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The ratcatchers’ ship had come in. Years ago. It brought prosperity to all the ratters in Sydney, though no one could be sure exactly which vessel had borne the stricken rodents to the new Commonwealth. A medieval death slipped ashore, crept into the shadows and dispersed. The world went to war and limped home, the Spanish Flu killed millions, but the bubonic threat lingered, lurking and persistent.
Every few years a new ship docking in the harbour city would refresh the contagion, begin a new outbreak and remind the good citizens of Sydney that the ratcatchers were all that stood between them and disaster.
The wharves, warehouses and factories were baited and hunted with the help of the public purse — a price on every tail and incinerators to deal with the spoils. In the inner city the ratters with their billy cans and dogs became a familiar sight. Once in a while, they would be called to one of the grand houses of Woollahra. On those occasions, the ratcatchers would conduct their business discreetly.
When Mary Brown, his housekeeper, mentioned that the ratters would be coming to Woodlands House, Wilfred Sinclair did not question the need. He’d lived with rats in the trenches, seen them devouring the last dignity of fallen men. While Wilfred was not generally given to romantic notions, rats were clearly creatures of the Devil and he was content to return them to their master.
Apparently, Mary had learned that Rosemont across the road was overrun. ‘And poor Mrs Carrington-Onslow widowed only this past August,’ she said, shaking her head at what some were asked to bear. Even so, the housekeeper was adamant that the ratter would find nothing in Woodlands. Rosemont’s misfortune was surely due to the paucity of staff in its employ.
‘Mrs Carrington-Onslow makes do with only a girl to cook and clean and a man to tend the garden.’ Mary sighed, an expression of compassion which betrayed a hint of self-satisfaction. Woodlands employed a dozen maids, cooks and gardeners. It was well defended against any uninvited guest. But Mary was a god-fearing woman who knew that pride goeth before a fall, and so she declared she would hear the ratcatcher out.
‘Thank you, Mary. I’m sure you have it all in hand.’ Wilfred took his bowler from the stand in the vestibule, pausing before the mirror to set it straight on his head. The rakish angle he’d favoured since returning would not do for the next week. Indeed, he’d informed the fellows that he would not be attending any parties or like entertainments. Not while he had charge of the enfant terrible.
His youngest brother, Rowland, was, according their father, a delinquent, intent on ruining the good name of Sinclair. Wilfred was inclined to believe that Henry Sinclair’s assessment was a little unreasonable, but perhaps the boy had run wild since his brothers had gone to war. Whatever the case, a decent fraternal example would not hurt. It would, after all, only be a week before Rowland went home to the family property near Yass for the summer.
Wilfred stepped out when he heard the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost turn into the long driveway. He smiled faintly, imagining Rowland’s reaction when the new motorcar had collected him from the station. Wilfred planned to phase out all his father’s horse-drawn carriages, to modernise. At the very least, transforming the livery stables would assist with any potential rat problem.
Rowland climbed out without waiting for the chauffeur to open the door. Wilfred braced himself. His youngest brother was, at 14, tall for his age, and looked out at the world with the dark blue eyes that seemed common to all the Sinclair men. Otherwise, he bore little resemblance to Wilfred but he was fast becoming the image of Aubrey Sinclair, who had been born in the years between them and had fallen in France. Wilfred was unsure if Rowland was aware of the fact that he was a living ghost of their late brother, a visual reminder of what was lost.
He tried not to have his thoughts stray to Aubrey every time he looked at Rowland, but it was a conscious effort.
Rowland ran up the stairs two at a time, loosening his King’s School tie as he did so. ‘Hello Wil.’
Wilfred shook his hand. ‘Rowly! You look well. What say you about the new motor?’
‘She’s smashing!’ Rowland returned his gaze to the Silver Ghost. ‘Why don’t we take her out ourselves. I could drive —’
‘Steady on, Sport. We have a chauffeur and you don’t know how to drive!’
‘How hard could it be —’
Wilfred inhaled. God, it was like talking to Aubrey again. ‘I expect you’re hungry,’ he said firmly. ‘I was always famished when I was your age …’
Franklin Rupert Oldfield might have been any man of means and enterprise. The creases in his suit were sharp, freshly pressed. A gold fob chain and gleaming pocket watch adorned his waistcoat and he wore spats over the polished patent of his shoes. It was only the dogs — fox terriers of varying pedigree — that gave any indication of his business. Even so, Wilfred Sinclair would normally have left any conversation with the man to the housekeeper — it was certainly not his custom to deal directly with tradesmen — but for the fact that Rowland was already patting the dogs and talking to the urchin who had arrived with the ratter.
He made a mental note to speak to his brother about overfamiliarity, and, because there seemed no other way to extract the boy politely, he introduced himself.
Oldfield was well spoken, though he formed his words slowly with cautious enunciation, in what Wilfred suspected was an attempt to sound refined. Still, one couldn’t fault the man for speaking the King’s English.
The ratter’s boy was thin — nearly as tall as Rowland but there was barely any breadth to him. He wore no coat and in the sunlight the bruises and welts on his back were visible through the threadbare cloth of his shirt. Even so, he smiled broadly, clearly delighted by Rowland’s admiration of his dogs.
Wilfred informed Oldfield that his housekeeper had seen no evidence of rats at Woodlands.
‘Of course not, sir. They’re devious creatures. Infiltrators … By the time you know they’re there, it’s too late — they have the house!’ The ratter inclined his head. ‘If I might demonstrate?’
‘I don’t know that that’s necessary —’
But Oldfield had already signalled. The boy whistled. A terrier bolted for the kitchen door and scurried inside the house. Screams as the staff were startled by the intrusion.
‘Now look here!’ Wilfred began angrily.
The screams grew louder, more shocked, and the terrier ran out with a live rat squirming in its mouth. The boy whistled the dog back and put the rat in a large billy can.
For a moment no one said anything — the only sound was the distressed exclamation of the maids and the hollow scratching of the rat in the tin.
‘Very well,’ Wilfred said finally. ‘You better talk to Miss Brown about checking the house.’
Oldfield nodded. ‘I reckon you’ll find it a prudent investment, sir.’
Wilfred glanced at the boy with the billy can. He was skin and bone. ‘If you call in at the kitchen before you begin, Mary will give you breakfast.’
Oldfield’s smile was strained. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘The rat is trained,’ Rowland said quietly.
‘What?’ Wilfred murmured as he contemplated the billiard table. Rowland was proving surprisingly competent with a cue.
‘The rat Hector put in the billy. It’s trained.’
Wilfred reached for the chalk. ‘Hector? Oh, you mean the ratter’s boy. Really, Rowly, you cannot befriend —’
‘I saw him feed the rat.’
‘You don’t have to train an animal to eat, Sport.’
‘Hector was talking to it … I think its name is Vernon.’
Wilfred looked sharply at his brother. The ratters had spent half the morning surveying the house, methodically tapping on walls, checking for droppings and so forth. He’d been busy dealing with some business for the King and Empire Alliance, but Rowland had seemed fascinated by the machinations of trapping rats and spent the day following them around Woodlands House.
‘The rat’s trained, Wil. They brought it with them.’
‘For pity’s sake Rowly — why the Dickens didn’t you tell me? The devil only knows what they’ve managed to pilfer already!’
Rowland hesitated. ‘Did you see … I didn’t want Oldfield to take it out on Hector.’ He frowned. ‘Mary was keeping an eye on them and the silverware, in any case. I suspect they’re only after a fee for ridding Woodlands of imaginary rats.’
Wilfred cursed. He would not be played for a fool and he did not like looking one in front of his brother. ‘Well, we’ll see about that.’
Rowland put down his cue and leaned back on the table. ‘He wouldn’t let Hector eat anything … even what Mary gave them for breakfast. Something about Hector getting too fat to fit into the walls — the old bastard —’
‘Language!’ Wilfred warned. He sighed. The ratter’s boy had been very thin. ‘Look, Rowly, Oldfield is his father. There’s not a lot we can do.’
‘We could —’
‘The law does not interfere with how a man deals with his sons … or allow anyone else to do so. Short of shooting Oldfield there is nothing we can do.’
Wilfred pressed his brother’s shoulder. Rowland was the youngest by many years. He expected their mother had mollycoddled him somewhat. It was not surprising that he was a little soft. Thank God the war had come and gone before Rowland was old enough to serve. If he’d survived, it would have broken him anyway. ‘The ratters will be back tomorrow,’ Wilfred said resolutely. ‘I’ll have a word with Oldfield. Perhaps the prospect of arrest for fraud, might have some effect.’
Rowland said nothing. Wilfred tried to cheer him up. ‘I expect you’re looking forward to getting home to Oaklea. No doubt Mother and Father will be glad to see you.’
Rowland was non-committal.
Wilfred nudged him. ‘I hear you’ve caught the eye of a certain Miss Jemima Roche.’
‘Did Father —?’ Rowland began clearly alarmed.
‘No. I have my own sources. You forget I grew up in Yass.’ He laughed. ‘I expect Father is displeased.’
‘Father is often displeased.’
With that Wilfred could not argue. Instead, he suggested they go into the city and see a show so that Rowland would have more about which to tell his sweetheart than trained rats.
Oldfield did not return to Woodlands. He might have done so if he had not perished across the road. Initially it was feared that the ratter had died of bubonic plague as did many in his profession, but after making a few discreet enquiries, Wilfred learned that a razor had done the job. Again, that was not particularly unusual — razors had become the weapon of choice among the criminal classes of late — but it was also not accidental.
‘What about Hector?’ Rowland gazed out of the drawing-room window towards Rosemont. ‘Is he all right?’
Wilfred shook his head. ‘The police didn’t find him. They have collected Oldfield’s animals. I expect someone will take the dogs … I don’t particularly like the rat’s chances.’
‘We could take the dogs … and the rat — keep them for Hector.’
‘Rowly, I’m not going to adopt half-a-dozen flea-bitten terriers — let alone a flaming rat!’
‘Hector will need them,’ Rowland persisted.
‘For pity’s sake, Rowly. You are at school with the sons of the best families — surely you don’t need to become chums with the ratter’s boy?’
Rowland stared at him wordlessly. Inwardly, Wilfred cursed. Aubrey used to do that.
‘I doubt he’ll be back, in any case,’ he said wearily. ‘The police suspect it was the boy who cut Oldfield’s throat.’
Rowland started to say something, and then he stopped. ‘Why?’
‘I’d say it was obvious.’ Wilfred sighed. ‘Mrs Carrington-Onslow told the police that Oldfield was cruel to the boy, starved and beat him.’
‘Can you ask about the dogs. Please. It took him years to train them … he’ll want them back.’
Wilfred groaned. ‘I suppose it’s not their fault that they belong to felons but honestly Rowly, what the devil are we supposed to do with half-a-dozen ratting dogs.’
‘Hector will come back. He wouldn’t abandon his dogs.’
If anyone of less impeccable reputation than Wilfred Sinclair, DSO, had requested the ratter’s dogs, he might have not have been successful. The terriers were, after all, found at the scene of a murder. But since there was no suggestion that the hounds were involved in the murder, and Sinclair seemed to be acting out of concern for the animals’ welfare, the Police Commissioner agreed to release the animals into his care, at least until some other claimant came forward. The rat had not been recovered.
Wilfred’s custody of the dogs was, however, short-lived. The terriers had no sooner been released onto the lawns of Woodlands House, when they bolted, slipping through the iron bars of the entrance gates and across the road to Rosemont. Wilfred cursed, first at the dogs and then at Rowland, who had talked him into taking charge of the mongrels. Rowland sprinted after the terriers and, afraid that his brother would somehow make matters worse, Wilfred ran after him. By the time he caught up, the ratter’s dogs had slipped through the gates of Rosemont and were scratching at its front door. Rowland jumped the fence before his brother could stop him. Wilfred had little choice but to follow.
On the besieged landing, Wilfred grabbed one dog by the scruff of the neck and shouted at Rowland to control the others, while he knocked on the door to apologise. The housekeeper opened it only a crack but that was enough for the terriers who pushed and wriggled through the space despite the servant’s attempts to shut it again. Wilfred winced as they heard something crash and shatter inside. The housekeeper left the door to attend to the growing havoc, and Wilfred stepped in so that he and Rowland might help put things right.
The dog Wilfred had by the scruff now twisted out of his grasp and joined its packmates running headlong through the house. The housekeeper was frantic, and then Mrs Carrington-Onslow herself emerged. Wilfred offered apologies and barked at Rowland to grab the dogs, which considering their number, might have been an unreasonable demand. The terriers had converged upon a spot at the end of the hallway and were jumping towards the ceiling. Rowland stood in the midst of them, just staring up.
‘Rowly, what are you doing?’ Wilfred demanded convinced now there was something wrong with his brother.
Rowland pointed above him. ‘There’s something up there, Wil. The dogs can smell it.’
‘I demand you gentlemen leave my house forthwith!’ Despite her age and diminutive appearance Mrs. Carrington-Onslow had a large voice.
Wilfred grabbed a dog in each hand, clamping one under his arm so he could seize a third. He ordered Rowland to do likewise. But Rowland didn’t move, standing with his head cocked towards the ceiling.
‘I heard a whistle,’ Rowland said. ‘Hector’s up there. He’s whistling his dogs.’
The housekeeper paled and crossed herself. ‘A whistle. He whistled? That’s not possible. Madam …’
‘Dear Lord, he’s alive,’ Mrs Carrington-Onslow gasped. ‘Freddie will kill him!’
Wilfred dropped his dogs. He had no idea what the women were talking about, but he decided he should have a look. ‘How do I get up there?’
‘There’s a ladder in the kitchen,’ the housekeeper said. ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear …’
‘I’ll fetch it,’ Rowland volunteered as the housekeeper disintegrated.
‘Who’s Freddie?’ Wilfred asked as Rowland dashed off.
‘My boy, poor dear Frederick.’ Mrs Carrington-Onslow was barely audible.
‘I thought he fell in France.’
‘No, he left.’ She whispered now, leaning close. ‘He was always sensitive; he couldn’t bear it.’
‘And he’s been hiding in your attic? All these years?’
‘He’s not well. Only I could calm him … but now ...’
Rowland returned with the ladder and held it as Wilfred climbed up. Wilfred pushed the manhole cover away and hoisted himself through. The attic space was dim but not dark, small curtained dormer windows letting in just enough light. The stench was almost physical in its force. He saw the ratter’s boy first, lying beneath one of the windows. His forehead was bloody and he seemed only partially conscious, turning his head from side to side and whistling in delirium. Wilfred called down to the housekeeper to send for a doctor and find some brandy.
And then he saw the Fredrick Carrington-Onslow, whom he had known before the war, but who was much changed. Although he could not have been more than 30, Carrington-Onslow’s hair was white as was the unshaved stubble on his face. His ankles were shackled and chained to the iron frame of the bed on which he sat. He rocked in place, shivering, and when he doubled over coughing, Wilfred glimpsed the egg-sized lumps on his neck.
Wilfred could hear Mrs Carrington-Onslow sobbing below. He cursed. What the hell had gone on here?
Wilfred stood slowly and sidled towards the ratter’s boy. Carrington-Onslow screamed, pulling the chain taut as he lunged for Wilfred.
‘Freddie, it’s Wilfred Sinclair. Calm down, old chap. I just want to get this boy to a doctor.’
Carrington-Onslow squatted on the spot and waited, trembling uncontrollably, his breathing laboured. Wilfred pulled out a handkerchief and held it over his nose and mouth.
Rowland came through the manhole. He glanced at Carrington-Onslow before he turned to Wilfred and Hector. ‘Is he alive?’
‘It seems they both are,’ Wilfred said. ‘Cover your face, Rowly, and go back down. I fear Freddie may have plague.’
Rowland covered his face but he didn’t retreat, instead climbing into the attic and to his brother’s side.
‘Let’s hope that Mrs Carrington-Onslow and the housekeeper don’t take away the ladder and trap us up here,’ Wilfred said exasperated that Rowland had not thought of that distinct possibility.
‘They won’t,’ Rowland replied confidently. ‘They were just trying to save Freddie. I think he must have killed Mr. Oldfield,’ he whispered. ‘They thought he’d killed Hector too. And so, they left Hector’s body up here so that they could blame him for his father’s murder.’ He helped Wilfred pull Hector onto his feet between them. ‘They didn’t know he was still alive.’
Wilfred shook his head as he regarded the broken, sick man chained like a dog a few feet away. A deserter and a murderer and quite possibly a madman. Had the war done this — or was it the shame, and guilt that followed, the life in hiding and disease? Or just the company of rats.
Voices from below now rose above the unabated barking of the ratter’s dogs.
Wilfred exhaled. Help had arrived, finally. He shouted down a warning that Carrington-Onslow had the plague before he and Rowland lowered Hector down.
Freddie Carrington-Onslow sat by the bed, inconsolable now. ‘Vernon …’ he sobbed. ‘Where are you, Vernon?’
Sulari Gentill is an Australian author, best known for the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries. Her standalone postmodern novel Crossing The Lines won the 2018 Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel, and The Woman in the Library, a new thriller, will be released in May 2022.
This story appears in Openbook spring 2021.