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An essay by Richard Jefferies

April Gossip

Title:     April Gossip
Author: Richard Jefferies [More Titles by Jefferies]

The old woman tried to let the cuckoo out of the basket at Heathfield fair as usual on the 14th; but there seems to have been a hitch with the lid, for he was not heard immediately about the country. Just before that two little boys were getting over a gate from a hop-garden, with handfuls of Lent lilies--a beautiful colour under the dark sky. They grow wild round the margin of the hop garden, showing against the bare dark loam; gloomy cloud over and gloomy earth under. 'Sell me a bunch?' 'No, no, can't do that; we wants these yer for granmer.' 'Well, get me a bunch presently, and I will give you twopence for it.' 'I dunno. We sends the bunches we finds up to Aunt Polly in Lunnon, and they sends us back sixpence for every bunch.' So the wild flowers go to Lunnon from all parts of the country, bushels and bushels of them. Nearly two hundred miles away in Somerset a friend writes that he has been obliged to put up notice-boards to stay the people from tearing up his violets and primroses, not only gathering them but making the flowery banks waste; and notice-boards have proved no safeguard. The worst is that the roots are taken, so that years will be required to repair the loss. Birds are uncertain husbandmen, and sow seeds as fancy leads their wings. Do the violets get sown by ants? Sir John Lubbock says they carry violet seeds into their nests.

The lads, who still pelt the frogs in the ponds, just as they always did, in spite of so much schooling, call them chollies. Pheasants are often called peacocks. Bush-harrows, which are at work in the meadows at this time of year, are drudges or dredges. One sunny morning I noticed the broken handle of a jug on the bank of the road by the garden. What interested me was the fine shining glaze of this common piece of red earthenware. And how had the potter made that peculiar marking under the surface of the glaze? I touched it with my stick, when the pot-handle drew itself out of loop shape and slowly disappeared under some dead furze, showing the blunt tail of a blindworm. I have heard people say that the red ones are venomous, but the grey harmless. The red are spiteful, and if you see them in the road you should always kill them. It is curious that in places where blindworms are often seen their innocuous nature should not be generally known. They are even called adders sometimes. At the farm below, the rooks have been down and destroyed the tender chickens not long hatched; they do not eat the whole of the chicken, but disembowel it for food. Rooks are very wide feeders, especially at nesting-time. They are suspected of being partial to the young of partridge and pheasant, as well as to the eggs.

Looking down upon the treetops of the forest from a height, there seemed to come from day to day a hoariness in the boughs, a greyish hue, distinct from the blackness of winter. This thickened till the eye could not see into the wood; until then the trunks had been visible, but they were now shut out. The buds were coming; and presently the surface of the treetops took a dark reddish-brown tint. The larches lifted their branches, which had drooped, curving upwards as a man raises his arms above his shoulders, and the slender boughs became set with green buds. At a distance the corn is easily distinguished from the meadows beside it by the different shade of green; grass is a deep green, corn appears paler and yet brighter--perhaps the long winter has given it the least touch of yellow. Daisies are up at last--very late indeed. Big humble-bees, grey striped, enter the garden and drone round the banks, searching everywhere for a fit hole in which to begin the nest. It is pleasant to hear them; after the dreary silence the old familiar burr-rr is very welcome. Spotted orchis leaves are up, and the palm-willow bears its yellow pollen. Happily, the wild anemones will not bear the journey to London, they wither too soon; else they would probably be torn up like the violets. Neither is there any demand for the white barren strawberry blossom, or the purplish ground-ivy among the finely marked fern moss.

The rain falls; and in the copses of the valley, deep and moist, where grey lichen droops from the boughs, the thrushes sing all day--so delighted are they to have the earth soft again, and so busy with the nesting. At four o'clock in the morning the larks begin to sing: they will be half an hour earlier next month, adjusting their time nicely by the rising of the sun. They sing on till after the lamps are lit in the evening. Far back in the snow-time a pair of wagtails used to come several times a day close to the windows, their black markings showing up singularly well against the snow on the ground. They seemed to have just arrived. But now the weather is open and food plentiful they have left us. The wagtails appear to be the first of the migrant birds to return, long before the hail of April rattles against the windows and leaps up in the short grass. Out in the hop-gardens the poles are placed ready for setting, in conical heaps--at a distance resembling the tents of an army. Never were the labouring men so glad to see the spring, for never have so many of them been out of work or for longer periods. Yet, curiously enough, even if out of work and suffering, every sort of job will not suit them. One applicant for work was offered hop-pole shaving at 3_s_. a hundred--said to be a fair price; but the work did not please him, and he would not do it. On the other hand, a girl sent out 'to service' turned her back on domestic duties, ran away from her mistress, and joined her father and brother in the woods where they were shaving hop-poles. There she worked with them all the winter--the roughest of rough winters--preferring the wild freedom of the snow-clad woods, with hard food, to the indoor employment. No mistress there in the snow: one woman does not like another over her. A man stood idling at the cross-roads in the village for weeks, hands in pockets, waiting for work. Some one took pity on him, and said he could come and dig up an acre of grassland to make a market garden; 15_s_. a week was the offer, with spade found, and not long hours. 'Thank you, sir; I'll go and look at it,' said the labourer. He went; and presently returned to say that he did not care about it. In some way or other it did not fall in with his notions of what work for him ought to be. I do not believe he was a bad sort of fellow at all; but still there it is. No one can explain these things. A distinct line, as it were, separates the cottager, his ways and thoughts, from others. In a cottage with which I am acquainted an infant recently died. The body was kept in the parents' bedroom close to their bed, day and night, until burial. This is the custom. The cottage wife thinks that not to have the body of her child by her bed would be most unfeeling--most cruel to lay it by itself in a cold room away from her.

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Richard Jefferies's essay: April Gossip