Dear children, I have four friends whom I love exceedingly. Shall I tell you about them?
The first is a child. Her eyes are like violets and her hair is soft and light. A little pink dress flutters about her as she runs over the fields to meet me, with her hands full of delicate young flowers,—the houstonia and violet, and graceful bellwort, the white-starred bloodroot and dogtooth violet, and the tender anemones—the wind flowers. She is almost one herself. She makes tiny garlands and scatters them everywhere, on the poor brown hills as well as in the rich meadow grass. Down by the brook and out in the pine woods she finds the earliest mayflowers and pushes away the dead leaves, that their fragrance may perfume the whole forest. She has a way of whispering the very sweetest things to her friends. Her little voice it is that wakes up the crocuses and hyacinths, and makes wonderful promises of flowers and fruit to the young buds and the frail strawberry blossoms that know nothing of the great world in which they find themselves.
To me, too, her whispers are very sweet. When I am busy and tired she comes, lays her head on my shoulder, looks at me with the violet eyes that are full of sunny smiles or tender tears at each call for sympathy. Then, as if a sudden witching freak had seized her, she will shake the soft curls across her face and dance away, leaving my quiet little room in a whirlwind of confusion. This is my violet-eyed friend, my bonnie baby, loved and loving. She comes only once a year to see me; but I can let her go, for her visits are very sure, and I wait to see what change another twelve months may make in my darling, and what new stories she will whisper into my ear.
My next friend is older, taller, and handsomer, yet not more beautiful. Do you know what I mean by handsomer but not more beautiful? Her hair is rich and golden, as if the sun had ripened it into gorgeous beauty. Her voice, too, is rich in murmuring sounds, and when she speaks or sings, I think I hear the hum of bees and the falling waters of the fountain, and sometimes the whole chorus song of the June birds. She loves the roses and brings them to me, both arms full heaped against her bosom, the wild roses and sweetbrier, prairie and pale blush, and even the old-fashioned cabbage and dark velvet roses that used to grow in the garden of our old house in New England when I was a child. The lilies, too, the tall white lilies that stand so fair in the moonlight, she loves. Out in the swamp she finds the sweet azalea and the mountain laurel on the river banks. Among the rocks, and in the bleak bare places which it knows how to brighten, she climbs for the dear blue harebell. The strawberry plants bring to her the fruit which my little friend promised. Ripe currants, red and white, fall into her lap. Her basket is always heaped with raspberries and blackberries, and her sprays of wild roses are tangled among loaded whortleberry bushes. Long, happy stories she tells me in that melodious voice of hers, and I sing them dreamily over to myself in the long, sunny mornings under the trees.
Here is my third friend. Do you know any very beautiful woman whose face is more lovely to you than any picture, from whom one look is as good to you as many kind words from another? If you do, you may try to imagine what my third friend is like. Her hair is dark and her eyes are hazel and full of such light, that when she smiles you know it is from the bottom of her heart, and is a great warm light that shines through her whole life. She comes to me after the summer heats are over, when we can sit on the river bank even in the noon sunshine and be warmed through and through into genial friendliness with the whole world. Along the roadsides now you will find the golden-rod, and asters, purple and white, and the immortelle clusters on the hillsides. All about us is the sound of the grasshopper and the sunny song of the locust.
She scatters the falling leaves upon the water and they float down like fairy boats, crimson and yellow and brown, and we watch them far out of sight down the stream. We go together to the harvest field. We gather the grapes and the peaches and pears, and see the farmers fill the long rows of apple barrels that stand in the orchard. At last, when all the fruit is gathered, when the dead, fallen leaves are whirled about by the cold autumn winds and we only have the chickadee among the naked trees, she gives me one great, sweet smile from the depth of her hazel eyes, and that is her good-by.
My last friend is an old man, very old, with white hair and beard. Yet his eyes are bright and there is a young soul looking out through them, for he does heartily enjoy seeing the children out sliding and snowballing, and is never better pleased than when the girls and boys buckle on their skates and skim away over the ponds. He can tell long stories, this old man, and I love to hear them. Sometimes he will come in on a cold winter night, when the snow is driving against the windows, and the wood fire crackling upon the hearth, and the babies are asleep in their cradles, and I am listening to the storm. Without ringing or knocking he walks quietly in, his white beard fringed with icicles, for he never minds the hardest weather. I put his staff in the corner, give him the great armchair by the fire, and then the stories begin. "When I was young," he says, "and that was more than six thousand years ago"— But I must not tell you now what he says. These winter evenings are never too long for me, when my old friend is with me.
We walk together sometimes, through the snow or over the crystallized crust, through the naked forests and over whole fields of ice. He gives me beautiful gifts besides telling me stories. Once he offered me a rare set of diamonds, but they were too precious to keep, and I returned them to him when he was about to leave me.
These are my four friends, and I propose to tell you some of their stories,—not all, for they have visited me every year since I can remember, and they seldom tell the same story twice. But I will tell you a few here and there, as I can recall them, that you may learn to know and love my four friends as I do.