(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Click Here to return
to last Chapter
HOW THE RAIN CAME
THE Spiranthes gracilis is commonly called ladies' tresses, which is a very polite name for it, for nothing can be more beautiful than the tresses of ladies. It is like its name in that it is beautiful, but not otherwise, for it is a flower not of tresses, but of fine eyelashes of pearl set in a spiral on jade. The rain this morning dropped transparent, colorless pearl tears on the tips of these eyelashes, and as they twinkled toward shy smiles the tears ran down the spiral to be eagerly kissed away by the small grasses that always cling about the feet of the spiranthes in mute adoration.
Near by slender varieties of gerardia held up rosy cups to drink these clear pearls, finding in them a medicine that shall cure all ills. In the rain the fountain of youth wells up in the cup of every flower that waits in the soft pasture grasses and the grasses themselves drink eagerly. The cedars deck themselves in these clear pearls, wearing garments fringed with them and ropes and necklaces without number, and letting their prim propriety be so softened that they are no longer firm and erect but take on curves of soft roundness that should go with pearl-embroidered garments.
Yesterday there was in all the pasture people a certain puritanical sternness of demeanor, a set holding fast to the narrowing good of life, a tightening of the muscles that are weary with a long strain but may not for the good of the soul loose their firm grip, for yesterday the pasture was dry and hard with the leanness of the long summer drought. To-day has come the first of the fall rains and these puritans are stern and set no longer, but relax into swaying curves of lissome beauty that entrance you. It is as if, after coming as you thought to a Sunday service of the old Calvinists, you found it transformed into a grange picnic of wood nymphs.
The pines indeed, which always stretch out their arms in Sabbath-like benediction, seem asking a pious blessing on all these, their pasture children; and they fold their slim leaves together like hands in a soft prayer of thankfulness. But the soft rain cuddles them as well, and before they know it they are decked with the clear pearls as for a bridal and their plumes nod in reverence, yet are so beautiful in gems and there is such a soft grace in their curves -- they that stood so grim and sombre before -- that each tree seems like some bounteous and beautiful woman, arrayed for wedding festivities, who yet bows a moment at a sanctuary in prayer, even as she joins the guests.
The rain had been long coming. A solitary quail predicted it; the first I have heard since the severe cold and deep snows of three winters in succession not long ago. I had thought every quail smothered in the white depths or frozen by the bitter cold. Three years is a long time not to hear a quail whistle, and this I believe to be no survivor of the old stock, but one that has worked up from Southern fields where the snows were less deadly during those rigid winters.
It is pretty hard to tell whether a quail is simply announcing his own name for all who care to hear, or making a weather prediction. Jotham, one of the farmer's men who knows all, says it is simple enough. In an announcement he says, “Bob, Bob White.” The weather prediction is different. Then he says, “Wet, more wet.” All you have to do is listen.
This is like Jotham's grandmother's recipe for making soap. You collected potash from the hearth, added water in an iron kettle, and boiled till a certain thickness was reached. You would know this point by placing an egg on the surface, and if the concoction was right the egg would either sink or swim, the old lady was blessed if she could remember which. This is a way that successful oracles have. That one at Delphos did it.
So, when my lone quail sat on a rock in the pasture, tipped his head back a little, swelled his white throat and whistled, round and clear, I went out to meet him, scanning the sky meanwhile for a change of weather. The sky of the day before had been like a brass bowl shut down over the gasping land. Shrubs of the upland hung their leaves piteously, the tougher herbs wilted, and the tenderer ones dried up and died.
On such days when the long summer drought has wreaked its worst, when the parched pasture lies on its back, open-mouthed, gasping for water, when even the pond which has given so freely for the refreshment of the pasture people has shrunk back upon itself till a rod-wide rim of gravel and rough stones forbids them to come down and drink, I love to go down to the water's edge and marvel at the hedge hyssop. All along the shore the summer drought forbids the water-weeds to grow. This rod-wide space is not for them. The flood of the winter and spring denies other land plants a roothold; yet, just when you think the shore is to be bare and barren for always, troops forth the hedge hyssop and clothes it with verdure, lighted with a golden smile:
The common name of the plant seems to me to express ingenuity rather than purpose. It has nothing to do with hedges and is not a hyssop, which is a garden plant belonging with thyme and lavender and other sweet herbs beloved of old ladies in kerchief caps and figured gowns. The hedge hyssop is none of these. Nine months of the twelve it bides its time under water. During the other three it glows in golden contentment on the sandy stretches left bare by this yearly receding tide, climbing along the rocky shore and filling every crevice, lifting its yellow cups to the glare of the brazen sky and distilling subtle perfume to the antennae of the little low-flying insects that are its friends. Yet if its common name means little, that given it by the botanists fits: Gratiola aurea may well mean a plant that is golden grace or a golden benediction, as you choose to take the Latin.
The day before, then, I had no heart for the upland pasture, but Jotham's reading of the quail had been the right one, for yesterday the brazen look was all blown out of the sky by the south wind. It did not leave it clear blue, for that would have meant cooler and still dry, but put into it a pallor that seemed to well up from all the horizon round. It was not the pallor of clouds, for there was not even a cumulus thunder head in sight, but the pallor that comes with the wind that has a storm behind it, yet is to blow itself out before the storm arrives.
The cuckoo, flitting jerkily from one thicket to the next, noted this pallor from the corner of his eye and thenceforth through the day croaked to himself as he went his caterpillar-hunting rounds. “Clackity clack; tut, tut; cow, cow, cow,” he clucked musically, which is his way of saying, “Oh dear, it is going to rain and the caterpillars will be all soggy.” Jotham says the early settlers out here in the Dorchester backwoods taught the cuckoo to work for them, but that he was so lazy that their descendants, getting better help, gave it up, and that the cuckoo soon forgot all he knew about farm work except calling the cows.
Every bluejay is a born tease, and in the late August drought goes about crying “Rain, rain,” because he knows there will be no rain. He does it merely to fool the pasture people and then chuckle in his phonograph twang over their misery when no rain comes.
Yesterday when he smelt the south wind and saw that sky pallor he stopped calling “Rain, rain,” for he knew it was coming. Instead he fluttered round and round the pasture, ducking in among the boughs of the pines and ejaculating, as if he were surprised to find it so, “Clear, clear.” I fancy all the wild creatures of wood and pasture know the signs better than I do and could announce the rain if they would long before I know that it is coming. All the outdoor world was sure of it yesterday. With the very first show of that paleness in the sky -- or was it something in the touch of the wind? -- the drooping plants lifted their leaves to be ready for it. I could smell it in the falling of the wind at sunset; they seemed to smell it in mid-forenoon while yet the wind was rising.
On such days looking across the pond toward wind and sun there is a peculiar blink in the light reflected from the surface of the waves which you do not see if fair weather is ahead of you. The pale sky seems to reflect blackly in the water. Down to leeward the shore poplars stand silvery white, a quivering, flashing silver under the lash of the wind. The swamp maples lose their green and turn pale and the willows lighten up in color.
It is the turning of the leaves in the wind. You may say that they would any wind and show their lighter under sides, and this is true, yet there is a difference in the appearance when it is a rain-bringing wind. I cannot tell you why this should be, but the difference is there. It may be that a moist wind relaxes the tension of the petioles more than a dry one and thus lets the leaf lie flatter, giving a little different look to the tree as a whole. The weather-wise older people grew up on the land instead of within walls and they were wont to say, “The leaves are turning in the wind and it is going to rain.” Like the pasture people they knew.
By nightfall the weather bureau suspected something but was not quite sure what. They hung out the “possible rain” flag, and all the crows in the pine-wood, congregating now in bigger and bigger flocks, practising, I take it, for their labor-day parade, went into fits of laughter. “Haw, haw, haw!” they shouted, and whirled up into the sky and took a look about and dashed down again, convulsed. “Haw, haw, haw! Possible rain; here's the sky just ready to spill out a twenty-four hour soaker!”
The wind went down with the sun, and the willow and maple leaves were green again for a little before they faded into the growing purple of the dusk, but with every faint sigh of the failing breeze the poplars loomed white again with a radiant ghostliness which seemed to people the rustling dusk with softly phosphorescent spooks. You will see these other-world visitors to the pond shore only on such a night when the wind is right.
There was no glow of rich color in the sky at sunset. Instead the dusk hung violet gray draperies all about the horizon, -- curtains that veiled but did not hide the evening stars, shutting them almost out near the horizon and leaving them comparatively clear at the zenith. In such dusk stars do not twinkle, they blink, and that is a sign of rain which all the pasture people that have eyes know well.
Those that have ears and no eyes may know what sort of a night it is as well, for there is some quality in such an atmosphere which makes sounds carry far. The rap of a paddle on a canoe seat a mile away up the pond sounds right in your ear. A train roaring through the wood three miles distant seems so near that you involuntarily look around lest it be coming behind and run over you.
On such nights speak low if you do not wish the whole world to hear, for the air all about you is a wireless telephone receiver tuned to your pitch. Those gray rain curtains which the dusk has hung all about the horizon have made the whole world a whispering gallery.
Sometime in the night the wind dies. It passes away so peacefully that no mirror held to its lips would note that last sigh. But the stars have known it all the evening, and that is why their eyes blinked so. It was to keep back the tears. Then the stars vanish and the night is dark indeed.
Scents carry far on such a night, not only those of the pasture world, which are pleasant, but those of the more distant town, which sometimes are not. The air is not only telephonic but telefumic. The distant leather factory sends out a faint but characteristic odor by which you might hunt it across country for a lustrum of miles. The sooty emanation from my neighbors' chimneys is pungent in my nostrils, though their houses are a mile away. I think I can tell which is which, for the fireplace smell differs from that of the furnace, as does that of the parlor stove from the range. Agreeably these are forgotten, for something has crushed sassafras leaves over on the pasture knoll and the fine fragrance comes to drive away thoughts of the others.
As the night was gray, which foretells rain, so the morning breaks crimson, which announces it. No bird heralds this dawn, no chirping insect sends its voice questing through its shades. The sky hardly lightens up; it is rather that the darkness turns red. Nor does the light come from the sky when it does come. It wells up from the earth instead, for when the crimson is gone the sky is still black with shadows, while the pasture grows distinct in a gray outline wherein is no color.
A stillness of expectation broods all things, -- a stillness so intense that the first rain-drop sounds like a pistol-shot as it strikes a leaf near you. Then there is a volley and further silence for a brief space, followed by a crepitation all about you. Those first heavy drops have been followed by lighter ones, and this crepitation merges into a steady drumming, which becomes a low roar to your ears made sensitive by silence and faint sounds. The first of the fall rains has come, and the summer suffering of the pasture people is at an end.