It really did seem a little like magic. For all the trees for about twenty yards of the opposite bank seemed to be slowly walking down towards the railway line, the tree with the grey leaves bringing up the rear like some old shepherd driving a flock of green sheep.
“What is it? Oh, what is it?” said Phyllis; “it’s much too magic for me. I don’t like it. Let’s go home.”
But Bobbie and Peter clung fast to the rail and watched breathlessly. And Phyllis made no movement towards going home by herself.
The trees moved on and on. Some stones and loose earth fell down and rattled on the railway metals far below.
“It’s all coming down,” Peter tried to say, but he found there was hardly any voice to say it with. And, indeed, just as he spoke, the great rock, on the top of which the walking trees were, leaned slowly forward. The trees, ceasing to walk, stood still and shivered. Leaning with the rock, they seemed to hesitate a moment, and then rock and trees and grass and bushes, with a rushing sound, slipped right away from the face of the cutting and fell on the line with a blundering crash that could have been heard half a mile off. A cloud of dust rose up.
“Oh,” said Peter, in awestruck tones, “isn’t it exactly like when coals come in?–if there wasn’t any roof to the cellar and you could see down.”
“Look what a great mound it’s made!” said Bobbie.
“Yes,” said Peter, slowly. He was still leaning on the fence. “Yes,” he said again, still more slowly.
Then he stood upright.
“The 11.29 down hasn’t gone by yet. We must let them know at the station, or there’ll be a most frightful accident.”
“Let’s run,” said Bobbie, and began.
But Peter cried, “Come back!” and looked at Mother’s watch. He was very prompt and businesslike, and his face looked whiter than they had ever seen it.
“No time,” he said; “it’s two miles away, and it’s past eleven.”
“Couldn’t we,” suggested Phyllis, breathlessly, “couldn’t we climb up a telegraph post and do something to the wires?”
“We don’t know how,” said Peter.
“They do it in war,” said Phyllis; “I know I’ve heard of it.”
“They only cut them, silly,” said Peter, “and that doesn’t do any good. And we couldn’t cut them even if we got up, and we couldn’t get up. If we had anything red, we could get down on the line and wave it.”
“But the train wouldn’t see us till it got round the corner, and then it could see the mound just as well as us,” said Phyllis; “better, because it’s much bigger than us.”
“If we only had something red,” Peter repeated, “we could go round the corner and wave to the train.”
“We might wave, anyway.”
“They’d only think it was just us, as usual. We’ve waved so often before. Anyway, let’s get down.”
They got down the steep stairs. Bobbie was pale and shivering. Peter’s face looked thinner than usual. Phyllis was red-faced and damp with anxiety.
“Oh, how hot I am!” she said; “and I thought it was going to be cold; I wish we hadn’t put on our–” she stopped short, and then ended in quite a different tone–“our flannel petticoats.”
Bobbie turned at the bottom of the stairs.
“Oh, yes,” she cried; “they’re red! Let’s take them off.”
They did, and with the petticoats rolled up under their arms, ran along the railway, skirting the newly fallen mound of stones and rock and earth, and bent, crushed, twisted trees. They ran at their best pace. Peter led, but the girls were not far behind. They reached the corner that hid the mound from the straight line of railway that ran half a mile without curve or corner.
“Now,” said Peter, taking hold of the largest flannel petticoat.
“You’re not”–Phyllis faltered–“you’re not going to tear them?”
“Shut up,” said Peter, with brief sternness.
“Oh, yes,” said Bobbie, “tear them into little bits if you like. Don’t you see, Phil, if we can’t stop the train, there’ll be a real live accident, with people killed. Oh, horrible! Here, Peter, you’ll never tear it through the band!”
She took the red flannel petticoat from him and tore it off an inch from the band. Then she tore the other in the same way.
“There!” said Peter, tearing in his turn. He divided each petticoat into three pieces. “Now, we’ve got six flags.” He looked at the watch again. “And we’ve got seven minutes. We must have flagstaffs.”
The knives given to boys are, for some odd reason, seldom of the kind of steel that keeps sharp. The young saplings had to be broken off. Two came up by the roots. The leaves were stripped from them.
“We must cut holes in the flags, and run the sticks through the holes,” said Peter. And the holes were cut. The knife was sharp enough to cut flannel with. Two of the flags were set up in heaps of loose stones between the sleepers of the down line. Then Phyllis and Roberta took each a flag, and stood ready to wave it as soon as the train came in sight.
“I shall have the other two myself,” said Peter, “because it was my idea to wave something red.”
“They’re our petticoats, though,” Phyllis was beginning, but Bobbie interrupted–
“Oh, what does it matter who waves what, if we can only save the train?”
Perhaps Peter had not rightly calculated the number of minutes it would take the 11.29 to get from the station to the place where they were, or perhaps the train was late. Anyway, it seemed a very long time that they waited.
Phyllis grew impatient. “I expect the watch is wrong, and the train’s gone by,” said she.
Peter relaxed the heroic attitude he had chosen to show off his two flags. And Bobbie began to feel sick with suspense.
It seemed to her that they had been standing there for hours and hours, holding those silly little red flannel flags that no one would ever notice. The train wouldn’t care. It would go rushing by them and tear round the corner and go crashing into that awful mound. And everyone would be killed. Her hands grew very cold and trembled so that she could hardly hold the flag. And then came the distant rumble and hum of the metals, and a puff of white steam showed far away along the stretch of line.
“Stand firm,” said Peter, “and wave like mad! When it gets to that big furze bush step back, but go on waving! Don’t stand on the line, Bobbie!”
The train came rattling along very, very fast.
“They don’t see us! They won’t see us! It’s all no good!” cried Bobbie.
The two little flags on the line swayed as the nearing train shook and loosened the heaps of loose stones that held them up. One of them slowly leaned over and fell on the line. Bobbie jumped forward and caught it up, and waved it; her hands did not tremble now.
It seemed that the train came on as fast as ever. It was very near now.
“Keep off the line, you silly cuckoo!” said Peter, fiercely.
“It’s no good,” Bobbie said again.
“Stand back!” cried Peter, suddenly, and he dragged Phyllis back by the arm.
But Bobbie cried, “Not yet, not yet!” and waved her two flags right over the line. The front of the engine looked black and enormous. It’s voice was loud and harsh.
“Oh, stop, stop, stop!” cried Bobbie. No one heard her. At least Peter and Phyllis didn’t, for the oncoming rush of the train covered the sound of her voice with a mountain of sound. But afterwards she used to wonder whether the engine itself had not heard her. It seemed almost as though it had–for it slackened swiftly, slackened and stopped, not twenty yards from the place where Bobbie’s two flags waved over the line. She saw the great black engine stop dead, but somehow she could not stop waving the flags. And when the driver and the fireman had got off the engine and Peter and Phyllis had gone to meet them and pour out their excited tale of the awful mound just round the corner, Bobbie still waved the flags but more and more feebly and jerkily.
When the others turned towards her she was lying across the line with her hands flung forward and still gripping the sticks of the little red flannel flags.
The engine-driver picked her up, carried her to the train, and laid her on the cushions of a first-class carriage.
“Gone right off in a faint,” he said, “poor little woman. And no wonder. I’ll just ‘ave a look at this ‘ere mound of yours, and then we’ll run you back to the station and get her seen to.”
It was horrible to see Bobbie lying so white and quiet, with her lips blue, and parted.
“I believe that’s what people look like when they’re dead,” whispered Phyllis.
“Don’t!” said Peter, sharply.
They sat by Bobbie on the blue cushions, and the train ran back. Before it reached their station Bobbie had sighed and opened her eyes, and rolled herself over and begun to cry. This cheered the others wonderfully. They had seen her cry before, but they had never seen her faint, nor anyone else, for the matter of that. They had not known what to do when she was fainting, but now she was only crying they could thump her on the back and tell her not to, just as they always did. And presently, when she stopped crying, they were able to laugh at her for being such a coward as to faint.
When the station was reached, the three were the heroes of an agitated meeting on the platform.
The praises they got for their “prompt action,” their “common sense,” their “ingenuity,” were enough to have turned anybody’s head. Phyllis enjoyed herself thoroughly. She had never been a real heroine before, and the feeling was delicious. Peter’s ears got very red. Yet he, too, enjoyed himself. Only Bobbie wished they all wouldn’t. She wanted to get away.
“You’ll hear from the Company about this, I expect,” said the Station Master.
Bobbie wished she might never hear of it again. She pulled at Peter’s jacket.
“Oh, come away, come away! I want to go home,” she said.
So they went. And as they went Station Master and Porter and guards and driver and fireman and passengers sent up a cheer.
“Oh, listen,” cried Phyllis; “that’s for us!”
“Yes,” said Peter. “I say, I am glad I thought about something red, and waving it.”
“How lucky we did put on our red flannel petticoats!” said Phyllis.
Bobbie said nothing. She was thinking of the horrible mound, and the trustful train rushing towards it.
“And it was us that saved them,” said Peter.
“How dreadful if they had all been killed!” said Phyllis; “wouldn’t it, Bobbie?”
“We never got any cherries, after all,” said Bobbie.
The others thought her rather heartless.