Sci Fiction Classics Volume 4 (7 page)

BOOK: Sci Fiction Classics Volume 4
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The preacher had started a small fire. He was filling an earthen pot with
solder. He paid very little attention to the anglers.

Percy and Marburton, who was fishing with a shorter but thicker rod, were
ready before Cotton.

"I'll take this fishy spot here," said Percy, "and you can have that
grown-over place there." He pointed beyond the preacher.

"We won't catch anything," said Marburton suddenly and pulled the bait
from his hook and threw it into the water. Then he walked back to the cart
and sat down, and shook.

"Come, come," said Izaak. "I've never seen you so discouraged, even after
fishless days on the Thames."

"Never mind me," said Marburton. Then he looked down at the ground. "I
shouldn't have come all this way. I have business in the city. There are
no fish here."

Cajoling could not get him up again. Izaak's face became troubled.
Marburton stayed put.

"Well, I'll take the fishy spot then," said Cotton, tying onto his line an
artificial fly of green with hackles the size of porcupine quills.

He moved past the preacher.

"I'm certain to wager you'll get no strikes on that gaudy bird's wing,"
said Percy.

"There is no better fishing than angling fine and far off," answered
Cotton. "Heavens, what a stink!"

"This is the place," said the preacher without looking up, "where all the
sins of mankind have been flowing for sixteen hundred years. Not twenty
thousand cartloads of earth could fill it up."

"Prattle," said Cotton.

"Prattle it may be," said the preacher. He puddled solder in a sandy ring.
Then he dipped the pot in it. "It stinks from mankind's sins,
nonetheless."

"It stinks from mankind's bowels," said Cotton.

He made two back casts with his long rod, letting more line out the wire
guide at the tip each time. He placed the huge fly gently on the water
sixty feet away.

"There are no fish about," said Percy, down the mire's edge. "Not even
gudgeon."

"Nor snakes," said Cotton. "What does this monster eat?"

"Miscreant children," said the preacher. "Sin feeds on the young."

Percy made a clumsy cast into some slime-choked weeds.

His rod was pulled from his hands and flew across the water. A large dark
shape blotted the pond's edge and was gone.

The rod floated to the surface and lay still. Percy stared down at his
hands in disbelief. The pole came slowly in toward shore, pushed by the
stinking breeze.

Cotton pulled his fly off the water, shook his line and walked back toward
the carts.

"That's all for me, too," he said. They turned to Izaak. He rubbed his
hands together gleefully, making a show he did not feel.

The preacher was grinning.

"Call the carters down," said Walton. "Move the cart to the very edge of
the mere."

While they were moving the wagon with its rear facing the water, Walton
went over to the preacher.

"My name is Izaak Walton," he said, holding out his hand. The preacher
took it formally.

"John Bunyan, mechanic-preacher," said the other.

"I hold no man's religious beliefs against him, if he be an honest man, or
an angler. My friends are not of like mind, though they be both fishermen
and honest."

"Would that Parliament were full of such as yourself," said Bunyan. "I
took your hand, but I am dead set against what you do."

"If not us," said Walton, "then the sheriff with his powder and pikes."

"I shall prevail against them, too. This is God's warning to mankind.
You're a London man. You've seen the Fire, the Plague?"

"London is no place for honest men. I'm of Stafford."

"Even you see London as a place of sin," said Bunyan. "You have children?"

"Have two, by my second wife," said Walton. "Seven others died in
infancy."

"I have four," Bunyan said. "One born blind." His eyes took on a faraway
look. "I want them to fear God, in hope of eternal salvation."

"As do we all," said Walton.

"And this monster is warning to mankind of the coming rains of blood and
fire and the fall of stars."

"Either we shall take it, or the townsmen will come tomorrow."

"I know them all," said Bunyan. "Mr. Nurse-Nickel, Mr. By-Your-Leave, Mr.
Cravenly-Crafty. Do ye not feel your spirits lag, your backbone fail?
They'll not last long as you have."

Walton had noticed his own lassitude, even with the stink of the slough
goading him. Cotton, Percy, and Marburton, finished with the cart, were
sitting disconsolately on the ground. The swamp had brightened some, the
blazing blue mountain ahead seemed inches away. But the woods were dark,
the defile precipitous, the noises loud as before.

"It gets worse after dark," said the preacher. "I beg you, take not the
fish."

"If you stop the sheriff, he'll have you in prison."

"It's prison from which I come," said Bunyan. "To gaol I shall go back,
for I know I'm right."

"Do your conscience," said Walton, "for that way lies salvation."

"Amen!" said Bunyan, and went back to his pots.

 

Percy, Marburton, and Charles Cotton watched as Walton set up his tackle.
Even with flagging spirits, they were intrigued. He'd had the carters peg
down the trace poles of the wagon. Then he sectioned together a rod like
none they had seen before. It was barely nine feet long, starting big as a
smith's biceps, ending in a fine end. It was made of many split lathes
glued seamlessly together. On each foot of its length past the handle were
iron guides bound with wire. There was a hole in the handle of the rod,
and now Walton reached in the wagon and took out a shining metal wheel.

"What's that, a squirrel cage?" asked Percy.

They saw him pull line out from it. It clicked with each turn. There was a
handle on the wheel, and a peg at the bottom. He put the peg through the
hole in the handle and fastened it down with an iron screw.

He threaded the line, which was thick as a pen quill, through the guides,
opened the black case, and took out the largest of the hooks he'd
fashioned.

On the line he tied a strong wire chain, and affixed a sinker to one end
and the hook on the other.

He put the rod in the wagon seat and climbed down to the back and opened
his bait box and reached in.

"Come, my pretty," he said, reaching. He took something out, white,
segmented, moving. It filled his hand.

It was a maggot that weighed half a pound.

"I had them kept down a cistern behind a shambles," said Walton. He lifted
the bait to show them. "Charles, take my line after I bait the angle, make
a hand cast into the edge of those stumps yonder. As I was saying, take
your gentles, put them in a cool well, feed them on liver of pork for the
summer. They'll eat and grow and not change into flies, for the changing
of one so large kills it. Keep them well-fed, put them into wet moss
before using them. I feared the commotion and flames had collapsed the
well. Though the butcher shop was gone, the baits were still fat and
lively."

As he said the last word, he plunged the hook through the white flesh of
the maggot.

It twisted and oozed onto his hand. He opened a small bottle. "And dowse
it with camphire oil just before the cast." They smelled the pungent
liquid as he poured it. The bait went into a frenzy.

"Now, Charles," he said, pulling off fifty feet of line from the reel.
Cotton whirled the weighted hook around and around his head. "Be so kind
as to tie this rope to my belt and the cart, Percy," said Walton.

Percy did so. Cotton made the hand cast, the pale globule hitting the
water and sinking.

"Do as I have told you," said Walton, "and you shall not fail to catch the
biggest fish."

Something large between the eyes swallowed the hook and five feet of line.

"And set the hook sharply, and you shall have great sport." Walton,
seventy years old, thin of build, stood in the seat, jerked far back over
his head, curving the rod in a loop.

The waters of the slough exploded; they saw the shallow bottom and a long
dark shape, and the fight was on.

The preacher stood up from his pots, opened his clasp Bible and began to
read in a loud, strong voice.

"Render to Caesar —," he said. Walton flinched and put his back into
turning the fish, which was heading toward the stumps. The reel's clicks
were a buzz. Bunyan raised his voice, "… those things which are
Caesar's, and to God those things which are God's."

"Oh, shut up!" said Cotton. "The man's got trouble enough!"

The wagon creaked and began to lift off the ground. The rope and belt cut
into Walton's flesh. His arms were nearly pulled from their sockets. Sweat
sprang to his forehead like curds through a cheesecloth. He gritted his
teeth and pulled.

The pegs lifted from the ground.

Bunyan read on.

 

The sunlight faded though it was only late afternoon. The noise from the
woods grew louder. The blue hills in the distance became flat, grey. The
whole valley leaned over them, threatening to fall over and kill them.
Eyes shined in the deeper woods.

Walton had regained some line in the last few hours. Bunyan read on,
pausing long enough to light a horn lantern from his fire.

After encouraging Walton at first, Percy, Marburton, and Cotton had become
quiet. The sounds were those of Bunyan's droning voice, screams from the
woods, small pops from the fire, and the ratcheting of the reel.

The fish was fighting him on the bottom. He'd had no sight of it yet since
the strike. Now the water was becoming a flat black sheet in the failing
light. It was no salmon or trout or carp. It must be a pike or eel or some
other toothed fish. Or a serpent. Or cuttlefish, with squiddy arms to tear
the skin from a man.

Walton shivered. His arms were numb, his shoulders a tight, aching band.
His legs where he braced against the footrest quivered with fatigue. Still
he held, even when the fish ran to the far end of the swamp. If he could
keep it away from the snags he could wear it down. The fish turned, the
line slackened, Walton pumped the rod up and down. He regained the lost
line. The water hissed as the cording cut through it. The fish headed for
the bottom.

Tiredly, Walton heaved, turned the fish. The wagon creaked.

"Blessed are they that walk in the path of righteousness," said Bunyan.

 

The ghosts came in over the slough straight at them. Monkey-demons began
to chatter in the woods. Eyes peered from the bole of every tree. Bunyan's
candle was the only light. Something walked heavily on a limb at the
woods' edge, bending it. Marburton screamed and ran up the road.

Percy was on his feet. Ghosts and banshees flew at him, veering away at
the last instant.

"You have doubts," said Bunyan to him. "You are assailed. You think
yourself unworthy."

Percy trotted up the stony road, ragged shapes fluttering in the air
behind him, trying to tug his hair. Skeletons began to dance across the
slough, acting out pantomimes of life, death, and love. The Seven Deadly
Sins manifested themselves.

Hell yawned open to receive them all.

Then the sun went down.

 

"Before you join the others, Charles," said Walton, pumping the rod, "cut
away my coat and collar."

"You'll freeze," said Cotton, but climbed in the wagon and cut the coat up
the back and down the sleeves. It and the collar fell away.

"Good luck, Father Walton," he said. Something plucked at his eyes. "We go
to town for help."

"Be honest and trustworthy all the rest of your days," said Izaak Walton.
Cotton looked stunned. Something large ran down from the woods, through
the wagon, and up into the trees. Cotton ran up the hill. The thing loped
after him.

Walton managed to gain six inches on the fish.

Grinning things sat on the taut line. The air was filled with meteors,
burning, red, thick as snow. Huge worms pushed themselves out of the
ground, caught and ate demons, then turned inside out. The demons flew
away.

Everything in the darkness had claws and horns.

"And lo! the seventh seal was broken, and there was quietness on the earth
for the space of half an hour," read Bunyan.

He had lit his third candle.

 

Walton could see the water again. A little light came from somewhere
behind him. The noises of the woods diminished. A desultory ghost or
skeleton flitted grayly by. There was a calm in the air.

The fish was tiring. Walton did not know how long he had fought on, or
with what power. He was a human ache, and he wanted to sleep. He was
nodding.

"The townsmen come," said Bunyan. Walton stole a fleeting glance behind
him. Hundreds of people came quietly and cautiously through the woods,
some extinguishing torches as he watched.

Walton cranked in another ten feet of line. The fish ran, but only a short
way, slowly, and Walton reeled him back. It was still a long way out,
still another hour before he could bring it to gaff. Walton heard low
talk, recognized Percy's voice. He looked back again. The people had
pikes, nets, a small cannon. He turned, reeled the fish, fighting it all
the way.

"You do not love God!" said Bunyan suddenly, shutting his Bible.

"Yes I do!" said Walton, pulling as hard as he could. He gained another
foot. "I love God as much as you."

"You do not!" said Bunyan. "I see it now."

"I love God!" yelled Walton and heaved the rod.

A fin broke the frothing water.

"In your heart, where God can see from His high throne, you lie!" said
Bunyan.

Walton reeled and pulled. More fin showed. He quit cranking.

"God forgive me!" said Walton. "It's fishing I love."

"I thought so," said Bunyan. Reaching in his pack, he took out a pair of
tin snips and cut Walton's line.

Izaak fell back in the wagon.

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