Chapter 1: The River's Warning
It was late September, and after a week of storms and rain, which had caused the River to rise, and the once glorious vegetation along the River Bank to grow old and bedraggled, the sun started to show itself again.
Now, with a new dawn, the day promised a time of calmer, drier weather and the final touch of an Indian summer. A thin veil of mist hung over the River, and all seemed subdued, and at peace.
The Mole, who had not been able to leave Mole End for some days, had left Nephew to busy himself with a few necessary repairs to the windows and doors before winter set in, and had gone off for the day to see his good friend the Water Rat.
He had reached the Iron Bridge and was leaning on its parapet to gaze down at the River, and watch its endless flow, when he noticed somebody sitting a little way along the bank, hardly more than a misty silhouette.
"Is that you, Otter?" he called.
"Hello, Mole," said the Otter, rising to join him. Then, seeing the fat wicker luncheon-basket he carried, he added, "You're not off to see Ratty, are you?"
"You can join us if you like," said the hospitable Mole. "Seeing that these are likely to be the last few decent days of summer, I thought-"
"I'd leave Ratty well alone today, if I were you, Mole," said the Otter seriously. "He's communing with the River, and has been since yesterday."
"Aah!" said the Mole, putting down his basket. "Then I'll have to think of something else to do, for at such a time Ratty's best left by himself."
The Otter continued to stare down at the River, and seemed unusually quiet and distracted for one normally so cheerful.
"Is something amiss along the River?" enquired the Mole anxiously,
"I think there may be," said the Otter, "though what it is I cannot say. I have known Ratty commune with the River many times before, we all have, but not for quite so long, and not so ... so seriously.
"I took him some food and a warming drink last evening--I left it nearby where he might see it when he was ready, for I did not wish to disturb him--but I swear it was untouched this morning:'
"You mean he has been out all night?" cried the Mole.
"I think he must have been."
"And he seems troubled?"
"Very," said the Otter sombrely.
"Well, we certainly shouldn't disturb him," said the thoughtful Mole, "but we can be at hand when he has finished, for he'll be very tired, and in need of good food and company."
So it was agreed, and the two spent the day at Otter's house, sending Otter's son Portly down-river from time to time to see how Ratty was getting on.
"He's still there, just sitting and staring, and raising his arms occasionally, as he does when he's communing," reported Portly at eleven o'clock, at midday, at two o'clock and again just after three.
"We'll leave it till the end of the afternoon," said the Otter, "and then I'll go along again myself Meanwhile, Mole, I hope you don't mind if I help myself to some more you've made; there'll still be plenty left for Ratty."
"Please have as much as you wish," insisted the Mole, and for goodness' sake put some of this clotted cream on top, for it just does not taste the same without it."
A little later, Mole went out and gazed down-river towards the distant form of the Rat in the fading sunlight. "O my," he sighed, and went back to sit by the Otter and wait while the minutes and hours passed by.
Both of them knew that if there were one animal along the River Bank who understood the River's moods better than any other, and who heard its call more clearly than them all, it was the Water Rat. Come spring, summer, autumn or winter, a day rarely went by when the Rat was not either in the water or on it, swimming or sculling, thinking and dreaming. If he did have to be away from the River Bank, for social or business reasons, he was restless and uneasy till he was back in touch with the River again.
For the most part the Rat called the River "she", and none thereabouts doubted where his heart and spirit lay, or what was the source of his deepest joy and happiness, and, for that matter, his sporadic moods and silences. The River-Bankers never questioned the Rat for a single moment on those occasions, happily rare and usually at times of spring and autumn spate, when he warned others off the River, and told them to leave her alone for a time.
His chief confidant and helper in such difficult times was the Otter, who lived as close to the River as the Rat, and was as adept as he in managing her more violent moods of storm and flood. When it came to matters of River history and lore, however, the Otter deferred to the Rat's greater knowledge and wisdom.
It was one of the quiet pleasures of the River Bank to see the Rat and the Otter conferring about the changing mood of the River, sitting upon the bank, their feet in the water, their voices low. Only Portly was allowed to disturb them, for such was the power of the River over them that they sometimes needed reminding that their tea was ready, or they were due at Mole End in half an hour for supper.
It was no wonder. then, that the Otter was so concerned about this latest episode. But as the September day wore on into a balmy evening and still Portly reported that there was no change, they began to think that something very serious indeed was afoot.
The Mole was just beginning to consider that he might go home for the night and return in the morning when Portly came running along the bank.
"He's moved! He's up and he's stretched, and he's gone back into his house and shut the door!"
"I think this is a matter for you now, Mole old fellow," said the Otter. "You're a better judge than I as to whether or not Ratty's at home to visitors."
The Mole smiled and said, "Now, how much of that cranberry pie have you left?"
They quickly gathered together what remained of the feast the Mole had prepared, added a few things from the Otter's more workaday larder and set off to see if their friend might be lured back into society.
"Ratty!" called the Mole, having tapped at his door. Are you there, Ratty?"
"You know perfectly well I am," said an irritable voice from inside Ratty's house.
"Well then, are you at home to visitors? Because I've brought you some--"
The door opened a little and two bright eyes peered out.
"O, nothing very much, just a little bit of supper, because I had heard--"
"What had you heard?" said the Rat, letting the door open a shade more.
"--and I know that at such times--"
"What do you know about such times?" said the Rat in a more friendly way, and opening his door wider still.
"--that you could do with a bite or two, and that a well-made warming drink would not go amiss."
The Rat opened the door completely and looked at the contents of the Mole's basket with unabashed pleasure.
"Is it very bad, the news you have from the River?" said the Mole.
The Rat abruptly turned his attention from the basket to the Mole and his expression changed.
"I think it may be, Mole, for her call these past two days has been strange. She worries me. She worries me a great deal."
The Rat stood with his old friend, staring at the light of evening upon the River, and listening to the distant calls of the migrating geese, which had settled for the night in the nearby meadows.
Quietly Otter and Portly came to join them, and not long afterwards Nephew also arrived, for he had been worried about his uncle. Nephew sensed the importance of the occasion immediately and settled down with the others to contemplate the silent flow of the River.
For the time being all thought of food and drink had fled the Rat's mind, but a little later the Mole quietly slipped into the Rat's house and made up a large pot of tea for the whole company. He brought it out, and while it brewed he opened up his basket and finally laid out some food for the Rat on a large plate.
The Water Rat took up the mug of tea the Mole had poured for him and sipped it slowly, hunching forward as he looked at the River, his hands tight about the mug as if for warmth and comfort.
"I cannot say that I fully understand what she has been trying to say to me since yesterday," he confided at last, "for the River does not use language as we do, but speaks to us in a deeper way. Very often it is I who do not understand her, but I think that on this occasion she is not able to speak at all clearly of what concerns her. It is as if she is calling for help, but ... that she knows we cannot give it. There! That's what it is: she needs help, but not from us because there is nothing we can do for her."
Ratty sounded suddenly relieved that his work of communion had found expression after so many arduous hours, but he sounded very tired as well.
"But what does she need our help for?" asked Nephew, who had not yet learned, as his uncle had, that on such occasions the Rat knew the questions well enough; it was the answers that had to come in their own time.
Yet perhaps because it was Nephew, of whom he had grown very fond in the years since he had first come to live with the Mole, the Rat did essay an answer.
"I do not know what it can be, but it's certain it's important and threatens her very life and possibly our own."
There was a gasp from Nephew and Portly, who had been slower than the Mole and the Otter to understand the sombre importance of what the Rat had been saying, and they stared again at the great River whose steady and relentless flow seemed as solid and eternal as the cycle of day and night, and of the seasons.
"But how...?" whispered Nephew.
"He doesn't know, he can't know," said the Otter, replying for the Rat in a low voice, that animal having now risen.
"Mole," the Rat called out when he had made his slow, tired way to his front door, "I'll be well and rested in a day or two and will come and see you then. Meanwhile let us say no more of this amongest ourselves, or to Badger. I think it better that I talk to him myself about it first, for idle chatter on matters of moment is to nobody's advantage, least of all hers."
"Uncle," began Nephew an hour later, after the little group had dispersed and the two moles were nearing Mole End by the light of the stars, "this is a serious business, isn't it?"
His uncle had said hardly a word since they had crossed the Iron Bridge, and in the last quarter of an hour his pace had slowed, evidence that he was deep in thought. Now he stopped, sniffed appreciatively at the night air, and leaned upon a gate that led into one of the fields.
"No doubt of it, Nephew, none whatsoever. Ratty isn't given to making things up, and he never makes light of River business. I cannot think what the matter can be, and nor shall I try, for in that department we must leave ourselves in the good hands of Ratty and Otter, and to some extent in Portly's as well, for he is coming along very well, very well indeed.
"Meanwhile, as Ratty said, 'idle chatter' will help nobody, and I shall desist from it. Now, did you succeed in stopping the rattle in the window, and easing the front door somewhat?"
"I did," said Nephew good-humouredly, the more so because such jobs were much easier without the house-proud Mole fussing about, and he had been glad that his uncle had followed his gentle hint and made himself scarce for the clay.
"There's still a good deal of work to do on the other windows, however, and I will need your help holding the ladder on that highest window of all, which needs a good clean and rub-down, and then some fresh paint."
"Even more than that I fancy," said the Mole, "for I put in that window myself when I first came to Mole End, and that's a good many years ago--before you were born."
Talking in this comforting manner, they resumed the last stage of their journey, and once back in the security of Mole End they soon turned in. It had been a long day, and a worrying one, but the Mole always said that a good night's sleep cleared the mind and made things look different, and very often a good deal better; and often he was right.
If he had hoped for a lie-in, however, he was disappointed, for the sun seemed barely to have risen when there was a rat-tat-tat at the door.
"That must be Ratty!" he said, as he rose from his bed and searched for his dressing-gown. "He must have made a bit more sense of what the River was trying to tell him and come over at once to tell me."
Rat-tat-tat! went the knocker once more, rousing Nephew from his slumbers too.
Grumbling a little, and calling to Ratty to be patient if you please, the Mole slid back the bolts and finally opened the door.
"Ratty, you're always welcome," began the Mole, "but do remember that not everybody is as wide awake at this hour as --"
But it was not the Rat. It was a solid gentleman in a blue and red uniform, and he carried a brown canvas satchel with a red crown upon it, above which were embroidered the words "Royal Mail".
The Mole saw at once the mistake the postman had made.
"It'll be Mr Toad of Toad Hall you want," he said, his normal good humour returning as he saw that the weather was fine and another good day seemed certain, "but I'm very much afraid you've come too far."
"I know where Mr Toad lives," said the postman slowly. "Everybody knows him. But I can't say as we've ever had to deliver further afield than his establishment, not in my experience and that goes back a good way now."
"Ah," said the Mole equably, feeling that in some way he may have called into question the postman's professionalism.
"You're Mr Mole of Mole End, I take it, seeing as you're mole-like and your house is named 'Mole End'?"
"That is correct," concurred the Mole.
"So you're not Mr Water Rat? And nor is he, I take it, since he, too, is mole-like?"
Nephew had appeared at the door behind the Mole and the postman was staring at him rather suspiciously.
"Neither of us is the Water Rat," said the Mole, feeling that simple agreement was the best approach with this gentleman.
"It's easier in the Town," said the postman wearily.
"There's numbers on the houses there. If I had my way I would have the law changed and get numbers put on every house in the land."
"I see," said the Mole, "but do you not feel that it would be pleasant to retain the house name as well?"
"Can't see the point," said the postman.
"No, I don't suppose you can," said the Mole.
"I can't stop here all day talking to you, now can I," said the postman suddenly. "The letters of the land must be delivered -- not to mention other things."
Mole glanced at his satchel, wondering-if it might contain some of those "other things", and if so if they might be dangerous in some way. But the bag appeared to be empty, which was perhaps not surprising since Mole End was the last house in this direction for a great many miles.
"Would you like a cup of tea and some buttered toast?" offered the Mole, thinking that perhaps that was the way to deal with postmen.
"That is against all the regulations," said the postman with considerable severity, "and it is as well that you did not include with that invitation the suggestion - a hint would have been enough - that alcoholic beverage was included, or else I would have had to make a citizen's arrest and turn you and every other person resident in this house over to the magistrates."
"Well I --" began the perplexed Mole, who had never thought that the offer of sustenance to a visitor might land him in court.
"Don't you think, sir, that it would be better if you said nothing more on the subject of tea and toast? Instead, perhaps you could just try to give me a straight an unequivocal answer to a simple question: if Mr Rat does not live here, where does he live?"
"On the other side of the River," said the Mole, pointing down through the trees. "It's about half an hour or so if you go back the way you've come and over the Iron Bridge, but a good deal quicker by boat."
"Very droll," said the postman with a scowl. "We are not issued with boats."
"I could perhaps take the letter or package to Ratty myself, he is a good fr-"
"Sir, you have an unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing: I would not repeat that suggestion if I were you', because purloining mail is deemed a criminal rather than a civil offence!"
The Mole 'was not a little affronted by the postman's attitude, but he was also most curious and intrigued, for to his certain knowledge the Rat had no more experience with the Royal Mail, in either the receiving or sending departments, than he had. He was reluctant to ask further questions, since he did indeed seem to say or ask the wrong thing and had not quite realized the risks attached to dealing with postmen, but quite suddenly the postman softened a little and offered some information.
"In any case," he said, "it isn't a letter."
"Not a letter," said the Mole, feeling that repetition of what was said to him was the safest approach.
"Nor a package."
"Ah," said the Mole. "Nor a package."
"Not even an 'Address Unknown Return To Sender'
"Not even that!" exclaimed the Mole, feeling that he was beginning to get the hang of things.
"No, sir, we don't often get to deliver one of these, and seeing as it's caused me so much trouble I'm not sure I want to deliver another one."
He dug deep into the bag.
"What is it?" asked the Mole, quite forgetting himself.
But now the postman seemed willing enough to talk.
"This," he said, "is a Customer Instruction to Collect - that's on this side - and Customer Permission to Receive and Take Away - that's on this side. Collect from the Town Head Post Office, that is, seeing as the item is too big, or bulky, or in some other way not party to the normal regulations. Clearly we cannot as postmen undertake the risk to our persons of delivering such items, so the customer must take it upon himself."
The Mole saw at once that he had been quite correct to think that "other things" might be in some way dangerous. He permitted himself a momentary and uncharacteristic sense of selfish relief that it was not he who was to receive this Instruction to Collect, but the Rat. But then the Rat was more practical than he and would no doubt know what to do, or soon work it out.
"What is the nature of the item?" asked Nephew, as curious as his uncle.
"I am not permitted to tell you that," said the postman, "but there is nothing to prevent me reading out what is upon the card, and nothing to prevent you hearing me do so."
He held up the card, squinted at it long and hard, and uttered a single and most startling word.
"Livestock," he said.
"I beg your pardon?" said the Mole.
"I shall endeavour to read out this word again, sir, and I trust you will endeavour to hear it this time."
He held up the card once more, peered at it, and uttered that astonishing word again, quite clearly, and for all to hear.
"Livestock," said he.
"And Mr Rat is to collect it?"
"Or them, sir; you never can tell with livestock."
"Are you permitted to read anything else on the card which may give us a clue about this matter?" continued the Mole, his curiosity undeniable.
"The only other item that may have relevance, sir -- and beyond this I know nothing myself, for incoming mail and other items is a different department, of course concerns the source of said item. That often gives a clue. For example, if the source were 'The Cheesery, Wensleydale, Yorkshire', you might reasonably conclude it was a Wensleydale cheese."
"But that wouldn't be livestock," said the Mole.
"I would not be quite so sure upon that point, sir, if I were you, given some of the cheeses I have seen lingering in the Sorting Office."
"So with respect to livestock, if the source were something such as a farm, for example, or - ?"
"Or an abattoir, sir, in those cases where said livestock is no longer alive, or in other words is dead. But in this case--"
"Yes?" said the Mole eagerly.
"--the source is quoted, and again I must remind you that--"
"Yes, Yes," said the Mole impatiently, having now got the measure of this postman and seeing that he was as curious about the matter as the Mole himself.
"Well then, the source is given as 'Egypt'!" said the postman without further ado.
"O my!" said the Mole, whose knowledge of Egyptian livestock was restricted to camels. "O my!"
"A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, sir."
At which the Mole suggested that he and Nephew guide the postman to the Rat without more delay by way of the River.
The walk down to the bank was pleasant, and confirmed the promise of the dawn, and as the Mole had expected, the Rat was already busying himself about his boat and moorings.
"Mole! Good, good. just the fellow I was hoping to see --"
He stopped the moment he saw the postman, with a look of surprise and enquiry on his face. The matter was very soon explained, however, if not yet understood. Over came the Rat in his boat in a trice, but as the postman refused to hand the item to him directly and insisted he must deliver it personally to the Water Rat's address, back over the River they all went.
"It must be a mistake," said the Rat finally, when the card had been read several times and the matter had been fully explained to him. "I know nobody in Egypt, and I have certainly not ordered any camels."
"It can't be helped, I'm afraid, sir: rules are rules. We, that is the Royal Mail, assumed responsibility for this item the moment it touched the shores of the land, but you took up that same responsibility once you had acknowledged receipt, if only mutely, which is to say through silent reading of the card. Then, allowing for a day's grace once you are informed of said livestock's presence, you must pay storage charges at a rate of sixpence a day minimum. Herds work out more dearly than individuals."
"Well -" said the Rat.
"Be warned, sir, those charges soon mount up. In the case of Lord Bell, former cotton king of Glasgow, who foolishly acknowledged receipt of fifteen gross bales of cotton from India but omitted to collect them for six years, the charges bankrupted him, and he-went to gaol!"
"O dear, Ratty; you had better collect it today," said the Mole.
"But the last thing I want on a day like this is to go to the Town!"
"In a case such as yours, sir" advised the postman, who was used to difficult customers and knew how to spot their weak points, "the first item the bailiffs would take, as part payment of unpaid charges, would certainly be that boat of yours."
"Not my boat!" said the horrified Rat, eyeing the craft that had given him and the Mole so much happiness, and which had been so damaged on some of their more dangerous expeditions that it had taken all his skills and patience to restore it.
"And the oars, sir. They'd have to go as well. If you take my advice you'll collect this item forthwith."
"Yes, I will, I must," said a very subdued Ratty. "But, Mole?"
"Perhaps you'd come with me, and Nephew too, for if this livestock proves to be a herd of something rather than a single specimen then I shall need a good deal, of help."
He sighed, and looked about the River with considerable misgivings, for the morning was turning glorious, and a journey to the Town was never to his taste, particularly on so promising a day as this and with the River's warning of yesterday still so much on his mind.
"It will take me a good deal more than a day to get there in my boat," said the Rat, "for I shall have to row all the way. There's nothing for it but to borrow Toad's motor-launch."
Having escorted the postman to the Iron Bridge and said their farewells, and with the collection card carefully stowed away in Rat's inside pocket, they marched purposefully up to Toad Hall to see if they might borrow Toad's launch for the day.
It had been some time since any of them had seen Toad. They found him in the great hall by his front door studying a good many packing cases of all shapes and sizes of which he had evidently recently taken delivery. They all had upon them the imprint of the Town's best known emporium for the better classes and, stencilled in black, the words: IMMEDIATE DELIVERY.
Toad's greeting, normally so effusive and generous hearted, was on this occasion subdued. He was sitting in a chair, eyeing the cases as if he were summoning up the energy and courage to open them.
"O, hullo!" he said in a preoccupied way.
"Anything we can help with, old fellow?" offered the practical Rat.
"I am afraid not," said Toad.
"Is this, perhaps, some new equipment for your home?" suggested the Mole, his curiosity getting the better of him.
"My home? No," muttered Toad, "nor even for me."
Then he rose up, paced about, sighed a good deal and said, "But what's the use of talking to you fellows, who have no real responsibilities except towards yourselves, whereas I have parental duties to consider, and much else to worry about? Now what can I do for you?"
It was plain that Toad did not wish to be pressed further, so the Rat quickly explained why they so much needed to borrow his launch. Toad was only too happy to oblige, for whatever else one might say about Toad of Toad Hall, he was never mean with his possessions. But as for going with them...
"Much as I would like to, you fellows really must try to understand that I have a good deal to attend to today, and much to worry about, so very much! You go off and have a good time, but if you have a moment to spare a thought for me, please do so. You see, in addition to this delivery I have to deal with, he's coming home today."
"Ah!" exclaimed the Mole. "I quite forgot; so he is."
"Who?" enquired the puzzled Rat.
"Master Toad," said the Mole quietly
"Ah! Yes, well, we'd best be on our way," said the Rat hastily, adding with not entirely convincing regret, but you're definitely not able to come with us?"
"You'll just have to do your very best to have a good time without me," said Toad, showing them out onto the terrace. "You know where my craft is, Ratty, and how it works, just as well as I do; better in fact! Now off you go, for I have so much to do!"
With that he dashed inside as the others made their way down to his boat-house. In no time at all the Rat had the motor-launch out on the River, and had turned it expertly upstream towards the Town; while behind them, though the River Bank was aflame with autumn sun, the River itself was still and sombre, its surface seeming already to reflect the dark hues of approaching winter.
Copyright (c) William Horwood. Published by St. Martin's Press Inc., New York, NY