The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 7. Mews from Persia
When you hear that the four children found themselves at Waterloo Station quite un-taken-care-of, and with no one to meet them, it may make you think that their parents were neither kind nor careful. But if you think this you will be wrong. The fact is, mother arranged with Aunt Emma that she was to meet the children at Waterloo, when they went back from their Christmas holiday at Lyndhurst. The train was fixed, but not the day. Then mother wrote to Aunt Emma, giving her careful instructions about the day and the hour, and about luggage and cabs and things, and gave the letter to Robert to post. But the hounds happened to meet near Rufus Stone that morning, and what is more, on the way to the meet they met Robert, and Robert met them, and instantly forgot all about posting Aunt Emma's letter, and never thought of it again until he and the others had wandered three times up and down the platform at Waterloo--which makes six in all--and had bumped against old gentlemen, and stared in the faces of ladies, and been shoved by people in a hurry, and 'by-your-leaved' by porters with trucks, and were quite, quite sure that Aunt Emma was not there. Then suddenly the true truth of what he had forgotten to do came home to Robert, and he said, 'Oh, crikey!' and stood still with his mouth open, and let a porter with a Gladstone bag in each hand and a bundle of umbrellas under one arm blunder heavily into him, and never so much as said, 'Where are you shoving to now?' or, 'Look out where you're going, can't you?' The heavier bag smote him at the knee, and he staggered, but he said nothing.
When the others understood what was the matter I think they told Robert what they thought of him.
'We must take the train to Croydon,' said Anthea, 'and find Aunt Emma.'
'Yes,' said Cyril, 'and precious pleased those Jevonses would be to see us and our traps.'
Aunt Emma, indeed, was staying with some Jevonses--very prim people. They were middle-aged and wore very smart blouses, and they were fond of matinees and shopping, and they did not care about children.
'I know mother would be pleased to see us if we went back,' said Jane.
'Yes, she would, but she'd think it was not right to show she was pleased, because it's Bob's fault we're not met. Don't I know the sort of thing?' said Cyril. 'Besides, we've no tin. No; we've got enough for a growler among us, but not enough for tickets to the New Forest. We must just go home. They won't be so savage when they find we've really got home all right. You know auntie was only going to take us home in a cab.'
'I believe we ought to go to Croydon,' Anthea insisted.
'Aunt Emma would be out to a dead cert,' said Robert. 'Those Jevonses go to the theatre every afternoon, I believe. Besides, there's the Phoenix at home, and the carpet. I votes we call a four-wheeled cabman.'
A four-wheeled cabman was called--his cab was one of the old-fashioned kind with straw in the bottom--and he was asked by Anthea to drive them very carefully to their address. This he did, and the price he asked for doing so was exactly the value of the gold coin grandpapa had given Cyril for Christmas. This cast a gloom; but Cyril would never have stooped to argue about a cab- fare, for fear the cabman should think he was not accustomed to take cabs whenever he wanted them. For a reason that was something like this he told the cabman to put the luggage on the steps, and waited till the wheels of the growler had grittily retired before he rang the bell.
'You see,' he said, with his hand on the handle, 'we don't want cook and Eliza asking us before him how it is we've come home alone, as if we were babies.'
Here he rang the bell; and the moment its answering clang was heard, every one felt that it would be some time before that bell was answered. The sound of a bell is quite different, somehow, when there is anyone inside the house who hears it. I can't tell you why that is--but so it is.
'I expect they're changing their dresses,' said Jane.
'Too late,' said Anthea, 'it must be past five. I expect Eliza's gone to post a letter, and cook's gone to see the time.'
Cyril rang again. And the bell did its best to inform the listening children that there was really no one human in the house. They rang again and listened intently. The hearts of all sank low. It is a terrible thing to be locked out of your own house, on a dark, muggy January evening.
'There is no gas on anywhere,' said Jane, in a broken voice.
'I expect they've left the gas on once too often, and the draught blew it out, and they're suffocated in their beds. Father always said they would some day,' said Robert cheerfully.
'Let's go and fetch a policeman,' said Anthea, trembling.
'And be taken up for trying to be burglars--no, thank you,' said Cyril. 'I heard father read out of the paper about a young man who got into his own mother's house, and they got him made a burglar only the other day.'
'I only hope the gas hasn't hurt the Phoenix,' said Anthea. 'It said it wanted to stay in the bathroom cupboard, and I thought it would be all right, because the servants never clean that out. But if it's gone and got out and been choked by gas--And besides, directly we open the door we shall be choked, too. I knew we ought to have gone to Aunt Emma, at Croydon. Oh, Squirrel, I wish we had. Let's go now.'
'Shut up,' said her brother, briefly. 'There's some one rattling the latch inside.' Every one listened with all its ears, and every one stood back as far from the door as the steps would allow.
The latch rattled, and clicked. Then the flap of the letter-box lifted itself--every one saw it by the flickering light of the gas-lamp that shone through the leafless lime-tree by the gate--a golden eye seemed to wink at them through the letter-slit, and a cautious beak whispered--
'Are you alone?'
'It's the Phoenix,' said every one, in a voice so joyous, and so full of relief, as to be a sort of whispered shout.
'Hush!' said the voice from the letter-box slit. 'Your slaves have gone a-merry-making. The latch of this portal is too stiff for my beak. But at the side--the little window above the shelf whereon your bread lies--it is not fastened.'
'Righto!' said Cyril.
And Anthea added, 'I wish you'd meet us there, dear Phoenix.'
The children crept round to the pantry window. It is at the side of the house, and there is a green gate labelled 'Tradesmen's Entrance', which is always kept bolted. But if you get one foot on the fence between you and next door, and one on the handle of the gate, you are over before you know where you are. This, at least, was the experience of Cyril and Robert, and even, if the truth must be told, of Anthea and Jane. So in almost no time all four were in the narrow gravelled passage that runs between that house and the next.
Then Robert made a back, and Cyril hoisted himself up and got his knicker-bockered knee on the concrete window-sill. He dived into the pantry head first, as one dives into water, and his legs waved in the air as he went, just as your legs do when you are first beginning to learn to dive. The soles of his boots--squarish muddy patches--disappeared.
'Give me a leg up,' said Robert to his sisters.
'No, you don't,' said Jane firmly. 'I'm not going to be left outside here with just Anthea, and have something creep up behind us out of the dark. Squirrel can go and open the back door.'
A light had sprung awake in the pantry. Cyril always said the Phoenix turned the gas on with its beak, and lighted it with a waft of its wing; but he was excited at the time, and perhaps he really did it himself with matches, and then forgot all about it. He let the others in by the back door. And when it had been bolted again the children went all over the house and lighted every single gas-jet they could find. For they couldn't help feeling that this was just the dark dreary winter's evening when an armed burglar might easily be expected to appear at any moment. There is nothing like light when you are afraid of burglars--or of anything else, for that matter.
And when all the gas-jets were lighted it was quite clear that the Phoenix had made no mistake, and that Eliza and cook were really out, and that there was no one in the house except the four children, and the Phoenix, and the carpet, and the blackbeetles who lived in the cupboards on each side of the nursery fire-place. These last were very pleased that the children had come home again, especially when Anthea had lighted the nursery fire. But, as usual, the children treated the loving little blackbeetles with coldness and disdain.
I wonder whether you know how to light a fire? I don't mean how to strike a match and set fire to the corners of the paper in a fire someone has laid ready, but how to lay and light a fire all by yourself. I will tell you how Anthea did it, and if ever you have to light one yourself you may remember how it is done. First, she raked out the ashes of the fire that had burned there a week ago--for Eliza had actually never done this, though she had had plenty of time. In doing this Anthea knocked her knuckle and made it bleed. Then she laid the largest and handsomest cinders in the bottom of the grate. Then she took a sheet of old newspaper (you ought never to light a fire with to-day's newspaper--it will not burn well, and there are other reasons against it), and tore it into four quarters, and screwed each of these into a loose ball, and put them on the cinders; then she got a bundle of wood and broke the string, and stuck the sticks in so that their front ends rested on the bars, and the back ends on the back of the paper balls. In doing this she cut her finger slightly with the string, and when she broke it, two of the sticks jumped up and hit her on the cheek. Then she put more cinders and some bits of coal--no dust. She put most of that on her hands, but there seemed to be enough left for her face. Then she lighted the edges of the paper balls, and waited till she heard the fizz-crack-crack-fizz of the wood as it began to burn. Then she went and washed her hands and face under the tap in the back kitchen.
Of course, you need not bark your knuckles, or cut your finger, or bruise your cheek with wood, or black yourself all over; but otherwise, this is a very good way to light a fire in London. In the real country fires are lighted in a different and prettier way.
But it is always good to wash your hands and face afterwards, wherever you are.
While Anthea was delighting the poor little blackbeetles with the cheerful blaze, Jane had set the table for--I was going to say tea, but the meal of which I am speaking was not exactly tea. Let us call it a tea-ish meal. There was tea, certainly, for Anthea's fire blazed and crackled so kindly that it really seemed to be affectionately inviting the kettle to come and sit upon its lap. So the kettle was brought and tea made. But no milk could be found--so every one had six lumps of sugar to each cup instead. The things to eat, on the other hand, were nicer than usual. The boys looked about very carefully, and found in the pantry some cold tongue, bread, butter, cheese, and part of a cold pudding--very much nicer than cook ever made when they were at home. And in the kitchen cupboard was half a Christmassy cake, a pot of strawberry jam, and about a pound of mixed candied fruit, with soft crumbly slabs of delicious sugar in each cup of lemon, orange, or citron.
It was indeed, as Jane said, 'a banquet fit for an Arabian Knight.'
The Phoenix perched on Robert's chair, and listened kindly and politely to all they had to tell it about their visit to Lyndhurst, and underneath the table, by just stretching a toe down rather far, the faithful carpet could be felt by all--even by Jane, whose legs were very short.
'Your slaves will not return to-night,' said the Phoenix. 'They sleep under the roof of the cook's stepmother's aunt, who is, I gather, hostess to a large party to-night in honour of her husband's cousin's sister-in-law's mother's ninetieth birthday.'
'I don't think they ought to have gone without leave,' said Anthea, 'however many relations they have, or however old they are; but I suppose we ought to wash up.'
'It's not our business about the leave,' said Cyril, firmly, 'but I simply won't wash up for them. We got it, and we'll clear it away; and then we'll go somewhere on the carpet. It's not often we get a chance of being out all night. We can go right away to the other side of the equator, to the tropical climes, and see the sun rise over the great Pacific Ocean.'
'Right you are,' said Robert. 'I always did want to see the Southern Cross and the stars as big as gas-lamps.'
'Don't go,' said Anthea, very earnestly, 'because I couldn't. I'm sure mother wouldn't like us to leave the house and I should hate to be left here alone.'
'I'd stay with you,' said Jane loyally.
'I know you would,' said Anthea gratefully, 'but even with you I'd much rather not.'
'Well,' said Cyril, trying to be kind and amiable, 'I don't want you to do anything you think's wrong, but--'
He was silent; this silence said many things.
'I don't see,' Robert was beginning, when Anthea interrupted--
'I'm quite sure. Sometimes you just think a thing's wrong, and sometimes you know. And this is a know time.'
The Phoenix turned kind golden eyes on her and opened a friendly beak to say--
'When it is, as you say, a "know time", there is no more to be said. And your noble brothers would never leave you.'
'Of course not,' said Cyril rather quickly. And Robert said so too.
'I myself,' the Phoenix went on, 'am willing to help in any way possible. I will go personally--either by carpet or on the wing--and fetch you anything you can think of to amuse you during the evening. In order to waste no time I could go while you wash up.--Why,' it went on in a musing voice, 'does one wash up teacups and wash down the stairs?'
'You couldn't wash stairs up, you know,' said Anthea, 'unless you began at the bottom and went up feet first as you washed. I wish cook would try that way for a change.'
'I don't,' said Cyril, briefly. 'I should hate the look of her elastic-side boots sticking up.'
'This is mere trifling,' said the Phoenix. 'Come, decide what I shall fetch for you. I can get you anything you like.'
But of course they couldn't decide. Many things were suggested--a rocking-horse, jewelled chessmen, an elephant, a bicycle, a motor-car, books with pictures, musical instruments, and many other things. But a musical instrument is agreeable only to the player, unless he has learned to play it really well; books are not sociable, bicycles cannot be ridden without going out of doors, and the same is true of motor-cars and elephants. Only two people can play chess at once with one set of chessmen (and anyway it's very much too much like lessons for a game), and only one can ride on a rocking-horse. Suddenly, in the midst of the discussion, the Phoenix spread its wings and fluttered to the floor, and from there it spoke.
'I gather,' it said, 'from the carpet, that it wants you to let it go to its old home, where it was born and brought up, and it will return within the hour laden with a number of the most beautiful and delightful products of its native land.'
'What is its native land?'
'I didn't gather. But since you can't agree, and time is passing, and the tea-things are not washed down--I mean washed up--'
'I votes we do,' said Robert. 'It'll stop all this jaw, anyway. And it's not bad to have surprises. Perhaps it's a Turkey carpet, and it might bring us Turkish delight.'
'Or a Turkish patrol,' said Robert.
'Or a Turkish bath,' said Anthea.
'Or a Turkish towel,' said Jane.
'Nonsense,' Robert urged, 'it said beautiful and delightful, and towels and baths aren't that, however good they may be for you. Let it go. I suppose it won't give us the slip,' he added, pushing back his chair and standing up.
'Hush!' said the Phoenix; 'how can you? Don't trample on its feelings just because it's only a carpet.'
'But how can it do it--unless one of us is on it to do the wishing?' asked Robert. He spoke with a rising hope that it might be necessary for one to go and why not Robert? But the Phoenix quickly threw cold water on his new-born dream.
'Why, you just write your wish on a paper, and pin it on the carpet.'
So a leaf was torn from Anthea's arithmetic book, and on it Cyril wrote in large round-hand the following:
We wish you to go to your dear native home, and bring back the most beautiful and delightful productions of it you can--and not to be gone long, please.
Then the paper was laid on the carpet.
'Writing down, please,' said the Phoenix; 'the carpet can't read a paper whose back is turned to it, any more than you can.'
It was pinned fast, and the table and chairs having been moved, the carpet simply and suddenly vanished, rather like a patch of water on a hearth under a fierce fire. The edges got smaller and smaller, and then it disappeared from sight.
'It may take it some time to collect the beautiful and delightful things,' said the Phoenix. 'I should wash up--I mean wash down.'
So they did. There was plenty of hot water left in the kettle, and every one helped--even the Phoenix, who took up cups by their handles with its clever claws and dipped them in the hot water, and then stood them on the table ready for Anthea to dry them. But the bird was rather slow, because, as it said, though it was not above any sort of honest work, messing about with dish-water was not exactly what it had been brought up to. Everything was nicely washed up, and dried, and put in its proper place, and the dish-cloth washed and hung on the edge of the copper to dry, and the tea-cloth was hung on the line that goes across the scullery. (If you are a duchess's child, or a king's, or a person of high social position's child, you will perhaps not know the difference between a dish-cloth and a tea-cloth; but in that case your nurse has been better instructed than you, and she will tell you all about it.) And just as eight hands and one pair of claws were being dried on the roller-towel behind the scullery door there came a strange sound from the other side of the kitchen wall--the side where the nursery was. It was a very strange sound, indeed--most odd, and unlike any other sounds the children had ever heard. At least, they had heard sounds as much like it as a toy engine's whistle is like a steam siren's.
'The carpet's come back,' said Robert; and the others felt that he was right.
'But what has it brought with it?' asked Jane. 'It sounds like Leviathan, that great beast.'
'It couldn't have been made in India, and have brought elephants? Even baby ones would be rather awful in that room,' said Cyril. 'I vote we take it in turns to squint through the keyhole.'
They did--in the order of their ages. The Phoenix, being the eldest by some thousands of years, was entitled to the first peep. But--
'Excuse me,' it said, ruffling its golden feathers and sneezing softly; 'looking through keyholes always gives me a cold in my golden eyes.'
So Cyril looked.
'I see something grey moving,' said he.
'It's a zoological garden of some sort, I bet,' said Robert, when he had taken his turn. And the soft rustling, bustling, ruffling, scuffling, shuffling, fluffling noise went on inside.
'I can't see anything,' said Anthea, 'my eye tickles so.'
Then Jane's turn came, and she put her eye to the keyhole.
'It's a giant kitty-cat,' she said; 'and it's asleep all over the floor.'
'Giant cats are tigers--father said so.'
'No, he didn't. He said tigers were giant cats. It's not at all the same thing.'
'It's no use sending the carpet to fetch precious things for you if you're afraid to look at them when they come,' said the Phoenix, sensibly. And Cyril, being the eldest, said--
'Come on,' and turned the handle.
The gas had been left full on after tea, and everything in the room could be plainly seen by the ten eyes at the door. At least, not everything, for though the carpet was there it was invisible, because it was completely covered by the hundred and ninety-nine beautiful objects which it had brought from its birthplace.
'My hat!' Cyril remarked. 'I never thought about its being a persian carpet.'
Yet it was now plain that it was so, for the beautiful objects which it had brought back were cats--Persian cats, grey Persian cats, and there were, as I have said, 199 of them, and they were sitting on the carpet as close as they could get to each other. But the moment the children entered the room the cats rose and stretched, and spread and overflowed from the carpet to the floor, and in an instant the floor was a sea of moving, mewing pussishness, and the children with one accord climbed to the table, and gathered up their legs, and the people next door knocked on the wall--and, indeed, no wonder, for the mews were Persian and piercing.
'This is pretty poor sport,' said Cyril. 'What's the matter with the bounders?'
'I imagine that they are hungry,' said the Phoenix. 'If you were to feed them--'
'We haven't anything to feed them with,' said Anthea in despair, and she stroked the nearest Persian back. 'Oh, pussies, do be quiet--we can't hear ourselves think.'
She had to shout this entreaty, for the mews were growing deafening, 'and it would take pounds' and pounds' worth of cat's-meat.'
'Let's ask the carpet to take them away,' said Robert. But the girls said 'No.'
'They are so soft and pussy,' said Jane.
'And valuable,' said Anthea, hastily. 'We can sell them for lots and lots of money.'
'Why not send the carpet to get food for them?' suggested the Phoenix, and its golden voice came harsh and cracked with the effort it had to be make to be heard above the increasing fierceness of the Persian mews.
So it was written that the carpet should bring food for 199 Persian cats, and the paper was pinned to the carpet as before.
The carpet seemed to gather itself together, and the cats dropped off it, as raindrops do from your mackintosh when you shake it. And the carpet disappeared.
Unless you have had one-hundred and ninety-nine well-grown Persian cats in one small room, all hungry, and all saying so in unmistakable mews, you can form but a poor idea of the noise that now deafened the children and the Phoenix. The cats did not seem to have been at all properly brought up. They seemed to have no idea of its being a mistake in manners to ask for meals in a strange house--let alone to howl for them--and they mewed, and they mewed, and they mewed, and they mewed, till the children poked their fingers into their ears and waited in silent agony, wondering why the whole of Camden Town did not come knocking at the door to ask what was the matter, and only hoping that the food for the cats would come before the neighbours did--and before all the secret of the carpet and the Phoenix had to be given away beyond recall to an indignant neighbourhood.
The cats mewed and mewed and twisted their Persian forms in and out and unfolded their Persian tails, and the children and the Phoenix huddled together on the table.
The Phoenix, Robert noticed suddenly, was trembling.
'So many cats,' it said, 'and they might not know I was the Phoenix. These accidents happen so quickly. It quite un-mans me.'
This was a danger of which the children had not thought.
'Creep in,' cried Robert, opening his jacket.
And the Phoenix crept in--only just in time, for green eyes had glared, pink noses had sniffed, white whiskers had twitched, and as Robert buttoned his coat he disappeared to the waist in a wave of eager grey Persian fur. And on the instant the good carpet slapped itself down on the floor. And it was covered with rats--three hundred and ninety-eight of them, I believe, two for each cat.
'How horrible!' cried Anthea. 'Oh, take them away!'
'Take yourself away,' said the Phoenix, 'and me.'
'I wish we'd never had a carpet,' said Anthea, in tears.
They hustled and crowded out of the door, and shut it, and locked it. Cyril, with great presence of mind, lit a candle and turned off the gas at the main.
'The rats'll have a better chance in the dark,' he said.
The mewing had ceased. Every one listened in breathless silence. We all know that cats eat rats--it is one of the first things we read in our little brown reading books; but all those cats eating all those rats--it wouldn't bear thinking of.
Suddenly Robert sniffed, in the silence of the dark kitchen, where the only candle was burning all on one side, because of the draught.
'What a funny scent!' he said.
And as he spoke, a lantern flashed its light through the window of the kitchen, a face peered in, and a voice said--
'What's all this row about? You let me in.'
It was the voice of the police!
Robert tip-toed to the window, and spoke through the pane that had been a little cracked since Cyril accidentally knocked it with a walking-stick when he was playing at balancing it on his nose. (It was after they had been to a circus.)
'What do you mean?' he said. 'There's no row. You listen; everything's as quiet as quiet.' And indeed it was.
The strange sweet scent grew stronger, and the Phoenix put out its beak.
The policeman hesitated.
'They're musk-rats,' said the Phoenix. 'I suppose some cats eat them--but never Persian ones. What a mistake for a well-informed carpet to make! Oh, what a night we're having!'
'Do go away,' said Robert, nervously. 'We're just going to bed--that's our bedroom candle; there isn't any row. Everything's as quiet as a mouse.'
A wild chorus of mews drowned his words, and with the mews were mingled the shrieks of the musk-rats. What had happened? Had the cats tasted them before deciding that they disliked the flavour?
'I'm a-coming in,' said the policeman. 'You've got a cat shut up there.'
'A cat,' said Cyril. 'Oh, my only aunt! A cat!'
'Come in, then,' said Robert. 'It's your own look out. I advise you not. Wait a shake, and I'll undo the side gate.'
He undid the side gate, and the policeman, very cautiously, came in. And there in the kitchen, by the light of one candle, with the mewing and the screaming going like a dozen steam sirens, twenty waiting on motor-cars, and half a hundred squeaking pumps, four agitated voices shouted to the policeman four mixed and wholly different explanations of the very mixed events of the evening.
Did you ever try to explain the simplest thing to a policeman?