Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The months: September
In my part of the world there is no week of the year more marked than that in which guests gather at the seats of the country gentlemen for the September shooting, and the shooting itself begins. Wherever I may happen to be, I always manage to return home to dine at the hall on the last day of August, in order to make or renew acquaintance with the party assembled, and lay plans for the first day’s roving. My wife is a little saucy about the eagerness for play shown both by men who work hard and by idlers. She says women are called frivolous when their wills are bent on pleasure; but what feminine eagerness for amusement can exceed the excitement of sporting men on the last day and night of August? The degree of that excitement induces a reverent feeling in women, children, and servants, and invests the whole matter with a sort of solemnity; but, if it were not for this, there would be something ludicrous in the amount of thought and interest spent upon details on the eve of sport. The careful outfit, the repeated examination that every man makes of his gun, the exhibition of shot, the filling of powder flasks, the going out and in to discuss and report discussions with the servants, the hours of talk about the dogs, the tracing the route on the map of the estate or the county, the general restlessness and incessant reports of the weather and the wind—all these things, if incidents of any feminine amusement, would cause endless gibes about the frivolity of the sex; but women must not be so critical—at least in an open way. What they may say among themselves when their husbands and fathers are fairly off and out of sight, one can only guess; but during the stage of preparation they must be solemn and sympathetic, or lose more than a laugh would be worth. So says my wife, who moreover ventures to joke on the certainty of my punctuality on the 31st of August, however uncertain may be my return from an excursion at any other time of the year.
This year there was not the usual jesting and quizzing when I appeared at my gate on my return from Scotland. The grouse I brought did not excite much attention, except from little Harry, who was at once absorbed in stroking the feathers and hugging the birds. The girls were grave, and Bell would not look at me. My wife hastily whispered: “Take no notice of Bell’s crying; I will tell you presently.” As we entered the house the servants appeared, all grave and sad. Little Harry was sure to be the first to tell when the first admiration of the grouse was over. He thrust himself between my knees to inform me, “There was a bad dog, and Mopsy is so ill.” Off went poor Bell with a sob. Mopsy was her dog.
“A bad dog!” said I. “Does he mean a mad dog?”
Yes; there had been a strange dog the week before, running along the road in the heat in a very odd way, and it had bitten Mopsy in the leg, to Bell’s intense indignation. She drove the stranger away with stones, and carried home and nursed her dog with all devotedness. Mopsy seemed to be quite well till last night, when she was restless and tremulous. The groom, not liking her appearance, had traced out the strange dog, and found that it was so far suspected as to have been destroyed in the next village. Hurrying back with the news, the groom found that Mopsy was now shut up in the washhouse. She had snapped at her mistress, luckily fastening on Bell’s dress only. The man declared the poor thing must have a chance. He could undertake, with a little help, to administer a dose of medicine he had brought with him. He did it safely enough, placed food and water on the ground for the chance of its being desired, locked the door, and put the key in his pocket. From time to time one or another looked through the window, to see how Mopsy went on. In a little while the girls could not bear the sight of the poor creature incessantly leaping up against the wall, while the saliva streamed from her jaws, and she made the most dreadful noises. In a few hours she was lying on her side, panting and quivering. Before my wife and I went up to the Hall to dinner, we had advised Bell to inquire no more for her dog; and before we returned at night it was, in fact, dead. It was rather a shock to us all. We had never before come so near the horrors of hydrophobia; and we could not but feel how helpless we were in our ignorance of the meaning of that dreadful infliction, and of how to preclude or manage it. Of course, the physician and surgeon of the neighbourhood were of the Hall party, and of course every body present told all he had ever heard about mad dogs; but we learned nothing new. We could only conclude that all owners of dogs should be careful, during the hot weather, to see that their dogs were properly fed and always within reach of water, and that they were not out in the sun all through the dog-days. The surgeon said that he should, in any suspicious case, administer large doses of chloroform, internally and externally, and, if that did not avail, shoot the poor creature at once.
Harry ought to have been long asleep when we returned home; but we heard the voice of wailing from his bed as soon as we entered the house. He knew that Mopsy was dead, and could not be comforted. He was so fevered and miserable that my wife took him up, and brought him to me, to talk over our misfortune, by way of relieving his mind. We agreed that Mopsy should be buried in the garden, and that something should be put at the head of the grave. What should it be? I drew the inkstand towards me to write the inscription.
“What shall we put, dear?” asked his mother, as the child sat in her lap, with his eyes glittering as he fixed them on the lamp.
“Mopsy!” cried he, with a fresh burst of grief. What could be better? “Mopsy,” with the date.
The settling this so far relieved the child that, in spite of the new outburst, his composure was returning. In a few minutes more he was carried to bed asleep. The sympathising mother could not but look in upon the girls, aware how Bell must be feeling the first bereavement by death that she had known. Both were asleep, not without traces of tears on their faces, and Bell’s handkerchief was soaked. Her mother put a dry one in the place of it, and would not even kiss her, for fear of waking her. We trusted that another generation would be free from the evil of this dreadful disease, by which several households within my own knowledge have been made desolate. Those may be grateful who have their warning in so mild a form as the loss of a dog. I have seen the supporting sons of a widowed mother, the brothers of dependent sisters, die, the one after the other, from the bite of the pet dog, itself infected by an attack from a strange dog in the street. The little favourite flew at their mother in the passage, and fastened on her clothes. The sons ran, and got it into a bag, but not before it had inflicted a slight wound on a hand of each. They thought nothing of it till the elder sickened, finding himself unable to endure the air on his face on the top of a stage-coach. Then he knew what was coming; and when the younger brother stood at his grave, and went about in his new mourning, doing the work of both for the family support, he knew what more was coming. In a little he was buried beside his brother. While there are such stories of any date told in every county and town in England, it is a lesson to dwellers in all towns and villages to erect drinking-fountains, every one of which should have a trough for dogs.
“We must try what the pretty feathers will do again,” my wife and I agreed. We thought she and the children might share the sport the first day, during which I, for one, seldom go very far from home. We would bury Mopsy before I set forth, and then the preparation of lunch, and the prospect of the day’s adventures, might dry up the tears and disperse the grief for the time.
I charged my wife with having quizzed us all round, in her own mind, at the Hall. I had seen the beginning of a satirical smile more than once; and now, sad at heart as she was, she could not help laughing at the importance of the event of the morrow as reflected on to-day. No women were ever more occupied with a fancy ball, she declared. She had little doubt some of the gentlemen were awake and up before we were asleep, to inspect the sky to windward, and among them there would be a watch kept upon the weather all night.
There was not much ground for discussion about the weather when the morning came; and, as for the wind, there was none. For this time we had a perfect September morning. The obsequies of poor Mopsy and an early breakfast being over, I was in the park by seven o’clock. I am looked upon as a sort of auxiliary gamekeeper on these occasions, not only from my thorough acquaintance with the ground for a dozen miles round, but from my habit of marking the coveys in the walks of preceding weeks. So I had two strangers for my comrades, and familiar dogs to help us.
The mists had not yet risen above the tree-tops in the park, and the atmosphere had the singular clearness observable under a low stratum of mist. It seemed as if we could count the leaves on the wooded hill-side opposite, though several fields lay between. The dew glittered on every weed and twig in the hedges the moment the slant rays of the sun touched our path. The gossamer seemed to extend as far as there was sunlight to show it. It trembled slightly, but there was not wind enough to toss it, “as if the fairies were shaking their blankets,” as Jane says. Still as the air was, it was not silent, as it would be towards noon. If we passed a thicket we heard the young goldfinches and thrushes trying their j pipes; it is the spring-time of their lives, though the autumn of our year. Near the first farmstead the swallows were all telling what month it was by the peculiar warble in which they all joined from every roof-tile and out-house and stack. The robin perched among the hips in the hedge, and twittered in his homely way. The screech of the peacock was not so pleasant, but we should soon leave him behind, and meantime he treated us with a spread of his tail on the park-wall in the full sunlight. The hasty tumultuous bark of the dogs at the Hall was subsiding as they went out with their masters in various directions; but the shrill bellowing of the bull in the meadow below had been roused by them, and now it woke the echo from the hill-side. We heard the jingle of the plough-team from the fallow, which was making ready for the autumn wheat-sowing. A loud laugh from over the hedge made us look up; and there were man and boy, trimming and thatching a rick. One of my comrades, Nelson, a London lawyer, asked whether it was not full late for that sort of work; but we presently showed him the difference between a stack finished off before the contents had settled, and therefore out of shape in various directions, and a rick properly matured for the thatching. He was of opinion that this sort of work might be done by a mechanical process less costly than human labour. We have indeed heard of a thatch woven by the yard, needing simply to be put on like a cape, but we were not disposed to be severe on the more primitive method while the labourers were so merry over it. Then there was the hen, with her latest brood, making a proportionate fuss about them. The turkeys, with their family train, were parading and feeding in the stubble, and carrying on their morning conversation. When we crossed the next stile there was a flapping of wings from the cloud of pigeons that rose from the furrows; and further on were the geese, full of noisy demonstrations against us. There was a man there, too, whose occupation I did not like. He was strewing straw and chaff and dry rubbish of weeds over the surface, and trailing tar here and there over the whole. He was not going to burn the stubbles to-day, we hoped. Why yes; he did not believe there were any birds there, and his master would be wanting the field by the time it could be ready for the plough. He was induced, however, to wait a day or two. Nelson could not conceive of such barbarism as burning the surface when there were implements which, as he had seen, could dig up and turn down the stubble with the utmost precision. We advised him to turn and ask the man, curious to see whether any other reason would be given than that his master had always done it, and the old master before him. This reason was given, but another with it, that the land had been very foul with weeds and worm and fly, and the burning would destroy all bad seeds and eggs.
We were old-fashioned folks, I admitted, and asked my companions to stand a moment and listen to one proof of it. From the barn on our left we heard the measured, dull sound of the flail, so familiar to the memory of elderly people, but so seldom heard now, except in primitive districts. I never hear it without feeling like a child again, watching the swing of the weapon and its effect on the sheaf below, as I have often done for hours together. The flail does not hold such a place in literature as the sickle, but it will be laid by in tradition beside it.
Now for sport in earnest! I know where we are, and so do the dogs. I wonder whether it is true that the son of the great Earl of Northumberland, in Queen Elizabeth’s time, was the first person who made a dog set for partridges. If so, he was the inventor of a very pretty spectacle. If it is also true that no birds were ever shot flying till the last century, sportsmen must have had a poor chance, unless partridges abounded as we now see them in the Holy Land. There they run out from the artichokes or the corn under your horse’s feet, till you grudge their numbers. We may be very well satisfied to-day, however. We become silent, and watch our dogs, and in a minute or two are deep in the business of the day.
It was truly a charming day, from that moment onwards. We were not all equally good shots; but among us we bagged enough game for our credit; and we cared more for the ramble and the sport than the fame of killing so many birds. The pursuit of magnitude, the love of the monstrous, has entered into even the sportsman’s amusement, to vulgarise it. To stand still, or nearly so, and shoot so many hundreds of birds put up before you, is no pleasure to the true sportsman. He turns from the battue to enjoy nature and not the mere act of slaughter, which the butcher himself would not undertake, except as the business of his life. To prove and enjoy his skill as a marksman, and relish the dainty incidents of the fowler’s pursuit, is the sportsman’s treat on the 1st of September; and a thorough treat it was to us this day.
After a couple of hours we came upon the student of the company at the Hall, sitting on a stile, with a book on his hand. His finger was between the closed leaves, however; and I suspect the great poem of nature was more to his taste on this day than the deepest reasoning or even the highest aspiration presented in a form which would do as well at home. He had been quietly sitting between two fires, and it was wonderful that he had been winged by neither. We crossed the path of his party, compared notes, and took our several ways. An hour further, and we saw a group of women seated on a grassy knoll, a very conspicuous seat. By this I knew that it was my own family, my wife being of opinion that the most probable death for herself is being shot under a hedge by her husband, who is fond of having her near at hand, but apt to trust to her good sense where to go. Her good sense has this time perched herself and her children where none but a wilful murderer could shoot them. Master Harry hung out his mother’s handkerchief on a stick as a flag, and waved us to our luncheon; and then he came scampering down, to learn whether our party would go up to them or they should come down to us. For the sake of the grass, and the chance of a breeze, we would go to them.
There was no breeze; but there was fresh grass, and a gentle slope, and an exquisite landscape, besides the welcome sandwiches and sherry. We could see the park deer like a moving cloud-shadow on the slopes. The crests of the heights beyond peered out like veritable mountain-tops above the horizontal strata of mists which lay poised in the air even now, ready to descend in the chill evening. Where the plough was making a fallow in the nearer fields, the stares collected in a flock. From the wood behind us a hare started, and went under cover again with a circuit. There were no doubt many near us; for this is the season for them to assemble, so that the early labourer may see a score of them sitting round a single field. There was something in the atmosphere, some lingering of the morning vapour, which caused an impression of distance by marking gradations in the woods and ridges in the hills, thus filling up the general outlines with a long perspective of distances. Residents in a mountainous region are well aware that the ridges seem to be multiplied in misty weather, not so thick as to obscure them. Sketch a view in bright weather, or on a dull day which is yet clear, and you draw perhaps a triple range of heights. Come again on a morning or evening of light mists, and you see so many ridges that they are like the folds of a garment, and which make confusion in a picture, unless painted by a master hand. It even happens that a dweller in such a region, given to explore its mysteries and “hunt the waterfalls,” may, after long residence, find some new dell or ravine disclosed by a casual glance up the mountain when the mists are beginning to stir. Something of this effect we now observed in regard to the park woods, where not only domes and spires of foliage stood out from the mass, but a gradation of masses appeared where in July it seemed that one might walk on the green floor of treetops, as the traditional squirrel under Helvellyn could in old time march from Wythburn to Keswick without once needing to descend to the ground.
The ferns on the common were golden, and about to become russet. Contrasted with vivid green grass, the purple and yellow of the heather and gorse were too gaudy; but reposing on russet ferns they make a charming spectacle. There were patches of corn-flowers near us, and the tints of the fungi were wonderfully bright, from the pearly white which looks almost translucent in the shade, to the graduated scarlets and crimsons which slime out from moist roots and old palings, or rotting logs. The sulphur butterfly flitted past us, and a large family of lady-birds settled upon our clothes. Whole companies of bees were making the most of the declining sunshine of the year; probably on their way to the heather, but not despising any honey-bearing blossom on the way. Their hum seemed to crave as much notice as if it was the only sound, though the air was alive with the bleating of sheep above us, and the sweet chime of church-bells, rising and falling, coming and going, though we were unaware of any wind. With us there was none. My comrades and I put off our caps, in hopes of a breath on our foreheads; but none came; and we soon grew cool over our luncheon.
All this was charming; but it did not detain us long from our sport. The non-combatants accompanied us, or kept us in sight for some way; and when they turned back, Harry was charged with a brace of birds, one of which he was to leave at one sick-room door in the village, and the other at another. This, and the promise of a blackberry ing in the course of the month, and of a nutting expedition, as soon as the nuts were ripe, sent him home quite happy. As for us,—we remained at our sport almost as long as we could see. We were treated with the glorious spectacle of an autumn sunset as we returned, with its ruddy and golden, and tender blue, and pale sea green tints, all so melting into each other above, as to bathe all below in one soft and balmy glow. Before I entered my own gate, the evening star was beaming in the pale-green part of the sky; and the owl was hooting from the old hollow oak.
The domestic aspect of this time of the year is very pleasant. I like the day’s ramble ending with sunset, and the lighting of the lamp for dinner. It is the season when it is rational to dine late, in order to make the most of the shortening daylight. If the evenings are mild and balmy, we can keep the windows open, and go backwards and forwards between starlight and lamplight. Before lamps came in, this was not so pleasant, on account of the propensity of moths to fly into the candle; but now, when they can seek the light without destroying themselves, they afford an additional autumn spectacle. Many a one do we imprison under a tumbler till we have studied it, and then release. Towards the end of the month, when the nights grow foggy and chilly, we shut up, and have the first fire of the season—the small bright fire which warms all spirits.
So much for the evenings. As to the work of the evenings at home, there is plenty just now.
There are the autumn bouquets to make splendid every day with dahlias of all colours. They should be made up in a conical form, broad at the base; the method fittest for them, as green-glass milk-pans are fittest for water-lilies. Then there are asters of many sorts and sizes, and the golden amaryllis; and the first chrysanthemums, and the passion-flower, dear and holy in all eyes; and mallows still, and China roses, and sometimes the Michaelmas daisy, and central boughs of the lovely arbutus, for them to cluster round. There are worn out plants to be removed, and decayed ones to be thrown away; and already, though we do not like to admit it, a few dead leaves to be swept from the lawn and the walks. There are the beds to be got ready for the early spring bulbs—the hyacinths, tulips, and anemones. This is, perhaps, the strongest hint of the decline of the year. If we want more fruit-trees, now is the time to drain and prepare the orchard ground to give it leisure to settle. For my part, I think we ourselves have enough. It is quite a sight to pass from the entrance of the kitchen-garden to the end of the orchard—a walk which occupies a good deal of time when one undertakes to gather the fruit for lunch and dessert. One has to see to the peaches every day, and gather the ripe, and throw out the supernumeraries which are in the way. Late peaches and nectarines, and early pears, I think proper to gather myself. Anybody is welcome to try a gentle shake at the apple trees in the orchard, and see what comes. The ruddy, and russet, and streaked apples that stud the espaliers must remain to be mellowed by the sun to the latest day. The multitude from the orchard must also hang for some time yet, except such as fall with a touch. The gardener is clearing his strawberry-beds of runners and weeds, and getting up his onion crops, laying them out under cover to dry, and making haste to put in cabbages and cauliflowers in their place. It seems to me that no supply can meet the demand for onions. Watch a vegetable garden, or a greengrocer’s shop anywhere, and say if it be not so. One asks where they can all go to? till one considers the soups and stews in rich men’s dwellings, and the bread and cheese, as well as the cookery of the lower and middle classes. We hear now of the conversion of acres of onion-ground into cucumber-growing. Sheltered by a growth of rye at the outset, an acre of cucumbers produces 100l., we are told. This causes two questions—“Where will so many cucumbers go to?” and “What will be done for onions?” Every year, I am amazed at the space set out for onions in my garden; and every winter I am told we have run short of onions, and must buy; not that we have eaten them all at home, but that there can never be too many in all the cottages round.
There are more plums of various sorts to be got, the most bloomy and fragrant for dessert and for presents, and the commoner for pies, puddings, and preserves. The grapes grow transparent now under their bloom, and crave gathering. My wife wants walnuts to pickle; so we go to the great tree on the windy side of the orchard, and get no more than enough, that the rest may ripen fully. We find a few mulberries, and the sight of them sets Harry asking for his promised blackberry holiday. Jane says she thinks it might do already. On every bramble there are still blossoms, and green and red fruit; but there is also some black, and we can but try.
It is very pleasant to get blackberries; but the real treat, in my opinion, is the sight of an autumn hedge. The rough stone fences in the northern counties are charming when well mossed over, and tufted with ferns in the crevices, and tinted with lichens, and with a running fringe of pansies and small wild geranium along the top: but a hedge in autumn is yet lovelier, however true it may be that it is damp—that it harbours vermin—that it wastes broad strips of good soil. Look at the briony with its scarlet transparent berries, and the fruitage of the wild apple and plum, and the privet, and the elder, and the service—the black shining clusters here—the blue sloes there, the dull red haws and the scarlet hips, and the green and red crab apples! Look at the catkins of the birch, and the keys of the ash and sycamore, and the flowering of the ivy, and the pale last blossoms of the wild honeysuckle! If the grass and weeds are somewhat dank, look at the dew-drops on the spider-webs, and the changing colours of the foliage of the hedgerow trees!
The blackberrying must be on a dry day, and if possible, a sunny one. The baskets must be of good capacity, with basins or trays at the bottom to catch the juice; for, however many are eaten, more must be brought home. I say nothing about the jam. It is very good to those who like it; and it is decidedly better than none. So are blackberry pies and puddings. But, if the jam be the lowest of jams, the jelly is the highest of jellies—of fruit jellies. Blackberry jelly is truly a dainty, not only good for sore throats and hoarsenesses, but a dainty sweet with cream, or on puffs. So Harry and his party are to bring home a vast crop;* the elder ones being always careful to gather only those which grow out of reach of the poor children who have a sort of natural right to all wild good things that they can lay hands on. I much doubt, too, whether a large portion of the highest growing blackberries are not deposited somewhere on the way home.
Lastly, there will be the nutting—the best of all. The getting together the hooked sticks and the bags, and the gardening aprons with great pockets, is merry work; and once in the wood how busy everybody grows! The clusters have been watched (and the secret kept about the best) ever since the green points first peeped out, through the pithy stage, and the milky stage, and the ripening, till they become grey or brown enough for the gathering. We are always telling the village boys how foolish it is to pull them before they are half ripe; and every year the boys do it again: and almost every year there is a clothes’ basket-full of nuts in every house where anybody lives who likes nutting. The fatigue that girls will go through in stretching, and jumping, and twitching, and carrying an increasing load, is amazing. Scornful people tell them that they might get better nuts in equal quantity for a few pence, and save walking all those miles, and making themselves stiff for days after. The answer is that pleasure is the object and not pence, and that they never count the miles gone over, nor mind the aches incurred in nutting; which is a new wonder to scornful people.
While the children are thus busy abroad, mother and maids are not idle at home. The apple-chamber and other fruit-rooms are now cleared out, scoured and ventilated; the cottage neighbours and the farmers’ wives are encouraged to prepare for the collection of goose-feathers, now that Michaelmas is coming on. The last preserves are made. The flower-seeds are dried, sorted, and put away; and so are the sweet herbs. Elder wine is made—the only domestic wine we venture upon; but elder wine is a singular antiquity, out of the way of everything modern; and we have certain visitors who like nothing so well after a cold ride, as a glass of hot elder wine (out of a pitcher), and toast.
But I shall never have done, if I tell all that marks the month of September. I can only remind my readers to watch for the departure of the swallows, (an event of which we always have ample notice by the commotion they make about our roofs before they go); and to order a Michaelmas goose in time, and gather brisk apples for the sauce: and to induce their cottage neighbours to try fish dinners, at the time when herrings are so cheap; and to watch over them, as over their own households, during the weeks of autumn sickness. This is the time for choleraic diseases, and the time of all the year when the inexperienced and ill-informed most need the guidance of their wiser neighbours in the management of health. Ague, rheumatism, and disorders of the alimentary system often take their rise in September. One thing more, we shall be reminded of at the end of the month by the rushing winds which will bring down the leaves in our avenues, and roar in our chimneys. While we are snug by our early autumn fire, we shall not forget the mariners who are having their first warning of winter in the equinoctial gales. In mid-winter, seamen are prepared for any weather: but now, when they are floating at sunset in a purple and golden summer sea, it is scarcely credible, and very awful, to think that they may be pitching in a raging gale before morning. Whether those whom we care for at sea are yachting for pleasure, or doing duty on board the fleet, or out on hire in a merchant-ship, let us send forth our sympathy from under our sheltering roof-tree. If we happen to have no friend or acquaintance at sea, let our fellow-feeling be all the wider. As islanders we should feel every equinoctial gale an event, for its importance to our countrymen who are at sea.