BURT'S SORE DILEMMA
Mr. Hargrove greeted Amy cordially, but his questioning eyes rested oftenest on his daughter. Her expression and manner caused him to pace his study long and late that night. Mrs. Hargrove was very polite and a little stately. She felt that she existed on a plane above Amy.
The young girls soon pleaded fatigue, and retired. Once in the seclusion of their room they forgot all about their innocent fib, and there was not a trace of weariness in their manner. While Burt was staring at his dismal, tangled fortune, seeing no solution of his difficulties, a fateful conference relating to him was taking place. Amy did not look like a scorner, as with a sister's love and a woman's tact she pleaded his cause and palliated his course to one incapable of harsh judgment. But she felt that she must be honest with her friend, and that the whole truth would be best and safest. Her conclusion was: "No man who loved you, and whom you encouraged, would ever change. I know now that I never had a particle of such feeling as you have for Burt, and can see that I naturally chilled and quenched his regard for me."
Miss Hargrove's dark eyes flashed ominously as she spoke of Burt or of any man proving faithless after she had given encouragement.
"But it wasn't possible for me to give him any real encouragement," Amy persisted. "I've never felt as you do, and am not sure that I want to for a long time."
"How about Webb?" Miss Hargrove almost said, but she suppressed the words, feeling that since he had not revealed his secret she had no right to do so. Indeed, as she recalled how sedulously he had guarded it she was sure he would not thank her for suggesting it to Amy before she was ready for the knowledge. Impetuous as Miss Hargrove was at times, she had too fine a nature to be careless of the rights and feelings of others. Moreover, she felt that Webb had been her ally, whether consciously or not, and he should have his chance with all the help she could give him, but she was wise enough to know that obtrusion and premature aid are often disastrous.
The decision, after this portentous conference, was: "Mr. Bart must seek me, and seek very zealously. I know you well enough Amy, to be sure that you will give him no hints. It's bad enough to love a man before I've been asked to do so. What an utterly perverse and unmanageable thing one's heart is! I shall do no angling, however, nor shall I permit any."
"You may stand up straight, Gertrude," said Amy, laughing, "but don't lean over backward."
Burt entertained half a dozen wild and half-tragic projects before he fell asleep late that night, but finally, in utter self-disgust, settled down on the prosaic and not irrational one of helping through with the fall work on the farm, and then of seeking some business or profession to which he could give his whole mind. "As to ladies' society," he concluded, savagely, "I'll shun it hereafter till I'm grown up."
Burt always attained a certain kind of peace and the power to sleep after he had reached an irrevocable decision.
During the night the wind veered to the east, and a cold, dismal rain-storm set in. Dull and dreary indeed the day proved to Burt. He could not go out and put his resolution into force. He fumed about the house, restless, yet reticent. He would rather have fought dragons than keep company with his own thoughts in inaction. All the family supposed he missed Amy, except Webb, who hoped he missed some one else.
"Why don't you go over and bring Amy home, Burt?" his mother asked, at the dinner-table. "The house seems empty without her, and everybody is moping. Even father has fretted over his newspaper, and wished Amy was here."
"Why can't they print an edition of the paper for old men and dark days?" said the old gentleman, discontentedly.
"Well," remarked Leonard, leaning back in his chair, and looking humorously at Maggie, "I'm sorry for you young fellows, but I'm finding the day serene."
"Of course you are," snapped Burt. "With an armchair to doze in and a dinner to look forward to, what more do you wish? As for Webb, he can always get astride of some scientific hobby, no matter how bad the weather is."
"As for Burt, he can bring Amy home, and then every one will be satisfied," added his mother, smiling.
Thus a new phase of his trial presented itself to poor Burt. He must either face those two girls after their night's conclave, with all its possible revelations, or else awaken at once very embarrassing surmises. Why shouldn't he go for Amy? all would ask. "Well, why shouldn't I?" he thought. "I may as well face it out." And in a mood of mingled recklessness and fear he drove through the storm. When his name was announced the girls smiled significantly, but went down looking as unconscious as if they had not spoken of him in six months, and Burt could not have been more suave, non-committal, and impartially polite if these ladies had been as remote from his thoughts as one of Webb's theories. At the same time he intimated that he would be ready to return when Amy was.
At parting the friends gave each other a little look of dismay, and he caught it from the same telltale mirror that persisted in taking a part in this drama.
"Aha!" though the young fellow, "so they have been exchanging confidences, and my manner is disconcerting—not what was expected. If I have become a jest between them it shall be a short-lived one. Miss Hargrove, with all her city experience, shall find that I'm not so young and verdant but that I can take a hand in this game also. As for Amy, I now know she never cared for me, and I don't believe she ever would;" and so he went away with laughing repartee, and did not see the look of deep disappointment with which he was followed.
Amy was perplexed and troubled. Her innocent schemes might not be so easily accomplished if Burt would be wrong-headed. She was aware of the dash of recklessness in his character, and feared that under the impulse of pride he might spoil everything, or, at least, cause much needless delay.
With the fatality of blundering which usually attends upon such occasions, he did threaten to fulfil her fears, and so successfully that Amy was in anxiety, and Miss Hargrove grew as pale as she was resolute not to make the least advance, while poor Webb felt that his suspense never would end. Burt treated Amy in an easy, fraternal manner. He engaged actively in the task of gathering and preparing for market the large crop of apples, and he openly broached the subject of going into a business of some kind away from home, where, he declared, with a special meaning for Amy, he was not needed, adding: "It's time I was earning my salt and settling down to something for life. Webb and Len can take care of all the land, and I don't believe I was cut out for a farmer."
He not only troubled Amy exceedingly, but he perplexed all the family, for it seemed that he was decidedly taking a new departure. One evening, a day or two after he had introduced the project of going elsewhere, his father, to Amy's dismay, suggested that he should go to the far West and look after a large tract of land which the old gentleman had bought some years before. It was said that a railroad was to be built through it, and, if so, the value of the property would be greatly enhanced, and steps should be taken to get part of it into the market. Burt took hold of the scheme with eagerness, and was for going as soon as possible. Looking to note the effect of his words upon Amy, he saw that her expression was not only reproachful, but almost severe. Leonard heartily approved of the plan. Webb was silent, and in deep despondency, feeling that if Bart went now nothing would be settled. He saw Amy's aversion to the project also, and misinterpreted it.
She was compelled to admit that the prospects were growing very dark. Burt might soon depart for an indefinite absence, and Miss Hargrove return to the city. Amy, who had looked upon the mutations in her own prospects so quietly, was almost feverishly eager to aid her friend. She feared she had blundered on the mountain ride. Burt's pride had been wounded, and he had received the impression that his April-like moods had been discussed satirically. It was certain that he had been very deeply interested in Gertrude, and that he was throwing away not only his happiness, but also hers; and Amy felt herself in some degree to blame. Therefore she was bent upon ending the senseless misunderstanding, but found insurmountable embarrassments on every side. Miss Hargrove was prouder than Burt. Wild horses could not draw her to the Cliffords', With a pale, resolute face, she declined even to put herself in the way of receiving the least advance. Amy would gladly have taken counsel of Webb, but could not do so without revealing her friend's secret, and also disclosing mere surmises about Burt, which, although amounting to conviction in her mind, could not be mentioned. Therefore, from the very delicacy of the situation, she felt herself helpless. Nature was her ally, however, and if all that was passing in Burt's mind had been manifest, the ardent little schemer would not have been so despondent.
The best hope of Burt had been that he had checkmated the girls in their disposition to make jesting comparisons, He would retire with so much nonchalance as to leave nothing to be said. They would find complete inaction and silence hard to combat. But the more he thought of it the less it seemed like an honorable retreat. He had openly wooed one girl, he had since lost his heart to another, and she had given him a glimpse of strong regard, if not more. His thoughts were busy with her every word and glance. How much had his tones and eyes revealed to her? Might she not think him a heartless flirt if he continued to avoid her and went away without a word? Would it not be better to be laughed at as one who did not know his own mind than be despised for deliberate trifling? Amy had asked him to go and spend an evening with her friend, and he had pleaded weariness as an excuse. Her incredulous look and rather cool manner since had not been reassuring. She had that very morning broached the subject of a chestnutting party for the following day, and he had promptly said that he was going to the city to make inquiries about routes to the West.
"Why, Burt, you can put off your trip to town for a day," said his mother. "If you are to leave us so soon you should make the most of the days that are left."
"That is just what he is doing," Amy remarked, satirically. "He has become absorbed in large business considerations. Those of us who have not such resources are of no consequence."
The old people and Leonard believed that Amy was not pleased with the idea of Burt's going away, but they felt that she was a little unreasonable, since the young fellow was rather to be commended for wishing to take life more seriously. But her words rankled in Burt's mind. He felt that she understood him better than the others, and that he was not winning respect from her. In the afternoon he saw her, with Alf and Johnnie, starting for the chestnut-trees, and although she passed not far away she gave him only a slight greeting, and did not stop for a little merry banter, as usual. The young fellow was becoming very unhappy, and he felt that his position was growing intolerable. That Amy should be cold toward him, or, indeed, toward any one, was an unheard-of thing, and he knew that she must feel that there was good reason for her manner. "And is there not?" he asked himself, bitterly. "What are she and Miss Hargrove thinking about me?"
The more he thought upon the past the more awkward and serious appeared his dilemma, and his long Western journey, which at first he had welcomed as promising a diversion of excitement and change, now began to appear like exile. He dreaded to think of the memories he must take with him; still more he deprecated the thoughts he would leave behind him. His plight made him so desperate that he suddenly left the orchard where he was gathering apples, went to the house, put on his riding-suit, and in a few moments was galloping furiously away on his black horse. With a renewal of hope Webb watched his proceedings, and with many surmises, Amy, from a distant hillside, saw him passing at a break-neck pace.
For the first two or three miles Burt rode as if he were trying to leave care behind him, scarcely heeding what direction he took. When at last he reined his reeking horse he found himself near the entrance of the lane over which willows met in a Gothic arch. He yielded to the impulse to visit the spot which had seen the beginning of so fateful an acquaintance, and had not gone far when a turn in the road revealed a group whose presence almost made his heart stand still for a moment. Miss Hargrove had stopped her horse on the very spot where he had aided her in her awkward predicament. Her back was toward him, and her great dog was at her side, looking up into her face, as if in mute sympathy with his fair mistress.
Hope sprang up in Burt's heart. She could not be there with bowed head if she despised him. Her presence seemed in harmony with that glance by which, when weak and unnerved after escaping from deadly peril, she had revealed possibly more than gratitude to the one who had rescued her. His love rose like an irresistible tide, and he resolved that before he left his home Amy and Miss Hargrove should know the whole truth, whatever might be the result. Meanwhile he was rapidly approaching the young girl, and the dog's short bark of recognition was her first intimation of Hurt's presence. Her impulse was to fly, but in a second she saw the absurdity of this course, and yet she was greatly embarrassed, and would rather have been discovered by him at almost any other point of the globe. She was going to the city on the morrow, and as she had drawn rein on this spot and realized the bitterness of her disappointment, tears would come. She wiped them hastily away, but dreaded lest their traces should be seen.
Turning her horse, she met Burt with a smile that her moist eyes belied, and said: "I'm glad you do not find me in such an awkward plight as when we first met here. I've been giving my horse a rest. Do you not want a gallop?" and away like the wind she started homeward.
Burt easily kept at her side, but conversation was impossible. At last he said: "My horse is very tired, Miss Hargrove. At this pace you will soon be home, and I shall feel that you are seeking to escape from me. Have I fallen so very low in your estimation?"
"Why," she exclaimed, in well-feigned surprise, as she checked her horse, "what have you done that you should fall in my estimation?"
"I shall tell you before very long," he said, with an expression that seemed almost tragic.
"Mr. Clifford, you surprise me. Your horse is all of a foam too. Surely this brief gallop cannot have so tried your superb beast. What has happened? Amy is not ill, or any one?"
"Oh, no," he replied, with a grim laugh. "Everyone is well and complacent. I had been riding rapidly before I met you. My horse has been idle for some days, and I had to run the spirit out of him. Amy wishes to have a chestnutting party to-morrow. Won't you join us?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Clifford, but I return to the city tomorrow afternoon, and was coming over in the morning to say good-by to Amy and your father and mother."
"I am very sorry too," he said, in tones that gave emphasis to his words.
She turned upon him a swift, questioning glance, but her eyes instantly fell before his intense gaze.
"Oh, well," she said, lightly, "we've had a very pleasant summer, and all things must come to an end, you know." Then she went on speaking, in a matter-of-fact way, of the need of looking after Fred, who was alone in town, and of getting the city house in order, and of her plans for the winter, adding: "As there is a great deal of fruit on the place, papa does not feel that he can leave just yet. You know he goes back and forth often, and so his business does not suffer. But I can just as well go down now, and nearly all my friends have returned to town."
"All your friends, Miss Hargrove?"
"Amy has promised to visit me soon," she said, hastily.
"It would seem that I am not down on your list of friends," he began, gloomily.
"Why, Mr. Clifford, I'm sure papa and I would be glad to have you call whenever you are in town."
"I fear I shall have to disappoint Mr. Hargrove," he said, a little satirically. "I'm going West the last of this month, and may be absent much of the winter. I expect to look about in that section for some opening in business."
"Indeed," she replied, in tones which were meant to convey but little interest, yet which had a slight tremor in spite of her efforts. "It will be a very great change for you."
"Perhaps you think that constitutes its chief charm."
"Mr. Clifford," she said, "what chance have I had to think about it at all? You have never mentioned the matter." (Amy had, however, and Gertrude had not only thought about it, but dreamed of it, as if she had been informed that on a certain date the world would end.) "Is it not a rather sudden plan?" she asked, a little hesitatingly.
"Yes, it is. My father has a large tract of land in the West, and it's time it was looked after. Isn't it natural that I should think of doing something in life? I fear there is an impression in your mind that I entertain few thoughts beyond having a good time."
"To have a good time in life," she said, smiling at him, "is a very serious matter, worthy of any one's attention. It would seem that few accomplish it."
"And I greatly fear that I shall share in the ill-success of the majority."
"You are much mistaken. A man has no end of resources. You will soon be enjoying the excitement of travel and enterprise in the West."
"And you the excitement of society and conquest in the city. Conquests, however, must be almost wearisome to you, Miss Hargrove, you make them so easily."
"You overrate my power. I certainly should soon weary of conquests were I making them. Women are different from men in this respect. Where in history do we read of a man who was satiated with conquest? Well, here we are at home. Won't you come in? Papa will be glad to see you."
"Are you going to the city to-morrow?"
"May I call on you this evening?"
"Certainly. Bring Amy with you, won't you?"
"Will you forgive me if I come alone?"
"I'll try to. I suppose Amy will be tired from nutting."
He did not reply, but lifted his hat gravely, mounted his horse, and galloped away as if he were an aid bearing a message that might avert a battle.
Miss Hargrove hastened to her room, and took off her hat with trembling hands. Burt's pale, resolute face told her that the crisis in her life had come. And yet she did not fully understand him. If he meant to speak, why had he not done so? why had he not asked permission to consult her father?
Mr. Hargrove, from his library window, saw Burt's formal parting, and concluded that his fears or hopes—he scarcely knew which were uppermost, so deep was his love for his daughter, and so painful would it be to see her unhappy—were not to be fulfilled. By a great effort Gertrude appeared not very distraite at dinner, nor did she mention Burt, except in a casual manner, in reply to a question from her mother, but her father thought he detected a strong and suppressed excitement.
She excused herself early from the table, and said she must finish packing for her departure.
A GENTLE EXORCIST
Burt's black horse was again white before he approached his home. In the distance he saw Amy returning, the children running on before, Alf whooping like a small Indian to some playmate who was answering further away. The gorgeous sunset lighted up the still more brilliant foliage, and made the scene a fairyland. But Burt had then no more eye for nature than a man would have who had staked his all on the next throw of the dice. Amy was alone, and now was his chance to intercept her before she reached the house. Imagine her surprise as she saw him make his horse leap the intervening fences, and come galloping toward her.
"Burt," she cried, as he, in a moment or two, reined up near her, "you will break your neck!"
"It wouldn't matter much," he said, grimly. "I fear a worse fate than that."
"What do you mean?" she asked, in alarm. "What has happened?"
He threw the bridle over a stake in the fence, and the horse was glad to rest, with drooping head. Then he came and stood beside her, his face flushed, and his mouth twitching with excitement and strong feeling. For a moment he could not speak.
"Burt," she said, "what is the matter? What do you fear?"
"I fear your scorn, Amy," he began, impetuously; "I fear I shall lose your respect forever. But I can't go on any longer detesting myself and feeling that you and Miss Hargrove despise me. I may seem to you and her a fickle fool, a man of straw, but you shall both know the truth. I shan't go away a coward. I can at least be honest, and then you may think what you please of my weakness and vacillation. You cannot think worse things than I think myself, but you must not imagine that I am a cold-blooded, deliberate trifler, for that has never been true. I know you don't care for me, and never did."
"Indeed, Burt, you are mistaken. I do care for you immensely," said Amy, eagerly clasping his arm with both her hands.
"Amy, Amy," said Burt, in a low, desperate tone, "think how few short months have passed since I told you I loved you, and protested I would wait till I was gray. You have seen me giving my thoughts to another, and in your mind you expect to see me carried away by a half-dozen more. You are mistaken, but it will take a long time to prove it."
"No, Burt, I understand you better than you think. Gertrude has inspired in you a very different feeling from the one you had for me. I think you are loving now with a man's love, and won't get over it very soon, if you ever do. You have seen, you must have felt, that my love for you was only that of a sister, and of course you soon began to feel toward me in the same way. I don't believe I would have married you had you waited an age. Don't fret, I'm not going to break my heart about you."
"I should think not, nor will any one else. Oh, Amy, I so despised myself that I have been half-desperate."
"Despised yourself because you love a girl like Gertrude Hargrove! I never knew a man to do a more natural and sensible thing, whether she gave you encouragement or not. If I were a man I would make love to her, rest assured, and she would have to refuse me more than once to be rid of me."
Burt took a long breath of immense relief. "You are heavenly kind," he said. "Are you sure you won't despise me? I could not bear that. It seems to me that I have done such an awfully mean thing in making love to you in my own home, and then in changing."
Her laugh rang out merrily. "Fate has been too strong for you, and I think—I mean—I hope, it has been kind. Bless you, Burt, I could never get up any such feeling as sways you. I should always be disappointing, and you would have found out, sooner or later, that your best chance would be to discover some one more responsive. Since you have been so frank, I'll be so too. I was scarcely more ready for your words last spring than Johnnie, but I was simple enough to think that in half a dozen years or so we might be married if all thought it was best, and my pride was a little hurt when I saw what—what—well, Gertrude's influence over you. But I've grown much older the last few months, and know now that my thoughts were those of a child. My feeling for you is simply that of a sister, and I don't believe it would ever have changed. Who knows? I might eventually have an acute attack also, and then I should be in a worse predicament than yours."
"But you will be my loving sister as long as you live, Amy? You will believe that I have a little manhood if given a chance to show it?"
"I believe it now, Burt, and I can make you a hundredfold better sister than wife. The idea! It seems but the other day I was playing with dolls. Here, now, cheer up. You have judged yourself too harshly;" and she looked at him so smilingly and affectionately that he took her in his arms and kissed her again and again, exclaiming, "You can count on one brother to the last drop of his blood. Oh, Amy, whatever happens now, I won't lose courage. Miss Hargrove will have to say no a dozen times before she is through with me."
At this moment Webb, from the top of a tall ladder in the orchard, happened to glance that way, and saw the embrace. He instantly descended, threw down his basket of apples, and with it all hope. Burt had won Amy at last. The coolness between them had been but a misunderstanding, which apparently had been banished most decidedly. He mechanically took down his ladder and placed it on the ground, then went to his room to prepare for supper.
"Burt," cried Amy, when they were half-way home, "you have forgotten your horse."
"If he were Pegasus, I should have forgotten him to-day. Won't you wait for me?"
"Oh, yes, I'll do anything for you."
"Will you?" he said, eagerly. "Will you tell me if you think Miss Hargrove—"
"No, I won't tell you anything. The idea! After she has refused you half a dozen times, I may, out of pity, intercede a little. Go get your horse, smooth your brow, and be sensible, or you'll have Webb and Leonard poking fun at you. Suppose they have seen you galloping over fences and ditches like one possessed."
"Well, I was possessed, and never was there such a kind, gentle exorcist. I have seen Miss Hargrove to-day; I had just parted from her."
"Did you say anything?"
"No, Amy. How could I, until I had told you? I felt I was bound to you by all that can bind a man."
"Oh, Burt, suppose I had not released you, but played Shylock, what would you have done?" and her laugh rang out again in intense merriment.
"I had no fears of that," he replied, ruefully. "You are the last one to practice Mrs. MacStinger's tactics. My fear was that you and Miss Hargrove both would send me West as a precious good riddance."
"Well, it was square of you, as Alf says, to come to me first, and I appreciate it, but I should not have resented the omission. Will you forgive my curiosity if I ask what is the next move in the campaign? I've been reading about the war, you know, and I am quite military in my ideas."
"I have Miss Hargrove's permission to call to-night. It wasn't given very cordially, and she asked me to bring you."
"No, I thank yon."
"Oh, I told her she would have to forgive me if I came alone. I meant to have it out to-day, if old Chaos came again." When Amy's renewed laughter so subsided that he could speak, he resumed: "I'm going over there after supper, to ask her father for permission to pay my addresses, and if he won't give it, I shall tell him I will pay them all the same—that I shall use every effort in my power to win his daughter. I don't want a dollar of his money, but I'm bound to have the girl if she'll ever listen to me after knowing all you know."
Amy's laugh ceased, and she again clasped her hands on his arm. "Dear Burt," she said, "your course now seems to me manly and straightforward. I saw the strait you were in, but did not think you felt it so keenly. In going West I feared you were about to run away from it. However Gertrude may treat you, you have won my respect by your downright truth. She may do as she pleases, but she can't despise you now. There goes your horse to the stable. He has learned this afternoon that you are in no state of mind to take care of him."
BURT TELLS HIS LOVE AGAIN
Webb appeared at the supper-table the personification of quiet geniality, but Amy thought she had never seen him look so hollow-eyed. The long strain was beginning to tell on him, decidedly, and to-night he felt as if he had received a mortal blow. But with indomitable courage he hid his wound, and seemed absorbed in a conversation with Leonard and his father about the different varieties of apples, and their relative value. Amy saw that his mother was looking at him anxiously, and she did not wonder. He was growing thin even to gauntness.
Burt also was an arrant dissembler, and on rising from the table remarked casually that he was going over to bid Miss Hargrove good-by, as she would return to town on the morrow.
"She'll surely come and see us before she goes," Mrs. Clifford remarked. "It seems to me she hasn't been very sociable of late."
"Certainly," said Amy. "She'll be over in the morning. She told me she was coming to say good-by to us all, and she has asked me to visit her. Come, Webb, you look all tired out to-night. Let me read to you. I'll stumble through the dryest scientific treatise you have if I can see you resting on the sofa."
"That's ever so kind of you, Amy, and I appreciate it more than you imagine, but I'm going out this evening."
"Oh, of course, sisters are of no account. What girl are you going to see?"
"No girl whatever. I am too old and dull to entertain the pretty creatures."
"Don't be fishing. You know one you could entertain if she isn't a pretty creature, but then she's only a sister who doesn't know much."
"I'm sorry—I must go," he said, a little abruptly, for her lovely, half-laughing, half-reproachful face, turned to his, contained such mocking promise of happiness that he could not look upon it. What was his urgent business? His rapid steps as he walked mile after mile indicated that the matter was pressing indeed; but, although it was late before he returned, he had spoken to no one. The house was dark and silent except that a light was burning in Burt's room. And his momentous fortunes the reader must now follow.
Miss Hargrove, with a fluttering heart, heard the rapid feet of his horse as he rode up the avenue. Truly, he was coming at a lover's pace. The door-bell rang, she heard him admitted, and expected the maid's tap at her door to follow. Why did it not come? Were the tumultuous throbs of her heart so loud that she could not hear it? What had become of him? She waited and listened in vain. She opened her door slightly; there was no sound. She went to her window. There below, like a shadow, stood a saddled horse. Where was the knight? Had the stupid girl shown him into the drawing-room and left him there? Surely the well-trained servant had never been guilty of such a blunder before. Could it have been some one else who had come to see her father on business? She stole down the stairway in a tremor of apprehension, and strolled into the parlor in the most nonchalant manner imaginable. It was lighted, but empty, and her expression suddenly became one of troubled perplexity. She returned to the hall, and started as if she had seen an apparition. There on the rack hung Burt's hat, as natural as life. Voices reached her ear from her father's study. She took a few swift steps toward it, then fled to her room, and stood panting before her mirror, which reflected a young lady in a costume charmingly ill adapted to "packing."
How flow swiftly the minutes passed! how eternally long they were! Would she be sent for? When would she be sent for? "It was honorable in him to speak to papa first, and papa would not, could not, answer him without consulting me. I cannot be treated as a child any longer," she muttered, with flashing eyes. "Papa loves me," she murmured, in swift alternation of gentle feeling. "He could not make my happiness secondary to a paltry sum of money."
Meanwhile Burt was pleading his cause. Mr. Hargrove had greeted him with no little surprise. The parting of the young people had not promised any such interview.
"Have you spoken to my daughter on this subject?" Mr. Hargrove asked, gravely, after the young fellow had rather incoherently made known his errand.
"No, sir," replied Burt, "I have not secured your permission. At the same time," he added, with an ominous flash in his blue eyes, "sincerity compels me to say that I could not take a final refusal from any lips except those of your daughter, and not readily from hers. I would not give up effort to win her until convinced that any amount of patient endeavor was useless. I should not persecute her, but I would ask her to reconsider an adverse answer as often as she would permit, and I will try with all my soul to render myself more worthy of her."
"In other words," began Mr. Hargrove, severely, "if I should decline this honor, I should count for nothing."
"No, sir, I do not mean that, and I hope I haven't said it, even by implication. Your consent that I should have a fair field in which to do my best would receive from me boundless gratitude. What I mean to say is, that I could not give her up; I should not think it right to do so. This question is vital to me, and I know of no reason," he added, a little haughtily, "why I should be refused a privilege which is considered the right of every gentleman."
"I have not in the slightest degree raised the question of your being a gentleman, Mr. Clifford. Your course in coming to me before revealing your regard to my daughter proves that you are one. But you should realize that you are asking a great deal of me. My child's happiness is my first and only consideration. You know the condition of life to which my daughter has been accustomed. It is right and natural that I should also know something of your prospects, your ability to meet the obligations into which you wish to enter."
Poor Burt flushed painfully, and hesitated. After a moment he answered, with a dignity and an evident sincerity which won golden opinions from Mr. Hargrove: "I shall not try to mislead you in the least on this point. For my own sake I wish that your daughter were far poorer than I am. I can say little more than that I could give her a home now and every comfort of life. I could not now provide for her the luxury to which she has been accustomed. But I am willing to wait and eager to work. In youth and health and a fair degree of education I have some capital in addition to the start in life which my father has promised to his sons. What could not Miss Hargrove inspire a man to do?"
The man of experience smiled in spite of himself at Burt's frank enthusiasm and naivete. The whole affair was so different from anything that he had ever looked forward to! Instead of a few formalities between himself and a wealthy suitor whom his wife, and therefore all the world, would approve of, here he was listening to a farmer's son, with the consciousness that he must yield, and not wholly unwilling to do so. Moreover, this preposterous young man, so far from showing any awe of him, had almost defied him from the start, and had plainly stated that the father's wealth was the only objection to the daughter. Having seen the drift of events, Mr. Hargrove had long since informed himself thoroughly about the Clifford family, and had been made to feel that the one fact of his wealth, which Burt regretted, was almost his only claim to superiority. Burt was as transparent as a mountain brook, and quite as impetuous. The gray-haired man sighed, and felt that he would give all his wealth in exchange for such youth. He knew his daughter's heart, and felt that further parleying was vain, although he foresaw no easy task in reconciling his wife to the match. He was far from being heartbroken himself, however, for there was such a touch of nature in Burt, and in the full, strong love waiting to reward the youth, that his own heart was stirred, and in the depths of his soul he knew that this was better than giving his child to a jaded millionaire. "I have money enough for both," he thought. "As she said, she is rich enough to follow her heart. It's a pity if we can't afford an old-fashioned love-match."
Burt was respectfully impatient under Mr. Hargrove's deep thought and silence.
At last the father arose and gave him his hand, saying: "You have been honest with me, and that, with an old merchant, counts for a great deal. I also perceive you love my daughter for herself. If she should ever inform me that you are essential to her happiness I shall not withhold my consent."
Burt seized his hand with a grasp that made it ache, as he said, "Every power I have, sir, shall be exerted that you may never regret this kindness."
"If you make good that promise, Mr. Clifford, I shall become your friend should your wooing prove successful. If you will come to the parlor I will tell Miss Hargrove that you are here."
He went up the stairs slowly, feeling that he was crossing the threshold of a great change. How many thoughts passed through his mind as he took those few steps! He saw his child a little black-eyed baby in his arms; she was running before him trundling her hoop; she came to him with contracted brow and half-tearful eyes, bringing a knotty sum in fractions, and insisting petulantly that they were very "vulgar" indeed; she hung on his arm, a shy girl of fifteen, blushingly conscious of the admiring eyes that followed her; she stood before him again in her first radiant beauty as a debutante, and he had dreamed of the proudest alliance that the city could offer; she looked into his eyes, a pale, earnest woman, and said, "Papa, he saved my life at the risk of his own." True, true, Mr. Clifford had not spoken of that, and Mr. Hargrove had not thought of it in the. interview so crowded with considerations. His heart relented toward the youth as it had not done before. Well, well, since it was inevitable, he was glad to be the one who should first bring the tidings of this bold wooer's purpose. "Trurie will never forget this moment," he mattered, as he knocked at her door, "nor my part in her little drama." O love, how it craves even the crumbs that fall from the table of its idol!
"Trurie," he began, as he entered, "you had better dress. Bless me, I thought you were packing!"
"You were expecting some one?"
"Mr. Clifford said he would call—to bid me good-by, I suppose."
"Was that all you supposed, Trurie?"
"Indeed, papa, I told him I was going to town to-morrow, and he asked if he might call."
"Did he speak of his object?"
"No, papa. I'm sure it's quite natural he should call, and I have been packing."
"Well, I can assure you that he has a very definite object. He has asked me if he might pay his addresses to you, and in the same breath assured me that he would in any event."
"Oh, papa," she said, hiding her face on his shoulder, "he was not so unmannerly as that!"
"Indeed, he went much further, declaring that he would take no refusal from you, either; or, rather, that he would take it so often as to wear out your patience, and secure you by proving that resistance was useless. He had one decided fault to find with you, also. He much regrets that you have wealth."
"Oh, papa, tell me what he did say;" and he felt her heart fluttering against his side like that of a frightened bird.
"Why, Trurie, men have offered you love before."
"But I never loved before, nor knew what it meant," she whispered. "Please don't keep me in suspense. This is all so strange, so sacred to me."
"Well, Trurie, I hope your match may be one of those that are made in heaven. Your mother will think it anything but worldly wise. However, I will reconcile her to it, and I'm glad to be the one with whom you will associate this day. Long after I am gone it may remind you how dear your happiness was to me, and that I was willing to give up my way for yours. Mr. Clifford has been straightforward and manly, if not conventional, and I've told him that if he could win you and would keep his promise to do his best for you and by you, I would be his friend, and that, you know, means much. Of course, it all depends upon whether you accept him. You are not committed in the least."
"Am I not, papa? Here is an organ"—with her hand upon her heart—"that knows better. But I shall not throw myself at him. Must I go down now?"
"Oh, no, I can excuse you," he said, with smiling lips but moist eyes.
"Dear papa, I will, indeed, associate you with this hour and every pleasant thing in life. You will find that you have won me anew instead of losing me;" and looking back at him with her old filial love shining in her eyes, she went slowly away to meet the future under the sweet constraint of Nature's highest law.
If Burt had been impatient in the library, he grew almost desperate in the parlor. Horrible doubts and fears crossed his mind. Might not Miss Hargrove's pride rise in arms against him? Might she not even now be telling her father of his fickleness, and declaring that she would not listen to a "twice-told tale"? Every moment of delay seemed ominous, and many moments passed. The house grew sepulchral in its silence, and the wind without sighed and moaned as if Nature foreboded and pitied him in view of the overwhelming misfortune impending. At last he sprang up and paced the room in his deep perturbation. As he turned toward the entrance he saw framed in the doorway a picture that appeared like a radiant vision. Miss Hargrove stood there, looking at him so intently that, for a second or two, he stood spell-bound. She was dressed in some white, clinging material, and, with her brilliant eyes, appeared in the uncertain light too beautiful and wraith-like to be human. She saw her advantage, and took the initiative instantly. "Mr. Clifford," she exclaimed, "do I seem an apparition?"
"Yes, you do," he replied, coming impetuously toward her. She held out her hand, proposing that their interview should at least begin at arm's length. Nevertheless, the soft fire in his eyes and the flush on his handsome face made her tremble with a delicious apprehension. Even while at a loss to know just how to manage the preliminaries for a decorous yielding, she exulted over the flame-like spirit of her lover.
"Ah, Mr. Clifford," she cried, "you ought to know that you are not crushing a ghost's hand."
"Pardon me. What I meant was that I thought I had seen you before, but you are a new revelation every time I see you."
"I can't interpret visions."
"Please don't say that, for I must ask you to interpret one to-night. What does Shakespeare say about those who have power? I hope you will use yours mercifully. Oh, Miss Hargrove, you are so beautiful that I believe I should lose my reason if you sent me away without hope."
"Mr. Clifford, you are talking wildly," was her faint response.
"I fear I am. I am almost desperate from fear, for I have a terribly hard duty to perform."
"Indeed!" she said, withdrawing her hand, which he relinquished most reluctantly, dreading that he might never receive it again.
"Do not assume that attitude, Miss Hargrove, or I shall lose courage utterly."
"Truly, Mr. Clifford," she said, a little satirically, seating herself on a sofa, "I never imagined you deficient in courage. Is it a terrible duty to entertain me for a half-hour, and say good-by?"
"Yes. Nothing could be worse than that, if that were all;" and he looked at her appealingly and in such perplexed distress that she laughed outright.
"I am very much in earnest, Miss Hargrove."
"You are very enigmatical, Mr. Clifford. Must I be present while you perform this terrible duty?"
"I think you know what I must confess already, and have a world of scorn in store for me. Do not judge me harshly. Whatever the end may be, and my sense of ill-desert is heavy indeed, I shall begin on the basis of absolute truth. You shall know the worst. I've asked your father for the privilege of winning your love;" and then he hesitated, not knowing how to go on.
"Is that the worst?" she asked, demurely.
"No, I fear it will be the best, for he kindly gave his consent, and I know it would be hard for him to do as much for any man, much more so for one not wholly to his mind. Miss Hargrove, I must appear awkwardness and incoherency personified. I hardly know how to go on. I shall appear to you fickle and unmanly. How can I excuse myself to you when I have no excuse except the downright truth that I love you better than my life, better than my own soul, better than all the world and everything in it. I never knew what love was until you became unconscious in my arms on the mountain. Forgive me for referring to it. I'm only trying to explain myself; and yet I had thought that I knew, and had spoken words of love to your friend, Amy Winfield, who is worthy of the love of the best and noblest man that ever breathed. She did not welcome my words—they only wounded her—and she has never eared for me except as a true and gentle sister cares. But I promised to wait till she did care. I can't keep that promise. You fascinated me from the first hour of our meeting. I feel now that I cherished an unworthy purpose toward you. I thought that, by attentions to you, I could make Amy care; I thought that you were but a brilliant society girl; but every hour I spent with you increased my admiration, my respect; I saw that you were better and stronger than I was. On the first day we went into camp on the mountain I saw whither my heart was leading me, and from that hour until to-day I have tried to conquer my love, feeling that I had no right to give it, that you would despise it if I did. You can't have any confidence in me now. All my hope is that you will give me a chance to prove that I am not a fickle wretch. I will accept of any probation, I will submit to any terms. I can't take an absolute refusal now, for I feel you are seeing me at my worst, and I know that you could do with me anything you pleased."
Her head bowed lower and lower as he poured out these words like a torrent. "Does Amy—have you told her that you cannot keep your promise to her?" she faltered, in a low tone.
"Oh, yes, I told her so a few hours ago—since I met you this afternoon. I was going away to the West, like a coward, to escape from my dilemma, for I felt you would never listen to me after you knew that I had broken my word to Amy. I feared that I had already become a by-word between you for all that was weak and fickle. But after I saw you I could not go till I spoke. I determined to reveal the whole truth, and if you ever gave me a chance to retrieve myself, gratitude would be no name for my deep feeling._
"Did—did Amy release you?"
"Yes, she was kindness itself. She told me in good plain English that she wanted neither me nor my promise; that she didn't think that she ever could have loved me, no matter how long I might have waited. But I could not look into your clear eyes and say, 'I love you,' and know that you might learn from her or any one that I had said this before. If you won't trust me, having had the whole truth, then I must bear my hard fate as best I can."
"How long would you be willing to wait for me?" she asked, in tones so low that he could scarcely catch the words.
He bounded to her side, and took her unresisting hand. "Oh, Gertrude," he pleaded, "prove me, give me a chance, let me show that I am not without manhood and constancy. Believe me, I know the priceless gift I'm asking, but what else can I do? I have tried for weeks to conquer the feeling you have inspired, tried with all the help that pride and sense of duty and honor could give, but it has been utterly useless. I now am free; I have the right to speak. I have concealed nothing from you. I'm wholly at your mercy."
At last she raised her downcast eyes and averted face to his, and for a moment he was dazed at their expression. In tones sweet, low, and deep with her strong emotion, she said, "Burt, how glad I am that you men are blind! I found out that I loved you before we went to our mountain camp." She sprang up and gave him her other hand as she continued: "Can love impose such hard conditions as you suggest—months of doubtful waiting for one who risked his life for me without a second's hesitation? That is not my nature, Burt. If I have power over you, I shall show it in another way."
She would never forget his look as he listened to these words, nor his humility as he lowered his head upon her shoulder, and murmured, "I am not worthy of this." It touched the deepest and tenderest chord in her heart. His feeling was not the exultation of success, but a gratitude too deep for words, and a half-conscious appeal that she would use her woman's power to evoke a better manhood. It was not mere acknowledgment of her beauty, or the impulse of his passion; it was homage to the best and noblest part of her nature, the expression of his absolute trust. Never had she received such a tribute, and she valued it more than if Burt had laid untold wealth at her feet.
A great joy is often as sobering as a great sorrow, and they talked long and earnestly together. Gertrude would not become engaged until she had told her mother, and shown her the respect that was her due. "You must not be resentful," the young girl said, "if mamma's consent is not easily won. She has set her heart on an establishment in town, I've set my heart on you; so there we differ, and you must give me time to reconcile her to a different programme."
The clock on the mantel chimed eleven, and Burt started up, aghast at the flight of time. Gertrude stole to her father's library, and found that he was pacing the floor. "I should not have left him alone so long to-night," she thought, with compunction. "Papa," she said, "Mr. Clifford is going. Will you not come and speak to him?"
He looked into his daughter's flushed, happy face, and needed no further explanation, and with her hands on his arm he went to the drawing-room. Burt said but few and very simple words, and the keen judge of men liked him beter than if he had been more exuberant. There was evidence of downright earnestness now that seemed a revelation of a new trait.
"You spoke of going to the West soon," Mr. Hargrove remarked, as they lingered in parting. "Have you any objection to telling me of your purpose?"
Burt explained. Mr. Hargrove's face soon expressed unusual interest. "I must talk with you further about this," he said. "I have land in the same locality, and also an interest in the railroad to which you refer. Perhaps I can make your journey of mutual service."
"Oh, papa," cried his daughter, "you are my good genius!" for she well understood what that mutual service meant.
After Burt had gone, Mr. Hargrove said, "Well, well, this Western-land business puts a new aspect on the affair, and mamma may have little ground for complaint. It's my impression that the Cliffords will realize a very respectable fortune out of that land."
"Papa," said the young girl, "Burt gave me something better than wealth to-night—better even than love, in the usual sense of the word. He gave me his faith. He acted as if he saw in me the power to help him to be a true man, and what higher compliment can a woman receive? He did not express it so much by word as by an unconscious manner, that was so sincere and unpremeditated that it thrilled my very soul. Oh, papa, you have helped me to be so very happy!"
WEBB'S FOUR-LEAVED CLOVER
Webb's silent entrance had not been so quiet but that Burt heard him. Scarcely had he gained his room before the younger brother knocked, and followed him in without waiting. "Where have you been at this time of night?" he exclaimed. "You are infringing on ghostly hours, and are beginning to look like a ghost;" for Webb had thrown himself into a chair, and was haggard from the exhaustion of his long conflict. The light and kindly way in which he answered his brother proved that he was victor.
"Webb," said Burt, putting his hand on the elder brother's shoulder, "you saved my life last winter, and life has become of immense value to me. If you had not found me, I should have missed a happiness that falls to the lot of few—a happiness of which all your science can never give you, you old delver, even an idea. I meant to tell mother and father first, but I feel to-night how much I owe to your brave, patient search, and I want your congratulations."
"I think you might have told father and mother last night, for I suppose it's morning now."
"I did not get home in time, and did not wish to excite mother, and spoil her rest."
"Well, then, you might have come earlier or gone later. Oh, I know all about it. I'm not blind."
"By Jove! I think not, if you know all about what I didn't know, and could scarcely believe possible myself, till an hour or two since."
"What on earth are you driving at? I think you might have stayed at home with Amy to-night, of all times. An accident, Burt, revealed to me your success, and I do congratulate you most sincerely. You have now the truest and loveliest girl in the world."
"That's true, but what possible accident could have revealed the fact to you?"
"Don't think I was spying upon you. From the top of a ladder in the orchard I saw, as the result of a casual glance, your reward to Amy for words that must have been very satisfactory."
Burt began to laugh as if he could not control himself. "What a surprise I have for you all!" he said. "I went where I did last night with Amy's full knowledge and consent. She never cared a rap for me, but the only other girl in the world who is her equal does, and her name is Gertrude Hargrove."
Webb gave a great start, and sank into a chair.
"Don't be so taken aback, old fellow. I suppose you and the rest had set your hearts on my marrying Amy. You have only to follow Amy's example, and give me your blessing. Yes, you saw me give Amy a very grateful and affectionate greeting last evening. She's the dearest little sister that ever a man had, and that's all she ever wanted to be to me. I felt infernally mean when I came to her yesterday, for I was in an awkward strait. I had promised to wait for her till she did care, but she told me that there was no use in waiting, and I don't believe there would have been. She would have seen some one in the future who would awaken a very different feeling from any that I could inspire, and then, if she had promised herself to me, she would have been in the same predicament that I was. She is the best and most sensible little girl that ever breathed, and feels toward me just as she does toward you, only she very justly thinks you have forgotten more than lever knew. As for Gertrude—Hang it all! what's the use of trying to explain? You'll say I'm at my old tricks, but I'm not. You've seen how circumstances have brought us together, and I tell you my eye and heart are filled now for all time. She will be over to-morrow, and I want her to receive the greeting she deserves."
The affair seemed of such tremendous importance to Burt that he was not in the least surprised that Webb was deeply moved, and fortunately he talked long enough to give his brother time to regain his self-control. Webb did congratulate him in a way that was entirely satisfactory, and then bundled him out of the room in the most summary manner, saying, "Because you are a hare-brained lover, you shouldn't keep sane people awake any longer." It were hard to say, however, who was the less sane that night, Webb or Burt. The former threw open his window, and gazed at the moonlit mountains in long, deep ecstasy. Unlike Burt's, his more intense feeling would find quiet expression. All he knew was that there was a chance for him—that he had the right to put forth the best effort of which he was capable—and he thanked God for that. At the same time he remembered Amy's parable of the rose. He would woo as warily as earnestly. With Burt's experience before his eyes, he would never stun her with sudden and violent declarations. His love, like sunshine, would seek to develop the flower of her love.
He was up and out in the October dawn, too happy and excited for sleep. His weariness was gone; his sinews seemed braced with steel as he strode to a lofty eminence. No hue on the richly tinted leaves nor on the rival chrysanthemums was brighter than his hope, and the cool, pure air, in which there was as yet no frostiness, was like exhilarating wine. From the height he looked down on his home, the loved casket of the more dearly prized jewel. He viewed the broad acres on which he had toiled, remembering with a dull wonder that once he had been satisfied with their material products. Now there was a glamour upon them, and upon all the landscape. The river gleamed and sparkled; the mountains flamed like the plumage of some tropical bird. The world was transfigured. The earth and his old materiality became the foundation-stones on which his awakened mind, kindled and made poetic, should rear an airy, yet enduring, structure of beauty, consecrated to Amy. He had loved nature before, but it had been to him like a palace in which, as a dull serving-man, he had employed himself in caring for its furniture and the frames of its paintings. But he had been touched by a magic wand, and within the frames glowed ever-changing pictures, and the furniture was seen to be the work of divine art. The palace was no longer empty, but enshrined a living presence, a lovely embodiment of Nature's purest and best manifestation. The development of no flower in all the past summer was so clear to him as that of the girl he loved. He felt as if he had known her thoughts from childhood. Her young womanhood was like that of the roses he had shown to her in the dewy June dawn that seemed so long ago. Burt had never touched her heart. It was still like a bud of his favorite mossrose, wrapped in its green calyx. Oh, what a wealth of fragrant beauty would be revealed! Now it might be revealed to him. But she should waken in her own time; and if he had not the power to impart the deep, subtile impulse, then that nearest to her, Nature, should be his bride.
They were all at the breakfast-table when he returned, and this plotter against Amy's peace entered and greeted her with a very quiet "Good-morning," but he laid beside her plate a four-leaved clover which he had espied on his way back.
"Thanks, Webb," she said, with eyes full of merriment; "I foresee an amazing amount of good luck in this little emblem. Indeed, I feel sure that startling proofs of it will occur to-day;" and she looked significantly at Burt, who laughed very consciously.
"What mischief has Burt been up to, Amy?" Mrs. Clifford asked. "He was ready to explode with suppressed something last evening at supper, and now he is effervescing in somewhat different style, but quite as remarkably. You boys needn't think you can hide anything from mother very long; she knows you too well."
Both Webb and Burt, with Amy, began to laugh, and they looked at each other as if there were a good deal that mother did not know.
"Webb and Amy have evidently some joke on Burt," remarked Leonard. "Webb was out last night, and I bet a pippin he caught Burt flirting with Miss Hargrove."
"Oh, Burt!" cried Amy, in mock indignation.
"Nonsense!" said his mother. "Burt is going to settle down now and be steady. We'll make him sign a pledge before he goes West, won't we, Amy?"
"Yes, indeed," gasped Amy, almost beside herself with merriment; "he'll have to sign one in big capitals."
"Burt," said his father, looking at him over his spectacles, "you've been getting yourself into some scrape as sure as the world. That's right, Amy; you laugh at him well, and—"
"A truce!" exclaimed Burt. "If I'm in a scrape, I don't propose to get out of it, but rather to make you all share in it. As Amy says, her four-leaved clover will prove a true prophet, green as it looks. I now beg off, and shall prove that my scrape has not spoiled my appetite."
"Well," said Leonard, "I never could find any four-leaved clovers, but I've had good luck, haven't I, Maggie?"
"You had indeed, when you came courting me."
"How about Maggie's luck?" asked Burt.
"I am satisfied," began Webb, "that I could develop acres of four-leaved clover. Some plants have this peculiarity. I have counted twenty-odd on one root. If seed from such a plant were sown, and then seed selected again from the new plants most characterized by this 'sport,' I believe the trait would become fixed, and we could have a field of four-leaved clover. New varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers are often thus developed from chance 'sports' or abnormal specimens."
"Just hear Webb," said Amy. "He would turn this ancient symbol of fortune into a marketable commodity."
"Pardon me; I was saying what might be done, not what I proposed to do. I found this emblem of good chance by chance, and I picked it with the 'wish' attacked to the stem. Thus to the utmost I have honored the superstition, and you have only to make your wish to carry it out fully."
"My wishes are in vain, and all the four-leaved clovers in the world wouldn't help them. I wish I was a scientific problem, a crop that required great skill to develop, a rare rose that all the rose-maniacs were after, a new theory that required a great deal of consideration and investigation, and accompanied with experiments that needed much observation, and any number of other t-i-o-n-shuns. Then I shouldn't be left alone evenings by the great inquiring mind of the family. Burt's going away, and, as his father says, has got into a scrape; so what's to become of me?"
They all arose from the table amid general laughter, of which Webb and Burt were equally the objects, and on the faces of those not in the secret there was much perplexed curiosity.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Maggie, "if Webb should concentrate his mind on you as you suggest, it would end by his falling in love with you."
This speech was received with shouts of merriment, and Amy felt the color rushing into her face, but she scouted the possibility. "The idea of Webb's falling in love with any one!" she cried. "I should as soon expect to see old Storm King toppling over."
"Still waters run—" began Maggie, but a sudden flash from Webb's eyes checked her.
"Deep, do they?" retorted Amy. "Some still waters don't run at all. Not for the world would I have Webb incur the dreadful risk that you suggest"
"I think I'm almost old enough to take care of myself, sister Amy, and I promise you to try to be as entertaining as such an old fellow can be. As to falling in love with you, that happened long ago—the first evening you came, when you stood in the doorway blushing and frightened at the crowd of your new relations."
"Haven't I got over being afraid of them remarkably? I never was a bit afraid of you even at first. It took me a long time, however, to find out how learned you were, and what deep subjects are required to interest you. Alas, I shall never be a deep subject."
"Well, my dear," said Mr. Clifford, putting his arm around her, "you have come like sunshine into the old home, and we old people can't help wishing you may never go out of it while we are alive."
"I'm not a bit jealous, Amy," said Maggie.
"I think it's time this mutual admiration society broke up," the young girl said, with tears trembling in her eyes. "When I think of it all, and what a home I've found, I'm just silly enough to cry. I think it's time, Burt, that you obtained your father's and mother's forgiveness or blessing, or whatever it is to be."
"You are right, Amy, as you always are. Mother, will you take my arm? and if you will accompany us, sir (to his father), you shall learn the meaning of Amy's four-leaved clover."
"You needn't think you are going to get Amy without my consent," Leonard called after him. "I've known her longer than any of you—ever since she was a little girl at the depot."
Amy and Webb began laughing so heartily at the speaker that he went away remarking that he could pick apples if he couldn't solve riddles.
"Come up to my room, Amy," said Maggie, excitedly.
"No, no, Mother Eve, I shall go to my own room, and dress for company."
"Oh, I guess your secret!" cried Maggie. "Burt said something more than good-by to Miss Hargrove last evening."
Amy would not answer, and the sound of a mirthful snatch of song died musically away in the distance.
"Now, Mr. Webb," Maggie resumed, "what did you mean by that ominous flash from your cavern-like eyes?"
"It meant that Amy has probably been satisfied with one lover in the family and its unexpected result. I don't wish our relations embarrassed by the feeling that she must be on her guard against another."
"Oh, I see, you don't wish her to be on her guard."
"Dear Maggie, whatever you may see, appear blind. Heaven only knows what you women don't see."
"That's good policy, Webb. I'll be your ally now. I've suspected you for some time, but thought Burt and Amy were committed to each other."
"Amy does not suspect anything, and she must not. She is not ready for the knowledge, and may never be. All the help I ask is to keep her unconscious. I've been expecting you would find me out, for you married ladies have had an experience which doubles your insight, and I'm glad of the chance to caution you. Amy is happy in loving me as a brother. She shall never be unhappy in this home if I can prevent it."
Maggie entered heart and soul into Webb's cause, for he was a great favorite with her. He was kind to her children, and in a quiet way taught them almost as much as they learned at school. He went to his work with mind much relieved, for she and his mother were the only ones that he feared might surmise his feeling, and by manner or remark reveal it to Amy, thus destroying their unembarrassed relations, and perhaps his chance to win the girl's heart.
OCTOBER HUES AND HARVESTS
Burt's interview with his parents, their mingled surprise, pleasure, and disappointment, and their deep sympathy, need not be dwelt upon. Mr. Clifford was desirous of first seeing Amy, and satisfying himself that she did not in the slightest degree feel herself slighted or treated in bad faith, but his wife, with her low laugh, said: "Rest assured, father, Burt is right. He has won nothing more from Amy than sisterly love, though I had hoped that he might in time. After all, perhaps, it is best. We shall keep Amy, and gain a new daughter that we have already learned to admire and love."
Burt's mind was too full of the one great theme to remember what Mr. Hargrove had said about the Western land, and when at last Miss Hargrove came to say good-by, with a blushing consciousness quite unlike her usual self-possession, he was enchanted anew, and so were all the household. The old people's reception seemed like a benediction; Amy banished the faintest trace of doubt by her mirthful ecstasies; and after their mountain experience there was no ice to break between Gertrude and Maggie.
The former was persuaded to defer her trip to New York until the morrow, and so Amy would have her nutting expedition after all. When Leonard came down to dinner, Burt took Gertrude's hand, and said, "Now, Len, this is your only chance to give your consent. You can't have any dinner till you do."
His swift, deprecating look at Amy's laughing face reassured him. "Well," he said, slowly, as if trying to comprehend it all, "I do believe I'm growing old. My eyesight must be failing sadly. When did all this take place?"
"Your eyesight is not to blame, Leonard," said his wife, with much superiority. "It's because you are only a man."
"That's all I ever pretended to be." Then, with a dignity that almost surprised Gertrude, he, as eldest brother, welcomed her in simple, heartfelt words.
At the dinner-table Miss Hargrove referred to the Western land. Burt laid down his knife and fork, and exclaimed, "I declare, I forgot all about it!"
Miss Hargrove laughed heartily as she said, "A high tribute to me!" and then made known her father's statement that the Clifford tract in the West adjoined his own, that it would soon be very valuable, and that he was interested in the railroad approaching it. "I left him," she concluded, "poring over his maps, and he told me to say to you, sir" (to Mr. Clifford), "that he wished to see you soon."
"How about the four-leaved clover now?" cried Amy.
In the afternoon they started for the chestnut-trees. Webb carried a light ladder, and both he and Burt had dressed themselves in close-fitting flannel suits for climbing. The orchard, as they passed through it, presented a beautiful autumn picture. Great heaps of yellow and red cheeked apples were upon the ground; other varieties were in barrels, some headed up and ready for market, while Mr. Clifford was giving the final cooperage to other barrels as fast as they were filled.
"Father can still head up a barrel better than any of us," Leonard remarked to Miss Hargrove.
"Well, my dear," said the old gentleman, "I've had over half a century's experience."
"It's time I obtained some idea of rural affairs," said Gertrude to Webb. "There seem to be many different kinds of apples here. Can you easily tell them apart?"
"Yes, as easily as you know different dress fabrics at Arnold's. Those umbrella-shaped trees are Rhode Island greenings; those that are rather long and slender branching are yellow bell-flowers; and those with short and stubby branches and twigs are the old-fashioned dominies. Over there are Newtown pippins. Don't you see how green the fruit is? It will not be in perfection till next March. Not only a summer, but an autumn and a winter are required to perfect that superb apple, but then it becomes one of Nature's triumphs. Some of those heaps on the ground will furnish cider and vinegar. Nuts, cider, and a wood fire are among the privations of a farmer's life."
"Farming, as you carry it on, appears to me a fine art. How very full some of the trees are! and others look as if they had been half picked over."
"That is just what has been done. The largest and ripest apples are taken off first, and the rest of the fruit improves wonderfully in two or three weeks. By this course we greatly increase both the quality and the bulk of the crop."
"You are very happy in your calling, Webb. How strange it seems for me to be addressing you as Webb!"
"It does not seem so strange to me; nor does it seem strange that I am talking to you in this way. I soon recognized that you were one of those fortunate beings in whom city life had not quenched nature."
They had fallen a little behind the others, and were out of ear-shot.
"I think," she said, hesitatingly and shyly, "that I had an ally in you all along."
He laughed and replied, "At one time I was very dubious over my expedition to Fort Putnam."
"I imagine that in suggesting that expedition you put in two words for yourself."
"Call it even," he said.
"I wish you might be as happy as I am. I'm not blind either, and I wonder that Amy is so unconscious."
"I hope she will remain so until she awakens as naturally as from sleep. She has never had a brother, and as such I try to act toward her. My one thought is her happiness, and, perhaps, I can secure it in no other way. I feared long since that you had guessed my secret, and am grateful that you have not suggested it to Amy. Few would have shown so much delicacy and consideration."
"I'm not sure that you are right, Webb. If Amy knew of your feeling, it would influence her powerfully. She misjudges you now."
"Yes, it was necessary that she should misunderstand me, and think of me as absorbed in things remote from her life. The knowledge you suggest might make her very sad, for there never was a gentler-hearted girl. You have remarkable tact. Please use it to prevent the constraint which might arise between us."
Burt now joined them with much pretended jealousy, and they soon reached the trees, which, under the young men's vigorous blows, rained down the prickly burrs, downy chestnuts, and golden leaves. Blue jays screamed indignantly from the mountain-side, and squirrels barked their protest at the inroads made upon their winter stores. As the night approached the air grew chilly, and Webb remarked that frost was coming at last. He hastened home before the others to cover up certain plants that might be sheltered through the first cold snap. The tenderer ones had long since been taken up and prepared for winter blooming.
To Amy's inquiry where Johnnie was, Maggie had replied that she had gone nutting by previous engagement with Mr. Alvord, and as the party returned in the glowing evening they met the oddly assorted friends with their baskets well filled. In the eyes of the recluse there was a gentler expression, proving that Johnnie's and Nature's ministry had not been wholly in vain. He glanced swiftly from Burt to Miss Hargrove, then at Amy, and a faint suggestion of a smile hovered about his mouth. He was about to leave them abruptly when Johnnie interposed, pleading: "Mr. Alvord, don't go home till I pick you some of your favorite heart's-ease, as you call my pansies. They have grown to be as large and beautiful as they were last spring. Do you know, in the hot weather they were almost as small as johnny-jumpers? but I wouldn't let 'em be called by that name."
"They will ever be heart's-ease to me, Johnnie-doubly so when you give them," and he followed her to the garden.
In the evening a great pitcher of cider fresh from the press, flanked by dishes of golden fall pippins and grapes, was placed on the table. The young people roasted chestnuts on hickory coals, and every one, even to the invalid, seemed to glow with a kindred warmth and happiness. The city belle contrasted the true home-atmosphere with the grand air of a city house, and thanked God for her choice. At an early hour she said good-by for a brief time and departed with Burt. He was greeted with stately courtesy by Mrs. Hargrove herself, whom her husband and the prospective value of the Western land had reconciled to the momentous event. Burt and Gertrude were formally engaged, and he declared his intention of accompanying her to the city to procure the significant diamond.
After the culminating scenes of Burt's little drama, life went on very serenely and quietly at the Clifford home. Out of school hours Alf, Johnnie, and Ned vied with the squirrels in gathering their hoard of various nuts. The boughs in the orchard grew lighter daily. Frost came as Webb had predicted, and dahlias, salvias, and other flowers, that had flamed and glowed till almost the middle of October, turned black in one morning's sun. The butternut-trees had lost their foliage, and countless leaves were fluttering down in every breeze like many-hued gems. The richer bronzed colors of the oak were predominating in the landscape, and only the apple, cherry, and willow trees about the house kept up the green suggestion of summer.
THE MOONLIGHT OMEN
Webb permitted no marked change in his manner. He toiled steadily with Leonard in gathering the fall produce and in preparing for winter, but Amy noticed that his old preoccupied look was passing away. Daily he appeared to grow more genial and to have more time and thought for her. With increasing wonder she learned the richness and fulness of his mind. In the evenings he read aloud to them all with his strong, musical intonation, in which the author's thought was emphasized so clearly that it seemed to have double the force that it possessed when she read the same words herself. He found time for occasional rambles and horseback excursions, and was so companionable during long rainy days that they seemed to her the brightest of the week. Maggie smiled to herself and saw that Webb's spell was working. He was making himself so quietly and unobtrusively essential to Amy that she would find half of her life gone if she were separated from him.
Gertrude returned for a short time, and then went to the city for the winter. Burt's orbit was hard to calculate. He was much in New York, and often with Mr. Hargrove, from whom he was receiving instructions in regard to his Western expedition. That gentleman's opinion of Burt's business capacity grew more favorable daily, for the young fellow now proposed to show that he meant to take life in earnest. "If this lasts he will make a trusty young lieutenant," the merchant thought, "and I can make his fortune while furthering mine." Burt had plenty of brains and good executive ability to carry out the wiser counsels of others, while his easy, vivacious manner won him friends and acceptance everywhere.
It was arranged, after his departure, that Amy should visit her friend in the city, and Webb looked forward to her absence with dread and self-depreciation, fearing that he should suffer by contrast with the brilliant men of society, and that the quiet country life would seem dull, indeed, thereafter.
Before Amy went on this visit there came an Indian summer morning in November, that by its soft, dreamy beauty wooed every one out of doors. "Amy," said Webb, after dinner, "suppose we drive over to West Point and return by moonlight." She was delighted with the idea, and they were soon slowly ascending the mountain. He felt that this was his special opportunity, not to break her trustful unconsciousness, but to reveal his power to interest her and make impressions that should be enduring. He exerted every faculty to please, recalling poetic and legendary allusions connected with the trees, plants, and scenes by which they were passing.
"Oh, Webb, how you idealize nature!" she said. "You make every object suggest something fanciful, beautiful, or entertaining. How have you learned to do it?"
"As I told you last Easter Sunday—how long ago it seems—if I have any power for such idealization it is largely through your influence. My knowledge was much like the trees as they then appeared. I was prepared for better things, but the time for them had not yet come. I had studied the material world in a material sort of way, employing my mind with facts that were like the bare branches and twigs. You awakened in me a sense of the beautiful side of nature. How can I explain it? Who can explain the rapid development of foliage and flowers when all is ready?"
"But, Webb, you appeared, during the summer, to go back to your old materiality worse than ever. You made me feel that I had no power to do anything for you. You treated me as if I were your very little sister who would have to go to school a few years before I could be your companion."
"Those were busy days," he replied, laughing. "Besides," he added, hesitatingly, "Burt was at one time inclined to be jealous. Of course, it was very absurd in him, but I suppose lovers are always a little absurd."
"I should think it was absurd. I saw whither Burt was drifting long ago—at the time of the great flood which swept away things of more value than my silly expectations. What an unsophisticated little goose I was! I suppose Johnnie expects to be married some day, and in much the same way I looked forward to woman's fate; and since you all seemed to wish that it should be Burt, I thought, 'Why not?" Wasn't it lucky for Burt, and, indeed, for all of you, that I was not a grown-up and sentimental young woman? Mr. Hargrove, by uniting his interests with yours in the West, will make your fortunes, and Burt will bring you a lovely sister. It pleases me to see how Gertrude is learning to like you. I used to be provoked with her at first, because she didn't appreciate you. Do you know, I think you ought to write? You could make people fall in love with nature. Americans don't care half as much for out-door life and pursuits as the English. It seems to me that city life cannot compare with that of the country."
"You may think differently after you have been a few weeks in Gertrude's elegant home."
They had paused again on the brow of Cro' Nest, and were looking out on the wide landscape. "No, Webb," she said; "her home, no doubt, is elegant, but it is artificial. This is simple and grand, and to-day, seen through the soft haze, is lovely to me beyond all words. I honestly half regret that I am going to town. Of course, I shall enjoy myself—I always do with Gertrude—but the last few quiet weeks have been so happy and satisfying that I dread any change."
"Think of the awful vacuum that your absence will make in the old home!"
"Well, I'm a little glad; I want to be missed. But I shall write to you and tell you of all the frivolous things we are doing. Besides, you must come to see me as often as you can."
"I certainly shall."
They saw evening parade, the moon rising meanwhile over Sugarloaf Mountain, and filling the early twilight with a soft radiance. The music seemed enchanting, for their hearts were attuned to it. As the long line of cadets shifted their guns from "carry arms" to "shoulder arms" with instantaneous action, Webb said that the muskets sent out a shivering sound like that of a tree almost ready to fall under the last blows of an axe.
Webb felt that should he exist millions of ages he should never forget the ride homeward. The moon looked through the haze like a veiled beauty, and in its softened light Amy's pure, sweet profile was endowed with ethereal beauty. The beech trees, with their bleached leaves still clinging to them, were almost spectral, and the oaks in their bronzed foliage stood like black giants by the roadside. There were suggestive vistas of light and shadow that were full of mystery, making it easy to believe that on a night like this the mountain was haunted by creatures as strange as the fancy could shape. The girl at his side was a mystery. Viewless walls incased her spirit. What were her hidden and innermost thoughts? The supreme gift of a boundless love overflowed his heart to his very lips. She was so near, and the spell of her loveliness so strong, that at times he felt that he must give it expression, but he ever restrained himself. His words might bring pain and consternation to the peaceful face. She was alone with him, and there would be no escape should he speak now. No; he had resolved to wait till her heart awoke by its own impulses, and he would keep his purpose even through the witchery of that moonlight drive. "How strangely isolated we are," he thought, "that such feeling as mine can fill my very soul with its immense desire, and she not be aware of anything but my quiet, fraternal manner!"
As they were descending the home slope of the mountain they witnessed a rare and beautiful sight. A few light clouds had gathered around the moon, and these at last opened in a rift. The rays of light through the misty atmosphere created the perfect colors of a rainbow, and this phenomenon took the remarkable form of a shield, its base resting upon one cloud, and its point extending into a little opening in the cloud above.
"Oh, what a perfect shield!" cried Amy. "Was there ever anything so strange and lovely?"
Webb checked his horse, and they looked at the vision with wonder. "I never saw anything to equal that," said Webb.
"Is it an omen, Webb?" she asked, turning a little from him that she might look upward, and leaning on his shoulder with the unconsciousness of a child.
"Let us make it one, dear sister Amy," he said, drawing her nearer to him. "Let it remind you, as you recall it, that as far as I can I will ever shield you from every evil of life." As he spoke the rainbow colors became wonderfully distinct, and then faded slowly away. Her head drooped lower on his shoulder, and she said, dreamily:
"It seems to me that I never was so happy before in my life as I am now. You are so different, and can be so much to me, now that your old absurd constraint is gone. Oh, Webb, you used to make me so unhappy! You made me feel that you had found me out—how little I knew, and that it was a bore to have to talk with me and explain. I know I'm not highly educated. How could I be? I went everywhere with papa, and he always appeared to think of me as a little girl. And then during the last year or two of his life he was so ill that I did not do much else than watch over him with fear and trembling, and try to nurse him and beguile the hours that were so full of pain and weakness. But I'm not contented to be ignorant, and you can teach me so much. I fairly thrill with excitement and feeling sometimes when you are reading a fine or beautiful thing. If I can feel that way I can't be stupid, can I?"
"Think how much faster I could learn this winter if you would direct my reading, and explain what is obscure!"
"I will very gladly do anything you wish. You underrate yourself, Amy. You have woman's highest charm. There is a stupidity of heart which is far worse than that of the mind, a selfish callousness in regard to others and their rights and feelings, which mars the beauty of some women worse than physical deformity. From the day you entered our home as a stranger, graceful tact, sincerity, and the impulse of ministry have characterized your life. Can you imagine that mere cleverness, trained mental acuteness, and a knowledge of facts can take the place of these traits? No man can love unless he imagines that a woman has these qualities, and bitter will be his disappointment if he finds them wanting."
Her laugh rang out musically on the still air. "Hear the old bachelor talk!" she cried. "I believe you have constructed an ideally perfect creature out of nature, and that you hold trysts with her on moonlight nights, you go out to walk so often alone. Well, well, I won't be jealous of such a sister-in-law, but I want to keep you a little while longer before you follow Burt's example."
"I shall never give you a sister-in-law, Amy."
"You don't know what you'll do. How sure Burt was of himself!"
"Burt and I are different."
"Yes, Webb, you are. If you ever love, it will be for always; and I don't like to think of it. I'd like to keep you just as you are. Now that you see how selfish I am, where is woman's highest charm?"
Webb laughed, and urged his horse into a sharp trot. "I am unchangeable in my opinions too, as far as you are concerned," he remarked. "She is not ready yet," was his silent thought.