“He’s Russian,” cried Peter, “or else he’s like ‘the man who was’– in Kipling, you know.”
The train from Maidbridge was signalled.
“I’ll stay with him till you bring Mother in,” said Bobbie.
“You’re not afraid, Missie?”
“Oh, no,” said Bobbie, looking at the stranger, as she might have looked at a strange dog of doubtful temper. “You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?”
She smiled at him, and he smiled back, a queer crooked smile. And then he coughed again. And the heavy rattling swish of the incoming train swept past, and the Station Master and Peter and Phyllis went out to meet it. Bobbie was still holding the stranger’s hand when they came back with Mother.
The Russian rose and bowed very ceremoniously.
Then Mother spoke in French, and he replied, haltingly at first, but presently in longer and longer sentences.
The children, watching his face and Mother’s, knew that he was telling her things that made her angry and pitying, and sorry and indignant all at once.
“Well, Mum, what’s it all about?” The Station Master could not restrain his curiosity any longer.
“Oh,” said Mother, “it’s all right. He’s a Russian, and he’s lost his ticket. And I’m afraid he’s very ill. If you don’t mind, I’ll take him home with me now. He’s really quite worn out. I’ll run down and tell you all about him to-morrow.”
“I hope you won’t find you’re taking home a frozen viper,” said the Station Master, doubtfully.
“Oh, no,” Mother said brightly, and she smiled; “I’m quite sure I’m not. Why, he’s a great man in his own country, writes books– beautiful books–I’ve read some of them; but I’ll tell you all about it to-morrow.”
She spoke again in French to the Russian, and everyone could see the surprise and pleasure and gratitude in his eyes. He got up and politely bowed to the Station Master, and offered his arm most ceremoniously to Mother. She took it, but anybody could have seen that she was helping him along, and not he her.
“You girls run home and light a fire in the sitting-room,” Mother said, “and Peter had better go for the Doctor.”
But it was Bobbie who went for the Doctor.
“I hate to tell you,” she said breathlessly when she came upon him in his shirt sleeves, weeding his pansy-bed, “but Mother’s got a very shabby Russian, and I’m sure he’ll have to belong to your Club. I’m certain he hasn’t got any money. We found him at the station.”
“Found him! Was he lost, then?” asked the Doctor, reaching for his coat.
“Yes,” said Bobbie, unexpectedly, “that’s just what he was. He’s been telling Mother the sad, sweet story of his life in French; and she said would you be kind enough to come directly if you were at home. He has a dreadful cough, and he’s been crying.”
The Doctor smiled.
“Oh, don’t,” said Bobbie; “please don’t. You wouldn’t if you’d seen him. I never saw a man cry before. You don’t know what it’s like.”
Dr. Forrest wished then that he hadn’t smiled.
When Bobbie and the Doctor got to Three Chimneys, the Russian was sitting in the arm-chair that had been Father’s, stretching his feet to the blaze of a bright wood fire, and sipping the tea Mother had made him.
“The man seems worn out, mind and body,” was what the Doctor said; “the cough’s bad, but there’s nothing that can’t be cured. He ought to go straight to bed, though–and let him have a fire at night.”
“I’ll make one in my room; it’s the only one with a fireplace,” said Mother. She did, and presently the Doctor helped the stranger to bed.
There was a big black trunk in Mother’s room that none of the children had ever seen unlocked. Now, when she had lighted the fire, she unlocked it and took some clothes out–men’s clothes–and set them to air by the newly lighted fire. Bobbie, coming in with more wood for the fire, saw the mark on the night-shirt, and looked over to the open trunk. All the things she could see were men’s clothes. And the name marked on the shirt was Father’s name. Then Father hadn’t taken his clothes with him. And that night-shirt was one of Father’s new ones. Bobbie remembered its being made, just before Peter’s birthday. Why hadn’t Father taken his clothes? Bobbie slipped from the room. As she went she heard the key turned in the lock of the trunk. Her heart was beating horribly. Why hadn’t Father taken his clothes? When Mother came out of the room, Bobbie flung tightly clasping arms round her waist, and whispered:–
“Mother–Daddy isn’t–isn’t dead, is he?”
“My darling, no! What made you think of anything so horrible?”
“I–I don’t know,” said Bobbie, angry with herself, but still clinging to that resolution of hers, not to see anything that Mother didn’t mean her to see.
Mother gave her a hurried hug. “Daddy was quite, quite well when I heard from him last,” she said, “and he’ll come back to us some day. Don’t fancy such horrible things, darling!”
Later on, when the Russian stranger had been made comfortable for the night, Mother came into the girls’ room. She was to sleep there in Phyllis’s bed, and Phyllis was to have a mattress on the floor, a most amusing adventure for Phyllis. Directly Mother came in, two white figures started up, and two eager voices called:–
“Now, Mother, tell us all about the Russian gentleman.”
A white shape hopped into the room. It was Peter, dragging his quilt behind him like the tail of a white peacock.
“We have been patient,” he said, “and I had to bite my tongue not to go to sleep, and I just nearly went to sleep and I bit too hard, and it hurts ever so. Do tell us. Make a nice long story of it.”
“I can’t make a long story of it to-night,” said Mother; “I’m very tired.”
Bobbie knew by her voice that Mother had been crying, but the others didn’t know.
“Well, make it as long as you can,” said Phil, and Bobbie got her arms round Mother’s waist and snuggled close to her.
“Well, it’s a story long enough to make a whole book of. He’s a writer; he’s written beautiful books. In Russia at the time of the Czar one dared not say anything about the rich people doing wrong, or about the things that ought to be done to make poor people better and happier. If one did one was sent to prison.”
“But they can’t,” said Peter; “people only go to prison when they’ve done wrong.”
“Or when the Judges think they’ve done wrong,” said Mother. “Yes, that’s so in England. But in Russia it was different. And he wrote a beautiful book about poor people and how to help them. I’ve read it. There’s nothing in it but goodness and kindness. And they sent him to prison for it. He was three years in a horrible dungeon, with hardly any light, and all damp and dreadful. In prison all alone for three years.”
Mother’s voice trembled a little and stopped suddenly.
“But, Mother,” said Peter, “that can’t be true now. It sounds like something out of a history book–the Inquisition, or something.”
“It was true,” said Mother; “it’s all horribly true. Well, then they took him out and sent him to Siberia, a convict chained to other convicts–wicked men who’d done all sorts of crimes–a long chain of them, and they walked, and walked, and walked, for days and weeks, till he thought they’d never stop walking. And overseers went behind them with whips–yes, whips–to beat them if they got tired. And some of them went lame, and some fell down, and when they couldn’t get up and go on, they beat them, and then left them to die. Oh, it’s all too terrible! And at last he got to the mines, and he was condemned to stay there for life–for life, just for writing a good, noble, splendid book.”
“How did he get away?”
“When the war came, some of the Russian prisoners were allowed to volunteer as soldiers. And he volunteered. But he deserted at the first chance he got and–“
“But that’s very cowardly, isn’t it”–said Peter–“to desert? Especially when it’s war.”
“Do you think he owed anything to a country that had done that to him? If he did, he owed more to his wife and children. He didn’t know what had become of them.”
“Oh,” cried Bobbie, “he had them to think about and be miserable about too, then, all the time he was in prison?”
“Yes, he had them to think about and be miserable about all the time he was in prison. For anything he knew they might have been sent to prison, too. They did those things in Russia. But while he was in the mines some friends managed to get a message to him that his wife and children had escaped and come to England. So when he deserted he came here to look for them.”
“Had he got their address?” said practical Peter.
“No; just England. He was going to London, and he thought he had to change at our station, and then he found he’d lost his ticket and his purse.”
“Oh, do you think he’ll find them?–I mean his wife and children, not the ticket and things.”
“I hope so. Oh, I hope and pray that he’ll find his wife and children again.”
Even Phyllis now perceived that mother’s voice was very unsteady.
“Why, Mother,” she said, “how very sorry you seem to be for him!”
Mother didn’t answer for a minute. Then she just said, “Yes,” and then she seemed to be thinking. The children were quiet.
Presently she said, “Dears, when you say your prayers, I think you might ask God to show His pity upon all prisoners and captives.”
“To show His pity,” Bobbie repeated slowly, “upon all prisoners and captives. Is that right, Mother?”
“Yes,” said Mother, “upon all prisoners and captives. All prisoners and captives.”