-- Chapter 7
It was decided to return to Summerhill. At first Spike did not want to go with them, but when David gave him a picture of his future life Spike began to get uneasy.
Said David: "Say, lissen, Spike. Yuh got nerve, but nerve ain't gonna be much use ter yuh walking around in this 'ere burg among a crowd of stone deaders. They're gonna get on yur raw: yuh're gonna get jumpy, and yuh'll be always drawing on every tombstone yuh sees. No one to speak ter, to have a wet with, to take for a ride...Spike, yu're gonna be dull in Chicago."
Spike began to waver.
"Only stone broads in Chicago", said Gordon.
Spike looked at the broads, especially Betty.
"Guess you're right, pals", he said. "Me for the pond crossing."
And so they brought Spike to England. They found him a most likeable fellow. They pumped him about his past life.
"How did you become a gunman?" asked Betty, who was beginning to get a little too fond of him.
"Gee", he said, "I dunno. I was a cowboy in Texas and one night at poker...I see the game was phoney and I knew that One-Eye Joe was monkeying the spot cards, but 'course I couldn't prove it, so I leans back in my chair and ses I: 'There's somebody doing the lowdown with the pasteboards", ses I. 'I don't wanna mention names, but if he don't cheese it I'll put out his other eye.'" He sighed. "Well, I was quicker on the draw than Joe, and that's why I had the sheriff's posse after me, and that's why I came to Chicago. I had to give a couple of dicks the woiks, and then somehow Pirrolo came along."
"What were your duties when Pirrolo took you on his staff?" asked Neill.
"Just shootin' ", said Spike.
"Enemies?" asked Neill.
"Naw", he said, "why, I often had to bump off my pals. Business came first. Pirrolo wanted to put Bill Johnson on the spot, ses to me it was a ten bucks' job. Ses I: 'Bill's a pal o' mine.' 'In that case', says the boss, 'twenty bucks', and I plugged Bill with a sawn-off shotgun."
"You shot a friend for twenty dollars!" exclaimed Jean aghast.
"Should ha' stuck out for forty", said Spike regretfully.
"But had you no feelings about killing a man?" asked Jean.
"Guess I was soft", he said with a little shame in his face, "for I spent ten bucks on flowers. We gave Bill a ten-grand funeral. I'll say this for Pirrolo that he gave his stiffs the best funerals in Chicago."
Neill and the girls thought that his philosophy was awful, but the boys thought it fine.
"Nice of him to send a wreath to Bill's funeral", said Bunny. "Just shows you that there is a good side to everybody."
Summerhill was more dilapidated than ever. Chad's golf stance had tilted a little in the west wind, and his clothes were now rags. Betty and Jean spent a morning redressing him in highland costume, although Neill said that a kilt was the wrong thing to wear playing golf. The result of the dressing gave Spike much amusement; he kept coming to it and laughing.
"Chap with goat whiskers and a jane's skirts seems funny to me", he said.
The hockey field was beginning to look like a small forest, and the food question was becoming serious. Potatoes and vegetables were now growing wild, but the competition of the grass and weeds was telling, and the wild vegetables were puny things. Neill said that they must now begin to cultivate their own food, and they got tractors froms farms and ploughed the garden. Spike became the butcher and killed and dressed sheep and cattle, but the difficulty in finding these was now great, for the Zoo population had multiplied, and the leopards, tigers, and lions roamed the countryside. All that remained of the Scottish horses were a few stray-bones in the hockey-field.
It was not safe to walk down town even by day, for tigers had made their lair in Garrod's Garage, and Titlow's shop nested a litter of lion cubs. Then one windy night the airship broke from its moorings, and in the morning they saw it drifting towards Ipswich.
"That", said David, "puts the lid on it. We are prisoners here now till we die."
As he was speaking the radio began to be active. They heard Fritz speaking, and his voice was one of terror.
"The wolves have broken through the trench and live wire, and I am in the church tower without any food for four days. Help me."
They looked at each other in despair.
"He'll have to die", said Pyecraft.
"And we'll have to die too", said Neill, "now that the airship has gone."
"There are lots of fast bombers at Martlesham", said Michael.
"Where's that?" asked Spike.
"Army aerodrome between here and Ipswich, fifteen miles away."
"We could walk that", suggested Evelyn.
"Through tigers and wolves and lions?" asked Neill.
"I know", said Gordon suddenly. "The Leiston train is still in the station, and the line is clear as far as Sax."
"Yes", said David, "but remember that the Yarmouth train is wrecked at Wickham Market."
"I know", said Gordon, "but I saw a crane wagon at Sax. last time we were there. We might be able to clear the wreckage."
"Take us a year", said Neill without enthusiasm.
"All the same", said Robert, "it's worth trying. Come on, lads, buckle on your guns and we'll go and get up steam."
The engine looked more like a hedge than an engine. Moss had grown on the engine driver's face; crows had made their nest in the funnel; grass was twining its way through the spokes. Rust was over all, and it was decided to clean and oil it first. This took many hours, but in the end the engine looked as if it were ready for a show. The next work was to empty the compartments, and they piled the stone passengers on the platform. Then they filled the boiler and lit the fire. Unfortunately Betty had tied the station-master to the safety valve..."Looks better to have a railway official with us", she explained. The first that Neill and Pyecraft knew of the explosion was when David came through the roof of the school.
"Hullo", said Neill.
"Hullo", said David, with great presence of mind. "I just blew in."
It took them some time to get Michael down from the top of Garrett's chimney, and then he wanted to climb up again for his trousers, which were pronged by the lightning conductor.
The engine, luckily, had scattered so much that there was very little debris to clear away, and they got out the donkey engine from Garrett's Works and coupled it up to the train. Then they set off, Gordon driving, Robert stoking, and the other children with Spike in the first-class compartments. Betty had insisted on their having tickets, and because Jean had a third-class one, she was bundled out and into a third. Neill said he would stay and work the signals, and Pyecraft said that unless they had a sleeper he wouldn't go.
Gordon had no idea of how to drive an engine, and, of course, the first lever he pulled sent the train backwards into the level crossing gates. However, by pulling every lever he could see, he finally got the train to move forward, and they pull-puffed their way along the line. It was a jerky journey because Gordon would not give up his fixed idea that the engine had a three-speed gear with reverse. He kept looking for the clutch. They did the four miles to Sax. in two hours, and when they got there Gordon had forgotten where the brake was, but a convenient cattletruck brought his train to a standstill. At Sax. they found an express engine, and, having got steam up, they began to shunt so that they could couple on the crane wagon. Well, that is to say, they began to try to move the points, but this was beyond them.
"Give me a screwdriver and a spanner", said Driver Gordon, "and I'll fix everything so's it will move the points."
He spent some time in the signal box, and Bunny looked at the jumble of levers and wires and asked if Gordon thought it necessary to do the same to every signal box all the way to Woodbridge, because if he did he Bunny, would be too old to fly an aeroplane when they got there. Meanwhile Spike had set the points by hitting them with a sledgehammer, and Gordon was dragged from what had once been a signal box, but was now a scrap-iron store, and they set off south. They came to the wreck of the express at Wickham Market, and then found that they had hitched the breakdown wagon to the end of the train, so they had to go back to Sax. and put it in front of the engine. Then when they reached the wreck again they found that they had forgotten the handle for winding the crane, and back they had to go again to Sax.
"Now", said Michael, "now I know why they call it the permanent way."
They set to work. At first they despaired of ever clearing the line, but Spike took the lead and by nightfall they had done half the work. They slept in the train all night, and breakfasted on what they could rescue from the express dining-car, tinned food of course. They finished the clearing at noon next day, and then discovered that the rails were twisted. Bunny tried to straighten them with a cycle spanner but failed. There was nothing for it but to take a few lengths from the down line, and here the crane was neccessary.
Towards dusk they set off south, and at Melton found a goods train standing in their way.
"Back a bit", said Robert, "and knock it hard", and Gordon did this and broke the buffers and his nose. There was nothing for it but to shove the goods in front of them, and so they reached Woodbridge. They went on to the bridge over the main road, and then they had a short walk up the hill to the aerodrome. The bombers were all under cover, and they showed few signs of weathering or decay.
"Oh, we are a lot of fools", suddenly cried Bunny.
"How?", asked David.
"Taking all this trouble to get here, and none of us can fly an aeroplane."
"I thought about that before we came", said Betty, "but I didn't like to say it."
"Ah, well", said Robert, "there's no harm in having a look at the blame things", and they commenced to inspect them. They shoved one outside, one of the very latest, and they filled its tanks with petrol.
"Just try her out, Gordon", said Robert casually, and Gordon looked the other way.
"I think we should cast lots", said Evelyn, "to see who tries first."
This was agreed to, and each with shaky hand took a straw from Spike's hand. Bunny's straw was the shortest, and sweat broke out on his brow. He went round shaking hands (in both senses) with the others, and left instructions as to what should be done with his belongings. Then bravely he climbed into the cockpit.
"Contact!" he shouted, and the huge plane began to go forward. He circled the grounds twice, and then, going straight into the wind, he rose, and they saw him wave his hand.
"If he can do it we can do it", said Michael, and each of them got a plane out, and one by one they taxied away and rose. The boys began to vie with each other, and soon they were looping the loop and nose-diving, but for the most part unintentionally. Bunny signalled, and they got into battle formation and headed for Leiston. Each made a fine landing on the hockey-field, and, led by Bunny, they rushed into the house and announced that they were ready to set off to the rescue of Fritz.
Pyecraft and Neill said they were not going.
"Why not?" demanded Bunny.
Neill's eyes fell before Bunny's gaze.
"Someone has got to - er - to look after the garden", he said.
"It needs two men", said Pyecraft hastily.
Bunny sighed contemptuously.
"Seems funny to me", he said to David, that the older and more useless you get, the more you funk losing your miserable life. Come on, boys; the world belongs to youth."
"Just radio us if you need us", said Neill sweetly.
"Pah!" exploded Bunny, and he led his squadron to the machines.
They reached Murnau in the afternoon, and glided down to a field inside the trench moat. Fritz frantically waved a flag from the church tower, and came running down to greet them. He was thin and pale and anxious, and their first act was to give him a good meal.
"I don't see any wolves though", said Jean.
"They only come at night", said Fritz. "See that place in the trench? They come through there where the rain broke it down."
"But what about the live wire?"
"The dynamo must be broken", said Fritz, "and I have been afraid to go up the river to mend it. The wolves have eaten up all the food around, and I have had to eat grass and leaves."
They advised him to come away with them, and he readily agreed.
Michael looked disappointed.
"But we came over to have a fight with the wolves", he said. "We've got enough bombs to blow a thousand of them skyhigh."
Spike was picking his one remaining tooth with a straw.
"Bombs", he said with contempt. "Nix on the bomb graft. Too easy. Yuh wants gun-work."
"Whattda yuh mean?" said Bunny.
"Any cheap heel can bomb a wolf", said Spike; "ain't no risk to yuh, but face a pack o'wolves wiv a couple of heaters, and show yuh ain't yellow."
"Spike's right", said Betty. "We'll stay to-night and meet them with our revolvers only."
Fritz looked anxious.
"No, no", he said quickly, "there are too many of them, and they are led by a big wolf."
"Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" sang Michael; "but", he added, "I think we ought to take out the machine-guns just in case."
Well, they set about preparing a rampart at the gap in the trench. They mounted the machine-guns, and when darkness fell they waited silently. Ten o'clock, eleven, midnight, one, tow...they waited till dawn, but no wolf appeared. It was a most disappointed group that sat down to breakfast. They looked offensively at Fritz, as much as to say that he had swindled them.
"It must have been the noise of the 'planes them away frightened", he said.
"We'll try again to-night", said Robert, but in the afternoon a radio message came from Summerhill..."Pyecraft disappeared. Come at once. Neill."
They set off at full speed to Summerhill, Fritz riding with Spike. They found Neill in a very agitated state.
"I was planting cabbages", he said, "and Pyecraft was, as usual, lying on the ground telling me how to do it, when a roar came from the other side of the hockey-field. Sounded like a lion, so I popped into the house for a gun, and when I came out again Pyecraft had gone."
"No footmarks?" asked David. "Did you examine the fag ends lying about with a microscope? Take any measurements? Any fingerprints?"
"No lion is big enough to carry off Pyecraft", said Jean with decision.
"I gotta hunch", said Spike. "Neill took him for a ride."
"Neill's a scotsman", grinned Michael; "he wouldn't take him for a ride; he'd take him for a walk. But why should he?"
"Search me", said Spike, "but Pyecraft was a millionaire. Ain't the first millionaire to be put on the spot."
"Don't be silly", said Neill. "We all are millionaires now if we want to be. We have all the gold in the Bank of England if we want it, but what use is it to us? And we're wasting time standing here jawing when the thing to do is to find Pyecraft."
They looked everywhere without success, looked for bloodstains, footprints, clues of any kind. There was no sign of Pyecraft.
"I'm afraid", said Bunny, "that he is by now inside some lion."
"Lion! That's an idea!" said Michael. "Chuck over that grid", and he mounted a cycle and went off in the direction of Aldeburgh. He found Pyecraft in the White Lion, asleep.
"That was a rotten anticlimax", said Robert that evening. "Fetching us all this way back from a wolf battle to fetch a man from a pub. It wasn't fair. In my opinion it was a frame up: Neill and Pyecraft got funky without us to protect them, and they framed this to get us to come home again."
The two men denied this allegation vigorously, but they were looked upon with suspicion for some days. Life was rather dull ath this time. The constant demands of necessary labour grew irksome. Food had to be cooked, and, of course, they had to keep the place tidy. The water supply had long ceased to function because the town pumping apparatus was silent. They had to pump water from a well. Then there was so little in the way of entertainment. The group was beginning to get on each other's nerves.
"Always seeing the same faces", said Gordon, "always listening to the same asinine conversation."
Still they had their diverting moments. Fritz had asked Betty to give him lessons in English, and Betty had suggested that Spike should take him on. So in the evenings they listened to Spike teaching his pupil English.
"Now", Spike would say, "yuh gotta say it arter me, Fritz. Say this sentence: 'Aw ain't no chisseling bum, yuh stiff stir-boid.'", and Fritz would say: "O ent no keesling boom, yo steef steer boyd."
"Gee", Spike would say in despair, "tagging the King's English down this yipper's neck is a rib, yuh betcher life."
In the daytime they spent many hours bombing villages and towns, but they got tired of this play.
One night they sat talking.
"It's a dull world, really", said Evelyn. "I am getting more fed up every day. Let's fly to London and go to the shops again", but no one seemed to want to go to London.
"Having everything you want isn't so much fun as I thought it would be", said Betty. "Why do you think that is, Neill?"
"That", said Neill, "raises a deep psychological question. The most fascinating things in the world are those you can't get. I remember how much I wanted a good car, by now, even if the roads were clear, I shouldn't want a good car. Swank comes into it of course. Wearing diamond necklaces or nice frocks isn't any fun if there is no one to see you wear them."
"I don't want to wear them", said Betty, "although you ones can see them."
"The group is too small", said Neill. "You don't care what we think or admire. The fact of the matter is that our values are allchanged now. We have become more primitive. David there hasn't washed for a month."
"That", said Robert, "is a pre-cloud matter."
"And I", Neill went on, "find I go for days without shaving now. I don't care what I wear. My old interests are gone for ever. Spain! Franco and the Republicans are all stone. Russia! A dead cemetary. Politics gone, society, gossip, racing, cricket, football; no films, theatres, music; and worst of all no more crossword puzzles."
"Worst of all, no hope", said Pyecraft. "We exist and no more. I really don't think we shall live long enough for a new generation to be produced. We are just letting things slide. The youngsters really ought to be learning trades. Fritz ought to be teaching them all about electricity, for instance. But what is happening? Mucking about bombing villages, fighting animals, growing a few potatoes and carrots. I tell you that if we don't stir ourselves some other animals will steal civilisation from us."
"I thought at one time the rats would steal it", said Michael, "but they gave up the fight."
"But have they given up the fight?" asked Gordon. "We don't see them much, but maybe they are working underground. Maybe one day they will come out of their holes by the million and carry everything before them."
"No", said Neill, "they are too small. They can't manage material of any weight. I rather fancy that the apes may be doing something."
"I never thought of that", said Michael. "Tarzan! They have the weight and size, they have hands."
"But very little brain power", said Bunny.
"That", said Neill, "doesn't matter. Man built a civlisation without much brain power. The apes have courage and force, and for my part I am thankful that apes don't grow in England and can't swim the Channel."
"All the same", said David, "it would be interesting to know if they were doing anything. We might take the bombers to Africa just to see."
"Impossible", said Robert, "couldn't get petrol there. If only the airship hadn't got lost." He paused. "I say! Why not try to find it with the 'planes?"
The children jumped at the idea and next morning they set off. It was Jean who found it near Cambridge. Its anchor had caught in a church tower, and it seemed to be intact. Jean managed to board it, and, leaving her 'plane, she flew the airship home. There was general rejoicing, and it was decided to fly to Africa to study the apes.
"We'll maybe find the missing link", said Bunny.
"What, again?" asked Betty, looking archly at David, and David blushed and gave her a clump on the ear.
From this point the story may sound almost incredible, but fiction is always stranger than truth. They found that the apes had begun to make a new civilisation. It was Gordon who first saw them as they flew over Kenya.
"Look!" he cried, "down there! Men working!"
They saw what appeared to be men hauling a tree. Their glasses showed them that they were looking at apes. They stopped the engines and hovered over the scene. The apes looked up astonished, and then they came back and went on with their work, glancing up at the ship every now and again, half fearfully, half curiously.
"What are they doing?" asked Neill.
"They've got saws and axes", said Michael; "they must have seen men using them."
They had apparently cut down the tree with a crosscut saw, but they seemed to be at a loss what to do with it. Some were hacking at it with axes, while others were making aimless saw cuts on the trunk.
"Just aping men", said Pyecraft. "Haven't the brains to know what to do with tools."
"Still", said Betty, uneasily, "I don't like it. They are groping for something, and if they grope long enough they may get somewhere. After all, when primitive man made a stone axe he wasn't much ahead of these apes. Look at that big one who seems to be the leader. Look how he orders the others about. There is the beginning of the capitalist class, the masters. Goo, but he's a hefty brute; shouldn't care to be down there among them", and he shivered.
"Watch them", said Neill, "there's method in their madness. My opinion is that they are trying to make a boat. If not, why is that chap scooping out the middle with the axe? Let's go on and see what the others are doing. We can come back later and see what they have done with the tree."
They went on, and soon they came to another group which was trying to build a house with branches. One child ape was sitting on the ground striking matches.
"They have discovered fire", said Bunny, "but that won't help them, for when they have used up the matches they have made, they won't be able to make any more. And there that silly fool sits wasting good matches. You see they don't know what to do with fire. Hullo!"
His exclamation was caused by a sudden flare. A dropped match had ignited the grass, and there was a howl of terror from the apes who sprang to the branches of the wood. But one large ape jumped down and began to beat the flames with a branch.
"Not so stupid after all", said Neill. "Mark my words, the apes will conquer the world. Unless -"
"Unless what?" said Michael.
"Unless we do it first."
"We could easily exterminate them", said Robert. "We have enough bombs in Europe to wipe out every ape in the world."
"That", said Pyecraft, "is a dog-in-the-manger attitude. We can't make a civilisation ourselves, and we won't let another brand make one. I think that we should make an attempt to join forces."
"With the apes?" said David.
"Why not? We can teach them a lot."
"They would kill us", said Betty. "Oogh! They would tear us limb by limb. Let's go higher; we are too near for my taste", and she moved the altitude lever. Nothing happened.
"The helium is going out", cried Pyecraft, and his face paled. "We are sinking!"
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Chapter 7 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A. S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.