Arabel and MortimerJoan Aiken
Arabel and Mortimer
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An Odyssey Classic
Orlando Austin New York San Diego London
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Copyright © 1981 by John Sebastian Brown,
Elizabeth Delano Charlaff, and Quentin Blake
Copyright © 1976, 1979 by John Sebastian Brown and Elizabeth Delano Charlaff
Illustrations copyright © 1976, 1979 by Quentin Blake
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed
to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
First published by Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1981
First Odyssey Classics edition 2007
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Aiken, Joan, 1924–2004.
Arabel and Mortimer/Joan Aiken; illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Summary: Presents three previously published works
about a pet raven named Mortimer, who talks, eats everything
in sight, and causes all sorts of trouble.
Contents: Mortimer's tie—The spiral stair—Mortimer and
the sword Excalibur. [1. Ravens—Fiction. 2. Birds as pets—Fiction.
3. Humorous stories.] I. Blake, Quentin, ill. II. Title.
Text set in Bodoni
Designed by Cathy Riggs
A C E G H F D B
Printed in the United States of America
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Mortimer's Tie 1
The Spiral Stair 77
Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur 133
On a beautiful sunny, warm Saturday halfway through March, something happened in Rainwater Crescent which was to lead to such startling consequences for the Jones family that even years afterward Mrs. Jones was liable to get lightheaded if she so much as heard a piano being played—while the sight of a tin of lavender paint, or any object that had been painted a lavender color, brought her out in severe palpitations. As for Mr. Jones, he was often heard to declare that he would let mushrooms grow on the floor of his taxi—or even mustard and cress—before he would permit any person other than himself to clean it out ever again.
Perhaps it will be best to start at the beginning.
On Saturday afternoons Mr. Jones, who was a taxi driver, always allowed himself two hours off to watch football. (In winter, that is, of course; in summer he watched cricket.) If the Rumbury Wanderers were playing on their home ground—which was just five minutes' walk from the Jones family house in Rainwater Crescent, Rumbury Town, London N.W. 3½—Mr. Jones went round to cheer his home team; otherwise he looked at whatever game was being shown on television.
On the Saturday in question he had just returned from a special hire job, taking a passenger to Rumbury Docks. He was back late, so he bolted down his lunch and went off to watch Rumbury play Camden Town.
Mrs. Jones was out doing her usual Saturday shopping and having her hair set at Norma's Ninth Wave; otherwise things might have turned out differently.
While Mr. Jones was taking his time off, Chris Cross, who had just done his A levels at Rumbury Comprehensive, cleaned out Mr. Jones's taxi, which was left parked for the purpose in front of the house in Rainwater Crescent.
For doing this job Chris got paid one pound plus an extra good high tea. Arabel Jones, who was still too young for school, helped Chris, but she did it for pleasure and did not get paid; however, she got a share of the high tea and had free rides all the time in her father's taxi, so the arrangement seemed fair.
Mortimer, the Jones family raven, also helped clean the cab; or at least he was present while the job was being done.
The way Chris set about it was as follows: first he carried Mrs. Jones's vacuum cleaner (it was the upright kind and was called a Baby Vampire) out onto the pavement in front of the house, taking its cord through the drawing-room window and across the garden (luckily it was a good long cord); Chris then removed the rubber mats from the floor of the taxi, laid them on the pavement, and washed them; then he vacuumed the inside of the taxi with the Baby Vampire; then he washed the floor with hot water and Swoosh detergent.
Next, using the garden hose, he washed the outside of the taxi all over (first making sure the windows were shut). Then he gave the windows and windshield an extra going over with Windazz. Then he gave the rest of the outside a polish. Then he put back the floor mats, which had had time to dry by now, and cleaned the inside upholstery with Seatsope. He finished off by polishing the door and window handles and any other shiny bits on the dashboard with Chromoshino.
Or at least that was all that Chris intended to do. But Mortimer the raven was taking such an active interest in the proceedings that matters turned out differently.
First Mortimer sat on the vacuum cleaner and had all his tail feathers blown sideways. Also a green tie, which he happened to be wearing, wound several times round his neck, became unwound, and was blown twenty-five yards down the street. Arabel had to go after it; she rolled it up and put it into the glove compartment for safekeeping. Mortimer, slightly irritated by having his tail disarranged, had in the meantime pecked a hole in the bag of the vacuum cleaner, so Chris had to do the rest of the job with the brush and dustpan.
Then Mortimer got tangled up in the hose. During his frantic efforts to disentangle himself he pecked several holes in the hosepipe; after that, water came out all over the place.
Next, Mortimer trod on the cake of Seatsope which Chris had carelessly left on the front doorstep; it skidded away with Mortimer on it and narrowly missed a passing mail van. So Arabel decided it might be better to move Mortimer inside the taxi. Here he perched on the rim of the pail containing hot water and Swoosh. There was not much water left in the pail, which tipped over with Mortimer's weight. Mortimer swiftly removed himself from the floor, where he had been ankle-deep in Swoosh suds, and clambered onto the steering wheel, where he studied all the dashboard fittings with keen attention.
"It would be a lot easier to get on with the job if that bird stayed indoors," said Chris, wringing out the bottoms of his jeans and giving Mortimer an unfriendly look. Both Arabel and Chris were wet all over by this time, what with one thing and another, while Mortimer was perfectly dry; the water just ran off his thick black feathers.
"Ma doesn't like Mortimer to be left alone indoors," Arabel said, "not after the time he ate all the taps off the gas cooker. He didn't mean to knock over the bucket. Why don't you switch on the heater? That will dry the floor."
Chris had the car keys in his jeans pocket. He moved Mortimer off the steering wheel and onto the backseat; then he stuck the key in and turned on the ignition; then he switched on the fan heater, which began to blow hot air all over the place.
Mortimer had been watching all this with absorbed interest. He had been thinking a lot about keys lately; in fact, he had started a small collection of them which he kept in an old money box of Arabel's at the back of the broom cupboar
Now Mortimer stepped thoughtfully down onto the floor (leaving some toenail holes in the leather upholstery) and began to walk about, enjoying the warm draft on his stomach; he also left dirty bird footprints on the damp floor.
"I wish he'd keep his feet in his pockets," said Chris.
"He hasn't any pockets," said Arabel.
Mortimer then returned to the steering wheel in three quick movements—flap, hop, thump—and tweaked out the ignition key with his strong, hairy beak. Next he flopped right out of the taxi through the open front door and made his way quite fast to the letter box which stood on the pavement outside the Jones house. He was just at the point of dropping the car keys through the slot of the letter box when Chris, leaping from the taxi like a grasshopper, grabbed him around the middle and took back the keys.
"No you don't, buster; you just keep your big beak out of what doesn't concern you," said Chris; he dumped Mortimer none too gently on the rear seat once more.
Mortimer began to sulk. The way he did this was to sink his head between his shoulders, ruffle up his neck feathers, turn his beak sideways, curl up his claws, and, in general, look as if for two pins he would puncture the tires or smash the windows.
"He wants to help, really," said Arabel. "The trouble is, he doesn't know how. Tell you what, Mortimer. Why don't you hunt for diamonds behind the backseat?"
Mortimer gave Arabel a very sour look. Actually, until a few days ago he had been quite keen on searching for diamonds; it had been his favorite hobby and he did it all over the place, but specially under carpets, in garbage bins, coal scuttles, and paper-and-string drawers; but he had found so few diamonds—indeed, none—that he had lately lost interest in this pastime. Instead, he had become interested in keys. He liked the way they fitted into locks and the different things that happened when the keys were turned—like engines starting and doors opening.
He had developed an interest in letter boxes, too.
So he was not pleased at being asked to hunt for diamonds.
However, when Arabel pointed out to him the deep crack between the cushion and the back of the rear seat, he began to poke along it in a grudging manner, as if he were doing her a big favor.
In fact, the crack was very narrow and inviting, just the right place to find a diamond, and his beak was just the right length to go into it nicely.
The surprising thing was that almost at once Mortimer did find a diamond, quite a big one, the size of a stewed prune. It was set in a platinum ring.
"Kaaaark!" said Mortimer, very amazed.
The remark came out slightly muffled, as if Mortimer had a cold, because the platinum ring was jammed over his beak.
"Oh!" said Arabel. "Chris! Just look what Mortimer's found!"
She slid the ring off Mortimer's beak just in time, for otherwise he would almost certainly have scraped it off with his claw and then swallowed it.
"Coo," said Chris. "What a size! That stone is probably worth half Rumbury Town. D'you think we ought to fetch your dad?"
"Pa simply hates to come home before the match is finished," said Arabel.
Just at that moment they heard the phone inside the house begin to ring. Arabel went in through the open front door to answer it, slipping the ring on her finger.
Mortimer sidled after her, keeping a sharp eye on the ring. But as he passed the front door he poked a worm, which he had picked up for the purpose, through the letter slot into the basket behind.
The Joneses' telephone stood on the windowsill halfway up the stairs.
"Hullo?" said Arabel, picking up the receiver and sitting on the middle step.
"Hullo?" said a lady's voice. "Oh my goodness can I speak to Mr. Jones the taxi driver who drove me to Rumbury Docks this morning? This is Lady Dunnage speaking. Mr. Jones took me to launch my hubby's new cruise liner the Queen of Bethnal Green—"
All these words came out very fast and breathless, joined together like the ribbon of paper from a cash register.
"I'm afraid Mr. Jones is out just now watching football," said Arabel. "This is his daughter speaking."
"Oh my goodness then dear when will your father be back? The thing is, I've lost my diamond ring which is worth two hundred and seventy thousand, four hundred and twenty-two pounds—I just looked down at my finger and it wasn't there the ring I mean the finger is there of course—and my hubby will be upset when he finds out—specially if it fell into Rumbury Dock—I just wondered if it could have come off in the taxi when I took my gloves off to unwrap a lemon throat lozenge—"
"Oh, yes, that's quite all right, we found it," said Arabel. "The ring, I mean."
"You have? You really have? Oh, what a relief! Oh, goodness, I feel quite trembly. I'll come round at once and fetch it as soon as I can get back—I'm in Bishop's Stortford now, opening a multistory amusement park—"
"Kaaaark," said Mortimer, who was now sitting on Arabel's shoulder listening to this conversation.
"I beg your pardon, dear?"
"Oh, that was our raven, Mortimer. It was Mortimer who found your ring, actually," said Arabel.
"Really? Fancy," said Lady Dunnage. "I've got a parrot called Isabella and she's ever so clever at finding things. Well, I can tell you, there will be a handsome reward for everyone concerned in finding my ring, and please, please don't let it out of your sight till I get there."
"That was Lady Dunnage, the person who owns the ring," said Arabel, returning to Chris. He had taken advantage of Mortimer's absence to replace the mats and clean up the upholstery. "She's going to call in and pick up the ring as soon as she can get back from Bishop's Stortford, so we shan't need to fetch Pa from the football match."
"How do you know it was her and not a gang of international jewel thieves?" said Chris.
"I didn't think of that," said Arabel. "Do you think we ought to tell the police about it?"
She looked at the huge diamond on her finger, which Mortimer was eyeing, too. However, at this moment Mrs. Jones came up the street with a basket full of shopping and a carton of banana-nut-raisin ice cream under her arm, and her hair all smooth and curly and tinted Bohemian brown, which is the color of the gritty kind of instant coffee, but a lot shinier.
As soon as she caught sight of the large flashing stone on Arabel's finger, Mrs. Jones began to scold.
"How often have I told you not to go to Woolworth's without me, Arabel Jones, you naughty girl, there's mumps about and I told you to stay right here at home till I got back and not leave Mortimer liable to get up to mischief I declare as soon as I leave the house trouble sets in and spending your pocket money on that trashy Woolworth's jewelry instead of a nice sensible toy or even a book—"
"It's all right, Ma," said Arabel. "I didn't get the ring at Woolworth's. Mortimer found it in Pa's taxi and the lady it belongs to, Lady Dunnage, is coming round to fetch it as soon as she can—"
"Lady Dunnage?" screeched Mrs. Jones. "And me with the best cushion covers at the laundry, no tea ready, a week's shopping to put away, soapy water all over the front steps, and the hose and the Baby Vampire and goodness knows what else out on the pavement—"
However, they all helped put these things away, as well as the bucket, the sponge, the soap, the brush and dustpan, the various rags and bits of towel and tins of cleaner and polish and Windazz and Seatsope and Chromoshino that Chris had been using.
Even Mortimer carried in the cake of Seatsope, but as he was later found to have dropped it into the kettle, his help was not greatly valued; he sat on the kitchen taps looking melancholy, with one foot on the cold, one foot on the hot, and his tail dangling into the sink, while Mrs. Jones emptied out the kettleful of hot froth and put on some more water to boil in a saucepan.
By the time Lady Dunnage arrived they had tea set out on the table with three kinds of cake, sausages and chips and eggs, sardine salad, a plateful of meringues, a plateful of Kreemy Kokonut Surprises, and masses of biscuits.
Even Mortimer cheered up; although he still felt unapp
reciated, he loved sausages and chips and meringues. If allowed, he speared the sausages with his beak, threw the chips into the air before swallowing them, and jumped on the meringues till they collapsed. He had not come across Kreemy Kokonut Surprises before, but they looked to him just the right size to stuff down the sink waste pipe.
When Lady Dunnage finally arrived, she did not seem in the least like a member of a gang of international jewel thieves. She was quite short, all dressed in furs, and her hair was just as shiny and curly as Mrs. Jones's, but the color of a lemon sponge. As soon as she was inside the door she cried out:
"Oh, I can see you are all just as good and kind as you can be and just like dear Mr. Jones who is my favorite taxi driver and I always ask for him when I ring up the cab stand and I'm so grateful I hardly know what to say words fail me they really do for I should never have heard the last of it from my husband Sir Horatio Dunnage if that ring had been lost it was my engagement ring that he bought for me twenty years ago last January and which would you rather have two thousand pounds or a cruise to Spain on the Queen of Bethnal Green?"
"I beg your pardon, dear?" said Mrs. Jones, quite puzzled, pouring the guest a cup of tea.
"The Queen of Bethnal Green, that's my husband's new cruise liner. He's Sir Horatio Dunnage, you know, who owns the Star Line and the Garter Line and now this new Brace and Tackle line, so say the word and you can all come for a ten-day cruise in a first-class suite sailing on Saturday the nineteenth. Now which would you really rather have, that or the two thousand pounds?"
Ooo—I've always wanted to go on a cruise!" Mrs. Jones could hardly believe her luck. But then she remembered something and said, "Really, it was Mortimer who found the ring, though, wasn't it, Arabel dearie? I don't know if he'd like a cruise, what do you think?"