There may have been a little philosophy in it, such as common - sense people cultivate where matters cannot be mended; but there seemed to be a good deal of nature as well.
Certainly, I never witnessed such bubbling over of animal spirit even in the brightest scenes, especially on the part of those who were no longer children. The example was contagious, which would not have been the case had the gaiety been forced. One could not help laughing along with them, and he would have been very dull and ill-natured who tried. There was wit, too. There generally is with persons who still see both sides of life, even when one of them is not so obvious as it might be.
In bad weather, when the brown shades looked black, and there was no relief anywhere, they didn't require to look beyond the garden wall; and like wise folk, who refuse to meet depression half-way, probably they did not try. All of the soaked and blackened earth they could command from the windows, were the tops of the hills.
Within the enclosure, the scene was as if I had been suddenly transported south again. It must have been only so much the brighter on the duller day, and thus helped to preserve the balance. Garden vegetables grew to the usual height, and were bordered by bright annuals.
In a snug corner, shut in between the gable and the wall, where the blast would pass over without sending down so much air as would disturb the dust on its glass roof, nestled a little conservatory. It was just such a spot as one would choose out for telling a world-forgetting story in. And, I daresay, those northern imaginations sometimes used it for the purpose in the dull winter-time.
That autumn day it was suggestive of something milder. The retreating shelves were hidden away amid the colours of geranium, pelargonium, and fuchsia. All this brightness was backed by the green of native ferns. For the presiding spirits were lovers of nature, even more than florists. There many a summer afternoon was dreamt away, in sweet forgetfulness of monotony and dulness.
The ladies were enthusiastic gardeners - indeed must have been, to have achieved such results as these under prevailing conditions. They trembled between the humorous and the pathetic in their description of the difficulties and disappointments of horticulture in Orkney.
"It's all very well for you to admire now," said one, half poutingly; "but if you only knew what trouble they have been, and how much anxiety they represent. When we have just coaxed them above ground, and are saying to ourselves, 'Soul, take thine ease, sleep in peace,' a south-wester will rise through the night, and in the morning great foam flakes are flying over the island, crusting the garden with salt, and destroying the promise for the year."
"You have great storms, then?" I inquired.
"Storms! I should think we have," and the fun came dancing back to her face. "There are days when, if you open your mouth to the windward, you must turn round before you can get it shut again."
The idea of the wind keeping the mouth open, as it might do an umbrella, was certainly original. The only improvement were to carry the parallel further, and suggest the blowing inside out.
"But I love Orkney,"she went on, with the northern light in her eye. "You are too late for the finest and rarest of our wild flowers. You say that you have never been here in the spring? Then you must come."
And she spoke with much enthusiasm of the beauty of the vernal squill; and of the delightful surprise, at the close of winter, of going out some morning when the sun was shining through and glorifying a veil of moist air, to find it already scattered far and wide over the landscape.
"You, who are so rich in wild flowers, will laugh at my innocence," she said, with an assumption of humility.
I assured her that we had nothing in the south more beautiful than the few-flowered blue lily, except perhaps its sister, the bluebell of the woods.
"And sisters don't quarrel," I added.
"No," she said doubtfully; "at least not in Orkney - there are too few of us. And we have the Scilla all to ourselves?"
"Not quite, but almost. It crosses to Caithness. Caithness, you know, is only a part of Orkney."
I put it the wrong way about, to smooth her ruffled susceptibilities.
"Well!" she said, in a hard, questioning voice.
"It crawls down the east coast - very reluctantly, perhaps - as far as Banff."
I have since discovered it on St. Andrews links, and have little doubt that it grows on similar exposed situations elsewhere. My experience teaches me to be exceedingly suspicious of any hard-and-fast limits assigned to species. But of all this she is happily ignorant, and so was I at the time.
"Is that all? "
"And as for the west. Why, of course it crosses into Sutherland. You couldn't help it doing that, seeing that county lies next to Caithness, without any brick wall between."
"Sutherland, does it? Any more?" "It appears just here and there down the coast, always near the water. It never forgets that it was born of the Orkney sea breezes, and scattered over your island by the first spring west wind. It nowhere seems to meet its woodland sister, the bluebell; at least I never heard of the meeting. Your Scilla is not bright blue like the other?" "No, it is pale."
"That is because it is a child of the sea. Now, the bluebell creeps up the centre of the country, disappears into dens and other snug places by the way; shivers back from the coast unless there is abundant shelter; and positively refuses to venture into Sutherland or Caithness. Your pale seaside bell forms a sort of ring, very thin and interrupted, round the inland and woodland bluebell."
"I wonder if they really do meet anywhere?' The idea of two sisters held apart affected her imagination, and sentiment for the moment prevailed over her common sense.
"If I hear of it, I shall let you know." In St. Andrews they are divided only by the breadth of the town - the Scilla growing on the links to the north, and the harebell in sheltered places of the cliffs to the south.
"You have missed another Orkney flower, which, but for the dryness of the season, would have been here yet. It is not so easily seen, but worth searching for, and when found worth looking at. You have no lilac primroses where you are ?
"No. There is said to be one somewhere; but I never saw it, or met a person who had done. At most, there can only be a few plants."
"Not our primrose?"
"No, it is taller. Yours positively refuses to grow on our hills, although we can't tell why; has not been found on our sheltered lowlands, and probably would be choked if it tried. It seems to belong to such exposed sea-breezy places as this. It strikes me as the Shetland pony among plants - so minute is it, so much at home in its own domain, so sensitive to change, and so perversely determined not to oblige those who would grow it elsewhere, however kind they may be."
"Long may it keep in that mind."
"I am of opinion that it owes its minuteness to the hard living; and, even if it could be coaxed into settling farther south, it would after a while begin to grow bigger. But the chances are that it would die before that came about."
"What a spirited little plant! I shall think twice as much of it in future. You can't rob us of that"
"Of course it crosses into Caithness, which, you know, is so very like Orkney."
"Well, I suppose I must give in about Caithness," she said, with a pout. "But why wasn't the Pentland Firth on the other side? "