-- Chapter 10
Summerhill was looking more dilapidated than ever. Tiles had fallen off the roof, and windows had got broken, how the children could not guess.
"Seems to me", said Betty, "that someone broke these windows. For all we know we aren't the only people left alive in England."
"Suppose we aren't", said Robert, "what would be the point of the others making a special excursion to Leiston just to have a few shies at our windows ? Be your age, Betty."
"I think they were broken by falling tiles and by branches broken off by storms", said Pyeeraft.
"Maybe rats", ventured Bunny.
"Rats!" said Neill.
"Anyway".said Michael, "I wish we hadn't come home from warm climates. Summerhill in a cold November with no windows and no coal isn't my idea of comfort, when we have the whole world to live in. I don't know why we keep coming back to the beastly place."
"The homing instinct", said Neill. "The dog returns to its . . . hullo, look at Chad! He's got in the rough all right", and indeed he had. Weeds were up to his waist, and bindweed had commandeered his kilt. Pyecraft and Neill, the two golfers, said that it was disgraceful that the royal and ancient game should have degenerated into a means of sending Michael into vulgar hysterical cackling, and they cut the weeds, and gave Chad a pair of plus fours instead of his kilt. They found a caddy with clubs over at the golf-course, and they brought him over and placed him behind Chad.
"That's much better", said Neill. "Gives Chad a distinction that he never had in life. I really think we ought to bring a few Colonel Blimps over from Aldeburgh golf-course to stand around as if Chad were playing a foursome with them." But Michael, the Communist, objected strongly, for Chad had also been a Communist.
"Queer", said Pyecraft, "that he was a Communist and played a bourgeois game like golf."
"Chad never played golf", said Neill hastily. "Why, man, look at his stance !"
The Colonel Blimp additions were voted out, but they allowed the two golfers to make a bunker at Chad's feet, and Pyecraft broke four niblicks and threw them into the bunker to make it more realistic.
Food had not worried them in their excursions abroad. In Kenya and Spain they had found all the fresh food they required, but back in Leiston they had to turn their attention to the garden again. But, since it was November, nothing was growing, and while they dug for the spring they had to live on what plants they could find growing wild. The wild animals had eaten up all the domestic animals in the county, and had moved inland in search of fresh kills, and if the Summerhillians complained that they had no meat to eat, they at least realised that the countryside was safe from tigers and lions. The girls tried their hardest to make what food there was appetising, but, as Evelyn said, it was not easy to serve up a tasty dish with a menu like the one she was preparing for the Sunday dinner.
Fillet of Sole (suggested by Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, but this sole was without hobnails).
Braised Dock Roots, with Thistle Sauce.
Motor-Oil Pudding with BP Commercial Sauce.
The boys looked at the menu and went out for a walk. Neill said it wasn't fair to Evelyn, and he came back in time for the coffee. Pyecraft buried the Motor-Oil Pudding darkly at dead of night, leaving a few fragments on the plate, so that Evelyn should think it had been eaten. Everyone was beginning to look pale and thin, and Pyecraft lost fifty pounds in three weeks. Then the gastric influenza epidemic came upon them. One by one the boys doubled up in intense pain, and soon they and the men were in bed with high temperatures. Luckily, the girls were so far unaffected, for the nursing requirements were urgent and heavy.
Said Neill: "Nursing is no good. We are dying of vitamin starvation. Unless we get decent food we shall all die. And if you girls nurse us you'll catch the infection. Leave us to die."
The girls held a meeting.
"Neill is right", said Betty. "Our job is to go out and find food."
"But who will nurse them ?" asked Jean.
"They don't need nursing. I believe in Nature Cure. They should fast until they are better."
"But", lisped Evelyn, "they have been fasting ever since I started to cook."
"No", said Betty, "they drank the coffee we brought back from Pat's farm. It must be a complete fast with nothing but water."
So next morning the girls appeared all dressed up for a journey. They were fully armed. They announced their intention of going in search of meat and fresh fruit and greens. They were to go north by motor-cycles, lightweights that they could lift when they found the roads blocked by cars and wagons.
"Why north ?" asked Neill weakly, for he was very ill.
"There will be sheep on the Yorkshire moors", said Betty, and up Lincoln way there are lots of glasshouses where they grew tomatoes, and there may be some growing there yet."
So the three brave girls set out on their perilous journey. Each carried a rifle and two automatics, and Jean had a machine-gun strapped to her carrier. The other two had baskets tied to their carriers to bring back the food.
"It's lovely being on our own", said Jean. "I hope we meet lions."
"Shut up", said Evelyn nervously.
They made good time in spite of the traffic jams, and they reached Norwich in two hours. Jean wanted them to put up there for the night in a sweet shop, but they were adamant and insisted on going on.
They stayed the night in a hotel in King's Lynn, and had an excellent dinner of tinned meat and tinned fruit and lemonade, and they got very jolly and put on the gramophone and danced.
"Funny we are so happy", said Jean, "but we shouldn't be when the others are all lying very -ill in Summerhill", and she began to laugh, and they also began to laugh, and they laughed until they cried, and then they danced again and Betty fell and couldn't get up, so she just lay there and laughed and laughed. Oh, they had a lovely time! They went to bed about three in the morning, and when they got up they all felt that they had taken the 'flu, for their heads ached.
"All the same" said Evelyn, "we had a great night, and that lemonade was the best I ever tasted. I wonder what kind it was", and she lifted the empty bottle and read: Louis Roederer Grand Vin Sec.
"I never heard of that brand before" said Evelyn. "In Leiston the lemonade bottles don't have a big cork tied on with wire, do they ?"
"My head is awful !" groaned Betty. "Perhaps the fresh air will do us good."
So they set off and soon their heads felt better. They stopped in Newark for lunch, but this time they thought it safer not to have lemonade. They slept that night in Doncaster. They had not seen any animal larger than a cat on the whole journey. Jean studied the map.
"To-morrow we should reach Scotch Corner at least, and if we go west from there we should find sheep on the moors. We'll take in Lincoln and the tomatoes on the way back, so's they'll be fresh when we get back to Summerhill."
They saw their first sheep near Scotch Corner, and Jean killed it by shutting her eyes and firing her revolver. Then they tried to skin it and clean out the innards, and they found that a disgusting job. They cut off the cooking parts and wrapped them in paper, and filled one of the baskets. Then, feeling very sticky and mucky, they retired to a house and had a wash and went to bed. They looked out next morning and saw two lions eating what they had left of the carcase.
"Oh, the lazy brutes", said Evelyn indignantly, "why can't they kill their own food ? To think that we had all that messy trouble just to give them a meal. And they always say that the lion is a noble animal."
"There's one thing that disturbs me", said Betty, "and it is this: if sheep are plentiful around here would two lions eat one that we had killed ? Lions like fresh food, newly killed, and they like to kill it themselves."
"And look how thin they are " said Jean. I'm afraid we won't get much food to take back with us."
It is worthy of remark that they did not speak of the danger of having lions around. Their thoughts were with the sick men at home. They went out and kick-started their cycles, and, at the noise of the motors, the lions slunk away. They went inland and soon they were in a bleak moorland with no houses on it. They saw lions in the distance, but no sheep. But they saw one big lion that seemed to be tracking something in a hollow. They crept forward through the heather, and, looking down, they saw a solitary sheep drinking from a brook.
Betty whispered to Jean: "You aim at the sheep and I'll aim at the lion. When I say go... Go !" and the shots rang out simultaneously. The sheep dropped dead, but Betty's shot had only wounded the lion in the shoulder. With a roar lie sprang towards the girls. They fired with their rifles, but the bullets were army ones, too fine for work like that. They hit but they only made him more furious. He was just ten yards away by now, and the girls felt that their last hour had come. He was gathering himself for the final spring. Jean suddenly remembered a story about a man who conquered a lion by his eye, and the story had added the moral that no wild animal can stand the fixed stare of a human being. So Jean stood and glared at him. Unfortunately, however, the lion was looking at Betty. He sprang and three automatics spoke together. They sprang aside as the great brute came hurtling through the air, and they knew that their shots had told, for with a heavy thud the lion dropped and lay still.
"Quick!" cried Evelyn, "to the sheep, and we'll tie it on the back of one of the motor-bikes, for it isn't safe to cut it up here ... what's that ?"
That was the growl of a lioness. She had come to look for her mate, and she had found her mate, and she was letting them know that she had found her mate.
"We can't fight any more lions to-day" said Jean with a half-sob. "Let's leave the sheep and run for it." And the others agreed. They seized their motor-bikes, and jumped in the saddle. The engines roared and they set off with the lioness leaping behind them.
"It can never keep up with a motor" said Betty who was leading. Suddenly her back tyre burst with a loud pop, and her machine bumped along the road.
"Get back to Summerhill with the food." she cried. "Tell them I died game."
But, of course, the other two would have none of this. They quickly dismounted and Jean hastily unstrapped the machine-gun.
"We must have left the cartridges when we drank that lemonade !" she gasped.
The lioness had stopped, and was now wriggling its way on its belly through the heather towards them. Jean was doing something with a file.
"Just like you " said Evelyn, "to manicure your nails at a time like this. Shall I lend you my lipstick ?"
"Ass" said Jean, "I am making this bullet into a dum dum one. I have filed cuts across the nose and when it hits it will spread and make a horrid hole."
"How can you be so cruel ?" said Evelyn. "I hate all this shooting. I am sure if we simply stood and did nothing the lioness would not touch us. Ooh, here it comes! Aim at its right shoulder, Jean. Get its jugular vein, the brute !"
Jean got its jugular vein, and it died instantly; and Jean demonstrated on the hole that the bullet had made, and showed how it was a smallish hole on entrance but a big one on exit, and Betty and Evelyn were suddenly sick.
"Hunting with a couple of sissies isn't much fun", said Jean wearily, and she sat down on the lioness's hindquarters and frowned.
They walked back and fetched the sheep, and then the trouble was what to do about the puncture. They could shoot like men; they had more than the bravery of men, but none of them knew how to mend a puncture.
"I've seen Robert do it ", said Betty hopefully. "You get a basin of water and then you squeeze some stuff like toothpaste out of a tube, and then you -- l forget what you do next."
"You have to take the tyre off first, surely" said Evelyn. This they did with the tyre levers, and then they found that the inner tube was torn for about a foot, and they knew that it was hopeless to try to mend it. But they did not despair. They stuffed the outer cover with grass, and, slowly and bumpily, they reached a garage about six miles away. Jean had ridden all the way with the sheep round her neck. They found a box of tyres the right size, and in ten hours they managed to fix one on. They cut up the sheep and filled the other basket, and then they thought they would make their way home via Lincoln.
"We've had enough of adventure" said Betty as they rode along the Great North Road. "Me for the peaceful life, as dear Spike would have said it."
They rounded a bend, and they dismounted hurriedly. Standing in the road was an elephant. And here it must be explained how elephants happened to be running wild in England. The Zoo elephants had wandered into the country quite peacefully, for they were all tame, and most of them had taken kiddies for rides round the Zoo for years. Jumbo was accepted as the leader at once, and the chances are that, left to themselves, they would have continued to be harmless. But there had been a big circus in Leicester, and the elephants there had also gone off foraging in a group. Their leader was Simbo, and when the two groups met there was a terrific battle between the two leaders. Jumbo was slain, and Simbo, the fierce, became leader of the united groups.
A few months later when they met a circus group from Aberdeen, Simbo again slew the leader, and thus he came to have a herd numbering forty elephants. His ferocity conveyed itself to the herd. In captivity he had crushed his keeper to death with his feet, and it was easy for him to regress to the savagery of his pre-captivity days. He hated men, and, when his herd came upon the race crowd at Newmarket, he led the way, charging the stone punters and knocking them to pieces with mighty swipes of his trunk. This was the Simbo who stood on the Great North Road, idly battering the statue of a policeman to chips and dust. Farther along the road his herd was attacking a haystack.
"Let's go on" said Jean. "Elephants are tame animals. They won't mind us."
"How if he mistakes us for policemen too ?" asked Evelyn with a shiver down her spine. "Hullo! He's spotted us !"
And he had spotted them. He looked surprised, and, indeed, he was surprised to see humans that moved. Then his huge cars began to go back and he trumpeted loudly. The girls knew that when an elephant's ears go back it is going to be dangerous. They stood as if they also were petrified. Horror held them spellbound, rooted to the spot. What were their puny little revolvers and rifles against an enemy like this ?
"O for a six-inch howitzer", sighed Betty.
"Look", said Jean, "the men have been mending drains here, and their trench is narrow and at least ten feet deep. If we get in there lie can't get at us."
"Scram !" cried Evelyn, and they dived into the trench. They heard the thunder of approaching heavy feet, and their startled eyes saw the brute astride the trench. He put down his trunk and felt about for them, while they crouched at the bottom. His reach was too short. He went away; they could not see how far.
"Elephants are frightfully clever" said Evelyn. "He must be thinking. What do you think he'll do ?"
"I know what I'd do if I were in his place", said Jean. "I'd fill up the trench with that loose earth with my feet."
As she spoke loose earth began to come into the trench, and they saw him cock his head and look down to see what was happening. More earth came in, and it was clear that soon they would have to choose between being buried alive and being battered to pulp by the elephant. They saw his shadow as he kicked the earth upon them. Then another shadow appeared.
"We haven't a chance" sobbed Jean, "for they are all going to bury us."
Suddenly the kicking of earth ceased, and there was a loud trumpeting. Betty cautiously climbed up and looked over the top.
"There's another one fighting him" she cried, and the other girls climbed up to look. A terrific battle was going on. What it was all about they could not guess. They were so interested that they did not think of making their escape.
What had happened was this: Simbo's young rival, Checko, from Aberdeen, had come forward to watch Simbo. He stood by like a true Aberdonian, waiting to get something for nothing, for he would have enjoyed throwing the girls about. Unfortunately Simbo kicked some earth into his eye, and Checko took it for granted that the insult was intentional. So he kicked some earth into Simbo's eye, and then there was nothing for it but the fight that had been impending for weeks, the fight for the leadership of the herd.
It was a long battle and a terrifying one. Simbo was getting the worst of it.
"The young one is going to kill him" said Evelyn, "and then he'll go for us. Let's get out at once."
They crawled out, and they had just reached their cycles when they heard a mighty trumpet, and they saw Simbo fall. Luckily for them Checko began to trample on his fallen foe, and they had mounted and got two hundred yards down the road when Checko remembered their existence.
Glancing back they saw the herd crowding round its fallen leader; then they saw the new leader raise his trunk in the air, and, although they could not hear his trumpet, they knew that he was signalling a charge to battle. Luckily the road was broad, and they had no difficulty in getting round crashed cars. The crashed cars served the useful purpose of delaying the charging elephants. At one heap of cars Betty had the brilliant idea of setting it on fire, and the herd stopped abruptly at the blazing petrol. This gave the girls the opportunity of going down a side road, and finding themselves in Ripon. Here they made for the best A.A. hotel, and found some more lemonade with large corks, and when, some time later, the elephant herd wandered into the square opposite, they all agreed pleasantly and with much mirth that the herd had doubled itself. They laughed heartily when the leader smashed the A.A. sign with his trunk.
"I like elephants" said Evelyn, and she reached for the bottle, "but I am so sorry for the poor things not having any of this nice lemonade."
She then suggested that they fill a bucket with the lemonade and put it at the front door, which they did, and Evelyn slipped down and hastily put it on the step. Checko came forward and took a drink and emptied the bucket, and soon afterwards lie began to perform a sort of a dance. When he fell down the girls roared with laughter: he was so funny.
In the morning they did not feel very happy or well, nor unfortunately did the elephant. He was in a decidedly bad temper, and he stood in the square and threw stone people about, and he even attacked his wives. They all seemed scared of him.
"I'm just afraid", said Betty, "that the lemonade gave him a sore head too. I don't know how we are to get away."
"I know", said Jean, "we'll fill all the hotel buckets with the lemonade and they'll all drink it and get sore heads and --"
"That would be silly", said Evelyn. "We'll give them real drink that makes you drunk; come on to the bar."
So they mixed up beer and whisky and rum and wine and filled the buckets, and lowered them on ropes from an upstairs window, and the elephants began to drink. But the leader pushed his way forward, tasted the stuff, and then with a wild trumpet lie dashed the buckets to the ground.
"Neill would cry if he saw that liquid spilled on the ground", said Betty. "There is no hope for us unless we can kill that leader."
"Try him with one of the hotel cigars" suggested Jean, from whom the effect of the previous night's lemonade had not wholly departed.
"Even if we kill him", said Evelyn, "a new leader will simply take his place. My fear is that he may find the garage and batter down the doors and wreck our mobikes. What can we do to escape ?"
"Try presenting him with a hotel bill", said the facetious Jean, then she sat up quickly and exclaimed: "Whassat?" That was the elephant commencing to knock out the front windows.
"Can an elephant climb a stair?" asked Evelyn doubtfully.
"Circus elephants do", said Betty, "and remember these are all circus ones."
"I know", said Jean suddenly. "We'll go to the top window and throw down the hotel staff on him." But when they tried they found that they could only carry the page boy upstairs, and they had to be content with taking the heads of the manager and the headwaiter and throwing them down. They missed. Two other elephants were by this time trying to push the garage door in, and the girls knew that they must act now or never.
"If only we could get to the handle of that petrol pump", said Betty. " I've a good mind to try. If I slip down the water-pipe and you distract their attention --"
"Throw hotel buns at that pile of petrol tins on the left, and they'll run to see why the noise is. Go on." The ping of buns on tins made all the elephants turn their attention to the left side of the court. Betty slid down and, with one hand, turned the petrol pump, while with the other she held the hose so that it would spray the centre of the court. Then, when she saw she was discovered, she shinned up the waterpipe, and from the window she threw down a ball of blazing newspaper. The court suddenly became a lake of fire, and the elephants, with a scream of terror, thundered out.
"Quick! the back way!" cried Betty. They got their cycles, and, passing down a narrow passage, reached the street at the back. Then they went off like bullets from a gun. They did not stop until they reached Doncaster, and they knew that the elephants could not possibly catch them now. Still it was risky to stay there, so, after filling their tanks, they made for Lincoln, and there they spent the night in a temperance hotel where the lemonade wasn't very good. Next day they found greenhouses, but at that time of the year the ripe tomatoes had all gone rotten; but they filled a basket with green ones and set off for home, which they reached without any further adventures.
They found the boys and men still in bed. They had fasted since the girls set off. But their temperatures had gone, and soon they were able to cat.
"You saved our lives" said Robert, "and we are grateful. Had you a bad time ?"
"Only two mornings" said Jean.
"See any wild animals ?" asked Neill.
Betty wrinkled her brow in thought.
"Did we, Evelyn ?"
"Two sheep", grinned Evelyn, and that's all the heroines would say about their adventure.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Chapter 10 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A.S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.