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.