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

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Illustrated by Thomas Robert Macquoid


May (OAW).png

We do not live in a part of the country where antique customs are still kept up on Mayday: so I have had my homage of the day pretty nearly to myself for some years past.

There was a time when my wife and I were still almost boy and girl, when we observed every festival that led us out into the country, at any season: but the extreme early rising of Mayday would give the busy and tired mamma a headache, and spoil the whole day for more than herself,—so I have been accustomed to go forth alone in the dawn, when the month of May is three hours old. I had observed, the night before, that others than myself had been watching the barometer; and when I crept quietly down stairs in the dim light, I found the hall door unfastened, and my daughter Jane waiting for me in the porch. It was a pleasant surprise to begin with. Bell had intended to make a third: but she was too sleepy when the time came. In the olden days, when doors were fastened with a latch, she would have been made a prisoner, with a nail driven in above the latch. Such was the fate of sleepy maidens on May-mornings,—to be shut in till their brisker acquaintances came back from their Maying.

As we went along under the hedgerows towards the pasture-fields, we thought of all the people we knew who were keeping May anywhere. They are not many now; but there are a few old-fashioned places in England in which there are still traces of old Roman observances: and the flowery festival of Mayday is one of these. Hoops and triangles are covered with flowers which must be still in the dew; and when they are hung up in public they make the day one long game at ball, every boy, and almost every passenger, trying to throw a ball over the garland, and catch it on the other side. Then, in Catholic countries abroad, there are worshippers in the dim, chilly churches at this hour, celebrating acts of grace and glory which signalise the day. In Ireland, there are whole districts where the inhabitants have their heads full of the pranks of the fairies on May-eve, in dread of the evil-eye; and there is perhaps never a Mayday which does not break on some watcher in the woods around Killarney, looking for the apparition of O’Donoghue flitting across the lake. In the calmest moment, when the lake is like glass, a great wave suddenly rises, and behind it appears the armed rider, plumed and scarfed, and his helmet glittering in the morning light, as he guides his horse right across the lake. We, however, had no rare sights to see. We wanted to hear the loudest clamour of birds; and that is to be heard in the open country at daybreak in May. We wanted to get among the flowers where they are most profuse: and the place in which to look for them is the meadow by the river side. There might be more in two or three weeks; but the grass would then be either so tall as to hide the blossoms, or the wild-flowers would have been in part cropped with the grass; for the kine would soon be all abroad in the meadows,—calves and all.

For a mile through the lanes we had met nobody; but, as we came near Widow Wilson’s farm-yard, we found that some people were up as early as we. The dash and hiss of the milk in the pail was audible in the road; and the cows were already proceeding in a line to the meadows after being milked. We turned in, and found the milkmaids (for the widow still commits the task to female hands) filling their last pails; and we could not but go a little further and see what the produce of five-and-forty cows looked like.

What an ocean of milk it was,—the mixture of the past night’s and this morning’s! What a moist place was the cheese-making room, though the morning sun shone in warm, and lighted up every damp brick in the paved floor, and every flake of curd in the great tubs! The widow was there helping; for the supply of milk was now increasing daily, she said, and she must make cheese while the grass grew thick. We saw the curd set, and accepted a draught of whey; and then we were off towards the meadows again, taking a short cut through the widow’s garden and paddock.

As soon as the gate of the paddock was shut behind us, we found ourselves ankle-deep in herbage and buttercups, crowfoot and daisies, and dandelions, and all the meadow-blossoms of the spring,—even columbines growing in the dryest places, and by the river side the buckbean and water-violet, and in places the yellow iris, and long margins of flowering water-grasses. Our shadows stretched like prostrate obelisks before us, as the still low sun struck on us warm from behind: and if Jane had come out for May-dew, this was the place, for almost every spear of grass bore its diamond. If she did not collect the dew, she gathered the flowers by handfuls. There was a full chorus of birds; for we had both those of the furrow and the pasture, and of the hedgerows and woods. From one direction the breeze brought the coo of the woodpigeon, and from another the call of the cuckoo in the trees in the avenue; while the larks sprang up all round us, and the sedge warbler was in the clump by the river, and the reed warbler was somewhere about the banks. The rooks were in full caw from the park, and the thrushes from the hedgerow trees. Jane had never heard anything like this before, for she had never been out so early at the same season. The woods at a later hour were full of music; but the merry din of a May-sunrise is something much more lively.

We had been seeing the sulphur butterfly for some time: but now we met with other kinds. A handsome tortoiseshell opened and shut its wings on a tall rush; and two little white ones chased each other over the cowslips.

On we went from field to field, intending to return by the sunny side of the park woods: but as we proceeded, we saw a symptom of danger to the widow’s beautiful pastures which sent us back by nearly the same way, that we might warn her, if she was unaware, how fast the herbage was failing. The cows had been so lately turned out into the fields that we could see very well what was growing there. The buttercups were in inordinate quantity, and so were the dandelions: but we were more sorry to observe the spread of the ox-eye daisy. The acrid buttercups, and the choking stalks of the ox-eyes were excluding just so much sweet herbage: and where ox-eyes and ragwort and other pernicious weeds grow unchecked, they soon infest the whole country round.

We found the widow aware, to some extent, of the mischief: but what could she do? “Ill weeds grew apace,” as everybody knew; and who could help it? I told her what I had seen in another county last June; a mail-road bordered by pastures which for fifteen miles were ruined, or fast going to ruin, from the prevalence of this very pest, the ox-eye daisy. Whole fields contained actually nothing else; and others were powdered thick with it. In one large meadow I saw heaps of something white dotting the whole surface; and I supposed the pasture was going to be limed: but as I passed it, I saw that the mowers were in it, and that these heaps were hay-cocks, so called,—but containing perhaps a tenth part of grass to nine parts of ox-eye daisies.

Mrs. Wilson was evidently shocked at this; and she wanted to know what could be done. All I could tell her was, that I had seen a man wading through his tall meadow-grass when it was more than kneedeep, to pull up an ox-eye daisy here and there, rather than let it go to seed. The damage to the grass was a trifle in comparison, he said, to the danger of the spread of the weed. He had hard work to keep it down, while his neighbours let it grow freely on their land; but wife and children cut it up by the roots every spring, and found it answer. Where it has usurped the whole soil, there is nothing to be done but to root up and burn the whole surface; and every day’s delay is a wrong done to the country round. I was sorry to carry bad news among the cheese tubs: but the widow thanked me, wished she had sooner known the worst, and must see what could be done. There was no trusting the herdsmen in such matters. They insisted that buttercups made the cream rich; and that the stiff stalks of the worst weeds were better for the cows than grass itself.

We had no longer the lanes to ourselves on the way home. The boys were out bird-nesting for an hour or two before school; and some were peeping into every hedge, while one or another might be seen in a tree within the belt of wood which surrounded the park. Of course they met with abundant success; for an experienced practitioner like myself and these boys could not go five yards among the trees without seeing a nest on or within the trunk, or on some bough. It was too early for nestlings; but we were shown more than one cap-full of speckled eggs, blue, brown, pink, and white. Then, as we turned a reach of the river, we saw a gay group below among the willows. They were the renters of the osier bed which lies in that bend of the stream; and they were going to have a day of osier peeling. Women and children, in red and blue, looked well among the sallows; and there was a little faggot of peeled rods already.

Perhaps it might be their husbands and fathers that we heard at work in the woods above, and could see at intervals. They were barking the oaks and larches that we saw last week marked for that method of destruction. It is a somewhat dreary sight—the bare, shining, yellow tree, in its flayed condition lying prostrate, with its sprays full of swollen buds: but it is a process that I can never help watching. Many an hour have I spent in seeing the bark removed, and set up in rows in the woods, and in helping to make larch poles, or faggots from the small boughs of the oaks. I would fain have stepped up to the wood now, to see what was doing; but we were really so hungry that breakfast was more important than the most picturesque group in the fleckered sunshine of the wood.

Just in the climax of our hunger, near our own door, we met our carpenter, who is a great lover of sport, with a basket which we knew so well that we guessed at once what was in it—fish of some kind.

“Eels, most likely,” Jane thought. My hope was that it might be tench or perch; but it was something better—even trout! Here was the first offer of trout this season, and I could not reject it. I should soon be providing our table with trout once a day, at least, Sundays excepted; but I had not thought of beginning yet; and the boys would be jealous if I did not keep the freshness of the year’s sport for them in their Whitsuntide holidays. So we would condescend to eat trout of other folks’ catching at present; and the carpenter was sent on to order a dish of his speckled prey to be got ready for our May-day breakfast.

It was a luxurious breakfast certainly—the sunshine and still air justifying our sitting with the glass-door open to the garden. The laburnum on one side cast its small waving shadows on the carpet, and the rich scent of the lilacs floated in. The white globes of the Guelder-rose hung over the grass; and the great wild-cherry on the green slope looked as if it had been powdered over with blossom. A bright golden line under the garden wall, and golden patches about the rockery, showed that the punctual yellow poppies were in full blow. The pale pæony made a good contrast with them, and the deep-coloured one would soon make a better.

The little thicket of rhododendrons, intermixed in front with graceful azaleas, pink and maize coloured, would be the grand show of the garden through the month: but we were just as fond of some old friends among the flowers with whom we had been intimate before our grand new acquaintances, from east, west, and south, had condescended to make themselves at home in middle-class gardens. We hailed the first honeysuckle which nodded to us from the porch the other day, just as heartily as if we had not beautiful climbers from the whole range between California and Japan, running a race up to my chimney-tops. Nobody can be more thankful than we are for the treasures which have been brought to England from all the gardens of the world; but, if they were all to die off in one night, I could be still content with our great honeysuckle on the porch, and with the mingled scent which is, to my sense, unmatched—that of the brier-rose and clematis growing close together. We have not got them yet: but we shall see some of our climbing roses shining forth from the ivy before the month is up. Meantime, we have still plenty of wall-flowers: and the stock gillyflowers, and star of Bethlehem, and star of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s seal, and bachelor’s button, and yellow lily, and monkshood, with some remaining tulips, and an early poppy or two, will carry us on till the full rose season. Our lily-of-the-valley is always spoken of by us apart from the crowd of common flowers. We have a shady place for it—a bed of leaves in a moist nook, where it flourishes as finely as in its own islet in the river: and some morning soon, I doubt not, I shall find beside my plate at breakfast a half-blown spike lying within its pair of cool leaves, and just sending forth its first faint perfume.

Our breakfast—trout, eggs, early grass butter, thick cream, radishes, flowers with their buzzing bees and stealing fragrance—must come to an end at last. But the morning was not like ordinary mornings. We could not feel it to be a common working-day. In the afternoon we would have a long stroll. During the morning there was a good deal of basking on the lawn, loitering in the orchard to admire the last of the blossoming, and watch how the fruit was setting, and close up any loose clay about the grafts, and make war against a host of insects.

Little Harry must have his Mayday early, as he could not join in our long walks. It was an old promise that he should have a cowslip ball when the season came round. The cook had hinted at cowslip-wine, and the nursemaid at cowslip-tea. I forbade the wine, and consigned the tea project to those who might like to drink it; but the hall was unexceptionable. Mamma and Bell went down into the meadows with the child, and Jane and I saw no more of them for some hours.

They had been well entertained. They had seen the water-meadows irrigated for the first time this season; the sluice opened at the top of the gentle ascent, and the little streams glistening in their tiny channels, as they flowed down to the drain below.

They saw the Squire’s bailiff measuring and marking, with his assistants, at different places between the higher and the lower grounds. There was to be more draining, and more irrigating; and the appearance of the natural springs, showing themselves after the rains in winter, had been carefully noted, in order to utilise them in the new works.

Harry seldom had one indulgence without its leading to another. He came home full of mamma’s promise that, when the glow-worms came, which would be within this month, he should sit up late, to go and see them in the lanes. We were to hear the nightingale on the same occasion, if possible. Harry might also see a bat, and feel a cockchafer knock against his face; and perhaps catch under a tumbler some of the beautiful moths which were already beginning to find their way in at night, and whirl and hover round the lamp. What living creature is there more beautiful than some of those moths, of whose life the main idea seems to be burning themselves to death!

Jane and I got out the telescope, for its service of the year,—its use on every fine day till the days should be too short and dim. By it we overlook the hill range as if we lived upon it. This was just the day for finding out what had happened since we last looked, in the October shooting season. The stackyards seemed to be perfectly empty now. The farmyards were in course of clearing and cleaning, evidently, from the carting of manure, and other tokens. As the eye wandered over the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of the range, it met with several groups of spring labourers,—men and women setting potatoes in a field; lads mowing grass.

“Mowing grass!” exclaimed Jane. “Cutting the grass in May?”

Even so; but it was not for hay, of course. At that hill-farm there is a good deal of stall-feeding; and the cows are not permitted to spoil the pastures with perpetual grazing. The farmer told me that to make hay was the most wasteful use of his pastures; and next, to graze them. He obtained from twice to three times the amount of produce out of them by cutting the grass for stall-feeding, as by the other ordinary methods; so here were the farm lads mowing in May.

After watching another group, and plainly seeing every stroke of work they did by the vivid sunlight, I called Jane to observe what would be the probable fate of Widow Wilson’s weedy pastures. Jane saw, but could not clearly understand, except that something was burning. There was only a thin, blue smoke, and an occasional spark of fire; but a careful kind of burning it clearly was. The men had a bad pasture in hand,—mossy, or more likely, heathery; for the gorse and broom were resplendent beyond the fences. The work was that of paring and burning. The long, serpentine lines of sods (twisted, in order to stand better) had been pared some time before, and were drying; more were being brought up from the plough, which we traced by its white horse when the dark one could not be followed; and at the top of the enclosure a boy was spreading the ashes from the heaps which had burned out.

“Must the gay meadow that we saw this morning be bleak and bare, like that?” asked Jane.

“I fear so, unless the most pestilent weeds can be got rid of by a desperate effort at once. We must take this matter of weeds more to heart before we can boast of ourselves as a model agricultural nation. Before the month is out we shall be seeing all the village children blowing dandelion heads for a match, just as Harry would do here if we would let him. It is a pretty play; and I don’t like stopping any play; but one must not let the winged seeds of obstinate weeds be sent floating in all directions in mere sport.”

We took our stroll before sunset because the spring woods are most beautiful in the fullest light, as at midsummer the dimmest hour is the sweetest. In May there are strong lights in the very thickets, from the thinness and translucency of the foliage. The forms of the trees and the colouring of their bark, and the mosses and ferns it bears, are as distinct as in winter in the checkered glow; while the young foliage affords a thousand tents of green light for birds, bees, and butterflies. We peeped up into these canopies as we went: we found the brambles blossoming below, and blackthorn already whitening in the banks, reminding us of the coming treat of the hawthorn clumps and hedges. We hunted for orchids in a very successful way. We walked along the chesnut avenue, and calculated that its noble flowering would be in its prime when the boys came home for Whitsuntide. We declared the gold-green of the oaks, intermixed with dark firs, the most splendid foliage of all,—notwithstanding the autumn crimsons, yellows, and scarlets which appear in sheltered nooks of a hill country. We anxiously compared the oak and the ash, under all aspects, as the prospects of the summer are popularly believed to depend on which comes into leaf first. We joyfully agreed that the oaks will certainly be out first.

In the park, we found the keeper announcing his decisions about the deer;—as to which of the bucks should be fattened for the table, as he had not taken enough for his master’s hospitality and friendships. There would be some killing in a few days, he told us, and possibly some of the inferior joints would be consigned to the butcher for sale. Venison was never more costly, the long and hard winter having exhausted the fodder, and left the deer in the poorest plight.

We hoped the other dainties of the season would abound, to console great men’s hearts in London;—the turtle, the salmon, sturgeon, lobsters, and turbot; and the spring geese, and all good things that cooks and corporations can tell of. Meantime, we cared more to see the deer peeping over the knolls, and stealing out from among the ferns, or scampering across a sunny slope, than to taste the finest haunch. We longed more for the first swallow (about which a domestic wager was depending), the first swarm of bees, the first bathing expedition, the evening row on the still mere, with our lines set for pike, and the moonlight float on its surface, listening to the nightingale till midnight; or, if it would not favour us, making out with our own songs, though rather shy about singing, because the sound is carried so far, and so perfectly, over still water.

These pleasures, and rook-shooting, and angling expeditions for the boys, and pony-rides and rowing-matches without end, and attendance upon the rifle-drill on the common, which would become a regular evening amusement during the four months of longest days, seemed to afford a goodly prospect for the Whitsuntide holiday. The bailiff, who has a privilege of advising his neighbours, agrees, except in the particular of bathing.

He tells us—

They who bathe in May
Will soon be laid in clay:
They who bathe in June
Will sing a merry tune.

We agree, however, that all depends on the season; and prudent people may, for that matter, bathe without catching cold in every month in the year, if their skins are more familiar with water than most people’s were when that old rhyme was made. Some other old rhymes are perhaps truer: as—

<poem> A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spune;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

We must cherish our garden-plots, then, and hope that the lime-flowers will abound on the lawn, and the thyme in the kitchen-garden, and the wild flowers on the moorland, that our hives may be full, and all ready for the first swarm when the boys come home.