Grace Little Rhys

Daughters of the Air

Skies are not yet gone out of fashion in the country. Down there an intelligent person can tell by looking at them whether or no it is likely to rain. There are also outlandish people who will tell you the time by merely casting a glance at the sun on its way. But in the streets of our cities, where rain can be avoided by merely getting into an omnibus, and where clocks are nearly as plentiful as trees in the country, very few people are ever to be seen looking at the sky.

For one thing our necks are not built on at quite the right angle; though better off in that way than the cow, we are scarcely so nicely adapted as the thrush. Our eyes too are hardly strong enough; they should wear eagle’s hoods for sky-gazing. Then there is the human drama of the stream of passing faces to distract the mind: for female eyes there is the bait of the shop-window; for men there is the craft of getting and having.

And yet that heavenly parallelogram across which pieces of shorn cloud continually pass, is well worth an upward glance. What a pity that natural wonders so soon cease to astonish. For a few seasons the child is astonished at the wind. For ten or twelve winters the snow is a wonder. For a while only the voyaging of the clouds is matter for questions. I know a little child who used to be afraid to go out on a dull day for fear the heavy clouds should fall on her and crush her. Now she knows them securely balanced on the wind’s back, and her fear is changed to delight in their extravagances. As the years go on she will cease to marvel, and look upward not so often.

Eyes and mind soon become accustomed to a miracle that happens every day and in time notice no more. I do believe that if our city skies could suddenly become early Italian, deep blue, studded with flights of red-robed angels blowing on golden trumpets, and dotted with winged, bodiless cherubs, we should soon grow used to it, and saying, “It is only the angels,” our men would hurry head down to their offices and our women to their beloved shops.

And yet the changing moods of our skies should be wonderful enough to hold us spell-bound for a moment, quite irrespective of any augury of the weather. Our brothers the clouds are great and beautiful creatures, wonderful in themselves, most wonderful in their attributes.

For instance, who could suppose that a mist of vapour could hold fire in its heart? Who could have imagined, if they had not seen, the sheets of flame that they can pour out; who that had not heard it could have invented the truly appalling noise of the thunder? It ought to be as astounding as if an exploding pistol should be born of a down pillow, or a dagger of a lady’s ball-dress. Any human creature caught in a thunderstorm without previous knowledge of the subject would probably go mad or die of terror.

The miracle of the noise of the thunder is only fully appreciated by those who know in what deep silence clouds pursue their journeys. Climb alone on mountains, walk in and out of clouds: stand still and let a huge cloud travel soundlessly down upon you, on a calm day when no wind stirs, and you will know the ghostliness of motion without sound. Not only do the clouds bear down upon you in solemn stillness, but they muffle up and choke the waves of any sound that may be produced within their borders.

I remember one day walking through a cloud that stood upon the broad side of Moel Gamelyn; it was a thick, pale grey cloud, inexpressibly solemn and still. But a foot of the mountain road could be seen at a time; one plunged forward among the folds of grey curtains that closed again behind. All at once, without any warning, there started out of the mist a man in a peasant’s dress, who led by a cavesson a powerful bay horse. Appearing thus suddenly in that remote deserted region, in such stillness, and wrapped all about in that investiture of grey, man and horse looked the apparition of a dream. The horse snorted and plunged on seeing me and the man saluted me with a hoarse, “Boreu da y chi.” [“Good day to you.”]

The next moment they were out of sight, covered in folds of mist, even the sound of the big horse’s hoofs swallowed up and lost.

On issuing out of the cloud, I found that every minutest hair of the rough tweed dress I wore was embroidered in beads of vapour, so small as to be hardly visible. Each one, shining beside its neighbour, was woven for the moment into a silver cloth; the tissue of this cloth might be fragile and evanescent, but it was somehow related to the stars.

And then the wonder of the rain. A colder river of air touches these fire-chariots that run on silent wheels across our skies, and, behold! a million dropping tears, rainbow carriers, travelers of the sky; or if the cloud is heavy, and large drops are driven slantwise on a rapid wind, we have a million million crystal daggers that strike with a sweet sound on the window-pane; how they can sting, these daggers, the uncovered cheek and neck of the field-labourer know only too well.

The rain is not all. Let but a cold wind lay its miracle-working finger on these soft beaded masses and see what happens: the hidden power awakes, the crystals set; clear gleaming stars, snow wheels, banded feathers, ice flowers, ferns and plumes, in hosts upon hosts fall down in silence; so that to-morrow mere men might walk on a sweet-smelling, snow-white floor, that was the embroidered drapery of the heavens of yesterday.

In spite of all their tricks of dissolution clouds are corporate creatures; else why have they that core of fire underneath those robes of snow? They are brotherly with one another; one cloud by itself in the heavens is lonely and is sure to set sail to the first wind and hurry off to seek out its fellows. Clouds love to roll together in masses; those are heavy days when they stand tumbling, a mile deep, overhead. On such days one thinks of the fate of the planet Venus, rolled round and round for ever in an undivided veil of silver grey: how pale the flowers must grow in that cloudy land! On such days it is a comfort to think of the upper side of our earthly cloud roof, where floods of golden sunshine roll upon a white floor. What a place for sport, if we could only get there!

Long ago clouds were credited with a strange knowledge and foreknowledge of human affairs. At the time of the plague the people of London used to troop into the fields to watch the skies, which showed affrighting shapes and colours and lights.

“I did see Mr. Christopher Love beheaded on Tower Hill, in a delicate, clear day,” writes Aubrey; “about half an hour after his head was struck off the clouds gathered blacker and blacker; and such terrible claps of thunder came that I never heard greater.”

I have seen as great and more certain a wonder than this when sitting to watch the tide fill in among the Essex marshes. There in still blue weather the salt blue streams rise noiselessly in the brown channels. On such a day, while watching the quiet spreading of those inland seas, I have heard the sound of a gun from Shoeburyness suddenly break up the silent peace with its sinister reminder of man’s cruelties. I have seen the very daylight obscured by that voice of murder.

Far enough away the clouds must have been resting on distant seas in that still blue weather, and yet they came quickly. To see these formless grey creatures rushing up out of the clear circle of the horizon and to hear presently their deep, woolly-throated bass echoing the sound of the artillery in outrageous symphony, brings to the mind strange food for thought. So may men’s enmities distract the heavens, and the clouds themselves fall to war when men are at variance.

(1920)

MLA Citation

Rhys, Grace Little. “Daughters of the Air .” 1920. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Mar 2015. 26 May 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/rhys/daughters_of_the_air/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden
Search

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo
Essayists
Essays

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“Preface to Country Living and Country Thinking

Gail Hamilton

But if you commit this sin against me, I will never forgive you! Or, since that may be unscriptural, I will forgive you just enough to save my own soul, but not enough to be of any use to you.

“Radiances”

Grace Little Rhys

We should be more grateful to the flowers did we realize this gift of theirs; they are the lamps of the daytime, unspeakably bright.

“Of a monstrous child”

Michel de Montaigne

Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her. Let, therefore, this universal and natural reason expel the error and astonishment that novelty brings along with it.

“A day by the fire”

Leigh Hunt

It is part of my business to look about for helps to reflection; and, for this reason, among many others, I indulge myself in keeping a good fire from morning till night.

“New Year’s Eve”

Charles Lamb

Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration.