-- Chapter 3
It was Jean who first saw the tiger. She had gone out alone to Snowden's farm to gather eggs.
"I heard a funny sort of growl in the cattle run", she said breathlessly, "and I thought it was one of the dogs, and when I looked I saw a great big cat, and it was eating one of the cows. All messy like, with blood dripping from its mouth. I just ran like blazes all the way back."
"Bet it was an ordinary cat", said Robert.
"It had stripes", said Jean, "and it was big as a horse."
"I don't believe it anyway", said David, "but I'm not going out of the house to-day."
Pyecraft saw the tiger and its mate next day, and everyone spent the day carting statues from the town to make a barricade. Michael discovered a new method.
"Best if we take all their legs and use them as legs, then lay the bodies across them like this. The arms are best like this - shoring the lot up."
"Yes", said Neill, "but what about this heap of heads?"
Michael had no idea what to do with the heads, but Bunny solved the problem by using them as hand-grenades during the first attack.
Gordon suggested filling the heads with gun-powder or T.N.T., but the sentiment of the party was against this idea.
"Pity to waste emptiness", sighed Gordon, as he studied the heads of the local council.
The stockade was rather fun. There was really no necessity to man it by night, for in the house they were safe from all animals, but the call of adventure gripped them, and at night one could see sentries pacing up and down behind the wall of Leiston citizens. But the tigers did not attack. There was an attack one night and Robert swore he had killed three tigers and a lion, Bunny two elephants, Evelyn six leopards, and Betty ten crocodiles. In the morning, they found three dead sheep. Snowden's sheep had been alarmed by a dog and had stampeded blindly into the stockade. After that, when the children were a nuisance, Neill looked at them very hard and said: "Stockade." It always silenced them.
A wave of discontent passed over the group.
Said Neill to Pyecraft: "What's up with them? They look fed up with something. What is it?"
"They are fed up with being here", said Pyecraft. "They need a change. If we flew them to London it would cheer them up for a bit."
So when Neill proposed that they should visit London they all welcomed the idea boisterously. They crowded into the airship and in half an hour were looking down on St. Paul's. At Jean's suggestion Pyecraft brought the ship down in front of Buckingham Palace, and at once they all rushed in to see what a stone king looked like. They couldn't find him, and then Gordon recalled reading that he had been on a yachting cruise off the coast of Ireland.
"All the better", said David; "for we'd have had to park him if we wanted his room, and it would feel disloyal to park a king, wouldn't it?"
"His head might fall off, like Corkie's", said Betty.
"Or like Charles the Second's", said David, who had been taught history by Neill.
They loved the Palace. The Life Guards had been paraded at the entrance when the cloud came, and there they stood at attention, a straight, erect line of stone manhood. Robert grinned and gave the sergeant at the end a mighty shove, and the line did a graceful topple over all the way down. The children laughed uproariously, and thought it so great fun that they went out into the streets and toppled over all the cinema and theatre queues. Michael was lucky enough to find a line of policemen in Oxford Street, and he duly pushed them over sideways.
The House Of Commons interested them a lot. The Prime Minister had been delivering a speech about leaving no alley unexplored and no stone unturned when the cloud came. Neill satisfied a life long wish by making a speech telling the members what he thought about them and their misgovernment. Then Michael, who is a bit of a Bolshie, spent ten minutes throwing Cabinet Ministers' heads about.
"They are so light", he exclaimed; but it took both his hands to shy Lloyd George's head at Winston Churchill. It was all good clean fun, as Pyecraft put it. But it left the house in a bit of a mess.
The next objective of the children was the shops. Neill went to Buck & Ryan's and took all the lovely tools he had wanted to have, but Pyecraft informed him kindly but firmly that he refused to clutter up the airship with seven lathes, four shaping machines, and three tons of miscellaneous tools. The boys at once made for the gun shops, and then for the toy departments of Gamage's and Selfridge's. Evelyn went to the H.M.V. shop and sat all afternoon playing records on a spring-driven grammophone. The radiograms, of course, were useless without current, but later she found a radiogram that ran on batteries. Betty did the fashion shops of Bond Street, and appeared in the evening wearing three diamond necklaces, five tiaras (all at once), and an assortment of jewelled wristlet watches. Jean stayed in a chocolate shop most of the afternoon, and had to be carried home to the Palace. Pyecraft and Neill finished their tour in the Ritz wine cellar. They musically informed Bunny, who had come to look for them, that they would not be home till morning.
Visiting shops took some days. There was so much to take, so much more to wish that one could carry. Every boy had a multi-bladed knife, a few knuckledusters, scores of marbles, to say nothing of sundry whips and daggers and swords. The girls had heaps of grammophone records and boxes of lipstick and stacks of gold jewellery. Neill had twohundredweight baccy from Dunhills, and Pyecraft...now, that's funny, but Pyecraft was the only one who did not take anything. Gordon asked him why.
"That's an easy one", he smiled. "I was a millionaire and anything I wanted I could buy."
"And did you buy it", asked Gordon.
Pyecraft considered for a moment.
"Now I come to think of it, I didn't", he said. "I had all the money but I never seemed to think to want to buy anything with it."
It must be remembered that the streets in London were far from normal. It was not easy to make one's way along in a maze of taxi smashes and stone crowds. Motoring was out of the question. A few stray dogs were about, but there was not sign of Zoo animals. They visited the Zoo and found only a few monkeys and reptiles. Bare bones showed that the beasts of prey had made a way with many of the running kind of animals.
"Wouldn't you kids care to visit you homes", asked Neill one night as he reclined in the throne.
Gordon, who trying on the crown, looked up.
"That's an idea", he said interested.
He went home next day and returned at night.
"How were the old folks", asked Neill.
"They didn't give me much of a welcome", grinned Gordon.
"Mother wasn't there", he said, "but father was in the garden. There is one good thing about this cloud business: no need to waste money on tombstones. All you do is to plant a chap in his garden and he is his own tombstone."
The children refused to leave London in spite of the arguments of Neill and Pyecraft. The men were talking in the bar of the Criterion.
"I don't like the look of the kids", said Pyecraft.
"They are so pale and sickly looking."
"Vitamin starvation", said Neill.
"No fresh greens or fruit: vitamin C deficiency. We should take them back to the country."
"But they won't come", protested Pyecraft.
"In that case", said Neill jokingly, "it would be better to bump them off, for rather a quick death than a lingering death from some deficiency disease. We'll give them to the end of the week, and if they refuse to come...we'll use a machine-gun on them", and they both laughed.
Little did they know that David and Bunny were listening behind a barrel of rum.
As they made their zigzag way back to the Palace a shot whizzed by their heads.
"These silly asses playing with rifles", muttered Neill, but as they approached the Palace they were challenged by the voice of David.
"Who goes there?"
"Pyecraft and Neill."
The answer came sharp and clear.
"Traitors! You were overheard in the Criterion bar. Give it them, boys", and a volley rang out. The two men fled, and dodging behind a stone company of the Dorsets they made their escape. The war had begun.
The men decided to make the Tower of London their headquarters. There they knew would be arms enough and to spare.
"Outnumbered", said Pyecraft, "we must rely on our brains. We must first of all a barricade of beefeaters, and one of us will always have to be awake."
"Don't worry", said Neill, "they'll soon forget about us with all the shops to raid. They are only playing at war; they want excitement, that's all."
Pyecraft went out to reconnoitre and when he returned he said: "I got quite a start as I was coming into the yard. A small Grenadier stone trumpeter stood with trumpet to lips, and as I passed I could have sworn that the trumpet made a toot."
"Nerves", said Neill. "You are jumpy. Let's go and have a look at your trumpeter", and they went out into the yard. The trumpeter was not there, but on the ground lay his scarlet uniform and trumpet. They were staring at these in consternation when they heard Michael's voice behind the wall. He was speaking to Robert.
"Great idea that of yours - pretending to be a stone bugler", he was saying. "Not only for spying, but it makes them nervy."
Neill spent the afternoon bashing innocent stone bugler boys over the head with a hammer. Next morning the courtyard was filled with queer figures. The children had raided Madame Tussaud's and had brought the entire population of the Chamber of Horrors, and set them up in rows. The men looked out, and the horrible leer of Crippen met their gaze. Charles Peace stood beside Crippen.
"Hell!" cried Pyecraft in terror. "Their heads are moving!"
They were unaware that the inventive David was behind the wall pulling strings.
"It's a rotten beastly way to wage war", said Neill passionately. "It isn't war; it is barbarism."
"Who began it?" asked a Cupid over a fountain, and Betty dropped her bow and arrow and scuttled over the wall.
Soon the two men were almost distraught: they saw an enemy in every stone policeman and death in every servant girl.
"We must get out of this", said Neill. "Let's take to the river", and at the dead of night they carried their machine-guns to a motor boat and drifted down the river. They dared not start the motor for fear of betraying their escape. They anchored of Chatham and spent a sleepless night. In the morning they saw that the Hood was anchored close by.
"It's tragic to see a ship like that", said Pyecraft. "Look at it, the biggest battleship afloat, and what is it to-day? A grave of stone sailor."
"Ses you", said Bunny, and a fifteen-inch gun boomed. The shell crashed in Hammersmith Broadway, for the only range that Bunny knew about was the kitchen one. The children appeared on the Hood bridge with hand-grenades, and if a typical London fog had not descended at that moment this story would have lost its two heroes. But in the fog they got away.
"If we go to Buckingham Palace they will never think of looking there", said Neill.
"Good idea", said Pyecraft, "but we'll make ourselves doubly safe by putting on policemen's uniform, so that if they come we simply stand like stone statues."
The plan had to be modified because there was no policeman's uniform large enough to fit Pyecraft, but in the War Office they found many Major-Generals of Pyecraft's figure. Neill put on a policeman's uniform and helmet.
They had lunch in the King's private room, and they were just about to clear away when they heard footsteps. They jumped up and took positions on the floor. Neill took up a policeman's attitude, and Pyecraft bent down as if picking up a piece of paper. The children entered.
"Hullo", said Jean, "what's been happening here?"
"They've come and sneaked our grub", said Evelyn. "They must be in the house, for the coffee is steaming. Come on, let's search." They all rushed from the room.
"What fools we were!" said Neill; "we ought to have made for the airship."
"Too late", said Pyecraft, "here they come again."
They were evidently puzzled. David looked idly round the room.
"What is?" asked Jean.
"Look at that bobby", said David, "holding up the traffic with his hand in the king's room."
"Habit", said Gordon. And then Pyecraft sneezed. The fight was sharp and short, and soon the two men were bound hand and foot, while the children considered what to do with tem.
"Traitors should die", said Michael pleasantly.
"We are all agreed about that", said Bunny, "but the point is how?"
"They are usually shot", suggested Betty, who liked war stories.
"No", said Robert; "there is the army way. We take off their ropes and leave a revolver by their side. We go out and they take the path of honour."
This plan they carried out, and Neill and Pyecraft were left with an army revolver on the table beside them. "Après vowse", said Neill in his excellent Parisian accent.
"Don't be silly", said Pyecraft. "Why should we shoot ourselves? Much better to fire two shots: they will think we have bumped ourselves off: they come running...and we say, Stick 'em up!"
"Excellent!" cried Neill, and he pulled the trigger. The rod roared twice, and the children came bursting in.
"Stick 'em up!" said Neill grimly.
They kept their arms by their sides.
"Stick 'em up or I fire!"
They made no movement. Neill pulled the trigger: there was an empty click...and the children burst into loud laughter.
"To think that we'd be fools enough to give you more than two cartridges!" cried David; then his face darkened. "You unutterable traitors", he said tensely, "there is nothing for you but torture. To the Tower and the thumb-screws!" he cried.
Evelyn had been toying with the radio, turning the knobs absent-mindedly. Suddenly from the radio came a deep voice.
"Achtung, achtung, achtung. Hier Deutschlandsender. Achtung."
"German!" gasped Robert. "We aren't the only ones left alive. What does it mean, Neill?"
"A prisoner condemned to torture and death does not oblige his executioners", he said with dignity.
The children whispered together. Then Michael stepped forward.
"We offer you both a free pardon if you will tell us what it means", he said.
Neill shook his head.
"Not enough", he said firmly: "There is the question of war guilt. We did not begin the war."
"Oh, you big liar", said Evelyn angrily; "you were going to bump us off."
"A joke", said Neill, "and we are anxious about your health."
"I guess that we will all have to be anxious abouth our health now, since there are German blokes alive. They may want to conquer the whole world, seeing they are Germans. What did he say, Neill?"
"Nothing much. Achtung means 'Attention' - 'attention, here is a German radio sender.' But it didn't say where."
"I don't like this", complained Betty. "No one has any right to be the last ones alive. It's our world." And the others fervently agreed with her.
"Seems to me", said David slowly, "that it's up to us to fly to Germany and find these chaps."
"And when you have found them?" asked Pyecraft.
"Ah!" said David non-committally.
That is the end of this chapter, and next time we shall go to Germany.
TO BE CONTINUED.
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Chapter 3 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A. S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.