But about that time I thought I must be getting on. I also thought (as before) that it would be well for me not to go very far away from the house.
As I strolled up the road I pondered over the message which Wag's father had been so good as to send me. "If they're about the house, give them horseshoes; if there's a bat-ball, squirt at it. I think there's a squirt in the tool-house." All very well, no doubt. I had one horseshoe, but that was not much, and I could explore the tool-house and borrow the garden squirt. But more horseshoes?
At that moment I heard a squeak and a rustle in the hedge, and could not help poking my stick into it to see what had made the noise. The stick clinked against something with its iron ferrule. An old horseshoe!--evidently shown to me on purpose by a friendly creature. I picked it up, and, not to make a long story of it, I was helped by much the same devices to increase my collection to four. And now I felt it would be wise to turn back.
As I turned into the back garden and came in sight of the little potting-shed or tool-house or whatever it was, I started. Someone was just coming out of it. I gave a loud cough. The party turned round hastily; it was an old man in a sleeved waistcoat, made up, I thought, to look like an "odd man." He touched his hat civilly enough, and showed no surprise; but, oh, horror! he held in his hand the garden squirt.
"Morning," I said; "going to do a bit of watering?" He grinned. "Just stepped up to borrer this off the lady; there's a lot of fly gets on the plants this weather."
"I dare say there is. By the way, what a lot of horseshoes you people leave about. How many do you think I picked up this morning just along the road? Look here!" and I held one out to him, and his hand came slowly out to meet it, as though he could not keep it back.
His face wrinkled up into a horrible scowl, and what he was going to say I don't know, but just then his hand clutched the horseshoe and he gave a shout of pain, dropped the squirt and the horseshoe, whipped round as quick as any young man could, and was off round the corner of the shed before I had really taken in what was happening. Before I tried to see what had become of him, I s.n.a.t.c.hed up the squirt and the horseshoe, and almost dropped them again. Both were pretty hot--the squirt much the hotter of the two; but both of them cooled down in a few seconds. By that time my old man was completely out of sight. And I should not wonder if he was away some time; for perhaps you know, and perhaps you don't know, the effect of an old horseshoe on that sort of people. Not only is it of iron, which they can't abide, but when they see or, still more, touch the shoe, they have to go over all the ground that the shoe went over since it was last in the blacksmith's hands. Only I doubt if the same shoe will work for more than one witch or wizard. Anyway, I put that one aside when I went indoors. And then I sat and wondered what would come next, and how I could best prepare for it. It occurred to me that it would do no harm to put one of the shoes where it couldn't be seen at once, and it also struck me that under the rug just inside the bedroom door would not be a bad place. So there I put it, and then fell to smoking and reading.
A knock at the door.
"Come in," said I, a little curious; but no, it was only the maid. As she pa.s.sed me (which she did quickly) I heard her mutter something about "'ankerchieves for the wash," and I thought there was something not quite usual about the voice. So I looked round. She was back to me, but the dress and the height and the hair was what I was accustomed to see.
Into the bedroom she hurried, and the next thing was a scream like that of at least two cats in agony! I could just see her leap into the air, come down again on the rug, scream again, and then bundle, hopping, limping--I don't know what--out of the room and down the stairs. I did catch sight of her feet, though; they were bare, they were greenish, and they were webbed, and I think there were some large white blisters on the soles of them. You would have thought that the commotion would have brought the household about my ears; but it did not, and I can only suppose that they heard no more of it than they did of the things which the birds and so on say to each other.
"Next, please!" said I, as I lighted a pipe; but if you will believe it, there was no next. Lunch, the afternoon, tea, all pa.s.sed by, and I was completely undisturbed. "They must be saving up for the bat-ball," I thought. "What in the world can it be?"
As candle-time came on, and the moon began to make herself felt, I took up my old position at the window, with the garden squirt at hand and two full jugs of water on the floor--plenty more to be got from the bathroom if wanted. The leaden box of the Five Jars was in the right place for the moonbeams to fall on it.... But no moonbeams would touch it to-night! Why was this? There were no clouds. Yet, between the orb of the moon and my box, there was some obstruction. High up in the sky was a dancing film, thick enough to cast a shadow on the area of the window; and ever, as the moon rode higher in the heavens, this obstruction became more solid. It seemed gradually to get its bearings and settle into the place where it would shut off the light from the box most completely. I began to guess. It was the bat-ball; neither more nor less than a dense cloud of bats, gradually forming itself into a solid ball, and coming lower, and nearer to my window. Soon they were only about thirty feet off, and I felt that the moment was come.
I have never much liked bats or desired their company, and now, as I studied them through the gla.s.s, and saw their horrid little wicked faces and winking wings, I felt justified in trying to make things as unpleasant for them as I could. I charged the squirt and let fly, and again, and again, as quick as I could fill it. The water spread a bit before it reached the ball, but not too much to spoil the effect; and the effect was almost alarming. Some hundreds of bats all shrieking out at once, and shrieking with rage and fear (not merely from the excitement of chasing flies, as they generally do). Dozens of them dropping away, with wings too soaked to fly, some on to the gra.s.s, where they hopped and fluttered and rolled in ecstasies of pa.s.sion, some into bushes, one or two plumb on to the path, where they lay motionless; that was the first tableau. Then came a new feature. From both sides there darted into the heart of the ball two squadrons of figures flying at great speed (though without wings) and perfectly horizontal, with arms joined and straight out in front of them, and almost at the same instant seven or eight more plunged into the ball from above, as if taking headers. The boys were out.
I stopped squirting, for I did not know whether the water would fell them as it felled the bats; but a shrill cry rose from below:
"Go on, M! go on, M!"
So I aimed again, and it was time, for a knot of bats just then detached itself from the main body and flew full-face towards me. My shot caught the middle one on the snout, and as I swung the squirt to left and right, it disabled four or five others, and discouraged the rest.
Meanwhile the ball was cloven again and again by the arms of the flying squadrons, which shot through it from side to side and from top to bottom (though never, as appeared later, quite through the middle), and though it kept closing up again, it was plainly growing smaller as more and more of the bats outside, which were exposed to the squirt, dropped away.
I suddenly felt something alight on my shoulder, and a voice said in my ear, "Wag says if you _could_ throw a shoe into the middle now, he believes it would finish them. Can you?" It was, I think, Dart who had been sent with the message.
"Horseshoes, I suppose he means," I said. "I'll try."
"Wait till we're out of the way," said Dart, and was off.
In a moment more I heard--not what I was rather expecting, a horn of Elf-land, but two strokes on the bell. I saw the figures of the boys shoot up and away to left and right, leaving the bat-ball clear, and the bats shrieked aloud, I dare say in triumph at the enemy's retreat.
There were two horseshoes left. I had no idea how they would fly, and I had not much confidence in my power of aiming; but it must be tried, and I threw them edgeways, like quoits. The first skimmed the top of the ball, the second went straight through the middle. Something which the bats in the very centre were holding--something soft--was pierced by it, and burst. I think it must have been a globe of jelly-like stuff in a thin skin. The contents spurted out on to some of the bats, and seemed to scald the fur off them in an instant and singe up all the membranes of their wings. They fell down at once, with broken screams. The rest darted off in every direction, and the ball was gone.
"Now don't be long," said a voice from the window-sill.
I thought I knew what was meant, and looked to the leaden casket. As if to make up for lost time, the moonbeam had already made an opening all round the part on which it shone, and I had but to turn the other side towards it--not even very slowly--to get the whole lid free. After cleansing my hands in the water, I made trial of the Fifth Jar, and, as I replaced it, a chorus of applause and cheering came up from below.
The Jars were mine.
WAG AT HOME
There was no scrambling up to the window-sill this time. My visitors shot in like so many arrows, and "brought up" on their hands on the tablecloth, or lit on their feet on the top rail of a chair-back or on my shoulder, as the fancy took them. It would be tedious to go through all the congratulations and thanks which I offered, and indeed received, for it was important to them that the Jars should not get into wrong hands.
"Father says," said Wag, who was sitting on a book, as usual--"Oh, what fun it is to be able to fly again!" And he darted straight and level and b.u.t.ted head first into the back of--Sprat, was it?--who was standing near the edge of the table. Sprat was merely propelled into the air a foot or two off, and remained standing, but, of course, turned round and told Wag what he thought of him. Wag returned contentedly to his book.
"Father says," he resumed, "he hopes you'll come and see us now. He says you did all right, and he's very glad the stuff got spilt, because they'll take moons and moons to get as much of it together again. He says they meant to squirt some of it on you when they got near enough, and while you were trying to get it off they'd have got hold of----" He pointed to the box of jars; there was a shyness about mentioning it.
"Your father's very kind," I said, "and I hope you'll thank him from me; but I don't quite see how I'm to get into your house."
"Fancy you not knowing that!" said Wag. "I'll tell him you'll come." And he was out of the window. As usual, I had recourse to Slim.
"Why, you did put some on your chest, didn't you?" was Slim's question.
"Yes, but nothing came of it."
"Well, I believe you can go pretty well anywhere with that, if you think you can."
"Can I fly, then?"
"No, I should say not; I mean, if you couldn't fly before, you can't now."
"How do you fly? I don't see any wings."
"No, we never have wings, and I'm rather glad we don't; the things that have them are always going wrong somehow. We just work it in the proper way with our backs, and there you are; like this." He made a slight movement of his shoulders, and was standing in the air an inch off the table. "You never tried that, I suppose?" he went on.
"No," I said, "only in dreams," which evidently meant nothing to him.
"Well now," I said, "do you tell me that if I went to Wag's house now, I could get inside it? Look at the size I am!"
"It doesn't look as if you could," he agreed, "but my father said just the same as Wag's father about it."
Here Wag shot on to my shoulder. "Are you coming?"
"Yes, if I knew how."
"Well, come and try, anyhow."
"Very well, as you please; anything to oblige."
I picked up a hat and went downstairs. All the rest followed, if you can call it following, when there was at least as much flying up steps and in and out of banisters as going down. When we were out on the path, Wag said with more seriousness than usual:
"Now you do mean to come into our house, don't you?"
"Certainly I do, if you wish me to."
"Then that's all right. This way. There's Father."
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»