+ ~ -
Please report pronunciation problems here. Select and sample other voices. Options Pause Play
Report an Error

and put your ear to the stacks, you could hear
a fighting and a stir, as if they were hives in
full work. Each stack was one vast nation of
robber rats, crowded together as in a huge
fortress, ready to sack and devastate the
surrounding country. Nor were the stacks their
only barracks; all the hedge-rows round, were
honeycombed and catacombed with their runs,
in some places the very fields were undermined
with their burrows. And all this vexation and
mischief sprang from the wicked obstinacy of
one selfish man.

Fanner Debenham was in despair. He saw
no way to profits for a year or two, if this
torrent of vermin life were annually to sweep
over his barns and rick-yards. In vain he
strewed layers of corn, and slew twenty rats
at a time with a duck gun; in vain, at dusk,
Joe, the rat-killer, slew them in pig-troughs,
on walls, and on sloping thatches; they
seemed to increase the more. No, there must
be a great razzia and an universal slaughter,
and not a she rat or a ratling must be spared.

The day fixed for the great raticide was the
day after I arrived, when the full thrashing was
to begin. The day of my arrival was spent in
pitching double rabbit nets, three feet high, all
round each stack: in cutting bludgeons, and
collecting dogs. That same night, too, at dusk,
the steam thrashing-machine arrived, drawn by
three horsesa great black iron monster,
covered with tarpaulin as carefully as if it were
the wooden horse about to enter Troy.

That night we all dreamed of rats. I swam
in rats, ate rats, fought with rats, rode over
rats, shot into them, slashed them, crushed
them, first wrote and then read to them, TALKED
to them. About daybreak we began.

Debenham and his sons were on guard round
stack No. 1, armed with long bludgeons, hurdle-
poles, and pitchforks; each held an impatient
and fretful terrier, struggling in the leash. There
were a whole field full of children, anxious and
wondering; there were cynical gamekeepers and
young farmers, who had come to the Debenhams
from sympathy or from sheer love of the sport.

Behind all'these, like a burning Moloch of
insatiable appetite, and the vigour of forty
Herculeses, puffed and champed the steam thrashing-
machine: its jaws breathing fire and black
smoke, its arms and claws toiling with a
supernatural absence of fatigue. A mixture of stoker
and farm labourer looked to its fires, or from
time to time rubbed some favourite brass cog or
plug with a black oily rag, like a dirty Vulcan
who had broken out for a holiday into the fields.

A pleasant clack of voices arose. Debenham,
in pure Dorsetshire, urged his men to work, in
a snort but telling speech, with a glance at
certain oozy kegs that lay wallowing in the
hedge under some flowering nettles, and near
some sturdy and odorous fustian jackets that
retained the shape and manner of their wearers.
The children lay in circles, pulling at gilt buttercups,
or playing with a barking toothless dog,
too old to kill rats, but not too old to bark and
look on, and encourage its younger brethren.

Now, the men with poles look staunch, relentless,
and bloodthirsty, for the work of death
begins. The men, dark against the rosy
daybreak, remove the thatch carefully, as you would
"prize" the crust off a pie, and fling down
the first pitchforkfuls of tubular straw to the
"greepers" and binders below. They are knee
deep in the loose wheat.

What is that living lump of black that topples
down, picks itself up, and then hops off in such
a ludicrous panic? That's a ratfirst rat! "At
him, dogs!" "Tear him, dogs!" "Go it,
dogs!" "Hold him, dogs!" "Worry him,
dogs!" But no. "Mr. Rat" lays sharp hold
of an uninitiated dog's soft black nose, and
there he hangs, let the dog shake ever so

But at length beaten off by the dog, he falls
on the ground, and is there quickly done to death
by Joe's deft bludgeon. First blood to Joe!
The first rat of some ten thousand rats has fallen
by Joe's puissant arm.

Now, from various sally-ports, crafty cautious
rats hop and bolt suddenly, hoping to elude their
watchful and relentless enemies by the
unexpectedness of their exit. Sometimes they escape
the mauling shower of sticks, and tumble
hopelessly against the netting but only there to be
snapped by the red jaws of the terriers, or to be
struck with the javelin pitchfork. All ages of rats
are there, from the swollen patriarch and bald sore
beggar rat, to the mere stripling rat, and the
mere naked shrimp rat of some six hours. Our
war was a relentless one, and we gave no quarter.
Our peace had been disturbed, and now revenge
was sweet to us. It was war to the knifea
war of extermination. Old rats, lean rats, fat
rats, young rats, meek rats, blind rats, spiteful
rats, cantankerous rats that fought in corners
and defied dogs and sticks, rats that ran for help
into the very pockets and bosoms of the women
and children spectators, rats that threw themselves
from the roof of the stacks, rats that ran suddenly
from the bottom, rats that hid themselves, rats
that bravely faced sunshine and glittering steel;
rats that appeared at the mouths of holes in the
straw, looked round as if to see how the weather
was, did not like the look of things, and turned in
again; rats of every kidney, of all complexions,
and of every age, were run down and slain,
with sudden shouts, sudden runnings together,
crushing blows of sticks that seemed all in the
air at one time, like the daggers that slew

And all this time the great engine, fed with
great feeds of grain, devoured its endless meals,
and breathed forth its great black banner of
smoke. The men who fed it, talked with angry
loudness, for the noise of the machinery erased
all ordinary voices; far away on the other side,
in a snug corner, beaten down among the
nettles, close to the great red-tinged heap
of dead rats, sat a small jury of village children
small children nursing babies, so large
in proportion that they nearly tumbled over
with top-heaviness; rustic boys, with large
shapeless hats, battered cruelly-used trunks of