" What's air, Dagonet ?" I asked.
"Air—the word, that is—comes from the root tin, aoor, Hebrew and Chaldee; which means, to shine. The sense is to open, to expand; whence clear; or to flow, to shoot, to radiate. Air—the thing, I mean — is inodorous, invisible, insipid, colourless, elastic, possessed of gravity, easily moved and rarefied and condensed. In short, my boy, air is the fluid which we breathe to live".
" Quite so; but what does a fellow mean when he says, * There's air !' ?"
"Obscure in origin," said Dagonet gravely. Certain philologists hold that the words were uttered by Mr. Gladstone when he first gazed upon the atmospherical amenities of Blackpool, or those of any other holiday resort anxious to have itself made dear to the people".
" Well; but why do men keep firing the words at you in London ?"
Dagonet laughed, and unbent.
"O! they're a mere catch-phrase of the Town".
" And She who Bumps—what ho ?"
" She's a phrase of the Town too".
" That's in the same category, sonny".
" And all these phrases—do they mean anything ?"
" Nothing whatever. But the carriage will be at the door. Come on to Lord's —Oxford and Cambridge".
If you are thinking on some subject which does not involve serious practical interests, a drive through London at the height of the season is a great help. The bright, gay bustle of the Town is not a distraction : it is at once soothing to the nerves and an impulse to meditation. Thus it was that certain things appeared to me in a new light as Dagonet and I were driven to the cricket match.
Dogs, as must have been perceived from what has been told of Tim the terrier, frequently attract your curiosity by actions which, though inexplicable, would probably be rationally accounted for if the animals could speak. Men, it had become clear, attract curiosity by a proceeding exactly opposite. Frequently, in set phrases as definite to the ear as the dog's gambols are to the eye, they speak when they have absolutely no meaning to convey. At other times their words are dogmatic and challenging in proportion to the haziness of their ideas when they really have some. Of the one set of phenomena examples had been provided in the phrases about the air and the lady who bumped. Of the other " Efficiency " seemed typical. It was a word too big for the doctrine it enclosed : a balloon, as it were, without gas enough to float it, striving to rise, but constantly falling, unshapen, to the earth : a symbol without a substance: a political ideal exciting to many persons until they should have had time to detect its close kinship with the primitive, simple-seeming maxims, such as " Men are born free and equal," which in all ages inspire eager minds before the discovery that nature is too picturesque to be perfect, knowing nought of the ideologue's crude precision, and almost insolently undemocratic : Even when we consider the mountains insignificant, the earth is but approximately round, and it was not born either equal to any other globe of the solar system or free to run in the heavens a course of its own choosing.
Could it be that "Dry Fly" merited a place in the class of phrases which had just been adorned by the challenging advent of " Efficiency " ?
This dark question had presented itself about a year before. At that time, as occasion arose, I was contributing an article now and then to The D-C-. Mr. H- W- M-, the Editor, who is respected and beloved by all who know him, especially by such as have humane Tory insight, had done me the honour to invite writings. Being in ignorance about the solidarity of man and the trend of progress, I was never to pen a word touching politics; but on such subjects as are afforded by field-sports, subjects of purely pagan interest,I was to say what there was to be said quite frankly. This would help to show the world that, although The D-C-was the friend of Humanity, it was not the enemy of man. It had still some lurking self-consciousness of the original sin that makes all of us ready for the chase, and would not be ashamed of bearing symptoms of this undeniable predisposition to Anti-Jacobinism.
All went well for a good long time, and I quite enjoyed my charge of the Nonconformist Conscience in its sinful tendencies. I felt like a high priest of Satanism in a new and rather rational school. Trouble, however, was at hand. One evening H. W. M., pale and obviously perturbed, came to speak to me as he was passing out of the coffee-room. "That leader this morning," he said, haltingly,—"H-, who has just been dining with me, says it's something awful." " Ah ! I'm sorry, Editor ; but why ?" "Well," said H. W. M., taking a seat very seriously, " H- says you're all wrong about the Dry Fly; that you do not seem to understand what Lord Gwas trying to say in its praise ; and that it is a pity we treated his book just as if we thought that because a man's a Tory he can't be right even about trout-fishing.
I must say I agree with H-".
In a way this was pleasant hearing.
Mr. L- V-H-, who had been arraigning the article in H. W. M.'s journal, is the rising son of a great Liberal family, and it was chivalrous of him to protest when he considered that a political opponent had been ill-used. It was necessary to admit, also, that I had not viewed Lord G-'s book quite without what might be considered prejudice. For a good many years the Dry Fly had been a craze. Writers in the journals of sport were always penning delirious rhapsodies about it; and the very ladies you took in to dinner, most of whom did not know one fly from another, enlarged upon the subject. Lord G- had gone even further. Not content with expressing his liking for the new method, he had sneered at anglers who used the old method, which he flouted as " the chuck-it-and-chance-it principle." In the literature of the open air, his style had jarred. It had seemed to me that the Lord Chancellor would not have been more incongruous if by way of introduction to the Speech from the Throne he had danced a reel on the Woolsack. I submitted those thoughts to the Editor. Surely, I urged, he would allow it to be a matter for grief that Lord G- had been lacking in urbanity ? Angry words were a misfit in the literature of sport. A game-shot was not derided because he didn't have a Purdey gun: why should an angler be jibed at because he didn't use the Dry Fly ? The Editor smiled; but he was not persuaded. His answer was to the effect that the article had been written in a bit of a temper too : that the writer had been vexed with Lord Gbecause his style had not been to the credit of Toryism, which, it seemed, was a matter of general taste as well as a matter of specific opinions; and that a main purpose in the critical attitude towards the book was to arrest the downfall of Toryism by preventing the spread of bad style. A fine purpose to put The D- C- to ! Reactionary propagandist! in disguise: Jesuitical, it might almost be said. " But to the cold facts," H. W. M. continued, speaking with gentle impetuosity : " Was the Dry Fly right, or was it not right ? " " Does H- say that it is the best way of catching trout ?" I asked. " He says more than that," the Editor answered : "he says that on chalk-streams it is the only way".