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MY grandfather built his house in the middle of his farm. All the farm-houses in that neighborhood were thus centrally located. Isolation was the result; so was also economy of working force, — no mean item where the soil was hard, rocky, and ungrateful, and bread was truly to be won by sweat of the brow. Distance lent much beauty to these plain farm-houses. The long, tree-arched green lanes leading to them, their cumbrous gates, their straggling sheds, and half-slovenly profusion of wood-piles and carts, went into the picture; and the softening aspect of smoke and cloud and outlying verdure gave to them the baptismal touch of all-creative nature.
My grandfather's lane was overhung by stalwart elms and maples. Just at its entrance was a bubbling spring, whose waters trickled down by the way-side through beds of violets and wild flag. The lane itself was fenced in by a stone wall; in my day tumbled by frost and fretted with moss. Its turf was like velvet. Two deep wheel-ruts, the wear of years, ran through it, in and out of which the family chaise bounced rollickingly, for horses were sure to prick up their ears and quicken their pace as soon as they snuffed the cool spring. You know that pleasant sound, when, upon turning from the hard highway, their hoofs struck the porous soil. At the lane's farther end was a gate with a huge, upright beam, uncouth, clumsy, and slow to move on its hinges, — apt to sag, — ploughing a semicircle with its nigh end, and weighing heavily upon the shoulder of the opener. Endurance seemed to have entered into all the building plans of old-time workers; and size and weight were to them the emblems of endurance. About my grandfather's gate smart-weed and dock-weed and plantain grew profusely, — mean weeds; but Hannah, maid-of-all-work, distilled from them dyes and balsams. Beauty lay hidden in their juices, which Hannah expressed and fastened into her patiently spun and woven fabrics of cotton, linen, and woollen. Over the gate and over the well a massive butternut-tree flung its branches. It stands to-day, with its trunk half rotten, and I sit under it and seem again a child. Only for a moment, for, with the years that have gone into my life, something sweet and beautiful has gone out of it. Dear little Benny! you and I came first together through the gateway into the farmhouse yard. A white-haired old man stood in the door to welcome us. It was late on a summer's day: so late that the cattle were lowing to be let through the pasture-bars; the work of the day was wellnigh past, and the dews and peace of night were beginning to fall. Sweet, sacred eventide! Gone are they all, — the dear old man, the beautiful boy, the herds, and the laborers who wrought with them. The structures, built by mortal hands, are rotting and tumbling; the tree is dying; the rest are shadowy things of memory: I look down into the deep old well, with its unsafe curb and sweep (how foolish I am!), for the trout little Benny dropped there more than forty years ago. I see nothing save green, slimy rocks and the shadow of my own face.
I say little Benny, because dead children never grow old. We talk of what they might have been, but we possess only what they were. Little Benny died more than forty years ago, — a beautiful, precocious boy. Had he lived, he might have been a famous man. He is only remembered as the loving, lovable child, and as such I go back to meet him. Very few are the lasting impressions of the forms and features of lost ones. Some intensity of word or look or action glorifies a moment of a child's life, and makes its expression an imperishable thing of memory.
Marion, brown-eyed Marion, rosy, radiant, flinging back her hair with careless abandon, bursts into my room. By that one attitude and expression I best remember her. You can never know what unwitting posture of your child is to become a treasure to you. If it dies, you will lose hold of its heart-rending reality, and will be consoled by the ideal suggestiveness of its occasional aspects. This is the healing which time, and time alone, brings to your sorrows.
Thus talks the old well to me, treading cautiously upon its rickety platform. High up dangles the rusty bucket-handle; the balance weight is gone; the sweep and beam are rotten and ready to fall. A spasm of tenderness seizes me; things take life. Summer days come back to me, and with them beautiful rural pictures of tired men arid patient animals slaking their thirst. I shut my eyes and the yard is alive again. Oxen are lapping cool water from the trough; laborers are grasping the dripping bucket, poised on the edge of the curb; upon the doorstep sits my grandfather, his white hair streaming over his shoulders. How clear-cut the whole scene is, — this picture of common farm-life! The oxen lift their heads and blink their eyes, and then go back to their draught. It seems as if they never would be done. The men let down the bucket twice and thrice over, and up it comes, each time more coolly dripping than before. Its crystal streams splash back into the deep old well with a pleasant, resonant sound. Hannah comes out with her pails and fills them, and I, standing on tiptoe, lean over the dub and watch the water as it trickles down the mossy rocks. She is meanwhile unconscious, as I am, that through those simple acts our lives are being irrevocably woven together, each with the other, as well as with the drinkers and drawers around us, in a never-fading picture. Dear, cool, overflowing, delightful old well! your waters in those summer days were magic waters, and the creatures who drank of you, even the dumbest of them, were by you baptized for me with an undying beauty.
The heavy farm-gates, though uncouth and hard to manage, were made pleasant objects by age. The lane-gate of my grandfather, hugged by a vine, had put out grasses and weeds from its joints, and was mottled all over with moss. The make of these gates was always a marvel. Pegs and supple wither stood instead of hinges; and a strong bar, fastened to their centre, ran, with a sharp angle, to the upper end of a tall post. They were in keeping with the well-sweeps, the ragged fences, and stone walls. They grew, picturesquely, into the landscape, and pointed out otherwise inconspicuous entrance-ways. These latter were often only slight wheel-ruts cut into the sods of the fields, so that the gateposts served as signboards to benighted and weary travellers. They loomed up, gray and ghostly, out of the darkness of night, and were homely signals of hospitality in winter snow-wastes. "I see the gate, — we're almost there!" shouted Benny. We were making our first joint visit to my grandfather's farm, and the friendly bars and beams of this gate beckoned to us. Hospitable old gate! — which would never then budge an inch at my tugging; but which nevertheless always swung, with a right royal arch, wide open, to let me in.
A second gate, at my grandfather's, opened from the opposite side of the farm-house yard, just beyond the butternut-tree, into another lane. This lane went down into the pasture and the woodland. At its farther end were the clumsy, unstable pasture-bars, against which the cattle crowded at nightfall, and leaped past the fearless children who let them out. These farmers' children, who roamed pastures and woods, unmindful of herds, and came back shaggy and weighed down with all sorts of wild growth, were truly the foster-children of nature. Year after year of their half-untamed lives she gave to them the simple gifts of her annual harvests, and quickened their senses towards that in her which was imperishable. These young freebooters laid up enduring riches. Lying on her pasture-knolls, tossing about amongst her dead leaves, tramping through brooks and bogs and brushwood, they stumbled upon her treasures unawares. The berries and nuts and mints they sought were transient things; but the glories of the days which brought them entered into, and gave to them a good and delight which were eternal. Those children are made richer and better, who have early dealings with Nature; she gives to them a joy which will stand by them all their days. If they get it not, they will have missed something most admirable out of their lives.
In farmers' families, the driving of the cows to pasture passed by rotation from one child to another. Sometimes a man or woman of the household took up the task, from necessity or inclination, as a duty or diversion. They were, most often, thoughtful, observant men and women, to whom their morning and evening lessons, such as God gave to them in the changeful aspects of earth and sky, were, perhaps half unconsciously, well learned. Sweet scents and sounds and sights greeted them. They got from the morning strength for the day's burdens, and the peace of twilight lifted these burdens from them. I recall three men who, all through middle life and far into old age, morning and night, at unvarying hours, drove their herds to and from the pastures. Their cows knew them, and, in the virtue of patience, seemed quite as human as they. They were all three grand men, sensible, honest, and carrying weight in town affairs. This humble duty, cheerfully done, did but illustrate and embellish the childlike simplicity of their lives. There could be no more pastoral picture than that of these respectable farmers plodding along the highway with their cows in the early brightness of morning. They were literally walking hand in hand with nature. Transplanted into a city, they would have been poor in its riches, unfitted for its pursuits and pastimes. On the country highway they were heirs of the soil; lessees of the landscapes and sky views; unconscious absorbents of the earth's brightness and beauty. I know men in high places who look back with keen pleasure to their cow-driving days, when the lowing herds used to come across the rocky pastures to meet them, and who, from these enforced morning and evening walks, grew to be observers and lovers of nature. I remember with delight my grandfather's pasture, poor of soil and scanty of herbage; uneven of surface; its hillocks clad with moss and wintergreen; cut in two by a clear, babbling brook; shaded here and there by clumps of trees; ragged with rocks and ferns and wild shrubs; marshy next to the mill-pond, as well as treacherous, and tangled with flag and bulrushes. Rare old New England pasture-lands! You were stingy of grass, but you were never-failing in beauty, — that beauty which was revealed to the children, who, next to the herds, were your true owners. Early in spring-time, against lingering snow-banks, came beds of blue and white violets; a little later, hidden among crisp, crackling leaves, pink and white arbutus, — sweetest of all spring blossoms. Ferns unfolded; mint scented the brookside; coltsfoot brightened its shoal bed; the marsh bristled with spiked leaves. With the coming of summer, the water-soaked and porous soil by degrees dried up. One had no longer to pick his way from stone to stone across boggy places (what early pasture roamer does not recall the overrated audacity of such passages?); ferns grew strong and deep-colored; bog onions curled their brown coils against the rocks (they would not pull now with the old relish); weeds and shrubs and stinted trees took on the gifts of the passing seasons, and, as you trod on them or brushed by them, sent out to you their wild savors. Close by the mill-pond the soil was always soft, and marked by the hoof-prints of cattle. Here the pond was shoal and full of lilies. On hot summer days the tired animals would stand for hours knee-deep in the sluggish water, unconscious pictures of peaceful pastoral life. Their crooked trail, winding in and out through the dampest and shadiest portion of the pasture-land, had a friendly look. Its black line was easy to be traced far into the evening, and was always a pleasant thing to stumble upon. It has guided many a wanderer home. What traveller has not had his heart gladdened by footprints in waste places? My path was treacherous and hard to follow, but it led one down through tall, sweet-scented bushes; across the shoal brook; over a long stretch of ferns; past rocks and crackling brushwood, into the alders and bulrushes and wild flag, outside of which were the shoal water and a lily-bed, where, stuck fast in the mud, was a rotting old boat, which the waves lapped lazily.
Here the children from far and near used to come for lilies, pushing with poles out into the pond. One summer day, at nightfall, a little girl was missing from a farmer's house. She had gone out in the morning and had not come back. Two weeks went by and no clue of her was found. Meanwhile the budded lilies blossomed on the pond, and other children went one day in search of them. They came back, not lily-laden, but with a great horror on their lips. Pushing about among the pads, they had come upon something which they dared not touch; something which two weeks before was fairer than any lily, but which now was an awful thing, to be hastily put out of sight.
On this shore the children used to plait rush caps and play with flag-leaves in mimic warfare. The black, soggy soil was honeycombed by their busy feet, and their constant companions were the cattle, who cooled themselves in the shoal edge of the pond. The blue of the distant hills, the sunshine, the shimmer of the pond, the verdure of forest and woodland and lowland and upland overarched and surrounded and hemmed them in. Absorbed thus by the landscape, they were made transient features of its glory.
When the summer had passed, grasses bloomed, with a faint purple haze, on the uplands, and bushes flaunted in crimson, forerunners of the dying of the year. Rare pastoral scenes! Again I am watching the shadows of ancient pines, lying across the pond; herds browse the hillocks; I see the daintily coiling smoke of distant farm-houses; the coquetting of clouds and sunshine; the noble framework of hill and forest. The old music comes back, — the ring of the woodman's axe; the whiz of the mill under the hill; the lowing of herds; bird-song; insect-hum; and, above all, the drowsy lapping of the pond against its shore. Behold the beauty, the plenty, the generosity of my pasture!
What shall be said of the woodland, grand, solemn old woodland, with its pines, grim and ragged with time; full of pallid ferns and such dainty blossoms as love dark places; tangled with a wild undergrowth, and ankle-deep with the crackling waste of past years? Dense, damp, dark, stately old woodland, — I love all pines because of my early friendship with yours. Lying on the mouldy carpet of your waste verdure, I caught your whispers with the hidden sources of your growth, and watched you from my chamber-window as weird and wild you battled with storms. The whistling of a fierce winter's wind through a forest of pines is a mournful sound; it seems like a prolonged wail of the persecuted trees. No tree has a more striking mission than the pine. It is the vanguard tree of nature. Grand, erect, beautiful, it enriches the low, sandy plain; climbing, strong and aggressive, ever climbing, it lies prone against the mountain-side, clothing it with eternal verdure. There is something pathetic in the wild gesticulations of these brave trees, flinging out their stinted and shrunken arm-like branches in defiance to the winds; stretching them back from the mountain-sides towards the valleys, until, planted among the clouds, they wax frigid and dumb and dead.