In 1905 three English siblings named Roberta (a/k/a Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis lived in a well-to-do city house staffed by servants. Their father had an important government job, and often traveled for his work. Their mother spent much of her time with her children, and often wrote them poems and stories.
One day, right after Father had returned from a trip, two men came to speak with him, and they stayed a long time. A servant told Mother she was needed by Father, so she left her children, but then came back appearing pale and unwell. The next day she said everything was fine, but Father had left on a long trip, and no one was to ask any questions. A few days later Mother told her children they would be leaving their house, and would be going to the country and live in a “ducky dear little white house.”
A week was spent in packing and the children noticed they were taking all the ugly and useful furniture and crockery, and leaving behind their best belongings.
They moved to an old house in the country near a railway station. Mother now spent most of her time writing stories and poems, which were sent out to magazines, for she had to earn money.
The children often walked to the railway station, where they visited with a porter named Perks, who seemed to never grow tired of answering questions that began with “why”. He became a good friend to the children, and taught them much about the workings of a railway.
Soon the children learned the scheduled trains, and especially liked the one that came each day at 9:15. They would stand by the track waiting for it, and waved as it passed them. An old gentleman took notice of them, and always waved back. They were sure that he was a kind man.
One day Mother became ill, and a doctor was sent for. He wrote down a list of nutritious foods for her to eat, but she refused to spend the money, saying less expensive food was just as good. The children wished they had money for the recommended food, and Bobbie wrote a letter to the old gentleman, whom they felt would help them. They told of the special food Mother needed, and promised Father would pay him back just as soon as he returned from his long trip.
The next morning Peter was the only one waiting for the train, but instead of waving he pointed to large tacked-up sign made from a bed sheet, with a message written with stove blacking: LOOK OUT AT THE STATION. When the station was reached the old gentleman stepped off the train, and Phyliss was there to hand him the letter.
On the following day Perks came to their house to deliver a large hamper left at the station. It was filled with the requested items, along with a letter requiring them to tell their Mother the truth about the gift as soon as she recovered. They did as the letter instructed, and when Mother learned of her children’s well-meaning plea for help she told them they were to never again tell anyone of their financial problems.
Sometime later Mother needed to travel to another city. The children walked to the station to greet her when she returned, and they discovered a shabbily dressed man had gotten off an earlier train. He looked unwell, and was speaking in some foreign language. Peter knew enough French to ask if the man understood that language, but when the stranger began speaking French Peter had to admit he couldn’t understand most of the words.
Mother spoke excellent French, and when she arrived she was able to tell everyone that the man was Russian, and that he’d lost his ticket and all of his money. Since the man was quite ill she said she would take him home and see that he received proper care.
Once away from the station Mother had a long conversation with the Russian man, and began to sob over his story. He had written beautiful books, and had angered the Czar by saying that poor people should be helped. He’d been sent to prison, though he’d committed no crime. The children were aghast that an innocent man could be imprisoned, and Mother said that such injustices sometimes happen, even in England. She told them that when war broke out Russian prisoners were released to become soldiers, and their guest had deserted the army. He was able to learn that his wife and children had been able to escape to England, and he was searching for them. The man stayed with them for many weeks as he regained his strength.
One day the children discovered a landslide had covered a portion of the railway tracks. The 11:29 train would soon be coming and they had to warn the engineer to prevent an accident. The day was chilly and Mother had made the girls wear red flannel petticoats. Off came the petticoats, and they were ripped apart. Peter used his pocket knife to cut tree branches, the red cloth was fastened to the branches and the children stood on the tracks waving distress flags. They were able to stop the train, and were hailed as heroes.
A letter was sent, telling the children they would be honored at a special ceremony at the station. Special dignitaries came to the ceremony, including the old gentleman, who was the secretary of the railroad. He presented each child a gold watch. They’d learned their lesson about telling people their problems and asking for assistance, but Bobbie felt it would be a different matter to ask for help for someone else. They told the old gentleman about the Russian writer searching for his family, and the gentleman said he would make inquiries. The man’s family was found, and their guest left to be with them.
Sometime later Peter injured his foot, and had to stay inside, off his feet. He grew restless, and wished for something new to read. Bobbie remembered Perks collected reading material left on the trains, and she went to ask if he had any magazines they could have. He gave her a stack of illustrated papers, and wrapped them up in pages from a regular newspaper. On her way home Bobbie saw an article on the wrapping paper, and learned why Father was away – and why Mother had become so upset about innocent men being wronged.
Could the old gentleman be able to help them once more?
Bobbie, Peter had Phyllis had many other adventures besides the ones I’ve told about. I enjoyed reading about the siblings, who were usually good, but would occasionally bicker or make mistakes. And I wondered about the mysterious reason for Father being gone so long, and if it might have been better for Mother to have told her children about the miscarriage of justice, instead of causing them to guess about the unknown tragedy they couldn’t ask about. But if fictional characters always made the most logical decisions many mysteries would be resolved in a few pages.
Edith Nesbit’s story was first serialized in The London Magazine in 1905, and published as a book in 1906. Since then The Railway Children has been made into movies, as well as a few radio and television series. If you’d like to read the entire novel it can be downloaded, free of charge, at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1874