The Children of Shallowford
IN the fall of the year we spent much time by the river, for that was the time of the salmon and sea trout ‘running’ up to spawn. Leaves swirled away with the brown waters of the river, roaring under the triple falls of the bridge. Walking with the children by the irregular ribands of moorland reed, feathers, sticks, tins, and bottles from the higher villages and hamlets, which lay over the banks in the meadows, I told the bigger boys what to do if one of the small children were to fall in. The only chance, I said, was to run downstream, in the hope of the drowning child’s being taken into an eddy where the water either stayed slack or returned upon the main stream. It would be useless to try to get the child by leaping into the raging spate. ‘Coo, yes,’ said Win dies, eying the white leaping waters below the falls. ‘Don’t be scared if a child falls in. Use your head. There may be a chance for one of you to grab it out, at an eddy. Let’s come downstream to Stag’s Head weir and see if any salmon are jumping. It’s time the greenbacks, or early clean-run fish, come into the river. Look, that’s what is meant by an eddy. See how the water’s pushed backwards by the main flow? You could get a grip on a kid washed into the deeper water here. It would be your only hope.’
As we climbed over the wooden fence by the road bridge, John said that no salmon would be running. Asked why, he explained that he had seen two ‘ould cranes’ standing beside the river higher up the valley, at the edge of the smooth water. If the fish had been below the falls, he said, the ‘ould cranes’ would have been at Stag’s Head falls,
I was delighted with this perception and reasoning, and said, ‘There, that’s a fine bit of natural reasoning. How came you to think of that, John?’ John colored slightly and said, ‘Well, you see, Dad, that’s what you told Windles and me last year, and I minded it.’
The river level was dropping fast, the water ‘fining down.’ The rain had not lasted long enough to break the springs after the unusual winter drought.
It took about half an hour to reach the falls. We went along the path through the wood, up and down a rocky place, more adventurous than by the meadow on the opposite bank. At the weir, we stood and gazed at the thundering water. After staring at the white cascades, it seemed as though the river above the fall were moving backwards with the landscape. No fish appeared, and we thought we would go and look at the spillway of the millstream which fed the water wheel of the sawmills. It was Sunday, and no men would be working there.
The water was now fallen enough for me to walk across the sill of the weir.
Taking off shoes and socks and rolling up trousers, I felt my way, foot sliding before foot, across the slippery slabs of stones mortared there. Halfway across, judging it to be safe, I returned for John.
The water was only about six inches deep, but it pushed hard against my legs, and made my bones ache. Dumping John on the other side, I returned for Margaret. She whimpered a bit, and clung tensely to me. Meanwhile, Windies had disappeared. Returning with painful feet, I joined the two on the other bank. We went along a path through brambles, and over a narrow plank parallel to the iron doors or fenders under which the millstream boiled and swilled. Then we were safe on grass.
We crossed the millstream again by a narrow bridge made of two planks laid together, and so to an island where heaps of sawdust were dumped among pines and rhododendrons. As the mill wheel was not working, the water escaped over a spillway. We sat above it and watched thin white water surging down the sloping stone face of the spillway.
We had not been there a minute when a sea trout appeared out of the white turmoil below and swam violently up the spillway. The water was shallow, and looked like white fleeces lying on the slope. The upper part of the fish’s body was in the air. Halfway up it was exhausted, and lay on its side a moment before being washed down again. As we watched, another smaller fish swam up and rested in a tiny eddy just below the lip of the spillway, where a rusty fragment of scythe blade was wedged. Slowly it edged itself up to the waterfleece before giving a leap and threshing up in what looked like a series of leaps.
The little spotted mother-of-pearl fish got to within three feet of the top and then clung with its paired fins to the stem of a dock which was growing in the crevice between two stones. The water, almost as thin as a snail’s shell, barely washed over it. It rested there nearly a quarter of an hour, its tail curved round the base of the dock. Just above it was a miniature turbulent pool about as big as my two hands, made by the dislodgement of one of the stones.
With a sudden spring and rapid flicker the fish was in this pool and lying there with its brown tail out of water.
‘Isn’t it a darling little fish?’ said Margaret. ‘Coo, sporty,’ said John.
It was past teatime, but the sun was shining, and we wanted to see what the fish would do. ‘Look, Margy and John, this fish has come about twenty miles in from the sea, after traveling scores of miles around the coast to find the mouth of the river where it had been born.’ ‘I hope they ould cranes won’t get it,’ said John. Hardly had he spoken when there was a harsh cry of Krar-k! in the sky, and, looking up, we saw a heron flying over. ‘It swore at us, John.’ ‘Bissley ould bird,’ said John. ‘I don’t like ‘n,’ said Margaret.
The next day, returning from school, John went alone to the spillway, and there he saw two large square tails, side by side in the turmoil below the spillway. As he was leaving he saw a heron circling above the treetops, so he went back and tapped the tails with a stick. ‘Cor, they salmonses didn’t half spark,’ said John.
Next Sunday the conditions for seeing salmon were better. It rained all the Saturday night, a proper sou’wester, the wind blowing smoke into the sitting room. A puff or two of smoke didn’t matter; it was aromatic wood smoke, not filthy coal smuts. It was a good feeling, when the rain was lashing down the windowpanes, and the wind thundering in the chimney, to sit before our fire and play games. Windles, now ten years old, played draughts with me, and, with two off my side of the board, he usually beat me. Then he played with John, with three off his side, and it was anyone’s game. Afterwards Robert, who was not yet three, played with John, but before John could win Robert usually got tired of draughts, and started playing wheels with them all over the board, and rolling them on the floor. While he was doing this, Baby Richard would be trying to climb up my trousers to see if there was anything eatable on the table.
When we set out in the morning the sun was shining through the clouds. ‘Why does Mummy never come for walks with us?’ asked Margy. We stopped. ‘Let’s ask her,’ I said. Now I came to think of it, Lœtitia hadn’t come for a walk with us for years. She was always working, from before seven in the morning until after ten at night. We asked her now, but she said she had the Sunday dinner to cook, and the little ones to look after. ‘Don’t worry about me; enjoy yourselves,’ she said. So the three children and I set out together. The boys had on their Wellington boots, and mackintoshes, and carried sticks. We should need the sticks, for we usually went along the slippery, rocky path at the bottom of the wood, which went up and down, sometimes very steep and narrow, then down again beside the river.
To get to the wood, we had to cross a small meadow. Our feet squelched in the grass. By the gate where we went in, two moorhens were squatting in the hedge. They flew away at once, back to the river. ‘I expect they’re a bit cold,’ remarked Windles, ‘and sitting up there to keep as dry as possible.’ John thought a moment before replying, ‘But they be water birds, like ducks, ban’t’m, and they shouldn’t mind a bit of wet, I should think.’ ‘Perhaps they are up there to keep out of the way of otters,’ and I told them how once I had found a rabbit crouching in the grass, badly hurt by an otter, which had mauled it and then apparently let it go again. Otters usually live on fish, which they hunt under water and eat on the banks; but when the river is in spate they find it hard to catch fish, and hunt the runners, ditches, and rabbit warrens.
The path through the wood was almost hidden by leaves which had been blown down in the gale. Branches of fir trees lay there too, torn off by the wind, and also fir cones. We picked our way along the path, taking care to tread firmly on the patches of rock which showed along the path. At length we came to where the path rose steeply, and a slip on the gray shaly rock would mean a fall directly into the Swollen river below. Rubber Wellington boots are liable to slip on rock, and so I climbed below and stood at the edge of the river, in case one of the children should slip and fall. The river was brown-colored and running as fast as a trotting horse; but it was fining down; most of the washed-out soil from the field drains and ditches had been left in the eddies, or gone out from the distant estuary. The falls were about a quarter of a mile below, and we could already hear the great noise of the tumbling waters.
As we came nearer the weir, the dull growling echoing back from the trees became a roar. A mist of spray hung about the trees beside the falls. The water bended over the weir-sill smoothly before gashing itself white and plunging on the rocks below. Half a tree, uprooted and washed down so far by the greater spate of the night before, was lodged on the rocks. We stood on the bank below the weir, in the misty roar, and suddenly we started back, for from just below our feet a big gray bird flew up, and flapped desperately away over the weir. ‘Darned ould crane!’ cried Windles and John together, and burst out laughing, for they too had been startled. For an instant it looked as though the heron’s wings might strike the branches of the uprooted tree, but it just cleared them. It was nearly five feet across the wings, with a long thin neck and sharp yellow beak, and legs atrail like stilts. It had been standing on a ledge of rock below, waiting to spear any trout that should come within striking distance. There were many trout, both silver sea trout and brown river trout, trying to jump over the weir, and the heron was amusing itself lancing them. The larger female fish it picked open, for the rows of berry-like eggs within.
We had not been waiting more than a minute when we saw a fish about a yard long leap out of the white water and fall halfway up the face of the weir. As it struck the water again it swam vigorously, and we could see it hanging there, as though trembling violently. It clung there for about ten seconds, holding by its paired fins, and then it gave up, and was washed backwards, turning upside down in the boiling white water, and away in the surge of white waves. The water was too strong for so big a fish.
Almost immediately afterwards another salmon leapt about two yards from where we were standing. It fell on a hidden branch of the tree, and clung there. We could see the water pounding its body. Then with a half spring and desperate wriggle it was two feet higher up, swimming with all its strength, gradually moving upwards. But the fall of water was too heavy, and it too was swept backwards. We saw the spots on its red flank and yellow head as it turned over. It was a cock fish, a ‘soldier,’ for at spawning time some of the cocks turn almost as red as a brick, and their heads go as yellow as a canary. It was the wedding dress of the new-run fish. He had come into the river direct from the sea.
The hen salmon varied in color from dark bronze to olive-brown. Some of the fish had yellow fungus patches on fin and scale; these were the fish which had come into the river months before the spawning season, and had languished in the shallow waters of summer without feeding.
We saw several salmon trying to jump the weir, but none got up. There was a fish pass at the side of the weir, but the wooden door was closed. We tried to lever up the fender with rotten sticks, but it was stuck too tight. So I stood in the water to my waist and heaved it up with my fingers underneath the halfrotten bottom. Then we went back to below the weir, and watched the mud being swept away. Afterwards, when it had cleared, we saw a reddish back fin and tail tip sticking out of the water, in the calm between stream and eddy now formed. I touched it with my stick, and it did not move. Perhaps it was a fish that had hurt itself on the rocks, and was feeling numb along its body. So I climbed down and, putting my arm in the water, pushed it away into safety — for the heron would return when we were gone, and would stab it with its beak. The salmon slowly swam away.
Too soon it was time to think of returning for dinner. What a nuisance meals were! We said we would wait until we saw a fish get over the weir. We were lucky, for soon afterwards a sea trout, about twelve inches long, succeeded where the heavier fish had failed. The small silver fish, with dark spots and clove-shaped marks on its flanks, leapt with superb confidence out of the boiling white water, fell on a mossy rock, and, after resting a few seconds, started to swim straight up into the solid fall of water. We watched it moving inch by inch upwards, seeming to vibrate within the water, and to be drawn upwards slowly on an invisible string; and at the very lip of the water it gave a sort of spring, and was over the bend of the sill and in the pool above. There it gave a leap and fell back with a splash, as though of joy for its success. It seemed a good ending to our visit, and we went home to dinner, only fifty minutes late.
A few weeks later, in the middle of January, I went away to London. While I was there, something happened that I learned of only when I read About My Life. When I questioned Lœtitia and John about it, I pieced the facts together, into the following account. I have also got permission from the author of AboutMy Life to print his book, or such selections of it as are deemed fit to be published (and one chapter at least is starkly realistic, with ancient AngloSaxon words that are not usually printed). In those pages the reader will notice the laconic calm of John’s classic style, in comparison with my subjective or romantic idiom. Here is the fuller story of John’s walk beside the river with Robbie and Rosie.
At this time Robbie and Rosie were two and a quarter years old, and John was seven. John was a kind child, and always ready to help or amuse the younger children. Robbie and Rosie loved being together, and playing together, but they also loved the same toys. Often, therefore, when they were left alone in the nursery, there came from that room screams and swearwords, and, looking through the upper glass panels of the door, the beholder would observe two diminutive individuals pulling one another’s fair hair, while hitting, tugging, kicking, and even biting. But when John played with them, Rosie and Robbie loved one another. Rosie had only to go away for a week to stay with her grannie for Robbie to be most unhappy; and when she returned, cries of delight would accompany the armfuls of his toys held out for Rosie to accept. There was a difference between them that I observed more than once. If Robbie had a bag of sweets, he would offer them all round; if Rosie had a bag, she would hold on to it if grown-ups were about. Alone with the children, however, she would become more open — less of the screwed-up-tight sort of feeling — and would naturally share with the others. Her grandmother adored her, and upset the balance of the child’s personality; but among children Rosie was unprecocious, natural.
Holding in each of his small hands a still smaller hand, John set out. It was a Sunday afternoon, and for a treat he thought he would take them to Stag’s Head weir. ‘I’ll take ‘ee to see Daddy’s samons; you’ll see them jumping about, you will.’ ‘Yaas, us wull, won’t us? See Daddy’s samons,’ said Robbie to Rosie and Rosie to Robbie.
It was too difficult to go by the woodland path, so John led the two smaller children along the road to the bridge, and then over a keeper’s stile into a meadow. They walked through the grass. The river was still high after the rains. The water ran fast, much faster than they could walk. White waves broke over hidden rocks. ‘There be lots of samons in there, only you can’t see ‘m,’ said John. ‘Yaas, there be lots, ban’t ‘m, Robbie?’ ‘Yaas, Rausie, there be lots and lots.’ The river swirled deeper under the trees on the opposite bank. It was salmon-running wrater, sparkling with oxygen. The first flush of dirty road and ditch water had ceased to stain the sea of Bideford Bay for several days.
The trio had to unclasp hands in order to get through a black iron-railing fence, but, once through, they joined up again and went on beside the deepening water of the mill pool. When almost across the second meadow John stopped, just as he remembered his fat her had once stopped, and said: ‘Can you hear the weir roaring? ‘Tes the thunder of the falls!’ They listened. Robbie said, ‘Yaas, Robbie can hear, Johnnie.’ And Rosie said, ‘I can hear too, can’t I, Robbie?’ She stared at the sky. ‘No, that’s rookses cawing up there, Rosie; that ban’t the thunder of the falls,’ said John in his gentle voice. ‘Yaas, it be, ban’t it?’ cried Rosie. ‘Come along, Johnnie will show ‘ee the weir,’ and the three trailed on through the grass.
On the right bank of the river, at the apex made by bank and weir, the water wimpled deeply away under the iron fenders or doors, on its way to feed the mossy waiter wheel. The iron fenders could be worked up or down, to pass a larger or smaller flow to the wheel. When let down, the doors stopped all flow of water. The millstream — or leat, as it is called in Devon — was about a hundred yards long, about eight feet wide, and six feet deep. The weight of water falling continually on the troughs of the wheel bore it round, and turned a shaft on which pulleys revolved to turn belts to work tho saws which cut tree trunks into posts and rails and planks, to repair the gates and cottages and fences and farmsteads of his Lordship’s estate.
‘’Tes Cold Pudding who owns all this yurr wood you see,’ said John, in a hushed voice. ‘He’s a dear little man, if you don’t vex him by saying he rides a sheep instead of a hunter. Us’ll go quietly now, Rosie and Robbie, and us may see Cold Pudding.’
The great circular saws, which whirl round and cut swiftly into the trunks with rasping, screeching noises, are silent on Sunday. No timber wagons, with horses mudded to the knees, stand there; no men heave at the straight and massive trunks with crowbars, or make piles of new-sawn wood. The sawmills are silent, save for the thresh and ply of water cascading down the spillway of the overflow.
Stepping cautiously to the waterside, John peered into the deep, dark millstream. Was that a salmon down there? Robbie and Rosie peered too. No, it was only a bit of an ‘ould tree,’ declared John. Robbie and Rosie both declared it was only a bit of an ‘ould tree.’
A thick plank crossed the millstream, lying almost level with the water. It was on this plank that wheelbarrowloads of sawdust were taken, and dumped on the waste ground beside the river. Beyond were the loveliest heaps of sawdust. Oh, they must get across, and play with them! ‘Be careful,’ said John, as all three crossed slowly on the plank. It was scarcely more than a foot wide. The water rippled as they trod on it.
A happy child has no sense of time, and hardly an idea of place. It lives as the air moves. Among the sawdust, John and Robbie and Rosie played, crying to one another to see what each one was doing, discovering, pretending. They ran up and down and fell over, they grabbed handfuls and flung them into the air, they chanted ‘ King of the Castle ‘ and Robbie said he would t-t-t-tell Jannie suthin’: he would have a sawmill when he was a man, so’s he could always play all day with the sawdust.
One heap was white, from ash trees, sawn for making parts of carts; another was pink, from the thousand-year-old yews. After a while, Robbie said, ‘I-I-II’ll tell ‘ee suthin’! Let’s pretend us be feeding Daddy’s samons!’ and ran with two fistfuls to the water’s edge. He stood on the plank and cast handfuls into the water, where it floated. It made patterns as of lace, the idle current slowly gathering it to the plank at their feet, then slowly sucking it under. Robbie went back for some more. He was enchanted by the way it lay on the water, and stood there alone while John and Rosie played in the pink heap. ‘Come yurr, Rausie, midear, ‘tes sporty,’ he cried, and thought it so nice that it must be walked on. He walked on it.
Hearing the splash, John turned round. ‘Oh,’ he said quietly. He went white in the face. Rosie looked at Johnnie, and, seeing his face, began to whimper. ‘Robbie’s valled in,’ said John, as the matted curls, covered with sawdust, showed by the plank. Rosie clutched herself and screamed. Her cries echoed back from the sheds of the silent sawmills.
John remembered the whistle with which Daddy called him. So he gave the whistle, hoping that Windles might hear it. But John couldn’t whistle very loud. ‘Oh,’ said John again, for Robbie was screaming as he struggled in the water.
John ran to the plank and caught hold of Robbie’s hair. Recently Mother had wanted to cut it, for it fell lower than his shoulders; but Daddy always said, ‘No, I love to see it; it is beautiful hair, and I want to see it even longer, right down to his waist, in fact.’ This always vexed Mother, for she had to comb it out and brush it when Robbie came home after making mud pies by the river. John clutched the long hair, and tried to pull Robbie out. He was not strong enough. The current was trying to drag Robbie under the plank. Rosie saw Robbie’s rubber Wellingtons drawn off his feet, and screamed all the more as she peered into the water. Rosie is shortsighted, and bends down to peer at things.
‘Keep away, Rosie,’ said John, faintly pink in the face. ‘Go on the grass; get away from the water, I tull ‘ee!’ But Rosie screamed more and more and clutched herself tighter, all drawn up into a knot of fear. John let go Robbie’s hair, and, taking her by the hand, he yelled, ‘Stand still there, I tell ‘ee, wull ‘ee?’ He knelt on the plank, straining and tugging to get Robbie out of the water. Oh dear! Robbie was too heavy. He was spluttering and choking. ‘Help!’ cried John, but only the rooks answered, cawing overhead.
Then he remembered what he had been told he must do if a child fell in the river during a heavy spate; he must run downstream to an eddy, in the hope of catching and pulling out the child where the current was checked or even backward-turning. He must never try to pull a child out against the power of water. So John let go Robbie’s hair, watched him carried under the plank, and, trembling, grabbed the hair again on the other side. Holding on with all his strength, he pulled Robbie to the side, and after a long time managed to get him out. He staggered with him over the plank, and held his head down while he sicked up a lot of water.
When Robbie was better, but still crying, and Rosie howling, John carried Rosie over, stiff and heavy with fear. He took each by a hand and led them home. He carried Robbie over the muddy places, for Robbie had only his socks on, and they were half off. At home Mother put Robbie into a hot bath, and soon all was well again. And then John told Robbie a story about a salmon that was wearing his Wellingtons, at the bottom of the river.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the chronicler of these little tales never learned of what happened until he read it, half a year later, in John’s book. He was away in London when it happened, and no mention of it was made in any letter from Shallowford. It is never the truth that worries a man; it is lack of truth.