This reminiscence is not set down with oblique intent. It is not primarily designed to deride Wideawakery. It is intended to show how sensitive the mind is when exalted by the excitement of sport. Sensations experienced then endure in memory as few others do. They are so vivid, so indisputable, that one must take them to be the closest possible approximation to knowing the truth of things. If by chance some apprehension of ethical phenomena presents itself amid the bustle, as it did through the reverend gentleman's exhortation, that, I think, is as much to be trusted as the singularly complete and exact picture of scenery and incident which is impressed upon the brain during a struggle with a salmon. In the joy of battle the imagination of mediocrity glows into perceptive genius.
True, this genius may sometimes present an odd embodiment. On the Dee I was the guest of a boy whose father was tenant of a fine stretch. Early in the morning we were met at the riverside by a tall and shaggy gamekeeper; taciturn, business-like; not ill-natured to look at, but certainly not so cheerful as many a gillie is; resentful, I have no doubt, at having to attend on youngsters. When he saw my rod, that with which I had been successful on the Eden, his frown deepened into irritated contempt. I had come to think my rod, which was of green-heart and thirteen feet long, sufficient for all occasions. If it could manage a salmon in one part of the country, what had I to fear in any other ? Thus I had proudly reasoned, if at all, in setting out for Banchory. My satisfaction, it seemed, was foolish. Not speaking a word, the gamekeeper held out a hand for the rod, and, with a wave of the other, called my snubbed consideration to the grassy bank behind him. There lay two rods, salmon rods, with huge reels, lines run through the rings, and enormous flies ready to be used. I had never before fired a salmon fly in earnest; but with that majestic Highlandman looking on, still silent, and not complimentary in spirit, this was no time to seem confused or hesitant Calmly, therefore, with aplomb, I stooped towards one of the rods. It was much less easy to lift than I could have supposed; but with an effort, while the gillie's back was turned towards me, soon I had it erect. Holding it against my right shoulder, I stepped over the pebbles, steadily as I could, to the water's edge. What was to be done next? The salmon were rising just in front of me. I saw them. I had never seen so many in one pool before, and I have never had such a spectacle since. They were not leaping. Merely they were constantly coming up, gently breaking the water with their heads, and in some cases, as they dropped, making swirls with their tails. They were exactly like gigantic trout feeding in a well-stocked pool. There was I standing gazing at them, inactive. That, however, was not for more than a minute. I knew that the discomfiting visage of the Highland-man in the rear would be upon me, and that it was not a white feather I held aloft. To work, then ! Cautiously I let the long rod droop; unloosed the very large fly; with help from the torrent, let out a good many yards of line; and was prepared for action. I cast. It had been a sound intuition that made me hesitate. A salmon rod, even if it be an inheritance from times long gone by, is not of insupportable weight; but if it be of the Shannon build, heavier in the middle than at the butt, it calls for a skill in balancing that is not yours by nature. Just as I saw the fly about to fall into the thick of the fish, about twenty yards out, I felt my bodily equilibrium being not less disturbed than the mental. The great rod, with the fat nob at the end wedged against the pit of my person, was a lever. Head first, I followed it into the river. As the pebble bank was shelving, the water into which I went was not deep. I remember wishing that it were. Death by honourable drowning would be preferable to beholding again the countenance of that Highland-man. His shaggy cheeks would now be relaxed in sarcasm. He helped me out, and that by the ignominious heels. When I was once more upstanding, " You should go home," he said, not ungently. His tenderness was cutting. Home, indeed ! Still, I could not well begin again just there. Yearning for solitude, to be unseen, I wandered off in the direction of Balmoral, leaving my host and the Gael to make the best they could of Banchory. I did not go far. Within quarter of a mile I came upon a temptation. A ledge of scraggy rock stretched out into the river. From the point of this natural pier I should be able, with ease, to cast upon an attractive patch of water. Thither I picked my way, and then let out the line. At the very first cast, delivered with desperate resolution, I found myself in a trouble which, though less unheroic, was more serious than that from which I had just emerged. In the black water, where the fly was stemming the strong current, I saw a heaving gleam from out the depths, and instinctively raised the rod. Lo! I had hooked a salmon. At first his behaviour was sedate. He ran across towards the other bank, and slowly returned to his holt. Then, after a pause as if for reflection, he began a movement straight towards me. He came as it were foot by foot, deviating neither to the right nor to the left; I reeling up in strict accordance with his leisure; deliberately he came, until he was at my very toes, in the dark depth gurgling in the lee of the perilous jetty. There he rested. To keep in touch with him, I had to hold the rod straight up. Sometimes, as it moved slightly, or as I did, the taut line brushed my face. For many minutes the fish lay still. How long was this to go on ? The query was not without dire suggestiveness. While the salmon sulked, I realised, I should, unless I took action, be imprisoned on the demn'd damp, cold, uncomfortable Dee. There was no one looking. I would make a bolt for freedom. The ledge of rock was so narrow and so scraggy that I had had much difficulty in walking over it when comparatively unencumbered; but it was just possible that if I ran in bold long bounds fortune would favour my footsteps. Holding the rod so that the winch would be free to act, cautiously I wheeled right-about-face, and made for the shore in haste. When I was half the way to safety the salmon turned tail and fled, and of course my risky foothold failed. The fish was going down-stream, and keeping well in towards our own side of the river; which, in water much deeper than myself could measure, helped me to keep afloat and to gain a footing. There was now no lack of liveliness in the proceedings. The line whizzed hither and thither through the broad flood; it was wagged in violent jerks from side to side; the salmon leapt again and again, and his splashings were heard above the breeze. Suddenly, at a bend of the tree-fringed bank, I came within sight of the Highlandman and my host. In the river and not well-groomed, I alone, it would appear, was for the moment visible. " Tamnation ! Here he is again !" I heard the Highlandman exclaim. Instantly, however, seeing things truly, he changed his tune. " Reel in, reel in !" he cried, " or she'll be roond that rock and cut ye!" I saw the risk. Although manifestly affected by what had befallen, the salmon, head to the torrent, was moving steadily, sideways, towards the other bank, near which a jagged rock churned the water into foam. If he won his way beyond it on the upper side, and then dropped down, I should be undone. With all my might I checked him; rod, line, and cast stood the uncompromising strain; desisting, the salmon rolled over and over, as if in rage, lashing the water with his tail; and ere long, almost at the very spot where little more than an hour before he had landed the fisherman, the Highlandman gaffed the fish.