THE FOURTEENTH CHAPTER
THE RATS' WARNING
DRAGGING a ship through the sea is hard work. And after two or three hours the swallows began to get tired in the wings and short of breath. Then they sent a message down to the Doctor to say that they would have to take a rest soon; and that they would pull the boat over to an island not far off, and hide it in a deep bay till they had got breath enough to go on.
And presently the Doctor saw the island they had spoken of. It had a very beautiful, high, green mountain in the middle of it.
When the ship had sailed safely into the bay where it could not be seen from the open sea, the Doctor said he would get off on to the island to look for water—because there was none left to drink on his ship. And he told all the animals to get out too and romp on the grass to stretch their legs.
Now as they were getting off, the Doctor noticed that a whole lot of rats were coming up from downstairs and leaving the ship as well. Jip started to run after them, because chasing rats had always been his favorite game. But the Doctor told him to stop.
And one big black rat, who seemed to want to say something to the Doctor, now crept forward timidly along the rail, watching the dog out of the corner of his eye. And after he had coughed nervously two or three times, and cleaned his whiskers and wiped his mouth, he said,
"Ahem—er—you know of course that all ships have rats in them, Doctor, do you not?"
And the Doctor said, "Yes."
"And you have heard that rats always leave a sinking ship?"
"Yes," said the Doctor—"so I've been told."
"People," said the rat, "always speak of it with a sneer—as though it were something disgraceful. But you can't blame us, can you? After all, who WOULD stay on a sinking ship, if he could get off it?"
"It's very natural," said the Doctor—"very natural. I quite understand.... Was there— Was there anything else you wished to say?"
"Yes," said the rat. "I've come to tell you that we are leaving this one. But we wanted to warn you before we go. This is a bad ship you have here. It isn't safe. The sides aren't strong enough. Its boards are rotten. Before to-morrow night it will sink to the bottom of the sea."
"But how do you know?" asked the Doctor.
"We always know," answered the rat. "The tips of our tails get that tingly feeling—like when your foot's asleep. This morning, at six o'clock, while I was getting breakfast, my tail suddenly began to tingle. At first I thought it was my rheumatism coming back. So I went and asked my aunt how she felt—you remember her?—the long, piebald rat, rather skinny, who came to see you in Puddleby last Spring with jaundice? Well—and she said HER tail was tingling like everything! Then we knew, for sure, that this boat was going to sink in less than two days; and we all made up our minds to leave it as soon as we got near enough to any land. It's a bad ship, Doctor. Don't sail in it any more, or you'll be surely drowned.... Good-by! We are now going to look for a good place to live on this island."
"Good-by!" said the Doctor. "And thank you very much for coming to tell me. Very considerate of you—very! Give my regards to your aunt. I remember her perfectly.... Leave that rat alone, Jip! Come here! Lie down!"
So then the Doctor and all his animals went off, carrying pails and saucepans, to look for water on the island, while the swallows took their rest.
"I wonder what is the name of this island," said the Doctor, as he was climbing up the mountainside. "It seems a pleasant place. What a lot of birds there are!"
"Why, these are the Canary Islands," said Dab-Dab. "Don't you hear the canaries singing?"
The Doctor stopped and listened.
"Why, to be sure—of course!" he said. "How stupid of me! I wonder if they can tell us where to find water."
And presently the canaries, who had heard all about Doctor Dolittle from birds of passage, came and led him to a beautiful spring of cool, clear water where the canaries used to take their bath; and they showed him lovely meadows where the bird-seed grew and all the other sights of their island.
And the pushmi-pullyu was glad they had come; because he liked the green grass so much better than the dried apples he had been eating on the ship. And Gub-Gub squeaked for joy when he found a whole valley full of wild sugarcane.
A little later, when they had all had plenty to eat and drink, and were lying on their backs while the canaries sang for them, two of the swallows came hurrying up, very flustered and excited.
"Doctor!" they cried, "the pirates have come into the bay; and they've all got on to your ship. They are downstairs looking for things to steal. They have left their own ship with nobody on it. If you hurry and come down to the shore, you can get on to their ship—which is very fast—and escape. But you'll have to hurry."
"That's a good idea," said the Doctor—"splendid!"
And he called his animals together at once, said Good-by to the canaries and ran down to the beach.
When they reached the shore they saw the pirate-ship, with the three red sails, standing in the water; and—just as the swallows had said—there was nobody on it; all the pirates were downstairs in the Doctor's ship, looking for things to steal.
So John Dolittle told his animals to walk very softly and they all crept on to the pirate-ship.