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Chapter 43 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Norway Rat

I must have slept an hour or more. I did not think of consulting my watch before going to sleep, and I had little thought about such a thing after I awoke. But that I had slept at least an hour, I could tell by the length of my candle.

A fearful hour that was, as any I can remember to have spent—an hour of horrid dreaming. But I am wrong to call it so. It was no dream, though at the time I thought it one.


As I have said, I lay down upon my back, covering myself with my ample cloak from the chin to the ankles. My face and feet were alone free. I had placed one of the bags for a pillow, and thus raised my head in such a position, that I had a full view of the rest of my person. The light, set just a little way beyond my heels, was right before my eyes; and I could see the floor in that direction to the distance of several yards. I have said that in five minutes I was asleep. I thought that I was asleep, and to this hour I think so, and yet my eyes were open, and I plainly saw the candle before them and that portion of the floor illumined by its rays. I thought that I endeavoured to close my eyes, but could not; nor could I change my position, but lay regarding the light and the surface of the floor around it. Presently a strange sight was presented to me. A number of small shining objects began to dance and scintillate in the darkness beyond. At first I took them for “lightning-bugs,” but although these were plenty enough without, it was not usual to find them inside an enclosed apartment. Moreover, those I saw were low down upon the floor of the saloon, and not suspended in the air, as they should have been.

Gradually the number of these shining objects increased. There were now some dozens of them, and, what was singular, they seemed to move in pairs. They were not fire-flies!

I began to experience a sensation of alarm. I began to feel that there was danger in these fiery spots, that sparkled in such numbers along the floor. What on earth could they be?

I had scarce asked myself the question, when I was enabled to answer it to the satisfaction of my senses, but not to the tranquillising of my fears. The horrid truth now flashed upon me—each pair of sparkling points was a pair of eyes!

It was no relief to me to know they were the eyes of rats. You may smile at my fears; but I tell you in all seriousness that I would not have been more frightened had I awaked and found a panther crouching to spring upon me. I had heard such tales of these Norway rats—had, in fact, been witness to their bold and ferocious feats in New Orleans, where at that time they swarmed in countless numbers—that the sight of them filled me with disgust and horror. But what was most horrible of all—I saw that they were approaching me—that they were each moment coming nearer and nearer, and that I was unable to get out of their way!

Yes. I could not move. My arms and limbs felt like solid blocks of stone, and my muscular power was quite gone! I now thought that I was dreaming!

“Yes!” reflected I, for I still possessed the power of reflection. “Yes—I am only dreaming! A horrid dream though—horrid—would I could wake myself—’tis nightmare! I know it—if I could but move something—my toes—my fingers—oh!”

These reflections actually passed through my mind. They have done so at other times when I have been under the influence of nightmare; and I now no longer dread this incubus, since I have learnt how to throw it off. Then I could not. I lay like one dead, whose eyelids have been left unclosed; and I thought I was dreaming.

Dreaming or awake, my soul had not yet reached its climax of horror. As I continued to gaze, I perceived that the number of the hideous animals increased every moment. I could now see their brown hairy bodies—for they had approached close to the candle, and were full under its light. They were thick upon the floor. It appeared to be alive with them, and in motion like water under a gale. Hideous sight to behold!

Still nearer they came. I could distinguish their sharp teeth—the long grey bristles upon their snouts—the spiteful expression in their small penetrating eyes.

Nearer still! They climb upon the coffee-bags—they crawl along my legs and body—they chase each other over the folds of my cloak—they are gnawing at my boots!—Horror! horror! they will devour me!

They are around me in myriads. I cannot see on either side, but I know that they are all around. I can hear their shrill screaming, the air is loaded with the odour of their filthy bodies. I feel as though it will suffocate me. Horror! horror! oh! merciful God! arouse me from this terrible dream!

Such were my thoughts—such my feelings at that moment. I had a perfect consciousness of all that was passing—so perfect that I believed it a dream.

I made every effort to awake myself—to move hand and limb. It was all in vain. I could not move a muscle. Every nerve of my body was asleep. My blood lay stagnant within my veins!

I lay suffering this monstrous pain for a long, long while. I lay in fear of being eaten up piecemeal!

The fierce animals had only attacked my boots and my cloak, but my terror was complete. I waited to feel them at my throat!

Was it my face and my eyes staring open that kept them off? I am certain my eyes were open all the while. Was it that that deterred them from attacking me? No doubt it was. They scrambled over all parts of my body, even up to my breast, but they seemed to avoid my head and face!

Whether they would have continued under the restraint of this salutary fear, I know not, for a sudden termination was put to the horrid scene.

The candle had burnt to its end, and the remnant fell with a hissing sound through the neck of the bottle, thus extinguishing the light.

Frightened by the sudden transition from light to darkness, the hideous animals uttered their terrible squeaking, and broke off in every direction. I could hear the pattering of their feet upon the planks as they scampered away.

The light seemed to have been the spell that bound me in the iron chain of the nightmare. The moment it went out, I found myself again in possession of muscular strength; and, springing to my feet, I caught up my cloak and swept it wildly around me, shouting at the top of my voice.

The cold perspiration was running from every pore in my skin, and my hair felt as if on end. I still believed I was dreaming; and it was not until the astonished negro appeared with a light, and I had evidence of the presence of my hairy visitors in the condition of my cloak and boots, that I was convinced the terrible episode was a reality.

I remained no longer in the “saloon,” but, wrapping my cloak around me, betook myself to the open air.

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