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GHOSTS OF THE NORTHEASTER
"The Fourth of July is past; the summer is gone," says a New England proverb. In this as in many a quaint saying of our weather-wise, hill-tramping ancestors, there is more than a half-truth hidden in what seems a humorous distortion. In mid-August we look about us and know this, for we see ourselves slipping more and more rapidly down the long slope that leads from flower-crowned hilltop to frozen lake. Some day a snowstorm will get under the runners and the balance of the descent will be but a single shish. Meanwhile we may note the passage by certain landmarks. In the seven weeks that come between the longest day and the fifteenth of August, thunderstorms may bring local relief to the parched earth, but otherwise it is our dry season, and by the first week in August the farmers are holding their hands to heaven in vain prayers for rain, vowing that never was so dry a time and that if the seasons thus continue to change Massachusetts will be a desert.
Always during August Jupiter Pluvius is wont to change all this. He sends us not showers, but a rain that wets us for a day and a night and perhaps longer, and, however greedily the parched earth may suck it up, finally irrigates all the waste places and covers all the sore earth with a soothing, healing salve of mud. Such rains come in to us riding on the broad back of the east wind, as rode the prince in Andersen's fairy tale, and as the big drops fall upon us we catch intoxicating scents borne to us from far Cathay. On the east wind's back the prince rode into paradise itself, which still lies hidden beneath hills to the eastward of the Himalayas. We should not blame him for kissing the fairy princess and being banished, for if he had not done so he had not brought back the tale and we should not know whence came the soothing odors that drip with the rain from the wings of the east wind. Fragrance of spice and of flowers, bloom of ripe fruit, of grape and fig and pomegranate and quaint odor of olive, scents that have ripened long in the purple dusk of paradise, the east wind caught in his garments and bore back to the cold forests of Northern Germany that night that the prince rode with him. Nor has he since lost them altogether in crossing the storm-tossed Atlantic to our shores. Instead the rich vigor of the brine subtends them and bears them, tanged with salt, to our deeper delectation. In long carriage they have lost potency, one needs keen scent to find them, but all the subtle essence of dreams is in them still, and as the rain brings down early twilight you know that the prince saw true.
So likely is this storm to come to us in mid-August that the Old
Farmer's Almanack, less oracularly and more bluntly by far than in its
usual weather predictions, bids us look for it each year. Not only does
its yearly recurrence make it a landmark of the passing of seasons, but
the cold northwest breeze which almost invariably follows it, sucked in
from Saskatchewan, breathing of snow flurries on the frost-touched
tundra of the Arctic barrens, carries a threat of winter that all the
world knows. The summer is over, it says to outdoor creatures, and it
is time to put in fall stores. It is time to hurry all plans that need
warm weather for their completion. Particularly do the late summer and
early autumn blooming plants heed this. Monday saw my favorite meadow
dallying still with the languor of midsummer. Even the tender pink
orchid blooms of arethusa lingered among the grasses, in shadowy,
cool-rooted spots, though the arethusa begins to bloom there in late
May. Hardly have hardhack and meadowsweet, which are mid-summer plants,
reached the fullness of mature bloom, so softly does the spring linger
in this sheltered spot, so gently does the summer press her fervor on
Crowding up among these have come green sprigs from perennial roots which are to bear on their tops yellow heads of goldenrod and loose panicles of purple asters. Yet on the day before the rain hardly had the green of the goldenrod tips become sun-glinted with yellow, scarcely an aster had lifted long lashes far enough so that you could see the iris beneath. After the rain the heads which had drooped so low in reverence before it rose in the clear sun and the whole meadow was cloth of gold where before it, had been olive green with ripe grass tips, while all among the gold the blue asters came out like stars on a frosty evening, pricking through the pale glow of sunset. The meadow has lacked vivid color masses since June.
Now it is a veritable mixing pat for the autumn colors to come, yellow with goldenrod, blue with asters, purple with Joe-Pye weed, rosy because of the hardhack, and rimmed with delicate gray-white of thoroughwort. These colors it will hold until the maples take fire and the green of birches pales to softest yellow at the expectation of October. So the flash of coolness in the air after rain set all the wood folk busy. The squirrels seemed to scold more shrilly and dance along the boughs inspecting the swelling chestnut burrs with a livelier kick than before. About this time, too, the bluejays begin to be prophetic of autumn. Hardly through July and early August has a loud note been heard from these birds. Often the recesses of the pines have been full of a gentle tinkling whicker as of muted tin pans that practised in the hope of some day becoming real phonographs, voices of young and old bluejays holding family councils interspersed with quiet joviality, but there has been none of the strident clamor which is the autumn voice of the bird. Today, however, in the cool, refreshing breeze out of the northwest it rang through the wood with familiar vigor, a herald, blowing trumpets in advance of autumn. It is really all settled; the bluejay has announced it and summer is over. As the rain brings down early twilight it brings not only dreams of faint odors of far Cathay, it brings also clinging in the gray garments of the east wind films of its mystery and romance. As the prince in his brief outlook through the window of paradise saw on the panes moving pictures of life which Time had set there, so through the dusk of the fields and into the tangle of the forest it is easy to see this wind from far Cathay moving pictures of Oriental magic and mystery. Gray djinns stalk across the open spaces in the gathering dusk and what magician from Samarcand or what prince or princess of India may float to earth on these billowing praying-carpets of rain gusts it is impossible to tell. In the open fields and on the forest edges the effect of ghostly mystery is enhanced by the strange personality which all things take on. The most familiar path becomes new to us and each shrub and stump stands forth, pressing upon our attention, a newly arrived being out of the realms of space.
Monday afternoon when there was just the promise of rain in the air the pine woods were so friendly a place that all the birds flocked in and seemed to be full of soft and gentle jubilation because of this promise. The spaces that have been so quiet of late were full of feathers as they had been in June. Here were robins innumerable, flitting jerkily about and crying "tut, tut" in a subdued and genial way that was positively ladylike. Partridge woodpeckers flocked in, drolly jollying each other and making much talk, sotto voce. Not one of them cried aloud and though in their humorous antics more than one cried, "flicker, flicker, flicker," there was in it none of the usual horse-laugh tone of the high-hole when he is on a rampage. It was reduced to a gentle whinny that seemed to vie with the boudoir-built notes of the robins. Bluejays were there too, but there was no clamor, just a gentle murmur of subdued tones in the soft, resin-scented twilight.
In the twilight of twenty-four hours after, all my wood-rimmed world of pasture and meadow was filled with, the eerie presence of the rain. It was not like a gentle shower of summer when the patter of falling drops is like a tinkle of fairy music and showers spell laughter. The coming of a local shower at nightfall is as gentle and seems as homelike as the gathering of the birds in the grove. In this east storm brought from far spaces on the wings of the east wind there was something of wild unrest. The cool, salt flavor of the air spoke of wild stretches of the North Atlantic where sea-fogs have touched the eerie loneliness of Greenland bergs and passed it on to the wind. In this ghostly dusk of driving mist the smear of the rain across the face is like a touch of phantom hands coming out of unfathomed spaces, gentle but uncanny. All the soft perfumes of wood and field seem beaten to the ground by this rain which brings with its salt tang faint breathings of some distant spiciness.
The gray light of the lower spaces goes up into the clouds and in the dusk below shadowless shrubs take on strange shapes. The pasture edge is familiar no longer. Gray groups grow where surely was but clear space and all across the long meadow and up the slope mist horizons jostle one another one moment and are blotted out the next. The road entrance to the wood is a black cavern out of which lean grotesque goblins that wave a disquieting welcome. Here to the right and left as I enter stand black figures where in daylight I am sure nothing stood, nor does it help to lay the hand on them and know they are stumps. It is damp and draughty as it was in the cavern where the prince first found the east wind, and I look about half expecting to see the strong old woman who tended the fire and put the winds in bags when they did not behave. There she stands in the dusk nearby and only by putting my hand on the prickly needles and the rough trunk do I recognize a familiar pitch pine. The trees near this entrance to the enchanted wood sigh as the east wind touches them, seeming to draw deep breaths as living creatures might and thus add verisimilitude to the terror that stands on either hand to reach for me. Thus ancient hermits depicted the soul on the walls of their caverns, a shrinking shape that fled among goblins that clutched at it from all sides. The primal instinct of fear of things half seen still lurks in each man's bones. On a pitch dark night I had made the entrance to the wood without thought of ghosts. It is the half known that frightens us.
Once within the wood in the deepening dusk I seemed to leave the bogies behind. Not far through the pines the path brought me to a halt cleared hollow where three-year sprouts mingle their lush aspirations with scattered growth seeded half a century ago. A lone deer seems to make this spot a sanctuary. Often in daylight we meet here almost face to face and look at one another curiously, neither much afraid. In the deepening darkness, just freed from the primal terrors of the wood edge, I seemed to know why the deer finds the place a refuge. Here in the little sheltered hollow no goblins gibbered, no banshee wailed in the wet wood. Instead the sprout clumps seemed to rustle cheery assurance and the taller trees to bend in cozy friendliness over them. The soft fingers of the rain had a soothing touch and wind and darkness were kindly. I do not know why some spots in the woods seem thus to shelter and protect whether by night or day while others repel or fill with distrust, but I know it is so. On a woodcock haunted slope or in a thicket beloved of ruffed grouse I almost always feel as if my camp had been pitched in some previous existence and I had just got home again, though the place, perhaps, ought to be new to me. I fancy the deer feels that way and I hope he was snuggled down in the shelter of some of those big-leaved sprouts, warm and dry, as I passed by.
Down the glade and along the swamp edge I passed with the night falling fast. Twilight lingers long in our latitude and the gray sky still lighted the path dimly, though the woods were black on either side. The tranquillity of the home-like hollow was with me yet, but I was in for another panic shudder. A fitful gleam of pale light showed just ahead of me through the black thicket and I rounded a familiar curve in the path to stand face to face with a most portentous presence. A veritable ghost stood just within the wood, seven feet tall, stretching out a rattling bone of an arm and glowing from shapeless head to formless foot with pale gleaming garments of bluish white.
More years ago than I like to count up there used to come to my town an old man with a magic lantern. He would hire the audience mom in the ancient town hall for an evening, lung up a sheet, charge ten cents admission and show to a crowd of wondering and delighted urchins pictures wonderful, humorous and startling. He always wound up with one for which he apologized, then showed it with much gusto, saying that he did not believe in such things himself, but that some people liked to see them.
This was "death on the pale horse," and boys used to band together and see one another home through the darkness after looking at it. The creature that pointed his fleshless arm at me from the thicket was not that of the old time magic lantern exhibit, but it reminded me of that immediately, probably because it struck the same formless shudder through my bones. Yet it was only for a moment. I had seen such phosphorescent ghosts before and I had but to step boldly forward and give the stub a kick to send the spectre flying in fragments that dropped like huge glowworms in chunks to the sodden ground. Often in a northeast rain after long drought a rotten birch stump will thus glow with phosphorescent fire producing a most formidable and tradition-satisfying ghost.
There is nothing to be feared in a phosphorescent birch stub, even with the drip of rain from the leaves making stealthy, ghostly footfalls all through the wood and the voice of the east wind in the trees overhead beginning to take up a querulous, wordless complaint that moved back and forth with the footfalls. Foxfire is a common enough phenomenon. It is easy to explain it all as I do now. The strange part of such things is always that, at the time, no matter what a man's training and experience, he feels creeping back and forth in his bones the old, pale terror of primitive man in the presence of such things. Science has veneered us with knowledge of phosphorus and the chemic action of fungi and the effects of darkness and of light, but a half hour's tramp into the wet woods while a northeaster blows through the darkness takes all the gloss off that. We may go boldly on our way with undiminished front, but something always stirs uneasily within us and looks out at the back of the neck to see if that scattered glow has not reassembled and followed us.
Soon the path led me up out of the swamp, the sooner perhaps for the glowing eyes of foxfire now far behind, and I caught the beckoning gleam of electric light through the quiver of the rain. From the brow of cemetery hill the country below rose from velvety blackness of complete night to a gray sky that was somehow comforting and friendly. Through it, far down the road toward Blue Hill, the street lamps glowed yellow through the gloom, showing the route to the invisible hill. The wind crooned in the pines, and the swish of sheeted rain seemed a lullaby.
Here again, like the deer-frequented hollow, was a homelike and friendly spot. Even when I faced the street I found nothing disquieting in the sudden gleams of reflected light on the wet headstones. These should have been far more terrifying than any foxfire. Recent traditions of the race make the cemetery a place of ghosts, and here within its bounds were gnome lights that sprang into being, flared brightly for a second, then flashed out of sight as I walked. The long row of lights seemed to give almost every stone its turn, and the dancing gnome lanterns flared and vanished behind and before. As I neared the street puddles in the path caught up the flashes fitfully till all the quiet acre of the dead seemed full of goblins bobbing up from below with lanterns, taking a hasty look about, then pulling the lid dawn upon themselves with an unheard slam. It should have been disquieting, but it was not. We easily discount the petty superstitions that tradition and the frills of literature have made for us. That that grows out of the foxfire in the swamp has its roots too far back in the inheritance of the race to be discounted. The cemetery ghosts made only a friendly illumination for the last stages of a pleasant trip.