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The Orchard

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Sketch on page 68 of 'The Orchard'

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WHITE cherry-blossom; that is my first recollection of it, and the red fruit with the screaming parroquets amongst it, Claribel and I lying under the trees, watching the bees on the clover, half fascinated at our nearness to them, stinged as we knew they were—had not Claribel had a swollen eye for remembrance: memory is like a cinema tale, with blanks left here and there, and the story unconsecutive. I know the cherry-blossom must have been first, the red fruit and the parroquets later, and yet my memory will have it that like the orange it was both flower and fruit on the trees on the day when we lay there amid “the buzzings of the honied hours.” It was a golden day, and my mind has made it epitomise many golden days of the year. I know we used impatiently to watch the fruit reddening, not always content to wait for the process to be completed. There was one forbidden tree once in that Eden of ours, and that fitly an apple. My father interdicted it: he was for some reason specially anxious for the mellowing of its harvest to go on. We were on parole not to take from that tree; but ever prying where the apples reddened, Dick, that legitimate son of Adam, conceived a way to taste without infringing the letter of the promise. Such of the fruit as could be reached for the experiment with a kindly confederate Eve to steady the branches, my cousin took the great Australian bite from. The fraud remained unsuspected, or rather we of it, there being no Sherlock Holmes amongst our elders; thus the leatherheads and jays, like many other creatures of bad reputation, bore the blame of one crime of which they were innocent. As the trees grew larger, and the crop more plentiful, we made annual store of apples; there were many varieties in the

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garden, and 'twas idyllic autumn work gathering them for storing. A loft on the ceiling of the front room of the old house was the storeroom. It was inaccessible save by a ladder, and no one but my father went up that ladder and disbursed the sweet store whose mellow scents came sometimes temptingly to us through the manhole. There was now and then, though, a four-footed visitor to the loft, one that needed no ladder set against the wallplate to help him into the juicy treasury. The 'possums, keen of instinct, and cunning to squeeze between wallplates, got many a nibble; indeed, we have had a luminous eye in the night by the edge of the manhole looking down Pucklike upon us foolish mortals who could not guard our store.

On the far edge of that goodly orchard was the rough backwater, a place of fallen logs, and briars, and brambles; of rushes and of tussocks—a snake and lizard-haunted spot. It was one of the early forbidden places, too, because of the real dangers it held. Yet we loved to press nearer and nearer to the edge that every ploughing season was encroached more and more upon, and that all the rest of the year pushed itself back upon the aggressive ploughland. “The gadding vine,” the fast-springing ferns, and the harsh peppermint-bush that made your face smart as you came amongst it, for many a year maintained their protective hedging of that wild haunt. Jealous Nature yielded slowly that final margin close by which was a spot coveted by my mother for a flower garden. That was in the days when yet the hens and chickens went free about the doors, and made continual raids amongst the flower-beds around the unfenced precincts. At last, outwitting the barn-door marauders, we had the main flowers moved farther afield, where seldom wandered even that most incorrigible wanderer, the hen-turkey. But there were foes of other sort that made us pay hard for every blue-eyed pansy and crimson-throated tulip that blew there. The Falstaffian spirit of a wombat finally did our innocent flowers more harm in a single night than the comparatively gentle scratchings of a whole yard of poultry had done in a year. He had been very thorough-going in the devastation of our plots; not

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content with what was above ground of leaf, and stalk, and bloom, he must needs explore underground for roots as well. For tubers especially he had apparently a fine tooth, as Claribel, weeping over the wreck, remarked he must have thought the dahlia roots were potatoes. The wombat had a tangy meal in sooth, and we were vicious enough, standing over the wreck, to hope that good digestion had not waited on appetite so omnivorous. The burrow of the mischievous creature was by the far row of plum-trees, near the unreclaimed backwater. I am bound to say that I never saw the brute either before or after that destructive orgy of his, though Dick and Claribel declared that they espied him up a plum-tree one evening. The pair were very De Rougemonts in zoological narrative when occasion called, and a depleted plum-tree, perhaps, did call for some explanation. Hooper set out, possibly because of such reports as these, to capture the wombat, whose depredations were real enough, however elusive his person. Hooper digged a pit. So deep was it that at last those admiring and encouraging from the brink of it could but see the dark tousle of hair on the top of his head. Then he came up out of the loam, and set us a-gathering a litter of twigs, and tussocks, and other light rubbish for an infirm covering for his pit. It was wonderfully like a sound surface when he had finished; but not the next morning or ever after was that wary animal found in Hooper's trap. He continued to thrive and molest, and his generations after him. We had dreamed of the splendid adventure of finding the great creature trapped in his own element, though Fred had all along been scornful, declaring that a wombat could scratch his way right through the earth—if put to it—in a single night. We abandoned that strenuously won flower garden finally, and for long there remained growing wild the hardier plants, blue irises, and annual self-sown hollyhocks, larkspurs, sweet-williams, and two or three virulent cactuses, a lilac bush, and a tangle of blue periwinkle mingling with the desultory raspberry vines.

The bird's calendar always told them when the early cherries began to flush, and down they came from the bush

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hills beyond the creek—creatures of beak and claw. Their notes of discordant delight used to herald the visit of the jays, and parroquets and leatherheads, and we were out upon them speedily with the weapons of destruction. Little good did we do, for birds foraging are even as men upon predatory expedition; they work by wary as well as by bold methods. Our orchard thieves always had a scout upon some commanding watch-tower tree, and at his word were away before the danger was near enough to be a danger. Dick used to declare that the jays especially could smell the gunpowder, and that it was only an actually loaded gun that sent them fleeing. Did one approach unarmed, or even with a stick, the birds remained, simply cocking a bright eye at the human intruder, between hoppings from bough to bough. To protect our fruit by other method we anticipated the coming of the grotesque gollygog race in our scarecrows. But even the cunning of these after the first day or two in the early cherry-trees ceased to deceive the cunning of the birds. Indeed, I have seen a leatherhead impudently using an arm of one of these parodies of the human form as a perch while he plied his dexterous bill at the fruit above him.

The orchard trees spread, and waxed prolific; they sowed the ground sometimes with those later fruits when the March winds took their cuffing way across the orchard. The peach-trees, flinging off their riotous drapery of pink, would put forth such an annual crop of fruit as defied us to consume it. It came, it blushed through the down of aromatic skin, luscious and luring, and though everyone that would came to feast of its plenty, always more ripened and fell to the earth than was eaten in that place remote from markets. There is no more exquisite fruit than that of the land of Omar; let no Burbank meddle with what is already perfection. We were proud of that rich orchard with its many rows of spreading trees, its sweep of glorious red clover—or, anon, perhaps, it was tall whispering maize that grew between the rows of trees. There was one kind of fruit that our orchard lacked, that Spearys' had. We had no cherry-plum trees; they had many. Cherry-plums accordingly became our favourite fruit, and

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by an unusual unanimity Lucy Speary proclaimed that it was also her favourite. She made that statement one evening in our orchard with a look of vehement repulsion at the early cherries that she had come to see, and to eat. Lucy was not a shy child, as I have before indicated. She bragged on the slightest provocation, and was inordinately vain of her own possessions. On this occasion I remember that Claribel and I repudiated all our previous praise of cherry-plums—in fact, to us cherry-plums forthwith became sour.

There were early apples first ready for a pie on Jack's birthday in late December; at least, we always cooked the first of them then, though I have a memory of Dick and Tommy Speary sitting on the top rail of the orchard fence at a time earlier than this, each assisting the ripening process by beating an apple upon the rail of the fence beside him.

Such gallons of jam as we used to make from the fruit of that orchard! I have weary recollections of stirrings by hot stove-fires on days of fierce heat, of stonings and kernel-blanchings, of bottlings and labellings; for ours was a family that consumed an amazing amount of jam. Jam-making in literature, I observe, is always treated romantically. One thinks of Miss Louisa Alcott and other writers of gentle domesticity, but in real life—or so my experience runs—there is more woe than joy connected with the transit of the orchard crop into labelled jars. It may be that this is the fault of our climate. A fierce January morning, one may say, takes the down off the process. We used to make our aunt's store of jam, too, in later days. I remember the keen thrill of satisfaction at praise well and truly earned when my uncle, who flattered himself on being a judge of such things, would smack his lips over my latest success. There was one occasion when Dick, by volunteer service, affixed the labels to my bottlings. It was not till my aunt had twice polished her spectacles on a subsequent occasion that it was discovered that, as far as the labels went, I had contributed twelve pots of “paddy-melon jam” to the contents of her larder.

In a quiet recess beyond a sprawling old quince-tree, whose untrimmed branches dropped to meet the wild vegetation

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of the back-water, Claribel and I once spent a whole day. We had brought to this sanctuary a beloved pet calf whose doom we had heard discussed by my father and the butcher that morning. Instead of going to school we had secretly led our pet to a seclusion where the unmerciful butcher could not discover him, when, as he had planned, he returned later in the day for his purchase. Fearful and elated by turn, we heard the hue and cry for the vanished animal that had been in a yard ready for his fate. Finally, one reconnoitring while the other remained with the tethered calf in case, if left alone, it should make a betraying sound, we beheld the searchers driving off another and less dear victim. It was a long day and a short day, that; sometimes we wished we had had opportunity to bring with us to our jungle our storybooks, whereas circumstances had allowed us to bring but our lesson-books. However, the same circumstances caused us to be provided with the usual lunch, and, with the help of several rosy apples and a hard quince or two, we managed very well. As for the creature for whose sake we had risked so much displeasure, he ate with proper gratitude and relish all the choice gatherings of grass we brought him, and drank quietly, as enjoined, from the old tin can of water Claribel got from the frog-hole in the backwater. In the evening our prodigal calf rejoined the rest of the herd about the time that we, with becoming punctuality, ostentatiously returned from school. I have never yet fully analysed the moral nature of that act of truancy and all that attended it, but confidently I expect that the Recording Angel will have looked upon it with that quality which is the most spontaneous and the most enduring of all the heavenly virtues. Ah, Victor Valdemar! You were grateful, and we knew you understood. A noble and petted beast, you grew too fair at last to the butcher's connoisseur eye to escape the inevitable end.

Not always for bodily feasting did we seek the old orchard and its sweetness of shade and grass. There we came to play, or read—to be read to when we were very young. Under the boughs of those apple- and peach-trees my mother read to us on Sunday afternoons “Christy's Old Organ,” “Ben and

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Kit,” and many another moving tale of childhood. There we had, too, the history of England, or snatches of it, we sitting on the ground and hearing “sad stories of the death of kings.” Under the plum blossoms, amid the hum of the spring-time bees, elbows on mown hay, I first found the magic of Shelley. I was about sixteen when his poems came to me, the gift of a bold voyager to town from my aunt's house. “You like poetry,” said he, giving me this very key to a new heaven. I had had only the snatches of the aerial spirit from the school-books—I, who had already browsed on Milton and many another, had missed this most glorious of imaginations, this being, who, as Thompson says, “runs wild over the fields of ether, slips into Heaven's meadow, and goes gathering stars.” Thereafter might I be found many an hour reading and dreaming under the fruit-trees. Many a day thereafter about the house and paddocks would I, when alone, go murmuring the witching verses of my poet. I remember being put to a pretty confusion one day, when, with a mouth full of “Queen Mab,” rounding a corner I ran full into an approaching stranger.

Autumn in an orchard! It is, perhaps, the most beautiful season of them all. In evergreen Australia at least it must be so. The “fiery finger” touching so little our native foliage, everywhere busy here, where, from a sheer love of variety, the rich season splashes her yellow chromes, and spots, and spills from all her vats till the many-coloured beauty which precedes death is over all. The leaves of the cherry-trees in their amazing flame were our favourite; they lay about the ground or fled with the west wind “like an enchanter pursuing,” or quietly fluttered down one by one, by a mystery as wonderful as the opening of the buds of spring. I know it was the autumn orchard that gave me my first joy in colour —the great red and yellow apples, the russet of the pears, the bowls of the quince like pale lamps in the evening's dimness. 'Tis a sweet place, an autumn orchard. My old pleached garden, how beautiful you were, and are! Alas! you are not what you were, of ambrosia, of beauty, of plenty and of charm. You are changed, and changing, though it is not so

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much the hand of time that is upon you—albeit some of your trees grow mossy—as the desecrating hand, and the neglectful hand of the stranger. Those who know you now have let the gaps come in the fences, have let the animals tramp over you, and work their idle will upon your spreading branches. Still, there is beauty through all defacement; still in the higher branches hangs in its season the mellow harvest, and on the ground the breaking clover blooms; in the air the singing of the bees taking the sweets for their waiting hexagons. Changed and changing though you be, every spot holds still some hint of those things which long ago gave imperishably their influences to me.