Fragrance in Childhood Literature-Being a Boy, by Charles Dudley Warner

Being a Boy, by Charles Dudley Warner

Going after the cows was a serious thing in my day. I had to climb a
hill, which was covered with wild strawberries in the season. Could any
boy pass by those ripe berries? And then in the fragrant hill pasture
there were beds of wintergreen with red berries, tufts of columbine,
roots of sassafras to be dug, and dozens of things good to eat or to
smell, that I could not resist. It sometimes even lay in my way to climb
a tree to look for a crow's nest, or to swing in the top, and to try if
I could see the steeple of the village church. It became very
important sometimes for me to see that steeple; and in the midst of my
investigations the tin horn would blow a great blast from the farmhouse,
which would send a cold chill down my back in the hottest days. I knew
what it meant. It had a frightfully impatient quaver in it, not at all
like the sweet note that called us to dinner from the hay-field. It
said, "Why on earth does n't that boy come home? It is almost dark, and
the cows ain't milked!" And that was the time the cows had to start into
a brisk pace and make up for lost time. I wonder if any boy ever drove
the cows home late, who did not say that the cows were at the very
farther end of the pasture, and that "Old Brindle" was hidden in the
woods, and he couldn't find her for ever so long! The brindle cow is the
boy's scapegoat, many a time.

For days and days before Thanksgiving the boy was kept at work evenings,
pounding and paring and cutting up and mixing (not being allowed to
taste much), until the world seemed to him to be made of fragrant
spices, green fruit, raisins, and pastry,--a world that he was only yet
allowed to enjoy through his nose. How filled the house was with the
most delicious smells! The mince-pies that were made! If John had been
shut in solid walls with them piled about him, he could n't have eaten
his way out in four weeks. There were dainties enough cooked in those
two weeks to have made the entire year luscious with good living, if
they had been scattered along in it.

I used the word "aromatic" in relation to the New England soil. John
knew very well all its sweet, aromatic, pungent, and medicinal products,
and liked to search for the scented herbs and the wild fruits and
exquisite flowers; but he did not then know, and few do know, that there
is no part of the globe where the subtle chemistry of the earth produces
more that is agreeable to the senses than a New England hill-pasture and
the green meadow at its foot. The poets have succeeded in turning our
attention from it to the comparatively barren Orient as the land of
sweet-smelling spices and odorous gums. And it is indeed a constant
surprise that this poor and stony soil elaborates and grows so many
delicate and aromatic products.

John, it is true, did not care much for anything that did not appeal to
his taste and smell and delight in brilliant color; and he trod down the
exquisite ferns and the wonderful mosses--without compunction. But he
gathered from the crevices of the rocks the columbine and the eglantine
and the blue harebell; he picked the high-flavored alpine strawberry,
the blueberry, the boxberry, wild currants and gooseberries, and
fox-grapes; he brought home armfuls of the pink-and-white laurel and the
wild honeysuckle; he dug the roots of the fragrant sassafras and of
the sweet-flag; he ate the tender leaves of the wintergreen and its red
berries; he gathered the peppermint and the spearmint; he gnawed
the twigs of the black birch; there was a stout fern which he called
"brake," which he pulled up, and found that the soft end "tasted good;"
he dug the amber gum from the spruce-tree, and liked to smell, though he
could not chew, the gum of the wild cherry; it was his melancholy duty
to bring home such medicinal herbs for the garret as the gold-thread,
the tansy, and the loathsome "boneset;" and he laid in for the winter,
like a squirrel, stores of beechnuts, hazel-nuts, hickory-nuts,
chestnuts, and butternuts. But that which lives most vividly in his
memory and most strongly draws him back to the New England hills is the
aromatic sweet-fern; he likes to eat its spicy seeds, and to crush in
his hands its fragrant leaves; their odor is the unique essence of New
England.

At noon was Sunday-school, and after that, before the afternoon service,
in summer, the boys had a little time to eat their luncheon together
at the watering-trough, where some of the elders were likely to be
gathered, talking very solemnly about cattle; or they went over to
a neighboring barn to see the calves; or they slipped off down the
roadside to a place where they could dig sassafras or the root of the
sweet-flag, roots very fragrant in the mind of many a boy with religious
associations to this day. There was often an odor of sassafras in the
afternoon service. It used to stand in my mind as a substitute for the
Old Testament incense of the Jews. Something in the same way the big
bass-viol in the choir took the place of "David's harp of solemn sound."

When the "revival" came, therefore, one summer, John was in a quandary.
Sunday meeting and Sunday-school he did n't mind; they were a part of
regular life, and only temporarily interrupted a boy's pleasures. But
when there began to be evening meetings at the different houses, a
new element came into affairs. There was a kind of solemnity over the
community, and a seriousness in all faces. At first these twilight
assemblies offered a little relief to the monotony of farm life; and
John liked to meet the boys and girls, and to watch the older people
coming in, dressed in their second best. I think John's imagination was
worked upon by the sweet and mournful hymns that were discordantly sung
in the stiff old parlors. There was a suggestion of Sunday, and sanctity
too, in the odor of caraway-seed that pervaded the room. The windows
were wide open also, and the scent of June roses came in, with all the
languishing sounds of a summer night. All the little boys had a scared
look, but the little girls were never so pretty and demure as in this
their susceptible seriousness. If John saw a boy who did not come to the
evening meeting, but was wandering off with his sling down the
meadow, looking for frogs, maybe, that boy seemed to him a monster of
wickedness.

But now John was invited to a regular party. There was the invitation,
in a three-cornered billet, sealed with a transparent wafer: "Miss C.
Rudd requests the pleasure of the company of," etc., all in blue ink,
and the finest kind of pin-scratching writing. What a precious document
it was to John! It even exhaled a faint sort of perfume, whether of
lavender or caraway-seed he could not tell. He read it over a hundred
times, and showed it confidentially to his favorite cousin, who had
beaux of her own and had even "sat up" with them in the parlor. And from
this sympathetic cousin John got advice as to what he should wear and
how he should conduct himself at the party.