The Story of the Amulet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 2. The Half Amulet
Long ago--that is to say last summer--the children, finding themselves embarrassed by some wish which the Psammead had granted them, and which the servants had not received in a proper spirit, had wished that the servants might not notice the gifts which the Psammead gave. And when they parted from the Psammead their last wish had been that they should meet it again. Therefore they had met it (and it was jolly lucky for the Psammead, as Robert pointed out). Now, of course, you see that the Psammead's being where it was, was the consequence of one of their wishes, and therefore was a Psammead-wish, and as such could not be noticed by the servants. And it was soon plain that in the Psammead's opinion old Nurse was still a servant, although she had now a house of her own, for she never noticed the Psammead at all. And that was as well, for she would never have consented to allow the girls to keep an animal and a bath of sand under their bed.
When breakfast had been cleared away--it was a very nice breakfast with hot rolls to it, a luxury quite out of the common way--Anthea went and dragged out the bath, and woke the Psammead.
It stretched and shook itself.
'You must have bolted your breakfast most unwholesomely,' it said, 'you can't have been five minutes over it.'
'We've been nearly an hour,' said Anthea. 'Come--you know you promised.'
'Now look here,' said the Psammead, sitting back on the sand and shooting out its long eyes suddenly, 'we'd better begin as we mean to go on. It won't do to have any misunderstanding, so I tell you plainly that--'
'Oh, please,' Anthea pleaded, 'do wait till we get to the others. They'll think it most awfully sneakish of me to talk to you without them; do come down, there's a dear.'
She knelt before the sand-bath and held out her arms. The Psammead must have remembered how glad it had been to jump into those same little arms only the day before, for it gave a little grudging grunt, and jumped once more.
Anthea wrapped it in her pinafore and carried it downstairs. It was welcomed in a thrilling silence. At last Anthea said, 'Now then!'
'What place is this?' asked the Psammead, shooting its eyes out and turning them slowly round.
'It's a sitting-room, of course,' said Robert.
'Then I don't like it,' said the Psammead.
'Never mind,' said Anthea kindly; 'we'll take you anywhere you like if you want us to. What was it you were going to say upstairs when I said the others wouldn't like it if I stayed talking to you without them?'
It looked keenly at her, and she blushed.
'Don't be silly,' it said sharply. 'Of course, it's quite natural that you should like your brothers and sisters to know exactly how good and unselfish you were.'
'I wish you wouldn't,' said Jane. 'Anthea was quite right. What was it you were going to say when she stopped you?'
'I'll tell you,' said the Psammead, 'since you're so anxious to know. I was going to say this. You've saved my life--and I'm not ungrateful--but it doesn't change your nature or mine. You're still very ignorant, and rather silly, and I am worth a thousand of you any day of the week.'
'Of course you are!' Anthea was beginning but it interrupted her.
'It's very rude to interrupt,' it said; 'what I mean is that I'm not going to stand any nonsense, and if you think what you've done is to give you the right to pet me or make me demean myself by playing with you, you'll find out that what you think doesn't matter a single penny. See? It's what I think that matters.'
'I know,' said Cyril, 'it always was, if you remember.'
'Well,' said the Psammead, 'then that's settled. We're to be treated as we deserve. I with respect, and all of you with--but I don't wish to be offensive. Do you want me to tell you how I got into that horrible den you bought me out of? Oh, I'm not ungrateful! I haven't forgotten it and I shan't forget it.'
'Do tell us,' said Anthea. 'I know you're awfully clever, but even with all your cleverness, I don't believe you can possibly know how--how respectfully we do respect you. Don't we?'
The others all said yes--and fidgeted in their chairs. Robert spoke the wishes of all when he said--
'I do wish you'd go on.' So it sat up on the green-covered table and went on.
'When you'd gone away,' it said, 'I went to sand for a bit, and slept. I was tired out with all your silly wishes, and I felt as though I hadn't really been to sand for a year.'
'To sand?' Jane repeated.
'Where I sleep. You go to bed. I go to sand.'
Jane yawned; the mention of bed made her feel sleepy.
'All right,' said the Psammead, in offended tones. 'I'm sure I don't want to tell you a long tale. A man caught me, and I bit him. And he put me in a bag with a dead hare and a dead rabbit. And he took me to his house and put me out of the bag into a basket with holes that I could see through. And I bit him again. And then he brought me to this city, which I am told is called the Modern Babylon--though it's not a bit like the old Babylon--and he sold me to the man you bought me from, and then I bit them both. Now, what's your news?'
'There's not quite so much biting in our story,' said Cyril regretfully; 'in fact, there isn't any. Father's gone to Manchuria, and Mother and The Lamb have gone to Madeira because Mother was ill, and don't I just wish that they were both safe home again.'
Merely from habit, the Sand-fairy began to blow itself out, but it stopped short suddenly.
'I forgot,' it said; 'I can't give you any more wishes.'
'No--but look here,' said Cyril, 'couldn't we call in old Nurse and get her to say she wishes they were safe home. I'm sure she does.'
'No go,' said the Psammead. 'It's just the same as your wishing yourself if you get some one else to wish for you. It won't act.'
'But it did yesterday--with the man in the shop,' said Robert.
'Ah yes,' said the creature, 'but you didn't ask him to wish, and you didn't know what would happen if he did. That can't be done again. It's played out.'
'Then you can't help us at all,' said Jane; 'oh--I did think you could do something; I've been thinking about it ever since we saved your life yesterday. I thought you'd be certain to be able to fetch back Father, even if you couldn't manage Mother.'
And Jane began to cry.
'Now don't,' said the Psammead hastily; 'you know how it always upsets me if you cry. I can't feel safe a moment. Look here; you must have some new kind of charm.'
'That's easier said than done.'
'Not a bit of it,' said the creature; 'there's one of the strongest charms in the world not a stone's throw from where you bought me yesterday. The man that I bit so--the first one, I mean--went into a shop to ask how much something cost--I think he said it was a concertina--and while he was telling the man in the shop how much too much he wanted for it, I saw the charm in a sort of tray, with a lot of other things. If you can only buy that, you will be able to have your heart's desire.'
The children looked at each other and then at the Psammead. Then Cyril coughed awkwardly and took sudden courage to say what everyone was thinking.
'I do hope you won't be waxy,' he said; 'but it's like this: when you used to give us our wishes they almost always got us into some row or other, and we used to think you wouldn't have been pleased if they hadn't. Now, about this charm--we haven't got over and above too much tin, and if we blue it all on this charm and it turns out to be not up to much--well--you see what I'm driving at, don't you?'
'I see that you don't see more than the length of your nose, and that's not far,' said the Psammead crossly. 'Look here, I had to give you the wishes, and of course they turned out badly, in a sort of way, because you hadn't the sense to wish for what was good for you. But this charm's quite different. I haven't got to do this for you, it's just my own generous kindness that makes me tell you about it. So it's bound to be all right. See?'
'Don't be cross,' said Anthea, 'Please, please don't. You see, it's all we've got; we shan't have any more pocket-money till Daddy comes home--unless he sends us some in a letter. But we do trust you. And I say all of you,' she went on, 'don't you think it's worth spending all the money, if there's even the chanciest chance of getting Father and Mother back safe now? Just think of it! Oh, do let's!'
'I don't care what you do,' said the Psammead; 'I'll go back to sand again till you've made up your minds.'
'No, don't!' said everybody; and Jane added, 'We are quite mind made-up--don't you see we are? Let's get our hats. Will you come with us?'
'Of course,' said the Psammead; 'how else would you find the shop?'
So everybody got its hat. The Psammead was put into a flat bass-bag that had come from Farringdon Market with two pounds of filleted plaice in it. Now it contained about three pounds and a quarter of solid Psammead, and the children took it in turns to carry it.
'It's not half the weight of The Lamb,' Robert said, and the girls sighed.
The Psammead poked a wary eye out of the top of the basket every now and then, and told the children which turnings to take.
'How on earth do you know?' asked Robert. 'I can't think how you do it.'
And the Psammead said sharply, 'No--I don't suppose you can.'
At last they came to the shop. It had all sorts and kinds of things in the window--concertinas, and silk handkerchiefs, china vases and tea-cups, blue Japanese jars, pipes, swords, pistols, lace collars, silver spoons tied up in half-dozens, and wedding-rings in a red lacquered basin. There were officers' epaulets and doctors' lancets. There were tea-caddies inlaid with red turtle-shell and brass curly-wurlies, plates of different kinds of money, and stacks of different kinds of plates. There was a beautiful picture of a little girl washing a dog, which Jane liked very much. And in the middle of the window there was a dirty silver tray full of mother-of-pearl card counters, old seals, paste buckles, snuff-boxes, and all sorts of little dingy odds and ends.
The Psammead put its head quite out of the fish-basket to look in the window, when Cyril said--
'There's a tray there with rubbish in it.'
And then its long snail's eyes saw something that made them stretch out so much that they were as long and thin as new slate-pencils. Its fur bristled thickly, and its voice was quite hoarse with excitement as it whispered--
'That's it! That's it! There, under that blue and yellow buckle, you can see a bit sticking out. It's red. Do you see?'
'Is it that thing something like a horse-shoe?' asked Cyril. 'And red, like the common sealing-wax you do up parcels with?' 'Yes, that's it,' said the Psammead. 'Now, you do just as you did before. Ask the price of other things. That blue buckle would do. Then the man will get the tray out of the window. I think you'd better be the one,' it said to Anthea. 'We'll wait out here.'
So the others flattened their noses against the shop window, and presently a large, dirty, short-fingered hand with a very big diamond ring came stretching through the green half-curtains at the back of the shop window and took away the tray.
They could not see what was happening in the interview between Anthea and the Diamond Ring, and it seemed to them that she had had time--if she had had money--to buy everything in the shop before the moment came when she stood before them, her face wreathed in grins, as Cyril said later, and in her hand the charm.
It was something like this: [Drawing omitted.] and it was made of a red, smooth, softly shiny stone.
'I've got it,' Anthea whispered, just opening her hand to give the others a glimpse of it. 'Do let's get home. We can't stand here like stuck-pigs looking at it in the street.'
So home they went. The parlour in Fitzroy Street was a very flat background to magic happenings. Down in the country among the flowers and green fields anything had seemed--and indeed had been--possible. But it was hard to believe that anything really wonderful could happen so near the Tottenham Court Road. But the Psammead was there--and it in itself was wonderful. And it could talk--and it had shown them where a charm could be bought that would make the owner of it perfectly happy. So the four children hurried home, taking very long steps, with their chins stuck out, and their mouths shut very tight indeed. They went so fast that the Psammead was quite shaken about in its fish-bag, but it did not say anything--perhaps for fear of attracting public notice.
They got home at last, very hot indeed, and set the Psammead on the green tablecloth.
'Now then!' said Cyril.
But the Psammead had to have a plate of sand fetched for it, for it was quite faint. When it had refreshed itself a little it said--
'Now then! Let me see the charm,' and Anthea laid it on the green table-cover. The Psammead shot out his long eyes to look at it, then it turned them reproachfully on Anthea and said--
'But there's only half of it here!'
This was indeed a blow.
'It was all there was,' said Anthea, with timid firmness. She knew it was not her fault. 'There should be another piece,' said the Psammead, 'and a sort of pin to fasten the two together.'
'Isn't half any good?'--'Won't it work without the other bit?'--'It cost seven-and-six.'--'Oh, bother, bother, bother!'--'Don't be silly little idiots!' said everyone and the Psammead altogether.
Then there was a wretched silence. Cyril broke it--
'What shall we do?'
'Go back to the shop and see if they haven't got the other half,' said the Psammead. 'I'll go to sand till you come back. Cheer up! Even the bit you've got is some good, but it'll be no end of a bother if you can't find the other.'
So Cyril went to the shop. And the Psammead to sand. And the other three went to dinner, which was now ready. And old Nurse was very cross that Cyril was not ready too.
The three were watching at the windows when Cyril returned, and even before he was near enough for them to see his face there was something about the slouch of his shoulders and set of his knickerbockers and the way he dragged his boots along that showed but too plainly that his errand had been in vain.
'Well?' they all said, hoping against hope on the front-door step.
'No go,' Cyril answered; 'the man said the thing was perfect. He said it was a Roman lady's locket, and people shouldn't buy curios if they didn't know anything about arky--something or other, and that he never went back on a bargain, because it wasn't business, and he expected his customers to act the same. He was simply nasty--that's what he was, and I want my dinner.'
It was plain that Cyril was not pleased.
The unlikeliness of anything really interesting happening in that parlour lay like a weight of lead on everyone's spirits. Cyril had his dinner, and just as he was swallowing the last mouthful of apple-pudding there was a scratch at the door. Anthea opened it and in walked the Psammead.
'Well,' it said, when it had heard the news, 'things might be worse. Only you won't be surprised if you have a few adventures before you get the other half. You want to get it, of course.'
'Rather,' was the general reply. 'And we don't mind adventures.'
'No,' said the Psammead, 'I seem to remember that about you. Well, sit down and listen with all your ears. Eight, are there? Right--I am glad you know arithmetic. Now pay attention, because I don't intend to tell you everything twice over.'
As the children settled themselves on the floor--it was far more comfortable than the chairs, as well as more polite to the Psammead, who was stroking its whiskers on the hearth-rug--a sudden cold pain caught at Anthea's heart. Father--Mother--the darling Lamb--all far away. Then a warm, comfortable feeling flowed through her. The Psammead was here, and at least half a charm, and there were to be adventures. (If you don't know what a cold pain is, I am glad for your sakes, and I hope you never may.)
'Now,' said the Psammead cheerily, 'you are not particularly nice, nor particularly clever, and you're not at all good-looking. Still, you've saved my life--oh, when I think of that man and his pail of water!--so I'll tell you all I know. At least, of course I can't do that, because I know far too much. But I'll tell you all I know about this red thing.'
'Do! Do! Do! Do!' said everyone.
'Well, then,' said the Psammead. 'This thing is half of an Amulet that can do all sorts of things; it can make the corn grow, and the waters flow, and the trees bear fruit, and the little new beautiful babies come. (Not that babies are beautiful, of course,' it broke off to say, 'but their mothers think they are--and as long as you think a thing's true it is true as far as you're concerned.)'
The Psammead went on.
'The complete Amulet can keep off all the things that make people unhappy--jealousy, bad temper, pride, disagreeableness, greediness, selfishness, laziness. Evil spirits, people called them when the Amulet was made. Don't you think it would be nice to have it?'
'Very,' said the children, quite without enthusiasM.
'And it can give you strength and courage.'
'That's better,' said Cyril.
'I suppose it's nice to have that,' said Jane, but not with much interest.
'And it can give you your heart's desire.'
'Now you're talking,' said Robert.
'Of course I am,' retorted the Psammead tartly, 'so there's no need for you to.'
'Heart's desire is good enough for me,' said Cyril.
'Yes, but,' Anthea ventured, 'all that's what the whole charm can do. There's something that the half we've got can win off its own bat--isn't there?' She appealed to the Psammead. It nodded.
'Yes,' it said; 'the half has the power to take you anywhere you like to look for the other half.'
This seemed a brilliant prospect till Robert asked--
'Does it know where to look?'
The Psammead shook its head and answered, 'I don't think it's likely.'
'Then,' said Robert, 'we might as well look for a needle in a bottle of hay. Yes--it is bottle, and not bundle, Father said so.'
'Not at all,' said the Psammead briskly-, 'you think you know everything, but you are quite mistaken. The first thing is to get the thing to talk.'
'Can it?' Jane questioned. Jane's question did not mean that she thought it couldn't, for in spite of the parlour furniture the feeling of magic was growing deeper and thicker, and seemed to fill the room like a dream of a scented fog.
'Of course it can. I suppose you can read.'
'Oh yes!' Everyone was rather hurt at the question.
'Well, then--all you've got to do is to read the name that's written on the part of the charm that you've got. And as soon as you say the name out loud the thing will have power to do--well, several things.'
There was a silence. The red charm was passed from hand to hand.
'There's no name on it,' said Cyril at last.
'Nonsense,' said the Psammead; 'what's that?'
'Oh, that!' said Cyril, 'it's not reading. It looks like pictures of chickens and snakes and things.'
This was what was on the charm: [Hieroglyphics omitted.]
'I've no patience with you,' said the Psammead; 'if you can't read you must find some one who can. A priest now?'
'We don't know any priests,' said Anthea; 'we know a clergyman--he's called a priest in the prayer-book, you know--but he only knows Greek and Latin and Hebrew, and this isn't any of those--I know.'
The Psammead stamped a furry foot angrily.
'I wish I'd never seen you,' it said; 'you aren't any more good than so many stone images. Not so much, if I'm to tell the truth. Is there no wise man in your Babylon who can pronounce the names of the Great Ones?'
'There's a poor learned gentleman upstairs,' said Anthea, 'we might try him. He has a lot of stone images in his room, and iron-looking ones too--we peeped in once when he was out. Old Nurse says he doesn't eat enough to keep a canary alive. He spends it all on stones and things.'
'Try him,' said the Psammead, 'only be careful. If he knows a greater name than this and uses it against you, your charm will be of no use. Bind him first with the chains of honour and upright dealing. And then ask his aid--oh, yes, you'd better all go; you can put me to sand as you go upstairs. I must have a few minutes' peace and quietness.'
So the four children hastily washed their hands and brushed their hair--this was Anthea's idea--and went up to knock at the door of the 'poor learned gentleman', and to 'bind him with the chains of honour and upright dealing'.