The Story of the Amulet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 6. The Way to Babylon
'How many miles to Babylon? Three score and ten! Can I get there by candle light? Yes, and back again!'
Jane was singing to her doll, rocking it to and fro in the house which she had made for herself and it. The roof of the house was the dining-table, and the walls were tablecloths and antimacassars hanging all round, and kept in their places by books laid on their top ends at the table edge.
The others were tasting the fearful joys of domestic tobogganing. You know how it is done--with the largest and best tea-tray and the surface of the stair carpet. It is best to do it on the days when the stair rods are being cleaned, and the carpet is only held by the nails at the top. Of course, it is one of the five or six thoroughly tip-top games that grown-up people are so unjust to--and old Nurse, though a brick in many respects, was quite enough of a standard grown-up to put her foot down on the tobogganing long before any of the performers had had half enough of it. The tea- tray was taken away, and the baffled party entered the sitting-room, in exactly the mood not to be pleased if they could help it.
So Cyril said, 'What a beastly mess!'
And Robert added, 'Do shut up, Jane!'
Even Anthea, who was almost always kind, advised Jane to try another song. 'I'm sick to death of that,' said she.
It was a wet day, so none of the plans for seeing all the sights of London that can be seen for nothing could be carried out. Everyone had been thinking all the morning about the wonderful adventures of the day before, when Jane had held up the charm and it had turned into an arch, through which they had walked straight out of the present time and the Regent's Park into the land of Egypt eight thousand years ago. The memory of yesterday's happenings was still extremely fresh and frightening, so that everyone hoped that no one would suggest another excursion into the past, for it seemed to all that yesterday's adventures were quite enough to last for at least a week. Yet each felt a little anxious that the others should not think it was afraid, and presently Cyril, who really was not a coward, began to see that it would not be at all nice if he should have to think himself one. So he said--
'I say--about that charm--Jane--come out. We ought to talk about it, anyhow.'
'Oh, if that's all,' said Robert.
Jane obediently wriggled to the front of her house and sat there.
She felt for the charm, to make sure that it was still round her neck.
'It isn't all,' said Cyril, saying much more than he meant because he thought Robert's tone had been rude--as indeed it had.
'We ought to go and look for that Amulet. What's the good of having a first-class charm and keeping it idle, just eating its head off in the stable.'
'I'M game for anything, of course,' said Robert; but he added, with a fine air of chivalry, 'only I don't think the girls are keen today somehow.'
'Oh, yes; I am,' said Anthea hurriedly. 'If you think I'm afraid, I'm not.'
'I am though,' said Jane heavily; 'I didn't like it, and I won't go there again--not for anything I won't.'
'We shouldn't go there again, silly,' said Cyril; 'it would be some other place.'
'I daresay; a place with lions and tigers in it as likely as not.'
Seeing Jane so frightened, made the others feel quite brave. They said they were certain they ought to go.
'It's so ungrateful to the Psammead not to,' Anthea added, a little primly.
Jane stood up. She was desperate.
'I won't!' she cried; 'I won't, I won't, I won't! If you make me I'll scream and I'll scream, and I'll tell old Nurse, and I'll get her to burn the charm in the kitchen fire. So now, then!'
You can imagine how furious everyone was with Jane for feeling what each of them had felt all the morning. In each breast the same thought arose, 'No one can say it's our fault.' And they at once began to show Jane how angry they all felt that all the fault was hers. This made them feel quite brave.
'Tell-tale tit, its tongue shall be split, And all the dogs in our town shall have a little bit,'
'It's always the way if you have girls in anything.' Cyril spoke in a cold displeasure that was worse than Robert's cruel quotation, and even Anthea said, 'Well, I'M not afraid if I am a girl,' which of course, was the most cutting thing of all.
Jane picked up her doll and faced the others with what is sometimes called the courage of despair.
'I don't care,' she said; 'I won't, so there! It's just silly going to places when you don't want to, and when you don't know what they're going to be like! You can laugh at me as much as you like. You're beasts--and I hate you all!'
With these awful words she went out and banged the door.
Then the others would not look at each other, and they did not feel so brave as they had done.
Cyril took up a book, but it was not interesting to read. Robert kicked a chair-leg absently. His feet were always eloquent in moments of emotion. Anthea stood pleating the end of the tablecloth into folds--she seemed earnestly anxious to get all the pleats the same size. The sound of Jane's sobs had died away.
Suddenly Anthea said, 'Oh! let it be "pax"--poor little Pussy--you know she's the youngest.'
'She called us beasts,' said Robert, kicking the chair suddenly.
'Well, said Cyril, who was subject to passing fits of justice, 'we began, you know. At least you did.' Cyril's justice was always uncompromising.
'I'm not going to say I'm sorry if you mean that,' said Robert, and the chair-leg cracked to the kick he gave as he said it.
'Oh, do let's,' said Anthea, 'we're three to one, and Mother does so hate it if we row. Come on. I'll say I'm sorry first, though I didn't say anything, hardly.'
'All right, let's get it over,' said Cyril, opening the door.'Hi--you--Pussy!'
Far away up the stairs a voice could be heard singing brokenly, but still defiantly--
'How many miles (sniff) to Babylon? Three score and ten! (sniff) Can I get there by candle light? Yes (sniff), and back again!'
It was trying, for this was plainly meant to annoy. But Anthea would not give herself time to think this. She led the way up the stairs, taking three at a time, and bounded to the level of Jane, who sat on the top step of all, thumping her doll to the tune of the song she was trying to sing.
'I say, Pussy, let it be pax! We're sorry if you are--'
It was enough. The kiss of peace was given by all. Jane being the youngest was entitled to this ceremonial. Anthea added a special apology of her own.
'I'm sorry if I was a pig, Pussy dear,' she said--'especially because in my really and truly inside mind I've been feeling a little as if I'd rather not go into the Past again either. But then, do think. If we don't go we shan't get the Amulet, and oh, Pussy, think if we could only get Father and Mother and The Lamb safe back! We must go, but we'll wait a day or two if you like and then perhaps you'll feel braver.'
'Raw meat makes you brave, however cowardly you are,' said Robert, to show that there was now no ill-feeling, 'and cranberries--that's what Tartars eat, and they're so brave it's simply awful. I suppose cranberries are only for Christmas time, but I'll ask old Nurse to let you have your chop very raw if you like.'
'I think I could be brave without that,' said Jane hastily; she hated underdone meat. 'I'll try.'
At this moment the door of the learned gentleman's room opened, and he looked out.
'Excuse me,' he said, in that gentle, polite weary voice of his, 'but was I mistaken in thinking that I caught a familiar word just now? Were you not singing some old ballad of Babylon?'
'No,' said Robert, 'at least Jane was singing "How many miles," but I shouldn't have thought you could have heard the words for--'
He would have said, 'for the sniffing,' but Anthea pinched him just in time.
'I did not hear all the words,' said the learned gentleman. 'I wonder would you recite them to me?'
So they all said together--
'How many miles to Babylon? Three score and ten! Can I get there by candle light? Yes, and back again!'
'I wish one could,' the learned gentleman said with a sigh.
'Can't you?' asked Jane.
'Babylon has fallen,' he answered with a sigh. 'You know it was once a great and beautiful city, and the centre of learning and Art, and now it is only ruins, and so covered up with earth that people are not even agreed as to where it once stood.'
He was leaning on the banisters, and his eyes had a far-away look in them, as though he could see through the staircase window the splendour and glory of ancient Babylon.
'I say,' Cyril remarked abruptly. 'You know that charm we showed you, and you told us how to say the name that's on it?'
'Well, do you think that charm was ever in Babylon?'
'It's quite possible,' the learned gentleman replied. 'Such charms have been found in very early Egyptian tombs, yet their origin has not been accurately determined as Egyptian. They may have been brought from Asia. Or, supposing the charm to have been fashioned in Egypt, it might very well have been carried to Babylon by some friendly embassy, or brought back by the Babylonish army from some Egyptian campaign as part of the spoils of war. The inscription may be much later than the charm. Oh yes! it is a pleasant fancy, that that splendid specimen of yours was once used amid Babylonish surroundings.' The others looked at each other, but it was Jane who spoke.
'Were the Babylon people savages, were they always fighting and throwing things about?' For she had read the thoughts of the others by the unerring light of her own fears.
'The Babylonians were certainly more gentle than the Assyrians,' said the learned gentleman. 'And they were not savages by any means. A very high level of culture,' he looked doubtfully at his audience and went on, 'I mean that they made beautiful statues and jewellery, and built splendid palaces. And they were very learned- they had glorious libraries and high towers for the purpose of astrological and astronomical observation.'
'Er?' said Robert.
'I mean for--star-gazing and fortune-telling,' said the learned gentleman, 'and there were temples and beautiful hanging gardens--'
'I'll go to Babylon if you like,' said Jane abruptly, and the others hastened to say 'Done!' before she should have time to change her mind.
'Ah,' said the learned gentleman, smiling rather sadly, 'one can go so far in dreams, when one is young.' He sighed again, and then adding with a laboured briskness, 'I hope you'll have a--a--jolly game,' he went into his room and shut the door.
'He said "jolly" as if it was a foreign language,' said Cyril. 'Come on, let's get the Psammead and go now. I think Babylon seems a most frightfully jolly place to go to.'
So they woke the Psammead and put it in its bass-bag with the waterproof sheet, in case of inclement weather in Babylon. It was very cross, but it said it would as soon go to Babylon as anywhere else. 'The sand is good thereabouts,' it added.
Then Jane held up the charm, and Cyril said--
'We want to go to Babylon to look for the part of you that was lost. Will you please let us go there through you?'
'Please put us down just outside,' said Jane hastily; 'and then if we don't like it we needn't go inside.'
'Don't be all day,' said the Psammead.
So Anthea hastily uttered the word of power, without which the charm could do nothing.
'Ur--Hekau--Setcheh!' she said softly, and as she spoke the charm grew into an arch so tall that the top of it was close against the bedroom ceiling. Outside the arch was the bedroom painted chest-of-drawers and the Kidderminster carpet, and the washhand-stand with the riveted willow-pattern jug, and the faded curtains, and the dull light of indoors on a wet day. Through the arch showed the gleam of soft green leaves and white blossoms. They stepped forward quite happily. Even Jane felt that this did not look like lions, and her hand hardly trembled at all as she held the charm for the others to go through, and last, slipped through herself, and hung the charm, now grown small again, round her neck.
The children found themselves under a white-blossomed, green-leafed fruit-tree, in what seemed to be an orchard of such trees, all white-flowered and green-foliaged. Among the long green grass under their feet grew crocuses and lilies, and strange blue flowers. In the branches overhead thrushes and blackbirds were singing, and the coo of a pigeon came softly to them in the green quietness of the orchard.
'Oh, how perfectly lovely!' cried Anthea.
'Why, it's like home exactly--I mean England--only everything's bluer, and whiter, and greener, and the flowers are bigger.'
The boys owned that it certainly was fairly decent, and even Jane admitted that it was all very pretty.
'I'm certain there's nothing to be frightened of here,' said Anthea.
'I don't know,' said Jane. 'I suppose the fruit-trees go on just the same even when people are killing each other. I didn't half like what the learned gentleman said about the hanging gardens. I suppose they have gardens on purpose to hang people in. I do hope this isn't one.'
'Of course it isn't,' said Cyril. 'The hanging gardens are just gardens hung up--I think on chains between houses, don't you know, like trays. Come on; let's get somewhere.'
They began to walk through the cool grass. As far as they could see was nothing but trees, and trees and more trees. At the end of their orchard was another one, only separated from theirs by a little stream of clear water. They jumped this, and went on. Cyril, who was fond of gardening--which meant that he liked to watch the gardener at work--was able to command the respect of the others by telling them the names of a good many trees. There were nut-trees and almond-trees, and apricots, and fig-trees with their big five-fingered leaves. And every now and then the children had to cross another brook.
'It's like between the squares in Through the Looking-glass,' said Anthea.
At last they came to an orchard which was quite different from the other orchards. It had a low building in one corner.
'These are vines,' said Cyril superiorly, 'and I know this is a vineyard. I shouldn't wonder if there was a wine-press inside that place over there.'
At last they got out of the orchards and on to a sort of road, very rough, and not at all like the roads you are used to. It had cypress trees and acacia trees along it, and a sort of hedge of tamarisks, like those you see on the road between Nice and Cannes, or near Littlehampton, if you've only been as far as that.
And now in front of them they could see a great mass of buildings. There were scattered houses of wood and stone here and there among green orchards, and beyond these a great wall that shone red in the early morning sun. The wall was enormously high--more than half the height of St Paul's--and in the wall were set enormous gates that shone like gold as the rising sun beat on them. Each gate had a solid square tower on each side of it that stood out from the wall and rose above it. Beyond the wall were more towers and houses, gleaming with gold and bright colours. Away to the left ran the steel-blue swirl of a great river. And the children could see, through a gap in the trees, that the river flowed out from the town under a great arch in the wall.
'Those feathery things along by the water are palms,' said Cyril instructively.
'Oh, yes; you know everything,' Robert replied. 'What's all that grey-green stuff you see away over there, where it's all flat and sandy?'
'All right,' said Cyril loftily, 'I don't want to tell you anything. I only thought you'd like to know a palm-tree when you saw it again.'
'Look!' cried Anthea; 'they're opening the gates.'
And indeed the great gates swung back with a brazen clang, and instantly a little crowd of a dozen or more people came out and along the road towards them.
The children, with one accord, crouched behind the tamarisk hedge.
'I don't like the sound of those gates,' said Jane. 'Fancy being inside when they shut. You'd never get out.'
'You've got an arch of your own to go out by,' the Psammead put its head out of the basket to remind her. 'Don't behave so like a girl. If I were you I should just march right into the town and ask to see the king.'
There was something at once simple and grand about this idea, and it pleased everyone.
So when the work-people had passed (they were work-people, the children felt sure, because they were dressed so plainly--just one long blue shirt thing--of blue or yellow) the four children marched boldly up to the brazen gate between the towers. The arch above the gate was quite a tunnel, the walls were so thick.
'Courage,' said Cyril. 'Step out. It's no use trying to sneak past. Be bold!'
Robert answered this appeal by unexpectedly bursting into 'The British Grenadiers', and to its quick-step they approached the gates of Babylon.
'Some talk of Alexander, And some of Hercules, Of Hector and Lysander, And such great names as these. But of all the gallant heroes ...'
This brought them to the threshold of the gate, and two men in bright armour suddenly barred their way with crossed spears.
'Who goes there?' they said.
(I think I must have explained to you before how it was that the children were always able to understand the language of any place they might happen to be in, and to be themselves understood. If not, I have no time to explain it now.)
'We come from very far,' said Cyril mechanically. 'From the Empire where the sun never sets, and we want to see your King.'
'If it's quite convenient,' amended Anthea. 'The King (may he live for ever!),' said the gatekeeper, 'is gone to fetch home his fourteenth wife. Where on earth have you come from not to know that?'
'The Queen then,' said Anthea hurriedly, and not taking any notice of the question as to where they had come from.
'The Queen,' said the gatekeeper, '(may she live for ever!) gives audience today three hours after sunrising.'
'But what are we to do till the end of the three hours?' asked Cyril.
The gatekeeper seemed neither to know nor to care. He appeared less interested in them than they could have thought possible. But the man who had crossed spears with him to bar the children's way was more human.
'Let them go in and look about them,' he said. 'I'll wager my best sword they've never seen anything to come near our little--village.' He said it in the tone people use for when they call the Atlantic Ocean the 'herring pond'.
The gatekeeper hesitated.
'They're only children, after all,' said the other, who had children of his own. 'Let me off for a few minutes, Captain, and I'll take them to my place and see if my good woman can't fit them up in something a little less outlandish than their present rig. Then they can have a look round without being mobbed. May I go?'
'Oh yes, if you like,' said the Captain, 'but don't be all day.'
The man led them through the dark arch into the town. And it was very different from London. For one thing, everything in London seems to be patched up out of odds and ends, but these houses seemed to have been built by people who liked the same sort of things. Not that they were all alike, for though all were squarish, they were of different sizes, and decorated in all sorts of different ways, some with paintings in bright colours, some with black and silver designs. There were terraces, and gardens, and balconies, and open spaces with trees. Their guide took them to a little house in a back street, where a kind-faced woman sat spinning at the door of a very dark room.
'Here,' he said, 'just lend these children a mantle each, so that they can go about and see the place till the Queen's audience begins. You leave that wool for a bit, and show them round if you like. I must be off now.'
The woman did as she was told, and the four children, wrapped in fringed mantles, went with her all about the town, and oh! how I wish I had time to tell you all that they saw. It was all so wonderfully different from anything you have ever seen. For one thing, all the houses were dazzlingly bright, and many of them covered with pictures. Some had great creatures carved in stone at each side of the door. Then the people--there were no black frock-coats and tall hats; no dingy coats and skirts of good, useful, ugly stuffs warranted to wear. Everyone's clothes were bright and beautiful with blue and scarlet and green and gold.
The market was brighter than you would think anything could be. There were stalls for everything you could possibly want--and for a great many things that if you wanted here and now, want would be your master. There were pineapples and peaches in heaps--and stalls of crockery and glass things, beautiful shapes and glorious colours, there were stalls for necklaces, and clasps, and bracelets, and brooches, for woven stuffs, and furs, and embroidered linen. The children had never seen half so many beautiful things together, even at Liberty's. It seemed no time at all before the woman said--
'It's nearly time now. We ought to be getting on towards the palace. It's as well to be early.' So they went to the palace, and when they got there it was more splendid than anything they had seen yet.
For it was glowing with colours, and with gold and silver and black and white--like some magnificent embroidery. Flight after flight of broad marble steps led up to it, and at the edges of the stairs stood great images, twenty times as big as a man--images of men with wings like chain armour, and hawks' heads, and winged men with the heads of dogs. And there were the statues of great kings.
Between the flights of steps were terraces where fountains played, and the Queen's Guard in white and scarlet, and armour that shone like gold, stood by twos lining the way up the stairs; and a great body of them was massed by the vast door of the palace itself, where it stood glittering like an impossibly radiant peacock in the noon-day sun.
All sorts of people were passing up the steps to seek audience of the Queen. Ladies in richly-embroidered dresses with fringy flounces, poor folks in plain and simple clothes, dandies with beards oiled and curled.
And Cyril, Robert, Anthea and Jane, went with the crowd.
At the gate of the palace the Psammead put one eye cautiously out of the basket and whispered--
'I can't be bothered with queens. I'll go home with this lady. I'm sure she'll get me some sand if you ask her to.'
'Oh! don't leave us,' said Jane. The woman was giving some last instructions in Court etiquette to Anthea, and did not hear Jane.
'Don't be a little muff,' said the Psammead quite fiercely. 'It's not a bit of good your having a charm. You never use it. If you want me you've only got to say the name of power and ask the charm to bring me to you.'
'I'd rather go with you,' said Jane. And it was the most surprising thing she had ever said in her life.
Everyone opened its mouth without thinking of manners, and Anthea, who was peeping into the Psammead's basket, saw that its mouth opened wider than anybody's.
'You needn't gawp like that,' Jane went on. 'I'm not going to be bothered with queens any more than it is. And I know, wherever it is, it'll take jolly good care that it's safe.'
'She's right there,' said everyone, for they had observed that the Psammead had a way of knowing which side its bread was buttered.
She turned to the woman and said, 'You'll take me home with you, won't you? And let me play with your little girls till the others have done with the Queen.'
'Surely I will, little heart!' said the woman.
And then Anthea hurriedly stroked the Psammead and embraced Jane, who took the woman's hand, and trotted contentedly away with the Psammead's bag under the other arm.
The others stood looking after her till she, the woman, and the basket were lost in the many-coloured crowd. Then Anthea turned once more to the palace's magnificent doorway and said--
'Let's ask the porter to take care of our Babylonian overcoats.'
So they took off the garments that the woman had lent them and stood amid the jostling petitioners of the Queen in their own English frocks and coats and hats and boots.
'We want to see the Queen,' said Cyril; 'we come from the far Empire where the sun never sets!'
A murmur of surprise and a thrill of excitement ran through the crowd. The door-porter spoke to a black man, he spoke to someone else. There was a whispering, waiting pause. Then a big man, with a cleanly-shaven face, beckoned them from the top of a flight of red marble steps.
They went up; the boots of Robert clattering more than usual because he was so nervous. A door swung open, a curtain was drawn back. A double line of bowing forms in gorgeous raiment formed a lane that led to the steps of the throne, and as the children advanced hurriedly there came from the throne a voice very sweet and kind.
'Three children from the land where the sun never sets! Let them draw hither without fear.'
In another minute they were kneeling at the throne's foot, saying, 'O Queen, live for ever!' exactly as the woman had taught them. And a splendid dream-lady, all gold and silver and jewels and snowy drift of veils, was raising Anthea, and saying--
'Don't be frightened, I really am so glad you came! The land where the sun never sets! I am delighted to see you! I was getting quite too dreadfully bored for anything!'
And behind Anthea the kneeling Cyril whispered in the ears of the respectful Robert--
'Bobs, don't say anything to Panther. It's no use upsetting her, but we didn't ask for Jane's address, and the Psammead's with her.'
'Well,' whispered Robert, 'the charm can bring them to us at any moment. It said so.'
'Oh, yes,' whispered Cyril, in miserable derision, 'we're all right, of course. So we are! Oh, yes! If we'd only got the charm.'
Then Robert saw, and he murmured, 'Crikey!' at the foot of the throne of Babylon; while Cyril hoarsely whispered the plain English fact--
'Jane's got the charm round her neck, you silly cuckoo.'
'Crikey!' Robert repeated in heart-broken undertones.