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Title: Big Fish Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600121h.html Language: English Date first posted: Feb 2016 Most recent update: Feb 2016 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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HAD it not been that circumstances forced John Treherne to take his holidays very late that year he would never have gone to Cwmwyan at all. In the ordinary way he preferred to get away from the office in Lincoln's Inn Field in June or preferably, in May, for he was a mighty fisherman and could not resist the lure of the trout and the salmon.
All that summer John's partner in the thriving legal firm of Clement & Treherne had been away ill, and it was well into November before John was free to get away for any considerable time.
It was too late for the little brown bird, and also for the outlying pheasants, and far too early for the big Christmas shoots. The salmon rivers were closed to anglers, and the trout streams were equally out of the question. But angling of some sort Treherne must have, and his choice settled eventually on Cwmwyan, and the mighty pike in the chain of miniature lakes there. In his younger days he had taken some fine fish there, and on one red-letter day a monster of eighteen pounds.
Anyway, he would go to Cwmwyan and put up once more with Betty Rees, despite the fact that Miss Llewellyn would be in residence at the big house, and probably as antagonistic as ever to the man with whom she had quarrelled over the sacred subject of pike fishing, and who had taken his revenge over that matter of that right of way along the far bank of Cwm.
It had been a trivial dispute to begin with. Ever since he could remember Treherne had been pike fishing at Cwmwyan without let or hindrance. He was perfectly aware that the left bank of the Cwm was the private water of old Lewis Llewellyn of the big house, but Llewellyn had been a recluse and had cared nothing about his fishing rights, so that anyone was welcome to troll for pike there so far as the lord of the manor was concerned. There was an ancient right of way along the left bank which had fallen into desuetude.
After the old owner died, and Miss Llewellyn came into the property, things were very different. She was a distant relative of the late Llewellyn, and a lady who had passed most of her twenty-five years in India, where her father had been a commanding officer, and her ideas of the importance of the Llewellyns were out of all proportion to the size of the property and the revenues thereof. English people who spend much time in the East are apt to be like that.
There is no doubt that Miss Gwen Llewellyn made herself very unpopular in the early days of her reign. She was an orphan when she came into the property, which may account for a lot. She had autocratic ideas which did not commend themselves to the fierce liberalism of the Welsh hillsmen among whom she now found herself, and in six months her unpopularity was complete. This was a source of much grief to her, for she meant well, despite her arrogance. She was an exceedingly pretty girl and would be charming when she forgot that she was the lady of a pinchbeck manor. Unfortunately she made the mistake of regarding the villagers and small tenants as she had viewed the natives in the compound at Jellalabad. This had been the cause of all the mischief.
John Treherne had come to Cwmwyan one autumn for a week-end with the pike, and had arrived in the midst of the feud. Innocent of any trouble, he had crossed the river and cast his phantom minnow into the Llewellyn water under the eyes of its outraged mistress, who had immediately ordered him off as if he had been some vagabond poacher. Refusing to listen to one word of explanation, she had been exceedingly rude and personal, which is the way of angry young women. Treherne had retreated with a feeling of smallness that rankled. He was by no means blind to the beauty of his antagonist; but when, in addition, he was ordered off the footpath, which had been a right of way from time immemorial, he protested. He was informed with great haughtiness that the path was closed to foot traffic, that he was trespassing, and that if he offended again he would find himself forcibly removed.
"Iss, sur, her be like that," old Betty Rees told Treherne, when he mentioned the matter to her after his early dinner in the cottage where he had his quarters. "A great lady whateffer, look you! But she's not so bad when you come to know her. She started wrong and we started wrong, and its never been put right sir. Wants a husband to manage her."
"But surely you folks here are never going to sit still and have that path filched from you?" Treherne protested. "Why, it has been public property for ages!"
"Pleases her and don't hurt us," Betty said placidly. "And you can catch all the fish you want from this side, sir."
Treherne abandoned the unequal contest. This placid attitude was characteristic of the peasantry, and any attempt to stir them to a fight for their rights was so much beating of the air. Still, the autocrat with the shining hair of spun gold and the scornful violet eyes needed a lesson, and Treherne was minded to give her one.
Single-handed he fought an action in the local County Court against the last of the Llewellyns and won hands down. This little encounter cost Miss Llewellyn over a hundred pounds she could ill afford, and her rage against the impudent intruder was bitter.
The action had been fought two years ago, and the antagonists had not met since. Treherne had scarcely given the matter a further thought, but it was in his mind now as he travelled into Wales for his belated holiday and his campaign against the giant pike in the chain of miniature lakes that made up the Cwmwyan water. He would have much preferred to have spun his phantom minnow or live dice from both banks, but that was a mere midge in the amber, and if Miss Llewellyn was in residence it would be easy to avoid her. The weather was just right; it was crisp with a touch of frost in the air, and there had been much water down from the hills of late. With any sort of luck he ought to have a month of topping sport.
"Well, Betty, how goes it?" he asked as he finished an excellent dinner in the snug cottage which had been his head-quarters for the last ten years, and where he had a cosy sitting-room and a bedroom redolent of thyme and lavender. "My fair enemy still about?"
"Meaning Miss Llewellyn, whateffer?" Betty asked. "Iss, sure. And things is better that they used to be, look you! Ever since you lass take the law of her. She have not forgiven you, whateffer, Mr. Treherne; but as for the rest of us it is different. And she fish her water, look you, like a man, iss sure!"
Treherne smiled broadly at the picture of that dainty wisp of haughty humanity manipulating a double-handed hickory rod and a live bait on the end of a hundred yards of silk line and gimp. He was still musing over the vision when he sauntered out after breakfast the following morning to inspect the river and wet his new lines. It was in fine condition, as he could see at a glance. A stream running bank high, but fine and clear, met his delighted gaze, and Miss Llewellyn was forgotten.
Four miniature lakes, connected by narrow necks, reached back to the foothills over the purple shoulder of Gwyntor, whose mighty watershed fed the lakes.
There were two miles of these lagoons ending some way below in a narrow gorge and a waterfall ten feet in height. Below that, again, the rapids had a fall of one foot in four, and a half a mile further down was a waterfall enclosed on either side by sheer black weed-covered rocks, forming a gorge in which anything that lived would have been drowned long before the cascade was reached. To plunge down between those granite walls would have been suicide. The strongest swimmer would not have lived there two minutes without artificial aid, and even if he had, the twenty-foot cascade at the end of the rapids would have provided the inevitable finish.
At the head of the water-shoot before the rapids lay the giant fish. In the clear water Treherne could see a brace of the gaunt fresh-water harks lying still and motionless, with their long, wolfish heads up-stream, and now and again a lazy motion of fins that sent them darting as if they had been propelled by some unseen howitzer. These were the fathers of the lake—great brown fellows, long and lean and hungry, but wily as a fox, and almost as difficult to land as an elephant. If they broke away down-stream, as they did invariably, then the weight of surging water and the impetus of the heavy rush proved fatal to even the stoutest tackle, as Treherne knew to his cost many a time. It was a game of skill and strength on both sides, with long odds on the born fighter at the other end of the line. But Treherne was going to try.
On the other side of the last miniature lake he was startled to see his fair enemy—a double split hickory rod in her small hand—making a cast with a silver minnow, and not a bad cast either.
Treherne marked the slim, graceful figure, the dainty face and the haughty carriage of the head. She was as much the same as he had seen her last on the steps of the courthouse in the little Welsh town of Prestin, where the famous action over the right-of-way had been fought, and a certain sense of pity filled Treherne as he watched her. Well, she had learned something since then, if Betty Rees was to be believed! She had come to realise her responsibilities. Certainly the once disputed path across the river was no longer weed-grown, but clean and neat, with boundary stones along the edge.
She saw Treherne, of course, but he might have been no more that one of the white clouds on the dappled sky. She stood poised on a big shelving rock not far from the edge of the lasher, just above the rapids, clean-cut against a background of leafless trees. A lovely picture, Treherne thought as he prepared his cast and laid out his tackle on the sloping bank. As his reel began to scream when the line was being drawn out and the heavy rod fitted for the fray, the figure opposite suddenly threw up her point and addressed him.
"I shall be greatly obliged," Miss Llewellyn drawled in the iciest tones, "if you will be gentlemanly enough to take the next pool above. It is too much to expect perhaps, but——"
She finished with a shrug of the slim shoulders and waited for her antagonist to wilt. The insinuation that she was treating him as a man of honour, even in these unpromising circumstances, brought a smile to Treherne's lips. She was clearly offering him the benefit of the doubt that did not linger in her own mind for a moment.
"Why?" he asked. "There is ample room for both of us. As a matter of fact, I am only out this morning to wet a new line and test a patent swivel I have had recommended to me. I am sorry to have disturbed you."
Rod in hand he passed up-stream smiling. So that was her little game, was it? She had heard of his coming and had stolen a march on him which would not be repeated. He would be first in the field next morning, even if he had to sit up all night. Pretty girl all the same, and looked rather lonely. Not much fun for her in that remote valley, with no congenial society and playing at being the lady of the manor on an inadequate income! Treherne knew all about that. Still, he was on a fishing holiday, and his time was too precious to be wasted by the caprices of a silly girl.
He was down at the lower pool above the lasher betimes in the morning. There was no sign of the foe to be seen. With a phantom minnow of his own make he was busy almost at once. A long, wide, dexterous cast dropped on the face of the pool as gently as thistledown, and almost instantly a long, arrow-headed ripple and the thin, cutting wave over a brown fin showed the rush of a big one. The fish struck short and was away up-stream almost before Treherne realised that he had a rise.
He made another wide cast with a ball of line in the hollow of his hand, like a master of the craft as he was, then suddenly something dropped in his swim with the flop of a frog, and a score of arrow heads proclaimed the fact that as many of the big fellows were off up stream, alarmed by the splash in their midst. On the other bank, posed perilously on the shelving, unstable rock on the edge of the lasher, stood the fair foe, obviously intent on casting in Treherne's water.
Acknowledging his defeat by slightly raising his cap, Treherne wound up and, rod in hand ready for a cast on the next pool, moved slowly up the river. Ah well, it was only a woman, and an angry one at that, who would have been guilty of such unsportsmanlike conduct. Yet he taught her something.
He held the rod short-lined in his right hand and the phantom in his left. A quarter of a mile higher up was another pool, where he might hook a big 'un. At the bend he looked back to see how the enemy was progressing, just in time to see the shelving rock on which she stood tilt and almost before he realised what had happened Miss Gwen Llewellyn was struggling in six feet of water. And the rock on which she had been standing was no longer there! Half a minute later and the white figure in the close-fitting sweater and cheviot skirt had vanished over the lasher and was being carried rapidly down the broken waters to the waterfall below.
Treherne raced back with his rod still in his hand. He carried it quite mechanically, and it was sheer instinct that caused him to keep the point upright. He knew that nothing short of a miracle could save the unfortunate girl now. She was in the grip of those cruel rapids, with a sheer wall of rock some thirty feet high on either side and a waterfall some twenty feet down at the end of the deadly passage. She would be carried over that to a mercifully sudden death below. There was no way of getting down to her, nothing he could throw in the shape of a buoy, and even if there had, it would have been useless. To plunge over that rocky rampart to her assistance would have been worse, it would merely have entailed the loss of two lives instead of one.
But he must do something! He could not let her drown. And, yet, what? There was nobody in sight, and it was a mile to the nearest cottage. Nothing moved except a flock of frightened sheep that baa-ed noisily as Treherne sped past them. It was nothing to Treherne now that the doomed girl had paid the penalty of her own childish conceit in standing too far over that treacherous rock merely to show him that she could make a cast as far as his. He raced along breathlessly with the rod in his hand.
He came up with her at length. So far she was uninjured. She had managed to steer clear of the jagged rocks under the surface of the rapids. But at any moment she might strike one of them beneath the treacherous smoothness and fracture a limb. So far she was holding her own, swimming deliberately and slowly, and holding back against the rush of waters. Her face was pale and set, but not so ghastly as the one that looked down on her from the ramparts above.
"Please, please don't do it!" she said bravely, as she read a desperate resolve in Treherne's eyes. "So long as you are alive and up there I have a chance. If you come down here, we shall both be drowned."
She was wonderful, thought Treherne; terribly afraid, no doubt, but she was not going to show it. If she had to die, then she would cross the borderland as a true Llewellyn should. It was no time for little things. There were no tears in her own eyes, but she could see them on Treherne's cheeks.
"Is there nothing I can do for you?" he cried. "Nothing? Then I shall have to come down to you! If I don't I shall never be able to look a man in the face again!"
"You must not," the girl commanded. "Something may happen yet. If we are both here—somebody with a rope may come. I can hold back a little if I turn and swim—and slowly——"
It was all very fine, the tortured Treherne reflected. He stood there, miserably helpless, with the rod still in his hand. And as the girl in the water looked at him something like the inspiration he was feverishly praying for came to his mind in that strange way that, in times of stark peril, such inspiration does come.
He had recalled a holiday in the Gulf of Florida—the great adventure of his fishing career—a whole gorgeous month when he was after the giant bass off Palm Beach—huge fellows running to four hundred pounds in weight and game to the last ounce, yet taken on a twelve-ounce rod and a three-ply line of cotton thread. It was a miracle in which Treherne had shared. Something never to be forgotten. Wonderful how the lightest hand, even that of a little child, can move heavy objects in live water. Like a tiny tug with a lumbering Dreadnought in its wake! He had seen a little girl guide a laden barge on the canal at Rochester. One could hold up almost any object that floated with a thread of hair! Heavens! If he had only had a ball of string in his pocket—or a spare line!
Suddenly, with a flash, he was awake to the fact that he was still carrying the rod in his hand. He wondered how it got there. The rod, with a stout line and the six feet of gimp and the big triangle of hooks at the end of it! A great shout burst from his lips.
"Got it!" he yelled. "It's a chance anyway. There's a bit of a shelf of rock sticking out just above the waterfall where I used to find the kingfisher's nest when I was a boy in these parts. I am going to guide you there Miss Llewellyn. I am going to play you like a fish that has broken down-stream. If you can endure it for half an hour——"
"I must," replied the girl bravely.
Treherne wished he had been less hasty over that right-of-way affair. Silly to think of such things at such a tense moment, but there you were.
"I will!" added Miss Llewellyn. "Only I wish—it was not—so cold!"
Here was another peril that Treherne had not foreseen. There are limits to the endurance of even a Llewellyn! He blessed the foresight which had inspired Betty Rees to slip his flask into the sandwich case he always carried on these occasions. It was going to be touch-and-go in any case, and if the cold water proved too much for the struggling girl, he would have to suffer the agonies of defeat. And if the worst happened, what would the world say about him? That he had not risked anything to save the life of an unfortunate woman! He could imagine the paragraphs in the newspapers. A coward—no less!
He swung the triangle, weighted with lead, across the narrow neck of the stream, and nursed it back with little dexterous turns of the wrist and liftings of the point of the rod. Then he worked the mass of weighted hooks cunningly in the girl's direction. He had his mind sternly concentrated on this to the exclusion of everything else. Inch by inch, nearer and nearer to the figure struggling in the water, he drew the mass of hooks until he had it just between the shoulders and high in the neck of the white sweater that Gwen Llewellyn was wearing. Then he lifted his point and struck.
The tangle of hooks went home. They bit into the woolly surface and held tenaciously. With a fine feeling of uplift, Treherne set the reel of the rod going. He was not afraid of the hooks giving now; he was too fine a workman for that.
As the line tightened Gwen's head came up, and the strain on her limbs slackened. All she had to do was to float gently and leave the rest to the man on the bank. She realised exactly what was in the back of his mind. He was playing her easily and dexterously as he would have played a big fish. With her head well out of the water now as the line grew taut she could cease to fight against the downward rush and allow her numbed limbs to relax.
Her confidence in the man on the bank was increasing. It was exactly as Treherne hoped—the body in the water was as a featherweight under his practised hand. He had seen a three-hundred-pound bass come to the gaff as easily as this with a fisherman at the working end of the enterprise with a ten-ounce rod and a three-ply cotton line. He could have moved a barge with tackle such as he was using now.
"Be calm!" he cried. "Courage! You are safe now if you only keep your head. Are you so very cold?"
The girl looked up with a thin, wan courage, but the water was deadly cold and, despite her youth and virility, she was fast growing numb and chilled. But she was not going to give up; that was not the Llewellyn way.
So they worked yard by yard down-stream, fighting every inch until the roar of the waterfall began to boom menacingly in Treherne's ears. He knew that it was here where the real stern fight would begin. Very, very gradually he worked his precious burden nearer to the bank at the foot of the precipice until he could see her immediately underneath. He had her presently just below a ledge of rock a foot or two above the level of the stream.
The pull of the waterfall, which was not twenty yards away now, was beginning to tell; and when at length Treherne paused, his rod was bent in a bow and the girl below was lying almost flat on the surface with the tear of it.
"It is nearly finished!" Treherne whispered in a voice tense with anxiety. "I am going to tie up here and come down to you."
"Do—be careful!" gasped Miss Llewellyn. "If—anything happens to you now—we are both finished."
Treherne proceeded to tighten the line as far as he dared and to attach it with a looped knot to the pronged horn of a pollarded willow standing on the bank. It was much as if he had a great pike on the hooks of a trimmer. When all was made secure he begun to make his way cautiously down the broken surface of the cliff until he reached the jutting ledge. Every fatal inch brought the heart into his mouth. One false step and there was an end to both of them!
At last he was down. Very cautiously now, lest the hooks should give way, he reached for the taut line and drew it to the bank. A second later and he had a firm grip under the arms of the exhausted girl. He had saved her within a few yards of the waterfall. She was past thanking him.
Without ceremony he stripped off her white sweater and cut the hooks free with the big blade of his fishing knife. Whipping off his heavy sports coat and cardigan he wrapped them about his almost unconscious burden. He filled the cup of his flask with a generous measure of raw whisky and forced her to drain it to the last drip. He felt her shudder in his arms and caught a faint dash of color in her cheeks. She smiled into his eyes.
"Come, that's better," he cried cheerfully. "Now if you are feeling up to it put your arms around my neck and I will carry you. Festina lente here, I think."
It was accomplished at length. Not an heroic rescue after the best traditions of the sensational school of fiction, but an entirely new and ingenious one and equally satisfactory.
"That was really clever and thoughtful of you!" Miss Llewellyn panted. "Not one man in a million would have dreamed of it. Only a fisherman could. Without you I should have drowned miserably. If you had plunged to save me from the consequences of my folly and idiotic conceit, you would have perished too. I knew that it was dangerous to stand on that stone, but I wanted to show you that I, too, could make a cast as long as yours, knowing all the while that I couldn't. And I—I was all wrong about that right-of-way, too——"
It was a pretty amende and one made with wet, pleading eyes, but Treherne cut her short.
"None of that now!" he growled. "My task is to take you as far as old Betty's cottage, and you will have to run—run, mind you! Your own place! Not on your life. It's half a mile farther, and in a race with pneumonia, it is the yards that count. Come on!"
Half dragging, half carrying her, Treherne began the memorable journey. When the cottage was reached Gwen Llewellyn was in a glow. But Treherne was not satisfied until he saw her seated in a nest of hot blankets before a roasting fire in his sitting-room and drink with some more spirit in it. Later on after a change of clothing had been fetched from the Manor House, Treherne accompanied her home and, at her earnest request, stayed to dinner.
When they parted both were astonished to realise how far the new friendship had progressed.
Gwen stood in the dimly lighted hall with her hand in that of her guest. Her eyes were shining in a way that Treherne had never seen before.
"And you will show me how to catch the big fish to-morrow?" she asked. "But you will never catch a bigger one than you caught to-day, Mr. Treherne—or one that gave you so much trouble!"
Treherne looked boldly into her eyes.
"Don't try and turn a mere fisherman into a hero," he said laughing. "And it's not so difficult to hook the big fish, the fish of one's dreams—the difficulty is to land them! And I haven't landed mine yet, Miss Llewellyn."
"Haven't you?" she whispered. "If——but isn't there a whole month to talk about—about fish whatever?"
Treherne was outside a moment later and the door was abruptly closed upon him. But the stars gave fine promise of good—fishing on the morrow.
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