Chapter XIX. Winter's Exit
 

The old house seemed so full of strange sounds that Amy found it impossible to sleep. Seasoned as were its timbers, they creaked and groaned, and the casements rattled as if giant hands were seeking to open them. The wind at times would sigh and sob so mournfully, like a human voice, that her imagination peopled the darkness with strange creatures in distress, and then she would shudder as a more violent gust raised the prolonged wail into a loud shriek. Thoughts of her dead father--not the resigned, peaceful thoughts which the knowledge of his rest had brought of late--came surging into her mind. Her organization was peculiarly fine and especially sensitive to excited atmospherical conditions, and the tumult of the night raised in her mind an irrepressible, although unreasoning, panic. At last she felt that she would scream if she remained alone any longer. She put on her wrapper, purposing to ask Mrs. Leonard to come and stay with her for a time, feeling assured that if she could only speak to some one, the horrid spell of nervous fear would be broken. As she stepped into the hall she saw a light gleaming from the open door of the sitting-room, and in the hope that some one was still up, she stole noiselessly down the stairway to a point that commanded a view of the apartment. Only Webb was there, and he sat quietly reading by the shaded lamp and flickering fire. The scene and his very attitude suggested calmness and safety. There was nothing to be afraid of, and he was not afraid. With every moment that she watched him the nervous agitation passed from mind and body. His strong, intent profile proved that he was occupied wholly with the thought of his author. The quiet deliberation with which he turned the leaves was more potent than soothing words. "I wouldn't for the world have him know I'm so weak and foolish," she said to herself, as she crept noiselessly back to her room. "He little dreamed who was watching him," she whispered, smilingly, as she dropped asleep.

When she waked next morning the rain had ceased, the wind blew in fitful gusts, and the sky was still covered with wildly hurrying clouds that seemed like the straggling rearguard which the storm had left behind. So far as she could see from her window, everything was still standing, as Mr. Clifford had said. Familiar objects greeted her reassuringly, and never before had the light even of a lowering morning seemed more blessed in contrast with the black, black night. As she recalled the incidents of that night--her nervous panic, and the scene which had brought quiet and peace--she smiled again, and, it must be admitted, blushed slightly. "I wonder if he affects others as he does me," she thought. "Papa used to say, when I was a little thing, that I was just a bundle of nerves, but when Webb is near I am not conscious I ever had a nerve."

Every little brook had become a torrent; Moodna Creek was reported to be in angry mood, and the family hastened through breakfast that they might drive out to see the floods and the possible devastation. Several bridges over the smaller streams had barely escaped, and the Idlewild brook, whose spring and summer music the poet Willis had caused to be heard even in other lands, now gave forth a hoarse roar from the deep glen through which it raved. An iron bridge over the Moodna, on the depot road, had evidently been in danger in the night. The ice had been piled up in the road at each end of the bridge, and a cottage a little above it was surrounded by huge cakes. The inmates had realized their danger, for part of their furniture had been carried to higher ground. Although the volume of water passing was still immense, all danger was now over. As they were looking at the evidences of the violent breaking up of winter, the first phoebe-bird of the season alighted in a tree overhanging the torrent, and in her plaintive notes seemed to say, as interpreted by John Burroughs, "If you please, spring has come." They gave the brown little harbinger such an enthusiastic welcome that she speedily took flight to the further shore.

"Where was that wee bit of life last night?" said Webb; "and how could it keep up heart?"

"Possibly it looked in at a window and saw some one reading," thought Amy; and she smiled so sweetly at the conceit that Webb asked, "How many pennies will you take for your thoughts?"

"They are not in the market;" and she laughed outright as she turned away.

"The true place to witness the flood will be at the old red bridge further down the stream," said Leonard; and they drove as rapidly as the bad wheeling permitted to that point, and found that Leonard was right. Just above the bridge was a stone dam, by which the water was backed up a long distance, and a precipitous wooded bank rose on the south side. This had shielded the ice from the sun, and it was still very thick when the pressure of the flood came upon it. Up to this time it had not given way, and had become the cause of an ice-gorge that every moment grew more threatening. The impeded torrent chafed and ground the cakes together, surging them up at one point and permitting them to sink at another, as the imprisoned waters struggled for an outlet. The solid ice still held near the edge of the dam, although it was beginning to lift and crack with the tawny flood pouring over, under, and around it.

"Suppose we cross to the other side, nearest home," said Burt, who was driving; and with the word he whipped up the horses and dashed through the old covered structure.

"You ought not to have done that, Burt," said Webb, almost sternly. "The gorge may give way at any moment, and the bridge will probably go with it. We shall now have to drive several hundred yards to a safe place to leave the horses, for the low ground on this side will probably be flooded."

"It certainly will be," added Leonard.

"Oh, make haste!" cried Amy; and they all noticed that she was trembling.

But a few minutes sufficed to tie the horses and return to a point of safety near the bridge. "I did not mean to expose you to the slightest danger," Burt whispered, tenderly, to Amy. "See, the bridge is safe enough, and we might drive over it again."

Even as he spoke there was a long grinding, crunching sound. A great volume of black water had forced its way under the gorge, and now lifted it bodily over the dam. It sank in a chaotic mass, surged onward and upward again, struck the bridge, and in a moment lifted it from its foundations and swept it away, a shattered wreck, the red covering showing in the distance like ensanguined stains among the tossing cakes of ice.

They all drew a long breath, and Amy was as pale as if she had witnessed the destruction of some living creature. No doubt she realized what would have been their fate had the break occurred while they were crossing.

"Good-by, old bridge," said Leonard, pensively. "I played and fished under you when a boy, and in the friendly dusk of its cover I kissed Maggie one summer afternoon of our courting days--"

"Well, well," exclaimed Burt, "the old bridge's exit has been a moving object in every sense, since it has evoked such a flood of sentiment from Len. Let us take him home to Maggie at once."

As they were about to depart they saw Dr. Marvin driving down to the opposite side, and they mockingly beckoned him to cross the raging torrent. He shook his head ruefully, and returned up the hill again. A rapid drive through the Moodna Valley brought them to the second bridge, which would evidently escape, for the flats above it were covered with debris and ice, and the main channel was sufficiently clear to permit the flood to pass harmlessly on. They then took the river road homeward.

The bridge over the Idlewild brook, near its entrance into the Moodna, was safe, although it had a narrow graze. They also found that the ice in the river at the mouth of the creek had been broken up in a wide semicircle, and as they ascended a hill that commanded an extensive view of Newburgh Bay they saw that the ice remaining had a black, sodden appearance.

"It will all break up in a few hours," said Burt, "and then hurrah for duck-shooting!"

Although spring had made such a desperate onset the previous night, it seemed to have gained but a partial advantage over winter. The weather continued raw and blustering for several days, and the overcast sky permitted but chance and watery gleams of sunshine. Slush and mud completed the ideal of the worst phase of March. The surface of the earth had apparently returned to that period before the dry land was made to appear. As the frost came out of the open spaces of the garden, plowed fields, and even the country roads, they became quagmires in which one sank indefinitely. Seeing the vast advantage afforded to the men-folk by rubber boots, Amy provided herself with a pair, and with something of the exultation of the ancient Hebrews passed dry-shod through the general moisture.