FORTNIGHT after I have gathered the last handful of perfect flowers from the fading anemones, and looked on the primroses at their best, I return to the woods.
A blue mist steals over the bank running down to the stream. There is a sheen through the undergrowth, as of beauty in hiding.
It is an April day, somewhat past the middle of the month, between the leafing of the sloe and the blossoming of the hawthorn. The walk across the country by the bursting hedgerows was delightful. A sky broken with clouds, the fields with shadows, and a sun warm enough to make the shelter of trees grateful. Just the day when one has only to step into the shade to be cool, and out into the sunshine to be warm: when one cheek is in the pleasant sunshine, and the other in the cool shadow.
On the way, the birds were alert and busy. The gush of song on either hand was incessant, ever breaking out afresh and ahead, as if I were passing along a lane bordered on either side by melody; or, rather, through an arch, of which the lark's song was the highest part. Flashes of fresh colour appeared for a moment, as the greenfinch passed from tree to tree, and the yellow-hammer from hedge to hedge. Beauty as well as melody bordered and arched the lanes. One cannot mistake the presence of spring in April.
The dry slope of woodland bank is inviting.
One can drink in the exceeding loveliness of such surroundings better when he is lying down. The shadows over the current, and up the far bank fall so pleasantly across the spirit. Only in so far as there are spirit shadows can we see their beauty. No tracery in Nature is more delicate than that above, except that shadow tracery of twigs and bursting buds below. One can scarce help being beautiful in soul while he lies here. He is only reflecting.
The chaffinch, without whose spring note the budding woods would scarcely seem themselves, is now in full song. If the lay is not sweet, it is woodland, which is far better, and shows how much music owes to the scene in which we delight to hear it. No other song would please so much.
The scent as well as the complexion of the den has changed. It is no longer the spiritual essence - so faintly sweet when diffused through the outer air - of primrose. At least not altogether; though there, it is hard to detect. Something heavier - too heavy in the concentrated sweetness into which it is gathered in the close defile between the banks - overpowers the rest.
The primroses are still abroad among the wood grasses, or beside the mossy stump, or under the bole of the fallen tree. Scattered here and there, according to their wont, they charm the eye that wanders over the woodland floor, with their picturesque setting and frequent surprises. No two are placed exactly alike.
The habit of the hyacinth is different. With less genius for setting, it becomes picturesque only when seen at a distance. More prodigal of its favours, it spreads out in sheets, broken only by the tree boles under the lights and shadows. Within its areas, nor blade nor leaf of aught else is suffered to appear. I am crushing scores of them where I lie; and I am lying here simply because I could find no other place where they were not.
All round about me, within easy reach of my hand, the pendent blossoms hang down the stalks, so that I can see all I want without pulling or breaking. When I lay my head back, a flower ripples over either cheek in hyacinthine locks of blue.
That it belongs to the lilies is made plain even by the grass-like leaves. And, like the rest of that lovely family, it is able, by a certain natural providence, to make an early start. I cut a little square in the turf round the stem, and dig the whole plant out. And there, half a foot down in the brown mould, is the store of food laid up in the past season against the spring.
Several flowers are so closely woven-in with the name of our country, that we, who were born here, can scarcely recall the day we thought of them apart. When we begin "the blue bells," we feel as if we had not said enough till we add "of Scotland."
The blue bell has found its way into song, as blooming more distinctly than any other wild flower in the author's mental picture of the land. Others have had some favourite object chosen from amid the scenes where they were reared, some symbol of so much combined love of nature and patriotism as they possessed. An exile passionately recalled Scotland by "the broom that hung its tassels on the lea," and, among birds, by the "lintie's sang." Being destitute of imagination or the power of expression, we borrow from the more gifted. And it is amusing how fervently some of us, when in poetic vein, sing of what we never saw, and exult in what we never cared for.
In the esteem of this man, the blue bell is not only worthy of Scotland, but also more to be proud of than the "jasmine bowers and rose-covered dells" of sunnier lands. And we echo the sentiment, without being quite sure what is meant.
There happen to be two bells, or rather bell-like flowers, each of which might well advance its claims. And the unstinted praise may well lead to a battle or duel of the flowers. The earlier in the field is the wild hyacinth.
I bend one of the stalks gently toward me. The petals close, and turn out at the tip into a delicate vase shape. It is a Scots bell, although not distinctively so. And there is no valid reason to be found in the beauty of the plant, in the charm it lends to hundreds of our dells, in the character it gives to our spring woodlands, in the delight it yields to all lovers of nature, and in the gap it would leave if it deserted its haunts - for what else would fill up the space which divides the primrose and the summer flowers? - why it should not be the Scottish Blue Bell.
True, it is not found everywhere. Many countrysides are without it. Many shady places may be searched without the tell-tale odour revealing its presence, and guiding to its twilight domain. Many dells as promising as this have to supply the want as best they can.