A rush, and a ripple of maiden voices, tell of another flower in sight. It is a little farther afield. What with the competition and the impetus of the race, the winner steps or is pushed just a foot or so among the grain, leaving a little gap of bent stalks and drooping heads. Silence falls on the group, and a timid glance is cast up and down the road to see if any of the farm people have been looking. Then the grain is straightened once more, so that no one could have told that anything had happened.
This is a still lovelier prize than the other. What blue in nature can compare with the circle of florets round the pink disc of the field cyanea?
Concerning the proper name of the plant, or rather the sole right to the name it sometimes gets, there is a considerable difference of opinion. One day the farmer, a shrewd man, whose keen eyes look out from beneath shaggy brows, stopped me by this very field and pointed it out as the "blawort." I was struck at the time, less with his knowledge than the evident enthusiasm of one who had a sworn feud with the laburnums and lime trees. Did not these field flowers equally bloom at the expense of the grain!
And now the verdict of these maidens, better than much discussion, is on the same side; all of which goes to show that from our blues, our borages, our bells, our forget-me-nots, this has been chosen out as pre-eminently the bluewort. Perhaps it is better known to country people than the others, or was in olden shearing days, when all were abroad during the bright autumn months.
The field is an exception to every rule, and the hues of all the seasons at their best mingle with the corn.
No excitement is manifested as the somewhat washed-out lilac of the blue-cap is added to the increasing collection. Not until a richer yellow flushes the straw-coloured grain is there another merry stampede, moderated by the remembrance of their recent transgression.
"Gowans! Gowans!" is the cry. True, they call other flowers gowans as well; in the country they have general names for similar things; but this is the true one.
Golden they are! Golden they look in the autumn sunshine and amid the paler shades! Chrysanthemums! Flowers of gold! Golden rays! Golden disc, nearly two inches across of rarest, richest gold! No need to hurry; there are plenty for all. "Far too many," says the farmer, relapsing into bad humour. But what care these heedless minds, these children of the senses, for questions of profit and loss!
Weeds are flowers in their wrong place. Pity, then, that such glorious flowers should be in their wrong place, and that war to the death should be waged against them in the interests of modern cultivation. The fields of Germany are brighter than those of Scotland. Those of the islands and other outlying parts of the land are gardens in comparison with the unbroken yellow of many of our fields.
They are not in the wrong place, as far as the fitness of their surroundings goes. Nowhere could they look so well as among the grain. It would almost seem as if they were aware of this. For most of them refuse to wander, seem nervous to approach even the margin of the field, and are seldom surprised far away. If odd ones appear here and there, it is only for a season; and, being annuals all of them, no progeny seems to be left. Cornflowers appear in the wilds seldomer even than cultivated plants, and are much more reluctant to settle there.
In the gardens to which, because of their brightness, they are often transported against their will by the injudicious, they have already lost half of their charm for lack of environment. The gaiety with which they laughed among the corn, or peeped through between the heads, or rejoiced as they rose and fell on the billows of light and shadow, and hailed one another over the field, is all gone. As well take one of the village maidens and place her in a drawing-room.
Golden handfuls are passed down to the children.
But the best is yet to come - the cornflower par excellence, which makes the autumn fields a joy and a memory.
Not wayside poppies, not shabby poppies, not washed - out poppies, but they of the short-fruited kind - poppies with ample petals of intensest scarlet dye; not nearly so common as many seem to think - absent from large districts of the country where poppies abound - oftenest found, perhaps, near the seaside, probably because of the poverty of the soil.
These, wherever found, are the true corn poppies. See them against the yellow, see them in the sunshine, see them in the shadow, see them in the ripples of light and shade, see them anyway, and say if ever you saw anything so fair.
Poppies are distant in their mood; it may be because their beauty is so evanescent that a touch will dissipate it, their petals so fragile that a movement will shed them. Hand grasps hand to prevent the yellow-haired maiden falling forward among the yellow grain.
Satisfied at length, they turn away and pass the clump of harebells chiming to the selfsame painted lady. The butterfly rises to tempt another scamper; but the young have grown wise by experience, and the maidens have other thoughts, innocently vain, in their heads.
They sit down, big and little, under the selfsame lime tree to portion out the spoil, and to deck themselves with colours suited to each complexion.
"A poppy for you, and a gowan for you." And a little cloud comes across the sun, and a shadow falls through the air, and a gentle breeze chases over the field, and the heads of corn bend down as if to listen to the converse of the maidens.
"And a blawort for you."
Attracted, it may be, by the murmur, some outsiders of the great flocks of linnets and greenfinches feeding on the grain come to the edge of the field, and bend the stalks still further that they too may hear.
Meantime the children have secured another dandelion.
One, two, three.
Without any act or wish of theirs, the third blow clears the disc. So quick is the passage of time in these early years! The long shadows cast over the straw colour by the lime trees might have told them that, had they cared to look.
"It's three o'clock; what will mother say?"
Not that they fear; for they know that the blame will fall on the elders.
Bright are the hats, careless the minds, and innocent the spirits of these country maidens as they pass homeward along the path between the cornfields.