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Literary Tales
Rat Hall


"Rats leaving their usual haunts in your houses, barns, and stackyards, and going to the fields, is an unfortunate omen for the person whose abode they leave." So wrote one Wilkie, author of a manuscript collection of old Border customs and superstitions, compiled, in the commencement of the present century, for the use of Sir Walter Scott. The following incident illustrating the belief is related as having occurred upon the estate of the present writer. In the early years of the present century, the farm of Maisondieu was tenanted by a family named Fortune, who had been for several generations in occupation, and were reputed to have held land in the neighbourhood for above two hundred years. The name Maisondieu, it may be stated in passing, was derived from a religious house, or hospital, "for the reception of pilgrims, the diseased, and the indigent," which had formerly stood upon the present farm lands.

At last a crisis in the history of the Fortune family arrived. The old farmer died, leaving a son of some three or four and twenty years of age to succeed him. Robert Fortune, the younger, was a fine young man, who lacked not spirit or ability so much as principle and steadiness. Left to his own devices, with money in his pocket, and without guide, monitor, or controller, he seemed to have set himself to dissipate alike the reputation and the fortune which had been acquired through the prudence and good conduct of his forebears. He had enrolled himself a member of a local corps of Yeomanry Cavalry, which had been raised in the expectation of a French Invasion; and he was bent upon cutting a dash, he prided himself upon the horses he rode; and many were the scenes of midnight carousal, and of hare-brained prank and horse-play, enacted by himself and his hot-blooded, would-be fire-eating companions in the old farm-house at this period. For a brief time things went as merrily as the marriage bell of the proverb; but then a change set in. Peace was proclaimed, and farmers’ prices, which the war had kept high, fell. A succession of bad seasons followed; and, instead of meeting them by retrenchment, young Fortune turned for consolation in the troubles which they brought him to a still more reckless extravagance. His elders shook their heads, and people began to say, when his back was turned, that he was going to the dogs. In time the pinch of poverty began to be felt at Maisondieu. The Yeomanry had been disbanded, and Robert now sat alone by his black hearth. To drive out the cold, and raise his spirits to the pitch which they had known in happy bygone days, he resorted to the bottle. This, of course, made matters worse. He neglected his business, his accounts were not kept, and his affairs became disordered. The house fell into a state of disrepair, which, being allowed to continue, grew rapidly worse; and the servants, observing their master’s weakness, ceased to respect him, and at last, being gained upon by a feeling that he was a man who was going fast down the hill, took to scamping their work or shirking it.

But, if he found himself deserted by his boon companions—friends of a summer day—a new set of associates began to gather in force about poor Bob. If, instead of describing him as going "to the dogs," people had said to the "rats," it would have been more literally correct. Only it was the rats who came to him. They had long infested the farmyard; and now, in the general relaxing of former strictness, they had succeeded in effecting an entrance into the house. And, having once entered, they held the advantage they had gained. At first their presence was only made known at night, after the lights had been put out, and the inmates of the house had withdrawn to bed. Then, indeed, they held high revels in the kitchen—as a continual sound of skurrying feet, the occasional whisking of a tail upon the wainscot, the overturning with a clatter or a crash of some vessel of tin or earthenware, or the bold bounding of some more than commonly intrepid adventurer, allowed all men to be aware. So long, they were heard, and their devastations were felt; but the devastators were not seen. But, in course of time, finding themselves masters of the situation, they grew bolder, and ventured abroad by daylight too. Then it came to be no uncommon sight to see a rat cross the passage in front of you; or, on entering the kitchen, to catch sight of one suspended by his fore-feet, his tail depending behind him, sampling the contents of some butter-jar, or dripping-pot, which had been left unlidded on the table. When he saw himself detected, the rat would beat a leisurely retreat; and there was insolence in his carriage and in the sweep of his tail, as though he knew his adversary’s weakness. It was observed at this time that though the farmer, his man, and maid, grew lean, the rats on the farm grew fat. At last, with high living and impunity, their boldness grew beyond all bounds, and from the kitchen they extended their playground so as to comprise the whole house. Then it became a common occurrence for a rat to run across you whilst you lay in bed; or, if your toes peeped out at the foot of a short coverlet, for you to feel one nibbling at them. Or a rat might even hang feeding on the draught-blown, guttering candle at the farmer’s very elbow, whilst he himself sat late into the night, plunged in a heavy reverie, the result, in equal parts, of his troubles and his potations. So is it with a certain class of humanity, who feed and flourish amid the misfortune and the decline of their betters. The depredations committed were enormous; for when they could not spoil or devour food or other property, the rats would carry it away. No contrivance was of the smallest use against them, for they soon understood the nature of the most ingenious trap, whilst poison failed to tempt them. Thus, whilst increasing in size, they increased so amazingly in numbers that—its owner being by this time so down in the world as to appear a safe butt for insolence—the old and formerly much respected house of Maisondieu now received from the profane the nickname of "Rat Hall."

It was about this time that the remarkable incident with which my story is concerned was witnessed by an old shepherd in Fortune’s service. The family of Hall, a race of shepherds, had been long associated with that of Fortune upon the farm of Maisondieu; and old Bauldy, its present representative, was now, in his own phrase, "the fourth generation serving the fourth generation!’ Greatly older and by nature more thoughtful than his master, he, of course, viewed the state of matters on the farm with a heavy heart, and looked forward with the gloomiest forebodings to the time when, as it seemed, he must inevitably be separated from that master, whom, in spite of faults, he loved, and from the spot where he had spent a long and happy life-time. Well, one night in spring-time, he was sadly returning to the onstead after a visit to his lambs. A brilliant moon rode in a clear sky, and as he skirted an old hedge which separates the farm premises from a field, at that time in grass, he saw before him a single rat.

"Bad luck to you!" he murmured, under his breath, "for ye have brought bad luck on us."

The rat, which had come out of a rat-hole in the bank (which was perfectly riddled with them), now seemed to look about him. The shepherd watched it. Returning to the hole, it re-appeared, accompanied by a second rat. They in turn looked about them, and perhaps compared notes as to what they saw, for this time one only retired to the hole. It was absent during some moments, and then returned, bringing with it a very large old rat, which it piloted with care. The hair upon the face of the old rat was white with age; and the shepherd observed that it was blind. His interest was by this time thoroughly aroused, and grasping his tall crook with both hands, he rested his cheek against his arms and watched, intently and in silence, from the black shadow of the hedge. And now he witnessed what amazed him. From each of the innumerable rat-holes in the hedge-row, as if by magic, as if from a child’s toy, there had started forth a rat, which crouched, motionless and listening, before the entrance to its cave. Their number, and the uniformity of their action, gave to the effect presented the dignity of impressiveness. It was quite clear that they were acting, not by chance, but in the prosecution of some well-thought-out plan, upon some preconcerted signal.

As he watched them, Old Bauldy scarce drew his breath. The night was still; and when they had apparently satisfied themselves that the coast was clear, the rats advanced a little way. And as, in doing so, they brought their tails and hindquarters clear of the mouths of the rat-holes, they disclosed the nozzles and bright bead-like eyes of other rats behind them. If it had been curiosity which had at first kept the shepherd motionless, it was the instinct of self-preservation which did so now. An army of rats such as he now beheld might well inspire uneasiness, nay, terror, in a braver man; and, as he gazed, its numbers were being every moment reinforced. For now, above the living silence of a country landscape contemplated by night, a low, but ever gathering and growing rumour was gradually making itself heard. It came from underground; and it was produced by the beating of many thousands of little feet upon the trodden earth of the runs. And, at last, whilst the sound increased in volume, by a hundred mouths the earth began to disgorge its living burthen. Rats! They were of the Norway breed, and first in order came the great males. These are used to live alone; if hunger presses them, they will prey on their own brood; they justly inspire terror. The less formidable females followed, each accompanied by her young. And ever as they swarmed in momentarily increasing numbers, as in the remote historical or mythical Migration of the Nations, the rear rank pushed the front rank before it, till the rats spread far afield, and the very ground seemed alive and moving with their multitudes. Transfixed in the attitude which he had at first assumed, the shepherd watched the spectacle—standing like a man who has been turned to stone, whom no earthly power could have induced to stir a finger. To say that never in his life before had he seen so many rats would be to utter idlest words. In no agonised vision of the night, lying stretched upon his pallet of chaff whilst his breath froze, and his enemies disported themselves triumphantly, insultingly, upon the bare boards of the loft, peeped in on by a mischievous moon, had he ever dreamed of so many!

As has been said, during all this time it had been amply apparent that the rats were not acting without some plan of their own. Instead of following each one his own bent, they moved with the regularity and the discipline of trained forces manoeuvring in order. Nothing could have less resembled the blind infatuation of their fellows and predecessors, who had frisked at the heels of the Pied Piper through the streets of Hamelin to their doom. They had far more in common with the grim determination of the instruments of vengeance against Bishop Hatto. But their demeanour, if a little stern, was calm as well as resolute, as, inspired by a single purpose, controlled by a single will, they advanced, marching shoulder to shoulder. There were few stragglers, few weak places in their ranks. Their morale was very nearly perfect.

And now, when they had wheeled into the field, a touching incident occurred. The old hoary-faced rat had undoubtedly in his youth been marked by nature for a leader. But times were changed; he was old and blind, and for a moment he stood helpless before his people. For a moment, but no longer. Grasping the position of affairs, the rat who had been the first to appear, stepped forward to the rescue, and saved the situation. In his mouth he was observed to hold, by one of its ends, a straw—the other end of which he now dextrously inserted betwixt the jaws of the Patriarch, so as to form a sort of leading-string. And, thus coupled, the two rats moved off, and were followed by their thousands,—the old rat, through the graceful intervention of the young one, still preserving every tittle of his dignity as a king and father of his people in this momentous crisis of his reign.

The shepherd watched the moving mass, as it passed across the moonlit surface of the field, like the shadow of a cloud, until at last it was lost to sight beyond a rising ground.

Then, and not till then, did he stir. Pulling himself hastily together, he made for the farm-house, and with the freedom which is allowed to an old servant, burst into his master’s room. Fortune was seated at the table, his face buried in his hands. A sheet of printed paper lay before him.

"Bob! Bob!" cried the old man, "we are presairved— the rats are gone!"

But Bob only lifted a heavy head and pointed, without speaking, to the paper which lay before him. It was an announcement that a "displenishing sale" would shortly be held at Maisondieu.

"Lord! and has it come to this?"

"It has, indeed! I had not the heart to break it to you before, Bauldy." And then he added with bitterness, "We must have the usual jollification, I suppose. Well, there will be meat for many to provide that day; but I doubt ‘twill be the poison of one."

And so, sure enough, ere the Whitsuntide term-day arrived, the furniture and fittings of Maisondieu farm had fallen to the auctioneer’s hammer; and Robert Fortune and his old and faithful shepherd had gone forth homeless, and in opposed directions, to face and fight the world.

It only remains to add that this story, wild as it may appear, is, in its main facts, currently related at the present day among the country-people of Roxburghshire.


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