"It is a vulgar notion that a fire is only for heat. A
chief value of it is, however, to look at. And it is never
twice the same."
—CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER: Backlog Studies.
I. LIGHTING UP
Man is the animal that has made friends with the fire.
All the other creatures, in their natural state, are afraid of it. They look upon it with wonder and dismay. It fascinates them, sometimes, with its glittering eyes in the night. The squirrels and the hares come pattering softly towards it through the underbrush around the new camp. The fascinated deer stares into the blaze of the jack-light while the hunter's canoe creeps through the lily-pads. But the charm that masters them is one of dread, not of love. It is the witchcraft of the serpent's lambent look. When they know what it means, when the heat of the fire touches them, or even when its smell comes clearly to their most delicate sense, they recognize it as their enemy, the Wild Huntsman whose red hounds can follow, follow for days without wearying, growing stronger and more furious with every turn of the chase. Let but a trail of smoke drift down the wind across the forest, and all the game for miles and miles will catch the signal for fear and flight.
Many of the animals have learned how to make houses for themselves. The CABANE of the beaver is a wonder of neatness and comfort, much preferable to the wigwam of his Indian hunter. The muskrat knows how thick and high to build the dome of his waterside cottage, in order to protect himself against the frost of the coming winter and the floods of the following spring. The woodchuck's house has two or three doors; and the squirrel's dwelling is provided with a good bed and a convenient storehouse for nuts and acorns. The sportive otters have a toboggan slide in front of their residence; and the moose in winter make a "yard," where they can take exercise comfortably and find shelter for sleep. But there is one thing lacking in all these various dwellings,—a fireplace.
Man is the only creature that dares to light a fire and to live with it. The reason? Because he alone has learned how to put it out.
It is true that two of his humbler friends have been converted to fire-worship. The dog and the cat, being half-humanized, have begun to love the fire. I suppose that a cat seldom comes so near to feeling a true sense of affection as when she has finished her saucer of bread and milk, and stretched herself luxuriously underneath the kitchen stove, while her faithful mistress washes up the dishes. As for a dog, I am sure that his admiring love for his master is never greater than when they come in together from the hunt, wet and tired, and the man gathers a pile of wood in front of the tent, touches it with a tiny magic wand, and suddenly the clear, consoling flame springs up, saying cheerfully, "Here we are, at home in the forest; come into the warmth; rest, and eat, and sleep." When the weary, shivering dog sees this miracle, he knows that his master is a great man and a lord of things.
After all, that is the only real open fire. Wood is the fuel for it. Out-of-doors is the place for it. A furnace is an underground prison for a toiling slave. A stove is a cage for a tame bird. Even a broad hearthstone and a pair of glittering andirons—the best ornament of a room—must be accepted as an imitation of the real thing. The veritable open fire is built in the open, with the whole earth for a fireplace and the sky for a chimney.
To start a fire in the open is by no means as easy as it looks. It is one of those simple tricks that every one thinks he can perform until he tries it.
To do it without trying,—accidentally and unwillingly,—that, of course, is a thing for which any fool is fit. You knock out the ashes from your pipe on a fallen log; you toss the end of a match into a patch of grass, green on top, but dry as punk underneath; you scatter the dead brands of an old fire among the moss,—a conflagration is under way before you know it.
A fire in the woods is one thing; a comfort and a joy. Fire in the woods is another thing; a terror, an uncontrollable fury, a burning shame.
But the lighting up of a proper fire, kindly, approachable, serviceable, docile, is a work of intelligence. If, perhaps, you have to do it in the rain, with a single match, it requires no little art and skill.
There is plenty of wood everywhere, but not a bit to burn. The fallen trees are waterlogged. The dead leaves are as damp as grief. The charred sticks that you find in an old fireplace are absolutely incombustible. Do not trust the handful of withered twigs and branches that you gather from the spruce-trees. They seem dry, but they are little better for your purpose than so much asbestos. You make a pile of them in some apparently suitable hollow, and lay a few larger sticks on top. Then you hastily scratch your solitary match on the seat of your trousers and thrust it into the pile of twigs. What happens? The wind whirls around in your stupid little hollow, and the blue flame of the sulphur spirts and sputters for an instant, and then goes out. Or perhaps there is a moment of stillness; the match flares up bravely; the nearest twigs catch fire, crackling and sparkling; you hurriedly lay on more sticks; but the fire deliberately dodges them, creeps to the corner of the pile where the twigs are fewest and dampest, snaps feebly a few times, and expires in smoke. Now where are you? How far is it to the nearest match?
If you are wise, you will always make your fire before you light it. Time is never saved by doing a thing badly.
II. THE CAMP-FIRE
In the making of fires there is as much difference as in the building of houses. Everything depends upon the purpose that you have in view. There is the camp-fire, and the cooking-fire, and the smudge-fire, and the little friendship-fire,—not to speak of other minor varieties. Each of these has its own proper style of architecture, and to mix them is false art and poor economy.
The object of the camp-fire is to give heat, and incidentally light, to your tent or shanty. You can hardly build this kind of a fire unless you have a good axe and know how to chop. For the first thing that you need is a solid backlog, the thicker the better, to hold the heat and reflect it into the tent. This log must not be too dry, or it will burn out quickly. Neither must it be too damp, else it will smoulder and discourage the fire. The best wood for it is the body of a yellow birch, and, next to that, a green balsam. It should be five or six feet long, and at least two and a half feet in diameter. If you cannot find a tree thick enough, cut two or three lengths of a smaller one; lay the thickest log on the ground first, about ten or twelve feet in front of the tent; drive two strong stakes behind it, slanting a little backward; and lay the other logs on top of the first, resting against the stakes.
Now you are ready for the hand-chunks, or andirons. These are shorter sticks of wood, eight or ten inches thick, laid at right angles to the backlog, four or five feet apart. Across these you are to build up the firewood proper.
Use a dry spruce-tree, not one that has fallen, but one that is dead and still standing, if you want a lively, snapping fire. Use a hard maple or a hickory if you want a fire that will burn steadily and make few sparks. But if you like a fire to blaze up at first with a splendid flame, and then burn on with an enduring heat far into the night, a young white birch with the bark on is the tree to choose. Six or eight round sticks of this laid across the hand-chunks, with perhaps a few quarterings of a larger tree, will make a glorious fire.
But before you put these on, you must be ready to light up. A few splinters of dry spruce or pine or balsam, stood endwise against the backlog, or, better still, piled up in a pyramid between the hand-chunks; a few strips of birch-bark; and one good match,—these are all that you want. But be sure that your match is a good one. It is better to see to this before you go into the brush. Your comfort, even your life, may depend on it.
"AVEC CES ALLUMETTES-LA," said my guide at LAC ST. JEAN one day, as he vainly tried to light his pipe with a box of parlour matches from the hotel,—AVEC CES GNOGNOTTES D'ALLUMETTES ON POURRA MOURIR AU BOIS!"
In the woods, the old-fashioned brimstone match of our grandfathers—the match with a brown head and a stout stick and a dreadful smell—is the best. But if you have only one, do not trust even that to light your fire directly. Use it first to touch off a roll of birch-bark which you hold in your hand. Then, when the bark is well alight, crinkling and curling, push it under the heap of kindlings, give the flame time to take a good hold, and lay your wood over it, a stick at a time, until the whole pile is blazing. Now your fire is started. Your friendly little red-haired gnome is ready to serve you through the night.
He will dry your clothes if you are wet. He will cheer you up if you are despondent. He will diffuse an air of sociability through the camp, and draw the men together in a half circle for storytelling and jokes and singing. He will hold a flambeau for you while you spread your blankets on the boughs and dress for bed. He will keep you warm while you sleep,—at least till about three o'clock in the morning, when you dream that you are out sleighing in your pajamas, and wake up with a shiver.
"HOLA, FERDINAND, FRANCOIS!" you call out from your bed, pulling the blankets over your ears; "RAMANCHEZ LE FEU, S'IL VOUS PLAIT. C'EST UN FREITE DE CHIEN."
III. THE COOKING-FIRE
Of course such a fire as I have been describing can be used for cooking, when it has burned down a little, and there is a bed of hot embers in front of the backlog. But a correct kitchen fire should be constructed after another fashion. What you want now is not blaze, but heat, and that not diffused, but concentrated. You must be able to get close to your fire without burning your boots or scorching your face.
If you have time and the material, make a fireplace of big stones. But not of granite, for that will split with the heat, and perhaps fly in your face.
If you are in a hurry and there are no suitable stones at hand, lay two good logs nearly parallel with each other, a foot or so apart, and build your fire between them. For a cooking-fire, use split wood in short sticks. Let the first supply burn to glowing coals before you begin. A frying-pan that is lukewarm one minute and red-hot the next is the abomination of desolation. If you want black toast, have it made before a fresh, sputtering, blazing heap of wood.
In fires, as in men, an excess of energy is a lack of usefulness. The best work is done without many sparks. Just enough is the right kind of a fire and a feast.
To know how to cook is not a very elegant accomplishment. Yet there are times and seasons when it seems to come in better than familiarity with the dead languages, or much skill upon the lute.
You cannot always rely on your guides for a tasteful preparation of food. Many of them are ignorant of the difference between frying and broiling, and their notion of boiling a potato or a fish is to reduce it to a pulp. Now and then you find a man who has a natural inclination to the culinary art, and who does very well within familiar limits.
Old Edouard, the Montaignais Indian who cooked for my friends H. E. G. and C. S. D. last summer on the STE. MARGUERITE EN BAS, was such a man. But Edouard could not read, and the only way he could tell the nature of the canned provisions was by the pictures on the cans. If the picture was strange to him, there was no guessing what he would do with the contents of the can. He was capable of roasting strawberries, and serving green peas cold for dessert. One day a can of mullagatawny soup and a can of apricots were handed out to him simultaneously and without explanations. Edouard solved the problem by opening both cans and cooking them together. We had a new soup that day, MULLAGATAWNY AUX APRICOTS. It was not as bad as it sounds. It tasted somewhat like chutney.
The real reason why food that is cooked over an open fire tastes so good to us is because we are really hungry when we get it. The man who puts up provisions for camp has a great advantage over the dealers who must satisfy the pampered appetite of people in houses. I never can get any bacon in New York like that which I buy at a little shop in Quebec to take into the woods. If I ever set up in the grocery business, I shall try to get a good trade among anglers. It will be easy to please my customers.
The reputation that trout enjoy as a food-fish is partly due to the fact that they are usually cooked over an open fire. In the city they never taste as good. It is not merely a difference in freshness. It is a change in the sauce. If the truth must be told, even by an angler, there are at least five salt-water fish which are better than trout,—to eat. There is none better to catch.
IV. THE SMUDGE-FIRE
But enough of the cooking-fire. Let us turn now to the subject of the smudge, known in Lower Canada as LA BOUCANE. The smudge owes its existence to the pungent mosquito, the sanguinary black-fly, and the peppery midge,—LE MARINGOUIN, LA MOUSTIQUE, ET LE BRULOT. To what it owes its English name I do not know; but its French name means simply a thick, nauseating, intolerable smoke.
The smudge is called into being for the express purpose of creating a smoke of this kind, which is as disagreeable to the mosquito, the black-fly, and the midge as it is to the man whom they are devouring. But the man survives the smoke, while the insects succumb to it, being destroyed or driven away. Therefore the smudge, dark and bitter in itself, frequently becomes, like adversity, sweet in its uses. It must be regarded as a form of fire with which man has made friends under the pressure of a cruel necessity.
It would seem as if it ought to be the simplest affair in the world to light up a smudge. And so it is—if you are not trying.
An attempt to produce almost any other kind of a fire will bring forth smoke abundantly. But when you deliberately undertake to create a smudge, flames break from the wettest timber, and green moss blazes with a furious heat. You hastily gather handfuls of seemingly incombustible material and throw it on the fire, but the conflagration increases. Grass and green leaves hesitate for an instant and then flash up like tinder. The more you put on, the more your smudge rebels against its proper task of smudging. It makes a pleasant warmth, to encourage the black-flies; and bright light to attract and cheer the mosquitoes. Your effort is a brilliant failure.
The proper way to make a smudge is this. Begin with a very little, lowly fire. Let it be bright, but not ambitious. Don't try to make a smoke yet.
Then gather a good supply of stuff which seems likely to suppress fire without smothering it. Moss of a certain kind will do, but not the soft, feathery moss that grows so deep among the spruce-trees. Half-decayed wood is good; spongy, moist, unpleasant stuff, a vegetable wet blanket. The bark of dead evergreen trees, hemlock, spruce, or balsam, is better still. Gather a plentiful store of it. But don't try to make a smoke yet.
Let your fire burn a while longer; cheer it up a little. Get some clear, resolute, unquenchable coals aglow in the heart of it. Don't try to make a smoke yet.
Now pile on your smouldering fuel. Fan it with your hat. Kneel down and blow it, and in ten minutes you will have a smoke that will make you wish you had never been born.
That is the proper way to make a smudge. But the easiest way is to ask your guide to make it for you.
If he makes it in an old iron pot, so much the better, for then you can move it around to the windward when the breeze veers, and carry it into your tent without risk of setting everything on fire, and even take it with you in the canoe while you are fishing.
Some of the pleasantest pictures in the angler's gallery of remembrance are framed in the smoke that rises from a smudge.
With my eyes shut, I can call up a vision of eight birch-bark canoes floating side by side on Moosehead Lake, on a fair June morning, fifteen years ago. They are anchored off Green Island, riding easily on the long, gentle waves. In the stern of each canoe there is a guide with a long-handled net; in the bow, an angler with a light fly-rod; in the middle, a smudge-kettle, smoking steadily. In the air to the windward of the little fleet hovers a swarm of flies drifting down on the shore breeze, with bloody purpose in their breasts, but baffled by the protecting smoke. In the water to the leeward plays a school of speckled trout, feeding on the minnows that hang around the sunken ledges of rock. As a larger wave than usual passes over the ledges, it lifts the fish up, and you can see the big fellows, three, and four, and even five pounds apiece, poising themselves in the clear brown water. A long cast will send the fly over one of them. Let it sink a foot. Draw it up with a fluttering motion. Now the fish sees it, and turns to catch it. There is a yellow gleam in the depth, a sudden swirl on the surface; you strike sharply, and the trout is matching his strength against the spring of your four ounces of split bamboo.
You can guess at his size, as he breaks water, by the breadth of his tail: a pound of weight to an inch of tail,—that is the traditional measure, and it usually comes pretty close to the mark, at least in the case of large fish. But it is never safe to record the weight until the trout is in the canoe. As the Canadian hunters say, "Sell not the skin of the bear while he carries it."
Now the breeze that blows over Green Island drops away, and the smoke of the eight smudge-kettles falls like a thick curtain. The canoes, the dark shores of Norcross Point, the twin peaks of Spencer Mountain, the dim blue summit of Katahdin, the dazzling sapphire sky, the flocks of fleece-white clouds shepherded on high by the western wind, all have vanished. With closed eyes I see another vision, still framed in smoke,—a vision of yesterday.
It is a wild river flowing into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the COTE NORD, far down towards Labrador. There is a long, narrow, swift pool between two parallel ridges of rock. Over the ridge on the right pours a cataract of pale yellow foam. At the bottom of the pool, the water slides down into a furious rapid, and dashes straight through an impassable gorge half a mile to the sea. The pool is full of salmon, leaping merrily in their delight at coming into their native stream. The air is full of black-flies, rejoicing in the warmth of the July sun. On a slippery point of rock, below the fall, are two anglers, tempting the fish and enduring the flies. Behind them is an old HABITANT raising a mighty column of smoke.
Through the cloudy pillar which keeps back the Egyptian host, you see the waving of a long rod. A silver-gray fly with a barbed tail darts out across the pool, swings around with the current, well under water, and slowly works past the big rock in the centre, just at the head of the rapid. Almost past it, but not quite: for suddenly the fly disappears; the line begins to run out; the reel sings sharp and shrill; a salmon is hooked.
But how well is he hooked? That is the question. This is no easy pool to play a fish in. There is no chance to jump into a canoe and drop below him, and get the current to help you in drowning him. You cannot follow him along the shore. You cannot even lead him into quiet water, where the gaffer can creep near to him unseen and drag him in with a quick stroke. You must fight your fish to a finish, and all the advantages are on his side. The current is terribly strong. If he makes up his mind to go downstream to the sea, the only thing you can do is to hold him by main force; and then it is ten to one that the hook tears out or the leader breaks.
It is not in human nature for one man to watch another handling a fish in such a place without giving advice. "Keep the tip of your rod up. Don't let your reel overrun. Stir him up a little, he 's sulking. Don't let him 'jig,' or you'll lose him. You 're playing him too hard. There, he 's going to jump again. Drop your tip. Stop him, quick! he 's going down the rapid!"
Of course the man who is playing the salmon does not like this. If he is quick-tempered, sooner or later he tells his counsellor to shut up. But if he is a gentle, early-Christian kind of a man, wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove, he follows the advice that is given to him, promptly and exactly. Then, when it is all ended, and he has seen the big fish, with the line over his shoulder, poised for an instant on the crest of the first billow of the rapid, and has felt the leader stretch and give and SNAP!—then he can have the satisfaction, while he reels in his slack line, of saying to his friend, "Well, old man, I did everything just as you told me. But I think if I had pushed that fish a little harder at the beginning, AS I WANTED TO, I might have saved him."
But really, of course, the chances were all against it. In such a pool, most of the larger fish get away. Their weight gives them a tremendous pull. The fish that are stopped from going into the rapid, and dragged back from the curling wave, are usually the smaller ones. Here they are,—twelve pounds, eight pounds, six pounds, five pounds and a half, FOUR POUNDS! Is not this the smallest salmon that you ever saw? Not a grilse, you understand, but a real salmon, of brightest silver, hall-marked with St. Andrew's cross.
Now let us sit down for a moment and watch the fish trying to leap up the falls. There is a clear jump of about ten feet, and above that an apparently impossible climb of ten feet more up a ladder of twisting foam. A salmon darts from the boiling water at the bottom of the fall like an arrow from a bow. He rises in a beautiful curve, fins laid close to his body and tail quivering; but he has miscalculated his distance. He is on the downward curve when the water strikes him and tumbles him back. A bold little fish, not more than eighteen inches long, makes a jump at the side of the fall, where the water is thin, and is rolled over and over in the spray. A larger salmon rises close beside us with a tremendous rush, bumps his nose against a jutting rock, and flops back into the pool. Now comes a fish who has made his calculations exactly. He leaves the pool about eight feet from the foot of the fall, rises swiftly, spreads his fins, and curves his tail as if he were flying, strikes the water where it is thickest just below the brink, holds on desperately, and drives himself, with one last wriggle, through the bending stream, over the edge, and up the first step of the foaming stairway. He has obeyed the strongest instinct of his nature, and gone up to make love in the highest fresh water that he can reach.
The smoke of the smudge-fire is sharp and tearful, but a man can learn to endure a good deal of it when he can look through its rings at such scenes as these.
V. THE LITTLE FRIENDSHIP-FIRE
There are times and seasons when the angler has no need of any of the three fires of which we have been talking. He sleeps in a house. His breakfast and dinner are cooked for him in a kitchen. He is in no great danger from black-flies or mosquitoes. All he needs now, as he sets out to spend a day on the Neversink, or the Willowemoc, or the Shepaug, or the Swiftwater, is a good lunch in his pocket, and a little friendship-fire to burn pleasantly beside him while he eats his frugal fare and prolongs his noonday rest.
This form of fire does less work than any other in the world. Yet it is far from being useless; and I, for one, should be sorry to live without it. Its only use is to make a visible centre of interest where there are two or three anglers eating their lunch together, or to supply a kind of companionship to a lone fisherman. It is kindled and burns for no other purpose than to give you the sense of being at home and at ease. Why the fire should do this, I cannot tell, but it does.
You may build your friendship-fire in almost any way that pleases you; but this is the way in which you shall build it best. You have no axe, of course, so you must look about for the driest sticks that you can find. Do not seek them close beside the stream, for there they are likely to be water-soaked; but go back into the woods a bit and gather a good armful of fuel. Then break it, if you can, into lengths of about two feet, and construct your fire in the following fashion.
Lay two sticks parallel, and put between them a pile of dried grass, dead leaves, small twigs, and the paper in which your lunch was wrapped. Then lay two other sticks crosswise on top of your first pair. Strike your match and touch your kindlings. As the fire catches, lay on other pairs of sticks, each pair crosswise to the pair that is below it, until you have a pyramid of flame. This is "a Micmac fire" such as the Indians make in the woods.
Now you can pull off your wading-boots and warm your feet at the blaze. You can toast your bread if you like. You can even make shift to broil one of your trout, fastened on the end of a birch twig if you have a fancy that way. When your hunger is satisfied, you shake out the crumbs for the birds and the squirrels, pick up a stick with a coal at the end to light your pipe, put some more wood on your fire, and settle down for an hour's reading if you have a book in your pocket, or for a good talk if you have a comrade with you.
The stream of time flows swift and smooth, by such a fire as this. The moments slip past unheeded; the sun sinks down his western arch; the shadows begin to fall across the brook; it is time to move on for the afternoon fishing. The fire has almost burned out. But do not trust it too much. Throw some sand over it, or bring a hatful of water from the brook to pour on it, until you are sure that the last glowing ember is extinguished, and nothing but the black coals and the charred ends of the sticks are left.
Even the little friendship-fire must keep the law of the bush. All lights out when their purpose is fulfilled!
VI. ALTARS OF REMEMBRANCE
It is a question that we have often debated, in the informal meetings of our Petrine Club: Which is pleasanter,—to fish an old stream, or a new one?
The younger members are all for the "fresh woods and pastures new." They speak of the delight of turning off from the high-road into some faintly-marked trail; following it blindly through the forest, not knowing how far you have to go; hearing the voice of waters sounding through the woodland; leaving the path impatiently and striking straight across the underbrush; scrambling down a steep bank, pushing through a thicket of alders, and coming out suddenly, face to face with a beautiful, strange brook. It reminds you, of course, of some old friend. It is a little like the Beaverkill, or the Ausable, or the Gale River. And yet it is different. Every stream has its own character and disposition. Your new acquaintance invites you to a day of discoveries. If the water is high, you will follow it down, and have easy fishing. If the water is low, you will go upstream, and fish "fine and far-off." Every turn in the avenue which the little river has made for you opens up a new view,—a rocky gorge where the deep pools are divided by white-footed falls; a lofty forest where the shadows are deep and the trees arch overhead; a flat, sunny stretch where the stream is spread out, and pebbly islands divide the channels, and the big fish are lurking at the sides in the sheltered corners under the bushes. From scene to scene you follow on, delighted and expectant, until the night suddenly drops its veil, and then you will be lucky if you can find your way home in the dark!
Yes, it is all very good, this exploration of new streams. But, for my part, I like still better to go back to a familiar little river, and fish or dream along the banks where I have dreamed and fished before. I know every bend and curve: the sharp turn where the water runs under the roots of the old hemlock-tree; the snaky glen, where the alders stretch their arms far out across the stream; the meadow reach, where the trout are fat and silvery, and will only rise about sunrise or sundown, unless the day is cloudy; the Naiad's Elbow, where the brook rounds itself, smooth and dimpled, to embrace a cluster of pink laurel-bushes. All these I know; yes, and almost every current and eddy and backwater I know long before I come to it. I remember where I caught the big trout the first year I came to the stream; and where I lost a bigger one. I remember the pool where there were plenty of good fish last year, and wonder whether they are there now.
Better things than these I remember: the companions with whom I have followed the stream in days long past; the rendezvous with a comrade at the place where the rustic bridge crosses the brook; the hours of sweet converse beside the friendship-fire; the meeting at twilight with my lady Graygown and the children, who have come down by the wood-road to walk home with me.
Surely it is pleasant to follow an old stream. Flowers grow along its banks which are not to be found anywhere else in the wide world. "There is rosemary, that 's for remembrance; and there is pansies, that 's for thoughts!"
One May evening, a couple of years since, I was angling in the Swiftwater, and came upon Joseph Jefferson, stretched out on a large rock in midstream, and casting the fly down a long pool. He had passed the threescore years and ten, but he was as eager and as happy as a boy in his fishing.
"You here!" I cried. "What good fortune brought you into these waters?"
"Ah," he answered, "I fished this brook forty-five years ago. It was in the Paradise Valley that I first thought of Rip Van Winkle. I wanted to come back again for the sake of old times."
But what has all this to do with an open fire? I will tell you. It is at the places along the stream, where the little flames of love and friendship have been kindled in bygone days, that the past returns most vividly. These are the altars of remembrance.
It is strange how long a small fire will leave its mark. The charred sticks, the black coals, do not decay easily. If they lie well up the hank, out of reach of the spring floods, they will stay there for years. If you have chanced to build a rough fireplace of stones from the brook, it seems almost as if it would last forever.
There is a mossy knoll beneath a great butternut-tree on the Swiftwater where such a fireplace was built four years ago; and whenever I come to that place now I lay the rod aside, and sit down for a little while by the fast-flowing water, and remember.
This is what I see: A man wading up the stream, with a creel over his shoulder, and perhaps a dozen trout in it; two little lads in gray corduroys running down the path through the woods to meet him, one carrying a frying-pan and a kettle, the other with a basket of lunch on his arm. Then I see the bright flames leaping up in the fireplace, and hear the trout sizzling in the pan, and smell the appetizing odour. Now I see the lads coming back across the foot-bridge that spans the stream, with a bottle of milk from the nearest farmhouse. They are laughing and teetering as they balance along the single plank. Now the table is spread on the moss. How good the lunch tastes! Never were there such pink-fleshed trout, such crisp and savoury slices of broiled bacon. Douglas, (the beloved doll that the younger lad shamefacedly brings out from the pocket of his jacket,) must certainly have some of it. And after the lunch is finished, and the bird's portion has been scattered on the moss, we creep carefully on our hands and knees to the edge of the brook, and look over the bank at the big trout that is poising himself in the amber water. We have tried a dozen times to catch him, but never succeeded. The next time, perhaps—
Well, the fireplace is still standing. The butternut-tree spreads its broad branches above the stream. The violets and the bishop's-caps and the wild anemones are sprinkled over the banks. The yellow-throat and the water-thrush and the vireos still sing the same tunes in the thicket. And the elder of the two lads often comes back with me to that pleasant place and shares my fisherman's luck beside the Swiftwater.
But the younger lad?
Ah, my little Barney, you have gone to follow a new stream,—clear as crystal,—flowing through fields of wonderful flowers that never fade. It is a strange river to Teddy and me; strange and very far away. Some day we shall see it with you; and you will teach us the names of those blossoms that do not wither. But till then, little Barney, the other lad and I will follow the old stream that flows by the woodland fireplace,—your altar.
Rue grows here. Yes, there is plenty of rue. But there is also rosemary, that 's for remembrance! And close beside it I see a little heart's-ease.
Return to the Henry van Dyke library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Other Wise Man