DIGORY AND HIS UNCLE
IT was so sudden, and so horribly unlike anything that had ever happened to Digory even in a nightmare, that he let out a scream. Instantly Uncle Andrew’s hand was over his mouth. “None of that!” he hissed in Digory’s ear. “If you start making a noise your Mother’ll hear it. And you know what a fright might do to her.”
As Digory said afterwards, the horrible meanness of getting at a chap in that way, almost made him sick. But of course he didn’t scream again.
“That’s better,” said Uncle Andrew. “Perhaps you couldn’t help it. It is a shock when you first see someone vanish. Why, it gave even me a turn when the guinea-pig did it the other night.”
“Was that when you yelled?” asked Digory.
“Oh, you heard that, did you? I hope you haven’t been spying on me?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Digory indignantly. “But what’s happened to Polly?”
“Congratulate me, my dear boy,” said Uncle Andrew, rubbing his hands. “My experiment has
succeeded. The little girl’s gone – vanished – right out of the world.”
“What have you done to her?”
“Sent her to – well – to another place.”
“What do you mean?” asked Digory.
Uncle Andrew sat down and said, “Well, I’ll tell you all about it. Have you ever heard of old Mrs Lefay?”
“Wasn’t she a great-aunt or something?” said Digory.
“Not exactly,” said Uncle Andrew. “She was my godmother. That’s her, there, on the wall.”
Digory looked and saw a faded photograph: it showed the face of an old woman in a bonnet. And he could now remember that he had once seen a photo of the same face in an old drawer, at home, in the country. He had asked his Mother who it was and Mother had not seemed to want to talk about the subject much. It was not at all a nice face, Digory thought, though of course with those early photographs one could never really tell.
“Was there – wasn’t there – something wrong about her, Uncle Andrew?” he asked.
“Well,” said Uncle Andrew with a chuckle, “it depends what you call wrong. People are so narrow-minded. She certainly got very queer in later life. Did very unwise things. That was why they shut her up.”
“In an asylum, do you mean?”
“Oh no, no, no,” said Uncle Andrew in a shocked voice. “Nothing of that sort. Only in prison.”
“I say!” said Digory. “What had she done?”
“Ah, poor woman,” said Uncle Andrew. “She had been very unwise. There were a good many different things. We needn’t go into all that. She was always very kind to me.”
“But look here, what has all this got to do with Polly? I do wish you’d -”
“All in good time, my boy,” said Uncle Andrew. “They let old Mrs Lefay out before she died and I was one of the very few people whom she would allow to see her in her last illness. She had got to dislike ordinary, ignorant people, you understand. I do myself. But she and I were interested in the same sort of things. It was only a few days before her death that she told me to go to an old bureau in her house and open a secret drawer and bring her a little box that I would find there. The moment
I picked up that box I could tell by the pricking in my fingers that I held some great secret in my hands. She gave it me and made me promise that as soon as she was dead I would burn it, unopened, with certain ceremonies. That promise I did not keep.”
“Well, then, it was jolly rotten of you,” said Digory.
“Rotten?” said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look.
“Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper,I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”
As he said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine. But then he remembered the ugly look he had seen on his Uncle’s face the moment before Polly had vanished: and all at once he saw through Uncle Andrew’s grand words. “All it means,” he said to himself, “Is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”
“Of course,” said Uncle Andrew, “I didn’t dare to open the box for a long time, for I knew it might contain something highly dangerous. For my godmother was a very remarkable woman. The truth is, she was one of the last mortals in this country who had fairy blood in her. (She said there had been two others in her time. One was a duchess and the other was a charwoman.) In fact, Digory,you are now talking to the last man (possibly) who really had a fairy godmother. There! That’ll be something for you to remember when you are an old man yourself.”
“I bet she was a bad fairy,” thought Digory; and added out loud. “But what about Polly?”
“How you do harp on that!” said Uncle Andrew. “As if that was what mattered! My first task was of course to study the box itself. It was very ancient. And I knew enough even then to know that it wasn’t Greek, or Old Egyptian, or Babylonian, or Hittite, or Chinese. It was older than any of those nations. Ah – that was a great day when I at last found out the truth. The box was Atlantean; it came from the lost island of Atlantis. That meant it was centuries older than any of the stone-age things they dig up in Europe. And it wasn’t a rough, crude thing like them either. For in the very dawn of time Atlantis was already a great city with palaces and temples and learned men.”
He paused for a moment as if he expected Digory to say something. But Digory was disliking his
Uncle more every minute, so he said nothing.
“Meanwhile,” continued Uncle Andrew, “I was learning a good deal in other ways (it wouldn’t be proper to explain them to a child) about Magic in general. That meant that I came to have a fair idea what sort of things might be in the box. By various tests I narrowed down the possibilities. I had to get to know some – well, some devilish queer people, and go through some very disagreeable experiences. That was what turned my head grey. One doesn’t become a magician for nothing. My
health broke down in the end. But I got better. And at last I actually knew.”
Although there was not really the least chance of anyone overhearing them, he leaned forward and almost whispered as he said: “The Atlantean box contained something that had been brought from another world when our world was only just beginning.”
“What?” asked Digory, who was now interested in spite of himself.
“Only dust,” said Uncle Andrew. “Fine, dry dust. Nothing much to look at. Not much to show for a lifetime of toil, you might say. Ah, but when I looked at that dust (I took jolly good care not to touch it) and thought that every grain had once been in another world – I don’t mean another planet, you know; they’re part of our world and you could get to them if you went far enough – but a really Other World – another Nature another universe – somewhere you would never reach even if you travelled through the space of this universe for ever and ever – a world that could be reached only by Magic – well!” Here Uncle Andrew rubbed his hands till his knuckles cracked like fireworks.
“I knew,” he went on, “that if only you could get it into the right form, that dust would draw you back to the place it had come from. But the difficulty was to get it into the right form. My earlier experiments were all failures. I tried them on guinea-pigs. Some of them only died. Some exploded like little bombs -”
“It was a jolly cruel thing to do,” said Digory who had once had a guinea-pig of his own.
“How you do keep getting off the point!” said Uncle Andrew. “That’s what the creatures were for.
I’d bought them myself. Let me see – where was I? Ah yes. At last I succeeded in making the rings: the yellow rings. But now a new difficulty arose. I was pretty sure, now, that a yellow ring would send any creature that touched it into the Other Pace. But what would be the good of that if I couldn’t get them back to tell me what they had found there?”
“And what about them?” said Digory. “A nice mess they’d be in if they couldn’t get back!”
“You will keep on looking at everything from the wrong point of view,” said Uncle Andrew with a look of impatience. “Can’t you understand that the thing is a great experiment? The whole point of sending anyone into the Other Place is that I want to find out what it’s like.”
“Well why didn’t you go yourself then?”
Digory had hardly ever seen anyone so surprised and offended as his Uncle did at this simple question. “Me? Me?” he exclaimed. “The boy must be mad! A man at my time of life, and in my state of health, to risk the shock and the dangers of being flung suddenly into a different universe? I never heard anything so preposterous in my life! Do you realize what you’re saying? Think what Another World means – you might meet anything anything.”
“And I suppose you’ve sent Polly into it then,” said Digory. His cheeks were flaming with anger now. “And all I can say,” he added, “even if you are my Uncle – is that you’ve behaved like a coward, sending a girl to a place you’re afraid to go to yourself.”
“Silence, sir!” said Uncle Andrew, bringing his hand down on the table. “I will not be talked to like that by a little, dirty, schoolboy. You don’t understand. I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on. Bless my soul, you’ll be telling me next that I ought to have asked the guinea-pigs’ permission before I used them! No great wisdom can be reached without sacrifice. But the idea of my going myself is ridiculous. It’s like
asking a general to fight as a common soldier. Supposing I got killed, what would become of my life’s work?”
“Oh, do stop jawing,” said Digory. “Are you going to bring Polly back?”
“I was going to tell you, when you so rudely interrupted me,” said Uncle Andrew, “that I did at last find out a way of doing the return journey. The green rings draw you back.”
“But Polly hasn’t got a green ring.”
“No ” said Uncle Andrew with a
“Then she can’t get back,” shouted Digory. “And it’s exactly the same as if you’d murdered her.
“She can get back,” said Uncle Andrew, “if someone else will go after her, wearing a yellow ring himself and taking two green rings, one to bring himself back and one to bring her back.”
And now of course Digory saw the trap in which he was caught: and he stared at Uncle Andrew, saying nothing, with his mouth wide open. His cheeks had gone very pale.
“I hope,” said Uncle Andrew presently in a very high and mighty voice, just as if he were a perfect Uncle who had given one a handsome tip and some good advice, “I hope, Digory, you are not given to showing the white feathe. I should be very sorry to think that anyone of our family had not enough honour and chivalry to go to the aid of – er – a lady in distress.”
“Oh shut up!” said Digory. “If you had any honour and all that, you’d be going yourself. But I know you won’t. Alright. I see I’ve got to go. But you are a beast. I suppose you planned the whole thing, so that she’d go without knowing it and then I’d have to go after her.”
“Of course,” said Uncle Andrew with his hateful smile.
“Very well. I’ll go. But there’s one thing I jolly well mean to say first. I didn’t believe in Magic till today. I see now it’s real. Well if it is, I suppose all the old fairy tales are more or less true. And you’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories. Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be. And serve you right.”
Of all the things Digory had said this was the first that really went home. Uncle Andrew started and there came over his face a look of such horror that, beast though he was, you could almost feel sorry for him. But a second later he smoothed it all away and said with a rather forced laugh, “Well, well, I suppose that is a natural thing for a child to think – brought up among women, as you have been. Old wives’ tales, eh? I don’t think you need worry about my danger, Digory. Wouldn’t it be
better to worry about the danger of your little friend? She’s been gone some time. If there are any
dangers Over There – well, it would be a pity to arrive a moment too late.”
“A lot you care,” said Digory fiercely. “But I’m sick of this jaw. What have I got to do?”
“You really must learn to control that temper of yours, my boy,” said Uncle Andrew coolly.
“Otherwise you’ll grow up like your Aunt Letty. Now. Attend to me.”
He got up, put on a pair of gloves, and walked over to the tray that contained the rings.
“They only work,” he said, “if they’re actually touching your skin. Wearing gloves, I can pick them up – like this – and nothing happens. If you carried one in your pocket nothing would happen: but of course you’d have to be careful not to put your hand in your pocket and touch it by accident. The moment you touch a yellow ring, you vanish out of this world. When you are in the Other Place I expect – of course this hasn’t been tested yet, but I expect – that the moment you touch a green ring
you vanish out of that world and – I expect – reappear in this. Now. I take these two greens and drop them into your right-hand pocket. Remember very carefully which pocket the greens are in. G for green and R for right. G.R. you see: which are the first two letters of green. One for you and one for the little girl. And now you pick up a yellow one for yourself. I should put it on on your finger – if I were you. There’ll be less chance of dropping it.”
Digory had almost picked up the yellow ring when he suddenly checked himself.
“Look here,” he said. “What about Mother? Supposing she asks where I am?”
“The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back,” said Uncle Andrew cheerfully.
“But you don’t really know whether I can get back.”
Uncle Andrew shrugged his shoulders, walked across to the door, unlocked it, threw it open, and said:
“Oh very’ well then. Just as you please. Go down and have your dinner. Leave the little girl to be eaten by wild animals or drowned or starved in Otherworld or lost there for good, if that’s what you prefer. It’s all one to me. Perhaps before tea time you’d better drop in on Mrs Plummer and explain that she’ll never see her daughter again; because you were afraid to put on a ring.”
“By gum,” said Digory, “don’t I just wish I was big enough to punch your head!”
Then he buttoned up his coat, took a deep breath, and picked up the ring. And he thought then, as he always thought afterwards too, that he could not decently have done anything else.