Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The months: January

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV (1860-1861)
The months—January
by Harriet Martineau


What would not my boys give for the acquaintance of a weather-prophet? There are three kinds of Januaries; and the pleasures of schoolboys’ holidays depend more on which of the three we are to have than on any other general condition whatever.

There is the mild spring-like January, sure to be partly occupied with rain, but pleasant, in its way, for the rest of the time. The days then begin with a soft yellow sunshine, tempting us to long walks, during which we say, one after another, how like spring it is. We hear the wren and the titmouse singing in the hedges, and see the linnets swarming about the bushes, and the larks in flocks in the stubble fields. The grubs are all out on such days, feeding on the springing corn, and on the green part of any roots left on the soil. The worms come out and go in in the pastures, and on the sides of ditches. The missel-thrush whistles; the blackbird shows himself in picking up his full meal among the creatures which the noon warmth brings out. The nuthatch chatters, and the robin enjoys himself among the remaining berries in the hedges, though less important than usual, because so many other birds are abroad. The kingfisher exhibits a bit of gay colour above the brook, and is gone before we have seen half enough of him. The gnats go on with their mazy dance above the water, without caring for us. The pastures do not look very green; but there are horses gallopping in them, to stretch their limbs; and the calves are let out in the middle of the day. If there is a bit of grass in better condition than the rest, the ewes, big with young, are getting a bite there, in a quiet way. We hear the ploughman giving his orders to his horses on the other side the fence, or we see him and his team moving slowly along the hill-side, and leaving a track of brown fallow behind them. Here and there a dilatory cultivator is still sowing his wheat.

On the hedge banks the grass is dank and shabby; but there is chickweed in blossom, and the clusters of primrose leaves, among the roots of the hedgerow timber, look firm and healthy; and here and there we find a bud or flower,—very pale, and rather wet, and generally torn or imperfect; and then we agree that we had rather wait till March at least for primroses. The coltsfoot is in flower, and the winter aconite: and the early moss shows brilliantly green beside the draggled and faded grass. The hazels show their young catkins; and the buds on the honeysuckles are full, and even green. One can scarcely tell the colour of the sky, it is so veiled with yellow haze from the sunshine: but, if we stay out long enough to see the sun go down, the eastern sky shows the palest blue, and the western the palest green of the year. The evening star comes out almost the moment the sun has disappeared; and its mild lustre is as beautiful as on a summer night. When the bat flits before our faces, the boys again observe that we are having no winter, and that they do not believe they shall have their skates on once during the whole holidays.

This weather, with its south-west wind, is pleasant in its way; but it is not the seasonable January that we like best; and we are obliged to remember that the cold weather will come after the boys are gone back to school; or, if it does not come at all, it will be a bad thing for the year and its crops. The soil will miss the frost, and there will be a world of trouble with vermin.

We relish sunshine, to begin with, on a proper January day; but we like it to light up a very different scene. There should be a thick natural blind of white frostwork on the window-panes,—so thick that Harry has to breathe himself out of breath before he can make a space large enough to see out of; and then, the spikes of ice close it in again in a few minutes. His sisters look anxiously to their flower-stands behind the drawing-room curtains, lest the hyacinths and primulas should have suffered from being near the window. If it is as cold to-night, they will put the curtains between the flower-stands and the windows. We see the gardener visiting his cabbage-beds, as soon as it is light, to see how his vegetables get on without any covering of snow. He did hope, as he told me last week, that the snow would come before the frost; but it has not. He makes up his notion of the benefits of snow from the two applications of the word starve. People are starved with hunger and also with cold; and, as snow protects plants from cold, he supposes it protects them from hunger, and insists that snow is the most “nourishing” thing for them that can be. He is therefore only half satisfied with our doings when we cover rows of vegetables with spruce boughs or straw. It is better than nothing, he admits; but it does not “nourish” like snow.

The boys were out before it was light, throwing down the first hot water of the day on the great slide in the yard, where there is a convenient corner for the purpose, admitting of an ample career. As they have this and sundry other opportunities among the ditches of the neighbourhood, as well as on the park mere, I expect them to help me in chipping up and cinder-strewing any slides which may appear on the causeway, or in the road, where elderly people, and children, and horsemen, and carts will be passing all day. The housemaid is busy rubbing off every speck of rust from every pair of skates in the house. In spite of the bitter north-east wind, we have to bear the breakfast-room window open for a time, that Harry may attend to his pensioners, the birds, who can get nothing out of the iron soil on such a day. He is so bent on giving them some of his own bread and milk, that we let him try; and he soon perceives that dry bread crumbs are better, as the spoonful of bread and milk is immediately frozen into a lump, which the birds cannot manage. He finds the chaffinches rather rude to the robins, and the sparrows pert as usual; but the two blackbirds are really tyrannical. He wants to send them away till the others have had their fill, if that could be done without putting the whole levée to flight. We advise him to lay out a good handful, and shut the window, leaving the creatures to settle their own affairs. Being assured that blackbirds, like other creatures, stop eating when they have had enough, he consents: but he stands watching; and we know, by the impatient tap on the pane, when the blackbirds are there again.

Fishes have their claims as well as birds, he admits; and when his brothers are going to make an air-hole in the pond, he goes with them, lending his little help to batter the ice with the iron bar which he could not lift. How the fish can live in such a cold place is past his comprehension; but, if the frost last long enough, he will see them so far alive as to come to the hole to be fed. We promise to try to show him something more wonderful. There are leeches in the pools on the moor; and if we can find a shallow pool, frozen completely through, we shall find leeches inclosed in the ice, like flies in amber: and if gradually thawed, they will exhibit a very good state of health. He is impatient to be off to the moor; but his father and brothers must have their two hours’ skating first. He is to help the gardener now, and next say his lessons; and then we will all go together for a long walk on the moor.

The gardener supposes, as regularly as such a frost comes round, that we shall soon be hearing of the market gardeners “down there” (near London) making a show of themselves,—walking in procession, with a bunch of black vegetables dangling from a pole for a banner—to beg charity. He “don’t like the idea of those frozen-out gardeners; for, if they knew their business, there is plenty for them to do, in frost as at other times.” Their ground ought to be trenched before, to benefit by the frost, and the fruit-trees dug round; and then there is the forking and breaking the surface in the noon hours, whenever the soil is soft enough; and the spreading the manure: and there is much time required in seeing that there is warmth enough everywhere in the greenhouses, and the pits and the frames; and the airing of everything at proper times;—quite enough, all these together, to fill up the short days. He is sorry for them when hailstones demolish their greenhouses and frames; but they might deal with such a thing as frost without humbling themselves to beg. It is impossible to convey to him what the scope and character of market gardening for a metropolis are, and what the peculiarities of demand for vegetables are in the midst of a London winter; and he is therefore hardly aware of his own advantages in a position where, happen what may, he cannot be frozen out of home and bread, and into debt and hunger, or the workhouse.

The skating company on the mere is much like every other skating company on every lake or large pond in the country. There are the ladies in chairs on runners, wrapped in furs, and propelled by husbands or brothers over all the smooth parts of the surface. It is wonderful how they can bear sitting still, or facing such a north-east wind. General Jackson,—not the most jocose of American Presidents,—advised a foreign lady not to take the trouble to go sleighing on a New England winter day. He could tell her how to do the thing without leaving the premises. She had only to sit still in the porch, with her feet in a tub of ice, with an attendant at each side, to ring a bell at one ear, and blow the bellows into the other. He omitted the considerations of the landscape, the rapid motion, the merry companionship, and the difference between the dinner-bell and the musical tinkle of harness bells. But in our park, the ladies on foot have all the advantages of the occasion, except the gliding motion of the ice-chair, while exercise is requisite to enable them to bear the keenness of the wind. After having seen what everybody could do, from the squire’s sons who skated geometrical figures, to the cottager’s little one who could tumble down and get up again without crying, we finally start on a brisk march to the moor.

As we leave the concourse in the park behind us, we remark the sharpness of every sound. The shout and the laugh from the throng, the striking of the church clock, the crack of the waggoner’s whip,—all have a metallic tone which is peculiar to such a temperature. Some customary sounds are absent, too. The mill is stopped, we see as we pass. Prodigious icicles are hanging from the water-wheel. Everything that should wave and wag in the air is still. Every twig is encased in ice; and even the hips and haws that remain shine red through glass. If we switch the hedge as we pass, we send a shower of shivered ice down to the ditch, and the birds rush away, frightened at the clatter. The cattle seem to be the most perplexed. Surely they must have had drink given them at home; yet some are snuffing about the pond in the field where the blue surface looks like very still water. Their breath wreathes along the surface; their noses flinch from the cold; but they try again, and then look round them with a pathetic low of complaint. Off scamper Ned and Charley to break the edge for them; and we are half a mile forward before they overtake us.

They find us talking of a frost-music, which I consider the most moving of all Nature’s melodies. I was once belated in Canada, on a fine winter day, and was riding over the hard snow on the margin of a wide lake, when the most faint and mournful wail that could break a solemn silence seemed to pass through me like a dream. I stopped my horse and listened. For some time I could not satisfy myself whether the music was in the air or in my own brain. I thought of the pine forest, which was not far off: but the tone was not harp-like; and there was not a breath of wind. Then it swelled and approached; and then it seemed to be miles away in a moment; and again it moaned, as if under my very feet. It was, in fact, almost under my feet. It was the voice of the winds imprisoned under the pall of ice suddenly cast over them by the peremptory power of the frost. Nobody there had made air holes, for the place was a wilderness; and there was no escape for the winds, which must moan on till the spring warmth should release them. They were fastened down in silence; but they would come out with an explosion when, in some still night, after a warm spring day, the ice would blow up, and make a crash and a racket from shore to shore. So I was told at my host’s that evening, where I arrived with something of the sensation of a haunted man. It had been some time before the true idea struck me; and meanwhile the rising and falling moan made my very heart thrill again.

After this, everybody wants to listen at the pools on the moor; but even our most rapid frosts falling on our broadest sheets of water, cannot produce that Canadian music. There is always some margin or chink left, and the freezing process is more gradual. So the lads all propose to go to Canada, by-and-bye.

We find a pool that harbours leeches; and we obtain two or three leeches preserved in ice. They are packed in ice and moss, to try their fate in Harry’s hands. There is still some running water, we find,—the little spring-head that I have never seen stopped; and there we find wagtails still hopping about and balancing themselves on the slippery stones.

If we could spend twenty-four hours here, and see without being seen, we might get a view of almost every living creature that dwells within a wide circuit;—of all, I mean, who must drink to live. To such a runnel as this, not only do all the birds of the woods, and the hedges, and the furrows, and the reeds come to drink; not only these and the cattle and sheep and dogs, but the wild creatures from the earth, and the water, and the air;—all that are not in their winter sleep, or kept at home by man, resort to the running waters last spared by the frost. Hence, as my wife reminds us, the gifts of woodcocks and snipes that come in after some continuance of seasonable weather in January; and hence also, the girls add, the influx of pet birds, and dead and dying birds, into all the cottages round in a sharp midwinter.

The country-boys, whose proper work is stopped by the frost, turn sportsmen in their way. They lie in ambush with net or sieve near such a spring-head as this, and clap their apparatus down upon their victims. It is almost a relief to hear of bird-pies, at such a time, instead of seeing the little prisoners die off from mismanagement. Certainly, if we enjoy lark puddings, other people may relish pies of other small birds; but, on the whole, one would rather the whole company of little birds were left to try their chance of getting through the winter. We, at all events, shall let them sip at their spring, and go and come in peace.

This bitter cold weather is the time for the wild creatures to show themselves boldly. We have not to tremble within our own doors at the howling of the wolf, as many inhabitants of foreign countries have. There the mountaineer, or the farmer among the moors, or, as now in Virginia, the settler among lapsed plantations, hears the wild howl from the rock or the waste, and knows that the creature is savage with hunger. We have not to fear for our own throats, when out in such nights, but we have to keep a keen watch over our young animals, and especially the poultry. Foxes, weasels, strange dogs and cats intrude themselves in such seasons when their various kinds of prey are in hiding. The pullets have begun to lay; and their eggs are very tempting to their enemies.

The turn of the thieves comes when the snow has fallen. Every track and tread is known; and no creature in hiding, if not winged, can escape, after going abroad over new-fallen snow. Every hollow in a tree or a hedge, every refuge in a stack, or a drain, or a cluster of rocks, is discovered and routed out. The rat-catcher is summoned with his dogs and other apparatus: and a farmer should be a good-humoured man, to look on while the vermin is driven out of his stacks and barns. It is enough to make a man cross to see how much of his hard-won produce has gone to feed and fatten a barrow-load of foul thieves like these. He makes a great clearance of them now that the chief part of the mischief is done.

He cannot find in his heart to stop the compensating process—that of obtaining game by tracking in the snow—though the law forbids the practice, in fear of the extirpation of the races. Hares and rabbits are seen on more tables than at any other time of year. The deer are kept within hail by making them comfortable within certain limits. There is food strewn for them in the most sheltered wood-paths: and the keepers pass from stack to stack of the fodder laid up at regular stations, forking out the food, and seeing that the cisterns are neither empty nor frozen.

We have seldom to wait long for the snow when the weather is so cold as I have said. As we descend from the moor, we see the sky becoming dark and heavy to windward,—the air seeming to thicken there from minute to minute. Nobody is very sorry that snow is coming, though some would perhaps put it off for just a very few days, for the better prosecution of skating. Not a few wish the snow had come before the hard frost. Here it is, however, sure to do much good.

Yet, it appears to me, there is some admixture of undefined dread in many minds with the welcome given to a genuine snowfall. The question is, when will it stop? This is the question, spoken or suppressed, uppermost in the minds of dwellers among hills, or in the north country.

This is the occasion on which we have to learn to go without news, to wait for our letters, to undergo the inconveniences of non-intercourse beyond our own parish. On looking out in the morning, we find as much snow piled up as window-sill and ledges will support; and the sashes must be opened at top. Man and boy are everywhere sweeping tracks to coal-sheds, dairies, and entrance gates. There is no post at breakfast. After breakfast every householder goes out upon his roof, with assistants, and clears the gutters, and throws over all the snow he can reach into the middle of the road or street, before the traffic of the day begins.

In quiet country places it takes a few days’ treading to make the snow-paths pleasant for walking: and if the fall is renewed, those who are able to stay at home do not think of stirring abroad. This is all very well for people who are under no particular anxiety, and who have warm and pleasant homes, and plenty to do and to think about; but the case is a very trying one to lonely dwellers in rural districts, and to travellers and their families. My wife says her mother never got over the impression of the great snow of 1814, when the children were too young to know anything more than that something terrible was apprehended. Their father was on a journey in the north, on business; and he was not heard from for three weeks. At last, fourteen horses dragged the mail-bags through one snow-drift, in Northumberland, of miles in length, and sixteen horses through another in Yorkshire, longer still; and a handful of letters arrived at once. In the interval the mamma was crying; the confidential maid was crying; the snow filled up the window-panes so that the children could not see out; and it was impossible for them to attempt a walk. The sky was leaden-coloured. There was silence in the parlour: and in the kitchen there was a dreary chill, from the snow being set to melt within the fender. Dim notions of their father being all alone in the snow, haunted them, or of his being lost on a wild moor. No wonder their mother looked grave through life, when a heavy snowfall was coming down.

In a lone house, I have known a young couple snowed up on the only night of the year when their only servant was absent. She was on a visit, and was to return the next morning. It was so dark that master and mistress overslept themselves. They heard nobody stirring, and no hot water appeared. When they found how late it was, there was no fire, nor any means of making one. The master doubted about reaching the coal-house; for the snow was piled higher than the house door. He tunnelled a way through, and, after a world of trouble, they got a fire and tea There was very little food in the house, as the servant was to bring a supply. They could do nothing but wait; and the sensation was of being stifled, as they were nearly enclosed in a snow hive. The butcher’s man, in the middle of the day, observed the state of affairs, and found the maid crying desperately, at the nearest point of approach. She was soon restored to her kitchen and her duties: but the little household naturally watched the snow clouds very closely from that time forward.

Far worse is the trial at the upland grazing farm. It is a troublesome day to the women in all old-fashioned farmhouses, for the men are driven indoors, and they are sadly in the way. They close in round the fire: and if they do not get to disputing and being rude, they go to sleep, or drawl, and prose in the tiresome manner of their kind. Too often they drink. A very narrow sort of people are out of their place, in short; and they are disagreeable. But it is a dreadful time if any one of them is missing, or if there is reason to fear for the stock. The farmer himself, the shepherd, and any who will go, turn out into the falling snow, with tools and food, and lanterns and matches. No landmarks are visible, except a hill-top or some tall tree. The dark figures of men and dogs are watched from home, as they move slowly over the white tract. There is to be a light placed in a certain window, from the time it begins to be dark. Then follows the dreary waiting: and the return is sure to be more or less sad. The sheep cannot be all safe under such a burden of snow as this; and there is much to fear for the men. If the men come home safe, it is still dreary work. If the sheep are all dead, that is ruin, or something like it. If two or three are dead, of a small flock, they are sure to be pets, or to be thought so now; and there is the difficult task of carrying food to the survivors, and making them a shelter till they can be brought home. It is a melancholy way of spending a night,—digging out sheep, finding some stark and stifled, and the survivors needing to have their legs chafed before they can stand, and their stomachs filled before they can travel;—and all to be done by the wan light of a lantern, in a bitter wind, and among moving drifts, or a steady fall of snow. When two or three flockowners join company, they may set out more cheerfully; but they may find their sheep dead by hundreds,—perhaps not one left alive for anybody. In such a case, there is a wistful lingering,—a hope in one or another that two or three of the victims may yet be breathing somewhere under the snow, near at hand; and when they turn away at last, and sink into the drifts in the absence of any path, they feel as if they did not care to get out again. They would as soon go to sleep in the cold for ever as not, for they are ruined. They love their flock; and there the poor things lie dead! Life is a blank now; and the looking forward into life makes them sick at heart. They cannot see, as their friends might, that they will cheer up a little when they have got home, and told the news, and had food «and sleep: but it is too true that many a man has been sunk in his fortunes for life by the calamity of a single snow-storm. As the arts of life improve, such misfortunes will be precluded. Meantime, there are cheerful aspects of a season of snow.

The gardener is pleased: and over wide tracts of wheat the snow not only shelters the young plant from the bitter frost wind, but, by enclosing it, prevents the radiating of its heat. The snow yields capital sport, too. Not only Liverpool merchants on their Exchange carry on a lively snow-ball war, and all boys, in all towns and villages, are at it all day long, when they can get out of doors; but there is the grave and exciting business of modelling in snow. In one place a man is built up,—a giant, if possible, and with limbs and nose so managed as that they will stick on till the frost binds them. Elsewhere it is a ship, or fortress; or Robinson Crusoe’s island. Little children, who are more romantic than skilful, can at least dig themselves a cave to live in as outlaws, for the rest of their lives. As for me, my pleasure is in the colouring of the snow, as much as anything. I love to see it lying in little ridges on the tree boughs, bluish against the yellow afternoon sky; or, as I really have seen it in January, with the actual appearance of a tract of some red-hot substance, on a mountain ridge which received the full light of the sinking sun, no longer visible from below.

This second phase of January is by far the best. In the midst of it, we find ourselves, as is fitting, in the very coldest part of the year. Some wise people tell us that the 12th is, on the whole, the proper day to feel the extremity of English cold. We find the wind generally in the north or north-east, and the rain diminishing, after diligently replenishing the springs since September; and the days are not only lengthening, but becoming brighter while they last. The mists do not so completely fill the air, but rather float in horizontal sheets in the valleys, and lie low on the plains. In a mountainous country, one may now see the singular spectacle of a complete filling of a valley with pure white mist, that looks like a floor to walk upon. The opposite hills seem to be within a few yards, so that the very resident is puzzled, till some wooded knoll or rocky promontory shows itself above the surface, and helps to rectify the proportions of the scene.

If the third phase should follow, there is an end to the pleasures of the time, as far as they depend on the weather. If the wind goes round to the south-west or south, after the snowfall, we have rain and a rapid thaw, and (owing to our mismanagement) those disastrous floods which cost us so many lives, so much health, and so much food every year. Every country-gentleman who, like myself, has witnessed floods, and their causes and consequences, for a long series of years, is sick of the very thought of them. Not one inundation in fifty is at all necessary: and most of them are wantonly incited. I have observed how they have increased in my time; and I grow more and more disgusted every year at the apathy with which the nation sees the churchyards filling fast in flooded districts, the land turning into a swamp behind weirs, the banks of rivers falling in, the channels filling up; and all the land on both sides sending down streams through thousands of drain-pipes, while nothing is done to provide main channels and outfalls adequate to the relief of the land.

As a stir is at last making to obtain aid from the law, I will say no more now. The experience of last January, with its vicissitudes of weather, reflecting the peculiarity of the whole winter of 1859-60, ought to be enough to warn us against ever again allowing rapid and extreme alternations of weather to do us more mischief than is unavoidable. It should not be in the power of a speedy thaw after snow to lay under water more than a very small proportion of the soil of Great Britain; but while we let our low-lying rivers swell to the level of their banks in ordinary weather, and descending streams choke their own channels, we must expect drowned lands, diseased cattle, damp dwellings, the sweep of the fever, and a rheumatic and consumptive labouring population. If the passing-bell is always mournful, it becomes more and more so as age teaches us how wilfully and wantonly many are sent to the grave. On a winter afternoon, when earth and sky are grey, and there is not a speck of cheer in the whole landscape, except, perhaps, the red spark and yellow smoke of the forge below, the toll of the passing-bell strikes upon the heart. If we know it to be an aged person who is gone, the emotion is far from painful: but the probability is that some one has been prematurely cut off, through ignorance and apathy of some kind, when not from guilt; and this month the sound is singularly pathetic. The bells have but just rung in a new year of human life when, from the same steeple, comes the notice that some one has already dropped out of it.

There are some regulated pleasures this month; as the Twelfth Night celebrations, Plough Monday, and the holiday hunting from the Squire’s mansion. We see the shops gay and tempting with Twelfth-cakes, and all manner of garnishing. We see the rural labourers, in old-fashioned districts, feasting and dancing to celebrate the first act of tillage for the new year. On dry mornings, when a touch of frost edges with rime the brown oak leaves and the green laurel, or the shining ivy, we hear the well-known tramp on the resounding road, and see the scarlet-coated gentry converging towards the meet; and great is the fun when every lad who has a pony, and every bird-boy who can command a donkey for an hour, scampers off to swell the rout.

Thus the weeks pass. Those which are packed most full of holiday pleasures must come to an end: and then is heard upon the road the other well-known tramp,—that of the coach team which conveys schoolboys in their season to the station whence they start for school. There is no use in dwelling on the parting, or on the dullness of the house for the rest of the day when Ned and Charley are gone.