The railway children by Edith Nesbit
Roberta, Peter and Phyllis live in a comfortable house in London. Roberta, or Bobbie as everyone calls her, is twelve. Peter comes next. He’s ten and he wants to be an engineer. Phyllis is eight. She tries very hard to be good. They are lucky children. They have
a lot of toys, a beautiful playroom• and a dog called James. They also have a wonderful mother. She is almost always at home. She writes stories. She often reads them to the children after tea. And their father is wonderful, too. He works very hard in a government office all day, but he is always ready to play a game in the evenings. They are a very happy family. Then one day something happens and their lives change.
It’s supper time and the family are in the dining room. Peter wants to speak to his father. He has something very important to ask him. His favourite toy, a model railway engine•, is broken. Peter knows that his father is very clever and can mend• all sorts of• things. He’s sure that Father can mend his engine, too. But Father is still eating and Peter must be patient•.
Finally Father puts down his knife and fork. Peter looks at his mother. ‘Can I now?’ his face says. Mother understands.
‘Peter has something to ask you, dear,’ she says to Father.
‘What’s the problem, Peter?’ Father asks.
Peter tells him about the engine. He puts the broken toy on the table in front of his father.
‘Can you mend it, Father?’
‘Mmm,’ says Father looking at the engine very carefully. ‘Yes, I can. But not tonight. It’s too late now. I can do it on Saturday.’
At that moment someone knocks• on the front door. Ruth the maid• goes to open it. Two minutes later she comes into the dining room.
‘Two men want to speak to you, sir,’ she says to Father. ‘They’re in the study.’
‘Try to send them away quickly, dear,’ Mother says in a quiet voice to Father. ‘It’s almost the children’s bedtime.’
Many minutes pass. The voices in the study are loud and angry. Mother is worried. She gets up and goes to the study, too. More time passes. Finally Mother comes back to the dining room. Her face is white and she looks very upset•.
‘Go to bed now, my darlings,’ she says.
‘But what about Father?’ Phyllis asks.
‘Father must go away on business•,’ replies Mother. ‘Nowplease, go to bed immediately!’
‘Is it bad news, Mother?’ whispers• Bobbie.
‘I can’t tell you anything tonight, my darling,’ says Mother kissing her. ‘Go, dear! Now!’
The next morning Mother leaves the house before the children get up. They have breakfast alone in the dining room. They are all sad and worried.
‘Something’s very wrong,’ says Peter.
Mother is still not there at one o’clock when they come home from school. And she’s not there at tea time. She finally arrives at seven o’clock. She looks ill and tired.
‘My darlings,’ she says. ‘I have some bad news. Father must be away for a long time. Please don’t ask me any questions. I’m very tired now. But I need your help. Be good children and don’t argue• with each other. And be happy. Do you promise?’
‘Yes, Mother,’ they all say together.
‘And please don’t worry!’
But the children are worried. Very worried. They don’t understand. Why must Father go away for a long time? Where’s he going? And why is Mother so upset?
The following weeks are horrible. Mother is almost never at home, and Ruth the maid goes away. An aunt comes to visit, but she doesn’t spend much time with them. She’s too busy.
One morning when they are having breakfast Mother says, ‘My darlings, we must leave this big house and move to a small one in the country. It’s white and very nice. It’s also near a station, so we can go there by train. Now hurry up and finish your breakfast. We must start packing• immediately.’
They are very busy during the following days. First they pack their clothes. Then they fill box after box with useful things for their new home: plates, cups, candles•, blankets•, and also tables and chairs. Bobbie wants to take a pretty cupboard• from the sitting room, but Mother says no.
‘We must play at being poor people,’ she says. But when she sees Bobbie’s sad face, she adds quickly, ‘Only for a short time I hope.’
A week later they’re ready to leave. They take a taxi to the station in the afternoon. The train journey to the new house is very long. At first the children are excited and enjoy looking out of the window. But then it gets dark outside and they begin to feel sleepy•. When they finally arrive, Mother says, ‘The boxes must go on the cart•. We can walk to the house. It isn’t far.’
The children are cold and tired but they don’t complain•. They know they must be brave•. There are no lights along the road and it’s very dark. They follow the cart up a hill, through a gate, across a muddy• field, and then down a hill.
‘Here it is!’ says Mother suddenly. ‘This is the house!’
The driver of the cart has the key. He opens the door and they all go inside. The house is very dark but the driver lights• a candle for them. Then he brings in the boxes. Mother opens one and takes out some biscuits and jam for supper. The children are hungry after the long day, but they are also very tired.
‘Let’s find the blankets and go to bed now,’ says Mother. ‘Tomorrow we can unpack• everything and you can look around the house and the garden. Goodnight, my darlings. Sleep well.’