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By what mystery of alchemy the water compounds during its winter wait under the thick ice this amethystine glow in its pellucid depths I do not know, but the spring sunlight always shows it as it sends its shafts down into the quivering shallows, and it creams the foam that fluffs beneath the gate of the old dam and flows seaward.
This gate is always lifted a little and the stream never fails. In spring its brimming volume floods the meadows and roars down miniature rocky gorges, -- a soothing lullaby of a roar that you may hear crooning in at your window of an April night to surely sing you to sleep. In summer the gateman comes along and puts a mute on the stream by dropping the gate a little, and it lisps and purls through the little gorges, slipping from one rock-bound pool to another.
In April the suckers come up, breasting the flood from another pond a half-mile down stream, to spawn; great, sturdy, lithe, shiny-sided fellows they are, at this time of year almost as beautiful and as alert as salmon, weighing sometimes five or six pounds. The same intoxication which makes the flood froth and dance and shout as it tumbles down the steeps from meadow to meadow seems to thrill in their veins and give them strength to cleave an arrow flight through the quivering rapids and gambol up the falls with an exultant agility that seems strange in this fish that is so sluggish and dull on the pond bottom in midsummer.
Adam's ale is brewed the year round, but it is the spring drought that works miracles of agility in the blood of somber creatures. Winter fishes are like some middle-class Englishmen sitting glum and motionless in their stalls. Only when tapster Spring draws the ale and the bar-maid brooks dance blithely down with foaming mugs do we learn how jovial and athletic they may be. Thus the suckers, suddenly waking to exuberant activity, swim the frothing current, leap the miniature falls like gleaming salmon, and congregate just below the dam.
Some years the gateman has kindly instincts at just the psychological moment and comes over and shuts down the gate of a Saturday afternoon in the presence of many boys, in whose veins also froths the exultant foam of spring joy. Then, indeed, does low water spell Waterloo for the suckers. In the shoaling current they flee down stream, seeking the deeper pools and hiding under stones in water-worn hollows wherever they can find refuge.
There is a crude instrument, formerly a familiar output of the local blacksmith, known as a sucker spear. It is composed of two cast-off horseshoes, one being straightened and welded across the other in the middle of the bend. This gives a rough imitation of Neptune's trident with the three prongs a good half-inch broad and usually sharpened to a cutting edge. Mounted on a long pole it is complete, and its possession makes of a boy a vengeful Poseidon having dominion over the shallows of the brook. Boys who know no better because they have been taught by their elders that this is the way to do it, "spear" suckers with these instruments. A handy youngster can guillotine a five-pound fish into two separate, bloody sections with this plunging death, and fork the limp and quivering remnants up on the bank with it.
Even the boy who does it, though he whoops with the wild delight of bloody conquest, knows that this is not sport. There is a better way to catch suckers, and he who has once learned it willingly discards the crude instrument of the blacksmith for the fine touch of the true sportsman. He matches boy against fish, and feels the man thrill through his marrow every time he wins. It is the same game that great John Ridd learned from his primitive forbears on the West of England's moors, whereby he went forth to tickle trout in the icy stream and was led into the enchanted valley where dwelt huge outlaws -- and Lorna Doone. Bare-legged and bare-armed you wade into the icy water and slip your hands gently under the big stones at bottom, wherever there are crevices into which a fish might enter. If you have the requisite fineness of touch, experience will soon tell you what it is you feel beneath in the darkness of the watery cave. It may be nothing but the fine play of currents across your fingers, in which all sensitiveness and expectation seem to center. It is wonderful how much soul crowds down into your finger-tips when they feel for something you cannot see in places where things may bite.
There may be a turtle there, and if so you have leave to withdraw. It may be an eel, and you need not mind, for the eel will take care of himself; you can no more grasp him than you can the quivering currents. It is customary to expect water-snakes, and there is a fineness of delight about the dread that the expectation inspires that is just a little more than mortal. Orpheus, seeking dead Eurydice, must have turned the corners on the way down with some such feeling. Perhaps it is because the dread is groundless that it is so deific. It has no basis in the senses, but is purely a creature of the finer imaginings. The water-snake is harmless if by any chance he could be there. But there is no chance of this. At the sucker time of the year he is still sleeping his winter sleep, tucked away in some rock crevice of the upper bank, safe from flood and frost.
If you prod crudely the big fish will take flight and rush to another hiding place. But if you are wise and careful enough you will feel something swaying in the current and stroking your fingers like the soft touch of a feather duster. It is the big fellow's tail and you will soon learn better than to grab it. The muscular strength of one of these big fish is beyond belief. Howsoever tight your grip on him here, he will swing his body from side to side with such force and swiftness that he will writhe from your hold before you can get him out of water.
That is not the way to do it. Instead, you cunningly slip your hand gently along from his tail toward his head: You will likely go over your rolled-up sleeve; perhaps it will be necessary to plunge shoulder and even head in the effort to reach far enough.
Having discounted the Plutonian water-snakes you will find this but giving zest to the game; indeed, it is doubtful if you know that it has happened until it is all over. Your palm slides gingerly over the dorsal fin and goes on till you feel the gentle waving of the pectorals. Then suddenly you grip a thumb and finger into the gills, showing the iron hand through the velvet, and with one strong surge lift your fish from beneath his rock and fling him high upon the bank.
There is a fundamental joy in this kind of fishing that you can get in no other. If there were fish in the rivers of Paradise Adam caught them for Eve in this way. I have always been sorry that big John Ridd found nothing but fingerling trout on his way up the little stream that led to the Doone Valley. He should have tackled our brook in April.
Along the stream to-day, noting the pussy-willows all out in spring garments of pearl gray and the alders swaying and sifting yellow dust from their open stamens, I passed the spot where Bose and I met as early a spring run of fish as often occurs. Bose would corroborate it if he could, but, unfortunately, Bose is somewhat dead, as much so as a dog of his spirit and imagination can be. His bones lie decently buried down under the great oak where he loved to sit and think about foxes, but I am not so sure about the rest of it. If there are any happy hunting-grounds where the souls of game flee away I warrant Bose leads the pack. He was a full-blooded foxhound, deep-chested, musical, lop-eared; and he didn't know a fox from a buff cochin. He hunted continually, but rarely on a real trail. His nose was for visions.
It was on a first day of April that we came out of the door together, and Bose took one sniff, lifted his head, bayed musically, and was off into the pasture with me following, both of us ripe for any adventure. There was a smell of spring in the air; indeed, I was not sure but it was the green-robed, violet-crowned goddess whom the dog set forth to hunt. If so, I was more than glad to follow, for the winters seem long in my town. We know that the sun-god is pursuing Daphne northward. We have signs of her in the yearning of willow twigs and the shy blooming of hepaticas. If she should already be hiding in some sunny, sheltered nook of the pasture Bose would be as likely to go after her as any other vision.
March had gone out like a lamb, trailing a shorn fleece of mists behind him, -- mists that morning sun tinted with opal fires that burned out after a little and left pale-blue ashes smeared in the hollows and blown soft against the distant hills. All through the air thrilled the glamor of those new-born hopes that attend the goddess, and I wanted to give tongue with Bose when I found him quartering the barberry slope of the upper pasture with clumsy gallop.
He had led me plump into fairy-land at the first plunge, for the brown leaves of last year rustled with the tread of brownies, and I came up in time to see a fat gnome rolling along, humping his shoulders and jiggling with laughter before the uproarious onslaught of the dog, turning at the burrow's mouth to grin in the teeth of eager jaws and vanish into thin air as they clicked. A woodchuck? So Hodge would call it, seeing according to his kind. Probably Bose knew it for a fox, a silver-gray at least, according to his foxhound dreams. I myself knew that spring glamor was on all the woodland and that this was a round-paunched gnome, guardian of buried treasure, out for an April day frolic, and going back reluctantly to his post after having a moment's fun with the dog.
As for the brownies, they were signs, or rather forerunners, pacemakers to the spring. I could see the little black eyes and droll-pointed noses of them as they worked eagerly all about in the shrubbery, passing the word that the goddess might arrive at any moment and that it was time to dress for her. Now they whispered it to terminal buds, and now to lateral, but mostly they put their brown heads down among the leaves, giving the message to bulb and corm, tuber and root stock. I could hear them calling all about. a quaint little elfin note of "tseep, tseep," and anon one would turn a roguish handspring and vanish, thus hocus-pocusing himself to the next northward grove.
Busy brownies they were, -- hop-o'-my-thumbs clad in rufous-brown feather coats that so harmonized with the dead leaves among which they worked that it was difficult to see them except when they moved. Ornithologists, bound by the letter of their knowledge, would, I dare say, name these fox sparrows; but even these might have hesitated and forgotten their literalness, looking into newborn April's smiling face that blue-misted morning, out trailing the spring with Bose.
Then, much like the brownies, Bose vanished. He seemed to have lost the trail, nor was my scent keener, though all about were signs. The maple twigs were decorated with rosettes of red and yellow in honor of her coming. Birch twigs reddened with them, and the woodland that had been gray was fairly blushing with tell-tale color. Over on an open, sandy hillside the cinquefoil buds were beginning to curl upward, and in the heart of violet leaves faint hints of blue made you think of sleepy children just opening a little of one eye at promise of morning.
Here, too, I was conscious of a faint, ethereally fine perfume that seemed to float suddenly to my senses as if it had come over the treetops from the south. From up stream came the babble of the brook like dainty laughter. If I had heard the swish of silken garments floating away in the direction from which these came I had not been surprised. Eagerly I turned and followed where they led me.
Soon I heard Bose again, a half-mile behind; he, too, had caught the trail. Baying eagerly, he galloped by a few minutes later, interjecting into his uproar by some strange method of dog elocution a whine of recognition and an invitation to follow.
So he went on down the pasture. No leaf bud had opened, though many were agape, ready to burst with the pulse of new life that throbbed through 'the twigs and heightened their colors. The swamp blueberry bushes and the wild smilax were the greener for it, just as the maples and birches were the redder. With your ear to the bark you might hear the thrumming of the sap in the cambium layers, practicing a second to the drone of bees to come a little later. And still the fairy fine scent lured me, and I could hear Bose's voice, eager to incoherence, just ahead. If you did not know about his visions you would surely think he had a fox in his jaw and was shaking him.
Down a sunny slope, robed in the diaphanous gray-green of bursting birch-buds, the fairy odor led me to a little bower on the bank, where for a moment "I saw the nymph herself stand, rosy pink; slender and sweet, gowned in the birch-bud color all shimmered with the yellow of alder pollen drawn in filmy gauze about her. Strange goblins in silvery brown danced in grotesque gambols at her feet, while behind the bank I heard the splashing of Bose in shallow water, frenzied howls of excitement and ecstasy followed each time by another of the clumsy goblins somersaulting up from below to join the dance. Fairy-land and goblin town had indeed come together in celebration of the arrival of the spring!
On the threshold of this realm I trod a moment bewildered, and then, stumbling, broke the spell with a hasty exclamation. The enchantment vanished like a dream. Standing by the brookside I saw only the homely world again. Yet it was a strange enough sight. Up at the dam the gate had suddenly been closed, and a dozen three-pound fish, on their way up to spawn, had been marooned in the shallow water. These Bose was shaking up in wild delight and tossing up on the bank, where they danced in clumsy, fish-out-of-water dismay. These were the dancing goblins; nor had I been very far wrong about Daphne. There she stood still, slender and dainty, only, just as when pursued by Apollo of old, she had turned into a shrub. There she stood, the Daphne mezereum of the elder botanists, the clustering blooms of pink sending forth their faint, sweet odor that had come so far down the pasture to Bose and me and sent us hunting visions.
To be sure, it was the first of April! But the joke was not all on us, for Bose had for once found real game, albeit such as foxhound never hunted before, and I had found the spring. Two bluebirds, house-hunting among the willows, caroled in confirmation of it, and Apollo himself, shining through the gray mist of birch twigs, kissed Daphne rapturously.
She was so sweet that I did not blame him. As for Bose, he actually came up and licked the blushing twigs, then in sudden confusion at being caught in such sentimental actions, tore off on the make-believe trail of more visions, leaving me to rescue his gamboling goblins and put them back into their native water.
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