Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXVIII. May and Girlhood
May came in reality the following morning. Perhaps she thought that the leisure of Sunday would secure her a more appreciative welcome. The wind no longer blew from the chill and still snowy North, but from lands that had long since responded to the sun's genial power. Therefore, the breeze that came and went fitfully was like a warm, fragrant breath, and truly it seemed to breathe life and beauty into all things. During the morning hours the cluster buds of the cherry burst their varnished-looking sheath, revealing one-third of the little green stems on which the blossoms would soon appear. The currant-bushes were hanging out their lengthening racemes, and the hum of many bees proved that honey may be gathered even from gooseberry-bushes, thus suggesting a genial philosophy. The sugar-maples were beginning to unfold their leaves and to dangle their emerald gold flowers from long, drooping pedicles. Few objects have more exquisite and delicate beauty than this inflorescence when lighted up by the low afternoon sun. The meadows and oat fields were passing into a vivid green, and the hardy rye had pushed on so resolutely in all weathers, that it was becoming billowy under the wind. All through the week the hues of life and beauty became more and more apparent upon the face of Nature, and by the following Saturday May had provided everything in perfection for Johnnie's coronation ceremonies.
For weeks past there had been distinguished arrivals from the South almost daily. Some of these songsters, like the fox-sparrow, sojourned a few weeks, favoring all listeners with their sweet and simple melodies; but the chief musician of the American forests, the hermit thrush, passed silently, and would not deign to utter a note of his unrivalled minstrelsy until he had reached his remote haunts at the North. Dr. Marvin evidently had a grudge against this shy, distant bird, and often complained, "Why can't he give us a song or two as he lingers here in his journey? I often see him flitting about in the mountains, and have watched him by the hour with the curiosity that prompts one to look at a great soprano or tenor, hoping that he might indulge me with a brief song as a sample of what he could do, but he was always royally indifferent and reserved. I am going to the Adirondacks on purpose to hear him some day. There's the winter wren, too-saucy, inquisitive little imp!--he was here all winter, and has left us without vouchsafing a note. But, then, great singers are a law unto themselves the world over."
But the doctor had small cause for complaint, for there are few regions more richly endowed with birds than the valley of the Hudson. As has been seen, it is the winter resort of not a few, and is, moreover, a great highway of migration, for birds are ever prone to follow the watercourses that run north and south. The region also affords so wide a choice of locality and condition that the tastes of very many birds are suited. There are numerous gardens and a profusion of fruit for those that are half domesticated; orchards abounding in old trees with knotholes, admirably fitted for summer homes; elms on which to hang the graceful pensile nests--"castles in air," as Burroughs calls them; meadows in which the lark, vesper sparrow, and bobolink can disport; and forests stretching up into the mountains, wherein the shyest birds can enjoy all the seclusion they desire, content to sing unheard, as the flowers around them bloom unseen, except by those who love them well enough to seek them in their remotest haunts.
The week which preceded the May party was a memorable one to Amy, for during its sunny days she saw an American spring in its perfection. Each morning brought rich surprises to her, Johnnie, and Alf, and to Webb an increasing wonder that he had never before truly seen the world in which he lived. The pent-up forces of Nature, long restrained, seemed finding new expression every hour. Tulips opened their gaudy chalices to catch the morning dew. Massive spikes of hyacinths distilled a rich perfume that was none too sweet in the open air. Whenever Amy stepped from the door it seemed that some new flower had opened and some new development of greenery and beauty had been revealed. But the crowning glory in the near landscape were the fruit trees. The cherry boughs grew white every day, and were closely followed by the plum and pear and the pink-hued peach blossoms. Even Squire Bartley's unattractive place was transformed for a time into fairyland; but he, poor man, saw not the blossoms, and the birds and boys stole his fruit. Amy wondered at the wealth of flowers that made many of the trees as white as they had been on the snowiest day of winter, and Johnnie revelled in them, often climbing up into some low-branched tree, that she might bury herself in their beauty, and inhale their fragrance in long breaths of delight. The bees that filled the air about her with their busy hum never molested her, believing, no doubt, that she had as good a right as themselves to enjoy the sweets in her way. After all, it was Mrs. Clifford, perhaps, who obtained the profoundest enjoyment from the season. Seated by her window or in a sunny corner of the piazza, she would watch the unfolding buds as if she were listening to some sweet old story that had grown dearer with every repetition. Indeed, this was true, for with the blossoms of every year were interwoven the memories of a long life, and their associations had scarcely ever been more to her heart than the new ones now forming. She often saw, with her children and grandchildren, the form of a tall girl passing to and fro, and to her loving eyes Amy seemed to be the fairest and sweetest flower of this gala period. She, and indeed they all, had observed Burt's strongly manifested preference, but, with innate refinement and good sense, there had been a tacit agreement to appear blind. The orphan girl should not be annoyed by even the most delicate raillery, but the old lady and her husband could not but feel the deepest satisfaction that Bart was making so wise a choice. They liked Amy all the better because she was so little disposed to sentiment, and proved that she was not to be won easily.
But they all failed to understand her, and gave her credit for a maturity that she did not possess. In her happy, healthful country life the girlish form that had seemed so fragile when she first came to them was taking on the rounded lines of womanhood. Why should she not be wooed like other girls at her age? Burt was further astray than any one else, and was even inclined to complain mentally that her nature was cold and unresponsive. And yet her very reserve and elusiveness increased his passion, which daily acquired a stronger mastery. Webb alone half guessed the truth in regard to her. As time passed, and he saw the increasing evidences of Burt's feeling, he was careful that his manner should be strictly fraternal toward Amy, for his impetuous brother was not always disposed to be reasonable even in his normal condition, and now he was afflicted with a malady that has often brought to shame the wisdom of the wisest. The elder brother saw how easily Burt's jealousy could be aroused, and therefore denied himself many an hour of the young girl's society, although it caused him a strange little heartache to do so. But he was very observant, for Amy was becoming a deeply interesting study. He saw and appreciated her delicate fence with Burt, in which tact, kindness, and a little girlish brusqueness were almost equally blended. Was it the natural coyness of a high-spirited girl, who could be won only by long and patient effort? or was it an instinctive self-defence from a suit that she could not repulse decisively without giving pain to those she loved? Why was she so averse? Their home-life, even at that busy season, gave him opportunities to see her often, and glimmerings of the truth began to dawn upon him. He saw that she enjoyed the society of Alf and Johnnie almost as much as that of the other members of the family, that her delight at every new manifestation of spring was as unforced as that of the children, while at the same time it was an intelligent and questioning interest. The beauty of the world without impressed her deeply, as it did Johnnie, but to the latter it was a matter of course, while to Amy it was becoming an inviting mystery. The little girl would bring some new flower from the woods or garden, the first of the season, in contented triumph, but to Amy the flower had a stronger interest. It represented something unknown, a phase of life which it was the impulse of her developing mind to explore. Her botany was not altogether satisfactory, for analysis and classification do not reveal to us a flower or plant any more than the mention of a name and family connection makes known individual character. Her love for natural objects was too real to be satisfied with a few scientific facts about them. If a plant, tree, or bird, interested her she would look at it with a loving, lingering glance until she felt that she was learning to know it somewhat as she would recognize a friend. The rapid changes which each day brought were like new chapters in a story, or new verses in a poem. She watched with admiring wonder the transition of buds into blossoms; and their changes of form and color. She shared in Alf's excitement over the arrival of every new bird from the South, and, having a good ear for music, found absorbing pleasure in learning and estimating the quality and characteristics of their various songs. Their little oddities appealed to her sense of humor. A pair of cat-birds that had begun their nest near the house received from her more ridicule than admiration. "They seem to be regular society birds and gossips," she said, "and I can never step out-of-doors but I feel that they are watching me, and trying to attract my attention. They have a pretty song, but they seem to have learned it by heart, and as soon as they are through they make that horrid noise, as if in their own natural tone they were saying something disagreeable about you."
But on the morning of Johnnie's coronation she was wakened by songs as entrancing as they were unfamiliar. Running to the window, she saw darting through the trees birds of such a brilliant flame color that they seemed direct from the tropics, and their notes were almost as varied as their colors. She speedily ceased to heed them, however, for from the edge of the nearest grove came a melody so ethereal and sustained that it thrilled her with the delight that one experiences when some great singer lifts up her voice with a power and sweetness that we feel to be divine. At the same moment she saw Alf running toward the house. Seeing her at the window, he shouted, "Amy, the orioles and the wood-thrushes--the finest birds of the year--have come. Hurry up and go with me to the grove yonder."
Soon after Webb, returning from a distant field to breakfast, met her near the grove. She was almost as breathless and excited as the boy, and passed him with a bright hurried smile, while she pressed on after her guide with noiseless steps lest the shy songster should be frightened. He looked after her and listened, feeling that eye and ear could ask for no fuller enchantment. At last she came back to him with the fresh loveliness of the morning in her face, and exclaimed, "I have seen an ideal bird, and he wears his plumage like a quiet-toned elegant costume that simply suggests a perfect form. He was superbly indifferent, and scarcely looked at us until we came too near, and then, with a reserved dignity, flew away. He is the true poet of the woods, and would sing just as sweetly if there was never a listener."
"I knew he would not disappoint you. Yes, he is a poet, and your true aristocrat, who commands admiration without seeking it," Webb replied.
"I am sure he justifies all your praises, past and present. Oh, isn't the morning lovely--so fresh, dewy, and fragrant? and the world looks so young and glad!"
"You also look young and glad this morning, Amy."
"How can one help it? This May beauty makes me feel as young as Alf," she replied, placing her hand on the boy's shoulder.
Her face was flushed with exercise; her step buoyant; her eyes were roaming over the landscape tinted with fruit blossoms and the expanding foliage. Webb saw in what deep accord her spirit was with the season, and he thought, "She is young--in the very May of her life. She is scarcely more ready for the words that Burt would speak than little Johnnie. I wish he would wait till the girl becomes a woman;" and then for some reason he sighed deeply. Amy gave him an arch look, and said:
"Then came from the depths, Webb. What secret sorrow can you have on a day like this?"
He laughed, but made no reply.
"Ah, listen!" she cried, "what bird is that? Oh, isn't it beautiful?-- almost equal to the thrush's song. He seems to sing as if his notes were written for him in couplets." She spoke at intervals, looking toward the grove they had just left, and when the bird paused Webb replied:
"That is the wood-thrush's own cousin, and a distinguished member of the thrush family, the brown-thrasher. Well, Johnnie," he added, to the little girl who had come to meet them, "you are honored to-day. Three of our most noted minstrels have arrived just in time to furnish music for the May Queen."
But Johnnie was not surprised, only pleased, as Webb and others congratulated her. She would be queen that day with scarcely more self-consciousness than one of the flowers that decked her. It was the occasion, the carnival of spring, that occupied her thoughts, and, since the fairest blossoms of the season were to be gathered, why should not the finest birds be present also?
Feeling that he had lost an opportunity in the improvised festival of the maple-sugar grove, Burt resolved to make the most of this occasion, and he had the wisdom to decide upon a course that relieved Amy of not a little foreboding. He determined to show his devotion by thoughtful considerateness, by making the day so charming and satisfactory as to prove that he could be a companion after her own heart. And he succeeded fairly well for a time, only the girl's intuition divined his motive and guessed his sentiments. She was ever in fear that his restraint would give way. And yet she felt that she ought to reward him for what she mentally termed his "sensible behavior" and indicate that such should be his course in the future. But this was a delicate and difficult task. In spite of all the accumulated beauty of the season the day was less bright, less full of the restful, happy abandon of the previous one in March, when Webb had been her undemonstrative attendant. He, with Leonard, at that busy period found time to look in upon the revellers in the woods but once. Mr. Clifford spent more time with them, but the old gentleman was governed by his habit of promptness, and the time called for despatch.
For the children, however, it was a revel that left nothing to be desired. They had decided that it should be a congress of flowers, from the earliest that had bloomed to those now opening in the sunniest haunts. Alf, with one or two other adventurous boys, had climbed the northern face of old Storm King, and brought away the last hepaticas, fragrant clusters of arbutus, and dicentras, for "pattykers, arbuties, and Dutcher's breeches," as Ned called them, were favorites that could not be spared. On a sunny slope dogwood, well advanced, was found. There were banks white with the rue-anemone, and they were marked, that some of the little tuber-like roots might be taken up in the fall for forcing in the house. Myriads of violets gave a purple tinge to parts of a low meadow near, and chubby hands were stained with the last of the star-like bloodroot blossoms, many of which dropped white petals on their way to Johnnie's throne. Some brought handfuls of columbine from rocky nooks, and others the purple trillium, that is near of kin to Burroughs's white "wake-robin." There were so many Jacks-in-the-pulpit that one might fear a controversy, but the innumerable dandelions and dogtooth violets which carpeted the ground around the throne diffused so mellow a light that all the blossoms felt that they looked well and were amiable. But it would require pages even to mention all the flowers that were brought from gardens, orchards, meadows, groves, and rugged mountain slopes. Each delegation of blossoms and young tinted foliage was received by Amy, as mistress of ceremonies, and arranged in harmonious positions; while Johnnie, quite forgetful of her royalty, was as ready to help at anything as the humblest maid of honor. All the flowers were treated tenderly except the poor purple violets, and these were slaughtered by hundreds, for the projecting spur under the curved stem at the base of the flower enabled the boys to hook them together, and "fight roosters," as they termed it. Now and then some tough-stemmed violet would "hook-off" a dozen blue heads before losing its own, and it became the temporary hero. At last the little queen asserted her power by saying, with a sudden flash in her dark blue eyes, that she "wouldn't have any more fighting roosters. She didn't think it was nice."
By one o'clock the queen had been crowned, the lunch had met the capacity of even the boys, and the children, circling round the throne, were singing: "Oats, peas, beans, and barley grows," and kindred rhymes, their voices rising and falling with the breeze, the birds warbling an accompaniment. Webb and Leonard, at work in a field not far away, often paused to listen, the former never failing to catch Amy's clear notes as she sat on a rock, the gentle power behind the throne, that had maintained peace and good-will among all the little fractious subjects.
The day had grown almost sultry, and early in the afternoon there was a distant jar of thunder. Burt, who from a bed of dry leaves had been watching Amy, started up and saw that there was an ominous cloud in the west. She agreed with him that it would be prudent to return at once, for she was growing weary and depressed. Burt, with all his effort to be quietly and unobtrusively devoted, had never permitted her to become unconscious of his presence and feeling. Therefore her experience had been a divided one. She could not abandon herself to her hearty sympathy with the children and their pleasure, for he, by manner at least, ever insisted that she was a young lady, and the object of thoughts all too warm. Her nature was so fine that it was wounded and annoyed by an unwelcome admiration. She did not wish to think about it, but was not permitted to forget it. She had been genial, merry, yet guarded toward him all day, and now had begun to long for the rest and refuge of her own room. He felt that he had not made progress, and was also depressed, and he showed this so plainly on their way home that she was still more perplexed and troubled. "If he would only be sensible, and treat me as Webb does!" she exclaimed, as she threw herself on the lounge in her room, exhausted rather than exhilarated by the experience of the day.