The Heller


IN March the high spring tides lap with their ragged and undulating riband of flotsam the grasses near the flat top of the sea wall; and once in a score of years the southwest gale piles the sea so high that it lops over and rushes down into the reclaimed grazing marsh within. The landlocked water returns on the ebb by way of the reedy dikes, and the culverts under the wall with their one-way hinged wooden doors, and through the muddy channels to the sea again.

I was unfortunate enough to miss seeing such a flood this year; but, hearing of it, I went down to the marsh the next afternoon before the time of high tide, hoping to see it happen again. I wandered along the sea wall, with its hoof-holed path of clay still holding salt water, as far as the black hospital ship, and then I returned. The gale had blown itself out, and a blue sky lay beyond Hartland promontory, and far out over the calm Atlantic.

There is a slanting path leading to the road below by the marshman’s cottage, and by this I left the wide prospect of sand hills, sea, and sky, seen from the sea wall, and as I was descending I noticed that the grasses down the inner slope were washed flat and straggly by a heavy overflooding of the day before.

The marshman was standing on the porch of the cottage, looking at his ducklings which had hatched about a fortnight before. He wore his spectacles and had a book in his hands. We greeted each other, and I stopped to talk.

I always enjoyed talking with the marshman. His face pleased me. I liked his kind brown eyes, his gray hair, his small and intelligent sea-browned face. In a soft voice he began telling me about the book in his hands, which he said was ‘wonderful and most interesting.’ It was thick and heavy, and printed in small close-set type. It was called The History of the Jews, and the marshman had read it with the same care and patience with which, year after year, he had cut the reeds in the dikes and scythed the thistles in the rank grass. For years he had been reading that book, and he had not yet reached the middle pages. Appalling labor!

Would I like to take the book home with me, and have a read of it? He was a bit busy just now and could easily spare it for a day or two. I was quite welcome to take it, if —

I was saved from a reply by the sudden change in the marshman’s face, He was staring intently beyond the gate by which we stood. His spectacles were pushed back from his eyes. I looked in the direction of his stare, and saw the usual scene — fowls on the stony and feathery road, and a couple of pigs nosing amid them; the downhanging branches of the willow tree over the leat; the green pointed leaves of the flag iris rising thickly along both banks; the sky-gleams between them. On the water a brood of yellowish-white ducklings were paddling, watched anxiously from the road by the hen that had hatched them.

‘The heller!’

At the muttered angry words the marshman’s dog, which had assumed a stiff attitude from the moment of its master’s fixed interest in something as yet unsmelled, unseen, and unheard by itself, whined and crouched and sprang over the gate. It had gone forward a few yards, sending the hens clucking and flying in all directions, when the marshman shouted. Seeing its master’s arm flung to the left, the dog promptly turned in that direction. I saw its hackles rise.

The narrow leat, which brought fresh drinking water to the grazing marsh, was crossed under the willow tree by a clammer, or single heavy plank of elm wood. As the dog ran on to the clammer I saw something at the farther end slide into the water. I had a fleeting impression of the vanishing hind quarters of a squat and slender dog, dark brown as a bulrush, and with the palms of its feet widely webbed as a duck’s. It had a long tail, tapering to a point. The brown tail slid over the plank flatly yet swiftly, and disappeared without splash into the slight ripple made by the submerging animal.

'’T is that darned old mousy-colored fitch,’ grumbled the marshman, opening the gate. ‘It be after my ducklings. It took one just about this time yesterday. Yurr, Ship!’— to the dog — ‘Fetch un, Ship!’ The dog sprang around barking raucously, and trotted along the plank again, nose between paws, and whining with excitement where the ‘heller’ had stood. Then it looked at its master, and barked at the water.

While it was barking the ducklings, about fifteen yards away, began to run on the water, beating their little fluky stumps of wings and stretching out their necks. ‘Queep! queep! queep!' they cried. The foster hen on the bank was clucking and jerking her comb about in agitation.

‘Ah, you heller, you!’ cried the marshman, as a duckling was drawn under by invisible jaws. The other ducklings waddled out by the brimming edge of the road, made for the hen in two files of uniform and tiny yellowish bodies aslant with straining to reach the cover of wings. Very red and jerky about the comb and cheek pendules, with flickering eyes, this motherly fowl squatted on the stones and lowered her wings till they rested on her useless pinion shafts, and fluffed out her feathers to make room for the eight mites which, in spite of her constant calls and entreaties, would persist in walking on that cold and unwalkable place, which was only for supping from at the edge.

‘Peep, peep, peep; quip, pip; queep weep,’ whistled the ducklings, drowsily, in their sweet and feeble voices. The marshman came out of the cottage with a gun.

‘The heller,’he said. ‘The withering beast, it ought to be kicked to flames.’

We waited five minutes, watching the leat where the duckling had gone down.

Parallel lines of ripples, wavering with infirm and milk-white sky, rode along the brimming water. The tide was still rising. Twenty yards away the young strong leaves of the flag irises began to quiver. The marshman lifted the gun and curled a finger round the trigger. The leaves were still. We waited. The pee-peeps of the happy ducklings ceased.

Water began to run, in sudden starts, around the smoothed stones in the roadway. The tide was rising fast. A feather was carried twirling on a runnel that stopped by my left toe; and after a pause it ran on a few inches, leaving dry specks of dust and bud-sheaths tacked to the welt.

The outline of the leat was lost in the overbrimming of the water. Grasses began to float and stray at its edges. The runnels of the tide explored the least hollow, running forward, pausing, turning sideways or backward, and blending, as though gladly, with one another.

‘It be gone,’ said the marshman, lowering the gun, to my relief; for its double barrels had been near my cheek, and they were rusty, thin as an eggshell at the muzzle, and loaded with an assortment of broken screw-heads, nuts, and odd bits of iron. He was as economical with his shooting as he was with his reading. Originally the gun had been a flintlock, owned by his greatgrandfather; and his father had had it converted into a percussion cap. Its walnut stock was riddled with wormholes; and even as I was examining it I heard the sound like the ticking of a watch, which ceased after nine ticks. The death-watch beetle. It was doubtful which would go first — the stock, ‘falling abroad’ in its tunneled brittleness, or the barrels, bursting from frail old age.

‘It’s a high tide,’ I said, stepping further back. ‘I suppose the otter came up on it, and down the leat?’

Then the marshman told me about the ‘heller.’ We stood with our backs to the deep and ancient thorn hedge that borders the road to the east, a hedge double-sheared by wind and man, six feet high and eight feet thick and so matted that a man could walk along it without his boots sinking. It was gray and gold with lichens. I had always admired the hedge by the marsh tollgate. I leaned gingerly against it while the marshman told me that he had seen the otter on the two afternoons previously, and both times when the tide was nearly on the top of the flood. No, it did not come up the leat; it was a bold beast, and came over the sea wall where the tide had poured over two afternoons agone.

‘My wife zeed’n rinning over the wall, like a little brown dog. I reckon myself th’ heller comes from the duck ponds over in Heanton marsh, and sleeps by day in th’ daggers [reeds]. Artters [otters] be always travelin’ up the pill [creek] vor to get to the duck ponds, or goin’ on up to the pill-head, and over the basin [weir] into fresh water, after trout. Never before have I heard tell of an artter going time after time, and by day too, after the same ducklings.

‘ ’T is most unusual, zur, vor an artter will always take fish when he can get fish, eels particularly, and there be plenty of eels all over the marsh. An artter loveth an eel; ’t is its most natural food, in a manner of speaking.

‘’T is what is called an ambulance [amphibious] baste, the artter be; yes, ’t is, like a crab, that can live in both land and water. A most interestin’ baste, vor those that possess th’ education vor to study up all that sort of thing. Now can ee tell me how an artter serves an eel different from another fish? Other fish — leastways those I’ve zin with my own eyes — are ate head downwards; but an eel be ate tail vust, and the head an’ shoulders be left. I’ve a zin scores of’n, and all ate tail vust!’

While the old fellow was speaking, the water, in irregular pourings and innocent twirls, was stealing right across the road. It reached the hen, who, to judge from the downward pose of her head, regarded it as a nuisance. A runnel slipped stealthily between her cane-colored feet, wetting the claws worn with faithful scratching for the young. She arose and strutted away in the lee of the hedge, calling her brood; and ’Wock! wock! Wet!’ she cried, for with tiny notes of glee they had headed straight for the wide water, gleaming with the early sunset.

The marshman said, ’Darn the flood!' for The History of the Jews, container of future years’ laborious pleasure, lay in a plash by the gate, ten strides away. He picked it up, regarding ruefully the dripping cover. He was saying that it was n’t no odds, a bit of damp on the outside, when I noticed a small traveling ripple in the shape of an arrow moving out from the plank, now almost awash. It continued steadily for about three yards from the plank, and beyond the ripples a line of little bubbles like shot began to rise and lie still. The line, increasing steadily by lengths varying from two or three to a dozen inches, drew out toward the ducklings.

I took long strides forward beside the marshman. Our footfalls splashed in the shallow water. The dog trotted at his heels, quivering, its ears cocked. A swirl arose in the leat and rocked the ducklings; they cried and struck out for the grass; but one stayed still, trying to rise on weeny wings, and then it went under.

‘The heller!’ cried the marshman, raising his gun.

For about twenty seconds we waited.

A brown whiskered head, flat and seal-like, with short rough hairs and beady black eyes, looked out of the water. Bang! It dived at the flash, and although we peered and waited for at least a minute after the whining of a screw-head ricocheting away over the marsh had ceased, I saw only our spectral faces shaking in the water.


The next afternoon I went down by the eastern sea wall and lay on the flat grassy ridge, with a view of the lower horn of the Ram’s-horn duck pond. Wild fowl were flying round the marsh, and settling on the open water hidden between the thick green reeds. Many scores had their nests in the preserve. Why did the otter, I wondered, come all the way to the leat, when it could take all the ducklings it wanted in the pond? Perhaps in my reasoning I was falling into the old error of ascribing to a wild beast something of human reasoning; for, had I been an otter after ducklings, I should certainly have stayed where they were most numerous.

The tide flowed past me, with its usual straggle of froth covering the flotsam of corks, bottles, clinker, spruce bark from the Bideford shipyards, tins, cabbage leaves, and sticks. The murky water moved wide and deep between the muddy glidders. Two ketches rode up on the flood, the exhausts of their oil engines echoing with hollow thuds over the mud and water. I wondered why they were wasting oil, when the current was so swift to carry them; but when they made fast to their mooring buoys, and the bows swung round, I realized the use of the engines — to keep them in the fairway. Of course!

Gulls screamed as they floated around the masts and cordage of the black craft, awaiting the dumping overboard of garbage. I waited for an hour, but saw nothing of the otter.

‘Did ee see’n?’ asked the marshman, when I went back. His gun lay on the table, and Ship the dog was crouched over the threshold, its nose on its paws pointing to the clammer bridge over the leat.

‘He’s took another duckling, the heller!’ he growled.

The otter must have made an early crossing, while I was lazing on the bank. Perhaps he had come through a culvert, squeezing past the sodden wooden trap; and then, either seeing or winding me, he had crossed under water. The marshman, happening to come to the door, had seen the duckling going under, and, although he had waited for ten minutes, nothing had come up.

‘Ship here went nosing among the daggers, but could n’t even get wind of’n. I reckon that ambulance baste can lie on the bottom and go to sleep if it has a mind to.’

By ‘ambulance’ he meant amphibious, I imagined. The otter had no gills; it breathed in the ordinary way, being an animal that had learned to swim under water.

‘Did n’t you see even a bubble?’

‘Not one!’

It seemed strange. Also, it had seemed strange that the engines of the ketches were ‘wasting’ oil. That had a perfectly ordinary explanation —when one realized it!

‘And it took a duck in just the same way as before?’

‘That’s it! In a wink, that duck was down under.’

‘But did n’t the ducklings see the otter?’

‘Noomye! The poor li’l beauty was took quick as a wink.’ He was much upset by it.

‘Now I’ll tell ee what I’ll do,’ he said.

‘ I’ll till a gin vor a rat, I will, and if I trap an artter, well, ’t will be a pity, as the artter-’unting gentry would say; but there ’t is!’

Otters were not generally trapped in the country of the Taw and Torridge rivers, as most of the water owners subscribed to the otter hounds. There were often occasions, however, when a gin was ‘tilled,’ or set, on a submerged rock where an otter was known to touch, or on a sunken post driven into the river bed near its holt. About once in a season the pack drew the brackish waters of the Ram’s-horn duckpond, but an otter was never killed there, as there was impregnable ‘ holding’ among the thick reeds.

I looked at the marshman’s face, filled with grim thoughts about the ‘heller’ (had he got the term from The History of the Jews?), and remembered how, only the year before, when an otter had been killed near Branton church, he had confided to me that he did n’t care much for ‘artter-’unting’; that it was ‘ not much sport with all they girt dogs agin one small baste.’

‘I’ve got some old rabbit gins,’ said the marshman. ‘And I’ll till them on the clammer, and get that heller, I will.’

I. went away to watch the mating flight of the golden plover over the marsh, and the sun had gone down behind the low line of the sand hills to the west when I returned along the sea wall. Three rabbit gins — rusty affairs of open iron teeth and flat iron springs ready to snap up and hold anything that trod on them— lay on the plank. The marshman had bound lengths of twisted brass rabbit wire around the plank and through the ends of the chains, so that, dragged into the leat, the weight of the three gins would drown the struggling otter.

My road home lay along the edge of the leat, which was immediately under the sea wall. Old upturned boats, rusty anchors, rotting bollards of tree trunks, and other gear lay on the wall and its inner grassy slope. Near the pill-head the brown ribs of a ketch, almost broken up, lay above the wall.

I came to the hump where the road goes over the culvert; and, leaning on the stone parapet, I watched the water of the little river moving with dark eddies under the fender into the leat, and the overflow tumbling into the concrete basin of the weir and sliding down the short length of the weedy fish-pass into the dull and placid level of the rising tide. It barely rippled. The air was still, silvery with eve-star and crescent moon.

The last cart had left the Great Field, the faint cries of lambs arose under the moon, men were all home to their cottages or playing skittles in the village inns. Resting the weight of my body on the stone, I stared vaguely at the water, thinking how many strange impulses and feelings came helterskelter out of a man, and how easily it was to judge him falsely by any one act or word. The marshman had pitied a hunted otter; he had raged against a hunting otter; he felt tenderly and protectively toward the ducklings; he would complacently wring their necks when the peas ripened, and sell them for as much money as he could get for them. In the future he would not think otter-hunting a cruel sport. And if the otter-hunters heard that he had trapped and drowned an otter they would be sincerely upset that it had suffered such a cruel and, as it were, an unfair death. Perhaps the only difference between animal and man was that the animal had fewer notions. . . .

I was musing in this idle manner, my thoughts slipping away as water, when I heard a sound somewhere behind me. It was a thin piercing whistle, the cry of an otter. Slowly I moved back my head, till only a part of my face would be visible in silhouette from the water below.

I watched for a bubble, a sinuous shadow, an arrowy ripple, a swirl; I certainly did not expect to see a fat old dog-otter come drifting down on his back, swishing with his rudder and bringing it down with great thwacking splashes on the water while he chewed a half-pound trout held in his short forepaws. My breath ceased; my eyes held from blinking. I had a perfect view of his sturdy body, the yellowishwhite patch of fur on his belly below his ribs, his sweeping whiskers, his dark beady eyes. Still chewing, he bumped head-on into the sill, kicked himself upright, walked on the concrete, and stood there crunching, while the five pools running from his legs and rudder ran into one. He did not chew, as I had read in books of otters chewing; he just stood there on his four legs, the tail half of the trout sticking out of his mouth, and gulped down the bits. That trout had disappeared in about ten seconds. Then the otter leaned down to the water, and lapped as a cat does.

He was old, slow, coarse-haired, and about thirty pounds in weight—the biggest otter I had seen, with the broadest head.

After quenching his thirst he put his head and shoulders under water, holding himself from falling in by his stumpy webbed forefeet, and his rudder, eighteen inches long, pressing down straight behind. He was watching for fish. As though any fish remained in the water flow after that dreaded apparition had come splashing under the culvert!

With the least ripple he slid into the water. I breathed and blinked with relief, but dared not move otherwise. A head looked up almost immediately, and two dark eyes stared at me. The otter sneezed, shook the water out of his small ears, and sank away under. I expected it to be my last sight of the beast, and, leaning over to see if an arrowy ripple pointed upstream, I knocked a piece of loose stone off the parapet. To my amazement he came up near the sill again, with something in his mouth. He swung over on his back, and bit it in play. He climbed on to the sill and dropped it there, and slipped back into the water. It was the stone that had dropped from the parapet!

I kept still. The otter reappeared with something white in his mouth. He dropped it with a tinkle beside the stone, and the tinkle must have pleased him, for he picked up the china sherd — it looked like part of a teacup, with the handle — and rolled over with it in his paws.

As in other Devon waters, the stream was a pitching place for cottage rubbish, and during the time I was standing by the parapet watching the otter at his play he had collected about a dozen objects — rusty salmon tins, bits of broken glass, sherds of clome pitchers and jam jars, and one half of a sheep’s jaw. He ranged them on the sill of the weir, tapping the more musical with a paw, as a cat does, until they fell into the water, when he would dive for and retrieve them.

At the end of about half an hour the sea was lapping over the top of the sill and pressing under the fender. Soon the leat began to brim. The taste of salt water must have made the otter hungry again, or perhaps he had been waiting for the tide, for he left his playthings and, dropping into the water, went down the leat toward the marshman’s cottage. I crept stealthily along the grassy border of the road, watching the arrowy ripple, gleaming with silver, of the thin curved moon. The hillside under the ruined chapel above the village of Branton began to show yellow speckles of light in the distant houses. The leat being deserted (for the brood of ducklings with their hen had been shut up for the night), why, then, that sudden swirl and commotion in the water by the flag irises, just where the ducklings had been taken before?

Bubbles broke on the water in strings — big bubbles. Then something heaved glimmering out of the leat, flapping and splashing violently. The noises ceased, and more bubbles came up; the water rocked. Suddenly the splashing increased, and seemed to be moving up and down the leat, breaking the surface of the water. Splashes wetted my face. A big struggle was going on there. After a minute there was a new noise—the noise of sappy stalks of the flags being broken. Slap, slap, slap, on the water. I saw streaks and spots of phosphorescence, or moon gleams, by the end of the plank. The flapping went on in the meadow beyond the flags, with a sound of biting.

I stood without moving for some minutes, while the biting and squirming went on steadily. My shoes filled with water. The tide had spread silently half across the road. Then the noises ceased. I heard a dull rap, as of something striking the heavy wooden plank under water; a strange noise of blowing, a jangle of iron and a heavy splash, and many bubbles and faint knocking sounds. The otter had stepped on the plank to drink, and was trapped.


At last the marshman, having closed The History of the Jews, placed his spectacles in their case, drawn on his boots, put on his coat, taken his gun off the nails on the ceiling beam and put it back for a fluke-spearing pronged fork in the corner, and lit the hurricane lamp, said with grim triumph, ‘Now us will go vor to see something!’ He was highly pleased that he had outwitted the otter.

‘There be no hurry, midear,’ he said. ‘Give’n plenty of time vor to see the water vor the last occasion in his skin.'

We stood awhile by the clammer under the dark and softly shivering leaves of the willow looming over us in the lamplight.

The water had receded from the plank when the last feeble tug had come along the brass wire. The marshman, watched by his dog, hopping round and round on its wooden leg in immense excitement, pulled up the bundle of gins, and the sagging beast held to them by a forepaw. It was quite dead; but the marshman decided to leave it there all night, to make certain.

‘I see on the paper,’ he said, ’that a chap up to Lunnon be giving good money vor the best artter skins’ — tapping the spearing handle significantly with his hand.

When it had been dropped in the water again we went a few paces into the meadow with the lamp, and there we saw a conger eel, about four feet long, bitten through the head by the otter. It was thick as a man’s arm. Suddenly I thought that it must have come with the high spring tide over the sea wall; and soon afterward the keen-nosed otter, following eagerly its scent where it had squirmed and writhed its way in the grass. The conger had stayed in the leat, hiding in a drain by the flag irises and coming out when the colder salt water had drifted down.

The marshman carried it back to his cottage and cut it open, and then stared into my face with amazement and sadness, for within the great eel were the remains of his ducklings.