Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/June

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Illustrated by Thomas Robert Macquoid


Of all the months in the year, June seems to me the richest in natural pleasures. The only draw-back is its being, at its close, the turning-point from the advancing to the receding year. We seem to have had so little of the opening and ripening of Nature,—the trees have so lately become green,—plants and animals are still so young, that it is very soon to be turning towards the declining seasons: yet we shall be making hay this month, in prospect of winter; and the days will be shortening before the end of it. Well, we must enjoy to the utmost the fruition in June of the first three months. In my family, we always do. We are out of doors more than in any other month,—the mornings and nights are so dry and balmy, and the mid-day still so fresh,—in the woods and by the water-side, if the fields are somewhat too sultry.

At the beginning, we look for the sheep washing; and we are always impatient for it, for the poor sheep’s sake,—they are apt to be so troubled with the fly. In our neighbourhood the flocks are not so large but that they can be watched, and rescued in time. We seldom or never see the frightful spectacle of a sheep being driven wild by the misery, and breaking away beyond reach of help, to lie down at last, and struggle away its life in writhings on the ground, while being devoured alive, as often happens in wide upland pastures, where the flock is too large for the shepherd’s oversight: hut there are always some which seem anything but comfortable after the fly has once settled. There is another danger for them. My girls do not forget their hot scamper home, for two miles, one season when they had followed the stream beyond and above the park, and saw from the high bank a poor sheep carried round and round in the eddy of a pool, into which it had fallen, overbalanced by the weight of its fleece. We were in time to save the animal by sending men and boys while its head was yet above water: but it was not so with a ewe which held met with the same mishap at a part where the waters rushed among rocks, between two of which we saw it fast wedged, on its back, with its four legs up in the air, and the stream bubbling away through its swollen fleece. It had fallen from a height—also from the weight of its fleece—and its head had obviously been under water from the first; so it must soon have been out of its pain. Its lamb was pacing to and fro on the bank above, baaing piteously.

It is a very different thing seeing sheep in the water when there are plenty of people to take care of them. There cannot be a better place for the washing than the pool under the bridge, just outside the park, where we station ourselves some fine June morning every year. The river is shoaly there: and a man and his boys take up their position on a shoal on the further side of the pool, while others stand under the bridge, in the shadow; and we look down, and see all they do. No one of the flock ever seems to learn by experience. They are all just as sure one year as another that they are going to be drowned; and violent is the exercise they give the shepherds in getting them through the pool. What tugging, pulling, and pushing it is! And how absurd is the floundering in that shallow place! And what a din there is of bleating and baaing, and shouting and laughing! And how the boys on the shoal enjoy holding the poor beasts by the head while the shepherd grasps and wrings and rubs the fleece, which grows whiter under the operation, and then sends them back through shallower water to the bank.

After watching the process till we have had enough of the noise, my boys and I leave the girls, and ascend the stream for our dip,—unless, indeed, Whitsuntide so falls as that the lads are at school on sheep-washing day. Little Harry, at all events, will be my companion henceforth till he enters upon his school-days. He is not too young for a dip with me: no, nor for learning to swim. Why should not our children swim as soon as they can walk, as children in other countries do? In the East and the West, and in the South Sea Islands, infants can tumble about in the water as freely as on the grass: and why should not ours? My Harry thinks it excellent fun to play in the water; as in truth it is; and he prides himself on being wiser than the big sheep, who can only cry, and not swim. He never felt any fear, and thinks that pool above among the rocks his best play place. I began by putting him in, letting him scramble, lending a hand when his head went under, and letting him ride on my shoulders when I was swimming; and now he can make his way anywhere in still water, and keep himself safe where the stream runs strongest. It will never be said of my children (the girls any more than the boys), in the case of a boat capsizing, “none of the party could swim;”—that dreary and shameful announcement which we see in the newspapers a dozen times a year. Whether they be sailors, soldiers, emigrants, or merely cross the sea in travelling, my sons will not be drowned for want of learning to swim.

We take our time in going up to that pool; for Harry cannot walk so far and back again. He goes on my back or his brother’s, or is carried cherry-stone-wise at intervals: and we sit down in tempting places. In the little creeks where the sedges grow, we look for dragon-flies coming out of their sheaths; and many a time we have hit the moment when the creature is drawing itself up and out of its case, so that we could see the gauze wings unfold, and the body begin to shine, and the gay insect try the air for the first time. We track the water-beetle in shallow places; and in the shady parts there is sure to be a dimple on the surface here and there, as the fish leap at the skimming and darting flies. In the woods behind us the birds are still tuneful; and we listen for each, knowing that in two or three weeks they will almost all be silent. The note of the cuckoo has by this time changed, being deeper as well as louder, in sign of farewell for the year.

In the little thickets which overhang the stream at intervals, the wild roses are opening, hour by hour; and we gather specimens of every tint, from the deepest pink to the blush and the white. The white briony is the favourite ornament for little boys’ hats and necks; while older folk carry wild honeysuckles in their button-holes. Little nuts peep out of their fringes on the hazels, promising pleasant excursions when autumn days come. There are not a few bees, though we know that the great multitude of them are busy in the clover-fields, and among the bean-blossoms below. There is good pasture for them up here in the clumps of hawthorns which actually shine in the sun against the relief of the park belt; and in the sweets of the hedges; and in the tall foxgloves under every boulder; and, above all, in the blossoms of the limes and the elder-flowers. We must find a day for gathering elder-flowers. My wife makes elder-wine of two sorts, because her mother made them before her; and her girls understand it, though our Quaker neighbour, who manages our Temperance Society, told them last year, on meeting them with a washing-basket brimming with blossoms, that the best use of elder-flowers was to make a cooling wash for the complexion.

Then we stop to make music and musical instruments, in some resting-place where the reeds grow strong. When we move again we are furnished with a Pan’s-pipe and elder-whistles, and with a warlike apparatus of pop-guns—supplied also by the useful elder. Finally we reach our pool, and find no angler there, as we had dreaded. The angler will come in the evening when the May-fly is floating and drying his wings, and the trout are lively, and the bream leaves its dim retreat at the bottom of the deepest pool. After lying on the grass till we are cool, we strip and go in, and do not come out again till the last minute that I can allow, after being reminded that in going home it is downhill all the way.

We trip it fast enough to be glad to find ourselves under the shade of the horse-chesnuts near the church. Those chesnuts are a superb spectacle now—each a great dome crocketed all over with little spires of glorious blossom. Whatever may be the charms of an early spring, it too often brings the drawback of spoiled horse-chesnuts. For many seasons in succession I have grieved over the stunted leaves and flowers which had been touched with frost after a brilliant early promise. Serious as have been the effects of the ungenial spring of this year, we now find some little compensation in the rich development of everything that waited for May before making any show. The splendid and safe late blossoming of our fruit-trees and forest-trees, and the profusion of cherries, gooseberries, and currants now ripening, are some reward for our efforts at patience when the winter would not go away. In two or three weeks now we shall have full bowls of cherries on the table, and we shall have gooseberry pies or gooseberry-fool every day now till the currants come in.

We dine early on sheep-shearing days because the work is always, by some means or other, done in time for the squire’s shearing supper. We like to witness the ending of the business, and to do our part towards making the syllabub-under-the-cow, which is the most conspicuous dainty of the evening. In three days from the washing the fleeces are sufficiently dry for the shearing, provided the weather is fine, and the animals have been kept meantime on an airy and sound pasture. We have tried our hands on almost every one of the processes of the day; but I am afraid we are not regarded as effectual helps; so it is time enough to go after dinner. I have made an attempt at clipping: and my wife has rolled fleeces; and the children have daubed themselves with warm tar or with ochre in trying to mark the frightened and starting sheep just released from the shears; but I believe the real workers prefer our room to our company, unless we stand aside to admire people cleverer than ourselves. I own I am not soon tired of watching a clipper who is quick and dexterous, and does not wound the animal, nor yet leave it in a streaky state all over with wasted remnants of wool. He manages the creature as confidently as Rarey does the restless horse; makes it take its proper attitude, begins and ends always at the same point, clears all away, and never has to go back, makes no waste of wool or time, and sets the creature on its legs again before the raw hands have turned their victims. It is pleasant, too, to see the women’s part of the work. My wife considers it a pity that they put on their Sunday clothes for the occasion: and certainly, while there are stock-farmers who advocate a late shearing on the ground that hot weather adds half a pound to the weight of the fleece by “the perspiration of the animal,” it seems fitting that the coarsest dress should be brought into contact with the wool: but not the less does the trim and festive appearance of the girls add to the charms of the scene. They handle the wool, cut away and throw out the dirty and knotty parts, and then roll up the fleece, the cut side outwards, ending with the neck, which serves to bind the parcel round. After all the washing and squeezing and paring away, it is a dirty business at best, as any one will say who has unfolded a fleece in the mill.

Then comes the marking; and all the while observations are made, as every clipper well knows, on the work of the shearers. One is full of pride as his sheep are picked out for their appearance, and their number counted; and another is irritated or ashamed as his victims are pointed at with a giggle, or the bailiff shakes his head at his awkwardness, or the ladies and children pity the wounded animals as they come from his hands. He can only mutter that he should like to see them do it better.

There is more slashing, and some haste even in the best shearers as the sun gets low, and bustle is heard from the barn, and a clatter of knives and forks and plates. Then the idlers begin to look out for the cows—the two cows which are to supply the syllabub. There is not such a show of fashion and finery to frighten the kine as scared the late Duchess of St. Albans’ cow, when her syllabub was spoiled on the Duke’s birthday by the animal’s fret at her blue ribbons and alarm at the grandeur around her. Allured by young ladies in white muslin, holding potatoes before her, and driven from behind, she was in course of time brought up the lawn: but what should make her stay there before the windows? She smashed the splendid old china bowl, overthrew the milker, turned tail, and careered down the lawn, flinging her blue ribbons about in frantic style, and leaving on the grass a too plentiful libation of wine, lemon, sugar, and spices. Our cows are brought up to the barn by their proper dairymaids. The ingredients are in large wooden bowls; and the vanity of the hour is not to let a drop be spilt. For my part, I never could discover the charms of that kind of syllabub, beyond the ideal aspect of its manufacture; but I have quite pleasure enough in seeing it relished by man, woman, and child at the barn supper.

Then we go round, and see that everybody has beef and beer enough; and then we drink everybody’s health, and success to the wool-trade, and so on; and the next day the bare white sheep remind us that we have left behind us one of the annual observances of summer.

The longest day, however, is the gravest memorial of the lapse of the seasons. We let each evening go with reluctance for a week or two before the 21st. The nights are so exquisite that we make the most of them, in preference to the mornings, which we can enjoy as well further on in the year. We are on the water till eleven, and even twelve o’clock; sometimes with the lines set, and somebody on the watch for a bite; sometimes merely floating, to see the twilight creep over the water, after it has dimmed the shores. The sky seems bright in reflection after it has ceased to appear so to the direct gaze; and we watch its sunset lights quite out, and stay for stars below us before we draw to bank. This year we shall have something better than a moonlight walk home. On no other night perhaps could we have anything better than a bright moon chequering the woodland park with dark shadows and white gleams; but on the shortest night we like to observe how short it is. By the tender twilight we thread our way through the copses, and when we come to our own lawn we linger and listen to the owls from their hollow tree, and start at the bats as they flit by us, and hear midnight strike from the church steeple, and observe how faint the stars are, though the moon is far away. This year the moon will be only two days old, and those must be good eyes which will have seen her at all, immediately following the sun. Wherever we look among the dwellings of our neighbours, we discover scarcely any yellow earthly lights. There are none, except in cottages where there is a young infant, or where some nursing of the sick is going on. There is no need of lamps when there is really no night.

Last June we were more than half seduced into a plan for going, some year before long, to the North Cape, or to Tornea at least, to see the sun at midnight. I dare say I shall be reminded of this on the 21st, and I shall not say that we will never go. It may be true, as some friends will be sure to tell us, that the spectacle is “just what you might expect,” as I have known a man say about the Pyramids of Egypt, which took me more thoroughly by surprise than any other of the wonders of the world that I have seen. It may be true, that we can imagine at home every feature of the scene. It may also be true, as our Arctic voyagers tell us, that to people from our zone the sensation of perpetual daylight is fatiguing and unpleasant, so that it becomes almost an illness to the mariner to see the sunshine upon the sails at all hours, while he is longing for darkness and the refreshment of the sleep which belongs to darkness. But still I should like, as my children would, to see for once the unique light of an Arctic midsummer midnight on hills, and sea, and islands. It may be easy to imagine the sun declining to the horizon, and then beginning to travel upwards again; but the precise quality of the light, and the singularity of the sensation, can no more be known at home than the emotion belonging to seeing the green lapse of Niagara into its cauldron, or the blue sharp-cut angles of the shady side of the Pyramids, discerned from fifty miles off. So I should not wonder if we find ourselves on the summit of some Norwegian hill, or the rocky crest of some North Sea island, on some longest day, instead of on our own lawn or the squire’s mere.

If we want to see yellow earthly fires on such a night, we may step over to Ireland for Midsummer Eve. Now and then we hear reports of observances of St. John’s Eve by fires and rites of heathenish aspect in remote parts of England; but Ireland is lighted up by this torch of superstition over whole districts. There lakes reflect the glare of bonfires from mountain-tops, where black groups round the flame answer to the black boats and rowers on the red and yellow waters below. From the mountain-tops the valleys seem to be alight throughout their length; torches are carried from farm to farm, and children are handed through the flames, as if they were little heathens, being “passed through the fire to Moloch.” It is exactly so. The practice is a remnant of Baal worship, permitted by the Romish Church because it could not be extirpated; so the people talk of St. John the Baptist and “Beal” in conjunction, and make charms of St. John’s wort, and suppose the whole thing very Christian.

We are told, that in Cornwall a tall pole, with a bunch of flowers at the top, is set up and kindled on Midsummer Eve; and that in Gloucestershire the superstition lingers in many by-places; and I see by a “Guide to the Lakes” that the same practice is in full operation in that district, under the name of “the Need Fire.” This fire is kindled by rubbing two sticks together, and igniting heaps of rubbish so laid as to produce the greatest quantity of smoke. People come from all the farms round, to kindle torches, and set light to their own piles, in order to drive their cattle through, and thus get rid of “the distemper.” An old Cumberland farmer is said to have driven his wife through after the beasts, saying that he should then be safe from all distempers!

All this sounds very hot and smoky for such a season. It is pleasant to turn to the thought of cool vegetables and fruit, of lettuce and cold lamb, of cucumbers, cherries, and strawberries. Strawberries and cream are welcome morning, noon, and night. We in the country are better off than the Londoners, with their grand resource of ice-creams in the glaring afternoons, and at the dinners which busy men are too much exhausted to enjoy, after long mornings in counting-houses, or the law courts, or the committee-rooms of Parliament. The early mornings are pleasant in London, however, when the sun-blinds are down, and the streets are watered, and flower-girls are displaying their treasures in every street. The evenings are pleasant, too, in the parks, where the noble trees show their stately and graceful forms, and the water looks cool, and the aquatic birds are dabbling and splashing. At night there is a scent of hay from afar, perceptible even in Regent Street, not at all to the delight of such citizens as are subject to “the hay-fever.” Those who are under this liability hasten, at any inconvenience, to Brighton, or any seaside place where no meadow-grass is near.

We hear nothing of any such malady in our part of the country; and not for all the sights at Kew or Chiswick would we give up the sound of the whetting of the scythe in the early morning, or the scent which pervades our dwellings as the dew rises.

The last great treat of the month is the haymaking. Some sad foreboding attends it now. The scythe is more and more superseded by the haymaking machines, which cut the grass and dry it in a day. Even this new and most laudable economy seems likely to grow more rare with the advance of civilisation; for farmers are now discovering that the most wasteful use they can make of their grass is to keep it for hay. They now cut it fresh for stall-feeding, as the most profitable use of it. The next is to graze it as it grows throughout the season; and, while the amount of it limits their stock of cattle, they are sure to find out that to lay it by for winter cannot answer when hay can be brought in any quantity from abroad, and the materials for the winter feeding of stock are multiplying year by year. A sensible farmer of North Carolina has made himself the object of persecution by the whole body of American slaveholders, by his publication of the striking fact (among many which prove the bad economy of slave labour), that the hay crop alone of the free States exceeds in value the total production of the Southern States—cotton, tobacco, sugar, and everything else that is grown there. The wheat, corn, timber, and manufactures of the free States are all so much surplus over the natural wealth of the Slave States, which is overbalanced by the hay of the North alone. This discovery is the immediate occasion of the revolution now proceeding in the United States, where the organisation of Congress was last winter made to turn on the aid given to the circulation of Mr. Helper’s book, in which this discovery of the relative wealth of the free and the slave States was published two years ago. The attempt was to exclude from the Speakership in Congress any public man who had assisted in the propagation of Mr. Helper’s book, “The Impending Crisis of the South;” and it was the discussion of a resolution to that effect which delayed the appointment of a Speaker for nearly three months of the Session. The anti-slavery party won the day; and it will be strange if our stock-farmers do not now make the most of their grass in its season, and buy from America for winter food; and if our farmers of all orders do not increase their live-stock under this great resource, so as to augment our supply of animal food, till every household in Great Britain has its daily dinner of meat.

Meantime, in our rural districts these things are only beginning to be known. We still hear the mower in the early morning, and give ourselves a holiday on haymaking days, though the machines come nearer to us every season.

We are wondering what will become of the complacency of the squire’s Norfolk labourer, Burkitt, when he is pushed aside by new-fangled ways of making the hay all in one day. He lords it over us all at that particular season, as he tries to do the whole year round. He thinks the Eastern Counties entitled to dictate to the rest of the kingdom in the matter of hay, as of turnips. According to him, it is the order of Nature that the smallest quantity of hay should occupy four days in the making in the best weather, and he has his rules for the disposition of it on each day; so that if we take our own way about any handful of it, he predicts ruin to the squire’s crop at the hands of his neighbours. When the squire himself gave little rakes to my children of five and seven years old, that they might “help” in the field, this consequential gentleman took them away: and, when desired to restore them to the crying children, declared that he washed his hands of the whole business. When the children are protected in making cocks and tumbling in them, he turns upon the lads and lasses whom he may venture to scold, and makes himself as detested as the King of Naples. His victims laugh, mimic him, and, when we gentry are near, defy him; but they hate him very cordially. His efforts to be polite to young ladies who come in and take up a rake are droll enough. On a hot day last June he entreated one group of them “not to muddle themselves.” Not being from the Eastern Counties, these young ladies supposed “muddle” to mean “fuddle,” and took his anxiety about their fatigues to be an admonition to keep their hands off the beer-cans. One way of pleasing him is to pick out the weeds from the rows; and he will no doubt tolerate even my little Harry if he sees him with a sheaf of oxeye daisies in his arms.

Well! we will not trouble poor Burkitt, nor ourselves either, in the hay-field with the progress of civilisation and the benefits of free trade, but go on working and playing among the grass as if haymaking were an immortal institution in England. But, whenever we see the business done by machinery, and follow the eddies of grass drying by perpetual motion, we shall perhaps observe that we certainly did always get a headache after half-an-hour’s work with the rake, and that perhaps Burkitt was not altogether wrong in considering our help worth very little, and our presence among the workers rather a nuisance.

There is one other busy day in the month, and that is Quarter-Day. In towns, and some prosperous rural districts, it is simply a day of what Burkitt would call “muddle”—a day of fatigue, heat, and dust, in removing to a new dwelling. We see carts pass, piled up with tables and chairs and bedding, and women and children carrying light weights of domestic utensils and ornaments. We see how heated and worried they look, and remark that even that is better than removing in the short days, and through the snow and mud of Christmas. But there are parts of the country where quarter-day means more than this, where sales of furniture abound when removals are going on. In those primitive districts people are not apt to be very prosperous, and they are apt to drink and get into debt when they are not prospering. To be “sold up” is the natural consequence, and sales are almost as much a matter of course as quarter-day. There is the auctioneer’s voice, and the tap of his hammer, as he stands on a table on the green, or under some spreading tree. There are the rows of housewives and gossips on benches, sometimes buying very bad bargains, and always held by enchantment the long day through. There are the gentry—young ladies and their brothers, or old gentlemen—stopping their horses as they ride past, to speak to some acquaintance, or to see how much some imaginative person will give for an article not worth anything. There are the trays, handed round, with little glasses of gin or rum, which are always emptied. There, finally, when the sale closes, are tipsy fellows, beginning to quarrel, and led apart by their wives, who have themselves had quite enough beer or worse. Everybody knows what will follow. In a few days a petition will be going round the place, asking subscriptions to set up with tools, or in a farm or shop, the destitute man or widow who has been “sold up.”

There are pleasanter spectacles than this in the high summer tide: but we must not overlook the drawbacks of either the natural or the social season. We must hope that while seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, day and night shall never cease, but wheel round with eternal regularity, men will by degrees outgrow their ignorance and folly, and keep a steady progress onward.