Never before had any of them been at a station, except for the purpose of catching trains–or perhaps waiting for them–and always with grown-ups in attendance, grown-ups who were not themselves interested in stations, except as places from which they wished to get away.
Never before had they passed close enough to a signal-box to be able to notice the wires, and to hear the mysterious ‘ping, ping,’ followed by the strong, firm clicking of machinery.
The very sleepers on which the rails lay were a delightful path to travel by–just far enough apart to serve as the stepping-stones in a game of foaming torrents hastily organised by Bobbie.
Then to arrive at the station, not through the booking office, but in a freebooting sort of way by the sloping end of the platform. This in itself was joy.
Joy, too, it was to peep into the porters’ room, where the lamps are, and the Railway almanac on the wall, and one porter half asleep behind a paper.
There were a great many crossing lines at the station; some of them just ran into a yard and stopped short, as though they were tired of business and meant to retire for good. Trucks stood on the rails here, and on one side was a great heap of coal–not a loose heap, such as you see in your coal cellar, but a sort of solid building of coals with large square blocks of coal outside used just as though they were bricks, and built up till the heap looked like the picture of the Cities of the Plain in ‘Bible Stories for Infants.’ There was a line of whitewash near the top of the coaly wall.
When presently the Porter lounged out of his room at the twice- repeated tingling thrill of a gong over the station door, Peter said, “How do you do?” in his best manner, and hastened to ask what the white mark was on the coal for.
“To mark how much coal there be,” said the Porter, “so as we’ll know if anyone nicks it. So don’t you go off with none in your pockets, young gentleman!”
This seemed, at the time but a merry jest, and Peter felt at once that the Porter was a friendly sort with no nonsense about him. But later the words came back to Peter with a new meaning.
Have you ever gone into a farmhouse kitchen on a baking day, and seen the great crock of dough set by the fire to rise? If you have, and if you were at that time still young enough to be interested in everything you saw, you will remember that you found yourself quite unable to resist the temptation to poke your finger into the soft round of dough that curved inside the pan like a giant mushroom. And you will remember that your finger made a dent in the dough, and that slowly, but quite surely, the dent disappeared, and the dough looked quite the same as it did before you touched it. Unless, of course, your hand was extra dirty, in which case, naturally, there would be a little black mark.
Well, it was just like that with the sorrow the children had felt at Father’s going away, and at Mother’s being so unhappy. It made a deep impression, but the impression did not last long.
They soon got used to being without Father, though they did not forget him; and they got used to not going to school, and to seeing very little of Mother, who was now almost all day shut up in her upstairs room writing, writing, writing. She used to come down at tea-time and read aloud the stories she had written. They were lovely stories.
The rocks and hills and valleys and trees, the canal, and above all, the railway, were so new and so perfectly pleasing that the remembrance of the old life in the villa grew to seem almost like a dream.
Mother had told them more than once that they were ‘quite poor now,’ but this did not seem to be anything but a way of speaking. Grown- up people, even Mothers, often make remarks that don’t seem to mean anything in particular, just for the sake of saying something, seemingly. There was always enough to eat, and they wore the same kind of nice clothes they had always worn.
But in June came three wet days; the rain came down, straight as lances, and it was very, very cold. Nobody could go out, and everybody shivered. They all went up to the door of Mother’s room and knocked.
“Well, what is it?” asked Mother from inside.
“Mother,” said Bobbie, “mayn’t I light a fire? I do know how.”
And Mother said: “No, my ducky-love. We mustn’t have fires in June–coal is so dear. If you’re cold, go and have a good romp in the attic. That’ll warm you.”
“But, Mother, it only takes such a very little coal to make a fire.”
“It’s more than we can afford, chickeny-love,” said Mother, cheerfully. “Now run away, there’s darlings–I’m madly busy!”
“Mother’s always busy now,” said Phyllis, in a whisper to Peter. Peter did not answer. He shrugged his shoulders. He was thinking.
Thought, however, could not long keep itself from the suitable furnishing of a bandit’s lair in the attic. Peter was the bandit, of course. Bobbie was his lieutenant, his band of trusty robbers, and, in due course, the parent of Phyllis, who was the captured maiden for whom a magnificent ransom–in horse-beans–was unhesitatingly paid.
They all went down to tea flushed and joyous as any mountain brigands.
But when Phyllis was going to add jam to her bread and butter, Mother said:–
“Jam or butter, dear–not jam and butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays.”
Phyllis finished the slice of bread and butter in silence, and followed it up by bread and jam. Peter mingled thought and weak tea.
After tea they went back to the attic and he said to his sisters:–
“I have an idea.”
“What’s that?” they asked politely.
“I shan’t tell you,” was Peter’s unexpected rejoinder.
“Oh, very well,” said Bobbie; and Phil said, “Don’t, then.”
“Girls,” said Peter, “are always so hasty tempered.”
“I should like to know what boys are?” said Bobbie, with fine disdain. “I don’t want to know about your silly ideas.”
“You’ll know some day,” said Peter, keeping his own temper by what looked exactly like a miracle; “if you hadn’t been so keen on a row, I might have told you about it being only noble-heartedness that made me not tell you my idea. But now I shan’t tell you anything at all about it–so there!”
And it was, indeed, some time before he could be induced to say anything, and when he did it wasn’t much. He said:–
“The only reason why I won’t tell you my idea that I’m going to do is because it may be wrong, and I don’t want to drag you into it.”
“Don’t you do it if it’s wrong, Peter,” said Bobbie; “let me do it.” But Phyllis said:–
“I should like to do wrong if you’re going to!”
“No,” said Peter, rather touched by this devotion; “it’s a forlorn hope, and I’m going to lead it. All I ask is that if Mother asks where I am, you won’t blab.”
“We haven’t got anything to blab,” said Bobbie, indignantly.
“Oh, yes, you have!” said Peter, dropping horse-beans through his fingers. “I’ve trusted you to the death. You know I’m going to do a lone adventure–and some people might think it wrong–I don’t. And if Mother asks where I am, say I’m playing at mines.”
“What sort of mines?”
“You just say mines.”
“You might tell us, Pete.”
“Well, then, coal-mines. But don’t you let the word pass your lips on pain of torture.”
“You needn’t threaten,” said Bobbie, “and I do think you might let us help.”
“If I find a coal-mine, you shall help cart the coal,” Peter condescended to promise.
“Keep your secret if you like,” said Phyllis.
“Keep it if you can,” said Bobbie.
“I’ll keep it, right enough,” said Peter.
Between tea and supper there is an interval even in the most greedily regulated families. At this time Mother was usually writing, and Mrs. Viney had gone home.
Two nights after the dawning of Peter’s idea he beckoned the girls mysteriously at the twilight hour.
“Come hither with me,” he said, “and bring the Roman Chariot.”
The Roman Chariot was a very old perambulator that had spent years of retirement in the loft over the coach-house. The children had oiled its works till it glided noiseless as a pneumatic bicycle, and answered to the helm as it had probably done in its best days.
“Follow your dauntless leader,” said Peter, and led the way down the hill towards the station.
Just above the station many rocks have pushed their heads out through the turf as though they, like the children, were interested in the railway.
In a little hollow between three rocks lay a heap of dried brambles and heather.
Peter halted, turned over the brushwood with a well-scarred boot, and said:–
“Here’s the first coal from the St. Peter’s Mine. We’ll take it home in the chariot. Punctuality and despatch. All orders carefully attended to. Any shaped lump cut to suit regular customers.”
The chariot was packed full of coal. And when it was packed it had to be unpacked again because it was so heavy that it couldn’t be got up the hill by the three children, not even when Peter harnessed himself to the handle with his braces, and firmly grasping his waistband in one hand pulled while the girls pushed behind.
Three journeys had to be made before the coal from Peter’s mine was added to the heap of Mother’s coal in the cellar.
Afterwards Peter went out alone, and came back very black and mysterious.
“I’ve been to my coal-mine,” he said; “to-morrow evening we’ll bring home the black diamonds in the chariot.”
It was a week later that Mrs. Viney remarked to Mother how well this last lot of coal was holding out.
The children hugged themselves and each other in complicated wriggles of silent laughter as they listened on the stairs. They had all forgotten by now that there had ever been any doubt in Peter’s mind as to whether coal-mining was wrong.
But there came a dreadful night when the Station Master put on a pair of old sand shoes that he had worn at the seaside in his summer holiday, and crept out very quietly to the yard where the Sodom and Gomorrah heap of coal was, with the whitewashed line round it. He crept out there, and he waited like a cat by a mousehole. On the top of the heap something small and dark was scrabbling and rattling furtively among the coal.
The Station Master concealed himself in the shadow of a brake-van that had a little tin chimney and was labelled:–
G. N. and S. R. 34576 Return at once to White Heather Sidings
and in this concealment he lurked till the small thing on the top of the heap ceased to scrabble and rattle, came to the edge of the heap, cautiously let itself down, and lifted something after it. Then the arm of the Station Master was raised, the hand of the Station Master fell on a collar, and there was Peter firmly held by the jacket, with an old carpenter’s bag full of coal in his trembling clutch.
“So I’ve caught you at last, have I, you young thief?” said the Station Master.
“I’m not a thief,” said Peter, as firmly as he could. “I’m a coal- miner.”
“Tell that to the Marines,” said the Station Master.
“It would be just as true whoever I told it to,” said Peter.
“You’re right there,” said the man, who held him. “Stow your jaw, you young rip, and come along to the station.”
“Oh, no,” cried in the darkness an agonised voice that was not Peter’s.
“Not the police station!” said another voice from the darkness.
“Not yet,” said the Station Master. “The Railway Station first. Why, it’s a regular gang. Any more of you?”
“Only us,” said Bobbie and Phyllis, coming out of the shadow of another truck labelled Staveley Colliery, and bearing on it the legend in white chalk: ‘Wanted in No. 1 Road.’
“What do you mean by spying on a fellow like this?” said Peter, angrily.
“Time someone did spy on you, I think,” said the Station Master. “Come along to the station.”
“Oh, don’t!” said Bobbie. “Can’t you decide now what you’ll do to us? It’s our fault just as much as Peter’s. We helped to carry the coal away–and we knew where he got it.”
“No, you didn’t,” said Peter.
“Yes, we did,” said Bobbie. “We knew all the time. We only pretended we didn’t just to humour you.”
Peter’s cup was full. He had mined for coal, he had struck coal, he had been caught, and now he learned that his sisters had ‘humoured’ him.
“Don’t hold me!” he said. “I won’t run away.”
The Station Master loosed Peter’s collar, struck a match and looked at them by its flickering light.
“Why,” said he, “you’re the children from the Three Chimneys up yonder. So nicely dressed, too. Tell me now, what made you do such a thing? Haven’t you ever been to church or learned your catechism or anything, not to know it’s wicked to steal?” He spoke much more gently now, and Peter said:–
“I didn’t think it was stealing. I was almost sure it wasn’t. I thought if I took it from the outside part of the heap, perhaps it would be. But in the middle I thought I could fairly count it only mining. It’ll take thousands of years for you to burn up all that coal and get to the middle parts.”
“Not quite. But did you do it for a lark or what?”
“Not much lark carting that beastly heavy stuff up the hill,” said Peter, indignantly.
“Then why did you?” The Station Master’s voice was so much kinder now that Peter replied:–
“You know that wet day? Well, Mother said we were too poor to have a fire. We always had fires when it was cold at our other house, and–”
“Don’t!” interrupted Bobbie, in a whisper.
“Well,” said the Station Master, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll look over it this once. But you remember, young gentleman, stealing is stealing, and what’s mine isn’t yours, whether you call it mining or whether you don’t. Run along home.”
“Do you mean you aren’t going to do anything to us? Well, you are a brick,” said Peter, with enthusiasm.
“You’re a dear,” said Bobbie.
“You’re a darling,” said Phyllis.
“That’s all right,” said the Station Master.
And on this they parted.
“Don’t speak to me,” said Peter, as the three went up the hill. “You’re spies and traitors–that’s what you are.”
But the girls were too glad to have Peter between them, safe and free, and on the way to Three Chimneys and not to the Police Station, to mind much what he said.
“We did say it was us as much as you,” said Bobbie, gently.
“Well–and it wasn’t.”
“It would have come to the same thing in Courts with judges,” said Phyllis. “Don’t be snarky, Peter. It isn’t our fault your secrets are so jolly easy to find out.” She took his arm, and he let her.
“There’s an awful lot of coal in the cellar, anyhow,” he went on.
“Oh, don’t!” said Bobbie. “I don’t think we ought to be glad about that.”
“I don’t know,” said Peter, plucking up a spirit. “I’m not at all sure, even now, that mining is a crime.”
But the girls were quite sure. And they were also quite sure that he was quite sure, however little he cared to own it.