WHEN Leigh Hunt wrote his “Now” descriptive of a cold day, he profited by the mild humors of an English climate, and could afford to be philosophical about it. Would his fancy have but rioted the more in a South Dakota winter, I wonder, or would it have trailed off into the hopeless exclamation point of an icicle ?
But — as the discursive Hunt remarks — to begin: —
Now the mercury, long buoyed up by the illusive persistence of a late fall, drops down, down, to zero, five below, ten below, — will it never stop? The ground hardens inch beneath inch until the driven excavator quarries it like granite.
Now the snow — here, by a perversity of nature, harbinger of lower temperatures — sifts through doors and windows and sprinkles the draughty floor with millions of slippery globules. The snowfall over, a north wind rises, shaves layer after layer off the white expanse, whirls it up into fantastic wraiths, and malignly packs it wherever struggling mankind has sought to establish a right of way. Now the householder, locating his front walk by compass, ditches drifts into the semblance of a path — only to find an hour later that the unrelenting wind has obliterated every trace of his two hours labor.
Now the helpless railroad engines, struggling under a weight of ice, pant against the drifts and bury themselves impotently in the hardpacked mass. The passengers strain their eyes over the unrelieved white level of the prairie, fret a while, and then settle down to the hopeless inanities and narrowing rations of a forty-eight hours’ siege.
Now the mercury drops again, descending until its previous record seems summer by comparison. The air cuts like a knife, and the grind of wheels on the snow-packed village streets is as the rasping of a saw.
Now the normal human type disappears from the highways, and buffalo-coated Scandinavian bipeds with great frostweighted beards — strange, uncouth animals, aroused untimely from their hibernation — walk the streets or drive the shivering horses. Now the plate-glass front of the village drugstore discreetly veils behind an opaque wall of frost the illicit traffic of a local option town. Now even the post-office loafers seek their holes, and the sidewalks are given over to the man with a purpose.
And now the housewife thaws the ingredients for dinner on the crackling range, and skims the ice from the sputtering tea-kettle. Now the freshly washed kitchen floor tempts the cook to don her skates, and aching feet send spinal thrills of sympathy to scorching face. Now the hoarded apples turn to stone, and fruit jars — product of a summer’s toil — crack and burst. Now the erstwhile genial furnace becomes a roaring dragon, devouring the bank-account and returning an equivalent in liabilities and shivers.
And now the woeful prisoner in this land of iron hies him to the solace of his yet unfrozen soul, and fancies himself in some “far Eden of the purple East” — some warm spot which the blue Ægean girds —
Kissing the sifted sands and caverns hoar;
And all the winds wandering along the shore
Undulate with the undulating tide;
There are thick woods where sylvan forms abide,
And many a fountain, rivulet, and pond,
As clear as elemental diamond,
Or serene morning air; and far beyond,
The mossy tracks made by the goats and deer
(Which the rough shepherd treads but once a year)
Pierce into glades, caverns, and bowers, and halls
Built round with ivy, which the waterfalls
Illumining, with sound that never fails
Accompany the noonday nightingales ;
And all the place is peopled with sweet airs ;
The light clear element which the isle wears
Is heavy with the scent of lemon-flowers,
Which floats like mist laden with unseen showers,
And falls upon the eyelids like faint sleep ;
And from the moss violets and jonquils peep,
And dart their arrowy odour through the brain
Till you might faint with that delicious pain.
Hapless wight! How shall he break his South Dakota bonds ? Whence shall come the wherewithal to get the albatross which bore the Poet to the Halcyon Isle ? Before his mind flashes the genial picture of a cheque from the Atlantic; and with cold and shaking fingers he indites this “Now,” and mails it to the Contributors’ Club.