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Sketch Book of the North
From a Field-Gate


A glorious afternoon it is, the hottest of mid-summer, with not a shadow in the dazzling blue of the heavens. Who could sit at a desk, with the white butterflies flickering in and out at the open window, the sweet breath of the clove-pinks filling the air, and the faint gurgle of the river coming up from the glen below? The gardener has long ago left off weeding the lawn borders, and betaken himself to the cool planting-house; Jug the spaniel lies panting out there, with lolling tongue, in the shadow under the rhododendrons; and the leaves of the aspens themselves seem tremulous with the heat. It will be pleasanter to go up through the wood to the end of the lane, to sit under the edge of the trees there on the trunk of silver birch that serves for a cattle-gate, and enjoy something of the southern dolce far niente, with a pocket copy of gentle Allan Ramsay to finger through.

Altogether quiet the spot is, with the wood behind, and the flowery fields sloping away in front. Not a murmur comes here from the city, whose smoke rises, a murky cloud, far off in the valley below. The streets there will be stifling to-day amid the hot reekings of asphalt pavements, the sifting particles of burning dust, and the incessant roar of traffic. Here, above the fields, the air is sweet with the scent of clover; the stillness is only broken by the faint pipe of a yellowhammer sometimes in the depth of the wood, and the blue heavens shed their peace upon the heart. Nothing but the faintest breath of air is moving, just enough to stir gently the deep grasses of the hayfield, and to touch cheek and lip now and again with the soft warm sigh of the sweetbrier in the hedge. Gleaming flies, green and yellow, with gauzy wings, float like jewels in the sunshine; a shadow for a moment touches the page as a stray rook drifts silently overhead; and on the edge of the great yellow daisy that flames over there like a topaz among the corn, a blue butterfly lazily opens and shuts its wings.

This is the silent month, they say, because the birds have nested and foregone the twitterings of their courting-time; but from the lark up aloft, a quivering black speck in the sky, there is falling a perfect rill of melody. What is he exulting about, the little black speck? Is it for sheer gladsomeness in the happy sunshine, or is it because there is a little helpless brood of callow laverocks in a nest somewhere below among the clover? Glad little heart! Sing thy song out while the blue sky smiles above thee. Thou hast forgotten the pinching of the winter cold, and why should thy rapturous hour be saddened by taking thought for the dark things of the morrow. Under the hedge close by, an occasional rustle of dry leaves and an admonitory cluck betray a brood of chickens surreptitiously brought into existence by some lawless and absconding hen; and on a twig a little way off, a young sparrow with fluttering wings gapes its yellow beak for the attentions of a proud and sprightly parent.

In the distance, from the bottom of the next meadow, comes the faint whir of a mowing-machine. It and the reapers are out of sight; but on the level beyond, the ryegrass lies in long white lines winnowing in the sun. Well may that harvest be the first to be gathered, for it is the share that falls to the faithful dumb friends of man. Meanwhile, the farm horses left at liberty in the grass-field at hand are evidently, like many honest souls of another genus who have worked hard all their lives, quite at a loss what to do with their late-acquired leisure.

On the dyke-top here, the clover, with great ball-blooms of rich pink, is growing beside the purple-toothed vetch and the small yellow stars of another unknown flower. In the hedge, among the heavy-scented privet blossoms, are flowers of pink wild-rose delicate as the bloom of a girl’s cheek, with full pouting buds red as lips that would be kissed. White brier-roses there are, too, as large as crown pieces, and great velvety humble-bees are busy botanising among their stamens. The bees prefer the newly opened ones, however, whose hearts are still a rich golden yellow. Below, among the woodland grasses, the white dome-clusters of the dim-leaved yarrow are flowering amid a miniature forest of green mare’s-tails and the downy stalks of hemlock. Gardeners are only now beginning to see the beauty of the yarrow for deep borders, as they are beginning to see the beauty of the foxglove and the glory of the broom. Over there in the side of the wood-ditch are springing delicate tufts of spleenwort; and already the flower-fronds of the hard-fern are rising from the nest of their dark-spread fellows. The graceful heart-shaped nettle leaf appears there too, with its purple stem, beside the tall magenta-coloured flowers of the bastard-thistle.

A pleasant retreat, indeed, is the spot; and through the tangled wood-depth, of a moonlit night, might be expected to come the revel court of Titania. Is not that one of her furry steeds, with velvet ears erect and bright wide eyes, cropping the green blade in the grassy lane path? Her sleek chorister, too, the blackbird, has forgotten to be timid as he hops across the ruts there, waiting doubtless for her coming. Whirr! What a rush of wings! It is a flight of starlings disturbed from the grass-field below; for these birds bring their young out to the fields this month in flocks of hundreds to feed. Round and round they wheel in the air, as if delighting in their power of wing, before finally settling on the grassy knoll a hundred yards away.

A sunny knoll that is, where the birds feed undisturbed today, a small point in the landscape; yet it has a page of history to itself. On its summit once stood a Scottish queen, surrounded by a little group of nobles, watching, a mile to the north, the die of her fate being cast, the arbiter of life or death. Two armies lay before her. Far off about the little village in the bosom of yonder hill she saw two dark masses gathered, with a battery line of guns between them. Those were her enemies; and one of the horsemen behind them—it was only a mile away—she knew was her own half-brother. Nearer, on the lower rising ground, which the railway cuts through now, she saw her own troops gathering, a larger force, but without the advantage of position. And the queen watched and waited; it was about nine o’clock of the morning. Presently, a cloud of smoke sprang out between the armies, and immediately was heard the roar of cannon; the duel of the artillery had begun. During half an hour little could be seen for the smoke, and there was a constant explosion of ordnance. It have been an anxious time. Suddenly, however, the firing ceased, the smoke rolled away, and the battlefield could be made out. The queen’s cavalry had formed into line, had charged, and were driving the enemy’s horse before them. Then a tear sprang to the queen’s eye as she saw her vanguard leave the hill, cross the open ground among the furze, and, with their gallant leader at their head, rush to storm the village. They disappeared in the narrow lane, where the new church stands now in the hollow of the hill, and there could only be heard faintly their shout as they closed with their opponents, and the shot-reports of the enemy’s hagbutters firing at them from the hedge-gardens and the village roofs. How was the day going? See! the enemy’s wing was wavering, was giving way. Fight on, brave fellows! brave vanguard! press them hard. A few moments longer, and the day is yours.

But look! A horseman gallops to the other wing of the enemy, where the Regent is riding. It stirs; it moves down upon the village. Ah, where now is the queen’s reserve? Why does it remain inactive and aloof? Are its rival leaders quarrelling over petty precedence, or is there treachery in its ranks? The battle closes again about the narrow lane. The vanguard is attacked on either flank—it is overborne—it gives way. See! they are broken; they pour back out of the lane. Wounded, weapon-less, they are fleeing, and with a yell their foes are upon them, cutting them down. But the reserve is moving at last; it may bring help; it may yet retrieve the hour. Ah, cowards! it breaks and scatters. The day is lost. Away! then, away, poor hapless queen! Ply whip and spur for thy life. Neither here nor anywhere in all thy fathers’ kingdom of Scotland is there safe tarrying-place for thee now. And may heaven help thee in the hour of need, for thou wilt find small help in man or woman.

The starlings are feeding this afternoon on the Court Knowe, the hillock there, undisturbed; and it is three hundred and nineteen years since the stricken queen rode away through the hollow yonder where the green corn is growing. The suburbs of the city are spreading even over the battlefield itself. But ever and again, upon a summer day, there comes a pilgrim to stand a while in pitying silence on the little knoll under the trees, and to recall something of these "old, unhappy, far-off things," as he reads upon the stone there the royal monogram, and the date, May 13, 1568.

Clouds, however, are beginning to gather in the sky; a pair of swallows are flying low, skimming the grasses for insects under the edge of the wood; and the hoarse note of the corncrake comes from the middle of the clover-field—signs, all these, of coming rain. The hay-makers are hurrying their harvest into small stooks, and a cool wind is rustling the braird of the corn. The sun is setting, too, and the sound of the tea-bell comes up through the wood. It is time to go home.


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