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Title: Nature Near London
Author: Jefferies, Richard, 1848-1887
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Nature Near London" ***

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                         NATURE NEAR LONDON

                                BY

                         RICHARD JEFFERIES


                             AUTHOR OF
            "THE LIFE OF THE FIELDS," "THE OPEN AIR," ETC.


                         [Illustration]


                        FINE-PAPER EDITION



                             LONDON

                         CHATTO & WINDUS
                              1905



                Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO.
                    At the Ballantyne Press



PREFACE


It is usually supposed to be necessary to go far into the country to
find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly
studied. Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me,
for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about
twelve miles from town. There my preconceived views on the subject were
quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been
accustomed to in distant fields and woods.

First, as the spring began, came crowds of chiffchaffs and willow-wrens,
filling the furze with ceaseless flutterings. Presently a nightingale
sang in a hawthorn bush only just on the other side of the road. One
morning, on looking out of window, there was a hen pheasant in the furze
almost underneath. Rabbits often came out into the spaces of sward
between the bushes.

The furze itself became a broad surface of gold, beautiful to look down
upon, with islands of tenderest birch green interspersed, and willows in
which the sedge-reedling chattered. They used to say in the country that
cuckoos were getting scarce, but here the notes of the cuckoo echoed all
day long, and the birds often flew over the house. Doves cooed,
blackbirds whistled, thrushes sang, jays called, wood-pigeons uttered
the old familiar notes in the little copse hard by. Even a heron went
over now and then, and in the evening from the window I could hear
partridges calling each other to roost.

Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges
was really astonishing. Magpies, jays, woodpeckers--both green and
pied--kestrels hovering overhead, sparrow-hawks darting over gateways,
hares by the clover, weasels on the mounds, stoats at the edge of the
corn. I missed but two birds, the corncrake and the grasshopper lark,
and found these another season. Two squirrels one day ran along the
palings and up into a guelder-rose tree in the garden. As for the
finches and sparrows their number was past calculation. There was
material for many years' observation, and finding myself so unexpectedly
in the midst of these things, I was led to make the following sketches,
which were published in _The Standard_, and are now reprinted by
permission.

The question may be asked: Why have you not indicated in every case the
precise locality where you were so pleased? Why not mention the exact
hedge, the particular meadow? Because no two persons look at the same
thing with the same eyes. To me this spot may be attractive, to you
another; a third thinks yonder gnarled oak the most artistic. Nor could
I guarantee that every one should see the same things under the same
conditions of season, time, or weather. How could I arrange for you next
autumn to see the sprays of the horse-chestnut, scarlet from frost,
reflected in the dark water of the brook? There might not be any frost
till all the leaves had dropped. How could I contrive that the cuckoos
should circle round the copse, the sunlight glint upon the stream, the
warm sweet wind come breathing over the young corn just when I should
wish you to feel it? Every one must find their own locality. I find a
favourite wild-flower here, and the spot is dear to me; you find yours
yonder. Neither painter nor writer can show the spectator their
originals. It would be very easy, too, to pass any of these places and
see nothing, or but little. Birds are wayward, wild creatures uncertain.
The tree crowded with wood-pigeons one minute is empty the next. To
traverse the paths day by day, and week by week; to keep an eye ever on
the fields from year's end to year's end, is the one only method of
knowing what really is in or comes to them. That the sitting gambler
sweeps the board is true of these matters. The richest locality may be
apparently devoid of interest just at the juncture of a chance visit.

Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much
that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of
time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something
wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of
purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a
feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there
a nook where I could stretch myself in slumberous ease and watch the
swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen
influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised
me, and I felt it under the calm oaks. The something wanting in the
fields was the absolute quiet, peace, and rest which dwells in the
meadows and under the trees and on the hilltops in the country. Under
its power the mind gradually yields itself to the green earth, the wind
among the trees, the song of birds, and comes to have an understanding
with them all. For this it is still necessary to seek the far-away
glades and hollow coombes, or to sit alone beside the sea. That such a
sense of quiet might not be lacking, I have added a chapter or so on
those lovely downs that overlook the south coast.
                                                     R. J.



CONTENTS


                                       PAGE

Woodlands                                1

Footpaths                               12

Flocks of Birds                         24

Nightingale Road                        35

A Brook                                 48

A London Trout                          59

A Barn                                  70

Wheatfields                             80

The Crows                               90

Heathlands                             101

The River                              111

Nutty Autumn                           124

Round a London Copse                   133

Magpie Fields                          147

Herbs                                  162

Trees About Town                       172

To Brighton                            181

The Southdown Shepherd                 193

The Breeze on Beachy Head              204



NATURE NEAR LONDON

WOODLANDS


The tiny white petals of the barren strawberry open under the April
sunshine which, as yet unchecked by crowded foliage above, can reach the
moist banks under the trees. It is then that the first stroll of the
year should be taken in Claygate Lane. The slender runners of the
strawberries trail over the mounds among the moss, some of the flowers
but just above the black and brown leaves of last year which fill the
shallow ditch. These will presently be hidden under the grass which is
pushing up long blades, and bending over like a plume.

Crimson stalks and leaves of herb Robert stretch across the little
cavities of the mound; lower, and rising almost from the water of the
ditch, the wild parsnip spreads its broad fan. Slanting among the
underwood, against which it leans, the dry white "gix" (cow-parsnip) of
last year has rotted from its root, and is only upheld by branches.

Yellowish green cup-like leaves are forming upon the brown and drooping
heads of the spurge, which, sheltered by the bushes, has endured the
winter's frosts. The lads pull them off, and break the stems, to watch
the white "milk" well up, the whole plant being full of acrid juice.
Whorls of woodruff and grass-like leaves of stitchwort are rising; the
latter holds but feebly to the earth, and even in snatching the flower
the roots sometimes give way and the plant is lifted with it.

Upon either hand the mounds are so broad that they in places resemble
covers rather than hedges, thickly grown with bramble and briar, hazel
and hawthorn, above which the straight trunks of young oaks and Spanish
chestnuts stand in crowded but careless ranks. The leaves which dropped
in the preceding autumn from these trees still lie on the ground under
the bushes, dry and brittle, and the blackbirds searching about among
them cause as much rustling as if some animal were routing about.

As the month progresses these wide mounds become completely green,
hawthorn and bramble, briar and hazel put forth their leaves, and the
eye can no longer see into the recesses. But above, the oaks and edible
chestnuts are still dark and leafless, almost black by contrast with the
vivid green beneath them. Upon their bare boughs the birds are easily
seen, but the moment they descend among the bushes are difficult to
find. Chaffinches call and challenge continually--these trees are their
favourite resort--and yellowhammers flit along the underwood.

Behind the broad hedge are the ploughed fields they love, alternating
with meadows down whose hedges again a stream of birds is always flowing
to the lane. Bright as are the colours of the yellowhammer, when he
alights among the brown clods of the ploughed field he is barely
visible, for brown conceals like vapour. A white butterfly comes
fluttering along the lane, and as it passes under a tree a chaffinch
swoops down and snaps at it, but rises again without doing apparent
injury, for the butterfly continues its flight.

From an oak overhead comes the sweet slender voice of a linnet, the
sunshine falling on his rosy breast. The gateways show the thickness of
the hedge, as an embrasure shows the thickness of a wall. One gives
entrance to an arable field which has been recently rolled, and along
the gentle rise of a "land" a cock-pheasant walks, so near that the ring
about his neck is visible. Presently, becoming conscious that he is
observed, he goes down into a furrow, and is then hidden.

The next gateway, equally deep-set between the bushes, opens on a
pasture, where the docks of last year still cumber the ground, and
bunches of rough grass and rushes are scattered here and there. A
partridge separated from his mate is calling across the field, and comes
running over the short sward as his companion answers. With his neck
held high and upright, stretched to see around, he looks larger than
would be supposed, as he runs swiftly, threading his way through the
tufts, the docks, and the rushes. But suddenly noticing that the gateway
is not clear, he crouches, and is concealed by the grass.

Some distance farther there is a stile, sitting upon which the view
ranges over two adjacent meadows. They are bounded by a copse of ash
stoles and young oak trees, and the lesser of the meads is full of rush
bunches and dotted with green ant-hills. Among these, just beyond
gunshot, two rabbits are feeding; pausing and nibbling till they have
eaten the tenderest blades, and then leisurely hopping a yard or so to
another spot. Later on in the summer this little meadow which divides
the lane from the copse is alive with rabbits.

Along the hedge the brake fern has then grown, in the corner by the
copse there is a beautiful mass of it, and several detached bunches away
from the hedge among the ant-hills. From out of the fern, which is a
favourite retreat with them, rabbits are continually coming, feeding
awhile, darting after each other, and back again to cover. To-day there
are but three, and they do not venture far from their buries.

Watching these, a green woodpecker cries in the copse, and immediately
afterwards flies across the mead, and away to another plantation.
Occasionally the spotted woodpecker may be seen here, a little bird
which, in the height of summer, is lost among the foliage, but in spring
and winter can be observed tapping at the branches of the trees.

I think I have seen more spotted woodpeckers near London than in far
distant and nominally wilder districts. This lane, for some two miles,
is lined on each side with trees, and, besides this particular copse,
there are several others close by; indeed, stretching across the country
to another road, there is a succession of copses, with meadows between.
Birds which love trees are naturally seen flitting to and fro in the
lane; the trees are at present young, but as they grow older and decay
they will be still more resorted to.

Jays screech in the trees of the lane almost all the year round, though
more frequently in spring and autumn, but I rarely walked here without
seeing or hearing one. Beyond the stile, the lane descends into a
hollow, and is bordered by a small furze common, where, under shelter of
the hollow brambles and beneath the golden bloom of the furze, the pale
anemones flower.

When the June roses open their petals on the briars, and the scent of
new-mown hay is wafted over the hedge from the meadows, the lane seems
to wind through a continuous wood. The oaks and chestnuts, though too
young to form a complete arch, cross their green branches, and cast a
delicious shadow. For it is in the shadow that we enjoy the summer,
looking forth from the gateway upon the mowing grass where the glowing
sun pours down his fiercest beams.

Tall bennets and red sorrel rise above the grass, white ox-eye daisies
chequer it below; the distant hedge quivers as the air, set in motion by
the intense heat, runs along. The sweet murmuring coo of the turtle dove
comes from the copse, and the rich notes of the blackbird from the oak
into which he has mounted to deliver them.

Slight movements in the hawthorn, or in the depths of the tall hedge
grasses, movements too quick for the glance to catch their cause, are
where some tiny bird is passing from spray to spray. It may be a
white-throat creeping among the nettles after his wont, or a wren. The
spot where he was but a second since may be traced by the trembling of
the leaves, but the keenest attention may fail to detect where he is
now. That slight motion in the hedge, however, conveys an impression of
something living everywhere within.

There are birds in the oaks overhead whose voice is audible though they
are themselves unseen. From out of the mowing grass, finches rise and
fly to the hedge; from the hedge again others fly out, and, descending
into the grass, are concealed as in a forest. A thrush travelling along
the hedgerow just outside goes by the gateway within a yard. Bees come
upon the light wind, gliding with it, but with their bodies aslant
across the line of current. Butterflies flutter over the mowing grass,
hardly clearing the bennets. Many-coloured insects creep up the sorrel
stems and take wing from the summit.

Everything gives forth a sound of life. The twittering of swallows from
above, the song of greenfinches in the trees, the rustle of hawthorn
sprays moving under the weight of tiny creatures, the buzz upon the
breeze; the very flutter of the butterflies' wings, noiseless as it is,
and the wavy movement of the heated air across the field cause a sense
of motion and of music.

The leaves are enlarging, and the sap rising, and the hard trunks of the
trees swelling with its flow; the grass blades pushing upwards; the
seeds completing their shape; the tinted petals uncurling. Dreamily
listening, leaning on the gate, all these are audible to the inner
senses, while the ear follows the midsummer hum, now sinking, now
sonorously increasing over the oaks. An effulgence fills the southern
boughs, which the eye cannot sustain, but which it knows is there.

The sun at its meridian pours forth his light, forgetting, in all the
inspiration of his strength and glory, that without an altar-screen of
green his love must scorch. Joy in life; joy in life. The ears listen,
and want more: the eyes are gratified with gazing, and desire yet
further; the nostrils are filled with the sweet odours of flower and
sap. The touch, too, has its pleasures, dallying with leaf and flower.
Can you not almost grasp the odour-laden air and hold it in the hollow
of the hand?

Leaving the spot at last, and turning again into the lane, the shadows
dance upon the white dust under the feet, irregularly circular spots of
light surrounded with umbra shift with the shifting branches. By the
wayside lie rings of dandelion stalks carelessly cast down by the child
who made them, and tufts of delicate grasses gathered for their beauty
but now sprinkled with dust. Wisps of hay hang from the lower boughs of
the oaks where they brushed against the passing load.

After a time, when the corn is ripening, the herb betony flowers on the
mounds under the oaks. Following the lane down the hill and across the
small furze common at the bottom, the marks of traffic fade away, the
dust ceases, and is succeeded by sward. The hedgerows on either side are
here higher than ever, and are thickly fringed with bramble bushes,
which sometimes encroach on the waggon ruts in the middle, and are
covered with flowers, and red, and green, and ripe blackberries
together.

Green rushes line the way, and green dragon flies dart above them.
Thistledown is pouting forth from the swollen tops of thistles crowded
with seed. In a gateway the turf has been worn away by waggon wheels and
the hoofs of cart horses, and the dry heat has pulverised the crumbling
ruts. Three hen pheasants and a covey of partridges that have been
dusting themselves here move away without much haste at the approach of
footsteps--the pheasants into the thickets, and the partridges through
the gateway. The shallow holes in which they were sitting can be traced
on the dust, and there are a few small feathers lying about.

A barley field is within the gate; the mowers have just begun to cut it
on the opposite side. Next to it is a wheat field; the wheat has been
cut and stands in shocks. From the stubble by the nearest shock two
turtle doves rise, alarmed, and swiftly fly towards a wood which bounds
the field. This wood, indeed, upon looking again, clearly bounds not
this field only, but the second and the third, and so far as the eye can
see over the low hedges of the corn, the trees continue. The green lane
as it enters the wood, becomes wilder and rougher at every step,
widening, too, considerably.

In the centre the wheels of timber carriages, heavily laden with trunks
of trees which were dragged through by straining teams in the rainy days
of spring, have left vast ruts, showing that they must have sunk to the
axle in the soft clay. These then filled with water, and on the water
duck-weed grew, and aquatic grasses at the sides. Summer heats have
evaporated the water, leaving the weeds and grasses prone upon the still
moist earth.

Rushes have sprung up and mark the line of the ruts, and willow stoles,
bramble bushes, and thorns growing at the side, make, as it were, a
third hedge in the middle of the lane. The best path is by the wood
itself, but even there occasional leaps are necessary over pools of dark
water full of vegetation. These alternate with places where the ground,
being higher, yawns with wide cracks crumbling at the edge, the heat
causing the clay to split and open. In winter it must be an impassable
quagmire; now it is dry and arid.

Rising out of this low-lying spot the lane again becomes green and
pleasant, and is crossed by another. At the meeting of these four ways
some boughs hang over a green bank where I have often rested. In front
the lane is barred by a gate, but beyond the gate it still continues its
straight course into the wood. To the left the track, crossing at right
angles, also proceeds into the wood, but it is so overhung with trees
and blocked by bushes that its course after the first hundred yards or
so cannot be traced.

To the right the track--a little wider and clearer of bushes--extends
through wood, and as it is straight and rises up a gentle slope, the eye
can travel along it half a mile. There is nothing but wood around. This
track to the right appears the most used, and has some ruts in the
centre. The sward each side is concealed by endless thistles, on the
point of sending forth clouds of thistledown, and to which presently the
goldfinches will be attracted.

Occasionally a movement among the thistles betrays the presence of a
rabbit; only occasionally, for though the banks are drilled with buries,
the lane is too hot for them at midday. Particles of rabbits' fur lie on
the ground, and their runs are visible in every direction. But there are
no birds. A solitary robin, indeed, perches on an ash branch opposite,
and regards me thoughtfully. It is impossible to go anywhere in the open
air without a robin; they are the very spies of the wood. But there are
no thrushes, no blackbirds, finches, nor even sparrows.

In August it is true most birds cease to sing, but sitting thus
partially hidden and quiet, if there were any about something would be
heard of them. There would be a rustling, a thrush would fly across the
lane, a blackbird would appear by the gateway yonder in the shadow which
he loves, a finch would settle in the oaks. None of these incidents
occur; none of the lesser signs of life in the foliage, the tremulous
spray, the tap of a bill cleaned by striking first one side and then the
other against a bough, the rustle of a wing--nothing.

There are woods, woods, woods; but no birds. Yonder a drive goes
straight into the ashpoles, it is green above and green below, but a
long watch will reveal nothing living. The dry mounds must be full of
rabbits, there must be pheasants somewhere; but nothing visible. Once
only a whistling sound in the air directs the glance upwards, it is a
wood-pigeon flying at full speed. There are no bees, for there are no
flowers. There are no butterflies. The black flies are not numerous, and
rarely require a fanning from the ash spray carried to drive them off.

Two large dragon-flies rush up and down, and cross the lane, and rising
suddenly almost to the tops of the oaks swoop down again in bold
sweeping curves. The broad, deep ditch between the lane and the mound of
the wood is dry, but there are no short rustling sounds of mice.

The only sound is the continuous singing of the grasshoppers, and the
peculiar snapping noise they make as they spring, leaping along the
sward. The fierce sun of the ripe wheat pours down a fiery glow scarcely
to be borne except under the boughs; the hazel leaves already have lost
their green, the tips of the rushes are shrivelling, the grass becoming
brown; it is a scorched and parched desert of wood.

The finches have gone forth in troops to the stubble where the wheat has
been cut, and where they can revel on the seeds of the weeds now ripe.
Thrushes and blackbirds have gone to the streams, to splash and bathe,
and to the mown meadows, where in the short aftermath they can find
their food. There they will look out on the shady side of the hedge as
the sun declines, six or eight perhaps of them along the same hedge, but
all in the shadow, where the dew forms first as the evening falls, where
the grass feels cool and moist, while still on the sunny side it is warm
and dry.

The bees are busy on the heaths and along the hilltops, where there are
still flowers and honey, and the butterflies are with them. So the woods
are silent, still, and deserted, save by a stray rabbit among the
thistles, and the grasshoppers ceaselessly leaping in the grass.

Returning presently to the gateway just outside the wood, where upon
first coming the pheasants and partridges were dusting themselves, a
waggon is now passing among the corn and is being laden with the
sheaves. But afar off, across the broad field and under the wood, it
seems somehow only a part of the silence and the solitude. The men with
it move about the stubble, calmly toiling; the horses, having drawn it a
little way, become motionless, reposing as they stand, every line of
their large limbs expressing delight in physical ease and idleness.

Perhaps the heat has made the men silent, for scarcely a word is spoken;
if it were, in the stillness it must be heard, though they are at some
distance. The wheels, well greased for the heavy harvest work, do not
creak. Save an occasional monosyllable, as the horses are ordered on, or
to stop, and a faint rustling of straw, there is no sound. It may be the
flood of brilliant light, or the mirage of the heat, but in some way the
waggon and its rising load, the men and the horses, have an unreality of
appearance.

The yellow wheat and stubble, the dull yellow of the waggon, toned down
by years of weather, the green woods near at hand, darkening in the
distance and slowly changing to blue, the cloudless sky, the
heat-suffused atmosphere, in which things seem to float rather than to
grow or stand, the shadowless field, all are there, and yet are not
there, but far away and vision-like. The waggon, at last laden, travels
away, and seems rather to disappear of itself than to be hidden by the
trees. It is an effort to awake and move from the spot.



FOOTPATHS


"Always get over a stile," is the one rule that should ever be borne in
mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is--that is to say,
never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet
which did not pass something of interest.

In the meadows, everything comes pressing lovingly up to the path. The
small-leaved clover can scarce be driven back by frequent footsteps from
endeavouring to cover the bare earth of the centre. Tall buttercups,
round whose stalks the cattle have carefully grazed, stand in ranks;
strong ox-eye daisies, with broad white disks and torn leaves, form with
the grass the tricolour of the pasture--white, green, and gold.

When the path enters the mowing grass, ripe for the scythe, the
simplicity of these cardinal hues is lost in the multitude of shades and
the addition of other colours. The surface of mowing grass is indeed
made up of so many tints that at the first glance it is confusing; and
hence, perhaps, it is that hardly ever has an artist succeeded in
getting the effect upon canvas. Of the million blades of grass no two
are of the same shade.

Pluck a handful and spread them out side by side and this is at once
evident. Nor is any single blade the same shade all the way up. There
may be a faint yellow towards the root, a full green about the middle,
at the tip perhaps the hot sun has scorched it, and there is a trace of
brown. The older grass, which comes up earliest, is distinctly different
in tint from that which has but just reached its greatest height, and in
which the sap has not yet stood still.

Under all there is the new grass, short, sweet, and verdant, springing
up fresh between the old, and giving a tone to the rest as you look down
into the bunches. Some blades are nearly grey, some the palest green,
and among them others, torn from the roots perhaps by rooks searching
for grubs, are quite white. The very track of a rook through the grass
leaves a different shade each side, as the blades are bent or trampled
down.

The stalks of the bennets vary, some green, some yellowish, some brown,
some approaching whiteness, according to age and the condition of the
sap. Their tops, too, are never the same, whether the pollen clings to
the surface or whether it has gone. Here the green is almost lost in
red, or quite; here the grass has a soft, velvety look; yonder it is
hard and wiry, and again graceful and drooping. Here there are bunches
so rankly verdant that no flower is visible and no other tint but dark
green; here it is thin and short, and the flowers, and almost the turf
itself, can be seen; then there is an array of bennets (stalks which
bear the grass-seed) with scarcely any grass proper.

Every variety of grass--and they are many--has its own colour, and every
blade of every variety has its individual variations of that colour. The
rain falls, and there is a darker tint at large upon the field, fresh
but darker; the sun shines and at first the hue is lighter, but
presently if the heat last a brown comes. The wind blows, and
immediately as the waves of grass roll across the meadow a paler tint
follows it.

A clouded sky dulls the herbage, a cloudless heaven brightens it, so
that the grass almost reflects the firmament like water. At sunset the
rosy rays bring out every tint of red or purple. At noonday, watch as
alternate shadow and sunshine come one after the other as the clouds are
wafted over. By moonlight perhaps the white ox-eyed daisies show the
most. But never will you find the mowing grass in the same field looking
twice alike.

Come again the day after to-morrow only, and there is a change; some of
the grass is riper, some is thicker, with further blades which have
pushed up, some browner. Cold northern winds cause it to wear a dry,
withered aspect; under warm showers it visibly opens itself; in a
hurricane it tosses itself wildly to and fro; it laughs under the
sunshine.

There are thick bunches by the footpath, which hang over and brush the
feet. While approaching there seems nothing there except grass, but in
the act of passing, and thus looking straight down into them, there are
blue eyes at the bottom gazing up. These specks of blue sky hidden in
the grass tempt the hand to gather them, but then you cannot gather the
whole field.

Behind the bunches where the grass is thinner are the heads of purple
clover; pluck one of these, and while meditating draw forth petal after
petal and imbibe the honey with the lips till nothing remains but the
green framework, like stolen jewellery from which the gems have been
taken. Torn pink ragged robins through whose petals a comb seems to have
been remorselessly dragged, blue scabious, red knapweeds, yellow
rattles, yellow vetchings by the hedge, white flowering parsley, white
campions, yellow tormentil, golden buttercups, white cuckoo-flowers,
dandelions, yarrow, and so on, all carelessly sown broadcast without
order or method, just as negligently as they are named here, first
remembered, first mentioned, and many forgotten.

Highest and coarsest of texture, the red-tipped sorrel--a crumbling
red--so thick and plentiful that at sunset the whole mead becomes
reddened. If these were in any way set in order or design, howsoever
entangled, the eye might, as it were, get at them for reproduction. But
just where there should be flowers there are none, whilst in odd places
where there are none required there are plenty.

In hollows, out of sight till stumbled on, is a mass of colour; on the
higher foreground only a dull brownish green. Walk all round the meadow,
and still no vantage point can be found where the herbage groups itself,
whence a scheme of colour is perceivable. There is no "artistic"
arrangement anywhere.

So, too, with the colours--of the shades of green something has already
been said--and here are bright blues and bright greens, yellows and
pinks, positive discords and absolute antagonisms of tint side by side,
yet without jarring the eye. Green all round, the trees and hedges; blue
overhead, the sky; purple and gold westward, where the sun sinks. No
part of this grass can be represented by a blur or broad streak of
colour, for it is not made up of broad streaks. It is composed of
innumerable items of grass blade and flower, each in itself coloured and
different from its neighbour. Not one of these must be slurred over if
you wish to get the same effect.

Then there are drifting specks of colour which cannot be fixed.
Butterflies, white, parti-coloured, brown, and spotted, and light blue
flutter along beside the footpath; two white ones wheel about each
other, rising higher at every turn till they are lost and no more to be
distinguished against a shining white cloud. Large dark humble bees roam
slowly, and honey bees with more decided flight. Glistening beetles,
green and gold, run across the bare earth of the path, coming from one
crack in the dry ground and disappearing in the (to them) mighty chasm
of another.

Tiny green "hoppers"--odd creatures shaped something like the fancy
frogs of children's story-books--alight upon it after a spring, and
pausing a second, with another toss themselves as high as the highest
bennet (veritable elm-trees by comparison), to fall anywhere out of
sight in the grass. Reddish ants hurry over. Time is money; and their
business brooks no delay.

Bee-like flies of many stripes and parti-coloured robes face you,
suspended in the air with wings vibrating so swiftly as to be unseen;
then suddenly jerk themselves a few yards to recommence hovering. A
greenfinch rises with a yellow gleam and a sweet note from the grass,
and is off with something for his brood, or a starling, solitary now,
for his mate is in the nest, startled from his questing, goes straight
away.

Dark starlings, greenfinch, gilded fly, glistening beetle, blue
butterfly, humble bee with scarf about his thick waist, add their moving
dots of colour to the surface. There is no design, no balance, nothing
like a pattern perfect on the right-hand side, and exactly equal on the
left-hand. Even trees which have some semblance of balance in form are
not really so, and as you walk round them so their outline changes.

Now the path approaches a stile set deep in thorns and brambles, and
hardly to be gained for curved hooks and prickles. But on the briars
June roses bloom, arches of flowers over nettles, burdock, and rushes in
the ditch beneath. Sweet roses--buds yet unrolled, white and conical;
roses half open and pink tinted; roses widespread, the petals curling
backwards on the hedge, abandoning their beauty to the sun. In the
pasture over the stile a roan cow feeds unmoved, calmly content,
gathering the grass with rough tongue. It is not only what you actually
see along the path, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it
its beauty.

From hence the path skirts the hedge enclosing a copse, part of which
had been cut in the winter, so that a few weeks since in spring the
bluebells could be seen, instead of being concealed by the ash branches
and the woodbine. Among them grew one with white bells, like a lily,
solitary in the midst of the azure throng. A "drive," or green lane
passing between the ash-stoles, went into the copse, with tufts of
tussocky grass on either side and rush bunches, till farther away the
overhanging branches, where the poles were uncut, hid its course.

Already the grass has hidden the ruts left by the timber carriages--the
last came by on May-day with ribbons of orange, red, and blue on the
horses' heads for honour of the day. Another, which went past in the
wintry weeks of the early year, was drawn by a team wearing the ancient
harness with bells under high hoods, or belfries, bells well attuned,
too, and not far inferior to those rung by handbell men. The beat of the
three horses' hoofs sounds like the drum that marks time to the chime
upon their backs. Seldom, even in the far away country, can that
pleasant chime be heard.

But now the timber is all gone, the ruts are hidden, and the tall spruce
firs, whose graceful branches were then almost yellow with young needles
on the tip, are now clothed in fresh green. On the bank there is a
flower which is often gathered for the forget-me-not, and is not unlike
it at the first glance; but if the two be placed side by side, this, the
scorpion grass, is but a pale imitation of the true plant; its petals
vary in colour and are often dull, and it has not the yellow central
spot. Yet it is not unfrequently sold in pots in the shops as
forget-me-not. It flowers on the bank, high above the water of the
ditch.

The true forget-me-not can hardly be seen in passing, so much does it
nestle under flags and behind sedges, and it is not easy to gather
because it flowers on the very verge of the running stream. The shore is
bordered with matted vegetation, aquatic grass, and flags and weeds, and
outside these, where its leaves are washed and purified by the clear
stream, its blue petals open. Be cautious, therefore, in reaching for
the forget-me-not, lest the bank be treacherous.

It was near this copse that in early spring I stayed to gather some
white sweet violets, for the true wild violet is very nearly white. I
stood close to a hedger and ditcher, who, standing on a board, was
cleaning out the mud that the water might run freely. He went on with
his work, taking not the least notice of an idler, but intent upon his
labour, as a good and true man should be. But when I spoke to him he
answered me in clear, well-chosen language, well pronounced, "in good
set terms."

No slurring of consonants and broadening of vowels, no involved and
backward construction depending on the listener's previous knowledge for
comprehension, no half sentences indicating rather than explaining, but
correct sentences. With his shoes almost covered by the muddy water, his
hands black and grimy, his brown face splashed with mud, leaning on his
shovel he stood and talked from the deep ditch, not much more than head
and shoulders visible above it. It seemed a voice from the very earth,
speaking of education, change, and possibilities.

The copse is now filling up with undergrowth; the brambles are
spreading, the briars extending, masses of nettles, and thistles like
saplings in size and height, crowding the spaces between the ash-stoles.
By the banks great cow-parsnips or "gix" have opened their broad heads
of white flowers; teazles have lifted themselves into view, every
opening is occupied. There is a scent of elder flowers, the meadow-sweet
is pushing up, and will soon be out, and an odour of new-mown hay floats
on the breeze.

From the oak green caterpillars slide down threads of their own making
to the bushes below, but they are running terrible risk. For a pair of
white-throats or "nettle-creepers" are on the watch, and seize the green
creeping things crossways in their beaks. Then they perch on a branch
three or four yards only from where I stand, silent and motionless, and
glance first at me and next at a bush of bramble which projects out to
the edge of the footpath. So long as my eyes are turned aside, or half
closed, the bird perches on the branch, gaining confidence every moment.
The instant I open my eyes, or move them, or glance towards him, without
either movement of head, hand, or foot, he is off to the oak.

His tiny eyes are intent on mine; the moment he catches my glance he
retires. But in half a minute affection brings him back, still with the
caterpillar in his beak, to the same branch. Whilst I have patience to
look the other way there he stays, but again a glance sends him away.
This is repeated four or five times, till, finally, convinced that I
mean no harm and yet timorous and fearful of betrayal even in the act,
he dives down into the bramble bush.

After a brief interval he reappears on the other side of it, having
travelled through and left his prey with his brood in the nest there.
Assured by his success his mate follows now, and once having done it,
they continue to bring caterpillars, apparently as fast as they can pass
between the trees and the bush. They always enter the bush, which is
scarcely two yards from me, on one side, pass through in the same
direction, and emerge on the other side, having thus regular places of
entrance and exit.

As I stand watching these birds a flock of rooks goes over, they have
left the nesting trees, and fly together again. Perhaps this custom of
nesting together in adjacent trees and using the same one year after
year is not so free from cares and jealousies as the solitary plan of
the little white-throats here. Last March I was standing near a rookery,
noting the contention and quarrelling, the downright tyranny, and
brigandage which is carried on there. The very sound of the cawing,
sharp and angry, conveys the impression of hate and envy.

Two rooks in succession flew to a nest the owners of which were absent,
and deliberately picked a great part of it to pieces, taking the twigs
for their own use. Unless the rook, therefore, be ever in his castle his
labour is torn down, and, as with men in the fierce struggle for wealth,
the meanest advantages are seized on. So strong is the rook's bill that
he tears living twigs of some size with it from the bough. The
white-throats were without such envy and contention.

From hence the footpath, leaving the copse, descends into a hollow, with
a streamlet flowing through a little meadow, barely an acre, with a
pollard oak in the centre, the rising ground on two sides shutting out
all but the sky, and on the third another wood. Such a dreamy hollow
might be painted for a glade in the Forest of Arden, and there on the
sward and leaning against the ancient oak one might read the play
through without being disturbed by a single passer-by. A few steps
farther and the stile opens on a road.

There the teams travel with rows of brazen spangles down their necks,
some with a wheatsheaf for design, some with a swan. The road itself, if
you follow it, dips into a valley where the horses must splash through
the water of a brook spread out some fifteen or twenty yards wide; for,
after the primitive Surrey fashion, there is no bridge for waggons. A
narrow wooden structure bears foot-passengers; you cannot but linger
half across and look down into its clear stream. Up the current where it
issues from the fields and falls over a slight obstacle the sunlight
plays and glances.

A great hawthorn bush grows on the bank; in spring, white with May; in
autumn, red with haws or peggles. To the shallow shore of the brook,
where it washes the flints and moistens the dust, the house-martins come
for mortar. A constant succession of birds arrive all day long to drink
at the clear stream, often alighting on the fragments of chalk and flint
which stand in the water, and are to them as rocks.

Another footpath leads from the road across the meadows to where the
brook is spanned by the strangest bridge, built of brick, with one arch,
but only just wide enough for a single person to walk, and with parapets
only four or five inches high. It is thrown aslant the stream, and not
straight across it, and has a long brick approach. It is not unlike--on
a small scale--the bridges seen in views of Eastern travel. Another path
leads to a hamlet, consisting of a church, a farmhouse, and three or
four cottages--a veritable hamlet in every sense of the word.

In a village a few miles distant, as you walk between cherry and pear
orchards, you pass a little shop--the sweets, and twine, and trifles are
such as may be seen in similar windows a hundred miles distant. There is
the very wooden measure for nuts, which has been used time out of mind,
in the distant country. Out again into the road as the sun sinks, and
westwards the wind lifts a cloud of dust, which is lit up and made rosy
by the rays passing through it. For such is the beauty of the sunlight
that it can impart a glory even to dust.

Once more, never go by a stile (that does not look private) without
getting over it and following the path. But they all end in one place.
After rambling across furze and heath, or through dark fir woods; after
lingering in the meadows among the buttercups, or by the copses where
the pheasants crow; after gathering June roses, or, in later days,
staining the lips with blackberries or cracking nuts, by-and-by the path
brings you in sight of a railway station. And the railway station,
through some process of mind, presently compels you to go up on the
platform, and after a little puffing and revolution of wheels you emerge
at Charing Cross, or London Bridge, or Waterloo, or Ludgate Hill, and,
with the freshness of the meadows still clinging to your coat, mingle
with the crowd.

The inevitable end of every footpath round about London is London. All
paths go thither.

If it were far away in the distant country you might sit down in the
shadow upon the hay and fall asleep, or dream awake hour after hour.
There would be no inclination to move. But if you sat down on the sward
under the ancient pollard oak in the little mead with the brook, and the
wood of which I spoke just now as like a glade in the enchanted Forest
of Arden, this would not be possible. It is the proximity of the immense
City which induces a mental, a nerve-restlessness. As you sit and would
dream a something plucks at the mind with constant reminder; you cannot
dream for long, you must up and away, and, turn in which direction you
please, ultimately it will lead you to London.

There is a fascination in it; there is a magnetism stronger than that of
the rock which drew the nails from Sindbad's ship. You are like a bird
let out with a string tied to the foot to flutter a little way and
return again. It is not business, for you may have none, in the ordinary
sense; it is not "society," it is not pleasure. It is the presence of
man in his myriads. There is something in the heart which cannot be
satisfied away from it.

It is a curious thing that your next-door neighbour may be a stranger,
but there are no strangers in a vast crowd. They all seem to have some
relationship, or rather, perhaps, they do not rouse the sense of reserve
which a single unknown person might. Still, the impulse is not to be
analysed; these are mere notes acknowledging its power. The hills and
vales, and meads and woods are like the ocean upon which Sindbad sailed;
but coming too near the loadstone of London, the ship wends thither,
whether or no.

At least it is so with me, and I often go to London without any object
whatever, but just because I must, and, arriving there, wander
whithersoever the hurrying throng carries me.



FLOCKS OF BIRDS


A certain road leading outwards from a suburb, enters at once among
fields. It soon passes a thick hedge dividing a meadow from a cornfield,
in which hedge is a spot where some bluebells may be found in spring.
Wild flowers are best seen when in masses, a few scattered along a bank
much concealed by grass and foliage are lost, except indeed, upon those
who love them for their own sake.

This meadow in June, for instance, when the buttercups are high, is one
broad expanse of burnished gold. The most careless passer-by can hardly
fail to cast a glance over acres of rich yellow. The furze, again,
especially after a shower has refreshed its tint, must be seen by all.
Where broom grows thickly, lifting its colour well into view, or where
the bird's-foot lotus in full summer overruns the thin grass of some
upland pasture, the eye cannot choose but acknowledge it. So, too, with
charlock, and with hill sides purple with heath, or where the woodlands
are azure with bluebells for a hundred yards together. Learning from
this, those who would transplant wild flowers to their garden should
arrange to have as many as possible of the same species close together.

The bluebells in this hedge are unseen, except by the rabbits. The
latter have a large burrow, and until the grass is too tall, or after it
is cut or grazed, can be watched from the highway. In this hedge the
first nightingale of the year sings, beginning some two or three days
before the bird which comes to the bushes in the gorse, which will
presently be mentioned.

It is, or rather was, a favourite meadow with the partridges; one summer
there was, I think, a nest in or near it, for I saw the birds there
daily. But the next year they were absent. One afternoon a brace of
partridges came over the hedge within a few inches of my head; they had
been flushed and frightened at some distance, and came with the wind at
a tremendous pace. It is a habit with partridges to fly low, but just
skimming the tops of the hedges, and certainly, had they been three
inches lower, they must have taken my hat off. The knowledge that
partridges were often about there, made me always glance into this field
on passing it, long after the nesting season was over.

In October, as I looked as usual, a hawk flew between the elms, and out
into the centre of the meadow, with a large object in his talons. He
alighted in the middle, so as to be as far as possible from either
hedge, and no doubt prepared to enjoy his quarry, when something
startled him, and he rose again. Then, as I got a better view, I saw it
was a rat he was carrying. The long body of the animal was distinctly
visible, and the tail depending, the hawk had it by the shoulders or
head. Flying without the least apparent effort, the bird cleared the
elms, and I lost sight of him beyond them. Now, the kestrel is but a
small bird, and taking into consideration the size of the bird, and the
weight of a rat, it seems as great a feat in proportion as for an eagle
to snatch up a lamb.

Some distance up the road, and in the corner of an arable field, there
was a wheat rick which was threshed and most of the straw carted away.
But there still remained the litter, and among it probably a quantity
of stray corn. There was always a flock of sparrows on this litter--a
flock that might often be counted by the hundred. As I came near the
spot one day a sparrow-hawk, whose approach I had not observed, and
which had therefore been flying low, suddenly came over the hedge just
by the loose straw.

With shrill cries the sparrows instantly rushed for the hedge, not two
yards distant; but the hawk, dashing through the crowd of them as they
rose, carried away a victim. It was done in the tenth of a second. He
came, singled his bird, and was gone like the wind, before the whirr of
wings had ceased on the hawthorn where the flock cowered.

Another time, but in a different direction, I saw a hawk descend and
either enter, or appear to enter, a short much-cropped hedge, but twenty
yards distant. I ran to the spot; the hawk of course made off, but there
was nothing in the bush save a hedge sparrow, which had probably
attracted him, but which he had not succeeded in getting.

Kestrels are almost common; I have constantly seen them while strolling
along the road, generally two together, and once three. In the latter
part of the summer and autumn they seem to be most numerous, hovering
over the recently reaped fields. Certainly there is no scarcity of hawks
here. Upon one occasion, on Surbiton Hill, I saw a large bird of the
same kind, but not sufficiently near to identify. From the gliding
flight, the long forked tail, and large size I supposed it to be a kite.
The same bird was going about next day, but still farther off. I cannot
say that it was a kite, for unless it is a usual haunt, it is not in my
opinion wise to positively identify a bird seen for so short a time.

The thick hedge mentioned is a favourite resort of blackbirds, and on a
warm May morning, after a shower--they are extremely fond of a
shower--half-a-dozen may be heard at once whistling in the elms. They
use the elms here because there are not many oaks; the oak is the
blackbird's favourite song-tree. There was one one day whistling with
all his might on the lower branch of an elm, at the very roadside, and
just above him a wood-pigeon was perched. A pair of turtle-doves built
in the same hedge one spring, and while resting on the gate by the
roadside their "coo-coo" mingled with the song of the nightingale and
thrush, the blackbird's whistle, the chiff-chaff's "chip-chip," the
willow-wren's pleading voice, and the rustle of green corn as the wind
came rushing (as it always does to a gateway).

Goldfinches come by occasionally, not often, but still they do come. The
rarest bird seems to be the bullfinch. I have only seen bullfinches
three or four times in three seasons, and then only a pair. Now, this is
worthy a note, as illustrating what I have often ventured to say about
the habitat of birds being so often local, for if judged by observation
here the bullfinch would be said to be a scarce bird by London. But it
has been stated upon the best authority that only a few miles distant,
and still nearer town, they are common.

The road now becomes bordered by elms on either side, forming an
irregular avenue. Almost every elm in spring has its chaffinch loudly
challenging. The birdcatchers are aware that it is a frequented resort,
and on Sunday mornings four or five of them used to be seen in the
course of a mile, each with a call bird in a partly darkened cage, a
stuffed dummy, and limed twigs. In the cornfields on either hand
wood-pigeons are numerous in spring and autumn. Up to April they come
in flocks, feeding on the newly sown grain when they can get at it, and
varying it with ivy berries, from the ivy growing up the elms. By
degrees the flocks break up as the nesting begins in earnest.

Some pair and build much earlier than others; in fact, the first egg
recorded is very little to be depended on as an indication. Particular
pairs (of many kinds of birds) may have nests, and yet the species as a
species may be still flying in large packs. The flocks which settle in
these fields number from one to two hundred. Rooks, wood-pigeons, and
tame white pigeons often feed amicably mixed up together; the white tame
birds are conspicuous at a long distance before the crops have risen, or
after the stubble is ploughed.

I should think that the corn farmers of Surrey lose more grain from the
birds than the agriculturists whose tenancies are a hundred miles from
London. In the comparatively wild or open districts to which I had been
accustomed before I made these observations I cannot recollect ever
seeing such vast numbers of birds. There were places, of course, where
they were numerous, and there were several kinds more represented than
is the case here, and some that are scarcely represented at all. I have
seen flocks of wood-pigeons immensely larger than any here; but then it
was only occasionally. They came, passed over, and were gone. Here the
flocks, though not very numerous, seem always to be about.

Sparrows crowd every hedge and field, their numbers are incredible;
chaffinches are not to be counted; of greenfinches there must be
thousands. From the railway even you can see them. I caught glimpses of
a ploughed field recently sown one spring from the window of a railway
carriage, every little clod of which seemed alive with small birds,
principally sparrows, chaffinches, and greenfinches. There must have
been thousands in that field alone. In autumn the numbers are even
greater, or rather more apparent.

One autumn some correspondence appeared lamenting the scarcity of small
birds (and again in the spring the same cry was raised); people said
that they had walked along the roads or footpaths and there were none in
the hedges. They were quite correct--the birds were not in the hedges,
they were in the corn and stubble. After the nesting is well over and
the wheat is ripe the birds leave the hedges and go out into the
wheatfields; at the same time the sparrows quit the house-tops and
gardens and do the same. At the very time this complaint was raised, the
stubbles in Surrey, as I can vouch, were crowded with small birds.

If you walked across the stubble flocks of hundreds rose out of your
way; if you leant on a gate and watched a few minutes you could see
small flocks in every quarter of the field rising and settling again.
These movements indicated a larger number in the stubble there, for
where a great flock is feeding some few every now and then fly up
restlessly. Earlier than that in the summer there was not a wheatfield
where you could not find numerous wheatears picked as clean as if
threshed where they stood. In some places, the wheat was quite thinned.

Later in the year there seems a movement of small birds from the lower
to the higher lands. One December day I remember particularly visiting
the neighbourhood of Ewell, where the lands begin to rise up towards the
Downs. Certainly, I have seldom seen such vast numbers of small birds.
Up from the stubble flew sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches,
yellow-hammers, in such flocks that the low-cropped hedge was covered
with them. A second correspondence appeared in the spring upon the same
subject, and again the scarcity of small birds was deplored.

So far as the neighbourhood of London was concerned, this was the exact
reverse of the truth.

Small birds swarmed, as I have already stated, in every ploughed field.
All the birdcatchers in London with traps and nets and limed twigs could
never make the slightest appreciable difference to such flocks. I have
always expressed my detestation of the birdcatcher; but it is founded on
other grounds, and not from any fear of the diminution of numbers only.
Where the birdcatcher does inflict irretrievable injury is in this
way--a bird, say a nightingale, say a goldfinch, has had a nest for
years in the corner of a garden, or an apple-tree in an orchard. The
birdcatcher presently decoys one or other of these, and thenceforward
the spot is deserted. The song is heard no more; the nest never again
rebuilt.

The first spring I resided in Surrey I was fairly astonished and
delighted at the bird life which proclaimed itself everywhere. The
bevies of chiffchaffs and willow wrens which came to the thickets in the
furze, the chorus of thrushes and blackbirds, the chaffinches in the
elms, the greenfinches in the hedges, wood-pigeons and turtle-doves in
the copses, tree-pipits about the oaks in the cornfields; every bush,
every tree, almost every clod, for the larks were so many, seemed to
have its songster. As for nightingales, I never knew so many in the most
secluded country.

There are more round about London than in all the woodlands I used to
ramble through. When people go into the country they really leave the
birds behind them. It was the same, I found, after longer observation,
with birds perhaps less widely known as with those universally
recognised--such, for instance, as shrikes. The winter when the cry was
raised that there were no birds, that the blackbirds and thrushes had
left the lawns and must be dead, and how wicked it would be to take a
nest next year, I had not the least, difficulty in finding plenty of
them.

They had simply gone to the water meadows, the brooks, and moist places
generally. Every locality where running water kept the ground moist and
permitted of movement among the creeping things which form these birds'
food, was naturally resorted to. Thrushes and blackbirds, although they
do not pack--that is, regularly fly in flocks--undoubtedly migrate when
pressed by weather.

They are well known to arrive on the east coast from Norway in numbers
as the cold increases. I see no reason why we may not suppose that in
very severe and continued frost the thrushes and blackbirds round London
fly westwards towards the milder side of the island. It seems to me that
when, some years since, I used to stroll round the water meadows in a
western county for snipes in frosty weather, the hedges were full of
thrushes and blackbirds--quite full of them.

Now, though there were thrushes and blackbirds about the brooks by
London last winter, there were few in the hedges generally. Had they,
then, flown westwards? It is my belief that they had. They had left the
hard-bound ground about London for the softer and moister lands farther
west. They had crossed the rain-line. When frost prevents access to food
in the east, thrushes and blackbirds move westwards, just as the
fieldfares and redwings do.

That the fieldfares and redwings do so I can say with confidence,
because, as they move in large flocks, there is no difficulty in tracing
the direction in which they are going. They all went west when the
severe weather began. On the southern side of London, at least in the
districts I am best acquainted with, there was hardly a fieldfare or
redwing to be seen for weeks and even months. Towards spring they came
back, flying east for Norway. As thrushes and blackbirds move singly,
and not with concerted action, their motions cannot be determined with
such precision, but all the facts are in favour of the belief that they
also went west.

That they were killed by the frost and snow I utterly refuse to credit.
Some few, no doubt, were--I saw some greatly enfeebled by
starvation--but not the mass. If so many had been destroyed their bodies
must have been seen when there was no foliage to hide them, and no
insects to quickly play the scavenger as in summer. Some were killed by
cats; a few perhaps by rats, for in sharp winters they go down into the
ditches, and I saw a dead redwing, torn and disfigured, at the mouth of
a drain during the snow, where it might have been fastened on by a rat.
But it is quite improbable that thousands died as was supposed.

Thrushes and blackbirds are not like rooks. Rooks are so bound by
tradition and habit that they very rarely quit the locality where they
were reared. Their whole lives are spent in the neighbourhood of the
nest, trees, and the woods where they sleep. They may travel miles
during the day, but they always come back to roost. These are the birds
that suffer the most during long frosts and snows. Unable to break the
chain that binds them to one spot, they die rather than desert it. A
miserable time, indeed, they had of it that winter, but I never heard
that any one proposed feeding the rooks, the very birds that wanted it
most.

Swallows, again, were declared by many to be fewer. It is not at all
unlikely that they were fewer. The wet season was unfavourable to them;
still a good deal of the supposed absence of swallows may be through the
observer not looking for them in the right place. If not wheeling in the
sky, look for them over the water, the river, or great ponds; if not
there, look along the moist fields or shady woodland meadows. They vary
their haunts with the state of the atmosphere, which causes insects to
be more numerous in one place at one time, and presently in another.

A very wet season is more fatal than the sharpest frost; it acts by
practically reducing the births, leaving the ordinary death-rate to
continue. Consequently, as the old birds die, there are none (or fewer)
to supply their places. Once more let me express the opinion that there
are as many small birds round London as in the country, and no measure
is needed to protect the species at large. Protection, if needed, is
required for the individual. Sweep the roads and lanes clear of the
birdcatchers, but do not prevent a boy from taking a nest in the open
fields or commons. If it were made illegal to sell full-grown birds,
half the evil would be stopped at once if the law were enforced. The
question is full of difficulties. To prevent or attempt to prevent the
owner of a garden from shooting the bullfinches or blackbirds and so on
that steal his fruit, or destroy his buds, is absurd. It is equally
absurd to fine--what twaddle!--a lad for taking a bird's egg. The only
point upon which I am fully clear is that the birdcatcher who takes
birds on land not his own or in his occupation, on public property, as
roads, wastes, commons, and so forth, ought to be rigidly put down. But
as for the small birds as a mass, I am convinced that they will never
cease out of the land.

It is not easy to progress far along this road, because every bird
suggests so many reflections and recollections. Upon approaching the
rising ground at Ewell green plovers or peewits become plentiful in the
cornfields. In spring and early summer the flocks break up to some
extent, and the scattered parties conduct their nesting operations in
the pastures or on the downs. In autumn they collect together again, and
flocks of fifty or more are commonly seen. Now and then a much larger
flock comes down into the plain, wheeling to and fro, and presently
descending upon an arable field, where they cover the ground.



NIGHTINGALE ROAD


The wayside is open to all, and that which it affords may be enjoyed
without fee; therefore it is that I return to it so often. It is a fact
that common hedgerows often yield more of general interest than the
innermost recesses of carefully guarded preserves, which by day are
frequently still, silent, and denuded of everything, even of game; nor
can flowers flourish in such thick shade, nor where fir-needles cover
the ground.

By the same wayside of which I have already spoken there is a birch
copse, through which runs a road open to foot passengers, but not to
wheel traffic, and also a second footpath. From these a little
observation will show that almost all the life and interest of the copse
is at, or near, the edge, and can be readily seen without trespassing a
single yard. Sometimes, when it is quiet in the evening and the main
highway is comparatively deserted, a hare comes stealing down the track
through the copse, and after lingering there awhile crosses the highway
into the stubble on the other side.

In one of these fields, just opposite the copse, a covey of partridges
had their rendezvous, and I watched them from the road, evening after
evening, issue one by one, calling as they appeared from a breadth of
mangolds. Their sleeping-place seemed to be about a hundred yards from
the wayside. Another arable field just opposite is bounded by the road
with iron wire or railing, instead of a hedge, and the low mound in
which the stakes are fixed swarmed one summer with ant-hills full of
eggs, and a slight rustle in the corn as I approached told where the
parent bird had just led her chicks from the feast to shelter.

Passing into the copse by the road, which is metalled but weed-grown
from lack of use, the grasshoppers sing from the sward at the sides, but
the birds are silent as the summer ends. Pink striped bells of
convolvulus flower over the flints and gravel, the stones nearly hidden
by their runners and leaves; yellow toadflax or eggs and bacon grew here
till a weeding took place, since which it has not reappeared, but in its
place viper's bugloss sprang up, a plant which was not previously to be
found there. Hawkweeds, some wild vetches, white yarrow, thistles, and
burdocks conceal the flints yet further, so that the track has the
appearance of a green drive.

The slender birch and ash poles are hung with woodbine and wild hops,
both growing in profusion. A cream-coloured wall of woodbine in flower
extends in one spot, in another festoons of hops hang gracefully, and so
thick as to hide everything beyond them. There is scarce a stole without
its woodbine or hops; many of the poles, though larger than the arm, are
scored with spiral grooves left by the bines. Under these bushes of
woodbine the nightingales when they first arrive in spring are fond of
searching for food, and dart on a grub with a low satisfied "kurr."

The place is so favourite a resort with these birds that it might well
be called Nightingale Copse. Four or five may be heard singing at once
on a warm May morning, and at least two may often be seen as well as
heard at the same time. They sometimes sing from the trees, as well as
from the bushes; one was singing one morning on an elm branch which
projected over the road, and under which the van drivers jogged
indifferently along. Sometimes they sing from the dark foliage of the
Scotch firs.

As the summer wanes they haunt the hawthorn hedge by the roadside,
leaving the interior of the copse, and may often be seen on the dry and
dusty sward. When chiffchaff and willow-wren first come they remain in
the treetops, but in the summer descend into the lower bushes, and, like
the nightingales, come out upon the sward by the wayside. Nightingale
Copse is also a great favourite with cuckoos. There are a few oaks in
it, and in the meadows in the rear many detached hawthorn bushes, and
two or three small groups of trees, chestnuts, lime, and elm. From the
hawthorns to the elms, and from the elms to the oaks, the cuckoos
continually circulate, calling as they fly.

One morning in May, while resting on a rail in the copse, I heard four
calling close by, the furthest not a hundred yards distant, and as they
continually changed their positions flying round there was always one in
sight. They circled round, singing; the instant one ceased another took
it up, a perfect madrigal. In the evening, at eight o'clock, I found
them there again, still singing. The same detached groups of trees are
much frequented by wood-pigeons, especially towards autumn.

Rooks prefer to perch on the highest branches, wood-pigeons more in the
body of the tree, and when the boughs are bare of leaves a flock of the
latter may be recognised in this way as far as the eye can see, and when
the difference of colour is rendered imperceptible by distance. The
wood-pigeon when perched has a rounded appearance; the rook a longer and
sharper outline.

By one corner of the copse there is an oak, hollow within, but still
green and flourishing. The hollow is black and charred; some mischievous
boys must have lighted a fire inside it, just as the ploughboys do in
the far away country. A little pond in the meadow close by is so
overhung by another oak, and so surrounded with bramble and hawthorn,
that the water lies in perpetual shade. It is just the spot where, if
rabbits were about, one might be found sitting out on the bank under the
brambles. This overhanging oak was broken by the famous October snow,
1880, further splintered by the gales of the next year, and its trunk is
now split from top to bottom as if with wedges.

These meadows in spring are full of cowslips, and in one part the
meadow-orchis flourishes. The method of making cowslip balls is
universally known to children, from the most remote hamlet to the very
verge of London, and the little children who dance along the green sward
by the road here, if they chance to touch a nettle, at once search for a
dock leaf to lay on it and assuage the smart. Country children, and
indeed older folk, call the foliage of the knotted figwort cutfinger
leaves, as they are believed to assist the cure of a cut or sore.

Raspberry suckers shoot up in one part of the copse; the fruit is
doubtless eaten by the birds. Troops of them come here, travelling along
the great hedge by the wayside, and all seem to prefer the outside trees
and bushes to the interior of the copse. This great hedge is as wide as
a country double mound, though it has but one ditch; the thick hawthorn,
blackthorn, elder, and bramble--the oaks, elms, ashes, and firs form, in
fact, almost a cover of themselves.

In the early spring, when the east wind rushes with bitter energy across
the plains, this immense hedge, as far as it extends, shelters the
wayfarer, the road being on the southern side, so that he can enjoy such
gleams of sunshine as appear. In summer the place is, of course for the
same reason, extremely warm, unless the breeze chances to come up strong
from the west, when it sweeps over the open cornfields fresh and sweet.
Stoats and weasels are common on the mound, or crossing the road to the
corn; they seem more numerous in autumn, and I fear leveret and
partridge are thinned by them.

Mice abound; in spring they are sometimes up in the blackthorn bushes,
perhaps for the young buds. In summer they may often be heard rushing
along the furrows across the wayside sward, scarce concealed by the wiry
grass. Flowers are very local in habit; the spurge, for instance, which
is common in a road parallel to this, is not to be seen, and not very
much cow-parsnip, or "gix," one of the most freely-growing hedge plants,
which almost chokes the mounds near by. Willowherbs, however, fill every
place in the ditch here where they can find room between the bushes, and
the arum is equally common, but the lesser celandine absent.

Towards evening, as the clover and vetches closed their leaves under the
dew, giving the fields a different aspect and another green, I used
occasionally to watch from here a pair of herons, sailing over in their
calm serene way. Their flight was in the direction of the Thames, and
they then passed evening after evening, but the following summer they
did not come. One evening, later on in autumn, two birds appeared
descending across the cornfields towards a secluded hollow where there
was water, and, although at a considerable distance, from their manner
of flight I could have no doubt they were teal.

The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality
very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in
February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of
the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first
swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom.
Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird
life correspond.

In a closely cropped hedge opposite this great mound (cropped because
enclosing a cornfield) there grows a solitary shrub of the wayfaring
tree. Though well known elsewhere, there is not, so far as I am aware,
another bush of it for miles, and I should not have noticed this had not
this part of the highway been so pleasant a place to stroll to and fro
in almost all the year. The twigs of the wayfaring tree are covered with
a mealy substance which comes off on the fingers when touched. A stray
shrub or plant like this sometimes seems of more interest than a whole
group.

For instance, most of the cottage gardens have foxgloves in them, but I
had not observed any wild, till one afternoon near some woods I found a
tall and beautiful foxglove, richer in colour than the garden specimens,
and with bells more thickly crowded, lifting its spike of purple above
the low cropped hawthorn. In districts where the soil is favourable to
the foxglove it would not have been noticed, but here, alone and
unexpected, it was welcomed. The bees in spring come to the broad
wayside sward by the great mound to the bright dandelions; presently to
the white clover, and later to the heaths.

There are about sixty wild flowers which grow freely along this road,
namely, yellow agrimony, amphibious persicaria, arum, avens, bindweed,
bird's foot lotus, bittersweet, blackberry, black and white bryony,
brooklime, burdock, buttercups, wild camomile, wild carrot, celandine
(the great and lesser), cinquefoil, cleavers, corn buttercup, corn mint,
corn sowthistle, and spurrey, cowslip, cow-parsnip, wild parsley, daisy,
dandelion, dead nettle, and white dog rose, and trailing rose, violets
(the sweet and the scentless), figwort, veronica, ground ivy, willowherb
(two sorts), herb Robert, honeysuckle, lady's smock, purple loosestrife,
mallow, meadow-orchis, meadow-sweet, yarrow, moon daisy, St. John's
wort, pimpernel, water plantain, poppy, rattles, scabious, self-heal,
silverweed, sowthistle, stitchwort, teazles, tormentil, vetches, and
yellow vetch.

To these may be added an occasional bacon and eggs, a few harebells
(plenty on higher ground), the yellow iris, by the adjoining brook, and
flowering shrubs and trees, as dogwood, gorse, privet, blackthorn,
hawthorn, horse chestnut, besides wild hops, the horsetails on the
mounds, and such plants as grow everywhere, as chickweed, groundsel, and
so forth. A solitary shrub of mugwort grows at some distance, but in the
same district, and in one hedgerow the wild guelder rose flourishes.
Anemones and primroses are not found along or near this road, nor
woodruff. At the first glance a list like this reads as if flowers
abounded, but the reverse is the impression to those who frequent the
place.

It is really a very short list, and as of course all of these do not
appear at once there really is rather a scarcity of wild flowers, so far
at least as variety goes. Just in the spring there is a burst of colour,
and again in the autumn; but for the rest, if we set aside the roses in
June, there seems quite an absence of flowers during the summer. The
wayside is green, the ditches are green, the mounds green; if you enter
and stroll round the meadows, they are green too, or white in places
with umbelliferous plants, principally parsley and cow-parsnip. But
these become monotonous. Therefore, I am constrained to describe it as a
district somewhat lacking flowers, meaning, of course, in point of
variety.

Compared with the hedges and fields of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire,
Berkshire, and similar south-western localities, it seems flowerless. On
the other hand, southern London can boast stretches of heath, which,
when in full bloom, rival Scotch hillsides. These remarks are written
entirely from a non-scientific point of view. Professional botanists may
produce lists of thrice the length, and prove that all the flowers of
England are to be found near London. But it will not alter the fact that
to the ordinary eye the roads and lanes just south of London are in the
middle of the summer comparatively bare of colour. They should be
visited in spring and autumn.

Nor do the meadows seem to produce so many varieties of grass as farther
to the south-west. But beetles of every kind and size, from the great
stag beetle, helplessly floundering through the evening air and clinging
to your coat, down to the green, bronze, and gilded species that hasten
across the path, appear extremely numerous. Warm, dry sands, light
soils, and furze and heath are probably favourable to them.

From this roadside I have seldom heard the corncrake, and never once the
grasshopper lark. These two birds are so characteristic of the meadows
in southwestern counties that a summer evening seems silent to me
without the "crake, crake!" of the one and the singular sibilous rattle
of the other. But they come to other places not far distant from the
road, and one summer a grasshopper-lark could be heard in some meadows
where I had not heard it the two preceding seasons. On the mounds field
crickets cry persistently.

At the end of the hedge which is near a brook, a sedge-reedling takes up
his residence in the spring. The sedge-reedlings here begin to call very
early; the first date I have down is the 16th of April, which is, I
think, some weeks before they begin in other localities. In one ditch
beside the road (not in this particular hedge) there grows a fine bunch
of reeds. Though watery, on account of the artificial drains from the
arable fields, the spot is on much higher ground than the brook, and it
is a little singular that while reeds flourish in this place they are
not to be found by the brook.

The elms of the neighbourhood, wherever they can be utilised as posts,
are unmercifully wired, wires twisted round, holes bored and the ends of
wire driven in or staples inserted, and the same with the young oaks.
Many trees are much disfigured from this cause, the bark is worn off on
many; and others, which have recovered, have bulging rings, where it
swelled up over the iron. The heads of large nails and staples are
easily discovered where the wire has disappeared, sometimes three or
four, one above the other, in the same tree. A fine avenue of elms which
shades part of a suburb appears to be dying by degrees--the too common
fate of elms in such places.

How many beautiful trees have thus perished near London?--witness the
large elms that once stood in Jews' Walk, at Sydenham. Barking the
trunks for sheer wanton mischief is undoubtedly the cause in some cases,
and it has been suggested that quicksilver has occasionally been
inserted in gimlet holes. The mercury is supposed to work up the
channels of the sap, and to prevent its flow.

But may not the ordinary conditions of suburban improvement often
account for the decay of such trees without occult causes? Sewers carry
away the water that used to moisten the roots, and being at some depth,
they not only take the surface water of a storm before it has had time
to penetrate, but drain the lower stratum completely. Then, gas-pipes
frequently leak, so much so that the soil for yards is saturated and
emits a smell of gas. Roots passing through such a soil can scarcely be
healthy, and very probably, in making excavations for laying pipes the
roots are cut through. The young trees that have been planted in some
places are, I notice, often bored by grubs to an extraordinary extent,
and will never make sound timber.

One July day, while walking on this road, I happened to look over a
gateway and saw that a large and prominent mansion on the summit of some
elevated ground had apparently disappeared. The day was very clear and
bright, sunny and hot, and there was no natural vapour. But on the light
north-east wind there came slowly towards me a bluish-yellow mist, the
edge of which was clearly defined, and which blotted out distant objects
and blurred those nearer at hand. The appearance of the open arable
field over which I was looking changed as it approached.

In front of the wall of mist the sunshine lit the field up brightly,
behind the ground was dull, and yet not in shadow. It came so slowly
that its movement could be easily watched. When it went over me there
was a perceptible coolness and a faint smell of damp smoke, and
immediately the road, which had been white under the sunshine, took a
dim, yellowish hue. The sun was not shut out nor even obscured, but the
rays had to pass through a thicker medium. This haze was not thick
enough to be called fog, nor was it the summer haze that in the country
adds to the beauty of distant hills and woods.

It was clearly the atmosphere--not the fog--but simply the atmosphere of
London brought out over the fields by a change in the wind, and
prevented from diffusing itself by conditions of which nothing seems
known. For at ordinary times the atmosphere of London diffuses itself in
aerial space and is lost, but on this hot July day it came bodily and
undiluted out into the cornfields. From its appearance I should say it
would travel many miles in the same condition. In November fog seems
seasonable: in hot and dry July this phenomenon was striking.

Along the road flocks of sheep continue to travel, some weary enough,
and these, gravitating to the rear of the flock by reason of infirmity,
lie down in the dust to rest, while their companions feed on the wayside
sward. But the shepherds are careful of them, and do not hasten.
Shepherds here often carry the pastoral crook. In districts far from the
metropolis you may wander about for days, and with sheep all round you,
never see a shepherd with a crook; but near town the pastoral staff is
common.

These flocks appear to be on their way to the southern down farms, and,
as I said before, the shepherds are tender over their sheep and careful
not to press them. I regret that I cannot say the same about the
bullocks, droves of which continually go by, often black cattle, and
occasionally even the little Highland animals. The appearance of some of
these droves is quite sufficient to indicate the treatment they have
undergone. Staring eyes, heads continually turned from side to side,
starting at everything, sometimes bare places on the shoulders, all tell
the same tale of blows and brutal treatment.

Suburban streets which a minute before were crowded with ladies and
children (most gentlemen are in town at midday) are suddenly vacated
when the word passes that cattle are coming. People rush everywhere,
into gardens, shops, back lanes, anywhere, as if the ringing scabbards
of charging cavalry were heard, or the peculiar thumping rattle of
rifles as they come to the "present" before a storm of bullets. It is no
wonder that townsfolk exhibit a fear of cattle which makes their friends
laugh when they visit the country after such experiences as these. This
should be put down with a firm hand.

By the roadside here the hay tyers, who cut up the hayricks into
trusses, use balances--a trifling matter, but sufficient to mark a
difference, for in the west such men use a steelyard slung on a prong,
the handle of the prong on the shoulder and the points stuck in the
rick, with which to weigh the trusses. Wooden cottages, wooden barns,
wooden mills are also characteristic.

Mouchers come along the road at all times and seasons, gathering
sacksful of dandelions in spring, digging up fern roots and cowslip mars
for sale, cutting briars for standard roses, gathering water-cresses and
mushrooms, and in the winter cutting rushes.

There is a rook with white feathers in the wing which belongs to an
adjacent rookery, and I have observed a blackbird also streaked with
white. One January day, when the snow was on the ground and the frost
was sharp, when the pale sun seemed to shine brightest round the rim of
the disk, as if there were a band of stronger light there, I saw a white
animal under a heap of poles by the wayside, near the great hedge I have
mentioned. It immediately concealed itself, but, thinking that it was a
ferret gone astray, I waited, and presently the head and neck were
cautiously protruded.

I made the usual call with the lips, but the creature instantly returned
to cover. I waited again, hiding this time, and after an interval the
creature moved and hastened away from the poles, where it was, in a
measure, exposed, to the more secure shelter of some bushes. Then I saw
that it was of a clear white, while so-called white ferrets are usually
a dingy yellow, and the white tail was tipped with black. From these
circumstances, and from the timidity and anxious desire to escape
observation, I could only conclude that it was a white stoat.

Stoats, as remarked previously, are numerous in these hedges, and it was
quite possible for a white one to be among them. The white stoat may be
said to exactly resemble the ermine. The interest of the circumstance
arises not from its rarity, but from its occurring so near the
metropolis.



A BROOK


Some low wooden rails guarding the approach to a bridge over a brook one
day induced me to rest under an aspen, with my back against the tree.
Some horse-chestnuts, beeches, and alders grew there, fringing the end
of a long plantation of willow stoles which extended in the rear
following the stream. In front, southwards, there were open meadows and
cornfields, over which shadow and sunshine glided in succession as the
sweet westerly wind carried the white clouds before it.

The brimming brook, as it wound towards me through the meads, seemed to
tremble on the verge of overflowing, as the crown of wine in a glass
rises yet does not spill. Level with the green grass, the water gleamed
as though polished where it flowed smoothly, crossed with the dark
shadows of willows which leaned over it. By the bridge, where the breeze
rushed through the arches, a ripple flashed back the golden rays. The
surface by the shore slipped towards a side hatch and passed over in a
liquid curve, clear and unvarying, as if of solid crystal, till
shattered on the stones, where the air caught up and played with the
sound of the bubbles as they broke.

Beyond the green slope of corn, a thin, soft vapour hung on the distant
woods, and hid the hills. The pale young leaves of the aspen rustled
faintly, not yet with their full sound; the sprays of the
horse-chestnut, drooping with the late frosts, could not yet keep out
the sunshine with their broad green. A white spot on the footpath yonder
was where the bloom had fallen from a blackthorn bush.

The note of the tree-pipit came from over the corn--there were some
detached oaks away in the midst of the field, and the birds were
doubtless flying continually up and down between the wheat and the
branches. A willow-wren sang plaintively in the plantation behind, and
once a cuckoo called at a distance. How beautiful is the sunshine! The
very dust of the road at my feet seemed to glow with whiteness, to be
lit up by it, and to become another thing. This spot henceforward was a
place of pilgrimage.

Looking that morning over the parapet of the bridge, down stream, there
was a dead branch at the mouth of the arch, it had caught and got fixed
while it floated along. A quantity of aquatic weeds coming down the
stream had drifted against the branch and remained entangled in it.
Fresh weeds were still coming and adding to the mass, which had
attracted a water-rat.

Perched on the branch the little brown creature bent forward over the
surface, and with its two forepaws drew towards it the slender thread of
a weed, exactly as with hands. Holding the thread in the paws, it
nibbled it, eating the sweet and tender portion, feeding without fear
though but a few feet away, and precisely beneath me.

In a minute the surface of the current was disturbed by larger ripples.
There had been a ripple caused by the draught through the arch, but this
was now increased. Directly afterwards a moorhen swam out, and began to
search among the edge of the tangled weeds. So long as I was perfectly
still the bird took no heed, but at a slight movement instantly
scuttled back under the arch. The water-rat, less timorous, paused,
looked round, and returned to feeding.

Crossing to the other side of the bridge, up stream, and looking over,
the current had scooped away the sand of the bottom by the central pier,
exposing the brickwork to some depth--the same undermining process that
goes on by the piers of bridges over great rivers. Nearer the shore the
sand has silted up, leaving it shallow, where water-parsnip and other
weeds joined, as it were, the verge of the grass and the stream. The
sunshine reflected from the ripples on this, the southern side,
continually ran with a swift, trembling motion up the arch.

Penetrating the clear water, the light revealed the tiniest stone at the
bottom: but there was no fish, no water-rat, or moorhen on this side.
Neither on that nor many succeeding mornings could anything be seen
there; the tail of the arch was evidently the favourite spot. Carefully
looking over that side again, the moorhen who had been out rushed back;
the water-rat was gone. Were there any fish? In the shadow the water was
difficult to see through, and the brown scum of spring that lined the
bottom rendered everything uncertain.

By gazing steadily at a stone my eyes presently became accustomed to the
peculiar light, the pupils adjusted themselves to it, and the brown
tints became more distinctly defined. Then sweeping by degrees from a
stone to another, and from thence to a rotting stick embedded in the
sand, I searched the bottom inch by inch. If you look, as it were at
large--at everything at once--you see nothing. If you take some object
as a fixed point, gaze all around it, and then move to another, nothing
can escape.

Even the deepest, darkest water (not, of course, muddy) yields after a
while to the eye. Half close the eyelids, and while gazing into it let
your intelligence rather wait upon the corners of the eye than on the
glance you cast straight forward. For some reason when thus gazing the
edge of the eye becomes exceedingly sensitive, and you are conscious of
slight motions or of a thickness--not a defined object, but a thickness
which indicates an object--which is otherwise quite invisible.

The slow feeling sway of a fish's tail, the edges of which curl over and
grasp the water, may in this manner be identified without being
positively seen, and the dark outline of its body known to exist against
the equally dark water or bank. Shift, too, your position according to
the fall of the light, just as in looking at a painting. From one point
of view the canvas shows little but the presence of paint and blurred
colour, from another at the side the picture stands out.

Sometimes the water can be seen into best from above, sometimes by lying
on the sward, now by standing back a little way, or crossing to the
opposite shore. A spot where the sunshine sparkles with dazzling gleam
is perhaps perfectly inpenetrable till you get the other side of the
ripple, when the same rays that just now baffled the glance light up the
bottom as if thrown from a mirror for the purpose. I convinced myself
that there was nothing here, nothing visible at present--not so much as
a stickleback.

Yet the stream ran clear and sweet, and deep in places. It was too broad
for leaping over. Down the current sedges grew thickly at a curve: up
the stream the young flags were rising; it had an inhabited look, if
such a term may be used, and moorhens and water-rats were about but no
fish. A wide furrow came along the meadow and joined the stream from
the side. Into this furrow, at flood time, the stream overflowed farther
up, and irrigated the level sward.

At present it was dry, its course, traced by the yellowish and white hue
of the grasses in it only recently under water, contrasting with the
brilliant green of the sweet turf around. There was a marsh marigold in
it, with stems a quarter of an inch thick; and in the grass on the
verge, but just beyond where the flood reached, grew the lilac-tinted
cuckoo flowers, or cardamine.

The side hatch supplied a pond, which was only divided from the brook by
a strip of sward not more than twenty yards across. The surface of the
pond was dotted with patches of scum that had risen from the bottom.
Part at least of it was shallow, for a dead branch blown from an elm
projected above the water, and to it came a sedge-reedling for a moment.
The sedge-reedling is so fond of sedges, and reeds, and thick
undergrowth, that though you hear it perpetually within a few yards it
is not easy to see one. On this bare branch the bird was well displayed,
and the streak by the eye was visible; but he stayed there for a second
or two only, and then back again to the sedges and willows.

There were fish I felt sure as I left the spot and returned along the
dusty road, but where were they?

On the sward by the wayside, among the nettles and under the bushes, and
on the mound the dark green arum leaves grew everywhere, sometimes in
bunches close together. These bunches varied--in one place the leaves
were all spotted with black irregular blotches; in another the leaves
were without such markings. When the root leaves of the arum first push
up they are closely rolled together in a pointed spike.

This, rising among the dead and matted leaves of the autumn,
occasionally passes through holes in them. As the spike grows it lifts
the dead leaves with it, which hold it like a ring and prevent it from
unfolding. The force of growth is not sufficiently strong to burst the
bond asunder till the green leaves have attained considerable size.

A little earlier in the year the chattering of magpies would have been
heard while looking for the signs of spring, but they were now occupied
with their nests. There are several within a short distance, easily
distinguished in winter, but somewhat hidden now by the young leaves.
Just before they settled down to housekeeping there was a great
chattering and fluttering and excitement, as they chased each other from
elm to elm.

Four or five were then often in the same field, some in the trees, some
on the ground, their white and black showing distinctly on the level
brown earth recently harrowed or rolled. On such a surface birds are
visible at a distance; but when the blades of the corn begin to reach
any height such as alight are concealed. In many districts of the
country that might be called wild and lonely, the magpie is almost
extinct. Once now and then a pair may be observed, and those who know
their haunts can, of course, find them, but to a visitor passing
through, there seems none. But here, so near the metropolis, the magpies
are common, and during an hour's walk their cry is almost sure to be
heard. They have, however, their favourite locality, where they are much
more frequently seen.

Coming to my seat under the aspen by the bridge week after week, the
burdocks by the wayside gradually spread their leaves, and the
procession of the flowers went on. The dandelion, the lesser celandine,
the marsh marigold, the coltsfoot, all yellow, had already led the van,
closely accompanied by the purple ground-ivy, the red dead-nettle, and
the daisy; this last a late comer in the neighbourhood. The blackthorn,
the horse-chestnut, and the hawthorn came, and the meadows were golden
with the buttercups.

Once only had I noticed any indication of fish in the brook; it was on a
warm Saturday afternoon, when there was a labourer a long way up the
stream, stooping in a peculiar manner near the edge of the water with a
stick in his hand. He was, I felt sure, trying to wire a spawning jack,
but did not succeed. Many weeks had passed, and now there came (as the
close time for coarse fish expired) a concourse of anglers to the almost
stagnant pond fed by the side hatch.

Well-dressed lads with elegant and finished tackle rode up on their
bicycles, with their rods slung at their backs. Hoisting the bicycles
over the gate into the meadow, they left them leaning against the elms,
fitted their rods and fished in the pond. Poorer boys, with long wands
cut from the hedge and ruder lines, trudged up on foot, sat down on the
sward and watched their corks by the hour together. Grown men of the
artisan class, covered with the dust of many miles' tramping, came with
their luncheons in a handkerchief, and set about their sport with a
quiet earnestness which argued long if desultory practice.

In fine weather there were often a dozen youths and four or five men
standing, sitting, or kneeling on the turf along the shore of the pond,
all intent on their floats, and very nearly silent. People driving along
the highway stopped their traps, and carts, and vans a minute or two to
watch them: passengers on foot leaned over the gate, or sat down and
waited expectantly.

Sometimes one of the more venturesome anglers would tuck up his trousers
and walk into the shallow water, so as to be able to cast his bait under
the opposite bank, where it was deep. Then an ancient and much battered
punt was discovered aground in a field at some distance, and dragged to
the pond. One end of the punt had quite rotted away, but by standing at
the other, so as to depress it there and lift the open end above the
surface, two, or even three, could make a shift to fish from it.

The silent and motionless eagerness with which these anglers dwelt upon
their floats, grave as herons, could not have been exceeded. There they
were day after day, always patient and always hopeful. Occasionally a
small catch--a mere "bait "--was handed round for inspection; and once a
cunning fisherman, acquainted with all the secrets of his craft,
succeeded in drawing forth three perch, perhaps a quarter of a pound
each, and one slender eel. These made quite a show, and were greatly
admired; but I never saw the same man there again. He was satisfied.

As I sat on the white rail under the aspen, and inhaled the scent of the
beans flowering hard by, there was a question which suggested itself to
me, and the answer to which I never could supply. The crowd about the
pond all stood with their backs to the beautiful flowing brook. They had
before them the muddy banks of the stagnant pool, on whose surface
patches of scum floated.

Behind them was the delicious stream, clear and limpid, bordered with
sedge and willow and flags, and overhung with branches. The strip of
sward between the two waters was certainly not more than twenty yards;
there was no division hedge, or railing, and evidently no preservation,
for the mouchers came and washed their water-cress which they had
gathered in the ditches by the side hatch, and no one interfered with
them.

There was no keeper or water bailiff, not even a notice board.
Policemen, on foot and mounted, passed several times daily, and, like
everybody else, paused to see the sport, but said not a word. Clearly,
there was nothing whatever to prevent any of those present from angling
in the stream; yet they one and all, without exception, fished in the
pond. This seemed to me a very remarkable fact.

After a while I noticed another circumstance; nobody ever even looked
into the stream or under the arches of the bridge. No one spared a
moment from his float amid the scum of the pond, just to stroll twenty
paces and glance at the swift current. It appeared from this that the
pond had a reputation for fish, and the brook had not. Everybody who had
angled in the pond recommended his friends to go and do likewise. There
were fish in the pond.

So every fresh comer went and angled there, and accepted the fact that
there were fish. Thus the pond obtained a traditionary reputation, which
circulated from lip to lip round about. I need not enlarge on the
analogy that exists in this respect between the pond and various other
things.

By implication it was evidently as much understood and accepted on the
other hand that there was nothing in the stream. Thus I reasoned it out,
sitting under the aspen, and yet somehow the general opinion did not
satisfy me. There must be something in so sweet a stream. The sedges by
the shore, the flags in the shallow, slowly swaying from side to side
with the current, the sedge-reedlings calling, the moorhens and
water-rats, all gave an air of habitation.

One morning, looking very gently over the parapet of the bridge (down
stream) into the shadowy depth beneath, just as my eyes began to see the
bottom, something like a short thick dark stick drifted out from the
arch, somewhat sideways. Instead of proceeding with the current, it had
hardly cleared the arch when it took a position parallel to the flowing
water and brought up. It was thickest at the end that faced the stream;
at the other there was a slight motion as if caused by the current
against a flexible membrane, as it sways a flag. Gazing down intently
into the shadow the colour of the sides of the fish appeared at first
not exactly uniform, and presently these indistinct differences resolved
themselves into spots. It was a trout, perhaps a pound and a half in
weight.

His position was at the side of the arch, out of the rush of the
current, and almost behind the pier, but where he could see anything
that came floating along under the culvert. Immediately above him but
not over was the mass of weeds tangled in the dead branch. Thus in the
shadow of the bridge and in the darkness under the weeds he might easily
have escaped notice. He was, too, extremely wary. The slightest motion
was enough to send him instantly under the arch; his cover was but a
foot distant, and a trout shoots twelve inches in a fraction of time.

The summer advanced, the hay was carted, and the wheat ripened. Already
here and there the reapers had cut portions of the more forward corn. As
I sat from time to time under the aspen, within hearing of the murmuring
water, the thought did rise occasionally that it was a pity to leave
the trout there till some one blundered into the knowledge of his
existence.

There were ways and means by which he could be withdrawn without any
noise or publicity. But, then, what would be the pleasure of securing
him, the fleeting pleasure of an hour, compared to the delight of seeing
him almost day by day? I watched him for many weeks, taking great
precautions that no one should observe how continually I looked over
into the water there. Sometimes after a glance I stood with my back to
the wall as if regarding an object on the other side. If any one was
following me, or appeared likely to peer over the parapet, I carelessly
struck the top of the wall with my stick in such a manner that it should
project, an action sufficient to send the fish under the arch. Or I
raised my hat as if heated, and swung it so that it should alarm him.

If the coast was clear when I had looked at him still I never left
without sending him under the arch in order to increase his alertness.
It was a relief to know that so many persons who went by wore tall hats,
a safeguard against their seeing anything, for if they approached the
shadow of the tall hat reached out beyond the shadow of the parapet, and
was enough to alarm him before they could look over. So the summer
passed, and, though never free from apprehensions, to my great pleasure
without discovery.



A LONDON TROUT


The sword-flags are rusting at their edges, and their sharp points are
turned. On the matted and entangled sedges lie the scattered leaves
which every rush of the October wind hurries from the boughs. Some fall
on the water and float slowly with the current, brown and yellow spots
on the dark surface. The grey willows bend to the breeze; soon the osier
beds will look reddish as the wands are stripped by the gusts. Alone the
thick polled alders remain green, and in their shadow the brook is still
darker. Through a poplar's thin branches the wind sounds as in the
rigging of a ship; for the rest, it is silence.

The thrushes have not forgotten the frost of the morning, and will not
sing at noon; the summer visitors have flown and the moorhens feed
quietly. The plantation by the brook is silent, for the sedges, though
they have drooped and become entangled, are not dry and sapless yet to
rustle loudly. They will rustle dry enough next spring, when the
sedge-birds come. A long withey-bed borders the brook and is more
resorted to by sedge-reedlings, or sedge-birds, as they are variously
called, than any place I know, even in the remotest country.

Generally it has been difficult to see them, because the withey is in
leaf when they come, and the leaves and sheaves of innumerable rods hide
them, while the ground beneath is covered by a thick growth of sedges
and flags, to which the birds descend. It happened once, however, that
the withey stoles had been polled, and in the spring the boughs were
short and small. At the same time, the easterly winds checked the
sedges, so that they were hardly half their height, and the flags were
thin, and not much taller, when the sedge-birds came, so that they for
once found but little cover, and could be seen to advantage.

There could not have been less than fifteen in the plantation, two
frequented some bushes beside a pond near by, some stayed in scattered
willows farther down the stream. They sang so much they scarcely seemed
to have time to feed. While approaching one that was singing by gently
walking on the sward by the roadside, or where thick dust deadened the
footsteps, suddenly another would commence in the low thorn hedge on a
branch, so near that it could be touched with a walking-stick. Yet
though so near the bird was not wholly visible--he was partly concealed
behind a fork of the bough. This is a habit of the sedge-birds. Not in
the least timid, they chatter at your elbow, and yet always partially
hidden.

If in the withey, they choose a spot where the rods cross or bunch
together. If in the sedges, though so close it seems as if you could
reach forward and catch him, he is behind the stalks. To place some
obstruction between themselves and any one passing is their custom: but
that spring, as the foliage was so thin, it only needed a little
dexterity in peering to get a view. The sedge-bird perches aside, on a
sloping willow rod, and, slightly raising his head, chatters, turning
his bill from side to side. He is a very tiny bird, and his little eye
looks out from under a yellowish streak. His song at first sounds
nothing but chatter.

After listening a while the ear finds a scale in it--an arrangement and
composition--so that, though still a chatter, it is a tasteful one. At
intervals he intersperses a chirp, exactly the same as that of the
sparrow, a chirp with a tang in it. Strike a piece of metal, and besides
the noise of the blow, there is a second note, or tang. The sparrow's
chirp has such a note sometimes, and the sedge-bird brings it in--tang,
tang, tang. This sound has given him his country name of brook-sparrow,
and it rather spoils his song. Often the moment he has concluded he
starts for another willow stole, and as he flies begins to chatter when
halfway across, and finishes on a fresh branch.

But long before this another bird has commenced to sing in a bush
adjacent; a third takes it up in the thorn hedge; a fourth in the bushes
across the pond; and from farther down the stream comes a faint and
distant chatter. Ceaselessly the competing gossip goes on the entire day
and most of the night; indeed, sometimes all night through. On a warm
spring morning, when the sunshine pours upon the willows, and even the
white dust of the road is brighter, bringing out the shadows in clear
definition, their lively notes and quick motions make a pleasant
commentary on the low sound of the stream rolling round the curve.

A moorhen's call comes from the hatch. Broad yellow petals of
marsh-marigold stand up high among the sedges rising from the
greyish-green ground, which is covered with a film of sun-dried aquatic
grass left dry by the retiring waters. Here and there are lilac-tinted
cuckoo-flowers, drawn up on taller stalks than those that grow in the
meadows. The black flowers of the sedges are powdered with yellow
pollen; and dark green sword-flags are beginning to spread their fans.
But just across the road, on the topmost twigs of birch poles, swallows
twitter in the tenderest tones to their loves. From the oaks in the
meadows on that side titlarks mount above the highest bough and then
descend, sing, sing, singing, to the grass.

A jay calls in a circular copse in the midst of the meadow; solitary
rooks go over to their nests in the elms on the hill; cuckoos call, now
this way and now that, as they travel round. While leaning on the grey
and lichen-hung rails by the brook, the current glides by, and it is the
motion of the water and its low murmur which renders the place so idle;
the sunbeams brood, the air is still but full of song. Let us, too, stay
and watch the petals fall one by one from a wild apple and float down on
the stream.

But now in autumn the haws are red on the thorn, the swallows are few as
they were in the earliest spring; the sedge-birds have flown, and the
redwings will soon be here. The sharp points of the sword-flags are
turned, their edges rusty, the forget-me-nots are gone. October's winds
are too searching for us to linger beside the brook, but still it is
pleasant to pass by and remember the summer days. For the year is never
gone by; in a moment we can recall the sunshine we enjoyed in May, the
roses we gathered in June, the first wheatear we plucked as the green
corn filled. Other events go by and are forgotten, and even the details
of our own lives, so immensely important to us at the moment, in time
fade from the memory till the date we fancied we should never forget has
to be sought in a diary. But the year is always with us; the months are
familiar always; they have never gone by.

So with the red haws around and the rustling leaves it is easy to recall
the flowers. The withey plantation here is full of flowers in summer;
yellow iris flowers in June when midsummer comes, for the iris loves a
thunder-shower. The flowering flag spreads like a fan from the root,
the edges overlap near the ground, and the leaves are broad as
sword-blades, indeed the plant is one of the largest that grows wild. It
is quite different from the common flag with three grooves--bayonet
shape--which appears in every brook. The yellow iris is much more local,
and in many country streams may be sought for in vain, so that so fine a
display as may be seen here seemed almost a discovery to me.

They were finest in the year of rain, 1879, that terrible year which is
fresh in the memory of all who have any interest in out-of-door matters.
At midsummer the plantation was aglow with iris bloom. The large yellow
petals were everywhere high above the sedge; in one place a dozen, then
two or three, then one by itself, then another bunch. The marsh was a
foot deep in water, which could only be seen by parting the stalks of
the sedges, for it was quite hidden under them. Sedges and flags grew so
thick that everything was concealed except the yellow bloom above.

One bunch grew on a bank raised a few inches above the flood which the
swollen brook had poured in, and there I walked among them; the leaves
came nearly up to the shoulder, the golden flowers on the stalks stood
equally high. It was a thicket of iris. Never before had they risen to
such a height; it was like the vegetation of tropical swamps, so much
was everything drawn up by the continual moisture. Who could have
supposed that such a downpour as occurred that summer would have had the
effect it had upon flowers? Most would have imagined that the excessive
rain would have destroyed them; yet never was there such floral beauty
as that year. Meadow-orchis, buttercups, the yellow iris, all the spring
flowers came forth in extraordinary profusion. The hay was spoiled, the
farmers ruined, but their fields were one broad expanse of flower.

As that spring was one of the wettest, so that of the year in present
view was one of the driest, and hence the plantation between the lane
and the brook was accessible, the sedges and flags short, and the
sedge-birds visible. There is a beech in the plantation standing so near
the verge of the stream that its boughs droop over. It has a number of
twigs around the stem--as a rule the beech-bole is clear of boughs, but
some which are of rather stunted growth are fringed with them. The
leaves on the longer boughs above fall off and voyage down the brook,
but those on the lesser twigs beneath, and only a little way from the
ground, remain on, and rustle, dry and brown, all through the winter.

Under the shelter of these leaves, and close to the trunk, there grew a
plant of flag--the tops of the flags almost reached to the leaves--and
all the winter through, despite the frosts for which it was remarkable,
despite the snow and the bitter winds which followed, this plant
remained green and fresh. From this beech in the morning a shadow
stretches to a bridge across the brook, and in that shadow my trout used
to lie. The bank under the drooping boughs forms a tiny cliff a foot
high, covered with moss, and here I once observed shrew mice diving and
racing about. But only once, though I frequently passed the spot; it is
curious that I did not see them afterwards.

Just below the shadow of the beech there is a sandy, oozy shore, where
the footprints of moorhens are often traceable. Many of the trees of the
plantation stand in water after heavy rain; their leaves drop into it in
autumn, and, being away from the influence of the current, stay and
soak, and lie several layers thick. Their edges overlap, red, brown,
and pale yellow, with the clear water above and shadows athwart it, and
dry white grass at the verge. A horse-chestnut drops its fruit in the
dusty road; high above its leaves are tinted with scarlet.

It was at the tail of one of the arches of the bridge over the brook
that my favourite trout used to lie. Sometimes the shadow of the beech
came as far as his haunts, that was early in the morning, and for the
rest of the day the bridge itself cast a shadow. The other parapet faces
the south, and looking down from it the bottom of the brook is generally
visible, because the light is so strong. At the bottom a green plant may
be seen waving to and fro in summer as the current sways it. It is not a
weed or flag, but a plant with pale green leaves, and looks as if it had
come there by some chance; this is the water-parsnip.

By the shore on this, the sunny side of the bridge, a few forget-me-nots
grow in their season, water crow's-foot flowers, flags lie along the
surface and slowly swing from side to side like a boat at anchor. The
breeze brings a ripple, and the sunlight sparkles on it; the light
reflected dances up the piers of the bridge. Those that pass along the
road are naturally drawn to this bright parapet where the brook winds
brimming full through green meadows. You can see right to the bottom;
you can see where the rush of the water has scooped out a deeper channel
under the arches, but look as long as you like there are no fish.

The trout I watched so long, and with such pleasure, was always on the
other side, at the tail of the arch, waiting for whatever might come
through to him. There in perpetual shadow he lay in wait, a little at
the side of the arch, scarcely ever varying his position except to dart
a yard up under the bridge to seize anything he fancied, and drifting
out again to bring up at his anchorage. If people looked over the
parapet that side they did not see him; they could not see the bottom
there for the shadow, or if the summer noonday cast a strong beam even
then it seemed to cover the surface of the water with a film of light
which could not be seen through. There are some aspects from which even
a picture hung on the wall close at hand cannot be seen. So no one saw
the trout; if any one more curious leant over the parapet he was gone in
a moment under the arch.

Folk fished in the pond about the verge of which the sedge-birds
chattered, and but a few yards distant; but they never looked under the
arch on the northern and shadowy side, where the water flowed beside the
beech. For three seasons this continued. For three summers I had the
pleasure to see the trout day after day whenever I walked that way, and
all that time, with fishermen close at hand, he escaped notice, though
the place was not preserved. It is wonderful to think how difficult it
is to see anything under one's very eyes, and thousands of people walked
actually and physically right over the fish.

However, one morning in the third summer, I found a fisherman standing
in the road and fishing over the parapet in the shadowy water. But he
was fishing at the wrong arch, and only with paste for roach. While the
man stood there fishing, along came two navvies; naturally enough they
went quietly up to see what the fisherman was doing, and one instantly
uttered an exclamation. He had seen the trout. The man who was fishing
with paste had stood so still and patient that the trout, re-assured,
had come out, and the navvy--trust a navvy to see anything of the
kind--caught sight of him.

The navvy knew how to see through water. He told the fisherman, and
there was a stir of excitement, a changing of hooks and bait. I could
not stay to see the result, but went on, fearing the worst. But he did
not succeed; next day the wary trout was there still, and the next, and
the next. Either this particular fisherman was not able to come again,
or was discouraged; at any rate, he did not try again. The fish escaped,
doubtless more wary than ever.

In the spring of the next year the trout was still there, and up to the
summer I used to go and glance at him. This was the fourth season, and
still he was there; I took friends to look at this wonderful fish, which
defied all the loafers and poachers, and above all, surrounded himself
not only with the shadow of the bridge, but threw a mental shadow over
the minds of passers-by, so that they never thought of the possibility
of such a thing as trout. But one morning something happened. The brook
was dammed up on the sunny side of the bridge, and the water let off by
a side-hatch, that some accursed main or pipe or other horror might be
laid across the bed of the stream somewhere far down.

Above the bridge there was a brimming broad brook, below it the flags
lay on the mud, the weeds drooped, and the channel was dry. It was dry
up to the beech tree. There, under the drooping boughs of the beech, was
a small pool of muddy water, perhaps two yards long, and very narrow--a
stagnant muddy pool, not more than three or four inches deep. In this I
saw the trout. In the shallow water, his back came up to the surface
(for his fins must have touched the mud sometimes)--once it came above
the surface, and his spots showed as plain as if you had held him in
your hand. He was swimming round to try and find out the reason of this
sudden stinting of room.

Twice he heaved himself somewhat on his side over a dead branch that was
at the bottom, and exhibited all his beauty to the air and sunshine.
Then he went away into another part of the shallow and was hidden by the
muddy water. Now under the arch of the bridge, his favourite arch, close
by there was a deep pool, for, as already mentioned, the scour of the
current scooped away the sand and made a hole there. When the stream was
shut off by the dam above this hole remained partly full. Between this
pool and the shallow under the beech there was sufficient connection for
the fish to move into it.

My only hope was that he would do so, and as some showers fell,
temporarily increasing the depth of the narrow canal between the two
pools, there seemed every reason to believe that he had got to that
under the arch. If now only that accursed pipe or main, or whatever
repair it was, could only be finished quickly, even now the trout might
escape! Every day my anxiety increased, for the intelligence would soon
get about that the brook was dammed up, and any pools left in it would
be sure to attract attention.

Sunday came, and directly the bells had done ringing four men attacked
the pool under the arch. They took off shoes and stockings and waded in,
two at each end of the arch. Stuck in the mud close by was an eel-spear.
They churned up the mud, wading in, and thickened and darkened it as
they groped under. No one could watch these barbarians longer.

Is it possible that he could have escaped? He was a wonderful fish, wary
and quick. Is it just possible that they may not even have known that a
trout was there at all; but have merely hoped for perch, or tench, or
eels? The pool was deep and the fish quick--they did not bale it, might
he have escaped? Might they even, if they did find him, have mercifully
taken him and placed him alive in some other water nearer their homes?
Is it possible that he may have almost miraculously made his way down
the stream into other pools?

There was very heavy rain one night, which might have given him such a
chance. These "mights," and "ifs," and "is it possible" even now keep
alive some little hope that some day I may yet see him again. But that
was in the early summer. It is now winter, and the beech has brown
spots. Among the limes the sedges are matted and entangled, the
sword-flags rusty; the rooks are at the acorns, and the plough is at
work in the stubble. I have never seen him since. I never failed to
glance over the parapet into the shadowy water. Somehow it seemed to
look colder, darker, less pleasant than it used to do. The spot was
empty, and the shrill winds whistled through the poplars.



A BARN


A broad red roof of tile is a conspicuous object on the same road which
winds and turns in true crooked country fashion, with hedgerows, trees,
and fields on both sides, and scarcely a dwelling visible. It is not,
indeed, so crooked as a lane in Gloucestershire, which I verily believe
passes the same tree thrice, but the curves are frequent enough to vary
the view pleasantly.

Approaching from either direction, on turning a certain corner a great
red roof rises high above the hedges, and the line of its ridge is seen
every way through the trees. With this old barn, as with so much of the
architecture of former times, the roof is the most important part. The
gables, for instance, of Elizabethan houses occupy the eye far more than
the walls; and so, too, with the antique halls that still exist. The
roof of this old barn is itself the building; the roof and the doors,
for the sweeping slope of the tiles comes down within reach of the hand,
while the great doors extend half-way to the ridge.

By the low black wooden walls a little chaff has been spilt, and has
blown out and mingles with the dust of the road. Loose straws lie across
the footpath, trodden flat by passing feet; straws have wandered across
the road and lodged on the mound, and others have roamed still farther
round the corner. Between the gatepost and the wall that encloses the
rickyard more straws are jammed, and yet more are borne up by the
nettles beneath it.

Mosses have grown over the old red brick wall, both on the top and
following the lines of the mortar, and bunches of wall grasses flourish
along the top. The wheat, and barley, and hay carted home to the
rickyard contain the seeds of innumerable plants, many of which,
dropping to the ground, come up next year. The trodden earth round where
the ricks stood seems favourable to their early appearance; the first
poppy blooms here, though its colour is paler than those which come
afterwards in the fields.

In spring most of the ricks are gone, threshed and sold, but there
remains the vast pile of straw--always straw--and the three-cornered
stump of a hay-rick which displays bands of different hues, one above
the other, like the strata of a geological map. Some of the hay was put
up damp, some in good condition, and some had been browned by bad
weather before being carted.

About the straw-rick, and over the chaff that everywhere strews the
earth, numerous fowls search, and by the gateway Chanticleer proudly
stands, tall and upright, the king of the rickyard still, as he and his
ancestors have been these hundreds of years. Under the granary, which is
built on stone staddles, to exclude the mice, some turkeys are huddled
together calling occasionally for a "halter," and beyond them the green,
glossy neck of a drake glistens in the sunshine.

When the corn is high, and sometimes before it is well up, the doors of
the barn are daily open, and shock-headed children peer over the hatch.
There are others within playing and tumbling on a heap of straw--always
straw--which is their bed at night. The sacks which form their
counterpane are rolled aside, and they have half the barn for their
nursery. If it is wet, at least one great girl and the mother will be
there too, gravely sewing, and sitting where they can see all that goes
along the road.

A hundred yards away, in a corner of an arable field, the very windiest
and most draughty that could be chosen, where the hedge is cut down so
that it can barely be called a hedge, and where the elms draw the wind,
the men of the family crowd over a smoky fire. In the wind and rain the
fire could not burn at all had they not by means of a stick propped up a
hurdle to windward, and thus sheltered it. As it is there seems no
flame, only white embers and a flow of smoke, into which the men from
time to time cast the dead wood they have gathered. Here the pot is
boiled and the cooking accomplished at a safe distance from the litter
and straw of the rickyard.

These people are Irish, who come year after year to the same barn for
the hoeing and the harvest, travelling from the distant West to gather
agricultural wages on the verge of the metropolis.

In fine summer weather, beside the usual business traffic, there goes
past this windy bare corner a constant stream of pleasure-seekers,
heavily laden four-in-hands, tandems, dog-carts, equestrians, and open
carriages, filled with well-dressed ladies. They represent the abundant
gold of trade and commerce. In their careless luxury they do not
notice--how should they?--the smoky fire in the barren corner, or the
shock-headed children staring at the equipages over the hatch at the
barn.

Within a mile there is a similar fire, which by day is not noticeable,
because the spot is under a hedge two meadows back from the road. At
night it shows brightly, and even as late as eleven o'clock dusky
figures may be seen about it, as if the family slept in the open air. A
third fire is kept up in the same neighbourhood, but in a different
direction, in a meadow bordering on a lonely lane. There is a thatched
shed behind the hedge, which is the sleeping-place--the fire burns some
forty yards away. Still another shines at night in an open arable field,
where is a barn.

One day I observed a farmer's courtyard completely filled with groups of
men, women, and children, who had come travelling round to do the
harvesting. They had with them a small cart or van--not of the kind
which the show folk use as movable dwellings, but for the purpose of
carrying their pots, pans, and the like. The greater number carry their
burdens on their backs, trudging afoot.

A gang of ten or twelve once gathered round me to inquire the direction
of some spot they desired to reach. A powerful-looking woman, with
reaping-hook in her hand and cooking implements over her shoulder, was
the speaker. The rest did not appear to know a word of English, and her
pronunciation was so peculiar that it was impossible to understand what
she meant except by her gestures. I suppose she wanted to find a farm,
the name of which I could not get at, and then perceiving she was not
understood her broad face flushed red and she poured out a flood of
Irish in her excitement. The others chimed in, and the din redoubled. At
last I caught the name of a town and was thus able to point the way.

About harvest time it is common to meet an Irish labourer dressed in the
national costume: a tall, upright fellow with a long-tailed coat,
breeches, and worsted stockings. He walks as upright as if drilled, with
a quick easy gait and springy step, quite distinct from the Saxon stump.
When the corn is cut these bivouac fires go out, and the camp
disappears, but the white ashes remain, and next season the smoke will
rise again.

The barn here with its broad red roof, and the rickyard with the stone
staddles, and the litter of chaff and straw, is the central rendezvous
all the year of the resident labourers. Day by day, and at all hours,
there is sure to be some of them about the place. The stamp of the land
is on them. They border on the city, but are as distinctly agricultural
and as immediately recognisable as in the heart of the country. This
sturdy carter, as he comes round the corner of the straw-rick, cannot be
mistaken.

He is short and thickly set, a man of some fifty years, but hard and
firm of make. His face is broad and red, his shiny fat cheeks almost as
prominent as his stumpy nose, likewise red and shiny. A fringe of
reddish whiskers surrounds his chin like a cropped hedge. The eyes are
small and set deeply, a habit of half-closing the lids when walking in
the teeth of the wind and rain has caused them to appear still smaller.
The wrinkles at the corners and the bushy eyebrows are more visible and
pronounced than the eyes themselves, which are mere bright grey points
twinkling with complacent good humour.

These red cheeks want but the least motion to break into a smile; the
action of opening the lips to speak is sufficient to give that
expression. The fur cap he wears allows the round shape of his head to
be seen, and the thick neck which is the colour of a brick. He trudges
deliberately round the straw-rick: there is something in the style of
the man which exactly corresponds to the barn, and the straw, and the
stone staddles, and the waggons. Could we look back three hundred years,
just such a man would be seen in the midst of the same surroundings,
deliberately trudging round the straw-ricks of Elizabethan days, calm
and complacent though the Armada be at hand. There are the ricks just
the same, here is the barn, and the horses are in good case; the wheat
is coming on well. Armies may march, but these are the same.

When his waggon creaks along the road towards the town his eldest lad
walks proudly by the leader's head, and two younger boys ride in the
vehicle. They pass under the great elms; now the sunshine and now the
shadow falls upon them; the horses move with measured step and without
haste, and both horses and human folks are content in themselves.

As you sit in summer on the beach and gaze afar over the blue waters
scarcely flecked with foam, how slowly the distant ship moves along the
horizon. It is almost, but not quite, still. You go to lunch and return,
and the vessel is still there; what patience the man at the wheel must
have. So, now, resting here on the stile, see the plough yonder,
travelling as it were with all sails set.

Three shapely horses in line draw the share. The traces are taut, the
swing-tree like a yard braced square, the helmsman at the tiller bears
hard upon the stilts. But does it move? The leading horse, seen distinct
against the sky, lifts a hoof and places it down again, stepping in the
last furrow made. But then there is a perceptible pause before the next
hoof rises, and yet again a perceptible delay in the pull of the
muscles. The stooping ploughman walking in the new furrow, with one foot
often on the level and the other in the hollow, sways a little with the
lurch of his implement, but barely drifts ahead.

While watched they scarcely move; but now look away for a time and on
returning the plough itself and the lower limbs of the ploughman and
the horses are out of sight. They have gone over a slope, and are "hull
down"; a few minutes more, and they disappear behind the ridge. Look
away again and read or dream, as you would on the beach, and then, see,
the head and shoulders of the leading horse are up, and by-and-by the
plough rises, as they come back on the opposite tack. Thus the long
hours slowly pass.

Intent day after day upon the earth beneath his feet or upon the tree in
the hedge yonder, by which, as by a lighthouse, he strikes out a
straight furrow, his mind absorbs the spirit of the land. When the
plough pauses, as he takes out his bread and cheese in the corner of the
field for luncheon, he looks over the low cropped hedge and sees far off
the glitter of the sunshine on the glass roof of the Crystal Palace. The
light plays and dances on it, flickering as on rippling water. But,
though hard by, he is not of London. The horses go on again, and his
gaze is bent down upon the furrow.

A mile or so up the road there is a place where it widens, and broad
strips of sward run parallel on both sides. Beside the path, but just
off it, so as to be no obstruction, an aged man stands watching his
sheep. He has stood there so long that at last the restless sheep dog
has settled down on the grass. He wears a white smock-frock, and leans
heavily on his long staff, which he holds with both hands, propping his
chest upon it. His face is set in a frame of white--white hair, white
whiskers, short white beard. It is much wrinkled with years; but still
has a hale and hearty hue.

The sheep are only on their way from one part of the farm to another,
perhaps half a mile; but they have already been an hour, and will
probably occupy another in getting there. Some are feeding steadily;
some are in a gateway, doing nothing, like their pastor; if they were
on the loneliest slope of the Downs he and they could not be more
unconcerned. Carriages go past, and neither the sheep nor the shepherd
turn to look.

Suddenly there comes a hollow booming sound--a roar, mellowed and
subdued by distance, with a peculiar beat upon the ear, as if a wave
struck the nerve and rebounded and struck again in an infinitesimal
fraction of time--such a sound as can only bellow from the mouth of
cannon. Another and another. The big guns at Woolwich are at work. The
shepherd takes no heed--neither he nor his sheep.

His ears must acknowledge the sound, but his mind pays no attention. He
knows of nothing but his sheep. You may brush by him along the footpath
and it is doubtful if he sees you. But stay and speak about the sheep,
and instantly he looks you in the face and answers with interest.

Round the corner of the straw-rick by the red-roofed barn there comes
another man, this time with smoke-blackened face, and bringing with him
an odour of cotton waste and oil. He is the driver of a steam ploughing
engine, whose broad wheels in summer leave their impression in the deep
white dust of the roads, and in moist weather sink into the soil at the
gateways and leave their mark as perfect as in wax. But though familiar
with valves, and tubes, and gauges, spending his hours polishing brass
and steel, and sometimes busy with spanner and hammer, his talk, too, is
of the fields.

He looks at the clouds, and hopes it will continue fine enough to work.
Like many others of the men who are employed on the farms about town he
came originally from a little village a hundred miles away, in the heart
of the country. The stamp of the land is on him, too.

Besides the Irish, who pass in gangs and generally have a settled
destination, many agricultural folk drift along the roads and lanes
searching for work. They are sometimes alone, or in couples, or they are
a man and his wife, and carry hoes. You can tell them as far as you can
see them, for they stop and look over every gateway to note how the crop
is progressing, and whether any labour is required.

On Saturday afternoons, among the crowd of customers at the shops in the
towns, under the very shadow of the almost palatial villas of wealthy
"City" men, there may be seen women whose dress and talk at once mark
them out as agricultural. They have come in on foot from distant farms
for a supply of goods, and will return heavily laden. No town-bred
woman, however poor, would dress so plainly as these cottage matrons.
Their daughters who go with them have caught the finery of the town, and
they do not mean to stay in the cottage.

There is a bleak arable field, on somewhat elevated ground, not very far
from the same old barn. In the corner of this field for the last two or
three years a great pit of roots has been made: that is, the roots are
piled together and covered with straw and earth. When this mound is
opened in the early spring a stout, elderly woman takes her seat beside
it, billhook in hand, and there she sits the day through trimming the
roots one by one, and casting those that she has prepared aside ready to
be carted away to the cattle.

A hurdle or two propped up with stakes, and against which some of the
straw from a mound has been thrown, keeps off some of the wind. But the
easterly breezes sweeping over the bare upland must rush round and over
that slight bulwark with force but little broken. Holding the root in
the left hand, she turns it round and slashes off the projections with
quick blows, which seem to only just miss her fingers, laughing and
talking the while with two children who have brought her some
refreshment, and who roll and tumble and play about her. The scene might
be bodily removed and set down a hundred miles away, in the midst of a
western county, and would there be perfectly at one with the
surroundings.

Here, as she sits and chops, the east wind brings the boom of trains
continually rolling over an iron bridge to and from the metropolis. She
was there two successive seasons to my knowledge; she, too, had the
stamp of the land upon her.

The broad sward where the white-haired shepherd so often stands watching
his sheep feeding along to this field, is decked in summer with many
flowers. By the hedge the agrimony frequently lifts its long stem,
surrounded with small yellow petals. One day towards autumn I noticed a
man looking along a hedge, and found that he was gathering this plant.
He had a small armful of the straggling stalks, from which the flowers
were then fading. The herb had once a medicinal reputation, and, curious
to know if it was still remembered, I asked him the name of the herb and
what it was for. He replied that it was agrimony. "We makes tea of it,
and it is good for the flesh," or, as he pronounced it, "fleysh."



WHEATFIELDS


The cornfields immediately without London on the southern side are among
the first to be reaped. Regular as if clipped to a certain height, the
level wheat shows the slope of the ground, corresponding to it, so that
the glance travels swiftly and unchecked across the fields. They scarce
seemed divided, for the yellow ears on either side rise as high as the
cropped hedge between.

Red spots, like larger poppies, now appear above and now dive down again
beneath the golden surface. These are the red caps worn by some of the
reapers; some of the girls, too, have a red scarf across the shoulder or
round the waist. By instinctive sympathy the heat of summer requires the
contrast of brilliant hues, of scarlet and gold, of poppy and wheat.

A girl, as she rises from her stooping position, turns a face, brown, as
if stained with walnut juice, towards me, the plain gold ring in her
brown ear gleams, so, too, the rings on her finger, nearly black from
the sun, but her dark eyes scarcely pause a second on a stranger. She is
too busy, her tanned fingers are at work again gathering up the cut
wheat. This is no gentle labour, but "hard hand-play," like that in the
battle of the olden time sung by the Saxon poet.

The ceaseless stroke of the reaping-hook falls on the ranks of the corn:
the corn yields, but only inch by inch. If the burning sun, or thirst,
or weariness forces the reaper to rest, the fight too stays, the ranks
do not retreat, and victory is only won by countless blows. The boom of
a bridge as a train rolls over the iron girders resounds, and the brazen
dome on the locomotive is visible for a moment as it passes across the
valley. But no one heeds it--the train goes on its way to the great
city, the reapers abide by their labour. Men and women, lads and girls,
some mere children, judged by their stature, are plunged as it were in
the wheat.

The few that wear bright colours are seen: the many who do not are
unnoticed. Perhaps the dusky girl here with the red scarf may have some
strain of the gipsy, some far-off reminiscence of the sunlit East which
caused her to wind it about her. The sheaf grows under her fingers, it
is bound about with a girdle of twisted stalks, in which mingle the
green bine of convolvulus and the pink-streaked bells that must fade.

Heat comes down from above; heat comes up from beneath, from the dry,
white earth, from the rows of stubble, as if emitted by the endless
tubes of cut stalks pointing upwards. Wheat is a plant of the sun: it
loves the heat, and heat crackles in the rustle of the straw. The
pimpernels above which the hook passed are wide open: the larger white
convolvulus trumpets droop languidly on the low hedge: the distant hills
are dim with the vapour of heat; the very clouds which stay motionless
in the sky reflect a yet more brilliant light from their white edges. Is
there no shadow?

There is no tree in the field, and the low hedge can shelter nothing;
but bordering the next, on rather higher ground, is an ash copse, with
some few spruce firs. Resting on a rail in the shadow of these firs, a
light air now and again draws along beside the nut-tree bushes of the
hedge, the cooler atmosphere of the shadow, perhaps causes it. Faint as
it is, it sways the heavy laden brome grass, but is not strong enough to
lift a ball of thistledown from the bennets among which it is entangled.

How swiftly the much-desired summer comes upon us! Even with the reapers
at work before one it is difficult to realise that it has not only come,
but will soon be passing away. Sweet summer is but just long enough for
the happy loves of the larks. It seems but yesterday, it is really more
than five months since, that, leaning against the gate there, I watched
a lark and his affianced on the ground among the grey stubble of last
year still standing.

His crest was high and his form upright, he ran a little way and then
sang, went on again and sang again to his love, moving parallel with
him. Then passing from the old dead stubble to fresh-turned furrows,
still they went side by side, now down in the valley between the clods,
now mounting the ridges, but always together, always with song and joy,
till I lost them across the brown earth. But even then from time to time
came the sweet voice, full of hope in coming summer.

The day declined, and from the clear, cold sky of March the moon looked
down, gleaming on the smooth planed furrow which the plough had passed.
Scarce had she faded in the dawn ere the lark sang again, high in the
morning sky. The evenings became dark; still he rose above the shadows
and the dusky earth, and his song fell from the bosom of the night. With
full untiring choir the joyous host heralded the birth of the corn; the
slender forceless seed-leaves which came gently up till they had risen
above the proud crests of the lovers.

Time advanced and the bare mounds about the field, carefully cleaned by
the husbandman, were covered again with wild herbs and plants, like a
fringe to a garment of pure green. Parsley and "gix," and clogweed, and
sauce-alone, whose white flowers smell of garlic if crushed in the
fingers, came up along the hedge; by the gateway from the bare trodden
earth appeared the shepherd's purse; small must be the coin to go in its
seed capsule, and therefore it was so called with grim and truthful
humour, for the shepherd, hard as is his work, facing wind and weather,
carries home but little money.

Yellow charlock shot up faster and shone bright above the corn; the oaks
showered down their green flowers like moss upon the ground; the
tree-pipits sang on the branches and descending to the wheat. The rusty
chain-harrow, lying inside the gate, all tangled together, was concealed
with grasses. Yonder the magpies fluttered over the beans among which
they are always searching in spring; blackbirds, too, are fond of a
beanfield.

Time advanced again, and afar on the slope bright yellow mustard
flowered, a hill of yellow behind the elms. The luxuriant purple of
trifolium, acres of rich colour, glowed in the sunlight. There was a
scent of flowering beans, the vetches were in flower, and the peas which
clung together for support--the stalk of the pea goes through the leaf
as a painter thrusts his thumb through his palette. Under the edge of
the footpath through the wheat a wild pansy blooms.

Standing in the gateway beneath the shelter of the elms as the clouds
come over, it is pleasant to hear the cool refreshing rain come softly
down; the green wheat drinks it as it falls, so that hardly a drop
reaches the ground, and to-morrow it will be as dry as ever.
Wood-pigeons call from the hedges, and blackbirds whistle in the trees;
the sweet delicious rain refreshes them as it does the corn.

Thunder mutters in the distance, and the electric atmosphere rapidly
draws the wheat up higher. A few days' sunshine and the first wheatear
appears. Very likely there are others near, but standing with their hood
of green leaf towards you, and therefore hidden. As the wheat comes into
ear it is garlanded about with hedges in full flower.

It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the
high-reaching briars white June roses; white flowers on the lowly
brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner, and white cornels
blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round
the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch;
white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so
midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat
into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.

But these, though the most prominent along the hedge, are not the only
flowers; the prevalent white is embroidered with other hues. The brown
feathers of a few reeds growing where the furrows empty the showers into
the ditch, wave above the corn. Among the leaves of mallow its mauve
petals are sheltered from the sun. On slender stalks the yellow
vetchling blooms, reaching ambitiously as tall as the lowest of the
brambles. Bird's-foot lotus, with red claws, is overtopped by the
grasses.

The elm has a fresh green--it has put forth its second or midsummer
shoot; the young leaves of the aspen are white, and the tree as the wind
touches it seems to turn grey. The furrows run to the ditch under the
reeds, the ditch declines to a little streamlet which winds all hidden
by willowherb and rush and flag, a mere trickle of water under
brooklime, away at the feet of the corn. In the shadow, deep down
beneath the crumbling bank which is only held up by the roots of the
grasses, is a forget-me-not with a tiny circlet of yellow in the centre
of its petals.

The coming of the ears of wheat forms an era and a date, a fixed point
in the story of the summer. It is then that, soon after dawn, the clear
sky assumes the delicate and yet luscious purple which seems to shine
through the usual atmosphere, as if its former blue became translucent
and an inner and ethereal light of colour was shown. As the sun rises
higher the brilliance of his rays overpowers it, and even at midsummer
it is but rarely seen.

The morning sky is often, too, charged with saffron, or the blue is
clear, but pale, and the sunrise might be watched for many mornings
without the appearance of this exquisite hue. Once seen, it will ever be
remembered. Upon the Downs in early autumn, as the vapours clear away,
the same colour occasionally gleams from the narrow openings of blue
sky. But at midsummer, above the opening wheatears, the heaven from the
east to the zenith is flushed with it.

At noonday, as the light breeze comes over, the wheat rustles the more
because the stalks are stiffening and swing from side to side from the
root instead of yielding up the stem. Stay now at every gateway and lean
over while the midsummer hum sounds above. It is a peculiar sound, not
like the querulous buzz of the honey, nor the drone of the humble bee,
but a sharp ringing resonance like that of a tuning-fork. Sometimes, in
the far-away country where it is often much louder, the folk think it
has a threatening note.

Here the barley has taken a different tint now the beard is out; here
the oats are straggling forth from their sheath; here a pungent odour of
mustard in flower comes on the air; there a poppy faints with broad
petals flung back and drooping, unable to uphold its gorgeous robes.
The flower of the field pea, here again, would make a model for a lady's
hat; so would a butterfly with closed wings on the verge of a leaf; so
would the broom blossom, or the pink flower of the restharrow. This
hairy caterpillar, creeping along the hawthorn, which if touched,
immediately coils itself in a ring, very recently was thought a charm in
distant country places for some diseases of childhood, if hung about the
neck. Hedge mustard, yellow and ragged and dusty, stands by the gateway.

In the evening, as the dew gathers on the grass, which feels cooler to
the hand some time before an actual deposit, the clover and vetches
close their leaves--the signal the hares have been waiting for to
venture from the sides of the fields where they have been cautiously
roaming, and take bolder strolls across the open and along the lanes.
The aspens rustle louder in the stillness of the evening; their leaves
not only sway to and fro, but semi-rotate upon the stalks, which causes
their scintillating appearance. The stars presently shine from the pale
blue sky, and the wheat shimmers dimly white beneath them.

So time advances till to-day, watching the reapers from the shadow of
the copse, it seems as if within that golden expanse there must be
something hidden, could you but rush in quickly and seize it--some
treasure of the sunshine; and there _is_ a treasure, the treasure of
life stored in those little grains, the slow product of the sun. But it
cannot be grasped in an impatient moment--it must be gathered with
labour. I have threshed out in my hand three ears of the ripe wheat: how
many foot-pounds of human energy do these few light grains represent?

The roof of the Crystal Palace yonder gleams and sparkles this
afternoon as if it really were crystal under the bright rays. But it was
concealed by mist when the ploughs in the months gone by were guided in
these furrows by men, hard of feature and of hand, stooping to their
toil. The piercing east wind scattered the dust in clouds, looking at a
distance like small rain across the field, when grey-coated men, grey
too of beard, followed the red drill to and fro.

How many times the horses stayed in this sheltered corner while the
ploughmen and their lads ate their crusts! How many times the farmer and
the bailiff, with hands behind their backs, considering, walked along
the hedge taking counsel of the earth if they had done right! How many
times hard gold and silver was paid over at the farmer's door for labour
while yet the plant was green; how many considering cups of ale were
emptied in planning out the future harvest!

Now it is come, and still more labour--look at the reapers yonder--and
after that more time and more labour before the sacks go to the market.
Hard toil and hard fare: the bread which the reapers have brought with
them for their luncheon is hard and dry, the heat has dried it like a
chip. In the corner of the field the women have gathered some sticks and
lit a fire--the flame is scarce seen in the sunlight, and the sticks
seem eaten away as they burn by some invisible power. They are boiling a
kettle, and their bread, too, which they will soak in the tea, is dry
and chip-like. Aside, on the ground by the hedge, is a handkerchief tied
at the corners, with a few mushrooms in it.

The scented clover field--the white campions dot it here and
there--yields a rich, nectareous food for ten thousand bees, whose hum
comes together with its odour on the air. But these men and women and
children ceaselessly toiling know no such sweets; their food is as hard
as their labour. How many foot-pounds, then, of human energy do these
grains in my hand represent? Do they not in their little compass contain
the potentialities, the past and the future, of human life itself?

Another train booms across the iron bridge in the hollow. In a few hours
now the carriages will be crowded with men hastening home from their
toil in the City. The narrow streak of sunshine which day by day falls
for a little while upon the office floor, yellowed by the dingy pane, is
all, perhaps, to remind them of the sun and sky, of the forces of
nature; and that little is unnoticed. The pressure of business is so
severe in these later days that in the hurry and excitement it is not
wonderful many should forget that the world is not comprised in the
court of a City thoroughfare.

Rapt and absorbed in discount and dollars, in bills and merchandise, the
over-strung mind deems itself all--the body is forgotten, the physical
body, which is subject to growth and change, just as the plants and the
very grass of the field. But there is a subtle connection between the
physical man and the great nature which comes pressing up so closely to
the metropolis. He still depends in the nineteenth century, as in the
dim ages before the Pyramids, upon this tiny yellow grain here, rubbed
out from the ear of wheat. The clever mechanism of the locomotive which
bears him to and fro, week after week and month after month, from home
to office and from office home, has not rendered him in the least degree
independent of this.

But it is no wonder that these things are forgotten in the daily
struggle of London. And if the merchant spares an abstracted glance from
the morning or evening newspaper out upon the fields from the carriage
window, the furrows of the field can have but little meaning. Each
looks to him exactly alike. To the farmers and the labourer such and
such a furrow marks an acre and has its bearing, but to the passing
glance it is not so. The work in the field is so slow; the passenger by
rail sees, as it seems to him, nothing going on; the corn may sow itself
almost for all that is noteworthy in apparent labour.

Thus it happens that, although the cornfields and the meadows come so
closely up to the offices and warehouses of mighty London, there is a
line and mark in the minds of men between them; the man of merchandise
does not see what the man of the fields sees, though both may pass the
same acres every morning. It is inevitable that it should be so. It is
easy in London to forget that it is midsummer, till, going some day into
Covent Garden Market, you see baskets of the cornflower, or blue-bottle
as it is called in the country, ticketed "Corinne," and offered for
sale. The lovely azure of the flower recalls the scene where it was
first gathered long since at the edge of the wheat.

By the copse here now the teazles lift their spiny heads high in the
hedge, the young nuts are browning, the wild mints flowering on the
shores of the ditch, and the reapers are cutting ceaselessly at the ripe
corn. The larks have brought their loves to a happy conclusion. Besides
them the wheat in its day has sheltered many other creatures--both
animals and birds.

Hares raced about it in the spring, and even in the May sunshine might
be seen rambling over the slopes. As it grew higher it hid the leverets
and the partridge chicks. Toll has been taken by rook, and sparrow, and
pigeon. Enemies, too, have assailed it; the daring couch invaded it, the
bindweed climbed up the stalk, the storm rushed along and beat it down.
Yet it triumphed, and to-day the full sheaves lean against each other.



THE CROWS


On one side of the road immediately after quitting the suburb there is a
small cover of furze. The spines are now somewhat browned by the summer
heats, and the fern which grows about every bush trembles on the balance
of colour between green and yellow. Soon, too, the tall wiry grass will
take a warm brown tint, which gradually pales as the autumn passes into
winter, and finally bleaches to greyish white.

Looking into the furze from the footpath, there are purple traces here
and there at the edge of the fern where the heath-bells hang. On a furze
branch, which projects above the rest, a furze chat perches, with yellow
blossom above and beneath him. Rushes mark the margin of small pools and
marshy spots, so overhung with brambles and birch branches, and so
closely surrounded by gorse, that they would not otherwise be noticed.

But the thick growth of rushes intimates that water is near, and upon
parting the bushes a little may be seen, all that has escaped
evaporation in the shade. From one of these marshy spots I once--and
once only--observed a snipe rise, and after wheeling round return and
settle by another. As the wiry grass becomes paler with the fall of the
year, the rushes, on the contrary, from green become faintly yellow, and
presently brownish. Grey grass and brown rushes, dark furze, and fern,
almost copper in hue from frost, when lit up by a gleam of winter
sunshine form a pleasant breadth of warm colour in the midst of bare
fields.

After continuous showers in spring, lizards are often found in the
adjacent gardens, their dark backs as they crawl over the patches being
almost exactly the tint of the moist earth. If touched, the tail is
immediately coiled, the body stiffens, and the creature appears dead.
They are popularly supposed to come from the furze, which is also
believed to shelter adders.

There is, indeed, scarcely a cover in Surrey and Kent which is not said
to have its adders; the gardeners employed at villas close to the
metropolis occasionally raise an alarm, and profess to have seen a viper
in the shrubberies, or the ivy, or under an old piece of bast. Since so
few can distinguish at a glance between the common snake and the adder
it is as well not to press too closely upon any reptile that may chance
to be heard rustling in the grass, and to strike tussocks with the
walking-stick before sitting down to rest, for the adder is only
dangerous when unexpectedly encountered.

In the roadside ditch by the furze the figwort grows, easily known by
its coarse square stem; and the woody bines, if so they may be called,
or stalks of bitter-sweet, remain all the winter standing in the
hawthorn hedge. The first frosts, on the other hand, shrivel the bines
of white bryony, which part and hang separated, and in the spring a
fresh bine pushes up with greyish green leaves and tendrils feeling for
support. It is often observed that the tendrils of this bryony coil both
ways, with and against the sun.

But it must be remembered in looking for this that it is the same
tendril which should be examined, and not two different ones. It will
then be seen that the tendril, after forming a spiral one way, lengthens
out like a tiny green wax taper, and afterwards turns the other.
Sometimes it resumes the original turn before reaching a branch to cling
to, and may thus be said to have revolved in three directions. The dusty
celandine grows under the bushes; and its light green leaves seem to
retain the white dust from the road. Ground ivy creeps everywhere over
the banks, and covers the barest spot. In April its flowers, though much
concealed by leaves, dot the sides of the ditches with colour, like the
purple tint that lurks in the amethyst.

A small black patch marks the site of one of those gorse fires which are
so common in Surrey. This was extinguished before it could spread beyond
a few bushes. The crooked stems remain black as charcoal, too much burnt
to recover, and in the centre a young birch scorched by the flames
stands leafless. This barren birch, bare of foliage and apparently
unattractive, is the favourite resort of yellow-hammers. Perching on a
branch towards evening a yellow-hammer will often sit and sing by the
hour together, as if preferring to be clear of leafy sprays.

The somewhat dingy hue of many trees as the summer begins to wane is
caused not only by the fading of the green, but by the appearance of
spots upon the leaves, as may be seen on those birches which grow among
the furze. But in spring and early summer their fresh light green
contrasts with masses of bright yellow gorse bloom. Just before
then--just as the first leaves are opening--the chiffchaffs come.

The first spring I had any knowledge of this spot was mild, and had been
preceded by mild seasons. The chiffchaffs arrived all at once, as it
seemed, in a bevy, and took possession of every birch about the furze,
calling incessantly with might and main. The willow-wrens were nearly
as numerous. All the gorse seemed full of them for a few days. Then by
degrees they gradually spread abroad, and dispersed among the hedges.

But in the following springs nothing of the kind occurred. Chiffchaff
and willow-wren came as usual, but they did not arrive in a crowd at
once. This may have been owing to the flight going elsewhere, or
possibly the flock were diminished by failure to rear the young broods
in so drenching a season as 1879, which would explain the difference
observed next spring. There was no scarcity, but there was a lack of the
bustle and excitement and flood of song that accompanied their advent
two years before.

Upon a piece of waste land at the corner of the furze a very large
cinder and dust heap was made by carting refuse there from the
neighbouring suburb. During the sharp and continued frosts of the winter
this dust-heap was the resort of almost every species of bird--sparrows,
starlings, greenfinches, and rooks searching for any stray morsels of
food. Some birdcatchers soon noticed this concourse, and spread their
nets among the adjacent rushes, but fortunately with little success.

I say fortunately, not because I fear the extinction of small birds, but
because of the miserable fate that awaits the captive. Far better for
the frightened little creature to have its neck at once twisted and to
die than to languish in cages hardly large enough for it to turn in
behind the dirty panes of the windows in the Seven Dials.

The happy greenfinch--I use the term of forethought, for the greenfinch
seems one of the very happiest of birds in the hedges--accustomed during
all its brief existence to wander in company with friends from bush to
bush, and tree to tree, must literally pine its heart out. Or it may be
streaked with bright paint and passed on some unwary person for a Java
sparrow or a "blood-heart."

The little boy who dares to take a bird's nest is occasionally fined and
severely reproved. The ruffian-like crew who go forth into the pastures
and lanes about London, snaring and netting full-grown birds by the
score, are permitted to ply their trade unchecked. I mean to say that
there is no comparison between the two things. An egg has not yet
advanced to consciousness or feeling: the old birds, if their nest is
taken, frequently build another. The lad has to hunt for the nest, to
climb for it or push through thorns, and may be pricked by brambles and
stung by nettles. In a degree there is something to him approaching to
sport in nesting.

But these birdcatchers simply stand by the ditch with their hands in
their pockets sucking a stale pipe. They would rather lounge there in
the bitterest north-east wind that ever blew than do a single hour's
honest work. Blackguard is written in their faces. The poacher needs
some courage, at least; he knows a penalty awaits detection. These
fellows have no idea of sport, no courage, and no skill, for their
tricks are simplicity itself, nor have they the pretence of utility, for
they do not catch birds for the good of the farmers or the market
gardeners, but merely that they may booze without working for the means.

Pity it is that any one can be found to purchase the product of their
brutality. No one would do so could they but realise the difference to
the captive upon which they are lavishing their mistaken love, between
the cage, the alternately hot and cold room (as the fire goes out at
night), the close atmosphere and fumes that lurk near the ceiling, and
the open air and freedom to which it was born.

The rooks only came to the dust-heap in hard weather, and ceased to
visit it so soon as the ground relaxed and the ploughs began to move.
But a couple of crows looked over the refuse once during the day for
months till men came to sift the cinders. These crows are permanent
residents. Their rendezvous is a copse, only separate from the furze by
the highway.

They are always somewhere near, now in the ploughed fields, now in the
furze, and during the severe frost of last winter in the road itself, so
sharply driven by hunger as to rise very unwillingly on the approach of
passengers. A meadow opposite the copse is one of their favourite
resorts. There are anthills, rushes, and other indications of not too
rich a soil in this meadow, and in places the prickly restharrow grows
among the grass, bearing its pink flower in summer. Perhaps the coarse
grass and poor soil are productive of grubs and insects, for not only
the crows, but the rooks, continually visit it.

One spring, hearing a loud chattering in the copse, and recognising the
alarm notes of the missel-thrush, I cautiously crept up the hedge, and
presently found three crows up in a birch tree, just above where the
thrushes were calling. The third crow--probably a descendant of the
other two--had joined in a raid upon the missel-thrushes' brood. Both
defenders and assailants were in a high state of excitement; the
thrushes screeching, and the crows in a row one above the other on a
branch, moving up and down it in a restless manner. I fear they had
succeeded in their purpose, for no trace of the young birds was visible.

The nest of the missel-thrush is so frequently singled out for attack by
crows that it would seem the young birds must possess a peculiar and
attractive flavour; or is it because they are large? There are more
crows round London than in a whole county, where the absence of
manufactures and the rural quiet would seem favourable to bird life.
The reason, of course, is that in the country the crows frequenting
woods are shot and kept down as much as possible by gamekeepers.

In the immediate environs of London keepers are not about, and even a
little farther away the land is held by many small owners, and game
preservation is not thought of. The numerous pieces of waste ground, "to
let on building lease," the excavated ground, where rubbish can be
thrown, the refuse and ash heaps--these are the haunts of the London
crow. Suburban railway stations are often haunted by crows, which perch
on the telegraph wires close to the back windows of the houses that abut
upon the metals. There they sit, grave and undisturbed by the noisy
engines which pass beneath them.

In the shrubberies around villa gardens, or in the hedges of the small
paddocks attached, thrushes and other birds sometimes build their nests.
The children of the household watch the progress of the nest, and note
the appearance of the eggs with delight. Their friends of larger growth
visit the spot occasionally, and orders are given that the birds shall
be protected, the gardeners become gamekeepers, and the lawn or
shrubbery is guarded like a preserve. Everything goes well till the
young birds are almost ready to quit the nest, when one morning they are
missing.

The theft is, perhaps, attributed to the boys of the neighbourhood, but
unjustly, unless plain traces of entry are visible. It is either cats or
crows. The cats cannot be kept out, not even by a dog, for they watch
till his attention is otherwise engaged. Food is not so much the object
as the pleasure of destruction, for cats will kill and yet not eat their
victim. The crow may not have been seen in the garden, and it may be
said that he could not have known of the nest without looking round the
place. But the crow is a keen observer, and has not the least necessity
to search for the nest.

He merely keeps a watch on the motions of the old birds of the place,
and knows at once by their flight being so continually directed to one
spot that there their treasure lies. He and his companion may come very
early in the morning--summer mornings are bright as noonday long before
the earliest gardener is abroad--or they may come in the dusk of the
evening. Crows are not so particular in retiring regularly to roost as
the rook.

The furze and copse frequented by the pair which I found attacking the
missel-thrushes are situate at the edge of extensive arable fields. In
these, though not overlooked by the gamekeepers, there is a good deal of
game which is preserved by the tenants of the farm. After the bitter
winter and wet summer of 1879, there was a complaint, too well founded,
that the partridges were diminished in numbers. But the crows were not.
There were as many of them as ever. When there were many partridges the
loss of a few eggs or chicks was not so important. But when there are
but few, every egg or chick destroyed retards the re-stocking of the
fields.

The existence of so many crows all round London is, in short, a constant
check upon the game. The belt of land immediately outside the houses,
and lying between them and the plantations which are preserved, is the
crow's reserve, where he hunts in security. He is so safe that he has
almost lost all dread of man, and his motions can be observed without
trouble. The ash-heap at the corner of the furze, besides the crows,
became the resort of rats, whose holes were so thick in the bank as to
form quite a bury. After the rats came the weasels.

When the rats were most numerous, before the ash-heap was sifted, there
was a weasel there nearly every day, slipping in and out of their holes.
In the depth of the country an observer might walk some considerable
distance and wait about for hours without seeing a weasel; but here by
the side of a busy suburban road there were plenty. Professional
ratcatchers ferreted the bank once or twice, and filled their iron
cages. With these the dogs kept by dog-fanciers in the adjacent suburb
were practised in destroying vermin at so much a rat. Though ferreted
and hunted down by the weasels the rats were not rooted out, but
remained till the ash-heap was sifted and no fresh refuse deposited.

In one place among the gorse, the willows, birches, and thorn bushes
make a thick covert, which is adjacent to several of the hidden pools
previously mentioned. Here a brook-sparrow or sedge-reedling takes up
his quarters in the spring, and chatters on, day and night, through the
summer. Visitors to the opera and playgoers returning in the first hours
of the morning from Covent Garden or Drury Lane can scarcely fail to
hear him if they pause but one moment to listen to the nightingale.

The latter sings in one bush and the sedge-reedling in another close
together. The moment the nightingale ceases the sedge-reedling lifts his
voice, which is a very penetrating one, and in the silence of the night
may be heard some distance. This bird is credited with imitating the
notes of several others, and has been called the English mocking-bird,
but I strongly doubt the imitation. Nor, indeed, could I ever trace the
supposed resemblance of its song to that of other birds.

It is a song of a particularly monotonous character. It is
distinguishable immediately, and if the bird happens to nest near a
house, is often disliked on account of the loud iteration. Perhaps those
who first gave it the name of the mocking-bird were not well acquainted
with the notes of the birds which they fancied it to mock. To mistake it
for the nightingale, some of whose tones it is said to imitate, would be
like confounding the clash of cymbals with the soft sound of a flute.

Linnets come to the furze, and occasionally magpies, but these latter
only in winter. Then, too, golden-crested wrens may be seen searching in
the furze bushes, and creeping round and about the thorns and brambles.
There is a roadside pond close to the furze, the delight of horses and
cattle driven along the dusty way in summer. Along the shelving sandy
shore the wagtails run, both the pied and the yellow, but few birds come
here to wash; for that purpose they prefer a running stream if it be
accessible.

Upon the willow trees which border it, a reed-sparrow or blackheaded
bunting may often be observed. One bright March morning, as I came up
the road, just as the surface of the pond became visible it presented a
scene of dazzling beauty. At that distance only the tops of the ripples
were seen, reflecting the light at a very low angle. The result was that
the eye saw nothing of the water or the wavelet, but caught only the
brilliant glow. Instead of a succession of sparkles there seemed to be a
golden liquid floating on the surface as oil floats--a golden liquid two
or three inches thick, which flowed before the wind.

Besides this surface of molten gold there was a sheen and flicker above
it, as if a spray or vapour, carried along, or the crests of the
wavelets blown over, was also of gold. But the metal conveys no idea of
the glowing, lustrous light which filled the hollow by the dusty road.
It was visible from one spot only, a few steps altering the angle
lessened the glory, and as the pond itself came into view there was
nothing but a ripple on water somewhat thick with suspended sand. Thus
things change their appearance as they are looked at in different ways.

A patch of water crowsfoot grows on the farthest side of the pond, and
in early summer sends up lovely white flowers.



HEATHLANDS


Sandown has become one of the most familiar places near the metropolis,
but the fir woods at the back of it are perhaps scarcely known to exist
by many who visit the fashionable knoll. Though near at hand, they are
shut off by the village of Esher; but a mile or two westwards, down the
Portsmouth highway, there is a cart road on the left hand which enters
at once into the woods.

The fine white sand of the soil is only covered by a thin coating of
earth formed from the falling leaves and decayed branches, so thin that
it may sometimes be rubbed away by the foot or even the fingers. Grass
and moss grow sparingly in the track, but wherever wheels or footsteps
have passed at all frequently the sand is exposed in white streaks under
the shadowy firs. In grass small objects often escape observation, but
on such a bare surface everything becomes visible. Coming to one of
these places on a summer day, I saw a stream of insects crossing and
recrossing, from the fern upon one side to the fern upon the other.

They were ants, but of a very much larger species than the little
red-and-black "emmets" which exist in the meadows. These horse ants were
not much less than half an inch in length, with a round spot at each
end like beads, or the black top of long pins. The length of their legs
enabled them to move much quicker, and they raced to and fro over the
path with great rapidity. The space covered by the stream was a foot or
more broad, all of which was crowded and darkened by them, and as there
was no cessation in the flow of this multitude, their numbers must have
been immense.

Standing a short way back, so as not to interfere with their
proceedings, I saw two of these insects seize hold of a twig, one at
each end. The twig, which was dead and dry, and had dropped from a fir,
was not quite so long as a match, but rather thicker. They lifted this
stick with ease, and carried it along, exactly as labourers carry a
plank. A few short blades of grass being in the way they ran up against
them, but stepped aside, and so got by. A cart which had passed a long
while since had forced down the sand by the weight of its load, leaving
a ridge about three inches high, the side being perpendicular.

Till they came to this cliff the two ants moved parallel, but here one
of them went first, and climbed up the bank with its end of the stick,
after which the second followed and brought up the other. An inch or two
farther, on the level ground, the second ant left hold and went away,
and the first laboured on with the twig and dragged it unaided across
the rest of the path. Though many other ants stayed and looked at the
twig a moment, none of them now offered assistance, as if the chief
obstacle had been surmounted.

Several other ants passed, each carrying the slender needles which fall
from firs, and which seemed nothing in their powerful grasp. These
burdens of wood all went in one direction, to the right of the path.

I took a step there, but stayed to watch two more ants, who had got a
long scarlet fly between them, one holding it by the head and the other
by the tail. They were hurrying their prey over the dead leaves and
decayed sticks which strewed the ground, and dragging it mercilessly
through moss and grass. I put the tip of my stick on the victim, but
instead of abandoning it they tugged and pulled desperately, as if they
would have torn it to pieces rather than have yielded. So soon as I
released it away they went through the fragments of branches, rushing
the quicker for the delay.

A little farther there was a spot where the ground for a yard or two was
covered with small dead brown leaves, last year's, apparently of birch,
for some young birch saplings grew close by. One of these leaves
suddenly rose up and began to move of itself, as it seemed; an ant had
seized it, and holding it by the edge travelled on, so that as the
insect was partly hidden under it, the leaf appeared to move alone, now
over sticks and now under them. It reminded me of the sight which seemed
so wonderful to the early navigators when they came to a country where,
as they first thought, the leaves were alive and walked about.

The ant with the leaf went towards a large heap of rubbish under the
sapling birches. While watching the innumerable multitude of these
insects, whose road here crossed these dead dry leaves, I became
conscious of a rustling sound, which at first I attributed to the wind,
but seeing that the fern was still, and that the green leaves of a
Spanish chestnut opposite did not move, I began to realise that this
creeping, rustling noise, distinctly audible, was not caused by any
wind, but by the thousands upon thousands of insects passing over the
dead leaves and among the grass. Stooping down to listen better, there
could be no doubt of it: it was the tramp of this immense army.

The majority still moved in one direction, and I found it led to the
heap of rubbish over which they swarmed. This heap was exactly what
might have been swept together by half-a-dozen men using long gardeners'
brooms, and industriously clearing the ground under the firs of the
fragments which had fallen from them. It appeared to be entirely
composed of small twigs, fir-needles, dead leaves, and similar things.
The highest part rose about level with my chest--say, between four and
five feet--the heap was irregularly circular, and not less than three or
four yards across, with sides gradually sloping. In the midst stood the
sapling birches, their stumps buried in it, the rubbish having been
piled up around them.

This heap was, in fact, the enormous nest or hill of a colony of horse
ants. The whole of it had been gathered together, leaf by leaf, and twig
by twig, just as I had seen the two insects carrying the little stick,
and the third the brown leaf above itself. It really seemed some way
round the outer circumference of the nest, and while walking round it
was necessary to keep brushing off the ants which dropped on the
shoulder from the branches of the birches. For they were everywhere;
every inch of ground, every bough was covered with them. Even standing
near it was needful to kick the feet continually against the black stump
of a fir which had been felled to jar them off, and this again brought
still more, attracted by the vibration of the ground.

The highest part of the mound was in the shape of a dome, a dome
whitened by layers of fir-needles, which was apparently the most recent
part and the centre of this year's operations. The mass of the heap,
though closely compacted, was fibrous, and a stick could be easily
thrust into it, exposing the eggs. No sooner was such an opening made,
and the stick withdrawn from the gap, than the ants swarmed into it,
falling headlong over upon each other, and filling the bottom with their
struggling bodies. Upon leaving the spot, to follow the footpath, I
stamped my feet to shake down any stray insects, and then took off my
coat and gave it a thorough shaking.

Immense ant-hills are often depicted in the illustrations to tropical
travels, but this great pile, which certainly contained more than a
cartload, was within a few miles of Hyde Park Corner. From nests like
this large quantities of eggs are obtained for feeding the partridges
hatched from the eggs collected by mowers and purchased by keepers. Part
of the nest being laid bare with any tool, the eggs are hastily taken
out in masses and thrown into a sack. Some think that ant's eggs,
although so favourite a food, are not always the most advantageous.
Birds which have been fed freely on these eggs become fastidious, and do
not care for much else, so that if the supply fails they fall off in
condition. If there are sufficient eggs to last the season, then a few
every day produce the best effect; if not they had better not have a
feast followed by a fast.

The sense of having a roof overhead is felt in walking through a forest
of firs like this, because the branches are all at the top of the
trunks. The stems rise to the same height, and then the dark foliage
spreading forms a roof. As they are not very near together the eye can
see some distance between them, and as there is hardly any underwood or
bushes--nothing higher than the fern--there is a space open and unfilled
between the ground and the roof so far above.

A vast hollow extends on every side, nor is it broken by the flitting of
birds or the rush of animals among the fern. The sudden note of a
wood-pigeon, hoarse and deep, calling from a fir-top, sounds still
louder and ruder in the spacious echoing vault beneath, so loud as at
first to resemble the baying of a hound. The call ceases, and another of
these watch-dogs of the woods takes it up afar off.

There is an opening in the monotonous firs by some rising ground, and
the sunshine falls on young Spanish chestnuts and underwood, through
which is a little-used footpath. If firs are planted in wildernesses
with the view of ultimately covering the barren soil with fertile earth,
formed by the decay of vegetable matter, it is, perhaps, open to
discussion as to whether the best tree has been chosen. Under firs the
ground is generally dry, too dry for decay; the resinous emanations
rather tend to preserve anything that falls there.

No underwood or plants and little grass grows under them; these,
therefore, which make soil quickest, are prevented from improving the
earth. The needles of firs lie for months without decay; they are, too,
very slender, and there are few branches to fall. Beneath any other
trees (such as the edible chestnut and birch, which seem to grow here),
there are the autumn leaves to decay, the twigs and branches which fall
off, while grasses and plants flourish, and brambles and underwood grow
freely. The earth remains moist, and all these soon cause an increase of
the fertility; so that, unless fir-tree timber is very valuable, and I
never heard that it was, I would rather plant a waste with any other
tree or brushwood, provided, of course, it would grow.

It is a pleasure to explore this little dell by the side of the rising
ground, creeping under green boughs which brush the shoulders, after the
empty space of the firs. Within there is a pond, where lank horsetails
grow thickly, rising from the water. Returning to the rising ground I
pursue the path, still under the shadow of the firs. There is no end to
them--the vast monotony has no visible limit. The brake fern--it is
early in July--has not yet reached its full height, but what that will
be is shown by these thick stems which rise smooth and straight, fully
three feet to the first frond.

A woodpecker calls, and the gleam of his green and gold is visible for a
moment as he hastens away--the first bird, except the wood-pigeons, seen
for an hour, yet there are miles of firs around. After a time the ground
rises again, the tall firs cease, but are succeeded by younger firs.
These are more pleasant because they do not exclude the sky. The
sunshine lights the path, and the summer blue extends above. The fern,
too, ceases, and the white sand is now concealed by heath, with here and
there a dash of colour. Furze chats call, and flit to and fro; the hum
of bees is heard once more--there was not one under the vacant shadow;
and swallows pass overhead.

At last emerging from the firs the open slope is covered with heath
only, but heath growing so thickly that even the narrow footpaths are
hidden by the overhanging bushes of it. Some small bushes of furze here
and there are dead and dry, but every prickly point appears perfect;
when struck with the walking-stick the bush crumbles to pieces. Beneath
and amid the heath what seems a species of lichen grows so profusely as
to give a grey undertone. In places it supplants the heath, the ground
is concealed by lichen only, which crunches under the foot like
hoar-frost. Each piece is branched not unlike a stag's antlers; gather
a handful and it crumbles to pieces in the fingers, dry and brittle.

A quarry for sand has been dug down some eight or ten feet, so that
standing in it nothing else is visible. This steep scarp shows the
strata, yellow sand streaked with thin brown layers; at the top it is
fringed with heath in full flower, bunches of purple bloom overhanging
the edge, and behind this the azure of the sky.

Here, where the ground slopes gradually, it is entirely covered with the
purple bells; a sheen and gleam of purple light plays upon it. A
fragrance of sweet honey floats up from the flowers where grey hive-bees
are busy. Ascending still higher and crossing the summit, the ground
almost suddenly falls away in a steep descent, and the entire hillside,
seen at a glance, is covered with heath, and heath alone. A bunch at the
very edge offers a purple cushion fit for a king; resting here a
delicious summer breeze, passing over miles and miles of fields and
woods yonder, comes straight from the distant hills. Along those hills
the lines of darker green are woods; there are woods to the south, and
west, and east, heath around, and in the rear the gaze travels over the
tops of the endless firs. But southwards is sweetest; below, beyond the
verge of the heath, the corn begins, and waves in the wind. It is the
breeze that makes the summer day so lovely.

The eggs of the nighthawk are sometimes found at this season near by.
They are laid on the ground, on the barest spots, where there is no
herbage. At dusk, the nighthawk wheels with a soft yet quick flight over
the ferns and about the trees. Along the hedges bounding the heath
butcher-birds watch for their prey--sometimes on the furze, sometimes on
a branch of ash. Wood-sage grows plentifully on the banks by the roads;
it is a plant somewhat resembling a lowly nettle; the leaves have a
hop-like scent, and so bitter and strong is the odour that immediately
after smelling them the mouth for a moment feels dry with a sense of
thirst.

The angle of a field by the woods on the eastern side of the heath, the
entire corner, is blue in July with viper's bugloss. The stalks rise
some two feet, and are covered with minute brown dots; they are rough,
and the lower part prickly. Blue flowers in pairs, with pink stamens and
pink buds, bloom thickly round the top, and as each plant has several
stalks, it is very conspicuous where the grass is short.

There are hundreds of these flowers in this corner, and along the edge
of the wood; a quarter of an acre is blue with them. So indifferent are
people to such things that men working in the same field, and who had
pulled up the plant and described its root as like that of a dock, did
not know its name. Yet they admired it. "It is an innocent-looking
flower," they said, that is, pleasant to look at.

By the roadside I thought I saw something red under the long grass of
the mound, and, parting the blades, found half-a-dozen wild
strawberries. They were larger than usual, and just ripe. The wild
strawberry is a little more acid than the cultivated, and has more
flavour than would be supposed from its small size.

Descending to the lower ground again, the brake fills every space
between the trees; it is so thick and tall that the cows which wander
about, grazing at their will, each wear a bell slung round the neck,
that their position may be discovered by sound. Otherwise it would be
difficult to find them in the fern or among the firs. There are many
swampy places here, which should be avoided by those who dislike snakes.
The common harmless snakes are numerous in this part, and they always
keep near water. They often glide into a mole's "angle," or hole, if
found in the open.

Adders are known to exist in the woods round about, but are never, or
very seldom, seen upon the heath itself. In the woods of the
neighbourhood they are not uncommon, and are sometimes killed for the
sake of the oil. The belief in the virtue of adder's fat, or oil, is
still firm; among other uses it is considered the best thing for
deafness, not, of course, resulting from organic defect. For deafness,
the oil should be applied by pouring a small quantity into the ear,
exactly in the same manner as in the play the poison is poured into the
ear of the sleeping king. Cures are declared to be effected by this oil
at the present day.

It is procured by skinning the adder, taking the fat, and boiling it;
the result is a clear oil, which never thickens in the coldest weather.
One of these reptiles on being killed and cut open was found to contain
the body of a full-grown toad. The old belief that the young of the
viper enters its mouth for refuge still lingers. The existence of adders
in the woods here seems so undoubted that strangers should be a little
careful if they leave the track. Viper's bugloss, which grows so freely
by the heath, was so called because anciently it was thought to yield an
antidote to the adder's venom.



THE RIVER


There is a slight but perceptible colour in the atmosphere of summer. It
is not visible close at hand, nor always where the light falls
strongest, and if looked at too long it sometimes fades away. But over
gorse and heath, in the warm hollows of wheatfield, and round about the
rising ground there is something more than air alone. It is not mist,
nor the hazy vapour of autumn, nor the blue tints that come over the
distant hills and woods.

As there is a bloom upon the peach and grape, so this is the bloom of
summer. The air is ripe and rich, full of the emanations, the perfume,
from corn and flower and leafy tree. In strictness the term will not, of
course, be accurate, yet by what other word can this appearance in the
atmosphere be described but as a bloom? Upon a still and sunlit summer
afternoon it may be seen over the osier-covered islets in the Thames
immediately above Teddington Lock.

It hovers over the level cornfields that stretch towards Richmond, and
along the ridge of the wooded hills that bound them. The bank by the
towing-path is steep and shadowless, being bare of trees or hedge; but
the grass is pleasant to rest on, and heat is always more supportable
near flowing water. In places the friable earth has crumbled away, and
there, where the soil and the stones are exposed, the stonecrop
flourishes. A narrow footpath on the summit, raised high above the
water, skirts the corn, and is overhung with grass heavily laden by its
own seed.

Sometimes in early June the bright trifolium, drooping with its weight
of flower, brushes against the passer-by--acre after acre of purple.
Occasionally the odour of beans in blossom floats out over the river.
Again, above the green wheat the larks rise, singing as they soar; or
later on the butterflies wander over the yellow ears. Or, as the law of
rotation dictates, the barley whitens under the sun. Still, whether in
the dry day, or under the dewy moonlight, the plain stretching from the
water to the hills is never without perfume, colour, or song.

There stood, one summer not long since, in the corner of a barley field
close to the Lock, within a stone's throw, perfect shrubs of mallow,
rising to the shoulder, thick as a walking-stick, and hung with flower.
Poppies filled every interstice between the barley stalks, their scarlet
petals turned back in very languor of exuberant colour, as the awns,
drooping over, caressed them. Poppies, again, in the same fields formed
a scarlet ground from which the golden wheat sprang up, and among it
here and there shone the large blue rays of wild succory.

The paths across the corn having no hedges, the wayfarer really walks
among the wheat, and can pluck with either hand. The ears rise above the
heads of children, who shout with joy as they rush along as though to
the arms of their mother.

Beneath the towing-path, at the root of the willow bushes, which the
tow-ropes, so often drawn over them, have kept low, the water-docks lift
their thick stems and giant leaves. Bunches of rough-leaved comfrey grow
down to the water's edge--indeed, the coarse stems sometimes bear signs
of having been partially under water when a freshet followed a storm.
The flowers are not so perfectly bell-shaped as those of some plants,
but are rather tubular. They appear in April, though then green, and may
be found all the summer months. Where the comfrey grows thickly the
white bells give some colour to the green of the bank, and would give
more were they not so often overshadowed by the leaves.

Water betony, or persicaria, lifts its pink spikes everywhere, tiny
florets close together round the stem at the top; the leaves are
willow-shaped, and there is scarcely a hollow or break in the bank where
the earth has fallen which is not clothed with them. A mile or two up
the river the tansy is plentiful, bearing golden buttons, which, like
every fragment of the feathery foliage, if pressed in the fingers,
impart to them a peculiar scent. There, too, the yellow loosestrife
pushes up its tall slender stalks to the top of the low willow-bushes,
that the bright yellow flowers may emerge from the shadow.

The river itself, the broad stream, ample and full, exhibits all its
glory in this reach; from One Tree to the Lock it is nearly straight,
and the river itself is everything. Between wooded hills, or where
divided by numerous islets, or where trees and hedges enclose the view,
the stream is but part of the scene. Here it is all. The long raised
bank without a hedge or fence, with the cornfields on its level, simply
guides the eye to the water. Those who are afloat upon it insensibly
yield to the influence of the open expanse.

The boat whose varnished sides but now slipped so gently that the
cutwater did not even raise a wavelet, and every black rivet-head was
visible as a line of dots, begins to forge ahead. The oars are dipped
farther back, and as the blade feels the water holding it in the hollow,
the lissom wood bends to its work. Before the cutwater a wave rises,
and, repulsed, rushes outwards. At each stroke, as the weight swings
towards the prow, there is just the least faint depression at its stem
as the boat travels. Whirlpool after whirlpool glides from the oars,
revolving to the rear with a threefold motion, round and round,
backwards and outwards. The crew impart their own life to their boat;
the animate and inanimate become as one, the boat is no longer wooden
but alive.

If there be a breeze a fleet of white sails comes round the
willow-hidden bend. But the Thames yachtsmen have no slight difficulties
to contend with. The capricious wind is nowhere so thoroughly capricious
as on the upper river. Along one mile there may be a spanking breeze,
the very next is calm, or with a fitful puff coming over a high hedge,
which flutters his pennant, but does not so much as shake the sail. Even
in the same mile the wind may take the water on one side, and scarcely
move a leaf on the other. But the current is always there, and the
vessel is certain to drift.

When at last a good opportunity is obtained, just as the boat heels
over, and the rushing bubbles at the prow resound, she must be put
about, and the napping foresail almost brushes the osiers. If she does
not come round--if the movement has been put off a moment too long--the
keel grates, and she is aground immediately. It is nothing but tacking,
tacking, tacking--a kind of stitching the stream.

Nor can one always choose the best day for the purpose; the exigencies
of business, perhaps, will not permit, and when free, the wind, which
has been scattering tiles and chimney-pots and snapping telegraph wires
in the City all the week, drops on the Saturday to nothing. He must
possess invincible patience, and at the same time be always ready to
advance his vessel even a foot, and his judgment must never fail him at
the critical time.

But the few brief hours when the circumstances are favourable compensate
for delays and monotonous calms; the vessel, built on well-judged lines,
answers her helm and responds to his will with instant obedience, and
that sense of command is perhaps the great charm of sailing. There are
others who find a pleasure in the yacht. When at her moorings on a sunny
morning she is sometimes boarded by laughing girls, who have put off
from the lawn, and who proceed in the most sailor-like fashion to
overhaul the rigging and see that everything is shipshape. No position
shows off a well-poised figure to such advantage as when, in a
close-fitting costume, a lady's arms are held high above her head to
haul at a rope.

So the river life flows by; skiffs, and four oars, canoes, solitary
scullers in outriggers, once now and then a swift eight, launches, a
bargee in a tublike dingey standing up and pushing his sculls instead of
pulling; gentlemen, with their shoulders in a halter, hauling like
horses and towing fair freights against the current; and punts poled
across to shady nooks. The splashing of oars, the staccato sound as a
blade feathered too low meets the wavelets, merry voices, sometimes a
song, and always a low undertone, which, as the wind accelerates it,
rises to a roar. It is the last leap of the river to the sea; the last
weir to whose piles the tide rises. On the bank of the weir where the
tide must moisten their roots grow dense masses of willow-herb, almost
as high as the shoulder, with trumpet-shaped pink flowers.

Let us go back again to the bank by the cornfields, with the glorious
open stretch of stream. In the evening, the rosy or golden hues of the
sunset will be reflected on the surface from the clouds; then the bats
wheel to and fro, and once now and then a nighthawk will throw himself
through the air with uncertain flight, his motions scarcely to be
followed, as darkness falls. Am I mistaken, or are kingfishers less
numerous than they were only a few seasons since? Then I saw them, now I
do not. Long-continued and severe frosts are very fatal to these birds;
they die on the perch.

And may I say a word for the Thames otter? The list of really wild
animals now existing in the home counties is so very, very short, that
the extermination of one of them seems a serious loss. Every effort is
made to exterminate the otter. No sooner does one venture down the river
than traps, gins, nets, dogs, prongs, brickbats, every species of
missile, all the artillery of vulgar destruction, are brought against
its devoted head. Unless my memory serves me wrong, one of these
creatures caught in a trap not long since was hammered to death with a
shovel or a pitchfork.

Now the river fox is, we know, extremely destructive to fish, but what
are a basketful of "bait" compared to one otter? The latter will
certainly never be numerous, for the moment they become so, otter-hounds
would be employed, and then we should see some sport. Londoners, I
think, scarcely recognise the fact that the otter is one of the last
links between the wild past of ancient England and the present days of
high civilisation.

The beaver is gone, but the otter remains, and comes so near the mighty
City as just the other side of the well-known Lock, the portal through
which a thousand boats at holiday time convey men and women to breathe
pure air. The porpoise, and even the seal, it is said, ventures to
Westminster sometimes; the otter to Kingston. Thus, the sea sends its
denizens past the vast multitude that surges over the City bridges, and
the last link with the olden time, the otter, still endeavours to live
near.

Perhaps the river is sweetest to look on in spring time or early summer.
Seen from a distance the water seems at first sight, when the broad
stream fills the vision as a whole, to flow with smooth, even current
between meadow and cornfield. But, coming to the brink, that silvery
surface now appears exquisitely chased with ever-changing lines. The
light airs, wandering to and fro where high banks exclude the direct
influence of the breeze, flutter the ripples hither and thither, so
that, instead of rolling upon one lee shore, they meet and expend their
little force upon each other. A continuous rising and falling, without a
line of direction, thus breaks up the light, not with sparkle or
glitter, but with endless silvery facets.

There is no pattern. The apparently intertangled tracing on a work of
art presently resolves itself into a design, which once seen is always
the same. These wavelets form no design; watch the sheeny maze as long
as one will, the eye cannot get at the clue, and so unwind the pattern.

Each seems for a second exactly like its fellow, but varies while you
say "These two are the same," and the white reflected light upon the
wide stream is now strongest here, and instantly afterwards flickers
yonder.

Where a gap in the willows admits a current of air a ripple starts to
rush straight across, but is met by another returning, which has been
repulsed from the bluff bow of a moored boat, and the two cross and run
through each other. As the level of the stream now slightly rises and
again falls, the jagged top of a large stone by the shore alternately
appears above, or is covered by the surface. The water as it retires
leaves for a moment a hollow in itself by the stone, and then swings
back to fill the vacuum.

Long roots of willows and projecting branches cast their shadow upon the
shallow sandy bottom; the shadow of a branch can be traced slanting
downwards with the shelve of the sand till lost in the deeper water. Are
those little circlets of light enclosing a round umbra or slightly
darker spot, that move along the bottom as the bubbles drift above on
the surface, shadows or reflections?

In still, dark places of the stream, where there seems no current, a
dust gathers on the water, falling from the trees, or borne thither by
the wind and dropping where its impulse ceases. Shadows of branches lie
here upon the surface itself, received by the greenish water dust. Round
the curve on the concave and lee side of the river, where the wind
drives the wavelets direct upon the strand, there are little beaches
formed by the undermining and fall of the bank.

The tiny surge rolls up the incline; each wave differing in the height
to which it reaches, and none of them alike, washing with it minute
fragments of stone and gravel, mere specks which vibrate to and fro with
the ripple and even drift with the current. Will these fragments, after
a process of trituration, ultimately become sand? A groove runs athwart
the bottom, left recently by the keel of a skiff, recently only, for in
a few hours these specks of gravel, sand, and particles that sweep along
the bottom, fill up such depressions. The motion of these atoms is not
continuous, but intermittent; now they rise and are carried a few inches
and there sink, in a minute or two to rise again and proceed.

Looking to windward there is a dark tint upon the water; but down the
stream, turning the other way, intensely brilliant points of light
appear and disappear. Behind a boat rowed against the current two
widening lines of wavelets, in the shape of an elongated V, stretch
apart and glitter, and every dip of the oars and the slippery oar-blades
themselves, as they rise out of the water, reflect the sunshine. The
boat appears but to touch the surface, instead of sinking into it, for
the water is transparent, and the eye can see underneath the keel.

Here, by some decaying piles, a deep eddy whirls slowly round and round;
they stand apart from the shore, for the eddy has cleared away the earth
around them. Now, walking behind the waves that roll away from you, dark
shadowy spots fluctuate to and fro in the trough of the water. Before a
glance can define its shape the shadow elongates itself from a spot to
an oval, the oval melts into another oval, and reappears afar off. When,
too, in flood time, the hurrying current seems to respond more
sensitively to the shape of the shallows and the banks beneath, there
boils up from below a ceaseless succession of irregular circles as if
the water there expanded from a centre, marking the verge of its outflow
with bubbles and raised lines upon the surface.

By the side float tiny whirlpools, some rotating this way and some that,
sucking down and boring tubes into the stream. Longer lines wander past,
and as they go, curve round, till when about to make a spiral they
lengthen out and drift, and thus, perpetually coiling and uncoiling,
glide with the current. They somewhat resemble the conventional curved
strokes which, upon an Assyrian bas-relief, indicate water.

Under the spring sunshine, the idle stream flows easily onward, yet
every part of the apparently even surface varies; and so, too, in a
larger way, the aspects of the succeeding reaches change. Upon one broad
bend the tints are green, for the river moves softly in a hollow, with
its back, as it were, to the wind.

The green lawn sloping to the shore, and the dark cedar's storeys of
flattened foliage, tier above tier; the green osiers of two eyots: the
light-leaved aspen; the tall elms, fresh and green; and the green
hawthorn bushes give their colour to the water, smooth as if polished,
in which they are reflected. A white swan floats in the still narrow
channel between the eyots, and there is a punt painted green moored in a
little inlet by the lawn, and scarce visible under drooping boughs.
Roofs of red tile and dormer windows rise behind the trees, the dull
yellow of the walls is almost hidden, and deep shadows lurk about the
shore.

Opposite, across the stream, a wide green sward stretches beside the
towing-path, lit up with sunshine which touches the dandelions till they
glow in the grass. From time to time a nightingale sings in a hawthorn
unregarded, and in the elms of the park hard by a crowd of jackdaws
chatter. But a little way round a curve the whole stream opens to the
sunlight and becomes blue, reflecting the sky. Again, sweeping round
another curve with bounteous flow, the current meets the wind direct, a
cloud comes up, the breeze freshens, and the watery green waves are
tipped with foam.

Rolling upon the strand, they leave a line like a tide marked by twigs
and fragments of dead wood, leaves, and the hop-like flowers of
Chichester elms which have been floated up and left. Over the stormy
waters a band of brown bank-martins wheel hastily to and fro, and from
the osiers the loud chirp of the sedge-reedling rises above the buffet
of the wind against the ear, and the splashing of the waves.

Once more a change, where the stream darts along swiftly, after having
escaped from a weir, and still streaked with foam. The shore rises like
a sea beach, and on the pebbles men are patching and pitching old barges
which have been hauled up on the bank. A skiff partly drawn up on the
beach rocks as the current strives to work it loose, and up the varnish
of the side glides a flickering light reflected from the wavelets. A
fleet of such skiffs are waiting for hire by the bridge; the waterman
cleaning them with a parti-coloured mop spies me eyeing his vessels, and
before I know exactly what is going on, and whether I have yet made up
my mind, the sculls are ready, the cushions in; I take my seat, and am
shoved gently forth upon the stream.

After I have gone under the arch, and am clear of all obstructions, I
lay the sculls aside, and reclining let the boat drift past a ballast
punt moored over the shallowest place, and with a rising load of gravel.
One man holds the pole steadying the scoop, while his mate turns a
windlass the chain from which drags it along the bottom, filling the bag
with pebbles, and finally hauls it to the surface, when the contents are
shot out in the punt.

It is a floating box rather than a boat, square at each end, and built
for capacity instead of progress. There are others moored in various
places, and all hard at work. The men in this one, scarcely glancing at
my idle skiff, go steadily on, dropping the scoop, steadying the pole,
turning the crank, and emptying the pebbles with a rattle.

Where do these pebbles come from? Like the stream itself there seems a
continual supply; if a bank be scooped away and punted to the shore
presently another bank forms. If a hollow be deepened, by-and-by it
fills up; if a channel be opened, after a while it shallows again. The
stony current flows along below, as the liquid current above. Yet in so
many centuries the strand has not been cleared of its gravel, nor has it
all been washed out from the banks.

The skiff drifts again, at first slowly, till the current takes hold of
it and bears it onward. Soon it is evident that a barge-port is near--a
haven where barges discharge their cargoes. A by-way leads down to the
river where boats are lying for hire--a dozen narrow punts, waiting at
this anchorage till groundbait be lawful. The ends of varnished skiffs,
high and dry, are visible in a shed carefully covered with canvas; while
sheaves of oars and sculls lean against the wooden wall.

Through the open doors of another shed there may be had a glimpse of
shavings and tools, and slight battens crossing the workshop in apparent
confusion, forming a curious framework. These are the boatbuilder's
struts and stays, and contrivances to keep the boat in rigid position,
that her lines may be true and delicate, strake upon strake of dull red
mahogany rising from the beechen keel, for the craftsman strings his
boat almost as a violinist strings his violin, with the greatest care
and heed, and with a right adjustment of curve and due proportion. There
is not much clinking, or sawing, or thumping; little noise, but much
skill.

Gradually the scene opens. Far down a white bridge spans the river: on
the shore red-tiled and gabled houses crowd to the very edge; and behind
them a church tower stands out clear against the sky. There are barges
everywhere. By the towing-path colliers are waiting to be drawn up
stream, black as their freight, by the horses that are nibbling the
hawthorn hedge; while by the wharf, labourers are wheeling barrows over
bending planks from the barges to the carts upon the shore. A tug comes
under the bridge, panting, every puff re-echoed from the arches,
dragging by sheer force deeply laden flats behind it. The water in front
of their bluff bows rises in a wave nearly to the deck, and then swoops
in a sweeping curve to the rear.

The current by the port runs back on the wharf side towards its source,
and the foam drifts up the river instead of down. Green flags on a
sandbank far out in the stream, their roots covered and their bent tips
only visible, now swing with the water and now heel over with the
breeze. The _Edwin and Angelina_ lies at anchor, waiting to be warped
into her berth, her sails furled, her green painted water-barrel lashed
by the stern, her tiller idle after the long and toilsome voyage from
Rochester.

For there are perils of the deep even to those who only go down to it in
barges. Barge as she is, she is not without a certain beauty, and a
certain interest, inseparable from all that has received the buffet of
the salt water, and over which the salt spray has flown. Barge too, as
she is, she bears her part in the commerce of the world. The very
architecture on the shore is old-fashioned where these bluff-bowed
vessels come, narrow streets and overhanging houses, boat anchors in the
windows, sails and tarry ropes; and is there not a Row Barge Inn
somewhere?

"Hoy, ahoy!"

The sudden shout startles me, and, glancing round, I find an empty black
barge, high out of the water, floating helplessly down upon me with the
stream. Noiselessly the great hulk had drifted upon me; as it came the
light glinted on the wavelets before the bow, quick points of brilliant
light. But two strokes with the sculls carried me out of the way.



NUTTY AUTUMN


There is some honeysuckle still flowering at the tops of the hedges,
where in the morning gossamer lies like a dewy net. The gossamer is a
sign both of approaching autumn and, exactly at the opposite season of
the year, of approaching spring. It stretches from pole to pole, and
bough to bough, in the copses in February, as the lark sings. It covers
the furze, and lies along the hedge-tops in September, as the lark,
after a short or partial silence, occasionally sings again.

But the honeysuckle does not flower so finely as the first time; there
is more red (the unopened petal) than white, and beneath, lower down the
stalk, are the red berries, the fruit of the former bloom. Yellow weed,
or ragwort, covers some fields almost as thickly as buttercups in
summer, but it lacks the rich colour of the buttercup. Some knotty
knapweeds stay in out-of-the-way places, where the scythe has not been;
some bunches of mayweed, too, are visible in the corners of the stubble.

Silverweed lays its golden flower--like a buttercup without a
stalk--level on the ground; it has no protection, and any passing foot
may press it into the dust. A few white or pink flowers appear on the
brambles, and in waste places a little St. John's wort remains open, but
the seed vessels are for the most part forming. St. John's wort is the
flower of the harvest; the yellow petals appear as the wheat ripens, and
there are some to be found till the sheaves are carted. Once now and
then a blue and slender bell-flower is lighted on; in Sussex the larger
varieties bloom till much later.

By still ponds, to which the moorhens have now returned, tall spikes of
purple loosestrife rise in bunches. In the furze there is still much
yellow, and wherever heath grows it spreads in shimmering gleams of
purple between the birches; for these three, furze, heath, and birch are
usually together. The fields, therefore, are not yet flowerless, nor yet
without colour here and there, and the leaves, which stay on the trees
till late in the autumn, are more interesting now than they have been
since they lost their first fresh green.

Oak, elm, beech, and birch, all have yellow spots, while retaining their
groundwork of green. Oaks are often much browner, but the moisture in
the atmosphere keeps the saps in the leaves. Even the birches are only
tinted in a few places, the elms very little, and the beeches not much
more: so it would seem that their hues will not be gone altogether till
November. Frosts have not yet bronzed the dogwood in the hedges, and the
hazel leaves are fairly firm. The hazel generally drops its leaves at a
touch about this time, and while you are nutting, if you shake a bough,
they come down all around.

The rushes are but faintly yellow, and the slender tips still point
upwards. Dull purple burrs cover the burdock; the broad limes are
withering, but the leaves are thick, and the teazles are still
flowering. Looking upwards, the trees are tinted; lower, the hedges are
not without colour, and the field itself is speckled with blue and
yellow. The stubble is almost hidden in many fields by the growth of
weeds brought up by the rain; still the tops appear above and do not
allow it to be green. The stubble has a colour--white if barley, yellow
if wheat or oats. The meads are as verdant, even more so, than in the
spring, because of the rain, and the brooks crowded with green flags.

Haws are very plentiful this year (1881), and exceptionally large, many
fully double the size commonly seen. So heavily are the branches laden
with bunches of the red fruit that they droop as apple trees do with a
more edible burden. Though so big, and to all appearance tempting to
birds, none have yet been eaten; and, indeed, haws seem to be resorted
to only as a change unless severe weather compels.

Just as we vary our diet, so birds eat haws, and not many of them till
driven by frost and snow. If any stay on till the early months of next
year, wood-pigeons and missel-thrushes will then eat them; but at this
season they are untouched. Blackbirds will peck open the hips directly
the frost comes; the hips go long before the haws. There was a large
crop of mountain-ash berries, every one of which has been taken by
blackbirds and thrushes, which are almost as fond of them as of garden
fruit.

Blackberries are thick, too--it is a berry year--and up in the
horse-chestnut the prickly-coated nuts hang up in bunches, as many as
eight in a stalk. Acorns are large, but not so singularly numerous as
the berries, nor are hazel-nuts. This provision of hedge fruit no more
indicates a severe winter than a damaged wheat harvest indicates a mild
one.

There is something wrong with elm trees. In the early part of this
summer, not long after the leaves were fairly out upon them, here and
there a branch appeared as if it had been touched with red-hot iron and
burnt up, all the leaves withered and browned on the boughs. First one
tree was thus affected, then another, then a third, till, looking round
the fields, it seemed as if every fourth or fifth tree had thus been
burnt.

It began with the leaves losing colour, much as they do in autumn, on
the particular bough; gradually they faded, and finally became brown and
of course dead. As they did not appear to shrivel up, it looked as if
the grub or insect, or whatever did the mischief, had attacked, not the
leaves, but the bough itself. Upon mentioning this I found that it had
been noticed in elm avenues and groups a hundred miles distant, so that
it is not a local circumstance.

As far as yet appears, the elms do not seem materially injured, the
damage being outwardly confined to the bough attacked. These brown spots
looked very remarkable just after the trees had become green. They were
quite distinct from the damage caused by the snow of October 1880. The
boughs broken by the snow had leaves upon them which at once turned
brown, and in the case of the oak were visible, the following spring, as
brown spots among the green. These snapped boughs never bore leaf again.
It was the young fresh green leaves of the elms, those that appeared in
the spring of 1881, that withered as if scorched. The boughs upon which
they grew had not been injured; they were small boughs at the outside of
the tree. I hear that this scorching up of elm leaves has been noticed
in other districts for several seasons.

The dewdrops of the morning, preserved by the mist, which the sun does
not disperse for some hours, linger on late in shaded corners, as under
trees, on drooping blades of grass and on the petals of flowers. Wild
bees and wasps may often be noticed on these blades of grass that are
still wet, as if they could suck some sustenance from the dew. Wasps
fight hard for their existence as the nights grow cold. Desperate and
ravenous, they will eat anything, but perish by hundreds as the warmth
declines.

Dragon-flies of the larger size are now very busy rushing to and fro on
their double wings; those who go blackberrying or nutting cannot fail to
see them. Only a very few days since--it does not seem a week--there was
a chiffchaff calling in a copse as merrily as in the spring. This little
bird is the first, or very nearly the first, to come in the spring, and
one of the last to go as autumn approaches. It is curious that, though
singled out as a first sign of spring, the chiffchaff has never entered
into the home life of the people like the robin, the swallow, or even
the sparrow.

There is nothing about it in the nursery rhymes or stories, no one goes
out to listen to it, children are not taught to recognise it, and
grown-up persons are often quite unaware of it. I never once heard a
countryman, a labourer, a farmer, or any one who was always out of
doors, so much as allude to it. They never noticed it, so much is every
one the product of habit.

The first swallow they looked for, and never missed; but they neither
heard nor saw the chiffchaff. To those who make any study at all of
birds it is, of course, perfectly familiar; but to the bulk of people it
is unknown. Yet it is one of the commonest of migratory birds, and sings
in every copse and hedgerow, using loud, unmistakable notes. At last, in
the middle of September, the chiffchaff, too, is silent. The swallow
remains; but for the rest, the birds have flocked together, finches,
starlings, sparrows, and gone forth into the midst of the stubble far
from the place where their nests were built, and where they sang, and
chirped, and whistled so long.

The swallows, too, are not without thought of going. They may be seen
twenty in a row, one above the other, or on the slanting ropes or guys
which hold up the masts of the rickcloths over the still unfinished
corn-ricks. They gather in rows on the ridges of the tiles, and wisely
take counsel of each other. Rooks are up at the acorns; they take them
from the bough, while the pheasants come underneath and pick up those
that have fallen.

The partridge coveys are more numerous and larger than they have been
for several seasons, and though shooting has now been practised for more
than a fortnight, as many as twelve and seventeen are still to be
counted together. They have more cover than usual at this season, not
only because the harvest is still about, but because where cut the
stubble is so full of weeds that when crouching they are hidden. In some
fields the weeds are so thick that even a pheasant can hide.

South of London the harvest commenced in the last week of July. The
stubble that was first cut still remains unploughed; it is difficult to
find a fresh furrow, and I have only once or twice heard the quick
strong puffing of the steam-plough. While the wheat was in shock it was
a sight to see the wood-pigeons at it. Flocks of hundreds came perching
on the sheaves, and visiting the same field day after day. The sparrows
have never had such a feast of grain as this year. Whole corners of
wheatfields--they work more at corners--were cleared out as clean by
them as if the wheat had been threshed as it stood.

The sunshine of the autumn afternoons is faintly tawny, and the long
grass by the wayside takes from it a tawny undertone. Some other colour
than the green of each separate blade, if gathered, lies among the
bunches, a little, perhaps like the hue of the narrow pointed leaves of
the reeds. It is caught only for a moment, and looked at steadily it
goes. Among the grass, the hawkweeds, one or two dandelions, and a stray
buttercup, all yellow, favour the illusion. By the bushes there is a
double row of pale buff bryony leaves; these, too, help to increase the
sense of a secondary colour.

The atmosphere holds the beams, and abstracts from them their white
brilliance. They come slower with a drowsy light, which casts a less
defined shadow of the still oaks. The yellow and brown leaves in the
oaks, in the elms, and the beeches, in their turn affect the rays, and
retouch them with their own hue. An immaterial mist across the fields
looks like a cloud of light hovering on the stubble: the light itself
made visible.

The tawniness is indistinct, it haunts the sunshine, and is not to be
fixed, any more than you can say where it begins and ends in the
complexion of a brunette. Almost too large for their cups, the acorns
have a shade of the same hue now before they become brown. As it
withers, the many-pointed leaf of the white bryony and the bine as it
shrivels, in like manner, do their part. The white thistle-down, which
stays on the bursting thistles because there is no wind to waft it away,
reflects it; the white is pushed aside by the colour that the stained
sunbeams bring.

Pale yellow thatch on the wheat-ricks becomes a deeper yellow; broad
roofs of old red tiles smoulder under it. What can you call it but
tawniness?--the earth sunburnt once more at harvest time. Sunburnt and
brown--for it deepens into brown. Brown partridges, and pheasants, at a
distance brown, their long necks stretched in front and long tails
behind gleaming in the stubble. Brown thrushes just venturing to sing
again. Brown clover hayricks; the bloom on the third crop yonder, which
was recently a bright colour, is fast turning brown, too.

Here and there a thin layer of brown leaves rustles under foot. The
scaling bark on the lower part of the tree trunks is brown. Dry dock
stems, fallen branches, the very shadows, are not black, but brown. With
red hips and haws, red bryony and woodbine berries, these together cause
the sense rather than the actual existence of a tawny tint. It is
pleasant; but sunset comes so soon, and then after the trees are in
shadow beneath, the yellow spots at the tops of the elms still receive
the light from the west a few moments longer.

There is something nutty in the short autumn day--shorter than its
duration as measured by hours, for the enjoyable day is between the
clearing of the mist and the darkening of the shadows. The nuts are
ripe, and with them is associated wine and fruit. They are hard but
tasteful; if you eat one, you want ten, and after ten, twenty. In the
wine there is a glow, a spot like tawny sunlight; it falls on your hand
as you lift the glass.

They are never really nuts unless you gather them yourself. Put down the
gun a minute or two, and pull the boughs this way. One or two may drop
of themselves as the branch is shaken, one among the brambles, another
outwards into the stubble. The leaves rustle against hat and shoulders;
a thistle is crushed under foot, and the down at last released. Bines of
bryony hold the ankles, and hazel boughs are stiff and not ready to bend
to the will. This large brown nut must be cracked at once; the film
slips off the kernel, which is white underneath. It is sweet.

The tinted sunshine comes through between the tall hazel rods; there is
a grasshopper calling in the sward on the other side of the mound. The
bird's nest in the thorn-bush looks as perfect as if just made, instead
of having been left long long since--the young birds have flocked into
the stubbles. On the briar which holds the jacket the canker rose, which
was green in summer, is now rosy. No such nuts as those captured with
cunning search from the bough in the tinted sunlight and under the
changing leaf.

The autumn itself is nutty, brown, hard, frosty, and sweet. Nuts are
hard, frosts are hard; but the one is sweet, and the other braces the
strong. Exercise often wearies in the spring, and in the summer heats is
scarcely to be faced; but in autumn, to those who are well, every step
is bracing and hardens the frame, as the sap is hardening in the trees.



ROUND A LONDON COPSE


In October a party of wood-pigeons took up their residence in the little
copse which has been previously mentioned. It stands in the angle formed
by two suburban roads, and the trees in it overshadow some villa
gardens. This copse has always been a favourite with birds, and it is
not uncommon to see a pheasant about it, sometimes within gunshot of the
gardens, while the call of the partridges in the evening may now and
then be heard from the windows. But though frequently visited by
wood-pigeons, they did not seem to make any stay till now when this
party arrived.

There were eight of them. During the day they made excursions into the
stubble fields, and in the evening returned to roost. They remained
through the winter, which will be remembered as the most severe for many
years. Even in the sharpest frost, if the sun shone out, they called to
each other now and then. On the first day of the year their hollow
cooing came from the copse at midday.

During the deep snow which blocked the roads and covered the fields
almost a foot deep, they were silent, but were constantly observed
flying to and fro. Immediately it became milder they recommenced to coo,
so that at intervals the note of the wood-pigeon was heard in the
adjacent house from October, all through the winter, till the nesting
time in May. Sometimes towards sunset in the early spring they all
perched together before finally retiring on the bare, slender tips of
the tall birch trees, exposed and clearly visible against the sky.

Six once alighted in a row on a long birch branch, bending it down with
their weight like a heavy load of fruit. The stormy sunset flamed up,
tinting the fields with momentary red, and their hollow voices sounded
among the trees. By May they had paired off, and each couple had a part
of the copse to themselves. Instead of avoiding the house, they seemed,
on the contrary, to come much nearer, and two or three couples built
close to the garden.

Just there, the wood being bare of undergrowth, there was nothing to
obstruct the sight but some few dead hanging branches, and the pigeons
or ringdoves could be seen continually flying up and down from the
ground to their nests. They were so near that the darker marking at the
end of the tail, as it was spread open to assist the upward flight to
the branch, was visible. Outside the garden gate, and not more than
twenty yards distant, there stood three young spruce firs, at the edge
of the copse, but without the boundary. To the largest of these one of
the pigeons came now and then; he was half inclined to choose it for his
nest.

The noise of their wings as they rose and threshed their strong feathers
together over the tops of the trees was often heard, and while in the
garden one might be watched approaching from a distance, swift as the
wind, then suddenly half-closing his wings and shooting forwards, he
alighted among the boughs. Their coo is not in any sense tuneful; yet it
has a pleasant association; for the ringdove is pre-eminently the bird
of the woods and forests, and rightly named the wood-pigeon. Yet though
so associated with the deepest and most lonely woods, here they were
close to the house and garden, constantly heard, and almost always
visible; and London, too, so near. They seemed almost as familiar as the
sparrows and starlings.

These pigeons were new inhabitants; but turtle-doves had built in the
copse since I knew it. They were late coming the last spring I watched
them; but, when they did, chose a spot much nearer the house than usual.
The turtle-dove has a way of gurgling the soft vowels "oo" in the
throat. Swallows do not make a summer, but when the turtle-dove coos
summer is certainly come. One afternoon one of the pair flew up into a
hornbeam which stood beside the garden not twenty yards at farthest. At
first he sat upright on the branch watching me below, then turned and
fluttered down to the nest beneath.

While this nesting was going on I could hear five different birds at
once either in the garden or from any of the windows. The doves cooed,
and every now and then their gentle tones were overpowered by the loud
call of the wood-pigeons. A cuckoo called from the top of the tallest
birch, and a nightingale and a brook-sparrow (or sedge-reedling) were
audible together in the common on the opposite side of the road. It is
remarkable that one season there seems more of one kind of bird than the
next. The year alluded to, for instance, in this copse was the
wood-pigeons' year. But one season previously the copse seemed to belong
to the missel-thrushes.

Early in the March mornings I used to wake as the workmen's trains went
rumbling by to the great City, to see on the ceiling by the window a
streak of sunlight, tinted orange by the vapour through which the level
beams had passed. Something in the sense of morning lifts the heart up
to the sun. The light, the air, the waving branches speak; the earth
and life seem boundless at that moment. In this it is the same on the
verge of the artificial City as when the rays come streaming through the
pure atmosphere of the Downs. While thus thinking, suddenly there rang
out three clear, trumpet-like notes from a tree at the edge of the copse
by the garden. A softer song followed, and then again the same three
notes, whose wild sweetness echoed through the wood.

The voice of the missel-thrush sounded not only close at hand and in the
room, but repeated itself as it floated away, as the bugle-call does. He
is the trumpeter of spring: Lord of March, his proud call challenges the
woods; there are none who can answer. Listen for the missel-thrush: when
he sings the snow may fall, the rain drift, but not for long; the
violets are near at hand. The nest was in a birch visible from the
garden, and that season seemed to be the missel-thrush's. Another year
the cuckoos had possession.

There is a detached ash tree in the field by the copse; it stands apart,
and about sixty or seventy yards from the garden. A cuckoo came to this
ash every morning, and called there for an hour at a time, his notes
echoing along the building, one following the other as wavelets roll on
the summer sands. After awhile two more used to appear, and then there
was a chase round the copse, up to the tallest birch, and out to the ash
tree again. This went on day after day, and was repeated every evening.
Flying from the ash to the copse and returning, the birds were
constantly in sight; they sometimes passed over the house, and the call
became so familiar that it was not regarded any more than the chirp of a
sparrow. Till the very last the cuckoos remained there, and never ceased
to be heard till they left to cross the seas.

That was the cuckoos' season; next spring, they returned again, but much
later than usual, and did not call so much, nor were they seen so often
while they were there. One was calling in the copse on the evening of
the 6th of May as late as half-past eight, while the moon was shining.
But they were not so prominent; and as for the missel-thrushes, I did
not hear them at all in the copse. It was the wood-pigeons' year. Thus
the birds come in succession and reign by turns.

Even the starlings vary, regular as they are by habit. This season
(1881) none have whistled on the house-top. In previous years they have
always come, and only the preceding spring a pair filled the gutter with
the materials of their nest. Long after they had finished a storm
descended, and the rain, thus dammed up and unable to escape, flooded
the corner. It cost half a sovereign to repair the damage, but it did
not matter; the starlings had been happy. It has been a disappointment
this year not to listen to their eager whistling and the flutter of
their wings as they vibrate them rapidly while hovering a moment before
entering their cavern. A pair of house-martins, too, built under the
eaves close to the starlings' nest, and they also disappointed me by not
returning this season, though the nest was not touched. Some fate, I
fear, overtook both starlings and house-martins.

Another time it was the season of the lapwings. Towards the end of
November (1881), there appeared a large flock of peewits, or green
plovers, which flock passed most of the day in a broad, level ploughed
field of great extent. At this time I estimated their number as about
four hundred; far exceeding any flock I had previously seen in the
neighbourhood. Fresh parties joined the main body continually, until by
December there could not have been less than a thousand. Still more and
more arrived, and by the first of January (1882) even this number was
doubled, and there were certainly fully two thousand there. It is the
habit of green plovers to all move at once, to rise from the ground
simultaneously, to turn in the air, or to descend--and all so regular
that their very wings seem to flap together. The effect of such a vast
body of white-breasted birds uprising as one from the dark ploughed
earth was very remarkable.

When they passed overhead the air sang like the midsummer hum with the
shrill noise of beating wings. When they wheeled a light shot down
reflected from their white breasts, so that people involuntarily looked
up to see what it could be. The sun shone on them, so that at a distance
the flock resembled a cloud brilliantly illuminated. In an instant they
turned and the cloud was darkened. Such a great flock had not been seen
in that district in the memory of man.

There did not seem any reason for their congregating in this manner,
unless it was the mildness of the winter, but winters had been mild
before without such a display. The birds as a mass rarely left this one
particular field--they voyaged round in the air and settled again in the
same place. Some few used to spend hours with the sheep in a meadow,
remaining there till dusk, till the mist hid them, and their cry sounded
afar in the gloom. They stayed all through the winter, breaking up as
the spring approached. By March the great flock had dispersed.

The winter was very mild. There were buttercups, avens, and white
nettles in flower on December 31st. On January 7th, there were briar
buds opening into young leaf; on the 9th a dandelion in flower, and an
arum up. A grey veronica was trying to open flower on the 11th, and
hawthorn buds were so far open that the green was visible on the 16th.
On February 14th a yellow-hammer sang, and brambles had put forth green
buds. Two wasps went by in the sunshine. The 14th is old Candlemas,
supposed to rule the weather for some time after. Old Candlemas was very
fine and sunny till night, when a little rain fell. The summer that
followed was cold and ungenial, with easterly winds, though fortunately
it brightened up somewhat for the harvest. A chaffinch sang on the 20th
of February: all these are very early dates.

One morning while I was watching these plovers, a man with a gun got
over a gate into the road. Another followed, apparently without a
weapon, but as the first proceeded to take his gun to pieces, and put
the barrel in one pocket at the back of his coat, and the stock in a
second, it is possible that there was another gun concealed. The
coolness with which the fellow did this on the highway was astounding,
but his impudence was surpassed by his stupidity, for at the very moment
he hid the gun there was a rabbit out feeding within easy range, which
neither of these men observed.

The boughs of a Scotch fir nearly reached to one window. If I recollect
rightly, the snow was on the ground in the early part of the year, when
a golden-crested wren came to it. He visited it two or three times a
week for some time; his golden crest distinctly seen among the dark
green needles of the fir.

There are squirrels in the copse, and now and then one comes within
sight. In the summer there was one in the boughs of an oak close to the
garden. Once, and once only, a pair of them ventured into the garden
itself, deftly passing along the wooden palings and exploring a guelder
rose-bush. The pheasants which roost in the copse wander to it from
distant preserves. One morning in spring, before the corn was up, there
was one in a field by the copse calmly walking along the ridge of a
furrow so near that the ring round his neck was visible from the road.

In the early part of last autumn, while the acorns were dropping from
the oaks and the berries ripe, I twice disturbed a pheasant from the
garden of a villa not far distant. There were some oaks hard by, and
from under these the bird had wandered into the quiet sequestered
garden. The oak in the copse on which the squirrel was last seen is
peculiar for bearing oak-apples earlier than any other of the
neighbourhood, and there are often half-a-dozen of them on the twigs on
the trunk before there is one anywhere else. The famous snowstorm of
October 1880 snapped off the leader or top of this oak.

Jays often come, magpies more rarely, to the copse; as for the lesser
birds they all visit it. In the hornbeams at the verge blackcaps sing in
spring a sweet and cultured song, which does not last many seconds. They
visit a thick bunch of ivy in the garden. By these hornbeam trees a
streamlet flows out of the copse, crossed at the hedge by a pole, to
prevent cattle straying in. The pole is a robin's perch. He is always
there, or near; he was there all through the terrible winter, all the
summer, and he is there now.

There are a few inches, a narrow strip of sand, beside the streamlet
under this pole. Whenever a wagtail dares to come to this sand the robin
immediately appears and drives him away. He will bear no intrusion. A
pair of butcher-birds built very near this spot one spring, but
afterwards appeared to remove to a place where there is more furze, but
beside the same hedge. The determination and fierce resolution of the
shrike, or butcherbird, despite his small size, is most marked. One day
a shrike darted down from a hedge just before me, not a yard in front,
and dashed a dandelion to the ground.

His claws clasped the stalk, and the flower was crushed in a moment; he
came with such force as to partly lose his balance. His prey was
probably a humble-bee which had settled on the dandelion. The shrike's
head resembles that of the eagle in miniature. From his favourite branch
he surveys the grass, and in an instant pounces on his victim.

There is a quiet lane leading out of one of the roads which have been
mentioned down into a wooded hollow, where there are two ponds, one on
each side of the lane. Standing here one morning in the early summer,
suddenly a kingfisher came shooting straight towards me, and swerving a
little passed within three yards; his blue wings, his ruddy front, the
white streak beside his neck, and long bill were visible for a moment;
then he was away, straight over the meadows, till he cleared a distant
hedge and disappeared. He was probably on his way to visit his nest, for
though living by the streams kingfishers often have their nest a
considerable way from water.

Two years had gone by since I saw one here before, perched then on the
trunk of a willow which overhangs one of the ponds. After that came the
severe winters, and it seemed as if the kingfishers were killed off, for
they are often destroyed by frost, so that the bird came unexpectedly
from the shadow of the trees, across the lane, and out into the sunshine
over the field. It was a great pleasure to see a kingfisher again.

This hollow is the very place of singing birds in June. Up in the oaks
blackbirds whistle--you do not often see them, for they seek the leafy
top branches, but once now and then while fluttering across to another
perch. The blackbird's whistle is very human, like some one playing the
flute; an uncertain player now drawing forth a bar of a beautiful melody
and then losing it again. He does not know what quiver or what turn his
note will take before it ends; the note leads him and completes itself.
His music strives to express his keen appreciation of the loveliness of
the days, the golden glory of the meadow, the light, and the luxurious
shadows.

Such thoughts can only be expressed in fragments, like a sculptor's
chips thrown off as the inspiration seizes him, not mechanically sawn to
a set line. Now and again the blackbird feels the beauty of the time,
the large white daisy stars, the grass with yellow-dusted tips, the air
which comes so softly unperceived by any precedent rustle of the hedge.
He feels the beauty of the time, and he must say it. His notes come like
wild flowers not sown in order. There is not an oak here in June without
a blackbird.

Thrushes sing louder here than anywhere else; they really seem to sing
louder, and they are all around. Thrushes appear to vary their notes
with the period of the year, singing louder in the summer, and in the
mild days of October when the leaves lie brown and buff on the sward
under their perch more plaintively and delicately. Warblers and
willow-wrens sing in the hollow in June, all out of sight among the
trees--they are easily hidden by a leaf.

At that time the ivy leaves which flourish up to the very tops of the
oaks are so smooth with enamelled surface, that high up, as the wind
moves them, they reflect the sunlight and scintillate. Greenfinches in
the elms never cease love-making; and love-making needs much soft
talking. A nightingale in a bush sings so loud the hawthorn seems too
small for the vigour of the song. He will let you stand at the very
verge of the bough; but it is too near, his voice is sweeter across the
field.

There are still, in October, a few red apples on the boughs of the trees
in a little orchard beside the same road. It is a natural orchard--left
to itself--therefore there is always something to see in it. The palings
by the road are falling, and are held up chiefly by the brambles about
them and the ivy that has climbed up. Trees stand on the right and trees
on the left; there is a tall spruce fir at the back.

The apple trees are not set in straight lines: they were at first, but
some have died away and left an irregularity; the trees lean this way
and that, and they are scarred and marked as it were with lichen and
moss. It is the home of birds. A blackbird had its nest this spring in
the bushes on the left side, a nightingale another in the bushes on the
right, and there the nightingale sang under the shadow of a hornbeam for
hours every morning while "City" men were hurrying past to their train.

The sharp relentless shrike that used to live by the copse moved up
here, and from that very hornbeam perpetually darted across the road
upon insects in the fern and furze opposite. He never entered the
orchard; it is often noticed that birds (and beasts of prey) do not
touch creatures that build near their own nests. Several thrushes reside
in the orchard; swallows frequently twittered from the tops of the apple
trees. As the grass is so safe from intrusion, one of the earliest
buttercups flowers here. Bennets--the flower of the grass--come up; the
first bennet is to green things what the first swallow is to the
breathing creatures of summer.

On a bare bough, but lately scourged by the east wind, the apple bloom
appears, set about with the green of the hedges and the dark spruce
behind. White horse-chestnut blooms stand up in their stately way,
lighting the path which is strewn with the green moss-like flowers
fallen from the oaks. There is an early bush of May. When the young
apples take form and shape the grass is so high even the buttercups are
overtopped by it. Along the edge of the roadside footpath, where the
dandelions, plantains, and grasses are thick with seed, the greenfinches
come down and feed.

Now the apples are red that are left, and they hang on boughs from which
the leaves are blown by every gust. But it does not matter when you
pass, summer or autumn, this little orchard has always something to
offer. It is not neglected--it is true attention to leave it to itself.

Left to itself, so that the grass reaches its fullest height; so that
bryony vines trail over the bushes and stay till the berries fall of
their own ripeness; so that the brown leaves lie and are not swept away
unless the wind chooses; so that all things follow their own course and
bent. The hedge opposite in autumn, when reapers are busy with the
sheaves, is white with the large trumpet flowers of the great wild
convolvulus (or bindweed). The hedge there seems made of convolvulus
then; nothing but convolvulus, and nowhere else does the flower flourish
so strongly; the bines remain till the following spring.

Without a path through it, without a border or parterre, unvisited, and
left alone, the orchard has acquired an atmosphere of peace and
stillness, such as grows up in woods and far-away lonely places. It is
so commonplace and unpretentious that passers-by do not notice it; it is
merely a corner of meadow dotted with apple trees--a place that needs
frequent glances and a dreamy mood to understand it as the birds
understand it. They are always there. In spring, thrushes move along,
rustling the fallen leaves as they search among the arum sheaths
unrolling beside the sheltering palings. There are nooks and corners
whence shy creatures can steal out from the shadow and be happy. There
is a loving streak of sunshine somewhere among the tree trunks.

Though the copse is so much frequented the migrant birds (which have now
for the most part gone) next spring will not be seen nor heard there
first. With one exception, it is not the first place to find them. The
cuckoos which come to the copse do not call till some time after others
have been heard in the neighbourhood. There is another favourite copse a
mile distant, and the cuckoo can be heard near it quite a week earlier.
This last spring there were two days' difference--a marked interval.

The nightingale that sings in the bushes on the common immediately
opposite the copse is late in the same manner. There is a mound about
half a mile farther, where a nightingale always sings first, before all
the others of the district. The one on the common began to sing last
spring a full week later. On the contrary, the sedge-reedling, which
chatters side by side with the nightingale, is the first of all his kind
to return to the neighbourhood. The same thing happens season after
season, so that when once you know these places you can always hear the
birds several days before other people.

With flowers it is the same; the lesser celandine, the marsh marigold,
the silvery cardamine, appear first in one particular spot, and may be
gathered there before a petal has opened elsewhere. The first swallow in
this district generally appears round about a pond near some farm
buildings. Birds care nothing for appropriate surroundings. Hearing a
titlark singing his loudest, I found him perched on the rim of a tub
placed for horses to drink from.

This very pond by which the first swallow appears is muddy enough, and
surrounded with poached mud, for a herd of cattle drink from and stand
in it. An elm overhangs it, and on the lower branches, which are dead,
the swallows perch and sing just over the muddy water. A sow lies in the
mire. But the sweet swallows sing on softly; they do not see the
wallowing animal, the mud, the brown water; they see only the sunshine,
the golden buttercups, and the blue sky of summer. This is the true way
to look at this beautiful earth.



MAGPIE FIELDS


There were ten magpies together on the 9th of September 1881, in a field
of clover beside a road but twelve miles from Charing Cross. Ten magpies
would be a large number to see at once anywhere in the south, and not a
little remarkable so near town. The magpies were doubtless young birds
which had packed, and were bred in the nests in the numerous elms of the
hedgerows about there. At one time they were scattered over the field,
their white and black colours dotted everywhere, so that they seemed to
hold entire possession of it.

Then a knot of them gathered together, more came up, and there they were
all ten fluttering and restlessly moving. After a while they passed on
into the next field, which was stubble, and, collected in a bunch, were
even more conspicuous there, as the stubble did not conceal them so much
as the clover. That was on the 9th of September; by the end of the month
weeds had grown so high that the stubble itself in that field had
disappeared, and from a distance it looked like pasture. In the stubble
the magpies remained till I could watch them no longer.

A short time afterwards, on the 17th of September, looking over the
gateway of an adjacent field which had been wheat, then only recently
carried, a pheasant suddenly appeared rising up out of the stubble; and
then a second, and a third and fourth. So tall were the weeds that, in
a crouching posture, at the first glance they were not visible; then as
they fed, stretching their necks out, only the top of their backs could
be seen. Presently some more raised their heads in another part of the
field, then two more on the left side, and one under an oak by the
hedge, till seventeen were counted.

These seventeen pheasants were evidently all young birds, which had
wandered from covers, some distance, too, for there is no preserve
within a mile at least. Seven or eight came near each other, forming a
flock, but just out of gunshot from the road. They were all extremely
busy feeding in the stubble. Next day half-a-dozen or so still remained,
but the rest had scattered; some had gone across to an acre of barley
yet standing in a corner; some had followed the dropping acorns along
the hedge into another piece of stubble; others went into a breadth of
turnips.

Day by day their numbers diminished as they parted, till only three or
four could be seen. Such a sortie from cover is the standing risk of the
game-preserver. Towards the end of September, on passing a barley-field,
still partly uncut, and with some spread, there was a loud, confused,
murmuring sound up in the trees, like that caused by the immense flocks
of starlings which collect in winter. The sound, however, did not seem
quite the same, and upon investigation it turned out to be an incredible
number of sparrows, whose voices were audible across the field.

They presently flew out from the hedge, and alighted on one of the rows
of cut barley, making it suddenly brown from one end to the other. There
must have been thousands; they continually flew up, swept round with a
whirring of wings, and settled, again darkening the spot they chose.
Now, as the sparrow eats from morning to night without ceasing, say for
about twelve hours, and picks up a grain of corn in the twinkling of an
eye, it would be a moderate calculation to allow this vast flock two
sacks a week. Among them there was one white sparrow--his white wings
showed distinctly among the brown flock. In the most remote country I
never observed so great a number of these birds at once; the loss to the
farmers must be considerable.

There were a few fine days at the end of the month. One afternoon there
rose up a flock of rooks out of a large oak tree standing separate in
the midst of an arable field which was then at last being ploughed. This
oak is a favourite with the rooks of the neighbourhood, and they have
been noticed to visit it more frequently than others. Up they went,
perhaps a hundred of them, rooks and jackdaws together cawing and
soaring round and round till they reached a great height. At that level,
as if they had attained their ballroom, they swept round and round on
outstretched wings, describing circles and ovals in the air. Caw-caw!
jack-juck-juck! Thus dancing in slow measure, they enjoyed the sunshine,
full from their feast of acorns.

Often as one was sailing on another approached and interfered with his
course when they wheeled about each other. Soon one dived. Holding his
wings at full stretch and rigid, he dived headlong, rotating as he fell,
till his beak appeared as if it would be driven into the ground by the
violence of the descent. But within twenty feet of the earth he
recovered himself and rose again. Most of these dives, for they all
seemed to dive in turn, were made over the favourite oak, and they did
not rise till they had gone down to its branches. Many appeared about to
throw themselves against the boughs.

Whether they wheeled round in circles, or whether they dived, or simply
sailed onward in the air, they did it in pairs. As one was sweeping
round another came to him. As one sailed straight on a second closely
followed. After one had dived the other soon followed, or waited till he
had come up and rejoined him. They danced and played in couples as if
they were paired already. Some left the main body and steered right away
from their friends, but turned and came back, and in about half-an-hour
they all descended and settled in the oak from which they had risen. A
loud cawing and jack-juck-jucking accompanied this sally.

The same day it could be noticed how the shadows of the elms cast by the
bright sunshine on the grass, which is singularly fresh and green this
autumn, had a velvety appearance. The dark shadow on the fresh green
looked soft as velvet. The waters of the brook had become darker now;
they flowed smooth, and at the brink reflected a yellow spray of
horse-chestnut. The sunshine made the greenfinches call, the chaffinches
utter their notes, and a few thrushes sing; but the latter were soon
silenced by frosts in the early morning, which turned the fern to so
deep a reddish brown as to approach copper.

At the beginning of October a herd of cows and a small flock of sheep
were turned into the clover field to eat off the last crop, the
preceding crops having been mown. There were two or more magpies among
the sheep every day: magpies, starlings, rooks, crows, and wagtails
follow sheep about. The clover this year seems to have been the best
crop, though in the district alluded to it has not been without an
enemy. Early in July, after the first crop had been mown a short time,
there came up a few dull yellowish-looking stalks among it. These
increased so much that one field became yellowish all over, the stalks
overtopped the clover, and overcame its green.

It was the lesser broom rape, and hardly a clover plant escaped this
parasitic growth. By carefully removing the earth with a pocket-knife
the two could be dug up together. From the roots of the clover a slender
filament passes underground to the somewhat bulbous root of the broom
rape, so that although they stand apart and appear separate plants, they
are connected under the surface. The stalk of the broom rape is clammy
to touch, and is an unwholesome greenish yellow, a dull undecided
colour; if cut, it is nearly the same texture throughout. There are
numerous dull purplish flowers at the top, but it has no leaves. It is
not a pleasant-looking plant--a strange and unusual growth.

One particular field was completely covered with it, and scarcely a
clover field in the neighbourhood was perfectly free. But though drawing
the sap from the clover plants the latter grew so vigorously that little
damage was apparent. After a while the broom rape disappeared, but the
clover shot up and afforded good forage. So late as the beginning of
October a few poppies flowered in it, their bright scarlet contrasting
vividly with the green around, and the foliage above fast turning brown.

The flight of the jay much resembles that of the magpie, the same
jaunty, uncertain style, so that at a distance from the flight alone it
would be difficult to distinguish them, though in fact the magpie's
longer tail and white and black colours always mark him. One morning in
July, standing for a moment in the shade beside a birch copse which
borders the same road, a jay flew up into the tree immediately overhead,
so near that the peculiar shape of the head and bill and all the plumage
was visible. He looked down twice, and then flew. Another morning there
was a jay on the ground, searching about, not five yards from the road,
nor twenty from a row of houses. It was at the corner of a copse which
adjoins them. If not so constantly shot at the jay would be anything but
wild.

Notwithstanding all these magpies and jays, the partridges are numerous
this year in the fields bordering the highway, and which are not watched
by keepers. Thinking of the partridges makes me notice the anthills.
There were comparatively few this season, but on the 4th of August,
which was a sunny day, I saw the inhabitants of a hill beside the road
bringing out the eggs into the sunshine. They could not do it fast
enough; some ran out with eggs, and placed them on the top of the little
mound, and others seized eggs that had been exposed sufficiently and
hurried with them into the interior.

Woody nightshade grows in quantities along this road and, apparently,
all about the outskirts of the town. There is not a hedge without it,
and it creeps over the mounds of earth at the sides of the highways.
Some fumitory appeared this summer in a field of barley; till then I had
not observed any for some time in that district. This plant, once so
common, but now nearly eradicated by culture, has a soft pleasant green.
A cornflower, too, flowered in another field, quite a treasure to find
where these beautiful blue flowers are so scarce. The last day of August
there was a fierce combat on the footpath between a wasp and a brown
moth. They rolled over and struggled, now one, now the other uppermost,
and the wasp appeared to sting the moth repeatedly. The moth, however,
got away.

There are so many jackdaws about the suburbs that, when a flock of rooks
passes over, the caw-cawing is quite equalled by the jack-jucking. The
daws are easily known by their lesser size and by their flight, for
they use their wings three times to the rook's once. Numbers of daws
build in the knot-holes and hollows of the horse-chestnut trees in
Bushey Park, and in the elms of the grounds of Hampton Court.

To the left of the Diana Fountain there are a number of hawthorn trees,
which stand apart, and are aged like those often found on village greens
and commons. Upon some of these hawthorns mistletoe grows, not in such
quantities as on the apples in Gloucester and Hereford, but in small
pieces.

As late in the spring as May-day I have seen some berries, then very
large, on the mistletoe here. Earlier in the year, when the adjoining
fountain was frozen and crowded with skaters, there were a number of
missel-thrushes in these hawthorns, but they appeared to be eating the
haws. At all events, they left some of the mistletoe berries, which were
on the plant months later.

Just above Molesey Lock, in the meadows beside the towing-path, the blue
meadow geranium, or crane's-bill, flowers in large bunches in the
summer. It is one of the most beautiful flowers of the field, and after
having lost sight of it for some time, to see it again seemed to bring
the old familiar far-away fields close to London. Between Hampton Court
and Kingston the towing-path of the Thames is bordered by a broad green
sward, sufficiently wide to be worth mowing. One July I found a man at
work here in advance of the mowers, pulling up yarrow plants with might
and main.

The herb grew in such quantities that it was necessary to remove it
first, or the hay would be too coarse. On conversing with him, he said
that a person came sometimes and took away a trap-load of yarrow; the
flowers were to be boiled and mixed with cayenne pepper, as a remedy
for cold in the chest. In spring the dandelions here are pulled in
sackfuls, to be eaten as salad. These things have fallen so much into
disuse in the country that country people are surprised to find the
herbalists flourishing round the great city of progress.

The continued dry weather in the early summer of the present year, which
was so favourable to partridges and game, was equally favourable to the
increase of several other kinds of birds, and among these the jays.
Their screeching is often heard in this district, quite as often as it
is in country woodlands. One day in the spring I saw six all screeching
and yelling together up and down a hedge near the road. Now in October
they are plentiful. One flew across overhead with an acorn in its beak,
and perched in an elm beside the highway. He pecked at the acorn on the
bough, then glanced down, saw me, and fled, dropping the acorn, which
fell tap tap from branch to branch till it reached the mound.

Another jay actually flew up into a fir in the green, or lawn, before a
farm-house window, crossing the road to do so. Four together were
screeching in an elm close to the road, and since then I have seen
others with acorns, while walking there. Indeed, this autumn it is not
possible to go far without hearing their discordant and unmistakable
cry. They were never scarce here, but are unusually numerous this
season, and in the scattered trees of hedgerows their ways can be better
observed than in the close covert of copses and plantations, where you
hear them, but cannot see for the thick fir boughs.

It is curious to note the number of creatures to whom the oak furnishes
food. The jays, for instance, are now visiting them for acorns; in the
summer they fluttered round the then green branches for the chafers, and
in the evenings the fern owls or goat-suckers wheeled about the verge
for these and for moths. Rooks come to the oaks in crowds for the
acorns; wood-pigeons are even more fond of them, and from their crops
quite a handful may sometimes be taken when shot in the trees.

They will carry off at once as many acorns as old-fashioned economical
farmers used to walk about with in their pockets, "chucking" them one,
two, or three at a time to the pigs in the stye as a _bonne bouche_ and
an encouragement to fatten well. Never was there such a bird to eat as
the wood-pigeon. Pheasants roam out from the preserves after the same
fruit, and no arts can retain them at acorn time. Swine are let run out
about the hedgerows to help themselves. Mice pick up the acorns that
fall, and hide them for winter use, and squirrels select the best.

If there is a decaying bough, or, more particularly, one that has been
sawn off, it slowly decays into a hollow, and will remain in that state
for years, the resort of endless woodlice, snapped up by insect-eating
birds. Down from the branches in spring there descend long, slender
threads, like gossamer, with a caterpillar at the end of each--the
insect-eating birds decimate these. So that in various ways the oaks
give more food to the birds than any other tree. Where there are oaks
there are sure to be plenty of birds. Beeches come next. Is it possible
that the severe frosts we sometimes have split oak trees? Some may be
found split up the trunk, and yet not apparently otherwise injured, as
they probably would be if it had been done by lightning. Trees are said
to burst in America under frost, so that it is not impossible in this
country.

There is a young oak beside the highway which in autumn was wreathed as
artistically as could have been done by hand. A black bryony plant grew
up round it, rising in a spiral. The heart-shaped leaves have dropped
from the bine, leaving thick bunches of red and green berries clustering
about the greyish stem of the oak.

Every one must have noticed that some trees have a much finer autumn
tint than others. This, it will often be found, is an annual occurrence,
and the same elm, or beech, or oak that has delighted the eye with its
hues this autumn, will do the same next year, and excel its neighbours
in colour. Oaks and beeches, perhaps, are the best examples of this, as
they are also the trees that present the most beautiful appearance in
autumn.

There are oaks on villa lawns near London whose glory of russet foliage
in October or November is not to be surpassed in the parks of the
country. There are two or three such oaks in Long Ditton. All oaks do
not become russet, or buff; some never take those tints. An oak, for
instance, not far from those just mentioned never quite loses its green;
it cannot be said, indeed, to remain green, but there is a trace of it
somewhere; the leaves must, I suppose, be partly buff and partly green;
and the mixture of these colours in bright sunshine produces a tint for
which I know no accurate term.

In the tops of the poplars, where most exposed, the leaves stay till the
last, those growing on the trunk below disappearing long before those on
the spire, which bends to every blast. The keys of the hornbeam come
twirling down: the hornbeam and the birch are characteristic trees of
the London landscape--the latter reaches a great height and never loses
its beauty, for when devoid of leaves the feathery spray-like branches
only come into view the more.

The abundant bird life is again demonstrated as the evening approaches.
Along the hedgerows, at the corners of the copses, wherever there is
the least cover, so soon as the sun sinks, the blackbirds announce their
presence by their calls. Their "ching-chinging" sounds everywhere; they
come out on the projecting branches and cry, then fly fifty yards
farther down the hedge, and cry again. During the day they may not have
been noticed, scattered as they were under the bushes, but the dusky
shadows darkening the fields send them to roost, and before finally
retiring, they "ching-ching" to each other.

Then, almost immediately after the sun has gone down, looking to the
south-west the sky seen above the trees (which hide the yellow sunset)
becomes a delicate violet. Soon a speck of light gleams faintly through
it--the merest speck. The first appearance of a star is very beautiful;
the actual moment of first contact as it were of the ray with the eye is
always a surprise, however often you may have enjoyed it, and
notwithstanding that you are aware it will happen. Where there was only
the indefinite violet before, the most intense gaze into which could
discover nothing, suddenly, as if at that moment born, the point of
light arrives.

So glorious is the night that not all London, with its glare and smoke,
can smother the sky; in the midst of the gas, and the roar and the
driving crowd, look up from the pavement, and there, straight above, are
the calm stars. I never forget them, not even in the restless Strand;
they face one coming down the hill of the Haymarket; in Trafalgar
Square, looking towards the high dark structure of the House at
Westminster, the clear bright steel silver of the planet Jupiter shines
unwearied, without sparkle or flicker.

Apart from the grand atmospheric changes caused by a storm wave from the
Atlantic, or an anti-cyclone, London produces its own sky. Put a
shepherd on St. Paul's, allow him three months to get accustomed to the
local appearances and the deceptive smoke clouds, and he would then tell
what the weather of the day was going to be far more efficiently than
the very best instrument ever yet invented. He would not always be
right; but he would predict the local London weather with far more
accuracy than any one reading the returns from the barometers at
Valentia, Stornoway, Brest, or Christiansand.

The reason is this--the barometer foretells the cloud in the sky, but
cannot tell where it will burst. The practised eye can judge with very
considerable accuracy where the discharge will take place. Some idea of
what the local weather of London will be for the next few hours may
often be obtained by observation on either of the bridges--Westminster,
Waterloo, or London Bridge: there is on the bridges something like a
horizon, the best to be got in the City itself, and the changes announce
themselves very clearly there. The difference in the definition is
really wonderful.

From Waterloo Bridge the golden cross on St. Paul's and the dome at one
time stand out as if engraved upon the sky, clear and with a white
aspect. At the same time, the brick of the old buildings at the back of
the Strand is red and bright. The structures of the bridges appear
light, and do not press upon their arches. The yellow straw stacked on
the barges is bright, the copper-tinted sails bright, the white wall of
the Embankment clear, and the lions' heads distinct. Every trace of
colour, in short, is visible.

At another time the dome is murky, the cross tarnished, the outline dim,
the red brick dull, the whiteness gone. In summer there is occasionally
a bluish haze about the distant buildings. These are the same changes
presented by the Downs in the country, and betoken the state of the
atmosphere as clearly. The London atmosphere is, I should fancy, quite
as well adapted to the artist's uses as the changeless glare of the
Continent. The smoke itself is not without its interest.

Sometimes upon Westminster Bridge at night the scene is very striking.
Vast rugged columns of vapour rise up behind and over the towers of the
House, hanging with threatening aspect; westward the sky is nearly
clear, with some relic of the sunset glow: the river itself, black or
illuminated with the electric light, imparting a silvery blue tint,
crossed again with the red lamps of the steamers. The aurora of dark
vapour, streamers extending from the thicker masses, slowly moves and
yet does not go away; it is just such a sky as a painter might give to
some tremendous historical event, a sky big with presage, gloom,
tragedy. How bright and clear, again, are the mornings in summer! I once
watched the sun rise on London Bridge, and never forgot it.

In frosty weather, again, when the houses take hard, stern tints, when
the sky is clear over great part of its extent, but with heavy
thunderous-looking clouds in places--clouds full of snow--the sun
becomes of a red or orange hue, and reminds one of the lines of
Longfellow when Othere reached the North Cape--

     "Round in a fiery ring
     Went the great sun, oh King!
     With red and lurid light."

The redness of the winter sun in London is, indeed, characteristic.

A sunset in winter or early spring floods the streets with fiery glow.
It comes, for instance, down Piccadilly; it is reflected from the smooth
varnished roofs of the endless carriages that roll to and fro like the
flicker of a mighty fire; it streaks the side of the street with
rosiness. The faces of those who are passing are lit up by it, all
unconscious as they are. The sky above London, indeed, is as full of
interest as above the hills. Lunar rainbows occasionally occur; two to
my knowledge were seen in the direction and apparently over the
metropolis recently.

When a few minutes on the rail has carried you outside the hub as it
were of London, among the quiet tree-skirted villas, the night reigns as
completely as in the solitudes of the country. Perhaps even more so, for
the solitude is somehow more apparent. The last theatre-goer has
disappeared inside his hall door, the last dull roll of the brougham,
with its happy laughing load, has died away--there is not so much as a
single footfall. The cropped holly hedges, the leafless birches, the
limes and acacias are still and distinct in the moonlight. A few steps
farther out on the highway the copse or plantation sleeps in utter
silence.

But the tall elms are the most striking; the length of the branches and
their height above brings them across the light, so that they stand out
even more shapely than when in leaf. The blue sky (not, of course, the
blue of day), the white moonlight, the bright stars--larger at midnight
and brilliant, in despite of the moon, which cannot overpower them in
winter as she does in summer evenings--all are as beautiful as on the
distant hills of old. By night, at least, even here, in the still
silence, Heaven has her own way.

When the oak leaves first begin to turn buff, and the first acorns drop,
the redwings arrive, and their "kuk-kuk" sound in the hedges and the
shrubberies in the gardens of suburban villas. They seem to come very
early to the neighbourhood of London, and before the time of their
appearance in other districts. The note is heard before they are seen;
the foliage of the shrubberies, still thick, though changing colour,
concealing them. Presently, when the trees are bare, with the exception
of a few oaks, they have disappeared, passing on towards the west. The
fieldfares, too, as I have previously observed, do not stay. But
missel-thrushes seem more numerous near town than in the country.

Every mild day in November the thrushes sing; there are meadows where
one may be certain to hear the song-thrush. In the dip or valley at Long
Ditton there are several meadows well timbered with elm, which are the
favourite resorts of thrushes, and their song may be heard just there in
the depth of winter, when it would be possible to go a long distance on
the higher ground without hearing one. If you hear the note of the
song-thrush during frost it is sure to rain within a few hours; it is
the first sign of the weather breaking up.

Another autumn sign is the packing (in a sense) of the moorhens. During
the summer the numerous brooks and ponds about town are apparently
partially deserted by these birds; at least they are not to be seen by
casual wayfarers. But directly the winter gets colder they gather
together in the old familiar places, and five or six, or even more, come
out at once to feed in the meadows or on the lawns by the water.

Green plovers, or peewits, come in small flocks to the fields recently
ploughed; sometimes scarcely a gunshot from the walls of the villas. The
tiny golden-crested wrens are comparatively numerous near town--the
heaths with their bramble thickets doubtless suit them; so soon as the
leaves fall they may often be seen.



HERBS


A great green book, whose broad pages are illuminated with flowers, lies
open at the feet of Londoners. This volume, without further preface,
lies ever open at Kew Gardens, and is most easily accessible from every
part of the metropolis. A short walk from Kew station brings the visitor
to Cumberland Gate. Resting for a moment upon the first seat that
presents itself, it is hard to realise that London has but just been
quitted.

Green foliage around, green grass beneath, a pleasant sensation--not
silence, but absence of jarring sound--blue sky overhead, streaks and
patches of sunshine where the branches admit the rays, wide, cool
shadows, and clear, sweet atmosphere. High in a lime tree, hidden from
view by the leaves, a chiffchaff sings continually, and from the
distance comes the softer note of a thrush. On the close-mown grass a
hedge-sparrow is searching about within a few yards, and idle insects
float to and fro, visible against the background of a dark yew
tree--they could not be seen in the glare of the sunshine. The peace of
green things reigns.

It is not necessary to go farther in; this spot at the very entrance is
equally calm and still, for there is no margin of partial
disturbance--repose begins at the edge. Perhaps it is best to be at once
content, and to move no farther; to remain, like the lime tree, in one
spot, with the sunshine and the sky, to close the eyes and listen to
the thrush. Something, however, urges exploration.

The majority of visitors naturally follow the path, and go round into
the general expanse; but I will turn from here sharply to the right, and
crossing the sward there is, after a few steps only, another enclosing
wall. Within this enclosure, called the Herbaceous Ground, heedlessly
passed and perhaps never heard of by the thousands who go to see the
Palm Houses, lies to me the real and truest interest of Kew. For here is
a living dictionary of English wild flowers.

The meadow and the cornfield, the river, the mountain and the woodland,
the seashore, the very waste place by the roadside, each has sent its
peculiar representatives, and glancing for the moment, at large, over
the beds, noting their number and extent, remembering that the specimens
are not in the mass but individual, the first conclusion is that our own
country is the true Flowery Land.

But the immediate value of this wonderful garden is in the clue it gives
to the most ignorant, enabling any one, no matter how unlearned, to
identify the flower that delighted him or her, it may be, years ago, in
faraway field or copse. Walking up and down the green paths between the
beds, you are sure to come upon it presently, with its scientific name
duly attached and its natural order labelled at the end of the patch.

Had I only known of this place in former days, how gladly I would have
walked the hundred miles hither! For the old folk, aged men and
countrywomen, have for the most part forgotten, if they ever knew, the
plants and herbs in the hedges they had frequented from childhood. Some
few, of course, they can tell you; but the majority are as unknown to
them, except by sight, as, the ferns of New Zealand or the heaths of the
Cape. Since books came about, since the railways and science destroyed
superstition, the lore of herbs has in great measure decayed and been
lost. The names of many of the commonest herbs are quite forgotten--they
are weeds, and nothing more. But here these things are preserved; in
London, the centre of civilisation and science, is a garden which
restores the ancient knowledge of the monks and the witches of the
villages.

Thus, on entering to-day, the first plant which I observed is
hellebore--a not very common wild herb perhaps, but found in places, and
a traditionary use of which is still talked of in the country, a use
which I must forbear to mention. What would the sturdy mowers whom I
once watched cutting their way steadily through the tall grass in June
say, could they see here the black knapweed cultivated as a garden
treasure? Its hard woody head with purple florets lifted high above the
ground, was greatly disliked by them, as, too, the blue scabious, and
indeed most other flowers. The stalks of such plants were so much harder
to mow than the grass.

Feathery yarrow sprays, which spring up by the wayside and wherever the
foot of man passes, as at the gateway, are here. White and lilac-tinted
yarrow flowers grow so thickly along the roads round London as often to
form a border between the footpath and the bushes of the hedge.
Dandelions lift their yellow heads, classified and cultivated--the same
dandelions whose brilliant colour is admired and imitated by artists,
and whose prepared roots are still in use in country places to improve
the flavour of coffee.

Groundsel, despised groundsel--the weed which cumbers the garden patch,
and is hastily destroyed, is here fully recognised. These
harebells--they have flowered a little earlier than in their wild
state--how many scenes they recall to memory! We found them on the tops
of the glorious Downs when the wheat was ripe in the plains and the
earth beneath seemed all golden. Some, too, concealed themselves on the
pastures behind those bunches of tough grass the cattle left untouched.
And even in cold November, when the mist lifted, while the dewdrops
clustered thickly on the grass, one or two hung their heads under the
furze.

Hawkweeds, which many mistake for dandelions; cowslips, in seed now, and
primroses, with foreign primulas around them and enclosed by small
hurdles, foxgloves, some with white and some with red flowers, all these
have their story and are intensely English. Rough-leaved comfrey of the
side of the river and brook, one species of which is so much talked of
as better forage than grass, is here, its bells opening.

Borage, whose leaves float in the claret-cup ladled out to thirsty
travellers at the London railway stations in the hot weather; knotted
figwort, common in ditches; Aaron's rod, found in old gardens; lovely
veronicas; mints and calamints whose leaves, if touched, scent the
fingers, and which grow everywhere by cornfield and hedgerow.

This bunch of wild thyme once again calls up a vision of the Downs; it
is not so thick and strong, and it lacks that cushion of herbage which
so often marks the site of its growth on the noble slopes of the hills,
and along the sward-grown fosse of ancient earthworks, but it is wild
thyme, and that is enough. From this bed of varieties of thyme there
rises up a pleasant odour which attracts the bees. Bees and humble-bees,
indeed, buzz everywhere, but they are much too busily occupied to notice
you or me.

Is there any difference in the taste of London honey and in that of the
country? From the immense quantity of garden flowers about the
metropolis it would seem possible for a distinct flavour, not perhaps
preferable, to be imparted. Lavender, of which old housewives were so
fond, and which is still the best of preservatives, comes next, and
self-heal is just coming out in flower; the reapers have, I believe,
forgotten its former use in curing the gashes sometimes inflicted by the
reap-hook. The reaping-machine has banished such memories from the
stubble. Nightshades border on the potato, the flowers of both almost
exactly alike; poison and food growing side by side and of the same
species.

There are tales still told in the villages of this deadly and enchanted
mandragora; the lads sometimes go to the churchyards to search for it.
Plantains and docks, wild spurge, hops climbing up a dead fir tree, a
well-chosen pole for them--nothing is omitted. Even the silver weed, the
dusty-looking foliage which is thrust aside as you walk on the footpath
by the road, is here labelled with truth as "cosmopolitan" of habit.

Bird's-foot lotus, another Downside plant, lights up the stones put to
represent rockwork with its yellow. Saxifrage, and stone-crop and
house-leek are here in variety. Buttercups occupy a whole patch--a
little garden to themselves. What would the haymakers say to such a
sight? Little, too, does the mower reck of the number, variety, and
beauty of the grasses in a single armful of swathe, such as he gathers
up to cover his jar of ale with and keep it cool by the hedge. The
bennets, the flower of the grass, on their tall stalks, go down in
numbers as countless as the sand of the seashore before his scythe.

But here the bennets are watched and tended, the weeds removed from
around them, and all the grasses of the field cultivated as
affectionately as the finest rose. There is something cool and pleasant
in this green after the colours of the herbs in flower, though each
grass is but a bunch, yet it has with it something of the sweetness of
the meadows by the brooks. Juncus, the rush, is here, a sign often
welcome to cattle, for they know that water must be near; the bunch is
cut down, and the white pith shows, but it will speedily be up again;
horse-tails, too, so thick in marshy places--one small species is
abundant in the ploughed fields of Surrey, and must be a great trouble
to the farmers, for the land is sometimes quite hidden by it.

In the adjoining water tank are the principal flowers and plants which
flourish in brook, river, and pond. This yellow iris flowers in many
streams about London, and the water-parsnip's pale green foliage waves
at the very bottom, for it will grow with the current right over it as
well as at the side. Water-plantain grows in every pond near the
metropolis; there is some just outside these gardens, in a wet ha-ha.

The huge water-docks in the centre here flourish at the verge of the
adjacent Thames; the marsh marigold, now in seed, blooms in April in the
damp furrows of meadows close up to town. But in this flower-pot, sunk
so as to be in the water, and yet so that the rim may prevent it from
spreading and coating the entire tank with green, is the strangest of
all, actually duckweed. The still ponds always found close to cattle
yards, are in summer green from end to end with this weed. I recommend
all country folk who come up to town in summer time to run down here
just to see duckweed cultivated once in their lives.

In front of an ivy-grown museum there is a kind of bowling-green, sunk
somewhat below the general surface, where in similar beds may be found
the most of those curious old herbs which, for seasoning or salad, or
some use of superstition, were famous in ancient English households. Not
one of them but has its associations. "There's rue for you," to begin
with; we all know who that herb is for ever connected with.

There is marjoram and sage, clary, spearmint, peppermint, salsify,
elecampane, tansy, assafoetida, coriander, angelica, caper spurge,
lamb's lettuce, and sorrel. Mugwort, southernwood, and wormwood are
still to be found in old gardens: they stand here side by side.
Monkshood, horehound, henbane, vervain (good against the spells of
witches), feverfew, dog's mercury, bistort, woad, and so on, all seem
like relics of the days of black-letter books. All the while
greenfinches are singing happily in the trees without the wall.

This is but the briefest résumé; for many long summer afternoons would
be needed even to glance at all the wild flowers that bloom in June.
Then you must come once at least a month, from March to September, as
the flowers succeed each other, to read the place aright. It is an index
to every meadow and cornfield, wood, heath, and river in the country,
and by means of the plants of the same species to the flowers of the
world. Therefore, the Herbaceous Ground seems to me a place that should
on no account be passed by. And the next place is the Wilderness--that
is, the Forest.

On the way thither an old-fashioned yew hedge may be seen round about a
vast glasshouse. Outside, on the sward, there are fewer wild flowers
growing wild than might perhaps be expected, owing in some degree, no
doubt, to the frequent mowing, except under the trees, where again the
constant shadow does not suit all. By the ponds, in the midst of trees,
and near the river, there is a little grass, however, left to itself, in
which in June there were some bird's-foot lotus, veronica, hawkweeds,
ox-eye daisy, knapweed, and buttercups. Standing by these ponds, I heard
a cuckoo call, and saw a rook sail over them; there was no other sound
but that of the birds and the merry laugh of children rolling down the
slopes.

The midsummer hum was audible above; the honey-dew glistened on the
leaves of the limes. There is a sense of repose in the mere aspect of
large trees in groups and masses of quiet foliage. Their breadth of form
steadies the roving eye; the rounded slopes, the wide sweeping outline
of these hills of green boughs, induce an inclination, like them, to
rest. To recline upon the grass and with half-closed eyes gaze upon them
is enough.

The delicious silence is not the silence of night, of lifelessness; it
is the lack of jarring, mechanical noise; it is not silence but the
sound of leaf and grass gently stroked by the soft and tender touch of
the summer air. It is the sound of happy finches, of the slow buzz of
humble-bees, of the occasional splash of a fish, or the call of a
moorhen. Invisible in the brilliant beams above, vast legions of insects
crowd the sky, but the product of their restless motion is a slumberous
hum.

These sounds are the real silence; just as a tiny ripple of the water
and the swinging of the shadows as the boughs stoop are the real
stillness. If they were absent, if it was the soundlessness and
stillness of stone, the mind would crave for something. But these fill
and content it. Thus reclining, the storm and stress of life
dissolve--there is no thought, no care, no desire. Somewhat of the
Nirvana of the earth beneath--the earth which for ever produces and
receives back again and yet is for ever at rest--enters into and soothes
the heart.

The time slips by, a rook emerges from yonder mass of foliage, and idly
floats across, and is hidden in another tree. A whitethroat rises from a
bush and nervously discourses, gesticulating with wings and tail, for a
few moments. But this is not possible for long; the immense magnetism of
London, as I have said before, is too near. There comes the quick short
beat of a steam launch shooting down the river hard by, and the dream is
over. I rise and go on again.

Already one of the willows planted about the pond is showing the yellow
leaf, before midsummer. It reminds me of the inevitable autumn. In
October these ponds, now apparently deserted, will be full of moorhens.
I have seen and heard but one to-day, but as the autumn comes on they
will be here again, feeding about the island, or searching on the sward
by the shore. Then, too, among the beeches that lead from hence towards
the fanciful pagoda the squirrels will be busy. There are numbers of
them, and their motions may be watched with ease. I turn down by the
river; in the ditch at the foot of the ha-ha wall is plenty of duckweed,
the Lemna of the tank.

A little distance away, and almost on the shore, as it seems, of the
Thames, is a really noble horse-chestnut, whose boughs, untouched by
cattle, come sweeping down to the ground, and then, continuing, seem to
lie on and extend themselves along it, yards beyond their contact.
Underneath, it reminds one of sketches of encampments in Hindostan
beneath banyan trees, where white tent cloths are stretched from branch
to branch. Tent cloths might be stretched here in similar manner, and
would enclose a goodly space. Or in the boughs above, a savage's
tree-hut might be built, and yet scarcely be seen.

My roaming and uncertain steps next bring me under a plane, and I am
forced to admire it; I do not like planes, but this is so straight of
trunk, so vast of size, and so immense of height that I cannot choose
but look up into it. A jackdaw, perched on an upper bough, makes off as
I glance up. But the trees constantly afford unexpected pleasure; you
wander among the timber of the world, now under the shadow of the trees
which the Red Indian haunts, now by those which grow on Himalayan
slopes. The interest lies in the fact that they are trees, not shrubs or
mere saplings, but timber trees which cast a broad shadow.

So great is their variety and number that it is not always easy to find
an oak or an elm; there are plenty, but they are often lost in the
foreign forest. Yet every English shrub and bush is here; the hawthorn,
the dogwood, the wayfaring tree, gorse and broom, and here is a round
plot of heather. Weary at last, I rest again near the Herbaceous Ground,
as the sun declines and the shadows lengthen.

As evening draws on, the whistling of blackbirds and the song of
thrushes seem to come from everywhere around. The trees are full of
them. Every few moments a blackbird passes over, flying at some height,
from the villa gardens and the orchards without. The song increases; the
mellow whistling is without intermission; but the shadow has nearly
reached the wall, and I must go.



TREES ABOUT TOWN


Just outside London there is a circle of fine, large houses, each
standing in its own grounds, highly rented, and furnished with every
convenience money can supply. If any one will look at the trees and
shrubs growing in the grounds about such a house, chosen at random for
an example, and make a list of them, he may then go round the entire
circumference of Greater London, mile after mile, many days' journey,
and find the list ceaselessly repeated.

There are acacias, sumachs, cedar deodaras, araucarias, laurels, planes,
beds of rhododendrons, and so on. There are various other foreign shrubs
and trees whose names have not become familiar, and then the next
grounds contain exactly the same, somewhat differently arranged. Had
they all been planted by Act of Parliament, the result could scarcely
have been more uniform.

If, again, search were made in these enclosures for English trees and
English shrubs, it would be found that none have been introduced. The
English trees, timber trees, that are there, grew before the house was
built; for the rest, the products of English woods and hedgerows have
been carefully excluded. The law is, "Plant planes, laurels, and
rhododendrons; root up everything natural to this country."

To those who have any affection for our own woodlands this is a pitiful
spectacle, produced, too, by the expenditure of large sums of money.
Will no one break through the practice, and try the effect of English
trees? There is no lack of them, and they far excel anything yet
imported in beauty and grandeur.

Though such suburban grounds mimic the isolation and retirement of
ancient country-houses surrounded with parks, the distinctive feature of
the ancient houses is omitted. There are no massed bodies, as it were,
of our own trees to give a substance to the view. Are young oaks ever
seen in those grounds so often described as park-like? Some time since
it was customary for the builder to carefully cut down every piece of
timber on the property before putting in the foundations.

Fortunately, the influence of a better taste now preserves such trees as
chance to be growing on the site at the moment it is purchased. These
remain, but no others are planted. A young oak is not to be seen. The
oaks that are there drop their acorns in vain, for if one takes root it
is at once cut off; it would spoil the laurels. It is the same with
elms; the old elms are decaying, and no successors are provided.

As for ash, it is doubtful if a young ash is anywhere to be found; if so
it is an accident. The ash is even rarer than the rest. In their places
are put more laurels, cedar deodaras, various evergreens, rhododendrons,
planes. How tame and insignificant are these compared with the oak!
Thrice a year the oaks become beautiful in a different way.

In spring the opening buds give the tree a ruddy hue; in summer the
great head of green is not to be surpassed; in autumn, with the falling
leaf and acorn, they appear buff and brown. The nobility of the oak
casts the pitiful laurel into utter insignificance. With elms it is the
same; they are reddish with flower and bud very early in the year, the
fresh leaf is a tender green; in autumn they are sometimes one mass of
yellow.

Ashes change from almost black to a light green, then a deeper green,
and again light green and yellow. Where is the foreign evergreen in the
competition? Put side by side, competition is out of the question; you
have only to get an artist to paint the oak in its three phases to see
this. There is less to be said against the deodara than the rest, as it
is a graceful tree; but it is not English in any sense.

The point, however, is that the foreigners oust the English altogether.
Let the cedar and the laurel, and the whole host of invading evergreens,
be put aside by themselves, in a separate and detached shrubbery,
maintained for the purpose of exhibiting strange growths. Let them not
crowd the lovely English trees out of the place. Planes are much planted
now, with ill effect; the blotches where the bark peels, the leaves
which lie on the sward like brown leather, the branches wide apart and
giving no shelter to birds--in short, the whole ensemble of the plane is
unfit for our country.

It was selected for London plantations, as the Thames Embankment,
because its peeling bark was believed to protect it against the deposit
of sooty particles, and because it grows quickly. For use in London
itself it may be preferable: for semi-country seats, as the modern
houses surrounded with their own grounds assume to be, it is unsightly.
It has no association. No one has seen a plane in a hedgerow, or a wood,
or a copse. There are no fragments of English history clinging to it as
there are to the oak.

If trees of the plane class be desirable, sycamores may be planted, as
they have in a measure become acclimatised. If trees that grow fast are
required, there are limes and horse-chestnuts; the lime will run a race
with any tree. The lime, too, has a pale yellow blossom, to which bees
resort in numbers, making a pleasant hum, which seems the natural
accompaniment of summer sunshine. Its leaves are put forth early.

Horse-chestnuts, too, grow quickly and without any attention, the bloom
is familiar, and acknowledged to be fine, and in autumn the large sprays
of leaves take orange and even scarlet tints. The plane is not to be
mentioned beside either of them. Other trees as well as the plane would
have flourished on the Thames Embankment, in consequence of the current
of fresh air caused by the river. Imagine the Embankment with double
rows of oaks, elms, or beeches; or, if not, even with limes or
horse-chestnuts! To these certainly birds would have resorted--possibly
rooks, which do not fear cities. On such a site the experiment would
have been worth making.

If in the semi-country seats fast-growing trees are needed, there are,
as I have observed, the lime and horse-chestnut; and if more variety be
desired, add the Spanish chestnut and the walnut. The Spanish chestnut
is a very fine tree; the walnut, it is true, grows slowly. If as many
beeches as cedar deodaras and laurels and planes were planted in these
grounds, in due course of time the tap of the woodpecker would be heard:
a sound truly worth ten thousand laurels. At Kew, far closer to town
than many of the semi-country seats are now, all our trees flourish in
perfection.

Hardy birches, too, will grow in thin soil. Just compare the delicate
drooping boughs of birch--they could not have been more delicate if
sketched with a pencil--compare these with the gaunt planes!

Of all the foreign shrubs that have been brought to these shores, there
is not one that presents us with so beautiful a spectacle as the bloom
of the common old English hawthorn in May. The mass of blossom, the
pleasant fragrance, its divided and elegant leaf, place it far above any
of the importations. Besides which, the traditions and associations of
the May give it a human interest.

The hawthorn is a part of natural English life--country life. It stands
side by side with the Englishman, as the palm tree is pictured side by
side with the Arab. You cannot pick up an old play, or book of the time
when old English life was in the prime, without finding some reference
to the hawthorn. There is nothing of this in the laurel, or any shrub
whatever that may be thrust in with a ticket to tell you its name; it
has a ticket because it has no interest, or else you would know it.

For use there is nothing like hawthorn; it will trim into a thick hedge,
defending the enclosure from trespassers, and warding off the bitter
winds; or it will grow into a tree. Again, the old hedge-crab--the
common, despised crab-apple--in spring is covered with blossom, such a
mass of blossom that it may be distinguished a mile. Did any one ever
see a plane or a laurel look like that?

How pleasant, too, to see the clear white flower of the blackthorn come
out in the midst of the bitter easterly breezes! It is like a white
handkerchief beckoning to the sun to come. There will not be much more
frost; if the wind is bitter to-day, the sun is rapidly gaining power.
Probably, if a blackthorn bush were by any chance discovered in the
semi-parks or enclosures alluded to, it would at once be rooted out as
an accursed thing. The very brambles are superior; there is the flower,
the sweet berry, and afterwards the crimson leaves--three things in
succession.

What can the world produce equal to the June rose? The common briar, the
commonest of all, offers a flower which, whether in itself, or the
moment of its appearance at the juncture of all sweet summer things, or
its history and associations, is not to be approached by anything a
millionaire could purchase. The labourer casually gathers it as he goes
to his work in the field, and yet none of the rich families whose names
are synonymous with wealth can get anything to equal it if they ransack
the earth.

After these, fill every nook and corner with hazel, and make filbert
walks. Up and down such walks men strolled with rapiers by their sides
while our admirals were hammering at the Spaniards with culverin and
demi-cannon, and looked at the sun-dial and adjourned for a game at
bowls, wishing that they only had a chance to bowl shot instead of
peaceful wood. Fill in the corners with nut-trees, then, and make
filbert walks. All these are like old story books, and the old stories
are always best.

Still, there are others for variety, as the wild guelder rose, which
produces heavy bunches of red berries; dogwood, whose leaves when
frost-touched take deep colours; barberry, yielding a pleasantly acid
fruit; the wayfaring tree; not even forgetting the elder, but putting it
at the outside, because, though flowering, the scent is heavy, and
because the elder was believed of old time to possess some of the virtue
now attributed to the blue gum, and to neutralise malaria by its own
odour.

For colour add the wild broom and some furze. Those who have seen broom
in full flower, golden to the tip of every slender bough, cannot need
any persuasion, surely, to introduce it. Furze is specked with yellow
when the skies are dark and the storms sweep around, besides its prime
display. Let wild clematis climb wherever it will. Then laurels may come
after these, put somewhere by themselves, with their thick changeless
leaves, unpleasant to the touch; no one ever gathers a spray.

Rhododendrons it is unkind to attack, for in themselves they afford a
rich flower. It is not the rhododendron, but the abuse of it, which must
be protested against. Whether the soil suits or not--and, for the most
part, it does not suit--rhododendrons are thrust in everywhere. Just
walk in amongst them--behind the show--and look at the spindly, crooked
stems, straggling how they may, and then look at the earth under them,
where not a weed even will grow. The rhododendron is admirable in its
place, but it is often overdone and a failure, and has no right to
exclude those shrubs that are fitter. Most of the foreign shrubs about
these semi-country seats look exactly like the stiff and painted little
wooden trees that are sold for children's toys, and, like the toys, are
the same colour all the year round.

Now, if you enter a copse in spring the eye is delighted with cowslips
on the banks where the sunlight comes, with blue-bells, or earlier with
anemones and violets, while later the ferns rise. But enter the
semi-parks of the semi-country seat, with its affected assumption of
countryness, and there is not one of these. The fern is actually
purposely eradicated--just think! Purposely! Though indeed they would
not grow, one would think, under rhododendrons and laurels, cold-blooded
laurels. They will grow under hawthorn, ash, or beside the bramble
bushes.

If there chance to be a little pond or "fountain," there is no such
thing as a reed, or a flag, or a rush. How the rushes would be hastily
hauled out and hurled away with execrations!

Besides the greater beauty of English trees, shrubs, and plants, they
also attract the birds, without which the grandest plantation is a
vacancy, and another interest, too, arises from watching the progress of
their growth and the advance of the season. Our own trees and shrubs
literally keep pace with the stars which shine in our northern skies. An
astronomical floral almanack might almost be constructed, showing how,
as the constellations marched on by night, the buds and leaves and
flowers appeared by day.

The lower that brilliant Sirius sinks in the western sky after ruling
the winter heavens, and the higher that red Arcturus rises, so the buds
thicken, open, and bloom. When the Pleiades begin to rise in the early
evening, the leaves are turning colour, and the seed vessels of the
flowers take the place of the petals. The coincidences of floral and
bird life, and of these with the movements of the heavens, impart a
sense of breadth to their observation.

It is not only the violet or the anemone, there are the birds coming
from immense distances to enjoy the summer with us; there are the stars
appearing in succession, so that the most distant of objects seems
brought into connection with the nearest, and the world is made one. The
sharp distinction, the line artificially drawn between things, quite
disappears when they are thus associated.

Birds, as just remarked, are attracted by our own trees and shrubs. Oaks
are favourites with rooks and wood-pigeons; blackbirds whistle in them
in spring; if there is a pheasant about in autumn he is sure to come
under the oak; jays visit them. Elms are resorted to by most of the
larger birds. Ash plantations attract wood-pigeons and turtle-doves.
Thrushes are fond of the ash, and sing much on its boughs. The beech is
the woodpecker's tree so soon as it grows old--birch one of the
missel-thrush's.

In blackthorn the long-tailed tit builds the domed nest every one
admires. Under the cover of brambles white-throats build. Nightingales
love hawthorn, and so does every bird. Plant hawthorn, and almost every
bird will come to it, from the wood-pigeon down to the wren. Do not
clear away the fallen branches and brown leaves, sweeping the plantation
as if it were the floor of a ballroom, for it is just the tangle and the
wilderness that brings the birds, and they like the disarray.

If evergreens are wanted, there are the yew, the box, and holly--all
three well sanctioned by old custom. Thrushes will come for the yew
berries, and birds are fond of building in the thick cover of high box
hedges. Notwithstanding the prickly leaves, they slip in and out of the
holly easily. A few bunches of rushes and sedges, with some weeds and
aquatic grasses, allowed to grow about a pond, will presently bring
moorhens. Bare stones--perhaps concrete--will bring nothing.

If a bough falls into the water, let it stay; sparrows will perch on it
to drink. If a sandy drinking-place can be made for them the number of
birds that will come in the course of the day will be surprising.

Kind-hearted people, when winter is approaching, should have two posts
sunk in their grounds, with planks across at the top; a raised platform
with the edges projecting beyond the posts, so that cats cannot climb
up, and of course higher than a cat can spring. The crumbs cast out upon
this platform would gather crowds of birds; they will come to feel at
home, and in spring time will return to build and sing.



TO BRIGHTON


The smooth express to Brighton has scarcely, as it seems, left the
metropolis when the banks of the railway become coloured with wild
flowers. Seen for a moment in swiftly passing, they border the line like
a continuous garden. Driven from the fields by plough and hoe, cast out
from the pleasure-grounds of modern houses, pulled up and hurled over
the wall to wither as accursed things, they have taken refuge on the
embankment and the cutting.

There they can flourish and ripen their seeds, little harassed even by
the scythe and never by grazing cattle. So it happens that, extremes
meeting, the wild flower, with its old-world associations, often grows
most freely within a few feet of the wheels of the locomotive. Purple
heathbells gleam from shrub-like bunches dotted along the slope; purple
knapweeds lower down in the grass; blue scabious, yellow hawkweeds where
the soil is thinner, and harebells on the very summit; these are but a
few upon which the eye lights while gliding by.

Glossy thistledown, heedless whither it goes, comes in at the open
window. Between thickets of broom there is a glimpse down into a meadow
shadowed by the trees of a wood. It is bordered with the cool green of
brake fern, from which a rabbit has come forth to feed, and a pheasant
strolls along with a mind, perhaps, to the barley yonder. Or a foxglove
lifts its purple spire; or woodbine crowns the bushes. The sickle has
gone over, and the poppies which grew so thick a while ago in the corn
no longer glow like a scarlet cloak thrown on the ground. But red spots
in waste places and by the ways are where they have escaped the steel.

A wood-pigeon keeps pace with the train--his vigorous pinions can race
against an engine, but cannot elude the hawk. He stops presently among
the trees. How pleasant it is from the height of the embankment to look
down upon the tops of the oaks! The stubbles stretch away, crossed with
bands of green roots where the partridges are hiding. Among flags and
weeds the moorhens feed fearlessly as we roll over the stream: then
comes a cutting, and more heath and hawkweed, harebell, and bramble
bushes red with unripe berries.

Flowers grow high up the sides of the quarries; flowers cling to the
dry, crumbling chalk of the cliff-like cutting; flowers bloom on the
verge above, against the line of the sky, and over the dark arch of the
tunnel. This, it is true, is summer; but it is the same in spring.
Before a dandelion has shown in the meadow, the banks of the railway are
yellow with coltsfoot. After a time the gorse flowers everywhere along
them; but the golden broom overtops all, perfect thickets of broom
glowing in the sunlight.

Presently the copses are azure with bluebells, among which the brake is
thrusting itself up; others, again, are red with ragged robins, and the
fields adjacent fill the eye with the gaudy glare of yellow charlock.
The note of the cuckoo sounds above the rushing of the train, and the
larks may be seen, if not heard, rising high over the wheat. Some birds,
indeed, find the bushes by the railway the quietest place in which to
build their nests.

Butcher-birds or shrikes are frequently found on the telegraph wires;
from that elevation they pounce down on their prey, and return again to
the wire. There were two pairs of shrikes using the telegraph wires for
this purpose one spring only a short distance beyond noisy Clapham
Junction. Another pair came back several seasons to a particular part of
the wires, near a bridge, and I have seen a hawk perched on the wire
equally near London.

The haze hangs over the wide, dark plain, which, soon after passing
Redhill, stretches away on the right. It seems to us in the train to
extend from the foot of a great bluff there to the first rampart of the
still distant South Downs. In the evening that haze will be changed to a
flood of purple light veiling the horizon. Fitful glances at the
newspaper or the novel pass the time; but now I can read no longer, for
I know, without any marks or tangible evidence, that the hills are
drawing near. There is always hope in the hills.

The dust of London fills the eyes and blurs the vision; but it
penetrates deeper than that. There is a dust that chokes the spirit, and
it is this that makes the streets so long, the stones so stony, the desk
so wooden; the very rustiness of the iron railings about the offices
sets the teeth on edge, the sooty blackened walls (yet without shadow)
thrust back the sympathies which are ever trying to cling to the
inanimate things around us. A breeze comes in at the carriage window--a
wild puff, disturbing the heated stillness of the summer day. It is easy
to tell where that came from--silently the Downs have stolen into sight.

So easy is the outline of the ridge, so broad and flowing are the
slopes, that those who have not mounted them cannot grasp the idea of
their real height and steepness. The copse upon the summit yonder looks
but a short stroll distant; how much you would be deceived did you
attempt to walk thither! The ascent here in front seems nothing, but you
must rest before you have reached a third of the way up. Ditchling
Beacon there, on the left, is the very highest above the sea of the
whole mighty range, but so great is the mass of the hill that the glance
does not realise it.

Hope dwells there, somewhere, mayhap, in the breeze, in the sward, or
the pale cups of the harebells. Now, having gazed at these, we can lean
back on the cushions and wait patiently for the sea. There is nothing
else, except the noble sycamores on the left hand just before the train
draws into the station.

The clean dry brick pavements are scarcely less crowded than those of
London, but as you drive through the town, now and then there is a
glimpse of a greenish mist afar off between the houses. The green mist
thickens in one spot almost at the horizon; or is it the dark nebulous
sails of a vessel? Then the foam suddenly appears close at hand--a white
streak seems to run from house to house, reflecting the sunlight: and
this is Brighton.

"How different the sea looks away from the pier!" It is a new pleasure
to those who have been full of gaiety to see, for once, the sea itself.
Westwards, a mile beyond Hove, beyond the coastguard cottages, turn
aside from the road, and go up on the rough path along the ridge of
shingle. The hills are away on the right, the sea on the left; the yards
of the ships in the basin slant across the sky in front.

With a quick, sudden heave the summer sea, calm and gleaming, runs a
little way up the side of the groyne, and again retires. There is scarce
a gurgle or a bubble, but the solid timbers are polished and smooth
where the storms have worn them with pebbles. From a grassy spot ahead
a bird rises, marked with white, and another follows it; they are
wheatears; they frequent the land by the low beach in the autumn.

A shrill but feeble pipe is the cry of the sandpiper, disturbed on his
moist feeding-ground. Among the stones by the waste places there are
pale-green wrinkled leaves, and the large yellow petals of the
sea-poppy. The bright colour is pleasant, but it is a flower best left
ungathered, for its odour is not sweet. On the wiry sward the light pink
of the sea-daisies (or thrift) is dotted here and there: of these gather
as you will. The presence even of such simple flowers, of such
well-known birds, distinguishes the solitary from the trodden beach. The
pier is in view, but the sea is different here.

Drive eastwards along the cliffs to the rough steps cut down to the
beach, descend to the shingle, and stroll along the shore to
Rottingdean. The buttresses of chalk shut out the town if you go to
them, and rest near the large pebbles heaped at the foot. There is
nothing but the white cliff, the green sea, the sky, and the slow ships
that scarcely stir.

In the spring, a starling comes to his nest in a cleft of the cliff
above; he shoots over from the dizzy edge, spreads his wings, borne up
by the ascending air, and in an instant is landed in his cave. On the
sward above, in the autumn, the yellow lip of the toad-flax, spotted
with orange, peers from the grass as you rest and gaze--how far?--out
upon the glorious plain.

Or go up on the hill by the race-course, the highest part near the sea,
and sit down there on the turf. If the west or south wind blow ever so
slightly the low roar of the surge floats up, mingling with the rustle
of the corn stacked in shocks on the slope. There inhale unrestrained
the breeze, the sunlight, and the subtle essence which emanates from
the ocean. For the loneliest of places are on the borders of a gay
crowd, and thus in Brighton--the by-name for all that is crowded and
London-like--it is possible to dream on the sward and on the shore.

In the midst, too, of this most modern of cities, with its swift,
luxurious service of Pullman cars, its piers, and social pleasures,
there exists a collection which, in a few strokes, as it were, sketches
the ways and habits and thoughts of old rural England. It is not easy to
realise in these days of quick transit and still quicker communication
that old England was mostly rural.

There were towns, of course, seventy years ago, but even the towns were
penetrated with what, for want of a better word, may be called country
sentiment. Just the reverse is now the case; the most distant hamlet
which the wanderer in his autumn ramblings may visit, is now more or
less permeated with the feelings and sentiment of the city. No written
history has preserved the daily life of the men who ploughed the Weald
behind the hills there, or tended the sheep on the Downs, before our
beautiful land was crossed with iron roads; while news, even from the
field of Waterloo, had to travel slowly. And, after all, written history
is but words, and words are not tangible.

But in this collection of old English jugs, and mugs, and bowls, and
cups, and so forth, exhibited in the Museum, there is the real
presentment of old rural England. Feeble pottery has ever borne the
impress of man more vividly than marble. From these they quenched their
thirst, over these they laughed and joked, and gossiped, and sang old
hunting songs till the rafters rang, and the dogs under the table got up
and barked. Cannot you see them? The stubbles are ready now once more
for the sportsmen.

With long-barrelled flint-lock guns they ranged over that wonderful map
of the land which lies spread out at your feet as you look down from the
Dyke. There are already yellowing leaves; they will be brown after a
while, and the covers will be ready once more for the visit of the
hounds. The toast upon this mug would be very gladly drunk by the
agriculturist of to-day in his silk hat and black coat. It is just what
he has been wishing these many seasons.

     "Here's to thee, mine honest friend,
     Wishing these hard times to mend."

Hard times, then, are nothing new.

"It is good ale," is the inscription on another jug; that jug would be
very welcome if so filled in many a field this very day. "Better luck
still" is a jug motto which every one who reads it will secretly respond
to. Cock-fighting has gone by, but we are even more than ever on the
side of fair play, and in that sense can endorse the motto, "May the
best cock win." A cup desires that fate should give

     "Money to him who has spirit to use it,
     And life to him who has courage to lose it."

A mug is moderate of wishes and somewhat cynical:--

     "A little health, a little wealth,
       A little house, and freedom;
     And at the end a little friend,
       And little cause to need him."

The toper, if he drank too deep, sometimes found a frog or newt at the
bottom (in china)--a hint not to be too greedy. There seem to have been
sad dogs about in those days from the picture on this piece--one
sniffing regretfully at the bunghole of an empty barrel:--

     "This cask when stored with gin I loved to taste,
     But now a smell, alas! must break my fast."

Upon a cup a somewhat Chinese arrangement of words is found:--

       More       beer       score      Clarke
       for        my         the        his
       do         trust      pay        sent
       I          I          must       has
       shall      if         you        maltster
       what       for        and        the

These parallel columns can be deciphered by beginning at the last word,
"the," on the right hand, and reading up. With rude and sometimes grim
humour our forefathers seem to have been delighted. The teapots of our
great grandmothers are even more amusingly inscribed and illustrated. At
Gretna Green the blacksmith is performing a "Red-Hot Marriage," using
his anvil for the altar.

     "Oh! Mr. Blacksmith, ease our pains,
     And tie us fast in wedlock's chains."

The china decorated with vessels and alluding to naval matters shows how
popular was the navy, and how deeply everything concerning Nelson's men
had sunk into the minds of the people. Some of the line of battleships
here represented are most cleverly executed--every sail and rope and gun
brought out with a clearness which the best draughtsman could hardly
excel. It is a little hard, however, to preserve the time-honoured
imputation upon Jack's constancy in this way on a jug:--

     "A sailor's life's a pleasant life,
       He freely roams from shore to shore;
     In every port he finds a wife--
       What can a sailor wish for more?"

Some enamoured potter having produced a masterpiece as a present to his
lady destroyed the design, so that the service he gave her might be
unique. After gazing at these curious old pieces, with dates of 1754,
1728, and so forth, the mind becomes attuned to such times, and the jug
with the inscription, "Claret, 1652," seems quite an easy and natural
transition.

From the Brighton of to-day it is centuries back to 1754; but from 1754
to 1652 is but a year or two. And after studying these shelves, and
getting, as it were, so deep down in the past, it is with a kind of Rip
Van Winkle feeling that you enter again into the sunshine of the day.
The fair upon the beach does not seem quite real for a few minutes.

Before the autumn is too far advanced and the skies are uncertain, a few
hours should be given to that massive Down which fronts the traveller
from London, Ditchling Beacon, the highest above the sea-level. It is
easy of access, the train carries you to Hassock's Gate--the station is
almost in a copse--and an omnibus runs from it to a comfortable inn in
the centre of Ditchling village. Thence to the Down itself the road is
straight and the walk no longer than is always welcome after riding.

After leaving the cottages and gardens, the road soon becomes enclosed
with hedges and trees, a mere country lane; and how pleasant are the
trees after the bare shore and barren sea! The hand of autumn has
browned the oaks, and has passed over the hedge, reddening the haws. The
north wind rustles the dry hollow stalks of plants upon the mound, and
there is a sense of hardihood in the touch of its breath.

The light is brown, for a vapour conceals the sun--it is not like a
cloud, for it has no end or outline, and it is high above where the
summer blue was lately. Or is it the buff leaves, the grey stalks, the
dun grasses, the ripe fruit, the mist which hides the distance that
makes the day so brown? But the ditches below are yet green with
brooklime and rushes. By a gateway stands a tall campanula or
bell-flower, two feet high or nearly, with great bells of blue.

A passing shepherd, without his sheep, but walking with his crook as a
staff, stays and turns a brown face towards me when I ask him the way.
He points with his iron crook at a narrow line which winds up the Down
by some chalk-pits; it is a footpath from the corner of the road. Just
by the corner the hedge is grey with silky flocks of clematis; the
hawthorn is hidden by it. Near by there is a bush, made up of branches
from five different shrubs and plants.

First hazel, from which the yellow leaves are fast dropping; among this
dogwood, with leaves darkening; between these a bramble bearing berries,
some red and some ripe, and yet a pink flower or two left. Thrusting
itself into the tangle, long woody bines of bittersweet hang their
clusters of red berries, and above and over all the hoary clematis
spreads its beard, whitening to meet the winter. These five are all
intermixed and bound up together, flourishing in a mass; nuts and edible
berries, semi-poisonous fruit, flowers, creepers; and hazel, with
markings under its outer bark like a gun-barrel.

This is the last of the plain. Now every step exposes the climber to the
force of the unchecked wind. The harebells swing before it, the bennets
whistle, but the sward springs to the foot, and the heart grows lighter
as the height increases. The ancient hill is alone with the wind. The
broad summit is left to scattered furze and fern cowering under its
shelter. A sunken fosse and earthwork have slipped together. So lowly
are they now after these fourteen hundred years that in places the long
rough grass covers and conceals them altogether.

Down in the hollow the breeze does not come, and the bennets do not
whistle, yet gazing upwards at the vapour in the sky I fancy I can hear
the mass, as it were, of the wind going over. Standing presently at the
edge of the steep descent looking into the Weald, it seems as if the
mighty blast rising from that vast plain and glancing up the slope like
an arrow from a tree could lift me up and bear me as it bears a hawk
with outspread wings.

A mist which does not roll along or move is drawn across the immense
stage below like a curtain. There is indeed, a brown wood beneath; but
nothing more is visible. The plain is the vaster for its vague
uncertainty. From the north comes down the wind, out of the brown autumn
light, from the woods below and twenty miles of stubble. Its stratum and
current is eight hundred feet deep.

Against my chest, coming up from the plough down there (the old plough,
with the shaft moving on a framework with wheels), it hurls itself
against the green ramparts, and bounds up savagely at delay. The ears
are filled with a continuous sense of something rushing past; the
shoulders go back square; an iron-like feeling enters into the sinews.
The air goes through my coat as if it were gauze, and strokes the skin
like a brush.

The tide of the wind, like the tide of the sea, swirls about, and its
cold push at the first causes a lifting feeling in the chest--a gulp and
pant--as if it were too keen and strong to be borne. Then the blood
meets it, and every fibre and nerve is filled with new vigour. I cannot
drink enough of it. This is the north wind.

High as is the hill, there are larks yonder singing higher still,
suspended in the brown light. Turning away at last and tracing the
fosse, there is at the point where it is deepest and where there is
some trifling shelter, a flat hawthorn bush. It has grown as flat as a
hurdle, as if trained espalierwise or against a wall--the effect, no
doubt, of the winds. Into and between its gnarled branches, dry and
leafless, furze boughs have been woven in and out, so as to form a
shield against the breeze. On the lee of this natural hurdle there are
black charcoal fragments and ashes, where a fire has burnt itself out;
the stick still leans over on which was hung the vessel used at this
wild bivouac.

Descending again by the footpath, the spur of the hill yonder looks
larger and steeper and more ponderous in the mist; it seems higher than
this, a not unusual appearance when the difference in altitude is not
very great. The level we are on seems to us beneath the level in the
distance, as the future is higher than the present. In the hedge or
scattered bushes, half-way down by the chalk-pit, there grows a
spreading shrub--the wayfaring tree--bearing large, broad, downy leaves
and clusters of berries, some red and some black, flattened at their
sides. There are nuts, too, here, and large sloes or wild bullace. This
Ditchling Beacon is, I think, the nearest and the most accessible of the
southern Alps from London; it is so near it may almost be said to be in
the environs of the capital. But it is alone with the wind.



THE SOUTHDOWN SHEPHERD


The shepherd came down the hill carrying his greatcoat slung at his back
upon his crook, and balanced by the long handle projecting in front. He
was very ready and pleased to show his crook, which, however, was not so
symmetrical in shape as those which are represented upon canvas. Nor was
the handle straight; it was a rough stick--the first, evidently, that
had come to hand.

As there were no hedges or copses near his walks, he had to be content
with this bent wand till he could get a better. The iron crook itself he
said was made by a blacksmith in a village below. A good crook was often
made from the barrel of an old single-barrel gun, such as in their
decadence are turned over to the bird-keepers.

About a foot of the barrel being sawn off at the muzzle end, there was a
tube at once to fit the staff into, while the crook was formed by
hammering the tough metal into a curve upon the anvil. So the gun--the
very symbol of destruction--was beaten into the pastoral crook, the
emblem and implement of peace. These crooks of village workmanship are
now subject to competition from the numbers offered for sale at the
shops at the market towns, where scores of them are hung up on show, all
exactly alike, made to pattern, as if stamped out by machinery.

Each village-made crook had an individuality, that of the
blacksmith--somewhat rude, perhaps, but distinctive--the hand shown in
the iron. While talking, a wheatear flew past, and alighted near the
path--a place they frequent. The opinion seems general that wheatears
are not so numerous as they used to be. You can always see two or three
on the Downs in autumn, but the shepherd said years ago he had heard of
one man catching seventy dozen in a day.

Perhaps such wholesale catches were the cause of the comparative
deficiency at the present day, not only by actual diminution of numbers,
but in partially diverting the stream of migration. Tradition is very
strong in birds (and all animated creatures); they return annually in
the face of terrible destruction, and the individuals do not seem to
comprehend the danger. But by degrees the race at large becomes aware of
and acknowledges the mistake, and slowly the original tracks are
deserted. This is the case with water-fowl, and even, some think, with
sea-fish.

There was not so much game on the part of the hills he frequented as he
had known when he was young, and with the decrease of the game the foxes
had become less numerous. There was less cover as the furze was ploughed
up. It paid, of course, better to plough it up, and as much as an
additional two hundred acres on a single farm had been brought under the
plough in his time. Partridges had much decreased, but there were still
plenty of hares: he had known the harriers sometimes kill two dozen a
day.

Plenty of rabbits still remained in places. The foxes' earths were in
their burrows or sometimes under a hollow tree, and when the word was
sent round the shepherds stopped them for the hunt very early in the
morning. Foxes used to be almost thick. He had seen as many as six
(doubtless the vixen and cubs) sunning themselves on the cliffs at
Beachy Head, lying on ledges before their inaccessible breeding-places,
in the face of the chalk.

At present he did not think there were more than two there. They
ascended and descended the cliff with ease, though not, of course, the
straight wall or precipice. He had known them fall over and be dashed to
pieces, as when fighting on the edge, or in winter by the snow giving
way under them. As the snow came drifting along the summit of the Down
it gradually formed a projecting eave or cornice, projecting the length
of the arm, and frozen.

Something like this may occasionally be seen on houses when the
partially melted snow has frozen again before it could quite slide off.
Walking on this at night, when the whole ground was white with snow, and
no part could be distinguished, the weight of the fox as he passed a
weak place caused it to give way, and he could not save himself. Last
winter he had had two lambs, each a month old, killed by a fox which ate
the heads and left the bodies; the fox always eating the head first,
severing it, whether of a hare, rabbit, duck, or the tender lamb, and
"covering"--digging a hole and burying--that which he cannot finish. To
the buried carcase the fox returns the next night before he kills again.

His dog was a cross with a collie: the old sheep-dogs were shaggier and
darker. Most of the sheep-dogs now used were crossed with the collie,
either with Scotch or French, and were very fast--too fast in some
respects. He was careful not to send them much after the flock,
especially after feeding, when, in his own words, the sheep had "best
walk slow then, like folk"--like human beings, who are not to be
hastened after a meal. If he wished his dog to fetch the flock, he
pointed his arm in the direction he wished the dog to go, and said,
"Put her back." Often it was to keep the sheep out of turnips or wheat,
there being no fences. But he made it a practice to walk himself on the
side where care was needed, so as not to employ the dog unless
necessary.

There is something almost Australian in the wide expanse of South Down
sheepwalks, and in the number of the flocks, to those who have been
accustomed to the small sheltered meadows of the vales, where forty or
fifty sheep are about the extent of the stock on many farms. The land,
too, is rented at colonial prices, but a few shillings per acre, so
different from the heavy meadow rents. But, then, the sheep-farmer has
to occupy a certain proportion of arable land as well as pasture, and
here his heavy losses mainly occur.

There is nothing, in fact, in this country so carefully provided against
as the possibility of an English farmer becoming wealthy. Much downland
is covered with furze; some seems to produce a grass too coarse, so that
the rent is really proportional. A sheep to an acre is roughly the
allowance.

From all directions along the roads the bleating flocks concentrate at
the right time upon the hillside where the sheep-fair is held. You can
go nowhere in the adjacent town except uphill, and it needs no hand-post
to the fair to those who know a farmer when they see him, the stream of
folk tender thither so plainly. It rains, as the shepherd said it would;
the houses keep off the drift somewhat in the town, but when this
shelter is left behind, the sward of the hilltop seems among the clouds.

The descending vapours close in the view on every side. The actual field
underfoot, the actual site of the fair, is visible, but the surrounding
valleys and the Downs beyond them are hidden with vast masses of grey
mist. For a moment, perhaps, a portion may lift as the breeze drives it
along, and the bold, sweeping curves of a distant hill appear, but
immediately the rain falls again and the outline vanishes. The glance
can only penetrate a few hundred yards; all beyond that becomes
indistinct, and some cattle standing higher up the hill are vague and
shadowy.

Like a dew, the thin rain deposits a layer of tiny globules on the coat;
the grass is white with them hurdles, flakes, everything is as it were
the eighth of an inch deep in water. Thus on the hillside, surrounded by
the clouds, the fair seems isolated and afar off. A great cart-horse is
being trotted out before the little street of booths to make him show
his paces; they flourish the first thing at hand--a pole with a red flag
at the end--and the huge frightened animal plunges hither and thither in
clumsy terror. You must look out for yourself and keep an eye over your
shoulder, except among the sheep-pens.

There are thousands of sheep, all standing with their heads uphill. At
the corner of each pen the shepherd plants his crook upright: some of
them have long brown handles, and these are of hazel with the bark on;
others are ash, and one of willow. At the corners, too, just outside,
the dogs are chained, and, in addition, there is a whole row of dogs
fastened to the tent pegs. The majority of the dogs thus collected
together from many miles of the Downs are either collies, or show a very
decided trace of the collie.

One old shepherd, an ancient of the ancients, grey and bent, has spent
so many years among his sheep that he has lost all notice and
observation--there is no "speculation in his eye" for anything but his
sheep. In his blue smock frock, with his brown umbrella, which he has
had no time or thought to open, he stands listening, all intent, to the
conversation of the gentlemen who are examining his pens. He leads a
young restless collie by a chain; the links are polished to a silvery
brightness by continual motion; the collie cannot keep still; now he
runs one side, now the other, bumping the old man, who is unconscious of
everything but the sheep.

At the verge of the pens there stand four oxen with their yokes, and the
long slender guiding-rod of hazel placed lightly across the necks of the
two foremost. They are quite motionless, except their eyes, and the
slender rod, so lightly laid across, will remain without falling. After
traversing the whole field, if you return you will find them exactly in
the same position. Some black cattle are scattered about on the high
ground in the mist, which thickens beyond them, and fills up the immense
hollow of the valley.

In the street of booths there are the roundabouts, the swings, the rifle
galleries--like shooting into the mouth of a great trumpet--the shows,
the cakes and brown nuts and gingerbread, the ale-barrels in a row, the
rude forms and trestle tables; just the same, the very same, we saw at
our first fair five-and-twenty years ago, and a hundred miles away. It
is just the same this year as last, like the ploughs and hurdles, and
the sheep themselves. There is nothing new to tempt the ploughboy's
pennies--nothing fresh to stare at.

The same thing year after year, and the same sounds--the dismal barrel
organs, and brazen instruments, and pipes, wailing, droning, booming.
How melancholy the inexpressible noise when the fair is left behind, and
the wet vapours are settling and thickening around it! But the
melancholy is not in the fair--the ploughboy likes it; it is in
ourselves, in the thought that thus, though the years go by, so much of
human life remains the same--the same blatant discord, the same
monotonous roundabout, the same poor gingerbread.

The ploughs are at work, travelling slowly at the ox's pace up and down
the hillside. The South Down plough could scarcely have been invented;
it must have been put together bit by bit in the slow years--slower than
the ox; it is the completed structure of long experience. It is made of
many pieces, chiefly wood, fitted and shaped and worked, as it were,
together, well seasoned first, built up, like a ship, by cunning of
hand.

None of these were struck out--a hundred a minute--by irresistible
machinery ponderously impressing its will on iron as a seal on wax--a
hundred a minute, and all exactly alike. These separate pieces which
compose the plough were cut, chosen, and shaped in the wheelwright's
workshop, chosen by the eye, guided in its turn by long knowledge of
wood, and shaped by the living though hardened hand of man. So
complicated a structure could no more have been struck out on paper in a
deliberate and single plan than those separate pieces could have been
produced by a single blow.

There are no machine lines--no lines filed out in iron or cut by the
lathe to the draughtsman's design, drawn with straight-edge and ruler on
paper. The thing has been put together bit by bit: how many thousand,
thousand clods must have been turned in the furrows before the idea
arose, and the curve to be given to this or that part grew upon the mind
as the branch grows on the tree! There is not a sharp edge or sharp
corner in it; it is all bevelled and smoothed and fluted as if it had
been patiently carved with a knife, so that, touch it where you will, it
handles pleasantly.

In these curved lines and smoothness, in this perfect adaptability of
means to end, there is the spirit of art showing itself, not with colour
or crayon, but working in tangible material substance. The makers of
this plough--not the designer--the various makers, who gradually put it
together, had many things to consider. The fields where it had to work
were, for the most part, on a slope, often thickly strewn with stones
which jar and fracture iron.

The soil was thin, scarce enough on the upper part to turn a furrow,
deepening to nine inches or so at the bottom. So quickly does the rain
sink in, and so quickly does it dry, that the teams work in almost every
weather, while those in the vale are enforced to idleness. Drain furrows
were not needed, nor was it desirable that the ground should be thrown
up in "lands," rising in the centre. Oxen were the draught animals,
patient enough, but certainly not nimble. The share had to be set for
various depths of soil.

All these are met by the wheel plough, and in addition it fulfils the
indefinite and indefinable condition of handiness. A machine may be
apparently perfect, a boat may seem on paper, and examined on
principles, the precise build, and yet when the one is set to work and
the other floated they may fail. But the wheel plough, having grown up,
as it were, out of the soil, fulfils the condition of handiness.

This handiness, in fact, embraces a number of minor conditions which can
scarcely be reduced to writing, but which constantly occur in practice,
and by which the component parts of the plough were doubtless
unconsciously suggested to the makers. Each has its proper name. The
framework, on wheels in front--the distinctive characteristic of the
plough--is called collectively "tacks," and the shafts of the plough
rest on it loosely, so that they swing or work almost independently,
not unlike a field-gun limbered up.

The pillars of the framework have numerous holes, so that the plough can
be raised or lowered, that the share may dig deep or shallow. Then there
is the "cock-pin," the "road-bat" (a crooked piece of wood), the
"sherve-wright" (so pronounced)--shelvewright (?)--the "rist," and
spindle, besides, of course, the usual coulter and share. When the oxen
arrive at the top of the field, and the first furrow is completed, they
stop, well knowing their duty, while the ploughman moves the iron rist,
and the spindle which keeps it in position, to the other side, and moves
the road-bat so as to push the coulter aside. These operations are done
in a minute, and correspond in some degree to turning the rudder of a
ship. The object is that the plough, which has been turning the earth
one way, shall now (as it is reversed to go downhill) continue to turn
it that way. If the change were not effected when the plough was swung
round, the furrow would be made opposite. Next he leans heavily on the
handles, still standing on the same spot; this lifts the plough, so that
it turns easily as if on a pivot.

Then the oxen "jack round"--that is, walk round--so as to face downhill,
the framework in front turning like the fore-wheels of a carriage. So
soon as they face downhill and the plough is turned, they commence work
and make the second furrow side by side with the first. The same
operation is repeated at the bottom, and thus the plough travels
straight up and down, always turning the furrow the same way, instead
of, as in the valleys, making a short circuit at each end, and throwing
the earth in opposite directions. The result is a perfectly level field,
which, though not designed for it, must suit the reaping-machine better
than the drain furrows and raised "lands" of the valley system.

It is somewhat curious that the steam plough, the most remarkable
application of machinery to agriculture, in this respect resembles the
village-made wheel plough. The plough drawn by steam power in like
manner turns the second furrow side by side into the first, always
throwing the earth the same way, and leaving the ground level. This is
one of its defects on heavy, wet land, as it does not drain the surface.
But upon the slopes of the Downs no drains or raised "lands" are needed,
and the wheel plough answers perfectly.

So perfectly, indeed, does it answer that no iron plough has yet been
invented that can beat it, and while the valleys and plains are now
almost wholly worked with factory-made ploughs, the South Downs are
cultivated with the ploughs made in the villages by the wheelwrights. A
wheelwright is generally regularly employed by two or three farms, which
keep him in constant work. There is not, perhaps, another home-made
implement of old English agriculture left in use; certainly, none at
once so curious and interesting, and, when drawn by oxen, so thoroughly
characteristic.

Under the September sun, flowers may still be found in sheltered places,
as at the side of furze, on the highest of the Downs. Wild thyme
continues to bloom--the shepherd's thyme--wild mignonette, blue
scabious, white dropwort, yellow bedstraw, and the large purple blooms
of greater knapweed. Here and there a blue field gentian is still in
flower; "eggs and bacon" grow beside the waggon tracks. Grasshoppers hop
among the short dry grass; bees and humble-bees are buzzing about, and
there are places quite bright with yellow hawkweeds.

The furze is everywhere full of finches, troops of them; and there are
many more swallows than were flying here a month since. No doubt they
are on their way southwards, and stay, as it were, on the edge of the
sea while yet the sun shines. As the evening falls the sheep come slowly
home to the fold. When the flock is penned some stand panting, and the
whole body at each pant moves to and fro lengthways; some press against
the flakes till the wood creaks; some paw the dry and crumbling ground
(arable), making a hollow in which to lie down.

Rooks are fond of the places where sheep have been folded, and perhaps
that is one of the causes why they so continually visit certain spots in
particular fields to the neglect of the rest.



THE BREEZE ON BEACHY HEAD


The waves coming round the promontory before the west wind still give
the idea of a flowing stream, as they did in Homer's days. Here beneath
the cliff, standing where beach and sand meet, it is still; the wind
passes six hundred feet overhead. But yonder, every larger wave rolling
before the breeze breaks over the rocks; a white line of spray rushes
along them, gleaming in the sunshine; for a moment the dark rock-wall
disappears, till the spray sinks.

The sea seems higher than the spot where I stand, its surface on a
higher level--raised like a green mound--as if it could burst in and
occupy the space up to the foot of the cliff in a moment. It will not do
so, I know; but there is an infinite possibility about the sea; it may
do what it is not recorded to have done. It is not to be ordered, it may
overleap the bounds human observation has fixed for it. It has a potency
unfathomable. There is still something in it not quite grasped and
understood--something still to be discovered--a mystery.

So the white spray rushes along the low broken wall of rocks, the sun
gleams on the flying fragments of the wave, again it sinks and the
rhythmic motion holds the mind, as an invisible force holds back the
tide. A faith of expectancy, a sense that something may drift up from
the unknown, a large belief in the unseen resources of the endless space
out yonder, soothes the mind with dreamy hope.

The little rules and little experiences, all the petty ways of narrow
life, are shut off behind by the ponderous and impassable cliff; as if
we had dwelt in the dim light of a cave, but coming out at last to look
at the sun, a great stone had fallen and closed the entrance, so that
there was no return to the shadow. The impassable precipice shuts off
our former selves of yesterday, forcing us to look out over the sea
only, or up to the deeper heaven.

These breadths draw out the soul; we feel that we have wider thoughts
than we knew; the soul has been living, as it were, in a nutshell, all
unaware of its own power, and now suddenly finds freedom in the sun and
the sky. Straight, as if sawn down from turf to beach, the cliff shuts
off the human world, for the sea knows no time and no era; you cannot
tell what century it is from the face of the sea. A Roman trireme
suddenly rounding the white edge-line of chalk, borne on wind and oar
from the Isle of Wight towards the gray castle at Pevensey (already old
in olden days), would not seem strange. What wonder could surprise us
coming from the wonderful sea?

The little rills winding through the sand have made an islet of a
detached rock by the beach; limpets cover it, adhering like rivet-heads.
In the stillness here, under the roof of the wind so high above, the
sound of the sand draining itself is audible. From the cliff blocks of
chalk have fallen, leaving hollows as when a knot drops from a beam.
They lie crushed together at the base, and on the point of this jagged
ridge a wheatear perches.

There are ledges three hundred feet above, and from these now and then a
jackdaw glides out and returns again to his place, where, when still and
with folded wings, he is but a speck of black. A spire of chalk still
higher stands out from the wall, but the rains have got behind it and
will cut the crevice deeper and deeper into its foundation. Water, too,
has carried the soil from under the turf at the summit over the verge,
forming brown streaks.

Upon the beach lies a piece of timber, part of a wreck; the wood is torn
and the fibres rent where it was battered against the dull edge of the
rocks. The heat of the sun burns, thrown back by the dazzling chalk; the
river of ocean flows ceaselessly, casting the spray over the stones; the
unchanged sky is blue.

Let us go back and mount the steps at the Gap, and rest on the sward
there. I feel that I want the presence of grass. The sky is a softer
blue, and the sun genial now the eye and the mind alike are
relieved--the one of the strain of too great solitude (not the solitude
of the woods), the other of too brilliant and hard a contrast of
colours. Touch but the grass and the harmony returns; it is repose after
exaltation.

A vessel comes round the promontory; it is not a trireme of old Rome,
nor the "fair and stately galley" Count Arnaldus hailed with its seamen
singing the mystery of the sea. It is but a brig in ballast, high out of
the water, black of hull and dingy of sail: still it is a ship, and
there is always an interest about a ship. She is so near, running along
but just outside the reef, that the deck is visible. Up rises her stern
as the billows come fast and roll under; then her bow lifts, and
immediately she rolls, and, loosely swaying with the sea, drives along.

The slope of the billow now behind her is white with the bubbles of her
passage, rising, too, from her rudder. Steering athwart with a widening
angle from the land, she is laid to clear the distant point of
Dungeness. Next, a steamer glides forth, unseen till she passed the
cliff; and thus each vessel that comes from the westward has the charm
of the unexpected. Eastward there is many a sail working slowly into the
wind, and as they approach, talking in the language of flags with the
watch on the summit of the Head.

Once now and then the great _Orient_ pauses on her outward route to
Australia, slowing her engines: the immense length of her hull contains
every adjunct of modern life; science, skill, and civilisation are
there. She starts, and is lost sight of round the cliff, gone straight
away for the very ends of the world. The incident is forgotten, when one
morning, as you turn over the newspaper, there is the _Orient_ announced
to start again. It is like a tale of enchantment; it seems but yesterday
that the Head hid her from view; you have scarcely moved, attending to
the daily routine of life, and scarce recognise that time has passed at
all. In so few hours has the earth been encompassed.

The sea-gulls as they settle on the surface ride high out of the water,
like the mediæval caravals, with their sterns almost as tall as the
masts. Their unconcerned flight, with crooked wings unbent, as if it
were no matter to them whether they flew or floated, in its peculiar
jerking motion somewhat reminds one of the lapwing--the heron has it,
too, a little--as if aquatic or water-side birds had a common and
distinct action of the wing.

Sometimes a porpoise comes along, but just beyond the reef; looking down
on him from the verge of the cliff, his course can be watched. His dark
body, wet and oily, appears on the surface for two seconds; and then,
throwing up his tail like the fluke of an anchor, down he goes. Now look
forward, along the waves, some fifty yards or so, and he will come up,
the sunshine gleaming on the water as it runs off his back, to again
dive, and reappear after a similar interval. Even when the eye can no
longer distinguish the form, the spot where he rises is visible, from
the slight change in the surface.

The hill receding in hollows leaves a narrow plain between the foot of
the sward and the cliff; it is ploughed, and the teams come to the
footpath which follows the edge; and thus those who plough the sea and
those who plough the land look upon each other. The one sees the vessel
change her tack, the other notes the plough turning at the end of the
furrow. Bramble bushes project over the dangerous wall of chalk, and
grasses fill up the interstices, a hedge suspended in air; but be
careful not to reach too far for the blackberries.

The green sea is on the one hand, the yellow stubble on the other. The
porpoise dives along beneath, the sheep graze above. Green seaweed lines
the reef over which the white spray flies, blue lucerne dots the field.
The pebbles of the beach seen from the height mingle in a faint blue
tint, as if the distance ground them into coloured sand. Leaving the
footpath now, and crossing the stubble to "France," as the wide open
hollow in the down is called by the shepherds, it is no easy matter in
dry summer weather to climb the steep turf to the furze line above.

Dry grass is as slippery as if it were hair, and the sheep have fed it
too close for a grip of the hand. Under the furze (still far from the
summit) they have worn a path--a narrow ledge, cut by their cloven
feet--through the sward. It is time to rest; and already, looking back,
the sea has extended to an indefinite horizon. This climb of a few
hundred feet opens a view of so many miles more. But the ships lose
their individuality and human character; they are so far, so very far,
away, they do not take hold of the sympathies; they seem like
sketches--cunningly executed, but only sketches--on the immense canvas
of the ocean. There is something unreal about them.

On a calm day, when the surface is smooth as if the brimming ocean had
been straked--the rod passed across the top of the measure, thrusting
off the irregularities of wave; when the distant green from long
simmering under the sun becomes pale; when the sky, without cloud, but
with some slight haze in it, likewise loses its hue, and the two so
commingle in the pallor of heat that they cannot be separated--then the
still ships appear suspended in space. They are as much held from above
as upborne from beneath.

They are motionless, midway in space--whether it is sea or air is not to
be known. They neither float nor fly; they are suspended. There is no
force in the flat sail, the mast is lifeless, the hull without impetus.
For hours they linger, changeless as the constellations, still, silent,
motionless, phantom vessels on a void sea.

Another climb up from the sheep path, and it is not far then to the
terrible edge of that tremendous cliff which rises straighter than a
ship's side out of the sea, six hundred feet above the detached rock
below, where the limpets cling like rivet heads, and the sand rills run
around it. But it is not possible to look down to it--the glance of
necessity falls outwards, as a raindrop from the eaves is deflected by
the wind, because it _is_ the edge where the mould crumbles; the
rootlets of the grass are exposed; the chalk is about to break away in
flakes.

You cannot lean over as over a parapet, lest such a flake should detach
itself--lest a mere trifle should begin to fall, awakening a dread and
dormant inclination to slide and finally plunge like it. Stand back; the
sea there goes out and out, to the left and to the right, and how far is
it to the blue overhead? The eye must stay here a long period, and drink
in these distances, before it can adjust the measure, and know exactly
what it sees.

The vastness conceals itself, giving us no landmark or milestone. The
fleck of cloud yonder, does it part it in two, or is it but a third of
the way? The world is an immense cauldron, the ocean fills it, and we
are merely on the rim--this narrow land is but a ribbon to the
limitlessness yonder. The wind rushes out upon it with wild joy;
springing from the edge of the earth, it leaps out over the ocean. Let
us go back a few steps and recline on the warm dry turf.

It is pleasant to look back upon the green slope and the hollows and
narrow ridges, with sheep and stubble and some low hedges, and oxen, and
that old, old sloth--the plough--creeping in his path. The sun is bright
on the stubble and the corners of furze; there are bees humming yonder,
no doubt, and flowers, and hares crouching--the dew dried from around
them long since, and waiting for it to fall again; partridges, too,
corn-ricks, and the roof of a farmhouse by them. Lit with sunlight are
the fields, warm autumn garnering all that is dear to the heart of man,
blue heaven above--how sweet the wind comes from these!--the sweeter for
the knowledge of the profound abyss behind.

Here, reclining on the grass--the verge of the cliff rising a little,
shuts out the actual sea--the glance goes forth into the hollow
unsupported. It is sweeter towards the corn-ricks, and yet the mind will
not be satisfied, but ever turns to the unknown. The edge and the abyss
recall us; the boundless plain, for it appears solid as the waves are
levelled by distance, demands the gaze. But with use it becomes easier,
and the eye labours less. There is a promontory standing out from the
main wall, whence you can see the side of the cliff, getting a flank
view, as from a tower.

The jackdaws occasionally floating out from the ledge are as mere specks
from above, as they were from below. The reef running out from the
beach, though now covered by the tide, is visible as you look down on it
through the water; the seaweed, which lay matted and half dry on the
rocks, is now under the wave. Boats have come round, and are beached;
how helplessly little they seem beneath the cliff by the sea!

On returning homewards towards Eastbourne stay awhile by the tumulus on
the slope. There are others hidden among the furze; butterflies flutter
over them, and the bees hum round by day; by night the nighthawk passes,
coming up from the fields and even skirting the sheds and houses below.
The rains beat on them, and the storm drives the dead leaves over their
low green domes; the waves boom on the shore far down.

How many times has the morning star shone yonder in the East? All the
mystery of the sun and of the stars centres around these lowly mounds.

But the glory of these glorious Downs is the breeze. The air in the
valleys immediately beneath them is pure and pleasant; but the least
climb, even a hundred feet, puts you on a plane with the atmosphere
itself, uninterrupted by so much as the tree-tops. It is air without
admixture. If it comes from the south, the waves refine it; if inland,
the wheat and flowers and grass distil it. The great headland and the
whole rib of the promontory is wind-swept and washed with air; the
billows of the atmosphere roll over it.

The sun searches out every crevice amongst the grass, nor is there the
smallest fragment of surface which is not sweetened by air and light.
Underneath, the chalk itself is pure, and the turf thus washed by wind
and rain, sun-dried and dew-scented, is a couch prepared with thyme to
rest on. Discover some excuse to be up there always, to search for stray
mushrooms--they will be stray, for the crop is gathered extremely early
in the morning--or to make a list of flowers and grasses; to do
anything, and, if not, go always without any pretext. Lands of gold have
been found, and lands of spices and precious merchandise; but this is
the land of health.

There is the sea below to bathe in, the air of the sky up hither to
breathe, the sun to infuse the invisible magnetism of his beams. These
are the three potent medicines of nature, and they are medicines that by
degrees strengthen not only the body but the unquiet mind. It is not
necessary to always look out over the sea. By strolling along the slopes
of the ridge a little way inland there is another scene where hills roll
on after hills till the last and largest hides those that succeed behind
it.

Vast cloud-shadows darken one, and lift their veil from another; like
the sea, their tint varies with the hue of the sky over them. Deep
narrow valleys--lanes in the hills--draw the footsteps downwards into
their solitude, but there is always the delicious air, turn whither you
will, and there is always the grass, the touch of which refreshes.
Though not in sight, it is pleasant to know that the sea is close at
hand, and that you have only to mount to the ridge to view it. At sunset
the curves of the shore westward are filled with a luminous mist.

Or if it should be calm, and you should like to look at the massive
headland from the level of the sea, row out a mile from the beach.
Eastwards a bank of red vapour shuts in the sea, the wavelets--no larger
than those raised by the oar--on that side are purple as if wine had
been spilt upon them, but westwards the ripples shimmer with palest
gold.

The sun sinks behind the summit of the Downs, and slender streaks of
purple are drawn along above them. A shadow comes forth from the cliff;
a duskiness dwells on the water; something tempts the eye upwards, and
near the zenith there is a star.



              Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO.
                     Edinburgh & London


[Transcriber's note: The inconsistent hyphenation of the original has
been retained in this etext.]





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