On that October day, nothing was visible at first save yellow flowers, and sometimes a bee's quiet shadow crossing the petals: a sombre river, noiselessly sauntering seaward, far away dropped with a murmur, among leaves, into a pool. That sound alone made tremble the glassy dome of silence that extended miles on miles. All things were lightly powdered with gold, by a lustre that seemed to have been sifted through gauze. The hazy sky, striving to be blue, was reflected as purple in the waters. There, too, sunken and motionless, lay amber willow leaves; some floated down. Between the sailing leaves, against the false sky, hung the willow shadows,—shadows of willows overhead, with waving foliage, like the train of a bird of paradise. One standing on a bridge was seized by a Hylean shock, and wondered as he saw his face, death-pale, among the ghostly leaves below. Everywhere the languid perfumes of corruption. Brown leaves laid their fingers on the cheek as they fell; and here and there the hoary reverse of a willow leaf gleamed in the crannied bases of the trees.
One lonely poplar, in a space of refulgent lawn, was shedding its leaves as if it scattered largess among a crowd. Nothing that it gave it lost; for each leaf lay sparkling upon the turf, casting a splendor upwards. A maiden unwreathing her bridal garlands would cast them off with a grace as pensive as when the poplar shed its leaf.
One could not walk as slowly as the river flowed; yet that seemed the true pace to move in life, and so reach the great gray sea. Hand in hand with the river wound the path, and that way lay our journey.
In one place slender coils of honey-suckle tried to veil the naked cottage stone, or in another the subtle handiwork of centuries had covered the walls with lichen. And it was in the years when Nature said
"incipient magni procedere menses,"
when a day meant twenty miles of sunlit forest, field, and water,
"Oh! moments as big as years,"
years of sane pleasure, glorified in later reveries of remembrance....Near a reedy, cooty backwater of that river ended our walk.
The day had been as an august and pompous festival. Burning like an angry flame until noon, and afterward sinking peacefully into the soundless deeps of vesperal tranquillity as the light grew old, on that day life seemed in retrospect like the well-told story of a rounded, melodious existence, such as one could wish one's self....How mild, dimly golden, the comfortable dawn! Then the canvas of a boat creeping like a spider down the glassy river pouted feebly. The slumberous afternoon sent the willow shadows to sleep and the aspens to feverish repose, in a landscape without horizon. Evening chilled the fiery cloud; and a gray and level barrier, like the jetsam of a vast upheaval, but still and silent, lay alone across the west. Thereafter a light wind knitted the willow branches against a silver sky with a crescent moon. Against that sky, also, one could not but scan the listless grasses bowing on the wall top. For a little while, troubled tenderly by autumnal maladies of soul, it was sweet and suitable to follow the path toward our place of rest,—a gray immemorial house with innumerable windows.
The house, in that wizard light "sent from beyond the sky,"—for the moon cast no beams through her prison of oak forest,—seemed to be one not made with hands. Was it empty? The shutters of the plain, square windows remained unwhitened, flapped ajar. Up to the door ran a yellow path, leveled by moss, where a blackbird left a worm half swallowed, as he watched our coming. Some one had recently let fall a large red rose, that, divided and spilt by birds, petal by petal, lay as beautiful as blood, upon the ground. This path and its fellow carved the lawn into three triangles; and in each an elm rose up, laying forth auburn foliage against the house, in November even.
The leaves that had dropped earlier lay, crisp and curled, in little ripples upon the grass. There is a perfect moment for coming upon autumn leaves, as for gathering fruit. The full, flawless color, the false, hectic well-being of decay, and the elasticity are attained at the same time in certain favored leaves, and dying is but a refinement of life.
In one corner of the garden stood a yew tree and its shadow; and the shadow was more real than the tree,—the shadow carved upon the sparkling verdure in ebony. In the branches the wind made a low note of incantation, especially if a weird moon of blood hung giddily over it in tossing cloud. To noonday the ebony shadow was as lightning to night. Toward this tree the many front windows guided the sight; and beyond, a deep valley was brimmed with haze that just spared the treetops for the play of the sunset's last, random fires. To the left, the stubborn leaves of an oak wood soberly burned like rust, among accumulated shadow. To the right, the woods on a higher slope here and there crept out of the haze, like cloud, and received a glory, so that the hill was by this touch of the heavens exaggerated. And still the sound of dropping waters, "buried deep in trees."
Quite another scene was discovered by an ivy-hidden oriel, lit by ancient light, immortal light traveling freely from the sunset, and from the unearthly splendor that succeeds. There the leaves were golden for half a year upon the untempestuous clouds. Rain never fell, or fell innocently, in sheaves of perpendicular diamond. Snow faded usually into glistening gray as it dropped, or flew in prismatic dust before the dispersing feet of wayfarers. Nevertheless, the tranquillity, the fairiness, the unseasonable hues, were triste: that is to say, joy was here under strange skies; sadness was fading into joy, joy into sadness, especially when one looked upon this gold, and heard the dark sayings of the wind in far-off woods, while these were still. Many a time and oft was the forest to be seen, when the chillest rain descended, fine and hissing,—seen standing like enchanted towers, amidst it all, untouched and aloof, as in a picture. But when the sun had just disappeared red-hot in the warm, gray, still eventide, and left in the west a fiery tissue of wasting cloud, when the gold of the leaves had a freshness like April greenery, in a walk through the sedate old elms there was "a fallacy of high content."
Several roses nodded against the gray brick, as if all that olden austerity were expounded by the white blossoms that emerged from it, like water magically struck from the rock of the wilderness. In the twilight silence the rose petals flew down. So tender was the air, they lay perfect on the grass, and caught the moonlight.
In ways such as these the mansion speaks. For the house has a characteristic personality. Strangely out of keeping with the trees, it grows incorporate with them, by night. Behold it, as oft we did, early in the morning, when a fiery day is being born in frost, and neither wing nor foot is abroad, and it is clothed still in something of midnight; then its shadows are homes of awful thoughts; you surmise who dwells therein. Long after the sun was gay, the house was sombre, unresponsive to the sky, with a Satanic gloom.