Chapter XXXIII. Webb's Roses and Romance
 

To Mrs. Clifford the month of June brought the halcyon days of the year. The warm sunshine revived her, the sub-acid of the strawberry seemed to furnish the very tonic she needed, and the beauty that abounded on every side, and that was daily brought to her couch, conferred a happiness that few could understand. Long years of weakness, in which only her mind could be active, had developed in the invalid a refinement scarcely possible to those who must daily meet the practical questions of life, and whose more robust natures could enjoy the material side of existence. It was not strange, therefore, that country life had matured her native love of flowers into almost a passion, which culminated in her intense enjoyment of the rose in all its varieties. The family, aware of this marked preference, rarely left her without these flowers at any season; but in June her eyes feasted on their varied forms and colors, and she distinguished between her favorites with all the zest and accuracy which a connoisseur of wines ever brought to bear upon their delicate bouquet. With eyes shut she could name from its perfume almost any rose with which she was familiar. Therefore, in all the flower-beds and borders roses abounded, especially the old-fashioned kinds, which are again finding a place in florists' catalogues. Originally led by love for his mother, Webb, years since, had begun to give attention to the queen of flowers. He soon found, however, that the words of an English writer are true, "He who would have beautiful roses in his garden must have them first in his heart," and there, with queenly power, they soon enthroned themselves. In one corner of the garden, which was protected on the north and west by a high stone wall, where the soil was warm, loamy, and well drained, he made a little rose garden. He bought treatises on the flower, and when he heard of or saw a variety that was particularly fine he added it to his collection. "Webb is marked with my love of roses," his mother often said, with her low, pleased laugh. Amy had observed that even in busiest times he often visited his rose garden as if it contained pets that were never forgotten. He once laughingly remarked that he "gave receptions there only by special invitation," and so she had never seen the spot except from a distance.

On the third morning after her birthday Amy came down very early. The bird symphony had penetrated her open windows with such a jubilant resonance that she had been awakened almost with the dawn. The air was so cool and exhilarating, and there was such a wealth of dewy beauty on every side, that she yielded to the impulse to go out and enjoy the most delightful hour of the day. To her surprise, she saw Webb going down the path leading to the garden. "What's on your conscience," she cried, "that you can't sleep?"

"What's on yours?" he retorted.

"The shame of leaving so many mornings like this unseen and not enjoyed. I mean to repent and mend my ways from this time forth; that is, if I wake up. May I go with you?"

"What a droll question!" he replied, in laughing invitation.

"Well, I did not know," she said, joining him, "but that you were going to visit that sanctum sanctorum of yours."

"I am. Your virtue of early rising is about to be rewarded. You know when some great personage is to be specially honored, he is given the freedom of a city or library, etc. I shall now give you the freedom of my rose garden for the rest of the summer, and from this time till frost you can always find roses for your belt. I meant to do this on your birthday, but the buds were not sufficiently forward this backward season."

"I'm not a great personage."

"No, thanks, you're not. You are only our Amy."

"I'm content. Oh, Webb, what miracles have you been working here?" she exclaimed, as she passed through some screening shrubbery, and looked upon a plot given up wholly to roses, many of which were open, more in the phase of exquisite buds, while the majority were still closely wrapped in their green calyxes.

"No miracle at all. I've only assisted nature a little. At the same time, let me assure you that this small place is like a picture-gallery, and that there is a chance here for as nice discrimination as there would be in a cabinet full of works of art. There are few duplicate roses in this place, and I have been years in selecting and winnowing this collection. They are all named varieties, labelled in my mind. I love them too well, and am too familiar with them, to hang disfiguring bits of wood upon them. One might as well label his friends. Each one has been chosen and kept because of some individual point of excellence, and you can gradually learn to recognize these characteristics just as mother does. This plot here is filled with hardy hybrid perpetuals, and that with tender tea-roses, requiring very different treatment. Here is a moss that will bloom again in the autumn. It has a sounding name--Soupert-et-notting--but it is worthy of any name. Though not so mossy as some others, look at its fine form and beautiful rose-color. Only one or two are out yet, but in a week this bush will be a thing of beauty that one would certainly wish might last forever. Try its fragrance. Nothing surpasses it unless it is La France, over there."

She inhaled the exquisite perfume in long breaths, and then looked around at the budding beauty on every side, even to the stone walls that were covered with climbing varieties. At last she turned to him with eyes that were dilated as much with wonder as with pleasure, and said: "Well, this is a surprise. How in the world have you found time to bring all this about? I never saw anything to equal it even in England. Of course I saw rose gardens there on a larger scale in the parks and greenhouses, but I have reference to the bushes and flowers. To me it is just a miracle."

"You are wholly mistaken. Why, Amy, an old gentleman who lives but a few miles away has had seventy distinct kinds of hybrid perpetuals in bloom at one time, and many of them the finest in existence; and yet he has but a little mite of a garden, and has been a poor, hard-working man all his life. Speaking of England, when I read of what the poor working people of Nottingham accomplished in their little bits of glass-houses and their Liliputian gardens, I know that all this is very ordinary, and within the reach of almost any one who loves the flower. After one learns how to grow roses, they do not cost much more care and trouble than a crop of onions or cabbages. The soil and location here just suit the rose. You see that the place is sheltered, and yet there are no trees near to shade them and drain the ground of its richness."

"Oh, you are sure to make it all seem simple and natural. It's a way you have," she said, "But to me it's a miracle. I don't believe there are many who have your feeling for this flower or your skill."

"You are mistaken again. The love for roses is very common, as it should be, for millions of plants are sold annually, and the trade in them is steadily increasing. Come, let me give you a lesson in the distinguishing marks of the different kinds. A rose will smell as sweet by its own name as by another, and you will find no scentless flowers here. There are some fine odorless ones, like the Beauty of Stapleford, but I give them no place."

The moments flew by unheeded until an hour had passed, and then Webb, looking at the sun, exclaimed: "I must go. This will answer for the first lesson. You can bring mother here now in her garden chair whenever she wishes to come, and I will give you other lessons, until you are a true connoisseur in roses;" and he looked at those in her cheeks as if they were more lovely than any to which he had been devoted for years.

"Well, Webb," she said, laughing, "I cannot think of anything lacking in my morning's experience. I was wakened by the song of birds. You have revealed to me the mystery of your sanctum, and that alone, you know, would be happiness to the feminine soul. You have also introduced me to dozens of your sweethearts, for you look at each rose as Burt does at the pretty girls he meets. You have shown me your budding rose garden in the dewy morning, and that was appropriate, too. Every one of your pets was gemmed and jewelled for the occasion, and unrivalled musicians, cleverly concealed in the trees near, have filled every moment with melody. What more could I ask? But where are you going with that basket?"

"To gather strawberries for breakfast. There are enough ripe this morning. You gather roses in the other basket. Why should we not have them for breakfast, also?"

"Why not, indeed, since it would seem that there are to be thousands here and elsewhere in the garden? Fresh roses and strawberries for breakfast-- that's country life to perfection. Good-by."

He went away as if in a dream, and his heart almost ached with a tension of feeling that he could not define. It seemed to him the culmination of all that he had loved and enjoyed. His rose garden had been complete at this season the year before, but now that Amy had entered it, the roses that she had touched, admired, and kissed with lips that vied with their petals grew tenfold more beautiful, and the spot seemed sacred to her alone. He could never enter it again without thinking of her and seeing her lithe form bending to favorites which hitherto he had only associated with his mother. His life seemed so full and his happiness so deep that he did not want to think, and would not analyze according to his habit.

He brought the strawberries to Amy in the breakfast-room, and stood near while she and Johnnie hulled them. He saw the roses arranged by his mother's plate in such nice harmony that one color did not destroy another. He replied to her mirthful words and rallyings, scarcely knowing what he said, so deep was the feeling that oppressed him, so strong was his love for that sweet sister who had come into his life and made it ideally perfect. She appreciated what he had loved so fully, her very presence had ever kindled his spirit, and while eager to learn and easily taught, how truly she was teaching him a philosophy of life that seemed divine! What more could he desire? The day passed in a confused maze of thought and happiness, so strange and absorbing that he dared not speak lest he should waken as from a dream. The girl had grown so beautiful to him that he scarcely wished to look at her, and hastened through his meals that he might be alone with his thoughts. The sun had sunk, and the moon was well over the eastern mountains, before he visited the rose garden. Amy was there, and she greeted him with a pretty petulance because he had not come before. Then, in sudden compunction, she asked:

"Don't you feel well, Webb? You have been so quiet since we were here this morning! Perhaps you are sorry you let me into this charmed seclusion."

"No, Amy, I am not," he said, with an impetuosity very unusual in him. "You should know me better than even to imagine such a thing."

Before he could say anything more, Burt's mellow voice rang out, "Amy!"

"Oh, I half forgot; I promised to take a drive with Burt this evening. Forgive me, Webb," she added, gently, "I only spoke in sport. I do know you too well to imagine I am unwelcome here. No one ever had a kinder or more patient brother than you have been to me;" and she clasped her hands upon his arm, and looked up into his face with frank affection.

His arm trembled under her touch, and he felt that he must be alone. In his usual quiet tones, however, he was able to say: "You, rather, must forgive me that I spoke so hastily. No; I'm not ill, but very tired. A good night's rest will bring me around. Go and enjoy your drive to the utmost."

"Webb, you work too hard," she said, earnestly. "But Burt is calling--"

"Yes; do not keep him waiting; and think of me," he added, laughing, "as too weary for moonlight, roses, or anything but prosaic sleep. June is all very well, but it brings a pile of work to a fellow like me."

"Oh, Webb, what a clodhopper you're trying to make yourself out to be! Well, 'Sleep, sleep'--I can't think of the rest of the quotation. Good-by. Yes, I'm coming!" rang out her clear voice; and, with a smiling glance backward, she hastened away.

From the shrubbery he watched her pass up the wide garden path, the moonlight giving an ethereal beauty to her slight form with its white, close drapery. Then, deeply troubled, he threw himself on a rustic seat near the wall, and buried his face in his hands. It was all growing too clear to him now, and he found himself face to face with the conviction that Amy was no longer his sister, but the woman he loved. The deep-hidden current of feeling that had been gathering volume for months at last flashed out into the light, and there could be no more disguise. The explanation of her power over him was now given to his deepest consciousness. By some law of his nature, when she spoke he had ever listened; whatever she said and did had been invested with a nameless charm. Day after day they had been together, and their lives had harmonized like two chords that blend in one sweet sound. He had never had a sister, and his growing interest in Amy had seemed the most natural thing in the world; that Burt should love her, equally natural--to fall in love was almost a habit with the mercurial young fellow when thrown into the society of a pretty girl--and he had felt that he should be only too glad that his brother had at last fixed his thoughts on one who would not be a stranger to them. He now remembered that, while all this had been satisfactory to reason, his heart for a long time had been uttering its low, half-conscious protest. Now he knew why. The events of this long day had revealed him unto himself, because he was ripe for the knowledge.

His nature had its hard, practical business side, but he had never been content with questions of mere profit and loss. He not only had wanted the corn, but the secret of the corn's growth and existence. To search into Nature's hidden life, so that he could see through her outward forms the mechanism back of all, and trace endless diversity to simple inexorable laws, had been his pride and the promised solace of his life. His love of the rose had been to him what it is to many another hard-working man and woman--recreation, a habit, something for which he had developed the taste and feeling of a connoisseur. It had had no appreciable influence on the current of his thoughts. Amy's coming, however, had awakened the poetic side of his temperament, and, while this had taken nothing from the old, it had changed everything. Before, his life had been like nature in winter, when all things are in hard, definite outline. The feeling which she had inspired brought the transforming flowers and foliage. It was an immense addition to that which already existed, and which formed the foundation for it. For a long time he had exulted in this inflorescence of his life, as it were, and was more than content. He did not know that the spirit gifted even unconsciously with the power thus to develop his own nature must soon become to him more than a cause of an effect, more than a sister upon whom he could look with as tranquil eyes and even pulse in youth as in frosty age. But now he knew it with the absolute certainty that was characteristic of his mind when once it grasped a truth. The voice of Burt calling "Amy," after the experiences of the day, had been like a shaft of light, instantly revealing everything. For her sake more than his own he had exerted himself to the utmost to conceal the truth of that moment of bitter consciousness. He trembled as he thought of his blind, impetuous words and her look of surprise; he grew cold with dread as he remembered how easily he might have betrayed himself.

And now what should he do? what could he do but hide the truth with sleepless vigilance? He could not become his brother's rival. In the eyes of Amy and all the family Burt was her acknowledged suitor, who, having been brought to reason, was acting most rationally and honorably. Whether Amy was learning to love him or not made no difference. If she, growing conscious of her womanhood, was turning her thoughts to Burt as the one who had first sought her, and who was now cheerfully waiting until the look of shy choice and appeal came into her eyes, he could not seek to thrust his younger brother aside. If the illustration of the rose which she had forced into unnatural bloom was still true of her heart, he would be false to her and himself, as well as to Burt, should he seek her in the guise of a lover. He had felt that it was almost sacrilege to disturb her May-like girlhood; that this child of nature should be left wholly to nature's impulses and to nature's hour for awakening.

"If it only could have been, how rich and full life would be!" he thought. "We were in sympathy at almost every point When shall I forget the hour we spent here this morning! The exquisite purity and beauty of the dawn, the roses with the dew upon them, seemed emblems of herself. Hereafter they will ever speak to me of her. That perfume that comes on the breeze to me now from the wild grapevine--the most delicate and delightful of all the odors of June--is instantly associated with her in my mind, as all things lovely in nature ever will be hereafter. How can I hide all this from her, and seem merely her quiet elder brother? How can I meet her here to-morrow morning, and in the witchery of summer evenings, and still speak in measured tones, and look at her as I would at Johnnie? The thing is impossible until I have gained a stronger self-control. I must go away for a day or two, and I will. When I return neither Burt nor Amy shall have cause to complain;" and he strode away.

The evening mail brought an excuse. A firm to whom the Cliffords had been sending part of their produce had not given full satisfaction, and Webb announced his intention of going to the city in the morning to investigate matters. His father and Leonard approved of his purpose, and when he added that he might stay in town for two or three days, that he felt the need of a little change and rest before haying and harvest began, they all expressed their approval still more heartily.

The night was so beautiful that Burt prolonged his drive. The witchery of the romantic scenery through which he and Amy passed, and the loveliness of her profile in the pale light, almost broke down his resolution, and once, in accents much too tender, he said, "Oh, Amy, I am so happy when with you!"

"I'm happy with you also," she replied, in brusque tones, "now that you have become so sensible."

He took the hint, and said, emphatically: "Don't you ever be apprehensive or nervous when with me. I'll wait, and be 'sensible,' as you express it, till I'm gray."

Her laugh rang out merrily, but she made no other reply. He was a little nettled, and mentally vowed a constancy that would one day make her regret that laugh.

Webb had retired when Amy returned, and she learned of his plans from Maggie. "It's just the best thing he can do," she said, earnestly. "Webb's been overworking, and he needs and deserves a little rest."

In the morning he seemed so busy with his preparations that he had scarcely time to give her more than a genial off-hand greeting.

"Oh, Webb, I shall miss you so much!" she said, in parting, and her look was very kind and wistful. He did not trust himself to speak, but gave her a humorous and what seemed to her a half-incredulous smile. He puzzled her, and she thought about him and his manner of the previous day and evening not a little. With her sensitive nature, she could not approach so near the mystery that he was striving to conceal without being vaguely impressed that there was something unusual about him. The following day, however, brought a cheerful, business-like letter to his father, which was read at the dinner-table. He had straightened out matters in town and seemed to be enjoying himself. She more than once admitted that she did miss him as she would not any other member of the household. But her out-door life was very full. By the aid of her glass she made the intimate acquaintance of her favorite songsters. Every day she took Mrs. Clifford in her garden chair to the rosary, and proposed through her instruction to give Webb a surprise when he returned. She would prove to him that she could name his pets from their fragrance, form, and color as well as he himself.