THE JOY OF FRAGRANCE-Part 3
by Mary Webb
Fragrance is the voice of inanimate things. The air is full of the cries of leaves and grass, softer than those of the flowers. In the dark night of the cedar there is a different atmosphere from that within the dusk of beeches or the green gloom of April larch woods. Sometimes, in places where there are no flowers, aromas dart upon one like little elves with sharp teeth, from corn and fir-cones, damp soil and toadstools, keen grass and pungent bracken. Even rock sends out a curious redolence in hot weather which unites with dried ling and herbs to form an undercurrent to the mellowness of gorse.
Down by a stream at dusk the water takes up into its freshness the breath of mallow, pennyroyal and willow-herb as they sway in their sleep. In a shower, unsuspected sweets rush out of ambush with a laugh, overpowering and imprisoning us. In the dewy summer dark, clover and night-flowering stock conspire with the campion and the sleepless honeysuckle to invade the drenched garden and to conquer and possess the dreaming house.
Often in winter across leagues of snow a mysterious fragrance comes, inexplicable until we remember that snow itself has a faint emanation, and that the essence of pines, of last year's hay and far-off violets can wander across the pure air for long distances, treasured (like wine in a crystal glass) by the frost.
Is any one sickened by the sordidness of life? Let him go to the tents of flowering trees, when the cavalcade of the wild bee comes to the apple as the Arabs to Mecca, when the spinneys are fresh with quicken, and the fly hovers like a lover outside the shut door of the pear blossom and waits till the red cross of denial that marks the bud is changed to the yellow pollen-wreath of fulfilment.
The fragrance of limes, when every honey-dripping tassel has its clinging bee, is like the hail of a friend. The poignancy of it and the deep note of the bees weave themselves into a circumambient peace, within which each tree dwells like Saturn in his rings. It is fainter in the outer precincts, deepening to such a breathless delight as one penetrates to the centre that it is difficult to remember which sense is in touch with the voice of the bees and which with the voice of the tree.
A little wood I know has in May among its oaks and beeches many white pillars of gean trees, each with its own air round it. At long intervals a large, soft flower wanders down, vaguely honeyed, mixing its breath with the savour of sphagnum moss, and resting among the wood-sorrel. The wood-pigeons speak of love together in their deep voices, unashamed, too sensuous to be anything but pure. Among the enchanted pillars, on the carpet of pale sorrel, with a single flower cool in the hand, one is in the very throne-room of white light. A little farther on the air is musky from the crowded minarets of the horse chestnut – white marble splashed with rose – where the bumble bee drones.
Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets. The crane's-bill has a word for the gnat; the helleborine fills her goblet only for the wasp; the yellow iris calls to the honey-fly; the meadow saffron's veined cup is for the bee. Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually, like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.