The Five Jars
VI - The Cat, Wag, Slim and Others
I got out my precious casket. I sat by the window and watched. The moon shone out, the lid of the box loosened in due course, and I touched my forehead with the ointment. But neither at once not for some little time after I did I notice any fresh power coming to me.
With the moon, up came also the little town, and no sooner were the doors of the houses level with the grass than the boys were out of them and running in some numbers towards my window; in fact, some slipped out of their own windows, not waiting for the doors to be available. Wag was the first. Slim, more sedate, came among the crowd that followed. These were still the only two who felt no hesitation in talking to me. The others were all fully occupied in exploring the room.
"Tomorrow," I said (after some sort of how-do-you-do's had been exchanged), "you'll be flying all over the place, I suppose."
"Yes," said Wag, shortly. "But I want to know – I say Slim, what was it we wanted first?"
"Wasn't there a message from your father?" said Slim.
"Oh, yes, of course, 'If they're about the house,' he said, 'give them horseshoes; if there's a bat-ball, squirt at it': he thinks there's a squirt in the tool-house – Oh, there's the cat; I must —" After delivering this all in one sentence, he rushed to the edge of the table and took a kind of header into the midst of the unfortunate animal, who, however, only moaned or crowed without waking, and turned partly over onto her back.
Slim remained sitting on a book and gazing soberly at me.
"Well," I said, "it's very kind of Wag's father to send me a message, but I must say I can't make much of it."
Slim nodded, "So he said, and he said you'd see them when the time came; of course I don't know myself; I've never seen a bat-ball. Wag says he has, but you never know with Wag."
"Well I must do the best that I can I suppose; but look here, Slim, I wish you could tell me one or two things. What are you? What do they call you?"
"They call me Slim: and the whole of us are called the Right People," said Slim; "but it's not good asking us much, because we don't know, and besides, it isn't good for us."
"How do you mean?"
"Why, you see, our job is to keep the little things right, and if we do more then that, or if we try to find out much more, then we burst."
"And that is the end of you?"
"Oh, no!" he said cheerfully, "but it's one of the things it's no good asking."
"And if you don't do your job, what then?"
"Oh, then they get smaller and have no sense." (He said they, not we, I noticed.)
"I see. Well now, you go to school, don't you?" He nodded. "What for? Isn't that likely to be bad for you?" (I hardly like to say "make you burst.")
"No," he said; "you see, it's to learn our job. We have to be told what used to go on, so as we can put things right, or keep them right. And the owls, you see, they remember a long way back, but they don't know anymore than we do about the swell things."
I was very shy about putting the next question I had in mind, but I felt I must. "Now do you know how old you are, or how long it takes for you to grow up, or how – how long you go on when you are grown up!"
He pressed his hands to his head, and I was dreadfully afraid for that moment that it might be swelling and would burst; but it was not as bad as all that. After a few seconds he looked up and said:
"I think it's seven times seven moons since I went to school and seven times seven moons before I grow up; and the rest is no good asking. But it's alright"; upon which he smiled.
And this, I must say, was the most part of what I ventured to ask any of them about themselves. But at other times I gathered that as long as they "did their job" nothing could injure them; and they were regularly measured – all of them – to see of they were getting smaller, and a careful record kept. But if anyone lost as much as a quarter of their height, he was doomed, and he crept off out of the settlement. Whether such a one ever came back I could not be sure; most of the failures (and they were not common) went and lived in hollow trees or by brooks and were happy enough, but in a feeble way, not remembering much, nor able to make anything; and it was supposed that very slowly they shrunk to the size of a pin's head, and probably to nothing. All the same, it was believed that they could recover. Many other things that you would have asked, I did not, being anxious to avoid giving trouble.
But this time, anyhow, I felt that I had catechized Slim long enough, so I broke off and said:
"What can Wag be doing all this while?"
"There's no knowing," said Slim. "But he's very quiet for him; either he's doing something awful, or he's asleep."
"I saw him with the cat last," I said; "you might want to go and look at her."
He walked to the edge of the table, and said, "Why, he is asleep!" And so he was, with his head on the cat's chest, under her chin, which she had turned up; and she had put her front paws together over the top of his head. As for the others, I descried them sitting in a circle in a corner of the room , also very quiet. (I imagine they were a little afraid of doing much without Wag, and also of waking him.) But I could not make out what they were doing, so I asked Slim.
"Racing earwigs, I should think," he said, with something of contempt.
"Well, I hope they won't leave them about when they go. I don't like earwigs."
"Who does?" he said; "but they'll take them away all right; they're prize ones, some of them."
I went over and looked at the racing for a little. The course was neatly marked out with small lights sprouting out of the boards, and the circle was at the winning post, the starters being at the other end, some six feet away. I watched one heat. The earwigs seemed to me neither very speedy nor very intelligent, and all except one were apt to stop in mid-course and engage in personal encounters with each other.
I was beginning to imagine how long this would go on, when Wag woke up. Like most of us, he was not willing to allow that he was asleep.
"I thought I'd just lie down a bit," he said, "and then I didn't want to bustle your cat, so I stopped there. And now I want to know – Slim, I say, what was it you were asking me?"
"Me asking you? I don't know."
"Oh, yes you do; what he was doing the other time before we came in."
"I didn't ask that; you asked me."
"Well, it doesn't matter who asked." (Turning to me): "What were you doing?"
"I don't know," I said. "Was it these things I was using" (taking up a pack of cards), "or something like this?" (I held up a book.)
"Yes, that one. What were you doing with it? What's it for?"
"We call it reading a book," and I tried to explain what the idea was, and read out a few lines; it happened to be Pickwick. They were absorbed. Slim said, half to himself, "Something like a glass," which I thought quite meaningless at the time. Then I showed them a picture in another book. That they made out very quickly.
"But when's it going to move on?" said Slim.
"Never," I said. "Ours just stop like that always. Do yours move on?"
"Of course they do; look here." He lay down on the tablecloth and pressed his forehead on it, but evidently could make nothing of it. "It's all rough," he said. I gave him a sheet of paper. "That's better;" and he lay down again in the same posture for a few seconds. Then he got up and began rubbing the paper all over with the palms of his hands. As he did so, a coloured picture came out pretty quickly, and when it was finished he drew aside to let me see, and said, somewhat bashfully, "I don't think I've got it quite right, but I made it for what happened the other evening." He had certainly got it right as far as I was concerned. It was a view of the window of the house, seen from outside by moonlight, and there was a back view of a row of figures with their elbows on the sill. So far, so good; but inside the open window was standing a figure that was plainly – much too plainly, I thought – meant for me; far too short and fat, far too red-faced, and with an owlish expression which I am sure I never wear. This person was seen to move his hand – a very poor hand, with only three fingers – to his side, and pull, apparently, out of his body, a round object that looked more or less like a watch (at any rate it was white on one side with black marks, and yellow on the other) and lay it down in front of him. At this, the figures on the window-sill threw up their arms in all directions and fell or slid down like so many dolls. Then the picture began to get fainter, and disappeared from the paper. Slim looked at me expectantly.
"Well," I said, "it's very interesting to see how you do it, but is that the best likeness of me that you can make?"
"What's wrong with it?" said he. "Isn't it handsome enough or something?"
I heard Wag throw himself down on the table, and, looking at him, I saw that he had got both hands pressed over his mouth.
"May I ask what the joke is?" I said rather dryly (for it was surprising how touchy one could be over one's personally appearance, even at my time of life). He looked up for an instant at me, and then gasped and hid his face again. Slim went up to him and kicked him in the ribs.
"Where's your manners?" he said in a loud whisper. Wag rolled over and say up, wiping his eyes.
"I'm very sorry," he said. "I'm sure I don't know what I was laughing for." Slim whistled. "Well," said Wag, "What was I?"
"Him, of course. And you know perfectly well!"
"Oh, was I? Well, perhaps you'll tell me what there is to laugh at about him?" said Wag, rather basely, I thought; so as Slim put his finger to his lip and looked unhappy, I interrupted.
"Get up a minute, Wag," I said. "I want to see something."
"What?" said he, jumping up at once.
"Stand back a little with Slim, if you don't mind. That's it. Dear me! I thought you were taller than that – you looked taller to me last night. My mistake, I dare say. All right, thanks." But there they stood, gazing at each other with horror, and I felt I had been trifling with a most serious subject, so I laughed and said, "Don't disturb yourselves. I was only chaffing you, Wag, because you seemed to be doing something of the kind to me."
Slim understood, and heaved a sigh of relief. Wag sat down on a book and looked reproachfully upon me. Neither said a word. I was very much ashamed, and begged their pardon as nicely as I knew how. Luckily, Wag was soon convinced that I was not in earnest, and he recovered his spirits directly.
"All right," he said, nodding at me; "did I hear you say you didn't like earwigs? That's worth remembering, Slim."
This reduced me at once; I tried to point out that he had begun it, and that it would be a mean revenge, and very hard on the earwigs, if he filled my room with them, for I should be obliged to kill all I could.
"Why, they needn't be real earwigs; my own tickle every bit as much as real ones."
This was no better for me, and I tried to make more appeals to his better feelings. He did not seem to be listening very attentively, though his eyes were fixed on me.
"What's that on your neck?" he said suddenly, and at the same moment I felt a procession of legs walking over my skin. I brushed it hastily, and something seemed to fall on the table. "No, the other side I mean," said he, and again I felt the same horrid tickling and went through the same exercises, with a face, I've no doubt, contorted with terror. Anyhow, it seemed to amuse them very much; Wag, in fact, was quite unable to speak, and could only point. It was dull of me not to have first realised at once that these were "his" earwigs and not real ones. But now I did, and though I still felt the tickling, I did not move, but sat down and gazed severely at him. Soon he got the better of his mirth and said, "I think we are quits now." Then with sudden alarm, "I say, what's become of the others? The bell hasn't gone, has it?"
"How should I know?" I said. "If you hadn't been making all that disturbance, perhaps we might have heard it."
He took a flying leap – an extraordinary feat it was – from the edge of the table to a chair in the window, scrambled up to the sill, and gazed out. "It's alright," he said, in a faint voice of infinite relief; let himself down limply to the floor, and climbed slowly up my leg to his former place.
"Well," I said, "the bell hasn't gone, it seems, but where are the rest? I've hardly seen any of them."
"Oh, you go and find 'em, Slim; I'm worn out with all these frights."
Slim went to the farther end of the table, prospected, and returned. He reported them "all right, but they're having a rather slow time of it, I think." I, too, got up, walked round and looked; they were seated in a solemn circle on the floor round the cat, who was now curled up and fast asleep on a round footstool. Not a word was being said by anybody. I thought I had better address them, so I said:
"Gentlemen, I'm afraid I've been very inattentive to you this evening. Isn't there anything I can do to amuse you? Won't you come up on the table? You're welcome to walk up my leg if you find that convenient."
I was almost sorry I had spoke the moment after, for they made but one rush at my legs as I stood by the table, and the sensation was rather like, I imagine, of a swarm of rats climbing up one's trousers. However, it was over in a few seconds, and all of them – over a dozen – were with Wag and Slim on the table, except one, who, whether by mistake or on purpose, went on climbing me by way of my waistcoat buttons, rather deliberately, until he reached my shoulder. I didn't object, of course, but I turned round (which made him catch at my ear) and went back to my chair, seated in which I felt rather as if I was presiding at a meeting. The one on my shoulder sat down and, I thought, folded his arms and looked at his friends with some triumph. Wag evidently took this to be a liberty.
"My word!" he said, "what do you think you mean by it, Wisp? Come off it!"
Wisp was a little daunted, as I judged by his fidgeting somewhat, but put a bold face on it and said, "Why should I come off?"
I put in a word: "I don't mind his being here."
"I dare say not; that's not the point," said Wag. "Are you coming down?"
"No," said Wisp, "not for you." But his tone was rather blustering than brave.
"Very well, don't then," said Wag; and I expected him to run up and pull Wisp down by the legs, but he didn't do that. He took something out of the breast of his tunic, put it in his mouth, lay down on his stomach, and, with his eyes on Wisp, puffed out his cheeks. Two or three seconds passed, during which I felt Wisp shifting about on his perch, and breathing quickly. Then he gave a sharp shriek, which went right through my head, slipped rapidly down my chest and legs and on to the floor, where he continued to squeal and to run about like a mad thing, to the great amusement of everyone on the table.
Then I saw what was the matter. All round his head were a multitude of little sparks, which flew around him like a swarm of bees, every now and then settling and coming off again, and, I suppose, burning him every time; if he beat them off, they attacked his hands, so he was in a bad way. After watching him for about a minute from the edge of the table, Wag called out:
"Do you apologize?"
"Yes!" he screamed.
"All right," said Wag; "stand still! Stand still, you bat! How can I get 'em back if you don't?" Wag was back to me and I couldn't see what he did, but Wisp sat down on the carpet free of sparks, and wiped his face and neck with his handkerchief for some time, while the rest gradually recovered from their laughter. "You can come up again now," said Wag; and so he did, though he was slow and shy about it.
"Why didn't he send the sparks at Wag?" said I to Slim.
"He hasn't got 'em to send." Was the answer. "It's only the Captain of the Moon."
"Well now, what about a little peace and quiet?" I said. "And, you know, I've never been introduced to you all properly. Wouldn't it be a good idea to do that before the bell goes?"
"Very well," said Wag. "We'll do it properly. You bring 'em up one at a time, Slim, and" (to me) "you put your sun-hand out on the table."
Wag: "Yes, sun-hand; don't you know? He held up his right hand, then his left: "Sun-hand, Moon-hand, Day-hand, Night-hand, Star-hand, Cloud-hand, and so on."
I: "Thank you.")
This was done, and meanwhile Slim formed the troop into a queue and beckoned them up one by one. Wag stood on a book on the right and proclaimed the name of each. First he made me arrange my right hand edgeways on the table, with the forefinger out. Then "Gold!" said Wag. Gold stepped forward and made a lovely bow, which I returned with an inclination of my head, then took as much of my forefinger top joint in his right hand as he could manage, bent of it and shook it or tried to, and then took up a position on the left and watched the next comer. The ceremony was the same for everyone, but not all the bows were equally elegant; some of the boys were jocular, and shook my finger with both hands and a great display of effort. These were frowned on by Wag. The names (I need not set them all down now) were all of the same kind as you have heard; there was Red, Wise, Dart, Sprat, and so on. After Wisp, who came last and was rather humble, Wag called out Slim, and, after him, descended and presented himself in the same form.
"And now," he said, "perhaps you'll tell us your name."
I did so (one is always a little shame-faced about it, I don't know why) in full. He whistled.
"Too much," he said; "what's the easiest you can do?"
After some thought I said, "What about M or N?"
"Much better! If M's all right for you, it'll do for us." So M was agreed upon.
I was still rather afraid that the rank and file had been passing a dull evening and would not some again, and I tried to express as much to them. But they said:
"Dull? Oh, no M; why we've found out all sorts of things!"
"Really? What sort of things?"
"Well, inside the wall in that corner there's the biggest spider I've ever seen, for one thing."
"Good gracious!" I said. "I hate 'em. I hope it can't get out?"
"It would have to-night if we hadn't stopped up the hole. Something's been helping it to gnaw through."
"Has it?" said Wag. "My word! That looks bad. What was it made the hole?"
Some called out "A bat," and some "A rat."
"It doesn't matter much for that," said Slim, "so long as it's safe for now. Where is it?"
"Gone down to the bottom and saying awful things," Red answered.
"Well, I am obliged to you," I said. "Anything else?"
"There's lots of this stuff under the floor," said Dart, pointing with is foot at a half-crown which lay on the table.
"Is there? Whereabouts?" said I. "Oh, but I was forgetting; I can look after that myself."
"Yes, of course you can," they said; "and lots of things happened here before you came. We were watching. The old man and the woman, the were the worst, weren't they, Red?"
"Do you mean you've been here before?" I asked.
"No, no, but to-night we were looking at them, like we do at school."
This was beyond me, and I thought it would be of no use to ask for more explanations. Besides, just at this moment we heard the bell. They all clambered down either me or the chairs and tablecloth. Slim lingered a moment to say, "You'll look out, won't you?" and then followed the rest on to the window-sill, where, taking the time from Captain Wag, they all stood in a row, bowed with their caps off, straightened up again, each sang one note, which combined into a beautiful chord, faced round and disappeared. I followed them to the window and saw the inhabitants of the houses separating and going to their homes with the young ones capering round them. One or two of the elders – Wag's father in particular – looked up at me, paused in their walk, and bowed gravely, which courtesy I returned. I went on gazing until the lawn was a blank once more, and then, closing and fastening the sitting-room window, I betook myself to the bedroom.
Text taken from M. R. James' "The Five Jars", published by Edward Arnold & Co., 1922