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’tbelieve 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 yourDaddy, 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.