The Gentle Life


Do you remember that fair little wood of silver birches on the West Branch of the Neversink, somewhat below the place where the Biscuit Brook runs in? There is a mossy terrace raised a couple of feet above the water of a long, still pool; and a very pleasant spot for a friendship-fire on the shingly beach below you; and a plenty of painted trilliums and yellow violets and white foam-flowers to adorn your woodland banquet, if it be spread in the month of May, when Mistress Nature is given over to embroidery.

It was there, at Contentment Corner, that Ned Mason had promised to meet me on a certain day for the noontide lunch and smoke and talk, he fishing down Biscuit Brook, and I down the West Branch, until we came together at the rendezvous. But he was late that day--good old Ned! He was occasionally behind time on a trout stream. For he went about his fishing very seriously; and if it was fine, the sport was a natural occasion of delay. But if it was poor, he made it an occasion to sit down to meditate upon the cause of his failure, and tried to overcome it with many subtly reasoned changes of the fly-- which is a vain thing to do, but well adapted to make one forgetful of the flight of time.

So I waited for him near an hour, and then ate my half of the sandwiches and boiled eggs, smoked a solitary pipe, and fell into a light sleep at the foot of the biggest birch tree, an old and trusty friend of mine. It seemed like a very slight sound that roused me: the snapping of a dry twig in the thicket, or a gentle splash in the water, differing in some indefinable way from the steady murmur of the stream; something it was, I knew not what, that made me aware of some one coming down the brook. I raised myself quietly on one elbow and looked up through the trees to the head of the pool. "Ned will think that I have gone down long ago," I said to myself; "I will just lie here and watch him fish through this pool, and see how he manages to spend so much time about it."

But it was not Ned's rod that I saw poking out through the bushes at the bend in the brook. It was such an affair as I had never seen before upon a trout stream: a majestic weapon at least sixteen feet long, made in two pieces, neatly spliced together in the middle, and all painted a smooth, glistening, hopeful green. The line that hung from the tip of it was also green, but of a paler, more transparent colour, quite thick and stiff where it left the rod, but tapering down towards the end, as if it were twisted of strands of horse- hair, reduced in number, until, at the hook, there were but two hairs. And the hook--there was no disguise about that--it was an unabashed bait-hook, and well baited, too. Gently the line swayed to and fro above the foaming water at the head of the pool; quietly the bait settled down in the foam and ran with the current around the edge of the deep eddy under the opposite bank; suddenly the line straightened and tautened; sharply the tip of the long green rod sprang upward, and the fisherman stepped out from the bushes to play his fish.

Where had I seen such a figure before? The dress was strange and quaint--broad, low shoes, gray woollen stockings, short brown breeches tied at the knee with ribbons, a loose brown coat belted at the waist like a Norfolk jacket; a wide, rolling collar with a bit of lace at the edge, and a soft felt hat with a shady brim. It was a costume that, with all its oddity, seemed wonderfully fit and familiar. And the face? Certainly it was the face of an old friend. Never had I seen a countenance of more quietness and kindliness and twinkling good humour.

"Well met, sir, and a pleasant day to you," cried the angler, as his eyes lighted on me. "Look you, I have hold of a good fish; I pray you put that net under him, and touch not my line, for if you do, then we break all. Well done, sir; I thank you. Now we have him safely landed. Truly this is a lovely one; the best that I have taken in these waters. See how the belly shines, here as yellow as a marsh-marigold, and there as white as a foam-flower. Is not the hand of Divine Wisdom as skilful in the colouring of a fish as in the painting of the manifold blossoms that sweeten these wild forests?"

"Indeed it is," said I, "and this is the biggest trout that I have seen caught in the upper waters of the Neversink. It is certainly eighteen inches long, and should weigh close upon two pounds and a half."

"More than that," he answered, "if I mistake not. But I observe that you call it a trout. To my mind, it seems more like a char, as do all the fish that I have caught in your stream. Look here upon these curious water-markings that run through the dark green of the back, and these enamellings of blue and gold upon the side. Note, moreover, how bright and how many are the red spots, and how each one of them is encircled with a ring of purple. Truly it is a fish of rare beauty, and of high esteem with persons of note. I would gladly know if it he as good to the taste as I have heard it reputed."

"It is even better," I replied; "as you shall find, if you will but try it."

Then a curious impulse came to me, to which I yielded with as little hesitation or misgiving, at the time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"You seem a stranger in this part of the country, sir," said I; "but unless I am mistaken you are no stranger to me. Did you not use to go a-fishing in the New River, with honest Nat. and R. Roe, many years ago? And did they not call you Izaak Walton?"

His eyes smiled pleasantly at me and a little curve of merriment played around his lips. "It is a secret which I thought not to have been discovered here," he said; "but since you have lit upon it, I will not deny it."

Now how it came to pass that I was not astonished nor dismayed at this, I cannot explain. But so it was; and the only feeling of which I was conscious was a strong desire to detain this visitor as long as possible, and have some talk with him. So I grasped at the only expedient that flashed into my mind.

"Well, then, sir," I said, "you are most heartily welcome, and I trust you will not despise the only hospitality I have to offer. If you will sit down here among these birch trees in Contentment Corner, I will give you half of a fisherman's luncheon, and will cook your char for you on a board before an open wood-fire, if you are not in a hurry. Though I belong to a nation which is reported to be curious, I will promise to trouble you with no inquisitive questions; and if you will but talk to me at your will, you shall find me a ready listener."

So we made ourselves comfortable on the shady bank, and while I busied myself in splitting the fish and pinning it open on a bit of board that I had found in a pile of driftwood, and setting it up before the fire to broil, my new companion entertained me with the sweetest and friendliest talk that I had ever heard.

"To speak without offence, sir," he began, "there was a word in your discourse a moment ago that seemed strange to me. You spoke of being 'in a hurry'; and that is an expression which is unfamiliar to my ears; but if it mean the same as being in haste, then I must tell you that this is a thing which, in my judgment, honest anglers should learn to forget, and have no dealings with it. To be in haste is to be in anxiety and distress of mind; it is to mistrust Providence, and to doubt that the issue of all events is in wiser hands than ours; it is to disturb the course of nature, and put overmuch confidence in the importance of our own endeavours.

"For how much of the evil that is in the world cometh from this plaguy habit of being in haste! The haste to get riches, the haste to climb upon some pinnacle of worldly renown, the haste to resolve mysteries--from these various kinds of haste are begotten no small part of the miseries and afflictions whereby the children of men are tormented: such as quarrels and strifes among those who would over- reach one another in business; envyings and jealousies among those who would outshine one another in rich apparel and costly equipage; bloody rebellions and cruel wars among those who would obtain power over their fellow-men; cloudy disputations and bitter controversies among those who would fain leave no room for modest ignorance and lowly faith among the secrets of religion; and by all these miseries of haste the heart grows weary, and is made weak and dull, or else hard and angry, while it dwelleth in the midst of them.

"But let me tell you that an angler's occupation is a good cure for these evils, if for no other reason, because it gently dissuadeth us from haste and leadeth us away from feverish anxieties into those ways which are pleasantness and those paths which are peace. For an angler cannot force his fortune by eagerness, nor better it by discontent. He must wait upon the weather, and the height of the water, and the hunger of the fish, and many other accidents of which he has no control. If he would angle well, he must not be in haste. And if he be in haste, he will do well to unlearn it by angling, for I think there is no surer method.

"This fair tree that shadows us from the sun hath grown many years in its place without more unhappiness than the loss of its leaves in winter, which the succeeding season doth generously repair; and shall we be less contented in the place where God hath planted us? or shall there go less time to the making of a man than to the growth of a tree? This stream floweth wimpling and laughing down to the great sea which it knoweth not; yet it doth not fret because the future is hidden; and doubtless it were wise in us to accept the mysteries of life as cheerfully and go forward with a merry heart, considering that we know enough to make us happy and keep us honest for to-day. A man should be well content if he can see so far ahead of him as the next bend in the stream. What lies beyond, let him trust in the hand of God.

"But as concerning riches, wherein should you and I be happier, this pleasant afternoon of May, had we all the gold in Croesus his coffers? Would the sun shine for us more bravely, or the flowers give forth a sweeter breath, or yonder warbling vireo, hidden in her leafy choir, send down more pure and musical descants, sweetly attuned by natural magic to woo and win our thoughts from vanity and hot desires into a harmony with the tranquil thoughts of God? And as for fame and power, trust me, sir, I have seen too many men in my time that lived very unhappily though their names were upon all lips, and died very sadly though their power was felt in many lands; too many of these great ones have I seen that spent their days in disquietude and ended them in sorrow, to make me envy their conditions or hasten to rival them. Nor do I think that, by all their perturbations and fightings and runnings to and fro, the world hath been much bettered, or even greatly changed. The colour and complexion of mortal life, in all things that are essential, remain the same under Cromwell or under Charles. The goodness and mercy of God are still over all His works, whether Presbytery or Episcopacy be set up as His interpreter. Very quietly and peacefully have I lived under several polities, civil and ecclesiastical, and under all there was room enough to do my duty and love my friends and go a-fishing. And let me tell you, sir, that in the state wherein I now find myself, though there are many things of which I may not speak to you, yet one thing is clear: if I had made haste in my mortal concerns, I should not have saved time, but lost it; for all our affairs are under one sure dominion which moveth them forward to their concordant end: wherefore 'HE THAT BELIEVETH SHALL NOT MAKE HASTE,' and, above all, not when he goeth a-angling.

"But tell me, I pray you, is not this char cooked yet? Methinks the time is somewhat overlong for the roasting. The fragrant smell of the cookery gives me an eagerness to taste this new dish. Not that I am in haste, but--

"Well, it is done; and well done, too! Marry, the flesh of this fish is as red as rose-leaves, and as sweet as if he had fed on nothing else. The flavour of smoke from the fire is but slight, and it takes nothing from the perfection of the dish, but rather adds to it, being clean and delicate. I like not these French cooks who make all dishes in disguise, and set them forth with strange foreign savours, like a masquerade. Give me my food in its native dress, even though it be a little dry. If we had but a cup of sack, now, or a glass of good ale, and a pipeful of tobacco?

"What! you have an abundance of the fragrant weed in your pouch? Sir, I thank you very heartily! You entertain me like a prince. Not like King James, be it understood, who despised tobacco and called it a 'lively image and pattern of hell'; nor like the Czar of Russia who commanded that all who used it should have their noses cut off; but like good Queen Bess of glorious memory, who disdained not the incense of the pipe, and some say she used one herself; though for my part I think the custom of smoking one that is more fitting for men, whose frailty and need of comfort are well known, than for that fairer sex whose innocent and virgin spirits stand less in want of creature consolations.

"But come, let us not trouble our enjoyment with careful discrimination of others' scruples. Your tobacco is rarely good; I'll warrant it comes from that province of Virginia which was named for the Virgin Queen; and while we smoke together, let me call you, for this hour, my Scholar; and so I will give you four choice rules for the attainment of that unhastened quietude of mind whereof we did lately discourse.

"First: you shall learn to desire nothing in the world so much but that you can be happy without it.

"Second: you shall seek that which you desire only by such means as are fair and lawful, and this will leave you without bitterness towards men or shame before God.

"Third: you shall take pleasure in the time while you are seeking, even though you obtain not immediately that which you seek; for the purpose of a journey is not only to arrive at the goal, but also to find enjoyment by the way.

"Fourth: when you attain that which you have desired, you shall think more of the kindness of your fortune than of the greatness of your skill. This will make you grateful, and ready to share with others that which Providence hath bestowed upon you; and truly this is both reasonable and profitable, for it is but little that any of us would catch in this world were not our luck better than our deserts.

"And to these Four Rules I will add yet another--Fifth: when you smoke your pipe with a good conscience, trouble not yourself because there are men in the world who will find fault with you for so doing. If you wait for a pleasure at which no sour-complexioned soul hath ever girded, you will wait long, and go through life with a sad and anxious mind. But I think that God is best pleased with us when we give little heed to scoffers, and enjoy His gifts with thankfulness and an easy heart.

"Well, Scholar, I have almost tired myself, and, I fear, more than almost tired you. But this pipe is nearly burned out, and the few short whiffs that are left in it shall put a period to my too long discourse. Let me tell you, then, that there be some men in the world who hold not with these my opinions. They profess that a life of contention and noise and public turmoil, is far higher than a life of quiet work and meditation. And so far as they follow their own choice honestly and with a pure mind, I doubt not that it is as good for them as mine is for me, and I am well pleased that every man do enjoy his own opinion. But so far as they have spoken ill of me and my opinions, I do hold it a thing of little consequence, except that I am sorry that they have thereby embittered their own hearts.

"For this is the punishment of men who malign and revile those that differ from them in religion, or prefer another way of living; their revilings, by so much as they spend their wit and labour to make them shrewd and bitter, do draw all the sweet and wholesome sap out of their lives and turn it into poison; and so they become vessels of mockery and wrath, remembered chiefly for the evil things that they have said with cleverness.

"For be sure of this, Scholar, the more a man giveth himself to hatred in this world, the more will he find to hate. But let us rather give ourselves to charity, and if we have enemies (and what honest man hath them not?) let them be ours, since they must, but let us not be theirs, since we know better.

"There was one Franck, a trooper of Cromwell's, who wrote ill of me, saying that I neither understood the subjects whereof I discoursed nor believed the things that I said, being both silly and pretentious. It would have been a pity if it had been true. There was also one Leigh Hunt, a maker of many books, who used one day a bottle of ink whereof the gall was transfused into his blood, so that he wrote many hard words of me, setting forth selfishness and cruelty and hypocrisy as if they were qualities of my disposition. God knew, even then, whether these things were true of me; and if they were not true, it would have been a pity to have answered them; but it would have been still more a pity to be angered by them. But since that time Master Hunt and I have met each other; yes, and Master Franck, too; and we have come very happily to a better understanding.

"Trust me, Scholar, it is the part of wisdom to spend little of your time upon the things that vex and anger you, and much of your time upon the things that bring you quietness and confidence and good cheer. A friend made is better than an enemy punished. There is more of God in the peaceable beauty of this little wood-violet than in all the angry disputations of the sects. We are nearer heaven when we listen to the birds than when we quarrel with our fellow- men. I am sure that none can enter into the spirit of Christ, his evangel, save those who willingly follow his invitation when he says, 'COME YE YOURSELVES APART INTO A LONELY P1ACE, AND REST A WHILE.' For since his blessed kingdom was first established in the green fields, by the lakeside, with humble fishermen for its subjects, the easiest way into it hath ever been through the wicket- gate of a lowly and grateful fellowship with nature. He that feels not the beauty and blessedness and peace of the woods and meadows that God hath bedecked with flowers for him even while he is yet a sinner, how shall he learn to enjoy the unfading bloom of the celestial country if he ever become a saint?

"No, no, sir, he that departeth out of this world without perceiving that it is fair and full of innocent sweetness hath done little honour to the every-day miracles of divine beneficence; and though by mercy he may obtain an entrance to heaven, it will be a strange place to him; and though he have studied all that is written in men's books of divinity, yet because he hath left the book of Nature unturned, he will have much to learn and much to forget. Do you think that to be blind to the beauties of earth prepareth the heart to behold the glories of heaven? Nay, Scholar, I know that you are not of that opinion. But I can tell you another thing which perhaps you knew not. The heart that is blest with the glories of heaven ceaseth not to remember and to love the beauties of this world. And of this love I am certain, because I feel it, and glad because it is a great blessing.

"There are two sorts of seeds sown in our remembrance by what we call the hand of fortune, the fruits of which do not wither, but grow sweeter forever and ever. The first is the seed of innocent pleasures, received in gratitude and enjoyed with good companions, of which pleasures we never grow weary of thinking, because they have enriched our hearts. The second is the seed of pure and gentle sorrows, borne in submission and with faithful love, and these also we never forget, but we come to cherish them with gladness instead of grief, because we see them changed into everlasting joys. And how this may be I cannot tell you now, for you would not understand me. But that it is so, believe me: for if you believe, you shall one day see it yourself.

"But come, now, our friendly pipes are long since burned out. Hark, how sweetly the tawny thrush in yonder thicket touches her silver harp for the evening hymn! I will follow the stream downward, but do you tarry here until the friend comes for whom you were waiting. I think we shall all three meet one another, somewhere, after sunset."

I watched the gray hat and the old brown coat and long green rod disappear among the trees around the curve of the stream. Then Ned's voice sounded in my ears, and I saw him standing above me laughing.

"Hallo, old man," he said, "you're a sound sleeper! I hope you've had good luck, and pleasant dreams."


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