoner.
"Well, I must say," said Perks; but he did not say it—whatever it was.
"Yes, it is pretty awful, isn't it?" said Peter, "and I don't wonder you were curious about who the Russian was."
"I wasn't curious, not so much as interested," said the Porter.
"Well, I do think Mr. Gills might have told you about it. It was horrid of him."
"I don't keep no down on 'im for that, Missie," said the Porter; "cos why? I see 'is reasons. 'E wouldn't want to give away 'is own side with a tale like that 'ere. It ain't human nature. A man's got to stand up for his own side whatever they does. That's what it means by Party Politics. I should 'a' done the same myself if that long-'aired chap 'ad 'a' been a Jap."
"But the Japs didn't do cruel, wicked things like that," said Bobbie.
"P'r'aps not," said Perks, cautiously; "still you can't be sure with foreigners. My own belief is they're all tarred with the same brush."
"Then why were you on the side of the Japs?" Peter asked.
"Well, you see, you must take one side or the other. Same as with Liberals and Conservatives. The great thing is to take your side and then stick to it, whatever happens."
A signal sounded.
"There's the 3.14 up," said Perks. "You lie low till she's through, and then we'll go up along to my place, and see if there's any of them strawberries ripe what I told you about."
"If there are any ripe, and you DO give them to me," said Phyllis, "you won't mind if I give them to the poor Russian, will you?"
Perks narrowed his eyes and then raised his eyebrows.
"So it was them strawberries you come down for this afternoon, eh?" said he.
This was an awkward moment for Phyllis. To say "yes" would seem rude and greedy, and unkind to Perks. But she knew if she said "no," she would not be pleased with herself afterwards. So—
"Yes," she said, "it was."
"Well done!" said the Porter; "speak the truth and shame the—"
"But we'd have come down the very next day if we'd known you hadn't heard the story," Phyllis added hastily.
"I believe you, Missie," said Perks, and sprang across the line six feet in front of the advancing train.
The girls hated to see him do this, but Peter liked it. It was so exciting.
The Russian gentleman was so delighted with the strawberries that the three racked their brains to find some other surprise for him. But all the racking did not bring out any idea more novel than wild cherries. And this idea occurred to them next morning. They had seen the blossom on the trees in the spring, and they knew where to look for wild cherries now that cherry time was here. The trees grew all up and along the rocky face of the cliff out of which the mouth of the tunnel opened. There were all sorts of trees there, birches and beeches and baby oaks and hazels, and among them the cherry blossom had shone like snow and silver.
The mouth of the tunnel was some way from Three Chimneys, so Mother let them take their lunch with them in a basket. And the basket would do to bring the cherries back in if they found any. She also lent them her silver watch so that they should not be late for tea. Peter's Waterbury had taken it into its head not to go since the day when Peter dropped it into the water-butt. And they started. When they got to the top of the cutting, they leaned over the fence and looked down to where the railway lines lay at the bottom of what, as Phyllis said, was exactly like a mountain gorge.
"If it wasn't for the railway at the bottom, it would be as though the foot of man had never been there, wouldn't it?"
The sides of the cutting were of grey stone, very roughly hewn. Indeed, the top part of the cutting had been a little natural glen that had been cut deeper to bring it down to the level of the tunnel's mouth. Among the rocks, grass and flowers grew, and seeds dropped by birds in the crannies of the stone had taken root and grown into bushes and trees that overhung the cutting. Near the tunnel was a flight of steps leading down to the line—just wooden bars roughly fixed into the earth—a very steep and narrow way, more like a ladder than a stair.
"We'd better get down," said Peter; "I'm sure the cherries would be quite easy to get at from the side of the steps. You remember it was there we picked the cherry blossoms that we put on the rabbit's grave."
So they went along the fence towards the little swing gate that is at the top of these steps. And they were almost at the gate when Bobbie said:—
"Hush. Stop! What's that?"
"That" was a very odd noise indeed—a soft noise, but quite plainly to be heard through the sound of the wind in tree branches, and the hum and whir of the telegraph wires. It was a sort of rustling, whispering sound. As they listened it stopped, and then it began again.
And this time it did not stop, but it grew louder and more rustling and rumbling.
"Look"—cried Peter, suddenly—"the tree over there!"
The tree he pointed at was one of those that have rough grey leaves and white flowers. The berries, when they come, are bright scarlet, but if you pick them, they disappoint you by turning black before you get them home. And, as Peter pointed, the tree was moving—not just the way trees ought to move when the wind blows through them, but all in one piece, as though it were a live creature and were walking down the side of the cutting.
"It's moving!" cried Bobbie. "Oh, look! and so are the others. It's like the woods in Macbeth."
"It's magic," said Phyllis, breathlessly. "I always knew this railway was enchanted."
It really did seem a little like magic. For all the trees for about twenty yards of the opposite bank seemed to be slowly walking down towards the railway line, the tree with the grey leaves bringing up the rear like some old shepherd driving a flock of green sheep.
"What is it? Oh, what is it?" said Phyllis; "it's much too magic for me. I don't like it. Let's go home."
But Bobbie and Peter clung fast to the rail and watched breathlessly. And Phyllis made no movement towards going home by herself.
The trees moved on and on. Some stones and loose earth fell down and rattled on the railway metals far below.
"It's ALL coming down," Peter tried to say, but he found there was hardly any voice to say it with. And, indeed, just as he spoke, the great rock, on the top of which the walking trees were, leaned slowly forward. The trees, ceasing to walk, stood still and shivered. Leaning with the rock, they seemed to hesitate a moment, and then rock and trees and grass and bushes, with a rushing sound, slipped right away from the face of the cutting and fell on the line with a blundering crash that could have been heard half a mile off. A cloud of dust rose up.
"Oh," said Peter, in awestruck tones, "isn't it exactly like when coals come in?—if there wasn't any roof to the cellar and you could see down."
"Look what a great mound it's made!" said Bobbie.
"Yes," said Peter, slowly. He was still leaning on the fence. "Yes," he said again, still more slowly.
Then he stood upright.
"The 11.29 down hasn't gone by yet. We must let them know at the station, or there'll be a most frightful accident."
"Let's run," said Bobbie, and began.
But Peter cried, "Come back!" and looked at Mother's watch. He was very prompt and businesslike, and his face looked whiter than they had ever seen it.
"No time," he said; "it's two miles away, and it's past eleven."
"Couldn't we," suggested Phyllis, breathlessly, "couldn't we climb up a telegraph post and do something to the wires?"
"We don't know how," said Peter.
"They do it in war," said Phyllis; "I know I've heard of it."
"They only CUT them, silly," said Peter, "and that doesn't do any good. And we couldn't cut them even if we got up, and we couldn't get up. If we had anything red, we could get down on the line and wave it."
"But the train wouldn't see us till it got round the corner, and then it could see the mound just as well as us," said Phyllis; "better, because it's much bigger than us."
"If we only had something red," Peter repeated, "we could go round the corner and wave to the train."
"We might wave, anyway."
"They'd only think it was just US, as usual. We've waved so often before. Anyway, let's get down."
They got down the steep stairs. Bobbie was pale and shivering. Peter's face looked thinner than usual. Phyllis was red-faced and damp with anxiety.
"Oh, how hot I am!" she said; "and I thought it was going to be cold; I wish we hadn't put on our—" she stopped short, and then ended in quite a different tone—"our flannel petticoats."
Bobbie turned at the bottom of the stairs.
"Oh, yes," she cried; "THEY'RE red! Let's take them off."
They did, and with the petticoats rolled up under their arms, ran along the railway, skirting the newly fallen mound of stones and rock and earth, and bent, crushed, twisted trees. They ran at their best pace. Peter led, but the girls were not far behind. They reached the corner that hid the mound from the straight line of railway that ran half a mile without curve or corner.
"Now," said Peter, taking hold of the largest flannel petticoat.
"You're not"—Phyllis faltered—"you're not going to TEAR them?"
"Shut up," said Peter, with brief sternness.
"Oh, yes," said Bobbie, "tear them into little bits if you like. Don't you see, Phil, if we can't stop the train, there'll be a real live accident, with people KILLED. Oh, horrible! Here, Peter, you'll never tear it through the band!"
She took the red flannel petticoat from him and tore it off an inch from the band. Then she tore the other in the same way.
"There!" said Peter, tearing in his turn. He divided each petticoat into three pieces. "Now, we've got six flags." He looked at the watch again. "And we've got seven minutes. We must have flagstaffs."
The knives given to boys are, for some odd reason, seldom of the kind of steel that keeps sharp. The young saplings had to be broken off. Two came up by the roots. The leaves were stripped from them.
"We must cut holes in the flags, and run the sticks through the holes," said Peter. And the holes were cut. The knife was sharp enough to cut flannel with. Two of the flags were set up in heaps of loose stones between the sleepers of the down line. Then Phyllis and Roberta took each a flag, and stood ready to wave it as soon as the train came in sight.
"I shall have the other two myself," said Peter, "because it was my idea to wave something red."
"They're our petticoats, though," Phyllis was beginning, but Bobbie interrupted—
"Oh, what does it matter who waves what, if we can only save the train?"
Perhaps Peter had not rightly calculated the number of minutes it would take the 11.29 to get from the station to the place where they were, or perhaps the train was late. Anyway, it seemed a very long time that they waited.
Phyllis grew impatient. "I expect the watch is wrong, and the train's gone by," said she.
Peter relaxed the heroic attitude he had chosen to show off his two flags. And Bobbie began to feel sick with suspense.
It seemed to her that they had been standing there for hours and hours, holding those silly little red flannel flags that no one would ever notice. The train wouldn't care. It would go rushing by them and tear round the corner and go crashing into that awful mound. And everyone would be killed. Her hands grew very cold and trembled so that she could hardly hold the flag. And then came the distant rumble and hum of the metals, and a puff of white steam showed far away along the stretch of line.
"Stand firm," said Peter, "and wave like mad! When it gets to that big furze bush step back, but go on waving! Don't stand ON the line, Bobbie!"
The train came rattling along very, very fast.
"They don't see us! They won't see us! It's all no good!" cried Bobbie.
The two little flags on the line swayed as the nearing train shook and loosened the heaps of loose stones that held them up. One of them slowly leaned over and fell on the line. Bobbie jumped forward and caught it up, and waved it; her hands did not tremble now.
It seemed that the train came on as fast as ever. It was very near now.
"Keep off the line, you silly cuckoo!" said Peter, fiercely.
"It's no good," Bobbie said again.
"Stand back!" cried Peter, suddenly, and he dragged Phyllis back by the arm.
But Bobbie cried, "Not yet, not yet!" and waved her two flags right over the line. The front of the engine looked black and enormous. It's voice was loud and harsh.
"Oh, stop, stop, stop!" cried Bobbie. No one heard her. At least Peter and Phyllis didn't, for the oncoming rush of the train covered the sound of her voice with a mountain of sound. But afterwards she used to wonder whether the engine itself had not heard her. It seemed almost as though it had—for it slackened swiftly, slackened and stopped, not twenty yards from the place where Bobbie's two flags waved over the line. She saw the great black engine stop dead, but somehow she could not stop waving the flags. And when the driver and the fireman had got off the engine and Peter and Phyllis had gone to meet them and pour out their excited tale of the awful mound just round the corner, Bobbie still waved the flags but more and more feebly and jerkily.
When the others turned towards her she was lying across the line with her hands flung forward and still gripping the sticks of the little red flannel flags.
The engine-driver picked her up, carried her to the train, and laid her on the cushions of a first-class carriage.
"Gone right off in a faint," he said, "poor little woman. And no wonder. I'll just 'ave a look at this 'ere mound of yours, and then we'll run you back to the station and get her seen to."
It was horrible to see Bobbie lying so white and quiet, with her lips blue, and parted.
"I believe that's what people look like when they're dead," whispered Phyllis.
"DON'T!" said Peter, sharply.
They sat by Bobbie on the blue cushions, and the train ran back. Before it reached their station Bobbie had sighed and opened her eyes, and rolled herself over and begun to cry. This cheered the others wonderfully. They had seen her cry before, but they had never seen her faint, nor anyone else, for the matter of that. They had not known what to do when she was fainting, but now she was only crying they could thump her on the back and tell her not to, just as they always did. And presently, when she stopped crying, they were able to laugh at her for being such a coward as to faint.
When the station was reached, the three were the heroes of an agitated meeting on the platform.
The praises they got for their "prompt action," their "common sense," their "ingenuity," were enough to have turned anybody's head. Phyllis enjoyed herself thoroughly. She had never been a real heroine before, and the feeling was delicious. Peter's ears got very red. Yet he, too, enjoyed himself. Only Bobbie wished they all wouldn't. She wanted to get away.
"You'll hear from the Company about this, I expect," said the Station Master.
Bobbie wished she might never hear of it again. She pulled at Peter's jacket.
"Oh, come away, come away! I want to go home," she said.
So they went. And as they went Station Master and Porter and guards and driver and fireman and passengers sent up a cheer.
"Oh, listen," cried Phyllis; "that's for US!"
"Yes," said Peter. "I say, I am glad I thought about something red, and waving it."
"How lucky we DID put on our red flannel petticoats!" said Phyllis.
Bobbie said nothing. She was thinking of the horrible mound, and the trustful train rushing towards it.
"And it was US that saved them," said Peter.
"How dreadful if they had all been killed!" said Phyllis; "wouldn't it, Bobbie?"
"We never got any cherries, after all," said Bobbie.
The others thought her rather heartless.
Chapter VII. For valour.
I hope you don't mind my telling you a good deal about Roberta. The fact is I am growing very fond of her. The more I observe her the more I love her. And I notice all sorts of things about her that I like.
For instance, she was quite oddly anxious to make other people happy. And she could keep a secret, a tolerably rare accomplishment. Also she had the power of silent sympathy. That sounds rather dull, I know, but it's not so dull as it sounds. It just means that a person is able to know that you are unhappy, and to love you extra on that account, without bothering you by telling you all the time how sorry she is for you. That was what Bobbie was like. She knew that Mother was unhappy—and that Mother had not told her the reason. So she just loved Mother more and never said a single word that could let Mother know how earnestly her little girl wondered what Mother was unhappy about. This needs practice. It is not so easy as you might think.
Whatever happened—and all sorts of nice, pleasant ordinary things happened—such as picnics, games, and buns for tea, Bobbie always had these thoughts at the back of her mind. "Mother's unhappy. Why? I don't know. She doesn't want me to know. I won't try to find out. But she IS unhappy. Why? I don't know. She doesn't—" and so on, repeating and repeating like a tune that you don't know the stopping part of.
The Russian gentleman still took up a good deal of everybody's thoughts. All the editors and secretaries of Societies and Members of Parliament had answered Mother's letters as politely as they knew how; but none of them could tell where the wife and children of Mr. Szezcpansky would be likely to be. (Did I tell you that the Russian's very Russian name was that?)
Bobbie had another quality which you will hear differently described by different people. Some of them call it interfering in other people's business—and some call it "helping lame dogs over stiles," and some call it "loving-kindness." It just means trying to help people.
She racked her brains to think of some way of helping the Russian gentleman to find his wife and children. He had learned a few words of English now. He could say "Good morning," and "Good night," and "Please," and "Thank you," and "Pretty," when the children brought him flowers, and "Ver' good," when they asked him how he had slept.
The way he smiled when he "said his English," was, Bobbie felt, "just too sweet for anything." She used to think of his face because she fancied it would help her to some way of helping him. But it did not. Yet his being there cheered her because she saw that it made Mother happier.
"She likes to have someone to be good to, even beside us," said Bobbie. "And I know she hated to let him have Father's clothes. But I suppose it 'hurt nice,' or she wouldn't have."
For many and many a night after the day when she and Peter and Phyllis had saved the train from wreck by waving their little red flannel flags, Bobbie used to wake screaming and shivering, seeing again that horrible mound, and the poor, dear trustful engine rushing on towards it—just thinking that it was doing its swift duty, and that everything was clear and safe. And then a warm thrill of pleasure used to run through her at the remembrance of how she and Peter and Phyllis and the red flannel petticoats had really saved everybody.
One morning a letter came. It was addressed to Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis. They opened it with enthusiastic curiosity, for they did not often get letters.
The letter said:—
"Dear Sir, and Ladies,—It is proposed to make a small presentation to you, in commemoration of your prompt and courageous action in warning the train on the —- inst., and thus averting what must, humanly speaking, have been a terrible accident. The presentation will take place at the —- Station at three o'clock on the 30th inst., if this time and place will be convenient to you.
"Jabez Inglewood. "Secretary, Great Northern and Southern Railway Co."
There never had been a prouder moment in the lives of the three children. They rushed to Mother with the letter, and she also felt proud and said so, and this made the children happier than ever.
"But if the presentation is money, you must say, 'Thank you, but we'd rather not take it,'" said Mother. "I'll wash your Indian muslins at once," she added. "You must look tidy on an occasion like this."
"Phil and I can wash them," said Bobbie, "if you'll iron them, Mother."
Washing is rather fun. I wonder whether you've ever done it? This particular washing took place in the back kitchen, which had a stone floor and a very big stone sink under its window.
"Let's put the bath on the sink," said Phyllis; "then we can pretend we're out-of-doors washerwomen like Mother saw in France."
"But they were washing in the cold river," said Peter, his hands in his pockets, "not in hot water."
"This is a HOT river, then," said Phyllis; "lend a hand with the bath, there's a dear."
"I should like to see a deer lending a hand," said Peter, but he lent his.
"Now to rub and scrub and scrub and rub," said Phyllis, hopping joyously about as Bobbie carefully carried the heavy kettle from the kitchen fire.
"Oh, no!" said Bobbie, greatly shocked; "you don't rub muslin. You put the boiled soap in the hot water and make it all frothy-lathery—and then you shake the muslin and squeeze it, ever so gently, and all the dirt comes out. It's only clumsy things like tablecloths and sheets that have to be rubbed."
The lilac and the Gloire de Dijon roses outside the window swayed in the soft breeze.
"It's a nice drying day—that's one thing," said Bobbie, feeling very grown up. "Oh, I do wonder what wonderful feelings we shall have when we WEAR the Indian muslin dresses!"
"Yes, so do I," said Phyllis, shaking and squeezing the muslin in quite a professional manner.
"NOW we squeeze out the soapy water. NO—we mustn't twist them—and then rinse them. I'll hold them while you and Peter empty the bath and get clean water."
"A presentation! That means presents," said Peter, as his sisters, having duly washed the pegs and wiped the line, hung up the dresses to dry. "Whatever will it be?"
"It might be anything," said Phyllis; "what I've always wanted is a Baby elephant—but I suppose they wouldn't know that."
"Suppose it was gold models of steam-engines?" said Bobbie.
"Or a big model of the scene of the prevented accident," suggested Peter, "with a little model train, and dolls dressed like us and the engine-driver and fireman and passengers."
"Do you LIKE," said Bobbie, doubtfully, drying her hands on the rough towel that hung on a roller at the back of the scullery door, "do you LIKE us being rewarded for saving a train?"
"Yes, I do," said Peter, downrightly; "and don't you try to come it over us that you don't like it, too. Because I know you do."
"Yes," said Bobbie, doubtfully, "I know I do. But oughtn't we to be satisfied with just having done it, and not ask for anything more?"
"Who did ask for anything more, silly?" said her brother; "Victoria Cross soldiers don't ASK for it; but they're glad enough to get it all the same. Perhaps it'll be medals. Then, when I'm very old indeed, I shall show them to my grandchildren and say, 'We only did our duty,' and they'll be awfully proud of me."
"You have to be married," warned Phyllis, "or you don't have any grandchildren."
"I suppose I shall HAVE to be married some day," said Peter, "but it will be an awful bother having her round all the time. I'd like to marry a lady who had trances, and only woke up once or twice a year."
"Just to say you were the light of her life and then go to sleep again. Yes. That wouldn't be bad," said Bobbie.
"When I get married," said Phyllis, "I shall want him to want me to be awake all the time, so that I can hear him say how nice I am."
"I think it would be nice," said Bobbie, "to marry someone very poor, and then you'd do all the work and he'd love you most frightfully, and see the blue wood smoke curling up among the trees from the domestic hearth as he came home from work every night. I say—we've got to answer that letter and say that the time and place WILL be convenient to us. There's the soap, Peter. WE'RE both as clean as clean. That pink box of writing paper you had on your birthday, Phil."
It took some time to arrange what should be said. Mother had gone back to her writing, and several sheets of pink paper with scalloped gilt edges and green four-leaved shamrocks in the corner were spoiled before the three had decided what to say. Then each made a copy and signed it with its own name.
The threefold letter ran:—
"Dear Mr. Jabez Inglewood,—Thank you very much. We did not want to be rewarded but only to save the train, but we are glad you think so and thank you very much. The time and place you say will be quite convenient to us. Thank you very much.
"Your affecate little friend,"
Then came the name, and after it:—
"P.S. Thank you very much."
"Washing is much easier than ironing," said Bobbie, taking the clean dry dresses off the line. "I do love to see things come clean. Oh—I don't know how we shall wait till it's time to know what presentation they're going to present!"
When at last—it seemed a very long time after—it was THE day, the three children went down to the station at the proper time. And everything that happened was so odd that it seemed like a dream. The Station Master came out to meet them—in his best clothes, as Peter noticed at once—and led them into the waiting room where once they had played the advertisement game. It looked quite different now. A carpet had been put down—and there were pots of roses on the mantelpiece and on the window ledges—green branches stuck up, like holly and laurel are at Christmas, over the framed advertisement of Cook's Tours and the Beauties of Devon and the Paris Lyons Railway. There were quite a number of people there besides the Porter—two or three ladies in smart dresses, and quite a crowd of gentlemen in high hats and frock coats—besides everybody who belonged to the station. They recognized several people who had been in the train on the red-flannel-petticoat day. Best of all their own old gentleman was there, and his coat and hat and collar seemed more than ever different from anyone else's. He shook hands with them and then everybody sat down on chairs, and a gentleman in spectacles—they found out afterwards that he was the District Superintendent—began quite a long speech—very clever indeed. I am not going to write the speech down. First, because you would think it dull; and secondly, because it made all the children blush so, and get so hot about the ears that I am quite anxious to get away from this part of the subject; and thirdly, because the gentleman took so many words to say what he had to say that I really haven't time to write them down. He said all sorts of nice things about the children's bravery and presence of mind, and when he had done he sat down, and everyone who was there clapped and said, "Hear, hear."
And then the old gentleman got up and said things, too. It was very like a prize-giving. And then he called the children one by one, by their names, and gave each of them a beautiful gold watch and chain. And inside the watches were engraved after the name of the watch's new owner:—
"From the Directors of the Northern and Southern Railway in grateful recognition of the courageous and prompt action which averted an accident on —- 1905."
The watches were the most beautiful you can possibly imagine, and each one had a blue leather case to live in when it was at home.
"You must make a speech now and thank everyone for their kindness," whispered the Station Master in Peter's ear and pushed him forward. "Begin 'Ladies and Gentlemen,'" he added.
Each of the children had already said "Thank you," quite properly.
"Oh, dear," said Peter, but he did not resist the push.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," he said in a rather husky voice. Then there was a pause, and he heard his heart beating in his throat. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he went on with a rush, "it's most awfully good of you, and we shall treasure the watches all our lives—but really we don't deserve it because what we did wasn't anything, really. At least, I mean it was awfully exciting, and what I mean to say—thank you all very, very much."
The people clapped Peter more than they had done the District Superintendent, and then everybody shook hands with them, and as soon as politeness would let them, they got away, and tore up the hill to Three Chimneys with their watches in their hands.
It was a wonderful day—the kind of day that very seldom happens to anybody and to most of us not at all.
"I did want to talk to the old gentleman about something else," said Bobbie, "but it was so public—like being in church."
"What did you want to say?" asked Phyllis.
"I'll tell you when I've thought about it more," said Bobbie.
So when she had thought a little more she wrote a letter.
"My dearest old gentleman," it said; "I want most awfully to ask you something. If you could get out of the train and go by the next, it would do. I do not want you to give me anything. Mother says we ought not to. And besides, we do not want any THINGS. Only to talk to you about a Prisoner and Captive. Your loving little friend,
She got the Station Master to give the letter to the old gentleman, and next day she asked Peter and Phyllis to come down to the station with her at the time when the train that brought the old gentleman from town would be passing through.
She explained her idea to them—and they approved thoroughly.
They had all washed their hands and faces, and brushed their hair, and were looking as tidy as they knew how. But Phyllis, always unlucky, had upset a jug of lemonade down the front of her dress. There was no time to change—and the wind happening to blow from the coal yard, her frock was soon powdered with grey, which stuck to the sticky lemonade stains and made her look, as Peter said, "like any little gutter child."
It was decided that she should keep behind the others as much as possible.
"Perhaps the old gentleman won't notice," said Bobbie. "The aged are often weak in the eyes."
There was no sign of weakness, however, in the eyes, or in any other part of the old gentleman, as he stepped from the train and looked up and down the platform.
The three children, now that it came to the point, suddenly felt that rush of deep shyness which makes your ears red and hot, your hands warm and wet, and the tip of your nose pink and shiny.
"Oh," said Phyllis, "my heart's thumping like a steam-engine—right under my sash, too."
"Nonsense," said Peter, "people's hearts aren't under their sashes."
"I don't care—mine is," said Phyllis.
"If you're going to talk like a poetry-book," said Peter, "my heart's in my mouth."
"My heart's in my boots—if you come to that," said Roberta; "but do come on—he'll think we're idiots."
"He won't be far wrong," said Peter, gloomily. And they went forward to meet the old gentleman.
"Hullo," he said, shaking hands with them all in turn. "This is a very great pleasure."
"It WAS good of you to get out," Bobbie said, perspiring and polite.
He took her arm and drew her into the waiting room where she and the others had played the advertisement game the day they found the Russian. Phyllis and Peter followed. "Well?" said the old gentleman, giving Bobbie's arm a kind little shake before he let it go. "Well? What is it?"
"Oh, please!" said Bobbie.
"Yes?" said the old gentleman.
"What I mean to say—" said Bobbie.
"Well?" said the old gentleman.
"It's all very nice and kind," said she.
"But?" he said.
"I wish I might say something," she said.
"Say it," said he.
"Well, then," said Bobbie—and out came the story of the Russian who had written the beautiful book about poor people, and had been sent to prison and to Siberia for just that.
"And what we want more than anything in the world is to find his wife and children for him," said Bobbie, "but we don't know how. But you must be most horribly clever, or you wouldn't be a Direction of the Railway. And if YOU knew how—and would? We'd rather have that than anything else in the world. We'd go without the watches, even, if you could sell them and find his wife with the money."
And the others said so, too, though not with so much enthusiasm.
"Hum," said the old gentleman, pulling down the white waistcoat that had the big gilt buttons on it, "what did you say the name was—Fryingpansky?"
"No, no," said Bobbie earnestly. "I'll write it down for you. It doesn't really look at all like that except when you say it. Have you a bit of pencil and the back of an envelope?" she asked.
The old gentleman got out a gold pencil-case and a beautiful, sweet-smelling, green Russian leather note-book and opened it at a new page.
"Here," he said, "write here."
She wrote down "Szezcpansky," and said:—
"That's how you write it. You CALL it Shepansky."
The old gentleman took out a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and fitted them on his nose. When he had read the name, he looked quite different.
"THAT man? Bless my soul!" he said. "Why, I've read his book! It's translated into every European language. A fine book—a noble book. And so your mother took him in—like the good Samaritan. Well, well. I'll tell you what, youngsters—your mother must be a very good woman."
"Of course she is," said Phyllis, in astonishment.
"And you're a very good man," said Bobbie, very shy, but firmly resolved to be polite.
"You flatter me," said the old gentleman, taking off his hat with a flourish. "And now am I to tell you what I think of you?"
"Oh, please don't," said Bobbie, hastily.
"Why?" asked the old gentleman.
"I don't exactly know," said Bobbie. "Only—if it's horrid, I don't want you to; and if it's nice, I'd rather you didn't."
The old gentleman laughed.
"Well, then," he said, "I'll only just say that I'm very glad you came to me about this—very glad, indeed. And I shouldn't be surprised if I found out something very soon. I know a great many Russians in London, and every Russian knows HIS name. Now tell me all about yourselves."
He turned to the others, but there was only one other, and that was Peter. Phyllis had disappeared.
"Tell me all about yourself," said the old gentleman again. And, quite naturally, Peter was stricken dumb.
"All right, we'll have an examination," said the old gentleman; "you two sit on the table, and I'll sit on the bench and ask questions."
He did, and out came their names and ages—their Father's name and business—how long they had lived at Three Chimneys and a great deal more.
The questions were beginning to turn on a herring and a half for three halfpence, and a pound of lead and a pound of feathers, when the door of the waiting room was kicked open by a boot; as the boot entered everyone could see that its lace was coming undone—and in came Phyllis, very slowly and carefully.
In one hand she carried a large tin can, and in the other a thick slice of bread and butter.
"Afternoon tea," she announced proudly, and held the can and the bread and butter out to the old gentleman, who took them and said:—
"Bless my soul!"
"Yes," said Phyllis.
"It's very thoughtful of you," said the old gentleman, "very."
"But you might have got a cup," said Bobbie, "and a plate."
"Perks always drinks out of the can," said Phyllis, flushing red. "I think it was very nice of him to give it me at all—let alone cups and plates," she added.
"So do I," said the old gentleman, and he drank some of the tea and tasted the bread and butter.
And then it was time for the next train, and he got into it with many good-byes and kind last words.
"Well," said Peter, when they were left on the platform, and the tail-lights of the train disappeared round the corner, "it's my belief that we've lighted a candle to-day—like Latimer, you know, when he was being burned—and there'll be fireworks for our Russian before long."
And so there were.
It wasn't ten days after the interview in the waiting room that the three children were sitting on the top of the biggest rock in the field below their house watching the 5.15 steam away from the station along the bottom of the valley. They saw, too, the few people who had got out at the station straggling up the road towards the village—and they saw one person leave the road and open the gate that led across the fields to Three Chimneys and to nowhere else.
"Who on earth!" said Peter, scrambling down.
"Let's go and see," said Phyllis.
So they did. And when they got near enough to see who the person was, they saw it was their old gentleman himself, his brass buttons winking in the afternoon sunshine, and his white waistcoat looking whiter than ever against the green of the field.
"Hullo!" shouted the children, waving their hands.
"Hullo!" shouted the old gentleman, waving his hat.
Then the three started to run—and when they got to him they hardly had breath left to say:—
"How do you do?"
"Good news," said he. "I've found your Russian friend's wife and child—and I couldn't resist the temptation of giving myself the pleasure of telling him."
But as he looked at Bobbie's face he felt that he COULD resist that temptation.
"Here," he said to her, "you run on and tell him. The other two will show me the way."
Bobbie ran. But when she had breathlessly panted out the news to the Russian and Mother sitting in the quiet garden—when Mother's face had lighted up so beautifully, and she had said half a dozen quick French words to the Exile—Bobbie wished that she had NOT carried the news. For the Russian sprang up with a cry that made Bobbie's heart leap and then tremble—a cry of love and longing such as she had never heard. Then he took Mother's hand and kissed it gently and reverently—and then he sank down in his chair and covered his face with his hands and sobbed. Bobbie crept away. She did not want to see the others just then.
But she was as gay as anybody when the endless French talking was over, when Peter had torn down to the village for buns and cakes, and the girls had got tea ready and taken it out into the garden.
The old gentleman was most merry and delightful. He seemed to be able to talk in French and English almost at the same moment, and Mother did nearly as well. It was a delightful time. Mother seemed as if she could not make enough fuss about the old gentleman, and she said yes at once when he asked if he might present some "goodies" to his little friends.
The word was new to the children—but they guessed that it meant sweets, for the three large pink and green boxes, tied with green ribbon, which he took out of his bag, held unheard-of layers of beautiful chocolates.
The Russian's few belongings were packed, and they all saw him off at the station.
Then Mother turned to the old gentleman and said:—
"I don't know how to thank you for EVERYTHING. It has been a real pleasure to me to see you. But we live very quietly. I am so sorry that I can't ask you to come and see us again."
The children thought this very hard. When they HAD made a friend—and such a friend—they would dearly have liked him to come and see them again.
What the old gentleman thought they couldn't tell. He only said:—
"I consider myself very fortunate, Madam, to have been received once at your house."
"Ah," said Mother, "I know I must seem surly and ungrateful—but—"
"You could never seem anything but a most charming and gracious lady," said the old gentleman, with another of his bows.
And as they turned to go up the hill, Bobbie saw her Mother's face.
"How tired you look, Mammy," she said; "lean on me."
"It's my place to give Mother my arm," said Peter. "I'm the head man of the family when Father's away."
Mother took an arm of each.
"How awfully nice," said Phyllis, skipping joyfully, "to think of the dear Russian embracing his long-lost wife. The baby must have grown a lot since he saw it."
"Yes," said Mother.
"I wonder whether Father will think I'VE grown," Phyllis went on, skipping still more gaily. "I have grown already, haven't I, Mother?"
"Yes," said Mother, "oh, yes," and Bobbie and Peter felt her hands tighten on their arms.
"Poor old Mammy, you ARE tired," said Peter.
Bobbie said, "Come on, Phil; I'll race you to the gate."
And she started the race, though she hated doing it. YOU know why Bobbie did that. Mother only thought that Bobbie was tired of walking slowly. Even Mothers, who love you better than anyone else ever will, don't always understand.
Chapter VIII. The amateur firemen.
"That's a likely little brooch you've got on, Miss," said Perks the Porter; "I don't know as ever I see a thing more like a buttercup without it WAS a buttercup."
"Yes," said Bobbie, glad and flushed by this approval. "I always thought it was more like a buttercup almost than even a real one—and I NEVER thought it would come to be mine, my very own—and then Mother gave it to me for my birthday."
"Oh, have you had a birthday?" said Perks; and he seemed quite surprised, as though a birthday were a thing only granted to a favoured few.
"Yes," said Bobbie; "when's your birthday, Mr. Perks?" The children were taking tea with Mr. Perks in the Porters' room among the lamps and the railway almanacs. They had brought their own cups and some jam turnovers. Mr. Perks made tea in a beer can, as usual, and everyone felt very happy and confidential.
"My birthday?" said Perks, tipping some more dark brown tea out of the can into Peter's cup. "I give up keeping of my birthday afore you was born."
"But you must have been born SOMETIME, you know," said Phyllis, thoughtfully, "even if it was twenty years ago—or thirty or sixty or seventy."
"Not so long as that, Missie," Perks grinned as he answered. "If you really want to know, it was thirty-two years ago, come the fifteenth of this month."
"Then why don't you keep it?" asked Phyllis.
"I've got something else to keep besides birthdays," said Perks, briefly.
"Oh! What?" asked Phyllis, eagerly. "Not secrets?"
"No," said Perks, "the kids and the Missus."
It was this talk that set the children thinking, and, presently, talking. Perks was, on the whole, the dearest friend they had made. Not so grand as the Station Master, but more approachable—less powerful than the old gentleman, but more confidential.
"It seems horrid that nobody keeps his birthday," said Bobbie. "Couldn't WE do something?"
"Let's go up to the Canal bridge and talk it over," said Peter. "I got a new gut line from the postman this morning. He gave it me for a bunch of roses that I gave him for his sweetheart. She's ill."
"Then I do think you might have given her the roses for nothing," said Bobbie, indignantly.
"Nyang, nyang!" said Peter, disagreeably, and put his hands in his pockets.
"He did, of course," said Phyllis, in haste; "directly we heard she was ill we got the roses ready and waited by the gate. It was when you were making the brekker-toast. And when he'd said 'Thank you' for the roses so many times—much more than he need have—he pulled out the line and gave it to Peter. It wasn't exchange. It was the grateful heart."
"Oh, I BEG your pardon, Peter," said Bobbie, "I AM so sorry."
"Don't mention it," said Peter, grandly, "I knew you would be."
So then they all went up to the Canal bridge. The idea was to fish from the bridge, but the line was not quite long enough.
"Never mind," said Bobbie. "Let's just stay here and look at things. Everything's so beautiful."
It was. The sun was setting in red splendour over the grey and purple hills, and the canal lay smooth and shiny in the shadow—no ripple broke its surface. It was like a grey satin ribbon between the dusky green silk of the meadows that were on each side of its banks.
"It's all right," said Peter, "but somehow I can always see how pretty things are much better when I've something to do. Let's get down on to the towpath and fish from there."
Phyllis and Bobbie remembered how the boys on the canal-boats had thrown coal at them, and they said so.
"Oh, nonsense," said Peter. "There aren't any boys here now. If there were, I'd fight them."
Peter's sisters were kind enough not to remind him how he had NOT fought the boys when coal had last been thrown. Instead they said, "All right, then," and cautiously climbed down the steep bank to the towing-path. The line was carefully baited, and for half an hour they fished patiently and in vain. Not a single nibble came to nourish hope in their hearts.
All eyes were intent on the sluggish waters that earnestly pretended they had never harboured a single minnow when a loud rough shout made them start.
"Hi!" said the shout, in most disagreeable tones, "get out of that, can't you?"
An old white horse coming along the towing-path was within half a dozen yards of them. They sprang to their feet and hastily climbed up the bank.
"We'll slip down again when they've gone by," said Bobbie.
But, alas, the barge, after the manner of barges, stopped under the bridge.
"She's going to anchor," said Peter; "just our luck!"
The barge did not anchor, because an anchor is not part of a canal-boat's furniture, but she was moored with ropes fore and aft—and the ropes were made fast to the palings and to crowbars driven into the ground.
"What you staring at?" growled the Bargee, crossly.
"We weren't staring," said Bobbie; "we wouldn't be so rude."
"Rude be blessed," said the man; "get along with you!"
"Get along yourself," said Peter. He remembered what he had said about fighting boys, and, besides, he felt safe halfway up the bank. "We've as much right here as anyone else."
"Oh, 'AVE you, indeed!" said the man. "We'll soon see about that." And he came across his deck and began to climb down the side of his barge.
"Oh, come away, Peter, come away!" said Bobbie and Phyllis, in agonised unison.
"Not me," said Peter, "but YOU'D better."
The girls climbed to the top of the bank and stood ready to bolt for home as soon as they saw their brother out of danger. The way home lay all down hill. They knew that they all ran well. The Bargee did not look as if HE did. He was red-faced, heavy, and beefy.
But as soon as his foot was on the towing-path the children saw that they had misjudged him.
He made one spring up the bank and caught Peter by the leg, dragged him down—set him on his feet with a shake—took him by the ear—and said sternly:—
"Now, then, what do you mean by it? Don't you know these 'ere waters is preserved? You ain't no right catching fish 'ere—not to say nothing of your precious cheek."
Peter was always proud afterwards when he remembered that, with the Bargee's furious fingers tightening on his ear, the Bargee's crimson countenance close to his own, the Bargee's hot breath on his neck, he had the courage to speak the truth.
"I WASN'T catching fish," said Peter.
"That's not YOUR fault, I'll be bound," said the man, giving Peter's ear a twist—not a hard one—but still a twist.
Peter could not say that it was. Bobbie and Phyllis had been holding on to the railings above and skipping with anxiety. Now suddenly Bobbie slipped through the railings and rushed down the bank towards Peter, so impetuously that Phyllis, following more temperately, felt certain that her sister's descent would end in the waters of the canal. And so it would have done if the Bargee hadn't let go of Peter's ear—and caught her in his jerseyed arm.
"Who are you a-shoving of?" he said, setting her on her feet.
"Oh," said Bobbie, breathless, "I'm not shoving anybody. At least, not on purpose. Please don't be cross with Peter. Of course, if it's your canal, we're sorry and we won't any more. But we didn't know it was yours."
"Go along with you," said the Bargee.
"Yes, we will; indeed we will," said Bobbie, earnestly; "but we do beg your pardon—and really we haven't caught a single fish. I'd tell you directly if we had, honour bright I would."
She held out her hands and Phyllis turned out her little empty pocket to show that really they hadn't any fish concealed about them.
"Well," said the Bargee, more gently, "cut along, then, and don't you do it again, that's all."
The children hurried up the bank.
"Chuck us a coat, M'ria," shouted the man. And a red-haired woman in a green plaid shawl came out from the cabin door with a baby in her arms and threw a coat to him. He put it on, climbed the bank, and slouched along across the bridge towards the village.
"You'll find me up at the 'Rose and Crown' when you've got the kid to sleep," he called to her from the bridge.
When he was out of sight the children slowly returned. Peter insisted on this.
"The canal may belong to him," he said, "though I don't believe it does. But the bridge is everybody's. Doctor Forrest told me it's public property. I'm not going to be bounced off the bridge by him or anyone else, so I tell you."
Peter's ear was still sore and so were his feelings.
The girls followed him as gallant soldiers might follow the leader of a forlorn hope.
"I do wish you wouldn't," was all they said.
"Go home if you're afraid," said Peter; "leave me alone. I'M not afraid."
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 Peter, thickly.
"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.