Since the leaves had fallen, the brown rats had become fewer and still fewer along the river, and, when the flood subsided, it might have been found that none of these creatures remained in their summer haunts. They had emigrated to the rick-yard near the village inn; many of the stoats and weasels, finding provender scarce, had followed in their footsteps; and Brighteye and his kindred, with the water-shrews, the moorhens, and the coots, were unmolested in their wanderings both by night and day.

The vole's favourite reed-bed was now seldom visited. Besides being inundated, it was silted so completely with gravel that to cut through the submerged stems would have been an arduous and almost impossible task. Luckily, in his journeys along the edge of the shallows during the flood, Bright-eye had found a sequestered pond, near an old hedgerow dividing the wood, where tender duckweed was plentiful, and, with delicious roots of watercress, promised him abundant food. Every evening he stole through the shadows, climbed the leaf-strewn rabbit-track by the hedge, and swam across the pond from a dark spot beneath some brambles to the shelter of a gorse-bush overhanging the weeds. There he was well protected from the owl by an impenetrable prickly roof, while he could readily elude, by diving, any stray creature attacking him from land.

Winter dragged slowly on its course, and, just as the first prophecy of spring was breathed by the awakening woodlands, the warm west breezes ceased to blow, and the bleak north wind moaned drearily among the trees. Night after night a sheet of ice spread and thickened from the shallows to the edge of the current, the wild ducks came down to the river from the frost-bound moors, and great flocks of geese, whistling loudly in the starlit sky, passed on their southward journey to the coast.

For the first few nights Brighteye left his chamber only when acute hunger drove him to his storehouse in the wood. Directly he had fed, he returned home, and settled once more to sleep. At last his supplies were exhausted, and he was forced to subsist almost entirely on the pith beneath the bark of the willows. The pond by the hedgerow was sealed with ice, and he suffered much from the lack of his customary food. Halfway between his sleeping chamber and its water-entrance, a floor of ice prevented ready access to the river; and, under this floor, a hollow, filled with air, was gradually formed as the river receded from the level it had reached on the first night of frost. Brighteye's only approach to the outer world was, therefore, through the upper doorway. All along the margin of the pool, as far as the swift water beyond the stakes, the ice-shelf was now so high above the river that even to a large animal like the otter it offered no landing place. Only at the stakes, where the dark, cold stream flowed rapidly between two blocks of ice, could Brighteye enter or leave the river. Partly because, if he should be pursued, the swiftness of the stream was likely to lessen his chances of escape, and partly because of a vague but ever-present apprehension of danger, he avoided this spot. It was fortunate that he did so; Lutra, knowing well the ways of the riverside people, often lurked in hiding under the shelf of ice beyond the stakes, and, when she had gone from sight, the big, gaunt trout came slyly from his refuge by the boulder and resumed his tireless scrutiny of everything that passed his "hover." At last a thaw set in, and Brighteye, awakening on the second day from his noontide sleep, heard the great ice-sheet crack, and groan, and fall into the river.

When darkness came he hurried to the water's brink, and, almost reckless with delight, plunged headlong into the pool. He tucked his fore-paws beneath his chin, and, with quick, free strokes of his hind-legs, dived deep to the very bottom of the backwater. Thence he made a circle of the little bay, and, floating up to the arch before his dwelling, sought the inner entrance, where, however, the ice had not yet melted. He dived once more, and gained the outer entrance in the front of the buttress, but there, also, the ice was thick and firm. He breathed the cold, damp air in the hollow beneath the ice, then glided out and swam to land. The tiny specks of dirt, which, since the frost kept him from the river, had matted his glossy fur, seemed now completely washed away, and he felt delightfully fresh and vigorous as he sat on the grass, and licked and brushed each hair into place. His toilet completed, he ran gaily up the bank to his storehouse under the tree, but only to find it empty. Not in the least disheartened, he climbed the rabbit-track, rustled over the hedge-bank to the margin of the pond, and there, as in the nights before the frost, feasted eagerly on duckweed and watercress. On the following day the ice melted in the shaft below his chamber, and he was thus saved the trouble of tunnelling a third water-passage —as a ready means of escape from the otter and the big trout, as well as from a chance weasel or stoat—which, if the ice had not disappeared, he surely would have made as soon as his vigour was fully restored.