There is comfort in recalling this conversation. It is good to feel assured that the spirit of the sportsman is in one respect identical with that of the supreme rationalist, the poet. The sportsman has the poet's illogicality; he has also the poet's vindication. Unquestionably the best of all pursuits by flood or field is that in which he chances to be engaged. " But why," some one may ask, " should there be any comparison at all ?" It would have been well to have on this point an opinion of counsel, the poet. I think I can divine what he would have said. The mind of the artist is something more than a sensitised plate. It is a plate that has been used before. It compares one set of impressions with another set or other sets. The contrast is necessary. There could be no reasoning, no art, without it. That explains and justifies certain undertakings often flouted by superior persons as ridiculous. It accounts for each and all of the many " best hundred books "; for the fact that our most equitable men cannot propose Science as a subject at the Universities without speaking despitefully of Greek; and for the inevitability with which the School of Humanities uphold the Classics by denouncing Science in terms that cannot be printed on a page so polite as this. Contrast is essential in all critical or artistic actions of the mind. Has some one, for example, stalked the red-deer and written a narrative of the chase? It may be that there seemed to be no conscious contrast with anything else in his enjoyment of the actual sport; but his narrative, if it be artistic, will be found to derive piquancy from a skilfully conveyed sense that the sport was a delightful interlude in humdrum occupations. Probably he will go so far as to treat his particular recreation as the best of sports. Why not ? If he does, he falls in with a usage of the mind which, though it may be the source of antipathetic fallacies, has a result to be warmly welcomed. He becomes enthusiastic, as a poet is when at his best, and says what he has to say in words which, being the most cunningly arranged and the most attractive possible to him, are close to the truth as he perceives it. Literature born to immortality is in most cases, I think, of roseate hue and happy on the whole.
The immortals, as a rule, seem never to have time for field sports. The few exceptions I can think of at the moment are Walton, Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Lang, and Mr. Blackmore. A passage in Sir Walter here and there shows that the neglected vein is rich; and " My Lord the Elephant," which has the atmosphere of sport, though not the motive, is the happiest of Mr. Kipling's tales. What a book on Salmon Fishing we should have if a poet essayed the subject ! Sport, like a battle, being not in rhythm, he would not write in verse; but he would bring to the task a gift in which we pedestrians of the prose plains are lacking. An ordinary vagabond, such as myself, sees all that he would see, and feels all that he would feel; but it is not easy to weave the countless incidents and circumstances, none omitted, into a life-like pattern of words. From the poet's hands, the printed page, with all these thrown orderly upon it, would be a rousing magical lantern.
Emotions to be recollected in tranquillity are plentiful in the sport. A salmon on is a singularly agitating crisis. It is, I think, the most deliciously terrifying in the whole range of British sports. " Do you know stag-fright?" I may be asked. Yes; I do know stag-fright, of which I have had seven attacks. I had it, of course, when first, after nearly five miles of wary scrambling up a mountain, I found myself within range of a red-deer. " Now !" whispered the crouching stalker, meaning that I was to fire when he should put the stag up, and make him fair game, by whistling. He whistled. Fire? That was the one act of which I was incapable ! I could not even raise the rifle. I could not think. I was vacuous. Volition was gone. It did not return until the stag was trotting over the sky-line. Stag-fright is no superstition. It is a cerebral state involving a strange and paralysing play upon the nerves. Still, I think that the equivalent excitement in salmon fishing is quite as lofty. It is not so dramatic; but that is only because in salmon fishing you are even less a voluntary agent. There is not the same long working-up to the critical moment. You know when you are at the red-deer, and then are struck as with a palsy, but you have no warning as to when the salmon will be at you, and are perforce comparatively resigned when he is. He lies unseen, and comes unexpectedly; and you are not so much as in deer-stalking dependent upon yourself. The stag cannot be shot by any action of his own; but the salmon may be hooked without deliberate effort on your part. Often he hooks himself and the issue is joined before you have time to be alarmed.
Nevertheless, there are known cases of salmon-fright. Any one who loses his first fish is liable to the infliction. On Loch Voil one of His Majesty's Judges was catching trout. Suddenly, while he was drifting down the submerged river from Loch Doine, a strange commotion arose. His Lordship's line cut whizzing through the water round the bow of the boat; the rod bent violently; twenty yards off', a great fish leaped into the air. When it crashed into the loch again the rod and the sportsman unbent. A salmon had come and gone. Next season, in the same month, the Judge and I were fishing on Loch Earn. That is a water in which salmon are very rare. The fish are plentiful in the Earn, almost up to its very source, which is the loch; but they are hardly ever found in the still water. Some say that this is because the loch is impregnated with minerals obnoxious to the salmon ; but, as the minerals would go with the water into the river, in which the fish thrive splendidly, that cannot be the explanation. The absence of salmon in the loch is, I believe, accounted for by the excellence of the Ruchil, a stream joining the Earn a little way below the source, as a spawning ground. Instead of taking to the loch, the fish run up the Ruchil. Well, that morning we had not expected heavy baskets. Though April was well advanced, winter lingered. There was a strong wind from the east; the sky was heavy with a grey cloud; snow fell persistently. Still, as is often the case in spring, the trout were rising. We could not see any flies on the water; but our own sufficed to raise many a fish. As we were drifting along the south shore, what should I notice, opposite the ancient Keep of Edinample, about fifty yards off? A salmon ! He rose out of the water. There was no mistaking. At least one salmon had strayed into Loch Earn. He was in a direct line from my companion, who was seated at the stern of the boat, while I was at the bow, nearer the shore. That is to say, if we went on as we were going the learned Judge's flies would ere long fall over the fish. An evil thought beset me. Had his Lordship seen the rise ? Perhaps not. He was not saying anything. His gaze was assiduously fixed on the water where his flies were falling. As he was so much absorbed, I might possibly, without being caught in the act, give the oars a touch and send the boat three or four yards out. Then I myself, rather than he, should have a chance of the salmon. This was a quickly fleeting rumination. That fish was clearly his Lordship's bird. I banished the sneakish thought, and inwardly rebuked myself for having allowed it to arise. Silently on we went; silently; silently-until we were very nearly within casting distance of the fateful spot. Then, his line hanging loose in the water, his Lordship turned towards me and ordered me to pull in. " Didn't you see it?" he growled, wrathfully. His tone and his countenance wore the thunderous aspect that would have been the befitting response to a practical joke. Indeed, he believed that I had such a prank in hand. He actually thought I had been wilfully leading him into the salmon's way. Although, the wind being fresh, he was armed with his " storm rod," fourteen feet of cane and lancewood, his Lordship was shirking the chance of again encountering a salmon!