The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth
Chapter 3: The Giant Rats
It was two nights after the disappearance of Mr. Skinner that the Podbourne doctor was out late near Hankey, driving in his buggy. He had been up all night assisting another undistinguished citizen into this curious world of ours, and his task accomplished, he was driving homeward in a drowsy mood enough. It was about two o’clock in the morning, and the waning moon was rising. The summer night had gone cold, and there was a low-lying whitish mist that made things indistinct. He was quite alone--for his coachman was ill in bed--and there was nothing to be seen on either hand but a drifting mystery of hedge running athwart the yellow glare of his lamps, and nothing to hear but the clitter-clatter of his horses and the gride and hedge echo of his wheels. His horse was as trustworthy as himself, and one does not wonder that he dozed...
You know that intermittent drowsing as one sits, the drooping of the head, the nodding to the rhythm of the wheels then chin upon the breast, and at once the sudden start up again.
Pitter, litter, patter.
“What was that?”
It seemed to the doctor he had heard a thin shrill squeal close at hand. For a moment he was quite awake. He said a word or two of undeserved rebuke to his horse, and looked about him. He tried to persuade himself that he had heard the distant squeal of a fox--or perhaps a young rabbit gripped by a ferret.
Swish, swish, swish, pitter, patter, swish--...
What was that?
He felt he was getting fanciful. He shook his shoulders and told his horse to get on. He listened, and heard nothing.
Or was it nothing?
He had the queerest impression that something had just peeped over the hedge at him, a queer big head. With round ears! He peered hard, but he could see nothing.
“Nonsense,” said he.
He sat up with an idea that he had dropped into a nightmare, gave his horse the slightest touch of the whip, spoke to it and peered again over the hedge. The glare of his lamp, however, together with the mist, rendered things indistinct, and he could distinguish nothing. It came into his head, he says, that there could be nothing there, because if there was his horse would have shied at it. Yet for all that his senses remained nervously awake.
Then he heard quite distinctly a soft pattering of feet in pursuit along the road.
He would not believe his ears about that. He could not look round, for the road had a sinuous curve just there. He whipped up his horse and glanced sideways again. And then he saw quite distinctly where a ray from his lamp leapt a low stretch of hedge, the curved back of--some big animal, he couldn’t tell what, going along in quick convulsive leaps.
He says he thought of the old tales of witchcraft--the thing was so utterly unlike any animal he knew, and he tightened his hold on the reins for fear of the fear of his horse. Educated man as he was, he admits he asked himself if this could be something that his horse could not see.
Ahead, and drawing near in silhouette against the rising moon, was the outline of the little hamlet of Hankey, comforting, though it showed never a light, and he cracked his whip and spoke again, and then in a flash the rats were at him!
He had passed a gate, and as he did so, the foremost rat came leaping over into the road. The thing sprang upon him out of vagueness into the utmost clearness, the sharp, eager, round-eared face, the long body exaggerated by its movement; and what particularly struck him, the pink, webbed forefeet of the beast. What must have made it more horrible to him at the time was, that he had no idea the thing was any created beast he knew. He did not recognise it as a rat, because of the size. His horse gave a bound as the thing dropped into the road beside it. The little lane woke into tumult at the report of the whip and the doctor’s shout. The whole thing suddenly went fast.
Rattle-clatter, clash, clatter.
The doctor, one gathers, stood up, shouted to his horse, and slashed with all his strength. The rat winced and swerved most reassuringly at his blow--in the glare of his lamp he could see the fur furrow under the lash--and he slashed again and again, heedless and unaware of the second pursuer that gained upon his off side.
He let the reins go, and glanced back to discover the third rat in pursuit behind...
His horse bounded forward. The buggy leapt high at a rut. For a frantic minute perhaps everything seemed to be going in leaps and bounds...
It was sheer good luck the horse came down in Hankey, and not either before or after the houses had been passed.
No one knows how the horse came down, whether it stumbled or whether the rat on the off side really got home with one of those slashing down strokes of the teeth (given with the full weight of the body); and the doctor never discovered that he himself was bitten until he was inside the brickmaker’s house, much less did he discover when the bite occurred, though bitten he was and badly--a long slash like the slash of a double tomahawk that had cut two parallel ribbons of flesh from his left shoulder.
He was standing up in his buggy at one moment, and in the next he had leapt to the ground, with his ankle, though he did not know it, badly sprained, and he was cutting furiously at a third rat that was flying directly at him. He scarcely remembers the leap he must have made over the top of the wheel as the buggy came over, so obliteratingly hot and swift did his impressions rush upon him. I think myself the horse reared up with the rat biting again at its throat, and fell sideways, and carried the whole affair over; and that the doctor sprang, as it were, instinctively. As the buggy came down, the receiver of the lamp smashed, and suddenly poured a flare of blazing oil, a thud of white flame, into the struggle.
That was the first thing the brickmaker saw.
He had heard the clatter of the doctor’s approach and--though the doctor’s memory has nothing of this--wild shouting. He had got out of bed hastily, and as he did so came the terrific smash, and up shot the glare outside the rising blind. “It was brighter than day,” he says. He stood, blind cord in hand, and stared out of the window at a nightmare transformation of the familiar road before him. The black figure of the doctor with its whirling whip danced out against the flame. The horse kicked indistinctly, half hidden by the blaze, with a rat at its throat. In the obscurity against the churchyard wall, the eyes of a second monster shone wickedly. Another--a mere dreadful blackness with red-lit eyes and flesh-coloured hands--clutched unsteadily on the wall coping to which it had leapt at the flash of the exploding lamp.
You know the keen face of a rat, those two sharp teeth, those pitiless eyes. Seen magnified to near six times its linear dimensions, and still more magnified by darkness and amazement and the leaping fancies of a fitful blaze, it must have been an ill sight for the brickmaker--still more than half asleep.
Then the doctor had grasped the opportunity, that momentary respite the flare afforded, and was out of the brickmaker’s sight below battering the door with the butt of his whip...
The brickmaker would not let him in until he had got a light.
There are those who have blamed the man for that, but until I know my own courage better, I hesitate to join their number.
The doctor yelled and hammered...
The brickmaker says he was weeping with terror when at last the door was opened.
“Bolt,” said the doctor, “bolt”--he could not say “bolt the door.” He tried to help, and was of no service. The brickmaker fastened the door, and the doctor had to sit on the chair beside the clock for a space before he could go upstairs...
“I don’t know what they are!” he repeated several times. “I don’t know what they are“--with a high note on the “are.”
The brickmaker would have got him whisky, but the doctor would not be left alone with nothing but a flickering light just then.
It was long before the brickmaker could get him to go upstairs...
And when the fire was out the giant rats came back, took the dead horse, dragged it across the churchyard into the brickfield and ate at it until it was dawn, none even then daring to disturb them...
Redwood went round, to Bensington about eleven the next morning with the “second editions” of three evening papers in his hand.
Bensington looked up from a despondent meditation over the forgotten pages of the most distracting novel the Brompton Road librarian had been able to find him. “Anything fresh?” he asked.
“Two men stung near Chartham.”
“They ought to let us smoke out that nest. They really did. It’s their own fault.”
“It’s their own fault, certainly,” said Redwood.
“Have you heard anything--about buying the farm?”
“The House Agent,” said Redwood, “is a thing with a big mouth and made of dense wood. It pretends someone else is after the house--it always does, you know--and won’t understand there’s a hurry. ‘This is a matter of life and death, ‘ I said, ‘don’t you understand?’ It drooped its eyes half shut and said, ‘Then why don’t you go the other two hundred pounds?’ I’d rather live in a world of solid wasps than give in to the stonewalling stupidity of that offensive creature. I--”
He paused, feeling that a sentence like that might very easily be spoiled by its context.
“It’s too much to hope,” said Bensington, “that one of the wasps--”
“The wasp has no more idea of public utility than a--than a House Agent,” said Redwood.
He talked for a little while about house agents and solicitors and people of that sort, in the unjust, unreasonable way that so many people do somehow get to talk of these business calculi (“Of all the cranky things in this cranky world, it is the most cranky to my mind of all, that while we expect honour, courage, efficiency, from a doctor or a soldier as a matter of course, a solicitor or a house agent is not only permitted but expected to display nothing but a sort of greedy, greasy, obstructive, over-reaching imbecility--” etc.)--and then, greatly relieved, he went to the window and stared out at the Sloane Street traffic.
Bensington had put the most exciting novel conceivable on the little table that carried his electric standard. He joined the fingers of his opposed hands very carefully and regarded them. “Redwood,” he said. “Do they say much about Us?”
“Not so much as I should expect.”
“They don’t denounce us at all?”
“Not a bit. But, on the other hand, they don’t back up what I point out must be done. I’ve written to the Times, you know, explaining the whole thing--”
“We take the Daily Chronicle,” said Bensington.
“And the Times has a long leader on the subject--a very high-class, well-written leader, with three pieces of Times Latin--status quo is one--and it reads like the voice of Somebody Impersonal of the Greatest Importance suffering from Influenza Headache and talking through sheets and sheets of felt without getting any relief from it whatever. Reading between the lines, you know, it’s pretty clear that the Times considers that it is useless to mince matters, and that something (indefinite of course) has to be done at once. Otherwise still more undesirable consequences--Times English, you know, for more wasps and stings. Thoroughly statesmanlike article!”
“And meanwhile this Bigness is spreading in all sorts of ugly ways.”
“I wonder if Skinner was right about those big rats--”
“Oh no! That would be too much,” said Redwood.
He came and stood by Bensington’s chair.
“By-the-bye,” he said, with a slightly lowered voice, “how does she--?”
He indicated the closed door.
“Cousin Jane? She simply knows nothing about it. Doesn’t connect us with it and won’t read the articles. ‘Gigantic wasps!’ she says, ‘I haven’t patience to read the papers.’”
“That’s very fortunate,” said Redwood.
“I suppose--Mrs. Redwood--?”
“No,” said Redwood, “just at present it happens--she’s terribly worried about the child. You know, he keeps on.”
“Yes. Put on forty-one ounces in ten days. Weighs nearly four stone. And only six months old! Naturally rather alarming.”
“Vigorous. His nurse is leaving because he kicks so forcibly. And everything, of course, shockingly outgrown. Everything, you know, has had to be made fresh, clothes and everything. Perambulator--light affair--broke one wheel, and the youngster had to be brought home on the milkman’s hand-truck. Yes. Quite a crowd ... And we’ve put Georgina Phyllis back into his cot and put him into the bed of Georgina Phyllis. His mother--naturally alarmed. Proud at first and inclined to praise Winkles. Not now. Feels the thing can’t be wholesome. You know.”
“I imagined you were going to put him on diminishing doses.”
“I tried it.”
“Didn’t it work?”
“Howls. In the ordinary way the cry of a child is loud and distressing; it is for the good of the species that this should be so--but since he has been on the Herakleophorbia treatment--”
“Mm,” said Bensington, regarding his fingers with more resignation than he had hitherto displayed.
“Practically the thing must come out. People will hear of this child, connect it up with our hens and things, and the whole thing will come round to my wife ... How she will take it I haven’t the remotest idea.”
“It is difficult,” said Mr. Bensington, “to form any plan--certainly.”
He removed his glasses and wiped them carefully.
“It is another instance,” he generalised, “of the thing that is continually happening. We--if indeed I may presume to the adjective--scientific men--we work of course always for a theoretical result--a purely theoretical result. But, incidentally, we do set forces in operation--new forces. We mustn’t control them--and nobody else can. Practically, Redwood, the thing is out of our hands. We supply the material--”
“And they,” said Redwood, turning to the window, “get the experience.”
“So far as this trouble down in Kent goes I am not disposed to worry further.”
“Unless they worry us.”
“Exactly. And if they like to muddle about with solicitors and pettifoggers and legal obstructions and weighty considerations of the tomfool order, until they have got a number of new gigantic species of vermin well established--Things always have been in a muddle, Redwood.”
Redwood traced a twisted, tangled line in the air.
“And our real interest lies at present with your boy.”
Redwood turned about and came and stared at his collaborator.
“What do you think of him, Bensington? You can look at this business with a greater detachment than I can. What am I to do about him?”
“Go on feeding him.”
“And then he’ll grow.”
“He’ll grow, as far as I can calculate from the hens and the wasps, to the height of about five-and-thirty feet--with everything in proportion--”
“And then what’ll he do?”
“That,” said Mr. Bensington, “is just what makes the whole thing so interesting.”
“Confound it, man! Think of his clothes.”
“And when he’s grown up,” said Redwood, “he’ll only be one solitary Gulliver in a pigmy world.”
Mr. Bensington’s eye over his gold rim was pregnant.
“Why solitary?” he said, and repeated still more darkly, “Why solitary?”
“But you don’t propose--?”
“I said,” said Mr. Bensington, with the self-complacency of a man who has produced a good significant saying, “Why solitary?”
“Meaning that one might bring up other children--?”
“Meaning nothing beyond my inquiry.”
Redwood began to walk about the room. “Of course,” he said, “one might--But still! What are we coming to?”
Bensington evidently enjoyed his line of high intellectual detachment. “The thing that interests me most, Redwood, of all this, is to think that his brain at the top of him will also, so far as my reasoning goes, be five-and-thirty feet or so above our level ... What’s the matter?”
Redwood stood at the window and stared at a news placard on a paper-cart that rattled up the street.
“What’s the matter?” repeated Bensington, rising.
Redwood exclaimed violently.
“What is it?” said Bensington.
“Get a paper,” said Redwood, moving doorward.
“Get a paper. Something--I didn’t quite catch--Gigantic rats--!”
“Yes, rats. Skinner was right after all!”
“What do you mean?”
“How the Deuce am I to know till I see a paper? Great Rats! Good Lord! I wonder if he’s eaten!”
He glanced for his hat, and decided to go hatless.
As he rushed downstairs two steps at a time, he could hear along the street the mighty howlings, to and fro of the Hooligan paper-sellers making a Boom.
“‘Orrible affair in Kent--’orrible affair in Kent. Doctor ... eaten by rats. ‘Orrible affair--’orrible affair--rats--eaten by Stchewpendous rats. Full perticulars--’orrible affair.”
Cossar, the well-known civil engineer, found them in the great doorway of the flat mansions, Redwood holding out the damp pink paper, and Bensington on tiptoe reading over his arm. Cossar was a large-bodied man with gaunt inelegant limbs casually placed at convenient corners of his body, and a face like a carving abandoned at an early stage as altogether too unpromising for completion. His nose had been left square, and his lower jaw projected beyond his upper. He breathed audibly. Few people considered him handsome. His hair was entirely tangential, and his voice, which he used sparingly, was pitched high, and had commonly a quality of bitter protest. He wore a grey cloth jacket suit and a silk hat on all occasions. He plumbed an abysmal trouser pocket with a vast red hand, paid his cabman, and came panting resolutely up the steps, a copy of the pink paper clutched about the middle, like Jove’s thunderbolt, in his hand.
“Skinner?” Bensington was saying, regardless of his approach.
“Nothing about him,” said Redwood. “Bound to be eaten. Both of them. It’s too terrible ... Hullo! Cossar!”
“This your stuff?” asked Cossar, waving the paper.
“Well, why don’t you stop it?” he demanded.
“Can’t be jiggered!” said Cossar.
“Buy the place?” he cried. “What nonsense! Burn it! I knew you chaps would fumble this. What are you to do? Why--what I tell you.
“You? Do? Why! Go up the street to the gunsmith’s, of course. Why? For guns. Yes--there’s only one shop. Get eight guns! Rifles. Not elephant guns--no! Too big. Not army rifles--too small. Say it’s to kill--kill a bull. Say it’s to shoot buffalo! See? Eh? Rats? No! How the deuce are they to understand that? Because we want eight. Get a lot of ammunition. Don’t get guns without ammunition--No! Take the lot in a cab to--where’s the place? Urshot? Charing Cross, then. There’s a train--Well, the first train that starts after two. Think you can do it? All right. License? Get eight at a post-office, of course. Gun licenses, you know. Not game. Why? It’s rats, man.
“You--Bensington. Got a telephone? Yes. I’ll ring up five of my chaps from Ealing. Why five? Because it’s the right number!
“Where you going, Redwood? Get a hat! Nonsense. Have mine. You want guns, man--not hats. Got money? Enough? All right. So long.
“Where’s the telephone, Bensington?”
Bensington wheeled about obediently and led the way.
Cossar used and replaced the instrument. “Then there’s the wasps,” he said. “Sulphur and nitre’ll do that. Obviously. Plaster of Paris. You’re a chemist. Where can I get sulphur by the ton in portable sacks? What for? Why, Lord bless my heart and soul!--to smoke out the nest, of course! I suppose it must be sulphur, eh? You’re a chemist. Sulphur best, eh?”
“Yes, I should think sulphur.”
“Right. That’s your job. That’s all right. Get as much sulphur as you can--saltpetre to make it burn. Sent? Charing Cross. Right away. See they do it. Follow it up. Anything?”
He thought a moment.
“Plaster of Paris--any sort of plaster--bung up nest--holes--you know. That I’d better get.”
“How much what?”
Bensington tightened his glasses with a hand tremulous with determination. “Right,” he said, very curtly.
“Money in your pocket?” asked Cossar.
“Hang cheques. They may not know you. Pay cash. Obviously. Where’s your bank? All right. Stop on the way and get forty pounds--notes and gold.”
Another meditation. “If we leave this job for public officials we shall have all Kent in tatters,” said Cossar. “Now is there--anything? No! HI!”
He stretched a vast hand towards a cab that became convulsively eager to serve him (“Cab, Sir?” said the cabman. “Obviously,” said Cossar); and Bensington, still hatless, paddled down the steps and prepared to mount.
“I think,” he said, with his hand on the cab apron, and a sudden glance up at the windows of his flat, “I ought to tell my cousin Jane--”
“More time to tell her when you come back,” said Cossar, thrusting him in with a vast hand expanded over his back...
“Clever chaps,” remarked Cossar, “but no initiative whatever. Cousin Jane indeed! I know her. Rot, these Cousin Janes! Country infested with ‘em. I suppose I shall have to spend the whole blessed night, seeing they do what they know perfectly well they ought to do all along. I wonder if it’s Research makes ‘em like that or Cousin Jane or what?”
He dismissed this obscure problem, meditated for a space upon his watch, and decided there would be just time to drop into a restaurant and get some lunch before he hunted up the plaster of Paris and took it to Charing Cross.
The train started at five minutes past three, and he arrived at Charing Cross at a quarter to three, to find Bensington in heated argument between two policemen and his van-driver outside, and Redwood in the luggage office involved in some technical obscurity about this ammunition. Everybody was pretending not to know anything or to have any authority, in the way dear to South-Eastern officials when they catch you in a hurry.
“Pity they can’t shoot all these officials and get a new lot,” remarked Cossar with a sigh. But the time was too limited for anything fundamental, and so he swept through these minor controversies, disinterred what may or may not have been the station-master from some obscure hiding-place, walked about the premises holding him and giving orders in his name, and was out of the station with everybody and everything aboard before that official was fully awake to the breaches in the most sacred routines and regulations that were being committed.
“Who was he?” said the high official, caressing the arm Cossar had gripped, and smiling with knit brows.
“‘E was a gentleman, Sir,” said a porter, “anyhow. ‘Im and all ‘is party travelled first class.”
“Well, we got him and his stuff off pretty sharp--whoever he was,” said the high official, rubbing his arm with something approaching satisfaction.
And as he walked slowly back, blinking in the unaccustomed daylight, towards that dignified retirement in which the higher officials at Charing Cross shelter from the importunity of the vulgar, he smiled still at his unaccustomed energy. It was a very gratifying revelation of his own possibilities, in spite of the stiffness of his arm. He wished some of those confounded arm-chair critics of railway management could have seen it.
By five o’clock that evening this amazing Cossar, with no appearance of hurry at all, had got all the stuff for his fight with insurgent Bigness out of Urshot and on the road to Hickleybrow. Two barrels of paraffin and a load of dry brushwood he had bought in Urshot; plentiful sacks of sulphur, eight big game guns and ammunition, three light breechloaders, with small-shot ammunition for the wasps, a hatchet, two billhooks, a pick and three spades, two coils of rope, some bottled beer, soda and whisky, one gross of packets of rat poison, and cold provisions for three days, had come down from London. All these things he had sent on in a coal trolley and a hay waggon in the most business-like way, except the guns and ammunition, which were stuck under the seat of the Red Lion waggonette appointed to bring on Redwood and the five picked men who had come up from Ealing at Cossar’s summons.
Cossar conducted all these transactions with an invincible air of commonplace, in spite of the fact that Urshot was in a panic about the rats, and all the drivers had to be specially paid. All the shops were shut in the place, and scarcely a soul abroad in the street, and when he banged at a door a window was apt to open. He seemed to consider that the conduct of business from open windows was an entirely legitimate and obvious method. Finally he and Bensington got the Red Lion dog-cart and set off with the waggonette, to overtake the baggage. They did this a little beyond the cross-roads, and so reached Hickleybrow first.
Bensington, with a gun between his knees, sitting beside Cossar in the dog-cart, developed a long germinated amazement. All they were doing was, no doubt, as Cossar insisted, quite the obvious thing to do, only--! In England one so rarely does the obvious thing. He glanced from his neighbour’s feet to the boldly sketched hands upon the reins. Cossar had apparently never driven before, and he was keeping the line of least resistance down the middle of the road by some no doubt quite obvious but certainly unusual light of his own.
“Why don’t we all do the obvious?” thought Bensington. “How the world would travel if one did! I wonder for instance why I don’t do such a lot of things I know would be all right to do--things I want to do. Is everybody like that, or is it peculiar to me!” He plunged into obscure speculation about the Will. He thought of the complex organised futilities of the daily life, and in contrast with them the plain and manifest things to do, the sweet and splendid things to do, that some incredible influences will never permit us to do. Cousin Jane? Cousin Jane he perceived was important in the question, in some subtle and difficult way. Why should we after all eat, drink, and sleep, remain unmarried, go here, abstain from going there, all out of deference to Cousin Jane? She became symbolical without ceasing to be incomprehensible!
A stile and a path across the fields caught his eye and reminded him of that other bright day, so recent in time, so remote in its emotions, when he had walked from Urshot to the Experimental Farm to see the giant chicks.
Fate plays with us.
“Tcheck, tcheck,” said Cossar. “Get up.”
It was a hot midday afternoon, not a breath of wind, and the dust was thick in the roads. Few people were about, but the deer beyond the park palings browsed in profound tranquillity. They saw a couple of big wasps stripping a gooseberry bush just outside Hickleybrow, and another was crawling up and down the front of the little grocer’s shop in the village street trying to find an entry. The grocer was dimly visible within, with an ancient fowling-piece in hand, watching its endeavours. The driver of the waggonette pulled up outside the Jolly Drovers and informed Redwood that his part of the bargain was done. In this contention he was presently joined by the drivers of the waggon and the trolley. Not only did they maintain this, but they refused to let the horses be taken further.
“Them big rats is nuts on ‘orses,” the trolley driver kept on repeating.
Cossar surveyed the controversy for a moment.
“Get the things out of that waggonette,” he said, and one of his men, a tall, fair, dirty engineer, obeyed.
“Gimme that shot gun,” said Cossar.
He placed himself between the drivers. “We don’t want you to drive,” he said.
“You can say what you like,” he conceded, “but we want these horses.”
They began to argue, but he continued speaking.
“If you try and assault us I shall, in self-defence, let fly at your legs. The horses are going on.”
He treated the incident as closed. “Get up on that waggon, Flack,” he said to a thickset, wiry little man. “Boon, take the trolley.”
The two drivers blustered to Redwood.
“You’ve done your duty to your employers,” said Redwood. “You stop in this village until we come back. No one will blame you, seeing we’ve got guns. We’ve no wish to do anything unjust or violent, but this occasion is pressing. I’ll pay if anything happens to the horses, never fear.”
“That’s all right,” said Cossar, who rarely promised.
They left the waggonette behind, and the men who were not driving went afoot. Over each shoulder sloped a gun. It was the oddest little expedition for an English country road, more like a Yankee party, trekking west in the good old Indian days.