THE children are sitting under a lime tree, spelling out the time of day on a dandelion.
By the way, they call it dentelion - dent-de-lion - a relic, it is said, of the old friendship between the French and the Scots, just as the sorrel at Craigmillar left by Mary's vanished hand recalls a still closer tie.
Concerning that, of course, they know nothing, and care less.
"One, two, three, four."
The puffs are very gentle, because they have to get a good deal out of it.
"Five, six, seven, eight."
After this they scarcely breathe lest they scatter too many at once.
" Nine, ten, eleven."
Quite a circle clings round the edge, needing a good strong blow from a little distance to clear the disc. The ruddiest and likeliest of the band is chosen for the final effort, and succeeds in clearing away all but two.
"Ten minutes past twelve," they reckon.
It is really a quarter past, which is wonderfully near for such a primitive timekeeper, quite as near as most modern watches come.
Thus warned of the flight of the slower winged hours, and the quicker beat of the flock of smaller minutes, the children jump to their feet, and with a rattle of cans make off for the farm.
The purple thistle is fading. To the few perfect heads the foggies cling with a helpless indecision which fears to trust itself away, lest they take other than a bee-line home. It is with thistles as with school games; they have their season. That for cheeses and foggies has gone by.
The marsh thistle still raises itself out of the ditch, until its crimson heads, brighter than ever, are quite on a level with those of the children.
These prickless cousins of the thistles, the purple roadside centaureas - ironweeds as they are called, from the hard packing of their heads - are in flower. Of little use, and less ornament, they have no interest for the needle-eyed but eminently practical naturalists. No one who has put a centaurea in his mouth will try it again. In the main, the glory has departed. The blues and whites of summer have given place to the darker hues - red and purple - not many reds, only purples.
Harebells - a relic of the blues - tremble on autumn airs, so light as scarce to fan the children's hot cheeks. Some ring their chimes down the ditch side to the dark meadow butterflies.
One tall tuft is chiming its graceful bells to a great painted lady on the path. The children approach the bells and catch sight of the butterfly. Flowers are cast away. Cans, whose descent is made noisier by rattling coppers, roll into the ditch, and the chase begins. Most of the fun is with the butterfly, which enters on the game with the utmost zest.
With arm in readiness for action, the children pull one foot after the other. Suddenly they drop the ribbonless hat. Bit by bit they lift the broken brim to peep under. Slowly they realise that the covered spot is deserted.
"There it is!"
And they are off in pursuit.
After a merry curve over the field, the butterfly comes into view, and lights on the selfsame spot. The tactics are repeated a little more wildly this time. The painted lady embarks on a second frolicsome course, to return in the same tantalising way as before. And so on, until the children are fain to gather up flowers and cans and pursue their way.
The rowans are reddening, and the elderberries blackening. The woodbine is still shedding fragrance from an arch of fantastic flowers. The haws, with which the hedge abounds, are just showing a touch of colour on one side. Hips have taken the place of the dog-roses.
The big thistle is at its tallest, and sends out on all sides giant arms, bearing great pink heads. A crowd of thrushes are busy on the beam tree. A smaller band of children are equally busy on the unripe haws.
This is all they see until they are coming back. And then they catch sight of their elder sisters sauntering up the way as if to meet them, but really on an errand of their own. At great risk of falling, and to the sound of jolting milk, they strive who will touch first.
Tall in comparison with the little ones these sisters are. Some fair, some dark ; neither more nor less fresh and pleasant-looking than country maidens usually are.
"See! see!" say the breathless runners, holding out what they have gathered.
There are nodding harebells, and a sprig of crimson herb robert, and a little scarlet poor man's weather-glass, got on the field side, and a whole shower of star-like stitchworts, and a bit of sweet briar for scent; and just a little morsel of woodbine which grew outside the gate, "and didn't belong to the farmer, you know : did it?"
The children have only half satisfied their elementary consciences about the woodbine, and coax-mgly appeal for the approval of their elders.
"Is that all?" say the sisters discouragingly. "Look what we have come for."
They lift the little ones above the level of the tall corn, and there over the forest of yellowing grain is paradise; at sight of which the withered and despised collections of the morning are dropped to the ground.
"You see what it is to be big," say the maidens.
And then the whole band begin to walk along the edge of the corn, the children waiting in faith below, the maidens watching above for some of those glorious things to come within reach.
A long stretch of the tallest, whose unbound hair, as it drops from her shoulders, is of the same hue as the yellow grain with which it mingles, secures the first prize. This turns out to be a large flower of a pink hue, a member of the graceful group of the campions. The familiar name is corncockle; but whether these girls have one of their own for it, as they have for most things, I could not catch. But, name or no name, they all agree that it is fair as any flower of the garden; and there is some competition among the younger members to carry it.