Chapter Excerpt


Our Story Begins

In which those of us who are familiar with the Rat and Mole hail them as old friends. And for those of you who aren’t, well, you should put this book down right away and ask your librarian for the first book so you won’t be entirely clueless. (Oh, all right. You can come along if you promise to keep up, but no moaning about being lost.)
The Mole and Water Rat drifted along the River in a tiny blue-and-white rowboat. The current gurgled and chuckled, delighted with its comrades for the day. The sun smiled down upon our heroes and gladdened their hearts; the lightest of zephyrs ruffled their fur. There was not a hawk in the sky, and even the dark fringe of the Wild Wood glowering in the distance could not cast a pall upon the shining hour.
The Rat pulled on the oars every now and then but mostly let the River do the work, for he was busy composing poems in his head, rhyming “dream” with “stream,” that sort of thing. The Mole had brought along a good book to read (for it is a firm and fast rule that one should never leave one’s burrow without a good book in hand), and was deeply immersed in the adventures of a young girl who’d fallen down a rabbit hole. The hole was unlike any the Mole had ever visited—and he had visited any number of them in his time, for he counted a great many rabbits among his friends—but he was enjoying it immensely, as he was very fond of all stories that took place underground. He leaned back upon a plump cushion and wiggled his toes in sheer happiness.
From time to time, the Rat auditioned a new ditty by speaking it aloud, to see whether it lived and breathed in the open air, or withered and died as so many rhymes do when they are first introduced to the world. (It is a strange fact that many of those rhymes which ring true in the composer’s head will, when spoken aloud, limp and wheeze in the most pathetic manner, and are best put out of their misery right away.1)
Really, sighed the Mole to himself, the day was perfect. Or at least it would be, if only the Rat would stop interrupting his reading.
Honestly, thought the Rat, the day was ideal. Or at least it would be, if only the Mole would put down his book and pay proper attention.
“Moly, listen here. Can you think of a word that rhymes with balloon? The only thing I can come up with is mushroom, and that doesn’t work at all. One should avoid fungus in poetry, as a rule.”
With great reluctance, Mole tore himself away from an intriguing chapter about a frightfully odd tea party, in which two of the characters were trying to stuff a third into the teapot. The thought of a dormouse bobbing about in the tea struck the Mole as a shockingly shabby way to treat a guest, to say nothing of unhygienic.
He said, “Why do you need a rhyme for balloon?”
The Rat looked at him incredulously and said, “Haven’t you heard? Why, it’s the talk of the River. Toad’s grown bored with boats, and his motor-car craze is fading, so now he’s gone out and bought himself a—”
“Yoo-hoo!” came a gleeful familiar voice. It sounded very much like their friend Toad, but he was nowhere to be seen. Toad’s voice was present, but Toad, in the flesh, was not.
“What nonsense is he up to now?” said the Rat, frowning. “He really is a most provoking creature.”
“Hulloo, hulloo! Up here, you two!” sniggered the invisible Toad. “I’m up here!”
A passing cloud momentarily blotted out the sun. The two looked up to see that the cloud was not in fact a cloud, but rather a huge yellow balloon sailing overhead, a majestic airship, as shocking as another sun in the sky. The Mole gasped, and his heart skittered in his chest, for he’d never seen anything so splendid in all his life.
Suspended in the wicker basket below the balloon, waving and hullooing at them, was the familiar podgy form of Toad.
“As I was about to say,” said the Rat drily, “he’s bought himself a brand-new balloon, and I hear it cost the earth. Shall we place a bet on how long this phase lasts?”
The Mole ignored him, fixated as he was on the enormous globe. He clasped his paws together and breathed, “Oh, my.”
“Hoy, you two, what d’you think?” yelled Toad, his voice growing fainter as a current of wind spirited him away. “Ain’t she a beaut? I’ll take you fellows for a ride one day, if you like.”
The Mole could barely make out these last few words. But they stuck in his brain and lodged in his heart.
The Rat chattered on, making rude comments about Toad’s passing manias and how they never lasted and how he was sure to come to grief this time, and that he—Rat—only hoped that he—Toad—didn’t take some innocent victim with him when it happened, as it was bound to. For although Toad was in many respects a fine fellow, he possessed (let’s face it) a light and volatile character, and trailed catastrophe in his wake at every turn, and was not to be trusted with conveyances of any kind, and so forth and so on.
The Mole, his book long forgotten in his lap, ignored him. Eyes agleam, mouth agape, he stared at the balloon until it shrank to a speck on the horizon.
“Mole?” Ratty examined him with astonishment and not a little alarm, for the Mole’s expression was one the Rat had seen before, specifically on the visage of Toad when he’d first laid eyes on a motor-car, and been swept up in his craze for speed and the pull of the open road. “Moly?”
“Hmm?” said the Mole.
“Mole, old fellow, whatever’s come over you?”
The Mole said, “Hmm? What was that?”
“Now, look here,” said the Rat severely, “if you’re thinking of ballooning with Toad, you’ve got to put that idea right out of your head. He’s not competent to operate a tricycle, let alone a flying machine. Good heavens, man, you’d be taking your life in your hands!”
The Mole’s expression changed, and his eyes regained their focus. “I s’pose you’re right, Ratty. You’re always right about that sort of thing. Still, it must be nice…” His voice trailed off for a moment, but then he rallied and said, “Never mind. Messing about in boats is more than enough for me.”
A swift flitted by overhead, carving the sky into invisible loops with its acrobatics. It glanced at the boat and then, disbelieving its own eyes, swooped and circled back, landing lightly on the bow. The bird cocked its head and surveyed the tiny vessel’s passengers.
“My word,” chirruped the Swift, “it is a mole after all. A Water Rat is to be expected, but a Water Mole? I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.”
“Good morning, Swift,” said Mole. “Ratty has introduced me to the pleasures—nay, the joys! of the nautical life. He’s taught me how to row and swim, and I’m here to tell you that there is nothing, simply nothing, so grand as messing about in boats.”
“That may be true,” retorted the Swift, “but it isn’t a natural state for a ground dweller such as yourself.”
“Natural or not,” said Ratty stoutly, “my friend here is every bit at home on the River as I am. He’s quite an expert on the life aquatic.”
The Swift ignored this and continued, “You don’t see fish burrowing in the ground, do you? Leastways, not any self-respecting fish with a lick of common sense. Ergo, moles should not swim, or float about in boats, for that matter.2 Since you, sir, are plainly a mole, your job is to grub about in the earth. You were born and bred for it, and that’s all there is to it. Why, next you’ll want to fly, and all of Nature will be set on its head, topsy-turvy. It ain’t natural, I tell you.”
And with that, the Swift launched himself into the air and flew away before the Mole could think of a suitably crushing retort. (Mole, despite his many sterling qualities, was not always the most nimble-witted creature when it came to composing the withering riposte.)
“What colossal cheek!” Rat said. “Don’t let that bird bother you, Moly. He’s just jealous.” Rat went on about it at length and even threw in some harrumphing noises until his friend felt better.
Toad’s magic words, “I’ll take you fellows for a ride … for a ride…,” grew louder in the Mole’s head; his imagination swirled with visions of the dazzling yellow aircraft. Who could’ve imagined that such a machine existed? Even better, that the whole point of its existence was to make flight possible for earthbound beings, including modest tillers of the humble soil? As in, let us say, moles? As in, for example, one mole in particular? Why should those lucky creatures who’d been blessed with wings be the only ones to soar and swoop and glide and dip?
He picked up his book and soon appeared to be engrossed in his reading, but if the Rat had been paying more attention, he would have noticed that his friend did not turn a single page throughout the rest of their excursion.

Text copyright © 2012 by Jacqueline Kelly
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Clint Young

Excerpted from Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly, Kenneth Grahame
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.