Chapter XXV. Easter

Easter-Sunday came early in the month, and there had been great preparations for it, for with the Cliffords it was one of the chief festivals of the year. To the children was given a week's vacation, and they scoured the woods for all the arbutus that gave any promise of opening in time. Clumps of bloodroot, hepaticas, dicentras, dog-tooth violets, and lilies-of-the-valley had been taken up at the first relaxation of frost, and forced in the flower-room. Hyacinth and tulip bulbs, kept back the earlier part of the winter, were timed to bloom artificially at this season so sacred to flowers, and, under Mrs. Clifford's fostering care, all the exotics of the little conservatory had been stimulated to do their best to grace the day. On Saturday afternoon Mr. Barkdale's pulpit was embowered with plants and vines growing in pots, tubs, and rustic boxes, and the good man beamed upon the work, gaining meanwhile an inspiration that would put a soul into his words on the morrow.

No such brilliant morning dawned on the worship of the Saxon goddess Eostre, in cloudy, forest-clad England in the centuries long past, as broke over the eastern mountains on that sacred day. At half-past five the sun appeared above the shaggy summit of the Beacon, and the steel hues of the placid Hudson were changed into sparkling silver. A white mist rested on the water between Storm King, Break Neck, and Mount Taurus. In the distance it appeared as if snow had drifted in and half filled the gorge of the Highlands. The orange and rose-tinted sky gradually deepened into an intense blue, and although the land was as bare and the forests were as gaunt as in December, a soft glamour over all proclaimed spring.

Spring was also in Amy's eyes, in the oval delicacy of her girlish face with its exquisite flush, in her quick, deft hands and elastic step as she arranged baskets and vases of flowers. Webb watched her with his deep eyes, and his Easter worship began early in the day. True homage it was, because so involuntary, so unquestioning and devoid of analysis, so utterly free from the self-conscious spirit that expects a large and definite return for adoration. His sense of beauty, the poetic capabilities of his nature, were kindled. Like the flowers that seemed to know their place in a harmony of color when she touched them, Amy herself was emblematic of Easter, of its brightness and hopefulness, of the new, richer spiritual life that was coming to him. He loved his homely work and calling as never before, because he saw how on every side it touched and blended with the beautiful and sacred. Its highest outcome was like the blossoms before him which had developed from a rank soil, dark roots, and prosaic woody stems. The grain he raised fed and matured the delicate human perfection shown in every graceful and unconscious pose of the young girl. She was Nature's priestess interpreting to him a higher, gentler world which before he had seen but dimly--interpreting it all the more clearly because she made no effort to reveal it. She led the way, he followed, and the earth ceased to be an aggregate of forms and material forces. With his larger capabilities he might yet become her master, but now, with an utter absence of vanity, he recognized how much she was doing for him, how she was widening his horizon and uplifting his thoughts and motives, and he reverenced her as such men ever do a woman that leads them to a higher plane of life.

No such deep thoughts and vague homage perplexed Burt as he assisted Amy with attentions that were assiduous and almost garrulous. The brightness of the morning was in his handsome face, and the gladness of his buoyant temperament in his heart. Amy was just to his taste--pretty, piquant, rose-hued, and a trifle thorny too, at times, he thought. He believed that he loved her with a boundless devotion--at least it seemed so that morning. It was delightful to be near her, to touch her fingers occasionally as he handed her flowers, and to win smiles, arch looks, and even words that contained a minute prick like spines on the rose stems. He felt sure that his suit would prosper in time, and she was all the more fascinating because showing no sentimental tendencies to respond with a promptness that in other objects of his attention in the past had even proved embarrassing. She was a little conscious of Webb's silent observation, and, looking up suddenly, caught an expression that deepened her color slightly.

"That for your thoughts," she said, tossing him a flower with sisterly freedom.

"Webb is pondering deeply," explained the observant Burt, "on the reflection of light as shown not only by the color in these flowers, but also in your cheeks under his fixed stare."

There was an access of rose-hued reflection at these words, but Webb rose quietly and said: "If you will let me keep the flower I will tell you my thoughts another time. They were quite suitable for Easter morning. That basket is now ready, and I will take it to the church."

Burt was soon despatched with another, while she and Johnnie, who had been flitting about, eager and interested, followed with light and delicate vases. To their surprise, Mr. Alvord intercepted them near the church vestibule. He had never been seen at any place of worship, and the reserve and dignity of his manner had prevented the most zealous from interfering with his habits. From the porch of his cottage he had seen Amy and the little girl approaching with their floral offerings. Nature's smile that morning had softened his bitter mood, and, obeying an impulse to look nearer upon two beings that belonged to another world than his, he joined them, and asked:

"Won't you let me see your flowers before you take them into the church?"

"Certainly," said Amy, cordially; "but there are lovelier ones on the pulpit; won't you come in and see them?"

He shook his head.

"What!" cried Johnnie, "not going to church to-day?" She had lost much of her fear of him, for in his rambles he frequently met her and Alf, and usually spoke to them. Moreover, she had repeatedly seen him at their fireside, and he ever had a smile for her. The morbid are often fearless with children, believing that, like the lower orders of life, they have little power to observe that anything is amiss, and therefore are neither apt to be repelled nor curious and suspicious. This in a sense is true, and yet their instincts are keen. But Mr. Alvord was not selfish or coarse; above all he was not harsh. To Johnnie he only seemed strange, quiet, and unhappy, and she had often heard her mother say, "Poor Mr. Alvord!" Therefore, when he said, "I don't go to church; if I had a little girl like you to sit by me, I might feel differently," her heart was touched, and she replied, impulsively: "I'll sit by you, Mr. Alvord. I'll sit with you all by ourselves, if you will only go to church to-day. Why, it's Easter."

"Mr. Alvord," said Amy, gently, "that's an unusual offer for shy Johnnie to make. You don't know what a compliment you have received, and I think you will make the child very happy if you comply."

"Could I make you happier by sitting with you in church to-day?" he asked, in a low voice, offering the child his hand.

"Yes," she replied, simply.

"Come, then. You lead the way, for you know best where to go." She gave her vase to Amy, and led him into a side seat near her father's pew--one that she had noted as unoccupied of late. "It's early yet Do you mind sitting here until service begins?" he asked.

"Oh, no. I like to sit here and look at the flowers;" and the first comers glanced wonderingly at the little girl and her companion, who was a stranger to them and to the sanctuary. Amy explained matters to Leonard and Maggie at the door when they arrived, and Easter-Sunday had new and sweeter meanings to them.

The spring had surely found its way into Mr. Barkdale's sermon also, and its leaves, as he turned them, were not autumn leaves, which, even though brilliant, suggest death and sad changes. One of his thoughts was much commented upon by the Cliffords, when, in good old country style, the sermon was spoken of at dinner. "The God we worship," he said, "is the God of life, of nature. In his own time and way he puts forth his power. We can employ this power and make it ours. Many of you will do this practically during the coming weeks. You sow seed, plant trees, and seek to shape others into symmetrical form by pruning-knife and saw. What is your expectation? Why, that the great power that is revivifying nature will take up the work here you leave off, and carry it forward. All the skill and science in the world could not create a field of waving grain, nor all the art of one of these flowers. How immensely the power of God supplements the labor of man in those things which minister chiefly to his lower nature! Can you believe that he will put forth so much energy that the grain may mature and the flower bloom, and yet not exert far greater power than man himself may develop according to the capabilities of his being? The forces now exist in the earth and in the air to make the year fruitful, but you must intelligently avail yourselves of them. You must sow, plant, and cultivate. The power ever exists that can redeem us from evil, heal the wounds that sin has made, and develop the manhood and womanhood that Heaven receives and rewards. With the same resolute intelligence you must lay hold upon this ever-present spiritual force if you would be lifted up."

After the service there were those who would ostentatiously recognize and encourage Mr. Alvord; but the Cliffords, with better breeding, quietly and cordially greeted him, and that was all. At the door he placed Johnnie's hand in her mother's, and gently said, "Good-by;" but the pleased smile of the child and Mrs. Leonard followed him. As he entered his porch, other maternal eyes rested upon him, and the brooding bluebird on her nest seemed to say, with Johnnie, "I am not afraid of you." Possibly to the lonely man this may prove Easter-Sunday in very truth, and hope, that he had thought buried forever, come from its grave.

In the afternoon all the young people started for the hills, gleaning the earliest flowers, and feasting their eyes on the sunlit landscapes veiled with soft haze from the abundant moisture with which the air was charged. As the sun sank low in the many-hued west, and the eastern mountains clothed themselves in royal purple, Webb chanced to be alone, near Amy, and she said:

"You have had that flower all day, and I have not had your thoughts."

"Oh, yes, you have--a great many of them."

"You know that isn't what I mean. You promised to tell me what you were thinking about so deeply this morning."

He looked at her smilingly a moment, and then his face grew gentle and grave as he replied: "I can scarcely explain, Amy. I am learning that thoughts which are not clear-cut and definite may make upon us the strongest impressions. They cause us to feel that there is much that we only half know and half understand as yet. You and your flowers seemed to interpret to me the meaning of this day as I never understood it before. Surely its deepest significance is life, happy, hopeful life, with escape from its grosser elements, and as you stood there you embodied that idea."

"Oh, Webb," she cried, in comic perplexity, "you are getting too deep for me. I was only arranging flowers, and not thinking about embodying anything. But go on."

"If you had been, you would have spoiled everything," he resumed, laughing. "I can't explain; I can only suggest the rest in a sentence or two. Look at the shadow creeping up yonder mountain--very dark blue on the lower side of the moving line and deep purple above. Listen to these birds around us. Well, every day I see and hear and appreciate these things better, and I thought that you were to blame."

"Am I very much to blame?" she inquired, archly.

"Yes, very much," was his laughing answer. "It seems to me that a few months since I was like the old man with the muck-rake in 'Pilgrim's Progress,' seeking to gather only money, facts, and knowledge--things of use. I now am finding so much that is useful which I scarcely looked at before that I am revising my philosophy, and like it much better. The simple truth is, I needed just such a sister as you are to keep me from plodding."

Burt now appeared with a handful of rue-anemones, obtained by a rapid climb to a very sunny nook. They were the first of the season, and he justly believed that Amy would be delighted with them. But the words of Webb were more treasured, for they filled her with a pleased wonder. She had seen the changes herself to which he referred; but how could a simple girl wield such an influence over the grave, studious man? That was the puzzle of puzzles. It was an enigma that she would be long in solving, and yet the explanation was her own simplicity, her truthfulness to all the conditions of unaffected girlhood.

On the way to the house Webb delighted Johnnie and Alf by gathering sprays of the cherry, peach, pear, and plum, saying, "Put them in water by a sunny window, and see which will bloom first, these sprays or the trees out-of-doors." The supper-table was graced by many woodland trophies--the "tawny pendants" of the alder that Thoreau said dusted his coat with sulphur-like pollen as he pressed through them to "look for mud-turtles," pussy willows now well developed, the hardy ferns, arbutus, and other harbingers of spring, while the flowers that had been brought back from the church filled the room with fragrance. To gentle Mrs. Clifford, dwelling as she ever must among the shadows of pain and disease, this was the happiest day of the year, for it pointed forward to immortal youth and strength, and she loved to see it decked and garlanded like a bride. And so Easter passed, and became a happy memory.