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Small deer, in truth! The fisher for the lordly salmon will shoot out the lip: the happy man who has toiled (not in vain) the season through to lure the giant trout of Thames, will shake his head over my humble tale. But my little fish are sweet, and sweet is their dwelling-place.
It has been a glorious August day, and the sun is sloping westward through a cloudless sky as I leave the old Hall behind me. Leisurely I wend my way through the rolling park. On the high ground the grass is brown and sere; but in every little dale and dell the bracken grows thick, gladdening the eye with its fresh, bright, living green. Across the drive in front of me a rabbit glides noiselessly. A hundred yards to the right a branching antler rising above the fern shows where a buck is taking his rest in quietness and confidence, never broken by
The slow-hound's deep-mouthed note and huntsman's echoing horn.
Now stand on the bridge where the drive crosses, and gaze your fill on half a mile of open water, from the dark fir-wood to the beginning of yonder long spinney, that the stream threads from end to end in its devious course to the brimming river.
"Water, sir I there's not three inches. Stream! it's a ditch, I could hop across." True, that limber fly-rod and gorged pocket-book will do little service here. The two top joints, a yard of gut, and juicy worms are all we need.
Our tackle is soon put together, and we are at the end of the wood. Flashing over bright brown pebbles, the stream hurries forth, glad to escape from gloomy shades to light and air. Rushes grow thick on the high hollow banks, with here and there a fern
stretching its feathery fronds from side to side. You may set your fancy free, laugh, sing, whistle, shout, or swear, as the fancy takes you; but,— oh, lightly tread I for haply beneath your very feet the quarry lurks.
Here shall be my first cast I Noiselessly I drop the worm, and watch it with the eye of hope as it rolls swiftly down where beneath yonder hollow the stream runs like a mill-race in miniature, slightly coloured with the crumbling soil. Alas I no bite; and again and again the like ill-luck.
Aha, my friend, I can translate that vigorous ejaculation—rushes are not to be trifled with, and the graceful fern, with its serrated leaves, holds a gut-line like a vice. Put on another hook. I'll try my luck where the stream eddies round yonder mighty boulder, seven pounds if it is an ounce, that lies athwart its course.
A convulsive tug—the light rod bends like a bow, and with a turn of the wrist a pretty little trout in all the glory of his crimson-spotted livery is swung on the grass at my feet. The first fish, the first trout- -there is magic in the word. What golden memories it conjures up! Memories of happy hours by lonely moorland burns in the sweet vale of Dove, of red-letter days in the lush watermeadows through which the Windrush winds its silent way. Keener than ever, I fish steadily down towards the bridge. Two more speckled beauties join their comrade in the spacious pocket of my old shooting-coat; a third shakes the hook from his mouth and leaves me sorrowing, but only for a moment. Is there not a noble pool just below the bridge ; black, still, and deep, some three feet deep, into which the water pours, bubbling and foaming from a tiny cataract? Quickly my worm is launched into the rapids, hangs for a moment among the stones, and then drops quickly into the tail of the pool. A bite indeed, the loose end of the line was almost twitched from my hand, and now to "do my spiriting gently."
Like lightning my fish dashes across the pool, seeking shelter under the roots of the old willow that overhangs the water. For one agonizing moment the line seems slack, but I feel him again, a mad rush down stream, a short sulk under the bank, and I
Take him up tenderly,
a half-pounder at the very least.
Pocketing my fish, I walk quickly on. There are few likely places in the remaining open space, and these my friend has fished with much perseverance. He has lost another hook, but two pretty trout have restored his self-respect and temper. Elsewhere the stream runs clear as crystal over a sandy bottom. Ever and anon, as I pass, a dark form flits through the water, as though in mockery; but I pass the challenge by.
Arrived at the edge of the spinney I pause a moment. Who ever
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, lingering look behind?
The west is all ablaze with tints that Turner would have loved to paint. The sun is setting gloriously. His last rays are lighting up the dark fir-wood, and the leaves of yonder giant oak glisten like burnished gold. Already there is a pleasant freshness in the air that tells of falling dew, and the gathering dusk warns me to lose no time.
In the fence, a hundred yards to the left, is a gap. Cautiously I scramble over, and work my way towards the stream, through a sea of fern breast-high. What a place for fairy tourists! It is the Wye in miniature; fern down to the water's edge, save where a stretch of mossy turf flanks some quiet little reach.
For the most part the banks are high and steep. Six feet below me the stream brattles along its rocky bed. There are a dozen tiny waterfalls, each with its duodecimo salmon-pool below it. The trees admit a solemn half-light. Not a twig stirs: all is silence, all is peace; save when my rustling footsteps startle a timid rabit, or flush an old cock pheasant, who rises leisurely to settle again a few yards further on.
Slowly I stroll along, catching now a fish and now a stone, for the bottom is rocky, and has cost me much patience and hooks not a few. Halfway through the spinney the stream dives into a thicket of nut-bushes and is lost to view. In its hidden course is more than one fishy place, but never yet have I ventured there—with rod and line. To-day success has made me bold. Warily I grope my way; now thrusting the rod delicately through the tangled branches in front, now raising it aloft to elude the tenacious fern-leaves. Once, twice, I am caught and hung up, but reach the bank at last, unbroken.
Now, where the impetuous streamlet, dammed by a fallen log, swirls round all flecked with foam. Crawling to the edge I take the line 'twixt thumb and finger, and drop the baited hook, like a plummet, into the rapid just above. In a moment there comes a sharp twitch of the line. It is no place to dally with the prey. Keeping the point of the rod down, I draw the line sharply back, and trout the eighth joins his forerunners in my bulging pocket. There is no more to be done in the jungle, for the stream is literally smothered by the undergrowth. So I wriggle out of the thicket carefully, and keep a parallel to its course.
There is comparatively open ground again as I near the end of the spinney, and a complete change of scene.
The trees are sparse and stunted: tussocks of long, rank, tangled grass take the place of fern, and on many a patch of ground the silvery deer-moss warns me not to tread. Through this dismal little swamp the stream flows between two flat banks with many a winding. Daylight isfading fast now; a white mist begins to rise, and great white moths flit, like ghosts, along the waterside. Not altogether a pleasant place to walk at dewy eve. But these few hundred yards of boggy stream have yielded me many a fish ere now.
My friend has come down the crossside and joined me. He has made but one addition to his bag since we parted, and is inclined to be despondent. He will fish no more, but saunters along the opposite bank, watching my operations.
For some time the rod is plied in vain, and my friend, who has found more than one soft place, shows signs of turning tail. But I pick my way on to a little cape of firm ground, around which the stream sweeps with a strong current. Once more my fingers thrill to the electric twitch, and I swing a game troutling of some four ounces deftly on to the bank. In the next twenty yards another and yet another come to grass.
Then the watcher, roused to emulation, sets to work once more. But the ground gets worse and worse, and, thanks to the failing light, I have fathomed one moss-hole to the knee. There is a shout of triumph I My comrade has a fish, a good one doubtless, for his rod is bending double. But hapless wight, that careless step bewrays him 1 One mighty flounder, and he lies prone upon the moist earth. The point of his rod clutched in a convulsive grasp, flies upward as he falls, and he rises, mud-bedaubed, a sad and wrathful man, while his fish escapes with the hook and a yard of gut. Just one more cast with a new bait, my friend, and we will leave the treacherous spot, for we are a good
half-mile from the house, and shall scarce get back by daylight.
I lay my rod aside and, taking good heed to my steps, pursue a large moth, fluttering about hard by. He is soon caught, and fixed tenderly on the hook. Now to find a fitting place to essay his charms. Here is the very spot. Where that ancient alder, with roots thick grown with moss and fungi, flings its straggling branches over the slow sullen stream, eating its silent way through the rich, black crumbling earth.
Lightly the moth falls on the dark water and glides slowly down the sluggish stream. Its gossamer wings are soon draggled, and it begins to sink. I am on the point of taking it out, and seeking a fresh victim, when suddenly the calm surface is broken by a rise—the trailing line grows taut. A few convulsive struggles, and my fish is handsomely landed on the low, bare bank. He has taken the colour of his dwelling-place ; dusky and dull of hue, he cannot compare in beauty with his brethren outside the 6pinney. But he is a gallant fish for all that, and, if my eye deceives me not, a good three-quarters of a pound.
Right loth am I now to quit the stream, though night is falling fast. But I tear myself away, regain the side, and we start at score upon our homeward trudge. The moon is rising, a crescent of pale gold, as we cross the park. Shapeless and dim in the twilight the great trees tower aloft like giant spectres. A late-feeding hare lurches leisurely away from our path; a bat almost brushes my cheek, as he flits by on noiseless wing. But no sound comes to break the solemn stillness of a world that seems mourning for the day that is dead.
CRITICS IN COURT.
It was Gray's opinion that a bad verse was a better thing than the best observation made upon it. The opinion is valuable, for Gray not only lives with the poets ; he is in the very front rank of critics, though he published no criticisms. On the other hand, Johnson, who published much acute and just criticism, with much also that was foolish and ill-tempered, thought more nobly of the critical soul. To refine the public taste, he said, was a public benefaction, and so far no one probably will disagree with him. "If bad writers were to pass under no reprehension ", he asked, " what should restrain them 1" And again: "All truth is valuable, and satirical criticism may be considered as useful when it rectifies error and improves judgment ". That again is not to be gainsaid, but there is clearly much virtue iu the when. The truth is that the Court of Criticism has no legal existence. It is a self-appointed tribunal working on no settled principles and bound by no precedents. Any one may practise in it. "Criticism ", observes Dick Minim's biographer, "is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may by mere labour be obtained is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critic". In this court no one conceives himself obliged either by courtesy or custom to respect, much less to uphold the decision of his brother, be he never so learned. Freedom is of course a blessed thing,
but too much freedom is not always good for every man, and its result in this instance is not seldom as ridiculous as it is confusing. The critic is indeed not so much a baron of the Middle Ages exercising power of life and death over his own feudatories, as a jobber-chief levying war wherever he feelshimself strongenough to do so with impunity, on his neighbour robbers as well as on the defenceless peasantry. Or if this simile be thought too robust for him, let him be likened to the pariah dog of the East, which turns upon its fellow beast when better prey cannot be had.
It is little wonder that a stand should have been sometimes made against this tyranny; the wonder rather is £hat it should not have been more often made. It is true that upon bad writers only will censure have much effect, yet it is only half a truth. Censure will not harm good work, but it may give the workman many an uncomfortable hour. Pope, the most sensitive, and Scott, the most sensible of writers, were both annoyed by censure; yet upon their writings censure has not had much effect. And after all how small a part of the irritable race can even this half-truth avail to console! It is only natural, then, that in an age when the Passion of the Past has ceased to work, or at most lingers only in a few withered breasts themselves soon to become candidates for its regard, when scorn of the beliefs and sentiments, the institutions and practices of its fathers is considered the first necessity of noble mind, when he who
From the shadow of the globe would sweep into the younger day,
must ply his broom ruthlessly—at such a time it is, we say, but natural that the divinity which once hedged round a critic should have gone the way of all other divinities. It is the age of sesthetical democracy as of political, and critics like kings must be taught to " ken there is a lith in their necks ". The spectacle of another Byron paying compliments to another Gifford as the "monarch-maker in poetry", can be hardly more unlikely than—than the advent, shall we say, of another Byron f "Sire," said the French courtier to his king, when the Bastille was toppling down in flames that are not yet quenched, "Sire, this is not a revolt, but a revolution." Many a revolt has been headed against the critic's rule, and not always unsuccessfully; now there is a revolution, and a revolution by course of law. A second Daniel has come to judgment, and henceforth it is law in English land that the public good must not be benefited at the expense of the private individual.
To the ordinary lay mind, which has always found it hard to draw the necessary distinction between common law and common sense, this judgment has an almost boundless significance. Stretching far beyond the province of mere aesthetic criticism, it appears to embrace almost the whole social fabric, —and not to embrace it only, but to strike at its very core. Something of the same theory was indeed broached by that large-hearted senator who confided to an appreciative audience that they were not bound to obey the law beyond their own convenience. But between the interpretation of the law by an irresponsible member of Parliament and the law itself there is sometimes much difference. This member was in very truth no better than a critic, and, had any sufferer by his criticism chosen to seek redress, would probably have shared the critic's shrift. But if this interpretation of the law by one of its chief officers is to hold good, surely the end of all things is at hand. For what may it not involve? Take one instance, — a simple one, within universal comprehension. The policeman — is not he maintained
for the benefit of the public good 1 Yet how often must he justify his maintenance at the expense of the private individual 1 There must be many private individuals who would gladly see those uncompromising and incorruptible critics, Mr. Balfour and Mr. Monro, laid by the heels for preserving the public good at their expense; and really, if what is to be sauce for the aesthetic goose is also to be sauce for the political gander, it is hard to eae why their wish should not be gratified. To take another instance, which will touch the law-abiding Briton on his tenderest side; it is for the public good that we should have an Army, a Navy, Ministers of the Crown, even Judges; they can only be maintained at the expense of the private individual,—of the tax-payer, to wit. But these are matters too high for our dim layman's vision. Allegorically blind herself, Justice is often the cause of literal blindness in others who seek to penetrate her mysteries with unanointed eyes. In the presence of this inscrutable goddess we can but murmur to ourselves those touching lines which Mr. Clayden has reminded us were written by Samuel Rogers:
They who watch by her, see not ; but she
sees, Sees and exults—were ever dreams like
There are, however, other sides of the question on which it may be possible for a layman to reflect with less chance of foolishness, and which are perhaps of more general interest to those good souls who would gladly obey the law in all things, when assured of understanding her commandments.
The particular occasion of this judgment was what is known in legal society as a theatrical case. There has been more than one such lately, and in each the aggrieved party contrived to secure not only the sympathy of the judge, but the more practical sympathy of the jury as well. Without entering into particulars, which might be tedious, it may be broadly said that