Chapter XXXVI. The Rescue of a Home

Who remembers when his childhood ceased? Who can name the hour when buoyant, thoughtless, half-reckless youth felt the first sobering touch of manhood, or recall the day when he passed over the summit of his life, and faced the long decline of age? As imperceptibly do the seasons blend when one passes and merges into another. There were traces of summer in May, lingering evidences of spring far into June, and even in sultry July came days in which the wind in the groves and the chirp of insects at night foretold the autumn.

The morning that followed the thunder-shower was one of warm, serene beauty. The artillery of heaven had done no apparent injury. A rock may have been riven in the mountains, a lonely tree splintered, but homes were safe, the warm earth was watered, and the air purified. With the dawn Amy's bees were out at work, gleaning the last sweets from the white clover, that was on the wane, from the flowers of the garden, field, and forest. The rose garden yielded no honey: the queen of flowers is visited by no bees. The sweetbrier, or eglantine, belonging to this family is an exception, however, and if the sweets of these wild roses could be harvested, an Ariel would not ask for daintier sustenance.

White and delicate pink hues characterize the flowers of early spring. In June the wild blossoms emulate the skies, and blue predominates. In July and August many of the more sensitive in Flora's train blush crimson under the direct gaze of the sun. Yellow hues hold their own throughout the year, from the dandelions that first star the fields to the golden-rod that flames until quenched by frost and late autumn storms.

During the latter part of June the annual roses of the garden were in all stages and conditions. Beautiful buds could be gleaned among the developing seed receptacles and matured flowers that were casting their petals on every breeze. The thrips and the disgusting rose-bug were also making havoc here and there. But an untiring vigilance watched over the rose garden. Morning, noon, and evening Webb cut away the fading roses, and Amy soon learned to aid him, for she saw that his mind was bent on maintaining the roses in this little nook at the highest attainable point of perfection. It is astonishing how greatly nature can be assisted and directed by a little skilled labor at the right time. Left to themselves, the superb varieties in the rose garden would have spent the remainder of the summer and autumn chiefly in the development of seed-vessels, and in resting after their first bloom. But the pruning-knife had been too busy among them, and the thoroughly fertilized soil sent up supplies that must be disposed of. As soon as the bushes had given what may be termed their first annual bloom they were cut back halfway to the ground, and dormant buds were thus forced into immediate growth. Meanwhile the new shoots that in spring had started from the roots were already loaded with buds, and so, by a little management and attention, the bloom would be maintained until frosty nights should bring the sleep of winter. No rose-bug escaped Webb's vigilant search, and the foliage was so often sprayed by a garden syringe with an infusion of white hellebore that thrips and slugs met their deserved fate before they had done any injury. Thus for Mrs. Clifford and Amy was maintained a supply of these exquisite flowers, which in a measure became a part of their daily food.

Nature was culminating. On every side was the fulfilment of its innumerable promises. The bluebird, with the softness of June in his notes, had told his love amid the snows and gales of March, and now, with unabated constancy, and with all a father's solicitude, he was caring for his third nestful of fledglings. Young orioles were essaying flight from their wind-rocked cradles on the outer boughs of the elms. Phoebe-birds, with nests beneath bridges over running streams, had, nevertheless, the skill to land their young on the banks. Nature was like a vast nursery, and from gardens, lawns, fields, and forest the cries and calls of feathered infancy were heard all day, and sometimes in the darkness, as owls, hawks, and other night prowlers added to the fearful sum of the world's tragedies. The cat-birds, that had built in some shrubbery near the house, had by the last of June done much to gain Amy's good-will and respect. As their domestic character and operations could easily be observed, she had visited them almost daily from the time they had laid the dry-twig and leafy foundation of their nest until its lining of fine dry grasses was completed. She bad found that, although inclined to mock and gibe at outsiders, they were loyal and affectionate to each other. In their home-building, in the incubation of the deep bluish-green eggs, and in the care of the young, now almost ready to fly, they had been mutually helpful and considerate, fearless and even fierce in attacking all who approached too near their domicile. To Amy and her daily visits they had become quite reconciled, even as she had grown interested in them, in spite of a certain lack of the high breeding which characterized the thrushes and other favorites.

"My better acquaintance with them," she said one evening to Dr. Marvin, who, with his wife, had stopped at the Cliffords' in passing, "has taught me a lesson. I think I'm too much inclined to sweeping censure on the exhibition of a few disagreeable traits. I've learned that the gossips in yonder bushes have some excellent qualities, and I suppose you find that this is true of the gossips among your patients."

"Yes," replied the doctor, "but the human gossips draw the more largely on one's charity; and if you knew how many pestiferous slugs and insects your neighbors in the shrubbery have already destroyed, the human genus of gossip would suffer still more in comparison."

That Amy had become so interested in these out-door neighbors turned out to their infinite advantage, for one morning their excited cries of alarm secured her attention. Hastening to the locality of their nest, she looked upon a scene that chilled the blood in her own veins. A huge black-snake suspended his weight along the branches of the shrubbery with entire confidence and ease, and was in the act of swallowing a fledgling that, even as Amy looked, sent out its last despairing peep. The parent birds were frantic with terror, and their anguish and fearless efforts to save their young redeemed them forever in Amy's eyes.

"Webb!" she cried, since, for some reason, he ever came first to her mind in an emergency. It so happened that he had just come from the hay field to rest awhile and prepare for dinner. In a moment he was at her side, and followed with hasty glance her pointing finger.

"Come away, Amy," he said, as he looked at her pale face and dilated eyes. "I do not wish you to witness a scene like that;" and almost by force he drew her to the piazza. In a moment he was out with a breech-loading gun, and as the smoke of the discharge lifted, she saw a writhing, sinuous form fall heavily to the earth. After a brief inspection Webb came toward her in smiling assurance, saying: "The wretch got only one of the little family. Four birds are left. There now, don't feel so badly. You have saved a home from utter desolation. That, surely, will be a pleasant thing to remember."

"What could I have done if you had not come?"

"I don't like to think of what you might have done--emulated the mother-bird, perhaps, and flown at the enemy."

"I did not know you were near when I called your name," she said. "It was entirely instinctive on my part; and I believe," she added, musingly, looking with a child's directness into his eyes, "that one's instincts are usually right; don't you?"

He turned away to hide the feeling of intense pleasure caused by her words, but only said, in a low voice, "I hope I may never fail you, Amy, when you turn to me for help." Then he added, quickly, as if hastening away from delicate ground: "While those large black-snakes are not poisonous, they are ugly customers sometimes. I have read of an instance in which a boy put his hand into the hole of a tree where there had been a bluebird's nest, and touched the cold scales of one of these snakes. The boy took to his heels, with the snake after him, and it is hard to say what would have happened had not a man plowing near come to the rescue with a heavy ox-whip. What I should fear most in your case would be a nervous shock had the snake even approached you, for you looked as if you had inherited from Mother Eve an unusual degree of hate for the reptile."

The report of the gun had attracted Alf and others to the scene. Amy, with a look of smiling confidence, said: "Perhaps you have rescued me as well as the birds. I can't believe, though, that such a looking creature could have tempted Eve to either good or evil;" and she entered the house, leaving him in almost a friendly mood toward the cause of the cat-bird's woe.

Alf exulted over the slain destroyer, and even Johnnie felt no compunction at the violent termination of its life. The former, with much sportsmanlike importance, measured it, and at the dinner-table announced its length to be a little over four feet.

"By the way," said Webb, "your adventure, Amy, reminds me of one of the finest descriptions I ever read;" and jumping up, he obtained from the library Burroughs's account of a like scene and rescue. "I will just give you some glimpses of the picture," he said, reading the following sentences: "'Three or four yards from me was the nest, beneath which, in long festoons, rested a huge black-snake. I can conceive of nothing more overpoweringly terrible to an unsuspecting family of birds than the sudden appearance above their domicile of the head and neck of this arch enemy. One thinks of the great myth of the tempter and the cause of all our woe, and wonders if the Arch-One is not playing off some of his pranks before him. Whether we call it snake or devil matters little. I could but admire his terrible beauty, however; his black, shining folds; his easy, gliding movement--head erect, eyes glistening, tongue playing like subtile flame, and the invisible means of his almost winged locomotion. Presently, as he came gliding down the slender body of a leaning alder, his attention was attracted by a slight movement of my arm; eying me an instant with that crouching, utter, motionless gaze which I believe only snakes and devils can assume, he turned quickly,'" etc.

Amy shuddered, and Mrs. Clifford looked a little troubled that the scene in Eden should be spoken of as merely a "myth." When she was a child "Paradise Lost" had been her story-book, and the stories had become real to her. Burt, however, not to be outdone, recalled his classics.

"By the way," he said, "I can almost parallel your description from the 'Iliad' of Homer. I won't pretend that I can give you the Greek, and no doubt it would be Greek to you. I'll get even with you, Webb, however, and read an extract from Pope's translation," and he also made an excursion to the library. Returning, he said, "Don't ask me for the connection," and read:

  "'Straight to the tree his sanguine spires he rolled,
    And curled around in many a winding fold.
    The topmost branch a mother-bird possessed;
    Eight callow infants filled the mossy nest;
    Herself the ninth: the serpent as he hung
    Stretched his black jaws, and crashed the crying young:
    While hovering near, with miserable moan,
    The drooping mother wailed her children gone.
    The mother last, as round the nest she flew,
    Seized by the beating wing, the monster slew.'"

"Bravo!" cried Leonard. "I am now quite reconciled to your four years at college. Heretofore I had thought you had passed through it as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passed through the fiery furnace, without even the smell of fire upon their garments, but I now at last detect a genuine Greek aroma."

"I think Burt's quotation very pat," said Amy, "and I could not have believed that anything written so long ago would apply so marvellously to what I have seen to-day."

"Marvellously pat, indeed," said Leonard. "And since your quotation has led to such a nice little pat on your classical back, Burt, you must feel repaid for your long burning of the midnight oil."

Burt flushed slightly, but he turned Leonard's shafts with smiling assurance, and said: "Amply repaid. I have ever had an abiding confidence that my education would be of use to me at some time."

The long days grew hot, and often sultry, but the season brought unremitting toil. The click of the mowing-machine, softened by distance, came from field after field. As the grain in the rye grew plump and heavy, the heads drooped more and more, and changed from a pale yellow to the golden hue that announced the hour of harvest. In smooth and level fields the reaping-machine also lightened and expedited labor, but there was one upland slope that was too rough for anything except the old-fashioned cradle. On a breezy afternoon Amy went out to sketch the harvesters, and from the shade of an adjacent tree to listen to the rhythmical rush and rustle as the blade passed through the hollow stocks, and the cradle dropped the gathered wealth in uniform lines. Almost immediately the prostrate grain was transformed into tightly girthed sheaves. How black Abram's great paw looked as he twisted a wisp of straw, bound together the yellow stalks, and tucked under the end of his improvised rope!

Webb was leading the reapers, and they had to step quickly to keep pace with him. As Amy appeared upon the scene he had done no more than take off his hat and wave it to her, but as the men circled round the field near her again, she saw that her acquaintance of the mountain cabin was manfully bringing up the rear. Every time, before Lumley stooped to the sweep of his cradle, she saw that he stole a glance toward her, and she recognized him with cordial good-will. He, too, doffed his hat in grateful homage, and as he paused a moment in his honest toil, and stood erect, he unconsciously asserted the manhood that she had restored to him. She caught his attitude, and he became the subject of her sketch. Rude and simple though it was, it would ever recall to her a pleasant picture--the diminishing area of standing rye, golden in the afternoon sunshine, with light billows running over it before the breeze, Webb leading, with the strong, assured progress that would ever characterize his steps through life, and poor Lumley, who had been wronged by generations that had passed away, as well as by his own evil, following in an honest emulation which she had evoked.