They were in the End of the World Tavern at the bottom of Great Auk Street.
The place was crowded, noisy. As patrons came in, they paused to kick their boots on the floor and shake the cinders from their rough clothes.
The air smelled of wood smoke, singed hair, heated and melted glass.
"Ho!" yelled a man at one of the noisiest tables to his companions, who were dressed more finely than the workmen around them. "Here's old Izaak now, come up from Staffordshire."
A man in his seventies, dressed in brown with a wide white collar, bagged pants, and cavalier boots, stood in the doorway. He took off his high-brimmed hat and shook it against his pants leg.
"Good evening, Charles, Percy, Mr. Marburton," he said, his grey eyes showing merry above his full white mustache and Vandyke beard.
"Father Izaak," said Charles Cotton, rising and embracing the older man. Cotton was wearing a new-style wig, whose curls and ringlets flowed onto his shoulders.
"Mr. Peale, if you please, sherry all around," yelled Cotton to the innkeeper. The older man seated himself.
"Sherry's dear," said the innkeeper, "though our enemy the King of France is sending two ships' consignments this fortnight. The Great Fire has worked wonders."
"What matters the price when there's good fellowship?" asked Cotton.
"Price is all," said Marburton, a melancholy round man.
"Well, Father Izaak," said Charles, turning to his friend, "how looks the house on Chancery Lane?"
"Praise to God, Charles, the fire burnt but the top floor. Enough remains to rebuild, if decent timbers can be found. Why, the lumbermen are selling green wood most expensive, and finding ready buyers."
"Their woodchoppers are working day and night in the north, since good King Charles gave them leave to cut his woods down," said Percy, and drained his glass.
"They'll not stop till all England's flat and level as Dutchman's land," said Marburton.
"If they're not careful they'll play hob with the rivers," said Cotton.
"And the streams," said Izaak.
"And the ponds," said Percy.
"Oh, the fish!" said Marburton.
All four sighed.
"Ah, but come!" said Izaak. "No joylessness here! I'm the only one to suffer from the Fire at this table. We'll have no long faces till April! Why, there's tench and dace to be had, and pickerel! What matters the salmon's in his Neptunian rookery? Who cares that trout burrow in the mud, and bite not from coat of soot and cinders? We've the roach and the gudgeon!"
"I suffered from the Fire," said Percy.
"What? Your house lies to east," said Izaak.
"My book was at bindery at the Office of Stationers. A neighbor brought me a scorched and singed bundle of title pages. They fell sixteen miles west o'town, like snow, I suppose."
Izaak winked at Cotton. "Well, Percy, that can be set aright soon as the Stationers reopen. What you need is something right good to eat." He waved to the barkeep, who nodded and went outside to the kitchen. "I was in early and prevailed on Mr. Peale to fix a supper to cheer the dourest disposition. What with shortages, it might not pass for kings, but we are not so high. Ah, here it comes!"
Mr. Peale returned with a huge round platter. High and thick, it smelled of fresh-baked dough, meat and savories. It looked like a cooked pond. In a line around the outside, halves of whole pilchards stuck out, looking up at them with wide eyes, as if they had been struggling to escape being cooked.
"Oh, Izaak!" said Percy, tears of joy springing to his eyes. "A star-gazey pie!"
Peale beamed with pleasure. "It may not be the best," he said, "but it's the End o' the World!" He put a finger alongside his nose, and laughed. He took great pleasure in puns.
The four men at the table fell to, elbows and pewter forks flying.
· · · · ·
They sat back from the table, full. They said nothing for a few minutes, and stared out the great bow window of the tavern. The shop across the way blocked the view. They could not see the ruins of London, which stretched, charred, black and still smoking, from the Tower to the Temple. Only the waterfront in that great length had been spared.
On the fourth day of that Great Fire, the King had given orders to blast with gunpowder all houses in the way of the flames. It had been done, creating the breaks that, with a dying wind, had brought it under control and saved the city.
"What the city has gone through this past year," said Percy. "It's lucky, Izaak, that you live down country, and have not suffered till now."
"They say the fire didn't touch the worst of the plague districts," said Marburton. "I would imagine that such large crowds milling and looking for shelter will cause another one this winter. Best we should all leave the city before we drop dead in our steps."
"Since the comet of December year before last, there's been nothing but talk of doom on everyone's lips," said Cotton.
"Apocalypse talk," said Percy.
"Like as not it's right," said Marburton.
They heard the clanging bell of a crier at the next cross street.
The tavern was filling in the late afternoon light. Carpenters, tradesmen covered with soot, a few soldiers all soiled came in.
"Why, the whole city seems full of chimneysweeps," said Percy.
The crier's clanging bell sounded, and he stopped before the window of the tavern.
"New edict from His Majesty Charles II to be posted concerning rebuilding of the city. New edict from Council of Aldermen on rents and leases, to be posted. An Act concerning movements of trade and shipping to new quays to become law. Assize Courts sessions to begin September 27, please God. Foreign nations to send all manner of aid to the City. Murder on New Ogden Street, felon apprehended in the act. Portent of Doom, monster fish seen in Bedford."
As one, the four men leapt from the table, causing a great stir, and ran outside to the crier.
· · · · ·
"See to the bill, Charles," said Izaak, handing him some coins. "We'll meet at nine o' the clock at the Ironmongers' Company yard. I must go see to my tackle."
"If the man the crier sent us to spoke right, there'll be no other fish like it in England," said Percy.
"Or the world," said Marburton, whose spirits had lightened considerably.
"I imagine the length of the fish has doubled with each county the tale passed through," said Izaak.
"It'll take stout tackle," said Percy. "Me for my strongest salmon rod."
"I for my twelve-hair lines," said Marburton.
"And me," said Izaak, "to new and better angles."
· · · · ·
The Ironmongers' Hall had escaped the fire with only the loss of its roof. There were a few workmen about, and the company secretary greeted Izaak cordially.
"Brother Walton," he said, "what brings you to town?" They gave each other the secret handshake and made The Sign.
"To look to my property on Chancery Lane, and the Row," he said. "But now, is there a fire in the forge downstairs?"
Below the Company Hall was a large workroom, where the more adventurous of the ironmongers experimented with new processes and materials.
"Certain there is," said the secretary. "We've been making new nails for the roof timbers."
"I'll need the forge for an hour or so. Send me down the small black case from my lockerbox, will you?"
"Oh, Brother Walton," asked the secretary. "Off again to some pellucid stream?"
"I doubt," said Walton, "but to fish, nonetheless."
· · · · ·
Walton was in his shirt, sleeves rolled up, standing in the glow of the forge. A boy brought down the case from the upper floor, and now Izaak opened it and took out three long grey-black bars.
"Pump away, boy," he said to the young man near the bellows, "and there's a copper in it for you."
Walton lovingly placed the metal bars, roughened by pounding years before, into the coals. Soon they began to glow redly as the teenaged boy worked furiously on the bellows-sack. He and Walton were covered with sweat.
"Lovely color now," said the boy.
"To whom are you prenticed?" asked Walton.
"To the company, sir."
"Ah," said Walton. "Ever seen angles forged?"
"No, sir, mostly hinges and buckles, nails-like. Sir Abram Jones sometimes puddles his metal here. I have to work most furious when he's here. I sometimes don't like to see him coming."
Walton winked conspiratorially. "You're right, the metal reaches a likable ruddy hue. Do you know what this metal is?"
"Cold iron, wasn't it? Ore beaten out?"
"No iron like you've seen, or me much either. I've saved it for nineteen years. It came from the sky, and was given to me by a great scientific man at whose feet it nearly fell."
"No!" said the boy. "I heard tell of stones falling from the sky."
"I assure you he assured me it did. And now," said Izaak, gripping the smallest metal bar with great tongs and taking it to the anvil, "we shall tease out the fishhook that is hidden away inside."
Sparks and clanging filled the basement.
· · · · ·
They were eight miles out of northern London before the air began to smell more of September than of Hell. Two wagons jounced along the road toward Bedford, one containing the four men, the other laden with tackle, baggage, and canvas.
"This is rough enough," said Cotton. "We could have sent for my coach!"
"And lost four hours," said Marburton. "These fellows were idle enough, and Izaak wanted an especially heavy cart for some reason. Izaak, you've been most mysterious. We saw neither your tackles nor your baits."
"Suffice to say, they are none too strong nor none too delicate for the work at hand."
Away from the town there was a touch of coming autumn in the air.
"We might find nothing there," said Marburton, whose spirits had sunk again. "Or some damnably small salmon."
"Why then," said Izaak, "we'll have Bedfordshire to our own, and all of September, and perhaps an inn where the smell of lavender is in the sheets and there are twenty printed ballads on the wall!"
"Hmmph!" said Marburton.
· · · · ·
At noon of the next day, they stopped to water the horses and eat.
"I venture to try the trout in this stream," said Percy.
"Come, come," said Cotton. "Our goal is Bedford, and we seek Leviathan himself! Would you tempt sport by angling here?"
"But a brace of trouts would be fine now."
"Have some more cold mutton," said Marburton. He passed out bread and cheese and meat all round. The drivers tugged their forelocks to him and put away their rougher fare.
"How far to Bedford?" asked Cotton of the driver called Humphrey.
"Ten miles, sir, more or less. We should have come farther but what with the Plague, the roads haven't been worked in above a year."
"I'm bruised through and through," said Marburton.
Izaak was at the stream, relieving himself against a tree.
"Damn me!" said Percy. "Did anyone leave word where I was bound?"
Marburton laughed. "Izaak sent word to all our families. Always considerate."
"Well, he's become secretive enough. All those people following him a-angling since his book went back to the presses the third time. Ah, books!" Percy grew silent.
"What, still lamenting your loss?" asked Izaak, returning. What you need is singing, the air, sunshine. Are we not Brothers of the Angle, out a-fishing? Come, back into the charts! Charles, start us off on 'Tom o' the Town.' "
Cotton began to sing in a clear sweet voice the first stanza. One by one the others joined, their voices echoing under the bridge. The carts pulled back on the roads. The driver of the baggage cart sang with them. They went down the rutted Bedford road, September all about them, the long summer after the Plague over, their losses, heartaches all gone, all deep thoughts put away. The horses clopped time to their singing.
· · · · ·
Bedford was a town surrounded by villages, where they were stared at when they went through. The town was divided neatly in two by the doubled-gated bridge over the River Ouse.
After the carts crossed the bridge, they alighted at the doorway of a place called the Topsy-Turvy Inn, whose sign above the door was a world-globe turned ass over teakettle.
The people who stood by the inn were all looking up the road where a small crowd had gathered around a man who was preaching from a stump.
"I think," said Cotton, as they pulled their baggage from the cart, "that we're in Dissenter country."
"Of that I'm sure," said Walton. "But once we Anglicans were on the outs and they'd say the same of us."
One of the drivers was listening to the man preach. So was Marburton.
The preacher was dressed in somber clothes. He stood on a stump at two cross streets. He was stout and had brown-red hair which glistened in the sun. His mustache was an unruly wild thing on his lip, but his beard was a neat red spike on his chin. He stood with his head uncovered, a great worn clasp Bible under his arm.
"London burned clean through," he was saying. "Forty-three parish churches razed. Plagues! Fires! Signs in the skies of the sure and certain return of Christ. The Earth swept clean by God's loving mercy. I ask you sinners to repent for the sake of your souls."
A man walking by on the other side of the street slowed, listened, stopped.
"Oh, this is Tuesday!" he yelled to the preacher. "Save your rantings for the Sabbath, you old jail-bird!"
A few people in the crowd laughed, but others shushed him.
"In my heart," said the man on the stump, "it is always the Sabbath as long as there are sinners among you."
"Ah, a fig to your damned sneaking disloyal Non-Conformist drivel!" said the heckler, holding his thumb up between his fingers.
"Wasn't I once as you are now?" asked the preacher. "Didn't I curse and swear, play at tip-cat, ring bells, cause commotion wherever I went? Didn't God's forgiving Grace ?"
A constable hurried up.
"Here, John," he said to the stout preacher. "There's to be no sermons, you know that!" He waved his staff of office. "And I charge you all under the Act of 13 Elizabeth 53 to go about your several businesses."
"Let him go on, Harry," yelled a woman. "He's got words for sinners."
"I can't argue that. I can only tell you the law. The sheriff's about on dire business, and he'd have John back in jail and the jailer turned out in a trice. Come down off the stump, man."
The stout man waved his arms. "We must disperse, friends. The Sabbath meeting will be at "
The constable clapped his hands over his ears and turned his back until the preacher finished giving directions to some obscure clearing in a woods. The red-haired man stepped down.
Walton had been listening and staring at him, as had the others. Izaak saw that the man had a bag of his tools of the trade with him. He was obviously a coppersmith or brazier, his small anvils, tongs, and tap hammers identifying him as such. But he was no ironmonger, so Walton was not duty-bound to be courteous to him.
"Damnable Dissenters indeed," said Cotton. "Come, Father Izaak, let's to this hospitable inn."
A crier appeared at the end of the street. "Town meeting. Town meeting. All free men of the Town of Bedford and its villages to be in attendance. Levies for the taking of the Great Fish. Four of the clock in the town hall."
"Well," said Marburton, "that's where we shall be."
· · · · ·
They returned to the inn at dusk.
"They're certainly going at this thing full tilt," said Percy. "Nets, pikes, muskets."
"If those children had not been new to the shire, they wouldn't have tried to angle there."
"And wouldn't have been eaten and mangled," said Marburton.
"A good thing the judge is both angler and reader," said Cotton. "Else Father Walton wouldn't have been given all the morrow to prove our mettle against this great scaly beast."
"If it have scales," said Marburton.
"I fear our tackle is not up to it," said Percy.
"Didn't Father Walton always say that an angler stores up his tackle against the day he needs it? I'll wager we get good sport out of this before it's over."
"And the description of the place! In such a narrow defile the sunlight touches it but a few hours a day. For what possible reason would children fish there?"
"You're losing your faith, Marburton. I've seen you up to your whiskers in the River Lea, snaggling for salmon under a cutbank."
"But I, praise God, know what I'm about."
"I suppose," said Izaak, seating himself, "that the children thought so too."
They noticed the stout Dissenter preacher had come in and was talking jovially with his cronies. He lowered his voice and looked toward their table.
Most of the talk around Walton was of the receding Plague, the consequences of the Great Fire on the region's timber industry, and other matters of report.
"I expected more talk of the fish," said Percy.
"To them," said Cotton, "it's all the same. Just another odious county task, like digging a new canal or hunting down a heretic. They'll be in holiday mood day after tomorrow."
"They strike me as a cheerless lot," said Percy.
"Cheerless but efficient. I'd hate to be the fish."
"You think we won't have it to gaff long before the workmen arrive?"
"I have my doubts," said Marburton.
"But you always do."
· · · · ·
Next morning, the woods became thick and rank on the road they took out of town. The carts bounced in the ruts. The early sun was lost in the mists and the trees. The road rose and fell again into narrow valleys.
"Someone is following us," said Percy, getting out his spyglasses.
"Probably a peddler out this way," said Cotton, straining his eyes at the pack on the man's back.
"I've seen no cottages," said Marburton. He was taking kinks out of his fishing line.
Percy looked around him. "What a godless-looking place."
The trees were more stunted, thicker. Quick shapes, which may have been grouse, moved among their twisted boles. An occasional cry, unknown to the four anglers, came from the depths of the woods. A dull boom, as of a great door closing, sounded from far away. The horses halted, whinnying, their nostrils flared.
"In truth," said Walton from where he rested against a cushion, "I feel myself some leagues beyond Christendom."
· · · · ·
The gloom deepened. Green was gone now, nothing but greys and browns met the eye. The road was a rocky rut. The carts rose, wheels teetering on stones, and agonizingly fell. Humphrey and the other driver swore great blazing oaths.
"Be so abusive as you will," said Cotton to them, "but take not the Lord's name in vain, for we are Christian men."
"As you say." Humphrey tugged his forelock.
The trees reached overhead, the sky was obscured. An owl swept over, startling them. Something large bolted away, feet drumming on the high bank over the road.
Percy and Cotton grew quiet. Walton talked, of lakes, streams, of summer. Seeing the others grow moody, he sang a quiet song. A driver would sometimes curse.
A droning flapping sound grew louder, passed to their right, veered away. The horses shied then, trying to turn around in the road, almost upsetting the carts. They refused to go on.
"We'll have to tether them here," said Humphrey. "Besides, Your Lordship, I think I see water at the end of the road."
It was true. In what dim light there was, they saw a darker sheen down below.
"We must take the second cart down there, Charles," said Walton, "even if we must push it ourselves."
"We'll never make it," said Percy.
"Whatever for?" asked Cotton. "We can take our tackle and viands down there?"
"Not my tackle," said Walton.
Marburton just sighed.
They pushed and pulled the second cart down the hill; from the front they kept it from running away on the incline, from the back to get it over stones the size of barrels. It was stuck.
"I can't go on," said Marburton.
"Surely you can," said Walton.
"Your cheerfulness is depressing," said Percy.
"Be that as it may. Think trout, Marburton. Think salmon!"
Marburton strained against the recalcitrant wheel. The cart moved forward a few inches.
"See, see!" said Walton. "A foot's good as a mile!"
They grunted and groaned.
· · · · ·
They stood panting at the edge of the mere. The black sides of the valley lifted to right and left like walls. The water itself was weed-choked, scummy, and smelled of the sewer-ditch. Trees came down to its very edges. Broken and rotted stumps dotted the shore. Mist rose from the water in fetid curls.
Sunlight had not yet come to the bottom of the defile. To left and right, behind, all lay in twisted woody darkness. The valley rose like a hand around them.
Except ahead. There was a break, with no trees at the center of the cleft. Through it they saw, shining and blue-purple against the cerulean of the sky, the far-off Chiltern Hills.
"Those," said a voice behind them, and they jumped and turned and saw the man with the pack. It was the stout red-haired preacher of the day before. "Those are the Delectable Mountains," he said.
"And this is the Slough of Despond."
· · · · ·
He built a small lean-to some hundred feet from them.
The other three anglers unloaded their gear and began to set it up.
"What, Father Walton? Not setting up your poles?" asked Charles Cotton.
"No, no," said Izaak, studying the weed-clotted swamp with a sure eye. "I'll let you young ones try your luck first."
Percy looked at the waters. "The fish is most likely a carp or other rough type," he said. "No respectable fish could live in this mire. I hardly see room for anything that could swallow a child."
"It is Leviathan," said the preacher from his shelter. "It is the Beast of Babylon which shall rise in the days before Antichrist. These woods are beneath his sway."
"What do you want?" asked Cotton.
"To dissuade you, and the others who will come from doing this. It is God's will these things come to pass."
"Oh, hell and damn!" said Percy.
"Exactly," said the preacher.
Percy shuddered involuntarily. Daylight began to creep down to the mere's edge. With the light, the stench from the water became worse.
"You're not doing very much to stop us," said Cotton. He was fitting together an eighteen-foot rod of yew, fir, and hazelwood.
"When you raise Leviathan," said the preacher, "then will I begin to preach." He took a small cracked pot from his large bag and began to set up his anvil.
· · · · ·
Percy's rod had a butt as thick as a man's arm. It tapered throughout its length to a slender reed. The line was made of plaited dyed horsehair, twelve strands at the pole end, tapering to nine. The line was forty feet long. Onto the end of this he fastened a sinker and a hook as long as a crooked little finger.
"Where's my baits? Oh, here they are." He reached into a bag filled with wet moss, pulled out a gob of worms, and threaded seven or eight, their ends wriggling, onto the hook.
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.
"John Bunyan, you son of a bitch!" said the Sheriff. "You're under arrest for hampering the King's business. I'll see you rot."
Walton watched the coils of line on the surface slowly sink into the brown depths of the Slough of Despond.
He began to cry, fatigue and numbness taking over his body.
"I denied God," he said to Cotton. "I committed the worst sin." Cotton covered him with a blanket.
"Oh Charles, I denied God."
"What's worse," said Cotton, "you lost the fish."
Percy and Marburton helped him up. The carters hitched the wagons, the horses now docile. Bunyan was being ridden back to jail by constables, his tinker's bag clanging against the horse's side.
They put the crying Walton into the cart, covered him more, climbed in. Some farmers helped them get the carts over the rocks.
Walton's last view of the slough was of resolute and grim-faced men staring at the water and readying their huge grapples, their guns, their cruel, hooked nets.
They were on the road back to town. Walton looked up into the trees, devoid of ghosts and demons. He caught a glimpse of the blue Chiltern Hills.
"Father Izaak," said Cotton. "Rest now. Think of spring. Think of clear water, of leaping trout."
"My dreams will be haunted by God the rest of my days," he said tiredly. Walton fell asleep.
He dreamed of clear water, leaping trouts.