|From The War of the Worlds book cover gallery|
Summer had once again begun to give way to autumn, but the warmth of the preceding months still lingered – an old friend no one wished to leave. Yet even now, the colours and smells of the harvest had started to make themselves known. Early evenings were particularly fine, and it was on such a fine evening, the sky growing ever rosier, that Mole and Rat sat enjoying what could easily be declared the picnic of the season. Of both seasons.
The day and the picnic drew inexorably towards a close, and the two friends, perhaps still a little merry from Rat’s fine elderflower vintage, stared up into a sky rapidly filling up with stars, and talked of heady philosophical matters.
For a time there was silence, broken only briefly by the sound of birds preparing for the long journey southward.
“Look Rat!” exclaimed Mole “A shooting star!”
The green star lit up the night sky.
“It can’t be a star Moley. It’s much too slow for that. It must be a comet.”
“Oh! I’ve never seen a comet before.”
“Neither have I old man. Badger explained the whole business to me once. He and Toady’s father were amateur astronomers.”
The comet crept ever closer, green smoke trailing behind.
“Rat…it’s getting awfully close don’t you think?”
“Quick Mole!’ cried Rat ‘Get out of the way!”
The comet roared down from the sky before crashing into the adjacent field, ploughing through the trees surrounding the outer edge.
Rat scurried into the field towards the fallen star. Mole followed at a discreet, worried distance – something did not smell right. The dry grass smouldered.
“Don’t come any closer Moley. It’s burning hot.”
Rat scampered around the outer edge of the crater, trying to peer in.
“I don’t like this at all Mole. I think we should leave it be.”
Mole, cautious at the best of times, was only too happy to oblige, and the two made their way swiftly back to the safety of the River Bank. The night was silent once more, until again, the birds flew by overhead.
The next few days passed as pleasantly as the rest of the summer. Rat began those riverside tasks which Mole had come to recognise as preparations for the high waters in autumn; but he was not so sullen about it as he had been in previous years, even putting his responsibilities to one side altogether for a day to enjoy a raucous game of cricket with the Wild Wooders. Toad was missed; he had let everyone who wandered near Toad Hall know that he was once again at deaths door - the third time this year - and Rat and Mole had resolved to visit him to shake him out of it later in the week. Rat was fairly sure it was nothing more worrying than a summer flu.
Rat and Mole did not return to the crater, but everyone at the River Bank could hear the clash and chime of machinery which echoed downriver at night. It was politely ignored, just as the building of the nearby railway had been - it was not for River Bankers to concern themselves with the Wide World and beyond.
It was on the fourth day after the star fell that the commotion really began. Rat woke Mole rather urgently with several rounds of buttered toast; Otter and his son Portly had arrived while Mole was still sleeping. Portly was as happy and bumptious as he always was, Otter however, looked pale and strained, Mole noticed that Rat had bandaged his leg.
“Whatever’s the matter Otter?” asked Mole.
“Theres been some trouble with that fallen star Mole.” said Rat, “Nasty business by the sound of it.”
While Portly busied himself in Rat’s pantry, Otter explained what had happened, pausing every few seconds to be sure Portly was within reach.
“Portly’s swimming has been coming along well this summer, and so I took him further downriver, near the village, it’s a harder swim upstream from the ford. We had only just arrived and were doing some practice dives when one of the villagers jumped into the river near our spot, They sometimes do that in the summer. But then another jumped in. And another. It was Portly who realised why - there was a fire in the village behind the trees. You know how sometime they set fires, well I assumed that is what was going on, but then I saw the machine. It was huge, taller than the oldest trees in the Wild Wood and it was making a noise louder than that aeroplane Toad bought last autumn. And it spat sparks and smoke like his motorised bicycle. It was starting the fires, that’s why all the people were running. Well, that was enough for me and Portly, we dived under and swam as fast as we could. We could feel the water heating as we swam.” Otter looked at his son and smiled, “He did brilliantly.”
Mole and Rat listened, scarcely believing Otter’s story, but he was never usually one for exaggeration or practical jokes.
“Did the machines come from the falling star?” asked Mole.
“That’s what I thought.” said Otter,
“There certainly has been a lot of crashing and banging coming from that crater.” agreed Rat. “Maybe we should have been keeping a closer eye on it”
“I’m not sure how much of the village will be left.” said Otter, “I’m not sure it’s safe here Rat. Or in the Wild Wood, we should go to see Toad.”
So it was that Rat, Mole, Otter and Portly made their way carefully to Toad Hall; Otter insisted they take the backroads and hedgerows, rather than the more well trodden paths. Mole and Rat felt certain their friend was being over careful, but they would never have dreamed of telling him so.
Rat knocked at the huge oak door. The grounds were quiet, with no sign of the armies of gardeners and beekeepers Toad generally employed at this time of year. Similarly, Toad’s butler was never this tardy, and it was not until Rat knocked again, rather more severely, that there was some response.
“Turn away good fellows! Turn away or risk being as blighted as poor hapless Toad! Laid low by a plague! Crawling ever closer to deaths door.”
Here, Toad - for it was he - coughed and wheezed to underline the seriousness of the situation.
“Poor Toad!” said the kind Mole, forgetting the severity of their own situation.
Rat however, was less convinced by Toad’s theatrics.
“You have a summer cold Toad, or at worst a little hayfever, open up and let us in.”
“Cruel Rat! Heartless Rat! I hope that when the sad day comes, you will realise your mistake and think kindly of poor Toad, and his aches and pains.”
“Now Toad.” said Rat, very firmly indeed.
It having become clear to Toad that his illness was not impressing anyone, he sheepishly opened the door, making rather a point of coughing and wheezing all the while.
“Hello you chaps. What’s all this fuss?”
“It’s the shooting star from the other night Toad.” said Mole.
“What shooting star?” asked Toad, affecting a slight limp as he led them into the dining room.
“Toad...didn’t you see the shooting star?” said Mole.
“My dear Mole, I have been unable to leave my bed these last few days, bravely battling my fever. This morning however, the staff completely failed to arrive with my breakfast, forcing my hand rather. At no small risk to myself, I have ventured downstairs only to discover I’m all out of blackcurrant jam.”
“Did your staff stay in the village?” asked Otter.
“Yes. Delightful little place. Perhaps a trifle basic for my refined tastes, but very pleasant none the less.”
Otter and Rat exchanged glances.
“Toad there’s been some trouble there. Machines came out of the shooting star that crashed into the meadow, and they have been setting fires all the way downriver.”
“Machines?” said Toad brightening. “What...sort of machines?”
“Strange looking things.” said Otter, “Three legs and noisier than all your motorcars.”
“Really?!” said Toad, “Where are these beasts. I must see them immediately!”
“There’s at least one just past the ford.” said Otter, “But Toad, the village..”
“Oh bother the silly village! I’ve a telescope and some field glasses in the upstairs study, we could have a look and see these machines of yours.”
Toad had of course taken first viewing through the telescope, but as he whirled it here and there, unable to find something to focus upon, Rat and Otter had taken charge of the field glasses.
“Well it looks like there is only one there at the moment.” said Rat. “I just can’t believe how tall it is. At least the fires have gone out.”
“It looks like some of the Wild Wood may have burned through the night though.” said Otter
“Let me see! Let me see!” said Toad, grabbing the glasses from Rat.
“Toad! Anyone could have been in there!” said Mole.
“Not the fire. The machine! Look at it. Polished brass, shining copper! A thing of beauty.”
“A thing of beauty we have to get rid of before it causes any more damage.” said Rat.
There was a sudden banging at the doors of Toad Hall, causing them all to jump.
“Toad! Toad open up you fool!”
“It’s Badger!” said Mole. “He’s safe!”
The friends hurried back downstairs to the main door.
“Hurry up Toad.” called Badger “I’ve Weasels, Stoats, Rabbits and Hedgehogs here in need of shelter.”
“Hah! Absolutely not Badger. You know what happened the last time they were in here. I couldn’t get the stains out of the tapestries for months!”
“Oh Toad!” said Mole, ignoring his protestations and opening the door.
“Toad, there are woman and children standing at your door, their homes destroyed by fire. If you don’t stand clear this instant to let them in and then busy yourself in your larder preparing a suitable feast...I will not be held responsible for the consequences.”
Here, Badger lightly tapped his cudgel to help make his point.
While Mole prepared breakfast with very little assistance from Toad, Otter and Rat explained what they had seen of the machines to Badger,
“They are very tall, they might not see us if we kept to the undergrowth and tried to attack from below?” suggested Rat.
“Hmmm. Something that tall is less inclined to look up than down.” said Badger, “What we need is a way of being higher up than it is. Then we attack from above, and while it is distracted our weasel friends try to knock it off balance down below.”
Returning from the breakfast table, Toad smiled wickedly and rubbed his hands with glee.
“Not your aeroplane Toad, it’s far too noisy. Besides we don’t have time to fish it out of the river.”
“No Badger, NOT my aeroplane. But I have something even better for a Master Aerialist such as myself!”
Even Badger was moved to admit the hot air balloon was impressive. While Toad regaled them with tales of the fine eastern silks and bamboo that had been involved in its construction, Otter, Badger and Rat strategised on the best way to attack. It was Mole however who perhaps put it best.
“We need to drop things on it.” he said. “Toad do you have any New Year fireworks left?”
“Dear me Mole old thing, I hardly think this is the time for celebration.” said Toad, and then, after a brief moment, “Oh! Oh I see! Capital! Yes there’s a whole crate in the cellar. Hopefully they’re not too damp.”
It was time for action. Rat, Mole and Toad were in the hot air balloon armed with the finest fireworks, the Wild Wooders had sticks and stones at the ready, while Otter was staying in Toad Hall to look after the families in case of counter attack. While Badger and the Weasels marched out across the fields, Mole, Toad and an entirely terrified Rat floated gently towards the clouds.
“Make it go that way Rat!” said Toad, “The machine is over there!”
“This is a little different from sculling Toad.” said Rat rather irritably.
“Nonsense! Wind, water, it’s all the same. Take us over there.”
If anyone had noticed Toads rather out of character insistence on leading this attack, no one had mentioned it, but the truth was Toad was more interested in getting inside one of the machines, than in knocking it over. It was not until the balloon had drifted silently over the fields and was almost on top of the strange machine that this became clear to all involved.
“The fireworks.” said Mole, “They aren’t lighting Toad!
“Yes I thought they looked a bit damp. I probably shouldn’t have poured that bucket of water on them.”
“Toad you fool! Now we’ve nothing to throw!”
The machine was directly beneath them now.
“Don’t worry Mole! As ever it is left to fearless Toad to save the day.”
Toad clambered over the side of the balloon and tumbled into the hood of the machine. He was now face to face with the driver, a creature who had travelled across space in a shooting star. Never one to be upstaged however, Toad elected to commence his assault by pulling as many levers and pushing as many buttons as possible. If we were feeling generous, we could assume this was master-planning on Toad’s part and not simply an opportunistic attempt to drive the machine. Regardless, the tripod went spinning across the meadow, and, already unbalanced, it was easy pickings for the Wild Wooders, led by Badger and the Chief Weasel to cudgel its two remaining legs into submission, toppling it altogether. It was at this point in the proceedings that Toad, having now realised the flaw in his heroics, scrambled desperately out of the hood of the machine and jumped towards the weighted ropes of his hot air balloon. He dangled wildly, as the machine crashed into the meadow, signalling it’s colleagues with an unearthly howl and hiss of green steam. Two other machines appeared in the distance, striding purposefully towards the field. Below, the Wild Wooders scattered in all directions, but the balloon hung in the sky.
“Ratty! Ratty make it go faster!” shouted Toad.
“I can’t Toad. We’re going to have to jump.”
“Look down.” shouted Rat “We’ve floated over the river, it runs slow here and its deep enough to catch us. Jump!”
The three friends jumped from the balloon towards the water, and not a moment to soon, for one of the other machines set the balloon on fire, finally igniting the fireworks which scattered the skies with stars.
Toad was already retelling the tale of his epic battle with the thing from another world over cocoa.
“I will say this though...he was a dashed queer fellow. Rather unpleasant looking and a few more arms and legs than one is used to in polite company. Still, we gave him what for eh?” Toad shook his head sadly, “Just a shame that they made off with that wonderful machine, Just imagine...but alas...back to the common old motorcar.”
For a time they stood at the study window, watching the shadows of the machines moving through the dusk; in the distance, the sky was streaked red and black with fire and smoke; overhead, birds fled the flames and headed downriver and out to sea.
“Oh Rat! What do you think will happen?”
“Nothing we can do about it old man.” said Rat sadly, “What goes on in the Wide World is nothing to with us river bankers.”
The sun finally set as another shooting star roared across the sky.
I think I've mentioned before I'm a big War of the Worlds fan, all the same, lets hope any life on mars isn't hiding beneath the surface preparing Fighting Machines for attack. I also enjoy a bit of Victorian fan fiction, here's my take on Alice in Wonderland and another Wind in the Willows story.
And here's what Orson Welles did with War of the Worlds, cos y'know...any excuse.