Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership


Title: The Five Jars (1922)
Author: M. R. James (1862-1936)
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0900941.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2009
Date most recently updated: October 2009

This ebook was produced by: Iona Vaughan, Jana Srna, Mark Akrigg
& the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net


Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Five Jars (1922)
Author: M. R. James (1862-1936)

* * *

CONTENTS


   I. THE DISCOVERY
  II. THE FIRST JAR
 III. THE SECOND JAR
  IV. THE SMALL PEOPLE
   V. DANGER TO THE JARS
  VI. THE CAT, WAG, SLIM AND OTHERS
 VII. THE BAT-BALL
VIII. WAG AT HOME


* * *


I

THE DISCOVERY


My Dear Jane,

You remember that you were puzzled when I told you I had heard something
from the owls--or if not puzzled (for I know you have some experience of
these things), you were at any rate anxious to know exactly how it
happened. Perhaps the time has now come for you to be told.

It was really luck, and not any skill of mine, that put me in the way of
it; luck, and also being ready to believe more than I could see. I have
promised not to put down on paper the name of the wood where it
happened: that can keep till we meet; but all the rest I can tell
exactly as it came about.

It is a wood with a stream at the edge of it; the water is brown and
clear. On the other side of it are flat meadows, and beyond these a
hillside quite covered with an oak wood. The stream has alder-trees
along it, and is pretty well shaded over; the sun hits it in places and
makes flecks of light through the leaves.

The day I am thinking of was a very hot one in early September. I had
come across the meadows with some idea of sitting by the stream and
reading. The only change in my plans that I made was that instead of
sitting down I lay down, and instead of reading I went to sleep.

You know how sometimes--but very, very seldom--you see something in a
dream which you are quite sure is real. So it was with me this time. I
did not dream any story or see any people; I only dreamt of a plant. In
the dream no one told me anything about it: I just saw it growing under
a tree: a small bit of the tree root came into the picture, an old
gnarled root covered with moss, and with three sorts of eyes in it,
round holes trimmed with moss--you know the kind. The plant was not one
I should have thought much about, though certainly it was not one that I
knew: it had no flowers or berries, and grew quite squat in the ground;
more like a yellow aconite without the flower than anything else. It
seemed to consist of a ring of six leaves spread out pretty flat with
nine points on each leaf. As I say, I saw this quite clearly, and
remembered it because six times nine makes fifty-four, which happens to
be a number which I had a particular reason for remembering at that
moment.

Well, there was no more in the dream than that: but, such as it was, it
fixed itself in my mind like a photograph, and I was sure that if ever I
saw that tree root and that plant, I should know them again. And, though
I neither saw nor heard anything more of them than I have told you, it
was borne in upon my mind that the plant _was_ worth finding.

When I woke up I still lay, feeling very lazy, on the grass with my head
within a foot or two of the edge of the stream and listened to its
noise, until in five or six minutes--whether I began to doze off again
or not does not much matter--the water-sound became like words, and
said, "_Trickle-up, trickle-up_," an immense number of times. It pleased
me, for though in poetry we hear a deal about babbling brooks, and
though I am particularly fond of the noise they make, I never was able
before to pretend that I could hear any words. And when I did finally
get up and shake myself awake I thought I would anyhow pay so much
attention to what the water said as to stroll up the stream instead of
down. So I did: it took me through the flat meadows, but still along the
edge of the wood, and still every now and then I heard the same peculiar
noise which sounded like _Trickle-up_.

Not so very long after, I came to a place where another stream ran out
of the wood into the one I had been following, and just below the place
where the two joined there was--not a bridge, but a pole across, and
another pole to serve as a rail, by which you could cross, without
trouble. I did cross, not thinking much about it, but with some idea of
looking at this new little stream, which went at a very quick pace and
seemed to promise small rapids and waterfalls a little higher up. Now
when I got to the edge of it, there was no mistake: it was saying
"_Trickle-up_," or even "_Track-up_," much plainer than the old one. I
stepped across it and went a few yards up the old stream. Before the new
one joined it, it was saying nothing of the kind. I went back to the new
one: it was talking as plain as print. Of course there were no two words
about what must be done now. Here was something quite new, and even if I
missed my tea, it had got to be looked into. So I went up the new
stream into the wood.

Though I was well on the look-out for unusual things--in particular the
plant, which I could not help thinking about--I cannot say there was
anything peculiar about the stream or the plants or the insects or the
trees (except the words which the water kept saying) so long as I was in
the flat part of the wood. But soon I came to a steepish bank--the land
began to slope up suddenly and the rapids and waterfalls of the brook
were very gay and interesting. Then, besides _Track-up_, which was now
its word always instead of _Trickle_, I heard every now and then _All
right_, which was encouraging and exciting. Still, there was nothing out
of the way to be seen, look as I might.

The climb up the slope or bank was fairly long. At the top was a kind of
terrace, pretty level and with large old trees growing upon it, mainly
oaks. Behind there was a further slope up and still more woodland: but
that does not matter now. For the present I was at the end of my
wanderings. There was no more stream, and I had found what of all
natural things I think pleases me best, a real spring of water quite
untouched.

Five or six oaks grew in something like a semicircle, and in the middle
of the flat ground in front of them was an almost perfectly round pool,
not more than four or five feet across. The bottom of it in the middle
was pale sand which was continually rising up in little egg-shaped
mounds and falling down again. It was the clearest and strongest spring
of the kind I had ever seen, and I could have watched it for hours. I
did sit down by it and watch it for some time without thinking of
anything but the luck I had had to find it. But then I began to wonder
if it would say anything. Naturally I could not expect it to say
"_Track-up_" any more, for here I was at the end of it. So I listened
with some curiosity. It hardly made so much noise as the stream: the
pool was deeper. But I thought it must say something, and I put my head
down as close as I could to the surface of the water. If I am not
mistaken (and as things turned out I am sure I was right) the words
were: _Gather gather, pick pick_, or _quick quick_.

Now I had not been thinking about the plant for a little time; but, as
you may suppose, this brought it back to my mind and I got up and began
to look about at the roots of the old oaks which grew just round the
spring. No, none of the roots on this side which faced towards the water
were like that which I had seen--still, the feeling was strong upon me
that this, if any, was the kind of place, and even the very place, where
the plant must be. So I walked to the back of the trees, being careful
to go from right to left, according to the course of the sun.

Well, I was not mistaken. At the back of the middlemost oak-tree there
were the roots I had dreamt of with the moss and the holes like eyes,
and between them was the plant. I think the only thing which was new to
me in the look of it was that it was so extraordinarily _green_. It
seemed to have in it all the greenness that was possible or that would
be wanted for a whole field of grass.

I had some scruples about touching it. In fact, I actually went back to
the spring and listened, to make sure that it was still saying the same
thing. Yes, it was: "_Gather gather, pick_." But there was something
else every now and then which I could _not_ for the life of me make out
at first. I lay down, put my hand round my ear and held my breath. It
might have been _bark tree_ or _dark tree_ or _cask free_. I got
impatient at last and said:

"Well, I'm very sorry, but do what I will I _cannot_ make out what you
are trying to say."

Instantly a little spirt of water hit me on the ear, and I heard, as
clear as possible, what it was: "_Ask tree_."

I got up at once. "I _beg_ your pardon," I said, "of course. Thank you
very much;" and the water went on saying "_Gather gather, all right, dip
dip_."

After thinking how best to greet it, I went back to the oak, stood in
front of it and said (of course baring my head):

"Oak, I humbly desire your good leave to gather the green plant which
grows between your roots. If an acorn falls into this my right hand"
(which I held out) "I will count it that you answer yes--and give you
thanks." The acorn fell straight into the palm of my hand. I said, "I
thank you, Oak: good growth to you. I will lay this your acorn in the
place whence I gather the plant."

Then very carefully I took hold of the stalk of the plant (which was
very short, for, as I said, it grew rather flat on the ground) and
pulled, and to my surprise it came up as easily as a mushroom. It had a
clean round bulb without any rootlets and left a smooth neat hole in the
ground, in which, according to promise, I laid the acorn, and covered it
in with earth. I think it very likely that it will turn into a second
plant.

Then I remembered the last word of the spring and went back to dip the
plant in it. I had a shock when I did so, and it was lucky I was holding
it firm, for when it touched the water it struggled in my hand like a
fish or a newt and almost slipped out. I dipped it three times and
thought I felt it growing smaller in my hand: and indeed when I looked
at it I found it had shut up its leaves and curled them in quite close,
so that the whole thing was little more than a bulb. As I looked at it I
thought the water changed its note and said, "_That'll do, that'll do_."

I thought it was time to thank the spring for all it had done for me,
though, as you may suppose, I did not yet know in the least what was to
be done with the plant, or what use it was going to be.

So I went over and said in the politest words I could how much I was
obliged, and if there was anything I had or could do which would be
agreeable, how glad I should be. Then I listened carefully, for it
seemed by this time quite natural that I should get some sort of answer.
It came. There was a sudden change in the sound, and the water said
clearly and rapidly, "_Silver silver silver silver_." I felt in my
pocket. Luckily I had several shillings, sixpences and half-crowns. I
thought the best way was to offer them all, so I put them in the palm of
my right hand and held it under the water, open, just over the dancing
sand. For a few seconds the water ran over the silver without doing
anything: only the coins seemed to grow very bright and clean. Then one
of the shillings was very neatly and smoothly slid off, and then
another and a sixpence. I waited, but no more happened, and the water
seemed to draw itself down and away from my hand, and to say "_All
right_." So I got up.

The three coins lay on the bottom of the pool looking brighter than even
the newest I have ever seen, and gradually as they lay there they began
to appear larger. The shillings looked like half-crowns and the sixpence
like a shilling. I thought for a moment that it was because water
magnifies, but I soon saw that this could not be the reason, for they
went on growing larger, and of course thinner, until they finally spread
into a kind of silver film all over the bottom of the pool; and as they
did so the water began to take on a musical sound, much like the singing
that comes when you wet your finger and draw it round the edge of a
finger glass at dessert (which some people's idea of table manners
allows them to do). It was a pretty sight and sound, and I listened and
looked for a long time.

But all this time what had become of the plant? Why, when I gave the
silver to the spring I had wrapped the plant carefully in a silk
handkerchief and put it safe in my breast pocket. I took the
handkerchief out now, and for a moment I was afraid the plant was gone;
but it was not. It had shrunk to a very small whity-green ball. Now what
was to be done with it, or rather what could it do? It was plain to me
that it must have a strange and valuable property or virtue, since I had
been put on its track in such a remarkable way. I thought I could not do
better than ask the spring. I said, "O Spring of water, have I your good
leave to ask what I should do with this precious plant to put it to the
best use?" The silver lining of the spring made its words much easier to
catch when it said anything--for I should tell you that for the most
part now it did not speak, or not in any language that I could
understand, but rather sang--and it now said, "_Swallow swallow, drink,
swallow_."

_Prompt_ obedience, dear Jane, has always been my motto, as it is
doubtless yours, and I at once laid myself down, drank a mouthful of
water from the spring, and put the little bulb in my mouth. It instantly
grew soft and slipped down my throat. How prosaic! I have no idea what
it tasted like.

And again I addressed the spring: "Is there anything more for me to do?"

"_No no, no no, you'll see, you'll see--good-bye, good-bye_," was the
answer which came at once.

Accordingly I once more thanked the spring, wished it clear water, no
mud, no tramplings of cattle, and bade it farewell. But, I said, I
should hope to visit it again.

Then I turned away and looked about me, wondering whether, now that I
had swallowed the mysterious plant, I should see anything different. The
only thing I noticed was due, I suppose, not to the plant, but to the
spring; but it was odd enough. All the trees hard by were crowded with
little birds of all kinds sitting in rows on the branches as they do on
telegraph wires. I have no doubt they were listening to the silver bell
in the spring. They were quite still, and did not take any notice when I
began to walk away.

I said, you will remember, that the ground I was on was a sort of flat
terrace at the top of a steep slope. Now at one end this terrace just
went down into the wood, but at the other end there was a little mound
or hillock with thick underwood behind it. I felt a curiosity, an
inclination, to walk that way: I have very little doubt that the plant
was at the bottom of it. As I walked I looked at the ground, and noticed
a curious thing: the roots of the plants and grasses seemed to show more
than I was accustomed to see them.

It was not a great way to the hillock. When I got to it I wondered why I
had gone, for there was nothing odd about it. Still I stepped on to the
top, and then I did see something, namely, a square flat stone just in
front of my feet. I poked at it with my walking-stick, but somehow I did
not seem to touch it, nor was there any scraping noise. This was funny.
I tried again, and now I saw that my stick was not touching it at all;
there was something in between. I felt with my hands, and they met with
what seemed like grass and earth, certainly not like stone. _Then_ I
understood. The plant was the one which makes you able to see what is
under the ground!

I need not tell you all I thought, or how surprising and delightful it
was. The first thing was to get at the flat stone and find out what was
underneath it.

Accordingly, what with a knife and what with my fingers, I soon had it
uncovered: it was four or five inches under the surface. There were no
marks on it; it measured more than a foot each way. I lifted it. It was
the cover of a sort of box with bottom and sides each made of a slab
just like the lid. In this box was another, made of some dark metal,
which I took to be lead. I pulled it out and found that the lid of the
box was all of one piece with the rest, like a sardine tin. Evidently I
could not open it there and then. It was rather heavy, but I did not
care, and I managed without too much inconvenience to carry it home to
the place I was lodging in. Of course I put back the stone neatly and
covered it up with earth and grass again.

I was late for tea, but I had found what was better than tea.




II

THE FIRST JAR


That night I waited till the moon was up before trying to open the box.
I do not well know why, but it seemed the right thing, and I followed my
instinct, feeling that it might be the plant that made me think as I
did. I drew up the blind and laid the box on a table near the window,
where the moon shone full on it, and waited to see if anything else
occurred to me. Suddenly I heard a sort of metallic snap. I went and
looked at the box. Nothing appeared on the side nearest to me--but when
I turned it round I saw that all along the side which the moon had shone
upon there was a line along the metal. I turned another side to the
moonlight, and another snap came in two or three minutes. Of course I
went on. When the moon had made a groove on all four sides, I tried the
lid. It would not come off yet, so there was nothing to be done but
continue the process. Three times I did it: every side I turned to the
moon thrice, and when that was done the lid was free. I lifted it, and
what did I see in the box? All this writing would be very little use if
I did not tell you, so it must be done.

There were five compartments in the box: in each of them was a little
jar or vase of glass with a round body, a narrow neck, and spreading out
a little at the top. The top of each was covered with a plate of metal
and on each plate was a word or two in capital letters. On the one in
the middle there were the words _unge oculos_, the other jars had one
word apiece, _aures_, _linguam_, _frontem_, _pectus_.

Now, years ago, I took great pains to learn the Latin language, and on
many occasions I have found it _most useful_, whatever you may see to
the contrary in the newspaper: but seldom or never have I found it more
useful than now. I saw at once that the words meant _anoint the eyes_,
_the ears_, _the tongue_, _the forehead_, _the chest_. What would be the
result of my doing this, of course I knew no more than you: but I was
pretty sure that it would not do to try them all at once, and another
thing I felt, that it would be better to wait till next day before
trying any of them. It was past midnight now, so I went to bed: but
first I locked up the box in a cupboard, for I did not want anyone to
see it as yet.

* * * * *

Next day I woke bright and early, looked at my watch, found there was no
need to think about getting up yet, and, like a wise creature, went to
sleep again. I mention this, not merely by way of being jocose, but
because after I went to sleep I had a dream which most likely came from
the plant and certainly had to do with the box.

I seemed to see a room, or to be in a room about which I only noticed
that the floor was paved with mosaic in a pattern mostly red and white,
that there were no pictures on the walls and no fireplace, no sashes or
indeed panes in the window, and the moon was shining in very bright.
There was a table and a chest. Then I saw an old man, rather badly
shaved and bald, in a Roman dress, white for the most part, with a
purple stripe somewhere, and sandals. He looked by no means a wicked or
designing old man. I was glad of that. He opened the chest, took out my
box, and placed it carefully on the table in the moonlight. Then he went
to a part of the room I could not see, and I heard a sound of water
being poured into a metal basin, and he came into sight again, wiping
his hands on a white towel. He opened the box, took out a little silver
spoon and one of the jars, took off the lid and dipped the spoon in the
jar and touched first his right eye and then his left with it. Then he
put the jar and the spoon back, laid the lid on the box and put it back
in the chest. After that he went to the window and stood there looking
out, and seemed to be very much amused with what he saw. That was all.

"Hints for me," I remember thinking. "Perhaps it will be best not to
touch the box before the moon is up to-night, and always with washed
hands." I suppose I woke up immediately, for it was all very fresh in my
mind when I did.

It was something of a disappointment to have to put off my experiments
till the night came round. But it was all for the best, for letters came
by the post which I had to attend to: in fact, I was obliged to go to
the town a little way off to see someone and to send telegrams and so
on. I was a little doubtful about the seeing things underground, but I
soon found that unless I--so to say--turned on the tap, and specially
wished and tried to use the power, it did not interfere with my ordinary
seeing. When I did, it seemed to come forward from the back of my eyes,
and was stronger than the day before. I could see rabbits in their
burrows and followed the roots of one oak-tree very deep down. Once it
threatened to be awkward, when I stooped to pick up a silver coin in the
street, and grazed my knuckle against a paving stone, under which, of
course, it was.

So much for that. By the way, I had taken a look at the box after
breakfast, I found (not very much to my surprise) that the lid was as
tight on it as when I found it first.

After dinner that evening I put out the light--the moon being now
bright--placed the box on the table, washed my hands, opened it and,
shutting my eyes, put my hand on one of the jars at random and took it
out. As I had rather expected, I heard a little rattle as I did so, and
feeling in the compartment, I found a little, a very little, spoon. All
was well. Now to see which jar chance or the plant had chosen for my
first experiment. I took it to the window: it was the one marked
_aures_--ears--and the spoon had on the handle a letter A. I opened the
jar. The lid fitted close but not over tightly. I put in the spoon as
the old man had done, as near as I could remember. It brought out a very
small drop of thick stuff with which I touched first my right ear and
then my left. When I had done so I looked at the spoon. It was perfectly
dry. I put it and the jar back, closed the box, locked it up, and, not
knowing in the least what to expect, went to the open window and put my
head out.

For some little time I heard nothing. That was to be expected, and I was
not in the least inclined to distrust the jar. Then I was rewarded; a
bat flew by, and I, who have not heard a bat even squeak these twenty
years, now heard this one say in a whistling angry tone, "Would you,
would you, _I've_ got you--no, drat, drat." It was not a very exciting
remark, but it was enough to show me that a whole new world (as the
books say) was open to me.

This, of course, was only a beginning. There were some plants and
flowering shrubs under the window, and though I could see nothing, I
began to hear voices--two voices--talking among them. They sounded
young: of course they were anyhow very small, but they seemed to belong
to young creatures of their kind.

"Hullo, I say, what have you got there? Do let's look; you might as
well."

Then a pause--another voice: "I believe it's a bad one."

_Number one_: "Taste it."

_Number two_, after another pause, with a slight sound (very diminutive)
of spitting: "Heugh! bad! I should rather think it was. Maggot!"

_Number one_ (after laughing rather longer than I thought kind): "Look
here--don't chuck it away--let's give it to the old man. Here--shove the
piece in again and rub it over--here he is!" (Very demurely): "O sir,
we've got such a nice-looking----" (_I could not catch what it was_)
"here; we thought you might perhaps like it, sir. Would you, sir?... Oh
no, thank you, sir, we've had plenty, sir, but this was the biggest we
found."

A third voice said something; it was a deeper one and less easy to hear.

_Number two_: "Bitten, sir? Oh no, I don't think so. Do you----?" (_a
name which I did not make out_).

_Number one_: "Why, how could it be?"

_Number three_ again--angry, I thought.

_Number two_ (rather anxiously): "But, sir, really, sir, I don't much
like them.... Must I really, sir?... O _sir_, it's got a maggot in it,
and I believe they're poison." (_Smack, smack, smack, smack._)

Two voices, very lamentable: "O _sir_, sir, please sir!"

A considerable pause, and sniffing. Then _Number two_, in a broken
voice: "You silly fool, why did you go laughing like that right under
his snout? You might have known he'd cog it." ("Cog." I had not heard
the word since 1876.) "There'll be an awful row to-morrow. Look here, I
shall go to bed."

The voices died away; I thought _Number one_ seemed to be apologizing.

That was all I heard _that_ night. After eleven o'clock things seemed to
get very still, and I began to feel just a little apprehensive lest
something of a less innocent kind should come along. So I went to bed.




III

THE SECOND JAR


Next day, I must say, was very amusing. I spent the whole of it in the
fields just strolling about and sitting down, as the fancy took me,
listening to what went on in the trees and hedges. I will not write down
yet the kind of thing I heard, for it was only the beginning. I had not
yet found out the way of using the new power to the very best advantage.
I felt the want of being able to put in a remark or a question of my own
every now and then. But I was pretty sure that the jar which had
_linguam_ on it would manage that.

Very nearly all the talking I heard was done by the birds and
animals--especially the birds; but perhaps half a dozen times, as I sat
under a tree or walked along the road, I was aware of voices which
sounded exactly like those of people (some grown-up and some children)
passing by or coming towards me and talking to each other as they went
along. Needless to say, there was nothing to be _seen_: no movement of
the grass and no track on the dusty road, even when I could tell exactly
where the people who owned the voices must be. It interested me more
than anything else to guess what sort of creatures they were, and I
determined that the next jar I tried should be the Eye one. Once, I must
tell you, I ventured to say "Good afternoon" when I heard a couple of
these voices within a yard of me. I think the owners must nearly have
had a fit. They stopped dead: one of them gave a sort of cry of
surprise, and then, I believe, they ran or flew away. I felt a little
breath of wind on my face, and heard no more. It wasn't (as I know now)
that they couldn't see me: but they felt much as you would if a tree or
a cow were to say "Good afternoon" to you.

When I was at supper that evening, the cat came in, as she usually did,
to see what was going. I had always been accustomed to think that cats
talk when they mew, dogs when they bark, and so on. It is not so at all.
Their talking is almost all done (except when they are in a great state
of mind) in a tone which you cannot possibly hear without help. Mewing
is for the most part only shouting without saying any words. Purring is,
as we often say, singing.

Well, this cat was an ordinary nice creature, tabby, and in she came,
and sat watching me while I had soup. To all appearance she was as
innocent as a lamb--but no matter for that. What she was saying was
something of this kind:

"Get on with it, do: shove it down, lap it up! Who cares about soup? Get
to business. I know there's fish coming."

When the fish actually came, there was a great deal of good feeling
shown at first. "Oh, _how_ much we have to be thankful for, all of us,
have we not? Fish, fish: what a thought! Dear, kind, generous people all
around us, all striving to supply us with what is best and pleasantest
for us."

Then there was a silence for a short time, then in a somewhat different
tone I heard: "Ah dear! the longer I live, the wiser I find it is not to
expect too much consideration from others! Self-love! how few, how
terribly few, are really free from it! The nature that knows how to take
a hint, how rare it is!"

Another short silence, and then: "There you go--another great bit. I
wonder you don't choke or burst! Disgusting! A good scratch all down
your horrible fat cheek is what you want, and I know some cats that
would give it you. No more notion how to behave than a cockroach."

About this time I rang the bell and the fish was taken away. The cat
went too, circling round the maid with trusting and childlike glances,
and I heard her saying in the former tone:

"Well, I daresay after all there are _some_ kind hearts in the world,
some that can feel for a poor weary creature, and know what a deal of
strength and nourishment even the least bit of fish can give----" And I
lost the rest.

When the time came and the box was open once more, I duly anointed my
eyes and went to the window. I knew something of what I might expect to
see, but I had not realized at all how much of it there would be. In the
first place there were a great many buildings, in fact a regular
village, all about the little lawn on which my window looked. They were,
of course, not big; perhaps three feet high was the largest size. The
roofs seemed to be of tiles, the walls were white, the windows were
brightly lighted, and I could see people moving about inside. But there
were plenty of people outside, too--people about six inches
high--walking about, standing about, talking, running, playing some game
which might have been hockey. These were on levelled spaces, for the
grass, neatly kept as it was, would have come half-way up their legs;
and there were some driving along smooth tracks in carriages drawn by
horses of the right size, which were really the most charming little
animals I ever saw.

You may suppose that I should not soon have got tired of watching them
and listening to the little treble buzz of voices that went on, but I
was interrupted. Just in front of me I heard what I can only call a
snigger. I looked down, and saw four heads supported by four pairs of
elbows leaning on the window-sill and looking up at me. They belonged to
four boys who were standing on the twigs of a bush that grew up against
the wall, and who seemed to be very much amused. Every now and again
one of them nudged another and pointed towards me; and then, for some
unexplained reason, they sniggered again. I felt my ears growing warm
and red.

"Well, young gentlemen," I said, "you seem to be enjoying yourselves."
No answer. "I appear to be so fortunate as to afford you some
gratification," I went on, in my sarcastic manner. "Perhaps you would do
me the honour of stepping into my poor apartment?" Again no answer, but
more undisguised amusement. I was thinking out a really withering
remark, when one of them said:

"Do look at his nose. I wonder if they know how ridiculous they are. I
_should_ like to talk to one of them for five minutes."

"Well," I said, "that can be managed very easily, and I assure you I
should be equally glad of the opportunity. _My_ remarks would deal with
the subject of good manners."

Another one spoke this time, but did not answer me. "Oh, I don't know,"
he said, "I expect they're pretty stupid. They look it--at least this
one does."

"Can they talk?" said the third. "I've never heard 'em."

"No, but you can see them moving their jaws and mouths and things. This
one did just now."

I saw how it was now, and, becoming cooler, I recognized that these
youths were behaving very much as I might have done myself in the
presence of someone who I was sure could neither see nor hear me. I even
smiled. One of them pointed at me at once:

"Thought of a joke, I s'pose. Don't keep it all to yourself, old chap."

At this moment the fourth, who had not said anything so far, but seemed
to have been listening, piped up: "I say! I believe I know what it is
that makes that hammering noise: it's something he has got in his
clothes."

I could not resist this. "Right again," I said; "it's my watch, and
you're very welcome to look at it." And I took it out and put it on the
window-sill.

An awful horror and surprise came into their faces. In a second they had
dived down like so many ducks. In another second I saw them walking
across the grass, and each of them threw his arms round the waist or the
neck of one of the elder people who were walking about among the houses.
The person so attacked pulled himself up and listened attentively to
what the boy was saying. The particular one I was watching looked
towards my window and then burst out laughing, slapped the boy on the
back, and resumed his walk. The boy went slowly off towards one of the
houses. One or two of the other "men" came and stood nearer to the
window, looking up. I thought I would venture a bow, and made one rather
ceremoniously. It did not produce much effect, and I could not at the
moment think of anything I could do that would show them quite clearly
that I saw them. They went on looking at me quietly enough, and then I
heard a deep low bell, seemingly very far off, toll five times. They
heard it too, turned sharply round and walked off to the houses. Soon
after that the lights in the windows died down and everything became
very still. I looked at my watch. It was ten o'clock.

I waited for a while to see if anything would happen, but there was
nothing; so I got some books out (which took a few minutes) and before I
settled down to them I thought I would just take one more look out of
the window. Where were all the little houses? At the first glance I
thought they had vanished, but it was not exactly so. I found I could
still see the chimneys above the grass, but as I looked they too
disappeared. It was done very neatly: there was no hole, the turf closed
in upon the roofs as they sank down, just as if it was of india-rubber.
There was not a trace left of houses or roads or playgrounds or
anything.

I was strongly tempted to go out and walk over the site of the village,
but I did not. For one thing I was afraid I might disturb the people of
the house, and besides there was a mist coming up over the meadows which
sloped away outside the garden. So I stopped where I was.

But what a very odd mist, I began to think. It was not coming in all in
one piece as it should. It was more in patches or even pillars of a
smoky grey which moved at different rates, some of them occasionally
standing still, others even seeming to go to and fro. And now I began to
hear something like a hollow whispering coming from their direction. It
was not conversation, for it went on quite continuously in the same
tone: it sounded more as if something was being recited. I did not like
it.

Then I saw what I liked less. Seven of these pillars of mist, each
about the size of a man, were standing in a row just outside the garden
fence, and in each I thought I saw two dull red eyes; and the hollow
whispering grew louder.

Just then I heard a noise behind me in the room, as if the fire-irons
had suddenly fallen down. So they had: and the reason why they had was
that an old horseshoe which was on the mantelpiece had, for no reason
that I could see, tumbled over and knocked them. Something I had heard
came into my mind. I took the horseshoe and laid it on the window-sill.
The pillars of mist swayed and quivered as if a sudden gust of wind had
struck them, and seemed all at once to go farther off; and the hollow
murmur was no longer to be heard. I shut the window and went to bed.
But, the last thing, I looked out once again. The meadow was clear of
mist and bright beneath the light of the moon.

As I lay in bed I thought and thought over what I had seen last. I was
quite sure that the pillars of mist concealed some beings who wished me
no good: but why should they have any spite against me? I was also sure
that they wanted to get into the house: but again, why? You may think I
was slow in the wits, but I must confess that some few minutes passed
before I guessed. Of course they wanted to get hold of the box with the
five jars. The thought disturbed me so much that I got up, lighted a
candle, and went to the cupboard to see if all was safe. Yes, the box
was there, but the cupboard door, which I knew I had locked, was
unfastened, and when I had to turn the key it became plain that the lock
was hampered and useless. How could this have come about? Earlier in the
evening it had been perfectly right, and nobody had been in the room
since I locked it last.

Whoever had done it, they had made the cupboard no safe place for the
box. I took it into the bedroom and after a minute's thought cleared
out a space in a suit-case which I had brought with me, locked it in
that, and put the key on the ring of my watch-chain. Watch and all went
under my pillow, and once more I got into bed.




IV

THE SMALL PEOPLE


You will have made sure that the next jar I meant to try was the one for
the tongue, in hopes that it would help me to speak to some of the
creatures. Though I looked forward to the experiment very much, and felt
somewhat restless until I had made it, I did get a good deal of
amusement out of what I saw and heard the next day. The small people
were not to be seen--at least not in the morning. No, I am wrong: I
found a bunch of three of them--young ones--asleep in a hollow tree.
They woke up and looked at me without much interest, and when I was
withdrawing my head they blew kisses to me. I am afraid there is no
doubt they did so in derision. But there were others. I passed a
cottage garden in which a little dog was barking most furiously. It
seemed to be barking at a clothes-line, on which, with a lot of other
things, was a print dress with rather a staring pattern of flowers. The
dress caught my eye, and so did something red at the top which stuck up
above the line. I gave it another glance, and really I had a most
dreadful shock. It was a face. I gazed at it in horror, and was just
gathering my wits to run and call for help or something, when I saw that
it was laughing. Then I realized that it could not be an ordinary
person, hanging as it was on a thin bit of cord and blowing to and fro
in the breeze. I went nearer, staring at it with all my eyes, and made
out that it was the face of an old woman, very cheerful and ruddy, and,
as I said, laughing and swinging to and fro. Suddenly she seemed to
catch my eye and to see that I saw her, and in a flash she was off the
line and round the corner of the house, nearly tumbling over the dog as
she went. It rushed after her, still very angry, but soon came trotting
back, rather out of breath, and _that_ incident was over.

I walked on. Among the village people I met, there were one or two whom
I didn't think I had seen before--elderly, bright-eyed people they
were--who seemed very much surprised when I said "Good morning" to them,
and stopped still, looking after me, when I passed on. At last, some
little way outside the village, I saw in the distance the same
bright-coloured dress that had been on the clothes-line. The person who
wore it was going slowly, and looking in the grass and hedges, and
sometimes stooping to pick a plant, as it seemed. I quickened my pace
and came up with her, and when I was just behind her, I cleared my
throat rather loudly and said, "Fine day," or words to that effect.

You should have seen her jump! I was well paid for the fright she had
given me just before. However, the startled look cleared away from her
face, and she drew herself up and looked at me very calmly.

"Yes," she said, "it's a fine day." Then she actually blushed and went
on: "I think I ought to beg your pardon for giving you such a turn just
now."

"Well," I said, "I certainly was a good deal startled, but no harm was
done. The dog took it more to heart than I did."

She gave a short laugh. "Yes," she said. "I hardly know why I was
behaving like that. I suppose we all of us feel skittish at times." She
paused and said with some little hesitation, "You have them, I suppose?"
and at the same time she rapidly touched her ears, eyes and mouth with
her forefinger.

I looked at her in some doubt, for I thought, might not she be one of
the unknown who wished to get hold of the Five Jars? But her eye was
honest, and my instinct was to trust her: so I nodded, and put my
finger on my lips.

"Of course," she said. "Well, you are the first since I was a little
thing, and that's fourteen hundred years ago." (You may think I opened
my eyes.) "Yes, Vitalis was the last, and he lived in the villa--they
called it so--down by the stream. You'll find the place some of these
days if you look. I heard talk yesterday that someone had got them, and
I'm told the mist was about last night. Perhaps you saw it?"

"Yes," I said, "I did, and I guessed what it meant." And I told her all
that had happened, and ended by asking if she could kindly advise me
what to do.

She thought for a moment, and then handed me a little bunch of the
leaves she held in her hand. "Four-leaved clover," she said. "I know
nothing better. Lay it on the box itself. You'll hear of them again, be
sure."

"Who are _they_?" I asked in a whisper.

She shook her head. "Not allowed," was all she would say. "I must be
going"; and she was gone, sure enough. You might suppose (as I did, when
I came to think of it) that my new sight ought to have been able to see
what became of her. I think it would, if she had gone straight away from
me; but what I believe she did was to dart round behind me and then go
away in a straight line, so that I was left looking in front of me while
she was travelling away behind me like a bullet from a gun. You need
practice with these things, and I had only been at it a couple of days.

I turned and walked rather quickly homewards, for I thought it would be
wise to protect my box as soon as possible now that I had the means. I
think it was fortunate that I did.

As I opened the garden gate I saw an old woman coming down the path--an
old woman very unlike the last. "Old" was not the word for her face:
she might have been born before the history-books begin. As to her
expression, if ever you saw a snake with red rims to its eyes and the
expression of a parrot, you might have some idea of it. She was hobbling
along with a stick, in quite the proper manner, but I felt certain that
all that was put on, and that she could have glided as swift as an adder
if she pleased. I confess I was afraid of her. I had a feeling that she
knew everything and hated everybody.

"And what," I suddenly thought, "has she been up to? If she has got at
the box, where am I? and more than that, what mischief will she and her
company work among the small people and the birds and beasts?" There
would be no mercy for them; a glance at her eye told me that.

It was an immense relief to see that she could not possibly have got the
box about her, and another relief when my eye travelled to the door of
the house and I saw no fewer than three horseshoes nailed above it. I
smiled to myself. Oh, how angry she looked! But she had to act her part,
and with feeble curtseys and in a very small hoarse trembling voice she
wished me a good day (though I noticed her pointing to the ground with
her thumb as she said the words) and would be very obliged if I could
tell her the right time. I was going to pull out my watch (and if I had,
she would have seen a certain key we know of), when something said
suddenly and clearly to my brain, "Look out," and by good luck I heard a
clock inside the house strike one before I could answer.

"Just struck one," was my reply accordingly, and I said it as innocently
as I could. She drew her breath in hard and quivered all over, and her
mouth remained open like a cat's when it is using its worst expressions,
and when she eventually thanked me I leave it to you to imagine how
gracefully she did it.

Well, she had no more cards to play at the moment, and no excuse for
remaining. I stood my ground and watched her out of the gate. A path led
down the meadow, and, much against her will no doubt, she had to keep up
the pretence and toil painfully along it until she reached another hedge
and could reckon on being out of my sight. After that I neither saw nor
expected to see anything more of her. I went up to my room and found all
safe, and laid the four-leaved clover on the box. At luncheon I took
occasion to find out from the maid, without asking her in so many words,
whether the old woman had been visible to her; evidently she had not:
evidently also, the evil creatures were really on the track of the Five
Jars, knew that I had them, and had a very fair idea of where they were
kept.

However, if the maid had not seen her, the cat had, and murmured a good
deal to herself, and was in a rather nervous state. She sat, with her
ears turned different ways, on the window-sill, looking out, and
twitching her back uncomfortably, like an old lady who feels a draught.
When I was available, she came and sat on my knee (a very uncommon
attention on her part) with an air half of wishing to be protected and
half of undertaking to protect me.

"If there is fish to-night," I said, "you shall have some." But I was
not yet in a position to make myself understood.

"Pussy's been sleepin' on your box all the afternoon, sir," said the
maid when I came in to tea. "I couldn't get her to come off; and when I
did turn her out of the room, I do believe she climbed up and got in
again by the winder."

"I don't mind at all," I said; "let her be there if she likes." And
indeed I felt quite grateful to the cat. I don't know that she could
have done much if there had been any attempt on the box, but I was sure
her intentions were good.

There was fish that evening, and she had a good deal of it. She did not
say much that I could follow, but chiefly sang songs without words.

* * * * *

Not to go over the preliminaries again, I did, when the proper time
came, touch my tongue with the contents of the third jar. I found that
it worked in this way: I could not hear what I was saying myself, when I
was talking to an animal: I only _thought_ the remark very clearly, and
then I felt my tongue and lips moving in an odd fashion, which I can't
describe. But with the small people in human shape it was different. I
spoke in the ordinary way to them, and though I dare say my voice went
up an octave or two, I can't say I perceived it.

The village was there again to-night, and the life going on in it seemed
much the same. I was set upon making acquaintance in a natural sort of
way with the people, and as it would not do to run any risk of
startling them, I just took my place near the window and made some
pretence of playing Patience. I thought it likely that some of the young
people would come and watch me, in spite of the fright they had had the
night before. And it was not long before I heard a rustling in the
shrubs under the window and voices saying:

"Is he in there? Can you see? Oh, I say, _do_ look out: you all but had
me over that time!"

They were suddenly quiet after this, and apparently one must have, very
cautiously, climbed up and looked into the room. When he got down again
there was a great fuss.

"No, is he really?" "What d'you say he was doing?" "What sort of charm?"
"I say, d'you think we'd better get down?" "No, but what is he really
doing?" "Laying out rows of flat things on the table, with marks on
them." "I don't believe it." "Well, you go and look yourself." "All
right, I shall." "Yes, but, I say, do look out: suppose you get shut in
and we're late for the bell?" "Why, you fool, I shan't go into the room,
only stop on the window-sill." "Well, I don't know, but I do believe he
saw us last night, and my father said he thought so too." "Oh, well, he
can't move very quick, anyway, and he's some way off the window. _I_
shall go up."

I managed, without altering my position too much, to keep my eye on the
window-sill, and, sure enough, in a second or two a small round head
came into sight. I went on with my game. At first I could see that the
watcher was ready to duck down at the slightest provocation, but as I
took no sort of notice, he gained confidence, leant his elbows on the
sill, and then actually pulled himself up and sat down on it. He bent
over and whispered to the others below, and it was not long before I saw
a whole row of heads filling up the window-sill from end to end. There
must have been a dozen of them. I thought the time was come, and without
moving, and in as careless a tone as I could, I said:

"Come in, gentlemen, come in; don't be shy." There was a rustle, and two
or three heads disappeared, but nobody said anything. "Come in, if you
like," I said again; "you can hear the bell quite well from here, and I
shan't shut the window."

"Promise!" said the one who was sitting on the sill.

"I promise, honour bright," I said, whereupon he made the plunge. First
he dropped on to the seat of a chair by the window, and from that to the
floor. Then he wandered about the room, keeping at a distance from me at
first, and, I have no doubt, watching very anxiously to see whether I
had any intention of pouncing on him. The others followed, first one by
one and then two or three at a time. Some remained sitting on the
window-sill, but most plucked up courage to get down on to the floor and
explore.

I had now my first good chance of seeing what they were like. They all
wore the same fashion of clothes--a tunic and close-fitting hose and
flat caps--seemingly very much what a boy would have worn in Queen
Elizabeth's time. The colours were sober--dark blue, dark red, grey,
brown--and each one's clothes were of one colour all through. They had
some white linen underneath; it showed a little at the neck. There were
both fair and dark among them: all were clean and passably good-looking,
one or two certainly handsome. The firstcomer was ruddy and
auburn-haired and evidently a leader. They called him Wag.

I heard whispers from corners of the room, and appeals to Wag to explain
what this and that unfamiliar object was, and noticed that he was never
at a loss for an answer of some kind, correct or not. The fireplace,
which had its summer dressing, was, it appeared, a rock garden; an old
letter lying on the floor was a charm ("Better not touch it"); the
waste-paper basket (not unnaturally) a prison; the pattern on the carpet
was--"Oh, you wouldn't understand it if I was to tell you."

Soon a voice--Wag's voice--came from somewhere near my foot.

"I say, could I get up on the top?" I offered to lift him, but he
declined rather hastily and said my leg would be all right if I didn't
mind putting it out a bit sloping: and he then ran up it on all
fours--he was quite a perceptible weight--and got on to the table from
my knee without any difficulty.

Once there, there was a great deal to interest him--books, papers, ink,
pens, pipes, matches and cards. He was full of questions about them, and
his being so much at his ease encouraged the others to follow him, so
that before very long the whole lot were perambulating the table and
making me very nervous lest they should fall off, while Wag was standing
close up to me and putting me through a catechism.

"What do you have such _little_ spears for?" he wanted to know,
brandishing a pen at me. "Is that blood on the end? whose blood? Well
then, what do you do with it? Let's see--only that?" (when I wrote a
word or two). "Well, you can tell me about it another time. Now I want
to know what these clubs in the chest are."

I said, "We make fire with them; if you like I'll show you--but it makes
a little noise."

"Go on," said Wag; and I struck a match, rather expecting a stampede.
But no, they were quite unmoved, and Wag said, "Beastly row and
smell--why don't you do the ordinary way?"

He brushed the palm of his left hand along the tips of the fingers on
his right hand, put them to his lips and then to his eyes, and behold!
his eyes began to glow from behind with a light which would have been
quite bright enough for him to read by. "Quite simple," he said; "don't
you know it?" Then he did the same thing in reverse order, touching
eyes, lips and hand, and the light was gone. I didn't like to confess
that this was beyond me.

"Yes, that's all very well," I said, "but how do you manage about your
houses? I am sure I saw lights in the windows."

"Course," he said, "put as many as you want;" and he ran round the table
dabbing his hand here and there on the cloth, or on anything that lay on
it, and at every place a little round bud or drop of very bright but
also soft light came out. "See?" he said, and darted round again,
passing his hands over the lights and touching his lips; and they were
gone. He came back and said, "It's a _much_ better way; it is _really_,"
as if it were only my native stupidity that prevented me from using it
myself.

A smaller one, who looked to me rather a quieter sort than Wag, had come
up and was standing by him: he now said in a low voice:

"P'raps they can't."

It seemed a new idea to Wag: he made his eyes very round. "Can't? Oh,
rot! it's quite simple."

The other shook his head and pointed to my hand which rested on the
table. Wag looked at it too, and then at my face.

"Could I see it spread out?" he said.

"Yes, if you'll promise not to spoil it."

He laughed slightly, and then both he and the other--whom he called
Slim--bent over and looked closely at the tips of my fingers. "Other
side, please," he said after a time, and they subjected my nails to a
like examination. The others, who had been at the remoter parts of the
table, wandered up and looked over their shoulders. After tapping my
nails and lifting up one or more fingers, Wag stood upright and said:

"Well, I s'pose it's true, and you can't. I thought your sort could do
anything."

"I thought much the same about you," I said in self-defence. "I always
thought you could fly, but you----"

"So we can," said Wag very sharply, and his face grew red.

"Oh," I said, "then why haven't you been doing it to-night?"

He kicked one foot with the other and looked quickly at Slim. The rest
said nothing and edged away, humming to themselves.

"Well, we _can_ fly perfectly well, only----"

"Only not to-night, I suppose," said I, rather unkindly.

"No, _not_ to-night," said Wag; "and you needn't laugh, either--we'll
soon show you."

"That _will_ be nice," I said; "and when will you show me?"

"Let's see" (he turned to Slim), "two nights more, isn't it? All right
then (to me), in two nights more you'll see."

Just then a moth which flew in caused a welcome diversion--for I could
see that somehow I had touched on a sore subject, and that he was
feeling awkward--and he first jumped at it and then ran after it. Slim
lingered. I raised my eyebrows and pointed at Wag. Slim nodded.

"The fact is," he said in a low voice, "he got us into rather a row
yesterday and we're all stopped flying for three nights."

"Oh," said I. "I _see_: you must tell him I am very sorry for being so
stupid. May I ask who stopped you?"

"Oh, just the old man, not the owls."

"You do go to the owls for something, then?" I asked, trying to appear
intelligent.

"Yes, history and geography."

"To be sure," I said; "of course they've seen a lot, haven't they?"

"So they say," said Slim, "but----"

Just then the low toll of the bell was wafted through the window and
there was an instant scurry to the edge of the table, then to the seat
of the chair, and up to the window-sill; small arms waved caps at me,
the shrubs rustled, and I was left alone.




V

DANGER TO THE JARS


Now my ears and eyes and tongue had been dealt with, and what remained
were the forehead and the chest. I could not guess what would come of
treating these with the ointment, but I thought I would try the forehead
first. There was still a day or two when the moon would be bright enough
for the trial. I hoped that perhaps the effect of these two last jars
might be to make me able to go on with my experiences--to keep in touch
with the new people I had come across--during the time when she--the
moon, I mean--was out of sight.

I had one anxiety. The precious box must be guarded from those who were
after it. About this I had a conviction, that if I could keep them off
until I had used each of the five jars, the box and I would be safe. Why
I felt sure of this I could not say, but my experience had led me to
trust these beliefs that came into my head, and I meant to trust this
one. It would be best, I thought, if I did not go far from the
house--perhaps even if I did not leave it at all till the time of danger
was past.

Several things happened in the course of the morning which confirmed me
in my belief. I took up a position at the table by the window of my
sitting-room. I had put the box in my suit-case, which I had locked, and
I now laid it beside me where I could keep an eye upon it. The view from
my window showed me, first, the garden of the cottage, with its lawn and
little flower beds, its hedge and back gate, and beyond that a path
leading down across a field. More fields, I knew, came after that one,
and sloped pretty sharply down to a stream in the valley, which I could
not see; but I could see the steep slope of fields, partly pasture, and
then clothed with green woods towards the top. There were no other
houses in sight: the road was behind me, passing the front of the
cottage, and my bedroom looked out that way. I had some writing and
reading to do, and I had not long finished breakfast before I settled
down to it, and heard the maid "doing out" the bedroom as usual,
accompanied every now and then by a slight mew from the cat, who (also
as usual) was watching her at work. These mews meant nothing in
particular, I may say; they were only intended to be met by an
encouraging remark, such as "There you are, then, pussy," or "Don't get
in my way, now," or "All in good time." Finally I heard "Come along
then, and let's see what we've got for you downstairs," and the door was
shut. I mention this because of what happened about a quarter of an hour
later.

There was suddenly a fearful crash in the bedroom, a fall, a breaking
of glass and crockery and snapping of wood, and then, fainter, sobbings
and moans of pain. I started up.

"Goodness!" I thought, "she must have been dusting that heavy shelf high
up on the wall with all the china on it, and the whole thing has given
way. She must be badly hurt! But why doesn't her mistress come rushing
upstairs? and what was that rasping noise just beside me?"

I looked at my suit-case, which lay on the table just inside the open
window. Across the new smooth top of it there were three deep scratches
running towards the window, which had not been there before. I moved it
to the other side of me and sat down. There had been an attempt to decoy
me out of the room, and it had failed. Certainly there would be more.

I waited; but everything was quiet in the house: no more noise from the
bedroom and no one moving about, upstairs or downstairs; nothing but
the pump clanking in the scullery. I turned to my work again.

Half an hour must have gone by, and, though on the look-out, I was not
fidgety. Then I was aware of a confused noise from the field outside.

"Help! help! Keep off, you brute! Help, you there!" as well as I could
make out, again and again. Towards the far end of the field, which was a
pretty large one, a poor old man was trying to get to a gate in the
hedge at a staggering run, and striking now and then with his stick at a
great deer-hound which was leaping up at him with hollow barks. It
seemed as if nothing but the promptest dash to the spot could save him;
it seemed, too, as if he had caught sight of me at the window, for he
beckoned. How strange the cries sounded! It was as if someone was
shouting into an empty jug. My field-glasses were by me on the table,
and I thought I would take just _one_ look before I rushed out. I am
glad I did; for, do you know, when I had the glasses focused on the dog
and the man, all that I could see was a sort of fuzz of dancing vapour,
much as if the shimmering air that you see on the heath on a hot day had
been gathered up and rolled into a shape.

"Ha! ha!" I said, as I put down the glasses; and something in the air,
about four yards off, made a sharp hissing sound. No doubt there were
words, but I could not distinguish them. A second attempt had failed;
you may be sure I was well on the alert for the next.

I put away my books now, and sat looking out of the window, and
wondering as I watched whether there was anything out of the common to
be noticed. For one thing, I thought there were more little birds about
than I expected. At first I did not see them, for they were not hopping
about on the lawn; but as I stared at the hedge of the garden, and at
that of the field, I became aware that these were full of life. On
almost every twig that could hold a bird in shelter--not on the top of
the hedges--a bird was sitting, quite still, and they were all looking
towards the window, as if they were expecting something to happen there.
Occasionally one would flutter its wings a little and turn its head
towards its neighbour; but this was all they did.

I picked up my glasses and began to study the bottom of the hedges and
the bushes, where there was some quantity of dead leaves, and here, too,
I could see that there were spectators. A small bright eye or a bit of a
nose was visible almost wherever I looked; in short, the mice, and, I
don't doubt, some of the rats, hedgehogs, and toads as well, were
collected there and were as intently on the watch as the birds. "What a
chance for the cat, if only she knew!" I put my head cautiously out of
the window, and looking down on the sill of the window below, I could
see her head, with the ears pushed forward; she was looking earnestly
at the hedge, but she did not move. Only, at the slight noise I made,
she turned her face upwards and crowed to me in a modest but encouraging
manner.

Time passed on. Luncheon was laid--on another table--and was over,
before anything else happened.

The next thing was that I heard the maid saying sharply:

"What business 'ave you got going round to the back? We don't want none
of your rubbish here."

A hoarse voice answered inaudibly.

_Maid_: "No, nor the gentleman don't want none of your stuff neither;
and how do you know there's a gentleman here at all I should like to
know? What? Don't mean no offence? I dare say. That's more than I know.
Well, that's the last word I've got to say."

In a minute more there was a knock at my door, and at the same time a
step on the gravel path under my window, and a loud hiss from the cat.
As I said "Come in" to the knock, I hastily looked out of the window,
but saw nothing. It was the maid who had knocked. She had come to ask if
there was anything I should like from the village, or anything I should
want before tea-time, because the mistress was going out, and wanted her
to go over and fetch something from the shop. I said there was nothing
except the letters and perhaps a small parcel from the post office. She
lingered a moment before going, and finally said:

"You'll excuse me naming it, sir, but there seems to be some funny
people about the roads to-day, if you'd please to be what I mean to say
a bit on the look-out, if you're not a-going out yourself."

"Certainly," I said. "No, I don't mean to go out. By the way, who was it
came to the door just now?"

"Oh, it was one of these 'awking men, not one I've seen before, and he
must be a stranger in this part, I think, because he began going round
to the garden door, only I stopped him. He'd got these cheap rubbishing
'atpins and what not; leastways, if you understand me, what I thought to
myself I shouldn't like to be seen with 'em, whatever others might."

"Yes, I see," I answered; and she went, and I turned to my books once
more.

Within a very few minutes I began to suspect that I was getting sleepy.
Yes, it was undoubtedly so. What with the warmth of the day, and lunch,
and not having been out.... There was a curious smell in the room, too,
not exactly nasty, like something burning. What did it remind me of?
Wood smoke from a cottage fire, that one smells on an autumn evening as
one comes bicycling down the hill into a village? Not quite so nice as
that; something more like a chemist's shop. I wondered: and as I
wondered, my eyes closed and my head went forward.

A sharp pain on the back of my hand, and a crash of glass! Up I jumped,
and which of three or four things I realized first I don't know now. But
I did realize in a second or two that my hand was bleeding from a
scratch all down the back of it, that a pane of the window was broken
and that the whole window was darkened with little birds that were
bumping their chests against it; that the cat was on the table gazing
into my face with intense expression, that a little smoke was drifting
into the room, and that my suit-case was on the point of slipping out
over the window-sill. A despairing dash at it I made, and managed to
clutch it; but for the life of me I could not pull it back. I could see
no string or cord, much less any hand that was dragging at it. I hardly
dared to take my hand from it to catch up something and hack at the
thief I could not see. Besides, there was nothing within reach.

Then I remembered the knife in my pocket. Could I get it out and open
it without losing hold? "They hate steel," I thought. Somehow--frantically
holding on with one hand--I got out the knife, and opened it, goodness
knows how, for it was horribly small and stiff, with my teeth, and
sheared and stabbed indiscriminately all round the farther end of the
suit-case. Thank goodness, the strain relaxed. I got the thing inside
the window, dropped it, and stood on it, craning over the garden path
and round the corner of the house. Of course there was nothing to be
seen. The birds were gone. The cat was still on the table saying "O you
owl! O you owl!" The sole and only clue to what had been happening was a
small earthenware saucer that lay on the path immediately below the
window, with a little heap of ashes in it, from which a thin column of
smoke was coming straight up and curling over when it reached the window
level. That, I could not doubt, was the cause of my sudden sleepiness.
I dropped a large book straight on to it, and had the satisfaction of
hearing it crush to bits and of seeing the smoke go four ways along the
ground and vanish.

I was perfectly awake now. I looked at the cat, and showed her the back
of my hand. She sat quite still and said:

"Well, what did you expect? I had to do something. I'll lick it if you
like, but I'd rather not. No particular ill-feeling, you understand; all
the same a hundred years hence."

I was not in a position to answer her, so I shook my head at her, wound
up my hand in a handkerchief, and then stroked her. She took it
agreeably, jumped off the table, and requested to be let out.

So the third attack had failed. I sat down and looked out. The hedges
were empty; not a bird, not a mouse was left. I took this to mean that
the dangerous time was past, and great was the relief. Soon I heard the
maid come back from her errands in the village, then the mistress's
chaise, then the clock striking five. I felt it would be all right for
me to go out after tea.

And so I did; first, however, concealing the suit-case in my
bedroom--not that I supposed hiding it would be of much use--and piling
upon it poker, tongs, knife, horseshoe, and anything else I could find
which I thought would keep off trespassers. I had, by the way, to
explain to the maid that a bird had flown against the window and broken
it, and when she said "Stupid, tiresome little things they are," I am
afraid I did not contradict her.

I went out by way of the garden and crossed the field, near the middle
of which stands a large old oak. I went up to this, for no particular
reason, and stood gazing at the trunk. As I did so I became aware that
my eyes were beginning to "see through," and behold! a family of owls
was inside. As it was near evening, they were getting wakeful,
stirring, smacking their beaks and opening their wings a little from
time to time. At last one of them said:

"Time's nearly up. Out and about! Out and about!"

"Anyone outside?" said another.

"No harm there," said the first.

This short way of talking, I believe, was due to the owls not being
properly awake and consequently sulky. As they brightened up and got
their eyes open, they began to be more easy in manner.

"Oop! Oop! Oop! I've had a very good day of it. You have, too, I hope?"

"Sound as a rock, I thank you, except when they were carrying on at the
cottage."

"Oh goodness! I forgot! They didn't bring it off, I hope."

"Not they; the watch was too well set, but it was wanted. I had a leaf
about it a few minutes after, and it seems they got him asleep."

"Well! I never heard anyone bring a leaf."

"I dare say not, but I was expecting it; pigeon dropped it. There it is,
on that child's back."

I saw the hen-owl stoop and examine a dead chestnut leaf which lay, as
the other had said, on an owlet's back.

"Fa-a-ther!" said this owlet suddenly, in a shrill voice, "mayn't I go
out to-night?"

But all that Father did was to clasp its head in his claw and push it to
and fro several times. When he let go, the owlet made no sound, but
crept away and hid its face in a corner, and heaved as if with sobs.
Father closed his eyes slowly and opened them slowly--amused, I thought.
The mother had been reading the leaf all the time.

"Dear me! _very_ interesting!" she said. "I suppose now the worst of it
is over."

"All's quiet for to-night, anyhow," said Father, "but I wish he could
see someone about to-morrow; that's their last chance, and they
_may_----" He ruffled up his feathers, lifted first one foot and then
the other. "The awkwardness is," he went on, "if I say too much and they
do get the jars, there's one risk; and if there's no warning and they
get them, there's another risk."

"But if there _is_ a warning and they _don't_ get them," said she, very
sensibly.

"Well, to be sure, that would be better, even though we don't know much
about him."

"But where do you suppose he is, and whom ought he to see?" (It was just
what I wanted to know, and I thanked her.)

"Why, as to the first, I suspect he's outside; there is someone there,
and why they should stop there all this time unless they're listening, I
don't know."

"Good gracious! listening to our private conversation! and me with my
feathers all anyhow!" She began to peck at herself vigorously; but this
was straying from the point, and annoyed me. However, Father went slowly
on:

"As to that, I don't much care whether he's listening or not. As to whom
he ought to see, that's rather more difficult. If he's got as far as
talking to any of the Right People (he said this as if they had capital
letters), they'd know, of course; and some of them down about the
village, they'd know; and the Old Mother knows, and----"

"What about the boys?" said she, pausing in the middle of her toilet and
poking her head up at him. He wholly disdained to answer, and merely
butted at her with his head, so that she slipped down off her ledge
several inches, with a great scrabbling. "Oh, _don't_!" she said
peevishly, as she climbed back. "I'm all untidy again."

"Well then, don't ask such ridiculous questions. I shall buffle you with
both wings next time. And now, as soon as the coast is clear, I shall be
out and about."

I took the hint and moved off, for I had learnt as much perhaps as I
could expect, even if all was not yet plain; and before I had gone many
paces I was aware of the pair both sailing smoothly off in the opposite
direction.

I was "seeing through" a good deal that evening; it is surprising what a
lot of coppers people drop, even on a field path; surprising, too, in
how many places there lie, unsuspected, bones of men. Some things I saw
which were ugly and sad, like that, but more that were amusing and even
exciting. There is one spot I could show where four gold cups stand
round what was once a book, but the book is no more than earth now.
That, however, I did not see on this particular evening.

What I remember best is a family of young rabbits huddled round their
parents in a burrow, and the mother telling a story: "And so then he
went a little farther and found a dandelion, and stopped and sat up and
began to eat it. And when he had eaten two large leaves and one little
one, he saw a fly on it--no, two flies; and then he thought he had had
enough of that dandelion, and he went a little farther and found another
dandelion...." And so it went on interminably, and entirely stupid, like
everything else I ever heard a rabbit say, for they have forgotten all
about their ancestor, Brer Rabbit. However, the children were absorbed
in the story, so much so that they never heard a stoat making its way
down the burrow. But I heard it, and by stamping and driving my stick in
I was able to make it turn tail and go off, cursing. All stoats,
weasels, ferrets, polecats, are of the wrong people, as you may imagine,
and so are most rats and bats.

At last I left off seeing through, by trying not to do so, and went back
to the house, where I found all safe and quiet.

I ought to say that I had not as yet tried speaking to any animal, even
to the cat when she scratched me, but I thought I would try it now. So
when she came in at dinner-time and circled about, with what I may call
pious aspirations about fish and other such things, I summoned up my
courage and said (using my voice in the way I described, or rather did
not describe, before):

"I used to be told, 'If you are hungry, you can eat dry bread.'"

She was certainly horribly startled. At first I thought she would have
dashed up the chimney or out of the window; but she recovered pretty
quickly and sat down, still looking at me with intense surprise.

"I suppose I might have guessed," she said; "but dear! what a turn you
did give me! I feel quite faint; and gracious! what a day it has been!
When I found you dozing off like a great---- Well, no one wants to be
rude, do they? but I can tell you I had more than half a mind to go at
your face."

"I am glad you didn't," I said; "and really, you know, it wasn't my
fault: it was that stuff they were burning on the path."

"I know that well enough," she said; "but to come back to the point, all
this anxiety has made me as empty in myself as a clean saucer."

"Just what I was saying; if you are hungry, you can----"

"Say that again, say it just once more," she said, and her eyes grew
narrow as she said it, "and I shall----"

"What shall you do?" I asked, for she stopped suddenly.

She calmed herself. "Oh, you know how it is when one's been all
excited-like and worked up; we all say more than we mean. But that about
dry bread! Well, there! I simply can't bear it. It's a wicked, cruel
untruth, that's what it is; and besides, you _can't_ be going to eat all
the whole of what she's put down for you." Excitement was coming on
again, and she ended with a loud ill-tempered mew.

Well, I gave her what she seemed to want, and shortly after, worn out
doubtless with the fatigues of the day, she went to sleep on a chair,
not even caring to follow the maid downstairs when things were cleared
away.




VI

THE CAT, WAG, SLIM AND OTHERS


I got out my precious casket. I sat by the window and watched. The moon
shone out, the lid of the box loosened in due course, and I touched my
forehead with the ointment. But neither at once nor for some little time
after did I notice any fresh power coming to me.

With the moon, up came also the little town, and no sooner were the
doors of the houses level with the grass than the boys were out of them
and running in some numbers towards my window; in fact, some slipped out
of their own windows, not waiting for the doors to be available. Wag was
the first. Slim, more sedate, came among the crowd that followed. These
were still the only two who felt no hesitation about talking to me. The
others were all fully occupied in exploring the room.

"To-morrow," I said (after some sort of how-do-you-do's had been
exchanged), "you'll be flying all over the place, I suppose."

"Yes," said Wag, shortly. "But I want to know--I say, Slim, what was it
we wanted first?"

"Wasn't there a message from your father?" said Slim.

"Oh, yes, of course. 'If they're about the house,' he said, 'give them
horseshoes; if there's a bat-ball, squirt at it': he thinks there's a
squirt in the tool-house--Oh, there's the cat; I must----" After
delivering all this in one sentence, he rushed to the edge of the table
and took a kind of header into the midst of the unfortunate animal, who,
however, only moaned or crowed without waking, and turned partly over on
her back.

Slim remained sitting on a book and gazing soberly at me.

"Well," I said, "it's very kind of Wag's father to send me a message,
but I must say I can't make much of it."

Slim nodded. "So he said, and he said you'd see when the time came; of
course I don't know, myself; I've never seen a bat-ball. Wag says he
has, but you never know with Wag."

"Well, I must do the best I can, I suppose; but look here, Slim, I wish
you could tell me one or two things. What _are_ you? What do they call
you?"

"They call me Slim: and the whole of us they call the Right People,"
said Slim; "but it's no good asking us much, because we don't know, and
besides, it isn't good for us."

"How do you mean?"

"Why, you see, our job is to keep the little things right, and if we do
more than that, or if we try to find out much more, then we burst."

"And is that the end of you?"

"Oh, no!" he said cheerfully, "but that's one of the things it's no good
asking."

"And if you don't do your job, what then?"

"Oh, then they get smaller and have no sense." (He said _they_, not
_we_, I noticed.)

"I see. Well now, you go to school, don't you?" He nodded. "What for?
Isn't that likely to be bad for you?" (I hardly liked to say "make you
burst.")

"No," he said; "you see, it's to learn our job. We have to be told what
used to go on, so as we can put things right, or keep them right. And
the owls, you see, they remember a long way back, but they don't know
any more than we do about the swell things."

I was very shy about putting the next question I had in mind, but I felt
I must. "Now do you know how old you are, or how long it takes you to
grow up, or how--how long you go on when you _are_ grown up!"

He pressed his hands to his head, and I was dreadfully afraid for the
moment that it might be swelling and would burst; but it was not so bad
as that. After a few seconds he looked up and said:

"I think it's seven times seven moons since I went to school and seven
times seven times seven moons before I grow up; and the rest is no good
asking. But it's all right"; upon which he smiled.

And this, I may say, was the most part of what I ventured to ask any of
them about themselves. But at other times I gathered that as long as
they "did their job" nothing could injure them; and they were regularly
measured--all of them--to see if they were getting smaller, and a
careful record kept. But if anyone lost as much as a quarter of his
height, he was doomed, and he crept off out of the settlement. Whether
such a one ever came back I could not be sure; most of the failures (and
they were not common) went and lived in hollow trees or by brooks, and
were happy enough, but in a feeble way, not remembering much, nor able
to make anything; and it was supposed that very slowly they shrunk to
the size of a pin's point, and probably to nothing. All the same, it was
believed that they _could_ recover. Many other things that _you_ would
have asked, I did not, being anxious to avoid giving trouble.

But this time, anyhow, I felt I had catechized Slim long enough, so I
broke off and said:

"What can Wag be doing all this while?"

"There's no knowing," said Slim. "But he's very quiet for him; either
he's doing something awful, or he's asleep."

"I saw him with the cat last," I said; "you might go and look at her."

He walked to the edge of the table, and said, "Why, he _is_ asleep!" And
so he was, with his head on the cat's chest, under her chin, which she
had turned up; and she had put her front paws together over the top of
his head. As for the others, I descried them sitting in a circle in a
corner of the room, also very quiet. (I imagine they were a little
afraid of doing much without Wag, and also of waking him.) But I could
not make out what they were doing, so I asked Slim.

"Racing earwigs, I should think," he said, with something of contempt.

"Well, I hope they won't leave them about when they go. I don't like
earwigs."

"Who does?" he said; "but they'll take them away all right; they're
prize ones, some of them."

I went over and looked at the racing for a little. The course was neatly
marked out with small lights sprouting out of the boards, and the circle
was at the winning-post, the starters being at the other end, some six
feet away. I watched one heat. The earwigs seemed to me neither very
speedy nor very intelligent, and all except one were apt to stop in
mid-course and engage in personal encounters with each other.

I was beginning to wonder how long this would go on, when Wag woke up.
Like most of us, he was not willing to allow that he had been asleep.

"I thought I'd just lie down a bit," he said, "and then I didn't want to
bustle your cat, so I stopped there. And now I want to know--Slim, I
say, what was it you were asking me?"

"Me asking you? I don't know."

"Oh, yes, you do; what he was doing the other time before we came in."

"I didn't ask you that; you asked me."

"Well, it doesn't matter who asked." (Turning to me): "What _were_ you
doing?"

"I don't know," I said. "Was it these things I was using" (taking up a
pack of cards), "or something like this?" (I held up a book.)

"Yes, that one. What were you doing with it? What's it for?"

"We call it reading a book," and I tried to explain what the idea was,
and read out a few lines; it happened to be _Pickwick_. They were
absorbed. Slim said, half to himself, "Something like a glass," which I
thought quite meaningless at the time. Then I showed them a picture in
another book. That they made out very quickly.

"But when's it going to move on?" said Slim.

"Never," I said. "Ours stop just like that always. Do yours move on?"

"Of course they do; look here." He lay down on the tablecloth and
pressed his forehead on it, but evidently could make nothing of it.
"It's all rough," he said. I gave him a sheet of paper. "That's better;"
and he lay down again in the same posture for a few seconds. Then he got
up and began rubbing the paper all over with the palms of his hands. As
he did so a coloured picture came out pretty quickly, and when it was
finished he drew aside to let me see, and said, somewhat bashfully, "I
don't think I've got it _quite_ right, but I meant it for what happened
the other evening." He had certainly not got it right as far as I was
concerned. It was a view of the window of the house, seen from outside
by moonlight, and there was a back view of a row of figures with their
elbows on the sill. So far, so good; but inside the open window was
standing a figure which was plainly--much too plainly, I thought--meant
for me; far too short and fat, far too red-faced, and with an owlish
expression which I am sure I never wear. This person was now seen to
move his hand--a very poor hand, with only about three fingers--to his
side, and pull, apparently, out of his body, a round object more or less
like a watch (at any rate it was white on one side with black marks, and
yellow on the other) and lay it down in front of him. At this the
figures at the window-sill threw up their arms in all directions and
fell or slid down like so many dolls. Then the picture began to get
fainter, and disappeared from the paper. Slim looked at me expectantly.

"Well," I said, "it's very interesting to see how you do it, but is that
the best likeness of me that you can make?"

"What's wrong with it?" said he. "Isn't it handsome enough or
something?"

I heard Wag throw himself down on the table, and, looking at him, I saw
that he had got both hands pressed over his mouth.

"May I ask what the joke is?" I said rather dryly (for it is surprising
how touchy one can be over one's personal appearance, even at my time of
life). He looked up for an instant at me, and then gasped and hid his
face again. Slim went up to him and kicked him in the ribs.

"Where's your manners?" he said in a loud whisper. Wag rolled over and
sat up, wiping his eyes.

"I'm very sorry," he said. "I'm sure I don't know what I was laughing
for." Slim whistled. "Well," said Wag, "what _was_ I?"

"Him, of course, and you know perfectly well!"

"Oh, was I? Well, perhaps you'll tell me what there is to laugh at about
him?" said Wag, rather basely, I thought; so, as Slim put his finger to
his lip and looked unhappy, I interrupted.

"Get up a minute, Wag," I said. "I want to see something."

"What?" said he, jumping up at once.

"Stand back to back with Slim, if you don't mind. That's it. Dear me! I
thought you were taller than that--you looked to me taller last night.
My mistake, I dare say. All right, thanks." But there they stood, gazing
at each other with horror, and I felt I had been trifling with a most
serious subject, so I laughed and said, "Don't disturb yourselves. I was
only chaffing you, Wag, because you seemed to be doing something of the
kind to me."

Slim understood, and heaved a sigh of relief. Wag sat down on a book and
looked reproachfully upon me. Neither said a word. I was very much
ashamed, and begged their pardon as nicely as I knew how. Luckily Wag
was soon convinced that I was not in earnest, and he recovered his
spirits directly.

"All _right_," he said, nodding at me; "did I hear you say you didn't
like earwigs? That's worth remembering, Slim."

This reduced me at once; I tried to point out that he had begun it, and
that it would be a mean revenge, and very hard on the earwigs, if he
filled my room with them, for I should be obliged to kill all I could.

"Why," he said, "they needn't be real earwigs; my own tickle every bit
as much as real ones."

This was no better for me, and I tried to make more appeals to his
better feelings. He did not seem to be listening very attentively,
though his eyes were fixed on me.

"What's that on your neck?" he said suddenly, and at the same moment I
felt a procession of legs walking over my skin. I brushed at it hastily,
and something seemed to fall on the table. "No, the other side I mean,"
said he, and again I felt the same horrid tickling and went through the
same exercises, with a face, I've no doubt, contorted with terror.
Anyhow, it seemed to amuse them very much; Wag, in fact, was quite
unable to speak, and could only point. It was dull of me not to have
realized at once that these were "his" earwigs and not real ones. But
now I did, and though I still felt the tickling, I did not move, but sat
down and gazed severely at him. Soon he got the better of his mirth and
said, "I think we are quits now." Then, with sudden alarm, "I say,
what's become of the others? The bell hasn't gone, has it?"

"How should I know?" I said. "If you hadn't been making all this
disturbance, perhaps we might have heard it."

He took a flying leap--an extraordinary feat it was--from the edge of
the table to a chair in the window, scrambled up to the sill, and gazed
out. "It's all right," he said, in a faint voice of infinite relief; let
himself down limply to the floor, and climbed slowly up my leg to his
former place.

"Well," I said, "the bell hasn't gone, it seems, but where are the rest?
I've hardly seen anything of them."

"Oh, _you_ go and find 'em, Slim; I'm worn out with all these frights."

Slim went to the farther end of the table, prospected, and returned. He
reported them "all right, but they're having rather a slow time of it, I
think." I, too, got up, walked round, and looked; they were seated in a
solemn circle on the floor round the cat, who was now curled up and fast
asleep on a round footstool. Not a word was being said by anybody. I
thought I had better address them, so I said:

"Gentlemen, I'm afraid I've been very inattentive to you this evening.
Isn't there anything I can do to amuse you? Won't you come up on the
table? You're welcome to walk up my leg if you find that convenient."

I was almost sorry I had spoken the moment after, for they made but one
rush at my legs as I stood by the table, and the sensation was rather
like that, I imagine, of a swarm of rats climbing up one's trousers.
However, it was over in a few seconds, and all of them--over a
dozen--were with Wag and Slim on the table, except one, who, whether by
mistake or on purpose, went on climbing me by way of my waistcoat
buttons, rather deliberately, until he reached my shoulder. I didn't
object, of course, but I turned round (which made him catch at my ear)
and went back to my chair, seated in which I felt rather as if I was
presiding at a meeting. The one on my shoulder sat down and, I thought,
folded his arms and looked at his friends with some triumph. Wag
evidently took this to be a liberty.

"My word!" he said, "what do you mean by it, Wisp? Come off it!"

Wisp was a little daunted, as I judged by his fidgeting somewhat, but
put a bold face on it and said, "Why should I come off?"

I put in a word: "I don't mind his being here."

"I dare say not; that's not the point," said Wag. "Are you coming down?"

"No," said Wisp, "not for you." But his tone was rather blustering than
brave.

"Very well, don't then," said Wag; and I expected him to run up and pull
Wisp down by the legs, but he didn't do that. He took something out of
the breast of his tunic, put it in his mouth, lay down on his stomach,
and, with his eyes on Wisp, puffed out his cheeks. Two or three seconds
passed, during which I felt Wisp shifting about on his perch, and
breathing quickly. Then he gave a sharp shriek, which went right through
my head, slipped rapidly down my chest and legs and on to the floor,
where he continued to squeal and to run about like a mad thing, to the
great amusement of everyone on the table.

Then I saw what was the matter. All round his head were a multitude of
little sparks, which flew about him like a swarm of bees, every now and
then settling and coming off again, and, I suppose, burning him every
time; if he beat them off, they attacked his hands, so he was in a bad
way. After watching him for about a minute from the edge of the table,
Wag called out:

"Do you apologize?"

"Yes!" he screamed.

"All right," said Wag; "stand still! stand still, you bat! How can I get
'em back if you don't?" Wag was back to me and I couldn't see what he
did, but Wisp sat down on the carpet free of sparks, and wiped his face
and neck with his handkerchief for some time, while the rest gradually
recovered from their laughter. "You can come up again now," said Wag;
and so he did, though he was slow and shy about it.

"Why didn't he send sparks at Wag?" said I to Slim.

"He hasn't got 'em to send," was the answer. "It's only the Captain of
the moon."

"Well now, what about a little peace and quiet?" I said. "And, you know,
I've never been introduced to you all properly. Wouldn't it be a good
idea to do that, before the bell goes?"

"Very well," said Wag. "We'll _do_ it properly. You bring 'em up one at
a time, Slim, and" (to me) "you put your sun-hand out on the table."

(_I_: "Sun-hand?"

_Wag_: "Yes, sun-hand; don't you know?" He held up his right hand, then
his left: "Sun-hand, Moon-hand, Day-hand, Night-hand, Star-hand,
Cloud-hand, and so on."

_I_: "Thank you.")

This was done, and meanwhile Slim formed the troop into a queue and
beckoned them up one by one. Wag stood on a book on the right and
proclaimed the name of each. First he had made me arrange my right hand
edgeways on the table, with the forefinger out. Then "Gold!" said Wag.
Gold stepped forward and made a lovely bow, which I returned with an
inclination of my head, then took as much of my forefinger top joint in
his right hand as he could manage, bent over it and shook it or tried
to, and then took up a position on the left and watched the next comer.
The ceremony was the same for everyone, but not all the bows were
equally elegant; some of the boys were jocular, and shook my finger with
both hands and a great display of effort. These were frowned upon by
Wag. The names (I need not set them all down now) were all of the same
kind as you have heard; there was Red, Wise, Dart, Sprat, and so on.
After Wisp, who came last and was rather humble, Wag called out Slim,
and, after him, descended and presented himself in the same form.

"And now," he said, "perhaps you'll tell us _your_ name."

I did so (one is always a little shamefaced about it, I don't know why)
in full. He whistled.

"Too much," he said; "what's the easiest you can do?"

After some thought I said, "What about M or N?"

"Much better! If M's all right for you, it'll do for us." So M was
agreed upon.

I was still rather afraid that the rank and file had been passing a dull
evening and would not come again, and I tried to express as much to
them. But they said:

"Dull? Oh no, M; why we've found out all sorts of things!"

"Really? What sort of things?"

"Well, inside the wall in that corner there's the biggest spider I've
ever seen, for one thing."

"Good gracious!" I said. "I hate 'em. I hope it can't get out?"

"It would have to-night if we hadn't stopped up the hole. Something's
been helping it to gnaw through."

"Has it?" said Wag. "My word! that looks bad. What was it made the
hole?"

Some called out, "A bat," and some "A rat."

"It doesn't matter much for that," said Slim, "so long as it's safe now.
Where is it?"

"Gone down to the bottom and saying awful things," Red answered.

"Well, I _am_ obliged to you," I said. "Anything else?"

"There's a lot of this stuff under the floor," said Dart, pointing with
his foot at a half-crown which lay on the table.

"Is there? Whereabouts?" said I. "Oh, but I was forgetting; I can look
after that myself."

"Yes, of course you can," they said; "and lots of things happened here
before you came. We were watching. The old man and the woman, they were
the worst, weren't they, Red?"

"Do you mean you've been here before?" I asked.

"No, no, but to-night we were looking at them, like we do at school."

This was beyond me, and I thought it would be of no use to ask for more
explanations. Besides, just at this moment we heard the bell. They all
clambered down either me or the chairs or the tablecloth. Slim lingered
a moment to say, "You'll look out, won't you?" and then followed the
rest on to the window-sill, where, taking the time from Captain Wag,
they all stood in a row, bowed with their caps off, straightened up
again, each sang one note, which combined into a wonderful chord, faced
round and disappeared. I followed them to the window and saw the
inhabitants of the house separating and going to their homes with the
young ones capering round them. One or two of the elders--Wag's father
in particular--looked up at me, paused in their walk, and bowed gravely,
which courtesy I returned. I went on gazing until the lawn was a blank
once more, and then, closing and fastening the sitting-room window, I
betook myself to the bedroom.




VII

THE BAT-BALL


It had certainly been an eventful day and evening, and I felt that my
adventures could not be quite at an end yet, for I had still to find out
what new power or sense the Fourth Jar had brought me. I stood and
thought, and tried quite vainly to detect some difference in myself. And
then I went to the window and drew the curtain aside and looked out on
the road, and within a few minutes I began to understand.

There came walking rapidly along the road a young man, and he turned in
at the garden gate and came straight up the path to the house door. I
began to be surprised, not at his coming, for it was not so very late,
but at the look of him. He was young, as I said, rather red-faced, but
not bad-looking; of the class of a farmer, I thought. He wore biggish
brown whiskers--which is not common nowadays--and his hair was rather
long at the back--which also is not common with young men who want to
look smart--but his hat, and his clothes generally, were the really odd
part of him. The hat was a sort of low top-hat, with a curved brim; it
spread out at the top and it was brushed rough instead of smooth. His
coat was a blue swallow-tail with brass buttons. He had a broad tie
wound round and round his neck, and a Gladstone collar. His trousers
were tight all the way down and had straps under his feet. To put it in
the dullest, shortest way, he was "dressed in the fashion of eighty or
ninety years ago," as we read in the ghost stories. Evidently he knew
his way about very well. He came straight up to the front door and, as
far as I could tell, into the house, but I did not hear the door open
or shut or any steps on the stairs. He must, I thought, be in my
landlady's parlour downstairs.

I turned away from the window, and there was the next surprise. It was
as if there was no wall between me and the sitting-room. I saw straight
into it. There was a fire in the grate, and by it were sitting face to
face an old man and an old woman. I thought at once of what one of the
boys had said, and I looked curiously at them. They were, you would have
said, as fine specimens of an old-fashioned yeoman and his wife as
anyone could wish to see. The man was hale and red-faced, with grey
whiskers, smiling as he sat bolt upright in his arm-chair. The old lady
was rosy and smiling too, with a smart silk dress and a smart cap, and
tidy ringlets on each side of her face--a regular picture of wholesome
old age; and yet I hated them both. The young man, their son, I suppose,
was in the room standing at the door with his hat in his hand, looking
timidly at them. The old man turned half round in his chair, looked at
him, turned down the corners of his mouth, looked across at the old
lady, and they both smiled as if they were amused. The son came farther
into the room, put his hat down, leaned with both hands on the table,
and began to speak (though nothing could be heard) with an earnestness
that was painful to see, because I could be certain his pleading would
be of no use; sometimes he spread out his hands and shook them, every
now and again he brushed his eyes. He was very much moved, and so was I,
merely watching him. The old people were not; they leaned forward a
little in their chairs and sometimes smiled at each other--again as if
they were amused. At last he had done, and stood with his hands before
him, quivering all over. His father and mother leaned back in their
chairs and looked at each other. I think they said not a single word.
The son caught up his hat, turned round, and went quickly out of the
room. Then the old man threw back his head and laughed, and the old lady
laughed too, not so boisterously.

I turned back to the window. It was as I expected. Outside the garden
gate, in the road, a young slight girl in a large poke-bonnet and shawl
and rather short-skirted dress was waiting, in great anxiety, as I could
see by the way she held to the railings. Her face I could not see. The
young man came out; she clasped her hands, he shook his head; they went
off together slowly up the road, he with bowed shoulders, supporting
her, she, I dare say, crying. Again I looked round to the sitting-room.
The wall hid it now.

It sounds a dull ordinary scene enough, but I can assure you it was
horribly disturbing to watch, and the cruel calm way in which the father
and mother, who looked so nice and worthy and were so abominable,
treated their son, was like nothing I had ever seen.

Of course I know now what the effect of the Fourth Jar was; it made me
able to see what had happened in any place. I did not yet know how far
back the memories would go, or whether I was obliged to see them if I
did not want to. But it was clear to me that the boys were sometimes
taught in this way. "We were watching them like we do at school," one of
them said, and though the grammar was poor, the meaning was plain, and I
would ask Slim about it when we next met. Meanwhile I must say I hoped
the gift would not go on working instead of letting me go to sleep. It
did not.

Next day I met my landlady employing herself in the garden, and asked
her about the people who had formerly lived in the house.

"Oh yes," said she. "I can tell you about them, for my father he
remembered old Mr. and Mrs. Eld quite well when he was a slip of a lad.
They wasn't liked in the place, neither of them, partly through bein' so
hard-like to their workpeople, and partly from them treating their only
son so bad--I mean to say turning him right off because he married
without asking permission. Well, no doubt, that's what he shouldn't have
done, but my father said it was a very nice respectable young girl he
married, and it do seem hard for them never to say a word of kindness
all those years and leave every penny away from the young people. What
become of them, do you say, sir? Why, I believe they emigrated away to
the United States of America and never was heard of again, but the old
people they lived on here, and I never heard but what they was easy in
their minds right up to the day of their death. Nice-looking old people
they was too, my father used to say; seemed as if butter wouldn't melt
in their mouths, as the saying is. Now I don't know when I've thought
of them last, but I recollect my father speaking of them as well, and
the way they're spoke of on their stone that lays just to the right-hand
side as you go up the churchyard path--well, you'd think there never was
such people. But I believe that was put up by them that got the
property; now what was that name again?"

But about that time I thought I must be getting on. I also thought (as
before) that it would be well for me not to go very far away from the
house.

As I strolled up the road I pondered over the message which Wag's father
had been so good as to send me. "If they're about the house, give them
horseshoes; if there's a bat-ball, squirt at it. I think there's a
squirt in the tool-house." All very well, no doubt. I had one horseshoe,
but that was not much, and I could explore the tool-house and borrow the
garden squirt. But more horseshoes?

At that moment I heard a squeak and a rustle in the hedge, and could not
help poking my stick into it to see what had made the noise. The stick
clinked against something with its iron ferrule. An old
horseshoe!--evidently shown to me on purpose by a friendly creature. I
picked it up, and, not to make a long story of it, I was helped by much
the same devices to increase my collection to four. And now I felt it
would be wise to turn back.

As I turned into the back garden and came in sight of the little
potting-shed or tool-house or whatever it was, I started. Someone was
just coming out of it. I gave a loud cough. The party turned round
hastily; it was an old man in a sleeved waistcoat, made up, I thought,
to look like an "odd man." He touched his hat civilly enough, and showed
no surprise; but, oh, horror! he held in his hand the garden squirt.

"Morning," I said; "going to do a bit of watering?" He grinned. "Just
stepped up to borrer this off the lady; there's a lot of fly gets on the
plants this weather."

"I dare say there is. By the way, what a lot of horseshoes you people
leave about. How many do you think I picked up this morning just along
the road? Look here!" and I held one out to him, and his hand came
slowly out to meet it, as though he could not keep it back.

His face wrinkled up into a horrible scowl, and what he was going to say
I don't know, but just then his hand clutched the horseshoe and he gave
a shout of pain, dropped the squirt and the horseshoe, whipped round as
quick as any young man could, and was off round the corner of the shed
before I had really taken in what was happening. Before I tried to see
what had become of him, I snatched up the squirt and the horseshoe, and
almost dropped them again. Both were pretty hot--the squirt much the
hotter of the two; but both of them cooled down in a few seconds. By
that time my old man was completely out of sight. And I should not
wonder if he was away some time; for perhaps you know, and perhaps you
don't know, the effect of an old horseshoe on that sort of people. Not
only is it of iron, which they can't abide, but when they see or, still
more, touch the shoe, they have to go over all the ground that the shoe
went over since it was last in the blacksmith's hands. Only I doubt if
the same shoe will work for more than one witch or wizard. Anyway, I put
that one aside when I went indoors. And then I sat and wondered what
would come next, and how I could best prepare for it. It occurred to me
that it would do no harm to put one of the shoes where it couldn't be
seen at once, and it also struck me that under the rug just inside the
bedroom door would not be a bad place. So there I put it, and then fell
to smoking and reading.

A knock at the door.

"Come in," said I, a little curious; but no, it was only the maid. As
she passed me (which she did quickly) I heard her mutter something about
"'ankerchieves for the wash," and I thought there was something not
quite usual about the voice. So I looked round. She was back to me, but
the dress and the height and the hair was what I was accustomed to see.
Into the bedroom she hurried, and the next thing was a scream like that
of at least two cats in agony! I could just see her leap into the air,
come down again on the rug, scream again, and then bundle, hopping,
limping--I don't know what--out of the room and down the stairs. I did
catch sight of her feet, though; they were bare, they were greenish, and
they were webbed, and I think there were some large white blisters on
the soles of them. You would have thought that the commotion would have
brought the household about my ears; but it did not, and I can only
suppose that they heard no more of it than they did of the things which
the birds and so on say to each other.

"Next, please!" said I, as I lighted a pipe; but if you will believe it,
there was no next. Lunch, the afternoon, tea, all passed by, and I was
completely undisturbed. "They must be saving up for the bat-ball," I
thought. "What in the world can it be?"

As candle-time came on, and the moon began to make herself felt, I took
up my old position at the window, with the garden squirt at hand and two
full jugs of water on the floor--plenty more to be got from the bathroom
if wanted. The leaden box of the Five Jars was in the right place for
the moonbeams to fall on it.... But no moonbeams would touch it
to-night! Why was this? There were no clouds. Yet, between the orb of
the moon and my box, there was some obstruction. High up in the sky was
a dancing film, thick enough to cast a shadow on the area of the window;
and ever, as the moon rode higher in the heavens, this obstruction
became more solid. It seemed gradually to get its bearings and settle
into the place where it would shut off the light from the box most
completely. I began to guess. It was the bat-ball; neither more nor less
than a dense cloud of bats, gradually forming itself into a solid ball,
and coming lower, and nearer to my window. Soon they were only about
thirty feet off, and I felt that the moment was come.

I have never much liked bats or desired their company, and now, as I
studied them through the glass, and saw their horrid little wicked faces
and winking wings, I felt justified in trying to make things as
unpleasant for them as I could. I charged the squirt and let fly, and
again, and again, as quick as I could fill it. The water spread a bit
before it reached the ball, but not too much to spoil the effect; and
the effect was almost alarming. Some hundreds of bats all shrieking out
at once, and shrieking with rage and fear (not merely from the
excitement of chasing flies, as they generally do). Dozens of them
dropping away, with wings too soaked to fly, some on to the grass, where
they hopped and fluttered and rolled in ecstasies of passion, some into
bushes, one or two plumb on to the path, where they lay motionless; that
was the first tableau. Then came a new feature. From both sides there
darted into the heart of the ball two squadrons of figures flying at
great speed (though without wings) and perfectly horizontal, with arms
joined and straight out in front of them, and almost at the same instant
seven or eight more plunged into the ball from above, as if taking
headers. The boys were out.

I stopped squirting, for I did not know whether the water would fell
them as it felled the bats; but a shrill cry rose from below:

"Go on, M! go on, M!"

So I aimed again, and it was time, for a knot of bats just then detached
itself from the main body and flew full-face towards me. My shot caught
the middle one on the snout, and as I swung the squirt to left and
right, it disabled four or five others, and discouraged the rest.
Meanwhile the ball was cloven again and again by the arms of the flying
squadrons, which shot through it from side to side and from top to
bottom (though never, as appeared later, quite through the middle), and
though it kept closing up again, it was plainly growing smaller as more
and more of the bats outside, which were exposed to the squirt, dropped
away.

I suddenly felt something alight on my shoulder, and a voice said in my
ear, "Wag says if you _could_ throw a shoe into the middle now, he
believes it would finish them. Can you?" It was, I think, Dart who had
been sent with the message.

"Horseshoes, I suppose he means," I said. "I'll try."

"Wait till we're out of the way," said Dart, and was off.

In a moment more I heard--not what I was rather expecting, a horn of
Elf-land, but two strokes on the bell. I saw the figures of the boys
shoot up and away to left and right, leaving the bat-ball clear, and the
bats shrieked aloud, I dare say in triumph at the enemy's retreat.

There were two horseshoes left. I had no idea how they would fly, and I
had not much confidence in my power of aiming; but it must be tried, and
I threw them edgeways, like quoits. The first skimmed the top of the
ball, the second went straight through the middle. Something which the
bats in the very centre were holding--something soft--was pierced by it,
and burst. I think it must have been a globe of jelly-like stuff in a
thin skin. The contents spurted out on to some of the bats, and seemed
to scald the fur off them in an instant and singe up all the membranes
of their wings. They fell down at once, with broken screams. The rest
darted off in every direction, and the ball was gone.

"Now don't be long," said a voice from the window-sill.

I thought I knew what was meant, and looked to the leaden casket. As if
to make up for lost time, the moonbeam had already made an opening all
round the part on which it shone, and I had but to turn the other side
towards it--not even very slowly--to get the whole lid free. After
cleansing my hands in the water, I made trial of the Fifth Jar, and, as
I replaced it, a chorus of applause and cheering came up from below.

The Jars were mine.




VIII

WAG AT HOME


There was no scrambling up to the window-sill this time. My visitors
shot in like so many arrows, and "brought up" on their hands on the
tablecloth, or lit on their feet on the top rail of a chair-back or on
my shoulder, as the fancy took them. It would be tedious to go through
all the congratulations and thanks which I offered, and indeed received,
for it was important to them that the Jars should not get into wrong
hands.

"Father says," said Wag, who was sitting on a book, as usual--"Oh, what
fun it is to be able to fly again!" And he darted straight and level and
butted head first into the back of--Sprat, was it?--who was standing
near the edge of the table. Sprat was merely propelled into the air a
foot or two off, and remained standing, but, of course, turned round and
told Wag what he thought of him. Wag returned contentedly to his book.
"Father says," he resumed, "he hopes you'll come and see us now. He says
you did all right, and he's very glad the stuff got spilt, because
they'll take moons and moons to get as much of it together again. He
says they meant to squirt some of it on you when they got near enough,
and while you were trying to get it off they'd have got hold of----" He
pointed to the box of jars; there was a shyness about mentioning it.

"Your father's very kind," I said, "and I hope you'll thank him from me;
but I don't quite see how I'm to get into your house."

"Fancy you not knowing that!" said Wag. "I'll tell him you'll come." And
he was out of the window. As usual, I had recourse to Slim.

"Why, you did put some on your chest, didn't you?" was Slim's question.

"Yes, but nothing came of it."

"Well, I believe you can go pretty well anywhere with that, if you think
you can."

"Can I fly, then?"

"No, I should say not; I mean, if you couldn't fly before, you can't
now."

"How do you fly? I don't see any wings."

"No, we never have wings, and I'm rather glad we don't; the things that
have them are always going wrong somehow. We just work it in the proper
way with our backs, and there you are; like this." He made a slight
movement of his shoulders, and was standing in the air an inch off the
table. "You never tried that, I suppose?" he went on.

"No," I said, "only in dreams," which evidently meant nothing to him.
"Well now," I said, "do you tell me that if I went to Wag's house now,
I could get inside it? Look at the size I am!"

"It doesn't look as if you could," he agreed, "but my father said just
the same as Wag's father about it."

Here Wag shot on to my shoulder. "Are you coming?"

"Yes, if I knew how."

"Well, come and try, anyhow."

"Very well, as you please; anything to oblige."

I picked up a hat and went downstairs. All the rest followed, if you can
call it following, when there was at least as much flying up steps and
in and out of banisters as going down. When we were out on the path, Wag
said with more seriousness than usual:

"Now you do mean to come into our house, don't you?"

"Certainly I do, if you wish me to."

"Then that's all right. This way. There's Father."

We were on the grass now, and very long it was, and nice and wet I
thought I should be with all the dew. As I looked up to see the elder
Wag I very nearly fell over a large log which it was very careless of
anyone to have left about. But here was Mr. Wag within a yard of me, and
to my extreme surprise he was quite a sizeable man of middle height,
with a sensible, good-humoured face, in which I could see a strong
likeness to his son. We both bowed, and then shook hands, and Mr. Wag
was very complimentary and pleasant about the occurrences of the
evening.

"We've pretty well got the mess cleared up, you see. Yes, don't be
alarmed," he went on, and took hold of my elbow, for he had, no doubt,
seen a bewildered look in my eyes. The fact was, as I suppose you have
made out, not that he had grown to my size, but that I had come down to
his. "Things right themselves; you'll have no difficulty about getting
back when the time comes. But come in, won't you?"

You will expect me to describe the house and the furniture. I shall not,
further than to say that it seemed to me to be of a piece with the
fashion in which the boys were dressed; that is, it was like my idea of
a good citizen's house in Queen Elizabeth's time; and I shall not
describe Mrs. Wag's costume. She did not wear a ruff, anyhow.

Wag, who had been darting about in the air while we walked to his home,
followed us in on foot. He now reached up to my shoulder. Slim, who came
in too, was shorter.

"Haven't you got any sisters?" I took occasion to say to Wag.

"Of course," said he; "don't you see 'em? Oh! I forgot. Come out, you
sillies!"

Upon which there came forward three nice little girls, each of whom was
putting away something into a kind of locket which she wore round her
neck. No, it is no use asking me what _their_ dresses were like; none
at all. All I know is that they curtsied to me very nicely, and that
when we all sat down the youngest came and put herself on my knee as if
it was a matter of course.

"Why didn't I see you before?" I asked her.

"I suppose because the flowers were in our hair."

"Show him what you mean, my dear," said her father. "He doesn't know our
ways yet."

Accordingly she opened her locket and took out of it a small blue
flower, looking as if it was made of enamel, and stuck it in her hair
over her forehead. As she did so she vanished, but I could still feel
the weight of her on my knee. When she took it out again (as no doubt
she did) she became visible, put it back in the locket, and smiled
agreeably at me. Naturally, I had a good many questions to ask about
this, but you will hardly expect me to put them all down. Becoming
invisible in this way was a privilege which the girls always had till
they were grown up, and I suppose I may say "came out." Of course, if
they presumed on it, the lockets were taken away for the time
being--just in the same way as the boys were sometimes stopped from
flying, as we have seen. But their own families could always see them,
or at any rate the flowers in their hair, and they could always see each
other.

But dear me! how much am I to tell of the conversation of that evening?
One part at least: I remembered to ask about the pictures of the things
that had happened in former times in places where I chanced to be. Was I
obliged to see them, whether they were pleasant or horrible? "Oh no,"
they said; if you shut your eyes from below--that meant pushing up the
lower eyelids--you would be rid of them; and you would only begin
seeing them, either if you wanted to, or else if you left your mind
quite blank, and were thinking of nothing in particular. Then they would
begin to come, and there was no knowing how old they might be; that
depended on how angry or excited or happy or sad the people had been to
whom they happened.

And that reminds me of another thing. Wag had got rather fidgety while
we were talking, and was flying up to the ceiling and down again, and
walking on his hands, and so forth, when his mother said:

"Dear, do be quiet. Why don't you take a glass and amuse yourself with
it? Here's the key of the cupboard."

She threw it to him and he caught it and ran to a tall bureau opposite
and unlocked it. After humming and flitting about in front of it for a
little time, he pulled a thing like a slate off a shelf where there were
a large number of them.

"What have you got?" said his mother.

"The one I didn't get to the end of yesterday, about the dragon."

"Oh, that's a very good one," said she. "I used to be very fond of
that."

"I liked it awfully as far as I got," he said, and was betaking himself
to a settle on the other side of the room when I asked if I might see
it, and he brought it to me.

It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one
or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then
got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder.

"That's where I'd got to," he said; "he's just going out through the
forest."

I thought at the first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of
a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour
looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white
beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so "hairy in the hoof";
the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth
was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it I should see
every blade of grass and every bramble-leaf.

"Ready?" said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The
knight shook his rein, and the horse began to move at a foot-pace.

"Well, but he can't _hear_ anything, Wag," said his father.

"I thought you wanted to be quiet," said Wag, "but we'll have it aloud
if you like."

He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse
and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a
rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema,
you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound,
and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn't a photograph, but the
live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail
of it.

Well, I went on reading, as you may say, this glass. In a theatre, you
know, if you saw a knight riding through a forest, the effect would be
managed by making the scenery slide backwards past him; and in a cinema
it could all be shortened up by increasing the pace or leaving out part
of the film. Here it was not like that; we seemed to be keeping pace and
going along with the knight. Presently he began to sing. He had a loud
voice and uttered his words crisply, so that I had no difficulty in
making out the song. It was about a lady who was very proud and haughty
to him and would have nothing to say to his suit, and it declared that
the only thing left for him was to lay himself down under a tree. But he
seemed quite cheerful about it, and indeed neither his complexion nor
the glance of his eye gave any sign that he was suffering the pangs of
hopeless love.

Suddenly his horse stopped short and snorted uneasily. The knight left
off singing in the middle of a verse, looked earnestly into the wood at
the back of the picture, and then out towards us, and then behind him.
He patted his horse's neck, and then, humming to himself, put on his
gauntlets, which were hanging at his saddle bow, managed somehow to
latch or bolt the fastenings of them, slipped down his visor, and took
the hilt of his sword in one hand and the sheath in the other and
loosened the blade in the sheath. He had hardly done this when the horse
shied violently and reared; and out of the thicket on the near side of
the road (I suppose) something shot up in front of him on the saddle. We
all drew in our breath.

"Don't be frightened, dear," said Mrs. Wag to the youngest girl, who had
given a sort of jump. "He's quite safe this time."

I must say it did not look like it. The beast that had leapt on to the
saddle was tearing with its claws, drawing back its head and driving it
forward again with horrid force against the visor, and was at such
close quarters that the knight could not possibly either draw or use his
sword. It was a horrible beast, too; evidently a young dragon. As it sat
on the saddle-bow, its head was just about on a level with the knight's.
It had four short legs with long toes and claws. It clung to the saddle
with the hind feet and tore with the fore feet, as I said. Its head was
rather long, and had two pointed ears and two small sharp horns.
Besides, it had bat wings, with which it buffeted the knight, but its
tail was short. I don't know whether it had been bitten or cut off in
some previous fight. It was all of a mustard-yellow colour. The knight
was for the moment having a bad time of it, for the horse was plunging
and the dragon doing its very worst. The crisis was not long, though.
The knight took hold of the right wing with both hands and tore the
membrane upwards to the root, like parchment. It bled yellow blood, and
the dragon gave a grating scream. Then he clutched it hard by the neck
and managed to wrench it away from its hold on the saddle; and when it
was in the air, he whirled its body, heavy as it was, first over his
back and then forwards again, and its neck-bone, I suppose, broke, for
it was quite limp when he cast it down. He looked down at it for a
little, and seeing it stir, he got off, with the rein over his arm, drew
his sword, cut the head off, and kicked it away some yards. The next
thing he did was to push up his visor, look upward, mutter something I
could not well hear, and cross himself; after which he said aloud,
"Where man finds one of a brood, he may look for more," mounted, turned
his horse's head and galloped off the way he had come.

We had not followed him far through the wood when--

"Bother!" said Wag, "there's the bell"; and he reached over and slid
back the knobs in the frame, and the knight stopped.

I was full of questions, but there was no time to put them. Good-nights
had to be said quickly, and Father Wag saw me out of the front door.

I set out on what seemed a considerable walk across the rough grass
towards the enormous building in which I lived. I suppose I did not
really take many minutes about getting to the path; and as I stepped on
to it--rather carefully, for it was a longish way down--why, without any
shock or any odd feeling, I was my own size again. And I went to bed
pondering much upon the events of the day.

* * * * *

Well, I began this communication by saying that I was going to explain
to you how it was that I "heard something from the owls," and I think I
have explained how it is that I am able to say that I have done so.
Exactly what it was that you and I were talking about when I mentioned
the owls, I dare say neither of us remembers. As you can see, I have
had more exciting experiences than merely conversing with
them--interesting, and, I think, unusual as that is. I have not, of
course, told you nearly all there is to tell, but perhaps I have said
enough for the present. More, if you should wish it, another time.

As to present conditions. To-day there is a slight coolness between Wisp
and the cat. He made his way into a mouse-hole which she was watching,
and enticed her close up to it by scratchings and other sounds, and
then, when she came quite near (taking great trouble, of course, to make
no noise whatever), he put his head out and blew in her face, which
affronted her very much. However, I believe I have persuaded her that he
meant no harm.

The room is rather full of them to-night. Wag and most of the rest are
rehearsing a play which they mean to present before I go. Slim, who
happens not to be wanted for a time, is manoeuvring on the table,
facing me, and is trying to produce a portrait of me which shall be a
little less libellous than his first effort. He has just now shown me
the final production, with which he is greatly pleased. I am not.

Farewell. I am, with the usual expressions of regard,

Yours,
M (or N).



THE END



This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia