The Rat Catcher in the Walls
I have been a catcher of rats, and sometimes a catcher of worse things, since I was a boy. For most of that time I have lived in Schloss Markmann, as an oath-bound servant to the Markmann family. Each member of the family has been kind to me, then forgetful of me, becoming at last by turns neglectful, spiteful, ungrateful. It is the family condition, to which they all succumb, sooner or later.
I say a catcher of worse things, but at times it has been all I can do not to be caught by them. I bear scars and burns, outside and within, that tell a tale of the danger and therefore the virtue of my job.
Still, I remain loyal, and perform my duties: setting traps in the wall-spaces and tunnels of the schloss, baited sometimes with meat, sometimes with blood, one time with fresh flowers from the grave of drowned child.
But not all that runs in the walls can be snared with cheese-wire or snapped under a spring. For some things, poison is the way to go. In the lowest cellar I keep a family treasure: a fragment of rock that fell from the sky, which gleams wrongly in the light. I keep it under a glass bell jar, and that under a black cloth.
It is the worst poison of all.
Whenever it is needful to resort to this, and that only the tiniest amount, I must work in the dark, filing away a fraction of a grain of the stone into a silver dish, which I then cover. It is best not to look at the rock, or see what colour it is. When things die after taking such poison, you have to burn them before their eyes can take on that abominable colour and stare accusingly back at you from beyond where their spirit has gone.
That, I don't mind. I like to burn things.
It was late summer, hot and thundery, when the last true heir of the Markmann family fell at last, raving and clawing at his own portrait in the master bedroom. The schloss was inherited by a kind of distant niece, no true Markmann but rather the product of a poor cousin and some foreign slut he met before drinking himself to death. I confess I hated her, when I saw her arrive in a coach to view the property. I could see her disdain for the deep history of the schloss, and could tell by her newly-bought fancy attire that she saw the inheritance only as a way to lift her out of the gutter.
I hated her and damned her in my heart. I regret that hatefulness now, and blame myself for it after what has happened, but those who can never attend confession must bear their sins along with their other obligations.
She was a commoner, not a countess, and did not take the Markmann name. But she surprised me by keeping the schloss rather than selling it, and by declaring her intention to live there for at least part of the year. She didn't occupy any of the bedrooms, but made up a bed in the library, where she stayed for hours every evening and late into the night, cataloguing and reading books that had been untouched on their shelves for a century or more, mute victims of the neglect and ingratitude of the Markmanns, given some small attention at last by the least of the Markmann heirs.
Surprise, then, led to respect, though it did not still my hate. However, duty is not rooted in the heart but in the bones, so my duties continued. I hunted and slew the Man-faced Rat, driving him into a corner and breaking his head with a poker. However, I did not know the incantation to make a permanent end of him, and by the time I dragged him in a sack to the fireplace, his corpse had broken into five or six large but ordinary long-dead rats, and I knew he had escaped me again.
Thus it continued into October, when again I stalked him, he escaped into the library, and the mistress saw him. She started awake in her chair to see him scurrying across the floor, where he stopped for a moment to look mockingly at her. I was turned more bitterly against her that night, because my failure had shamed me, and her composure shamed me further. She gazed at the rat, pale but unshaken, and said, "So, it was true. I shall have to employ an exterminator."
I could say nothing. Not without her hearing me behind the tapestry. But how dare she! Never have the Markmanns employed mere jobbing tradesmen to hack and blunder their way through the sacraments of an exalted art. I spat and made the four-angular sign to ward away blasphemy. I don't think it works–indeed, how could it, here? But I felt the better for it.
As good as her word, the mistress called in a man from the village. He was wary of the schloss as was to be expected, but was lured by greed or desperation for the silver coins he was offered. More than he could earn in half a year, so how could he turn them down? The Markmanns have always had silver marks ready to hand, to smooth over all worldly difficulties–even official enquiries as to where the silver came from.
Since he took half of his pay in advance, he did not leave entirely disappointed, but in my humiliation I had redoubled my efforts, and whatever else the man saw that day, he saw no rats.
The mistress continued her studies, and I was vigilant lest the great Man-faced Rat return to taunt her, and to humble me further. I pursued him in the dark, across the roofs and in the cellars. I do not think she saw him, but she saw something, maybe even something I had neglected to keep in check due to my obsession with the rat. And so he won again. I hated him. I would kill him, I swore, and make him stay dead, if I had to eat his heart raw, though it sicken me almost to death.
Whatever she saw, the mistress at least took the matter more seriously this time. No beer-swilling clod from the village, but a learned man, came to Schloss Markmann to investigate. He wore eyeglasses, and carried a stout stick. From a faint rattling sound it made as he handled it, I could tell there was a sword-blade inside. So this man was a gentleman, perhaps more of a gentleman than his employer was a lady.
He took an interest in the library, where the rat had been seen first, and unlike the peasant who came before, he took an interest in the books that the mistress had laid out for study. He left and returned the next day with nets, crucifixes, a matched pair of flintlock pistols, and several lanterns.
When he declared his intention to begin forthwith at the lowest cellar, I was gripped with terror. The man's stride was long and noble, and he could proceed directly down the open stairs and along the passages, whereas my route was indirect, secret and circuitous. I could not get there before him.
When I at last pressed my eye to a crack in the wall, I saw him digging the loose dirt of the cellar floor, while the mistress held a lantern. My blood seethed to see him use a Markmann lady as a servant, until I remembered she was no such thing. The man found boards under the dirt, which he prised up, and he lowered another lantern into the darkness below.
No! They must not look under there. They did not know the danger of it. But then the man said a word, revealing that he did indeed know the danger. He sniffed the air, and said "Ghouls."
The mistress laughed in his face, a common laugh. He deserved it.
"It is rats I brought you here to look for, not myths and children's tales. If there even be such, let them crawl under the dirt. Let them tunnel out to the graveyard and gnaw on my ancestors if they please. It is rats I will have killed, and I am not paying extra to be told ghost stories."
The man deferred to her, and replaced the boards, covering them again with dirt. He looked around the cellar once more before following her back upstairs. I did not trust this man, with his learning. For it is a part-learning, a broken toy, not a workman's tool. It is the blunt knife that is more dangerous to its handler than a sharp one. Soon I was proved right. Woe!
I did not hear from him again until days later. I had taken a great catch of bats in the attic, and was bringing them down to the cellar when I heard arguing in the study. I placed my dinner aside in a dark corner, and crept through the walls to my secret place behind the mirror.
The exterminator man was saying "I have found their footprints even in this very house. I beg you to think not only of your own safety, but to remember that it is not for you alone to say whether these things may go abroad and terrorise the tenants on your estate. It is your duty to have them put down."
The mistress, not truly being a noble, was not equal to a debate with him of duty, and though I pleaded silently for her to make him leave and never return, she was weak, for which I hated her more. So began the man's prying, the lighting and cleaning of the schloss, the discovery of some of my secret ways, which I then could not use for fear of being exposed.
All wrong! All foolishness! Like a parent trying to dispel the fears of a child by placing a light in its room, to show there is nothing terrible there. But when there is, when the fears are real, this prying and disturbance wakes things. What then, when the child is lulled to sleep?
I heard the Rat moving through narrow spaces I could not reach, and taking advantage of exposed places I dared not pass. He fears no discovery: he is an omen of doom made aberrant flesh. His reason to exist is to be seen. To make me a failure, who should be keeping him at bay.
I could bear it no more, and made a resolve to destroy him whatever the cost. I retired to the cellar to prepare the worst poison, and find some unspeakable thing with which to bait him. Gone! The wrong-coloured stone had been taken, and I knew who must have taken it.
I suspected the mistress too, but knew in my heart it was the exterminator man, who would peer at it through his glasses, and experiment with it, and scatter it about, to the ruin of all. But he must have studied such things, I know not how or where, and was still alive the next day. He spoke again with the mistress, and she argued again, but again surrendered to his superior confidence.
The man began to lay his own traps. I found one, while hunting the Rat. I followed his trail and his stench through the walls, and when I thought I had nearly caught him, I heard a snap, like scissors, like a cleaver. I found a pile of dead rats around a great bear trap, baited with a human hand. I stood long in thought.
This trap would be no use to catch ghouls, who can see here in the dark, and would avoid it easily, plucking their tasty prize from the trap without being caught. Still, the carrion bait was perfect for them, as it was for my enemy the Rat, even though the trap was useless for him too; he would not care for the temporary destruction of one body.
The exterminator man was wasting his time, unless ... I looked again at the bait, and felt a pain beginning behind my eyes as a glow of impossible colour showed faintly along the base of the thumb. The gnawed thumb. I bagged it quickly to be burned as soon as possible. Now what? The man was baiting traps with human flesh, knowing (or not?) that whether the traps were sprung or no, the bait was poisoned with a thing that had no cure.
The traps themselves were a kind of bait, a pretence of ineptitude to distract from the diabolical true trap which was the poison. Poison which might have been untouched if lying out for the easy taking, and therefore suspicious. I found three more baited traps, all tainted with uncolour. He was using too much! I found one trap unbaited, which disturbed me more. And throughout the schloss, the faint smell of corpse meat, as though the place entire were baited to bring a swarm of ghouls.
The thought brought me terror, and I ran to find the mistress. Could I break my vow and warn her? No. Not even if I cared whether she lived or died, which I could not; she was not a true Markmann heir. The mistress was in her library, and the man was with her.
"How many more hanged men do you intend to quarter in my castle?" she asked the man.
"I can get no more hanged men, I fear, but there have been recent burials. I know men who know how to use a shovel, and for very little price I can get perhaps three more fresh bodies."
"The smell is atrocious," she said. "It makes my nose itch. It makes me feel ill. Have you caught even one ghoul?"
"I shall catch not one, but all. I have two men in the cellar watching that tunnel. At the first sign of ghouls, they are to discharge pistols at them, then retreat. We will trap them on the stairs where the way is narrow, and put an end to them."
Almost at that moment, there was a pistol shot, faint and in the distance. And shouting, possibly screaming. The man leapt from his chair, and checked his own pistols. He passed one to the mistress, and drew the blade from his sword cane. "It is as I planned!"
It was not as he planned.
I took my secret ways, and peered into the cellar. There was no sign of the men. Only one shot had been fired, and an undischarged pistol lay in the pile of dirt shovelled away from the tunnel exit. There was blood in the dirt.
"Where are they?" asked the mistress, from where I could not see her. The man came down into the cellar and looked warily around.
"They must have fled, the cowards." He looked down the hole, then started back, seeing something. He fired his pistol as a ghoul grabbed at him, and it fell out of sight, gibbering. He was ready for a second one, skewering it through the neck as it climbed out. I heard another pistol shot, and a shriek.
The mistress ran into the room from the door leading to the stairs. "They are behind us!" she cried.
Two more ghouls leapt at her and I cursed. Despite myself, I could not let an heir of the Markmann name, even an illegitimate woman, die this way. The man slashed, and cut them down, tripping the second one and kicking it away from him so it fell across the tunnel entrance as it died.
He and the mistress backed towards my hiding place, she defenceless, the man only with a thin sword. I worked savagely at the edge of the wall panel, ready to rip it free and jump to their defence. Then, the ghoul lying across the hole snapped in the middle and folded down into it, was pulled out of the way. A great ghoul, slavering, clambered painfully out, shaking and twitching.
It seemed to be in terrible pain, but driven by a terrible rage. As it advanced, the man readied his sword, and ran it through the chest, but as it twisted in pain, it stared at him with poisoned wrong-coloured eyes. He met their gaze and cried out, distracted and lost, and the ghoul took him to the floor, where they killed and died together.
More were advancing from the hole, growling and laughing. The mistress dropped her empty pistol and screamed. But her scream was a word; an abomination of a word. The cellar was lit like a flash of lightning, though the light seemed to come from darkness: a stream of something ropy, slimy and perfectly black that she flung from her outstretched hand. Where it touched the ghouls, they broke apart, their bones unjointed, their flesh falling away like a candle in a fire.
Two were destroyed, but one remained, darting in low and tearing her side, dragging her back towards the hole. I had no other course of action. Tearing down the wall panel, I leapt through, lifting a shovel out of the bloodied dirt and striking off the arm that clutched at the mistress. My mistress, the Markmann heir. Another swing silenced the ghoul, and another three made sure of it. Then I cradled her in my arms and cried, and begged her to forgive me for failing her.
"You must be Johan," she said faintly.
I might have been, so long ago.
"I read of you, your birth, your life, your vow. I found no record of your death. Of course you are forgiven. But I am weak. Bring me meat to sustain me."
I cut fresh pieces of the exterminator, as clean as possible, and fed my mistress. Then I helped her back to the library.
I continue to do my duty, from my bones and from my heart. I have not seen the Man-faced Rat again. Perhaps the poison has destroyed him forever, perhaps his work as an omen is done now the family has come to its very last heir, my mistress. She is so kind to me.
I know she will be kind at first, and then forgetful. Later she will become by turns neglectful, spiteful, ungrateful. Then at last she will become like me. But rather than haunt these walls as I am sworn to do, battling with vermin, she will go below into the tunnels, to join with and gnaw upon her ancestors.