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All through the afternoon of the fervent July day I could see the sun sifting and winnowing his gold for the sunset. All the morning his alchemic forces had been quietly transmuting gray mists of midnight, vapors from damp humus, moisture from lush leaves and I know not what other pure though common elements into the precious glow that began to haze the west soon after noon. The old belief that the alchemist at his utmost cunning could recreate rose blooms from their own ashes had sure foundation. I have seen the sun do it every June in countless gardens where, out of this same humus and soft rains, his potency works the transmutation as if in a night. So on July days this father of transmuters melts in his crucible, of which the earth under our feet seems always the very bottom of the bowl, many ingredients, and distils from them this pure gold. Soon after he passes the meridian you may see it sprinkled lavishly from zenith to horizon, and as the day wanes it gilds all sordid things with the glow of romance. By it we get the clearer vision and have thoughts of the unseen things which are eternal. The trouble with sordid souls, if such there be, is that they have never seen enough sunsets. People who live in places or palaces where these are never seen have need to be born of noble fathers and sweet mothers, to be carefully nurtured in hope and aspiration and belief, or the world is the worse for .them.
Long after the sun had gone and the evening was cool with undotted dew, the fires of the melting burned high in the upper air and the gold that had been thin vapor seemed to condense into clouds that glowed copper-red with the molten metal and cooled and dropped into the distant hills. No wonder the miners go ever westward for the precious gold, to Colorado and Nevada and California, to Sitka and the Copper River, to Anvil City and the Nome beach and across the straits to Siberia. Never a clear night falls but they see the alchemy at work and the precious element going down in dust and nuggets and wide lodes behind. the peaks and into the canons just beyond.
Usually it is not until the gold begins to pass that I notice the nighthawk, though he may have been circling and crying "peent, peent" all the afternoon. If you can catch sight of him before the light fades too much you will see the white bar which crosses each wing beneath and looks exactly like a hole, as if the bird had transparencies in his pinions as has the polyphemus moth. Many a summer afternoon I have seen nighthawks circling erratically above Boston Common, and there their cry has sounded like a plaint. No doubt these birds fly there by choice and bring up their young on the tops of Back Bay buildings because they prefer the place, but this has not prevented a tinge of melancholy in their voices. Like many another city dweller they may take habit for preference, but the longing for the freedom of the woods, though unconscious, will voice itself some way. The nighthawk's cry, falling from the high gold of the waning sunset to dusky pasture glades, has no note of melancholy but a soothing sleepiness about it that makes it a lullaby of contentment. I rarely hear him after dark. I fancy he goes higher and higher to keep in the soft radiance of the fading glow. Only once have I ever seen one sky-coasting, falling like a dark star from a height where he seemed but a mote in the gold, a smaller, point that the green glint of a real star that had just come through. It was as if his wings had lost their hold on the thinner air of this remote height. He half shut them to his body and dived head foremost on a perilous slant. Then, just as he must be dashed to pieces on the gray rock of the ledge on which I sat, he spread them wide, caught the air that sang through the wide-spread primaries with a clear, deep-toned note, and rose again; and in his "peent, peent" was a quaint note of self-satisfaction and self-praise.
It is customary to ascribe actions of this sort on the part of a bird to a desire to please and astound the mate who is supposed to look on with fervent admiration. Sometimes this may be the case, but I think more often the bird, like my nighthawk, does it to please himself. There was no mate in sight when this nighthawk did his sky coasting, nor did any appear afterward. It was after the mating season and I think the bird did it in just pure joy in his own dare-deviltry. He liked to see how near he could come to breaking his neck without actually doing it. In the same way a male woodcock will keep up his shadow-dancing antics long after the nesting season is over, and the partridge drums more or less the year around. The other bird may have much admiration for these actions if she sees them, but never half so much as the bird who performs. Nothing could equal that.
The most beautiful moonlight nights we have are those on which the moon is an hour or two late. Then we see the day merge into real darkness as velvety shadows slip quietly up out of the earth and dance together. These congregated under the pines at first, last night, and waited a bit before they dared the shelter of deciduous trees. Long after that they huddled on the margins of the open pasture as bathers do on the pond shore when the water is cold, seeming to put dark toes into the clear light and then withdraw with a shudder. When they all went in I do not know, for I was watching the sky. By and by I looked back at the pasture and the open places in the wood, and all alike were filled with a wavering crowd that seemed to trip lightly and noiselessly as if in a minuet. Little by little they blotted out familiar outlines till only the tallest of pines looming dark against the lighter horizon had form. All else was a void, not that of chaos but a soft cosmos of completion.
It is singular how long one may look at this complete darkness and not note the dancing lights in it. After you see them, the glint of the fireflies flitting hither and thither, starring the meadows as thickly as distant suns star the sky, making a milky way of the brookside and flashing comet-like along the dry upland, is singularly vivid. They sparkle, these northern fireflies of ours, with a dainty glint that merely emphasizes the darkness. Now and then you may see the larva of one of these, which is the glow-worm beside the path. You may get a very faint real illumination from him, lighting perhaps the space of your fingernail as he crawls along. He, too, merely serves to make the darkness visible. The firefly of the tropics is more spectacular. He blazes forth like a meteor, setting all the thicket aglow for a moment. The lights of our fireflies are more like a frosting of the darkness, as when the moon shines in winter and the light glints from ice crystals hung on the frozen grass. I like ours best.
The herald of the moon is the whippoor-will. I do not recall hearing him sing on pitch black nights. Starshine is enough for him, but I am convinced that he is only half nocturnal and that he watches for signs of moonlight as eagerly as I do. Last night I saw the glint of it in the upper sky an hour before the moon rose, a silvery shine which did not touch the lower atmosphere, but shot athwart the higher stars like a ghost of aurora. The whippoor-will saw it, too, and began his call, which I do not find a melancholy plaint, but rather an eager asking. It was a voice of shrill longing, sounding out of luminous loneliness after the moon began to silver all things. Slowly, like a benediction, this silvery luminosity descended till it touched the tops of eastward hills with the softest imaginable glow and filled all the sky above them with light. The glow of the sun drives the darkness before it and then appears. The glow of the moon is so much the more gentle in that it fills the world with radiance and leaves the darkness, which it permeates, but does not destroy. It is a newer evangel, which does not seek to rebuild the world, but simply takes it as it is and fills it with clear fire, adding to its rough vigor purity of motive. I do not see how anyone who loves moonlight can be bad, or even morose and melancholy. Its light drowns all these in a deep sea of peace.
As the moon came up, gibbous and glowing, its beams seemed to skim into the darkness under the pines as a swallow flies, scaling along beneath the blackness of close-set plumes above, to light long aisles between the naked boles below. These that had been so invisible before that I had to find my way among them by the friendly leading of the path beneath my feet, now took on a radiance of their own. Green and brown no longer, they glowed with the witchery of the level light, their real colors only shining faintly through this transparent frosting, this veneer of cool fire, till the place was like those European salt caverns of which one reads where the dark roof is upheld by crystalline pillars that give ghostly reflections of the lights that the miners carry. Here, groping in the grotesque glow of their own lanterns might well come the gnomes of German tales although, so sweetly gentle is the light, I can think of them only as kindly goblins bent on quaint deeds of goodness.
Beyond the pines the path led me moonward through glades among deciduous trees, no doubt the abodes of elves. That may have been but a sphinx moth that flew down the path before me, his fat gray body silvered by the moonlight, his short, narrow wings beating so fast that they became but a gauzy nimbus about him, or it may have been Puck, training to put that girdle round about the earth in forty minutes. Here invisible creatures scurried away from a fairy ring whose flagging is of round pyrola leaves, lighted by ghostly white candelabras of the waxy blooms, field mice, very likely, or black beetles, or elves dancing in the moonlight about their queen. How am I to know which? Surely if elves dance anywhere it is on midsummer nights like this when the dew has clotted on all the leaves till they are pearled with a soft green fire as if from caverns under sea and I walk down the path through such caves and among such kelp and corals as a merman might. All about me I hear the stirring of the little people and now and then soft airs fanned from invisible wings touch my cheek. It may be moth, or bat, or tricksy Ariel for all I know or care, such glamour does the haunted air throw about him who will leave the brown earth behind and plunge in its silvery depths.
Pushing aside tapestries woven of such figures as these on a cloth of white silver, I stepped out of the wood on to the shore of the unruffled pond. Here a man might well pause and take no further step lest he fall into the blue depths of space. The moon hangs like a great shield in a sky of soft sapphire, piled with , luminous figures. Within the wood are fairy and elf, goblin and gnome, half seen in the filmy light. Here giant genie stand revealed, passing in the dim perspective of mighty distances or leaning portentously from the radiant sky. In the mirror-like pond I see all these things repeated in an underworld that is as distinct and clear, yet strangely distorted. The miles of soft blue distance that stretch invitingly upward to the withdrawn stars of the zenith, stretch as soft and blue, but fearsomely deep beneath my feet to the nadir. Standing at the water's rim I am on the verge of a vast, deep gulf that no plummet might fathom, into which at another step I shall begin to fall, and once falling fall forever, for there is no bottom. It is all very well to say to one's self that an inch below the mirroring surface lies the good gray sand which was there by daylight. The midsummer moon is past the full and things are as they seem.
By midnight the white genie of the sky had stalked off beyond the horizon out of sight. The moon that had been so great among them with its rim touching the eastern hills that it was like a great map of itself hung on the margining sky, had concentrated to a ball of white light near the zenith. Back in the wood I found the invisible little people out in full force, rustling, flitting and calling. But the white light had gone and under thick foliage of deciduous trees the real night had come again, dappled, indeed, by flecks of filtered moonlight which dazzled and made the shadows more obscure. In the depths of the pines the veritable darkness of Egypt smothered all sight. Here the path must be found by the feet alone, and it is singular what potency of understanding thrills up from the good brown earth through the boot-soles when it is needed. Every footpath is a shallow canal through which you flow as does water if you will but let it lead you. If the foot fall but a little to the right or left of the wonted spot some slight inequality of the earth that in the full daylight would never reach your senses, now sends definite messages to you. By it you swing with certainty to the right or the left and find the next footfall near enough within the narrow way to continue the guidance. No matter how winding the path, it will keep you within its borders if you will but give up your will to it.
Stepping from this Egyptian shadow of the pines to the full glare of midnight on the brow of the hill was like having a searchlight thrown on you. All things gleamed in a white radiance which had rainbow margins where the dew hung heaviest on nearby objects.
By day in this spot the eye is photographic and records every detail, by night you have the same story told again by the brush of an impressionist. It is the reverse with sounds. In the full glare of the sun the myriad voices of the world mingle in a clear roar that is a steady musical note, and soon you forget to hear it. By night each noise is individual, and leaves its impress on the mind. Whoever remembers the quality of noises he hears by day in the city, however great the uproar? Who can forget the soothing chirp of crickets in the grass at his feet by night?
Standing on a hilltop on such a midnight a man may map the watercourses, large and small, for miles around, though by day he can see from the same place no glint of water. Here is a deep lake of white fog which marks a marsh, and into it flow winding streams that are level with the treetops on the margin. Here the moon by night is distilling and vatting mountain dew from which all wild creatures may drink deep without fear of deleterious effects. It is the cup that cheers and does not inebriate. The waking robins tipple on it and sing the more joyously, nor is there in their midday any of the moroseness of reaction.
Three hours later the moon had slipped down from the zenith into cushions of velvety, violet black, low in the western sky. Its bright white glow was lost in part and it was haloed with a yellow nimbus of its own fog distillation. Over on the margin of the pines the little screech owl, now full of field mice and having time to worry, voiced his trouble about it in little sorrowful whinnies. Down in the pasture a fox barked distinctly and a coon answered the plaint of the screech owl in a voice not unlike his. It always seems to me that the night hunters of pasture and woodland bewail the passing of such a night as much as I do. The whippoor-will began to voice his petulant wistfulness again. He had been, silent for hours, feasting I dare say on myriad moths and unable to call with his mouth full. The whippoor-will chants matins as querulously as he does vespers. Far in the east the stars that had been gleaming brighter as the moon descended paled again. The night in all its perfect beauty was over, for into the shrill eagerness of the whippoor-will's call cut the joyous carol of a dawn-worshipping robin.