The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 10. The Hole in the Carpet
Hooray! hooray! hooray! Mother comes home to-day; Mother comes home to-day, Hooray! hooray! hooray!'
Jane sang this simple song directly after breakfast, and the Phoenix shed crystal tears of affectionate sympathy.
'How beautiful,' it said, 'is filial devotion!'
'She won't be home till past bedtime, though,' said Robert. 'We might have one more carpet-day.'
He was glad that mother was coming home--quite glad, very glad; but at the same time that gladness was rudely contradicted by a quite strong feeling of sorrow, because now they could not go out all day on the carpet.
'I do wish we could go and get something nice for mother, only she'd want to know where we got it,' said Anthea. 'And she'd never, never believe it, the truth. People never do, somehow, if it's at all interesting.'
'I'll tell you what,' said Robert. 'Suppose we wished the carpet to take us somewhere where we could find a purse with money in it--then we could buy her something.'
'Suppose it took us somewhere foreign, and the purse was covered with strange Eastern devices, embroidered in rich silks, and full of money that wasn't money at all here, only foreign curiosities, then we couldn't spend it, and people would bother about where we got it, and we shouldn't know how on earth to get out of it at all.'
Cyril moved the table off the carpet as he spoke, and its leg caught in one of Anthea's darns and ripped away most of it, as well as a large slit in the carpet.
'Well, now you have done it,' said Robert.
But Anthea was a really first-class sister. She did not say a word till she had got out the Scotch heather-mixture fingering wool and the darning-needle and the thimble and the scissors, and by that time she had been able to get the better of her natural wish to be thoroughly disagreeable, and was able to say quite kindly--
'Never mind, Squirrel, I'll soon mend it.'
Cyril thumped her on the back. He understood exactly how she had felt, and he was not an ungrateful brother.
'Respecting the purse containing coins,' the Phoenix said, scratching its invisible ear thoughtfully with its shining claw, 'it might be as well, perhaps, to state clearly the amount which you wish to find, as well as the country where you wish to find it, and the nature of the coins which you prefer. It would be indeed a cold moment when you should find a purse containing but three oboloi.'
'How much is an oboloi?'
'An obol is about twopence halfpenny,' the Phoenix replied.
'Yes,' said Jane, 'and if you find a purse I suppose it is only because some one has lost it, and you ought to take it to the policeman.'
'The situation,' remarked the Phoenix, 'does indeed bristle with difficulties.'
'What about a buried treasure,' said Cyril, 'and every one was dead that it belonged to?'
'Mother wouldn't believe that,' said more than one voice.
'Suppose,' said Robert--'suppose we asked to be taken where we could find a purse and give it back to the person it belonged to, and they would give us something for finding it?'
'We aren't allowed to take money from strangers. You know we aren't, Bobs,' said Anthea, making a knot at the end of a needleful of Scotch heather-mixture fingering wool (which is very wrong, and you must never do it when you are darning).
'No, that wouldn't do,' said Cyril. 'Let's chuck it and go to the North Pole, or somewhere really interesting.'
'No,' said the girls together, 'there must be some way.'
'Wait a sec,' Anthea added. 'I've got an idea coming. Don't speak.'
There was a silence as she paused with the darning-needle in the air! Suddenly she spoke:
'I see. Let's tell the carpet to take us somewhere where we can get the money for mother's present, and--and--and get it some way that she'll believe in and not think wrong.'
'Well, I must say you are learning the way to get the most out of the carpet,' said Cyril. He spoke more heartily and kindly than usual, because he remembered how Anthea had refrained from snarking him about tearing the carpet.
'Yes,' said the Phoenix, 'you certainly are. And you have to remember that if you take a thing out it doesn't stay in.'
No one paid any attention to this remark at the time, but afterwards every one thought of it.
'Do hurry up, Panther,' said Robert; and that was why Anthea did hurry up, and why the big darn in the middle of the carpet was all open and webby like a fishing net, not tight and close like woven cloth, which is what a good, well-behaved darn should be.
Then every one put on its outdoor things, the Phoenix fluttered on to the mantelpiece and arranged its golden feathers in the glass, and all was ready. Every one got on to the carpet.
'Please go slowly, dear carpet,' Anthea began; we like to see where we're going.' And then she added the difficult wish that had been decided on.
Next moment the carpet, stiff and raftlike, was sailing over the roofs of Kentish Town.
'I wish--No, I don't mean that. I mean it's a pity we aren't higher up,' said Anthea, as the edge of the carpet grazed a chimney-pot.
'That's right. Be careful,' said the Phoenix, in warning tones. 'If you wish when you're on a wishing carpet, you do wish, and there's an end of it.'
So for a short time no one spoke, and the carpet sailed on in calm magnificence over St Pancras and King's Cross stations and over the crowded streets of Clerkenwell.
'We're going out Greenwich way,' said Cyril, as they crossed the streak of rough, tumbled water that was the Thames. 'We might go and have a look at the Palace.'
On and on the carpet swept, still keeping much nearer to the chimney-pots than the children found at all comfortable. And then, just over New Cross, a terrible thing happened.
Jane and Robert were in the middle of the carpet. Part of them was on the carpet, and part of them--the heaviest part--was on the great central darn.
'It's all very misty,' said Jane; 'it looks partly like out of doors and partly like in the nursery at home. I feel as if I was going to have measles; everything looked awfully rum then, remember.'
'I feel just exactly the same,' Robert said.
'It's the hole,' said the Phoenix; 'it's not measles whatever that possession may be.'
And at that both Robert and Jane suddenly, and at once, made a bound to try and get on to the safer part of the carpet, and the darn gave way and their boots went up, and the heavy heads and bodies of them went down through the hole, and they landed in a position something between sitting and sprawling on the flat leads on the top of a high, grey, gloomy, respectable house whose address was 705, Amersham Road, New Cross.
The carpet seemed to awaken to new energy as soon as it had got rid of their weight, and it rose high in the air. The others lay down flat and peeped over the edge of the rising carpet.
'Are you hurt?' cried Cyril, and Robert shouted 'No,' and next moment the carpet had sped away, and Jane and Robert were hidden from the sight of the others by a stack of smoky chimneys.
'Oh, how awful!' said Anthea.
'It might have been worse,' said the Phoenix. 'What would have been the sentiments of the survivors if that darn had given way when we were crossing the river?'
'Yes, there's that,' said Cyril, recovering himself. 'They'll be all right. They'll howl till some one gets them down, or drop tiles into the front garden to attract attention of passersby. Bobs has got my one-and-fivepence--lucky you forgot to mend that hole in my pocket, Panther, or he wouldn't have had it. They can tram it home.'
But Anthea would not be comforted.
'It's all my fault,' she said. 'I knew the proper way to darn, and I didn't do it. It's all my fault. Let's go home and patch the carpet with your Etons--something really strong--and send it to fetch them.'
'All right,' said Cyril; 'but your Sunday jacket is stronger than my Etons. We must just chuck mother's present, that's all. I wish--'
'Stop!' cried the Phoenix; 'the carpet is dropping to earth.'
And indeed it was.
It sank swiftly, yet steadily, and landed on the pavement of the Deptford Road. It tipped a little as it landed, so that Cyril and Anthea naturally walked off it, and in an instant it had rolled itself up and hidden behind a gate-post. It did this so quickly that not a single person in the Deptford Road noticed it. The Phoenix rustled its way into the breast of Cyril's coat, and almost at the same moment a well-known voice remarked--
'Well, I never! What on earth are you doing here?'
They were face to face with their pet uncle--their Uncle Reginald.
'We did think of going to Greenwich Palace and talking about Nelson,' said Cyril, telling as much of the truth as he thought his uncle could believe.
'And where are the others?' asked Uncle Reginald.
'I don't exactly know,' Cyril replied, this time quite truthfully.
'Well,' said Uncle Reginald, 'I must fly. I've a case in the County Court. That's the worst of being a beastly solicitor. One can't take the chances of life when one gets them. If only I could come with you to the Painted Hall and give you lunch at the "Ship" afterwards! But, alas! it may not be.'
The uncle felt in his pocket.
'I mustn't enjoy myself,' he said, 'but that's no reason why you shouldn't. Here, divide this by four, and the product ought to give you some desired result. Take care of yourselves. Adieu.'
And waving a cheery farewell with his neat umbrella, the good and high-hatted uncle passed away, leaving Cyril and Anthea to exchange eloquent glances over the shining golden sovereign that lay in Cyril's hand.
'Well!' said Anthea.
'Well!' said Cyril.
'Well!' said the Phoenix.
'Good old carpet!' said Cyril, joyously.
'It was clever of it--so adequate and yet so simple,' said the Phoenix, with calm approval.
'Oh, come on home and let's mend the carpet. I am a beast. I'd forgotten the others just for a minute,' said the conscience-stricken Anthea.
They unrolled the carpet quickly and slyly--they did not want to attract public attention--and the moment their feet were on the carpet Anthea wished to be at home, and instantly they were.
The kindness of their excellent uncle had made it unnecessary for them to go to such extremes as Cyril's Etons or Anthea's Sunday jacket for the patching of the carpet.
Anthea set to work at once to draw the edges of the broken darn together, and Cyril hastily went out and bought a large piece of the marble-patterned American oil-cloth which careful house-wives use to cover dressers and kitchen tables. It was the strongest thing he could think of.
Then they set to work to line the carpet throughout with the oil-cloth. The nursery felt very odd and empty without the others, and Cyril did not feel so sure as he had done about their being able to 'tram it' home. So he tried to help Anthea, which was very good of him, but not much use to her.
The Phoenix watched them for a time, but it was plainly growing more and more restless. It fluffed up its splendid feathers, and stood first on one gilded claw and then on the other, and at last it said--
'I can bear it no longer. This suspense! My Robert--who set my egg to hatch--in the bosom of whose Norfolk raiment I have nestled so often and so pleasantly! I think, if you'll excuse me--'
'Yes--do,' cried Anthea, 'I wish we'd thought of asking you before.'
Cyril opened the window. The Phoenix flapped its sunbright wings and vanished.
'So that's all right,' said Cyril, taking up his needle and instantly pricking his hand in a new place.
Of course I know that what you have really wanted to know about all this time is not what Anthea and Cyril did, but what happened to Jane and Robert after they fell through the carpet on to the leads of the house which was called number 705, Amersham Road.
But I had to tell you the other first. That is one of the most annoying things about stories, you cannot tell all the different parts of them at the same time.
Robert's first remark when he found himself seated on the damp, cold, sooty leads was--
'Here's a go!'
Jane's first act was tears.
'Dry up, Pussy; don't be a little duffer,' said her brother, kindly, 'it'll be all right.'
And then he looked about, just as Cyril had known he would, for something to throw down, so as to attract the attention of the wayfarers far below in the street. He could not find anything. Curiously enough, there were no stones on the leads, not even a loose tile. The roof was of slate, and every single slate knew its place and kept it. But, as so often happens, in looking for one thing he found another. There was a trap-door leading down into the house.
And that trap-door was not fastened.
'Stop snivelling and come here, Jane,' he cried, encouragingly. 'Lend a hand to heave this up. If we can get into the house, we might sneak down without meeting any one, with luck. Come on.'
They heaved up the door till it stood straight up, and, as they bent to look into the hole below, the door fell back with a hollow clang on the leads behind, and with its noise was mingled a blood-curdling scream from underneath.
'Discovered!' hissed Robert. 'Oh, my cats alive!'
They were indeed discovered.
They found themselves looking down into an attic, which was also a lumber-room. It had boxes and broken chairs, old fenders and picture-frames, and rag-bags hanging from nails.
In the middle of the floor was a box, open, half full of clothes. Other clothes lay on the floor in neat piles. In the middle of the piles of clothes sat a lady, very fat indeed, with her feet sticking out straight in front of her. And it was she who had screamed, and who, in fact, was still screaming.
'Don't!' cried Jane, 'please don't! We won't hurt you.'
'Where are the rest of your gang?' asked the lady, stopping short in the middle of a scream.
'The others have gone on, on the wishing carpet,' said Jane truthfully.
'The wishing carpet?' said the lady.
'Yes,' said Jane, before Robert could say 'You shut up!' 'You must have read about it. The Phoenix is with them.'
Then the lady got up, and picking her way carefully between the piles of clothes she got to the door and through it. She shut it behind her, and the two children could hear her calling 'Septimus! Septimus!' in a loud yet frightened way.
'Now,' said Robert quickly; 'I'll drop first.'
He hung by his hands and dropped through the trap-door.
'Now you. Hang by your hands. I'll catch you. Oh, there's no time for jaw. Drop, I say.'
Robert tried to catch her, and even before they had finished the breathless roll among the piles of clothes, which was what his catching ended in, he whispered--
'We'll hide--behind those fenders and things; they'll think we've gone along the roofs. Then, when all is calm, we'll creep down the stairs and take our chance.'
They hastily hid. A corner of an iron bedstead stuck into Robert's side, and Jane had only standing room for one foot--but they bore it--and when the lady came back, not with Septimus, but with another lady, they held their breath and their hearts beat thickly.
'Gone!' said the first lady; 'poor little things--quite mad, my dear--and at large! We must lock this room and send for the police.'
'Let me look out,' said the second lady, who was, if possible, older and thinner and primmer than the first. So the two ladies dragged a box under the trap-door and put another box on the top of it, and then they both climbed up very carefully and put their two trim, tidy heads out of the trap-door to look for the 'mad children'.
'Now,' whispered Robert, getting the bedstead leg out of his side.
They managed to creep out from their hiding-place and out through the door before the two ladies had done looking out of the trap-door on to the empty leads.
Robert and Jane tiptoed down the stairs--one flight, two flights. Then they looked over the banisters. Horror! a servant was coming up with a loaded scuttle.
The children with one consent crept swiftly through the first open door.
The room was a study, calm and gentlemanly, with rows of books, a writing table, and a pair of embroidered slippers warming themselves in the fender. The children hid behind the window-curtains. As they passed the table they saw on it a missionary-box with its bottom label torn off, open and empty.
'Oh, how awful!' whispered Jane. 'We shall never get away alive.'
'Hush!' said Robert, not a moment too soon, for there were steps on the stairs, and next instant the two ladies came into the room. They did not see the children, but they saw the empty missionary box.
'I knew it,' said one. 'Selina, it was a gang. I was certain of it from the first. The children were not mad. They were sent to distract our attention while their confederates robbed the house.'
'I am afraid you are right,' said Selina; 'and where are they now?'
'Downstairs, no doubt, collecting the silver milk-jug and sugar-basin and the punch-ladle that was Uncle Joe's, and Aunt Jerusha's teaspoons. I shall go down.'
'Oh, don't be so rash and heroic,' said Selina. 'Amelia, we must call the police from the window. Lock the door. I will--I will--'
The words ended in a yell as Selina, rushing to the window, came face to face with the hidden children.
'Oh, don't!' said Jane; 'how can you be so unkind? We aren't burglars, and we haven't any gang, and we didn't open your missionary-box. We opened our own once, but we didn't have to use the money, so our consciences made us put it back and--don't! Oh, I wish you wouldn't--'
Miss Selina had seized Jane and Miss Amelia captured Robert. The children found themselves held fast by strong, slim hands, pink at the wrists and white at the knuckles.
'We've got you, at any rate,' said Miss Amelia. 'Selina, your captive is smaller than mine. You open the window at once and call "Murder!" as loud as you can.
Selina obeyed; but when she had opened the window, instead of calling 'Murder!' she called 'Septimus!' because at that very moment she saw her nephew coming in at the gate.
In another minute he had let himself in with his latch-key and had mounted the stairs. As he came into the room Jane and Robert each uttered a shriek of joy so loud and so sudden that the ladies leaped with surprise, and nearly let them go.
'It's our own clergyman,' cried Jane.
'Don't you remember us?' asked Robert. 'You married our burglar for us--don't you remember?'
'I knew it was a gang,' said Amelia. 'Septimus, these abandoned children are members of a desperate burgling gang who are robbing the house. They have already forced the missionary-box and purloined its contents.'
The Reverend Septimus passed his hand wearily over his brow.
'I feel a little faint,' he said, 'running upstairs so quickly.'
'We never touched the beastly box,' said Robert.
'Then your confederates did,' said Miss Selina.
'No, no,' said the curate, hastily. 'I opened the box myself. This morning I found I had not enough small change for the Mothers' Independent Unity Measles and Croup Insurance payments. I suppose this is not a dream, is it?'
'Dream? No, indeed. Search the house. I insist upon it.'
The curate, still pale and trembling, searched the house, which, of course, was blamelessly free of burglars.
When he came back he sank wearily into his chair.
'Aren't you going to let us go?' asked Robert, with furious indignation, for there is something in being held by a strong lady that sets the blood of a boy boiling in his veins with anger and despair. 'We've never done anything to you. It's all the carpet. It dropped us on the leads. We couldn't help it. You know how it carried you over to the island, and you had to marry the burglar to the cook.'
'Oh, my head!' said the curate.
'Never mind your head just now,' said Robert; 'try to be honest and honourable, and do your duty in that state of life!'
'This is a judgement on me for something, I suppose,' said the Reverend Septimus, wearily, 'but I really cannot at the moment remember what.'
'Send for the police,' said Miss Selina.
'Send for a doctor,' said the curate.
'Do you think they are mad, then,' said Miss Amelia.
'I think I am,' said the curate.
Jane had been crying ever since her capture. Now she said-- 'You aren't now, but perhaps you will be, if--And it would serve you jolly well right, too.'
'Aunt Selina,' said the curate, 'and Aunt Amelia, believe me, this is only an insane dream. You will realize it soon. It has happened to me before. But do not let us be unjust, even in a dream. Do not hold the children; they have done no harm. As I said before, it was I who opened the box.'
The strong, bony hands unwillingly loosened their grasp. Robert shook himself and stood in sulky resentment. But Jane ran to the curate and embraced him so suddenly that he had not time to defend himself.
'You're a dear,' she said. 'It is like a dream just at first, but you get used to it. Now do let us go. There's a good, kind, honourable clergyman.'
'I don't know,' said the Reverend Septimus; 'it's a difficult problem. It is such a very unusual dream. Perhaps it's only a sort of other life--quite real enough for you to be mad in. And if you're mad, there might be a dream-asylum where you'd be kindly treated, and in time restored, cured, to your sorrowing relatives. It is very hard to see your duty plainly, even in ordinary life, and these dream-circumstances are so complicated--'
'If it's a dream,' said Robert, 'you will wake up directly, and then you'd be sorry if you'd sent us into a dream-asylum, because you might never get into the same dream again and let us out, and so we might stay there for ever, and then what about our sorrowing relatives who aren't in the dreams at all?'
But all the curate could now say was, 'Oh, my head!'
And Jane and Robert felt quite ill with helplessness and hopelessness. A really conscientious curate is a very difficult thing to manage.
And then, just as the hopelessness and the helplessness were getting to be almost more than they could bear, the two children suddenly felt that extraordinary shrinking feeling that you always have when you are just going to vanish. And the next moment they had vanished, and the Reverend Septimus was left alone with his aunts.
'I knew it was a dream,' he cried, wildly. 'I've had something like it before. Did you dream it too, Aunt Selina, and you, Aunt Amelia? I dreamed that you did, you know.'
Aunt Selina looked at him and then at Aunt Amelia. Then she said boldly--
'What do you mean? We haven't been dreaming anything. You must have dropped off in your chair.'
The curate heaved a sigh of relief.
'Oh, if it's only I,' he said; 'if we'd all dreamed it I could never have believed it, never!'
Afterwards Aunt Selina said to the other aunt--
'Yes, I know it was an untruth, and I shall doubtless be punished for it in due course. But I could see the poor dear fellow's brain giving way before my very eyes. He couldn't have stood the strain of three dreams. It was odd, wasn't it? All three of us dreaming the same thing at the same moment. We must never tell dear Seppy. But I shall send an account of it to the Psychical Society, with stars instead of names, you know.'
And she did. And you can read all about it in one of the society's fat Blue-books.
Of course, you understand what had happened? The intelligent Phoenix had simply gone straight off to the Psammead, and had wished Robert and Jane at home. And, of course, they were at home at once. Cyril and Anthea had not half finished mending the carpet.
When the joyful emotions of reunion had calmed down a little, they all went out and spent what was left of Uncle Reginald's sovereign in presents for mother. They bought her a pink silk handkerchief, a pair of blue and white vases, a bottle of scent, a packet of Christmas candles, and a cake of soap shaped and coloured like a tomato, and one that was so like an orange that almost any one you had given it to would have tried to peel it--if they liked oranges, of course. Also they bought a cake with icing on, and the rest of the money they spent on flowers to put in the vases.
When they had arranged all the things on a table, with the candles stuck up on a plate ready to light the moment mother's cab was heard, they washed themselves thoroughly and put on tidier clothes.
Then Robert said, 'Good old Psammead,' and the others said so too.
'But, really, it's just as much good old Phoenix,' said Robert. 'Suppose it hadn't thought of getting the wish!'
'Ah!' said the Phoenix, 'it is perhaps fortunate for you that I am such a competent bird.'
'There's mother's cab,' cried Anthea, and the Phoenix hid and they lighted the candles, and next moment mother was home again.
She liked her presents very much, and found their story of Uncle Reginald and the sovereign easy and even pleasant to believe.
'Good old carpet,' were Cyril's last sleepy words.
'What there is of it,' said the Phoenix, from the cornice-pole.