Page images
PDF
EPUB

we catch them, but we disdain to eat them all; we just bite off their soft throats and suck their sweet juice—Oh, so good!”—(and she licked her wicked lips)—"and then throw them away, and go and catch another. They are coming soon, children, coming soon; I can smell the rain coming up off the sea, and then hurrah for a fresh, and salmon, and plenty of eating all day long."

And the otter grew so proud that she turned head over heels twice, and then stood upright half out of the water, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“And where do they come from?” asked Tom, who kept himself very close, for he was considerably frightened.

“Out of the sea, eft, the great, wide sea, where they might stay and be safe if they liked.14 But out of the sea the silly things come, into the great river down below, and we come up to watch for them; and when they go down again, we go down and follow them. And there we fish for the bass and the pollock, and have jolly days along the shore, and toss and roll in the breakers, and sleep snug in the warm dry crags. Ah, that is a merry life, too, children, if it were not for those horrid

men.”

OW

“What are men?” asked Tom; but somehow he seemed to know before he asked.

"Two-legged things, eft; and, now I come tơ look at you, they are actually something like you, if you had not a tail” (she was determined that Tom should have a tail), “only a great deal bigger, worse luck for us; and they catch the fish with hooks

14. Salmon live in the sea, as the otter says, but each autumn they go up the rivers to spawn.

[ocr errors]

and lines, which get into our feet sometimes, and set pots along the rocks to catch lobsters. They speared my poor, dear husband as he went out to find something for me to eat. I was laid up among the crags then, and we were very low in the world, for the sea was so rough that no fish would come in shore. But they speared him, poor fellow, and I saw them carrying him away upon a pole. Ah, he lost his life for your sakes, my children, poor, dear, obedient creature that he was.”

And the otter grew so sentimental (for otters can be very sentimental when they choose, like a good many people who are both cruel and greedy, and no good to anybody at all) that she sailed solemnly away down the burn, and Tom saw her no more for that time.

And lucky it was for her that she did so; for no sooner was she gone, than down the bank came seven rough terrier dogs, snuffing and yapping, and grubbing and splashing, in full cry after the otter. Tom hid among the water lilies till they were gone; for he could not guess that they were the water fairies come to help him.

But he could not help thinking of what the otter had said about the great river and the broad sea. And as he thought, he longed to go and see them. He could not tell why; but the more he thought, the more he grew discontented with the narrow little stream in which he lived, and all his companions there; and wanted to get out into the wide, wide world, and enjoy all the wonderful sights of which he was sure it was full.

And once he set off to go down the stream. But the stream was very low; and when he came to the shallows he could not keep under water, for there was no water left to keep under. So the sun burned his back and make him sick; and he went back again and lay quiet in the pool for a whole week more.

And then on the evening of a very hot day he saw a sight.

He had been very stupid all day, and so had the trout; for they would not move an inch to take a fly, though there were thousands on the water, but lay dozing at the bottom under the shade of the stones; and Tom lay dozing, too, and was glad to cuddle their smooth, cool sides, for the water was quite warm and unpleasant.

But toward evening it grew suddenly dark, and Tom looked up and saw a blanket of black clouds lying right across the valley above his head, resting on the crags right and left. He felt not quite frightened, but very still; for everything was still. There was not a whisper of wind, nor a chirp of a bird to be heard; and next a few great drops of rain fell plop into the water, and one hit Tom on the nose, and made him pop his head down quickly enough.

And then the thunder roared, and the lightning flashed, and leaped across Vendale and back again, from cloud to cloud, and cliff to cliff, till the very rocks in the stream seemed to shake; and Tom looked up at it through the water, and thought it the finest thing he ever saw in his life.

But out of the water he dared not put his head; for the rain came down by bucketfuls, and the hail hammered like shot on the stream and churned it into foam; and soon the stream rose, and rushed down, higher and higher, and fouler and fouler, full of beetles, and sticks, and straws, and worms, and addle-eggs, and wood lice, and leeches, and odds and ends, and this, that, and the other, enough to fill nine museums.

Tom could hardly stand against the stream, and hid behind a rock. But the trout did not; for out they rushed from among the stones, and began gobbling the beetles and leeches in the most greedy and quarrelsome way, and swimming about with great worms hanging out of their mouths, tugging and kicking to get them away from each other.

And now, by the flashes of the lightning, Tom saw a new sight—all the bottom of the stream alive with great eels, turning and twisting along, all down stream and away. They had been hiding for weeks past in the cracks of the rocks, and in burrows in the mud; and Tom had hardly even seen them, except now and then at night; but now they were all out, and went hurrying past him so fiercely and wildly that he was quite frightened. And as they hurried past he could hear them say to each other, “We must run, we must run. What a jolly thunderstorm! Down to the sea, down to the sea !”

And then the otter came by with all her brood, twining and sweeping along as fast as the eels themselves; and she spied Tom as she came by, and said:

"Now is your time, eft, if you want to see the world. Come along, children, never mind those nasty eels; we shall breakfast on salmon to-morrow. Down to the sea, down to the sea!”

Then came a flash brighter than all the rest, and by the light of it—in the thousandth part of a second they were gone again—but he had seen them, he was certain of it—three beautiful little white

girls, with their arms twined round each other's necks, floating down the torrent, as they sang, "Down to the sea, down to the sea!”

“Oh, stay! Wait for me!” cried Tom; but they were gone; yet he could hear their voices clear and sweet through the roar of thunder and water and wind, singing as they died away, “Down to the sea!”

“Down to the sea!” said Tom; “everything is going to the sea, and I will go too. Good-bye, trout.” But the trout were so busy gobbling worms that they never turned to answer him; so that Tom was spared the pain of bidding them farewell.

And now, down the rushing stream, guided by the bright flashes of the storm; past tall birchfringed rocks, which shone out one moment as clear as day, and the next were dark as night; past dark hovers under swirling banks, from which great trout rushed out on Tom, thinking him to be good to eat, and turned back sulkily, for the fairies sent them home again with a tremendous scolding, for daring to meddle with a water baby; on through narrow strids!) and roaring cataracts, where Tom was deafened and blinded for a moment by the rushing waters; along deep reaches, where the white water lilies tossed and flapped beneath the wind and hail; past sleeping villages; under dark bridge arches, and away and away to the sea. And Tom could not stop, and did not care to stop; he would see the great world below, and the salmon, and the breakers, and the wide, wide sea. . And when the daylight came, Tom found himself out in the salmon river. •

15. Strid (rare) means a place the length of a stride.

« PreviousContinue »