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- Journeys Through Bookland V2 - 40/71 -
"Ah!" said he, "now I will see the gay world. My living won't cost me much, for I have no mouth, you see, and no inside; so I can never be hungry nor have the stomach ache neither."
No more he had. He had grown as dry and hard and empty as a quill, as such silly, shallow-hearted fellows deserve to grow.
But instead of being ashamed of his emptiness, he was quite proud of it, as a good many fine gentlemen are, and began flirting and flipping up and down, and singing:
"My wife shall dance, and I shall sing, So merrily pass the day: For I hold it for quite the wisest thing, To drive dull care away."
And he danced up and down for three days and three nights, till he grew so tired that he tumbled into the water and floated down. But what became of him Tom never knew, and he himself never minded; for Tom heard him singing to the last, as he floated down:
"To drive dull care away-ay-ay!"
And if he did not care, why nobody else cared, either.
But one day Tom had a new adventure. He was sitting on a water-lily leaf, he and his friend the dragon fly, watching the gnats dance. The dragon fly had eaten as many as he wanted, and was sitting quite still and sleepy, for it was very hot and bright. The gnats (who did not care the least for the death of their poor brothers) danced a foot over his head quite happily, and a large black fly settled within an inch of his nose, and began washing his own face and combing his hair with his paws; but the dragon fly never stirred, and kept on chatting to Tom.
Suddenly Tom heard the strangest noise up the stream; cooing, and grunting, and whining, and squeaking, as if you had put into a bag two stock-doves, nine mice, three guinea pigs, and a blind puppy, and left them there to settle themselves and make music.
He looked up the water, and there he saw a sight as strange as the noise; a great ball rolling over and over down the stream, seeming one moment of soft brown fur, and the next of shining glass: and yet it was not a ball; for sometimes it broke up and streamed away in pieces, and then it joined again; and all the while the noise came out of it louder and louder.
Tom asked the dragon fly what it could be; but of course, with his short sight, he could not even see it, though it was not ten yards away. So Tom took the neatest little header into the water, and started off to see for himself; and, when he came near, the ball turned out to be four or five beautiful otters, many times larger than Tom, who were swimming about, and rolling, and diving, and twisting, and wrestling, and cuddling, and kissing, and biting, and scratching, in the most charming fashion that ever was seen.
But when the biggest of them saw Tom, she darted out from the rest, and cried in the water language sharply enough, "Quick, children, here is something to eat, indeed!" and came at poor Tom, showing such a wicked pair of eyes, and such a set of sharp teeth in a grinning mouth, that Tom, who had thought her very handsome, said to himself, "Handsome is that handsome does," and slipped in between the water-lily roots as fast as he could, and then turned round and made faces at her.
[Illustration: TOM ESCAPED THE OTTER]
"Come out," said the wicked old otter, "or it will be worse for you."
But Tom looked at her from between two thick roots, and shook them with all his might, making horrible faces all the while, just as he used to grin through the railings at the old women, when he lived before. It was not quite well bred, no doubt; but you know, Tom had not finished his education yet.
"Come away, children," said the otter in disgust, "it is not worth eating, after all. It is only a nasty eft, which nothing eats, not even those vulgar pike in the pond."
"I am not an eft!" said Tom; "efts have tails."
"You are an eft," said the otter, very positively; "I see your two hands quite plain, and I know you have a tail."
"I tell you I have not," said Tom. "Look here!" and he turned his pretty little self quite round; and sure enough, he had no more tail than you.
The otter might have got out of it by saying that Tom was a frog; but, like a great many other people, when she had once said a thing she stood to it, right or wrong; so she answered:
"I say you are an eft, and therefore you are, and not fit food for gentlefolk like me and my children. You may stay there till the salmon eat you" (she knew the salmon would not, but she wanted to frighten poor Tom). "Ha! ha! they will eat you, and we will eat them;" and the otter laughed such a wicked, cruel laugh--as you may hear them do sometimes; and the first time that you hear it you will probably think it is bogies.
"What are salmon?" asked Tom.
"Fish, you eft, great fish, nice fish to eat. They are the lords of the fish, and we are lords of the salmon;" and she laughed again. "We hunt them up and down the pools, and drive them up into a corner, the silly things; they are so proud, and bully the little trout, and the minnows, till they see us coming, and then they are so meek all at once; and we catch them, but we disdain to eat them all; we just bite off their soft throats and suck their sweet juice--Oh, so good!"--(and she licked her wicked lips)--"and then throw them away, and go and catch another. They are coming soon, children, coming soon; I can smell the rain coming up off the sea, and then hurrah for a fresh, and salmon, and plenty of eating all day long."
And the otter grew so proud that she turned head over heels twice, and then stood upright half out of the water, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"And where do they come from?" asked Tom, who kept himself very close, for he was considerably frightened.
"Out of the sea, eft, the great, wide sea, where they might stay and be safe if they liked. [Footnote: Salmon live in the sea, as the otter says, but each autumn they go up the rivers to spawn.] But out of the sea the silly things come, into the great river down below, and we come up to watch for them; and when they go down again, we go down and follow them. And there we fish for the bass and the pollock, and have jolly days along the shore, and toss and roll in the breakers, and sleep snug in the warm dry crags. Ah, that is a merry life, too, children, if it were not for those horrid men."
"What are men?" asked Tom; but somehow he seemed to know before he asked.
"Two-legged things, eft; and, now I come to look at you, they are actually something like you, if you had not a tail" (she was determined that Tom should have a tail), "only a great deal bigger, worse luck for us; and they catch the fish with hooks and lines, which get into our feet sometimes, and set pots along the rocks to catch lobsters. They speared my poor, dear husband as he went out to find something for me to eat. I was laid up among the crags then, and we were very low in the world, for the sea was so rough that no fish would come in shore. But they speared him, poor fellow, and I saw them carrying him away upon a pole. Ah, he lost his life for your sakes, my children, poor, dear, obedient creature that he was."
And the otter grew so sentimental (for otters can be very sentimental when they choose, like a good many people who are both cruel and greedy, and no good to anybody at all) that she sailed solemnly away down the burn, and Tom saw her no more for that time.
And lucky it was for her that she did so; for no sooner was she gone, than down the bank came seven rough terrier dogs, snuffing and yapping, and grubbing and splashing, in full cry after the otter. Tom hid among the water lilies till they were gone; for he could not guess that they were the water fairies come to help him.
But he could not help thinking of what the otter had said about the great river and the broad sea. And as he thought, he longed to go and see them. He could not tell why; but the more he thought, the more he grew discontented with the narrow little stream in which he lived, and all his companions there; and wanted to get out into the wide, wide world, and enjoy all the wonderful sights of which he was sure it was full.
And once he set off to go down the stream. But the stream was very low; and when he came to the shallows he could not keep under water, for there was no water left to keep under. So the sun burned his back and make him sick; and he went back again and lay quiet in the pool for a whole week more.
And then on the evening of a very hot day he saw a sight.
He had been very stupid all day, and so had the trout; for they would not move an inch to take a fly, though there were thousands on the water, but lay dozing at the bottom under the shade of the stones; and Tom lay dozing, too, and was glad to cuddle their smooth, cool sides, for the water was quite warm and unpleasant.
But toward evening it grew suddenly dark, and Tom looked up and saw a blanket of black clouds lying right across the valley above his head, resting on the crags right and left. He felt not quite frightened, but very still; for everything was still. There was not a whisper of wind, nor a chirp of a bird to be heard; and next a few great drops of rain fell plop into the water, and one hit Tom on the nose, and made him pop his head down quickly enough.
And then the thunder roared, and the lightning flashed, and leaped across Vendale and back again, from cloud to cloud, and cliff to cliff, till the very rocks in the stream seemed to shake; and Tom looked up at it through the water, and thought it the finest thing he ever saw in his life.
But out of the water he dared not put his head; for the rain came down by bucketfuls, and the hail hammered like shot on the stream and churned it into foam; and soon the stream rose, and rushed down, higher and higher, and fouler and fouler, full of beetles, and sticks, and straws, and worms, and addle-eggs, and wood lice, and leeches, and odds and ends, and this, that, and the other, enough to fill nine museums.
Tom could hardly stand against the stream, and hid behind a rock. But the trout did not; for out they rushed from among the stones, and began gobbling the beetles and leeches in the most greedy and quarrelsome way, and swimming about with great worms hanging out of their mouths, tugging
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