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Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
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THE cornfields immediately without London on the southern side are among the first to be reaped. Regular as if clipped to a certain height, the level wheat shows the slope of the ground, corresponding to it, so that the glance travels swiftly and unchecked across the fields. They scarce seemed divided, for the yellow ears on either side rise as high as the cropped hedge between.
Red spots, like larger poppies, now appear above and now dive down again beneath the golden surface. These are the red caps worn by some of the reapers; some of the girls, too, have a red scarf across the shoulder or round the waist. By instinctive sympathy the heat of summer requires the contrast of brilliant hues, of scarlet and gold, of poppy and wheat.
A girl, as she rises from her stooping position, turns a face, brown, as if stained with walnut juice, towards me, the plain gold ring in her brown ear gleams, so, too, the rings on her finger, nearly black from the sun, but I her dark eyes scarcely pause a second on a stranger. She is too busy, her tanned fingers are at work again gathering up the cut wheat. This is no gentle labour, but "hard hand-play," like that in the battle of the olden time sung by the Saxon poet.
The ceaseless stroke of the reaping-hook falls on the ranks of the corn: the corn yields, but only inch by inch. If the burning sun, or thirst, or weariness forces the reaper to rest, the fight too stays, the ranks do not retreat, and victory is only won by countless blows. The boom of a bridge as a train rolls over the iron girders resounds, and the brazen dome on the locomotive is visible for a moment as it passes across the valley. But no one heeds it — the train goes on its way to the great city, the reapers abide by their labour. Men and women, lads and girls, some mere children, judged by their stature, are plunged as it were in the wheat.
The few that wear bright colours are seen: the many who do not are unnoticed. Perhaps the dusky girl here with the red scarf may have some strain of the gipsy, some far-off reminiscence of the sunlit East which caused her to wind it about her. The sheaf grows under her fingers, it is bound about with a girdle of twisted stalks, in which mingle the green bine of convolvulus and the pink-streaked bells that must fade.
Heat comes down from above; heat comes up from beneath, from the dry, white earth, from the rows of stubble, as if emitted by the endless tubes of cut stalks pointing upwards. Wheat is a plant of the sun: it loves the heat, and heat crackles in the rustle of the straw. The pimpernels above which the hook passed are wide open: the larger white convolvulus trumpets droop languidly on the low hedge: the distant hills are dim with the vapour of heat; the very clouds which stay motionless in the sky reflect a yet more brilliant light from their white edges. Is there no shadow?
There is no tree in the field, and the low hedge can shelter nothing; but bordering the next, on rather higher ground, is an ash copse, with some few spruce firs.
Resting on a rail in the shadow of these firs, a light air now and again draws along beside the nut-tree bushes of the hedge, the cooler atmosphere of the shadow, perhaps causes it. Faint as it is, it sways the heavy laden brome grass, but is not strong enough to lift a ball of thistledown from the bennets among which it is entangled.
How swiftly the much-desired summer comes upon us! Even with the reapers at work before one it is difficult to realise that it has not only come, but will soon be passing away. Sweet summer is but just long enough for the happy loves of the larks. It seems but yesterday, it is really more than five months since, that, leaning against the gate there, I watched a lark and his affianced on the ground among the grey stubble of last year still standing.
His crest was high and his form upright, he ran a little way and then sang, went on again and sang again to his love, moving parallel with him. Then passing from the old dead stubble to fresh-turned furrows, still they went side by side, now down in the valley between the clods, now mounting the ridges, but always together, always with song and joy, till I lost them across the brown earth. But even then from time to time came the sweet voice, full of hope in coming summer.
The day declined, and from the clear, cold sky of March the moon looked down, gleaming on the smooth planed furrow which the plough had passed. Scarce had she faded in the dawn ere the lark sang again, high in the morning sky. The evenings became dark; still he rose above the shadows and the dusky earth, and his song fell from the bosom of the night. With full untiring choir the joyous host heralded the birth of the corn; the slender forceless seed-leaves which came gently up till they had risen above the proud crests of the lovers.
Time advanced and the bare mounds about the field, carefully cleaned by the husbandman, were covered again with wild herbs and plants, like a fringe to a garment of pure green. Parsley and "gix," and clogweed, and sauce-alone, whose white flowers smell of garlic if crushed in the fingers, came up along the hedge; by the gateway from the bare trodden earth appeared the shepherd's purse; small must be the coin to go in its seed capsule, and therefore it was so called with grim and truthful humour, for the shepherd, hard as is his work, facing wind and weather, carries home but little money.
Yellow charlock shot up faster and shone bright above the corn; the oaks showered down their green flowers like moss upon the ground; the tree-pipits sang on the branches and descending to the wheat. The rusty chain-harrow, lying inside the gate, all tangled together, was concealed with grasses. Yonder the magpies fluttered over the beans among which they are always searching in spring; blackbirds, too, are fond of a beanfield.
Time advanced again, and afar on the slope bright yellow mustard flowered, a hill of yellow behind the elms. The luxuriant purple of trifolium, acres of rich colour, glowed in the sunlight. There was a scent of flowering beans, the vetches were in flower, and the peas which clung together for support — the stalk of the pea goes through the leaf as a painter thrusts his thumb through his palette. Under the edge of the footpath through the wheat a wild pansy blooms.
Standing in the gateway beneath the shelter of the elms as the clouds come over, it is pleasant to hear the cool refreshing rain come softly down; the green wheat drinks it as it falls, so that hardly a drop reaches the ground, and to-morrow it will be as dry as ever. Wood-pigeons call from the hedges, and blackbirds whistle in the trees; the sweet delicious rain refreshes them as it does the corn.
Thunder mutters in the distance, and the electric atmosphere rapidly draws the wheat up higher. A few days' sunshine and the first wheatear appears. Very likely there are others near, but standing with their hood of green leaf towards you, and therefore hidden. As the wheat comes into ear it is garlanded about with hedges in full flower.
It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the high-reaching briars white June roses; white flowers on the lowly brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner, and white cornels blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch; white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.
But these, though the most prominent along the hedge, are not the only flowers; the prevalent white is embroidered with other hues. The brown feathers of a few reeds growing where the furrows empty the showers into the ditch, wave above the corn. Among the leaves of mallow its mauve petals are sheltered from the sun. On slender stalks the yellow vetchling blooms, reaching ambitiously as tall as the lowest of the brambles. Bird's-foot lotus, with red claws, is overtopped by the grasses.
The elm has a fresh green — it has put forth its second or midsummer shoot; the young leaves of the aspen are white, and the tree as the wind touches it seems to turn grey. The furrows run to the ditch under the reeds, the ditch declines to a little streamlet which winds all hidden by willowherb and rush and flag, a mere trickle of water under brooklime, away at the feet of the corn. In the shadow, deep down beneath the crumbling bank which is only held up by the roots of the grasses, is a forget-me-not with a tiny circlet of yellow in the centre of its petals.
The coming of the ears of wheat forms an era and a date, a fixed point in the story of the summer. It is then that, soon after dawn, the clear sky assumes the delicate and yet luscious purple which seems to shine through the usual atmosphere, as if its former blue became translucent and an inner and ethereal light of colour was shown. As the sun rises higher the brilliance of his rays overpowers it, and even at midsummer it is but rarely seen.
The morning sky is often, too, charged with saffron, or the blue is clear, but pale, and the sunrise might be watched for many mornings without the appearance of this exquisite hue. Once seen, it will ever be remembered. Upon the Downs in early autumn, as the vapours clear away, the same colour occasionally gleams from the narrow openings of blue sky. But at midsummer, above the opening wheatears, the heaven from the east to the zenith is flushed with it.
At noonday, as the light breeze comes over, the wheat rustles the more because the stalks are stiffening and swing from side to side from the root instead of yielding up the stem. Stay now at every gateway and lean over while the midsummer hum sounds above. It is a peculiar sound, not like the querulous buzz of the honey, nor the drone of the humble bee, but a sharp ringing resonance like that of a tuning-fork. Sometimes, in the far-away country where it is often much louder, the folk think it has a threatening note.
Here the barley has taken a different tint now the beard is out; here the oats are straggling forth from their sheath; here a pungent odour of mustard in flower comes on the air; there a poppy faints with broad petals flung back and drooping, unable to uphold its gorgeous robes. The flower of the field pea, here again, would make a model for a lady's hat; so would a butterfly with closed wings on the verge of a leaf; so would the broom blossom, or the pink flower of the restharrow. This hairy caterpillar, creeping along the hawthorn, which if touched, immediately coils itself in a ring, very recently was thought a charm in distant country places for some diseases of childhood, if hung about the neck. Hedge mustard, yellow and ragged and dusty, stands by the gateway.
In the evening, as the dew gathers on the grass, which feels cooler to the hand some time before an actual deposit, the clover and vetches close their leaves — the signal the hares have been waiting for to venture from the sides of the fields where they have been cautiously roaming, and take bolder strolls across the open and along the lanes. The aspens rustle louder in the stillness of the evening; their leaves not only sway to and fro, but semi-rotate upon the stalks, which causes their scintillating appearance. The stars presently shine from the pale blue sky, and the wheat shimmers dimly white beneath them.
So time advances till to-day, watching the reapers from the shadow of the copse, it seems as if within that golden expanse there must be something hidden, could you but rush in quickly and seize it — some treasure of the sunshine; and there is a treasure, the treasure of life stored in those little grains, the slow product of the sun. But it cannot be grasped in an impatient moment — it must be gathered with labour. I have threshed out in my hand three ears of the ripe wheat: how many foot-pounds of human energy do these few light grains represent?
The roof of the Crystal Palace yonder gleams and sparkles this afternoon as if it really were crystal under the bright rays. But it was concealed by mist when the ploughs in the months gone by were guided in these furrows by men, hard of feature and of hand, stooping to their toil. The piercing east wind scattered the dust in clouds, looking at a distance like small rain across the field, when grey-coated men, grey too of beard, followed the red drill to and fro.
How many times the horses stayed in this sheltered corner while the ploughmen and their lads ate their crusts 1 How many times the farmer and the bailiff, with hands behind their backs, considering, walked along the hedge taking counsel of the earth if they had done right! How many times hard gold and silver was paid over at the farmer's door for labour while yet the plant was green; how many considering cups of ale were emptied in planning out the future harvest!
Now it is come, and still more labour — look at the reapers yonder — and after that more time and more labour before the sacks go to the market. Hard toil and hard fare: the bread which the reapers have brought with them for their luncheon is hard and dry, the heat has dried it like a chip. In the corner of the field the women have gathered some sticks and lit a fire — the flame is scarce seen in the sunlight, and the sticks seem eaten away as they burn by some invisible power. They are boiling a kettle, and their bread, too, which they will soak in the tea, is dry and chip-like. Aside, on the ground by the hedge, is a handkerchief tied at the corners, with a few mushrooms in it.
The scented clover field — the white campions dot it here and there — yields a rich, nectareous food for ten thousand bees, whose hum comes together with its odour on the air. But these men and women and children ceaselessly toiling know no such sweets; their food is as hard as their labour. How many foot-pounds, then, of human energy do these grains in my hand represent? Do they not in their little compass contain the potentialities, the past and the future, of human life itself?
Another train booms across the iron bridge in the hollow. In a few hours now the carriages will be crowded with men hastening home from their toil in the City. The narrow streak of sunshine which day by day falls for a little while upon the office floor, yellowed by the dingy pane, is all, perhaps, to remind them of the sun and sky, of the forces of nature; and that little is unnoticed. The pressure of business is so severe in these later days that in the hurry and excitement it is not wonderful many should forget that the world is not comprised in the court of a City thoroughfare.
Rapt and absorbed in discount and dollars, in bills and merchandise, the over-strung mind deems itself all — the body is forgotten, the physical body, which is subject to growth and change, just as the plants and the very grass of the field. But there is a subtle connection between the physical man and the great nature which comes pressing up so closely to the metropolis. He still depends in the nineteenth century, as in the dim ages before the Pyramids, upon this tiny yellow grain here, rubbed out from the ear of wheat. The clever mechanism of the locomotive which bears him to and fro, week after week and month after month, from home to office and from office home, has not rendered him in the least degree independent of this.
But it is no wonder that these things are forgotten in the daily struggle of London. And if the merchant spares an abstracted glance from the morning or evening newspaper out upon the fields from the carriage window, the furrows of the field can have but little meaning. Each looks to him exactly alike. To the farmers and the labourer such and such a furrow marks an acre and has its bearing, but to the passing glance it is not so. The work in the field is so slow; the passenger by rail sees, as it seems to him, nothing going on; the corn may sow itself almost for all that is noteworthy in apparent labour.
Thus it happens that, although the cornfields and the meadows come so closely up to the offices and warehouses of mighty London, there is a line and mark in the minds of men between them; the man of merchandise does not see what the man of the fields sees, though both may pass the same acres every morning. It is inevitable that it should be so. It is easy in London to forget that it is midsummer, till, going some day into Covent Garden Market, you see baskets of the cornflower, or blue-bottle as it is called in the country, ticketed "Corinne," and offered for sale. The lovely azure of the flower recalls the scene where it was first gathered long since at the edge of the wheat.
By the copse here now the teazles lift their spiny heads high in the hedge, the young nuts are browning, the wild mints flowering on the shores of the ditch, and the reapers are cutting ceaselessly at the ripe corn. The larks have brought their loves to a happy conclusion. Besides them the wheat in its day has sheltered many other creatures — both animals and birds.
Hares raced about it in the spring, and even in the May sunshine might be seen rambling over the slopes. As it grew higher it hid the leverets and the partridge chicks. Toll has been taken by rook, and sparrow, and pigeon. Enemies, too, have assailed it; the daring couch invaded it, the bindweed climbed up the stalk, the storm rushed along and beat it down. Yet it triumphed, and to-day the full sheaves lean against each other.