Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXVI

’Tis not for every one to catch a salmon.

EVERY one who knows Middleshire knows that the little lake of Beaumere is bounded on the one side by the Westhope and on the other by the Wilderleigh property, the boundary being the ubiquitous Drone which traverses the mere in a desultory fashion, and with the assistance of several springs makes Beaumere what it is, namely (to quote from the local guidebook), “the noblest expanse of water surrounded by some of the most picturesque scenery in Middleshire.”

Thither Doll and Hugh took their way in the leisurely manner of men whose orthodoxy obliges them to regard Sunday as a day of rest.

Doll pointed out to Hugh the coppice which his predecessor Mr. George Loftus had planted. Hugh regarded it without excitement. Both agreed that it was coming on nicely. Hugh thought he ought to do a little planting at his own place. Doll said you could not do everything at once. A large new farm was the next object of interest. “Uncle George rebuilt Greenfields from the ground,” remarked Doll, as they crossed the high road and took to the harvesting fields where “the ricks stood grey to the sun.”

Hugh nodded. Doll thought he was a very decent chap, though rather low spirited. Hugh thought that if Mr. George Loftus had been alive he might have consulted him. In an amicable silence, broken occasionally by whistling for Crack, who hurried blear-eyed and asthmatic out of rabbit holes, the pair reached Beaumere; and, after following the path through the wood, came suddenly upon the little lake locked in the heart of the steeply climbing forest.

Doll stood still and pointed with his stick for fear Hugh might overlook it. “I come here every Sunday,” he remarked.

A sense of unreality and foreboding seized on Hugh, as the still face of the water looked up at him. Where had he seen it before, this sea of glass reflecting the yellow woods that stooped to its very edge? What had it to do with him?

“I’ve been here before,” he said, involuntarily.

“I daresay,” said Doll. “Newhaven marches with me here. The boundary is by that clump of silver birch. The Drone comes in there, but you can’t see it. The Newhavens are friends of yours, aren’t they?”

“Acquaintances,” said Hugh absently, looking hard at the water. He had never been here before. Memory groped blindly for a lost link, as one who momentarily recognises a face in a crowd, and tries to put a name to it and fails. As the face disappears, so the sudden impression passed from Hugh’s mind.

“I expect you have been here with them,” said Doll. “Good man, Newhaven.”

“I used to see a good deal of them at one time,” said Hugh, “but they seem to have forgotten me of late.”

“Oh! that’s her,” said Doll. “She is always oft and on with people. Takes a fancy one day and a dislike the next. But he’s not like that. You always know where to find him. Solid man, Newhaven. He doesn’t say much, but what he says he sticks to.”

“He gives one that impression,” said Hugh.

“I rather think he is there now,” said Doll, pointing to the further shore. “I see a figure moving, and two little specks. I should not wonder if it were him and the boys. They often come here on Sunday afternoons.”

“You have long sight,” said Hugh. He had met Lord Newhaven several times since the drawing of lots, and they had always greeted each other with cold civility. But Hugh avoided him when he could without drawing attention to the fact that he did so.

“Are you going over to his side?” he asked.

“Rather not,” said Doll. “I have never set a single trimmer or fired a shot beyond that clump of birch, or Uncle George before me.”

The two men picked their way down the hillside among the tall thin tree trunks. There was no one except the dogs at the keeper’s cottage in a clearing half-way down. Doll took the key of the boathouse from a little hole under the eaves.

“I think Withers must be out,” he remarked at last, after knocking and calling at the locked door and peering through the closed window. Hugh had been of that opinion for some time. “Gone out with his wife, I expect. Never mind, we can do without him.”

They went slipping over the dry beech-mast to the boathouse. Doll unlocked the door and climbed into one of the boats, Hugh and Crack followed. They got a perch rod off a long shelf, and half a dozen trimmers. Then they pulled out a little way and stopped near an archipelago of water-lily leaves.

Doll got out the perch rod and float and made a cast.

“It’s not fishing,” he said apologetically, half to his guest and half to his Maker. “But we are bound to get some baits.”

Hugh nodded and gazed down at the thin forest below. He could see the perch moving in little companies in the still water beyond the water trees. Presently a perch, a very small one, out alone for the first time, came up, all stiff head and shoulders and wagging tail, to the carelessly covered hook.

“Don’t, don’t, you young idiot,” said Hugh below his breath. But the perch knew that the time had come when a perch must judge for himself.

The float curtsied and went under, and in another second the little independent was in the boat.

“There are other fools in the world besides me, it seems,” said Hugh to himself.

“He’ll do, but I wish he was a dace,” said Doll, slipping the victim into a tin with holes in the top. “Half a dozen will be enough.”

They got half a dozen, baited and set the trimmers white side up, and were turning to row back, when Doll’s eye became suddenly fixed.

“By Jove, there’s something at it,” he said, pointing to a trimmer at some distance.

Both men looked intently at it. Crack felt that something was happening, and left off smelling the empty fish-can.

The trimmer began to nod, to tilt, and then turned suddenly upside down, and remained motionless.

“He’s running the line off it,” said Doll.

As he spoke the trimmer gave one jerk and went under. Then it reappeared, awkwardly bustling out into the open.

“Oh! hang it all, it’s Sunday,” said Doll with a groan. “We can’t be catching pike on a Sunday.” And he caught up the oars and rowed swiftly towards the trimmer.

As soon as they were within a boat’s length it disappeared again, came up again, and went pecking along the top of the water. Doll pursued warily and got hold of it.

“Gently now,” he said, as he shipped the oars. “He’ll go under the boat and break us if we don’t look out. I’ll play him, and you shove the net under him. Damn! — God forgive me! — We have come out without a landing-net. Good Lord, Scarlett, you can’t gaff him with a champagne-opener. There, you pull him in, and I’ll grab him somehow. I’ve done it before. Crack, lie down, you infernal fool. Scarlett, if you pull him like that you’ll lose him to a certainty. By George, he’s a big one.” Doll tore off his coat and pulled up his shirtsleeves. “He’s going under the boat. If you let him go under the boat, I tell you he’ll break us. I’m quite ready.” Doll was rubbing his waistcoat-buttons against the gunwale. “Bring him in gradually. For goodness’ sake, keep your feet off the line, or, if he makes a dash, he’ll break you. Give him line. Keep your elbows out. Keep your hands free. Don’t let him jerk you. If you don’t give him more line when he runs, you’ll lose him. He’s not half done yet. Confound you, Scarlett, hold on for all you’re worth. All right, old chap, all right. Don’t mind me. You’re doing it first-class. Right as rain. Now, now. By George, did you see him that time? He’s a nailer. Steady on him. Bring him in gently. Keep an even pull on him. Keep steady.”

Doll craned over the gunwale, his arms in the water. There was a swirl, a momentary glimpse of a stolid fish face, and heavy shoulders, and the boat righted itself.

“Missed him as I live!” gasped Doll. “Bring him in again.”

Hugh let out the slippery line and drew it in again slowly, hand over hand. Doll’s round head was over the side, his long legs spread adhesively in the bottom of the boat. Crack, beyond himself with excitement, got on the seat and barked without ceasing.

“He’s coming up again,” said Doll gutturally, sliding forward his left hand. “I must get him by the eyes, and then I doubt if I can lift him. He’s a big brute. He’s dragging the whole boat and everything. He’s about done now. Steady! Now!”

The great side of the pike lay heaving on the surface for a second, and Doll’s left forefinger and thumb were groping for its eyes. But the agonised pike made a last effort. Doll had him with his left hand, but could not raise him. “Pull him in now for all you’re worth,” he roared to Hugh, as he made a grab with his right hand. His legs began to lose their grip under the violent contortions of the pike. The boat tilted madly. Hugh reached forward to help him. There was a frantic effort, and it capsized.

“Bad luck,” said Doll, coming up sputtering, shaking his head like a spaniel. “But we shall get him yet. He’s bleeding like a pig. He’ll come up directly. Good Lord, the water’s like ice. We must be over one of the springs. I suppose you are all right, Scarlett.”

Hugh had come up, but in very different fashion.

“Yes,” he said faintly, clutching the upturned boat.

“I’m not sure,” said Doll, keeping going with one hand, “that we had not better get ashore, and fetch the other boat. The water’s enough to freeze one.”

“I can’t swim,” said Hugh, his teeth chattering.

He was a delicate man at the best of times, and the cold was laying hold of him.

Doll looked at his blue lips and shaking hands, and his face became grave. He measured the distance to the shore with his eye. It had receded in a treacherous manner.

“I’m not much of a performer myself,” he said, “since I broke my arm last winter, but I can get to the shore. The question is, can you hold on while I go back and bring the other boat, or shall we have a try at getting back together?”

“I can hold on all right,” said Hugh, instantly aware that Doll did not think he could tow him to land, but was politely ready to risk his existence in the attempt.

“Back directly,” said Doll, and without a second’s delay he was gone. Hugh put out his whole strength in the endeavour to raise himself somewhat out of the ice-cold water. But the upturned boat sidled away from him like a skittish horse, and after grappling with it he only slipped back again exhausted, and had to clutch it as best he could.

As he clung to the gunwale he heard a faint coughing and gasping close to his ear. Some one was drowning. Hugh realised that it must be Crack, under the boat. He called to him, he chirruped as if all were well. He stretched one hand as far as he could under the boat feeling for him. But he could not reach him. Presently the faint difficult sound ceased, began again, stopped, and was heard no more.

A great silence seemed to rush in on the extinction of that small sound. It stooped down and enveloped Hugh in it. Everything was very calm, very still. The boat kept turning slowly round and round, the only thing that moved. The sunlight quivered on the wet upturned keel. Already it was drying in patches. Hugh watched it. The cold was sapping his powers as if he were bleeding.

“I could have built a boat in the time Loftus takes to fetch one,” he said to himself, and he looked round him. No sign of Doll. He was alone in the world. The cold was gaining on him slowly, surely. Why had he on such heavy gloves which made him fumble so clumsily. He looked at his bare cut hands, and realised that their grip was leaving them. He felt that he was in measurable distance of losing his hold.

Suddenly a remembrance flashed across him of the sinister face of the water as it had first looked up at him through the trees. Now he understood. This was the appointed place for him to die. Hugh tightened his hold with his right hand, for his left was paralysed.

“I will not,” he said. “Nothing shall induce me. I will live and marry Rachel.”

The cold advanced suddenly on him as at the point of the bayonet.

“Why not die?” said another voice. “Will it be easier in three months’ time than it is now? Will it ever be so easy again? See how near death is to life, a wheel within a wheel, two rings linked together. A touch, and you pass from one to the other.”

Hugh looked wildly round him. The sun lay warm upon the tree tops. It could not be that he was going to die here and now; here in the living sunshine, with the quiet friendly faces of the hills all round him.

He strengthened his numb hold fiercely, all but lost it, regained it. Cramp long held at bay overcame him.

And the boat kept turning in the twilight. He reached the end of his strength and held on beyond it. He heard some one near at hand suffocating in long-drawn gasps. Not Crack this time, but himself.

The boat was always turning in the darkness.

The struggle was over. “It is better so,” said the other voice, through the roaring of a cataract near at hand. “Your mother will bear it better so. And all the long difficulties are over, and pain is past, and life is past, and sleep is best.”

“But Rachel?”

She was here in the warm swaying darkness. She was with him. She was Death. Death was only her arms round him in a great peace. Death was better than life. He let go the silly boat that kept him from her, and turned wholly to her, his closed eyes against her breast.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37