Breathless and beaten, the wretched children now awaited their fate. Sharp knives and axes gleamed round them, but worse than these was the cruel light in the eyes of Golden Eagle and his followers.
'Ye have lied to us, O Black Panther of the Mazawattees - and thou, too, Squirrel of the Moning Congos. These also, Pussy Ferox of the Phiteezi, and Bobs of the Cape Mounted Police - these also have lied to us, if not with their tongue, yet by their silence. Ye have lied under the cover of the Truce-flag of the Pale-face. Ye have no followers. Your tribes are far away - following the hunting trail. What shall be their doom?' he concluded, turning with a bitter smile to the other Red Indians.
'Build we the fire!' shouted his followers; and at once a dozen ready volunteers started to look for fuel. The four children, each held between two strong little Indians, cast despairing glances round them. Oh, if they could only see the Psammead!
'Do you mean to scalp us first and then roast us?' asked Anthea desperately.
'Of course!' Redskin opened his eyes at her. 'It's always done.'
The Indians had formed a ring round the children, and now sat on the ground gazing at their captives. There was a threatening silence.
Then slowly, by twos and threes, the Indians who had gone to look for firewood came back, and they came back empty-handed. They had not been able to find a single stick of wood, for a fire! No one ever can, as a matter of fact, in that part of Kent.
The children drew a deep breath of relief, but it ended in a moan of terror. For bright knives were being brandished all about them. Next moment each child was seized by an Indian; each closed its eyes and tried not to scream. They waited for the sharp agony of the knife. It did not come. Next moment they were released, and fell in a trembling heap. Their heads did not hurt at all. They only felt strangely cool! Wild war-whoops rang in their ears. When they ventured to open their eyes they saw four of their foes dancing round them with wild leaps and screams, and each of the four brandished in his hand a scalp of long flowing black hair. They put their hands to their heads - their own scalps were safe! The poor untutored savages had indeed scalped the children. But they had only, so to speak, scalped them of the black calico ringlets!
The children fell into each other's arms, sobbing and laughing.
'Their scalps are ours,' chanted the chief; 'ill-rooted were their ill-fated hairs! They came off in the hands of the victors - without struggle, without resistance, they yielded their scalps to the conquering Rock-dwellers! Oh, how little a thing is a scalp so lightly won!'
'They'll take our real ones in a minute; you see if they don't,' said Robert, trying to rub some of the red ochre off his face and hands on to his hair.
'Cheated of our just and fiery revenge are we,' the chant went on - 'but there are other torments than the scalping-knife and the flames. Yet is the slow fire the correct thing. O strange unnatural country, wherein a man may find no wood to burn his enemy! - Ah, for the boundless forests of my native land, where the great trees for thousands of miles grow but to furnish firewood wherewithal to burn our foes. Ah, would we were but in our native forest once more!'
Suddenly, like a flash of lightning, the golden gravel shone all round the four children instead of the dusky figures. For every single Indian had vanished on the instant at their leader's word. The Psammead must have been there all the time. And it had given the Indian chief his wish.
Martha brought home a jug with a pattern of storks and long grasses on it. Also she brought back all Anthea's money.
'My cousin, she give me the jug for luck; she said it was an odd one what the basin of had got smashed.'
'Oh, Martha, you arc a dear!' sighed Anthea, throwing her arms round her.
'Yes,' giggled Martha, 'you'd better make the most of me while you've got me. I shall give your ma notice directly minute she comes back.'
'Oh, Martha, we haven't been so very horrid to you, have we?' asked Anthea, aghast.
'Oh, it ain't that, miss.' Martha giggled more than ever. 'I'm a-goin' to be married. It's Beale the gamekeeper. He's been a-proposin' to me off and on ever since you come home from the clergyman's where you got locked up on the church-tower. And to-day I said the word an' made him a happy man.'
Anthea put the seven-and-fourpence back in the missionary-box, and pasted paper over the place where the poker had broken it. She was very glad to be able to do this, and she does not know to this day whether breaking open a missionary-box is or is not a hanging matter.
CHAPTER 11 THE LAST WISH
Of course you, who see above that this is the eleventh (and last) chapter, know very well that the day of which this chapter tells must be the last on which Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane will have a chance of getting anything out of the Psammead, or Sand-fairy.
But the children themselves did not know this. They were full of rosy visions, and, whereas on other days they had often found it extremely difficult to think of anything really nice to wish for, their brains were now full of the most beautiful and sensible ideas. 'This,' as Jane remarked afterwards, 'is always the way.' Everyone was up extra early that morning, and these plans were hopefully discussed in the garden before breakfast. The old idea of one hundred pounds in modern florins was still first favourite, but there were others that ran it close - the chief of these being the 'pony each' idea. This had a great advantage. You could wish for a pony each during the morning, ride it all day, have it vanish at sunset, and wish it back again next day. Which would be an economy of litter and stabling. But at breakfast two things happened. First, there was a letter from mother. Granny was better, and mother and father hoped to be home that very afternoon. A cheer arose. And of course this news at once scattered all the before-breakfast wish-ideas. For everyone saw quite plainly that the wish for the day must be something to please mother and not to please themselves.
'I wonder what she WOULD like,' pondered Cyril.
'She'd like us all to be good,' said Jane primly.
'Yes - but that's so dull for us,' Cyril rejoined; 'and, besides, I should hope we could be that without sand-fairies to help us. No; it must be something splendid, that we couldn't possibly get without wishing for.'
'Look out,' said Anthea in a warning voice; 'don't forget yesterday. Remember, we get our wishes now just wherever we happen to be when we say "I wish". Don't let's let ourselves in for anything silly - to-day of all days.'
'All right,' said Cyril. 'You needn't jaw.'
just then Martha came in with a jug full of hot water for the teapot - and a face full of importance for the children.
'A blessing we're all alive to eat our breakfasses!' she said darkly.
'Why, whatever's happened?' everybody asked.
'Oh, nothing,' said Martha, 'only it seems nobody's safe from being murdered in their beds nowadays.'
'Why,' said Jane as an agreeable thrill of horror ran down her back and legs and out at her toes, 'has anyone been murdered in their beds?'
'Well - not exactly,' said Martha; 'but they might just as well. There's been burglars over at Peasmarsh Place - Beale's just told me - and they've took every single one of Lady Chittenden's diamonds and jewels and things, and she's a-goin' out of one fainting fit into another, with hardly time to say "Oh, my diamonds!" in between. And Lord Chittenden's away in London.'
'Lady Chittenden,' said Anthea; 'we've seen her. She wears a red-and-white dress, and she has no children of her own and can't abide other folkses'.'
'That's her,' said Martha. 'Well, she's put all her trust in riches, and you see how she's served. They say the diamonds and things was worth thousands of thousands of pounds. There was a necklace and a river - whatever that is - and no end of bracelets; and a tarrer and ever so many rings. But there, I mustn't stand talking and all the place to clean down afore your ma comes home.'
'I don't see why she should ever have had such lots of diamonds,' said Anthea when Martha had Bounced off. 'She was rather a nasty lady, I thought. And mother hasn't any diamonds, and hardly any jewels - the topaz necklace, and the sapphire ring daddy gave her when they were engaged, and the garnet star, and the little pearl brooch with great-grandpapa's hair in it - that's about all.'
'When I'm grown up I'll buy mother no end of diamonds,' said Robert, 'if she wants them. I shall make so much money exploring in Africa I shan't know what to do with it.'
'Wouldn't it be jolly,' said Jane dreamily, 'if mother could find all those lovely things, necklaces and rivers of diamonds and tarrers?'
'TI—ARAS,' said Cyril.
'Ti—aras, then - and rings and everything in her room when she came home? I wish she would.' The others gazed at her in horror.
'Well, she WILL,' said Robert; 'you've wished, my good Jane - and our only chance now is to find the Psammead, and if it's in a good temper it MAY take back the wish and give us another. If not - well - goodness knows what we're in for! - the police, of course, and - Don't cry, silly! We'll stand by you. Father says we need never be afraid if we don't do anything wrong and always speak the truth.'
But Cyril and Anthea exchanged gloomy glances. They remembered how convincing the truth about the Psammead had been once before when told to the police.
It was a day of misfortunes. Of course the Psammead could not be found. Nor the jewels, though every one Of the children searched their mother's room again and again.
'Of course,' Robert said, 'WE couldn't find them. It'll be mother who'll do that. Perhaps she'll think they've been in the house for years and years, and never know they are the stolen ones at all.'
'Oh yes!' Cyril was very scornful; 'then mother will be a receiver of stolen goods, and you know jolly well what THAT'S worse than.'
Another and exhaustive search of the sand-pit failed to reveal the Psammead, so the children went back to the house slowly and sadly.
'I don't care,' said Anthea stoutly, 'we'll tell mother the truth, and she'll give back the jewels - and make everything all right.'
'Do you think so?' said Cyril slowly. 'Do you think She'll believe us? Could anyone believe about a Sammyadd unless they'd seen it? She'll think we're pretending. Or else she'll think we're raving mad, and then we shall be sent to Bedlam. How would you like it?' - he turned suddenly on the miserable Jane - 'how would you like it, to be shut up in an iron cage with bars and padded walls, and nothing to do but stick straws in your hair all day, and listen to the howlings and ravings of the other maniacs? Make up your minds to it, all of you. It's no use telling mother.'
'But it's true,' said Jane.
'Of course it is, but it's not true enough for grown-up people to believe it,' said Anthea. 'Cyril's right. Let's put flowers in all the vases, and try not to think about diamonds. After all, everything has come right in the end all the other times.'
So they filled all the pots they could find with flowers - asters and zinnias, and loose-leaved late red roses from the wall of the stable-yard, till the house was a perfect bower.
And almost as soon as dinner was cleared away mother arrived, and was clasped in eight loving arms. It was very difficult indeed not to tell her all about the Psammead at once, because they had got into the habit of telling her everything. But they did succeed in not telling her. Mother, on her side, had plenty to tell them - about Granny, and Granny's pigeons, and Auntie Emma's lame tame donkey. She was very delighted with the flowery-boweryness of the house; and everything seemed so natural and pleasant, now that she was home again, that the children almost thought they must have dreamed the Psammead.
But, when mother moved towards the stairs to go UP to her bedroom and take off her bonnet, the eight arms clung round her just as if she only had two children, one the Lamb and the other an octopus.
'Don't go up, mummy darling,' said Anthea; 'let me take your things up for you.'
'Or I will,' said Cyril.
'We want you to come and look at the rose-tree,' said Robert.
'Oh, don't go up!' said Jane helplessly.
'Nonsense, dears,' said mother briskly, 'I'm not such an old woman yet that I can't take my bonnet off in the proper place. Besides, I must wash these black hands of mine.'
So up she went, and the children, following her, exchanged glances of gloomy foreboding.
Mother took off her bonnet - it was a very pretty hat, really, with white roses on it - and when she had taken it off she went to the dressing-table to do her pretty hair.
On the table between the ring-stand and the pincushion lay a green leather case. Mother opened it.
'Oh, how lovely!' she cried. It was a ring, a large pearl with shining many-lighted diamonds set round it. 'Wherever did this come from?' mother asked, trying it on her wedding finger, which it fitted beautifully. 'However did it come here?'
'I don't know,' said each of the children truthfully.
'Father must have told Martha to put it here,' mother said. 'I'll run down and ask her.'
'Let me look at it,' said Anthea, who knew Martha would not be able to see the ring. But when Martha was asked, of course she denied putting the ring there, and so did Eliza and cook.
Mother came back to her bedroom, very much interested and pleased about the ring. But, when she opened the dressing-table drawer and found a long case containing an almost priceless diamond necklace, she was more interested still, though not so pleased. In the wardrobe, when she went to put away her 'bonnet', she found a tiara and several brooches, and the rest of the jewellery turned up in various parts of the room during the next half-hour. The children looked more and more uncomfortable, and now Jane began to sniff.
Mother looked at her gravely.
'Jane,' she said, 'I am sure you know something about this. Now think before you speak, and tell me the truth.'
'We found a Fairy,' said Jane obediently.
'No nonsense, please,' said her mother sharply.
'Don't be silly, Jane,' Cyril interrupted. Then he went on desperately. 'Look here, mother, we've never seen the things before, but Lady Chittenden at Peasmarsh Place lost all her jewellery by wicked burglars last night. Could this possibly be it?'
All drew a deep breath. They were saved.
'But how could they have put it here? And why should they?' asked mother, not unreasonably. 'Surely it would have been easier and safer to make off with it?'
'Suppose,' said Cyril, 'they thought it better to wait for - for sunset - nightfall, I mean, before they went off with it. No one but us knew that you were coming back to-day.'
'I must send for the police at once,' said mother distractedly. 'Oh, how I wish daddy were here!'
'Wouldn't it be better to wait till he DOES come?' asked Robert, knowing that his father would not be home before sunset.
'No, no; I can't wait a minute with all this on my mind,' cried mother. 'All this' was the heap of jewel-cases on the bed. They put them all in the wardrobe, and mother locked it. Then mother called Martha.
'Martha,' she said, 'has any stranger been into MY room since I've been away? Now, answer me truthfully.'
'No, mum,' answered Martha; 'leastways, what I mean to say -'
'Come,' said her mistress kindly; 'I see someone has. You must tell me at once. Don't be frightened. I'm sure you haven't done anything wrong.'
Martha burst into heavy sobs.
'I was a-goin' to give you warning this very day, mum, to leave at the end of my month, so I was - on account of me being going to make a respectable young man happy. A gamekeeper he is by trade, mum - and I wouldn't deceive you - of the name of Beale. And it's as true as I stand here, it Was your coming home in such a hurry, and no warning given, out of the kindness of his heart it was, as he says, "Martha, my beauty," he says - which I ain't and never was, but you know how them men will go on - "I can't see you a-toiling and a-moiling and not lend a 'elping 'and; which mine is a strong arm and it's yours, Martha, my dear," says he. And so he helped me a-cleanin' of the windows, but outside, mum, the whole time, and me in; if I never say another breathing word it's the gospel truth.'
'Were you with him the whole time?' asked her mistress.
'Him outside and me in, I was,' said Martha; 'except for fetching up a fresh pail and the leather that that slut of a Eliza 'd hidden away behind the mangle.'
'That will do,' said the children's mother. 'I am not pleased with you, Martha, but you have spoken the truth, and that counts for something.'
When Martha had gone, the children clung round their mother.
'Oh, mummy darling,' cried Anthea, 'it isn't Beale's fault, it isn't really! He's a great dear; he is, truly and honourably, and as honest as the day. Don't let the police take him, mummy! oh, don't, don't, don't!'
It was truly awful. Here was an innocent man accused of robbery through that silly wish of Jane's, and it was absolutely useless to tell the truth. All longed to, but they thought of the straws in the hair and the shrieks of the other frantic maniacs, and they could not do it.
'Is there a cart hereabouts?' asked mother feverishly. 'A trap of any sort? I must drive in to Rochester and tell the police at once.'
All the children sobbed, 'There's a cart at the farm, but, oh, don't go! - don't go! - oh, don't go! - wait till daddy comes home!'
Mother took not the faintest notice. When she had set her mind on a thing she always went straight through with it; she was rather like Anthea in this respect.
'Look here, Cyril,' she said, sticking on her hat with long sharp violet-headed pins, 'I leave you in charge. Stay in the dressing-room. You can pretend to be swimming boats in the bath, or something. Say I gave you leave. But stay there, with the landing door open; I've locked the other. And don't let anyone go into my room. Remember, no one knows the jewels are there except me, and all of you, and the wicked thieves who put them there. Robert, you stay in the garden and watch the windows. If anyone tries to get in you must run and tell the two farm men that I'll send up to wait in the kitchen. I'll tell them there are dangerous characters about - that's true enough. Now, remember, I trust you both. But I don't think they'll try it till after dark, so you're quite safe. Good-bye, darlings.'
And she locked her bedroom door and went off with the key in her pocket.
The children could not help admiring the dashing and decided way in which she had acted. They thought how useful she would have been in organizing escape from some of the tight places in which they had found themselves of late in consequence of their ill-timed wishes.
'She's a born general,' said Cyril - 'but I don't know what's going to happen to us. Even if the girls were to hunt for that beastly Sammyadd and find it, and get it to take the jewels away again, mother would only think we hadn't looked out properly and let the burglars sneak in and nick them - or else the police will think WE'VE got them - or else that she's been fooling them. Oh, it's a pretty decent average ghastly mess this time, and no mistake!'
He savagely made a paper boat and began to float it in the bath, as he had been told to do.
Robert went into the garden and sat down on the worn yellow grass, with his miserable head between his helpless hands.
Anthea and Jane whispered together in the passage downstairs, where the coconut matting was - with the hole in it that you always caught your foot in if you were not careful. Martha's voice could be heard in the kitchen - grumbling loud and long.
'It's simply quite too dreadfully awful,' said Anthea. 'How do you know all the diamonds are there, too? If they aren't, the police will think mother and father have got them, and that they've only given up some of them for a kind of desperate blind. And they'll be put in prison, and we shall be branded outcasts, the children of felons. And it won't be at all nice for father and mother either,' she added, by a candid afterthought.
'But what can WE do?' asked Jane.
'Nothing - at least we might look for the Psammead again. It's a very, very hot day. He may have come out to warm that whisker of his.'
'He won't give us any more beastly wishes to-day,' said Jane flatly. 'He gets crosser and crosser every time we see him. I believe he hates having to give wishes.'
Anthea had been shaking her head gloomily - now she stopped shaking it so suddenly that it really looked as though she were pricking up her ears.
'What is it?' asked Jane. 'Oh, have you thought of something?'
'Our one chance,' cried Anthea dramatically; 'the last lone-lorn forlorn hope. Come on.'
At a brisk trot she led the way to the sand-pit. Oh, joy! - there was the Psammead, basking in a golden sandy hollow and preening its whiskers happily in the glowing afternoon sun. The moment it saw them it whisked round and began to burrow - it evidently preferred its own company to theirs. But Anthea was too quick for it. She caught it by its furry shoulders gently but firmly, and held it.
'Here - none of that!' said the Psammead. 'Leave go of me, will you?'
But Anthea held him fast.
'Dear kind darling Sammyadd,' she said breathlessly.
'Oh yes - it's all very well,' it said; 'you want another wish, I expect. But I can't keep on slaving from morning till night giving people their wishes. I must have SOME time to myself.'
'Do you hate giving wishes?' asked Anthea gently, and her voice trembled with excitement.
'Of course I do,' it said. 'Leave go of me or I'll bite! - I really will - I mean it. Oh, well, if you choose to risk it.'
Anthea risked it and held on.
'Look here,' she said, 'don't bite me - listen to reason. If you'll only do what we want to-day, we'll never ask you for another wish as long as we live.'
The Psammead was much moved.
'I'd do anything,' it said in a tearful voice. 'I'd almost burst myself to give you one wish after another, as long as I held out, if you'd only never, never ask me to do it after to-day. If you knew how I hate to blow myself out with other people's wishes, and how frightened I am always that I shall strain a muscle or something. And then to wake up every morning and know you've GOT to do it. You don't know what it is - you don't know what it is, you don't!' Its voice cracked with emotion, and the last 'don't' was a squeak.
Anthea set it down gently on the sand.
'It's all over now,' she said soothingly. 'We promise faithfully never to ask for another wish after to-day.' 'Well, go ahead,' said the Psammead; 'let's get it over.'
'How many can you do?'
'I don't know - as long as I can hold out.'
'Well, first, I wish Lady Chittenden may find she's never lost her jewels.'
The Psammead blew itself out, collapsed, and said, 'Done.'
'I wish, said Anthea more slowly, 'mother mayn't get to the police.'
'Done,' said the creature after the proper interval.
'I wish,' said Jane suddenly, 'mother could forget all about the diamonds.'
'Done,' said the Psammead; but its voice was weaker.
'Wouldn't you like to rest a little?' asked Anthea considerately.
'Yes, please,' said the Psammead; 'and, before we go further, will you wish something for me?'
'Can't you do wishes for yourself?'
'Of course not,' it said; 'we were always expected to give each other our wishes - not that we had any to speak of in the good old Megatherium days. just wish, will you, that you may never be able, any of you, to tell anyone a word about ME.'
'Why?' asked Jane.
'Why, don't you see, if you told grown-ups I should have no peace of my life. They'd get hold of me, and they wouldn't wish silly things like you do, but real earnest things; and the scientific people would hit on some way of making things last after sunset, as likely as not; and they'd ask for a graduated income-tax, and old-age pensions and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them, and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. Do wish it! Quick!'
Anthea repeated the Psammead's wish, and it blew itself out to a larger size than they had yet seen it attain.
'And now,' it said as it collapsed, 'can I do anything more for you?'
'Just one thing; and I think that clears everything up, doesn't it, Jane? I wish Martha to forget about the diamond ring, and mother to forget about the keeper cleaning the windows.' 'It's like the "Brass Bottle",' said Jane.
'Yes, I'm glad we read that or I should never have thought of it.'
'Now,' said the Psammead faintly, 'I'm almost worn out. Is there anything else?'
'No; only thank you kindly for all you've done for us, and I hope you'll have a good long sleep, and I hope we shall see you again some day.'
'Is that a wish?' it said in a weak voice.
'Yes, please,' said the two girls together.
Then for the last time in this story they saw the Psammead blow itself out and collapse suddenly. It nodded to them, blinked its long snail's eyes, burrowed, and disappeared, scratching fiercely to the last, and the sand closed over it.
'I hope we've done right?' said Jane.
'I'm sure we have,' said Anthea. 'Come on home and tell the boys.'
Anthea found Cyril glooming over his paper boats, and told him. Jane told Robert. The two tales were only just ended when mother walked in, hot and dusty. She explained that as she was being driven into Rochester to buy the girls' autumn school-dresses the axle had broken, and but for the narrowness of the lane and the high soft hedges she would have been thrown out. As it was, she was not hurt, but she had had to walk home. 'And oh, my dearest dear chicks,' she said, 'I am simply dying for a cup of tea! Do run and see if the kettle boils!'
'So you see it's all right,'Jane whispered. 'She doesn't remember.'
'No more does Martha,' said Anthea, who had been to ask after the state of the kettle.
As the servants sat at their tea, Beale the gamekeeper dropped in. He brought the welcome news that Lady Chittenden's diamonds had not been lost at all. Lord Chittenden had taken them to be re-set and cleaned, and the maid who knew about it had gone for a holiday. So that was all right.
'I wonder if we ever shall see the Psammead again,' said Jane wistfully as they walked in the garden, while mother was putting the Lamb to bed.
'I'm sure we shall,' said Cyril, 'if you really wished it.'
'We've promised never to ask it for another wish,' said Anthea.
'I never want to,' said Robert earnestly.
They did see it again, of course, but not in this story. And it was not in a sand-pit either, but in a very, very, very different place. It was in a — But I must say no more.