Chapter XL. Miss Hargrove
 

But a few days elapsed before Mr. Clifford, with Burt, Maggie, and Amy, made the call which would naturally inaugurate an exchange of social visits. Mr. Hargrove was especially interested in the old gentleman, and they were at once deep in rural affairs. Maggie was a little reserved at first with Mrs. Hargrove, but the latter, with all her stateliness, was a zealous housekeeper, and so the two ladies were soon en rapport.

The young people adjourned to the piazza, and their merry laughter and animated talk proved that if there had been any constraint it was vanishing rapidly. Amy was naturally a little shy at first, but Miss Hargrove had the tact to put her guests immediately at ease. She proposed to have a good time during the remainder of the summer, and saw in Burt a means to that end, while she instinctively felt that she must propitiate Amy in order to accomplish her purpose. Therefore she was disposed to pay a little court to her on general principles. She had learned that the young girl was a ward of Mr. Clifford's. What Burt was to Amy she did not know, but was sure she could soon find out, and his manner had led to the belief that he was not a committed and acknowledged lover. She made no discoveries, however, for he was not one to display a real preference in public, and indeed, in accordance with his scheme, she received his most marked attentions. Amy also both baffled and interested her. She could not immediately accept of this genuine child of nature, whose very simplicity was puzzling. It might be the perfection of well-bred reserve, such complete art as to appear artless. Miss Hargrove had been in society too long to take anything impulsively on trust. Still, she was charmed with the young girl, and Amy was also genuinely pleased with her new acquaintance. Before they parted a horseback ride was arranged, at Burt's suggestion, for the next afternoon. This was followed by visits that soon lost all formality, boating on the river, other rides, drives, and excursions to points of interest throughout the region. Webb was occasionally led to participate in these, but he usually had some excuse for remaining at home. He, also, was a new type to Miss Hargrove, "indigenous to the soil," she smilingly said to herself, "and a fine growth too. With his grave face and ways he makes a splendid contrast to his brother." She found him too reticent for good-fellowship, and he gave her the impression also that he knew too much about that which was remote from her life and interests. At the same time, with her riper experience, she speedily divined his secret, to which Amy was blind. "He could almost say his prayers to Amy," she thought, as she returned after an evening spent at the Cliffords', "and she doesn't know it."

With all his frankness, Burt's relations to Amy still baffled her. She sometimes thought she saw his eyes following the young girl with lover-like fondness, and she also thought that he was a little more pronounced in his attentions to her in Amy's absence. Acquaintanceship ripened into intimacy as plans matured under the waning suns of July, and the girls often spent the night together. Amy was soon beguiled into giving her brief, simple history, omitting, of course, all reference to Bart's passionate declaration and his subsequent expectations. As far as she herself was concerned, she had no experiences of this character to relate, and her nature was much too fine to gossip about Burt. Miss Hargrove soon accepted Amy's perfect simplicity as a charming fact, and while the young girl had all the refinement and intelligence of her city friend, the absence of certain phases of experience made her companionship all the more fascinating and refreshing. It was seen that she had grown thus far in secluded and sheltered nooks, and the ignorance that resulted was like morning dew upon a flower. Of one thing her friend thought herself assured--Burt had never touched Amy's heart, and she was as unconscious of herself as of Webb's well-hidden devotion. The Clifford family interested Miss Gertrude exceedingly, and her innate goodness of heart was proved by the fact that she soon became a favorite with Mr. and Mrs. Clifford. She never came to the house without bringing flowers to the latter--not only beautiful exotics from the florists, but wreaths of clematis, bunches of meadow-rue from her rambles, and water-lilies and cardinal-flowers from boating excursions up the Moodna Creek--and the secluded invalid enjoyed her brilliant beauty and piquant ways as if she had been a rare flower herself.

Burt had entered on his scheme with the deepest interest and with confident expectations. As time passed, however, he found that he could not pique Amy in the slightest degree; that she rather regarded his interest in Miss Hargrove as the most natural thing in the world, because she was so interesting. Therefore he at last just let himself drift, and was content with the fact that the summer was passing delightfully. That Miss Hargrove's dark eyes sometimes quickened his pulse strangely did not trouble him; it had often been quickened before. When they were alone, and she sang to him in her rich contralto, and he, at her request, added his musical tenor, it seemed perfectly natural that he should bend over her toward the notes in a way that was not the result of near-sightedness. Burt was amenable to other attractions than that of gravitation.

Webb was the only one not blind to the drift of events. While he forbore by word or sign to interfere, he felt that new elements were entering into the problem of the future. He drove the farm and garden work along with a tireless energy against which even Leonard remonstrated. But Webb knew that his most wholesome antidote for suspense and trouble was work, and good for all would come of his remedy. He toiled long hours in the oat harvest. He sowed seed which promised a thousand bushels of turnips. Land foul with weeds, or only half subdued, he sowed with that best of scavenger crops, buckwheat, which was to be plowed under as soon as in blossom. The vegetable and fruit gardens gave him much occupation, also, and the table fairly groaned under the over-abundant supply, while Abram was almost daily despatched to the landing or to neighboring markets with loads of various produce. The rose garden, however, seemed to afford Webb his chief recreation and a place of rest, and the roses in Amy's belt were the wonder and envy of all who saw them. His mother sometimes looked at him curiously, as he still brought to her the finest specimens, and one day she said: "Webb, I never knew even you to be so tireless before. You are growing very thin, and you are certainly going beyond your strength, and--forgive me--you seem restlessly active. Have you any trouble in which mother can help you?"

"You always help me, mother," he said, gently; "but I have no trouble that requires your or any one's attention. I like to be busy, and there is much to do. I am getting the work well along, so that I can take a trip in August, and not leave too much for Leonard to look after."

August came, and with it the promise of drought, but he and his elder brother had provided against it. The young trees had been well mulched while the ground was moist, and deep, thorough cultivation rendered the crops safe unless the rainless period should be of long duration.

Already in the rustling foliage there were whisperings of autumn. The nights grew longer, and were filled with the sounds of insect life. The robins disappeared from about the house, and were haunting distant groves, becoming as wild as they had formerly been domestic. The season of bird song was over for the year. The orioles whistled in a languid and desultory way occasionally, and the smaller warblers sometimes gave utterance to defective strains, but the leaders of the feathered chorus, the thrushes, were silent. The flower-beds flamed with geraniums and salvias, and were gay with gladioli, while Amy and Mrs. Clifford exulted in the extent and variety of their finely quilled and rose-like asters and dahlias. The foliage of the trees had gained its darkest hues, and the days passed, one so like another that nature seemed to be taking a summer siesta.