The Magic City by Edith Nesbit Chapter 5 On the Carpet

The Princess was just Lucy.

'It's too bad,' said Philip. 'I do think.' Then he stopped short and just looked cross.

'The Princess and the Champion will now have their teas,' said Mr. Noah. 'Right about face, everybody, please, and quick march.'

Philip and Lucy found themselves marching side by side through the night made yellow with continuous fireworks.

You must picture them marching across a great plain of grass where many coloured flowers grew. You see a good many of Philip's buildings had been made on the drawing-room carpet at home, which was green with pink and blue and yellow and white flowers. And this carpet had turned into grass and growing flowers, following that strange law which caused things to change into other things, like themselves, but larger and really belonging to a living world.

No one spoke. Philip said nothing because he was in a bad temper. And if you are in a bad temper, nothing is a good thing to say. To circumvent a dragon and then kill it, and to have such an adventure end in tea with Lucy, was too much. And he had other reasons for silence too. And Lucy was silent because she had so much to say that she didn't know where to begin; and besides, she could feel how cross Philip was. The crowd did not talk because it was not etiquette to talk when taking part in processions. Mr. Noah did not talk because it made him out of breath to walk and talk at the same time, two things neither of which he had been designed to do.

So that it was quite a silent party which at last passed through the gateway of the town and up its streets.

Philip wondered where the tea would be--not in the prison of course. It was very late for tea, too, quite the middle of the night it seemed. But all the streets were brilliantly lighted, and flags and festoons of flowers hung from all the windows and across all the streets.

It was in the front of a big building in one of the great squares of the city that an extra display of coloured lamps disclosed open doors and red-carpeted steps. Mr. Noah hurried up them, and turned to receive Philip and Lucy.

'The City of Polistopolis,' he said, 'whose unworthy representative I am, greets in my person the most noble Sir Philip, Knight and Slayer of the Dragon. Also the Princess whom he has rescued. Be pleased to enter.'

They went up the red-cloth covered steps and into a hall, very splendid with silver and ivory. Mr. Noah stooped to a confidential question.

'You'd like a wash, perhaps?' he said, 'and your Princess too. And perhaps you'd like to dress up a little? Before the banquet, you know.'

'Banquet?' said Philip. 'I thought it was tea.'

'Business before pleasure,' said Mr. Noah; 'first the banquet, then the tea. This way to the dressing-rooms.'

There were two doors side by side. On one door was painted 'Knight's dressing-room,' on the other 'Princess's dressing-room.'

'Look out,' said Mr. Noah; 'the paint is wet. You see there wasn't much time.'

Philip found his dressing-room very interesting. The walls were entirely of looking-glass, and on tables in the middle of the room lay all sorts of clothes of beautiful colours and odd shapes. Shoes, stockings, hats, crowns, armour, swords, cloaks, breeches, waistcoats, jerkins, trunk hose. An open door showed a marble bath-room. The bath was sunk in the floor as the baths of luxurious Roman Empresses used to be, and as nowadays baths sometimes are, in model dwellings. (Only I am told that some people keep their coals in the baths--which is quite useless because coals are always black however much you wash them.)

Philip undressed and went into the warm clear water, greenish between the air and the marble. Why is it so pleasant to have a bath, and so tiresome to wash your hands and face in a basin? He put on his shirt and knickerbockers again, and wandered round the room looking at the clothes laid out there, and wondering which of the wonderful costumes would be really suitable for a knight to wear at a banquet. After considerable hesitation he decided on a little soft shirt of chain-mail that made just a double handful of tiny steel links as he held it. But a difficulty arose.

'I don't know how to put it on,' said Philip; 'and I expect the banquet is waiting. How cross it'll be.'

He stood undecided, holding the chain mail in his hands, when his eyes fell on a bell handle. Above it was an ivory plate, and on it in black letters the word Valet. Philip rang the bell.

Instantly a soft tap at the door heralded the entrance of a person whom Philip at the first glance supposed to be a sandwich man. But the second glance showed that the oblong flat things which he wore were not sandwich-boards, but dominoes. The person between them bowed low.

'Oh!' said Philip, 'I rang for the valet.'

'I am not the valet,' said the domino-enclosed person, who seemed to be in skintight black clothes under his dominoes, 'I am the Master of the Robes. I only attend on really distinguished persons. Double-six, at your service, Sir. Have you chosen your dress?'

'I'd like to wear the armour,' said Philip, holding it out. 'It seems the right thing for a Knight,' he added.

'Quite so, sir. I confirm your opinion.'

He proceeded to dress Philip in a white tunic and to fasten the coat of mail over this. 'I've had a great deal of experience,' he said; 'you couldn't have chosen better. You see, I'm master of the subject of dress. I am able to give my whole mind to it; my own dress being fixed by law and not subject to changes of fashion leaves me free to think for others. And I think deeply. But I see that you can think for yourself.'

You have no idea how jolly Philip looked in the mail coat and mailed hood--just like a Crusader.

At the doorway of the dressing-room he met Lucy in a short white dress and a coronal of pearls round her head. 'I always wanted to be a fairy,' she said.

'Did you have any one to dress you?' he asked.

'Oh no!' said Lucy calmly. 'I always dress myself.'

'Ladies have the advantage there,' said Double-six, bowing and walking backwards. 'The banquet is spread.'

It turned out to be spread on three tables, one along each side of a great room, and one across the top of the room, on a dais--such a table as that high one at which dons and distinguished strangers sit in the Halls of colleges.

Mr. Noah was already in his place in the middle of the high table, and Lucy and Philip now took their places at each side of him. The table was spread with all sorts of nice-looking foods and plates of a pink-and-white pattern very familiar to Philip. They were, in fact, as he soon realised, the painted wooden plates from his sister's old dolls' house. There was no food just in front of the children, only a great empty bowl of silver.

Philip fingered his knife and fork; the pattern of those also was familiar to him. They were indeed the little leaden ones out of the dolls' house knife-basket of green and silver filagree. He hungrily waited. Servants in straight yellow dresses and red masks and caps were beginning to handle the dishes. A dish was handed to him. A beautiful jelly it looked like. He took up his spoon and was just about to help himself, when Mr. Noah whispered ardently, 'Don't!' and as Philip looked at him in astonishment he added, still in a whisper, 'Pretend, can't you? Have you never had a pretending banquet?' But before he had caught the whisper, Philip had tried to press the edge of the leaden spoon into the shape of jelly. And he felt that the jelly was quite hard. He went through the form of helping himself, but it was just nothing that he put on his plate. And he saw that Mr. Noah and Lucy and all the other guests did the same. Presently another dish was handed to him. There was no changing of plates. 'They needn't,' Philip thought bitterly. This time it was a fat goose, not carved, and now Philip saw that it was attached to its dish with glue. Then he understood.

(You know the beautiful but uneatable feasts which are given you in a white cardboard box with blue binding and fine shavings to pack the dishes and keep them from breaking? I myself, when I was little, had such a banquet in a box. There were twelve dishes: a ham, brown and shapely; a pair of roast chickens, also brown and more anatomical than the ham; a glazed tongue, real tongue-shape, none of your tinned round mysteries; a dish of sausages; two handsome fish, a little blue, perhaps; a joint of beef, ribs I think, very red as to the lean and very white in the fat parts; a pork pie, delicately bronzed like a traveller in Central Africa. For sweets I had shapes, shapes of beauty, a jelly and a cream; a Swiss roll too, and a plum pudding; asparagus there was also and a cauliflower, and a dish of the greenest peas in all this grey world. This was my banquet outfit. I remember that the woodenness of it all depressed us wonderfully; the oneness of dish and food baffled all make-believe. With the point of nurse's scissors we prised the viands from the platters. But their wooden nature was unconquerable. One could not pretend to eat a whole chicken any better when it was detached from its dish, and the sausages were one solid block. And when you licked the jelly it only tasted of glue and paint. And when we tried to re-roast the chickens at the nursery grate, they caught fire, and then they smelt of gasworks and india-rubber. But I am wandering. When you remember the things that happened when you were a child, you could go on writing about them for ever. I will put all this in brackets, and then you need not read it if you don't want to.)

But those painted wooden foods adhering firmly to their dishes were the kind of food of which the banquet now offered to Philip and Lucy was composed. Only they had more dishes than I had. They had as well a turkey, eight raspberry jam tarts, a pine-apple, a melon, a dish of oysters in the shell, a piece of boiled bacon and a leg of mutton. But all were equally wooden and uneatable.

Philip and Lucy, growing hungrier and hungrier, pretended with sinking hearts to eat and enjoy the wooden feast. Wine was served in those little goblets which they knew so well, where the double glasses restrained and contained a red fluid which looked like wine. They did not want wine, but they were thirsty as well as hungry.

Philip wondered what the waiters were. He had plenty of time to wonder while the long banquet went on. It was not till he saw a group of them standing stiffly together at the end of the hall that he knew they must be the matches with which he had once peopled a city, no other inhabitants being at hand.

When all the dishes had been handed, speeches happened.

'Friends and fellow-citizens,' Mr. Noah began, and went on to say how brave and clever Sir Philip was, and how likely it was that he would turn out to be the Deliverer. Philip did not hear all this speech. He was thinking of things to eat.

Then every one in the hall stood and shouted, and Philip found that he was expected to take his turn at speech-making. He stood up trembling and wretched.

'Friends and fellow-citizens,' he said, 'thank you very much. I want to be the Deliverer, but I don't know if I can,' and sat down again amid roars of applause.

Then there was music, from a grated gallery. And then--I cannot begin to tell you how glad Lucy and Philip were--Mr. Noah said, once more in a whisper, 'Cheer up! the banquet is over. Now we'll have tea.'

'Tea' turned out to be bread and milk in a very cosy, blue-silk-lined room opening out of the banqueting-hall. Only Lucy, Philip and Mr. Noah were present. Bread and milk is very good even when you have to eat it with the leaden spoons out of the dolls'-house basket. When it was much later Mr. Noah suddenly said 'good-night,' and in a maze of sleepy repletion (look that up in the dicker, will you?) the children went to bed. Philip's bed was of gold with yellow satin curtains, and Lucy's was made of silver, with curtains of silk that were white. But the metals and colours made no difference to their deep and dreamless sleep.

And in the morning there was bread and milk again, and the two of them had it in the blue room without Mr. Noah.

'Well,' said Lucy, looking up from the bowl of white floating cubes, 'do you think you're getting to like me any better?'

'No,' said Philip, brief and stern like the skipper in the song.

'I wish you would,' said Lucy.

'Well, I can't,' said Philip; 'but I do want to say one thing. I'm sorry I bunked and left you. And I did come back.'

'I know you did,' said Lucy.

'I came back to fetch you,' said Philip, 'and now we'd better get along home.'

'You've got to do seven deeds of power before you can get home,' said Lucy.

'Oh! I remember, Perrin told me,' said he.

'Well,' Lucy went on, 'that'll take ages. No one can go out of this place twice unless he's a King-Deliverer. You've gone out once--without me. Before you can go again you've got to do seven noble deeds.'

'I killed the dragon,' said Philip, modestly proud.

'That's only one,' she said; 'there are six more.' And she ate bread and milk with firmness.

'Do you like this adventure?' he asked abruptly.

'It's more interesting than anything that ever happened to me,' she said. 'If you were nice I should like it awfully. But as it is----'

'I'm sorry you don't think I'm nice,' said he.

'Well, what do you think?' she said.

Philip reflected. He did not want not to be nice. None of us do. Though you might not think it to see how some of us behave. True politeness, he remembered having been told, consists in showing an interest in other people's affairs.

'Tell me,' he said, very much wishing to be polite and nice. 'Tell me what happened after I--after I--after you didn't come down the ladder with me.'

'Alone and deserted,' Lucy answered promptly, 'my sworn friend having hooked it and left me, I fell down, and both my hands were full of gravel, and the fierce soldiery surrounded me.'

'I thought you were coming just behind me,' said Philip, frowning.

'Well, I wasn't.'

'And then.'

'Well, then---- You were silly not to stay. They surrounded me--the soldiers, I mean--and the captain said, "Tell me the truth. Are you a Destroyer or a Deliverer?" So, of course, I said I wasn't a destroyer, whatever I was; and then they took me to the palace and said I could be a Princess till the Deliverer King turned up. They said,' she giggled gaily, 'that my hair was the hair of a Deliverer and not of a Destroyer, and I've been most awfully happy ever since. Have you?'

'No,' said Philip, remembering the miserable feeling of having been a coward and a sneak that had come upon him when he found that he had saved his own skin and left Lucy alone in an unknown and dangerous world; 'not exactly happy, I shouldn't call it.'

'It's beautiful being a Princess,' said Lucy. 'I wonder what your next noble deed will be. I wonder whether I could help you with it?' She looked wistfully at him.

'If I'm going to do noble deeds I'll do them. I don't want any help, thank you, especially from girls,' he answered.

'I wish you did,' said Lucy, and finished her bread and milk.

Philip's bowl also was empty. He stretched arms and legs and neck.

'It is rum,' he said; 'before this began I never thought a thing like this could begin, did you?'

'I don't know,' she said, 'everything's very wonderful. I've always been expecting things to be more wonderful than they ever have been. You get sort of hints and nudges, you know. Fairy tales--yes, and dreams, you can't help feeling they must mean something. And your sister and my daddy; the two of them being such friends when they were little, and then parted and then getting friends again;--that's like a story in a dream, isn't it? And your building the city and me helping. And my daddy being such a dear darling and your sister being such a darling dear. It did make me think beautiful things were sort of likely. Didn't it you?'

'No,' said Philip; 'I mean yes,' he said, and he was in that moment nearer to liking Lucy than he had ever been before; 'everything's very wonderful, isn't it?'

'Ahem!' said a respectful cough behind them.

They turned to meet the calm gaze of Double-six.

'If you've quite finished breakfast, Sir Philip,' he said, 'Mr. Noah would be pleased to see you in his office.'

'Me too?' said Lucy, before Philip could say, 'Only me, I suppose?'

'You may come too, if you wish it, your Highness,' said Double-six, bowing stiffly.

They found Mr. Noah very busy in a little room littered with papers; he was sitting at a table writing.

'Good-morning, Princess,' he said, 'good-morning, Sir Philip. You see me very busy. I am trying to arrange for your next labour.'

'Do you mean my next deed of valour?' Philip asked.

'We have decided that all your deeds need not be deeds of valour,' said Mr. Noah, fiddling with a pen. 'The strange labours of Hercules, you remember, were some of them dangerous and some merely difficult. I have decided that difficult things shall count. There are several things that really need doing,' he went on half to himself. 'There's the fruit supply, and the Dwellers by the sea, and---- But that must wait. We try to give you as much variety as possible. Yesterday's was an out-door adventure. To-day's shall be an indoor amusement. I say to-day's but I confess that I think it not unlikely that the task I am now about to set the candidate for the post of King-Deliverer, the task, I say, which I am now about to set you, may, quite possibly, occupy some days, if not weeks of your valuable time.'

'But our people at home,' said Philip. 'It isn't that I'm afraid, really and truly it isn't, but they'll go out of their minds, not knowing what's become of us. Oh, Mr. Noah! do let us go back.'

'It's all right,' said Mr. Noah. 'However long you stay here time won't move with them. I thought I'd explained that to you.'

'But you said----'

'I said you'd set our clocks to the time of your world when you deserted your little friend. But when you had come back for her, and rescued her from the dragon, the clocks went their own time again. There's only just that time missing that happened between your coming here the second time and your killing the dragon.'

'I see,' said Philip. But he didn't. I only hope you do.

'You can take your time about this new job,' said Mr. Noah, 'and you may get any help you like. I shan't consider you've failed till you've been at it three months. After that the Pretenderette would be entitled to her chance.'

'If you're quite sure that the time here doesn't count at home,' said Philip, 'what is it, please, that we've got to do?'

'The greatest intellects of our country have for many ages occupied themselves with the problem which you are now asked to solve,' said Mr. Noah. 'Your late gaoler, Mr. Bacon-Shakespeare, has written no less than twenty-seven volumes, all in cypher, on this very subject. But as he has forgotten what cypher he used, and no one else ever knew it, his volumes are of but little use to us.'

'I see,' said Philip. And again he didn't.

Mr. Noah rose to his full height, and when he stood up the children looked very small beside him.

'Now,' he said, 'I will tell you what it is that you must do. I should like to decree that your second labour should be the tidying up of this room--all these papers are prophecies relating to the Deliverer--but it is one of our laws that the judge must not use any public matter for his own personal benefit. So I have decided that the next labour shall be the disentangling of the Mazy Carpet. It is in the Pillared Hall of Public Amusements. I will get my hat and we will go there at once. I can tell you about it as we go.'

And as they went down streets and past houses and palaces all of which Philip could now dimly remember to have built at some time or other, Mr. Noah went on:

'It is a very beautiful hall, but we have never been able to use it for public amusement or anything else. The giant who originally built this city placed in this hall a carpet so thick that it rises to your knees, and so intricately woven that none can disentangle it. It is far too thick to pass through any of the doors. It is your task to remove it.'

'Why that's as easy as easy,' said Philip. 'I'll cut it in bits and bring out a bit at a time.'

'That would be most unfortunate for you,' said Mr. Noah. 'I filed only this morning a very ancient prophecy:

'He who shall the carpet sever, By fire or flint or steel, Shall be fed on orange pips for ever, And dressed in orange peel.

You wouldn't like that, you know.'

'No,' said Philip grimly, 'I certainly shouldn't.'

'The carpet must be unravelled, unwoven, so that not a thread is broken. Here is the hall.'

They went up steps--Philip sometimes wished he had not been so fond of building steps--and through a dark vestibule to an arched door. Looking through it they saw a great hall and at its end a raised space, more steps, and two enormous pillars of bronze wrought in relief with figures of flying birds.

'Father's Japanese vases,' Lucy whispered.

The floor of the room was covered by the carpet. It was loosely but difficultly woven of very thick soft rope of a red colour. When I say difficultly, I mean that it wasn't just straight-forward in the weaving, but the threads went over and under and round about in such a determined and bewildering way that Philip felt--and said--that he would rather untie the string of a hundred of the most difficult parcels than tackle this.

'Well,' said Mr. Noah, 'I leave you to it. Board and lodging will be provided at the Provisional Palace where you slept last night. All citizens are bound to assist when called upon. Dinner is at one. Good-morning!'

Philip sat down in the dark archway and gazed helplessly at the twisted strands of the carpet. After a moment of hesitation Lucy sat down too, clasped her arms round her knees, and she also gazed at the carpet. They had all the appearance of shipwrecked mariners looking out over a great sea and longing for a sail.

'Ha ha--tee hee!' said a laugh close behind them. They turned. And it was the motor-veiled lady, the hateful Pretenderette, who had crept up close behind them, and was looking down at them through her veil.

'What do you want?' said Philip severely.

'I want to laugh,' said the motor lady. 'I want to laugh at you. And I'm going to.'

'Well go and laugh somewhere else then,' Philip suggested.

'Ah! but this is where I want to laugh. You and your carpet! You'll never do it. You don't know how. But I do.'

'Come away,' whispered Lucy, and they went. The Pretenderette followed slowly. Outside, a couple of Dutch dolls in check suits were passing, arm in arm.

'Help!' cried Lucy suddenly, and the Dutch dolls paused and took their hats off.

'What is it?' the taller doll asked, stroking his black painted moustache.

'Mr. Noah said all citizens were bound to help us,' said Lucy a little breathlessly.

'But of course,' said the shorter doll, bowing with stiff courtesy.

'Then,' said Lucy, 'will you please take that motor person away and put her somewhere where she can't bother till we've done the carpet?'

'Delighted,' exclaimed the agreeable Dutch strangers, darted up the steps and next moment emerged with the form of the Pretenderette between them, struggling indeed, but struggling vainly.

'You need not have the slightest further anxiety,' the taller Dutchman said; 'dismiss the incident from your mind. We will take her to the hall of justice. Her offence is bothering people in pursuit of their duty. The sentence is imprisonment for as long as the botheree chooses. Good-morning.'

'Oh, thank you!' said both the children together.

When they were alone, Philip said--and it was not easy to say it:

'That was jolly clever of you, Lucy. I should never have thought of it.'

'Oh, that's nothing,' said Lucy, looking down. 'I could do more than that.'

'What?' he asked.

'I could unravel the carpet,' said Lucy, with deep solemnity.

'But it's me that's got to do it,' Philip urged.

'Every citizen is bound to help, if called in,' Lucy reminded him. 'And I suppose a princess is a citizen.'

'Perhaps I can do it by myself,' said Philip.

'Try,' said Lucy, and sat down on the steps, her fairy skirts spreading out round her like a white double hollyhock.

He tried. He went back and looked at the great coarse cables of the carpet. He could see no end to the cables, no beginning to his task. And Lucy just went on sitting there like a white hollyhock. And time went on, and presently became, rather urgently, dinner-time.

So he went back to Lucy and said:

'All right, you can show me how to do it, if you like.'

But Lucy replied:

'Not much! If you want me to help you with this, you'll have to promise to let me help in all the other things. And you'll have to ask me to help--ask me politely too.'

'I shan't then,' said Philip. But in the end he had to--politely also.

'With pleasure,' said Lucy, the moment he asked her, and he could see she had been making up what she should answer, while he was making up his mind to ask. 'I shall be delighted to help you in this and all the other tasks. Say yes.'

'Yes,' said Philip, who was very hungry.

'"In this and all the other tasks" say.'

'In this and all the other tasks,' he said. 'Go on. How can we do it?'

'It's crochet,' Lucy giggled. 'It's a little crochet mat I'd made of red wool; and I put it in the hall that night. You've just got to find the end and pull, and it all comes undone. You just want to find the end and pull.'

'It's too heavy for us to pull.'

'Well,' said Lucy, who had certainly had time to think everything out, 'you get one of those twisty round things they pull boats out of the sea with, and I'll find the end while you're getting it.'

She ran up the steps and Philip looked round the buildings on the other three sides of the square, to see if any one of them looked like a capstan shop, for he understood, as of course you also have done, that a capstan was what Lucy meant.

On a building almost opposite he read, 'Naval Necessaries Supply Company,' and he ran across to it.

'Rather,' said the secretary of the company, a plump sailor-doll, when Philip had explained his needs. 'I'll send a dozen men over at once. Only too proud to help, Sir Philip. The navy is always keen on helping valour and beauty.'

'I want to be brave,' said Philip, 'but I'd rather not be beautiful.'

'Of course not,' said the secretary; and added surprisingly, 'I meant the Lady Lucy.'

'Oh!' said Philip.

So twelve bluejackets and a capstan outside the Hall of Public Amusements were soon the centre of a cheering crowd. Lucy had found the end of the rope, and two sailors dragged it out and attached it to the capstan, and then--round and round with a will and a breathless chanty--the carpet was swiftly unravelled. Dozens of eager helpers stood on the parts of the carpet which were not being unravelled, to keep it steady while the pulling went on.

The news of Philip's success spread like wild-fire through the city, and the crowds gathered thicker and thicker. The great doors beyond the pillars with the birds on them were thrown open, and Mr. Noah and the principal citizens stood there to see the end of the unravelling.

'Bravo!' said every one in tremendous enthusiasm. 'Bravo! Sir Philip.'

'It wasn't me,' said Philip difficultly, when the crowd paused for breath; 'it was Lucy thought of it.'

'Bravo! Bravo!' shouted the crowd louder than ever. 'Bravo, for the Lady Lucy! Bravo for Sir Philip, the modest truth-teller!'

'Bravo, my dear,' said Mr. Noah, waving his hat and thumping Lucy on the back.

'I'm awfully glad I thought of it,' she said; 'that makes two deeds Sir Philip's done, doesn't it? Two out of the seven.'

'Yes, indeed,' said Mr. Noah enthusiastically. 'I must make him a baronet now. His title will grow grander with each deed. There's an old prophecy that the person who finds out how to unravel the carpet must be the first to dance in the Hall of Public Amusements.

'The clever one, the noble one, Who makes the carpet come undone, Shall be the first to dance a measure Within the Hall of public pleasure.

I suppose public amusement was too difficult a rhyme even for these highly-skilled poets, our astrologers. You, my child, seem to have been well inspired in your choice of a costume. Dance, then, my Lady Lucy, and let the prophecy be fulfilled.'

So, all down the wide clear floor of the Hall of Public Amusement, Lucy danced. And the people of the city looked on and applauded, Philip with the rest.