VI. On a New Cornice Road.
The sunshine quickened us all, and our kuruma took the road like a flock of birds; for jinrikisha men in company run as wild geese fly, crisscross. It is an artistic habit, inculcated to court ladies in books on etiquette. To make the men travel either abreast or in Indian file, is simply impossible. After a moment's conformity, they invariably relapse into their own orderly disorder.
This morning they were in fine figure and bowled us along to some merry tune within; while the baby-carriages themselves jangled the bangles on their axles, making a pleasing sort of cry. The village folk turned in their steps to stare and smile as we sped past.
It was a strange-appearing street. On both sides of it in front of the houses ran an arcade, continuous but irregular, a contribution of building. Each house gave its mite in the shape of a covered portico, which fitted as well as could be expected to that of its next door neighbor. But as the houses were not of the same size, and the ground sloped, the roofs of the porticos varied in level. A similar terracing held good of the floors. The result was rather a federation than a strict union of interests. Indeed, the object in view was communal. For the arcades were snow galleries, I was told, to enable the inhabitants in winter to pass from one end of the village to the other, no inconsiderable distance. They visored both sides of the way, showing that then in these parts even a crossing of the street is a thing to be avoided. Indeed, by all report the drifts here in the depth of winter must be worth seeing. Even at this moment, May the 6th, there was still neve on some of the lowest foothills, and we passed more than one patch of dirt-grimed snow buttressing the highway bank. The bangles on the axles now began to have a meaning, a thing they had hitherto seemed to lack. With the snow arcades by way of introduction they spoke for themselves. Evidently they were first cousins of our sleighbells. Here, then, as cordially as with us man abhors an acoustic vacuum, and when Nature has put her icy bell-glass over the noises of the field, he must needs invent some jingle to wile his ears withal.
Once past the houses we came upon a strip of paddyfields that bordered the mountain slope to the very verge of the tide. Some of these stood in spots where the tilt of the land would have seemed to have precluded even the thought of such cultivation. For a paddyfield must be perfectly level, that it may be kept under water at certain seasons of the year. On a slope, therefore, a thing a paddyfield never hesitates to scale, they rise in terraces, skyward. Here the drop was so great that the terraces made bastions that towered proudly on the very knife-edge of decision between the seaweed and the cliffs. A runnel tamed to a bamboo duct did them Ganymede service. For a paddyfield is perpetually thirsty.
It was the season of repairing of dykes and ditches in rice chronology, a much more complicated annal than might be thought. This initial stage of it has a certain architectural interest. Every year before planting begins the dykes have all to be re-made strictly in place, for they serve for both dams and bounds to the elaborately partitioned fields. Adjacent mud is therefore carefully plastered over the remains of the old dyke, which, to the credit of the former builders, is no small fraction of it, and the work then finished off with a sculptor's care. An easier-going peasantry might often forego renewal. Indeed, I cannot but think the farmers take a natural delight in this exalted form of mud pies; they work away on already passable specimens with such a will. But who does quite outgrow his childish delights? And to make of the play of childhood the work of middle life, must be to foil the primal curse to the very letter. What more enchanting pastime than to wade all day in viscous mud, hearing your feet plash when you put them in, and suck as you draw them out; while the higher part of you is busied building a parapet of gluey soil, smoothing it down on the sides and top, and crowning your masterpiece with a row of sprigs along the crest? And then in the gloaming to trudge homeward, feeling that you have done a meritorious deed after all! When I come to my second childhood, I mean to turn paddyfield farmer myself.
Though the fields took to the slopes so kindly, they had a preference for plains. In the deltas, formed by the bigger streams, they expanded till they made chesswork of the whole. Laborers knee deep in the various squares did very well for pawns. The fields being still in their pre-natal stage, were not exactly handsome. There was too much of one universal brown. This was relieved only by the nurseries of young plants, small fields here and there just showing a delicate downy growth of green, delightful to the eye. They were not long sown. For each still lay cradled under its scarecrow, a pole planted in the centre of the rectangle with strings stretched to the four corners, and a bit of rag fluttering from the peak. The scarecrows are, no doubt, useful, since they are in general use; but I counted seven sparrows feeding in reckless disregard of danger under the very wings of one of the contrivances.