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


If an emperor were to come to me, saying, “O friend, empire has grown wearisome to me, and of music and dancing and banquets I am tired; how shall I provide myself with a pleasure?” I should reply, “Sire, build an eastern wing to thy palace; let the windows of it be large; and have thy bed so set that, turning to the left, in the morning, thou shalt open thine eyes on the sunrise. So shall thy days become glad, thine eyes be filled with delight, and thy soul with new life.”

It would be cruel to add, “And, sire, thy palace must be built six thousand feet above the sea, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains of North America;” but I should desire to add it; and I should pity the emperor who, after he had built the eastern wing to his palace, and set his bed fronting the dawn, had only such sunrise as might be found, say, in Paris, or Moscow, or anywhere else in the world, except at the horizon of a Colorado plain, with Colorado mountains waiting in the west.

There is an audacity in speaking of sunrises. Hardly is it possible to use such tones as will redeem the words from triviality or irreverence, and disarm the resentment of those who find no worship true except it is silent. But I choose the word calendar as a guaranty and an apology: guaranty of concise exactness and simple fashion, and apology for inevitable shortcoming and failure; for well I know that, after I have borrowed from color all the names which its masters and adorers have given it, and after I have compelled memory to surrender each hidden treasure of the pictures it has stored, I shall still have made but an insignificant and inadequate record of the sunrise pageants which I have watched on these marvellous Colorado plains.

My bedroom, like the one I should counsel the emperor to build, looks to the east. I have but to turn on my pillow to be ready for the sun’s coming. All my life, hitherto, I have had to rise, and journey a greater or less distance, to meet him; and of this has been born almost as great an aversion as dear Charles Lamb felt when he was bold enough to say, “That very unpleasant ceremony called sunrise.” How different a thing is sunrise seen from one’s pillow, in absolute repose, warmth, and that delicious, vague ecstasy of the beginning of the new day which all healthfully organized beings feel. Try it, O emperors!

On the morning of February 6, 1876, the dome of sky above the vast plain in which lies the little town of Colorado Springs was covered with one uniform gray cloud,—not a break, not a lightened shade anywhere. While it was yet hardly possible to see, this curtain slowly lifted in the eastern and southern horizon, revealing a narrow band of clear light. No name of color could be given to this luminous space. It was too radiant to be called white. It was too white to be called yellow. It was pure light. Presently there came upon the curtain faint ripples of rose-color, reaching in waving lines high up in the heavens. Rapidly these deepened, until they were glowing red, and the space of pure light at the horizon turned bright blue. Then filmy silver bars formed in the blue; and suddenly, almost in the twinkling of an eye, the gray curtain, with its rippled red lines, broke up into cumulous masses of rose red, fiery red, dark red clouds, floating and sailing away to south and toward the zenith, and changing shape and tint every second. Gradually these changed to flame-color, and the horizon belt of bright blue became pale green, while the slender silver bars in it changed to gold, and looked like golden rounds of a circling ladder. Next, the flame-colored clouds changed to gold,—clear gold in the east; in the south of an amber tint. Then they grew softer and more misty, and their lower edges took on a silvery brightness. In so far as changes of color can convey the thought of a hush, of expectant silence, it was conveyed by this softening and silvering of every tint. It was the second before sunrise. As the round disc came slowly up, the whole plain and the whole heavens were suffused with an unutterably tender golden haze, and yellow light flooded the mountains in the west. By this time I had found my two eastern windows insufficient, and was leaning far out of a southern window, from which I could see east and south and west.

The village itself was not yet in full light; but the tops of the snowy mountains were glowing and shining bars of sunlight were creeping slowly down on the soft brown of the foot-hills. The zenith was pale blue, filled with great masses of white and golden clouds. Above the snow-topped mountains hung the silver moon, paling second by second in the deepening light; and, to complete the bewilderingly beautiful picture, a flock of tiny snow-birds came flying up from the south, wheeling and circling in the air. At last they flew over my head, so near that the whirring of their wings sounded like a wind in pine boughs. There were hundreds of these birds. As they passed above me, the vivid sunbeams shot through and through each out-stretched wing, turning it for one second into a transparent golden web, and making the little creatures look more like great black-and-gold butterflies than like birds.

And so that day began. A few days later, the morning opened with a similar gray cloud curtain over the whole sky; but as soon as the curtain lifted at the southern and eastern horizons, it revealed a space of vivid yellow, with bands of intense salmon pink in it. Soon this space turned to pale, clear green, shading up to blue, and the bands slowly changed from salmon to gold. Above hung the gray curtain, its lower edge of a fiery flame red, and flecks of the same red thickly scattered upon it. In the south, the clear belt at the horizon was of a pale yellow, and the cloud curtain of a dark, opaline purple, shading down to a rose-color where it joined the yellow.

Slowly,—so slowly that, watching even as closely as I was watching, I could hardly detect any motion,— the cloud curtain broke up into fine, flaky, feathery fragments, each of which became a pale yellow as it floated into the higher and bluer air. There they drew together again, as flocks of birds close in; and when they had once more become a solid cloud curtain, it was of an indescribable silvery brown tint, as light as the lightest possible gray, but with no shade of gray in it,— only pure yellow-brown, and with a deep golden, almost fringing edge at the bottom. Slowly it sank toward the horizon, and slowly it spread up toward the zenith, still silvery brown, edged above and below with gold. Gradually the golden fringes on the lower edge detached themselves and filled the clear horizon belt with misty, silvery brown clouds. Into these came the sun, turning them for one second into molten gold, but in the next second growing pale and disappearing himself in the misty vapor.

The southern sky turned for a moment to pale green, with bands of pearl gray in it; but the silvery brown curtain soon conquered all other colors. Every column of smoke which rose between me and the east was golden; those which were between me and the west were cold and dark blue gray. The plains were flooded with silvery brown mist. It was sunrise; but the sun had not risen. An hour later he came up over the top of the brown cloud curtain; again the tops of the mountains were lighted up with a rosy glow, while the foot-hills were in the shadow of the cloud bar; again the blue upper air was filled with floating clouds of pale yellow and silvery brown. And so, to that day there were two sunrises.

The next morning the pageant was a short one. The same gray curtain covered the whole sky. A few moments before sunrise there came upon it a pale flush of rose color. This slowly deepened to red; then slowly faded again to pale rose, then disappeared altogether; and in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, was succeeded by a brilliant golden hue, with flecks of silver; then, in less time than I take to write my recfrd of the fairy spectacle, the golden gray curtain and its silver flecks broke into a myriad of shining clouds, floated away and dissolved, and the sun came up into a cloudless heaven of shining blue.

Another sunrise which I shall never forget was on the morning of March 1st. Long before dawn I had begun to watch for it. The sky was dark, but clear as crystal and blazing with stars. The broad moon was setting in the west, and its light cast silver lines along all the roofs of the houses and lit up the eastern horizon. One by one the stars fade, and the sky slowly grew lighter and lighter, until it looked white,—pure, cold, luminous white. Then black clouds began to blow up from all sides. The whole heavens looked strangely angry and threatening, with alternating spaces of sharp black and white. Then the black clouds changed to a pale slate color and the wind whirled them about furiously. Next came a faint rose tinge upon the slate, making it seem almost purple. The same tinge spread over the thick dark cloud belt at the horizon and rippled it with red. Then the slate color changed to pale gray, then to the most delicate lavender, still rippled with red. Next, with a swift, strange darkening of the atmosphere, the red glow all died away, the curtain belt at the horizon lifted, and the whole sky was filled with cumulous masses of gray and white. Then in the clear light space at the horizon came one slender gold line, like a bird flying with outstretched wings; then more fine gold lines —lithe, curving, fluttering, like flying serpents. The upper edge of the gray turned to gold in the east, and in the south to vermillion and rose; the white space gradually changed to vivid light green, and the sunlight pouring up from below suffused the whole mass of clouds with a pale yellow light, making them soft and misty and flooding the plains with an indescribably tender haze, while the clouds in the west and south were still stormy,—dark gray and cold slate blue.

Soon the gray conquered. It seemed to Filter through the golden haze, absorbing it, mixing with it, until there was left at the horizon a broad belt of silvered and gilded gray, shining and rippling like the phosphorescent wake of a ship under strong moonlight.

Spite of all this splendor, it was a sombre morning. The luminous spaces of blue and silvery white seemed icy cold among the whirling gray clouds, and the mountains looked as gaunt and black and pitiless as if there was no sun above the horizon.

But of all the sunrises whose record I have kept the one I shall longest and most vividly remember is one in which I saw no sun. I opened my eyes upon a snow-storm, as still and pauseless and beautiful as one in New England. The whole sky was of that exquisite clear gray which we never see except as the background for thick-falling snowflakes. While I lay dreamily watching it, I suddenly thought I detected a faint rosy tint in the atmosphere. It could not be! No sunrise tint could pierce through that thick gray! But it was. It did. The color deepened. Rosier and rosier, redder and redder grew the gray wall, until I sprang to the window and with incredulous eyes gazed on a sight so weirdly beautiful that my memory almost distrusts itself as I recall the moment. The whole eastern and southern sky was deep red,—vivid yet opaque. The air was filled with large snowflakes. As they slowly floated down, each starry crystalline shape stood out with dazzling distinctness on the red background. It was but for a moment. As mysteriously as it had come the ruddy glow disappeared; the sky and the falling flakes all melted together again into soft white and gray, and not until another day did we see the sun which for that one brief moment had crimsoned our sky.

These are but five sunrises from my calendar. O emperor, wilt thou not build an eastern wing to thy palace and set thy bed fronting the dawn?

And by emperor I mean simply any man to whom it is given to make for himself a home; and by palace I mean any house, however small, in which love dwells and on which the sun can shine.


Cambridge: Press of John Wilson & Son.

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