Chapter LVII. October Hues and Harvests
 

Burt's interview with his parents, their mingled surprise, pleasure, and disappointment, and their deep sympathy, need not be dwelt upon. Mr. Clifford was desirous of first seeing Amy, and satisfying himself that she did not in the slightest degree feel herself slighted or treated in bad faith, but his wife, with her low laugh, said: "Rest assured, father, Burt is right. He has won nothing more from Amy than sisterly love, though I had hoped that he might in time. After all, perhaps, it is best. We shall keep Amy, and gain a new daughter that we have already learned to admire and love."

Burt's mind was too full of the one great theme to remember what Mr. Hargrove had said about the Western land, and when at last Miss Hargrove came to say good-by, with a blushing consciousness quite unlike her usual self-possession, he was enchanted anew, and so were all the household. The old people's reception seemed like a benediction; Amy banished the faintest trace of doubt by her mirthful ecstasies; and after their mountain experience there was no ice to break between Gertrude and Maggie.

The former was persuaded to defer her trip to New York until the morrow, and so Amy would have her nutting expedition after all. When Leonard came down to dinner, Burt took Gertrude's hand, and said, "Now, Len, this is your only chance to give your consent. You can't have any dinner till you do."

His swift, deprecating look at Amy's laughing face reassured him. "Well," he said, slowly, as if trying to comprehend it all, "I do believe I'm growing old. My eyesight must be failing sadly. When did all this take place?"

"Your eyesight is not to blame, Leonard," said his wife, with much superiority. "It's because you are only a man."

"That's all I ever pretended to be." Then, with a dignity that almost surprised Gertrude, he, as eldest brother, welcomed her in simple, heartfelt words.

At the dinner-table Miss Hargrove referred to the Western land. Burt laid down his knife and fork, and exclaimed, "I declare, I forgot all about it!"

Miss Hargrove laughed heartily as she said, "A high tribute to me!" and then made known her father's statement that the Clifford tract in the West adjoined his own, that it would soon be very valuable, and that he was interested in the railroad approaching it. "I left him," she concluded, "poring over his maps, and he told me to say to you, sir" (to Mr. Clifford), "that he wished to see you soon."

"How about the four-leaved clover now?" cried Amy.

In the afternoon they started for the chestnut-trees. Webb carried a light ladder, and both he and Burt had dressed themselves in close-fitting flannel suits for climbing. The orchard, as they passed through it, presented a beautiful autumn picture. Great heaps of yellow and red cheeked apples were upon the ground; other varieties were in barrels, some headed up and ready for market, while Mr. Clifford was giving the final cooperage to other barrels as fast as they were filled.

"Father can still head up a barrel better than any of us," Leonard remarked to Miss Hargrove.

"Well, my dear," said the old gentleman, "I've had over half a century's experience."

"It's time I obtained some idea of rural affairs," said Gertrude to Webb. "There seem to be many different kinds of apples here. Can you easily tell them apart?"

"Yes, as easily as you know different dress fabrics at Arnold's. Those umbrella-shaped trees are Rhode Island greenings; those that are rather long and slender branching are yellow bell-flowers; and those with short and stubby branches and twigs are the old-fashioned dominies. Over there are Newtown pippins. Don't you see how green the fruit is? It will not be in perfection till next March. Not only a summer, but an autumn and a winter are required to perfect that superb apple, but then it becomes one of Nature's triumphs. Some of those heaps on the ground will furnish cider and vinegar. Nuts, cider, and a wood fire are among the privations of a farmer's life."

"Farming, as you carry it on, appears to me a fine art. How very full some of the trees are! and others look as if they had been half picked over."

"That is just what has been done. The largest and ripest apples are taken off first, and the rest of the fruit improves wonderfully in two or three weeks. By this course we greatly increase both the quality and the bulk of the crop."

"You are very happy in your calling, Webb. How strange it seems for me to be addressing you as Webb!"

"It does not seem so strange to me; nor does it seem strange that I am talking to you in this way. I soon recognized that you were one of those fortunate beings in whom city life had not quenched nature."

They had fallen a little behind the others, and were out of ear-shot.

"I think," she said, hesitatingly and shyly, "that I had an ally in you all along."

He laughed and replied, "At one time I was very dubious over my expedition to Fort Putnam."

"I imagine that in suggesting that expedition you put in two words for yourself."

"Call it even," he said.

"I wish you might be as happy as I am. I'm not blind either, and I wonder that Amy is so unconscious."

"I hope she will remain so until she awakens as naturally as from sleep. She has never had a brother, and as such I try to act toward her. My one thought is her happiness, and, perhaps, I can secure it in no other way. I feared long since that you had guessed my secret, and am grateful that you have not suggested it to Amy. Few would have shown so much delicacy and consideration."

"I'm not sure that you are right, Webb. If Amy knew of your feeling, it would influence her powerfully. She misjudges you now."

"Yes, it was necessary that she should misunderstand me, and think of me as absorbed in things remote from her life. The knowledge you suggest might make her very sad, for there never was a gentler-hearted girl. You have remarkable tact. Please use it to prevent the constraint which might arise between us."

Burt now joined them with much pretended jealousy, and they soon reached the trees, which, under the young men's vigorous blows, rained down the prickly burrs, downy chestnuts, and golden leaves. Blue jays screamed indignantly from the mountain-side, and squirrels barked their protest at the inroads made upon their winter stores. As the night approached the air grew chilly, and Webb remarked that frost was coming at last. He hastened home before the others to cover up certain plants that might be sheltered through the first cold snap. The tenderer ones had long since been taken up and prepared for winter blooming.

To Amy's inquiry where Johnnie was, Maggie had replied that she had gone nutting by previous engagement with Mr. Alvord, and as the party returned in the glowing evening they met the oddly assorted friends with their baskets well filled. In the eyes of the recluse there was a gentler expression, proving that Johnnie's and Nature's ministry had not been wholly in vain. He glanced swiftly from Burt to Miss Hargrove, then at Amy, and a faint suggestion of a smile hovered about his mouth. He was about to leave them abruptly when Johnnie interposed, pleading: "Mr. Alvord, don't go home till I pick you some of your favorite heart's-ease, as you call my pansies. They have grown to be as large and beautiful as they were last spring. Do you know, in the hot weather they were almost as small as johnny-jumpers? but I wouldn't let 'em be called by that name."

"They will ever be heart's-ease to me, Johnnie-doubly so when you give them," and he followed her to the garden.

In the evening a great pitcher of cider fresh from the press, flanked by dishes of golden fall pippins and grapes, was placed on the table. The young people roasted chestnuts on hickory coals, and every one, even to the invalid, seemed to glow with a kindred warmth and happiness. The city belle contrasted the true home-atmosphere with the grand air of a city house, and thanked God for her choice. At an early hour she said good-by for a brief time and departed with Burt. He was greeted with stately courtesy by Mrs. Hargrove herself, whom her husband and the prospective value of the Western land had reconciled to the momentous event. Burt and Gertrude were formally engaged, and he declared his intention of accompanying her to the city to procure the significant diamond.

After the culminating scenes of Burt's little drama, life went on very serenely and quietly at the Clifford home. Out of school hours Alf, Johnnie, and Ned vied with the squirrels in gathering their hoard of various nuts. The boughs in the orchard grew lighter daily. Frost came as Webb had predicted, and dahlias, salvias, and other flowers, that had flamed and glowed till almost the middle of October, turned black in one morning's sun. The butternut-trees had lost their foliage, and countless leaves were fluttering down in every breeze like many-hued gems. The richer bronzed colors of the oak were predominating in the landscape, and only the apple, cherry, and willow trees about the house kept up the green suggestion of summer.