Excerpts from "Tarka the Otter"

author Henry Williamson


Chapter Two ~ Owlery Holt

Tally Ho!

The cry came from down the river, just above Leaning Willow Island, from the throat of an old man in a blue coat and white britches, who had been leaning his bearded chin on hands clasping a ground-ash pole nearly as long and as old as himself. From his look-out place he had seen something moving down like brown thongweed just under the clear and shallow water. Off came the hat, grey as lichen, to be held aloft while he cried again.

Tally Ho!

The horn of the huntsman sang short and urgent notes; the air by the holt was scored by the names of hounds as he ran with them to where, amidst purple-streaked stems of hemlock, the old man was standing on the shillets.

Soon afterwards the horn sounded again near the holt and the baying of hounds grew louder. Footfalls banged the wood above Tarka's head, as a man climbed along the trunk. The water began to lap: hound-taint from a high-yelping throat came into the holt: the bitch grew larger along her back when, above her head, a man's voice cried snarlingly, Go'rn leave it, Captain! Go'rn leave it! A thong swished, a lash cracked. Go'rn leave it, Captain!

The high yelping lessened with the taint of breath. The cries went up river.


Chapter 12 ~ Spady Gut

The two otters ran through the flags and slid down the mud to the river again. Tarka spread himself in the shallow flow, moving with light touches of claws just over the rocks and stones of the bed. He moved slowly, as an eel moves, as smooth as the water, and with sinuous ease. Sometimes he crept out at the edge of the mud, walked a few yards, and slipped back into the water again. Hounds were crushing the flags around his bed, and throwing their tongues along his line.

He swam through a long pool at his fastest pace, putting up his nostrils every fifty yards to breathe, and down again immediately. He left the oakwood behind him, and came to a narrow gut draining the water of a small marshy valley, where bullocks were grazing. The gut lay under trees above a rocky bank. Its other bank was mud. Seaweed hung on the roots of trees six feet above his head. Tarka walked up the gut, partly hid by the broad strongly keeled leaves of river sedge. He followed it into the marsh, and climbing out, ran along a path trodden by cattle, through a gate and down to a lower marsh, hidden from the opposite bank by a tide-wall. The tongue of Deadlock spoke along the river, and Tarka slipped into another gut. He trod through brown mud to a black ooze, in which he moved slowly, owing to his very short legs. The drain led under the tide-wall to the muddy glidder above the river. It led into darkness, with light coming through the chinks of a circular wooden trap, that kept the tides back from the land. He sniffed at a chink, and waited in the ooze.

For two hours, Tarka lay behind the wooden trap, while the noises of hunting moved away into remoteness. Slowly the sound of the low running river was stilled into slack water.

....

Smells of the lower river, riding up with the young tide into the Mouse Hole Pit, had overspread the wishy washy otterscent, and the pack was being taken back to kennels. The horn-like voice of the huntsman, as he talked to hounds by name, came to the otter through the chinks of the sodden elm-wood trap. They trotted on the opposite bank, happy at the huntsman's heels, led home by aged Harper, who had taught them all to mark an otter. Flews to flews with him was Deadlock, and at his stern, Bluemaid, old before her time, worn-out by swimming. Then came Pitiful who worked hard and alone; whenever it was possible to go wrong, Pitiful went wrong; it was Pitiful who, whenever they passed by the dry river-bed, led them on the trail of Shaggery the ram-cat; if a hound were missing, it was surely Pitiful. Near her was Captain, a black-and-tan rough dog, who looked like a lurcher; the huntsman did not take Captain to important meets, for Captain's voice was like a knife whose edge is turned. He did not throw his tongue, he screamed; and sometimes in his excitement he babbled, flinging water-lies about. Bite'm the terrier hurried among them, sometimes sniffing in tufts, hoping to find a rat to shake; and following Bite'm, like an easy-going, big heavy boy led by a sharp little quick-eyed tacker, came Rufus, who cared more for a nest of field-mice than for a joint or rib of rank otter. After Rufus on the tidewall ran Dewdrop, whose long fawn-coloured hair was curly with wet. Her ears hung long and loose.


Chapter 18 ~ Forda Holt

At half-past ten in the morning a covered motor-van stopped at the bridge below the Dark Pool. From the driver's seat three men got down, and at the sound of their footfalls deep notes came from the van. Hearing the hounds, the two terriers - Biff and Bite'm - held by a girl in jacket and short skirt of rough blue serge, yapped and strained against the chain.

Motor-cars were drawn up on one side of the road. The men, women, and children who had come to the meet of otterhounds stood by them, or talked as they stood by the stone parapets of the bridge. Some men leaned on long ash poles, stained and polished with linseed oil and shod with iron and notched from the top downwards with the number of past kills, two notches crossed denoting a double-kill. The women carried smaller and slenderer poles, either of ash or male bamboo. There were blackthorn thumb-sticks, hazel-wands, staves of ground-ash; one boy held the handle of a carpet-sweeper, slightly warped. He had poked the end in some nettles, lest the wooden screw be seen by other boys. It had no notches.

Faces turned to the hound-van. Huntsman and his whipper-in each lifted a rust pin from the staples in the back of the van and lowered the flap. Immediately hounds fell out and over each other, and to the road, shaking themselves, whimpering, panting with pink tongues flacking, happy to be free after the crush and heat of the journey from kennels. They were admired and stroked, patted and spoken to by name; they scratched themselves and rolled and licked each other's necks; they sat and look up at the many faces - old Harper solemnly, with eyes sunk by age, the younger hounds, still remembering their walking days, going to seek their human friends, and sniff and nuzzle pockets where biscuits, cake, and sandwiches were stored. The kennel-boy-cum-whip called them by name and flicked gently near the more restless with his whip: Barbrook and Bellman, Boisterous and Chorister, Dewdrop, Sailoress, Coraline, and Waterwitch; Armlet, who lay down to sleep, Playboy and Actor, Render and Fencer; Hemlock the one-eyed, with Bluemaid, Hurricane, Harper, and Pitiful, the veterans; Darnel and Grinder, who sat behind Sandboy. Then two young hounds of the same litter, Dabster and Dauntless, sons of Dewdrop and Deadlock.

And there Deadlock, his black head scarred with old fights, sat on his haunches, apart and morose, watching for the yellow waistcoat of the Master. His right ear showed the mark made by the teeth of Tarka's mother two years before, when he had thrust his head into the hollow of the fallen tree.