IN WHICH I AM A CAITIFF
IWAS sitting at one of my favorite spots engaged in looking through my fly-book for some lure that might, perhaps, mend my luck in the afternoon’s fishing. At least, I had within the moment been so engaged; although the truth is that the evening was so exceptionally fine, and the spot always so extraordinarily attractive to me—this particular angle of the stream, where the tall birches stand, being to my mind the most beautiful bit on my whole estate—that I had forgotten all about angling and was sitting with rod laid by upon the bank, the fly-book scarce noted in my hand. Moreover, a peculiarly fine specimen of Anopheles, (as I took it to be) was at that very moment hovering over my hand, and I was anxious to confirm my judgment as well as to enlarge my collection of mosquitoes. I had my other hand in a pocket feeling for the little phial in which I purposed to enclose Anopheles, if I [Pg 2]could coax him to alight. Indeed, I say, I was at that very moment as happy as a man need be; or, at least, as happy as I ever expected to be. Imagine my surprise, therefore, at that moment to hear a voice, apparently intended for me, exclaim, “Halt! Caitiff!”
I looked up, more annoyed than displeased or startled. It is not often one sees so fine a specimen of Anopheles; and one could have sworn that, but for my slight involuntary movement of the hand, he must have settled; after which—crede experto!—he would have been the same as in my phial, and doomed to the chloroform within the next hour. Besides, no matter who one may be or how engaged, it is not wholly seemly to be accosted as a caitiff, when one is on one’s own land, offending no man on earth, owing no debt and paying no tribute, feudal, commercial, military or personal, to any man on earth.
The situation seemed to me singular. Had the time been some centuries earlier, the place somewhere in the old world, such speech might have had better fitting. But the time was less than a year ago, the place was in America. I was on my own lands, in this one of our middle states. This was my own river; or at least, I owned the broad acres on both sides of it for some miles. And I was a man of no slinking habit, no [Pg 3]repulsive mien, of that I was assured, but a successful American of means; lately a professional man and now a man of leisure, and not so far past thirty years of age. My fly-rod was the best that money can buy, and the pages of the adjacent book were handsomely stocked by the best makers of this country and each of the three divisions of Great Britain; in each of which—as well as in Norway, Germany, or for the matter of that, India, New Zealand, Alaska, Japan or other lands—I had more than once wet a line. My garb was not of leather jerkin, my buskins not of thonged straw, but on the contrary I was turned out in good tweeds, well cut by my London tailor. To be called offhand, and with no more reason than there was provocation, a “caitiff,” even by a voice somewhat treble and a trifle trembling, left me every reason in the world to be surprised, annoyed and grieved. For now Anopheles had flown away; and had I not been thus startled, I should certainly have had him. Yet more, no fish would rise in that pool the rest of that evening, for no trout in my little stream thereabout ever had seen a boat or been frightened by the plash of an oar since the time, three years back, when I had bought the place.
I looked up. Just at the bend, arrested now by hand anchorage to the overhanging alders, lay [Pg 4]a small boat, occupied by two boys, neither of more than fourteen years, the younger seemingly not more than twelve. It was the latter who was clinging with one hand to the drooping bushes. His companion, apparently the leader in their present enterprise, was half crouching in the bow of the boat and he, evidently, was the one who had accosted me.
A second glance gave me even more surprise, for it showed that the boat, though not precisely long, low and rakish of build, evidently was of piratical intent. At least she was piratical in decoration. On each side of her bow there was painted—and the evening sun, shining through my larches, showed the paint still fresh—in more or less accurate design in black, the emblem of a skull and cross-bones. Above her, supported by a short staff, perhaps cut from my own willows, flew a black flag, and whatever may have been her stern-chaser equipment, her broadside batteries, or her deck carronades—none of which I could well make out, as her hull lay half concealed among the alders—her bow-chaser was certainly in commission and manned for action. The pirate captain, himself, was at the lanyard; and I perceived that he now rested an extraordinarily large six-shooter in the fork of a short staff, which was fixed in the bow. Along this, with a [Pg 5]three-cornered gray eye, he now sighted at the lower button of my waistcoat, and in a fashion that gave me goose-flesh underneath the button, in spite of all my mingled emotions. Had I not “halted,” as ordered, to the extent of sitting on quietly as I was, he no doubt would have pulled the lanyard, with consequences such as I do not care to contemplate, and mayhap to the effect that this somewhat singular story would never have been written.
“Halt, Sirrah!” began the pirate leader again, “or I will blow you out of the water!”
I sat for a moment regarding him, my chin in my hand.
“No,” said I at last; “I already am out of the water, my friend. But, prithee, have a care of yonder lanyard, else, gadzooks! you may belike blow me off the bank and into the water.”
This speech of mine seemed as much to disconcert the pirate chieftain as had his me. He stood erect, shifting his Long Tom, to the great ease of my waistcoat button.
“Won’t you heave to, and put off a small boat for a parley?” I inquired.
Categories: English Literature