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.
‘Aye, ’tis bin a grand summer.’ He put down the empty pot and rubbed his weathered hands together. ‘Happen it’ll be a good ’arvest.’
‘You’re 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?’
Annie 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 goin’.’
‘You’ve a job on then?’
‘Happen, 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.’
The 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 Tittybottle Park.
Bill rummaged around in the pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a battered silver pocket watch.
‘Aye, 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.’
‘Night Bill.’ She chuckled. ‘Don’t let the rats bite.’
The Rat Catcher disappeared through the door and Annie, with thirsty customers to serve, thought no more about him.
After 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.
‘Thee’s 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.’
‘Haven’t you heard. Print mill’s on fire,’ yelled the young man, over his shoulder. He continued running in the direction of the river.
Annie 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.
As 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.
A 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.
Annie turned to the people next to her.
‘Has anyone seen Bill?
Her question was met with blank looks.
‘Bill, 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.
‘Nay 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 thumb.
The 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.
There 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 crowd.
But 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 building.
‘Bill, Bill,’ shrieked Annie in relief.
The 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 shrank back.
‘Look at them rats, all different colours.’ His voiced cracked into another cackle of laughter.
‘But why are yours brown while those others are coloured?’ asked Annie.
‘Printer’s 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.’
The 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.
‘You could have been killed in there, Bill,’ she said.
‘Aye 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.’
Annie 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.’
‘Like t’ Pied Piper?’ asked Bill.
Her smile faded as she saw the blistered skin on his hands and face.
‘Fried Piper, more like if you don’t get them burns seen to.’
Bill stared down at his injured hands. ‘Happen I’ll learn to play t’ flute. Might be safer next time.’