The Five Jars
V - Danger to the Jars
Now my ears and eyes and tongue had been dealt with, and what remained were the forehead and the chest. I could not guess what would come of treating these with the ointment, but I thought I would try the forehead first. There was still a day or two when the moon would be bright enough for the trial. I hoped that perhaps the effect of these last two jars might be to make me able to go on with my experiences – to keep in touch with the new people I had come across – during the time when she – the moon, I mean – was out of sight.
I had one anxiety. The precious box must be guarded from those who were after it. About this I had a conviction, that if I could keep them off until I had used each of the five jars, the box and I would be safe. Why I felt sure of this I could not say, but my experience had led me to trust these beliefs that came into my head, and I meant to trust this one. It would be best, I thought, if I did not go far from the house – perhaps even if I did not leave it at all until the time of danger was past.
Several things happened in the course of the morning which confirmed me in my belief. I took up a position at the table by the window of my sitting-room. I had put the box in my suit-case, which I had locked, and I now laid it beside me where I could keep an eye upon it. The view from my window showed me, first, the garden of the cottage, with its lawn and little flower beds, its hedge and back gate, and beyond that a path leading down across a field. More fields, I knew, came after that one, and sloped pretty sharply down to a stream in the valley, which I could not see; but I could see the steep slope of the fields, partly pasture, and then clothed with green woods towards the top. There were no other houses in sight: the road was behind me, passing the front of the cottage, and my bedroom looked out that way. I had some reading and writing to do, and I had not long finished breakfast before I settled down to it, and heard the maid "doing out" the bedroom as usual, accompanied every now an then by a slight mew from the cat, who (also as usual) was watching her at work. These mews meant nothing in particular, I may say; the were only intended to be met by an encouraging remark, such as "There you are, then, pussy," or "Don't get in my way, now," or "All in good time." Finally I heard "Come along then, and let's see what we've got for you downstairs," and the door was shut. I mention this because of what happened about a quarter of an hour later.
There was suddenly a fearful crash in the bedroom, a fall, a breaking of glass and crockery and snapping of wood, and then, fainter, sobbings and moans of pain. I started up.
"Goodness!" I though, "she must have been dusting that heavy shelf high up on the wall with all the china on it, and the whole thing has given way. She must be badly hurt! But why doesn't her mistress come rushing upstairs? and what was that rasping noise beside me?"
I looked at my suit-case, which lay on the table just inside the open window. Across the new smooth top of it there were three deep scratches running towards the window, which had not been there before. I moved it to the other side of me and sat down. There had been an attempt to decoy me out of the room, and it had failed. Certainly there would be more.
I waited; but everything was quiet in the house: no more noise from the bedroom and no one moving about, upstairs or downstairs; nothing but the pump clanking in the scullery. I turned to my work again.
Half an hour must have gone by, and, though on the look-out, I was not fidgety. Then I was aware of a confused noise from the field outside.
"Help! help! Keep off, you brute! Help, you there!" as well as I could make out, again and again. Towards the far end of the field, which was a pretty large one, a poor old man was trying to get to a gate in the hedge at a staggering run, and striking now and then with is stick at a great deer-hound which was leaping up at him with hollow barks. It seemed as if nothing but the promptest dash to the spot could save him; it seemed, too, as if he has caught sight of me at the window, for he beckoned. How strange the cries sounded! It was as if someone was shouting into an empty jug. My field-glasses were by me on the table, and I thought I would take just one look before I rushed out. I am glad I did; for, do you know, when I had the glasses focused on the dog and the man, all that I could see was a sort of fuzz of dancing vapour, much as if the shimmering air that you see on the heath on a hot day had been gathered up and rolled into a shape.
"Ha! ha!" I said, as I put down the glasses; and something in the air, about four yards off, made a sharp hissing sound. No doubt there were words, but I could not distinguish them. A second attempt had failed; you may be sure I was well on alert for the next.
I put away my books now, and sat looking out of the window, and wondering as I watched whether there was anything out of the common to be noticed. For one thing, I thought there were more birds about than I expected. At first I did not see them, for they were not hopping about on the lawn; but as I stared at the hedge of the garden, and at the end of the field, I became aware that these were full of life. On almost every twig that could hold a bird in shelter – not on the top of the hedges – a bird was sitting, quite still, and they were all looking toward the window, as if they were expecting something to happen there. Occasionally one would flutter its wings a little and turn its head towards its neighbour; but this was all they did.
I picked up my glasses and began to study the bottom of the hedges and the bushes, where there was some quantity of dead leaves, and here, too, I could see that there were spectators. A small bright eye or a bit of nose was visible wherever I looked; in short, the mice, and, I don't doubt, some of the rats, hedgehogs, and toads as tell, were collected there and were as intently on the watch as the birds. "What a chance for the cat, if only she knew!" I put my head cautiously out of the window, and looking down on the sill of the window below I could see her head, with the ears pushed forward; she was looking earnestly at the hedge, but she did not move. Only, at the slightest noise I made, she turned her face upward and crowed to me in a modest but encouraging manner.
Time passed on. Luncheon was laid – on another table – and was over, before anything else had happened.
The next thing was that I heard the maid saying sharply:
"What business 'ave you got going round to the back? We don't want none of your rubbish here."
A hoarse voice answered inaudibly.
Maid: "No, not the gentleman don't want none of you stuff neither; and how do you know there's a gentleman here at all I should like to know? What? Don't mean no offence? I dare say. That's more than I know. Well, that's the last word I've got to say."
In a minute more there was a knock at my door, and at the same time a step on the gravel path under my window, and a loud hiss from the cat. As I said "Come in" to the knock, I hastily looked out of the window, but saw nothing. It was the maid who had knocked. She had come to ask if there was anything that I should like from the village, or anything i should want before tea-time, because the mistress was going out, and wanted her to go over and fetch something from the shop. I said there was nothing except the letters and perhaps a small parcel from the post office. She lingered a moment before going, and finally said:
"You'll excuse me naming it, sir, but there seems to be some funny people about the roads to-day, if you'd please to be what I mean to say a bit on the look-out, if you're no a-going out yourself."
"Certainly," I said. "No, I don't mean to go out. By the way, who was it who came to the door just now?"
"Oh, it was one of there 'awking men, not one that I've seen before, and he must be a stranger in this part, I think, because he began going round to the garden door, only I stopped him. He'd got these cheap rubbish 'atpins and what not; leastways, if you understand me, what I thought to myself I shouldn't like ot be seen with 'em, whatever others might."
"Yes, I see," I answered; and she went, and I turned to my books once more.
Within a very few minutes I began to suspect that I was getting sleepy. Yes, it was undoubtedly so. What with the warmth of the day, and lunch, and not having been out.... There was a curious smell in the room too, not exactly nasty, like something burning. What did it remind me of? Wood smoke from a cottage fire, that one smell on an autumn evening as one comes bicycling down the hill into a village? Not quite so nice as that; something more like a chemist's shop. I wondered: and as I wondered, my eyes closed and my head went forward.
A sharp pain on the back of my hand, and a crash of glass! Up I jumped, and which of three or four things I realized first I don't know now. But I did realise in a second or two that my hand was bleeding from a scratch all down the back of it, that a pane of the window was broken and that the whole window was darken with little birds that were bumping their chests against it; that the cat was on the table gazing into my face with intense expression, that a little smoke was drifting in to the room, and that my suit-case was on the point of slipping out over the window-sill. A despairing dash I made, and managed to clutch it; but for the life of me I could not pull it back. I could see no string or cord, much less any hand that was dragging it. I hardly dared to take my hand from it to catch up something and hack at the thief that I could not see. Besides, there was nothing within reach.
Then I remembered the knife in my pocket. Could I get it out and open it without losing hold? "They hate steel," I thought. Somehow – frantically holding on with one hand – I got out the knife, and opened it, goodness knows how, for it was horribly small and stiff, with my teeth, and sheared and stabbed indiscriminately all around the farther end of the suit-case. Thank goodness, the strain relaxed. I got the thing inside the window, dropped it, and stood on it, craning over the garden path and round the corner of the house. Of course there was nothing to be seen. The birds were gone. The cat was still on the table saying "O you owl! O you owl!" The sole and only clue to what had been happening was a small earthenware saucer that lay on the path immediately below the window, with a little heap of ashes in it, from which a thin column of smoke was coming straight up and curling over when it reached the window level. That, I could not doubt, was the cause of my sudden sleepiness. I dropped a large book straight on to it, and had the satisfaction of hearing it crush to bits and of seeing the smoke go four ways along the ground and vanish.
I was perfectly awake now. I looked at the cat, and showed her the back of my hand. She sat quite still and said:
"Well, what did you expect? I had to do something. I'll lick it if you like, but I'd rather not. No particular ill-feeling, you understand; all the same a hundred years hence."
I was not in a position to answer her, so I shook my head at her, wound up my hand in a handkerchief, and then stroked her. She took it agreeably, jumped off the table, and requested to be let out.
So the third attack had failed. I sat down and looked out. The hedges were empty; not a bird, not a mouse was left. I took this to mean that the dangerous time was past, and great was the relief. Soon I heard the maid come back from her errands in the village, then the mistress's chaise, then the clock striking five. I felt it would be all right for me to go out after tea.
And so I did; first, however, concealing the suit-case in my bedroom – not that I supposed hiding it would be of much use – and piling upon it poker, tongs, knife, horseshoe, and anything else I could find which I thought would keep off trespassers. I had, be the way, to explain to the maid that a bird had flown against the window and broken it, and when she said "Stupid, tiresome little things they are," I am afraid I did not contradict her.
I went out by way of the garden and crossed the field, near the middle of which stands a large old oak. I went up to this, for no particular reason, and stood gazing at the trunk. As I did so I became aware that my eyes were beginning to "see through" and behold! a family of owls was inside. As it was near evening, they were getting wakeful, stirring, smacking their beaks and opening their wings a little from time to time. At last one of them said:
"Time's nearly up. Out and about! Out and about!"
"Anyone outside?" said another.
"No harm there," said the first.
This short way of talking, I believe, was due to the owls not being properly awake and consequently sulky. As they brightened up and got their eyes open, they began to ease in manner.
"Oop! Oop! Oop! I've had a very good day of it. You have, too, I hope?"
"Sound as a rock, I thank you, except when they were carrying on at the cottage."
"Oh goodness! I forgot! They didn't bring it off, I hope."
"Not they; the watch was too well set, but it was wanted. I had a leaf about it a few minutes after and it seems they got him asleep."
"Well! I never heard anyone bring a leaf."
"I dare say not, but I was expecting it; pigeon dropped it. There it is, on that child's back."
I saw the hen-owl stoop and examine a dead chestnut leaf which lay, as the other had said, on the owlet's back.
"Fa-a-ther!" said this owlet suddenly, in a shrill voice, "mayn't I go out tonight?"
But all Father did was to clasp its head in his claw and push it to and fro several times. When he let go, the owlet made no sound, but crept away and hid its face in a corner, and heaved as if with sobs. Father closed his eyes slowly and opened them slowly – amused, I thought. The mother had been reading the leaf all the time.
"Dear me! very interesting!" she said. "I suppose now the worst of it is over."
"All's quiet for to-night, anyhow," said father, "but I wish he could see someone about to-morrow; that's their last chance, and they may –" He ruffled up his feathers, lifted first one foot and then the other. "The awkwardness is," he went on, "if I say too much and they do get the jars, there's one risk; and if there's no warning and they get them, there's another risk."
"But if there is a warning and they don't get them," said she, very sensibly.
"Well, to be sure, that would be better, even though we don't know much about him."
"But where do you suppose he is, and whom ought he to see?" (It was just what I wanted to know, and I thanked her.)
"Why, as to the first, I suspect he's outside; there is someone there, and why they should stop there all this time unless they're listening, I don't know."
"Good gracious! listening to our private conversation! and me with my feathers all anyhow!" She began to peck at herself vigorously; but this was straying from the point and annoyed me. However, Father went slowly on:
"As to that, I don't much care whether he's listening or not. As to whom he ought to see, that's rather more difficult. If he's got as far as talking to any of the Right People (he said this as if they had capital letters), they'd know, of course; and some of them down the about the village, they'd know; and the Old Mother knows, and –"
"What about the boys?" said she, pausing in the middle of her toilet and poking her head up at him. He wholly disdained to answer, merely butted at her with his head, so that she slipped down off her ledge several inches, with great scrabbling. "Oh, don't!" she said peevishly, as she climbed back. "I'm all untidy again."
"Well then, don't ask such ridiculous questions. I shall buffle you with both wings next time. And now, as soon as the coast is clear, I shall be out and about."
I took the hint and moved off, for I had learnt as much as I could expect, even if all was not plain; and before I had gone many paces I was aware of the pair both sailing smoothly off in the opposite direction.
I was "seeing through" a good deal that evening; it is surprising what a lot of coppers people drop, even on a field path; surprising, too, in how many places there lie, unsuspected, bones of men. Some things I saw which were ugly and sad, like that, but more that were amusing and even exciting. There is one spot I could show where four gold cups stand round what was once a book, but the book is no more than earth now. That, however, I did not see on this particular evening.
What I remember best is a family of young rabbits huddled round their parents in a burrow, and the mother telling a story: "And so then he went a little farther and found a dandelion, and stopped and sat up and began to eat it. And when he had eaten two large leaves and one little on, he saw a fly on it – no, two flies; and then he thought he had had enough of that dandelion, and he went a little farther and found another dandelion..." And so it went on interminably, and entirely stupid, like everything else I had ever heard a rabbit say, for they have forgotten all about their ancestor Brer Rabbit. However, the children were absorbed in the story, so much that they never heard a stoat making its way down the burrow. But I heard it, and by stamping and driving my stick in I was able to make it turn tail and go off, cursing. All stoats, weasels, ferrets, polecats, are of the wrong people, as you may imagine, and so are most rats and bats.
At last I left off seeing through, by trying not to do so, and went back to the house, where I found all safe and quiet.
I ought to say that I had not as yet tried speaking to any animal, even to the cat when she scratched me, but I thought I would try it now. So when she came in at dinner-time and circled about, with what I may call pious aspirations about fish and other such things, I summoned up my courage and said (using my voice in the way I described, or rather did not describe, before):
"I used to be told, 'If you are hungry, you can eat dry bread.'"
She was certainly horribly startled. At first I thought she would have dashed up the chimney or out of the window; but she recovered pretty quickly and sat down, still looking at me with intense surprise.
"I suppose I might have guessed," she said; "but dear! what a turn you did give me! I feel quite faint; and gracious! what a day it has been! When I found you dozing off like a great –– Well, no one wants to be rude, do they? but can I tell you I had more than half a mind to go at your face."
"I'm really glad you didn't," I said; "and really, you know, it wasn't my fault: it was the stuff they were burning on the path."
"I know that well enough," she said; "but to come back to the point, all this anxiety has made me empty in myself as a clean saucer."
"Just what I was saying; if you are hungry, you can ––"
"Say that again, say it just once more," she said, and her eyes grew narrow as she said it, "and I shall ––"
"What shall you do?" I asked, for she stopped suddenly.
She calmed herself. "Oh, you know how it is when one's been all excited-like and worked up; we all say more than we mean. But that about dry bread! Well, there! I simply can't bear it. It's a wicked, cruel untruth, that's what it is; and besides, you can't be going to eat all of what she's put down for you." Excitement was coming on again, and she ended with a loud ill-tempered mew.
Well, I gave her what she seemed to want, and shortly after, worn out doubtless with the fatigue of the day, she went to sleep on a chair, not even caring to follow the maid downstairs when the things were cleared away.
Text taken from M. R. James' "The Five Jars", published by Edward Arnold & Co., 1922