The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XVII. The Catching of a Certain Fish.
We settled down peacefully on the River, and the weather, after so much enmity, was kind to us. Likewise did the flies disappear from the woods utterly.
Each morning we arose as the Red Gods willed; generally early, when the sun was just gilding the peaks to the westward; but not too early, before the white veil had left the River. Billy, with woodsman's contempt for economy, hewed great logs and burned them nobly in the cooking of trout, oatmeal, pancakes, and the like. We had constructed ourselves tables and benches between green trees, and there we ate. And great was the eating beyond the official capacity of the human stomach. There offered little things to do, delicious little things just on the hither side of idleness. A rod wrapping needed more waxed silk; a favourite fly required attention to prevent dissolution; the pistol was to be cleaned; a flag-pole seemed desirable; a trifle more of balsam could do no harm; clothes might stand drying, blankets airing. We accomplished these things leisurely, pausing for the telling of stories, for the puffing of pipes, for the sheer joy of contemplations. Deerskin slipper moccasins and flapping trousers attested our deshabille. And then somehow it was noon, and Billy again at the Dutch oven and the broiler.
Trout we ate, and always more trout. Big fellows broiled with strips of bacon craftily sewn in and out of the pink flesh; medium fellows cut into steaks; little fellows fried crisp in corn-meal; big, medium, and little fellows mingled in component of the famous North Country bouillon, whose other ingredients are partridges, and tomatoes, and potatoes, and onions, and salt pork, and flour in combination delicious beyond belief. Nor ever did we tire of them, three times a day, printed statement to the contrary notwithstanding. And besides were many crafty dishes over whose construction the major portion of morning idleness was spent.
Now at two o'clock we groaned temporary little groans; and crawled shrinking into our river clothes, which we dared not hang too near the fire for fear of the disintegrating scorch, and drew on soggy hobnailed shoes with holes cut in the bottom and plunged with howls of disgust into the upper riffles. Then the cautious leg-straddled passage of the swift current, during which we forgot for ever--which eternity alone circles the bliss of an afternoon on the River--the chill of the water, and so came to the trail.
Now, at the Idiot's Delight Dick and I parted company. By three o'clock I came again to the River, far up, halfway to the Big Falls. Deuce watched me gravely. With the first click of the reel he retired to the brush away from the back cast, there to remain until the pool was fished and we could continue our journey.
In the swift leaping water, at the smooth back of the eddy, in the white foam, under the dark cliff shadow, here, there, everywhere the bright flies drop softly like strange snowflakes. The game is as interesting as pistol-shooting. To hit the mark, that is enough. And then a swirl of water and a broad lazy tail wake you to the fact that other matters are yours. Verily the fish of the North Country are mighty beyond all others.
Over the River rests the sheen of light; over the hills rests the sheen of romance. The land is enchanted. Birds dip and sway, advance and retreat; leaves toss their hands in greeting, or bend and whisper one to the other; splashes of sun fall heavy as metal through the yielding screens of branches; little breezes wander hesitatingly here and there to sink like spent kites on the nearest bar of sun-warmed shingle; the stream shouts and gurgles, murmurs, hushes, lies still and secret as though to warn you to discretion, breaks away with a shriek of hilarity when your discretion has been assured. There is in you a great leisure, as though the day would never end. There is in you a great keenness. One part of you is vibrantly alive. Your wrist muscles contract almost automatically at the swirl of a rise, and the hum of life along the gossamer of your line gains its communication with every nerve in your body. The question of gear and method you attack clear-minded. What fly? Montreal, Parmachenee Belle, Royal Coachman, Silver Doctor, Professor, Brown Hackle, Cow-dung--these grand lures for the North Country trout receive each its due test and attention. And on the tail snell what fisherman has not the Gamble--the unusual, obscure, multinamed fly which may, in the occultism of his taste, attract the Big Fellows? Besides, there remains always the handling. Does your trout to-day fancy the skittering of his food, or the withdrawal in three jerks, or the inch-deep sinking of the fly? Does he want it across current or up current; will he rise with a snap, or is he going to come slowly, or is he going to play? These be problems interesting, insistent to be solved, with the ready test within the reach of your skill.
But that alertness is only one side of your mood. No matter how difficult the selection, how strenuous the fight, there is in you a large feeling that might almost be described as Buddhistic. Time has nothing to do with your problems. The world has quietly run down, and has been embalmed with all its sweetness of light and colour and sound in a warm Lethe bath of sun. This afternoon is going to last for ever. You note and enjoy and savour the little pleasures unhurried by the thought that anything else, whether of pleasure or duty, is to follow.
And so for long delicious eons. The River flows on, ever on; the hills watch, watch always; the birds sing, the sun shines grateful across your shoulders; the big trout and the little rise in predestined order, and make their predestined fight, and go their predestined way either to liberty or the creel; the pools and the rapids and the riffles slip by upstream as though they had been withdrawn rather than as though you had advanced.
Then suddenly the day has dropped its wings. The earth moves forward with a jar. Things are to be accomplished; things are being accomplished. The River is hurrying down to the Lake; the birds have business of their own to attend to, an it please you; the hills are waiting for something that has not yet happened, but they are ready. Startled, you look up. The afternoon has finished. Your last step has taken you over the edge of the shadow cast by the setting sun across the range of hills.
For the first time you look about you to see where you are. It has not mattered before. Now you know that shortly it will be dark. Still remain below you four pools. A great haste seizes you.
"If I take my rod apart and strike through the woods," you argue, "I can make the Narrows, and I am sure there is a big trout there."
Why the Narrows should be any more likely to contain a big trout than any of the other three pools you would not be able to explain. In half an hour it will be dark. You hurry. In the forest it is already twilight, but by now you know the forest well. Preoccupied, feverish with your great idea, you hasten on. The birds, silent all in the brooding of night, rise ghostly to right and left. Shadows steal away like hostile spies among the treetrunks. The silver of last daylight gleams ahead of you through the brush. You know it for the Narrows, whither the instinct of your eagerness has led you as accurately as a compass through the forest.
Fervently, as though this were of world's affairs the most important, you congratulate yourself on being in time. Your rod seems to join itself. In a moment the cast drops like a breath on the molten silver. Nothing. Another try a trifle lower down. Nothing. A little wandering breeze spoils your fourth attempt, carrying the leader far to the left. Curses, deep and fervent. The daylight is fading, draining away. A fifth cast falls forty feet out. Slowly you drag the flies across the current, reluctant to recover until the latest possible moment. And so, when your rod is foolishly upright, your line slack, and your flies motionless, there rolls slowly up and over the trout of trouts. You see a broad side, the whirl of a fantail that looks to you to be at least six inches across; and the current slides on, silver-like, smooth, indifferent to the wild leap of your heart.
Like a crazy man you shorten your line. Six seconds later your flies fall skilfully just upstream from where last you saw that wonderful tail.
But six seconds may be a long, long period of time. You have feared and hoped and speculated and realized; feared that the leviathan has pricked himself, and so will not rise again; hoped that his appearance merely indicated curiosity which he will desire further to satisfy; speculated on whether your skill can drop the fly exactly on that spot, as it must be dropped; and realized that, whatever be the truth as to all those fears and hopes and speculations, this is irrevocably your last chance.
For an instant you allow the flies to drift downstream, to be floated here and there by idle little eddies, to be sucked down and spat out of tiny suction-holes. Then cautiously you draw them across the surface of the waters. Thump--thump--thump--your heart slows up with disappointment. Then mysteriously, like the stirring of the waters by some invisible hand, the molten silver is broken in its smoothness. The Royal Coachman quietly disappears. With all the brakes shrieking on your desire to shut your eyes and heave a mighty heave, you depress your butt and strike.
Then in the twilight the battle. No leisure is here, only quivering, intense, agonized anxiety. The affair transcends the moment. Purposes and necessities of untold ages have concentrated, so that somehow back of your consciousness rest hosts of disembodied hopes, tendencies, evolutionary progressions, all breathless lest you prove unequal to the struggle for which they have been so long preparing.
Responsibility--vast, vague, formless--is yours. Only the fact that you are wholly occupied with the exigence of the moment prevents your understanding of what it is, but it hovers dark and depressing behind your possible failure. You must win. This is no fish; it is opportunity itself, and once gone it will never return. The mysticism of lower dusk in the forest, of upper afterglow on the hills, of the chill of evening waters and winds, of the glint of strange phantoms under the darkness of cliffs, of the whisperings and shoutings of Things you are too busy to identify out in the gray of North Country awe--all these menace you with indeterminate dread. Knee-deep, waist-deep, swift water, slack water, downstream, upstream, with red eyes straining into the dimness, with every muscle taut and every nerve quivering, you follow the ripping of your line. You have consecrated yourself to the uttermost. The minutes stalk by you gigantic. You are a stable pin-point in whirling phantasms. And you are very little, very small, very inadequate among these Titans of circumstance.
Thrice he breaks water, a white and ghostly apparition from the deep. Your heart stops with your reel, and only resumes its office when again the line sings safely. The darkness falls, and with it, like the mysterious strength of Sir Gareth's opponent, falls the power of your adversary. His rushes shorten. The blown world of your uncertainty shrinks to the normal. From the haze of your consciousness, as through a fog, loom the old familiar forest, and the hills, and the River. Slowly you creep from that strange enchanted land. The sullen trout yields. In all gentleness you float him within reach of your net. Quietly, breathlessly you walk ashore, and over the beach, and yet an unnecessary hundred feet from the water lest he retain still a flop. Then you lay him upon the stones and lift up your heart in rejoicing.
How you get to camp you never clearly know. Exultation lifts your feet. Wings, wings, O ye Red Gods, wings to carry the body whither the spirit hath already soared, and stooped, and circled back in impatience to see why still the body lingers! Ordinarily you can cross the riffles above the Halfway Pool only with caution and prayer and a stout staff craftily employed. This night you can--and do--splash across hand-free, as recklessly as you would wade a little brook. There is no stumble in you, for you have done a great deed, and the Red Gods are smiling.
Through the trees glows a light, and in the centre of that light are leaping flames, and in the circle of that light stand, rough-hewn in orange, the tent and the table and the waiting figures of your companions. You stop short, and swallow hard, and saunter into camp as one indifferent.
Carelessly you toss aside your creel--into the darkest corner, as though it were unimportant--nonchalantly you lean your rod against the slant of your tent, wearily you seat yourself and begin to draw off your drenched garments. Billy bends toward the fire. Dick gets you your dry clothes. Nobody says anything, for everybody is hungry. No one asks you any questions, for on the River you get in almost any time of night.
Finally, as you are hanging your wet things near the fire, you inquire casually over your shoulder,--
"Dick, have any luck?"
Dick tells you. You listen with apparent interest. He has caught a three-pounder. He describes the spot and the method and the struggle. He is very much pleased. You pity him.
The three of you eat supper, lots of supper. Billy arises first, filling his pipe. He hangs water over the fire for the dish-washing. You and Dick sit hunched on a log, blissfully happy in the moments of digestion, ruminative, watching the blaze. The tobacco smoke eddies and sucks upward to join the wood smoke. Billy moves here and there in the fulfilment of his simple tasks, casting his shadow wavering and gigantic against the fire-lit trees. By-and-by he has finished. He gathers up the straps of Dick's creel, and turns to the shadow for your own. He is going to clean the fish. It is the moment you have watched for. You shroud yourself in profound indifference.
"Sacre!" shrieks Billy.
You do not even turn your head.
"Jumping giraffes! why, it's a whale!" cries Dick.
You roll a blase eye in their direction, as though such puerile enthusiasm wearies you.
"Yes, it's quite a little fish," you concede.
They swarm down upon you, demanding particulars. These you accord laconically, a word at a time, in answer to direct question, between puffs of smoke.
"At the Narrows. Royal Coachman. Just before I came in. Pretty fair fight. Just at the edge of the eddy." And so on. But your soul glories.
The tape-line is brought out. Twenty-nine inches it records. Holy smoke, what a fish! Your air implies that you will probably catch three more just like him on the morrow. Dick and Billy make tracings of him on the birch bark. You retain your lofty calm: but inside you are little quivers of rapture. And when you awake, late in the night, you are conscious, first of all, that you are happy, happy, happy, all through; and only when the drowse drains away do you remember why.