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HOME > Science Fiction > The Story of the Amulet > CHAPTER 12. THE SORRY-PRESENT AND THE EXPELLED LITTLE BOY
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‘Look here, said Cyril, sitting on the dining-table and swinging his legs; ‘I really have got it.’

‘Got what?’ was the not unnatural rejoinder of the others.

Cyril was making a boat with a penknife and a piece of wood, and the girls were making warm frocks for their dolls, for the weather was growing chilly.

‘Why, don’t you see? It’s really not any good our going into the Past looking for that Amulet. The Past’s as full of different times as—as the sea is of sand. We’re simply bound to hit upon the wrong time. We might spend our lives looking for the Amulet and never see a sight of it. Why, it’s the end of September already. It’s like looking for a needle in—’

‘A bottle of hay—I know,’ interrupted Robert; ‘but if we don’t go on doing that, what ARE we to do?’

‘That’s just it,’ said Cyril in mysterious accents. ‘Oh, BOTHER!’

Old Nurse had come in with the tray of knives, forks, and glasses, and was getting the tablecloth and table-napkins out of the chiffonier drawer.

‘It’s always meal-times just when you come to anything interesting.’

‘And a nice interesting handful YOU’D be, Master Cyril,’ said old Nurse, ‘if I wasn’t to bring your meals up to time. Don’t you begin grumbling now, fear you get something to grumble AT.’

‘I wasn’t grumbling,’ said Cyril quite untruly; ‘but it does always happen like that.’

‘You deserve to HAVE something happen,’ said old Nurse. ‘Slave, slave, slave for you day and night, and never a word of thanks. ...’

‘Why, you do everything beautifully,’ said Anthea.

‘It’s the first time any of you’s troubled to say so, anyhow,’ said Nurse shortly.

‘What’s the use of SAYING?’ inquired Robert. ‘We EAT our meals fast enough, and almost always two helps. THAT ought to show you!’

‘Ah!’ said old Nurse, going round the table and putting the knives and forks in their places; ‘you’re a man all over, Master Robert. There was my poor Green, all the years he lived with me I never could get more out of him than “It’s all right!” when I asked him if he’d fancied his dinner. And yet, when he lay a-dying, his last words to me was, “Maria, you was always a good cook!”’ She ended with a trembling voice.

‘And so you are,’ cried Anthea, and she and Jane instantly hugged her.

When she had gone out of the room Anthea said—

‘I know exactly how she feels. Now, look here! Let’s do a penance to show we’re sorry we didn’t think about telling her before what nice cooking she does, and what a dear she is.’

‘Penances are silly,’ said Robert.

‘Not if the penance is something to please someone else. I didn’t mean old peas and hair shirts and sleeping on the stones. I mean we’ll make her a sorry-present,’ explained Anthea. ‘Look here! I vote Cyril doesn’t tell us his idea until we’ve done something for old Nurse. It’s worse for us than him,’ she added hastily, ‘because he knows what it is and we don’t. Do you all agree?’

The others would have been ashamed not to agree, so they did. It was not till quite near the end of dinner—mutton fritters and blackberry and apple pie—that out of the earnest talk of the four came an idea that pleased everybody and would, they hoped, please Nurse.

Cyril and Robert went out with the taste of apple still in their mouths and the purple of blackberries on their lips—and, in the case of Robert, on the wristband as well—and bought a big sheet of cardboard at the stationers. Then at the plumber’s shop, that has tubes and pipes and taps and gas-fittings in the window, they bought a pane of glass the same size as the cardboard. The man cut it with a very interesting tool that had a bit of diamond at the end, and he gave them, out of his own free generousness, a large piece of putty and a small piece of glue.

While they were out the girls had floated four photographs of the four children off their cards in hot water. These were now stuck in a row along the top of the cardboard. Cyril put the glue to melt in a jampot, and put the jampot in a saucepan and saucepan on the fire, while Robert painted a wreath of poppies round the photographs. He painted rather well and very quickly, and poppies are easy to do if you’ve once been shown how. Then Anthea drew some printed letters and Jane coloured them. The words were:

   ‘With all our loves to shew
   We like the thigs to eat.’

And when the painting was dry they all signed their names at the bottom and put the glass on, and glued brown paper round the edge and over the back, and put two loops of tape to hang it up by.

Of course everyone saw when too late that there were not enough letters in ‘things’, so the missing ‘n’ was put in. It was impossible, of course, to do the whole thing over again for just one letter.

‘There!’ said Anthea, placing it carefully, face up, under the sofa. ‘It’ll be hours before the glue’s dry. Now, Squirrel, fire ahead!’

‘Well, then,’ said Cyril in a great hurry, rubbing at his gluey hands with his pocket handkerchief. ‘What I mean to say is this.’

There was a long pause.

‘Well,’ said Robert at last, ‘WHAT is it that you mean to say?’

‘It’s like this,’ said Cyril, and again stopped short.

‘Like WHAT?’ asked Jane.

‘How can I tell you if you will all keep on interrupting?’ said Cyril sharply.

So no one said any more, and with wrinkled frowns he arranged his ideas.

‘Look here,’ he said, ‘what I really mean is—we can remember now what we did when we went to look for the Amulet. And if we’d found it we should remember that too.’

‘Rather!’ said Robert. ‘Only, you see we haven’t.’

‘But in the future we shall have.’

‘Shall we, though?’ said Jane.

‘Yes—unless we’ve been made fools of by the Psammead. So then, where we want to go to is where we shall remember about where we did find it.’

‘I see,’ said Robert, but he didn’t.

‘I don’t,’ said Anthea, who did, very nearly. ‘Say it again, Squirrel, and very slowly.’

‘If,’ said Cyril, very slowly indeed, ‘we go into the future—after we’ve found the Amulet—’

‘But we’ve got to find it first,’ said Jane.

‘Hush!’ said Anthea.

‘There will be a future,’ said Cyril, driven to greater clearness by the blank faces of the other three, ‘there will be a time AFTER we’ve found it. Let’s go into THAT time—and then we shall remember HOW we found it. And then we can go back and do the finding really.’

‘I see,’ said Robert, and this time he did, and I hope YOU do.

‘Yes,’ said Anthea. ‘Oh, Squirrel, how clever of you!’

‘But will the Amulet work both ways?’ inquired Robert.

‘It ought to,’ said Cyril, ‘if time’s only a thingummy of whatsitsname. Anyway we might try.’

‘Let’s put on our best things, then,’ urged Jane. ‘You know what people say about progress and the world growing better and brighter. I expect people will be awfully smart in the future.’

‘All right,’ said Anthea, ‘we should have to wash anyway, I’m all thick with glue.’

When everyone was clean and dressed, the charm was held up.

‘We want to go into the future and see the Amulet after we’ve found it,’ said Cyril, and Jane said the word of Power. They walked through the big arch of the charm straight into the British Museum.

They knew it at once, and there, right in front of them, under a glass case, was the Amulet—their own half of it, as well as the other half they had never been able to find—and the two were joined by a pin of red stone that formed a hinge.

‘Oh, glorious!’ cried Robert. ‘Here it is!’

‘Yes,’ said Cyril, very gloomily, ‘here it is. But we can’t get it out.’

‘No,’ said Robert, remembering how impossible the Queen of Babylon had found it to get anything out of the glass cases in the Museum—except by Psammead magic, and then she hadn’t been able to take anything away with her; ‘no—but we remember where we got it, and we can—’

‘Oh, DO we?’ interrupted Cyril bitterly, ‘do YOU remember where we got it?’

‘No,’ said Robert, ‘I don’t exactly, now I come to think of it.’

Nor did any of the others!

‘But WHY can’t we?’ said Jane.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Cyril’s tone was impatient, ‘some silly old enchanted rule I suppose. I wish people would teach you magic at school like they do sums—or instead of. It would be some use having an Amulet then.’

‘I wonder how far we are in the future,’ said Anthea; the Museum looks just the same, only lighter and brighter, somehow.’

‘Let’s go back and try the Past again,’ said Robert.

‘Perhaps the Museum people could tell us how we got it,’ said Anthea with sudden hope. There was no one in the room, but in the next gallery, where the Assyrian things are and still were, they found a kind, stout man in a loose, blue gown, and stockinged legs.

‘Oh, they’ve got a new uniform, how pretty!’ said Jane.

When they asked him their question he showed them a label on the case. It said, ‘From the collection of—.’ A name followed, and it was the name of the learned gentleman who, among themselves, and to his face when he had been with them at the other side of the Amulet, they had called Jimmy.

‘THAT’S not much good,’ said Cyril, ‘thank you.’

‘How is it you’re not at school?’ asked the kind man in blue. ‘Not expelled for long I hope?’

‘We’re not expelled at all,’ said Cyril rather warmly.

‘Well, I shouldn’t do it again, if I were you,’ said the man, and they could see he did not believe them. There is no company so little pleasing as that of people who do not believe you.

‘Thank you for showing us the label,’ said Cyril. And they came away.

As they came through the doors of the Museum they blinked at the sudden glory of sunlight and blue sky. The houses opposite the Museum were gone. Instead there was a big garden, with trees and flowers and smooth green lawns, and not a single notice to tell you not to walk on the grass and not to destroy the trees and shrubs and not to pick the flowers. There were comfortable seats all about, and arbours covered with roses, and long, trellised walks, also rose-covered. Whispering, splashing fountains fell into full white marble basins, white statues gleamed among the leaves, and the pigeons that swept about among the branches or pecked on the smooth, soft gravel were not black and tumbled like the Museum pigeons are now, but bright and clean and sleek as birds of new silver. A good many people were sitting on the seats, and on the grass babies were rolling and kicking and playing—with very little on indeed. Men, as well as women, seemed to be in charge of the babies and were playing with them.

‘It’s like a lovely picture,’ said Anthea, and it was. For the people’s clothes were of bright, soft colours and all beautifully and very simply made. No one seemed to have any hats or bonnets, but there were a great many Japanese-looking sunshades. And among the trees were hung lamps of coloured glass.

‘I expect they light those in the evening,’ said Jane. ‘I do wish we lived in the future!’

They walked down the path, and as they went the people on the benches looked at the four children very curiously, but not rudely or unkindly. The children, in their turn, looked—I hope they did not stare—at the faces of these people in the beautiful soft clothes. Those faces were worth looking at. Not that they were all handsome, though even in the matter of handsomeness they had the advantage of any set of people the children had ever seen. But it was the expression of their faces that made them worth looking at. The children could not tell at first what it was.

‘I know,’ said Anthea suddenly. ‘They’re not worried; that’s what it is.’

And it was. Everybody looked calm, no one seemed to be in a hurry, no one seemed to be anxious, or fretted, and though some did seem to be sad, not a single one looked worried.

But though the people looked kind everyone looked so interested in the children that they began to feel a little shy and turned out of the big main path into a narrow little one that wound among trees and shrubs and mossy, dripping springs.

It was here, in a deep, shadowed cleft between tall cypresses, that they found the expelled little boy. He was lying face downward on the mossy turf, and the peculiar shaking of his shoulders was a thing they had seen, more than once, in each other. So Anthea kneeled down by him and said—

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I’m expelled from school,’ said the boy between his sobs.

This was serious. People are not expelled for light offences.

‘Do you mind telling us what you’d done?’

‘I—I tore up a sheet of paper and threw it about in the playground,’ said the child, in the tone of one confessing an unutterable baseness. ‘You won’t talk to me any more now you know that,’ he added without looking up.

‘Was that all?’ asked Anthea.

‘It’s about enough,’ said the child; ‘and I’m expelled for the whole day!’

‘I don’t quite understand,’ said Anthea, gently. The boy lifted his face, rolled over, and sat up.

‘Why, whoever on earth are you?’ he said.

‘We’re strangers from a far country,’ said Anthea. ‘In our country it’s not a crime to leave a bit of paper about.’

‘It is here,’ said the child. ‘If grown-ups do it they’re fined. When we do it we’re expelled for the whole day.’

‘Well, but,’ said Robert, ‘that just means a day’s holiday.’

‘You MUST come from a long way off,’ said the little boy. ‘A holiday’s when you all have play and treats and jolliness, all of you together. On your expelled days no one’ll speak to you. Everyone sees you’re an Expelleder or you’d be in school.’

‘Suppose you were ill?’

‘Nobody is—hardly. If they are, of course they wear the badge, and everyone is kind to you. I know a boy that stole his sister’s illness badge and wore it when he was expelled for a day. HE got expelled for a week for that. It must be awful not to go to school for a week.’

‘Do you LIKE school, then?’ asked Robert incredulously.

‘Of course I do. It’s the loveliest place there is. I chose railways for my special subject this year, there are such splendid models and things, and now I shall be all behind because of that torn-up paper.’

‘You choose your own subject?’ asked Cyril.

‘Yes, of course. Where DID you come from? Don’t you know ANYTHING?’

‘No,’ said Jane definitely; ‘so you’d better tell us.’

‘Well, on Midsummer Day school breaks up and everything’s decorated with flowers, and you choose your special subject for next year. Of course you have to stick to it for a year at least. Then there are all your other subjects, of course, reading, and painting, and the rules of Citizenship.’

‘Good gracious!’ said Anthea.

‘Look here,’ said the child, jumping up, ‘it’s nearly four. The expelledness only lasts till then. Come home with me. Mother will tell you all about everything.’

‘Will your mother like you taking home strange children?’ asked Anthea.

‘I don’t understand,’ said the child, settling his leather belt over his honey-coloured smock and stepping out with hard little bare feet. ‘Come on.’

So they went.

The streets were wide and hard and very clean. There were no horses, but a sort of motor carriage that made no noise. The Thames flowed between green banks, and there were trees at the edge, and people sat under them, fishing, for the stream was clear as crystal. Everywhere there were green trees and there was no smoke. The houses were set in what seemed like one green garden.

The little boy brought them to a house, and at the window was a good, bright mother-face. The little boy rushed in, and through the window they could see him hugging his mother, then his eager lips moving and his quick hands pointing.

A lady in soft green clothes came out, spoke kindly to them, and took them into the oddest house they had ever seen. It was very bare, there were no ornaments, and yet every single thing was beautiful, from the dresser with its rows of bright china, to the thick squares of Eastern-looking carpet on the floors. I can’t describe that house; I haven’t the time. And I haven’t heart either, when I think how different it was from our houses. The lady took them all over it. The oddest thing of all was t............
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