Maggie joined them, for he deeply enlisted her sympathy, and she wished to make it clear by her manner that the tie between him and the child had her approval. "Yes, indeed, Mr. Alvord," she said, "you must let Johnnie show you her garden, and especially her pansies."
"Heart's-ease is another name for the flower, I believe," he replied, with the glimmer of a smile. "In that case Johnnie should be called Pansy. I thank you, Mrs. Clifford, that you are willing to trust your child to a stranger. We had a lovely ramble the other day, and she said that you told her she might go with me."
"I'm only too glad that you find Johnnie an agreeable little neighbor," Maggie began. "Indeed, we all feel so neighborly that we hope you will soon cease to think of yourself as a stranger." But here impatient Johnnie dragged him off to see her garden, and his close and appreciative attention to all she said and showed to him won the child's heart anew. Amy soon joined them, and said:
"Mr. Alvord, I wish your congratulations, also. I'm eighteen to-day."
He turned, and looked at her so wistfully for a moment that her eyes fell. "I do congratulate you," he said, in a low, deep voice. "If I had my choice between all the world and your age, I'd rather be eighteen again. May your brow always be as serene as it is to-night, Miss Amy." His eyes passed swiftly from the elder to the younger girl, the one almost as young at heart and fully as innocent as the other, and then he spoke abruptly: "Good-by, Johnnie. I wish to see your father a moment on some business;" and he walked rapidly away. By the time they reached the house he had gone. Amy felt that with the night a darker shadow had fallen upon her happy day. The deep sadness of a wounded spirit touched her own, she scarcely knew why. It was but the law of her unwarped, unselfish nature. Even as a happy girl she could not pass by uncaring, on the other side. She felt that she would like to talk with Webb, as she always did when anything troubled her; but he, touched with something of Burt's old restlessness, had rambled away in the moonlight, notwithstanding the fatigues of the day. Therefore she went to the piano and sang for the old people some of the quaint songs of which she knew they were fond. Burt sat smoking and listening on the piazza in immeasurable content.
WEBB'S ROSES AND ROMANCE
To Mrs. Clifford the month of June brought the halcyon days of the year. The warm sunshine revived her, the sub-acid of the strawberry seemed to furnish the very tonic she needed, and the beauty that abounded on every side, and that was daily brought to her couch, conferred a happiness that few could understand. Long years of weakness, in which only her mind could be active, had developed in the invalid a refinement scarcely possible to those who must daily meet the practical questions of life, and whose more robust natures could enjoy the material side of existence. It was not strange, therefore, that country life had matured her native love of flowers into almost a passion, which culminated in her intense enjoyment of the rose in all its varieties. The family, aware of this marked preference, rarely left her without these flowers at any season; but in June her eyes feasted on their varied forms and colors, and she distinguished between her favorites with all the zest and accuracy which a connoisseur of wines ever brought to bear upon their delicate bouquet. With eyes shut she could name from its perfume almost any rose with which she was familiar. Therefore, in all the flower-beds and borders roses abounded, especially the old-fashioned kinds, which are again finding a place in florists' catalogues. Originally led by love for his mother, Webb, years since, had begun to give attention to the queen of flowers. He soon found, however, that the words of an English writer are true, "He who would have beautiful roses in his garden must have them first in his heart," and there, with queenly power, they soon enthroned themselves. In one corner of the garden, which was protected on the north and west by a high stone wall, where the soil was warm, loamy, and well drained, he made a little rose garden. He bought treatises on the flower, and when he heard of or saw a variety that was particularly fine he added it to his collection. "Webb is marked with my love of roses," his mother often said, with her low, pleased laugh. Amy had observed that even in busiest times he often visited his rose garden as if it contained pets that were never forgotten. He once laughingly remarked that he "gave receptions there only by special invitation," and so she had never seen the spot except from a distance.
On the third morning after her birthday Amy came down very early. The bird symphony had penetrated her open windows with such a jubilant resonance that she had been awakened almost with the dawn. The air was so cool and exhilarating, and there was such a wealth of dewy beauty on every side, that she yielded to the impulse to go out and enjoy the most delightful hour of the day. To her surprise, she saw Webb going down the path leading to the garden. "What's on your conscience," she cried, "that you can't sleep?"
"What's on yours?" he retorted.
"The shame of leaving so many mornings like this unseen and not enjoyed. I mean to repent and mend my ways from this time forth; that is, if I wake up. May I go with you?"
"What a droll question!" he replied, in laughing invitation.
"Well, I did not know," she said, joining him, "but that you were going to visit that sanctum sanctorum of yours."
"I am. Your virtue of early rising is about to be rewarded. You know when some great personage is to be specially honored, he is given the freedom of a city or library, etc. I shall now give you the freedom of my rose garden for the rest of the summer, and from this time till frost you can always find roses for your belt. I meant to do this on your birthday, but the buds were not sufficiently forward this backward season."
"I'm not a great personage."
"No, thanks, you're not. You are only our Amy."
"I'm content. Oh, Webb, what miracles have you been working here?" she exclaimed, as she passed through some screening shrubbery, and looked upon a plot given up wholly to roses, many of which were open, more in the phase of exquisite buds, while the majority were still closely wrapped in their green calyxes.
"No miracle at all. I've only assisted nature a little. At the same time, let me assure you that this small place is like a picture-gallery, and that there is a chance here for as nice discrimination as there would be in a cabinet full of works of art. There are few duplicate roses in this place, and I have been years in selecting and winnowing this collection. They are all named varieties, labelled in my mind. I love them too well, and am too familiar with them, to hang disfiguring bits of wood upon them. One might as well label his friends. Each one has been chosen and kept because of some individual point of excellence, and you can gradually learn to recognize these characteristics just as mother does. This plot here is filled with hardy hybrid perpetuals, and that with tender tea-roses, requiring very different treatment. Here is a moss that will bloom again in the autumn. It has a sounding name—Soupert-et-notting—but it is worthy of any name. Though not so mossy as some others, look at its fine form and beautiful rose-color. Only one or two are out yet, but in a week this bush will be a thing of beauty that one would certainly wish might last forever. Try its fragrance. Nothing surpasses it unless it is La France, over there."
She inhaled the exquisite perfume in long breaths, and then looked around at the budding beauty on every side, even to the stone walls that were covered with climbing varieties. At last she turned to him with eyes that were dilated as much with wonder as with pleasure, and said: "Well, this is a surprise. How in the world have you found time to bring all this about? I never saw anything to equal it even in England. Of course I saw rose gardens there on a larger scale in the parks and greenhouses, but I have reference to the bushes and flowers. To me it is just a miracle."
"You are wholly mistaken. Why, Amy, an old gentleman who lives but a few miles away has had seventy distinct kinds of hybrid perpetuals in bloom at one time, and many of them the finest in existence; and yet he has but a little mite of a garden, and has been a poor, hard-working man all his life. Speaking of England, when I read of what the poor working people of Nottingham accomplished in their little bits of glass-houses and their Liliputian gardens, I know that all this is very ordinary, and within the reach of almost any one who loves the flower. After one learns how to grow roses, they do not cost much more care and trouble than a crop of onions or cabbages. The soil and location here just suit the rose. You see that the place is sheltered, and yet there are no trees near to shade them and drain the ground of its richness."
"Oh, you are sure to make it all seem simple and natural. It's a way you have," she said, "But to me it's a miracle. I don't believe there are many who have your feeling for this flower or your skill."
"You are mistaken again. The love for roses is very common, as it should be, for millions of plants are sold annually, and the trade in them is steadily increasing. Come, let me give you a lesson in the distinguishing marks of the different kinds. A rose will smell as sweet by its own name as by another, and you will find no scentless flowers here. There are some fine odorless ones, like the Beauty of Stapleford, but I give them no place."
The moments flew by unheeded until an hour had passed, and then Webb, looking at the sun, exclaimed: "I must go. This will answer for the first lesson. You can bring mother here now in her garden chair whenever she wishes to come, and I will give you other lessons, until you are a true connoisseur in roses;" and he looked at those in her cheeks as if they were more lovely than any to which he had been devoted for years.
"Well, Webb," she said, laughing, "I cannot think of anything lacking in my morning's experience. I was wakened by the song of birds. You have revealed to me the mystery of your sanctum, and that alone, you know, would be happiness to the feminine soul. You have also introduced me to dozens of your sweethearts, for you look at each rose as Burt does at the pretty girls he meets. You have shown me your budding rose garden in the dewy morning, and that was appropriate, too. Every one of your pets was gemmed and jewelled for the occasion, and unrivalled musicians, cleverly concealed in the trees near, have filled every moment with melody. What more could I ask? But where are you going with that basket?"
"To gather strawberries for breakfast. There are enough ripe this morning. You gather roses in the other basket. Why should we not have them for breakfast, also?"
"Why not, indeed, since it would seem that there are to be thousands here and elsewhere in the garden? Fresh roses and strawberries for breakfast— that's country life to perfection. Good-by."
He went away as if in a dream, and his heart almost ached with a tension of feeling that he could not define. It seemed to him the culmination of all that he had loved and enjoyed. His rose garden had been complete at this season the year before, but now that Amy had entered it, the roses that she had touched, admired, and kissed with lips that vied with their petals grew tenfold more beautiful, and the spot seemed sacred to her alone. He could never enter it again without thinking of her and seeing her lithe form bending to favorites which hitherto he had only associated with his mother. His life seemed so full and his happiness so deep that he did not want to think, and would not analyze according to his habit.
He brought the strawberries to Amy in the breakfast-room, and stood near while she and Johnnie hulled them. He saw the roses arranged by his mother's plate in such nice harmony that one color did not destroy another. He replied to her mirthful words and rallyings, scarcely knowing what he said, so deep was the feeling that oppressed him, so strong was his love for that sweet sister who had come into his life and made it ideally perfect. She appreciated what he had loved so fully, her very presence had ever kindled his spirit, and while eager to learn and easily taught, how truly she was teaching him a philosophy of life that seemed divine! What more could he desire? The day passed in a confused maze of thought and happiness, so strange and absorbing that he dared not speak lest he should waken as from a dream. The girl had grown so beautiful to him that he scarcely wished to look at her, and hastened through his meals that he might be alone with his thoughts. The sun had sunk, and the moon was well over the eastern mountains, before he visited the rose garden. Amy was there, and she greeted him with a pretty petulance because he had not come before. Then, in sudden compunction, she asked:
"Don't you feel well, Webb? You have been so quiet since we were here this morning! Perhaps you are sorry you let me into this charmed seclusion."
"No, Amy, I am not," he said, with an impetuosity very unusual in him. "You should know me better than even to imagine such a thing."
Before he could say anything more, Burt's mellow voice rang out, "Amy!"
"Oh, I half forgot; I promised to take a drive with Burt this evening. Forgive me, Webb," she added, gently, "I only spoke in sport. I do know you too well to imagine I am unwelcome here. No one ever had a kinder or more patient brother than you have been to me;" and she clasped her hands upon his arm, and looked up into his face with frank affection.
His arm trembled under her touch, and he felt that he must be alone. In his usual quiet tones, however, he was able to say: "You, rather, must forgive me that I spoke so hastily. No; I'm not ill, but very tired. A good night's rest will bring me around. Go and enjoy your drive to the utmost."
"Webb, you work too hard," she said, earnestly. "But Burt is calling—"
"Yes; do not keep him waiting; and think of me," he added, laughing, "as too weary for moonlight, roses, or anything but prosaic sleep. June is all very well, but it brings a pile of work to a fellow like me."
"Oh, Webb, what a clodhopper you're trying to make yourself out to be! Well, 'Sleep, sleep'—I can't think of the rest of the quotation. Good-by. Yes, I'm coming!" rang out her clear voice; and, with a smiling glance backward, she hastened away.
From the shrubbery he watched her pass up the wide garden path, the moonlight giving an ethereal beauty to her slight form with its white, close drapery. Then, deeply troubled, he threw himself on a rustic seat near the wall, and buried his face in his hands. It was all growing too clear to him now, and he found himself face to face with the conviction that Amy was no longer his sister, but the woman he loved. The deep-hidden current of feeling that had been gathering volume for months at last flashed out into the light, and there could be no more disguise. The explanation of her power over him was now given to his deepest consciousness. By some law of his nature, when she spoke he had ever listened; whatever she said and did had been invested with a nameless charm. Day after day they had been together, and their lives had harmonized like two chords that blend in one sweet sound. He had never had a sister, and his growing interest in Amy had seemed the most natural thing in the world; that Burt should love her, equally natural—to fall in love was almost a habit with the mercurial young fellow when thrown into the society of a pretty girl—and he had felt that he should be only too glad that his brother had at last fixed his thoughts on one who would not be a stranger to them. He now remembered that, while all this had been satisfactory to reason, his heart for a long time had been uttering its low, half-conscious protest. Now he knew why. The events of this long day had revealed him unto himself, because he was ripe for the knowledge.
His nature had its hard, practical business side, but he had never been content with questions of mere profit and loss. He not only had wanted the corn, but the secret of the corn's growth and existence. To search into Nature's hidden life, so that he could see through her outward forms the mechanism back of all, and trace endless diversity to simple inexorable laws, had been his pride and the promised solace of his life. His love of the rose had been to him what it is to many another hard-working man and woman—recreation, a habit, something for which he had developed the taste and feeling of a connoisseur. It had had no appreciable influence on the current of his thoughts. Amy's coming, however, had awakened the poetic side of his temperament, and, while this had taken nothing from the old, it had changed everything. Before, his life had been like nature in winter, when all things are in hard, definite outline. The feeling which she had inspired brought the transforming flowers and foliage. It was an immense addition to that which already existed, and which formed the foundation for it. For a long time he had exulted in this inflorescence of his life, as it were, and was more than content. He did not know that the spirit gifted even unconsciously with the power thus to develop his own nature must soon become to him more than a cause of an effect, more than a sister upon whom he could look with as tranquil eyes and even pulse in youth as in frosty age. But now he knew it with the absolute certainty that was characteristic of his mind when once it grasped a truth. The voice of Burt calling "Amy," after the experiences of the day, had been like a shaft of light, instantly revealing everything. For her sake more than his own he had exerted himself to the utmost to conceal the truth of that moment of bitter consciousness. He trembled as he thought of his blind, impetuous words and her look of surprise; he grew cold with dread as he remembered how easily he might have betrayed himself.
And now what should he do? what could he do but hide the truth with sleepless vigilance? He could not become his brother's rival. In the eyes of Amy and all the family Burt was her acknowledged suitor, who, having been brought to reason, was acting most rationally and honorably. Whether Amy was learning to love him or not made no difference. If she, growing conscious of her womanhood, was turning her thoughts to Burt as the one who had first sought her, and who was now cheerfully waiting until the look of shy choice and appeal came into her eyes, he could not seek to thrust his younger brother aside. If the illustration of the rose which she had forced into unnatural bloom was still true of her heart, he would be false to her and himself, as well as to Burt, should he seek her in the guise of a lover. He had felt that it was almost sacrilege to disturb her May-like girlhood; that this child of nature should be left wholly to nature's impulses and to nature's hour for awakening.
"If it only could have been, how rich and full life would be!" he thought. "We were in sympathy at almost every point When shall I forget the hour we spent here this morning! The exquisite purity and beauty of the dawn, the roses with the dew upon them, seemed emblems of herself. Hereafter they will ever speak to me of her. That perfume that comes on the breeze to me now from the wild grapevine—the most delicate and delightful of all the odors of June—is instantly associated with her in my mind, as all things lovely in nature ever will be hereafter. How can I hide all this from her, and seem merely her quiet elder brother? How can I meet her here to-morrow morning, and in the witchery of summer evenings, and still speak in measured tones, and look at her as I would at Johnnie? The thing is impossible until I have gained a stronger self-control. I must go away for a day or two, and I will. When I return neither Burt nor Amy shall have cause to complain;" and he strode away.
The evening mail brought an excuse. A firm to whom the Cliffords had been sending part of their produce had not given full satisfaction, and Webb announced his intention of going to the city in the morning to investigate matters. His father and Leonard approved of his purpose, and when he added that he might stay in town for two or three days, that he felt the need of a little change and rest before haying and harvest began, they all expressed their approval still more heartily.
The night was so beautiful that Burt prolonged his drive. The witchery of the romantic scenery through which he and Amy passed, and the loveliness of her profile in the pale light, almost broke down his resolution, and once, in accents much too tender, he said, "Oh, Amy, I am so happy when with you!"
"I'm happy with you also," she replied, in brusque tones, "now that you have become so sensible."
He took the hint, and said, emphatically: "Don't you ever be apprehensive or nervous when with me. I'll wait, and be 'sensible,' as you express it, till I'm gray."
Her laugh rang out merrily, but she made no other reply. He was a little nettled, and mentally vowed a constancy that would one day make her regret that laugh.
Webb had retired when Amy returned, and she learned of his plans from Maggie. "It's just the best thing he can do," she said, earnestly. "Webb's been overworking, and he needs and deserves a little rest."
In the morning he seemed so busy with his preparations that he had scarcely time to give her more than a genial off-hand greeting.
"Oh, Webb, I shall miss you so much!" she said, in parting, and her look was very kind and wistful. He did not trust himself to speak, but gave her a humorous and what seemed to her a half-incredulous smile. He puzzled her, and she thought about him and his manner of the previous day and evening not a little. With her sensitive nature, she could not approach so near the mystery that he was striving to conceal without being vaguely impressed that there was something unusual about him. The following day, however, brought a cheerful, business-like letter to his father, which was read at the dinner-table. He had straightened out matters in town and seemed to be enjoying himself. She more than once admitted that she did miss him as she would not any other member of the household. But her out-door life was very full. By the aid of her glass she made the intimate acquaintance of her favorite songsters. Every day she took Mrs. Clifford in her garden chair to the rosary, and proposed through her instruction to give Webb a surprise when he returned. She would prove to him that she could name his pets from their fragrance, form, and color as well as he himself.
A SHAM BATTLE AT WEST POINT
Burt did his best to keep things lively, and a few days after Webb's departure said: "I've heard that there is to be a sham battle at West Point this afternoon. Suppose we go and see it."
The heavy guns from the river batteries had been awakening deep echoes among the mountains every afternoon for some time past, reminding the Cliffords that the June examinations were taking place at the Military Academy, and that there was much of interest occurring near them. Not only did Amy assent to Burt's proposition, but Leonard also resolved to go and take Maggie and the children. In the afternoon a steam-yacht bore them and many other excursionists to their destination, and they were soon skirting the grassy plain on which the military evolutions were to take place.
The scene was full of novelty and interest for Amy. Thousands of people were there, representing every walk and condition of life. Plain farmers with their wives and children, awkward country fellows with their sweethearts, dapper clerks with bleached hands and faces, were passing to and fro among ladies in Parisian toilets and with the unmistakable air of the metropolis. There were officers with stars upon their shoulders, and others, quite as important in their bearing, decorated with the insignia of a second lieutenant. Plain-looking men were pointed out as senators, and elegantly dressed men were, at a glance, seen to be nobodies. Scarcely a type was wanting among those who came to see how the nation's wards were drilled and prepared to defend the nation's honor and maintain peace at the point of the bayonet. On the piazzas of the officers' quarters were groups of favored people whose relations or distinguished claims were such as to give them this advantage over those who must stand where they could to see the pageant. The cadets in their gray uniforms were conspicuously absent, but the band was upon the plain discoursing lively music. From the inclosure within the barracks came the long roll of a drum, and all eyes turned thitherward expectantly. Soon from under the arched sally-port two companies of cadets were seen issuing on the double-quick. They crossed the plain with the perfect time and precision of a single mechanism, and passed down into a depression of the ground toward the river. After an interval the other two companies came out in like manner, and halted on the plain within a few hundred yards of this depression, their bayonets scintillating in the unclouded afternoon sun. Both parties were accompanied by mounted cadet officers. The body on the plain threw out pickets, stacked arms, and lounged at their ease. Suddenly a shot was fired to the eastward, then another, and in that direction the pickets were seen running in. With marvellous celerity the loungers on the plain seized their muskets, formed ranks, and faced toward the point from which the attack was threatened. A skirmish line was thrown out, and this soon met a similar line advancing from the depression, sloping eastward. Behind the skirmishers came a compact line of battle, and it advanced steadily until within fair musket range, when the firing became general. While the attacking party appeared to fight resolutely, it was soon observed that they made no further effort to advance, but sought only to occupy the attention of the party to which they were opposed.
The Cliffords stood on the northwestern edge of the plain near the statue of General Sedgwick, and from this point they could also see what was occurring in the depression toward the river. "Turn, Amy, quick, and see what's coming," cried Burt. Stealing up the hillside in solid column was another body of cadets. A moment later they passed near on the double-quick, went into battle formation on the run, and with loud shouts charged the flank and rear of the cadets on the plain, who from the first had sustained the attack. These seemed thrown into confusion, for they were now between two fires. After a moment of apparent indecision they gave way rapidly in seeming defeat and rout, and the two attacking parties drew together in pursuit. When they had united, the pursued, who a moment before had seemed a crowd of fugitives, became almost instantly a steady line of battle. The order, "Charge!" rang out, and, with fixed bayonets, they rushed upon their assailants, and steadily drove them back over the plain, and down into their original position. It was all carried out with a far degree of life-like reality. The "sing" of minie bullets was wanting, but abundance of noise and sulphurous smoke can be made with blank cartridges; and as the party attacked plucked victory from seeming defeat, the people's acclamations were loud and long.
At this point the horse of one of the cadet officers became unmanageable. They had all observed this rider during the battle, admiring the manner in which he restrained the vicious brute, but at last the animal's excitement or fear became so great that he rushed toward the crowded sidewalk and road in front of the officers' quarters. The people gave way to right and left. Burt had scarcely time to do more than encircle Amy with his arm and sweep her out of the path of the terrified beast. The cadet made heroic efforts, until it was evident that the horse would dash into the iron fence beyond the road, and then the young fellow was off and on his feet with the agility of a cat, but he still maintained his hold upon the bridle. A second later there was a heavy thud heard above the screams of women and children and the shouts of those vociferating advice. The horse fell heavily in his recoil from the fence, and in a moment or two was led limping and crestfallen away, while the cadet quietly returned to his comrades on the plain. Johnnie and little Ned were crying from fright, and both Amy and Maggie were pale and nervous; therefore Leonard led the way out of the crowd. From a more distant point they saw the party beneath the hill rally for a final and united charge, which this time proved successful, and the companies on the plain, after a stubborn resistance, were driven back to the barracks, and through the sally-port, followed by their opponents. The clouds of smoke rolled away, the band struck up a lively air, and the lines of people broke up into groups and streamed in all directions. Leonard decided that it would be best for them to return by the evening boat, and not wait for parade, since the little yacht would certainly be overcrowded at a later hour.
CHASED BY A THUNDER-SHOWER
The first one on the "Powell" to greet them was Webb, returning from the city. Amy thought he looked so thin as to appear almost haggard, but he seemed in the best of spirits, and professed to feel well and rested. She half imagined that she missed a certain gentleness in his words and manner toward her, but when he heard how nearly she had been trampled upon, she was abundantly satisfied by his look of deep affection and solicitude as he said: "Heaven bless your strong, ready arm, Burt!" "Oh, that it had been mine!" was his inward thought. He masked his feelings so well, however, that all perplexity passed from her mind. She was eager to visit the rose garden with him, and when there he praised her quickly acquired skill so sincerely that her face flushed with pleasure. No one seemed to enjoy the late but ample supper more than he, or to make greater havoc in the well-heaped dish of strawberries. "I tasted none like these in New York," he said. "After all, give me the old-fashioned kind. We've tried many varieties, but the Triomphe de Gand proves the most satisfactory, if one will give it the attention it deserves. The fruit ripens early and lasts till late. It is firm and good even in cool, wet weather, and positively delicious after a sunny day like this."
"I agree with you, Webb," said his mother, smiling. "It's the best of all the kinds we've had, except, perhaps, the President Wilder, but that doesn't bear well in our garden."
"Well, mother," he replied, with a laugh, "the best is not too good for you. I have a row of Wilders, however, for your especial benefit, but they're late, you know."
The next morning he went into the haying with as much apparent zest as Leonard. They began with red-top clover. The growth had been so heavy that in many places it had "lodged," or fallen, and it had to be cut with scythes. Later on, the mowing-machine would be used in the timothy fields and meadows. Amy, from her open window, watched him as he steadily bent to the work, and she inhaled with pleasure the odors from the bleeding clover, for it was the custom of the Cliffords to cut their grasses early, while full of the native juices. Rakes followed the scythes speedily, and the clover was piled up into compact little heaps, or "cocks," to sweat out its moisture rather than yield it to the direct rays of the sun.
"Oh, dear!" said Amy, at the dinner-table, "my bees won't fare so well, now that you are cutting down so much of their pasture."
"Red clover affords no pasturage for honey-bees," said Webb, laughing. "How easily he seems to laugh of late!" Amy thought. "They can't reach the honey in the long, tube-like blossoms. Here the bumble-bees have everything their way, and get it all except what is sipped by the humming-birds, with their long beaks, as they feed on the minute insects within the flowers. I've heard the question, Of what use are bumble-bees?—I like to say bumble best, as I did when a boy. Well, I've been told that red clover cannot be raised without this insect, which, passing from flower to flower, carries the fertilizing pollen. In Australia the rats and the field mice were so abundant that they destroyed these bees, which, as you know, make their nests on the ground, and so cats had to be imported in order to give the bumble-bees and red clover a chance for life. There is always trouble in nature unless an equilibrium is kept up. Much as I dislike cats, I must admit that they have contributed largely toward the prosperity of an incipient empire."
"When I was a boy," remarked Leonard, "I was cruel enough to catch bumble-bees and pull them apart for the sake of the sac of honey they carry."
Alf hung his head, and looked very conscious. "Own up, Alf," laughed Webb.
"Well, I ain't any worse than papa," said the boy.
All through the afternoon the musical sound of whetting the scythes with the rifle rang out from time to time, and in the evening Leonard said, "If this warm, dry weather holds till to-morrow night, we shall get in our clover in perfect condition."
On the afternoon of the following day the two-horse wagon, surmounted by the hay-rack, went into the barn again and again with its fragrant burden; but at last Amy was aroused from her book by a heavy vibration of thunder. Going to a window facing the west, she saw a threatening cloud that every moment loomed vaster and darker. The great vapory heads, tipped with light, towered rapidly, until at last the sun passed into a sudden eclipse that was so deep as to create almost a twilight. As the cloud approached, there was a low, distant, continuous sound, quite distinct from nearer and heavier peals, which after brief and briefer intervals followed the lightning gleams athwart the gloom. She saw that the hay-makers were gathering the last of the clover, and raking, pitching, and loading with eager haste, their forms looking almost shadowy in the distance and the dim light. Their task was nearly completed, and the horses' heads were turned barnward, when a flash of blinding intensity came, with an instantaneous crash, that roared away to the eastward with deep reverberations. Amy shuddered, and covered her face with her hands. When she looked again, the clover-field and all that it contained seemed annihilated. The air was thick with dust, straws, twigs, and foliage torn away, and the gust passed over the house with a howl of fury scarcely less appalling than the thunder-peal had been. Trembling, and almost faint with fear, sho strained her eyes toward the point where she had last seen Webb loading the hay-rack. The murky obscurity lightened up a little, and in a moment or two she saw him whipping the horses into a gallop. The doors of the barn stood open, and the rest of the workers had taken a cross-cut toward it, while Mr. Clifford was on the piazza, shouting for them to hurry. Great drops splashed against the window-panes, and the heavy, monotonous sound of the coming torrent seemed to approach like the rush of a locomotive. Webb, with the last load, is wheeling to the entrance of the barn. A second later, and the horses' feet resound on the planks of the floor. Then all is hidden, and the rain pours against the window like a cataract. In swift alternation of feeling she clapped her hands in applause, and ran down to meet Mr. Clifford, who, with much effort, was shutting the door against the gale. When he turned he rubbed his hands and laughed as he said, "Well, I never saw Webb chased so sharply by a thunder-shower before; but he won the race, and the clover's safe."
The storm soon thundered away to parts unknown, the setting sun spanning its retreating murkiness with a magnificent bow; long before the rain ceased the birds were exulting in jubilant chorus, and the air grew still and deliciously cool and fragrant. When at last the full moon rose over the Beacon Mountains there was not a cloud above the horizon, and Nature, in all her shower-gemmed and June-clad loveliness, was like a radiant beauty lost in revery.
THE RESCUE OF A HOME
Who remembers when his childhood ceased? Who can name the hour when buoyant, thoughtless, half-reckless youth felt the first sobering touch of manhood, or recall the day when he passed over the summit of his life, and faced the long decline of age? As imperceptibly do the seasons blend when one passes and merges into another. There were traces of summer in May, lingering evidences of spring far into June, and even in sultry July came days in which the wind in the groves and the chirp of insects at night foretold the autumn.
The morning that followed the thunder-shower was one of warm, serene beauty. The artillery of heaven had done no apparent injury. A rock may have been riven in the mountains, a lonely tree splintered, but homes were safe, the warm earth was watered, and the air purified. With the dawn Amy's bees were out at work, gleaning the last sweets from the white clover, that was on the wane, from the flowers of the garden, field, and forest. The rose garden yielded no honey: the queen of flowers is visited by no bees. The sweetbrier, or eglantine, belonging to this family is an exception, however, and if the sweets of these wild roses could be harvested, an Ariel would not ask for daintier sustenance.
White and delicate pink hues characterize the flowers of early spring. In June the wild blossoms emulate the skies, and blue predominates. In July and August many of the more sensitive in Flora's train blush crimson under the direct gaze of the sun. Yellow hues hold their own throughout the year, from the dandelions that first star the fields to the golden-rod that flames until quenched by frost and late autumn storms.
During the latter part of June the annual roses of the garden were in all stages and conditions. Beautiful buds could be gleaned among the developing seed receptacles and matured flowers that were casting their petals on every breeze. The thrips and the disgusting rose-bug were also making havoc here and there. But an untiring vigilance watched over the rose garden. Morning, noon, and evening Webb cut away the fading roses, and Amy soon learned to aid him, for she saw that his mind was bent on maintaining the roses in this little nook at the highest attainable point of perfection. It is astonishing how greatly nature can be assisted and directed by a little skilled labor at the right time. Left to themselves, the superb varieties in the rose garden would have spent the remainder of the summer and autumn chiefly in the development of seed-vessels, and in resting after their first bloom. But the pruning-knife had been too busy among them, and the thoroughly fertilized soil sent up supplies that must be disposed of. As soon as the bushes had given what may be termed their first annual bloom they were cut back halfway to the ground, and dormant buds were thus forced into immediate growth. Meanwhile the new shoots that in spring had started from the roots were already loaded with buds, and so, by a little management and attention, the bloom would be maintained until frosty nights should bring the sleep of winter. No rose-bug escaped Webb's vigilant search, and the foliage was so often sprayed by a garden syringe with an infusion of white hellebore that thrips and slugs met their deserved fate before they had done any injury. Thus for Mrs. Clifford and Amy was maintained a supply of these exquisite flowers, which in a measure became a part of their daily food.
Nature was culminating. On every side was the fulfilment of its innumerable promises. The bluebird, with the softness of June in his notes, had told his love amid the snows and gales of March, and now, with unabated constancy, and with all a father's solicitude, he was caring for his third nestful of fledglings. Young orioles were essaying flight from their wind-rocked cradles on the outer boughs of the elms. Phoebe-birds, with nests beneath bridges over running streams, had, nevertheless, the skill to land their young on the banks. Nature was like a vast nursery, and from gardens, lawns, fields, and forest the cries and calls of feathered infancy were heard all day, and sometimes in the darkness, as owls, hawks, and other night prowlers added to the fearful sum of the world's tragedies. The cat-birds, that had built in some shrubbery near the house, had by the last of June done much to gain Amy's good-will and respect. As their domestic character and operations could easily be observed, she had visited them almost daily from the time they had laid the dry-twig and leafy foundation of their nest until its lining of fine dry grasses was completed. She bad found that, although inclined to mock and gibe at outsiders, they were loyal and affectionate to each other. In their home-building, in the incubation of the deep bluish-green eggs, and in the care of the young, now almost ready to fly, they had been mutually helpful and considerate, fearless and even fierce in attacking all who approached too near their domicile. To Amy and her daily visits they had become quite reconciled, even as she had grown interested in them, in spite of a certain lack of the high breeding which characterized the thrushes and other favorites.
"My better acquaintance with them," she said one evening to Dr. Marvin, who, with his wife, had stopped at the Cliffords' in passing, "has taught me a lesson. I think I'm too much inclined to sweeping censure on the exhibition of a few disagreeable traits. I've learned that the gossips in yonder bushes have some excellent qualities, and I suppose you find that this is true of the gossips among your patients."
"Yes," replied the doctor, "but the human gossips draw the more largely on one's charity; and if you knew how many pestiferous slugs and insects your neighbors in the shrubbery have already destroyed, the human genus of gossip would suffer still more in comparison."
That Amy had become so interested in these out-door neighbors turned out to their infinite advantage, for one morning their excited cries of alarm secured her attention. Hastening to the locality of their nest, she looked upon a scene that chilled the blood in her own veins. A huge black-snake suspended his weight along the branches of the shrubbery with entire confidence and ease, and was in the act of swallowing a fledgling that, even as Amy looked, sent out its last despairing peep. The parent birds were frantic with terror, and their anguish and fearless efforts to save their young redeemed them forever in Amy's eyes.
"Webb!" she cried, since, for some reason, he ever came first to her mind in an emergency. It so happened that he had just come from the hay field to rest awhile and prepare for dinner. In a moment he was at her side, and followed with hasty glance her pointing finger.
"Come away, Amy," he said, as he looked at her pale face and dilated eyes. "I do not wish you to witness a scene like that;" and almost by force he drew her to the piazza. In a moment he was out with a breech-loading gun, and as the smoke of the discharge lifted, she saw a writhing, sinuous form fall heavily to the earth. After a brief inspection Webb came toward her in smiling assurance, saying: "The wretch got only one of the little family. Four birds are left. There now, don't feel so badly. You have saved a home from utter desolation. That, surely, will be a pleasant thing to remember."
"What could I have done if you had not come?"
"I don't like to think of what you might have done—emulated the mother-bird, perhaps, and flown at the enemy."
"I did not know you were near when I called your name," she said. "It was entirely instinctive on my part; and I believe," she added, musingly, looking with a child's directness into his eyes, "that one's instincts are usually right; don't you?"
He turned away to hide the feeling of intense pleasure caused by her words, but only said, in a low voice, "I hope I may never fail you, Amy, when you turn to me for help." Then he added, quickly, as if hastening away from delicate ground: "While those large black-snakes are not poisonous, they are ugly customers sometimes. I have read of an instance in which a boy put his hand into the hole of a tree where there had been a bluebird's nest, and touched the cold scales of one of these snakes. The boy took to his heels, with the snake after him, and it is hard to say what would have happened had not a man plowing near come to the rescue with a heavy ox-whip. What I should fear most in your case would be a nervous shock had the snake even approached you, for you looked as if you had inherited from Mother Eve an unusual degree of hate for the reptile."
The report of the gun had attracted Alf and others to the scene. Amy, with a look of smiling confidence, said: "Perhaps you have rescued me as well as the birds. I can't believe, though, that such a looking creature could have tempted Eve to either good or evil;" and she entered the house, leaving him in almost a friendly mood toward the cause of the cat-bird's woe.
Alf exulted over the slain destroyer, and even Johnnie felt no compunction at the violent termination of its life. The former, with much sportsmanlike importance, measured it, and at the dinner-table announced its length to be a little over four feet.
"By the way," said Webb, "your adventure, Amy, reminds me of one of the finest descriptions I ever read;" and jumping up, he obtained from the library Burroughs's account of a like scene and rescue. "I will just give you some glimpses of the picture," he said, reading the following sentences: "'Three or four yards from me was the nest, beneath which, in long festoons, rested a huge black-snake. I can conceive of nothing more overpoweringly terrible to an unsuspecting family of birds than the sudden appearance above their domicile of the head and neck of this arch enemy. One thinks of the great myth of the tempter and the cause of all our woe, and wonders if the Arch-One is not playing off some of his pranks before him. Whether we call it snake or devil matters little. I could but admire his terrible beauty, however; his black, shining folds; his easy, gliding movement—head erect, eyes glistening, tongue playing like subtile flame, and the invisible means of his almost winged locomotion. Presently, as he came gliding down the slender body of a leaning alder, his attention was attracted by a slight movement of my arm; eying me an instant with that crouching, utter, motionless gaze which I believe only snakes and devils can assume, he turned quickly,'" etc.
Amy shuddered, and Mrs. Clifford looked a little troubled that the scene in Eden should be spoken of as merely a "myth." When she was a child "Paradise Lost" had been her story-book, and the stories had become real to her. Burt, however, not to be outdone, recalled his classics.
"By the way," he said, "I can almost parallel your description from the 'Iliad' of Homer. I won't pretend that I can give you the Greek, and no doubt it would be Greek to you. I'll get even with you, Webb, however, and read an extract from Pope's translation," and he also made an excursion to the library. Returning, he said, "Don't ask me for the connection," and read:
"'Straight to the tree his sanguine spires he rolled, And curled around in many a winding fold. The topmost branch a mother-bird possessed; Eight callow infants filled the mossy nest; Herself the ninth: the serpent as he hung Stretched his black jaws, and crashed the crying young: While hovering near, with miserable moan, The drooping mother wailed her children gone. The mother last, as round the nest she flew, Seized by the beating wing, the monster slew.'"
"Bravo!" cried Leonard. "I am now quite reconciled to your four years at college. Heretofore I had thought you had passed through it as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passed through the fiery furnace, without even the smell of fire upon their garments, but I now at last detect a genuine Greek aroma."
"I think Burt's quotation very pat," said Amy, "and I could not have believed that anything written so long ago would apply so marvellously to what I have seen to-day."
"Marvellously pat, indeed," said Leonard. "And since your quotation has led to such a nice little pat on your classical back, Burt, you must feel repaid for your long burning of the midnight oil."
Burt flushed slightly, but he turned Leonard's shafts with smiling assurance, and said: "Amply repaid. I have ever had an abiding confidence that my education would be of use to me at some time."
The long days grew hot, and often sultry, but the season brought unremitting toil. The click of the mowing-machine, softened by distance, came from field after field. As the grain in the rye grew plump and heavy, the heads drooped more and more, and changed from a pale yellow to the golden hue that announced the hour of harvest. In smooth and level fields the reaping-machine also lightened and expedited labor, but there was one upland slope that was too rough for anything except the old-fashioned cradle. On a breezy afternoon Amy went out to sketch the harvesters, and from the shade of an adjacent tree to listen to the rhythmical rush and rustle as the blade passed through the hollow stocks, and the cradle dropped the gathered wealth in uniform lines. Almost immediately the prostrate grain was transformed into tightly girthed sheaves. How black Abram's great paw looked as he twisted a wisp of straw, bound together the yellow stalks, and tucked under the end of his improvised rope!
Webb was leading the reapers, and they had to step quickly to keep pace with him. As Amy appeared upon the scene he had done no more than take off his hat and wave it to her, but as the men circled round the field near her again, she saw that her acquaintance of the mountain cabin was manfully bringing up the rear. Every time, before Lumley stooped to the sweep of his cradle, she saw that he stole a glance toward her, and she recognized him with cordial good-will. He, too, doffed his hat in grateful homage, and as he paused a moment in his honest toil, and stood erect, he unconsciously asserted the manhood that she had restored to him. She caught his attitude, and he became the subject of her sketch. Rude and simple though it was, it would ever recall to her a pleasant picture—the diminishing area of standing rye, golden in the afternoon sunshine, with light billows running over it before the breeze, Webb leading, with the strong, assured progress that would ever characterize his steps through life, and poor Lumley, who had been wronged by generations that had passed away, as well as by his own evil, following in an honest emulation which she had evoked.
A MIDNIGHT TEMPEST
As far as possible, the prudent Leonard, who was commander-in-chief of the harvest campaign, had made everything snug before the Fourth of July, which Alf ushered in with untimely patriotic fervor. Almost before the first bird had taken its head from under its wing to look for the dawn, he had fired a salute from a little brass cannon. Not very long afterward the mountains up and down the river were echoing with the thunder of the guns at West Point and Newburgh. The day bade fair to justify its proverbial character for sultriness. Even in the early morning the air was languid and the heat oppressive. The sun was but a few hours high before the song of the birds almost ceased, with the exception of the somewhat sleepy whistling of the orioles. They are half tropical in nature as well as plumage, and their manner during the heat of the day is like that of languid Southern beauties. They kept flitting here and there through their leafy retirement in a mild form of restlessness, exchanging soft notes—pretty nonsense, no doubt—which often terminated abruptly, as if they had not energy enough to complete the brief strain attempted.
Alf, with his Chinese crackers and his cannon, and Johnnie and Ned, with their torpedoes, kept things lively during the forenoon, but their elders were disposed to lounge and rest. The cherry-trees, laden with black and white ox-hearts, were visited. One of the former variety was fairly sombre with the abundance of its dark-hued fruit, and Amy's red lips grew purple as Burt threw her down the largest and ripest from the topmost boughs. Webb, carrying a little basket lined with grapevine leaves, gleaned the long row of Antwerp raspberries. The first that ripen of this kind are the finest and most delicious, and their strong aroma announced his approach long before he reached the house. His favorite Triomphe de Grand strawberries, that had supplied the table three weeks before, were still yielding a fair amount of fruit, and his mother was never without her dainty dish of pale red berries, to which the sun had been adding sweetness with the advancing season until nature's combination left nothing to be desired.
By noon the heat was oppressive, and Alf and Ned were rolling on the grass under a tree, quite satiated for a time with two elements of a boy's elysium, fire-crackers and cherries. The family gathered in the wide hall, through the open doors of which was a slight draught of air. All had donned their coolest costumes, and their talk was quite as languid as the occasional notes and chirpings of the birds without. Amy was reading a magazine in a very desultory way, her eyelids drooping over every page before it was finished, Webb and Burt furtively admiring the exquisite hues that the heat brought into her face, and the soft lustre of her eyes. Old Mr. Clifford nodded over his newspaper until his spectacles clattered to the floor, at which they all laughed, and asked for the news. His invalid wife lay upon the sofa in dreamy, painless repose. To her the time was like a long, quiet nooning by the wayside of life, with all her loved band around her, and her large, dark eyes rested on one and another in loving, lingering glances—each so different, yet each so dear! Sensible Leonard was losing no time, but was audibly resting in a great wooden rocking-chair at the further end of the hall. Maggie only, the presiding genius of the household, was not wilted by the heat. She flitted in and out occasionally, looking almost girlish in her white wrapper. She had the art of keeping house, of banishing dust and disorder without becoming an embodiment of dishevelled disorder herself. No matter what she was doing, she always appeared trim and neat, and in the lover-like expression of her husband's eyes, as they often followed her, she had her reward. She was not deceived by the semi-torpid condition of the household, and knew well what would be expected in a Fourth-of-July dinner. Nor was she disappointed. The tinkle of the bell at two o'clock awakened unusual animation, and then she had her triumph. Leonard beamed upon a hind-quarter of lamb roasted to the nicest turn of brownness. A great dish of Champion-of-England pease, that supreme product of the kitchen-garden, was one of the time-honored adjuncts, while new potatoes, the first of which had been dug that day, had half thrown off their mottled jackets in readiness for the feast. Nature had been Maggie's handmaid in spreading that table, and art, with its culinary mysteries and combinations, was conspicuously absent. If Eve had had a kitchen range and the Garden of Eden to draw upon, Adam could scarcely have fared better than did the Clifford household that day. The dishes heaped with strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and white grape-currants that had been gathered with the dew upon them might well tempt the most blase resident of a town to man's primal calling.
Before they reached their iced tea, which on this hot day took the place of coffee, there was a distant peal of thunder.
"I knew it would come," said old Mr. Clifford. "We shall have a cool night, after all."
"A Fourth rarely passes without showers," Leonard remarked. "That's why I was so strenuous about getting all our grass and grain that was down under cover yesterday."
"You are not the only prudent one," Maggie added, complacently. "I've made my currant jelly, and it jellied beautifully: it always does if I make it before the Fourth and the showers that come about this time. It's queer, but a rain on the currants after they are fairly ripe almost spoils them for jelly."
The anticipations raised by the extreme sultriness were fulfilled at first only in part. Instead of a heavy shower accompanied by violent gusts, there was a succession of tropical and vertical down-pourings, with now and then a sharp flash and a rattling peal, but usually a heavy monotone of thunder from bolts flying in the distance. One great cloud did not sweep across the sky like a concentrated charge, leaving all clear behind it, as is so often the case, but, as if from an immense reserve, Nature appeared to send out her vapory forces by battalions. Instead of enjoying the long siesta which she had promised herself, Amy spent the afternoon in watching the cloud scenery. A few miles southwest of the house was a prominent highland that happened to be in the direct line of the successive showers. This formed a sort of gauge of their advance. A cloud would loom up behind it, darken it, obscure it until it faded out even as a shadow; then the nearer spurs of the mountains would be blotted out, and in eight or ten minutes even the barn and the adjacent groves would be but dim outlines through the myriad rain-drops. The cloud would soon be well to the eastward, the dim landscape take form and distinctness, and the distant highland appear again, only to be obscured in like manner within the next half-hour. It was as if invisible and Titanic gardeners were stepping across the country with their watering-pots.
Burt and Webb sat near Amy at the open window, the former chatting easily, and often gayly. Webb, with his deep-set eyes fixed on the clouds, was comparatively silent. At last he rose somewhat abruptly, and was not seen again until evening, when he seemed to be in unusually good spirits. As the dusk deepened he aided Alf and Johnnie in making the finest possible display of their fireworks, and for half an hour the excitement was intense. The family applauded from the piazza. Leonard and his father, remembering the hay and grain already stored in the barn, congratulated each other that the recent showers had prevented all danger from sparks.
After the last rocket had run its brief, fiery course, Alf and Johnnie were well content to go with Webb, Burt, and Amy to an upper room whose windows looked out on Newburgh Bay and to the westward. Near and far, from their own and the opposite side of the river, rockets were flaming into the sky, and Roman candles sending up their globes of fire. But Nature was having a celebration of her own, which so far surpassed anything terrestrial that it soon won their entire attention. A great black cloud that hung darkly in the west was the background for the electric pyrotechnics. Against this obscurity the lightning played almost every freak imaginable. At one moment there would be an immense illumination, and the opaque cloud would become vivid gold. Again, across its blackness a dozen fiery rills of light would burn their way in zigzag channels, and not infrequently a forked bolt would blaze earthward. Accompanying these vivid and central effects were constant illuminations of sheet lightning all round the horizon, and the night promised to be a carnival of thunder-showers throughout the land. The extreme heat continued, and was rendered far more oppressive by the humidity of the atmosphere.
The awful grandeur of the cloud scenery at last so oppressed Amy that she sought relief in Maggie's lighted room. As we have already seen, her sensitive organization was peculiarly affected by an atmosphere highly charged with electricity. She was not re-assured, for Leonard inadvertently remarked that it would take "a rousing old-fashioned storm to cool and clear the air."
"Why, Amy," exclaimed Maggie, "how pale you are! and your eyes shine as if some of the lightning had got into them."
"I wish it was morning," said the girl. "Such a sight oppresses me like a great foreboding of evil;" and, with a restlessness she could not control, she went down to Mrs. Clifford's room. She found Mr. Clifford fanning the invalid, who was almost faint from the heat. Amy took his place, and soon had the pleasure of seeing her charge drop off into quiet slumber. As Mr. Clifford was very weary also, Amy left them to their rest, and went to the sitting-room, where Webb was reading. Burt had fallen asleep on the lounge in the hall. Leonard's prediction promised to come true. The thunder muttered nearer and nearer, but it was a sullen, slow, remorseless approach through the absolute silence and darkness without, and therefore was tenfold more trying to one nervously apprehensive than a swift, gusty storm would have been in broad day.
Webb looked up and greeted her with a smile. His lamp was shaded, and the room shadowy, so that he did not note that Amy was troubled and depressed. "Shall I read to you?" he asked. "I am running over Hawthorne's 'English Note-Books' again."
"Yes," she said, in a low voice; and she sat down with her back to the windows, through which shone momentarily the glare of the coming tempest. He had not read a page before a long, sullen peal rolled across the entire arc of the sky. "Webb," faltered Amy, and she rose and took an irresolute step toward him.
His pre-occupation was instantly gone. Never had he heard sweeter music than that low appeal, to which the deep echoes in the mountains formed a strange accompaniment. He stepped to her side, took her hand, and found it cold and trembling. Drawing her within the radiance of the lamp, he saw how pale she was, and that her eyes were dilated with nervous dread.
"Webb," she began again, "do you—do you think there is danger?"
"No, Amy," he said, gently; "there is no danger for you in God's universe."
"Oh, that frightful glare!" and she buried her face on his shoulder. "Webb," she whispered, "won't you stay up till the storm is over? And you won't think me weak or silly either, will you? Indeed, I can't help it. I wish I had a little of your courage and strength."
"I like you best as you are," he said; "and all my strength is yours when you need it. I understand you, Amy, and well know you cannot help this nervous dread. I saw how these electrical storms affected you last February, and such experiences are not rare with finely organized natures. See, I can explain it all with my matter-of-fact philosophy. But, believe me, there is no danger. Certainly I will stay with you. What would I not do for you?" he could not help adding.
She looked at him affectionately as she said, with a child's unconscious frankness: "I don't know why it is, but I always feel safe when with you. I often used to wish that I had a brother, and imagine what he would be to me; but I never dreamed that a brother could be so much to me as you are.—Oh, Webb!" and she almost clung to him, as the heavy thunder pealed nearer than before.
Involuntarily he encircled her with his arm, and drew her closer to him in the impulse of protection. She felt his arm tremble, and wholly misinterpreted the cause. Springing aloof, she clasped her hands, and looked around almost wildly.
"Oh, Webb," she cried, "there is danger. Even you tremble."
Webb was human, and had nerves also, but all the thunder that ever roared could not affect them so powerfully as Amy's head bowed upon his shoulder, and the appealing words of her absolute trust. He mastered himself instantly, however, for he saw that he must be strong and calm in order to sustain the trembling girl through one of Nature's most awful moods. She was equally sensitive to the smiling beauty and the wrath of the great mother. The latter phase was much the same to her as if a loved face had suddenly become black with reckless passion. He took both her hands in a firm grasp, and said: "Amy, I am not afraid, and you must not be. You can do much toward self-control. Come," he added, in tones almost authoritative, "sit here by me, and give me your hand. I shall read to you in a voice as quiet and steady as you ever heard me use."
She obeyed, and he kept his word. His strong, even grasp reassured her in a way that excited her wonder, and the nervous paroxysm of fear began to pass away. While she did not comprehend what he read, his tones and expression had their influence. His voice, however, was soon drowned by the howling of the tempest as it rushed upon them. He felt her hand tremble again, and saw her look apprehensively toward the windows.
"Amy," he said, and in smiling confidence he fixed his eyes on hers and held them.
The crisis of the storm was indeed terrific. The house rocked in the furious blasts. The uproar without was frightful, suggesting that the Evil One was in very truth the "prince of the power of the air," and that he was abroad with all his legions. Amy trembled violently, but Webb's hand and eyes held hers. "Courage!" he said, cheerily; "the storm is passing."
A wan, grateful smile glimmered for a moment on her pale face, and then her expression passed into one of horror. With a cry that was lost in a deafening crash, she sprang into his arms. Even Webb was almost stunned and blinded for a moment. Then he heard rapid steps. Burt at last had been aroused from the slumber of youth, and, fortunately for his peace, rushed first into his mother's room. Webb thought Amy had fainted, and he laid her gently on the lounge. "Don't leave me," she gasped, faintly.
"Amy," he said, earnestly, "I assure you that all danger is now over. As I told you once before, the centre of the storm has passed. You know I never deceived you."
Maggie and Burt now came running in, and Webb said, "Amy has had a faint turn. I will get her a glass of water."
This revived her speedily, but the truth of Webb's words proved more efficacious. The gale was sweeping the storm from the sky. The swish of the torrents mattered little, for the thunder-peals died away steadily to the eastward. Amy made a great effort to rally, for she felt ashamed of her weakness, and feared that the others would not interpret her as charitably as Webb had done. In a few minutes he smilingly withdrew, and went out on the rear porch with Leonard, whence they anxiously scanned the barn and out-buildings. These were evidently safe, wherever the bolt had fallen, and it must have struck near. In half an hour there was a line of stars along the western horizon, and soon the repose within the old house was as deep as that of nature without.
Webb only was sleepless. He sat at his open window, and saw the clouds roll away. But he felt that a cloud deeper and murkier than any that had ever blackened the sky hung over his life. He knew too well why his arm had trembled when for a moment it encircled Amy. The deepest and strongest impulse of his soul was to protect her, and her instinctive appeal to him had raised a tempest in his heart as wild as that which had raged without. He felt that he could not yield her to another, not even to his brother. Nature itself pointed her to him. It was to him she turned and clung in her fears. And yet she had not even dreamed of his untold wealth of love, and probably never would suspect it. He could not reveal it—indeed, it must be the struggle of his life to hide it—and she, while loving him as a brother, might easily drift into an engagement and marriage with Burt. Could he be patient, and wear a smiling mask through it all? That tropical night and its experiences taught him anew that he had a human heart, with all its passionate cravings. When he came down from his long vigil on the following morning his brow was as serene as the scene without. Amy gave him a grateful and significant smile, and he smiled back so naturally that observant Burt, who had been a little uneasy over the events of the previous night, was wholly relieved of anxiety. They had scarcely seated themselves at the breakfast-table before Alf came running in, and said that an elm not a hundred yards from the house had been splintered from the topmost branch to the roots. All except Mrs. Clifford went out to look at the smitten tree, and they gazed with awe at the deep furrow plowed in the blackened wood.
"It will live," said Webb, quietly, as he turned away; "it will probably live out its natural life."
Amy, in her deep sympathy, looked after him curiously. There was something in his tone and manner which suggested a meaning beyond his words. Not infrequently he had puzzled her of late, and this added to her interest in him. She understood Burt thoroughly.
Good old Mr. Clifford saw in the shattered tree only reasons for profound thankfulness, and words of Christian gratitude rose to his lips.
THE TWO LOVERS
The July sun speedily drank up the superabundant moisture, and the farm operations went on with expedition. The corn grew green and strong, and its leaves stretched up to Abram's shoulder as he ran the cultivator through it for the last time. The moist sultriness of the Fourth finished the ox-heart cherries. They decayed at once, to Alf's great regret. "That is the trouble with certain varieties of cherries," Webb remarked. "One shower will often spoil the entire crop even before it is ripe." But it so happened that there were several trees of native or ungrafted fruit on the place, and these supplied the children and the birds for many days thereafter. The robins never ceased gorging themselves. Indeed, they were degenerating into shameless gourmands, and losing the grace of song, as were also the bobolinks in the meadows.
Already there was a perceptible decline in the morning and evening minstrelsy of all the birds, and, with the exception of calls and twitterings, they grew more and more silent through the midday heat. With the white bloom of the chestnut-trees the last trace of spring passed away. Summer reached its supreme culmination, and days that would not be amiss at the equator were often followed by nights of breathless sultriness. Early in the month haying and harvest were over, and the last load that came down the lane to the barn was ornamented with green boughs, and hailed with acclamations by the farm hands, to whom a generous supper was given, and something substantial also to take home to their families.
As the necessity for prompt action and severe labor passed, the Cliffords proved that their rural life was not one of plodding, unredeemed toil. For the next few weeks Nature would give them a partial respite. She would finish much of the work which they had begun. The corn would mature, the oats ripen, without further intervention on their part. By slow but sure alchemy the fierce suns would change the acid and bitter juices in the apples, peaches, plums, and pears into nectar. Already Alf was revelling in the harvest apples, which, under Maggie's culinary magic, might tempt an ascetic to surfeit.
While Burt had manfully done his part in the harvest-field, he had not made as long hours as the others, and now was quite inclined to enjoy to the utmost a season of comparative leisure. He was much with Amy, and she took pleasure in his society, for, as she characterized his manner in her thoughts, he had grown very sensible. He had accepted the situation, and he gave himself not a little credit for his philosophical patience. He regarded himself as committed to a deep and politic plan, in which, however, there was no unworthy guile. He would make himself essential to Amy's happiness. He would be so quietly and naturally devoted to her that she would gradually come to look forward to a closer union as a matter of course. He also made it clear to her that she had no rivals in his thoughts, or even admiration, and, as far as courtesy permitted, withdrew from the society of a few favorites who once had welcomed him gladly and often. He had even pretended indifference to the advent of a dark-eyed beauty to the neighborhood, and had made no efforts to form her acquaintance. This stranger from the city was so charming, however, that he had felt more than once that he was giving no slight proof of constancy. His fleet horse Thunder was his great ally, and in the long twilight evenings, he, with Amy, explored the country roads far and near. When the early mornings were not too warm they rowed upon the river, or went up the Moodna Creek for water-lilies, which at that hour floated upon the surface with their white petals all expanded—beautiful emblems of natures essentially good. From mud and slime they developed purity and fragrance. He was also teaching Amy to be an expert horsewoman, and they promised themselves many a long ride when autumn coolness should make such exercise more agreeable.
Burt was a little surprised at his tranquil enjoyment of all this companionship, but nevertheless prided himself upon it. He was not so mercurial and impetuous as the others had believed him to be, but was capable of a steady and undemonstrative devotion. Amy was worth winning at any cost, and he proposed to lay such a patient siege that she could not fail to become his. Indeed, with a disposition toward a little retaliation, he designed to carry his patience so far as to wait until he had seen more than once an expression in her eyes that invited warmer words and manner. But he had to admit that time was passing, and that no such expression appeared. This piqued him a little, and he felt that he was not appreciated. The impression grew upon him that she was very young—unaccountably young for one of her years. She enjoyed his bright talk and merry ways with much the same spirit that Alf's boyish exuberance called forth. She had the natural love of all young, healthful natures for pleasure and change, and she unconsciously acted toward him as if he were a kind, jolly brother who was doing much to give the spice of variety to her life. At the same time her unawakened heart was disposed to take his view of the future. Why should she not marry him, after her girlhood had passed? All the family wished and expected it, and surely she liked him exceedingly. But it would be time enough for such thoughts years hence. He had the leisure and self-control for good-comradeship, and without questioning she enjoyed it. Her life was almost as free from care as that of the young birds that had begun their existence in June.
Only Webb perplexed and troubled her a little. At this season, when even Leonard indulged in not a little leisure and rest, he was busy and preoccupied. She could not say that he avoided her, and yet it seemed to happen that they were not much together. "I fear I'm too young and girlish to be a companion for him," she sighed. "His manner is just as kind and gentle, but he treats me as if I were his very little sister. I don't seem to have the power to interest him that I once had. I wish I knew enough to talk to him as he would like;" and she stealthily tried to read some of the scientific books that she saw him poring over.
He, poor fellow, was engaged in the most difficult task ever given to man—the ruling of his own spirit. He saw her sisterly solicitude and goodwill, but could not respond in a manner as natural as her own. This was beyond human capability. His best resource was the comparative solitude of constant occupation. He was growing doubtful, however, as to the result of his struggle, while Amy was daily becoming more lovely in his eyes. Her English life had not destroyed the native talent of an American girl to make herself attractive. She knew instinctively how to dress, how to enhance the charms of which nature had not been chary, and Webb's philosophy and science were no defence against her winsomeness. In her changeful eyes lurked spells too mighty for him. Men of his caste rarely succumb to a learned and aggressive woman. They require intelligence, but it is a feminine intelligence, which supplements their own, and is not akin to it. Webb saw in Amy all that his heart craved, and he believed that he also saw her fulfilling Burt's hopes. She seemed to be gradually learning that the light-hearted brother might bring into her life all the sunshine and happiness she could desire. Webb depreciated himself, and believed that he was too grave and dull to win in any event more than the affection which she would naturally feel for an elder brother, and this she already bestowed upon him frankly and unstintedly. Burt took the same view, and was usually complacency itself, although a week seemed a long time to him, and he sometimes felt that he ought to be making more progress. But he had no misgivings. He would be faithful for years, and Amy could not fail to reward such constancy.
Not only had the little rustic cottages which had been placed on poles here and there about the Clifford dwelling, and the empty tomato-cans which Alf, at Dr. Marvin's suggestion, had fastened in the trees, been occupied by wrens and bluebirds, but larger homes had been taken for the summer by migrants from the city. Among these was a Mr. Hargrove, a wealthy gentleman, who had rented a pretty villa on the banks of the Hudson, a mile or two away. Burt, with all his proposed lifelong constancy, had speedily discovered that Mr. Hargrove had a very pretty daughter. Of course, he was quite indifferent to the fact, but he could no more meet a girl like Gertrude Hargrove and be unobservant than could Amy pass a new and rare wildflower with unregarding eyes. Miss Hargrove was not a wildflower, however. She was a product of city life, and was perfectly aware of her unusual and exotic beauty. Admiring eyes had followed her even from childhood, and no one better than she knew her power. Her head had been quite turned by flattery, but there was a saving clause in her nature—her heart. She was a belle, but not a cold-blooded coquette. Admiration was like sunshine—a matter of course. She had always been accustomed to it, as she had been to wealth, and neither had spoiled her. Beneath all that was artificial, all that fashion prescribed and society had taught, was the essential womanhood which alone can win and retain a true man's homage. For reasons just the reverse of those which explained Amy's indisposition to sentiment, she also had been kept fancy-free. Seclusion and the companionship of her father, who had been an invalid in his later years, had kept the former a child in many respects, at a time when Miss Hargrove had her train of admirers. Miss Gertrude enjoyed the train very much, but showed no disposition to permit any one of its constituents to monopolize her. Indeed, their very numbers had been her safety. Her attention had been divided and distracted by a score of aspirants, and while in her girlish eyes some found more favor than others, she was inclined to laughing criticism of them all. They amused her immensely, and she puzzled them. Her almost velvety black eyes, and the rich, varying tints of her clear brunette complexion, suggested a nature that was not cold and unresponsive, yet many who would gladly have won the heiress for her own sake found her as elusive as only a woman of perfect tact and self-possession can be. She had no vulgar ambition to count her victims who had committed themselves in words. With her keen intuition and abundant experience she recognized the first glance that was warmer than mere friendliness, and this was all the committal she wished for. She loved the admiration of men, but was too good-hearted a girl to wish to make them cynics in regard to women. She also had the sense to know that it is a miserable triumph to lure a man to the declaration of a supreme regard, and then in one moment change it into contempt. While, therefore, she had refused many an offer, no one had been humiliated, no one had been made to feel that he had been unworthily trifled with. Thus she retained the respect and goodwill of those to whom she might easily have become the embodiment of all that was false and heartless. She had welcomed the comparative seclusion of the villa on the Hudson, for, although not yet twenty, she was growing rather weary of society and its exactions. Its pleasures had been tasted too often, its burdens were beginning to be felt. She was a good horsewoman, and was learning, under the instruction of a younger brother, to row as easily and gracefully on the river as she danced in the ballroom, and she found the former recreation more satisfactory, from its very novelty.
Burt was well aware of these outdoor accomplishments. Any one inclined to rural pleasures won his attention at once; and Miss Hargrove, as she occasionally trotted smartly by him, or skimmed near on the waters of the Hudson, was a figure sure to win from his eyes more than a careless glance. Thus far, as has been intimated, he had kept aloof, but he had observed her critically, and he found little to disapprove. She also was observing him, and was quite as well endowed as he with the power of forming a correct judgment. Men of almost every description had sought her smiles, but he did not suffer by comparison. His tall, lithe figure was instinct with manly grace. There was a fascinating trace of reckless boldness in his blue eyes. He rode like a centaur, and at will made his light boat, in which Amy was usually seated, cut through the water with spray flying from its prow. In Miss Hargrove's present mood for rural life she wished for his acquaintance, and was a little piqued that he had not sought hers, since her father had opened the way.