The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 8. The Cats, the Cow, and the Burglar
The nursery was full of Persian cats and musk-rats that had been brought there by the wishing carpet. The cats were mewing and the musk-rats were squeaking so that you could hardly hear yourself speak. In the kitchen were the four children, one candle, a concealed Phoenix, and a very visible policeman.
'Now then, look here,' said the Policeman, very loudly, and he pointed his lantern at each child in turn, 'what's the meaning of this here yelling and caterwauling. I tell you you've got a cat here, and some one's a ill-treating of it. What do you mean by it, eh?'
It was five to one, counting the Phoenix; but the policeman, who was one, was of unusually fine size, and the five, including the Phoenix, were small. The mews and the squeaks grew softer, and in the comparative silence, Cyril said--
'It's true. There are a few cats here. But we've not hurt them. It's quite the opposite. We've just fed them.'
'It don't sound like it,' said the policeman grimly.
'I daresay they're not real cats,' said Jane madly, perhaps they're only dream-cats.'
'I'll dream-cat you, my lady,' was the brief response of the force.
'If you understood anything except people who do murders and stealings and naughty things like that, I'd tell you all about it,' said Robert; 'but I'm certain you don't. You're not meant to shove your oar into people's private cat-keepings. You're only supposed to interfere when people shout "murder" and "stop thief" in the street. So there!'
The policeman assured them that he should see about that; and at this point the Phoenix, who had been making itself small on the pot-shelf under the dresser, among the saucepan lids and the fish- kettle, walked on tip-toed claws in a noiseless and modest manner, and left the room unnoticed by any one.
'Oh, don't be so horrid,' Anthea was saying, gently and earnestly. 'We love cats--dear pussy-soft things. We wouldn't hurt them for worlds. Would we, Pussy?'
And Jane answered that of course they wouldn't. And still the policeman seemed unmoved by their eloquence.
'Now, look here,' he said, 'I'm a-going to see what's in that room beyond there, and--'
His voice was drowned in a wild burst of mewing and squeaking. And as soon as it died down all four children began to explain at once; and though the squeaking and mewing were not at their very loudest, yet there was quite enough of both to make it very hard for the policeman to understand a single word of any of the four wholly different explanations now poured out to him.
'Stow it,' he said at last. 'I'm a-goin' into the next room in the execution of my duty. I'm a-goin' to use my eyes--my ears have gone off their chumps, what with you and them cats.'
And he pushed Robert aside, and strode through the door.
'Don't say I didn't warn you,' said Robert.
'It's tigers really,' said Jane. 'Father said so. I wouldn't go in, if I were you.'
But the policeman was quite stony; nothing any one said seemed to make any difference to him. Some policemen are like this, I believe. He strode down the passage, and in another moment he would have been in the room with all the cats and all the rats (musk), but at that very instant a thin, sharp voice screamed from the street outside--
'Murder--murder! Stop thief!'
The policeman stopped, with one regulation boot heavily poised in the air.
'Eh?' he said.
And again the shrieks sounded shrilly and piercingly from the dark street outside.
'Come on,' said Robert. 'Come and look after cats while somebody's being killed outside.' For Robert had an inside feeling that told him quite plainly who it was that was screaming.
'You young rip,' said the policeman, 'I'll settle up with you bimeby.'
And he rushed out, and the children heard his boots going weightily along the pavement, and the screams also going along, rather ahead of the policeman; and both the murder-screams and the policeman's boots faded away in the remote distance.
Then Robert smacked his knickerbocker loudly with his palm, and said--
'Good old Phoenix! I should know its golden voice anywhere.'
And then every one understood how cleverly the Phoenix had caught at what Robert had said about the real work of a policeman being to look after murderers and thieves, and not after cats, and all hearts were filled with admiring affection.
'But he'll come back,' said Anthea, mournfully, 'as soon as it finds the murderer is only a bright vision of a dream, and there isn't one at all really.'
'No he won't,' said the soft voice of the clever Phoenix, as it flew in. 'He does not know where your house is. I heard him own as much to a fellow mercenary. Oh! what a night we are having! Lock the door, and let us rid ourselves of this intolerable smell of the perfume peculiar to the musk-rat and to the house of the trimmers of beards. If you'll excuse me, I will go to bed. I am worn out.'
It was Cyril who wrote the paper that told the carpet to take away the rats and bring milk, because there seemed to be no doubt in any breast that, however Persian cats may be, they must like milk.
'Let's hope it won't be musk-milk,' said Anthea, in gloom, as she pinned the paper face-downwards on the carpet. 'Is there such a thing as a musk-cow?' she added anxiously, as the carpet shrivelled and vanished. 'I do hope not. Perhaps really it would have been wiser to let the carpet take the cats away. It's getting quite late, and we can't keep them all night.'
'Oh, can't we?' was the bitter rejoinder of Robert, who had been fastening the side door. 'You might have consulted me,' he went on. 'I'm not such an idiot as some people.'
'Don't you see? We've jolly well got to keep the cats all night--oh, get down, you furry beasts!--because we've had three wishes out of the old carpet now, and we can't get any more till to-morrow.'
The liveliness of Persian mews alone prevented the occurrence of a dismal silence.
Anthea spoke first.
'Never mind,' she said. 'Do you know, I really do think they're quieting down a bit. Perhaps they heard us say milk.'
'They can't understand English,' said Jane. 'You forget they're Persian cats, Panther.'
'Well,' said Anthea, rather sharply, for she was tired and anxious, 'who told you "milk" wasn't Persian for milk. Lots of English words are just the same in French--at least I know "miaw" is, and "croquet", and "fiance". Oh, pussies, do be quiet! Let's stroke them as hard as we can with both hands, and perhaps they'll stop.'
So every one stroked grey fur till their hands were tired, and as soon as a cat had been stroked enough to make it stop mewing it was pushed gently away, and another mewing mouser was approached by the hands of the strokers. And the noise was really more than half purr when the carpet suddenly appeared in its proper place, and on it, instead of rows of milk-cans, or even of milk-jugs, there was a cow. Not a Persian cow, either, nor, most fortunately, a musk-cow, if there is such a thing, but a smooth, sleek, dun-coloured Jersey cow, who blinked large soft eyes at the gas-light and mooed in an amiable if rather inquiring manner.
Anthea had always been afraid of cows; but now she tried to be brave.
'Anyway, it can't run after me,' she said to herself 'There isn't room for it even to begin to run.'
The cow was perfectly placid. She behaved like a strayed duchess till some one brought a saucer for the milk, and some one else tried to milk the cow into it. Milking is very difficult. You may think it is easy, but it is not. All the children were by this time strung up to a pitch of heroism that would have been impossible to them in their ordinary condition. Robert and Cyril held the cow by the horns; and Jane, when she was quite sure that their end of the cow was quite secure, consented to stand by, ready to hold the cow by the tail should occasion arise. Anthea, holding the saucer, now advanced towards the cow. She remembered to have heard that cows, when milked by strangers, are susceptible to the soothing influence of the human voice. So, clutching her saucer very tight, she sought for words to whose soothing influence the cow might be susceptible. And her memory, troubled by the events of the night, which seemed to go on and on for ever and ever, refused to help her with any form of words suitable to address a Jersey cow in.
'Poor pussy, then. Lie down, then, good dog, lie down!' was all that she could think of to say, and she said it.
And nobody laughed. The situation, full of grey mewing cats, was too serious for that. Then Anthea, with a beating heart, tried to milk the cow. Next moment the cow had knocked the saucer out of her hand and trampled on it with one foot, while with the other three she had walked on a foot each of Robert, Cyril, and Jane.
Jane burst into tears. 'Oh, how much too horrid everything is!' she cried. 'Come away. Let's go to bed and leave the horrid cats with the hateful cow. Perhaps somebody will eat somebody else. And serve them right.'
They did not go to bed, but they had a shivering council in the drawing-room, which smelt of soot--and, indeed, a heap of this lay in the fender. There had been no fire in the room since mother went away, and all the chairs and tables were in the wrong places, and the chrysanthemums were dead, and the water in the pot nearly dried up. Anthea wrapped the embroidered woolly sofa blanket round Jane and herself, while Robert and Cyril had a struggle, silent and brief, but fierce, for the larger share of the fur hearthrug.
'It is most truly awful,' said Anthea, 'and I am so tired. Let's let the cats loose.'
'And the cow, perhaps?' said Cyril. 'The police would find us at once. That cow would stand at the gate and mew--I mean moo--to come in. And so would the cats. No; I see quite well what we've got to do. We must put them in baskets and leave them on people's doorsteps, like orphan foundlings.'
'We've got three baskets, counting mother's work one,' said Jane brightening.
'And there are nearly two hundred cats,' said Anthea, 'besides the cow--and it would have to be a different-sized basket for her; and then I don't know how you'd carry it, and you'd never find a doorstep big enough to put it on. Except the church one--and--'
'Oh, well,' said Cyril, 'if you simply make difficulties--'
'I'm with you,' said Robert. 'Don't fuss about the cow, Panther. It's simply got to stay the night, and I'm sure I've read that the cow is a remunerating creature, and that means it will sit still and think for hours. The carpet can take it away in the morning. And as for the baskets, we'll do them up in dusters, or pillow-cases, or bath-towels. Come on, Squirrel. You girls can be out of it if you like.'
His tone was full of contempt, but Jane and Anthea were too tired and desperate to care; even being 'out of it', which at other times they could not have borne, now seemed quite a comfort. They snuggled down in the sofa blanket, and Cyril threw the fur hearthrug over them.
'Ah, he said, 'that's all women are fit for--to keep safe and warm, while the men do the work and run dangers and risks and things.'
'I'm not,' said Anthea, 'you know I'm not.' But Cyril was gone.
It was warm under the blanket and the hearthrug, and Jane snuggled up close to her sister; and Anthea cuddled Jane closely and kindly, and in a sort of dream they heard the rise of a wave of mewing as Robert opened the door of the nursery. They heard the booted search for baskets in the back kitchen. They heard the side door open and close, and they knew that each brother had gone out with at least one cat. Anthea's last thought was that it would take at least all night to get rid of one hundred and ninety-nine cats by twos. There would be ninety-nine journeys of two cats each, and one cat over.
'I almost think we might keep the one cat over,' said Anthea. 'I don't seem to care for cats just now, but I daresay I shall again some day.' And she fell asleep. Jane also was sleeping.
It was Jane who awoke with a start, to find Anthea still asleep. As, in the act of awakening, she kicked her sister, she wondered idly why they should have gone to bed in their boots; but the next moment she remembered where they were.
There was a sound of muffled, shuffled feet on the stairs. Like the heroine of the classic poem, Jane 'thought it was the boys', and as she felt quite wide awake, and not nearly so tired as before, she crept gently from Anthea's side and followed the footsteps. They went down into the basement; the cats, who seemed to have fallen into the sleep of exhaustion, awoke at the sound of the approaching footsteps and mewed piteously. Jane was at the foot of the stairs before she saw it was not her brothers whose coming had roused her and the cats, but a burglar. She knew he was a burglar at once, because he wore a fur cap and a red and black charity-check comforter, and he had no business where he was.
If you had been stood in jane's shoes you would no doubt have run away in them, appealing to the police and neighbours with horrid screams. But Jane knew better. She had read a great many nice stories about burglars, as well as some affecting pieces of poetry, and she knew that no burglar will ever hurt a little girl if he meets her when burgling. Indeed, in all the cases Jane had read of, his burglarishness was almost at once forgotten in the interest he felt in the little girl's artless prattle. So if Jane hesitated for a moment before addressing the burglar, it was only because she could not at once think of any remark sufficiently prattling and artless to make a beginning with. In the stories and the affecting poetry the child could never speak plainly, though it always looked old enough to in the pictures. And Jane could not make up her mind to lisp and 'talk baby', even to a burglar. And while she hesitated he softly opened the nursery door and went in.
Jane followed--just in time to see him sit down flat on the floor, scattering cats as a stone thrown into a pool splashes water.
She closed the door softly and stood there, still wondering whether she could bring herself to say, 'What's 'oo doing here, Mithter Wobber?' and whether any other kind of talk would do.
Then she heard the burglar draw a long breath, and he spoke.
'It's a judgement,' he said, 'so help me bob if it ain't. Oh, 'ere's a thing to 'appen to a chap! Makes it come 'ome to you, don't it neither? Cats an' cats an' cats. There couldn't be all them cats. Let alone the cow. If she ain't the moral of the old man's Daisy. She's a dream out of when I was a lad--I don't mind 'er so much. 'Ere, Daisy, Daisy?'
The cow turned and looked at him.
'She's all right,' he went on. 'Sort of company, too. Though them above knows how she got into this downstairs parlour. But them cats--oh, take 'em away, take 'em away! I'll chuck the 'ole show--Oh, take 'em away.'
'Burglar,' said Jane, close behind him, and he started convulsively, and turned on her a blank face, whose pale lips trembled. 'I can't take those cats away.'
'Lor' lumme!' exclaimed the man; 'if 'ere ain't another on 'em. Are you real, miss, or something I'll wake up from presently?'
'I am quite real,' said Jane, relieved to find that a lisp was not needed to make the burglar understand her. 'And so,' she added, 'are the cats.'
'Then send for the police, send for the police, and I'll go quiet. If you ain't no realler than them cats, I'm done, spunchuck--out of time. Send for the police. I'll go quiet. One thing, there'd not be room for 'arf them cats in no cell as ever I see.'
He ran his fingers through his hair, which was short, and his eyes wandered wildly round the roomful of cats.
'Burglar,' said Jane, kindly and softly, 'if you didn't like cats, what did you come here for?'
'Send for the police,' was the unfortunate criminal's only reply. 'I'd rather you would--honest, I'd rather.'
'I daren't,' said Jane, 'and besides, I've no one to send. I hate the police. I wish he'd never been born.'
'You've a feeling 'art, miss,' said the burglar; 'but them cats is really a little bit too thick.'
'Look here,' said Jane, 'I won't call the police. And I am quite a real little girl, though I talk older than the kind you've met before when you've been doing your burglings. And they are real cats--and they want real milk--and--Didn't you say the cow was like somebody's Daisy that you used to know?'
'Wish I may die if she ain't the very spit of her,' replied the man.
'Well, then,' said Jane--and a thrill of joyful pride ran through her--'perhaps you know how to milk cows?'
'Perhaps I does,' was the burglar's cautious rejoinder.
'Then,' said Jane, 'if you will only milk ours--you don't know how we shall always love you.'
The burglar replied that loving was all very well.
'If those cats only had a good long, wet, thirsty drink of milk,' Jane went on with eager persuasion, 'they'd lie down and go to sleep as likely as not, and then the police won't come back. But if they go on mewing like this he will, and then I don't know what'll become of us, or you either.'
This argument seemed to decide the criminal. Jane fetched the wash-bowl from the sink, and he spat on his hands and prepared to milk the cow. At this instant boots were heard on the stairs.
'It's all up,' said the man, desperately, 'this 'ere's a plant. 'Ere's the police.' He made as if to open the window and leap from it.
'It's all right, I tell you,' whispered Jane, in anguish. 'I'll say you're a friend of mine, or the good clergyman called in, or my uncle, or anythiing--only do, do, do milk the cow. Oh, don't go--oh--oh, thank goodness it's only the boys!'
It was; and their entrance had awakened Anthea, who, with her brothers, now crowded through the doorway. The man looked about him like a rat looks round a trap.
'This is a friend of mine,' said Jane; 'he's just called in, and he's going to milk the cow for us. Isn't it good and kind of him?'
She winked at the others, and though they did not understand they played up loyally.
'How do?' said Cyril, 'Very glad to meet you. Don't let us interrupt the milking.'
'I shall 'ave a 'ead and a 'arf in the morning, and no bloomin' error,' remarked the burglar; but he began to milk the cow.
Robert was winked at to stay and see that he did not leave off milking or try to escape, and the others went to get things to put the milk in; for it was now spurting and foaming in the wash-bowl, and the cats had ceased from mewing and were crowding round the cow, with expressions of hope and anticipation on their whiskered faces.
'We can't get rid of any more cats,' said Cyril, as he and his sisters piled a tray high with saucers and soup-plates and platters and pie-dishes, 'the police nearly got us as it was. Not the same one--a much stronger sort. He thought it really was a foundling orphan we'd got. If it hadn't been for me throwing the two bags of cat slap in his eye and hauling Robert over a railing, and lying like mice under a laurel-bush--Well, it's jolly lucky I'm a good shot, that's all. He pranced off when he'd got the cat-bags off his face--thought we'd bolted. And here we are.'
The gentle samishness of the milk swishing into the hand-bowl seemed to have soothed the burglar very much. He went on milking in a sort of happy dream, while the children got a cap and ladled the warm milk out into the pie-dishes and plates, and platters and saucers, and set them down to the music of Persian purrs and lappings.
'It makes me think of old times,' said the burglar, smearing his ragged coat-cuff across his eyes--'about the apples in the orchard at home, and the rats at threshing time, and the rabbits and the ferrets, and how pretty it was seeing the pigs killed.'
Finding him in this softened mood, Jane said--
'I wish you'd tell us how you came to choose our house for your burglaring to-night. I am awfully glad you did. You have been so kind. I don't know what we should have done without you,' she added hastily. 'We all love you ever so. Do tell us.'
The others added their affectionate entreaties, and at last the burglar said--
'Well, it's my first job, and I didn't expect to be made so welcome, and that's the truth, young gents and ladies. And I don't know but what it won't be my last. For this 'ere cow, she reminds me of my father, and I know 'ow 'e'd 'ave 'ided me if I'd laid 'ands on a 'a'penny as wasn't my own.'
'I'm sure he would,' Jane agreed kindly; 'but what made you come here?'
'Well, miss,' said the burglar, 'you know best 'ow you come by them cats, and why you don't like the police, so I'll give myself away free, and trust to your noble 'earts. (You'd best bale out a bit, the pan's getting fullish.) I was a-selling oranges off of my barrow--for I ain't a burglar by trade, though you 'ave used the name so free--an' there was a lady bought three 'a'porth off me. An' while she was a-pickin' of them out--very careful indeed, and I'm always glad when them sort gets a few over-ripe ones--there was two other ladies talkin' over the fence. An' one on 'em said to the other on 'em just like this--
"'I've told both gells to come, and they can doss in with M'ria and Jane, 'cause their boss and his missis is miles away and the kids too. So they can just lock up the 'ouse and leave the gas a-burning, so's no one won't know, and get back bright an' early by 'leven o'clock. And we'll make a night of it, Mrs Prosser, so we will. I'm just a-going to run out to pop the letter in the post." And then the lady what had chosen the three ha'porth so careful, she said: "Lor, Mrs Wigson, I wonder at you, and your hands all over suds. This good gentleman'll slip it into the post for yer, I'll be bound, seeing I'm a customer of his." So they give me the letter, and of course I read the direction what was written on it afore I shoved it into the post. And then when I'd sold my barrowful, I was a-goin' 'ome with the chink in my pocket, and I'm blowed if some bloomin' thievin' beggar didn't nick the lot whilst I was just a-wettin' of my whistle, for callin' of oranges is dry work. Nicked the bloomin' lot 'e did--and me with not a farden to take 'ome to my brother and his missus.'
'How awful!' said Anthea, with much sympathy.
'Horful indeed, miss, I believe yer,' the burglar rejoined, with deep feeling. 'You don't know her temper when she's roused. An' I'm sure I 'ope you never may, neither. And I'd 'ad all my oranges off of 'em. So it came back to me what was wrote on the ongverlope, and I says to myself, "Why not, seein' as I've been done myself, and if they keeps two slaveys there must be some pickings?" An' so 'ere I am. But them cats, they've brought me back to the ways of honestness. Never no more.'
'Look here,' said Cyril, 'these cats are very valuable--very indeed. And we will give them all to you, if only you will take them away.'
'I see they're a breedy lot,' replied the burglar. 'But I don't want no bother with the coppers. Did you come by them honest now? Straight?'
'They are all our very own,' said Anthea, 'we wanted them, but the confidement--'
'Consignment,' whispered Cyril.
'was larger than we wanted, and they're an awful bother. If you got your barrow, and some sacks or baskets, your brother's missus would be awfully pleased. My father says Persian cats are worth pounds and pounds each.'
'Well,' said the burglar--and he was certainly moved by her remarks--'I see you're in a hole--and I don't mind lending a helping 'and. I don't ask 'ow you come by them. But I've got a pal--'e's a mark on cats. I'll fetch him along, and if he thinks they'd fetch anything above their skins I don't mind doin' you a kindness.'
'You won't go away and never come back,' said Jane, 'because I don't think I could bear that.'
The burglar, quite touched by her emotion, swore sentimentally that, alive or dead, he would come back.
Then he went, and Cyril and Robert sent the girls to bed and sat up to wait for his return. It soon seemed absurd to await him in a state of wakefulness, but his stealthy tap on the window awoke them readily enough. For he did return, with the pal and the barrow and the sacks. The pal approved of the cats, now dormant in Persian repletion, and they were bundled into the sacks, and taken away on the barrow--mewing, indeed, but with mews too sleepy to attract public attention.
'I'm a fence--that's what I am,' said the burglar gloomily. 'I never thought I'd come down to this, and all acause er my kind 'eart.'
Cyril knew that a fence is a receiver of stolen goods, and he replied briskly--
'I give you my sacred the cats aren't stolen. What do you make the time?'
'I ain't got the time on me,' said the pal--'but it was just about chucking-out time as I come by the "Bull and Gate". I shouldn't wonder if it was nigh upon one now.'
When the cats had been removed, and the boys and the burglar had parted with warm expressions of friendship, there remained only the cow.
'She must stay all night,' said Robert. 'Cook'll have a fit when she sees her.'
'All night?' said Cyril. 'Why--it's tomorrow morning if it's one. We can have another wish!'
So the carpet was urged, in a hastily written note, to remove the cow to wherever she belonged, and to return to its proper place on the nursery floor. But the cow could not be got to move on to the carpet. So Robert got the clothes line out of the back kitchen, and tied one end very firmly to the cow's horns, and the other end to a bunched-up corner of the carpet, and said 'Fire away.'
And the carpet and cow vanished together, and the boys went to bed, tired out and only too thankful that the evening at last was over.
Next morning the carpet lay calmly in its place, but one corner was very badly torn. It was the corner that the cow had been tied on to.