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!”
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.