"I tell you what it is, Amy," the old gentleman remarked, "this chest contains the assurance of many a good dinner and many a beautiful bouquet. Now, like a good girl, help us make an inventory. We will first have a list of what we may consider trustworthy seeds on hand, and then, with the aid of these catalogues, we can make out another list of what we shall buy. Seed catalogues, with their long list of novelties, never lose their fascination for me. I know that most of the new things are not half so good as the old tried sorts, but still I like to try some every year. It's a harmless sort of gambling, you see, and now and then I draw a genuine prize. Mother has the gambling mania far worse than I, as is evident from the way she goes into the flower novelties."
"I own up to it," said Mrs. Clifford, "and I do love to see the almost endless diversity in beauty which one species of plants will exhibit. Why, do you know, Amy, I grew from seeds one summer fifty distinct varieties of the dianthus. Suppose we take asters this year, and see how many distinct kinds we can grow. Here, in this catalogue, is a long list of named varieties, and, in addition, there are packages of mixed seeds from which we may get something distinct from all the others."
"How full of zest life becomes in the country," cried Amy, "if one only goes to work in the right way!" Life was growing fuller and richer to her every day in the varied and abounding interests of the family with which she was now entirely identified.
"Webb," his mother asked at dinner, "how do you explain the varying vitality of seeds? Some we can keep six or eight years, and others only two."
"That's a question I am unable to answer. It cannot be the amount of material stored up in the cotyledons, or embryo seed leaves, for small seeds like the beet and cucumber will retain their vitality ten years, and lettuce, turnip, and tomato seed five or more years, while I do not care to plant large, fleshy seeds like pease and beans that are over three years old, and much prefer those gathered the previous season. The whole question of the germinating of seeds is a curious one. Wheat taken from the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy has grown. Many seeds appear to have a certain instinct when to grow, and will lie dormant in the ground for indefinite periods waiting for favorable conditions. For instance, sow wood-ashes copiously and you speedily have a crop of white clover. Again, when one kind of timber is cut from land, another and diverse kind will spring up, as if the soil were full of seeds that had been biding their time. For all practical purposes the duration of vitality is known, and is usually given in seed catalogues, I think, or ought to be."
"Some say that certain fertilizers or conditions will produce certain kinds of vegetation without the aid of seeds—just develop them, you know," Leonard remarked.
"Develop them from what?"
"That's the question."
"Well, I think the sensible answer is that all vegetation is developed from seeds, spores, or whatever was designed to continue the chain of being from one plant to another. For the life of me I can't see how mere organic or inorganic matter can produce life. It can only sustain and nourish the life which exists in it or is placed in it, and which by a law of nature develops when the conditions are favorable. I am quite sure that there is not an instance on record of the spontaneous production of life, even down to the smallest animalcule in liquids, or the minutest plant life that is propagated by invisible spores. That the microscope does not reveal these spores or germs proves nothing, for the strongest microscope in the world has not begun to reach the final atom of which matter is composed. Indeed, it would seem to be as limited in its power to explore the infinitely little and near as the telescope to reveal the infinitely distant and great. Up to this time science has discovered nothing to contravene the assurance that God, or some one, 'created every living creature that moveth, and every herb yielding seed after his kind.' After a series of most careful and accurate experiments, Professor Tyndall could find no proof of the spontaneous production of even microscopic life, and found much proof to the contrary. How far original creations are changed or modified by evolution, natural selection, is a question that is to be settled neither by dogmatism on the one hand, nor by baseless theories on the other, but by facts, and plenty of them."
"Do you think there is anything atheistical in evolution?" his mother asked, and with some solicitude in her large eyes, for, like all trained in the old beliefs, she felt that the new philosophies led away into a realm of vague negations. Webb understood her anxiety lest the faith she had taught him should become unsettled, and he reassured her in a characteristic way.
"No, mother," he said. "If evolution is the true explanation of the world, as it now appears to us, it is no more atheistical than some theologies I have heard preached, which contained plenty of doctrines and attributes, but no God. If God with his infinite leisure chooses to evolve his universe, why shouldn't he? In any case a creative, intelligent power is equally essential. It would be just as easy for me to believe that all the watches and jewelry at Tiffany's were the result of fortuitous causes as to believe that the world as we find it has no mind back of it."
Mother smiled with satisfaction, for she saw that he still stood just where she did, only his horizon had widened.
"Well," said his father, contentedly, "I read much in the papers and magazines of theories and isms of which I never heard when I was young, but eighty years of experience have convinced me that the Lord reigns."
They all laughed at this customary settlement of knotty problems, on the part of the old gentleman, and Burt, rising from the table, looked out, with the remark that the prospects were that "the Lord would rain heavily that afternoon." The oldest and most infallible weather-prophet in the region—Storm King—was certainly giving portentous indications of a storm of no ordinary dimensions. The vapor was pouring over its summit in Niagara-like volume, and the wind, no longer rushing with its recent boisterous roar, was moaning and sighing as if nature was in pain and trouble. The barometer, which had been low for two days, sank lower; the temperature rose as the gale veered to the eastward. This fact, and the moisture laden atmosphere, indicated that it came from the Gulf Stream region of the Atlantic. The rain, which began with a fine drizzle, increased fast, and soon fell in blinding sheets. The day grew dusky early, and the twilight was brief and obscure; then followed a long night of Egyptian darkness, through which the storm rushed, warred, and splashed with increasing vehemence. Before the evening was over, the sound of tumultuously flowing water became an appreciable element in the uproar without, and Webb, opening a window on the sheltered side of the house, called Amy to hear the torrents pouring down the sides of Storm King.
"What tremendous alternations of mood Nature indulges in!" she said, as she came shivering back to the fire. "Contrast such a night with a sunny June day."
"It would seem as if 'mild, ethereal spring' had got her back up," Burt remarked, "and regarding the return of winter as a trespass, had taken him by the throat, determined to have it out once for all. Something will give way before morning, probably half our bridges."
"Well, that is a way of explaining the jar among the elements that I had not thought of," she said, laughing.
"You needn't think Webb can do all the explaining. I have my theories also—sounder than his, too, most of 'em."
"There is surely no lack of sound accompanying your theory to-night. Indeed, it is not all 'sound and fury!'"
"It's all the more impressive, then. What's the use of your delicate, weak-backed theories that require a score of centuries to substantiate them?"
"Your theory about the bridges will soon be settled," remarked Leonard, ominously, "and I fear it will prove correct. At this rate the town will have to pay for half a dozen new ones—bridges, I mean."
"Well amended," added Webb.
"Just hear the rain!" said Leonard, ruefully. There was a heavy body of snow still in the mountains and on northern slopes, and much ice on the streams and ponds. "There certainly will be no little trouble if this continues."
"Don't worry, children," said Mr. Clifford, quietly. "I have generally found everything standing after the storms were over."
The old house seemed so full of strange sounds that Amy found it impossible to sleep. Seasoned as were its timbers, they creaked and groaned, and the casements rattled as if giant hands were seeking to open them. The wind at times would sigh and sob so mournfully, like a human voice, that her imagination peopled the darkness with strange creatures in distress, and then she would shudder as a more violent gust raised the prolonged wail into a loud shriek. Thoughts of her dead father—not the resigned, peaceful thoughts which the knowledge of his rest had brought of late—came surging into her mind. Her organization was peculiarly fine and especially sensitive to excited atmospherical conditions, and the tumult of the night raised in her mind an irrepressible, although unreasoning, panic. At last she felt that she would scream if she remained alone any longer. She put on her wrapper, purposing to ask Mrs. Leonard to come and stay with her for a time, feeling assured that if she could only speak to some one, the horrid spell of nervous fear would be broken. As she stepped into the hall she saw a light gleaming from the open door of the sitting-room, and in the hope that some one was still up, she stole noiselessly down the stairway to a point that commanded a view of the apartment. Only Webb was there, and he sat quietly reading by the shaded lamp and flickering fire. The scene and his very attitude suggested calmness and safety. There was nothing to be afraid of, and he was not afraid. With every moment that she watched him the nervous agitation passed from mind and body. His strong, intent profile proved that he was occupied wholly with the thought of his author. The quiet deliberation with which he turned the leaves was more potent than soothing words. "I wouldn't for the world have him know I'm so weak and foolish," she said to herself, as she crept noiselessly back to her room. "He little dreamed who was watching him," she whispered, smilingly, as she dropped asleep.
When she waked next morning the rain had ceased, the wind blew in fitful gusts, and the sky was still covered with wildly hurrying clouds that seemed like the straggling rearguard which the storm had left behind. So far as she could see from her window, everything was still standing, as Mr. Clifford had said. Familiar objects greeted her reassuringly, and never before had the light even of a lowering morning seemed more blessed in contrast with the black, black night. As she recalled the incidents of that night—her nervous panic, and the scene which had brought quiet and peace—she smiled again, and, it must be admitted, blushed slightly. "I wonder if he affects others as he does me," she thought. "Papa used to say, when I was a little thing, that I was just a bundle of nerves, but when Webb is near I am not conscious I ever had a nerve."
Every little brook had become a torrent; Moodna Creek was reported to be in angry mood, and the family hastened through breakfast that they might drive out to see the floods and the possible devastation. Several bridges over the smaller streams had barely escaped, and the Idlewild brook, whose spring and summer music the poet Willis had caused to be heard even in other lands, now gave forth a hoarse roar from the deep glen through which it raved. An iron bridge over the Moodna, on the depot road, had evidently been in danger in the night. The ice had been piled up in the road at each end of the bridge, and a cottage a little above it was surrounded by huge cakes. The inmates had realized their danger, for part of their furniture had been carried to higher ground. Although the volume of water passing was still immense, all danger was now over. As they were looking at the evidences of the violent breaking up of winter, the first phoebe-bird of the season alighted in a tree overhanging the torrent, and in her plaintive notes seemed to say, as interpreted by John Burroughs, "If you please, spring has come." They gave the brown little harbinger such an enthusiastic welcome that she speedily took flight to the further shore.
"Where was that wee bit of life last night?" said Webb; "and how could it keep up heart?"
"Possibly it looked in at a window and saw some one reading," thought Amy; and she smiled so sweetly at the conceit that Webb asked, "How many pennies will you take for your thoughts?"
"They are not in the market;" and she laughed outright as she turned away.
"The true place to witness the flood will be at the old red bridge further down the stream," said Leonard; and they drove as rapidly as the bad wheeling permitted to that point, and found that Leonard was right. Just above the bridge was a stone dam, by which the water was backed up a long distance, and a precipitous wooded bank rose on the south side. This had shielded the ice from the sun, and it was still very thick when the pressure of the flood came upon it. Up to this time it had not given way, and had become the cause of an ice-gorge that every moment grew more threatening. The impeded torrent chafed and ground the cakes together, surging them up at one point and permitting them to sink at another, as the imprisoned waters struggled for an outlet. The solid ice still held near the edge of the dam, although it was beginning to lift and crack with the tawny flood pouring over, under, and around it.
"Suppose we cross to the other side, nearest home," said Burt, who was driving; and with the word he whipped up the horses and dashed through the old covered structure.
"You ought not to have done that, Burt," said Webb, almost sternly. "The gorge may give way at any moment, and the bridge will probably go with it. We shall now have to drive several hundred yards to a safe place to leave the horses, for the low ground on this side will probably be flooded."
"It certainly will be," added Leonard.
"Oh, make haste!" cried Amy; and they all noticed that she was trembling.
But a few minutes sufficed to tie the horses and return to a point of safety near the bridge. "I did not mean to expose you to the slightest danger," Burt whispered, tenderly, to Amy. "See, the bridge is safe enough, and we might drive over it again."
Even as he spoke there was a long grinding, crunching sound. A great volume of black water had forced its way under the gorge, and now lifted it bodily over the dam. It sank in a chaotic mass, surged onward and upward again, struck the bridge, and in a moment lifted it from its foundations and swept it away, a shattered wreck, the red covering showing in the distance like ensanguined stains among the tossing cakes of ice.
They all drew a long breath, and Amy was as pale as if she had witnessed the destruction of some living creature. No doubt she realized what would have been their fate had the break occurred while they were crossing.
"Good-by, old bridge," said Leonard, pensively. "I played and fished under you when a boy, and in the friendly dusk of its cover I kissed Maggie one summer afternoon of our courting days—"
"Well, well," exclaimed Burt, "the old bridge's exit has been a moving object in every sense, since it has evoked such a flood of sentiment from Len. Let us take him home to Maggie at once."
As they were about to depart they saw Dr. Marvin driving down to the opposite side, and they mockingly beckoned him to cross the raging torrent. He shook his head ruefully, and returned up the hill again. A rapid drive through the Moodna Valley brought them to the second bridge, which would evidently escape, for the flats above it were covered with debris and ice, and the main channel was sufficiently clear to permit the flood to pass harmlessly on. They then took the river road homeward.
The bridge over the Idlewild brook, near its entrance into the Moodna, was safe, although it had a narrow graze. They also found that the ice in the river at the mouth of the creek had been broken up in a wide semicircle, and as they ascended a hill that commanded an extensive view of Newburgh Bay they saw that the ice remaining had a black, sodden appearance.
"It will all break up in a few hours," said Burt, "and then hurrah for duck-shooting!"
Although spring had made such a desperate onset the previous night, it seemed to have gained but a partial advantage over winter. The weather continued raw and blustering for several days, and the overcast sky permitted but chance and watery gleams of sunshine. Slush and mud completed the ideal of the worst phase of March. The surface of the earth had apparently returned to that period before the dry land was made to appear. As the frost came out of the open spaces of the garden, plowed fields, and even the country roads, they became quagmires in which one sank indefinitely. Seeing the vast advantage afforded to the men-folk by rubber boots, Amy provided herself with a pair, and with something of the exultation of the ancient Hebrews passed dry-shod through the general moisture.
A ROYAL CAPTIVE
In the midst of this dreary transition period Nature gave proof that she has unlimited materials of beauty at her command at any time. Early one afternoon the brothers were driven in from their outdoor labors by a cold, sleety rain, and Leonard predicted an ice-storm. The next morning the world appeared as if heavily plated with silver. The sun at last was unclouded, and as he looked over the top of Storm King his long-missed beams transformed the landscape into a scene of wonder and beauty beyond anything described in Johnnie's fairy tales. Trees, shrubs, the roofs and sidings of the buildings, the wooden and even the stone fences, the spires of dead grass, and the unsightly skeletons of weeds, were all incased in ice and touched by the magic wand of beauty. The mountain-tops, however, surpassed all other objects in the transfigured world, for upon them a heavy mist had rested and frozen, clothing every branch and spray with a feathery frost-work of crystals, which, in the sun-lighted distance, was like a great shock of silver hair. There were drawbacks, however, to this marvellous scene. There were not a few branches already broken from the trees, and Mr. Clifford said that if the wind rose the weight of the ice would cause great destruction. They all hastened through breakfast, Leonard and Webb that they might relieve the more valuable fruit and evergreen trees of the weight of ice, and Burt and Amy for a drive up the mountain.
As they slowly ascended, the scene under the increasing sunlight took on every moment more strange and magical effects. The ice-incased twigs and boughs acted as prisms, and reflected every hue of the rainbow, and as they approached the summit the feathery frost-work grew more and more exquisitely delicate and beautiful, and yet it was proving to be as evanescent as a dream, for in all sunny place it was already vanishing. They had scarcely passed beyond the second summit when Burt uttered an exclamation of regretful disgust. "By all that's unlucky," he cried, "if there isn't an eagle sitting on yonder ledge! I could kill him with bird-shot, and I haven't even a popgun with me."
"It's too bad," sympathized Amy. "Let us drive as near as we can, and get a good view before he flies."
To their great surprise, he did not move as they approached, but only glared at them with his savage eye.
"Well," said Burt, "after trying for hours to get within rifle range, this exceeds anything I ever saw. I wonder if he is wounded and cannot fly." Suddenly he sprang out, and took a strap from the harness. "Hold the horse, Amy. I think I know what is the trouble with his majesty, and we may be able to return with a royal captive."
He drew near the eagle slowly and warily, and soon perceived that he was incased in ice from head to foot, and only retained the power of slightly moving his head. The creature was completely helpless, and must remain so until his icy fetters thawed out. His wings were frozen to his sides, his legs covered with ice, as were also his talons, and the dead branch of a low pine on which he had perched hours before. Icicles hung around him, making a most fantastic fringe. Only his defiant eye and open beak could give expression to his untamed, undaunted spirit. It was evident that the bird made a fierce internal struggle to escape, but was held as in a vise.
Burt was so elated that his hand trembled with eagerness; but he resolved to act prudently, and grasping the bird firmly but gently by the neck, he succeeded in severing the branch upon which the eagle was perched, for it was his purpose to exhibit the bird just as he had found him. Having carefully carried his prize to the buggy, he induced Amy, who viewed the creature with mingled wonder and alarm, to receive this strange addition to their number for the homeward journey. He wrapped her so completely with the carriage robe that the eagle could not injure her with his beak, and she saw he could no more move in other respects than a block of ice. As an additional precaution, Burt passed the strap around the bird's neck and tied him to the dash-board. Even with his heavy gloves he had to act cautiously, for the eagle in his disabled state could still strike a powerful blow. Then, with an exultation beyond all words, he drove to Dr. Marvin's, in order to have one of the "loudest crows" over him that he had ever enjoyed. The doctor did not mind the "crow" in the least, but was delighted with the adventure and capture, for the whole affair had just the flavor to please him. As he was a skilful taxidermist, he good-naturedly promised to "set the eagle up" on the selfsame branch on which he had been found, for it was agreed that he would prove too dangerous a pet to keep in the vicinity of the irrepressible little Ned. Indeed, from the look of this fellow's eye, it was evident that he would be dangerous to any one. "I will follow you home, and after you have exhibited him we will kill him scientifically. He is a splendid specimen, and not a feather need be ruffled."
Burt drove around to the Rev. Mr. Barkdale's and some others of his nearest neighbors and friends in a sort of triumphal progress; but Amy grew uneasy at her close proximity to so formidable a companion, fearing that he would thaw out. Many were the exclamations of wonder and curiosity when they reached home. Alf went nearly wild, and little Johnnie's eyes overflowed with tears when she learned that the regal bird must die. As for Ned, had he not been restrained he would have given the eagle a chance to devour him.
"So, Burt, you have your eagle after all," said his mother, looking with more pleasure and interest on the flushed, eager face of her handsome boy than upon his captive. "Well, you and Amy have had an adventure."
"I always have good fortune and good times when you are with me," Burt whispered in an aside to Amy.
"Always is a long time," she replied, turning away; but he was too excited to note that she did not reciprocate his manner, and he was speedily engaged in a discussion as to the best method of preserving the eagle in the most life-like attitude. After a general family council it was decided that his future perch should be in a corner of the parlor, and within a few days he occupied it, looking so natural that callers were often startled by his lifelike appearance.
"Think how his mate must miss him!" Maggie would often say, remorsefully.
As the day grew old the ice on the trees melted and fell away in myriads of gemlike drops. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a sound without as of rain. By four in the afternoon the pageant was over, the sky clouded again, and the typical March outlook was re-established.
Amy was awakened on the following morning by innumerable bird-notes, not songs, but loud calls. Hastening to the window, she witnessed a scene very strange to her eyes. All over the grass of the lawn and on the ground of the orchard beyond was a countless flock of what seemed to her quarter-grown chickens. A moment later the voice of Alf resounded through the house, crying, "The robins have come!" Very soon nearly all the household were on the piazza to greet these latest arrivals from the South; and a pretty scene of life and animation they made, with their yellow bills, jaunty black heads, and brownish red breasts.
"Turdus migratorius, as the doctor would say," remarked Burt; "and migrants they are with a vengeance. Last night there was not one to be seen, and now here are thousands. They are on their way north, and have merely alighted to feed."
"Isn't it odd how they keep their distance from each other?" said Webb. "You can scarcely see two near together, but every few feet there is a robin, as far as the eye can reach. Yes, and there are some high-holders in the orchard also. They are shyer than the robins, and don't come so near the house. You can tell them, Amy, by their yellow bodies and brown wings. I have read that they usually migrate with the robins. I wonder how far this flock flew last—ah, listen!"
Clear and sweet came an exquisite bird-song from an adjacent maple. Webb took off his hat in respectful greeting to the minstrel.
"Why," cried Amy, "that little brown bird cannot be a robin."
"No," he answered, "that is my favorite of all the earliest birds—the song-sparrow. You remember what Dr. Marvin said about him the other evening? I have been looking for my little friend for a week past, and here he is. The great tide of migration has turned northward."
"He is my favorite too," said his father. "Every spring for over seventy years I remember hearing his song, and it is just as sweet and fresh to me as ever. Indeed, it is enriched by a thousand memories."
For two or three days the robins continued plentiful around the house, and their loud "military calls," as Burroughs describes them, were heard at all hours from before the dawn into the dusk of night, but they seemed to be too excited over their northward journey or their arrival at their old haunts to indulge in the leisure of song. They reminded one of the advent of an opera company. There was incessant chattering, a flitting to and fro, bustle and excitement, each one having much to say, and no one apparently stopping to listen. The majority undoubtedly continued their migration, for the great flocks disappeared. It is said that the birds that survive the vicissitudes of the year return to their former haunts, and it would seem that they drop out of the general advance as they reach the locality of the previous summer's nest, to which they are guided by an unerring instinct.
The evening of the third day after their arrival was comparatively mild, and the early twilight serene and quiet. The family were just sitting down to supper when they heard a clear, mellow whistle, so resonant and penetrating as to arrest their attention, although doors and windows were closed. Hastening to the door they saw on the top of one of the tallest elms a robin, with his crimson breast lighted up by the setting sun, and his little head lifted heavenward in the utterance of what seemed the perfection of an evening hymn. Indeed, in that bleak, dim March evening, with the long, chill night fast falling and the stormy weeks yet to come, it would be hard to find a finer expression of hope and faith.
The robin is a bird of contrasts. Peculiarly domestic in his haunts and habits, he resembles his human neighbors in more respects than one. He is much taken up with his material life, and is very fond of indulging his large appetite. He is far from being aesthetic in his house or housekeeping, and builds a strong, coarse nest of the handiest materials and in the handiest place, selecting the latter with a confidence in boy-nature and cat-nature that is often misplaced. He is noisy, bustling, and important, and as ready to make a raid on a cherry-tree or a strawberry-bed as is the average youth to visit a melon-patch by moonlight. He has a careless, happy-go-lucky air, unless irritated, and then is as eager for a "square set-to" in robin fashion as the most approved scion of chivalry. Like man, he also seems to have a spiritual element in his nature; and, as if inspired and lifted out of his grosser self by the dewy freshness of the morning and the shadowy beauty of the evening, he sings like a saint, and his pure, sweet notes would never lead one to suspect that he was guilty of habitual gormandizing. He settles down into a good husband and father, and, in brief, reminds one of the sturdy English squire who is sincerely devout over his prayer-book on proper occasions, and between times takes all the goods the gods send.
In the morning little Johnnie came to the breakfast-table in a state of great excitement. It soon appeared that she had a secret that she would tell no one but Amy—indeed, she would not tell it, but show it; and after breakfast she told Amy to put on her rubber boots and come with her, warning curious Alf meanwhile to keep his distance. Leading the way to a sunny angle in the garden fence, she showed Amy the first flower of the year. Although it was a warm, sunny spot, the snow had drifted there to such an extent that the icy base of the drift still partially covered the ground, and through a weak place in the melting ice a snow-drop had pushed its green, succulent leaves and hung out its modest little blossom. The child, brought up from infancy to feel the closest sympathy with nature, fairly trembled with delight over this avant-coureur of the innumerable flowers which it was her chief happiness to gather. As if in sympathy with the exultation of the child, and in appreciation of all that the pale little blossom foreshadowed, a song-sparrow near trilled out its sweetest lay, a robin took up the song, and a pair of bluebirds passed overhead with their undulating flight and soft warble. Truly spring had come in that nook of the old garden, even though the mountains were still covered with snow, the river was full of floating ice, and the wind chill with the breath of winter. Could there have been a fairer or more fitting committee of reception than little Johnnie, believing in all things, hoping all things, and brown-haired, hazel-eyed Amy, with the first awakenings of womanhood in her heart?
At last Nature was truly awakening, and color was coming into her pallid face. On every side were increasing movement and evidences of life. Sunny hillsides were free from snow, and the oozing frost loosed the hold of stones upon the soil or the clay of precipitous banks, leaving them to the play of gravitation. Will the world become level if there are no more upheavals? The ice of the upper Hudson was journeying toward the sea that it would never reach. The sun smote it, the high winds ground the honey-combed cakes together, and the ebb and flow of the tide permitted no pause in the work of disintegration. By the middle of March the blue water predominated, and adventurous steamers had already picked and pounded their way to and from the city.
Only those deeply enamored of Nature feel much enthusiasm for the first month of spring; but for them this season possesses a peculiar fascination. The beauty that has been so cold and repellent in relenting—yielding, seemingly against her will, to a wooing that cannot be repulsed by even her harshest moods. To the vigilance of love, sudden, unexpected smiles are granted; and though, as if these were regretted, the frown quickly returns, it is often less forbidding. It is a period full of delicious, soul-thrilling "first times," the coy, exquisite beginnings of that final abandonment to her suitor in the sky. Although she veils her face for days with clouds, and again and again greets him in the dawn, wrapped in her old icy reserve, he smiles back his answer, and she cannot resist. Indeed, there soon come warm, still, bright days whereon she feels herself going, but does not even protest. Then, as if suddenly conscious of lost ground, she makes a passionate effort to regain her wintry aspect. It is so passionate as to betray her, so stormy as to insure a profounder relenting, a warmer, more tearful, and penitent smile after her wild mood is over. She finds that she cannot return to her former sustained coldness, and so at last surrenders, and the frost passes wholly from her heart.
To Alf's and Johnnie's delight it so happened that one of these gentlest moods of early spring occurred on Saturday—that weekly millennium of school-children. With plans and preparations matured, they had risen with the sun, and, scampering back and forth over the frozen ground and the remaining patches of ice and snow, had carried every pail and pan that they could coax from their mother to a rocky hillside whereon clustered a few sugar-maples. Webb, the evening before, had inserted into the sunny sides of the trees little wooden troughs, and from these the tinkling drip of the sap made a music sweeter than that of the robins to the eager boy and girl.
At the breakfast-table each one was expatiating on the rare promise of the day. Even Mrs. Clifford, awakened by the half subdued clatter of the children, had seen the brilliant, rose tinted dawn.
"The day cannot be more beautiful than was the night," Webb remarked. "A little after midnight I was awakened by a clamor from the poultry, and suspecting either two or four footed thieves, I was soon covering the hennery with my gun. As a result, Sir Mephitis, as Burroughs calls him, lies stark and stiff near the door. After watching awhile, and finding no other marauders abroad, I became aware that it was one of the most perfect nights I had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that, a few hours before, a gale had been blowing under a cloudy sky. The moonlight was so clear that I could see to read distinctly. So attractive and still was the night that I started for an hour's walk up the boulevard, and when near Idlewild brook had the fortune to empty the other barrel of my gun into a great horned owl. How the echoes resounded in the quiet night! The changes in April are more rapid, but they are on a grander scale this month."
"It seems to me," laughed Burt, "that your range of topics is even more sublime. From Sir Mephitis to romantic moonlight and lofty musings, no doubt, which ended with a screech-owl."
"The great horned is not a screech-owl, as you ought to know. Well, Nature is to blame for my alternations. I only took the goods the gods sent."
"I hope you did not take cold," said Maggie. "The idea of prowling around at that time of night!"
"Webb was in hopes that Nature might bestow upon him some confidences by moonlight that he could not coax from her in broad day. I shall seek better game than you found. Ducks are becoming plenty in the river, and all the conditions are favorable for a crack at them this morning. So I shall paddle out with a white coat over my clothes, and pretend to be a cake of ice. If I bring you a canvas-back, Amy, will you put the wishbone over the door?"
"Not till I have locked it and hidden the key."
Without any pre-arranged purpose the day promised to be given up largely to country sport. Burt had taken a lunch, and would not return until night, while the increasing warmth and brilliancy of the sunshine, and the children's voices from the maple grove, soon lured Amy to the piazza.
"Come," cried Webb, who emerged from the wood-house with an axe on his shoulder, "don rubber boots and wraps, and we'll improvise a male-sugar camp of the New England style a hundred years ago. We should make the most of a day like this."
They soon joined the children on the hillside, whither Abram had already carried a capacious iron pot as black as himself. On a little terrace that was warm and bare of snow, Webb set up cross-sticks in gypsy fashion, and then with a chain supended the pot, the children dancing like witches around it. Mr. Clifford and little Ned now appeared, the latter joining in the eager quest for dry sticks. Not far away was a large tree that for several years had been slowly dying, its few living branches having flushed early in September, in their last glow, which had been premature and hectic. Dry sticks would make little impression on the sap that now in the warmer light dropped faster from the wounded maples, and therefore to supply the intense heat that should give them at least a rich syrup before night, Webb threw off his coat and attacked the defunct veteran of the grove. Amy watched his vigorous strokes with growing zest; and he, conscious of her eyes, struck strong and true. Leonard, not far away, was removing impediments from the courses, thus securing a more rapid flow of the water and promoting the drainage of the land. He had sent up his cheery voice from time to time, but now joined the group, to witness the fall of a tree that had been old when he had played near it like his own children to-day. The echoes of the ringing axe came back to them from an adjacent hillside; a squirrel barked and "snickered," as if he too were a party to the fun; crows overhead cawed a protest at the destruction of their ancient perch; but with steady and remorseless stroke the axe was driven through the concentric rings on either side into the tree's dead heart. At last, as fibre after fibre was cut away, it began to tremble. The children stood breathless and almost pitying as they saw the shiver, apparently conscious, which followed each blow. Something of the same callousness of custom with which the fall of a man is witnessed must blunt one's nature before he can look unmoved upon the destruction of a familiar tree.
As the dead maple trembled more and more violently, and at last swayed to and fro in the breathless air, Amy cried, "Webb! Webb! come away!"
She had hardly spoken when, with a slow and stately motion, the lofty head bowed; there was a rush through the air, an echoing crash upon the rocks. She sprang forward with a slight cry, but Webb, leaning his axe on the prostrate bole, looked smilingly at her, and said, "Why, Amy, there is no more danger in this work than in cutting a stalk of corn, if one knows how."
"There appears to be more," she replied. "I never saw a large tree cut down before, but have certainly read of people being crushed. Does it often happen?"
"By the way, Amy," said Leonard, "the wood-chopper that you visited with me is doing so well that we shall give him work on the farm this summer. There was a little wheat in all that chaff of a man, and it's beginning to grow. But the wife is a case. He says he would like to work where he can see you occasionally."
"I have been there twice with Webb since, and shall go oftener when the roads are better," she replied, simply.
"That's right, Amy; follow up a thing," said Mr. Clifford. "It's better to help one family than to try to help a dozen. That was a good clean cut, Webb," he added, examining the stump. "I dislike to see a tree haggled down."
"How strong you are, Webb!" said Amy. "I suppose that if you had lived a few hundred years ago you would have been hacking at people in the same way."
"And so might have been a hero, and won your admiration if you had lived then in some gray castle, with the floor of your bower strewn with rushes. Now there is no career for me but that of a plain farmer."
"What manly task was given long before knighthood, eh, Webb? Right royal was the commission, too. Was it not to subdue the earth? It seems to me that you are striving after the higher mastery, one into which you can put all your mind as well as muscle. Knocking people on the head wasn't a very high art."
"What! not in behalf of a distressed damsel?"
"I imagine there will always be distressed damsels in the world. Indeed, in fiction it would seem that many would be nothing if not distressed. You can surely find one, Webb, and so be a knight in spite of our prosaic times."
"I shall not try," he replied, laughing. "I am content to be a farmer, and am glad you do not think our work is coarse and common. You obtained some good ideas in England, Amy. The tastes of the average American girl incline too much toward the manhood of the shop and office. There, Len, I am rested now;" and he took the axe from his brother, who had been lopping the branches from the prostrate tree.
Amy again watched his athletic figure with pleasure as he rapidly prepared billets for the seething caldron of sap.
The day was indeed forming an illuminated page. The blue of the sky seemed intense after so many gray and steel-hued days, and there was not a trace of cloud. The flowing sap was not sweeter than the air, to which the brilliant sunlight imparted an exhilarating warmth far removed from sultriness. From the hillside came the woody odor of decaying leaves, and from the adjacent meadow the delicate perfume of grasses whose roots began to tingle with life the moment the iron grip of the frost relaxed. Sitting on a rock near the crackling fire, Amy made as fair a gypsy as one would wish to see. On every side were evidences that spring was taking possession of the land. In the hollows of the meadow at her feet were glassy pools, kept from sinking away by a substratum of frost, and among these migratory robins and high-holders were feeding. The brook beyond was running full from the melting of the snow in the mountains, and its hoarse murmur was the bass in the musical babble and tinkle of smaller rills hastening toward it on either side. Thus in all directions the scene was lighted up with the glint and sparkle of water. The rays of the sun idealized even the muddy road, of which a glimpse was caught, for the pasty clay glistened like the surface of a stream. The returning birds appeared as jubilant over the day as the children whose voices blended with their songs—as do all the sounds that are absolutely natural. The migratory tide of robins, song-sparrows, phoebes, and other early birds was still moving northward; but multitudes had dropped out of line, having reached their haunts of the previous year. The sunny hillsides and its immediate vicinity seemed a favorite lounging-place both for the birds of passage and for those already at home. The excitement of travel to some, and the delight at having regained the scene of last year's love and nesting to others, added to the universal joy of spring, so exhilarated their hearts that they could scarcely be still a moment. Although the sun was approaching the zenith, there was not the comparative silence that pervades a summer noon. Bird calls resounded everywhere; there was a constant flutter of wings, as if all were bent upon making or renewing acquaintance—an occupation frequently interrupted by transports of song.
"Do you suppose they really recognize each other?" Amy asked Webb, as he threw down an armful of wood near her.
"Dr. Marvin would insist that they do," he replied, laughing. "When with him, one must be wary in denying to the birds any of the virtues and powers. He would probably say that they understood each other as well as we do. They certainly seem to be comparing notes, in one sense of the word at least. Listen, and you will hear at this moment the song of bluebird, robin, both song and fox sparrow, phoebe, blue jay, high-holder, and crow—that is, if you can call the notes of the last two birds a song."
"What a lovely chorus!" she cried, after a few moments' pause.
"Wait till two months have passed, and you will hear a grand symphony every morning and evening. All the members of our summer opera troupe do not arrive till June, and several weeks must still pass before the great star of the season appears."
"Indeed! and who is he, or she?"
"Both he and she—the woodthrush and his mate. They are very aristocratic kin of these robins. A little before them will come two other blood-relations, Mr. and Mrs. Brownthrasher, who, notwithstanding their family connection with the high toned woodthrush and jolly, honest robin, are stealthy in their manner, and will skulk away before you as if ashamed of something. When the musical fit is on them, however, they will sing openly from the loftiest tree-top, and with a sweetness, too, that few birds can equal."
"Why, Webb, you almost equal Dr. Marvin."
"Oh no; I only become acquainted with my favorites. If a bird is rare, though commonplace in itself, he will pursue it as if it laid golden eggs."
A howl from Ned proved that even the brightest days and scenes have their drawbacks. The little fellow had been prowling around among the pails and pans, intent on obtaining a drink of the sap, and thus had put his hand on a honey-bee seeking the first sweet of the year. In an instant Webb reached his side, and saw what the trouble was. Carrying him to the fire, he drew a key from his pocket, and pressed its hollow ward over the spot stung. This caused the poison to work out. Nature's remedy—mud—abounded, and soon a little moist clay covered the wound, and Amy took him in her arms and tried to pacify him, while his father, who had strolled away with Mr. Clifford, speedily returned. The grandfather looked down commiseratingly on the sobbing little companion of his earlier morning walk, and soon brought, not merely serenity, but joy unbounded, by a quiet proposition.
"I will go back to the house," he said, "and have mamma put up a nice lunch, and you and the other children can eat your dinner here by the fire. So can you, Webb and Amy, and then you can look after the youngsters. It's warm and dry here. Suppose you have a little picnic, which, in March, will be a thing to remember. Alf, you can come with me, and while mamma is preparing the lunch you can run to the market and get some oysters and clams, and these, with potatoes, you can roast in the ashes of a smaller fire, which Ned and Johnnie can look after under Webb's superintendence. Wouldn't you like my little plan, Amy?"
"Yes, indeed," she replied, putting her hands caressingly within his arm. "It's hard to think you are old when you know so well what we young people like. I didn't believe that this day could be brighter or jollier, and yet your plan has made the children half-wild."
Indeed, Alf had already given his approval by tearing off toward the house for the materials of this unprecedented March feast in the woods, and the old gentleman, as if made buoyant by the good promise of his little project in the children's behalf, followed with a step wonderfully elastic for a man of fourscore.
"Well, Heaven grant I may attain an age like that!" said Webb, looking wistfully after him. "There is more of spring than autumn in father yet, and I don't believe there will be any winter in his life. Well, Amy, like the birds and squirrels around us, we shall dine out-of-doors today. You must be mistress of the banquet; Ned, Johnnie, and I place ourselves under your orders; don't we, Johnnie?"
"To be sure, uncle Webb; only I'm so crazy over all this fun that I'm sure I can never do anything straight."
"Well, then, 'bustle! bustle!'" cried Amy. "I believe with Maggie that housekeeping and dining well are high arts, and not humdrum necessities. Webb, I need a broad, flat rock. Please provide one at once, while Johnnie gathers clean dry leaves for plates. You, Ned, can put lots of dry sticks between the stones there, and uncle Webb will kindle the right kind of a fire to leave plenty of hot coals and ashes. Now is the time for him to make his science useful."
Webb was becoming a mystery unto himself. Was it the exquisitely pure air and the exhilarating spring sunshine that sent the blood tingling through his veins? Or was it the presence, tones, and gestures of a girl with brow and neck like the snow that glistened on the mountain slopes above them, and large true eyes that sometimes seemed gray and again blue? Amy's developing beauty was far removed from a fixed type of prettiness, and he felt this in a vague way. The majority of the girls of his acquaintance had a manner rather than an individuality, and looked and acted much the same whenever he saw them. They were conventionalized after some received country type, and although farmers' daughters, they seemed unnatural to this lover of nature. Allowing for the difference in years, Amy was as devoid of self-consciousness as Alf or Johnnie. Not the slightest trace of mannerism perverted her girlish ways. She moved, talked, and acted with no more effort or thought of effort than had the bluebirds that were passing to and fro with their simple notes and graceful flight, She was nature in its phase of girlhood. To one of his temperament and training the perfect day itself would have been full of unalloyed enjoyment, although occupied with his ordinary labors; but for some reason this unpremeditated holiday, with Amy's companionship, gave him a pleasure before unknown—a pleasure deep and satisfying, unmarred by jarring discords or uneasy protests of conscience or reason. Truly, on this spring day a "first time" came to him, a new element was entering into his life. He did not think of defining it; he did not even recognize it, except in the old and general way that Amy's presence had enriched them all, and in his own case had arrested a tendency to become materialistic and narrow. On a like day the year before he would have been absorbed in the occupations of the farm, and merely conscious to a certain extent of the sky above him and the bird song and beauty around him. To-day they were like revelations. Even a March world was transfigured. His zest in living and working was enhanced a thousand-fold, because life and work were illumined by happiness, as the scene was brightened by sunshine. He felt that he had only half seen the world before; now he had the joy of one gradually gaining vision after partial blindness.
Amy saw that he was enjoying the day immensely in his quiet way; she also saw that she had not a little to do with the result, and the reflection that she could please and interest the grave and thoughtful man, who was six years her senior, conveyed a delicious sense of power. And yet she was pleased much as a child would be. "He knows so much more than I do," she thought, "and is usually so wrapped up in some deep subject, or so busy, that it's awfully jolly to find that one can beguile him into having such a good time. Burt is so exuberant in everything that I am afraid of being carried away, as by a swift stream, I know not where. I feel like checking and restraining him all the time. For me to add my small stock of mirth to his immense spirits would be like lighting a candle on a day like this; but when I smile on Webb the effect is wonderful, and I can never get over my pleased surprise at the fact."
Thus, like the awakening forces in the soil around them, a vital force was developing in two human hearts equally unconscious.
Alf and his grandfather at last returned, each well laden, and preparations went on apace. Mr. Clifford made as if he would return and dine at home, but they all clamored for his company. With a twinkle in his eye, he said:
"Well, I told mother that I might lunch with you, and I was only waiting to be pressed a little. I've lived a good many years, but never was on a picnic in March before."
"Grandpa, you shall be squeezed as well as pressed," cried Johnnie, putting her arms about his neck. "You shall stay and see what a lovely time you have given us. Oh, if Cinderella were only here!" and she gave one little sigh, the first of the day.
"Possibly Cinderella may appear in time for lunch;" and with a significant look he directed Amy to the basket he had brought, from the bottom of which was drawn a doll with absurdly diminutive feet, and for once in her life Johnnie's heart craved nothing more.
"Maggie knew that this little mother could not be content long without her doll, and so she put it in. You children have a thoughtful mother, and you must be thoughtful of her," added the old man, who felt that the incident admitted of a little homily.
What appetites they all had! If some of the potatoes were slightly burned and others a little raw, the occasion added a flavor better than Attic salt. A flock of chickadees approached near enough to gather the crumbs that were thrown to them.
"It's strange," said Webb, "how tame the birds are when they return in the spring. In the fall the robins are among the wildest of the birds, and now they are all around us. I believe that if I place some crumbs on yonder rock, they'll come and dine with us, in a sense;" and the event proved that he was right.
"Hey, Johnnie," said her grandfather, "you never took dinner with the birds before, did you? This is almost as wonderful as if Cinderella sat up and asked for an oyster."
But Johnnie was only pleased with the fact, not surprised. Wonderland was her land, and she said, "I don't see why the birds can't understand that I'd like to have dinner with them every day."
"By the way, Webb," continued his father, "I brought out the field-glass with me, for I thought that with your good eyes you might see Burt;" and he drew it from his pocket.
The idea of seeing Burt shooting ducks nearly broke up the feast, and Webb swept the distant river, full of floating ice that in the sunlight looked like snow. "I can see several out in boats," he said, "and Burt, no doubt, is among them."
Then Amy, Alf, and Johnnie must have a look, but Ned devoted himself strictly to business, and Amy remarked that he was becoming like a little sausage.
"Can the glass make us hear the noise of the gun better?" Johnnie asked, at which they all laughed, Ned louder than any, because of the laughter of the others. It required but a little thing to make these banqueters hilarious.
But there was one who heard them and did not laugh. From the brow of the hill a dark, sad face looked down upon them. Lured by the beauty of the day, Mr. Alvord had wandered aimlessly into the woods, and, attracted by merry voices, had drawn sufficiently near to witness a scene that awakened within him indescribable pain and longing. He did not think of joining them. It was not a fear that he would be unwelcomed that kept him away; he knew the family too well to imagine that. A stronger restraint was upon him. Something in the past darkened even that bright day, and built in the crystal air a barrier that he could not pass. They would give him a place at their rustic board, but he could not take it. He knew that he would be a discord in their harmony, and their innocent merriment smote his morbid nature with almost intolerable pain. With a gesture indicating immeasurable regret, he turned and hastened away to his lonely home. As he mounted the little piazza his steps were arrested. The exposed end of a post that supported the inner side of its roof formed a little sheltered nook in which a pair of bluebirds had begun to build their nest. They looked at him with curious and distrustful eyes as they flitted to and fro in a neighboring tree, and he sat down and looked at them. The birds were evidently in doubt and in perturbed consultation. They would fly to the post, then away and all around the house, but scarcely a moment passed that Mr. Alvord did not see that he was observed and discussed. With singular interest and deep suspense he awaited their decision. At last it came, and was favorable. The female bird came flying to the post with a beakful of fine dry grass, and her mate, on a spray near, broke out into his soft, rapturous song. The master of the house gave a great sigh of relief. A glimmer of a smile passed over his wan face as he muttered, "I expected to be alone this summer, but I am to have a family with me, after all."
Soon after the lunch had been discussed leisurely and hilariously the maple-sugar camp was left in the care of Alf and Johnnie, with Abram to assist them. Amy longed for a stroll, but even with the protection of rubber boots she found that the departing frost had left the sodded meadow too wet and spongy for safety. Under Webb's direction she picked her way to the margin of the swollen stream, and gathered some pussy willows that were bursting their sheaths.
REGRETS AND DUCK-SHOOTING
Saturday afternoon, as is usual in the country, brought an increased number of duties to the inhabitants of the farmhouse, but at the supper hour they all, except Burt, looked back upon the day with unwonted satisfaction. He had returned weary, hungry, and discontented, notwithstanding the fact that several brace of ducks hung on the piazza as trophies of his skill. He was in that uncomfortable frame of mind which results from charging one's self with a blunder. In the morning he had entered on the sport with his usual zest, but it had soon declined, and he wished he had remained at home. He remembered the children's intention of spending the day among the maples, and as the sun grew warm, and the air balmy, the thought occurred with increasing frequency that he might have induced Amy to join them, and so have enjoyed long hours of companionship under circumstances most favorable to his suit. He now admitted that were the river alive with ducks, the imagined opportunities of the maple grove were tenfold more attractive. At one time he half decided to return, but pride prevented until he should have secured a fair amount of game. He would not go home to be laughed at. Moreover, Amy had not been so approachable of late as he could wish, and he proposed to punish her a little, hoping that she would miss his presence and attentions. The many reminiscences at the supper-table were not consoling. It was evident that he had not been missed in the way that he desired to be, and that the day had been one of rich enjoyment to her. Neither was Webb's quiet satisfaction agreeable, and Burt mildly anathematized himself at the thought that he might have had his share in giving Amy so much pleasure. He took counsel of experience, however, and having learned that even duck-shooting under the most favorable auspices palled when contrasted with Amy's smiles and society, he resolved to be present in the future when she, like Nature, was in a propitious mood. Impetuous as he was, he had not yet reached the point of love's blindness which would lead him to press his suit in season and out of season. He soon found a chance to inform Amy of his regret, but she laughed merrily back at him as she went up to her room, saying that the air of a martyr sat upon him with very poor grace in view of his success and persistence in the sport, and that he had better put a white mark against the day, as she had done.
Early in the evening Dr. Marvin appeared, with Mr. Marks, one of the most noted duck-shooters and fishermen on the river, and they brought in three superb specimens of a rare bird in this region, the American swan, that queen of water-fowls and embodiment of grace.
"Shot 'em an hour or two ago, near Polopel's Island," said Mr. Marks, "and we don't often have the luck to get within range of such game. Dr. Marvin was down visiting one of my children, and he said how he would like to prepare the skin of one, and he thought some of you folks here might like to have another mounted, and he'd do it if you wished."
Exclamations of pleasure followed this proposition. Alf examined them with deep interest, while Burt whispered to Amy that he would rather have brought her home a swan like one of those than all the ducks that ever quacked.
In accordance with their hospitable ways, the Cliffords soon had the doctor and Mr. Marks seated by their fireside, and the veteran sportsman was readily induced to enlarge upon some of his experiences.
He had killed two of the swans, he told them, as they were swimming, and the other as it rose. He did not propose to let any such uncommon visitors get away. He had never seen more than ten since he had lived in this region. With the proverbial experience of meeting game when without a gun, he had seen five fly over, one Sunday, while taking a ramble on Plum Point.
"Have you ever obtained any snow-geese in our waters?" Dr. Marvin asked.
"No. That's the scarcest water-fowl we have. Once in a wild snowstorm I saw a flock of about two hundred far out upon the river, and would have had a shot into them, but some fellows from the other side started out and began firing at long range, and that has been my only chance. I occasionally get some brant-geese, and they are rare enough. I once saw a flock of eight, and got them all-took five out of the flock in the first two shots—but I've never killed more than twenty-five in all."
"I don't think I have ever seen one," remarked Mrs. Clifford, who, in her feebleness and in her home-nook, loved to hear about these bold, adventurous travellers. They brought to her vivid fancy remote wild scenes, desolate waters, and storm-beaten rocks. The tremendous endurance and power of wing in these shy children of nature never ceased to be marvels to her. "Burt has occasionally shot wild-geese—we have one mounted there—but I do not know what a brant is, nor much about its habits," she added.
"Its markings are like the ordinary Canada wild-goose," Dr. Marvin explained, "and it is about midway in size between a goose and a duck."
"I've shot a good many of the common wild-geese in my time," Mr. Marks resumed; "killed nineteen four years ago. I once knocked down ten out of a flock of thirteen by giving them both barrels. I have a flock of eight now in a pond not far away—broke their wings, you know, and so they can't fly. They soon become tame, and might be domesticated easily, only you must always keep one wing cut, or they will leave in the spring or fall."
"How is that?"
"Well, they never lose their instinct to migrate, and if they heard other wild-geese flying over, they'd rise quick enough if they could and go with them."
"Do you think there would be any profit in domesticating them?" asked practical Leonard.
"There might be. I know a man up the river who used to cross them with our common geese, and so produced a hybrid, a sort of a mule-goose, that grew very large. I've known 'em to weigh eighteen pounds or more, and they were fine eating, I can tell you. I don't suppose there is much in it, though, or some cute Yankee would have made a business of it before this."
"How many ducks do you suppose you have shot all together?" Mr. Clifford asked.
"Oh, I don't know—a great many. Killed five hundred last fall."
"What's the greatest number you ever got out of a flock, Marks?" put in Burt.
"Well, there is the old squaw, or long-tailed duck. They go in big flocks, you now—have seen four or five hundred together. In the spring, just after they have come from feeding on mussels in the southern oyster-beds, they are fishy, but in the fall they are much better, and the young ducks are scarcely fishy at all. I've taken twenty-three out of a flock by firing at them in the water and again when they rose; and in the same way I once knocked over eighteen black or dusky ducks; and they are always fine, you know."
"Are the fancy kinds, like the mallards and canvas-backs that are in such demand by the epicures, still plentiful in their season?" Webb asked.
"No. I get a few now and then, but don't calculate on them any longer. It was my luck with canvas-backs that got me into my duck-shooting ways. I was cuffed and patted on the back the same day on their account."
In response to their laughing expressions of curiosity he resumed: "I was but a little chap at the time; still I believed I could shoot ducks, but my father wouldn't trust me with either a gun or boat, and my only chance was to circumvent the old man. So one night I hid the gun outside the house, climbed out of a window as soon as it was light, and paddled round a point where I would not be seen, and I tell you I had a grand time. I did not come in till the middle of the afternoon, but I reached a point when I must have my dinner, no matter what came before it. The old man was waiting for me, and he cuffed me well. I didn't say a word, but went to my mother, and she, mother-like, comforted me with a big dinner which she had kept for me. I was content to throw the cuffing in, and still feel that I had the best of the bargain. An elder brother began to chaff me and ask, 'Where are your ducks?' 'Better go and look under the seat in the stern-sheets before you make any more faces,' I answered, huffily. I suppose he thought at first I wanted to get rid of him, but he had just enough curiosity to go and see, and he pulled out sixteen canvas-backs. The old man was reconciled at once, for I had made better wages than he that day; and from that time on I've had all the duck-shooting I've wanted."
"That's a form of argument to which the world always yields," said Leonard, laughing.
"How many kinds of wild-ducks do we have here in the bay, that you can shoot so many?" Maggie asked.
"I've never counted 'em up. The doctor can tell you, perhaps."
"I've prepared the skins of twenty-four different kinds that were shot in this vicinity," replied Dr. Marvin.
"Don't you and Mrs. Marvin dissect the birds also?" queried Leonard.
"Mr. Marks," said Mr. Clifford, "I think you once had a rather severe experience while out upon the river. Won't you tell us about it?"
"Yes. My favorite sport came nigh being the death of me, and it always makes me shiver to think of it. I started out one spring morning at five o'clock, and did not get home till two o'clock the next morning, and not a mouthful did I have to eat. I had fair success during the day, but was bothered by the quantities of ice running, and a high wind. About four o'clock in the afternoon I concluded to return home, for I was tired and hungry. I was then out in the river off Plum Point. I saw an opening leading south, and paddled into it, but had not gone far before the wind drove the ice in upon me, and blocked the passage. There I was, helpless, and it began to blow a gale. The wind held the ice immovable on the west shore, even though the tide was running out. For a time I thought the boat would be crushed by the grinding cakes in spite of all I could do. If it had, I'd 'a been drowned at once, but I worked like a Trojan, shouting, meanwhile, loud enough to raise the dead. No one seemed to hear or notice me. At last I made my way to a cake that was heavy enough to bear my weight, and on this I pulled up the boat, and lay down exhausted. It was now almost night, and I was too tired to shout any more. There on that mass of ice I stayed till two o'clock the next morning. I thought I'd freeze to death, if I did not drown. I shouted from time to time, till I found it was of no use, and then gave my thoughts to keeping awake and warm enough to live. I knew that my chance would be with the next turn of the tide, when the ice would move with it, and also the wind, up the river. So it turned out. I was at last able to break my way through the loosened ice to Plain Point, and then had a two-mile walk home; and I can tell you that it never seemed so like home before."
"Oh, Burt, please don't go out again when the ice is running," was his mother's comment on the story.
"Thoreau speaks of seeing black ducks asleep on a pond whereon thin ice had formed, inclosing them, daring the March night," said Webb. "Have you ever caught them napping in this way?"
"No," replied Mr. Marks; "though it might easily happen on a still pond. The tides and wind usually break up the very thin ice on the river, and if there is any open water near, the ducks will stay in it."
"Dr. Marvin, have you caught any glimpses of spring to-day that we have not?" Amy asked.
The doctor laughed—having heard of Webb's exploit in the night near the hennery—and said: "I might mention that I have seen 'Sir Mephitis' cabbage, as I suppose I should all it, growing vigorously. It is about the first green thing we have. Around certain springs, however, the grass keeps green all winter, and I passed one to-day surrounded by an emerald hue that was distinct in the distance. It has been very cold and backward thus far."
"Possess your souls in patience," said Mr. Clifford. "Springtime and harvest are sure. After over half a century's observation I have noted that, no matter what the weather may have been, Nature always catches up with the season about the middle or last of June."
The remainder of March passed quickly away, with more alternations of mood than there were days; but in spite of snow, sleet, wind, and rain, the most forbidding frowns and tempestuous tears, all knew that Nature had yielded, and more often she half-smilingly acknowledged the truth herself.
All sights and sounds about the farmhouse betokened increasing activity. During the morning hours the cackling in the barn and out-buildings developed into a perfect clamor, for the more commonplace the event of a new-born egg became, the greater attention the hens inclined to call to it. Possibly they also felt the spring-time impulse of all the feathered tribes to use their voice to the extent of its compass. The clatter was music to Alf and Johnnie, however, for gathering the eggs was one of their chief sources of revenue, and the hunting of nests—stolen so cunningly and cackled over so sillily—with their accumulated treasures was like prospecting for mines. The great basketful they brought in daily after their return from school proved that if the egg manufactory ran noisily, it did not run in vain. Occasionally their father gave them a peep into the dusky brooding-room. Under his thrifty management the majority of the nests were simply loose boxes, each inscribed with a number. When a biddy wished to sit, she was removed at night upon the nest, and the box was placed on a low shelf in the brooding-room. If she remained quiet and contented in the new location, eggs were placed under her, a note of the number of the box was taken, with the date, and the character of the eggs, if they represented any special breed. By these simple precautions little was left to what Squire Bartley termed "luck." Some of the hens had been on the nest nearly three weeks, and eagerly did the children listen for the first faint peep that should announce the senior chick of the year.
Webb and Burt had already opened the campaign in the garden. On the black soil in the hot-bed, which had been made in a sheltered nook, were even now lines of cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. These nursling vegetables were cared for as Maggie had watched her babies. On mild sunny days the sash was shoved down and air given. High winds and frosty nights prompted to careful covering and tucking away. The Cliffords were not of those who believe that pork, cabbage, and potatoes are a farmer's birthright, when by a small outlay of time and skill every delicacy can be enjoyed, even in advance of the season. On a warm slope from which the frost ever took its earliest departure, peas, potatoes, and other hardy products of the garden were planted, and as the ground grew firm enough, the fertilizers of the barn-yard were carted to the designated places, whereon, by Nature's alchemy, they would be transmuted into forms of use and beauty.
It so happened that the 1st of April was an ideal spring day. During the morning the brow of Storm King, still clothed with snow, was shrouded in mist, through which the light broke uncertainly in gleams of watery sunshine. A succession of showers took place, but so slight and mild that they were scarcely heeded by the busy workers; there was almost a profusion of half-formed rainbows; and atmosphere and cloud so blended that it was hard to say where one began and the other ceased. On every twig, dead weed, and spire of withered grass hung innumerable drops that now were water and again diamonds when touched by the inconstant sun. Sweet-fern grass abounded in the lawn, and from it exuded an indescribably delicious odor. The birds were so ecstatic in their songs, so constant in their calls, that one might think that they, like the children, were making the most of All-fools' Day, and playing endless pranks on each other. The robins acted as if nothing were left to be desired. They were all this time in all stages of relationship. Some had already paired, and were at work upon their domiciles, but more were in the blissful and excited state of courtship, and their conversational notes, wooings, and pleadings, as they warbled the pros and cons, were quite different from their matin and vesper songs. Not unfrequently there were two aspirants for the same claw or bill, and the rivals usually fought it out like their human neighbors in the olden time, the red-breasted object of their affections standing demurely aloof on the sward, quietly watching the contest with a sidelong look, undoubtedly conscious, however, of a little feminine exultation that she should be sought thus fiercely by more than one. After all, the chief joy of the robin world that day resulted from the fact that the mild, humid air lured the earth-worms from their burrowing, and Amy laughed more than once as, from her window, she saw a little gourmand pulling at a worm, which clung so desperately to its hole that the bird at last almost fell over backward with its prize. Courtship, nest-building, family cares—nothing disturbs a robin's appetite, and it was, indeed, a sorry fools'-day for myriads of angle-worms that ventured out.
Managing a country place is like sailing a ship: one's labors are, or should be, much modified by the weather. This still day, when the leaves were heavy with moisture, afforded Webb the chance he had desired to rake the lawn and other grass-plots about the house, and store the material for future use. He was not one to attempt this task when the wind would half undo his labor.
In the afternoon the showery phase passed, and the sun shone with a misty brightness. Although so early in a backward spring, the day was full of the suggestion of wild flowers, and Amy and the children started on their first search into Nature's calendar of the seasons. All knew where to look for the earliest blossoms, and in the twilight the explorers returned with handfuls of hepatica and arbutus buds, which, from experience, they knew would bloom in a vase of water. Who has ever forgotten his childish exultation over the first wild flowers of the year! Pale, delicate little blossoms though they be, and most of them odorless, their memory grows sweet with our age.
Burt, who had been away to purchase a horse—he gave considerable of his time to the buying and selling of these animals—drove up as Amy approached the house, and pleaded for a spray of arbutus.
"But the buds are not open yet," she said.
"No matter; I should value the spray just as much, since you gathered it."
"Why, Burt," she cried, laughing, "on that principle I might as well give you a chip." But she gave him the buds and escaped.
"Amy," Webb asked at the supper-table, "didn't you hear the peepers this afternoon while out walking?"
"Yes; and I asked Alf what they were. He said they were peepers, and that they always made a noise in the spring."
"Why, Alf," Webb resumed, in mock gravity, "you should have told Amy that the sounds came from the Hylodes pickeringii."
"If that is all that you can tell me," said Amy, laughing, "I prefer Alf's explanation. I have known people to cover up their ignorance by big words before. Indeed, I think it is a way you scientists have."
"I must admit it; and yet that close observer, John Burroughs, gives a charming account of these little frogs that we call 'hylas' for short. Shy as they are, and quick to disappear when approached, he has seen them, as they climb out of the mud upon a sedge or stick in the marshes, inflate their throats until they 'suggest a little drummer-boy with his drum hung high.' In this bubble-like swelling at its throat the noise is made; and to me it is a welcome note of spring, although I have heard people speak of it as one of the most lonesome and melancholy of sounds. It is a common saying among old farmers that the peepers must be shut up three times by frost before we can expect steady spring weather. I believe that naturalists think these little mites of frogs leave the mud and marshes later on, and become tree-toads. Let me give you a hint, Alf. Try to find out what you can at once about the things you see or hear: that's the way to get an education."
"May I not take the hint also?" Amy asked.
"Please don't think me a born pedagogue," he answered, smiling; "but you have no idea how fast we obtain knowledge of certain kinds if we follow up the object-lessons presented every day."
Easter-Sunday came early in the month, and there had been great preparations for it, for with the Cliffords it was one of the chief festivals of the year. To the children was given a week's vacation, and they scoured the woods for all the arbutus that gave any promise of opening in time. Clumps of bloodroot, hepaticas, dicentras, dog-tooth violets, and lilies-of-the-valley had been taken up at the first relaxation of frost, and forced in the flower-room. Hyacinth and tulip bulbs, kept back the earlier part of the winter, were timed to bloom artificially at this season so sacred to flowers, and, under Mrs. Clifford's fostering care, all the exotics of the little conservatory had been stimulated to do their best to grace the day. On Saturday afternoon Mr. Barkdale's pulpit was embowered with plants and vines growing in pots, tubs, and rustic boxes, and the good man beamed upon the work, gaining meanwhile an inspiration that would put a soul into his words on the morrow.
No such brilliant morning dawned on the worship of the Saxon goddess Eostre, in cloudy, forest-clad England in the centuries long past, as broke over the eastern mountains on that sacred day. At half-past five the sun appeared above the shaggy summit of the Beacon, and the steel hues of the placid Hudson were changed into sparkling silver. A white mist rested on the water between Storm King, Break Neck, and Mount Taurus. In the distance it appeared as if snow had drifted in and half filled the gorge of the Highlands. The orange and rose-tinted sky gradually deepened into an intense blue, and although the land was as bare and the forests were as gaunt as in December, a soft glamour over all proclaimed spring.
Spring was also in Amy's eyes, in the oval delicacy of her girlish face with its exquisite flush, in her quick, deft hands and elastic step as she arranged baskets and vases of flowers. Webb watched her with his deep eyes, and his Easter worship began early in the day. True homage it was, because so involuntary, so unquestioning and devoid of analysis, so utterly free from the self-conscious spirit that expects a large and definite return for adoration. His sense of beauty, the poetic capabilities of his nature, were kindled. Like the flowers that seemed to know their place in a harmony of color when she touched them, Amy herself was emblematic of Easter, of its brightness and hopefulness, of the new, richer spiritual life that was coming to him. He loved his homely work and calling as never before, because he saw how on every side it touched and blended with the beautiful and sacred. Its highest outcome was like the blossoms before him which had developed from a rank soil, dark roots, and prosaic woody stems. The grain he raised fed and matured the delicate human perfection shown in every graceful and unconscious pose of the young girl. She was Nature's priestess interpreting to him a higher, gentler world which before he had seen but dimly—interpreting it all the more clearly because she made no effort to reveal it. She led the way, he followed, and the earth ceased to be an aggregate of forms and material forces. With his larger capabilities he might yet become her master, but now, with an utter absence of vanity, he recognized how much she was doing for him, how she was widening his horizon and uplifting his thoughts and motives, and he reverenced her as such men ever do a woman that leads them to a higher plane of life.
No such deep thoughts and vague homage perplexed Burt as he assisted Amy with attentions that were assiduous and almost garrulous. The brightness of the morning was in his handsome face, and the gladness of his buoyant temperament in his heart. Amy was just to his taste—pretty, piquant, rose-hued, and a trifle thorny too, at times, he thought. He believed that he loved her with a boundless devotion—at least it seemed so that morning. It was delightful to be near her, to touch her fingers occasionally as he handed her flowers, and to win smiles, arch looks, and even words that contained a minute prick like spines on the rose stems. He felt sure that his suit would prosper in time, and she was all the more fascinating because showing no sentimental tendencies to respond with a promptness that in other objects of his attention in the past had even proved embarrassing. She was a little conscious of Webb's silent observation, and, looking up suddenly, caught an expression that deepened her color slightly.
"That for your thoughts," she said, tossing him a flower with sisterly freedom.
"Webb is pondering deeply," explained the observant Burt, "on the reflection of light as shown not only by the color in these flowers, but also in your cheeks under his fixed stare."
There was an access of rose-hued reflection at these words, but Webb rose quietly and said: "If you will let me keep the flower I will tell you my thoughts another time. They were quite suitable for Easter morning. That basket is now ready, and I will take it to the church."
Burt was soon despatched with another, while she and Johnnie, who had been flitting about, eager and interested, followed with light and delicate vases. To their surprise, Mr. Alvord intercepted them near the church vestibule. He had never been seen at any place of worship, and the reserve and dignity of his manner had prevented the most zealous from interfering with his habits. From the porch of his cottage he had seen Amy and the little girl approaching with their floral offerings. Nature's smile that morning had softened his bitter mood, and, obeying an impulse to look nearer upon two beings that belonged to another world than his, he joined them, and asked:
"Won't you let me see your flowers before you take them into the church?"
"Certainly," said Amy, cordially; "but there are lovelier ones on the pulpit; won't you come in and see them?"
He shook his head.
"What!" cried Johnnie, "not going to church to-day?" She had lost much of her fear of him, for in his rambles he frequently met her and Alf, and usually spoke to them. Moreover, she had repeatedly seen him at their fireside, and he ever had a smile for her. The morbid are often fearless with children, believing that, like the lower orders of life, they have little power to observe that anything is amiss, and therefore are neither apt to be repelled nor curious and suspicious. This in a sense is true, and yet their instincts are keen. But Mr. Alvord was not selfish or coarse; above all he was not harsh. To Johnnie he only seemed strange, quiet, and unhappy, and she had often heard her mother say, "Poor Mr. Alvord!" Therefore, when he said, "I don't go to church; if I had a little girl like you to sit by me, I might feel differently," her heart was touched, and she replied, impulsively: "I'll sit by you, Mr. Alvord. I'll sit with you all by ourselves, if you will only go to church to-day. Why, it's Easter."
"Mr. Alvord," said Amy, gently, "that's an unusual offer for shy Johnnie to make. You don't know what a compliment you have received, and I think you will make the child very happy if you comply."
"Could I make you happier by sitting with you in church to-day?" he asked, in a low voice, offering the child his hand.
"Yes," she replied, simply.
"Come, then. You lead the way, for you know best where to go." She gave her vase to Amy, and led him into a side seat near her father's pew—one that she had noted as unoccupied of late. "It's early yet Do you mind sitting here until service begins?" he asked.
"Oh, no. I like to sit here and look at the flowers;" and the first comers glanced wonderingly at the little girl and her companion, who was a stranger to them and to the sanctuary. Amy explained matters to Leonard and Maggie at the door when they arrived, and Easter-Sunday had new and sweeter meanings to them.
The spring had surely found its way into Mr. Barkdale's sermon also, and its leaves, as he turned them, were not autumn leaves, which, even though brilliant, suggest death and sad changes. One of his thoughts was much commented upon by the Cliffords, when, in good old country style, the sermon was spoken of at dinner. "The God we worship," he said, "is the God of life, of nature. In his own time and way he puts forth his power. We can employ this power and make it ours. Many of you will do this practically during the coming weeks. You sow seed, plant trees, and seek to shape others into symmetrical form by pruning-knife and saw. What is your expectation? Why, that the great power that is revivifying nature will take up the work here you leave off, and carry it forward. All the skill and science in the world could not create a field of waving grain, nor all the art of one of these flowers. How immensely the power of God supplements the labor of man in those things which minister chiefly to his lower nature! Can you believe that he will put forth so much energy that the grain may mature and the flower bloom, and yet not exert far greater power than man himself may develop according to the capabilities of his being? The forces now exist in the earth and in the air to make the year fruitful, but you must intelligently avail yourselves of them. You must sow, plant, and cultivate. The power ever exists that can redeem us from evil, heal the wounds that sin has made, and develop the manhood and womanhood that Heaven receives and rewards. With the same resolute intelligence you must lay hold upon this ever-present spiritual force if you would be lifted up."
After the service there were those who would ostentatiously recognize and encourage Mr. Alvord; but the Cliffords, with better breeding, quietly and cordially greeted him, and that was all. At the door he placed Johnnie's hand in her mother's, and gently said, "Good-by;" but the pleased smile of the child and Mrs. Leonard followed him. As he entered his porch, other maternal eyes rested upon him, and the brooding bluebird on her nest seemed to say, with Johnnie, "I am not afraid of you." Possibly to the lonely man this may prove Easter-Sunday in very truth, and hope, that he had thought buried forever, come from its grave.
In the afternoon all the young people started for the hills, gleaning the earliest flowers, and feasting their eyes on the sunlit landscapes veiled with soft haze from the abundant moisture with which the air was charged. As the sun sank low in the many-hued west, and the eastern mountains clothed themselves in royal purple, Webb chanced to be alone, near Amy, and she said:
"You have had that flower all day, and I have not had your thoughts."
"Oh, yes, you have—a great many of them."
"You know that isn't what I mean. You promised to tell me what you were thinking about so deeply this morning."
He looked at her smilingly a moment, and then his face grew gentle and grave as he replied: "I can scarcely explain, Amy. I am learning that thoughts which are not clear-cut and definite may make upon us the strongest impressions. They cause us to feel that there is much that we only half know and half understand as yet. You and your flowers seemed to interpret to me the meaning of this day as I never understood it before. Surely its deepest significance is life, happy, hopeful life, with escape from its grosser elements, and as you stood there you embodied that idea."
"Oh, Webb," she cried, in comic perplexity, "you are getting too deep for me. I was only arranging flowers, and not thinking about embodying anything. But go on."
"If you had been, you would have spoiled everything," he resumed, laughing. "I can't explain; I can only suggest the rest in a sentence or two. Look at the shadow creeping up yonder mountain—very dark blue on the lower side of the moving line and deep purple above. Listen to these birds around us. Well, every day I see and hear and appreciate these things better, and I thought that you were to blame."
"Am I very much to blame?" she inquired, archly.
"Yes, very much," was his laughing answer. "It seems to me that a few months since I was like the old man with the muck-rake in 'Pilgrim's Progress,' seeking to gather only money, facts, and knowledge—things of use. I now am finding so much that is useful which I scarcely looked at before that I am revising my philosophy, and like it much better. The simple truth is, I needed just such a sister as you are to keep me from plodding."
Burt now appeared with a handful of rue-anemones, obtained by a rapid climb to a very sunny nook. They were the first of the season, and he justly believed that Amy would be delighted with them. But the words of Webb were more treasured, for they filled her with a pleased wonder. She had seen the changes herself to which he referred; but how could a simple girl wield such an influence over the grave, studious man? That was the puzzle of puzzles. It was an enigma that she would be long in solving, and yet the explanation was her own simplicity, her truthfulness to all the conditions of unaffected girlhood.
On the way to the house Webb delighted Johnnie and Alf by gathering sprays of the cherry, peach, pear, and plum, saying, "Put them in water by a sunny window, and see which will bloom first, these sprays or the trees out-of-doors." The supper-table was graced by many woodland trophies—the "tawny pendants" of the alder that Thoreau said dusted his coat with sulphur-like pollen as he pressed through them to "look for mud-turtles," pussy willows now well developed, the hardy ferns, arbutus, and other harbingers of spring, while the flowers that had been brought back from the church filled the room with fragrance. To gentle Mrs. Clifford, dwelling as she ever must among the shadows of pain and disease, this was the happiest day of the year, for it pointed forward to immortal youth and strength, and she loved to see it decked and garlanded like a bride. And so Easter passed, and became a happy memory.
The next morning Amy, on looking from her window, could scarcely believe she was awake. She had retired with her mind full of spring and spring-time beauty, but the world without had now the aspect of January. The air was one swirl of snow, and trees, buildings—everything was white. In dismay she hastened to join the family, but was speedily reassured.
"There is nothing monotonous in American weather, and you must get used to our sharp alternations," said Mr. Clifford. "This snow will do good rather than harm, and the lawn will actually look green after it has melted, as it will speedily. The thing we dread is a severe frost at a far later date than this. The buds are still too dormant to be injured, but I have known the apples to be frozen on the trees when as large as walnuts."
"Such snows are called the poor man's manure," Webb remarked, "and fertilizing gases, to a certain amount, do become entangled in the large wet flakes, and so are carried into the soil. But the poor man will assuredly remain poor if he has no other means of enriching his land. What a contrast to yesterday! The house on the northeast side looks as if built of snow, so evenly is it plastered over. I pity the birds. They have scarcely sung this morning, and they look as if thoroughly disgusted."
Amy and Johnnie shared in the birds' disapproval, but Alf had a boy's affinity for snow, and resolved to construct an immense fort as soon as the storm permitted. Before the day had far declined the heavy flakes ceased, and the gusty wind died away. Johnnie forgot the budding flowers in their winding-sheet, and joyously aided in the construction of the fort. Down the sloping lawn they rolled the snowballs, that so increased with every revolution that they soon rose above the children's heads, and Webb and Burt's good-natured help was required to pile them into ramparts. At the entrance of the stronghold an immense snow sentinel was fashioned, with a cord-wood stick for a musket. The children fairly sighed for another month of winter.
All night long Nature, in a heavy fall of rain, appeared to weep that she had been so capricious, and the morning found her in as uncomfortable a mood as could be imagined. The slush was ankle-deep, with indefinite degrees of mud beneath, the air chilly and raw, and the sky filled with great ragged masses of cloud, so opaque and low that they appeared as if disrupted by some dynamic force, and threatened to fall upon the shadowed land. But between them the sun darted many a smile at his tear-stained mistress. At last they took themselves off like ill-affected meddlers in a love match, and the day grew bright and warm. By evening, spring, literally and figuratively, had more than regained lost ground, for, as Mr. Clifford had predicted, the lawn had a distinct emerald hue. Thenceforth the season moved forward as if there were to be no more regrets and nonsense. An efficient ally in the form of a southwest wind came to the aid of the sun, and every day Nature responded with increasing favor. Amy no more complained that an American April was like early March in England; and as the surface of the land grew warm and dry it was hard for her to remain in-doors, there was so much of life, bustle, and movement without. Buds were swelling on every side. Those of the lilac were nearly an inch long, and emitted a perfume of the rarest delicacy, far superior to that of the blossoms to come. The nests of the earlier birds were in all stages of construction, and could be seen readily in the leafless trees. Snakes were crawling from their holes, and lay sunning themselves in the roads, to her and Johnnie's dismay. Alf captured turtles that, deep in the mud, had learned the advent of spring as readily as the creatures of the air. The fish were ascending the swollen streams. "Each rill," as Thoreau wrote, "is peopled with new life rushing up it." Abram and Alf were planning a momentous expedition to a tumbling dam on the Moodna, the favorite resort of the sluggish suckers. New chicks were daily breaking their shells, and their soft, downy, ball-like little bodies were more to Amy's taste than the peepers of the marsh.