Chapter IX. Sleighing in the Highlands
 

During the night there was a slight fall of snow, and Webb explained at the breakfast-table that its descent had done more to warm the air than would have been accomplished by the fall of an equal amount of red-hot sand. But more potent than the freezing particles of vapor giving off their latent heat were the soft south wind and the bright sunshine, which seemingly had the warmth of May.

"Come, Amy," said Burtis, exultantly, "this is no day to mope in the house. If you will trust yourself to me and Thunder, you shall skim the river there as swiftly as you can next summer on the fastest steamer."

Amy was too English to be afraid of a horse, and with wraps that soon proved burdensome in the increasing warmth of the day, she and Burt dashed down the slopes and hill that led to the river, and out upon the wide, white plain. She was a little nervous as she thought of the fathoms of cold, dark water beneath her; but when she saw the great loads of lumber and coal that were passing to and fro on the track she was convinced that the ice-bridge was safe, and she gave herself up to the unalloyed enjoyment of the grand scenery. First they crossed Newburgh Bay, with the city rising steeply on one side, and the Beacon Mountains further away on the other. The snow covered the ice unbrokenly, except as tracks crossed here and there to various points. Large flocks of crows were feeding on these extemporized roadways, and they looked blacker than crows in the general whiteness. As the sleigh glided here and there it was hard for Amy to believe that they were in the track of steamers and innumerable sail-boats, and that the distant shores did not slope down to a level plain, on which the grass and grain would wave in the coming June; but when Burt turned southward and drove under the great beetling mountains, and told her that their granite feet were over a hundred yards deep in the water, she understood the marvellous engineering of the frost-spirit that had spanned the river, where the tides are so swift, and had so strengthened it in a few short days and nights that it could bear enormous burdens.

Never before had she seen such grand and impressive scenery. They could drive within a few feet of the base of Storm King and Cro' Nest; and the great precipices and rocky ledges, from which often hung long, glittering icicles, seemed tenfold more vast than when seen from a distance. The furrowed granite cliffs, surmounted by snow, looked like giant faces, lined and wrinkled by age and passion. Even the bright sunshine could do little to soften their frowning grandeur. Amy's face became more and more serious as the majesty of the landscape impressed her, and she grew silent under Burtis's light talk. At last she said:

"How transient and insignificant one feels among these mountains! They could not have looked very different on the morning when Adam first saw Eve."

"They are indeed superb," replied Burt, "and I am glad my home--our home--is among them; and yet I am sure that Adam would have found Eve more attractive than all the mountains in the world, just as I find your face, flushed by the morning air, far more interesting than these hills that I have known and loved so long."

"My face is a novelty, brother Burt," she answered, with deepening color, for the young fellow's frequent glances of admiration were slightly embarrassing.

"Strange to say, it is growing so familiar that I seem to have known you all my life," he responded, with a touch of tenderness in his tone.

"That is because I am your sister," she said, quietly. "Both the word and the relation suggest the idea that we have grown up together," and then she changed the subject so decidedly that even impetuous Burt felt that he must be more prudent in expressing the interest which daily grew stronger. As they were skirting Constitution Island, Amy exclaimed:

"What a quaint old house! Who lives there all alone?"

"Some one that you know about, I imagine. Have you ever read 'The Wide, Wide World'?"

"What girl has not?"

"Well, Miss Warner, the author of the book, resides there. The place has a historical interest also. Do you see those old walls? They were built over one hundred years ago. At the beginning of the Revolution, the Continental authorities were stupid enough to spend considerable money, for that period, in the building of a fort on those rocks. Any one might have seen that the higher ground opposite, at West Point, commanded the position."

"No matter about the fort. Tell me of Miss Warner."

"Well, she and her sister spend their summers there, and are ever busy writing, I believe. I'll row you down in the spring after they return. They are not there in winter, I am told. I have no doubt that she will receive you kindly, and tell you all about herself."

"I shall not fail to remind you of your promise, and I don't believe she will resent a very brief call from one who longs to see her and speak with her. I am not curious about celebrities in general, but there are some writers whose words have touched my heart, and whom I would like to see and thank. Where are you going now?"

"I am going to show you West Point in its winter aspect. You will find it a charming place to visit occasionally, only you must not go so often as to catch the cadet fever."

"Pray what is that?"

"It is an acute attack of admiration for very young men of a military cut. I use the word cut advisedly, for these incipient soldiers look for all the world as if carved out of wood. They gradually get over their stiffness, however, and as officers usually have a fine bearing, as you may see if we meet any of them. I wish, though, that you could See a squad of 'plebes' drilling. They would provoke a grin on the face of old Melancholy himself."

"Where is the danger, then, of acute admiration?"

"Well, they improve, I suppose, and are said to be quite irresistible during the latter part of their course. You need not laugh. If you knew how many women--some of them old enough to be the boys' mothers--had succumbed, you would take my warning to heart."

"What nonsense! You are a little jealous of them, Burt."

"I should be indeed if you took a fancy to any of them."

"Well, I suppose that is one of the penalties of having brothers. Are all these houses officers' quarters?"

They had now left the ice, and were climbing the hill as he replied:

"No, indeed. This is Logtown--so named, I suppose, because in the earlier days of the post log huts preceded these small wooden houses. They are chiefly occupied by enlisted men and civilian employees. That large building is the band barracks. The officers' quarters, with a few exceptions, are just above the brow of the hill west and south of the plain."

In a few moments Amy saw the wide parade and drill ground, now covered with untrodden snow.

"What a strange formation of land, right in among the mountains," she said.

"Yes," replied her companion. "Nature could not have designed a better place for a military school. It is very accessible, yet easily guarded, and the latter is an important point, for some of the cadets are very wild, and disposed toward larks."

"I imagine that they are like other young fellows. Were you a saint at college?"

"How can you think otherwise? There, just opposite to us, out on the plain, the evening parade takes place after the spring fairly opens. I shall bring you down to see it, and 'tis a pretty sight. The music also is fine. Oh, I shall be magnanimous, and procure you some introductions if you wish."

"Thank you. That will be the best policy. These substantial buildings on our right are the officers' quarters, I suppose?"

"Yes. That is the commandant's, and the one beyond it is the superintendent's. They are both usually officers of high rank, who have made an honorable record for themselves. The latter has entire charge of the post, and the position is a very responsible one; nor is it by any means a sinecure, for when the papers have nothing else to find fault with they pick at West Point."

"I should think the social life here would be very pleasant."

"It is, in many respects. Army ties beget a sort of comradeship which extends to the officers' wives. Frequent removal from one part of the country to another prevents anything like vegetating. The ladies, I am told, do not become overmuch engrossed in housekeeping, and acquire something of a soldier's knack of doing without many things which would naturally occupy their time and thought if they looked forward to a settled life. Thus they have more time for reading and society. Those that I have met have certainly been very bright and companionable, and many who in girlhood were accustomed to city luxury can tell some strange stories of their frontier life. There is one army custom which often bears pretty hard. Can you imagine yourself an officer's wife?"

"I'll try, if it will be of help to you."

"Then suppose you were nicely settled in one of those houses, your furniture arranged, carpets down, etc. Some morning you learn that an officer outranking your husband has been ordered here on duty. His first step may be to take possession of your house. Quarters are assigned in accordance with rank, and you would be compelled to gather up your household goods and take them to some smaller dwelling. Then your husband--how droll the word sounds!--could compel some other officer, whom he outranked, to move. It would seem that the thing might go on indefinitely, and the coming of a new officer produce a regular 1st of May state of affairs."

"I perceive that you are slyly providing an antidote against the cadet fever. What large building is this?"

"The cadet barracks. There are over two hundred young fellows in the building. They have to study, I can tell you, nor can they slip through here as some of us did at college. All must abide the remorseless examinations, and many drop out. There goes a squad to the riding hall. Would you like to see the drill and sabre practice?"

Amy assenting, they soon reached the balcony overlooking the arena, and spent an amused half-hour. The horses were rather gay, and some were vicious, while the young girl's eyes seemed to have an inspiriting effect upon the riders. Altogether the scene was a lively one, and at times exciting. Burt then drove southward almost to Fort Montgomery, and returning skirted the West Point plain by the river road, pointing out objects of interest at almost every turn, and especially calling the attention of his companion to old Fort Putnam, which he assured her should be the scene of a family picnic on some bright summer day, Amy's wonder and delight scarcely knew bounds when from the north side of the plain she saw for the first time the wonderful gorge through which the river flows southward from Newburgh Bay--Mount Taurus and Breakneck on one side, and Cro' Nest and Storm King on the other. With a deep sigh of content, she said:

"I'm grateful that my home is in such a region as this."

"I'm grateful too," the young fellow replied, looking at her and not at the scenery.

But she was too pre-occupied to give him much attention, and in less than half an hour Thunder's fleet steps carried them through what seemed a realm of enchantment, and they were at home. "Burt," she said, warmly, "I never had such a drive before. I have enjoyed every moment."

"Ditto, ditto," he cried, merrily, as the horse dashed off with him toward the barn.