Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXII. "First Times"
At last Nature was truly awakening, and color was coming into her pallid face. On every side were increasing movement and evidences of life. Sunny hillsides were free from snow, and the oozing frost loosed the hold of stones upon the soil or the clay of precipitous banks, leaving them to the play of gravitation. Will the world become level if there are no more upheavals? The ice of the upper Hudson was journeying toward the sea that it would never reach. The sun smote it, the high winds ground the honey-combed cakes together, and the ebb and flow of the tide permitted no pause in the work of disintegration. By the middle of March the blue water predominated, and adventurous steamers had already picked and pounded their way to and from the city.
Only those deeply enamored of Nature feel much enthusiasm for the first month of spring; but for them this season possesses a peculiar fascination. The beauty that has been so cold and repellent in relenting--yielding, seemingly against her will, to a wooing that cannot be repulsed by even her harshest moods. To the vigilance of love, sudden, unexpected smiles are granted; and though, as if these were regretted, the frown quickly returns, it is often less forbidding. It is a period full of delicious, soul-thrilling "first times," the coy, exquisite beginnings of that final abandonment to her suitor in the sky. Although she veils her face for days with clouds, and again and again greets him in the dawn, wrapped in her old icy reserve, he smiles back his answer, and she cannot resist. Indeed, there soon come warm, still, bright days whereon she feels herself going, but does not even protest. Then, as if suddenly conscious of lost ground, she makes a passionate effort to regain her wintry aspect. It is so passionate as to betray her, so stormy as to insure a profounder relenting, a warmer, more tearful, and penitent smile after her wild mood is over. She finds that she cannot return to her former sustained coldness, and so at last surrenders, and the frost passes wholly from her heart.
To Alf's and Johnnie's delight it so happened that one of these gentlest moods of early spring occurred on Saturday--that weekly millennium of school-children. With plans and preparations matured, they had risen with the sun, and, scampering back and forth over the frozen ground and the remaining patches of ice and snow, had carried every pail and pan that they could coax from their mother to a rocky hillside whereon clustered a few sugar-maples. Webb, the evening before, had inserted into the sunny sides of the trees little wooden troughs, and from these the tinkling drip of the sap made a music sweeter than that of the robins to the eager boy and girl.
At the breakfast-table each one was expatiating on the rare promise of the day. Even Mrs. Clifford, awakened by the half subdued clatter of the children, had seen the brilliant, rose tinted dawn.
"The day cannot be more beautiful than was the night," Webb remarked. "A little after midnight I was awakened by a clamor from the poultry, and suspecting either two or four footed thieves, I was soon covering the hennery with my gun. As a result, Sir Mephitis, as Burroughs calls him, lies stark and stiff near the door. After watching awhile, and finding no other marauders abroad, I became aware that it was one of the most perfect nights I had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that, a few hours before, a gale had been blowing under a cloudy sky. The moonlight was so clear that I could see to read distinctly. So attractive and still was the night that I started for an hour's walk up the boulevard, and when near Idlewild brook had the fortune to empty the other barrel of my gun into a great horned owl. How the echoes resounded in the quiet night! The changes in April are more rapid, but they are on a grander scale this month."
"It seems to me," laughed Burt, "that your range of topics is even more sublime. From Sir Mephitis to romantic moonlight and lofty musings, no doubt, which ended with a screech-owl."
"The great horned is not a screech-owl, as you ought to know. Well, Nature is to blame for my alternations. I only took the goods the gods sent."
"I hope you did not take cold," said Maggie. "The idea of prowling around at that time of night!"
"Webb was in hopes that Nature might bestow upon him some confidences by moonlight that he could not coax from her in broad day. I shall seek better game than you found. Ducks are becoming plenty in the river, and all the conditions are favorable for a crack at them this morning. So I shall paddle out with a white coat over my clothes, and pretend to be a cake of ice. If I bring you a canvas-back, Amy, will you put the wishbone over the door?"
"Not till I have locked it and hidden the key."
Without any pre-arranged purpose the day promised to be given up largely to country sport. Burt had taken a lunch, and would not return until night, while the increasing warmth and brilliancy of the sunshine, and the children's voices from the maple grove, soon lured Amy to the piazza.
"Come," cried Webb, who emerged from the wood-house with an axe on his shoulder, "don rubber boots and wraps, and we'll improvise a male-sugar camp of the New England style a hundred years ago. We should make the most of a day like this."
They soon joined the children on the hillside, whither Abram had already carried a capacious iron pot as black as himself. On a little terrace that was warm and bare of snow, Webb set up cross-sticks in gypsy fashion, and then with a chain supended the pot, the children dancing like witches around it. Mr. Clifford and little Ned now appeared, the latter joining in the eager quest for dry sticks. Not far away was a large tree that for several years had been slowly dying, its few living branches having flushed early in September, in their last glow, which had been premature and hectic. Dry sticks would make little impression on the sap that now in the warmer light dropped faster from the wounded maples, and therefore to supply the intense heat that should give them at least a rich syrup before night, Webb threw off his coat and attacked the defunct veteran of the grove. Amy watched his vigorous strokes with growing zest; and he, conscious of her eyes, struck strong and true. Leonard, not far away, was removing impediments from the courses, thus securing a more rapid flow of the water and promoting the drainage of the land. He had sent up his cheery voice from time to time, but now joined the group, to witness the fall of a tree that had been old when he had played near it like his own children to-day. The echoes of the ringing axe came back to them from an adjacent hillside; a squirrel barked and "snickered," as if he too were a party to the fun; crows overhead cawed a protest at the destruction of their ancient perch; but with steady and remorseless stroke the axe was driven through the concentric rings on either side into the tree's dead heart. At last, as fibre after fibre was cut away, it began to tremble. The children stood breathless and almost pitying as they saw the shiver, apparently conscious, which followed each blow. Something of the same callousness of custom with which the fall of a man is witnessed must blunt one's nature before he can look unmoved upon the destruction of a familiar tree.
As the dead maple trembled more and more violently, and at last swayed to and fro in the breathless air, Amy cried, "Webb! Webb! come away!"
She had hardly spoken when, with a slow and stately motion, the lofty head bowed; there was a rush through the air, an echoing crash upon the rocks. She sprang forward with a slight cry, but Webb, leaning his axe on the prostrate bole, looked smilingly at her, and said, "Why, Amy, there is no more danger in this work than in cutting a stalk of corn, if one knows how."
"There appears to be more," she replied. "I never saw a large tree cut down before, but have certainly read of people being crushed. Does it often happen?"
"By the way, Amy," said Leonard, "the wood-chopper that you visited with me is doing so well that we shall give him work on the farm this summer. There was a little wheat in all that chaff of a man, and it's beginning to grow. But the wife is a case. He says he would like to work where he can see you occasionally."
"I have been there twice with Webb since, and shall go oftener when the roads are better," she replied, simply.
"That's right, Amy; follow up a thing," said Mr. Clifford. "It's better to help one family than to try to help a dozen. That was a good clean cut, Webb," he added, examining the stump. "I dislike to see a tree haggled down."
"How strong you are, Webb!" said Amy. "I suppose that if you had lived a few hundred years ago you would have been hacking at people in the same way."
"And so might have been a hero, and won your admiration if you had lived then in some gray castle, with the floor of your bower strewn with rushes. Now there is no career for me but that of a plain farmer."
"What manly task was given long before knighthood, eh, Webb? Right royal was the commission, too. Was it not to subdue the earth? It seems to me that you are striving after the higher mastery, one into which you can put all your mind as well as muscle. Knocking people on the head wasn't a very high art."
"What! not in behalf of a distressed damsel?"
"I imagine there will always be distressed damsels in the world. Indeed, in fiction it would seem that many would be nothing if not distressed. You can surely find one, Webb, and so be a knight in spite of our prosaic times."
"I shall not try," he replied, laughing. "I am content to be a farmer, and am glad you do not think our work is coarse and common. You obtained some good ideas in England, Amy. The tastes of the average American girl incline too much toward the manhood of the shop and office. There, Len, I am rested now;" and he took the axe from his brother, who had been lopping the branches from the prostrate tree.
Amy again watched his athletic figure with pleasure as he rapidly prepared billets for the seething caldron of sap.
The day was indeed forming an illuminated page. The blue of the sky seemed intense after so many gray and steel-hued days, and there was not a trace of cloud. The flowing sap was not sweeter than the air, to which the brilliant sunlight imparted an exhilarating warmth far removed from sultriness. From the hillside came the woody odor of decaying leaves, and from the adjacent meadow the delicate perfume of grasses whose roots began to tingle with life the moment the iron grip of the frost relaxed. Sitting on a rock near the crackling fire, Amy made as fair a gypsy as one would wish to see. On every side were evidences that spring was taking possession of the land. In the hollows of the meadow at her feet were glassy pools, kept from sinking away by a substratum of frost, and among these migratory robins and high-holders were feeding. The brook beyond was running full from the melting of the snow in the mountains, and its hoarse murmur was the bass in the musical babble and tinkle of smaller rills hastening toward it on either side. Thus in all directions the scene was lighted up with the glint and sparkle of water. The rays of the sun idealized even the muddy road, of which a glimpse was caught, for the pasty clay glistened like the surface of a stream. The returning birds appeared as jubilant over the day as the children whose voices blended with their songs--as do all the sounds that are absolutely natural. The migratory tide of robins, song-sparrows, phoebes, and other early birds was still moving northward; but multitudes had dropped out of line, having reached their haunts of the previous year. The sunny hillsides and its immediate vicinity seemed a favorite lounging-place both for the birds of passage and for those already at home. The excitement of travel to some, and the delight at having regained the scene of last year's love and nesting to others, added to the universal joy of spring, so exhilarated their hearts that they could scarcely be still a moment. Although the sun was approaching the zenith, there was not the comparative silence that pervades a summer noon. Bird calls resounded everywhere; there was a constant flutter of wings, as if all were bent upon making or renewing acquaintance--an occupation frequently interrupted by transports of song.
"Do you suppose they really recognize each other?" Amy asked Webb, as he threw down an armful of wood near her.
"Dr. Marvin would insist that they do," he replied, laughing. "When with him, one must be wary in denying to the birds any of the virtues and powers. He would probably say that they understood each other as well as we do. They certainly seem to be comparing notes, in one sense of the word at least. Listen, and you will hear at this moment the song of bluebird, robin, both song and fox sparrow, phoebe, blue jay, high-holder, and crow--that is, if you can call the notes of the last two birds a song."
"What a lovely chorus!" she cried, after a few moments' pause.
"Wait till two months have passed, and you will hear a grand symphony every morning and evening. All the members of our summer opera troupe do not arrive till June, and several weeks must still pass before the great star of the season appears."
"Indeed! and who is he, or she?"
"Both he and she--the woodthrush and his mate. They are very aristocratic kin of these robins. A little before them will come two other blood-relations, Mr. and Mrs. Brownthrasher, who, notwithstanding their family connection with the high toned woodthrush and jolly, honest robin, are stealthy in their manner, and will skulk away before you as if ashamed of something. When the musical fit is on them, however, they will sing openly from the loftiest tree-top, and with a sweetness, too, that few birds can equal."
"Why, Webb, you almost equal Dr. Marvin."
"Oh no; I only become acquainted with my favorites. If a bird is rare, though commonplace in itself, he will pursue it as if it laid golden eggs."
A howl from Ned proved that even the brightest days and scenes have their drawbacks. The little fellow had been prowling around among the pails and pans, intent on obtaining a drink of the sap, and thus had put his hand on a honey-bee seeking the first sweet of the year. In an instant Webb reached his side, and saw what the trouble was. Carrying him to the fire, he drew a key from his pocket, and pressed its hollow ward over the spot stung. This caused the poison to work out. Nature's remedy--mud--abounded, and soon a little moist clay covered the wound, and Amy took him in her arms and tried to pacify him, while his father, who had strolled away with Mr. Clifford, speedily returned. The grandfather looked down commiseratingly on the sobbing little companion of his earlier morning walk, and soon brought, not merely serenity, but joy unbounded, by a quiet proposition.
"I will go back to the house," he said, "and have mamma put up a nice lunch, and you and the other children can eat your dinner here by the fire. So can you, Webb and Amy, and then you can look after the youngsters. It's warm and dry here. Suppose you have a little picnic, which, in March, will be a thing to remember. Alf, you can come with me, and while mamma is preparing the lunch you can run to the market and get some oysters and clams, and these, with potatoes, you can roast in the ashes of a smaller fire, which Ned and Johnnie can look after under Webb's superintendence. Wouldn't you like my little plan, Amy?"
"Yes, indeed," she replied, putting her hands caressingly within his arm. "It's hard to think you are old when you know so well what we young people like. I didn't believe that this day could be brighter or jollier, and yet your plan has made the children half-wild."
Indeed, Alf had already given his approval by tearing off toward the house for the materials of this unprecedented March feast in the woods, and the old gentleman, as if made buoyant by the good promise of his little project in the children's behalf, followed with a step wonderfully elastic for a man of fourscore.
"Well, Heaven grant I may attain an age like that!" said Webb, looking wistfully after him. "There is more of spring than autumn in father yet, and I don't believe there will be any winter in his life. Well, Amy, like the birds and squirrels around us, we shall dine out-of-doors today. You must be mistress of the banquet; Ned, Johnnie, and I place ourselves under your orders; don't we, Johnnie?"
"To be sure, uncle Webb; only I'm so crazy over all this fun that I'm sure I can never do anything straight."
"Well, then, 'bustle! bustle!'" cried Amy. "I believe with Maggie that housekeeping and dining well are high arts, and not humdrum necessities. Webb, I need a broad, flat rock. Please provide one at once, while Johnnie gathers clean dry leaves for plates. You, Ned, can put lots of dry sticks between the stones there, and uncle Webb will kindle the right kind of a fire to leave plenty of hot coals and ashes. Now is the time for him to make his science useful."
Webb was becoming a mystery unto himself. Was it the exquisitely pure air and the exhilarating spring sunshine that sent the blood tingling through his veins? Or was it the presence, tones, and gestures of a girl with brow and neck like the snow that glistened on the mountain slopes above them, and large true eyes that sometimes seemed gray and again blue? Amy's developing beauty was far removed from a fixed type of prettiness, and he felt this in a vague way. The majority of the girls of his acquaintance had a manner rather than an individuality, and looked and acted much the same whenever he saw them. They were conventionalized after some received country type, and although farmers' daughters, they seemed unnatural to this lover of nature. Allowing for the difference in years, Amy was as devoid of self-consciousness as Alf or Johnnie. Not the slightest trace of mannerism perverted her girlish ways. She moved, talked, and acted with no more effort or thought of effort than had the bluebirds that were passing to and fro with their simple notes and graceful flight, She was nature in its phase of girlhood. To one of his temperament and training the perfect day itself would have been full of unalloyed enjoyment, although occupied with his ordinary labors; but for some reason this unpremeditated holiday, with Amy's companionship, gave him a pleasure before unknown--a pleasure deep and satisfying, unmarred by jarring discords or uneasy protests of conscience or reason. Truly, on this spring day a "first time" came to him, a new element was entering into his life. He did not think of defining it; he did not even recognize it, except in the old and general way that Amy's presence had enriched them all, and in his own case had arrested a tendency to become materialistic and narrow. On a like day the year before he would have been absorbed in the occupations of the farm, and merely conscious to a certain extent of the sky above him and the bird song and beauty around him. To-day they were like revelations. Even a March world was transfigured. His zest in living and working was enhanced a thousand-fold, because life and work were illumined by happiness, as the scene was brightened by sunshine. He felt that he had only half seen the world before; now he had the joy of one gradually gaining vision after partial blindness.
Amy saw that he was enjoying the day immensely in his quiet way; she also saw that she had not a little to do with the result, and the reflection that she could please and interest the grave and thoughtful man, who was six years her senior, conveyed a delicious sense of power. And yet she was pleased much as a child would be. "He knows so much more than I do," she thought, "and is usually so wrapped up in some deep subject, or so busy, that it's awfully jolly to find that one can beguile him into having such a good time. Burt is so exuberant in everything that I am afraid of being carried away, as by a swift stream, I know not where. I feel like checking and restraining him all the time. For me to add my small stock of mirth to his immense spirits would be like lighting a candle on a day like this; but when I smile on Webb the effect is wonderful, and I can never get over my pleased surprise at the fact."
Thus, like the awakening forces in the soil around them, a vital force was developing in two human hearts equally unconscious.
Alf and his grandfather at last returned, each well laden, and preparations went on apace. Mr. Clifford made as if he would return and dine at home, but they all clamored for his company. With a twinkle in his eye, he said:
"Well, I told mother that I might lunch with you, and I was only waiting to be pressed a little. I've lived a good many years, but never was on a picnic in March before."
"Grandpa, you shall be squeezed as well as pressed," cried Johnnie, putting her arms about his neck. "You shall stay and see what a lovely time you have given us. Oh, if Cinderella were only here!" and she gave one little sigh, the first of the day.
"Possibly Cinderella may appear in time for lunch;" and with a significant look he directed Amy to the basket he had brought, from the bottom of which was drawn a doll with absurdly diminutive feet, and for once in her life Johnnie's heart craved nothing more.
"Maggie knew that this little mother could not be content long without her doll, and so she put it in. You children have a thoughtful mother, and you must be thoughtful of her," added the old man, who felt that the incident admitted of a little homily.
What appetites they all had! If some of the potatoes were slightly burned and others a little raw, the occasion added a flavor better than Attic salt. A flock of chickadees approached near enough to gather the crumbs that were thrown to them.
"It's strange," said Webb, "how tame the birds are when they return in the spring. In the fall the robins are among the wildest of the birds, and now they are all around us. I believe that if I place some crumbs on yonder rock, they'll come and dine with us, in a sense;" and the event proved that he was right.
"Hey, Johnnie," said her grandfather, "you never took dinner with the birds before, did you? This is almost as wonderful as if Cinderella sat up and asked for an oyster."
But Johnnie was only pleased with the fact, not surprised. Wonderland was her land, and she said, "I don't see why the birds can't understand that I'd like to have dinner with them every day."
"By the way, Webb," continued his father, "I brought out the field-glass with me, for I thought that with your good eyes you might see Burt;" and he drew it from his pocket.
The idea of seeing Burt shooting ducks nearly broke up the feast, and Webb swept the distant river, full of floating ice that in the sunlight looked like snow. "I can see several out in boats," he said, "and Burt, no doubt, is among them."
Then Amy, Alf, and Johnnie must have a look, but Ned devoted himself strictly to business, and Amy remarked that he was becoming like a little sausage.
"Can the glass make us hear the noise of the gun better?" Johnnie asked, at which they all laughed, Ned louder than any, because of the laughter of the others. It required but a little thing to make these banqueters hilarious.
But there was one who heard them and did not laugh. From the brow of the hill a dark, sad face looked down upon them. Lured by the beauty of the day, Mr. Alvord had wandered aimlessly into the woods, and, attracted by merry voices, had drawn sufficiently near to witness a scene that awakened within him indescribable pain and longing. He did not think of joining them. It was not a fear that he would be unwelcomed that kept him away; he knew the family too well to imagine that. A stronger restraint was upon him. Something in the past darkened even that bright day, and built in the crystal air a barrier that he could not pass. They would give him a place at their rustic board, but he could not take it. He knew that he would be a discord in their harmony, and their innocent merriment smote his morbid nature with almost intolerable pain. With a gesture indicating immeasurable regret, he turned and hastened away to his lonely home. As he mounted the little piazza his steps were arrested. The exposed end of a post that supported the inner side of its roof formed a little sheltered nook in which a pair of bluebirds had begun to build their nest. They looked at him with curious and distrustful eyes as they flitted to and fro in a neighboring tree, and he sat down and looked at them. The birds were evidently in doubt and in perturbed consultation. They would fly to the post, then away and all around the house, but scarcely a moment passed that Mr. Alvord did not see that he was observed and discussed. With singular interest and deep suspense he awaited their decision. At last it came, and was favorable. The female bird came flying to the post with a beakful of fine dry grass, and her mate, on a spray near, broke out into his soft, rapturous song. The master of the house gave a great sigh of relief. A glimmer of a smile passed over his wan face as he muttered, "I expected to be alone this summer, but I am to have a family with me, after all."
Soon after the lunch had been discussed leisurely and hilariously the maple-sugar camp was left in the care of Alf and Johnnie, with Abram to assist them. Amy longed for a stroll, but even with the protection of rubber boots she found that the departing frost had left the sodded meadow too wet and spongy for safety. Under Webb's direction she picked her way to the margin of the swollen stream, and gathered some pussy willows that were bursting their sheaths.