The Five Jars



II - The First Jar

That night I waited till the moon was up before trying to open the box. I do not know why, but it seemed the right thing, and I followed my instinct, feeling that it might be the plant that made me think as I did. I drew up the blind and laid the box on a table near the window, where the moon shone full on it, and waited to see if anything else occurred to me. Suddenly I heard a sort of metallic snap. I went and looked at the box. Nothing appeared on the side next to me — but when I turned it round I saw that all along the side which the moon had shone upon there was a line along the metal. I turned another side to the moonlight, and another snap came in two or three minutes. Of course, I went on. When the moon had made a groove on all four sides, I tried the lid. It would not come off just yet, so there was nothing to be done but continue the process. Three times I did it: every side I turned to the moon thrice, and when that was done, the lid was free. I lifted it, and what did I see inside the box? All this writing would be very little use if I did not tell you, so it must be done.

There were five compartments in the box: in each of them was a little jar or vase of glass with a round body, a narrow neck, and spreading out a little at the top. The top of each was covered with a plate of metal and on each was a word or two in capital letters. On the one in the middle there were the words unge oculos, the other jars had one word apiece, aures, linguam, frontem, pectus.

Now, years ago, I took great pains to learn the Latin language, and on many occasions I have found it most useful, whatever you may see to the contrary in the newspaper: but seldom or never have I found it more useful than now. I saw at once that the words mean anoint the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the forehead, the chest. What would be the result of me doing this, of course I knew no more than you: but I was pretty sure that I would not do to try them all at once, and another thing I felt, that it would be better to wait till next day before trying any of them. It was past midnight now, so I went to bed: but first I locked up the box in the cupboard, for I did not want anybody to see it yet.

Next day I woke bright and early, looked at my watch, found there was no need to think about getting up yet, and, like a wise creature, went to sleep again. I mention this, not merely by way of being jocose, but because after I went to sleep I had a dream which most likely came from the plant and certainly had to do with the box.

I seemed to see a room, or to be in a room about which I only noticed that the floor was paved with mosaic in a pattern mostly red and white, that there were no pictures on the walls and no fireplace, no sashes or indeed panes in the window, and the moon was shining in very bright. There was a table and a chest. Then I saw an old man, rather badly shaven and bald, in a Roman dress, white for the most part, with a purple stripe somewhere, and sandals. He looked by no means a wicked or designing old man. I was glad of that. He opened the chest, took out my box, and placed it carefully on the table in the moonlight. Then he went to a part of the room that I could not see, and I heard a sound of water being poured into a metal basin, and he came back into sight again, wiping his hands on a white towel. He opened the box, took out a little silver spoon and one of the jars, took off the lid and dipped the spoon in the jar and touched first his right eye and then his left with it. Then he put the jar and spoon back, laid the lid on the box and put it back in the chest. After that, he went to the window and stood there looking out, and seemed to be very much amused with what he saw. That was all.

"Hints for me," I remember thinking. "Perhaps it will be best not to touch the box before the moon is up to-night, and always with washed hands." I suppose I woke up immediately, for it was all very fresh in my mind when I did

It was something of a disappointment to have to put of my experiments till the night came round. But it was all for the best, for letters came by post which I had to attend to: in fact, I was obliged to go to the town a little way off to see someone and to send telegrams and so on. I was a little doubtful about the seeing thing underground, but I soon found that unless I — so to say — turned on the tap, and specially wished to use the power, it did not interfere with my ordinary seeing. When I did, it seemed to come forward from the back of my eyes, and was stronger than the day before. I could see rabbits in their burrows and followed the roots of one oak tree very deep down. Once it threatened to be awkward, when I stooped to pick up a silver coin in the street, and grazed my knuckle against a paving stone, under which, of course, it was.

So much for that. By the way, I had taken a look at the box after breakfast, I found that the lid was as tight on as when I found it first.

After dinner that evening I put out the light — the moon being now bright — placed the box on the table, washed my hands, opened it and, shutting my eyes, put my hand on one of those jars at random and took it out. As I had rather expected, I heard a little rattle as I did so, and feeling in the compartment, I found a little, a very little, spoon. All was well. Now to see which jar chance or the plant had chosen for my first experiment. I took it to the window: it was the one marked aures — ears — and the spoon had on the handle a letter A. I opened the jar. The lid fitted close but not over tightly. I put in the spoon as the old man had done, as near as I could remember. It brought out a very small drop of thick stuff with which I touched first my right ear and then my left. When I had done so I looked at the spoon. It was perfectly dry. I put it and the jar back, closed the box, locked it up, and, not knowing in the least what to expect, went to the open window and put my head out.

For some little time I heard nothing. This was to be expected, and I was not in the least inclined to distrust the jar. Then I was rewarded; a bat flew by, and I, who have not heard a bat even squeak these twenty years, now heard this one say in whistling angry tone, "Would you, would you, I've got — no, drat, drat." It was not a very exciting remark, but it enough to show me that a whole new world (as the books say) was open to me.

This, of course, was only a beginning. There were some plants and flowering shrubs under the window, and though I could see nothing, I began to hear voices — two voices — talking among them. They sounded young: of course they were anyhow very small, but they seemed to belong to young creatures of their kind.

"Hullo, I say, what have you got there? Do let's look; you might as well."

Then a pause — another voice: "I believe it's a bad one."

Number one: "Taste it."

Number two, after another pause, with a slight sound (very diminutive) of spitting: "Heugh! bad! I should rather think it was. Maggot!"

Number one (after laughing rather longer than I thought kind): "Look here — don't chuck it away — let's give it to the old man. Here — shove the piece in again and rub it over — here he is!" (Very demurely): "O sir, we've got such a nice looking ——" (I could not catch what it was) "here; we thought you might like it, sir. Would your, sir? ... Oh no, thank you, sir, we've had plenty, sir, but this was the biggest we found.

A third voice said something; it was a deeper one and less easy to hear.

Number two: "Bitten, sir?" Oh no, I don't think so. Do you ——?" (a name which I did not make out)

Number one: "Why, how could it be?"

Number three again — angry, I thought.

Number two (rather anxiously): "But, sir, really, sir, I don't much like them. ... Must I really, sir? ... O sir, it's got a maggot in it, and I believe they're poison." (Smack, smack, smack, smack.)

Two voices, very lamentable: "O sir, sir, please sir!"

A considerable pause, and sniffling. Then Number two, in a broken voice: "You sill fool, why did you go laughing like that right under his snout? You might have known he'd cog it." ("Cog." I had not heard the word since 1876.) "There'll be an awful row to-morrow. Look here, I shall go to bed."

The voices died away; I thought Number one seemed to be apologising. That was all I heard that night. After eleven o'clock things seemed to get very still, and I began to feel just a little apprehensive lest something of a less innocent kind should come along. So I went to bed.



Text taken from M. R. James' "The Five Jars", published by Edward Arnold & Co., 1922

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.