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THE sword-flags are rusting at their edges, and their sharp points are turned. On the matted and entangled sedges lie the scattered leaves which every rush of the October wind hurries from the boughs. Some fall on the water and float slowly with the current, brown and yellow spots on the dark surface. The grey willows bend to the breeze; soon the osier beds will look reddish as the wands are stripped by the gusts. Alone the thick polled alders remain green, and in their shadow the brook is still darker. Through a poplar's thin branches the wind sounds as in the rigging of a ship; for the rest, it is silence.
[a The thrushes have not forgotten the frost of the morning, and will not sing at noon; the summer visitors have flown and the moorhens feed quietly. The plantation by the brook is silent, for the sedges, though they have drooped and become entangled, are not dry and sapless yet to rustle loudly. They will rustle dry enough next spring, when the sedge-birds come. Along with ey-bed borders the brook and is more resorted to by sedge-reedlings, or sedge-birds, as they are variously called, than any place I know, even in the remotest country.
Generally it has been difficult to see them, because the withey is in leaf when they come, and the leaves and sheaves of innumerable rods hide them, while the ground beneath is covered by a thick growth of sedges and flags, to which the birds descend. It happened once, however, that the withey stoles had been polled, and in the spring the boughs were short and small. At the same time, the easterly winds checked the sedges, so that they were hardly half their height, and the flags were thin, and not much taller, when the sedge-birds came, so that they for once found but little cover, and could be seen to advantage.
There could not have been less than fifteen in the plantation, two frequented some bushes beside a pond near by, some stayed in scattered willows farther down the stream. They sang so much they scarcely seemed to have time to feed. While approaching one that was singing by gently walking on the sward by the roadside, or where thick dust deadened the footsteps, suddenly another would commence in the low thorn hedge on a branch, so near that it could be touched with a walking-stick. Yet though so near the bird was not wholly visible — he was partly concealed behind a fork of the bough. This is a habit of the sedge-birds. Not in the least timid, they chatter at your elbow, and yet always partially hidden.
If in the withey, they choose a spot where the rods cross or bunch together. If in the sedges, though so close it seems as if you could reach forward and catch him, he is behind the stalks. To place some obstruction between themselves and any one passing is their custom; but that spring, as the foliage was so thin, it only needed a little dexterity in peering to get a view. The sedge-bird perches aside, on a sloping willow rod, and, slightly raising his head, chatters, turning his bill from side to side. He is a very tiny bird, and his little eye looks out from under a yellowish streak. His song at first sounds nothing but chatter.
After listening a while the ear finds a scale in it — an arrangement and composition — so that, though still a chatter, it is a tasteful one. At intervals he intersperses a chirp, exactly the same as that of the sparrow, a chirp with a tang in it. Strike a piece of metal, and besides the noise of the blow, there is a second note, or tang. The sparrow's chirp has such a note sometimes, and the sedge-bird brings it in — tang, tang, tang. This sound has given him his country name of brook-sparrow, and it rather spoils his song. Often the moment he has concluded he starts for another willow stole, and as he flies begins to chatter when halfway across, and finishes on a fresh branch.
But long before this another bird has commenced to sing in a bush adjacent; a third takes it up in the thorn hedge; a fourth in the bushes across the pond; and from farther down the stream comes a faint and distant chatter. Ceaselessly the competing gossip goes on the entire day and most of the night; indeed, sometimes all night through. On a warm spring morning, when the sunshine pours upon the willows, and even the white dust of the road is brighter, bringing out the shadows in clear definition, their lively notes and quick motions make a pleasant commentary on the low sound of the stream rolling round the curve.
A moorhen's call comes from the hatch. Broad yellow petals of marsh-marigold stand up high among the sedges rising from the greyish-green ground, which is covered with a film of sun-dried aquatic grass left dry by the retiring waters. Here and there are lilac-tinted cuckoo-flowers, drawn up on taller stalks than those that grow in the meadows. The black flowers of the sedges are powdered with yellow pollen; and dark green sword-flags are beginning to spread their fans. But just across the road, on the topmost twigs of birch poles, swallows twitter in the tenderest tones to their loves. From the oaks in the meadows on that side titlarks mount above the highest bough and then descend, sing, sing, singing, to the grass.
A jay calls in a circular copse in the midst of the meadow; solitary rooks go over to their nests in the elms on the hill; cuckoos call, now this way and now that, as they travel round. While leaning on the grey and lichen-hung rails by the brook, the current glides by, and it is the motion of the water and its low murmur which renders the place so idle; the sunbeams brood, the air is still but full of song. Let us, too, stay and watch the petals fall one by one from a wild apple and float down on the stream.
But now in autumn the haws are red on the thorn, the swallows are few as they were in the earliest spring; the sedge-birds have flown, and the redwings will soon be here. The sharp points of the sword-flags are turned, their edges rusty, the forget-me-nots are gone. October's winds are too searching for us to linger beside the brook, but still it is pleasant to pass by and remember the summer days. For the year is never gone by; in a moment we can recall the sunshine we enjoyed in May, the roses we gathered in June, the first wheatear we plucked as the green corn filled. Other events go by and are forgotten, and even the details of our own lives, so immensely important to us at the moment, in time fade from the memory till the date we fancied we should never forget has to be sought in a diary. But the year is always with us; the months are familiar always; they have never gone by.
So with the red haws around and the rustling leaves it is easy to recall the flowers. The withey plantation here is full of flowers in summer; yellow iris flowers in June when midsummer comes, for the iris loves a thunder-shower. The flowering flag spreads like a fan from the root, the edges overlap near the ground, and the leaves are broad as sword-blades, indeed the plant is one of the largest that grows wild. It is quite different from the common flag with three grooves — bayonet shape — which appears in every brook. The yellow iris is much more local, and in many country streams may be sought for in vain, so that so fine a display as may be seen here seemed almost a discovery to me.
They were finest in the year of rain, 1879, that terrible year which is fresh in the memory of all who have any interest in out-of-door matters. At midsummer the plantation was aglow with iris bloom. The large yellow petals were everywhere high above the sedge; in one place a dozen, then two or three, then one by itself, then another bunch. The marsh was a foot deep in water, which could only be seen by parting the stalks of the sedges, for it was quite hidden under them. Sedges and flags grew so thick that everything was concealed except the yellow bloom above.
One bunch grew on a bank raised a few inches above the flood which the swollen brook had poured in, and there I walked among them; the leaves came nearly up to the shoulder, the golden flowers on the stalks stood equally high. It was a thicket of iris. Never before had they risen to such a height; it was like the vegetation of tropical swamps, so much was everything drawn up by the continual moisture. Who could have supposed that such a downpour as occurred that summer would have had the effect it had upon flowers? Most would have imagined that the excessive rain would have destroyed them; yet never was there such floral beauty as that year. Meadow-orchis, buttercups, the yellow iris, all the spring flowers came forth in extraordinary profusion. The hay was spoiled, the farmers ruined, but their fields were one broad expanse of flower.
As that spring was one of the wettest, so that of the year in present view was one of the driest, and hence the plantation between the lane and the brook was accessible, the sedges and flags short, and the sedge-birds visible. There is a beech in the plantation standing so near the verge of the stream that its boughs droop over. It has a number of twigs around the stem — as a rule the beech-bole is clear of boughs, but some which are of rather stunted growth are fringed with them. The leaves on the longer boughs above fall off and voyage down the brook, but those on the lesser twigs beneath, and only a little way from the ground, remain on, and rustle, dry and brown, all through the winter.
Under the shelter of these leaves, and close to the trunk, there grew a plant of flag — the tops of the flags almost reached to the leaves — and all the winter through, despite the frosts for which it was remarkable, despite the snow and the bitter winds which followed, this plant remained green and fresh. From this beech in the morning a shadow stretches to a bridge across the brook, and in that shadow my trout used to lie. The bank under the drooping boughs forms a tiny cliff a foot high, covered with moss, and here I once observed shrew mice diving and racing about. But only once, though I frequently passed the spot; it is curious that I did not see them afterwards.
Just below the shadow of the beech there is a sandy, oozy shore, where the footprints of moorhens are often traceable. Many of the trees of the plantation stand in water after heavy rain; their leaves drop into it in autumn, and, being away from the influence of the current, stay and soak, and lie several layers thick. Their edges overlap, red, brown, and pale yellow, with the clear water above and shadows athwart it, and dry white grass at the verge. A horse-chestnut drops its fruit in the dusty road; high above its leaves are tinted with scarlet.
It was at the tail of one of the arches of the bridge over the brook that my favourite trout used to lie. Sometimes the shadow of the beech came as far as his haunts,' that was early in the morning, and for the rest of the day the bridge itself cast a shadow. The other parapet faces the south, and looking down from it the bottom of the brook is generally visible, because the light is so strong. At the bottom a green plant may be seen waving to and fro in summer as the current sways it. It is not a weed or flag, but a plant with pale green leaves, and looks as if it had come there by some chance; this is the water-parsnip.
By the shore on this, the sunny side of the bridge, a few forget-me-nots grow in their season, water crow's-foot flowers, flags lie along the surface and slowly swing from side to side like a boat at anchor. The breeze brings a ripple, and the sunlight sparkles on it; the light reflected dances up the piers of the bridge. Those that pass along the road are naturally drawn to this bright parapet where the brook winds brimming full through green meadows. You can see right to the bottom; you can see where the rush of the water has scooped out a deeper channel under the arches, but look as long as you like there are no fish.
The trout I watched so long, and with such pleasure, was always on the other side, at the tail of the arch, waiting for whatever might come through to him. There in perpetual shadow he lay in wait, a little at the side of the arch, scarcely ever varying his position except to dart a yard up under the bridge to seize anything he fancied, and drifting out again to bring up at his anchorage. If people looked over the parapet that side they did not see him; they could not see the bottom there for the shadow, or if the summer noonday cast a strong beam even then it seemed to cover the surface of the water with a film of light which could not be seen through. There are some aspects from which even a picture hung on the wall close at hand cannot be seen. So no one saw the trout; if any one more curious leant over the parapet he was gone in a moment under the arch.
Folk fished in the pond about the verge of which the sedge-birds chattered, and but a few yards distant; but they never looked under the arch on the northern and shadowy side, where the water flowed beside the beech. For three seasons this continued. For three summers I had the pleasure to see the trout day after day whenever I walked that way, and all that time, with fishermen close at hand, he escaped notice, though the place was not preserved. It is wonderful to think how difficult it is to see anything under one's very eyes, and thousands of people walked actually and physically right over the fish.
However, one morning in the third summer, I found a fisherman standing in the road and fishing over the parapet in the shadowy water. But he was fishing at the wrong arch, and only with paste for roach. While the man stood there fishing, along came two navvies; naturally enough they went quietly up to see what the fisherman was doing, and one instantly uttered an exclamation. He had seen the trout. The man who was fishing with paste had stood so still and patient that the trout, re-assured, had come out, and the navvy — trust a navvy to see anything of the kind — caught sight of him.
The navvy knew how to see through water. He told the fisherman, and there was a stir of excitement, a changing of hooks and bait. I could not stay to see the result, but went on, fearing the worst. But he did not succeed; next day the wary trout was there still, and the next, and the next. Either this particular fisherman was not able to come again, or was discouraged; at any rate, he did not try again. The fish escaped, doubtless more wary than ever.
In the spring of the next year the trout was still there, and up to the summer I used to go and glance at him. This was the fourth season, and still he was there; I took friends to look at this wonderful fish, which defied all the loafers and poachers, and above all, surrounded himself not only with the shadow of the bridge, but threw a mental shadow over the minds of passers-by, so that they never thought of the possibility of such a thing as trout. But one morning something happened. The brook was dammed up on the sunny side of the bridge, and the water let off by a side-hatch, that some accursed main or pipe or other horror might be laid across the bed of the stream somewhere far down.
Above the bridge there was a brimming broad brook, below it the flags lay on the mud, the weeds drooped, and the channel was dry. It was dry up to the beech tree. There, under the drooping boughs of the beech, was a small pool of muddy water, perhaps two yards long, and very narrow — a stagnant muddy pool, not more than three or four inches deep. In this I saw the trout. In the shallow water, his back came up to the surface (for his fins must have touched the mud sometimes) — once it came above the surface, and his spots showed as plain as if you had held him in your hand. He was swimming round to try and find out the reason of this sudden stinting of room.
Twice he heaved himself somewhat on his side over a dead branch that was at the bottom, and exhibited all his beauty to the air and sunshine. Then he went away into another part of the shallow and was hidden by the muddy water. Now under the arch of the bridge, his favourite arch, close by there was a deep pool, for, as already mentioned, the scour of the current scooped away the sand and made a hole there. When the stream was shut off by the dam above this hole remained partly full. Between this pool and the shallow under the beech there was sufficient connection for the fish to move into it.
My only hope was that he would do so, and as some showers fell, temporarily increasing the depth of the narrow canal between the two pools, there seemed every reason to believe that he had got to that under the arch. If now only that accursed pipe or main, or whatever repair it was, could only be finished quickly, even now the trout might escape! Every day my anxiety increased, for the intelligence would soon get about that the brook was dammed up, and any pools left in it would be sure to attract attention.
Sunday came, and directly the bells had done ringing four men attacked the pool under the arch. They took off shoes and stockings and waded in, two at each end of the arch. Stuck in the mud close by was an eel-spear. They churned up the mud, wading in, and thickened and darkened it as they groped under. No one could watch these barbarians longer.
Is it possible that he could have escaped? He was a wonderful fish, wary and quick. Is it just possible that they may not even have known that a trout was there at all; but have merely hoped for perch, or tench, or eels? The pool was deep and the fish quick — they did not bale it, might he have escaped? Might they even, if they did find him, have mercifully taken him and placed him alive in some other water nearer their homes? Is it possible that he may have almost miraculously made his way down the stream into other pools?
There was very heavy rain one night, which might have given him such a chance. These "mights," and "ifs," and "is it possible" even now keep alive some little hope that some day I may yet see him again. But that was in the early summer. It is now winter, and the beech has brown spots. Among the limes the sedges are matted and entangled, the sword-flags rusty; the rooks are at the acorns, and the plough is at work in the stubble. I have never seen him since. I never failed to glance over the parapet into the shadowy water. Somehow it seemed to look colder, darker, less pleasant than it used to do. The spot was empty, and the shrill winds whistled through the poplars.