Chapter XXXIX. Burt's Adventure

Not only had the little rustic cottages which had been placed on poles here and there about the Clifford dwelling, and the empty tomato-cans which Alf, at Dr. Marvin's suggestion, had fastened in the trees, been occupied by wrens and bluebirds, but larger homes had been taken for the summer by migrants from the city. Among these was a Mr. Hargrove, a wealthy gentleman, who had rented a pretty villa on the banks of the Hudson, a mile or two away. Burt, with all his proposed lifelong constancy, had speedily discovered that Mr. Hargrove had a very pretty daughter. Of course, he was quite indifferent to the fact, but he could no more meet a girl like Gertrude Hargrove and be unobservant than could Amy pass a new and rare wildflower with unregarding eyes. Miss Hargrove was not a wildflower, however. She was a product of city life, and was perfectly aware of her unusual and exotic beauty. Admiring eyes had followed her even from childhood, and no one better than she knew her power. Her head had been quite turned by flattery, but there was a saving clause in her nature--her heart. She was a belle, but not a cold-blooded coquette. Admiration was like sunshine--a matter of course. She had always been accustomed to it, as she had been to wealth, and neither had spoiled her. Beneath all that was artificial, all that fashion prescribed and society had taught, was the essential womanhood which alone can win and retain a true man's homage. For reasons just the reverse of those which explained Amy's indisposition to sentiment, she also had been kept fancy-free. Seclusion and the companionship of her father, who had been an invalid in his later years, had kept the former a child in many respects, at a time when Miss Hargrove had her train of admirers. Miss Gertrude enjoyed the train very much, but showed no disposition to permit any one of its constituents to monopolize her. Indeed, their very numbers had been her safety. Her attention had been divided and distracted by a score of aspirants, and while in her girlish eyes some found more favor than others, she was inclined to laughing criticism of them all. They amused her immensely, and she puzzled them. Her almost velvety black eyes, and the rich, varying tints of her clear brunette complexion, suggested a nature that was not cold and unresponsive, yet many who would gladly have won the heiress for her own sake found her as elusive as only a woman of perfect tact and self-possession can be. She had no vulgar ambition to count her victims who had committed themselves in words. With her keen intuition and abundant experience she recognized the first glance that was warmer than mere friendliness, and this was all the committal she wished for. She loved the admiration of men, but was too good-hearted a girl to wish to make them cynics in regard to women. She also had the sense to know that it is a miserable triumph to lure a man to the declaration of a supreme regard, and then in one moment change it into contempt. While, therefore, she had refused many an offer, no one had been humiliated, no one had been made to feel that he had been unworthily trifled with. Thus she retained the respect and goodwill of those to whom she might easily have become the embodiment of all that was false and heartless. She had welcomed the comparative seclusion of the villa on the Hudson, for, although not yet twenty, she was growing rather weary of society and its exactions. Its pleasures had been tasted too often, its burdens were beginning to be felt. She was a good horsewoman, and was learning, under the instruction of a younger brother, to row as easily and gracefully on the river as she danced in the ballroom, and she found the former recreation more satisfactory, from its very novelty.

Burt was well aware of these outdoor accomplishments. Any one inclined to rural pleasures won his attention at once; and Miss Hargrove, as she occasionally trotted smartly by him, or skimmed near on the waters of the Hudson, was a figure sure to win from his eyes more than a careless glance. Thus far, as has been intimated, he had kept aloof, but he had observed her critically, and he found little to disapprove. She also was observing him, and was quite as well endowed as he with the power of forming a correct judgment. Men of almost every description had sought her smiles, but he did not suffer by comparison. His tall, lithe figure was instinct with manly grace. There was a fascinating trace of reckless boldness in his blue eyes. He rode like a centaur, and at will made his light boat, in which Amy was usually seated, cut through the water with spray flying from its prow. In Miss Hargrove's present mood for rural life she wished for his acquaintance, and was a little piqued that he had not sought hers, since her father had opened the way.

Mr. Hargrove, soon after his arrival in the neighborhood, had had business transactions with the Cliffords, and had learned enough about them to awaken a desire for social relations, and he had courteously expressed his wishes. Maggie and Amy had fully intended compliance, but the harvest had come, time had passed, and the initial call had not been made. Leonard was averse to such formalities, and, for reasons already explained, Burt and Webb were in no mood for them. They would not have failed in neighborliness much longer, however, and a call was proposed for the first comparatively cool day. A little incident now occurred which quite broke the ice, and also somewhat disturbed Burt's serenity. Amy was not feeling very well, and he had gone out alone for a ride on his superb black horse Thunder. In a shady road some miles away, where the willows interlaced their branches overhead in a long, Gothic-like arch, he saw Miss Hargrove, mounted also, coming slowly toward him. He never forgot the picture she made under the rustic archway. Her fine horse was pacing along with a stately tread, his neck curved under the restraining bit, while she was evidently amusing herself by talking, for the want of a better companion, to an immense Newfoundland dog that was trotting at her side, and looking up to her in intelligent appreciation. Thus, in her preoccupation, Burt was permitted to draw comparatively near, but as soon as she observed him it was evidently her intention to pass rapidly. As she gave her horse the rein and he leaped forward, she clutched his mane, and by a word brought him to a standstill. Burt saw the trouble at once, for the girth of her saddle had broken, and hung loosely down. Only by prompt action and good horsemanship had she kept her seat. Now she was quite helpless, for an attempt to dismount would cause the heavy saddle to turn, with unknown and awkward results. She had recognized Burt, and knew that he was a gentleman; therefore she patted her horse and quieted him, while the young man came promptly to her assistance. He, secretly exulting over the promise of an adventure, said, suavely, as he lifted his hat:

"Miss Hargrove, will you permit me to aid you?"

"Certainly," she replied, smiling so pleasantly that the words did not seem ungracious; "I have no other resource."

He bowed, leaped lightly to the ground, and fastened his horse by the roadside; then came forward without the least embarrassment. "Your saddle-girth has broken," he said. "I fear you must dismount. Shall I lift you off? You maintained your seat admirably, but a very slight movement on your part will cause the saddle to turn."

"I know that," she replied, laughing. "Helplessness is always awkward. I am only anxious to reach ground in safety;" and she dropped the reins, and held out her hands.

"Your horse is too high for you to dismount in that way," he said, quietly, "and the saddle might fall after you and hurt you. Pardon me;" and he encircled her with his right arm, and lifted her gently off.

She blushed like the western sky, but he was so grave and apparently solicitous, and his words had made his course seem so essential, that she could not take offence. Indeed, he was now giving his whole attention to the broken girth, and she could only await the result of his examination.

"I think I can mend it with a strap from my bridle so that it will hold until you reach home," he said; "but I am sorry to say that I cannot make it very secure. Will you hold your horse a moment?"

"I am indebted to Mr. Clifford, I think," she began, hesitatingly.

"I am Mr. Clifford, and, believe me, I am wholly at your service. If you had not been so good a horsewoman you might have met with a very serious accident."

"More thanks are due to you, I imagine," she replied; "though I suppose I could have got off in some way."

"There would have been no trouble in your getting off," he said, with one of his frank, contagious smiles; "but then your horse might have run away, or you would have had to lead him some distance, at least. Perhaps it was well that the girth gave way when it did, for it would have broken in a few moments more, in any event. Therefore I hope you will tolerate one not wholly unknown to you, and permit me to be of service."

"Indeed, I have only cause for thanks. I have interfered with your ride, and am putting you to trouble."

"I was only riding for pleasure, and as yet you have had all the trouble."

She did not look excessively annoyed, and in truth was enjoying the adventure quite as much as he was, but she only said: "You have the finest horse there I ever saw. How I should like to ride him!"

"I fear he would be ungallant. He has never been ridden by a lady."

"I should not be afraid so long as the saddle remained firm. What do you call him?"

"Thunder." At the sound of his name the beautiful animal arched his neck and whinnied. "There, be quiet, old fellow, and speak when you are spoken to," Burt said. "He is comparatively gentle with me, but uncontrollable by others. I have now done my best, Miss Hargrove, and I think you may mount in safety, if you are willing to walk your horse quietly home. But I truly think I ought to accompany you, and I will do so gladly, with your permission."

"But it seems asking a great deal of-"

"Of a stranger? I wish I knew how to bring about a formal introduction. I have met your father. Will you not in the emergency defer the introduction until we arrive at your home?"

"I think we may as well dispense with it altogether," she said, laughing. "It would be too hollow a formality after the hour we must spend together, since you think so slow a pace is essential to safety. Events, not we, are to blame for all failures in etiquette."

"I was coming to call upon you this very week with the ladies of our house," he began.

"Indeed!" she said, lifting her eyebrows.

"I assure you of the truth of what I say," he continued, earnestly, turning his handsome eyes to hers. Then throwing his head back a little proudly, he added, "Miss Hargrove, you must know that we are farmers, and midsummer brings the harvest and unwonted labors."

With a slight, piquant imitation of his manner, she said: "My father, you must know, Mr. Clifford, is a merchant Is not that an equally respectable calling?"

"Some people regard it as far more so."

"Some people are very silly. There is no higher rank than that of a gentleman, Mr. Clifford."

He took off his hat, and said, laughingly: "I hope it is not presumption to imagine a slight personal bearing in your remark. At least, let me prove that I have some claim to the title by seeing you safely home. Will you mount? Put your foot in my hand, and bear your whole weight upon it, and none upon the saddle."

"You don't know how heavy I am."

"No, but I know I can lift you. Try."

Without the least effort she found herself in the saddle. "How strong you are!" she said.

"Yes," he replied, laughing; "I developed my muscle, if not my brains, at college."

In a moment he vaulted lightly upon his horse, that reared proudly, but, at a word from his master, arched his neck and paced as quietly as Miss Hargrove's better-trained animal. Burt's laugh would have thawed Mrs. Grundy's very self. He was so vital with youth and vigor, and his flow of spirits so irresistible, that Miss Hargrove found her own nerves tingling with pleasure. The episode was novel, unexpected, and promised so much for the future, that in her delightful excitement she cast conventionality to the winds, and yielded to his sportive mood. They had not gone a mile together before one would have thought they had been acquainted for years. Burt's frank face was like the open page of a book, and the experienced society girl saw nothing in it but abounding good-nature, and an enjoyment as genuine as her own. She was on the alert for traces of provincialism and rusticity, but was agreeably disappointed at their absence. He certainly was unmarked, and, to her taste, unmarred, by the artificial mode of the day, but there was nothing under-bred in his manner or language. He rather fulfilled her ideal of the light-hearted student who had brought away the air of the university without being oppressed by its learning. She saw, with a curious little blending of pique and pleasure, that he was not in the least afraid of her, and that, while claiming to be simply a farmer, he unconsciously asserted by every word and glance that he was her equal. She had the penetration to recognize from the start that she could not patronize him in the slightest degree, that he was as high-spirited as he was frank and easy in manner, and she could well imagine that his mirthful eyes would flash with anger on slight provocation. She had never met just such a type before, and every moment found her more and more interested and amused.

It must be admitted that his sensations kept pace with hers. Many had found Miss Hargrove's eyes singularly effective under ordinary circumstances, but now her mood gave them an unwonted lustre and power. Her color was high, her talk animated and piquant. Even an enemy, had she had one, would have been forced to admit that she was dazzlingly beautiful, and inflammable Burt could not be indifferent to her charms. He knew that he was not, but complacently assured himself that he was a good judge in such matters.

Mr. Hargrove met them at the door, and his daughter laughingly told him of her mishap. She evidently reposed in him the utmost confidence. He justified it by meeting her in like spirit with her own, and he interpreted her unspoken wishes by so cordially pressing Burt to remain to dinner that he was almost constrained to yield. "You will be too late for your own evening meal," he said, "and your kindness to my daughter would be ill-requited, and our reputation for hospitality would suffer, should we let you depart without taking salt with us. After all, Mr. Clifford, we are neighbors. Why should there be any formality?"

Burt was the last one to have any scruples on such grounds, and he resolved to have his "lark" out, as he mentally characterized it. Mr. Hargrove had been something of a sportsman in his earlier days, and the young fellow's talk was as interesting to him as it had been to Miss Gertrude. Fred, her younger brother, was quite captivated, and elegant Mrs. Hargrove, like her daughter, watched in vain for mannerisms to criticise in the breezy youth. The evening was half gone before Burt galloped homeward, smiling broadly to himself at the adventure.

His absence had caused little remark in the family. It had been taken for granted that he was at Dr. Marvin's or the parsonage, for the young fellow was a great favorite with their pastor. When he entered the sitting-room, however, there was a suppressed excitement in his manner which suggested an unusual experience. He was not slow in relating all that had happened, for the thought had occurred to him that it might be good policy to awaken a little jealousy in Amy. In this effort he was obliged to admit to himself that he failed signally. Even Webb's searching eyes could not detect a trace of chagrin. She only seemed very much amused, and was laughingly profuse in her congratulations to Burt. Moreover, she was genuinely interested in Miss Hargrove, and eager to make her acquaintance. "If she is as nice as you say, Burt," she concluded, "she would make a pleasant addition to our little excursions and pleasure parties. Perhaps she's old and bright enough to talk to Webb, and draw him out of his learned preoccupation," she added, with a shy glance toward the one who was growing too remote from her daily life.

Even his bronzed face flushed, but he said, with a laugh: "She is evidently much too bright for me, and would soon regard me as insufferably stupid. I have never found much favor with city dames, or with dames of any description, for that matter."

"So much the worse for the dames, then," she replied, with a piquant nod at him.

"Little sisters are apt to be partial judges--at least, one is," he said, smilingly, as he left the room. He walked out in the moonlight, thinking: "There was not a trace of jealousy in her face. Well, why should there be? Burt's perfect frankness was enough to prevent anything of the kind. If there had been cause for jealousy, he would have been reticent. Besides, Amy is too high-toned to yield readily to this vice, and Burt can never be such an idiot as to endanger his prospects."

A scheme, however, was maturing in Burt's busy brain that night, which he thought would be a master-stroke of policy. He was quite aware of the good impression that he had made on Miss Hargrove, and he determined that Amy's wishes should be carried out in a sufficient degree at least to prove to her that a city belle would not be wholly indifferent to his attentions. "I'll teach the coy little beauty that others are not so blind as she is, and I imagine that, with Miss Hargrove's aid, I can disturb her serenity a little before many weeks pass."