Railway Children Chapter 8 Part 2

So they got down on the towing-path again and Peter fished. He did not catch anything.

It was almost quite dark, the girls were getting tired, and as Bobbie said, it was past bedtime, when suddenly Phyllis cried, “What’s that?”

And she pointed to the canal boat. Smoke was coming from the chimney of the cabin, had indeed been curling softly into the soft evening air all the time–but now other wreaths of smoke were rising, and these were from the cabin door.

“It’s on fire–that’s all,” said Peter, calmly. “Serve him right.”

“Oh–how can you?” cried Phyllis. “Think of the poor dear dog.”

“The baby!” screamed Bobbie.

In an instant all three made for the barge.

Her mooring ropes were slack, and the little breeze, hardly strong enough to be felt, had yet been strong enough to drift her stern against the bank. Bobbie was first–then came Peter, and it was Peter who slipped and fell. He went into the canal up to his neck, and his feet could not feel the bottom, but his arm was on the edge of the barge. Phyllis caught at his hair. It hurt, but it helped him to get out. Next minute he had leaped on to the barge, Phyllis following.

“Not you!” he shouted to Bobbie; “Me, because I’m wet.”

He caught up with Bobbie at the cabin door, and flung her aside very roughly indeed; if they had been playing, such roughness would have made Bobbie weep with tears of rage and pain. Now, though he flung her on to the edge of the hold, so that her knee and her elbow were grazed and bruised, she only cried:–

“No–not you–me,” and struggled up again. But not quickly enough.

Peter had already gone down two of the cabin steps into the cloud of thick smoke. He stopped, remembered all he had ever heard of fires, pulled his soaked handkerchief out of his breast pocket and tied it over his mouth. As he pulled it out he said:–

“It’s all right, hardly any fire at all.”

And this, though he thought it was a lie, was rather good of Peter. It was meant to keep Bobbie from rushing after him into danger. Of course it didn’t.

The cabin glowed red. A paraffin lamp was burning calmly in an orange mist.

“Hi,” said Peter, lifting the handkerchief from his mouth for a moment. “Hi, Baby–where are you?” He choked.

“Oh, let me go,” cried Bobbie, close behind him. Peter pushed her back more roughly than before, and went on.

Now what would have happened if the baby hadn’t cried I don’t know– but just at that moment it did cry. Peter felt his way through the dark smoke, found something small and soft and warm and alive, picked it up and backed out, nearly tumbling over Bobbie who was close behind. A dog snapped at his leg–tried to bark, choked.

“I’ve got the kid,” said Peter, tearing off the handkerchief and staggering on to the deck.

Bobbie caught at the place where the bark came from, and her hands met on the fat back of a smooth-haired dog. It turned and fastened its teeth on her hand, but very gently, as much as to say:–

“I’m bound to bark and bite if strangers come into my master’s cabin, but I know you mean well, so I won’t really bite.”

Bobbie dropped the dog.

“All right, old man. Good dog,” said she. “Here–give me the baby, Peter; you’re so wet you’ll give it cold.”

Peter was only too glad to hand over the strange little bundle that squirmed and whimpered in his arms.

“Now,” said Bobbie, quickly, “you run straight to the ‘Rose and Crown’ and tell them. Phil and I will stay here with the precious. Hush, then, a dear, a duck, a darling! Go now, Peter! Run!”

“I can’t run in these things,” said Peter, firmly; “they’re as heavy as lead. I’ll walk.”

“Then I’ll run,” said Bobbie. “Get on the bank, Phil, and I’ll hand you the dear.”

The baby was carefully handed. Phyllis sat down on the bank and tried to hush the baby. Peter wrung the water from his sleeves and knickerbocker legs as well as he could, and it was Bobbie who ran like the wind across the bridge and up the long white quiet twilight road towards the ‘Rose and Crown.’

There is a nice old-fashioned room at the ‘Rose and Crown; where Bargees and their wives sit of an evening drinking their supper beer, and toasting their supper cheese at a glowing basketful of coals that sticks out into the room under a great hooded chimney and is warmer and prettier and more comforting than any other fireplace I ever saw.

There was a pleasant party of barge people round the fire. You might not have thought it pleasant, but they did; for they were all friends or acquaintances, and they liked the same sort of things, and talked the same sort of talk. This is the real secret of pleasant society. The Bargee Bill, whom the children had found so disagreeable, was considered excellent company by his mates. He was telling a tale of his own wrongs–always a thrilling subject. It was his barge he was speaking about.

“And ‘e sent down word ‘paint her inside hout,’ not namin’ no colour, d’ye see? So I gets a lotter green paint and I paints her stem to stern, and I tell yer she looked A1. Then ‘E comes along and ‘e says, ‘Wot yer paint ‘er all one colour for?’ ‘e says. And I says, says I, ‘Cause I thought she’d look fust-rate,’ says I, ‘and I think so still.’ An’ he says, ‘Dew yer? Then ye can just pay for the bloomin’ paint yerself,’ says he. An’ I ‘ad to, too.” A murmur of sympathy ran round the room. Breaking noisily in on it came Bobbie. She burst open the swing door–crying breathlessly:–

“Bill! I want Bill the Bargeman.”

There was a stupefied silence. Pots of beer were held in mid-air, paralysed on their way to thirsty mouths.

“Oh,” said Bobbie, seeing the bargewoman and making for her. “Your barge cabin’s on fire. Go quickly.”

The woman started to her feet, and put a big red hand to her waist, on the left side, where your heart seems to be when you are frightened or miserable.

“Reginald Horace!” she cried in a terrible voice; “my Reginald Horace!”

“All right,” said Bobbie, “if you mean the baby; got him out safe. Dog, too.” She had no breath for more, except, “Go on–it’s all alight.”

Then she sank on the ale-house bench and tried to get that breath of relief after running which people call the ‘second wind.’ But she felt as though she would never breathe again.

Bill the Bargee rose slowly and heavily. But his wife was a hundred yards up the road before he had quite understood what was the matter.

Phyllis, shivering by the canal side, had hardly heard the quick approaching feet before the woman had flung herself on the railing, rolled down the bank, and snatched the baby from her.

“Don’t,” said Phyllis, reproachfully; “I’d just got him to sleep.”

*          *          *          *          *          *

Bill came up later talking in a language with which the children were wholly unfamiliar. He leaped on to the barge and dipped up pails of water. Peter helped him and they put out the fire. Phyllis, the bargewoman, and the baby–and presently Bobbie, too– cuddled together in a heap on the bank.

“Lord help me, if it was me left anything as could catch alight,” said the woman again and again.

But it wasn’t she. It was Bill the Bargeman, who had knocked his pipe out and the red ash had fallen on the hearth-rug and smouldered there and at last broken into flame. Though a stern man he was just. He did not blame his wife for what was his own fault, as many bargemen, and other men, too, would have done.

*          *          *          *          *          *

Mother was half wild with anxiety when at last the three children turned up at Three Chimneys, all very wet by now, for Peter seemed to have come off on the others. But when she had disentangled the truth of what had happened from their mixed and incoherent narrative, she owned that they had done quite right, and could not possibly have done otherwise. Nor did she put any obstacles in the way of their accepting the cordial invitation with which the bargeman had parted from them.

“Ye be here at seven to-morrow,” he had said, “and I’ll take you the entire trip to Farley and back, so I will, and not a penny to pay. Nineteen locks!”

They did not know what locks were; but they were at the bridge at seven, with bread and cheese and half a soda cake, and quite a quarter of a leg of mutton in a basket.

It was a glorious day. The old white horse strained at the ropes, the barge glided smoothly and steadily through the still water. The sky was blue overhead. Mr. Bill was as nice as anyone could possibly be. No one would have thought that he could be the same man who had held Peter by the ear. As for Mrs. Bill, she had always been nice, as Bobbie said, and so had the baby, and even Spot, who might have bitten them quite badly if he had liked.

“It was simply ripping, Mother,” said Peter, when they reached home very happy, very tired, and very dirty, “right over that glorious aqueduct. And locks–you don’t know what they’re like. You sink into the ground and then, when you feel you’re never going to stop going down, two great black gates open slowly, slowly–you go out, and there you are on the canal just like you were before.”

“I know,” said Mother, “there are locks on the Thames. Father and I used to go on the river at Marlow before we were married.”

“And the dear, darling, ducky baby,” said Bobbie; “it let me nurse it for ages and ages–and itwas so good. Mother, I wish we had a baby to play with.”

“And everybody was so nice to us,” said Phyllis, “everybody we met. And they say we may fish whenever we like. And Bill is going to show us the way next time he’s in these parts. He says we don’t know really.”

“He said you didn’t know,” said Peter; “but, Mother, he said he’d tell all the bargees up and down the canal that we were the real, right sort, and they were to treat us like good pals, as we were.”

“So then I said,” Phyllis interrupted, “we’d always each wear a red ribbon when we went fishing by the canal, so they’d know it was us, and we were the real, right sort, and be nice to us!”

“So you’ve made another lot of friends,” said Mother; “first the railway and then the canal!”

“Oh, yes,” said Bobbie; “I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be un-friends.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Mother; and she sighed. “Come, Chicks. It’s bedtime.”

“Yes,” said Phyllis. “Oh dear–and we went up there to talk about what we’d do for Perks’s birthday. And we haven’t talked a single thing about it!”

“No more we have,” said Bobbie; “but Peter’s saved Reginald Horace’s life. I think that’s about good enough for one evening.”

“Bobbie would have saved him if I hadn’t knocked her down; twice I did,” said Peter, loyally.

“So would I,” said Phyllis, “if I’d known what to do.”

“Yes,” said Mother, “you’ve saved a little child’s life. I do think that’s enough for one evening. Oh, my darlings, thank God you’re all safe!”

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