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The Magic City by Edith Nesbit Chapter 11 The Night Attack

The Halma men were not naturally lazy. They were, in the days before the coming of the Great Sloth, a most energetic and industrious people. Now that the Sloth was obliged to work eight hours a day, the weight of its constant and catching sleepiness was taken away, and the people set to work in good earnest. (I did explain, didn't I, that the Great Sloth's sleepiness really was catching, like measles?)

So now the Halma men were as busy as ants. Some dug the channel for the new stream, some set to work to restore the buildings, while others weeded the overgrown gardens and ploughed the deserted fields. The head Halma man painted in large letters on a column in the market-place these words:

'This city is now called by its ancient name of Briskford. Any citizen found calling it Somnolentia will not be allowed to wash in water for a week.'

The head-man was full of schemes, the least of which was the lighting of the town by electricity, the power to be supplied by the Great Sloth.

'He can't go on pumping eight hours a day,' said the head-man; 'I can easily adjust the machine to all sorts of other uses.'

In the evening a banquet was (of course) given to the Deliverers. The banquet was all pine-apple and water, because there had been no time to make or get anything else. But the speeches were very flattering; and Philip and Lucy were very pleased, more so than Brenda, who did not like pine-apple and made but little effort to conceal her disappointment. Max accepted bits of pine-apple, out of politeness, and hid them among the feet of the guests so that nobody's feelings should be hurt.

'I don't know how we're to get back to the island,' said Philip next day, 'now we've lost the Lightning Loose.'

'I think we'd better go back by way of Polistopolis,' said Lucy, 'and find out who's been opening the books. If they go on they may let simply anything out. And if the worst comes to the worst, perhaps we could get some one to help us to open the Teal book again and get the Teal out to cross to the island in.'

'Lu,' said Philip with feeling, 'you're clever, really clever. No, I'm not kidding. I mean it. And I'm sorry I ever said you were only a girl. But how are we to get to Polistopolis?'

It was a difficult problem. The head-man could offer no suggestions. It was Brenda who suggested asking the advice of the Great Sloth.

'He is such a fine figure of an animal,' she said admiringly; 'so handsome and distinguished-looking. I am sure he must have a really great mind. I always think good looks go with really great minds, don't you, dear Lucy?'

'We might as well,' said Philip, 'if no one can think of anything else.'

No one could. So they decided to take Brenda's advice.

Now that the Sloth worked every day it was not nearly so disagreeable as it had been when it slept so much.

The children approached it at the dinner hour and it listened patiently if drowsily to their question. When it had quite done, it reflected--or seemed to reflect; perhaps it had fallen asleep--until the town clock struck one, the time for resuming work. Then it got up and slouched towards its machine.

'Cucumbers,' it said, and began to turn the handle of its wheel. They had to wait till tea-time to ask it what it meant, for in that town the rule about not speaking to the man at the wheel was strictly enforced.

'Cucumbers,' the Sloth repeated, and added a careful explanation. 'You sit on the end of any young cucumber which points in the desired direction, and when it has grown to its full length--say sixteen inches--why, then you are sixteen inches on your way.'

'But that's not much,' said Lucy.

'Every little helps,' said the Sloth; 'more haste less speed. Then you wait till the cucumber seeds, and, when the new plants grow, you select the earliest cucumber that points in the desired direction and take your seat on it. By the end of the cucumber season you will be another sixteen--or with luck seventeen--inches on your way. Thirty-two inches in all, almost a yard. And thus you progress towards your goal, slowly but surely, like in politics.'

'Thank you very much,' said Philip; 'we will think it over.'

But it did not need much thought.

'If we could get a motor car!' said Philip. 'If you can get machines by wishing for them. . . .'

'The very thing,' said Lucy, 'let's find the head-man. We mustn't wish for a motor or we should have to go on using it. But perhaps there's some one here who'd like to drive a motor--for his living, you know?'

There was. A Halma man, with an inborn taste for machinery, had long pined to leave the gathering of pine-apples to others. He was induced to wish for a motor and a B.S.A. sixty horse-power car snorted suddenly in the place where a moment before no car was.

'Oh, the luxury! This is indeed like home,' sighed Brenda, curling up on the air-cushions.

And the children certainly felt a gloriously restful sensation. Nothing to be done; no need to think or bother. Just to sit quiet and be borne swiftly on through wonderful cities, all of which Philip vaguely remembered to have seen, small and near, and built by his own hands and Helen's.

And so, at last, they came close to Polistopolis. Philip never could tell how it was that he stopped the car outside the city. It must have been some quite unaccountable instinct, because naturally, you know, when you are not used to being driven in motors, you like to dash up to the house you are going to, and enjoy your friends' enjoyment of the grand way in which you have travelled. But Philip felt--in that quite certain and quite unexplainable way in which you do feel things sometimes--that it was best to stop the car among the suburban groves of southernwood, and to creep into the town in the disguise afforded by motor coats, motor veils and motor goggles. (For of course all these had come with the motor car when it was wished for, because no motor car is complete without them.)

They said good-bye warmly to the Halma motor man, and went quietly towards the town, Max and Brenda keeping to heel in the most praiseworthy way, and the parrot nestling inside Philip's jacket, for it was chilled by the long rush through the evening air.

And now the scattered houses and spacious gardens gave place to the streets of Polistopolis, the capital of the kingdom. And the streets were strangely deserted. The children both felt--in that quite certain and unexplainable way--that it would be unwise of them to go to the place where they had slept the last time they were in that city.

The whole party was very tired. Max walked with drooping tail, and Brenda was whining softly to herself from sheer weariness and weak-mindedness. The parrot alone was happy--or at least contented. Because it was asleep.

At the corner of a little square planted with southernwood-trees in tubs, Philip called a halt.

'Where shall we go?' he said; 'let us put it to the vote.'

And even as he spoke, he saw a dark form creeping along in the shadow of the houses.

'Who goes there?' Philip cried with proper spirit, and the answer surprised him, all the more that it was given with a kind of desperate bravado.

'I go here; I, Plumbeus, Captain of the old Guard of Polistopolis.'

'Oh, it's you!' cried Philip; 'I am glad. You can advise us. Where can we go to sleep? Somehow or other I don't care to go to the house where we stayed before.'

The captain made no answer. He simply caught at the hands of Lucy and Philip, dragged them through a low arched doorway and, as soon as the long lengths of Brenda and Max had slipped through, closed the door.

'Safe,' he said in a breathless way, which made Philip feel that safety was the last thing one could count on at that moment.

'Now, speak low, who knows what spies may be listening? I am a plain man. I speak as I think. You came out of the unknown. You may be the Deliverer or the Destroyer. But I am a judge of faces--always was from a boy--and I cannot believe that this countenance of apple-cheeked innocence is that of a Destroyer.'

Philip was angry and Lucy was furious. So he said nothing. And she said:

'Apple-cheeked yourself!' which was very rude.

'I see that you are annoyed,' said the captain in the dark, where, of course, he could see nothing; 'but in calling your friend apple-cheeked I was merely offering the highest compliment in my power. The absence of fruit in this city is, I suppose, the reason why our compliments are like that. I believe poets say "sweet as a rose"--we say "sweet as an orange." May I be allowed unreservedly to apologise?'

'Oh, that's all right,' said Philip awkwardly.

'And to ask whether you are the Deliverer?'

'I hope so,' said Philip modestly.

'Of course he is,' said the parrot, putting its head out from the front of Philip's jacket; 'and he has done six deeds out of the seven already.'

'It is time that deeds were done here,' said the captain. 'I'll make a light and get you some supper. I'm in hiding here; but the walls are thick and all the shutters are shut.'

He bolted a door and opened the slide of a dark lantern.

'Some of us have taken refuge in the old prison,' he said; 'it's never used, you know, so her spies don't infest it as they do every other part of the city.'

'Whose spies?'

'The Destroyer's,' said the captain, getting bread and milk out of a cupboard; 'at least, if you're the Deliverer she must be that. But she says she's the Deliverer.'

He lighted candles and set them on the table as Lucy asked eagerly:

'What Destroyer? Is it a horrid woman in a motor veil?'

'You've guessed it,' said the captain gloomily.

'It's that Pretenderette,' said Philip. 'Does Mr. Noah know? What has she been doing?'

'Everything you can think of,' said the captain; 'she says she's Queen, and that she's done the seven deeds. And Mr. Noah doesn't know, because she's set a guard round the city, and no message can get out or in.'

'The Hippogriff?' said Lucy.

'Yes, of course I thought of that,' said the captain. 'And so did she. She's locked it up and thrown the key into one of the municipal wells.'

'But why do the guards obey her?' Philip asked.

'They're not our guards, of course,' the captain answered. 'They're strange soldiers that she got out of a book. She got the people to pull down the Hall of Justice by pretending there was fruit in the gigantic books it's built with. And when the book was opened these soldiers came marching out. The Sequani and the Aedui they call themselves. And when you've finished supper we ought to hold a council. There are a lot of us here. All sorts. Distinctions of rank are forgotten in times of public peril.'

Some twenty or thirty people presently gathered in that round room from whose windows Philip and Lucy had looked out when they were first imprisoned. There were indeed all sorts, match-servants, domino-men, soldiers, china-men, Mr. Noah's three sons and his wife, a pirate and a couple of sailors.

'What book,' Philip asked Lucy in an undertone, 'did she get these soldiers out of?'

'Caesar, I think,' said Lucy. 'And I'm afraid it was my fault. I remember telling her about the barbarians and the legions and things after father had told me--when she was my nurse, you know. She's very clever at thinking of horrid things to do, isn't she?'

The council talked for two hours, and nobody said anything worth mentioning. When every one was quite tired out, every one went to bed.

It was Philip who woke in the night in the grasp of a sudden idea.

'What is it?' asked Max, rousing himself from his warm bed at Philip's feet.

'I've thought of something,' said Philip in a low excited voice. 'I'm going to have a night attack.'

'Shall I wake the others?' asked Max, ever ready to oblige.

Philip thought a moment. Then:

'No,' he said, 'it's rather dangerous; and besides I want to do it all by myself. Lucy's done more than her share already. Look out, Max; I'm going to get up and go out.'

He got up and he went out. There was a faint greyness of dawn now which showed him the great square of the city on which he and Lucy had looked from the prison window, a very long time ago as it seemed. He found without difficulty the ruins of the Hall of Justice.

And among the vast blocks scattered on the ground was one that seemed of grey marble, and bore on its back in gigantic letters of gold the words De Bello Gallico.

Philip stole back to the prison and roused the captain.

'I want twenty picked men,' he said, 'without boots--and at once.'

He got them, and he led them to the ruins of the Justice Hall.

'Now,' he said, 'raise the cover of this book; only the cover, not any of the pages.'

The men set their shoulders to the marble slab that was the book's cover and heaved it up. And as it rose on their shoulders Philip spoke softly, urgently.

'Caesar,' he said, 'Caesar!'

And a voice answered from under the marble slab.

'Who calls?' it said. 'Who calls upon Julius Caesar?'

And from the space below the slab, as it were from a marble tomb, a thin figure stepped out, clothed in toga and cloak and wearing on its head a crown of bays.

'I called,' said Philip in a voice that trembled a little. 'There's no one but you who can help. The barbarians of Gaul hold this city. I call on great Caesar to drive them away. No one else can help us.'

Caesar stood for a moment silent in the grey twilight. Then he spoke.

'I will do it,' he said; 'you have often tried to master Caesar and always failed. Now you shall be no more ashamed of that failure, for you shall see Caesar's power. Bid your slaves raise the leaves of my book to the number of fifteen.'

It was done, and Caesar turned towards the enormous open book.

'Come forth!' he said. 'Come forth, my legions!'

Then something in the book moved suddenly, and out of it, as out of an open marble tomb, came long lines of silent armed men, ranged themselves in ranks, and, passing Caesar, saluted. And still more came, and more and more, each with the round shield and the shining helmet and the javelins and the terrible short sword. And on their backs were the packages they used to carry with them into war.

'The Barbarians of Gaul are loose in this city,' said the voice of the great commander; 'drive them before you once more as you drove them of old.'

'Whither, O Caesar?' asked one of the Roman generals.

'Drive them, O Titus Labienus,' said Caesar, 'back into that book wherein I set them more than nineteen hundred years ago, and from which they have dared to escape. Who is their leader?' he asked of Philip.

'The Pretenderette,' said Philip; 'a woman in a motor veil.'

'Caesar does not war with women,' said the man in the laurel crown; 'let her be taken prisoner and brought before me.'

Low-voiced, the generals of Caesar's army gave their commands, and with incredible quietness the army moved away, spreading itself out in all directions.

'She has caged the Hippogriff,' said Philip; 'the winged horse, and we want to send him with a message.'

'See that the beast is freed,' said Caesar, and turned to Plumbeus the captain. 'We be soldiers together,' he said. 'Lead me to the main gate. It is there that the fight will be fiercest.' He laid a hand on the captain's shoulder, and at the head of the last legion, Caesar and the captain of the soldiers marched to the main gate.

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