IN WHICH I SAVE A USEFUL LIFE
Though I had said good-bye to the inn, the stream and I did not part company at the inn-door, but continued for the best part of a morning to be fellow-travellers. Indeed, having led me to one pleasant adventure, its purpose, I afterwards realised, was to lead me to another, and then to go about its own bright business.
I don't think either of us had much idea where we were or whither we were bound. Our guiding principle seemed to be to get as much sunshine as possible, and to find the easiest road. We avoided dull sandy levels and hard rocky places, with the same instinctive dexterity. We gloomed together through dark dingles, and came out on sunny reaches with the same gilded magnificence. There are days when every stream is Pactolus and every man is Croesus, and thanks to that first and greatest of all alchemists, the sun, the morning I write of was a morning when to breathe was gold and to see was silver. And to breathe and see was all one asked. It was the first of May, and the world shone like a great illuminated letter with which that father of artists, the sun, was making splendid his missal of the seasons.
The month of May was ever his tour de force. Each year he has strained and stimulated his art to surpass himself, seeking ever a finer and a brighter gold, a more celestial azure. Never had his gold been so golden, his azure so dazzlingly clear and deep as on this particular May morning; while his fancy simply ran riot in the marginal decorations of woodland and spinney, quaint embroidered flowers and copses full of exquisitely painted and wonderfully trained birds of song. It was indeed a day for nature to be proud of. So seductive was the sunshine that even the shy trout leapt at noonday, eager apparently to change his silver for gold.
O silver fish in the silver stream, O golden fish in the golden gleam, Tell me, tell me, tell me true, Shall I find my girl if I follow you?
I suppose the reader never makes nonsense rhymes from sheer gladness of heart,--nursery doggerel to keep time with the rippling of the stream, or the dancing of the sun, or the beating of his heart; the gibberish of delight. As I hummed this nonsense, a trout at least three pounds in weight, whom you would know again anywhere, leapt a yard out of the water, and I took it, in my absurd, sun-soaked heart, as a good omen, as though he had said, "Follow and see."
I had no will but to follow, no desire but to see. All the same, though I affected to take him seriously, I had little suspicion how much that trout was to mean to me,--yes, within the course of a very few moments. Indeed, I had hardly strolled on for another quarter of a mile, when I was suddenly aroused from wool-gathering by his loud cries for help. Looking up, I saw him flashing desperately in mid-air, a lovely foot of writhing silver. In another second he was swung through the sunlight, and laid out breathing hard in a death-bed of buttercups and daisies.
There was not a moment to be lost, if I were to repay the debt of gratitude which in a flash I had seen that I owed him.
"Madam," I said, breathlessly springing forward, as a heavenly being was coldly tearing the hook from the gills of the unlucky trout, "though I am a stranger, will you do me a great favour? It is a matter of life or death . . ."
She looked up at me with some surprise, but with a fine fearless glance, and almost immediately said, "Certainly, what can I do?"
"Spare the life of that trout--"
"It is a singular request," she replied, "and one," she smiled, "self-sacrificing indeed for an angler to grant, for he weighs at least three pounds. However, since he seems a friend of yours, here goes--" And with the gladdest, most grateful sound in the world, the happy smack of a fish back home again in the water, after an appalling three minutes spent on land, that prophetic trout was once more an active unit in God's populous universe.
"Now that's good of you," I said, with thankful eyes, "and shows a kind heart."
"And kind hearts, they say, are more than coronets," she replied merrily, indulging in that derisive quotation which seems to be the final reward of the greatest poets.
For a moment there was a silence, during which I confess to wondering what I should say next. However, she supplied my place.
"But of course," she said, "you owe it to me, after this touching display of humanitarianism, to entertain me with your reason for interposing between me and my just trout. Was it one of those wonderful talking fishes out of the Arabian Nights, or are you merely an angler yourself, and did you begrudge such a record catch to a girl?"
"I see," I replied, "that you will understand me. That trout was, so to speak, out of the Arabian Nights. Only five minutes ago it was a May-day madness of mine to think that he leaped out of the water and gave me a highly important message. So I begged his life from a mere fancy. It was just a whim, which I trust you will excuse."
"A whim! So you are a follower of the great god Whim," she replied, with somewhat of an eager interest in her voice. "How nice it is to meet a fellow-worshipper!"
"Do women ever have whims?" I respectfully asked.
"I don't know about other women," she replied. "Indeed, I'm afraid I'm unnatural enough to take no interest in them at all. But, as for me,--well, what nonsense! Tell me some more about the trout. What was the wonderful message he seemed to give you?
Or perhaps I oughtn't to ask?"
"I'm afraid," I said, "it would hardly translate into anything approaching common-sense."
"Did I ask for common-sense?" she retorted. It was true, she hadn't. But then I couldn't, with any respect for her, tell her the trout's message, or, with any respect for myself, recall those atrocious doggerel lines. In my dilemma, I caught sight of a pretty book lying near her fishing-basket, and diverted the talk by venturing to ask its name.
" 'T is of Aucassin and Nicolete," she replied, with something in her voice which seemed to imply that the tender old story would be familiar to me. My memory served me for once gallantly.
I answered by humming half to myself the lines from the prologue,--
"Sweet the song, the story sweet, There is no man hearkens it, No man living 'neath the sun, So outwearied, so foredone, Sick and woful, worn and sad, But is healed, but is glad
'T is so sweet."
"How charming of you to know it!" she laughed. "You are the only man in this county, or the next, or the next, who knows it, I'm sure."
"Are the women of the county more familiar with it?" I replied.
"But tell me about the trout," she once more persisted.
At the same moment, however, there came from a little distance the musical tinkle of a bell that sounded like silver, a fairy-like and almost startling sound.
"It is my lunch," she explained. "I'm a worshipper of the great god Whim too, and close by here I have a little summer-house, full of books and fishing-lines and other childishness, where, when my whim is to be lonely, I come and play at solitude. If you'll be content with rustic fare, and promise to be amusing, it would be very pleasant if you'd join me."
O! most prophetic and agreeable trout! Was it not like the old fairy tales, the you-help-us and we'll-help-you of Psyche and the ants?
It had been the idlest whim for me to save the life of that poor trout. There was no real pity in it. For two pins, I had been just as ready to cut it open, to see if by chance it carried in its belly the golden ring wherewith I was to wed the Golden--
However, such is the gratitude of nature to man, that this little thoughtless act of kindness had brought me face to face with --was it the Golden Girl?Next