-- Chapter 1
It was a beautiful summer morning and Neill was conducting a class on the tennis lawn. Jean awoke him by poking him in the ribs with a pencil.
"Telegram for you", she said, and Neill took the telegram from the red-faced telegraph messenger.
"No answer", said Neill absently, as he re-read the wire. He glanced at his watch. "Lord, he should be here at any moment now", he said excitedly.
"Who", asked Gordon.
"Pyecraft", said Neill. "He is on his way to Summerhill in his latest airship. Listen! I hear the drone of the engine."
"Bee", grunted David, and a bee it was; but ten minutes later a great silver airship swooped down and landed on the hockey-field like a swan on a lake. All rushed towards it, and Pyecraft opened the narrow door and with the help of the children squeezed his fat body through and out.
"Attaboy!", he cried. "Hullo, old Neill; hello, kids." He looked them over. "A new generation to me, but I guess they are as full of beans as the old lot".
"What's the idea", asked Neill. "Why have you come over?"
"Ah", said Pyecraft; "various reasons. I got fed up with business all the time. I want adventure."
"Cannibals," sighed Evelyn wistfully.
Pyecraft shook his head.
"Neill and I are too old for that now", he said sadly. "We haven't the courage nowadays. We are both old and grey."
"But you said you wanted adventure", said Robert rather scornfully; "although how you can get adventure without cannibals and pirates I don't know".
"But there are other adventures", said Pyecraft. "Scientific ones. I have had this ship specially built, at a cost of millions of dollars, because I want to win the altitude record of the world."
"The what", asked Bunny.
"Go up farther than anyone has ever been before", explained Pyecraft. "The height record to-day is ten miles and I want to beat that."
"But why didn't you do it in America?", asked Betty.
"Because I knew that my old friend Neill and some of his kids would like to help me win the record", he said, and the children gave a gasp of joy. Neill gave a sickly smile.
"Very kind of you to think of us, Pyecraft", he said, "but for my part...I'm afraid I can't come. I've got a golf match on with Watson this afternoon, and I don't want to miss that Marx brothers film, and -"
"Coward", murmured Evelyn with feeling.
"Hopeless coward", said David; "but we don't need him, do we Michael?" Michael scratched his head.
"But who can read the mathematical instruments if Neill doesn't come?"
"Who can read them if he does come?", asked Betty sweetly.
"Surely Pyecraft can read his own instruments", said Neill with some heat.
"Besides, there is another reason why he can't come: I've suddenly remembered that the Income Tax man is coming to see me this afternoon."
"That settles it", grinned Pyecraft.
"Come on; I promise we won't be down again till he has gone", and he gently pushed Neill into the airship.
The children scrambled after, and Pyecraft puffed and blew his entrance. When he had recovered his breath he explained the flight.
"Each of you has an oxygen mask. We rise and rise, and when you begin to feel a little breathless and red in the face, that means that the air is getting too thin to breathe. You then put on your mask; and you will notice each one has a microphone, so that we can talk to each other even at a very great height. Got me?"
They all nodded.
"A great adventure", said Pyecraft.
"Too tame for me", said Robert. "I call this an old man's adventure."
Neill looked at him for a long moment.
"We are about two miles up", he said, "and if Robert wants a good adventure, all he has to do is to jump over the side and parachute down to Summerhill."
Robert stared over the side.
"Phew, if it didn't open!", he gasped.
"You wouldn't feel anything", said David placidly. "Just a biff, and then...I wonder if you fell feet first, would your feet go into the ground?"
"They would a bit", said Gordon thoughtfully; "but what would happen would be that the tops of your thighbones would go up through your body and come out at your neck."
"Don't!", cried Jean wretchedly. "It isn't fair to talk about like that when we are so high up." Then a grim smile came over her face. "All the same, it would be interesting to see what Robert was like after he had fallen a few miles." She looked round the cabin. "Where are the parachutes, Pyecraft?"
"Mein Gott!" he exclaimed. "That fool of a chauffeur of mine has forgotten to put them in." And they all paled, all except Neill, who couldn't go any paler.
"But there is no danger", said Pyecraft. "None whatever...that is, if the thin air isn't lighter than the helium in the envelope, for of course if it is the envelope will burst..."
"Then what", they gasped.
"I'll make a bigger hole and a bigger splash than any of you", grinned Pyecraft, and his grin gave the children comfort.
"Ten miles up", said Neill, and he put on his oxygen mask. The others did likewise. Suddenly Evelyn, who had been looking over the side, gave an exclamation.
"Look! The clouds are green, and I always thought that when you were above the clouds they were a dazzling white."
"It is mighty queer", said Pyecraft.
"Mirage", said Bunny. "Chaps in the desert see oases and palm-trees."
"Rot", said Neill. "It isn't any mirage. It is -- I don't know. All I know is that we are high enough and I want to go down."
Pyecraft glanced at the altimeter.
"Nineteen miles", he said. "Not bad. I thought of getting up to thirty miles, but we won't risk it to-day without parachutes. Let's descent", and he touched a lever and they began rapidly to descent.
"Look! The clouds are white now", cried Jean as they approached them, and in a minute they dived into the white mist of thick cloud. In an hour they came down on the hockey-field.
"In time for tea", cried Bunny, and set off at a run for the dining-room. The other children followed, while the old men came after them slowly. Corkhill, the Chemistry Master was leaning against the front door.
"Hullo, Corks", said David. "Tea over yet?"
Corks made no sign that he had heard.
"Is tea over?", repeated David, and he shook Corks by the arm. The arm came off is his hand, and David dropped it with a yell. At that moment Pyecraft and Neill came up. They stared aghast. Neill clutched Corks by the shoulder and gave him a slight shake.
"What's up, Corks?", he asked. Corks' head rolled on to the gravel. It was at this point that they all ran away like frightened rabbits. As they crouched in the bushes Gordon said: "Did any of you notice that there was no blood? His arm looked like it was made of stone."
"He asked me for his salary yesterday; said he was stony", said Neill. "Corks always was - " he stopped as he saw Evelyn's savage expression.
"Trying to be funny when poor Corks is dead", she said.
"No use staying here", said Robert. "I'm hungry, Corks or no Corks. Who's coming?" and he made for the kitchen. The others followed. Maisie (the cook) was bending over the Aga.
"Tea", said Robert; "and, by the way, what has happened to Corks?"
Maisie made no reply.
David bent down and playfully took hold of her foot. It came away in his hand.
The girls screamed, the boys yelled, Neill and Pyecraft sat down heavily...in the same chair, unfortunately for Neill, who sat down first.
"What is it all about?" groaned Bunny.
"Perhaps there are more", suggested David hopefully, and they rushed through the school. Yes, everyone was turned to stone.
"It's awful", tittered Betty, "but really it is funny too. Look at old Chad", and, indeed the Secretary looked handsome. He had been practising his golf swing on the lawn, and there he stood with his club and followed through, a bearded statue.
"Beautiful", said Pyecraft.
"Rotten", said Neill; "arms too near the body."
The search for statuary continued. Davis was, as they expected, a statue in repose; Ole Herman, again as they expected, was eating; he had been petrified as he was shoving a large piece of bread into his mouth. Michael rescued the bread.
"But why aren't we turned stone too?" asked Jean suddenly.
No one knew.
"I know", said David.
"That green cloud. It must have been a cloud that everyone into stone."
"Sounds the only explanation", nodded Pyecraft. "I say, look!", and he pointed to a cat that came round the corner. "But the trouble is this: if that cloud were a petrifying one, why ain't that cat a statue?"
"And I hear a cock crowing", said Robert. "What do you think, Neill?"
Neill looked wise.
"I think David is right. We were above the cloud, and we possibly the last people left alive. Apparently the cloud had no effect on animals."
"Good thing", remarked Betty; "else we'd all starve".
"The last ones alive. How awful!"
"How glorious!", said Evelyn. We can take everything we like from the all the shops.
"Yes", cried Michael, "and all the motors and aeroplanes and -- and -- aw, boys! This is topping, great. I'm off to Coates' shop."
And they went off to the shop, and, well...
TO BE CONTINUED IN OUR NEXT CHAPTER...
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Chapter 1 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A. S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.