The Railway Children – Chapter 3: The Old Gentleman

After the adventure of Peter’s Coal-mine, it seemed well to the children to keep away from the station—but they did not, they could not, keep away from the railway. They had lived all their lives in a street where cabs and omnibuses rumbled by at all hours, and the carts of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers (I never saw a candlestick-maker’s cart; did you?) might occur at any moment. Here in the deep silence of the sleeping country the only things that went by were the trains. They seemed to be all that was left to link the children to the old life that had once been theirs. Straight down the hill in front of Three Chimneys the daily passage of their six feet began to mark a path across the crisp, short turf. They began to know the hours when certain trains passed, and they gave names to them. The 9.15 up was called the Green Dragon. The 10.7 down was the Worm of Wantley. The midnight town express, whose shrieking rush they sometimes woke from their dreams to hear, was the Fearsome Fly-by-night. Peter got up once, in chill starshine, and, peeping at it through his curtains, named it on the spot.

It was by the Green Dragon that the old gentleman travelled. He was a very nice-looking old gentleman, and he looked as if he were nice, too, which is not at all the same thing. He had a fresh-coloured, clean-shaven face and white hair, and he wore rather odd-shaped collars and a top-hat that wasn’t exactly the same kind as other people’s. Of course the children didn’t see all this at first. In fact the first thing they noticed about the old gentleman was his hand.

It was one morning as they sat on the fence waiting for the Green Dragon, which was three and a quarter minutes late by Peter’s Waterbury watch that he had had given him on his last birthday.

“The Green Dragon’s going where Father is,” said Phyllis; “if it were a really real dragon, we could stop it and ask it to take our love to Father.”

“Dragons don’t carry people’s love,” said Peter; “they’d be above it.”

“Yes, they do, if you tame them thoroughly first. They fetch and carry like pet spaniels,” said Phyllis, “and feed out of your hand. I wonder why Father never writes to us.”

“Mother says he’s been too busy,” said Bobbie; “but he’ll write soon, she says.”

“I say,” Phyllis suggested, “let’s all wave to the Green Dragon as it goes by. If it’s a magic dragon, it’ll understand and take our loves to Father. And if it isn’t, three waves aren’t much. We shall never miss them.”

So when the Green Dragon tore shrieking out of the mouth of its dark lair, which was the tunnel, all three children stood on the railing and waved their pocket-handkerchiefs without stopping to think whether they were clean handkerchiefs or the reverse. They were, as a matter of fact, very much the reverse.

And out of a first-class carriage a hand waved back. A quite clean hand. It held a newspaper. It was the old gentleman’s hand.

After this it became the custom for waves to be exchanged between the children and the 9.15.

And the children, especially the girls, liked to think that perhaps the old gentleman knew Father, and would meet him ‘in business,’ wherever that shady retreat might be, and tell him how his three children stood on a rail far away in the green country and waved their love to him every morning, wet or fine.

For they were now able to go out in all sorts of weather such as they would never have been allowed to go out in when they lived in their villa house. This was Aunt Emma’s doing, and the children felt more and more that they had not been quite fair to this unattractive aunt, when they found how useful were the long gaiters and waterproof coats that they had laughed at her for buying for them.

Mother, all this time, was very busy with her writing. She used to send off a good many long blue envelopes with stories in them—and large envelopes of different sizes and colours used to come to her. Sometimes she would sigh when she opened them and say:—

“Another story come home to roost. Oh, dear, Oh, dear!” and then the children would be very sorry.

But sometimes she would wave the envelope in the air and say:—“Hooray, hooray. Here’s a sensible Editor. He’s taken my story and this is the proof of it.”

At first the children thought ‘the Proof’ meant the letter the sensible Editor had written, but they presently got to know that the proof was long slips of paper with the story printed on them.

Whenever an Editor was sensible there were buns for tea.

One day Peter was going down to the village to get buns to celebrate the sensibleness of the Editor of the Children’s Globe, when he met the Station Master.

Peter felt very uncomfortable, for he had now had time to think over the affair of the coal-mine. He did not like to say “Good morning” to the Station Master, as you usually do to anyone you meet on a lonely road, because he had a hot feeling, which spread even to his ears, that the Station Master might not care to speak to a person who had stolen coals. ‘Stolen’ is a nasty word, but Peter felt it was the right one. So he looked down, and said Nothing.

It was the Station Master who said “Good morning” as he passed by. And Peter answered, “Good morning.” Then he thought:—

“Perhaps he doesn’t know who I am by daylight, or he wouldn’t be so polite.”

And he did not like the feeling which thinking this gave him. And then before he knew what he was going to do he ran after the Station Master, who stopped when he heard Peter’s hasty boots crunching the road, and coming up with him very breathless and with his ears now quite magenta-coloured, he said:—

“I don’t want you to be polite to me if you don’t know me when you see me.”

“Eh?” said the Station Master.

“I thought perhaps you didn’t know it was me that took the coals,” Peter went on, “when you said ‘Good morning.’ But it was, and I’m sorry. There.”

“Why,” said the Station Master, “I wasn’t thinking anything at all about the precious coals. Let bygones be bygones. And where were you off to in such a hurry?”

“I’m going to buy buns for tea,” said Peter.

“I thought you were all so poor,” said the Station Master.

“So we are,” said Peter, confidentially, “but we always have three pennyworth of halfpennies for tea whenever Mother sells a story or a poem or anything.”

“Oh,” said the Station Master, “so your Mother writes stories, does she?”

“The beautifulest you ever read,” said Peter.

“You ought to be very proud to have such a clever Mother.”

“Yes,” said Peter, “but she used to play with us more before she had to be so clever.”

“Well,” said the Station Master, “I must be getting along. You give us a look in at the Station whenever you feel so inclined. And as to coals, it’s a word that—well—oh, no, we never mention it, eh?”

“Thank you,” said Peter. “I’m very glad it’s all straightened out between us.” And he went on across the canal bridge to the village to get the buns, feeling more comfortable in his mind than he had felt since the hand of the Station Master had fastened on his collar that night among the coals.