Chapter XXXII. Burt Becomes Rational
 

Burt had expended more on his present for Amy than had any of the family, and, while it had been acknowledged most cordially, he was a little disappointed that his choice had not been so happy as Webb's. Therefore after dinner he said: "I feel almost envious. I wish I could give you a great deal of pleasure also to-day. How would you like to go in a row-boat to Constitution Island, and make that visit to Miss Warner of which we spoke last winter? It's warm, but not sultry, and we would keep in the shadow of the mountains most of the way down."

She hesitated a moment.

"Don't be afraid, Amy," he said, in a low tone.

"I'll go with you," she assented, cordially, "and I cannot think of anything that would make my birthday more complete."

"I'll be ready in an hour," he said, flushing with pleasure, and he went up to his room two steps at a time.

Burt's mental processes during the past few weeks had been characteristic, and would have amused Amy had she been fully aware of them. As Webb surmised, his fever had to run its course, but after its crisis had passed he rapidly grew rational. Moreover, in his mother, and indeed in Amy herself, he had the best of physicians. At first he was very penitent, and not a little chagrined at his course. As days went by, however, and it was not referred to by word or sign on the part of the family, his nervous apprehension passed away. He thought he detected a peculiar twinkle in Leonard's eyes occasionally, but it might have resulted from other causes. Still Amy did the most to reassure him both consciously and unconsciously. As she said, she took him at his word, and being unembarrassed by any feeling of her own, found it easy to act like a sister toward him. This naturally put him at his ease. In her floral expeditions with Johnnie, however, and her bird-nestings with Alf, wherein no birds were robbed, she unconsciously did more to reconcile him to the necessity of waiting than could hours of argument from even his mother. She thus proved to him that he had spoken much too soon--that she was not ready for his ill-chosen, passionate words, which had wounded instead of firing her heart as he intended they should. He now berated his stupidity, but consoled himself with the thought that love is always a little blind. He saw that she liked Webb exceedingly, and enjoyed talking with him, but he now was no longer disposed to be jealous. She ever seemed to be asking questions like an intelligent child. "Why shouldn't she like Webb?" he thought. "He is one of the best fellows in the world, and she has found out that he's a walking encyclopedia of out-door lore."

Burt was not one to be depressed or to remain in the valley of humiliation very long. After a week or two a slight feeling of superiority began to assert itself. Amy was not only too young to understand him, but also, perhaps, to appreciate him. He believed that he knew more than one pretty girl to whom he would not have spoken in vain. Some day the scales would fall from Amy's eyes. He could well afford to wait until they did, and he threw back his handsome head at the thought, and an exultant flash came into his blue eyes. Oh, he would be faithful, he would be magnanimous, and he also admitted to himself that he would be very glad and grateful; but he would be very patient, perhaps a little too much so to suit her. Since he had been told to "wait," he would wait until her awakening heart constrained her to give unequivocal signs of readiness to surrender.

Thus his thoughts ran on while he was busy about the farm, or galloping over the country on business or pleasure. After the corn-planting and the rush of work in May was over, he had given himself a week's outing among the trout streams of Ulster County, and had returned with his equanimity quite restored. To assure Amy of this, and that she had nothing more to fear, but everything to gain, was one of his motives in asking her to take the long sail that afternoon. He succeeded so well that a smile of very genuine satisfaction hovered about her lips more than once. She enjoyed the expedition exceedingly. She was grateful for the kind reception given her by the authors who had done much to sweeten and purify the world's thought. She was charmed with the superb scenery as on their return they glided along in the shadows of Cro' Nest, whose sides seemed lined with a choir of wood and veery thrushes and other wild songsters. At last they evoked the spirit of music in her. She took an oar with Burt, and they pulled, sang, and laughed together like careless, happy children. Yet more than once she shyly glanced at him, and queried, Could his flushed and mirthful face be that of the passionate lover and blighted youth of scarce a month since? Burt said something droll, and her laugh raised a musical echo against the steep rocks near. His wit was not its cause, but her own thought: "My plea was that I was too young; he's very young, too."

As they neared the point of Storm King the evening boat, the "Mary Powell," swept toward them with scarcely more apparent effort than that of a swan. A few moments later their skiff was dancing over the swells, Amy waving her handkerchief, and the good-natured pilot awakening a hundred echoes by his steam-whistle of responsive courtesy.

They were at home in time for supper, and here another delicious surprise awaited Amy. Johnnie and Alf felt that they should do something in honor of the day. From a sunny hillside they had gleaned a gill of wild strawberries, and Webb had found that the heat of the day had so far developed half a dozen Jacqueminot rosebuds that they were ready for gathering. These with their fragrance and beauty were beside her plate in dainty arrangement. They seemed to give the complete and final touch to the day already replete with joy and kindness, and happy, grateful tears rushed into the young girl's eyes. Dashing them brusquely away, she said: "I can't tell you all what I feel, and I won't try. I want you to know, however," she added, smilingly, while her lips quivered, "that I am very much at home."

Burt was in exuberant spirits, for Amy had told him that she had enjoyed every moment of the afternoon. This had been most evident, and the young fellow congratulated himself. He could keep his word, he could be so jolly a companion as to leave nothing to be desired, and waiting, after all, would not be a martyrdom. His mood unloosed his tongue and made him eloquent as he described his experiences in trout-fishing. His words were so simple and vivid that he made his listeners hear the cool splash and see the foam of the mountain brooks. They saw the shimmer of the speckled beauties as they leaped for the fly, and felt the tingle of the rod as the line suddenly tightened, and hear the hum of the reel as the fish darted away in imagined safety. Burt saw his vantage--was not Amy listening with intent eyes and glowing cheeks?--and he kept the little group in suspense almost as long as it had taken him to play, land, and kill a three-pound trout, the chief trophy of his excursion.

Webb was unusually silent, and was conscious of a depression for which he could not account. All was turning out better than he had predicted. The relations between Burt and Amy were not only "serene," but were apparently becoming decidedly blissful. The young girl was enthusiastic over her enjoyment of the afternoon; there were no more delicately veiled defensive tactics against Burt, and now her face was full of frank admiration of his skill as an angler and of interest in the wild scenes described. Burt had spent more time in society than over his books while at college, and was a fluent, easy talker. Webb felt that he suffered in contrast, that he was grave, heavy, dull, and old--no fit companion for the girl whose laughing eyes so often rested on his brother's face and responded to his mirth. Perhaps Burt would not have long to wait; perhaps his rash, passionate words had already given to Amy's girlish unconsciousness the shock that had destroyed it, and she was learning that she was a woman who could return love for love. Well, granting this, was it not just what they were all expecting? "But the change is coming too soon," he complained to himself. "I wish she could keep her gentle, lovable, yet unapproachable May-day grace a little longer. Then she was like the wind-flower, which the eyes can linger upon, but which fades almost the moment it is grasped. It made her so different from other girls of her age. It identified her with the elusive spirit of nature, whose beauty entrances one, but search and wander where we will, nothing can be found that is distinctly and tangibly ours or any one's. Amy, belonging definitely to any one, would lose half her charm."

Webb saw and heard all that passed, but in a minor key thoughts like these were forming themselves with little volition on his part, and were symptoms which as yet he did not understand. In an interval of mirth, Johnnie heard footsteps on the piazza, and darting out, caught a glimpse of Mr. Alvord's retreating form. He had come on some errand, and, seeing the group at the supper-table, had yielded to the impulse to depart unrecognized. This the little girl would by no means permit. Since Easter an odd friendship had sprung up between her and the lonely man, and she had become almost his sole visitor. She now called after him, and in a moment was at his side. "Why are you going away?" she said. "You must not go till I show you my garden."

Maggie joined them, for he deeply enlisted her sympathy, and she wished to make it clear by her manner that the tie between him and the child had her approval. "Yes, indeed, Mr. Alvord," she said, "you must let Johnnie show you her garden, and especially her pansies."

"Heart's-ease is another name for the flower, I believe," he replied, with the glimmer of a smile. "In that case Johnnie should be called Pansy. I thank you, Mrs. Clifford, that you are willing to trust your child to a stranger. We had a lovely ramble the other day, and she said that you told her she might go with me."

"I'm only too glad that you find Johnnie an agreeable little neighbor," Maggie began. "Indeed, we all feel so neighborly that we hope you will soon cease to think of yourself as a stranger." But here impatient Johnnie dragged him off to see her garden, and his close and appreciative attention to all she said and showed to him won the child's heart anew. Amy soon joined them, and said:

"Mr. Alvord, I wish your congratulations, also. I'm eighteen to-day."

He turned, and looked at her so wistfully for a moment that her eyes fell. "I do congratulate you," he said, in a low, deep voice. "If I had my choice between all the world and your age, I'd rather be eighteen again. May your brow always be as serene as it is to-night, Miss Amy." His eyes passed swiftly from the elder to the younger girl, the one almost as young at heart and fully as innocent as the other, and then he spoke abruptly: "Good-by, Johnnie. I wish to see your father a moment on some business;" and he walked rapidly away. By the time they reached the house he had gone. Amy felt that with the night a darker shadow had fallen upon her happy day. The deep sadness of a wounded spirit touched her own, she scarcely knew why. It was but the law of her unwarped, unselfish nature. Even as a happy girl she could not pass by uncaring, on the other side. She felt that she would like to talk with Webb, as she always did when anything troubled her; but he, touched with something of Burt's old restlessness, had rambled away in the moonlight, notwithstanding the fatigues of the day. Therefore she went to the piano and sang for the old people some of the quaint songs of which she knew they were fond. Burt sat smoking and listening on the piazza in immeasurable content.