The Rat Catcher
Old Bill Scaife leaned
against the bar of Otley’s Black Horse Inn and took another large swallow from
the pewter pot in front of him.
’tis bin a grand summer.’ He put down the empty pot and rubbed his weathered
hands together. ‘Happen it’ll be a good ’arvest.’
right Bill,’ said the barmaid, young Annie Goodall. ‘Warmest most folks can
recall for many's a year.’ She reached for the pot and pulled him another pint.
‘What do you think it'll mean for thee?’
already knew the answer to her question, but it gave her the chance to serve
some other customers while Bill expounded apocalyptically on the breeding
habits of rats. Fed by the bumper harvest ripening in the dales, he predicted a
verminous plague of Biblical proportions. Farmhouses, barns and stables all
across the West Riding would need his services. At five shillings a dozen, he
was also looking forward to a bumper harvest.
‘Might even tret meself to a new weskit.’ He chuckled and tugged open the front of his bottle
green jacket to reveal a red waistcoat. ‘Or mebbee a new pair o’ kecks.’ He
glanced down at the dark moleskin trousers cinched at the knee with string.
Below them, huge hobnailed boots encased his feet.
‘Give over,’ said Annie. ‘There’s nowt wrong wi’ yer
clouts, apart from that bloomin’ titfer.’
The hat had certainly seen better days. It might have
started life as a farmer’s wideawake, or even a parson’s broad brimmed. Now,
the crumpled brim rippled about the dented crown like waves on a peat-stained
tarn. Bill’s sagging, leathery jowls hoisted themselves into a grin.
‘Never you mind about me hat, lass. Kept me warm atop
Ilkla Moor many’s the time.’
Annie grinned back. Ilkley Moor was only five miles
from Otley. A short bus ride and a hike up to picnic at Cow and Calf Rocks was
a typical Sunday outing for many.
‘Where hast thou been since I saw thee…’ Annie warbled
the familiar tune.
‘Nay lass. It’s not where I’ve been. Ask me where I’m
‘You’ve a job on then?’
I ’ave,’ said Bill. ‘Down at t’ print mill, tonight. I’ll be settin’ me traps
as soon as it gets dark and I’ll stay ’til midnight to check ’em.’
print mill was beside the weir. In summer, when the river was low, the reach
above the weir was safe for swimming and on warm evenings nursing mothers sat
on the bank to fed their babies. The local wags had long ago nicknamed it
rummaged around in the pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a battered silver
and it’s about time I were down there, an’ all.’ He raised the pot and drained
the last dregs of ale. ‘I’ll push off now, Annie. Good night.’
Bill.’ She chuckled. ‘Don’t let the rats bite.’
Rat Catcher disappeared through the door and Annie, with thirsty customers to
serve, thought no more about him.
closing time, she weaved her way home through the gloomy, twisted alleyways of
New Market. Looking forward to getting home, she was startled by the pounding
of running feet. A young man sprinted down the lane towards her.
in a tearing hurry.’ She flattened herself against the old, stone wall of the
narrow lane. ‘You’ll knock someone down charging about like that.’
you heard. Print mill’s on fire,’ yelled the young man, over his shoulder. He
continued running in the direction of the river.
turned and followed him. The print mill was big business in Otley. It employed
many of the sons and daughters of the local farmers, and its printing machines
produced all manner of fancy cards and magazines. It would be disastrous for
the town if it burned down. But it wasn’t the town that was uppermost in her
mind, it was Bill the Rat Catcher. He’d said he’d be at the mill until
midnight. It had been almost eleven when she’d left the pub. She hastened her
step, wondering if he was safe, crossed over Boroughgate and headed down Bridge
Street towards Tittybottle Park.
Annie approached the river, she saw the sky aglow behind the dark, stone
buildings on Bridge Street. Her nose wrinkled at the acrid smell of burning
paper and chemicals. Turning onto the footpath beside the river, she gasped at
the size of the fire. The upper floor of the mill was ablaze, with flames and
sparks erupting from the roof. She hurried on towards the weir.
wire fence separated the park from the mill. By the time Annie arrived, a large
crowd had gathered along the fence and around the gate, attracted by the
spectacle. She squeezed between the press of bodies until close enough to feel
the heat on her face. The roar and crackle of burning timber was almost deafening.
Men milled about outside the burning building. Some tried to form a bucket
chain, but the fire overwhelmed their efforts. Others shouted warnings to stand
back and wait for the fire brigade.
turned to the people next to her.
anyone seen Bill?
question was met with blank looks.
the Rat Catcher. He was inside t’ mill, have you seen him come out?’ She had to
shout to make herself heard over the noise of the fire.
lass, no one’s come out that we’ve seen,’ replied an older woman. A small boy
was clutching the woman’s hand. He stared wide-eyed at the blaze, sucking his
burning building looked like a giant bonfire and the crowd stared, mesmerized
by shooting sparks and flames. All except Annie, who anxiously scanned the doors
and windows for any sign of the Rat Catcher. Blinking against the heat and
smoke, she saw a rat jump from a window rapidly followed by another and then
more. They streamed out the lower doors and windows and scurried down the drain
pipes. There were hundreds of them, all frantic to escape the blazing building.
But not just ordinary rats; these rats were coloured. There were red rats and
blue rats and yellow rats. Out of the building they came in a gaudy stream,
heading for the safety of the river bank.
were gasps of amazement, which turned to horror and then screams as the
coloured rats scurried towards the fence and amongst the feet of the watching
Annie was not watching her feet; she was watching the main door of the mill. It
had burst open and through it emerged the scorched figure of Bill the Rat
Catcher leading another torrent of coloured rats. His face was blackened. His
eyes were red-rimmed, staring saucers; his hat was missing and his hair
appeared to have been almost completely singed off. Annie could see wisps of
smoke rising from his green jacket. Clutched in his big, bony hands were cages.
Cages with brown rats inside them; cages he had pulled from the blazing
Bill,’ shrieked Annie in relief.
Rat Catcher stumbled towards the gate, his face contorted into a wild, gargoyle
like grin. Laughing maniacally, he held up the cages and shook them. The crowd
‘Look at them rats, all different colours.’
His voiced cracked into another cackle of laughter.
why are yours brown while those others are coloured?’ asked Annie.
ink,’ shouted the Rat Catcher. ‘In vats on t’ floor below t’ fire. The stairs
had burnt away and t’ rats were jumpin’ for their lives. They was fallin’ into
t’ vats and comin’ out all covered in ink.’
rats were still fleeing towards the river. Some jumped in and swam away. By the
light of the fire, Annie could see the ink washing off, leaving eddies of red,
blue and yellow that twisted and stretched away downstream. The frantic ringing
of a bell announced the arrival of a fire engine.
could have been killed in there, Bill,’ she said.
lass, I could. But I ’ad to get some of me traps out to prove t’ boss I’d done
me job. If t’ mill burns down that’s no reason I shouldn’t get paid.’
giggled. ‘Aye! But you know what? From now on folks won’t call you Bill the Rat
Catcher. You led them coloured rats out the mill like they was following you.’
t’ Pied Piper?’ asked Bill.
smile faded as she saw the blistered skin on his hands and face.
Piper, more like if you don’t get them burns seen to.’
stared down at his injured hands. ‘Happen I’ll learn to play t’ flute. Might be
safer next time.’