‘Mary’s Meadow’ & Other Tales of Fields & Flowers

Juliana Horatia Ewing

Dandelion Clocks

EVERY child knows how to tell the time by a dandelion clock. You blow till the seed is all blown away, and you count each of the puffs—an hour to a puff. Every child knows this, and very few children want to know any more on the subject. It was Peter Paul’s peculiarity that he always did want to know more about everything; a habit whose first and foremost inconvenience is that one can so seldom get people to answer one’s questions.

Peter Paul and his two sisters were playing in the pastures. Rich, green, Dutch pastures, unbroken by hedge or wall, which stretched—like an emerald ocean—to the horizon and met the sky. The cows stood ankle-deep in it and chewed the cud, the clouds sailed slowly over it to the sea, and on a dry hillock sat Mother, in her broad sun-hat, with one eye to the cows and one to the linen she was bleaching, thinking of her farm.

Peter Paul and his sisters had found another little hillock where, among some tufts of meadow-flowers which the cows had not yet eaten, were dandelion clocks. They divided them quite fairly, and began to tell each other the time of day.

Little Anna blew very hard for her size, and as the wind blew too, her clock was finished in a couple of puffs. “One, two. It’s only two o’clock,” she said, with a sigh.

Her elder sister was more careful, but still the wind was against them. “One, two, three. It’s three o’clock by me,” she said.

Peter Paul turned his back to the wind, and held his clock low. “One, two, three, four, five. It’s five o’clock by my dandelion—I wonder why the fairy clocks all go differently.”

“We blow differently,” said his sister.

“Then they don’t really tell the time,” said Peter Paul.

“Oh yes, they do—the fairy time.” And the little girls got more clocks, and turned their backs to the wind in imitation of Peter Paul, and went on blowing. But the boy went up to his mother.

“Mother, why do dandelion clocks keep different time? It was only two o’clock by Anna’s, and three o’clock by Leena’s, and five by mine. It can’t really be evening with me and only afternoon with Anna. The days don’t go quicker with one person than another, do they?”

“Drive Daisy and Buttermilk nearer this way,” said his mother; “and if you must ask questions, ask your Uncle Jacob.”

There was a reason for sending the boy to Uncle Jacob with his difficulties. He had been born after his father’s death, and Uncle Jacob had taken up the paternal duties. It was he who had chosen the child’s name. He had called him Peter Paul after Peter Paul Rubens, not that he hoped the boy would become a painter, but he wished him to be called after some great man, and—having just returned from Antwerp—the only great man he could think of was Peter Paul.

“Give a boy a great name,” said Uncle Jacob, “and if there’s any stuff in him, there’s a chance he’ll live up to it.”

This was a kindly way of putting the proverb about giving a dog a bad name, and Uncle Jacob’s strongest quality was kindness—kindness and the cultivation of tulips.

He was sitting in the summer-house smoking, and reading over a bulb-list when Peter Paul found him.

“Uncle Jacob, why do dandelion clocks tell different time to different people? Sixty seconds make a minute, sixty minutes make an hour, twenty-four hours make a day, three hundred and sixty-five days make a year. That’s right, isn’t it? Hours are the same length for everybody, aren’t they? But if I got to tea-time when it was only two o’clock with Anna, and went on like that, first the days and then the years would go much quicker with me, and I don’t know if I should die sooner,—but it couldn’t be, could it?”

“Certainly not,” said Uncle Jacob; and he went on with his list. “Yellow Pottebakker, Yellow Tournesol and Yellow Rose.”

“Then the fairy clocks tells lies?” said Peter Paul.

“That you must ask Godfather Time,” replied Uncle Jacob, jocosely. “He is responsible for the clocks and the hour-glasses.”

“Where does he live?” asked the boy.

But Uncle Jacob had spread the list on the summer-house table; he was fairly immersed in it and in a cloud of tobacco smoke, and Peter Paul did not like to disturb him.

“Twenty-five Bybloemens, twenty-five Bizards, twenty-five Roses, and a seedling-bed for first bloom this year.”

Some of Uncle Jacob’s seedling tulips were still “breeders,” whose future was yet unmarked [a] (he did not name them in hope, as he had christened his nephew!) when Peter Paul went to sea.

He was quite unfitted for a farmer. He was always looking forward to what he should do hereafter, or backward to the time when he believed in fairy clocks. Now a farmer should live in the present, and time himself by a steady-going watch with an enamelled face. Then little things get done at the right time, which is everything in farming.

“Peter Paul puzzles too much,” said his mother, “and that is your fault, Jacob, for giving him a great name. But while he’s thinking, Daisy misses her mash and the hens lay away. He’ll never make a farmer. Indeed, for that matter, men never farm like women, and Leena will take to it after me. She knows all my ways.”

They were a kindly family, with no minds to make this short life bitter for each other by thwarting, as so many well-meaning relatives do; so the boy chose his own trade and went to sea.

He saw many places and many people; he saw a great deal of life, and came face to face with death more than once, and under strange shapes. He found answers to a lot of the old questions, and then new ones came in their stead. Each year seemed to hold more than a life-time at home would have held, and yet how quickly the years went by!

A great many had gone by when Peter Paul set foot once more upon Dutch soil.

“And it only seems like yesterday that I went away!” said he.

Mother was dead. That was the one great change. Peter Paul’s sisters had inherited the farm. They managed it together, and they had divided their mother’s clothes, and also her rings and ear-rings, her gold skull-cap and head-band and pins,—the heirlooms of a Dutch farmeress.

“It matters very little how we divide them, dear,” Anna had said, “for I shall never marry, and they will all go to your girl.”

The elder sister was married and had two children. She had grown up very pretty—a fair woman, with liquid misleading eyes. They looked as if they were gazing into the far future, but they did not see an inch beyond the farm. Anna was a very plain copy of her in body, in mind she was the elder sister’s echo. They were very fond of each other, and the prettiest thing about them was their faithful love for their mother, whose memory was kept as green as pastures after rain.

On Sunday Peter Paul went with them to her grave, and then to service. The ugly little church, the same old clerk, even the look of that part of the seat where Peter Paul had kicked the paint off during sermons—all strengthened the feeling that it could only have been a few days since he was there before.

As they walked home he told his sisters about the various religious services he had seen abroad. They were curious to hear about them, under a sort of protest, for they disapproved of every form of worship but their own.

“The music in some of the cathedrals is very beautiful,” said Peter Paul. “And the choristers in their gowns, singing as they come, always affect me. No doubt only some are devout at heart, and others careless—which is also the case with the congregation—but outward reverence is, at the lowest, an acknowledgment of what we owe, and for my own part it helps me. Those white figures are not angels I know; but they make one think of them, and I try to be worthier of singing GOD’S praises with them.”

There was a little pause, and Leena’s beautiful eyes were full of reflections.

Presently she said, “Who washes all the white gowns?”

“I really don’t know,” said Peter Paul.

“I fancy they don’t bleach anywhere as they do in Holland,” she continued. “Indeed, Brother, I doubt if Dutchwomen are what they were. No one bleaches as Mother did. Mother bleached beautifully.”

“Yes, she bleached beautifully,” said Anna.

Peter Paul was only to be three weeks at home before he sailed again; but when ten days were over, he began to think the rest of the time would never come to an end. And this was from no want of love for his sisters, or of respect for their friends. One cannot help having an irritable brain, which rides an idea to the moon and home again, without stirrups, whilst some folks are getting the harness of words on to its back. There had been hours in his youth when all the unsolved riddles, the untasted joys, the great possibilities of even a common existence like his, so pressed upon him, that the shortness of the longest life of man seemed the most pitiable thing about it. But when he took tea with Vrow Schmidt and her daughters, and suppertime would not come, Peter Paul thought of the penance of the Wandering Jew, and felt very sorry for him.

The sisters would have been glad if Peter Paul would have given up the sea and settled down with them. Leena had a plan of her own for it. She wanted him to marry Vrow Schmidt’s niece, who had a farm.

“But I am afraid you do not care for young ladies?” said she.

Peter Paul got red.

“Vrow Schmidt’s niece is a very nice young lady,” said he.

He was not thinking of Vrow Schmidt’s niece, he was thinking of something else—something for which he would have liked a little sympathy; but he doubted whether Leena could give it to him. Indeed, to cure heartache is Godfather Time’s business, and even he is not invariably successful. It was probably a sharp twinge that made Peter Paul say, “Have you never wondered that when one’s life is so very short, one can manage to get so much pain into it?”

Leena dropped her work and looked up. “You don’t say so?” said she. “Dear Brother, is it rheumatism? I’m sure it must be a dreadful risk being out on the masts in the night air, without a roof over your head. But do you wear flannel, Peter Paul? Mother was very much troubled with rheumatism latterly. She thought it was the dews at milking time, and she always wore flannel.”

“Yes, dear, Mother always wore flannel,” said Anna.

Peter Paul satisfied them on this head. He wore flannel, red flannel too, which has virtues of its own.

Leena was more anxious than ever that he should marry Vrow Schmidt’s niece, and be taken good care of.

But it was not to be: Peter Paul went back to his ship and into the wide world again.

Uncle Jacob would have given him an off-set of his new tulip—a real novelty, and named—if he had had any place to plant it in.

“I’ve a bed of breeders that will be worth looking at next time you come home,” said he.

Leena walked far over the pastures with Peter Paul. She was very fond of him, and she had a woman’s perception that they would miss him more than he could miss them.

“I am very sorry you could not settle down with us,” she said, and her eyes brimmed over.

Peter Paul kissed the tears tenderly from her cheeks.

“Perhaps I shall when I am older, and have shaken off a few more of my whims into the sea. I’ll come back yet, Leena, and live very near to you and grow tulips, and be as good an old bachelor-uncle to your boy as Uncle Jacob was to me.”

“And if a foreign wife would suit you better than one of the Schmidts,” said Leena, re-arranging his bundle for him, “don’t think we sha’n’t like her. Any one you love will be welcome to us, Peter Paul—as welcome as you have been.”

When they got to the hillock where Mother used to sit, Peter Paul took her once more into his arms.

“Good-bye, good Sister,” he said. “I have been back in my childhood again, and GOD knows that is both pleasant and good for one.”

“And it is funny that you should say so,” said Leena, smiling through her tears; “for when we were children you were never happy except in thinking of when you should be a man.”

“And there sit your children, just where we used to play,” said Peter Paul.

“They are blowing dandelion clocks,” said Leena, and she called them,

“Come and bid Uncle Peter good-bye.”

He kissed them both.

“Well, what o’clock is it?” said he. The boy gave one mighty puff and dispersed his fairy clock at a breath.

“One o’clock,” he cried stoutly.

“One, two, three, four o’clock,” said the girl. And they went back to their play.

And Leena stood by them, with Mother’s old sun-hat on her young head, and watched Peter Paul’s figure over the flat pastures till it was an indistinguishable speck.

He turned back a dozen times to wave his hands to her, and to the children telling the fairy time.

But he did not ask now why dandelion clocks go differently with different people. Godfather Time had told him. He teaches us many things.

[a] The first bloom of seedling tulips is usually without stripes or markings, and it is often years before they break into stripes; till then they are called breeders, and are not named.    [back]

Mary’s Meadow

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