The Scarlet of the Year



I.

    THE beautiful changes of the seasons come upon us so furtively, and yet so surely, that their appearance seems sudden at last. Day by day, through the dry glow of August, we say, “The summer is waning; soon we shall see the hills all crimson; even now there is a touch of Indian summer in the atmosphere, though the air is so warm.” And then, after all, it takes us by surprise some morning to look up and see a solitary tree all scarlet on the mountain. Yet his message was imperative and could suffer no delay; prompt as the first April robin, there he must appear, to do [Page 249] the bidding of those great primary powers we are pleased to call Nature.
    Yes, it is quite true, as some one remarked the other day editorially (I have forgotten where), we are for ever being exhorted to worship Nature, to turn from our overstrenuous diligence, our overcentralized life, and come back to the primitive conditions of the great outdoor world. True, that is our native air; we shall reap good from it in abundance, if we are wise; and I, for one, should be glad to see the whole town turned out into the woods for three months of the year. Ah, how gladly would they be turned out if they could! But that is our fault, my friend, yours and mine and the next man’s; and it is a poor lesson we have learned from this great Nature, if we have not taken the hint of generosity, if we have not learned tolerance, if we have not been infected with a lofty and unflinching sweetness, which is full of care for others’ joy as well as our own.
    What do they say, these scarlet priests of [Page 250] the hills? Now the maples have put on their valiant colours, and the ash and beech are robed in the light of yellow and bronze; the birches, too, and the wayfaring tree are all in bright array. What is the meaning of so great a pomp and splendour? Why the gayest, bravest tints in the season of decay, at the time of universal perishing?
    There is no answer. Even if science could tell just the use of colour in the scheme of life, we should have our metaphorical or symbolistic sense still unsatisfied. Meanwhile the gladness of autumn is undoubted; the strong heartening note is sounded everywhere above the dismal ruin of summer beauty. Indeed, it is only a merging of the lesser beauty into the greater. And one fancies (fantastically, indeed) that only in the New World is the year’s death made so glorious, as if not until now could men ever imagine that death is anything but ruin.
    “No, indeed,” say the scarlet priests of the mountains; “behold in the midst of unfaded [Page 251] April green we don our brightest robes, and give you the New Message, – even we, the lowly folk of the forest, the inarticulate people of the wilderness. We would have you to know that the gladness of the spring is nothing to our gladness. In the childhood of your race, you worshipped youth and love; but now that you are grown you shall worship love and maturity. And death itself shall not be sad to you any more; but in natural sorrow you shall still valiantly rejoice. For it is better to triumph than to hope; it is better to dare than to desire. What do they know of the fulness of life, who have never endured the rending wind and the riving frost? Hear us, and we will show you a better way than the pageant of the buds or the riot of perishable June! Fortitude, gladness, patience, a smiling front in face of disaster, these be your watchwords for ever!”
    This, you say, is only our own thought put in the mouth of the forest people. But who shall say how much of our natural resignation [Page 252] may not have come, by subtle and potent influences, from these very children of the mountainside? And who can tell how great has been the effect of the splendour of autumn on our idea of perfection? The forces of suggestion and association are so mysterious and so strong, so delicate in their hidden working, that one’s thoughts about the solemnities of death and the completion of life might well come from sources as frail as a turning leaf or a seeding thistle.
    Where, then, is the influence of the scarlet of the year found in our art? How does it make itself felt in those works of our hands which represent us as a race? Think of the artist you know, writers or painters or creators of the beautiful in any form; in whose work among them all do you find the brave scarlet note? It is not felt everywhere, certainly. You would not say that Arnold has it, beloved and lovely as he is. His is the gray-green of a French forest or a southern olive grove. You would not say it is in Tennyson [Page 253]; his colour is purple, the rich ennobled tinge of dignity and meditation. And the pre-Raphaelites? Certainly they have colour to spare, but not in the sense I mean. It is not their province to raise a response to any cheer from the troubled heart of their days. But in Emerson and Browning, there you may see at once the interpreted gospel of the scarlet leaf. The English poet never saw a bit of the New World forest in its raw brilliancy of fall; but do you not feel sure it would have delighted him – at once so subtle and so barbaric?
    And to whom, but to him and Emerson, are we to turn for that assurance to the spirit which Nature is preaching in her own dumb way from a thousand mountainsides to-day? There is another, too, whom common consent of criticism holds in lower esteem, but for whom I cannot help having an equal love. I am not sure that one does not love him, so human, so humane, so modest and kindly, even more than any of the greater masters. And on every page he wrote you will find traces of this [Page 254] scarlet glory, this unquelled triumphant festival of the spirit, putting failure and defeat aside for ever. Who is there who loves men and books and nature, and can witness the gay procession of scarlet on the hills, without thought of unconquerable Robert Louis?

II.

    IN the first blush of our autumnal season, it is the splendour and scarlet of it that most appeal to us. The green-feasted eye, full of the luxurious leisure of the quiet foliage, picks out at once the first fleck of crimson, conspicuous as a stain, – a spilth of blood or wine on the vest of nature. This is the sign, the presage, the portent of rehabilitation; and we must leap at heart for the valiant tinge. It is the colour of war, of energy, of manliness, of fortitude, of endurance, linking us with our primitive instincts, calling up the dejected [Page 255] spirit to new endeavours, heartening the discouraged and reviving the worn.
    “Courage, O divine vagabond,” it seems to say, “already the turn of the road is here, the banners of the Delectable City are in sight. Brace, thee, then, for one effort more. Am I not the symbol to thee of triumph? Do not lassitude and doubt and cynicism flee before me? Why, then, ever be faint-hearted again? To-day is thine, and the promise of the morrow is in my hand.”
    But when the first impression of the scarlet world has worn off, when the sense becomes accustomed to so much magnificent display, we perceive other beauties, new and strange, mingling with the red. The softer, subtle richness of the tapestry comes out; elusive and lovely shades, unperceived at first, reveal themselves to the studious and enraptured gaze. It is not the raw splendour of the barbaric kingly show that is most powerful over us; there are shyer hidden influences of pale attractiveness as well, here a scrap of pure [Page 256] yellow, there a tint of sheer purple or blue or lavender.
    It seems to me that I have never known a year half so voluptuous in colours as this. Is it not so? Before September had left the hills, every one was aware of the unusual lavishness and wonderful beauty of pigment. Only in dreams or in fairy tales could such pomp be possible. The leaves unwithered kept all their fresh perfection of June, with the added marvel of crimson or russet. One gazed across the mountain valleys from peak to peak as across a scarlet world. And in the silent, brooding air it would not have been incredible to people that wonderland with all the shapes of fancy from Homer’s time to ours. You said to yourself, “Surely, I shall never see the like of this again,” and then bade a sorrowful farewell to those high stretches of red hill and sweeping air.
    And yet the shore in its more sober garb was just as wonderful, just as unusual. If the hills were arrayed like kings, the marshes and open [Page 257] fields of the seaboard were emperors of their own dominion, too. In the first days of October a drenching storm and chilly twilight landed me at one hospitable hearthstone on the south shore. The wind was out of the northeast, gusting and quarrelsome, and it caught a traveller unprepared. There could be no joy of nature in such weather; protection, friends, and fire were the only things. But the next morning uprose one of those matchless days which seem to come on purpose to belie our gloomy apprehension. The clear sky, the drying roads, the fresh, wholesome wind, the talking leaves, and the far-off sparkle of the sea. The most confirmed morning hater could not refrain from a stroll before breakfast. In that new world by a quiet, woody, road, some hours later our mother Autumn showed me her latest study in raw colour. Side by side above the stone wall stood a crimson maple and a yellow poplar. As you looked up in passing the light struck through them from behind you, drenching their pure tints in luxurious [Page 258] living light, on a background of the unmitigated blue.

    “There,” I said, “is the trinity of colour,” – the blue which was nothing but blue, yellow which was nothing but yellow, and the other crimson. You might study them at your ease. Look straight into the deep red of the maple before you, or into the yellow of the aspen to your right, or into the blue between them. Then aloft where the tops swayed across the sky, you got the contrast of the red with the yellow. Look steadily a moment at the warm red of the maple cut against that cerulean hanging, and try to feel its meaning; and then shift your eyes to the yellow.
    It does not do to be fanciful on paper, however one may dream between sunrise and sunset. But I am sure you would agree to the greater nobility of the spiritual yellow, as contrasted with the burly physical red. And behind them all the incorruptible blue, the primal thought. There lay the deep strong tone of the blood-red tree, so physical, so sure [Page 259], so unabashed and sufficient. And beside it the sheer ethereal tremulousness of the yellow, — the colour of spirit, the colour that makes us feel. But before ever we could move or love, there was the great blue thought which comprehended the beginning and overarches the whole.
    If you think of these elementary colours as symbols of certain qualities, you will see something more than a mere wayward fancy in such a title as “The Red Fairy Book,” or “The Blue Fairy Book.” You will think of colour not merely as an attribute of this good world, but as an index of our own inward emotional life as well. It is as if, when all the earth lay finished from the hand of the great Artifex, perfect in construction, lovely in form, waiting only the final impulse, he had smiled above his work, and that benign look was communicated to the new-made handicraft in the guise of colour, – a superfluous manifestation of beauty, the very breath or spirit of the Creator.
    And ever since, to keep us in mind of the [Page 260] Creator’s heritage of joy, colour remains on the face of the world, a possession of the spirit. They who deal in its appreciation and expression are peculiarly the guardians of a sacred trust, receiving from it intimations of finer significance than the average eye can gather, and expressing through it the most intimate and delicate thoughts and yearnings [Page 261].