-- Chapter 2
The raid on Coates' shop led to a period of indifference to things external, but towards evening the effects of an overdose of sweets wore off. They sat in Neill's room and reviewed the situation.
"Although I'm sorry about all the others dying like that", said Michael cheerfully, "it is going to be great fun being the only people alive."
"If we really are the last people alive", said Neill. "We can't tell."
"Yes, we can", said Betty. "We'll switch on the radio", and she began to turn the dial knob. Berlin, Moscow, Warsaw, Rome...not a sound from them.
"Try America on the short waves", suggested Bunny, but America was also silent.
"Hurrah!" cried David. "We really are the only ones left on the earth. Scrumptious!"
At this moment the light went out.
"Exactly", said Pyecraft drily; "as you say, scrumptious. The dynamos have gone on working until the fires have gone out. Now, before you crow too much about the joy of being the last people alive, just get this into your heads: no light, no radio, no telephone, no food."
"Food?" said Gordon. "Why, what about all the shops? There's tons of grub in Leiston. Bread, meat, and -"
"They'll soon go bad", said Robert thougthfully. "But we can kill our own meat", he added.
"Or live on greens and things", suggested Jean. "We'll end up by being rabbits."
"Or cannibals", put in Neill, and Pyecraft looked uneasily down at his waistcoat.
"Anyway", said David philosophically, "the food question can be settled later. And remember there are tons of tinned food in the country."
"No vitamins", remarked Gordon; "but if the worst comes to the worst we can go to Spain and eat oranges."
Next morning they took what they needed from the butchers' shops, but by the third day the meat was beginning to get high. They could not use the refrigerator because, of course, it depended on the mains current.
"I don't worry about the food so much", said Robert with a frown; "more important is to know what to do with all these statues. I keep falling over them, and we really ought to park them somewhere. I propose we make a sort of art gallery in the hockey-field."
"They'd look better standing in rows down the front drive", said Betty.
"Their heads keep falling off", said Michael; "but if we mix some cement we could get over that difficulty."
So they dragged the sotne bodies and stood them up side by side down the front drive. Corkhill's head kept falling off, but Michael got cement and a trowel and fixed that up. It was later that Neill discovered that Michael had put the wrong head on Corks ... the head of little Nona, aged four. Chad's picturesque golf pose they left in all its glory on the lawn, and soon a sparrow made its nest in his beard. Later Neill was severely censured at a general meeting for sneaking Branwen's statue and breaking it up to make a foundation for a new workshop.
"It simply isn't done," said the chairman, Bunny, sternly. "It is sheeer vandalism, and anyway, why take Branwen ? She looked so beautiful; and besides, there was much more stuff in Smeed."
"Too coarse," said Neill. "I wanted fine concrete"; but his defence was not accepted, and his punishment was to carry Mervyn's statue six times round the front lawn.
"Thank God," he murmured, "that you weren't turned to stone, Pyecraft."
Meanwhile the children had been out reconnoitring. The roads they found almost impassable. When the cloud had come down death had been instantaneous, and motorists had died at the wheel. Cars were overturned, stuck in hedges, crashed into walls. So on the railway. Trains with dead stone drivers had crashed into others trains, and wreckage strewed every line. The children came back downcast.
"We have all the Rolls Royces in the world," said Bunny miserably, "and we can't use them. It isn't so much fun being the only ones alive, after all."
But the cars proved to be useful, for the children collected as many as they could, and by running them at night they managed to have electric light. The boys very cleverly led wires from the cars from the cars into the house. Petrol there was in abundance at the local garages, although it was not easy to get petrol from the electric pumps at first.
One morning Pyecraft stood at the front door and sniffed unhappily.
"Strikes me that that darn cloud is coming back again", he said.
Michael sniffed also.
"I know what that is, Pyecraft. That's the bad meat down in the town. Come on, lads, we've got to do something about this", and he led a gang downtown. They solved the problem easily: they soaked the butcher's shops with petrol and set fire to them. Much to Neill's disgust, they also set fire to the White Horse.
"Why?", he asked tearfully.
"Because", said Betty, "Pyecraft and you go there too often, and if we can't have meat, you should you have drink?"
Later it will be shown that Neill never forgave Betty for this criminal act.
The party was living on bread which they made themselves. It was Gordon who suggested that Betty's bread must have had a touch of the petrifying cloud, and when she threw the loaf at him he was sure of it. They had greens enough for their purpose, but the boys complained of having no meat.
"Why not kill it?" suggested Neill, and they said it was a good idea and they would have a try. So next day they found a wandering cow and drove it into the garage. They looked at it awkwardly.
"How exactly do you kill a cow?" asked David. "If we had a revolver..."
"There are a few in the airship", said Pyecraft, and David ran and fetched a heavy automatic.
"Hit it right between the eyes", said Robert.
"Oke", said David quietly, and he stood two feet away and took a long and careful aim.
The plane of the window starred. The cow looked at David rather sadly and began to chew the cud. David threw down the automatic.
"I can't do it", he said with a sob, and Robert took up the automatic. Be he could not bring himself to shoot the cow either, and everyone agreed that killing their own meat was out of the question. But they found that they could shoot rabbits and partridges without conscience, and with the aid of tinned fruits and tinned salmon they managed to have satisfying meals.
Suddenly they became acutely conscious of the dog problem. They had seen stray dogs nosing around looking for food, but it wasn't until the Collier's Alsatian attacked Jean that they realised that the dogs were reverting to savagery. The cats also were becoming less tame and domestic, but for the moment the cats were no danger.
"Cats", said the scientific Michael, "are solitary animals: they will never be a great danger; but the dog is a wolf, and, mark my words, they will soon be running in packs."
And, indeed, this actually did happen. The Alsatian began to have a following of lesser dogs, and they went out at nights foraging for food. The children had gone around the nearby farms and let the live-stock out into the fields, for the penned animals were starving. The dogs commenced by killing sheep, but soon they attacked larger animals. At nights the children shivered to hear the growls of the attacking pack, and they decided to barricade the gates at night. Here the statues came in handy. They cemented four of the staff together, put hinges on them, and made an efficient gate. They so arranged Lucy's arm that it made a latch, but when the gate was slammed the arm broke, so that in the end the arms of the whole school came into use as latches.
One day when Betty was picking blackberries a dog attacked her and bit her leg. We do not know if that dog told the others that human blood was sweet, but certainly from that time on the pack slunk round and round the school, their red tongues hanging out greedily. It was not safe to go out unarmed even in the daytime. There were not enough arm to go round, so Pyecraft and David set off in the airship for London and brought back arms and ammunition in abundance. They went as far as Woolwich Arsenal, where they got six of the most modern machine-guns.
"Now", said Bunny grimly, "we've got to make war on the dog pack - war to the death."
They discussed tactics.
"My idea is this", said Bunny. "We use a decoy, someone like Neill. After dark he goes out into the field and the dogs smell him and then they rush at him and we blaze away at them with our machine-guns. Simple, isn't it?"
"Very", said Neill. "Only a genius could think of it. The only snag is that I'm not the one with the strongest smell. I suggest that Bunny goes out and makes a noise like a dog biscuit, and -"
"Shut up!" they yelled.
But no decoy was required. On the following evening Evelyn went out to milk the cow, and on her way back from the stable the Alsatian sprang on her and dragged her off in his jaws. Her screams brought the human pack out at a rush. The dog made for the woods. The pack was waiting outside and went yelping after their leader.
What is it all about? groaned Bunny'; by F. K. Waechter">
"Don't fire", panted David, who was leading, "we might hit Evelyn. It must be a hand-to-hand fight."
"Dogs don't have hands", said Betty who was feeling annoyed because Evelyn was the heroine of the moment. Evelyn screamed again, and Betty felt less annoyed at not being the heroine of the moment.
The children were gaining. At the edge of the wood the Alsatian dropped its prey and stood at bay. The other dogs stood behind snarling, with neck hair on end. David, who was now leading, hesitated, but only for a moment. He rushed at the Alsatian and struck it squarely on the head with the butt end of his gat. The brute barred its teeth and came at him. David went down with the Alsatian on top of him, and a collie worrying at his legs, while a bull-terrier snapped at his arm. The battle was in full swing. The dogs outnumbered the children by ten to one.
"Drag Evelyn to the side", yelled Neill, "and I'll machine-gun the lot."
Gordon and Bunny dragged her aside, while Michael got David clear.
"Now for it!" cried Neill grimly, and he pressed the trigger. Nothing happened.
"The wrong cartridge belt!" gasped Neill. "Use your revolvers!"
It was wonderful. Great shooting, marvellous. Out of sixty dogs they killed one and wounded two. The Alsatian fled after taking a bite out of David's thigh, and from that day on the dog pack kept away from the children.
"We put the wind up them", said David unctuously.
"No", said Neill; "you didn't put the wind up them. The whole story was this: the dog that bit Betty told the pack how good human blood was, but when the Alsatian took a chunk out of your leg, me lad, it realised that the other dog had been a darned liar. That's why the pack keeps off." Neill looked out through the window. "Look", he continued, "look at the pack going by with hanging tails and demoralised jaws. Disillusioned, they know that human blood isn't worth lapping."
David did not agree with this explanation, but interestingly enough, Betty did.
"I suppose girls are really sweeter than boys", she said with a broad smile.
After the fight had ended David said he was sorry and Betty said that only cowards fight girls, and they began to fight again. Pyecraft said that in his young days...but he fell asleep before he had finished what he was going to say.
"Let's have peace", said Neill. "We've settled the dog danger, and we're going to have an era of perfect peace."
"Rats", said Michael.
"I don't want any of your cheek", said Neill dangerously.
"Cheek be blowed", said Michael with dignity; "I said rats and I mean rats."
"Are you all blind?" said Michael. "Haven't you noticed how bold they are becoming these last days? My father says that if men ever failed to keep up civilisation the only animals who could make a new civilisation would be the rats. They are more intelligent than any other animal."
"No use", said Robert, shaking his head. "No hands, and without hands no animal can rule."
"But they could use their forefeet as hands", said Michael.
"That may be", said Betty, "but they have no weight. How could they make big guns and ships and things?"
"Civilisation doesn't need these", said Neill sagely. "A rat civilisation would, of course, be different, better I hope. They won't make poison-gas anyway, and I question if they will have wars. I think we ought to shoot ourselves and give the rats their chance."
Now that they had been made conscious of the rats, they did observe that they were decidedly bolder than they had been. Neill found a big one in the larder one night, but instead of scurrying off it arched its back and showed its teeth. Neill decided to withdraw with as much grace as he could. There was rat poison enough for the taking in many a chemist's shop but the children refused to use it on the ground that it was the sort of poison that burns out the animal's guts cruelly.
"We fight fair", said Robert as he blew the head off a rat with a shot-gun.
"I really don't think the rats will trouble us much", said Pyecraft. "After all they are an animal that is parasitic on man. They live on the rubbish man throws away."
"Then why are we seeing more of them now?" asked David.
"If you ask me", said the wise Gordon, "it is because the cats have taken to the woods and are living on birds mostly; and the dogs aren't bothering about rats when they can kill sheep and cattle and horses. Still, we can manage the rats. Now it would be different if there were lions and tigers about. I suppose that all the wild animals in the Zoo will be dead from starvation by now, eh? Good thing for us, if yo ask me."
"Now you come to mention it", said Jean, "I thought I heard a lion roar last night."
There was an uncomfortable silence.
"Impossible", said Betty uneasily.
"Quite impossible", said Michael. "What do you say, David?"
David looked vacantly at the wall.
"They can't have come so far north yet", he said as if speaking to himself.
"What do you mean?" they all cried at once, and David blushed red and looked at Pyecraft.
"What's the mystery?" asked Neill impatiently.
"You tell them, Pyecraft", said David nervously.
Pyecraft laughed guiltily.
"It was a secret between David and me. You remember when we flew to London to get the machine-guns? Well, when we got there we heard dreadful hungry cries coming from the Zoo, and David's tender heart was touched. 'We can't let them die of starvation like that', he said tearfully; 'we must let them free to find food for themselves.' I tried to reason with him, but he was adamant, so what could I do but let him have his way. I left him at the Zoo while I fetched the guns from Woolwich."
Neill glared at David.
"Do you mean to tell us that you deliberately let the wild animals loose?" he demanded.
"I did", said David defiantly.
"Lovely", breathed Betty.
"Spiffing!" chuckled Bunny.
"But how did you manage it without getting eaten up?" asked Jean.
David smiled and his eyes took a far-away look.
"It took a bit of doing", he said proudly. "When I went near the cages the starved brutes leapt at the bars, and I thought that the tigers would break through. I went to the main office and got a ball of string and a box of three-inch nails. Then I cut off long length, tied a nail to one end, took the pins out of the latches and stuck the nails in. When Pyecraft brought back the airship, I got in with my bundle of string ends, and when the ship rose it drew out all the nails and the gates simply needed to be pushed against to open. That of course was only the wild animals; the giraffes and deer and that kind I had let out by hand. Poor brutes, I fear the lions and tigers ate a few of them."
The others had listened with bated breath to this account of adventure.
"I propose that David be shot", said Neill earnestly.
"Shot?" cried Michael with delight. "Shot? Shot for giving us the chance to have a jungle of our own in England? I think we ought to give him a medal."
The other fools agreed with Michael, and Neill went upstairs miserable to bed. And...
TO BE CONTINUED.
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Chapter 2 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A. S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.