“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:–
“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.