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CHAPTER 11 THE BEGINNING OF THE END
'Well, I MUST say,' mother said, looking at the wishing carpet as it lay, all darned and mended and backed with shiny American cloth, on the floor of the nursery - 'I MUST say I've never in my life bought such a bad bargain as that carpet.'
A soft 'Oh!' of contradiction sprang to the lips of Cyril, Robert, Jane, and Anthea. Mother looked at them quickly, and said -
'Well, of course, I see you've mended it very nicely, and that was sweet of you, dears.'
'The boys helped too,' said the dears, honourably.
'But, still - twenty-two and ninepence! It ought to have lasted for years. It's simply dreadful now. Well, never mind, darlings, you've done your best. I think we'll have coconut matting next time. A carpet doesn't have an easy life of it in this room, does it?'
'It's not our fault, mother, is it, that our boots are the really reliable kind?' Robert asked the question more in sorrow than in anger.
'No, dear, we can't help our boots,' said mother, cheerfully, 'but we might change them when we come in, perhaps. It's just an idea of mine. I wouldn't dream of scolding on the very first morning after I've come home. Oh, my Lamb, how could you?'
This conversation was at breakfast, and the Lamb had been beautifully good until every one was looking at the carpet, and then it was for him but the work of a moment to turn a glass dish of syrupy blackberry jam upside down on his young head. It was the work of a good many minutes and several persons to get the jam off him again, and this interesting work took people's minds off the carpet, and nothing more was said just then about its badness as a bargain and about what mother hoped for from coconut matting.
When the Lamb was clean again he had to be taken care of while mother rumpled her hair and inked her fingers and made her head ache over the difficult and twisted house-keeping accounts which cook gave her on dirty bits of paper, and which were supposed to explain how it was that cook had only fivepence-half-penny and a lot of unpaid bills left out of all the money mother had sent her for house-keeping. Mother was very clever, but even she could not quite understand the cook's accounts.
The Lamb was very glad to have his brothers and sisters to play with him. He had not forgotten them a bit, and he made them play all the old exhausting games: 'Whirling Worlds', where you swing the baby round and round by his hands; and 'Leg and Wing', where you swing him from side to side by one ankle and one wrist. There was also climbing Vesuvius. In this game the baby walks up you, and when he is standing on your shoulders, you shout as loud as you can, which is the rumbling of the burning mountain, and then tumble him gently on to the floor, and roll him there, which is the destruction of Pompeii.
'All the same, I wish we could decide what we'd better say next time mother says anything about the carpet,' said Cyril, breathlessly ceasing to be a burning mountain.
'Well, you talk and decide,' said Anthea; 'here, you lovely ducky Lamb. Come to Panther and play Noah's Ark.'
The Lamb came with his pretty hair all tumbled and his face all dusty from the destruction of Pompeii, and instantly became a baby snake, hissing and wriggling and creeping in Anthea's arms, as she said -
'I love my little baby snake,
He hisses when he is awake,
He creeps with such a wriggly creep,
He wriggles even in his sleep.'
'Crocky,' said the Lamb, and showed all his little teeth. So Anthea went on -
'I love my little crocodile,
I love his truthful toothful smile;
It is so wonderful and wide,
I like to see it - FROM OUTSIDE.'
'Well, you see,' Cyril was saying; 'it's just the old bother. Mother can't believe the real true truth about the carpet, and - '
'You speak sooth, O Cyril,' remarked the Phoenix, coming out from the cupboard where the blackbeetles lived, and the torn books, and the broken slates, and odd pieces of toys that had lost the rest of themselves. 'Now hear the wisdom of Phoenix, the son of the Phoenix - '
'There is a society called that,' said Cyril.
'Where is it? And what is a society?' asked the bird.
'It's a sort of joined-together lot of people - a sort of brotherhood - a kind of - well, something very like your temple, you know, only quite different.'
'I take your meaning,' said the Phoenix. 'I would fain see these calling themselves Sons of the Phoenix'
'But what about your words of wisdom?'
'Wisdom is always welcome,' said the Phoenix.
'Pretty Polly!' remarked the Lamb, reaching his hands towards the golden speaker.
The Phoenix modestly retreated behind Robert, and Anthea hastened to distract the attention of the Lamb by murmuring -
"I love my little baby rabbit;
But oh! he has a dreadful habit
Of paddling out among the rocks
And soaking both his bunny socks.'
'I don't think you'd care about the sons of the Phoenix, really,' said Robert. 'I have heard that they don't do anything fiery. They only drink a great deal. Much more than other people, because they drink lemonade and fizzy things, and the more you drink of those the more good you get.'
'In your mind, perhaps,' said Jane; 'but it wouldn't be good in your body. You'd get too balloony.'
The Phoenix yawned.
'Look here,' said Anthea; 'I really have an idea. This isn't like a common carpet. It's very magic indeed. Don't you think, if we put Tatcho on it, and then gave it a rest, the magic part of it might grow, like hair is supposed to do?'
'It might,' said Robert; 'but I should think paraffin would do as well - at any rate as far as the smell goes, and that seems to be the great thing about Tatcho.'
But with all its faults Anthea's idea was something to do, and they did it.
It was Cyril who fetched the Tatcho bottle from father's washhand-stand. But the bottle had not much in it.
'We mustn't take it all,' Jane said, 'in case father's hair began to come off suddenly. If he hadn't anything to put on it, it might all drop off before Eliza had time to get round to the chemist's for another bottle. It would be dreadful to have a bald father, and it would all be our fault.'
'And wigs are very expensive, I believe,' said Anthea. 'Look here, leave enough in the bottle to wet father's head all over with in case any emergency emerges - and let's make up with paraffin. I expect it's the smell that does the good really - and the smell's exactly the same.'
So a small teaspoonful of the Tatcho was put on the edges of the worst darn in the carpet and rubbed carefully into the roots of the hairs of it, and all the parts that there was not enough Tatcho for had paraffin rubbed into them with a piece of flannel. Then the flannel was burned. It made a gay flame, which delighted the Phoenix and the Lamb.
'How often,' said mother, opening the door - 'how often am I to tell you that you are NOT to play with paraffin? What have you been doing?'
'We have burnt a paraffiny rag,' Anthea answered.
It was no use telling mother what they had done to the carpet. She did not know it was a magic carpet, and no one wants to be laughed at for trying to mend an ordinary carpet with lamp-oil.
'Well, don't do it again,' said mother. 'And now, away with melancholy! Father has sent a telegram. Look!' She held it out, and the children, holding it by its yielding corners, read -
'Box for kiddies at Garrick. Stalls for us, Haymarket. Meet Charing Cross, 6.30.'
'That means,' said mother, 'that you're going to see "The Water Babies" all by your happy selves, and father and I will take you and fetch you. Give me the Lamb, dear, and you and Jane put clean lace in your red evening frocks, and I shouldn't wonder if you found they wanted ironing. This paraffin smell is ghastly. Run and get out your frocks.'
The frocks did want ironing - wanted it rather badly, as it happened; for, being of tomato-Coloured Liberty silk, they had been found very useful for tableaux vivants when a red dress was required for Cardinal Richelieu. They were very nice tableaux, these, and I wish I could tell you about them; but one cannot tell everything in a story. You would have been specially interested in hearing about the tableau of the Princes in the Tower, when one of the pillows burst, and the youthful Princes were so covered with feathers that the picture might very well have been called 'Michaelmas Eve; or, Plucking the Geese'.
Ironing the dresses and sewing the lace in occupied some time, and no one was dull, because there was the theatre to look forward to, and also the possible growth of hairs on the carpet, for which every one kept looking anxiously. By four o'clock Jane was almost sure that several hairs were beginning to grow.
The Phoenix perched on the fender, and its conversation, as usual, was entertaining and instructive - like school prizes are said to be. But it seemed a little absent-minded, and even a little sad.
'Don't you feel well, Phoenix, dear?' asked Anthea, stooping to take an iron off the fire.
'I am not sick,' replied the golden bird, with a gloomy shake of the head; 'but I am getting old.'
'Why, you've hardly been hatched any time at all.'
'Time,' remarked the Phoenix, 'is measured by heartbeats. I'm sure the palpitations I've had since I've known you are enough to blanch the feathers of any bird.'
'But I thought you lived 500 years,' said Robert, and you've hardly begun this set of years. Think of all the time that's before you.'
'Time,' said the Phoenix, 'is, as you are probably aware, merely a convenient fiction. There is no such thing as time. I have lived in these two months at a pace which generously counterbalances 500 years of life in the desert. I am old, I am weary. I feel as if I ought to lay my egg, and lay me down to my fiery sleep. But unless I'm careful I shall be hatched again instantly, and that is a misfortune which I really do not think I COULD endure. But do not let me intrude these desperate personal reflections on your youthful happiness. What is the show at the theatre to-night? Wrestlers? Gladiators? A combat of cameleopards and unicorns?'
'I don't think so,' said Cyril; 'it's called "The Water Babies", and if it's like the book there isn't any gladiating in it. There are chimney-sweeps and professors, and a lobster and an otter and a salmon, and children living in the water.'
'It sounds chilly.' The Phoenix shivered, and went to sit on the tongs.
'I don't suppose there will be REAL water,' said Jane. 'And theatres are very warm and pretty, with a lot of gold and lamps. Wouldn't you like to come with us?'
'_I_ was just going to say that,' said Robert, in injured tones, 'only I know how rude it is to interrupt. Do come, Phoenix, old chap; it will cheer you up. It'll make you laugh like any thing. Mr Bourchier always makes ripping plays. You ought to have seen "Shock-headed Peter" last year.'
'Your words are strange,' said the Phoenix, 'but I will come with you. The revels of this Bourchier, of whom you speak, may help me to forget the weight of my years.' So that evening the Phoenix snugged inside the waistcoat of Robert's Etons - a very tight fit it seemed both to Robert and to the Phoenix - and was taken to the play.
Robert had to pretend to be cold at the glittering, many-mirrored restaurant where they ate dinner, with father in evening dress, with a very shiny white shirt-front, and mother looking lovely in her grey evening dress, that changes into pink and green when she moves. Robert pretended that he was too cold to take off his great-coat, and so sat sweltering through what would otherwise have been a most thrilling meal. He felt that he was a blot on the smart beauty of the family, and he hoped the Phoenix knew what he was suffering for its sake. Of course, we are all pleased to suffer for the sake of others, but we like them to know it unless we are the very best and noblest kind of people, and Robert was just ordinary.
Father was full of jokes and fun, and every one laughed all the time, even with their mouths full, which is not manners. Robert thought father would not have been quite so funny about his keeping his over-coat on if father had known all the truth. And there Robert was probably right.
When dinner was finished to the last grape and the last paddle in the finger glasses - for it was a really truly grown-up dinner - the children were taken to the theatre, guided to a box close to the stage, and left.
Father's parting words were: 'Now, don't you stir out of this box, whatever you do. I shall be back before the end of the play. Be good and you will be happy. Is this zone torrid enough for the abandonment of great-coats, Bobs? No? Well, then, I should say you were sickening for something - mumps or measles or thrush or teething. Goodbye.'
He went, and Robert was at last able to remove his coat, mop his perspiring brow, and release the crushed and dishevelled Phoenix. Robert had to arrange his damp hair at the looking-glass at the back of the box, and the Phoenix had to preen its disordered feathers for some time before either of them was fit to be seen.
They were very, very early. When the lights went up fully, the Phoenix, balancing itself on the gilded back of a chair, swayed in ecstasy.
'How fair a scene is this!' it murmured; 'how far fairer than my temple! Or have I guessed aright? Have you brought me hither to lift up my heart with emotions of joyous surprise? Tell me, my Robert, is it not that this, THIS is my true temple, and the other was but a humble shrine frequented by outcasts?'
'I don't know about outcasts,' said Robert, 'but you can call this your temple if you like. Hush! the music is beginning.'
I am not going to tell you about the play. As I said before, one can't tell everything, and no doubt you saw 'The Water Babies' yourselves. If you did not it was a shame, or, rather, a pity.
What I must tell you is that, though Cyril and Jane and Robert and Anthea enjoyed it as much as any children possibly could, the pleasure of the Phoenix was far, far greater than theirs.
'This is indeed my temple,' it said again and again. 'What radiant rites! And all to do honour to me!'
The songs in the play it took to be hymns in its honour. The choruses were choric songs in its praise. The electric lights, it said, were magic torches lighted for its sake, and it was so charmed with the footlights that the children could hardly persuade it to sit still. But when the limelight was shown it could contain its approval no longer. It flapped its golden wings, and cried in a voice that could be heard all over the theatre:
'Well done, my servants! Ye have my favour and my countenance!'
Little Tom on the stage stopped short in what he was saying. A deep breath was drawn by hundreds of lungs, every eye in the house turned to the box where the luckless children cringed, and most people hissed, or said 'Shish!' or 'Turn them out!'
Then the play went on, and an attendant presently came to the box and spoke wrathfully.
'It wasn't us, indeed it wasn't,' said Anthea, earnestly; 'it was the bird.'
The man said well, then, they must keep their bird very quiet. 'Disturbing every one like this,' he said.
'It won't do it again,' said Robert, glancing imploringly at the golden bird; 'I'm sure it won't.'
'You have my leave to depart,' said the Phoenix gently.
'Well, he is a beauty, and no mistake,' said the attendant, 'only I'd cover him up during the acts. It upsets the performance.'
And he went.
'Don't speak again, there's a dear,' said Anthea; 'you wouldn't like to interfere with your own temple, would you?'
So now the Phoenix was quiet, but it kept whispering to the children. It wanted to know why there was no altar, no fire, no incense, and became so excited and fretful and tiresome that four at least of the party of five wished deeply that it had been left at home.
What happened next was entirely the fault of the Phoenix. It was not in the least the fault of the theatre people, and no one could ever understand afterwards how it did happen. No one, that is, except the guilty bird itself and the four children. The Phoenix was balancing itself on the gilt back of the chair, swaying backwards and forwards and up and down, as you may see your own domestic parrot do. I mean the grey one with the red tail. All eyes were on the stage, where the lobster was delighting the audience with that gem of a song, 'If you can't walk straight, walk sideways!' when the Phoenix murmured warmly -
'No altar, no fire, no incense!' and then, before any of the children could even begin to think of stopping it, it spread its bright wings and swept round the theatre, brushing its gleaming feathers against delicate hangings and gilded woodwork.
It seemed to have made but one circular wing-sweep, such as you may see a gull make over grey water on a stormy day. Next moment it was perched again on the chair-back - and all round the theatre, where it had passed, little sparks shone like tinsel seeds, then little smoke wreaths curled up like growing plants - little flames opened like flower-buds. People whispered - then people shrieked.
'Fire! Fire!' The curtain went down - the lights went up.
'Fire!' cried every one, and made for the doors.
'A magnificent idea!' said the Phoenix, complacently. 'An enormous altar - fire supplied free of charge. Doesn't the incense smell delicious?'
The only smell was the stifling smell of smoke, of burning silk, or scorching varnish.
The little flames had opened now into great flame-flowers. The people in the theatre were shouting and pressing towards the doors.
'Oh, how COULD you!' cried Jane. 'Let's get out.'
'Father said stay here,' said Anthea, very pale, and trying to speak in her ordinary voice.
'He didn't mean stay and be roasted,' said Robert. 'No boys on burning decks for me, thank you.'
'Not much,' said Cyril, and he opened the door of the box.
But a fierce waft of smoke and hot air made him shut it again. It was not possible to get out that way.
They looked over the front of the box. Could they climb down?
It would be possible, certainly; but would they be much better off?
'Look at the people,' moaned Anthea; 'we couldn't get through.'
And, indeed, the crowd round the doors looked as thick as flies in the jam-making season.
'I wish we'd never seen the Phoenix,' cried Jane.
Even at that awful moment Robert looked round to see if the bird had overheard a speech which, however natural, was hardly polite or grateful.
The Phoenix was gone.
'Look here,' said Cyril, 'I've read about fires in papers; I'm sure it's all right. Let's wait here, as father said.'
'We can't do anything else,' said Anthea bitterly.
'Look here,' said Robert, 'I'm NOT frightened - no, I'm not. The Phoenix has never been a skunk yet, and I'm certain it'll see us through somehow. I believe in the Phoenix!'
'The Phoenix thanks you, O Robert,' said a golden voice at his feet, and there was the Phoenix itself, on the Wishing Carpet.
'Quick!' it said. 'Stand on those portions of the carpet which are truly antique and authentic - and - '
A sudden jet of flame stopped its words. Alas! the Phoenix had unconsciously warmed to its subject, and in the unintentional heat of the moment had set fire to the paraffin with which that morning the children had anointed the carpet. It burned merrily. The children tried in vain to stamp it out. They had to stand back and let it burn itself out. When the paraffin had burned away it was found that it had taken with it all the darns of Scotch heather-mixture fingering. Only the fabric of the old carpet was left - and that was full of holes.
'Come,' said the Phoenix, 'I'm cool now.'
The four children got on to what was left of the carpet. Very careful they were not to leave a leg or a hand hanging over one of the holes. It was very hot - the theatre was a pit of fire. Every one else had got out.
Jane had to sit on Anthea's lap.
'Home!' said Cyril, and instantly the cool draught from under the nursery door played upon their legs as they sat. They were all on the carpet still, and the carpet was lying in its proper place on the nursery floor, as calm and unmoved as though it had never been to the theatre or taken part in a fire in its life.
Four long breaths of deep relief were instantly breathed. The draught which they had never liked before was for the moment quite pleasant. And they were safe. And every one else was safe. The theatre had been quite empty when they left. Every one was sure of that.
They presently found themselves all talking at once. Somehow none of their adventures had given them so much to talk about. None other had seemed so real.
'Did you notice - ?' they said, and 'Do you remember - ?'
When suddenly Anthea's face turned pale under the dirt which it had collected on it during the fire.
'Oh,' she cried, 'mother and father! Oh, how awful! They'll think we're burned to cinders. Oh, let's go this minute and tell them we aren't.'
'We should only miss them,' said the sensible Cyril.
'Well - YOU go then,' said Anthea, 'or I will. Only do wash your face first. Mother will be sure to think you are burnt to a cinder if she sees you as black as that, and she'll faint or be ill or something. Oh, I wish we'd never got to know that Phoenix.'
'Hush!' said Robert; 'it's no use being rude to the bird. I suppose it can't help its nature. Perhaps we'd better wash too. Now I come to think of it my hands are rather - '
No one had noticed the Phoenix since it had bidden them to step on the carpet. And no one noticed that no one had noticed.
All were partially clean, and Cyril was just plunging into his great-coat to go and look for his parents - he, and not unjustly, called it looking for a needle in a bundle of hay - when the sound of father's latchkey in the front door sent every one bounding up the stairs.
'Are you all safe?' cried mother's voice; 'are you all safe?' and the next moment she was kneeling on the linoleum of the hall, trying to kiss four damp children at once, and laughing and crying by turns, while father stood looking on and saying he was blessed or something.
'But how did you guess we'd come home,' said Cyril, later, when every one was calm enough for talking.
'Well, it was rather a rum thing. We heard the Garrick was on fire, and of course we went straight there,' said father, briskly. 'We couldn't find you, of course - and we couldn't get in - but the firemen told us every one was safely out. And then I heard a voice at my ear say, "Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane" - and something touched me on the shoulder. It was a great yellow pigeon, and it got in the way of my seeing who'd spoken. It fluttered off, and then some one said in the other ear, "They're safe at home"; and when I turned again, to see who it was speaking, hanged if there wasn't that confounded pigeon on my other shoulder. Dazed by the fire, I suppose. Your mother said it was the voice of - '
'I said it was the bird that spoke,' said mother, 'and so it was. Or at least I thought so then. It wasn't a pigeon. It was an orange-coloured cockatoo. I don't care who it was that spoke. It was true and you're safe.'
Mother began to cry again, and father said bed was a good place after the pleasures of the stage.
So every one went there.
Robert had a talk to the Phoenix that night.
'Oh, very well,' said the bird, when Robert had said what he felt, 'didn't you know that I had power over fire? Do not distress yourself. I, like my high priests in Lombard Street, can undo the work of flames. Kindly open the casement.'
It flew out.
That was why the papers said next day that the fire at the theatre had done less damage than had been anticipated. As a matter of fact it had done none, for the Phoenix spent the night in putting things straight. How the management accounted for this, and how many of the theatre officials still believe that they were mad on that night will never be known.
Next day mother saw the burnt holes in the carpet.
'It caught where it was paraffiny,' said Anthea.
'I must get rid of that carpet at once,' said mother.
But what the children said in sad whispers to each other, as they pondered over last night's events, was -
'We must get rid of that Phoenix.'
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 12 THE END OF THE END