Chapter X. A Winter Thunder-Storm
 

Even before the return of Burtis and Amy the sun had been obscured by a fast-thickening haze, and while the family was at dinner the wind began to moan and sigh around the house in a way that foretold a storm.

"I fear we shall lose our sleighing," old Mr. Clifford remarked, "for all the indications now point to a warm rain."

His prediction was correct. Great masses of vapor soon came pouring over Storm King, and the sky grew blacker every moment. The wind blew in strong, fitful gusts, and yet the air was almost sultry. By four o'clock the rain began to dash with almost the violence of a summer shower against the windowpanes of Mr. and Mrs. Clifford's sitting-room, and it grew so dark that Amy could scarcely see to read the paper to the old gentleman. Suddenly she was startled by a flash, and she looked up inquiringly for an explanation.

"You did not expect to see a thunder-storm almost in midwinter?" said Mr. Clifford, with a smile. "This unusual sultriness is producing unseasonable results."

"Is not a thunder-storm at this season very rare?" she asked.

"Yes; and yet some of the sharpest lightning I have ever seen has occurred in winter."

A heavy rumble in the southwest was now heard, and the interval between the flash and the report indicated that the storm centre was still distant. "I would advise you to go up to Maggie's room," resumed Mr. Clifford, "for from her south and west windows you may witness a scene that you will not soon forget. You are not afraid, are you?"

"No, not unless there is danger," she replied, hesitatingly.

"I have never been struck by lightning," the old man remarked, with a smile, "and I have passed through many storms. Come, I'll go with you. I never tire of watching the effects down among the mountains."

They found Mrs. Leonard placidly sewing, with Johnnie and Ned playing about the room. "You, evidently, are not afraid," said Amy.

"Oh no!" she replied. "I have more faith in the presence of little children than in the protection of lightning-rods. Yes, you may come in," she said to Webb, who stood at the door. "I suppose you think my sense of security has a very unscientific basis?"

"There are certain phases of credulity that I would not disturb for the world," he answered: "and who knows but you are right? What's more, your faith is infectious; for, whatever reason might tell me, I should still feel safer in a wild storm with the present company around me. Don't you think it odd, Amy, that what we may term natural feeling gets the better of the logic of the head? If that approaching storm should pass directly over us, with thickly flying bolts, would you not feel safer here?"

"Yes."

Webb laughed in his low, peculiar way, and murmured, "What children an accurate scientist would call us!"

"In respect to some things I never wish to grow up," she replied.

"I believe I can echo that wish. The outlook is growing fine, isn't it?"

The whole sky, which in the morning had smiled so brightly in undimmed sunshine, was now black with clouds. These hung so low that the house seemed the centre of a narrow and almost opaque horizon. The room soon darkened with the gloom of twilight, and the faces of the inmates faded into shadowy outlines. The mountains, half wrapped in vapor, loomed vast and indefinite in the obscurity. Every moment the storm grew nearer, and its centre was marked by an ominous blackness which the momentary flashes left all the more intense. The young girl grew deeply absorbed in the scene, and to Webb the strong, pure profile of her awed face, as the increasingly vivid flashes revealed it, was far more attractive than the landscape without, which was passing with swift alternations from ghastly gloom to even more ghastly pallor. He looked at her; the rest looked at the storm, the children gathering like chickens under the mother's wing.

At last there came a flash that startled them all. The mountains leaped out of the darkness like great sheeted spectres, and though seen but a second, they made so strong an impression that they seemed to have left their solid bases and to be approaching in the gloom. Then came a magnificent peal that swept across the whole southern arch of the sky. The reverberations among the hills were deep, long, and grand, and the fainter echoes had not died away before there was another flash--another thunderous report, which, though less loud than the one that preceded it, maintained the symphony with scarcely diminished grandeur.

"This is our Highland music, Amy," Webb remarked, as soon as he could be heard. "It has begun early this season, but you will hear much of it before the year is out."

"It is rather too sublime for my taste," replied the young girl, shrinking closer to Mr. Clifford's side.

"You are safe, my child," said the old man, encircling her with his arm.

"Let me also reassure you in my prosaic way," Webb continued. "There, do you not observe that though this last flash seemed scarcely less vivid, the report followed more tardily, indicating that the storm centre is already well to the south and east of us? The next explosion will take place over the mountains beyond the river. You may now watch the scene in security, for the heavenly artillery is pointed away from you."

"Thank you. I must admit that your prose is both reassuring and inspiring. How one appreciates shelter and home on such a night as this! Hear the rain splash against the window! Every moment the air seems filled with innumerable gems as the intense light pierces them. Think of being out alone on the river, or up there among the hills, while Nature is in such an awful mood!--the snow, the slush, everything dripping, the rain rushing down like a cataract, and thunder-bolts playing over one's head. In contrast, look around this home-like room. Dear old father's serene face"--for Mr. Clifford had already taught her to call him father--"makes the Divine Fatherhood seem more real. Innocent little Ned here does indeed seem a better protection than a lightning-rod, while Johnnie, putting her doll to sleep in the corner, is almost absolute assurance of safety. Your science is all very well, Webb, but the heart demands something as well as the head. Oh, I wish all the world had such shelter as I have to-night!"

It was not often that Amy spoke so freely and impulsively. Like many with delicate organizations, she was excited by the electrical condition of the air. The pallor of awe had given place to a joyous flush, and her eyes were brilliant.

"Sister Amy," said Webb, as they went down to supper, "you must be careful of yourself, and others must be careful of you, for you have not much vis inertiae. Some outside influences might touch you, as I would touch your piano, and make sad discord."

"Should I feel very guilty because I have not more of that substantial quality which can only find adequate expression in Latin?" she asked, with a humorous glance.

"Oh, no! At least not in my opinion. I much prefer a woman in whom the spirit is pre-eminent over the clay. We are all made of dust, you know, and we men, I fear, often smack of the soil too strongly; therefore we are best pleased with contrasts. Moreover, our country life will brace you without blunting your nature. I should be sorry for you, though, if you were friendless, and had to face the world alone."

"That can scarcely happen now," she said, with a grateful glance.

During the early part of the evening they all became absorbed in a story, which Webb read aloud. At last Mr. Clifford rose, drew aside the curtains, and looked out. "Come here, Amy," he said. "Look where the storm thundered a few hours since!"

The sky was cloudless, the winds were hushed, the stars shining, and the mountains stood out gray and serene in the light of the rising moon.

"See, my child, the storm has passed utterly away, and everything speaks of peace and rest. In my long life I have had experiences which at the time seemed as dark and threatening as the storm that awed you in the early evening, but they passed also, and a quiet like that which reigns without followed. Put the lesson away in your heart, my dear; but may it be long before you have occasion for its use! Good-night."