Chapter IX--Rats
 
'As louder and louder, drawing near,
The gnawing of their teeth he could hear.'

SOUTHEY.

'What a ridiculous old fellow that Chapman is,' said Griff, coming in from a conference with the gaunt old man who acted as keeper to our not very extensive preserves. 'I told him to get some gins for the rats in my rooms, and he shook his absurd head like any mandarin, and said, "There baint no trap as will rid you of them kind of varmint, sir."'

'Of course,' my father said, 'rats are part of the entail of an old house. You may reckon on them.'

'Those rooms of yours are the very place for them,' added my mother. 'I only hope they will not infest the rest of the house.'

To which Griff rejoined that they perpetrated the most extraordinary noises he had ever heard from rats, and told Emily she might be thankful to him for taking those rooms, for she would have been frightened out of her little wits. He meant, he said, to get a little terrier, and have a thorough good rat hunt, at which Martyn capered about in irrepressible ecstasy.

This, however, was deferred by the unwillingness of old Chapman, of whom even Griff was somewhat in awe. His fame as a sportsman had to be made, and he had had only such practice as could be attained by shooting at a mark ever since he had been aware of his coming greatness. So he was desirous of conciliating Chapman, and not getting laughed at as the London young gentleman who could not hit a hay-stack. My father, who had been used to carrying a gun in his younger days, was much amused, in his quiet way, at seeing Griff watch Chapman off on his rounds, and then betake himself to the locality most remote from the keeper's ears to practise on the rook or crow. Martyn always ran after him, having solemnly promised not to touch the gun, and to keep behind. He was too good-natured to send the little fellow back, though he often tried to elude the pursuit, not wishing for a witness to his attempts; and he never invited Clarence, who had had some experience of curious game but never mentioned it.

Clarence devoted himself to Emily and me, tugging my garden-chair along all the paths where it would go without too much jolting, and when I had had enough, exploring those hanging woods, either with her or on his own account. They used to come home with their hands full of flowers, and this resulted in a vehement attack of botany,-- a taste that has lasted all our lives, together with the hortus siccus to which we still make additions, though there has been a revolution there as well as everywhere else, and the Linnaean system we learnt so eagerly from Martin's Letters is altogether exploded and antiquated. Still, my sister refuses to own the scientific merits of the natural system, and can point to school-bred and lectured young ladies who have no notion how to discover the name or nature of a live plant.

On the Friday after our arrival the noises had been so fearful that Griff had been exasperated into going off across the hills, accompanied by his constant shadow, Martyn, in search of the professional ratcatcher of the neighbourhood, in spite of Chapman's warning--that Tom Petty was the biggest rascal in the neighbourhood, and a regular out and out poacher; and as to the noises--he couldn't 'tackle the like of they.' After revelling in the beauty of the beechwoods as long as was good for me or for Clarence, I was left in the garden to sketch the ruin, while my two companions started on one of their exploring expeditions.

It was getting late enough to think of going to prepare for the six o'clock dinner when Emily came forth alone from the path between the trees, announcing--'An adventure, Edward! We have had such an adventure.'

'Where's Clarence?'

'Gone for the doctor! Oh, no; Griff hasn't shot anybody. He is gone for the ratcatcher, you know. It is a poor little herdboy, who tumbled out of a tree; and oh! such a sweet, beautiful, young lady-- just like a book!'

When Emily became less incoherent, it appeared that on coming out on the bit of common above the wood, as she and Clarence were halting on the brow of the hill to admire the view, they heard a call for help, and hurrying down in the direction whence it proceeded they saw a stunted ash-tree, beneath which were a young lady and a little child bending over a village lad who lay beneath moaning piteously. The girl, whom Emily described as the most beautiful creature she ever saw, explained that the boy, who had been herding the cattle scattered around, had been climbing the tree, a limb of which had broken with him. She had seen the fall from a distance, and hurried up; but she hardly knew what to do, for her little sister was too young to be sent in quest of assistance. Clarence thought one leg seriously injured, and as the young lady seemed to know the boy, offered to carry him home. School officers were yet in the future; children were set to work almost as soon as they could walk, and this little fellow was so light and thin as to shock Clarence when he had been taken up on his back, for he weighed quite a trifle. The young lady showed the way to a wretched little cottage, where a bigger girl had just come in with a sheaf of corn freshly gleaned poised on her head. They sent her to fetch her mother, and Clarence undertook to go for a doctor, but to the surprise and horror of Emily, there was a demur. Something was said of old Molly and her 'ile' and 'yarbs,' or perhaps Madam could step round. When Clarence, on this being translated to him, pronounced the case beyond such treatment, it was explained outside the door that this was a terribly poor family, and the doctor would not come to parish patients for an indefinite time after his summons, besides which, he lived at Wattlesea. 'Indeed mamma does almost all the doctoring with her medicine chest,' said the girl.

On which Clarence declared that he would let the doctor know that he himself would be responsible for the cost of the attendance, and set off for Wattlesea, a kind of town village in the flat below. He could not get back till dinner was half over, and came in alarmed and apologetic; but he had nothing worse to encounter than Griff's unmerciful banter (or, as you would call it, chaff) about his knight errantry, and Emily's lovely heroine in the sweetest of cottage bonnets.

Griff could be slightly tyrannous in his merry mockery, and when he found that on the ensuing day Clarence proposed to go and inquire after the patient, he made such wicked fun of the expectations the pair entertained of hearing the sweet cottage bonnet reading a tract in a silvery voice through the hovel window, that he fairly teased and shamed Clarence out of starting till the renowned Tom Petty arrived and absorbed all the three brothers, and even their father, in delights as mysterious to me as to Emily. How she shrieked when Martyn rushed triumphantly into the room where we were arranging books with the huge patriarch of all the rats dangling by his tail! Three hopeful families were destroyed; rooms, vaults, and cellars examined and cleared; and Petty declared the race to be exterminated, picturesque ruffian that he was, in his shapeless hat, rusty velveteen, long leggings, a live ferret in his pocket, and festoons of dead rats over his shoulder.

Chapman, who regarded him much as the ferret did the rat, declared that the rabbits and hares would suffer from letting 'that there chap' show his face here on any plea; and, moreover, gave a grunt very like a scoff; at the idea of slumbers in the mullion rooms (as they were called) being secured by his good offices.

And Chapman was right. The unaccountable noises broke out again-- screaming, wailing, sobbing--sounds scarcely within the power of cat or rat, but possibly the effect of the wind in the old building. At any rate, Griff could not stand them, and declared that sleep was impossible when the wind was in that quarter, so that he must shift his bedroom elsewhere, though he still wished to retain the outer apartment, which he had taken pleasure in adorning with his special possessions. My mother would scarcely have tolerated such fancies in any one else, but Griff had his privileges.