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- Prose Idylls - 5/37 -
He was gently reminded of the existence of the Tyrolese.
'You may just as wisely remind me of the Circassians. What can prove my theory more completely than the fact that in them you have the two finest races of the world, utterly unable to do anything for humanity, utterly unable to develop themselves, because, to their eternal misfortune, they have got caged among those abominable stoneheaps, and have not yet been able to escape?'
It was suggested that if mountain races were generally inferior ones, it was because they were the remnants of conquered tribes driven up into the highlands by invaders.
'And what does that prove but that the stronger and cunninger races instinctively seize the lowlands, because they half know (and Providence knows altogether) that there alone they can become nations, and fulfil the primaeval mission--to replenish the earth and subdue it? No, no, my good sir. Mountains are very well when they are doing their only duty--that of making rain and soil for the lowlands: but as for this newfangled admiration of them, it is a proof that our senses are dulled by luxury and books, and that we require to excite our palled organ of marvellousness by signs and wonders, aesthetic brandy and cayenne. No. I have remarked often that the most unimaginative people, who can see no beauty in a cultivated English field or in the features of a new-born babe, are the loudest ravers about glorious sunsets and Alpine panoramas; just as the man with no music in his soul, to whom a fugue of Sebastian Bach, or one of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, means nothing, and is nothing thinks a monster concert of drums and trumpets uncommonly fine.'
This is certainly a sufficiently one-sided diatribe. Still it is one-sided: and we have heard so much of the other side of late, that it may be worth while to give this side also a fair and patient hearing.
At least he who writes wishes that it may have a fair hearing. He has a sort of sympathy with Lord Macaulay's traveller of a hundred and fifty years since, who amid the 'horrible desolation' of the Scotch highlands, sighs for 'the true mountain scenery of Richmond- hill.' The most beautiful landscape he has ever seen, or cares to see, is the vale of Thames from Taplow or from Cliefden, looking down towards Windsor, and up toward Reading; to him Bramshill, looking out far and wide over the rich lowland from its eyrie of dark pines, or Littlecote nestling between deer-spotted upland and rich water- meadow, is a finer sight than any robber castle of the Rhine. He would not complain, of course, were either of the views backed, like those glorious ones of Turin or Venice, by the white saw-edge of the distant Alps: but chiefly because the perpetual sight of that Alp- wall would increase the sense of home, of guarded security, which not the mountain, but the sea, or the very thought of the sea, gives to all true Englishmen.
Let others therefore (to come back to angling) tell of moor and loch. But let it be always remembered that the men who have told of them best have not been mountaineers, but lowlanders who carried up to the mountain the taste and knowledge which they had gained below. Let them remember that the great Sutherlandshire sportsman and sporting writer, the late Mr. St. John, was once a fine gentleman about town; that Christopher North was an Edinburgh Professor, a man of city learning and city cultivation; and, as one more plea for our cockney chalk-streams of the south, that Mr. Scrope (who passed many pleasant years respected and beloved by Kennet side, with Purdy at his heels) enjoyed, they say, the killing of a Littlecote trout as heartily as he did that of a Tweed salmon.
Come, then, you who want pleasant fishing-days without the waste of time and trouble and expense involved in two hundred miles of railway journey, and perhaps fifty more of highland road; and try what you can see and do among the fish not sixty miles from town. Come to pleasant country inns, where you can always get a good dinner; or, better still, to pleasant country houses, where you can always get good society; to rivers which will always fish, brimfull in the longest droughts of summer, instead of being, as those mountain ones are, very like a turnpike-road for three weeks, and then like bottled porter for three days; to streams on which you have strong south-west breezes for a week together on a clear fishing water, instead of having, as on those mountain ones, foul rain spate as long as the wind is south-west, and clearing water when the wind chops up to the north, and the chill blast of 'Clarus Aquio' sends all the fish shivering to the bottom; streams, in a word, where you may kill fish (and large ones) four days out of five from April to October, instead of having, as you will most probably in the mountain, just one day's sport in the whole of your month's holiday. Deluded friend, who suffered in Scotland last year a month of Tantalus his torments, furnished by art and nature with rods, flies, whisky, scenery, keepers, salmon innumerable, and all that man can want, except water to fish in; and who returned, having hooked accidentally by the tail one salmon--which broke all and ween to sea--why did you not stay at home and take your two-pounders and three-pounders out of the quiet chalk brook which never sank an inch through all that drought, so deep in the caverns of the hills are hidden its mysterious wells? Truly, wise men bide at home, with George Riddler, while 'a fool's eyes are in the ends of the earth.'
Repent, then; and come with me, at least in fancy, at six o'clock upon some breezy morning in June, not by roaring railway nor by smoking steamer, but in the cosy four-wheel, along brown heather moors, down into green clay woodlands, over white chalk downs, past Roman camps and scattered blocks of Sarsden stone, till we descend into the long green vale where, among groves of poplar and abele, winds silver Whit. Come and breakfast at the neat white inn, of yore a posting-house of fame. The stables are now turned into cottages; and instead of a dozen spruce ostlers and helpers, the last of the postboys totters sadly about the yard and looks up eagerly at the rare sight of a horse to feed. But the house keeps up enough of its ancient virtue to give us a breakfast worthy of Pantagruel's self; and after it, while we are looking out our flies, you can go and chat with the old postboy, and hear his tales, told with a sort of chivalrous pride, of the noble lords and fair ladies before whom he has ridden in the good old times gone by--even, so he darkly hints, before 'His Royal Highness the Prince' himself. Poor old fellow, he recollects not, and he need not recollect, that these great posting- houses were centres of corruption, from whence the newest vices of the metropolis were poured into the too-willing ears of village lads and lasses; and that not even the New Poor Law itself has done more for the morality of the South of England than the substitution of the rail for coaches.
Now we will walk down through the meadows some half mile,
While all the land in flowery squares, Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind Smells of the coming summer,'
to a scene which, as we may find its antitype anywhere for miles round, we may boldly invent for ourselves.
A red brick mill (not new red brick, of course) shall hum for ever below giant poplar-spires, which bend and shiver in the steady breeze. On its lawn laburnums shall feather down like dropping wells of gold, and from under them the stream shall hurry leaping and laughing into the light, and spread at our feet into a broad bright shallow, in which the kine are standing knee-deep already: a hint, alas! that the day means heat. And there, to the initiated eye, is another and a darker hint of glaring skies, perspiring limbs, and empty creels. Small fish are dimpling in the central eddies: but here, in six inches of water, on the very edge of the ford road, great tails and back-fins are showing above the surface, and swirling suddenly among the tufts of grass, sure sign that the large fish are picking up a minnow-breakfast at the same time that they warm their backs, and do not mean to look at a fly for many an hour to come.
Yet courage; for on the rail of yonder wooden bridge sits, chatting with a sun-browned nymph, her bonnet pushed over her face, her hayrake in her hand, a river-god in coat of velveteen, elbow on knee and pipe in mouth, who, rising when he sees us, lifts his wide-awake, and halloas back a roar of comfort to our mystic adjuration, -
'Keeper! Is the fly up?'
'Mortial strong last night, gentlemen.'
Wherewith he shall lounge up to us, landing-net in hand, and we will wander up stream and away.
We will wander--for though the sun be bright, here are good fish to be picked out of sharps and stop-holes--into the water-tables, ridged up centuries since into furrows forty feet broad and five feet high, over which the crystal water sparkles among the roots of the rich grass, and hurries down innumerable drains to find its parent stream between tufts of great blue geranium, and spires of purple loosestrife, and the delicate white and pink comfrey-bells, and the avens--fairest and most modest of all the waterside nymphs, who hangs her head all day long in pretty shame, with a soft blush upon her tawny check. But at the mouth of each of those drains, if we can get our flies in, and keep ourselves unseen, we will have one cast at least. For at each of them, in some sharp-rippling spot, lies a great trout or two, waiting for beetle, caterpillar, and whatsoever else may be washed from among the long grass above. Thence, and from brimming feeders, which slip along, weed-choked, under white hawthorn hedges, and beneath the great roots of oak and elm, shall we pick out full many a goodly trout. There, in yon stop-hole underneath that tree, not ten feet broad or twenty long, where just enough water trickles through the hatches to make a ripple, are a brace of noble fish, no doubt; and one of them you may be sure of, if you will go the proper way to work, and fish scientifically with the brace of flies I have put on for you--a governor and a black alder. In the first place, you must throw up into the little pool, not down. If you throw down, they will see you in an instant; and besides, you will never get your fly close under the shade of the brickwork, where alone you have a chance. What use in throwing into the still shallow tail, shining like oil in the full glare of the sun?
'But I cannot get below the pool without--'
Without crawling through that stiff stubbed hedge, well set with trees, and leaping that ten-foot feeder afterwards. Very well. It is this sort of thing which makes the stay-at-home cultivated chalk- fishing as much harder work than mountain angling, as a gallop over a stiffly enclosed country is harder than one over an open moor. You can do it or not, as you like: but if you wish to catch large trout on a bright day, I should advise you to employ the only method yet discovered.
There--you are through; and the keeper shall hand you your rod. You have torn your trousers, and got a couple of thorns in your shins.
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