Chapter XXXV. Chased by a Thunder-Shower
 

The first one on the "Powell" to greet them was Webb, returning from the city. Amy thought he looked so thin as to appear almost haggard, but he seemed in the best of spirits, and professed to feel well and rested. She half imagined that she missed a certain gentleness in his words and manner toward her, but when he heard how nearly she had been trampled upon, she was abundantly satisfied by his look of deep affection and solicitude as he said: "Heaven bless your strong, ready arm, Burt!" "Oh, that it had been mine!" was his inward thought. He masked his feelings so well, however, that all perplexity passed from her mind. She was eager to visit the rose garden with him, and when there he praised her quickly acquired skill so sincerely that her face flushed with pleasure. No one seemed to enjoy the late but ample supper more than he, or to make greater havoc in the well-heaped dish of strawberries. "I tasted none like these in New York," he said. "After all, give me the old-fashioned kind. We've tried many varieties, but the Triomphe de Gand proves the most satisfactory, if one will give it the attention it deserves. The fruit ripens early and lasts till late. It is firm and good even in cool, wet weather, and positively delicious after a sunny day like this."

"I agree with you, Webb," said his mother, smiling. "It's the best of all the kinds we've had, except, perhaps, the President Wilder, but that doesn't bear well in our garden."

"Well, mother," he replied, with a laugh, "the best is not too good for you. I have a row of Wilders, however, for your especial benefit, but they're late, you know."

The next morning he went into the haying with as much apparent zest as Leonard. They began with red-top clover. The growth had been so heavy that in many places it had "lodged," or fallen, and it had to be cut with scythes. Later on, the mowing-machine would be used in the timothy fields and meadows. Amy, from her open window, watched him as he steadily bent to the work, and she inhaled with pleasure the odors from the bleeding clover, for it was the custom of the Cliffords to cut their grasses early, while full of the native juices. Rakes followed the scythes speedily, and the clover was piled up into compact little heaps, or "cocks," to sweat out its moisture rather than yield it to the direct rays of the sun.

"Oh, dear!" said Amy, at the dinner-table, "my bees won't fare so well, now that you are cutting down so much of their pasture."

"Red clover affords no pasturage for honey-bees," said Webb, laughing. "How easily he seems to laugh of late!" Amy thought. "They can't reach the honey in the long, tube-like blossoms. Here the bumble-bees have everything their way, and get it all except what is sipped by the humming-birds, with their long beaks, as they feed on the minute insects within the flowers. I've heard the question, Of what use are bumble-bees?--I like to say bumble best, as I did when a boy. Well, I've been told that red clover cannot be raised without this insect, which, passing from flower to flower, carries the fertilizing pollen. In Australia the rats and the field mice were so abundant that they destroyed these bees, which, as you know, make their nests on the ground, and so cats had to be imported in order to give the bumble-bees and red clover a chance for life. There is always trouble in nature unless an equilibrium is kept up. Much as I dislike cats, I must admit that they have contributed largely toward the prosperity of an incipient empire."

"When I was a boy," remarked Leonard, "I was cruel enough to catch bumble-bees and pull them apart for the sake of the sac of honey they carry."

Alf hung his head, and looked very conscious. "Own up, Alf," laughed Webb.

"Well, I ain't any worse than papa," said the boy.

All through the afternoon the musical sound of whetting the scythes with the rifle rang out from time to time, and in the evening Leonard said, "If this warm, dry weather holds till to-morrow night, we shall get in our clover in perfect condition."

On the afternoon of the following day the two-horse wagon, surmounted by the hay-rack, went into the barn again and again with its fragrant burden; but at last Amy was aroused from her book by a heavy vibration of thunder. Going to a window facing the west, she saw a threatening cloud that every moment loomed vaster and darker. The great vapory heads, tipped with light, towered rapidly, until at last the sun passed into a sudden eclipse that was so deep as to create almost a twilight. As the cloud approached, there was a low, distant, continuous sound, quite distinct from nearer and heavier peals, which after brief and briefer intervals followed the lightning gleams athwart the gloom. She saw that the hay-makers were gathering the last of the clover, and raking, pitching, and loading with eager haste, their forms looking almost shadowy in the distance and the dim light. Their task was nearly completed, and the horses' heads were turned barnward, when a flash of blinding intensity came, with an instantaneous crash, that roared away to the eastward with deep reverberations. Amy shuddered, and covered her face with her hands. When she looked again, the clover-field and all that it contained seemed annihilated. The air was thick with dust, straws, twigs, and foliage torn away, and the gust passed over the house with a howl of fury scarcely less appalling than the thunder-peal had been. Trembling, and almost faint with fear, sho strained her eyes toward the point where she had last seen Webb loading the hay-rack. The murky obscurity lightened up a little, and in a moment or two she saw him whipping the horses into a gallop. The doors of the barn stood open, and the rest of the workers had taken a cross-cut toward it, while Mr. Clifford was on the piazza, shouting for them to hurry. Great drops splashed against the window-panes, and the heavy, monotonous sound of the coming torrent seemed to approach like the rush of a locomotive. Webb, with the last load, is wheeling to the entrance of the barn. A second later, and the horses' feet resound on the planks of the floor. Then all is hidden, and the rain pours against the window like a cataract. In swift alternation of feeling she clapped her hands in applause, and ran down to meet Mr. Clifford, who, with much effort, was shutting the door against the gale. When he turned he rubbed his hands and laughed as he said, "Well, I never saw Webb chased so sharply by a thunder-shower before; but he won the race, and the clover's safe."

The storm soon thundered away to parts unknown, the setting sun spanning its retreating murkiness with a magnificent bow; long before the rain ceased the birds were exulting in jubilant chorus, and the air grew still and deliciously cool and fragrant. When at last the full moon rose over the Beacon Mountains there was not a cloud above the horizon, and Nature, in all her shower-gemmed and June-clad loveliness, was like a radiant beauty lost in revery.