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When Christmas has passed it is useless to make believe that it is not winter, even if the snow has merely come in little flurries quickly disappearing in the leaves that now lie suppliant with brown palms curved upward.
Early December is often filled with days that, if one does not compare the hours of the sun’s rise and setting, might pass for those of an early spring. Sharp nights but soft noon air, meadow larks in voice down in the old fields, uneasy robins in the spruces, a song sparrow in the shelter of the honeysuckle wall, goldfinches feeding among the dry stalks of what two months gone was a scarlet flame of zinnias, or else in their rhythmic, restless flight binding the columns where the seeded clematis clings, in chains of whispered song.
All through the month the garden, thriftily trimmed, and covered according to its need, refused to sleep in peace and thrust forth its surprises. One day it was a pansy peeping from beneath a box bush, then a dozen sturdy Russian violets for the man’s buttonhole, that, fading in an hour, were outlived by their perfume, while on the very eve of Christmas itself, the frosted wall flowers yielded a last bouquet, just a bit pinched and drawn like reduced gentlefolks of brave heart, whose present garb is either cherished or overlooked from a half-reminiscent pleasure in their society.
Many say that the ending of the year with Christmas week is only an arbitrary time division, and so is meaningless. But this cannot be so. The natural year has ended and it begins anew, even though we do not at once see its processes, for intervals in nature there are none, and the first law of being is emergence from unseen sleep, wherein is stamped the pattern for the after-growth.
Thus with Christmas passed, we all must yield to Winter. Playtime with its dalliance outdoors is over for man, and the little beasts lie in their lairs, except when hunger prods.
The poor, God help them, drawing their heads down into their garments, prepare to endure. They have not two or three changes of raiment to match the graded weather from September to January—the relentless hard moon of the Indian calendar. Resistance is their final set of winter flannels, which must be worn sleeping or waking.
With January the rabbit season is over, and the sturdy dogs, the merry, tireless beagles, left to themselves, abandon the trail after a sniff or two, or else return from the run with stiff, wounded feet: for does not a spear lurk in every blade of frozen stubble? and, after nosing into the house, they lie in relaxed comfort by the kitchen stove. That is, unless the thaw from their hair-set foot-pads annoys the cook (and few recognize dog needs and rights as did Martha Corkle), in which case they slink out again sheepish under reproof, and, loping uphill to the cottage, charge at Martha’s kitchen door until she opens it, protesting as usual at their lack of manners and the mess “the beasties” make. This, however, is wholly from principle, because protest against dirt in any form becomes a thrifty British housewife, even though transplanted to America.
In truth all the while her heart is swelling with pleasure at their recognition, voiced as it presently is in a baying chorus, heads well thrown back, throats swelling, tails held aloft and firm, for sweet as the voice of love is hound music to the people of the English hunting country, however far from it their lives have led them. Then presently, after a meal of stew seasoned to each dog’s liking (for Lark is fond of salt and likes to chew his biscuits dry and lap the gravy after, while Cadence and old Waddles, being scant of teeth, prefer to guzzle the softened food and like a pinch of sugar), they fall prone before the fire, their bellies replete, and round, pressing the floor as close as their heavy heads. Whereupon Martha heaves a sigh of deep content and seats herself in the window corner of the front room, behind her geranium pots, with her white needlework of scallop, sprig, and eyelet hole, a substantial old-time craft lately returned to favour.
This occupation also is a sign that it is winter without doubt, for not until the Christmas puddings have been made and eaten and the results have worn away, does Martha Saunders (born Corkle) sit in the bay window of her front room shedding abroad the light of her rosy face and her bright geraniums by day, while the gloom of night is pierced by her clear lamp with its gay shade, whereon an endless steeple-chase is portrayed against a screen of ruby isinglass. Here in Oaklands whoever sets a drinking trough before his door in summer-time to succour man and thirsty beasts receives so much a year from the town fathers. Why should not those who, in the dark season, set a row of jovial red geraniums behind the window-pane by day or a well-trimmed light by night, be equally rewarded? Is not the thirst for light, colour, and other home symbols as keen a desire of the winter wayfarer as his thirst for water in the torrid season?
The first New Year callers were out before sunrise this morning while the hoar-frost lay thick on the porch of father’s office, for here, Whirlpool customs to the contrary, the country doctor and his tribe expect a gentle drift of friendly visitors, as much as do the people at the parsonage, and often with them there come homespun good-will gifts.
These early guests were nameless, and left their gift upon the door-mat, where father found it. A pair of redheads, duck and drake by chance, such as the gunners at this season harvest from the still-water inside the lighthouse at the bayhead.
Any one interested in following backward the tracks these callers left would have found that they began at the edge of the bare, drifted sand beach and followed the wavering fence of the shore road until the outline of that also disappearing, the footprints crossed the upland fields to the lower end of the village street, where many of the houses, old, sedate, and self-sufficient in their ancestry, were prouder in their garb of mossy shingles than the Bluff cottages in all their bravery of new paint, and porches supported by stone pillars.