Politics and the Mayfly

A tale of talking politics, class, and a bargain that should never be taken.

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The farmer of Clachlands was a Tory, stern and unbending. It was the tradition of his family, from his grandfather, who had been land-steward to Lord Manorwater, down to his father, who had once seconded a vote of confidence in the sitting member. Such traditions, he felt, were not to be lightly despised; things might change, empires might wax and wane, but his obligation continued; a sort of perverted noblesse oblige was the farmer’s watchword in life; and by dint of much energy and bad language, he lived up to it.

As fate would have it, the Clachlands ploughman was a Radical of Radicals. He had imbibed his opinions early in life from a speaker on the green of Gledsmuir, and ever since, by the help of a weekly penny paper and an odd volume of Gladstone’s speeches, had continued his education. Such opinions in a conservative countryside carry with them a reputation for either abnormal cleverness or abnormal folly. The fact that he was a keen fisher, a famed singer of songs, and the best judge of horses in the place, caused the verdict of his neighbours to incline to the former, and he passed for something of an oracle among his fellows. The blacksmith, who was the critic of the neighbourhood, summed up his character in a few words. ‘Him,’ said he, in a tone of mingled dislike and admiration, ‘him! He would sweer white was black the morn, and dod! he would prove it tae.’

It so happened in the early summer, when the land was green and the trout plashed in the river, that Her Majesty’s Government saw fit to appeal to an intelligent country. Among a people whose politics fight hard with their religion for a monopoly of their interests, feeling ran high and brotherly kindness departed. Houses were divided against themselves. Men formerly of no consideration found themselves suddenly important, and discovered that their intellects and conscience, which they had hitherto valued at little, were things of serious interest to their betters. The lurid light of publicity was shed upon the lives of the rival candidates; men formerly accounted worthy and respectable were proved no better than white sepulchres; and each man was filled with a morbid concern for his fellow’s character and beliefs.

The farmer of Clachlands called a meeting of his labourers in the great dusty barn, which had been the scene of many similar gatherings. His speech on the occasion was vigorous and to the point. ‘Ye are a’ my men,’ he said, ‘an’ I’ll see that ye vote richt. Y’re uneddicated folk, and ken naething aboot the matter, sae ye just tak’ my word for’t, that the Tories are in the richt and vote accordingly. I’ve been a guid maister to ye, and it’s shurely better to pleesure me, than a wheen leein’ scoondrels whae tramp the country wi’ leather bags and printit trash.’

Then arose from the back the ploughman, strong in his convictions. ‘Listen to me, you men,’ says he; ‘just vote as ye think best. The maister’s a guid maister, as he says, but he’s nocht to dae wi’ your votin’. It’s what they ca’ inteemedation to interfere wi’ onybody in this matter. So mind that, an’ vote for the workin’-man an’ his richts.’

Then ensued a war of violent words. ‘Is this a meerin’ in my barn, or a pennywaddin?’

‘Ca ’t what ye please. I canna let ye mislead the men.’

‘Whae talks about misleadin’? Is ’t misleadin’ to lead them richt?’

‘The question,’ said the ploughman, solemnly, ‘is what you ca’ richt.’

‘William Laverhope, if ye werena a guid plooman, ye wad gang post-haste oot o’ here the morn.’

‘I carena what ye say. I’ll stand up for the richts o’ thae men.’

‘Men.’―this with deep scorn. ‘I could mak better men than thae wi’ a stick oot o’ the plantin’.’

‘Ay, ye say that noo, an’ the morn ye’ll be ca’in’ ilka yin o’ them Mister, a’ for their votes.’

The farmer left in dignified disgust, vanquished but still dangerous; the ploughman in triumph mingled with despair. For he knew that his fellow-labourers cared not a whit for politics, but would follow to the letter their master’s bidding.

The next morning rose clear and fine. There had been a great rain for the past few days, and the burns were coming down broad and surly. The Clachlands Water was chafing by bank and bridge and threatening to enter the hay-field, and every little ditch and sheep-drain was carrying its tribute of peaty water to the greater flood. The farmer of Clachlands, as he looked over the landscape from the doorstep of his dwelling, marked the state of the weather and pondered over it.

He was not in a pleasant frame of mind that morning. He had been crossed by a ploughman, his servant. He liked the man, and so the obvious way of dealing with him—by making things uncomfortable or turning him off—was shut against him. But he burned to get the upper hand of him, and discomfit once for all one who had dared to question his wisdom and good sense. If only he could get him to vote on the other side—but that was out of the question. If only he could keep him from voting—that was possible but unlikely. He might forcibly detain him, in which case he would lay himself open to the penalties of the law, and be nothing the gainer. For the victory which he desired was a moral one, not a triumph of force. He would like to circumvent him by cleverness, to score against him fairly and honour-ably on his own ground. But the thing was hard, and, as it seemed to him at the moment, impossible.

Suddenly, as he looked over the morning landscape, a thought struck him and made him slap his legs and chuckle hugely. He walked quickly up and down the gravelled walk. ‘Losh, it’s guid. I’ll dae’t. I’ll dae’t, if the weather juist bauds.’

His unseemly mirth was checked by the approach of someone who found the farmer engaged in the minute examination of gooseberry leaves. ‘I’m concerned aboot thae busses,’ he was saying; ‘they’ve been ill lookit to, an’ we’ll no hae half a crop.’ And he went off, still smiling, and spent a restless forenoon in the Gledsmuir market.

In the evening he met the ploughman, as he returned from the turnip-singling, with his hoe on his shoulder. The two men looked at one another with the air of those who know that all is not well between them. Then the farmer spoke with much humility.

‘I maybe spoke rayther severe yestreen,’ he said. ‘I hope I didna hurt your feelings.’

‘Na, na! No me!’ said the ploughman, airily.

‘Because I’ve been thinking ower the matter, an’ I admit that a man has a richt to his ain thochts. A body should hae principles an’ stick to them,’ said the farmer, with the manner of one making a recondite quotation. ‘Ay,’ he went on, ‘I respect ye, William, for your consistency. Ye’re an example to us a’.’

The other shuffled and looked unhappy. He and his master were on the best of terms, but these unnecessary compliments were not usual in their intercourse. He began to suspect, and the farmer, who saw his mistake, hastened to change the subject.

‘Graund weather for the fishin’,’ said he.

‘Oh, is it no?’ said the other, roused to excited interest by this home topic. ‘I tell ye by the morn they’ll be takin’ as they’ve never ta’en this ‘ear. Doon in the big pool in the Clachlands Water, at the turn o’ the turnip-field, there are twae or three pounders, and aiblins yin o’ twae pund. I saw them mysel’ when the water was low. It’s ower big the noo, but when it gangs doon the morn, and gets the colour o’ porter, I’ll warrant I could whup them oot o’ there wi’ the flee.’

‘D’ ye say sae?’ said the farmer, sweetly. ‘Weel, it’s a lang time since I tried the fishin’, but I yince was keen on’t. Come in bye, William; I’ve something ye micht like to see.’ From a corner he produced a rod, and handed it to the other.

It was a very fine rod indeed, one which the owner had gained in a fishing competition many years before, and treasured accordingly. The ploughman examined it long and critically. Then he gave his verdict. ‘It’s the brawest rod I ever saw, wi’ a fine hickory butt, an’ guid greenhert tap and middle. It wad cast the sma’est flee, and haud the biggest troot.’

‘Weel,’ said the farmer, genially smiling, ‘ye have a half-holiday the morn when ye gang to the poll. There’ll be plenty o’ time in the evening to try a cast wi’ ’t. I’ll lend it ye for the day.’

The man’s face brightened. ‘I wad tak’ it verra kindly,’ he said, ‘if ye wad. My ain yin is no muckle worth, and, as ye say, I’ll hae time for a cast the morn’s nicht.’

‘Dinna mention it. Did I ever let ye see my flee-book? Here it is,’ and he produced a thick flannel book from a drawer. ‘There’s a maist miscellaneous collection, for a’ waters an’ a’ weathers. I got a heap o’ them frae auld Lord Manorwater, when I was a laddie, and used to cairry his basket.’

But the ploughman heeded him not, being deep in the examination of its mysteries. Very gingerly he handled the tiny spiders and hackles, surveying them with the eye of a connoisseur.

‘If there’s anything there ye think at a’ like the water, I’ll be verra pleased if ye’ll try ’t.’

The other was somewhat put out by this extreme friendliness. At another time he would have refused shamefacedly, but now the love of sport was too strong in him. ‘Ye’re far ower guid,’ he said; ‘thae twae paitrick wings are the verra things I want, an’ I dinna think I’ve ony at hame. I’m awfu’ gratefu’ to ye, an’ I’ll bring them back the morn’s nicht.’

‘Guid-e’en,’ said the farmer, as he opened the door, ‘an’ I wish ye may hae a guid catch.’ And he turned in again, smiling sardonically.

The next morning was like the last, save that a little wind had risen, which blew freshly from the west. White cloudlets drifted across the blue, and the air was as clear as spring-water.

Down in the hollow the roaring torrent had sunk to a full, lipping stream, and the colour had changed from a turbid yellow to a clear, delicate brown. In the town of Gledsmuir, it was a day of wild excitement, and the quiet Clachlands road bustled with horses and men. The labourers in the fields scarce stopped to look at the passers, for in the afternoon they too would have their chance, when they might journey to the town in all importance, and record their opinions of the late Government.

The ploughman of Clachlands spent a troubled forenoon. His nightly dreams had been of landing great fish, and now his waking thoughts were of the same. Politics for the time were forgotten. This was the day which he had looked forward to for so long, when he was to have been busied in deciding doubtful voters, and breathing activity into the ranks of his cause. And lo! the day had come and found his thoughts elsewhere. For all such things are, at the best, of fleeting interest, and do not stir men otherwise than sentimentally; but the old kindly love of field-sports, the joy in the smell of the earth and the living air, lie very close to a man’s heart. So this apostate, as he cleaned his turnip rows, was filled with the excitement of the sport, and had no thoughts above the memory of past exploits and the anticipation of greater to come.

Mid-day came, and with it his release. He roughly calculated that he could go to the town, vote, and be back in two hours, and so have the evening clear for his fishing. There had never been such a day for the trout in his memory, so cool and breezy and soft, nor had he ever seen so glorious a water. ‘If ye dinna get a fou basket the nicht, an’ a feed the morn, William Laverhope, your richt hand has forgot its cunning,’ said he to himself.

He took the rod carefully out, put it together, and made trial casts on the green. He tied the flies on a cast and put it ready for use in his own primitive fly-book, and then bestowed the whole in the breast-pocket of his coat. He had arrayed himself in his best, with a white rose in his button-hole, for it behoved a man to be well dressed on such an occasion as voting. But yet he did not start. Some fascination in the rod made him linger and try it again and again.

Then he resolutely laid it down and made to go. But something caught his eye—the swirl of the stream as it left the great pool at the hay-field, or the glimpse of still, gleaming water. The impulse was too strong to be resisted. There was time enough and to spare. The pool was on his way to the town, he would try one cast ere he started, just to see if the water was good. So, with rod on his shoulder, he set off.

Somewhere in the background a man, who had been watching his movements, turned away, laughing silently, and filling his pipe.

A great trout rose to the fly in the hay-field pool, and ran the line upstream till he broke it. The ploughman swore deeply, and stamped on the ground with irritation. His blood was up, and he prepared for battle. Carefully, skillfully he fished, with every nerve on tension and ever-watchful eyes. Meanwhile, miles off in the town the bustle went on, but the eager fisherman by the river heeded it not.

Late in the evening, just at the darkening, a figure arrayed in Sunday clothes, but all wet and mud-stained, came up the road to the farm. Over his shoulder he carried a rod, and in one hand a long string of noble trout. But the expression on his face was not triumphant; a settled melancholy overspread his countenance, and he groaned as he walked.

Mephistopheles stood by the garden-gate, smoking and surveying his fields. A well-satisfied smile hovered about his mouth, and his air was the air of one well at ease with the world.

‘Weel, I see ye’ve had guid sport,’ said he to the melancholy Faust. ‘By-the-bye, I didna notice ye in the toun. And losh! man, what in the warld have ye dune to your guid claes?’

The other made no answer. Slowly he took the rod to pieces and strapped it up; he took the fly-book from his pocket; he selected two fish from the heap; and laid the whole before the farmer.

‘There ye are,’ said he, ‘and I’m verra much obleeged to ye for your kindness.’ But his tone was of desperation and not of gratitude; and his face, as he went onward, was a study in eloquence repressed.

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John Buchan (1875-1940) 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was a writer. He was best known for his novels including The Thirty-Nine Steps.

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