Five Children and It – Chapter 3: Being Wanted

The morning after the children had been the possessors of boundless wealth, and had been unable to buy anything really useful or enjoyable with it, except two pairs of cotton gloves, twelve penny buns, an imitation crocodile-skin purse, and a ride in a pony-cart, they awoke without any of the enthusiastic happiness which they had felt on the previous day when they remembered how they had had the luck to find a Psammead, or Sand-fairy, and to receive its promise to grant them a new wish every day. For now they had had two wishes, Beauty and Wealth, and neither had exactly made them happy. But the happening of strange things, even if they are not completely pleasant things, is more amusing than those times when nothing happens but meals, and they are not always completely pleasant, especially on the days when it is cold mutton or hash.

There was no chance of talking things over before breakfast, because everyone overslept itself, as it happened, and it needed a vigorous and determined struggle to get dressed so as to be only ten minutes late for breakfast. During this meal some efforts were made to deal with the question of the Psammead in an impartial spirit, but it is very difficult to discuss anything thoroughly and at the same time to attend faithfully to your baby brother’s breakfast needs. The Baby was particularly lively that morning. He not only wriggled his body through the bar of his high chair, and hung by his head, choking and purple, but he seized a tablespoon with desperate suddenness, hit Cyril heavily on the head with it, and then cried because it was taken away from him. He put his fat fist in his bread-and-milk, and demanded “nam,” which was only allowed for tea. He sang, he put his feet on the table—he clamoured to “go walky.” The conversation was something like this—

“Look here—about that Sand-fairy—— Look out!—he’ll have the milk over.”

Milk removed to a safe distance.

“Yes—about that Fairy—— No, Lamb dear, give Panther the narky poon.”

Then Cyril tried. “Nothing we’ve had yet has turned out—— He nearly had the mustard that time!”

“I wonder whether we’d better wish—— Hullo!—you’ve done it now, my boy!” And in a flash of glass and pink baby-paws, the bowl of golden carp in the middle of the table rolled on its side and poured a flood of mixed water and gold-fish into the Baby’s lap and into the laps of the others.

Everyone was almost as much upset as the gold-fish; the Lamb only remaining calm. When the pool on the floor had been mopped up, and the leaping, gasping gold-fish had been collected and put back in the water, the Baby was taken away to be entirely re-dressed by Martha, and most of the others had to change completely. The pinafores and jackets that had been bathed in gold-fish-and-water were hung out to dry, and then it turned out that Jane must either mend the dress she had torn the day before or appear all day in her best petticoat. It was white and soft and frilly, and trimmed with lace, and very, very pretty, quite as pretty as a frock, if not more so. Only it was not a frock, and Martha’s word was law. She wouldn’t let Jane wear her best frock, and she refused to listen for a moment to Robert’s suggestion that Jane should wear her best petticoat and call it a dress.

“It’s not respectable,” she said. And when people say that, it’s no use anyone’s saying anything. You’ll find this out for yourselves some day.

So there was nothing for it but for Jane to mend her frock. The hole had been torn the day before when she happened to tumble down in the High Street of Rochester, just where a water-cart had passed on its silvery way. She had grazed her knee, and her stocking was much more than grazed, and her dress was cut by the same stone which had attended to the knee and the stocking. Of course the others were not such sneaks as to abandon a comrade in misfortune, so they all sat on the grass-plot round the sun-dial, and Jane darned away for dear life. The Lamb was still in the hands of Martha having its clothes changed, so conversation was possible.

Anthea and Robert timidly tried to conceal their inmost thought, which was that the Psammead was not to be trusted; but Cyril said—

“Speak out—say what you’ve got to say—I hate hinting, and ‘don’t know,’ and sneakish ways like that.”

So then Robert said, as in honour bound, “Sneak yourself—Anthea and me weren’t so gold-fishy as you two were, so we got changed quicker, and we’ve had time to think it over, and if you ask me”—

“I didn’t ask you,” said Jane, biting off a needleful of thread as she had always been strictly forbidden to do. (Perhaps you don’t know that if you bite off ends of cotton and swallow them they wind tight round your heart and kill you? My nurse told me this, and she told me also about the earth going round the sun. Now what is one to believe—what with nurses and science?)

“I don’t care who asks or who doesn’t,” said Robert, “but Anthea and I think the Sammyadd is a spiteful brute. If it can give us our wishes I suppose it can give itself its own, and I feel almost sure it wishes every time that our wishes shan’t do us any good. Let’s let the tiresome beast alone, and just go and have a jolly good game of forts, on our own, in the chalk-pit.”

(You will remember that the happily-situated house where these children were spending their holidays lay between a chalk-quarry and a gravel-pit.)

Cyril and Jane were more hopeful—they generally were.

“I don’t think the Sammyadd does it on purpose,” Cyril said; “and, after all, it was silly to wish for boundless wealth. Fifty pounds in two-shilling pieces would have been much more sensible. And wishing to be beautiful as the day was simply donkeyish. I don’t want to be disagreeable, but it was. We must try to find a really useful wish, and wish it.”

Jane dropped her work and said—

“I think so too, it’s too silly to have a chance like this and not use it. I never heard of anyone else outside a book who had such a chance; there must be simply heaps of things we could wish for that wouldn’t turn out Dead Sea fish, like these two things have. Do let’s think hard and wish something nice, so that we can have a real jolly day—what there is left of it.”

Jane darned away again like mad, for time was indeed getting on, and everyone began to talk at once. If you had been there you could not possibly have made head or tail of the talk, but these children were used to talking “by fours,” as soldiers march, and each of them could say what it had to say quite comfortably, and listen to the agreeable sound of its own voice, and at the same time have three-quarters of two sharp ears to spare for listening to what the others said. That is an easy example in multiplication of vulgar fractions, but, as I daresay you can’t do even that, I won’t ask you to tell me whether 3/4 × 2 = 1-1/2, but I will ask you to believe me that this was the amount of ear each child was able to lend to the others. Lending ears was common in Roman times, as we learn from Shakespeare; but I fear I am getting too instructive.

When the frock was darned, the start for the gravel-pit was delayed by Martha’s insisting on everybody’s washing its hands—which was nonsense, because nobody had been doing anything at all, except Jane, and how can you get dirty doing nothing? That is a difficult question, and I cannot answer it on paper. In real life I could very soon show you—or you me, which is much more likely.