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   Chapter 36 THE RIVER SIDE

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 23169

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


So, from Henley, Tom went home just to see his father and mother and pick up his fishing-gear, and then started for the Grange. On his road thither, he more than once almost made up his mind to go round by Englebourn, get his first interview with Katie over, and find out how the world was really going with Harry and his sweetheart, of whom he had such meagre intelligence of late. But, for some reason or another, when it came to taking the turn to Englebourn, he passed it by, and, contenting himself for the time with a distant view of the village and the Hawk's Lynch, drove straight to the Grange.

He had not expected to feel very comfortable at first in the house which he had left the previous autumn in so strange a manner, and he was not disappointed. The rooms reminded him unpleasantly of his passage of arms with the late master, and the grave and portly butler was somewhat embarrassed in his reception of him; while the footman, who carried off his portmanteau, did it with a grin which put him out. The set of men whom he found there were not of his sort. They were young Londoners, and he a thorough countryman. But the sight of the stream by which he took a hearty stroll before dinner made up for everything, and filled him with pleasurable anticipations. He thought he had never seen a sweeter bit of water.

The dinner to which the party of young gentlemen sat down was most undeniable. The host talked a little too much, perhaps; under all the circumstances, of my wine, my plate, my mutton, &c., provoking the thought of how long they had been his. But he was bent on hospitality after his fashion, and his guests were not disposed to criticize much.

The old butler did not condescend to wait, but brought in a magnum of claret after dinner, carefully nursing it as if it were a baby, and placing it patronizingly before his young master. Before they adjourned to the billiard-room they had disposed of several of the same; but the followers were brought in by a footman, the butler being employed in discussing a bottle of an older vintage with the steward in the still-room. Then came pool, pool, pool, soda-water and brandy, and cigars, into the short hours; but Tom stole away early, having an eye to his morning's fishing, and not feeling much at home with his companions.

He was out soon after sunrise the next morning. He never wanted to be called when there was a trout-stream within reach; and his fishing instinct told him that, in these sultry dog-days, there would be little chance of sport when the sun was well up. So he let himself gently out of the hall door-paused a moment on the steps to fill his chest with the fresh morning air, as he glanced at the weathercock over the stables-and then set to work to put his tackle together on the lawn, humming a tune to himself as he selected an insinuating red hackle and alder fly from his well-worn book, and tied them on to his cast. Then he slung his creel over his shoulder, picked up his rod, and started for the water.

As he passed the gates of the stable-yard, the keeper came out-a sturdy bullet-headed fellow, in a velveteen coat, and cord breeches and gaiters-and touched his hat. Tom returned the salute, and wished him good morning.

"Mornin', sir; you be about early."

"Yes; I reckon it's the best time for sport at the end of June."

"'Tis so, Sir. Shall I fetch a net, and come along!"

"No, thank you, I'll manage the ladle myself. But which do you call the best water?"

"They be both middling good. They ain't much odds atwixt 'em. But

I see most fish movin' o' mornin's in the deep water down below."

"I don't know; the night was too hot," said Tom, who had examined the water the day before, and made up his mind where he was going. "I'm for deep water on cold days; I shall begin with the stickles up above. There's a good head of water on, I suppose?"

"Plenty down this last week, sir."

"Come along, then; we'll walk together, if you're going that way." So Tom stepped off, brushing through the steaming long grass, gemmed with wild flowers, followed by the keeper; and, as the grasshoppers bounded chirruping out of his way, and the insect life hummed and murmured, and the lark rose and sang above his head, he felt happier than he had done for many a long month. So his heart opened towards his companion, who kept a little behind him.

"What size do you take 'em out, keeper?"

"Anything over nine inches, sir. But there's a smartish few fish of three pounds, for them as can catch 'em."

"Well, that's good; but they ain't easy caught, eh?"

"I don't rightly know, sir; but there's gents comes as stands close by the water, and flogs down stream with the sun in their backs, and uses all manner o' vlies, wi' long names; and then they gwoes away, and says, 'tain't no use flying here, 'cas there's so much cadis bait and that like."

"Ah, very likely," said Tom, with a chuckle.

"The chaps as catches the big fishes, sir," went on the keeper, getting confidential, "is thay cussed night-line poachers. There's one o' thay as has come here this last spring-tide-the artfullest chap as ever I come across, and down to every move on the board. He don't use no shove-nets, nor such-like tackle; not he; I s'pose he don't call that sport. Besides, I got master to stake the whole water, and set old knives and razors about in the holes, but that don't answer; and this joker all'us goes alone-which, in course, he couldn't do with nets. Now, I knows within five or six yards where that chap sets his lines, and I finds 'em, now and again, set the artfullest you ever see. But 'twould take a man's life to look arter him, and I knows he gets, maybe, a dozen big fish a week, do all as I knows."

"How is it you can't catch him, keeper?" said Tom, much amused.

"Why you see sir, he don't come at any hours. Drat un!" said the keeper, getting hot; "blessed if I don't think he sometimes comes down among the haymakers and folk at noon, and up lines and off, while they chaps does nothing but snigger at un-all I knows is, as I've watched till midnight, and then on again at dawn for'n, and no good come on it but once."

"How was that?"

"Well, one mornin', sir, about last Lady-day, I comes quite quiet up stream about dawn. When I get's to Farmer Giles's piece (that little rough bit, sir, as you sees t'other side the stream, two fields from our outside bounds), I sees un a stooping down and hauling in's line. 'Now's your time, Billy,' says I, and up the hedge I cuts, hotfoot, to get betwixt he and our bounds. Wether he seen me or not, I can't mind; leastways, when I up's head t'other side the hedge, vorights where I seen him last, there was he a-trotting up stream quite cool, a-pocketing a two-pounder. Then he sees me and away we goes side by side for the bounds-he this side the hedge and I t'other; he takin' the fences like our old greyhound-bitch, Clara. We takes the last fence on to that fuzzy field as you sees there, Sir (parson's glebe and out of our liberty), neck and neck, and I turns short to the left, 'cos there warn't no fence now betwixt he and I. Well, I thought he'd a dodged on about the fuz. Not he; he slouches his hat over's eyes, and stands quite cool by fust fuz bush-I minded then as we was out o' our beat. Hows'ever my blood was up; so I at's him then and there, no words lost, and fetches a crack at's head wi my stick.' He fends wi' his'n; and then, as I rushes in to collar'n, dash'd if 'e didn't meet I full, and catch I by the thigh and collar, and send I slap over's head into a fuz bush.

"Then he chuckles fit to bust hisself, and cuts his stick, while I creeps out full o' prickles, and wi' my breeches torn shameful. Dang un!" cried the keeper, while Tom roared, "he's a lissum wosbird, that I 'ool say, but I'll be up sides wi' he next time I sees un. Whorson fool as I was, not to stop and look at 'n and speak to un! Then I should ha' know'd 'n again; and now he med be our parish clerk for all as I know."

"And you've never met him since?"

"Never sot eye on un, sir, arly or late-wishes I had."

"Well, keeper, here's a half crown to go towards mending the hole in your breeches, and better luck at the return match. I shall begin fishing here."

"Thank'ee, sir. You keep your cast pretty nigh that there off bank, and you med have a rare good un ther'. I seen a fish suck there just now as warn't spawned this year, nor last nether."

And away went the communicative keeper.

"Stanch fellow, the keeper," said Tom to himself, as he reeled out yard after yard of his tapered line, and with a gentle sweep dropped his collar of flies lightly on the water, each cast covering another five feet of the dimpling surface. "Good fellow, the keeper-don't mind telling a story against himself-can stand being laughed at-more than master can. Ah, there's the fish he saw sucking, I'll be bound. Now, you beauties, over his nose, and fall light, don't disgrace your bringing up!" and away went the flies quivering through the air and lighting close to the opposite bank, under a bunch of rushes. A slight round eddy flowed below the rushes as the cast came gently back across the current.

"Ah, you see them, do you, old boy?" thought Tom. "Say your prayers, then, and get shrived!" and away went the flies again, this time a little below. No movement. The third throw, a great lunge and splash, and the next moment the lithe rod bent double, and the gut collar spun along, cutting through the water like mad. Up goes the great fish twice into the air, Tom giving him the point; then up stream again, Tom giving him the butt, and beginning to reel up gently. Down goes the great fish into the swaying weeds, working with his tail like a twelve-horse screw. "If I can only get my nose to ground," thinks he. So thinks Tom, and trusts to his tackle, keeping a steady strain on trouty, and creeping gently down stream. "No go," says the fish as he feels his nose steadily hauled round, and turns a swirl downstream. Away goes Tom, reeling in, and away goes the fish in hopes of a slack-away, for twenty or thirty yards-the fish coming to the top lazily, and again, and holding on to get his second wind. Now a cart track crosses the stream, no weeds, and shallow water at the side. "Here we must have it out," thinks Tom, and turns fish's nose up stream again. The big fish gets sulky, twice drifts towards the shallow, and twice plunges away at the sight of his enemy into the deep water. The third time he comes swaying in, his yellow side gleaming and his mouth open; and, the next moment Tom scoops him out onto the grass, with a "whoop" that might have been heard at the house.

"Two pounder, if he's an ounce," says Tom, as he gives him the coup de grace, and lays him out lovingly on the fresh green sward.

Who amongst you, dear readers, can appreciate the intense delight of grassing your first big fish after a nine month's fast? All first sensations have their special pleasure; but none can be named, in a small way, to beat this of the first fish of the season. The first clean leg-hit for four in your first match at Lord's-the grating of the bows of your racing boat against the stern of the boat ahead in your first race-the first half-mile of a burst from the cover side in November, when the hounds in the field ahead may be covered with a table-cloth, and no one but the huntsman and a top sawyer or two lies between you and them-the first brief after your call to the bar, if it comes within the year-the sensations produced by these are t

he same in kind; but cricket, boating, getting briefs, even hunting lose their edge as time goes on. As to lady readers, it is impossible, probably, to give them an idea of the sensation in question. Perhaps some may have experienced something of the kind at their first balls, when they heard whispers and saw all eyes turning their way, and knew that their dresses and gloves fitted perfectly. But this joy can be felt but once in a life, and the first fish comes back as fresh as ever, or ought to come, if all men had their rights, once in a season. So, good luck to the gentle craft, and its professors, may the Fates send us much into their company! The trout fisher, like the landscape painter, haunts the loveliest places of the earth, and haunts them alone. Solitude and his own thoughts-he must be on the best terms with all of these; and he who can take kindly the largest allowance of these is likely to be the kindliest and truest with his fellow men.

Tom had splendid sport that summer morning. As the great sun rose higher, the light morning breeze, which had curled the water, died away; the light mist drew up into light cloud, and the light cloud vanished, into cloudland, for anything I know; and still the fish rose, strange to say, though Tom felt it was an affair of minutes, and acted accordingly. At eight o'clock he was about a quarter of a mile from the house, at a point in the stream of rare charms both for the angler and the lover of gentle river beauty. The main stream was crossed by a lock, formed of a solid brick bridge with no parapets, under which the water rushed through four small arches, each of which could be closed in an instant by letting down a heavy wooden lock gate, fitted in grooves on the upper side of the bridge. Such locks are frequent in the west-country streams-even at long distances from mills and millers, for whose behoof they were made in old days, that the supply of water to the mill might be easily regulated. All pious anglers should bless the memories of the old builders of them, for they are the very paradises of the great trout, who frequent the old brickwork and timber foundations. The water in its rush through the arches, had of course worked for itself a deep hole, and then, some twenty yards below, spread itself out in wanton joyous ripples and eddies over a broad surface some fifty yards across, and dashed away towards a little island some two hundred yards below, or rolled itself slowly back towards the bridge again, up the backwater by the side of the bank, as if longing for another merry rush through one of those narrow arches. The island below was crowned with splendid alders, willows forty feet high, which wept into the water, and two or three poplars; a rich mile of water meadow, with an occasional willow or alder, lay gleaming beyond; and the view was bounded by a glorious wood, which crowned the gentle slope, at the foot of which the river ran. Another considerable body of water, which had been carried off above from the main stream to flush the water meadows, joined its parent at this point; it came slowly down a broad artificial ditch running parallel with the main stream; and the narrow strip of land which divided the two streams ended abruptly just below the lock, forming a splendid point for bather or angler.

Tom had fixed on this pool as his bonne bouche, as a child keeps its plums till the last, and stole over the bridge, stooping low to gain the point indicated. Having gained it, he glanced round to be aware of the dwarf ash-trees and willows which were scattered along the strip, and might catch heedless collars and spoil sport, when, lying lazily almost on the surface where the backwater met the stream from the meadows, he beheld the great grandfather of all trout, a fellow two feet long and a foot in girth at the shoulders, just moving fin enough to keep him from turning over on to his back. He threw himself flat on the ground and crept away to the other side of the strip; the king fish had not seen him; and the next moment Tom saw him suck in a bee, laden with his morning's load of honey, who touched the water unwarily close to his nose. With trembling hand, Tom took off his tail fly, and, on his knee, substituted a governor; then shortening his line, after wetting his mimic bee in the pool behind him, tossed it gently into the monster's very jaws. For a moment the fish seemed scared, but the next, conscious in his strength, lifted his nose slowly to the surface and sucked in the bait.

Tom struck gently, and then sprang to his feet. But the Heavens had other work for the king fish, who dived swiftly under the bank; a slight jar followed, and Tom's rod was straight over his head, the line and scarcely a yard of his trusty gut collar dangling about his face. He seized this remnant with horror and unsatisfied longing, and examined it with care. Could he have overlooked any fraying which the gut might have got in the morning's work? No; he had gone over every inch of it not five minutes before, as he neared the pool. Besides it was cut clean through, not a trace of bruise or fray about it. How could it have happened? He went to the spot and looked into the water; it was slightly discolored and he could not see the bottom. He threw his fishing coat off, rolled up the sleeve of his flannel shirt, and, lying on his side, felt about the bank and tried to reach the bottom but couldn't. So, hearing the half-hour bell ring, he deferred further inquiry, and stripped in silent disgust for a plunge in the pool. Three times he hurled himself into the delicious rush of the cold chalk stream, with that utter abandon in which man, whose bones are brittle, can only indulge when there are six or seven feet of water between him and mother earth; and, letting the stream bear him away at its own sweet will to the shallows below, struck up again through the rush and the roar to his plunging place. Then, slowly and luxuriously dressing, he lit his short pipe-companion of meditation-and began to ruminate on the escape of the king fish. What could have cut his collar? The more he thought, the less he could make it out. When suddenly he was aware of the keeper on his way back to the house for orders and breakfast.

"What sport, sir?"

"Pretty fair," said Tom, carelessly, lugging five plump speckled fellows, weighing some seven and a half pounds, out of his creel, and laying them out for the keeper's inspection.

"Well, they be in prime order, sir, surely," says the keeper, handling them; "they allus gets mortal thick across the shoulders while the May-fly be on. Loose any sir?"

"I put in some little ones up above, and lost one screamer just up the black ditch there. He must have been a four-pounder, and went off, and be hanged to him, with two yards of my collar and a couple of first-rate flies. How on earth he got off I can't tell!" and he went on to unfold the particulars of the short struggle.

The keeper could hardly keep down a grin. "Ah, sir," said he, "I thinks I knows what spwiled your sport. You owes it all to that chap as I was a telling you of, or my name's not Willum Goddard;" and then, fishing the lockpole with a hook at the end of it out of the rushes, he began groping under the bank, and presently hauled up a sort of infernal machine, consisting of a heavy lump of wood, a yard or so long, in which were carefully inserted the blades of four or five old knives and razors, while a crop of rusty jagged nails filled up the spare space.

Tom looked at it in wonder. "What devil's work have you got hold of there?" he said at last.

"Bless you, sir," said the keeper, "'tis only our shove net traps as I was a telling you of. I keeps hard upon a dozen on 'em and shifts 'em about in the likeliest holes; and I takes care to let the men as is about the water meadows see me a-sharpening on 'em up a bit wi' a file, now and again. And since master gev me orders to put 'em in, I don't think they tries that game on not once a month."

"Well but where do you and your master expect to go to if you set such things as those about?" said Tom, looking serious. "Why, you'll be cutting some fellow's hand or foot half off one of these days. Suppose I'd waded up the bank to see what had become of my cast?"

"Lor', sir, I never thought o' that," said the keeper, looking sheepish and lifting the back of his short hat off his head to make room for a scratch; "but," added he turning the subject, "if you wants to keep they artful wosbirds off the water, you must frighten 'em wi' summat out o' the way. Drattle 'em, I knows they puts me to my wit's end; but you'd never 'a had five such fish as them afore breakfast, sir, if we didn't stake the waters."

"Well, and I don't want 'em if I can't get 'em without. I'll tell you what it is, keeper, this razor business is going a bit too far; men ain't to be maimed for liking a bit of sport. You set spring-guns in the woods, and you know what that came to. Why don't you, or one of your watchers, stop out here at night, and catch the fellows, like men?

"Why, you see, sir, master don't allow me but one watcher and he's mortal feared o' the water, he be, specially o' nights. He'd sooner by half stop up in the woods. Daddy Collins (that's an old woman as lives on the heath, sir, and a bad sort she be, too) well, she told him once, when he wouldn't gee her some baccy as he'd got, and she'd a mind to, as he'd fall twice into the water for once as he'd get out; and th' poor chap ever since can't think but what he'll be drownded. And there's queer sights and sounds by the river o' nights, too, I 'ool say, sir, let alone the white mist, as makes everything look unket, and gives a chap the rheumatics."

"Well, but you ain't afraid of ghosts and rheumatism?"

"No, I don't know as I be, sir. But then there's the pheasants a-breedin', and there's four brood of flappers in the withey bed, and a sight of young hares in the spinneys. I be hard put to to mind it all."

"I daresay you are," said Tom, putting on his coat and shouldering his rod; "I've a good mind to take a turn at it myself, to help you, if you'll only drop those razors."

"I wishes you would, sir," said the keeper, from behind; "if genl'men'd sometimes take a watch at nights, they'd find out as keepers hadn't all fair weather work, I'll warrant, if they're to keep a good head o' game about a place. 'Taint all popping off guns, and lunching under hayricks, I can tell 'em-no, nor half on it."

"Where do you think, now, this fellow we are talking of sells his fish?" said Tom, after a minute's thought.

"Mostly at Reading Market, I hears tell, sir. There's the guard of the mail, as goes by the cross-roads three days a week, he wur a rare poaching chap hisself down in the west afore he got his place along of his bugle-playing. They do say as he's open to any game, he is, from a buck to a snipe, and drives a trade all down the road with the country chaps.

"What day is Reading Market?"

"Tuesdays and Saturdays, sir."

"And what time does the mail go by?"

"Six o'clock in the morning, sir, at the cross-roads."

"And they're three miles off, across the fields?"

"Thereabouts, sir. I reckons it about a forty minutes' stretch, and no time lost."

"There'll be no more big fish caught on the fly to-day," said

Tom, after a minute's silence, as they neared the house.

The wind had fallen dead, and not a spot of cloud in the sky.

"Not afore nightfall, I think, sir;" and the keeper disappeared towards the offices.

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