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Authors: William Horwood

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The Mole was touched, and his heart warmed, by the sight of a little row of youthful books, tatty and dusty now, which the Badger had preserved upon a shelf, and which bespoke an animal who had been brought up to read and study, and enjoy that love of learning that no doubt contributed to the good-hearted wisdom for which he was now so revered and loved.

It must be said, however (the Mole’s curiosity having slightly got the better of him), that when he examined the books more closely he was surprised to see that they were mischievously scored and crayoned inside, and some of the illustrations had very juvenile emendations — such as spectacles on characters that surely wore none, and a crudely drawn crocodile about to attack some harmless ducks in a village pond — that suggested that the Badger had not always been quite so careful or reverential of his books as he was now.

The Mole would have liked to ask the Badger about the items he had seen when that kindly animal looked in from time to time with cups of tea and nourishing broth, but he felt it discreet and proper not to do so.

By the fourth day the Mole was well on the way to recovery, well enough to leave his bed — with some reluctance — and the Badger persuaded him to take a walk through the Wild Wood. How slowly he went, how miserably, and all the more so when they approached the River and he espied the willows in full green leaf beyond, and the landscape he knew and loved so well.

“Badger —” began the Mole.

“Yes?” said the Badger gently.

“It’s nothing, nothing at all.”

They walked on slowly till they reached a tree stump where the path from the Wild Wood meets the River.

“You look a little tired; I have let you come too far. Why not sit awhile before I take you back to my home? I shall go on and stand on the bank, for I like to view the River from this point, downstream and upstream —”

“Upstream,” mumbled the Mole, “yes — I —”

The Badger let him sit down and went on the few more paces to the bank, much exercised about what he should do next. It was plain enough that the Mole was still most unhappy, but he had not yielded to the Badger’s discreet enquiries, and he knew that he must be allowed to take his own time.

A little sob behind him: from the Mole. A little cry The Badger could bear it no longer and turned to see a sight as pathetic and as moving as any he had ever seen. It was his good friend the Mole, sitting now on the stump, but hunched forward, trying his very best not to embarrass another with his emotions, but quite unable to stem the tide a moment longer.

“Why, Mole,” began the Badger, going to him at once, “whatever is it? What can it possibly be that continues to distress you so? Can you not try to tell me at last?”

For a brief moment the Mole looked up at him, still trying to hold back the tears, till words began to tumble out at last and he wept, and wept.

“It didn’t seem so much when — when I first suggested it — I didn’t think it
mattered
— but — but —” The Mole wept some more before he was able to continue, and the Badger said not a word. “But, well, I put it to Ratty and he agreed and my hopes — my hopes went up — because, of course, you know, I could not do it myself, not
by
myself. I really have not much courage — he has the knowledge and the skill so I was relying on him and he agreed, he
did
agree, but then he said — he told me — he would not — O dear, Badger, I just do not have the courage to do it all alone. I was
relying
on him to help and, and —”

“You have a great deal of courage, Mole,” said the Badger, daring to speak at last.

“Not for such a thing, not without Ratty; and then suddenly he — he said he could not — O, bother!”

Thus had the Mole begun to talk down by the River, and the Badger had led him home, let him sleep through the afternoon and when he had awoken feeling very much recovered had given him a good supper. Then, even though it was early summer, he had lit a fire and the Mole had finally been persuaded to settle down and say what ailed him; and the more the Badger heard, the more he kicked himself for not understanding sooner.

“You see,” began the Mole, “when spring came this year a most strange desire to journey forth overcame me, a kind of restlessness to go up-river.

“It has been a long-held ambition of Ratty and myself to mount such an expedition and we have often talked of it during our picnics, but neither of us had ever felt inclined to take it further — till this spring.

“I was aware, of course, because Ratty told me so, that you have always strongly advised against such ventures, but so strong was the compulsion I felt for the expedition, and so persuasive my words to Ratty, that he agreed to lend his boat if I would provide the victuals. What is more, and here, Badger, I confess I feel some remorse, we decided to keep the matter secret from you, lest you endeavour to dissuade us from the enterprise.”

The Badger growled somewhat ambiguously, and the Mole felt it wisest to hurry on with his story.

“Well then, rather to my surprise, Ratty was very easily persuaded to be party to my plan, and to take upon himself the practical side of the organization.

“Once the matter was agreed I found that an altogether new and unfamiliar sense of excitement overtook me. What had seemed a mere dream, a moment’s fancy, had become solid certainty, and my mind began to dwell on what I might find upstream, which is to say — what I might find —
Beyond.”

“Beyond,” murmured the Badger.

“But then suddenly everything changed. With the coming of Mayday everything turned warm and good and Ratty suddenly found much to do along the River Bank. He came to me and said, ‘Perhaps we are rather over-reaching ourselves with this jaunt of ours. It’s not that I do not want to go, Mole, old chap — and I would not want to disappoint you — but you must understand that the River Bank only stays as safe and peaceable as it does because I look after it so well, with Otter’s help of course. Now there’s so much to do —’

“Well, Badger, you know that I am not one to push myself forward, and if Ratty felt that he had better things to do than set off on a mere jaunt, well, he was probably right.”

The Mole fell silent as he remembered that bitter moment, for to him the venture had become rather more than the “jaunt” it seemed to be for the Rat.

“When are you off then, Mole?” the Otter had asked a day or two after this.

“Ah, we’re not going after all, Otter. Ratty — I — we decided that perhaps this is not the best time.”

How disappointed the Otter seemed, and how uncomfortable the poor Mole felt as a result, instantly regretting that he had so readily acquiesced to the Rat’s wishes.

It was then that the Mole had begun to slip into that state of despondency none had been able to understand. ‘What had begun as an impulse towards adventure had turned into a cause and purpose too deep and mysterious for him to share with another, yet too impelling to give up. A cause that he felt increasingly was for the good of the River Bank, though he did not fully understand why.

The one friend who might have helped him realize his ambition had declined to do so. Toad could not be expected to understand, and the Otter would not have been quite the same companion as the Rat would have ‘been, sterling fellow though he was. Nor did he feel he could turn to the Badger, for he felt he would disapprove, and he felt so ill at ease with the secrecy that he and the Rat had maintained that he was unable to call and seek the counsel of his wise friend.

Such were the events that had led him to take his nocturnal walk, and deep was his silence, and that of the Badger, when he had finished relating them. Indeed, the Badger went so far as to open up his front door upon the night and take a stroll in the Wild Wood, that he might think a little.

When he returned he seemed to have come to some decision and said jovially, “I think that a glass of that vintage mayweed and elderflower wine you gave me on my birthday some years ago might be a good idea.” He rose and took down a bottle of that famous brew of which the Mole was the greatest creator. “You remember the occasion?”

Indeed the Mole did, for he had declared, rather tipsily as he recalled, that “this is the finest I have ever made, and it should be allowed to mature for a few years till there is an occasion of sufficient importance that its quality and maturity will justify the opening of it!”

This splendid speech had been witnessed by Rat and Toad, Otter and his son Portly, as well — it was in the days before Nephew was on the scene — and the Mole had felt much embarrassed to have been so carried away by the occasion, and the drink, that he had dared say so much, and so portentously.

“I fear I was a little the worse for wear on that occasion,” confessed the Mole, watching as the Badger prepared to open the bottle; “but if you please —”

“Yes, Mole, what is it?”

“Well, I am — I am not quite sure but —”

“Why, Mole, you look most strange.”

“I feel strange, Badger, most strange. But if you please, do not open that
particular
bottle quite yet, for you see I — I do not think the time is yet right.”

Mole slumped back in the chair as the Badger put the hallowed bottle back in its place, unopened. Mole looked more startled at himself than anything else, while the Badger seemed not at all displeased.

“I hope that great day may soon come, my good friend,” said the Badger, pouring them out instead a glass of that good old standby, Mole’s mischievous sloe and blackberry drink.

“And when it does,” continued the Mole, “and it will, I feel strangely sure it will, then I pray that our friends Ratty and Toad will be here to share it, and Otter and Portly too!”

“And
your fine Nephew!” concluded the Badger, raising his glass and turning their future wish into the present toast.

“Now then, Mole, I believe that we have some important things to talk over and we must not put them off a moment longer. You spoke a little earlier of the vision you had had of what we choose to call Beyond.”

“Yes, yes I did,” said the Mole, putting down his glass and leaning forward.

The two animals talked then for a long time, right on to the coming of dawn. Of much more than the Mole’s vision they spoke, though of nothing that did not in some sense bear upon it, and return to it. Of the long history of the River Bank they spoke, of Toad’s father; of the coming of the Rat, and the Mole’s own quiet emergence from his own small territory into the wider world of the Willows and the River Bank; and finally when the Mole thought all was said that could be said, the Badger began to talk of certain people, certain incidents and certain places beyond the River Bank — upstream of the River Bank indeed, which intimately concerned his own history — and explained a good deal concerning those old worn childhood books in the spare bedroom, and the small clothes, and the calendar with its fateful words
“The Final Date”.

The Mole now understood that the date concerned was the last on which the Badger had been able to hold any hope that he who had once worn those clothes, and he who had once enjoyed the books, would ever return to the River Bank from that place to which he had set off so foolishly as it had then seemed: which was, which must surely be Beyond.

“One thing’s certain, Mole,” said the Badger, when they were finally sated with talk; “your voyage with Ratty will have to be revived. Your instincts in this matter must be trusted and acted upon!”

“But he is quite adamant,” said the Mole dubiously “and I could not possibly try to dissuade him from a course he wants to take and I have agreed to.”

“Nor should you try! No, this is something that needs careful handling. Leave it to me and I dare say that Rat will change his mind!”

 

“Mole! Mole!”

It was the Rat’s voice, and the Rat’s knock, some days later at Mole End.

“Come in, Ratty, come in!” cried the Mole, opening the door, now back home and fully recovered. “You are most welcome.”

“Now listen, Mole old chap, for I’ve something to say and there’s no time to make a thing of it.”

“Won’t you even sit down?”

“No time for that,” cried the Rat, going instead to the Mole’s kitchen and poking about in his larder, his gaze not quite meeting his friend’s.

BOOK: Toad Triumphant
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