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HOME > Science Fiction > The Story of the Amulet > CHAPTER 11. BEFORE PHARAOH
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It was the day after the adventure of Julius Caesar and the Little Black Girl that Cyril, bursting into the bathroom to wash his hands for dinner (you have no idea how dirty they were, for he had been playing shipwrecked mariners all the morning on the leads at the back of the house, where the water-cistern is), found Anthea leaning her elbows on the edge of the bath, and crying steadily into it.

‘Hullo!’ he said, with brotherly concern, ‘what’s up now? Dinner’ll be cold before you’ve got enough salt-water for a bath.’

‘Go away,’ said Anthea fiercely. ‘I hate you! I hate everybody!’

There was a stricken pause.

‘I didn’t know,’ said Cyril tamely.

‘Nobody ever does know anything,’ sobbed Anthea.

‘I didn’t know you were waxy. I thought you’d just hurt your fingers with the tap again like you did last week,’ Cyril carefully explained.

‘Oh—fingers!’ sneered Anthea through her sniffs.

‘Here, drop it, Panther,’ he said uncomfortably. ‘You haven’t been having a row or anything?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Wash your horrid hands, for goodness’ sake, if that’s what you came for, or go.’

Anthea was so seldom cross that when she was cross the others were always more surprised than angry.

Cyril edged along the side of the bath and stood beside her. He put his hand on her arm.

‘Dry up, do,’ he said, rather tenderly for him. And, finding that though she did not at once take his advice she did not seem to resent it, he put his arm awkwardly across her shoulders and rubbed his head against her ear.

‘There!’ he said, in the tone of one administering a priceless cure for all possible sorrows. ‘Now, what’s up?’

‘Promise you won’t laugh?’

‘I don’t feel laughish myself,’ said Cyril, dismally.

‘Well, then,’ said Anthea, leaning her ear against his head, ‘it’s Mother.’

‘What’s the matter with Mother?’ asked Cyril, with apparent want of sympathy. ‘She was all right in her letter this morning.’

‘Yes; but I want her so.’

‘You’re not the only one,’ said Cyril briefly, and the brevity of his tone admitted a good deal.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Anthea, ‘I know. We all want her all the time. But I want her now most dreadfully, awfully much. I never wanted anything so much. That Imogen child—the way the ancient British Queen cuddled her up! And Imogen wasn’t me, and the Queen was Mother. And then her letter this morning! And about The Lamb liking the salt bathing! And she bathed him in this very bath the night before she went away—oh, oh, oh!’

Cyril thumped her on the back.

‘Cheer up,’ he said. ‘You know my inside thinking that I was doing? Well, that was partly about Mother. We’ll soon get her back. If you’ll chuck it, like a sensible kid, and wash your face, I’ll tell you about it. That’s right. You let me get to the tap. Can’t you stop crying? Shall I put the door-key down your back?’

‘That’s for noses,’ said Anthea, ‘and I’m not a kid any more than you are,’ but she laughed a little, and her mouth began to get back into its proper shape. You know what an odd shape your mouth gets into when you cry in earnest.

‘Look here,’ said Cyril, working the soap round and round between his hands in a thick slime of grey soapsuds. ‘I’ve been thinking. We’ve only just PLAYED with the Amulet so far. We’ve got to work it now—WORK it for all it’s worth. And it isn’t only Mother either. There’s Father out there all among the fighting. I don’t howl about it, but I THINK—Oh, bother the soap!’ The grey-lined soap had squirted out under the pressure of his fingers, and had hit Anthea’s chin with as much force as though it had been shot from a catapult.

‘There now,’ she said regretfully, ‘now I shall have to wash my face.’

‘You’d have had to do that anyway,’ said Cyril with conviction. ‘Now, my idea’s this. You know missionaries?’

‘Yes,’ said Anthea, who did not know a single one.

‘Well, they always take the savages beads and brandy, and stays, and hats, and braces, and really useful things—things the savages haven’t got, and never heard about. And the savages love them for their kind generousness, and give them pearls, and shells, and ivory, and cassowaries. And that’s the way—’

‘Wait a sec,’ said Anthea, splashing. ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying. Shells and—’

‘Shells, and things like that. The great thing is to get people to love you by being generous. And that’s what we’ve got to do. Next time we go into the Past we’ll regularly fit out the expedition. You remember how the Babylonian Queen froze on to that pocket-book? Well, we’ll take things like that. And offer them in exchange for a sight of the Amulet.’

‘A sight of it is not much good.’

‘No, silly. But, don’t you see, when we’ve seen it we shall know where it is, and we can go and take it in the night when everybody is asleep.’

‘It wouldn’t be stealing, would it?’ said Anthea thoughtfully, ‘because it will be such an awfully long time ago when we do it. Oh, there’s that bell again.’

As soon as dinner was eaten (it was tinned salmon and lettuce, and a jam tart), and the cloth cleared away, the idea was explained to the others, and the Psammead was aroused from sand, and asked what it thought would be good merchandise with which to buy the affection of say, the Ancient Egyptians, and whether it thought the Amulet was likely to be found in the Court of Pharaoh.

But it shook its head, and shot out its snail’s eyes hopelessly.

‘I’m not allowed to play in this game,’ it said. ‘Of course I COULD find out in a minute where the thing was, only I mayn’t. But I may go so far as to own that your idea of taking things with you isn’t a bad one. And I shouldn’t show them all at once. Take small things and conceal them craftily about your persons.’

This advice seemed good. Soon the table was littered over with things which the children thought likely to interest the Ancient Egyptians. Anthea brought dolls, puzzle blocks, a wooden tea-service, a green leather case with Necessaire written on it in gold letters. Aunt Emma had once given it to Anthea, and it had then contained scissors, penknife, bodkin, stiletto, thimble, corkscrew, and glove-buttoner. The scissors, knife, and thimble, and penknife were, of course, lost, but the other things were there and as good as new. Cyril contributed lead soldiers, a cannon, a catapult, a tin-opener, a tie-clip, and a tennis ball, and a padlock—no key. Robert collected a candle (‘I don’t suppose they ever saw a self-fitting paraffin one,’ he said), a penny Japanese pin-tray, a rubber stamp with his father’s name and address on it, and a piece of putty.

Jane added a key-ring, the brass handle of a poker, a pot that had held cold-cream, a smoked pearl button off her winter coat, and a key—no lock.

‘We can’t take all this rubbish,’ said Robert, with some scorn. ‘We must just each choose one thing.’

The afternoon passed very agreeably in the attempt to choose from the table the four most suitable objects. But the four children could not agree what was suitable, and at last Cyril said—

‘Look here, let’s each be blindfolded and reach out, and the first thing you touch you stick to.’

This was done.

Cyril touched the padlock.

Anthea got the Necessaire.

Robert clutched the candle.

Jane picked up the tie-clip.

‘It’s not much,’ she said. ‘I don’t believe Ancient Egyptians wore ties.’

‘Never mind,’ said Anthea. ‘I believe it’s luckier not to really choose. In the stories it’s always the thing the wood-cutter’s son picks up in the forest, and almost throws away because he thinks it’s no good, that turns out to be the magic thing in the end; or else someone’s lost it, and he is rewarded with the hand of the King’s daughter in marriage.’

‘I don’t want any hands in marriage, thank you.’ said Cyril firmly.

‘Nor yet me,’ said Robert. ‘It’s always the end of the adventures when it comes to the marriage hands.’

‘ARE we ready?’ said Anthea.

‘It IS Egypt we’re going to, isn’t it?—nice Egypt?’ said Jane. ‘I won’t go anywhere I don’t know about—like that dreadful big-wavy burning-mountain city,’ she insisted.

Then the Psammead was coaxed into its bag. ‘I say,’ said Cyril suddenly, ‘I’m rather sick of kings. And people notice you so in palaces. Besides the Amulet’s sure to be in a Temple. Let’s just go among the common people, and try to work ourselves up by degrees. We might get taken on as Temple assistants.’

‘Like beadles,’ said Anthea, ‘or vergers. They must have splendid chances of stealing the Temple treasures.’

‘Righto!’ was the general rejoinder. The charm was held up. It grew big once again, and once again the warm golden Eastern light glowed softly beyond it.

As the children stepped through it loud and furious voices rang in their ears. They went suddenly from the quiet of Fitzroy Street dining-room into a very angry Eastern crowd, a crowd much too angry to notice them. They edged through it to the wall of a house and stood there. The crowd was of men, women, and children. They were of all sorts of complexions, and pictures of them might have been coloured by any child with a shilling paint-box. The colours that child would have used for complexions would have been yellow ochre, red ochre, light red, sepia, and indian ink. But their faces were painted already—black eyebrows and lashes, and some red lips. The women wore a sort of pinafore with shoulder straps, and loose things wound round their heads and shoulders. The men wore very little clothing—for they were the working people—and the Egyptian boys and girls wore nothing at all, unless you count the little ornaments hung on chains round their necks and waists. The children saw all this before they could hear anything distinctly.

Everyone was shouting so.

But a voice sounded above the other voices, and presently it was speaking in a silence.

‘Comrades and fellow workers,’ it said, and it was the voice of a tall, coppery-coloured man who had climbed into a chariot that had been stopped by the crowd. Its owner had bolted, muttering something about calling the Guards, and now the man spoke from it. ‘Comrades and fellow workers, how long are we to endure the tyranny of our masters, who live in idleness and luxury on the fruit of our toil? They only give us a bare subsistence wage, and they live on the fat of the land. We labour all our lives to keep them in wanton luxury. Let us make an end of it!’

A roar of applause answered him.

‘How are you going to do it?’ cried a voice.

‘You look out,’ cried another, ‘or you’ll get yourself into trouble.’

‘I’ve heard almost every single word of that,’ whispered Robert, ‘in Hyde Park last Sunday!’

‘Let us strike for more bread and onions and beer, and a longer mid-day rest,’ the speaker went on. ‘You are tired, you are hungry, you are thirsty. You are poor, your wives and children are pining for food. The barns of the rich are full to bursting with the corn we want, the corn our labour has grown. To the granaries!’

‘To the granaries!’ cried half the crowd; but another voice shouted clear above the tumult, ‘To Pharaoh! To the King! Let’s present a petition to the King! He will listen to the voice of the oppressed!’

For a moment the crowd swayed one way and another—first towards the granaries and then towards the palace. Then, with a rush like that of an imprisoned torrent suddenly set free, it surged along the street towards the palace, and the children were carried with it. Anthea found it difficult to keep the Psammead from being squeezed very uncomfortably.

The crowd swept through the streets of dull-looking houses with few windows, very high up, across the market where people were not buying but exchanging goods. In a momentary pause Robert saw a basket of onions exchanged for a hair comb and five fish for a string of beads. The people in the market seemed better off than those in the crowd; they had finer clothes, and more of them. They were the kind of people who, nowadays, would have lived at Brixton or Brockley.

‘What’s the trouble now?’ a languid, large-eyed lady in a crimped, half-transparent linen dress, with her black hair very much braided and puffed out, asked of a date-seller.

‘Oh, the working-men—discontented as usual,’ the man answered. ‘Listen to them. Anyone would think it mattered whether they had a little more or less to eat. Dregs of society!’ said the date-seller.

‘Scum!’ said the lady.

‘And I’ve heard THAT before, too,’ said Robert.

At that moment the voice of the crowd changed, from anger to doubt, from doubt to fear. There were other voices shouting; they shouted defiance and menace, and they came nearer very quickly. There was the rattle of wheels and the pounding of hoofs. A voice shouted, ‘Guards!’

‘The Guards! The Guards!’ shouted another voice, and the crowd of workmen took up the cry. ‘The Guards! Pharaoh’s Guards!’ And swaying a little once more, the crowd hung for a moment as it were balanced. Then as the trampling hoofs came nearer the workmen fled dispersed, up alleys and into the courts of houses, and the Guards in their embossed leather chariots swept down the street at the gallop, their wheels clattering over the stones, and their dark-coloured, blue tunics blown open and back with the wind of their going.

‘So THAT riot’s over,’ said the crimped-linen-dressed lady; ‘that’s a blessing! And did you notice the Captain of the Guard? What a very handsome man he was, to be sure!’

The four children had taken advantage of the moment’s pause before the crowd turned to fly, to edge themselves and drag each other into an arched doorway.

Now they each drew a long breath and looked at the others.

‘We’re well out of THAT,’ said Cyril.

‘Yes,’ said Anthea, ‘but I do wish the poor men hadn’t been driven back before they could get to the King. He might have done something for them.’

‘Not if he was the one in the Bible he wouldn’t,’ said Jane. ‘He had a hard heart.’ ‘Ah, that was the Moses one,’ Anthea explained. ‘The Joseph one was quite different. I should like to see Pharaoh’s house. I wonder whether it’s like the Egyptian Court in the Crystal Palace.’

‘I thought we decided to try to get taken on in a Temple,’ said Cyril in injured tones.

‘Yes, but we’ve got to know someone first. Couldn’t we make friends with a Temple doorkeeper—we might give him the padlock or something. I wonder which are temples and which are palaces,’ Robert added, glancing across the market-place to where an enormous gateway with huge side buildings towered towards the sky. To right and left of it were other buildings only a little less magnificent.

‘Did you wish to seek out the Temple of Amen Ra?’ asked a soft voice behind them, ‘or the Temple of Mut, or the Temple of Khonsu?’

They turned to find beside them a young man. He was shaved clean from head to foot, and on his feet were light papyrus sandals. He was clothed in a linen tunic of white, embroidered heavily in colours. He was gay with anklets, bracelets, and armlets of gold, richly inlaid. He wore a ring on his finger, and he had a short jacket of gold embroidery something like the Zouave soldiers wear, and on his neck was a gold collar with many amulets hanging from it. But among the amulets the children could see none like theirs.

‘It doesn’t matter which Temple,’ said Cyril frankly.

‘Tell me your mission,’ said the young man. ‘I am a divine father of the Temple of Amen Ra and perhaps I can help you.’

‘Well,’ said Cyril, ‘we’ve come from the great Empire on which the sun never sets.’

‘I thought somehow that you’d come from some odd, out-of-the-way spot,’ said the priest with courtesy.

‘And we’ve seen a good many palaces. We thought we should like to see a Temple, for a change,’ said Robert.

The Psammead stirred uneasily in its embroidered bag.

‘Have you brought gifts to the Temple?’ asked the priest cautiously.

‘We HAVE got some gifts,’ said Cyril with equal caution. ‘You see there’s magic mixed up in it. So we can’t tell you everything. But we don’t want to give our gifts for nothing.’

‘Beware how you insult the god,’ said the priest sternly. ‘I also can do magic. I can make a waxen image of you, and I can say words which, as the wax image melts before the fire, will make you dwindle away and at last perish miserably.’

‘Pooh!’ said Cyril stoutly, ‘that’s nothing. I can make FIRE itself!’

‘I should jolly well like to see you do it,’ said the priest unbelievingly.

‘Well, you shall,’ said Cyril, ‘nothing easier. Just stand close round me.’

‘Do you need no preparation—no fasting, no incantations?’ The priest’s tone was incredulous.

‘The incantation’s quite short,’ said Cyril, taking the hint; ‘and as for fasting, it’s not needed in MY sort of magic. union Jack, Printing Press, Gunpowder, Rule Britannia! Come, Fire, at the end of this little stick!’

He had pulled a match from his pocket, and as he ended the incantation which contained no words............
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