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Nine Unlikely Tales
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2018
Copyright © 2018 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
THE BLUE MOUNTAIN
THE PRINCE, TWO MICE, AND
FORTUNATUS REX & CO.
THE SUMS THAT CAME RIGHT
THE TOWN IN THE LIBRARY IN
THE PLUSH USURPER
OR GREAT AUNT WILLOUGHBY
MATILDA’S ears were red and shiny. So were her cheeks. Her hands were red too. This was because Pridmore had washed her. It was not the usual washing, which makes you clean and comfortable, but the “thorough good wash,” which makes you burn and smart till you wish you could be like the poor little savages who do not know anything, and run about bare in the sun, and only go into the water when they are hot.
Matilda wished she could have been born in a savage tribe instead of at Brixton.
“Little savages,” she said, “don’t have their ears washed thoroughly, and they don’t have new dresses that are prickly in the insides round their arms, and cut them round the neck. Do they, Pridmore?”
But Pridmore only said, “Stuff and nonsense,” and then she said, “don’t wriggle so, child, for goodness’ sake.”
Pridmore was Matilda’s nursemaid. Matilda sometimes found her trying. Matilda was quite right in believing that savage children do not wear frocks that hurt. It is also true that savage children are not over-washed, over-brushed, over-combed, gloved, booted, and hatted and taken in an omnibus to Streatham to see their Great-aunt Willoughby. This was intended to be Matilda’s fate. Her mother had arranged it. Pridmore had prepared her for it. Matilda, knowing resistance to be vain, had submitted to it.
But Destiny had not been consulted, and Destiny had plans of its own for Matilda.
When the last button of Matilda’s boots had been fastened (the button-hook always had a nasty temper, especially when it was hurried, and that day it bit a little piece of Matilda’s leg quite spitefully) the wretched child was taken downstairs and put on a chair in the hall to wait while Pridmore popped her own things on.
“I shan’t be a minute,” said Pridmore.
Matilda knew better. She seated herself to wait, and swung her legs miserably. She had been to her Great-aunt Willoughby’s before, and she knew exactly what to expect. She would be asked about her lessons, and how many marks she had, and whether she had been a good girl. I can’t think why grown-up people don’t see how impertinent these questions are. Suppose you were to answer, “I’m top of my class, Auntie, thank you, and I’m very good. And now let’s have a little talk about you. Aunt, dear, how much money have you got, and have you been scolding the servants again, or have you tried to be good and patient as a properly brought up aunt should be, eh, dear?”
MATILDA SWUNG HER LEGS MISERABLY.
Try this method with one of your aunts next time she begins asking you questions, and write and tell me what she says.
Matilda knew exactly what the Aunt Willoughby’s questions would be, and she knew how, when they were answered, her aunt would give her a small biscuit with carraway seeds in it, and then tell her to go with Pridmore and have her hands and face washed again.
Then she would be sent to walk in the garden—the garden had a gritty path, and geraniums and calceolarias and lobelias in the beds. You might not pick anything. There would be minced veal at dinner, with three-cornered bits of toast round the dish, and a tapioca pudding. Then the long afternoon with a book, a bound volume of the “Potterer’s Saturday Night”—nasty small print—and all the stories about children who died young because they were too good for this world.
Matilda wriggled wretchedly. If she had been a little less uncomfortable she would have cried, but her new frock was too tight and prickly to let her forget it for a moment, even in tears.
When Pridmore came down at last, she said, “Fie, for shame! What a sulky face!”
And Matilda said, “I’m not.”
“Oh, yes you are,” said Pridmore, “you know you are, you don’t appreciate your blessings.”
“I wish it was your Aunt Willoughby,” said Matilda.
“Nasty, spiteful little thing!” said Pridmore, and she shook Matilda.
Then Matilda tried to slap Pridmore, and the two went down the steps not at all pleased with each other. They went down the dull road to the dull omnibus, and Matilda was crying a little.
Now Pridmore was a very careful person, though cross, but even the most careful persons make mistakes sometimes—and she must have taken the wrong omnibus, or this story could never have happened, and where should we all have been then? This shows you that even mistakes are sometimes valuable, so do not be hard on grown-up people if they are wrong sometimes. You know after all, it hardly ever happens.
It was a very bright green and gold omnibus, and inside the cushions were green and very soft. Matilda and her nursemaid had it all to themselves, and Matilda began to feel more comfortable, especially as she had wriggled till she had burst one of her shoulder-seams and got more room for herself inside her frock.
So she said, “I’m sorry I was cross, Priddy dear.”
Pridmore said, “So you ought to be.” But she never said she was sorry for being cross. But you must not expect grown-up people to say that.
It was certainly the wrong omnibus because instead of jolting slowly along dusty streets, it went quickly and smoothly down a green lane, with flowers in the hedges, and green trees overhead. Matilda was so delighted that she sat quite still, a very rare thing with her. Pridmore was reading a penny story called “The Vengeance of the Lady Constantia,” so she did not notice anything.
“I don’t care. I shan’t tell her,” said Matilda, “she’d stop the ’bus as likely as not.”
At last the ’bus stopped of its own accord. Pridmore put her story in her pocket and began to get out.
“Well, I never!” she said, and got out very quickly and ran round to where the horses were. They were white horses with green harness, and their tails were very long indeed.
“Hi, young man!” said Pridmore to the omnibus driver, “you’ve brought us to the wrong place. This isn’t Streatham Common, this isn’t.”
The driver was the most beautiful omnibus driver you ever saw, and his clothes were like him in beauty. He had white silk stockings and a ruffled silk shirt of white, and his coat and breeches were green and gold. So was the three-cornered hat which he lifted very politely when Pridmore spoke to him.
HE WAVED AWAY THE EIGHTPENCE.
“I fear,” he said kindly, “that you must have taken, by some unfortunate misunderstanding, the wrong omnibus.”
“When does the next go back?”
“The omnibus does not go back. It runs from Brixton here once a month, but it doesn’t go back.”
“But how does it get to Brixton again, to start again, I mean,” asked Matilda.
“We start a new one every time,” said the driver, raising his three-cornered hat once more.
“And what becomes of the old ones?” Matilda asked.
“Ah,” said the driver, smiling, “that depends. One never knows beforehand, things change so nowadays. Good morning. Thank you so much for your patronage. No, on no account, Madam.”
He waved away the eightpence which Pridmore was trying to offer him for the fare from Brixton, and drove quickly off.
When they looked round them, no, this was certainly not Streatham Common. The wrong omnibus had brought them to a strange village—the neatest, sweetest, reddest, greenest, cleanest, prettiest village in the world. The houses were grouped round a village green, on which children in pretty loose frocks or smocks were playing happily.
Not a tight armhole was to be seen, or even imagined in that happy spot. Matilda swelled herself out and burst three hooks and a bit more of the shoulder seam.
The shops seemed a little queer, Matilda thought. The names somehow did not match the things that were to be sold. For instance, where it said “Elias Groves, Tinsmith,” there were loaves and buns in the window, and the shop that had “Baker” over the door, was full of perambulators—the grocer and the wheelwright seemed to have changed names, or shops, or something—and Miss Skimpling, Dressmaker or Milliner, had her shop window full of pork and sausage meat.
“What a funny, nice place,” said Matilda. “I am glad we took the wrong omnibus.”
A little boy in a yellow smock had come up close to them.
“I beg your pardon,” he said very politely, “but all strangers are brought before the king at once. Please follow me.”
“Well, of all the impudence,” said Pridmore. “Strangers, indeed! And who may you be, I should like to know?”
“I,” said the little boy, bowing very low, “am the Prime Minister. I know I do not look it, but appearances are deceitful. It’s only for a short time. I shall probably be myself again by to-morrow.”
Pridmore muttered something which the little boy did not hear. Matilda caught a few words. “Smacked,” “bed,” “bread and water”—familiar words all of them.
“If it’s a game,” said Matilda to the boy, “I should like to play.”
“I advise you to come at once,” he said, so sternly that even Pridmore was a little frightened. “His Majesty’s Palace is in this direction.” He walked away, and Matilda made a sudden jump, dragged her hand out of Pridmore’s, and ran after him. So Pridmore had to follow, still grumbling.
The Palace stood in a great green park dotted with white-flowered may-bushes. It was not at all like an English palace, St. James’s or Buckingham Palace, for instance, because it was very beautiful and very clean. When they got in they saw that the Palace was hung with green silk. The footmen had green and gold liveries, and all the courtiers’ clothes were the same colours.
Matilda and Pridmore had to wait a few moments while the King changed his sceptre and put on a clean crown, and then they were shown into the Audience Chamber. The King came to meet them.
“It is kind of you to have come so far,” he said. “Of course you’ll stay at the Palace?” He looked anxiously at Matilda.
“Are you quite comfortable, my dear?” he asked doubtfully.
Matilda was very truthful—for a girl.
“No,” she said, “my frock cuts me round the arms——”
“Ah,” said he, “and you brought no luggage—some of the Princess’s frocks—her old ones perhaps—yes—yes—this person—your maid, no doubt?”
A loud laugh rang suddenly through the hall. The King looked uneasily round, as though he expected something to happen. But nothing seemed likely to occur.
“Yes,” said Matilda, “Pridmore is—Oh, dear!”
For before her eyes she saw an awful change taking place in Pridmore. In an instant all that was left of the original Pridmore were the boots and the hem of her skirt—the top part of her had changed into painted iron and glass, and even as Matilda looked the bit of skirt
that was left got flat and hard and square. The two feet turned into four feet, and they were iron feet, and there was no more Pridmore.
The king looking at Pridmore’s transformation
THE TOP PART OF PRIDMORE TURNED INTO PAINTED IRON AND GLASS.
“Oh, my poor child,” said the King, “your maid has turned into an Automatic Machine.”
It was too true. The maid had turned into a machine such as those which you see in a railway station—greedy, grasping things which take your pennies and give you next to nothing in chocolate and no change.
But there was no chocolate to be seen through the glass of the machine that once had been Pridmore. Only little rolls of paper.
The King silently handed some pennies to Matilda. She dropped one into the machine and pulled out the little drawer. There was a scroll of paper. Matilda opened it and read—
“Don’t be tiresome.”
She tried again. This time it was—
“If you don’t give over I’ll tell your Ma first thing when she comes home.”
The next was—
“Go along with you do—always worrying;” so then Matilda knew.
“Yes,” said the King sadly, “I fear there’s no doubt about it. Your maid has turned into an Automatic Nagging Machine. Never mind, my dear, she’ll be all right to-morrow.”
“I like her best like this, thank you,” said Matilda quickly. “I needn’t put in any more pennies, you see.”
“Oh, we mustn’t be unkind and neglectful,” said the King gently, and he dropped in a penny. He got—
“You tiresome boy, you. Leave me be this minute.”
“I can’t help it,” said the King wearily; “you’ve no idea how suddenly things change here. It’s because—but I’ll tell you all about it at tea-time. Go with nurse now, my dear, and see if any of the Princess’s frocks will fit you.”
Then a nice, kind, cuddly nurse led Matilda away to the Princess’s apartments, and took off the stiff frock that hurt, and put on a green silk gown, as soft as birds’ breasts, and Matilda kissed her for sheer joy at being so comfortable.
“And now, dearie,” said the nurse, “you’d like to see the Princess, wouldn’t you? Take care you don’t hurt yourself with her. She’s rather sharp.”
Matilda did not understand this then. Afterwards she did.
THE PRINCESS WAS LIKE A YARD AND A HALF OF WHITE TAPE.
The nurse took her through many marble corridors and up and down many marble steps, and at last they came to a garden full of white roses, and in the middle of it, on a green satin-covered eiderdown, as big as a feather bed, sat the Princess in a white gown.
She got up when Matilda came towards her, and it was like seeing a yard and a half of white tape stand up on one end and bow—a yard and a half of broad white tape, of course; but what is considered broad for tape is very narrow indeed for princesses.
“How are you?” said Matilda, who had been taught manners.
“Very slim indeed, thank you,” said the Princess. And she was. Her face was so white and thin that it looked as though it were made of an oyster-shell. Her hands were thin and white, and her fingers reminded Matilda of fish-bones. Her hair and eyes were black, and Matilda thought she might have been pretty if she had been fatter. When she shook hands with Matilda her bony fingers hurt quite hard.
The Princess seemed pleased to see her visitor, and invited her to sit with Her Highness on the satin cushion.
“I have to be very careful or I should break,” said she; “that’s why the cushion is so soft, and I can’t play many games for fear of accidents. Do you know any sitting-down games?”
The only thing Matilda could think of was Cat’s-cradle, so they played that with the Princess’s green hair-ribbon. Her fish-bony fingers were much cleverer than Matilda’s little fat, pink paws.
Matilda looked about her between the games and admired everything very much, and asked questions, of course. There was a very large bird chained to a perch in the middle of a very large cage. Indeed the cage was so big that it took up all one side of the rose-garden. The bird had a yellow crest like a cockatoo and a very large bill like a toucan. (If you do not know what a toucan is you do not deserve ever to go to the Zoological Gardens again.)
“What is that bird?” asked Matilda.
“Oh,” said the Princess, “that’s my pet Cockatoucan; he’s very valuable. If he were to die or be stolen the Green Land would wither up and grow like New Cross or Islington.”
“How horrible!” said Matilda.
“I’ve never been to those places, of course,” said the Princess, shuddering, “but I hope I know my geography.”
“All of it?” asked Matilda.
“Even the exports and imports,” said the Princess. “Goodbye, I’m so thin I have to rest a good deal or I should wear myself out. Nurse, take her away.”
So nurse took her away to a wonderful room, where she amused herself till tea-time with all the kind of toys that you see and want in the shop when some one is buying you a box of bricks or a puzzle map—the kind of toys you never get because they are so expensive.
Matilda had tea with the King. He was full of true politeness and treated Matilda exactly as though she had been grown up—so that she was extremely happy and behaved beautifully.
The King told her all his troubles.
“You see,” he began, “what a pretty place my Green Land was once. It has points even now. But things aren’t what they used to be. It’s that bird, that Cockatoucan. We daren’t kill it or give it away. And every time it laughs something changes. Look at my Prime Minister. He was a six-foot man. And look at him now. I could lift him with one hand. And then your poor maid. It’s all that bad bird.”
“Why does it laugh?” asked Matilda.
“I can’t think,” said the King; “I can’t see anything to laugh at.”
“Can’t you give it lessons, or something nasty to make it miserable?”
“I have, I do, I assure you, my dear child. The lessons that bird has to swallow would choke a Professor.”
“Does it eat anything else besides lessons?”
“Christmas pudding. But there—what’s the use of talking—that bird would laugh if it were fed on dog-biscuits.”
His Majesty sighed and passed the buttered toast.
“You can’t possibly,” he went on, “have any idea of the kind of things that happen. That bird laughed one day at a Cabinet Council, and all my ministers turned into little boys in yellow socks. And we can’t get any laws made till they come right again. It’s not their fault, and I must keep their situations open for them, of course, poor things.”
“Of course,” said Matilda.
“There was a Dragon, now,” said the King. “When he came I offered the Princess’s hand and half my kingdom to any one who would kill him. It’s an offer that is always made, you know.”
“Yes,” said Matilda.
“Well, a really respectable young Prince came along, and every one turned out to see him fight the Dragon. As much as ninepence each was paid for the front seats, I assure you. The trumpet sounded and the Dragon came hurrying up. A trumpet is like a dinner-bell to a Dragon, you know. And the Prince drew his bright sword and we all shouted, and then that wretched bird laughed and the Dragon turned into a pussy-cat, and the Prince killed it before he could stop himself. The populace was furious.”
“What happened then?” asked Matilda.
“Well, I did what I could. I said, ‘You shall marry the Princess just the same.’ So I brought the Prince home, and when we got there the Cockatoucan had just been laughing again, and the Princess had turned into a very old German governess. The Prince went home in a great hurry and an awful temper. The Princess was all right in a day or two. These are trying times, my dear.”
“I am so sorry for you,” said Matilda, going on with the preserved ginger.
“Well you may be,” said the miserable Monarch; “but if I were to try to tell you all that that bird has brought on my poor kingdom I should keep you up till long past your proper bedtime.”
“I don’t mind,” said Matilda kindly. “Do tell me some more.”
“Why,” the King went on, growing now more agitated, “why, at one titter from that revolting bird the long row of ancestors on my Palace wall grew red-faced and vulgar; they began to drop their H’s and to assert that their name was Smith from Clapham Junction.”
“And once,” said the King in a whimper, “it laughed so loudly that two Sundays came together and next Thursday got lost, and went prowling away and hid itself on the other side of Christmas.”
“And now,” he said suddenly, “it’s bedtime.”
“Must I go?” asked Matilda.
“Yes please,” said the King. “I tell all strangers this tragic story because I always feel that perhaps some stranger might be clever enough to help me. You seem a very nice little girl. Do you think you are clever?”
It is very nice even to be asked if you are clever. Your Aunt Willoughby knows well enough that you are not. But kings do say nice things. Matilda was very pleased.
“I don’t think I am clever,” she was saying quite honestly, when suddenly the sound of a hoarse laugh rang through the banqueting hall. Matilda put her hands to her head.
“Oh, dear!” she cried, “I feel so different. Oh! wait a minute. Oh! whatever is it? Oh!”
Then she was silent for a moment. Then she looked at the King and said, “I was wrong, your Majesty, I am clever, and I know it is not good for me to sit up late. Good-night. Thank you so much for your nice party. In the morning I think I shall be clever enough to help you, unless the bird laughs me back into the other kind of Matilda.”
But in the morning Matilda’s head felt strangely clear; only when she came down to breakfast full of plans for helping the King, she found that the Cockatoucan must have laughed in the night, for the beautiful Palace had turned into a butcher’s shop, and the King, who was too wise to fight against Fate, had tucked up his royal robes, and was busy in the shop weighing out six ounces of the best mutton-chops for a child with a basket.
“I don’t know how ever you can help me now,” he said, despairingly; “as long as the Palace stays like this, it’s no use trying to go on with being a king, or anything. I can only try to be a good butcher. You shall keep the accounts if you like, till that bird laughs me back into my Palace again.”
So the King settled down to business, respected by his subjects, who had all, since the coming of the Cockatoucan, had their little ups and downs. And Matilda kept the books and wrote out the bills, and really they were both rather happy. Pridmore, disguised as the automatic machine, stood in the shop and attracted many customers. They used to bring their children, and make the poor innocents put their pennies in, and then read Pridmore’s good advice. Some parents are so harsh. And the Princess sat in the back garden with the Cockatoucan, and Matilda played with her every afternoon. But one day, as the King was driving through another kingdom, the King of that kingdom looked out of one of his Palace windows, and
laughed as the King went by, and shouted, “Butcher!”
THE KING SENT HIS ARMY, AND THE ENEMY WERE CRUSHED.
The Butcher-King did not mind this, because it was true, however rude. But when the other King called out, “What price cat’s meat!” the King was very angry indeed, because the meat he sold was always of the best quality. When he told Matilda all about it, she said, “Send the Army to crush him.”
So the King sent his Army, and the enemy were crushed. The Bird laughed the King back into his throne, and laughed away the butcher’s shop just in time for his Majesty to proclaim a general holiday, and to organise a magnificent reception for the Army. Matilda now helped the King to manage everything. She wonderfully enjoyed the new delightful feeling of being clever, so that she felt it was indeed too bad when the Cockatoucan laughed just as the reception was beautifully arranged. It laughed, and the general holiday was turned into an income tax; the magnificent reception changed itself to a royal reprimand, and the Army itself suddenly became a discontented Sunday-school treat, and had to be fed with buns and brought home in brakes, crying.
“Something must be done,” said the King.
“Well,” said Matilda, “I’ve been thinking if you will make me the Princess’s governess, I’ll see what I can do. I’m quite clever enough.”
“I must open Parliament to do that,” said the King; “it’s a Constitutional change.”
So he hurried off down the road to open Parliament. But the bird put its head on one side and laughed at him as he went by. He hurried on, but his beautiful crown grew large and brassy, and was set with cheap glass in the worst possible taste. His robe turned from velvet and ermine to flannelette and rabbit’s fur. His sceptre grew twenty feet long and extremely awkward to carry. But he persevered, his royal blood was up.
“No bird,” said he, “shall keep me from my duty and my Parliament.”
But when he got there, he was so agitated that he could not remember which was the right key to open Parliament with, and in the end he hampered the lock and so could not open Parliament at all, and members of Parliament went about making speeches in the roads to the great hindrance of the traffic.
The poor King went home and burst into tears.
“Matilda,” he said, “this is too much. You have always been a comfort to me. You stood by me when I was a butcher; you kept the books; you booked the orders; you ordered the stock. If you really are clever enough, now is the time to help me. If you won’t, I’ll give up the business. I’ll leave off being a King. I’ll go and be a butcher in the Camberwell New Road, and I will get another little girl to keep my books, not you.”
This decided Matilda. She said, “Very well, your Majesty, then give me leave to prowl at night. Perhaps I shall find out what makes the Cockatoucan laugh; if I can do that, we can take care he never gets it, whatever it is.”
“Ah!” said the poor King, “if you could only do that.”
When Matilda went to bed that night, she did not go to sleep. She lay and waited till all the Palace was quiet, and then she crept softly, pussily, mousily to the garden, where the Cockatoucan’s cage was, and she hid behind a white rosebush, and looked and listened. Nothing happened till it was gray dawn, and then it was only the Cockatoucan who woke up. But when the sun was round and red over the Palace roof, something came creeping, creeping, pussily, mousily out of the Palace; and it looked like a yard and a half of white tape creeping along; and it was the Princess herself.