Chapter XXIV. April

The remainder of March passed quickly away, with more alternations of mood than there were days; but in spite of snow, sleet, wind, and rain, the most forbidding frowns and tempestuous tears, all knew that Nature had yielded, and more often she half-smilingly acknowledged the truth herself.

All sights and sounds about the farmhouse betokened increasing activity. During the morning hours the cackling in the barn and out-buildings developed into a perfect clamor, for the more commonplace the event of a new-born egg became, the greater attention the hens inclined to call to it. Possibly they also felt the spring-time impulse of all the feathered tribes to use their voice to the extent of its compass. The clatter was music to Alf and Johnnie, however, for gathering the eggs was one of their chief sources of revenue, and the hunting of nests--stolen so cunningly and cackled over so sillily--with their accumulated treasures was like prospecting for mines. The great basketful they brought in daily after their return from school proved that if the egg manufactory ran noisily, it did not run in vain. Occasionally their father gave them a peep into the dusky brooding-room. Under his thrifty management the majority of the nests were simply loose boxes, each inscribed with a number. When a biddy wished to sit, she was removed at night upon the nest, and the box was placed on a low shelf in the brooding-room. If she remained quiet and contented in the new location, eggs were placed under her, a note of the number of the box was taken, with the date, and the character of the eggs, if they represented any special breed. By these simple precautions little was left to what Squire Bartley termed "luck." Some of the hens had been on the nest nearly three weeks, and eagerly did the children listen for the first faint peep that should announce the senior chick of the year.

Webb and Burt had already opened the campaign in the garden. On the black soil in the hot-bed, which had been made in a sheltered nook, were even now lines of cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. These nursling vegetables were cared for as Maggie had watched her babies. On mild sunny days the sash was shoved down and air given. High winds and frosty nights prompted to careful covering and tucking away. The Cliffords were not of those who believe that pork, cabbage, and potatoes are a farmer's birthright, when by a small outlay of time and skill every delicacy can be enjoyed, even in advance of the season. On a warm slope from which the frost ever took its earliest departure, peas, potatoes, and other hardy products of the garden were planted, and as the ground grew firm enough, the fertilizers of the barn-yard were carted to the designated places, whereon, by Nature's alchemy, they would be transmuted into forms of use and beauty.

It so happened that the 1st of April was an ideal spring day. During the morning the brow of Storm King, still clothed with snow, was shrouded in mist, through which the light broke uncertainly in gleams of watery sunshine. A succession of showers took place, but so slight and mild that they were scarcely heeded by the busy workers; there was almost a profusion of half-formed rainbows; and atmosphere and cloud so blended that it was hard to say where one began and the other ceased. On every twig, dead weed, and spire of withered grass hung innumerable drops that now were water and again diamonds when touched by the inconstant sun. Sweet-fern grass abounded in the lawn, and from it exuded an indescribably delicious odor. The birds were so ecstatic in their songs, so constant in their calls, that one might think that they, like the children, were making the most of All-fools' Day, and playing endless pranks on each other. The robins acted as if nothing were left to be desired. They were all this time in all stages of relationship. Some had already paired, and were at work upon their domiciles, but more were in the blissful and excited state of courtship, and their conversational notes, wooings, and pleadings, as they warbled the pros and cons, were quite different from their matin and vesper songs. Not unfrequently there were two aspirants for the same claw or bill, and the rivals usually fought it out like their human neighbors in the olden time, the red-breasted object of their affections standing demurely aloof on the sward, quietly watching the contest with a sidelong look, undoubtedly conscious, however, of a little feminine exultation that she should be sought thus fiercely by more than one. After all, the chief joy of the robin world that day resulted from the fact that the mild, humid air lured the earth-worms from their burrowing, and Amy laughed more than once as, from her window, she saw a little gourmand pulling at a worm, which clung so desperately to its hole that the bird at last almost fell over backward with its prize. Courtship, nest-building, family cares--nothing disturbs a robin's appetite, and it was, indeed, a sorry fools'-day for myriads of angle-worms that ventured out.

Managing a country place is like sailing a ship: one's labors are, or should be, much modified by the weather. This still day, when the leaves were heavy with moisture, afforded Webb the chance he had desired to rake the lawn and other grass-plots about the house, and store the material for future use. He was not one to attempt this task when the wind would half undo his labor.

In the afternoon the showery phase passed, and the sun shone with a misty brightness. Although so early in a backward spring, the day was full of the suggestion of wild flowers, and Amy and the children started on their first search into Nature's calendar of the seasons. All knew where to look for the earliest blossoms, and in the twilight the explorers returned with handfuls of hepatica and arbutus buds, which, from experience, they knew would bloom in a vase of water. Who has ever forgotten his childish exultation over the first wild flowers of the year! Pale, delicate little blossoms though they be, and most of them odorless, their memory grows sweet with our age.

Burt, who had been away to purchase a horse--he gave considerable of his time to the buying and selling of these animals--drove up as Amy approached the house, and pleaded for a spray of arbutus.

"But the buds are not open yet," she said.

"No matter; I should value the spray just as much, since you gathered it."

"Why, Burt," she cried, laughing, "on that principle I might as well give you a chip." But she gave him the buds and escaped.

"Amy," Webb asked at the supper-table, "didn't you hear the peepers this afternoon while out walking?"

"Yes; and I asked Alf what they were. He said they were peepers, and that they always made a noise in the spring."

"Why, Alf," Webb resumed, in mock gravity, "you should have told Amy that the sounds came from the Hylodes pickeringii."

"If that is all that you can tell me," said Amy, laughing, "I prefer Alf's explanation. I have known people to cover up their ignorance by big words before. Indeed, I think it is a way you scientists have."

"I must admit it; and yet that close observer, John Burroughs, gives a charming account of these little frogs that we call 'hylas' for short. Shy as they are, and quick to disappear when approached, he has seen them, as they climb out of the mud upon a sedge or stick in the marshes, inflate their throats until they 'suggest a little drummer-boy with his drum hung high.' In this bubble-like swelling at its throat the noise is made; and to me it is a welcome note of spring, although I have heard people speak of it as one of the most lonesome and melancholy of sounds. It is a common saying among old farmers that the peepers must be shut up three times by frost before we can expect steady spring weather. I believe that naturalists think these little mites of frogs leave the mud and marshes later on, and become tree-toads. Let me give you a hint, Alf. Try to find out what you can at once about the things you see or hear: that's the way to get an education."

"May I not take the hint also?" Amy asked.

"Please don't think me a born pedagogue," he answered, smiling; "but you have no idea how fast we obtain knowledge of certain kinds if we follow up the object-lessons presented every day."