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The Ground-Ash   By: (1787-1855)

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By Mary Russell Mitford

Amongst the many pleasant circumstances attendant on a love of flowers that sort of love which leads us into the woods for the earliest primrose, or to the river side for the latest forget me not, and carries us to the parching heath or the watery mere to procure for the cultivated, or, if I may use the expression, the tame beauties of the parterre, the soil that they love; amongst the many gratifications which such pursuits bring with them, such as seeing in the seasons in which it shows best, the prettiest, coyest, most unhackneyed scenery, and taking, with just motive enough for stimulus and for reward, drives and walks which approach to fatigue, without being fatiguing; amongst all the delights consequent on a love of flowers, I know none greater than the half unconscious and wholly unintended manner in which such expeditions make us acquainted with the peasant children of remote and out of the way regions, the inhabitants of the wild woodlands and still wilder commons of the hilly part of the north of Hampshire, which forms so strong a contrast with this sunny and populous county of Berks, whose very fields are gay and neat as gardens, and whose roads are as level and even as a gravel walk.

Two of the most interesting of these flower formed acquaintances, were my little friends Harry and Bessy Leigh.

Every year I go to the Everley woods to gather wild lilies of the valley. It is one of the delights that May the charming, ay, and the merry month of May, which I love as fondly as ever that bright and joyous season was loved by our older poets regularly brings in her train; one of those rational pleasures in which (and it is the great point of superiority over pleasures that are artificial and worldly) there is no disappointment About four years ago, I made such a visit. The day was glorious, and we had driven through lanes perfumed by the fresh green birch, with its bark silvery and many tinted, and over commons where the very air was loaded with the heavy fragrance of the furze, an odour resembling in richness its golden blossoms, just as the scent of the birch is cool, refreshing, and penetrating, like the exquisite colour of its young leaves, until we reached the top of the hill, where, on one side, the enclosed wood, where the lilies grow, sank gradually, in an amphitheatre of natural terraces, to a piece of water at the bottom; whilst on the other, the wild open heath formed a sort of promontory overhanging a steep ravine, through which a slow and sluggish stream crept along amongst stunted alders, until it was lost in the deep recesses of Lidhurst Forest, over the tall trees of which we literally looked down. We had come without a servant; and on arriving at the gate of the wood with neither human figure nor human habitation in sight, and a high blooded and high spirited horse in the phaeton, we began to feel all the awkwardness of our situation. My companion, however, at length espied a thin wreath of smoke issuing from a small clay built hut thatched with furze, built against the steepest part of the hill, of which it seemed a mere excrescence, about half way down the declivity; and, on calling aloud, two children, who had been picking up dry stumps of heath and gorse, and collecting them in a heap for fuel at the door of their hovel, first carefully deposited their little load, and then came running to know what we wanted.

If we had wondered to see human beings living in a habitation, which, both for space and appearance, would have been despised by a pig of any pretension, as too small and too mean for his accommodation, so we were again surprised at the strange union of poverty and content evinced by the apparel and countenances of its young inmates. The children, bareheaded and barefooted, and with little more clothing than one shabby looking garment, were yet as fine, sturdy, hardy, ruddy, sunburnt urchins, as one should see on a summer day. They were clean, too: the stunted bit of raiment was patched, but not ragged; and when the girl, (for, although it was rather difficult to distinguish between the brother and sister, the pair were of different sexes,) when the bright eyed, square made, upright little damsel clasped her two brown hands together, on the top of her head, pressed down her thick curls, looking at us and listening to us with an air of the most intelligent attention that returned our curiosity with interest; and when the boy, in answer to our inquiry if he could hold a horse, clutched the reins with his small fingers, and planted himself beside our high mettled steed with an air of firm determination, that seemed to say, "I'm your master! Run awry if you dare!" we both of us felt that they were subjects for a picture, and that, though Sir Joshua might not have painted them, Gainsborough and our own Collins would... Continue reading book >>

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