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Next: Winter in N.H.ContentsPrevious: Hide-and-Seek Town

Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


THE MIRACLE PLAY OF 1870, IN BETHLEHEM, NEW HAMPSHIRE.

One does not need to go to Ammergau. On a night, not of appointment beforehand, so far as we knew, we went to sleep in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. We were content, but not expectant. Ranges of mountains, solid, blue, and stately hedging us round, yet leaving open for our untiring gaze so wide a circle, that, at its outer rim, even in clearest days, lingers a purple haze; near fields of brown ferns, scarlet cornels, and gray bowlders frosted with myriad lichens; woods, spicy and sheltered with firs, soft under foot with unnumbered mosses and mats of Linnaea, and rich in all sorts of forest growths of bush and shrub and low flowering things: all this seemed enough. We went to sleep, as I say content, but not expectant of more than we had had. We heard no sound in the night. We made no haste in the morning.

With the delicious leisureliness which wraps solitary people in the warm, autumn mountain weather, we set ourselves to beginning the day, and by chance looked out of our window.

Like children at sight of a merry juggler’s show, we first shouted with delight, then drew in long, silent breaths, with bewilderment too like awe to find easy shape in speech. O whence! O who! How had their feet passed by so noiselessly? Who had touched with this enchantment every leaf of every tree which stood within our sight? Every maple-tree blazed at top with tint of scarlet or cherry or orange or pale yellow. Every ash-tree had turned from green to dark purple or to pale straw-color. Every birch-tree shimmered and quivered in the sun, as if gold-pieces were strung along its branches: basswoods were flecked with white; beeches were brown and yellow, poplars were marked and spotted with vermilion; sumachs had become ladders, and bars, and fringes of fire; not a single tree was left of solid, dark green, except the pines and the larches and the firs; and they also seemed to have shared in the transformation, looking darker and greener than ever, as a setting for these masses of flashing color Single trees in fields, near and far, looked like great hewn jewels; with light behind them, the tint flickered and waved as it does in transparent stones held up to the sun. When the wind shook them, it was like nothing but the tremulousness of distant seas burning under sunset. The same trees, filling in by tens of thousands in spaces of the forests, looked not like any thing which we know and name as gem, but as one could fancy mid-air spaces might be and look in some supernatural realm whence the souls of ruby and amethyst and topaz come and go, taking for a little while the dusty shapes of small stones on earth.

All this in this one night! To north, to south, to east, to west, it was the same. Miles away, at the very feet of the farthest green mountains, shone the glory; within our hands’ reach, at neighbors’ gates, stood the stately splendor.

With reverent eyes we went close into territory after territory; coming nearer, we found that the scarlet or the claret or the crimson or the orange, which we had seen from the distance as one pure, uniform tint, was no longer scarlet or claret or crimson or orange, but all of these, and more than all of these, shading up and down and into each other by gradations indistinguishably fine and beyond all counting; alternating and interrupting each other, in single leaves or in clusters on boughs, with an infinity of change and combination almost like caprice or frolic.

I have seen our Western prairies in their June flowering; I have seen also the mosaic fields of blossoms in the Ampezzo Pass, at which one cannot so much as look without shaded eyes, and from which Titian learnt color: I have seen old altar fronts on which generations and centuries of kings have lavished jewels, till they are so thick set that not one more dot can be added: but I have never seen such flaming, shading, shaping, changing, lavishing, rioting of color as in this death of the autumn leaves on these Bethlehem hills.

Every day we said, “This will be the last;” and it was the last bearing away with it its own tint of glory never to return. But the next day was as beautiful, sometimes we thought more beautiful, except that the brilliance of the long royal line before it had dulled our sense. Bright days dazzled us and made us leap in their sun. Gray days surprised us, revealing new tints and more gorgeous heats in the colors; we had unthinkingly believed that sunshine helped instead of hindering. In this was a lesson. Also in the sudden discovering, hour by hour, tiny hidden leaves of unnoted things, under foot in fields, tucked away in hedges, lying low even in edge of dusty roads, but bright and burnished and splendid as any one of those loftiest in air. Strawberry leaves dappled with claret spots, or winy red with rims of yellow; raspberry and blackberry shoots as brilliant as maples; the odd little shovel-shaped sorrel leaves a deep, clear cherry just pricked with orange; patient old “hardback” sticking to its heavy plumes of seed through thick and thin of wind, its pretty oval leaves all tinted with delicate browns and yellows and pinks blended; “fireweed” by thickets in desolate places, six feet tall, and no two of its sharp, slender, spike-shaped leaves of a tint, some mottled, some yellow, some scarlet, some green;—all these we found and more, whose colors I cannot define, and whose names, more shame to me, I do not know. And so the days of the miracle play went on, to seven, to ten, to fourteen. There were few to see it; but even the busy and usually unobservant farming people took note of it. “Never’n all my days did I see such a sight ’s ’tis here naow,” said one man, driving his oxen off to the right of the road to make room for me with the best part of a maple-tree on my shoulder. And, “Hev yew ben daown on the Wing Road?” said another.

“No,” said I; “are the leaves very fine there?”

“Wall, I jest wish you’d go ’n’ see! I was a thinkin’ abaout yew only last night, ’n’ I sez to my wife, ’s we wus drivin’ along ther, sez I, ‘Naow them folks that’s allers a gittin’ these ’ere leaves ’d better come daown this road.’”

And another, a good old deacon, in pathetic mixture of piety and poetry: “Wall, I’ve lived here on this Bethl’em Street all my born days, ’n’ I never see no sich a color to these ’ere woods afore. I guess the Lord knows abaout ’s well haow to fix this world o’ hisin ’s any on ’em do thet’s allers a tryin’ to make aout haow he might ha’ done it.”

There is no doubt that many years will come and go before Bethlehem hills will see such sights again. All her people agree in saying that they never saw such before; and I myself, during fifteen autumns of such mountain living and rambling as only a passion for them can inspire have never seen any thing like it. As I write, the air is full of whirling leaves, brown and yellow and red. The show is over. The winds like noisy carpenters, are taking down the scenery. They are capricious and lawless workmen, doing nothing for a day or two, and then scurrying about madly by night to make up for lost time. Soon the naked wood of the stripped trees will be all that we shall see to remind us of last week’s pomp and spectacle. But the thing next in beauty to a tree in full leaf is a tree bare; its every exquisiteness of shape revealed, and its hold on the sky seeming so unspeakably assured; and, more than the beauty of shape and the outlining on sky, the solemn grace of prophecy and promise which every slender twig bears and reveals in its tiny gray buds.

Last night, as if in final symphony to the play and grand prelude of welcome to the conquering winter which draws near, the color spirits took possession of the sky, and for three hours shook its very folds with the noiseless cadence of their motions. There they all were, the green, the pink, the fiery red, which we had been daring to touch and pick in leaves off stems, now floating and dancing in disembodied ecstasy over our heads, wrapped and twined in very light of very light, as in celestial garments. Fixed stars seemed reeling in their embraces: the whole firmament seemed to furl and sway and undulate, as if it might presently be borne off like a captured banner in their passing. From the zenith to the eastern and western and northern horizons, not one spot was dark. If there had been snow on the ground, it would have been lit to redness as by fire. The village looked on in solemn silence; bare-headed men and women stood almost in awe at every threshold and gate. This also was such sight as had never before been seen from their doors. The oldest man here does not remember such an aurora. It is hard to believe that Lapland itself ever saw one more weird, more beautiful.

Next morning white frost and a clear, sparkling air, the first of the autumn; the very street seemed alive with quickening sense of its stimulus. There was separate delight in each footfall; it felt like a wing stroke.

“Guess it’s cleared off naow, the right way,” called out one old man to another, as they passed on the road.

“Wall, yes. I call this abaout ’s pooty a day ’s ye ever see fur enny kind o’ bizness,” replied his friend.

I did not smile at the phrase of his speech. Our hearts were in unison; and he was better off than I, for his homely simplicity had found words where I had been dumb!


Next: Winter in N.H.ContentsPrevious: Hide-and-Seek Town

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