The Five Jars
VII - The Bat-ball
It had certainly been an eventful day and evening, and I felt that my adventures could not quite be at an end yet, for I had still to find out what new power or sense the Fourth Jar had brought me. I stood and thought, and tried quite vainly to detect some difference within myself. And then I went to the window and drew the curtains aside and looked out on the road, and within a few minutes I began to understand.
There came walking rapidly along the road a young man, and he turned in at the garden gate and came straight up the path to the house door. I began to be surprised, not at his coming, for it was not so very late, but at the look of him. He was young, as I said, rather red-faced, but not bad-looking; of the class of a farmer, I thought. He wore biggish brown whiskers – which is not common nowadays – and his hair was rather long at the back – which is also not common with a young men who want to look smart – but his hat, and his clothes generally, were the really odd part of him. The hat was a sort of low top-hat, with a curved brim; it spread out at the top and it was brushed rough instead of smooth. His coat was a blue swallow-tail with brass buttons. He had a broad tie wound round and round his neck, and a Gladstone collar. His trousers were tight all the way down and had straps under his feet. To put it in the dullest shortest way, he was "dressed in the fashion of eighty or ninety years ago," as we read in the ghost stories. Evidently he knew his way around very well. He came straight up to the front door and, as far as I could tell, into the house, but I did not hear the door open or shut or any steps on the stairs. He must, I thought, be in my landlady's parlour downstairs.
I turned away from the window, and there was the next surprise. It was as if there was no wall between me and the sitting-room. I saw straight into it. There was a fire in the grate, and by it were sitting face to face and old man and an old woman. I thought of once of what one of the boys had said, and I looked curiously at them. They were, you would have said, as fine specimens of an old-fashioned yeoman and his wife as anyone could wish to see. The man was hale and red-faced, with grey whiskers, smiling as he sat bolt upright in his arm-chair. The lady was rosy and smiling too, with a smart silk dress and a smart cap, and tidy ringlets on each side of her face – a regular picture of wholesome old age; and yet I hated them both. The young man, their son, I suppose, was in the room standing at the door with his hat in his hand, looking timidly at them. The old man turned half round in his chair, looked at him, turned down the corners of his mouth, looked across at the old lady, and they both smiled as if they were amused. The son came farther into the room, put his hat down, leaned with both hands on the table, and began to speak (though nothing could be heard) with an earnestness that was painful to see, because I could be certain his pleading would be of no use; sometimes he spread out his hands and shook them, every now and again he brushed his eyes. He was very much moved, and so was I, merely watching him. The old people were not; they leaned forward and sometimes smiled at each other – again as if they were amused. At last he had done, and stood with his hands before him, quivering all over. His father and mother leaned back in their chairs and looked at each other. I think they said not a single word. The son caught up his hat, turned round, and went quickly out of the room. Then the old man threw back his head and laughed, and the old lady laughed too, not so boisterously.
I turned back to the window. It was as I expected. Outside the garden gate, in the road, a young slight girl in a large poke-bonnet and shawl and rather short-skirted dress was waiting, in great anxiety, as I could see by the way she held to the railings. Her face I could not see. The young man came out; she clasped her hands, he shook his head; they went off together slowly up the road, he with bowed shoulders, supporting her, she, I dare say, crying. Again I looked round to the sitting-room. The wall hid it now.
It sounds a dull ordinary scene enough, but I can assure you it was horribly disturbing to watch, and the cruel calm way in which the father and mother, who looked so nice and worthy and were so abominable, treated their son was like nothing I had ever seen.
Of course I know now what the effect of the Fourth jar was; it made me able to see what had happened in any place. I did not yet know how far back the memories would go, or whether I was obliged to see them if I did not want to. But it was clear to me that the boys were sometimes taught in this way. "We were watching them like we do at school," one of them said, and though the grammar was poor, the meaning was plain, and I would ask Slim about it when we next met. Meanwhile I must say I hoped the gift would not go on working instead of letting me go to sleep. It did not.
Next day I met my landlady employing herself in the garden, and asked her about the people who had formerly lived in the house.
"Oh yes," said she. "I can tell you about them, for my father he remembered old Mr. and Mrs. Eld quite well when he was a slip of a lad. They wasn't liked in the place, neither of them, partly through bein' so hard-like to their workpeople, and partly from them treating their only son so bad – I mean to say turning him right off because he married without asking permission. Well, no doubt that's what he shouldn't have done, but my father said it was a very nice respectable young girl he married, and it do seem hard for them never to say a word of kindness all those years and leave every penny away from the young people. What become of them, do you say, sir? Why, I believe they emigrated away to the United States of America and never was heard of again, but the old people they lived on here, and I never heard but what they was easy in their minds right up to the day of their death. Nice-looking old people they was too, my father used to say; seemed as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, as the saying is. Now I don't know when I thought of them last, but I recollect my father speaking of them as well as well, and the way they've spoke of on their stone that lays just to the right-hand side as you go up the churchyard path – well, you'd think there never were such people. But I believe that they was put up by them that got the property; now what was that name again?"
But about this time I thought I must be getting on. I also thought (as before) that it would be well for me to not go very far away from the house.
As I strolled up the path I pondered over the message which Wag's father had been so good as to send me. "It 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, 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. And old horseshoe! – evidently shown to me on purpose by a friendly creature. I picked it up, and, not wanting to make a long story of it, I was helped by various 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 this 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, and 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 snatched up the squirt and the horseshoe, and almost dropped them again. Both were pretty hot – the squirt the much 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 for some time; for perhaps you know, and perhaps you don't, 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 the ground that the shoe went over since it left 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 in doors. 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 passed 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. 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 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 thing 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 passed 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 tonight! 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 to gradually get its bearing 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 glass 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 onto the grass, where they hopped and fluttered and rolled in ecstasies of passion, 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 bellow:
"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 the 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 I heard – not what I was rather expecting, a horn of the Elf-land, but two strokes on the bell. I saw the figures of the boys shoot up and away to the 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 straight through the middle. Something which the bats in the 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 onto 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 it 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 toward 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 from below.
The Jars were mine.
Text taken from M. R. James' "The Five Jars", published by Edward Arnold & Co., 1922