The Magic City by Edith Nesbit Chapter 10 The Great Sloth

You have heard of Indians shooting rapids in their birch-bark canoes? And perhaps you have yourself sailed a toy boat on a stream, and made a dam of clay, and waited with more or less patience till the water rose nearly to the top, and then broken a bit of your dam out and made a waterfall and let your boat drift over the edge of it. You know how it goes slowly at first, then hesitates and sweeps on more and more quickly. Sometimes it upsets; and sometimes it shudders and strains and trembles and sways to one side and to the other, and at last rights itself and makes up its mind, and rushes on down the stream, usually to be entangled in the clump of rushes at the stream's next turn. This is what happened to that good yacht, the Lightning Loose. She shot over the edge of that dark smooth subterranean waterfall, hung a long breathless moment between still air and falling water, slid down like a flash, dashed into the stream below, shuddered, reeled, righted herself and sped on. You have perhaps been down the water chute at Earl's Court? It was rather like that.

'It's--it's all right,' said Philip, in a rather shaky whisper. 'She's going on all right.'

'Yes,' said Lucy, holding his arm very tight; 'yes, I'm sure she's going on all right.'

'Are we drowned?' said a trembling squeak. 'Oh, Max, are we really drowned?'

'I don't think so,' Max replied with caution. 'And if we are, my dear, we cannot undrown ourselves by screams.'

'Far from it,' said the parrot, who had for the moment been rendered quite speechless by the shock. And you know a parrot is not made speechless just by any little thing. 'So we may just as well try to behave,' it said.

The lamps had certainly behaved, and behaved beautifully; through the wild air of the fall, the wild splash as the Lightning Loose struck the stream below, the lamps had shone on, seemingly undisturbed.

'An example to us all,' said the parrot.

'Yes, but,' said Lucy, 'what are we to do?'

'When adventures take a turn one is far from expecting, one does what one can,' said the parrot.

'And what's that?'

'Nothing,' said the parrot. 'Philip has relieved Max at the helm and is steering a straight course between the banks--if you can call them banks. There is nothing else to be done.'

There plainly wasn't. The Lightning Loose rushed on through the darkness. Lucy reflected for a moment and then made cocoa. This was real heroism. It cheered every one up, including the cocoa-maker herself. It was impossible to believe that anything dreadful was going to happen when you were making that soft, sweet, ordinary drink.

'I say,' Philip remarked when she carried a cup to him at the wheel, 'I've been thinking. All this is out of a book. Some one must have let it out. I know what book it's out of too. And if the whole story got out of the book we're all right. Only we shall go on for ages and climb out at last, three days' journey from Trieste.'

'I see,' said Lucy, and added that she hated geography. 'Drink your cocoa while it's hot,' she said in motherly accents, and 'what book is it?'

'It's The Last Cruise of the Teal,' he said. 'Helen gave it me just before she went away. It's a ripping book, and I used it for the roof of the outer court of the Hall of Justice. I remember it perfectly. The chaps on the Teal made torches of paper soaked in paraffin.'

'We haven't any,' said Lucy; 'besides our lamps light everything up all right. Oh! there's Brenda crying again. She hasn't a shadow of pluck.'

She went quickly to the cabin where Max was trying to cheer Brenda by remarks full of solid good sense, to which Brenda paid no attention whatever.

'I knew how it would be,' she kept saying in a whining voice; 'I told you so from the beginning. I wish we hadn't come. I want to go home. Oh! what a dreadful thing to happen to dear little dogs.'

'Brenda,' said Lucy firmly, 'if you don't stop whining you shan't have any cocoa.'

Brenda stopped at once and wagged her tail appealingly.

'Cocoa?' she said, 'did any one say cocoa? My nerves are so delicate. I know I'm a trial, dear Max, it's no use your pretending I'm not, but there is nothing like cocoa for the nerves. Plenty of sugar, please, dear Lucy. Thank you so much! Yes, it's just as I like it.'

'There will be other things to eat by and by,' said Lucy. 'People who whine won't get any.'

'I'm sure nobody would dream of whining,' said Brenda. 'I know I'm too sensitive; but you can do anything with dear little dogs by kindness. And as for whining--do you know it's a thing I've never been subject to, from a child, never. Max will tell you the same.'

Max said nothing, but only fixed his beautiful eyes hopefully on the cocoa jug.

And all the time the yacht was speeding along the underground stream, beneath the vast arch of the underground cavern.

'The worst of it is we may be going ever so far away from where we want to get to,' said Philip, when Max had undertaken the steering again.

'All roads,' remarked the parrot, 'lead to Somnolentia. And besides the ship is travelling due north--at least so the ship's compass states, and I have no reason as yet for doubting its word.'

'Hullo!' cried more than one voice, and the ship shot out of the dark cavern into a sheet of water that lay spread under a white dome. The stream that had brought them there seemed to run across one side of this pool. Max, directed by the parrot, steered the ship into smooth water, where she lay at rest at last in the very middle of this great underground lake.

'This isn't out of The Cruise of the Teal,' said Philip. 'They must have shut that book.'

'I think it's out of a book about Mexico or Peru or Ingots or some geographical place,' said Lucy; 'it had a green-and-gold binding. I think you used it for the other end of the outer justice court. And if you did, this dome's solid silver, and there's a hole in it, and under this dome there's untold treasure in gold incas.'

'What's incas?'

'Gold bars, I believe,' said Lucy; 'and Mexicans come down through the hole in the roof and get it, and when enemies come they flood it with water. It's flooded now,' she added unnecessarily.

'I wish adventures had never been invented,' said Brenda. 'No, dear Lucy, I am not whining. Far from it. But if a dear little dog might suggest it, we should all be better in a home, should we not?'

All eyes now perceived a dark hole in the roof, a round hole exactly in the middle of the shining dome. And as they gazed the dark hole became light. And they saw above them a white shining disk like a very large and very bright moon. It was the light of day.

'Some one has opened the trap-door,' said Lucy. 'The Ingots always closed their treasure-vaults with trap-doors.'

The bright disk was obscured; confused shapes broke its shining roundness. Then another disk, small and very black appeared in the middle of it; the black disk grew larger and larger and larger. It was coming down to them. Slowly and steadily it came; now it reached the level of the dome, now it hung below it; down, down, down it came, past the level of their eager eyes and splashed in the water close by the ship. It was a large empty bucket. The rope which held it was jerked from above; the bucket dipped and filled and was drawn up again slowly and steadily till it disappeared in the hole in the roof.

'Quick,' said the parrot, 'get the ship exactly under the hole, and next time the bucket comes down you can go up in it.'

'This is out of the Arabian Nights, I think,' said Lucy, when the yacht was directly under the hole in the roof. 'But who is it that keeps on opening the books? Somebody must be pulling Polistopolis down.'

'The Pretenderette, I shouldn't wonder,' said Philip gloomily. 'She isn't the Deliverer, so she must be the Destroyer. Nobody else can get into Polistarchia, you know.'

'There's me.'

'Oh, you're Deliverer too.'

'Thank you,' said Lucy gratefully. 'But there's Helen.'

'She was only on the Island, you know; she couldn't come to Polistarchia. Look out!'

The bucket was descending again, and instead of splashing in the water it bumped on the deck.

'You go first,' said Philip to Lucy.

'And you,' said Max to Brenda.

'Oh, I'll go first if you like,' said Philip.

'Yes,' said Max, 'I'll go first if you like, Brenda.'

You see Philip felt that he ought to give Lucy the first chance of escaping from the poor Lightning Loose. Yet he could not be at all sure what it was that she would be escaping to. And if there was danger overhead, of course he ought to be the one to go first to face it. And the worthy Max felt the same about Brenda.

And Lucy felt just the same as they did. I don't know what Brenda felt. She whined a little. Then for one moment Lucy and Philip stood on the deck each grasping the handle of the bucket and looking at each other, and the dogs looked at them, and the parrot looked at every one in turn. An impatient jerk and shake of the rope from above reminded them that there was no time to lose.

Lucy decided that it was more dangerous to go than to stay, just at the same moment when Philip decided that it was more dangerous to stay than to go, so when Lucy stepped into the bucket Philip helped her eagerly. Max thought the same as Philip, and I am afraid Brenda agreed with them. At any rate she leaped into Lucy's lap and curled her long length round just as the rope tightened and the bucket began to go up. Brenda screamed faintly, but her scream was stifled at once.

'I'll send the bucket down again the moment I get up,' Lucy called out; and a moment later, 'it feels awfully jolly, like a swing.'

And so saying she was drawn up into the hole in the roof of the dome. Then a sound of voices came down the shaft, a confused sound; the anxious little party on the Lightning Loose could not make out any distinct words. They all stood staring up, expecting, waiting for the bucket to come down again.

'I hate leaving the ship,' said Philip.

'You shall be the last to leave her,' said the parrot consolingly; 'that is if we can manage about Max without your having to sit on him in the bucket if he gets in first.'

'But how about you?' said Philip.

A little arrogantly the parrot unfolded half a bright wing.

'Oh!' said Philip enlightened and reminded. 'Of course! And you might have flown away at any time. And yet you stuck to us. I say, you know, that was jolly decent of you.'

'Not at all,' said the parrot with conscious modesty.

'But it was,' Philip insisted. 'You might have---- hullo!' cried Philip. The bucket came down again with a horrible rush. They held their breaths and looked to see the form of Lucy hurtling through the air. But no, the bucket swung loose a moment in mid-air, then it was hastily drawn up, and a hollow metallic clang echoed through the cavern.

'Brenda!' the cry was wrung from the heart of the sober self-contained Max.

'My wings and claws!' exclaimed the parrot.

'Oh, bother!' said Philip.

There was some excuse for these expressions of emotion. The white disk overhead had suddenly disappeared. Some one up above had banged the lid down. And all the manly hearts were below in the cave, and brave Lucy and helpless Brenda were above in a strange place, whose dangers those below could only imagine.

'I wish I'd gone,' said Philip. 'Oh, I wish I'd gone.'

'Yes, indeed,' said Max, with a deep sigh.

'I feel a little faint,' said the parrot; 'if some one would make a cup of cocoa.'

Thus did the excellent bird seek to occupy their minds in that first moment of disaster. And it was well that the captain and crew were thus saved from despair. For before the kettle boiled, the lid of the shaft opened about a foot and something largeish, roundish and lumpish fell heavily and bounced upon the deck of the Lightning Loose.

It was a pine-apple, fresh, ripe and juicy. On its side was carved in large letters of uncertain shape the one word 'WAIT.'

It was good advice and they took it. Really I do not see what else they could have done in any case. And they ate the pine-apple. And presently every one felt extremely sleepy.

'Waiting is one of those things that you can do as well asleep as awake, or even better,' said the parrot. 'Forty winks will do us all the good in the world.' He put his head under his wing where he sat on the binnacle.

'May I turn in alongside you, sir?' Max asked. 'I shan't feel the dreadful loneliness so much then.'

So Philip and Max curled up together on the deck, warmly covered with the spare flags of all nations, and the forty winks lasted for the space of a good night's rest--about ten hours, in fact. So ten hours' waiting was got through quite easily. But there was more waiting to do after they woke up, and that was not so easy.

* * * * * * *

When Lucy, sitting in the bucket with Brenda in her lap, felt the bucket lifted from the deck and swung loose in the air, it was as much as she could do to refrain from screaming. Brenda did scream, as you know, but Lucy stifled the sound in the folds of her frock.

Lucy bit her lips, made a great effort and called out that remark about the bucket-swing, just as though she were quite comfortable. It was very brave of her and helped her to go on being brave.

The bucket drew slowly up and up and up and passed from the silver dome into the dark shaft above. Lucy looked up. Yes, it was daylight that showed at the top of the shaft, and the rope was drawing her up towards it. Suppose the rope broke? Brenda was quite quiet now. She said afterwards that she must have fainted. And now the light was nearer and nearer. Now Lucy was in it, for the bucket had been drawn right up, and hands were reached out to draw it over the side of what seemed like a well. At that moment Lucy saw in a flash what might happen if the owners of the hands, in their surprise, let go the bucket and the windlass. She caught Brenda in her hands and threw the dog out on to the dry ground, and threw herself across the well parapet. Just in time, for a shout of surprise went up and the bucket went down, clanging against the well sides. The hands had let go.

Lucy clambered over the well side slowly, and when her feet stood on firm ground she saw that the hands were winding up the bucket again, and that it came very easily.

'Oh, don't!' she said. 'Let it go right down! There are some more people down there.'

'Sorry, but it's against the rules. The bucket only goes down this well forty times a day. And that was the fortieth time.'

They pulled the bucket in and banged down the lid of the well. Some one padlocked it and put the key in his pocket. And Lucy and he stood facing each other. He was a little round-headed man in a curious stiff red tunic, and there was something about the general shape of him and his tunic which reminded Lucy of something, only she could not remember what. Behind him stood two others, also red-tunicked and round-headed.

Brenda crouched at Lucy's feet and whined softly, and Lucy waited for the strangers to speak.

'You shouldn't do that,' said the red-tunicked man at last, 'it was a great shock to us, your bobbing up as you did. It will keep us awake at night, just remembering it.'

'I'm sorry,' said Lucy.

'You should always come into strange towns by the front gate,' said the man; 'try to remember that, will you? Good-night.'

'But you're not going off like this,' said Lucy. 'Let me write a note and drop it down to the others. Have you a bit of pencil, and paper?'

'No,' said the strange people, staring at her.

'Haven't you anything I can write on?' Lucy asked them.

'There's nothing here but pine-apples,' said one of them at last.

So she cut a pine-apple from among the hundreds that grew among the rocks near by, and carved 'WAIT' on it with her penknife.

'Now,' she said, 'open that well lid.'

'It's as much as our lives are worth,' said the leader.

'No it isn't,' said Lucy; 'there's no law against dropping pine-apples into the well. You know there isn't. It isn't like drawing water. And if you don't I shall set my little dog at you. She is very fierce.'

Brenda was so flattered that she showed her teeth and growled.

'Oh, very well,' said the stranger; 'anything to avoid fuss.'

When the well lid was padlocked down again, Lucy said:

'What country is this?' though she was almost sure, because of the pine-apples, that it was Somnolentia. And when they had said that word she said:

'Now I'll tell you something. The Deliverer is coming up that well next time you draw water. He is coming to deliver you from the bondage of the Great Sloth.'

'It is true,' said the red round-headed leader, 'that we are in bondage. And the Great Sloth wearies us with the singing of choric songs when we long to be asleep. But none can deliver us. There is no hope. There is nothing good but sleep. And of that we have never enough.'

'Oh, dear,' said Lucy despairingly, 'aren't there any women here? They always have more sense than men.'

'What you say is rude as well as untrue,' said the red leader; 'but to avoid fuss we will lead you and your fierce dog to the huts of the women. And then perhaps you will allow us to go to sleep.'

The huts were poor and mean, little fenced-in corners in the ruins of what had once been a great and beautiful city, with gardens and streams; but now the streams were dry and nothing grew in the gardens but weeds and pine-apples.

But the women--who all wore green tunics of the same stiff shape as the men's--were not quite so sleepy as their husbands. They brought Lucy fresh pine-apples to eat, and were dreamily interested in the cut of her clothes and the begging accomplishments of Brenda. And from the women she learned several things about the Somnolentians. They all wore the same shaped tunics, only the colours differed. The women's were green, the drawers of water wore red, the attendants of the Great Sloth wore black, and the pine-apple gatherers wore yellow.

And as Lucy sat at the door of the hut and watched the people in these four colours going lazily about among the ruins she suddenly knew what they were, and she exclaimed:

'I know what you are; you're Halma men.'

Instantly every man within earshot made haste to get away, and the women whispered, 'Hush! It is death to breathe that name.'

'But why?' Lucy asked.

'Halma was the great captain of our race,' said the woman, 'and the Great Sloth fears that if we hear his name it will rouse us and we shall break from bondage and become once more a free people.'

Lucy determined that they should hear that name pretty often; but before she could speak it again the woman sighed, and remarking 'The Great Sloth sleeps,' fell asleep then and there over the pine-apple she was peeling. A vast silence settled on the city, and next moment Lucy also slept. She slept for hours.

* * * * * * *

It took her some time to find the keeper of the padlock key, and when she had found him he refused to use it. Nothing would move him, not even the threat of the fierceness of Brenda.

At last, almost in despair, Lucy suddenly remembered a word of power.

'I command you to open the well and let down the bucket,' she said. 'I command you by the great name of Halma.'

'It is death to speak that name,' said the keeper of the key, looking over his shoulder anxiously.

'It is life to speak that name,' said Lucy. 'Halma! Halma! Halma! If you don't open that well I'll carve the name on a pine-apple and send it in on the golden tray with the Great Sloth's dinner.'

'It would have the lives of hundreds for that,' said the keeper in horror.

'Open the well then,' said Lucy.

* * * * * * *

They all held a council as soon as Philip and Max had been safely drawn up in the bucket, and Lucy told them all she knew.

'I think whatever we do we ought to be quick,' said Lucy; 'that Great Sloth is dangerous. I'm sure it is. It's sent already to say I am to be brought to its presence to sing songs to it while it goes to sleep. It doesn't mind me because it knows I'm not the Deliverer. And if you'll let me, I believe I can work everything all right. But if it knows you're here, it'll be much harder.'

The degraded Halma men were watching them from a distance, in whispering groups.

'I shall go and sing to the Great Sloth,' she said, 'and you must go about and say the name of power to every one you meet, and tell them you're the Deliverer. Then if my idea doesn't come off, we must overpower the Great Sloth by numbers and . . . . You just go about saying "Halma!"--see?'

'While you do the dangerous part? Likely!' said Philip.

'It's not dangerous. It never hurts the people who sing--never,' said Lucy. 'Now I'm going.'

And she went before Philip could stop her.

'Let her go,' said the parrot; 'she is a wise child.'

The temple of the Great Sloth was built of solid gold. It had beautiful pillars and doorways and windows and courts, one inside the other, each paved with gold flagstones. And in the very middle of everything was a large room which was entirely feather-bed. There the Great Sloth passed its useless life in eating, sleeping and listening to music.

Outside the moorish arch that led to this inner room Lucy stopped and began to sing. She had a clear little voice and she sang 'Jockey to the Fair,' and 'Early one morning,' and then she stopped.

And a great sleepy slobbery voice came out from the room and said:

'Your songs are in very bad taste. Do you know no sleepy songs?'

'Your people sing you sleepy songs,' said Lucy. 'What a pity they can't sing to you all the time.'

'You have a sympathetic nature,' said the Great Sloth, and it came out and leaned on the pillar of its door and looked at her with sleepy interest. It was enormous, as big as a young elephant, and it walked on its hind legs like a gorilla. It was very black indeed.

'It is a pity,' it said; 'but they say they cannot live without drinking, so they waste their time in drawing water from the wells.'

'Wouldn't it be nice,' said Lucy, 'if you had a machine for drawing water. Then they could sing to you all day--if they chose.'

'If I chose,' said the Great Sloth, yawning like a hippopotamus. 'I am sleepy. Go!'

'No,' said Lucy, and it was so long since the Great Sloth had heard that word that the shock of the sound almost killed its sleepiness.

'What did you say?' it asked, as if it could not believe its large ears.

'I said "No,"' said Lucy. 'I mean that you are so great and grand you have only to wish for anything and you get it.'

'Is that so?' said the Great Sloth dreamily and like an American.

'Yes,' said Lucy with firmness. 'You just say, "I wish I had a machine to draw up water for eight hours a day." That's the proper length for a working day. Father says so.'

'Say it all again, and slower,' said the creature. 'I didn't quite catch what you said.'

Lucy repeated the words.

'If that's all. . . .' said the Great Sloth; 'now say it again, very slowly indeed.'

Lucy did so and the Great Sloth repeated after her:

'I wish I had a machine to draw up water for eight hours a day.'

'Don't,' it said angrily, looking back over its shoulder into the feather-bedded room, 'don't, I say. Where are you shoving to? Who are you? What are you doing in my room? Come out of it.'

Something did come out of the room, pushing the Great Sloth away from the door. And what came out was the vast feather-bed in enormous rolls and swellings and bulges. It was being pushed out by something so big and strong that it was stronger that the Great Sloth itself, and pushed that mountain of lazy sloth-flesh half across its own inner courtyard. Lucy retreated before its advancing bulk and its extreme rage.

'Push me out of my own feather-bedroom, would it?' said the Sloth, now hardly sleepy at all. 'You wait till I get hold of it, whatever it is.'

The whole of the feather-bed was out in the courtyard now, and the Great Sloth climbed slowly back over it into its room to find out who had dared to outrage its Slothful Majesty.

Lucy waited, breathless with hope and fear, as the Great Sloth blundered back into the inner room of its temple. It did not come out again. There was a silence, and then a creaking sound and the voice of the Great Sloth saying:

'No, no, no, I won't. Let go, I tell you.' Then more sounds of creaking and the sound of metal on metal.

She crept to the arch and peeped round it.

The room that had been full of feather-bed was now full of wheels and cogs and bands and screws and bars. It was full, in fact, of a large and complicated machine. And the handle of that machine was being turned by the Great Sloth itself.

'Let me go,' said the Great Sloth, gnashing its great teeth. 'I won't work!'

'You must,' said a purring voice from the heart of the machinery. 'You wished for me, and now you have to work me eight hours a day. It is the law'; it was the machine itself which spoke.

'I'll break you,' said the Sloth.

'I am unbreakable,' said the machine with gentle pride.

'This is your doing,' said the Sloth, turning its furious eyes on Lucy in the doorway. 'You wait till I catch you!' And all the while it had to go on turning that handle.

'Thank you,' said Lucy politely; 'I think I will not wait. And I shall have eight hours' start,' she added.

Even as she spoke a stream of clear water began to run from the pumping machine. It slid down the gold steps and across the golden court. Lucy ran out into the ruined square of the city shouting:

'Halma! Halma! Halma! To me, Halma's men!'

And the men, already excited by Philip, who had gone about saying that name of power without a moment's pause all the time Lucy had been in the golden temple, gathered round her in a crowd.

'Quick!' she said; 'the Great Sloth is pumping water up for you. He will pump for eight hours a day. Quick! dig a channel for the water to run in. The Deliverer,' she pointed to Philip, 'has given you back your river.'

Some ran to look out old rusty half-forgotten spades and picks. But others hesitated and said:

'The Great Sloth will work for eight hours, and then it will be free to work vengeance on us.'

'I will go back,' said Lucy, 'and explain to it that if it does not behave nicely you will all wish for machine guns, and it knows now that if people wish for machinery they have to use it. It will be awake now for eight hours and if you all work for eight hours a day you'll soon have your city as fine as ever. And there's one new law. Every time the clock strikes you must all say "Halma!" aloud, every one of you, to remind yourselves of your great destiny, and that you are no longer slaves of the Great Sloth.'

She went back and explained machine guns very carefully to the now hard-working Sloth. When she came back all the men were at work digging a channel for the new river.

The women and children crowded round Lucy and Philip.

'Ah!' said the oldest woman of all, 'now we shall be able to wash in water. I've heard my grandmother say water was very pleasant to wash in. I never thought I should live to wash in water myself.'

'Why?' Lucy asked. 'What do you wash in?'

'Pine-apple juice,' said a dozen voices, 'when we do wash!'

'But that must be very sticky,' said Lucy.

'It is,' said the oldest woman of all; 'very!'