Fragrance in Literature-The Wild Huntress, by Mayne Reid

The Wild Huntress, by Mayne Reid

Fancy, then, a fine morning in May—a sunshine that turns all it touches into gold—an atmosphere laden with the perfume of wild-flowers—the hum of honey-seeking bees—the song of birds commingling in sweetest melody—and you have the mise en scène of a squatter’s cabin on the banks of the Obion, half an hour after the rising of the sun. Can such a picture be called commonplace? Rather say it is enchanting.

Glance into the forest-glade! It is an opening in the woods—a clearing, not made by the labour of human hands, but a work of Nature herself: a spot of earth where the great timber grows not, but in its place shrubs and tender grass, plants and perfumed flowers.

And yet this beauty appears under a russet garb. There is no evidence of excessive toilet-care. The brush and comb have been but sparingly used; and neither perfume nor pomatum has been employed to heighten the shine of those luxuriant locks. There is sun-tan on the face, that, perhaps with the aid of soap, might be taken off; but it is permitted to remain. The teeth, too, might be made whiter with a dentifrice and brush; but in all likelihood the nearest approach to their having ever been cleansed has been while chewing a piece of tough deer-meat. Nevertheless, without any artificial aids, the young man’s beauty proclaims itself in every feature—the more so, perhaps that, in gazing upon his face, you are impressed with the idea that there is an “outcome” in it.

On emerging from the shadow of the tall trees into the open glade effulgent with flowers, his gaiety seems to have reached its climax: it breaks forth in song; and for some minutes the forest re-echoes the well-known lay of “Woodman spare that tree.” Whence this joyous humour? Why are those eyes sparkling with a scarce concealed triumph? Is there a sweetheart expected? Is the glade to the scene of a love-interview—that glade perfumed and flowery, as if designed for such a purpose? The conjecture is reasonable: the young hunter has the air of one who keeps an assignation—one, too, who dreams not of disappointment. Near the edge of the glade, on the side opposite to that by which the hunter has come in, is a fallen tree. Its branches and bark have long since disappeared, and the trunk is bleached to a brilliant white. In the phraseology of the backwoods, it is no longer a tree, but a “log.” Towards this the hunter advances. On arriving at the log he seats himself upon it, in the attitude of one who does not anticipate being for long alone.

Behold the dark sumac in crimson arrayed,
Whose veins with the deadliest poison are rife!
And, side by her side, on the edge of the glade,
The sassafras laurel, restorer of life!
Behold the tall maples turned red in their hue,
And the muscadine vine, with its clusters of blue;
And the lotus, whose leaves have scarce time to unfold,
Ere they drop, to discover its berries of gold;
And the bay-tree, perfumed, never changing its sheen,
And for ever enrobed in its mantle of green!

In infamy now the bold slanderer slumbers,
Who falsely declared ’twas a land without song!
Had he listened, as I, to those musical numbers
That liven its woods through the summer-day long—
Had he slept in the shade of its blossoming trees,
Or inhaled their sweet balm ever loading the breeze,
He would scarcely have ventured on statement so wrong—
“Her plants without perfume, her birds without song.”
Ah! closet-philosopher, sure, in that hour,
You had never beheld the magnolia’s flower?

Slowly and reluctantly, I turned back from the stream, and once more entered amid the wreck of the hurricane. Along the sunny path, the flowers appeared to sparkle with a fresher brilliancy—imbuing the air with sweet odours, wafted from many a perfumed chalice. The birds sang with clearer melody; and the hum of the honey-bee rang through the glades more harmoniously than ever. The “coo-coo-oo” of the doves blending with the love-call of the squirrel, betokened that both were inspired by the tenderest of passions.

And this was the grand beauty upon which the young backwoodsman had so enthusiastically descanted. Often had he described it to my incredulous ear. I had attributed his praises to the partiality of a lover’s eye—having not the slightest suspicion that their object was possessed of such merits. No more should I question the justice of his admiration, nor wonder at its warmth. The rude hyperbole that had occasionally escaped him, when speaking of the “girl”—as he called her—no longer appeared extravagant. In truth, the charms of this magnificent maiden were worthy of metaphoric phrase. Perhaps, had I seen her first—before looking upon Lilian—that is, had I not seen Lilian at all—my own heart might have yielded to this half-Indian damsel? Not so now. The gaudy tulip may attract the eye, but the incense of the perfumed violet is sweeter to the soul. Even had both been presented together, I could not have hesitated in my choice. All the same should I have chosen the gold and the rose; and my heart’s preference was now fixed, fondly and for ever.

We were just entering the glade, as he finished speaking—an opening in the woods of limited extent. The contrast between it and the dark forest-path we had traversed was striking—as the change itself was pleasant. It was like emerging suddenly from darkness into daylight: for the full moon, now soaring high above the spray of the forest, filled the glade with the ample effulgence of her light. The dew-besprinkled flowers were sparkling like gems; and, even though it was night, their exquisite aroma had reached us afar off in the forest. There was not a breath of air stirring; and the unruffled leaves presented the sheen of shining metal. Under the clear moonlight, I could distinguish the varied hues of the frondage—that of the red maple from the scarlet sumacs and sassafras laurels; and these again, from the dark-green of the Carolina bay-trees, and the silvery foliage of the Magnolia glauca.

It was, moreover, the hour of most interest in the daily routine of a travelling-train: when forms cluster around the bivouac fire, and bright faces shine cheerfully in the blaze; when the song succeeds the supper, the tale is told, and the merry laugh rings on the air; when the pipe sends up its aromatic wreaths of blue curling smoke; and sturdy limbs, already rested from the toils of the day, feel an impulse to spring upward on the “light fantastic toe.” On that eve, such an impulse had inspired the limbs of the Mormon emigrants. Scarcely had the débris of the supper been removed, ere a space was cleared midway between the blazing fires; music swelled upon the air—the sounds of fiddle, horn, and clarionet—and half a score of couples, setting themselves en quadrille, commence treading time to the tune. Sufficiently bizarre was the exhibition—a dance of the true “broad-horn” breed; but we had no thought of criticising an entertainment so opportune to our purpose. The swelling sound of the instruments drowning low conversation—the confusion of many voices—the attraction of the saltatory performance—were all circumstances that had suddenly and unexpectedly arisen in our favour. My companion and I had no longer a fear that our movements would be noted. Indeed, only those who might be in the waggons, and looking through the draw-string aperture in the rear of the tilts, would be likely to see us at all. But most of these apertures were closed, some with curtains of common canvas—others with an old counterpane, a blanket, or such rag as was fitted for the service.