The Aunt and Amabel
by E. Nesbit
Lewis enjoyed the writings of E. Nesbit from the time he was a child. When he began writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he told a friend that he had begun a children's book "in the tradition of E. Nesbit."
"The Aunt and Amabel" prefigures Lewis's first Narnia adventure in that
the young girl Amabel enters another world by means of a wardrobe, finding therein a magical train station called "Bigwardrobeinspareroom." In chapter 2 of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the faun Mr. Tumnus similarly speaks of "the far land of Spare Oom" and of "the bright city of War Drobe."
"The Aunt and Amabel" was first published in Blackie's Children's Annual (1909), and collected in The Magic World (1912).
It is not pleasant to be a fish out of water. To be a cat in water is not what any one would desire. To be in a temper is uncomfortable. And no one can fully taste the joys of life if he is in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. But by far the most uncomfortable thing to be in is disgrace, sometimes amusingly called Coventry by the people who are not in it.
We have all been there. It is a place where the heart sinks and aches, where familiar faces are clouded and changed, where any remark that one may tremblingly make is received with stony silence or with the assurance that nobody wants to talk to such a naughty child. If you are only in disgrace, and not in solitary confinement, you will creep about a house that is like the one you have had such jolly times in, and yet as unlike it as a bad dream is to a June morning. You will long to speak to people, and be afraid to speak. You will wonder whether there is anything you can do that will change things at all. You have said you are sorry, and that has changed nothing. You will wonder whether you are to stay for ever in this desolate place, outside all hope and love and fun and happiness. And though it has happened before, and has always, in the end, come to an end, you can never be quite sure that this time it is not going to last for ever.
"It is going to last for ever," said Amabel, who was eight. "What shall I do? Oh whatever shall I do?"
What she had done ought to have formed the subject of her meditations. And she had done what had seemed to her all the time, and in fact still seemed, a self-sacrificing and noble act. She was staying with an aunt-measles or a new baby, or the painters in the house, I forget which, the cause of her banishment. And the aunt, who was really a great-aunt and quite old enough to know better, had been grumbling about her head gardener to a lady who called in blue spectacles and a beady bonnet with violet flowers in it.
"He hardly lets me have a plant for the table," said the aunt, "and that border in front of the breakfast-room window-it's just bare earth-and I expressly ordered chrysanthemums to be planted there. He thinks of nothing but his greenhouse."
The beady-violet-blue-glassed lady snorted, and said she didn't know what we were coming to, and she would have just half a cup, please, with not quite so much milk, thank you very much.
Now what would you have done? Minded your own business most likely, and not got into trouble at all. Not so Amabel. Enthusiastically anxious to do something which should make the great-aunt see what a thoughtful, unselfish, little girl she really was (the aunt's opinion of her being at present quite otherwise), she got up very early in the morning and took the cutting-out scissors from the work-room table drawer and stole, "like an errand of mercy," she told herself, to the greenhouse where she busily snipped off every single flower she could find. MacFarlane was at his breakfast. Then with the points of the cutting-out scissors she made nice deep little holes in the flower-bed where the chrysanthemums ought to have been, and struck the flowers in-chrysanthemums, geraniums, primulas, orchids, and carnations. It would be a lovely surprise for Auntie.
Then the aunt came down to breakfast and saw the lovely surprise. Amabel's world turned upside down and inside out suddenly and surprisingly, and there she was, in Coventry, and not even the housemaid would speak to her. Her great-uncle, whom she passed in the hall on her way to her own room, did indeed, as he smoothed his hat, murmur, "Sent to Coventry, eh? Never mind, it'll soon be over," and went off to the City banging the front door behind him.
He meant well, but he did not understand.
Amabel understood, or she thought she did, and knew in her miserable heart that she was sent to Coventry for the last time, and that this time she would stay there.
"I don't care," she said quite untruly. "I'll never try to be kind to any one again." And that wasn't true either. She was to spend the whole day alone in the best bedroom, the one with the four-post bed and the red curtains and the large wardrobe with a looking-glass in it that you could see yourself in to the very ends of your strap-shoes.
The first thing Amabel did was to look at herself in the glass. She was still sniffing and sobbing, and her eyes were swimming in tears, another one rolled down her nose as she looked-that was very interesting. Another rolled down, and that was the last, because as soon as you get interested in watching your tears they stop.
Next she looked out of the window, and saw the decorated flower-bed, just as she had left it, very bright and beautiful.
"Well, it does look nice," she said. "I don't care what they say."
"Then she looked round the room for something to read; there was nothing. The old-fashioned best bedrooms never did have anything. Only on the large dressing-table, on the left-hand side of the oval swing-glass, was one book covered in red velvet, and on it, very twistily embroidered in yellow silk and mixed up with misleading leaves and squiggles were the letters, A. B. C.
"Perhaps it's a picture alphabet," said Mabel, and was quite pleased, though of course she was much too old to care for alphabets. Only when one is very unhappy and very dull, anything is better than nothing. She opened the book.
"Why, it's only a time-table!" she said. "I suppose it's for people when they want to go away, and Auntie puts it here in case they suddenly make up their minds to go, and feel that they can't wait another minute. I feel like that, only it's no good, and I expect other people do too."
She had learned how to use the dictionary, and this seemed to go the same way. She looked up the names of all the places she knew-Brighton where she had once spent a month, Rugby where her brother was at school, and Home, which was Amberley-and she saw the times when the trains left for these places, and wished she could go by those trains.
And once more she looked round the best bedroom which was her prison, and thought of the Bastille, and wished she had a toad to tame, like the poor Viscount, or a flower to watch growing, like Picciola, and she was very sorry for herself, and very angry with her aunt, and very grieved at the conduct of her parents-she had expected better things from them-and now they had left her in this dreadful place where no one loved her, and no one understood her.
There seemed to be no place for toads or flowers in the best room, it was carpeted all over even in its least noticeable corners. It had everything a best room ought to have-and everything was of dark shining mahogany. The toilet-table had a set of red and gold glass things-a tray, candlesticks, a ring-stand, many little pots with lids, and two bottles with stoppers. When the stoppers were taken out they smelt very strange, something like very old scent, and something like cold cream also very old, and something like going to the dentist's.
I do not know whether the scent of those bottles had anything to do with what happened. It certainly was a very extraordinary scent. Quite different from any perfume that I smell nowadays, but I remember that when I was a little girl I smelt it quite often. But then there are no best rooms now such as there used to be. The best rooms now are gay with chintz and mirrors, and there are always flowers and books, and little tables to put your teacup on, and sofas, and armchairs. And they smell of varnish and new furniture.
When Amabel had sniffed at both bottles and looked in all the pots, which were quite clean and empty except for a pearl button and two pins in one of them, she took up the A.B.C. again to look for Whitby, where her godmother lived. And it was then that she saw the extraordinary name "Whereyouwantogoto." This was odd-but the name of the station from which it started was still more extraordinary, for it was not Euston or Cannon Street or Marylebone.
The name of the station was "Bigwardrobeinspareroom." And below this name, really quite unusual for a station, Amabel read in small letters:
"Single fares strictly forbidden. Return tickets No Class Nuppence. Trains leave Bigwardrobeinspareroom all the time."
And under that in still smaller letters-
"You had better go now."
What would you have done? Rubbed your eyes and thought you were dreaming? Well, if you had, nothing more would have happened. Nothing ever does when you behave like that. Amabel was wiser. She went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle.
"I expect it's only shelves and people's best hats," she said. But she only said it. People often say what they don't mean, so that if things turn out as they don't expect, they can say "I told you so," but this is most dishonest to one's self, and being dishonest to one's self is almost worse than being dishonest to other people. Amabel would never have done it if she had been herself. But she was out of herself with anger and unhappiness.
Of course it wasn't hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars, which is, of course, unusual in a booking office, and over the station clock was a full moon. The clock had no figures, only Now in shining letters all round it, twelve times, and the Nows touched, so the clock was bound to be always right. How different from the clock you go to school by!
A porter in white satin hurried forward to take Amabel's luggage. Her luggage was the A.B.C. which she still held in her hand.
"Lots of time, Miss," he said, grinning in a most friendly way, "I am glad you're going. You will enjoy yourself! What a nice little girl you are!"
This was cheering. Amabel smiled.
At the pigeon-hole that tickets come out of, another person, also in white satin, was ready with a mother-of-pearl ticket, round, like a card counter.
"Here you are, Miss," he said with the kindest smile, "price nothing, and refreshments free all the way. It's a pleasure," he added, "to issue a ticket to a nice little lady like you." The train was entirely of crystal, too, and the cushions were of white satin. There were little buttons such as you have
for electric bells, and on them "Whatyouwantoeat," "Whatyouwantodrink," "Whatyouwantoread," in silver letters.
Amabel pressed all the buttons at once, and instantly felt obliged to blink. The blink over, she saw on the cushion by her side a silver tray with vanilla ice, boiled chicken and white sauce, almonds (blanched), peppermint creams, and mashed potatoes, and a long glass of lemonade-beside the tray was a book. It was Mrs. Ewing's Bad- tempered Family, and it was bound in white vellum.
There is nothing more luxurious than eating while you read-unless it be reading while you eat. Amabel did both: they are not the same thing, as you will see if you think the matter over.
And just as the last thrill of the last spoonful of ice died away, and the last full stop of the Bad-tempered Family met Amabel's eye, the train stopped, and hundreds of railway officials in white velvet shouted, "Whereyouwantogoto! Get out!"
A velvety porter, who was somehow like a silkworm as well as like a wedding handkerchief sachet, opened the door.
"Now!" he said, "come on out, Miss Amabel, unless you want to go to Whereyoudon'twantogoto."
She hurried out, on to an ivory platform.
"Not on the ivory, if you please," said the porter, "the white Axminster carpet-it's laid down expressly for you."
Amabel walked along it and saw ahead of her a crowd, all in white.
"What's all that?" she asked the friendly porter.
"It's the Mayor, dear Miss Amabel," he said, "with your address."
"My address is The Old Cottage, Amberley," she said, "at least it used to be"-and found herself face to face with the Mayor. He was very like Uncle George, but he bowed low to her, which was not Uncle George's habit, and said:
"Welcome, dear little Amabel. Please accept this admiring address
from the Mayor and burgesses and apprentices and all the rest of it, of Whereyouwantogoto."
The address was in silver letters, on white silk, and it said:
"Welcome, dear Amabel. We know you meant to please your aunt. It was very clever of you to think of putting the greenhouse flowers in the bare flower-bed. You couldn't be expected to know that you ought to ask leave before you touch other people's things."
"Oh, but," said Amabel quite confused. "I did. . . ."
But the band struck up, and drowned her words. The instruments of the band were all of silver, and the bandsmen's clothes of white leather. The tune they played was "Cheero!"
Then Amabel found that she was taking part in a procession, hand in hand with the Mayor, and the band playing like mad all the time. The Mayor was dressed entirely in cloth of silver, and as they went along he kept saying, close to her ear,
"You have our sympathy, you have our sympathy," till she felt quite giddy.
There was a flower show-all the flowers were white. There was a concert-all the tunes were old ones. There was a play called Put yourself in her place. And there was a banquet, with Amabel in the place of honour.
They drank her health in white wine whey, and then through the Crystal Hall of a thousand gleaming pillars, where thousands of guests, all in white, were met to do honour to Amabel, the shout went up-"Speech, speech!"
I cannot explain to you what had been going on in Amabel's mind. Perhaps you know. Whatever it was it began like a very tiny butterfly in a box, that could not keep quiet, but fluttered, and fluttered, and fluttered. And when the Mayor rose and said:
Excerpted from Tales Before Narnia by Edited and with commentary by Douglas A. Anderson. Copyright © 2008 by Douglas A. Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.