the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 8


CHAPTER 8

Mr Bunnsy realized that he was a fat rabbit in the Dark Wood and wished he wasn't a rabbit or, at least, not a fat one. But Ratty Rupert was on the way. Little did he know what was waiting for him. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure The three rats leapt they were already too late. There was just a Maurice-shaped hole in the air. Maurice was across the room and scrambling up some boxes. There was squeaking below him. He jumped onto another box and saw a place in the wall where some of the rotten bricks had fallen out. He aimed for it, scrabbled on thin air as more bricks moved under him, and pushed himself into the unknown. It was another cellar. And it was full of water. In fact, what it was full of was not exactly water. It was what water eventually becomes when rat cages drain into it, and gutters up above drain into it, and it has had a chance to sit and bubble gently to itself for a year or so. To call it 'mud' would be an insult to perfectly respectable swamps all over the world. Maurice landed in it. It went 'gloop'. He cat-paddled furiously through the thick stuff, trying not to breathe, and dragged himself out on a pile of rubble on the other side of the room. A fallen rafter, slimy with mould, led up to more tangled, fire-blackened wood in the ceiling. He could still hear the dreadful voice in his head, but it was muffled. It was trying to give him orders. Trying to give a cat orders? It was easier to nail jelly to a wall. What did it think he was, a dog? Stinking mud oozed off him. Even his ears were full of mud.

He went to lick himself clean, and then stopped. It was a perfectly normal cat reaction, licking yourself clean. But licking this off would probably kill him- There was a movement in the dark. He could just make out some big rat shapes pouring through the hole. There were a couple of splashes. Some of the shapes were creeping along the walls. Ah, said the voice. You see them? Watch them come for you, CAT! Maurice stopped himself from running. This was no time to listen to his inner cat. His inner cat had got him out of the room, but his inner cat was stupid. It wanted him to attack things small enough and run away from everything else. But no cat could tackle a bunch of rats this size. He froze, and tried to keep an eye on the advancing rats. They were heading directly for him. Hold on… hold on… The voice had said: You can see them… How did it know? Maurice tried to think loudly: Can… You… Read… My… Mind? Nothing happened. Maurice had a burst of inspiration. He shut his eyes. Open them! came the immediate command, and his eyelids trembled. Shan't, thought Maurice. You can't hear my thoughts! he thought. You only use my eyes and ears! You're just guessing what I'm thinking. There was no reply. Maurice didn't wait. He leapt. The sloping beam was where he remembered it. He clawed his way up, and hung on. At least all they could do was follow him up.

With any luck, he could use his claws… The rats got closer. Now they were sniffing for him down below, and he imagined quivering noses in the darkness. One started to climb the beam, still sniffing. It must have been within inches of Maurice's tail when it turned around and went back down again. He heard them reach the top of the rubble. There was more bewildered sniffing and then, in the dark, the sound of the rats paddling through the mud. Maurice wrinkled his mud-caked forehead in amazement. Rats who couldn't smell a cat? And then he realized. He didn't smell of cat – he stank of mud, he felt like mud, in a room full of stinking mud. He sat, still as stone, until through muddy-caked ears he heard claws heading back to the hole in the wall. Then, without opening his eyes, he crept carefully back down to the rubble and found that it had piled up against a rotten wooden door. What must have been a piece of plank, soggy as a sponge, fell out as he touched it. A feeling of openness suggested that there was another cellar beyond. It stank of rot and burned wood. Would the… voice know where he was if he opened his eyes now? Didn't one cellar look like another? Perhaps this room was full of rats, too. His eyes sprang open. There were no rats, but there was another rusted drain cover which opened into a tunnel just big enough for him to walk through. He could see a faint light.

So this is the rat world, he thought, as he tried to scrape the mud off himself. Dark and muddy and stinky and full of weird voices. I'm a cat. Sunlight and fresh air, that's my style. All I need now is a hole into the outside world and they won't see me for dust, or at least for bits of dried mud. A voice in his head, which wasn't the mysterious voice but a voice just like his own, said: But what about the stupid-looking kid and the rest of them? You ought to help them! And Maurice thought: Where did you come from? I'll tell you what, you help them and I'll go somewhere warm, how about that? The light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter. It still wasn't anything like daylight, or even moonlight, but anything was better than this gloom. At least, nearly anything. He pushed his head out of the pipe into a much larger one, made of bricks that were slimy with strange underground nastiness, and into the circle of candlelight. 'It's… Maurice?' said Peaches, staring at the mud dripping off his matted fur. 'Smells better than he usually does, then,' said Darktan, grinning in what Maurice considered was an unfriendly way. 'Oh ha, ha,' said Maurice, weakly. He wasn't in the mood for repartee. 'Ah, I knew you wouldn't let us down, old friend,' said Dangerous Beans. 'I have always said that we can depend on Maurice, at least.' He sighed deeply. 'Yes,' said Darktan, giving Maurice a much more knowing look. 'Depend on him to do what, though?'

'Oh,' said Maurice. 'Er. Good. I've found you all, then.'

'Yes,' said Darktan, in what Maurice thought was a nasty tone of voice. 'Amazing, isn't it. I expect you've been looking for a long time, too. I saw you rush off to look for us.'

'Can you help us?' said Dangerous Beans. 'We need a plan.'

'Ah, right,' said Maurice. 'I suggest we go upwards at every opportun-'

'To rescue Hamnpork,'said Darktan. 'We don't leave our people behind.'

'We don't?' said Maurice. 'We don't,' said Darktan. 'And then there's the kid,' said Peaches. 'Sardines says he's tied up with the female kid in one of the cellars.'

'Oh, well, you know, humans,' said Maurice, wrinkling his face. 'Humans and humans, you know, it's a human kind of thing, I don't think we should meddle, could be misunderstood, I know about humans, they'll sort it out'

'I don't care a ferret's shrlt for humans!' snapped Darktan. 'But those rat-catchers took Hamnpork off in a sack! You saw that room, cat! You saw the rats crammed in cages! It's the rat-catchers who are stealing the food! Sardines says there's sacks and sacks of food! And there's something else…'

'A voice,' said Maurice, before he could stop himself. Darktan looked up, wild-eyed. 'You heard it?' he said. 'I thought it was just us!'

'The rat-catchers can hear it too,' said Maurice. 'Only they think it's their own thoughts.'

'It frightened the others,' mumbled Dangerous Beans. 'They just… stopped thinking…' He looked absolutely dejected. Open beside him, grubby with dirt and paw marks, was Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure. 'Even Toxie ran off,' he went on. 'And he knows how to write! How can that happen?'

'It seemed to affect some of us more than others,' said Darktan, in a more matter-of-fact voice. 'I've sent some of the more sensible ones out to try and round up the rest, but it's going to be a long job. They were just running blindly. We've got to get Hamnpork. He's the leader. We're rats, after all. A clan. Rats will follow the leader.'

'But he's a bit old, and you're the tough one, and he's not exactly the brains of the outfit ' Maurice began. 'They took him away!' said Darktan. 'They're ratcatchers! He's one of us! Are you going to help or not?' Maurice thought he heard a scrabbling noise at the other end of his pipe. He couldn't turn around to check, and he suddenly felt very exposed. 'Yeah, help you, yeah, yeah,' he said hurriedly. 'Ahem. Do you really mean that, Maurice?' said Peaches. 'Yeah, yeah, right,' said Maurice. He crawled out of the pipe and looked back along it. There was no sign of any rats. 'Sardines is following the rat-catchers,' said Darktan,'so we'll find out where they're taking him '

'I've got a bad feeling that I already know,' said Maurice. 'How?' snapped Peaches. 'I'm a cat, right?' said Maurice. 'Cats hang around places. We see things. A lot of places don't mind cats wandering, right, because we keep down the vermi-we keep the, er-'

'All right, all right, we know you don't eat anyone who can talk, you keep telling us,' said Peaches. 'Get on with it!'

'I was in a place once, it was a barn, I was up in the hayloft, where you can always find a, er-' Peaches rolled her eyes. 'Yes, yes, go on!'

'Well, anyway, all these men came in and I couldn't get away because they had lots of dogs and they shut the barn doors and, er, they put up this kind of, kind of big round wooden wall in the middle of the floor, and there were some men with boxes of rats and they tipped rats into the ring and then, and then they put some dogs in, too. Terriers,' he added, trying to avoid their expressions. 'The rats fought the dogs?' said Darktan. 'Well, I suppose they could have done,' said Maurice. 'They mostly ran around and around. It's called rat-coursing. The rat-catchers bring the rats along, of course. Alive.'

'Rat-coursing…' said Darktan. 'How is it we've never heard of this?' Maurice blinked at him. For clever creatures, the rats could be amazingly stupid at times. 'Why would you hear about it?' he said. 'Surely one of the rats who-?'

'You don't seem to understand,' said Maurice. 'The rats that go into the pit don't come out. At least, not breathing.' There was silence. 'Can't they jump out?' asked Peaches in a little voice. 'Too high,' said Maurice. 'Why don't they fight the dogs?' said Darktan. Really, really stupid, Maurice thought. 'Because they're rats, Darktan,' said Maurice. 'Lots of rats. All stinking of one another's fear and panic. You know how it happens.'

'I bit a dog on the nose once!' said Darktan. 'Right, right,' said Maurice soothingly. 'One rat can think and be brave, right. But a bunch of rats is a mob. A bunch of rats is just a big animal with lots of legs and no brain.'

'That's not true!' said Peaches. 'Together we are strong!'

'Exactly how high?' said Darktan, who was staring at the candlelight as if seeing pictures in it. 'What?' asked Peaches and Maurice together. 'The wall… how high, exactly?'

'Huh? I don't know! High! Humans were leaning their elbows on it! Does it matter? It's far too high for a rat to jump, I know that.'

'Everything we've done we've done because we've stuck together-' Peaches began. 'We'll rescue Hamnpork together, then,' said Darktan. 'We'll-' He spun around at the sound of a rat coming along the pipe, and then wrinkled his nose. 'It's Sardines,' he said. 'And… let's see, smells female, young, nervous… Nourishing?' The youngest member of the Trap Disposal Squad was trailing after Sardines. She was wet and dejected. 'You look like a drowned rat, miss,' said Darktan. 'Fell in a broken drain, sir,' said Nourishing. 'Good to see you, anyway. What's happening, Sardines?' The dancing rat did a few nervous steps. 'I've been climbing up more drainpipes and along more washing lines than is good for me,' he said. 'And don't ask me about krrkk cats, boss, I'd like to see every last one of 'em dead-savin' yer honour's presence, o'course,' Sardines added, eyeing Maurice nervously. 'And?' said Peaches. 'They've gone to some kind of stables right on the edge of the town,' said Sardines. 'Smells bad. Lots of dogs around. Men, too.'

'Rat pit,' said Maurice. 'I told you. They've been breeding rats for the rat pit!'