The Phoenix and the Carpet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 9. The Burglar's Bride
The morning after the adventure of the Persian cats, the musk-rats, the common cow, and the uncommon burglar, all the children slept till it was ten o'clock; and then it was only Cyril who woke; but he attended to the others, so that by half past ten every one was ready to help to get breakfast. It was shivery cold, and there was but little in the house that was really worth eating.
Robert had arranged a thoughtful little surprise for the absent servants. He had made a neat and delightful booby trap over the kitchen door, and as soon as they heard the front door click open and knew the servants had come back, all four children hid in the cupboard under the stairs and listened with delight to the entrance--the tumble, the splash, the scuffle, and the remarks of the servants. They heard the cook say it was a judgement on them for leaving the place to itself; she seemed to think that a booby trap was a kind of plant that was quite likely to grow, all by itself, in a dwelling that was left shut up. But the housemaid, more acute, judged that someone must have been in the house--a view confirmed by the sight of the breakfast things on the nursery table.
The cupboard under the stairs was very tight and paraffiny, however, and a silent struggle for a place on top ended in the door bursting open and discharging Jane, who rolled like a football to the feet of the servants.
'Now,' said Cyril, firmly, when the cook's hysterics had become quieter, and the housemaid had time to say what she thought of them, 'don't you begin jawing us. We aren't going to stand it. We know too much. You'll please make an extra special treacle roley for dinner, and we'll have a tinned tongue.'
'I daresay,' said the housemaid, indignant, still in her outdoor things and with her hat very much on one side. 'Don't you come a-threatening me, Master Cyril, because I won't stand it, so I tell you. You tell your ma about us being out? Much I care! She'll be sorry for me when she hears about my dear great-aunt by marriage as brought me up from a child and was a mother to me. She sent for me, she did, she wasn't expected to last the night, from the spasms going to her legs--and cook was that kind and careful she couldn't let me go alone, so--'
'Don't,' said Anthea, in real distress. 'You know where liars go to, Eliza--at least if you don't--'
'Liars indeed!' said Eliza, 'I won't demean myself talking to you.'
'How's Mrs Wigson?' said Robert, 'and did you keep it up last night?'
The mouth of the housemaid fell open.
'Did you doss with Maria or Emily?' asked Cyril.
'How did Mrs Prosser enjoy herself?' asked Jane.
'Forbear,' said Cyril, 'they've had enough. Whether we tell or not depends on your later life,' he went on, addressing the servants. 'If you are decent to us we'll be decent to you. You'd better make that treacle roley--and if I were you, Eliza, I'd do a little housework and cleaning, just for a change.'
The servants gave in once and for all.
'There's nothing like firmness,' Cyril went on, when the breakfast things were cleared away and the children were alone in the nursery. 'People are always talking of difficulties with servants. It's quite simple, when you know the way. We can do what we like now and they won't peach. I think we've broken their proud spirit. Let's go somewhere by carpet.'
'I wouldn't if I were you,' said the Phoenix, yawning, as it swooped down from its roost on the curtain pole. 'I've given you one or two hints, but now concealment is at an end, and I see I must speak out.'
It perched on the back of a chair and swayed to and fro, like a parrot on a swing.
'What's the matter now?' said Anthea. She was not quite so gentle as usual, because she was still weary from the excitement of last night's cats. 'I'm tired of things happening. I shan't go anywhere on the carpet. I'm going to darn my stockings.'
'Darn!' said the Phoenix, 'darn! From those young lips these strange expressions--'
'Mend, then,' said Anthea, 'with a needle and wool.'
The Phoenix opened and shut its wings thoughtfully.
'Your stockings,' it said, 'are much less important than they now appear to you. But the carpet--look at the bare worn patches, look at the great rent at yonder corner. The carpet has been your faithful friend--your willing servant. How have you requited its devoted service?'
'Dear Phoenix,' Anthea urged, 'don't talk in that horrid lecturing tone. You make me feel as if I'd done something wrong. And really it is a wishing carpet, and we haven't done anything else to it--only wishes.'
'Only wishes,' repeated the Phoenix, ruffling its neck feathers angrily, 'and what sort of wishes? Wishing people to be in a good temper, for instance. What carpet did you ever hear of that had such a wish asked of it? But this noble fabric, on which you trample so recklessly' (every one removed its boots from the carpet and stood on the linoleum), 'this carpet never flinched. It did what you asked, but the wear and tear must have been awful. And then last night--I don't blame you about the cats and the rats, for those were its own choice; but what carpet could stand a heavy cow hanging on to it at one corner?'
'I should think the cats and rats were worse,' said Robert, 'look at all their claws.'
'Yes,' said the bird, 'eleven thousand nine hundred and forty of them--I daresay you noticed? I should be surprised if these had not left their mark.'
'Good gracious,' said Jane, sitting down suddenly on the floor, and patting the edge of the carpet softly; 'do you mean it's wearing out?'
'Its life with you has not been a luxurious one,' said the Phoenix.
'French mud twice. Sand of sunny shores twice. Soaking in southern seas once. India once. Goodness knows where in Persia once. musk-rat-land once. And once, wherever the cow came from. Hold your carpet up to the light, and with cautious tenderness, if you please.'
With cautious tenderness the boys held the carpet up to the light; the girls looked, and a shiver of regret ran through them as they saw how those eleven thoousand nine hundred and forty claws had run through the carpet. It was full of little holes: there were some large ones, and more than one thin place. At one corner a strip of it was torn, and hung forlornly.
'We must mend it,' said Anthea; 'never mind about my stockings. I can sew them up in lumps with sewing cotton if there's no time to do them properly. I know it's awful and no girl would who respected herself, and all that; but the poor dear carpet's more important than my silly stockings. Let's go out now this very minute.'
So out they all went, and bought wool to mend the carpet; but there is no shop in Camden Town where you can buy wishing-wool, no, nor in Kentish Town either. However, ordinary Scotch heather-mixture fingering seemed good enough, and this they bought, and all that -day Jane and Anthea darned and darned and darned. The boys went out for a walk in the afternoon, and the gentle Phoenix paced up and down the table--for exercise, as it said--and talked to the industrious girls about their carpet.
'It is not an ordinary, ignorant, innocent carpet from Kidderminster,' it said, 'it is a carpet with a past--a Persian past. Do you know that in happier years, when that carpet was the property of caliphs, viziers, kings, and sultans, it never lay on a floor?'
'I thought the floor was the proper home of a carpet,' Jane interrupted.
'Not of a magic carpet,' said the Phoenix; 'why, if it had been allowed to lie about on floors there wouldn't be much of it left now. No, indeed! It has lived in chests of cedarwood, inlaid with pearl and ivory, wrapped in priceless tissues of cloth of gold, embroidered with gems of fabulous value. It has reposed in the sandal-wood caskets of princesses, and in the rose-attar-scented treasure-houses of kings. Never, never, had any one degraded it by walking on it--except in the way of business, when wishes were required, and then they always took their shoes off. And you--'
'Oh, don't!' said Jane, very near tears. 'You know you'd never have been hatched at all if it hadn't been for mother wanting a carpet for us to walk on.'
'You needn't have walked so much or so hard!' said the bird, 'but come, dry that crystal tear, and I will relate to you the story of the Princess Zulieka, the Prince of Asia, and the magic carpet.'
'Relate away,' said Anthea--'I mean, please do.'
'The Princess Zulieka, fairest of royal ladies,' began the bird, 'had in her cradle been the subject of several enchantments. Her grandmother had been in her day--'
But what in her day Zulieka's grandmother had been was destined never to be revealed, for Cyril and Robert suddenly burst into the room, and on each brow were the traces of deep emotion. On Cyril's pale brow stood beads of agitation and perspiration, and on the scarlet brow of Robert was a large black smear.
'What ails ye both?' asked the Phoenix, and it added tartly that story-telling was quite impossible if people would come interrupting like that.
'Oh, do shut up, for any sake!' said Cyril, sinking into a chair.
Robert smoothed the ruffled golden feathers, adding kindly--
'Squirrel doesn't mean to be a beast. It's only that the most awful thing has happened, and stories don't seem to matter so much. Don't be cross. You won't be when you've heard what's happened.'
'Well, what has happened?' said the bird, still rather crossly; and Anthea and Jane paused with long needles poised in air, and long needlefuls of Scotch heather-mixture fingering wool drooping from them.
'The most awful thing you can possibly think of,' said Cyril. 'That nice chap--our own burglar--the police have got him, on suspicion of stolen cats. That's what his brother's missis told me.'
'Oh, begin at the beginning!' cried Anthea impatiently.
'Well, then, we went out, and down by where the undertaker's is, with the china flowers in the window--you know. There was a crowd, and of course we went to have a squint. And it was two bobbies and our burglar between them, and he was being dragged along; and he said, "I tell you them cats was give me. I got 'em in exchange for me milking a cow in a basement parlour up Camden Town way."
'And the people laughed. Beasts! And then one of the policemen said perhaps he could give the name and address of the cow, and he said, no, he couldn't; but he could take them there if they'd only leave go of his coat collar, and give him a chance to get his breath. And the policeman said he could tell all that to the magistrate in the morning. He didn't see us, and so we came away.'
'Oh, Cyril, how could you?' said Anthea.
'Don't be a pudding-head,' Cyril advised. 'A fat lot of good it would have done if we'd let him see us. No one would have believed a word we said. They'd have thought we were kidding. We did better than let him see us. We asked a boy where he lived and he told us, and we went there, and it's a little greengrocer's shop, and we bought some Brazil nuts. Here they are.' The girls waved away the Brazil nuts with loathing and contempt.
'Well, we had to buy something, and while we were making up our minds what to buy we heard his brother's missis talking. She said when he came home with all them miaoulers she thought there was more in it than met the eye. But he would go out this morning with the two likeliest of them, one under each arm. She said he sent her out to buy blue ribbon to put round their beastly necks, and she said if he got three months' hard it was her dying word that he'd got the blue ribbon to thank for it; that, and his own silly thieving ways, taking cats that anybody would know he couldn't have come by in the way of business, instead of things that wouldn't have been missed, which Lord knows there are plenty such, and--'
'Oh, stop!' cried Jane. And indeed it was time, for Cyril seemed like a clock that had been wound up, and could not help going on. 'Where is he now?'
'At the police-station,' said Robert, for Cyril was out of breath. 'The boy told us they'd put him in the cells, and would bring him up before the Beak in the morning. I thought it was a jolly lark last night--getting him to take the cats--but now--'
'The end of a lark,' said the Phoenix, 'is the Beak.'
'Let's go to him,' cried both the girls jumping up. 'Let's go and tell the truth. They must believe us.'
'They can't,' said Cyril. 'Just think! If any one came to you with such a tale, you couldn't believe it, however much you tried. We should only mix things up worse for him.'
'There must be something we could do,' said Jane, sniffing very much--'my own dear pet burglar! I can't bear it. And he was so nice, the way he talked about his father, and how he was going to be so extra honest. Dear Phoenix, you must be able to help us. You're so good and kind and pretty and clever. Do, do tell us what to do.'
The Phoenix rubbed its beak thoughtfully with its claw.
'You might rescue him,' it said, 'and conceal him here, till the law-supporters had forgotten about him.'
'That would be ages and ages,' said Cyril, 'and we couldn't conceal him here. Father might come home at any moment, and if he found the burglar here he wouldn't believe the true truth any more than the police would. That's the worst of the truth. Nobody ever believes it. Couldn't we take him somewhere else?'
Jane clapped her hands.
'The sunny southern shore!' she cried, 'where the cook is being queen. He and she would be company for each other!'
And really the idea did not seem bad, if only he would consent to go.
So, all talking at once, the children arranged to wait till evening, and then to seek the dear burglar in his lonely cell.
Meantime Jane and Anthea darned away as hard as they could, to make the carpet as strong as possible. For all felt how terrible it would be if the precious burglar, while being carried to the sunny southern shore, were to tumble through a hole in the carpet, and be lost for ever in the sunny southern sea.
The servants were tired after Mrs Wigson's party, so every one went to bed early, and when the Phoenix reported that both servants were snoring in a heartfelt and candid manner, the children got up--they had never undressed; just putting their nightgowns on over their things had been enough to deceive Eliza when she came to turn out the gas. So they were ready for anything, and they stood on the carpet and said--
'I wish we were in our burglar's lonely cell.' and instantly they were.
I think every one had expected the cell to be the 'deepest dungeon below the castle moat'. I am sure no one had doubted that the burglar, chained by heavy fetters to a ring in the damp stone wall, would be tossing uneasily on a bed of straw, with a pitcher of water and a mouldering crust, untasted, beside him. Robert, remembering the underground passage and the treasure, had brought a candle and matches, but these were not needed.
The cell was a little white-washed room about twelve feet long and six feet wide. On one side of it was a sort of shelf sloping a little towards the wall. On this were two rugs, striped blue and yellow, and a water-proof pillow. Rolled in the rugs, and with his head on the pillow, lay the burglar, fast asleep. (He had had his tea, though this the children did not know--it had come from the coffee-shop round the corner, in very thick crockery.) The scene was plainly revealed by the light of a gas-lamp in the passage outside, which shone into the cell through a pane of thick glass over the door.
'I shall gag him,' said Cyril, 'and Robert will hold him down. Anthea and Jane and the Phoenix can whisper soft nothings to him while he gradually awakes.'
This plan did not have the success it deserved, because the burglar, curiously enough, was much stronger, even in his sleep, than Robert and Cyril, and at the first touch of their hands he leapt up and shouted out something very loud indeed.
Instantly steps were heard outside. Anthea threw her arms round the burglar and whispered--
'It's us--the ones that gave you the cats. We've come to save you, only don't let on we're here. Can't we hide somewhere?'
Heavy boots sounded on the flagged passage outside, and a firm voice shouted--
'Here--you--stop that row, will you?'
'All right, governor,' replied the burglar, still with Anthea's arms round him; 'I was only a-talking in my sleep. No offence.'
It was an awful moment. Would the boots and the voice come in. Yes! No! The voice said--
'Well, stow it, will you?'
And the boots went heavily away, along the passage and up some sounding stone stairs.
'Now then,' whispered Anthea.
'How the blue Moses did you get in?' asked the burglar, in a hoarse whisper of amazement.
'On the carpet,' said Jane, truly.
'Stow that,' said the burglar. 'One on you I could 'a' swallowed, but four--and a yellow fowl.'
'Look here,' said Cyril, sternly, 'you wouldn't have believed any one if they'd told you beforehand about your finding a cow and all those cats in our nursery.'
'That I wouldn't,' said the burglar, with whispered fervour, 'so help me Bob, I wouldn't.'
'Well, then,' Cyril went on, ignoring this appeal to his brother, 'just try to believe what we tell you and act accordingly. It can't do you any harm, you know,' he went on in hoarse whispered earnestness. 'You can't be very much worse off than you are now, you know. But if you'll just trust to us we'll get you out of this right enough. No one saw us come in. The question is, where would you like to go?'
'I'd like to go to Boolong,' was the instant reply of the burglar. 'I've always wanted to go on that there trip, but I've never 'ad the ready at the right time of the year.'
'Boolong is a town like London,' said Cyril, well meaning, but inaccurate, 'how could you get a living there?'
The burglar scratched his head in deep doubt.
'It's 'ard to get a 'onest living anywheres nowadays,' he said, and his voice was sad.
'Yes, isn't it?' said Jane, sympathetically; 'but how about a sunny southern shore, where there's nothing to do at all unless you want to.'
'That's my billet, miss,' replied the burglar. 'I never did care about work--not like some people, always fussing about.'
'Did you never like any sort of work?' asked Anthea, severely.
'Lor', lumme, yes,' he answered, 'gardening was my 'obby, so it was. But father died afore 'e could bind me to a nurseryman, an'- -'
'We'll take you to the sunny southern shore,' said Jane; 'you've no idea what the flowers are like.'
'Our old cook's there,' said Anthea. 'She's queen--'
'Oh, chuck it,' the burglar whispered, clutching at his head with both hands. 'I knowed the first minute I see them cats and that cow as it was a judgement on me. I don't know now whether I'm a-standing on my hat or my boots, so help me I don't. If you can get me out, get me, and if you can't, get along with you for goodness' sake, and give me a chanst to think about what'll be most likely to go down with the Beak in the morning.'
'Come on to the carpet, then,' said Anthea, gently shoving. The others quietly pulled, and the moment the feet of the burglar were planted on the carpet Anthea wished:
'I wish we were all on the sunny southern shore where cook is.'
And instantly they were. There were the rainbow sands, the tropic glories of leaf and flower, and there, of course, was the cook, crowned with white flowers, and with all the wrinkles of crossness and tiredness and hard work wiped out of her face.
'Why, cook, you're quite pretty!' Anthea said, as soon as she had got her breath after the tumble-rush-whirl of the carpet. The burglar stood rubbing his eyes in the brilliant tropic sunlight, and gazing wildly round him on the vivid hues of the tropic land.
'Penny plain and tuppence coloured!' he exclaimed pensively, 'and well worth any tuppence, however hard-earned.'
The cook was seated on a grassy mound with her court of copper-coloured savages around her. The burglar pointed a grimy finger at these.
'Are they tame?' he asked anxiously. 'Do they bite or scratch, or do anything to yer with poisoned arrows or oyster shells or that?'
'Don't you be so timid,' said the cook. 'Look'e 'ere, this 'ere's only a dream what you've come into, an' as it's only a dream there's no nonsense about what a young lady like me ought to say or not, so I'll say you're the best-looking fellow I've seen this many a day. And the dream goes on and on, seemingly, as long as you behaves. The things what you has to eat and drink tastes just as good as real ones, and--'
'Look 'ere,' said the burglar, 'I've come 'ere straight outer the pleece station. These 'ere kids'll tell you it ain't no blame er mine.'
'Well, you were a burglar, you know,' said the truthful Anthea gently.
'Only because I was druv to it by dishonest blokes, as well you knows, miss,' rejoined the criminal. 'Blowed if this ain't the 'ottest January as I've known for years.'
'Wouldn't you like a bath?' asked the queen, 'and some white clothes like me?'
'I should only look a juggins in 'em, miss, thanking you all the same,' was the reply; 'but a bath I wouldn't resist, and my shirt was only clean on week before last.'
Cyril and Robert led him to a rocky pool, where he bathed luxuriously. Then, in shirt and trousers he sat on the sand and spoke.
'That cook, or queen, or whatever you call her--her with the white bokay on her 'ed--she's my sort. Wonder if she'd keep company!'
'I should ask her.'
'I was always a quick hitter,' the man went on; 'it's a word and a blow with me. I will.'
In shirt and trousers, and crowned with a scented flowery wreath which Cyril hastily wove as they returned to the court of the queen, the burglar stood before the cook and spoke.
'Look 'ere, miss,' he said. 'You an' me being' all forlorn-like, both on us, in this 'ere dream, or whatever you calls it, I'd like to tell you straight as I likes yer looks.'
The cook smiled and looked down bashfully.
'I'm a single man--what you might call a batcheldore. I'm mild in my 'abits, which these kids'll tell you the same, and I'd like to 'ave the pleasure of walkin' out with you next Sunday.'
'Lor!' said the queen cook, ''ow sudden you are, mister.'
'Walking out means you're going to be married,' said Anthea. 'Why not get married and have done with it? I would.'
'I don't mind if I do,' said the burglar. But the cook said--
'No, miss. Not me, not even in a dream. I don't say anythink ag'in the young chap's looks, but I always swore I'd be married in church, if at all--and, anyway, I don't believe these here savages would know how to keep a registering office, even if I was to show them. No, mister, thanking you kindly, if you can't bring a clergyman into the dream I'll live and die like what I am.'
'Will you marry her if we get a clergyman?' asked the match-making Anthea.
'I'm agreeable, miss, I m sure,' said he, pulling his wreath straight. ''Ow this 'ere bokay do tiddle a chap's ears to be sure!'
So, very hurriedly, the carpet was spread out, and instructed to fetch a clergyman. The instructions were written on the inside of Cyril's cap with a piece of billiard chalk Robert had got from the marker at the hotel at Lyndhurst. The carpet disappeared, and more quickly than you would have thought possible it came back, bearing on its bosom the Reverend Septimus Blenkinsop.
The Reverend Septimus was rather a nice young man, but very much mazed and muddled, because when he saw a strange carpet laid out at his feet, in his own study, he naturally walked on it to examine it more closely. And he happened to stand on one of the thin places that Jane and Anthea had darned, so that he was half on wishing carpet and half on plain Scotch heather-mixture fingering, which has no magic properties at all.
The effect of this was that he was only half there--so that the children could just see through him, as though he had been a ghost. And as for him, he saw the sunny southern shore, the cook and the burglar and the children quite plainly; but through them all he saw, quite plainly also, his study at home, with the books and the pictures and the marble clock that had been presented to him when he left his last situation.
He seemed to himself to be in a sort of insane fit, so that it did not matter what he did--and he married the burglar to the cook. The cook said that she would rather have had a solider kind of a clergyman, one that you couldn't see through so plain, but perhaps this was real enough for a dream.
And of course the clergyman, though misty, was really real, and able to marry people, and he did. When the ceremony was over the clergyman wandered about the island collecting botanical specimens, for he was a great botanist, and the ruling passion was strong even in an insane fit.
There was a splendid wedding feast. Can you fancy Jane and Anthea, and Robert and Cyril, dancing merrily in a ring, hand-in-hand with copper-coloured savages, round the happy couple, the queen cook and the burglar consort? There were more flowers gathered and thrown than you have ever even dreamed of, and before the children took carpet for home the now married-and-settled burglar made a speech.
'Ladies and gentlemen,' he said, 'and savages of both kinds, only I know you can't understand what I'm a saying of, but we'll let that pass. If this is a dream, I'm on. If it ain't, I'm onner than ever. If it's betwixt and between--well, I'm honest, and I can't say more. I don't want no more 'igh London society--I've got some one to put my arm around of; and I've got the whole lot of this 'ere island for my allotment, and if I don't grow some broccoli as'll open the judge's eye at the cottage flower shows, well, strike me pink! All I ask is, as these young gents and ladies'll bring some parsley seed into the dream, and a penn'orth of radish seed, and threepenn'orth of onion, and I wouldn't mind goin' to fourpence or fippence for mixed kale, only I ain't got a brown, so I don't deceive you. And there's one thing more, you might take away the parson. I don't like things what I can see 'alf through, so here's how!' He drained a coconut-shell of palm wine.
It was now past midnight--though it was tea-time on the island.
With all good wishes the children took their leave. They also collected the clergyman and took him back to his study and his presentation clock.
The Phoenix kindly carried the seeds next day to the burglar and his bride, and returned with the most satisfactory news of the happy pair.
'He's made a wooden spade and started on his allotment,' it said, 'and she is weaving him a shirt and trousers of the most radiant whiteness.'
The police never knew how the burglar got away. In Kentish Town Police Station his escape is still spoken of with bated breath as the Persian mystery.
As for the Reverend Septimus Blenkinsop, he felt that he had had a very insane fit indeed, and he was sure it was due to over-study. So he planned a little dissipation, and took his two maiden aunts to Paris, where they enjoyed a dazzling round of museums and picture galleries, and came back feeling that they had indeed seen life. He never told his aunts or any one else about the marriage on the island--because no one likes it to be generally known if he has had insane fits, however interesting and unusual.