The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 12. The End of the End
'Egg, toast, tea, milk, tea-cup and saucer, egg-spoon, knife, butter--that's all, I think,' remarked Anthea, as she put the last touches to mother's breakfast-tray, and went, very carefully up the stairs, feeling for every step with her toes, and holding on to the tray with all her fingers. She crept into mother's room and set the tray on a chair. Then she pulled one of the blinds up very softly.
'Is your head better, mammy dear?' she asked, in the soft little voice that she kept expressly for mother's headaches. 'I've brought your brekkie, and I've put the little cloth with clover-leaves on it, the one I made you.'
'That's very nice,' said mother sleepily.
Anthea knew exactly what to do for mothers with headaches who had breakfast in bed. She fetched warm water and put just enough eau de Cologne in it, and bathed mother's face and hands with the sweet-scented water. Then mother was able to think about breakfast.
'But what's the matter with my girl?' she asked, when her eyes got used to the light.
'Oh, I'm so sorry you're ill,' Anthea said. 'It's that horrible fire and you being so frightened. Father said so. And we all feel as if it was our faults. I can't explain, but--'
'It wasn't your fault a bit, you darling goosie,' mother said. 'How could it be?'
'That's just what I can't tell you,' said Anthea. 'I haven't got a futile brain like you and father, to think of ways of explaining everything.'
'My futile brain--or did you mean fertile?--anyway, it feels very stiff and sore this morning--but I shall be quite all right by and by. And don't be a silly little pet girl. The fire wasn't your faults. No; I don't want the egg, dear. I'll go to sleep again, I think. Don't you worry. And tell cook not to bother me about meals. You can order what you like for lunch.'
Anthea closed the door very mousily, and instantly went downstairs and ordered what she liked for lunch. She ordered a pair of turkeys, a large plum-pudding, cheese-cakes, and almonds and raisins.
Cook told her to go along, do. And she might as well not have ordered anything, for when lunch came it was just hashed mutton and semolina pudding, and cook had forgotten the sippets for the mutton hash and the semolina pudding was burnt.
When Anthea rejoined the others she found them all plunged in the gloom where she was herself. For every one knew that the days of the carpet were now numbered. Indeed, so worn was it that you could almost have numbered its threads.
So that now, after nearly a month of magic happenings, the time was at hand when life would have to go on in the dull, ordinary way and Jane, Robert, Anthea, and Cyril would be just in the same position as the other children who live in Camden Town, the children whom these four had so often pitied, and perhaps a little despised.
'We shall be just like them,' Cyril said.
'Except,' said Robert, 'that we shall have more things to remember and be sorry we haven't got.'
'Mother's going to send away the carpet as soon as she's well enough to see about that coconut matting. Fancy us with coconut-matting--us! And we've walked under live coconut-trees on the island where you can't have whooping-cough.'
'Pretty island,' said the Lamb; 'paint-box sands and sea all shiny sparkly.'
His brothers and sisters had often wondered whether he remembered that island. Now they knew that he did.
'Yes,' said Cyril; 'no more cheap return trips by carpet for us--that's a dead cert.'
They were all talking about the carpet, but what they were all thinking about was the Phoenix.
The golden bird had been so kind, so friendly, so polite, so instructive--and now it had set fire to a theatre and made mother ill.
Nobody blamed the bird. It had acted in a perfectly natural manner. But every one saw that it must not be asked to prolong its visit. Indeed, in plain English it must be asked to go!
The four children felt like base spies and treacherous friends; and each in its mind was saying who ought not to be the one to tell the Phoenix that there could no longer be a place for it in that happy home in Camden Town. Each child was quite sure that one of them ought to speak out in a fair and manly way, but nobody wanted to be the one.
They could not talk the whole thing over as they would have liked to do, because the Phoenix itself was in the cupboard, among the blackbeetles and the odd shoes and the broken chessmen.
But Anthea tried.
'It's very horrid. I do hate thinking things about people, and not being able to say the things you're thinking because of the way they would feel when they thought what things you were thinking, and wondered what they'd done to make you think things like that, and why you were thinking them.'
Anthea was so anxious that the Phoenix should not understand what she said that she made a speech completely baffling to all. It was not till she pointed to the cupboard in which all believed the Phoenix to be that Cyril understood.
'Yes,' he said, while Jane and Robert were trying to tell each other how deeply they didn't understand what Anthea were saying; 'but after recent eventfulnesses a new leaf has to be turned over, and, after all, mother is more important than the feelings of any of the lower forms of creation, however unnatural.'
'How beautifully you do do it,' said Anthea, absently beginning to build a card-house for the Lamb--'mixing up what you're saying, I mean. We ought to practise doing it so as to be ready for mysterious occasions. We're talking about that,' she said to Jane and Robert, frowning, and nodding towards the cupboard where the Phoenix was. Then Robert and Jane understood, and each opened its mouth to speak.
'Wait a minute,' said Anthea quickly; 'the game is to twist up what you want to say so that no one can understand what you're saying except the people you want to understand it, and sometimes not them.'
'The ancient philosophers,' said a golden voice, 'Well understood the art of which you speak.'
Of course it was the Phoenix, who had not been in the cupboard at all, but had been cocking a golden eye at them from the cornice during the whole conversation.
'Pretty dickie!' remarked the Lamb. 'Canary dickie!'
'Poor misguided infant,' said the Phoenix.
There was a painful pause; the four could not but think it likely that the Phoenix had understood their very veiled allusions, accompanied as they had been by gestures indicating the cupboard. For the Phoenix was not wanting in intelligence.
'We were just saying--' Cyril began, and I hope he was not going to say anything but the truth. Whatever it was he did not say it, for the Phoenix interrupted him, and all breathed more freely as it spoke.
'I gather,' it said, 'that you have some tidings of a fatal nature to communicate to our degraded black brothers who run to and fro for ever yonder.' It pointed a claw at the cupboard, where the blackbeetles lived.
'Canary talk,' said the Lamb joyously; 'go and show mammy.'
He wriggled off Anthea's lap.
'Mammy's asleep,' said Jane, hastily. 'Come and be wild beasts in a cage under the table.'
But the Lamb caught his feet and hands, and even his head, so often and so deeply in the holes of the carpet that the cage, or table, had to be moved on to the linoleum, and the carpet lay bare to sight with all its horrid holes.
'Ah,' said the bird, 'it isn't long for this world.'
'No,' said Robert; 'everything comes to an end. It's awful.'
'Sometimes the end is peace,' remarked the Phoenix. 'I imagine that unless it comes soon the end of your carpet will be pieces.'
'Yes,' said Cyril, respectfully kicking what was left of the carpet. The movement of its bright colours caught the eye of the Lamb, who went down on all fours instantly and began to pull at the red and blue threads.
'Aggedydaggedygaggedy,' murmured the Lamb; 'daggedy ag ag ag!'
And before any one could have winked (even if they had wanted to, and it would not have been of the slightest use) the middle of the floor showed bare, an island of boards surrounded by a sea of linoleum. The magic carpet was gone, and so was the lamb!
There was a horrible silence. The Lamb--the baby, all alone--had been wafted away on that untrustworthy carpet, so full of holes and magic. And no one could know where he was. And no one could follow him because there was now no carpet to follow on.
Jane burst into tears, but Anthea, though pale and frantic, was dry-eyed.
'It must be a dream,' she said.
'That's what the clergyman said,' remarked Robert forlornly; 'but it wasn't, and it isn't.'
'But the Lamb never wished,' said Cyril; 'he was only talking Bosh.'
'The carpet understands all speech,' said the Phoenix, 'even Bosh. I know not this Boshland, but be assured that its tongue is not unknown to the carpet.'
'Do you mean, then,' said Anthea, in white terror, 'that when he was saying "Agglety dag," or whatever it was, that he meant something by it?'
'All speech has meaning,' said the Phoenix.
'There I think you're wrong,' said Cyril; 'even people who talk English sometimes say things that don't mean anything in particular.'
'Oh, never mind that now,' moaned Anthea; 'you think "Aggety dag" meant something to him and the carpet?'
'Beyond doubt it held the same meaning to the carpet as to the luckless infant,' the Phoenix said calmly.
'And what did it mean? Oh what?'
'Unfortunately,' the bird rejoined, 'I never studied Bosh.'
Jane sobbed noisily, but the others were calm with what is sometimes called the calmness of despair. The Lamb was gone--the Lamb, their own precious baby brother--who had never in his happy little life been for a moment out of the sight of eyes that loved him--he was gone. He had gone alone into the great world with no other companion and protector than a carpet with holes in it. The children had never really understood before what an enormously big place the world is. And the Lamb might be anywhere in it!
'And it's no use going to look for him.' Cyril, in flat and wretched tones, only said what the others were thinking.
'Do you wish him to return?' the Phoenix asked; it seemed to speak with some surprise.
'Of course we do!' cried everybody.
'Isn't he more trouble than he's worth?' asked the bird doubtfully.
'No, no. Oh, we do want him back! We do!'
'Then,' said the wearer of gold plumage, 'if you'll excuse me, I'll just pop out and see what I can do.'
Cyril flung open the window, and the Phoenix popped out.
'Oh, if only mother goes on sleeping! Oh, suppose she wakes up and wants the Lamb! Oh, suppose the servants come! Stop crying, Jane. It's no earthly good. No, I'm not crying myself--at least I wasn't till you said so, and I shouldn't anyway if--if there was any mortal thing we could do. Oh, oh, oh!'
Cyril and Robert were boys, and boys never cry, of course. Still, the position was a terrible one, and I do not wonder that they made faces in their efforts to behave in a really manly way.
And at this awful moment mother's bell rang.
A breathless stillness held the children. Then Anthea dried her eyes. She looked round her and caught up the poker. She held it out to Cyril.
'Hit my hand hard,' she said; 'I must show mother some reason for my eyes being like they are. Harder,' she cried as Cyril gently tapped her with the iron handle. And Cyril, agitated and trembling, nerved himself to hit harder, and hit very much harder than he intended.
'Oh, Panther, I didn't mean to hurt, really,' cried Cyril, clattering the poker back into the fender.
'It's--all--right,' said Anthea breathlessly, clasping the hurt hand with the one that wasn't hurt; 'it's--getting--red.'
It was--a round red and blue bump was rising on the back of it. 'Now, Robert,' she said, trying to breathe more evenly, 'you go out--oh, I don't know where--on to the dustbin--anywhere--and I shall tell mother you and the Lamb are out.'
Anthea was now ready to deceive her mother for as long as ever she could. Deceit is very wrong, we know, but it seemed to Anthea that it was her plain duty to keep her mother from being frightened about the Lamb as long as possible. And the Phoenix might help.
'It always has helped,' Robert said; 'it got us out of the tower, and even when it made the fire in the theatre it got us out all right. I'm certain it will manage somehow.'
Mother's bell rang again.
'Oh, Eliza's never answered it,' cried Anthea; 'she never does. Oh, I must go.'
And she went.
Her heart beat bumpingly as she climbed the stairs. Mother would be certain to notice her eyes--well, her hand would account for that. But the Lamb--
'No, I must not think of the Lamb, she said to herself, and bit her tongue till her eyes watered again, so as to give herself something else to think of. Her arms and legs and back, and even her tear-reddened face, felt stiff with her resolution not to let mother be worried if she could help it.
She opened the door softly.
'Yes, mother?' she said.
'Dearest,' said mother, 'the Lamb--'
Anthea tried to be brave. She tried to say that the Lamb and Robert were out. Perhaps she tried too hard. Anyway, when she opened her mouth no words came. So she stood with it open. It seemed easier to keep from crying with one's mouth in that unusual position.
'The Lamb,' mother went on; 'he was very good at first, but he's pulled the toilet-cover off the dressing-table with all the brushes and pots and things, and now he's so quiet I'm sure he's in some dreadful mischief. And I can't see him from here, and if I'd got out of bed to see I'm sure I should have fainted.'
'Do you mean he's here?' said Anthea.
'Of course he's here,' said mother, a little impatiently. 'Where did you think he was?'
Anthea went round the foot of the big mahogany bed. There was a pause.
'He's not here now,' she said.
That he had been there was plain, from the toilet-cover on the floor, the scattered pots and bottles, the wandering brushes and combs, all involved in the tangle of ribbons and laces which an open drawer had yielded to the baby's inquisitive fingers.
'He must have crept out, then,' said mother; 'do keep him with you, there's a darling. If I don't get some sleep I shall be a wreck when father comes home.'
Anthea closed the door softly. Then she tore downstairs and burst into the nursery, crying--
'He must have wished he was with mother. He's been there all the time. "Aggety dag--"'
The unusual word was frozen on her lip, as people say in books.
For there, on the floor, lay the carpet, and on the carpet, surrounded by his brothers and by Jane, sat the Lamb. He had covered his face and clothes with vaseline and violet powder, but he was easily recognizable in spite of this disguise.
'You are right,' said the Phoenix, who was also present; 'it is evident that, as you say, "Aggety dag" is Bosh for "I want to be where my mother is," and so the faithful carpet understood it.'
'But how,' said Anthea, catching up the Lamb and hugging him--'how did he get back here?'
'Oh,' said the Phoenix, 'I flew to the Psammead and wished that your infant brother were restored to your midst, and immediately it was so.'
'Oh, I am glad, I am glad!' cried Anthea, still hugging the baby. 'Oh, you darling! Shut up, Jane! I don't care how much he comes off on me! Cyril! You and Robert roll that carpet up and put it in the beetle-cupboard. He might say "Aggety dag" again, and it might mean something quite different next time. Now, my Lamb, Panther'll clean you a little. Come on.'
'I hope the beetles won't go wishing,' said Cyril, as they rolled up the carpet.
Two days later mother was well enough to go out, and that evening the coconut matting came home. The children had talked and talked, and thought and thought, but they had not found any polite way of telling the Phoenix that they did not want it to stay any longer.
The days had been days spent by the children in embarrassment, and by the Phoenix in sleep.
And, now the matting was laid down, the Phoenix awoke and fluttered down on to it.
It shook its crested head.
'I like not this carpet,' it said; 'it is harsh and unyielding, and it hurts my golden feet.'
'We've jolly well got to get used to its hurting our golden feet,' said Cyril.
'This, then,' said the bird, 'supersedes the Wishing Carpet.'
'Yes,' said Robert, 'if you mean that it's instead of it.'
'And the magic web?' inquired the Phoenix, with sudden eagerness.
'It's the rag-and-bottle man's day to-morrow,' said Anthea, in a low voice; 'he will take it away.'
The Phoenix fluttered up to its favourite perch on the chair-back.
'Hear me!' it cried, 'oh youthful children of men, and restrain your tears of misery and despair, for what must be must be, and I would not remember you, thousands of years hence, as base ingrates and crawling worms compact of low selfishness.'
'I should hope not, indeed,' said Cyril.
'Weep not,' the bird went on; 'I really do beg that you won't weep.
I will not seek to break the news to you gently. Let the blow fall at once. The time has come when I must leave you.'
All four children breathed forth a long sigh of relief.
'We needn't have bothered so about how to break the news to it,' whispered Cyril.
'Ah, sigh not so,' said the bird, gently. 'All meetings end in partings. I must leave you. I have sought to prepare you for this. Ah, do not give way!'
'Must you really go--so soon?' murmured Anthea. It was what she had often heard her mother say to calling ladies in the afternoon.
'I must, really; thank you so much, dear,' replied the bird, just as though it had been one of the ladies.
'I am weary,' it went on. 'I desire to rest--after all the happenings of this last moon I do desire really to rest, and I ask of you one last boon.'
'Any little thing we can do,' said Robert.
Now that it had really come to parting with the Phoenix, whose favourite he had always been, Robert did feel almost as miserable as the Phoenix thought they all did.
'I ask but the relic designed for the rag-and-bottle man. Give me what is left of the carpet and let me go.'
'Dare we?' said Anthea. 'Would mother mind?'
'I have dared greatly for your sakes,' remarked the bird.
'Well, then, we will,' said Robert.
The Phoenix fluffed out its feathers joyously.
'Nor shall you regret it, children of golden hearts,' it said. 'Quick--spread the carpet and leave me alone; but first pile high the fire. Then, while I am immersed in the sacred preliminary rites, do ye prepare sweet-smelling woods and spices for the last act of parting.'
The children spread out what was left of the carpet. And, after all, though this was just what they would have wished to have happened, all hearts were sad. Then they put half a scuttle of coal on the fire and went out, closing the door on the Phoenix--left, at last, alone with the carpet.
'One of us must keep watch,' said Robert, excitedly, as soon as they were all out of the room, 'and the others can go and buy sweet woods and spices. Get the very best that money can buy, and plenty of them. Don't let's stand to a threepence or so. I want it to have a jolly good send-off. It's the only thing that'll make us feel less horrid inside.'
It was felt that Robert, as the pet of the Phoenix, ought to have the last melancholy pleasure of choosing the materials for its funeral pyre.
'I'll keep watch if you like,' said Cyril. 'I don't mind. And, besides, it's raining hard, and my boots let in the wet. You might call and see if my other ones are "really reliable" again yet.'
So they left Cyril, standing like a Roman sentinel outside the door inside which the Phoenix was getting ready for the great change, and they all went out to buy the precious things for the last sad rites.
'Robert is right,' Anthea said; 'this is no time for being careful about our money. Let's go to the stationer's first, and buy a whole packet of lead-pencils. They're cheaper if you buy them by the packet.'
This was a thing that they had always wanted to do, but it needed the great excitement of a funeral pyre and a parting from a beloved Phoenix to screw them up to the extravagance.
The people at the stationer's said that the pencils were real cedar-wood, so I hope they were, for stationers should always speak the truth. At any rate they cost one-and-fourpence. Also they spent sevenpence three-farthings on a little sandal-wood box inlaid with ivory.
'Because,' said Anthea, 'I know sandalwood smells sweet, and when it's burned it smells very sweet indeed.'
'Ivory doesn't smell at all,' said Robert, 'but I expect when you burn it it smells most awful vile, like bones.'
At the grocer's they bought all the spices they could remember the names of--shell-like mace, cloves like blunt nails, peppercorns, the long and the round kind; ginger, the dry sort, of course; and the beautiful bloom-covered shells of fragrant cinnamon. Allspice too, and caraway seeds (caraway seeds that smelt most deadly when the time came for burning them).
Camphor and oil of lavender were bought at the chemist's, and also a little scent sachet labelled 'Violettes de Parme'.
They took the things home and found Cyril still on guard. When they had knocked and the golden voice of the Phoenix had said 'Come in,' they went in.
There lay the carpet--or what was left of it--and on it lay an egg, exactly like the one out of which the Phoenix had been hatched.
The Phoenix was walking round and round the egg, clucking with joy and pride.
'I've laid it, you see,' it said, 'and as fine an egg as ever I laid in all my born days.'
Every one said yes, it was indeed a beauty.
The things which the children had bought were now taken out of their papers and arranged on the table, and when the Phoenix had been persuaded to leave its egg for a moment and look at the materials for its last fire it was quite overcome.
'Never, never have I had a finer pyre than this will be. You shall not regret it,' it said, wiping away a golden tear. 'Write quickly: "Go and tell the Psammead to fulfil the last wish of the Phoenix, and return instantly".'
But Robert wished to be polite and he wrote--
'Please go and ask the Psammead to be so kind as to fulfil the Phoenix's last wish, and come straight back, if you please.' The paper was pinned to the carpet, which vanished and returned in the flash of an eye.
Then another paper was written ordering the carpet to take the egg somewhere where it wouldn't be hatched for another two thousand years. The Phoenix tore itself away from its cherished egg, which it watched with yearning tenderness till, the paper being pinned on, the carpet hastily rolled itself up round the egg, and both vanished for ever from the nursery of the house in Camden Town.
'Oh, dear! oh, dear! oh, dear!' said everybody.
'Bear up,' said the bird; 'do you think I don't suffer, being parted from my precious new-laid egg like this? Come, conquer your emotions and build my fire.'
'Oh!' cried Robert, suddenly, and wholly breaking down, 'I can't bear you to go!'
The Phoenix perched on his shoulder and rubbed its beak softly against his ear.
'The sorrows of youth soon appear but as dreams,' it said. 'Farewell, Robert of my heart. I have loved you well.'
The fire had burnt to a red glow. One by one the spices and sweet woods were laid on it. Some smelt nice and some--the caraway seeds and the Violettes de Parme sachet among them--smelt worse than you would think possible.
'Farewell, farewell, farewell, farewell!' said the Phoenix, in a far-away voice.
'Oh, good-bye,' said every one, and now all were in tears.
The bright bird fluttered seven times round the room and settled in the hot heart of the fire. The sweet gums and spices and woods flared and flickered around it, but its golden feathers did not burn. It seemed to grow red-hot to the very inside heart of it--and then before the eight eyes of its friends it fell together, a heap of white ashes, and the flames of the cedar pencils and the sandal-wood box met and joined above it.
'Whatever have you done with the carpet?' asked mother next day.
'We gave it to some one who wanted it very much. The name began with a P,' said Jane.
The others instantly hushed her.
'Oh, well, it wasn't worth twopence,' said mother.
'The person who began with P said we shouldn't lose by it,' Jane went on before she could be stopped.
'I daresay!' said mother, laughing.
But that very night a great box came, addressed to the children by all their names. Eliza never could remember the name of the carrier who brought it. It wasn't Carter Paterson or the Parcels Delivery.
It was instantly opened. It was a big wooden box, and it had to be opened with a hammer and the kitchen poker; the long nails came squeaking out, and boards scrunched as they were wrenched off. Inside the box was soft paper, with beautiful Chinese patterns on it--blue and green and red and violet. And under the paper--well, almost everything lovely that you can think of. Everything of reasonable size, I mean; for, of course, there were no motors or flying machines or thoroughbred chargers. But there really was almost everything else. Everything that the children had always wanted--toys and games and books, and chocolate and candied cherries and paint-boxes and photographic cameras, and all the presents they had always wanted to give to father and mother and the Lamb, only they had never had the money for them. At the very bottom of the box was a tiny golden feather. No one saw it but Robert, and he picked it up and hid it in the breast of his jacket, which had been so often the nesting-place of the golden bird. When he went to bed the feather was gone. It was the last he ever saw of the Phoenix.
Pinned to the lovely fur cloak that mother had always wanted was a paper, and it said--
'In return for the carpet. With gratitude.--P.'
You may guess how father and mother talked it over. They decided at last the person who had had the carpet, and whom, curiously enough, the children were quite unable to describe, must be an insane millionaire who amused himself by playing at being a rag-and-bone man. But the children knew better.
They knew that this was the fulfilment, by the powerful Psammead, of the last wish of the Phoenix, and that this glorious and delightful boxful of treasures was really the very, very, very end of the Phoenix and the Carpet.