Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The months: April
Every year we say in February that spring is coming; and in March we show one another, from papa and mamma down to little three year-old Harry, that spring is come: but the real feeling, the sober certainty of the bliss, does not fairly take possession of us till the boys come home for Easter. All before that is mere preparation for the lads, and for the spring pleasures they seem to bring with them. Thus, in my family, spring begins usually in April: and with April, therefore, I open my account of our year, in our country home.
One of the first things we hear from the boys is, that argument has run high in the playground whether those were best off who were to spend their Easter in London, or in the country. There was finally a formal debate on the subject in the school club; and never had the oratory been more successful. The theatres were a strong fact in favour of London; and so were many of the exhibitions; and it was difficult to convince the town lads of the superiority of rural pleasures which they did not understand; so that every boy probably went home convinced that he was the most fortunate of the whole set.
One point of my Ned's speech had been that there seemed to be two unhappy classes of society who were doomed never to enjoy the best pleasures of external Nature. Members of Parliament, who cannot leave London till the middle of August; and whale-fishers who leave the verdant part of the earth behind them in April, and go among the icebergs till it is time to come home, and meet the winter. For his own part, Ned declared, nothing should induce him to command a whale-ship, or to go into parliament: whereupon his opponent advised him to suspend his resolution till he was sought by some constituency, or till he had learned how love of country makes a patriot indifferent to pleasure, in town or country. Ned considered that stoicism rather doubtful, seeing how ready members are to make every patriotic consideration give way to the Derby day.
No time is to be lost, now that the short holiday has begun. "Have you remembered our paste-eggs?" asks Charley.
Yes: mother and sisters have remembered to keep the dozen largest eggs of the week for the purpose. Jane and Bell have collected odds and ends of gay silk; and before bed-time the little saucepan will be brought in, and the boys will tie up, and boil their eggs with their own hands. To-morrow evening, the engraving will begin*; the scratching with knife and pin, whereby each egg will exhibit a graceful swan on a lake, or a hovering dove; or a group of human figures. Jane proposes a group at the altar, as Nanny the nursemaid is to be married on Monday, Easter Monday. Nanny must have the very best paste-egg, this year: and, for her part, shejiopes the young people will all be at her wedding.
There is time, however, for a stroll before dark, and candlelight pursuits. We all turn out upon the lawn after tea,—even little Master Harry, who ought to be going to bed. He has something to tell first, however. The rooks are winging home to the park-woods, and as the boys look up at the cawing flock, and fear it is too early for rook pie, Harry informs them that "Harry was a Apil fool." Ned hardly believed it because his mother thinks that children should not be made April fools of till they are old enough to know the difference between the standing joke and a fib: but Harry is right. He had been so eager—had begged so earnestly—"Do make Harry a Apil fool!" that he was supposed to have his eyes sufficiently open. Some salt was put into his little hand, and he was sent to catch birds on the grass. By the time the salt was melted there, he was tired; but still proud of his dignity in having been fooled like bigger people. In our part of the country, and in many others, the joke does not seem to wear out at all. We are all regularly taken in, sooner or later before twelve at noon on the 1st of April.
The scent of violets is strong in the evening air; and we turn to the walk where the border, to the very end of the shrubbery, is entirely composed of double violets. 'This is my special vanity—this violet border; and the lads now make their annual observation that there are none so sweet anywhere else. Violets suggest primroses: and though there are plenty in the garden, we agree that we must go to-morrow to the High and Low Copses for more, and for whatever else we can find. There is so much to do that the question is where to begin. It is time to be sowing our! annuals, and giving the last touches of excellence to our auriculas for the show; yet we must have! long walks every day; and the boys rush to the river-bank to look after the boat.
The question is, whether they would prefer the fun of mending and painting the boat, at the cost of waiting a week for the use of it, or letting the carpenter botch it to go out in to-morrow. They will undertake the business themselves, and make a good job of it. They will see about the colours before breakfast, and paint away all the morning.
The mother raises the point of the smell and sick head-aches: but wilful boys ignore sick headaches; and they may run the risk if they choose.
It is difficult to give up duck-and-drake on such an evening, when the pale clear sky is reflected in the broad pools of the river, and it is such pretty work breaking up the surface into ripples and circles. Again and again we think we are making our last cast, and find ourselves tempted to try again: but there is the flower-garden to be seen while there is yet light enough.
The girls have done their best with their brothers' gardens: and the display is indeed rather surprising, so early in the season. The rock-mound which separates the two plots was expected to be fragrant with wall flowers, and shining with periwinkle, blue and white, and tufted with daffodils: but the borders are gay beyond expectation. There are half-a-dozen varieties of tulips; and hyacinths, on the point of blowing; and auriculas in pots, carefully covered every night; and sweet double primroses; and the crown imperial is superb; and the Persian iris most elegant; and the fritillaries of different kinds, and kingwort; and jonquils, in their! pride and delicacy. There may be plenty to do, which the sisters have left to their brothers for the pleasure of doing it: but the grand essential—abundance of flowering plants—has been splendidly managed.
The first job here must be to provide a shade and shelter for the hyacinths and auriculas. Such a noonday sun as we may expect now, and such April storms as will certainly pass over us, will ruin the flowers, if we do not take care. Therefore, however busy we may otherwise be, we are to bring in a score or so of rods from the copse, and stick them in, so as to support a light awning in the sun, and to stand a brisk wind which would tear the blossoms, or break the stalks, if the plants were not under cover.
The weeding is all done; every bed kept clear up to this very noon: but the walks need hoeing and rolling. The grass must be rolled too: but the lads like the work. They must sow their annuals, if they can possibly find time: and to-morrow they must examine their own particular fruit trees in the orchard.
Ah! we had been dreading the introduction of that sore subject. There is bad news about Ned's standard cherry-tree. Charley's is a wall tree, happily for him. His blossoms appear to be safe: but there will be scarcely a cherry on Ned's tree. The winter was a hard one for the birds; and we suppose they were famine-struck; for they have picked out the heart of every blossom, leaving the sheaths to fall before the next breeze. Ned looks sorely tempted to cry. It is very hard that he can have no cherries, he thinks. Last year it was a late frost that ruined his prospect.
"We saved the gooseberries, however, and the low pear-tree," observes Charley. And then we laugh at the remembrance of the scene. At this time last year we were returning from an early visit when we actually saw a film of ice on a puddle in the road. We hurried home, to save our fruit crops, as far as possible. We collected every foot of matting, and the maids' aprons and the kitchen table-cloths destined for the next day's wash, and covered every gooseberry bush, and length of wall, and low fruit-tree, as far as our materials would go. It was well worth while. There was ice everywhere the next morning. It was a sudden freak of Nature. There was no more frost; but that one night cost a friend of ours two hundred pounds. His cherry orchards were rendered barren for the year, at that cost.
We cannot afford any carelessness now about our fruit. There have been signs of aphides on the peach trees; and the leaf-rollers hurt the apricots so seriously last year that we must see that it does not happen again. All boys like squirting; and mine as well as any. We are to infuse some tobacco to-morrow; and they undertake to syringe away the aphides, as long as their holiday lasts. They propose also to burn some wet straw under almost every tree in the orchard, to make short work with all manner of insects. This kind of sport is more to their taste than regular garden-work: but they honestly intend to do all that is wanted;—to sow more peas, and various beans; to stick whatever wants support, and to make use of every foot of their little kitchen gardens, in order to profit by my offers of farm-yard privileges. Just at this time we are clearing and cleaning out the yards, on the removal of the ewes and lambs to the water-meadows, and of the cattle to the uplands for the day; and there is plenty of manure for all my young gardeners. If they find they cannot get through half the engagements they are making this evening, they shall have help from the gardener. Not one of these precious April days must be wasted: and it will be a sad drawback on the summer holidays if the peas, and strawberries, and young potatoes, and green gooseberries, and green apricots fall short of expectation.
By the time all this is discussed, it is dusk. We fall into silence as we follow one another through the plantation, so that, when we come out upon the lawn we hear a remote aërial song which makes us stop and look up. It is no doubt the skylark, though we cannot see it in the high reddish region of the atmosphere. I know its evening note, more subdued and regular than its morning outburst. We stand and listen before stepping in at the bay-window; but it is presently over. "Only till the morning," observes Ned, already longing for to-morrow.
That to-morrow is now yesterday.
The paint-pots were ranged beside the boat exceedingly early; but a maternal prohibition had gone forth against painting in oils before breakfast. Some hammering and sawing was heard, and the boat was water-tight by the time the breakfast-bell rang. This day, all were to do what they pleased: so, all the young people were on the river-bank by nine o'clock—the lads painting green, red, and white; their sisters dusting and mending the cushions; and little Harry pulling rushes. He was soon joined by those whose heads could not stand the painting process; and a great store of rush-baskets and hats would have been the result, if I had not chanced to meet the squire, our neighbour, who observed that he saw my boys were at home, and that they were welcome to shoot pigeons in his woods, if they liked. There was nothing else to be had, he said: all other wild birds were over; but if the lads liked pigeon-pie, they might try for one.
Of course, some hours were spent in the woods, by my sons and me. My wife and the girls had the sense to remain at home, or out of range of our fire. I promised the boys not to tell unnecessarily how many birds we brought home; but I may assert the fact that one pigeon will make a pie of that name—the only requisite being plenty of beef-steak, to make out with.
As change of work is as good as rest, we recreated ourselves after tea in a very unexceptionable manner—rolling the grass, planting potatoes in miniature style, and filling the orchard with the smoke of wet straw, as soon as we supposed the insects to be all at home for the night.
This day has been—the boys prematurely declare—the best of the holidays, which are not half over yet. The fair will use up Maundy Thursday: and we always pass a quiet day at home after church on Good Friday. Nanny's wedding is enough for Monday; so we resolved to take this fine day for a long walk,—even to the summit of the Scar,—our high rock-crested hill, which the country-people call the Mountain. My wife cannot achieve the whole ascent: but she rides the pony up to the Fold; and then mounts somewhat further, and, with Bell, awaits our return where she stops, or at the Fold. Such was our plan to-day—only little Harry being left at home.
We started after breakfast, on as lovely an April morning as was ever seen in this country. We had the whole day before us; and we could stop when and where we pleased.
Our path lay so near the coppice above the waterfall that we turned into it, and mounted the bank of the brook till we came within hearing of the fall. There my wife fastened her pony to a tree, and went prying about, with the girls, among the gnarled old roots, for primroses. The pale-yellow stars revealed themselves in every recess; so that when the lads and I had bathed in the basin of the waterfall, and came down the path again, we found all the baskets brimming over with primroses; and the girls' hats garnished with wood anemones. In a damp hollow they had found arums to set off the primroses with their dark leaves. They wished to dig up wood sorrel by the roots (with earth about them), to plant round the stems of trees at home, but were persuaded to wait till our return, rather than carry a needless burden out and back.
We were half-unwilling to leave the wood, with its beginnings of chequered shade. No tree was yet in leaf; but the ivy hung glittering about the stems; young ferns sprouted from the fork of trees in the damp corners: the thorns were distinctly tinged with green; buds were bursting on all bushes, trees, and hedges; and a belt of latches on the southern side was bright with green tassel: and red tips. The last brown leaves of the oaks were dropping, one by one, as the swelling buds pushed them off: and this we regarded as the final parting with all traces of last year.
When we came forth upon the common, we found that the sycamores were forwarder than we had supposed from anything we saw in the wood. There were touches of vivid green on sunny parts of those dome-like trees, which made it seem strange that their foliage would be in a few weeks so dark—so gloomy, as some people think; so that a pair of them sheltering a farmhouse remind fanciful people of a pail. The chesnut leaves have hardly yet burst their sheaths, and unfolded their curious plaits. The ferns on the hedge-banks scarcely show at all yet; but we unrolled their coils as we walked, and whenever we sat on felled trees, where they cluster under the damp side.
We knew we should find it hot on the common; but the wind was new fresh and cool from the sea. How the chicks pattered and scudded about the cottage gables; and the goslings ran in and out from the furze bushes, now growing more brilliantly yellow from day to day. We saw only two or three lambs—cottage pets, evidently; for the grass is not forward enough yet to yield the ewes sufficient food. Already, however, the whole expanse of grass, far and near, has lost its ugly early spring tint—the hay colour which makes the eye thirst for verdure. Under the gorse-bushes the grass is of the most vivid green, and we see that the uplands will soon follow suit.
From one of the cottages came forth the good woman to ask us whether we would bespeak a sucking-pig. The farrow was so large, that her husband would take half the little ones to market, and keep the other half. The general remark that we liked roast pig settled the matter, and it moreover brought on a series of very appetising observations. My wife wondered why so much more ham was cooked at this season than any other. We supposed it might be because the dishes it accompanied are of a remarkably mild quality; young veal in all its forms, spring chickens, and turkey-poults. In America, ham or salt pork is eaten with lamb: but, then, as my wife observed, so it is with mutton. Somebody thought it might go very well with sturgeon—a true April dish, and very like veal. From sturgeon we went off to mullet, now in the midst of its short season, and down, through carp and tench, to mackerel and herrings—those common but most welcome spring fish.
My wife wondered how many of our beloved little larks would be devoured in London alone in the course of this month. "Larks!" Yes; our poor little musical larks are caught and boned and made into dumplings, or stewed by dozens, by hundreds, and by thousands—not every year, but from time to time, when the fancy comes up again. Being plainly asked the question whether I had ever eaten larks, I could not deny the fact, nor refuse to say that they are good eating, though obtained, in my opinion, at too great a cost of one's feelings.
From the common we gradually ascended the spurs of the Scar, about whose crest no vapour flitted. The sky was clear overhead, and round the whole horizon the clouds were white and shining—the snowy piles which, in spring, make the earth below seem all the greener for the clouds before they come down in rain as well as after. Over one part of the upland something like a shadow seemed to rest; but we discovered, when we came near, that it was only a new mass of colour.
Harebells—by which I mean the blue hyacinth, so called from the hare being supposed to feed on its roots—spread over the slope so thickly as to give it a distinct purple tinge. They gave us fine promise of the quantity we should presently see in the woods below; and, meantime, they tempted us to halt again for a few minutes. During those few minutes boys' hats and girls' bonnets were dressed in the blue blossoms, relieved by a few primroses and delicate sorrels. Here, where all was still, except the murmur of the bees in the flowers, we heard the cuckoo from below as distinctly as we had heard the cooing pigeons in the wood.
The boys said that at the next halt we should hear nothing but the wind whispering in the grass.
The next halt was, however, at the fold, where there ought to be bleating and baaing enough to be heard a long way off. But scarcely a sheep appeared: and it was evident that we were too early for the lambs. We could see them, as white specks, in the water-meadows below. As for the sheep, the pasture here was not yet sufficiently abundant for them, and the temptation to trespass was great. I have too good reason to know how hungry sheep can make their way in anywhere, and how much they can eat in a night, when wild with hunger in spring. The flocks which ought to be staring at us now, while we ate our luncheon under the wall of the fold, were probably laying waste some gardens, or feasting on the new grass of some neighbour in whose field they had no business.
We met with more life still higher up. There were cows which seemed to have a taste for an extensive prospect, for they were pacing about under the very highest crest of the Scar, or lying ruminating on hillocks of elastic moss. They were lean after the long winter, and the March scarcity which follows such a winter: but there was already herbage here which would improve their milk and cream; and a month would make them sleek enough.
The view was superb, when we had reached our pinnacle. We were not too high to discern the particulars of the scene below, while yet a bright blue line of sea, with two ships upon it, was seen as from a mountain-peak. Ned wondered whether either of these ships was on its way to the North Pole—exemplifying his speech in the recent debate. We agreed that if the one was going to the icy zone, and the other to the torrid, we would rather bid them good-speed, and stay where we were.
We stayed on that precise spot a little too long. One lad hunted out a snake or two from among the warm stones on the southern side; and the other ran round to a pool in a little hollow, where he had once found a bittern, and hoped for the chance a second time—this being just the season. We were startled by a sudden chill; and, looking up, found that heavy clouds were overtaking the sun, and threatening the earth. In a minute, the patter of the hail on the rocks drowned all other sounds to us; but my wife and the girls, lower down the steep, round whom a milder shower fell on the grass, heard the growl of thunder on the horizon. Though we scampered down to them at the top of our speed, the explosion was over before we reached the fold, and the sun cast blue shadows from every tuft of herbage upon the hail which lay beneath it.
As we descended, the woods of the park seemed to have grown greener since we mounted. The oak avenue was leafless as in winter, though softer in outline; and the fine ash-clumps, standing apart, looked barer than the oaks; but there was a tender tinting of foliage over the massed woods and the hedgerow lines. There was apple-blossom in the orchards of the farm-steads, and near the best of the cottages.
We were not cured of our loitering by the sound of the church clock, which came on the wind when we were still two miles from home; nor by the fatigue which we all felt—all, because it was caused less by the exercise we had taken than by the temperature of the sudden spring. The boys persisted in starting the tadpoles in the ditches and discovering birds'-nests; and the girls in gathering every spray of blackthorn that showed the remotest symptom of blossoming. When we went to bed that night we threatened one another with being too stiff to enjoy the fair to-morrow.
I need not describe the fair, because it is the same thing every year, and would be at any season of the year: and there is no use in describing the Easter Monday wedding, because it is just once and away—a single incident, not likely to happen again, nor to interest anybody but ourselves. I therefore stop here. Our Spring has fairly settled down around us; and the next change we see will be the advance into the fuller beauty of May.