Chapter III. A Country Fireside
 

After supper they all gathered for a time in the large general sitting-room, and careful Leonard went the rounds of the barn and out-buildings. Mr. Clifford, with considerate kindness, had resolved to defer all conversation with Amy relating to her bereavement and the scenes that had ensued. At this holiday-time they would make every effort within their power to pierce with light and warmth the cold gray clouds that of late had gathered so heavily over the poor child's life. At the same time their festivities would be subdued by the memory of her recent sorrow, and restricted to their immediate family circle. But, instead of obtrusive kindness, they enveloped her in the home atmosphere, and made her one of them. The manner in which old Mrs. Clifford kept her near and retained her hand was a benediction in itself.

Leonard was soon heard stamping the snow from his boots on the back piazza, and in a few moments he entered, shivering.

"The coldest night of the year," he exclaimed. "Ten below zero, and it will probably be twelve before morning. It's too bad, Amy, that you have had such a cold reception."

"The thermometer makes a good foil for your smile," she replied. "Indeed, I think the mercury rose a little while you were looking at it."

"Oh no," he said, laughing, "even you could not make it rise to-night. Heigho, Ned! coming to kiss good-night? I say, Ned, tell us what mamma has for Amy's stocking. What a good joke it is, to be sure I We all had the impression you were a little girl, you know, and selected our gifts accordingly. Burt actually bought you a doll. Ha! ha! ha! Maggie had planned to have you hang up your stocking with the children, and such a lot of little traps and sweets she has for you!"

The boy, to whom going to bed at the usual hour was a heavy cross on this momentous evening, promptly availed himself of a chance for delay by climbing on Amy's lap, and going into a voluble inventory of the contents of a drawer into which he had obtained several surreptitious peeps. His effort to tell an interminable story that he might sit up longer, the droll havoc he made with his English, and the naming of the toys that were destined for the supposed child, evoked an unforced merriment which banished the last vestige of restraint.

"Well, I'm glad it has all happened so," said Amy, after the little fellow had reluctantly come to the end of his facts and his invention also. "You make me feel as if I had known you for years--almost, indeed, as if I had come to you as a little girl, and had grown up among you. Come, Ned, it shall all turn out just as you expected. I'll go with you upstairs, and hang my stocking beside yours, and mamma shall put into it all the lovely things you have told me about. Santa Claus does not know much about my coming here, nor what kind of a girl I am, so your kind mamma meant to act the part of Santa Claus in my behalf this year, and give him a chance to get acquainted with me. But he knows all about you, and there's no telling how soon he may come to fill your stocking. You know he has to fill the stockings of all the little boys and girls in the country, and that will take a long time. So I think we had better go at once, for I don't believe he would like it if he came and found you up and awake."

This put a new aspect upon going to bed early, and having seen his short, chubby stocking dangling with a long, slender one of Amy's by the chimney-side, Ned closed his eyes with ineffable content and faith. Amy then returned to the sitting-room, whither she was soon followed by Maggie, and after some further light and laughing talk the conversation naturally drifted toward those subjects in which the family was practically interested.

"What do you think, father?" Leonard asked. "Won't this finish the peach and cherry buds? I've always heard that ten degrees of cold below zero destroyed the fruit germs."

"Not always," replied the man of long experience. "It depends much upon their condition when winter sets in, and whether, previous to the cold snap, there have been prolonged thaws. The new growth on the trees ripened thoroughly last fall, and the frost since has been gradual and steady. I've known peach-buds to survive fifteen below zero; but there's always danger in weather like this. We shall know what the prospects are after the buds thaw out."

"How will that be possible?" Amy asked, in surprise.

"Now, Webb, is your chance to shine," cried Burtis. "Hitherto, Amy, the oracle has usually been dumb, but you may become a priestess who will evoke untold stores of wisdom."

Webb flushed slightly, but again proved that his brother's banter had little influence.

"If you are willing to wait a few days," he said, with a smile, "I can make clear to you, by the aid of a microscope, what father means, much better than I can explain. I can then show you the fruit germs either perfect or blackened by the frost."

"I'll wait, and remind you of your promise, too. I don't know nearly as much about the country as a butterfly or a bird, but should be quite as unhappy as they were I condemned to city life. So you must not laugh at me if I ask no end of questions, and try to put my finger into some of your horticultural pies."

His pleased look contained all the assurance she needed, and he resumed, speaking generally: "The true places for raising peaches--indeed, all the stone-fruits--successfully in this region are the plateaus and slopes of the mountains beyond us. At their height the mercury never falls as low as it does with us, and when we have not a peach or cherry I have found such trees as existed high up among the hills well laden."

"Look here, uncle Webb," cried Alf, "you've forgotten your geography. The higher you go up the colder it gets."

The young man patiently explained to the boy that the height of the Highlands is not sufficient to cause any material change in climate, while on still nights the coldest air sinks to the lowest levels, and therefore the trees in the valleys and at the base of the mountains suffer the most. "But what you say," he concluded, "is true as a rule. The mercury does range lower on the hills; and if they were a thousand or fifteen hundred feet higher peaches could not be grown at all."

Amy mentally soliloquized: "I am learning not only about the mercury, but also--what Alf has no doubt already found out--that Webb is the one to go to if one wishes anything explained. What's more, he wouldn't, in giving the information, overwhelm one with a sense of deplorable ignorance."

In accordance with his practical bent, Webb continued: "I believe that a great deal of money could be made in the Highlands by raising peaches. The crop would be almost certain, and the large late varieties are those which bring the extraordinary prices. What is more, the mountain land would probably have the quality of virgin soil. You remember, father, don't you, when peaches in this region were scarcely troubled by disease?"

"Indeed I do. There was a time when they would live on almost like apple-trees, and give us an abundance of great luscious fruit year after year. Even with the help of the pigs we could not dispose of the crops, the bulk of which, in many instances, I am sorry to say, went into brandy. What was that you were reading the other day about peaches in Hawthorne's description of the Old Manse?"

Webb took the book and read: "Peach-trees which, in a good year, tormented me with peaches neither to be eaten nor kept, nor, without labor and perplexity, to be given away."

"That hits it exactly," resumed the old gentleman, laughing, "only every year was a good year then, and we had not the New York market within three hours of us. Even if we had, a large modern orchard would have supplied it. One of the most remarkable of the changes I've witnessed in my time is the enormous consumption of fruit in large cities. Why, more is disposed of in Newburgh than used to go to New York. But to return to peaches; our only chance for a long time has been to plant young trees every year or two, and we scarcely secured a crop more than once in three years. Even then the yellows often destroyed the trees before they were old enough to bear much. They are doing far better of late along the Hudson, and there is good prospect that this region will become the greatest peach-growing locality in the country."

"I'm sure you are right," assented Webb, "and I think it will pay us to plant largely in the spring. I don't suppose you ever saw a peach-orchard in England, Amy?"

"I don't think I ever did. They were all grown in front of sunny walls, espalier, as papa termed it. We had some in our garden."

"Yes," resumed Webb, "the climate there is too cool and humid for even the wood to ripen. Here, on the contrary, we often have too vivid sunshine. I propose that we put out all the north slope in peaches."

"Do you think a northern exposure best?" Leonard asked.

"I certainly do. In my opinion it is not the frost, unless it be very severe, that plays the mischief with the buds, but alternate freezing and thawing, especially after the buds have started in spring. On a northern slope the buds usually remain dormant until the danger of late frosts is over. I am quite sure, too, that the yellows is a disease due chiefly to careless or dishonest propagation. Pits and buds have been taken from infected trees, and thus the evil has been spread far and wide. There is as much to be gained in the careful and long-continued selection of fruits and vegetables as in the judicious breeding of stock."

"Has no remedy for the yellows been discovered?" Leonard again queried.

"Only the axe and fire. The evil should be extirpated as fast as it appears. Prevention is far better than any attempt at cure. The thing to do is to obtain healthier trees, and then set them out on new land. That's why I think the north slope will be a good place, for peaches have never been grown there in my memory."

"Come, Amy," said Burt. "Len and Webb are now fairly astride of their horticultural hobbies. Come with me, and see the moon shining on old Storm King."

They pushed aside the heavy crimson curtains, which added a sense of warmth to the cheerful room, and looked at the cold white world without--a ghost of a world, it seemed to Amy. The moon, nearly full, had risen in the gap of the Highlands, and had now climbed well above the mountains, softening and etherealizing them until every harsh, rugged outline was lost. The river at their feet looked pallid and ghostly also. When not enchained by frost, lights twinkled here and there all over its broad surface, and the intervals were brief when the throbbing engines of some passing steamer were not heard. Now it was like the face of the dead when a busy life is over.

"It's all very beautiful," said Amy, shivering, "but too cold and still. I love life, and this reminds one of death, the thoughts of which, with all that it involves, have oppressed me so long that I must throw off the burden. I was growing morbid, and giving way to a deeper and deeper depression, and now your sunny home life seems just the antidote for it all."

The warm-hearted fellow was touched, for there were tears in the young girl's eyes. "You have come to the right place, Amy," he said, eagerly. "You cannot love life more than I, and I promise to make it lively for you. I'm just the physician to minister to the mind diseased with melancholy. Trust me. I can do a hundred-fold more for you than delving, matter-of-fact Webb. So come to me when you have the blues. Let us make an alliance offensive and defensive against all the powers of dulness and gloom."

"I'll do my best," she replied, smiling; "but there will be hours, and perhaps days, when the past with its shadows will come back too vividly for me to escape it."

"I'll banish all shadows, never fear. I'll make the present so real and jolly that you will forget the past."

"I don't wish to forget, but only to think of it without the dreary foreboding and sinking of heart that oppressed me till I came here. I know you will do much for me, but I am sure I shall like Webb also."

"Oh, of course you will. He's one of the best fellows in the world. Don't think that I misunderstand him or fail to appreciate his worth because I love to run him so. Perhaps you'll wake him up and get him out of his ruts. But I foresee that I'm the medicine you most need. Come to the fire; you are shivering."

"Oh, I'm so glad that I've found such a home," she said, with a grateful glance, as she emerged from the curtains.