When the Expedition had finished refreshment, the night had fully come. The stars were at their brightest, and a growing pallor towards Hankey heralded the moon. The watch on the rat-holes had been maintained, but the watchers had shifted to the hill slope above the holes, feeling this a safer firing-point. They squatted there in a rather abundant dew, fighting the damp with whisky. The others rested in the house, and the three leaders discussed the night’s work with the men. The moon rose towards midnight, and as soon as it was clear of the downs, every one except the rat-hole sentinels started off in single file, led by Cossar, towards the wasps’ nest.
So far as the wasps’ nest went, they found their task exceptionally easy— astonishingly easy. Except that it was a longer labour, it was no graver affair than any common wasps’ nest might have been. Danger there was, no doubt, danger to life, but it never so much as thrust its head out of that portentous hillside. They stuffed in the sulphur and nitre, they bunged the holes soundly, and fired their trains. Then with a common impulse all the party but Cossar turned and ran athwart the long shadows of the pines, and, finding Cossar had stayed behind, came to a halt together in a knot, a hundred yards away, convenient to a ditch that offered cover. Just for a minute or two the moonlit night, all black and white, was heavy with a suffocated buzz, that rose and mingled to a roar, a deep abundant note, and culminated and died, and then almost incredibly the night was still.
“By Jove!” said Bensington, almost in a whisper, “it’s done!”
All stood intent. The hillside above the black point-lace of the pine shadows seemed as bright as day and as colourless as snow. The setting plaster in the holes positively shone. Cossar’s loose framework moved towards them.
“So far— ” said Cossar.
A shot from near the house and then— stillness.
“What’s that?” said Bensington.
“One of the rats put its head out,” suggested one of the men.
“By-the-bye, we left our guns up there,” said Redwood.
“By the sacks.”
Every one began to walk towards the hill again.
“That must be the rats,” said Bensington.
“Obviously,” said Cossar, gnawing his finger nails.
“Hullo?” said one of the men.
Then abruptly came a shout, two shots, a loud shout that was almost a scream, three shots in rapid succession and a splintering of wood. All these sounds were very clear and very small in the immense stillness of the night. Then for some moments nothing but a minute muffled confusion from the direction of the rat-holes, and then again a wild yell … Each man found himself running hard for the guns.
Bensington found himself, gun in hand, going hard through the pine trees after a number of receding backs. It is curious that the thought uppermost in his mind at that moment was the wish that his cousin Jane could see him. His bulbous slashed boots flew out in wild strides, and his face was distorted into a permanent grin, because that wrinkled his nose and kept his glasses in place. Also he held the muzzle of his gun projecting straight before him as he flew through the chequered moonlight. The man who had run away met them full tilt— he had dropped his gun.
“Hullo,” said Cossar, and caught him in his arms. “What’s this?”
“They came out together,” said the man.
“Yes, six of them.”
“What’s he say?” panted Bensington, coming up, unheeded.
“He fell down.”
“They came out one after the other.”
“Made a rush. I fired both barrels first.”
“You left Flack?”
“They were on to us.” “Come on,” said Cossar. “You come with us. Where’s Flack? Show us.”
The whole party moved forward. Further details of the engagement dropped from the man who had run away. The others clustered about him, except Cossar, who led.
“Where are they?”
“Back in their holes, perhaps. I cleared. They made a rush for their holes.”
“What do you mean? Did you get behind them?”
“We got down by their holes. Saw ’em come out, you know, and tried to cut ’em off. They lolloped out— like rabbits. We ran down and let fly. They ran about wild after our first shot and suddenly came at us. Went for us.”
“Six or seven.”
Cossar led the way to the edge of the pine-wood and halted.
“D’yer mean they got Flack?” asked some one.
“One of ’em was on to him.”
“Didn’t you shoot?”
“Now could I?”
“Every one loaded?” said Cossar over his shoulder.
There was a confirmatory movement.
“But Flack— ” said one.
“D’yer mean— Flack— ” said another.
“There’s no time to lose,” said Cossar, and shouted “Flack!” as he led the way. The whole force advanced towards the rat-holes, the man who had run away a little to the rear. They went forward through the rank exaggerated weeds and skirted the body of the second dead rat. They were extended in a bunchy line, each man with his gun pointing forward, and they peered about them in the clear moonlight for some crumpled, ominous shape, some crouching form. They found the gun of the man who had run away very speedily.
“Flack!” cried Cossar. “Flack!”
“He ran past the nettles and fell down,” volunteered the man who ran away.
“Round about there.”
“Where did he fall?”
He hesitated and led them athwart the long black shadows for a space and turned judicially. “About here, I think.”
“Well, he’s not here now.”
“But his gun—–?”
“Confound it!” swore Cossar, “where’s everything got to?” He strode a step towards the black shadows on the hillside that masked the holes and stood staring. Then he swore again. “If they have dragged him in—–!”
So they hung for a space tossing each other the fragments of thoughts. Bensington’s glasses flashed like diamonds as he looked from one to the other. The men’s faces changed from cold clearness to mysterious obscurity as they turned them to or from the moon. Every one spoke, no one completed a sentence. Then abruptly Cossar chose his line. He flapped limbs this way and that and expelled orders in pellets. It was obvious he wanted lamps. Every one except Cossar was moving towards the house.
“You’re going into the holes?” asked Redwood.
“Obviously,” said Cossar.
He made it clear once more that the lamps of the cart and trolley were to be got and brought to him.
Bensington, grasping this, started off along the path by the well. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw Cossar’s gigantic figure standing out as if he were regarding the holes pensively. At the sight Bensington halted for a moment and half turned. They were all leaving Cossar—–!
Cossar was able to take care of himself, of course!
Suddenly Bensington saw something that made him shout a windless “HI!” In a second three rats had projected themselves from the dark tangle of the creeper towards Cossar. For three seconds Cossar stood unaware of them, and then he had become the most active thing in the world. He didn’t fire his gun. Apparently he had no time to aim, or to think of aiming; he ducked a leaping rat, Bensington saw, and then smashed at the back of its head with the butt of his gun. The monster gave one leap and fell over itself.
Cossar’s form went right down out of sight among the reedy grass, and then he rose again, running towards another of the rats and whirling his gun overhead. A faint shout came to Bensington’s ears, and then he perceived the remaining two rats bolting divergently, and Cossar in pursuit towards the holes.
The whole thing was an affair of misty shadows; all three fighting monsters were exaggerated and made unreal by the delusive clearness of the light. At moments Cossar was colossal, at moments invisible. The rats flashed athwart the eye in sudden unexpected leaps, or ran with a movement of the feet so swift, they seemed to run on wheels. It was all over in half a minute. No one saw it but Bensington. He could hear the others behind him still receding towards the house. He shouted something inarticulate and then ran back towards Cossar, while the rats vanished. He came up to him outside the holes. In the moonlight the distribution of shadows that constituted Cossar’s visage intimated calm. “Hullo,” said Cossar, “back already? Where’s the lamps? They’re all back now in their holes. One I broke the neck of as it ran past me … See? There!” And he pointed a gaunt finger.
Bensington was too astonished for conversation …
The lamps seemed an interminable time in coming. At last they appeared, first one unwinking luminous eye, preceded by a swaying yellow glare, and then, winking now and then, and then shining out again, two others. About them came little figures with little voices, and then enormous shadows. This group made as it were a spot of inflammation upon the gigantic dreamland of moonshine.
“Flack,” said the voices. “Flack.”
An illuminating sentence floated up. “Locked himself in the attic.”
Cossar was continually more wonderful. He produced great handfuls of cotton wool and stuffed them in his ears— Bensington wondered why. Then he loaded his gun with a quarter charge of powder. Who else could have thought of that? Wonderland culminated with the disappearance of Cossar’s twin realms of boot sole up the central hole.
Cossar was on all fours with two guns, one trailing on each side from a string under his chin, and his most trusted assistant, a little dark man with a grave face, was to go in stooping behind him, holding a lantern over his head. Everything had been made as sane and obvious and proper as a lunatic’s dream. The wool, it seems, was on account of the concussion of the rifle; the man had some too. Obviously! So long as the rats turned tail on Cossar no harm could come to him, and directly they headed for him he would see their eyes and fire between them. Since they would have to come down the cylinder of the hole, Cossar could hardly fail to hit them. It was, Cossar insisted, the obvious method, a little tedious perhaps, but absolutely certain. As the assistant stooped to enter, Bensington saw that the end of a ball of twine had been tied to the tail of his coat. By this he was to draw in the rope if it should be needed to drag out the bodies of the rats.
Bensington perceived that the object he held in his hand was Cossar’s silk hat.
How had it got there?
It would be something to remember him by, anyhow.
At each of the adjacent holes stood a little group with a lantern on the ground shining up the hole, and with one man kneeling and aiming at the round void before him, waiting for anything that might emerge.
There was an interminable suspense.
Then they heard Cossar’s first shot, like an explosion in a mine… .
Every one’s nerves and muscles tightened at that, and bang! bang! bang! the rats had tried a bolt, and two more were dead. Then the man who held the ball of twine reported a twitching. “He’s killed one in there,” said Bensington, “and he wants the rope.”
He watched the rope creep into the hole, and it seemed as though it had become animated by a serpentine intelligence— for the darkness made the twine invisible. At last it stopped crawling, and there was a long pause. Then what seemed to Bensington the queerest monster of all crept slowly from the hole, and resolved itself into the little engineer emerging backwards. After him, and ploughing deep furrows, Cossar’s boots thrust out, and then came his lantern-illuminated back… .
Only one rat was left alive now, and this poor, doomed wretch cowered in the inmost recesses until Cossar and the lantern went in again and slew it, and finally Cossar, that human ferret, went through all the runs to make sure.
“We got ’em,” he said to his nearly awe-stricken company at last. “And if I hadn’t been a mud-headed mucker I should have stripped to the waist. Obviously. Feel my sleeves, Bensington! I’m wet through with perspiration. Jolly hard to think of everything. Only a half way-up of whisky can save me from a cold.”