A Lazy, Idle Brook
by Henry van Dyke
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business is only
to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.
And it is not by any means certain that a man’s business is
the most important thing he has to do.”
—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: An Apology for Idlers.
I. A CASUAL INTRODUCTION
On the South Shore of Long Island, all things incline to a natural somnolence. There are no ambitious mountains, no braggart cliffs, no hasty torrents, no hustling waterfalls in that land,
“In which it seemeth always afternoon.”
The salt meadows sleep in the summer sun; the farms and market-gardens yield a placid harvest to a race of singularly unhurried tillers of the soil; the low hills rise with gentle slopes, not caring to get too high in the world, only far enough to catch a pleasant glimpse of the sea and a breath of fresh air; the very trees grow leisurely, as if they felt that they had “all the time there is.” And from this dreamy land, close as it lies to the unresting ocean, the tumult of the breakers and the foam of ever-turning tides are shut off by the languid lagoons of the Great South Bay and a long range of dunes, crested with wire-grass, bay-bushes, and wild-roses.
In such a country you could not expect a little brook to be noisy, fussy, energetic. If it were not lazy, it would be out of keeping.
But the actual and undisguised idleness of this particular brook was another affair, and one in which it was distinguished among its fellows. For almost all the other little rivers of the South Shore, lazy as they may be by nature, yet manage to do some kind of work before they finish the journey from their crystal-clear springs into the brackish waters of the bay. They turn the wheels of sleepy gristmills, while the miller sits with his hands in his pockets underneath the willow-trees. They fill reservoirs out of which great steam-engines pump the water to quench the thirst of Brooklyn. Even the smaller streams tarry long enough in their seaward sauntering to irrigate a few cranberry-bogs and so provide that savoury sauce which makes the Long Island turkey a fitter subject for Thanksgiving.
But this brook of which I speak did none of these useful things. It was absolutely out of business.
There was not a mill, nor a reservoir, nor a cranberry-bog, on all its course of a short mile. The only profitable affair it ever undertook was to fill a small ice-pond near its entrance into the Great South Bay. You could hardly call this a very energetic enterprise. It amounted to little more than a good-natured consent to allow itself to be used by the winter for the making of ice, if the winter happened to be cold enough. Even this passive industry came to nothing; for the water, being separated from the bay only by a short tideway under a wooden bridge on the south country road, was too brackish to freeze easily; and the ice, being pervaded with weeds, was not much relished by the public. So the wooden ice-house, innocent of paint, and toned by the weather to a soft, sad-coloured gray, stood like an improvised ruin among the pine-trees beside the pond.
It was through this unharvested ice-pond, this fallow field of water, that my lady Graygown and I entered on acquaintance with our lazy, idle brook. We had a house, that summer, a few miles down the bay. But it was a very small house, and the room that we like best was out of doors. So we spent much time in a sailboat,—by name “The Patience,”—making voyages of exploration into watery corners and byways. Sailing past the wooden bridge one day, when a strong east wind had made a very low tide, we observed the water flowing out beneath the road with an eddying current. We were interested to discover where such a stream came from. But the sailboat could not go under the bridge, nor even make a landing on the shore without risk of getting aground. The next day we came back in a rowboat to follow the clue of curiosity. The tide was high now, and we passed with the reversed current under the bridge, almost bumping our heads against the timbers. Emerging upon the pond, we rowed across its shallow, weed-encumbered waters, and were introduced without ceremony to one of the most agreeable brooks that we had ever met.
It was quite broad where it came into the pond,—a hundred feet from side to side,—bordered with flags and rushes and feathery meadow grasses. The real channel meandered in sweeping curves from bank to bank, and the water, except in the swifter current, was filled with an amazing quantity of some aquatic moss. The woods came straggling down on either shore. There were fallen trees in the stream here and there. On one of the points an old swamp-maple, with its decrepit branches and its leaves already touched with the hectic colours of decay, hung far out over the water which was undermining it, looking and leaning downward, like an aged man who bends, half-sadly and half-willingly, towards the grave.
But for the most part the brook lay wide open to the sky, and the tide, rising and sinking somewhat irregularly in the pond below, made curious alternations in its depth and in the swiftness of its current. For about half a mile we navigated this lazy little river, and then we found that rowing would carry us no farther, for we came to a place where the stream issued with a livelier flood from an archway in a thicket.
This woodland portal was not more than four feet wide, and the branches of the small trees were closely interwoven overhead. We shipped the oars and took one of them for a paddle. Stooping down, we pushed the boat through the archway and found ourselves in the Fairy Dell. It was a long, narrow bower, perhaps four hundred feet from end to end, with the brook dancing through it in a joyous, musical flow over a bed of clean yellow sand and white pebbles. There were deep places in the curves where you could hardly touch bottom with an oar, and shallow places in the straight runs where the boat would barely float. Not a ray of unbroken sunlight leaked through the green roof of this winding corridor; and all along the sides there were delicate mosses and tall ferns and wildwood flowers that love the shade.
At the upper end of the bower our progress in the boat was barred by a low bridge, on a forgotten road that wound through the pine-woods. Here I left my lady Graygown, seated on the shady corner of the bridge with a book, swinging her feet over the stream, while I set out to explore its further course. Above the wood-road there were no more fairy dells, nor easy-going estuaries. The water came down through the most complicated piece of underbrush that I have ever encountered. Alders and swamp maples and pussy-willows and gray birches grew together in a wild confusion. Blackberry bushes and fox-grapes and cat-briers trailed and twisted themselves in an incredible tangle. There was only one way to advance, and that was to wade in the middle of the brook, stooping low, lifting up the pendulous alder-branches, threading a tortuous course, now under and now over the innumerable obstacles, as a darning-needle is pushed in and out through the yarn of a woollen stocking.
It was dark and lonely in that difficult passage. The brook divided into many channels, turning this way and that way, as if it were lost in the woods. There were huge clumps of OSMUNDA REGALIS spreading their fronds in tropical profusion. Mouldering logs were covered with moss. The water gurgled slowly into deep corners under the banks. Catbirds and blue jays fluttered screaming from the thickets. Cotton-tailed rabbits darted away, showing the white flag of fear. Once I thought I saw the fuscous gleam of a red fox stealing silently through the brush. It would have been no surprise to hear the bark of a raccoon, or see the eyes of a wildcat gleaming through the leaves.
For more than an hour I was pushing my way through this miniature wilderness of half a mile; and then I emerged suddenly, to find myself face to face with—a railroad embankment and the afternoon express, with its parlour-cars, thundering down to Southampton!
It was a strange and startling contrast. The explorer’s joy, the sense of adventure, the feeling of wildness and freedom, withered and crumpled somewhat preposterously at the sight of the parlour-cars. My scratched hands and wet boots and torn coat seemed unkempt and disreputable. Perhaps some of the well-dressed people looking out at the windows of the train were the friends with whom we were to dine on Saturday. BATECHE! What would they say to such a costume as mine? What did I care what they said!
But, all the same, it was a shock, a disenchantment, to find that civilization, with all its absurdities and conventionalities, was so threateningly close to my new-found wilderness. My first enthusiasm was not a little chilled as I walked back, along an open woodland path, to the bridge where Graygown was placidly reading. Reading, I say, though her book was closed, and her brown eyes were wandering over the green leaves of the thicket, and the white clouds drifting, drifting lazily across the blue deep of the sky.
II. A BETTER ACQUAINTANCE
On the voyage home, she gently talked me out of my disappointment, and into a wiser frame of mind.
It was a surprise, of course, she admitted, to find that our wilderness was so little, and to discover the trail of a parlour-car on the edge of Paradise. But why not turn the surprise around, and make it pleasant instead of disagreeable? Why not look at the contrast from the side that we liked best?
It was not necessary that everybody should take the same view of life that pleased us. The world would not get on very well without people who preferred parlour-cars to canoes, and patent-leather shoes to India-rubber boots, and ten-course dinners to picnics in the woods. These good people were unconsciously toiling at the hard and necessary work of life in order that we, of the chosen and fortunate few, should be at liberty to enjoy the best things in the world.
Why should we neglect our opportunities, which were also our real duties? The nervous disease of civilization might prevail all around us, but that ought not to destroy our grateful enjoyment of the lucid intervals that were granted to us by a merciful Providence.
Why should we not take this little untamed brook, running its humble course through the borders of civilized life and midway between two flourishing summer resorts,—a brook without a single house or a cultivated field on its banks, as free and beautiful and secluded as if it flowed through miles of trackless forest,—why not take this brook as a sign that the ordering of the universe had a “good intention” even for inveterate idlers, and that the great Arranger of the world felt some kindness for such gipsy-hearts as ours? What law, human or divine, was there to prevent us from making this stream our symbol of deliverance from the conventional and commonplace, our guide to liberty and a quiet mind?
So reasoned Graygown with her
“most silver flow Of subtle-paced counsel in distress.”
And, according to her word, so did we. That lazy, idle brook became to us one of the best of friends; the pathfinder of happiness on many a bright summer day; and, through long vacations, the faithful encourager of indolence.
Indolence in the proper sense of the word, you understand. The meaning which is commonly given to it, as Archbishop Trench pointed out in his suggestive book about WORDS AND THEIR USES, is altogether false. To speak of indolence as if it were a vice is just a great big verbal slander.
Indolence is a virtue. It comes from two Latin words, which mean freedom from anxiety or grief. And that is a wholesome state of mind. There are times and seasons when it is even a pious and blessed state of mind. Not to be in a hurry; not to be ambitious or jealous or resentful; not to feel envious of anybody; not to fret about to-day nor worry about to-morrow,—that is the way we ought all to feel at some time in our lives; and that is the kind of indolence in which our brook faithfully encouraged us.
‘T is an age in which such encouragement is greatly needed. We have fallen so much into the habit of being always busy that we know not how nor when to break it off with firmness. Our business tags after us into the midst of our pleasures, and we are ill at ease beyond reach of the telegraph and the daily newspaper. We agitate ourselves amazingly about a multitude of affairs,—the politics of Europe, the state of the weather all around the globe, the marriages and festivities of very rich people, and the latest novelties in crime, none of which are of vital interest to us. The more earnest souls among us are cultivating a vicious tendency to Summer Schools, and Seaside Institutes of Philosophy, and Mountaintop Seminaries of Modern Languages.
We toil assiduously to cram something more into those scrap-bags of knowledge which we fondly call our minds. Seldom do we rest tranquil long enough to find out whether there is anything in them already that is of real value,—any native feeling, any original thought, which would like to come out and sun itself for a while in quiet.
For my part, I am sure that I stand more in need of a deeper sense of contentment with life than of a knowledge of the Bulgarian tongue, and that all the paradoxes of Hegel would not do me so much good as one hour of vital sympathy with the careless play of children. The Marquis du Paty de l’Huitre may espouse the daughter and heiress of the Honourable James Bulger with all imaginable pomp, if he will. CA NE M’INTRIGUE POINT DU TOUT. I would rather stretch myself out on the grass and watch yonder pair of kingbirds carrying luscious flies to their young ones in the nest, or chasing away the marauding crow with shrill cries of anger.
What a pretty battle it is, and in a good cause, too! Waste no pity on that big black ruffian. He is a villain and a thief, an egg-stealer, an ogre, a devourer of unfledged innocents. The kingbirds are not afraid of him, knowing that he is a coward at heart. They fly upon him, now from below, now from above. They buffet him from one side and from the other. They circle round him like a pair of swift gunboats round an antiquated man-of-war. They even perch upon his back and dash their beaks into his neck and pluck feathers from his piratical plumage. At last his lumbering flight has carried him far enough away, and the brave little defenders fly back to the nest, poising above it on quivering wings for a moment, then dipping down swiftly in pursuit of some passing insect. The war is over. Courage has had its turn. Now tenderness comes into play. The young birds, all ignorant of the passing danger, but always conscious of an insatiable hunger, are uttering loud remonstrances and plaintive demands for food. Domestic life begins again, and they that sow not, neither gather into barns, are fed.
Do you suppose that this wondrous stage of earth was set, and all the myriad actors on it taught to play their parts, without a spectator in view? Do you think that there is anything better for you and me to do, now and then, than to sit down quietly in a humble seat, and watch a few scenes in the drama? Has it not something to say to us, and do we not understand it best when we have a peaceful heart and free from dolor? That is what IN-DOLENCE means, and there are no better teachers of it then the light-hearted birds and untoiling flowers, commended by the wisest of all masters to our consideration; nor can we find a more pleasant pedagogue to lead us to their school than a small, merry brook.
And this was what our chosen stream did for us. It was always luring us away from an artificial life into restful companionship with nature.
Suppose, for example, we found ourselves growing a bit dissatisfied with the domestic arrangements of our little cottage, and coveting the splendours of a grander establishment. An afternoon on the brook was a good cure for that folly. Or suppose a day came when there was an imminent prospect of many formal calls. We had an important engagement up the brook; and while we kept it we could think with satisfaction of the joy of our callers when they discovered that they could discharge their whole duty with a piece of pasteboard. This was an altruistic pleasure. Or suppose that a few friends were coming to supper, and there were no flowers for the supper-table. We could easily have bought them in the village. But it was far more to our liking to take the children up the brook, and come back with great bunches of wild white honeysuckle and blue flag, or posies of arrowheads and cardinal-flowers. Or suppose that I was very unwisely and reluctantly labouring at some serious piece of literary work, promised for the next number of THE SCRIBBLER’S REVIEW; and suppose that in the midst of this labour the sad news came to me that the fisherman had forgotten to leave any fish at our cottage that morning. Should my innocent babes and my devoted wife be left to perish of starvation while I continued my poetical comparison of the two Williams, Shakspeare and Watson? Inhuman selfishness! Of course it was my plain duty to sacrifice my inclinations, and get my fly-rod, and row away across the bay, with a deceptive appearance of cheerfulness, to catch a basket of trout in—
III. THE SECRETS OF INTIMACY
THERE! I came within eight letters of telling the name of the brook, a thing that I am firmly resolved not to do. If it were an ordinary fishless little river, or even a stream with nothing better than grass-pike and sunfish in it, you should have the name and welcome. But when a brook contains speckled trout, and when their presence is known to a very few persons who guard the secret as the dragon guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, and when the size of the trout is large beyond the dreams of hope,—well, when did you know a true angler who would willingly give away the name of such a brook as that? You may find an encourager of indolence in almost any stream of the South Side, and I wish you joy of your brook. But if you want to catch trout in mine you must discover it for yourself, or perhaps go with me some day, and solemnly swear secrecy.
That was the way in which the freedom of the stream was conferred upon me. There was a small boy in the village, the son of rich but respectable parents, and an inveterate all-round sportsman, aged fourteen years, with whom I had formed a close intimacy. I was telling him about the pleasure of exploring the idle brook, and expressing the opinion that in bygone days, (in that mythical “forty years ago” when all fishing was good), there must have been trout in it. A certain look came over the boy’s face. He gazed at me solemnly, as if he were searching the inmost depths of my character before he spoke.
“Say, do you want to know something?”
I assured him that an increase of knowledge was the chief aim of my life.
“Do you promise you won’t tell?”
I expressed my readiness to be bound to silence by the most awful pledge that the law would sanction.
“Wish you may die?”
I not only wished that I might die, but was perfectly certain that I would die.
“Well, what’s the matter with catching trout in that brook now? Do you want to go with me next Saturday? I saw four or five bully ones last week, and got three.”
On the appointed day we made the voyage, landed at the upper bridge, walked around by the woodpath to the railroad embankment, and began to worm our way down through the tangled wilderness. Fly-fishing, of course, was out of the question. The only possible method of angling was to let the line, baited with a juicy “garden hackle,” drift down the current as far as possible before you, under the alder-branches and the cat-briers, into the holes and corners of the stream. Then, if there came a gentle tug on the rod, you must strike, to one side or the other, as the branches might allow, and trust wholly to luck for a chance to play the fish. Many a trout we lost that day,—the largest ones, of course,—and many a hook was embedded in a sunken log, or hopelessly entwined among the boughs overhead. But when we came out at the bridge, very wet and disheveled, we had seven pretty fish, the heaviest about half a pound. The Fairy Dell yielded a brace of smaller ones, and altogether we were reasonably happy as we took up the oars and pushed out upon the open stream.
But if there were fish above, why should there not be fish below? It was about sunset, the angler’s golden hour. We were already committed to the crime of being late for supper. It would add little to our guilt and much to our pleasure to drift slowly down the middle of the brook and cast the artful fly in the deeper corners on either shore. So I took off the vulgar bait-hook and put on a delicate leader with a Queen of the Water for a tail-fly and a Yellow Sally for a dropper,—innocent little confections of feathers and tinsel, dressed on the tiniest hooks, and calculated to tempt the appetite or the curiosity of the most capricious trout.
For a long time the whipping of the water produced no result, and it seemed as if the dainty style of angling were destined to prove less profitable than plain fishing with a worm. But presently we came to an elbow of the brook, just above the estuary, where there was quite a stretch of clear water along the lower side, with two half-sunken logs sticking out from the bank, against which the current had drifted a broad raft of weeds. I made a long cast, and sent the tail-fly close to the edge of the weeds. There was a swelling ripple on the surface of the water, and a noble fish darted from under the logs, dashed at the fly, missed it, and whirled back to his shelter.
“Gee!” said the boy, “that was a whacker! He made a wake like a steamboat.”
It was a moment for serious thought. What was best to be done with that fish? Leave him to settle down for the night and come back after him another day? Or try another cast for him at once? A fish on Saturday evening is worth two on Monday morning. I changed the Queen of the Water for a Royal Coachman tied on a number fourteen hook,—white wings, peacock body with a belt of crimson silk,—and sent it out again, a foot farther up the stream and a shade closer to the weeds. As it settled on the water, there was a flash of gold from the shadow beneath the logs, and a quick turn of the wrist made the tiny hook fast in the fish. He fought wildly to get back to the shelter of his logs, but the four ounce rod had spring enough in it to hold him firmly away from that dangerous retreat. Then he splurged up and down the open water, and made fierce dashes among the grassy shallows, and seemed about to escape a dozen times. But at last his force was played out; he came slowly towards the boat, turning on his side, and I netted him in my hat.
“Bully for us;” said the boy, “we got him! What a dandy!”
It was indeed one of the handsomest fish that I have ever taken on the South Side,—just short of two pounds and a quarter,—small head, broad tail, and well-rounded sides coloured with orange and blue and gold and red. A pair of the same kind, one weighing two pounds and the other a pound and three quarters, were taken by careful fishing down the lower end of the pool, and then we rowed home through the dusk, pleasantly convinced that there is no virtue more certainly rewarded than the patience of anglers, and entirely willing to put up with a cold supper and a mild reproof for the sake of sport.
Of course we could not resist the temptation to show those fish to the neighbours. But, equally of course, we evaded the request to give precise information as to the precise place where they were caught. Indeed, I fear that there must have been something confused in our description of where we had been on that afternoon. Our carefully selected language may have been open to misunderstanding. At all events, the next day, which was the Sabbath, there was a row of eager but unprincipled anglers sitting on a bridge OVER ANOTHER STREAM, and fishing for trout with worms and large expectations, but without visible results.
The boy and I agreed that if this did not teach a good moral lesson it was not our fault.
I obtained the boy’s consent to admit the partner of my life’s joys and two of our children to the secret of the brook, and thereafter, when we visited it, we took the fly-rod with us. If by chance another boat passed us in the estuary, we were never fishing, but only gathering flowers, or going for a picnic, or taking photographs. But when the uninitiated ones had passed by, we would get out the rod again, and try a few more casts.
One day in particular I remember, when Graygown and little Teddy were my companions. We really had no hopes of angling, for the hour was mid-noon, and the day was warm and still. But suddenly the trout, by one of those unaccountable freaks which make their disposition so interesting and attractive, began to rise all about us in a bend of the stream.
“Look!” said Teddy; “wherever you see one of those big smiles on the water, I believe there’s a fish!”
Fortunately the rod was at hand. Graygown and Teddy managed the boat and the landing-net with consummate skill. We landed no less than a dozen beautiful fish at that most unlikely hour and then solemnly shook hands all around.
There is a peculiar pleasure in doing a thing like this, catching trout in a place where nobody thinks of looking for them, and at an hour when everybody believes they cannot be caught. It is more fun to take one good fish out of an old, fished-out stream, near at hand to the village, than to fill a basket from some far-famed and well-stocked water. It is the unexpected touch that tickles our sense of pleasure. While life lasts, we are always hoping for it and expecting it. There is no country so civilized, no existence so humdrum, that there is not room enough in it somewhere for a lazy, idle brook, an encourager of indolence, with hope of happy surprises.