Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXVI. Very Moody
The next morning Amy, on looking from her window, could scarcely believe she was awake. She had retired with her mind full of spring and spring-time beauty, but the world without had now the aspect of January. The air was one swirl of snow, and trees, buildings--everything was white. In dismay she hastened to join the family, but was speedily reassured.
"There is nothing monotonous in American weather, and you must get used to our sharp alternations," said Mr. Clifford. "This snow will do good rather than harm, and the lawn will actually look green after it has melted, as it will speedily. The thing we dread is a severe frost at a far later date than this. The buds are still too dormant to be injured, but I have known the apples to be frozen on the trees when as large as walnuts."
"Such snows are called the poor man's manure," Webb remarked, "and fertilizing gases, to a certain amount, do become entangled in the large wet flakes, and so are carried into the soil. But the poor man will assuredly remain poor if he has no other means of enriching his land. What a contrast to yesterday! The house on the northeast side looks as if built of snow, so evenly is it plastered over. I pity the birds. They have scarcely sung this morning, and they look as if thoroughly disgusted."
Amy and Johnnie shared in the birds' disapproval, but Alf had a boy's affinity for snow, and resolved to construct an immense fort as soon as the storm permitted. Before the day had far declined the heavy flakes ceased, and the gusty wind died away. Johnnie forgot the budding flowers in their winding-sheet, and joyously aided in the construction of the fort. Down the sloping lawn they rolled the snowballs, that so increased with every revolution that they soon rose above the children's heads, and Webb and Burt's good-natured help was required to pile them into ramparts. At the entrance of the stronghold an immense snow sentinel was fashioned, with a cord-wood stick for a musket. The children fairly sighed for another month of winter.
All night long Nature, in a heavy fall of rain, appeared to weep that she had been so capricious, and the morning found her in as uncomfortable a mood as could be imagined. The slush was ankle-deep, with indefinite degrees of mud beneath, the air chilly and raw, and the sky filled with great ragged masses of cloud, so opaque and low that they appeared as if disrupted by some dynamic force, and threatened to fall upon the shadowed land. But between them the sun darted many a smile at his tear-stained mistress. At last they took themselves off like ill-affected meddlers in a love match, and the day grew bright and warm. By evening, spring, literally and figuratively, had more than regained lost ground, for, as Mr. Clifford had predicted, the lawn had a distinct emerald hue. Thenceforth the season moved forward as if there were to be no more regrets and nonsense. An efficient ally in the form of a southwest wind came to the aid of the sun, and every day Nature responded with increasing favor. Amy no more complained that an American April was like early March in England; and as the surface of the land grew warm and dry it was hard for her to remain in-doors, there was so much of life, bustle, and movement without. Buds were swelling on every side. Those of the lilac were nearly an inch long, and emitted a perfume of the rarest delicacy, far superior to that of the blossoms to come. The nests of the earlier birds were in all stages of construction, and could be seen readily in the leafless trees. Snakes were crawling from their holes, and lay sunning themselves in the roads, to her and Johnnie's dismay. Alf captured turtles that, deep in the mud, had learned the advent of spring as readily as the creatures of the air. The fish were ascending the swollen streams. "Each rill," as Thoreau wrote, "is peopled with new life rushing up it." Abram and Alf were planning a momentous expedition to a tumbling dam on the Moodna, the favorite resort of the sluggish suckers. New chicks were daily breaking their shells, and their soft, downy, ball-like little bodies were more to Amy's taste than the peepers of the marsh.
One Saturday morning Alf rushed in, announcing with breathless haste that "Kitten had a calf." Kitten was a fawn-colored Alderney, the favorite of the barnyard, and so gentle that even Johnnie did not fear to rub her rough nose, scratch her between her horns, or bring her wisps of grass when she was tied near the house. Her calf was unlike all other calves. There was no rest until Amy had seen it, and she admitted that she had never looked upon a more innocent and droll little visage. At the children's pleading the infant cow was given to them, but they were warned to leave it for the present to Abram and Kitten's care, for the latter was inclined to act like a veritable old cat when any one made too free with her bovine baby.
This bright Saturday occurring about the middle of the month completely enthroned spring in the children's hearts. The air was sweet with fragrance from the springing grass and swelling buds, and so still and humid that sounds from other farms and gardens, and songs from distant fields and groves, blended softly yet distinctly with those of the immediate vicinage. The sunshine was warm, but veiled by fleecy clouds; and as the day advanced every member of the family was out-of-doors, even to Mrs. Clifford, for whom had been constructed, under her husband's direction, a low garden-chair which was so light that even Alf or Amy could draw it easily along the walks. From it she stepped down on her first visit of the year to her beloved flower-beds, which Alf and Burt were patting in order for her, the latter blending with, his filial attentions the hope of seeing more of Amy. Nor was he unrewarded, for his manner toward his mother, whom he alternately petted and chaffed, while at the same time doing her bidding with manly tenderness, won the young girl's hearty good-will. The only drawback was his inclination to pet her furtively even more. She wished that Webb was preparing the flower-beds, for then there would be nothing to perplex or worry her. But he, with his father and Leonard, was more prosaically employed, for they were at work in the main or vegetable garden. It was with a sense of immense relief that she heard Mrs. Clifford, after she had given her final directions, and gloated over the blooming crocuses and daffodils, and the budding hyacinths and tulips, express a wish to join her husband.
"Come back soon," pleaded Burt.
"I'm your mother's pony to-day," she replied, and hastened away. A wide path bordered on either side by old-fashioned perennials and shrubbery led down through the garden. Amy breathed more freely as soon as she gained it, and at once gave herself up to the enjoyment of the pleasing sights and sounds on every side. Mr. Clifford was the picture of placid content as he sat on a box in the sun, cutting potatoes into the proper size for planting. Johnnie was perched on another box near, chattering incessantly as she handed him the tubers, and asking no other response than the old gentleman's amused smile. Leonard with a pair of stout horses was turning up the rich black mould, sinking his plow to the beam, and going twice in a furrow. It would require a very severe drought to affect land pulverized thus deeply, for under Leonard's thorough work the root pasturage was extended downward eighteen inches. On the side of the plot nearest to the house Webb was breaking the lumps and levelling the ground with a heavy iron-toothed rake, and also forking deeply the ends of the furrows that had been trampled by the turning horses. Leaving Mrs. Clifford chatting and laughing with her husband and Johnnie, Amy stood in the walk opposite to him, and he said presently:
"Come, Amy, you can help me. You said you wanted a finger in our horticultural pies, and no doubt had in your mind nothing less plebeian than flower seeds and roses. Will your nose become retrousse if I ask you to aid me in planting parsnips, oyster-plant, carrots, and--think of it!--onions?"
"The idea of my helping you, when the best I can do is to amuse you with my ignorance! But I'll put on no airs. I do not look forward to an exclusive diet of roses, and am quite curious to know what part I can have in earning my daily vegetables."
"A useful and typical part--that of keeping straight men and things in general. Wait a little;" and taking up a coiled garden line, he attached one end of it to a stout stake pressed firmly into the ground. He then walked rapidly over the levelled soil to the further side of the plot, drew the line "taut," as the sailors say, and tied it to another stake. He next returned toward Amy, making a shallow drill by drawing a sharp-pointed hoe along under the line. From a basket near, containing labelled packages of seeds, he made a selection, and poured into a bowl something that looked like gunpowder grains, and sowed it rapidly in the little furrow. "Now, Amy," he cried, from the further side of the plot, "do you see that measuring-stick at your feet? Place one end of it against the stake to which the line is fastened, and move the stake with the line forward to the other end of the measuring-stick, just as I am doing here. That's it. You now see how many steps you save me, and how much faster I can get on."
"Are those black-looking grains you are sowing seed?"
"Indeed they are, as a few weeks may prove to you by more senses than one. These are the seeds of a vegetable inseparable in its associations from classic Italy and renowned in sacred story. You may not share in the longings of the ancient Hebrews, but with its aid I could easily bring tears of deep feeling to your eyes."
"The vegetable is more pungent than your wit, Webb," she laughed; but she stood near the path at the end of the line, which she moved forward from time to time as requested, meanwhile enjoying an April day that lacked few elements of perfection.
The garden is one of the favorite haunts of the song-sparrow. In the flower-border near, Amy would hear such a vigorous scratching among the leaves that she might well believe that a motherly hen was at work, but presently one of these little sober-coated creatures that Thoreau well calls a "ground-bird" would fly to the top of a plum-tree and trill out a song as sweet as the perfume that came from the blossoming willows not far away. The busy plows made it a high festival for the robins, for with a confidence not misplaced they followed near in the furrows that Leonard was making in the garden, and that Abram was turning on an adjacent hillside, and not only the comparatively harmless earth-worms suffered, but also the pestiferous larvae of the May-beetle, the arch-enemy of the strawberry plant. Even on that day of such varied and etherealized fragrance, the fresh, wholesome odor of the upturned earth was grateful. Suddenly Webb straightened himself from the sowing of the scale-like parsnip-seed in which he was then engaged, and said, "Listen." Remote yet distinct, like a dream of a bird-song, came a simple melody from a distant field. "Welcome," he said. "That's our meadow-lark, Amy; not equal to your skylark, I admit. Indeed, it is not a lark at all, for Dr. Marvin says it belongs to the oriole family. Brief and simple as is its song, I think you will agree with me that spring brings few more lovely sounds. That is the first one that I have heard this year."
She scarcely more than caught the ethereal song before Burt and Alf came down the path, trundling immense wheelbarrow-loads of the prunings of the shrubbery around the house. These were added to a great pile of brush and refuse that had accumulated on the other side of the walk, and to Alf was given the wild excitement of igniting the inflammable mass, and soon there was a fierce crackling as the flames devoured their way into the loose dry centre of the rejected debris of the previous year. Then to Alf and Johnnie's unmeasured delight they were permitted to improvise a miniature prairie fire. A part of the garden had been left to grow very weedy in the preceding summer, and they were shown how that by lighting the dry, dead material on the windward side, the flames, driven by a gentle western breeze, would sweep across the entire plot, leaving it bare and blackened, ready for the fertilizers and the plow. With merry cries they followed the sweeping line of fire, aiding it forward by catching up on iron rakes burning wisps and transferring them to spots in the weedy plot that did not kindle readily. Little Ned, clinging to the hand of Maggie, who had joined the family in the garden, looked on with awe-struck eyes. From the bonfire and the consuming weeds great volumes of smoke poured up and floated away, the air was full of pungent odors, and the robins called vociferously back and forth through the garden, their alarmed and excited cries vying with the children's shouts. In half an hour only a faint haze of smoke to the eastward indicated the brief conflagration; the family had gone to the house for their one-o'clock dinner, and the birds were content with the normal aspect of the old garden in April.
The promise of the bright spring day was not fulfilled. Cold rains followed by frosty mornings and high cool winds prevailed with depressing persistency. It required almost as much vigor, courage, and activity as had been essential in March to enjoy out-door life. In many of her aspects Nature appeared almost to stand still and wait for more genial skies, and yet for those who watched to greet and to welcome, the mighty impulse of spring manifested itself in many ways. The currant and gooseberry bushes, as if remembering their original haunts in dim, cold, boggy forests, put forth their foliage without hesitation. From the elm-trees swung the little pendent blossoms that precede the leaves. The lilacs and some other hardy shrubs grew green and fragrant daily. Nothing daunted, the crocuses, hyacinths, and tulips pushed upward their succulent leaves with steady resolution. In the woods the flowers had all kinds of experiences. On the north side of Storm King it was still winter, with great areas of December's ice unmelted. On the south side of the mountain, spring almost kept pace with the calendar. The only result was that the hardy little children of April, on which had hung more snow-flakes than dew, obtained a longer lease of blooming life, and could have their share in garlanding the May Queen. They bravely faced the frosty nights and drenching rains, becoming types of those lives whose beauty is only enhanced by adversity--of those who make better use of a little sunny prosperity to bless the world than others on whom good-fortune ever seems to wait.
The last Saturday of the month was looked forward to with hopeful expectations, as a genial earnest of May, and a chance for out-door pleasures; but with it came a dismal rain-storm, which left the ground as cold, wet, and sodden as it had been a month before. The backward season, of which the whole country was now complaining, culminated on the following morning, which ushered in a day of remarkable vicissitude. By rapid transition the rain passed into sleet, then snow, which flurried down so rapidly that the land grew white and wintry, making it almost impossible to imagine that two months of spring had passed. By 10 A.M. the whirling flakes ceased, but a more sullen, leaden, March-like sky never lowered over a cold, dripping earth. On the north side of the house a white hyacinth was seen hanging its pendent blossoms half in and half out of the snow, and Alf, who in response to Dr. Marvin's suggestion was following some of the family fortunes among the homes in the trees, came in and said that he had found nests well hidden by a covering all too cold, with the resolute mother bird protecting her eggs, although chilled, wet, and shivering herself. By 1 P.M. the clouds grew thin, rolled away, and disappeared. The sun broke out with a determined warmth and power, and the snow vanished like a spectre of the long-past winter. The birds took heart, and their songs of exultation resounded from far and near. A warm south breeze sprang up and fanned Amy's cheek, as she, with the children and Burt, went out for their usual Sunday-afternoon walk. They found the flowers looking up hopefully, but with melted snow hanging like tears on their pale little faces. The sun at last sank into the unclouded west, illumining the sky with a warm, golden promise for the future. Amy gazed at its departing glory, but Burt looked at her--looked so earnestly, so wistfully, that she was full of compunction even while she welcomed the return of the children, which delayed the words that were trembling on his lips. He was ready, she was not; and he walked homeward at her side silent and depressed, feeling that the receptive, responsive spring was later in her heart than in Nature.