The inconstant April mornings drop showers or sunbeams over the glistening lake, while far beneath its surface a murky mass disengages itself from the muddy bottom, and rises slowly through the waves. The tasselled alder-branches droop above it; the last year's blackbird's nest swings over it in the grapevine; the newly-opened Hepaticas and Epigaeas on the neighboring bank peer down modestly to look for it; the water-skater (Gerris) pauses on the surface near it, casting on the shallow bottom the odd shadow of his feet, like three pairs of boxing-gloves; the Notonecta, or water-boatman, rows round and round it, sometimes on his breast, sometimes on his back; queer caddis-worms trail their self-made homesteads of leaves or twigs beside it; the Dytiscus, dorbug of the water, blunders clumsily against it; the tadpole wriggles his stupid way to it, and rests upon it, meditating of future frogdom; the passing wild-duck dives and nibbles at it; the mink and musk-rat brush it with their soft fur; the spotted turtle slides over it; the slow larvae of gauzy dragon-flies cling sleepily to its sides and await their change: all these fair or uncouth creatures feel, through the dim waves, the blessed longing of spring; and yet not one of them dreams that within that murky mass there lies a treasure too white and beautiful to be yet intrusted to the waves, and that for many a day that bud must yearn toward the surface, before, aspiring above it, as mortals to heaven, it meets the sunshine with the answering beauty of the Water-Lily.
Days and weeks have passed away; the wild-duck has flown onward, to dive for his luncheon in some remoter lake; the tadpoles have made themselves legs, with which they have vanished; the caddis-worms have sealed themselves up in their cylinders, and emerged again as winged insects; the dragon-flies have crawled up the water-reeds, and, clinging with heads upward, (not downward, as strangely described in a late "North British Review,") have undergone the change which symbolizes immortality; the world is transformed from spring to summer; the lily-buds are opened into glossy leaf and radiant flower, and we have come for the harvest.
We lodged, last night, in the old English phrase, "at the sign of the Oak and Star." Wishing, not, indeed, like the ancient magicians, to gather magic berry and bud before sunrise, but at least to see these treasures of the lake in their morning hour, we camped last night on a little island, which one tall tree almost covers with its branches, while a dense undergrowth of young chestnuts and birches fills all the intervening space, touching the water all around the circular, shelving shore. Yesterday was hot, but the night was cool, and we kindled a gypsy fire of twigs, less for warmth than for society. The first gleam made the dark lonely islet into a cheering home, turned the protecting tree to a starlit roof, and the chestnut-sprays to illuminated walls. Lying beneath their shelter, every fresh flickering of the fire kindled the leaves into brightness and banished into dark interstices the lake and sky; then the fire died into embers, the leaves faded into solid darkness in their turn, and water and heavens showed light and close and near, until fresh twigs caught fire and the blaze came up again. Rising to look forth, at intervals, during the night,--for it is the worst feature of a night out-doors, that sleeping seems such a waste of time,--we watched the hilly and wooded shores of the lake sink into gloom and glimmer into dawn again, amid the low plash of waters and the noises of the night.
Precisely at half-past three, a song-sparrow above our heads gave one liquid trill, so inexpressibly sudden and delicious, that it seemed to set to music every atom of freshness and fragrance that Nature held; then the spell was broken, and the whole shore and lake were vocal with song. Joining in this jubilee of morning, we were early in motion; bathing and breakfast, though they seemed indisputably in accordance with the instincts of the Universe, yet did not detain us long, and we were promptly on our way to Lily Pond. Will the reader join us?
It is one of those summer days when a veil of mist gradually burns away before the intense sunshine, and the sultry morning only plays at coolness, and that with its earliest visitors alone. But we are before the sunlight, though not before the sunrise, and can watch the pretty game of alternating mist and shine. Stray gleams of glory lend their trailing magnificence to the tops of chestnut-trees, floating vapors raise the outlines of the hills and make mystery of the wooded islands, and, as we glide through the placid water, we can sing, with the Chorus in the "Ion" of Euripides, "O immense and brilliant air, resound with our cries of joy!"
Almost every town has its Lily Pond, dear to boys and maidens, and partially equalizing, by its annual delights, the presence or absence of other geographical advantages. Ours is accessible from the larger lake only by taking the skiff over a narrow embankment, which protects our fairyland by its presence, and eight distant factories by its dam. Once beyond it, we are in a realm of dark Lethean water, utterly unlike the sunny depths of the main lake. Hither the water-lilies have retreated, to a domain of their own. Darker than these dark waves, there stand in their bosom hundreds of submerged trees, and dismasted roots still upright, spreading their vast, uncouth limbs like enormous spiders beneath the surface. They are remnants of border wars with the axe, vegetable Witheringtons, still fighting on their stumps, but gradually sinking into the soft ooze, and ready, perhaps, when a score of centuries has piled two more strata of similar remains in mud above them, to furnish foundations for a newer New Orleans; that city having been lately discovered to be thus supported.
The present decline in business is clear revenue to the water-lilies, and these waters are higher than usual because the idle factories do not draw them off. But we may notice, in observing the shores, that peculiar charm of water, that, whether its quantity be greater or less, its grace is the same; it makes its own boundary in lake or river, and where its edge is, there seems the natural and permanent margin. And the same natural fitness, without reference to mere quantity, extends to its children. Before us lie islands and continents of lilies, acres of charms, whole, vast, unbroken surfaces of stainless whiteness. And yet, as we approach them, every islanded cup that floats in lonely dignity, apart from the multitude, appears as perfect in itself, couched in white expanded perfection, its reflection taking a faint glory of pink that is scarcely perceptible in the flower. As we glide gently among them, the air grows fragrant, and a stray breeze flaps the leaves, as if to welcome us. Each floating flower becomes suddenly a ship at anchor, or rather seems beating up against the summer wind, in a regatta of blossoms.
Early as it is, the greater part of the flowers are already expanded. Indeed, that experience of Thoreau's, of watching them open in the first sunbeams, rank by rank, is not easily obtained, unless perhaps in a narrow stream, where the beautiful slumberers are more regularly marshalled. In our lake, at least, they open irregularly, though rapidly. But, this morning, many linger as buds, while others peer up, in half-expanded beauty, beneath the lifted leaves, frolicsome as Pucks or baby-nymphs. As you raise the leaf, in such cases, it is impossible not to imagine that a pair of tiny hands have upheld it, or else that the pretty head will dip down again, and disappear. Others, again, have expanded all but the inmost pair of white petals, and these spring apart at the first touch of the finger on the stem. Some spread vast vases of fragrance, six or seven inches in diameter, while others are small and delicate, with petals like fine lace-work. Smaller still, we sometimes pass a flotilla of infant leaves, an inch in diameter. All these grow from the deep, dark water,--and the blacker it is, the fairer their whiteness shows. But your eye follows the stem often vainly into those sombre depths, and vainly seeks to behold Sabrina fair, sitting with her twisted braids of lilies, beneath the glassy, cool, but not translucent wave. Do not start, when, in such an effort, only your own dreamy face looks back upon you, beyond the gunwale of the reflected boat, and you find that you float double, self and shadow.
Let us rest our paddles, and look round us, while the idle motion sways our light skiff onward, now half-embayed among the lily-pads, now lazily gliding over intervening gulfs. There is a great deal going on in these waters and their fringing woods and meadows. All the summer long, the pond is bordered with successive walls of flowers. In early spring emerge the yellow catkins of the swamp-willow, first; then the long tassels of the graceful alders expand and droop, till they weep their yellow dust upon the water; then come the birch-blossoms, more tardily; then the downy leaves and white clusters of the medlar or shadbush (_Amelanchier Canadensis_ of Gray); these dropping, the roseate chalices of the mountain-laurel open; as they fade into melancholy brown, the sweet Azalea uncloses; and before its last honeyed blossom has trailed down, dying, from the stem, the more fragrant Clethra starts out above, the button-bush thrusts forth its merry face amid wild roses, and the Clematis waves its sprays of beauty. Mingled with these grow, lower, the spiraeas, white and pink, yellow touch-me-not, fresh white arrowhead, bright blue vervain and skullcap, dull snakehead, gay monkey-flower, coarse eupatoriums, milk-weeds, golden-rods, asters, thistles, and a host beside. Beneath, the brilliant scarlet cardinal-flower begins to palisade the moist shores; and after its superb reflection has passed away from the waters, the grotesque witch-hazel flares out its narrow yellow petals amidst the October leaves, and so ends the floral year. There is not a week during all these months, when one cannot stand in the boat and wreathe garlands of blossoms from the shores.
These all crowd around the brink, and watch, day and night, the opening and closing of the water-lilies. Meanwhile, upon the waters, our queen keeps her chosen court, nor can one of these mere land-loving blossoms touch the hem of her garment. In truth, she bears no sister near her throne. There is but this one species among us, _Nymphaea odorata_. The beautiful little rose-colored _Nymphaea sanguinea_, which once adorned the Botanic Garden at Cambridge, was merely an occasional variety of costume. She has, indeed, an English half-sister, _Nymphaea alba_, less beautiful, less fragrant, but keeping more fashionable hours,--not opening (according to Linnaeus) till seven, nor closing till four. Her humble cousin, the yellow Nuphar, keeps commonly aloof, as becomes a poor relation, though created from the selfsame mud,--a fact which Hawthorne has beautifully moralized. The prouder Nelumbium, a second-cousin, lineal descendant of the sacred bean of Pythagoras, keeps aloof, through pride, not humility, and dwells, like a sturdy democrat, in the Far West.
But, undisturbed, the water-lily keeps her fragrant court, with few attendants. The tall pickerel-weed (Pontederia) is her gentleman-usher, gorgeous in blue and gold through July, somewhat rusty in August. The water-shield (Hydropeltis) is chief maid-of-honor; she is a highborn lady, not without royal blood indeed, but with rather a bend sinister; not precisely beautiful, but very fastidious; encased over her whole person with a gelatinous covering, literally a starched duenna. Sometimes she is suspected of conspiring to drive her mistress from the throne; for we have observed certain slow watercourses where the leaves of the water-lily have been almost wholly replaced by the similar, but smaller, leaves of the water-shield. More rarely seen is the slender Utricularia, a dainty maiden, whose light feet scarce touch the water,--with the still more delicate floating white Water-Ranunculus, and the shy Villarsia, whose submerged flowers merely peep one day above the surface and then close again forever. Then there are many humbler attendants, Potamogetons or pond-weeds. And here float little emissaries from the dominions of land; for the fallen florets of the Viburnum drift among the lily-pads, with mast-like stamens erect, sprinkling the water with a strange beauty, and cheating us with the promise of a new aquatic flower.
These are the still life of this sequestered nook; but it is in fact a crowded thoroughfare. No tropic jungle more swarms with busy existence than these midsummer waters and their bushy banks. The warm and humming air is filled with insect sounds, ranging from the murmur of invisible gnats and midges, to the impetuous whirring of the great Libellulae, large almost as swallows, and hawking high in air for their food. Swift butterflies glance by, moths flutter, flies buzz, grasshoppers and katydids pipe their shrill notes, sharp as the edges of the sunbeams. Busy bees go humming past, straight as arrows, express-freight-trains from one blossoming copse to another. Showy wasps of many species fume uselessly about, in gallant uniforms, wasting an immense deal of unnecessary anger on the sultry universe. Graceful, stingless Sphexes and Ichneumon-flies emulate their bustle, without their weapons. Delicate lady-birds come and go to the milkweeds, spotted almost as regularly as if Nature had decided to number the species, like policemen or hack-drivers, from one to twenty. Elegant little Lepturae fly with them, so gay and airy, they hardly seem like beetles. Phryganeae, (_nés_ caddisworms,) laceflies, and long-tailed Ephemerae flutter more heavily by. On the large alder-flowers clings the superb _Desmocerus palliatus_, beautiful as a tropical insect, with his steel-blue armor and his golden cloak (_pallium_) above his shoulders, grandest knight on this Field of the Cloth of Gold. The countless fireflies which spangled the evening mist now only crawl sleepily, daylight creatures, with the lustre buried in their milky bodies. More wholly children of night, the soft, luxurious Sphinxes (or hawk-moths) come not here; fine ladies of the insect world, their home is among gardens and green-houses, late and languid by day, but all night long upon the wing, dancing in the air with unwearied muscles till long past midnight, and supping on honey at last. They come not here; but the nobler butterflies soar above us, stoop a moment to the water, and then with a few lazy wavings of their sumptuous wings float far over the oak-trees to the woods they love.
All these hover near the water-lily; but its special parasites are an elegant beetle (_Donacia metallica_) which keeps house permanently in the flower, and a few smaller ones which tenant the surface of the leaves,--larva, pupa, and perfect insect, forty feeding like one, and each leading its whole earthly career on this floating island of perishable verdure. The "beautiful blue damsel-flies" alight also in multitudes among them, so fearless that they perch with equal readiness on our boat or paddle, and so various that two adjacent ponds will sometimes be haunted by two distinct sets of species. In the water, among the leaves, little shining whirlwigs wheel round and round, fifty joining in the dance, till, at the slightest alarm, they whirl away to some safer ballroom, and renew the merriment. On every floating log, as we approach it, there is a convention of turtles, sitting in calm debate, like mailed barons, till, as we approach, they plump into the water, and paddle away for some subaqueous Runnymede. Beneath, the shy and stately pickerel vanis hes at a glance, shoals of minnows glide, black and bearded pouts frisk aimlessly, soft water-lizards hang poised without motion, and slender pickerel-frogs cease occasionally their submerged croaking, and, darting to the surface with swift vertical strokes, gulp a mouthful of fresh air, and down again to renew the moist soliloquy.
Time would fail us to tell of the feathered life around us,--the blackbirds that build securely in these thickets, the stray swallows that dip their wings in the quiet waters, and the kingfishers that still bring, as the ancients fabled, halcyon days. Yonder stands, against the shore, a bittern, motionless in that wreath of mist which makes his long-legged person almost as dim as his far-off booming by night. There poises a hawk, before sweeping down to some chosen bough in the dense forest; and there fly a pair of blue-jays, screaming, from tree to tree. As for wild quadrupeds, the race is almost passed away. Far to the North, indeed, the great moose still browses on the lily-pads, and the shy beaver nibbles them; but here the few lingering four-footed creatures only haunt, but do not graze upon these floating pastures. Eyes more favored than ours may yet chance to spy an otter in this still place; there by the shore are the small footprints of a mink; that dark thing disappearing in the waters, yonder, a soft mass of drowned fur, is a "musquash." Later in the season, a mound of earth will be his winter dwelling-place; and those myriad muscle-shells at the water's edge are the remnant of his banquets,--once banquets for the Indians, too.
But we must return to our lilies. There is no sense of wealth like floating in this archipelago of white and green. The emotions of avarice become almost demoralizing. Every flower bears a fragrant California in its bosom, and you feel impoverished at the thought of leaving one behind. But after the first half-hour of eager grasping, one becomes fastidious, rather scorns those on which the wasps and flies have alighted, and seeks only the stainless. But handle them tenderly, as if you loved them. Do not grasp at the open flower as if it were a peony or a hollyhock, for then it will come off, stalkless, in your hand, and you will cast it blighted upon the water; but coil your thumb and second finger affectionately around it, press the extended forefinger firmly to the stem below, and with one steady pull you will secure a long and delicate stalk, fit to twine around the graceful head of your beloved, as the Hindoo goddess of beauty encircled with a Lotus the brow of Rama.
Consider the lilies. All over our rural watercourses, at midsummer, float these cups of snow. They are Nature's symbols of coolness. They suggest to us the white garments of their Oriental worshippers. They come with the white roses and prepare the way for the white lilies of the garden. The white doe of Rylstone and Andrew Marvell's fawn might fitly bathe amid their beauties. Yonder steep bank slopes down to the lake-side, one solid mass of pale pink laurel, but, once upon the water, a purer tint prevails. The pink fades into a lingering flush, and the white creature floats peerless, set in green without and gold within. That bright circle of stamens is the very ring with which Doges once wedded the Adriatic, Venice has lost it, but it dropped into the water-lily's bosom, and there it rests forever. So perfect in form, so redundant in beauty, so delicate, so spotless, so fragrant,--what presumptuous lover ever dared, in his most enamored hour, to liken his mistress to a water-lily? No human Blanche or Lilian was ever so fair as that.
The water-lily comes of an ancient and sacred family of white-robed priests. They assisted at the most momentous religious ceremonies, from the beginning of recorded time. The Egyptian Lotus was a sacred plant; it was dedicated to Harpocrates and to the god Nofr Atmoo,--Nofr meaning _good_, whence the name of our yellow lily, Nuphar. But the true Egyptian flower was _Nymphaea Lotus_, though _Nymphaea caerulea_, Moore's "blue water-lilies," can be traced on the sculptures also. It was cultivated in tanks in the gardens; it was the chief material for festal wreaths; a single bud hung over the forehead of many a queenly dame; and the sculptures represent the weary flowers as dropping from the heated hands of belles, in the later hours of the feast. Rock softly on the waters, fair lilies! your Eastern kindred have rocked on the stormier bosom of Cleopatra. The Egyptian Lotus was, moreover, the emblem of the sacred Nile,--as the Hindoo species, of the sacred Ganges; and both the one and the other was held the symbol of the creation of the world from the waters. The sacred bull Apis was wreathed with its garlands; there were niches for water, to place it among tombs; it was carved in the capitals of columns; it was represented on plates and vases; the sculptures show it in many sacred uses, even as a burnt-offering; Isis holds it; and the god Nilus still binds a wreath of water-lilies around the throne of Memnon.
From Egypt the Lotus was carried to Assyria, and Layard found it among fir-cones and honeysuckles on the later sculptures of Nineveh. The Greeks dedicated it to the nymphs, whence the name _Nymphaea_. Nor did the Romans disregard it, though the Lotus to which Ovid's nymph Lotis was changed, _servato nomine_, was a tree, and not a flower. Still different a thing was the enchanted stem of the Lotus-eaters of Herodotus, which prosaic botanists have reduced to the _Zizyphus Lotus_ found by Mungo Park, translating also the yellow Lotus-dust into a mere "farina, tasting like sweet gingerbread."
But in the Lotus of Hindostan we find our flower again, and the Oriental sacred books are cool with water-lilies. Open the Vishnu Purana at any page, and it is a _Sortes Lilianae_. The orb of the earth is Lotus-shaped, and is upborne by the tusks of Vesava, as if he had been sporting in a lake where the leaves and blossoms float. Brahma, first incarnation of Vishnu, creator of the world, was born from a Lotus; so was Sri or Lakshmu, the Hindoo Venus, goddess of beauty and prosperity, protectress of womanhood, whose worship guards the house from all danger. "Seated on a full-blown Lotus, and holding a Lotus in her hand, the goddess Sri, radiant with beauty, rose from the waves." The Lotus is the chief ornament of the subterranean Eden, Patala, and the holy mountain Meru is thought to be shaped like its seed-vessel, larger at summit than at base. When the heavenly Urvasi fled from her earthly spouse, Purúvavas, he found her sporting with four nymphs of heaven, in a lake beautified with the Lotus. When the virtuous Prahlada was burned at the stake, he cried to his cruel father, "The fire burneth me not, and all around I behold the face of the sky, cool and fragrant with beds of Lotus-flowers!" Above all, the graceful history of the transformations of Krishna is everywhere hung with these fresh chaplets. Every successive maiden whom the deity wooes is Lotus-eyed, Lotus-mouthed, or Lotus-cheeked, and the youthful hero wears always a Lotus-wreath. Also "the clear sky was bright with the autumnal moon, and the air fragrant with the perfume of the wild water-lily, in whose buds the clustering bees were murmuring their song."
Elsewhere we find fuller details. "In the primordial state of the world, the rudimental universe, submerged in water, reposed on the bosom of the Eternal. Brahma, the architect of the world, poised on a Lotus-leaf, floated upon the waters, and all that he was able to discern with his eight eyes was water and darkness. Amid scenes so ungenial and dismal, the god sank into a profound reverie, when he thus soliloquized: 'Who am I? Whence am I?' In this state of abstraction Brahma continued during the period of a century and a half of the gods, without apparent benefit or a solution of his inquiries, a circumstance which caused him great uneasiness of mind." It is a comfort, howe ver, to know, that subsequently a voice came to him, on which he rose, "seated himself upon the Lotus in an attitude of contemplation, and reflected upon the Eternal, who soon appeared to him in the form of a man with a thousand heads": a questionable exchange for his Lotus-solitude.
This is Brahminism; but the other great form of Oriental religion has carried the same fair symbol with it. One of the Bibles of the Buddhists is named "The White Lotus of the Good Laer." A pious Nepaulese bowed in reverence before a vase of lilies which perfumed the study of Sir William Jones. At sunset in Thibet, the French missionaries tell us, every inhabitant of every village prostrates himself in the public square, and the holy invocation, "Oh, the gem in the Lotus!" goes murmuring over hill and valley, like the sound of many bees. It is no unmeaning phrase, but an utterance of ardent desire to be absorbed into that Brahma whose emblem is the sacred flower. The mystic formula or "mani" is imprinted on the pavement of the streets, it floats on flags from the temples, and the wealthy Buddhists maintain sculptor-missionaries, Old Mortalities of the water-lily, who, wandering to distant lands, carve the blessed words upon cliff and stone.
Having got thus far into Orientalism, we can hardly expect to get out again without some slight entanglement in philology. Lily-pads. Whence _pads_? No other leaf is identified with that singular monosyllable. Has our floating Lotus-leaf any connection with padding, or with a footpad? with the ambling pad of an abbot, or a paddle, or a paddock, or a padlock? with many-domed Padua proud, or with St. Patrick? Is the name derived from the Anglo-Saxon _paad_ or _petthian_, or the Greek [Greek: pateo]? All the etymologists are silent; Tooke and Richardson ignore the problem; and of the innumerable pamphlets in the Worcester and Webster Controversy, loading the tables of school-committee-men, not one ventures to grapple with the lily-pad.
But was there ever a philological trouble for which the Sanscrit could not afford at least a conjectural cure? A dictionary of that extremely venerable tongue is an ostrich's stomach, which can crack the hardest etymological nut. The Sanscrit name for the Lotus is simply _Padma_. The learned Brahmins call the Egyptian deities Padma Devi, or Lotus-Gods; the second of the eighteen Hindoo Puranas is styled the Padma Purana, because it treats of the "epoch when the world was a golden Lotus"; and the sacred incantation which goes murmuring through Thibet is "Om mani padme houm." It would be singular, if upon these delicate floating leaves a fragment of our earliest vernacular has been borne down to us, so that here the schoolboy is more learned than the _savans_.
This lets us down easily to the more familiar uses of this plant divine. By the Nile, in early days, the water-lily was good not merely for devotion, but for diet. "From the seeds of the Lotus," said Pliny, "the Egyptians make bread." The Hindoos still eat the seeds, roasted in sand; also the stalks and roots. In South America, from the seeds of the Victoria (_Nymphaea Victoria_, now _Victoria Regia_) a farina is made, preferred to that of the finest wheat,--Bonpland even suggesting to our reluctant imagination Victoria-pies. But the European species are used, so far as we know, only in dyeing, and as food (if the truth be told) of swine. Our own water-lily is rather more powerful in its uses; the root contains tannin and gallic acid, and a decoction of it "gives a black precipitate, with sulphate of iron." It graciously consents to become an astringent, and a styptic, and a poultice, and, banished from all other temples, still lingers in those of AEsculapius.
The botanist also finds his special satisfactions in our flower. It has some strange peculiarities of structure. So loose is the internal distribution of its tissues, that it was for some time held doubtful to which of the two great vegetable divisions, exogenous or endogenous, it belonged. Its petals, moreover, furnish the best example of the gradual transition of petals into stamens, --illustrating that wonderful law of identity which is the great discovery of modern science. Every child knows this peculiarity of the water-lily, but the extent of it seems to vary with season and locality, and sometimes one finds a succession of flowers almost entirely free from this confusion of organs.
Our readers may not care to know that the order of Nymphaeaceae "differs from Ranunculaceae in the consolidation of its carpels, from Papaveraceae in the placentation not being parietal, and from Nelumbiaceae in the want of a large truncated disc containing monospermous achenia"; but they may like to know that the water-lily has relations on land, in all gradations of society, from poppy to magnolia, and yet does not conform its habits precisely to those of any of them. Its great black roots, sometimes as large as a man's arm, form a network at the bottom of the water. Its stem floats, an airy four-celled tube, adapting itself to the depth, though never stiff in shallows, like the stalk of the yellow lily: and it contracts and curves when seed-time approaches, though not so ingeniously as the spiral threads of the European Vallisneria, which uncoil to let the flowers rise to the surface, and then cautiously retract, that the seeds may ripen on the very bottom of the lake. The leaves show beneath the magnifier beautiful adaptations of structure. They are not, like those of land-plants, constructed with deep veins to receive the rain and conduct it to the stem, but are smooth and glossy, and of even surface. The leaves of land-vegetation have also thousands of little breathing-pores, principally on the under side: the apple-leaf, for instance, has twenty-four thousand to a square inch. But here they are fewer; they are wholly on the upper side, and, whereas in other cases they open or shut according to the moisture of the atmosphere, here the greedy leaves, secure of moisture, scarcely deign to close them. Nevertheless, even these give some recognition of hygrometric necessities, and, though living on the water, and not merely christened with dewdrops like other leaves, but baptized by immersion all the time, they are yet known to suffer in drought and to take pleasure in the rain.
We have spoken of the various kindred of the water-lily; but we must not leave our fragrant subject without due mention of its most magnificent, most lovely relative, at first claimed even as its twin sister, and classed as a Nymphaea. We once lived near neighbor to a Victoria Regia. Nothing, in the world of vegetable existence, has such a human interest. The charm is not in the mere size of the plant, which disappoints everybody, as Niagara does, when tried by that sole standard. The leaves of the Victoria, indeed, attain a diameter of six feet; the largest flowers, of twenty-three inches,--less than four times the size of the largest of our water-lilies. But it is not the mere looks of the Victoria, it is its life which fascinates. It is not a thing merely of dimensions, nor merely of beauty, but a creature of vitality and motion. Those vast leaves expand and change almost visibly. They have been known to grow half an inch an hour, eight inches a day. Rising one day from the water, a mere clenched mass of yellow prickles, a leaf is transformed the next day to a crimson salver, gorgeously tinted on its upturned rim. Then it spreads into a raft of green, armed with long thorns, and supported by a frame-work of ribs and cross-pieces, an inch thick, and so substantial, that the Brazil Indians, while gathering the seed-vessels, place their young children on the leaves;--_yrupe_, or water-platter, they call the accommodating plant. But even these expanding leaves are not the glory of the Victoria; the glory is in the opening of the flower.
We have sometimes looked in, for a passing moment, at the green-house, its dwelling-place, during the period of flowering,--and then stayed for more than an hour, unable to leave the fascinating scene. Afterthe strange flower-bud has reared its dark head from the placid tank, moving it a little, uneasily, like some imprisoned water-creature, it pauses for a moment in a sort of dumb despair. Then trembling again, and collecting all its powers, it thrusts open, with an indignant jerk, the rough calyx-leaves, and the beautiful disrobing begins. The firm, white, central cone, first so closely infolded, quivers a little, and swiftly, before your eyes, the first of the hundred petals detaches its delicate edges, and springs back, opening towards the water, while its white reflection opens to meet it from below. Many moments of repose follow,—you watch,—another petal trembles, detaches, springs open, and is still. Then another, and another, and another. Each movement is so quiet, yet so decided, so living, so human, that the radiant creature seems a Musidora of the water, and you almost blush with a sense of guilt, in gazing on that peerless privacy. As petal by petal slowly opens, there still stands the central cone of snow, a glacier, an alp, a jungfrau, while each avalanche of whiteness seems the last. Meanwhile, a strange rich odor fills the air, and Nature seems to concentrate all fascinations and claim all senses for this jubilee of her darling.
So pass the enchanted moments of the evening, till the fair thing pauses at last, and remains for hours unchanged. In the morning, one by one, those white petals close again, shutting all their beauty in, and you watch through the short sleep for the period of waking. Can this bright transfigured creature appear again, in the same chaste beauty? Your fancy can scarcely trust it, fearing some disastrous change; and your fancy is too true a prophet. Come again, after the second day's opening, and you start at the transformation which one hour has secretly produced. Can this be the virgin Victoria,—this thing of crimson passion, this pile of pink and yellow, relaxed, expanded, voluptuous, lolling languidly upon the water, never to rise again? In this short time every tint of every petal is transformed; it is gorgeous in beauty, but it is "Hebe turned to Magdalen."
But our rustic water-lily, our innocent Nymphaea, never claiming such a hot-house glory, never drooping into such a blush, blooms on placidly in the quiet waters, till she modestly folds her leaves for the last time, and bows her head beneath the surface forever. Next year she lives for us only in her children, fair and pure as herself.
Nay, not alone in them, but also in memory. The fair vision will not fade from us, though the paddle has dipped its last crystal drop from the waves, and the boat is drawn upon the shore. We may yet visit many lovely and lonely places,—meadows thick with violet, or the homes of the shy Rhodora, or those sloping forest-haunts where the slight Linnæa hangs its twin-born heads,—but no scene will linger on our vision like this annual Feast of the Lilies. On scorching mountains, amid raw prairie-winds, or upon the regal ocean, the white pageant shall come back to us again, with all the luxury of summer heats, and all the fragrant coolness that can relieve them. We shall fancy ourselves again among these fleets of anchored lilies,—again, like Urvasi, sporting amid the Lake of Lotuses.
For that which is remembered is often more vivid than that which is seen. The eye paints better in the presence, the heart in the absence, of the object most dear. "He who longs after beautiful Nature can best describe her," said Bettine; "he who is in the midst of her loveliness can only lie down and enjoy." It enhances the truth of the poet's verses, that he writes them in his study. Absence is the very air of passion, and all the best description is in memoriam. As with our human beloved, when the graceful presence is with us, we cannot analyze or describe, but merely possess, and only after its departure can it be portrayed by our yearning desires; so is it with Nature: only in losing her do we gain the power to describe her, and we are introduced to Art, as we are to Eternity, by the dropping away of our companions.