The Phoenix and the Carpet – Chapter 2: The Topless Tower

The children had seen the Phoenix-egg hatched in the flames in their own nursery grate, and had heard from it how the carpet on their own nursery floor was really the wishing carpet, which would take them anywhere they chose. The carpet had transported them to bed just at the right moment, and the Phoenix had gone to roost on the cornice supporting the window-curtains of the boys’ room.

‘Excuse me,’ said a gentle voice, and a courteous beak opened, very kindly and delicately, the right eye of Cyril. ‘I hear the slaves below preparing food. Awaken! A word of explanation and arrangement… I do wish you wouldn’t—’

The Phoenix stopped speaking and fluttered away crossly to the cornice-pole; for Cyril had hit out, as boys do when they are awakened suddenly, and the Phoenix was not used to boys, and his feelings, if not his wings, were hurt.

‘Sorry,’ said Cyril, coming awake all in a minute. ‘Do come back! What was it you were saying? Something about bacon and rations?’

The Phoenix fluttered back to the brass rail at the foot of the bed.

‘I say—you ARE real,’ said Cyril. ‘How ripping! And the carpet?’

‘The carpet is as real as it ever was,’ said the Phoenix, rather contemptuously; ‘but, of course, a carpet’s only a carpet, whereas a Phoenix is superlatively a Phoenix.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ said Cyril, ‘I see it is. Oh, what luck! Wake up, Bobs! There’s jolly well something to wake up for today. And it’s Saturday, too.’

‘I’ve been reflecting,’ said the Phoenix, ‘during the silent watches of the night, and I could not avoid the conclusion that you were quite insufficiently astonished at my appearance yesterday. The ancients were always VERY surprised. Did you, by chance, EXPECT my egg to hatch?’

‘Not us,’ Cyril said.

‘And if we had,’ said Anthea, who had come in in her nightie when she heard the silvery voice of the Phoenix, ‘we could never, never have expected it to hatch anything so splendid as you.’

The bird smiled. Perhaps you’ve never seen a bird smile?

‘You see,’ said Anthea, wrapping herself in the boys’ counterpane, for the morning was chill, ‘we’ve had things happen to us before;’ and she told the story of the Psammead, or sand-fairy.

‘Ah yes,’ said the Phoenix; ‘Psammeads were rare, even in my time. I remember I used to be called the Psammead of the Desert. I was always having compliments paid me; I can’t think why.’

‘Can YOU give wishes, then?’ asked Jane, who had now come in too.

‘Oh, dear me, no,’ said the Phoenix, contemptuously, ‘at least—but I hear footsteps approaching. I hasten to conceal myself.’ And it did.

I think I said that this day was Saturday. It was also cook’s birthday, and mother had allowed her and Eliza to go to the Crystal Palace with a party of friends, so Jane and Anthea of course had to help to make beds and to wash up the breakfast cups, and little things like that. Robert and Cyril intended to spend the morning in conversation with the Phoenix, but the bird had its own ideas about this.

‘I must have an hour or two’s quiet,’ it said, ‘I really must. My nerves will give way unless I can get a little rest. You must remember it’s two thousand years since I had any conversation—I’m out of practice, and I must take care of myself. I’ve often been told that mine is a valuable life.’ So it nestled down inside an old hatbox of father’s, which had been brought down from the box-room some days before, when a helmet was suddenly needed for a game of tournaments, with its golden head under its golden wing, and went to sleep. So then Robert and Cyril moved the table back and were going to sit on the carpet and wish themselves somewhere else. But before they could decide on the place, Cyril said—

‘I don’t know. Perhaps it’s rather sneakish to begin without the girls.’

‘They’ll be all the morning,’ said Robert, impatiently. And then a thing inside him, which tiresome books sometimes call the ‘inward monitor’, said, ‘Why don’t you help them, then?’

Cyril’s ‘inward monitor’ happened to say the same thing at the same moment, so the boys went and helped to wash up the tea-cups, and to dust the drawing-room. Robert was so interested that he proposed to clean the front doorsteps—a thing he had never been allowed to do. Nor was he allowed to do it on this occasion. One reason was that it had already been done by cook.

When all the housework was finished, the girls dressed the happy, wriggling baby in his blue highwayman coat and three-cornered hat, and kept him amused while mother changed her dress and got ready to take him over to granny’s. Mother always went to granny’s every Saturday, and generally some of the children went with her; but today they were to keep house. And their hearts were full of joyous and delightful feelings every time they remembered that the house they would have to keep had a Phoenix in it, AND a wishing carpet.

You can always keep the Lamb good and happy for quite a long time if you play the Noah’s Ark game with him. It is quite simple. He just sits on your lap and tells you what animal he is, and then you say the little poetry piece about whatever animal he chooses to be.

Of course, some of the animals, like the zebra and the tiger, haven’t got any poetry, because they are so difficult to rhyme to. The Lamb knows quite well which are the poetry animals.

‘I’m a baby bear!’ said the Lamb, snugging down; and Anthea began:

     ‘I love my little baby bear,
     I love his nose and toes and hair;
     I like to hold him in my arm,
     And keep him VERY safe and warm.’ 

And when she said ‘very’, of course there was a real bear’s hug.

Then came the eel, and the Lamb was tickled till he wriggled exactly like a real one:

     ‘I love my little baby eel,
     He is so squidglety to feel;
     He’ll be an eel when he is big—
     But now he’s just—a—tiny SNIG!’ 

Perhaps you didn’t know that a snig was a baby eel? It is, though, and the Lamb knew it.

‘Hedgehog now-!’ he said; and Anthea went on:

     ‘My baby hedgehog, how I like ye,
     Though your back’s so prickly-spiky;
     Your front is very soft, I’ve found,
     So I must love you front ways round!’ 

And then she loved him front ways round, while he squealed with pleasure.

It is a very baby game, and, of course, the rhymes are only meant for very, very small people—not for people who are old enough to read books, so I won’t tell you any more of them.

By the time the Lamb had been a baby lion and a baby weazel, and a baby rabbit and a baby rat, mother was ready; and she and the Lamb, having been kissed by everybody and hugged as thoroughly as it is possible to be when you’re dressed for out-of-doors, were seen to the tram by the boys. When the boys came back, every one looked at every one else and said—

‘Now!’

They locked the front door and they locked the back door, and they fastened all the windows. They moved the table and chairs off the carpet, and Anthea swept it.

‘We must show it a LITTLE attention,’ she said kindly. ‘We’ll give it tea-leaves next time. Carpets like tea-leaves.’

Then every one put on its out-door things, because as Cyril said, they didn’t know where they might be going, and it makes people stare if you go out of doors in November in pinafores and without hats.

Then Robert gently awoke the Phoenix, who yawned and stretched itself, and allowed Robert to lift it on to the middle of the carpet, where it instantly went to sleep again with its crested head tucked under its golden wing as before. Then every one sat down on the carpet.

‘Where shall we go?’ was of course the question, and it was warmly discussed. Anthea wanted to go to Japan. Robert and Cyril voted for America, and Jane wished to go to the seaside.

‘Because there are donkeys there,’ said she.

‘Not in November, silly,’ said Cyril; and the discussion got warmer and warmer, and still nothing was settled.