The work of path-making and shovelling snow from the doors and roofs of the out-buildings went on vigorously all the morning. Abram also attached the farm horses to the heavy snow-plow, to which he added his weight, and a broad, track-like furrow was made from the house to the road, and then for a mile or more each way upon the street, for the benefit of the neighbors. Before the day was very far advanced, the south wind, which had been a scarcely perceptible breath, freshened, and between the busy shovels and the swaying branches the air was full of glittering crystals. The bride-like world was throwing off her ornaments and preparing for the prose of every-day life; and yet she did so in a cheerful, lightsome mood. The sunny eaves dropped a profusion of gems from the melting snow. There was a tinkle of water in the pipes leading to the cistern. From the cackle in the barn-yard it appeared that the hens had resolved on unwonted industry, and were receiving applause from the oft-crowing chanticleers. The horses, led out to drink, were in exuberant spirits, and appeared to find a child's delight in kicking up the snow. The cows came briskly from their stalls to the space cleared for them, and were soon ruminating in placid content. What though the snow covered the ground deeper than at any time during the winter, the subtile spirit of spring was recognized and welcomed not only by man, but also by the lower creation!
After putting Burt in a fair way of recovery, Dr. Marvin, armed with a shovel to burrow his way through the heavier drifts, drove homeward. Alf floundered off to his traps, and returned exultant with two rabbits. Amy was soon busy sketching them previous to their transformation into a pot-pie, Burt looking on with a deeper interest in the artist than in her art, although he had already learned that she had not a little skill with her pencil. Indeed, Burt promised to become quite reconciled to his part of invalid, in spite of protestations to the contrary; and his inclination to think that Amy's companionship would be an antidote for every ill of life was increasing rapidly, in accordance with his hasty temperament, which arrived at conclusions long before others had begun to consider the steps leading to them.
Amy was still more a child than a woman; but a girl must be young indeed who does not recognize an admirer, especially so transparent a one as Burt would ever be. His ardent glances and compliments both amused and annoyed her. From his brothers she had obtained several hints of his previous and diversified gallantries, and was not at all assured that those in the future might not be equally varied. She did not doubt the sincerity of his homage, however; and since she had found it so easy to love him as a brother, it did not seem impossible that she should learn to regard him in another light, if all thought it best, and he "would only be sensible and understand that she did not wish to think about such things for years to come." Thus it may be seen that in one respect her heart was not much more advanced than that of little Johnnie. She expected to be married some time or other, and supposed it might as well be to Burt as to another, if their friends so desired it; but she was for putting off submission to woman's natural lot as long as possible. Possessing much tact, she was able in a great measure to repress the young fellow's demonstrativeness, and maintain their brotherly and sisterly relations; but it cost her effort, and sometimes she left his society flurried and wearied. With Webb she enjoyed perfect rest and a pleasing content. He was so quiet and strong that his very presence seemed to soothe her jarring nerves. He appeared to understand her, to have the power to make much that interested her more interesting, while upon her little feminine mysteries of needle and fancy work he looked with an admiring helplessness, as if she were more unapproachable in her sphere than he could ever be in his, with all his scientific facts and theories. Women like this tribute to their womanly ways from the sterner sex. Maggie's wifehood was made happy by it, for by a hundred little things she knew that the great, stalwart Leonard would be lost without her. Moreover, by his rescue of Burt, Webb had won a higher place in Amy's esteem. He had shown the prompt energy and courage which satisfy woman's ideal of manhood, and assure her of protection. Amy did not analyze her feelings or consciously assure herself of all this. She only felt that Webb was restful, and would give her a sense of safety, no matter what happened.
NATURE'S BUILDING MATERIALS
Some days after Burt's adventure, Dr. Marvin made his professional call in the evening. Mr. Alvord, Squire Bartley, and the minister also happened in, and all were soon chatting around Mr. Clifford's ruddy hearth. The pastor of this country parish was a sensible man, who, if he did not electrify his flock of a Sunday morning, honestly tried to guide it along safe paths, and led those whom he asked to follow. His power lay chiefly in the homes of his people, where his genial presence was ever welcomed. He did not regard those to whom he ministered as so many souls and subjects of theological dogma, but as flesh-and-blood men, women, and children, with complex interests and relations; and the heartiness of his laugh over a joke, often his own, and the havoc that he made in the dishes of nuts and apples, proved that he had plenty of good healthful blood himself. Although his hair was touched with frost, and he had never received any degree except his simple A.M., although the prospect of a metropolitan pulpit had grown remote indeed, he seemed the picture of content as he pared his apple and joined in the neighborly talk.
Squire Bartley had a growing sense of shortcoming in his farming operations. Notwithstanding his many acres, he felt himself growing "land-poor," as country people phrase it. He was not a reader, and looked with undisguised suspicion on book-farming. As for the agricultural journals, he said "they were full of new-fangled notions, and were kept up by people who liked to see their names in print." Nevertheless, he was compelled to admit that the Cliffords, who kept abreast of the age, obtained better crops, and made their business pay far better than he did, and he was inclined to turn his neighborly calls into thrifty use by questioning Leonard and Webb concerning their methods and management. Therefore he remarked to Leonard: "Do you find that you can keep your land in good condition by rotation of crops? Folks say this will do it, but I find some of our upland is getting mighty thin, and crops uncertain."
"What is your idea of rotation, squire?"
"Why, not growin' the same crop too often on the same ground."
"That is scarcely my idea. For the majority of soils the following rotation has been found most beneficial: corn and potatoes, which thoroughly subdue the sod the first year; root crops, as far as we grow them, and oats the second; then wheat or rye, seeded at the same time with clover or grass of some kind. We always try to plow our sod land in the fall, for in the intervening time before planting the sod partially decays, the land is sweetened and pulverized by the action of frost, and a good many injurious insects are killed also. But all rules need modification, and we try to study the nature of our various soils, and treat them accordingly".
"What! have a chemist prescribe for 'em like a doctor?" sneered the squire. "Mr. Walters, the rich city chap who bought Roger's worn-out farm, tried that to his heart's content, and mine too. He had a little of the dirt of each part of his farm analyzed, you know, and then he sent to New York for his phosphates, his potashes, his muriates, and his compound-super-universal panacea vegetates, and with all these bad-smelling mixtures—his barn was like a big agricultural drug-store—he was going to put into his skinned land just the elements lacking. In short, he gave his soil a big dose of powders, and we all know the result. If he had given his farm a pinch of snuff better crops ought to have been sneezed. No chemicals and land doctors for me, thank you. Beg pardon, Marvin! no reflections on your calling, but doctorin' land don't seem profitable for those who pay for the medicine."
They all laughed except Webb, who seemed nettled, but who quietly said, "Squire, will you please tell us what your house is made of?"
"Good lumber, sir."
"Well, when passing one day, I saw a fine stalk of corn in one of your fields. Will you also tell us what that was made of? It must have weighed, with the ears upon it, several pounds, and it was all of six feet high. How did it come into existence?"
"Why, it grew," said the squire, sententiously.
"That utterance was worthy of Solomon," remarked Dr. Marvin, laughing.
"It grew," continued Webb, "because it found the needed material at hand. I do not see how Nature can build a well-eared stalk of corn without proper material any more than you could have built your house without lumber. Suppose we have a soil in which the elements that make a crop of corn do not exist, or are present in a very deficient degree, what course is left for us but to supply what is lacking? Because Mr. Walters did not do this in the right way, is no reason why we should do nothing. If soil does not contain the ingredients of a crop, we must put them there, or our labor goes for nothing".
"Well, of course there's no gettin' around that; but yard manure is all I want. It's like a square meal to a man, and not a bit of powder on his tongue."
"No one wants anything better than barn-yard manure for most purposes, for it contains nearly all the elements needed by growing plants, and its mechanical action is most beneficial to the soil. But how many acres will you be able to cover with this fertilizer this spring?"
"That's just the rub," the squire answered. "We use all we have, and when I can pick it up cheap I buy some; but one can't cover a whole farm with it, and so in spite of you some fields get all run out."
"I don't think there's any need of their running out," said Leonard, emphatically. "I agree with Webb in one thing, if I can't follow him in all of his scientific theories—we have both decided never to let a field grow poor, any more than we would permit a horse or cow to so lose in flesh as to be nearly useless; therefore we not only buy fertilizers liberally, but use all the skill and care within our power to increase them. Barn-yard manure can be doubled in bulk and almost doubled in value by composting with the right materials. We make the most of our peat swamps, fallen leaves, and rubbish in general. Enough goes to waste on many farms every year to keep several acres in good heart. But, as you say, we cannot begin to procure enough to go over all the land from which we are taking crops of some kind; therefore we maintain a rotation which is adapted to our various soils, and every now and then plow under a heavy green crop of clover, buckwheat, or rye. A green crop plowed under is my great stand-by."
"I plowed under a crop of buckwheat once," said the squire, discontentedly, "and I didn't see much good from it, except that the ground was light and mellow afterward."
"That, at least, was a gain," Leonard continued; "but I can tell you why your ground was not much benefited, and perhaps injured. You scarcely plowed under a green crop, for I remember that the grain in your buckwheat straw was partly ripe. It is the forming seed or grain that takes the substance out of land. You should have plowed the buckwheat under just as it was coming into blossom. Up to that time the chief growth had been derived from the air, and there had been very little drain upon the soil."
"Well!" exclaimed the squire, incredulously, "I didn't know the air was so nourishing."
Webb had been showing increasing signs of disquietude during the last few moments, and now said, with some emphasis: "It seems to me, squire, that there is not much hope of our farming successfully unless we do know something of the materials that make our crops, and the conditions under which they grow. When you built your house you did not employ a man who had only a vague idea of how it was to be constructed, and what it was to be built of. Before your house was finished you had used lumber as your chief material, but you also employed brick, stone, lime, sand, nails, etc. If we examine a house, we find all these materials. If we wish to build another house, we know we must use them in their proper proportions. Now it is just as much a matter of fact, and is just as capable of proof, that a plant of any kind is built up on a regular plan, and from well-defined materials, as that a house is so built. The materials in various houses differ just as the elements in different kinds of plants vary. A man can decide what he will build of; Nature has decided forever what she will build of. She will construct a stalk of corn or wheat with its grain out of essentially the same materials to the end of time. Now suppose one or more of these necessary ingredients is limited in the soil, or has been taken from it by a succession of crops, what rational hope can we have for a good crop unless we place the absent material in the ground, and also put it there in a form suitable for the use of the plant?"
"What you say sounds plausible enough," answered the squire, scratching his head with the worried, perplexed air of a man convinced against his will. "How was it, then, that Walters made such a mess of it? He had his soil analyzed by a land doctor, and boasted that he was going to put into it just what was lacking. His soil may not be lacking now, but his crops are."
"It is possible that there are quacks among land doctors, as you call them, as well as among doctors of medicine", remarked Dr. Marvin.
"Or doctors of theology," added the minister.
"I looked into the Walters experiment somewhat carefully," Webb resumed, "and the causes of his failure were apparent to any one who has given a little study to the nature of soils and plant food. Some of his land needs draining. The ground is sour and cold from stagnant water beneath the surface, and the plant food which Nature originally placed in it is inert and in no condition to be used. Nearly all of his uplands have been depleted of organic or vegetable matter. He did not put into the soil all that the plants needed, and the fact that his crops were poor proves it. The materials he used may have been adulterated, or not in a form which the plants could, assimilate at the time. Give Nature a soil in the right mechanical condition—that is, light, mellow, moist, but not wet, and containing the essential elements of a crop—and she will produce it unless the season is so adverse that it cannot grow. I do not see how one can hope to be successful unless he studies Nature's methods and learns her needs, adapting his labor to the former, and supplying the latter. For instance, nitrogen in the form of ammonia is so essential to our crops that without it they could never come to maturity were all the other elements of plant food present in excess. Suppose that for several successive years we grow wheat upon a field with an average crop of twenty-five bushels to the acre. This amount of grain with its straw will take from the soil about fifty-one pounds of ammonia annually, and when the nitrogen (which is the main element of ammonia) gives out, the wheat will fail, although other plant food may be present in abundance. This is one reason why dairy farms from which all the milk is sold often grow poor. Milk is exceedingly rich in nitrogen, and through the milk the farm is depleted of this essential element faster than it is replaced by fertilizers. A man may thus be virtually selling his farm, or that which gives it value, without knowing it."
"But what's a man to do?" asked the squire, with a look of helpless perplexity. "How is one to know when his land needs nitrogen or ammonia and all the other kinds of plant food, as you call it, and how must he go to work to get and apply it?"
"You are asking large questions, squire," Webb replied, with a quiet smile. "In the course of a year you decide a number of legal questions, and I suppose read books, consult authorities, and use considerable judgment. It certainly never would do for people to settle these questions at hap-hazard or according to their own individual notions. Their decisions might be reversed. Whatever the courts may do, Nature is certain to reverse our decisions and bring to naught our action unless we comply with her laws and requirements."
The squire's experience coincided so truly with Webb's words that he urged no further objections against accurate agricultural knowledge, even though the information must be obtained in part at least from books and journals.
GOSSIP ABOUT BIRD-NEIGHBORS
"Doctor," said Mrs. Leonard, "Amy and I have been indulging in some surmises over a remark you made the other day about the bluebirds. You said the female was a cold, coy beauty, and that her mate would soon be overburdened with family cares. Indeed, I think you rather reflected on our sex as represented by Mrs. Bluebird."
"I fear I cannot retract. The female bluebird is singularly devoid of sentiment, and takes life in the most serious and matter-of-fact way. Her nest and her young are all in all to her. John Burroughs, who is a very close observer, says she shows no affection for the male and no pleasure in his society, and if he is killed she goes in quest of another mate in the most business-like manner, as one would go to a shop on an errand."
"The heartless little jade!" cried Maggie, with a glance at Leonard which plainly said that such was not her style at all.
"Nevertheless," continued the doctor, "she awakens a love in her husband which is blind to every defect. He is gallantry itself, and at the same time the happiest and most hilarious of lovers. Since she insists on building her nest herself, and having everything to her own mind, he does not shrug his blue shoulders and stand indifferently or sullenly aloof. He goes with her everywhere, flying a little in advance as if for protection, inspects her work with flattering minuteness, applauds and compliments continually. Indeed, he is the ideal French beau very much in love."
"In other words, the counterpart of Leonard," said Burt, at which they all laughed.
"But you spoke of his family cares," Webb remarked: "he contributes something more than compliments, does he not?"
"Indeed he does. He settles down into the most devoted of husbands and fathers. The female usually hatches three broods, and as the season advances he has his hands, or his beak rather, very full of business. I think Burroughs is mistaken in saying that he is in most cases the ornamental member of the firm. He feeds his wife as she sits on the nest, and often the first brood is not out of the way before he has another to provide for. Therefore he is seen bringing food to his wife and two sets of children, and occasionally taking her place on the nest. Nor does he ever get over his delusion that his mate is delighted with his song and little gallantries, for he kepps them up also to the last. So he has to be up early and late, and altogether must be a very tired little bird when he gets a chance to put his head under his wing."
"Poor little fellow! and to think that she doesn't care for him!" sighed Amy, pityingly; and they all laughed so heartily that she bent her head over her work to hide the rich color that stole into her face—all laughed except Mr. Alvord, who, as usual, was an attentive and quiet listener, sitting a little in the background, so that his face was in partial shadow. Keen-eyed Maggie, whose sympathies were deeply enlisted in behalf of her sad and taciturn neighbor, observed that he regarded Amy with a close, wistful scrutiny, as if he were reading her thoughts. Then an expression of anguish, of something like despair, flitted across his face. "He has lavished the best treasures of his heart and life on some one who did not care," was her mental comment.
"You won't be like our little friend in blue, eh, Amy?" said old Mr. Clifford; but with girlish shyness she would not reply to any such question.
"Don't take it so to heart, Miss Amy. Mr. B. is never disenchanted," the doctor remarked.
"I don't like Mrs. B. at all," said Maggie, decidedly; "and it seems to me that I know women of whom she is a type—women whose whole souls are engrossed with their material life. Human husbands are not so blind as bluebirds, and they want something more than housekeepers and nurses in their wives."
"Excellent!" cried Rev. Mr. Barkdale; "you improve the occasion better than I could. But, doctor, how about our callous widow bluebird finding another mate after the mating season is over?"
"There are always some bachelors around, unsuccessful wooers whose early blandishments were vain."
"And are there no respectable spinsters with whom they might take up as a last resort?" Leonard queried.
"No, none at all. Think of that, ye maiden of New England, where the males are nearly all migrants and do not return! The only chance for a bird-bachelor is to console some widow whom accident has bereaved of her mate. Widowers also are ready for an immediate second marriage. Birds and beasts of prey and boys—hey, Alf—bring about a good many step-parents."
"Alf don't kill any little birds, do you, Alf?" asked his mother.
"Well, not lately. You said they felt so bad over it But if they get over it so easy as the doctor says—"
"Now, doctor, you see the result of your scientific teaching."
"Why, Mrs. Leonard, are you in sympathy with the priestcraft that would keep people virtuous through ignorance?" said the minister, laughing. "Alf must learn to do right, knowing all the facts. I don't believe he will shy a stone at a bird this coming year unless it is in mischief."
"Well," said Squire Bartley, who had relapsed into a half-doze as the conversation lost its practical bent, "between the birds and boys I don't see as we shall be able to raise any fruit before long. If our boys hadn't killed about all the robins round our house last summer, I don't think we'd 'a had a cherry or strawberry."
"I'm afraid, squire," put in Webb, quietly, "that if all followed your boys' example, insects would soon have the better of us. They are far worse than the birds. I've seen it stated on good authority that a fledgling robin eats forty per cent more than its own weight every twenty-four hours, and I suppose it would be almost impossible to compute the number of noxious worms and moths destroyed by a family of robins in one season. They earn their share of fruit."
"Webb is right, squire," added the doctor, emphatically. "Were it not for the birds, the country would soon be as bare as the locusts left Egypt. Even the crow, against which you are so vindictive, is one of your best friends."
"Oh, now, come, I can't swallow that. Crows pull up my corn, rob hens' nests', carry off young chickens. They even rob the nests of the other birds you're so fond of. Why, some state legislatures give a bounty for their destruction."
"If there had only been a bounty for killing off the legislators, the states would have fared better," replied the doctor, with some heat. "It can be proved beyond a doubt that the crow is unsurpassed by any other bird in usefulness. He is one of the best friends you have."
"Deliver me from my friends, then," said the squire, rising; and he departed, with his prejudices against modern ideas and methods somewhat confirmed.
Like multitudes of his class, he observed in nature only that which was forced upon his attention through the medium of immediate profit and loss. The crows pulled up his corn, and carried off an occasional chicken; the robins ate a little fruit; therefore death to crows and robins. They all felt a certain sense of relief at his departure, for while their sympathies touched his on the lower plane of mere utility and money value, it would be bondage to them to be kept from other and higher considerations. Moreover, in his own material sphere his narrow prejudices were ever a jarring element that often exasperated Webb, who had been known to mutter, "Such clods of earth bring discredit on our calling."
Burt, with a mischievous purpose illuminating his face, remarked: "I'll try to put the squire into a dilemma. If I can catch one of his boys shooting robins out of season, I will lodge a complaint with him, and insist on the fine;" and his design was laughingly applauded.
"I admit," said Mr. Clifford, "that Webb has won me over to a toleration of crows, but until late years I regarded them as unmitigated pests."
"Undeserved enmity comes about in this way," Webb replied. "We see a crow in mischief occasionally, and the fact is laid up against him. If we sought to know what he was about when not in mischief, our views would soon change. It would be far better to have a little corn pulled up than to be unable to raise corn at all. Crows can be kept from the field during the brief periods when they do harm, but myriads of grasshoppers cannot be managed. Moreover, the crow destroys very many field-mice and other rodents, but chief of all he is the worst enemy of the May-beetle and its larvae. In regions of the country where the crow has been almost exterminated by poison and other means, this insect has left the meadows brown and sear, while grasshoppers have partially destroyed the most valuable crops. Why can't farmers get out of their plodding, ox-like ways, and learn to co-work with Nature like men?"
"Hurrah for Webb!" cried Burt. "Who would have thought that the squire and a crow could evoke such a peroration? That flower of eloquence surely grew from a rank, dark soil."
"Squire Bartley amuses me very much," said Mrs. Clifford, from the sofa, with a low laugh. "He seems the only one who has the power to ruffle Webb."
"Little wonder," thought Amy, "for it would be hard to find two natures more antagonistic."
"It seems to me that this has been a very silent winter," the minister remarked. "In my walks and drives of late I have scarcely heard the chirp of a bird. Are there many that stay with us through this season, doctor?"
"More than you would suppose. But you would not be apt to meet many of them unless you sought for them. At this time they are gathered in sheltered localities abounding in their favorite food. Shall I tell you about some that I have observed throughout several successive winters?"
Having received eager encouragement, he resumed: "My favorites, the bluebirds, we have considered quite at length. They are very useful, for their food in summer consists chiefly of the smaller beetles and the larvae of little butterflies and moths. Many robins stay all winter. It is a question of food, not climate, with them. In certain valleys of the White Mountains there is an abundance of berries, and flocks of robins feed on them all winter, although the cold reaches the freezing-point of mercury. As we have said, they are among the most useful of the insect destroyers. The golden-crested kinglet is a little mite of a bird, not four inches long, with a central patch of orange-red on his crown. He breeds in the far North, and wintering here is for him like going to the South. In summer he is a flycatcher, but here he searches the bark of forest trees with microscopic scrutiny for the larvae of insects. We all know the lively black-capped chickadees that fly around in flocks throughout the winter. Sometimes their search for food leads them into the heart of towns and cities, where they are as bold and as much at home as the English sparrow. They also gather around the camps of log-cutters in the forest, become very tame, and plaintively cry for their share in the meals. They remain all the year, nesting in decayed logs, posts, stumps, and even in sides of houses, although they prefer the edge of a wood. If they can find a hole to suit them, very well; if they can't, they will make one. Their devotion to their young is remarkable. A nest in a decayed stump was uncovered, and the mother bird twice taken off by hand, and each time she returned and covered her brood. She uttered no cries or complaints, but devotedly interposed her little form between what must have seemed terrific monsters and her young, and looked at the human ogres with the resolute eyes of self-sacrifice. If she could have known it, the monsters only wished to satisfy their curiosity, and were admiring her beyond measure. Chickadees are exceedingly useful birds, and make great havoc among the insects.
"Our next bird is merely a winter sojourner, for he goes north in spring like the kinglet. The scientists, with a fine sense of the fitness of things, have given him a name in harmony, Troglodytes parvulus, var. Hyemalis."
"What monster bird is this?" cried Amy.
"He is about as big as your thumb, and ordinary mortals are content to call him the winter wren. He is a saucy little atom of a bird, with his tail pointing rakishly toward his head. I regret exceedingly to add that he is but a winter resident with us, and we rarely hear his song. Mr. Burroughs says that he is a 'marvellous songster,' his notes having a 'sweet rhythmical cadence that holds you entranced.' By the way, if you wish to fall in love with birds, you should read the books of John Burroughs. A little mite of a creature, like the hermit-thrush, he fills the wild, remote woods of the North with melody, and has not been known to breed further south than Lake Mohunk. The brown creeper and the yellow-rumped warbler I will merely mention. Both migrate to the North in the spring, and the latter is only an occasional winter resident. The former is a queer little creature that alights at the base of a tree and creeps spirally round and round to its very top, when it sweeps down to the base of another tree to repeat the process. He is ever intent on business. Purple finches are usually abundant in winter, though, not very numerous in summer. I value them because they are handsome birds, and both male and female sing in autumn and winter, when bird music is at a premium. I won't speak of the Carolina wax-wing, alias cedar or cherry bird, now. Next June, when strawberries and cherries are ripe, we can form his intimate acquaintance."
"We have already made it, to the cost of both our patience and purse," said Webb. "He is one of the birds for whom I have no mercy."
"That is because you are not sufficiently acquainted with him. I admit that he is an arrant thief of fruit, and that, as his advocate, I have a difficult case. I shall not plead for him until summer, when he is in such imminent danger of capital punishment He's a little beauty, though, with his jaunty crest and gold-tipped tail. I shall not say one word in favor of the next bird that I mention, the great Northern shrike, or butcher-bird. He is not an honest bird of prey that all the smaller feathered tribes know at a glance, like the hawk; he is a disguised assassin, and possessed by the very demon of cruelty. He is a handsome fellow, little over ten inches long, with a short, powerful beak, the upper mandible sharply curved. His body is of a bluish-gray color, with 'markings of white' on his dusky wings and tail. Three shrikes once made such havoc among the sparrows of Boston Common that it became necessary to take much pains to destroy them. He is not only a murderer, but an exceedingly treacherous one, for both Mr. Audubon and Mr. Nuttall speak of his efforts to decoy little birds within his reach by imitating their notes, and he does this so closely that he is called a mocking-bird in some parts of New England. When he utters his usual note and reveals himself, his voice very properly resembles the 'discordant creaking of a sign-board hinge.' A flock of snow-birds or finches may be sporting and feeding in some low shrubbery, for instance. They may hear a bird approaching, imitating their own notes. A moment later the shrike will be seen among them, causing no alarm, for his appearance is in his favor. Suddenly he will pounce upon an unsuspecting neighbor, and with one blow of his beak take off the top of its head, dining on its brains. If there is a chance to kill several more, he will, like a butcher, hang his prey on a thorn, or in the crotch of a tree, and return for his favorite morsel when his hunt is over. After devouring the head of a bird he will leave the body, unless game is scarce. It is well they are not plentiful, or else our canary pets would be in danger, for a shrike will dart through an open window and attack birds in cages, even when members of the family are present. In one instance Mr. Brewer, the ornithologist, was sitting by a closed window with a canary in a cage above his head, and a shrike, ignorant of the intervening glass, dashed against the window, and fell stunned upon the snow. He was taken in, and found to be tame, but sullen. He refused raw meat, but tore and devoured little birds very readily. As I said before, it is fortunate he is rare, though why he is so I scarcely know. He may have enemies in the North, where he breeds; for I am glad to say that he is only a winter resident.
"It gives one a genuine sense of relief to turn from this Apache, this treacherous scalper of birds, to those genuinely useful little songsters, the tree and the song sparrow. The former is essentially a Northern bird, and breeds in the high arctic regions. He has a fine song, which we hear in early April as his parting souvenir. The song sparrow will be a great favorite with you, Miss Amy, for he is one of our finest singers, whose song resembles the opening notes of a canary, but has more sweetness and expression. Those that remain with us depart for the North at the first tokens of spring, and are replaced by myriads of other migrants that usually arrive early in March. You will hear them some mild morning soon. They are very useful in destroying the worst kinds of insects. A fit associate for the song sparrow is the American goldfinch, or yellow-bird, which is as destructive of the seeds of weeds as the former is of the smaller insect pests. In summer it is of a bright gamboge yellow, with black crown, wings, and tail. At this time he is a little olive-brown bird, and mingles with his fellows in small flocks. They are sometimes killed and sold as reed-birds. They are brilliant singers.
"The snow-bird and snow-bunting are not identical by any means; indeed, each is of a different genus. The bunting's true home is in the far North, and it is not apt to be abundant here except in severe weather. Specimens have been found, however, early in November, but more often they appear with a late December snowstorm, their wild notes suggesting the arctic wastes from which they have recently drifted southward. The sleigh tracks on the frozen Hudson are among their favorite haunts, and they are not often abundant in the woods on this side of the river. Flocks can usually be found spending the winter along the railroad on the eastern shore. Here they become very fat, and so begrimed with the dirt and grease on the track that you would never associate them with the snowy North. They ever make, however, a singular and pretty spectacle when flying up between one and the late afternoon sun, for the predominant white in their wings and tail seems almost transparent. They breed at the extreme North, even along the Arctic Sea, in Greenland and Iceland, and are fond of marine localities at all times. It's hard to realize that the little fellows with whom we are now so familiar start within a month for regions above the Arctic Circle. I once, when a boy, fired into a flock feeding in a sleigh track on the ice of the river. Some of those that escaped soon returned to their dead and wounded companions, and in their solicitude would let me come very near, nor, unless driven away, would they leave the injured ones until life was extinct. On another occasion I brought some wounded ones home, and they ate as if starved, and soon became very tame, alighting upon the table at mealtimes with a freedom from ceremony which made it necessary to shut them up. They spent most of their time among the house plants by the window, but toward spring the migratory instinct asserted itself, and they became very restless, pecking at the panes in their eagerness to get away. Soon afterward our little guests may have been sporting on an arctic beach. An effort was once made in Massachusetts to keep a wounded snow-bunting through the summer, but at last it died from the heat. They are usually on the wing northward early in March.
"The ordinary snow-bird is a very unpretentious and familiar little friend. You can find him almost any day from the 1st of October to the 1st of May, and may know him by his grayish or ashy black head, back, and wings, white body underneath from the middle of his breast backward, and white external tail-feathers. He is said to be abundant all over America east of the Black Hills, and breeds as far south as the mountains of Virginia. There are plenty of them in summer along the Shawangunk range, just west of us, in the Catskills, and so northward above the Arctic Circle. In the spring, before it leaves us, you will often hear its pretty little song. They are very much afraid of hawks, which make havoc among them at all times, but are fearless of their human—and especially of their humane—neighbors. Severe weather will often bring them to our very doors, and drive them into the outskirts of large cities. They are not only harmless, but very useful, for they devour innumerable seeds, and small insects with their larvae. Dear me! I could talk about birds all night."
"And we could listen to you," chorused several voices.
"I never before realized that we had such interesting winter neighbors and visitors," said Mrs. Clifford, and the lustre of her eyes and the faint bloom on her cheeks proved how deeply these little children of nature had enlisted her sympathies.
"They are interesting, even when in one short evening I can give but in bald, brief outline a few of their characteristics. Your words suggest the true way of becoming acquainted with them. Regard them as neighbors and guests, in the main very useful friends, and then you will naturally wish to know more about them. In most instances they are quite susceptible to kindness, and are ready to be intimate with us. That handsome bird, the blue jay, so wild at the East, is as tame and domestic as the robin in many parts of the West, because treated well. He is also a winter resident, and one of the most intelligent birds in existence. Indeed, he is a genuine humorist, and many amusing stories are told of his pranks. His powers of mimicry are but slightly surpassed by those of the mocking-bird, and it is his delight to send the smaller feathered tribes to covert by imitating the cries of the sparrow, hawk, and other birds of prey. When so tame as to haunt the neighborhood of dwellings, he is unwearied in playing his tricks on domestic fowls, and they—silly creatures!—never learn to detect the practical joke, for, no matter how often it is repeated, they hasten panic-stricken to shelter. Wilson speaks of him as the trumpeter of the feathered chorus, but his range of notes is very great, passing from harsh, grating sounds, like the screeching of an unlubricated axle, to a warbling as soft and modulated as that of a bluebird, and again, prompted by his mercurial nature, screaming like a derisive fish-wife. Fledglings will develop contentedly in a cage, and become tame and amusing pets. They will learn to imitate the human voice and almost every other familiar sound. A gentleman in South Carolina had one that was as loquacious as a parrot, and could utter distinctly several words. In this region they are hunted, and too shy for familiar acquaintance. When a boy, I have been tantalized almost beyond endurance by them, and they seemed to know and delight in the fact. I was wild to get a shot at them, but they would keep just out of range, mocking me with discordant cries, and alarming all the other game in the vicinity. They often had more sport than I. It is a pity that the small boy with his gun cannot be taught to let them alone. If they were as domestic and plentiful as robins, they would render us immense service. A colony of jays would soon destroy all the tent-caterpillars on your place, and many other pests. In Indiana they will build in the shrubbery around dwellings, but we usually hear their cries from mountain-sides and distant groves. Pleasant memories of rambles and nutting excursions they always awaken. The blue jay belongs to the crow family, and has all the brains of his black-coated and more sedate cousins. At the North, he will, like a squirrel, lay up for winter a hoard of acorns and beech mast. An experienced bird-fancier asserts that he found the jay 'more ingenious, cunning, and teachable than any other species of birds that he had ever attempted to instruct.'
"One of our most beautiful and interesting winter visitants is the pine grosbeak. Although very abundant in some seasons, even extending its migrations to the latitude of Philadelphia, it is irregular, and only the coldest weather prompts its excursions southward. The general color of the males is a light carmine, or rose, and if only plentiful they would make a beautiful feature in our snowy landscape. As a general thing, the red tints are brighter in the American than in the European birds. The females, however, are much more modest in their plumage, being ash-colored above, with a trace of carmine behind their heads and upon their upper tail coverts, and sometimes tinged with greenish-yellow beneath. The females are by far our more abundant visitants, for in the winter of '75 I saw numerous flocks, and not over two per cent were males in red plumage. Still, strange to say, I saw a large flock of adult males the preceding November, feeding on the seeds of a Norway spruce before our house. Oh, what a brilliant assemblage they made among the dark branches! In their usual haunts they live a very retired life. The deepest recesses of the pine forests at the far North are their favorite haunts, and here the majority generally remain throughout the year. In these remote wilds is bred the fearlessness of man which is the result of ignorance, for they are among the tamest of all wild birds, finding, in this respect, their counterpart in the American red cross-bill, another occasional cold-weather visitant. For several winters the grosbeaks were exceedingly abundant in the vicinity of Boston, and were so tame that they could be captured in butterfly nets, and knocked down with poles. The markets became full of them, and many were caged. While tame they were very unhappy in confinement, and as spring advanced their mournful cries over their captivity became incessant. They can be kept as pets, however, and will often sing in the night. Mr. Audubon observed that when he fired at one of their number, the others, instead of flying away, would approach within a few feet, and gaze at him with undisguised curiosity, unmingled with fear. I have seen some large flocks this winter, and a few fed daily on a bare plot of ground at the end of our piazza. I was standing above this plot one day, when a magnificent red male flew just beneath my feet and drank at a little pool. I never saw anything more lovely in my life than the varying sheen of his brilliant tropical-like plumage. He was like a many-hued animated flower, and was so fearless that I could have touched him with a cane. One very severe, stormy winter the grosbeaks fairly crowded the streets of Pictou. A gentleman took one of these half-starved birds into his room, where it lived at large, and soon became the tamest and most affectionate of pets. But in the spring, when its mates were migrating north, Nature asserted herself, and it lost its familiarity, and filled the house with its piteous wailings, refused food, and sought constantly to escape. When the grosbeaks are with us you would not be apt to notice them unless you stumbled directly upon them, for they are the most silent of birds, which is remarkable, since the great majority of them are females".
"That is just the reason why they are so still," remarked Mrs. Leonard. "Ladies never speak unless they have something to say."
"Far be it from me to contradict you. The lady grosbeaks certainly have very little to say to one another, though when mating in their secluded haunts they probably express their preferences decidedly. If they have an ear for music, they must enjoy their wooing immensely, for there is scarcely a lovelier song than that of the male grosbeak. I never heard it but once, and may never again; but the thrill of delight that I experienced that intensely cold March day can never be forgotten. I was following the course of a stream that flowed at the bottom of a deep ravine, when, most unexpectedly, I heard a new song, which proceeded from far up the glen. The notes were loud, rich, and sweet, and I hastened on to identify the new vocalist. I soon discovered a superb red pine grosbeak perched on the top of a tall hemlock. His rose-colored plumage and mellow notes on that bleak day caused me to regret exceedingly that he was only an uncertain and transient visitor to our region.
"We have a large family of resident hawks in this vicinity; indeed, there are nine varieties of this species of bird with us at this time, although some of them are rarely seen. The marsh-hawk has a bluish or brown plumage, and in either case is distinguished by a patch of white on its upper tail coverts. You would not be apt to meet with it except in its favorite haunts. I found a nest in the centre of Consook Marsh, below West Point. It was a rude affair. The nests of this hawk are usually made of hay, lined with pine needles, and sometimes at the North with feathers. This bird is found nearly everywhere in North America, and breeds as high as Hudson Bay. In the marshes on the Delaware it is often called the mouse-hawk, for it sweeps swiftly along the low ground in search of a species of mouse common in that locality. It is said to be very useful in the Southern rice-fields, since, as it sails low, it interrupts the flocks of bobolinks, or rice-birds, in their depredations. Planters say that one marsh-hawk accomplishes more than several negroes in alarming these greedy little gourmands. In this region they do us no practical harm.
"Our most abundant hawk is the broad-winged, which will measure about thirty-six inches with wings extended. The plumage of this bird is so dusky as to impart a prevalent brownish color, and the species is distributed generally over eastern North America. Unlike the marsh-hawk, it builds in trees, and Mr. Audubon describes a nest as similar to that of the crow—a resemblance easily accounted for by the frequency with which this hawk will repair crows' nests of former years for its own use. I once shot one upon such a nest, from which I had taken crows' eggs the preceding summer. I had only wounded the bird, and he clawed me severely before I was able to capture him. I once took a fledgling from a nest, and he became very fond of me, and quite gentle, but he would not let any one else handle him. On another occasion, when I was examining a nest, the male bird flew to a branch just over it, uttering loud, squealing cries, thence darted swiftly past me, and so close that I could feel the rush of air made by his wings; then he perched near again, and threatened me in every way he could, extending his wings, inclining his head and body toward me, making meanwhile a queer whistling sound. Only when I reached the nest would the female leave it, and then she withdrew but a short distance, returning as soon as I began to descend. The devotion of these wild creatures to their young is often marvellous. Mr. Audubon describes this hawk as 'spiritless, inactive, and so deficient in courage that he is often chased by the little sparrow-hawk and kingbird.' Another naturalist dissents emphatically from this view, and regards the broad-winged as the most courageous and spirited of his family, citing an instance of a man in his employ who, while ascending to a nest, was assailed with great fury. His hat was torn from his head, and he would have been injured had not the bird been shot. He also gives another example of courage in an attack by this hawk upon a boy seeking to rob its nest. It fastened its talons in his arm, and could not be beaten off until it was killed. Perhaps both naturalists are right. It is brave and fierce when its home is disturbed, and lacks the courage to attack other birds of its own kind. At any rate, it has no hesitancy in making hawk-love to chickens and ducklings, but as a rule subsists on insects and small quardrupeds. It is not a very common winter resident, but early in March it begins to come northward in flocks.
"Next to the broad-winged, the sharp-shinned is our most abundant hawk, and is found throughout the entire continent from Hudson Bay to Mexico. It usually builds its nest in trees, and occasionally on ledges of rocks, and as a general thing takes some pains in its construction. Its domicile approaches the eagle's nest in form, is broad and shallow, and made of sticks and twigs lined thinly with dried leaves, mosses, etc. A full-grown female—which, as I told you once before, is always larger than the male among birds of prey—measures about twenty-six inches with wings extended. It is lead-colored above, and lighter beneath. You can easily recognize this hawk by its short wings, long tail, and swift, irregular flight. One moment it is high in the air, the next it disappears in the grass, having seized the object of its pursuit. It is capable of surprisingly sudden dashes, and its pursuit is so rapid that escape is wellnigh hopeless. It is not daunted by obstacles. Mr. Audubon saw one dart into a thicket of briers, strike and instantly kill a thrush, and emerge with it on the opposite side. It often makes havoc among young chickens. One came every day to a poultry-yard until it had carried off over twenty. It does not hesitate to pounce down upon a chicken even in the farmer's presence; and one, in a headlong pursuit, broke through the glass of a greenhouse, then dashed through another glass partition, and was only brought up by a third. Pigeons are also quite in its line. Indeed, it is a bold red-taloned freebooter, and only condescends to insects and the smaller reptiles when there are no little birds at hand. During the spring migration this hawk is sometimes seen in large flocks.
"The American goshawk is the next bird of this family that I will mention, and I am very glad to say that he is only a winter resident. He is the dreaded blue hen-hawk of New England, and is about twenty-three inches long, and forty-four from tip to tip of wings. One good authority says that for strength, intrepidity, and fury he cannot be surpassed. He will swoop down into a poultry-yard and carry off a chicken almost before you can take a breath. He is swift, cunning, and adroit rather than heedless and headlong, like the sharp-shinned hawk, and although the bereaved farmer may be on the alert with his gun, this marauder will watch his chance, dash into the yard, then out again with his prey, so suddenly that only the despairing cries of the fowl reveal the murderous onslaught. In western Maine this hawk is very common. A housewife will hear a rush of wings and cries of terror, and can only reach the door in time to see one of these robbers sailing off with the finest of her pullets. Hares and wild-ducks are favorite game also. The goshawk will take a mallard with perfect ease, neatly and deliberately strip off the feathers, and then, like an epicure, eat the breast only. Audubon once saw a large flock of blackbirds crossing the Ohio. Like an arrow a goshawk darted upon them, while they, in their fright, huddled together. The hawk seized one after another, giving each a death-squeeze, then dropping it into the water. In this way he killed five before the flock escaped into the woods. He then leisurely went back, picked them up one by one, and carried them to the spot selected for his lunch. With us, I am happy to say, he is shy and distant, preferring the river marshes to the vicinity of our farmyards. He usually takes his prey while swooping swiftly along on the wing.
"Have we any hawks similar to those employed in the old-time falconry of Europe?" Webb asked.
"Yes; our duck or great-footed hawk is almost identical with the well-known peregrine falcon of Europe. It is a permanent resident, and breeds on the inaccessible cliffs of the Highlands, although preferring similar localities along a rocky sea-coast. There is no reason to doubt that our duck-hawk might be trained for the chase as readily as its foreign congener. It has the same wonderful powers of flight, equal docility in confinement, and can be taught to love and obey its master. I have often wondered why falconry has not been revived, like other ancient sports. The Germans are said to have employed trained hawks to capture carrier-pigeons that were sent out with missives by the French during the siege of Paris. In a few instances the duck-hawk has been known to nest in trees. It is a solitary bird, and the sexes do not associate except at the breeding season. While it prefers water-fowl, it does not confine itself to them. I shot one on a Long Island beach and found in its crop whole legs of the robin, Alice's thrush, catbird, and warblers. It measures about forty-five inches in the stretch of its wings, and its prevailing color is of a dark blue.
"The pigeon-hawk is not very rare at this season. Professor Baird describes this bird as remarkable for its rapid flight, its courage, and its enterprise in attacking birds even larger than itself. This accords with my experience, for my only specimen was shot in the act of destroying a hen. He is about the size of our common flicker, or high-holder, which bird, with robins, pigeons, and others of similar size, is his favorite game. The sparrow-hawk is rare at this time, and is only abundant occasionally during its migrations. The red-shouldered hawk is a handsome bird, with some very good traits, and is a common permanent resident. Unless hunted, these birds are not shy, and they remain mated throughout the year. Many a human pair might learn much from their affectionate and considerate treatment of each other. They do not trouble poultry-yards, and are fond of frogs, cray-fish, and even insects. Occasionally they will attack birds as large as a meadow-lark. They have a high and very irregular flight, but occasionally they so stuff themselves with frogs that they can scarcely move. Wilson found one with the remains of ten frogs in his crop.
"Last among the winter residents I can merely mention the red-tailed hawk, so named from the deep rufus color of its tail feathers. It is a heavy, robust bird, and while it usually feeds on mice, moles, and shrews that abound in meadows, its depredations on farmyards are not infrequent. It is widely distributed throughout the continent, and abundant here. It is a powerful bird, and can compass long distances with a strong, steady flight, often moving with no apparent motion of the wings. It rarely seizes its prey while flying, like the goshawk, but with its keen vision will inspect the immediate vicinity from the branch of a tree, and thence dart upon it. It is not particular as to its food. Insects, birds, and reptiles are alike welcome game, and in summer it may be seen carrying a writhing snake through the air. While flying it utters a very harsh, peculiar, and disagreeable scream, and by some is called the squealing hawk. The social habits of this bird are in appropriate concord with its voice. After rearing their young the sexes separate, and are jealous of and hostile to each other. It may easily happen that if the wife of the spring captures any prey, her former mate will struggle fiercely for its possession, and the screaming clamor of the fight will rival a conjugal quarrel in the Bowery. In this respect they form an unpleasing contrast with the red-shouldered hawks, among whom marriage is permanent, and maintained with lover-like attentions. Thus it would appear that there are contrasts of character even in the hawk world; and when you remember that we have fifteen other varieties of this bird, besides the nine I have mentioned, you may think that nature, like society, is rather prodigal in hawks. As civilization advances, however, innocence stands a better chance. At least this is true of the harmless song-birds.
"I have now given you free-hand sketches of the great majority of our winter residents, and these outlines are necessarily very defective from their brevity as well as for other reasons. I have already talked an unconscionably long time; but what else could you expect from a man with a hobby? As it is, I am not near through, for the queer little white-bellied nut-hatch, and his associates in habits, the downy, the hairy, the golden-winged, and the yellow-bellied woodpeckers, and four species of owls, are also with us at this season. With the bluebirds the great tide of migration has already turned northward, and all through March, April, and May I expect to greet the successive arrivals of old friends every time I go out to visit my patients. I can assure you that I have no stupid, lonely drives, unless the nights are dark and stormy. Little Johnnie, I see, has gone to sleep. I must try to meet some fairies and banshees in the moonlight for her benefit But, Alf, I'm delighted to see you so wide-awake. Shooting birds as game merely is very well, but capturing them in a way to know all about them is a sport that is always in season, and would grow more and more absorbing if you lived a thousand years."
A bent for life was probably given to the boy's mind that night.
FISHING THROUGH THE ICE
Every day through the latter part of February the sun grew higher, and its rays more potent. The snow gave rapidly in warm southern nooks and slopes, and the icicles lengthened from the eaves and overhanging rocks, forming in many instances beautiful crystal fringes. On northern slopes and shaded places the snow scarcely wasted at all, and Amy often wondered how the vast white body that covered the earth could ever disappear in time for spring. But there soon came a raw, chilly, cloudy day, with a high south wind, and the snow sank away, increasing the apparent height of the fences, and revealing objects hitherto hidden, as if some magic were at work.
"I have always observed," said Mr. Clifford, "that a day like this, raw and cold as it seems, does more to carry off the snow than a week of spring sunshine, although it may be warm for the season. What is more, the snow is wasted evenly, and not merely on sunny slopes. The wind seems to soak up the melting snow like a great sponge, for the streams are not perceptibly raised."
"The air does take it up the form of vapor," said Webb, "and that is why we have such a chilly snow atmosphere. Rapidly melting snow tends to lower the temperature proportionately, just as ice around a form of cream, when made to melt quickly the addition of salt, absorbs all heat in its vicinity so fast that the cream is congealed. But this accumulation of vapor in the air must come down again, perhaps in the form of snow, and so there will be no apparent gain."
"If no apparent gain, could there be a real gain by another fall of snow?" Amy asked; for to inexperienced eyes there certainly seemed more than could be disposed of in time for April flowers.
"Yes," he replied, "a fall of snow might make this whole section warmer for a time, and so hasten spring materially. Do not worry. We shall have plenty of snowstorms yet, and still spring will be here practically on time."
But instead of snow the vapor-burdened air relieved itself by a rain of several hours' duration, and in the morning the river that had been so white looked icy and glistening, and by the aid of a glass was seen to be covered with water, which rippled under the rising breeze. The following night was clear and cold, and the surface of the bay became a comparatively smooth glare of ice. At dinner next day Webb remarked:
"I hear that they are catching a good many striped bass through the ice, and I learned that the tide would be right for them to raise the nets this afternoon. I propose, Amy, that we go down and see the process, and get some of the fish direct from the water for supper."
Burt groaned, and was almost jealous that during his enforced confinement so many opportunities to take Amy out fell naturally to Webb. The latter, however, was so entirely fraternal in his manner toward the young girl that Burt was ever able to convince himself that his misgivings were absurd.
Webb was soon ready, and had provided himself with his skates and a small sleigh with a back. When they arrived at the landing he tied his horse, and said:
"The ice is too poor to drive on any longer, I am informed, but perfectly safe still for foot-passengers. As a precaution we will follow the tracks of the fishermen, and I will give you a swift ride on this little sledge, in which I can wrap you up well."
Like most young men brought up in the vicinity, he was a good and powerful skater, and Amy was soon enjoying the exhilarating sense of rapid motion over the smooth ice, with a superb view of the grand mountains rising on either side of the river a little to the south. They soon reached the nets, which stretched across the river through narrow longitudinal cuts so as to be at right angles to each tide, with which the fish usually swim. These nets are such in shape as were formerly suspended between the old-fashioned shad-poles, and are sunk perpendicularly in the water by weights at each end, so that the meshes are expanded nearly to their full extent. The fish swim into these precisely as do the shad, and in their attempts to back out their gills catch, and there they hang.
The nests are about twelve feet square, and the meshes of different nets are from to and a half to five and a quarter inches in size. A bass of nine pounds' weight can be "gilled" in the ordinary manner; but in one instance a fish weighing one hundred and two pounds was caught, and during the present season they were informed that a lucky fisherman at Marlborough had secured "a 52-pounder." These heavy fellows, it was explained, "would go through a net like a cannon-ball" if they came "head on," and with ordinary speed; but if they are playing around gently, the swift tide carries them sidewise into the "slack of the net," from which they seem unable to escape. There are usually about forty-five feet between the surface of the water and the top of the nets, therefore the fish are caught at an average depth of fifty feet. The best winter fishing is from December to March, and as many as one hundred and seventy pounds, or about two hundred bass, have been taken in twenty-four hours from one line of nets; at other times the luck is very bad, for the fish seem to run in streaks.
The luck was exceedingly moderate on the present occasion, but enough fish were caught to satisfy Webb's needs. As they were watching the lifting of the nets and angling for information, they saw an ice-boat slowly and gracefully leaving the landing, and were told that since the ice had grown thin it had taken the place of the sleigh in which the passengers were conveyed to and from the railroad station on the further shore. The wind, being adverse, necessitated several tacks, and on one of them the boat passed so near Webb and Amy that they recognized Mr. Barkdale, the clergyman, who, as he sped by, saluted them. When the boat had passed on about an eighth of a mile, it tacked so suddenly and sharply that the unwary minister was rolled out upon the ice. The speed and impetus of the little craft were so great that before it could be brought up it was about half a mile away, and the good man was left in what might be a dangerous isolation, for ice over which the boat could skim in security might be very unsafe under the stationary weight of a solidly built man like Mr. Barkdale. Webb therefore seized a pole belonging to one of the fishermen, and came speedily to the clergyman's side. Happily the ice, although it had wasted rapidly from the action of the tide in that part of the river, sustained them until the boat returned, and the good man resumed his journey with laughing words, by which he nevertheless conveyed to Webb his honest gratitude for the promptness with which the young fellow had shared his possible danger. When Webb returned he found Amy pale and agitated, for an indiscreet fisherman had remarked that the ice was "mighty poor out in that direction."
"Won't you please come off the river?" she asked, nervously. "I've seen all I wish."
"It's perfectly safe here."
"But you were not here a moment since, and I've no confidence in your discretion when any one is in danger."
"I did not run any risks worth speaking of."
"I think you did. The men explained, in answer to my questions, that the ice toward spring becomes honeycombed—that's the way they expressed it—and lets one through without much warning. They also said the tides wore it away underneath about as fast as the rain and sun wasted the surface."
"Supposing it had let me through, I should have caught on the pole, and so have easily scrambled out, while poor Mr. Barkdale would have been quite helpless."
"Oh, I know it was right for you to go, and I know you will go again should there be the slightest occasion. Therefore I am eager to reach solid ground. Please, Webb."
Her tone was so earnest that he complied, and they were soon in the sleigh again. As they were driving up the hill she turned a shy glance toward him, and said, hesitatingly: "Don't mistake me, Webb. I am proud to think that you are so brave and uncalculating at times; but then I—I never like to think that you are in danger. Remember how very much you are to us all."
"Well, that is rather a new thought to me. Am I much to you?"
"Yes, you are," she said, gravely and earnestly, looking him frankly in the face. "From the first moment you spoke to me as 'sister Amy' you made the relation seem real. And then your manner is so strong and even that it's restful to be with you. You may give one a terrible fright, as you did me this afternoon, but you would never make one nervous."
His face flushed with deep pleasure, but he made good her opinion by quietly changing the subject, and giving her a brisk, bracing drive over one of her favorite roads.
All at the supper table agreed that the striped bass were delicious, and Burt, as the recognized sportsman of the family, had much to say about the habits of this fine game fish. Among his remarks he explained that the "catch" was small at present because the recent rain and melting snow had made the water of the river so fresh that the fish had been driven back toward the sea. "But they reascend," he said, "as soon as the freshet subsides. They are a sea fish, and only ascend fresh-water streams for shelter in winter, and to breed in spring. They spawn in May, and by August the little fish will weigh a quarter of a pound. A good many are taken with seines after the ice breaks up, but I never had any luck with pole and line in the river. While striped bass are found all along the coast from Florida to Cape Cod, the largest fish are taken between the latter place and Montauk Point. I once had some rare sport off the east end of Long Island. I was still-fishing, with a pole and reel, and fastened on my hook a peeled shedder crab. My line was of linen, six hundred feet long, and no heavier than that used for trout, but very strong. By a quick movement which an old bass-fisherman taught me I made my bait dart like an arrow straight over the water more than one hundred feet, my reel at the same moment whirling, in paying out, as if it would fuse from friction. Well, I soon hooked a fifty-pound fish, and we had a tussle that I shall never forget. It took me an hour to tire him out, and I had to use all the skill I possessed to keep him from breaking the line. It was rare sport, I can tell you—the finest bit of excitement I ever had fishing;" and the young fellow's eyes sparkled at the memory.
Strange as it may appear to some, his mother shared most largely in his enthusiasm. The reason was that, apart from the interest which she took in the pleasure of all her children, she lived much in her imagination, which was unusually strong, and Burt's words called up a marine picture with an athletic young fellow in the foreground all on the qui vive, his blue eyes flashing with the sparkle and light of the sea as he matched his skill and science against a creature stronger than himself. "Are larger bass ever taken with rod and line?" she asked.
"Yes, one weighing seventy-five pounds has been captured. Jupiter! what sport it must have been!"
"How big do they grow, anyhow?" Leonard queried.
"To almost your size, Len, and that's a heavy compliment to the bass. They have been known to reach the weight of one hundred and fifty pounds."
PLANNING AND OPENING THE CAMPAIGN
The last day of February was clear, cloudless, and cold, the evening serene and still. Winter's tempestuous course was run, its icy breath apparently had ceased, and darkness closed on its quiet, pallid face. "March came in like a lamb"—an ominous circumstance for the future record of this month of most uncertain weather, according to the traditions of the old weather-prophets. The sun rose clear and warm, the snow sparkled and melted, the bluebirds rejoiced, and their soft notes of mutual congratulation found many echoes among their human neighbors. By noon the air was wonderfully soft and balmy, and Webb brought in a number of sprays from peach-trees cut in different parts of the place, and redeemed his promise to Amy, showing her the fruit germs, either green, or rather of a delicate gold-color, or else blackened by frost. She was astonished to find how perfect the embryo blossom appeared under the microscope. It needed no glass, however, to reveal the blackened heart of the bud, and Webb, having cut through a goodly number, remarked: "It would now appear as if nature had performed a very important labor for us, for I find about eight out of nine buds killed. It will save us thinning the fruit next summer, for if one-ninth of the buds mature into peaches they will not only bring more money, but will measure more by the bushel."
"How can one peach measure more than eight peaches?"
"By being larger than the eight. If all these buds grew into peaches, and were left on these slender boughs, the tree might be killed outright by overbearing, and would assuredly be much injured and disfigured by broken limbs and exhaustion, while the fruit itself would be so small and poor as to be unsalable. Thousands of trees annually perish from this cause, and millions of peaches are either not picked, or, if marketed, may bring the grower into debt for freight and other expenses. A profitable crop of peaches can only be grown by careful hand-thinning when they are as large as marbles, unless the frost does the work for us by killing the greater part of the buds. It is a dangerous ally, however, for our constant fear is that it will destroy all the buds. There are plenty left yet, and I find that cherry, apple, plum, and pear buds are still safe. Indeed, there is little fear for them as long as peach buds are not entirely destroyed, for they are much hardier."
In the afternoon Burt, who had become expert in the use of crutches, determined on an airing, and invited Amy to join him. "I now intend to begin giving you driving lessons," he said. "You will soon acquire entire confidence, for skill, far more than strength, is required. As long as one keeps cool and shows no fear there is rarely danger. Horses often catch their senseless panic from their drivers, and, even when frightened with good cause, can usually be reassured by a few quiet words and a firm rein."
Amy was delighted at the prospect of a lesson in driving, especially as Bart, because of his lameness, did not venture to take his over-spirited steed Thunder. She sincerely hoped, however, that he would confine his thoughts and attentions to the ostensible object of the drive, for his manner at times was embarrassingly ardent. Burt was sufficiently politic to fulfil her hope, for he had many other drives in view, and had discovered that attentions not fraternal were unwelcome to Amy. With a self-restraint and prudence which he thought most praiseworthy and sagacious, but which were ludicrous in their limitations, he resolved to take a few weeks to make the impression which he had often succeeded in producing in a few hours, judging from the relentings and favors received in a rather extended career of gallantry, although it puzzled the young fellow that he could have been so fascinated on former occasions. He merely proposed that now she should enjoy the drive so thoroughly that she would wish to go again, and his effort met with entire success.
During the first week of March there were many indications of the opening campaign on the Clifford farm. There was the overhauling and furbishing of weapons, otherwise tools, and the mending or strengthening of those in a decrepit state. A list of such additional ones as were wanted was made at this time, and an order sent for them at once. Amy also observed that practical Leonard was conning several catalogues of implements. "Len is always on the scent of some new patent hoe or cultivator," Burt remarked. "My game pays better than yours," was the reply, "for the right kind of tools about doubles the effectiveness of labor."
The chief topic of discussion and form of industry at this time were the pruning and cleansing of trees, and Amy often observed Webb from her windows in what seemed to her most perilous positions in the tops of apple and other trees, with saw and pruning shears or nippers—a light little instrument with such a powerful leverage that a good-sized bough could be lopped away by one slight pressure of the hand.
"It seems to me," remarked Leonard, one evening, "that there is much diversity of opinion in regard to the time and method of trimming trees. While the majority of our neighbors prune in March, some say fall or winter is the best time. Others are in favor of June, and in some paper I've read, 'Prune when your knife is sharp.' As for cleansing the bark of the trees, very few take the trouble."
"Well," replied his father, "I've always performed these labors in March with good results. I have often observed that taking off large limbs from old and feeble trees is apt to injure them. A decay begins at the point of amputation and extends down into the body of the tree. Sap-suckers and other wood peckers, in making their nests, soon excavate this rotten wood back into the trunk, to which the moisture of every storm is admitted, and the life of the tree is shortened."
At this point Webb went out, and soon returned with something like exultation blending with his usually grave expression.
"I think father's views are correct, and I have confirmation here in autograph letters from three of the most eminent horticulturists in the world—"
"Good gracious, Webb! don't take away our breath in that style," exclaimed Burt. "Have you autograph letters from several autocrats also?"
As usual Webb ignored his brother's nonsense, and resumed: "The first is from the Hon. Marshall P. Wilder, President of the American Pomological Society, and is as follows: 'I prune my trees early in March, as soon as the heavy frosts are over, when the sap is dormant. If the branch is large I do not cut quite close in, and recut close in June, when the wound heals more readily. I do not approve of rigorous pruning of old trees showing signs of feebleness. Such operations would increase decline—only the dead wood should be removed, the loss of live wood depriving old trees of the supply of sap which they need for support. Grafting-wax is good to cover the wounds of trees, or a thick paint of the color of the bark answers well. Trees also may be pruned in safety in June after the first growth is made—then the wounds heal quickly.'
"The next letter is from Mr. Charles Downing, editor of 'The Fruits and Fruit-Trees of America.' 'When the extreme cold weather is over,' he says, 'say the last of February or first of March, begin to trim trees, and finish as rapidly as convenient. Do not trim a tree too much at one time, and cut no large limbs if possible, but thin out the small branches. If the trees are old and bark-bound, scrape off the roughest bark and wash the bodies and large limbs with whale-oil soap, or soft-soap such as the farmers make, putting it on quite thick. Give the ground plenty of compost manure, bone-dust, ashes, and salt. The best and most convenient preparation for covering wounds is gum-shellac dissolved in alcohol to the thickness of paint, and put on with a brush.' The last is from Mr. Patrick Barry, of the eminent Rochester firm, and author of 'The Fruit Garden.' 'In our climate pruning may be done at convenience, from the fall of the leaf until the 1st of April. In resuscitating old neglected apple-trees, rigorous pruning may be combined with plowing and manuring of the ground. For covering wounds made in pruning, nothing is better than common grafting wax laid on warm with a brush.' Hon P. T. Quinn, in his work on 'Pear Culture,' writes: 'On our own place we begin to prune our pear-trees from the 1st to the 15th of March, and go on with the work through April. It is not best to do much cutting, except on very young trees, while the foliage is coming out.'"
"Well," remarked Leonard, "I can go to work to-morrow with entire content; and very pleasant work it is, too, especially on the young trees, where by a little forethought and a few cuts one can regulate the form and appearance of the future tree."
"How is that possible?" Amy asked.
"Well, you see there are plenty of buds on all the young branches, and we can cut a branch just above the bud we wish to grow which will continue to grow in the direction in which it points. Thus we can shape each summer's growth in any direction we choose."
"How can you be sure to find a bud just where you want it?"
"I know we always do."
"Of course we do," said Webb, "for buds are arranged spirally on trees in mathematical order. On most trees it is termed-the 'five-ranked arrangement,' and every bud is just two-fifths of the circumference of the stem from the next. This will bring every sixth bud or leaf over the first, or the one we start with. Thus in the length of stem occupied by five buds you have buds facing in five different directions—plenty of choice for all pruning purposes."
"Oh, nonsense, Webb; you are too everlastingly scientific. Buds and leaves are scattered at haphazard all over the branches."
"That shows you observe at haphazard. Wait, and I'll prove I'm right;" and he seized his hat and went out. Returning after a few minutes with long, slender shoots of peach, apple, and pear trees, he said: "Now put your finger on any bud, and count. See if the sixth bud does not stand invariably over the one you start from, and if the intervening buds do not wind spirally twice around the stem, each facing in a different direction."
The result proved Webb to be right. He laughed, and said: "There, Len, you've seen buds and branches for over forty years, and never noticed this. Here, Alf, you begin right, and learn to see things just as they are. There's no telling how often accurate knowledge may be useful."
"But, Webb, all plants have not the five-ranked arrangement, as you term it," his mother protested.
"Oh, no. There is the two-ranked, in which the third leaf stands over the first; the three-ranked, in which the fourth leaf stands over the first. Then we also find the eighth and thirteenth ranked arrangements, according to the construction of various species of plants or trees. But having once observed an arrangement of buds or leaves in a species, you will find it maintained with absolute symmetry and accuracy, although the spaces between the buds lengthwise upon the stem may vary very much. Nature, with all her seeming carelessness and abandon, works on strict mathematical principles."
"Well," said Alf, "I'm going to see if you are right tomorrow. I don't half believe you are." And on the following day he tried his best to prove Webb wrong, but failed.
Before the week was over there was a decided return of winter. The sky lost its spring-like blue. Cold, ragged clouds were driven wildly by a northeast gale, which, penetrating the heaviest wraps, caused a shivering sense of discomfort. Only by the most vigorous exercise could one cope with the raw, icy wind, and yet the effort to do so brought a rich return in warm, purified blood. All outdoor labor, except such as required strong, rapid action, came to an end, for it was the very season and opportunity for pneumonia to seize upon its chilled victim. To a family constituted like the Cliffords such weather brought no ennui. They had time for more music and reading aloud than usual. The pets in the flower-room needed extra care and watching, for the bitter wind searched out every crevice and cranny. Entering the dining-room on one occasion, Amy found the brothers poring over a map spread out on the table.
"What! studying geography?" she said. "It certainly is a severe stress of weather that has brought you all to that. What countries are you exploring?"
"These are our Western Territories," Burt promptly responded. "This prominent point here is Fort Totem, and these indications of adjacent buildings are for the storage of furs, bear-meat, and the accommodation of Indian hunters." Burt tried to look serious, but Webb's and Leonard's laughter betrayed him. Amy turned inquiringly to Webb, as she ever did when perplexed.
"Don't mind Burt's chaff," he said. "This is merely a map of the farm, and we are doing a little planning for our spring work—deciding what crop we shall put on that field and how treat this one, etc. You can see, Amy, that each field is numbered, and here in this book are corresponding numbers, with a record of the crops grown upon each field for a good many years back, to what extent and how often they have been enriched, and the kind of fertilizers used. Of course such a book of manuscript would be the dreariest prose in the world to you, but it is exceedingly interesting to us; and what's more, these past records are the best possible guides for future action."
"Oh, I know all about your book now," she said, with an air of entire confidence, "for I've heard papa say that land and crop records have been kept in England for generations. I don't think I will sit up nights to read your manuscript, however. If Burt's version had been true, it might have been quite exciting."
She did enjoy aiding Mr. and Mrs. Clifford in overhauling the seed-chest, however. This was a wooden box, all tinned over to keep out the mice, and was divided into many little compartments, in which were paper bags of seeds, with the date on which they were gathered or purchased. Some of the seeds were condemned because too old; others, like those of melons and cucumbers, improved with a moderate degree of age, she was told. Mrs. Clifford brought out from her part of the chest a rich store of flower seeds, and the young girl looked with much curiosity on the odd-appearing little grains and scale-like objects in which, in miniature, was wrapped some beautiful and fragrant plant. "Queer little promises, ain't they?" said the old lady; "for every seed is a promise to me."