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A BOOK OF ESSAYS IN PROFITABLE IDLENESS
by HENRY VAN DYKE
“And suppose he takes nothing, yet he enjoyeth a delightful walk by pleasant Rivers, in sweet Pastures, amongst odoriferous Flowers, which gratifie his Senses, and delight his Mind; which Contentments induce many (who affect not Angling) to choose those places of pleasure for their summer Recreation and Health.”
COL. ROBERT VENABLES, The Experienc’d Angler, 1662.
To one who wanders by my side
As cheerfully as waters glide;
Whose eyes are brown as woodland streams, And very fair and full of dreams;
Whose heart is like a mountain spring, Whose thoughts like merry rivers sing:
To her–my little daughter Brooke– I dedicate this little book.
II. Little Rivers
III. A Leaf of Spearmint
V. A Handful of Heather
VI. The Ristigouche from a Horse-Yacht
VII. Alpenrosen and Goat’s-Milk
VIII. Au Large
IX. Trout-Fishing in the Traun
X. At the sign of the Balsam Bough
XI. A Song after Sundown
AN ANGLER’S WISH IN TOWN
When tulips bloom in Union Square,
And timid breaths of vernal air
Are wandering down the dusty town, Like children lost in Vanity Fair;
When every long, unlovely row
Of westward houses stands aglow
And leads the eyes toward sunset skies, Beyond the hills where green trees grow;
Then weary is the street parade,
And weary books, and weary trade:
I’m only wishing to go a-fishing;
For this the month of May was made.
I guess the pussy-willows now
Are creeping out on every bough
Along the brook; and robins look
For early worms behind the plough.
The thistle-birds have changed their dun For yellow coats to match the sun;
And in the same array of flame
The Dandelion Show’s begun.
The flocks of young anemones
Are dancing round the budding trees: Who can help wishing to go a-fishing
In days as full of joy as these?
I think the meadow-lark’s clear sound Leaks upward slowly from the ground,
While on the wing the bluebirds ring Their wedding-bells to woods around:
The flirting chewink calls his dear
Behind the bush; and very near,
Where water flows, where green grass grows, Song-sparrows gently sing, “Good cheer:”
And, best of all, through twilight’s calm The hermit-thrush repeats his psalm:
How much I’m wishing to go a-fishing In days so sweet with music’s balm!
‘Tis not a proud desire of mine;
I ask for nothing superfine;
No heavy weight, no salmon great,
To break the record, or my line:
Only an idle little stream,
Whose amber waters softly gleam,
Where I may wade, through woodland shade, And cast the fly, and loaf, and dream:
Only a trout or two, to dart
From foaming pools, and try my art: No more I’m wishing–old-fashioned fishing, And just a day on Nature’s heart.
A river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things. It has a life, a character, a voice of its own, and is as full of good fellowship as a sugar-maple is of sap. It can talk in various tones, loud or low, and of many subjects, grave and gay. Under favourable circumstances it will even make a shift to sing, not in a fashion that can be reduced to notes and set down in black and white on a sheet of paper, but in a vague, refreshing manner, and to a wandering air that goes
“Over the hills and far away.”
For real company and friendship, there is nothing outside of the animal kingdom that is comparable to a river.
I will admit that a very good case can be made out in favour of some other objects of natural affection. For example, a fair apology has been offered by those ambitious persons who have fallen in love with the sea. But, after all, that is a formless and disquieting passion. It lacks solid comfort and mutual confidence. The sea is too big for loving, and too uncertain. It will not fit into our thoughts. It has no personality because it has so many. It is a salt abstraction. You might as well think of loving a glittering generality like “the American woman.” One would be more to the purpose.
Mountains are more satisfying because they are more individual. It is possible to feel a very strong attachment for a certain range whose outline has grown familiar to our eyes, or a clear peak that has looked down, day after day, upon our joys and sorrows, moderating our passions with its calm aspect. We come back from our travels, and the sight of such a well-known mountain is like meeting an old friend unchanged. But it is a one-sided affection. The mountain is voiceless and imperturbable; and its very loftiness and serenity sometimes make us the more lonely.
Trees seem to come closer to our life. They are often rooted in our richest feelings, and our sweetest memories, like birds, build nests in their branches. I remember, the last time that I saw James Russell Lowell, (only a few weeks before his musical voice was hushed,) he walked out with me into the quiet garden at Elmwood to say good-bye. There was a great horse-chestnut tree beside the house, towering above the gable, and covered with blossoms from base to summit,–a pyramid of green supporting a thousand smaller pyramids of white. The poet looked up at it with his gray, pain- furrowed face, and laid his trembling hand upon the trunk. “I planted the nut,” said he, “from which this tree grew. And my father was with me and showed me how to plant it.”
Yes, there is a good deal to be said in behalf of tree-worship; and when I recline with my friend Tityrus beneath the shade of his favourite oak, I consent in his devotions. But when I invite him with me to share my orisons, or wander alone to indulge the luxury of grateful, unlaborious thought, my feet turn not to a tree, but to the bank of a river, for there the musings of solitude find a friendly accompaniment, and human intercourse is purified and sweetened by the flowing, murmuring water. It is by a river that I would choose to make love, and to revive old friendships, and to play with the children, and to confess my faults, and to escape from vain, selfish desires, and to cleanse my mind from all the false and foolish things that mar the joy and peace of living. Like David’s hart, I pant for the water-brooks. There is wisdom in the advice of Seneca, who says, “Where a spring rises, or a river flows, there should we build altars and offer sacrifices.”
The personality of a river is not to be found in its water, nor in its bed, nor in its shore. Either of these elements, by itself, would be nothing. Confine the fluid contents of the noblest stream in a walled channel of stone, and it ceases to be a stream; it becomes what Charles Lamb calls “a mockery of a river–a liquid artifice–a wretched conduit.” But take away the water from the most beautiful river-banks, and what is left? An ugly road with none to travel it; a long, ghastly scar on the bosom of the earth.
The life of a river, like that of a human being, consists in the union of soul and body, the water and the banks. They belong together. They act and react upon each other. The stream moulds and makes the shore; hollowing out a bay here, and building a long point there; alluring the little bushes close to its side, and bending the tall slim trees over its current; sweeping a rocky ledge clean of everything but moss, and sending a still lagoon full of white arrow-heads and rosy knot-weed far back into the meadow. The shore guides and controls the stream; now detaining and now advancing it; now bending it in a hundred sinuous curves, and now speeding it straight as a wild-bee on its homeward flight; here hiding the water in a deep cleft overhung with green branches, and there spreading it out, like a mirror framed in daisies, to reflect the sky and the clouds; sometimes breaking it with sudden turns and unexpected falls into a foam of musical laughter, sometimes soothing it into a sleepy motion like the flow of a dream.
Is it otherwise with the men and women whom we know and like? Does not the spirit influence the form, and the form affect the spirit? Can we divide and separate them in our affections?
I am no friend to purely psychological attachments. In some unknown future they may be satisfying, but in the present I want your words and your voice with your thoughts, your looks and your gestures to interpret your feelings. The warm, strong grasp of Greatheart’s hand is as dear to me as the steadfast fashion of his friendships; the lively, sparkling eyes of the master of Rudder Grange charm me as much as the nimbleness of his fancy; and the firm poise of the Hoosier Schoolmaster’s shaggy head gives me new confidence in the solidity of his views of life. I like the pure tranquillity of Isabel’s brow as well as her
“most silver flow
Of subtle-paced counsel in distress.”
The soft cadences and turns in my lady Katrina’s speech draw me into the humour of her gentle judgments of men and things. The touches of quaintness in Angelica’s dress, her folded kerchief and smooth-parted hair, seem to partake of herself, and enhance my admiration for the sweet order of her thoughts and her old- fashioned ideals of love and duty. Even so the stream and its channel are one life, and I cannot think of the swift, brown flood of the Batiscan without its shadowing primeval forests, or the crystalline current of the Boquet without its beds of pebbles and golden sand and grassy banks embroidered with flowers.
Every country–or at least every country that is fit for habitation–has its own rivers; and every river has its own quality; and it is the part of wisdom to know and love as many as you can, seeing each in the fairest possible light, and receiving from each the best that it has to give. The torrents of Norway leap down from their mountain home with plentiful cataracts, and run brief but glorious races to the sea. The streams of England move smoothly through green fields and beside ancient, sleepy towns. The Scotch rivers brawl through the open moorland and flash along steep Highland glens. The rivers of the Alps are born in icy caves, from which they issue forth with furious, turbid waters; but when their anger has been forgotten in the slumber of some blue lake, they flow down more softly to see the vineyards of France and Italy, the gray castles of Germany, the verdant meadows of Holland. The mighty rivers of the West roll their yellow floods through broad valleys, or plunge down dark canyons. The rivers of the South creep under dim arboreal archways hung with banners of waving moss. The Delaware and the Hudson and the Connecticut are the children of the Catskills and the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, cradled among the forests of spruce and hemlock, playing through a wild woodland youth, gathering strength from numberless tributaries to bear their great burdens of lumber and turn the wheels of many mills, issuing from the hills to water a thousand farms, and descending at last, beside new cities, to the ancient sea.
Every river that flows is good, and has something worthy to be loved. But those that we love most are always the ones that we have known best,–the stream that ran before our father’s door, the current on which we ventured our first boat or cast our first fly, the brook on whose banks we first picked the twinflower of young love. However far we may travel, we come back to Naaman’s state of mind: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”
It is with rivers as it is with people: the greatest are not always the most agreeable, nor the best to live with. Diogenes must have been an uncomfortable bedfellow: Antinous was bored to death in the society of the Emperor Hadrian: and you can imagine much better company for a walking trip than Napoleon Bonaparte. Semiramis was a lofty queen, but I fancy that Ninus had more than one bad quarter-of-an-hour with her: and in “the spacious times of great Elizabeth” there was many a milkmaid whom the wise man would have chosen for his friend, before the royal red-haired virgin. “I confess,” says the poet Cowley, “I love littleness almost in all things. A little convenient Estate, a little chearful House, a little Company, and a very little Feast, and if I were ever to fall in Love again, (which is a great Passion, and therefore, I hope, I have done with it,) it would be, I think, with Prettiness, rather than with Majestical Beauty. I would neither wish that my Mistress, nor my Fortune, should be a Bona Roba, as Homer uses to describe his Beauties, like a daughter of great Jupiter for the stateliness and largeness of her Person, but as Lucretius says:
‘Parvula, pumilio, [Greek text omitted], tota merum sal.'”
Now in talking about women it is prudent to disguise a prejudice like this, in the security of a dead language, and to intrench it behind a fortress of reputable authority. But in lowlier and less dangerous matters, such as we are now concerned with, one may dare to speak in plain English. I am all for the little rivers. Let those who will, chant in heroic verse the renown of Amazon and Mississippi and Niagara, but my prose shall flow–or straggle along at such a pace as the prosaic muse may grant me to attain–in praise of Beaverkill and Neversink and Swiftwater, of Saranac and Raquette and Ausable, of Allegash and Aroostook and Moose River. “Whene’er I take my walks abroad,” it shall be to trace the clear Rauma from its rise on the fjeld to its rest in the fjord; or to follow the Ericht and the Halladale through the heather. The Ziller and the Salzach shall be my guides through the Tyrol; the Rotha and the Dove shall lead me into the heart of England. My sacrificial flames shall be kindled with birch-bark along the wooded stillwaters of the Penobscot and the Peribonca, and my libations drawn from the pure current of the Ristigouche and the Ampersand, and my altar of remembrance shall rise upon the rocks beside the falls of Seboomok.
I will set my affections upon rivers that are not too great for intimacy. And if by chance any of these little ones have also become famous, like the Tweed and the Thames and the Arno, I at least will praise them, because they are still at heart little rivers.
If an open fire is, as Charles Dudley Warner says, the eye of a room; then surely a little river may be called the mouth, the most expressive feature, of a landscape. It animates and enlivens the whole scene. Even a railway journey becomes tolerable when the track follows the course of a running stream.
What charming glimpses you catch from the window as the train winds along the valley of the French Broad from Asheville, or climbs the southern Catskills beside the Aesopus, or slides down the Pusterthal with the Rienz, or follows the Glommen and the Gula from Christiania to Throndhjem. Here is a mill with its dripping, lazy wheel, the type of somnolent industry; and there is a white cascade, foaming in silent pantomime as the train clatters by; and here is a long, still pool with the cows standing knee-deep in the water and swinging their tails in calm indifference to the passing world; and there is a lone fisherman sitting upon a rock, rapt in contemplation of the point of his rod. For a moment you become a partner of his tranquil enterprise. You turn around, you crane your neck to get the last sight of his motionless angle. You do not know what kind of fish he expects to catch, nor what species of bait he is using, but at least you pray that he may have a bite before the train swings around the next curve. And if perchance your wish is granted, and you see him gravely draw some unknown, reluctant, shining reward of patience from the water, you feel like swinging your hat from the window and crying out “Good luck!”
Little rivers seem to have the indefinable quality that belongs to certain people in the world,–the power of drawing attention without courting it, the faculty of exciting interest by their very presence and way of doing things.
The most fascinating part of a city or town is that through which the water flows. Idlers always choose a bridge for their place of meditation when they can get it; and, failing that, you will find them sitting on the edge of a quay or embankment, with their feet hanging over the water. What a piquant mingling of indolence and vivacity you can enjoy by the river-side! The best point of view in Rome, to my taste, is the Ponte San Angelo; and in Florence or Pisa I never tire of loafing along the Lung’ Arno. You do not know London until you have seen it from the Thames. And you will miss the charm of Cambridge unless you take a little boat and go drifting on the placid Cam, beneath the bending trees, along the backs of the colleges.
But the real way to know a little river is not to glance at it here or there in the course of a hasty journey, nor to become acquainted with it after it has been partly civilised and spoiled by too close contact with the works of man. You must go to its native haunts; you must see it in youth and freedom; you must accommodate yourself to its pace, and give yourself to its influence, and follow its meanderings whithersoever they may lead you.
Now, of this pleasant pastime there are three principal forms. You may go as a walker, taking the river-side path, or making a way for yourself through the tangled thickets or across the open meadows. You may go as a sailor, launching your light canoe on the swift current and committing yourself for a day, or a week, or a month, to the delightful uncertainties of a voyage through the forest. You may go as a wader, stepping into the stream and going down with it, through rapids and shallows and deeper pools, until you come to the end of your courage and the daylight. Of these three ways I know not which is best. But in all of them the essential thing is that you must be willing and glad to be led; you must take the little river for your guide, philosopher, and friend.
And what a good guidance it gives you. How cheerfully it lures you on into the secrets of field and wood, and brings you acquainted with the birds and the flowers. The stream can show you, better than any other teacher, how nature works her enchantments with colour and music.
Go out to the Beaver-kill
“In the tassel-time of spring,”
and follow its brimming waters through the budding forests, to that corner which we call the Painter’s Camp. See how the banks are all enamelled with the pale hepatica, the painted trillium, and the delicate pink-veined spring beauty. A little later in the year, when the ferns are uncurling their long fronds, the troops of blue and white violets will come dancing down to the edge of the stream, and creep venturously out to the very end of that long, moss- covered log in the water. Before these have vanished, the yellow crow-foot and the cinquefoil will appear, followed by the star- grass and the loose-strife and the golden St. John’s-wort. Then the unseen painter begins to mix the royal colour on his palette, and the red of the bee-balm catches your eye. If you are lucky, you may find, in midsummer, a slender fragrant spike of the purple- fringed orchis, and you cannot help finding the universal self- heal. Yellow returns in the drooping flowers of the jewel-weed, and blue repeats itself in the trembling hare-bells, and scarlet is glorified in the flaming robe of the cardinal-flower. Later still, the summer closes in a splendour of bloom, with gentians and asters and goldenrod.
You never get so close to the birds as when you are wading quietly down a little river, casting your fly deftly under the branches for the wary trout, but ever on the lookout for all the various pleasant things that nature has to bestow upon you. Here you shall come upon the cat-bird at her morning bath, and hear her sing, in a clump of pussy-willows, that low, tender, confidential song which she keeps for the hours of domestic intimacy. The spotted sandpiper will run along the stones before you, crying, “wet-feet, wet-feet!” and bowing and teetering in the friendliest manner, as if to show you the way to the best pools. In the thick branches of the hemlocks that stretch across the stream, the tiny warblers, dressed in a hundred colours, chirp and twitter confidingly above your head; and the Maryland yellow-throat, flitting through the bushes like a little gleam of sunlight, calls “witchery, witchery, witchery!” That plaintive, forsaken, persistent note, never ceasing, even in the noonday silence, comes from the wood-pewee, drooping upon the bough of some high tree, and complaining, like Mariana in the moated grange, “weary, weary, weary!”
When the stream runs out into the old clearing, or down through the pasture, you find other and livelier birds,–the robins, with his sharp, saucy call and breathless, merry warble; the bluebird, with his notes of pure gladness, and the oriole, with his wild, flexible whistle; the chewink, bustling about in the thicket, talking to his sweetheart in French, “cherie, cherie!” and the song-sparrow, perched on his favourite limb of a young maple, dose beside the water, and singing happily, through sunshine and through rain. This is the true bird of the brook, after all: the winged spirit of cheerfulness and contentment, the patron saint of little rivers, the fisherman’s friend. He seems to enter into your sport with his good wishes, and for an hour at a time, while you are trying every fly in your book, from a black gnat to a white miller, to entice the crafty old trout at the foot of the meadow-pool, the song- sparrow, close above you, will be chanting patience and encouragement. And when at last success crowns your endeavour, and the parti-coloured prize is glittering in your net, the bird on the bough breaks out in an ecstasy of congratulation: “catch ‘im, catch ‘im, catch ‘im; oh, what a pretty fellow! sweet!”
There are other birds that seem to have a very different temper. The blue-jay sits high up in the withered-pine tree, bobbing up and down, and calling to his mate in a tone of affected sweetness. “salute-her, salute-her,” but when you come in sight he flies away with a harsh cry of “thief, thief, thief!” The kingfisher, ruffling his crest in solitary pride on the end of a dead branch, darts down the stream at your approach, winding up his red angrily as if he despised you for interrupting his fishing. And the cat- bird, that sang so charmingly while she thought herself unobserved, now tries to scare you away by screaming “snake, snake!”
As evening draws near, and the light beneath the trees grows yellower, and the air is full of filmy insects out for their last dance, the voice of the little river becomes louder and more distinct. The true poets have often noticed this apparent increase in the sound of flowing waters at nightfall. Gray, in one of his letters, speaks of “hearing the murmur of many waters not audible in the daytime.” Wordsworth repeats the same thought almost in the same words:
“A soft and lulling sound is heard
Of streams inaudible by day.”
And Tennyson, in the valley of Cauteretz, tells of the river
“Deepening his voice with deepening of the night.”
It is in this mystical hour that you will hear the most celestial and entrancing of all bird-notes, the songs of the thrushes,–the hermit, and the wood-thrush, and the veery. Sometimes, but not often, you will see the singers. I remember once, at the close of a beautiful day’s fishing on the Swiftwater, I came out, just after sunset, into a little open space in an elbow of the stream. It was still early spring, and the leaves were tiny. On the top of a small sumac, not thirty feet away from me, sat a veery. I could see the pointed spots upon his breast, the swelling of his white throat, and the sparkle of his eyes, as he poured his whole heart into a long liquid chant, the clear notes rising and falling, echoing and interlacing in endless curves of sound,
“Orb within orb, intricate, wonderful.”
Other bird-songs can be translated into words, but not this. There is no interpretation. It is music,–as Sidney Lanier defines it,–
“Love in search of a word.”
But it is not only to the real life of birds and flowers that the little rivers introduce you. They lead you often into familiarity with human nature in undress, rejoicing in the liberty of old clothes, or of none at all. People do not mince along the banks of streams in patent-leather shoes or crepitating silks. Corduroy and home-spun and flannel are the stuffs that suit this region; and the frequenters of these paths go their natural gaits, in calf-skin or rubber boots, or bare-footed. The girdle of conventionality is laid aside, and the skirts rise with the spirits.
A stream that flows through a country of upland farms will show you many a pretty bit of genre painting. Here is the laundry-pool at the foot of the kitchen garden, and the tubs are set upon a few planks close to the water, and the farmer’s daughters, with bare arms and gowns tucked up, are wringing out the clothes. Do you remember what happened to Ralph Peden in The Lilac Sunbonnet when he came on a scene like this? He tumbled at once into love with Winsome Charteris,–and far over his head.
And what a pleasant thing it is to see a little country lad riding one of the plough-horses to water, thumping his naked heels against the ribs of his stolid steed, and pulling hard on the halter as if it were the bridle of Bucephalus! Or perhaps it is a riotous company of boys that have come down to the old swimming-hole, and are now splashing and gambolling through the water like a drove of white seals very much sun-burned. You had hoped to catch a goodly trout in that hole, but what of that? The sight of a harmless hour of mirth is better than a fish, any day.
Possibly you will overtake another fisherman on the stream. It may be one of those fabulous countrymen, with long cedar poles and bed- cord lines, who are commonly reported to catch such enormous strings of fish, but who rarely, so far as my observation goes, do anything more than fill their pockets with fingerlings. The trained angler, who uses the finest tackle, and drops his fly on the water as accurately as Henry James places a word in a story, is the man who takes the most and the largest fish in the long run. Perhaps the fisherman ahead of you is such an one,–a man whom you have known in town as a lawyer or a doctor, a merchant or a preacher, going about his business in the hideous respectability of a high silk hat and a long black coat. How good it is to see him now in the freedom of a flannel shirt and a broad-brimmed gray felt with flies stuck around the band.
In Professor John Wilson’s Essays Critical and Imaginative, there is a brilliant description of a bishop fishing, which I am sure is drawn from the life: “Thus a bishop, sans wig and petticoat, in a hairy cap, black jacket, corduroy breeches and leathern leggins, creel on back and rod in hand, sallying from his palace, impatient to reach a famous salmon-cast ere the sun leave his cloud, . . . appears not only a pillar of his church, but of his kind, and in such a costume is manifestly on the high road to Canterbury and the Kingdom-Come.” I have had the good luck to see quite a number of bishops, parochial and diocesan, in that style, and the vision has always dissolved my doubts in regard to the validity of their claim to the true apostolic succession.
Men’s “little ways” are usually more interesting, and often more instructive than their grand manners. When they are off guard, they frequently show to better advantage than when they are on parade. I get more pleasure out of Boswell’s Johnson than I do out of Rasselas or The Rambler. The Little Flowers of St. Francis appear to me far more precious than the most learned German and French analyses of his character. There is a passage in Jonathan Edwards’ Personal Narrative, about a certain walk that he took in the fields near his father’s house, and the blossoming of the flowers in the spring, which I would not exchange for the whole of his dissertation On the Freedom of the Will. And the very best thing of Charles Darwin’s that I know is a bit from a letter to his wife: “At last I fell asleep,” says he, “on the grass, and awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the tree, and some woodpeckers laughing; and it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw; and I did not care one penny how any of the birds or beasts had been formed.”
Little rivers have small responsibilities. They are not expected to bear huge navies on their breast or supply a hundred-thousand horse-power to the factories of a monstrous town. Neither do you come to them hoping to draw out Leviathan with a hook. It is enough if they run a harmless, amiable course, and keep the groves and fields green and fresh along their banks, and offer a happy alternation of nimble rapids and quiet pools,
“With here and there a lusty trout, And here and there a grayling.”
When you set out to explore one of these minor streams in your canoe, you have no intention of epoch-making discoveries, or thrilling and world-famous adventures. You float placidly down the long stillwaters, and make your way patiently through the tangle of fallen trees that block the stream, and run the smaller falls, and carry your boat around the larger ones, with no loftier ambition than to reach a good camp-ground before dark and to pass the intervening hours pleasantly, “without offence to God or man.” It is an agreeable and advantageous frame of mind for one who has done his fair share of work in the world, and is not inclined to grumble at his wages. There are few moods in which we are more susceptible of gentle instruction; and I suspect there are many tempers and attitudes, often called virtuous, in which the human spirit appears to less advantage in the sight of Heaven.
It is not required of every man and woman to be, or to do, something great; most of us must content ourselves with taking small parts in the chorus. Shall we have no little lyrics because Homer and Dante have written epics? And because we have heard the great organ at Freiburg, shall the sound of Kathi’s zither in the alpine hut please us no more? Even those who have greatness thrust upon them will do well to lay the burden down now and then, and congratulate themselves that they are not altogether answerable for the conduct of the universe, or at least not all the time. “I reckon,” said a cowboy to me one day, as we were riding through the Bad Lands of Dakota, “there’s some one bigger than me, running this outfit. He can ‘tend to it well enough, while I smoke my pipe after the round-up.”
There is such a thing as taking ourselves and the world too seriously, or at any rate too anxiously. Half of the secular unrest and dismal, profane sadness of modern society comes from the vain idea that every man is bound to be a critic of life, and to let no day pass without finding some fault with the general order of things, or projecting some plan for its improvement. And the other half comes from the greedy notion that a man’s life does consist, after all, in the abundance of the things that he possesses, and that it is somehow or other more respectable and pious to be always at work making a larger living, than it is to lie on your back in the green pastures and beside the still waters, and thank God that you are alive.
Come, then, my gentle reader, (for by this time you have discovered that this chapter is only a preface in disguise,–a declaration of principles or the want of them, an apology or a defence, as you choose to take it,) and if we are agreed, let us walk together; but if not, let us part here with out ill-will.
You shall not be deceived in this book. It is nothing but a handful of rustic variations on the old tune of “Rest and be thankful,” a record of unconventional travel, a pilgrim’s scrip with a few bits of blue-sky philosophy in it. There is, so far as I know, very little useful information and absolutely no criticism of the universe to be found in this volume. So if you are what Izaak Walton calls “a severe, sour-complexioned man,” you would better carry it back to the bookseller, and get your money again, if he will give it to you, and go your way rejoicing after your own melancholy fashion.
But if you care for plain pleasures, and informal company, and friendly observations on men and things, (and a few true fish- stories,) then perhaps you may find something here not unworthy your perusal. And so I wish that your winter fire may burn clear and bright while you read these pages; and that the summer days may be fair, and the fish may rise merrily to your fly, whenever you follow one of these little rivers.
A LEAF OF SPEARMINT
RECOLLECTIONS OF A BOY AND A ROD.
“It puzzles me now, that I remember all these young impressions so, because I took no heed of them at the time whatever; and yet they come upon me bright, when nothing else is evident in the gray fog of experience.”–B. D. BLACKMORE: Lorna Doone.
Of all the faculties of the human mind, memory is the one that is most easily “led by the nose.” There is a secret power in the sense of smell which draws the mind backward into the pleasant land of old times.
If you could paint a picture of Memory, in the symbolical manner of Quarles’s Emblems, it should represent a man travelling the highway with a dusty pack upon his shoulders, and stooping to draw in a long, sweet breath from the small, deep-red, golden-hearted flowers of an old-fashioned rose-tree straggling through the fence of a neglected garden. Or perhaps, for a choice of emblems, you would better take a yet more homely and familiar scent: the cool fragrance of lilacs drifting through the June morning from the old bush that stands between the kitchen door and the well; the warm layer of pungent, aromatic air that floats over the tansy-bed in a still July noon; the drowsy dew of odour that falls from the big balm-of-Gilead tree by the roadside as you are driving homeward through the twilight of August; or, best of all, the clean, spicy, unexpected, unmistakable smell of a bed of spearmint–that is the bed whereon Memory loves to lie and dream!
Why not choose mint as the symbol of remembrance? It is the true spice-tree of our Northern clime, the myrrh and frankincense of the land of lingering snow. When its perfume rises, the shrines of the past are unveiled, and the magical rites of reminiscence begin.
You are fishing down the Swiftwater in the early Spring. In a shallow pool, which the drought of summer will soon change into dry land, you see the pale-green shoots of a little plant thrusting themselves up between the pebbles, and just beginning to overtop the falling water. You pluck a leaf of it as you turn out of the stream to find a comfortable place for lunch, and, rolling it between your fingers to see whether it smells like a good salad for your bread and cheese, you discover suddenly that it is new mint. For the rest of that day you are bewitched; you follow a stream that runs through the country of Auld Lang Syne, and fill your creel with the recollections of a boy and a rod.
And yet, strangely enough, you cannot recall the boy himself at all distinctly. There is only the faintest image of him on the endless roll of films that has been wound through your mental camera: and in the very spots where his small figure should appear, it seems as if the pictures were always light-struck. Just a blur, and the dim outline of a new cap, or a well-beloved jacket with extra pockets, or a much-hated pair of copper-toed shoes–that is all you can see.
But the people that the boy saw, the companions who helped or hindered him in his adventures, the sublime and marvellous scenes among the Catskills and the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, in the midst of which he lived and moved and had his summer holidays– all these stand out sharp and clear, as the “Bab Ballads” say,
On the tablets of your mind.”
And most vivid do these scenes and people become when the vague and irrecoverable boy who walks among them carries a rod over his shoulder, and you detect the soft bulginess of wet fish about his clothing, and perhaps the tail of a big one emerging from his pocket. Then it seems almost as if these were things that had really happened, and of which you yourself were a great part.
The rod was a reward, yet not exactly of merit. It was an instrument of education in the hand of a father less indiscriminate than Solomon, who chose to interpret the text in a new way, and preferred to educate his child by encouraging him in pursuits which were harmless and wholesome, rather than by chastising him for practices which would likely enough never have been thought of, if they had not been forbidden. The boy enjoyed this kind of father at the time, and later he came to understand, with a grateful heart, that there is no richer inheritance in all the treasury of unearned blessings. For, after all, the love, the patience, the kindly wisdom of a grown man who can enter into the perplexities and turbulent impulses of a boy’s heart, and give him cheerful companionship, and lead him on by free and joyful ways to know and choose the things that are pure and lovely and of good report, make as fair an image as we can find of that loving, patient Wisdom which must be above us all if any good is to come out of our childish race.
Now this was the way in which the boy came into possession of his undreaded rod. He was by nature and heredity one of those predestined anglers whom Izaak Walton tersely describes as “born so.” His earliest passion was fishing. His favourite passage in Holy Writ was that place where Simon Peter throws a line into the sea and pulls out a great fish at the first cast.
But hitherto his passion had been indulged under difficulties–with improvised apparatus of cut poles, and flabby pieces of string, and bent pins, which always failed to hold the biggest fish; or perhaps with borrowed tackle, dangling a fat worm in vain before the noses of the staring, supercilious sunfish that poised themselves in the clear water around the Lake house dock at Lake George; or, at best, on picnic parties across the lake, marred by the humiliating presence of nurses, and disturbed by the obstinate refusal of old Horace, the boatman, to believe that the boy could bait his own hook, but sometimes crowned with the delight of bringing home a whole basketful of yellow perch and goggle-eyes. Of nobler sport with game fish, like the vaulting salmon and the merry, pugnacious trout, as yet the boy had only dreamed. But he had heard that there were such fish in the streams that flowed down from the mountains around Lake George, and he was at the happy age when he could believe anything–if it was sufficiently interesting.
There was one little river, and only one, within his knowledge and the reach of his short legs. It was a tiny, lively rivulet that came out of the woods about half a mile away from the hotel, and ran down cater-cornered through a sloping meadow, crossing the road under a flat bridge of boards, just beyond the root-beer shop at the lower end of the village. It seemed large enough to the boy, and he had long had his eye upon it as a fitting theatre for the beginning of a real angler’s life. Those rapids, those falls, those deep, whirling pools with beautiful foam on them like soft, white custard, were they not such places as the trout loved to hide in?
You can see the long hotel piazza, with the gossipy groups of wooden chairs standing vacant in the early afternoon; for the grown-up people are dallying with the ultimate nuts and raisins of their mid-day dinner. A villainous clatter of innumerable little vegetable-dishes comes from the open windows of the pantry as the boy steals past the kitchen end of the house, with Horace’s lightest bamboo pole over his shoulder, and a little brother in skirts and short white stockings tagging along behind him.
When they come to the five-rail fence where the brook runs out of the field, the question is, Over or under? The lowlier method seems safer for the little brother, as well as less conspicuous for persons who desire to avoid publicity until their enterprise has achieved success. So they crawl beneath a bend in the lowest rail,–only tearing one tiny three-cornered hole in a jacket, and making some juicy green stains on the white stockings,–and emerge with suppressed excitement in the field of the cloth of buttercups and daisies.
What an afternoon–how endless and yet how swift! What perilous efforts to leap across the foaming stream at its narrowest points; what escapes from quagmires and possible quicksands; what stealthy creeping through the grass to the edge of a likely pool, and cautious dropping of the line into an unseen depth, and patient waiting for a bite, until the restless little brother, prowling about below, discovers that the hook is not in the water at all, but lying on top of a dry stone,–thereby proving that patience is not the only virtue–or, at least, that it does a better business when it has a small vice of impatience in partnership with it!
How tired the adventurers grow as the day wears away; and as yet they have taken nothing! But their strength and courage return as if by magic when there comes a surprising twitch at the line in a shallow, unpromising rapid, and with a jerk of the pole a small, wiggling fish is whirled through the air and landed thirty feet back in the meadow.
“For pity’s sake, don’t lose him! There he is among the roots of the blue flag.”
“I’ve got him! How cold he is–how slippery–how pretty! Just like a piece of rainbow!”
“Do you see the red spots? Did you notice how gamy he was, little brother; how he played? It is a trout, for sure; a real trout, almost as long as your hand.”
So the two lads tramp along up the stream, chattering as if there were no rubric of silence in the angler’s code. Presently another simple-minded troutling falls a victim to their unpremeditated art; and they begin already, being human, to wish for something larger. In the very last pool that they dare attempt–a dark hole under a steep bank, where the brook issues from the woods–the boy drags out the hoped-for prize, a splendid trout, longer than a new lead- pencil. But he feels sure that there must be another, even larger, in the same place. He swings his line out carefully over the water, and just as he is about to drop it in, the little brother, perched on the sloping brink, slips on the smooth pine-needles, and goes sliddering down into the pool up to his waist. How he weeps with dismay, and how funnily his dress sticks to him as he crawls out! But his grief is soon assuaged by the privilege of carrying the trout strung on an alder twig; and it is a happy, muddy, proud pair of urchins that climb over the fence out of the field of triumph at the close of the day.
What does the father say, as he meets them in the road? Is he frowning or smiling under that big brown beard? You cannot be quite sure. But one thing is clear: he is as much elated over the capture of the real trout as any one. He is ready to deal mildly with a little irregularity for the sake of encouraging pluck and perseverance. Before the three comrades have reached the hotel, the boy has promised faithfully never to take his little brother off again without asking leave; and the father has promised that the boy shall have a real jointed fishing-rod of his own, so that he will not need to borrow old Horace’s pole any more.
At breakfast the next morning the family are to have a private dish; not an every-day affair of vulgar, bony fish that nurses can catch, but trout–three of them! But the boy looks up from the table and sees the adored of his soul, Annie V—-, sitting at the other end of the room, and faring on the common food of mortals. Shall she eat the ordinary breakfast while he feasts on dainties? Do not other sportsmen send their spoils to the ladies whom they admire? The waiter must bring a hot plate, and take this largest trout to Miss V—- (Miss Annie, not her sister–make no mistake about it).
The face of Augustus is as solemn as an ebony idol while he plays his part of Cupid’s messenger. The fair Annie affects surprise; she accepts the offering rather indifferently; her curls drop down over her cheeks to cover some small confusion. But for an instant the corner of her eye catches the boy’s sidelong glance, and she nods perceptibly, whereupon his mother very inconsiderately calls attention to the fact that yesterday’s escapade has sun-burned his face dreadfully.
Beautiful Annie V—-, who, among all the unripened nymphs that played at hide-and-seek among the maples on the hotel lawn, or waded with white feet along the yellow beach beyond the point of pines, flying with merry shrieks into the woods when a boat-load of boys appeared suddenly around the corner, or danced the lancers in the big, bare parlours before the grown-up ball began–who in all that joyous, innocent bevy could be compared with you for charm or daring? How your dark eyes sparkled, and how the long brown ringlets tossed around your small head, when you stood up that evening, slim and straight, and taller by half a head than your companions, in the lamp-lit room where the children were playing forfeits, and said, “There is not one boy here that DARES to kiss ME!” Then you ran out on the dark porch, where the honeysuckle vines grew up the tall, inane Corinthian pillars.
Did you blame the boy for following? And were you very angry, indeed, about what happened,–until you broke out laughing at his cravat, which had slipped around behind his ear? That was the first time he ever noticed how much sweeter the honeysuckle smells at night than in the day. It was his entrance examination in the school of nature–human and otherwise. He felt that there was a whole continent of newly discovered poetry within him, and worshipped his Columbus disguised in curls. Your boy is your true idealist, after all, although (or perhaps because) he is still uncivilised.
The arrival of the rod, in four joints, with an extra tip, a brass reel, and the other luxuries for which a true angler would willingly exchange the necessaries of life, marked a new epoch in the boy’s career. At the uplifting of that wand, as if it had been in the hand of another Moses, the waters of infancy rolled back, and the way was opened into the promised land, whither the tyrant nurses, with all their proud array of baby-chariots, could not follow. The way was open, but not by any means dry. One of the first events in the dispensation of the rod was the purchase of a pair of high rubber boots. Inserted in this armour of modern infantry, and transfigured with delight, the boy clumped through all the little rivers within a circuit of ten miles from Caldwell, and began to learn by parental example the yet unmastered art of complete angling.
But because some of the streams were deep and strong, and his legs were short and slender, and his ambition was even taller than his boots, the father would sometimes take him up pickaback, and wade along carefully through the perilous places–which are often, in this world, the very places one longs to fish in. So, in your remembrance, you can see the little rubber boots sticking out under the father’s arms, and the rod projecting over his head, and the bait dangling down unsteadily into the deep holes, and the delighted boy hooking and playing and basketing his trout high in the air. How many of our best catches in life are made from some one else’s shoulders!
From this summer the whole earth became to the boy, as Tennyson describes the lotus country, “a land of streams.” In school-days and in town he acknowledged the sway of those mysterious and irresistible forces which produce tops at one season, and marbles at another, and kites at another, and bind all boyish hearts to play mumble-the-peg at the due time more certainly than the stars are bound to their orbits. But when vacation came, with its annual exodus from the city, there was only one sign in the zodiac, and that was Pisces.
No country seemed to him tolerable without trout, and no landscape beautiful unless enlivened by a young river. Among what delectable mountains did those watery guides lead his vagrant steps, and with what curious, mixed, and sometimes profitable company did they make him familiar!
There was one exquisite stream among the Alleghanies, called Lycoming Creek, beside which the family spent a summer in a decadent inn, kept by a tremulous landlord who was always sitting on the steps of the porch, and whose most memorable remark was that he had “a misery in his stomach.” This form of speech amused the boy, but he did not in the least comprehend it. It was the description of an unimaginable experience in a region which was as yet known to him only as the seat of pleasure. He did not understand how any one could be miserable when he could catch trout from his own dooryard.
The big creek, with its sharp turns from side to side of the valley, its hemlock-shaded falls in the gorge, and its long, still reaches in the “sugar-bottom,” where the maple-trees grew as if in an orchard, and the superfluity of grasshoppers made the trout fat and dainty, was too wide to fit the boy. But nature keeps all sizes in her stock, and a smaller stream, called Rocky Run, came tumbling down opposite the inn, as if made to order for juvenile use.
How well you can follow it, through the old pasture overgrown with alders, and up past the broken-down mill-dam and the crumbling sluice, into the mountain-cleft from which it leaps laughing! The water, except just after a rain-storm, is as transparent as glass– old-fashioned window-glass, I mean, in small panes, with just a tinge of green in it, like the air in a grove of young birches. Twelve feet down in the narrow chasm below the falls, where the water is full of tiny bubbles, like Apollinaris, you can see the trout poised, with their heads up-stream, motionless, but quivering a little, as if they were strung on wires.
The bed of the stream has been scooped out of the solid rock. Here and there banks of sand have been deposited, and accumulations of loose stone disguise the real nature of the channel. Great boulders have been rolled down the alleyway and left where they chanced to stick; the stream must get around them or under them as best it can. But there are other places where everything has been swept clean; nothing remains but the primitive strata, and the flowing water merrily tickles the bare ribs of mother earth. Whirling stones, in the spring floods, have cut well-holes in the rock, as round and even as if they had been made with a drill, and sometimes you can see the very stone that sunk the well lying at the bottom. There are long, straight, sloping troughs through which the water runs like a mill-race. There are huge basins into which the water rumbles over a ledge, as if some one were pouring it very steadily out of a pitcher, and from which it glides away without a ripple, flowing over a smooth pavement of rock which shelves down from the shallow foot to the deep head of the pool.
The boy wonders how far he dare wade out along that slippery floor. The water is within an inch of his boot-tops now. But the slope seems very even, and just beyond his reach a good fish is rising. Only one step more, and then, like the wicked man in the psalm, his feet begin to slide. Slowly, and standing bolt upright, with the rod held high above his head, as if it must on no account get wet, he glides forward up to his neck in the ice-cold bath, gasping with amazement. There have been other and more serious situations in life into which, unless I am mistaken, you have made an equally unwilling and embarrassed entrance, and in which you have been surprised to find yourself not only up to your neck, but over,–and you are a lucky man if you have had the presence of mind to stand still for a moment, before wading out, and make sure at least of the fish that tempted you into your predicament.
But Rocky Run, they say, exists no longer. It has been blasted by miners out of all resemblance to itself, and bewitched into a dingy water-power to turn wheels for the ugly giant, Trade. It is only in the valley of remembrance that its current still flows like liquid air; and only in that country that you can still see the famous men who came and went along the banks of the Lyocoming when the boy was there.
There was Collins, who was a wondrous adept at “daping, dapping, or dibbling” with a grasshopper, and who once brought in a string of trout which he laid out head to tail on the grass before the house in a line of beauty forty-seven feet long. A mighty bass voice had this Collins also, and could sing, “Larboard Watch, Ahoy!” “Down in a Coal-Mine,” and other profound ditties in a way to make all the glasses on the table jingle; but withal, as you now suspect, rather a fishy character, and undeserving of the unqualified respect which the boy had for him. And there was Dr. Romsen, lean, satirical, kindly, a skilful though reluctant physician, who regarded it as a personal injury if any one in the party fell sick in summer time; and a passionately unsuccessful hunter, who would sit all night in the crotch of a tree beside an alleged deer-lick, and come home perfectly satisfied if he had heard a hedgehog grunt. It was he who called attention to the discrepancy between the boy’s appetite and his size by saying loudly at a picnic, “I wouldn’t grudge you what you eat, my boy, if I could only see that it did you any good,”–which remark was not forgiven until the doctor redeemed his reputation by pronouncing a serious medical opinion, before a council of mothers, to the effect that it did not really hurt a boy to get his feet wet. That was worthy of Galen in his most inspired moment. And there was hearty, genial Paul Merit, whose mere company was an education in good manners, and who could eat eight hard-boiled eggs for supper without ruffling his equanimity; and the tall, thin, grinning Major, whom an angry Irishwoman once described as “like a comb, all back and teeth;” and many more were the comrades of the boy’s father, all of whom he admired, (and followed when they would let him,) but none so much as the father himself, because he was the wisest, kindest, and merriest of all that merry crew, now dispersed to the uttermost parts of the earth and beyond.
Other streams played a part in the education of that happy boy: the Kaaterskill, where there had been nothing but the ghosts of trout for the last thirty years, but where the absence of fish was almost forgotten in the joy of a first introduction to Dickens, one very showery day, when dear old Ned Mason built a smoky fire in a cave below Haines’s Falls, and, pulling The Old Curiosity Shop out of his pocket, read aloud about Little Nell until the tears ran down the cheeks of reader and listener–the smoke was so thick, you know: and the Neversink, which flows through John Burroughs’s country, and past one house in particular, perched on a high bluff, where a very dreadful old woman come out and throws stones at “city fellers fishin’ through her land” (as if any one wanted to touch her land! It was the water that ran over it, you see, that carried the fish with it, and they were not hers at all): and the stream at Healing Springs, in the Virginia mountains, where the medicinal waters flow down into a lovely wild brook without injuring the health of the trout in the least, and where the only drawback to the angler’s happiness is the abundance of rattlesnakes–but a boy does not mind such things as that; he feels as if he were immortal. Over all these streams memory skips lightly, and strikes a trail through the woods to the Adirondacks, where the boy made his first acquaintance with navigable rivers,–that is to say, rivers which are traversed by canoes and hunting-skiffs, but not yet defiled by steamboats,–and slept, or rather lay awake, for the first time on a bed of balsam-boughs in a tent.
The promotion from all-day picnics to a two weeks’ camping-trip is like going from school to college. By this time a natural process of evolution has raised the first rod to something lighter and more flexible,–a fly-rod, so to speak, but not a bigoted one,–just a serviceable, unprejudiced article, not above using any kind of bait that may be necessary to catch the fish. The father has received the new title of “governor,” indicating not less, but more authority, and has called in new instructors to carry on the boy’s education: real Adirondack guides–old Sam Dunning and one-eyed Enos, the last and laziest of the Saranac Indians. Better men will be discovered for later trips, but none more amusing, and none whose woodcraft seems more wonderful than that of this queerly matched team, as they make the first camp in a pelting rain-storm on the shore of Big Clear Pond. The pitching of the tents is a lesson in architecture, the building of the camp-fire a victory over damp nature, and the supper of potatoes and bacon and fried trout a veritable triumph of culinary art.
At midnight the rain is pattering persistently on the canvas; the fronts flaps are closed and tied together; the lingering fire shines through them, and sends vague shadows wavering up and down: the governor is rolled up in his blankets, sound asleep. It is a very long night for the boy.
What is that rustling noise outside the tent? Probably some small creature, a squirrel or a rabbit. Rabbit stew would be good for breakfast. But it sounds louder now, almost loud enough to be a fox,–there are no wolves left in the Adirondacks, or at least only a very few. That is certainly quite a heavy footstep prowling around the provision-box. Could it be a panther,–they step very softly for their size,–or a bear perhaps? Sam Dunning told about catching one in a trap just below here. (Ah, my boy, you will soon learn that there is no spot in all the forests created by a bountiful Providence so poor as to be without its bear story.) Where was the rifle put? There it is, at the foot of the tent- pole. Wonder if it is loaded?
The boy springs from his blankets like a cat, and peeps out between the tent-flaps. There sits Enos, in the shelter of a leaning tree by the fire, with his head thrown back and a bottle poised at his mouth. His lonely eye is cocked up at a great horned owl on the branch above him. Again the sudden voice breaks out:
“Whoo! whoo! whoo cooks for you all?”
Enos puts the bottle down, with a grunt, and creeps off to his tent.
“De debbil in dat owl,” he mutters. “How he know I cook for dis camp? How he know ’bout dat bottle? Ugh!”
There are hundreds of pictures that flash into light as the boy goes on his course, year after year, through the woods. There is the luxurious camp on Tupper’s Lake, with its log cabins in the spruce-grove, and its regiment of hungry men who ate almost a deer a day; and there is the little bark shelter on the side of Mount Marcy, where the governor and the boy, with baskets full of trout from the Opalescent River, are spending the night, with nothing but a fire to keep them warm. There is the North Bay at Moosehead, with Joe La Croix (one more Frenchman who thinks he looks like Napoleon) posing on the rocks beside his canoe, and only reconciled by his vanity to the wasteful pastime of taking photographs while the big fish are rising gloriously out at the end of the point. There is the small spring-hole beside the Saranac River, where Pliny Robbins and the boy caught twenty-three noble trout, weighing from one to three pounds apiece, in the middle of a hot August afternoon, and hid themselves in the bushes when ever they heard a party coming down the river, because they did not care to attract company; and there are the Middle Falls, where the governor stood on a long spruce log, taking two-pound fish with the fly, and stepping out at every cast a little nearer to the end of the log, until it slowly tipped with him, and he settled down into the river.
Among such scenes as these the boy pursued his education, learning many things that are not taught in colleges; learning to take the weather as it comes, wet or dry, and fortune as it falls, good or bad; learning that a meal which is scanty fare for one becomes a banquet for two–provided the other is the right person; learning that there is some skill in everything, even in digging bait, and that what is called luck consists chiefly in having your tackle in good order; learning that a man can be just as happy in a log shanty as in a brownstone mansion, and that the very best pleasures are those that do not leave a bad taste in the mouth. And in all this the governor was his best teacher and his closest comrade.
Dear governor, you have gone out of the wilderness now, and your steps will be no more beside these remembered little rivers–no more, forever and forever. You will not come in sight around any bend of this clear Swiftwater stream where you made your last cast; your cheery voice will never again ring out through the deepening twilight where you are lingering for your disciple to catch up with you; he will never again hear you call: “Hallo, my boy! What luck? Time to go home!” But there is a river in the country where you have gone, is there not?–a river with trees growing all along it– evergreen trees; and somewhere by those shady banks, within sound of clear running waters, I think you will be dreaming and waiting for your boy, if he follows the trail that you have shown him even to the end.
It is not the walking merely, it is keeping yourself in tune for a walk, in the spiritual and bodily condition in which you can find entertainment and exhilaration in so simple and natural a pastime. You are eligible to any good fortune when you are in a condition to enjoy a walk. When the air and water taste sweet to you, how much else will taste sweet! When the exercise of your limbs affords you pleasure, and the play of your senses upon the various objects and shows of Nature quickens and stimulates your spirit, your relation to the world and to yourself is what it should be,–simple, and direct, and wholesome.”–JOHN BURROUGHS: Pepacton.
The right to the name of Ampersand, like the territory of Gaul in those Commentaries which Julius Caesar wrote for the punishment of schoolboys, is divided into three parts. It belongs to a mountain, and a lake, and a little river.
The mountain stands in the heart of the Adirondack country, just near enough to the thoroughfare of travel for thousands of people to see it every year, and just far enough from the beaten track to be unvisited except by a very few of the wise ones, who love to turn aside. Behind the mountain is the lake, which no lazy man has ever seen. Out of the lake flows the stream, winding down a long, untrodden forest valley, to join the Stony Creek waters and empty into the Raquette River.
Which of the three Ampersands has the prior claim to the name, I cannot tell. Philosophically speaking, the mountain ought to be regarded as the head of the family, because it was undoubtedly there before the others. And the lake was probably the next on the ground, because the stream is its child. But man is not strictly just in his nomenclature; and I conjecture that the little river, the last-born of the three, was the first to be christened Ampersand, and then gave its name to its parent and grand-parent. It is such a crooked stream, so bent and curved and twisted upon itself, so fond of turning around unexpected corners and sweeping away in great circles from its direct course, that its first explorers christened it after the eccentric supernumerary of the alphabet which appears in the old spelling-books as &–and per se, and.
But in spite of this apparent subordination to the stream in the matter of a name, the mountain clearly asserts its natural authority. It stands up boldly; and not only its own lake, but at least three others, the Lower Saranac, Round Lake, and Lonesome Pond, lie at its foot and acknowledge its lordship. When the cloud is on its brow, they are dark. When the sunlight strikes it, they smile.
Wherever you may go over the waters of these lakes you shall see Mount Ampersand looking down at you, and saying quietly, “This is my domain.”
I never look at a mountain which asserts itself in this fashion without desiring to stand on the top of it. If one can reach the summit, one becomes a sharer in the dominion. The difficulties in the way only add to the zest of the victory. Every mountain is, rightly considered, an invitation to climb. And as I was resting for a month one summer at Bartlett’s, Ampersand challenged me daily.
Did you know Bartlett’s in its palmy time? It was the homeliest, quaintest, coziest place in the Adirondacks. Away back in the ante-bellum days Virgil Bartlett had come into the woods, and built his house on the bank of the Saranac River, between the Upper Saranac and Round Lake. It was then the only dwelling within a circle of many miles. The deer and bear were in the majority. At night one could sometimes hear the scream of the panther or the howling of wolves. But soon the wilderness began to wear the traces of a conventional smile. The desert blossomed a little–if not as the rose, at least as the gilly-flower. Fields were cleared, gardens planted; half a dozen log cabins were scattered along the river; and the old house, having grown slowly and somewhat irregularly for twenty years, came out, just before the time of which I write, in a modest coat of paint and a broad- brimmed piazza. But Virgil himself, the creator of the oasis–well known of hunters and fishermen, dreaded of lazy guides and quarrelsome lumbermen,–“Virge,” the irascible, kind-hearted, indefatigable, was there no longer. He had made his last clearing, and fought his last fight; done his last favour to a friend, and thrown his last adversary out of the tavern door. His last log had gone down the river. His camp-fire had burned out. Peace to his ashes. His wife, who had often played the part of Abigail toward travellers who had unconsciously incurred the old man’s mistrust, now reigned in his stead; and there was great abundance of maple- syrup on every man’s flapjack.
The charm of Bartlett’s for the angler was the stretch of rapid water in front of the house. The Saranac River, breaking from its first resting-place in the Upper Lake, plunged down through a great bed of rocks, making a chain of short falls and pools and rapids, about half a mile in length. Here, in the spring and early summer, the speckled trout–brightest and daintiest of all fish that swim– used to be found in great numbers. As the season advanced, they moved away into the deep water of the lakes. But there were always a few stragglers left, and I have taken them in the rapids at the very end of August. What could be more delightful than to spend an hour or two, in the early morning or evening of a hot day, in wading this rushing stream, and casting the fly on its clear waters? The wind blows softly down the narrow valley, and the trees nod from the rocks above you. The noise of the falls makes constant music in your ears. The river hurries past you, and yet it is never gone.
The same foam-flakes seem to be always gliding downward, the same spray dashing over the stones, the same eddy coiling at the edge of the pool. Send your fly in under those cedar branches, where the water swirls around by that old log. Now draw it up toward the foam. There is a sudden gleam of dull gold in the white water. You strike too soon. Your line comes back to you. In a current like this, a fish will almost always hook himself. Try it again. This time he takes the fly fairly, and you have him. It is a good fish, and he makes the slender rod bend to the strain. He sulks for a moment as if uncertain what to do, and then with a rush darts into the swiftest part of the current. You can never stop him there. Let him go. Keep just enough pressure on him to hold the hook firm, and follow his troutship down the stream as if he were a salmon. He slides over a little fall, gleaming through the foam, and swings around in the next pool. Here you can manage him more easily; and after a few minutes’ brilliant play, a few mad dashes for the current, he comes to the net, and your skilful guide lands him with a quick, steady sweep of the arm. The scales credit him with an even pound, and a better fish than this you will hardly take here in midsummer.
“On my word, master,” says the appreciative Venator, in Walton’s Angler, “this is a gallant trout; what shall we do with him?” And honest Piscator, replies: “Marry! e’en eat him to supper; we’ll go to my hostess from whence we came; she told me, as I was going out of door, that my brother Peter, [and who is this but Romeyn of Keeseville?] a good angler and a cheerful companion, had sent word he would lodge there tonight, and bring a friend with him. My hostess has two beds, and I know you and I have the best; we’ll rejoice with my brother Peter and his friend, tell tales, or sing ballads, or make a catch, or find some harmless sport to content us, and pass away a little time without offence to God or man.”
Ampersand waited immovable while I passed many days in such innocent and healthful pleasures as these, until the right day came for the ascent. Cool, clean, and bright, the crystal morning promised a glorious noon, and the mountain almost seemed to beckon us to come up higher. The photographic camera and a trustworthy lunch were stowed away in the pack-basket. The backboard was adjusted at a comfortable angle in the stern seat of our little boat. The guide held the little craft steady while I stepped into my place; then he pushed out into the stream, and we went swiftly down toward Round Lake.
A Saranac boat is one of the finest things that the skill of man has ever produced under the inspiration of the wilderness. It is a frail shell, so light that a guide can carry it on his shoulders with ease, but so dexterously fashioned that it rides the heaviest waves like a duck, and slips through the water as if by magic. You can travel in it along the shallowest rivers and across the broadest lakes, and make forty or fifty miles a day, if you have a good guide.
Everything depends, in the Adirondacks, as in so many other regions of life, upon your guide. If he is selfish, or surly, or stupid, you will have a bad time. But if he is an Adirondacker of the best old-fashioned type,–now unhappily growing more rare from year to year,–you will find him an inimitable companion, honest, faithful, skilful and cheerful. He is as independent as a prince, and the gilded youths and finicking fine ladies who attempt to patronise him are apt to make but a sorry show before his solid and undisguised contempt. But deal with him man to man, and he will give you a friendly, loyal service which money cannot buy, and teach you secrets of woodcraft and lessons in plain, self-reliant manhood more valuable than all the learning of the schools. Such a guide was mine, rejoicing in the Scriptural name of Hosea, but commonly called, in brevity and friendliness, “Hose.”
As we entered Round Lake on this fair morning, its surface was as smooth and shining as a mirror. It was too early yet for the tide of travel which sends a score of boats up and down this thoroughfare every day; and from shore to shore the water was unruffled, except by a flock of sheldrakes which had been feeding near Plymouth Rock, and now went skittering off into Weller Bay with a motion between flying and swimming, leaving a long wake of foam behind them.
At such a time as this you can see the real colour of these Adirondack lakes. It is not blue, as romantic writers so often describe it, nor green, like some of those wonderful Swiss lakes; although of course it reflects the colour of the trees along the shore; and when the wind stirs it, it gives back the hue of the sky, blue when it is clear, gray when the clouds are gathering, and sometimes as black as ink under the shadow of storm. But when it is still, the water itself is like that river which one of the poets has described as
“Flowing with a smooth brown current.”
And in this sheet of burnished bronze the mountains and islands were reflected perfectly, and the sun shone back from it, not in broken gleams or a wide lane of light, but like a single ball of fire, moving before us as we moved.
But stop! What is that dark speck on the water, away down toward Turtle Point? It has just the shape and size of a deer’s head. It seems to move steadily out into the lake. There is a little ripple, like a wake, behind it. Hose turns to look at it, and then sends the boat darting in that direction with long, swift strokes. It is a moment of pleasant excitement, and we begin to conjecture whether the deer is a buck or a doe, and whose hounds have driven it in. But when Hose turns to look again, he slackens his stroke, and says: “I guess we needn’t to hurry; he won’t get away. It’s astonishin’ what a lot of fun a man can get in the course of a natural life a-chasm’ chumps of wood.”
We landed on a sand beach at the mouth of a little stream, where a blazed tree marked the beginning of the Ampersand trail. This line through the forest was made years ago by that ardent sportsman and lover of the Adirondacks, Dr. W. W. Ely, of Rochester. Since that time it has been shortened and improved a little by other travellers, and also not a little blocked and confused by the lumbermen and the course of Nature. For when the lumbermen go into the woods, they cut roads in every direction, leading nowhither, and the unwary wanderer is thereby led aside from the right way, and entangled in the undergrowth. And as for Nature, she is entirely opposed to continuance of paths through her forest. She covers them with fallen leaves, and hides them with thick bushes. She drops great trees across them, and blots then out with windfalls. But the blazed line–a succession of broad axe-marks on the trunks of the trees, just high enough to catch the eye on a level–cannot be so easily obliterated, and this, after all, is the safest guide through the woods.
Our trail led us at first through a natural meadow, overgrown with waist-high grass, and very spongy to the tread. Hornet-haunted also was this meadow, and therefore no place for idle dalliance or unwary digression, for the sting of the hornet is one of the saddest and most humiliating surprises of this mortal life.
Then through a tangle of old wood-roads my guide led me safely, and we struck one of the long ridges which slope gently from the lake to the base of the mountain. Here walking was comparatively easy, for in the hard-wood timber there is little underbrush. The massive trunks seemed like pillars set to uphold the level roof of green. Great yellow birches, shaggy with age, stretched their knotted arms high above us; sugar-maples stood up straight and proud under their leafy crowns; and smooth beeches–the most polished and parklike of all the forest trees–offered opportunities for the carving of lovers’ names in a place where few lovers ever come.
The woods were quiet. It seemed as if all living creatures had deserted them. Indeed, if you have spent much time in our Northern forests, you must have often wondered at the sparseness of life, and felt a sense of pity for the apparent loneliness of the squirrel that chatters at you as you pass, or the little bird that hops noiselessly about in the thickets. The midsummer noontide is an especially silent time. The deer are asleep in some wild meadow. The partridge has gathered her brood for their midday nap. The squirrels are perhaps counting over their store of nuts in a hollow tree, and the hermit-thrush spares his voice until evening. The woods are close–not cool and fragrant as the foolish romances describe them–but warm and still; for the breeze which sweeps across the hilltop and ruffles the lake does not penetrate into these shady recesses, and therefore all the inhabitants take the noontide as their hour of rest. Only the big woodpecker–he of the scarlet head and mighty bill–is indefatigable, and somewhere unseen is “tapping the hollow beech-tree,” while a wakeful little bird,–I guess it is the black-throated green warbler,–prolongs his dreamy, listless ditty,–‘te-de-terit-sca,–‘te-de-us–wait.
After about an hour of easy walking, our trail began to ascend more sharply. We passed over the shoulder of a ridge and around the edge of a fire-slash, and then we had the mountain fairly before us. Not that we could see anything of it, for the woods still shut us in, but the path became very steep, and we knew that it was a straight climb; not up and down and round about did this most uncompromising trail proceed, but right up, in a direct line for the summit.
Now this side of Ampersand is steeper than any Gothic roof I have ever seen, and withal very much encumbered with rocks and ledges and fallen trees. There were places where we had to haul ourselves up by roots and branches, and places where we had to go down on our hands and knees to crawl under logs. It was breathless work, but not at all dangerous or difficult. Every step forward was also a step upward; and as we stopped to rest for a moment, we could see already glimpses of the lake below us. But at these I did not much care to look, for I think it is a pity to spoil the surprise of a grand view by taking little snatches of it beforehand. It is better to keep one’s face set to the mountain, and then, coming out from the dark forest upon the very summit, feel the splendour of the outlook flash upon one like a revelation.
The character of the woods through which we were now passing was entirely different from those of the lower levels. On these steep places the birch and maple will not grow, or at least they occur but sparsely. The higher slopes and sharp ridges of the mountains are always covered with soft-wood timber. Spruce and hemlock and balsam strike their roots among the rocks, and find a hidden nourishment. They stand close together; thickets of small trees spring up among the large ones; from year to year the great trunks are falling one across another, and the undergrowth is thickening around them, until a spruce forest seems to be almost impassable. The constant rain of needles and the crumbling of the fallen trees form a rich, brown mould, into which the foot sinks noiselessly. Wonderful beds of moss, many feet in thickness, and softer than feathers, cover the rocks and roots. There are shadows never broken by the sun, and dark, cool springs of icy water hidden away in the crevices. You feel a sense of antiquity here which you can never feel among the maples and birches. Longfellow was right when he filled his forest primeval with “murmuring pines and hemlocks.”
The higher one climbs, the darker and gloomier and more rugged the vegetation becomes. The pine-trees soon cease to follow you; the hemlocks disappear, and the balsams can go no farther. Only the hardy spruce keeps on bravely, rough and stunted, with branches matted together and pressed down flat by the weight of the winter’s snow, until finally, somewhere about the level of four thousand feet above the sea, even this bold climber gives out, and the weather-beaten rocks of the summit are clad only with mosses and Alpine plants.
Thus it is with mountains, as perhaps with men, a mark of superior dignity to be naturally bald.
Ampersand, falling short by a thousand feet of the needful height, cannot claim this distinction. But what Nature has denied, human labour has supplied. Under the direction of the Adirondack Survey, some years ago, several acres of trees were cut from the summit; and when we emerged, after the last sharp scramble, upon the very crest of the mountain, we were not shut in by a dense thicket, but stood upon a bare ridge of granite in the centre of a ragged clearing.
I shut my eyes for a moment, drew a few long breaths of the glorious breeze, and then looked out upon a wonder and a delight beyond description.
A soft, dazzling splendour filled the air. Snowy banks and drifts of cloud were floating slowly over a wide and wondrous land. Vast sweeps of forest, shining waters, mountains near and far, the deepest green and the palest blue, changing colours and glancing lights, and all so silent, so strange, so far away, that it seemed like the landscape of a dream. One almost feared to speak, lest it should vanish.
Right below us the Lower Saranac and Lonesome Pond, Round Lake and the Weller Ponds, were spread out like a map. Every point and island was clearly marked. We could follow the course of the Saranac River in all its curves and windings, and see the white tents of the hay-makers on the wild meadows. Far away to the northeast stretched the level fields of Bloomingdale. But westward all was unbroken wilderness, a great sea of woods as far as the eye could reach. And how far it can reach from a height like this! What a revelation of the power of sight! That faint blue outline far in the north was Lyon Mountain, nearly thirty miles away as the crow flies. Those silver gleams a little nearer were the waters of St. Regis. The Upper Saranac was displayed in all its length and breadth, and beyond it the innumerable waters of Fish Creek were tangled among the dark woods. The long ranges of the hills about the Jordan bounded the western horizon, and on the southwest Big Tupper Lake was sleeping at the base of Mount Morris. Looking past the peak of Stony Creek Mountain, which rose sharp and distinct in a line with Ampersand, we could trace the path of the Raquette River from the distant waters of Long Lake down through its far- stretched valley, and catch here and there a silvery link of its current.
But when we turned to the south and east, how wonderful and how different was the view! Here was no widespread and smiling landscape with gleams of silver scattered through it, and soft blue haze resting upon its fading verge, but a wild land of mountains, stern, rugged, tumultuous, rising one beyond another like the waves of a stormy ocean,–Ossa piled upin Pelion,–Mcintyre’s sharp peak, and the ragged crest of the Gothics, and, above all, Marcy’s dome- like head, raised just far enough above the others to assert his royal right as monarch of the Adirondacks.
But grandest of all, as seen from this height, was Mount Seward,–a solemn giant of a mountain, standing apart from the others, and looking us full in the face. He was clothed from base to summit in a dark, unbroken robe of forest. Ou-kor-lah, the Indians called him–the Great Eye; and he seemed almost to frown upon us in defiance. At his feet, so straight below us that it seemed almost as if we could cast a stone into it, lay the wildest and most beautiful of all the Adirondack waters–Ampersand Lake.
On its shore, some five-and-twenty years ago, the now almost forgotten Adirondack Club had their shanty–the successor of “the Philosophers’ Camp” on Follensbee Pond. Agassiz, Appleton, Norton, Emerson, Lowell, Hoar, Gray, John Holmes, and Stillman, were among the company who made their resting-place under the shadow of Mount Seward. They had bought a tract of forest land completely encircling the pond, cut a rough road to it through the woods, and built a comfortable log cabin, to which they purposed to return summer after summer. But the civil war broke out, with all its terrible excitement and confusion of hurrying hosts: the club existed but for two years, and the little house in the wilderness was abandoned. In 1878, when I spent three weeks at Ampersand, the cabin was in ruins, and surrounded by an almost impenetrable growth of bushes. The only philosophers to be seen were a family of what the guides quaintly call “quill pigs.” The roof had fallen to the ground; raspberry-bushes thrust themselves through the yawning crevices between the logs; and in front of the sunken door-sill lay a rusty, broken iron stove, like a dismantled altar on which the fire had gone out forever.
After we had feasted upon the view as long as we dared, counted the lakes and streams, and found that we could see without a glass more than thirty, and recalled the memories of “good times” which came to us from almost every point of the compass, we unpacked the camera, and proceeded to take some pictures.
If you are a photographer, and have anything of the amateur’s passion for your art, you will appreciate my pleasure and my anxiety. Never before, so far as I knew, had a camera been set up on Ampersand. I had but eight plates with me. The views were all very distant and all at a downward angle. The power of the light at this elevation was an unknown quantity. And the wind was sweeping vigorously across the open summit of the mountain. I put in my smallest stop, and prepared for short exposures.
My instrument was a thing called a Tourograph, which differs from most other cameras in having the plate-holder on top of the box. The plates are dropped into a groove below, and then moved into focus, after which the cap is removed and the exposure made.
I set my instrument for Ampersand Pond, sighted the picture through the ground glass, and measured the focus. Then I waited for a quiet moment, dropped the plate, moved it carefully forward to the proper mark, and went around to take off the cap. I found that I already had it in my hand, and the plate had been exposed for about thirty seconds with a sliding focus!
I expostulated with myself. I said: “You are excited; you are stupid; you are unworthy of the name of photographer. Light- writer! You ought to write with a whitewash-brush!” The reproof was effectual, and from that moment all went well. The plates dropped smoothly, the camera was steady, the exposure was correct. Six good pictures were made, to recall, so far as black and white could do it, the delights of that day.
It has been my good luck to climb many of the peaks of the Adirondacks–Dix, the Dial, Hurricane, the Giant of the Valley, Marcy, and Whiteface–but I do not think the outlook from any of them is so wonderful and lovely as that from little Ampersand: and I reckon among my most valuable chattels the plates of glass on which the sun has traced for me (who cannot draw) the outlines of that loveliest landscape.
The downward journey was swift. We halted for an hour or two beside a trickling spring, a few rods below the summit, to eat our lunch. Then, jumping, running, and sometimes sliding, we made the descent, passed in safety by the dreaded lair of the hornet, and reached Bartlett’s as the fragrance of the evening pancake was softly diffused through the twilight. Mark that day, Memory, with a double star in your catalogue!
A HANDFUL OF HEATHER
“Scotland is the home of romance because it is the home of Scott, Burns, Black, Macdonald, Stevenson, and Barrie–and of thousands of men like that old Highlander in kilts on the tow-path, who loves what they have written. I would wager he has a copy of Burns in his sporran, and has quoted him half a dozen times to the grim Celt who is walking with him. Those old boys don’t read for excitement or knowledge, but because they love their land and their people and their religion–and their great writers simply express their emotions for them in words they can understand. You and I come over here, with thousands of our countrymen, to borrow their emotions.”–ROBERT BRIDGES: Overheard in Arcady.
My friend the Triumphant Democrat, fiercest of radicals and kindest of men, expresses his scorn for monarchical institutions (and his invincible love for his native Scotland) by tenanting, summer after summer, a famous castle among the heathery Highlands. There he proclaims the most uncompromising Americanism in a speech that grows more broadly Scotch with every week of his emancipation from the influence of the clipped, commercial accent of New York, and casts contempt on feudalism by playing the part of lord of the manor to such a perfection of high-handed beneficence that the people of the glen are all become his clansmen, and his gentle lady would be the patron saint of the district–if the republican theology of Scotland could only admit saints among the elect.
Every year he sends trophies of game to his friends across the sea– birds that are as toothsome and wild-flavoured as if they had not been hatched under the tyranny of the game-laws. He has a pleasant trick of making them grateful to the imagination as well as to the palate by packing them in heather. I’ll warrant that Aaron’s rod bore no bonnier blossoms than these stiff little bushes–and none more magical. For every time I take up a handful of them they transport me to the Highlands, and send me tramping once more, with knapsack and fishing-rod, over the braes and down the burns.
Some of my happiest meanderings in Scotland have been taken under the lead of a book. Indeed, for travel in a strange country there can be no better courier. Not a guide-book, I mean, but a real book, and, by preference, a novel.
Fiction, like wine, tastes best in the place where it was grown. And the scenery of a foreign land (including architecture, which is artificial landscape) grows less dreamlike and unreal to our perception when we people it with familiar characters from our favourite novels. Even on a first journey we feel ourselves among old friends. Thus to read Romola in Florence, and Les Miserables in Paris, and Lorna Doone on Exmoor, and The Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh, and David Balfour in the Pass of Glencoe, and The Pirate in the Shetland Isles, is to get a new sense of the possibilities of life. All these things have I done with much inward contentment; and other things of like quality have I yet in store; as, for example, the conjunction of The Bonnie Brier-Bush with Drumtochty, and The Little Minister with Thrums, and The Raiders with Galloway. But I never expect to pass pleasanter days than those I spent with A Princess of Thule among the Hebrides.
For then, to begin with, I was young; which is an unearned increment of delight sure to be confiscated by the envious years and never regained. But even youth itself was not to be compared with the exquisite felicity of being deeply and desperately in love with Sheila, the clear-eyed heroine of that charming book. In this innocent passion my gray-haired comrades, Howard Crosby, the Chancellor of the University of New York, and my father, an ex- Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, were ardent but generous rivals.
How great is the joy and how fascinating the pursuit of such an ethereal affection! It enlarges the heart without embarrassing the conscience. It is a cup of pure gladness with no bitterness in its dregs. It spends the present moment with a free hand, and yet leaves no undesirable mortgage upon the future. King Arthur, the founder of the Round Table, expressed a conviction, according to Tennyson, that the most important element in a young knight’s education is “the maiden passion for a maid.” Surely the safest form in which this course in the curriculum may be taken is by falling in love with a girl in a book. It is the only affair of the kind into which a young fellow can enter without responsibility, and out of which he can always emerge, when necessary, without discredit. And as for the old fellow who still keeps up this education of the heart, and worships his heroine with the ardour of a John Ridd and the fidelity of a Henry Esmond, I maintain that he is exempt from all the penalties of declining years. The man who can love a girl in a book may be old, but never aged.
So we sailed, lovers all three, among the Western Isles, and whatever ship it was that carried us, her figurehead was always the Princess Sheila. Along the ruffled blue waters of the sounds and lochs that wind among the roots of unpronounceable mountains, and past the dark hills of Skye, and through the unnumbered flocks of craggy islets where the sea-birds nest, the spell of the sweet Highland maid drew us, and we were pilgrims to the Ultima Thule where she lived and reigned.
The Lewis, with its tail-piece, the Harris, is quite a sizable island to be appended to such a country as Scotland. It is a number of miles long, and another number of miles wide, and it has a number of thousand inhabitants–I should say as many as three- quarters of an inhabitant to the square mile–and the conditions of agriculture and the fisheries are extremely interesting and quarrelsome. All these I duly studied at the time, and reported in a series of intolerably dull letters to the newspaper which supplied a financial basis for my sentimental journey. They are full of information; but I have been amused to note, after these many years, how wide they steer of the true motive and interest of the excursion. There is not even a hint of Sheila in any of them. Youth, after all, is a shamefaced and secretive season; like the fringed polygala, it hides its real blossom underground.
It was Sheila’s dark-blue dress and sailor hat with the white feather that we looked for as we loafed through the streets of Stornoway, that quaint metropolis of the herring-trade, where strings of fish alternated with boxes of flowers in the windows, and handfuls of fish were spread upon the roofs to dry just as the sliced apples are exposed upon the kitchen-sheds of New England in September, and dark-haired women were carrying great creels of fish on their shoulders, and groups of sunburned men were smoking among the fishing-boats on the beach and talking about fish, and sea- gulls were floating over the houses with their heads turning from side to side and their bright eyes peering everywhere for unconsidered trifles of fish, and the whole atmosphere of the place, physical, mental, and moral, was pervaded with fish. It was Sheila’s soft, sing-song Highland speech that we heard through the long, luminous twilight in the pauses of that friendly chat on the balcony of the little inn where a good fortune brought us acquainted with Sam Bough, the mellow Edinburgh painter. It was Sheila’s low sweet brow, and long black eyelashes, and tender blue eyes, that we saw before us as we loitered over the open moorland, a far-rolling sea of brown billows, reddened with patches of bell- heather, and brightened here and there with little lakes lying wide open to the sky. And were not these peat-cutters, with the big baskets on their backs, walking in silhouette along the ridges, the people that Sheila loved and tried to help; and were not these crofters’ cottages with thatched roofs, like beehives, blending almost imperceptibly with the landscape, the dwellings into which she planned to introduce the luxury of windows; and were not these Standing Stones of Callernish, huge tombstones of a vanished religion, the roofless temple from which the Druids paid their westernmost adoration to the setting sun as he sank into the Atlantic–was not this the place where Sheila picked the bunch of wild flowers and gave it to her lover? There is nothing in history, I am sure, half so real to us as some of the things in fiction. The influence of an event upon our character is little affected by considerations as to whether or not it ever happened.
There were three churches in Stornoway, all Presbyterian, of course, and therefore full of pious emulation. The idea of securing an American preacher for an August Sabbath seemed to fall upon them simultaneously, and to offer the prospect of novelty without too much danger. The brethren of the U. P. congregation, being a trifle more gleg than the others, arrived first at the inn, and secured the promise of a morning sermon from Chancellor Howard Crosby. The session of the Free Kirk came in a body a little later, and to them my father pledged himself for the evening sermon. The senior elder of the Established Kirk, a snuff-taking man and very deliberate, was the last to appear, and to his request for an afternoon sermon there was nothing left to offer but the services of the young probationer in theology. I could see that it struck him as a perilous adventure. Questions about “the fundamentals” glinted in his watery eye. He crossed and uncrossed his legs with solemnity, and blew his nose so frequently in a huge red silk handkerchief that it seemed like a signal of danger. At last he unburdened himself of his hesitations.
“Ah’m not saying that the young man will not be orthodox–ahem! But ye know, sir, in the Kirk, we are not using hymns, but just the pure Psawms of Daffit, in the meetrical fairsion. And ye know, sir, they are ferry tifficult in the reating, whatefer, for a young man, and one that iss a stranger. And if his father will just be coming with him in the pulpit, to see that nothing iss said amiss, that will be ferry comforting to the congregation.”
So the dear governor swallowed his laughter gravely and went surety for his son. They appeared together in the church, a barnlike edifice, with great galleries half-way between the floor and the roof. Still higher up, the pulpit stuck like a swallow’s nest against the wall. The two ministers climbed the precipitous stair and found themselves in a box so narrow that one must stand perforce, while the other sat upon the only seat. In this “ride and tie” fashion they went through the service. When it was time to preach, the young man dropped the doctrines as discreetly as possible upon the upturned countenances beneath him. I have forgotten now what it was all about, but there was a quotation from the Song of Solomon, ending with “Sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.” And when it came to that, the probationer’s eyes (if the truth must be told) went searching through that sea of faces for one that should be familiar to his heart, and to which he might make a personal application of the Scripture passage–even the face of Sheila.
There are rivers in the Lewis, at least two of them, and on one of these we had the offer of a rod for a day’s fishing. Accordingly we cast lots, and the lot fell upon the youngest, and I went forth with a tall, red-legged gillie, to try for my first salmon. The Whitewater came singing down out of the moorland into a rocky valley, and there was a merry curl of air on the pools, and the silver fish were leaping from the stream. The gillie handled the big rod as if it had been a fairy’s wand, but to me it was like a giant’s spear. It was a very different affair from fishing with five ounces of split bamboo on a Long Island trout-pond. The monstrous fly, like an awkward bird, went fluttering everywhere but in the right direction. It was the mercy of Providence that preserved the gillie’s life. But he was very patient and forbearing, leading me on from one pool to another, as I spoiled the water and snatched the hook out of the mouth of rising fish, until at last we found a salmon that knew even less about the niceties of salmon-fishing than I did. He seized the fly firmly, before I could pull it away, and then, in a moment, I found myself attached to a creature with the strength of a whale and the agility of a flying-fish. He led me rushing up and down the bank like a madman. He played on the surface like a whirlwind, and sulked at the bottom like a stone. He meditated, with ominous delay, in the middle of the deepest pool, and then, darting across the river, flung himself clean out of water and landed far up on the green turf of the opposite shore. My heart melted like a snowflake in the sea, and I thought that I had lost him forever. But he rolled quietly back into the water with the hook still set in his nose. A few minutes afterwards I brought him within reach of the gaff, and my first salmon was glittering on the grass beside me.
Then I remembered that William Black had described this very fish in A Princess of Thule. I pulled the book from my pocket, and, lighting a pipe, sat down to read that delightful chapter over again. The breeze played softly down the valley. The warm sunlight was filled with the musical hum of insects and the murmur of falling waters. I thought how much pleasanter it would have been to learn salmon-fishing, as Black’s hero did, from the Maid of Borva, than from a red-headed gillie. But, then, his salmon, after leaping across the stream, got away; whereas mine was safe. A man cannot have everything in this world. I picked a spray of rosy bell-heather from the bank of the river, and pressed it between the leaves of the book in memory of Sheila.
It is not half as far from Albany to Aberdeen as it is from New York to London. In fact, I venture to say that an American on foot will find himself less a foreigner in Scotland than in any other country in the Old World. There is something warm and hospitable– if he knew the language well enough he would call it couthy–in the greeting that he gets from the shepherd on the moor, and the conversation that he holds with the farmer’s wife in the stone cottage, where he stops to ask for a drink of milk and a bit of oat-cake. He feels that there must be a drop of Scotch somewhere in his mingled blood, or at least that the texture of his thought and feelings has been partly woven on a Scottish loom–perhaps the Shorter Catechism, or Robert Burns’s poems, or the romances of Sir Walter Scott. At all events, he is among a kindred and comprehending people. They do not speak English in the same way that he does–through the nose—but they think very much more in his mental dialect than the English do. They are independent and wide awake, curious and full of personal interest. The wayside mind in Inverness or Perth runs more to muscle and less to fat, has more active vanity and less passive pride, is more inquisitive and excitable and sympathetic–in short, to use a symbolist’s description, it is more apt to be red-headed–than in Surrey or Somerset. Scotchmen ask more questions about America, but fewer foolish ones. You will never hear them inquiring whether there is any good bear-hunting in the neighbourhood of Boston, or whether Shakespeare is much read in the States. They have a healthy respect for our institutions, and have quite forgiven (if, indeed, they ever resented) that little affair in 1776. They are all born Liberals. When a Scotchman says he is a Conservative, it only means that he is a Liberal with hesitations.
And yet in North Britain the American pedestrian will not find that amused and somewhat condescending toleration for his peculiarities, that placid willingness to make the best of all his vagaries of speech and conduct, that he finds in South Britain. In an English town you may do pretty much what you like on a Sunday, even to the extent of wearing a billycock hat to church, and people will put up with it from a countryman of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show. But in a Scotch village, if you whistle in the street on a Lord’s Day, though it be a Moody and Sankey tune, you will be likely to get, as I did, an admonition from some long-legged, grizzled elder: