By five o’clock that evening this amazing Cossar, with no appearance of hurry at all, had got all the stuff for his fight with insurgent Bigness out of Urshot and on the road to Hickleybrow. Two barrels of paraffin and a load of dry brushwood he had bought in Urshot; plentiful sacks of sulphur, eight big game guns and ammunition, three light breechloaders, with small-shot ammunition for the wasps, a hatchet, two billhooks, a pick and three spades, two coils of rope, some bottled beer, soda and whisky, one gross of packets of rat poison, and cold provisions for three days, had come down from London. All these things he had sent on in a coal trolley and a hay waggon in the most business-like way, except the guns and ammunition, which were stuck under the seat of the Red Lion waggonette appointed to bring on Redwood and the five picked men who had come up from Ealing at Cossar’s summons.
Cossar conducted all these transactions with an invincible air of commonplace, in spite of the fact that Urshot was in a panic about the rats, and all the drivers had to be specially paid. All the shops were shut in the place, and scarcely a soul abroad in the street, and when he banged at a door a window was apt to open. He seemed to consider that the conduct of business from open windows was an entirely legitimate and obvious method. Finally he and Bensington got the Red Lion dogcart and set off with the waggonette, to overtake the baggage. They did this a little beyond the cross-roads, and so reached Hickleybrow first.
Bensington, with a gun between his knees, sitting beside Cossar in the dog-cart, developed a long germinated amazement. All they were doing was, no doubt, as Cossar insisted, quite the obvious thing to do, only—! In England one so rarely does the obvious thing. He glanced from his neighbour’s feet to the boldly sketched hands upon the reins. Cossar had apparently never driven before, and he was keeping the line of least resistance down the middle of the road by some no doubt quite obvious but certainly unusual light of his own.
“Why don’t we all do the obvious?” thought Bensington. “How the world would travel if one did! I wonder for instance why I don’t do such a lot of things I know would be all right to do— things I want to do. Is everybody like that, or is it peculiar to me!” He plunged into obscure speculation about the Will. He thought of the complex organised futilities of the daily life, and in contrast with them the plain and manifest things to do, the sweet and splendid things to do, that some incredible influences will never permit us to do. Cousin Jane? Cousin Jane he perceived was important in the question, in some subtle and difficult way. Why should we after all eat, drink, and sleep, remain unmarried, go here, abstain from going there, all out of deference to Cousin Jane? She became symbolical without ceasing to be incomprehensible!
A stile and a path across the fields caught his eye and reminded him of that other bright day, so recent in time, so remote in its emotions, when he had walked from Urshot to the Experimental Farm to see the giant chicks.
Fate plays with us.
“Tcheck, tcheck,” said Cossar. “Get up.”
It was a hot midday afternoon, not a breath of wind, and the dust was thick in the roads. Few people were about, but the deer beyond the park palings browsed in profound tranquillity. They saw a couple of big wasps stripping a gooseberry bush just outside Hickleybrow, and another was crawling up and down the front of the little grocer’s shop in the village street trying to find an entry. The grocer was dimly visible within, with an ancient fowling-piece in hand, watching its endeavours. The driver of the waggonette pulled up outside the Jolly Drovers and informed Redwood that his part of the bargain was done. In this contention he was presently joined by the drivers of the waggon and the trolley. Not only did they maintain this, but they refused to let the horses be taken further.
“Them big rats is nuts on ’orses,” the trolley driver kept on repeating.
Cossar surveyed the controversy for a moment.
“Get the things out of that waggonette,” he said, and one of his men, a tall, fair, dirty engineer, obeyed.
“Gimme that shot gun,” said Cossar.
He placed himself between the drivers. “We don’t want you to drive,” he said.
“You can say what you like,” he conceded, “but we want these horses.”
They began to argue, but he continued speaking.
“If you try and assault us I shall, in self-defence, let fly at your legs. The horses are going on.”
He treated the incident as closed. “Get up on that waggon, Flack,” he said to a thickset, wiry little man. “Boon, take the trolley.”
The two drivers blustered to Redwood.
“You’ve done your duty to your employers,” said Redwood. “You stop in this village until we come back. No one will blame you, seeing we’ve got guns. We’ve no wish to do anything unjust or violent, but this occasion is pressing. I’ll pay if anything happens to the horses, never fear.”
“That’s all right,” said Cossar, who rarely promised.
They left the waggonette behind, and the men who were not driving went afoot. Over each shoulder sloped a gun. It was the oddest little expedition for an English country road, more like a Yankee party, trekking west in the good old Indian days.
They went up the road, until at the crest by the stile they came into sight of the Experimental Farm. They found a little group of men there with a gun or so— the two Fulchers were among them— and one man, a stranger from Maidstone, stood out before the others and watched the place through an opera-glass.
These men turned about and stared at Redwood’s party.
“Anything fresh?” said Cossar.
“The waspses keeps a comin’ and a goin’,” said old Fulcher. “Can’t see as they bring anything.”
“The canary creeper’s got in among the pine trees now,” said the man with the lorgnette. “It wasn’t there this morning. You can see it grow while you watch it.”
He took out a handkerchief and wiped his object-glasses with careful deliberation.
“I reckon you’re going down there,” ventured Skelmersdale.
“Will you come?” said Cossar.
Skelmersdale seemed to hesitate.
“It’s an all-night job.”
Skelmersdale decided that he wouldn’t.
“Rats about?” asked Cossar.
“One was up in the pines this morning— rabbiting, we reckon.”
Cossar slouched on to overtake his party.
Bensington, regarding the Experimental Farm under his hand, was able to gauge now the vigour of the Food. His first impression was that the house was smaller than he had thought— very much smaller; his second was to perceive that all the vegetation between the house and the pine-wood had become extremely large. The roof over the well peeped amidst tussocks of grass a good eight feet high, and the canary creeper wrapped about the chimney stack and gesticulated with stiff tendrils towards the heavens. Its flowers were vivid yellow splashes, distinctly visible as separate specks this mile away. A great green cable had writhed across the big wire inclosures of the giant hens’ run, and flung twining leaf stems about two outstanding pines. Fully half as tall as these was the grove of nettles running round behind the cart-shed. The whole prospect, as they drew nearer, became more and more suggestive of a raid of pigmies upon a dolls’ house that has been left in a neglected corner of some great garden.
There was a busy coming and going from the wasps’ nest, they saw. A swarm of black shapes interlaced in the air, above the rusty hill-front beyond the pine cluster, and ever and again one of these would dart up into the sky with incredible swiftness and soar off upon some distant quest. Their humming became audible at more than half a mile’s distance from the Experimental Farm. Once a yellow-striped monster dropped towards them and hung for a space watching them with its great compound eyes, but at an ineffectual shot from Cossar it darted off again. Down in a corner of the field, away to the right, several were crawling about over some ragged bones that were probably the remains of the lamb the rats had brought from Huxter’s Farm. The horses became very restless as they drew near these creatures. None of the party was an expert driver, and they had to put a man to lead each horse and encourage it with the voice.
They could see nothing of the rats as they came up to the house, and everything seemed perfectly still except for the rising and falling “whoozzzzzzZZZ, whoooo-zoo-oo” of the wasps’ nest.
They led the horses into the yard, and one of Cossar’s men, seeing the door open— the whole of the middle portion of the door had been gnawed out— walked into the house. Nobody missed him for the time, the rest being occupied with the barrels of paraffin, and the first intimation they had of his separation from them was the report of his gun and the whizz of his bullet. “Bang, bang,” both barrels, and his first bullet it seems went through the cask of sulphur, smashed out a stave from the further side, and filled the air with yellow dust. Redwood had kept his gun in hand and let fly at something grey that leapt past him. He had a vision of the broad hind-quarters, the long scaly tail and long soles of the hind-feet of a rat, and fired his second barrel. He saw Bensington drop as the beast vanished round the corner.
Then for a time everybody was busy with a gun. For three minutes lives were cheap at the Experimental Farm, and the banging of guns filled the air. Redwood, careless of Bensington in his excitement, rushed in pursuit, and was knocked headlong by a mass of brick fragments, mortar, plaster, and rotten lath splinters that came flying out at him as a bullet whacked through the wall.
He found himself sitting on the ground with blood on his hands and lips, and a great stillness brooded over all about him.
Then a flattish voice from within the house remarked: “Gee-whizz!”
“Hullo!” said Redwood.
“Hullo there!” answered the voice.
And then: “Did you chaps get ’im?”
A sense of the duties of friendship returned to Redwood. “Is Mr. Bensington hurt?” he said.
The man inside heard imperfectly. “No one ain’t to blame if I ain’t,” said the voice inside.
It became clearer to Redwood that he must have shot Bensington. He forgot the cuts upon his face, arose and came back to find Bensington seated on the ground and rubbing his shoulder. Bensington looked over his glasses. “We peppered him, Redwood,” he said, and then: “He tried to jump over me, and knocked me down. But I let him have it with both barrels, and my! how it has hurt my shoulder, to be sure.”
A man appeared in the doorway. “I got him once in the chest and once in the side,” he said.
“Where’s the waggons?” said Cossar, appearing amidst a thicket of gigantic canary-creeper leaves.
It became evident, to Redwood’s amazement, first, that no one had been shot, and, secondly, that the trolley and waggon had shifted fifty yards, and were now standing with interlocked wheels amidst the tangled distortions of Skinner’s kitchen garden. The horses had stopped their plunging. Half-way towards them, the burst barrel of sulphur lay in the path with a cloud of sulphur dust above it. He indicated this to Cossar and walked towards it. “Has any one seen that rat?” shouted Cossar, following. “I got him in between the ribs once, and once in the face as he turned on me.”
They were joined by two men, as they worried at the locked wheels.
“I killed that rat,” said one of the men.
“Have they got him?” asked Cossar.
“Jim Bates has found him, beyond the hedge. I got him jest as he came round the corner… . Whack behind the shoulder… .”
When things were a little ship-shape again Redwood went and stared at the huge misshapen corpse. The brute lay on its side, with its body slightly bent. Its rodent teeth overhanging its receding lower jaw gave its face a look of colossal feebleness, of weak avidity. It seemed not in the least ferocious or terrible. Its fore-paws reminded him of lank emaciated hands. Except for one neat round hole with a scorched rim on either side of its neck, the creature was absolutely intact. He meditated over this fact for some time. “There must have been two rats,” he said at last, turning away.
“Yes. And the one that everybody hit— got away.”
“I am certain that my own shot— ”
A canary-creeper leaf tendril, engaged in that mysterious search for a holdfast which constitutes a tendril’s career, bent itself engagingly towards his neck and made him step aside hastily.
“Whoo-z-z z-z-z-z-Z-Z-Z,” from the distant wasps’ nest, “whoo oo zoo-oo.”