The Jonathan Papers
by Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris
THE JONATHAN PAPERS
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By Elisabeth Woodbridge
DAYS OUT AND OTHER PAPERS.
MORE JONATHAN PAPERS.
THE JONATHAN PAPERS.
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON AND NEW YORK
* * * * *
THE JONATHAN PAPERS
Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin Company
Copyright, 1912, by Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris
TO JONATHAN AND TO ALL PERFECT COMRADESHIP WHEREVER ITS JOYOUS
SPIRIT IS FOUND THIS LITTLE BOOK IS DEDICATED
I. A Placid
III. A Desultory
IV. The Yellow
V. Larkspurs and
VI. The Farm
Grooming of the
IX. The Country
X. The Lure of
XI. In the Rain
XII. As the Bee
XIII. A Dawn
XIV. In the Wake
of the Partridge
XV. Beyond the
Realm of Weather
XVII. In the
Foreword. On Taking One's Dessert
When we were children we used to “happen in” to the kitchen just
before luncheon to see what the dessert was to be. This was because at
the luncheon table we were not allowed to ask, yet it was advantageous
to know, for since even our youthful capacity had its limits, we found
it necessary to “save room,” and the question, of course, was, how much
Discovering some favorite dish being prepared, we used to gaze with
watering mouth, and, though knowing its futility, could seldom repress
the plea, “Mayn't we have our dessert now?” Of course we never did, of
course we waited, and of course, when that same dessert came to us,
properly served, at the proper time, after a properly wholesome
luncheon preceding, it found us expectant, perhaps, but not eager;
appreciative, but not enthusiastic. It was not to us what it would have
been at the golden moment when we begged for it.
In hours of unbridled hostility to domestic conditions we used
sometimes to plan for a future when we should be grown up, and then
would we not change this sorry scheme of things entire! Would we not
have a larder, with desserts in it, our favorite desserts—and would we
not devour these same, boldly, recklessly, immediately before the meal
for which they were intended! Just wouldn't we!
And afterward—just didn't we! Most youthful fancies are doomed to
fade unrealized, but this one was too fundamentally practical and sane.
We are grown up, we have a larder, with now and then toothsome desserts
in it, and now and then we grip our conscience till it cowers and is
still, we wait till the servants are out, we walk into our pantry—and
Yes, triumphant we still believe what once militant we
maintained—that the only way to eat cake is when it is just out of the
oven, that the only way to eat ice cream is to dip it out of the
freezer, down under the apple tree, in the mid-morning or
mid-afternoon. Afterward, when it appears in sober decorum, surrounded
by all the appurtenances of civilization, it is a very commonplace
affair; out under the apple tree it is ambrosia.
Why not go further? Why not take all our desserts in life when they
taste best, instead of at the proper time, when we don't care for them?
Desserts are, I suppose, meant to be enjoyed. Why not have them when
most enjoyable? I wonder if there is not a certain perverted
conscientiousness that leads us to this enforcement of our pleasures. I
am myself conscious that I can scarcely ever approach a pleasure with a
mind singly bent on enjoyment. I regard it with something like
suspicion, I hedge, I hesitate, I defer. What is the motive force here?
Is it an inherited asceticism, bidding us beware of pleasure as such?
Is it pride, which will not permit us to make unseemly haste toward our
desires? Is it a subtle self-gratification, which seeks to add zest,
tone, to our delights by postponing them? Is it fear of anticlimax,
which makes us save our pleasure for the last thing, that there may be
no descent afterward? Certainly the last was the motive in the case of
the little boy who, dining out, was given a piece of mince and one of
custard pie. He liked the mince best, therefore he saved it until the
last, and had just conscientiously finished the custard when his
beaming hostess said: “Oh, you like the custard best! Well, dear, you
needn't eat the other. Delia, bring another plate for Henry and I'll
give him another piece of the custard pie.” Pathetic! Yet I confess my
sympathy with Henry has always been qualified by disapproval of his
methods, which, it seems to me, brought down upon him an awful but not
wholly undeserved penalty.
The incident is worth careful attention. For life, I believe, is
continually treating us as that benevolent but misguided hostess
treated the incomprehensible Henry. If we postpone our mince pie, it is
often snatched from us and we never get it at all. I knew a youth once
who habitually rode a bicycle that was too small for him. He explained
that he continued to do this because then, when at some future time he
did have one that fitted him, he would be so surpassingly comfortable!
Soon after, bicycles went out of fashion, and I fear the moment of
supreme luxury never came. His mince pie had, as it were, been snatched
from him. One of my friends wrote me once: “It seems to me I am always
distractingly busy just getting ready to live, but I never really
begin.” Most of us are in the same plight. We are like the thrifty
housewife who kept pushing the week's work earlier and earlier, until
it backed up into the week before; yet with all her planning she never
succeeded in clearing one little spot of leisure for herself. She never
got her dessert at all. Probably she would not have enjoyed it if she
had had it. For the capacity to enjoy desserts in life is something not
to be trifled with. Children have it, and grown people can keep it if
they try, but they don't always try. I knew of a man who worked every
minute until he was sixty, getting rich. He did get rich. Then he
retired; he built him a “stately pleasure palace” and set about taking
his pleasure. And lo! he found that he had forgotten how! He tried this
and that, indoor and outdoor pleasures, the social and the solitary,
the artistic and the semi-scientific—all to no purpose. Here were all
the desserts that throughout his life he had been steadfastly pushing
aside; they were ranged before him to partake of, and when he would
partake he could not. And so he left his pleasure palace and went back
We are not all so far gone as this, but few of us have the courage
to take our desserts when they are offered, or the free spirit to enjoy
them to the uttermost. I get up on a glorious summer morning and gaze
out at the new day. With all the strongest and deepest instincts of my
nature I long to go out into the green beauty of the world, to fling
myself down in some sloping meadow and feel the sunshine envelop me and
the warm winds pass over me, to see them tossing the grasses and
tugging at the trees and driving the white clouds across the blue, and
to feel the great earth revolving under me—for if you lie long enough
you can really get the sense of sailing through space. All this I long
for—from my window. Then I turn back to my unglorified little
house—little, however big, compared with the limitless world of beauty
outside—and betake myself to my day's routine occupations. I read my
mail, I answer letters, I go over accounts, I fly to the telephone and
give orders and make engagements. And at length, after hours of such
stultifying employment, I elect to call myself “free,” and go forth to
enjoy my “well-earned” leisure. Fool that I am! As if enjoyment were a
thing to be taken up and laid down at will, like a walking-stick. As if
one could let the golden moment pass and hope to find it again awaiting
our convenience. Why can we not be like Pippa with her one precious
day? But if she had been born in New England do you suppose her day
would have been what it was? Would she have sprung up at daybreak with
heart and mind all alight for pleasure? Certainly not. She would have
spent the golden morning in cleaning the kitchen, and the golden
afternoon in clearing up the attic, and would have gone out for a
little walk after the supper dishes were washed, only because she
thought she “ought” to take a little exercise in the open air.
Duty and work are all very well, but we have bound ourselves up in
them so completely that we have almost lost the art of spontaneous
enjoyment. We can feel comfortable or uncomfortable, annoyed or
gratified, but we cannot feel simple, buoyant, instinctive enjoyment in
anything. We take our very pleasures under the name of duties—“We
ought to take a walk,” “We ought not to miss that concert,” “We ought
to read” a certain book, “We ought” to go and see this friend, or
invite that one to see us. Those things that should be our spontaneous
pleasures we have clothed and masked until they no longer know
themselves. A pleasure must present itself under the guise of a duty
before we feel that we can wholly give ourselves over to it.
Ah, let us stop all that! Let us take our pleasures without apology.
Let us give up this fashion of shoving them away into the left-over
corners of our lives, covering their gleaming raiment with sad-colored
robes, and visiting them with half-averted faces. Let us consort with
them openly, gayly!
The Jonathan Papers
I. A Placid Runaway
Jonathan and I differ about a great many things; how otherwise are
we to avoid the sloughs of bigoted self-satisfaction? But upon one
point we agree: we are both convinced that on a beautiful morning in
April or May or June there is just one thing that any right-minded
person really wants to do. That is to turn a deaf ear to duty and a
blind eye to all other pleasures, and—find a trout brook. We are,
indeed, able to understand that duty may be too much for him—may be
quite indifferent to his deaf ear and shout in the other, or may even
seize him by the shoulders and hold him firmly in his place. He may not
be able so much as to drop a line in the brown water all through the
maddening spring days. But that he should not want to—ache to—this we
cannot understand. We do know that it is not a thing to be argued
about. It is temperamental, it is in the blood, or it is not. Jonathan
and I always want to.
Once it was almost the end of April, and we had been wanting to ever
since March had gone out like a lion—for in some parts of New England
a jocose legislature has arranged that the trout season shall begin on
April Fool's Day. Those who try to catch trout on April first
understand the joke.
“Jonathan,” I said over our coffee, “have you noticed the weather
“Um-m-pleasant day,” he murmured abstractedly from behind his
“Pleasant! Have you felt the sunshine? Have you smelt the spring
mud? I want to roll in it!”
Jonathan really looked up over his paper. “Do!” he said,
“Jonathan, let's run away!”
“Can't. There's a man coming at—”
“I know. There's always a man coming. Tell him to come to-morrow.
Tell him you are called out of town.”
“But you have a lot of things to-day too—book clubs and Japanese
clubs and such things. You said last night—”
“I'll tell them I'm called out of town too. I am
called—we're both called, you know we are. And we've got to go.”
“Really, my dear, you know I want to, but—”
“No use! It's a runaway. Get the time-table and see which is the
first train to anywhere—to nowhere—who cares where!”
Jonathan went, protesting. I let him protest. A man should have some
We took the first train. It was a local, of course, and it trundled
jerkily along one of the little rivers we knew. When the conductor came
to us, Jonathan showed him our mileage book. “Where to?” he asked
mechanically, but stiffened to attention when Jonathan said placidly,
“I don't know yet. Where are we going, my dear?”
“I hadn't thought,” I said; “let's see the places on the map.”
“Well, conductor,” said Jonathan, “take off for three stations, and
if we don't get off then, you'll find us here when you come around, and
then you can take off some more.”
The conductor looked us both over. We were evidently not a bridal
couple, and we didn't look quite like criminals—he gave us up.
When we saw a bit of country that looked attractive, we got off.
That was something I had always wanted to do. All my life I have had to
go to definite places, and my memory is full of tantalizing glimpses of
the charming spots I have passed on the road and could never stop to
explore. This time we really did it. We left the little railway
station, sitting plain and useful beside the track, went up the road
past a few farmhouses, over a fence and across a soft ploughed field,
and down to the little river, willow-bordered, shallow, golden-brown,
with here and there a deep pool under an overhanging hemlock or a
shelving, fretted, bush-tangled bank.
We sat down in the sun on a willow log and put our rods together.
Does anything sound prettier than the whir and click of the reel as one
pulls out the line for the first time on an April day? We sat and
looked at the world for a little, and let the wind, with just the faint
chill of the vanishing snows still in it, blow over us, and the sun,
that was making anemones and arbutus every minute, warm us through. It
was almost too good to begin, this day that we had stolen. I felt like
a child with a toothsome cake—“I'll put it away for a while and have
But, after all, it was already begun. We had not stolen it, it had
stolen us, and it held us in its power. Soon we wandered on, at first
hastening for the mere joy of motion and the freshness of things; then,
as the wind lessened and the sun shone hot in the hollows, loitering
more and more, dropping a line here and there where a deep pool looked
suggestive. Trout? Yes, we caught some. Jonathan pulled in a good many;
I got enough to seem industrious. I seldom catch as many as Jonathan,
though he tries to give me all the best holes; because really there are
so many other things to attend to. Men seem to go fishing chiefly to
catch fish. Jonathan spends half an hour working his rod and line
through a network of bushes, briers, and vines, to drop it in a chosen
spot in a pool. He swears gently as he works, but he works on, and
usually gets his fish. I don't swear, so I know I could never carry
through such an undertaking, and I don't try.
I did try once, when I was young and reckless. I headed the tip of
my rod, like a lance in rest, for the most open spot I could see. For
the fisherman's rule in the woods is not “Follow the flag,” but “Follow
your tip,” and I tried to follow mine. This necessitated reducing
myself occasionally to the dimensions of a filament, but I was elastic,
and I persisted. The brambles neatly extracted my hat-pins and dropped
them in the tangle about my feet; they pulled off my hat, but I pushed
painfully forward. They tore at my hair; they caught an end of my tie
and drew out the bow. Finally they made a simultaneous and well-planned
assault upon my hair, my neck, my left arm, raised to push them back,
and my right, extended to hold and guide that quivering, undulating
rod. I was helpless, unless I wished to be torn in shreds. At that
moment, as I stood poised, hot, baffled, smarting and stinging with
bramble scratches, wishing I could swear like a man and have it out,
the air was filled with the liquid notes of a wood thrush. I love the
wood thrush best of all; but that he should choose this moment! It was
the final touch.
I whistled the blue-jay note, which means “Come,” and Jonathan came
threshing through the brush, having left his rod.
“Where are you?” he called; “I can't see you.”
“No, you can't,” I responded unamiably. “You probably never will see
me again, at least not in any recognizable form. Help me out!” The
thrush sang again, one tree farther away. “No! First kill that thrush!”
I added between set teeth, as a slight motion of mine set the brambles
“Why, why, my dear, what's this?” Then, as he caught sight of me,
“Well! You are tied up! Wait; I'll get out my knife.”
He cut here and there, and one after another, with a farewell stab
or scratch, the maddening things reluctantly let go their hold.
Meanwhile Jonathan made placid remarks about the proper way to go
through brush. “You go too fast, you know. You can't hurry these
things, and you can't bully them. I don't see how you manage to get
scratched up so. I never do.”
“Jonathan, you are as tactless as the thrush.”
“Don't kill me yet, though. Wait till I cut this last fellow. There!
Now you're free. By George! But you're a wreck!”
That was the last time I ever tried to “work through brush,” as
Jonathan calls it. If I can catch trout by any method compatible with
sanity, I am ready to do it, but as for allowing myself to be drawn
into a situation wherein the note of the wood thrush stirs thoughts of
murder in my breast—at that point, I opine, sport ceases.
So on that day of our runaway I kept to open waters and preserved a
placid mind. The air was full of bird notes—in the big open woods the
clear “whick-ya, whick-ya, whick-ya” of the courting yellowhammers, in
the meadows bluebirds with their shy, vanishing call that is over
almost before you can begin to listen, meadowlarks poignantly sweet,
song sparrows with a lift and a lilt and a carol, and in the swamps the
red-wings trilling jubilant.
Noon came, and we camped under the sunny lee of a ridge that was all
abloom with hepaticas—clumps of lavender and white and rosy-lilac. We
found a good spring, and a fallen log, and some dead hemlock tips to
start a fire, and soon we had a merry blaze. Then Jonathan dressed some
of the trout, while I found a black birch tree and cut forked sticks
for broilers. Any one who has not broiled fresh-caught trout outdoors
on birch forks—or spice bush will do almost as well—has yet to learn
what life holds for him. Chops are good, too, done in that way. We
usually carry them along when there is no prospect of fish, or, when we
are sure of our country, we take a tin cup and buy eggs at a farmhouse
to boil. But the balancing of the can requires a happy combination of
stones about the fire that the brief nooning of a day's tramp seldom
affords, and baking is still more uncertain. Bacon is good, but
broiling the little slices—and how they do shrink!—takes too long,
while frying entails a pan. Curiously enough, a pan, in addition to two
fish baskets and a landing-net, does not find favor in Jonathan's eyes.
After luncheon and a long, lazy rest on our log we went back to the
stream and loitered down its bank. Pussy-willows, their sleek silver
paws bursting into fat, caterpillary things, covered us with yellow
pollen powder as we brushed past them. Now and then we were arrested by
the sharp fragrance of the spice bush, whose little yellow blossoms had
escaped our notice. In the damp hollows the ground was carpeted with
the rich, mottled green leaves and tawny yellow bells of the
adder's-tongue, and the wet mud was sweet with the dainty,
short-stemmed white violets. On the dry, barren places were masses of
saxifrage, bravely cheerful; on the rocky slopes fragile anemones blew
in the wind, and fluffy green clumps of columbine lured us on to a vain
search for an early blossom.
As the afternoon waned, and the wind freshened crisply, we guessed
that it was milking-time, and wandered up to a farmhouse where we
persuaded the farmer's wife to give us bread and cheese and warm new
milk. We were urged to “set inside,” but preferred to take the great
white pitcher of milk out to the steps of the little back porch where
we could hear the insistent note of the little phoebe that was building
under the eaves of the woodshed. Our hostess stood in the doorway,
watching in amused tolerance as we filled and refilled our goblets.
They were wonderful goblets, be it said—the best the house afforded.
Jonathan's was of fancy green glass, all covered with little knobs;
mine was yellow, with a head of Washington stamped on one side, and
“God Bless our Country” on the other. Finally the good woman broke the
silence—“Guess your mothers ain't never weaned ye.” Which we were not
in a position to refute.
On our return train we found the same conductor who had taken us out
in the morning. As he folded back the green cover of our mileage book
he could not forbear remarking, quizzically, “Know how far you're goin'
“Jonathan,” I said, as we settled to toast and tea before our home
fireplace that evening, “I like running away. I don't blame horses.”
II. An Unprogressive Farm
Most of our friends, Jonathan's and mine, are occupying their
summers in “reclaiming” old farms. We have an old farm, too, but we, I
fear, are not reclaiming it, at least not very fast. We have made
neither formal gardens nor water gardens nor rose arches; we have not
built marble swimming-tanks, nor even cement ones; we have not
naturalized forget-me-nots in the brook or narcissus in the meadows; we
have not erected tea-houses on choice knolls, and after six years of
occupancy there is still not a pergola or a sundial on the place! And
yet we are happy.
To be happy on a farm like ours one must, I fancy, be either very
old or very unprogressive. While we are waiting to grow comfortably
old, we are willing to be considered unprogressive.
Very old and very, very unprogressive is the farm itself. There is
nothing on it but old apple trees, old lilac bushes, old rocks, and old
associations—and, to be sure, the old red house. But the old rocks,
piled on the hillsides, are unfailingly picturesque, whether dark and
dripping in the summer rains or silver gray in the summer suns. The
lilacs are delightful, too. In June they send wave upon wave of
fragrance in through the little windows, penetrating even to the
remotest corners of the dim old attic, while all day long about their
pale lavender sprays the great yellow and black butterflies hang
flutteringly. Best of all is the orchard; the old apple trees blossom
prodigally for a brief season in May, blossom in rosy-white, in
cream-white, in pure white, in green-white, transforming the lane and
the hill-slopes into a bower, smothering the old house in beauty,
brooding over it, on still moonlight nights, in pale clouds of
sweetness. And then comes a wind, with a drenching rain, and tears away
all the pretty petals and buries them in the grass below. But there are
seldom any apples; all this exuberance of beauty is but a dream of
youth, not a promise of fruitage. Jonathan, indeed, tells me that if we
want the trees to bear we must keep pigs in the orchard to root up the
ground and eat the wormy fruit as it falls; but under these conditions
I would rather not have the apples. The orchard is old; why not leave
it to dream and rest and dream again?
The old associations are, I admit, of a somewhat mixed character.
There is the romance of the milk-room door, through which, in hoary
ages past, the “hired girl,” at the ripe age of twelve, eloped with her
sixteen-year-old lover; there is the story of the cellar nail, a
shuddery one, handed down from a yet more remote antiquity; there are
tales of the “ballroom” on the second floor, of the old lightning-riven
locust stump, of the origin of the “new wing” of the house—still
called “new,” though a century old. Not a spot, indoors or out, but has
its clustering memories.
Such an enveloping atmosphere of associations, no matter what their
quality, in a place where generations have lived and died, is of itself
a quieting thing. Life, incrusted with tradition, like a ship weighted
with barnacles, moves more and more slowly; the past appears more real
than the present. To the old this seems natural and right, to others it
is often depressing; but Jonathan and I like it. Our barnacle-clogged
ship pleases us—pleases me because I love the slow, drifting motion,
pleases Jonathan because—I regret to admit it—he thinks he can get
all the barnacles off—and then!—
For, whereas my unprogressiveness is absolute and unqualified,
Jonathan's is, I have discovered, tainted by a sneaking optimism, an
ineradicable desire and hope of improvement, which, though it does not
blossom rankly in pergolas and tea-houses, is none the less there, a
lurking menace. It inspired his suggestion regarding pigs in the
orchard, it showed itself even more clearly in the matter of the hens.
I have always liked hens. I doubt if mine are very profitable,—the
farm is not, in general, a source of profit, and we cherish no
delusions about it,—but I do not keep them for pecuniary gain. If they
chance to lay eggs, so much the better; if they furnish forth my table
with succulent broilers, with nutritious roasters, with ambrosial
chicken-pasties, I am not unappreciative; but I realize that all these
things might be had from my neighbors' barnyards. What I primarily
value my own hens for is their companionship. Talk about the
companionship of dogs and cats! Cats walk about my home, sleek and
superior; they make me feel that I am there on sufferance. One cannot
even laugh at them, their manner is so perfect. Dogs, on the other
hand, develop an unreasoning and tyrannous devotion to their masters,
which is not really good for either, though it may be morbidly
gratifying to sentimental natures.
But hens! No decorous superiority here, no mush of devotion. No; for
varied folly, for rich and highly developed perversities, combining all
that is choicest of masculine and feminine foible—for this and much
more, commend me to the hen. Ever since we came to the farm, my sister
the hen has entertained me with her vagaries. Jaques's delight at his
encounter with Touchstone is pale compared with mine in their society.
Nothing cheers me more than to sit on a big rock in the barnyard and
watch the hens walking about. Their very gait pleases me—the way they
bob their heads, the “genteel” way they have of picking up their feet,
for all the world as though they cared where they stepped; the absent
and superior manner in which they “scratch for worms,” their gaze fixed
on the sky, then cock their heads downwards with an indifferent air,
absently pick up a chip, drop it, and walk on! Did any one ever see a
hen really find a worm? I never did. There are no worms in our
barnyard, anyhow; Jonathan must have dug them all up for bait when he
was a boy. I have even tried throwing some real worms to them, and they
always respond by a few nervous cackles, and walk past the brown
wrigglers with a detached manner, and the robins get them later. And
yet they continue to go through all these forms, and we continue to
call it “scratching for worms.”
Jonathan has nothing to do with my hens except to give advice. One
of his hobbies is the establishing of a breed of hens marked by
intelligence, which he maintains might be done by careful selection of
the mothers. Accordingly, whenever he goes to the roost to pick out a
victim for the sacrificial hatchet, he first gently pulls the tail of
each candidate in turn, and by the dim light of the lantern carefully
observes the nature of their reaction, choosing for destruction the one
whose deportment seems to him most foolish. In this way, by weeding out
the extremely silly, he hopes in time to raise the general intellectual
standard of the barnyard. But he urges that much more might be done if
my heart were in it. Very likely, but my heart is not. Intelligence is
all very well, but the barnyard, I am convinced, is no place for it.
Give me my pretty, silly hens, with all their aimless, silly ways. I
will seek intelligence, when I want it, elsewhere.
In another direction, too, Jonathan's optimistic temperament has
found little encouragement. This is in regard to the chimney swallows.
When we first came, these little creatures were one of my severest
trials. They were not a trial to Jonathan. He loved to watch them at
dusk, circling and eddying about the great chimney. So, indeed, did I;
and if they had but contented themselves with circling and eddying
there, I should have had no quarrel with them. I did not even object to
their evolutions inside the chimney. At first I took the muffled
shudder of wings for distant thunder, and when great masses of soot
came tumbling down into the fireplace, I jumped; but I soon grew
accustomed to all this. I was even willing to clean the soot out of my
neat fireplace daily, while Jonathan comforted me by suggesting that
the birds took the place of chimney-sweeps, and that soot was good for
rose bushes. Yes, if the little things had been willing to stick to
their chimney, I should have been tolerant, if not cordial. But when
they invaded my domain, I felt that I had a grievance. And invade it
they did. At dawn I was rudely awakened by a rush from the fireplace, a
mad scuttering about the dusky room, a desperate exit by the little
open window, where the raised shade revealed the pale light of morning.
At night, if I went with my candle into a dark room, I was met by a
whirling thing, dashing itself against me, against the light, against
the walls, in a moth-like ecstasy of self-destruction. In the mornings,
as I went about the house pulling up the shades and drawing back the
curtains, out from their white folds rushed dark, winged shapes,
whirring past my ears, fluttering blindly about the room, sinking
exhausted in inaccessible corners. They were as foolish as June bugs,
fifty times bigger, and harder to catch. Moreover, when caught, they
were not pretty; their eyes were in the top of their heads, like a
snake's, their expression was low and cunning. They were almost as bad
as bats! Worst of all, the young birds had an untidy habit of tumbling
out of the nests down into the fireplaces, whether there was a fire or
not. Now, I have no conscientious objection to roasting birds, but I
prefer to choose my birds, and to kill them first.
One morning I had gathered and carried out of doors eight foolish,
frightened, huddling things, and one dead young one from the
sitting-room embers, and I returned to find Jonathan kneeling on the
guest-room hearth, one arm thrust far up the chimney. “What are you
doing, Jonathan?” The next moment there was the familiar rush of wings,
which finally subsided behind the fresh pillows of the bed. Jonathan
sprang up. “Wait! I'll get it!” He carefully drew away the pillow, his
hand was almost on the poor little quivering wretch, when it made
another rush, hurled itself against the mirror, upset a vase full of
columbines, and finally sank behind the wood-box. At last it was
caught, and Jonathan, going over to the hearth, resumed his former
position. “Jonathan! Put him out of doors!” I exclaimed. “Sh-h-h,” he
responded, “I'm going to teach him to go back the way he came. There he
goes! see?” He rose, triumphant, and began to brush the soot out of his
collar and hair. I was sorry to dash such enthusiasm, but I felt my
resolution hardening within me.
“Jonathan,” I said, “we did not come to the farm to train chimney
swallows. Besides, I don't wish them trained, I wish them kept out. I don't regard them as suitable for household pets. If you will sink
to a pet bird, get a canary.”
“But you wouldn't have an old house without chimney swallows!” he
remonstrated in tones of real pain.
“I would indeed.”
It ended in a compromise. At the top of the chimney Jonathan put a
netting over half the flues; the others he left open at the top, but
set in nettings in the corresponding flues just above each fireplace.
And so in half the chimney the swallows still build, but the young ones
now drop on the nettings instead of in the embers, and lie there
cheeping shrilly until somehow their parents or friends convey them up
again where they belong. And I no longer spend my mornings collecting
apronfuls of frightened and battered little creatures. At dusk the
swallows still eddy and circle about the chimney, but Jonathan has lost
the opportunity for training them. Once more the optimist is balked.
But in these matters I am firm: I do not want the hens made
intelligent, or the orchard improved, or the swallows trained. There
is, I am sure, matter enough in other parts of the farm upon which one
may wreak one's optimism. I hold me to my tidy hearths, my comfortable
hens, my old lilacs, and my dreaming apple trees.
III. A Desultory Pilgrimage
Many of our friends seem to be taking automobile trips during the
summer months—very rapid trips, since, as they explain, “it strains
the machine to go too slowly, you know.” Jonathan and I wanted to take
a trip too, and we looked about us on the old farm for a conveyance.
The closest scrutiny failed to discover an automobile, but there were
other vehicles—there was the old sleigh in the back of the woodshed,
where the hens loved to steal nests, and the old surrey, shabby but
willing, and the business wagon, still shabbier but no less willing;
there were the two lumber wagons, one rather more lumbering than the
other; and there were also various farming vehicles whose names and
uses I have never fathomed, with knives and long raking arrangements,
very uncomfortable to step over when hunting in the dark corners of the
barns for hens' nests or new kittens.
Moreover, there was Kit, the old bay mare, also shabby but willing.
That is, willing “within reason,” although it must be admitted that
Kit's ideas of what was reasonable were distinctly conservative. The
chief practical difference between Kit and an automobile, considered as
a motive power, was that it did not strain Kit in the least to go
slowly. This we considered an advantage, slow-going being what we
particularly wished, and we decided that Kit would do.
For our conveyance we chose the business wagon—a plain box body,
with a seat across and room behind for a trunk; but in addition
Jonathan put in a shallow box under the seat, nailed to cleats on the
bottom of the wagon so that it would not shift and rain would run under
it. In this we put the things we needed by the roadside—the
camping-kit, drinking-cups, bait-boxes, camera, and so on. Then we
stowed our trout rods and baskets, and one morning in June we started.
Our plan was to drive and fish through the day, cook our own noon
meal, and put up at night wherever we could be taken in, avoiding
cities and villages as far as possible. Beyond that we had no plan.
Indeed, this was the best of it all, that we did not have to get
anywhere in particular at any particular time. We did not decide on one
day where we would go the next; we did not even decide in the morning
where we would go in the afternoon. If we found a brook where the trout
bit, and there was no inhospitable “poster” warning us away, we said,
“Let's stay! who cares whether we get on or not?” And we tied Kit to a
tree, took out our rods and baskets, and followed the brook. If noon
found us still fishing, we came back to the wagon, fed Kit, got out our
camping-outfit, and cooked our fish for luncheon. It did not take long.
I collected kindling and firewood while Jonathan was laying a few big
stones for a fireplace shaped like a squared letter “C,” open towards
the wind and big enough to hold our frying-pan. Then we started the
fire, and while it was settling into shape Jonathan dressed the fish
and cut a long stick to fit into the hollow handle of the frying-pan,
and I had time to slice bits of pork and set out the rest of the
luncheon—bread and butter, milk if we happened to have passed a dairy
farm, a pineapple or oranges if we happened to have met a peddler,
strawberries if we had chanced upon one of the sandy spots where the
wild ones grow so thickly.
Then the pan was set over, the pork was laid in, and soon the little
fish were curling up their tails in the fragrant smoke. If they were
big and needed long cooking, I had time to toast bread or biscuit in
the embers underneath for an added luxury, and when all was ready we
sat down in supreme contentment. And we never forgot to give Kit a lump
of sugar, or some clover tops, that she might share in the picnic. But
every now and then she would turn and regard us with eyes that
expressed many things, but chiefly wonder at the queerness of folks who
could prefer not to go back to their own stable to eat. When luncheon
was over, the dishes washed in the brook, and the wagon repacked, we
ambled on, leaving our little fireplace, with its blackened stones and
its heart of gray ashes.
No one who has never tried such an aimless life can realize its
charm and its restfulness. Most of us spend our days catching trains,
and running to the telephone, and meeting engagements. Even our
pleasures are seldom emancipated from these requirements; they are
dependent on boats and trolley cars and trains, they are measured out
in hours and minutes, and we snatch them running, as the Israelites did
their water. But this trip of ours was bounded only by the circle of
the week, and conditioned only by the limitations of Kit. No one could
telephone to us, even at night, because no one knew where we were to
be. As for trains, we never once saw one. Now and then we heard one
whistle, so far away that it merely emphasized its own remoteness, and
a few times we were compelled to cross over or under a track—a very
little track, and single at that; beyond this our connection with the
symbol of Hurry did not go.
The limitations of Kit were indeed definite and insurmountable.
While her speed on a level was most moderate, uphill it was actually
glacial, and going downhill it was little better. For Kit had come from
the level West, and being, as we have said, conservative, she could
never reach any real understanding of hills. She was willing and
conscientious, but prudent, and although she went downhill when she was
requested to, she did it very much as an old lady might go down a
precipice—she let herself down, half sitting, with occasional gentle
groans, rocking from side to side like a boat in a chop sea. Now all
New England is practically either uphill or downhill, and, if we had
been in any haste, these characteristics of Kit might have annoyed us;
but inasmuch as we did not care where we went or when we got there,
what difference did it make? In fact, it was rather a relief to be thus
firmly bound to sobriety.
In one respect we could not be absolutely irresponsible, however. We
found it advisable to seek out our night's lodging while it was yet
light enough for the farmer's wife to look us over and see that we were
respectable. Our first night out we failed to realize this, and we paid
for it by being forced to put up at a commonplace village inn, instead
of a farmhouse. After that we managed to begin our search for a hostess
about milking-time, and we had little further trouble. Indeed, one of
the pleasures of the week was the hospitality we received; and our
opinion of the New England farmer, his wife and his children, grew
higher as the days passed. Courteous hospitality, or, if hospitality
had to be withheld, courteous regret, was the rule. Twice, when one
house could not take us in, they telephoned—for the telephone is
everywhere now—about the neighborhood among friends until they found a
lodging for us. And pleasant lodgings they always proved.
One exception there was. We drew up one afternoon by a well-kept
little house with a good English name on the post-box, and, as usual, I
held the reins while Jonathan went up to the side door to make
inquiries. After he had started up the path I saw, from my
vantage-point, the lady of the farm returning from her “garden patch,”
and my heart went out in pity to Jonathan. If I could have called him
back I would have done so, merely on the testimony of the lady's gait
and figure. I had never fully realized how expressive these could be.
Her hips, her shoulders, the set of her head, the way she planted her
feet on the uneven flagging-stones of the path, each heavy line and
each sodden motion, bespoke inhospitality, intolerance, impenetrable
disapproval of everything unfamiliar. I watched Jonathan turn back from
the door at the sound of her steps, and in the short colloquy that
followed, though I could hear nothing, I could see those hips and
shoulders settling themselves yet more decisively, while Jonathan's
attitude grew more studiously courteous. But when he had lifted his hat
again and turned from that monument of immobile unpleasantness I saw
his face relax into lines, partly of amusement, partly of chagrin; and
as he took his seat beside me and drove on, he murmured snatches of
quotation—“No; couldn't possibly,” “No; don't know anybody that
could,” “No; never did such a thing,” “No; the people in the next
house've just had a funeral; sure they couldn't”; and finally he
broke into a chuckle as he quoted, “Well, there is some folks
about two mile down might mebbe take ye; they does sometimes harbor
peddlers 'n' such like.” Jonathan was hardly willing to try again so
near by; he regarded the whole neighborhood as tainted. Yet it was
little more than two miles beyond, on that same afternoon, that we
found lodgings with the most delightful, the most hospitable friends of
all—for friends they became, taking us into their circle as if we
belonged to it by right of birth, coddling us as one ought never to
expect to be coddled save by one's own mother or grandmother.
Ostensibly, our drive was a trout-fishing trip, and part of the fun
certainly was the fishing. Not that we caught so many. If we had
seriously wished to make a score, we might better have stayed at home
and fished in our own haunts, where we knew every pool and just how and
when to fish it. But it was interesting to explore new brooks, and as
we never failed to get enough trout for at least one meal a day, what
more could we wish? And such brooks! New England is surely the land of
beautiful brooks. They are all lovely—the meadow brooks, gliding
silently beneath the deep-tufted grasses, where the trout live in
shadow even at noonday, and their speckled flanks are dark like the
pools they lie in; the pasture brooks, whose clear water is always
golden from the yellow sand and pebbles and leaves it ripples over, and
the trout are silvery and pale-spotted; the brooks of the deep woods,
where the foam of rapids and the spray of noisy little waterfalls
alternate with the stillness of rock-bound, hemlock-shadowed pools. All
the brooks we followed, whether with good luck or with bad, I remember
with delight. No, all except one. But I do not blame the brook.
It happened in this way: One Monday morning, after an abstemious
Sunday, the zeal of Jonathan brought us forth at dawn—in fact, a
little before dawn. I had consented, because, although my zeal compared
to Jonathan's is as a flapping hen compared to a soaring eagle, yet I
reflected that I should enjoy the sunrise and the early bird-songs. We
emerged, therefore, in the dusk of young morning, and I had my first
reward in a lovely view of meadows half-veiled in silvery mist, where
the brook wound, and upland pastures of pale gray-green against ridges
of shadowy woods. But I was not prepared for the sensation produced by
the actual plunge into those same meadows. I say plunge advisedly. I
shiver yet as I recall the icy chill of that dew-drenched grass. It was
worse than wading a brook, because there was no reaction. Jonathan,
however, did not seem depressed by it, so I followed his eager steps
without remark. We reached the brook, we put our rods together, and
baited. “Crawl, now,” admonished Jonathan; “they're shy fellows in
those open pools.” We crawled, dropped in, and waited. My teeth were
chattering, my lips felt blue, but I would not be beaten by a little
wet grass. After a few casts, Jonathan murmured, “That's funny,” and
moved cautiously on to the next pool. Then he tried swift water, then
little rapids. I proceeded in chilly meekness, glad of a chance at a
little exercise now and then when we had to climb around rocks or over
a stone wall. Occasionally I straightened up and gazed out over the
meadows—those clammy meadows—and up toward the high woods,
brightening into the deep greens of daylight. The east was all rose and
primrose, but I found myself unable to think of the sun as an æsthetic
feature; I longed for its good, honest heat. A stove, or a hot
soapstone, would have done as well.
After a quarter of a mile of this I ventured a remark—“Jonathan,
you have often told me of the delights of dawn fishing.” Jonathan was
extricating his line from an alder bush, and did not answer. I could
not resist adding, “I think you said that the trout—bit—at
dawn.” Continued silence warned me that I had said enough, and I
tactfully changed the subject: “What I am sorry for is the birds' nests
up in those fields. How do the eggs ever hatch—in ice water! And how
do the strawberries ever ripen, in cold storage every night—ugh! Let's
go back and get some hot coffee and go to bed!”
And that is my one experience with dawn fishing. But Jonathan,
reacting from the experience with the temper of the true enthusiast,
still maintains that trout do bite at dawn. Perhaps they do. But for
me, no more early-dewy meadows, except to look at.
Those hours of dawn fishing were the hardest work I did during the
week. A lazy week, in truth, and an irresponsible one. Every one who
can should snatch such a week and see what it does for him. In some
ways it was better than camping, because camping, unless you have
guides, is undoubtedly hard work, especially if you keep moving—work
that one would never grudge, yet hard work nevertheless. The omitting
of the night camp cut out practically all the work and made it more
comfortable for the horse, while our noon camps made us independent all
day, and gave us that sense of being at home outdoors that one never
gets if one has to run to cover for every meal.
And, curiously enough, the spots that seem homelike to me, as I
linger in memory among the scenes of that week, are not the places
where we spent the nights, pleasant though they were, but rather the
spots where we built our little fireplaces. Each was for an hour our
hearth-fire,—our own,—and I do not forget them,—some beside the open
road, one on a ridge where the sun slants across as it goes down among
purpling hills; one in the deep woods, by a little trout brook, where
the sound of running water never ceases; one in an open grove by the
river we love best, where a tiny brook with brown pools full of the
shadowy trout empties its cold waters into the big, warm current.
Perhaps no one else may notice them, but they are there, waiting for
us, if haply we may pass that way again. And if we do, we shall surely
pause and give them greeting.
IV. The Yellow Valley
We were on our way to the Yellow Valley. We had been pushing against
the wind, through the red March mud of a ploughed field. Mud is a very
good thing in its place, and if its place is not a ploughed field in
March, I know of no better. But it does not encourage lightness of
foot. At an especially big and burly gust of wind I stopped, turned my
back for respite, and dropped into the lee of Jonathan. Wind is a good
thing, too, in its place, but one does not care to drown in it.
“Jonathan,” I gasped, “this isn't spring; it's winter of the most
furious description. Let's reform the calendar and put up signs to warn
the flowers. But I want my spring! I want it now!”
“Well,” said Jonathan, “there it is. Look!” And he pointed across
the brush of the near fence line, where a meadow stretched away, brown
with the stubble and matted tangle of last year's grass. Halfway up the
springy slope, in a little fold of the hillside, was a shimmer of
I forgot the wind. “Oh-h! Think of being a cow now and eating that!
Eating spring itself!”
“If you were a cow,” said Jonathan, with the usual masculine command
of applicable information, “they wouldn't let you eat it.”
“They wouldn't! Why not? Does it make them sick?”
“Just that. Crazy for grass. They won't touch hay any more, and
there isn't enough grass for them—and there you are!”
“Did you make that up as you went along, Jonathan?”
“Ask any farmer.”
But I think I will not ask a farmer. He might say it was not true,
and I like to think it is. I am sorry the cows cannot have their grass,
but glad they have the good taste to refuse hay. I should, if I were a
cow. Not being one, I do not need an actual patch of green nibble to
set me crazy. The smell of the earth after a thaw, a breath of soft
air, a wave of delicious sweetness, in April, in March, in
February,—when it comes in January I harden my heart and try not to
notice,—this is enough to spoil me for the dry fodder of winter. Hay
may be good and wholesome, but I have had my taste of spring grass, and
it is enough. That or nothing. No more hay for me!
What that strange sweetness of the early spring is I have never
fully discovered. The fragrance of flowers is in it,—hepaticas, white
violets, arbutus,—yet it is none of these. It comes before any of the
flowers are even astir, when the arbutus buds are still tight little
green points, when the hepaticas have scarcely pushed open their winter
sheaths, while their soft little gray-furred heads are still tucked
down snugly, like a bird's head under its wing. Before even the
snowdrops at our feet and the maples overhead have thought of
blossoming, a soft breath may blow across our path filled with this
wondrous fragrance. It is like a dream of May. One might believe the
fairies were passing by.
For years I was completely baffled by it. But one March, in the farm
orchard, I found out part of the secret. I was planting my sweet peas,
when the well-remembered and bewildering fragrance blew across me. I
sprang up and ran up the wind, and there, in the midst of the old
orchard, I came upon an old apple tree just cut down by the thrift of
Jonathan's farmer, who has no silly weakness for old apple trees. The
fresh-cut wood was moist with sap, and as I bent over it—ah, there it
was! Here were my hepaticas, my arbutus, here in the old apple tree!
Such a surprise! I sat down beside it to think it over. I was sorry it
was cut down, but glad it had told me its secret before it was made
into logs and piled in the woodshed. Blazing in the fireplace it would
tell me many things, but it might perhaps not have told me that.
And so I knew part of the secret. But only part. For the same
fragrance has blown to me often where there were no orchards and no
newly felled apple trees, and I have never, except this once, been able
to trace it. If it is the flowing sap in all trees, why are not the
spring woods full of it? But they are not full of it; it comes only now
and then, with tantalizing capriciousness. Do sound trees exhale it,
certain kinds, when the sap starts, or must they have been cut or
bruised, if not by the axe, perhaps by the winter winds and the ice
storms? I do not know. I only know that when that breath of sweetness
comes, it is the very breath of spring itself; it is the call of spring
out of winter—spring grass.
When the call of the spring grass comes, there is always one spot
that draws me with a special insistence, and every year we have much
the same talk about it.
“Jonathan,” I say, “let's go to the Yellow Valley.”
“Why,” says Jonathan, “there will be more new birds up on the
“I don't care about new birds. The old ones do very well for me.”
“And you might find the first hepaticas under Indian Rock.”
“I know. We'll go there next.”
“And if we went farther up the river, we might see some black duck.”
“Very likely; but I don't feel as if I particularly had to see black
“What do you have to see?”
“Nothing special. Just plain spring.”
That is the charm of the Yellow Valley. It offers no spectacular
inducements, no bargain-counter attractions in the shape of new
arrivals among the birds or flowers. One returns from it with no
trophies of any kind, nothing to put down in one's notebook, if one
keeps a notebook,—from which industry may I be forever preserved! But
it is a place to go to and be quiet, which is good for us all,
especially in the springtime, when there is so much going on in the
world, and especially lately, since “nature study” has driven people
into being so unceasingly busy when they are outdoors. Opera-glasses
and bird books have their place, no doubt, in the advance of mankind,
but they often seem to me nothing but more machinery coming in between
us and the real things. Perhaps it was once true that when people went
out to view “nature,” they did not see enough. Now, I fancy, they see
too much; they cannot see the spring for the birds. Their motto is that
of Rikki-Tikki, the mongoose, “Run and find out”—an excellent motto
for a mongoose,—but for people on a spring ramble!
The unquenchable ardor of the bird lover, so called, fills me with
dismay. One enthusiast, writing in a school journal, describes the
difficulties of following up the birds: “Often eyes all around one's
head, with opera-glasses focused at each pair, would not suffice to
keep the restless birds in view.” If this is the ideal of the bird
lover, it is not mine. I wonder she did not wish for extra pairs of
legs to match each set of eyes and opera-glasses, and a divisible body,
so that she might scamper off in sections after all these marvels. For
myself, one pair of eyes gives me, I find, all the satisfaction and
delight I know what to do with, and I cannot help feeling that, if I
had more, I should have less. The same writer speaks of the “maddening”
warbler notes. Why maddening? Because, forsooth, there are thirty
warblers, and one cannot learn all their names. What a pity to be
maddened by a little warbler! And about a matter of names, too. After
all, the bird, the song, is the thing. And it seems a pity to carry the
chasing of bird notes quite so far. They are meant, I feel sure, to be
hearkened to in quietness of spirit, to be tasted delicately, as one
would a wine. The life of the opera-glassed bird hunter, compared to
mine, seems to me like the experience of a tea-taster compared to that
of one who sits in cozy and irresponsible enjoyment of the cup her
friend hands her.
And so there always comes a time in the spring when I must go to my
Yellow Valley. A car ride, a walk on through plain little suburbs, a
scramble across fields to a seldom-used railway track, a swing out
along the ties, then off across more fields, over a little ridge,
and—there! Oh, the soft glory of color! We are at the west end of a
miniature valley, full of afternoon sunlight slanting across a level
blur of yellows and browns. On one side low brown hills enfold it, on
the other runs a swift little river, whose steep farther bank is
overhung with hemlocks and laurel in brightening spring green. It is a
very tiny valley,—one could almost throw a stone across it,—and the
whole bottom is filled with waving grass, waist-high, of a wonderful
pale straw color; last year's grass, which the winter snows never seem
to mat down, thick-set with the tall brown stalks of last year's
goldenrod and mullein and primrose. The trees and bushes are dwarf
oaks, with their old leafage still clinging in tawny masses, and
willows, with their bunches of slim, yellow shoots. Even the little
river is yellow-brown, from the sand and pebbles and leaves of its bed,
and the sun, as it slants down the length of the valley, wraps it in a
warm, yellow haze.
I call the valley mine, for no one else seems to know it. The long
grass is never cut, but left to wave its glory of yellow all through
the fall and winter and spring. There is a little footpath running
through it, but I never see any one on it. I often wonder who makes all
the footpaths I know, where no one ever seems to pass. Is it rabbits,
or ghosts? Whoever they may be, in this case they do not trouble me,
and the valley is as much mine as though I had cut it out of a mediæval
It is always very quiet here. At least it seems so, though full of
sound, as the world always is. But its sounds are its own; perhaps that
is the secret; the rustle of the oak leaves as the wind fumbles among
them; the swish-swish of the long dry grasses, which can be heard only
if one sits down in their midst, very still; the light, purling sounds
of the river; the soft gush of water about some bending branch as its
tip catches and drags in the shifting current. The winds lose a little
of their fierceness as they drop into the valley, and they seem to have
left behind them all the sounds of the outer world which they usually
bear. If now and then they waft hitherward the long call of a
locomotive, they soften it till it is only a dreamy reminder.
It is strange that in a spot so specially full of the tokens of last
year's life,—the dry grasses, the old oak leaves not yet pushed off by
the new buds,—where the only green is of the hemlocks and laurels that
have weathered the winter,—it is strange that in such a spot one
should feel the immanence of spring. Perhaps it is the bluebird that
does it. For it is the bluebird's valley as well as mine. There are
other birds there, but not many, and it is the bluebird which best
voices the spirit of the place. Most birds in the spring imply an
audience. The song sparrow, with the lift and the lilt of his song,
sings to the universe; the red-wing calls to all the sunny world to be
gleeful with him; the long-drawn sweetness of the meadowlark floats
over broad meadows and wide horizons; the bobolink, in the tumbling
eagerness of his jubilation, is for every one to hear. But the bluebird
sings to himself. His gentle notes, not heard but overheard, are for
those who listen softly. And in the Yellow Valley he is at home.
I am at home, too, and I find there something that I find nowhere
else so well. Its charm is in the simpleness of its appeal:—
“Only the mightier movement sounds and passes,
Only winds and rivers—”
I bring back from it a memory of sunshine and grass, bird notes and
running water, the broad realities of nature. Nay, more than a
memory—a mood that holds—a certain poise of spirit that comes from a
sense of the largeness and sweetness and sufficiency of the whole live,
growing world. Spring grass—the rare fragrance of the spring air—is
the call. The Yellow Valley holds the answer.
V. Larkspurs and Hollyhocks
“Jonathan, let's not have a garden.”
“What'll we live on if we don't?”
“Oh, of course, I don't mean that kind of a garden,—peas and
potatoes and things,—I mean flowers. Let's not have a flower garden.”
“That seems easy enough to manage,” he ruminated; “the hard thing
would be to have one.”
“I know. And what's the use? There are always flowers enough, all
around us, from May till October. Let's just enjoy them.”
“I always have.”
I looked at him to detect a possible sarcasm in the words, but his
face was innocent.
“Well, of course, so have I. But what I mean is—people when they
have a country place seem to spend such a lot of energy doing things
for themselves that nature is doing for them just over the fence. There
was Christabel Vincent last summer, grubbing over yellow lilies, or
something, and I went over into the meadow and got a lovely armful of
lilies and brought them in, and no grubbing at all.”
“Perhaps grubbing was what she was after,” said Jonathan.
“Well, anyway, she talked as if it was lilies.”
“I don't know that that matters,” he said.
Jonathan is sometimes so acute about my friends that it is almost
* * * * *
This conversation was one of many that occurred the winter before we
took up the farm. We went up in April that year, and we planted our
corn and our potatoes and all the rest, but no flowers. That part we
left to nature, and she responded most generously. From earliest spring
until October—nay, November—we were never without flowers: brave
little white saxifrage and hepaticas, first of all, then bloodroot and
arbutus, adder's-tongue and columbine, shad-blow and dogwood, and all
the beloved throng of them, at our feet and overhead. In May the pink
azalea and the buttercups, in June the laurel and the daisies
and—almost best of all—the dear clover. In summer the deep woods gave
us orchids, and the open meadows lilies and black-eyed Susans. In
September the river-banks and the brooks glowed for us with
cardinal-flower and the blue lobelia, and then, until the frosts
settled into winter, there were the fringed gentians and the asters and
the goldenrod. And still the half has not been told. If I tried to name
all that gay company, my tale would be longer than Homer's catalogue of
In early July a friend brought me in a big bunch of sweet peas. I
buried my face in their sweetness; then, as I held them off, I sighed.
“Oh, dear!” I said.
“What's 'oh, dear'?” said Jonathan, as he took off his ankle-clips.
He had just come up from the station on his bicycle.
“Nothing. Only why do people have magenta sweet peas with red ones
and pink ones—that special pink? It's just the color of pink
“You might throw away the ones you don't like.”
“No, I can't do that. But why does anybody grow them? If I had sweet
peas, I'd have white ones, and pale lavender ones, and those lovely
salmon-pink ones, and maybe some pale yellow ones—”
“Sweet peas have to be planted in March,” said Jonathan, as he
trundled his wheel off toward the barn.
“Of course,” I called after him, “I'm not going to plant any.
I was only saying if.”
Perhaps the sweet peas began it, but I really think the whole thing
began with the phlox.
One afternoon in August I walked down the road through the woods to
meet Jonathan. As he came up to me and dismounted I held out to him a
spray of white phlox.
“Where do you suppose I found it?” I asked.
“Down by the old Talcott place,” he hazarded.
“No. There is some there, but this was growing under our crab-apple
trees, right beside the house.”
“Well, now, it must have been some of Aunt Deborah's. I remember
hearing Uncle Ben say she used to have her garden there; that must have
been before he started the crab orchard. Why, that phlox can't be less
than forty years old, anyway.”
“Dear me!” I took back the delicate spray; “it doesn't look it.”
“No. Don't you wish you could look like that when you're forty?” he
philosophized; and added, “Is there much of it?”
“Five or six roots, but there won't be many blossoms, it's so
“We might move it and give it a chance.”
“Let's! We'll dig it up this fall, and put it over on the south side
of the house, in that sunny open place.”
When October came, we took Aunt Deborah's phlox and transplanted it
to where it could get the sunshine it had been starving for all those
years. I sat on a stump and watched Jonathan digging the holes.
“You don't suppose Henry will cut them down for weeds when they come
up, do you?” I said.
“Seems probable,” said Jonathan. “You might stick in a few bulbs
that'll come up early and mark the spot.”
“Oh, yes. And we could put a line of sweet alyssum along each side,
to last along after the bulbs are over.”
“You can do that in the spring if you want to. I'll bring up some
* * * * *
The winter passed and the spring came—sweet, tormenting.
“Jonathan,” I said at luncheon one day, “I got the sweet alyssum
seed this morning.
“Sweet alyssum?” He looked blank. “What do you want sweet alyssum
for? It's a foolish flower. I thought you weren't going to have a
“I'm not; but don't you remember about the phlox? We said we'd put
in some sweet alyssum to mark it—so it wouldn't get cut down.”
“The bulbs will do that, and when they're gone it will be high
enough to show.”
“Well, I have the seed, and I might as well use it. It won't do any
“No. I don't believe sweet alyssum ever hurt anybody,” said
That evening when he came in I met him in the hall. I had the
florist's catalogue in my hand. “Jonathan, it says English daisies are
good for borders.”
“Borders! What do you want of borders?”
“Why, up on the farm—the phlox, you know.”
“Oh, the phlox. I thought you had sweet alyssum for a border.”
He took off his coat and I drew him into the study.
“Why, yes, but that was such a little package. I don't believe there
would be enough. And I thought I could try the English daisies, too,
and if one didn't do well perhaps the other would. And look what it
says— No, never mind the newspaper yet—there isn't any news—just
look at this about pansies.”
“Pansies! You don't want them for a border!”
“Why, no, not exactly. But, you see, the phlox won't blossom till
late August, and it says that if you plant this kind of pansies very
early, they blossom in June, and then if you cover them they live over
and blossom again the next May. And pansies are so lovely! Look at that
picture! Don't you love those French-blue ones?”
“I like pansies. I don't know about the nationalities,” said
Jonathan. “Of course, if you want to bother with them, go ahead.” He
picked up his paper.
“Oh, it won't be any bother. They take care of themselves. Please,
your pencil—I'm going to mark the colors I want.”
We went up soon after to look at the farm. We found it very much as
we had left it, except that there hung about it that indescribable
something we call spring. We tramped about on the spongy ground, and
sniffed the sweet air, and looked at the apple buds, and kicked up the
soft, matted maple leaves to see the grass starting underneath.
“Oh, Jonathan! Our bulbs!” I exclaimed. We hurried over to them and
lifted up the thick blanket of leaves and hay we had left over them.
“Look! A crocus!” I said.
“And here's a snowdrop! Let's take off these leaves and give them a
“Dear me!” I sighed; “isn't it wonderful? To think those hard little
bullets we put in last fall should do all this! And here's the phlox
“Oh, you can't kill phlox,” said Jonathan imperturbably.
“All the better. I hate not giving people credit for things just
because they come natural.”
“That is a curious sentence,” said Jonathan.
“Never mind. You know what I mean. You've understood a great many
more curious ones than that. Listen, Jonathan. Why couldn't I put in my
seeds now? I brought them along.”
“Why—yes—it's pretty early for anything but peas, but you can try,
of course. What are they? Sweet alyssum and pansy?”
“Yes—and I did get a few sweet peas too,” I hesitated. “I thought
Henry hadn't much to do yet, and perhaps he could make a trench—you
know it needs a trench.”
“Yes, I know,” said Jonathan. I think he smiled. “Let's see your
“They're at the house. Come over to the south porch, where it's
warm, and we'll plan about them.”
I opened the bundle and laid out the little packets with their gay
pictures indicating what the seeds within might be expected to do.
“Sweet alyssum and pansies,” I said, “and here are the sweet peas.”
Jonathan took them—“'Dorothy Eckford, Lady Grisel Hamilton, Gladys
Unwin, Early Dawn, White Spencer,' By George! you mean to keep Henry
busy! Here's ten ounces of peas!”
“They were so much cheaper by the ounce,” I murmured.
“And—hold up! Did you know they gave you some asters? These aren't
“No—I know—but I thought—you see, sweet peas are over by August,
and asters go on all through October—don't you remember what lovely
ones Christabel had?”
“Hm! But isn't the world full of asters, anyway, in September and
October, without your planting any more?” He grinned a little. “I
thought that was your idea—you said Christabel grubbed so.”
“Why, yes; but asters aren't any trouble. You just put them in—”
“And weed them.”
“Yes—and weed them; but I wouldn't mind that.”
“But here's some larkspur!”
“Yes, but I didn't buy that,” I explained, hurriedly. “Christabel
sent me that. She thought I might like some from her garden—she has
such lovely larkspurs, don't you remember? And I just brought them
“Yes. So I see. Is that all you've just brought along?”
“Yes—except the cosmos. The florist advised that, and I thought
there might be a place for it over by the fence. And of course we
needn't use it if we don't want to. I can give it to Mrs. Stone.”
“But here's some nasturtiums!”
“Oh—I forgot about them—but I didn't buy them either. They came
from the Department of Agriculture or something. There were some
carrots and parsnips, and things like that, too, all in a big brown
envelope. I knew you had all the other things you wanted, so I just
brought these. But of course I don't have to plant them,
“But you don't like nasturtiums. You've always said they made you
think of railway stations and soldiers' homes—”
“Well, I did use to feel that way,—anchors and crosses and
rock-work on big shaved lawns,—and, besides, nasturtiums always seemed
to be the sort of flowers that people picked with short stems, and tied
up in a wad, and stuck in a blue-glass goblet, and set on a table with
a red cover on it. I did have horrible associations with nasturtiums.”
“Then why in thunder do you plant them?”
“I only thought—if there was a drought this summer—you know they
don't mind drought; Millie Sutphen told me that. And she had a way of
cutting them with long stems, so they trailed, and they were really
lovely. And then—there the package was—I thought it wouldn't
do any harm to take it.”
“Oh, you don't have to apologize,” said Jonathan. “I didn't
understand your plan, that was all. I'll go and see Henry about the
I sat on the sunny porch and the March wind swept by the house on
each side of me. I gloated over my seed packets. Would they come up? Of
course other people's seeds came up, but would mine? It was very
exciting. I pinched open a corner of the Lady Grisel Hamiltons and
poured some of the pretty, smooth, fawn-colored balls into my hand.
Then I opened the cosmos—what funny long thin ones! How long should I
have to wait till they began to come up? I read the directions—“Plant
when all danger from frost is past.” Oh, dear! that meant May—another
whole month! Well, I would get in my sweet peas and risk my pansies and
alyssum, anyhow. And I jumped off the porch and went back to the phlox
to plan out my campaign.
* * * * *
By early May we were settled on the farm once more. My pansies and
alyssum were up—at least I believed they were up, but I spent many
minutes of each day kneeling by them and studying the physiognomy of
their cotyledons. I led Jonathan out to them one Sunday morning, and he
regarded them with indulgence if not with enthusiasm. As he stooped to
throw out a bunch of pebbles in one of the new beds I stopped him. “Oh,
don't! Those are my Mizpah stones.”
“Why, just some little stones to mark a place. Some of the
nasturtiums are there. I didn't know whether they were going to do
anything—they looked so like chips—and then, being sent free that
way—but they are.
“How do you know? They aren't up.”
“No, but they will be soon. I—why, I just thought I'd see what they
“So you dug them up?” he probed.
“Not them—just it—just one. That's why I marked the place.
I didn't want to keep disturbing different ones. Now what are
you laughing at? Wouldn't you have wanted to know? And you wouldn't
want to dig up different ones all the time! I don't know much about
“I'm not laughing,” said Jonathan. “Of course I should have wanted
to know. And it is certainly better not to dig up different ones.
There! Have I put your Mizpah back right?”
* * * * *
A few days later Jonathan wheeled into the yard and over near where
I was kneeling by the phlox. “I saw a lady-slipper bud almost out
to-day,” he said.
“Did you? Look at my sweet alyssum. It's grown an inch since
yesterday,” I said. “Don't you think I could plant my cosmos and asters
“Thunder!” said Jonathan; “don't you care more about the pink
lady-slipper than about your blooming little sweet alyssum?”
“Why, yes, of course. I love lady-slippers. You know I do,” I
protested; “only—you see—I can't explain exactly—but—it seems to
make a difference when you plant a thing yourself. And, oh, Jonathan!
Won't you please come here and tell me if these are young
pansies or only plantain? I'm so afraid of pulling up the wrong thing.
I do wish somebody would make a book with pictures of all the
cotyledons of all the different plants. It's so confusing. Millie had
an awful time telling marigold from ragweed last summer. She had to
break off a tip of each leaf and taste it. Why do you just stand there
looking like that? Please come and help.”
But Jonathan did not move. He stood, leaning on his wheel, regarding
me with open amusement, and possibly a shade of disapproval.
“Lord!” he finally remarked; “you've got it!”
“Got what?” I said, though I knew.
“The garden germ.”
* * * * *
Yes. There was no denying it. I had it. I have it still, and there
is very little chance of my shaking it off. It is a disease that grows
with what it feeds on. Now and then, indeed, I make a feeble fight
against its inroads: I will not have another flower-bed, I will not
have any more annuals, I will have only things that live on from year
to year and take care of themselves. But—
“Alas, alas, repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then—and then—came spring—”
and the florist's catalogues! And is any one who has once given way
to them proof against the seductions of those catalogues? Those asters!
Those larkspurs! Those foxgloves and poppies and Canterbury bells! All
that ravishing company, mine at the price of a few cents and a little
grubbing. Mine! There is the secret of it. Out in the great and
wonderful world beyond my garden, nature works her miracles constantly.
She lays her riches at my feet; they are mine for the gathering. But to
work these miracles myself,—to have my own little hoard that looks to
me for tending, for very life,—that is a joy by itself. My little
garden bed gives me something that all the luxuriance of woods and
fields can never give—not better, not so good, perhaps, but different.
Once having known the thrill of watching the first tiny shoot from a
seed that I have planted myself, once having followed it to leaf and
flower and seed again, I can never give it up.
My garden is not very big nor very beautiful. Perhaps the stretch of
rocks and grass and weeds beside the house—an expanse which not even
the wildest flight of the imagination could call a lawn—perhaps this
might be more pleasing if the garden were not there, but it is there,
and there it will stay. It means much grubbing. Just putting in seeds
and then weeding is, I find, no mere affair of rhetoric. Moreover, I am
introduced through my garden to an entirely new set of troubles:
beetles and cutworms and moles and hens and a host of marauding
creatures above ground and below, whose number and energy amaze me. And
each summer seems to add to their variety and resourcefulness. Clearly,
the pleasures of a garden are not commensurate with its pains. And
But there is one kind of joy which it gives me at which even the
Scoffer—to wit, Jonathan—does not scoff. It began with Aunt Deborah's
phlox. Then came Christabel's larkspur. The next summer Mrs. Stone sent
me over some of her hardy little fall asters—“artemishy,” she called
them. And Anne Stafford sent on some hollyhock seeds culled from
Emerson's garden. And Great-Aunt Sarah was dividing her peony roots,
and said I might take one. And Cousin Patty asked me if I wouldn't like
some of her mother's old-fashioned pinks. And so it goes.
And so it will go, I hope, to the end of the long day. Each year my
garden has in it more of my friends, and as I look at it I can adopt
poor Ophelia's pretty speech in a new meaning, and say,
“Larkspur—that's for remembrance; hollyhocks—that's for thoughts.”
Remembrance of all those dear other gardens which I have come to know,
and in whose beauties I am coming to have a share; thoughts of all
those dear other gardeners upon whom, as upon me, the miracle of the
seed has laid a spell from which they can never escape.
VI. The Farm Sunday
I have never been able to discover why it is that things always
happen Sunday morning. We mean to get to church. We speak of it almost
every Sunday, unless there is a steady downpour that puts it quite out
of the question. But, somehow, between nine and ten o'clock on a Sunday
morning seems to be the farm's busiest time. If there are new broods of
chickens, they appear then; if there is a young calf coming, it is his
birthday; if the gray cat—an uninvited resident of the barn—must go
forth on marauding expeditions, he chooses this day for his evil work,
and the air is rent with shrieks of robins, or of cat-birds, or of
phoebes, and there is a wrecked nest, and scattered young ones,
half-fledged, that have to be gathered into a basket and hung up in the
tree again by our united efforts. And always there is the same
“Well, what about church?”
“Church! It's half-past ten now.”
“We can't do it. Too bad!”
“Now, if it hadn't been for that cat!”—or that hen—or that calf!
There are many Sunday morning stories that might be told, but one
must be told.
It was a hot, still Sunday in July. The hens sought the shade early,
and stood about with their beaks half open and a distant look in their
eyes, as if they saw you but chose to look just beyond you. It always
irritates me to see the hens do that. It makes me feel hotter. Such a
day it was. But things on the farm seemed propitious, and we said at
breakfast that we would go.
“I've just got to take that two-year-old Devon down to the lower
pasture,” said Jonathan, “and then I'll harness. We ought to start
early, because it's too hot to drive Kit fast.”
“Do you think you'd better take the cow down this morning?” I said,
doubtfully. “Couldn't you wait until we come back?”
“No; that upper pasture is getting burned out, and she ought to get
into some good grass this morning. I meant to take her down last
“Well, do hurry.” I still felt dubious.
“Oh, it's only five minutes' walk down the road,” said Jonathan
easily. “I'm all ready for church, except for these shoes. I'll have
the carriage at the door before you're dressed.”
I said no more, but went upstairs, while Jonathan started for the
barnyard. A few minutes later I heard from that direction the sounds of
exhortation such as are usually employed towards “critters.” They
seemed to be coming nearer. I glanced out of a front window, and saw
Jonathan and his cow coming up the road past the house.
“Where are you taking her?” I called. “I thought you meant to go the
“So I did,” he shouted, in some irritation. “But she swung up to the
right as she went out of the gate, and I couldn't head her off in time.
Oh, there's Bill Russell. Head her round, will you, Bill? There, now
we're all right.”
“I'll be back in ten minutes,” he called up at my window as he
I watched them go back up the road. At the big farm gate the cow
made a break for the barnyard again, but the two men managed to turn
her. Just beyond, at the fork in the road, I saw Bill turn down towards
the cider-mill, while Jonathan kept on with his convoy over the hill. I
glanced at the clock. It was not yet nine. There was plenty of time, of
At half-past nine I went downstairs again, and wandered out toward
the big gate. It seemed to me time for Jonathan to be back. In the
Sunday hush I thought I heard sounds of distant “hi-ing.” They grew
louder; yes, surely, there was the cow, just appearing over the hill
and trotting briskly along the road towards home. And there was
Jonathan, also trotting briskly. He looked red and warm. I stepped out
into the road to keep the cow from going past, but there was no need.
She swung cheerfully in at the big gate, and fell to cropping the long
grass just inside the fence.
Jonathan slowed down beside me, and, pulling out his handkerchief,
began flapping the dust off his trousers while he explained:—
“You see, I got her down there all right, but I had to let down the
bars, and while I was doing that she went along the road a bit, and
when she saw me coming she just kicked up her heels and galloped.”
“How did you stop her?” I asked.
“I didn't. The Maxwells were coming along with their team, and they
headed her back for me. Then they went on. Only by that time, you see,
she was a bit excited, and when we came along back to those bars she
shot right past them, and never stopped till she got here.”
I looked at her grazing quietly inside the fence. “She doesn't look
as though she had done so much,”—and then, as I glanced at Jonathan, I
could not forbear saying,—“but you do.”
“I suppose I do.” He gave his trousers a last flick, and, putting up
his handkerchief, shifted his stick to his right hand.
“Well, put her back in the inner yard,” I said, “and this afternoon
I'll help you.”
“Put her back!” said Jonathan. “Not much! You don't think I'd let a
cow beat me that way!”
“But Jonathan, it's half-past nine!”
“What of it? I'll just work her slowly—she's quiet now, you see,
and the bars are open. There won't be any trouble.”
“Oh, I wish you wouldn't,” I said. But, seeing he was firm, “Well,
if you will go, I'll harness.”
Jonathan looked at me ruefully. “That's too bad—you're all
dressed.” He wavered, but I would take no concessions based on feminine
equipment. “Oh, that doesn't matter. I'll get my big apron. First you
start her out, and I'll keep her from going towards the house or down
to the mill.”
Jonathan sidled cautiously through the gate and around the grazing
cow. Then, with a gentle and ingratiating “Hi there, Bossie!” he
managed to turn her, still grazing, towards the road. While the grass
held out she drifted along easily enough, but when she reached the dirt
of the roadway she raised her head, flicked her tail, and gave a little
hop with her hind quarters that seemed to me indicative of an unquiet
spirit. But I stood firm and Jonathan was gently urgent, and we managed
to start her on the right road once more. She was not, however, going
as slowly as Jonathan had planned, and it was with some misgivings that
I donned my apron and went in to harness Kit. I led her around to the
carriage-house and put her into the buggy, and still he had not
returned. I got out the lap robe, shook it, and folded it neatly on the
back of the seat. No Jonathan! There was nothing more for me to do, so
I took off my apron and climbed into the carriage to wait. The
carriage-house was as cool a place as one could have found. Both its
big sliding doors were pushed back, one opening out toward the front
gate, the other, opposite, opening into the inner barnyard. I sat and
looked out over the rolling, sunny country and felt the breeze, warm,
but fresh and sweet, and listened to the barn swallows in the barnyard
behind me, and wondered, as I have wondered a thousand times, why in
New England the outbuildings always have so much better views than the
Ten o'clock! Where was Jonathan? The Morehouses drove past,
then the Elkinses; they went to the Baptist. Ten minutes past! There
went the O'Neils—they belonged to our church—and the Scrantons, and
Billy Howard and his sister, driving fast as usual; they were always
late. Quarter-past ten! Well, we might as well give up church. I
thought of unharnessing, but I was very comfortable where I was, and
Kit seemed contented as she stood looking out of the door. Hark! What
was that? It sounded like the beat of hoofs in the lane—the cattle
wouldn't come up at this hour! I stood up to see past the inner
barnyard and off down the lane. “What on earth!” I said to myself.
For—yes—surely—that was the two-year-old Devon coming leisurely up
the lane towards the yard. In a few moments Jonathan's head appeared,
then his shoulders, then his entire dusty, discouraged self. Yes,
somehow or other, they must have made the round trip. As this dawned
upon me, I smiled, then I laughed, then I sat down and laughed again
till I was weak and tearful. It was cruel, and by the time Jonathan had
reached the carriage-house and sunk down on its threshold I had
recovered enough to be sorry for him. But I was unfortunate in my first
remark. “Why, Jonathan,” I gasped, “what have you been doing
with that cow?”
Jonathan mopped his forehead. “Having iced tea under the trees.
Couldn't you see that to look at me?” he replied, almost savagely.
“You poor thing! I'll make you some when we go in. But do tell me,
how did you ever get around here again from the back of the farm
“Easy enough,” said Jonathan. “I drove her along to the pasture in
great shape, only we were going a little fast. She tried to dodge the
bars, but I turned her in through them all right. But some idiot had
left the bars down at the other end of the pasture—between that and
the back lots, you know—and that blamed cow went for that opening,
just as straight—”
I began to shake again. “Oh, that brought you out by the huckleberry
knoll, and the ledges! Why, she could go anywhere!”
“She could, and she did,” said Jonathan grimly. He leaned back
against the doorpost, immersed in bitter reminiscence.
“She—certainly—did. I chased her up the ledges and through the
sumachs and down through the birches and across the swamp. Oh, we did
the farm, the whole blamed farm. What time is it?”
“Half-past ten,” I said gently; and added, “What are you going to do
with her now?”
His jaw set in a fashion I knew.
“I'm going to put her in that lower pasture.”
I saw it was useless to protest. Church was a vanished dream, but I
began to fear that Sunday dinner was also doomed. “Do you want me to
help?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” said Jonathan. “I'll put her in the barn till I can get a
rope, and then I'll lead her.”
However, I did help get her into the barn. Then while he went for
his rope I unharnessed. When he came back, he had changed into a
flannel shirt and working trousers. He entered the barn and in a few
moments emerged, pulling hard on the rope. Nothing happened.
“Go around the other way,” he called, “and take a stick, and poke
that cow till she starts.”
I went in at the back door, slid between the stanchions into the cow
stall, and gingerly poked at the animal's hind quarters and said, “Hi!”
until at last, with a hunching of hips and tossing of head, she bounded
out into the sunny barnyard.
“She'll be all right now,” said Jonathan.
I watched them doubtfully, but they got through the bars and as far
as the road without incident. At the road she suddenly balked. She
twisted her horns and set her front legs. I hurried down from my post
of observation in the carriage-house door, and said “Hi!” again.
“That's no good,” panted Jonathan; “get your stick again. Now, when
I pull, you hit her behind, and she'll come. I guess she hasn't been
taught to lead yet.”
“If she has, she has apparently forgotten,” I replied. “Now, then,
The creature moved on grudgingly, with curious and unlovely sidewise
lunges and much brandishing of horns, where the rope was tied.
“Hit her again, now!” said Jonathan. “Oh, hit her! Hit her
harder! She doesn't feel that. Hit her! There! Now, she's
Truly, she did come. But I am ashamed to think how I used that
stick. As we progressed up the road, over the hill, and down to the
lower pasture, there kept repeating themselves over and over in my head
“The sergeant pushed and the corporal pulled,
And the three they wagged along.”
But I did not quote these to Jonathan until afterwards. There was
something else, too, that I did not quote until afterwards. This was
the remark of a sailor uncle of mine: “A man never tackled a job yet
that he didn't have to have a woman to hold on to the slack.”
* * * * *
So much for Sunday business. But it should not for a moment be
supposed that Sunday is full of these incidents. It is only for a
little while in the morning. After the church hour, about eleven
o'clock or earlier, the farm settles down. The “critters” are all
attended to, the chicks are stowed, the cat has disappeared, the hens
have finished all their important business and are lying on their sides
in their favorite dirt-holes enjoying their dust-baths, so still, yet
so disheveled that I used to think they were dead, and poke them to
see—with what cacklings and flutterings resulting may be imagined. I
have often wished for the hen's ability to express indignation.
Yes, the farm is at peace, and as we sit under the big maples it
seems to be reproaching us—“See how quiet everything is! And you
couldn't even manage church!”
Other people seem to manage it very comfortably and quite regularly.
On Sunday morning our quiet little road, unfrequented even by the
ubiquitous automobile, is gay with church-goers. “Gay” may seem the
wrong word, but it is quite the right one. In the city church-going is
rather a sober affair. People either walk or take cars. They wear a
certain sort of clothes, known as “church clothes,” which represent a
sort of hedging compromise between their morning and their afternoon
wear. They approach the church in decorous silence; as they emerge they
exchange subdued greetings, walk a block or two in little companies,
then scatter to their homes and their Sunday dinners.
But in the country everybody but the village people drives, and the
roads are full of teams,—buggies, surreys, phaetons,—the carriages
newly washed, the horses freshly groomed, the occupants scrupulously
dressed in the prettiest things they own—their “Sunday-go-to-meeting”
ones, which means something quite different from “church clothes.” As
one nears the village there is some friendly rivalry between horses,
there is the pleasure of “catching up” with neighbors' teams, or of
being caught up with, and at the church door there is the business of
alighting and hitching the horses, and then, if it is early, waiting
about outside for the “last bell” before going in.
Even in the church itself there is more freedom and variety than in
our city tabernacles. In these there are always the same memorial
windows to look at,—except perhaps once in ten years when somebody
dies and a new one goes in,—but in the country stained glass is more
rare. In many it has not even gained place at all, and the panes of
clear glass let in a glory of blueness and whiteness and greenness to
rejoice the heart of the worshiper. In others, more ambitious, alas!
there is ground glass with tinted borders; but this is not very
disturbing, especially when the sashes are set open aslant, and the ivy
and Virginia creeper cluster just outside, in bright greens and dark,
or cast their shifting shadows on the glass, a dainty tracery of gray
And at the altar there are flowers—not florist flowers, contracted
for by the year, but neighborhood flowers. There are Mrs. Cummings's
peonies—she always has such beauties; and Mrs. Hiram Brown's
roses—nobody else has any of just that shade of yellow; and Mary
Lord's foxgloves and larkspur—what a wonder of yellow and white and
blue! Each in its season, the flowers are full of personal
significance. The choir, too, is made up of our friends. There is Hiram
Brown, and Jennie Sewall, and young Mrs. Harris, back for three weeks
to visit her mother, and little Sally Winter, a shy new recruit, very
pink over her promotion. The singing is perhaps not as finished as that
of a paid quartette, but it is full of life and sweetness, and it makes
a direct human appeal that the other often misses.
After the service people go out slowly, waiting for this friend and
that, and in the vestibule and on the steps and in the church-yard they
gather in groups. The men saunter off to the sheds to get the horses,
and the women chat while they wait. Then the teams come up, as many as
the roadway will hold, and there is the bustle of departure, the taking
of seats, the harsh grinding of wheels against the wagon body as the
driver “cramps” to turn round, then good-byes, and one after another
the teams start off, out into the open country for another week of
quiet, busy farm life.
Yes, church is distinctively a social affair, and very delightful,
and when our cows and hens and calves and other “critters” do not
prevent, we are glad to have our part in it all. When they do, we yet
feel that we have a share in it simply through seeing “the folks” go
by. It is a distinct pleasure to see our neighbors trundling along
towards the village. And then, if luck has been against us and we
cannot join them, it is a pleasure to lie in the grass and listen to
the quiet. After the last church-goers have passed, the road is
deserted for two hours, until they begin to return. The neighboring
farms are quiet, the “folks” are away, or, if some of the men are at
home, they are sitting on their doorsteps smoking.
If there is no wind, or if it is in the right quarter, we can hear
the church bells, faintly now, and now very clear; there is the First
Church bell, and the Baptist; there is St. John's, on a higher note,
and Trinity, a little lower. After a time even the bells cease, and
there is no sound but the wind in the big maples and the bees as they
drone among the flower heads.
Sunday, at least Sunday on a Connecticut farm, has a distinct
quality of its own. I can hardly say what it means to me—no one, I
suppose, could say all that it means. To call it a day of rest does not
individualize it enough. It has to be described not so much in terms of
rest as of balance and height. I think of the week as a long, sweeping
curve, like the curve of a swift, deep wave at sea, and Sunday is the
crest, the moment of poise, before one is drawn down into the next
great concave, then up again, to pause and look off, and it is Sunday
The weather does not matter. If it rains, you get one kind of pause
and outlook—the intimate, indoor kind. If the sun shines, you get
another kind—wide and bright. And what you do does not matter so long
as it is different from the week, and so long as it expresses and
develops that peculiar Sunday quality of balance and height. I can
imagine nothing drearier than seven days all alike, and seven more, and
seven more! Sundays are the big beads on the chain. They need not be
all of the same color, but there must be the big beads to satisfy the
eye and the finger-tip.
And a New England Sunday always is different. Whatever changes may
have come or may be coming elsewhere, in New England Sunday has its own
atmosphere. Over the fields and woods and rocks there is a sense of
poise between reminiscence and expectancy. The stir of the morning
church-going brightens but does not mar this. It adds the human
note—rather not a note, but a quiet chord of many tones. And after it
comes a hush. The early afternoon of a New England Sunday is the most
absolutely quiet thing imaginable. It is the precise middle of the wave
crest, the moment when motion ceases.
From that point time begins to stir again. Life resumes. There is a
certain amount of desultory intercourse between farm and farm. If
people are engaged, or mean to be, they drive out together; if they are
married, they go home to “his folks” or “her folks.” Friends walk
together, farmers saunter along the road or back on the farms to “take
a look” at things. Consciously or not, and usually not, there is a kind
of synthesis taking place, a gathering together of the scattered
threads of many interests, a vague sense of the wholeness of life.
At five o'clock the cows turn towards home, and graze their
leisurely way along the barnyard lanes. And with the cows come
duties,— chore-time,—then the simple, cold supper, then the short,
quiet evening, and off we swing into the night that sweeps us away from
the crest down into the long, blind hollow of the week.
VII. The Grooming of the Farm
There is a story about an artist who espied a picturesque old man
and wished to paint him. At the time appointed the model
arrived—new-shaven, new-washed, freshly attired, with all the
delicious and incommunicable flavor of the years irretrievably lost!
Doubtless there are many such stories; doubtless the thing has happened
many, many times. And I am sorrier for the artist now than I used to
be, because it is happening to me.
Only it is not an old man—it is the farm, the blessed old farm,
unkempt, unshorn, out at the elbows. In spite of itself, in spite of
me, in spite of everybody, the farm is being groomed.
It is nobody's fault, of course. Like most hopelessly disastrous
things, it has all been done with the best possible intentions, perhaps
it has even been necessary, but it is none the less deplorable.
It began, I think, with the sheds. They had in ages past been added
one after another by a method of almost unconscious accretion, as the
chambered nautilus makes his shell. They looked as if they had been,
not exactly built, but rather laid together in the desultory,
provisional fashion of the farmer, and held by an occasional nail, or
the natural adhesion of the boards themselves. They leaned confidingly
against the great barn and settled comfortably among the bare faces of
rock in the barnyard, as if they had always been there, as, indeed,
they had been there longer than any one now living can remember.
Neither they nor the barn had ever been painted, and they had all
weathered to a silver-gray—not the gray of any paint or stain ever
made, but the gray that comes only to certain kinds of wood when it has
lived out in the rain and the sunshine for fifty, seventy, a hundred
years. It is to an old building what white hair is to an old lady. And
as not all white hair is beautiful, so not all gray buildings are
beautiful. But these were beautiful. When it rained, they grew dark and
every knot-hole showed. When the sun came out and baked them dry, they
paled to silver, and the smooth, rain-worn grooves and hollows of the
boards glistened like a rifle barrel.
The sheds were, I am afraid, not very useful. One, they said, had
been built to hold ploughs, another for turkeys, another for ducks.
One, the only one that was hen-tight, we used for the incarceration of
confirmed “setters,” and it thus gained the title of “Durance Vile.”
The rest were nameless, the abode of cobwebs and rats and old
grain-bags and stolen nests and surprise broods of chickens, who
dropped through cracks between loose boards and had to be extracted by
Jonathan with much difficulty. Perhaps it was this that set him against
them. At all events, he decided that they must go. I protested faintly,
trying to think of some really sensible argument.
“But Durance Vile,” I said. “We need that. Where shall we put the
“No, we don't. That isn't the way to treat setters, anyway. They
should be cooped and fed on meat.”
“I suppose you read that in one of those agricultural experiment
station pamphlets,” I said.
Many things that I consider disasters on the farm can be traced to
one or another of these little pamphlets, and when a new one arrives I
regard it with resignation but without cordiality.
The sheds went, and I missed them. Possibly the hens missed them
too. They wandered thoughtfully about the barnyard, stepping rather
higher than usual, cocking their heads and regarding me with their
red-rimmed eyes as if they were cluckfully conjuring up old
associations. Did they remember Durance Vile? Perhaps, but probably
not. For all their philosophic airs and their attitudinizing, I know
nobody who thinks less than a hen, or, at all events, their thinking is
contemplative rather than practical.
Jonathan also surveyed the raw spot. But Jonathan's mind is
practical rather than contemplative.
“Just the place for a carriage-house,” he remarked.
And the carriage-house was perpetrated. Perhaps a hundred years from
now it will have been assimilated, but at present it stands out
absolutely undigested in all its uncompromising newness of line and
color. Its ridgepole, its roof edges, its corners, look as if they had
been drawn with a ruler, where those of the old barn were sketched
freehand. The barn and the sheds had settled into the landscape, the
carriage-house cut into it.
Even Jonathan saw it. “We'll paint it the old-fashioned red to make
it more in keeping,” he said apologetically.
But old-fashioned red is apparently not to be had in new-fashioned
cans. And the farm remained implacable: it refused to digest the
carriage-house. I felt rather proud of the farm for being so firm.
The next blow was a heavy one. In the middle of the cowyard there
was a wonderful gray rock, shoulder high, with a flat top and three
sides abrupt, the other sloping. I used to sit on this rock and feed
the hens and watch the “critters” come into the yard at milking-time. I
like “critters,” but when there are more than two or three in the yard,
including some irresponsible calves, I like to have some vantage-point
from which to view them—and be viewed. Our cattle are always gentle,
but some of them are, to use a colloquial word that seems to me richly
descriptive, so “nose-y.”
Of course a rock like this did not belong in a well-planned
barnyard. Nowhere, except in New England, or perhaps in Switzerland,
would one occur. But in our part of New England they occur so thickly
that they are hard to dodge, even in building a house. I remember an
entry in an old ledger discovered in the attic: “To blasten rocks in my
sollor—£0 3 6.”
Without doubt the rock was in the way. Jonathan used to speak about
it in ungentle terms every time he drove in and turned around. But this
gave me no anxiety, because I felt sure that it had survived much
stronger language than his. I did not think about dynamite. Probably
when the Psalmist wrote about the eternal hills he did not think about
And dynamite did the deed. It broke my pretty rock into little
pieces as one might break up a chunk of maple sugar with a pair of
scissors. It made a beautiful barnyard, but I missed my refuge, my
But this was only the beginning. Back of the barns lay the farm
itself—scores of acres, chiefly rocks and huckleberry bushes, with
thistles and mullein and sumac. There were dry, warm slopes, where the
birches grew; not the queenly paper birch of the North, but the girlish
little gray birch with its veil of twinkling leaves and its glimmer of
slender stems. There were rugged ledges, deep-shadowed with oak and
chestnut; there were hot, open hillsides thick-set with cat-brier and
blackberry canes, where one could never go without setting a brown
rabbit scampering. It was a delectable farm, but not, in the ordinary
sense, highly productive, and its appeal was rather to the
contemplative than to the practical mind.
Jonathan was from the first infected with the desire of making the
farm more productive—in the ordinary sense; and one day, when I
wandered up to a distant corner, oh, dismay! There was a slope of
twinkling birches—no longer twinkling—prone! Cut, dragged, and piled
up in masses of white stems and limp green leafage and tangled
red-brown twigs! It was a sorry sight. I walked about it much, perhaps,
as my white hens had walked about the barnyard, and to as little
purpose. For the contemplative mind is no match for the practical. I
knew this, yet I could not forbear saying, later:—
“Jonathan, I was up near the long meadow to-day.”
“O Jonathan! Those birches!”
“What about them?”
“Oh, yes. We need that piece for pasturage.”
“Oh, dear! We might as well not have a farm if we cut down all the
“We might as well not have a farm if we don't cut them down. They'll
run us out in no time.”
“They don't look as if they would run anybody out—the dears!”
“Why, I didn't know you felt that way about them. We'll let that
other patch stand, if you like.”
“If I like!”
I saved the birches, but other things kept happening. I went out one
day and found one of our prettiest fence lines reduced to bare bones,
all its bushes and vines—clematis, elderberry, wild cherry,
sweet-fern, bitter-sweet—all cut, hacked, torn away. It looked like a
collie dog in the summer when his long yellow fur has been sheared off.
And, another day, it was a company of red lilies escaped along a bank
above the roadside. There were weeds mixed in, to be sure, and some
bushes, a delightful tangle—and all snipped, shaved to the skin!
When I spoke about it, Jonathan said: “I'm sorry. I suppose Hiram
was just making the place shipshape.”
“Shipshape! This farm shipshape! You could no more make this farm
shipshape than you could make a woodchuck look as though he had been
groomed. The farm isn't a ship.”
“I hope it isn't a woodchuck, either,” said Jonathan.
During the haying season there was always a lull. The hand of the
destroyer was stayed. Rather, every one was so busy cutting the hay
that there was no time to cut anything else. One day in early August I
took a pail and sauntered up the lane in the peaceful mood of the
berry-picker—a state of mind as satisfactory as any I know. One is
conscious of being useful—for what more useful than the accumulating
of berries for pies? One has suitable ideals—the ideal of a happy
home, since in attaining a happy home berry pies are demonstrably
helpful. And one is also having a beautiful time. On my way I turned
down the side lane to see how the blackberries were coming on. There
lay my blackberry canes—lay, not stood—their long stems thick-set
with fruit just turning from light red to dark. I do not love
blackberries as I do birches; it was rather the practical than the
contemplative part of me that protested that time, but it was with a
lagging step that I went on, over the hill, to the berry patches. There
another shock awaited me. Where I expected to see green clumps of low
huckleberries there were great blotches of black earth and gray ashy
stems, and in the midst a heap of brush still sending up idle streamers
and puffs of blue smoke. Desolation of desolations! That they should do
this thing to a harmless berry patch!
They were not all burned. Only the heart of the patch had been
taken, and after the first shock I explored the edges to see what was
left, but with no courage for picking. I came home with an empty pail
and a mind severe.
“Jonathan,” I said that night, “I thought you liked pies?”
“I do,” he said expectantly.
“Well, what do you like in them?”
“Oh, I thought perhaps you preferred cinders or dried briers.”
Jonathan looked up inquiringly, then a light broke. “Oh, you mean
those blackberry bushes. Didn't I tell you about that? That was a
“So I thought,” I said, unappeased.
“I mean, I didn't mean them to be cut. It was that fool hobo I gave
work to last week. I told him to cut the brush in the lane. Idiot! I
thought he knew a blackberry bush!”
“With the fruit on it, too,” I added, relenting toward Jonathan a
little. Then I stiffened again. “How about the huckleberry patch? Was
that a mistake, too?”
Jonathan looked guilty, but held himself as a man should.
“Why, no,” he said; “that is, Hiram thought we needed more ground to
plough up next year, and that's as good a piece as there is—no big
rocks or trees, you know. And we must have crops, you know.”
“Bless the rocks!” I burst out. “I wish there were more of them! If
it weren't for the rocks the farm would be all crops!”
Jonathan laughed, then we both laughed.
“You talk as though that would be a misfortune,” he said.
“It would be simply unendurable,” I replied.
“Jonathan,” I added, “I am afraid you have not a proper
subordination of values. I have heard of one farmer—just one—who
“What is it?—and who was he?” said Jonathan, submissively.
I think he was relieved that the huckleberry question was not being
“I believe he was your great-uncle by marriage. They say that there
was a certain field that was full of butterfly-weed—you know, gorgeous
“I know,” said he. “What about it?”
“Well, there was a meadow that was full of it, just in its glory
when the grass was ready to cut. Jonathan, what would you have done?”
“Go on,” said Jonathan.
“Well, he always mowed that field himself, and when he came to a
clump of butterfly-weed, he always mowed around it.”
“Very pretty,” said Jonathan, in an impersonal way.
“And that,” I added, “is what I call having a proper subordination
“I see,” said he.
“And now,” I went on, with almost too ostentatious sweetness, “if
you will tell me where to find a huckleberry patch that is not already
reduced to cinders, I will go out to-morrow and get some for pies.”
Jonathan knew, and so did I, that there were still plenty of berry
bushes left. Nevertheless, he was moved.
“Now, see here,” he began seriously, “I don't want to spoil the farm
for you. Only I don't know which things you like. If you'll just tell
me the places you don't want touched, I'll speak to Hiram about them.”
“Really?” I exclaimed. “Why, I'll tell you now, right away. There's
the lane—you know, that mustn't be touched; and the ledges—but you
couldn't do anything to those, of course, anyway.”
“No, even the hobo wouldn't tackle them,” said Jonathan grimly.
“And the birches, the ones that are left. You promised me those, you
know. And the swamp, of course, and the cedar knoll where the high-bush
blueberries grow, and then—oh, yes—that lovely hillside beyond the
long meadow where the sumac is, and the dogwood, and everything. And,
of course, the rest of the huckleberries—”
“The rest of the huckleberries!” said he. “That means all the farm.
There isn't a spot as big as your hat where you can't show me some sort
of a huckleberry bush.”
“So much the better,” I said contentedly.
“Oh, come now,” he protested. “Be reasonable. Even your wonderful
farmer that you tell about did a little mowing. He mowed around the
butterfly-weed, but he mowed. You're making the farm into solid
butterfly-weed, and there'll be no mowing at all.”
“Why, Jonathan, I've left you the long meadow, and the corner
meadow, and the hill orchard, and then there's the ten-acre lot for
corn and potatoes—only I wish you wouldn't plant potatoes.”
“What's the matter with potatoes?”
“Oh, I don't know. First, they are too neat and green, and then they
are all covered with potato-bug powder, and then they wither up and lie
all around, and then they are dug, and the field is a sight! Now, rye
and corn! They're lovely from beginning to end.”
Jonathan ruminated. “I seem to see myself expressing these ideas to
Hiram,” he remarked dryly.
“I suppose it all comes down to the simple question, What is the
farm for?” I said.
“I am afraid that is what Hiram would think,” said Jonathan.
“Never mind about Hiram,” I said severely. “Now really, away down
deep, haven't you yourself a sneaking desire for—oh, for crops, and
for having things look shipshape, as you call it? Now, haven't you?”
“I wonder,” said Jonathan, as though we were talking about a third
“I don't wonder; I know. The trouble with men,” I went on, “is that
when they want to make a thing look well, all they can think of is
cutting and chopping. Look at a man when he goes to a party, or to have
his picture taken! He always dashes to the barber's first—that is,
unless there's a woman around to interfere. Do you remember Jack Mason
when he was married? Face and neck the color of raw beef from sunburn,
and hair cropped so close it made his head look like a drab egg!”
“I didn't notice,” said Jonathan.
“No, I suppose not. You would have done the same thing—you're all
alike. Look at horses! When men want to make a horse look stylish, why,
chop off his tail, of course! And they are only beginning to learn
better. When a man builds a house, what does he do? Cuts down every
tree, every bush and twig, and makes it 'shipshape,' as you call it.
And then the women have to come along and plant everything all over
“But things need cutting now and then,” said Jonathan. “You wouldn't
like it, you know, if a man never went to the barber's. He'd look like
“There are worse-looking things than woodchucks. Still, of course,
there's a medium. Possibly the woodchuck carries neglect to excess.”
The discussion rested there. I do not know whether Jonathan
expressed any of these ideas to Hiram, but the grooming process
appeared to be temporarily suspended. Then one day my turn came. It was
dusk, and I was sitting on an old log at the back of the orchard,
looking out over the little swamp, all a-twinkle with fireflies.
Jonathan had been up the lane, prowling about, as he often does at
nightfall, “to take a look at the farm.” I heard his step in the lane,
and he jumped over the bars at the far end of the orchard. There was a
pause, then a vehement exclamation—too vehement to print. Jonathan's
remarks do not usually need editing, and I listened to these in the
dusk in some degree of wonder, if not of positive enjoyment.
Finally I called out, “What's the matter?”
“Oh! You there?” He strode over. “Matter! Come and see what that
fool hobo did.”
“You called him something besides that a moment ago,” I remarked.
“I hope so. Whatever I called him, he's it. Come over.”
He led me to the orchard edge, and there in the half light I saw a
line of stubs and a pile of brush.
“Not your quince bushes!” I gasped.
“Just that,” he said, grimly, and then burst into further
unprintable phrases descriptive of the city-bred loafer. “If I ever
give work to a hobo again, I'll be—”
“Sh-h-h,” I said; and I could not forbear adding, “Now you know how
I have felt about those huckleberry bushes and birches and things, only
I hadn't the language to express it.”
“You have language enough,” said Jonathan.
Undoubtedly Jonathan was depressed. I had been depressed for some
time on account of the grooming of my berry patches and fence lines,
but now I found myself growing suddenly cheerful. I do not habitually
batten on the sorrow of others, but this was a special case. For how
could I be blind to the fact that chance had thrust a weapon into my
hand? I knew that hereafter, at critical moments, I need only murmur
“quince bushes” and discussion would die out. It made me feel very
gentle towards Jonathan, to be thus armed against him. Gentle, but also
“Jonathan,” I said, “it's no use standing here. Come back to the log
where I was sitting.”
He came, with heavy tread. We sat down, and looked out over the
twinkling swamp. The hay had just been cut, and the air was richly
fragrant. The hush of night encompassed us, yet the darkness was full
of life. Crickets chirruped steadily in the orchard behind us. From a
distant meadow the purring whistle of the whip-poor-will sounded in
continuous cadence, like a monotonous and gentle lullaby. The woods
beyond the open swamp, a shadowy blur against the sky, were still,
except for a sleepy note now and then from some bird half-awakened.
Once a wood thrush sang his daytime song all through, and murmured part
of it a second time, then sank into silence.
“Jonathan,” I said at last, “the farm is rather a good place to be.”
“Let's not groom it too much. Let's not make it too shipshape. After
all, you know, it isn't really a ship.”
“Nor yet a woodchuck, I hope,” said Jonathan.
And I was content not to press the matter.
VIII. “Escaped from Old Gardens”
In the days when I deemed it necessary to hunt down in my
well-thumbed Gray every flower of wood and field, and fit it to its
Latin name, I used often to meet this phrase. At first, being young, I
resented it. I scorned gardens: their carefully planned and duly tended
splendors were not for me. The orchid in the deep woods or by the edge
of the lonely swamp, the rare and long-sought heather in the open
moorland, these it was that roused my ardor. And to find that some
newly discovered flower was not a wild flower at all, but merely a
garden flower “escaped”! The very word carried a hint of reprobation.
But as the years went on, the phrase gathered to itself meanings
vague and subtle. I found myself welcoming it and regarding with a
warmer interest the flower so described. From what old garden had it
come? What associations and memories did it bring out of the past? Had
the paths where it grew been obliterated by the encroachments of a
ruthless civilization, or had the tide of human life drawn away from it
and left it to be engulfed by the forest from which it had once been
wrested, with nothing left to mark it but a gnarled old lilac tree? I
have chanced upon such spots in the heart of the wood, where the lilac
and the apple tree and the old stoned cellar wall are all that are left
to testify to the human life that once centred there. Or had the garden
from which its seed was blown only fallen into a quiet decay, deserted
but not destroyed, left to bloom unchecked and untended, and fling its
seeds to the summer winds that its flowers might “escape” whither they
Lately, I chanced upon such a garden. I was walking along a quiet
roadside, almost dusky beneath the shade of close-set giant maples,
when an unexpected fragrance breathed upon me. I lingered, wondering.
It came again, in a warm wave of the August breeze. I looked up at the
tangled bank beside me—surely, there was a spray of box peeping out
through the tall weeds! There was a bush of it—another! Ah! it was a
hedge, a box hedge! Here were the great stone steps leading up to the
gate, and here the old, square capped fence-posts, once trim and white,
now sunken and silver-gray. The rest of the fence was lying among the
grasses and goldenrod, but the box still lived, dead at the top, its
leafless branches matted into a hoary gray tangle, but springing up
from below in crisp green sprays, lustrous and fragrant as ever, and
richly suggestive of the past that produced it. For the box implies not
merely human life, but human life on a certain scale: leisurely,
decorous, well-considered. It implies faith in an established order and
an assured future. A beautiful box hedge is not planned for immediate
enjoyment; it is built up inch by inch through the years, a legacy to
Beside the gate-posts stood what must once have been two pillars of
box. As I passed between them my feet felt beneath the matted weeds of
many seasons the broad stones of the old flagged walk that led up
through the garden to the house. Following it, I found, not the house,
but the wide stone blocks of the old doorsteps, and beyond these, a
ruin—gray ashes and blackened brick, two great heaps of stone where
the chimneys had been, with the stone slabs that lined the fireplaces
fallen together. At one end was the deep stone cellar filled now with
young beeches as tall as the house once was. Just outside stood two
cherry trees close to the old house wall—so close that they had burned
with it and now stood, black and bare and gaunt, in silent comradeship.
At the other end I almost stumbled into the old well, dark and still,
with a glimmer of sky at the bottom.
But I did not like the ruin, nor the black well lurking in the weeds
and ashes. The garden was better, and I went back to it and followed
the stone path as it turned past the end of the house and led, under
another broad hedge of box now choked by lusty young maples, to the old
rose-garden. Beyond were giant lilacs, and groups of waxberry bushes
covered with the pretty white balls that children love to string; there
was the old-fashioned “burning-bush,” already preparing its queer,
angled berries for autumn splendors. And among these, still holding
their own in the tangle, clumps of the tall, rose-lilac phloxes that
the old people seem specially to have loved, swayed in the light breeze
and filled the place with their heavy, languorous fragrance.
Truly, it is a lovely spot, my old garden, lovelier, perhaps, than
when it was in its golden prime, when its hedges were faultlessly
trimmed and its walks were edged with neat flower borders, when their
smooth flagging-stones showed never a weed, and even the little heaps
of earth piled up, grain by grain, by the industrious ants, were swept
away each morning by the industrious broom. Then human life centred
here; now it is very far away. All the sounds of the outside world come
faintly to this place and take on its quality of quiet,—the lowing of
cows in the pastures, the shouts of men in the fields, the deep,
vibrant note of the railroad train which goes singing across distances
where its rattle and roar fail to penetrate. It is very still here.
Even the birds are quieter, and the crickets and the katydids less
boisterous. The red squirrels move warily through the tree-tops with
almost a chastened air, the black-and-gold butterflies flutter
indolently about the heads of the phlox, a hummingbird, flashing green,
hovers about some belated blossom-heads of the scarlet bee-balm, and
then, as if to point the stillness, alights on an apple twig, looking,
when at rest, so very small! Only the cicada, as he rustles clumsily
about with his paper wings against the flaking bark and yellowing
leaves of an old apple tree, seems unmindful of the spell of silence
that holds the place.
And the garden is mine now—mine because I have found it, and every
one else, as I like to believe, has forgotten it. Next it is a grove of
big old trees. Would they not have been cut down years ago if any one
had remembered them? And on the other side is a meadow whose thick
grass, waist-high, ought to have been mowed last June and gathered into
some dusky, fragrant barn. But it is forgotten, like the garden, and
will go leisurely to seed out there in the sun; the autumn winds will
sweep it and the winter snow will mat down its dried tangle.
Forgotten—and as I lie in the long grass, drowsy with the scent of
the hedge and the phlox, I seem only a memory myself. If I stay too
long I shall forget to go away, and no one will remember to find me. In
truth, I feel not unwilling that it should be so. Could there be a
better place? “Escaped from old gardens”! Ah, foolish, foolish flowers!
If I had the happiness to be born in an old garden, I would not escape.
I would stay there, and dream there, forever!
IX. The Country Road
On a June day, years ago, I was walking along our country road. At
the top of a steep little hill I paused to rest and let my eyes
luxuriate in the billowing greens and tender blues of the valley below.
While I stood there my neighbor came slowly up from the garden, her
apron over her head, a basket of green peas on her arm.
“What a view you have up here on your hill!” I said.
She drew back her apron and turned to look off. “Yes,” she said
indulgently; “ye-e-s.” Then her face brightened and she turned to me
with real animation: “But it's better in winter when the leaves is off,
'n' you c'n see the passin' on the lower road.”
Fresh from the city as I was, with all its prejudices and
intolerance upon me, I was partly amused, partly irritated, by her
answer. So all this glory of greenness, all this wonder of the June
woodland, was merely tolerated, while the baffled observer waited for
the leaves to be “off”! And all for the sake of seeing—what? A few
lumber wagons, forsooth, loaded with ties for the railway, a few cows
driven along morning and evening, a few children trudging to and from
school, the postman's buggy on its daily rounds, twice a week the meat
cart, once a week the grocery wagon, once a month the “tea-man,” and
now and then a neighbor's team on its way to the feed-store or the
blacksmith's shop down at “the Corners.”
For this, then,—not for the beauty of the winter landscape, but for
this poor procession of wayfarers, my neighbors waited with impatience.
If I could, I would have snatched up their view bodily and carried it
off with me, back to my own farm for my own particular delectation. It
should never again have shoved itself in their way.
But since that time I have lived longer in the country. If I have
not made it my home for all twelve months, I have dwelt in it from
early April to mid-December, and now, when I think of my neighbor's
remark, it is with growing comprehension. I realize that I, in my
patronizing one-sidedness, was quite wrong.
City folk go to the country, as they say, to “get away”—justifiable
enough, perhaps, or perhaps not. They seek spots remote from the
centres; they choose deserted districts, untraveled roads; they
criticize their ancestors unmercifully for their custom of building
houses close to the road and keeping the front dooryard clear of
shrubbery. But they who built those homes which are our summer refuge
did not want to get away; they wanted to get together. The country was
not their respite, it was their life, and the road was to them the
emblem of race solidarity—nay, more than the emblem, it was the means
to it. This is still the case with the country people, and as I live
among them I am coming to a realization of the meaning of the Road.
In the city one can never get just this. There are streets, of
course, but by their very multiplicity and complexity they lose their
individual impressiveness and are merged in that great whole, the City.
One recoils from them and takes refuge in the sense of one's own home.
But in the country there is just the Road. Recoil from it? One's
heart goes out to it. The road is a part of home, the part that reaches
out to our friends and draws them to us or brings us to them. It is our
outdoor clubhouse, it is the avenue of the Expected and the Unexpected,
it is the Home Road.
In a sense it does no more for us, and in some ways much less, than
our city streets do. Along these, too, our tradesmen's carts come to
our doors, along these our friends must fare as they arrive or depart;
we seek the streets at our outgoings and our incomings. But they are,
after all, strictly a means. We use them, but when we enter our homes
we forget them, or try to. Our individual share in the street is not
large. So much goes on and goes by that has only the most general
bearing on our interests that we cease to give it our attention at all.
It is not good form to watch the street, because it is not worth while.
When children's voices fly in at our windows, we assume that they are
other people's children, and they usually are. When we hear teams, we
expect them to go by, and they usually do. When we hear a cab door
slam, we take it for granted that it is before some other house, and
usually it is. And if, having nothing better to do, we perchance walk
to the window and glance out between the curtains, we are repaid by
seeing nothing interesting and by feeling a little shamefaced besides.
Not so in the country. What happens along the Road is usually our
intimate concern. Most of those who go by on it are our own
acquaintances and neighbors, and are interesting as such. The
rest are strangers, and interesting as such. For it is the rarity of
the stranger that gives him his piquancy.
And so in the country it is both good form and worth while to watch
the Road—to “keep an eye out,” as they say. When Jonathan and I first
came to the farm, we were incased in a hard incrustation of city ways.
When teams passed, we did not look up; when a wagon rattled, we did not
know whose it was, and we said we did not care. When one of our
neighbors remarked, casually, “Heard Bill Smith's team go by at
half-past eleven last night. Wonder if the's anythin' wrong down his
way,” we stared at one another in amazement, and wondered, “Now, how in
the world did he know it was Bill Smith's team?” We smiled over the
story of a postmistress who had the ill luck to be selling stamps when
a carriage passed. She hastily shoved them out, and ran to the side
window—too late! “Sakes!” she sighed; “that's the second I've missed
to-day!” We smiled, but I know now that if I had been in that
postmistress's place I should have felt exactly as she did.
When we began to realize the change in ourselves, we were at first
rather sheepish and apologetic about it. We fell into the way of
sitting where we could naturally glance out of the windows, but we did
this casually, as if by chance, and said nothing about it. When August
came, and dusk fell early and lamps were lighted at supper-time, I drew
down the shades.
But one night Jonathan said, carelessly, “Why do you pull them all
the way down?”
“Why not?” I asked, with perhaps just a suspicion.
“Oh,” he said, “it always seems so cheerful from the road to look in
at a lighted window.”
I left them up, but I noticed that Jonathan kept a careful eye on
the shadowy road outside. Was he trying to cheer it by pleasant looks,
I wondered, or was he just trying to see all that went by?
Jonathan's seat is not so good as mine for observation. A big
deutzia bush looms between his window and the road, while at my window
only the tips of a waxberry bush obscure the view, and there is a door
beside me. Therefore Jonathan was distinctly at a disadvantage. He
offered to change seats, suggesting that there was a draft where I was,
and that the light was bad for my eyes, but I found that I did not mind
either of these things.
One day a team passed while Jonathan was carving. He looked up too
late, hesitated, then said, rather consciously: “Who was that? Did you
“I don't know,” I said, with a far-away, impersonal air, as
though the matter had no interest for me. But I hadn't the heart to
keep up the pose, and I added: “Perhaps you'll know. It was a white
horse, and a business wagon with red wheels, and the man wore a soft
felt hat, and there was a dog on the seat beside him.”
Before I had finished, Jonathan was grinning delightedly. “Suppose
we shake these city ways,” he said. He deliberately got up, raised the
shades, pushed back a curtain, and moved a jug of goldenrod. “There!
Can you see better now?” he asked.
And I said cheerfully, “Yes, quite a good deal better. And after
this, Jonathan, when you hear a team coming, why don't you stop carving
till it goes by?”
“I will,” said Jonathan.
It was our final capitulation, and since then we have been much more
comfortable. We run to the window whenever we feel inclined, and we
leave our shades up at dusk without apology or circumlocution. We are
coming to know our neighbors' teams by their sound, and we are proud of
it. Why, indeed, should we be ashamed of this human interest? Why
should we be elated that we can recognize a bluebird by his flight, and
ashamed of knowing our neighbor's old bay by his gait? Why should we
boast of our power to recognize the least murmur of the deceptive
grosbeak, and not take pride in being able to “spot” Bill Smith's team
by the peculiar rattle of its board bottom as it crosses the bridge by
the mill? Is he not of more value than many grosbeaks? But how can we
love our neighbor if we do not pay some attention to him—him and his
horse and his cart and all that is his? And how shall we pay attention
to him if we neglect the opportunities of the Road, since for the rest
he is busy and we are busy, and we belong each to our own farm?
I stopped at a friendly door one day to ask, “Have Phil and Jimmy
gone by? I wanted to see them.”
“No, I haven't seen them.” The bright-faced little lady stood in the
doorway glancing over my shoulder out toward the sunny road. “Have you
seem them to-day, Nellie?” she called into the dusky sitting-room.
“No,” she turned back to me, “we haven't seen them. And,” she added,
with gay directness, “nobody could get by the house without our
seeing them; I'm sure of that!”
Her remark pleased me immensely. I like this frank interest in the
Road very much. When I am at home, I have it myself, and I have stopped
being ashamed of it. When I am on the Road, I like to know that I am an
object of interest to the dwellers in the houses I pass. I look up at
the windows, whose tiny panes reflect the brightness of outdoors and
tell me nothing of the life within, and I like to think that some one
behind them knows that I am going by. Often there is some sign of
recognition—a motion of the hand through a parted curtain, or rarely a
smiling face; now and then some one looks out from a doorway to send a
greeting, or glances up from the garden or the well; but even without
these tokens I still have the sense of being noticed, and I find it
pleasant and companionable. In the city, when I go to see a friend, I
approach a house that gives no sign. I mount to a noncommittal
vestibule and push an impersonal button, and after the other necessary
preliminaries I find my friends. In the country as I drive up to the
house I notice curtains stirring, I hear voices, and before I have had
time to get out and find the hitch-rope every person in the house is
either at the gate or standing in the doorway. Our visit is begun
before we have left the Road, the hospitable, social Road. Such ways
would probably not do for the city. So much the worse for the city. The
country ways are best.
Everything that happens along the Road has the social touch. In the
city, orders are given by telephone, and when the delivery wagon comes,
it sweeps up with a rush, the boy seizes a basket and jumps out, runs
to the back door, shouts the name of the owner, slams down his goods,
and dashes back to the wagon, with a crisp “Git-up!” to the
well-trained horse, who starts forward while his driver is still
mounting to his seat.
Not so in the country. The wagon draws peacefully out to the side of
the Road, and the horse falls to nibbling grass if he is unchecked, or
to browsing on my rosebushes if he is not. If it is the grocer's wagon,
the boy comes around to the back porch and we discuss what supplies
will probably be needed by the time of his next visit. Incidentally, we
talk about weather and crops and woodchucks and trout, or bass or
partridges, according to the season. If it is the meat cart or the fish
wagon, I seize a platter and go out, the back flap of the cart is
lifted up, I step under its shade and peer in, considering what is
offered me and deciding what I will have plucked out for me to carry
back to the house.
Besides the routine visitors, there are others—peddlers with
wonderful collections of things to sell (whole clothing shops or
furniture stores some of them bring with them), peddlers with books,
peddlers with silver, peddlers with jewelry. In the course of a few
months one is offered everything from shoe-strings to stoves. There are
men who want to buy, too,—buyers of old iron, of old rags, of old
rubber. “Anny-ting, anny-ting vat you vill sell me, madame, I vill buy
it,” said one, with outspread hands.
Cattle go by, great droves of them, being driven along the Road and
sold from farm to farm until all are gone. I love the day that brings
them. A dust haze down the Road, the mooing of cows and the baaing of
calves, the shouts of the drovers, the sound of many hoofs, and the
cattle are here. The farmer and the “hired man” leave their work and
saunter out to the Road to “look 'em over,” the children come running
out to watch the pretty creatures, sleek or tousled, soft-eyed or
wild-eyed, yearlings with bits of horns, stocky two-year-olds, and
wabbly-legged youngsters hardly able to keep pace with the rest, all of
them glad enough of the chance to pause in the shade and nibble at the
rich, cool grass. One or two of the “critters” are approved of,
perhaps, and bought, and the rest move on, the sunny dust haze rises
and clears, the shouts of the drovers grow faint, and the Road is still
Men go by looking for work; they will clean your well for you, they
will file your horses' teeth for you, they will mend your umbrellas and
repair your clocks and sharpen your scissors. In the city, when we hear
the scissors-grinder ding-ding-dinging along the street, we wonder in
an impersonal way how he makes a living; but in the country we espy him
from afar and are out at the gate to meet him, with all the scissors
and knives in the house.
There are tramps, too, of course. Not the kind one finds near
cities, or in crowded summer watering-places. Our Road does not lead to
Rome, at least not very directly, and the tramp who chooses it is sure
to be a mild and unenterprising creature, a desultory tramp who does
not really know his business. Some of the same ones come back year
after year, and, in defiance of modern sociological science, we offer
them the hospitality of the back porch with sandwiches and coffee,
while we exchange the commonplaces of the season. It is the custom of
And so the procession of the Road moves on. If we wait long
enough—and it is not so long either—everything goes by: gay wedding
parties, christening parties, slow funerals, the Road bears them all;
and to those who live beside it nothing is alien, nothing indifferent.
Throughout the week the daytime is for business—remembering always
that on the country Road business is never merely business, but always
sociability too; the early evening is for pleasure; the night is for
rest, for that stillness that cities never know, broken only when human
necessity most sharply importunes, in the crises of birth, of death. On
Sundays all the world drives to church, or sits on its doorstep and
watches the rest. And Sunday and week days alike, every one's interest
goes out to the Road.
I venture to say that when we think of our city homes we think of
their interiors, but when we think of our farmhouse homes we think of
the Road as well. They are like little islands in a river,—one
remembers them together. For the Road is a river—a river of life. Most
of our words about roads imply motion. A road comes, we say, and it
goes, it sweeps, it curves, it climbs, it descends, it rises and drops,
it bends and turns. And, in fact, it means movement, it is always
bringing life and taking it again, or if for a time it does neither, it
is always inviting, always promising. We have all felt it. As we are
whirled along in a railway train even, the thing that stirs our
imagination is the roads, the paths. I can still remember glimpses of
these that I had years ago—a footpath over a rounded hilltop through
long yellow grass, a rough logging-road beside a foaming mountain
river, a brushy wood road leading through bars into deep shade, a
country road at dusk, curving past a low farmhouse with lights in the
windows. I could never follow these roads, but I remember them still,
and still they allure me.
Our Road, as it flows placidly past our farm, suggests nothing very
exciting or spectacular. It is a pretty bit of road, rounding a rocky
corner of the farm and leading past the old house under cool depths of
maple shade, out again into a broad space of sunlight, dropping over a
little hill, around a curve, and out of sight. I know it well, of
course, every rock and flower of it, but its final appeal to me is not
through its beauty, it is not even through my sense of ownership in it;
it is simply that it is a Road—a road that leads out of Everywhere
into Everywhere Else, a road that goes on. About a road that ends there
is no glamour. It may be pretty or useful, but as a road it is a
failure. For the Road is the symbol of endless possibility. From the
faintest footpath across a meadow, where as a child one has always felt
that some elf or gnome may appear, or along which, if one were
to wander with sufficient negligence, one might be led into the
realm of “faerie” to the broad turnpike which fares through open
country, plunges through the surging cities, and escapes to broad lands
beyond—any path, any road, makes this appeal. And so long as one has
faith that what may be is more than what is, so long as one has the
buoyant patience to await it or the will to go forth and seek it, so
long as one has the imagination and the heart of the wayfarer, the
charm of the Road will be potent.
X. The Lure of the Berry
Men have sung the praises of fishing and hunting, they have extolled
the joys of boating and riding, they have dwelt at length upon the
pleasures of automobiling. But there is one—sport, shall I call
it?—which no one seems to have thought worth mentioning: the gentle
sport of berrying.
Perhaps calling it a sport is an unfortunate beginning; it gives us
too much to live up to. No, it is not a sport, though I can't think
why, since it is quite as active as drop-line fishing. Perhaps the
trouble is with the game—the fish are more active than the berries,
and their excesses cover the deficiencies of the stolid figure in the
What, then, shall we call it? Not an occupation; it is too desultory
for that; nor an amusement, because of a certain tradition of
usefulness that hangs about it. Probably it belongs in that small but
select group of things that people do ostensibly because they are
useful but really because they are fun. At any rate, it does not matter
how we class it,—it is just berrying.
But not strawberrying. Strawberries are so far down, and so few!
They cannot be picked with comfort by any one over six years old.
Nor blackberrying! Blackberries are good when gathered in, but in
the gathering process there is nothing restful or soothing. They always
grow in hot places, and the briers make you cross; they pull your hair
and “sprout” your clothes and scratch your wrists. And the berries
stain your fingers dark blue, and, moreover, they are frequented by
those unpleasant little triangular, greenish-brown creatures known as
squash bugs, which I do not believe even the Ancient Mariner could have
been called upon to love. No, I do not mean blackberrying.
What then? What indeed but huckleberrying! How can I adequately sing
the praises of the gentle, the neat, the comfortable huckleberry! No
briers, no squash bugs, no back-breaking stoop or arm-rending stretch
to reach them. Just a big, bushy, green clump, full of glossy black or
softly blue berries, and you can sit right down on the tussocks among
them, put your pail underneath a bush, and begin. At first, the
handfuls drop in with a high-keyed “plinking” sound; then, when the
“bottom is covered,” this changes to a soft patter altogether
satisfactory; and as you sit stripping the crisp branches and letting
the neat little balls roll through your fingers, your spirit grows calm
within you, you feel the breeze, you look up now and then over
stretches of hill, or pasture, or sky, and you settle into a state of
complete acquiescence in things as they are.
For there is always a breeze, and always a view, at least where my
huckleberries grow. If any one should ask me where to find a good
situation for a house, I should answer, with a comprehensive wave of my
arm, “Oh, choose any huckleberry patch.” Only 'twere pity to demolish
so excellent a thing as a huckleberry patch, merely to erect so
doubtful a thing as a house.
I know one such—a royal one even among huckleberry patches. To get
to it you go up an old road,—up, and up, and up,—you pass big fields,
newmown and wide open to the sky, you get broader and broader outlooks
over green woodland and blue rolling hills, with a bit of azure river
in the midst. You come out on great flats of rock, thinly edged with
light turf, and there before you are the “berry lots,” as the natives
call them,—rolling, windy uplands, with nothing bigger than cedars and
wild cherry trees to break their sweep. The berry bushes crowd together
in thick-set patches, waist-high, interspersed with big “high-bush”
shrubs in clumps or alone, low, hoary juniper, and great, dark masses
of richly glossy, richly fragrant bay. The pointed cedars stand about
like sentinels, stiff enough save where their sensitive tops lean
delicately away from the wind. In the scant herbage between is
goldenrod, the earliest and the latest alike at home here, and red
lilies and asters, and down close to the ground, if you care to stoop
for them, trailing vines of dewberries with their fruit, the sweetest
of all the blackberries. Truly it is a goodly prospect, and one to fill
the heart with satisfaction that the world is as it is.
The pleasure of huckleberrying is partly in the season—the late
summer-time, from mid-July to September. The poignant joys of early
spring are passed, and the exuberance of early summer, while the keen
stimulus of fall has not yet come. Things are at poise. The haying is
over, the meadows, shorn of their rich grass, lie tawny-green under the
sky, and the world seems bigger than before. It is not a time for
dreams nor a time for exploits; it is a time for—for—well, for
But you must choose your days carefully, as you do your fishing and
hunting days. The berries “bite best” with a brisk west wind, though a
south one is not to be despised, and a north one gives a pleasant
suggestion of fall while the sun has still all the fervor of summer.
Choose a sky that has clouds in it, too, for you will feel their
movement even when you do not look up. Then take your pail and set out.
Do not be in a hurry and do not promise to be back at any definite
time. Either go alone or with just the right companion. I do not know
any circumstances wherein the choice of a companion needs more care
than in berrying. It may make or mar the whole adventure. For you must
have a person not too energetic, or a standard of speed will be
established that will spoil everything; nor too conscientious—it is
maddening to be told that you have not picked the bushes clean enough;
nor too diligent, so that one feels guilty if one looks at the view or
acknowledges the breeze; nor too restless, so that one is being
constantly haled to fresh woods and pastures new. A slightly garrulous
person is not bad, with a desultory, semi-philosophic bent, and a gift
for being contented with easy physical occupation. In fact, I find that
I am, by exclusion and inclusion, narrowing my description to fit a
certain type of small boy. And indeed I believe that here the ideal
companion is to be found,—if indeed he is not, as I more than suspect
he is, the ideal companion for every form of recreation in life. Yes,
the boy is the thing. Some of my choicest hours in the berry lots have
been spent with a boy as companion, some boy who loves to be in the
wind and sun without knowing that he loves it, who philosophizes
without knowing that he does so, who picks berries with sufficient
diligence sometimes, and with a delightful irresponsibility at other
times; who likes to move on, now and then, but is happy to kick turf
around the edges of the clump if you are inclined to stay. Who takes
pride in filling his pail, but is not so desperately single-minded that
he is unmoved by the seductions of goldenrod in bloom, of juniper and
bayberries, of dry goldenrod stalks (for kite sticks), of deserted
birds' nests, and all the other delights that fall in his way.
For berrying does not consist chiefly in getting berries, any more
than fishing consists chiefly in getting fish, or hunting in getting
birds. The essence of berrying is the state of mind that accompanies
it. It is a semi-contemplative recreation, providing physical quiet
with just enough motion to prevent restlessness—being, in this
respect, like “whittling.” I said semi-contemplative, because, while it
seems to induce meditation, the beauty of it is that you don't really
meditate at all, you only think you are doing so, or are going to. That
is what makes it so recuperative in its effects. It just delicately
shaves the line between stimulating you to thought and boring you
because it does not stimulate. Thus it brings about in you a perfect
state of poise most restful in itself and in a complete harmony with
the midsummer season.
Yes, fishing is good, and hunting is good, and all the sports are
good in their turn—even sitting in a rocking-chair on a boarding-house
piazza has, perhaps, its charms and its benefits for some;—but when
the sun is hot and the wind is cool, when the hay is in and the
yellowing fields lie broad, when the woods have gathered their birds
and their secrets to their very hearts, when the sky is deeply, warmly
blue, and the clouds pile soft or float thin and light, then give me a
pail and let me wander up, up, to the great open berry lots. I will let
the sun shine on me and the wind blow me, and I will love the whole big
world, and I will think not a single thought, and at sundown I will
come home with a full pail and a contentedly empty mind.
XI. In the Rain
It was raining. It had begun to rain the afternoon before; it had
rained all night, with the drizzling, sozzling kind of rain that
indicated persistence. It had rained all the morning; it was obviously
going to rain all day. The hollow beside the stone hitching-post, where
the grocer's horse and the butcher's horse and the fishman's horse had
stamped, all through the drought, was now a pool of brown water, with
the raindrops making gooseflesh on it. There was another pond under the
front gate, and another under the hammock; and the middle of the road,
in the horse rut, was a narrow brown brook. The tiger lilies in the old
stump were bending with their load of wetness, the phlox in the garden
was weighed down till its white masses nearly touched earth. Indoors,
when the wind lulled and the rain fell straighter, we could hear the
drops tick-tick-ticking on the bark of the birch logs in the fireplace.
This flue of the chimney is almost vertical, with a slant to the
southward, and I have always liked the way it lets in samples of the
weather—a patch of yellow sunshine on clear days, a blur of soft white
light on gray ones, and on stormy ones flicks of rain to make the fire
sputter, or, as on this particular day, to dampen our kindling if it
has been laid ready to light.
The belated postman's buggy, with presumably a postman inside it
somewhere behind the sheathing of black rubber, drove up, our mail-box
grated open and shut, and the streaming horse sloshed on. Jonathan
turned up his collar and dashed out to the box, and dashed in again,
bringing with him a great gust of rainy sweetness and the smell of wet
“Jonathan,” I said, “let's take a walk.”
He was unfolding the damp newspaper carefully so as not to tear it.
“What's that? Walk?”
“That's what I said.”
He had his paper open by this time, and was glancing at the
headlines. When a man is glancing at headlines, it is just as well to
let him glance. I gave him fifteen minutes. Then I reopened the matter.
“Jonathan, I said walk.”
“What's that?” His tone was vague. It was what I call his newspaper
tone. It suggests extreme remoteness, but tolerance, even benevolence,
if he is let alone. He drifted slowly over to the window and made a
pretense of looking out, but his eyes were still running down the
columns. “My dear,” he remarked, still in the same tone, “had you
noticed that it is beginning to rain?”
“I noticed that yesterday afternoon, about three o'clock,” I said.
“Oh, all right. I thought perhaps you hadn't.”
“Well?” I waited.
“Well—” he hung fire while he finished the tail of the editorial.
Then he threw down the paper. “Don't you think it's rather poor weather
This was what I had been waiting for, and I responded glibly, “Some
one has said there is no such thing as bad weather, there are only good
“Do you mean mine?” He grinned down at his farm regimentals.
“Why, of course, if you really mean it,” he said, and added, as he
looked out reflectively at the puddling road, “You'll get your hair
“Hope so! Now, Jonathan, aren't you silly, really? Anybody would
think we'd never been for a walk in the rain before in our lives.
Perhaps you'd rather stay indoors and be a tabby-cat and keep dry.”
“Who got the mail?”
“You did. But you wanted the paper—and you ran.”
The fact was, as I very well knew, Jonathan really wanted to go, but
he didn't want to start. When people really enjoy doing a thing, and
mean to do it, and yet won't get going, something has to be done to get
them going. That was why I spoke of tabby-cats.
Jonathan assumed an alert society tone. “I should enjoy a walk very
much, thank you,” he said; “the weather seems to me perfect. But,” he
added abruptly, “wear woolen; that white thing won't do.”
“Of course!” I went off and made myself fit—woolen for warmth,
though the day was not cold, a short khaki skirt, an old felt hat, and
old shoes. Out we went into the drenched world. Whish! A gust of rain
in my eyes half blinded me, and I ran under the big maples. I heard
Jonathan chuckle. “I can't help it,” I gasped; “I'll be wet enough in a
few minutes, and then I shan't care.”
From the maples I made for the lee of the barn eaves, disturbing the
hens who were sulking there. They stepped ostentatiously out into the
rainy barnyard with an air of pointedly not noticing me, but of
knowing all the time whose fault it was. They weren't liking the
weather, anyhow, the hens weren't, and showed it plainly in the wet,
streaky droop of their feathers and the exasperated look in their red
eyes. “Those hens look as if they thought I could do something about it
if I only would,” I said to Jonathan as we passed them.
“Yes, they aren't a cordial crowd. Here, we'll show them how to take
We were passing under an apple tree; Jonathan seized a drooping
bough, and a sheet of water shook itself out on our shoulders. I gasped
and ducked, and a hen who stood too near scuttered off with low
duckings of indignation.
“Now you're really wet, you can enjoy yourself,” said Jonathan; and
there was something in it, though I was loath to admit it at the
moment. A moment before I had felt rather appalled at the sight of the
rain-swept lane; now I hastened on recklessly.
“I think,” said Jonathan, “it's the back of my neck that counts.
After that's wet I don't care what happens.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “that's a stronghold. But I think with me it's my
It did not really matter which it was; neck and shoulders both were
wet,—back, arms, everything. We tramped down across the hollow, over
the brook, whose flood was backing up into the swamp on each side. I
paused to look off across the huckleberry hillside beyond.
“How the rain changes everything!” I said.
All the colors had freshened and darkened, and the blur of the rain
softened the picture and “brought it together,” as the painters say.
“Well,” said Jonathan, “woods or open?”
“Which is the wettest?”
And we plunged in under the big chestnuts, through a mass of
witch-hazel and birch.
Jonathan was quite right. Woods were the wettest. One can hardly
fancy anything quite so wet. Solid water, like a river, is not
comparable, because it is all in one lump; you know where it is, and
you can get out of it when you want to. But here in the woods the water
was everywhere, ready to hurl itself upon us, from above, from beside
us, from below. Every step, every motion, drew upon us drenching
showers of great drops that had been hanging heavily in the leaves
ready to break away at a touch. Little streamlets of water ran from the
drooping edges of my hat and from my chin, water dashed in my eyes and
I blinked it out.
Jonathan, pausing to hold back a dripping spray of blackberry, heavy
with fruit, remarked, “Aren't you getting a little damp?”
“I wonder if I am!” I answered joyously, and plunged on into the
There is as much exhilaration in being out in a big rain and getting
really rained through, as there is in being out in surf. It has nothing
in common with the sensations that arise when, umbrellaed and
mackintoshed and rubber-overshoed, we pick our way gingerly along the
street, wondering how much we can keep dry, hoping everything is “up”
all round, wishing the wind wouldn't keep changing and blowing the
umbrella so, and fancying how we shall look when we “get there.” But
when you don't care—when you want to get wet, and do—there is a
physical glow that is delightful, a sense of being washed through and
through, of losing one's identity almost, and being washed away into
the great swirl of nature where one doesn't count much, but is glad to
be taken in as a part. I fancy this is true with any of the
elements—earth, air, water. The tale of Antæus was no mere legend;
there is real strength for us in close contact with the earth. There is
a purifying and uplifting potency in the winds, a potency in the
waters—ocean and river and great rain. Our civilization has dealt with
all these so successfully that we are apt to think of them as docile
servants, or perhaps as petty annoyances, and we lose the sense of
their power unless we deliberately go out to meet them in their own
domain and let them have their way with us. Then, indeed, they sweep us
out of ourselves for a season, and that is good.
We came out from the thickets on a high, brushy field, sheeted in
fine rain that dimmed even the near wood edges. Blackberries grew
thick, and we made our way carefully among the briers, following the
narrow and devious cow-paths. Suddenly we both stopped. Just ahead of
us, under a blackberry bush, was a huge snapping-turtle. He was
standing on his hind legs, with his fore legs resting on a branch
loaded with fruit, his narrow dark head stretched far up and out, while
he quietly ate berry after berry. He was a handsome fellow, with his
big black shell all brilliant in the wetness of the rain. As he worked
we could see his under side, and notice how it shaded to yellow along
the sutures. It was a scene of contentment, and the berries, dripping
with fresh raindrops, looked luscious indeed as he feasted.
We stood and watched him for a while, and I got an entirely new idea
of turtles. Turtles usually have too much reserve, too much
self-consciousness, too little abandon, and I had never seen one
so “come out of himself,” literally and figuratively, as this fellow
did. It made me want to follow up the acquaintance, this happy chance
of finding him, so to speak, in his cups; but I repressed the desire,
feeling that he might not share it, and we carefully backed away and
went around by another path so as not to disturb the reveler. He never
knew how much pleasure he had given as well as received.
Into the woods again—“Look out!” said Jonathan. “Don't step on the
He stooped and picked up one, which struck an attitude among his
dripping fingers—sleek back a little arched, legs in odd, uncouth
positions, tail set stiffly in a queer curve. They are brilliant little
creatures, with their clear orange-red coats, scarlet-spotted, like a
“Pretty little chap, isn't he?” said Jonathan.
“Stylish,” I said, “but foolish. They never do anything that I can
see, except attitudinize.
“But they do a great deal of that,” said Jonathan, as he set him
“Come on,” I said; “I can't stand here being sentimental over your
pets. It's raining.
“Oh, if you'd like to go—” said Jonathan, and set a pace.
I followed hard, and we raced down through the empty woods, sliding
over the great wet rocks, rolling over black fallen tree trunks, our
feet sinking noiselessly in the soft leaf mould of the forest floor.
Out again, and through the edge of a cornfield where the broad, wavy
ribbon leaves squeaked as we thrust them aside, as only corn leaves can
squeak. If we had not been wet already, this would have finished us.
There is nothing any wetter than a wet cornfield.
On over the open pastures, with a grassy swamp at the bottom. We
tramped carelessly through it, not even looking for tussocks, and the
water sucked merrily in and out of our shoes. Into brush once
more—thick hazel and scrub oak; then down a slope, and we were in the
hemlock ravine—a wonderful bit of tall woods, dark-shadowed, solemn,
hardly changed by the rain, only perhaps a thought darker and stiller,
with deeper blue depths of hazy distance between the straight black
trunks. At the bottom a brook with dark pools lying beneath mossy rock
ledges, or swirling under great hemlock roots, little waterfalls, and
shallow rapids over smooth-worn rock faces. It is a wonderful place, a
place for a German fairy tale.
The woods were empty—in a sense, yes. Except for the lizards, the
animals run to cover during the rain; woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels,
are tucked away somewhere out of sight and sound. Bird notes are
hushed; the birds, lurking close-reefed under the lee of the big
branches or the heavy foliage, or at the heart of the cedar trees, make
no sign as we pass.
Empty, yet not lonely. When the sun is out and the sky is high and
bright, one feels that the world is a large place, belonging to many
creatures. But when the sky shuts down and the world is close-wrapped
in rain and drifting mist, it seems to grow smaller and more intimate.
Instead of feeling the multitudinousness of the life of woods and
fields, one feels its unity. We are brought together in the bonds of
the rain—we and all the hidden creatures—we seem all in one room
Thus swept into the unity of a dominating mood, the woods sometimes
gain a voice of their own. I heard it first on a stormy night when I
was walking along the wood road to meet Jonathan. It was a night of
wind and rain and blackness—blackness so dense that it seemed a real
thing, pressing against my eyes, so complete that at the fork in the
roads I had to feel with my hand for the wheel ruts in order to choose
the right one. As I grew accustomed to the swish of the rain in my face
and the hoarse breath of the wind about my ears I became aware of
another sound—a background of tone. I thought at first it was a child
calling, but no, it was not that; it was not a call, but a song; and
not that either—it was more like many voices, high but not shrill, and
very far away, softly intoning. It was neither sad nor joyous; it
suggested dreamy, reiterant thoughts; it was not music, but the memory
of music. If one listened too keenly, it was gone, like a faint star
which can be glimpsed only if one looks a little away from it.
As I had listened that night I began to wonder if it was all my own
fancy, and when I met Jonathan I made him stop.
“Wait a minute,” I begged him, “and listen.”
“I hear it. Come on,” he had said. Supper was in his thoughts.
“What do you hear?”
“Just what you do.”
“What's that?” I had persisted, as we fumbled our way along.
“Voices—I don't know what you'd call it—the woods. It often sounds
like that in a big rain.”
Jonathan's matter-of-factness had rather pleased me.
“I thought it might be my imagination. I'm glad it wasn't,” I said.
“Perhaps it's both our imaginations,” he suggested.
“No. We both do lots of imagining, but it never overlaps. When it
does, it shows it's so.”
Perhaps I was not very clear, but he seemed to understand.
Since then I have heard it now and again, this singing of the
rain-swept woods. Not often, for it is a capricious thing, or perhaps I
ought rather to say I do not understand the manner of its uprising.
Rain alone will not bring it to pass, wind alone will not, and
sometimes even when they are importuned by wind and rain together the
woods are silent. Perhaps, too, it is not every stretch of woods that
can sing, or at all seasons. In winter they can whistle, and sigh, and
creak, but I am sure that when I have heard these singing voices the
trees have always had their full leafage. But however it comes about, I
am glad of the times that I have heard it. And whenever I read tales of
the Wild Huntsman and all his kind, there come into my mind as an
interpreting background memories of wonderful black nights and
storm-ridden woods swept by overtones of distant and elusive sound.
We did not hear the woods sing that day. Perhaps there was not wind
enough, or perhaps the woods on the “home piece” are not big enough,
for it chances that I have never heard the sound there.
As we came up the lane at dusk we saw the glimmer of the house
“Doesn't that look good?” I said to Jonathan. “And won't it be good
when we are all dry and in front of the fire and you have your pipe and
I'm making toast?”
I am perfectly sure that Jonathan agreed with me, but what he said
was, “I thought you came out for pleasure.”
“Well, can't I come home for pleasure too?” I asked.
XII. As the Bee Flies
Jonathan had taken me to see the “bee tree” down in the “old John
Lane lot.” Judging from the name, the spot must have been a clearing at
one time, but now it is one of the oldest pieces of woodland in the
locality. The bee tree, a huge chestnut, cut down thirty years ago for
its store of honey, is sinking back into the forest floor, but we could
still see its hollow heart and charred sides where the fire had been
made to smoke out the bees.
“Jonathan,” I said, “I'd like to find some wild honey. It sounds so
“No better than tame honey,” said Jonathan.
“It sounds better. I'm sure it would be different scooped out of a
tree like this than done up neatly in pound squares.”
“Tastes just the same,” persisted Jonathan prosaically.
“Well, anyway, I want to find a bee tree. Let's go bee-hunting!”
“What's the use? You don't know a honeybee from a bumblebee.”
“Well, you do, of course,” I answered, tactfully.
Jonathan, mollified, became gracious. “I never went bee-hunting, but
I've heard the old fellows tell how it's done. But it takes all day.”
“So much the better,” I said.
And that night I looked through our books to find out what I could
about bees. Over the fireplace in what was once the “best parlor” is a
long, low cupboard with glass doors. Here Bibles, albums, and a few
other books have always been stored, and from this I pulled down a fat,
gilt-lettered volume called “The Household Friend.” This book has
something to say about almost everything, and, sure enough, it had an
article on bees. But the Household Friend had obviously never gone
bee-hunting, and the only real information I got was that bees had four
wings and six legs.
“So has a fly,” said Jonathan, when I came to him with this nugget
The neighbors gave suggestions. “You want to go when the
yeller-top's in bloom,” said one.
“Yellow-top?” I questioned, stupidly enough.
“Yes. Yeller-top—'t's in bloom now,” with a comprehensive wave of
“Oh, you mean goldenrod!”
“Well, I guess you call it that. Yeller-top we call it. You find one
o' them old back fields where the yeller-top's come in, 'n' you'll see
Another friend told us that when we had caught our bee we must drop
honey on her back. This would send her to the hive to get her friends
to groom her off, and they would all return with her to see where the
honey came from. This sounded improbable, but we were in no position to
criticize our information.
As to the main points of procedure all our advisers agreed. We were
to put honey in an open box, catch a bee in it, and when she had loaded
up with honey, let her go, watch her flight and locate the direction of
her home. When she returned with friends for more honey, we were to
shut them in, carry the box on in the line of flight, and let them go
again. We were to keep this up until we reached the bee tree. It
We got our box—two boxes, to be sure of our resources—baited them
with chunks of comb, and took along little window panes for covers.
Then we packed up luncheon and set out for an abandoned pasture in our
woods where we remembered the “yeller-top” grew thick. Our New England
fall mornings are cool, and as we walked up the shady wood road
Jonathan predicted that it would be no use to hunt bees. “They'll be so
stiff they can't crawl. Look at that lizard, now!” He stooped and
touched a little red newt lying among the pebbles of the roadway. The
little fellow seemed dead, but when Jonathan held him in the hollow of
his hand for a few moments he gradually thawed out, began to wriggle,
and finally dropped through between his fingers and scampered under a
stone. “See?” said Jonathan. “We'll have to thaw out every bee just
But I had confidence that the sun would take the place of Jonathan's
hand, and refused to give up my hunt. From the main log-road we turned
off into a path, once a well-trodden way to the old ox pastures, but
now almost overgrown, and pushed on through brier and sweet-fern and
huckleberry and young birch, down across a little brook, and up again
to the “old Sharon lot,” a long field framed in big woods and grown up
to sumac and brambles and goldenrod. It was warmer here, in the steady
sunshine, sheltered from the crisp wind by the tree walls around us,
and we began to look about hopefully for bees. At first Jonathan's
gloomy prognostications seemed justified—there was not a bee in sight.
A few wasps were stirring, trailing their long legs as they flew. Then
one or two “yellow jackets” appeared, and some black-and-white hornets.
But as the field grew warmer it grew populous, bumblebees hummed, and
finally some little soft brown bees arrived—surely the ones we wanted.
Cautiously Jonathan approached one, held his box under the goldenrod
clump, brought the glass down slowly from above—and the bee was ours.
She was a gentle little thing, and did not seem to resent her treatment
at all, but dropped down on to the honeycomb and fell to work. Jonathan
had providently cut a three-forked stick, and he now stuck this into
the ground and set the box on the forks so that it was about on a level
with the goldenrod tops. Then he carefully drew off the glass, and we
sat down to watch.
“Shouldn't you think she must have had enough?” I said, after a
while—“Oh! there she comes now!”
Our bee appeared on the edge of the box, staggering heavily. She
rubbed her legs, rubbed her wings, shook herself, girded up her loins,
as it were, and brushed the hair out of her eyes, and finally rose,
turning on herself in a close spiral which widened into larger and
larger circles above the box, and at length, after two or three wide
sweeps where we nearly lost track of her, she darted off in a
“bee-line” for a tall chestnut tree on a knoll to the westward.
“Will she come back?” we wondered. Five minutes—ten—fifteen—it
seemed an hour.
“She must have been a drone,” said Jonathan.
“Or maybe she wasn't a honeybee at all,” I suggested, gloomily. “She
might be just another kind of hornet—no, look! There she is!”
I could hardly have been more thrilled if my fairy godmother had
appeared on the goldenrod stalk and waved her wand at me. To think that
the bee really did play the game! I knelt and peered in over the side
of the box. Yes, there she was, all six feet in the honey, pumping away
with might and main through her little red tongue, or proboscis, or
whatever it was. We sank back among the weeds and waited for her to go.
As she rose, in the same spirals, and disappeared westward, Jonathan
said, “If she doesn't bring another one back with her this time, we'll
try dropping honey on her back. You wait here and be a landmark for the
bee while I try to catch another one in the other box.”
I settled down comfortably under the yellow-top, and instantly I
realized what a pleasant thing it is to be a landmark. For one thing,
when you sit down in a field you get a very different point of view
from that when you stand. Goldenrod is different looked at from
beneath, with sky beyond it; sky is different seen through waving
masses of yellow. Moreover, when you sit still outdoors, the life of
things comes to you; when you are moving yourself, it evades you. Down
among the weeds where I sat, the sun was hot, but the breeze was cool,
and it brought to me, now the scent of wild grapes from an old stone
wall, now the spicy fragrance of little yellow apples on a gnarled old
tree in the fence corner, now the sharp tang of the goldenrod itself.
The air was full of the hum of bees, and soon I began to distinguish
their different tones—the deep, rich drone of the bumblebees, the
higher singsong of the honeybees, the snarl of the yellow-jacket, the
jerky, nasal twang of the black-and-white hornet. They began to come
close around me; two bumblebees hung on a frond of goldenrod so close
to my face that I could see the pollen dust on their fur. Crickets and
grasshoppers chirped and trilled beside me. All the little creatures
seemed to have accepted me—all but one black-and-white hornet, who
left his proper pursuits, whatever they may have been, to investigate
me. He buzzed all around me in an insistent, ill-bred way that was
annoying. He examined my neck and hair with unnecessary thoroughness,
flew away, returned to begin all over again, flew away and returned
once more; but at last even he gave up the matter and went off about
Butterflies came fluttering past me:—big, rust-colored ones pointed
in black; pale russet and silver ones; dancing little yellow ones; big
black ones with blue-green spots, rather shabby and languid, as at the
end of a gay season. Darning-needles darted back and forth, with their
javelin-like flight, or mounted high by sudden steps, or lighted near
me, with that absolute rigidity that is the positive negation of
movement. A flying grasshopper creeping along through the tangle at my
feet rose and hung flutteringly over one spot, for no apparent reason,
and then, for no better reason, dropped suddenly and was still. A big
cicada with green head and rustling wings worked his way clumsily among
a pile of last year's goldenrod stalks, freed himself, and whirred away
with the harsh, strident buzz that dominates every other sound while it
lasts, and when it ceases makes the world seem wonderfully quiet.
Our bee had gone and come twice before Jonathan returned. “Hasn't
she brought anybody yet? Well, here goes!” He took a slender stem of
goldenrod, smeared it with honey, and gently lodged a drop on the bee's
back, just where she could not by any possible antics get it off for
herself. When the little thing flew she fairly reeled under her burden,
tumbled down on to a leaf, recovered herself, and at last flew off on
her old line.
“Now, let's go and cook luncheon,” said Jonathan, “and leave her to
work it out.”
“But how can I move? I'm a landmark.”
“Oh, leave your handkerchief. Anything white will do.”
So I tied my handkerchief to a goldenrod stalk, and we went back to
the brook. We made a fire on a flat stone, under which we could hear
the brook running, broiled our chops on long, forked sticks, broiled
some “beef-steak” mushrooms that we had found on a chestnut stump, and
ended with water from the spring under the giant birch tree. Blue jays
came noisily to investigate us; a yellow-hammer floated softly down to
the branch overhead, gave a little purring cluck of surprise, and flew
off again, with a flare of tawny-yellow wings. In the warmth of the
Indian summer noon the shade of the woods was pleasant, and I let
Jonathan go back to the bees while I lay on a dry slope above the brook
and watched the slim, tall chestnuts swaying in the wind. It is almost
like being at sea to lie in the woods and look up at the trees. Their
waving tops seem infinitely far away, but the sky beyond seems very
near, and one can almost feel the earth go round.
As I lay there I heard a snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves.
It was the wrong direction for Jonathan, and I turned gently, expecting
nothing smaller than a deer—for deer are growing plentiful now in old
New England—and met the shameless face of a jerky little red squirrel!
He clung to a chestnut trunk and examined me, twitching all over the
while, then whisked himself upside down and looked at me from that
standpoint, mounted to a branch, clung to the under side and looked
again, pretended fright and vanished behind the limb, only to peer over
it the next moment to see what I looked like from there—all the time
clucking and burring like an alarm clock under a pillow.
The rude thing had broken the spell of quiet, and I got up,
remembering the bees, and wandered back to the sunny field, now
palpitating with waves of heat. Jonathan was nowhere to be seen, but as
I approached the box I discovered him beside it flat on his back among
“Sh-h-h,” he warned, “don't frighten them. There were a lot of them
when I got here and I've been watching their line. They all go straight
for that chestnut.”
“What are you lying down for?” I asked.
“I had to. I nearly twisted my neck off following their circles. I'm
I sat down near by and we watched a few more go, while others began
“That dab of honey did the work,” said Jonathan. “We might as well
begin to follow up their line now.”
Waiting till there were a dozen or more in the box, he gently slid
on the glass cover, laid a paper over it to darken it, and we set out.
Ten minutes' walking brought us past the big chestnut and out to a
little clearing. Jonathan set the box down on a big rock where it would
show up well, laid a handkerchief beside it, drew off the glass, and
crouched. A bunch of excited bees burst out and away, without noticing
their change of place. “They'll never find their way back there,” said
Jonathan regretfully; “they'll go straight back to the Sharon lot.”
But there were others in the box, still feeding, who had not been
disturbed by the move, and these he touched with honey drops. They
staggered off, one by one, orienting themselves properly as they rose,
and taking the same old line off to the westward. This was
disappointing. We had hoped to see them turn back, showing that we had
passed their home tree. However, there was nothing to do but sit and
wait for them. In six minutes they began to come back, in twos and
threes—evidently the honey drops on their shoulders had told the hive
a sufficiently alluring story. Again we waited until the box was well
filled with them, then closed it and went on westward. Two more moves
brought us to a half-cleared ridge from which we could see out across
country. To the westward, and sadly near, was the end of the big woods
and the beginning of pastures and farmland.
Jonathan scrutinized the farms dotting the slopes. “See that bunch
of red barns with a white house?” he said “That's Bill Morehead's. He
keeps bees. Bet we've got bees from his hive and they'll lead us plumb
into his back yard.”
It did begin to seem probable, and we took up our box in some
depression of spirits. Two more stops, the bees still perversely flying
westward, and we emerged in pastures.
“Here's our last stop,” said Jonathan. “If they don't go back into
that edge we've just left, they're Morehead's. There isn't another bit
of woods big enough to hold a bee tree for seven miles to the west of
There was no rock to set the box on, so we lay down on the turf;
Jonathan set the box on his chest, and partly slid the cover. He had by
this time learned the trick of making the bees, even the excited ones,
come out singly. We watched each one as she escaped, circle above us,
circle, circle against the clear blue of the afternoon sky, then dart
off—alas!—westward. As the last one flew we sat up, disconsolately,
and gazed across the pasture.
“Tame bees!” muttered Jonathan, in a tone of grief and disgust.
“Tame bees, down there in my old woodlots. It's trespass!”
“You might claim some of Morehead's honey,” I suggested, “since
you've been feeding his bees. But, then,” I reflected, “it wouldn't be
wild honey, and what I wanted was wild honey.”
We rose dejectedly, and Jonathan picked up the box. “Aren't you
going to leave it for the bees?” I asked. “They'll be so disappointed
when they come back.”
“They aren't the only ones to be disappointed,” he remarked grimly.
“Here, we'll have mushrooms for supper, anyway.” And he stooped to
collect a big puff-ball.
We walked home, our spirits gradually rising. After all, it is hard
to stay depressed under a blue fall sky, with a crisp wind blowing in
your face and the sense of completeness that comes of a long day out of
doors. And as we climbed the last long hill to the home farm we could
not help feeling cheerful.
“Bee-hunting is fun,” I said, “even if they are tame bees.”
“It's the best excuse for being a loafer that I've found yet,” said
Jonathan; “I wonder the tramps don't all go into the business.”
“And some day,” I pursued hopefully, “we'll go again and find really
wild bees and really wild honey.”
“It would taste just the same, you know,” jeered Jonathan.
And I was so content with life that I let him have the last word.
XIII. A Dawn Experiment
I have tried dawn fishing, and found it wanting. I have tried dawn
hunting in the woods, after “partridges,” and found it not all that
Jonathan, in his buoyant enthusiasm, appears to think it. And so, when
he grew eloquent regarding the delights of dawn hunting on the marshes,
I was not easily fired. I even referred, though very considerately, to
some of our previous experiences in affairs of this nature, and
confessed a certain reluctance to experiment further along these lines.
“Well, you have had a run of hard luck,” he admitted tolerantly,
“but you'll find the plover-shooting different. I know you won't be
I do not mean to be narrow or prejudiced, and so I consented, though
rather hesitatingly, to try one more dawn adventure.
We packed up our guns, ammunition, extra wraps, rubber boots, and
alarm clock. These five things are essential—nay, six are necessary to
real content, and the sixth is a bottle of tar and sweet oil. But of
that more anon.
Thus equipped, we went down to a tiny cottage on the shore. We
reached the village at dusk, stopped at “the store” to buy bread and
butter and fruit, then went on to the little white house that we knew
would always be ready to receive us. It has served us as a
hunting-lodge many times before, and has always treated us well.
There is something very pleasant about going back to a well-known
place of this sort. It offers the joy of home and the joy of camping,
the charm of strangeness and the charm of familiarity. We light the
candles and look about. Ah, yes! There are the magazines we left last
winter when we came down for the duck-shooting, there is the bottle of
ink we got to fill our pens one stormy day last spring in the trout
season, when the downpour quenched the zeal even of Jonathan. In the
pantry are the jars of sugar and salt and cereals and tea and coffee
and bacon; in the kitchen are the oil stoves ready to light; in the
dining-room are the ashes of our last fire.
Contentedly I set about making tea and arranging the supper-table,
while Jonathan took a basket and pitcher and went off to a neighbor for
eggs and milk. We made a fire on the hearth, toasted bread over the
embers, and supped frugally but very cozily.
Afterwards came the setting of the alarm clock—a matter of critical
“What hour shall it be?” inquired Jonathan, his finger on the
“Whenever you think best,” I answered cheerfully.
Now, as we both understood, I had no real intention of being
literally guided by what Jonathan thought best,—that would have been
too rash,—but it opened negotiations pleasantly to say so.
Jonathan, trying to be obliging against his better judgment,
suggested, “Well—six o'clock?”
But I refused any such tremendous concession, knowing that I should
have to bear the ignominy of it if the adventure proved unfortunate.
“No, of course not. Six is much too late. Anybody can get up at six.”
“Well, then,” he brightened; “say five?”
“Five,” I meditated. “No, it's quite light at five. We ought to be
out there at daylight, you said.”
Jonathan visibly expanded. He realized that I was behaving very
well. I thought so myself, and it made us both very amiable.
“Yes,” he admitted, “we ought to be, of course. And it will take
three quarters of an hour to drive out there. Add fifteen minutes to
that for breakfast, and fifteen minutes to dress—would a quarter to
four be too outrageous?”
“Oh, make it half-past three,” I rejoined recklessly, in a burst of
At least I would not spoke our wheels by slothfulness. The clock was
set accordingly, and I went to sleep enveloped in virtue as in a
garment, the sound of the sea in my ears.
* * * * *
Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r! What has happened? Oh, the alarm
clock! It can't be more than twelve o'clock. I hear the spit of a
match, then “Half-past three,” from Jonathan. “No!” I protest. “Yes,”
he persists, and though his voice is still veiled in sleep, I detect in
it a firmness to which I foresee I shall yield. My virtue of last night
has faded completely, but his zeal is fast colors. I am ready to back
out, but, dimly remembering my Spartan attitude of the night before, I
don't dare. Thus are we enslaved by our virtues. I submit, with only
one word of comment—“And we call this pleasure!” To which Jonathan
wisely makes no response.
We groped our way downstairs, lighted another candle, and sleepily
devoured some sandwiches and milk—a necessary but cheerless process,
with all the coziness of the night before conspicuously left out. We
heard the carriage being brought up outside, we snatched up our
wraps,—sweaters, shawls, coats,—Jonathan picked up the valise with
the hunting equipment, we blew out the candles, and went out into the
chilly darkness. As our eyes became accustomed to the change, we
perceived that the sky was not quite black, but gray, and that the
stars were fewer than in the real night. We got in, tucked ourselves up
snugly, and started off down the road stretching faintly before us. The
horse's steps sounded very loud, and echoed curiously against the
silent houses as we passed. As we went on, the sky grew paler, here and
there in the houses a candle gleamed, in the barnyards a lantern
flashed—the farmer was astir. Yes, dawn was really coming.
After a few miles we turned off the main highway to take the rut
road through the great marsh. The smell of the salt flats was about us,
and the sound of the sea was growing more clear again. A big bird
whirred off from the marsh close beside us. “Meadowlark,” murmured
Jonathan. Another little one, with silent, low flight, then more.
“Sandpipers,” he commented; “we don't want them.” The patient horse
plodded along, now in damp marsh soil, now in dry, deep sand, to the
hitching-place by an old barn on the cliff.
As we pulled up, Jonathan took a little bottle out of his pocket and
handed it to me. “Better put it on now,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Tar and sweet oil—for the mosquitoes.”
I smelled of it with suspicion. It was a dark, gummy liquid. “I
think I prefer the mosquitoes.”
“You do!” said Jonathan. “You'll think again pretty soon. Here, let
me have it.” He had tied the horse and blanketed him, and now proceeded
to smear himself with the stuff—face, neck, hands. “You needn't look
at me that way!” he remarked genially; “you'll be doing it yourself
soon. Just wait.”
We took our guns and cartridges, and plunged down from the cliff to
the marsh. As we did so there rose about me a brown cloud, which in a
moment I realized was composed of mosquitoes—a crazy, savage,
bloodthirsty mob. They beset me on all sides,—they were in my hair, my
eyes, nose, ears, mouth, neck. I brushed frantically at them, but a
drowning man might as well try to brush back the water as it closes in.
“Where's the bottle?” I gasped.
“What bottle?” said Jonathan, innocently. Jonathan is human.
“The tar and sweet oil. Quick!”
“Oh! I thought you preferred the mosquitoes.” Yes, Jonathan is
“Never mind what you thought!” and I snatched greedily at the
blessed little bottle.
I poured the horrid stuff on my face, my neck, my hands, I
out-Jonathaned Jonathan; then I took a deep breath of relief as the
mosquito mob withdrew to a respectful distance. Jonathan reached for
“Oh, I can just as well carry it,” I said, and tucked it into one of
my hunting-coat pockets.
Jonathan chuckled gently, but I did not care. Nothing should part me
from that little bottle of ill-smelling stuff.
We started on again, out across the marsh. Enough light had come to
show us the gray-green level, full of mists and little glimmers of
water, and dotted with low haycocks, their dull, tawny yellow showing
softly in the faint dawn light.
“Hark!” said Jonathan.
We paused. Through the fog came a faint, whistling call, in
descending half-tones, indescribable, coming out of nowhere, sounding
now close beside us, now very far away.
“Yellowlegs,” said Jonathan. “We aren't a bit too soon.”
We pushed out into the midst of the marsh, now sinking knee-deep in
the spongy bed, now walking easily on a stretch of firm turf, now
stepping carefully over a boundary ditch of unknown depth—out to the
haycocks, where we sank down, each beside one, to wait for the birds to
I do not know how long we waited. The haycock was warm, the night
wind had fallen, the gray sky was turning white, with primrose tones in
the east; the morning star paled and disappeared; the marsh mists
partly lifted, and revealed far inland the soft, dark masses of
encircling woods. And every little while came the whistling call,
plaintive, yet curiously hurried, coming from nowhere. I lay back
against the hay, and, contrary to orders, I let my gun slip down beside
me. The fact was, I had half forgotten that anything definite was
expected of me, and when suddenly I heard a warning “Look out!” from
Jonathan's mow, I was in no way prepared. There was a rush of wings;
the air was full of the whistling notes of the birds as they flew; they
passed over us, circling, rising, sinking, sweeping far up the marsh,
then, as Jonathan whistled their call, circling back again out of the
mist at incredible speed.
Probably it would have made no difference if I had been prepared. A
new kind of game always leaves me dazed, and now I watched them,
spellbound, until I heard Jonathan shoot. Then I made a great effort,
pulled at my trigger, and rolled backwards from my haycock into the
spongy swamp, inches deep with water just there.
Jonathan called across softly, “Shot both barrels, didn't you?”
I rose slowly, wishing there were some way of wringing out my entire
back. “Of course not!” I gasped indignantly.
“Think not?” very benevolently from the other cock. “'Twouldn't have
kicked like that if you hadn't. Look at your gun and see.”
I reseated myself damply upon the haycock. “I tell you I didn't. Why should I shoot both at once, I'd like to know! I—never—”
Here I stopped, for as I broke open my gun I saw two dented
cartridges, and as I pulled them out white smoke rolled from both
barrels. There seemed nothing further to be said, at least by a woman,
so I said nothing. Jonathan also, though human, said nothing. It is
crises like these that test character. I turned my cool back to the
east, that the rising sun, if it ever really got thoroughly risen,
might warm it, and grimly reloaded. Jonathan continued his call to the
birds, and when they returned again I behaved better.
By seven o'clock the birds had scattered, and we left our places to
go back to the horse. On the way we encountered two hunters wandering
rather disconsolately over the marsh. They stopped us to ask what luck,
and we tried not to look too self-satisfied, but probably they read our
success in our arrogant faces, streaked with tar and sweet oil as they
were. Possibly the bulge of our hunting-coat pockets helped to tell the
“How long have you been out here?” they asked enviously.
“Two hours or so,” said Jonathan.
“How'd you get out so early?”
“We got up early,” said Jonathan, with admirable simplicity.
The strangers looked at him twice to see if he meant to jeer, but he
appeared impenetrably innocent, and they finally laughed, a little
ruefully, and went on out into the marsh we were just leaving. Why does
it make one feel so immeasurably superior to get up a few hours before
We drove home along the sunny road, where the bakers' carts and meat
wagons were already astir. Could it be the same road that a few hours
before had been so cold and gray and still? Were these bare white
houses the same that had nestled so cozily into the dark of the
roadside? We reached our own plain little white house and went in. In
the dining-room our candles and the remains of our midnight breakfast
on the table seemed like relics of some previous state of existence.
Sleepily I set things in order for a real breakfast, a hot breakfast, a
breakfast that should be cozy. Drowsily we ate, but contentedly.
Everything since the night before seemed like a dream.
It still seems so. But of all the dream the most vivid part—more
vivid even than the alarm clock, more real than my tumble into
wetness—is the vision that remains with me of mist-swept marsh, all
gray and green and yellow, with tawny haycocks and glimmerings of water
and whirrings of wings and whistling bird notes and the salt smell of
Yes, Jonathan was right. Dawn hunting on the marshes is different,
XIV. In the Wake of the Partridge
“The kangaroo ran very fast,
I ran faster.
The kangaroo was very fat,
I ate him.
This, the hunting-song of the Australian Bushman, is the best one I
know. Without disguise or adornment, it embodies the primitive hunting
instinct that is in every one of us, whether we hunt people or animals
or things or ideas.
Jonathan and I do not habitually hunt kangaroos, and our hunting, or
at any rate my share in it, is not as uniformly successful as the
Bushman's seems to have been. For our own uses we should have to amend
the song something as follows:—
“The partridge-bird flew very fast,
I missed him.
The partridge-bird was very fat,
But we do not measure the success of our hunting by the size of our
bag. The chase, the day out of doors, two or three birds at the most
out of the dozen we flush, this is all that we ask. But then, we have a
chicken-yard to fall back upon, which the Bushman had not.
We sit before a blazing open fire, eating a hunter's
breakfast—which means, nearly everything in the pantry. Coffee and
toast are all very well for ordinary purposes, but they are poor things
to carry you through a day's hunting, especially our kind of hunting.
For a day's hunt with us is not an elaborate and well-planned affair.
It does not mean a pre-arranged course over “preserved” territory, with
a rendezvous at noon where the luncheon wagon comes, bringing out vast
quantities of food, and taking home the morning's bag of game. It means
a day's hunt that follows whither the birds lead, in a section of New
England that is considered “hunted out,” over ground sometimes
familiar, sometimes wholly new, with no luncheon but a few crackers or
a sandwich that has been stowed away in one of Jonathan's game pockets
all the morning, and perhaps an apple or two, picked up in passing,
from some old orchard now submerged in the woods—a hunt ending only
when it is too dark to shoot, with perhaps a long tramp home again
after that. No, coffee and toast would never do!
As we turn out of the sheltered barnyard through the bars and up the
farm lane, the keen wind flings at us, and our numb fingers recoil from
the metal of our guns and take a careful grip on the wood. At once we
fall to discussing the vital question—Where will the birds be to-day?
For the partridges, as the New Englander calls our ruffed grouse, are
very fastidious about where they spend their days. Sometimes they are
all in the swamps, sometimes they are among the white birches of the
hillsides, sometimes in the big woods, sometimes on the half-wooded
rock ledges, sometimes among the scrub growth of lately cut timberland,
and sometimes, in very cold weather, on the dry knolls where the cedars
huddle—the warm little brooding cedars that give the birds shelter as
a hen does her chicks.
When I first began to hunt with Jonathan, he knew so much more than
I in these matters that I always accepted his judgment. If he said,
“To-day they will be in the swamps,” I responded, “To the swamps let us
go.” But after a time I came to have opinions of my own, and then the
era of discussion set in.
“To-day,” begins Jonathan judicially, “the wind is north, and the
birds will be on the south slopes close to the swamp bottoms to keep
“Now, Jonathan, you know I don't a bit believe in going by the wind.
The partridges don't mind wind, their feathers shed it. What they care
about is the sun, and to-day the sun is hot,—at least,” with a shiver,
“it would be if we had feathers on instead of canvas. I believe
we shall find them in the big woods.”
I usually advocate the big woods, because I like them best for a
Jonathan, too well content at the prospect of a day's hunt to mind
contradiction, says genially, “All right; I'll go wherever you say.”
Which always reduces me to terms at once. Above all things, I
dislike to make myself answerable for the success or failure of the
day. I prefer irresponsible criticism beforehand—and afterwards. So I
say hastily, “Oh, no, no! Of course you know a great deal more than I
do. We'll go wherever you think best.”
“Well, perhaps it is too warm for the swamps to-day. Now,
they might be in the birches.”
“Oh, dear! Don't let's go to the birches! The birds can't be
there. They never are.”
“I thought we were going to go where I thought best.”
“Yes—but only not to the birches. It's all a private myth of yours
about their being there.”
“Is it a private myth of mine that you shot those two woodcock in
the birches of the upper farm last year? And how about that big gray
“Well—of course—that was later in the season. I suppose the birds
do eat birch buds when everything else gives out.”
And so I criticize, having agreed not to. But it's good for
Jonathan; it makes him careful.
“Well, shall it be the swamp?”
“No; if you really think they're in the birches, we'll go
there. Besides, the swamp seems a little—chilly—to begin with. Wait
till I've seen a bird. Then I shan't mind so.”
“Then you do admit it's a cool morning?”
“To paddle in a swamp, yes. The birds don't have to paddle.”
We try the birches, and the pretty things whip our faces with their
slender twigs in their own inimitable fashion, peculiarly trying to my
temper. I can never go through birches long without growing captious.
“Jonathan,” I call, as I catch a glimpse of his hunting-coat through
an opening, “I thought the birds were in the birches this morning. They
don't seem really abundant.”
Jonathan, unruffled, suggests that I go along on the edge of the
woods while he beats out the middle with the dog, which magnanimous
offer shames me into silent if not cheerful acquiescence. Suddenly—
whr-r-r—something bursts away in the brush ahead of us. “Mark!” we
both call, and, “Did you get his line?” My critical spirit is stilled,
and I am suddenly fired with the instinct to follow, follow! It is
indeed a primitive instinct, this of the chase. No matter how tired one
is, the impulse of pursuit is there. At the close of a long day's hunt,
after fifteen miles or so of hard tramping,—equal to twice that of
easy walking,—when my feet are heavy and my head dull, I have never
seen a partridge fly without feeling ready, eager, to follow anywhere.
After we move the first bird, it is follow my leader! And a wild
leader he is. Flushed in the birches, he makes straight for the swamp.
The swamp it is, then, and down we go after him, and in we go—ugh! how
shivery the first plunge is—straight to the puddly heart of it,
carefully keeping our direction. We go fast at first, then, when we
have nearly covered the distance a partridge usually flies, we begin to
slow down, holding back the too eager dog, listening for the snap of a
twig or the sound of wings, gripping our guns tighter at every blue jay
or robin that flicks across our path. No bird yet; we must have passed
him; perhaps we went too far to the left. But no—whr-r-r!
Where is he? There! Out of the top of a tall swamp maple, off he
goes, sailing over the swamp to the ridge beyond. No wonder the dog was
at sea. Well—we know his line, we are off again after him in spite of
the swamp between, with its mud and its rotten tree trunks and its
grapevines and its cat briers.
Up on the ridge at last, we hunt close, find him, get a shot,
probably miss, and away we go again. Some hunters, used to a country
where game is plenty, will not follow a bird if they miss him on the
first rise. They prefer to keep on their predetermined course and find
another. But for me there is little pleasure in that kind of sport.
What I enjoy most is not shooting, but hunting. The chase is the
thing—the chase after a particular bird once flushed, the setting of
my wits against his in the endeavor to follow up his flight. We have
now and then flushed the same bird nine or ten times before we got
him—and we have not always got him then. For many and deep are the
crafty ways of the old partridge, and we have not yet learned them all.
That is why I like partridge-hunting better than quail or woodcock,
though in these you get far more and better shooting. Quail start in a
bunch, scatter, fly, and drop where you can flush them again, one at a
time; woodcock fly in a zigzag, drop where they happen to, and sit
still till you almost step on them. But the partridge thinks as he
flies—thinks to good advantage. He seems to know what we expect him to
do, and then he does something else. How many times have we gone past
him when he sat quietly between us, and then heard him fly off
stealthily down our back track! How often, in a last desperate search
for a vanished bird, have I jumped on every felled cedar top in a
field—except the one he was under! How often have I broken open my gun
to climb a stone wall,—for we are cautious folk, Jonathan and I,—and,
as I stood in perilous balance, seen a great bird burst out from under
my very feet! How often—but I am not going to be tempted into telling
hunting-stories. For some reason or other, hunting-stories chiefly
interest the narrator. I have watched sportsmen telling tales in the
evenings, and noted how every man but the speaker grows restive as he
watches for a chance to get in his own favorite yarn.
And it is not the partridges alone with whom we grow acquainted. We
have glimpses, too, of the other outdoor creatures. The life of the
woods slips away from us as we pass, but only just out of sight, and
not always that. The blue jays scream in the tree-tops, officiously
proclaiming us to the woods; the chickadees, who must see all
that goes on, hop close beside us in the bushes; the gray squirrel
dodges behind a tree trunk with just the corner of an eye peering at us
around it. The chipmunk darts into the stone wall, and doubtless looks
at us from its safe depths; the rabbit gallops off from the brier
tangle or the brush heap, or sits up, round-eyed, thinking, little
silly, that we don't see him. Once I saw a beautiful red fox who leaped
into the open for a moment, stood poised, and leaped on into the brush;
and once, as I sat resting, a woodchuck, big and uncombed, hustled
busily past me, so close I could have touched him. He did not see me,
and seemed so preoccupied with some pressing business that I should
hardly have been surprised to see him pull a watch out of his pocket,
like Alice's rabbit, and mutter, “I shall be late.” I had not known
that the wood creatures ever felt hurried except when pursued. Another
time I was working up the slope on the sunny edge of a run, and, as I
drew myself up over the edge of a big rock, I found myself face to
face—nose to nose—with a calm, mild-eyed, cottontail rabbit. He did
not remain calm; in fact, we were both startled, but he recovered
first, and hopped softly over the side of the rock, and went galloping
away through the brushy bottom, while I, still kneeling, watched him
disappear just as Jonathan came up.
“What's the joke?”
“Nothing, only I just met a rabbit. He sat here, right here, and he
was so rabbit-y! He looked at me just like an Easter card.”
“Why didn't you shoot him?”
“I never thought of it. I wish you had seen how his nose twiddled!
And, anyhow, I wouldn't shoot anything sitting up that way, like a tame
“Then why didn't you shoot when he ran?”
“Shoot a rabbit running! Running in scallops! I couldn't.”
The fact is, I shouldn't shoot a rabbit anyway, unless driven by
hunger. I am not humane, but merely sentimental about them because they
are soft and pretty. Once, indeed, when I found all my beautiful heads
of lettuce neatly nibbled off down to the central stalks, I almost
hardened my heart against them, but the next time I met one of the
little fellows I forgave him all.
I believe that one of the very best things about our way of
following a partridge is the sense of intimacy with the countryside
which it creates—an intimacy which nothing else has ever given us. In
most outdoor faring one sticks to the roads and paths, in fishing one
keeps to the water-courses, in cross-country tramping one unconsciously
goes around obstacles. Nothing but the headlong and undeviating pursuit
of a bird along a path of his choosing would ever have given me that
acquaintance with ledge and swamp and laurel copse that I now possess.
I know our swamp as a hippopotamus might, or—to stick to plain Yankee
creatures—a mud turtle. It is a very swampy swamp, with spring holes
and channels and great shallow pools where the leaves from the tall
swamp maples—scarlet and rose and ashes of roses—sift slowly down and
float until they sink into the leaf mould beneath. I have favorite
paths through it as the squirrels have in the tree-tops; I know where
the mud is too deep to venture, where the sprawling, moss-covered roots
of the maples offer grateful support; I know the brushy edges where the
blossoming witch-hazel fills the air with its quaint fragrance; I know
the sunny, open places where the tufted ferns, shoulder high, and tawny
gold after the early frosts, give insecure but welcome footing; I
know—too well indeed—the thickets of black alder that close in about
me and tug at my gun and drive me to fury.
Yes, we know that swamp, and other swamps only less well. We know
the rock ledges, the big dry woods of oak and chestnut and maple and
beech. We know the ravines where the great hemlocks keep the air always
dim and still, and one goes silent-footed over the needle floor. We
grow familiar, too, with all the little things about the country. We
discover new haunts of the fringed gentian, the wonderful, the
capricious, with its unbelievable blue that one sees nowhere else save
under the black lashes of some Irish eyes. We find the shy spring
orchids, gone to seed now, but we remember and seek them out again next
May. We surprise the spring flowers in their rare fall
blossoming—violets white and blue in the warm, moist bottom-lands,
sand violets on the dry knolls, daisies, hepaticas, buttercups, and
anemones—I have seen all these in a single day in raw November. We
learn where the biggest chestnuts grow—great silky brown fellows
almost twice the size of Jonathan's thumb. We discover old landmarks in
the deep woods, surveyors' posts, a heap of stones carefully piled on a
big rock. We find old clearings, overgrown now, but our feet still feel
underneath the weeds the furrows left by the plow. Now and then we come
upon a spot where once there must have been a home. There is no house,
no timbers even, but the stone cellar is not wholly obliterated, and
the gnarled lilac-bush and the apple tree stubbornly cling to a
worn-out life amidst the forest of young white oaks and chestnuts that
has closed in about them. Once we came upon a little group of
gravestones, only three or four, sunken in the ground and so overgrown
and weather-worn that we could read nothing. There was no sign of a
human habitation, but I suppose they must have been placed there in the
old days when the family burial-ground was in one corner of the farm
We learn to know where the springs of pure water are, welling up out
of the deep ground in a tiny pool under some big rock or between the
roots of a great yellow birch tree. And when the sun shines hot at
noon, and a lost trail and a vanished bird leave us to the sudden
realization that we are tired and thirsty, we know where is the nearest
water. We know, too, the knack of drinking so as not to swallow the
little gnats that skim its surface—you must blow them back ever so
gently, and drink before they close in again. How good it tastes as we
lie at full length on the matted brown leaves! How good the crackers
taste, too, and the crisp apples, as we sit by the spring and rest, and
talk over the morning's hunt and plan the afternoon's—subject to the
caprices of the birds.
But I suppose the very best about hunting can never be told at all.
That is true of any really good thing, and there is nothing better than
a long day after the birds. It is always good to be out of doors. And
there are seasons when one is glad to wander slowly over the fields and
byways; there are times when it seems best of all to be still—in the
heart of the woods, on the wide hill pastures, in the deep grass of the
meadows. But not in the fall! Is it a breath of the migrating instinct
that makes us want to be off and away, to go, and go, and go? Yes, fall
is the time for the hunt—gay, boisterous fall, rioting in wind and
color to keep up its spirits against the stealthy approach of winter.
And whether we shoot well or ill, whether our game pockets are heavy or
light, no matter what the weather we find or the country we cross, it
is all good hunting, very good. And at night we come in to a blazing
fire, feeling tired, oh, so tired! and hungry, oh, so hungry! and with
soul and body shriven clean by wind and sun.
XV. Beyond the Realm of Weather
Our friends say to us now and then, “But why must you do these
things with a gun? Why can't you do the same things and leave the gun
at home?” Why, indeed? When I put this question to Jonathan, he smokes
on placidly. But of one thing I am sure: if it had not been for the
guns and the ducks, I should never have known what the marshes were
like in winter fog—what they were like under a winter sky with a wind
straight from the North Pole sweeping over their bare stretches.
It was early afternoon. Through the study window I looked out upon a
raw, foggy world, melting snow underfoot and overhead. It was the kind
of day about which even the most deliberately cheerful can find little
to say except that this sort of thing can't last forever, you know.
However, if I had had a true instinct for “nature,” I should, I
suppose, have seen at a glance that it was just the day to go and lie
in a marsh. But this did not occur to me. Instead, I thought of open
fires, and popcorn, and hot peanuts, and novels, and fudge, and other
such things, which are supposed to be valuable as palliatives on days
The telephone rang. “Oh, it's you, Jonathan!... What? No, not
really! You wouldn't!... Well, if the ducks like it, they may have it
all. I'm not a duck.... Why, of course, if you really want me to, I'll
go, only.... All right, I'll get out the things.... Three o'clock
train? You'll have to hurry!”
I hung up the receiver and sat a moment, dazed, looking out at the
reek of weather. Then I shook myself and darted upstairs to the
hunting-closet. In half an hour the bag was packed and Jonathan was at
the door. In an hour we were on the train, and at twilight we were
tramping out into a fog-swept marsh. Grayness was all around us;
underfoot was mud, glimmering patches of soft snow, and the bristly
stubble of the close-cut marsh grass.
“What fools we are!” I murmured.
“Why?” said Jonathan contentedly.
“Oh, if you can't see—” I said.
And then, suddenly, as we walked, my whole attitude changed. The
weather, as weather, seemed something that belonged in a city—very far
away, and no concern of mine. This wasn't weather, here where we
walked; it was a gray and boundless world of mystery. We raised our
heads high and breathed long, deep breaths as the fog drifted against
our faces. We were aware of dim masses of huddling bushes, blurred
outlines of sheds and fences. Then only the level marsh stretched out
before us and around us.
“Can we find our way out again?” I murmured, though without real
“Probably,” said Jonathan. “Isn't it great! You feel as if you had a
soul out here! By the way, what was it you said about fools?”
“I forget,” I said.
We went on and on, I don't know just where or how long, until we
came to the creek, where the tide sets in and out. I should have walked
into it if Jonathan hadn't held me back. As we followed it, there rose
a hoarse, raucous “Ngwak! ngwak! ngwak!” and a great rush of
wings. Jonathan dropped on one knee, gun up, but we saw nothing.
“We'll settle down here,” he said. “There'll be more coming in soon.
Wait a minute—hold my gun.” He disappeared in the fog, and came back
with an armful of hay, taken from the heart of a haystack of whose
existence he seemed, by some sixth or seventh sense, to be aware.
“There! That'll keep you off the real marsh. Now settle down, and don't
move, and listen with all your ears, and be ready. I'll go off a little
I sank down on the hay, and watched him melt into the grayness. I
was alone in the dim marsh. There was no wind, no sound but the far-off
whistle and rush of a train. I lay there and thought of nothing. I let
myself be absorbed into the twilight. I did not even feel that I had a
soul. I was nothing but a point of consciousness in the midst of a gray
Suddenly I was aware of a sound—a rapid pulsing of soft, high
tone—too soft for a whistle, too high for a song,—pervasive, elusive;
it was overhead, it was beside me, behind me, where? Ah—it was wings!
The winnowing of wings! I half rose, grasping my gun, with a sense of
responsibility to Jonathan. But my vision was caught in the grayness as
in a web. The sound grew clearer, then fainter, then it passed away.
The twilight gathered, and the fog partly dissolved. A fine rain began
to fall, and in the intense silence I could hear the faint pricking of
the drops on the stiff marsh stubble. I had thought the patter of rain
on a roof was the stillest sound I knew, but this was stiller. Again
came the winnowing of wings—again and again; and sometimes I was able
to see the dark shapes passing overhead and vanishing almost before
they appeared. Now and then I heard the muffled, flat sound of
Jonathan's gun—he was evidently living up to his opportunities better
than I was. Occasionally, in a spasm of activity, I shot too.
Until night closed in about us that sound of wings filled the air,
and I knelt, listening and watching. It is strange how one can be
physically alert while yet one's soul is withdrawn, quiet and
receptive. Out of this state, as out of a trance, I was roused by the
sense of Jonathan's dim bulk, seeming “larger than mortal,” as he
emerged from the night.
“Cold?” he said.
“I don't know—no, of course I'm not.” I found it hard to lay hold
on clear ideas again.
“I heard you shoot. Get any?”
“I think I hurried them a little.”
We started back. At least I suppose it was back, because after a
while we came to the road we had left. I was conscious only of
bewildering patches of snow that lay like half-veiled moonlight on the
dark stretches of the marsh. At last a clump of cedars made themselves
felt rather than seen. “There's the fence corner! We're all right,”
said Jonathan. A snow-filled horse rut gave faint guidance, the twigs
of the hedgerow lightly felt of our faces as we passed. We found the
main road, and it led us through the quiet, fog-bound village, whose
house lights made tiny blurs on the mist, to the hot, bright little
station. Then came the close, flaringly lighted car, and
people—commuters—getting on and off, talking about the “weather,” and
filling the car with the smell of wet newspapers and umbrellas. We had
returned to the land of “weather.” Yet it did not really touch us. It
seemed a dream. The reality was the marsh, with its fog and its
pricking raindrops and its sentinel cedars, its silence and its wings.
In the days that followed, the fog passed, and there were long, warm
rains. The marsh called us, but we could not go. Then the sky cleared,
the wind rose, the mercury began to drop. Jonathan looked across the
luncheon table and said, “What about ducks?”
“Can you get off?” I asked joyously.
“I can't, but I will,” he replied.
And this time—Did I think I knew the marsh? Did I suppose, having
seen it at dawn in the fall days when the sun still rises early, having
seen it in winter twilight, fog-beset, that I knew it? Do I suppose I
know it now? At least I know it better, having seen it under a clearing
sky, when the cold wind sweeps it clean, and the air, crystalline,
seems like a lens through which one looks and sees a revelation of new
As we struck into the marsh, just at sundown, my first thought was a
rushing prayer for words, for colors, for something to catch and hold
the beauty of it. But there are no words, no colors. No one who has not
seen it can know what a New England shore marsh can be in winter under
a golden sky.
Winter does some things for us that summer cannot do. Summer gives
us everything all at once—color, fragrance, line, sound—in an
overwhelming exuberance of riches. And it is good. But winter—Ah,
winter is an artist, winter has reserves; he selects, he emphasizes, he
interprets. Winter says, “I will give you nothing to-day but brown and
white, but I will glorify these until you shall wonder that there can
be any beauty except thus.” And again winter says: “Did you think the
world was brown and white? Lo, it is blue and rose and silver—nothing
else!” And we look, and it is so. On that other evening, in the fog,
the world had been all gray—black-gray and pale gray and silver gray.
On this evening winter said: “Gray? Not at all. You shall have brown
and gold. Behold and marvel!”
I marveled. There was a sweep of golden marsh, under a gold sky, and
at its borders low lines of trees etched in rich brown masses, and my
sentinel cedars standing singly or by twos and threes—cedars in their
winter tones of olive brown, dull almost to harshness, holding
themselves stiffly against the great wind, yielding only at their
delicate tips when the gusts came, recovering again in the lulls, to
point dauntlessly skyward. The narrow boundary ditches, already
glassing over in the sudden cold, stretched away in rigid lines,
flashing back the light of the sky in shivers of gold. The haystacks
reiterated the color notes—gold on their sunset side, deep brown on
their shadowed one.
There is a moment sometimes, just at sundown, when the quality of
light changes. It does not fall upon the world from without, it
radiates from within. Things seem self-luminous. Yet, for all their
brightness, we see them less clearly, one's vision is dazzled,
enmeshed. It is the time when that wondrous old word “faerie” finds its
meaning. It is a magic moment. It laid its spell upon us.
Jonathan emerged first, bracing himself. “It will shut down soon. We
haven't a minute to spare. We ought to be on the creek now.”
It was hard to believe that such brightness could ever shut down.
But it did. By the time we reached the creek the gold had vanished,
except for a narrow line in the western sky. The world lay in clear,
brown twilight, and the wind swept over it.
Jonathan got more hay, and this time I saw the haystack from which
he plucked it. I threw myself on it, collar up, cap down, lying as low
“Bad night for ducks, of course,” growled Jonathan. “If only the
thaw had held twelve hours more! However—”
He swung off to some chosen spot of his own.
I lay there and the wind surged over me. There was nothing to stop
it, nothing to make it noisy. It sang a little around the flap of my
coat, it swished a little in the short marsh grass, but chiefly it
rushed by above me, in invisible, soundless might. It seemed as if it
must come between me and the stars, but it did not, and I watched them
appear, at first one by one, then in companies and cohorts, until the
sky was powdered with them. Now and then a dark line of ducks streamed
over me, high up, in direct, steady flight, but the sound of their
wings was swallowed up by the wind. I did not even try to shoot; I was
trying to find myself in an elemental world that seemed bigger and more
powerful than I had ever conceived it.
Gradually I realized that I was cold. The wind seemed suddenly to
have become aware of me. It roared down upon me, it shook me, worried
me, let me go, and pounced upon me again in the sport of power. I said
to myself, “I cannot resist, I will give myself up to it absolutely,” I
stopped feeling cold. I was no more than a ship's timber lying on the
shore—with just a centre, a point of consciousness somewhere inside,
to be aware of the difference between the elements and the something I
knew was myself.
But at last I moved. It was fatal. A wave of cold started, pricking
somewhere in my head, and undulated sinuously through me, down to my
feet. More waves followed; they careered through me. I considered them
with interest. Then they settled into aches at all the extremities. All
at once it ceased to be interesting, and became a personal
grievance—against the wind? the ducks? No—Jonathan! Of course it was
Jonathan's fault. Why didn't he come? I gazed into the twilight where
he had disappeared. I couldn't go and hunt for him, because I should
certainly get lost or fall into a ditch. Ah! What was that? The long
red flash of a gun!—another!—then the double report! Well, of course,
if he were shooting, I would suspend judgment a reasonable time.
But it seemed quite an unreasonable time before I felt the impact of
his tread on the springy marsh floor. I rose stiffly, feeling cross.
“Did you think I was never coming?”
“I can't think. My brains are stiff.”
“I was delayed. I dropped one in the ditch. He was only wounded. I
couldn't leave him.”
“Then you got some?”
I felt his game pockets. “One, two—oh, three! I didn't hear you
shoot except twice. Well”—I was stamping and flinging my arms around
myself in the endeavor to thaw out—“I think they're very well off:
they're bound for a warm oven.”
“Cold? Thunder! I ought to have left you the bottle. Here!”
I took it and gulped, protesting: “Detestable stuff! Wait, I'll take
“This from you! You must be cold! Come on! Run! Look out for
the little ditches! Jump where I do.”
We started stiffly enough, in the teeth of the big, dark wind, till
the motion, and the bottle, began to take effect. A haymow loomed. We
flung ourselves, panting, against it, and, sinking back into its
yielding bulk, drew long breaths.
“Did we think it was cold?” I murmured; “or windy?”
We were on the leeward side of it, and it gave generous shelter. The
wind sighed gently over the top of the mow, breathed past its sides,
never touching us, and we gazed up at the stars.
“The sky is fairly gray with them,” I said.
“Perhaps,” said Jonathan lazily, “it's that bottle, making you see
ten stars grow where one grew before.”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, choosing to ignore this speech, “it's the
wind, blowing the stars around and raising star-dust.”
We lay in our protecting mow, and the warmth of our bodies drew out
of it faint odors of salt hay. We did not talk. There are times when
one seems to exist in poise, with eternity on all sides. One's thoughts
do not move, they float.
“Well?” said Jonathan at last.
I could hear the hay rustle as he straightened up.
“Don't interrupt,” I answered.
But my spirit had come down to earth, and after the first jolt I
realized that, as usual, Jonathan was right.
We plunged out again into the buffeting wind and the starlit
darkness, and I followed blindly as Jonathan led across the marshes,
around pools, over ditches, until we began to see the friendly twinkle
of house lights on the edge of the village. On through the lanes to the
highroad, stumbling now and then on its stiffened ruts and ridges. As
houses thickened the gale grew noisy, singing in telephone wires,
whistling around barn corners, slamming blinds and doors, and rushing
in the tree-tops.
“O for that haymow!” I gasped.
“The open fire will be better.” Jonathan flung back comfort across
Ten minutes later we had made harbor in the little house by the
shore. The candles were lighted, the fire set ablaze, and as we sat
before it cooking chops and toast I said, “No, Jonathan, the open fire
isn't any better than the haymow.”
“But different?” he suggested.
“Yes, quite different.”
“And good in its own poor way.”
He turned his chop. Chops and toast and a blazing fire give forth
odors of distracting pleasantness under such circumstances.
“I think,” I said, “that each gives point to the other.”
“Aren't you glad I took you for ducks?” he asked.
I mused, watching my toast. “I suppose,” I said, “no one in his
senses would leave a comfortable city house to go and lie out in a
marsh at night, in a forty-mile gale, with the mercury at ten, unless
he had some other motive than the thing itself—ducks, or conspiracy,
or something. And yet it is the thing itself that is the real reward.”
“Isn't that true of almost everything?” said Jonathan.
XVI. Comfortable Books
Jonathan methodically tucked his bookmark into “The Virginians,”
and, closing the fat green volume, began to knock the ashes out of his
pipe against the bricked sides of the fireplace.
“'The Virginians' is a very comfortable sort of book,” he remarked.
“Is it?” I said. “I wonder why.”
He ruminated. “Well, chiefly, I suppose, because it's so good and
long. You get to know all the people, you get used to their ways, and
when they turn up again, after a lot of chapters, you don't have to
find out who they are—you just feel comfortably acquainted.”
I sighed. I had just finished a magazine story—condensed, vivid,
crushing a whole life-tragedy into seven pages and a half. In that
space I had been made acquainted with sixteen different characters,
seven principal ones and the rest subordinate, but all clearly drawn. I
had found it interesting, stimulating; as a tour de force it was
noteworthy even among the crowd of short-stories—all condensed, all
vivid, all interesting—that had appeared that month. But—comfortable?
No. And I felt envious of Jonathan. He had been reading “The
Virginians” all winter. His bookmark was at page 597, and there were
803 pages in all, so he had a great deal of comfort left.
Perhaps comfort is not quite all that one should expect from one's
reading. Certainly it is the last thing one gets from the perusal of
our current literature, and any one who reads nothing else is missing
something which, whether he realizes it or not, he ought for his soul's
sake to have—something which Jonathan roughly indicated when he called
it “comfort.” The ordinary reader devours short-stories by the dozen,
by the score—short short-stories, long short-stories, even
short-stories laboriously expanded to a volume, but still
short-stories. He glances, less frequently, at verses, chiefly
quatrains, at columns of jokes, at popularized bits of history and
science, at bits of anecdotal biography, and nowhere in all this medley
does he come in contact with what is large and leisurely. Current
literature is like a garden I once saw. Its proud owner led me through
a maze of smooth-trodden paths, and pointed out a vast number of
horticultural achievements. There were sixty-seven varieties of
dahlias, there were more than a hundred kinds of roses, there were
untold wonders which at last my weary brain refused to record. Finally
I escaped, exhausted, and sought refuge on a hillside I knew, from
which I could look across the billowing green of a great rye-field, and
there, given up to the beauty of its manifold simplicity, I invited my
It is even so with our reading. When I go into one of our public
reading-rooms, and survey the serried ranks of magazines and the long
shelves full of “Recent fiction, not to be taken out for more than five
days,”—nay, even when I look at the library tables of some of my
friends,—my brain grows sick and I long for my rye-field.
Happily, there always is a rye-field at hand to be had for the
seeking. Jonathan finds refuge from business and the newspapers in his
pipe and “The Virginians.” I have no pipe, but I sit under the curling
rings of Jonathan's, and I, too, have my comfortable books, my literary
rye-fields. Last summer it was Malory's “Morte d'Arthur,” whose book I
found indeed a comfortable one—most comfortable. I read much besides,
many short stories of surpassing cleverness and some of real
excellence, but as I look back upon my summer's literary experience,
all else gives place to the long pageant of Malory's story, gorgeous or
tender or gay, seen like a fair vision against the dim background of an
old New England apple orchard. Surely, though the literature of our
library tables may sometimes weary me, it shall never enslave me.
But they must be read, these “comfortable” books, in the proper
fashion, not hastily, nor cursorily, nor with any desire to “get on” in
them. They must lie at our hand to be taken up in moments of leisure,
the slowly shifting bookmark—there should always be a
bookmark—recording our half-reluctant progress. (I remember with what
dismay I found myself arrived at the fourth and last volume of Malory,)
Thus read, thus slowly woven among the intricacies and distractions of
our life, these precious books will link its quiet moments together and
lend to it a certain quality of largeness, of deliberation, of
For it is surely a mistake to assume, as people so often do, that in
a life full of distractions one should read only such things as can be
finished at a single sitting and that a short one. It is a great
misfortune to read only books that “must be returned within five days.”
For my part, I should like to see in our public libraries, to offset
the shelves of such books, other shelves, labeled “Books that may and
should be kept out six months.” I would have there Thackeray and George
Eliot and Wordsworth and Spenser, Malory and Homer and Cervantes and
Shakespeare and Montaigne—oh, they should be shelves to rejoice the
soul of the harassed reader!
No, if one can read but little, let him by all means read something
big. I know a woman occupied with the demands of a peculiarly exigent
social position. Finding her one day reading “The Tempest,” I remarked
on her enterprise. “Not a bit!” she protested, “I am not reading it to
be enterprising, I am reading it to get rested. I find Shakespeare so
peaceful, compared with the magazines.” I have another friend who is
taking entire charge of her children, besides doing a good deal of her
own housework and gardening. I discovered her one day sitting under a
tree, reading Matthew Arnold's poems, while the children played near
by, I ventured to comment on what seemed to me the incongruity of her
choice of a book. “But don't you see,” she replied, quickly. “That is
just why! I am so busy from minute to minute doing lots of little
practical, temporary things, that I simply have to keep in touch with
something different—something large and quiet. If I didn't, I should
I suppose in the old days, in a less “literary” age, all such busy
folk found this necessary rest and refreshment in a single book—the
Bible. Doubtless many still do so, but not so many; and this, quite
irrespective of religious considerations, seems to me a great pity. The
literary quality of the Scriptures has, to be sure, been partly
vitiated by the lamentable habit of reading them in isolated “texts,”
instead of as magnificent wholes; yet, even so, I feel sure that this
constant intercourse with the Book did for our predecessors in far
larger measure what some of these other books of which I have been
speaking do for us—it furnished that contact with greatness which we
It may be accident, though I hardly think so, that to find such
books we must turn to the past. Doubtless others will arise in the
future—possibly some are even now being brought to birth, though this
I find hard to believe. For ours is the age of the short-story—a
wonderful product, perhaps the finest flower of fiction, and one which
has not yet achieved all its victories or realized all its
possibilities. All the fiction of the future will show the influence of
this highly specialized form. In sheer craftsmanship, novel-writing has
progressed far; in technique, in dexterous manipulation of their
material, the novices of to-day are ahead of the masters of yesterday.
This often happens in an art, and it is especially true just now in the
art of fiction. Yes, there are great things preparing for us in the
future, there are excellent things being done momently about us. But
while we wait for the great ones, the excellent ones sometimes create
in us a sense of surfeit. We cannot hurry the future, and if meanwhile
we crave repose, leisure, quiet, steadiness, the sense of magnitude, we
must go to the past. There, and not in the yearly output of our own
publishers, we shall find our “comfortable” books.
XVII. In the Firelight
Jonathan had improvidently lighted his pipe before he noticed that
the fire needed his attention. This was a mistake, because, at least in
Jonathan's case, neither a fire nor a pipe responds heartily to a
divided mind. As I watched him absently knocking the charred logs
together, I longed to snatch the tongs from his indifferent hands and
“change the sorry scheme of things entire.” Big wads of smoke rolled
nonchalantly out of the corners of the fireplace and filled the low
ceiling with bluish mist, yet I held my peace, and I did not snatch the
tongs. I know of no circumstances wherein advice is less welcome than
when offered by a woman to a man on his knees before the fire. When my
friends make fudge or rare-bits, they invite criticism, they court
suggestion, but when one of them takes the tongs in his hand, have a
care what you say to him! In our household a certain convention of
courtesy—fireplace etiquette—has tacitly established itself, in
accordance with which the person who wields the tongs, assuming full
responsibility for results, is free from criticism or suggestion.
Disregard of such etiquette may not have precipitated divorce, but I
have known it to produce distinctly strained relations. And so, while
Jonathan tinkered in a half-hearted way at the fire, I ruled my tongue.
At last, little vanishing blue flickers began to run along the log
edges, growing steadier and yellower until they settled into something
like a blaze.
Jonathan straightened up, but there was a trace of the apologetic in
his tone as he said, “That'll do, won't it?”
“Why, yes,” I replied cautiously, “it's a fire.”
“Well, what's the matter with it?” he asked tolerantly.
“Since you press me, I should say that it lacks—style.”
Jonathan leaned back, puffing comfortably—“Now, what in thunder do
you mean by style?”
But I was not to be enticed into an empty discussion of terms.
“Well, then, say frowsy. Call it a frowsy fire. You know what frowsy
means, I suppose. Of course, though, I don't mean to criticize, only
you asked me.” And I added, with perhaps unnecessary blandness, “I'm
Jonathan smoked a few moments more, possibly by way of establishing
his independence, then slowly rose, remarking, “Oh, well, if you
want a stylish fire—”
“I didn't say stylish, I said style—”
But he was gone. He must have journeyed out to the
woodshed,—however, there was a moon,—for he returned bearing a huge
backlog. He had been magnanimous, indeed, for it was the sort that
above all others delights my heart—a forked apple log with a big
hollow heart. In a moment, I was on my knees clearing a place for it,
and he swung it into position on the bed of embers, tucked in some
white birch in front, and soon the flames were licking about the
flaking gray apple bark and shooting up through the hollow fork in a
fashion to charm the most fastidious.
People whose open fires are machine-fed—who arrange for their wood
as they do for their groceries, by telephone—know little of the real
joys of a fire. It is laid by a servant,—unintelligently laid,—and
upon such masses of newspaper and split kindling that it has no choice
but to burn. The match is struck, the newspapers flare up, and soon
there is a big, meaningless blaze. Handfuls of wood—just wood, any
kind of wood—are thrown on from time to time, and perhaps a log or
two—any log, taken at random from the wood-box. Truly, this is merest
savagery, untrained, undiscriminating; it is the Bushman's meal
compared to the Frenchman's dinner. Not thus are real hearth fires
laid. Not thus are they enjoyed. You should plan a fire as you do a
dinner party, and your wood, like your people, should be selected and
arranged with due regard to age, temperament, and individual
eccentricity. A fire thus skillfully planned, with some good talkers
among the logs, may be as well worth listening to as the conversation
about your table—perhaps better.
To get the full flavor of a fire you must know your wood—I had
almost said, you must remember where the tree stood before it was
cut—white birch in the dry, worn-out slopes, black birches from the
edges of the pasture lots, chestnut from the ledges, maple from the
swamps, apple from the old orchard, oak cut in sorrow when the fullness
of time has come, and burned with the honor due to royalty.
But though this may be a refinement of fancy, it is no fancy that
one kind of wood differs from another in glory. There is the white
birch, gay, light-hearted, volatile, putting all its pretty self into a
few flaring moments—a butterfly existence. There is black birch,
reluctant but steady; there is chestnut, vivacious, full of sudden
enthusiasms; the apple, cheerful and willing; the maple and oak, sober
and stanch, good for the long pull. Every locality has its own sorts of
wood, as its own sorts of people. Mine is a New England wood basket,
and as I look at it I recognize all my old friends. Of them all I love
the apple best, yet each is in its own way good. For a quick blaze,
throw on the white birch; for a long evening of reading, when one does
not want distraction, pile on the oak and maple. They will burn
quietly, unobtrusively, importuning you neither for care nor
appreciation. But for a fire to sit before with friends, bring in the
apple wood. Lay the great backlog, the more gnarled the better, and if
there is a hole through which the flames may shoot up, that is best of
all—such logs we hoard for special occasions. Then with careful touch
arrange the wood in front, your bundles of twigs, your pretty white
birch sticks and your dry chestnut to start the fun, then the big apple
forelog, the forestick and the backstick, not too much crowding or too
much space. Ah, there is a seemly fire! There is a fire for friends!
For the renewal of old friendships, as for the perfecting of new
ones, there is nothing like a fire. I met a friend after years of
separation. We came together in a modern house, just modern enough to
be full of steam pipes and registers and gas-logs, but not so modern as
to have readopted open fireplaces. The room had no centre—there was no
hearth to draw around, there was no reason for sitting in one place
rather than another. We could not draw around the steam pipes or the
register. The gas-log was not turned on, it would have been too hot,
and anyhow—a gas-log! We sat and talked for hours in an aimless,
unsatisfactory sort of way. I felt as if we were, figuratively
speaking, sitting on the edges of our chairs. It was better than
nothing, but it was not a real meeting. The next year we were together
again, but this time it was before our own blazing apple log. We did
not talk so much as we had done before, but we were silent a great deal
more, which was better. For in really intimate communion, silence is
the last, best gift, but it cannot be forced, it cannot be snatched at.
You may try it, but you grow restless, you begin to consider your
expression, you wonder how long it will last, you fancy it may seem to
mean too much, and at last you are hurried over into talk again. But
before a fire all things are possible, even silence. Chance
acquaintances and intimate friends fall alike under its spell, talk is
absolutely spontaneous, it flows rapidly or slowly, or dies away
altogether. What need for talk when the fire is saying it all—now
flaring up in a blaze to interpret our rarest enthusiasms, now popping
and snapping with wit or fury, now burning with the even heat of
steady, rational life, now settling into a contemplative glow of
In the circle of the hearth everything is good, but reminiscences
are best of all. I sometimes think all life is valuable merely as an
opportunity to accumulate reminiscences, and I am sure that the
precious horde can be seen to best advantage by firelight. Then is the
time for the miser to spread out his treasure and admire it. I remember
once Jonathan and I were on a bicycle trip. My chain had broken and we
had trudged eight long, hot, dusty miles to the river that had to be
crossed that night. It was dark when we reached it, and it had begun to
rain, a warm, dreary drizzle. As we stumbled over the railway track and
felt our way past the little station toward the still smaller
ferry-house, a voice from the darkness drawled, “Guess ye won't git the
ferry to-night—last boat went half an hour ago.”
It was the final blow. We leaned forlornly on our wheels and looked
out upon the dark water, whose rain-quenched mirror dully reflected the
lights of the opposite town. Finally I said, “Well, Jonathan, anyhow,
we're making reminiscences.”
This remark was, I own, not highly practical, but I intended it to
be comforting, and if it failed—as it clearly did—to cheer Jonathan,
that was not because it lacked wisdom, but because men are so often
devoid of imagination save as an adornment of their easy moments.
Finally the same impersonal voice out of the dark uttered another
sentence: “Might row ye 'cross if ye've got to go to-night.”
“How much?” said Jonathan.
“Guess it's wuth a dollar. Mean night to be out there.”
We had, between us, forty-seven cents and three street-car tickets,
good in the opposite town. All this we meekly offered him, and in the
pause that followed I added desperately, “And we can each take an oar
“Wall—I'll take ye.”
It seemed to me that the voice suggested an accompanying grin, but I
had no proof.
And so we got across. We never saw the face of our boatman, but on
the other side we felt for his hand and emptied our pockets into
it—nickels and dimes and pennies, and the three car tickets; but as we
were turning to grope our way up the dock the voice said, “Here—ye'll
need two of them tickets to git home with. I do' want 'um.”
Now already it must be evident to any one that my remark to
Jonathan, though perhaps ill-timed, embodied a profound and cheering
truth. The more uncomfortable you are, the more desperate your
situation, the better the reminiscences you are storing up to be
enjoyed before the fire.
Yes, there is nothing like firelight for reminiscences. By the clear
light of morning—say ten o'clock—I might be forced to admit that life
has had its humdrum and unpleasant aspects, but in the evening, with
the candles lighted and the fire glowing and flickering, I will allow
no such thing. The firelight somehow lights up all the lovely bits, and
about the unlovely ones it throws a thick mantle of shadow, like the
shadows in the corners of the room behind us. Nor does the firelight
magic end here. Not only does it play about the fair hours of our past,
making them fairer, it also vaguely multiplies them, so that for one
real occurrence we see many. It is like standing between opposing
mirrors: looking into either, one sees a receding series of
reflections, unending as Banquo's royal line.
Thus, once last winter Jonathan and I spent a long evening reading
aloud a tale of the “Earthly Paradise.” Once last summer we sat alone
before the embers and quietly talked. Once and only once. Yet firelit
memory is already laying her touch upon those hours. Already, though my
diary tells me they stood alone, I am persuaded that they were many. I
look back over a retrospect of many long winter evenings, in whose cozy
light I see again the ringed smoke of Jonathan's pipe and hear again
the lingering verse of the idle singer's tales; a retrospect of many
long summer twilights, wherein the warmth of the settling embers
mingles with the sharp coolness of a summer night, and pleasant talk
gives place to pleasant silence.
The apple logs have burned through and rolled apart, the great
backlog has settled deeper and deeper into the ashes. The fire whispers
and murmurs, it whistles soft, low notes, it chuckles and sighs,
finally it sinks into reverie, stirring now and then to whisper
“sh-h-h-h” lest we break the spell. Only the old clock in the hall
refuses to yield, and soberly persists in its “tick-tock,” “tick-tock.”
Jonathan's pipe is smoked out, but he does not fill it, and we sit
there, looking deep into the rosy glow, and dreaming, dreaming—