The Five Jars
VIII - Wag at Home
There was no scrambling up to the window-sill this time My visitors shot in like so many arrows, and "brought up" on their hands on the table cloth, or lit on their feet on the top rail of a chair-back or on my shoulder, as the fancy took them. It would be tedious to go through all the congratulations and thanks which I offered, and indeed received, for it was important to them that the jars did not fall into the wrong hands.
"Father says," said Wag, who was sitting on a book as usual – "Oh, what fun it is to be able to fly again!" And he darted straight and level and butted head first into the back of – Sprat, was it? – who was standing near the edge of the table. Sprat was merely propelled into the air a foot or two off, and remained standing, but, of course, turned around and told Wag what he thought of him. Wag returned contentedly to his book. "Father says," he resumed, "he hopes you'll come and see us now. He says you did all right, and he's very glad the stuff got spilt, because they'll take moons and moons to get as much of it together again. He says they meant to squirt some of it onto you when they got near enough, and while you were trying to get it off they'd have got hold of –" He pointed to the box of jars; there was a shyness about mentioning it.
"Your father's very kind," I said, "and I hope you'll thank him from me; but I don't quite see how I'm to get into your house."
"Fancy you not knowing that!" said Wag. "I'll tell him you'll come." And he was out of the window. As usual, I had recourse to Slim.
"Why, you did put some on your chest, didn't you?" was Slim's question.
"Yes, but nothing came of it."
"Well, I believe you can go pretty well anywhere with that, if you think you can."
"Can I fly, then?"
"No, I should say not; I mean, if you couldn't fly before, you can't now."
"How do you fly? I don't see any wings."
"No, we never have wings, and I'm rather glad we don't; the things that are always going wrong somehow. We just work it in the proper way with our backs, and there you are; like this." He made a slight movement of his shoulders, and he was standing in the air an inch off the table. "You never tried that, I suppose?" he went on.
"No," I said, "only in dreams," which evidently meant nothing to him. "Well now," I said, "do you tell me that if I went to Wag's house now, I could get inside it? Look at the size I am!"
"It doesn't look as if you could," he agreed, "but my father said just the same as Wag's father about it."
Here Wag shot on to my shoulder. "Are you coming?"
"Yes, if I knew how."
"Well, come and try, anyhow."
"Very well, as you please; anything to oblige."
I picked up a hat and went downstairs. All the rest followed, when there was at least as much flying up steps and in and out of banisters as going down. When we were out on the path, Wag said with more seriousness than usual:
"Now you do mean to come into our house, don't you?"
"Certainly I do, if you wish me to."
"Then that's all right. This way. There's Father."
We were on the grass now, and very long it was, and nice and wet I thought I should be with all the dew. As I looked up to see the elder Wag I very nearly fell over a large log which it was very careless for someone to have left about. But here was Mr. Wag within a yard of me, and to my extreme surprise he was quite a sizeable man of middle height, with a sensible, good-humoured face, in which I could see a strong likeness to his son. We both bowed, and then shook hands, and Mr. Wag was very complimentary and pleasant about the occurrences of the evening.
"We've pretty well got the mess cleared up, you see. Yes, don't be alarmed," he went on, and took hold of my elbow, for he had, no doubt, seen a bewildered look in my eyes. The fact was, as I suppose you have made out, not that he had grown up to my size, but that I had come down to his. "Things right themselves; you'll have no difficulty getting back when the time comes. But come in, won't you?"
You will expect me to describe the house and furniture. I shall not, further than say it seemed to me to be of a piece with the fashion in which the boys were dressed; that is, it was like my idea of a good citizen's house in Queen Elizabeth's time; and I shall not describe Mrs. Wag's costume. She did not wear a ruff, anyhow.
Wag, who had been darting around in the air while we walked to his home, followed us in on foot. He now reached up to my shoulder. Slim, who had come in too, was shorter.
"Haven't you got any sisters?" I took occasion to say to Wag.
"Of course," he said; "don't you see them? Oh! I forgot. Come out, you sillies!"
Upon which there came forward three nice little girls, each of whom was putting away something into a kind of locket which she wore around her neck. No, it is no use asking me what their dresses were like; none at all. All I know is that they curtsied to me very nicely, and that when we all sat down the youngest came and put herself on my knee as if it were a matter of course.
"Why didn't I see you before?" I asked her.
"I suppose because the flowers were in our hair."
"Show him what you mean, my dear," said her father. "He doesn't know our ways yet."
Accordingly she opened her locket and took out of it a small blue flower, looking as if it were made of enamel, and stuck it in her hair over her forehead. As she did so she vanished, but I could still feel the weight of her on my knee. When she took it out again (as no doubt she did) she became visible, put it back in the locket, and smiled agreeably at me. Naturally, I had a good many questions to ask about this, but you will hardly expect me to put them all down. Becoming invisible in this way was a privilege that the girls always had until they were grown up, and I suppose I may say "came out". Of course, if they presumed on it, the lockets were taken away for the time being – just in the same way as the boys were sometimes stopped from flying, as we have seen. But their own families could always see them, or at any rate the flowers in their hair, and they could always see each other.
But dear me! how much am I to tell of the conversation that evening? One part at least: I remembered to ask about the pictures of things that had happened in former times and places where I chanced to be. Was I obliged to see them, whether they were pleasant or horrible? "Oh no," they said; if you shut your eyes from below – that meant pushing up the lower eyelids – you would be rid of them; and you would only begin seeing them either if you wanted to, or else if you left your mind quite blank, and were thinking of nothing in particular. Then they would begin to come, and there was no knowing how old they might be; that depended on how angry or excited or happy or sad the people to whom they happened.
And that reminds me of another thing. Wag had got rather fidgety while we were talking, and was flying up to the ceiling and down again, and walking on his hands, and so forth, when his mother said:
"Dear, do be quiet. Why don't you take a glass and amuse yourself with it? Here's the key of the cupboard."
She threw it to him and he caught it and ran to a tall bureau opposite and unlocked it. After humming and flitting about in front of it for a little time, he pulled a thing like a slate off a shelf where there was a large number of them.
"What have you got?" said his mother.
"The one I didn't get to the end of yesterday, about the dragon."
"Oh, that's a very good one," said she. "I used to be very fond of that."
"I liked it awfully as far as I got," he said, and was betaking himself to settle on the other side of the room when I asked if I might see it, and he brought it to me.
It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder.
I thought at first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so "hairy in the hoof"; the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it, I should see every blade of grass and every bramble leaf.
"Ready?" said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The knight began to move at a foot-pace.
"Well, but he can't hear anything, Wag." Said his father.
"I though you wanted to be quiet," said Wag, "but we'll have it aloud if you like."
He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema, you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound, and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn't a photograph, but the live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail of it.
Well, I went on reading, as you may say, this glass. In a theatre, you know, if you saw a knight riding through a forest, the effect would be managed by making the scenery slide backwards past him; and in a cinema it could all be shortened up by increasing the pace or leaving out part of the film. Here it was not like that; we seemed to be keeping pace and going along with the knight. Presently he began to sing. He had a loud voice and uttered his words crisply, so that I had no difficulty in making out the song. It was about a lady who was very proud and haughty toward him and would have nothing to say his suit, and it declared that the only thing for him was to lay himself down under a tree. But he seemed quite cheerful about it, and indeed neither his complexion nor the glance of his eye gave any sign that he was suffering the pangs of hopeless love.
Suddenly his horse stopped short and snorted uneasily. The knight left off singing in the middle of a verse, looked earnestly into the wood at the back of the picture, and then out towards us, and then behind him. He patted his horse's neck, and then, humming to himself, put on his gauntlets, which were hanging at his saddle bow, managed somehow to latch or bolt the fastenings of them, slipped down his visor, and took the hilt of his sword in one hand and the sheath in the other and loosened the blade in the sheath. He had hardly done this when the horse shied violently and reared; and out of the thicket on the near side of the road (I suppose) something shot up in front of him on the saddle. We all drew in our breath.
"Don't be frightened, dear," said Mrs. Wag to the youngest girl, who had given a sort of jump. "He's quite safe this time."
I must say, it did not look like it. The beast that had leapt on to the saddle was tearing with its claws, drawing back its head and driving it forward again with horrid force against the visor, and was at such close quarters that the knight could not possibly either draw or use his sword. It was a horrible beast too; evidently a young dragon. As it sat on the saddle-bow, its head was just about on a level with the knight's. It had four short legs with long toes and claws. It clung to the saddle with the hind feet and tore with the fore feet, as I said. Its head was rather long, and had two pointed ears and two small sharp horns. Besides, it had bat wings, with which it buffeted the knight, but its tail was short. I don't know whether it had been bitten or cut in some previous fight. It was all of a mustard-yellow colour. The knight was for the moment having a bad time of it, for the horse was plunging and the dragon doing its very worst. The crisis was not long, though. The knight took hold of the right wing with both hands and tore the membrane upwards toward the root, like parchment. It bled yellow blood, and the dragon gave a grating scream. Then he clutched it hard by the neck and managed to wrench it away from its hold on the saddle; and when it was in the air, he whirled its body, heavy as it was, first over his back and then forwards again, and its neck-bone, I suppose, broke, for it was quite limp when he cast it down. He looked down at it for a little, and seeing it stir, he got off, with the rein over his arm, drew his sword, cut off the head, and kicked it some yards. The next thing he did was to push up his visor, look upward, mutter something I could not well hear, and cross himself; after which he said aloud, "Where man finds one of a brood, he may look for more," mounted, turned his horse's head and galloped off the way he had come.
We had not followed him far through the woods when —
"Bother!" said Wag, "there's the bell"; and he reached over and slid back the knobs in the frame, and the knight stopped.
I was full of questions, but there was no time to put them. Good-nights had to be said quickly, and Father Wag showed me out of the front door.
I set out on what seemed a considerable walk across the rough grass towards the enormous building in which I lived. I suppose I did not really take many minutes about getting to the path; as I stepped onto it – rather carefully, for it was a longish way down – why, without any shock or any odd feeling, I was my own size again. And I went to bed pondering much upon the events of the day.
Well, I began this communication by saying that I was going to explain to you how it was that I "heard something from the owls," and I think I have explained how it is that I am able to say that I have done so. Exactly what was that you and I were talking about when I mentioned the owls, I dare say neither of us remembers.
As you can see, I have more exciting experiences than merely conversing with them – interesting, and, I think, unusual as that is. I have not, of course, told you nearly all there is to tell, but perhaps I have said enough for the present. More, if you should wish to hear it, another time.
As to the present conditions. To-day there is a slight coolness between Wisp and the cat. He made his way into a mouse-hole which she was watching, and enticed her close up to it by scratchings and other sounds, and then, when she came quite near (taking great trouble, of course, to make no noise whatever), he put his head out and blew in her face, which affronted her very much. However, I believe I have persuaded her that he meant no harm.
The room is rather full of them to-night. Wag and most of the rest are rehearsing a play which they mean to present before I go. Slim, who happens not to be wanted for a time, is manœuvring on the table facing me, and is trying to produce a portrait of me which shall be a little less libellous than his first effort. He has just now shown me the final production, with which he is greatly pleased. I am not.
Farewell. I am, with the usual expressions of regard,
M (or N).
Text taken from M. R. James' "The Five Jars", published by Edward Arnold & Co., 1922