The giant rats 1.
It was two nights after the disappearance of Mr. Skinner that the Podbourne doctor was out late near Hankey, driving in his buggy. He had been up all night assisting another undistinguished citizen into this curious world of ours, and his task accomplished, he was driving homeward in a drowsy mood enough. It was about two o’clock in the morning, and the waning moon was rising. The summer night had gone cold, and there was a low-lying whitish mist that made things indistinct. He was quite alone— for his coachman was ill in bed— and there was nothing to be seen on either hand but a drifting mystery of hedge running athwart the yellow glare of his lamps, and nothing to hear but the clitter-clatter of his horses and the gride and hedge echo of his wheels. His horse was as trustworthy as himself, and one does not wonder that he dozed… .
You know that intermittent drowsing as one sits, the drooping of the head, the nodding to the rhythm of the wheels then chin upon the breast, and at once the sudden start up again.
Pitter, litter, patter.
“What was that?”
It seemed to the doctor he had heard a thin shrill squeal close at hand. For a moment he was quite awake. He said a word or two of undeserved rebuke to his horse, and looked about him. He tried to persuade himself that he had heard the distant squeal of a fox— or perhaps a young rabbit gripped by a ferret.
Swish, swish, swish, pitter, patter, swish—…
What was that?
He felt he was getting fanciful. He shook his shoulders and told his horse to get on. He listened, and heard nothing.
Or was it nothing?
He had the queerest impression that something had just peeped over the hedge at him, a queer big head. With round ears! He peered hard, but he could see nothing.
“Nonsense,” said he.
He sat up with an idea that he had dropped into a nightmare, gave his horse the slightest touch of the whip, spoke to it and peered again over the hedge. The glare of his lamp, however, together with the mist, rendered things indistinct, and he could distinguish nothing. It came into his head, he says, that there could be nothing there, because if there was his horse would have shied at it. Yet for all that his senses remained nervously awake.
Then he heard quite distinctly a soft pattering of feet in pursuit along the road.
He would not believe his ears about that. He could not look round, for the road had a sinuous curve just there. He whipped up his horse and glanced sideways again. And then he saw quite distinctly where a ray from his lamp leapt a low stretch of hedge, the curved back of— some big animal, he couldn’t tell what, going along in quick convulsive leaps.
He says he thought of the old tales of witchcraft— the thing was so utterly unlike any animal he knew, and he tightened his hold on the reins for fear of the fear of his horse. Educated man as he was, he admits he asked himself if this could be something that his horse could not see.
Ahead, and drawing near in silhouette against the rising moon, was the outline of the little hamlet of Hankey, comforting, though it showed never a light, and he cracked his whip and spoke again, and then in a flash the rats were at him!
He had passed a gate, and as he did so, the foremost rat came leaping over into the road. The thing sprang upon him out of vagueness into the utmost clearness, the sharp, eager, round-eared face, the long body exaggerated by its movement; and what particularly struck him, the pink, webbed forefeet of the beast. What must have made it more horrible to him at the time was, that he had no idea the thing was any created beast he knew. He did not recognise it as a rat, because of the size. His horse gave a bound as the thing dropped into the road beside it. The little lane woke into tumult at the report of the whip and the doctor’s shout. The whole thing suddenly went fast.
Rattle-clatter, clash, clatter.
The doctor, one gathers, stood up, shouted to his horse, and slashed with all his strength. The rat winced and swerved most reassuringly at his blow— in the glare of his lamp he could see the fur furrow under the lash— and he slashed again and again, heedless and unaware of the second pursuer that gained upon his off side.
He let the reins go, and glanced back to discover the third rat in pursuit behind… .
His horse bounded forward. The buggy leapt high at a rut. For a frantic minute perhaps everything seemed to be going in leaps and bounds… .
It was sheer good luck the horse came down in Hankey, and not either before or after the houses had been passed.
No one knows how the horse came down, whether it stumbled or whether the rat on the off side really got home with one of those slashing down strokes of the teeth (given with the full weight of the body); and the doctor never discovered that he himself was bitten until he was inside the brickmaker’s house, much less did he discover when the bite occurred, though bitten he was and badly— a long slash like the slash of a double tomahawk that had cut two parallel ribbons of flesh from his left shoulder.
He was standing up in his buggy at one moment, and in the next he had leapt to the ground, with his ankle, though he did not know it, badly sprained, and he was cutting furiously at a third rat that was flying directly at him. He scarcely remembers the leap he must have made over the top of the wheel as the buggy came over, so obliteratingly hot and swift did his impressions rush upon him. I think myself the horse reared up with the rat biting again at its throat, and fell sideways, and carried the whole affair over; and that the doctor sprang, as it were, instinctively. As the buggy came down, the receiver of the lamp smashed, and suddenly poured a flare of blazing oil, a thud of white flame, into the struggle.
That was the first thing the brickmaker saw.
He had heard the clatter of the doctor’s approach and— though the doctor’s memory has nothing of this— wild shouting. He had got out of bed hastily, and as he did so came the terrific smash, and up shot the glare outside the rising blind. “It was brighter than day,” he says. He stood, blind cord in hand, and stared out of the window at a nightmare transformation of the familiar road before him. The black figure of the doctor with its whirling whip danced out against the flame. The horse kicked indistinctly, half hidden by the blaze, with a rat at its throat. In the obscurity against the churchyard wall, the eyes of a second monster shone wickedly. Another— a mere dreadful blackness with red-lit eyes and flesh-coloured hands— clutched unsteadily on the wall coping to which it had leapt at the flash of the exploding lamp.
You know the keen face of a rat, those two sharp teeth, those pitiless eyes. Seen magnified to near six times its linear dimensions, and still more magnified by darkness and amazement and the leaping fancies of a fitful blaze, it must have been an ill sight for the brickmaker— still more than half asleep.
Then the doctor had grasped the opportunity, that momentary respite the flare afforded, and was out of the brickmaker’s sight below battering the door with the butt of his whip… .
The brickmaker would not let him in until he had got a light.
There are those who have blamed the man for that, but until I know my own courage better, I hesitate to join their number.
The doctor yelled and hammered… .
The brickmaker says he was weeping with terror when at last the door was opened.
“Bolt,” said the doctor, “bolt”— he could not say “bolt the door.” He tried to help, and was of no service. The brickmaker fastened the door, and the doctor had to sit on the chair beside the clock for a space before he could go upstairs… .
“I don’t know what they are!” he repeated several times. “I don’t know what they are”— with a high note on the “are.”
The brickmaker would have got him whisky, but the doctor would not be left alone with nothing but a flickering light just then.
It was long before the brickmaker could get him to go upstairs… .
And when the fire was out the giant rats came back, took the dead horse, dragged it across the churchyard into the brickfield and ate at it until it was dawn, none even then daring to disturb them… .