" Michty me, look at that! Tak' the rod, sir—tak' the rod ! We'll ha'e to pu' oot".
" That" was a large dorsal fin and half of a majestic tail angrily protruding, and then a long dark-blue back, as the whustler, now thirty yards off, cleft his way.
Ronald handed me the rod imperiously, and sat down to the oars, pushing outwards stern-first. There were about forty yards of line left on the reel, and these I was yielding foot by foot. Ronald's most vigorous efforts with the back-watering oars were scarcely sufficient to prevent disaster. If I paid out no line at all, something would break; if I let it go freely I should soon, with the same result, be at the end of the tether. My legs began to tremble : they did not seem to be based on anything substantial. Still, I contrived to speak with admirable composure:
" What's to be done, Ronald ?"
"Am thinkin', sir, ye'll better step over to the bow. Then I'll turn the boat, and be able to follow her faster. Canny, canny!" he added, as I stumbled across the thwarts. " If ye let her slack a second she'll slip off, and if ye're too tight she'll break ye !"
Thus admonished, I found myself standing with dignity at the prow, gazing out on the mysterious deep, somewhere in which the whustler was still unmistakably on. He showed as yet no violent excitement: only, away he went, steadily, unrelentingly, the boat in pursuit as quickly as Ronald could drive it. Within ten minutes we were halfway across the loch, which is much less broad than long. Suddenly the strain yielded. To my horror, I found that I could reel in without resistance. Sick at heart, I turned and looked at Ronald. He was rowing with might and main.
" Stop, Ronald".
He looked at me, over his shoulder, in apprehensive interrogation: clearly he meant, "Is she off?"
" I think so," said I; and was beginning to assure him that I had really made no mistake, when the sound of a heavy splash just behind caused me to wheel round to attention at the prow once more. To the left, not more than ten yards off, was a circle of writhing water.
"I saw her,' Ronald was exclaiming in low tones; " and she's no' off yet. Reel up, sir; reel up like the tevil when ye've got the chance".
Obeying, in less than a minute I had the happiness of discovering that Ronald was right. The whustler was not off. He had merely changed his tactics. Perhaps he had leapt to snap the line; perhaps:
This was no time for conjectures. The fish was running down the loch at a very rapid pace. Like a living thing on lightsome wing, the boat sped before the oars as it never sped before; yet the reel was screeching. Just as the end-of-the-tether crisis was at hand, the whustler slowed down a little: indeed, it was possible to recover a few yards of line.
"That's richt, sir,' said Ronald encouragingly, but rowing as hard as ever.
" Aye reel up when ye can. It pits off the evil hour".
The evil hour! At times of excitement the imagination is alert, active ; and Ronald's words started a new train of thought. When was the evil hour to come ? Already it seemed a long time since the whustler had made his presence felt. Already we had gone anxiously after him through the little bay lying to the south of the river from Loch Doine; thence we had crossed the mouth of the Monachyle Burn : these were landmarks on the northward course. On the way down the loch, Monachyle Mhor was already far behind; we were now flying-past Rhuveag, a pretty cottage from whose chimneys the blue smoke of wood-fires was lingering opalescent among the dark-green pines in the background; soon we should be at Craigruie Point, off which the loch is unnavigable when the west winds are out in earnest. The evil hour! Were not we in pretty evil case already ?
Ronald himself seemed to think so.
"This," he said, "looks like a long job. She'll no' tire for a while. Ye needna' gi'e her the butt—the bit wand would just bend and she wudna' feel it. Am no' muckle in favour o' they newfangled split-cane toys. Gi'e me an auld - fashioned greenheart — something ye can hud on by. That fish micht vera near as weel be free a'thegither. It's no' us that's caught her — it's her that's nabbit us".
This seemed true. As far as I could make out, we were no nearer capturing the whustler than we had been before he took the fly. He was not now tearing through the water quite so fiercely; but I had no confidence that he was without reserve of strength. Certainly he was full of resource. He had turned to the right, as if to pay a call at Muirlagan Bay, and was apparently wagging his head from side to side. I felt that the gut might give way to one of his uncomfortable tugs.
" What do you think he is, Ronald ? A big trout ?" "Na".
" A ferox ? "
"There's nae ferox here. This is a weel-bred loch".
" A salmon, then ?"
" A salmon sure enough, sir; and a thirty-pounder unless am much mista'en. I saw her loupin' when ye turned roond thinkin' she was off".
"But what did she take the fly for, Ronald ? Salmon don't feed in fresh water—so they say nowadays".
"That's a damisht nonsense. What for should they starve in fresh water, sir ? Because ye never find flees or meen-nows or onything else in their mouths, or inside them, when ye catch ane ? As weel say that they dinna' feed in the sea either, for the same reason; and that, thairfore, they pit on four or six pounds weight every year on naething at a'. Whaur's she off tae noo ?"
The whustler had again changed his course, and was making for Ledcriech, on the north shore. We followed submissively. Ledcriech Bay is made beautiful in summer by water-lilies. These were not in blossom just then, so early in the year; but I dared say that below the surface the stalks were in tough abundance. What if the fish got in among them ? Could we ever get him out ? I had misgivings; but I did not like to mention them. Ronald was not in the best of tempers. He seemed to think that we were having an untoward afternoon, and that I was responsible. Among other misfortunes, we had no gaff aboard. I felt that he was thinking of this, and assuring himself that it added to the certainty of the evil hour.