This incident left the party alert but not unstrung.
They got their stores into the house, which had evidently been ransacked by the rats after the flight of Mrs. Skinner, and four of the men took the two horses back to Hickleybrow. They dragged the dead rat through the hedge and into a position commanded by the windows of the house, and incidentally came upon a cluster of giant earwigs in the ditch. These creatures dispersed hastily, but Cossar reached out incalculable limbs and managed to kill several with his boots and gun-butt. Then two of the men hacked through several of the main stems of the canary creeper— huge cylinders they were, a couple of feet in diameter, that came out by the sink at the back; and while Cossar set the house in order for the night, Bensington, Redwood, and one of the assistant electricians went cautiously round by the fowl runs in search of the rat-holes.
They skirted the giant nettles widely, for these huge weeds threatened them with poison-thorns a good inch long. Then round beyond the gnawed, dismantled stile they came abruptly on the huge cavernous throat of the most westerly of the giant rat-holes, an evil-smelling profundity, that drew them up into a line together.
“I hope they’ll come out,” said Redwood, with a glance at the pent-house of the well.
“If they don’t— ” reflected Bensington.
“They will,” said Redwood.
“We shall have to rig up some sort of flare if we do go in,” said Redwood.
They went up a little path of white sand through the pine-wood and halted presently within sight of the wasp-holes.
The sun was setting now, and the wasps were coming home for good; their wings in the golden light made twirling haloes about them. The three men peered out from under the trees— they did not care to go right to the edge of the wood— and watched these tremendous insects drop and crawl for a little and enter and disappear. “They will be still in a couple of hours from now,” said Redwood… . “This is like being a boy again.”
“We can’t miss those holes,” said Bensington, “even if the night is dark. By-the-bye— about the light— ”
“Full moon,” said the electrician. “I looked it up.”
They went back and consulted with Cossar.
He said that “obviously” they must get the sulphur, nitre, and plaster of Paris through the wood before twilight, and for that they broke bulk and carried the sacks. After the necessary shouting of the preliminary directions, never a word was spoken, and as the buzzing of the wasps’ nest died away there was scarcely a sound in the world but the noise of footsteps, the heavy breathing of burthened men, and the thud of the sacks. They all took turns at that labour except Mr. Bensington, who was manifestly unfit. He took post in the Skinners’ bedroom with a rifle, to watch the carcase of the dead rat, and of the others, they took turns to rest from sack-carrying and to keep watch two at a time upon the rat-holes behind the nettle grove. The pollen sacs of the nettles were ripe, and every now and then the vigil would be enlivened by the déhiscence of these, the bursting of the sacs sounding exactly like the crack of a pistol, and the pollen grains as big as buckshot pattered all about them.
Mr. Bensington sat at his window on a hard horse-hair-stuffed arm-chair, covered by a grubby antimacassar that had given a touch of social distinction to the Skinners’ sitting-room for many years. His unaccustomed rifle rested on the sill, and his spectacles anon watched the dark bulk of the dead rat in the thickening twilight, anon wandered about him in curious meditation. There was a faint smell of paraffin without, for one of the casks leaked, and it mingled with a less unpleasant odour arising from the hacked and crushed creeper.
Within, when he turned his head, a blend of faint domestic scents, beer, cheese, rotten apples, and old boots as the leading motifs, was full of reminiscences of the vanished Skinners. He regarded the dim room for a space. The furniture had been greatly disordered— perhaps by some inquisitive rat— but a coat upon a clothes-peg on the door, a razor and some dirty scraps of paper, and a piece of soap that had hardened through years of disuse into a horny cube, were redolent of Skinner’s distinctive personality. It came to Bensington’s mind with a complete novelty of realisation that in all probability the man had been killed and eaten, at least in part, by the monster that now lay dead there in the darkling.
To think of all that a harmless-looking discovery in chemistry may lead to!
Here he was in homely England and yet in infinite danger, sitting out alone with a gun in a twilit, ruined house, remote from every comfort, his shoulder dreadfully bruised from a gun-kick, and— by Jove!
He grasped now how profoundly the order of the universe had changed for him. He had come right away to this amazing experience, without even saying a word to his cousin Jane!
What must she be thinking of him?
He tried to imagine it and he could not. He had an extraordinary feeling that she and he were parted for ever and would never meet again. He felt he had taken a step and come into a world of new immensities. What other monsters might not those deepening shadows hide? The tips of the giant nettles came out sharp and black against the pale green and amber of the western sky. Everything was very still— very still indeed. He wondered why he could not hear the others away there round the corner of the house. The shadow in the cart-shed was now an abysmal black.
* * * * *
Bang … Bang … Bang.
A sequence of echoes and a shout.
A long silence.
Bang and a diminuendo of echoes.
Then, thank goodness! Redwood and Cossar were coming out of the inaudible darknesses, and Redwood was calling “Bensington!”
“Bensington! We’ve bagged another of the rats!”
“Cossar’s bagged another of the rats!”