She hesitated, looking at the three backs of the children, then she said, "Ahem."
Peter stayed as he was, but the girls looked round.
"You mustn't take no notice of my Bill," said the woman; "'is bark's worse'n 'is bite. Some of the kids down Farley way is fair terrors. It was them put 'is back up calling out about who ate the puppy-pie under Marlow bridge."
"Who DID?" asked Phyllis.
"I dunno," said the woman. "Nobody don't know! But somehow, and I don't know the why nor the wherefore of it, them words is p'ison to a barge-master. Don't you take no notice. 'E won't be back for two hours good. You might catch a power o' fish afore that. The light's good an' all," she added.
"Thank you," said Bobbie. "You're very kind. Where's your baby?"
"Asleep in the cabin," said the woman. "'E's all right. Never wakes afore twelve. Reg'lar as a church clock, 'e is."
"I'm sorry," said Bobbie; "I would have liked to see him, close to."
"And a finer you never did see, Miss, though I says it." The woman's face brightened as she spoke.
"Aren't you afraid to leave it?" said Peter.
"Lor' love you, no," said the woman; "who'd hurt a little thing like 'im? Besides, Spot's there. So long!"
The woman went away.
"Shall we go home?" said Phyllis.
"You can. I'm going to fish," said Peter briefly.
"I thought we came up here to talk about Perks's birthday," said Phyllis.
"Perks's birthday'll keep."
So they got down on the towing-path again and Peter fished. He did not catch anything.
It was almost quite dark, the girls were getting tired, and as Bobbie said, it was past bedtime, when suddenly Phyllis cried, "What's that?"
And she pointed to the canal boat. Smoke was coming from the chimney of the cabin, had indeed been curling softly into the soft evening air all the time—but now other wreaths of smoke were rising, and these were from the cabin door.
"It's on fire—that's all," said Peter, calmly. "Serve him right."
"Oh—how CAN you?" cried Phyllis. "Think of the poor dear dog."
"The BABY!" screamed Bobbie.
In an instant all three made for the barge.
Her mooring ropes were slack, and the little breeze, hardly strong enough to be felt, had yet been strong enough to drift her stern against the bank. Bobbie was first—then came Peter, and it was Peter who slipped and fell. He went into the canal up to his neck, and his feet could not feel the bottom, but his arm was on the edge of the barge. Phyllis caught at his hair. It hurt, but it helped him to get out. Next minute he had leaped on to the barge, Phyllis following.
"Not you!" he shouted to Bobbie; "ME, because I'm wet."
He caught up with Bobbie at the cabin door, and flung her aside very roughly indeed; if they had been playing, such roughness would have made Bobbie weep with tears of rage and pain. Now, though he flung her on to the edge of the hold, so that her knee and her elbow were grazed and bruised, she only cried:—
"No—not you—ME," and struggled up again. But not quickly enough.
Peter had already gone down two of the cabin steps into the cloud of thick smoke. He stopped, remembered all he had ever heard of fires, pulled his soaked handkerchief out of his breast pocket and tied it over his mouth. As he pulled it out he said:—
"It's all right, hardly any fire at all."
And this, though he thought it was a lie, was rather good of Peter. It was meant to keep Bobbie from rushing after him into danger. Of course it didn't.
The cabin glowed red. A paraffin lamp was burning calmly in an orange mist.
"Hi," said Peter, lifting the handkerchief from his mouth for a moment. "Hi, Baby—where are you?" He choked.
"Oh, let ME go," cried Bobbie, close behind him. Peter pushed her back more roughly than before, and went on.
Now what would have happened if the baby hadn't cried I don't know—but just at that moment it DID cry. Peter felt his way through the dark smoke, found something small and soft and warm and alive, picked it up and backed out, nearly tumbling over Bobbie who was close behind. A dog snapped at his leg—tried to bark, choked.
"I've got the kid," said Peter, tearing off the handkerchief and staggering on to the deck.
Bobbie caught at the place where the bark came from, and her hands met on the fat back of a smooth-haired dog. It turned and fastened its teeth on her hand, but very gently, as much as to say:—
"I'm bound to bark and bite if strangers come into my master's cabin, but I know you mean well, so I won't REALLY bite."
Bobbie dropped the dog.
"All right, old man. Good dog," said she. "Here—give me the baby, Peter; you're so wet you'll give it cold."
Peter was only too glad to hand over the strange little bundle that squirmed and whimpered in his arms.
"Now," said Bobbie, quickly, "you run straight to the 'Rose and Crown' and tell them. Phil and I will stay here with the precious. Hush, then, a dear, a duck, a darling! Go NOW, Peter! Run!"
"I can't run in these things," said Peter, firmly; "they're as heavy as lead. I'll walk."
"Then I'LL run," said Bobbie. "Get on the bank, Phil, and I'll hand you the dear."
The baby was carefully handed. Phyllis sat down on the bank and tried to hush the baby. Peter wrung the water from his sleeves and knickerbocker legs as well as he could, and it was Bobbie who ran like the wind across the bridge and up the long white quiet twilight road towards the 'Rose and Crown.'
There is a nice old-fashioned room at the 'Rose and Crown; where Bargees and their wives sit of an evening drinking their supper beer, and toasting their supper cheese at a glowing basketful of coals that sticks out into the room under a great hooded chimney and is warmer and prettier and more comforting than any other fireplace I ever saw.
There was a pleasant party of barge people round the fire. You might not have thought it pleasant, but they did; for they were all friends or acquaintances, and they liked the same sort of things, and talked the same sort of talk. This is the real secret of pleasant society. The Bargee Bill, whom the children had found so disagreeable, was considered excellent company by his mates. He was telling a tale of his own wrongs—always a thrilling subject. It was his barge he was speaking about.
"And 'e sent down word 'paint her inside hout,' not namin' no colour, d'ye see? So I gets a lotter green paint and I paints her stem to stern, and I tell yer she looked A1. Then 'E comes along and 'e says, 'Wot yer paint 'er all one colour for?' 'e says. And I says, says I, 'Cause I thought she'd look fust-rate,' says I, 'and I think so still.' An' he says, 'DEW yer? Then ye can just pay for the bloomin' paint yerself,' says he. An' I 'ad to, too." A murmur of sympathy ran round the room. Breaking noisily in on it came Bobbie. She burst open the swing door—crying breathlessly:—
"Bill! I want Bill the Bargeman."
There was a stupefied silence. Pots of beer were held in mid-air, paralysed on their way to thirsty mouths.
"Oh," said Bobbie, seeing the bargewoman and making for her. "Your barge cabin's on fire. Go quickly."
The woman started to her feet, and put a big red hand to her waist, on the left side, where your heart seems to be when you are frightened or miserable.
"Reginald Horace!" she cried in a terrible voice; "my Reginald Horace!"
"All right," said Bobbie, "if you mean the baby; got him out safe. Dog, too." She had no breath for more, except, "Go on—it's all alight."
Then she sank on the ale-house bench and tried to get that breath of relief after running which people call the 'second wind.' But she felt as though she would never breathe again.
Bill the Bargee rose slowly and heavily. But his wife was a hundred yards up the road before he had quite understood what was the matter.
Phyllis, shivering by the canal side, had hardly heard the quick approaching feet before the woman had flung herself on the railing, rolled down the bank, and snatched the baby from her.
"Don't," said Phyllis, reproachfully; "I'd just got him to sleep."
* * * * * *
Bill came up later talking in a language with which the children were wholly unfamiliar. He leaped on to the barge and dipped up pails of water. Peter helped him and they put out the fire. Phyllis, the bargewoman, and the baby—and presently Bobbie, too—cuddled together in a heap on the bank.
"Lord help me, if it was me left anything as could catch alight," said the woman again and again.
But it wasn't she. It was Bill the Bargeman, who had knocked his pipe out and the red ash had fallen on the hearth-rug and smouldered there and at last broken into flame. Though a stern man he was just. He did not blame his wife for what was his own fault, as many bargemen, and other men, too, would have done.
* * * * * *
Mother was half wild with anxiety when at last the three children turned up at Three Chimneys, all very wet by now, for Peter seemed to have come off on the others. But when she had disentangled the truth of what had happened from their mixed and incoherent narrative, she owned that they had done quite right, and could not possibly have done otherwise. Nor did she put any obstacles in the way of their accepting the cordial invitation with which the bargeman had parted from them.
"Ye be here at seven to-morrow," he had said, "and I'll take you the entire trip to Farley and back, so I will, and not a penny to pay. Nineteen locks!"
They did not know what locks were; but they were at the bridge at seven, with bread and cheese and half a soda cake, and quite a quarter of a leg of mutton in a basket.
It was a glorious day. The old white horse strained at the ropes, the barge glided smoothly and steadily through the still water. The sky was blue overhead. Mr. Bill was as nice as anyone could possibly be. No one would have thought that he could be the same man who had held Peter by the ear. As for Mrs. Bill, she had always been nice, as Bobbie said, and so had the baby, and even Spot, who might have bitten them quite badly if he had liked.
"It was simply ripping, Mother," said Peter, when they reached home very happy, very tired, and very dirty, "right over that glorious aqueduct. And locks—you don't know what they're like. You sink into the ground and then, when you feel you're never going to stop going down, two great black gates open slowly, slowly—you go out, and there you are on the canal just like you were before."
"I know," said Mother, "there are locks on the Thames. Father and I used to go on the river at Marlow before we were married."
"And the dear, darling, ducky baby," said Bobbie; "it let me nurse it for ages and ages—and it WAS so good. Mother, I wish we had a baby to play with."
"And everybody was so nice to us," said Phyllis, "everybody we met. And they say we may fish whenever we like. And Bill is going to show us the way next time he's in these parts. He says we don't know really."
"He said YOU didn't know," said Peter; "but, Mother, he said he'd tell all the bargees up and down the canal that we were the real, right sort, and they were to treat us like good pals, as we were."
"So then I said," Phyllis interrupted, "we'd always each wear a red ribbon when we went fishing by the canal, so they'd know it was US, and we were the real, right sort, and be nice to us!"
"So you've made another lot of friends," said Mother; "first the railway and then the canal!"
"Oh, yes," said Bobbie; "I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don't want to be UN-friends."
"Perhaps you're right," said Mother; and she sighed. "Come, Chicks. It's bedtime."
"Yes," said Phyllis. "Oh dear—and we went up there to talk about what we'd do for Perks's birthday. And we haven't talked a single thing about it!"
"No more we have," said Bobbie; "but Peter's saved Reginald Horace's life. I think that's about good enough for one evening."
"Bobbie would have saved him if I hadn't knocked her down; twice I did," said Peter, loyally.
"So would I," said Phyllis, "if I'd known what to do."
"Yes," said Mother, "you've saved a little child's life. I do think that's enough for one evening. Oh, my darlings, thank God YOU'RE all safe!"
Chapter IX. The pride of Perks.
It was breakfast-time. Mother's face was very bright as she poured the milk and ladled out the porridge.
"I've sold another story, Chickies," she said; "the one about the King of the Mussels, so there'll be buns for tea. You can go and get them as soon as they're baked. About eleven, isn't it?"
Peter, Phyllis, and Bobbie exchanged glances with each other, six glances in all. Then Bobbie said:—
"Mother, would you mind if we didn't have the buns for tea to-night, but on the fifteenth? That's next Thursday."
"I don't mind when you have them, dear," said Mother, "but why?"
"Because it's Perks's birthday," said Bobbie; "he's thirty-two, and he says he doesn't keep his birthday any more, because he's got other things to keep—not rabbits or secrets—but the kids and the missus."
"You mean his wife and children," said Mother.
"Yes," said Phyllis; "it's the same thing, isn't it?"
"And we thought we'd make a nice birthday for him. He's been so awfully jolly decent to us, you know, Mother," said Peter, "and we agreed that next bun-day we'd ask you if we could."
"But suppose there hadn't been a bun-day before the fifteenth?" said Mother.
"Oh, then, we meant to ask you to let us anti—antipate it, and go without when the bun-day came."
"Anticipate," said Mother. "I see. Certainly. It would be nice to put his name on the buns with pink sugar, wouldn't it?"
"Perks," said Peter, "it's not a pretty name."
"His other name's Albert," said Phyllis; "I asked him once."
"We might put A. P.," said Mother; "I'll show you how when the day comes."
This was all very well as far as it went. But even fourteen halfpenny buns with A. P. on them in pink sugar do not of themselves make a very grand celebration.
"There are always flowers, of course," said Bobbie, later, when a really earnest council was being held on the subject in the hay-loft where the broken chaff-cutting machine was, and the row of holes to drop hay through into the hay-racks over the mangers of the stables below.
"He's got lots of flowers of his own," said Peter.
"But it's always nice to have them given you," said Bobbie, "however many you've got of your own. We can use flowers for trimmings to the birthday. But there must be something to trim besides buns."
"Let's all be quiet and think," said Phyllis; "no one's to speak until it's thought of something."
So they were all quiet and so very still that a brown rat thought that there was no one in the loft and came out very boldly. When Bobbie sneezed, the rat was quite shocked and hurried away, for he saw that a hay-loft where such things could happen was no place for a respectable middle-aged rat that liked a quiet life.
"Hooray!" cried Peter, suddenly, "I've got it." He jumped up and kicked at the loose hay.
"What?" said the others, eagerly.
"Why, Perks is so nice to everybody. There must be lots of people in the village who'd like to help to make him a birthday. Let's go round and ask everybody."
"Mother said we weren't to ask people for things," said Bobbie, doubtfully.
"For ourselves, she meant, silly, not for other people. I'll ask the old gentleman too. You see if I don't," said Peter.
"Let's ask Mother first," said Bobbie.
"Oh, what's the use of bothering Mother about every little thing?" said Peter, "especially when she's busy. Come on. Let's go down to the village now and begin."
So they went. The old lady at the Post-office said she didn't see why Perks should have a birthday any more than anyone else.
"No," said Bobbie, "I should like everyone to have one. Only we know when his is."
"Mine's to-morrow," said the old lady, "and much notice anyone will take of it. Go along with you."
So they went.
And some people were kind, and some were crusty. And some would give and some would not. It is rather difficult work asking for things, even for other people, as you have no doubt found if you have ever tried it.
When the children got home and counted up what had been given and what had been promised, they felt that for the first day it was not so bad. Peter wrote down the lists of the things in the little pocket-book where he kept the numbers of his engines. These were the lists:—
GIVEN. A tobacco pipe from the sweet shop. Half a pound of tea from the grocer's. A woollen scarf slightly faded from the draper's, which was the other side of the grocer's. A stuffed squirrel from the Doctor.
PROMISED. A piece of meat from the butcher. Six fresh eggs from the woman who lived in the old turnpike cottage. A piece of honeycomb and six bootlaces from the cobbler, and an iron shovel from the blacksmith's.
Very early next morning Bobbie got up and woke Phyllis. This had been agreed on between them. They had not told Peter because they thought he would think it silly. But they told him afterwards, when it had turned out all right.
They cut a big bunch of roses, and put it in a basket with the needle-book that Phyllis had made for Bobbie on her birthday, and a very pretty blue necktie of Phyllis's. Then they wrote on a paper: 'For Mrs. Ransome, with our best love, because it is her birthday,' and they put the paper in the basket, and they took it to the Post-office, and went in and put it on the counter and ran away before the old woman at the Post-office had time to get into her shop.
When they got home Peter had grown confidential over helping Mother to get the breakfast and had told her their plans.
"There's no harm in it," said Mother, "but it depends HOW you do it. I only hope he won't be offended and think it's CHARITY. Poor people are very proud, you know."
"It isn't because he's poor," said Phyllis; "it's because we're fond of him."
"I'll find some things that Phyllis has outgrown," said Mother, "if you're quite sure you can give them to him without his being offended. I should like to do some little thing for him because he's been so kind to you. I can't do much because we're poor ourselves. What are you writing, Bobbie?"
"Nothing particular," said Bobbie, who had suddenly begun to scribble. "I'm sure he'd like the things, Mother."
The morning of the fifteenth was spent very happily in getting the buns and watching Mother make A. P. on them with pink sugar. You know how it's done, of course? You beat up whites of eggs and mix powdered sugar with them, and put in a few drops of cochineal. And then you make a cone of clean, white paper with a little hole at the pointed end, and put the pink egg-sugar in at the big end. It runs slowly out at the pointed end, and you write the letters with it just as though it were a great fat pen full of pink sugar-ink.
The buns looked beautiful with A. P. on every one, and, when they were put in a cool oven to set the sugar, the children went up to the village to collect the honey and the shovel and the other promised things.
The old lady at the Post-office was standing on her doorstep. The children said "Good morning," politely, as they passed.
"Here, stop a bit," she said.
So they stopped.
"Those roses," said she.
"Did you like them?" said Phyllis; "they were as fresh as fresh. I made the needle-book, but it was Bobbie's present." She skipped joyously as she spoke.
"Here's your basket," said the Post-office woman. She went in and brought out the basket. It was full of fat, red gooseberries.
"I dare say Perks's children would like them," said she.
"You ARE an old dear," said Phyllis, throwing her arms around the old lady's fat waist. "Perks WILL be pleased."
"He won't be half so pleased as I was with your needle-book and the tie and the pretty flowers and all," said the old lady, patting Phyllis's shoulder. "You're good little souls, that you are. Look here. I've got a pram round the back in the wood-lodge. It was got for my Emmie's first, that didn't live but six months, and she never had but that one. I'd like Mrs. Perks to have it. It 'ud be a help to her with that great boy of hers. Will you take it along?"
"OH!" said all the children together.
When Mrs. Ransome had got out the perambulator and taken off the careful papers that covered it, and dusted it all over, she said:—
"Well, there it is. I don't know but what I'd have given it to her before if I'd thought of it. Only I didn't quite know if she'd accept of it from me. You tell her it was my Emmie's little one's pram—"
"Oh, ISN'T it nice to think there is going to be a real live baby in it again!"
"Yes," said Mrs. Ransome, sighing, and then laughing; "here, I'll give you some peppermint cushions for the little ones, and then you run along before I give you the roof off my head and the clothes off my back."
All the things that had been collected for Perks were packed into the perambulator, and at half-past three Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis wheeled it down to the little yellow house where Perks lived.
The house was very tidy. On the window ledge was a jug of wild-flowers, big daisies, and red sorrel, and feathery, flowery grasses.
There was a sound of splashing from the wash-house, and a partly washed boy put his head round the door.
"Mother's a-changing of herself," he said.
"Down in a minute," a voice sounded down the narrow, freshly scrubbed stairs.
The children waited. Next moment the stairs creaked and Mrs. Perks came down, buttoning her bodice. Her hair was brushed very smooth and tight, and her face shone with soap and water.
"I'm a bit late changing, Miss," she said to Bobbie, "owing to me having had a extry clean-up to-day, along o' Perks happening to name its being his birthday. I don't know what put it into his head to think of such a thing. We keeps the children's birthdays, of course; but him and me—we're too old for such like, as a general rule."
"We knew it was his birthday," said Peter, "and we've got some presents for him outside in the perambulator."
As the presents were being unpacked, Mrs. Perks gasped. When they were all unpacked, she surprised and horrified the children by sitting suddenly down on a wooden chair and bursting into tears.
"Oh, don't!" said everybody; "oh, please don't!" And Peter added, perhaps a little impatiently: "What on earth is the matter? You don't mean to say you don't like it?"
Mrs. Perks only sobbed. The Perks children, now as shiny-faced as anyone could wish, stood at the wash-house door, and scowled at the intruders. There was a silence, an awkward silence.
"DON'T you like it?" said Peter, again, while his sisters patted Mrs. Perks on the back.
She stopped crying as suddenly as she had begun.
"There, there, don't you mind me. I'M all right!" she said. "Like it? Why, it's a birthday such as Perks never 'ad, not even when 'e was a boy and stayed with his uncle, who was a corn chandler in his own account. He failed afterwards. Like it? Oh—" and then she went on and said all sorts of things that I won't write down, because I am sure that Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis would not like me to. Their ears got hotter and hotter, and their faces redder and redder, at the kind things Mrs. Perks said. They felt they had done nothing to deserve all this praise.
At last Peter said: "Look here, we're glad you're pleased. But if you go on saying things like that, we must go home. And we did want to stay and see if Mr. Perks is pleased, too. But we can't stand this."
"I won't say another single word," said Mrs. Perks, with a beaming face, "but that needn't stop me thinking, need it? For if ever—"
"Can we have a plate for the buns?" Bobbie asked abruptly. And then Mrs. Perks hastily laid the table for tea, and the buns and the honey and the gooseberries were displayed on plates, and the roses were put in two glass jam jars, and the tea-table looked, as Mrs. Perks said, "fit for a Prince."
"To think!" she said, "me getting the place tidy early, and the little 'uns getting the wild-flowers and all—when never did I think there'd be anything more for him except the ounce of his pet particular that I got o' Saturday and been saving up for 'im ever since. Bless us! 'e IS early!"
Perks had indeed unlatched the latch of the little front gate.
"Oh," whispered Bobbie, "let's hide in the back kitchen, and YOU tell him about it. But give him the tobacco first, because you got it for him. And when you've told him, we'll all come in and shout, 'Many happy returns!'"
It was a very nice plan, but it did not quite come off. To begin with, there was only just time for Peter and Bobbie and Phyllis to rush into the wash-house, pushing the young and open-mouthed Perks children in front of them. There was not time to shut the door, so that, without at all meaning it, they had to listen to what went on in the kitchen. The wash-house was a tight fit for the Perks children and the Three Chimneys children, as well as all the wash-house's proper furniture, including the mangle and the copper.
"Hullo, old woman!" they heard Mr. Perks's voice say; "here's a pretty set-out!"
"It's your birthday tea, Bert," said Mrs. Perks, "and here's a ounce of your extry particular. I got it o' Saturday along o' your happening to remember it was your birthday to-day."
"Good old girl!" said Mr. Perks, and there was a sound of a kiss.
"But what's that pram doing here? And what's all these bundles? And where did you get the sweetstuff, and—"
The children did not hear what Mrs. Perks replied, because just then Bobbie gave a start, put her hand in her pocket, and all her body grew stiff with horror.
"Oh!" she whispered to the others, "whatever shall we do? I forgot to put the labels on any of the things! He won't know what's from who. He'll think it's all US, and that we're trying to be grand or charitable or something horrid."
"Hush!" said Peter.
And then they heard the voice of Mr. Perks, loud and rather angry.
"I don't care," he said; "I won't stand it, and so I tell you straight."
"But," said Mrs. Perks, "it's them children you make such a fuss about—the children from the Three Chimneys."
"I don't care," said Perks, firmly, "not if it was a angel from Heaven. We've got on all right all these years and no favours asked. I'm not going to begin these sort of charity goings-on at my time of life, so don't you think it, Nell."
"Oh, hush!" said poor Mrs Perks; "Bert, shut your silly tongue, for goodness' sake. The all three of 'ems in the wash-house a-listening to every word you speaks."
"Then I'll give them something to listen to," said the angry Perks; "I've spoke my mind to them afore now, and I'll do it again," he added, and he took two strides to the wash-house door, and flung it wide open—as wide, that is, as it would go, with the tightly packed children behind it.
"Come out," said Perks, "come out and tell me what you mean by it. 'Ave I ever complained to you of being short, as you comes this charity lay over me?"
"OH!" said Phyllis, "I thought you'd be so pleased; I'll never try to be kind to anyone else as long as I live. No, I won't, not never."
She burst into tears.
"We didn't mean any harm," said Peter.
"It ain't what you means so much as what you does," said Perks.
"Oh, DON'T!" cried Bobbie, trying hard to be braver than Phyllis, and to find more words than Peter had done for explaining in. "We thought you'd love it. We always have things on our birthdays."
"Oh, yes," said Perks, "your own relations; that's different."
"Oh, no," Bobbie answered. "NOT our own relations. All the servants always gave us things at home, and us to them when it was their birthdays. And when it was mine, and Mother gave me the brooch like a buttercup, Mrs. Viney gave me two lovely glass pots, and nobody thought she was coming the charity lay over us."
"If it had been glass pots here," said Perks, "I wouldn't ha' said so much. It's there being all this heaps and heaps of things I can't stand. No—nor won't, neither."
"But they're not all from us—" said Peter, "only we forgot to put the labels on. They're from all sorts of people in the village."
"Who put 'em up to it, I'd like to know?" asked Perks.
"Why, we did," sniffed Phyllis.
Perks sat down heavily in the elbow-chair and looked at them with what Bobbie afterwards described as withering glances of gloomy despair.
"So you've been round telling the neighbours we can't make both ends meet? Well, now you've disgraced us as deep as you can in the neighbourhood, you can just take the whole bag of tricks back w'ere it come from. Very much obliged, I'm sure. I don't doubt but what you meant it kind, but I'd rather not be acquainted with you any longer if it's all the same to you." He deliberately turned the chair round so that his back was turned to the children. The legs of the chair grated on the brick floor, and that was the only sound that broke the silence.
Then suddenly Bobbie spoke.
"Look here," she said, "this is most awful."
"That's what I says," said Perks, not turning round.
"Look here," said Bobbie, desperately, "we'll go if you like—and you needn't be friends with us any more if you don't want, but—"
"WE shall always be friends with YOU, however nasty you are to us," sniffed Phyllis, wildly.
"Be quiet," said Peter, in a fierce aside.
"But before we go," Bobbie went on desperately, "do let us show you the labels we wrote to put on the things."
"I don't want to see no labels," said Perks, "except proper luggage ones in my own walk of life. Do you think I've kept respectable and outer debt on what I gets, and her having to take in washing, to be give away for a laughing-stock to all the neighbours?"
"Laughing?" said Peter; "you don't know."
"You're a very hasty gentleman," whined Phyllis; "you know you were wrong once before, about us not telling you the secret about the Russian. Do let Bobbie tell you about the labels!"
"Well. Go ahead!" said Perks, grudgingly.
"Well, then," said Bobbie, fumbling miserably, yet not without hope, in her tightly stuffed pocket, "we wrote down all the things everybody said when they gave us the things, with the people's names, because Mother said we ought to be careful—because—but I wrote down what she said—and you'll see."
But Bobbie could not read the labels just at once. She had to swallow once or twice before she could begin.
Mrs. Perks had been crying steadily ever since her husband had opened the wash-house door. Now she caught her breath, choked, and said:—
"Don't you upset yourself, Missy. I know you meant it kind if he doesn't."
"May I read the labels?" said Bobbie, crying on to the slips as she tried to sort them. "Mother's first. It says:—
"'Little Clothes for Mrs. Perks's children.' Mother said, 'I'll find some of Phyllis's things that she's grown out of if you're quite sure Mr. Perks wouldn't be offended and think it's meant for charity. I'd like to do some little thing for him, because he's so kind to you. I can't do much because we're poor ourselves.'"
"That's all right," said Perks, "your Ma's a born lady. We'll keep the little frocks, and what not, Nell."
"Then there's the perambulator and the gooseberries, and the sweets," said Bobbie, "they're from Mrs. Ransome. She said: 'I dare say Mr. Perks's children would like the sweets. And the perambulator was got for my Emmie's first—it didn't live but six months, and she's never had but that one. I'd like Mrs. Perks to have it. It would be a help with her fine boy. I'd have given it before if I'd been sure she'd accept of it from me.' She told me to tell you," Bobbie added, "that it was her Emmie's little one's pram."
"I can't send that pram back, Bert," said Mrs Perks, firmly, "and I won't. So don't you ask me—"
"I'm not a-asking anything," said Perks, gruffly.
"Then the shovel," said Bobbie. "Mr. James made it for you himself. And he said—where is it? Oh, yes, here! He said, 'You tell Mr. Perks it's a pleasure to make a little trifle for a man as is so much respected,' and then he said he wished he could shoe your children and his own children, like they do the horses, because, well, he knew what shoe leather was."
"James is a good enough chap," said Perks.
"Then the honey," said Bobbie, in haste, "and the boot-laces. HE said he respected a man that paid his way—and the butcher said the same. And the old turnpike woman said many was the time you'd lent her a hand with her garden when you were a lad—and things like that came home to roost—I don't know what she meant. And everybody who gave anything said they liked you, and it was a very good idea of ours; and nobody said anything about charity or anything horrid like that. And the old gentleman gave Peter a gold pound for you, and said you were a man who knew your work. And I thought you'd LOVE to know how fond people are of you, and I never was so unhappy in my life. Good-bye. I hope you'll forgive us some day—"
She could say no more, and she turned to go.
"Stop," said Perks, still with his back to them; "I take back every word I've said contrary to what you'd wish. Nell, set on the kettle."
"We'll take the things away if you're unhappy about them," said Peter; "but I think everybody'll be most awfully disappointed, as well as us."
"I'm not unhappy about them," said Perks; "I don't know," he added, suddenly wheeling the chair round and showing a very odd-looking screwed-up face, "I don't know as ever I was better pleased. Not so much with the presents—though they're an A1 collection—but the kind respect of our neighbours. That's worth having, eh, Nell?"
"I think it's all worth having," said Mrs. Perks, "and you've made a most ridiculous fuss about nothing, Bert, if you ask me."
"No, I ain't," said Perks, firmly; "if a man didn't respect hisself, no one wouldn't do it for him."
"But everyone respects you," said Bobbie; "they all said so."
"I knew you'd like it when you really understood," said Phyllis, brightly.
"Humph! You'll stay to tea?" said Mr. Perks.
Later on Peter proposed Mr. Perks's health. And Mr. Perks proposed a toast, also honoured in tea, and the toast was, "May the garland of friendship be ever green," which was much more poetical than anyone had expected from him.
* * * * * *
"Jolly good little kids, those," said Mr. Perks to his wife as they went to bed.
"Oh, they're all right, bless their hearts," said his wife; "it's you that's the aggravatingest old thing that ever was. I was ashamed of you—I tell you—"
"You didn't need to be, old gal. I climbed down handsome soon as I understood it wasn't charity. But charity's what I never did abide, and won't neither."
* * * * * *
All sorts of people were made happy by that birthday party. Mr. Perks and Mrs. Perks and the little Perkses by all the nice things and by the kind thoughts of their neighbours; the Three Chimneys children by the success, undoubted though unexpectedly delayed, of their plan; and Mrs. Ransome every time she saw the fat Perks baby in the perambulator. Mrs. Perks made quite a round of visits to thank people for their kind birthday presents, and after each visit felt that she had a better friend than she had thought.
"Yes," said Perks, reflectively, "it's not so much what you does as what you means; that's what I say. Now if it had been charity—"
"Oh, drat charity," said Mrs. Perks; "nobody won't offer you charity, Bert, however much you was to want it, I lay. That was just friendliness, that was."
When the clergyman called on Mrs. Perks, she told him all about it. "It WAS friendliness, wasn't it, Sir?" said she.
"I think," said the clergyman, "it was what is sometimes called loving-kindness."
So you see it was all right in the end. But if one does that sort of thing, one has to be careful to do it in the right way. For, as Mr. Perks said, when he had time to think it over, it's not so much what you do, as what you mean.
Chapter X. The terrible secret.
When they first went to live at Three Chimneys, the children had talked a great deal about their Father, and had asked a great many questions about him, and what he was doing and where he was and when he would come home. Mother always answered their questions as well as she could. But as the time went on they grew to speak less of him. Bobbie had felt almost from the first that for some strange miserable reason these questions hurt Mother and made her sad. And little by little the others came to have this feeling, too, though they could not have put it into words.
One day, when Mother was working so hard that she could not leave off even for ten minutes, Bobbie carried up her tea to the big bare room that they called Mother's workshop. It had hardly any furniture. Just a table and a chair and a rug. But always big pots of flowers on the window-sills and on the mantelpiece. The children saw to that. And from the three long uncurtained windows the beautiful stretch of meadow and moorland, the far violet of the hills, and the unchanging changefulness of cloud and sky.
"Here's your tea, Mother-love," said Bobbie; "do drink it while it's hot."
Mother laid down her pen among the pages that were scattered all over the table, pages covered with her writing, which was almost as plain as print, and much prettier. She ran her hands into her hair, as if she were going to pull it out by handfuls.
"Poor dear head," said Bobbie, "does it ache?"
"No—yes—not much," said Mother. "Bobbie, do you think Peter and Phil are FORGETTING Father?"
"NO," said Bobbie, indignantly. "Why?"
"You none of you ever speak of him now."
Bobbie stood first on one leg and then on the other.
"We often talk about him when we're by ourselves," she said.
"But not to me," said Mother. "Why?"
Bobbie did not find it easy to say why.
"I—you—" she said and stopped. She went over to the window and looked out.
"Bobbie, come here," said her Mother, and Bobbie came.
"Now," said Mother, putting her arm round Bobbie and laying her ruffled head against Bobbie's shoulder, "try to tell me, dear."
"Well, then," said Bobbie, "I thought you were so unhappy about Daddy not being here, it made you worse when I talked about him. So I stopped doing it."
"And the others?"
"I don't know about the others," said Bobbie. "I never said anything about THAT to them. But I expect they felt the same about it as me."
"Bobbie dear," said Mother, still leaning her head against her, "I'll tell you. Besides parting from Father, he and I have had a great sorrow—oh, terrible—worse than anything you can think of, and at first it did hurt to hear you all talking of him as if everything were just the same. But it would be much more terrible if you were to forget him. That would be worse than anything."
"The trouble," said Bobbie, in a very little voice—"I promised I would never ask you any questions, and I never have, have I? But—the trouble—it won't last always?"
"No," said Mother, "the worst will be over when Father comes home to us."
"I wish I could comfort you," said Bobbie.
"Oh, my dear, do you suppose you don't? Do you think I haven't noticed how good you've all been, not quarrelling nearly as much as you used to—and all the little kind things you do for me—the flowers, and cleaning my shoes, and tearing up to make my bed before I get time to do it myself?"
Bobbie HAD sometimes wondered whether Mother noticed these things.
"That's nothing," she said, "to what—"
"I MUST get on with my work," said Mother, giving Bobbie one last squeeze. "Don't say anything to the others."
That evening in the hour before bed-time instead of reading to the children Mother told them stories of the games she and Father used to have when they were children and lived near each other in the country—tales of the adventures of Father with Mother's brothers when they were all boys together. Very funny stories they were, and the children laughed as they listened.
"Uncle Edward died before he was grown up, didn't he?" said Phyllis, as Mother lighted the bedroom candles.
"Yes, dear," said Mother, "you would have loved him. He was such a brave boy, and so adventurous. Always in mischief, and yet friends with everybody in spite of it. And your Uncle Reggie's in Ceylon—yes, and Father's away, too. But I think they'd all like to think we'd enjoyed talking about the things they used to do. Don't you think so?"
"Not Uncle Edward," said Phyllis, in a shocked tone; "he's in Heaven."
"You don't suppose he's forgotten us and all the old times, because God has taken him, any more than I forget him. Oh, no, he remembers. He's only away for a little time. We shall see him some day."
"And Uncle Reggie—and Father, too?" said Peter.
"Yes," said Mother. "Uncle Reggie and Father, too. Good night, my darlings."
"Good night," said everyone. Bobbie hugged her mother more closely even than usual, and whispered in her ear, "Oh, I do love you so, Mummy—I do—I do—"
When Bobbie came to think it all over, she tried not to wonder what the great trouble was. But she could not always help it. Father was not dead—like poor Uncle Edward—Mother had said so. And he was not ill, or Mother would have been with him. Being poor wasn't the trouble. Bobbie knew it was something nearer the heart than money could be.
"I mustn't try to think what it is," she told herself; "no, I mustn't. I AM glad Mother noticed about us not quarrelling so much. We'll keep that up."
And alas, that very afternoon she and Peter had what Peter called a first-class shindy.
They had not been a week at Three Chimneys before they had asked Mother to let them have a piece of garden each for their very own, and she had agreed, and the south border under the peach trees had been divided into three pieces and they were allowed to plant whatever they liked there.
Phyllis had planted mignonette and nasturtium and Virginia Stock in hers. The seeds came up, and though they looked just like weeds, Phyllis believed that they would bear flowers some day. The Virginia Stock justified her faith quite soon, and her garden was gay with a band of bright little flowers, pink and white and red and mauve.
"I can't weed for fear I pull up the wrong things," she used to say comfortably; "it saves such a lot of work."
Peter sowed vegetable seeds in his—carrots and onions and turnips. The seed was given to him by the farmer who lived in the nice black-and-white, wood-and-plaster house just beyond the bridge. He kept turkeys and guinea fowls, and was a most amiable man. But Peter's vegetables never had much of a chance, because he liked to use the earth of his garden for digging canals, and making forts and earthworks for his toy soldiers. And the seeds of vegetables rarely come to much in a soil that is constantly disturbed for the purposes of war and irrigation.
Bobbie planted rose-bushes in her garden, but all the little new leaves of the rose-bushes shrivelled and withered, perhaps because she moved them from the other part of the garden in May, which is not at all the right time of year for moving roses. But she would not own that they were dead, and hoped on against hope, until the day when Perks came up to see the garden, and told her quite plainly that all her roses were as dead as doornails.
"Only good for bonfires, Miss," he said. "You just dig 'em up and burn 'em, and I'll give you some nice fresh roots outer my garden; pansies, and stocks, and sweet willies, and forget-me-nots. I'll bring 'em along to-morrow if you get the ground ready."
So next day she set to work, and that happened to be the day when Mother had praised her and the others about not quarrelling. She moved the rose-bushes and carried them to the other end of the garden, where the rubbish heap was that they meant to make a bonfire of when Guy Fawkes' Day came.
Meanwhile Peter had decided to flatten out all his forts and earthworks, with a view to making a model of the railway-tunnel, cutting, embankment, canal, aqueduct, bridges, and all.
So when Bobbie came back from her last thorny journey with the dead rose-bushes, he had got the rake and was using it busily.
"I was using the rake," said Bobbie.
"Well, I'm using it now," said Peter.
"But I had it first," said Bobbie.
"Then it's my turn now," said Peter. And that was how the quarrel began.
"You're always being disagreeable about nothing," said Peter, after some heated argument.
"I had the rake first," said Bobbie, flushed and defiant, holding on to its handle.
"Don't—I tell you I said this morning I meant to have it. Didn't I, Phil?"
Phyllis said she didn't want to be mixed up in their rows. And instantly, of course, she was.
"If you remember, you ought to say."
"Of course she doesn't remember—but she might say so."
"I wish I'd had a brother instead of two whiny little kiddy sisters," said Peter. This was always recognised as indicating the high-water mark of Peter's rage.
Bobbie made the reply she always made to it.
"I can't think why little boys were ever invented," and just as she said it she looked up, and saw the three long windows of Mother's workshop flashing in the red rays of the sun. The sight brought back those words of praise:—
"You don't quarrel like you used to do."
"OH!" cried Bobbie, just as if she had been hit, or had caught her finger in a door, or had felt the hideous sharp beginnings of toothache.
"What's the matter?" said Phyllis.
Bobbie wanted to say: "Don't let's quarrel. Mother hates it so," but though she tried hard, she couldn't. Peter was looking too disagreeable and insulting.
"Take the horrid rake, then," was the best she could manage. And she suddenly let go her hold on the handle. Peter had been holding on to it too firmly and pullingly, and now that the pull the other way was suddenly stopped, he staggered and fell over backward, the teeth of the rake between his feet.
"Serve you right," said Bobbie, before she could stop herself.
Peter lay still for half a moment—long enough to frighten Bobbie a little. Then he frightened her a little more, for he sat up—screamed once—turned rather pale, and then lay back and began to shriek, faintly but steadily. It sounded exactly like a pig being killed a quarter of a mile off.
Mother put her head out of the window, and it wasn't half a minute after that she was in the garden kneeling by the side of Peter, who never for an instant ceased to squeal.
"What happened, Bobbie?" Mother asked.
"It was the rake," said Phyllis. "Peter was pulling at it, so was Bobbie, and she let go and he went over."
"Stop that noise, Peter," said Mother. "Come. Stop at once."
Peter used up what breath he had left in a last squeal and stopped.
"Now," said Mother, "are you hurt?"
"If he was really hurt, he wouldn't make such a fuss," said Bobbie, still trembling with fury; "he's not a coward!"
"I think my foot's broken off, that's all," said Peter, huffily, and sat up. Then he turned quite white. Mother put her arm round him.
"He IS hurt," she said; "he's fainted. Here, Bobbie, sit down and take his head on your lap."
Then Mother undid Peter's boots. As she took the right one off, something dripped from his foot on to the ground. It was red blood. And when the stocking came off there were three red wounds in Peter's foot and ankle, where the teeth of the rake had bitten him, and his foot was covered with red smears.
"Run for water—a basinful," said Mother, and Phyllis ran. She upset most of the water out of the basin in her haste, and had to fetch more in a jug.
Peter did not open his eyes again till Mother had tied her handkerchief round his foot, and she and Bobbie had carried him in and laid him on the brown wooden settle in the dining-room. By this time Phyllis was halfway to the Doctor's.
Mother sat by Peter and bathed his foot and talked to him, and Bobbie went out and got tea ready, and put on the kettle.
"It's all I can do," she told herself. "Oh, suppose Peter should die, or be a helpless cripple for life, or have to walk with crutches, or wear a boot with a sole like a log of wood!"
She stood by the back door reflecting on these gloomy possibilities, her eyes fixed on the water-butt.
"I wish I'd never been born," she said, and she said it out loud.
"Why, lawk a mercy, what's that for?" asked a voice, and Perks stood before her with a wooden trug basket full of green-leaved things and soft, loose earth.
"Oh, it's you," she said. "Peter's hurt his foot with a rake—three great gaping wounds, like soldiers get. And it was partly my fault."
"That it wasn't, I'll go bail," said Perks. "Doctor seen him?"
"Phyllis has gone for the Doctor."
"He'll be all right; you see if he isn't," said Perks. "Why, my father's second cousin had a hay-fork run into him, right into his inside, and he was right as ever in a few weeks, all except his being a bit weak in the head afterwards, and they did say that it was along of his getting a touch of the sun in the hay-field, and not the fork at all. I remember him well. A kind-'earted chap, but soft, as you might say."
Bobbie tried to let herself be cheered by this heartening reminiscence.
"Well," said Perks, "you won't want to be bothered with gardening just this minute, I dare say. You show me where your garden is, and I'll pop the bits of stuff in for you. And I'll hang about, if I may make so free, to see the Doctor as he comes out and hear what he says. You cheer up, Missie. I lay a pound he ain't hurt, not to speak of."
But he was. The Doctor came and looked at the foot and bandaged it beautifully, and said that Peter must not put it to the ground for at least a week.
"He won't be lame, or have to wear crutches or a lump on his foot, will he?" whispered Bobbie, breathlessly, at the door.
"My aunt! No!" said Dr. Forrest; "he'll be as nimble as ever on his pins in a fortnight. Don't you worry, little Mother Goose."
It was when Mother had gone to the gate with the Doctor to take his last instructions and Phyllis was filling the kettle for tea, that Peter and Bobbie found themselves alone.
"He says you won't be lame or anything," said Bobbie.
"Oh, course I shan't, silly," said Peter, very much relieved all the same.
"Oh, Peter, I AM so sorry," said Bobbie, after a pause.
"That's all right," said Peter, gruffly.
"It was ALL my fault," said Bobbie.
"Rot," said Peter.
"If we hadn't quarrelled, it wouldn't have happened. I knew it was wrong to quarrel. I wanted to say so, but somehow I couldn't."
"Don't drivel," said Peter. "I shouldn't have stopped if you HAD said it. Not likely. And besides, us rowing hadn't anything to do with it. I might have caught my foot in the hoe, or taken off my fingers in the chaff-cutting machine or blown my nose off with fireworks. It would have been hurt just the same whether we'd been rowing or not."
"But I knew it was wrong to quarrel," said Bobbie, in tears, "and now you're hurt and—"
"Now look here," said Peter, firmly, "you just dry up. If you're not careful, you'll turn into a beastly little Sunday-school prig, so I tell you."
"I don't mean to be a prig. But it's so hard not to be when you're really trying to be good."
(The Gentle Reader may perhaps have suffered from this difficulty.)
"Not it," said Peter; "it's a jolly good thing it wasn't you was hurt. I'm glad it was ME. There! If it had been you, you'd have been lying on the sofa looking like a suffering angel and being the light of the anxious household and all that. And I couldn't have stood it."
"No, I shouldn't," said Bobbie.
"Yes, you would," said Peter.
"I tell you I shouldn't."
"I tell you you would."
"Oh, children," said Mother's voice at the door. "Quarrelling again? Already?"
"We aren't quarrelling—not really," said Peter. "I wish you wouldn't think it's rows every time we don't agree!" When Mother had gone out again, Bobbie broke out:—
"Peter, I AM sorry you're hurt. But you ARE a beast to say I'm a prig."
"Well," said Peter unexpectedly, "perhaps I am. You did say I wasn't a coward, even when you were in such a wax. The only thing is—don't you be a prig, that's all. You keep your eyes open and if you feel priggishness coming on just stop in time. See?"
"Yes," said Bobbie, "I see."
"Then let's call it Pax," said Peter, magnanimously: "bury the hatchet in the fathoms of the past. Shake hands on it. I say, Bobbie, old chap, I am tired."
He was tired for many days after that, and the settle seemed hard and uncomfortable in spite of all the pillows and bolsters and soft folded rugs. It was terrible not to be able to go out. They moved the settle to the window, and from there Peter could see the smoke of the trains winding along the valley. But he could not see the trains.
At first Bobbie found it quite hard to be as nice to him as she wanted to be, for fear he should think her priggish. But that soon wore off, and both she and Phyllis were, as he observed, jolly good sorts. Mother sat with him when his sisters were out. And the words, "he's not a coward," made Peter determined not to make any fuss about the pain in his foot, though it was rather bad, especially at night.
Praise helps people very much, sometimes.
There were visitors, too. Mrs. Perks came up to ask how he was, and so did the Station Master, and several of the village people. But the time went slowly, slowly.
"I do wish there was something to read," said Peter. "I've read all our books fifty times over."
"I'll go to the Doctor's," said Phyllis; "he's sure to have some."
"Only about how to be ill, and about people's nasty insides, I expect," said Peter.
"Perks has a whole heap of Magazines that came out of trains when people are tired of them," said Bobbie. "I'll run down and ask him."
So the girls went their two ways.
Bobbie found Perks busy cleaning lamps.
"And how's the young gent?" said he.
"Better, thanks," said Bobbie, "but he's most frightfully bored. I came to ask if you'd got any Magazines you could lend him."
"There, now," said Perks, regretfully, rubbing his ear with a black and oily lump of cotton waste, "why didn't I think of that, now? I was trying to think of something as 'ud amuse him only this morning, and I couldn't think of anything better than a guinea-pig. And a young chap I know's going to fetch that over for him this tea-time."
"How lovely! A real live guinea! He will be pleased. But he'd like the Magazines as well."
"That's just it," said Perks. "I've just sent the pick of 'em to Snigson's boy—him what's just getting over the pewmonia. But I've lots of illustrated papers left."
He turned to the pile of papers in the corner and took up a heap six inches thick.
"There!" he said. "I'll just slip a bit of string and a bit of paper round 'em."
He pulled an old newspaper from the pile and spread it on the table, and made a neat parcel of it.
"There," said he, "there's lots of pictures, and if he likes to mess 'em about with his paint-box, or coloured chalks or what not, why, let him. I don't want 'em."
"You're a dear," said Bobbie, took the parcel, and started. The papers were heavy, and when she had to wait at the level-crossing while a train went by, she rested the parcel on the top of the gate. And idly she looked at the printing on the paper that the parcel was wrapped in.
Suddenly she clutched the parcel tighter and bent her head over it. It seemed like some horrible dream. She read on—the bottom of the column was torn off—she could read no farther.
She never remembered how she got home. But she went on tiptoe to her room and locked the door. Then she undid the parcel and read that printed column again, sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands and feet icy cold and her face burning. When she had read all there was, she drew a long, uneven breath.
"So now I know," she said.
What she had read was headed, 'End of the Trial. Verdict. Sentence.'
The name of the man who had been tried was the name of her Father. The verdict was 'Guilty.' And the sentence was 'Five years' Penal Servitude.'
"Oh, Daddy," she whispered, crushing the paper hard, "it's not true—I don't believe it. You never did it! Never, never, never!"
There was a hammering on the door.
"What is it?" said Bobbie.
"It's me," said the voice of Phyllis; "tea's ready, and a boy's brought Peter a guinea-pig. Come along down."
And Bobbie had to.
Chapter XI. The hound in the red jersey.
Bobbie knew the secret now. A sheet of old newspaper wrapped round a parcel—just a little chance like that—had given the secret to her. And she had to go down to tea and pretend that there was nothing the matter. The pretence was bravely made, but it wasn't very successful.
For when she came in, everyone looked up from tea and saw her pink-lidded eyes and her pale face with red tear-blotches on it.
"My darling," cried Mother, jumping up from the tea-tray, "whatever IS the matter?"
"My head aches, rather," said Bobbie. And indeed it did.
"Has anything gone wrong?" Mother asked.
"I'm all right, really," said Bobbie, and she telegraphed to her Mother from her swollen eyes this brief, imploring message—"NOT before the others!"
Tea was not a cheerful meal. Peter was so distressed by the obvious fact that something horrid had happened to Bobbie that he limited his speech to repeating, "More bread and butter, please," at startlingly short intervals. Phyllis stroked her sister's hand under the table to express sympathy, and knocked her cup over as she did it. Fetching a cloth and wiping up the spilt milk helped Bobbie a little. But she thought that tea would never end. Yet at last it did end, as all things do at last, and when Mother took out the tray, Bobbie followed her.
"She's gone to own up," said Phyllis to Peter; "I wonder what she's done."
"Broken something, I suppose," said Peter, "but she needn't be so silly over it. Mother never rows for accidents. Listen! Yes, they're going upstairs. She's taking Mother up to show her—the water-jug with storks on it, I expect it is."
Bobbie, in the kitchen, had caught hold of Mother's hand as she set down the tea-things.
"What is it?" Mother asked.
But Bobbie only said, "Come upstairs, come up where nobody can hear us."
When she had got Mother alone in her room she locked the door and then stood quite still, and quite without words.
All through tea she had been thinking of what to say; she had decided that "I know all," or "All is known to me," or "The terrible secret is a secret no longer," would be the proper thing. But now that she and her Mother and that awful sheet of newspaper were alone in the room together, she found that she could say nothing.
Suddenly she went to Mother and put her arms round her and began to cry again. And still she could find no words, only, "Oh, Mammy, oh, Mammy, oh, Mammy," over and over again.
Mother held her very close and waited.
Suddenly Bobbie broke away from her and went to her bed. From under her mattress she pulled out the paper she had hidden there, and held it out, pointing to her Father's name with a finger that shook.
"Oh, Bobbie," Mother cried, when one little quick look had shown her what it was, "you don't BELIEVE it? You don't believe Daddy did it?"
"NO," Bobbie almost shouted. She had stopped crying.
"That's all right," said Mother. "It's not true. And they've shut him up in prison, but he's done nothing wrong. He's good and noble and honourable, and he belongs to us. We have to think of that, and be proud of him, and wait."
Again Bobbie clung to her Mother, and again only one word came to her, but now that word was "Daddy," and "Oh, Daddy, oh, Daddy, oh, Daddy!" again and again.
"Why didn't you tell me, Mammy?" she asked presently.
"Are you going to tell the others?" Mother asked.
"Exactly," said Mother; "so you understand why I didn't tell you. We two must help each other to be brave."
"Yes," said Bobbie; "Mother, will it make you more unhappy if you tell me all about it? I want to understand."
So then, sitting cuddled up close to her Mother, Bobbie heard "all about it." She heard how those men, who had asked to see Father on that remembered last night when the Engine was being mended, had come to arrest him, charging him with selling State secrets to the Russians—with being, in fact, a spy and a traitor. She heard about the trial, and about the evidence—letters, found in Father's desk at the office, letters that convinced the jury that Father was guilty.
"Oh, how could they look at him and believe it!" cried Bobbie; "and how could ANY one do such a thing!"
"SOMEONE did it," said Mother, "and all the evidence was against Father. Those letters—"
"Yes. How did the letters get into his desk?"
"Someone put them there. And the person who put them there was the person who was really guilty."
"HE must be feeling pretty awful all this time," said Bobbie, thoughtfully.
"I don't believe he had any feelings," Mother said hotly; "he couldn't have done a thing like that if he had."
"Perhaps he just shoved the letters into the desk to hide them when he thought he was going to be found out. Why don't you tell the lawyers, or someone, that it must have been that person? There wasn't anyone that would have hurt Father on purpose, was there?"
"I don't know—I don't know. The man under him who got Daddy's place when he—when the awful thing happened—he was always jealous of your Father because Daddy was so clever and everyone thought such a lot of him. And Daddy never quite trusted that man."
"Couldn't we explain all that to someone?"
"Nobody will listen," said Mother, very bitterly, "nobody at all. Do you suppose I've not tried everything? No, my dearest, there's nothing to be done. All we can do, you and I and Daddy, is to be brave, and patient, and—" she spoke very softly—"to pray, Bobbie, dear."
"Mother, you've got very thin," said Bobbie, abruptly.
"A little, perhaps."
"And oh," said Bobbie, "I do think you're the bravest person in the world as well as the nicest!"
"We won't talk of all this any more, will we, dear?" said Mother; "we must bear it and be brave. And, darling, try not to think of it. Try to be cheerful, and to amuse yourself and the others. It's much easier for me if you can be a little bit happy and enjoy things. Wash your poor little round face, and let's go out into the garden for a bit."
The other two were very gentle and kind to Bobbie. And they did not ask her what was the matter. This was Peter's idea, and he had drilled Phyllis, who would have asked a hundred questions if she had been left to herself.
A week later Bobbie managed to get away alone. And once more she wrote a letter. And once more it was to the old gentleman.
"My dear Friend," she said, "you see what is in this paper. It is not true. Father never did it. Mother says someone put the papers in Father's desk, and she says the man under him that got Father's place afterwards was jealous of Father, and Father suspected him a long time. But nobody listens to a word she says, but you are so good and clever, and you found out about the Russian gentleman's wife directly. Can't you find out who did the treason because he wasn't Father upon my honour; he is an Englishman and uncapable to do such things, and then they would let Father out of prison. It is dreadful, and Mother is getting so thin. She told us once to pray for all prisoners and captives. I see now. Oh, do help me—there is only just Mother and me know, and we can't do anything. Peter and Phil don't know. I'll pray for you twice every day as long as I live if you'll only try—just try to find out. Think if it was YOUR Daddy, what you would feel. Oh, do, do, DO help me. With love
"I remain Your affectionately little friend
P.S. Mother would send her kind regards if she knew I am writing—but it is no use telling her I am, in case you can't do anything. But I know you will. Bobbie with best love."
She cut the account of her Father's trial out of the newspaper with Mother's big cutting-out scissors, and put it in the envelope with her letter.
Then she took it down to the station, going out the back way and round by the road, so that the others should not see her and offer to come with her, and she gave the letter to the Station Master to give to the old gentleman next morning.
"Where HAVE you been?" shouted Peter, from the top of the yard wall where he and Phyllis were.
"To the station, of course," said Bobbie; "give us a hand, Pete."
She set her foot on the lock of the yard door. Peter reached down a hand.
"What on earth?" she asked as she reached the wall-top—for Phyllis and Peter were very muddy. A lump of wet clay lay between them on the wall, they had each a slip of slate in a very dirty hand, and behind Peter, out of the reach of accidents, were several strange rounded objects rather like very fat sausages, hollow, but closed up at one end.
"It's nests," said Peter, "swallows' nests. We're going to dry them in the oven and hang them up with string under the eaves of the coach-house."
"Yes," said Phyllis; "and then we're going to save up all the wool and hair we can get, and in the spring we'll line them, and then how pleased the swallows will be!"
"I've often thought people don't do nearly enough for dumb animals," said Peter with an air of virtue. "I do think people might have thought of making nests for poor little swallows before this."
"Oh," said Bobbie, vaguely, "if everybody thought of everything, there'd be nothing left for anybody else to think about."
"Look at the nests—aren't they pretty?" said Phyllis, reaching across Peter to grasp a nest.
"Look out, Phil, you goat," said her brother. But it was too late; her strong little fingers had crushed the nest.
"There now," said Peter.
"Never mind," said Bobbie.
"It IS one of my own," said Phyllis, "so you needn't jaw, Peter. Yes, we've put our initial names on the ones we've done, so that the swallows will know who they've got to be so grateful to and fond of."
"Swallows can't read, silly," said Peter.
"Silly yourself," retorted Phyllis; "how do you know?"
"Who thought of making the nests, anyhow?" shouted Peter.
"I did," screamed Phyllis.
"Nya," rejoined Peter, "you only thought of making hay ones and sticking them in the ivy for the sparrows, and they'd have been sopping LONG before egg-laying time. It was me said clay and swallows."
"I don't care what you said."
"Look," said Bobbie, "I've made the nest all right again. Give me the bit of stick to mark your initial name on it. But how can you? Your letter and Peter's are the same. P. for Peter, P. for Phyllis."
"I put F. for Phyllis," said the child of that name. "That's how it sounds. The swallows wouldn't spell Phyllis with a P., I'm certain-sure."
"They can't spell at all," Peter was still insisting.
"Then why do you see them always on Christmas cards and valentines with letters round their necks? How would they know where to go if they couldn't read?"
"That's only in pictures. You never saw one really with letters round its neck."
"Well, I have a pigeon, then; at least Daddy told me they did. Only it was under their wings and not round their necks, but it comes to the same thing, and—"
"I say," interrupted Bobbie, "there's to be a paperchase to-morrow."
"Who?" Peter asked.
"Grammar School. Perks thinks the hare will go along by the line at first. We might go along the cutting. You can see a long way from there."
The paperchase was found to be a more amusing subject of conversation than the reading powers of swallows. Bobbie had hoped it might be. And next morning Mother let them take their lunch and go out for the day to see the paperchase.
"If we go to the cutting," said Peter, "we shall see the workmen, even if we miss the paperchase."
Of course it had taken some time to get the line clear from the rocks and earth and trees that had fallen on it when the great landslip happened. That was the occasion, you will remember, when the three children saved the train from being wrecked by waving six little red-flannel-petticoat flags. It is always interesting to watch people working, especially when they work with such interesting things as spades and picks and shovels and planks and barrows, when they have cindery red fires in iron pots with round holes in them, and red lamps hanging near the works at night. Of course the children were never out at night; but once, at dusk, when Peter had got out of his bedroom skylight on to the roof, he had seen the red lamp shining far away at the edge of the cutting. The children had often been down to watch the work, and this day the interest of picks and spades, and barrows being wheeled along planks, completely put the paperchase out of their heads, so that they quite jumped when a voice just behind them panted, "Let me pass, please." It was the hare—a big-boned, loose-limbed boy, with dark hair lying flat on a very damp forehead. The bag of torn paper under his arm was fastened across one shoulder by a strap. The children stood back. The hare ran along the line, and the workmen leaned on their picks to watch him. He ran on steadily and disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel.
"That's against the by-laws," said the foreman.
"Why worry?" said the oldest workman; "live and let live's what I always say. Ain't you never been young yourself, Mr. Bates?"
"I ought to report him," said the foreman.
"Why spoil sport's what I always say."
"Passengers are forbidden to cross the line on any pretence," murmured the foreman, doubtfully.
"He ain't no passenger," said one of the workmen.
"Nor 'e ain't crossed the line, not where we could see 'im do it," said another.
"Nor yet 'e ain't made no pretences," said a third.
"And," said the oldest workman, "'e's outer sight now. What the eye don't see the 'art needn't take no notice of's what I always say."
And now, following the track of the hare by the little white blots of scattered paper, came the hounds. There were thirty of them, and they all came down the steep, ladder-like steps by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens. Bobbie and Phyllis and Peter counted them as they passed. The foremost ones hesitated a moment at the foot of the ladder, then their eyes caught the gleam of scattered whiteness along the line and they turned towards the tunnel, and, by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens, disappeared in the dark mouth of it. The last one, in a red jersey, seemed to be extinguished by the darkness like a candle that is blown out.
"They don't know what they're in for," said the foreman; "it isn't so easy running in the dark. The tunnel takes two or three turns."
"They'll take a long time to get through, you think?" Peter asked.
"An hour or more, I shouldn't wonder."
"Then let's cut across the top and see them come out at the other end," said Peter; "we shall get there long before they do."
The counsel seemed good, and they went.
They climbed the steep steps from which they had picked the wild cherry blossom for the grave of the little wild rabbit, and reaching the top of the cutting, set their faces towards the hill through which the tunnel was cut. It was stiff work.
"It's like Alps," said Bobbie, breathlessly.
"Or Andes," said Peter.
"It's like Himmy what's its names?" gasped Phyllis. "Mount Everlasting. Do let's stop."
"Stick to it," panted Peter; "you'll get your second wind in a minute."
Phyllis consented to stick to it—and on they went, running when the turf was smooth and the slope easy, climbing over stones, helping themselves up rocks by the branches of trees, creeping through narrow openings between tree trunks and rocks, and so on and on, up and up, till at last they stood on the very top of the hill where they had so often wished to be.
"Halt!" cried Peter, and threw himself flat on the grass. For the very top of the hill was a smooth, turfed table-land, dotted with mossy rocks and little mountain-ash trees.
The girls also threw themselves down flat.
"Plenty of time," Peter panted; "the rest's all down hill."
When they were rested enough to sit up and look round them, Bobbie cried:—
"What at?" said Phyllis.
"The view," said Bobbie.
"I hate views," said Phyllis, "don't you, Peter?"
"Let's get on," said Peter.
"But this isn't like a view they take you to in carriages when you're at the seaside, all sea and sand and bare hills. It's like the 'coloured counties' in one of Mother's poetry books."
"It's not so dusty," said Peter; "look at the Aqueduct straddling slap across the valley like a giant centipede, and then the towns sticking their church spires up out of the trees like pens out of an inkstand. I think it's more like
"There could he see the banners Of twelve fair cities shine."
"I love it," said Bobbie; "it's worth the climb."
"The paperchase is worth the climb," said Phyllis, "if we don't lose it. Let's get on. It's all down hill now."
"I said that ten minutes ago," said Peter.
"Well, I'VE said it now," said Phyllis; "come on."
"Loads of time," said Peter. And there was. For when they had got down to a level with the top of the tunnel's mouth—they were a couple of hundred yards out of their reckoning and had to creep along the face of the hill—there was no sign of the hare or the hounds.
"They've gone long ago, of course," said Phyllis, as they leaned on the brick parapet above the tunnel.
"I don't think so," said Bobbie, "but even if they had, it's ripping here, and we shall see the trains come out of the tunnel like dragons out of lairs. We've never seen that from the top side before."
"No more we have," said Phyllis, partially appeased.
It was really a most exciting place to be in. The top of the tunnel seemed ever so much farther from the line than they had expected, and it was like being on a bridge, but a bridge overgrown with bushes and creepers and grass and wild-flowers.
"I KNOW the paperchase has gone long ago," said Phyllis every two minutes, and she hardly knew whether she was pleased or disappointed when Peter, leaning over the parapet, suddenly cried:—
"Look out. Here he comes!"
They all leaned over the sun-warmed brick wall in time to see the hare, going very slowly, come out from the shadow of the tunnel.
"There, now," said Peter, "what did I tell you? Now for the hounds!"
Very soon came the hounds—by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens—and they also were going slowly and seemed very tired. Two or three who lagged far behind came out long after the others.
"There," said Bobbie, "that's all—now what shall we do?"
"Go along into the tulgy wood over there and have lunch," said Phyllis; "we can see them for miles from up here."
"Not yet," said Peter. "That's not the last. There's the one in the red jersey to come yet. Let's see the last of them come out."
But though they waited and waited and waited, the boy in the red jersey did not appear.
"Oh, let's have lunch," said Phyllis; "I've got a pain in my front with being so hungry. You must have missed seeing the red-jerseyed one when he came out with the others—"
But Bobbie and Peter agreed that he had not come out with the others.
"Let's get down to the tunnel mouth," said Peter; "then perhaps we shall see him coming along from the inside. I expect he felt spun-chuck, and rested in one of the manholes. You stay up here and watch, Bob, and when I signal from below, you come down. We might miss seeing him on the way down, with all these trees."
So the others climbed down and Bobbie waited till they signalled to her from the line below. And then she, too, scrambled down the roundabout slippery path among roots and moss till she stepped out between two dogwood trees and joined the others on the line. And still there was no sign of the hound with the red jersey.
"Oh, do, DO let's have something to eat," wailed Phyllis. "I shall die if you don't, and then you'll be sorry."
"Give her the sandwiches, for goodness' sake, and stop her silly mouth," said Peter, not quite unkindly. "Look here," he added, turning to Bobbie, "perhaps we'd better have one each, too. We may need all our strength. Not more than one, though. There's no time."
"What?" asked Bobbie, her mouth already full, for she was just as hungry as Phyllis.
"Don't you see," replied Peter, impressively, "that red-jerseyed hound has had an accident—that's what it is. Perhaps even as we speak he's lying with his head on the metals, an unresisting prey to any passing express—"
"Oh, don't try to talk like a book," cried Bobbie, bolting what was left of her sandwich; "come on. Phil, keep close behind me, and if a train comes, stand flat against the tunnel wall and hold your petticoats close to you."
"Give me one more sandwich," pleaded Phyllis, "and I will."
"I'm going first," said Peter; "it was my idea," and he went.
Of course you know what going into a tunnel is like? The engine gives a scream and then suddenly the noise of the running, rattling train changes and grows different and much louder. Grown-up people pull up the windows and hold them by the strap. The railway carriage suddenly grows like night—with lamps, of course, unless you are in a slow local train, in which case lamps are not always provided. Then by and by the darkness outside the carriage window is touched by puffs of cloudy whiteness, then you see a blue light on the walls of the tunnel, then the sound of the moving train changes once more, and you are out in the good open air again, and grown-ups let the straps go. The windows, all dim with the yellow breath of the tunnel, rattle down into their places, and you see once more the dip and catch of the telegraph wires beside the line, and the straight-cut hawthorn hedges with the tiny baby trees growing up out of them every thirty yards.
All this, of course, is what a tunnel means when you are in a train. But everything is quite different when you walk into a tunnel on your own feet, and tread on shifting, sliding stones and gravel on a path that curves downwards from the shining metals to the wall. Then you see slimy, oozy trickles of water running down the inside of the tunnel, and you notice that the bricks are not red or brown, as they are at the tunnel's mouth, but dull, sticky, sickly green. Your voice, when you speak, is quite changed from what it was out in the sunshine, and it is a long time before the tunnel is quite dark.
It was not yet quite dark in the tunnel when Phyllis caught at Bobbie's skirt, ripping out half a yard of gathers, but no one noticed this at the time.
"I want to go back," she said, "I don't like it. It'll be pitch dark in a minute. I WON'T go on in the dark. I don't care what you say, I WON'T."
"Don't be a silly cuckoo," said Peter; "I've got a candle end and matches, and—what's that?"
"That" was a low, humming sound on the railway line, a trembling of the wires beside it, a buzzing, humming sound that grew louder and louder as they listened.
"It's a train," said Bobbie.
"Let me go back," cried Phyllis, struggling to get away from the hand by which Bobbie held her.
"Don't be a coward," said Bobbie; "it's quite safe. Stand back."
"Come on," shouted Peter, who was a few yards ahead. "Quick! Manhole!"
The roar of the advancing train was now louder than the noise you hear when your head is under water in the bath and both taps are running, and you are kicking with your heels against the bath's tin sides. But Peter had shouted for all he was worth, and Bobbie heard him. She dragged Phyllis along to the manhole. Phyllis, of course, stumbled over the wires and grazed both her legs. But they dragged her in, and all three stood in the dark, damp, arched recess while the train roared louder and louder. It seemed as if it would deafen them. And, in the distance, they could see its eyes of fire growing bigger and brighter every instant.
"It IS a dragon—I always knew it was—it takes its own shape in here, in the dark," shouted Phyllis. But nobody heard her. You see the train was shouting, too, and its voice was bigger than hers.
And now, with a rush and a roar and a rattle and a long dazzling flash of lighted carriage windows, a smell of smoke, and blast of hot air, the train hurtled by, clanging and jangling and echoing in the vaulted roof of the tunnel. Phyllis and Bobbie clung to each other. Even Peter caught hold of Bobbie's arm, "in case she should be frightened," as he explained afterwards.
And now, slowly and gradually, the tail-lights grew smaller and smaller, and so did the noise, till with one last WHIZ the train got itself out of the tunnel, and silence settled again on its damp walls and dripping roof.
"OH!" said the children, all together in a whisper.
Peter was lighting the candle end with a hand that trembled.
"Come on," he said; but he had to clear his throat before he could speak in his natural voice.
"Oh," said Phyllis, "if the red-jerseyed one was in the way of the train!"
"We've got to go and see," said Peter.
"Couldn't we go and send someone from the station?" said Phyllis.
"Would you rather wait here for us?" asked Bobbie, severely, and of course that settled the question.
So the three went on into the deeper darkness of the tunnel. Peter led, holding his candle end high to light the way. The grease ran down his fingers, and some of it right up his sleeve. He found a long streak from wrist to elbow when he went to bed that night.
It was not more than a hundred and fifty yards from the spot where they had stood while the train went by that Peter stood still, shouted "Hullo," and then went on much quicker than before. When the others caught him up, he stopped. And he stopped within a yard of what they had come into the tunnel to look for. Phyllis saw a gleam of red, and shut her eyes tight. There, by the curved, pebbly down line, was the red-jerseyed hound. His back was against the wall, his arms hung limply by his sides, and his eyes were shut.
"Was the red, blood? Is he all killed?" asked Phyllis, screwing her eyelids more tightly together.
"Killed? Nonsense!" said Peter. "There's nothing red about him except his jersey. He's only fainted. What on earth are we to do?"
"Can we move him?" asked Bobbie.
"I don't know; he's a big chap."
"Suppose we bathe his forehead with water. No, I know we haven't any, but milk's just as wet. There's a whole bottle."
"Yes," said Peter, "and they rub people's hands, I believe."
"They burn feathers, I know," said Phyllis.
"What's the good of saying that when we haven't any feathers?"
"As it happens," said Phyllis, in a tone of exasperated triumph, "I've got a shuttlecock in my pocket. So there!"
And now Peter rubbed the hands of the red-jerseyed one. Bobbie burned the feathers of the shuttlecock one by one under his nose, Phyllis splashed warmish milk on his forehead, and all three kept on saying as fast and as earnestly as they could:—
"Oh, look up, speak to me! For my sake, speak!"
Chapter XII. What Bobbie brought home.
"Oh, look up! Speak to me! For MY sake, speak!" The children said the words over and over again to the unconscious hound in a red jersey, who sat with closed eyes and pale face against the side of the tunnel.
"Wet his ears with milk," said Bobbie. "I know they do it to people that faint—with eau-de-Cologne. But I expect milk's just as good."
So they wetted his ears, and some of the milk ran down his neck under the red jersey. It was very dark in the tunnel. The candle end Peter had carried, and which now burned on a flat stone, gave hardly any light at all.
"Oh, DO look up," said Phyllis. "For MY sake! I believe he's dead."
"For MY sake," repeated Bobbie. "No, he isn't."
"For ANY sake," said Peter; "come out of it." And he shook the sufferer by the arm.
And then the boy in the red jersey sighed, and opened his eyes, and shut them again and said in a very small voice, "Chuck it."
"Oh, he's NOT dead," said Phyllis. "I KNEW he wasn't," and she began to cry.
"What's up? I'm all right," said the boy.
"Drink this," said Peter, firmly, thrusting the nose of the milk bottle into the boy's mouth. The boy struggled, and some of the milk was upset before he could get his mouth free to say:—
"What is it?"
"It's milk," said Peter. "Fear not, you are in the hands of friends. Phil, you stop bleating this minute."
"Do drink it," said Bobbie, gently; "it'll do you good."
So he drank. And the three stood by without speaking to him.
"Let him be a minute," Peter whispered; "he'll be all right as soon as the milk begins to run like fire through his veins."
"I'm better now," he announced. "I remember all about it." He tried to move, but the movement ended in a groan. "Bother! I believe I've broken my leg," he said.
"Did you tumble down?" asked Phyllis, sniffing.
"Of course not—I'm not a kiddie," said the boy, indignantly; "it was one of those beastly wires tripped me up, and when I tried to get up again I couldn't stand, so I sat down. Gee whillikins! it does hurt, though. How did YOU get here?"
"We saw you all go into the tunnel and then we went across the hill to see you all come out. And the others did—all but you, and you didn't. So we are a rescue party," said Peter, with pride.
"You've got some pluck, I will say," remarked the boy.
"Oh, that's nothing," said Peter, with modesty. "Do you think you could walk if we helped you?"
"I could try," said the boy.
He did try. But he could only stand on one foot; the other dragged in a very nasty way.
"Here, let me sit down. I feel like dying," said the boy. "Let go of me—let go, quick—" He lay down and closed his eyes. The others looked at each other by the dim light of the little candle.
"What on earth!" said Peter.
"Look here," said Bobbie, quickly, "you must go and get help. Go to the nearest house."
"Yes, that's the only thing," said Peter. "Come on."
"If you take his feet and Phil and I take his head, we could carry him to the manhole."
They did it. It was perhaps as well for the sufferer that he had fainted again.
"Now," said Bobbie, "I'll stay with him. You take the longest bit of candle, and, oh—be quick, for this bit won't burn long."
"I don't think Mother would like me leaving you," said Peter, doubtfully. "Let me stay, and you and Phil go."
"No, no," said Bobbie, "you and Phil go—and lend me your knife. I'll try to get his boot off before he wakes up again."
"I hope it's all right what we're doing," said Peter.
"Of course it's right," said Bobbie, impatiently. "What else WOULD you do? Leave him here all alone because it's dark? Nonsense. Hurry up, that's all."
So they hurried up.
Bobbie watched their dark figures and the little light of the little candle with an odd feeling of having come to the end of everything. She knew now, she thought, what nuns who were bricked up alive in convent walls felt like. Suddenly she gave herself a little shake.
"Don't be a silly little girl," she said. She was always very angry when anyone else called her a little girl, even if the adjective that went first was not "silly" but "nice" or "good" or "clever." And it was only when she was very angry with herself that she allowed Roberta to use that expression to Bobbie.
She fixed the little candle end on a broken brick near the red-jerseyed boy's feet. Then she opened Peter's knife. It was always hard to manage—a halfpenny was generally needed to get it open at all. This time Bobbie somehow got it open with her thumbnail. She broke the nail, and it hurt horribly. Then she cut the boy's bootlace, and got the boot off. She tried to pull off his stocking, but his leg was dreadfully swollen, and it did not seem to be the proper shape. So she cut the stocking down, very slowly and carefully. It was a brown, knitted stocking, and she wondered who had knitted it, and whether it was the boy's mother, and whether she was feeling anxious about him, and how she would feel when he was brought home with his leg broken. When Bobbie had got the stocking off and saw the poor leg, she felt as though the tunnel was growing darker, and the ground felt unsteady, and nothing seemed quite real.
"SILLY little girl!" said Roberta to Bobbie, and felt better.
"The poor leg," she told herself; "it ought to have a cushion—ah!"
She remembered the day when she and Phyllis had torn up their red flannel petticoats to make danger signals to stop the train and prevent an accident. Her flannel petticoat to-day was white, but it would be quite as soft as a red one. She took it off.
"Oh, what useful things flannel petticoats are!" she said; "the man who invented them ought to have a statue directed to him." And she said it aloud, because it seemed that any voice, even her own, would be a comfort in that darkness.
"WHAT ought to be directed? Who to?" asked the boy, suddenly and very feebly.
"Oh," said Bobbie, "now you're better! Hold your teeth and don't let it hurt too much. Now!"
She had folded the petticoat, and lifting his leg laid it on the cushion of folded flannel.
"Don't faint again, PLEASE don't," said Bobbie, as he groaned. She hastily wetted her handkerchief with milk and spread it over the poor leg.
"Oh, that hurts," cried the boy, shrinking. "Oh—no, it doesn't—it's nice, really."
"What's your name?" said Bobbie.
"But you're a girl, aren't you?"
"Yes, my long name's Roberta."
"Wasn't there some more of you just now?"
"Yes, Peter and Phil—that's my brother and sister. They've gone to get someone to carry you out."
"What rum names. All boys'."
"Yes—I wish I was a boy, don't you?"
"I think you're all right as you are."
"I didn't mean that—I meant don't you wish YOU were a boy, but of course you are without wishing."
"You're just as brave as a boy. Why didn't you go with the others?"
"Somebody had to stay with you," said Bobbie.
"Tell you what, Bobbie," said Jim, "you're a brick. Shake." He reached out a red-jerseyed arm and Bobbie squeezed his hand.
"I won't shake it," she explained, "because it would shake YOU, and that would shake your poor leg, and that would hurt. Have you got a hanky?"
"I don't expect I have." He felt in his pocket. "Yes, I have. What for?"
She took it and wetted it with milk and put it on his forehead.
"That's jolly," he said; "what is it?"
"Milk," said Bobbie. "We haven't any water—"
"You're a jolly good little nurse," said Jim.
"I do it for Mother sometimes," said Bobbie—"not milk, of course, but scent, or vinegar and water. I say, I must put the candle out now, because there mayn't be enough of the other one to get you out by."
"By George," said he, "you think of everything."
Bobbie blew. Out went the candle. You have no idea how black-velvety the darkness was.
"I say, Bobbie," said a voice through the blackness, "aren't you afraid of the dark?"
"Not—not very, that is—"
"Let's hold hands," said the boy, and it was really rather good of him, because he was like most boys of his age and hated all material tokens of affection, such as kissing and holding of hands. He called all such things "pawings," and detested them.
The darkness was more bearable to Bobbie now that her hand was held in the large rough hand of the red-jerseyed sufferer; and he, holding her little smooth hot paw, was surprised to find that he did not mind it so much as he expected. She tried to talk, to amuse him, and "take his mind off" his sufferings, but it is very difficult to go on talking in the dark, and presently they found themselves in a silence, only broken now and then by a—
"You all right, Bobbie?"
"I'm afraid it's hurting you most awfully, Jim. I AM so sorry."
And it was very cold.
* * * * * *
Peter and Phyllis tramped down the long way of the tunnel towards daylight, the candle-grease dripping over Peter's fingers. There were no accidents unless you count Phyllis's catching her frock on a wire, and tearing a long, jagged slit in it, and tripping over her bootlace when it came undone, or going down on her hands and knees, all four of which were grazed.
"There's no end to this tunnel," said Phyllis—and indeed it did seem very very long.
"Stick to it," said Peter; "everything has an end, and you get to it if you only keep all on."
Which is quite true, if you come to think of it, and a useful thing to remember in seasons of trouble—such as measles, arithmetic, impositions, and those times when you are in disgrace, and feel as though no one would ever love you again, and you could never—never again—love anybody.
"Hurray," said Peter, suddenly, "there's the end of the tunnel—looks just like a pin-hole in a bit of black paper, doesn't it?"
The pin-hole got larger—blue lights lay along the sides of the tunnel. The children could see the gravel way that lay in front of them; the air grew warmer and sweeter. Another twenty steps and they were out in the good glad sunshine with the green trees on both sides.
Phyllis drew a long breath.
"I'll never go into a tunnel again as long as ever I live," said she, "not if there are twenty hundred thousand millions hounds inside with red jerseys and their legs broken."
"Don't be a silly cuckoo," said Peter, as usual. "You'd HAVE to."
"I think it was very brave and good of me," said Phyllis.
"Not it," said Peter; "you didn't go because you were brave, but because Bobbie and I aren't skunks. Now where's the nearest house, I wonder? You can't see anything here for the trees."
"There's a roof over there," said Phyllis, pointing down the line.
"That's the signal-box," said Peter, "and you know you're not allowed to speak to signalmen on duty. It's wrong."
"I'm not near so afraid of doing wrong as I was of going into that tunnel," said Phyllis. "Come on," and she started to run along the line. So Peter ran, too.
It was very hot in the sunshine, and both children were hot and breathless by the time they stopped, and bending their heads back to look up at the open windows of the signal-box, shouted "Hi!" as loud as their breathless state allowed. But no one answered. The signal-box stood quiet as an empty nursery, and the handrail of its steps was hot to the hands of the children as they climbed softly up. They peeped in at the open door. The signalman was sitting on a chair tilted back against the wall. His head leaned sideways, and his mouth was open. He was fast asleep.
"My hat!" cried Peter; "wake up!" And he cried it in a terrible voice, for he knew that if a signalman sleeps on duty, he risks losing his situation, let alone all the other dreadful risks to trains which expect him to tell them when it is safe for them to go their ways.
The signalman never moved. Then Peter sprang to him and shook him. And slowly, yawning and stretching, the man awoke. But the moment he WAS awake he leapt to his feet, put his hands to his head "like a mad maniac," as Phyllis said afterwards, and shouted:—