A Kentucky Cardinal/Chapter VIII
In August the pale and delicate poetry of the Kentucky land makes itself felt as silence and repose. Still skies, still woods, still sheets of forest water, still flocks and herds, long lanes winding without the sound of a traveller through fields of the universal brooding stillness. The sun no longer blazing, but muffled in a veil of palest blue. No more black clouds rumbling and rushing up from the horizon, but a single white one brushing slowly against the zenith like the lost wing of a swan. Far beneath it the silver-breasted hawk, using the cloud as his lordly parasol. The eagerness of spring gone, now all but incredible as having ever existed; the birds hushed and hiding; the bee, so nimble once, fallen asleep over his own cider-press in the shadow of the golden apple. From the depths of the woods may come the notes of the cuckoo; but they strike the air more and more slowly, like the clack, clack of a distant wheel that is being stopped at the close of harvest. The whirring wings of the locust let themselves go in one long wave of sound, passing into silence. All nature is a vast sacred goblet, filling drop by drop to the brim, and not to be shaken. But the stalks of the later flowers begin to be stuffed with hurrying bloom lest they be too late; and the nighthawk rapidly mounts his stairway of flight higher and higher, higher and higher, as though he would rise above the warm white sea of atmosphere and breathe in cold ether.
Always in August my nature will go its own way and seek its own peace. I roam solitary, but never alone, over this rich pastoral land, crossing farm after farm, and keeping as best I can out of sight of the laboring or loitering negroes. For the sight of them ruins every landscape, and I shall never feel myself free till they are gone. What if they sing? The more is the pity that any human being could be happy enough to sing so long as he was a slave in any thought or fibre of his nature.
Sometimes it is through the after-math of fat wheat-fields, where float like myriad little nets of silver gauze the webs of the crafty weavers, and where a whole world of winged small folk flit from tree-top to tree-top of the low weeds. They are all mine — these Kentucky wheat-fields. After the owner has taken from them his last sheaf I come in and gather my harvest also — one that he did not see, and doubtless would not begrudge me — the harvest of beauty. Or I walk beside tufted aromatic hemp-fields, as along the shores of softly foaming emerald seas; or past the rank and file of fields of Indian-corn, which stand like armies that had gotten ready to march, but been kept waiting for further orders, until at last the soldiers had gotten tired, as the gayest will, of their yellow plumes and green ribbons, and let their big hands fall heavily down at their sides. There the white and the purple morning-glories hang their long festoons and open to the soft midnight winds their elfin trumpets.
This year as never before I have felt the beauty of the world. And with the new brightness in which every common scene has been apparelled there has stirred within me a need of human companionship unknown in the past. It is as if Nature had spread out her last loveliness and said: “See! You have before you now all that you can ever get from me! It is not enough. Realize this in time. I am your Mother. Love me as a child. But remember! such love can be only a little part of your life.”
Therefore I have spent the month restless, on the eve of change, drawn to Nature, driven from her. In September it will be different, for then there are more things to do on my small farm, and I see people on account of my grapes and pears. My malady this August has been an idle mind — so idle that a letter from Georgiana seems its main event. This was written from the old home of Audubon on the Hudson, whither they had gone sight-seeing. It must have been to her much like a pilgrimage to a shrine. She wrote informally, telling me about the place and enclosing a sprig of cedar from one of the trees in the yard. Her mind was evidently overflowing on the subject. It was rather pleasant to have the overflow turned my way. I shall plant the cedar where it will stay always green.
I saw Georgiana once more before her leaving. The sudden appearance of her brother and cousin, and the news that she would return with them for the summer, spurred me up to make another attempt at those Audubon drawings.
How easy it was to get them! It is what a man thinks a woman will be willing to do that she seldom does. But she made a confession. When she first found that I was a smallish student of birds, she feared I would not like Audubon, since men so often sneer at those who do in a grand way what they can do only in a poor one. I had another revelation of Georgiana’s more serious nature, which is always aroused by the memory of her father. There is something beautiful and steadfast in this girl’s soul. In our hemisphere vines climb round from left to right; if Georgiana loved you she would, if bidden, reverse every law of her nature for you as completely as a vine that you had caused to twine from right to left.
Sylvia enters school the 1st of September, and Georgiana is to be at home then to see to that. How surely she drives this family before her — and with as gentle a touch as that of a slow south wind upon the clouds.
Those poor fist drawings of Audubon! He succeeded; we study his early failures. The world never studies the failures of those who do not succeed in the end.
The birds are moulting. If man could only moult also — his mind once a year its errors, his heart once a year its useless passions! How fine we should all look if every August the old plumage of our natures would drop out and be blown away, and fresh quills take the vacant places! But we have one set of feathers to last us through our threescore years and ten — one set of spotless feathers, which we are told to keep spotless through all our lives in a dirty world. If one gets broken, broken it stays; if one gets blackened, nothing will cleanse it. No doubt we shall all fly home at last, like a flock of pigeons that were once turned loose snow-white from the sky, and made to descend and fight one another and fight everything else for a poor living amid soot and mire. If then the hand of the unseen Fancier is stretched forth to draw us in, how can he possibly smite any one of us, or cast us away, because we came back to him black and blue with bruises and besmudged and bedraggled past all recognition?