Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter LI. Webb's Fateful Expedition
Mr. Hargrove had welcomed the invitation that took his daughter among some of her former companions, hoping that a return to brilliant fashionable life would prove to her that she could not give it up. It was his wish that she should marry a wealthy man of the city. His wife did not dream of any other future for her handsome child, and she looked forward with no little complacency to the ordering of a new and elegant establishment.
At the dinner-table Gertrude had given a vivacious account of her yachting experience, and all had appeared to promise well; but when she went to the library to kiss her father good-night, he looked at her inquiringly, and said, "You enjoyed every moment, I suppose?"
She shook her head sadly, and, after a moment, said: "I fear I've grown rather tired of that kind of thing. We made much effort to enjoy ourselves. Is there not a happiness which comes without so much effort?"
"I'm sorry," he said, simply.
"Perhaps you need not be. Suppose I find more pleasure in staying with you than in rushing around?"
"That would not last. That is contrary to nature."
"I think it would be less contrary to my nature than forced gayety among people I care nothing about."
He smiled at her fondly, but admitted to himself that absence had confirmed the impressions of the summer, instead of dissipating them, and that if Burt became her suitor he would be accepted.
When she looked out on the morning of the excursion to Fort Putnam it was so radiant with light and beauty that hope sprang up within her heart. Disappointment that might last through life could not come on a day like this. Silvery mists ascended from the river down among the Highlands. The lawn and many of the fields were as green as they had been in June, and on every side were trees like immense bouquets, so rich and varied was their coloring. There was a dewy freshness in the air, a genial warmth in the sunshine, a spring-like blue in the sky; and in these was no suggestion that the November of her life was near. "And yet it may be," she thought. "I must soon face my fate, and I must be true to Amy."
Mrs. Hargrove regarded with discontent the prospect of another long mountain expedition; but Fred, her idol, was wild for it, and in a day or two he must return to school in the city, from which, at his earnest plea, he had been absent too long already; so she smiled her farewell at last upon the fateful excursion.
He, with his sister, was soon at the Cliffords', and found the rockaway--the strong old carryall with which Gertrude already had tender associations--in readiness. Maggie had agreed to chaperon the party, little Ned having been easily bribed to remain with his father.
Miss Hargrove had looked wistfully at the Clifford mansion as she drew near to it. Never had it appeared to her more home-like, with its embowering trees and laden orchards. The bright hues of the foliage suggested the hopes that centred there: the ocean, as she had seen it--cold and gray under a clouded sky--was emblematic of life with no fulfilment of those hopes. And when Mr. Clifford met her at the door, and took her in to see the invalid, who greeted her almost as affectionately as she would have welcomed Amy after absence, Miss Hargrove knew in the depths of her heart how easily she could be at home there.
Never did a pleasure-party start under brighter auspices. Even Mrs. Clifford came out, on her husband's arm, to wave them a farewell.
The young men had their alpenstocks, for it was their intention to walk up the steep places. Webb was about to take Alf and Johnnie on the front seat with him, when Amy exclaimed: "I'm going to drive, Mr. Webb. Johnnie can sit between us, and keep me company when you are walking. You needn't think that because you are the brilliant author of this expedition you are going to have everything your own way."
Indeed, not a little guile lurked behind her laughing eyes, which ever kept Webb in perplexity--though he looked into them so often--as to whether they were blue or gray. Miss Hargrove demurely took her seat with Maggie, and Burt had the two boys with him. Fred had brought his gun, and was vigilant for game now that the "law was up."
They soon reached the foot of the mountain, and there was a general unloading, for at first every one wished to walk. Maggie good-naturedly climbed around to the front seat and took the reins, remarking that she would soon have plenty of company again.
Burt had not recognized Amy's tactics, nor did he at once second them, even unconsciously. His long ruminations had led to the only possible conclusion--the words he had spoken must be made good. Pride and honor permitted no other course. Therefore he proposed to-day to be ubiquitous, and as gallant to Maggie as to the younger ladies. When Miss Hargrove returned to the city he would quietly prove his loyalty. Never before had he appeared in such spirits; never so inexorably resolute. He recalled Amy's incredulous laugh at his protestation of constancy, and felt that he could never look her in the face if he faltered. It was known that Miss Hargrove had received much attention, and her interest in him would be likely to disappear at once should she learn of his declaration of undying devotion to another but a few months before. He anathematized himself, but determined that his weakness should remain unknown. It was evident that Amy had been a little jealous, but probably that she did not yet care enough for him to be very sensitive on the subject. This made no difference, however. He had pledged himself to wait until she did care. Therefore he sedulously maintained his mask. Miss Hargrove should be made to believe that she had added much to the pleasure of the excursion, and there he would stop. And Burt on his mettle was no bungler. The test would come in his staying powers.
Webb, however, was quietly serene. He had not watched and thought so long in vain. He had seen Burt's expression the evening before, and knew that a wakeful night had followed. His own feeling had taught him a clairvoyance which enabled him to divine not a little of what was passing in his brother's mind and that of Miss Hargrove. Amy troubled him more than they. Her frank, sisterly affection was not love, and might never become love.
One of the objects of the expedition was to obtain an abundant supply of autumn leaves and ferns for pressing. "I intend to make the old house look like a bower this winter," Amy remarked.
"That would be impossible with our city home," Miss Hargrove said, "and mamma would not hear of such an attempt. But I can do as I please in my own room, and shall gather my country souvenirs to-day."
The idea of decorating her apartment with feathery ferns and bright-hued leaves took a strong hold upon her fancy, for she hoped that Burt would aid her in making the collection. Nor was she disappointed, for Amy said:
"Burt, I have gathered and pressed nearly all the ferns I need already. You know the shady nooks where the most delicate ones grow, and you can help Gertrude make as good a collection as mine. You'll help too, won't you, Webb?" added the innocent little schemer, who saw that Burt was looking at her rather keenly.
So they wound up the mountain, making long stops here and there to gather sylvan trophies and to note the fine views. Amy's manner was so cordial and natural that Burt's suspicions had been allayed, and the young fellow, who could do nothing by halves, was soon deeply absorbed in making a superb collection for Miss Hargrove, and she felt that, whatever happened, she was being enriched by everything he obtained for her. Amy had brought a great many newspapers folded together so that leaves could be placed between the pages, and Webb soon noted that his offerings were kept separate from those of Burt. The latter tried to be impartial in his labors in behalf of the two girls, bringing Amy bright-hued leaves instead of ferns, but did not wholly succeed, and sometimes he found himself alone with Miss Hargrove as they pursued their search a short distance on some diverging and shaded path. On one of these occasions he said, "I like to think how beautiful you will make your room this winter."
"I like to think of it too," she replied. "I shall feel that I have a part of my pleasant summer always present."
"Has it been a pleasant summer?"
"Yes, the pleasantest I ever enjoyed."
"I should think you would find it exceedingly dull after such brilliant experiences as that of your yachting excursion."
"Do you find to-day exceedingly dull?"
"But I am used to the quiet country, and a day like this is the exception."
"I do not imagine you have ever lived a tame life."
"Isn't that about the same as calling me wild?"
"There's no harm in beginning a little in that way. Time sobers one fast enough."
"You are so favored that I can scarcely imagine life bringing sobering experiences to you very soon."
"Indeed? Have you forgotten what occurred on these very mountains, at no great distance? I assure you I never forget it;" and her eyes were eloquent as she turned them upon him.
"One does not forget the most fortunate event of one's life. Since you were to meet that danger, I would not have missed being near for the world. I had even a narrower escape, as you know, on this mountain. The spot where Webb found me is scarcely more than a mile away."
She looked at him very wistfully, and her face grew pale, but she only said, "I don't think either of us can forget the Highlands."
"I shall never forget that little path," he said, in a low tone, and he looked back at it lingeringly as they came out into the road and approached the rest of the party.
"Have you lost anything, Burt?" cried Amy, laughing.
"No, but I've found something. See this superb bunch of maiden hair. That spot should be marked for future supplies. Miss Hargrove will share with you, for you can't have anything so fine as this."
"Yes, indeed I have, and I shall call you and Webb to account if you do not to-day make Gertrude fare as well."
Both Miss Hargrove and Burt were bewildered. There was lurking mischief in Amy's eyes when she first spoke, and yet she used her influence to keep Burt in her friend's society. Her spirits seemed too exuberant to be natural, and Miss Hargrove, who was an adept at hiding her feelings under a mask of gayety, surmised that Amy's feminine instincts had taught her to employ the same tactics. Conscious of their secret, Miss Hargrove and Burt both thought, "Perhaps it is her purpose to throw us together as far as possible, and learn the truth."
Amy had a kinder purpose than they imagined. She wanted no more of Burt's forced allegiance, and was much too good-natured to permit mere pique to cause unhappiness to others. "Let Gertrude win him if she cares for him," was her thought, "and if she can't hold him his case is hopeless." She could not resist the temptation, however, to tease Burt a little.
But he gave her slight chance for the next few hours. Her mirthful question and the glance accompanying it had put him on his guard again, and he at once became the gay cavalier-general he had resolved on being throughout the day.
They made a long pause to enjoy the view looking out upon Constitution Island, West Point, the southern mountains, and the winding river, dotted here and there with sails, and with steamers, seemingly held motionless by their widely separated train of canal boats.
"What mountain is this that we are now to descend?" Miss Hargrove asked.
"Cro' Nest," Burt replied. "It's the first high mountain that abuts on the river above West Point, you will remember."
"Oh, yes, I remember. I have a song relating to it, and will give you a verse;" and she sang:
"'Where Hudson's waves o'er silvery sands Wind through the hills afar, And Cro' Nest like a monarch stands, Crowned with a single star.'"
After a round of applause had subsided, Burt, whose eyes had been more demonstrative than his hands, said, "That's by Morris. We can see from Fort Putnam his old home under Mount Taurus."
"I know. He is the poet who entreated the woodman to 'spare that tree.'"
"Which the woodman will never do," Webb remarked, "unless compelled by law; nor even then, I fear."
"Oh, Webb!" cried Amy, "with what a thump you drop into prose!"
"I also advise an immediate descent of the mountain if we are to have any time at Fort Putnam," he added. "I'll walk on."
They were soon winding down the S's by which the road overcame the steep declivity. On reaching a plateau, before the final descent, they came across a wretched hovel, gray and storm-beaten, with scarcely strength to stand. Rags took the place of broken glass in the windows. A pig was rooting near the doorstep, on which stood a slatternly woman, regarding the party with dull curiosity.
"Talk about the elevating influence of mountain scenery," said Miss Hargrove; "there's a commentary on the theory."
"The theory's correct," persisted Burt. "Their height above tide-water and the amount of bad whiskey they consume keep our mountaineers elevated most of the time."
"Does Lumley live in a place like that?" Miss Hargrove asked.
"He did--in a worse one, if possible," Webb replied for Amy, who hesitated. "But you should see how it is changed. He now has a good vegetable garden fenced in, a rustic porch covered with American ivy, and--would you believe it?--an actual flower-bed. Within the hut there are two pictures on the wall, and the baby creeps on a carpeted floor. Lumley says Amy is making a man of him."
"You forget to mention how much you have helped me," Amy added.
"Come, let us break up this mutual admiration society," said Burt. "I'm ready for lunch already, and Fort Putnam is miles away."
The road from the foot of the mountain descends gradually through wild, beautiful scenery to West Point. Cro' Nest rises abruptly on the left, and there is a wooded valley on the right, with mountains beyond. The trees overhung the road with a canopy of gold, emerald, and crimson foliage, and the sunlight came to the excursionists as through stained-glass windows. Taking a side street at the back of the military post, they soon reached a point over which frowned the ruins of the fort, and here they left their horses. After a brief climb to the northward they entered on an old road, grass-grown and leaf-carpeted, and soon passed through the gaping sally-port, on either side of which cone-like cedars stood as sentinels. Within the fort Nature had been busy for a century softening and obliterating the work of man. Cedar trees--some of which were dying from age--grew everywhere, even on the crumbling ramparts. Except where ledges of the native rock cropped out, the ground was covered with a thick sward. Near the centre of the inclosure is the rocky basin. In it bubbles the spring at which the more temperate of the ancient garrison may have softened the asperities of their New England rum.
The most extensive ruins are seen by turning sharply to the left from the sally-port. Here, yawning like caverns, their entrances partially choked by the debris, are six casemates, or vaults. They were built of brick, covered with stone, and are eighteen feet deep and twelve wide, with an arched roof twelve feet high. On the level rampart above them were long, withered grass, the wild dwarf-rose, and waving golden-rod. The outer walls, massy and crumbling, or half torn away by vandal hands, were built in angles, according to the engineering science of the Revolution, except on the west, where the high ramparts surmount a mural perpendicular precipice fifty feet in height. Inland, across the valley, the mountains were seen, rising like rounded billows in every direction, while from the north, east, and south the windings of the Hudson were visible for fifteen miles.
All but Amy had visited the spot before, and Burt explored the place with her while the rest prepared for lunch. She had asked Gertrude to accompany them, but the latter had sought refuge with Maggie, and at her side she proposed to remain. She scarcely dared trust herself with Burt, and as the day advanced he certainly permitted his eyes to express an interest that promised ill for his inexorable purpose of constancy.
It had become clear to Miss Hargrove that he was restrained by something that had occurred between him and Amy, and both her pride and her sense of truth to her friend decided her to withdraw as far as possible from his society, and to return to the city.
She and Burt vied with each other in gayety at lunch. When it was over they all grouped themselves in the shade of a clump of cedars, and looked away upon the wide prospect, Webb pointing out objects of past and present interest. Alf and Fred speedily grew restless and started off with the gun, Johnnie's head sank into her mother's lap, Miss Hargrove and Burt grew quiet and preoccupied, their eyes looking off into vacancy. Webb was saying, "By one who had imagination how much more could be seen from this point than meets the eye! There, on the plain below us, would rise the magnificent rustic colonnade two hundred and twenty feet long and eighty feet wide, beneath which Washington gave the great banquet in honor of the birth of the Dauphin of France, and on the evening of the same day these hills blazed with musketry and rolled back the thunder of cannon with which the festivities of the evening were begun. Think of the 'Father of his Country' being there in flesh and blood, just as we are here! In the language of an old military journal, 'He carried down a dance of twenty couple on the green grass, with a graceful and dignified air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner.' In almost a direct line across the river you can see the Beverly Robinson house, from which Arnold carried on his correspondence with Andre. You can look into the window of the room to which, after hearing of the capture of Andre, he hastened from the breakfast-table. To this upper room he immediately summoned his wife, who had been the beautiful Margaret Shippen, you remember, and told her of his awful peril, then rushed away, leaving the poor, terror-stricken woman unconscious on the floor. Would you not like to look through the glass at the house where the tragedy occurred, Miss Hargrove?"
At the sound of her name the young girl started visibly, and Webb saw that there were tears in her eyes; but she complied without a word, and he so directed the glass that it covered the historic mansion.
"How full of sensibility she is!" thought innocent Webb, taking her quickly suppressed emotion as a tribute to his moving reminiscences.
"Oh, Webb, have done with your lugubrious ancient history!" cried Burt, springing up.
"It's time we were getting ready for a homeward move," said Maggie. "I'll go and pack the things."
"And I'll help you," added Miss Hargrove, hastily following her.
"Let me look at the house, too," said Amy, taking the glass; then added, after a moment: "Poor Margaret Arnold! It was indeed a tragedy, as you said, Webb--a sadder one than these old military preparations can suggest. In all his career of war and treachery Arnold never inflicted a more cruel wound."
"How much feeling Miss Hargrove showed!" Webb remarked, musingly.
"Yes," said Amy, quietly, "she was evidently feeling deeply." Her thought was, "I don't believe she heard a word that Webb said." Then, seeing that Burt was helping Maggie and Miss Hargrove, she added, "Please point out to me some other interesting places."
Webb, well pleased, talked on to a listener who did not give him her whole attention. She could not forget Gertrude's paleness, and her alternations from extreme gayety to a look of such deep sadness as to awaken not a little sympathetic curiosity. Amy loved her friend truly, and it did not seem strange to her that Miss Hargrove was deeply interested in Burt, since they had been much thrown together, and since she probably owed her life to him. Amy's resentment toward Burt had passed away. She had found that her pride, merely, and not her heart, was wounded by his new passion, and she already began to feel that she never could have any such regard for him as her friend was possibly cherishing. Therefore it was, perhaps, not unnatural that her tranquil regard should prove unsatisfying to Burt in contrast with the passion of which Miss Hargrove was capable. She had seen his vain efforts to remain loyal, and had smiled at them, proposing to let matters take their course, and to give little aid in extricating him from his dilemma. But, if she had interpreted her friend's face aright, she could no longer stand aloof, an amused and slightly satirical spectator. If Burt deserved some punishment, Gertrude did not, and she was inclined to guess the cause of the latter's haste to return to the city.
It may thus be seen that Amy was fast losing her unsophisticated girlhood. While Burt's passionate words had awakened no corresponding feeling, they had taught her that she was no longer a child, since she could inspire such words. Her intimacy with Miss Hargrove, and the latter's early confidences, had enlarged her ideas on some subjects. As the bud of a flower passes slowly through long and apparently slow stages of immaturity and at last suddenly opens to the light, so she had reached that age when a little experience suggests a great deal, and the influences around her tended to develop certain thoughts very rapidly. She saw that her friend had not been brought up in English seclusion. Admirers by the score had flocked around her, and, as she had often said, she proposed to marry for love. "I have the name of being cold," she once told Amy, "but I know I can love as can few others, and I shall know it well when I do love, too." The truth was daily growing clearer to Amy that under our vivid American skies the grand passion is not a fiction of romance or a quiet arrangement between the parties concerned.
Miss Hargrove had not misjudged herself. Her tropical nature, when once kindled, burned with no feeble, wavering flame. She had passed the point of criticism of Burt. She loved him, and to her fond eyes he seemed more worthy of her love than any man she had ever before known. But she had not passed beyond her sense of truth and duty, and the feeling came to her that she must go away at once and engage in that most pathetic of all struggles that fall to woman's lot. As the conviction grew clear on this bright October day, she felt that her heart was bleeding internally. Tears would come into her eyes at the dreary prospect. Her former brilliant society life now looked as does an opera-house in the morning, when the gilding and tinsel that flashed and sparkled the evening before are seen to be dull and tarnished. Burt had appeared to especial advantage in his mountain home. He excelled in all manly sports. His tall, fine figure and unconscious, easy manner were as full of grace as deficient in conventionality, and she thought with disgust of many of her former admirers, who were nothing if not stylish after the arbitrary mode of the hour. At the same time he had proved that he could be at home in a drawing-room on the simple ground of good-breeding, and not because he had been run through fashion's latest mold. The grand scenery around her suggested the manhood that kindled her imagination--a manhood strong, fearless, and not degenerated from that sturdy age which had made these scenes historic.
By the time they were ready to start homeward the southern side of Cro' Nest was in deep blue shadow. They bowled along rapidly till they came to the steep ascent, and then the boys and the young men sprang out. "Would you like to walk, Gertrude?" Amy asked, for she was bent on throwing her friend and Burt together during the witching twilight that was coming on apace.
"I fear I am too tired, unless the load is heavy," she replied.
"Oh, no, indeed," said Webb. "It does not take long to reach the top of the mountain on this side, and then it's chiefly down hill the rest of the way."
Amy, who had been sitting with Webb and Johnnie as before, said to Miss Hargrove, "Won't you step across the seats and keep me company?"
She complied, but not willingly. She was so utterly unhappy that she wished to be left to herself as far as possible. In her realization of a loss that seemed immeasurable, she was a little resentful toward Amy, feeling that she had been more frank and confidential than her friend. If Amy had claims on Burt, why had she not spoken of them? why had she permitted her for whom she professed such strong friendship to drift almost wholly unwarned upon so sad a fate? and why was she now clearly trying to bring together Burt and the one to whom even he felt that he had no right to speak in more than a friendly manner? While she was making such immense sacrifices to be true, she felt that Amy was maintaining an unfair reticence, if not actually beguiling herself and Burt into a display of weakness for which they would be condemned--or, at least, he would be, and love identifies itself with its object. These thoughts, having once been admitted, grew upon her mind rapidly, for it is hard to suffer through another and maintain a gentle charity. Therefore she was silent when she took her seat by Amy, and when the latter gave her a look that was like a caress, she did not return it.
"You are tired, Gertrude," Amy began gently. "Indeed, you look ill. You must stay with me to-night, and I'll watch over you like Sairy Gamp."
So far from responding to Amy's playful and friendly words, Miss Hargrove said, hastily,
"Oh, no, I had better go right on home. I don't feel very well, and shall be better at home; and I must begin to get ready to-morrow for my return to the city."
Amy would not be repulsed, but, putting her arm around her friend, she looked into her eyes, and asked:
"Why are you so eager to return to New York? Are you tiring of your country friends? You certainly told me that you expected to stay till November."
"Fred must go back to school to-morrow," said Gertrude, in a constrained voice, "and I do not think it is well to leave him alone in the city house."
"You are withdrawing your confidence from me," said Amy, sadly.
"Have you ever truly given me yours?" was the low, impetuous response. "No. If you had, I should not be the unhappy girl I am-to-night. Well, since you wish to know the whole truth you shall. You said you could trust me implicitly, and I promised to deserve your trust. If you had said to me that Burt was bound to you when I told you that I was heart-whole and fancy-free, I should have been on my guard. Is it natural that I should be indifferent to the man who risked his life to save mine? Why have you left me so long in his society without a hint of warning? But I shall keep my word. I shall not try to snatch happiness from another."
Johnnie's tuneful little voice was piping a song, and the rumble of the wheels over a stony road prevented Maggie, on the last seat, from hearing anything.
The clasp of Amy's arm tightened. "Now you shall stay with me to-night," she said. "I cannot explain here and now. See, Burt has turned, and is coming toward us. I pledge you my word he can never be to me more than a brother. I do not love him except as a brother, and never have, and you can snatch no happiness from me, except by treating me with distrust and going away."
"Oh, Amy," began Miss Hargrove, in tones and with a look that gave evidence of the chaotic bewilderment of her mind.
"Hush! We are not very lonely, thank you, Mr. Burt. You look, as far as I can see you through the dusk, as if you were commiserating us as poor forlorn creatures, but we have some resources within ourselves."
"The dusk is, indeed, misleading. We are the forlorn creatures who have no resources. Won't you please take us in?"
"Take you in! What do you take us for? I assure you we are very simple, honest people."
"In that case I shall have no fears, but clamber in at once. I feel as if I had been on a twenty-mile tramp."
"What an implied compliment to our exhilarating society!"
"Indeed there is--a very strong one. I've been so immensely exhilarated that, in the re-action, I'm almost faint."
"Maggie," cried Amy, "do take care of Burt; he's going to faint."
"He must wait till we come to the next brook, and then we'll put him in it."
"Webb," said Amy, looking over her shoulder at the young man, who was now following the carriage, "is there anything the matter with you, also?"
"Nothing more than usual."
"Oh, your trouble, whatever it may be, is chronic. Well, well, to think that we poor women may be the only survivors of this tremendous expedition."
"That would be most natural--the survival of the fittest, you know."
"I don't think your case serious. Science is uppermost in your mind, as ever. You ought to live a thousand years, Webb, to see the end of all your theories."
"I fear it wouldn't be the millennium for me, and that I should have more perplexing theories at its end than now."
"That's the way with men--they are never satisfied," remarked Miss Hargrove. "Mr. Clifford, this is your expedition, and it's getting so dark that I shall feel safer if you are driving."
"Oh, Gertrude, you have no confidence in me whatever. As if I would break your neck--or heart either!" Amy whispered in her friend's ear.
"You are a very mysterious little woman," was the reply, given in like manner, "and need hours of explanation." Then, to Webb: "Mr. Clifford, I've much more confidence in you than in Amy. Her talk is so giddy that I want a sober hand on the reins."
"To which Mr. Clifford do you refer?" asked Burt.
"Oh, are you reviving? I thought you had become unconscious."
"I'm not wholly past feeling."
"I want one to drive who can see his way, not feel it," was the laughing response.
Amy, too, was laughing silently, as she reined in the horses. "What are you two girls giggling about?" said Burt, becoming a little uncomfortable. "The idea of two such refined creatures giggling!"
"Well," exclaimed Webb, "what am I to do? I can't stand up between you and drive."
"Gertrude, you must clamber around and sustain Burt's drooping spirits."
"Indeed, Amy, you must know best how to do that," was the reply. "As guest, I claim a little of the society of the commander-in-chief. You had it coming over."
"I'll solve the vexed question," said Burt, much nettled, and leaping out.
"Now, Burt, the question isn't vexed, and don't you be," cried Amy, springing lightly over to the next seat. "There are Fred and Alf, too, with the gun. Let us all get home as soon as possible, for it's nearly time for supper already. Come, I shall feel much hurt if you don't keep me company."
Burt at once realized the absurdity of showing pique, although he felt that there was something in the air which he did not understand. He came back laughing, with much apparent good-nature, and saying, "I thought I'd soon bring one or the other of you to terms."
"Oh, what a diplomat you are!" said Amy, with difficulty restraining a new burst of merriment.
They soon reached the summit, and paused to give the horses a breathing. The young moon hung in the west, and its silver crescent symbolized to Miss Hargrove the hope that was growing in her heart. "Amy," she said, "don't you remember the song we arranged from 'The Culprit Fay'? We certainly should sing it here on this mountain. You take the solo."
Amy sang, in clear soprano:
"'The moon looks down on old Cro' Nest, She mellows the shades on his shaggy breast, And seems his huge gray form to throw In a silver cone on the wave below.'"
"Imagine the cone and wave, please," said Miss Hargrove; and then, in an alto rich with her heart's deep feeling, she sang with Amy:
"'Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite! Elf of eve! and starry fay! Ye that love the moon's soft light, Hither--hither wend your way; Twine ye in a jocund ring; Sing and trip it merrily, Hand to hand and wing to wing, Round the wild witch-hazel tree.'"
"If I were a goblin, I'd come, for music like that," cried Burt, as they started rapidly homeward.
"You are much too big to suggest a culprit fay," said Amy.
"But the description of the fay's charmer is your portrait," he replied, in a low tone:
"'But well I know her sinless mind Is pure as the angel forms above, Gentle and meek, and chaste and kind, Such as a spirit well might love.'"
"Oh, no; you are mistaken, I'm not meek in the least. Think of the punishment:
"'Tied to the hornet's shardy wings, Toss'd on the pricks of nettles' stings;'
you know the rest."
"What witchery has got into you to-night, Amy?"
"Do you think I'm a witch? Beware, then. Witches can read men's thoughts."
"That last song was so good that I, for one, would be glad of more," cried Webb.
"You men must help us, then," said Miss Hargrove, and in a moment the wild, dim forest was full of melody, the rocks and highlands sending back soft and unheeded echoes.
Burt, meantime, was occupied with disagreeable reflections. Perhaps both the girls at last understood him, and had been comparing notes, to his infinite disadvantage. His fickleness and the dilemma he was in may have become a jest between them. What could he do? Resentment, except against himself, was impossible. If Amy understood him, in what other way could she meet any approach to sentiment on his part than by a laughing scorn? If Miss Hargrove had divined the past, or had received a hint concerning it, why should she not shun his society? He was half-desperate, and yet felt that any show of embarrassment or anger would only make him appear more ridiculous. The longer he thought the more sure he was that the girls were beginning to guess his position, and that his only course was a polite indifference to both. But this policy promised to lead through a thorny path, and to what? In impotent rage at himself he ground his teeth during the pauses between the stanzas that he was compelled to sing. Such was the discord in his heart that he felt like uttering notes that would make "night hideous."
He was still more distraught when, on their return, they found Mr. Hargrove's carriage in waiting, and Amy, after a brief conference with her friend in her room, came down prepared to accompany Miss Hargrove home after supper. In spite of all his efforts at ease and gayety, his embarrassment and trouble were evident. He had observed Miss Hargrove's pallor and her effort to keep up at Fort Putnam, and could not banish the hope that she sympathized with him; but now the young girl was demurely radiant. Her color had come again, and the lustre of her beautiful eyes was dazzling. Yet they avoided his, and she had far more to say to Webb and the others than to him. Webb, too, was perplexed, for during the day Amy had been as bewildering to him as to Burt. But he was in no uncertainty as to his course, which was simply to wait. He, with Burt, saw the girls to the carriage, and the latter said good-night rather coldly and stiffly. Alf and Fred parted regretfully, with the promise of a correspondence which would be as remarkable for its orthography as for its natural history.