32 The Angler by Washington Irving, unabridged audiobook

32 The Angler by Washington Irving, unabridged audiobook


THE ANGLER. This day Dame Nature seem’d in love,
The lusty sap began to move, Fresh juice did stir th’ embracing vines,
And birds had drawn their valentines. The jealous trout that low did lie,
Rose at a well-dissembled flie. There stood my friend, with patient skill,
Attending of his trembling quill. SIR H. WOTTON. IT is said that many an unlucky urchin is
induced to run away from his family and betake himself to a seafaring life from reading the
history of Robinson Crusoe; and I suspect that, in like manner, many of those worthy
gentlemen who are given to haunt the sides of pastoral streams with angle-rods in hand
may trace the origin of their passion to the seductive pages of honest Izaak Walton. I
recollect studying his Complete Angler several years since in company with a knot of friends
in America, and moreover that we were all completely bitten with the angling mania.
It was early in the year, but as soon as the weather was auspicious, and that the spring
began to melt into the verge of summer, we took rod in hand and sallied into the country,
as stark mad as was ever Don Quixote from reading books of chivalry. One of our party had equalled the Don in the
fulness of his equipments, being attired cap-a-pie for the enterprise. He wore a broad-skirted
fustian coat, perplexed with half a hundred pockets; a pair of stout shoes and leathern
gaiters; a basket slung on one side for fish; a patent rod, a landing net, and a score of
other inconveniences only to be found in the true angler’s armory. Thus harnessed for the
field, he was as great a matter of stare and wonderment among the country folk, who had
never seen a regular angler, as was the steel-clad hero of La Mancha among the goatherds of the
Sierra Morena. Our first essay was along a mountain brook
among the Highlands of the Hudson—a most unfortunate place for the execution of those
piscatory tactics which had been invented along the velvet margins of quiet English
rivulets. It was one of those wild streams that lavish, among our romantic solitudes,
unheeded beauties enough to fill the sketch-book of a hunter of the picturesque. Sometimes
it would leap down rocky shelves, making small cascades, over which the trees threw their
broad balancing sprays and long nameless weeds hung in fringes from the impending banks,
dripping with diamond drops. Sometimes it would brawl and fret along a ravine in the
matted shade of a forest, filling it with murmurs, and after this termagant career would
steal forth into open day with the most placid, demure face imaginable, as I have seen some
pestilent shrew of a housewife, after filling her home with uproar and ill-humor, come dimpling
out of doors, swimming and curtseying and smiling upon all the world. How smoothly would this vagrant brook glide
at such times through some bosom of green meadowland among the mountains, where the
quiet was only interrupted by the occasional tinkling of a bell from the lazy cattle among
the clover or the sound of a woodcutter’s axe from the neighboring forest! For my part, I was always a bungler at all
kinds of sport that required either patience or adroitness, and had not angled above half
an hour before I had completely “satisfied the sentiment,” and convinced myself of the
truth of Izaak Walton’s opinion, that angling is something like poetry—a man must be born
to it. I hooked myself instead of the fish, tangled my line in every tree, lost my bait,
broke my rod, until I gave up the attempt in despair, and passed the day under the trees
reading old Izaak, satisfied that it was his fascinating vein of honest simplicity and
rural feeling that had bewitched me, and not the passion for angling. My companions, however,
were more persevering in their delusion. I have them at this moment before eyes, stealing
along the border of the brook where it lay open to the day or was merely fringed by shrubs
and bushes. I see the bittern rising with hollow scream as they break in upon his rarely-invaded
haunt; the kingfisher watching them suspiciously from his dry tree that overhangs the deep
black millpond in the gorge of the hills; the tortoise letting himself slip sideways
from off the stone or log on which he is sunning himself; and the panic-struck frog plumping
in headlong as they approach, and spreading an alarm throughout the watery world around. I recollect also that, after toiling and watching
and creeping about for the greater part of a day, with scarcely any success in spite
of all our admirable apparatus, a lubberly country urchin came down from the hills with
a rod made from a branch of a tree, a few yards of twine, and, as Heaven shall help
me! I believe a crooked pin for a hook, baited with a vile earthworm, and in half an hour
caught more fish than we had nibbles throughout the day! But, above all, I recollect the “good, honest,
wholesome, hungry” repast which we made under a beech tree just by a spring of pure sweet
water that stole out of the side of a hill, and how, when it was over, one of the party
read old Izaak Walton’s scene with the milkmaid, while I lay on the grass and built castles
in a bright pile of clouds until I fell asleep. All this may appear like mere egotism, yet
I cannot refrain from uttering these recollections, which are passing like a strain of music over
my mind and have been called up by an agreeable scene which I witnessed not long since. In the morning’s stroll along the banks of
the Alun, a beautiful little stream which flows down from the Welsh hills and throws
itself into the Dee, my attention was attracted to a group seated on the margin. On approaching
I found it to consist of a veteran angler and two rustic disciples. The former was an
old fellow with a wooden leg, with clothes very much but very carefully patched, betokening
poverty honestly come by and decently maintained. His face bore the marks of former storms,
but present fair weather, its furrows had been worn into an habitual smile, his iron-gray
locks hung about his ears, and he had altogether the good-humored air of a constitutional philosopher
who was disposed to take the world as it went. One of his companions was a ragged wight with
the skulking look of an arrant poacher, and I’ll warrant could find his way to any gentleman’s
fish-pond in the neighborhood in the darkest night. The other was a tall, awkward country
lad, with a lounging gait, and apparently somewhat of a rustic beau. The old man was
busy in examining the maw of a trout which he had just killed, to discover by its contents
what insects were seasonable for bait, and was lecturing on the subject to his companions,
who appeared to listen with infinite deference. I have a kind feeling towards all “brothers
of the angle” ever since I read Izaak Walton. They are men, he affirms, of a “mild, sweet,
and peaceable spirit;” and my esteem for them has been increased since I met with an old
Tretyse of fishing with the Angle, in which are set forth many of the maxims of their
inoffensive fraternity. “Take good hede,” sayeth this honest little tretyse, “that in
going about your disportes ye open no man’s gates but that ye shet them again. Also ye
shall not use this forsayd crafti disport for no covetousness to the encreasing and
sparing of your money only, but principally for your solace, and to cause the helth of
your body and specyally of your soule.”* I thought that I could perceive in the veteran
angler before me an exemplification of what I had read; and there was a cheerful contentedness
in his looks that quite drew me towards him. I could not but remark the gallant manner
in which he stumped from one part of the brook to another, waving his rod in the air to keep
the line from dragging on the ground or catching among the bushes, and the adroitness with
which he would throw his fly to any particular place, sometimes skimming it lightly along
a little rapid, sometimes casting it into one of those dark holes made by a twisted
root or overhanging bank in which the large trout are apt to lurk. In the meanwhile he
was giving instructions to his two disciples, showing them the manner in which they should
handle their rods, fix their flies, and play them along the surface of the stream. The
scene brought to my mind the instructions of the sage Piscator to his scholar. The country
around was of that pastoral kind which Walton is fond of describing. It was a part of the
great plain of Cheshire, close by the beautiful vale of Gessford, and just where the inferior
Welsh hills begin to swell up from among fresh-smelling meadows. The day too, like that recorded in
his work, was mild and sunshiny, with now and then a soft-dropping shower that sowed
the whole earth with diamonds. * From this same treatise it would appear
that angling is a more industrious and devout employment than
it is generally considered: “For when ye purpose to go on
your disportes in fishynge ye will not desyre greatlye many
persons with you, which might let you of your game. And that
ye may serve God devoutly in saying effectually your customable
prayers. And thus doying, ye shall eschew and also avoyde
many vices, as ydelness, which is principall cause to induce
man to many other vices, as it is right well known.” I soon fell into conversation with the old
angler, and was so much entertained that, under pretext of receiving instructions in
his art, I kept company with him almost the whole day, wandering along the banks of the
stream and listening to his talk. He was very communicative, having all the easy garrulity
of cheerful old age, and I fancy was a little flattered by having an opportunity of displaying
his piscatory lore, for who does not like now and then to play the sage? He had been much of a rambler in his day,
and had passed some years of his youth in America, particularly in Savannah, where he
had entered into trade and had been ruined by the indiscretion of a partner. He had afterwards
experienced many ups and downs in life until he got into the navy, where his leg was carried
away by a cannon-ball at the battle of Camperdown. This was the only stroke of real good-fortune
he had ever experienced, for it got him a pension, which, together with some small paternal
property, brought him in a revenue of nearly forty pounds. On this he retired to his native
village, where he lived quietly and independently, and devoted the remainder of his life to the
“noble art of angling.” I found that he had read Izaak Walton attentively,
and he seemed to have imbibed all his simple frankness and prevalent good-humor. Though
he had been sorely buffeted about the world, he was satisfied that the world, in itself,
was good and beautiful. Though he had been as roughly used in different countries as
a poor sheep that is fleeced by every hedge and thicket, yet he spoke of every nation
with candor and kindness, appearing to look only on the good side of things; and, above
all, he was almost the only man I had ever met with who had been an unfortunate adventurer
in America and had honesty and magnanimity enough to take the fault to his own door,
and not to curse the country. The lad that was receiving his instructions, I learnt,
was the son and heir-apparent of a fat old widow who kept the village inn, and of course
a youth of some expectation, and much courted by the idle gentleman-like personages of the
place. In taking him under his care, therefore, the old man had probably an eye to a privileged
corner in the tap-room and an occasional cup of cheerful ale free of expense. There is certainly something in angling—if
we could forget, which anglers are apt to do, the cruelties and tortures inflicted on
worms and insects—that tends to produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure serenity
of mind. As the English are methodical even in their recreations, and are the most scientific
of sportsmen, it has been reduced among them to perfect rule and system. Indeed, it is
an amusement peculiarly adapted to the mild and highly-cultivated scenery of England,
where every roughness has been softened away from the landscape. It is delightful to saunter
along those limpid streams which wander, like veins of silver, through the bosom of this
beautiful country, leading one through a diversity of small home scenery—sometimes winding
through ornamented grounds; sometimes brimming along through rich pasturage, where the fresh
green is mingled with sweet-smelling flowers; sometimes venturing in sight of villages and
hamlets, and then running capriciously away into shady retirements. The sweetness and
serenity of Nature and the quiet watchfulness of the sport gradually bring on pleasant fits
of musing, which are now and then agreeably interrupted by the song of a bird, the distant
whistle of the peasant, or perhaps the vagary of some fish leaping out of the still water
and skimming transiently about its glassy surface. “When I would beget content,” says
Izaak Walton, “and increase confidence in the power and wisdom and providence of Almighty
God, I will walk the meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that
take no care, and those very many other little living creatures that are not only created,
but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust
in Him.” I cannot forbear to give another quotation
from one of those ancient champions of angling which breathes the same innocent and happy
spirit: Let me live harmlessly, and near the brink
Of Trent or Avon have a dwelling-place: Where I may see my quill, or cork, down sink
With eager bite of Pike, or Bleak, or Dace; And on the world and my Creator think:
Whilst some men strive ill-gotten goods t’ embrace:
And others spend their time in base excess Of wine, or worse, in war or wantonness. Let them that will, these pastimes still pursue,
And on such pleasing fancies feed their fill; So I the fields and meadows green may view,
And daily by fresh rivers walk at will, Among the daisies and the violets blue,
Red hyacinth and yellow daffodil.* On parting with the old angler I inquired
after his place of abode, and, happening to be in the neighborhood of the village a few
evenings afterwards, I had the curiosity to seek him out. I found him living in a small
cottage containing only one room, but a perfect curiosity in its method and arrangement. It
was on the skirts of the village, on a green bank a little back from the road, with a small
garden in front stocked with kitchen herbs and adorned with a few flowers. The whole
front of the cottage was overrun with a honeysuckle. On the top was a ship for a weathercock. The
interior was fitted up in a truly nautical style, his ideas of comfort and convenience
having been acquired on the berth-deck of a man-of-war. A hammock was slung from the
ceiling which in the daytime was lashed up so as to take but little room. From the centre
of the chamber hung a model of a ship, of his own workmanship. Two or three chairs,
a table, and a large sea-chest formed the principal movables. About the wall were stuck
up naval ballads, such as “Admiral Hosier’s Ghost,” “All in the Downs,” and “Tom Bowling,”
intermingled with pictures of sea-fights, among which the battle of Camperdown held
a distinguished place. The mantelpiece was decorated with sea-shells, over which hung
a quadrant, flanked by two wood-cuts of most bitter-looking naval commanders. His implements
for angling were carefully disposed on nails and hooks about the room. On a shelf was arranged
his library, containing a work on angling, much worn, a Bible covered with canvas, an
odd volume or two of voyages, a nautical almanac, and a book of songs. * J. Davors. His family consisted of a large black cat
with one eye, and a parrot which he had caught and tamed and educated himself in the course
of one of his voyages, and which uttered a variety of sea-phrases with the hoarse brattling
tone of a veteran boatswain. The establishment reminded me of that of the renowned Robinson
Crusoe; it was kept in neat order, everything being “stowed away” with the regularity of
a ship of war; and he informed me that he “scoured the deck every morning and swept
it between meals.” I found him seated on a bench before the door,
smoking his pipe in the soft evening sunshine. His cat was purring soberly on the threshold,
and his parrot describing some strange evolutions in an iron ring that swung in the centre of
his cage. He had been angling all day, and gave me a history of his sport with as much
minuteness as a general would talk over a campaign, being particularly animated in relating
the manner in which he had taken a large trout, which had completely tasked all his skill
and wariness, and which he had sent as a trophy to mine hostess of the inn. How comforting it is to see a cheerful and
contented old age, and to behold a poor fellow like this, after being tempest-tost through
life, safely moored in a snug and quiet harbor in the evening of his days! His happiness,
however, sprung from within himself and was independent of external circumstances, for
he had that inexhaustible good-nature which is the most precious gift of Heaven, spreading
itself like oil over the troubled sea of thought, and keeping the mind smooth and equable in
the roughest weather. On inquiring further about him, I learnt that
he was a universal favorite in the village and the oracle of the tap-room, where he delighted
the rustics with his songs, and, like Sindbad, astonished them with his stories of strange
lands and shipwrecks and sea-fights. He was much noticed too by gentlemen sportsmen of
the neighborhood, had taught several of them the art of angling, and was a privileged visitor
to their kitchens. The whole tenor of his life was quiet and inoffensive, being principally
passed about the neighboring streams when the weather and season were favorable; and
at other times he employed himself at home, preparing his fishing-tackle for the next
campaign or manufacturing rods, nets, and flies for his patrons and pupils among the
gentry. He was a regular attendant at church on Sundays,
though he generally fell asleep during the sermon. He had made it his particular request
that when he died he should be buried in a green spot which he could see from his seat
in church, and which he had marked out ever since he was a boy, and had thought of when
far from home on the raging sea in danger of being food for the fishes: it was the spot
where his father and mother had been buried. I have done, for I fear that my reader is
growing weary, but I could not refrain from drawing the picture of this worthy “brother
of the angle,” who has made me more than ever in love with the theory, though I fear I shall
never be adroit in the practice, of his art; and I will conclude this rambling sketch in
the words of honest Izaak Walton, by craving the blessing of St. Peter’s Master upon my
reader, “and upon all that are true lovers of virtue, and dare trust in His providence,
and be quiet, and go a-angling.”

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