serialized 1905, published 1906
[A strange man has turned up at the railway station]
"What's that he's saying?" asked the farmer, heavily.
"Sounds like French to me," said the Station Master, who had once been to Boulogne for the day…
Peter pressed forward, so that when the crowd closed up again he was in the front rank. "I don't know what it is," said Peter, "but it isn't French. I know that." Then he saw what it was that the crowd had for its centre. It was a man— the man, Peter did not doubt, who had spoken in that strange tongue. A man with long hair and wild eyes, with shabby clothes of a cut Peter had not seen before— a man whose hands and lips trembled, and who spoke again as his eyes fell on Peter.
"No, it's not French," said Peter.
"Try him with French if you know so much about it," said the farmer-man.
"Parlay voo Frongsay?" began Peter, boldly, and the next moment the crowd recoiled again, for the man with the wild eyes had left leaning against the wall, and had sprung forward and caught Peter's hands, and begun to pour forth a flood of words which, though he could not understand a word of them, Peter knew the sound of. "There!" said he, and turned, his hands still clasped in the hands of the strange shabby figure, to throw a glance of triumph at the crowd; "there; THAT'S French."
"What does he say?"
"I don't know." Peter was obliged to own it.
observations: See also earlier entry on The Railway Children.
This is an unexpected section of the book: the stranger who has got off the train turns out to be a Russian writer, exiled from his native land, looking for his wife and children. He has been in trouble with the authorities in Russia: the children’s mother says
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.The horror of unjust imprisonment is of course relevant to the family’s situation, but it’s still quite revolutionary stuff for a book of the early 1900s - E.Nesbit was very much a socialist and moved in left-wing circles, and it does show. The family helps to sort out the man, with the help of that very useful Old Gentleman. Sadly authors today don’t feel they can use such a deus ex machina to put everything right.
Peter is well to the fore here, but near the beginning there is this excellent exchange:
"CAN girls help to mend engines?" Peter asked doubtfully.This is addressed to Phyllis, obv a girl, and although she does say "My face would be always dirty, wouldn't it?" in unenthusiastic tones, the excellent Roberta says "I should just love it… do you think I could when I'm grown up, Daddy? Or even a stoker?"
"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?"
The picture is of Trotsky, the right age and era although more or a revolutionary than a writer, and comes from the Library of Congress. Trotsky had an affair with Frida Kahlo, heroine of this book, and appears in the scene featured in the blog entry.
The question of talking French turns up in the same author’s Five Children and It, here on the blog.