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When Father was away… The Railway Children

Happy International Children’s Book Day! When their father goes away unexpectedly, Roberta, Peter and Phyllis have to move with their mother from their London home to a cottage in the countryside. Thus begins E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, the latest in our Oxford Children’s Classic series, which we’ve excerpted below.

Father had been away in the country for three or four days. All Peter’s hopes for the curing of his afflicted engine were now fixed on his father, for Father was most wonderfully clever with his fingers. He could mend all sorts of things. He had often acted as veterinary surgeon to the wooden rocking-horse; once he had saved its life when all human aid was despaired of, and the poor creature was given up for lost, and even the carpenter said he didn’t see his way to do anything.

And it was Father who mended the doll’s cradle when no one else could; and with a little glue and some bits of wood and a penknife made all the Noah’s Ark beasts as strong on their pins as ever they were, if not stronger.

Peter, with heroic unselfishness, did not say anything about his engine till after Father had had his dinner and his after-dinner cigar. The unselfishness was Mother’s idea—but it was Peter who carried it out. And needed a good deal of patience, too.

At last Mother said to Father, ‘Now, dear, if you’re quite rested, and quite comfy, we want to tell you about the great railway accident, and ask your advice.’

‘All right,’ said Father, ‘fire away!’

So then Peter told the sad tale, and fetched what was left of the engine.

‘Hum,’ said Father, when he had looked the engine over very carefully.

The children held their breaths.

‘Is there no hope?’ said Peter, in a low, unsteady voice.

‘Hope? Rather! Tons of it,’ said Father, cheerfully; ‘but it’ll want something besides hope—a bit of brazing say, or some solder, and a new valve. I think we’d better keep it for a rainy day. In other words, I’ll give up Saturday afternoon to it, and you shall all help me.’

‘Can girls help to mend engines?’ Peter asked doubtfully.

‘Of course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys, and don’t you forget it! How would you like to be an engine-driver, Phil?’

‘My face would be always dirty, wouldn’t it?’ said Phyllis, in unenthusiastic tones, ‘and I expect I should break something.’

‘I should just love it,’ said Roberta—’do you think I could when I’m grown-up, Daddy? Or even a stoker?’

‘You mean a fireman,’ said Daddy, pulling and twisting at the engine. ‘Well, if you still wish it, when you’re grown-up, we’ll see about making you a fire-woman. I remember when I was a boy—’

Just then there was a knock at the front door.

‘Who on earth!’ said Father. ‘An Englishman’s house is his castle, of course, but I do wish they built semi-detached villas with moats and drawbridges.’

Ruth—she was the parlour-maid and had red hair—came in and said that two gentlemen wanted to see the master.

‘I’ve shown them into the library, sir,’ said she.

‘I expect it’s the subscription to the vicar’s testimonial,’ said Mother, ‘or else it’s the choir holiday fund. Get rid of them quickly, dear. It does break up an evening so, and it’s nearly the children’s bedtime.’

But Father did not seem to be able to get rid of the gentlemen at all quickly.

‘I wish we had got a moat and drawbridge,’ said Roberta; ‘then, when we didn’t want people, we could just pull up the drawbridge and no one else could get in. I expect Father will have forgotten about when he was a boy if they stay much longer.’

Mother tried to make the time pass by telling them a new fairy story about a princess with green eyes, but it was difficult because they could hear the voices of Father and the gentlemen in the library, and Father’s voice sounded louder and different to the voice he generally used to people who came about testimonials and holiday funds.

Although they have many adventures on the railway, one question still remains… is their father ever coming back? Find out in the latest welcome addition to the popular Oxford Children’s Classics series: E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. If you love a good story, then look no further. Edith Nesbit was an English author and poet who wrote or collaborated on over 60 books of fiction for children under the name of E. Nesbit. The Railway Children, among others, has generated many successful television series, films, and plays.

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