-- Chapter 12
It was over a year since the cloud had made the world dead. Indeed, it was Christmas Eve, and Jean had prepared a sumptuous repast for the occasion. Robert printed the menu on his Roneo machine.
(as read out by Bunny)
Horse Devvers, consisting of fried
Snails, Pickled Earthworms, Braised Beetles.
Mole and Mayonnaise.
Rat -Tail Soup.
Mouse Cutlet with Toothpaste Sauce.
Face-Cream Tarts, with Lipstick
Cigars and Liqueurs.
It was great fun. They had Xmas Crackers from the International Stores, and candles from the Co-op. They had wines and liqueurs from the wine shop, and as many cigars and cigarettes as they wanted. None of them were very hungry, and they toyed with, rather than ate, the first four courses. The real fun started with the cheese. Gordon had donned a gas mask, and he looked so funny chasing the cheese round the dining-room, that they all had to laugh. They lit their smokes, the boys all smoking cigars, and then one by one the boys wondered if it was going to rain, and one by one they went out to look at the sky. They took a long time to study the sky. Pyecraft and Neill concentrated on the liquids, and the girls had two bottles of the lemonade with the big corks. David came in from studying the sky, and Neill asked him if he would like another cigar, and David went out hurriedly again.
Later they sat around the fire and yarned about their past experiences. For the first time the girls told of their adventures with the lions and elephants, and the boys listened with bated breath.
"I wonder what the future has in store for us", said Pyecraft. "Where shall we be by next Christmas? All dead perhaps." He sighed. "For my part I don't very much care. I've had a busy and interesting life."
"Why didn't you marry ?" asked Betty, who was always interested in love stories.
Pyecraft laughed softly.
"Because you were born too late, Betty", he said gallantly. "But, seriously, I lost her because -- because she liked thin men."
"That was a bit thick", said Gordon.
"She was too, when I saw her last."
"When was that?"
"I went round to her house when we were in Chicago, and there she stood holding a bottle in her hands and stonily staring at it."
"What sort of a bottle?"
"Slimming mixture", said Pyecraft.
"Poetic justice" said Betty. "Was she very fat?"
"Yes, poor Nancy had put on a bit of weight. Yet if she had married me I reckon she'd had so much to worry about that she might have remained the slim graceful creature she was forty years ago. You are putting on a bit yourself, Betty."" I know," said Betty ruefully, "but I have cut out snails and rat liver."
The men smoked in silence for a time.
"I fancy," said Neill, "that life is to be much duller now. Since the Germans were eaten by wolves in France it is almost certain that we are absolutely the last people alive. The wild beast danger isn't great, and since we have taken to snails, mice, beetles, and spiders, the food supply will give us no trouble."
"Couldn't we fillet the spiders?" asked Bunny. The legs keep getting into my teeth and --"
"Ugh! said Jean suddenly, and she also went out to study the weather.
"So you see", Neill continued, "life is going to be dull. We have long got over any wishes to raid shops for necklaces and knives and things. As I see it we'll just carry on here till we die of old age. In a few years the youngsters will marry and bring up families, and they may start something new in life, thought I doubt if they will get very far without all the past knowledge that is lost to them. Life is going to be dull."
There was a violent, heart-rending scream and Jean came rushing in.
"There are people coming down the front drive!" she gasped.
They jumped to their feet, and each one unconsciously put a hand on a revolver. They stood thus listening with strained ears.
"Footsteps all right," whispered Neill. "Who can it be?"
A loud knock on the door.
Robert braced himself.
" C-C-Co-Come in!"
The door slowly opened, and a man stood there. Behind him were five men. Their appearance was awe-inspiring. They were all unkempt and unwashed; the stubble of weeks lay on their faces; their eyes were wild and hungry.
"Who are you?" faltered David. "What do you want?"
"Food", growled the man who had opened the door.
"Come and sit down", said Pyecraft, "and have a drink."
They shuffled in and sat down, and Pyecraft gave each a glass of brandy. Each swallowed it at a gulp. The girls had gone to the kitchen to see what they could rake up in the way of a meal. The strangers sat and said nothing.
Where did you come from ?" asked Michael in friendly tones.
"Dartmoor", said the leader.
"But how did you escape the stone cloud?"
"Dunno wot yer means by stone cloud. We was escaping and we hid down an old tin mine, and next morning we looked to see if we was being follered, and we see a warder standin' outside, so we hit him wiv a shovel and he was stone. Cud 'a knocked us down wiv a feather. Then we sees that everybody was stone."
"But how did you know we were here?" asked Neill.
"We didn't. We seen the light in the window."
The girls brought food and the convicts set to, eating like beasts without knives or forks. The wine and spirits made them more cheerful, and the leader even began to smile.
"Pardon my manners", he said, rising and making a mock bow, "but we should ha' interduced ourselves. I am Convict 99 and my pals are 23, 65, 78, 91, and 97."
"Lifers?" asked Robert.
"What were you in for?" asked Michael.
"Murder." 99 drained his glass, and then waved it towards his pals. "All of us was in for murder."
"Very interesting", said David with a ghastly smile."
"Did you say a tin mine?" asked Neill.
"I was thinking about the cloud. There must have been some chemical affinity between tin oxide and the cloud, something that neutralised the petrifying property."
"That don't mean nothin' to me", said 99. He looked round the room. "Nice place you've got here. Can you give us beds for the night?"
"Easily", said Neill. "This was a school and there are any amount of beds. The food question is more difficult. We have to spend a good part of the day catching our food."
"Catching' ?" said 25. "We haven't seen nothin' to catch for weeks, not even a rat. We been livin' on tree roots and greens mostly. Where do you catch yer grub?"
"By digging mostly," said Neill. We sometimes have the luck to find a frog or a hedgehog, but mostly we look for worms and beetles and spiders."
99 suddenly looked queer.
"'Ere", he demanded, "is this grub we've been eatin' beetles and spiders ? "
"No", said Betty, "we were out of these so we gave you snails and young rats."
"Tasted O.K. to me", said 78 with a short laugh, and he put his hand on 99's shoulder. "Wot does it matter, Bill, when a lady stands yer a feed; it ain't manners to ask wot is in the food, is it ?" Bill grunted and poured himself a whisky.
Pyecraft and Neill showed them where they were to sleep, and then the Summerhillians sat round the fire to discuss the matter.
"Just our blinking luck to share the world with a gang of murderers", said Gordon. "I don't like it. They may kill us all in our sleep."
"That", said Neill, "is not likely. They have no motive, and no one kills without a motive; but, all the same, lock your doors and have your gats under your pillows."
"Don't worry", said Pyecraft; "they'll move on to-morrow."
They did not, however, move on on the morrow. They said that they liked company and would like to stay a few days if there was no objection. 91 seemed the most friendly of the lot, and the boys talked with him.
"Who did you murder?" asked Bunny.
"Ah", said 91, "99 was pulling your leg a bit last night, maybe to give you a bit of a thrill. We aren't all murderers. 99 is: he strangled a girl. But the others aren't. I was a company promoter, 23 a forger, 65 a burglar, 78 a pickpocket, and 97 a confidence-trick man. 99 was a lifer, but I, for instance, was a five-year man."
When they were alone the boys talked this over.
"It isn't so bad as we thought," said Michael. "There's only one murderer among them."
"That's true", said Robert, "but look here. Does it not strike you that here we have six men who were useless to society? Not only useless but sponging on society. Para -- para -- paradoxes."
"Paragons", corrected David.
"That's it, paragons, living on others just like fleas do. My fear is that, if we continue to feed them, they'll simply settle down here and let us go on feeding them."
By the end of the week Robert's prognostications had become clear to all.
"We can't go on feeding six lazy louts like that", said Neill. "You speak to them, David. Tell them they must help find the food if they are to stay here."
"I'm not the head of this school", said David. "Tell them yourseIf."
So next morning, while the boys were trapping snails on the lawn, and the convicts stood watching them, smoking cigars, Neill joined them.
"Them kids do it well", said 23. "Look at that little nipper how lie herds them into the trap."
"Why not join them and learn how it's done?" asked Neill diffidently.
23 turned to look at him.
"Me hunt snails? I may not look it now, mister, but I was a gentleman, I was. I was the best cheque forger in England."
"No doubt you were", said Neill, "but unfortunately we haven't any special use for forgeries at present. We need food."
"Well", said the forger rudely, "aren't these boys getting us food?"
"True", said Neill patiently, but it takes a lot of snails to feed us all. There are other ways of getting food: digging for worms, catching young rats, trapping mice."
99 had listened to this conversation in silence.
"The kids can easily do it", he said. "Ain't got nothin' else to do all day. And if they don't do it we'll show them how to", and he laughed significantly.
The boys had overheard most of the conversation. They had a whispered consultation, and then they walked off the lawn.
"Gone off to catch mice now, I guess", said 65, not knowing that the boys had gone on strike.
The girls also had gone on strike, and when one o'clock came 99 went to the kitchen. "'Ere", he said, "hurry up wiv that grub."
Jean calmly explained to him that there was no grub.
"Why for not ?" he demanded.
"Because if you eat in this house you have got to find your own food."
"So that's the game!" said 99 with a leer. We'll see about that."
He went to the dining-room and told his pals about it.
"But", he cried, "we'll make the lousy scum get our chuck. If they think that we'll work they got a lot to learn. Leave it to me", and he untied his leather belt and made it whistle through the air. He went out and met Bunny in the passage. He seized him and began to lay into him with his belt.
"I'll learn yer to do wot yer told!" he roared.
Then he felt something boring into his back, and he heard the mild voice of Betty say: "Just stick 'em up, Mr. 99. If you hit that boy once more I'll send you to the place that's gaping for you."
99 put up his hands. Betty said: "March !" and she marched him out to the road. "Now get for good", she said, and she stood covering him till he was beyond range. Meanwhile the boys had covered the other convicts and they marched them out to the road also. They looked as if they might try a rush, but Pyecraft fired a rifle over their heads and they ran away like rabbits.
"A good riddance", said Robert with a sigh of relief.
"They'll come back", said Evelyn nervously. "I heard them talking and one of them said that he was sorry they had left their revolvers behind 'cos they were heavy to carry and there were no animals to kill. They'll go and get them and come back."
Neill said he didn't think so, but the others said that they wouldn't take any risks, and they began to fortify the house. They barricaded the windows with boards, and reinforced the doors with iron bars. They posted sentries around during the day while they searched for food, and at night time they sat in the darkness listening. A week went by.
"They'll never come back now", said Neill.
"They will", said Pyecraft gloomily. "I have a presentiment that that 99 will get me."
"Nonsense", said Neill. "Why do you say 99?"
"Listen to Dr. Neill", laughed Michael.
"99", said Pyecraft, "has always been my unlucky number. I lost my girl in '99. 99 was the number of my office, the one that burned down uninsured. My fortune was 99 millions."
"How was that unlucky?" asked Evelyn.
"Try as I might I could never made it the 100", he said. "Besides, it is easy to score a bull's-eye on a figure like mine."
They found Pyecraft dead at the front gate next morning. He had been shot through the heart. As they stooped to examine him a shot took David's cap off. They had to run for it. They got inside and barred the doors. They were all heavy with grief, for they had all loved Pyecraft. Evelyn was inconsolable, and even the manly Robert shed bitter tears.
"To think that such a decent chap as Old Pyecraft should be done in by a filthy crowd of toughs like that !" he sobbed. "By God, they will pay dearly for this! Here, lads, hold up your hands. I want you to take an oath. Say after me: I hereby declare that I shall avenge Pyecraft's death, even if in doing so I meet my own end." And the boys swore the oath, and the girls insisted on swearing it too. They were startled by the ringing of the telephone-bell, a faint ring because the wet batteries were weak. Neill lifted the receiver.
"99 speaking. We've shown you wot we can do. 65 was a prizeman at Bisley in the old days, but it was me got the fat johnny. Wot about coming to terms? We offers you a fair deal. We live in the house and the kids can be our servants and we won't be too hard on them."
"If you don't agree, then we'll kill you all."
"I hope you get a fine day for it", said Neill, who always was accustomed to show much bravery at the telephone. And he replaced the receiver.
He recounted the telephone conversation.
Michael the Bolshie said: "So they want the old order? A privileged class being served by an exploited proletariat without even wages. Back to slavery. I prefer death."
"Politics don't interest me", said Robert. "My one and only interest now is to avenge the death of poor Pyeeraft. They are six; we are eight."
"Nine", corrected Neill, "you eight and me."
"I was only thinking of effectives", said Robert.
"Look here", began Neill truculently, "am I in this fight or not ? Because if you don't want me I can join the other side. Why should you get all the avenging to do ? I knew Pyecraft long before you did."
"That may be," said Robert, "but you must admit that, in the past, you haven't helped us much in our battles. You swung the lead, dodged the column. The long and the short of it is that we haven't any faith in you as a fighter."
"O.K. ", said Neill bitterly. "O.K. Then my role is a passive one. I shall be the looker-on, the war correspondent so to say: The Times special correspondent in Riga. But, mark my words, you'll be glad of my help one day soon."
So Neill walked around the house while the children manned the windows and doors. He kept their warlike spirit up by pretending to be the G.O.C. inspecting the forces.
"Hoy, you, big fellow", he would say to Michael, "clean your buttons this morning? Take his name, sergeant. Give him pack drill", and Michael would look murderous. Robert suggested that Neill should be tried by court-martial for Trotskyism and sabotage, but David asked wearily why waste a good cartridge on a traitor.
"Traitor !" laughed Neill scornfully. "You are the traitors. I offered a United Front, but you Social Democrats and British Labour Leaders rejected my offer. Just like the Anarchists were in Spain, you are."
"It isn't a case of politics", said Gordon, "it is simply that you are no use. You have never shown us that you can shoot straight."
"So that's it", said Neill. "That can soon be remedied. Stand back from that wall." He drew his automatic and wrote his name on the wall. The children gasped. "Now" he said, "can I shoot ?"
"Yes", said David, "you have proved you can shoot, but you haven't proved that you have any courage."
"That", said Neill, "will be shown on the day of battle."
The children held a private meeting and decided to enlist Neill as a private soldier, but on probation, that is, they were to watch him when the danger came and report on his ability to stand up under fire.
"This is just pure unadulterated hate and jealousy of the old men of life", said Neill. "You have now a United Front in theory but not in spirit. In the history of the Socialist Movement it is clear that --"
The shattering of a bedroom window cut short mere argument.
"The attack has begun", said David, and his mouth set hard and firm. "To your posts, comrades."
The enemy was attacking in extended order. One man was sniping from Coates' shop, another from Junction blouse. Two were firing from the direction of the hockey-field, and one front the Cottage. The sixth man they could not locate, because he was lying very still up by the railway footbridge, with a bullet from Pyecraft's rifle through his head.
"Don't waste ammunition on them", said Bunny. "They can't do any damage sniping at a brick house. We are safe as long as we remain indoors."
"Yes", said Jean, "but our food has given out, and unless we can go out and get it they'll starve us out. And no one can possibly go out in that fire." They held a council. They made an inventory of their ammunition: two machine-guns with ammunition belts, a rifle and revolver each with any amount of cartridges, two dozen Mills' bombs.
"Defence is never any good", said Michael. "We must attack. Our first objective is the Cottage. I have an idea that they all sleep there at nights, for there are always lights, and shadows across the windows. My plan is this: we crawl over at midnight, and when near enough we chuck a bomb at the door. It will blow it to smithereens."
"And then ?" asked Neill.
"We rush in."
"Quite", said Neill, "but what are the convicts doing in the meantime? Sleeping peacefully? Or will they have sense enough to man the windows and, with the light of the blazing door, shoot down anyone who approaches ?"
"Neill's right for once", said Robert. We must bomb the windows at the same time as we bomb the door."
And at midnight they crept forward, and they carried out the raid, and they shattered the door and the windows, and then lay waiting to hear if the enemy were alive. Suddenly they heard the sound of loud laughter coming from Coates' shop.
"We've bombed the wrong house", cried David in disgust.
"And used all our bombs", said Gordon. If this had been China, Michael would be shot for incompetence."
"My intelligence branch let me down", said Michael. "And how was I to know that the candles and shadows were a blind ?"
"Now I come to think of it", said Evelyn, the shadows kept walking round and round. There must have been someone to make the shadows."
"I think I know", said David suddenly. "Come on, let's look. Yes, just as I thought. See how they made the shadows? Gramophone with a clay man fixed to a record. Watch how every time it comes round past the candle it makes a shadow on the window. That's clever."
"Saw it once in a crook film", said Neill. He looked at David hard. "And, if I remember right, David saw that film too", and David went very red and said that he didn't 'cos he had a cold that night and didn't go to the cinema. See ?
They had had no food for three days. Jean had attempted to salvage a young rat that lay dead on the front drive, but a bullet sent her scuttling back to safety.
"We must take them in the rear", said Gordon.
"Don't be vulgar", said Neill severely.
"We'll divide the party", Gordon went on, ignoring the interruption. "Me and Bunny and Michael will creep out at night over to the Theberton Road, and then round to the station, and then they'll be between us and you."
This was done, and they reached the station safely, and mounted the roof. And thus they got 23 in the back as he lay on Coates' roof sniping at the school. He slid down and fell to earth dead. Bunny was so excited that he raised his head, and 99 sent a bullet from Coates' window. Bunny rolled down and fell to the platform. The others scrambled down, but he was dead. Gordon and Michael stared dry-eyed at their fallen comrade. They could not believe that they had lost him for ever. It was incredible that Bunny should die in this way. Then their tears came, and they sat down and gave way to their bitter grief. But when they arose it was not grief that showed in their eyes: it was a grim determination to hunt the convicts down to death. They could not return to the house before it was dark, and they huddled in the ticket office miserably waiting.
Suddenly a face appeared at the ticket hatch. "Two singles to Hell", said 99, and two shots rang out, and then there was stillness in the office.
Ten minutes later Neill was called to the telephone.
"Just wanna tell you that three of your rats are lying over in the station", he said.
"And another rat is lying over the 'phone", said Neill.
"Please yerself", said 99, "but I just thought it friendly like to put you wise."
"Trying to destroy our morale", said David but I wish they would come back."
As the hours went by they became more and more anxious. Robert could stand it no longer, so he made a detour and was away a long time. He returned and stood staring at the carpet.
Well ?" said Neill. "Find them ?" Robert nodded slowly.
"Are they all right ?"
Robert did not answer.
"You are keeping something back", cried Betty, clutching his arm with alarm. "What is it ?"
"They're all dead."
"Stone dead. That 'phone message was right."
"Michael too ?" asked David.
"All of them."
"Awful", said David; "he owed me ten marbles and a stick of chewing-gum. "
"I brought them", said Robert, and he paid the debt; but David protested at Robert's having used the chewing-gum on his way back.
Their situation was now critical. Three of their best fighters were dead, and they had no notion of how many of the convicts still lived.
"It seems so dumb of them to kill us", said Betty, "for, if it is slaves they want, killing us will mean that they have to work for themselves."
Then 99 'phoned again.
"If you give in now", he said, "we'll make it easy for you. We'll give you a trade union working day of eight hours, but you must give up your arms and obey our orders."
Robert, who had answered the 'phone, hesitated for a moment.
"Thanks very much", he said. "Your terms are most generous. But they are not in our language."
"Wot do you mean ? "
"We speak with lead when we address yellow-livered rats", and Robert hung up the receiver.
In the afternoon Robert spent some time in the bathroom.
"What are you doing ?" asked Jean.
Robert looked up from the sheet he was washing.
"Making a white flag", he said briefly.
"You mean to surrender ?"
"Nope, I mean to parley."
The semi-white flag was hoisted, and then 9 rang them up.
"Wot's the game ? You give in ?"
"No" said Robert; "we want to talk to you."
"You can talk to me now."
"No, we want to talk to all of you", said Robert, for this was his plan to discover how many of the enemy still remained alive.
There was a pause at the other end.
"And you'll fire at us when we come near", sneered 99.
"We are gentlemen", lied Robert with dignity.
"We'll come", said 99.
They came and stood in a group near the front door.
"We refuse to be your slaves", said Robert. "Go away and live somewhere else. You have killed three of the bravest boys that ever lived, and one of the most loveable men, but we do not now seek revenge. We want peace. "
They consulted among themselves, and then 99 said that they would like to go over a bit and talk it out.
"That suits me", said Robert, and he sat down on the front doorstep to await their decision.
"Come inside, Robert", cried Evelyn fearfully, "it isn't safe there."
Robert pointed to the semi-white flag.
"That", he said, "is protection enough."
Then there was a shot, and Robert fell forward on his face and lay on the gravel very very still, and a crimson ribbon crept slowly over the path. Neill and David fired, and two men bit the dust, but 99, the murderer, and 65, the burglar, escaped over the wall.
"I'm afraid that flag wasn't white enough", sighed David. "It was one of Michael's sheets, and Robert was mad to try to make it white. Poor Bob, but he was asking for it."
By this time they were literally starving. A sparrow dropped an earthworm on the lawn, and the girls rushed out wildly to capture it. Betty got it, and there was a struggle for possession.
"The fools", cried David; "they are making themselves targets."
Three shots rang out, and they gently sank to their knees and lay still.
"They asked for it too", was all that David said. Neill looked at him.
"David", he said, "you and I are left to fight two convicts. Why not meet them and shoot it out? Better that than go on starving as we are doing."
"I'm game", said David. He made a speaking trumpet and shouted to 99 and 65. "Hoy, you rats, we'll meet you in five minutes by the garage. Revolvers only."
"Come on !" cried 99.
They met. They stood facing each other at a distance of ten yards.
"We'll shoot it out in twos", announced David calmly. "Me and 65 first."
Neill and 99 stepped aside, and there the boy and the man stood.
"I'll say Go !" said Neill.
A stealthy movement of 99's arm distracted David's attention, but his quickness on the draw equalled that of 65. Each bullet found its mark. David got his through the heart; 65 through the head.
"Now", said Neill.
They watched each other's hands. Suddenly 99's dived to his belt, but he was a thousandth of a second too late, and Neill's bullet caught him squarely between the eyes.
Neill looked at the three corpses, then, stooping, he searched David's pockets and redeemed his pet screwdriver and his pocket-knife. Then, with a sigh of contentment, he slowly walked towards the house.
"The last man alive", he said pleasantly, and, going to the larder, he poured for himself a glass of Three Star Brandy. Then he went out and smiled at Chad's stance.
On to the Discussion Of Chapter 12
Chapter 12 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A.S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.