Chapter XIV. Hints of Spring
 

When Amy awoke on the following morning she was almost dazzled, so brilliant was the light that flooded the room. Long, quiet sleep and the elasticity of youth had banished all depression from mind and body, and she sprang eagerly to the window that she might see the effects of the storm, expecting to witness its ravages on every side. Imagine her wonder and delight when, instead of widespread wreck and ruin, a scene of indescribable beauty met her eyes! The snow had draped all things in white. The trees that had seemed so gaunt and skeleton-like as they writhed and moaned in the gale were now clothed with a beauty surpassing that of their summer foliage, for every branch, even to the smallest twig, had been incased in the downy flakes. The evergreens looked like old-time gallants well powdered for a festival. The shrubbery of the garden was scarcely more than mounds of snow. The fences had almost disappeared; while away as far as the eye could reach all was sparkling whiteness. Nature was like a bride adorned for her nuptials. Under the earlier influences of the gale the snow had drifted here and there, making the undulations of her robe, and under the cloudless sun every crystal glittered, as if over all had been flung a profusion of diamond dust. Nor did she seem a cold, pallid bride without heart or gladness. Her breath was warm and sweet, and full of an indefinable suggestion of spring. She seemed to stand radiant in maidenly purity and loveliness, watching in almost breathless expectation the rising of the sun above the eastern mountains.

A happy group gathered at the breakfast-table that morning. Best of mind and thankfulness of heart had conduced to refreshing repose, and the brightness of the new day was reflected in every face. Burt's ankle was painful, but this was a slight matter in contrast with what might have been his fate. He had insisted on being dressed and brought to the lounge in the breakfast-room. Webb seemed wonderfully restored, and Amy thought he looked almost handsome in his unwonted animation, in spite of the honorable scars that marked his face. Dr. Marvin exclaimed, exultingly:

"Miss Amy, you can begin the study of ornithology at once. There are bluebirds all about the house, and you have no idea what exquisite bits of color they are against the snow on this bright morning. After breakfast you must go out and greet these first arrivals from the South."

"Yes, Amy," put in Leonard, laughing, "it's a lovely morning for a stroll. The snow is only two feet deep, and drifted in many places higher than your head. The 'beautiful snow' brings us plenty of prose in the form of back-aching work with our shovels."

"No matter," said Webb; "it has also brought us warmth, exquisitely pure air, and a splendid covering for grass and grain that will be apt to last well into the spring. Anything rather than mud and the alternate freezing and thawing that are as provoking as a capricious friend."

"Why, Webb, what a burst of sentiment!" said Burt.

"Doctor, the bluebirds seem to come like the south wind that Leonard says is blowing this morning," Mrs. Clifford remarked. "Where were they last night? and how have they reached us after such a storm?"

"I imagine that those we hear this morning have been with us all winter, or they may have arrived before the storm. I scarcely remember a winter when I have not seen some around, and their instinct guides them where to find shelter. When the weather is very cold they are comparatively silent, but even a January thaw will make them tuneful. They are also migrants, and have been coming northward for a week or two past, and this accounts for the numbers this morning. Poor little things! they must have had a hard time of it last night, wherever they were."

"Oh, I do wish I could make them know how glad I'd be to take them in and keep them warm every cold night!" shy Johnnie whispered to Maggie.

"They have a better mother than even you could be," said the doctor, nodding at the little girl.

"Have all the bluebirds a mother?" she asked, with wondering eyes.

"Indeed they have, and all the other birds also, and this mother takes care of them the year round--Mother Nature, that's her name. Your heart may be big enough, but your house would not begin to hold all the bluebirds, so Mother Nature tells the greater part of them to go where it's warm about the 1st of December, and she finds them winter homes all the way from Virginia to Florida. Then toward spring she whispers when it is safe to come back, and if you want to see how she can take care of those that are here even during such a storm as that of last night, bundle up and come out on the sunny back piazza."

There all the household soon after assembled, the men armed with shovels to aid in the path-making in which Abram was already engaged. Burt was placed in a rocking-chair by a window that he might enjoy the prospect also. A charming winter outlook it was, brilliant with light and gemmed with innumerable crystals. To Amy's delight, she heard for the first time the soft, down-like notes of the bluebird. At first they seemed like mere "wandering voices in the air," sweet, plaintive, and delicate as the wind-swayed anemone. Then came a soft rustle of wings, and a bird darted downward, probably from the eaves, but seemingly it was a bit of the sky that had taken form and substance. He flew past her and dislodged a miniature avalanche from the spray on which he alighted. The little creature sat still a moment, then lifted and stretched one wing by an odd coquettish movement while it uttered its low musical warble.

"Why," exclaimed Amy, "he is almost the counterpart of our robin-redbreast of England!"

"Yes," replied Dr. Marvin, "he resembles your English redbreast closely both in appearance and habits, and our New England forefathers called him the 'blue robin.' To my taste the bluebird is the superior of the two, for what he lacks in stronger and more varied song he makes up in softer, sweeter notes. And then he is so beautiful! You have no blue birds of any kind in England, Amy. It seems to require our deeper-tinted skies to produce them. Ah, there comes his mate. You can tell her by the lighter blue of her plumage, and the tinge of brown on her head and back. She is a cold, coy beauty, even as a wife; but how gallant is her azure-coated beau! Flirt away, my little chap, and make the most of your courting and honeymoon. You will soon have family cares enough to discourage anybody but a bluebird;" and the doctor looked at his favorites with an exulting affection that caused a general laugh.

"I shall give our little friends something better than compliments," said Mr. Clifford, obeying his hospitable instincts, and he waded through the snow to the sunny side of an evergreen, and there cleared a space until the ground was bare. Then he scattered over this little plot an abundance of bread-crumbs and hay seed, and they all soon had the pleasure of seeing half a dozen little bobbing heads at breakfast. Johnnie and Alf, who on account of the deep snow did not go to school, were unwearied in watching the lovely little pensioners on their grandfather's bounty--not pensioners either, for, as the old man said, "They pay their way with notes that I am always glad to accept."

The work of path-making and shovelling snow from the doors and roofs of the out-buildings went on vigorously all the morning. Abram also attached the farm horses to the heavy snow-plow, to which he added his weight, and a broad, track-like furrow was made from the house to the road, and then for a mile or more each way upon the street, for the benefit of the neighbors. Before the day was very far advanced, the south wind, which had been a scarcely perceptible breath, freshened, and between the busy shovels and the swaying branches the air was full of glittering crystals. The bride-like world was throwing off her ornaments and preparing for the prose of every-day life; and yet she did so in a cheerful, lightsome mood. The sunny eaves dropped a profusion of gems from the melting snow. There was a tinkle of water in the pipes leading to the cistern. From the cackle in the barn-yard it appeared that the hens had resolved on unwonted industry, and were receiving applause from the oft-crowing chanticleers. The horses, led out to drink, were in exuberant spirits, and appeared to find a child's delight in kicking up the snow. The cows came briskly from their stalls to the space cleared for them, and were soon ruminating in placid content. What though the snow covered the ground deeper than at any time during the winter, the subtile spirit of spring was recognized and welcomed not only by man, but also by the lower creation!

After putting Burt in a fair way of recovery, Dr. Marvin, armed with a shovel to burrow his way through the heavier drifts, drove homeward. Alf floundered off to his traps, and returned exultant with two rabbits. Amy was soon busy sketching them previous to their transformation into a pot-pie, Burt looking on with a deeper interest in the artist than in her art, although he had already learned that she had not a little skill with her pencil. Indeed, Burt promised to become quite reconciled to his part of invalid, in spite of protestations to the contrary; and his inclination to think that Amy's companionship would be an antidote for every ill of life was increasing rapidly, in accordance with his hasty temperament, which arrived at conclusions long before others had begun to consider the steps leading to them.

Amy was still more a child than a woman; but a girl must be young indeed who does not recognize an admirer, especially so transparent a one as Burt would ever be. His ardent glances and compliments both amused and annoyed her. From his brothers she had obtained several hints of his previous and diversified gallantries, and was not at all assured that those in the future might not be equally varied. She did not doubt the sincerity of his homage, however; and since she had found it so easy to love him as a brother, it did not seem impossible that she should learn to regard him in another light, if all thought it best, and he "would only be sensible and understand that she did not wish to think about such things for years to come." Thus it may be seen that in one respect her heart was not much more advanced than that of little Johnnie. She expected to be married some time or other, and supposed it might as well be to Burt as to another, if their friends so desired it; but she was for putting off submission to woman's natural lot as long as possible. Possessing much tact, she was able in a great measure to repress the young fellow's demonstrativeness, and maintain their brotherly and sisterly relations; but it cost her effort, and sometimes she left his society flurried and wearied. With Webb she enjoyed perfect rest and a pleasing content. He was so quiet and strong that his very presence seemed to soothe her jarring nerves. He appeared to understand her, to have the power to make much that interested her more interesting, while upon her little feminine mysteries of needle and fancy work he looked with an admiring helplessness, as if she were more unapproachable in her sphere than he could ever be in his, with all his scientific facts and theories. Women like this tribute to their womanly ways from the sterner sex. Maggie's wifehood was made happy by it, for by a hundred little things she knew that the great, stalwart Leonard would be lost without her. Moreover, by his rescue of Burt, Webb had won a higher place in Amy's esteem. He had shown the prompt energy and courage which satisfy woman's ideal of manhood, and assure her of protection. Amy did not analyze her feelings or consciously assure herself of all this. She only felt that Webb was restful, and would give her a sense of safety, no matter what happened.