Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter L. Impulses of the Heart
The fall season brought increased and varied labors on the farm and in the garden. As soon as the ground was dry after the tremendous storm, and its ravages had been repaired as far as possible, the plows were busy preparing for winter grain, turnips were thinned out, winter cabbages and cauliflowers cultivated, and the succulent and now rapidly growing celery earthed up. The fields of corn were watched, and as fast as the kernels within the husks--now becoming golden-hued--were glazed, the stalks were cut and tied in compact shocks. The sooner maize is cut, after it has sufficiently matured, the better, for the leaves make more nutritious fodder if cured or dried while still full of sap. From some fields the shocks were wholly removed, that the land might be plowed and seeded with grain and grass. Buckwheat, used merely as a green and scavenger crop, was plowed under as it came into blossom, and that which was sown to mature was cut in the early morning, while the dew was still upon it, for in the heat of the day the grain shells easily, and is lost. After drying for a few days in compact little heaps it was ready for the threshing-machine. Then the black, angular kernels--promises of many winter breakfasts--were spread to dry on the barn floor, for if thrown into heaps or bins at this early stage, they heat badly.
The Cliffords had long since learned that the large late peaches, that mature after the Southern crop is out of the market, are the most profitable, and almost every day Abram took to the landing a load of baskets full of downy beauties. An orange grove, with Its deep green foliage and golden fruit, is beautiful indeed, but an orchard laden with Crawford's Late, in their best development, can well sustain comparison. Sharing the honors and attention given to the peaches were the Bartlett and other early pears. These latter fruits were treated in much the same way as the former. The trees were picked over every few days, and the largest and ripest specimens taken, their maturity being indicated by the readiness of the stem to part from the spray when the pear is lifted. The greener and imperfect fruit was left to develop, and the trees, relieved of much of their burden, were able to concentrate their forces on what was left. The earlier red grapes, including the Delaware, Brighton, and Agawam, not only furnished the table abundantly, but also a large surplus for market. Indeed, there was high and dainty feasting at the Cliffords' every day--fruit everywhere, hanging temptingly within reach, with its delicate bloom untouched, untarnished.
The storm and the seasonable rains that followed soon restored its fulness and beauty to Nature's withered face. The drought had brought to vegetation partial rest and extension of root growth, and now, with the abundance of moisture, there was almost a spring-like revival. The grass sprang up afresh, meadows and fields grew green, and annual weeds, from seeds that had matured in August, appeared by the million.
"I am glad to see them," Webb remarked. "Before they can mature any seed the frost will put an end to their career of mischief, and there will be so many seeds less to grow next spring."
"There'll be plenty left," Leonard replied.
The Cliffords, by their provident system of culture, had prepared for droughts as mariners do for storms, and hence they bad not suffered so greatly as others; but busy as they were kept by the autumnal bounty of Nature, and the rewards of their own industry, they found time for recreation, and thoughts far removed from the material questions of profit and loss. The drama of life went on, and feeling, conviction, and love matured like the ripening fruits, although not so openly. As soon as his duties permitted, Burt took a rather abrupt departure for a hunting expedition in the northern woods, and a day or two later Amy received a note from Miss Hargrove, saying that she had accepted an invitation to join a yachting party.
"Oh, Webb!" she exclaimed, "I wish you were not so awfully busy all the time. Here I am, thrown wholly on your tender mercies, and I am neither a crop nor a scientific subject."
He gave her little reason for complaint. The increasing coolness and exhilarating vitality of the air made not only labor agreeable, but out-door sports delightful, and he found time for an occasional gallop, drive, or ramble along roads and lanes lined with golden-rod and purple asters; and these recreations had no other drawback than the uncertainty and anxiety within his heart. The season left nothing to be desired, but the outer world, even in its perfection, is only an accompaniment of human life, which is often in sad discord with it.
Nature, however, is a harmony of many and varied strains, and the unhappy are always conscious of a deep minor key even on the brightest days. To Alf and Johnnie the fall brought unalloyed joy and promise; to those who were older, something akin to melancholy, which deepened with the autumn of their life; while to Mr. Alvord every breeze was a sigh, every rising wind a mournful requiem, and every trace of change a reminder that his spring and summer had passed forever, leaving only a harvest of bitter memories. Far different was the dreamy pensiveness with which Mr. and Mrs. Clifford looked back upon their vanished youth and maturity. At the same time they felt within themselves the beginnings of an immortal youth. Although it was late autumn with them, not memory, but hope, was in the ascendant.
During damp or chilly days, and on the evenings of late September, the fire burned cheerily on the hearth of their Franklin stove. The old gentleman had a curious fancy in regard to his fire-wood. He did not want the straight, shapely sticks from their mountain land, but gnarled and crooked billets, cut from trees about the place that had required pruning and removal.
"I have associations with such fuel" he said, "and can usually recall the trees--many of which I planted--from which it came; and as I watch it burn and turn into coals, I see pictures of what happened many years ago."
One evening he threw on the fire a worm-eaten billet, the sound part of which was as red as mahogany; then drew Amy to him and said, "I once sat with your father under the apple-tree of which that piece of wood was a part, and I can see him now as he then looked."
She sat down beside him, and said, softly, "Please tell me how he looked."
In simple words the old man portrayed the autumn day, the fruit as golden as the sunshine, a strong, hopeful man, who had passed away in a far-distant land, but who was still a living presence to both. Amy looked at the picture in the flickering blaze until her eyes were blinded with tears. But such drops fall on the heart like rain and dew, producing richer and more beautiful life.
The pomp and glory of October were ushered in by days of such surpassing balminess and brightness that it was felt to be a sin to remain indoors. The grapes had attained their deepest purple, and the apples in the orchard vied with the brilliant and varied hues of the fast-turning foliage. The nights were soft, warm, and resonant with the unchecked piping of insects. From every tree and shrub the katydids contradicted one another with increasing emphasis, as if conscious that the time was at hand when the last word must be spoken. The stars glimmered near through a delicate haze, and in the western sky the pale crescent of the moon was so inclined that the old Indian might have hung upon it his powder-horn.
On such an evening the young people from the Cliffords' had gathered on Mr. Hargrove's piazza, and Amy and Gertrude were looking at the new moon with silver in their pockets, each making her silent wish. What were those wishes? Amy had to think before deciding what she wanted most, but not Miss Hargrove. Her face has grown thinner and paler during the last few weeks; there is unwonted brilliancy in her eyes to-night, but her expression is resolute. Her wish and her hope were at variance. Times of weakness, if such they could be called, would come, but they should not appear in Burt's or Amy's presence.
The former had just returned, apparently gayer than ever. His face was bronzed from his out-door life in the Adirondacks. Its expression was also resolute, and his eyes turned oftenest toward Amy, with a determined loyalty. As has been said, not long after the experiences following the storm, he had yielded to his impulse to go away and recover his poise. He felt that if he continued to see Miss Hargrove frequently he might reveal a weakness which would lead not only Amy to despise him, but also Miss Hargrove, should she become aware of the past. As he often took such outings, the family, with the exception of Webb and Amy, thought nothing of it. His brother and the girl he had wooed so passionately now understood him well enough to surmise his motive, and Amy had thought, "It will do him good to go away and think awhile, but it will make no difference; this new affair must run its course also." And yet her heart began to relent toward him after a sisterly fashion. She wondered if Miss Hargrove did regard him as other than a friend to whom she owed very much. If so, she smiled at the idea of standing in the way of their mutual happiness. She had endured his absence with exceeding tranquillity, for Webb had given her far more of his society, and she, Alf, and Johnnie often went out and aided him in gathering the fruit. For some reason these light tasks had been more replete with quiet enjoyment than deliberate pleasure-seeking.
Burt had been at pains to take, in Amy's presence, a most genial and friendly leave of Miss Hargrove, but there was no trace of the lover in his manner. His smiles and cordial words had chilled her heart, and had strengthened the fear that in some way he was bound to Amy. She knew that she had fascinated and perhaps touched him deeply, but imagined she saw indications of an allegiance that gave little hope for the future. If he felt as she did, and were free, he would not have gone away; and when he had gone, time grew leaden-footed. Absence is the touchstone, and by its test she knew that her father was right, and that she, to whom so much love had been given unrequited, had bestowed hers apparently in like manner. Then had come an invitation to join a yachting party to Fortress Monroe, and she had eagerly accepted. With the half-reckless impulse of pride, she had resolved to throw away the dream that had promised so much, and yet had ended in such bitter and barren reality. She would forget it all in one brief whirl of gayety; and she had been the brilliant life of the party. But how often her laugh had ended in a stifled sigh! How often her heart told her, "This is not happiness, and never can be again!" Her brief experience of what is deep and genuine in life taught her that she had outgrown certain pleasures of the past, as a child outgrows its toys, and she had returned thoroughly convinced that her remedy was not in the dissipations of society.
The evening after her return Burt, with Webb and Amy, had come to call, and as she looked upon him again she asked herself, in sadness, "Is there any remedy?" She was not one to give her heart in a half-way manner.
It seemed to her that he had been absent for years, and had grown indefinitely remote. Never before had she gained the impression so strongly that he was in some way bound to Amy, and would abide by his choice. If this were true, she felt that the sooner she left the vicinity the better, and even while she chatted lightly and genially she was planning to induce her father to return to the city at an early date. Before parting, Amy spoke of her pleasure at the return of her friend, who, she said, had been greatly missed, adding: "Now we shall make up for lost time. The roads are in fine condition for horseback exercise, nutting expeditions will soon be in order, and we have a bee-hunt on the programme."
"I congratulate you on your prospects," said Miss Hargrove. "I wish I could share in all your fun, but fear I shall soon return to the city."
Burt felt a sudden chill at these words, and a shadow from them fell across his face. Webb saw their effect, and he at once entered on a rather new role for him. "Then we must make the most of the time before you go," he began. "I propose we take advantage of this weather and drive over to West Point, and lunch at Fort Putnam."
"Why, Webb, what a burst of genius!" Amy exclaimed. "Nothing could be more delightful. Let us go to-morrow for we can't count on such weather long."
Miss Hargrove hesitated. The temptation was indeed strong, but she felt it would not be wise to yield, and began, hesitatingly, "I fear my engagements--" At this moment she caught a glimpse of Burt's face in a mirror, and saw the look of disappointment which he could not disguise. "If I return to the city soon," she resumed, "I ought to be at my preparations."
"Why, Gertrude," said Amy, "I almost feel as if you did not wish to go. Can't you spare one day? I thought you were to remain in the country till November. I have been planning so much that we could do together!"
"Surely, Miss Hargrove," added Burt, with a slight tremor in his voice, "you cannot nip Webb's genius in the very bud. Such an expedition as he proposes is an inspiration."
"But you can do without me," she replied, smiling on him bewilderingly.
It was a light arrow, but its aim was true. Never before had he so felt the power of her beauty, the almost irresistible spell of her fascination. While her lips were smiling, there was an expression in her dark eyes that made her words, so simple and natural in themselves, a searching question, and he could not forbear saying, earnestly, "We should all enjoy the excursion far more if you went with us."
"Truly, Miss Hargrove," said Webb, "I shall be quenched if you decline, and feel that I have none of the talent for which I was beginning to gain a little credit."
"I cannot resist such an appeal as that, Mr. Clifford," she said, laughingly.
"This is perfectly splendid!" cried Amy. "I anticipate a marvellous day to-morrow. Bring Fred also, and let us all vie with each other in encouraging Webb."
"Has that quiet Webb any scheme in his mind?" Miss Hargrove thought, after they had gone. "I wish that tomorrow might indeed be 'a marvellous day' for us all."
"Can I do without her?" was poor Burt's query. An affirmative answer was slow in coming, though he thought long and late.