Chapter 5 - The Temple
'I wish we could find the Phoenix,' said Jane. 'It's much better company than the carpet.'
'Beastly ungrateful, little kids are,' said Cyril.
'No, I'm not; only the carpet never says anything, and it's so helpless. It doesn't seem able to take care of itself. It gets sold, and taken into the sea, and things like that. You wouldn't catch the Phoenix getting sold.'
It was two days after the bazaar. Every one was a little cross - some days are like that, usually Mondays, by the way. And this was a Monday.
'I shouldn't wonder if your precious Phoenix had gone off for good,' said Cyril; 'and I don't know that I blame it. Look at the weather!'
'It's not worth looking at,' said Robert. And indeed it wasn't.
'The Phoenix hasn't gone - I'm sure it hasn't,' said Anthea. 'I'll have another look for it.'
Anthea looked under tables and chairs, and in boxes and baskets, in mother's work-bag and father's portmanteau, but still the Phoenix showed not so much as the tip of one shining feather.
Then suddenly Robert remembered how the whole of the Greek invocation song of seven thousand lines had been condensed by him into one English hexameter, so he stood on the carpet and chanted -
and almost at once there was a rustle of wings down the kitchen stairs, and the Phoenix sailed in on wide gold wings.
'Where on earth HAVE you been?' asked Anthea. 'I've looked everywhere for you.'
'Not EVERYWHERE,' replied the bird, 'because you did not look in the place where I was. Confess that that hallowed spot was overlooked by you.'
'WHAT hallowed spot?' asked Cyril, a little impatiently, for time was hastening on, and the wishing carpet still idle.
'The spot,' said the Phoenix, 'which I hallowed by my golden presence was the Lutron.'
'The bath - the place of washing.'
'I'm sure you weren't,' said Jane. 'I looked there three times and moved all the towels.'
'I was concealed,' said the Phoenix, 'on the summit of a metal column - enchanted, I should judge, for it felt warm to my golden toes, as though the glorious sun of the desert shone ever upon it.'
'Oh, you mean the cylinder,' said Cyril: 'it HAS rather a comforting feel, this weather. And now where shall we go?'
And then, of course, the usual discussion broke out as to where they should go and what they should do. And naturally, every one wanted to do something that the others did not care about.
'I am the eldest,' Cyril remarked, 'let's go to the North Pole.'
'This weather! Likely!' Robert rejoined. 'Let's go to the Equator.'
'I think the diamond mines of Golconda would be nice,' said Anthea; 'don't you agree, Jane?'
'No, I don't,' retorted Jane, 'I don't agree with you. I don't agree with anybody.'
The Phoenix raised a warning claw.
'If you cannot agree among yourselves, I fear I shall have to leave you,' it said.
'Well, where shall we go? You decide!' said all.
'If I were you,' said the bird, thoughtfully, 'I should give the carpet a rest. Besides, you'll lose the use of your legs if you go everywhere by carpet. Can't you take me out and explain your ugly city to me?'
'We will if it clears up,' said Robert, without enthusiasm. 'Just look at the rain. And why should we give the carpet a rest?'
'Are you greedy and grasping, and heartless and selfish?' asked the bird, sharply.
'NO!' said Robert, with indignation.
'Well then!' said the Phoenix. 'And as to the rain - well, I am not fond of rain myself. If the sun knew I was here - he's very fond of shining on me because I look so bright and golden. He always says I repay a little attention. Haven't you some form of words suitable for use in wet weather?'
'There's "Rain, rain, go away,"' said Anthea; 'but it never DOES go.'
'Perhaps you don't say the invocation properly,' said the bird.
'That's quite wrong; and if you say it in that sort of dull way, I can quite understand the rain not taking any notice. You should open the window and shout as loud as you can -
'You should always speak politely to people when you want them to do things, and especially when it's going away that you want them to do. And to-day you might add -
'That's poetry!' said Cyril, decidedly.
'It's like it,' said the more cautious Robert.
'I was obliged to put in "lovely",' said the Phoenix, modestly, 'to make the line long enough.'
'There are plenty of nasty words just that length,' said Jane; but every one else said 'Hush!' And then they opened the window and shouted the seven lines as loud as they could, and the Phoenix said all the words with them, except 'lovely', and when they came to that it looked down and coughed bashfully.
The rain hesitated a moment and then went away.
'There's true politeness,' said the Phoenix, and the next moment it was perched on the window-ledge, opening and shutting its radiant wings and flapping out its golden feathers in such a flood of glorious sunshine as you sometimes have at sunset in autumn time. People said afterwards that there had not been such sunshine in December for years and years and years.
'And now,' said the bird, 'we will go out into the city, and you shall take me to see one of my temples.'
'I gather from the carpet that I have many temples in this land.'
'I don't see how you CAN find anything out from it,' said Jane: 'it never speaks.'
'All the same, you can pick up things from a carpet,' said the bird; 'I've seen YOU do it. And I have picked up several pieces of information in this way. That papyrus on which you showed me my picture - I understand that it bears on it the name of the street of your city in which my finest temple stands, with my image graved in stone and in metal over against its portal.'
'You mean the fire insurance office,' said Robert. 'It's not really a temple, and they don't - '
'Excuse me,' said the Phoenix, coldly, 'you are wholly misinformed. It IS a temple, and they do.'
'Don't let's waste the sunshine,' said Anthea; 'we might argue as we go along, to save time.'
So the Phoenix consented to make itself a nest in the breast of Robert's Norfolk jacket, and they all went out into the splendid sunshine. The best way to the temple of the Phoenix seemed to be to take the tram, and on the top of it the children talked, while the Phoenix now and then put out a wary beak, cocked a cautious eye, and contradicted what the children were saying.
It was a delicious ride, and the children felt how lucky they were to have had the money to pay for it. They went with the tram as far as it went, and when it did not go any farther they stopped too, and got off. The tram stops at the end of the Gray's Inn Road, and it was Cyril who thought that one might well find a short cut to the Phoenix Office through the little streets and courts that lie tightly packed between Fetter Lane and Ludgate Circus. Of course, he was quite mistaken, as Robert told him at the time, and afterwards Robert did not forbear to remind his brother how he had said so. The streets there were small and stuffy and ugly, and crowded with printers' boys and binders' girls coming out from work; and these stared so hard at the pretty red coats and caps of the sisters that they wished they had gone some other way. And the printers and binders made very personal remarks, advising Jane to get her hair cut, and inquiring where Anthea had bought that hat. Jane and Anthea scorned to reply, and Cyril and Robert found that they were hardly a match for the rough crowd. They could think of nothing nasty enough to say. They turned a corner sharply, and then Anthea pulled Jane into an archway, and then inside a door; Cyril and Robert quickly followed, and the jeering crowd passed by without seein them.
Anthea drew a long breath.
'How awful!' she said. 'I didn't know there were such people, except in books.'
'It was a bit thick; but it's partly you girls' fault, coming out in those flashy coats.'
'We thought we ought to, when we were going out with the Phoenix,' said Jane; and the bird said, 'Quite right, too' - and incautiously put out his head to give her a wink of encouragement.
And at the same instant a dirty hand reached through the grim balustrade of the staircase beside them and clutched the Phoenix, and a hoarse voice said -
'I say, Urb, blowed if this ain't our Poll parrot what we lost. Thank you very much, lidy, for bringin' 'im home to roost.'
The four turned swiftly. Two large and ragged boys were crouched amid the dark shadows of the stairs. They were much larger than Robert and Cyril, and one of them had snatched the Phoenix away and was holding it high above their heads.
'Give me that bird,' said Cyril, sternly: 'it's ours.'
'Good arternoon, and thankin' you,' the boy went on, with maddening mockery. 'Sorry I can't give yer tuppence for yer trouble - but I've 'ad to spend my fortune advertising for my vallyable bird in all the newspapers. You can call for the reward next year.'
'Look out, Ike,' said his friend, a little anxiously; 'it 'ave a beak on it.'
'It's other parties as'll have the Beak on to 'em presently,' said Ike, darkly, 'if they come a-trying to lay claims on my Poll parrot. You just shut up, Urb. Now then, you four little gells, get out er this.'
'Little girls!' cried Robert. 'I'll little girl you!'
He sprang up three stairs and hit out.
There was a squawk - the most bird-like noise any one had ever heard from the Phoenix - and a fluttering, and a laugh in the darkness, and Ike said -
'There now, you've been and gone and strook my Poll parrot right in the fevvers - strook 'im something crool, you 'ave.'
Robert stamped with fury. Cyril felt himself growing pale with rage, and with the effort of screwing up his brain to make it clever enough to think of some way of being even with those boys. Anthea and Jane were as angry as the boys, but it made them want to cry. Yet it was Anthea who said -
'Do, PLEASE, let us have the bird.'
'Dew, PLEASE, get along and leave us an' our bird alone.'
'If you don't,' said Anthea, 'I shall fetch the police.'
'You better!' said he who was named Urb. 'Say, Ike, you twist the bloomin' pigeon's neck; he ain't worth tuppence.'
'Oh, no,' cried Jane, 'don't hurt it. Oh, don't; it is such a pet.'
'I won't hurt it,' said Ike; 'I'm 'shamed of you, Urb, for to think of such a thing. Arf a shiner, miss, and the bird is yours for life.'
'Half a WHAT?' asked Anthea.
'Arf a shiner, quid, thick 'un - half a sov, then.'
'I haven't got it - and, besides, it's OUR bird,' said Anthea.
'Oh, don't talk to him,' said Cyril and then Jane said suddenly -
'Phoenix - dear Phoenix, we can't do anything. YOU must manage it.'
'With pleasure,' said the Phoenix - and Ike nearly dropped it in his amazement.
'I say, it do talk, suthin' like,' said he.
'Youths,' said the Phoenix, 'sons of misfortune, hear my words.'
'My eyes!' said Ike.
'Look out, Ike,' said Urb, 'you'll throttle the joker - and I see at wunst 'e was wuth 'is weight in flimsies.'00
'Hearken, O Eikonoclastes, despiser of sacred images - and thou, Urbanus, dweller in the sordid city. Forbear this adventure lest a worse thing befall.'
'Luv' us!' said Ike, 'ain't it been taught its schoolin' just!'
'Restore me to my young acolytes and escape unscathed. Retain me - and - '
'They must ha' got all this up, case the Polly got pinched,' said Ike. 'Lor' lumme, the artfulness of them young uns!'
'I say, slosh 'em in the geseech and get clear off with the swag's wot I say,' urged Herbert.
'Right O,' said Isaac.
'Forbear,' repeated the Phoenix, sternly. 'Who pinched the click off of the old bloke in Aldermanbury?' it added, in a changed tone.
'Who sneaked the nose-rag out of the young gell's 'and in Bell Court? Who - '
'Stow it,' said Ike. 'You! ugh! yah! - leave go of me. Bash him off, Urb; 'e'll have my bloomin' eyes outer my ed.'
There were howls, a scuffle, a flutter; Ike and Urb fled up the stairs, and the Phoenix swept out through the doorway. The children followed and the Phoenix settled on Robert, 'like a butterfly on a rose,' as Anthea said afterwards, and wriggled into the breast of his Norfolk jacket, 'like an eel into mud,' as Cyril later said.
'Why ever didn't you burn him? You could have, couldn't you?' asked Robert, when the hurried flight through the narrow courts had ended in the safe wideness of Farringdon Street.
'I could have, of course,' said the bird, 'but I didn't think it would be dignified to allow myself to get warm about a little thing like that. The Fates, after all, have not been illiberal to me. I have a good many friends among the London sparrows, and I have a beak and claws.'
These happenings had somewhat shaken the adventurous temper of the children, and the Phoenix had to exert its golden self to hearten them up.
Presently the children came to a great house in Lombard Street, and there, on each side of the door, was the image of the Phoenix carved in stone, and set forth on shining brass were the words -
'One moment,' said the bird. 'Fire? For altars, I suppose?'
'I don't know,' said Robert; he was beginning to feel shy, and that always made him rather cross.
'Oh, yes, you do,' Cyril contradicted. 'When people's houses are burnt down the Phoenix gives them new houses. Father told me; I asked him.'
'The house, then, like the Phoenix, rises from its ashes? Well have my priests dealt with the sons of men!'
'The sons of men pay, you know,' said Anthea; 'but it's only a little every year.'
'That is to maintain my priests,' said the bird, 'who, in the hour of affliction, heal sorrows and rebuild houses. Lead on; inquire for the High Priest. I will not break upon them too suddenly in all my glory. Noble and honour-deserving are they who make as nought the evil deeds of the lame-footed and unpleasing Hephaestus.'
'I don't know what you're talking about, and I wish you wouldn't muddle us with new names. Fire just happens. Nobody does it - not as a deed, you know,' Cyril explained. 'If they did the Phoenix wouldn't help them, because its a crime to set fire to things. Arsenic, or something they call it, because it's as bad as poisoning people. The Phoenix wouldn't help THEM - father told me it wouldn't.'
'My priests do well,' said the Phoenix. 'Lead on.'
'I don't know what to say,' said Cyril; and the Others said the same.
'Ask for the High Priest,' said the Phoenix. 'Say that you have a secret to unfold that concerns my worship, and he will lead you to the innermost sanctuary.'
So the children went in, all four of them, though they didn't like it, and stood in a large and beautiful hall adorned with Doulton tiles, like a large and beautiful bath with no water in it, and stately pillars supporting the roof. An unpleasing representation of the Phoenix in brown pottery disfigured one wall. There were counters and desks of mahogany and brass, and clerks bent over the desks and walked behind the counters. There was a great clock over an inner doorway.
'Inquire for the High Priest,' whispered the Phoenix.
An attentive clerk in decent black, who controlled his mouth but not his eyebrows, now came towards them. He leaned forward on the counter, and the children thought he was going to say, 'What can I have the pleasure of showing you?' like in a draper's; instead of which the young man said -
'And what do YOU want?'
'We want to see the High Priest.'
'Get along with you,' said the young man.
An elder man, also decent in black coat, advanced.
'Perhaps it's Mr Blank' (not for worlds would I give the name). 'He's a Masonic High Priest, you know.'
A porter was sent away to look for Mr Asterisk (I cannot give his name), and the children were left there to look on and be looked on by all the gentlemen at the mahogany desks. Anthea and Jane thought that they looked kind. The boys thought they stared, and that it was like their cheek.
The porter returned with the news that Mr Dot Dash Dot (I dare not reveal his name) was out, but that Mr -
Here a really delightful gentleman appeared. He had a beard and a kind and merry eye, and each one of the four knew at once that this was a man who had kiddies of his own and could understand what you were talking about. Yet it was a difficult thing to explain.
'What is it?' he asked. 'Mr' - he named the name which I will never reveal - 'is out. Can I do anything?'
'Inner sanctuary,' murmured the Phoenix.
'I beg your pardon,' said the nice gentleman, who thought it was Robert who had spoken.
'We have something to tell you,' said Cyril, 'but' - he glanced at the porter, who was lingering much nearer than he need have done - 'this is a very public place.'
The nice gentleman laughed.
'Come upstairs then,' he said, and led the way up a wide and beautiful staircase. Anthea says the stairs were of white marble, but I am not sure. On the corner-post of the stairs, at the top, was a beautiful image of the Phoenix in dark metal, and on the wall at each side was a flat sort of image of it.
The nice gentleman led them into a room where the chairs, and even the tables, were covered with reddish leather. He looked at the children inquiringly.
'Don't be frightened,' he said; 'tell me exactly what you want.'
'May I shut the door?' asked Cyril.
The gentleman looked surprised, but he shut the door.
'Now,' said Cyril, firmly, 'I know you'll be awfully surprised, and you'll think it's not true and we are lunatics; but we aren't, and it is. Robert's got something inside his Norfolk - that's Robert, he's my young brother. Now don't be upset and have a fit or anything sir. Of course, I know when you called your shop the "Phoenix" you never thought there was one; but there is - and Robert's got it buttoned up against his chest!'
'If it's an old curio in the form of a Phoenix, I dare say the Board - ' said the nice gentleman, as Robert began to fumble with his buttons.
'It's old enough,' said Anthea, 'going by what it says, but - '
'My goodness gracious!' said the gentleman, as the Phoenix, with one last wriggle that melted into a flutter, got out of its nest in the breast of Robert and stood up on the leather-covered table.
'What an extraordinarily fine bird!' he went on. 'I don't think I ever saw one just like it.'
'I should think not,' said the Phoenix, with pardonable pride. And the gentleman jumped.
'Oh, it's been taught to speak! Some sort of parrot, perhaps?'
'I am,' said the bird, simply, 'the Head of your House, and I have come to my temple to receive your homage. I am no parrot' - its beak curved scornfully - 'I am the one and only Phoenix, and I demand the homage of my High Priest.'
'In the absence of our manager,' the gentleman began, exactly as though he were addressing a valued customer - 'in the absence of our manager, I might perhaps be able - What am I saying?' He turned pale, and passed his hand across his brow. 'My dears,' he said, 'the weather is unusually warm for the time of year, and I don't feel quite myself. Do you know, for a moment I really thought that that remarkable bird of yours had spoken and said it was the Phoenix, and, what's more, that I'd believed it.'
'So it did, sir,' said Cyril, 'and so did you.'
'It really - Allow me.'
A bell was rung. The porter appeared.
'Mackenzie,' said the gentleman, 'you see that golden bird?'
The other breathed a sigh of relief.
'It IS real, then?'
'Yes, sir, of course, sir. You take it in your hand, sir,' said the porter, sympathetically, and reached out his hand to the Phoenix, who shrank back on toes curved with agitated indignation.
'Forbear!' it cried; 'how dare you seek to lay hands on me?'
The porter saluted.
'Beg pardon, sir,' he said, 'I thought you was a bird.'
'I AM a bird - THE bird - the Phoenix.'
'Of course you are, sir,' said the porter. 'I see that the first minute, directly I got my breath, sir.'
'That will do,' said the gentleman. 'Ask Mr Wilson and Mr Sterry to step up here for a moment, please.'
Mr Sterry and Mr Wilson were in their turn overcome by amazement - quickly followed by conviction. To the surprise of the children every one in the office took the Phoenix at its word, and after the first shock of surprise it seemed to be perfectly natural to every one that the Phoenix should be alive, and that, passing through London, it should call at its temple.
'We ought to have some sort of ceremony,' said the nicest gentleman, anxiously. 'There isn't time to summon the directors and shareholders - we might do that tomorrow, perhaps. Yes, the board-room would be best. I shouldn't like it to feel we hadn't done everything in our power to show our appreciation of its condescension in looking in on us in this friendly way.'
The children could hardly believe their ears, for they had never thought that any one but themselves would believe in the Phoenix. And yet every one did; all the men in the office were brought in by twos and threes, and the moment the Phoenix opened its beak it convinced the cleverest of them, as well as those who were not so clever. Cyril wondered how the story would look in the papers next day. He seemed to see the posters in the streets:
'Excuse our leaving you a moment,' said the nice gentleman, and he went away with the others; and through the half-closed door the children could hear the sound of many boots on stairs, the hum of excited voices explaining, suggesting, arguing, the thumpy drag of heavy furniture being moved about.
The Phoenix strutted up and down the leather-covered table, looking over its shoulder at its pretty back.
'You see what a convincing manner I have,' it said proudly.
And now a new gentleman came in and said, bowing low -
'Everything is prepared - we have done our best at so short a notice; the meeting - the ceremony - will be in the board-room. Will the Honourable Phoenix walk - it is only a few steps - or would it like to be - would it like some sort of conveyance?'
'My Robert will bear me to the board-room, if that be the unlovely name of my temple's inmost court,' replied the bird.
So they all followed the gentleman. There was a big table in the board-room, but it had been pushed right up under the long windows at one side, and chairs were arranged in rows across the room - like those you have at schools when there is a magic lantern on 'Our Eastern Empire', or on 'The Way We Do in the Navy'. The doors were of carved wood, very beautiful, with a carved Phoenix above. Anthea noticed that the chairs in the front rows were of the kind that her mother so loved to ask the price of in old furniture shops, and never could buy, because the price was always nearly twenty pounds each. On the mantelpiece were some heavy bronze candlesticks and a clock, and on the top of the clock was another image of the Phoenix.
'Remove that effigy,' said the Phoenix to the gentlemen who were there, and it was hastily taken down. Then the Phoenix fluttered to the middle of the mantelpiece and stood there, looking more golden than ever. Then every one in the house and the office came in - from the cashier to the women who cooked the clerks' dinners in the beautiful kitchen at the top of the house. And every one bowed to the Phoenix and then sat down in a chair.
'Gentlemen,' said the nicest gentleman, 'we have met here today - '
The Phoenix was turning its golden beak from side to side.
'I don't notice any incense,' it said, with an injured sniff. A hurried consultation ended in plates being fetched from the kitchen. Brown sugar, sealing-wax, and tobacco were placed on these, and something from a square bottle was poured over it all. Then a match was applied. It was the only incense that was handy in the Phoenix office, and it certainly burned very briskly and smoked a great deal.
'We have met here today,' said the gentleman again, 'on an occasion unparalleled in the annals of this office. Our respected Phoenix - '
'Head of the House,' said the Phoenix, in a hollow voice.
'I was coming to that. Our respected Phoenix, the Head of this ancient House, has at length done us the honour to come among us. I think I may say, gentlemen, that we are not insensible to this honour, and that we welcome with no uncertain voice one whom we have so long desired to see in our midst.'
Several of the younger clerks thought of saying 'Hear, hear,' but they feared it might seem disrespectful to the bird.
'I will not take up your time,' the speaker went on, 'by recapitulating the advantages to be derived from a proper use of our system of fire insurance. I know, and you know, gentlemen, that our aim has ever been to be worthy of that eminent bird whose name we bear, and who now adorns our mantelpiece with his presence. Three cheers, gentlemen, for the winged Head of the House!'
The cheers rose, deafening. When they had died away the Phoenix was asked to say a few words.
It expressed in graceful phrases the pleasure it felt in finding itself at last in its own temple.
'And,' it went on, 'You must not think me wanting in appreciation of your very hearty and cordial reception when I ask that an ode may be recited or a choric song sung. It is what I have always been accustomed to.'
The four children, dumb witnesses of this wonderful scene, glanced a little nervously across the foam of white faces above the sea of black coats. It seemed to them that the Phoenix was really asking a little too much.
'Time presses,' said the Phoenix, 'and the original ode of invocation is long, as well as being Greek; and, besides, it's no use invoking me when here I am; but is there not a song in your own tongue for a great day such as this?'
Absently the manager began to sing, and one by one the rest joined -
'That one is NOT my favourite,' interrupted the Phoenix, 'and I think you've forgotten part of it.'
The manager hastily began another -
'That's better,' said the bird. And every one sang -
'Try another verse,' said the Phoenix, 'further on.'
And again arose the voices of all the clerks and employees and managers and secretaries and cooks - 'In Scotland our insurance yields The price of burnt-up stacks in fields.'
'Skip that verse,' said the Phoenix.
'I'm sure YOU'RE very kind,' said the Phoenix; 'and now we must be going. An thank you very much for a very pleasant time. May you all prosper as you deserve to do, for I am sure a nicer, pleasanter-spoken lot of temple attendants I have never met, and never wish to meet. I wish you all good-day!'
It fluttered to the wrist of Robert and drew the four children from the room. The whole of the office staff followed down the wide stairs and filed into their accustomed places, and the two most important officials stood on the steps bowing till Robert had buttoned the golden bird in his Norfolk bosom, and it and he and the three other children were lost in the crowd.
The two most important gentlemen looked at each other earnestly and strangely for a moment, and then retreated to those sacred inner rooms, where they toil without ceasing for the good of the House.
And the moment they were all in their places - managers, secretaries, clerks, and porters - they all started, and each looked cautiously round to see if any one was looking at him. For each thought that he had fallen asleep for a few minutes, and had dreamed a very odd dream about the Phoenix and the board-room. And, of course, no one mentioned it to any one else, because going to sleep at your office is a thing you simply MUST NOT do.
The extraordinary confusion of the board-room, with the remains of the incense in the plates, would have shown them at once that the visit of the Phoenix had been no dream, but a radiant reality, but no one went into the board-room again that day; and next day, before the office was opened, it was all cleaned and put nice and tidy by a lady whose business asking questions was not part of. That is why Cyril read the papers in vain on the next day and the day after that; because no sensible person thinks his dreams worth putting in the paper, and no one will ever own that he has been asleep in the daytime.
The Phoenix was very pleased, but it decided to write an ode for itself. It thought the ones it had heard at its temple had been too hastily composed. Its own ode began -
And when the children went to bed that night it was still trying to cut down the last line to the proper length without taking out any of what it wanted to say.
That is what makes poetry so difficult.