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SOME low wooden rails guarding the approach to a bridge over a brook one day induced me to rest under an aspen, with my back against the tree. Some horse-chestnuts, beeches, and alders grew there, fringing the end of a long plantation of willow stoles which extended in the rear following the stream. In front, southwards, there were open meadows and cornfields, over which shadow and sunshine glided in succession as the sweet westerly wind carried the white clouds before it.
The brimming brook, as it wound towards me through the meads, seemed to tremble on the verge of overflowing, as the crown of wine in a glass rises yet does not spill. Level with the green grass, the water gleamed as though polished where it flowed smoothly, crossed with the dark shadows of willows which leaned over it. By the bridge, where the breeze rushed through the arches, a ripple flashed back the golden rays. The surface by the shore slipped towards a side hatch and passed over in a liquid curve, clear and unvarying, as if of solid crystal, till shattered on the stones, where the air caught up and played with the sound of the bubbles as they broke.
Beyond the green slope of corn, a thin, soft vapour hung on the distant woods, and hid the hills. The pale young leaves of the aspen rustled faintly, not yet with t their full sound; the sprays of the horse-chestnut, drooping with the late frosts, could not yet keep out the sunshine with their broad green. A white spot on the footpath yonder was where the bloom had fallen from a blackthorn bush.
The note of the tree-pipit came from over the corn — there were some detached oaks away in the midst of the field, and the birds were doubtless flying continually up and down between the wheat and the branches. A willow-wren sang plaintively in the plantation behind, and once a cuckoo called at a distance. How beautiful is the sunshine! The very dust of the road at my feet seemed to glow with whiteness, to be lit up by it, and to become another thing. This spot henceforward was a place of pilgrimage.
Looking that morning over the parapet of the bridge, i3 stream, there was a dead branch at the mouth of the arch, it had caught and got fixed while it floated along. A quantity of aquatic weeds coming down the stream had drifted against the branch and remained entangled in it. Fresh weeds were still coming and adding to the mass, which had attracted a water-rat.
Perched on the branch the little brown creature bent forward over the surface, and with its two fore paws drew towards it the slender thread of a weed, exactly as with hands. Holding the thread in the paws, it nibbled it, eating the sweet and tender portion, feeding without fear though but a few feet away, and precisely beneath me.
In a minute the surface of the current was disturbed by larger ripples. There had been a ripple caused by the draught through the arch, but this was now increased. Directly afterwards a moorhen swam out, and began to search among the edge of the tangled weeds. So long as I was perfectly still the bird took no heed, but at a slight movement instantly scuttled back under the arch. The water-rat, less timorous, paused, looked round, and returned to feeding.
Crossing to the other side of the bridge, up stream, and looking over, the current had scooped away the sand of the bottom by the central pier, exposing the brickwork to some depth — the same undermining process that goes on by the piers of bridges over great rivers. Nearer the shore the sand has silted up, leaving it shallow, where water-parsnip and other weeds joined, as it were, the verge of the grass and the stream. The sunshine reflected from the ripples on this, the southern side, continually ran with a swift, trembling motion up the arch.
Penetrating the clear water, the light revealed the tiniest stone at the bottom: but there was no fish, no water-rat, or moorhen on this side. Neither on that nor many succeeding mornings could anything be seen there; the tail of the arch was evidently the favourite spot. Carefully looking over that side again, the moorhen who had been out rushed back; the water-rat was gone. Were there any fish? In the shadow the water was difficult to see through, and the brown scum of spring that lined the bottom rendered everything uncertain.
By gazing steadily at a stone my eyes presently became accustomed to the peculiar light, the pupils adjusted themselves to it, and the brown tints became more distinctly defined. Then sweeping by degrees from a stone to another, and from thence to a rotting stick embedded in the sand, I searched the bottom inch by inch. If you look, as it were at large — at everything at once — you see nothing. If you take some object as a fixed point, gaze all around it, and then move to another, nothing can escape.
Even the deepest, darkest water (not, of course, muddy) yields after a while to the eye. Half close the eyelids, and while gazing into it let your intelligence rather wait upon the corners of the eye than on the glance you cast straight forward. For some reason when thus gazing the edge of the eye becomes exceedingly sensitive, and you are conscious of slight motions or of a thickness — not a defined object, but a thickness which indicates an object — which is otherwise quite invisible.
The slow feeling sway of a fish's tail, the edges of which curl over and grasp the water, may in this manner be identified without being positively seen, and the dark outline of its body known to exist against the equally dark water or bank. Shift, too, your position according to the fall of the light, just as in looking at a painting. From one point of view the canvas shows little but the presence of paint and blurred colour, from another at the side the picture stands out.
Sometimes the water can be seen into best from above, sometimes by lying on the sward, now by standing back a little way, or crossing to the opposite shore. A spot where the sunshine sparkles with dazzling gleam is perhaps perfectly impenetrable till you get the other side of the ripple, when the same rays that just now baffled the glance light up the bottom as if thrown from a mirror for the purpose. I convinced myself that there was nothing here, nothing visible at present — not so much as a stickleback.
Yet the stream ran clear and sweet, and deep in places. It was too broad for leaping over. Down the current sedges grew thickly at a curve; up the stream the young flags were rising; it had an inhabited look, if such a term may be used, and moorhens and water-rats were about but no fish. A wide furrow came along the meadow and joined the stream from the. side. Into this furrow, at flood time, the stream overflowed farther up, and irrigated the level sward.
At present it was dry, its course, traced by the yellowish and white hue of the grasses in it only recently under water, contrasting with the brilliant green of the sweet turf around. There was a marsh marigold in it, with stems a quarter of an inch thick; and in the grass on the verge, but just beyond where the flood reached, grew the lilac-tinted cuckoo flowers, or cardamine.
The side hatch supplied a pond, which was only divided from the brook by a strip of sward not more than twenty yards across. The surface of the pond was dotted with patches of scum that had risen from the bottom. Part at least of it was shallow, for a dead branch blown from an elm projected above the water, and to it came a sedge-reedling for a moment. The sedge-reedling is so fond of sedges, and reeds, and thick under- growth, that though you hear it perpetually within a few yards it is not easy to see one. On this bare branch the bird was well displayed, and the streak by the eye was visible; but he stayed there for a second or two only, and then back again to the sedges and willows.
There were fish I felt sure as I left the spot and returned along the dusty road, but where were they?
On the sward by the wayside, among the nettles and under the bushes, and on the mound the dark green arum leaves grew everywhere, sometimes in bunches close together. These bunches varied — in one place the leaves were all spotted with black irregular blotches; in another the leaves were without such markings. When the root leaves of the arum first push up they are closely rolled together in a pointed spike.
This, rising among the dead and matted leaves of the autumn, occasionally passes through holes in them. As the spike grows it lifts the dead leaves with it, which hold it like a ring and prevent it from unfolding. The force of growth is not sufficiently strong to burst the bond asunder till the green leaves have attained considerable size.
A little earlier in the year the chattering of magpies would have been heard while looking for the signs of spring, but they were now occupied with their nests. There are several within a short distance, easily distinguished in winter, but somewhat hidden now by the young leaves. Just before they settled down to housekeeping there was a great chattering and fluttering and excitement, as they chased each other from elm to elm.
Four or five were then often in the same field, some in the trees, some on the ground, their white and black showing distinctly on the level brown earth recently harrowed or rolled. On such a surface birds are visible at a distance; but when the blades of the corn begin to reach any height such as alight are concealed. In many districts of the country that might be called wild and lonely, the magpie is almost extinct. Once now and then a pair may be observed, and those who know their haunts can, of course, find them, but to a visitor passing through, there seems none. But here, so near the metropolis, the magpies are common, and during an hour's walk their cry is almost sure to be heard. They have, however, their favourite locality, where they are much more frequently seen.
Coming to my seat under the aspen by the bridge week after week, the burdocks by the wayside gradually spread their leaves, and the procession of the flowers went on. The dandelion, the lesser celandine, the marsh marigold, the coltsfoot, all yellow, had already led the van, closely accompanied by the purple ground-ivy, the red dead-nettle, and the daisy; this last a late corner in the neighbourhood. The blackthorn, the horse-chestnut, and the hawthorn came, and the meadows were golden with the buttercups.
Once only had I noticed any indication of fish in the brook; it was on a warm Saturday afternoon, when there was a labourer a long way up the stream, stooping in a peculiar manner near the edge of the water with a stick in his hand. He was, I felt sure, trying to wire a spawning jack, but did not succeed. Many weeks had passed, and now there came (as the close time for coarse fish expired) a concourse of anglers to the almost stagnant pond fed by the side hatch.
Well-dressed lads with elegant and finished tackle rode up on their bicycles, with their rods slung at their backs. Hoisting the bicycles over the gate into the meadow, they left them leaning against the elms, fitted their rods and fished in the pond. Poorer boys, with long wands cut from the hedge and ruder lines, trudged up on foot, sat down on the sward and watched their corks by the hour together. Grown men of the artisan class, covered with the dust of many miles' tramping, came with their luncheons in a handkerchief, and set about their sport with a quiet earnestness which argued long if desultory practice.
In fine weather there were often a dozen youths and four or five men standing, sitting, or kneeling on the turf along the shore of the pond, all intent on their floats, and very nearly silent. People driving along the highway stopped their traps, and carts, and vans a minute or two to watch them: passengers on foot leaned over the gate, or sat down and waited expectantly.
Sometimes one of the more venturesome anglers would tuck up his trousers and walk into the shallow water, so as to be able to cast his bait under the opposite hank, where it was deep. Then an ancient and much battered punt was discovered aground in a field at some distance, and dragged to the pond. One end of the punt had quite rotted away, but by standing at the other, so as to depress it there and lift the open end above the surface, two, or even three, could make a shift to fish from it.
The silent and motionless eagerness with which these anglers dwelt upon their floats, grave as herons, could not have been exceeded. There they were day after day, always patient and always hopeful. Occasionally a small catch — a mere "bait" — was handed round for inspection; and once a cunning fisherman, acquainted with all the secrets of his craft, succeeded in drawing forth three perch, perhaps a quarter of a pound each, and one slender eel. These made quite a show, and were greatly admired; but I never saw the same man there again. He was satisfied.
As I sat on the white rail under the aspen, and inhaled the scent of the beans flowering hard by, there was a question which suggested itself to me, and the answer to which I never could supply. The crowd about the pond all stood with their backs to the beautiful flowing brook. They had before them the muddy banks of the stagnant pool, on whose surface patches of scum floated.
Behind them was the delicious stream, clear and limpid, bordered with sedge and willow and flags, and overhung with branches. The strip of sward between the two waters was certainly not more than twenty yards; there was no division hedge, or railing, and evidently no preservation, for the mouchers came and washed their water-cress which they had gathered in the ditches by the side hatch, and no one interfered with them.
There was no keeper or water bailiff, not even a notice board. Policemen, on foot and mounted, passed several times daily, and, like everybody else, paused to see the sport, but said not a word. Clearly, there was nothing whatever to prevent any of those present from angling in the stream; yet they one and all, without exception, fished in the pond. This seemed to me a very remarkable fact.
After a while I noticed another circumstance; nobody ever even looked into the stream or under the arches of the bridge. No one spared a moment from his float amid the scum of the pond, just to stroll twenty paces and glance at the swift current. It appeared from this that the pond had a reputation for fish, and the brook had not. Everybody who had angled in the pond recommended his friends to go and do likewise. There were fish in the pond.
So every fresh comer went and angled there, and accepted the fact that there were fish. Thus the pond obtained a traditionary reputation, which circulated from lip to lip round about. I need not enlarge on the analogy that exists in this respect between the pond and various other things.
By implication it was evidently as much understood and accepted on the other hand that there was nothing in the stream. Thus I reasoned it out, sitting under the aspen, and yet somehow the general opinion did not satisfy me. There must be something in so sweet a stream. The sedges by the shore, the flags in the shallow, slowly swaying from side to side with the current, the sedge-reedlings calling, the moorhens and water-rats, all gave an air of habitation.
One morning, looking very gently over the parapet of the bridge (down stream) into the shadowy depth beneath, just as my eyes began to see the bottom, something like a short thick dark stick drifted out from the arch, somewhat sideways. Instead of proceeding with the current, it had hardly cleared the arch when it took a position parallel to the flowing water and brought up. It was thickest at the end that faced the stream; at the other there was a slight motion as if caused by the current against a flexible membrane, as it sways a flag. Gazing down intently into the shadow the colour of the sides of the fish appeared at first not exactly uniform, and presently these indistinct differences resolved themselves into spots. It was a trout, perhaps a pound and a half in weight.
His position was at the side of the arch, out of the rush of the current, and almost behind the pier, but where he could see anything that came floating along under the culvert. Immediately above him but not over was the mass of weeds tangled in the dead branch. Thus in the shadow of the bridge and in the darkness under the weeds he might easily have escaped notice. He was, too, extremely wary. The slightest motion was enough to send him instantly under the arch; his cover was but a foot distant, and a trout shoots twelve inches in a fraction of time.
The summer advanced, the hay was carted, and the wheat ripened. Already here and there the reapers had cut portions of the more forward corn. As I sat from time to time under the aspen, within hearing of the murmuring water, the thought did rise occasionally that it was a pity to leave the trout there till some one blundered into the knowledge of his existence.
There were ways and means by which he could be withdrawn without any noise or publicity. But, then, what would be the pleasure of securing him, the fleeting pleasure of an hour, compared to the delight of seeing him almost day by day? I watched him for many weeks, taking great precautions that no one should observe how continually I looked over into the water there. Sometimes after a glance I stood with my back to the wall as if regarding an object on the other side. If any one was following me, or appeared likely to peer over the parapet, I carelessly struck the top of the wall with my stick in such a manner that it should project, an action sufficient to send the fish under the arch. Or I raised my hat as if heated, and swung it so that it should alarm him.
If the coast was clear when I had looked at him still I never left without sending him under the arch in order to increase his alertness. It was a relief to know that so many persons who went by wore tall hats, a safeguard against their seeing anything, for if they approached the shadow of the tall hat reached out beyond the shadow of the parapet, and was enough to alarm him before they could look over. So the summer passed, and, though never free from apprehensions, to my great pleasure without discovery.