"Oh, my heavens—what's o'clock?"
"Twelve thirteen," said Peter, and indeed it was by the white-faced, round-faced clock on the wall of the signal-box.
The man looked at the clock, sprang to the levers, and wrenched them this way and that. An electric bell tingled—the wires and cranks creaked, and the man threw himself into a chair. He was very pale, and the sweat stood on his forehead "like large dewdrops on a white cabbage," as Phyllis remarked later. He was trembling, too; the children could see his big hairy hands shake from side to side, "with quite extra-sized trembles," to use the subsequent words of Peter. He drew long breaths. Then suddenly he cried, "Thank God, thank God you come in when you did—oh, thank God!" and his shoulders began to heave and his face grew red again, and he hid it in those large hairy hands of his.
"Oh, don't cry—don't," said Phyllis, "it's all right now," and she patted him on one big, broad shoulder, while Peter conscientiously thumped the other.
But the signalman seemed quite broken down, and the children had to pat him and thump him for quite a long time before he found his handkerchief—a red one with mauve and white horseshoes on it—and mopped his face and spoke. During this patting and thumping interval a train thundered by.
"I'm downright shamed, that I am," were the words of the big signalman when he had stopped crying; "snivelling like a kid." Then suddenly he seemed to get cross. "And what was you doing up here, anyway?" he said; "you know it ain't allowed."
"Yes," said Phyllis, "we knew it was wrong—but I wasn't afraid of doing wrong, and so it turned out right. You aren't sorry we came."
"Lor' love you—if you hadn't 'a' come—" he stopped and then went on. "It's a disgrace, so it is, sleeping on duty. If it was to come to be known—even as it is, when no harm's come of it."
"It won't come to be known," said Peter; "we aren't sneaks. All the same, you oughtn't to sleep on duty—it's dangerous."
"Tell me something I don't know," said the man, "but I can't help it. I know'd well enough just how it 'ud be. But I couldn't get off. They couldn't get no one to take on my duty. I tell you I ain't had ten minutes' sleep this last five days. My little chap's ill—pewmonia, the Doctor says—and there's no one but me and 'is little sister to do for him. That's where it is. The gell must 'ave her sleep. Dangerous? Yes, I believe you. Now go and split on me if you like."
"Of course we won't," said Peter, indignantly, but Phyllis ignored the whole of the signalman's speech, except the first six words.
"You asked us," she said, "to tell you something you don't know. Well, I will. There's a boy in the tunnel over there with a red jersey and his leg broken."
"What did he want to go into the blooming tunnel for, then?" said the man.
"Don't you be so cross," said Phyllis, kindly. "WE haven't done anything wrong except coming and waking you up, and that was right, as it happens."
Then Peter told how the boy came to be in the tunnel.
"Well," said the man, "I don't see as I can do anything. I can't leave the box."
"You might tell us where to go after someone who isn't in a box, though," said Phyllis.
"There's Brigden's farm over yonder—where you see the smoke a-coming up through the trees," said the man, more and more grumpy, as Phyllis noticed.
"Well, good-bye, then," said Peter.
But the man said, "Wait a minute." He put his hand in his pocket and brought out some money—a lot of pennies and one or two shillings and sixpences and half-a-crown. He picked out two shillings and held them out.
"Here," he said. "I'll give you this to hold your tongues about what's taken place to-day."
There was a short, unpleasant pause. Then:—
"You ARE a nasty man, though, aren't you?" said Phyllis.
Peter took a step forward and knocked the man's hand up, so that the shillings leapt out of it and rolled on the floor.
"If anything COULD make me sneak, THAT would!" he said. "Come, Phil," and marched out of the signal-box with flaming cheeks.
Phyllis hesitated. Then she took the hand, still held out stupidly, that the shillings had been in.
"I forgive you," she said, "even if Peter doesn't. You're not in your proper senses, or you'd never have done that. I know want of sleep sends people mad. Mother told me. I hope your little boy will soon be better, and—"
"Come on, Phil," cried Peter, eagerly.
"I give you my sacred honour-word we'll never tell anyone. Kiss and be friends," said Phyllis, feeling how noble it was of her to try to make up a quarrel in which she was not to blame.
The signalman stooped and kissed her.
"I do believe I'm a bit off my head, Sissy," he said. "Now run along home to Mother. I didn't mean to put you about—there."
So Phil left the hot signal-box and followed Peter across the fields to the farm.
When the farm men, led by Peter and Phyllis and carrying a hurdle covered with horse-cloths, reached the manhole in the tunnel, Bobbie was fast asleep and so was Jim. Worn out with the pain, the Doctor said afterwards.
"Where does he live?" the bailiff from the farm asked, when Jim had been lifted on to the hurdle.
"In Northumberland," answered Bobbie.
"I'm at school at Maidbridge," said Jim. "I suppose I've got to get back there, somehow."
"Seems to me the Doctor ought to have a look in first," said the bailiff.
"Oh, bring him up to our house," said Bobbie. "It's only a little way by the road. I'm sure Mother would say we ought to."
"Will your Ma like you bringing home strangers with broken legs?"
"She took the poor Russian home herself," said Bobbie. "I know she'd say we ought."
"All right," said the bailiff, "you ought to know what your Ma 'ud like. I wouldn't take it upon me to fetch him up to our place without I asked the Missus first, and they call me the Master, too."
"Are you sure your Mother won't mind?" whispered Jim.
"Certain," said Bobbie.
"Then we're to take him up to Three Chimneys?" said the bailiff.
"Of course," said Peter.
"Then my lad shall nip up to Doctor's on his bike, and tell him to come down there. Now, lads, lift him quiet and steady. One, two, three!"
* * * * * *
Thus it happened that Mother, writing away for dear life at a story about a Duchess, a designing villain, a secret passage, and a missing will, dropped her pen as her work-room door burst open, and turned to see Bobbie hatless and red with running.
"Oh, Mother," she cried, "do come down. We found a hound in a red jersey in the tunnel, and he's broken his leg and they're bringing him home."
"They ought to take him to the vet," said Mother, with a worried frown; "I really CAN'T have a lame dog here."
"He's not a dog, really—he's a boy," said Bobbie, between laughing and choking.
"Then he ought to be taken home to his mother."
"His mother's dead," said Bobbie, "and his father's in Northumberland. Oh, Mother, you will be nice to him? I told him I was sure you'd want us to bring him home. You always want to help everybody."
Mother smiled, but she sighed, too. It is nice that your children should believe you willing to open house and heart to any and every one who needs help. But it is rather embarrassing sometimes, too, when they act on their belief.
"Oh, well," said Mother, "we must make the best of it."
When Jim was carried in, dreadfully white and with set lips whose red had faded to a horrid bluey violet colour, Mother said:—
"I am glad you brought him here. Now, Jim, let's get you comfortable in bed before the Doctor comes!"
And Jim, looking at her kind eyes, felt a little, warm, comforting flush of new courage.
"It'll hurt rather, won't it?" he said. "I don't mean to be a coward. You won't think I'm a coward if I faint again, will you? I really and truly don't do it on purpose. And I do hate to give you all this trouble."
"Don't you worry," said Mother; "it's you that have the trouble, you poor dear—not us."
And she kissed him just as if he had been Peter. "We love to have you here—don't we, Bobbie?"
"Yes," said Bobbie—and she saw by her Mother's face how right she had been to bring home the wounded hound in the red jersey.
Chapter XIII. The hound's grandfather.
Mother did not get back to her writing all that day, for the red-jerseyed hound whom the children had brought to Three Chimneys had to be put to bed. And then the Doctor came, and hurt him most horribly. Mother was with him all through it, and that made it a little better than it would have been, but "bad was the best," as Mrs. Viney said.
The children sat in the parlour downstairs and heard the sound of the Doctor's boots going backwards and forwards over the bedroom floor. And once or twice there was a groan.
"It's horrible," said Bobbie. "Oh, I wish Dr. Forrest would make haste. Oh, poor Jim!"
"It IS horrible," said Peter, "but it's very exciting. I wish Doctors weren't so stuck-up about who they'll have in the room when they're doing things. I should most awfully like to see a leg set. I believe the bones crunch like anything."
"Don't!" said the two girls at once.
"Rubbish!" said Peter. "How are you going to be Red Cross Nurses, like you were talking of coming home, if you can't even stand hearing me say about bones crunching? You'd have to HEAR them crunch on the field of battle—and be steeped in gore up to the elbows as likely as not, and—"
"Stop it!" cried Bobbie, with a white face; "you don't know how funny you're making me feel."
"Me, too," said Phyllis, whose face was pink.
"Cowards!" said Peter.
"I'm not," said Bobbie. "I helped Mother with your rake-wounded foot, and so did Phil—you know we did."
"Well, then!" said Peter. "Now look here. It would be a jolly good thing for you if I were to talk to you every day for half an hour about broken bones and people's insides, so as to get you used to it."
A chair was moved above.
"Listen," said Peter, "that's the bone crunching."
"I do wish you wouldn't," said Phyllis. "Bobbie doesn't like it."
"I'll tell you what they do," said Peter. I can't think what made him so horrid. Perhaps it was because he had been so very nice and kind all the earlier part of the day, and now he had to have a change. This is called reaction. One notices it now and then in oneself. Sometimes when one has been extra good for a longer time than usual, one is suddenly attacked by a violent fit of not being good at all. "I'll tell you what they do," said Peter; "they strap the broken man down so that he can't resist or interfere with their doctorish designs, and then someone holds his head, and someone holds his leg—the broken one, and pulls it till the bones fit in—with a crunch, mind you! Then they strap it up and—let's play at bone-setting!"
"Oh, no!" said Phyllis.
But Bobbie said suddenly: "All right—LET'S! I'll be the doctor, and Phil can be the nurse. You can be the broken boner; we can get at your legs more easily, because you don't wear petticoats."
"I'll get the splints and bandages," said Peter; "you get the couch of suffering ready."
The ropes that had tied up the boxes that had come from home were all in a wooden packing-case in the cellar. When Peter brought in a trailing tangle of them, and two boards for splints, Phyllis was excitedly giggling.
"Now, then," he said, and lay down on the settle, groaning most grievously.
"Not so loud!" said Bobbie, beginning to wind the rope round him and the settle. "You pull, Phil."
"Not so tight," moaned Peter. "You'll break my other leg."
Bobbie worked on in silence, winding more and more rope round him.
"That's enough," said Peter. "I can't move at all. Oh, my poor leg!" He groaned again.
"SURE you can't move?" asked Bobbie, in a rather strange tone.
"Quite sure," replied Peter. "Shall we play it's bleeding freely or not?" he asked cheerfully.
"YOU can play what you like," said Bobbie, sternly, folding her arms and looking down at him where he lay all wound round and round with cord. "Phil and I are going away. And we shan't untie you till you promise never, never to talk to us about blood and wounds unless we say you may. Come, Phil!"
"You beast!" said Peter, writhing. "I'll never promise, never. I'll yell, and Mother will come."
"Do," said Bobbie, "and tell her why we tied you up! Come on, Phil. No, I'm not a beast, Peter. But you wouldn't stop when we asked you and—"
"Yah," said Peter, "it wasn't even your own idea. You got it out of Stalky!"
Bobbie and Phil, retiring in silent dignity, were met at the door by the Doctor. He came in rubbing his hands and looking pleased with himself.
"Well," he said, "THAT job's done. It's a nice clean fracture, and it'll go on all right, I've no doubt. Plucky young chap, too—hullo! what's all this?"
His eye had fallen on Peter who lay mousy-still in his bonds on the settle.
"Playing at prisoners, eh?" he said; but his eyebrows had gone up a little. Somehow he had not thought that Bobbie would be playing while in the room above someone was having a broken bone set.
"Oh, no!" said Bobbie, "not at PRISONERS. We were playing at setting bones. Peter's the broken boner, and I was the doctor."
The Doctor frowned.
"Then I must say," he said, and he said it rather sternly, "that's it's a very heartless game. Haven't you enough imagination even to faintly picture what's been going on upstairs? That poor chap, with the drops of sweat on his forehead, and biting his lips so as not to cry out, and every touch on his leg agony and—"
"YOU ought to be tied up," said Phyllis; "you're as bad as—"
"Hush," said Bobbie; "I'm sorry, but we weren't heartless, really."
"I was, I suppose," said Peter, crossly. "All right, Bobbie, don't you go on being noble and screening me, because I jolly well won't have it. It was only that I kept on talking about blood and wounds. I wanted to train them for Red Cross Nurses. And I wouldn't stop when they asked me."
"Well?" said Dr. Forrest, sitting down.
"Well—then I said, 'Let's play at setting bones.' It was all rot. I knew Bobbie wouldn't. I only said it to tease her. And then when she said 'yes,' of course I had to go through with it. And they tied me up. They got it out of Stalky. And I think it's a beastly shame."
He managed to writhe over and hide his face against the wooden back of the settle.
"I didn't think that anyone would know but us," said Bobbie, indignantly answering Peter's unspoken reproach. "I never thought of your coming in. And hearing about blood and wounds does really make me feel most awfully funny. It was only a joke our tying him up. Let me untie you, Pete."
"I don't care if you never untie me," said Peter; "and if that's your idea of a joke—"
"If I were you," said the Doctor, though really he did not quite know what to say, "I should be untied before your Mother comes down. You don't want to worry her just now, do you?"
"I don't promise anything about not saying about wounds, mind," said Peter, in very surly tones, as Bobbie and Phyllis began to untie the knots.
"I'm very sorry, Pete," Bobbie whispered, leaning close to him as she fumbled with the big knot under the settle; "but if you only knew how sick you made me feel."
"You've made ME feel pretty sick, I can tell you," Peter rejoined. Then he shook off the loose cords, and stood up.
"I looked in," said Dr. Forrest, "to see if one of you would come along to the surgery. There are some things that your Mother will want at once, and I've given my man a day off to go and see the circus; will you come, Peter?"
Peter went without a word or a look to his sisters.
The two walked in silence up to the gate that led from the Three Chimneys field to the road. Then Peter said:—
"Let me carry your bag. I say, it is heavy—what's in it?"
"Oh, knives and lancets and different instruments for hurting people. And the ether bottle. I had to give him ether, you know—the agony was so intense."
Peter was silent.
"Tell me all about how you found that chap," said Dr. Forrest.
Peter told. And then Dr. Forrest told him stories of brave rescues; he was a most interesting man to talk to, as Peter had often remarked.
Then in the surgery Peter had a better chance than he had ever had of examining the Doctor's balance, and his microscope, and his scales and measuring glasses. When all the things were ready that Peter was to take back, the Doctor said suddenly:—
"You'll excuse my shoving my oar in, won't you? But I should like to say something to you."
"Now for a rowing," thought Peter, who had been wondering how it was that he had escaped one.
"Something scientific," added the Doctor.
"Yes," said Peter, fiddling with the fossil ammonite that the Doctor used for a paper-weight.
"Well then, you see. Boys and girls are only little men and women. And WE are much harder and hardier than they are—" (Peter liked the "we." Perhaps the Doctor had known he would.)—"and much stronger, and things that hurt THEM don't hurt US. You know you mustn't hit a girl—"
"I should think not, indeed," muttered Peter, indignantly.
"Not even if she's your own sister. That's because girls are so much softer and weaker than we are; they have to be, you know," he added, "because if they weren't, it wouldn't be nice for the babies. And that's why all the animals are so good to the mother animals. They never fight them, you know."
"I know," said Peter, interested; "two buck rabbits will fight all day if you let them, but they won't hurt a doe."
"No; and quite wild beasts—lions and elephants—they're immensely gentle with the female beasts. And we've got to be, too."
"I see," said Peter.
"And their hearts are soft, too," the Doctor went on, "and things that we shouldn't think anything of hurt them dreadfully. So that a man has to be very careful, not only of his fists, but of his words. They're awfully brave, you know," he went on. "Think of Bobbie waiting alone in the tunnel with that poor chap. It's an odd thing—the softer and more easily hurt a woman is the better she can screw herself up to do what HAS to be done. I've seen some brave women—your Mother's one," he ended abruptly.
"Yes," said Peter.
"Well, that's all. Excuse my mentioning it. But nobody knows everything without being told. And you see what I mean, don't you?"
"Yes," said Peter. "I'm sorry. There!"
"Of course you are! People always are—directly they understand. Everyone ought to be taught these scientific facts. So long!"
They shook hands heartily. When Peter came home, his sisters looked at him doubtfully.
"It's Pax," said Peter, dumping down the basket on the table. "Dr. Forrest has been talking scientific to me. No, it's no use my telling you what he said; you wouldn't understand. But it all comes to you girls being poor, soft, weak, frightened things like rabbits, so us men have just got to put up with them. He said you were female beasts. Shall I take this up to Mother, or will you?"
"I know what BOYS are," said Phyllis, with flaming cheeks; "they're just the nastiest, rudest—"
"They're very brave," said Bobbie, "sometimes."
"Ah, you mean the chap upstairs? I see. Go ahead, Phil—I shall put up with you whatever you say because you're a poor, weak, frightened, soft—"
"Not if I pull your hair you won't," said Phyllis, springing at him.
"He said 'Pax,'" said Bobbie, pulling her away. "Don't you see," she whispered as Peter picked up the basket and stalked out with it, "he's sorry, really, only he won't say so? Let's say we're sorry."
"It's so goody goody," said Phyllis, doubtfully; "he said we were female beasts, and soft and frightened—"
"Then let's show him we're not frightened of him thinking us goody goody," said Bobbie; "and we're not any more beasts than he is."
And when Peter came back, still with his chin in the air, Bobbie said:—
"We're sorry we tied you up, Pete."
"I thought you would be," said Peter, very stiff and superior.
This was hard to bear. But—
"Well, so we are," said Bobbie. "Now let honour be satisfied on both sides."
"I did call it Pax," said Peter, in an injured tone.
"Then let it BE Pax," said Bobbie. "Come on, Phil, let's get the tea. Pete, you might lay the cloth."
"I say," said Phyllis, when peace was really restored, which was not till they were washing up the cups after tea, "Dr. Forrest didn't REALLY say we were female beasts, did he?"
"Yes," said Peter, firmly, "but I think he meant we men were wild beasts, too."
"How funny of him!" said Phyllis, breaking a cup.
* * * * * *
"May I come in, Mother?" Peter was at the door of Mother's writing room, where Mother sat at her table with two candles in front of her. Their flames looked orange and violet against the clear grey blue of the sky where already a few stars were twinkling.
"Yes, dear," said Mother, absently, "anything wrong?" She wrote a few more words and then laid down her pen and began to fold up what she had written. "I was just writing to Jim's grandfather. He lives near here, you know."
"Yes, you said so at tea. That's what I want to say. Must you write to him, Mother? Couldn't we keep Jim, and not say anything to his people till he's well? It would be such a surprise for them."
"Well, yes," said Mother, laughing, "I think it would."
"You see," Peter went on, "of course the girls are all right and all that—I'm not saying anything against THEM. But I should like it if I had another chap to talk to sometimes."
"Yes," said Mother, "I know it's dull for you, dear. But I can't help it. Next year perhaps I can send you to school—you'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"I do miss the other chaps, rather," Peter confessed; "but if Jim could stay after his leg was well, we could have awful larks."
"I've no doubt of it," said Mother. "Well—perhaps he could, but you know, dear, we're not rich. I can't afford to get him everything he'll want. And he must have a nurse."
"Can't you nurse him, Mother? You do nurse people so beautifully."
"That's a pretty compliment, Pete—but I can't do nursing and my writing as well. That's the worst of it."
"Then you MUST send the letter to his grandfather?"
"Of course—and to his schoolmaster, too. We telegraphed to them both, but I must write as well. They'll be most dreadfully anxious."
"I say, Mother, why can't his grandfather pay for a nurse?" Peter suggested. "That would be ripping. I expect the old boy's rolling in money. Grandfathers in books always are."
"Well, this one isn't in a book," said Mother, "so we mustn't expect him to roll much."
"I say," said Peter, musingly, "wouldn't it be jolly if we all WERE in a book, and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim's legs get well at once and be all right to-morrow, and Father come home soon and—"
"Do you miss your Father very much?" Mother asked, rather coldly, Peter thought.
"Awfully," said Peter, briefly.
Mother was enveloping and addressing the second letter.
"You see," Peter went on slowly, "you see, it's not only him BEING Father, but now he's away there's no other man in the house but me—that's why I want Jim to stay so frightfully much. Wouldn't you like to be writing that book with us all in it, Mother, and make Daddy come home soon?"
Peter's Mother put her arm round him suddenly, and hugged him in silence for a minute. Then she said:—
"Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing the book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right—in the way that's best for us."
"Do you really believe that, Mother?" Peter asked quietly.
"Yes," she said, "I do believe it—almost always—except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I can't believe it, I know it's true—and I try to believe. You don't know how I try, Peter. Now take the letters to the post, and don't let's be sad any more. Courage, courage! That's the finest of all the virtues! I dare say Jim will be here for two or three weeks yet."
For what was left of the evening Peter was so angelic that Bobbie feared he was going to be ill. She was quite relieved in the morning to find him plaiting Phyllis's hair on to the back of her chair in quite his old manner.
It was soon after breakfast that a knock came at the door. The children were hard at work cleaning the brass candlesticks in honour of Jim's visit.
"That'll be the Doctor," said Mother; "I'll go. Shut the kitchen door—you're not fit to be seen."
But it wasn't the Doctor. They knew that by the voice and by the sound of the boots that went upstairs. They did not recognise the sound of the boots, but everyone was certain that they had heard the voice before.
There was a longish interval. The boots and the voice did not come down again.
"Who can it possibly be?" they kept on asking themselves and each other.
"Perhaps," said Peter at last, "Dr. Forrest has been attacked by highwaymen and left for dead, and this is the man he's telegraphed for to take his place. Mrs. Viney said he had a local tenant to do his work when he went for a holiday, didn't you, Mrs. Viney?"
"I did so, my dear," said Mrs. Viney from the back kitchen.
"He's fallen down in a fit, more likely," said Phyllis, "all human aid despaired of. And this is his man come to break the news to Mother."
"Nonsense!" said Peter, briskly; "Mother wouldn't have taken the man up into Jim's bedroom. Why should she? Listen—the door's opening. Now they'll come down. I'll open the door a crack."
"It's not listening," he replied indignantly to Bobbie's scandalised remarks; "nobody in their senses would talk secrets on the stairs. And Mother can't have secrets to talk with Dr. Forrest's stable-man—and you said it was him."
"Bobbie," called Mother's voice.
They opened the kitchen door, and Mother leaned over the stair railing.
"Jim's grandfather has come," she said; "wash your hands and faces and then you can see him. He wants to see you!" The bedroom door shut again.
"There now!" said Peter; "fancy us not even thinking of that! Let's have some hot water, Mrs. Viney. I'm as black as your hat."
The three were indeed dirty, for the stuff you clean brass candlesticks with is very far from cleaning to the cleaner.
They were still busy with soap and flannel when they heard the boots and the voice come down the stairs and go into the dining-room. And when they were clean, though still damp—because it takes such a long time to dry your hands properly, and they were very impatient to see the grandfather—they filed into the dining-room.
Mother was sitting in the window-seat, and in the leather-covered armchair that Father always used to sit in at the other house sat—
THEIR OWN OLD GENTLEMAN!
"Well, I never did," said Peter, even before he said, "How do you do?" He was, as he explained afterwards, too surprised even to remember that there was such a thing as politeness—much less to practise it.
"It's our own old gentleman!" said Phyllis.
"Oh, it's you!" said Bobbie. And then they remembered themselves and their manners and said, "How do you do?" very nicely.
"This is Jim's grandfather, Mr. ——" said Mother, naming the old gentleman's name.
"How splendid!" said Peter; "that's just exactly like a book, isn't it, Mother?"
"It is, rather," said Mother, smiling; "things do happen in real life that are rather like books, sometimes."
"I am so awfully glad it IS you," said Phyllis; "when you think of the tons of old gentlemen there are in the world—it might have been almost anyone."
"I say, though," said Peter, "you're not going to take Jim away, though, are you?"
"Not at present," said the old gentleman. "Your Mother has most kindly consented to let him stay here. I thought of sending a nurse, but your Mother is good enough to say that she will nurse him herself."
"But what about her writing?" said Peter, before anyone could stop him. "There won't be anything for him to eat if Mother doesn't write."
"That's all right," said Mother, hastily.
The old gentleman looked very kindly at Mother.
"I see," he said, "you trust your children, and confide in them."
"Of course," said Mother.
"Then I may tell them of our little arrangement," he said. "Your Mother, my dears, has consented to give up writing for a little while and to become a Matron of my Hospital."
"Oh!" said Phyllis, blankly; "and shall we have to go away from Three Chimneys and the Railway and everything?"
"No, no, darling," said Mother, hurriedly.
"The Hospital is called Three Chimneys Hospital," said the old gentleman, "and my unlucky Jim's the only patient, and I hope he'll continue to be so. Your Mother will be Matron, and there'll be a hospital staff of a housemaid and a cook—till Jim's well."
"And then will Mother go on writing again?" asked Peter.
"We shall see," said the old gentleman, with a slight, swift glance at Bobbie; "perhaps something nice may happen and she won't have to."
"I love my writing," said Mother, very quickly.
"I know," said the old gentleman; "don't be afraid that I'm going to try to interfere. But one never knows. Very wonderful and beautiful things do happen, don't they? And we live most of our lives in the hope of them. I may come again to see the boy?"
"Surely," said Mother, "and I don't know how to thank you for making it possible for me to nurse him. Dear boy!"
"He kept calling Mother, Mother, in the night," said Phyllis. "I woke up twice and heard him."
"He didn't mean me," said Mother, in a low voice to the old gentleman; "that's why I wanted so much to keep him."
The old gentleman rose.
"I'm so glad," said Peter, "that you're going to keep him, Mother."
"Take care of your Mother, my dears," said the old gentleman. "She's a woman in a million."
"Yes, isn't she?" whispered Bobbie.
"God bless her," said the old gentleman, taking both Mother's hands, "God bless her! Ay, and she shall be blessed. Dear me, where's my hat? Will Bobbie come with me to the gate?"
At the gate he stopped and said:—
"You're a good child, my dear—I got your letter. But it wasn't needed. When I read about your Father's case in the papers at the time, I had my doubts. And ever since I've known who you were, I've been trying to find out things. I haven't done very much yet. But I have hopes, my dear—I have hopes."
"Oh!" said Bobbie, choking a little.
"Yes—I may say great hopes. But keep your secret a little longer. Wouldn't do to upset your Mother with a false hope, would it?"
"Oh, but it isn't false!" said Bobbie; "I KNOW you can do it. I knew you could when I wrote. It isn't a false hope, is it?"
"No," he said, "I don't think it's a false hope, or I wouldn't have told you. And I think you deserve to be told that there IS a hope."
"And you don't think Father did it, do you? Oh, say you don't think he did."
"My dear," he said, "I'm perfectly CERTAIN he didn't."
If it was a false hope, it was none the less a very radiant one that lay warm at Bobbie's heart, and through the days that followed lighted her little face as a Japanese lantern is lighted by the candle within.
Chapter XIV. The End.
Life at the Three Chimneys was never quite the same again after the old gentleman came to see his grandson. Although they now knew his name, the children never spoke of him by it—at any rate, when they were by themselves. To them he was always the old gentleman, and I think he had better be the old gentleman to us, too. It wouldn't make him seem any more real to you, would it, if I were to tell you that his name was Snooks or Jenkins (which it wasn't)?—and, after all, I must be allowed to keep one secret. It's the only one; I have told you everything else, except what I am going to tell you in this chapter, which is the last. At least, of course, I haven't told you EVERYTHING. If I were to do that, the book would never come to an end, and that would be a pity, wouldn't it?
Well, as I was saying, life at Three Chimneys was never quite the same again. The cook and the housemaid were very nice (I don't mind telling you their names—they were Clara and Ethelwyn), but they told Mother they did not seem to want Mrs. Viney, and that she was an old muddler. So Mrs. Viney came only two days a week to do washing and ironing. Then Clara and Ethelwyn said they could do the work all right if they weren't interfered with, and that meant that the children no longer got the tea and cleared it away and washed up the tea-things and dusted the rooms.
This would have left quite a blank in their lives, although they had often pretended to themselves and to each other that they hated housework. But now that Mother had no writing and no housework to do, she had time for lessons. And lessons the children had to do. However nice the person who is teaching you may be, lessons are lessons all the world over, and at their best are worse fun than peeling potatoes or lighting a fire.
On the other hand, if Mother now had time for lessons, she also had time for play, and to make up little rhymes for the children as she used to do. She had not had much time for rhymes since she came to Three Chimneys.
There was one very odd thing about these lessons. Whatever the children were doing, they always wanted to be doing something else. When Peter was doing his Latin, he thought it would be nice to be learning History like Bobbie. Bobbie would have preferred Arithmetic, which was what Phyllis happened to be doing, and Phyllis of course thought Latin much the most interesting kind of lesson. And so on.
So, one day, when they sat down to lessons, each of them found a little rhyme at its place. I put the rhymes in to show you that their Mother really did understand a little how children feel about things, and also the kind of words they use, which is the case with very few grown-up people. I suppose most grown-ups have very bad memories, and have forgotten how they felt when they were little. Of course, the verses are supposed to be spoken by the children.
I once thought Caesar easy pap— How very soft I must have been! When they start Caesar with a chap He little know what that will mean. Oh, verbs are silly stupid things. I'd rather learn the dates of kings!
The worst of all my lesson things Is learning who succeeded who In all the rows of queens and kings, With dates to everything they do: With dates enough to make you sick;— I wish it was Arithmetic!
Such pounds and pounds of apples fill My slate—what is the price you'd spend? You scratch the figures out until You cry upon the dividend. I'd break the slate and scream for joy If I did Latin like a boy!
This kind of thing, of course, made lessons much jollier. It is something to know that the person who is teaching you sees that it is not all plain sailing for you, and does not think that it is just your stupidness that makes you not know your lessons till you've learned them!
Then as Jim's leg got better it was very pleasant to go up and sit with him and hear tales about his school life and the other boys. There was one boy, named Parr, of whom Jim seemed to have formed the lowest possible opinion, and another boy named Wigsby Minor, for whose views Jim had a great respect. Also there were three brothers named Paley, and the youngest was called Paley Terts, and was much given to fighting.
Peter drank in all this with deep joy, and Mother seemed to have listened with some interest, for one day she gave Jim a sheet of paper on which she had written a rhyme about Parr, bringing in Paley and Wigsby by name in a most wonderful way, as well as all the reasons Jim had for not liking Parr, and Wigsby's wise opinion on the matter. Jim was immensely pleased. He had never had a rhyme written expressly for him before. He read it till he knew it by heart and then he sent it to Wigsby, who liked it almost as much as Jim did. Perhaps you may like it, too.
THE NEW BOY
His name is Parr: he says that he Is given bread and milk for tea. He says his father killed a bear. He says his mother cuts his hair.
He wears goloshes when it's wet. I've heard his people call him "Pet"! He has no proper sense of shame; He told the chaps his Christian name.
He cannot wicket-keep at all, He's frightened of a cricket ball. He reads indoors for hours and hours. He knows the names of beastly flowers.
He says his French just like Mossoo— A beastly stuck-up thing to do— He won't keep cave, shirks his turn And says he came to school to learn!
He won't play football, says it hurts; He wouldn't fight with Paley Terts; He couldn't whistle if he tried, And when we laughed at him he cried!
Now Wigsby Minor says that Parr Is only like all new boys are. I know when I first came to school I wasn't such a jolly fool!
Jim could never understand how Mother could have been clever enough to do it. To the others it seemed nice, but natural. You see they had always been used to having a mother who could write verses just like the way people talk, even to the shocking expression at the end of the rhyme, which was Jim's very own.
Jim taught Peter to play chess and draughts and dominoes, and altogether it was a nice quiet time.
Only Jim's leg got better and better, and a general feeling began to spring up among Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis that something ought to be done to amuse him; not just games, but something really handsome. But it was extraordinarily difficult to think of anything.
"It's no good," said Peter, when all of them had thought and thought till their heads felt quite heavy and swollen; "if we can't think of anything to amuse him, we just can't, and there's an end of it. Perhaps something will just happen of its own accord that he'll like."
"Things DO happen by themselves sometimes, without your making them," said Phyllis, rather as though, usually, everything that happened in the world was her doing.
"I wish something would happen," said Bobbie, dreamily, "something wonderful."
And something wonderful did happen exactly four days after she had said this. I wish I could say it was three days after, because in fairy tales it is always three days after that things happen. But this is not a fairy story, and besides, it really was four and not three, and I am nothing if not strictly truthful.
They seemed to be hardly Railway children at all in those days, and as the days went on each had an uneasy feeling about this which Phyllis expressed one day.
"I wonder if the Railway misses us," she said, plaintively. "We never go to see it now."
"It seems ungrateful," said Bobbie; "we loved it so when we hadn't anyone else to play with."
"Perks is always coming up to ask after Jim," said Peter, "and the signalman's little boy is better. He told me so."
"I didn't mean the people," explained Phyllis; "I meant the dear Railway itself."
"The thing I don't like," said Bobbie, on this fourth day, which was a Tuesday, "is our having stopped waving to the 9.15 and sending our love to Father by it."
"Let's begin again," said Phyllis. And they did.
Somehow the change of everything that was made by having servants in the house and Mother not doing any writing, made the time seem extremely long since that strange morning at the beginning of things, when they had got up so early and burnt the bottom out of the kettle and had apple pie for breakfast and first seen the Railway.
It was September now, and the turf on the slope to the Railway was dry and crisp. Little long grass spikes stood up like bits of gold wire, frail blue harebells trembled on their tough, slender stalks, Gipsy roses opened wide and flat their lilac-coloured discs, and the golden stars of St. John's Wort shone at the edges of the pool that lay halfway to the Railway. Bobbie gathered a generous handful of the flowers and thought how pretty they would look lying on the green-and-pink blanket of silk-waste that now covered Jim's poor broken leg.
"Hurry up," said Peter, "or we shall miss the 9.15!"
"I can't hurry more than I am doing," said Phyllis. "Oh, bother it! My bootlace has come undone AGAIN!"
"When you're married," said Peter, "your bootlace will come undone going up the church aisle, and your man that you're going to get married to will tumble over it and smash his nose in on the ornamented pavement; and then you'll say you won't marry him, and you'll have to be an old maid."
"I shan't," said Phyllis. "I'd much rather marry a man with his nose smashed in than not marry anybody."
"It would be horrid to marry a man with a smashed nose, all the same," went on Bobbie. "He wouldn't be able to smell the flowers at the wedding. Wouldn't that be awful!"
"Bother the flowers at the wedding!" cried Peter. "Look! the signal's down. We must run!"
They ran. And once more they waved their handkerchiefs, without at all minding whether the handkerchiefs were clean or not, to the 9.15.
"Take our love to Father!" cried Bobbie. And the others, too, shouted:—
"Take our love to Father!"
The old gentleman waved from his first-class carriage window. Quite violently he waved. And there was nothing odd in that, for he always had waved. But what was really remarkable was that from every window handkerchiefs fluttered, newspapers signalled, hands waved wildly. The train swept by with a rustle and roar, the little pebbles jumped and danced under it as it passed, and the children were left looking at each other.
"Well!" said Peter.
"WELL!" said Bobbie.
"WELL!" said Phyllis.
"Whatever on earth does that mean?" asked Peter, but he did not expect any answer.
"I don't know," said Bobbie. "Perhaps the old gentleman told the people at his station to look out for us and wave. He knew we should like it!"
Now, curiously enough, this was just what had happened. The old gentleman, who was very well known and respected at his particular station, had got there early that morning, and he had waited at the door where the young man stands holding the interesting machine that clips the tickets, and he had said something to every single passenger who passed through that door. And after nodding to what the old gentleman had said—and the nods expressed every shade of surprise, interest, doubt, cheerful pleasure, and grumpy agreement—each passenger had gone on to the platform and read one certain part of his newspaper. And when the passengers got into the train, they had told the other passengers who were already there what the old gentleman had said, and then the other passengers had also looked at their newspapers and seemed very astonished and, mostly, pleased. Then, when the train passed the fence where the three children were, newspapers and hands and handkerchiefs were waved madly, till all that side of the train was fluttery with white like the pictures of the King's Coronation in the biograph at Maskelyne and Cook's. To the children it almost seemed as though the train itself was alive, and was at last responding to the love that they had given it so freely and so long.
"It is most extraordinarily rum!" said Peter.
"Most stronery!" echoed Phyllis.
But Bobbie said, "Don't you think the old gentleman's waves seemed more significating than usual?"
"No," said the others.
"I do," said Bobbie. "I thought he was trying to explain something to us with his newspaper."
"Explain what?" asked Peter, not unnaturally.
"I don't know," Bobbie answered, "but I do feel most awfully funny. I feel just exactly as if something was going to happen."
"What is going to happen," said Peter, "is that Phyllis's stocking is going to come down."
This was but too true. The suspender had given way in the agitation of the waves to the 9.15. Bobbie's handkerchief served as first aid to the injured, and they all went home.
Lessons were more than usually difficult to Bobbie that day. Indeed, she disgraced herself so deeply over a quite simple sum about the division of 48 pounds of meat and 36 pounds of bread among 144 hungry children that Mother looked at her anxiously.
"Don't you feel quite well, dear?" she asked.
"I don't know," was Bobbie's unexpected answer. "I don't know how I feel. It isn't that I'm lazy. Mother, will you let me off lessons to-day? I feel as if I wanted to be quite alone by myself."
"Yes, of course I'll let you off," said Mother; "but—"
Bobbie dropped her slate. It cracked just across the little green mark that is so useful for drawing patterns round, and it was never the same slate again. Without waiting to pick it up she bolted. Mother caught her in the hall feeling blindly among the waterproofs and umbrellas for her garden hat.
"What is it, my sweetheart?" said Mother. "You don't feel ill, do you?"
"I DON'T know," Bobbie answered, a little breathlessly, "but I want to be by myself and see if my head really IS all silly and my inside all squirmy-twisty."
"Hadn't you better lie down?" Mother said, stroking her hair back from her forehead.
"I'd be more alive in the garden, I think," said Bobbie.
But she could not stay in the garden. The hollyhocks and the asters and the late roses all seemed to be waiting for something to happen. It was one of those still, shiny autumn days, when everything does seem to be waiting.
Bobbie could not wait.
"I'll go down to the station," she said, "and talk to Perks and ask about the signalman's little boy."
So she went down. On the way she passed the old lady from the Post-office, who gave her a kiss and a hug, but, rather to Bobbie's surprise, no words except:—
"God bless you, love—" and, after a pause, "run along—do."
The draper's boy, who had sometimes been a little less than civil and a little more than contemptuous, now touched his cap, and uttered the remarkable words:—
"'Morning, Miss, I'm sure—"
The blacksmith, coming along with an open newspaper in his hand, was even more strange in his manner. He grinned broadly, though, as a rule, he was a man not given to smiles, and waved the newspaper long before he came up to her. And as he passed her, he said, in answer to her "Good morning":—
"Good morning to you, Missie, and many of them! I wish you joy, that I do!"
"Oh!" said Bobbie to herself, and her heart quickened its beats, "something IS going to happen! I know it is—everyone is so odd, like people are in dreams."
The Station Master wrung her hand warmly. In fact he worked it up and down like a pump-handle. But he gave her no reason for this unusually enthusiastic greeting. He only said:—
"The 11.54's a bit late, Miss—the extra luggage this holiday time," and went away very quickly into that inner Temple of his into which even Bobbie dared not follow him.
Perks was not to be seen, and Bobbie shared the solitude of the platform with the Station Cat. This tortoiseshell lady, usually of a retiring disposition, came to-day to rub herself against the brown stockings of Bobbie with arched back, waving tail, and reverberating purrs.
"Dear me!" said Bobbie, stooping to stroke her, "how very kind everybody is to-day—even you, Pussy!"
Perks did not appear until the 11.54 was signalled, and then he, like everybody else that morning, had a newspaper in his hand.
"Hullo!" he said, "'ere you are. Well, if THIS is the train, it'll be smart work! Well, God bless you, my dear! I see it in the paper, and I don't think I was ever so glad of anything in all my born days!" He looked at Bobbie a moment, then said, "One I must have, Miss, and no offence, I know, on a day like this 'ere!" and with that he kissed her, first on one cheek and then on the other.
"You ain't offended, are you?" he asked anxiously. "I ain't took too great a liberty? On a day like this, you know—"
"No, no," said Bobbie, "of course it's not a liberty, dear Mr. Perks; we love you quite as much as if you were an uncle of ours—but—on a day like WHAT?"
"Like this 'ere!" said Perks. "Don't I tell you I see it in the paper?"
"Saw WHAT in the paper?" asked Bobbie, but already the 11.54 was steaming into the station and the Station Master was looking at all the places where Perks was not and ought to have been.
Bobbie was left standing alone, the Station Cat watching her from under the bench with friendly golden eyes.
Of course you know already exactly what was going to happen. Bobbie was not so clever. She had the vague, confused, expectant feeling that comes to one's heart in dreams. What her heart expected I can't tell—perhaps the very thing that you and I know was going to happen—but her mind expected nothing; it was almost blank, and felt nothing but tiredness and stupidness and an empty feeling, like your body has when you have been a long walk and it is very far indeed past your proper dinner-time.
Only three people got out of the 11.54. The first was a countryman with two baskety boxes full of live chickens who stuck their russet heads out anxiously through the wicker bars; the second was Miss Peckitt, the grocer's wife's cousin, with a tin box and three brown-paper parcels; and the third—
"Oh! my Daddy, my Daddy!" That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train, and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her.
* * * * * *
"I knew something wonderful was going to happen," said Bobbie, as they went up the road, "but I didn't think it was going to be this. Oh, my Daddy, my Daddy!"
"Then didn't Mother get my letter?" Father asked.
"There weren't any letters this morning. Oh! Daddy! it IS really you, isn't it?"
The clasp of a hand she had not forgotten assured her that it was. "You must go in by yourself, Bobbie, and tell Mother quite quietly that it's all right. They've caught the man who did it. Everyone knows now that it wasn't your Daddy."
"I always knew it wasn't," said Bobbie. "Me and Mother and our old gentleman."
"Yes," he said, "it's all his doing. Mother wrote and told me you had found out. And she told me what you'd been to her. My own little girl!" They stopped a minute then.
And now I see them crossing the field. Bobbie goes into the house, trying to keep her eyes from speaking before her lips have found the right words to "tell Mother quite quietly" that the sorrow and the struggle and the parting are over and done, and that Father has come home.
I see Father walking in the garden, waiting—waiting. He is looking at the flowers, and each flower is a miracle to eyes that all these months of Spring and Summer have seen only flagstones and gravel and a little grudging grass. But his eyes keep turning towards the house. And presently he leaves the garden and goes to stand outside the nearest door. It is the back door, and across the yard the swallows are circling. They are getting ready to fly away from cold winds and keen frost to the land where it is always summer. They are the same swallows that the children built the little clay nests for.
Now the house door opens. Bobbie's voice calls:—
"Come in, Daddy; come in!"
He goes in and the door is shut. I think we will not open the door or follow him. I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away. At the end of the field, among the thin gold spikes of grass and the harebells and Gipsy roses and St. John's Wort, we may just take one last look, over our shoulders, at the white house where neither we nor anyone else is wanted now.