NEARLY a hundred hours’ continuous heavy rain had filled the underground lakes of the moor so that every spring was gushing. Sunken lanes — tracks worn deep by sleds of olden time — were noisy with cascades, their rugged surfaces washed away to reveal rock grooved and worn by iron and wood and horn.
As the flood withdrew from field and ditch and hollow, many fish were left in closed pits and shallows. There was a saying in the country of the Two Rivers that in a bygone age the agreements whereby boys were apprenticed to moorland farmers had a clause which stipulated the feeding of salmon to the boys on not more than three days a week during a year. This saying was often repeated in books of the familiar kind which are derived from other books; but no such agreement had ever been found to prove the truth of the saying, which was intended to show how in other ages Atlantic salmon were as numerous in the rivers as their Pacific cousins are at the present time in the river of the Coast.
In the Great Deluge by which Salar returned to the stream of Red Deer Moor, nearly all the pigs, dogs, cats, and hens of the valley farms which remained alive turned away, after three days of feeding, from the flesh of salmon. Some say the sudden immense volume of water running into the Atlantic was so charged with the salts of artificial fertilizers washed in the soil from fields that most of the fish coming to the Island Race were unable to find the sea currents of their native rivers, and so all followed up the one overwhelming waterway to the Two Rivers.
Below Pine Tree Weir the bed of the turning eddy was covered by salmon, which were covered by a second and a third layer of fish. The water of the eddy was a dark purple. Every moment the circular racing surface showed a brown tail fin, a dark rolling back, a lead-gray or copper-brown neb. Fish six and seven together were trying to get up the weir. At the side of the concrete apron, where Shiner stood, small trout and sea trout leapt and slithered on the watery slope so frequently that he could, he told himself, have filled a bucket any moment by simply holding it there.
But Shiner was not there to get fish. Now that he had regular work he was quite happy watching them. Indeed, he felt the secondary feeling of all conquerors towards a subjected race: an attitude of benevolence and protection. Shiner had no gaff in his pocket. He was there because most of his life thought with the way of salmon. All day he had stood there, watching them. He ate no food; his hunger was to see the fish.
Shiner’s arrival at the weir had disturbed Old Nog the heron, who had been killing every fish he could strike and lift from the edge of the slide.
So many peal — small sea trout — were leaping and falling within a few inches of the grassy edge that soon the old man’s trousers were wet to the knees with the splashing. A few salmon, the tired ones which had come into the river in early spring, tried to get up the weir at the side, leaping among the smaller sea trout whose water it was. Shiner saw fish with long heads and out-thrust kyps, brown as summer algæ, the gristle of underjaws worn by rubbing and ringed with fungus. They sprang from the edge of the white surge which slanted across the pool’s circle: some fell on their sides, heavily on the concrete covered by water less deep than their bodies, and lay stunned a moment before being washed down; others jumped too high, falling on the curl-over of white water and being flung back before recovering poise and swimming down with easy stroke of tail fin. Other stale fish had green on gill covers, their jaws looked smoke-grimy, their scales rusty. They were all shapes and sizes. The pool was more fish than water, fish flushed with the cold fever of spawning, all trying to gain the redds in the higher reaches of the river: danger for themselves, but safety for the fry hatching in the shrunken waters of spring.
Every minute several fish leapt askew and fell on the grass beside the concrete. Shiner eased them back into the water, wetting his hands lest his touch scald the sensitive skin. Nearer the roaring centre of the weir, stronger fish were jumping. Most of them hit the water and lost impetus before they could grip and bore a way up the slope. Shiner saw roseate hog-backed fish, with heads a canary-yellow: these were males of a late run, full of zest for spawning. They had no appetite for food; excitement had released much uric acid in their systems, which gave their skins these colors.
But while he watched, and as the sun broke through clouds, Shiner saw a fish leap from the midst of the most broken turmoil — a curve of white and tarnished silver which fell and pierced the surge and moved up steadily, vibrating fast and surely, a fish that had learned a way through the varying pressures and water layers, beside the glassy spine raised from the gap in the sill above. It got nearly to the sill, where it seemed to hang still, moment after moment, then it was advancing, inch by inch, to where the spine was flattened just below the break in the hidden sill; and, as Shiner watched, it shot forward out of sight, to leap high from the calm deep water of the mill pool, and reveal, in the moment of rest at the top of the curve, a soldered mark on its side, as of a wound healed.
Such was the return of Salar — the Leaper.
As the heron flies, Steep Weir lay about six miles above Pine Tree Weir; but the journey was longer for fish. The river wound through the grazing meadows of its own past making — now running close to the feet of hills yellow and red and brown with the colors of leaves’ failing life, now winding to the other hillside, to recoil upon itself, in wide pools of currents in confusion, rushing swollen and gleaming.
Steep Weir had been built in a past century, diagonally across the river, a barrier of slabs of rock.
The top layer of slabs overhung a vertical wall; water falling over fell clear of the wall’s base. And it rebounded, because it fell direct on rock. There was no pool underneath, no deep water from which a fish could take off. It was the most harmful weir in the country of the Two Rivers, and, since it was usually unpassable, a favorite place of poachers when fish were running.
Where the sill of the weir stopped, a bank grown with alders continued to a half-rotten sluice. This consisted of a frame of three upright posts, bedded into masonry and morticed on crosspieces. In the grooves of the upright posts the two doors or fenders had not been moved for more than thirty years. They were ruinous, and silted on the higher side.
Early one morning Shiner went to Steep Weir. He knew that some of the chaps from the town would be there, snatching fish. Since he had come to watch salmon for their own sakes, Shiner had appointed himself a sort of honorary elusive water bailiff. Herons and otters and snatchers he regarded as half enemies of his own life. Water bailiffs were enemies of the other half of himself, and when he saw one Shiner became elusive. He muttered to himself, feeling they would not believe that he was by the riverside for the sake of the fish. Not for the sake of the Conservancy Board, which was made up of men there to represent and serve their own interests: netsmen for the increase of nets and extension of time to net, rod-and-line men to increase the number of fish in the rivers, by keeping the number of nets as low as possible and limiting the season of estuary fishing. Shiner knew all about the Board; and he muttered when he saw a bailie, for old time’s sake and also because he was a solitary.
Shiner had a special grudge against the water bailiffs. Recalling the number of fish he had snatched from below Steep Weir, he now thought of them jumping there hour after hour in vain, bruising and breaking themselves. ‘Why had n’t they bailies seen to it that the fender was rised? ’T was n’t proper!’ Very well, he, Shiner, would do it himself.
Soon after sunrise on the Monday morning, he climbed over the fence by the road bridge below the gristmill and walked along the river bank. He was tall and thin, looking like a humanized alder trunk. His coat was shredded and gray like lichen, his arms and legs long and loose. He had a small face with pointed goatee beard and high pointed ears sticking up beside the upright brim of a very ancient and discolored billycock hat. His eyes appeared to see nothing; he never turned round or glanced about him; yet he saw all he wanted to see. He was a gray heron of a man, owning only his clothes, a few gardening tools, and himself. In summer he often slept out, beside ricks or in tallats or lofts of cattle sheds. He knew white owls which nested in the tallats, and they knew him. He liked wandering about alone, in the open air. During winter he lived in a room over a disused stable, for which he paid rent of ten shillings a year. He insisted on paying rent. The landlord, an innkeeper, allowed him to boil and fry in the rusty grate of the small disused harness room, hung with cobwebs. Shiner’s only mate was a cat, an aged beast, which he called Kitten. It was the greatgreat-grand kitten of the original cat he had owned. He neither begged nor borrowed, nor would he claim an oldage pension. His secret fear was that in extreme old age he would be destitute and put in the Union, when he would not be able to see the river or the fields.
He walked along by the river, slowly, with an ash plant nearly as tall as himself in his right hand, continually glancing at the water moving almost bank-high on his left. Forward, and across the river, stood a plantation of thin trees almost hiding the mill house. He heard the roaring of the weir as he walked on. A raised bank of stone and earth, on which ash and other trees grew, was between him and the Weir. Peering through a gap, he saw the figure of a man standing there, and recognized one of the gang which had stolen his trammel net in the police court. Then he saw the hat of another man moving behind some low-growing furze bushes. The river was over the bank beside the fender, running down the grass, and pouring over the edge of the sluice.
Moving on to another gap, Shiner stared at the weir. Fish were jumping into the white, to fall back again and be tossed and turned in the churn of water rebounding from the rock below. They were jumping all the time, and most of them were colored in shades of red and brown. ‘They’m in full tartan, surenuff,’ muttered Shiner — using a phrase he had heard years before from a visiting Scots fisherman.
In a bed of rushes fifty yards above the weir Shiner had found a rusty iron bar while poking about there a few months previously. This, he guessed, was the bar by which the fenders had been lifted up years before. But if he went to get the bar now, and started to open the fenders, he might be pitched into the water while he was doing it, and no one any the wiser. They chaps was n’t worth two penn’oth of cold gin; they would pitch him in if they thought no one would know. And taking red fish, too! Why, the eggs of a ten-p’un sow-fish weighed two p’un! ’T was no sense in it, taking full ripe fish.
Shiner had taken many hundreds of red fish at Steep Weir, and had often stated his opinion that October fish tasted better than clean springers; but that was when he had been younger and ‘lived for devilment,’ as he said. But a full ripe fish! ’T was n’t no sense to it.
After wondering for some time what he could do, Shiner clambered over the gap in the bank and walked, looserlegged than ever, towards the men. The man standing back from the water saw him casually, and paid no heed to him. His two mates had been informed, however, of the approach, and when they saw who it was they bent down and withdrew each a long ash pole which had been hurriedly thrust into the growth of bramble and alder.
The poles had been cut from a near-by copse. To the slighter end a noose of twisted strands of brass wire had been tied. These were for tailing the fish waiting below the fender.
Shiner went to the edge of the sluice which joined the water roar at the base of the fall a few paces distant. Fish of all lengths and shapes and colors were jumping vertically under the spread of the weir. None could get up. One great fish fell back on a hidden pinnacle of rock and was washed away belly upwards. Shiner cracked his fingers, and muttered to himself.
‘You won’t do nought with that li’l old rabbit snare,’ said Shiner. ‘I was working here with a gaff when Adam was a proper pup. Besides, you’m too late. There ban’t enough water here to carry the fish over. Now if you could open the fenders a bit, to let some good water under, you’d attract the sojers upalong the gulley.’ ‘Soldiers’ was the poaching term for ripe autumn fish. ‘Aiy, midears, that’s what us did in th’ old days. And if I don’t misremember, there be a bar lying about yurr somewhereabouts.’
He began to mooch around, peering under furze clumps and kicking tufts of grass with his boot. He returned to the others, mumbling half to himself, ‘You med get a vish by fixing a gaff on t’other end, and cutting the stick in half; maybe you’d get a vish thaccy way, but you med be careful, midears, leaning over all that water. Tes a turrible master weight of water valling today. Aiy, it be, too true it be.’ And, shaking his head, he ambled away, pretending to be looking for the bar. ‘Th’ old fool be wandering i’ th’ ead,’ said one of the men, lighting a cigarette. Seeing this, Shiner came back, talking in a broader, old-fashioned way. ‘I minds th’ time when us took vower buttloads of vish from thissy place. But then us had th’ bar vor open the trap, do ’ee zee?’ And, shaking his head, he went away. ‘Proper mazed fool,’ said the young man, inhaling deeply of the fag.
Shiner was staring at the door of the fender, his billycock pushed over one ear, scratching his head. Jets of water were spirting through holes in the oaken planking, and gushing underneath, hissing white from the pressure of water above the fender.
As he watched, a small sea trout slithered up the white hiss of water, and, turning by the wood, slithered down again. ‘You’ll soon be upalong, midear,’ said the old man. ‘Shiner knoweth.’
He found the rusty bar in the nettles, and returned to the sluice. An oak plank stretched across behind the framework, and on this he stood, pushing the end of the bar into an iron notch. Each fender was the shape of a large square shovel, in the handle of which was a vertical row of notches. Levering against the crosspiece, he tried to raise the fender. It was wedged in the lower grooves of the posts, held tight by the weight of silt against its other side. By crashing the bar against the plate Shiner at last shifted the wood, and immediately the gush below changed to mud color.
He shifted the end of the bar to a lower hole, and raised it another notch. Thus slowly one fender was lifted; then he began to raise the other. While he was doing this one of the men came to him and asked him how much more he was going to ‘rise’ it. ‘Hey?’ said Shiner, pausing to put a hand to ear, and then bending down to lever again. The man shouted at him, soundlessly in the roar of water now passing under. ‘Hey?’ said Shiner, pausing a moment. The man came on the plank and bawled in his ear, ‘If you open it to the top, you bliddy old vool, all the vish will rin through, won’t’m?’
‘Aiy, you’m right, midear,’ replied Shiner. ‘Bootiful water, bootiful rinning water!’
‘I said to you, you old vool, I said, “You’m letting all the vish dro, ban’t you?’”
‘No, I ain’t got no gaff,’ replied Shiner, lifting the fender another notch. ‘If I had, you should have it, midear.’
The man seized the end of the bar. ‘Stop, wull ’ee?’
The second fender was almost as high as the first.
‘Aiy, you’m right,’ said Shiner. ‘Only don’t you go telling they old bailies that I was a hacsessry after the fack of this yurr raisement o’ the fender,’ as he inserted the end of the bar into the last hole.
The second man now stepped on the plank and gripped the bar. ‘ What’s the flamin’ bliddy idea? ’ he shouted. ‘ Here, you give the bar to me! ’ — and he raised an arm with clenched fist, while pulling with the other.
‘Yurr, take it,’ said Shiner, suddenly thrusting the bar at the other.
The man who had shouted had been braced for resistance; he lost his balance. He clutched at the other man, who in turn grabbed the third man. The trio leaned back, swaying and clutching. The weight of the bar pulled the first man askew, and all three fell into the water. Instantly they were swept down the sluice. One got hold on an alder bough in the eddy by the curve of the sluice; another held him; but the third man was carried down into the main rush of the river. He could swim, and so kept his head up. He was washed helplessly down-river until he found himself in a backwater. Shiner, who had been following downstream, helped him out.
When the three were together again he said, ‘ You’m a proper double couple o’ Adam’s pups! Goin’ givin’ an old ’un like me a proper scare! And where be the bar you was so anxious to get hold to? Like as not in the flamin’ sae by now. And I can’t reggerlate no fenders just as I was preparin’ to do when you boys thought you knowed best. I tell ’ee, midear, they be wedged tight by now, and nothin’ will shift ’em. Hullo, hullo! Did’ee zee that li’l booty? My Gor, ’t was a bootiful sight!’
A salmon had leapt out of the white curl-over below the open fenders, had pierced the green glissade descending, and had swum through, a dark shadow vanishing. Above in the pool it leapt again — Salar.
Shiner walked up the valley, beside the river. He did not hurry. He stared and quizzed and wondered. The cottage garden where he worked was under four miles from Steep Weir, and there was little to do at the fall of the year; and Shiner was not the sort to make work. He was a free man. It took him all the forenoon and two hours after midday to arrive at Sawmills Weir. There a gamekeeper saw him. The gamekeeper was also a local preacher.
‘Up to your old games, I see,’ was his greeting to Shiner.
Aw, you must have second sight, midear,’ retorted Shiner, looking at the water. ’How be the fezzans this year? Got this yurr grouse disease from Scotland yet?’
‘You’m a smart one, Shiner, you be. Got a gaff in your pocket, by any chance?’
‘You got any ’baccy in yours, midear?’ countered Shiner.
‘I ban’t a smoker, you knows that.’
‘Nor be I.’
‘Then why do ’ee ask?’
‘Aw, just another idle business question, midear. Hullo, did ’ee see that girt old black poll? Proper old berrygatherer, I reckon.’
Garroo the cannibal trout, who had hidden with Salar and the others under the roots when the gang had worked the trammel in Denzil’s Pool, had just jumped and fallen back. He was lean and thin; his head was the shape of a lobster’s claw. He looked like his own effigy in a glass case; for his spots were large and very distinct, the red very red and the black very black, while he glistened as though newly painted in hues of blue and brown, and over all a high gleam of varnish. Garroo was too old for spawning, but that did not prevent him from doing what he had done for many years: joining in the general excitement of migration upstream, and gorging on salmon eggs — whence Shiner’s description of berrygatherer. The keeper, who knew almost nothing of fish, thought the old man was merely stupid and garrulous. His lordship did not fish, and his lordship’s agent always let the fishing to tenants. Shiner knew this; he had no ill feeling against the keeper.
‘Maybe a master girt wind after frost will blow away the leaves for ’ee soon,’ he remarked, changing the subject to suit the keeper. ‘I seed many young fezzan chicks as I was in the swamp tilling tetties for my chap this spring. Th’ ould birds eat my cabbage plants, but us don’t grudge them a bite or two, sir. Live and let live, my chap saith: all complaints at the Judgment Seat. He be proper mazed about salmon, — writing a book about’m, he did tell me, — so I bin and opened the fender down to Steep. You’ll see no more snatchin’ there, like I used to do before my guts dried up.’
The keeper looked at Shiner with a new interest. Shiner, knowing this, began to speak about the fish which were trying to get up the Sawmills Weir. He pointed out how salmon made many attempts to feel the weights of the water; that they were not jumping every time they showed. They were feeling their way, time after time. Different parts of the weir suited different-sized fish. Directly below them salmon were showing, half leaping; but none would try and get up there, said Shiner. That was the small sea-trout place, where the school peal got ‘ up auver. ’
The weir was built in a series of steps or ledges descending; the water fell from ledge to ledge, descending in white violence. A salmon appeared to push itself out of the lower white and to swim up in foaming water: actually it was slithering on mossy rocks which gave it a good grip. But the water there was too broken for its length, and it fell back, to lie in a trough in the rocky bed below, beside three other salmon which were touching, and over whom the bubbled water raced. The middle fish was Salar, who had arrived at Sawmills at the same time as Shiner.
Immediately on arrival Salar had moved into the leaping-off place, and sunk to rest. He let the water seethe over his head and tickle the underpart of his body pleasantly. Salar did not like breathing bubbled water any more than any other salmon; but he lay there easily because, although his body was enswirled and stroked by bubbles, his mouth was thrust into a crevice where water welled in the dark green moss as from a spring.
After enjoying the highly oxygenated water for a while, Salar moved back with the churning strakes and sank down to the bottom. There he balanced himself under the fog of bubbles. Above him the bubbles hissed; under him the rock rumbled. He lifted himself off the rock, felt the rhythm of power along his muscles passing into the water. He gaped faster at the water, while the flexions of his body rippled faster. He fixed his sight above the fog of bubbles and sprang, but checked at the last moment. Shiner saw him, a fish of new-cut lead and new-cut copper sliding up moving snow.
Salar had checked on a sudden doubt. The doubt was due to the change of his nature, which had been going on slowly all during the summer, delayed by return to the sea and renewal of feeding, and now was hastening upon him with the season of colored leaves and sap sinking in trees and plants. His nature was drawing into itself; he lived more an inward than an outward life. He had no interest in moving things, food, while he was swimming up the river; but when he rested his old nature returned upon him, and he was irritated and stirred by smaller fish and leaves and twigs and other movement. He took many pieces of black water moss in his mouth, holding a bit sometimes for a minute or more before expelling it. Then all interest in moving things, which might have been food, was gone; he would sink into himself, his power withdrawn to give color to his body, — skin and fins, — to lengthen his head and give strength to the hook of his lower jaw. His skin was thickening, a pattern as of green and brown and yellow marble scrolled thereon.
A confusion of personality had checked Salar’s jump; but after another rest he gathered himself and swam up, and leapt, to be shocked by the warmth of air, and to fall beside the stone and swim up against the blank gush of water. He knew the way, and swam more strongly, reaching the straightness of the wall at the back of the weir, two feet from the top. The water gushed off his back, and then he was lying beside the wall, parallel to it, in a narrow trough no wider than himself, and well under the curve of water.
He slithered along, and then found he was lying behind the tail of another salmon. The tail was dark brown. This was one of the grilse which had followed Gralaks into the river.
In front of the small fish lay two other salmon, one a yellow-headed cock fish with a porpoise bite out of its tail fin; the other was Gralaks, who had been washed down the falls by the flood, and now was making her way up again.
Soon afterwards another salmon wriggled up and rested its chin behind Salar’s tail. An almost continuous line of salmon, hidden by the curve of falling water, was now lying across Sawmills Weir.
When Gralaks, the leading fish, was ready to go over the lip of the weir, she slewed her tail round so that the falling water beat on it. She lay between two mossy slabs of rock. She curled her tail for a jump; she sprang, her flanks gripping the hard descending mixture of air and water with scale and caudal fin; she bored into it with nose and eye and gill and all the determined strength of life being urged forward. She slapped the water with the sideway sweeps of her body, and then she was gone, her passing over the last weir revealed by only a momentary bulge in the smooth bend of water.
High over the valley the last swallow was hurled in the wind which streamed the leaves from the oaks and kept the tall spruce firs of the hillsides swaying in slow weariness of gray clouds of sky. By the river the bullock paths were pitted and sploshed yellow, under alders dispread black and bare. Over the viaduct a miniature train moved in silhouette, creeping across the sky, antiquated goods trucks on webbed wheels swept about by scattered steam.
From the top of the hill, reddish brown with larch and dark green with spruce plantations, came little reports flattened away by the wind, the first pheasant shoot of the year. Old Nog the heron was trying in vain to outfly the winds over the hill. Higher and higher they took him, turning and slanting and flapping without forward movement, scared by the reports of guns which he thought were all aimed at him. When a thousand feet high he gave up and swung round, and swept across the valley; but a report louder than the others, coming direct to him in a pocket of wind, made him tumble and turn and fly into the wind once more, determined to fish in future only in the wide safety of the estuary. Old Nog had been scared a hundred times before; he always forgot it.
Within the river many salmon and sea trout were moving. The fenders at Steep Weir were gone; posts, doors, framework, weighing more than a ton, had been jostled to the sea, no more to the river in spate than a few twigs and leaves. Already barnacles were laying their eggs on the wood, beside the jelly sacs of river snails’ eggs killed by the salt.
Every tide brought in more salmon, which reached Sawmills with their lice still alive, four days from the sea. The gravel of the river bed was stirred and shifted by a myriad changing weights of water pouring around and eddying from fish on the move. And by mid-November, when the river level was steady with fast water running clear as glass, the gravel was being cut up by the tails of female fish — from above the Carrion Pit to the runners on the slopes of the moor, streamlets scarcely wider than the step of a boy.
Gralaks lay above the Fireplay Pool. The eggs which had been growing within her all the summer were now one fifth of the weight of her body. She was full ripe, ready to drop those eggs. Three male fish, knowing this, were near her, waiting to shed their milt on the eggs. One of them was Salar.
Behind the three cock fish lay Garroo the cannibal trout. Behind Garroo lay two smaller trout who had tasted salmon eggs before. And lying close beside Gralaks was Grai, a salmon parr weighing two ounces, who had fallen in love with Gralaks with all the volume of his milt, which weighed one tenth of an ounce. Gralaks was aware of Grai; indeed she was pleased by his nearness. Grai knew the other fish were there because of Gralaks, but his feeling for her, especially when she lay and hid him, was stronger than his fear. Grai was determined that no other cock fish should lie beside Gralaks.
No other cock fish had yet noticed Grai.
At nightfall Gralaks moved slowly forward on the level shallows above the throat of the pool. At once Salar and his two rivals moved behind her. She turned on her right side and sinuated in an arrested swimming motion, lifting by suction a few stones, which fell back with the stream. Watched by Salar and the other cock fish, Gralaks settled into the slight furrow and thrust herself into it, to widen it.
During a pause in the digging, Grai darted forward from beside Salar’s left pectoral fin and took up his rightful place beside the mighty mistress of all sensation. The swift movement loosened a mistiness into the water behind the parr’s tail.
The effect of this milt passing by the gills of the cock fish was one of action and turmoil. One turned and slipped over Salar, and with open mouth made as if to bite the salmon on the other side of Salar, who drove at him, also with open mouth. The three-sided chase rocked the water of the Fireplay.
All during the night, at intervals, Gralaks was digging the redd for spawning — sweeping the gravel sideways and scooping a pit in which she lay.
For nearly a week the water ran colder, slower, clearer. On the first evening of December, the wind went round to the west, the water became warmer, and fish became active. Gralaks was now ready to lay her eggs. Nearly five thousand were in the cavity beside her shrunken stomach. Spawning began towards the end of the night. During the darkness Salar had been roving round the pools, swimming from Fireplay down the run into Wheel, questing under the ledge of rock and hollows under the bank of alders. But always he had returned in haste, to move behind the trough where Gralaks lay, beside one or another of his waiting rivals. Both pools were astir with restless fish.
At last the tail of Gralaks began to work more quickly, and immediately one of the cock fish moved up beside her and shouldered her from the pit she had dug. Grai the parr pressed himself beside a large flat yellow stone which had been exposed by the digging. So tiny was Grai that the cock fish did not even know he was there. Thrust off the redd, Gralaks swam forward her own length, and lay still, while Salar moved in beside the cock fish. Immediately this fish turned with a sweep of its tail and came at Salar with open mouth. Salar swung round to avoid the lunge and also to grip his rival across the wrist. The swirl lifted Grai and scattered gravel. Grai recovered and darted to the trough again, to be behind the tail of Gralaks.
Heedless of the turmoil behind her, but newly excited, Gralaks had turned on her right side, to bend head and body backwards until her belly was curved palely like a water-sunk reflection of the young moon. She jerked and shook on her side, as though trying to touch the back of her neck with her tail. Eggs dribbled quickly from her, sinking with the current amidst gravel and silt and rolling into the trough.
The sight of the eggs and the taste of the water made Grai quiver; and as Gralaks moved backwards he moved forward, feeling as though he were being drawn from underneath by a lamprey of sweeter and sweeter sensation. His milt flowed from him in a mist, millions of invisible organisms wriggling in the water. Some of them found eggs, into the skins of which they bored, desperate for security. Those which were successful in finding the liquid within were lost in the creation of new life; the rest drifted away, to perish in water palely lighted by the star galaxy of night, whose mirrored fate was as their own.
Salar tried to move on to the redd, but his larger rival seized him by the tail and held him despite his violent lashings. Salar’s head was downstream; the water was opening his gills; he could not breathe. The big fish swam upstream, to drown him. The water was beaten and the two bodies rolled over. The other fish which was attending Gralaks was a grilse of her own school, which she had led from the Island Race; and this fish, whose back was a marbled pattern of green and pink, followed the struggle and in his excitement bit the larger salmon across the tail. This made it lose its hold of Salar, and dash downstream, to swing up again below the redd and lie there. Salar returned more slowly and lay behind it, and to one side. The grilse also returned, and the three fish lay there, at rest for the moment. Grai lay beside Gralaks, by her right pectoral fin, which was wider than his own width.
A fortnight before Christmas the weather became cold again. The river was running low. Many of its feeders on the moor were fringed with ice. Fungus grew rapidly in cold water. Soon Salar’s jaw was cream-colored. The edges and centre of his tail fin were corroded, too, and his skin, which had thickened and caused the scales to shrink since his return from the sea, was also patched with fungus where it had been bruised on weir and by fighting.
The shrunken water was riffled by the stones of the redd. Salar had to go past the stones and drift down to settle in the trough by the side of Gralaks. While he was coming back tail-first, the smaller grilse slithered over the heaped gravel and bit Salar across the wrist. Salar slashed the grilse away, and the movement scattered some of the eggs, which Garroo caught on the end of his kyp. Shiner, watching from the tree, heard a distinct snapping noise as each egg was sucked into the trout’s mouth.
Another time, Shiner saw Salar chase Garroo round the pool, down the run into the Wheel Pool, and up again to the Fireplay, where the salmon caught the trout across the back and shook it, his head out of water. ‘ ’T was just like a terrier shaking an ould red rat,’ said Shiner.
As the days went on, Salar became most weary. He and the large cock fish seldom fought now. Many small trout lay close to the redd, undisturbed. The male grilse went away. Garroo dropped downstream, to the deeper water of the Wheel Pool.
Gralaks was empty of eggs, and weary. When the last one was gone from her, hidden under the stones of the redd, she drifted down the river, and came to the remembered shelter of the alder roots above Humpy Bridge.
She lay there, day after day, night after night, waiting for the rain and the spate which would take her down to the sea. Near her lay a sea trout, also exhausted. They lay side by side, thin, discolored, empty of all feeling, patiently awaiting the rain.
The colder the water, the greater its density. In the frosty nights of the year’s end fish sunk close to the rock and gravel of the pools, hardly moving. Those late-running salmon which had paired, and had not yet spawned, lay side by side in the fast water, which hid them although their back fins were above a broken and uneven surface. The fever smouldered in them, as they waited for the frost to go.
Ice began to dull the sight of the river where it was least alive — at the edges of pools and by the bays in the bank trodden by cattle. The frost had brought down the last leaves of waterside trees, and these had caught, one behind another, against outstanding stones of the shallows. The water flow pressed them together in the shape of fir cones, scores and even hundreds of leaves wadded together, and beginning to decompose on their undersides. This gave a little warmth, which was sought by snails and shrimps. Frost put its blind gray seal around the cones of leaves; frost bound together the roots of rushes; frost sealed the trickling places of the river, and thickened the icicles under the falls. Water found new trickling places; these too were sealed. Rocks and snags lipped by water were given brittle gray collars, which became wider until they broke off and floated into eddies and were welded into the local ice, strengthening it.
The slow solidification of eddies and still stretches by the shallows made the runs faster. New eddies were formed in reaction, new ice affirmed their stillness.
Up in the Fireplay Pool, Salar lay below the redd, as though guarding it. Clots of semi-opaque, jelly-like water passed him — a slush of ice. Rapidly within his body the germs of salmon pest were multiplying; and as they conquered the living tissue, weakened by the long strain of waiting without food, — nine months now, — so the vegetable fungus strengthened its hold on that tissue. Other forms of life were claiming that which Salar had assembled and used for a racial purpose of which he knew nothing. Salar was nearly emptied of self. He lay behind the redd, awaiting the rhythm of desire and all pleasure, seeing the stars flashing bright as he had seen them in the lustihood of Atlantic nights.
The ice began to thaw with the coming of the southwest wind. Its melting released oxygen into the water, and Salar was stimulated to leap from the pool, falling back in a formless splash. Shiner saw the leap; he saw the lean rusty-brown body, the prolonged misshapen head covered with creamy fungus, green slime on the gill covers, and the blackened jaw with its great white hook twisted and tipped with yellow. Edges of all the fins were yellow, too, while a rosette was fixed to the side, spreading out from the scar of the lamprey wound.
‘Poor old chap,’ said Shiner. ‘What you needs now is a nice li’l fresh, to take you down to the sea, to clean yourself.’
The southwest was blowing, but it brought no rain. By the beginning of February the river was at low summer level again. The phantom of spent passion for which Salar had remained by the redd was gone from him; he lay now in the deeper Wheel Pool, under the shelf of rock beside Trutta. At night the two kelts moved up to the edge of the run where it broke over the shallow. Warmer water had delayed the growth of fungus, but the pest bacillus had spread through his body, heart, liver, kidneys. Strips of his skin, which fungus had covered, had broken away, and he had no strength for regrowth.
In the still deeps of the pool a dim white length lay, the rival of Salar. Two more dead cock fish lay on their backs in the Fireplay. They had died while waiting by redds in the shallows above, and the stream had brought them down. Every pool in the Two Rivers held dead or dying male fish. The wind was now from the northeast, a barren wind of drouth, a dry cutting wind which made lambs on the moor huddle into their ewes, and drove all birds into the lower valleys and the estuary.
When Shiner next saw Salar, the kelt was lying at the edge of the Fireplay, in still water, over a silt of mud and buried sticks. Salar did not move as Shiner knelt down and stared at him. He did not see the man above him. Even when Shiner put a hand out and curved it under the kelt’s body, as though to support it, there was no movement. Only when he lifted it did Salar come back from his farawayness of self, and feel a shock, and move off slowly into deep water.
‘You must n’t bide by the bank, midear,’ said Shiner. ‘That ould crane ban’t like Shiner, you know. He’ll give ’ee a dap that won’t do no one no good.’ Old Nog, passing in the sky, uttered a screech. ‘ You bestways must wait where you be now, until the rain cometh, midear.’ The pale mask in the water moved forward. ‘That’s right, midear. Shiner knoweth.’ And, talking to himself, the old man ambled away along the river bank, peering into the water, seeing almost everything that happened.
Night after night was starless, and clouds passed over the valley from the west, driven by a high salt wind which ruffled the pools and scattered the packs of leaves on stones of the shallows. Plants of hornwort and celery began to spread on the gravel their first leaves of the year, and the crow’sfoot was lengthening green near them. The dipper sang its soliloquy of stonesand-water; the kingfisher lanced its cry under the leafless alders. On the top of a spruce higher than the railway viaduct a missel thrush sang to the flaming purple sunset.
With the last of the winter’s night, snow began to fall on the moor, moulding itself thinly on the windward side of writhen beeches and thorns, falling thin and pale and becoming beads of water, but always falling, until the black places where turf had been cut were white, and clumps of moor grass were cowled in white, with flakes falling thicker until all save water was white. In the morning it was a new world upon which the sun looked briefly before clouds hid it again in snow with which the wind whitely streamlined all things standing from the earth — pillars of the viaduct, trunks of trees, felled timber, ploughshare left in an unfinished furrow, abandoned motor cars, and sheep huddled under the hedges. Through the snow the otters romped, making a slide down the cattle break in the bank by the yew trees, whose portent dark loomed through night’s glimmer.
When the moon rose in a clear sky the otters remained by their slide of trodden snow, sliding together and singly, violently and easily, into the water, whistling and talking and wrostling and splashing until sharp heads pointed up the pool, to the noise of a jumping fish. Salar had leapt, the second time in the New Year. A wild hope of a spate and the sea had stirred in him. Together the otters slipped into the water.
Trutta lay beside Salar. Wherever Salar had gone during the past month, Trutta had followed, following the phosphoric gleam of the kelt’s head and flank and tail. When Salar saw the swimming shapes of otters above him, he went wildly away downstream; but Trutta, sure of the deep water, turned with open mouth and swam up hard and bumped the larger otter. Then Trutta, his mouth still open, swam down and swam up again to bump the other otter. He did this again and again, following them round the pool. Shiner was hidden behind the oak tree, and saw what happened. The big pug bumped the otters again and again, until they were growling with rage and one of them ran out on the bank, standing up on its hind legs and ‘chittering.’ Then it either saw or smelled Shiner, for that night he heard them no more.
But when Shiner returned the next day he saw, lying on the gravel edge above the Fireplay, lapped by rising colored water of the thaw, a great head with twisted kyp joined to a backbone from which the flesh had been stripped, and a large tail fin frayed convex at the edges. The otters had returned, and driven Trutta into thin water, where he was helpless; and when they had killed and left him, a fox, who while passing over the viaduct had heard the noises of splashing and growling, had crept down to the river with his vixen.
And a hundred yards below the Fireplay Shiner found a kelt with fungus on its head and tail and flank, lying on its side in water not deep enough to cover it. Salar had got so far with the last of his strength, and had died in the darkness.
The spate rose rapidly, and washed all away, to the sea which gives absolution alike to the living and the dead.
In the redd of the moorland stream the eggs were hatching, little fish breaking from confining skins to seek life, each one alone, save for the friend of all, the Spirit of the waters. And the star-stream of heaven flowed westward, to far beyond the ocean where salmon moving from deep waters to the shallows of the islands leapt — eager for immortality.