Chapter LII. Burt's Sore Dilemma
 

Mr. Hargrove greeted Amy cordially, but his questioning eyes rested oftenest on his daughter. Her expression and manner caused him to pace his study long and late that night. Mrs. Hargrove was very polite and a little stately. She felt that she existed on a plane above Amy.

The young girls soon pleaded fatigue, and retired. Once in the seclusion of their room they forgot all about their innocent fib, and there was not a trace of weariness in their manner. While Burt was staring at his dismal, tangled fortune, seeing no solution of his difficulties, a fateful conference relating to him was taking place. Amy did not look like a scorner, as with a sister's love and a woman's tact she pleaded his cause and palliated his course to one incapable of harsh judgment. But she felt that she must be honest with her friend, and that the whole truth would be best and safest. Her conclusion was: "No man who loved you, and whom you encouraged, would ever change. I know now that I never had a particle of such feeling as you have for Burt, and can see that I naturally chilled and quenched his regard for me."

Miss Hargrove's dark eyes flashed ominously as she spoke of Burt or of any man proving faithless after she had given encouragement.

"But it wasn't possible for me to give him any real encouragement," Amy persisted. "I've never felt as you do, and am not sure that I want to for a long time."

"How about Webb?" Miss Hargrove almost said, but she suppressed the words, feeling that since he had not revealed his secret she had no right to do so. Indeed, as she recalled how sedulously he had guarded it she was sure he would not thank her for suggesting it to Amy before she was ready for the knowledge. Impetuous as Miss Hargrove was at times, she had too fine a nature to be careless of the rights and feelings of others. Moreover, she felt that Webb had been her ally, whether consciously or not, and he should have his chance with all the help she could give him, but she was wise enough to know that obtrusion and premature aid are often disastrous.

The decision, after this portentous conference, was: "Mr. Bart must seek me, and seek very zealously. I know you well enough Amy, to be sure that you will give him no hints. It's bad enough to love a man before I've been asked to do so. What an utterly perverse and unmanageable thing one's heart is! I shall do no angling, however, nor shall I permit any."

"You may stand up straight, Gertrude," said Amy, laughing, "but don't lean over backward."

Burt entertained half a dozen wild and half-tragic projects before he fell asleep late that night, but finally, in utter self-disgust, settled down on the prosaic and not irrational one of helping through with the fall work on the farm, and then of seeking some business or profession to which he could give his whole mind. "As to ladies' society," he concluded, savagely, "I'll shun it hereafter till I'm grown up."

Burt always attained a certain kind of peace and the power to sleep after he had reached an irrevocable decision.

During the night the wind veered to the east, and a cold, dismal rain-storm set in. Dull and dreary indeed the day proved to Burt. He could not go out and put his resolution into force. He fumed about the house, restless, yet reticent. He would rather have fought dragons than keep company with his own thoughts in inaction. All the family supposed he missed Amy, except Webb, who hoped he missed some one else.

"Why don't you go over and bring Amy home, Burt?" his mother asked, at the dinner-table. "The house seems empty without her, and everybody is moping. Even father has fretted over his newspaper, and wished Amy was here."

"Why can't they print an edition of the paper for old men and dark days?" said the old gentleman, discontentedly.

"Well," remarked Leonard, leaning back in his chair, and looking humorously at Maggie, "I'm sorry for you young fellows, but I'm finding the day serene."

"Of course you are," snapped Burt. "With an armchair to doze in and a dinner to look forward to, what more do you wish? As for Webb, he can always get astride of some scientific hobby, no matter how bad the weather is."

"As for Burt, he can bring Amy home, and then every one will be satisfied," added his mother, smiling.

Thus a new phase of his trial presented itself to poor Burt. He must either face those two girls after their night's conclave, with all its possible revelations, or else awaken at once very embarrassing surmises. Why shouldn't he go for Amy? all would ask. "Well, why shouldn't I?" he thought. "I may as well face it out." And in a mood of mingled recklessness and fear he drove through the storm. When his name was announced the girls smiled significantly, but went down looking as unconscious as if they had not spoken of him in six months, and Burt could not have been more suave, non-committal, and impartially polite if these ladies had been as remote from his thoughts as one of Webb's theories. At the same time he intimated that he would be ready to return when Amy was.

At parting the friends gave each other a little look of dismay, and he caught it from the same telltale mirror that persisted in taking a part in this drama.

"Aha!" though the young fellow, "so they have been exchanging confidences, and my manner is disconcerting--not what was expected. If I have become a jest between them it shall be a short-lived one. Miss Hargrove, with all her city experience, shall find that I'm not so young and verdant but that I can take a hand in this game also. As for Amy, I now know she never cared for me, and I don't believe she ever would;" and so he went away with laughing repartee, and did not see the look of deep disappointment with which he was followed.

Amy was perplexed and troubled. Her innocent schemes might not be so easily accomplished if Burt would be wrong-headed. She was aware of the dash of recklessness in his character, and feared that under the impulse of pride he might spoil everything, or, at least, cause much needless delay.

With the fatality of blundering which usually attends upon such occasions, he did threaten to fulfil her fears, and so successfully that Amy was in anxiety, and Miss Hargrove grew as pale as she was resolute not to make the least advance, while poor Webb felt that his suspense never would end. Burt treated Amy in an easy, fraternal manner. He engaged actively in the task of gathering and preparing for market the large crop of apples, and he openly broached the subject of going into a business of some kind away from home, where, he declared, with a special meaning for Amy, he was not needed, adding: "It's time I was earning my salt and settling down to something for life. Webb and Len can take care of all the land, and I don't believe I was cut out for a farmer."

He not only troubled Amy exceedingly, but he perplexed all the family, for it seemed that he was decidedly taking a new departure. One evening, a day or two after he had introduced the project of going elsewhere, his father, to Amy's dismay, suggested that he should go to the far West and look after a large tract of land which the old gentleman had bought some years before. It was said that a railroad was to be built through it, and, if so, the value of the property would be greatly enhanced, and steps should be taken to get part of it into the market. Burt took hold of the scheme with eagerness, and was for going as soon as possible. Looking to note the effect of his words upon Amy, he saw that her expression was not only reproachful, but almost severe. Leonard heartily approved of the plan. Webb was silent, and in deep despondency, feeling that if Bart went now nothing would be settled. He saw Amy's aversion to the project also, and misinterpreted it.

She was compelled to admit that the prospects were growing very dark. Burt might soon depart for an indefinite absence, and Miss Hargrove return to the city. Amy, who had looked upon the mutations in her own prospects so quietly, was almost feverishly eager to aid her friend. She feared she had blundered on the mountain ride. Burt's pride had been wounded, and he had received the impression that his April-like moods had been discussed satirically. It was certain that he had been very deeply interested in Gertrude, and that he was throwing away not only his happiness, but also hers; and Amy felt herself in some degree to blame. Therefore she was bent upon ending the senseless misunderstanding, but found insurmountable embarrassments on every side. Miss Hargrove was prouder than Burt. Wild horses could not draw her to the Cliffords', With a pale, resolute face, she declined even to put herself in the way of receiving the least advance. Amy would gladly have taken counsel of Webb, but could not do so without revealing her friend's secret, and also disclosing mere surmises about Burt, which, although amounting to conviction in her mind, could not be mentioned. Therefore, from the very delicacy of the situation, she felt herself helpless. Nature was her ally, however, and if all that was passing in Burt's mind had been manifest, the ardent little schemer would not have been so despondent.

The best hope of Burt had been that he had checkmated the girls in their disposition to make jesting comparisons, He would retire with so much nonchalance as to leave nothing to be said. They would find complete inaction and silence hard to combat. But the more he thought of it the less it seemed like an honorable retreat. He had openly wooed one girl, he had since lost his heart to another, and she had given him a glimpse of strong regard, if not more. His thoughts were busy with her every word and glance. How much had his tones and eyes revealed to her? Might she not think him a heartless flirt if he continued to avoid her and went away without a word? Would it not be better to be laughed at as one who did not know his own mind than be despised for deliberate trifling? Amy had asked him to go and spend an evening with her friend, and he had pleaded weariness as an excuse. Her incredulous look and rather cool manner since had not been reassuring. She had that very morning broached the subject of a chestnutting party for the following day, and he had promptly said that he was going to the city to make inquiries about routes to the West.

"Why, Burt, you can put off your trip to town for a day," said his mother. "If you are to leave us so soon you should make the most of the days that are left."

"That is just what he is doing," Amy remarked, satirically. "He has become absorbed in large business considerations. Those of us who have not such resources are of no consequence."

The old people and Leonard believed that Amy was not pleased with the idea of Burt's going away, but they felt that she was a little unreasonable, since the young fellow was rather to be commended for wishing to take life more seriously. But her words rankled in Burt's mind. He felt that she understood him better than the others, and that he was not winning respect from her. In the afternoon he saw her, with Alf and Johnnie, starting for the chestnut-trees, and although she passed not far away she gave him only a slight greeting, and did not stop for a little merry banter, as usual. The young fellow was becoming very unhappy, and he felt that his position was growing intolerable. That Amy should be cold toward him, or, indeed, toward any one, was an unheard-of thing, and he knew that she must feel that there was good reason for her manner. "And is there not?" he asked himself, bitterly. "What are she and Miss Hargrove thinking about me?"

The more he thought upon the past the more awkward and serious appeared his dilemma, and his long Western journey, which at first he had welcomed as promising a diversion of excitement and change, now began to appear like exile. He dreaded to think of the memories he must take with him; still more he deprecated the thoughts he would leave behind him. His plight made him so desperate that he suddenly left the orchard where he was gathering apples, went to the house, put on his riding-suit, and in a few moments was galloping furiously away on his black horse. With a renewal of hope Webb watched his proceedings, and with many surmises, Amy, from a distant hillside, saw him passing at a break-neck pace.