'Dinner?' said Robert. 'I won't touch their nasty dinner. It would choke me!'
The others thought so too then. But when the dinner was ready - it turned out to be supper, and happened between four and five - they were all glad enough to take what they could get. It was boiled rabbit, with onions, and some bird rather like a chicken, but stringier about its legs and with a stronger taste. The Lamb had bread soaked in hot water and brown sugar sprinkled on the top. He liked this very much, and consented to let the two gipsy women feed him with it, as he sat on Anthea's lap. All that long hot afternoon Robert and Cyril and Anthea and Jane had to keep the Lamb amused and happy, while the gipsies looked eagerly on. By the time the shadows grew long and black across the meadows he had really 'taken to' the woman with the light hair, and even consented to kiss his hand to the children, and to stand up and bow, with his hand on his chest - 'like a gentleman' - to the two men. The whole gipsy camp was in raptures with him, and his brothers and sisters could not help taking some pleasure in showing off his accomplishments to an audience so interested and enthusiastic. But they longed for sunset.
'We're getting into the habit of longing for sunset,' Cyril whispered. 'How I do wish we could wish something really sensible, that would be of some use, so that we should be quite sorry when sunset came.'
The shadows got longer and longer, and at last there were no separate shadows any more, but one soft glowing shadow over everything; for the sun was out of sight - behind the hill - but he had not really set yet. The people who make the laws about lighting bicycle lamps are the people who decide when the sun sets; he has to do it, too, to the minute, or they would know the reason why!
But the gipsies were getting impatient.
'Now, young uns,' the red-handkerchief man said,'it's time you were laying of your heads on your pillowses - so it is! The kid's all right and friendly with us now - so you just hand him over and sling that hook o' yours like you said.'
The women and children came crowding round the Lamb, arms were held out, fingers snapped invitingly, friendly faces beaming with admiring smiles; but all failed to tempt the loyal Lamb. He clung with arms and legs to Jane, who happened to be holding him, and uttered the gloomiest roar of the whole day.
'It's no good,' the woman said, 'hand the little poppet over, miss. We'll soon quiet him.'
And still the sun would not set.
'Tell her about how to put him to bed,' whispered Cyril; 'anything to gain time - and be ready to bolt when the sun really does make up its silly old mind to set.'
'Yes, I'll hand him over in just one minute,' Anthea began, talking very fast - 'but do let me just tell you he has a warm bath every night and cold in the morning, and he has a crockery rabbit to go into the warm bath with him, and little Samuel saying his prayers in white china on a red cushion for the cold bath; and if you let the soap get into his eyes, the Lamb -'
'Lamb kyes,' said he - he had stopped roaring to listen.
The woman laughed. 'As if I hadn't never bath'd a babby!' she said. 'Come - give us a hold of him. Come to 'Melia, my precious.'
'G'way, ugsie!' replied the Lamb at once.
'Yes, but,' Anthea went on, 'about his meals; you really MUST let me tell you he has an apple or a banana every morning, and bread-and-milk for breakfast, and an egg for his tea sometimes, and -'
'I've brought up ten,' said the black-ringleted woman, 'besides the others. Come, miss, 'and 'im over - I can't bear it no longer. I just must give him a hug.'
'We ain't settled yet whose he's to be, Esther,' said one of the men.
'It won't be you, Esther, with seven of 'em at your tail a'ready.'
'I ain't so sure of that,' said Esther's husband.
'And ain't I nobody, to have a say neither?' said the husband of 'Melia.
Zillah, the girl, said, 'An' me? I'm a single girl - and no one but 'im to look after - I ought to have him.'
'Hold yer tongue!'
'Shut your mouth!'
'Don't you show me no more of your imperence!'
Everyone was getting very angry. The dark gipsy faces were frowning and anxious-looking. Suddenly a change swept over them, as if some invisible sponge had wiped away these cross and anxious expressions, and left only a blank.
The children saw that the sun really HAD set. But they were afraid to move. And the gipsies were feeling so muddled, because of the invisible sponge that had washed all the feelings of the last few hours out of their hearts, that they could not say a word.
The children hardly dared to breathe. Suppose the gipsies, when they recovered speech, should be furious to think how silly they had been all day.
It was an awkward moment. Suddenly Anthea, greatly daring, held out the Lamb to the red-handkerchief man.
'Here he is!' she said.
The man drew back. 'I shouldn't like to deprive you, miss,' he said hoarsely.
'Anyone who likes can have my share of him,' said the other man.
'After all, I've got enough of my own,' said Esther.
'He's a nice little chap, though,' said Amelia. She was the only one who now looked affectionately at the whimpering Lamb.
Zillah said, 'If I don't think I must have had a touch of the sun. I don't want him.'
'Then shall we take him away?' said Anthea.
'Well, suppose you do,' said Pharaoh heartily, 'and we'll say no more about it!'
And with great haste all the gipsies began to be busy about their tents for the night. All but Amelia. She went with the children as far as the bend in the road - and there she said:
'Let me give him a kiss, miss - I don't know what made us go for to behave so silly. Us gipsies don't steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you're naughty. We've enough of our own, mostly. But I've lost all mine.'
She leaned towards the Lamb; and he, looking in her eyes, unexpectedly put up a grubby soft paw and stroked her face.
'Poor, poor!' said the Lamb. And he let the gipsy woman kiss him, and, what is more, he kissed her brown cheek in return - a very nice kiss, as all his kisses are, and not a wet one like some babies give. The gipsy woman moved her finger about on his forehead, as if she had been writing something there, and the same with his chest and his hands and his feet; then she said:
'May he be brave, and have the strong head to think with, and the strong heart to love with, and the strong hands to work with, and the strong feet to travel with, and always come safe home to his own.' Then she said something in a strange language no one could understand, and suddenly added:
'Well, I must be saying "so long" - and glad to have made your acquaintance.' And she turned and went back to her home - the tent by the grassy roadside.
The children looked after her till she was out of sight. Then Robert said, 'How silly of her! Even sunset didn't put her right. What rot she talked!'
'Well,' said Cyril, 'if you ask me, I think it was rather decent of her -'
'Decent?' said Anthea; 'it was very nice indeed of her. I think she's a dear.'
'She's just too frightfully nice for anything,' said Jane.
And they went home - very late for tea and unspeakably late for dinner. Martha scolded, of course. But the Lamb was safe.
'I say - it turned out we wanted the Lamb as much as anyone,' said Robert, later.
'But do you feel different about it now the sun's set?'
'No,' said all the others together. 'Then it's lasted over sunset with us.'
'No, it hasn't,' Cyril explained. 'The wish didn't do anything to US. We always wanted him with all our hearts when we were our proper selves, only we were all pigs this morning; especially you, Robert.' Robert bore this much with a strange calm.
'I certainly THOUGHT I didn't want him this morning,' said he. 'Perhaps I was a pig. But everything looked so different when we thought we were going to lose him.'
CHAPTER 4 WINGS
The next day was very wet - too wet to go out, and far too wet to think of disturbing a Sand-fairy so sensitive to water that he still, after thousands of years, felt the pain of once having had his left whisker wetted. It was a long day, and it was not till the afternoon that all the children suddenly decided to write letters to their mother. It was Robert who had the misfortune to upset the ink-pot - an unusually deep and full one - straight into that part of Anthea's desk where she had long pretended that an arrangement of gum and cardboard painted with Indian ink was a secret drawer. It was not exactly Robert's fault; it was only his misfortune that he chanced to be lifting the ink across the desk just at the moment when Anthea had got it open, and that that same moment should have been the one chosen by the Lamb to get under the table and break his squeaking bird. There was a sharp convenient wire inside the bird, and of course the Lamb ran the wire into Robert's leg at once; and so, without anyone's meaning to, the secret drawer was flooded with ink. At the same time a stream was poured over Anthea's half-finished letter. So that her letter was something like this:
DARLING MOTHER, I hope you are quite well, and I hope Granny is better. The other day we ...
Then came a flood of ink, and at the bottom these words in pencil -
It was not me upset the ink, but it took such a time clearing up, so no more as it is post-time. - From your loving daughter, ANTHEA.
Robert's letter had not even been begun. He had been drawing a ship on the blotting-paper while he was trying to think of what to say. And of course after the ink was upset he had to help Anthea to clean out her desk, and he promised to make her another secret drawer, better than the other. And she said, 'Well, make it now.' So it was post-time and his letter wasn't done. And the secret drawer wasn't done either.
Cyril wrote a long letter, very fast, and then went to set a trap for slugs that he had read about in the Home-made Gardener, and when it was post-time the letter could not be found, and it never was found. Perhaps the slugs ate it.
jane's letter was the only one that went. She meant to tell her mother all about the Psammead - in fact -they had all meant to do this - but she spent so long thinking how to spell the word that there was no time to tell the story properly, and it is useless to tell a story unless you do tell it properly, so she had to be contented with this -
MY DEAR MOTHER DEAR,
We are all as as good as we can, like you told us to, and the Lamb has a little cold, but Martha says it is nothing, only he upset the goldfish into himself yesterday morning. When we were up at the sand-pit the other day we went round by the safe way where carts go, and we found a —
Half an hour went by before Jane felt quite sure that they could none of them spell Psammead. And they could not find it in the dictionary either, though they looked. Then Jane hastily finished her letter.
We found a strange thing, but it is nearly post-time, so no more at present from your little girl, JANE.
Ps. - If you could have a wish come true, what would you have?
Then the postman was heard blowing his horn, and Robert rushed out in the rain to stop his cart and give him the letter. And that was how it happened that, though all the children meant to tell their mother about the Sand-fairy, somehow or other she never got to know. There were other reasons why she never got to know, but these come later.
The next day Uncle Richard came and took them all to Maidstone in a wagonette - all except the Lamb. Uncle Richard was the very best kind of uncle. He bought them toys at Maidstone. He took them into a shop and let them choose exactly what they wanted, without any restrictions about price, and no nonsense about things being instructive. It is very wise to let children choose exactly what they like, because they are very foolish and inexperienced, and sometimes they will choose a really instructive thing without meaning to. This happened to Robert, who chose, at the last moment, and in a great hurry, a box with pictures on it of winged bulls with men's heads and winged men with eagles' heads. He thought there would be animals inside, the same as on the box. When he got it home it was a Sunday puzzle about ancient Nineveh! The others chose in haste, and were happy at leisure. Cyril had a model engine, and the girls had two dolls, as well as a china tea-set with forget-me-nots on it, to be 'between them'. The boys' 'between them' was bow and arrows.
Then Uncle Richard took them on the beautiful Medway in a boat, and then they all had tea at a beautiful pastrycook's, and when they reached home it was far too late to have any wishes that day.
They did not tell Uncle Richard anything about the Psammead. I do not know why. And they do not know why. But I daresay you can guess.
The day after Uncle Richard had behaved so handsomely was a very hot day indeed. The people who decide what the weather is to be, and put its orders down for it in the newspapers every morning, said afterwards that it was the hottest day there had been for years. They had ordered it to be 'warmer - some showers', and warmer it certainly was. In fact it was so busy being warmer that it had no time to attend to the order about showers, so there weren't any.
Have you ever been up at five o'clock on a fine summer morning? It is very beautiful. The sunlight is pinky and yellowy, and all the grass and trees are covered with dew-diamonds. And all the shadows go the opposite way to the way they do in the evening, which is very interesting and makes you feel as though you were in a new other world.
Anthea awoke at five. She had made herself wake, and I must tell you how it is done, even if it keeps you waiting for the story to go on.
You get into bed at night, and lie down quite flat on your little back with your hands straight down by your sides. Then you say 'I must wake up at five' (or six, or seven, or eight, or nine, or whatever the time is that you want), and as you say it you push your chin down on to your chest and then bang your head back on the pillow. And you do this as many times as there are ones in the time you want to wake up at. (It is quite an easy sum.) Of course everything depends on your really wanting to get up at five (or six, or seven, or eight, or nine); if you don't really want to, it's all of no use. But if you do - well, try it and see. Of course in this, as in doing Latin proses or getting into mischief, practice makes perfect. Anthea was quite perfect.
At the very moment when she opened her eyes she heard the black-and-gold clock down in the dining-room strike eleven. So she knew it was three minutes to five. The black-and-gold clock always struck wrong, but it was all right when you knew what it meant. It was like a person talking a foreign language. If you know the language it is just as easy to understand as English. And Anthea knew the clock language. She was very sleepy, but she jumped out of bed and put her face and hands into a basin of cold water. This is a fairy charm that prevents your wanting to get back into bed again. Then she dressed, and folded up her nightgown. She did not tumble it together by the sleeves, but folded it by the seams from the hem, and that will show you the kind of well-brought-up little girl she was.
Then she took her shoes in her hand and crept softly down the stairs. She opened the dining-room window and climbed out. It would have been just as easy to go out by the door, but the window was more romantic, and less likely to be noticed by Martha.
'I will always get up at five,' she said to herself. 'It was quite too awfully pretty for anything.'
Her heart was beating very fast, for she was carrying out a plan quite her own. She could not be sure that it was a good plan, but she was quite sure that it would not be any better if she were to tell the others about it. And she had a feeling that, right or wrong, she would rather go through with it alone. She put on her shoes under the iron veranda, on the red-and-yellow shining tiles, and then she ran straight to the sand-pit, and found the Psammead's place, and dug it out; it was very cross indeed.
'It's too bad,' it said, fluffing up its fur like pigeons do their feathers at Christmas time. 'The weather's arctic, and it's the middle of the night.'
'I'm so sorry,' said Anthea gently, and she took off her white pinafore and covered the Sand-fairy up with it, all but its head, its bat's ears, and its eyes that were like a snail's eyes.
'Thank you,' it said, 'that's better. What's the wish this morning?'
'I don't know,' said she; 'that's just it. You see we've been very unlucky, so far. I wanted to talk to you about it. But - would you mind not giving me any wishes till after breakfast? It's so hard to talk to anyone if they jump out at you with wishes you don't really want!'
'You shouldn't say you wish for things if you don't wish for them. In the old days people almost always knew whether it was Megatherium or Ichthyosaurus they really wanted for dinner.'
'I'll try not,' said Anthea, 'but I do wish -'
'Look out!' said the Psammead in a warning voice, and it began to blow itself out.
'Oh, this isn't a magic wish - it's just - I should be so glad if you'd not swell yourself out and nearly burst to give me anything just now. Wait till the others are here.'
'Well, well,' it said indulgently, but it shivered.
'Would you,' asked Anthea kindly - 'would you like to come and sit on my lap? You'd be warmer, and I could turn the skirt of my frock up round you. I'd be very careful.'
Anthea had never expected that it would, but it did.
'Thank you,' it said; 'you really are rather thoughtful.' It crept on to her lap and snuggled down, and she put her arms round it with a rather frightened gentleness. 'Now then!' it said.
'Well then,' said Anthea, 'everything we have wished has turned out rather horrid. I wish you would advise us. You are so old, you must be very wise.'
'I was always generous from a child,' said the Sand-fairy. 'I've spent the whole of my waking hours in giving. But one thing I won't give - that's advice.'
'You see,' Anthea went on, it's such a wonderful thing - such a splendid, glorious chance. It's so good and kind and dear of you to give us our wishes, and it seems such a pity it should all be wasted just because we are too silly to know what to wish for.'
Anthea had meant to say that - and she had not wanted to say it before the others. It's one thing to say you're silly, and quite another to say that other people are.
'Child,' said the Sand-fairy sleepily, 'I can only advise you to think before you speak -'
'But I thought you never gave advice.'
'That piece doesn't count,' it said. 'You'll never take it! Besides, it's not original. It's in all the copy-books.'
'But won't you just say if you think wings would be a silly wish?'
'Wings?' it said. 'I should think you might do worse. Only, take care you aren't flying high at sunset. There was a little Ninevite boy I heard of once. He was one of King Sennacherib's sons, and a traveller brought him a Psammead. He used to keep it in a box of sand on the palace terrace. It was a dreadful degradation for one of us, of course; still the boy was the Assyrian King's son. And one day he wished for wings and got them. But he forgot that they would turn into stone at sunset, and when they did he fell slap on to one of the winged lions at the top of his father's great staircase; and what with HIS stone wings and the lions' stone wings - well, it's not a pretty story! But I believe the boy enjoyed himself very much till then.'
'Tell me,' said Anthea, 'why don't our wishes turn into stone now? Why do they just vanish?'
'Autres temps, autres moeurs,' said the creature.
'Is that the Ninevite language?' asked Anthea, who had learned no foreign language at school except French.
'What I mean is,' the Psammead went on, 'that in the old days people wished for good solid everyday gifts - Mammoths and Pterodactyls and things - and those could be turned into stone as easy as not. But people wish such high-flying fanciful things nowadays. How are you going to turn being beautiful as the day, or being wanted by everybody, into stone? You see it can't be done. And it would never do to have two rules, so they simply vanish. If being beautiful as the day COULD be turned into stone it would last an awfully long time, you know - much longer than you would. just look at the Greek statues. It's just as well as it is. Good-bye. I AM so sleepy.'
It jumped off her lap - dug frantically, and vanished.
Anthea was late for breakfast. It was Robert who quietly poured a spoonful of treacle down the Lamb's frock, so that he had to be taken away and washed thoroughly directly after breakfast. And it was of course a very naughty thing to do; yet it served two purposes - it delighted the Lamb, who loved above all things to be completely sticky, and it engaged Martha's attention so that the others could slip away to the sand-pit without the Lamb.
They did it, and in the lane Anthea, breathless from the scurry of that slipping, panted out -
'I want to propose we take turns to wish. Only, nobody's to have a wish if the others don't think it's a nice wish. Do you agree?'
'Who's to have first wish?' asked Robert cautiously.
'Me, if you don't mind,' said Anthea apologetically. 'And I've thought about it - and it's wings.'
There was a silence. The others rather wanted to find fault, but it was hard, because the word 'wings' raised a flutter of joyous excitement in every breast.
'Not so dusty,' said Cyril generously; and Robert added, 'Really, Panther, you're not quite such a fool as you look.'
Jane said, 'I think it would be perfectly lovely. It's like a bright dream of delirium.' They found the Sand-fairy easily. Anthea said:
'I wish we all had beautiful wings to fly with.'
The Sand-fairy blew himself out, and next moment each child felt a funny feeling, half heaviness and half lightness, on its shoulders. The Psammead put its head on one side and turned its snail's eyes from one to the other.
'Not so dusty,' it said dreamily. 'But really, Robert, you're not quite such an angel as you look.' Robert almost blushed.
The wings were very big, and more beautiful than you can possibly imagine - for they were soft and smooth, and every feather lay neatly in its place. And the feathers were of the most lovely mixed changing colours, like the rainbow, or iridescent glass, or the beautiful scum that sometimes floats on water that is not at all nice to drink.
'Oh - but can we fly?'Jane said, standing anxiously first on one foot and then on the other.
'Look out!' said Cyril; 'you're treading on my wing.'
'Does it hurt?' asked Anthea with interest; but no one answered, for Robert had spread his wings and jumped up, and now he was slowly rising in the air. He looked very awkward in his knickerbocker suit - his boots in particular hung helplessly, and seemed much larger than when he was standing in them. But the others cared but little how he looked - or how they looked, for that matter. For now they all spread out their wings and rose in the air. Of course you all know what flying feels like, because everyone has dreamed about flying, and it seems so beautifully easy - only, you can never remember how you did it; and as a rule you have to do it without wings, in your dreams, which is more clever and uncommon, but not so easy to remember the rule for. Now the four children rose flapping from the ground, and you can't think how good the air felt running against their faces. Their wings were tremendously wide when they were spread out, and they had to fly quite a long way apart so as not to get in each other's way. But little things like this are easily learned.
All the words in the English Dictionary, and in the Greek Lexicon as well, are, I find, of no use at all to tell you exactly what it feels like to be flying, so I Will not try. But I will say that to look DOWN on the fields and woods, instead of along at them, is something like looking at a beautiful live map, where, instead of silly colours on paper, you have real moving sunny woods and green fields laid out one after the other. As Cyril said, and I can't think where he got hold of such a strange expression, 'It does you a fair treat!' It was most wonderful and more like real magic than any wish the children had had yet. They flapped and flew and sailed on their great rainbow wings, between green earth and blue sky; and they flew right over Rochester and then swerved round towards Maidstone, and presently they all began to feel extremely hungry. Curiously enough, this happened when they were flying rather low, and just as they were crossing an orchard where some early plums shone red and ripe.
They paused on their wings. I cannot explain to you how this is done, but it is something like treading water when you are swimming, and hawks do it extremely well.
'Yes, I daresay,' said Cyril, though no one had spoken. 'But stealing is stealing even if you've got wings.'
'Do you really think so?' said Jane briskly. 'If you've got wings you're a bird, and no one minds birds breaking the commandments. At least, they MAY mind, but the birds always do it, and no one scolds them or sends them to prison.'
It was not so easy to perch on a plum-tree as you might think, because the rainbow wings were so very large; but somehow they all managed to do it, and the plums were certainly very sweet and juicy.
Fortunately, it was not till they had all had quite as many plums as were good for them that they saw a stout man, who looked exactly as though he owned the plum-trees, come hurrying through the orchard gate with a thick stick, and with one accord they disentangled their wings from the plum-laden branches and began to fly.
The man stopped short, with his mouth open. For he had seen the boughs of his trees moving and twitching, and he had said to himself, 'The young varmints - at it again!' And he had come out at once, for the lads of the village had taught him in past seasons that plums want looking after. But when he saw the rainbow wings flutter up out of the plum-tree he felt that he must have gone quite mad, and he did not like the feeling at all. And when Anthea looked down and saw his mouth go slowly open, and stay so, and his face become green and mauve in patches, she called out:
'Don't be frightened,' and felt hastily in her pocket for a threepenny-bit with a hole in it, which she had meant to hang on a ribbon round her neck, for luck. She hovered round the unfortunate plum-owner, and said, 'We have had some of your plums; we thought it wasn't stealing, but now I am not so sure. So here's some money to pay for them.'
She swooped down towards the terror-stricken grower of plums, and slipped the coin into the pocket of his jacket, and in a few flaps she had rejoined the others.
The farmer sat down on the grass, suddenly and heavily.
'Well - I'm blessed!' he said. 'This here is what they call delusions, I suppose. But this here threepenny' - he had pulled it out and bitten it - 'THAT'S real enough. Well, from this day forth I'll be a better man. It's the kind of thing to sober a chap for life, this is. I'm glad it was only wings, though. I'd rather see birds as aren't there, and couldn't be, even if they pretend to talk, than some things as I could name.'
He got up slowly and heavily, and went indoors, and he was so nice to his wife that day that she felt quite happy, and said to herself, 'Law, whatever have a-come to the man!' and smartened herself up and put a blue ribbon bow at the place where her collar fastened on, and looked so pretty that he was kinder than ever. So perhaps the winged children really did do one good thing that day. If so, it was the only one; for really there is nothing like wings for getting you into trouble. But, on the other hand, if you arc in trouble, there is nothing like wings for getting you out of it.
This was the case in the matter of the fierce dog who sprang out at them when they had folded up their wings as small as possible and were going up to a farm door to ask for a crust of bread and cheese, for in spite of the plums they were soon just as hungry as ever again.
Now there is no doubt whatever that, if the four had been ordinary wingless children, that black and fierce dog would have had a good bite out of the brown-stockinged leg of Robert, who was the nearest. But at first growl there was a flutter of wings, and the dog was left to strain at his chain and stand on his hind-legs as if he were trying to fly too.
They tried several other farms, but at those where there were no dogs the people were far too frightened to do anything but scream; and at last when it was nearly four o'clock, and their wings were getting miserably stiff and tired, they alighted on a church-tower and held a council of war.
'We can't possibly fly all the way home without dinner or tea,' said Robert with desperate decision.
'And nobody will give us any dinner, or even lunch, let alone tea,' said Cyril.
'Perhaps the clergyman here might,' suggested Anthea. 'He must know all about angels -'
'Anybody could see we're not that,' said Jane. 'Look at Robert's boots and Squirrel's plaid necktie.'
'Well,' said Cyril firmly, 'if the country you're in won't SELL provisions, you TAKE them. In wars I mean. I'm quite certain you do. And even in other stories no good brother would allow his little sisters to starve in the midst of plenty.'
'Plenty?' repeated Robert hungrily; and the others looked vaguely round the bare leads of the church- tower, and murmured, 'In the midst of?'
'Yes,' said Cyril impressively. 'There is a larder window at the side of the clergyman's house, and I saw things to eat inside - custard pudding and cold chicken and tongue - and pies - and jam. It's rather a high window - but with wings -'
'How clever of you!' said Jane.
'Not at all,' said Cyril modestly; 'any born general - Napoleon or the Duke of Marlborough - would have seen it just the same as I did.'
'It seems very wrong,' said Anthea.
'Nonsense,' said Cyril. 'What was it Sir Philip Sidney said when the soldier wouldn't stand him a drink? - "My necessity is greater than his".'
'We'll club our money, though, and leave it to pay for the things, won't we?' Anthea was persuasive, and very nearly in tears, because it is most trying to feel enormously hungry and unspeakably sinful at one and the same time.
'Some of it,' was the cautious reply.
Everyone now turned out its pockets on the lead roof of the tower, where visitors for the last hundred and fifty years had cut their own and their sweethearts' initials with penknives in the soft lead. There was five-and-sevenpence-halfpenny altogether, and even the upright Anthea admitted that that was too much to pay for four peoples dinners. Robert said he thought eighteen pence.
And half-a-crown was finally agreed to be 'hand- some'.
So Anthea wrote on the back of her last term's report, which happened to be in her pocket, and from which she first tore her own name and that of the school, the following letter:
DEAR REVEREND CLERGYMAN,
We are very hungry indeed because of having to fly all day, and we think it is not stealing when you are starving to death. We are afraid to ask you for fear you should say 'No', because of course you know about angels, but you would not think we were angels. We will only take the nessessities of life, and no pudding or pie, to show you it is not grediness but true starvation that makes us make your larder stand and deliver. But we are not highwaymen by trade.
'Cut it short,' said the others with one accord. And Anthea hastily added:
Our intentions are quite honourable if you only knew. And here is half-a-crown to show we are sinseer and grateful. Thank you for your kind hospitality. FROM Us FOUR.
The half-crown was wrapped in this letter, and all the children felt that when the clergyman had read it he would understand everything, as well as anyone could who had not seen the wings.
'Now,' said Cyril,"of course there's some risk; we'd better fly straight down the other side of the tower and then flutter low across the churchyard and in through the shrubbery. There doesn't seem to be anyone about. But you never know. The window looks out into the shrubbery. It is embowered in foliage, like a window in a story. I'll go in and get the things. Robert and Anthea can take them as I hand them out through the window; and Jane can keep watch - her eyes are sharp - and whistle if she sees anyone about. Shut up, Robert! she can whistle quite well enough for that, anyway. It ought not to be a very good whistle - it'll sound more natural and birdlike. Now then - off we go!'
I cannot pretend that stealing is right. I can only say that on this occasion it did not look like stealing to the hungry four, but appeared in the light of a fair and reasonable business transaction. They had never happened to learn that a tongue - hardly cut into - a chicken and a half, a loaf of bread, and a syphon of soda-water cannot be bought in shops for half-a-crown. These were the necessaries of life, which Cyril handed out of the larder window when, quite unobserved and without hindrance or adventure, he had led the others to that happy spot. He felt that to refrain from jam, apple turnovers, cake, and mixed candied peel was a really heroic act - and I agree with him. He was also proud of not taking the custard pudding - and there I think he was wrong - because if he had taken it there would have been a difficulty about returning the dish; no one, however starving, has a right to steal china pie-dishes with little pink flowers on them. The soda-water syphon was different. They could not do without something to drink, and as the maker's name was on it they felt sure it would be returned to him wherever they might leave it. If they had time they would take it back themselves. The man appeared to live in Rochester, which would not be much out of their way home.
Everything was carried up to the top of the tower, and laid down on a sheet of kitchen paper which Cyril had found on the top shelf of the larder. As he unfolded it, Anthea said, 'I don't think THAT'S a necessity of life.'
'Yes, it is,' said he. 'We must put the things down somewhere to cut them up; and I heard father say the other day people got diseases from germans in rain-water. Now there must be lots of rain-water here - and when it dries up the germans are left, and they'd get into the things, and we should all die of scarlet fever.'
'What are germans?'
'Little waggly things you see with microscopes,' said Cyril, with a scientific air. 'They give you every illness you can think of! I'm sure the paper was a necessary, just as much as the bread and meat and water. Now then! Oh, my eyes, I am hungry!'
I do not wish to describe the picnic party on the top of the tower. You can imagine well enough what it is like to carve a chicken and a tongue with a knife that has only one blade - and that snapped off short about half-way down. But it was done. Eating with your fingers is greasy and difficult - and paper dishes soon get to look very spotty and horrid. But one thing you CAN'T imagine, and that is how soda-water behaves when you try to drink it straight out of a syphon - especially a quite full one. But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown-up to give you the syphon. If you want to have a really thorough experience, put the tube in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard. You had better do it when you are alone - and out of doors is best for this experiment.
However you eat them, tongue and chicken and new bread are very good things, and no one minds being sprinkled a little with soda-water on a really fine hot day. So that everyone enjoyed the dinner very much indeed, and everyone ate as much as it possibly could: first, because it was extremely hungry; and secondly, because, as I said, tongue and chicken and new bread are very nice.
Now, I daresay you will have noticed that if you have to wait for your dinner till long after the proper time, and then eat a great deal more dinner than usual, and sit in the hot sun on the top of a church-tower - or even anywhere else - you become soon and strangely sleepy. Now Anthea and Jane and Cyril and Robert were very like you in many ways, and when they had eaten all they could, and drunk all there was, they became sleepy, strangely and soon - especially Anthea, because she had got up so early.
One by one they left off talking and leaned back, and before it was a quarter of an hour after dinner they had all curled round and tucked themselves up under their large soft warm wings and were fast asleep. And the sun was sinking slowly in the west. (I must say it was in the west, because it is usual in books to say so, for fear careless people should think it was setting in the east. In point of fact, it was not exactly in the west either - but that's near enough.) The sun, I repeat, was sinking slowly in the west, and the children slept warmly and happily on - for wings are cosier than eiderdown quilts to sleep under. The shadow of the church-tower fell across the churchyard, and across the Vicarage, and across the field beyond; and presently there were no more shadows, and the sun had set, and the wings were gone. And still the children slept. But not for long. Twilight is very beautiful, but it is chilly; and you know, however sleepy you are, you wake up soon enough if your brother or sister happens to be up first and pulls your blankets off you. The four wingless children shivered and woke. And there they were - on the top of a church-tower in the dusky twilight, with blue stars coming out by ones and twos and tens and twenties over their heads - miles away from home, with three-and-three-halfpence in their pockets, and a doubtful act about the necessities of life to be accounted for if anyone found them with the soda-water syphon.
They looked at each other. Cyril spoke first, picking up the syphon:
'We'd better get along down and get rid of this beastly thing. It's dark enough to leave it on the clergyman's doorstep, I should think. Come on.'
There was a little turret at the corner of the tower, and the little turret had a door in it. They had noticed this when they were eating, but had not explored it, as you would have done in their place. Because, of course, when you have wings, and can explore the whole sky, doors seem hardly worth exploring.
Now they turned towards it.
'Of course,' said Cyril, 'this is the way down.'
It was. But the door was locked on the inside!
And the world was growing darker and darker. And they were miles from home. And there was the soda-water syphon.
I shall not tell you whether anyone cried, nor if so, how many cried, nor who cried. You will be better employed in making up your minds what you would have done if you had been in their place.
CHAPTER 5 NO WINGS
Whether anyone cried or not, there was certainly an interval during which none of the party was quite itself. When they grew calmer, Anthea put her handkerchief in her pocket and her arm round Jane, and said:
'It can't be for more than one night. We can signal with our handkerchiefs in the morning. They'll be dry then. And someone will come up and let us out -'
'And find the syphon,' said Cyril gloomily; 'and we shall be sent to prison for stealing -'
'You said it wasn't stealing. You said you were sure it wasn't.'
'I'm not sure NOW,' said Cyril shortly.
'Let's throw the beastly thing slap away among the trees,' said Robert, 'then no one can do anything to us.'
'Oh yes' - Cyril's laugh was not a lighthearted one - 'and hit some chap on the head, and be murderers as well as - as the other thing.'
'But we can't stay up here all night,' said Jane; 'and I want my tea.'
'You CAN'T want your tea,' said Robert; 'you've only just had your dinner.'
'But I do want it,' she said; 'especially when you begin talking about stopping up here all night. Oh, Panther - I want to go home! I want to go home!'
'Hush, hush,' Anthea said. 'Don't, dear. It'll be all right, somehow. Don't, don't -'
'Let her cry,' said Robert desperately; 'if she howls loud enough, someone may hear and come and let us out.'
'And see the soda-water thing,' said Anthea swiftly. 'Robert, don't be a brute. Oh, Jane, do try to be a man! It's just the same for all of us.'
Jane did try to 'be a man' - and reduced her howls to sniffs.
There was a pause. Then Cyril said slowly, 'Look here. We must risk that syphon. I'll button it up inside my jacket - perhaps no one will notice it. You others keep well in front of me. There are lights in the clergyman's house. They've not gone to bed yet. We must just yell as loud as ever we can. Now all scream when I say three. Robert, you do the yell like the railway engine, and I'll do the coo-ee like father's. The girls can do as they please. One, two, three!'
A fourfold yell rent the silent peace of the evening, and a maid at one of the Vicarage windows paused with her hand on the blind-cord.
'One, two, three!' Another yell, piercing and complex, startled the owls and starlings to a flutter of feathers in the belfry below. The maid fled from the Vicarage window and ran down the Vicarage stairs and into the Vicarage kitchen, and fainted as soon as she had explained to the man-servant and the cook and the cook's cousin that she had seen a ghost. It was quite untrue, of course, but I suppose the girl's nerves were a little upset by the yelling.
'One, two, three!' The Vicar was on his doorstep by this time, and there was no mistaking the yell that greeted him.
'Goodness me,' he said to his wife, 'my dear, someone's being murdered in the church! Give me my hat and a thick stick, and tell Andrew to come after me. I expect it's the lunatic who stole the tongue.'
The children had seen the flash of light when the Vicar opened his front door. They had seen his dark form on the doorstep, and they had paused for breath, and also to see what he would do.
When he turned back for his hat, Cyril said hastily:
'He thinks he only fancied he heard something. You don't half yell! Now! One, two, three!'
It was certainly a whole yell this time, and the Vicar's wife flung her arms round her husband and screamed a feeble echo of it.
'You shan't go!' she said, 'not alone. Jessie!' - the maid unfainted and came out of the kitchen - 'send Andrew at once. There's a dangerous lunatic in the church, and he must go immediately and catch it.'
'I expect he WILL catch it too,' said Jessie to herself as she went through the kitchen door. 'Here, Andrew,' she said, there's someone screaming like mad in the church, and the missus says you're to go along and catch it.'
'Not alone, I don't,' said Andrew in low firm tones. To his master he merely said, 'Yes, sir.'
'You heard those screams?'
'I did think I noticed a sort of something,' said Andrew.
'Well, come on, then,' said the Vicar. 'My dear, I MUST go!' He pushed her gently into the sitting-room, banged the door, and rushed out, dragging Andrew by the arm.
A volley of yells greeted them. As it died into silence Andrew shouted, 'Hullo, you there! Did you call?'
'Yes,' shouted four far-away voices.
'They seem to be in the air,' said the Vicar. 'Very remarkable.'
'Where are you?' shouted Andrew: and Cyril replied in his deepest voice, very slow and loud:
'CHURCH! TOWER! TOP!'
'Come down, then!' said Andrew; and the same voice replied:
'CAN'T! DOOR LOCKED!'
'My goodness!' said the Vicar. 'Andrew, fetch the stable lantern. Perhaps it would be as well to fetch another man from the village.'
'With the rest of the gang about, very likely. No, sir; if this 'ere ain't a trap - well, may I never! There's cook's cousin at the back door now. He's a keeper, sir, and used to dealing with vicious characters. And he's got his gun, sir.'
'Hullo there!' shouted Cyril from the church-tower; 'come up and let us out.'
'We're a-coming,' said Andrew. 'I'm a-going to get a policeman and a gun.'
'Andrew, Andrew,' said the Vicar, 'that's not the truth.'
'It's near enough, sir, for the likes of them.'
So Andrew fetched the lantern and the cook's cousin; and the Vicar's wife begged them all to be very careful.
They went across the churchyard - it was quite dark now - and as they went they talked. The Vicar was certain a lunatic was on the church-tower - the one who had written the mad letter, and taken the cold tongue and things. Andrew thought it was a 'trap'; the cook's cousin alone was calm. 'Great cry, little wool,' said he; 'dangerous chaps is quieter.' He was not at all afraid. But then he had a gun. That was why he was asked to lead the way up the worn steep dark steps of the church-tower. He did lead the way, with the lantern in one hand and the gun in the other. Andrew went next. He pretended afterwards that this was because he was braver than his master, but really it was because he thought of traps, and he did not like the idea of being behind the others for fear someone should come soffly up behind him and catch hold of his legs in the dark. They went on and on, and round and round the little corkscrew staircase - then through the bell-ringers' loft, where the bell-ropes hung with soft furry ends like giant caterpillars - then up another stair into the belfry, where the big quiet bells are - and then on, up a ladder with broad steps - and then up a little stone stair. And at the top of that there was a little door. And the door was bolted on the stair side.
The cook's cousin, who was a gamekeeper, kicked at the door, and said:
'Hullo, you there!'
The children were holding on to each other on the other side of the door, and trembling with anxiousness - and very hoarse with their howls. They could hardly speak, but Cyril managed to reply huskily:
'Hullo, you there!'
'How did you get up there?'
It was no use saying 'We flew up', so Cyril said:
'We got up - and then we found the door was locked and we couldn't get down. Let us out - do.'
'How many of you are there?' asked the keeper.
'Only four,' said Cyril.
'Are you armed?'
'Are we what?'
'I've got my gun handy - so you'd best not try any tricks,' said the keeper. 'If we open the door, will you promise to come quietly down, and no nonsense?'
'Yes - oh YES!' said all the children together.
'Bless me,' said the Vicar, 'surely that was a female voice?'
'Shall I open the door, Sir?' said the keeper. Andrew went down a few steps, 'to leave room for the others' he said afterwards.
'Yes,' said the Vicar, 'open the door. Remember,' he said through the keyhole, 'we have come to release you. You will keep your promise to refrain from violence?'
'How this bolt do stick,' said the keeper; 'anyone 'ud think it hadn't been drawed for half a year.' As a matter of fact it hadn't.
When all the bolts were drawn, the keeper spoke deep-chested words through the keyhole.
'I don't open,' said he, 'till you've gone over to the other side of the tower. And if one of you comes at me I fire. Now!'
'We're all over on the other side,' said the voices.
The keeper felt pleased with himself, and owned himself a bold man when he threw open that door, and, stepping out into the leads, flashed the full light of the stable lantern on to the group of desperadoes standing against the parapet on the other side of the tower.
He lowered his gun, and he nearly dropped the lantern.
'So help me,' he cried, 'if they ain't a pack of kiddies!'
The Vicar now advanced.
'How did you come here?' he asked severely. 'Tell me at once. '
'Oh, take us down,' said Jane, catching at his coat, 'and we'll tell you anything you like. You won't believe us, but it doesn't matter. Oh, take us down!'
The others crowded round him, with the same entreaty. All but Cyril. He had enough to do with the soda-water syphon, which would keep slipping down under his jacket. It needed both hands to keep it steady in its place.
But he said, standing as far out of the lantern light as possible:
'Please do take us down.'
So they were taken down. It is no joke to go down a strange church-tower in the dark, but the keeper helped them - only, Cyril had to be independent because of the soda-water syphon. It would keep trying to get away. Half-way down the ladder it all but escaped. Cyril just caught it by its spout, and as nearly as possible lost his footing. He was trembling and pale when at last they reached the bottom of the winding stair and stepped out on to the flags of the church-porch.
Then suddenly the keeper caught Cyril and Robert each by an arm.
'You bring along the gells, sir,' said he; 'you and Andrew can manage them.'
'Let go!' said Cyril; 'we aren't running away. We haven't hurt your old church. Leave go!'
'You just come along,' said the keeper; and Cyril dared not oppose him with violence, because just then the syphon began to slip again.
So they were all marched into the Vicarage study, and the Vicar's wife came rushing in.
'Oh, William, are you safe?' she cried.
Robert hastened to allay her anxiety.
'Yes,' he said, 'he's quite safe. We haven't hurt him at all. And please, we're very late, and they'll be anxious at home. Could you send us home in your carriage?'
'Or perhaps there's a hotel near where we could get a carriage from,' said Anthea. 'Martha will be very anxious as it is.'
The Vicar had sunk into a chair, overcome by emotion and amazement.
Cyril had also sat down, and was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees because of that soda-water syphon.
'But how did you come to be locked up in the church-tower?' asked the Vicar.
'We went up,' said Robert slowly, 'and we were tired, and we all went to sleep, and when we woke up we found the door was locked, so we yelled.'
'I should think you did!' said the Vicar's wife. 'Frightening everybody out of their wits like this! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.'
'We are,' said Jane gently.
'But who locked the door?' asked the Vicar.
'I don't know at all,' said Robert, with perfect truth. 'Do please send us home.'
'Well, really,' said the Vicar, 'I suppose we'd better. Andrew, put the horse to, and you can take them home.'
'Not alone, I don't,' said Andrew to himself.
'And,' the Vicar went on, 'let this be a lesson to you ...' He went on talking, and the children listened miserably. But the keeper was not listening. He was looking at the unfortunate Cyril. He knew all about poachers of course, so he knew how people look when they're hiding something. The Vicar had just got to the part about trying to grow up to be a blessing to your parents, and not a trouble and a disgrace, when the keeper suddenly said:
'Arst him what he's got there under his jacket'; and Cyril knew that concealment was at an end. So he stood up, and squared his shoulders and tried to look noble, like the boys in books that no one can look in the face of and doubt that they come of brave and noble families and will be faithful to the death, and he pulled out the soda-water syphon and said:
'Well, there you are, then.'
There was a silence. Cyril went on - there was nothing else for it:
'Yes, we took this out of your larder, and some chicken and tongue and bread. We were very hungry, and we didn't take the custard or jam. We only took bread and meat and water - and we couldn't help its being the soda kind -just the necessaries of life; and we left half-a-crown to pay for it, and we left a letter. And we're very sorry. And my father will pay a fine or anything you like, but don't send us to prison. Mother would be so vexed. You know what you said about not being a disgrace. Well, don't you go and do it to us - that's all! We're as sorry as we can be. There!'
'However did you get up to the larder window?' said Mrs Vicar.
'I can't tell you that,' said Cyril firmly.
'Is this the whole truth you've been telling me?' asked the clergyman.
'No,' answered Jane suddenly; 'it's all true, but it's not the whole truth. We can't tell you that. It's no good asking. Oh, do forgive us and take us home!' She ran to the Vicar's wife and threw her arms round her. The Vicar's wife put her arms round Jane, and the keeper whispered behind his hand to the Vicar:
'They're all right, sir - I expect it's a pal they're standing by. Someone put 'em up to it, and they won't peach. Game little kids.'
'Tell me,' said the Vicar kindly, 'are you screening someone else? Had anyone else anything to do with this?'
'Yes,' said Anthea, thinking of the Psammead; 'but it wasn't their fault.'
'Very well, my dears,' said the Vicar, 'then let's say no more about it. Only just tell us why you wrote such an odd letter.'
'I don't know,' said Cyril. 'You see, Anthea wrote it in such a hurry, and it really didn't seem like stealing then. But afterwards, when we found we couldn't get down off the church-tower, it seemed just exactly like it. We are all very sorry -'
'Say no more about it,' said the Vicar's wife; 'but another time just think before you take other people's tongues. Now - some cake and milk before you go home?'
When Andrew came to say that the horse was put to, and was he expected to be led alone into the trap that he had plainly seen from the first, he found the children eating cake and drinking milk and laughing at the Vicar's jokes. Jane was sitting on the Vicar's wife's lap.
So you see they got off better than they deserved.
The gamekeeper, who was the cook's cousin, asked leave to drive home with them, and Andrew was only too glad to have someone to protect him from the trap he was so certain of.
When the wagonette reached their own house, between the chalk-quarry and the gravel-pit, the children were very sleepy, but they felt that they and the keeper were friends for life.
Andrew dumped the children down at the iron gate without a word. 'You get along home,' said the Vicarage cook's cousin, who was a gamekeeper. 'I'll get me home on Shanks' mare.'
So Andrew had to drive off alone, which he did not like at all, and it was the keeper that was cousin to the Vicarage cook who went with the children to the door, and, when they had been swept to bed in a whirlwind of reproaches, remained to explain to Martha and the cook and the housemaid exactly what had happened. He explained so well that Martha was quite amiable the next morning.
After that he often used to come over and see Martha; and in the end - but that is another story, as dear Mr Kipling says.
Martha was obliged to stick to what she had said the night before about keeping the children indoors the next day for a punishment. But she wasn't at all snarky about it, and agreed to let Robert go out for half an hour to get something he particularly wanted. This, of course, was the day's wish.
Robert rushed to the gravel-pit, found the Psammead, and presently wished for - But that, too, is another story.
CHAPTER 6 A CASTLE AND NO DINNER
The others were to be kept in as a punishment for the misfortunes of the day before. Of course Martha thought it was naughtiness, and not misfortune - so you must not blame her. She only thought she was doing her duty. You know grown-up people often say they do not like to punish you, and that they only do it for your own good, and that it hurts them as much as it hurts you - and this is really very often the truth.
Martha certainly hated having to punish the children quite as much as they hated to be punished. For one thing, she knew what a noise there would be in the house all day. And she had other reasons.
'I declare,' she said to the cook, 'it seems almost a shame keeping of them indoors this lovely day; but they are that audacious, they'll be walking in with their heads knocked off some of these days, if I don't put my foot down. You make them a cake for tea to-morrow, dear. And we'll have Baby along of us soon as we've got a bit forrard with our work. Then they can have a good romp with him out of the way. Now, Eliza, come, get on with them beds. Here's ten o'clock nearly, and no rabbits caught!'
People say that in Kent when they mean 'and no work done'.
So all the others were kept in, but Robert, as I have said, was allowed to go out for half an hour to get something they all wanted. And that, of course, was the day's wish. He had no difficulty in finding the Sand-fairy, for the day was already so hot that it had actually, for the first time, come out of its own accord, and it was sitting in a sort of pool of soft sand, stretching itself, and trimming its whiskers, and turning its snail's eyes round and round.
'Ha!' it said when its left eye saw Robert; 'I've been looking out for you. Where are the rest of you? Not smashed themselves up with those wings, I hope?'
'No,' said Robert; 'but the wings got us into a row, just like all the wishes always do. So the others are kept indoors, and I was only let out for half-an-hour - to get the wish. So please let me wish as quickly as I can.'
'Wish away,' said the Psammead, twisting itself round in the sand. But Robert couldn't wish away. He forgot all the things he had been thinking about, and nothing would come into his head but little things for himself, like toffee, a foreign stamp album, or a clasp- knife with three blades and a corkscrew. He sat down to think better, but it was no use. He could only think of things the others would not have cared for - such as a football, or a pair of leg-guards, or to be able to lick Simpkins minor thoroughly when he went back to school.
'Well,' said the Psammead at last, 'you'd better hurry up with that wish of yours. Time flies.'
'I know it does,' said Robert. 'I can't think what to wish for. I wish you could give one of the others their wish without their having to come here to ask for it. Oh, DON'T!'
But it was too late. The Psammead had blown itself out to about three times its proper size, and now it collapsed like a pricked bubble, and with a deep sigh leaned back against the edge of its sand-pool, quite faint with the effort.
'There!' it said in a weak voice; 'it was tremendously hard - but I did it. Run along home, or they're sure to wish for something silly before you get there.'
They were - quite sure; Robert felt this, and as he ran home his mind was deeply occupied with the sort of wishes he might find they had wished in his absence. They might wish for rabbits, or white mice, or chocolate, or a fine day to-morrow, or even - and that was most likely - someone might have said, 'I do wish to goodness Robert would hurry up.' Well, he WAS hurrying up, and so they would have their wish, and the day would be wasted. Then he tried to think what they could wish for - something that would be amusing indoors. That had been his own difficulty from the beginning. So few things are amusing indoors when the sun is shining outside and you mayn't go out, however much you want to. Robert was running as fast as he could, but when he turned the corner that ought to have brought him within sight of the architect's nightmare - the ornamental iron-work on the top of the house - he opened his eyes so wide that he had to drop into a walk; for you cannot run with your eyes wide open. Then suddenly he stopped short, for there was no house to be seen. The front-garden railings were gone too, and where the house had stood - Robert rubbed his eyes and looked again. Yes, the others HAD wished - there was no doubt about that - and they must have wished that they lived in a castle; for there the castle stood black and stately, and very tall and broad, with battlements and lancet windows, and eight great towers; and, where the garden and the orchard had been, there were white things dotted like mushrooms. Robert walked slowly on, and as he got nearer he saw that these were tents) and men in armour were walking about among the tents - crowds and crowds of them.
'Oh, crikey!' said Robert fervently. 'They HAVE! They've wished for a castle, and it's being besieged! It's just like that Sand-fairy! I wish we'd never seen the beastly thing!'
At the little window above the great gateway, across the moat that now lay where the garden had been but half an hour ago, someone was waving something pale dust-coloured. Robert thought it was one of Cyril's handkerchiefs. They had never been white since the day when he had upset the bottle of 'Combined Toning and Fixing Solution' into the drawer where they were. Robert waved back, and immediately felt that he had been unwise. For his signal had been seen by the besieging force, and two men in steel-caps were coming towards him. They had high brown boots on their long legs, and they came towards him with such great strides that Robert remembered the shortness of his own legs and did not run away. He knew it would be useless to himself, and he feared it might be irritating to the foe. So he stood still, and the two men seemed quite pleased with him.
'By my halidom,' said one, 'a brave varlet this!'
Robert felt pleased at being CALLED brave, and somehow it made him FEEL brave. He passed over the 'varlet'. It was the way people talked in historical romances for the young, he knew, and it was evidently not meant for rudeness. He only hoped he would be able to understand what they said to him. He had not always been able quite to follow the conversations in the historical romances for the young.
'His garb is strange,' said the other. 'Some outlandish treachery, belike.'
'Say, lad, what brings thee hither?'
Robert knew this meant, 'Now then, youngster, what are you up to here, eh?' - so he said:
'If you please, I want to go home.'
'Go, then!' said the man in the longest boots; 'none hindereth, and nought lets us to follow. Zooks!' he added in a cautious undertone, 'I misdoubt me but he beareth tidings to the besieged.'
'Where dwellest thou, young knave?' inquired the man with the largest steel-cap.
'Over there,' said Robert; and directly he had said it he knew he ought to have said 'Yonder!'
'Ha - sayest so?' rejoined the longest boots. 'Come hither, boy. This is a matter for our leader.'
And to the leader Robert was dragged forthwith - by the reluctant ear.
The leader was the most glorious creature Robert had ever seen. He was exactly like the pictures Robert had so often admired in the historical romances. He had armour, and a helmet, and a horse, and a crest, and feathers, and a shield, and a lance, and a sword. His armour and his weapons were all, I am almost sure, of quite different periods. The shield was thirteenth-century, while the sword was of the pattern used in the Peninsular War. The cuirass was of the time of Charles I, and the helmet dated from the Second Crusade. The arms on the shield were very grand - three red running lions on a blue ground. The tents were of the latest brand and the whole appearance of camp, army, and leader might have been a shock to some. But Robert was dumb with admiration, and it all seemed to him perfectly correct, because he knew no more of heraldry or archaeology than the gifted artists who usually drew the pictures for the historical romances. The scene was indeed 'exactly like a picture'. He admired it all so much that he felt braver than ever.
'Come hither, lad,' said the glorious leader, when the men in Cromwellian steel-caps had said a few low eager words. And he took off his helmet, because he could not see properly with it on. He had a kind face, and long fair hair. 'Have no fear; thou shalt take no scathe,' he said.
Robert was glad of that. He wondered what 'scathe' was, and if it was nastier than the senna tea which he had to take sometimes.
'Unfold thy tale without alarm,' said the leader kindly. 'Whence comest thou, and what is thine intent?'
'My what?' said Robert.
'What seekest thou to accomplish? What is thine errand, that thou wanderest here alone among these rough men-at-arms? Poor child, thy mother's heart aches for thee e'en now, I'll warrant me.'
'I don't think so,' said Robert; 'you see, she doesn't know I'm out.'
The leader wiped away a manly tear, exactly as a leader in a historical romance would have done, and said:
'Fear not to speak the truth, my child; thou hast nought to fear from Wulfric de Talbot.'
Robert had a wild feeling that this glorious leader of the besieging party - being himself part of a wish - would be able to understand better than Martha, or the gipsies, or the policeman in Rochester, or the clergyman of yesterday, the true tale of the wishes and the Psammead. The only difficulty was that he knew he could never remember enough 'quothas' and 'beshrew me's', and things like that, to make his talk sound like the talk of a boy in a historical romance. However, he began boldly enough, with a sentence straight out of Ralph de Courcy; or, The Boy Crusader. He said:
'Grammercy for thy courtesy, fair sir knight. The fact is, it's like this - and I hope you're not in a hurry, because the story's rather a breather. Father and mother are away, and when we were down playing in the sand-pits we found a Psammead.'
'I cry thee mercy! A Sammyadd?' said the knight.
'Yes, a sort of - of fairy, or enchanter - yes, that's it, an enchanter; and he said we could have a wish every day, and we wished first to be beautiful.'
'Thy wish was scarce granted,' muttered one of the men-at-arms, looking at Robert, who went on as if he had not heard, though he thought the remark very rude indeed.
'And then we wished for money - treasure, you know; but we couldn't spend it. And yesterday we wished for wings, and we got them, and we had a ripping time to begin with -'
'Thy speech is strange and uncouth,' said Sir Wulfric de Talbot. 'Repeat thy words - what hadst thou?'
'A ripping - I mean a jolly - no - we were contented with our lot - that's what I mean; only, after that we got into an awful fix.'
'What is a fix? A fray, mayhap?'
'No - not a fray. A - a - a tight place.'
'A dungeon? Alas for thy youthful fettered limbs!' said the knight, with polite sympathy.
'It wasn't a dungeon. We just - just encountered undeserved misfortunes,' Robert explained, 'and to-day we are punished by not being allowed to go out. That's where I live,' - he pointed to the castle. 'The others are in there, and they're not allowed to go out. It's all the Psammead's - I mean the enchanter's fault. I wish we'd never seen him.'
'He is an enchanter of might?'
'Oh yes - of might and main. Rather!'
'And thou deemest that it is the spells of the enchanter whom thou hast angered that have lent strength to the besieging party,' said the gallant leader; 'but know thou that Wulfric de Talbot needs no enchanter's aid to lead his followers to victory.'
'No, I'm sure you don't,' said Robert, with hasty courtesy; 'of course not - you wouldn't, you know. But, all the same, it's partly his fault, but we're most to blame. You couldn't have done anything if it hadn't been for us.'
'How now, bold boy?' asked Sir Wulfric haughtily. 'Thy speech is dark, and eke scarce courteous. Unravel me this riddle!'
'Oh,' said Robert desperately, 'of course you don't know it, but you're not REAL at all. You're only here because the others must have been idiots enough to wish for a castle - and when the sun sets you'll just vanish away, and it'll be all right.'
The captain and the men-at-arms exchanged glances, at first pitying, and then sterner, as the longest-booted man said, 'Beware, noble my lord; the urchin doth but feign madness to escape from our clutches. Shall we not bind him?'
'I'm no more mad than you are,' said Robert angrily, 'perhaps not so much - only, I was an idiot to think you'd understand anything. Let me go - I haven't done anything to you.'
'Whither?' asked the knight, who seemed to have believed all the enchanter story till it came to his own share in it. 'Whither wouldst thou wend?'
'Home, of course.' Robert pointed to the castle.
'To carry news of succour? Nay!'
'All right then,' said Robert, struck by a sudden idea; 'then let me go somewhere else.' His mind sought eagerly among his memories of the historical romance.
'Sir Wulfric de Talbot,' he said slowly, 'should think foul scorn to - to keep a chap - I mean one who has done him no hurt - when he wants to cut off quietly - I mean to depart without violence.'
'This to my face! Beshrew thee for a knave!' replied Sir Wulfric. But the appeal seemed to have gone home. 'Yet thou sayest sooth,' he added thoughtfully. 'Go where thou wilt,' he added nobly, 'thou art free. Wulfric de Talbot warreth not with babes, and Jakin here shall bear thee company.' 'All right,' said Robert wildly. 'Jakin will enjoy himself, I think. Come on, Jakin. Sir Wulfric, I salute thee.'
He saluted after the modern military manner, and set off running to the sand-pit, Jakin's long boots keeping up easily.
He found the Fairy. He dug it up, he woke it up,
he implored it to give him one more wish.
'I've done two to-day already,' it grumbled, 'and one was as stiff a bit of work as ever I did.'
'Oh, do, do, do, do, DO!' said Robert, while Jakin looked on with an expression of open-mouthed horror at the strange beast that talked, and gazed with its snail's eyes at him.
'Well, what is it?' snapped the Psammead, with cross sleepiness.
'I wish I was with the others,' said Robert. And the Psammead began to swell. Robert never thought of wishing the castle and the siege away. Of course he knew they had all come out of a wish, but swords and daggers and pikes and lances seemed much too real to be wished away. Robert lost consciousness for an instant. When he opened his eyes the others were crowding round him.
'We never heard you come in,' they said. 'How awfully jolly of you to wish it to give us our wish!'
'Of course we understood that was what you'd done.'
'But you ought to have told us. Suppose we'd wished something silly.'
'Silly?' said Robert, very crossly indeed. 'How much sillier could you have been, I'd like to know? You nearly settled ME - I can tell you.'
Then he told his story, and the others admitted that it certainly had been rough on him. But they praised his courage and cleverness so much that he presently got back his lost temper, and felt braver than ever, and consented to be captain of the besieged force.
'We haven't done anything yet,' said Anthea comfortably; 'we waited for you. We're going to shoot at them through these little loopholes with the bow and arrows uncle gave you, and you shall have first shot.'
'I don't think I would,' said Robert cautiously; 'you don't know what they're like near to. They've got REAL bows and arrows - an awful length - and swords and pikes and daggers, and all sorts of sharp things. They're all quite, quite real. It's not just a - a picture, or a vision, or anything; they can hurt us - or kill us even, I shouldn't wonder. I can feel my ear all sore still. Look here - have you explored the castle? Because I think we'd better let them alone as long as they let us alone. I heard that Jakin man say they weren't going to attack till just before sundown. We can be getting ready for the attack. Are there any soldiers in the castle to defend it?'
'We don't know,' said Cyril. 'You see, directly I'd wished we were in a besieged castle, everything seemed to go upside down, and,when it came straight we looked out of the window, and saw the camp and things and you - and of course we kept on looking at everything. Isn't this room jolly? It's as real as real!'
It was. It was square, with stone walls four feet thick, and great beams for ceiling. A low door at the corner led to a flight of steps, up and down. The children went down; they found themselves in a great arched gatehouse - the enormous doors were shut and barred. There was a window in a little room at the bottom of the round turret up which the stair wound, rather larger than the other windows, and looking through it they saw that the drawbridge was up and the portcullis down; the moat looked very wide and deep. Opposite the great door that led to the moat was another great door, with a little door in it. The children went through this, and found themselves in a big paved courtyard, with the great grey walls of the castle rising dark and heavy on all four sides.
Near the middle of the courtyard stood Martha, moving her right hand backwards and forwards in the air. The cook was stooping down and moving her hands, also in a very curious way. But. the oddest and at the same time most terrible thing was the Lamb, who was sitting on nothing, about three feet from the ground, laughing happily.
The children ran towards him. Just as Anthea was reaching out her arms to take him, Martha said crossly, 'Let him alone - do, miss, when he is good.'
'But what's he DOING?' said Anthea.
'Doing? Why, a-setting in his high chair as good as gold, a precious, watching me doing of the ironing. Get along with you, do - my iron's cold again.'
She went towards the cook, and seemed to poke an invisible fire with an unseen poker - the cook seemed to be putting an unseen dish into an invisible oven.
'Run along with you, do,' she said; 'I'm behindhand as it is. You won't get no dinner if you come a-hindering of me like this. Come, off you goes, or I'll pin a dishcloth to some of your tails.'
'You're sure the Lamb's all right?' asked Jane anxiously.
'Right as ninepence, if you don't come unsettling of him. I thought you'd like to be rid of him for to-day; but take him, if you want him, for gracious' sake.'
'No, no,' they said, and hastened away. They would have to defend the castle presently, and the Lamb was safer even suspended in mid-air in an invisible kitchen than in the guardroom of a besieged castle. They went through the first doorway they came to, and sat down helplessly on a wooden bench that ran along the room inside.
'How awful!' said Anthea and Jane together; and Jane added, 'I feel as if I was in a mad asylum.'
'What does it mean?' Anthea said. 'It's creepy; I don't like it. I wish we'd wished for something plain - a rocking-horse, or a donkey, or something.'
'It's no use wishing NOW,' said Robert bitterly; and Cyril said:
'Do dry up a sec; I want to think.'
He buried his face in his hands, and the others looked about them. They were in a long room with an arched roof. There were wooden tables along it, and one across at the end of the room, on a sort of raised platform. The room was very dim and dark. The floor was strewn with dry things like sticks, and they did not smell nice.
Cyril sat up suddenly and said:
'Look here - it's all right. I think it's like this. You know, we wished that the servants shouldn't notice any difference when we got wishes. And nothing happens to the Lamb unless we specially wish it to. So of course they don't notice the castle or anything. But then the castle is on the same place where our house was - is, I mean - and the servants have to go on being in the house, or else they would notice. But you can't have a castle mixed up with our house - and so we can't see the house, because we see the castle; and they can't see the castle, because they go on seeing the house; and so -'
'Oh, DON'T!' said Jane; 'you make my head go all swimmy, like being on a roundabout. It doesn't matter! Only, I hope we shall be able to see our dinner, that's all - because if it's invisible it'll be unfeelable as well, and then we can't eat it! I KNOW it will, because I tried to feel if I could feel the Lamb's chair, and there was nothing under him at all but air. And we can't eat air, and I feel just as if I hadn't had any breakfast for years and years.'
'It's no use thinking about it,' said Anthea. 'Let's go on exploring. Perhaps we might find something to eat.'
This lighted hope in every breast, and they went on exploring the castle. But though it was the most perfect and delightful castle you can possibly imagine, and furnished in the most complete and beautiful manner, neither food nor men-at-arms were to be found in it. 'If only you'd thought of wishing to be besieged in a castle thoroughly garrisoned and provisioned!' said Jane reproachfully.
'You can't think of everything, you know,' said Anthea. 'I should think it must be nearly dinner-time by now.'
It wasn't; but they hung about watching the strange movements of the servants in the middle of the courtyard, because, of course, they couldn't be sure where the dining-room of the invisible house was. Presently they saw Martha carrying an invisible tray across the courtyard, for it seemed that, by the most fortunate accident, the dining-room of the house and the banqueting-hall of the castle were in the same place. But oh, how their hearts sank when they perceived that the tray was invisible!
They waited in wretched silence while Martha went through the form of carving an unseen leg of mutton and serving invisible greens and potatoes with a spoon that no one could see. When she had left the room, the children looked at the empty table, and then at each other.
'This is worse than anything,' said Robert, who had not till now been particularly keen on his dinner.
'I'm not so very hungry,' said Anthea, trying to make the best of things, as usual.
Cyril tightened his belt ostentatiously. Jane burst into tears.
CHAPTER 7 A SIEGE AND BED
The children were sitting in the gloomy banqueting-hall, at the end of one of the long bare wooden tables. There was now no hope. Martha had brought in the dinner, and the dinner was invisible, and unfeelable too; for, when they rubbed their hands along the table, they knew but too well that for them there was nothing there BUT table.
Suddenly Cyril felt in his pocket.
'Right, oh!' he cried. 'Look here! Biscuits.'
Rather broken and crumbled, certainly, but still biscuits. Three whole ones, and a generous handful of crumbs and fragments.
'I got them this morning - cook - and I'd quite forgotten,' he explained as he divided them with scrupulous fairness into four heaps.
They were eaten in a happy silence, though they tasted a little oddly, because they had been in Cyril's pocket all the morning with a hank of tarred twine, some green fir-cones, and a ball of cobbler's wax.
'Yes, but look here, Squirrel,' said Robert; 'you're so clever at explaining about invisibleness and all that. How is it the biscuits are here, and all the bread and meat and things have disappeared?'
'I don't know,' said Cyril after a pause, 'unless it's because WE had them. Nothing about us has changed. Everything's in my pocket all right.'
'Then if we HAD the mutton it would be real,' said Robert. 'Oh, don't I wish we could find it!'
'But we can't find it. I suppose it isn't ours till we've got it in our mouths.'
'Or in our pockets,' said Jane, thinking of the biscuits.
'Who puts mutton in their pockets, goose-girl?' said Cyril. 'But I know - at any rate, I'll try it!'
He leaned over the table with his face about an inch from it, and kept opening and shutting his mouth as if he were taking bites out of air.
'It's no good,' said Robert in deep dejection. 'You'll only - Hullo!'
Cyril stood up with a grin of triumph, holding a square piece of bread in his mouth. It was quite real. Everyone saw it. It is true that, directly he bit a piece off, the rest vanished; but it was all right, because he knew he had it in his hand though he could neither see nor feel it. He took another bite from the air between his fingers, and it turned into bread as he bit. The next moment all the others were following his example, and opening and shutting their mouths an inch or so from the bare-looking table. Robert captured a slice of mutton, and - but I think I will draw a veil over the rest of this painful scene. It is enough to say that they all had enough mutton, and that when Martha came to change the plates she said she had never seen such a mess in all her born days.
The pudding was, fortunately, a plain suet roly-poly, and in answer to Martha's questions the children all with one accord said that they would NOT have treacle on it - nor jam, nor sugar - 'Just plain, please,' they said. Martha said, 'Well, I never - what next, I wonder!' and went away.
Then ensued another scene on which I will not dwell, for nobody looks nice picking up slices of suet pudding from the table in its mouth, like a dog. The great thing, after all, was that they had had dinner; and now everyone felt more courage to prepare for the attack that was to be delivered before sunset. Robert, as captain, insisted on climbing to the top of one of the towers to reconnoitre, so up they all went. And now they could see all round the castle, and could see, too, that beyond the moat, on every side, the tents of the besieging party were pitched. Rather uncomfortable shivers ran down the children's backs as they saw that all the men were very busy cleaning or sharpening their arms, re-stringing their bows, and polishing their shields. A large party came along the road, with horses dragging along the great trunk of a tree; and Cyril felt quite pale, because he knew this was for a battering-ram.
'What a good thing we've got a moat,' he said; 'and what a good thing the drawbridge is up - I should never have known how to work it.'
'Of course it would be up in a besieged castle.'
'You'd think there ought to have been soldiers in it, wouldn't you?' said Robert.
'You see you don't know how long it's been besieged,' said Cyril darkly; 'perhaps most of the brave defenders were killed quite early in the siege and all the provisions eaten, and now there are only a few intrepid survivors - that's us, and we are going to defend it to the death.'
'How do you begin - defending to the death, I mean?' asked Anthea.
'We ought to be heavily armed - and then shoot at them when they advance to the attack.'
'They used to pour boiling lead down on besiegers when they got too close,' said Anthea. 'Father showed me the holes on purpose for pouring it down through at Bodiam Castle. And there are holes like it in the gate-tower here.'
'I think I'm glad it's only a game; it IS only a game, isn't it?' said Jane.
But no one answered.
The children found plenty of strange weapons in the castle, and if they were armed at all it was soon plain that they would be, as Cyril said, 'armed heavily' - for these swords and lances and crossbows were far too weighty even for Cyril's manly strength; and as for the longbows, none of the children could even begin to bend them. The daggers were better; but Jane hoped that the besiegers would not come close enough for daggers to be of any use.
'Never mind, we can hurl them like javelins,' said Cyril, 'or drop them on people's heads. I say - there are lots of stones on the other side of the courtyard. If we took some of those up, just to drop on their heads if they were to try swimming the moat.'
So a heap of stones grew apace, up in the room above the gate; and another heap, a shiny spiky dangerous-looking heap, of daggers and knives.
As Anthea was crossing the courtyard for more stones, a sudden and valuable idea came to her. She went to Martha and said, 'May we have just biscuits for tea? We're going to play at besieged castles, and we'd like the biscuits to provision the garrison. Put mine in my pocket, please, my hands are so dirty. And I'll tell the others to fetch theirs.'
This was indeed a happy thought, for now with four generous handfuls of air, which turned to biscuit as Martha crammed it into their pockets, the garrison was well provisioned till sundown.
They brought up some iron pots of cold water to pour on the besiegers instead of hot lead, with which the castle did not seem to be provided.
The afternoon passed with wonderful quickness. It was very exciting; but none of them, except Robert, could feel all the time that this was real deadly dangerous work. To the others, who had only seen the camp and the besiegers from a distance, the whole thing seemed half a game of make-believe, and half a splendidly distinct and perfectly safe dream. But it was only now and then that Robert could feel this.
When it seemed to be tea-time the biscuits were eaten with water from the deep well in the courtyard, drunk out of horns. Cyril insisted on putting by eight of the biscuits, in case anyone should feel faint in stress of battle.
just as he was putting away the reserve biscuits in a sort of little stone cupboard without a door, a sudden sound made him drop three. It was the loud fierce cry of a trumpet.
'You see it IS real,' said Robert, 'and they are going to attack.'
All rushed to the narrow windows.
'Yes,' said Robert, 'they're all coming out of their tents and moving about like ants. There's that Jakin dancing about where the bridge joins on. I wish he could see me put my tongue out at him! Yah!'
The others were far too pale to wish to put their tongues out at anybody. They looked at Robert with surprised respect. Anthea said:
'You really ARE brave, Robert.'
'Rot!' Cyril's pallor turned to redness now, all in a minute. 'He's been getting ready to be brave all the afternoon. And I wasn't ready, that's all. I shall be braver than he is in half a jiffy.'
'Oh dear!' said Jane, 'what does it matter which of you is the bravest? I think Cyril was a perfect silly to wish for a castle, and I don't want to play.'
'It ISN'T' - Robert was beginning sternly, but Anthea interrupted -
'Oh yes, you do,' she said coaxingly; 'it's a very nice game, really, because they can't possibly get in, and if they do the women and children are always spared by civilized armies.'
'But are you quite, quite sure they ARE civilized?' asked Jane, panting. 'They seem to be such a long time ago.'
'Of course they are.' Anthea pointed cheerfully through the narrow window. 'Why, look at the little flags on their lances, how bright they are - and how fine the leader is! Look, that's him - isn't it, Robert? - on the grey horse.'