Chapter XX. A Royal Captive

In the midst of this dreary transition period Nature gave proof that she has unlimited materials of beauty at her command at any time. Early one afternoon the brothers were driven in from their outdoor labors by a cold, sleety rain, and Leonard predicted an ice-storm. The next morning the world appeared as if heavily plated with silver. The sun at last was unclouded, and as he looked over the top of Storm King his long-missed beams transformed the landscape into a scene of wonder and beauty beyond anything described in Johnnie's fairy tales. Trees, shrubs, the roofs and sidings of the buildings, the wooden and even the stone fences, the spires of dead grass, and the unsightly skeletons of weeds, were all incased in ice and touched by the magic wand of beauty. The mountain-tops, however, surpassed all other objects in the transfigured world, for upon them a heavy mist had rested and frozen, clothing every branch and spray with a feathery frost-work of crystals, which, in the sun-lighted distance, was like a great shock of silver hair. There were drawbacks, however, to this marvellous scene. There were not a few branches already broken from the trees, and Mr. Clifford said that if the wind rose the weight of the ice would cause great destruction. They all hastened through breakfast, Leonard and Webb that they might relieve the more valuable fruit and evergreen trees of the weight of ice, and Burt and Amy for a drive up the mountain.

As they slowly ascended, the scene under the increasing sunlight took on every moment more strange and magical effects. The ice-incased twigs and boughs acted as prisms, and reflected every hue of the rainbow, and as they approached the summit the feathery frost-work grew more and more exquisitely delicate and beautiful, and yet it was proving to be as evanescent as a dream, for in all sunny place it was already vanishing. They had scarcely passed beyond the second summit when Burt uttered an exclamation of regretful disgust. "By all that's unlucky," he cried, "if there isn't an eagle sitting on yonder ledge! I could kill him with bird-shot, and I haven't even a popgun with me."

"It's too bad," sympathized Amy. "Let us drive as near as we can, and get a good view before he flies."

To their great surprise, he did not move as they approached, but only glared at them with his savage eye.

"Well," said Burt, "after trying for hours to get within rifle range, this exceeds anything I ever saw. I wonder if he is wounded and cannot fly." Suddenly he sprang out, and took a strap from the harness. "Hold the horse, Amy. I think I know what is the trouble with his majesty, and we may be able to return with a royal captive."

He drew near the eagle slowly and warily, and soon perceived that he was incased in ice from head to foot, and only retained the power of slightly moving his head. The creature was completely helpless, and must remain so until his icy fetters thawed out. His wings were frozen to his sides, his legs covered with ice, as were also his talons, and the dead branch of a low pine on which he had perched hours before. Icicles hung around him, making a most fantastic fringe. Only his defiant eye and open beak could give expression to his untamed, undaunted spirit. It was evident that the bird made a fierce internal struggle to escape, but was held as in a vise.

Burt was so elated that his hand trembled with eagerness; but he resolved to act prudently, and grasping the bird firmly but gently by the neck, he succeeded in severing the branch upon which the eagle was perched, for it was his purpose to exhibit the bird just as he had found him. Having carefully carried his prize to the buggy, he induced Amy, who viewed the creature with mingled wonder and alarm, to receive this strange addition to their number for the homeward journey. He wrapped her so completely with the carriage robe that the eagle could not injure her with his beak, and she saw he could no more move in other respects than a block of ice. As an additional precaution, Burt passed the strap around the bird's neck and tied him to the dash-board. Even with his heavy gloves he had to act cautiously, for the eagle in his disabled state could still strike a powerful blow. Then, with an exultation beyond all words, he drove to Dr. Marvin's, in order to have one of the "loudest crows" over him that he had ever enjoyed. The doctor did not mind the "crow" in the least, but was delighted with the adventure and capture, for the whole affair had just the flavor to please him. As he was a skilful taxidermist, he good-naturedly promised to "set the eagle up" on the selfsame branch on which he had been found, for it was agreed that he would prove too dangerous a pet to keep in the vicinity of the irrepressible little Ned. Indeed, from the look of this fellow's eye, it was evident that he would be dangerous to any one. "I will follow you home, and after you have exhibited him we will kill him scientifically. He is a splendid specimen, and not a feather need be ruffled."

Burt drove around to the Rev. Mr. Barkdale's and some others of his nearest neighbors and friends in a sort of triumphal progress; but Amy grew uneasy at her close proximity to so formidable a companion, fearing that he would thaw out. Many were the exclamations of wonder and curiosity when they reached home. Alf went nearly wild, and little Johnnie's eyes overflowed with tears when she learned that the regal bird must die. As for Ned, had he not been restrained he would have given the eagle a chance to devour him.

"So, Burt, you have your eagle after all," said his mother, looking with more pleasure and interest on the flushed, eager face of her handsome boy than upon his captive. "Well, you and Amy have had an adventure."

"I always have good fortune and good times when you are with me," Burt whispered in an aside to Amy.

"Always is a long time," she replied, turning away; but he was too excited to note that she did not reciprocate his manner, and he was speedily engaged in a discussion as to the best method of preserving the eagle in the most life-like attitude. After a general family council it was decided that his future perch should be in a corner of the parlor, and within a few days he occupied it, looking so natural that callers were often startled by his lifelike appearance.

"Think how his mate must miss him!" Maggie would often say, remorsefully.

As the day grew old the ice on the trees melted and fell away in myriads of gemlike drops. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a sound without as of rain. By four in the afternoon the pageant was over, the sky clouded again, and the typical March outlook was re-established.