How utterly transforming to the country is the first positive snow-fall of winter! It is a thing of life; it clings and hangs everywhere. Its great, fluffy ridges and folds put out of sight fences and rocks and hillocks and highways, and bleach the gray surface of the landscape into a dazzling whiteness. Under this new veneering the most untidy farm-houses are beautiful, and the worst-tilled fields as good as the best. Waking up into such a change some winter morning is like going into a new world. It is coming out from the gray mourning of the almost dead year into a sublime white silence.
Every country-born person can recall such greeting of an early snow, to meet which he has gone forth with elastic step and heart. Slowly and picturesquely motion is thrust upon the scene. Walkers, scuffling through the light snow, trail slender paths along.; smoke coils from chimneys; cattle are let into the sunny barnyards; life spills out from the farmhouses; troughs are chopped free from ice; men begin to hack at the wood-piles and draw water from the wells; teams are harnessed; children start for school, — the new landscape is alive with workers, thrust out with startling distinctness from its snow background.
Directly off from roofs and fences and rocks and higher hillocks, with the sun's march, slips this snow covering, and from the beautiful, evanescent picture arises another, with added warmth and life and color. To one driving through a forest at such a time it is as if fairies had been at work and laden its minutest twigs with a rare, white burden. Snow-clad old wood, through which I passed years ago on my way to my grandfather's farm, you are as lovely in memory as you were in reality then. It is early morning. The air seems to crackle with the magic of frostwork. Fleecy fringes are falling from the overburdened branches and fling over me great, foam-like flakes; the horses' hoofs sink deep and noiselessly. Footprints of wild animals are thick in the wood, and all along the wayside are tracks of squirrels, rabbits, and such harmless things. Loaded teams grow frequent and sleighs fly past. The sound of bells is crisp and loud. Betsy pricks up her ears and flings out a spray-like cloud on either side. The little dog following after shoots over the wall, bounding neck deep into the unbroken snow, sniffs at the tiny footmarks of game, plunges into the wood, and I hear him barking shortly after far ahead. Twigs begin to snap. There is a crackle through the wood, the sun is climbing up, the snow is melting, and falling from the trees sinks with a fluffy sound into the cooler bed below. Sharp and distinct is the voice of this dissolving panorama. As the sun gets power the snow garment shrinks, and all of a sudden it glides off from the grim old wood.
Often a mist or rain, coming upon the newly-fallen snow, crystallizes it into solid shapes, and the sun gives to this frostwork a bewildering beauty. Nothing could surpass my old wood thus clad. It was a sublime, many-arched, crystal cathedral, outlined with flashing brightness. What a transient thing it was! As quickly as the sun gilded it, just so quickly did it demolish it. Glittering pillar and frieze and cornice suddenly disintegrated, and under the gray, naked, old trees thick-strewn twigs and fast-melting icicles were all that was left of this palace of carved ice.
How short the winter days used to seem; how clear-cut they were by snow and cold and lack of growing life. What winters those were of forty years ago, when snow-drifts blotted out the features of a landscape and levelled the country into a monotonous white plain; when people woke in the morning to find their windows blocked up, and the chief labor of months was to keep their roads open.
Much joy the young people got out of these same snow-drifts. The crusts which hid the fences gave them ample coasting-fields, and they burrowed like rabbits in the drifts. I remember a village, beloved by Boreas, which was beset by mimic Laplanders, who used to call out to surprised travellers from their caves in the piled-up wayside; In this same village the adventurous boy used to shoot over highway and fence, across fields, past a frozen brook, up to the edge of a forest a mile off. His small craft was liable to strand by the way, and lucky was he if he did not bring up against the jagged bark of some outstanding tree. His sled was home-made, of good wood, mortised and pinned together, and shod with supple withes, which with use took a polish like glass, and had seldom to be renewed.
Boys and girls slid and coasted through their childhood, and this keen challenge of the north winds, this flinging of muscle against the rude forces of winter, shaped and strengthened them for after-labor. They glided along the highway, over the ruts made by iron-shod wood-sleds; they guttered the snow-drifts with tracks; and wherever the rain had settled and frozen in the fields or by the wayside, they cleared and cut up the ponds with their swift flying feet. Ploughing knee-deep through freshly-fallen snows to the village school, roughly clad, rosy checked, joyous, they eagerly beset passing sleds and sleighs, hanging to stakes and clinging to runners, from which they tumbled into the school-house entry, stamping it full of snow. The girls were not a whit behind the boys in their clamor and agility. They slid down the steep snowbanks and up and down the ice-paths, swift and fearless, and burst into the school-room almost as riotously as the boys.
Tea-drinkings were the usual social diversions of the farm-house winter life. They were prim occasions, on which the best china, linen, and silver were brought out. Pound-cake and pies and cheese and doughnuts and cold meats were set forth, and guests partook of them with appetites sharpened by the rarity of the occasion. Neighbors from miles away were liable, on any fine winter's evening, to drive into my grandfather's yard for a social cup of tea. The women took off their wraps, smoothed their cap-borders, and planted themselves, knitting-work in hand, before the hearth in the best room. The men put up their horses, and coming back, they stamped their feet furiously in the entry, and blustered into the sitting-room, filling it with frosty night-air. They talked of the weather, of the condition of their stock, of how the past year's crops held out, and told their plans for the coming year. The women gossiped of town affairs, the minister, the storekeeper's latest purchase, of their dairies, and webs, and linens, and wools, keeping time with flying fingers to the tales they told. The unconscious old clock in the corner kept ticking away the while, and Hannah, in the next room, set in order the repast, to which they did ample justice, growing more garrulous when inspired by the fine flavor of hospitality. They came and also went away early. When the outer door and big gate had closed after them, there had also gone out with them all extra movement and bustle from the household. Every spoon and fork and plate was already in its place, the remnants of the feast had disappeared, and the family was ready to take up on the morrow the slackened thread of its working ways.
The leave-takings of these ancient hosts and guests were simple and beautiful. They shook hands and passed salutations and good wishes with as much gravity as if they had been going to some far land; and the pleasure which the visitors avowed in the graciousness shown them was heartfelt. Merrily jingled their bells from out the farm-yard into the highway, and softly dying out with distance, the sound came back from the far-off hills in pleasant echo.
Tender, true hospitality, simple customs, rare entertainments, you left no sting, no weariness behind you. You gave and impoverished not. You were ungilded but dignified and decorous, healthful and pleasure-giving. If you were plain, you were not inelegant, for your silver was pure, your china quaint and costly, your linens were fine-twined, your viands were well cooked and wholesome. You were simply served to simple guests, but not without etiquette and the essence of style. The host carved with dexterity, and the hostess, in her busy passes, was instinctively observant of the tastes and needs of her guests. That which garments lacked in material and make, the ruddy firelight imparted to them, painting these robust farmers and matrons into rarely-costumed pictures. What of high culture was wanting to their speech, was given to it by the sweet piety and purity of it. They talked of what made up their daily lives, and that was the yearly marvels and glories of ever-dying ever-renewing nature. The men, discoursing of winds and rains and cattle and grasses and trees and grains, stumbled upon many truths of high philosophy; and, reviewing with earnest faith the sermons of the Sabbath-day, showed themselves well grounded in all gospel doctrine. The women, innocently prattling of the webs they wove, drawing in and out the threads of much discourse, mixed with it many a fine-spun sentiment, and the golden overshot of the few but keenly relished diversions of their serious lives. The serving-maid and serving-man listening to them, and catching the glow of the firelight past them, went into the background of the picture, to be quaint creatures of remembered scenes. They themselves, observant and reverent of their elders, felt the sweets of hospitality in their own hearts; and in ministering generously unto others were themselves being ministered unto.
The winter lull of vegetation was often spent by my grandmother and Hannah in the spinning and dyeing and weaving of woollen fabrics, to be afterwards fashioned into quilts. The most esteemed of these were made of glossy, dark flannel, lined with yellow, with a slight wadding of carded wool. For such a quilt the best fleece was set aside, and many dyes steeped in the chimney-corner. Fastened to a frame, it was in summer the fine needlework of the house. Neighbors invited to tea helped to prick into it, stitch by stitch, the shapes of flowers and leaves. They came early and bent over it with grim zeal, helped on by the gradual showing of the pattern. They loved to take out the pins and roll up the thing, counting its coils with delight. The quilting of it was hard work, but the women called this rest, and were made happy by such simple variation of labor. They kept up their harmless babble until sundown, when one, more anxious than the rest, catching sight of a returning herd, would exclaim, "The cows are coming, and I must go." Shortly they might all be seen hurrying hither and thither through green lanes, back to the cares which they had for a few hours shifted.
The finishing of this quilt made a gala day for the neighborhood. It was unrolled and cut out with much excitement. When Hannah took it to the porch-door to shake it out, the women all followed her, clutching its edges, remarking upon the plumpness of the stitched leaves, and the fineness of its texture. It was truly a beautiful thing, for it was a growth of the farm, — an expression of the life of its occupants, a fit covering for those who made it.
The winter diversions of the young people were just as simple as those of their elders. What could be quainter than the singing-school, held in a country school-house, with its rows of tallow candles planted along the desks, and its loud-voiced master pitching his tunes? The young men sat on one side and the maidens on the other. Its wild music was heard far away. The tunes sung were of long repute, and what was wanting in melody and harmony was made up by the zeal with which they were roared out. To many of the singers the walk home was the best of all, when, in undertone, they lengthened out the melodies which had been taught them.
Apple-bees and spelling-matches sometimes brought together the fathers and mothers of the district, as well as their sons and daughters. The former were apt to mean frolics, which carried more confusion than profit into a farmer's kitchen. The latter were the occasions of much healthy merriment.
After all, the true zest to these diversions was given to them by the bright moonlight, which generally brought them to pass. It was a welcome comer, and turned the introverted evening life of the farm-houses out into illuminated lanes and highways. Solemn highways on gray winter evenings; one got easily bewildered in them and thrown off from his track. Objects loomed up out of the snow, and harmless things took strange shapes and looked ghostly in distance and whiteness. Horses were apt to shy, runners bounced with a sharp click upon the uneven path, and bells rang sharply in the clear, cold air. Merry, merry bells, telling of coming and departing guests, — the one jocund voice of winter, putting the traveller in heart, making glad the listening ear, ringing right joyously into farm lane and yard, — who does not welcome with delight the old-time jingle? The sound of country bells, struck out by the slow, measured pace of farm-horses, was of prolonged measure. It was deep, too, because the bells were made large and of good metal. The peculiar sound of each farmer's bells became as much his personal possession as his own voice, and they were quite sure to last his lifetime. As much as the winds the bells gave voice to the season. It was joyous mostly, yet with a wild pathos in its music when dying out in tortuous country ways, with that sad indistinctness of any sound which has wellnigh passed into silence.
Akin to the bells for sweetness of expression were the farm-house lights, starring the landscape and telling the traveller of peaceful indoor life. Driving through the country, silent with the rest of winter, one cannot overestimate the companionship and friendliness of the lighted windows of outlying habitations. The breaking of a farm-light upon your sight is like the grasp of a living hand, and with it comes out to you the peace of firesides; by it, unawares, people send forth to you the warm glow of hospitality. An unlighted house in the sparsely-settled country is most forlorn. It is a body without a soul, — a thing which ought to be alive and is not.
In the simplicity of ancient country life the homespun curtains were seldom let down at eventide. The farm-houses were mostly the length of a lane from the roadside, and so the pictures of their indoor life were sent out from their small windows through a softened perspective. What could be better than the white-headed old man dozing in one chimney-corner; the dear old grandmother nodding in the other; the middle-aged son and daughter resting over light work; the backlog, getting ready for its raking up; the walls, hung with tokens of sleeping child-life, such as slates, caps, and comforters, — homely things, catching the light of dying embers!
How bright the winter sunsets were, how clear and starlit the nights, how bracing and electric the air, how much more generous than harsh was that climate which, while it blotted out vegetation, at the same time spread over the landscape a great spectacular glory!
Shut in by frostwork from sight of the out-of-doors world, have you never, when a child, breathed upon an icy pane; and, through the loophole thus made, caught a condensed view of the glories of a winter's day?
Picturesque upon snow were the most common movements of farm-life. Men, chopping logs, seemed more like players than workers. With what steady swing their axes rose and fell — how these glittered in the sunshine! The chips that flew freely about, tilted at all angles, how fresh they were, with their prettily-marked lines of yearly growth, their shaggy bark, and their scent of sap. The sound of the axe was resonant and cheery, putting life into a farm-yard. It echoed still more pleasantly from a woodland, whence it came with a muffled indistinctness, like a regular pulse-beat of labor. The choppers seemed never to tire; only they stopped now and then to brandish their stiffened arms, and gaze at their growing piles with thrifty pride. They wore mittens of blue and white, striped, or knit in a curious pattern, called "chariot wheels," by the housewives. Many of them had leathern patches upon thumb and palm.
How contentedly the cattle stood chewing their cuds and blinking their eyes; looking askance at the long icicles which hung from eaves of barns, and trickled drops upon their backs. Women came out with baskets and buckets for wood and water; and, in the silent attitude of labor, paused for a moment and basked in the sunshine. Wood-laden sleds dragged along the highway, with boys and girls clinging to their stakes; and the teamsters' shouts to "Broad" and "Cherry," mingled with the chatter and laughter of boys and girls. Roofs lazily drying, smoked in the sunshine; and you heard the weather-wise farmer saying to his neighbor, "It thaws in the sun to-day."
Beautiful was the heavily coiling smoke in the crisp, morning air. How deliciously its opaque whiteness was piled against a background of sky. What a charming aerial welcome it was from the morning life of the farmhouse.
Beautiful was the fantastic piling of storm-clouds, forerunners of winds; and beautiful were the rugged drifts made by flying snows.
Hush! — I am young again. The, scenes have all come back — the old workers into their old ways and places, and the earth they deal with wraps them about with its splendor. Snow King, grand old master, variously carving out the features of a winter landscape, I salute you!
Dear dwellers in that old-fashioned home, I salute you also! You seem to me in memory as stately and as beautiful as one of the tall oaks of your own possessions. Nature was your godmother. She led you in childhood through her fields and pastures and woodlands. She distilled for you the best balsams of her trees and shrubs. You unwittingly quaffed them as you went with her, and they gave you health and strength and lease of a long life. They inoculated you with a taste for pure pleasures. Your frames, your manners, your desires, your whole life, had a flavor of the land that bore you. You were the true outgrowth, the real aborigines, the rightful, harmonious, delightful denizens of the soil, you long-dead, but never-to-be-forgotten dwellers in my grandfather's home!