Blesok no. 15, June-July, 2000
Prose


The Phoenix

Sylvia Warner


    Lord Strawberry, a nobleman, collected birds. He had the finest aviary in Europe, so large that eagles did not find it uncomfortable, so well laid out that both humming birds and snow-buntings had a climate that suited them perfectly. But for many years the finest set of apartments remained empty, with just a label saying: “PHOENIX. Habitat: Arabia.
    Many authorities on bird life had assured Lord Strawberry that the phoenix is a fabulous bird, or that the breed was long extinct. Lord Strawberry was unconvinced: his family had always believed in phoenixes. At intervals he received from his agents (together with statements of their expenses) birds which they declared were the phoenix but which turned out to be orioles, macaws, turkey buzzards dyed orange, etc., or stuffed cross-breeds, ingeniously assembled from various plumages. Finally Lord Strawberry went himself to Arabia, where, after some months, he found a phoenix, won its confidence, caught it, and brought it home in perfect condition.
    It was a remarkably fine phoenix, with a charming character – affable to the other birds in the aviary and much attached to Lord Strawberry. On its arrival in England it made a greatest stir among ornithologists, journalists, poets, and milliners, and was constantly visited. But it was not puffed by these attentions, and when it was no longer in the news, and the visits fell off, it showed no pique or rancour. It ate well, and seemed perfectly contented.
    It costs a great deal of money to keep up an aviary. When Lord Strawberry died he died penniless. The aviary came on the market. In normal times the Rarer birds, and certainly the phoenix, would have been bid for by the trustees of Europe’s great zoological societies, or by private persons in the U.S.A.; but as it happened Lord Strawberry died just after a world war, when both money and bird-seed were hard to come by (indeed the cost of bird-seed was one of the things which had ruined Lord Strawberry). The London Times urged in a leader that the phoenix be bought for the London Zoo, saying that a nation of bird-lovers had a moral right to own such a rarity; and a fund, called the Strawberry Phoenix Fund, was opened. Students, naturalists, and school-children contributed according to their means; but their means were small, and there were no large donations. So Lord Strawberry’s executors (who had the death duties to consider) closed with the higher offer of Mr. Tancred Poldero, owner and proprietor of Poldero’s Wizard Wonderworld.
    For quite a while Mr. Poldero considered his phoenix a bargain. It was a civil and obliging bird, and adapted itself readily to its new surroundings. It did not cost much to feed, it did not mind children; and though it had no tricks, Mr. Poldero supposed it would soon pick up some. The publicity of the Strawberry Phoenix Fund was now most helpful. Almost every contributor now saved up another half-crown in order to see the phoenix. Others, who had not contributed to the fund, even paid double to look at it on the five-shilling days.
    But then business slackened. The phoenix was as handsome as ever, and amiable; but, as Mr. Poldero said, it hadn’t got Udge. Even at popular prices the phoenix was not really popular. It was too quiet, too classical. So people went instead to watch the antics of the baboons, or to admire the crocodile who had eaten the woman.
    One day Mr. Poldero said to his manager, Mr. Ramkin:
    “How long since any fool paid to look at the phoenix?”
    “Matter of three weeks,” replied Mr. Ramkin.
    “Eating his head off,” said Mr. Poldero. “Let alone the insurance. Seven shillings a week it costs me to insure the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
    “The public don’t like him. He’s too quiet for them, that’s the trouble. Won’t mate nor nothing. And I’ve tried him with no end of pretty pollies, ospreys, and Cochin-Chinas, and the Lord knows what. But he won’t look at them.”
    “Wonder if we could swap him for a livelier one,” said Mr. Poldero.
    “Impossible. There’s only one of him at a time.”
    “Go on!”
    “I mean it. Haven’t you ever read what it says on the label?”
    They went to the phoenix’s cage. It flapped its wings politely, but they paid no attention. They read:
    “PANSY. Phoenix phoenixissima formossisima arabiana. This rare and fabulous bird is unique. The World’s Old Bachelor. Has no mate and doesn’t want one. When old, sets fire to itself and emerges miraculously reborn. Specially imported from the East.”
    “I’ve got an idea,” said Mr. Poldero. “How old do you suppose that bird is?”
    “Looks in its prime to me,” said Mr. Ramkin.
    “Suppose,” continued Mr. Poldero, “we could somehow get him alight? We’d advertise it beforehand, of course, work up interest. Then we’d have a new bird, and a bird with some romance about it, a bird with a life story. We could sell a bird like that.”
    Mr. Ramkin nodded.
    “I’ve read about it in a book,” he said. “You’ve got to give them scented woods and what not, and they build a nest and sit down on it and catch fire spontaneous. But they won’t do it till they’re old. That’s the snag.”
    “Leave that to me, “ said Mr. Poldero. “You get those scented woods, and I’ll do the ageing.”
    It was not easy to age the phoenix. Its allowance of food was halved, and halved again, but though it grew thinner its eyes were undimmed and its plumage glossy as ever. The heating was turned off; but it puffed out its feathers against the cold, and seemed none the worse. Other birds were put into its cage, birds of a peevish and quarrelsome nature. They pecked and chivied it; but the phoenix was so civil and amiable that after a day or two they lost their animosity. Then Mr. Poldero tried alley cats. These could not be won by manners, but the phoenix darted above their heads and flapped its golden wings in their faces, and daunted them.
    Mr. Poldero turned to a book on Arabia, and read that the climate was dry. “Aha!” said he. The phoenix was moved to a small cage that had a sprinkler in the ceiling. Every night the sprinkler was turned on. The phoenix began to cough. Mr. Poldero had another good idea. Daily he stationed himself in front of the cage to jeer at the bird and abuse it.
    When spring was come, Mr. Poldero felt justified in beginning a publicity campaign about the ageing phoenix. The old public favorite, he said, was nearing its end. Meanwhile he tested the bird’s reactions every few days by putting a few tufts of foul-smelling straw and some strands of rusty barbed wire into the cage, to see if it were interested in nesting yet. One day the phoenix began turning over the straw. Mr. Poldero signed a contract for the film rights. At last the hour seemed ripe. It was a fine Saturday evening in May. For some weeks the public interest in the ageing phoenix had been working up, and the admission charge had risen to five shillings. The enclosure was thronged. The lights and the cameras were trained on the cage, and a loud-speaker proclaimed to the audience the rarity of what was about to take place.
    “The phoenix,” said the loud-speaker, “is the aristocrat of bird-life. Only the rarest and most expensive specimens of oriental wood, drenched in exotic perfumes, will tempt him to construct his strange love-nest.”
    Now a neat assortment of twigs and shavings, strongly scented, was shoved into the cage.
    “The phoenix,” the loud-speaker continued, “is as capricious as Cleopatra, as luxurious as la du Barry, as heady as a strain of wild gypsy music. All the fantastic pomp and passion of the ancient East, its languorous magic, its subtle cruelties…”
    “Lawks!” cried a woman in the crowd. “He’s at it!”
    A quiver stirred the dulled plumage. The phoenix turned its head from side to side. It descended, staggering, from its perch. Then wearily it began to pull about the twigs and shavings.
    The cameras clicked, the lights blazed full on the cage. Rushing to the loud-speaker Mr. Poldero exclaimed:
    “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the thrilling moment the world has breathlessly awaited. The legend of centuries is materializing before our modern eyes. The phoenix…”
    The phoenix settled on its pyre and appeared to fall asleep.
    The film director said:
    “Well, if it doesn’t evaluate more than this, mark instructional.”
    At that moment the phoenix and the pyre burst into flames. The flames streamed upwards, leaped out on every side. In a minute or two everything was burned to ashes, and some thousand people, including Mr. Poldero, perished in the blaze.




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