The Veil and other poems/The Old Angler
THE OLD ANGLER
TWILIGHT leaned mirrored in a pool
Where willow boughs swept green and hoar,
Silk-clear the water, calm and cool,
Silent the weedy shore:
There in abstracted, brooding mood
One fishing sate. His painted float
Motionless as a planet stood;
Motionless his boat.
A melancholy soul was this,
With lantern jaw, gnarled hand, vague eye;
Huddled in pensive solitariness
He had fished existence by.
Empty his creel; stolen his bait—
Impassively he angled on,
Though mist now showed the evening late
And daylight well-nigh gone.
Suddenly, like a tongueless bell.
Downward his gaudy cork did glide;
A deep, low-gathering, gentle swell
Spread slowly far and wide.
Wheeped out his tackle from noiseless winch,
And furtive as a thief, his thumb,
With nerve intense, wound inch by inch
A line no longer numb.
What fabulous spoil could thus unplayed
Gape upward to a mortal air?—
He stoops engrossed; his tanned cheek greyed;
His heart stood still: for there,
Wondrously fairing, beneath the skin
Of secretly bubbling water seen,
Swims—not the silver of scale and fin—
But gold immixt with green.
Deeply astir in oozy bed.
The darkening mirror ripples and rocks:
And lo—a wan-pale, lovely head,
Hook tangled in its locks!
Cold from her haunt—a Naiad slim.
Shoulder and cheek gleamed ivory white;
Though now faint stars stood over him.
The hour hard on night.
Her green eyes gazed like one half-blind
In sudden radiance; her breast
Breathed the sweet air, while gently twined,
'Gainst the cold water pressed,
Her lean webbed hands. She floated there.
Light as a scentless petalled flower,
Water-drops dewing from her hair
In tinkling beadlike shower.
So circling sidelong, her tender throat
Uttered a grieving, desolate wail;
Shrill o'er the dark pool lapsed its note.
Piteous as nightingale.
Ceased Echo. And he?—a life's remorse
Welled to a tongue unapt to charm,
But never a word broke harsh and hoarse
To quiet her alarm.
With infinite stealth his twitching thumb
Tugged softly at the tautened gut,
Bubble-light, fair, her lips now dumb,
She moved, and struggled not;
But with set, wild, unearthly eyes
Pale-gleaming, fixed as if in fear.
She couched in the water, with quickening sighs.
And floated near.
In hollow heaven the stars were at play;
Wan glow-worms greened the pool-side grass;
Dipped the wide-bellied boat. His prey
Gazed on; nor breathed. Alas!—
Long sterile years had come and gone;
Youth, like a distant dream, was sped;
Heart, hope, and eyes had hungered on. . . .
He turned a shaking head,
And clumsily groped amid the gold,
Sleek with night dews, of that tangling hair,
Till pricked his finger keen and cold
The barb imbedded there.
Teeth clenched, he drew his knife—'Snip, snip,'—
Groaned, and sate shivering back; and she,
Treading the water with birdlike dip,
Shook her sweet shoulders free:
Drew backward, smiling, infatuate fair,
His life's disasters in her eyes,
All longing and folly, grief, despair,
Daydreams and mysteries.
She stooped her brow; laid low her cheek,
And, steering on that silk-tressed craft,
Out from the listening, leaf-hung creek,
Tossed up her chin, and laughed—
A mocking, icy, inhuman note.
One instant flashed that crystal breast,
Leaned, and was gone. Dead-still the boat:
And the deep dark at rest.
Flits moth to flower. A water-rat
Noses the placid ripple. And lo!
Streams a lost meteor. Night is late.
And daybreak zephyrs flow. . . .
And he—the cheated? Dusk till morn,
Insensate, even of hope forsook,
He muttering squats, aloof, forlorn,
Dangling a baitless hook.