The Five Jars
IV - The Small People
You will have made sure that the next jar I meant to try was the one for the tongue, in hopes that it would help me to speak to some of the creatures. Though I looked forward to the experiment very much, and felt somewhat restless until I had made it, I did get a good deal of amusement out of what I saw and heard the next day. The small people were not to be seen – at least not in the morning. No, I am wrong: I found a bunch of three of them – young ones – asleep in a hollow tree. They woke up and looked about me without much interest, and when I was withdrawing my head they blew kisses to me. I am afraid there is no doubt they did so in derision. But there were others, I passed a cottage garden in which a little dog was barking most furiously. It seemed to be barking at a clothes-line, on which, with a lot of other things, was a print dress with rather a staring pattern of flowers. The dress caught my eye, and so did something red at the top which stuck up above the line. I gave it another glance, and really I had a most dreadful shock. It was a face. I gazed at it in horror, and was just gathering my wits to run and call for help or something, when I saw that it was laughing. Then I realised it could not be an ordinary person, hanging as it was on a thin bit of cord and blowing to and fro in the breeze. I went nearer, staring at it with all my eyes, and made out that it was the face of an old woman, very cheerful and ruddy, and, as I said, laughing and swinging to and fro. Suddenly she seemed to catch my eye and to see that I saw her, and in a flash she was off the line and round the corner of the house, nearly tumbling over the dog as she went. It rushed after her, still very angry, but soon came trotting back, rather out of breath, and that incident was over.
I walked on. Among the village people I met, there were one or two whom I didn't think I had seen before – elderly, bright-eyed people they were – who seemed very much surprised when I said "Good morning" to them, and stopped still, looking after me, when I passed on. At last, some little way out of the village, I saw in the distance the same bright-coloured dress that had been on the clothes-line. The person who wore it was going slowly, and looking in the grass and hedges, and sometimes stooping to pick a plant, as it seemed. I quickened my pace and came up with her, and when I was just behind her, I cleared my throat rather loudly and said, "Fine day," or words to that effect.
You should have seen her jump! I was well paid for the fright she had given me just before. However, the startled look cleared away from her face, and she drew herself up and looked at me very calmly.
"Yes," she said, "it's a fine day." Then she actually blushed and went on: "I think I ought to beg your pardon for giving you such a turn just now."
"Well," I said, "I certainly was a good deal startled, but no harm was done. The dog took it more to heart than I did."
She gave a short laugh. "Yes," she said. "I hardly know why I was behaving like that. I suppose we all of us feel skittish at times." She paused and said with some little hesitation, "You have them, I suppose?" and at the same time she rapidly touched her ears, eyes and mouth with her forefinger.
I looked at her with some doubt, for I thought, might she not be one of the unknown who wished to get hold of the Five Jars? But her eye was honest, and my instinct was to trust her: so I nodded, and put my fingers on my lips.
"Of course," she said. "Well, you are the first since I was a little thing, and that's fourteen hundred years ago." (You may think I opened my eyes.) "Yes, Vitalis was the last, and he lived in the villa – they called it so – down by the stream. You'll find the place some of these days if you look. I heard talk yesterday that someone had got them, and I'm told that the mist was about last night. Perhaps you saw it?"
"Yes," I said, "I did, and I guessed what it meant." And I told her all that had happened, and ended by asking if she could kindly advise me what to do.
She thought for a moment, and then handed me a little bunch of the leaves she held in her hand. "Four-leaved clover," she said. "I know nothing better. Lay it on the box itself. You'll hear of them again, be sure.
"Who are they?" I asked in a whisper. She shook her head. "Not allowed," was all she was going to say. "I must be going"; and she was gone, sure enough. You might suppose (as I did, when I came to think of it) that my new sight ought to have been able to see what became of her. I think it would, if she had gone straight away from me; but what I believe she did was to dart round behind me and then go away in a straight line, so that I was left looking in front of me while she was travelling away behind like a bullet from a gun. You need practice with these things, and I had only been at it a couple of days.
I turned and walked rather quickly homewards, for I thought it would be wise to protect my box as soon as possible now that I had the means. I think it was fortunate that I did.
As I opened the garden gate I saw an old woman coming down the path – an old woman very unlike the last. "Old" was not the word for her: she might have been born before the history-books begin. As to her expression, if ever you saw a snake with red rims to its eyes and the expression of a parrot, you might have some idea of it. She was hobbling along with a stick, in quite a proper manner, but I felt certain that all that was put on, and that she could have glided as swift as an adder if she pleased. I confess that I was afraid of her. I had a feeling that she knew everything and hated everybody.
"And what," I suddenly thought, "has she been up to? If she has got at the box, where am I? and more than that, what mischief will she and her company work among the small people and the birds and beasts?" There would be no mercy for them; a glance at her eye told me that.
It was an immense relief to see that she could not possibly have got the box about her, and another relief when my eye travelled to the door of the house and I saw no fewer than three horseshoes nailed above it. I smiled to myself. Oh, how angry she looked! But she had to act her part, and with feeble curtseys and in a very small hoarse trembling voice she wished me a good day (though I noticed her pointing to the ground with her thumb as she said the words) and would be very obliged if I could tell her the right time. I was going to pull out my watch (and if I had, she would have seen a certain key we know of), when something said suddenly and clearly to my brain, "Look out," and by good luck I heard a clock inside the house strike one before I could answer.
"Just struck one," was my reply accordingly, and I said it as innocently as I could. She drew her breath in hard and quivered all over, and her mouth remained open like a cat's when it's using its worst expressions, and when she eventually thanked me I leave it to you to imagine how gracefully she did it.
Well, she had no more cards to play at the moment, and no excuse for remaining. I stood my ground and watched her out of the gate. A path led down the meadow, and, much against her will no doubt, she had to keep up the pretence and toil painfully along it until she reached another hedge and could reckon on being out of my sight. After that I neither saw nor excepted to see anything more of her. I went up to my room and found all safe, and laid the four-leaved clover on the box. At luncheon I took occasion to find out from the maid, without asking her in so many words, whether the old woman had been visible to her; evidently she had not: evidently also, the evil creatures were really on the track of the Five Jars, knew that I had them, and had a very fair idea of where they were kept.
However, if the maid had not seen her, the cat had, and murmured a good deal to herself, and was in a rather nervous state. She sat, with her ears turned different ways, on the window-sill, looking out, and twitching her back uncomfortably, like an old lady who feels a draught. When I was available, she came and sat on my knee (a very uncommon attention on her part) with an air half of wishing to be protected and a half of undertaking to protect me.
"If there is fish to-night," I said, "you shall have some." But I was not yet in a position to make myself understood.
"Pussy's been sleepin' on your box all the afternoon, sir," said the maid when I came in to tea. "I couldn't get her to come off; and when I did turn her out of the room, I do believe she climbed up and got in again by the winder."
"I don't mind at all," I said; "let her be there if she likes." And indeed I felt quite grateful to the cat. I don't know that she could have done much if there had been any attempt on the box, but I was sure her intentions were good.
There was fish that evening, and she had a good deal of it. She did not say much that I could follow, but chiefly sang songs without words.
Not to go over the preliminaries again, I did, when the proper time came, tough my tongue with the contents of the third jar. I found that it worked in this way: I could not hear what I was saying myself, when I was talking to an animal: I only thought the remark very clearly, and then felt my tongues and lips moving in an odd fashion, which I can't describe. But with the small people in human shape it was very different. I spoke in an ordinary way to them, and though I dare say my voice went up an octave or two, I can't say I perceived it.
The village was there again to-night, and the life going on in it seemed much the same. I was set upon making acquaintance in a natural sort of way with the people, and as it would not do to run any risk of startling them, I just took my place near the window and made some pretence of playing Patience. I thought it likely that some of the young people would come and watch me, in spite of the fright they had had the night before. And it was not long before I heard a rustling in the shrubs under the window and voices saying:
"Is he in there? Can you see him? Oh, I say, do look out: you all but had me over that time!"
They were suddenly quiet after this, and apparently one must have, very cautiously, climbed up and looked into the room. When he got down again there was a great fuss.
"No, is he really?" "What d'you say he was doing?" "What sort of charm?" "I say, d'you think we'd better get down?" "No, but what is he really doing?" "Laying out rows of flat things on the table, with marks on them," "I don't believe it." "Well, you go and look yourself." "All right, I shall." "Yes, but, I say, do look out: suppose you get shut in and we're late for the bell?" "Why, you fool, I shan't go in the room, only stop on the window-sill." "Well, I don't know, but I do believe he saw us last night, and my father said he thought so too." "Oh, well, he can't move very quick, anyway, and he's some way off the window. I shall go up."
I managed, without altering my position too much, to keep my eye on the window-sill, and, sure enough, in a second or two a small round head came into sight. I went on with my game. At first I could see that the watcher was ready to duck down at the slightest provocation, but as I took no sort of notice, he gained confidence, leant his elbows on the sill, and then actually pulled himself up and sat down on it. He bent over and whispered to the others below, and it was not long before I saw a whole row of heads filling up the window-sill from end to end. There must have been a dozen of them. I thought the time was come, and without moving, and in as careless a tone as I could, I said:
"Come in, gentlemen, come in; don't be shy." There was a rustle, and two or three heads disappeared, but nobody said anything. "Come in if you like," I said again; "you can hear the bell quite well from here, and I shan't shut the window."
"Promise!" said the one who was sitting on the sill.
"I promise, honour bright," I said, whereupon he made the plunge. First he dropped on to the seat of a chair by the window, and from that to the floor. Then he wandered about the room, keeping at a distance from me at first, and, I have no doubt, watching very anxiously to see whether I had any intention of pouncing on him. The others followed, first one by one and then two or three at a time. Some remained sitting on the window-sill, but most plucked up the courage to get down onto the floor and explore.
I had now had my first good chance of seeing what they were like. They all wore the same fashion of clothes – a tunic and close-fitting hose and flat caps – seemingly very much what a boy would have worn in Queen Elizabeth's time. The colours were sober – dark blue, dark red, grey, brown – and each one's clothes were of one colour all through. They had some white linen underneath; it showed a little at the neck. There were both fair and dark among them: all were clean and passably good-looking, one or two certainly handsome. The first-comer was ruddy and auburn-haired and evidently a leader. They called him Wag.
I heard whispers from corners of the rooms, and appeals to Wag to explain what this and that unfamiliar object was, an noticed that he was never at a loss for an answer of some kind, correct or not. The fireplace, which had its summer dressing, was, it appeared, a rock garden; an old letter lying on the floor was a charm ("Better not touch it"); the waste-paper basket (not unnaturally) a prison; the pattern on the carpet was – "Oh, you wouldn't understand if I was to tell you."
Soon a voice – Wag's voice – came from somewhere near my foot.
"I say, could I get up on the top?" I offered to lift him, but he declined rather hastily and said my leg would be all right if I didn't mind putting it at a bit sloping: and he then ran up it on all fours – he was quite a perceptible weight – and got on to the table from my knee without any difficulty.
Once there, there was a great deal to interest him – books, papers, ink, pens, pipes, matches and cards. He was full of questions about them, and his being so much at ease encouraged others to follow him, so that before very long the whole lot were perambulating the table and making me very nervous lest the should fall off , while Wag was standing close up to me and putting me through a catechism.
"What do you have such little spears for?" he wanted to know, brandishing a pen at me, "Is that blood on the end? whose blood? Well then, what do you do with it? Let's see – only that?" (when I wrote a word or two). "Well, you can tell me about it another time. Now I want to know what these clubs in the chest are."
I said, "We make fire with them; if you like I'll show you – but it makes a little noise."
"Go on," said Wag; and I struck a match, rather expecting a stampede. But no, they were quite unmoved, and Wag said, "Beastly row and smell – why don't you do the ordinary way?"
He brushed the palm of his left hand along the tips of his fingers on his right hand, put them to his lips and then to his eyes, and behold! His eyes began to glow from behind with a light which would have been quite bright enough for him to read by. "Quite simple," he said; "don't you know it?" Then he did the same thing in reverse order, touching eyes, lips and hand, and the light was gone. I didn't like to confess that this was beyond me.
"Yes, that's all very well," I said, "but how do you manage about your houses? I am sure I saw lights in the windows."
"Course," he said," put as many as you want;" and he ran around the table dabbing his hand here and there on the cloth, or on anything that lay on it, and at every place a little round bud or drop or very bright but also soft light came out. "See?" he said, and darted around again, passing his hands over lights and toughing his lips; and they were gone. He came back and said "It's a much better way; it is really," as if it were only my native stupidity that prevented me from using it myself.
A smaller one, who looked to me rather a quieter sort than Wag, had come up and was standing by him: he now said in a low voice:
"P'raps they can't."
It seemed a new idea to Wag: he made his eyes very round. "Can't? Oh, rot! it's quite simple."
The other shook his head and pointed to my hand which rested on the table. Wag looked at it too, and then at my face.
"Could I see it spread out?" he said.
"Yes, if you'll promise not to spoil it."
He laughed slightly, and then both he and the other – whom he called Slim – bent over and looked closely at the tips of my fingers. "Other side please," he said after a time, and they subjected my nails to a like examination. The others, who had been at the remoter parts of the table, wandered up and looked over their shoulders. After tapping my nails and lifting up one or more fingers, Wag stood upright and said:
"Well, I s'pose it's true, and you can't. I thought your sort could do anything."
"I thought much the same about you," I said in self-defence, "I always thought you could fly, but you –"
"So we can," said Wag very sharply, and his face grew red.
"Oh," I said, "then why haven't you been doing it tonight?"
He kicked one foot with the other and looked quickly at Slim. The rest said nothing and edged away, humming to themselves.
"Well, we can fly perfectly well, only –"
"Only not to-night, I suppose," I said, rather unkindly.
"No, not to-night," said Wag; "and you needn't laugh, either – we'll soon show you."
"That will be nice," I said; "and when will you show me?"
"Let's see" (he turned to Slim) "two more nights, isn't it? All right then (to me), in two nights more you'll see."
Just then a moth which flew in caused a welcome diversion – for I could see that somehow I had touched on a sore subject, and that he was feeling awkward – and he first jumped at it and then ran after it. Slim lingered. I raised my eyebrows and pointed at Wag. Slim nodded.
"The fact is," he said in a low voice, "he got us into rather a row yesterday and we're all stopped flying for three nights."
"Oh," I said. "I see: you must tell him I am very sorry for being so stupid. May I ask who stopped you?"
"Oh, just the old man, not the owls."
"You do go to the owls for something, then?" I asked, trying to appear intelligent.
"Yes, history and geography."
"To be sure," I said; "of course they've seen a lot, haven't they?"
"So they say," said Slim, "But –"
Just then the low toll of the bell was wafted through the window and there was an instant scurry to the edge of the table, then to the seat of the chair, and up to the window-sill; small arms waved caps at me, the shrubs rustled, and I was left alone.
Text taken from M. R. James' "The Five Jars", published by Edward Arnold & Co., 1922