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AT nightfall the wind ceased, ashamed perhaps of its prolonged violence, and we felt the soft presence of April all about. Someone had suddenly wrapped the world in a protecting mantle of perfumed dreams.
Hitherto it had been struggling to realize spring, succeeding here and there indeed, but always against cold disfavor and sullen opposition. Now, in a breath almost, joys and relaxation had come to all out-door creatures, and the air itself was suffused with tears of relief that brimmed over and made little laughing patterings on bare twigs and brown grass. Till then we had had no green of spring. The woodland world had been pink, and amber, and full of soft yearning of colors in hope and promise; flowers had struggled bravely forth here and there, but they had smiled patiently on a land brown with pasture grass of last year.
Yet in a night the full warmth of April fondness and her tears of joy at being really home again changed all that. Under the patter of wee showers the wan grasses of last year laid weary heads upon the black earth beneath them and went to sleep, while up in their places sprang the lush green spears of this year, glinting back a million joyous facets to the next morning's sun that thus seemed to sprinkle all things with gleam of jewels.
They came very softly at first in the black dusk, these April showers, growing out of the air so close to my cheek that their touch upon it was infinitely fine and soothing. Thus the dew touches the grass on still nights in summer. To be alone in the pasture on such a night is to become one with all the primal gentleness of the universe. I could feel the happiness of the pasture shrubs and perennial herbs and germinating annuals, growing now on the warm bosom of mother earth, tucked away beneath the perfumed robe of April night.
The night before the cold sky was blown miles high in the air by the rough winds, and the pasture people sighed and shrank and shivered. The night out of which April showers were to be born descended like a benediction, and swathed all humble things in caressing warmth that was tremulous with moisture and perfume.
With the rain came gentle woodland sprites; and while it played them a merry, ghostly tune, they worked in harmony. They pressed the wan brown grass lovingly down and patted the black earth over it till it went to sleep. They pulled lustily at germinating blades, and in their labor, there under the darkness, they painted out in a night the brown of last year with the verdant pigment of this. They hammered and pried at the tough, varnished outer husks of buds, and finally worked them open and began unfolding the soft yellow-green of the young leaves within.
Thus the tips of huckleberry twigs, which had given a soft shade of wine red to the pasture all winter long, lost this tint and bourgeoned into palest green, and the shadbush buds began to shake loose their racemes of bloom. The little people worked in squads, and showers played their merry tunes hither and yon as they labored.
All through the night the fresh smell of the open pores of earth met you everywhere, and moist air built upon this all other odors and carried them very far. An opened kitchen door in the distance let out not only a rainbow-edged blur of yellow light, but the smell of fresh-baked bread cooling on the table before being put away in the big stone crock in the pantry by some belated New England housewife.
With the lullaby roar of the distant brook came the odor of the willow blooms, and with a shift of wind the faint resinous perfume of the pine wood. The darkness which blots outlines from the sight leaves the location of things to the other senses which serve faithfully. Scent and sound are as apprehensive as sight. Often, walking in the darkness, one may feel faintly the obscure workings of a sense which is none of these, whereby he dodges a tree trunk or a fence corner which he feels is there, yet through none of the five ordinary senses. The darkness gives us antennae.
The April showers touch with caressing fingers the chords of all things and bring music from them, each according to its kind. In the open forest under deciduous trees the dead leaves thrummed a ghostly dirge like that of the "Dead March in Saul." Winter ghosts marched to it in solemn procession out of the woodland. Memories of sleet and deep snow, ice storm, and heartbreaking frost, tramped soggily in sullen procession over the misty ridge and on northward toward the barren lands to the north of Hudson's Bay. Thrilling through this solemn march below I heard the laughing fantasia of young drops upon bourgeoning twigs above, dirge and ditty softening in distance to a mystic music, a rune of the ancient earth. In the open pasture the tune changed again. It was there a chirpy crepitation that presaged all the tiny, cheerful insects whose songs will make May nights merry. These, no doubt, take their first music lessons from the patter of belated April showers on the grass roofs of their homes.
But it was down on the pond margin that I found the most perfect music. Slender mists danced to it, fluttering softly up from the margin, swaying together in ecstasy, and floating away into a gray dreamland of delight. It was the-same tune, with quaint, syncopated variations, that the budding twigs and the brown pasture grasses had given forth, but more sprightly and with a bell-like tinkle more clear and fresh than any other sound that can be made, this tintinnabulation of falling globules ringing against their kindred water.
Every drop danced into the air again on striking and in the mellow glow of an obscure twilight I could see the surface stippled with pearly light. Then through it all came a new song; the first soloist of the night, the first of his kind of the season, thrilling a long, dreamy, heart-stirring cadenza of happiness, the love call of the swamp tree frog.
As the pattering music of the April showers on the waiting land is a rune of the ancient earth, so the love song of the swamp tree frog dreams down the years to us all the way from the carboniferous age. When the coal measures were forests of tree ferns, and the first men paddled through steaming shallows in their shade, the swamp tree, frog was a tree frog indeed, and sang his soothing song from their branches. Since then he has degenerated and has lost most of the adhesive power of the tiny disks on fingers and toes. He no longer clings readily to trees, and is but an awkward climber. So, too, the webbing between his toes has nearly vanished, and he is not a strong swimmer. He haunts the shallows of the swamps and the sunny pools on the margin of the deep cove.
Perhaps he knows that he is degenerate, and that his safety lies mainly in silence and obscurity, for he sings rarely, except in the first heyday of spring, when the air is full of soft mists and warmth that stirs the deep-lying memories of the carboniferous age. He is a beautiful fellow, hardly more than an inch long, often flesh-colored, and with coppery iris tints that should make the mouths of frog-eating creatures water. It is for desire of him I believe that the pickerel haunt the veriest shallows at this time of year, where you may see them of an evening with their back fins sticking out like the latticed sails of a Chinese junk.
I do not believe there is anywhere to be heard a dreamier or more soothing lullaby than that sung by the swamp tree frogs of a misty April night to the tinkling accompaniment of showers pattering upon the dancing surface of the pond. It begins in a sigh, swells till it stirs a memory, and dies away in a dream of its own happiness.
All the warm, soothing night the swamp tree frogs sang, and the showers made music for the laboring sprites, and when the morning came it was to a world new clothed in all Easter finery. The raindrop sprites had beaten and relaid the pasture carpets that had been so brown with the dust of last year, and now they were so clean and had such a soft, green nap that it was a renewed pleasure to walk on them. Green, too,. was the wear of many of the pasture shrubs, and the fripperies of the shadbush made the more sober ones turn heads to look at her again. Already she had creamed the sage green of her delicate gown with the white of opening buds, and the berry bushes and the wild cherry, the viburnums, and all the other early flowering shrubs felt a touch of their own coming joy in just looking at her.
Loveliest of all these pasture folk was the sweet gale. If you would know how beautiful just catkins can make a slender, modest creature you should hasten into the pasture now and take note of her. Until last night you would have passed her by without noting, so modest and reticent she is.
The other two members of her family have been for months more in evidence. The sweet fern keeps some of her last year's leaves still, and as you pass tosses a bouquet of perfume to you that you may know she is by. The bayberry holds blue candles to, the wind all winter, and the incense of them carries far. But the sweet gale is too modest and shy for such things. She just sits quiet and unobserved, and thinks holy thoughts, and because she does so it seems as if all the warmth and kindness of April sun and April showers touched her first.
The catkins of the sweet fern were still hard and varnished, and had not cracked a smile this morning after the night of April showers. Not a candle of the bayberry had melted or shown flame in all this softness and warmth, yet there stood the gentle sweet gale all aflame with soft amber and pale gold, a veritable burning bush of beauty. There is no perfume from these blossoms, so gently shy and self-contained is the plant. Both the bayberry and sweet fern will woo you from a distance with rich aroma, but only after the leaves have come, and then only if you bruise them, will you get a message from the shy heart of the sweet gale.
On such a morning it seems as if all the birds were here, flitting back and forth through the soft blue early mists and singing for pure joy in the soft air and gentle warmth. For the first time the robins sang as if they meant it, not in great numbers, though there are legions of them here, but enough so that you can easily forecast the power of the full chorus which will tune up a little later. Blackbirds and bluebirds caroled, and song sparrows fairly split their throats, and now and then a flicker would sit up on a top bough, clear his throat, throw out his chest and pipe up "Tucker-tucker-tucker-tucker-tucker," then, abashed at the noise he had made, go off on tiptoe, very much ashamed, as well he might be.
Not a fox sparrow could I see; I think they went on the day before, but a kingfisher was flying from cove to cove, springing that cheerful cry of his, which sounds as if someone were rattling a stick on his slats. A meadow lark piped a clear whistle from the top of a pitch pine, then alternately fluttered and sailed down into the grass for an early bite. The chipping sparrow swelled his little gray throat and trilled a homely, contented note, and there was a clamor of blue jays as the hour grew late.
There was a clamor of blue jays as the hour grew late
I find the blue jay a lazy chap. No early morning revelry is for him. Breakfast is a serious matter, not to be entered into lightly or with chattering. Later in the day he is apt to be noisy enough, though he never sings in public. The nearest he ever comes to it is when, in a crowd of good fellows, he gives you an imitation of some other bird, for the blue jay is a good deal of a mimic. But it is always a burlesque, and it rarely gets beyond the first few notes before a jeering chorus from his companions cuts it off, nor do you ever know whether they are jeering at him or the bird he is burlesquing. I fancy it does not matter to them as long as they have a chance to jeer.
The crows are rather silent now, though occasionally there is a dreadful towrow over a love affair which does not run smooth. Crows are such canny Scotchmen of the woods that you would hardly expect them to throw caution to the winds and have a riot and a duel with much loud talk over a love affair, but it does happen. Among the pines a day or two ago I heard a great screaming and scolding, cries of anger and distress, and then, before I could reach the scene, silence.
When I got there all I saw was two crows slipping shamefacedly away behind the tree tops. I thought it merely a lovers' quarrel, but the next day I found beneath the pines not far from the spot a handsome young crow dandy, dead. It puzzled me a bit. He bore no marks of shot, but seemingly had died by violence. He was a stout youngster and had been in the prime of life and vigor. This morning, when all the soft glamor of the spring seemed made for lovers, and many of the birds were very happy about it, I heard another crow quarrel going on, and was mean enough to spy on it.
There was a lady, very demure, and there were two lovers anything but demure. Neither could get near enough to the lady to croak soft words of love in her ear, for the other immediately flew at him in a rage. The two tore about among the trees, hurling bad words at one another. It was distinct profanity. They towered high in air and dove perilously one after the other back into the woods again, screaming reckless oaths. Now and then they came together, and one or the other yelled with pain. It lasted but a few minutes, but it was a very hot scrimmage. Then one of them evidently had enough, and abandoned the fight, taking refuge in a thick fir very near me. No one of the three minded my presence.
The victor went back to his lady love on mincing wings, and though I could not see them I knew that he was received with open favor, for the cooing of cawing that followed was positively uncanny. As a reckless freebooter, a wise and jovial latter-day Robin Hood of the woods, I like the crow; but his love-making voice, dear me! One of Macbeth's witches might address the cauldron in the same tone. Evidently the discomfited rival thought so too, for he began to jaw in an undertone and flew grumbling away, mostly on one wing. I have no direct evidence, of course, but I think my dead crow came to his untimely end in. one of these duels between rival lovers.
I was glad to leave the crows behind me for once, and then in the full sunshine of the later morning I chanced upon a tree full of goldfinches. It was a tree full, also, of most delightful music. Each bird was vying with the other in a spring song that was more in tune with the surroundings than any ever written by Bach or Schumann, a pure outgiving of blossoming delight.
The birds themselves have just come into new bloom. Like the sweet gale they seem to have put on new color of gold almost in a night, for they made yellow gleams that were like blossoms all about on the bare twigs, their black wings making the color more vivid by contrast. Yesterday it was, or was it the day before, that these lovely singers were going about in sober brown, like sparrows. Now suddenly they are splashes of tropic sunshine. It is their mating plumage which they will wear until late August puts them in brown again. They are so happy about it, and their rich, variable songs are such a delight that I am glad they do not quit wooing and go to nest-building until late June, the latest, I think, of all our birds. And while I listened to the goldfinches a tiny bit of the sky fell. It lighted on a leaf by me, and expanded its wings and enjoyed the full sun. It was one of the least of butterflies and one of the loveliest, the common blue, the winter form, so called because it comes thus in April from a chrysalid that has passed the rigors of winter successfully. Like the blossoming sweet gale the song of the swamp tree frog and the gold of the goldfinch's plumage this tiny, fearless bit of blue is a seal of the actual soft presence of the spring, which comes only when the April showers have made her calling and election sure.
To be sure, we might have a whiff of snow yet, but it will be only the dust blown far from the fleeing feet of those winter ghosts now scuffing the tundra up where the Saskatchewan empties into Hudson's Bay.
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