Chapter 5 - The Fight In The Village
Here was a horrible position! Four English children, whose proper date was A.D. 1905, and whose proper address was London, set down in Egypt in the year 6000 B.C. with no means whatever of getting back into their own time and place. They could not find the East, and the sun was of no use at the moment, because some officious person had once explained to Cyril that the sun did not really set in the West at all - nor rise in the East either, for the matter of that.
The Psammead had crept out of the bass-bag when they were not looking and had basely deserted them.
An enemy was approaching. There would be a fight. People get killed in fights, and the idea of taking part in a fight was one that did not appeal to the children.
The man who had brought the news of the enemy still lay panting on the sand. His tongue was hanging out, long and red, like a dog's. The people of the village were hurriedly filling the gaps in the fence with thorn-bushes from the heap that seemed to have been piled there ready for just such a need. They lifted the cluster-thorns with long poles - much as men at home, nowadays, lift hay with a fork.
Jane bit her lip and tried to decide not to cry.
Robert felt in his pocket for a toy pistol and loaded it with a pink paper cap. It was his only weapon.
Cyril tightened his belt two holes.
And Anthea absently took the drooping red roses from the buttonholes of the others, bit the ends of the stalks, and set them in a pot of water that stood in the shadow by a hut door. She was always rather silly about flowers.
'Look here!' she said. 'I think perhaps the Psammead is really arranging something for us. I don't believe it would go away and leave us all alone in the Past. I'm certain it wouldn't.'
Jane succeeded in deciding not to cry - at any rate yet.
'But what can we do?' Robert asked.
'Nothing,' Cyril answered promptly, 'except keep our eyes and ears open. Look! That runner chap's getting his wind. Let's go and hear what he's got to say.'
The runner had risen to his knees and was sitting back on his heels. Now he stood up and spoke. He began by some respectful remarks addressed to the heads of the village. His speech got more interesting when he said -
'I went out in my raft to snare ibises, and I had gone up the stream an hour's journey. Then I set my snares and waited. And I heard the sound of many wings, and looking up, saw many herons circling in the air. And I saw that they were afraid; so I took thought. A beast may scare one heron, coming upon it suddenly, but no beast will scare a whole flock of herons. And still they flew and circled, and would not light. So then I knew that what scared the herons must be men, and men who knew not our ways of going softly so as to take the birds and beasts unawares. By this I knew they were not of our race or of our place. So, leaving my raft, I crept along the river bank, and at last came upon the strangers. They are many as the sands of the desert, and their spear-heads shine red like the sun. They are a terrible people, and their march is towards US. Having seen this, I ran, and did not stay till I was before you.'
'These are YOUR folk,' said the headman, turning suddenly and angrily on Cyril, 'you came as spies for them.'
'We did NOT,' said Cyril indignantly. 'We wouldn't be spies for anything. I'm certain these people aren't a bit like us. Are they now?' he asked the runner.
'No,' was the answer. 'These men's faces were darkened, and their hair black as night. Yet these strange children, maybe, are their gods, who have come before to make ready the way for them.'
A murmur ran through the crowd.
'No, NO,' said Cyril again. 'We are on your side. We will help you to guard your sacred things.'
The headman seemed impressed by the fact that Cyril knew that there WERE sacred things to be guarded. He stood a moment gazing at the children. Then he said -
'It is well. And now let all make offering, that we may be strong in battle.'
The crowd dispersed, and nine men, wearing antelope-skins, grouped themselves in front of the opening in the hedge in the middle of the village. And presently, one by one, the men brought all sorts of things - hippopotamus flesh, ostrich-feathers, the fruit of the date palms, red chalk, green chalk, fish from the river, and ibex from the mountains; and the headman received these gifts. There was another hedge inside the first, about a yard from it, so that there was a lane inside between the hedges. And every now and then one of the headmen would disappear along this lane with full hands and come back with hands empty.
'They're making offerings to their Amulet,' said Anthea. 'We'd better give something too.'
The pockets of the party, hastily explored, yielded a piece of pink tape, a bit of sealing-wax, and part of the Waterbury watch that Robert had not been able to help taking to pieces at Christmas and had never had time to rearrange. Most boys have a watch in this condition. They presented their offerings, and Anthea added the red roses.
The headman who took the things looked at them with awe, especially at the red roses and the Waterbury-watch fragment.
'This is a day of very wondrous happenings,' he said. 'I have no more room in me to be astonished. Our maiden said there was peace between you and us. But for this coming of a foe we should have made sure.'
The children shuddered.
'Now speak. Are you upon our side?'
'YES. Don't I keep telling you we are?' Robert said. 'Look here. I will give you a sign. You see this.' He held out the toy pistol. 'I shall speak to it, and if it answers me you will know that I and the others are come to guard your sacred thing - that we've just made the offerings to.'
'Will that god whose image you hold in your hand speak to you alone, or shall I also hear it?' asked the man cautiously.
'You'll be surprised when you DO hear it,' said Robert. 'Now, then.' He looked at the pistol and said -
'If we are to guard the sacred treasure within' - he pointed to the hedged-in space - 'speak with thy loud voice, and we shall obey.'
He pulled the trigger, and the cap went off. The noise was loud, for it was a two-shilling pistol, and the caps were excellent.
Every man, woman, and child in the village fell on its face on the sand. The headman who had accepted the test rose first.
'The voice has spoken,' he said. 'Lead them into the ante-room of the sacred thing.'
So now the four children were led in through the opening of the hedge and round the lane till they came to an opening in the inner hedge, and they went through an opening in that, and so passed into another lane.
The thing was built something like this, and all the hedges were of brushwood and thorns: [Drawing of maze omitted.]
'It's like the maze at Hampton Court,' whispered Anthea.
The lanes were all open to the sky, but the little hut in the middle of the maze was round-roofed, and a curtain of skins hung over the doorway.
'Here you may wait,' said their guide, 'but do not dare to pass the curtain.' He himself passed it and disappeared.
'But look here,' whispered Cyril, 'some of us ought to be outside in case the Psammead turns up.'
'Don't let's get separated from each other, whatever we do,' said Anthea. 'It's quite bad enough to be separated from the Psammead. We can't do anything while that man is in there. Let's all go out into the village again. We can come back later now we know the way in. That man'll have to fight like the rest, most likely, if it comes to fighting. If we find the Psammead we'll go straight home.
It must be getting late, and I don't much like this mazy place.'
They went out and told the headman that they would protect the treasure when the fighting began. And now they looked about them and were able to see exactly how a first-class worker in flint flakes and notches an arrow-head or the edge of an axe - an advantage which no other person now alive has ever enjoyed. The boys found the weapons most interesting. The arrow-heads were not on arrows such as you shoot from a bow, but on javelins, for throwing from the hand. The chief weapon was a stone fastened to a rather short stick something like the things gentlemen used to carry about and call life-preservers in the days of the garrotters.
Then there were long things like spears or lances, with flint knives - horribly sharp - and flint battle-axes.
Everyone in the village was so busy that the place was like an ant-heap when you have walked into it by accident. The women were busy and even the children.
Quite suddenly all the air seemed to glow and grow red - it was like the sudden opening of a furnace door, such as you may see at Woolwich Arsenal if you ever have the luck to be taken there - and then almost as suddenly it was as though the furnace doors had been shut. For the sun had set, and it was night.
The sun had that abrupt way of setting in Egypt eight thousand years ago, and I believe it has never been able to break itself of the habit, and sets in exactly the same manner to the present day. The girl brought the skins of wild deer and led the children to a heap of dry sedge.
'My father says they will not attack yet. Sleep!' she said, and it really seemed a good idea. You may think that in the midst of all these dangers the children would not have been able to sleep - but somehow, though they were rather frightened now and then, the feeling was growing in them - deep down and almost hidden away, but still growing - that the Psammead was to be trusted, and that they were really and truly safe. This did not prevent their being quite as much frightened as they could bear to be without being perfectly miserable.
'I suppose we'd better go to sleep,' said Robert. 'I don't know what on earth poor old Nurse will do with us out all night; set the police on our tracks, I expect. I only wish they could find us! A dozen policemen would be rather welcome just now. But it's no use getting into a stew over it,' he added soothingly. 'Good night.'
And they all fell asleep.
They were awakened by long, loud, terrible sounds that seemed to come from everywhere at once - horrible threatening shouts and shrieks and howls that sounded, as Cyril said later, like the voices of men thirsting for their enemies' blood.
'It is the voice of the strange men,' said the girl, coming to them trembling through the dark. 'They have attacked the walls, and the thorns have driven them back. My father says they will not try again till daylight. But they are shouting to frighten us. As though we were savages! Dwellers in the swamps!' she cried indignantly.
All night the terrible noise went on, but when the sun rose, as abruptly as he had set, the sound suddenly ceased.
The children had hardly time to be glad of this before a shower of javelins came hurtling over the great thorn-hedge, and everyone sheltered behind the huts. But next moment another shower of weapons came from the opposite side, and the crowd rushed to other shelter. Cyril pulled out a javelin that had stuck in the roof of the hut beside him. Its head was of brightly burnished copper.
Then the sound of shouting arose again and the crackle of dried thorns. The enemy was breaking down the hedge. All the villagers swarmed to the point whence the crackling and the shouting came; they hurled stones over the hedges, and short arrows with flint heads. The children had never before seen men with the fighting light in their eyes. It was very strange and terrible, and gave you a queer thick feeling in your throat; it was quite different from the pictures of fights in the illustrated papers at home.
It seemed that the shower of stones had driven back the besiegers. The besieged drew breath, but at that moment the shouting and the crackling arose on the opposite side of the village and the crowd hastened to defend that point, and so the fight swayed to and fro across the village, for the besieged had not the sense to divide their forces as their enemies had done.
Cyril noticed that every now and then certain of the fighting-men would enter the maze, and come out with brighter faces, a braver aspect, and a more upright carriage.
'I believe they go and touch the Amulet,' he said. 'You know the Psammead said it could make people brave.'
They crept through the maze, and watching they saw that Cyril was right. A headman was standing in front of the skin curtain, and as the warriors came before him he murmured a word they could not hear, and touched their foreheads with something that they could not see. And this something he held in his hands. And through his fingers they saw the gleam of a red stone that they knew.
The fight raged across the thorn-hedge outside. Suddenly there was a loud and bitter cry.
'They're in! They're in! The hedge is down!'
The headman disappeared behind the deer-skin curtain.
'He's gone to hide it,' said Anthea. 'Oh, Psammead dear, how could you leave us!'
Suddenly there was a shriek from inside the hut, and the headman staggered out white with fear and fled out through the maze. The children were as white as he.
'Oh! What is it? What is it?' moaned Anthea. 'Oh, Psammead, how could you! How could you!'
And the sound of the fight sank breathlessly, and swelled fiercely all around. It was like the rising and falling of the waves of the sea.
Anthea shuddered and said again, 'Oh, Psammead, Psammead!'
'Well?' said a brisk voice, and the curtain of skins was lifted at one corner by a furry hand, and out peeped the bat's ears and snail's eyes of the Psammead.
Anthea caught it in her arms and a sigh of desperate relief was breathed by each of the four.
'Oh! which IS the East!' Anthea said, and she spoke hurriedly, for the noise of wild fighting drew nearer and nearer.
'Don't choke me,' said the Psammead, 'come inside.'
The inside of the hut was pitch dark.
'I've got a match,' said Cyril, and struck it. The floor of the hut was of soft, loose sand.
'I've been asleep here,' said the Psammead; 'most comfortable it's been, the best sand I've had for a month. It's all right. Everything's all right. I knew your only chance would be while the fight was going on. That man won't come back. I bit him, and he thinks I'm an Evil Spirit. Now you've only got to take the thing and go.'
The hut was hung with skins. Heaped in the middle were the offerings that had been given the night before, Anthea's roses fading on the top of the heap. At one side of the hut stood a large square stone block, and on it an oblong box of earthenware with strange figures of men and beasts on it.
'Is the thing in there?' asked Cyril, as the Psammead pointed a skinny finger at it.
'You must judge of that,' said the Psammead. 'The man was just going to bury the box in the sand when I jumped out at him and bit him.'
'Light another match, Robert,' said Anthea. 'Now, then quick! which is the East?'
'Why, where the sun rises, of course!'
'But someone told us - '
'Oh! they'll tell you anything!' said the Psammead impatiently, getting into its bass-bag and wrapping itself in its waterproof sheet.
'But we can't see the sun in here, and it isn't rising anyhow,' said Jane.
'How you do waste time!' the Psammead said. 'Why, the East's where the shrine is, of course. THERE!'
It pointed to the great stone.
And still the shouting and the clash of stone on metal sounded nearer and nearer. The children could hear that the headmen had surrounded the hut to protect their treasure as long as might be from the enemy. But none dare to come in after the Psammead's sudden fierce biting of the headman.
'Now, Jane,' said Cyril, very quickly. 'I'll take the Amulet, you stand ready to hold up the charm, and be sure you don't let it go as you come through.'
He made a step forward, but at that instant a great crackling overhead ended in a blaze of sunlight. The roof had been broken in at one side, and great slabs of it were being lifted off by two spears. As the children trembled and winked in the new light, large dark hands tore down the wall, and a dark face, with a blobby fat nose, looked over the gap. Even at that awful moment Anthea had time to think that it was very like the face of Mr Jacob Absalom, who had sold them the charm in the shop near Charing Cross.
'Here is their Amulet,' cried a harsh, strange voice; 'it is this that makes them strong to fight and brave to die. And what else have we here - gods or demons?'
He glared fiercely at the children, and the whites of his eyes were very white indeed. He had a wet, red copper knife in his teeth. There was not a moment to lose.
'Jane, JANE, QUICK!' cried everyone passionately.
Jane with trembling hands held up the charm towards the East, and Cyril spoke the word of power. The Amulet grew to a great arch. Out beyond it was the glaring Egyptian sky, the broken wall, the cruel, dark, big-nosed face with the red, wet knife in its gleaming teeth. Within the arch was the dull, faint, greeny-brown of London grass and trees.
'Hold tight, Jane!' Cyril cried, and he dashed through the arch, dragging Anthea and the Psammead after him. Robert followed, clutching Jane. And in the ears of each, as they passed through the arch of the charm, the sound and fury of battle died out suddenly and utterly, and they heard only the low, dull, discontented hum of vast London, and the peeking and patting of the sparrows on the gravel and the voices of the ragged baby children playing Ring-o'-Roses on the yellow trampled grass. And the charm was a little charm again in Jane's hand, and there was the basket with their dinner and the bathbuns lying just where they had left it.
'My hat!' said Cyril, drawing a long breath; 'that was something like an adventure.'
'It was rather like one, certainly,' said the Psammead.
They all lay still, breathing in the safe, quiet air of Regent's Park.
'We'd better go home at once,' said Anthea presently. 'Old Nurse will be most frightfully anxious. The sun looks about the same as it did when we started yesterday. We've been away twenty-four hours.' 'The buns are quite soft still,' said Cyril, feeling one; 'I suppose the dew kept them fresh.'
They were not hungry, curiously enough.
They picked up the dinner-basket and the Psammead-basket, and went straight home.
Old Nurse met them with amazement.
'Well, if ever I did!' she said. 'What's gone wrong? You've soon tired of your picnic.'
The children took this to be bitter irony, which means saying the exact opposite of what you mean in order to make yourself disagreeable; as when you happen to have a dirty face, and someone says, 'How nice and clean you look!'
'We're very sorry,' began Anthea, but old Nurse said -
'Oh, bless me, child, I don't care! Please yourselves and you'll please me. Come in and get your dinners comf'table. I've got a potato on a-boiling.'
When she had gone to attend to the potatoes the children looked at each other. Could it be that old Nurse had so changed that she no longer cared that they should have been away from home for twenty-four hours - all night in fact - without any explanation whatever?
But the Psammead put its head out of its basket and said -
'What's the matter? Don't you understand? You come back through the charm-arch at the same time as you go through it. This isn't tomorrow!' 'Is it still yesterday?' asked Jane.
'No, it's today. The same as it's always been. It wouldn't do to go mixing up the present and the Past, and cutting bits out of one to fit into the other.'
'Then all that adventure took no time at all?'
'You can call it that if you like,' said the Psammead. 'It took none of the modern time, anyhow.'
That evening Anthea carried up a steak for the learned gentleman's dinner. She persuaded Beatrice, the maid-of-all-work, who had given her the bangle with the blue stone, to let her do it. And she stayed and talked to him, by special invitation, while he ate the dinner.
She told him the whole adventure, beginning with -
'This afternoon we found ourselves on the bank of the River Nile,' and ending up with, 'And then we remembered how to get back, and there we were in Regent's Park, and it hadn't taken any time at all.'
She did not tell anything about the charm or the Psammead, because that was forbidden, but the story was quite wonderful enough even as it was to entrance the learned gentleman.
'You are a most unusual little girl,' he said. 'Who tells you all these things?'
'No one,' said Anthea, 'they just happen.'
'Make-believe,' he said slowly, as one who recalls and pronounces a long-forgotten word.
He sat long after she had left him. At last he roused himself with a start.
'I really must take a holiday,' he said; 'my nerves must be all out of order. I actually have a perfectly distinct impression that the little girl from the rooms below came in and gave me a coherent and graphic picture of life as I conceive it to have been in pre-dynastic Egypt. Strange what tricks the mind will play! I shall have to be more careful.'
He finished his bread conscientiously, and actually went for a mile walk before he went back to his work.