The angler is a mighty spinner of yarns, but no sooner does he set
about the telling than I, knowing him of old, and accounting him not an
uncommon but an unconscionable liar, begin (as Bacon hath it) "to droop
and languish." Nor does the languishing end with the story if I am
compelled to sit it out, for in that state I continue for some hours
after. But oh! the difference when someone who is not an angler relates
a fishing adventure! A plain truthful man who never dined at an
anglers' club, nor knows that he who catches, or tries to catch a fish,
must tell you something to astonish and fill you with envy and
admiration. To a person of this description I am all attention, and
however prosaic and even dull the narrative may be, it fills me with
delight, and sends me happy to bed and (still chuckling) to a
Accordingly, when one of the "commercials" in the coffee-room of the
Plymouth Hotel began to tell a wonderful story of a mackerel he once
caught a very long time back, I immediately put down my pen so as to
listen with all my ears. For he was about the last person one would
have thought of associating with fish-catching--an exceedingly towny-
looking person indeed, one who from his conversation appeared to know
nothing outside of his business. He was past middle age--oldish-looking
for a traveller--his iron-grey hair brushed well up to hide the
baldness on top, disclosing a pair of large ears which stood out like
handles; a hatchet face with parchment skin, antique side whiskers, and
gold-rimmed glasses on his large beaky nose. He wore the whitest linen
and blackest, glossiest broadcloth, a big black cravat, diamond stud in
his shirt-front in the old fashion, and a heavy gold chain with a spade
guinea attached. His get-up and general appearance, though ancient, or
at all events mid-Victorian, proclaimed him a person of considerable
importance in his vocation.
He had, he told us at starting, a very good customer at Bristol,
perhaps the best he ever had, at any rate the one who had stuck longest
to him, since what he was telling us happened about the year 1870. He
went to Bristol expressly to see this man, expecting to get a good
order from him, but when he arrived and saw the wife, and asked for her
husband, she replied that he was away on his holiday with the two
little boys. It was a great disappointment, for, of course, he couldn't
get an order from her. Confound the woman! she was always against him;
what she would have liked was to have half a dozen travellers dangling
about her, so as to pit one against another and distribute the orders
among them just as flirty females distribute their smiles, instead of
putting trust in one.
Where had her husband gone for his holiday? he asked; she said Weymouth
and then was sorry she had let it out. But she refused to give the
address. "No, no," she said; "he's gone to enjoy himself, and mustn't
be reminded of business till he gets back."
However, he resolved to follow him to Weymouth on the chance of finding
him there, and accordingly took the next train to that place. And, he
added, it was lucky for him that he did so, for he very soon found him
with his boys on the front, and, in spite of what she said, it was not
with this man as it was with so many others who refuse to do business
when away from the shop. On the contrary, at Weymouth he secured the
best order this man had given him up to that time; and it was because
he was away from his wife, who had always contrived to be present at
their business meetings, and was very interfering, and made her husband
too cautious in buying.
It was early in the day when this business was finished. "And now,"
said the man from Bristol, who was in a sort of gay holiday mood, "what
are you going to do with yourself for the rest of the day?"
He answered that he was going to take the next train back to London. He
had finished with Weymouth--there was no other customer there.
Here he digressed to tell us that he was a beginner at that time at the
salary of a pound a week and fifteen shillings a day for travelling
expenses. He thought this a great thing at first; when he heard what he
was to get he walked about on air all day long, repeating to himself,
"Fifteen shillings a day for expenses!" It was incredible; he had been
poor, earning about five shillings a week, and now he had suddenly come
into this splendid fortune. It wouldn't be much for him now! He began
by spending recklessly; and in a short time discovered that the fifteen
shillings didn't go far; now he had come to his senses and had to
practise a rigid economy. Accordingly, he thought he would save the
cost of a night's lodging and go back to town. But the Bristol man was
anxious to keep him and said he had hired a man and boat to go fishing
with the boys,--why couldn't he just engage a bedroom for the night and
spend the afternoon with them?
After some demur he consented, and took his bag to a modest Temperance
Hotel, where he secured a room, and then, protesting he had never
caught a fish or seen one caught in his life, he got into the boat, and
was taken into the bay where he was to have his first and only
experience of fishing. Perhaps it was no great thing, but it gave him
something to remember all his life. After a while his line began to
tremble and move about in an extraordinary way with sudden little tugs
which were quite startling, and on pulling it in he found he had a
mackerel on his hook. He managed to get it into the boat all right and
was delighted at his good luck, and still more at the sight of the
fish, shining like silver and showing the most beautiful colours. He
had never seen anything so beautiful in his life! Later, the same thing
happened again with the line and a second mackerel was caught, and
altogether he caught three. His friend also caught a few, and after a
most pleasant and exciting afternoon they returned to the town well
pleased with their sport. His friend wanted him to take a share of the
catch, and after a little persuasion he consented to take one, and he
selected the one he had caught first, just because it was the first
fish he had ever caught in his life, and it had looked more beautiful
than any other, so would probably taste better.
Going back to the hotel he called the maid and told her he had brought
in a mackerel which he had caught for his tea, and ordered her to have
it prepared. He had it boiled and enjoyed it very much, but on the
following morning when the bill was brought to him he found that he had
been charged two shillings for fish.
"Why, what does this item mean?" he exclaimed. "I've had no fish in
this hotel except a mackerel which I caught myself and brought back for
my tea, and now I'm asked to pay two shillings for it? Just take the
bill back to your mistress and tell her the fish was mine--I caught it
myself in the Bay yesterday afternoon."
The girl took it up, and by-and-by returned and said her mistress had
consented to take threepence off the bill as he had provided the fish
"No," he said, indignantly, "I'll have nothing off the bill, I'll pay
the full amount," and pay it he did in his anger, then went off to say
goodbye to his friend, to whom he related the case.
His friend, being in the same hilarious humour as on the previous day,
burst out laughing and made a good deal of fun over the matter.
That, he said, was the whole story of how he went fishing and caught a
mackerel, and what came of it. But it was not quite all, for he went on
to tell us that he still visited Bristol regularly to receive big and
ever bigger orders from that same old customer of his, whose business
had gone on increasing ever since; and invariably after finishing their
business his friend remarks in a casual sort of way: "By the way, old
man, do you remember that mackerel you caught at Weymouth which you had
for tea, and were charged two shillings for?" "Then he laughs just as
heartily as if it had only happened yesterday, and I leave him in a
good humour, and say to myself: 'Now, I'll hear no more about that
blessed mackerel till I go round to Bristol again in three months'
"How long ago did you say it was since you caught the mackerel?" I
"About forty years."
"Then," I said, "it was a very lucky fish for you--worth more perhaps
than if a big diamond had been found in its belly. The man had got his
joke--the one joke of his life perhaps--and was determined to stick to
it, and that kept him faithful to you in spite of his wife's wish to
distribute their orders among a lot of travellers."
He replied that I was perhaps right and that it had turned out a lucky
fish for him. But his old customer, though his business was big, was
not so important to him now when he had big customers in most of the
large towns in England, and he thought it rather ridiculous to keep up
that joke so many years.
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