The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 6. Doing Good
'We shan't be able to go anywhere on the carpet for a whole week, though,' said Robert.
'And I'm glad of it,' said Jane, unexpectedly.
'Glad?' said Cyril; 'Glad?'
It was breakfast-time, and mother's letter, telling them how they were all going for Christmas to their aunt's at Lyndhurst, and how father and mother would meet them there, having been read by every one, lay on the table, drinking hot bacon-fat with one corner and eating marmalade with the other.
'Yes, glad,' said Jane. 'I don't want any more things to happen just now. I feel like you do when you've been to three parties in a week--like we did at granny's once--and extras in between, toys and chocs and things like that. I want everything to be just real, and no fancy things happening at all.' 'I don't like being obliged to keep things from mother,' said Anthea. 'I don't know why, but it makes me feel selfish and mean.'
'If we could only get the mater to believe it, we might take her to the jolliest places,' said Cyril, thoughtfully. 'As it is, we've just got to be selfish and mean--if it is that--but I don't feel it is.'
'I know it isn't, but I feel it is,' said Anthea, 'and that's just as bad.'
'It's worse,' said Robert; 'if you knew it and didn't feel it, it wouldn't matter so much.'
'That's being a hardened criminal, father says,' put in Cyril, and he picked up mother's letter and wiped its corners with his handkerchief, to whose colour a trifle of bacon-fat and marmalade made but little difference.
'We're going to-morrow, anyhow,' said Robert. 'Don't,' he added, with a good-boy expression on his face--'don't let's be ungrateful for our blessings; don't let's waste the day in saying how horrid it is to keep secrets from mother, when we all know Anthea tried all she knew to give her the secret, and she wouldn't take it. Let's get on the carpet and have a jolly good wish. You'll have time enough to repent of things all next week.'
'Yes,' said Cyril, 'let's. It's not really wrong.'
'Well, look here,' said Anthea. 'You know there's something about Christmas that makes you want to be good--however little you wish it at other times. Couldn't we wish the carpet to take us somewhere where we should have the chance to do some good and kind action? It would be an adventure just the same,' she pleaded.
'I don't mind,' said Cyril. 'We shan't know where we're going, and that'll be exciting. No one knows what'll happen. We'd best put on our outers in case--'
'We might rescue a traveller buried in the snow, like St Bernard dogs, with barrels round our necks,' said Jane, beginning to be interested.
'Or we might arrive just in time to witness a will being signed--more tea, please,' said Robert, 'and we should see the old man hide it away in the secret cupboard; and then, after long years, when the rightful heir was in despair, we should lead him to the hidden panel and--'
'Yes,' interrupted Anthea; 'or we might be taken to some freezing garret in a German town, where a poor little pale, sick child--'
'We haven't any German money,' interrupted Cyril, 'so that's no go. What I should like would be getting into the middle of a war and getting hold of secret intelligence and taking it to the general, and he would make me a lieutenant or a scout, or a hussar.'
When breakfast was cleared away, Anthea swept the carpet, and the children sat down on it, together with the Phoenix, who had been especially invited, as a Christmas treat, to come with them and witness the good and kind action they were about to do.
Four children and one bird were ready, and the wish was wished.
Every one closed its eyes, so as to feel the topsy-turvy swirl of the carpet's movement as little as possible.
When the eyes were opened again the children found themselves on the carpet, and the carpet was in its proper place on the floor of their own nursery at Camden Town.
'I say,' said Cyril, 'here's a go!'
'Do you think it's worn out? The wishing part of it, I mean?' Robert anxiously asked the Phoenix.
'It's not that,' said the Phoenix; 'but--well--what did you wish--?'
'Oh! I see what it means,' said Robert, with deep disgust; 'it's like the end of a fairy story in a Sunday magazine. How perfectly beastly!'
'You mean it means we can do kind and good actions where we are? I see. I suppose it wants us to carry coals for the cook or make clothes for the bare heathens. Well, I simply won't. And the last day and everything. Look here!' Cyril spoke loudly and firmly. 'We want to go somewhere really interesting, where we have a chance of doing something good and kind; we don't want to do it here, but somewhere else. See? Now, then.'
The obedient carpet started instantly, and the four children and one bird fell in a heap together, and as they fell were plunged in perfect darkness.
'Are you all there?' said Anthea, breathlessly, through the black dark. Every one owned that it was there.
'Where are we? Oh! how shivery and wet it is! Ugh!--oh!--I've put my hand in a puddle!'
'Has any one got any matches?' said Anthea, hopelessly. She felt sure that no one would have any.
It was then that Robert, with a radiant smile of triumph that was quite wasted in the darkness, where, of course, no one could see anything, drew out of his pocket a box of matches, struck a match and lighted a candle--two candles. And every one, with its mouth open, blinked at the sudden light.
'Well done Bobs,' said his sisters, and even Cyril's natural brotherly feelings could not check his admiration of Robert's foresight.
'I've always carried them about ever since the lone tower day,' said Robert, with modest pride. 'I knew we should want them some day. I kept the secret well, didn't I?'
'Oh, yes,' said Cyril, with fine scorn. 'I found them the Sunday after, when I was feeling in your Norfolks for the knife you borrowed off me. But I thought you'd only sneaked them for Chinese lanterns, or reading in bed by.'
'Bobs,' said Anthea, suddenly, 'do you know where we are? This is the underground passage, and look there--there's the money and the money-bags, and everything.'
By this time the ten eyes had got used to the light of the candles, and no one could help seeing that Anthea spoke the truth.
'It seems an odd place to do good and kind acts in, though,' said Jane. 'There's no one to do them to.'
'Don't you be too sure,' said Cyril; 'just round the next turning we might find a prisoner who has languished here for years and years, and we could take him out on our carpet and restore him to his sorrowing friends.'
'Of course we could,' said Robert, standing up and holding the candle above his head to see further off; 'or we might find the bones of a poor prisoner and take them to his friends to be buried properly--that's always a kind action in books, though I never could see what bones matter.'
'I wish you wouldn't,' said Jane.
'I know exactly where we shall find the bones, too,' Robert went on. 'You see that dark arch just along the passage? Well, just inside there--'
'If you don't stop going on like that,' said Jane, firmly, 'I shall scream, and then I'll faint--so now then!'
'And I will, too,' said Anthea.
Robert was not pleased at being checked in his flight of fancy.
'You girls will never be great writers,' he said bitterly. 'They just love to think of things in dungeons, and chains, and knobbly bare human bones, and--'
Jane had opened her mouth to scream, but before she could decide how you began when you wanted to faint, the golden voice of the Phoenix spoke through the gloom.
'Peace!' it said; 'there are no bones here except the small but useful sets that you have inside you. And you did not invite me to come out with you to hear you talk about bones, but to see you do some good and kind action.'
'We can't do it here,' said Robert, sulkily.
'No,' rejoined the bird. 'The only thing we can do here, it seems, is to try to frighten our little sisters.'
'He didn't, really, and I'm not so very little,' said Jane, rather ungratefully.
Robert was silent. It was Cyril who suggested that perhaps they had better take the money and go.
'That wouldn't be a kind act, except to ourselves; and it wouldn't be good, whatever way you look at it,' said Anthea, 'to take money that's not ours.'
'We might take it and spend it all on benefits to the poor and aged,' said Cyril.
'That wouldn't make it right to steal,' said Anthea, stoutly.
'I don't know,' said Cyril. They were all standing up now. 'Stealing is taking things that belong to some one else, and there's no one else.'
'It can't be stealing if--'
'That's right,' said Robert, with ironical approval; 'stand here all day arguing while the candles burn out. You'll like it awfully when it's all dark again--and bony.'
'Let's get out, then,' said Anthea. 'We can argue as we go.' So they rolled up the carpet and went. But when they had crept along to the place where the passage led into the topless tower they found the way blocked by a great stone, which they could not move.
'There!' said Robert. 'I hope you're satisfied!'
'Everything has two ends,' said the Phoenix, softly; 'even a quarrel or a secret passage.'
So they turned round and went back, and Robert was made to go first with one of the candles, because he was the one who had begun to talk about bones. And Cyril carried the carpet.
'I wish you hadn't put bones into our heads,' said Jane, as they went along.
'I didn't; you always had them. More bones than brains,' said Robert.
The passage was long, and there were arches and steps and turnings and dark alcoves that the girls did not much like passing. The passage ended in a flight of steps. Robert went up them.
Suddenly he staggered heavily back on to the following feet of Jane, and everybody screamed, 'Oh! what is it?'
'I've only bashed my head in,' said Robert, when he had groaned for some time; 'that's all. Don't mention it; I like it. The stairs just go right slap into the ceiling, and it's a stone ceiling. You can't do good and kind actions underneath a paving-stone.'
'Stairs aren't made to lead just to paving-stones as a general rule,' said the Phoenix. 'Put your shoulder to the wheel.'
'There isn't any wheel,' said the injured Robert, still rubbing his head.
But Cyril had pushed past him to the top stair, and was already shoving his hardest against the stone above. Of course, it did not give in the least.
'If it's a trap-door--' said Cyril. And he stopped shoving and began to feel about with his hands.
'Yes, there is a bolt. I can't move it.'
By a happy chance Cyril had in his pocket the oil-can of his father's bicycle; he put the carpet down at the foot of the stairs, and he lay on his back, with his head on the top step and his feet straggling down among his young relations, and he oiled the bolt till the drops of rust and oil fell down on his face. One even went into his mouth--open, as he panted with the exertion of keeping up this unnatural position. Then he tried again, but still the bolt would not move. So now he tied his handkerchief--the one with the bacon-fat and marmalade on it--to the bolt, and Robert's handkerchief to that, in a reef knot, which cannot come undone however much you pull, and, indeed, gets tighter and tighter the more you pull it. This must not be confused with a granny knot, which comes undone if you look at it. And then he and Robert pulled, and the girls put their arms round their brothers and pulled too, and suddenly the bolt gave way with a rusty scrunch, and they all rolled together to the bottom of the stairs--all but the Phoenix, which had taken to its wings when the pulling began.
Nobody was hurt much, because the rolled-up carpet broke their fall; and now, indeed, the shoulders of the boys were used to some purpose, for the stone allowed them to heave it up. They felt it give; dust fell freely on them.
'Now, then,' cried Robert, forgetting his head and his temper, 'push all together. One, two, three!'
The stone was heaved up. It swung up on a creaking, unwilling hinge, and showed a growing oblong of dazzling daylight; and it fell back with a bang against something that kept it upright. Every one climbed out, but there was not room for every one to stand comfortably in the little paved house where they found themselves, so when the Phoenix had fluttered up from the darkness they let the stone down, and it closed like a trap-door, as indeed it was.
You can have no idea how dusty and dirty the children were. Fortunately there was no one to see them but each other. The place they were in was a little shrine, built on the side of a road that went winding up through yellow-green fields to the topless tower. Below them were fields and orchards, all bare boughs and brown furrows, and little houses and gardens. The shrine was a kind of tiny chapel with no front wall--just a place for people to stop and rest in and wish to be good. So the Phoenix told them. There was an image that had once been brightly coloured, but the rain and snow had beaten in through the open front of the shrine, and the poor image was dull and weather-stained. Under it was written: 'St Jean de Luz. Priez pour nous.' It was a sad little place, very neglected and lonely, and yet it was nice, Anthea thought, that poor travellers should come to this little rest-house in the hurry and worry of their journeyings and be quiet for a few minutes, and think about being good. The thought of St Jean de Luz--who had, no doubt, in his time, been very good and kind--made Anthea want more than ever to do something kind and good.
'Tell us,' she said to the Phoenix, 'what is the good and kind action the carpet brought us here to do?'
'I think it would be kind to find the owners of the treasure and tell them about it,' said Cyril.
'And give it them all?' said Jane.
'Yes. But whose is it?'
'I should go to the first house and ask the name of the owner of the castle,' said the golden bird, and really the idea seemed a good one.
They dusted each other as well as they could and went down the road. A little way on they found a tiny spring, bubbling out of the hillside and falling into a rough stone basin surrounded by draggled hart's-tongue ferns, now hardly green at all. Here the children washed their hands and faces and dried them on their pocket-handkerchiefs, which always, on these occasions, seem unnaturally small. Cyril's and Robert's handkerchiefs, indeed, rather undid the effects of the wash. But in spite of this the party certainly looked cleaner than before.
The first house they came to was a little white house with green shutters and a slate roof. It stood in a prim little garden, and down each side of the neat path were large stone vases for flowers to grow in; but all the flowers were dead now.
Along one side of the house was a sort of wide veranda, built of poles and trellis-work, and a vine crawled all over it. It was wider than our English verandas, and Anthea thought it must look lovely when the green leaves and the grapes were there; but now there were only dry, reddish-brown stalks and stems, with a few withered leaves caught in them.
The children walked up to the front door. It was green and narrow. A chain with a handle hung beside it, and joined itself quite openly to a rusty bell that hung under the porch. Cyril had pulled the bell and its noisy clang was dying away before the terrible thought came to all. Cyril spoke it.
'My hat!' he breathed. 'We don't know any French!'
At this moment the door opened. A very tall, lean lady, with pale ringlets like whitey-brown paper or oak shavings, stood before them. She had an ugly grey dress and a black silk apron. Her eyes were small and grey and not pretty, and the rims were red, as though she had been crying.
She addressed the party in something that sounded like a foreign language, and ended with something which they were sure was a question. Of course, no one could answer it.
'What does she say?' Robert asked, looking down into the hollow of his jacket, where the Phoenix was nestling. But before the Phoenix could answer, the whitey-brown lady's face was lighted up by a most charming smile.
'You--you ar-r-re fr-r-rom the England!' she cried. 'I love so much the England. Mais entrez--entrez donc tous! Enter, then--enter all. One essuyes his feet on the carpet.' She pointed to the mat.
'We only wanted to ask--'
'I shall say you all that what you wish,' said the lady. 'Enter only!'
So they all went in, wiping their feet on a very clean mat, and putting the carpet in a safe corner of the veranda.
'The most beautiful days of my life,' said the lady, as she shut the door, 'did pass themselves in England. And since long time I have not heard an English voice to repeal me the past.'
This warm welcome embarrassed every one, but most the boys, for the floor of the hall was of such very clean red and white tiles, and the floor of the sitting-room so very shiny--like a black looking-glass--that each felt as though he had on far more boots than usual, and far noisier.
There was a wood fire, very small and very bright, on the hearth--neat little logs laid on brass fire-dogs. Some portraits of powdered ladies and gentlemen hung in oval frames on the pale walls. There were silver candlesticks on the mantelpiece, and there were chairs and a table, very slim and polite, with slender legs. The room was extremely bare, but with a bright foreign bareness that was very cheerful, in an odd way of its own. At the end of the polished table a very un-English little boy sat on a footstool in a high-backed, uncomfortable-looking chair. He wore black velvet, and the kind of collar--all frills and lacey-- that Robert would rather have died than wear; but then the little French boy was much younger than Robert.
'Oh, how pretty!' said every one. But no one meant the little French boy, with the velvety short knickerbockers and the velvety short hair.
What every one admired was a little, little Christmas-tree, very green, and standing in a very red little flower-pot, and hung round with very bright little things made of tinsel and coloured paper. There were tiny candles on the tree, but they were not lighted yet.
'But yes--is it not that it is genteel?' said the lady. 'Sit down you then, and let us see.'
The children sat down in a row on the stiff chairs against the wall, and the lady lighted a long, slim red taper at the wood flame, and then she drew the curtains and lit the little candles, and when they were all lighted the little French boy suddenly shouted, 'Bravo, ma tante! Oh, que c'est gentil,' and the English children shouted 'Hooray!'
Then there was a struggle in the breast of Robert, and out fluttered the Phoenix--spread his gold wings, flew to the top of the Christmas-tree, and perched there.
'Ah! catch it, then,' cried the lady; 'it will itself burn--your genteel parrakeet!'
'It won't,' said Robert, 'thank you.'
And the little French boy clapped his clean and tidy hands; but the lady was so anxious that the Phoenix fluttered down and walked up and down on the shiny walnut-wood table.
'Is it that it talks?' asked the lady.
And the Phoenix replied in excellent French. It said, 'Parfaitement, madame!'
'Oh, the pretty parrakeet,' said the lady. 'Can it say still of other things?'
And the Phoenix replied, this time in English, 'Why are you sad so near Christmas-time?'
The children looked at it with one gasp of horror and surprise, for the youngest of them knew that it is far from manners to notice that strangers have been crying, and much worse to ask them the reason of their tears. And, of course, the lady began to cry again, very much indeed, after calling the Phoenix a bird without a heart; and she could not find her handkerchief, so Anthea offered hers, which was still very damp and no use at all. She also hugged the lady, and this seemed to be of more use than the handkerchief, so that presently the lady stopped crying, and found her own handkerchief and dried her eyes, and called Anthea a cherished angel.
'I am sorry we came just when you were so sad,' said Anthea, 'but we really only wanted to ask you whose that castle is on the hill.'
'Oh, my little angel,' said the poor lady, sniffing, 'to-day and for hundreds of years the castle is to us, to our family. To-morrow it must that I sell it to some strangers--and my little Henri, who ignores all, he will not have never the lands paternal. But what will you? His father, my brother--Mr the Marquis--has spent much of money, and it the must, despite the sentiments of familial respect, that I admit that my sainted father he also--'
'How would you feel if you found a lot of money--hundreds and thousands of gold pieces?' asked Cyril.
The lady smiled sadly.
'Ah! one has already recounted to you the legend?' she said. 'It is true that one says that it is long time; oh! but long time, one of our ancestors has hid a treasure--of gold, and of gold, and of gold--enough to enrich my little Henri for the life. But all that, my children, it is but the accounts of fays--'
'She means fairy stories,' whispered the Phoenix to Robert. 'Tell her what you have found.'
So Robert told, while Anthea and Jane hugged the lady for fear she should faint for joy, like people in books, and they hugged her with the earnest, joyous hugs of unselfish delight.
'It's no use explaining how we got in,' said Robert, when he had told of the finding of the treasure, 'because you would find it a little difficult to understand, and much more difficult to believe. But we can show you where the gold is and help you to fetch it away.'
The lady looked doubtfully at Robert as she absently returned the hugs of the girls.
'No, he's not making it up,' said Anthea; 'it's true, true, true!--and we are so glad.'
'You would not be capable to torment an old woman?' she said; 'and it is not possible that it be a dream.'
'It really is true,' said Cyril; 'and I congratulate you very much.'
His tone of studied politeness seemed to convince more than the raptures of the others.
'If I do not dream,' she said, 'Henri come to Manon--and you--you shall come all with me to Mr the Curate. Is it not?'
Manon was a wrinkled old woman with a red and yellow handkerchief twisted round her head. She took Henri, who was already sleepy with the excitement of his Christmas-tree and his visitors, and when the lady had put on a stiff black cape and a wonderful black silk bonnet and a pair of black wooden clogs over her black cashmere house-boots, the whole party went down the road to a little white house--very like the one they had left--where an old priest, with a good face, welcomed them with a politeness so great that it hid his astonishment.
The lady, with her French waving hands and her shrugging French shoulders and her trembling French speech, told the story. And now the priest, who knew no English, shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands and spoke also in French.
'He thinks,' whispered the Phoenix, 'that her troubles have turned her brain. What a pity you know no French!'
'I do know a lot of French,' whispered Robert, indignantly; 'but it's all about the pencil of the gardener's son and the penknife of the baker's niece--nothing that anyone ever wants to say.'
'If I speak,' the bird whispered, 'he'll think he's mad, too.'
'Tell me what to say.'
'Say "C'est vrai, monsieur. Venez donc voir,"' said the Phoenix; and then Robert earned the undying respect of everybody by suddenly saying, very loudly and distinctly--
'Say vray, mossoo; venny dong vwaw.'
The priest was disappointed when he found that Robert's French began and ended with these useful words; but, at any rate, he saw that if the lady was mad she was not the only one, and he put on a big beavery hat, and got a candle and matches and a spade, and they all went up the hill to the wayside shrine of St John of Luz.
'Now,' said Robert, 'I will go first and show you where it is.'
So they prised the stone up with a corner of the spade, and Robert did go first, and they all followed and found the golden treasure exactly as they had left it. And every one was flushed with the joy of performing such a wonderfully kind action.
Then the lady and the priest clasped hands and wept for joy, as French people do, and knelt down and touched the money, and talked very fast and both together, and the lady embraced all the children three times each, and called them 'little garden angels,' and then she and the priest shook each other by both hands again, and talked, and talked, and talked, faster and more Frenchy than you would have believed possible. And the children were struck dumb with joy and pleasure.
'Get away now,' said the Phoenix softly, breaking in on the radiant dream.
So the children crept away, and out through the little shrine, and the lady and the priest were so tearfully, talkatively happy that they never noticed that the guardian angels had gone.
The 'garden angels' ran down the hill to the lady's little house, where they had left the carpet on the veranda, and they spread it out and said 'Home,' and no one saw them disappear, except little Henri, who had flattened his nose into a white button against the window-glass, and when he tried to tell his aunt she thought he had been dreaming. So that was all right.
'It is much the best thing we've done,' said Anthea, when they talked it over at tea-time. 'In the future we'll only do kind actions with the carpet.'
'Ahem!' said the Phoenix.
'I beg your pardon?' said Anthea.
'Oh, nothing,' said the bird. 'I was only thinking!'