Read Mary Poppins Online

Authors: P. L. Travers

Mary Poppins (11 page)

Jane and Michael had a good view of what was happening, through a gap between a panther and a dingo. Bottles of milk were being thrown in to the babies, who made soft little grabs with their hands and clutched them greedily. The older children snatched sponge-cakes and dough-nuts from the forks and began to eat ravenously. Plates of thin bread-and-butter and wholemeal scones were provided for the ladies in galoshes, and the gentlemen in top-hats had lamb cutlets and custard in glasses. These, as they received their food, took it away into a corner, spread handkerchiefs over their striped trousers and began to eat.

Presently, as the keepers passed down the line of cages, a great commotion was heard.

"Blast my vitals — call that a meal? A skimpy little round of beef and a couple of cabbages! What — no Yorkshire pudding? Outrageous! Up with the anchor! And where's my port? Port, I say! Heave her over! Below there, where's the Admiral's port?"

"Listen to him! He's turned nasty. I tell you, he's not safe — that one," said the Lion.

Jane and Michael did not need to be told whom he meant. They knew Admiral Boom's language too well.

"Well," said the Lion, as the noise in the hall grew less uproarious. "That appears to be the end. And I'm afraid, if you'll excuse me, I must be getting along. See you later at the Grand Chain, I hope. I'll look out for you." And, leading them to the door, he took his leave of them, sidling away, swinging his curled mane, his golden body dappled with moonlight and shadow.

"Oh, please—" Jane called after him. But he was out of hearing.

"I wanted to ask him if they'd ever get out. The poor humans! Why, it might have been John and Barbara — or any of us." She turned to Michael, but found that he was no longer by her side. He had moved away along one of the paths and, running after him, she found him talking to a Penguin who was standing in the middle of the path with a large copybook under one wing and an enormous pencil under the other. He was biting the end of it thoughtfully as she approached.

"I can't think," she heard Michael saying, apparently in answer to a question.

The Penguin turned to Jane. "Perhaps
you
can tell me," he said. "Now, what rhymes with Mary? I can't use 'contrary' because that has been done before and one must be original. If you're going to say 'fairy,' don't. I've thought of that already, but as it's not a bit like her, it won't do."

"Hairy," said Michael brightly.

"H'm. Not poetic enough," observed the Penguin.

"What about 'wary'?" said Jane.

"Well—" The Penguin appeared to be considering it. "It's not
very
good, is it?" he said forlornly. "I'm afraid I'll have to give it up. You see, I was trying to write a poem for the Birthday. I thought it would be so nice if I began:

"O Mary, Mary—"

and then I couldn't get any further. It's very annoying. They expect something learned from a penguin, and I don't want to disappoint them. Well, well — you mustn't keep me. I must get on with it." And with that he hurried away, biting his pencil and bending over his copy-book.

"This is all very confusing," said Jane. "Whose birthday is it, I wonder?"

"Now, come along, you two, come along. You want to pay your respects, I suppose, it being the Birthday and all!" said a voice behind them, and turning, they saw the Brown Bear who had given them their tickets at the gate.

"Oh, of course!" said Jane, thinking that was the safest thing to say, but not knowing in the least whom they were to pay their respects to.

The Brown Bear put an arm round each of them and propelled them along the path. They could feel his warm soft fur brushing against their bodies and hear the rumblings his voice made in his stomach as he talked.

"Here we are,
here
we are!" said the Brown Bear, stopping before a small house whose windows were all so brightly lit that if it hadn't been a moonlight night you would have thought the sun was shining. The Bear opened the door and gently pushed the two children through it.

The light dazzled them at first, but their eyes soon became accustomed to it and they saw that they were in the Snake House. All the cages were open and the snakes were out — some curled lazily into great scaly knots, others slipping gently about the floor. And in the middle of the snakes, on a log that had evidently been brought from one of the cages, sat Mary Poppins. Jane and Michael could hardly believe their eyes.

"Coupla birthday guests, ma'am," announced the Brown Bear respectfully. The snakes turned their heads enquiringly towards the children. Mary Poppins did not move. But she spoke.

"And where's your overcoat, may I ask?" she demanded, looking crossly but without surprise at Michael.

"And
your
hat and gloves?" she snapped, turning to Jane.

But before either of them had time to reply there was a stir in the Snake House.

"Hsssst! Hssst!"

The snakes, with a soft hissing sound, were rising up on end and bowing to something behind Jane and Michael. The Brown Bear took off his peaked cap. And slowly Mary Poppins, too, stood up.

"My dear child. My very dear child!" said a small, delicate, hissing voice. And out from the largest of the cages there came, with slow, soft, winding movements, a Hamadryad. He slid in graceful curves past the bowing snakes and the Brown Bear, towards Mary Poppins. And when he reached her, he raised the front half of his long golden body, and, thrusting upwards his scaly golden hood, daintily kissed her, first on one cheek and then on the other.

"So!" he hissed softly. "This is very pleasant — very pleasant, indeed. It is long since your Birthday fell on a Full Moon, my dear." He turned his head.

"Be seated, friends!" he said, bowing graciously to the other snakes who, at that word, slid reverently to the floor again, coiled themselves up, and gazed steadily at the Hamadryad and Mary Poppins.

The Hamadryad turned then to Jane and Michael, and with a little shiver they saw that his face was smaller and more wizened than anything they had ever seen. They took a step forward, for his curious deep eyes seemed to draw them towards him. Long and narrow they were, with a dark sleepy look in them, and in the middle of that dark sleepiness a wakeful light glittered like a jewel.

"And who, may I ask, are these?" he said in his soft, terrifying voice, looking at the children enquiringly.

"Miss Jane Banks and Master Michael Banks, at your service," said the Brown Bear gruffly, as though he were half afraid. "
Her
friends."

"Ah,
her
friends. Then they are welcome. My dears, pray be seated."

Jane and Michael, feeling somehow that they were in the presence of a King — as they had not felt when they met the Lion — with difficulty drew their eyes from that compelling gaze and looked round for something to sit on. The Brown Bear provided this by squatting down himself and offering them each a furry knee.

Jane said, in a whisper: "He talks as though he were a great lord."

"He
is.
He's the lord of our world — the wisest and most terrible of us all," said the Brown Bear softly and reverently.

The Hamadryad smiled, a long, slow, secret smile, and turned to Mary Poppins.

"Cousin," he began, gently hissing.

"Is she
really
his cousin?" whispered Michael.

"First cousin once removed — on the mother's side," returned the Brown Bear, whispering the information behind his paw. "But, listen now. He's going to give the Birthday Present."

"Cousin," repeated the Hamadryad, "it is long since your Birthday fell on the Full Moon and long since we have been able to celebrate the event as we celebrate it tonight. I have, therefore, had time to give the question of your Birthday Present some consideration. And I have decided" — he paused, and there was no sound in the Snake House but the sound of many creatures all holding their breath—"that I cannot do better than give you one of my own skins."

"Indeed, cousin, it is too kind of you—" began Mary Poppins, but the Hamadryad held up his hood for silence.

"Not at all. Not at all. You know that I change my skin from time to time and that one more or less means little to me. Am I not—?" he paused and looked round him.

"The Lord of the Jungle," hissed all the snakes in unison, as though the question and the answer were part of a well-known ceremony.

The Hamadryad nodded. "So," he said, "what seems good to me will seem so to you. It is a small enough gift, dear Mary, but it may serve for a belt or a pair of shoes, even a hat-band — these things always come in useful, you know."

And with that he began to sway gently from side to side, and it seemed to Jane and Michael as they watched that little waves were running up his body from the tail to the head. Suddenly he gave a long, twisting, corkscrew leap and his golden outer skin lay on the floor, and in its place he was wearing a new coat of shining silver.

"Wait!" said the Hamadryad, as Mary Poppins bent to pick up the skin. "I will write a Greeting upon it." And he ran his tail very quickly along his thrown skin, deftly bent the golden sheath into a circle, and diving his head through this as though it were a crown, offered it graciously to Mary Poppins. She took it, bowing.

"I just can't thank you enough—" she began, and paused. She was evidently very pleased, for she kept running the skin backwards and forwards through her fingers and looking at it admiringly.

"Don't try," said the Hamadryad. "Hsst!" he went on, and spread out his hood as though he were listening with it. "Do I not hear the signal for the Grand Chain?"

Everybody listened. A bell was ringing and a deep gruff voice could be heard coming nearer and nearer, crying out:

"Grand Chain, Grand Chain! Everybody to the centre for the Grand Chain and Finale. Come along, come along. Stand ready for the Grand Chain!"

"I thought so," said the Hamadryad, smiling. "You must be off, my dear. They'll be waiting for you to take your place in the centre. Farewell, till your next Birthday." And he raised himself as he had done before and lightly saluted Mary Poppins on both cheeks.

"Hurry away!" said the Hamadryad. "I will take care of your young friends."

Jane and Michael felt the Brown Bear moving under them and they stood up. Past their feet they could feel all the snakes slipping and writhing as they hurried from the Snake House. Mary Poppins bowed towards the Hamadryad very ceremoniously, and without a backward glance at the children went running towards the huge green square in the centre of the Zoo.

"You may leave us," said the Hamadryad to the Brown Bear who, after bowing humbly, ran off with his cap in his hand to where all the other animals were congregating round Mary Poppins.

"Will you go with me?" said the Hamadryad kindly to Jane and Michael. And without waiting for them to reply he slid between them, and with a movement of his hood directed them to walk one on either side of him.

"It has begun," he said, hissing with pleasure.

And from the loud cries that were now coming from the Green, the children could guess that he meant the Grand Chain. As they drew nearer they could hear the animals singing and shouting, and presently they saw leopards and lions, beavers, camels, bears, cranes, antelopes and many others all forming themselves into a ring round Mary Poppins. Then the animals began to move, wildly crying their Jungle songs, prancing in and out of the ring, and exchanging hand and wing as they went as dancers do in the Grand Chain of the Lancers.

A little piping voice rose high above the rest:

"Oh, Mary Mary,

She's my Dearie,

She's my Dear-i-o!"

And they saw the Penguin come dancing by, waving his short wings and singing lustily. He caught sight of them, bowed to the Hamadryad, and called out:

"I got it — did you hear me singing it? It's not perfect, of course. 'Dearie' does not rhyme
exactly
with Mary. But it'll do, it'll do!" and he skipped off and offered his wing to a leopard.

Jane and Michael watched the dance, the Hamadryad secret and still between them. As their friend

Forming themselves into a ring round Mary Poppins

the Lion, dancing past, bent down to take the wing of a Brazilian Pheasant in his paw, Jane shyly tried to put her feelings into words.

"I thought, Sir—" she began and stopped, feeling confused, and not sure whether she ought to say it or not.

"Speak, my child!" said the Hamadryad. "You thought?"

"Well — that lions and birds, and tigers and little animals—"

The Hamadryad helped her. "You thought that they were natural enemies, that the lion could not meet a bird without eating it, nor the tiger the hare — eh?"

Jane blushed and nodded.

"Ah — you may be right. It is possible. But not on the Birthday," said the Hamadryad. "Tonight the small are free from the great and the great protect the small. Even I—" he paused and seemed to be thinking deeply, "even I can meet a Barnacle Goose without any thought of dinner — on this occasion. And after all," he went on, flicking his terrible little forked tongue in and out as he spoke, "it may be that to eat and be eaten are the same thing in the end. My wisdom tells me that this is probably so. We are all made of the same stuff, remember, we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us — the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star — we are all one, all moving to the same end. Remember that when you no longer remember me, my child."

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