A Garden Calendar
( Originally Published 1893 )
THE DARK PHANTOM WHICH DOGGED A POSTMAN'S FEET-A GARDEN CALENDAR-NOTES OF THE FARM ACRE
THE steps of the letter-carrier, who had just brought the mail, rattled away briskly around the corner. The blithe little man in gray, who, with a bundle of letters and newspapers in hand, has walked the distance of five times around the globe in the last twenty-three years, had set me to thinking. If letter-carriers ever die-and I have a sort of hazy belief that they gradually cremate themselves, and so vanish into thin air as they walk-this cheery man of letters, whom the street knows and smiles upon as Bob, will be found on the threshold of that particular one of the many mansions which is devoted to the post-office department, with a package in his hand and a smile on his face. Yet he has a dark phantom of care that some-times falls into step behind him and dogs his feet. He believes that had his childhood been happier he might have made a success in life, and success in his vocabulary-for Bob is not wiser than his generation -means wealth and position. It is too bad, though I did not tell him so. There is no man so poor and powerless but that he can give his son or daughter a happy childhood. Then, however bitter the battle may be afterwards, there will be years of sunshine to look back upon, and no cloud can dim them, no burglar steal their remembrance.
But Bob told the story a great deal more to the point than I am doing. Let him speak. And bear in mind that he told it with no attempt at sympathy and no thought of sentiment. It was my boy's new jacket, of which he had caught a glimpse, and which he evidently admired on aesthetic principles, because it was a change, which started the stream of reminiscence.
"A jacket was the turning-point in my life," so the man of mails began. " When I was a boy of fourteen years I wanted a velvet jacket, such as were then the fashion with people who were richer than ourselves. The price was seven dollars ; and as I knew there was no use in asking for it, I determined to earn the money and save it up. It was a tight pull, I can tell you, but at last I pulled through all right. Wasn't I proud when I counted up the seven dollars ! and I was happy, too, in anticipation of wearing the jacket the next Sunday. I went to my father, put the money in his hand, and told him what I wanted. Of course, I would not think of getting it myself ; boys did not do business in that way when I was young. At night my father came home with a bundle, and I ran to see it opened. He pulled out a dark satinet jacket that I was sure did not cost half the money, threw it down before me, and, with the remark that it was plenty good enough for me to wear, turned to go out of the room. My heart and my courage were broken, but I managed to speak. 'Father,' I said.
I will never save another penny as long as I live. I have kept my promise. It was the turning-point of my life, and I think it took all ambition out of me. So you see me a letter-carrier at fifty-a mere machine to plod the streets. It all came of that jacket. I remember it as if it were yesterday." Did your father give you back the rest of the money?" I asked.
"Never!" That is all. It was not much of a tragedy, yet it marred a life.
The garden is a daily delight to me. The only drawback is the fear that some neighbor may chance to criticise it in a friendly way as small. Yet, in the spirit of the contented African who anticipated criticism by saying in praise of the turkey he had won at a raffle, " De breed am small, but de flavor am delicious," I am prepared to take up a similar line of eulogy on my garden. Take it as you please, on either the ornamental or the useful side. There never were such battlements of box as hedge in the gravel-walks ; no such velvet covers a drawing-room floor as that bit of lawn that stretches down to the little bluff above the river ; those roses that weight the bushes are peerless, and the fragrance of the syringa buds is the very refinement of orange blossoms, and redolent with every breath of the youth and beauty that plucked their ancestral twigs in evenings of long ago. The lilacs have had their day, but wait until the lady's-slippers and marigolds and hollyhocks take up their march in battalions, and the sweet-peas, four-o'clocks, and morning-glories show their colors! On the wistarias thick green leaves have succeeded the purple clusters of flowers that greeted May, but the leaves of the honeysuckle-vine are not so many as its tendril-like blossoms of buff and pink and white, and the odor is at times a revelation in the way of teaching humanity the right use of the nose. For, at times, as I sit under the shadow of the honeysuckle, the cadences of odor strike a succession of keys in what is literally my organ of smell, and recall so many forgot-ten episodes that had the fragrance of a spray of honeysuckle or the scent of a June rose for their connecting link, that I feel like having the rector return special thanks in the church next Sunday for the gift of noses to men.
On the March day in which I first walked the bounds of my territory, I noticed, not far from the river-side, in a depression of the ground that seemed to have once been the bed of a brook, a bunch of pussy willows, which had already put forth its buds. Some of these buds were silver gray and others were brown in color, but all were soft and fleecy as the skins of little mice. A willow-tree that stood near by had but cut its leaves on April 20th ; a week later the maples had caught up with them, and the next week saw the poplars and elms slowly spreading out their verdure. Meantime the lilac bushes had forged ahead, and at the finish were most luxuriant of all in the full, free spread of their dark green foliage. The cherry-trees, I noticed, were first of the fruits to put out their blossoms, and were in full bloom on April 28th. It was ten days later that the pink loveliness of the peach-tree dawned, with spikes of green leaves yet unfolded showing between the flowers, and it was not until the middle of May that an apple-tree, which shades the kitchen, and which the builder of the house planted at his wife's request to shade the maid when she churned, was in the full bloom of its beauty-an animated milky way. Early in Easter week the dandelion had spread its modest oriflamme to the air, and on Easter Sunday, April 21st, a bush of golden-bells gave notice that the season of flowers had fairly dawned. Already, too, the red and saffron shoots of peonies had thrust their heads well above-ground, and thick bunches of hollyhock leaves had raised their protest against further slumber in the life of plants. On the day that May came in, the pink profusion of the flowering almond had entered on its brief career ; then came the lilacs, heavy with sweet scent ; the blossoms of the hawthorn hedge, laden with honey; the clover, red and white, and, before the month had closed, roses, honeysuckle, bluebells, syringa, and pink balls of peony bloom had blended a marvellous kaleidoscope of colors in the garden.
Not being entirely confident of results, I have laid out my vegetable garden in the north-east corner of my acre, where it does not obtrude upon criticism. My farm in the rear of the house is divided in twain by a broad, box-bordered gravel-walk. The southern half is lawn. Next to the walk, in the northern half, is the flower-garden-a plot of some sixty feet by thirty-and, beyond, a plot of similar size is devoted to vegetables. It is a miracle of thrifty promise now. The peas have clambered up into the brush and put forth their milk-white blossoms ; the heart-shaped leaves on the bean-stalks have broadened out to full size ; the tomato plants, looking like young elms; have learned to stand alone ; three rows of silky, shining spears are rising to conceal the fence and sentinel the patch, and at their feet are the beginnings of squash vines.
The modern statesman declares that the Indian cannot be made a farmer, but I have an idea that the statesman is a mere Dogberry in agriculture. When Hendrik Hudson visited the village of Sapohanikan-a settlement of forty men and seven-teen women who cultivated a portion of what is now the Ninth Ward-he found a circular barn built of oak bark and having an arched roof, which " contained a great quantity of maize or Indian corn, and beans of last year's growth; and there lay near the house, for the purpose of drying, enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields." And that veracious historian, Van der Donck, speaks of " a vegetable peculiar to the natives, called by our people quaasiens (squashes), a name derived from the aborigines, as the plant was not known to us before our intercourse with them. It is a delightful fruit, as well to the eye for its colors as to the mouth for its agreeable taste."
Well might the poet, Evert Nieuwenhof, write of Manhattan :
"Why mourn about Brazil, full of base Portuguese; When Van der Donck shows so much better fare ?"
That was a mosquito which interrupted me and shortened the quotation, but I have killed him. He came across the river from Long Island. Van der Donck makes no mention of mosquitoes as native to the Island of Manhattan, and I know that ours are imported. I may be proud enough of my country to cease to plead the baby act ,and to take my chances as a free-trader, but I believe in protection against the ferocious domestic dragons of Long Island-the carnivorous winged monster which goes by the harmless name of mosquito. The infant gnats of New York can never compete with them.
I said that I had killed him, but I was mistaken. He is back again, and as numerous as Falstaff's men in buckram. The pen is feebler than his spear, and I lay it down.