Chapter XLII. Camping Out
 

They all gathered at a late breakfast, and the surface current of family and social life sparkled as if there were no hidden depths and secret thoughts. Amy's manner was not cold toward Webb, but her pride was touched, and her feelings were a little hurt. While disposed to blame herself only that she had not the power to interest him and secure his companionship, as in the past, it was not in human nature to receive with indifference such an apparent hint that he was far beyond her. "It would be more generous in Webb to help than to ignore me because I know so little," she thought. "Very well: I can have a good time with Burt and Gertrude until Webb gets over his hurry and preoccupation;" and with a slight spirit of retaliation she acted as if she thoroughly enjoyed Burt's lively talk.

The young fellow soon made a proposition that caused a general and breezy excitement. "There never was a better time than this for camping out," he said. "The ground is dry, and there is scarcely any dew. I can get two large wall tents. Suppose we go up and spend a few days on our mountain tract? Maggie could chaperon the party, and I've no doubt that Dr. and Mrs. Marvin would join us."

The discussion of the project grew lively. Maggie was inclined to demur. How could she leave the old people and her housekeeping? Mr. and Mrs. Clifford, however, became the strongest advocates of the scheme. They could get along with the servants, they said, and a little outing would do Maggie good. Leonard, who had listened in comparative silence, brought his wife to a decision by saying: "You had better go, Maggie. You will have all the housekeeping you want on the mountain, and I will go back and forth every day and see that all's right. It's not as if you were beyond the reach of home, for you could be here in an hour were there need. Come now, make up your mind for a regular lark. It will do you good."

The children were wild with delight at the prospect, and Miss Hargrove and Amy scarcely less pleased. The latter had furtively watched Webb, who at first could not disguise a little perplexity and trouble at the prospect. But he had thought rapidly, and felt that a refusal to be one of the party might cause embarrassing surmises. Therefore he also soon became zealous in his advocacy of the plan. He felt that circumstances were changing and controlling his action. He had fully resolved on an absence of some weeks, but the prolonged drought and the danger it involved--the Cliffords would lose at least a thousand dollars should a fire sweep over their mountain tract--made it seem wrong for him to leave home until rain insured safety. Moreover, he believed that he detected symptoms in Burt which, with his knowledge of his brother, led to hopes that he could not banish. An occasional expression in Miss Hargrove's dark eyes, also, did not tend to lessen these hopes. "The lack of conventionality incident to a mountain camp," he thought, "may develop matters so rapidly as to remove my suspense. With all Amy's gentleness, she is very sensitive and proud, and Burt cannot go much further with Miss Hargrove without so awakening her pride as to render futile all efforts to retrieve himself. After all, Miss Hargrove, perhaps, would suit him far better than Amy. They are both fond of excitement and society. Why can't we all be happy? At least, if the way were clear, I would try as no man ever tried to win Amy, and I should be no worse off than I am if I failed in the attempt."

These musings were rather remote from his practical words, for he had taken pains to give the impression that their woodland would be far safer for the proposed expedition, and Amy had said, a little satirically, "We are now sure of Webb, since he can combine so much business with pleasure."

He only smiled back in an inscrutable way.

Musk-melons formed one of their breakfast dishes, and Miss Hargrove remarked, "Papa has been exceedingly annoyed by having some of his finest ones stolen."

Burt began laughing, and said: "He should imitate my tactics. Ours were stolen last year, and as they approached maturity, some time since, I put up a notice in large black letters, 'Thieves, take warning: be careful not to steal the poisoned melons.' Hearing a dog bark one night about a week ago, I took a revolver and went out. The moonlight was clear, and there, reading the notice, was a group of ragamuffin boys. Stealing up near them, behind some shrubbery, I fired my pistol in the air, and they fairly tumbled over each other in their haste to escape. We've had no trouble since, I can assure you. I'll drive you home this morning, and, with your father's permission, will put up a similar notice in your garden. We also must make our arrangements for camping promptly. This weather can't last much longer. It surely will not if our mountain experience makes us wish it would;" and, full of his projects, he hastened to harness Thunder to his light top-wagon.

He might have taken the two-seated carriage, and asked Amy to accompany them, but it had not occurred to him to do so, especially as he intended to drive on rapidly to Newburgh to make arrangements for the tents. She felt a little slighted and neglected, and Miss Hargrove saw that she did, but thought that any suggestion of a different arrangement might lead to embarrassment. She began to think, with Webb, that the camping experience would make everything clearer. At any rate, it promised so much unhackneyed pleasure that she resolved to make the most of it, and then decide upon her course. She was politic, and cautioned Burt to say nothing until she had first seen her father, for she was not certain how her stately and conventional mother would regard the affair. She pounced upon Mr. Hargrove in his library, and he knew from her preliminary caresses that some unusual favor was to be asked.

"Come," he said, "you wily little strategist, what do you want now? Half of my kingdom?"

She explained rather incoherently.

His answer was unexpected, for he asked, "Is Mr. Burt Clifford in the parlor?"

"No," she replied, faintly; "he's on the piazza." Then, with unusual animation, she began about the melons. Her father's face softened, and he looked at her a little humorously, for her flushed, handsome face would disarm a Puritan.

"You are seeing a great deal of this young Mr. Clifford," he said.

Her color deepened, and she began, hastily, "Oh, well, papa, I've seen a good deal of a great many gentlemen."

"Come, come, Trurie, no disguises with me. Your old father is not so blind as you think, and I've not lived to my time of life in ignorance of the truth that prevention is better than cure. Whether you are aware of it or not, your eyes have revealed to me a growing interest in Mr. Clifford."

She hid her face upon his shoulder.

"He is a comparatively poor man, I suppose, and while I think him a fine fellow, I've seen in him no great aptness for business. If I saw that he was no more to you than others who have sought your favor, I would not say a word, Trurie, for when you are indifferent you are abundantly able to take care of yourself. I've been expecting this. I knew you would in time meet some one who would have the power to do more than amuse you, and my love, darling, is too deep and vigilant to be blind until it is too late to see. You are merely interested in Mr. Clifford now. You might become more than interested during an experience like the one proposed."

"If I should, papa, am I so poor that I have not even the privilege of a village girl, who can follow her heart?"

"My advice would be," he replied, gently, "that you guide yourself by both reason and your heart. This is our secret council-chamber, and one is speaking to you who has no thought but for your lasting happiness."

She took a chair near him, and looked into his eyes, as she said, thoughtfully and gravely: "I should be both silly and unnatural, did I not recognize your motive and love. I know I am not a child any longer, and should have no excuse for any school-girl or romantic folly. You have always had my confidence; you would have had it in this case as soon as there was anything to tell. I scarcely understand myself as yet, but must admit that I am more interested in Mr. Clifford than in any man I ever met, and, as you said, I also have not reached my time of life without knowing what this may lead to. You married mamma when she was younger than I, and you, too, papa, were 'a comparatively poor man' at the time. I have thought a great deal about it. I know all that wealth and fashionable society can give me, and I tell you honestly, papa, I would rather be the happy wife that Maggie Clifford is than marry any millionaire in New York. There is no need, however, for such serious talk, for there is nothing yet beyond congenial companionship, and--Well," she added, hastily, in memory of Amy, "I don't believe anything will come of it. But I want to go on this expedition. There will probably be two married ladies in the party, and so I don't see that even mamma can object. Best assured I shall never become engaged to any one without your consent; that is," she added, with another of her irresistible caresses, "unless you are very unreasonable, and I become very old."

"Very well, Trurie, you shall go, with your mother's consent, and I think I can insure that. As you say, you are no longer a child." And his thought was, "I have seen enough of life to know that it is best not to be too arbitrary in such matters." After a moment he added, gravely, "You say you have thought. Think a great deal more before you take any steps which may involve all your future."

Burt was growing uneasy on the piazza, and feared that Miss Hargrove might not obtain the consent that she had counted on so confidently. He was a little surprised, also, to find how the glamour faded out of his anticipations at the thought of her absence, but explained his feeling by saying to himself, "She is so bright and full of life, and has so fine a voice, that we should miss her sadly." He was greatly relieved, therefore, when Mr. Hargrove came out and greeted him courteously. Gertrude had been rendered too conscious, by her recent interview, to accompany her father, but she soon appeared, and no one could have imagined that Burt was more to her than an agreeable acquaintance. Mrs. Hargrove gave a reluctant consent, and it was soon settled that they should try to get off on the afternoon of the following day. Burt also included in the invitation young Fred Hargrove, and then drove away elated.

At the dinner-table he announced his success in procuring the tents, and his intention of going for them in the afternoon. At the same time he exhorted Leonard and Maggie to prepare provisions adequate to mountain appetites, adding, "Webb, I suppose, will be too busy to do more than join us at the last moment."

Webb said nothing, but disappeared after dinner. As he was at supper as usual, no questions were asked. Before it was light the next morning Amy thought she heard steps on the stairs, and the rear hall-door shut softly. When finally awaking, she was not sure but that her impression was a dream. As she came down to breakfast Burt greeted her with dismay.

"The tents, that I put on the back piazza, are gone," he said.

"Where is Webb?" was her quick response.

No one had seen him, and it was soon learned that a horse and a strong wagon were also missing.

"Ah, Burt," cried Amy, laughing, "rest assured Webb has stolen a march on you, and taken his own way of retaliation for what you said at the dinner-table yesterday. He was away all the afternoon, too. I believe he has chosen a camping-ground, and the tents are standing on it."

"He should have remembered that others might have some choice in the matter," was the discontented reply.

"If Webb has chosen the camping-ground, you will all be pleased with it," said his mother, quietly. "I think he is merely trying to give a pleasant surprise."

He soon appeared, and explained that, with Lumley's help, he had made some preparations, since any suitable place, with water near, from which there was a fine outlook, would have seemed very rough and uninviting to the ladies unless more work was done than could be accomplished in the afternoon of their arrival.

"Now I think that is very thoughtful of you, Webb," said Amy. "The steps I heard last night were not a dream. At what unearthly hour did you start?"

"Was I so heavy-footed as to disturb you?"

"Oh, no, Webb," she said, with a look of comic distress, in which there was also a little reproach; "it's not your feet that disturb me, but your head. You have stuffed it so full of learning that I am depressed by the emptiness of mine."

He laughed, as he replied, "I hope all your troubles may be quite as imaginary." Then he told Leonard to spend the morning in helping Maggie, who would know best what was needed for even mountain housekeeping, and said that he would see to farm matters, and join them early in the evening. The peaches were ripening, and Amy, from her window, saw that he was taking from the trees all fit to market; also that Abram, under his direction, was busy with the watering-cart. "Words cannot impose upon me," she thought, a little bitterly. "He knows how I long for his companionship, and it's not a little thing to be made to feel that I am scarcely better qualified for it than Johnnie."

Burt galloped over to Dr. Marvin's, who promised to join them, with his wife, on the following day. He had a tent which he had occasionally used in his ornithological pursuits.

At two in the afternoon a merry party started for the hills. All the vehicles on the farm had been impressed into the service to bring up the party, with chairs, cooking-utensils, provisions, bedding, etc. When they reached the ground that Webb had selected, even Burt admitted his pleased surprise. The outlook over the distant river, and a wide area of country dotted with villages, was superb, while to the camp a home-like look had already been given, and the ladies, with many mental encomiums, saw how secluded and inviting an aspect had been imparted to their especial abode. As they came on the scene, Lumley was finishing the construction of a dense screen of evergreen boughs, which surrounded the canvas to the doorway. Not far away an iron pot was slung on a cross-stick in gypsy style, and it was flanked by rock-work fireplaces which Maggie declared were almost equal to a kitchen range. The men's tent was pitched at easy calling distance, and, like that of the ladies, was surrounded by a thick growth of trees, whose shade would be grateful. A little space had been cleared between the two tents for a leaf-canopied dining-hall, and a table of boards improvised. The ground, as far as possible, had been cleared of loose stones and rubbish. Around the fireplace mossy rocks abounded, and were well adapted for picturesque groupings. What touched Amy most was a little flowerbed made of the rich black mould of decayed leaves, in which were some of her favorite flowers, well watered. This did not suggest indifference on the part of Webb. About fifty feet from the tents the mountain shelf sloped off abruptly, and gave the magnificent view that has been mentioned. Even Burt saw how much had been gained by Webb's forethought, and frankly acknowledged it. As it was, they had no more than time to complete the arrangements for the night before the sun's level rays lighted up a scene that was full of joyous activity and bustle. The children's happy voices made the echoes ring, and Fred Hargrove, notwithstanding his city antecedents, yielded with delight to the love of primitive life that exists in every boy's heart. Although he was a few years older than Alf, they had become friendly rivals as incipient sportsmen and naturalists. Amy felt that she was coming close to nature's heart, and the novelty of it all was scarcely less exciting to her than to Johnnie. To little Ned it was a place of wonder and enchantment, and he kept them all in a mild state of terror by his exploring expeditions. At last his father threatened to take him home, and, with this awful punishment before his eyes, he put his thumb in his mouth, perched upon a rock, and philosophically watched the preparations for supper. Maggie was the presiding genius of the occasion, and looked like the light-hearted girl that Leonard had wooed more than a dozen years before. She ordered him around, jested with him, and laughed at him in such a piquant way that Burt declared she was proving herself unfit for the duties of chaperon by getting up a flirtation with her husband. Meanwhile, under her supervision, order was evoked from chaos, and appetizing odors arose from the fireplace.

Miss Hargrove admitted to herself that in all the past she had never known such hours of keen enjoyment, and she was bent on proving that, although a city-bred girl, she could take her part in the work as well as in the fun. Nor were her spirits dampened by the fact that Burt was often at her side, and that Amy did not appear to care. The latter, however, was becoming aware of his deepening interesting in her brilliant friend. As yet she was not sure whether it was more than a good-natured and hospitable effort to make one so recently a stranger at home with them, or a new lapse on his part into a condition of ever-enduring love and constancy--and the smile that followed the thought was not flattering to Burt.

A little before supper was ready Maggie asked him to get a pail of water.

"Come, Miss Gertrude," he said, "and I'll show you the Continental spring at which the Revolutionary soldiers drank more than a hundred years ago;" and she tripped away with him, nothing loth. As they reappeared, flushed and laughing, carrying the pail between them, Amy trilled out,

"Jack and Jill came up the hill."

A moment later, Webb followed them, on horseback, and was greeted with acclamations and overwhelmed with compliments. Miss Hargrove was only too glad of the diversion from herself, for Amy's words had made her absurdly conscious for a society girl.

They feasted through the long twilight. Never had green corn, roasted in its husks on the coals, tasted so delicious, and never before were peaches and cream so ambrosial. Amy made it her care that poor Lumley should feast also, but the smile with which she served him was the sustenance he most craved. Then, as the evening breeze grew chilly, and the night darkened, lanterns were hung in the trees, the fire was replenished, and they sat down, the merriest of merry parties. Even Webb had vowed that he would ignore the past and the future, and make the most of that camp-fire by the wayside of life. It must be admitted, however, that his discovery of Burt and Miss Hargrove alone at the spring had much to do with his resolution. Stories and songs succeeded each other, until Ned was asleep in Maggie's arms, and Johnnie nodding at her side. In reaction from the excitements and fatigues of the day, they all early sought the rest which is never found in such perfection as in a mountain camp. Hemlock boughs formed the mattresses on which their blankets were spread, and soon there were no sounds except the strident chirpings of insects and the calls of night-birds.

There was one perturbed spirit, however, and at last Burt stole out and sat by the dying fire. When the mind is ready for impressions, a very little thing will produce them vividly, and Amy's snatch of song about "Jack and Jill" had awakened Burt at last to a consciousness that he might be carrying his attention to Miss Hargrove too far, in view of his vows and inexorable purpose of constancy. He assured himself that his only object was to have a good time, and enjoy the charming society of his new acquaintance. Of course, he was in love with Amy, and she was all that he could desire. Perhaps he had pursued the wrong tactics. Girls even like Amy were not so unsophisticated as they appeared to be, and he felt that he was profoundly experienced in such questions, if in nothing else. Had not her pride been touched? and would she not be led, by his evident admiration for Miss Hargrove, to believe that he was mercurial and not to be depended upon? He had to admit to himself that some experiences in the past had tended to give him this reputation. "I was only a boy then," he muttered, with a stern compression of the lips. "I'll prove that I am a man now;" and having made this sublime resolution, he slept the sleep of the just.

All who have known the freshness, the elasticity, the mental and physical vigor, with which one springs from a bed of boughs, will envy the camping party's awakening on the following morning. Webb resolved to remain and watch the drift of events, for he was growing almost feverish in his impatience for more definite proof that his hopes were not groundless. But he was doomed to disappointment and increasing doubt. Burt began to show himself a skilful diplomatist. He felt that, perhaps, he had checked himself barely in time to retrieve his fortunes and character with Amy, but he was too adroit to permit any marked change to appear in his manner and action. He said to himself that he cordially liked and admired Miss Hargrove, but he believed that she had enjoyed not a few flirtations, and was not averse to the addition of another to the list. Even his self-complacency had not led him to think that she regarded him in any other light than that of a very agreeable and useful summer friend. He had seen enough of society to be aware that such temporary friendships often border closely on the sentimental, and yet with no apparent trace remaining in after-years. To Amy, however, such affairs would not appear in the same light as they might to Miss Hargrove, and he felt that he had gone far enough. But not for the world would he be guilty of gaucherie, of neglecting Miss Hargrove for ostentatious devotion to Amy. Indeed, he was more pronounced in his admiration than ever, but in many little unobtrusive ways he tried to prove to Amy that she had his deeper thoughts. She, however, was not at this time disposed to dwell upon the subject. His manner merely tended to confirm the view that he, like herself, regarded Miss Hargrove as a charming addition to their circle, and proposed that she should enjoy herself thoroughly while with them. Amy also reproached herself a little that she had doubted him so easily, and felt that he was giving renewed proof of his good sense. He could be true to her, and yet be most agreeable to her friend, and her former acquiescence in the future of his planning remained undisturbed. Webb was more like the brother she wished him to be than he had been for a long time. The little flowerbed was an abiding reassurance, and so the present contained all that she desired.

This was not true of either Webb or Miss Hargrove. The former, however, did not lose heart. He thought he knew Burt too well to give up hope yet. The latter, with all her experience, was puzzled. She speedily became conscious of the absence of a certain warmth and genuineness in Bart's manner and words. The thermometer is not so sensitive to heat and cold as the intuition of a girl like Miss Hargrove to the mental attitude of an admirer, but no one could better hide her thoughts and feelings than she when once upon her guard.