Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking. She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone. She had no mother and no father, and that was of course very nice because there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having the most fun, and no one who could make her take cod liver oil when she much preferred caramel candy.
Once upon a time Pippi had had a father of whom she was extremely fond. Naturally she had had a mother too, but that was so long ago that Pippi didn’t remember her at all. Her mother had died when Pippi was just a tiny baby and lay in a cradle and howled so that nobody could go anywhere near her. Pippi was sure that her mother was now up in Heaven, watching her little girl through a peephole in the sky, and Pippi often waved up at her and called, “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top.”
Pippi had not forgotten her father. He was a sea captain who sailed on the great ocean, and Pippi had sailed with him in his ship until one day her father was blown overboard in a storm and disappeared. But Pippi was absolutely certain that he would come back. She would never believe that he had drowned; she was sure he had floated until he landed on an island inhabited by cannibals. And she thought he had become the king of all the cannibals and went around with a golden crown on his head all day long.
“My papa is a cannibal king; it certainly isn’t every child who has such a stylish papa,” Pippi used to say with satisfaction. “And as soon as my papa has built himself a boat he will come and get me, and I’ll be a cannibal princess. Heigh-ho, won’t that be exciting?”
Her father had bought the old house in the garden many years ago. He thought he would live there with Pippi when he grew old and couldn’t sail the seas any longer. And then this annoying thing had to happen, that he was blown into the ocean, and while Pippi was waiting for him to come back she went straight home to Villa Villekulla. That was the name of the house. It stood there ready and waiting for her.
When I was four years old Squire Gordon came to look at me. He examined my eyes, my mouth, and my legs; he felt them all down; and then I had to walk and trot and gallop before him. He seemed to like me, and said, “When he has been well broken in he will do very well.” My master said he would break me in himself, as he should not like me to be frightened or hurt, and he lost no time about it, for the next day he began.
Every one may not know what breaking in is, therefore I will describe it. It means to teach a horse to wear a saddle and bridle, and to carry on his back a man, woman or child; to go just the way they wish, and to go quietly. Besides this he has to learn to wear a collar, a crupper, and a breeching, and to stand still while they are put on; then to have a cart or a chaise fixed behind, so that he cannot walk or trot without dragging it after him; and he must go fast or slow, just as his driver wishes. He must never start at what he sees, nor speak to other horses, nor bite, nor kick, nor have any will of his own; but always do his master’s will, even though he may be very tired or hungry; but the worst of all is, when his harness is once on, he may neither jump for joy nor lie down for weariness. So you see this breaking in is a great thing.
I had of course long been used to a halter and a headstall, and to be led about in the fields and lanes quietly, but now I was to have a bit and bridle; my master gave me some oats as usual, and after a good deal of coaxing he got the bit into my mouth, and the bridle fixed, but it was a nasty thing! Those who have never had a bit in their mouths cannot think how bad it feels; a great piece of cold hard steel as thick as a man’s finger to be pushed into one’s mouth, between one’s teeth, and over one’s tongue, with the ends coming out at the corner of your mouth, and held fast there by straps over your head, under your throat, round your nose, and under your chin; so that no way in the world can you get rid of the nasty hard thing; it is very bad! yes, very bad! at least I thought so; but I knew my mother always wore one when she went out, and all horses did when they were grown up; and so, what with the nice oats, and what with my master’s pats, kind words, and gentle ways, I got to wear my bit and bridle.
It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice. He had seen it both times. Squinting toward the sky, he had seen the sleek jet, almost a blur at its high speed, go past, and a second later heard the blast of sound that followed. Then one more time, a moment later, from the opposite direction, the same plane.
At first, he had been only fascinated. He had never seen aircraft so close, for it was against the rules for Pilots to fly over the community. Occasionally, when supplies were delivered by cargo planes to the landing field across the river, the children rode their bicycles to the river bank and watched, intrigued, the unloading and then the takeoff directed to the west, always away from the community.
But the aircraft a year ago had been different. It was not a squat, fat-bellied cargo plane but a needle-nosed single-pilot jet. Jonas, looking around anxiously, had seen others — adults as well as children — stop what they were doing and wait, confused, for an explanation of the frightening event.
Then all of the citizens had been ordered to go into the nearest building and stay there. IMMEDIATELY, the rasping voice through the speakers had said. LEAVE YOUR BICYCLES WHERE THEY ARE.
Instantly, obediently, Jonas had dropped his bike on its side on the path behind his family’s dwelling. He had run indoors and stayed there, alone. His parents were both at work, and his little sister,Lily, was at the Childcare Center where she spent her after-school hours.
Looking through the front window, he had seen no people: none of the busy afternoon crew of Street Cleaners, Landscape Workers, and Food Delivery people who usually populate the community at that time of day. He saw only the abandoned bikes here and there on their sides; an upturned wheel on one was still revolving slowly.
He had been frightened then. The sense of his own community silent, waiting, had made his stomach churn. He had trembled.
But it had been nothing. Within minutes the speakers had crackled again, and the voice, reassuring now and less urgent, had explained that a Pilot-in-Training had misread his navigational instructions and made a wrong turn. Desperately the Pilot had been trying to make his way back before his error was noticed.
Occasionally one comes across parents who take the opposite line, who show no interest at all intheir children, and these of course are far worse than the doting ones. Mr and Mrs Wormwood weretwo such parents. They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parentslooked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to putup with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away. Mr and Mrs Wormwoodlooked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick heraway, preferably into the next county or even further than that.
It is bad enough when parents treat ordinary children as though they were scabs and bunions, but itbecomes somehow a lot worse when the child in question is extraordinary, and by that I meansensitive and brilliant. Matilda was both of these things, but above all she was brilliant. Her mindwas so nimble and she was so quick to learn that her ability should have been obvious even to themost half-witted of parents. But Mr and Mrs Wormwood were both so gormless and so wrapped upin their own silly little lives that they failed to notice anything unusual about their daughter. To tellthe truth, I doubt they would have noticed had she crawled into the house with a broken leg.
Matilda’s brother Michael was a perfectly normal boy, but the sister, as I said, was something tomake your eyes pop. By the age of one and a half her speech was perfect and she knew as manywords as most grown-ups. The parents, instead of applauding her, called her a noisy chatterbox andtold her sharply that small girls should be seen and not heard.
By the time she was three, Matilda had taught herself to read by studying newspapers andmagazines that lay around the house. At the age of four, she could read fast and well and shenaturally began hankering after books. The only book in the whole of this enlightened householdwas something called Easy Cooking belonging to her mother, and when she had read this fromcover to cover and had learnt all the recipes by heart, she decided she wanted something moreinteresting.
“Daddy,” she said, “do you think you could buy me abook?”
“A book” he said. “What d’youwant a flaming book for?”
“To read, Daddy.”
“What’s wrong with the telly, for heaven’s sake? We’ve got a lovely telly with a twelve-inch screen
and now you come asking for a book! You’re getting spoiled, my girl!”
Mr. Popper signed the receipt and examined the box. It was covered all over with markings. “UNPACK AT ONCE,” said one. “KEEP COOL,” said another. He noticed that the box was punched here and there with air holes.
You can imagine that once he had the box inside the house, Mr. Popper lost no time in getting the screw driver, for by this time, of course, he had guessed that it was the surprise from Admiral Drake.
He had succeeded in removing the outer boards and part of the packing, which was a layer of dry ice, when from the depths of the packing case he suddenly heard a faint “Ork.” His heart stood still. Surely he had heard that sound before at the Drake Expedition movies. His hands were trembling so that he could scarcely lift off the last of the wrappings.
There was not the slightest doubt about it. It was a penguin.
Mr. Popper was speechless with delight.
But the penguin was not speechless. “Ork,” it said again, and this time it held out its flippers and jumped over the packing debris.
It was a stout little fellow about two and a half feet high. Although it was about the size of a small child, it looked much more like a little gentleman, with its smooth white waistcoat in front and its long black tailcoat dragging a little behind. Its eyes were set in two white circles in its black head. It turned its head from one side to the other, as first with one eye and then with the other, it examined Mr. Popper.
Mr. Popper had read that penguins are extremely curious, and he soon found that this was true, for stepping out, the visitor began to inspect the house. Down the hall it went and into the bedrooms, with its strange, pompous little strut. When it, or he—Mr. Popper had already begun to think of it as he—got to the bathroom, it looked around with a pleased expression on its face.
“Perhaps,” thought Mr. Popper, “all that white tiling reminds him of the ice and snow at the South Pole. Poor thing, maybe he’s thirsty.”
Carefully Mr. Popper began to fill the bathtub with cold water. This was a little difficult because the inquisitive bird kept reaching over and trying to bite the faucets with its sharp red beak. Finally, however, he succeeded in getting the tub all filled. Since the penguin kept looking over, Mr. Popper picked it up and dropped it in. The penguin seemed not to mind.
“Anyway, you’re not shy,” said Mr. Popper. “I guess you’ve got sort of used to playing around with those explorers at the Pole.”
When he thought the penguin had had enough of a bath, he drew out the stopper. He was just wondering what to do next when Janie and Bill burst in from school.