The Story of the Amulet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 4. Eight Thousand Years Ago
Next morning Anthea got old Nurse to allow her to take up the 'poor learned gentleman's' breakfast. He did not recognize her at first, but when he did he was vaguely pleased to see her.
'You see I'm wearing the charm round my neck,' she said; 'I'm taking care of it--like you told us to.'
'That's right,' said he; 'did you have a good game last night?'
'You will eat your breakfast before it's cold, won't you?' said Anthea. 'Yes, we had a splendid time. The charm made it all dark, and then greeny light, and then it spoke. Oh! I wish you could have heard it--it was such a darling voice--and it told us the other half of it was lost in the Past, so of course we shall have to look for it there!'
The learned gentleman rubbed his hair with both hands and looked anxiously at Anthea.
'I suppose it's natural--youthful imagination and so forth,' he said. 'Yet someone must have ... Who told you that some part of the charm was missing?'
'I can't tell you,' she said. 'I know it seems most awfully rude, especially after being so kind about telling us the name of power, and all that, but really, I'm not allowed to tell anybody anything about the--the--the person who told me. You won't forget your breakfast, will you?'
The learned gentleman smiled feebly and then frowned--not a cross-frown, but a puzzle-frown.
'Thank you,' he said, 'I shall always be pleased if you'll look in--any time you're passing you know--at least ...'
'I will,' she said; 'goodbye. I'll always tell you anything I may tell.'
He had not had many adventures with children in them, and he wondered whether all children were like these. He spent quite five minutes in wondering before he settled down to the fifty-second chapter of his great book on 'The Secret Rites of the Priests of Amen Ra'.
It is no use to pretend that the children did not feel a good deal of agitation at the thought of going through the charm into the Past. That idea, that perhaps they might stay in the Past and never get back again, was anything but pleasing. Yet no one would have dared to suggest that the charm should not be used; and though each was in its heart very frightened indeed, they would all have joined in jeering at the cowardice of any one of them who should have uttered the timid but natural suggestion, 'Don't let's!'
It seemed necessary to make arrangements for being out all day, for there was no reason to suppose that the sound of the dinner-bell would be able to reach back into the Past, and it seemed unwise to excite old Nurse's curiosity when nothing they could say--not even the truth--could in any way satisfy it. They were all very proud to think how well they had understood what the charm and the Psammead had said about Time and Space and things like that, and they were perfectly certain that it would be quite impossible to make old Nurse understand a single word of it. So they merely asked her to let them take their dinner out into Regent's Park--and this, with the implied cold mutton and tomatoes, was readily granted.
'You can get yourselves some buns or sponge-cakes, or whatever you fancy-like,' said old Nurse, giving Cyril a shilling. 'Don't go getting jam-tarts, now--so messy at the best of times, and without forks and plates ruination to your clothes, besides your not being able to wash your hands and faces afterwards.'
So Cyril took the shilling, and they all started off. They went round by the Tottenham Court Road to buy a piece of waterproof sheeting to put over the Psammead in case it should be raining in the Past when they got there. For it is almost certain death to a Psammead to get wet.
The sun was shining very brightly, and even London looked pretty. Women were selling roses from big baskets-full, and Anthea bought four roses, one each, for herself and the others. They were red roses and smelt of summer--the kind of roses you always want so desperately at about Christmas-time when you can only get mistletoe, which is pale right through to its very scent, and holly which pricks your nose if you try to smell it. So now everyone had a rose in its buttonhole, and soon everyone was sitting on the grass in Regent's Park under trees whose leaves would have been clean, clear green in the country, but here were dusty and yellowish, and brown at the edges.
'We've got to go on with it,' said Anthea, 'and as the eldest has to go first, you'll have to be last, Jane. You quite understand about holding on to the charm as you go through, don't you, Pussy?'
'I wish I hadn't got to be last,' said Jane.
'You shall carry the Psammead if you like,' said Anthea. 'That is,' she added, remembering the beast's queer temper, 'if it'll let you.'
The Psammead, however, was unexpectedly amiable.
'I don't mind,' it said, 'who carries me, so long as it doesn't drop me. I can't bear being dropped.'
Jane with trembling hands took the Psammead and its fish-basket under one arm. The charm's long string was hung round her neck. Then they all stood up. Jane held out the charm at arm's length, and Cyril solemnly pronounced the word of power.
As he spoke it the charm grew tall and broad, and he saw that Jane was just holding on to the edge of a great red arch of very curious shape. The opening of the arch was small, but Cyril saw that he could go through it. All round and beyond the arch were the faded trees and trampled grass of Regent's Park, where the little ragged children were playing Ring-o'-Roses. But through the opening of it shone a blaze of blue and yellow and red. Cyril drew a long breath and stiffened his legs so that the others should not see that his knees were trembling and almost knocking together. 'Here goes!' he said, and, stepping up through the arch, disappeared. Then followed Anthea. Robert, coming next, held fast, at Anthea's suggestion, to the sleeve of Jane, who was thus dragged safely through the arch. And as soon as they were on the other side of the arch there was no more arch at all and no more Regent's Park either, only the charm in Jane's hand, and it was its proper size again. They were now in a light so bright that they winked and blinked and rubbed their eyes. During this dazzling interval Anthea felt for the charm and pushed it inside Jane's frock, so that it might be quite safe. When their eyes got used to the new wonderful light the children looked around them. The sky was very, very blue, and it sparkled and glittered and dazzled like the sea at home when the sun shines on it.
They were standing on a little clearing in a thick, low forest; there were trees and shrubs and a close, thorny, tangly undergrowth. In front of them stretched a bank of strange black mud, then came the browny-yellowy shining ribbon of a river. Then more dry, caked mud and more greeny-browny jungle. The only things that told that human people had been there were the clearing, a path that led to it, and an odd arrangement of cut reeds in the river.
They looked at each other.
'Well!' said Robert, 'this is a change of air!'
It was. The air was hotter than they could have imagined, even in London in August.
'I wish I knew where we were,' said Cyril.
'Here's a river, now--I wonder whether it's the Amazon or the Tiber, or what.'
'It's the Nile,' said the Psammead, looking out of the fish-bag.
'Then this is Egypt,' said Robert, who had once taken a geography prize.
'I don't see any crocodiles,' Cyril objected. His prize had been for natural history.
The Psammead reached out a hairy arm from its basket and pointed to a heap of mud at the edge of the water.
'What do you call that?' it said; and as it spoke the heap of mud slid into the river just as a slab of damp mixed mortar will slip from a bricklayer's trowel.
'Oh!' said everybody.
There was a crashing among the reeds on the other side of the water.
'And there's a river-horse!' said the Psammead, as a great beast like an enormous slaty-blue slug showed itself against the black bank on the far side of the stream.
'It's a hippopotamus,' said Cyril; 'it seems much more real somehow than the one at the Zoo, doesn't it?'
'I'm glad it's being real on the other side of the river,' said Jane. And now there was a crackling of reeds and twigs behind them. This was horrible. Of course it might be another hippopotamus, or a crocodile, or a lion--or, in fact, almost anything.
'Keep your hand on the charm, Jane,' said Robert hastily. 'We ought to have a means of escape handy. I'm dead certain this is the sort of place where simply anything might happen to us.'
'I believe a hippopotamus is going to happen to us,' said Jane--'a very, very big one.'
They had all turned to face the danger.
'Don't be silly little duffers,' said the Psammead in its friendly, informal way; 'it's not a river-horse. It's a human.'
It was. It was a girl--of about Anthea's age. Her hair was short and fair, and though her skin was tanned by the sun, you could see that it would have been fair too if it had had a chance. She had every chance of being tanned, for she had no clothes to speak of, and the four English children, carefully dressed in frocks, hats, shoes, stockings, coats, collars, and all the rest of it, envied her more than any words of theirs or of mine could possibly say. There was no doubt that here was the right costume for that climate.
She carried a pot on her head, of red and black earthenware. She did not see the children, who shrank back against the edge of the jungle, and she went forward to the brink of the river to fill her pitcher. As she went she made a strange sort of droning, humming, melancholy noise all on two notes. Anthea could not help thinking that perhaps the girl thought this noise was singing.
The girl filled the pitcher and set it down by the river bank. Then she waded into the water and stooped over the circle of cut reeds. She pulled half a dozen fine fish out of the water within the reeds, killing each as she took it out, and threading it on a long osier that she carried. Then she knotted the osier, hung it on her arm, picked up the pitcher, and turned to come back. And as she turned she saw the four children. The white dresses of Jane and Anthea stood out like snow against the dark forest background. She screamed and the pitcher fell, and the water was spilled out over the hard mud surface and over the fish, which had fallen too. Then the water slowly trickled away into the deep cracks.
'Don't be frightened,' Anthea cried, 'we won't hurt you.'
'Who are you?' said the girl.
Now, once for all, I am not going to be bothered to tell you how it was that the girl could understand Anthea and Anthea could understand the girl. You, at any rate, would not understand me, if I tried to explain it, any more than you can understand about time and space being only forms of thought. You may think what you like. Perhaps the children had found out the universal language which everyone can understand, and which wise men so far have not found. You will have noticed long ago that they were singularly lucky children, and they may have had this piece of luck as well as others. Or it may have been that ... but why pursue the question further? The fact remains that in all their adventures the muddle-headed inventions which we call foreign languages never bothered them in the least. They could always understand and be understood. If you can explain this, please do. I daresay I could understand your explanation, though you could never understand mine.
So when the girl said, 'Who are you?' everyone understood at once, and Anthea replied--
'We are children--just like you. Don't be frightened. Won't you show us where you live?'
Jane put her face right into the Psammead's basket, and burrowed her mouth into its fur to whisper--
'Is it safe? Won't they eat us? Are they cannibals?'
The Psammead shrugged its fur.
'Don't make your voice buzz like that, it tickles my ears,' it said rather crossly. 'You can always get back to Regent's Park in time if you keep fast hold of the charm,' it said.
The strange girl was trembling with fright.
Anthea had a bangle on her arm. It was a sevenpenny-halfpenny trumpery thing that pretended to be silver; it had a glass heart of turquoise blue hanging from it, and it was the gift of the maid-of-all-work at the Fitzroy Street house. 'Here,' said Anthea, 'this is for you. That is to show we will not hurt you. And if you take it I shall know that you won't hurt us.'
The girl held out her hand. Anthea slid the bangle over it, and the girl's face lighted up with the joy of possession.
'Come,' she said, looking lovingly at the bangle; 'it is peace between your house and mine.'
She picked up her fish and pitcher and led the way up the narrow path by which she had come and the others followed.
'This is something like!' said Cyril, trying to be brave.
'Yes!' said Robert, also assuming a boldness he was far from feeling, 'this really and truly is an adventure! Its being in the Past makes it quite different from the Phoenix and Carpet happenings.'
The belt of thick-growing acacia trees and shrubs--mostly prickly and unpleasant-looking--seemed about half a mile across. The path was narrow and the wood dark. At last, ahead, daylight shone through the boughs and leaves.
The whole party suddenly came out of the wood's shadow into the glare of the sunlight that shone on a great stretch of yellow sand, dotted with heaps of grey rocks where spiky cactus plants showed gaudy crimson and pink flowers among their shabby, sand-peppered leaves. Away to the right was something that looked like a grey-brown hedge, and from beyond it blue smoke went up to the bluer sky. And over all the sun shone till you could hardly bear your clothes.
'That is where I live,' said the girl pointing.
'I won't go,' whispered Jane into the basket, 'unless you say it's all right.'
The Psammead ought to have been touched by this proof of confidence. Perhaps, however, it looked upon it as a proof of doubt, for it merely snarled--
'If you don't go now I'll never help you again.'
'Oh,' whispered Anthea, 'dear Jane, don't! Think of Father and Mother and all of us getting our heart's desire. And we can go back any minute. Come on!'
'Besides,' said Cyril, in a low voice, 'the Psammead must know there's no danger or it wouldn't go. It's not so over and above brave itself. Come on!'
This Jane at last consented to do.
As they got nearer to the browny fence they saw that it was a great hedge about eight feet high, made of piled-up thorn bushes.
'What's that for?' asked Cyril.
'To keep out foes and wild beasts,' said the girl.
'I should think it ought to, too,' said he. 'Why, some of the thorns are as long as my foot.'
There was an opening in the hedge, and they followed the girl through it. A little way further on was another hedge, not so high, also of dry thorn bushes, very prickly and spiteful-looking, and within this was a sort of village of huts.
There were no gardens and no roads. Just huts built of wood and twigs and clay, and roofed with great palm-leaves, dumped down anywhere. The doors of these houses were very low, like the doors of dog-kennels. The ground between them was not paths or streets, but just yellow sand trampled very hard and smooth.
In the middle of the village there was a hedge that enclosed what seemed to be a piece of ground about as big as their own garden in Camden Town.
No sooner were the children well within the inner thorn hedge than dozens of men and women and children came crowding round from behind and inside the huts.
The girl stood protectingly in front of the four children, and said--
'They are wonder-children from beyond the desert. They bring marvellous gifts, and I have said that it is peace between us and them.'
She held out her arm with the Lowther Arcade bangle on it.
The children from London, where nothing now surprises anyone, had never before seen so many people look so astonished.
They crowded round the children, touching their clothes, their shoes, the buttons on the boys' jackets, and the coral of the girls' necklaces.
'Do say something,' whispered Anthea.
'We come,' said Cyril, with some dim remembrance of a dreadful day when he had had to wait in an outer office while his father interviewed a solicitor, and there had been nothing to read but the Daily Telegraph--'we come from the world where the sun never sets. And peace with honour is what we want. We are the great Anglo-Saxon or conquering race. Not that we want to conquer you,' he added hastily. 'We only want to look at your houses and your--well, at all you've got here, and then we shall return to our own place, and tell of all that we have seen so that your name may be famed.'
Cyril's speech didn't keep the crowd from pressing round and looking as eagerly as ever at the clothing of the children. Anthea had an idea that these people had never seen woven stuff before, and she saw how wonderful and strange it must seem to people who had never had any clothes but the skins of beasts. The sewing, too, of modern clothes seemed to astonish them very much. They must have been able to sew themselves, by the way, for men who seemed to be the chiefs wore knickerbockers of goat-skin or deer-skin, fastened round the waist with twisted strips of hide. And the women wore long skimpy skirts of animals' skins. The people were not very tall, their hair was fair, and men and women both had it short. Their eyes were blue, and that seemed odd in Egypt. Most of them were tattooed like sailors, only more roughly.
'What is this? What is this?' they kept asking touching the children's clothes curiously.
Anthea hastily took off Jane's frilly lace collar and handed it to the woman who seemed most friendly.
'Take this,' she said, 'and look at it. And leave us alone. We want to talk among ourselves.'
She spoke in the tone of authority which she had always found successful when she had not time to coax her baby brother to do as he was told. The tone was just as successful now. The children were left together and the crowd retreated. It paused a dozen yards away to look at the lace collar and to go on talking as hard as it could.
The children will never know what those people said, though they knew well enough that they, the four strangers, were the subject of the talk. They tried to comfort themselves by remembering the girl's promise of friendliness, but of course the thought of the charm was more comfortable than anything else. They sat down on the sand in the shadow of the hedged-round place in the middle of the village, and now for the first time they were able to look about them and to see something more than a crowd of eager, curious faces.
They here noticed that the women wore necklaces made of beads of different coloured stone, and from these hung pendants of odd, strange shapes, and some of them had bracelets of ivory and flint.
'I say,' said Robert, 'what a lot we could teach them if we stayed here!'
'I expect they could teach us something too,' said Cyril. 'Did you notice that flint bracelet the woman had that Anthea gave the collar to? That must have taken some making. Look here, they'll get suspicious if we talk among ourselves, and I do want to know about how they do things. Let's get the girl to show us round, and we can be thinking about how to get the Amulet at the same time. Only mind, we must keep together.'
Anthea beckoned to the girl, who was standing a little way off looking wistfully at them, and she came gladly.
'Tell us how you make the bracelets, the stone ones,' said Cyril.
'With other stones,' said the girl; 'the men make them; we have men of special skill in such work.'
'Haven't you any iron tools?'
'Iron,' said the girl, 'I don't know what you mean.' It was the first word she had not understood.
'Are all your tools of flint?' asked Cyril. 'Of course,' said the girl, opening her eyes wide.
I wish I had time to tell you of that talk. The English children wanted to hear all about this new place, but they also wanted to tell of their own country. It was like when you come back from your holidays and you want to hear and to tell everything at the same time. As the talk went on there were more and more words that the girl could not understand, and the children soon gave up the attempt to explain to her what their own country was like, when they began to see how very few of the things they had always thought they could not do without were really not at all necessary to life.
The girl showed them how the huts were made--indeed, as one was being made that very day she took them to look at it. The way of building was very different from ours. The men stuck long pieces of wood into a piece of ground the size of the hut they wanted to make. These were about eight inches apart; then they put in another row about eight inches away from the first, and then a third row still further out. Then all the space between was filled up with small branches and twigs, and then daubed over with black mud worked with the feet till it was soft and sticky like putty.
The girl told them how the men went hunting with flint spears and arrows, and how they made boats with reeds and clay. Then she explained the reed thing in the river that she had taken the fish out of. It was a fish-trap--just a ring of reeds set up in the water with only one little opening in it, and in this opening, just below the water, were stuck reeds slanting the way of the river's flow, so that the fish, when they had swum sillily in, sillily couldn't get out again. She showed them the clay pots and jars and platters, some of them ornamented with black and red patterns, and the most wonderful things made of flint and different sorts of stone, beads, and ornaments, and tools and weapons of all sorts and kinds.
'It is really wonderful,' said Cyril patronizingly, 'when you consider that it's all eight thousand years ago--'
'I don't understand you,' said the girl.
'It isn't eight thousand years ago,' whispered Jane. 'It's now--and that's just what I don't like about it. I say, do let's get home again before anything more happens. You can see for yourselves the charm isn't here.'
'What's in that place in the middle?' asked Anthea, struck by a sudden thought, and pointing to the fence.
'That's the secret sacred place,' said the girl in a whisper. 'No one knows what is there. There are many walls, and inside the insidest one it is, but no one knows what it is except the headsmen.'
'I believe you know,' said Cyril, looking at her very hard.
'I'll give you this if you'll tell me,' said Anthea taking off a bead-ring which had already been much admired.
'Yes,' said the girl, catching eagerly at the ring. 'My father is one of the heads, and I know a water charm to make him talk in his sleep. And he has spoken. I will tell you. But if they know I have told you they will kill me. In the insidest inside there is a stone box, and in it there is the Amulet. None knows whence it came. It came from very far away.'
'Have you seen it?' asked Anthea.
The girl nodded.
'Is it anything like this?' asked Jane, rashly producing the charm.
The girl's face turned a sickly greenish-white.
'Hide it, hide it,' she whispered. 'You must put it back. If they see it they will kill us all. You for taking it, and me for knowing that there was such a thing. Oh, woe--woe! why did you ever come here?'
'Don't be frightened,' said Cyril. 'They shan't know. Jane, don't you be such a little jack-ape again--that's all. You see what will happen if you do. Now, tell me--' He turned to the girl, but before he had time to speak the question there was a loud shout, and a man bounded in through the opening in the thorn-hedge.
'Many foes are upon us!' he cried. 'Make ready the defences!'
His breath only served for that, and he lay panting on the ground. 'Oh, do let's go home!' said Jane. 'Look here--I don't care--I will!'
She held up the charm. Fortunately all the strange, fair people were too busy to notice her. She held up the charm. And nothing happened.
'You haven't said the word of power,' said Anthea.
Jane hastily said it--and still nothing happened.
'Hold it up towards the East, you silly!' said Robert.
'Which is the East?' said Jane, dancing about in her agony of terror.
Nobody knew. So they opened the fish-bag to ask the Psammead.
And the bag had only a waterproof sheet in it.
The Psammead was gone.
'Hide the sacred thing! Hide it! Hide it!' whispered the girl.
Cyril shrugged his shoulders, and tried to look as brave as he knew he ought to feel.
'Hide it up, Pussy,' he said. 'We are in for it now. We've just got to stay and see it out.'