Chapter XXXVII. A Midnight Tempest
 

As far as possible, the prudent Leonard, who was commander-in-chief of the harvest campaign, had made everything snug before the Fourth of July, which Alf ushered in with untimely patriotic fervor. Almost before the first bird had taken its head from under its wing to look for the dawn, he had fired a salute from a little brass cannon. Not very long afterward the mountains up and down the river were echoing with the thunder of the guns at West Point and Newburgh. The day bade fair to justify its proverbial character for sultriness. Even in the early morning the air was languid and the heat oppressive. The sun was but a few hours high before the song of the birds almost ceased, with the exception of the somewhat sleepy whistling of the orioles. They are half tropical in nature as well as plumage, and their manner during the heat of the day is like that of languid Southern beauties. They kept flitting here and there through their leafy retirement in a mild form of restlessness, exchanging soft notes--pretty nonsense, no doubt--which often terminated abruptly, as if they had not energy enough to complete the brief strain attempted.

Alf, with his Chinese crackers and his cannon, and Johnnie and Ned, with their torpedoes, kept things lively during the forenoon, but their elders were disposed to lounge and rest. The cherry-trees, laden with black and white ox-hearts, were visited. One of the former variety was fairly sombre with the abundance of its dark-hued fruit, and Amy's red lips grew purple as Burt threw her down the largest and ripest from the topmost boughs. Webb, carrying a little basket lined with grapevine leaves, gleaned the long row of Antwerp raspberries. The first that ripen of this kind are the finest and most delicious, and their strong aroma announced his approach long before he reached the house. His favorite Triomphe de Grand strawberries, that had supplied the table three weeks before, were still yielding a fair amount of fruit, and his mother was never without her dainty dish of pale red berries, to which the sun had been adding sweetness with the advancing season until nature's combination left nothing to be desired.

By noon the heat was oppressive, and Alf and Ned were rolling on the grass under a tree, quite satiated for a time with two elements of a boy's elysium, fire-crackers and cherries. The family gathered in the wide hall, through the open doors of which was a slight draught of air. All had donned their coolest costumes, and their talk was quite as languid as the occasional notes and chirpings of the birds without. Amy was reading a magazine in a very desultory way, her eyelids drooping over every page before it was finished, Webb and Burt furtively admiring the exquisite hues that the heat brought into her face, and the soft lustre of her eyes. Old Mr. Clifford nodded over his newspaper until his spectacles clattered to the floor, at which they all laughed, and asked for the news. His invalid wife lay upon the sofa in dreamy, painless repose. To her the time was like a long, quiet nooning by the wayside of life, with all her loved band around her, and her large, dark eyes rested on one and another in loving, lingering glances--each so different, yet each so dear! Sensible Leonard was losing no time, but was audibly resting in a great wooden rocking-chair at the further end of the hall. Maggie only, the presiding genius of the household, was not wilted by the heat. She flitted in and out occasionally, looking almost girlish in her white wrapper. She had the art of keeping house, of banishing dust and disorder without becoming an embodiment of dishevelled disorder herself. No matter what she was doing, she always appeared trim and neat, and in the lover-like expression of her husband's eyes, as they often followed her, she had her reward. She was not deceived by the semi-torpid condition of the household, and knew well what would be expected in a Fourth-of-July dinner. Nor was she disappointed. The tinkle of the bell at two o'clock awakened unusual animation, and then she had her triumph. Leonard beamed upon a hind-quarter of lamb roasted to the nicest turn of brownness. A great dish of Champion-of-England pease, that supreme product of the kitchen-garden, was one of the time-honored adjuncts, while new potatoes, the first of which had been dug that day, had half thrown off their mottled jackets in readiness for the feast. Nature had been Maggie's handmaid in spreading that table, and art, with its culinary mysteries and combinations, was conspicuously absent. If Eve had had a kitchen range and the Garden of Eden to draw upon, Adam could scarcely have fared better than did the Clifford household that day. The dishes heaped with strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and white grape-currants that had been gathered with the dew upon them might well tempt the most blase resident of a town to man's primal calling.

Before they reached their iced tea, which on this hot day took the place of coffee, there was a distant peal of thunder.

"I knew it would come," said old Mr. Clifford. "We shall have a cool night, after all."

"A Fourth rarely passes without showers," Leonard remarked. "That's why I was so strenuous about getting all our grass and grain that was down under cover yesterday."

"You are not the only prudent one," Maggie added, complacently. "I've made my currant jelly, and it jellied beautifully: it always does if I make it before the Fourth and the showers that come about this time. It's queer, but a rain on the currants after they are fairly ripe almost spoils them for jelly."

The anticipations raised by the extreme sultriness were fulfilled at first only in part. Instead of a heavy shower accompanied by violent gusts, there was a succession of tropical and vertical down-pourings, with now and then a sharp flash and a rattling peal, but usually a heavy monotone of thunder from bolts flying in the distance. One great cloud did not sweep across the sky like a concentrated charge, leaving all clear behind it, as is so often the case, but, as if from an immense reserve, Nature appeared to send out her vapory forces by battalions. Instead of enjoying the long siesta which she had promised herself, Amy spent the afternoon in watching the cloud scenery. A few miles southwest of the house was a prominent highland that happened to be in the direct line of the successive showers. This formed a sort of gauge of their advance. A cloud would loom up behind it, darken it, obscure it until it faded out even as a shadow; then the nearer spurs of the mountains would be blotted out, and in eight or ten minutes even the barn and the adjacent groves would be but dim outlines through the myriad rain-drops. The cloud would soon be well to the eastward, the dim landscape take form and distinctness, and the distant highland appear again, only to be obscured in like manner within the next half-hour. It was as if invisible and Titanic gardeners were stepping across the country with their watering-pots.

Burt and Webb sat near Amy at the open window, the former chatting easily, and often gayly. Webb, with his deep-set eyes fixed on the clouds, was comparatively silent. At last he rose somewhat abruptly, and was not seen again until evening, when he seemed to be in unusually good spirits. As the dusk deepened he aided Alf and Johnnie in making the finest possible display of their fireworks, and for half an hour the excitement was intense. The family applauded from the piazza. Leonard and his father, remembering the hay and grain already stored in the barn, congratulated each other that the recent showers had prevented all danger from sparks.

After the last rocket had run its brief, fiery course, Alf and Johnnie were well content to go with Webb, Burt, and Amy to an upper room whose windows looked out on Newburgh Bay and to the westward. Near and far, from their own and the opposite side of the river, rockets were flaming into the sky, and Roman candles sending up their globes of fire. But Nature was having a celebration of her own, which so far surpassed anything terrestrial that it soon won their entire attention. A great black cloud that hung darkly in the west was the background for the electric pyrotechnics. Against this obscurity the lightning played almost every freak imaginable. At one moment there would be an immense illumination, and the opaque cloud would become vivid gold. Again, across its blackness a dozen fiery rills of light would burn their way in zigzag channels, and not infrequently a forked bolt would blaze earthward. Accompanying these vivid and central effects were constant illuminations of sheet lightning all round the horizon, and the night promised to be a carnival of thunder-showers throughout the land. The extreme heat continued, and was rendered far more oppressive by the humidity of the atmosphere.

The awful grandeur of the cloud scenery at last so oppressed Amy that she sought relief in Maggie's lighted room. As we have already seen, her sensitive organization was peculiarly affected by an atmosphere highly charged with electricity. She was not re-assured, for Leonard inadvertently remarked that it would take "a rousing old-fashioned storm to cool and clear the air."

"Why, Amy," exclaimed Maggie, "how pale you are! and your eyes shine as if some of the lightning had got into them."

"I wish it was morning," said the girl. "Such a sight oppresses me like a great foreboding of evil;" and, with a restlessness she could not control, she went down to Mrs. Clifford's room. She found Mr. Clifford fanning the invalid, who was almost faint from the heat. Amy took his place, and soon had the pleasure of seeing her charge drop off into quiet slumber. As Mr. Clifford was very weary also, Amy left them to their rest, and went to the sitting-room, where Webb was reading. Burt had fallen asleep on the lounge in the hall. Leonard's prediction promised to come true. The thunder muttered nearer and nearer, but it was a sullen, slow, remorseless approach through the absolute silence and darkness without, and therefore was tenfold more trying to one nervously apprehensive than a swift, gusty storm would have been in broad day.

Webb looked up and greeted her with a smile. His lamp was shaded, and the room shadowy, so that he did not note that Amy was troubled and depressed. "Shall I read to you?" he asked. "I am running over Hawthorne's 'English Note-Books' again."

"Yes," she said, in a low voice; and she sat down with her back to the windows, through which shone momentarily the glare of the coming tempest. He had not read a page before a long, sullen peal rolled across the entire arc of the sky. "Webb," faltered Amy, and she rose and took an irresolute step toward him.

His pre-occupation was instantly gone. Never had he heard sweeter music than that low appeal, to which the deep echoes in the mountains formed a strange accompaniment. He stepped to her side, took her hand, and found it cold and trembling. Drawing her within the radiance of the lamp, he saw how pale she was, and that her eyes were dilated with nervous dread.

"Webb," she began again, "do you--do you think there is danger?"

"No, Amy," he said, gently; "there is no danger for you in God's universe."

"Oh, that frightful glare!" and she buried her face on his shoulder. "Webb," she whispered, "won't you stay up till the storm is over? And you won't think me weak or silly either, will you? Indeed, I can't help it. I wish I had a little of your courage and strength."

"I like you best as you are," he said; "and all my strength is yours when you need it. I understand you, Amy, and well know you cannot help this nervous dread. I saw how these electrical storms affected you last February, and such experiences are not rare with finely organized natures. See, I can explain it all with my matter-of-fact philosophy. But, believe me, there is no danger. Certainly I will stay with you. What would I not do for you?" he could not help adding.

She looked at him affectionately as she said, with a child's unconscious frankness: "I don't know why it is, but I always feel safe when with you. I often used to wish that I had a brother, and imagine what he would be to me; but I never dreamed that a brother could be so much to me as you are.--Oh, Webb!" and she almost clung to him, as the heavy thunder pealed nearer than before.

Involuntarily he encircled her with his arm, and drew her closer to him in the impulse of protection. She felt his arm tremble, and wholly misinterpreted the cause. Springing aloof, she clasped her hands, and looked around almost wildly.

"Oh, Webb," she cried, "there is danger. Even you tremble."

Webb was human, and had nerves also, but all the thunder that ever roared could not affect them so powerfully as Amy's head bowed upon his shoulder, and the appealing words of her absolute trust. He mastered himself instantly, however, for he saw that he must be strong and calm in order to sustain the trembling girl through one of Nature's most awful moods. She was equally sensitive to the smiling beauty and the wrath of the great mother. The latter phase was much the same to her as if a loved face had suddenly become black with reckless passion. He took both her hands in a firm grasp, and said: "Amy, I am not afraid, and you must not be. You can do much toward self-control. Come," he added, in tones almost authoritative, "sit here by me, and give me your hand. I shall read to you in a voice as quiet and steady as you ever heard me use."

She obeyed, and he kept his word. His strong, even grasp reassured her in a way that excited her wonder, and the nervous paroxysm of fear began to pass away. While she did not comprehend what he read, his tones and expression had their influence. His voice, however, was soon drowned by the howling of the tempest as it rushed upon them. He felt her hand tremble again, and saw her look apprehensively toward the windows.

"Amy," he said, and in smiling confidence he fixed his eyes on hers and held them.

The crisis of the storm was indeed terrific. The house rocked in the furious blasts. The uproar without was frightful, suggesting that the Evil One was in very truth the "prince of the power of the air," and that he was abroad with all his legions. Amy trembled violently, but Webb's hand and eyes held hers. "Courage!" he said, cheerily; "the storm is passing."

A wan, grateful smile glimmered for a moment on her pale face, and then her expression passed into one of horror. With a cry that was lost in a deafening crash, she sprang into his arms. Even Webb was almost stunned and blinded for a moment. Then he heard rapid steps. Burt at last had been aroused from the slumber of youth, and, fortunately for his peace, rushed first into his mother's room. Webb thought Amy had fainted, and he laid her gently on the lounge. "Don't leave me," she gasped, faintly.

"Amy," he said, earnestly, "I assure you that all danger is now over. As I told you once before, the centre of the storm has passed. You know I never deceived you."

Maggie and Burt now came running in, and Webb said, "Amy has had a faint turn. I will get her a glass of water."

This revived her speedily, but the truth of Webb's words proved more efficacious. The gale was sweeping the storm from the sky. The swish of the torrents mattered little, for the thunder-peals died away steadily to the eastward. Amy made a great effort to rally, for she felt ashamed of her weakness, and feared that the others would not interpret her as charitably as Webb had done. In a few minutes he smilingly withdrew, and went out on the rear porch with Leonard, whence they anxiously scanned the barn and out-buildings. These were evidently safe, wherever the bolt had fallen, and it must have struck near. In half an hour there was a line of stars along the western horizon, and soon the repose within the old house was as deep as that of nature without.

Webb only was sleepless. He sat at his open window, and saw the clouds roll away. But he felt that a cloud deeper and murkier than any that had ever blackened the sky hung over his life. He knew too well why his arm had trembled when for a moment it encircled Amy. The deepest and strongest impulse of his soul was to protect her, and her instinctive appeal to him had raised a tempest in his heart as wild as that which had raged without. He felt that he could not yield her to another, not even to his brother. Nature itself pointed her to him. It was to him she turned and clung in her fears. And yet she had not even dreamed of his untold wealth of love, and probably never would suspect it. He could not reveal it--indeed, it must be the struggle of his life to hide it--and she, while loving him as a brother, might easily drift into an engagement and marriage with Burt. Could he be patient, and wear a smiling mask through it all? That tropical night and its experiences taught him anew that he had a human heart, with all its passionate cravings. When he came down from his long vigil on the following morning his brow was as serene as the scene without. Amy gave him a grateful and significant smile, and he smiled back so naturally that observant Burt, who had been a little uneasy over the events of the previous night, was wholly relieved of anxiety. They had scarcely seated themselves at the breakfast-table before Alf came running in, and said that an elm not a hundred yards from the house had been splintered from the topmost branch to the roots. All except Mrs. Clifford went out to look at the smitten tree, and they gazed with awe at the deep furrow plowed in the blackened wood.

"It will live," said Webb, quietly, as he turned away; "it will probably live out its natural life."

Amy, in her deep sympathy, looked after him curiously. There was something in his tone and manner which suggested a meaning beyond his words. Not infrequently he had puzzled her of late, and this added to her interest in him. She understood Burt thoroughly.

Good old Mr. Clifford saw in the shattered tree only reasons for profound thankfulness, and words of Christian gratitude rose to his lips.