Fortunately, we did not reach the water-lily bay. A considerable time before he could be in sight of the opportunity offered by its harbourage, the fish was cruising down the middle of the loch. It was not at all easy to keep up with him. If I could have spared any sympathy from myself, I should have bestowed it upon Ronald. Although the sun was now sinking behind the western peaks and the evening chill had come, Ronald was sweating, and, not having foreseen the possibility of this how-d'ye-do, we had set out unprovided with the means of refreshment.
The tension changed. Instead of keeping on the forward path, the whustler seemed to go straight down. Down, down, down he bored, getting leave of the line only because the boat, although Ronald was stopping her, was still going towards the place from which the dive had begun. Down, down, down: when we were practically straight over him he was still diving, taking the line from the reel. Here was a new peril. About this place Loch Voil is at its deepest. If I remembered the chart rightly, the depth was very great indeed. Would the line of the little trout-rod suffice? If not, should I supplement it by dipping down rod and arm on the desperate chance that the extra twelve feet thus gained would be enough ? At the moment I had no thought for the ludicrousness of the prospective situation. Humour flees from fright.
Much to my relief, the line itself sufficed, and there was even a little to spare. Whether the salmon had gone quite to the bottom or not I cannot say; but, wherever he was, he stopped. He moved neither to right nor to left, neither up nor down; but he was still on. Of that there was no doubt. I had never lost touch with him during the dive; and I felt him still, though he was steadfast ; and through the line there ran a tense quivering thrill like that of a telegraph wire. The little rod was trembling as my legs had been at the beginning of the episode. Being now well inured to the crisis, I myself was comparatively at ease.
So,I noticed gladly, was Ronald, resting on his oars after nigh three hours of hard and anxious toil. Five minutes passed; ten ; fifteen ; and then it dawned upon me that, though tearing over the loch at the truculent will of the whustler had been fearsome work, we were not now very much better off. At least, we were not perceptibly further forward. There was no disguising the fact that the enemy had us at a disadvantage. Excepting that I had to keep in constant touch with him and be sure he was still there, we had nothing whatever to do. The shades of night were falling; we were fixed on a cold wilderness of water with neither food nor drink; and it had become evident that we might have to stay there indefinitely unless we were willing to cut the painter and scuttle home defeated and disgraced.
That, of course, was not to be thought of.
" What's to be done, Ronald ?"
"That I canna' tell, sir. I've never been in sic a scrape as this before".
" O, surely: it often happens: a salmon often lies doggo".
" Never like this that I've seen; though it's true enough that, exceptin' when I went to the war wi' Lovat's Scouts, I've never been anywhaur else but Glenartney Forest and here".
" I've seen it happen on the Dee".
" Ay; but the Dee's a river, no' a loch".
" On the Dee, when a salmon lies long at the bottom of a pool, the gillie can always get at him and stir him up somehow".
" Nae doot; but the Dee's no' scores o' fathoms deep".
"The gillie sometimes throws big stones at him".
"In this boat there are nae stanes, either big or sma'".
Ronald, with his cold logic, had undoubtedly the best of the argument, which, indeed, I had initiated less from having anything to say than from a vacuous feeling that silence would seem a confession of helplessness. It was true that I had seen a gillie stoning, and thereby putting to flight, a sulking salmon in the Dee, at Banchory ; but I had realised, even as I mentioned this, that such an expedient was out of the question on Loch Voil. It is astonishing how a man chatters when in a dilemma. Contemptuously irritated at myself, I turned upon the gillie in wrath and mixed metaphors.
"Chuck it, Ronald," I adjured him. "What's the good of sitting there wise as an owl and depressing as a wet blanket ? Buck up. We've got to land this salmon".
" Ha'e we, sir ? There's mony a thing we've got to do that we never do".
"Come, come, Ronald. That's no talk for a Lovat Scout".
Ronald was not pleased; but he answered reasonably:
"That wark was naethin' to this, sir. In the war we aye kent that onything was possible, and did it; but in flshin' some things are clean impossible, and this is ane of them. She was a cunnin' man, the Boer; but she was an innocent babe to this fish".
"Dry your eyes, Scout. He'll surrender some time".
" No' she. Ye dinna' seem to understand, sir. D'ye no' see that when she starts again after this long rest she will be quite restoritójust as bad as if we had never run her at a' ? Wi' that wee toy o' a rod, ye've dune her no harm whatever. If we ever get oot o' this, and ha'e to dance after her again, it will just be as if you had hookit a new salmon, and we'll ha'e the same business a' ower. I see nae end tilt".
Neither did I; but I saw something else. Although the light had almost gone, I saw that there was a ripple on the water at the head of the loch, far away. It was coming towards us rapidly. Soon, too, the sound of the burns on the hillsides began to grow in volume and in briskness. Hitherto the noises of their falling waters had been soft and hushed, half lost in the immediate still atmosphere absorbing them ; but now they were loud, and growing louder, almost harsh. That meant the coming of a wind. Would the wind awake the whustler? Time would tell. It did ; and soon.
When the curl on the water reached us Ronald took to the oars again. A very slight breeze is sufficient to set a boat moving ; and, of course, the extent of our line allowing next to no latitude, we had to keep, in relation to the whustler until he moved, nearly perpendicular. That was not a task so easy as those who are unused to boats may imagine, and Ronald did not enjoy it. Each minute the air, at first a zephyr, was increasing; and amid such conditions it is almost impossible to keep a boat exactly where you want. A few yards in any direction would again take us to the end of the tether ; and then ?