SI Vault
Ed Zern
August 22, 1966
Smythe-Preston, an angling sorcerer, kept the ancient secret of Stonehenge as staunchly as the Druids did themselves until an American came with a magic potion. He got the truth—almost
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August 22, 1966

Something Was Fishy About Stonehenge

Smythe-Preston, an angling sorcerer, kept the ancient secret of Stonehenge as staunchly as the Druids did themselves until an American came with a magic potion. He got the truth—almost

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While in England last May I spent some time in a small village in Hampshire, home county of such sacrosanct trout waters as the Test, the Itchen and the Tichborne. Not long after settling myself at the inn I began to hear stories of the local fishing wizard, a Mr. Smythe-Preston, whose incredible success in extracting limit bags of large trout from hard-fished chalk streams at times when other anglers were going fishless was the talk of the sporting community. Naturally my curiosity was aroused, and I determined to seek Mr. Smythe-Preston out and, if possible, learn his secret.

"It's no use," said the innkeeper, himself a veteran angler and skilled flytier. "He won't say a word. All we know is that he prefers fishing alone, observes all the local regulations as to hours and tackle and, although generally friendly, is somewhat peculiar in his habits. The fact is, there are those who say he's a practicing Druid, and there is talk of witchcraft and ancient rites. Some even say he has a pact with the devil. But, of course, that's all nonsense, and for myself I think he's a topflight trout man who's also exceptionally lucky."

Later, at a dinner party, I met the local curate, another dedicated trout fisherman, and asked him about the fabulous Mr. Smythe-Preston. "I know him only slightly," said the reverend angler, "and he seems a nice enough chap. As for his remarkable success at fishing, I simply don't know how to account for it. Twice I've met him along the stream and observed him carefully, and although he handles a rod and presents a fly as well as most of us, the truth is, he's not really a brilliant—ah—technician. Some of the villagers claim they've followed him on several mysterious predawn expeditions, and declare that he drives to Stonehenge—it's not far from here, you know, less than an hour—where, they say, he goes through some sort of ritualistic rigmarole just as the sun rises over Salisbury Plain. Frankly, I suspect those self-appointed gumshoes of having had one too many at the Crown and Creel—at any rate, he doesn't seem the sort of chap to belong to a pagan sect, and I can't take it seriously."

Ironically, it was at the Crown and Creel, the village's one and only pub, that I finally met the mystery man in person, and was surprised to find him the most unmysterious-appearing of mortals, about as sinister in aspect as an Iowa Sunday-school superintendent. The grayness of his face and mustache was alleviated only by the mild twinkle of his eyes, and not at all by the drab and rumpled tweeds that failed to disguise a middle-aged paunch. When I asked if I might stand him a pint he accepted politely if not cordially, but when I said I had heard of his phenomenal ability to produce limits of large trout each time he went fishing and asked straight out if he would tell me his secret, he modestly laughed and said the talk was exaggerated. "Although I must admit," he added, "that I am fairly lucky occasionally. And I try not to fish on an east wind—the usual sort of stuff every fisherman knows. But tell me about American trout fishing—your Large Hole River that I've read so much about, and all that."

I told him about the Big Hole and the Madison, and was starting on the Letort when I overheard one of a group of villagers at the next table laughingly offer to take a lie-detector test over some boast he had just made. It was then that I recalled the tiny envelope in my wallet, and realized that it might be the answer to my problem.

The packet had been given to me by a young friend who, while interning at a New York hospital, had been involved in some research experiments with sodium pentathal, the so-called "truth serum." In this case, however, it had been produced in the form of pills that could be administered orally and, when dissolved in liquid, affected neither color nor taste. "Frankly," my friend had said, "I don't know how effective this stuff will turn out to be, but I thought you might use it to help in locating some of your friends' woodcock covers. Slip a couple of these into their martinis—it can't do them any harm, and it might start them chattering like magpies!" He had meant it for a joke, but I had put the packet into my wallet and forgotten it, until that instant.

At the same moment, by one of those fortuitous coincidences that occur more often in real life than in fiction, Mr. Smythe-Preston was called to the telephone; on a reckless impulse I took the pills from my wallet and popped two of them into the half pint of beer in his mug; then, seeing that there was only one pill left, I popped that one in, too. On returning, Smythe-Preston drained his tankard and said he'd have to be getting back to his cottage. When I said I needed some exercise and asked if I might walk with him, he agreed without much enthusiasm and we set out.

I had no idea how soon the pills would take effect, or indeed if they would take effect at all. For the first half mile I was sure they wouldn't—it would not have been beyond my medical friend to have given me some kind of sugar-pill placebo together with a cock-and-bull story—and then, as we started across the village common, I thought I detected a change in the tone of Smythe-Preston's voice. He had been mumbling noncommittal answers to my questions about local history, but when I asked about the remnants of what seemed to be a Roman wall he began talking at considerable length, in a slightly higher-pitched voice and quite rapidly. When my next remark brought an even more effusive response and a reference to some personal matter that an Englishman would ordinarily not mention to a stranger, I pretended to stumble and twist my ankle. He could hardly refuse when I asked if he'd mind sitting on the wall with me for a minute, until I could determine if the ankle was sprained.

Naturally, as soon as we were seated I asked him point-blank to tell me the secret of his fishing prowess. Not to my surprise, he commenced talking at once, in the manner of a man who is slightly tipsy and feeling well pleased with the world and himself. "Oh, that?" he babbled happily. "Damnedest thing, old chap. I've always been a bit of an archaeologist, y'know—fascinating hobby, and something to do between fishing seasons. And, of course, with that Stonehenge thing so close at hand I did a lot of rummaging around there, taking measurements and calculating meridians and sidereal angles and generally trying to outguess all the others who were trying to unriddle that ring of great boulders. I say, am I boring you, old boy?"

"Not at all," I assured him.

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