Read Mary Poppins Online

Authors: P. L. Travers

Mary Poppins (9 page)

Jane and Michael looked at Mary Poppins.

"Four each," she said. "That's twelve. One dozen."

"I'll make it a Baker's Dozen — take thirteen," said Mrs. Corry cheerfully.

So Jane and Michael chose thirteen slabs of gingerbread, each with its gilt paper star. Their arms were piled up with the delicious dark cakes. Michael could not resist nibbling a corner of one of them.

"Good?" squeaked Mrs. Corry, and when he nodded she picked up her skirts and did a few steps of the Highland Fling for pure pleasure.

"Hooray, hooray, splendid, hooray!" she cried in her shrill little voice. Then she came to a standstill and her face grew serious.

"But remember — I'm not
giving
them away. I must be paid. The price is threepence for each of you."

Mary Poppins opened her purse and took out three threepenny-bits. She gave one each to Jane and Michael.

"Now," said Mrs. Corry. "Stick 'em on my coat! That's where they all go."

They looked closely at her long black coat. And sure enough they found it was studded with threepenny-bits as a Coster's coat is with pearl buttons.

"Come along. Stick 'em on!" repeated Mrs. Corry, rubbing her hands with pleasant expectation. "You'll find they won't drop off."

Mary Poppins stepped forward and pressed her threepenny-bit against the collar of Mrs. Corry's coat.

To the surprise of Jane and Michael, it stuck.

Then they put theirs on — Jane's on the right shoulder and Michael's on the front hem. Theirs stuck, too.

"How very extraordinary," said Jane.

"Not at all, my dear," said Mrs. Corry chuckling. "Or rather, not so extraordinary as other things I could mention." And she winked largely at Mary Poppins.

"I'm afraid we must be off now, Mrs. Corry," said Mary Poppins. "There is Baked Custard for lunch, and I must be home in time to make it. That Mrs. Brill—"

"A poor cook?" enquired Mrs. Corry interrupting.

"Poor!" said Mary Poppins contemptuously. "
That's
not the word."

"Ah!" Mrs. Corry put her finger alongside her nose and looked very wise. Then she said:

"Well, my dear Miss Poppins, it has been a very pleasant visit and I am sure my girls have enjoyed it as much as I have." She nodded in the direction of her two large mournful daughters. "And you'll come again soon, won't you, with Jane and Michael and the Babies? Now, are you sure you can carry the Gingerbread?" she continued, turning to Michael and Jane.

They nodded. Mrs. Corry drew closer to them, with a curious, important, inquisitive look on her face.

"I wonder," she said dreamily, "what you will do with the paper stars?"

"Oh, we'll keep them," said Jane. "We always do."

"Ah — you keep them! And I wonder
where
you keep them?" Mrs. Corry's eyes were half closed and she looked more inquisitive than ever.

"Well," Jane began. "Mine are all under my handkerchiefs in the top left-hand drawer and—"

"Mine are in a shoe-box on the bottom shelf of the wardrobe," said Michael.

"Top left-hand drawer and shoe-box in the wardrobe," said Mrs. Corry thoughtfully, as though she were committing the words to memory. Then she gave Mary Poppins a long look and nodded her head slightly. Mary Poppins nodded slightly in return. It seemed as if some secret had passed between them.

"Well," said Mrs. Corry brightly, "that is very interesting. You don't know how glad I am to know you keep your stars. I shall remember that. You see, I remember everything — even what Guy Fawkes had for dinner every second Sunday. And now, good-bye. Come again soon. Come again so-o-o-o-n!"

Mrs. Corry's voice seemed to be growing fainter and fading away, and presently, without being quite aware of what had happened, Jane and Michael found themselves on the pavement, walking behind Mary Poppins, who was again examining her list.

They turned and looked behind them.

"Why, Jane," said Michael with surprise, "it's not there!"

"So I see," said Jane, staring and staring.

And they were right. The shop was
not
there. It had entirely disappeared.

"How odd!" said Jane.

"Isn't it?" said Michael. "But the Gingerbread is very good."

And they were so busy biting their Gingerbread into different shapes — a man, a flower, a teapot — that they quite forgot how
very
odd it was.

They remembered it again at night, however, when the lights were out and they were both supposed to be sound asleep.

"Jane, Jane!" whispered Michael. "I hear someone tip-toeing on the stairs — listen!"

"Sssh!" hissed Jane from her bed, for she, too, had heard the footsteps.

Presently the door opened with a little click and somebody came into the room. It was Mary Poppins, dressed in hat and coat all ready to go out.

She moved about the room softly with quick secret movements. Jane and Michael watched her through half-closed eyes without stirring.

First she went to the chest of drawers, opened a drawer and shut it again after a moment. Then, on tip-toe, she went to the wardrobe, opened it, bent down and put something in or took something out (they couldn't tell which). Snap! The wardrobe door shut quickly and Mary Poppins hurried from the room.

Michael sat up in bed.

"What was she doing?" he said to Jane in a loud whisper.

"I don't know. Perhaps she'd forgotten her gloves or her shoes or—" Jane broke off suddenly. "Michael, listen!"

He listened. From down below — in the garden, it seemed — they could hear several voices whispering together, very earnestly and excitedly.

With a quick movement Jane got out of bed and beckoned Michael. They crept on bare feet to the window and looked down.

There, outside in the Lane, stood a tiny form and two gigantic figures.

"Mrs. Corry and Miss Fannie and Miss Annie," said Jane in a whisper.

And so indeed it was. It was a curious group. Mrs. Corry was looking through the bars of the gate of Number Seventeen, Miss Fannie had two long ladders balanced on one huge shoulder, while Miss Annie appeared to be carrying in one hand a large pail of something that looked like glue and in the other an enormous paint-brush.

From where they stood, hidden by the curtain, Jane and Michael could distinctly hear their voices.

"She's late!" Mrs. Corry was saying crossly and anxiously.

"Perhaps," Miss Fannie began timidly, settling the ladders more firmly on her shoulder, "one of the children is ill and she couldn't—"

"Get away in time," said Miss Annie, nervously completing her sister's sentence.

"Silence!" said Mrs. Corry fiercely, and Jane and Michael distinctly heard her whisper something about "great galumphing giraffes," and they knew she was referring to her unfortunate daughters.

"Hist!" said Mrs. Corry suddenly, listening with her head on one side, like a small bird.

There was the sound of the front door being quietly opened and shut again, and the creak of footsteps on the path. Mrs. Corry smiled and waved her hand as Mary Poppins came to meet them, carrying a market basket on her arm, and in the basket was something that seemed to give out a faint, mysterious light.

"Come along, come along, we must hurry! We haven't much time," said Mrs. Corry, taking Mary Poppins by the arm. "Look lively, you two!" And she moved off, followed by Miss Fannie and Miss Annie, who were obviously trying to look as lively as possible but not succeeding very well. They tramped heavily after their Mother and Mary Poppins, bending under their loads.

Jane and Michael saw all four of them go down Cherry-Tree Lane, and then they turned a little to the left and went up the hill. When they got to the top of the hill, where there were no houses but only grass and clover, they stopped.

Miss Annie put down her pail of glue, and Miss Fannie swung the ladders from her shoulder and steadied them until both stood in an upright position. Then she held one and Miss Annie the other.

"What on earth are they going to do?" said Michael, gaping.

But there was no need for Jane to reply, for he could see for himself what was happening.

As soon as Miss Fannie and Miss Annie had so fixed the ladders that they seemed to be standing with one end on the earth and the other leaning on the sky, Mrs. Corry picked up her skirts and the paint-brush in one hand and the pail of glue in the other. Then she set her foot on the lowest rung of one of the ladders and began to climb it. Mary Poppins, carrying her basket, climbed the other.

One end on the earth and the other leaning on the sky

Then Jane and Michael saw a most amazing sight. As soon as she arrived at the top of her ladder, Mrs. Corry dipped her brush into the glue and began slapping the sticky substance against the sky. And Mary Poppins, when this had been done, took something shiny from her basket and fixed it to the glue. When she took her hand away they saw that she was sticking the Gingerbread Stars to the sky. As each one was placed in position it began to twinkle furiously, sending out rays of sparkling golden light.

"They're ours!" said Michael breathlessly. "They're our stars. She thought we were asleep and came in and took them!"

But Jane was silent. She was watching Mrs. Corry splashing the glue on the sky and Mary Poppins sticking on the stars and Miss Fannie and Miss Annie moving the ladders to a new position as the spaces in the sky became filled up.

At last it was over. Mary Poppins shook out her basket and showed Mrs. Corry that there was nothing left in it. Then they came down from the ladders and the procession started down the hill again, Miss Fannie shouldering the ladders, Miss Annie jangling her empty pail of glue. At the corner they stood talking for a moment; then Mary Poppins shook hands with them all and hurried up the Lane again. Mrs. Corry, dancing lightly in her elastic-sided boots and holding her skirts daintily with her hands, disappeared in the other direction with her huge daughters stumping noisily behind her.

The garden-gate clicked. Footsteps creaked on the path. The front door opened and shut with a soft clanging sound. Presently they heard Mary Poppins come quietly up the stairs, tip-toe past the nursery and go on into the room where she slept with John and Barbara.

As the sound of her footsteps died away, Jane and Michael looked at each other. Then without a word they went together to the top left-hand drawer and looked.

There was nothing there but a pile of Jane's handkerchiefs.

"I told you so," said Michael.

Next they went to the wardrobe and looked into the shoe-box. It was empty.

"But how? But why?" said Michael, sitting down on the edge of his bed and staring at Jane.

Jane said nothing. She just sat beside him with her arms round her knees and thought and thought and thought. At last she shook back her hair and stretched herself and stood up.

"What
I
want to know," she said, "is this: Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars?"

There was no reply to her question and she did not expect one. She knew that only somebody very much wiser than Michael could give her the right answer….

CHAPTER 9

JOHN AND BARBARA'S STORY

JANE AND MICHAEL had gone off to a party, wearing their best clothes and looking, as Ellen the housemaid said when she saw them, "just like a shop window."

All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps.

Down in the kitchen Mrs. Brill was reading the paper with her spectacles perched on her nose. Robertson Ay was sitting in the garden busily doing nothing. Mrs. Banks was on the drawing-room sofa with her feet up. And the house stood very quietly around them all, dreaming its own dreams, or thinking perhaps.

Upstairs in the nursery Mary Poppins was airing the clothes by the fire, and the sunlight poured in at the window, flickering on the white walls, dancing over the cots where the babies were lying.

"I say, move over! You're right in my eyes," said John in a loud voice.

"Sorry!" said the sunlight. "But I can't help it. I've got to get across this room somehow. Orders is orders. I must move from East to West in a day and my way lies through this Nursery. Sorry! Shut your eyes and you won't notice me."

The gold shaft of sunlight lengthened across the room. It was obviously moving as quickly as it could in order to oblige John.

"How soft, how sweet you are! I love you," said Barbara, holding out her hands to its shining warmth.

"Good girl," said the sunlight approvingly, and moved up over her cheeks and into her hair with a light, caressing movement. "Do you like the feel of me?" it said, as though it loved being praised.

"Dee-licious!" said Barbara, with a happy sigh.

"Chatter, chatter, chatter! I never heard such a place for chatter. There's always somebody talking in this room," said a shrill voice at the window.

John and Barbara looked up.

It was the Starling who lived on the top of the chimney.

"I like that," said Mary Poppins, turning round quickly. "What about yourself? All day long — yes, and half the night, too, on the roofs and telegraph poles. Roaring and screaming and shouting — you'd talk the leg off a chair, you would. Worse than any sparrer, and that's the truth."

The Starling cocked his head on one side and looked down at her from his perch on the window-frame.

"Well," he said, "I have my business to attend to. Consultations, discussions, arguments, bargaining. And that, of course, necessitates a certain amount of — er — quiet conversation—"

"Quiet!" exclaimed John, laughing heartily.

"And I wasn't talking to you, young man," said the Starling, hopping down on to the window-sill. "And
you
needn't talk — anyway. I heard you for several hours on end last Saturday week. Goodness, I thought you'd never stop — you kept me awake all night."

"That wasn't talking," said John. "I was—" He paused. "I mean, I had a pain."

"Humph!" said the Starling, and hopped on to the railing of Barbara's cot. He sidled along it until he came to the head of the cot. Then he said in a soft, wheedling voice:

"Well, Barbara B., anything for the old fellow today, eh?"

Barbara pulled herself into a sitting position by holding on to one of the bars of her cot.

"There's the other half of my arrowroot biscuit," she said, and held it out in her round, fat fist.

The Starling swooped down, plucked it out of her hand and flew back to the window-sill. He began nibbling it greedily.

"Thank you!" said Mary Poppins, meaningly, but the Starling was too busy eating to notice the rebuke.

"I said 'Thank you!'" said Mary Poppins a little louder.

The Starling looked up.

"Eh — what? Oh, get along, girl, get along. I've no time for such frills and furbelows." And he gobbled up the last of his biscuit.

The room was very quiet.

John, drowsing in the sunlight, put the toes of his right foot into his mouth and ran them along the place where his teeth were just beginning to come through.

"Why do you bother to do that?" said Barbara, in her soft, amused voice that seemed always to be full of laughter. "There's nobody to see you."

"I know," said John, playing a tune on his toes. "But I like to keep in practice. It
does
so amuse the Grown-ups. Did you notice that Aunt Flossie nearly went mad with delight when I did it yesterday? 'The Darling, the Clever, the Marvel, the Creature!'—didn't you hear her saying all that?" And John threw his foot from him and roared with laughter as he thought of Aunt Flossie.

"She liked my trick, too," said Barbara complacently. "I took off both my socks and she said I was so sweet she would like to eat me. Isn't it funny — when I say I'd like to eat something I really mean it. Biscuits and Rusks and the knobs of beds and so on. But Grown-ups never mean what they say, it seems to me. She couldn't have
really
wanted to eat me, could she?"

"No. It's only the idiotic way they have of talking," said John. "I don't believe I'll ever understand Grown-ups. They all seem so stupid. And even Jane and Michael are stupid sometimes."

"Um," agreed Barbara, thoughtfully pulling off her socks and putting them on again.

"For instance," John went on, "they don't understand a single thing we say. But, worse than that, they don't understand what
other
things say. Why, only last Monday I heard Jane remark that she wished she knew what language the Wind spoke."

"I know," said Barbara. "It's astonishing. And Michael always insists — haven't you heard him? — that the Starling says 'Wee-TWe — ee — ee!' He seems not to know that the Starling says nothing of the kind, but speaks exactly the same language as we do. Of course, one doesn't expect Mother and Father to know about it — they don't know
anything,
though they
are
such darlings — but you'd think Jane and Michael would—"

"They did once," said Mary Poppins, folding up one of Jane's nightgowns.

"What?" said John and Barbara together in very surprised voices. "Really? You mean they understood the Starling and the Wind and—"

"And what the trees say and the language of the sunlight and the stars — of course they did!
Once,
" said Mary Poppins.

"But — but how is it that they've forgotten it all?" said John, wrinkling up his forehead and trying to understand.

"Aha!" said the Starling knowingly, looking up from the remains of his biscuit. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Because they've grown older," explained Mary Poppins. "Barbara, put on your socks at once, please."

"That's a silly reason," said John, looking sternly at her.

"It's the true one, then," Mary Poppins said, tying Barbara's socks firmly round her ankles.

"Well, it's Jane and Michael who are silly," John continued. "I know I shan't forget when I get older."

"Nor I," said Barbara, contentedly sucking her finger.

"Yes, you will," said Mary Poppins firmly.

The Twins sat up and looked at her.

"Huh!" said the Starling contemptuously. "Look at 'em! They think they're the World's Wonders. Little miracles — I
don't
think! Of course you'll forget — same as Jane and Michael."

"We
won't,
" said the Twins, looking at the Starling as if they would like to murder him.

The Starling jeered.

"I say you will," he insisted. "It isn't your fault, of course," he added more kindly. "You'll forget because you just can't help it. There never was a human being that remembered after the age of one — at the very latest — except, of course, Her." And he jerked his head over his shoulder at Mary Poppins.

"But why can she remember and not us?" said John.

"A-a-a-h! She's different. She's the Great Exception. Can't go by
her,
" said the Starling, grinning at them both.

John and Barbara were silent.

The Starling went on explaining.

"
Huh!" said the Starling. "Look at 'em!
"

"She's something special, you see. Not in the matter of looks, of course. One of my own day-old chicks is handsomer than Mary P. ever was—"

"Here, you impertinence!" said Mary Poppins crossly, making a dart at him and flicking her apron in his direction. But the Starling leapt aside and flew up to the window-frame, whistling wickedly, well out of reach.

"Thought you had me that time, didn't you?" he jeered and shook his wing-feathers at her.

Mary Poppins snorted.

The sunlight moved on through the room, drawing its long gold shaft after it. Outside a light wind had sprung up and was whispering gently to the cherry-trees in the Lane.

"Listen, listen, the wind's talking," said John, tilting his head on one side. "Do you really mean we won't be able to hear
that
when we're older, Mary Poppins?"

"You'll hear all right," said Mary Poppins, "but you won't understand." At that Barbara began to weep gently. There were tears in John's eyes, too. "Well, it can't be helped. It's how things happen," said Mary Poppins sensibly.

"Look at them, just look at them!" jeered the Starling. "Crying fit to kill themselves! Why, a starling in the egg's got more sense. Look at them!"

For John and Barbara were now crying piteously in their cots — long-drawn sobs of deep unhappiness.

Suddenly the door opened and in came Mrs. Banks.

"I thought I heard the babies," she said. Then she ran to the Twins. "What is it, my darlings? Oh, my Treasures, my Sweets, my Love-birds, what is it? Why are they crying so, Mary Poppins? They've been so quiet all the afternoon — not a sound out of them. What can be the matter?"

"Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. I expect they're getting their teeth, ma'am," said Mary Poppins, deliberately not looking in the direction of the Starling.

"Oh, of course — that must be it," said Mrs. Banks brightly.

"I don't want teeth if they make me forget all the things I like best," wailed John, tossing about in his cot.

"Neither do I," wept Barbara, burying her face in her pillow.

"My poor ones, my pets — it will be all right when the naughty old teeth come through," said Mrs. Banks soothingly, going from one cot to another.

"You don't understand!" roared John furiously. "I don't
want
teeth."

"It won't be all right, it will be all
wrong]
" wailed Barbara to her pillow.

"Yes — yes. There — there. Mother knows — Mother understands. It will be all right when the teeth come through," crooned Mrs. Banks tenderly.

A faint noise came from the window. It was the Starling hurriedly swallowing a laugh. Mary Poppins gave him one look. That sobered him, and he continued to regard the scene without the hint of a smile.

Mrs. Banks was patting her children gently, first one and then the other, and murmuring words that were meant to be reassuring. Suddenly John stopped crying. He had very good manners, and he was fond of his Mother and remembered what was due to her. It was not
her
fault, poor woman, that she always said the wrong thing. It was just, he reflected, that she did not understand. So, to show that he forgave her, he turned over on his back, and very dolefully, sniffing back his tears, he picked up his right foot in both hands and ran his toes along his open mouth.

"Clever One, oh, Clever One," said his Mother admiringly. He did it again and she was very pleased.

Then Barbara, not to be outdone in courtesy, came out of her pillow and with her tears still wet on her face, sat up and plucked off both her socks.

"Wonderful Girl," said Mrs. Banks proudly, and kissed her.

"There, you see, Mary Poppins! They're quite good again. I can always comfort them. Quite good, quite good," said Mrs. Banks, as though she were singing a lullaby. "And the teeth will soon be through."

"Yes, ma'am," said Mary Poppins quietly; and smiling to the Twins, Mrs. Banks went out and closed the door.

The moment she had disappeared the Starling burst into a peal of rude laughter.

"Excuse me smiling!" he cried. "But really — I can't help it. What a scene!
What
a scene!"

John took no notice of him. He pushed his face through the bars of his cot and called softly and fiercely to Barbara:

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