How the Local Pimpernel Saved His Pigeons
The first time I noticed this small, gray-haired man, I was seated on the train, looking out my window. He was hurrying along the platform, carefully carrying a large cardboard box. When he appeared a second time, a third, and then a fourth, always with the same scurrying haste and the same box, my curiosity was aroused. Once he had boarded the train he invariably made his way to the empty front carriage where he sat, aloof from his fellow passengers, the box held firmly on his knees.Skip to next paragraph
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Sherlock Holmes would have solved the mystery of what was in it at once, but I only found out the day the little traveler nearly missed the train.
The green flag had been waved, the whistle blown, and the door was about to close when along he rushed. The ticket collector grabbed him; he dropped the box; I caught it; and he was heaved aboard.
"Never jump on a moving train," the ticket collector said sternly. "Never!"
The man was too breathless to reply, but meekly followed me as I carried the box for him to his customary seat. "Some run!" he wrought out at last.
"A close shave," I agreed. He had begun to eye me closely, as if weighing me in the balance: Could he trust me with a secret?
"Perhaps," he began tentatively as the train rattled out of the Central, heading for the country. "Perhaps," he said, tapping the lid of the box, "you'd like to know what's inside."
"I certainly would!"
"I don't think that I could be arrested for what I'm doing."
"What on earth are you doing?" I asked, more curious than ever.
He half-opened the box. What did I expect to see? Certainly not what I did: two bedraggled, grimy-winged pigeons huddling together, peering out at us. He replaced the lid, watching my reaction.
"Do you breed pigeons?"
"Well, not exactly, though it might come to that." He paused, obviously eager to confide.
"Do tell me how," I begged.
"It all began with books," he said.
"But where do the pigeons come in?"
"They come in later. I had such a dreary job, you see, standing behind a counter all day, selling things like clothes pegs, dusters, boot laces, and mothballs - not very inspiring. When my boss left me in charge and no customers came, I'd sit reading all the adventure stories I could lay my hands on - escapes from the Gulag or Colditz, rescues from Devil's Island, but especially from the Bastille. My favorite was a book called "The Scarlet Pimpernel." This Pimpernel saved prisoners during the French Revolution. He'd turn up just as the tumbrels came rolling along to the foot of the guillotine, somehow managing to snatch victims from the jaws of death."
"But where's the link with those pigeons?" I insisted. "Oh, here's my station."
"Mine's the last one on the line," he said. "I'll tell you next week." He waved to me and held up his box as a pledge of the next installment.