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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Haunt of the Water Vole


THE mill wheel has ceased to beat for the day. Swifts are screaming overhead, and sweeping round in their evening play, as though they were near home and had some interest in the dusty rafters. Next to an old castle, the swifts form part of the summer picture of a waterside meal mill. Swallows pass in and out of the door of a low shed, in tireless waiting on an impatient brood under the red slates.

With a restless stillness, midway between motion and quiet, the lade oozes on, confusing the eye that looks too long, and making the head reel. It is not a flow the angler loves : it lacks variety and play. Water-plants root in the muddy bottom, and spread over the still surface. In serried ranks they stand out from either bank. So near in some places is their approach, that scarce two yards of clear flow are left. Detached islets float in the centre. The dull brown of the pond weed is relieved by the green leaves, starred with the charming white flowers of the water crowfoot.

Trout abound. They fatten on the multitudinous crustaceans and molluscs, which crawl or dart through the shades of the submarine forest. Well cared for beneath, they do not readily take a lure. It is so in all weedy places. They hunt through the dim waterways, feed, and grow lazy, and have no need for more. Slow to rise, they are harder to get on shore. The breaking ring, and the disappearing hook, which send a thrill along the arm and bring the heart to the mouth, are often the beginning of calamity.

A little fish may be checked ; but, alas for the larger quarry, which must go to the bottom, and have line, and be tired out; if need be, led down the stream and drowned. No room is there for such play, for the delicate handling, which is the triumph of the angler's art, and gives the advantage to the slender gut. In the scurrying, the line is wound round the submerged stem. The end is not the capture of a large trout, but the loss of a good cast. The baffled angler has the satisfaction of knowing that the poacher-to whose methods the straight banks and smooth flow lend themselves-also is baffled. Every stream breeds such gentry in the adjoining villages. Some shoemaker of pseudo-sporting tastes, or idler with more practical ends in view. I f the fly is dropped with fear and trembling, in the half hope that the trout will disregard it, the bagnets can in -nowise be risked. Were the weeds removed, the poacher would hear of it next day, and appear next night. Clear of weeds, the stream would soon be clear of trout. Better to bear the ills we have, than fly to others which we know quite well.

From either side, half rings broaden out, to merge in the middle. The bigger trout are rising along the edge of the weeds. They are not all engaged down below. Crustacean and mollusc are not enough. The winged insect has the olden attraction. That grey-winged half-spinner rises a few feet in the air, and, as he dips again to the surface, is engulfed. A fresh series of rings break out. If art could only imitate that dip, and there be no lack in the skill of the maker of the fly! The weeds are so far an advantage. They veil all of the line save that which bears the end hook. Another turn of the reel, or a step back into the pasture field, to get the exact length. Just a yard above where that last fly went down, mine has gone down after it. Either the trout will come out, or to hook it was worth the cast.

Sand martins are scouting up and down, catching, on the rise, those spinners which trout secure on the dip. Between the two is little chance of escape. Both are eager on a grey-blue fly. The bird swerves, as though he meant something, but does not take the hook. I have caught a swallow, a swift even. The martin is a denizen of the stream and knows its ways. Over the trout it has the advantage of seeing the fisher.

The habit is to feed against the wind, and drifting swiftly back, to return on the beat. In the windless air, the scouting is either way. When it shares the same bank with the kingfisher - known on the stream, but not common - its bore is easily distinguished, in that it is level at the bottom and not pointed for drainage.

Among the sedges, just under the marguerites and the ragged robin, is a water-hen. It moves back a little that the blades may drop together and form a screen. From its vantage, it watches through a slit, betrayed by the sheen of its coral bill. No creature can be so quiet and secretive as a water-hen. Its nest of rough bank grasses is placed among the reeds, not much more than a foot above the surface. In the ordinary stream channel that would be fatal : the first spate would sweep it away. In the lade, any excessive rainfall flows over the wall of the dam. Doubtless the margin is sufficient. The children of the lade seem to know its moods. There is no stiffness in the reeds to support the weight, apart from the buoyancy of the water. The danger is a dry season, when the level sinks. The structure rises from the bottom, and seems to rest on the bent and doubled stalks.

The hen keeps bobbing, nodding its head, and twitching its white tail feathers; all the while addressing me in a low impatient chuckle. When I approach, it runs along the water weeds as a swifter way than swimming. Finally, it follows to see that I am really going. I can see its red beak round the white willow. The cock is invisible; but, from sounds, I know that he aids and abets.

The crisp bite across the grass stem tells a water vole at his evening meal. From the bareness round about, he has been busy for some time; now he attacks the pillar of a nodding panicle, as a beaver might the bole of a tree.

The bank is tunnelled with holes, in little groups, after some plan. The typical number is three. The centre bore goes straight in. From it diverge two runs, one on either side, which open on to the bank, and are of the nature of escape or bolt holes. Beyond the forking is a blind end. The arrangement may be different, or the number greater. A secret entrance opens under the water, when it might be inconvenient to rise to the surface; a hole in the top of the bank gives egress to the fields.

Further up, a second nibbles the mimulus leaves, o’ercanopied by the great yellow blossoms, with the spotted throats. Still another sits amid the white flowers of the pungent watercress. Overhead is a wild rose. The whin-covered warren of the rabbit, the remote form of the hare, the squirrel’s haunt in windy beech or elm, the wood-mouse under the sorrel among the woodland shadows are picturesque; but among rodents no environment is quite so fresh and charming as that of the water vole on the stream bank. And this lade is specially charming for the number and purity of its flowers.

So the diet is varied among the plants that grow there. Delightful changes, pleasant or piquant flavours are found by shifting just a little up or down. Only ignorance can charge with any disturbance of the stream life. The shiest trout moves not from its poise as the vole swims past. The true culprit, if mischief be done, we may surprise by and by.

A fourth is on a moist raft of water crowfoot, moored midway between bank and bank. With all the ease and at-homeness of a mouse picking crumbs from the parlour floor, he moves from place to place. His choice is dainty, his actions pleasant to watch, charming are his crumbs. He plucks a flower and holds it for a moment outside his mouth before drawing it in. Then he crosses to the next flower. So he zigzags, culling flowers, and only flowers. And when at length he dives from the edge, the platform he found starred is a mass of dull weeds. Nor is this the whim of one alone. Wherever voles are on a raft it is the water crowfoot, and all alike take only flowers. It may be that the little lamps of purest ray catch their feeble sight, or some dim sense of the charm draws them. The keeping down of the choking water-weeds is one of the thankless services the vole renders.

All these are young. Like children they keep near home, nibbling about the opening of their holes. In the distance they look black, tending to russet toward the head. Not all quite the same shade. I n furring, they may pass through certain transitions, or the voles of a stream may vary. The small ears are quite visible, also the minute eyes far down in the face. The bullet-shaped head is not unlike that of a young otter, for which they are sometimes taken by visitors from the remote city.

The feeding voles on the near side are diving from the bank. The splash is clearly distinguishable from the bell-like rise of a trout. Some keep out of sight, sending ripples in half-circles beyond the floating grass. Now and then one crosses, forming a long, more than half-immersed, moving cylinder. Unless alarmed, voles seldom dive or swim under water. Eyes and ears are hidden by nature's coat. They are much larger than the dark ones by the holes, and further from home. The greyish-brown hue is protective, less easily made out in the grey evening when they are mostly abroad. They are old voles. Crisp and harsh comes the sound of one feeding among the sedges.

Grey adult and dark young are together. The mother nibbles gravely, moving only far enough for fresh blades. The young is more sportive. In its play it indulges in the squirting motions of a guinea-pig. Habits of play, as well as of graver moods, run through families. So it is with the rodents. It appears even in the rabbit and the hare. They graze and play undisturbed by my near presence; from which I gather that they neither hear nor see well. Only some sharp sound or sudden movement alarms them.

Swimming under the far bank is what might be mistaken for a vole. Many of his deeds are put down to the innocent. The longer tail, pointed nose, beady eyes, and lighter coat mark him out as a rat, and therefore rascal. Any doubt is set at rest when he takes to the grass, and makes off over the field, with the characteristic jumping motion.

At the sluice, lade and stream join. Beyond is a stretch of still water, held back by the dam. In the sluggish iris-fringed deep, food multiplies. Here the trout fatten ; hither the fisher comes more than over the rest of the stream. The conditions of success are wind and night, mainly night.

There is no wind, not so much as would lift the down of a moulting chick, or the winged seed of a dandelion. But night is coming on - a midsummer night. All along the way the sun had a cloudless course. Just after the setting is a shade of dullness; then comes the afterglow. The water reflects the sky with a radiance almost dazzling.

Little trout are rising freely, it is their habit after sunset: a passing sportsman has got half a dozen. They are taking the blue dun. They will take the small fly till ten o'clock. It is a few minutes past nine. I have put on the large moth for night fishing, and am not disposed to change. I have never quite entered into the spirit of those who sum up a night's fishing as catching trout ; though I like well enough when the rise is on. So I watch the voles as they cross the water, bisecting the rings of the rising trout by the way, or flop down from the grass, sending half-circles from under the bank.

The characteristic croak comes down from a heron flapping home to the heronry. The notes of a thrush singing midsummer eve vesper in some distant wood die down. The sedge-warbler chatters on. The grey voles are hard to make out. Small trout no longer rise. Yet the gleam refuses to die out of the sky, or from the surface of the water.

Moths, indistinguishable from that on my cast, are flitting about, undisturbed, in the still air, and startlingly visible in the light that blots out all other life. Attracted by the pale radiance, as of a low burning taper, they hit the face with a palpable impact.

The shadow of the far bank broadens and deepens. Along the edge of the shadow, silent rings break and spread over the water, lit with the fading yet fadeless afterglow. In humpy pasture, the land rises into a broken crest. A belt of saffron sky lies along the purple ridge.

Under this tree will do. No gleam is between it and the far bank. The moth is cast. It vanishes in the uncertain light. No mark tells where it falls ; only the taut line will carry it to the edge of the shadow. Still the rings break in circles half eclipsed, and ere the last die down, new rings ripple into being. The trout are busy.

Again the moth is sent to where the ripples are thickest. Night-feeding trout are not scared by the false fly. Only they have a habit of leaving it alone, as they do now. The moth travels between tree and shadow. Meantime, the blue dun, scarce bigger than the midge dancing in the sunlight, is having an offer among the rest.

More frequent is the impact against the pale lamp of the face. Broader and deeper grows the shadow under the bank. At length comes the sullen plunge of a big trout, half caused by the discovery that he has made a mistake. He may have risen out of the water to come down on the lure, and been uncertain against the dull back ground. Trout which simply push their noses out are noiseless. The strike touches, but fails to hold him. From some distant steeple ten o'clock rings.

"Will you let me see your fly?" The dweller in the lonely mill house among the trees has come out for the air. There is a fascination in these encounters, in a dimness which blurs the outline and leaves the details to the imagination. He is not very sure of the moth. He prefers grouse and claret, an excellent combination in other things than flies. It is fitting that grouse should be the body, and claret the wings. Every angler has his favourite, and is a dogmatist, whom it is well to humour.

"And now I shall show you how to use it." I meekly hand him the rod. He lets the fly sink as though it were bait, and drift down the slow stream to the full stretch of the line. He jerks it sharply. Then, or not at all, the trout take. "At least it is so in this water, and I know it as well as a man can do, who keeps his rod up, and his cast on for whenever he is in the mood. " When the wheel was slowed and the race ceased to plash, little was there to do save fish. A life, vaguely charming, against a dim monotonous background must it be, with no road to one's fellows save the angler-worn pathway by the stream. Very like a vole's life, and his house on the bank might well have been named Vole's House.

"Besides you are too early. I never come out till eleven. Last night, I had a dozen trout between that and twelve." An hour ahead, and no promise of dark even then. The sun would never get into the shadow on this midsummer eve. Day would waken in the east. The dawn would kiss the setting.

A light is on the stream as I pass down, or so much of it as is not under the shadow of the far bank. The restless lapwing screams as he dips from his flight into the dimness of the meadow. If the action is meant to lead away from the nest, he must be stupid indeed to keep it up in the dark. It is hard to tell when he goes to bed and leaves the corncrake in possession, or which of the night calls is the less musical. A dimmer saffron tops the darker purple of the ridge, and passes to the zenith in a pink, flushed, pearl grey. Eleven o'clock rings from the distant steeple. My friend will be bringing out his rod, with the grouse and claret fly, for the night fishing.

The faintest vibration of sound, as from low water bells, tells of the trout rising in the narrow channel. On the crowfoot, lit up with its silver lamps, something moves and puts out light after light. The splash of the older voles comes at intervals, and the dark form crosses the breaking rings to reach the further bank.


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