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Torrid Summer

"Is it very cold?" asks the Prince of Denmark, according to a familiar reading. No one has any occasion to consult the thermometer before answering the question, "Is it very hot?" All things combine to prove that it is very hot. Even the man of metal who used, according to legend, to patrol the coast of Crete, the man with only one vein from head to heel, would admit (could he appear in the Machineries at present) that it is very hot indeed. He might not feel any subjective sensation of heat (for he seems to have been a mythical anticipation of the Conquering Machine which is to dominate the world), but he would have inferred the height of the temperature from a number of phenomena. He would have seen the ticket-clerks in the railway stations with their coats off. He would have observed imitation Japanese parasols at a penny among the ware of enterprising capitalists in the streets. He would have marked the very street-boys in wide, inexpensive straw hats of various and astonishing colours. Woman he would have found in beautiful shades of blue, in such light garments "woven wind" as Theocritus speaks of when he presents the wife of his doctor with a new ivory distaff.

As to men, they in their attire do show their wit or their want of courage, as the case may be. It is not easy for modern man, when he "repairs to the metropolis," to dress up to the heat of the weather. An ingenious though too hasty philosopher once observed that all men who wear velvet coats are atheists. He probably overstated the amount of intellectual and spiritual audacity to be expected from him who, setting the picturesque before the conventional, dons a coat of velvet. But it really does require some originality even to wear a white hat and a white waistcoat in a London July. The heat is never so great but that the majority of males endure black coats and black shiny hats. The others are in a minority. The voice of public opinion is not on their side. "Who stole the moke, Anna?" asked suspicion; and the answer came, "The man in the chapeau blanc." There is something daring, something distinctive in a white hat; and it may be doubted whether the amount of comfort obtained by the revolutionary wearer is in a due ratio to the conspicuousness which his action entails on him. Members of Parliament are singularly emancipated from these fears of the brave; but members of Parliament cannot supply the whole contingent of white-hatted men now to be seen in the streets of the metropolis. Their presence proves that it is very hot indeed. One swallow does not make a summer, but half a dozen pairs of "ducks" beheld in public places would mark a summer of unusually high temperature.

There are, of course, alleviations. Nature compensates all who can afford to purchase the compensations. Strawberries, long waited for, shy, retiring fruit, have now nearly approached the popular price of sixpence a basket. A divine of a past generation declared that in his opinion the joys of Paradise would consist of eating strawberries to the sound of a trumpet. For a poor sixpence half of this transcendental pastime may be partaken of, and probably the brass band which is usually round the corner could supply the sound of the trumpet at a small extra charge.

Unluckily, doctors have decided that many of us must not eat strawberries, nor drink champagne cup, nor iced coffee. That is the way with doctors. AEsculapius was originally worshipped in the form of a serpent; in the guise of a serpent he came to Rome. Medical men still hold of their heroic father, and physicians are the serpents in the Paradise of a warm summer. Mortals, in their hands, are like Sancho Panza with his medical adviser. Here is summer, provoking a gentle interest in every method of assuaging thirst, and almost every method is condemned by one member of the faculty or another. Champagne cannot be so royally sound, nor is shandy-gaff so humble, that it 'scapes whipping. How melancholy a thing is human life at best! In boyhood we can eat more ices than our pocket-money enables us to purchase; in maturity we have the pocket-money without the powers of digestion. The French lady said that if strawberry ices were only sinful, no pleasure could exceed that which is to be enjoyed in the consumption of the congealed fruit. Strawberry ices are sinful now, and under the medical ban. The French lady, were she living still, might be at ease on that score. But her audacity is not given to all, and many fall back on that poor creature, lemon-squash, when they are conscious of a thirst worthy of being quenched by the most imperial beverages in imperial quarts.

Men, being reasonable, must hurry about town when the thermometer is at something fabulous, wearing black clothes, going to parties, and larding the lean earth. Beasts are not so foolish. To the pious Brahmin Vishnu accords the power of becoming what animal he pleases, with a break in the lease, so to speak, when circumstances alter. Had a sage this power at this moment he would become a cow, standing up to her middle in the clear, cool water of the Kennet, under the shade of a hanging willow tree. What bliss can equal that of a cow thus engaged? Her life must, indeed, be burning with a hard gem-like flame. She must be plucking the flower of a series of exquisite moments. The rich, deep grass, with the buttercups and forget-me-nots, is behind her, but she has had enough of that, and is open to more spiritual pleasures. The kingfishers and water- wagtails flit about her. The water-rat jumps into the stream with a soft plash, and his black body scuttles along to the opposite bank. The green dragon-flies float hither and thither; the beautiful frail-winged water- flies float over trout too lazy to snatch at them. The cow, in her sensuous nirvana, may see and marvel at the warm boating-man as he tows two stout young ladies in a heavy boat, or labours with the oar. Her pleasure is far more enduring than that of the bathers in the lasher up stream, and she has an enormous advantage over the contemplative man trying to lie on the grass and enjoy nature, for he really is not enjoying nature. The pleasures of lying on the grass are chiefly those of imagination. You cannot get into a truly comfortable position. Your back has a lump of grass under it here, or your arm tingles and "falls asleep," as children say. No attitude will enable you to read, and the black flies hover around and alight on such of your features as are tempting--to a fly. Then you begin to be quite sure it is damp, and, as you have nothing else to sit on, you sit down on your book, which no one can call comfortable.

The notion of reclining on cushions in a punt is equally fallacious, and, while promising much, ends in a headache. Besides, the river does not always smell very nicely now that it has so long been unrelieved by rain. All through the hot day, in fact, civilized northern man finds loafing very difficult, especially as his Aryan impetuosity is always urging him to do something active. Cows in this climate are the only true lotus- eaters. Next to them in enjoyment comes the angler who approaches the river about eight o'clock, at the time of the "evening rise." He, like the cow, is knee-deep in water, wading; he listens to the plash of big, hungry trout, sucking down gnats under the alders; he casts over them, and if he catches them, who more content than he, as the sky turns from amber to purple and silvery grey, and the light fades till one cannot thread the gut through the eye-hole of one of the new-fashioned hooks? Certainly this man is more blessed than he who is just coming to the ices at a big, hot London dinner, and knows that his physician has forbidden him this form of enjoyment. What a struggle in that person's mind! and how almost predestined is his fall! how sure his repentance next morning!


Andrew Lang