Chapter LVIII. The Moonlight Omen
 

Webb permitted no marked change in his manner. He toiled steadily with Leonard in gathering the fall produce and in preparing for winter, but Amy noticed that his old preoccupied look was passing away. Daily he appeared to grow more genial and to have more time and thought for her. With increasing wonder she learned the richness and fulness of his mind. In the evenings he read aloud to them all with his strong, musical intonation, in which the author's thought was emphasized so clearly that it seemed to have double the force that it possessed when she read the same words herself. He found time for occasional rambles and horseback excursions, and was so companionable during long rainy days that they seemed to her the brightest of the week. Maggie smiled to herself and saw that Webb's spell was working. He was making himself so quietly and unobtrusively essential to Amy that she would find half of her life gone if she were separated from him.

Gertrude returned for a short time, and then went to the city for the winter. Burt's orbit was hard to calculate. He was much in New York, and often with Mr. Hargrove, from whom he was receiving instructions in regard to his Western expedition. That gentleman's opinion of Burt's business capacity grew more favorable daily, for the young fellow now proposed to show that he meant to take life in earnest. "If this lasts he will make a trusty young lieutenant," the merchant thought, "and I can make his fortune while furthering mine." Burt had plenty of brains and good executive ability to carry out the wiser counsels of others, while his easy, vivacious manner won him friends and acceptance everywhere.

It was arranged, after his departure, that Amy should visit her friend in the city, and Webb looked forward to her absence with dread and self-depreciation, fearing that he should suffer by contrast with the brilliant men of society, and that the quiet country life would seem dull, indeed, thereafter.

Before Amy went on this visit there came an Indian summer morning in November, that by its soft, dreamy beauty wooed every one out of doors. "Amy," said Webb, after dinner, "suppose we drive over to West Point and return by moonlight." She was delighted with the idea, and they were soon slowly ascending the mountain. He felt that this was his special opportunity, not to break her trustful unconsciousness, but to reveal his power to interest her and make impressions that should be enduring. He exerted every faculty to please, recalling poetic and legendary allusions connected with the trees, plants, and scenes by which they were passing.

"Oh, Webb, how you idealize nature!" she said. "You make every object suggest something fanciful, beautiful, or entertaining. How have you learned to do it?"

"As I told you last Easter Sunday--how long ago it seems--if I have any power for such idealization it is largely through your influence. My knowledge was much like the trees as they then appeared. I was prepared for better things, but the time for them had not yet come. I had studied the material world in a material sort of way, employing my mind with facts that were like the bare branches and twigs. You awakened in me a sense of the beautiful side of nature. How can I explain it? Who can explain the rapid development of foliage and flowers when all is ready?"

"But, Webb, you appeared, during the summer, to go back to your old materiality worse than ever. You made me feel that I had no power to do anything for you. You treated me as if I were your very little sister who would have to go to school a few years before I could be your companion."

"Those were busy days," he replied, laughing. "Besides," he added, hesitatingly, "Burt was at one time inclined to be jealous. Of course, it was very absurd in him, but I suppose lovers are always a little absurd."

"I should think it was absurd. I saw whither Burt was drifting long ago--at the time of the great flood which swept away things of more value than my silly expectations. What an unsophisticated little goose I was! I suppose Johnnie expects to be married some day, and in much the same way I looked forward to woman's fate; and since you all seemed to wish that it should be Burt, I thought, 'Why not?" Wasn't it lucky for Burt, and, indeed, for all of you, that I was not a grown-up and sentimental young woman? Mr. Hargrove, by uniting his interests with yours in the West, will make your fortunes, and Burt will bring you a lovely sister. It pleases me to see how Gertrude is learning to like you. I used to be provoked with her at first, because she didn't appreciate you. Do you know, I think you ought to write? You could make people fall in love with nature. Americans don't care half as much for out-door life and pursuits as the English. It seems to me that city life cannot compare with that of the country."

"You may think differently after you have been a few weeks in Gertrude's elegant home."

They had paused again on the brow of Cro' Nest, and were looking out on the wide landscape. "No, Webb," she said; "her home, no doubt, is elegant, but it is artificial. This is simple and grand, and to-day, seen through the soft haze, is lovely to me beyond all words. I honestly half regret that I am going to town. Of course, I shall enjoy myself--I always do with Gertrude--but the last few quiet weeks have been so happy and satisfying that I dread any change."

"Think of the awful vacuum that your absence will make in the old home!"

"Well, I'm a little glad; I want to be missed. But I shall write to you and tell you of all the frivolous things we are doing. Besides, you must come to see me as often as you can."

"I certainly shall."

They saw evening parade, the moon rising meanwhile over Sugarloaf Mountain, and filling the early twilight with a soft radiance. The music seemed enchanting, for their hearts were attuned to it. As the long line of cadets shifted their guns from "carry arms" to "shoulder arms" with instantaneous action, Webb said that the muskets sent out a shivering sound like that of a tree almost ready to fall under the last blows of an axe.

Webb felt that should he exist millions of ages he should never forget the ride homeward. The moon looked through the haze like a veiled beauty, and in its softened light Amy's pure, sweet profile was endowed with ethereal beauty. The beech trees, with their bleached leaves still clinging to them, were almost spectral, and the oaks in their bronzed foliage stood like black giants by the roadside. There were suggestive vistas of light and shadow that were full of mystery, making it easy to believe that on a night like this the mountain was haunted by creatures as strange as the fancy could shape. The girl at his side was a mystery. Viewless walls incased her spirit. What were her hidden and innermost thoughts? The supreme gift of a boundless love overflowed his heart to his very lips. She was so near, and the spell of her loveliness so strong, that at times he felt that he must give it expression, but he ever restrained himself. His words might bring pain and consternation to the peaceful face. She was alone with him, and there would be no escape should he speak now. No; he had resolved to wait till her heart awoke by its own impulses, and he would keep his purpose even through the witchery of that moonlight drive. "How strangely isolated we are," he thought, "that such feeling as mine can fill my very soul with its immense desire, and she not be aware of anything but my quiet, fraternal manner!"

As they were descending the home slope of the mountain they witnessed a rare and beautiful sight. A few light clouds had gathered around the moon, and these at last opened in a rift. The rays of light through the misty atmosphere created the perfect colors of a rainbow, and this phenomenon took the remarkable form of a shield, its base resting upon one cloud, and its point extending into a little opening in the cloud above.

"Oh, what a perfect shield!" cried Amy. "Was there ever anything so strange and lovely?"

Webb checked his horse, and they looked at the vision with wonder. "I never saw anything to equal that," said Webb.

"Is it an omen, Webb?" she asked, turning a little from him that she might look upward, and leaning on his shoulder with the unconsciousness of a child.

"Let us make it one, dear sister Amy," he said, drawing her nearer to him. "Let it remind you, as you recall it, that as far as I can I will ever shield you from every evil of life." As he spoke the rainbow colors became wonderfully distinct, and then faded slowly away. Her head drooped lower on his shoulder, and she said, dreamily:

"It seems to me that I never was so happy before in my life as I am now. You are so different, and can be so much to me, now that your old absurd constraint is gone. Oh, Webb, you used to make me so unhappy! You made me feel that you had found me out--how little I knew, and that it was a bore to have to talk with me and explain. I know I'm not highly educated. How could I be? I went everywhere with papa, and he always appeared to think of me as a little girl. And then during the last year or two of his life he was so ill that I did not do much else than watch over him with fear and trembling, and try to nurse him and beguile the hours that were so full of pain and weakness. But I'm not contented to be ignorant, and you can teach me so much. I fairly thrill with excitement and feeling sometimes when you are reading a fine or beautiful thing. If I can feel that way I can't be stupid, can I?"

"No, Amy."

"Think how much faster I could learn this winter if you would direct my reading, and explain what is obscure!"

"I will very gladly do anything you wish. You underrate yourself, Amy. You have woman's highest charm. There is a stupidity of heart which is far worse than that of the mind, a selfish callousness in regard to others and their rights and feelings, which mars the beauty of some women worse than physical deformity. From the day you entered our home as a stranger, graceful tact, sincerity, and the impulse of ministry have characterized your life. Can you imagine that mere cleverness, trained mental acuteness, and a knowledge of facts can take the place of these traits? No man can love unless he imagines that a woman has these qualities, and bitter will be his disappointment if he finds them wanting."

Her laugh rang out musically on the still air. "Hear the old bachelor talk!" she cried. "I believe you have constructed an ideally perfect creature out of nature, and that you hold trysts with her on moonlight nights, you go out to walk so often alone. Well, well, I won't be jealous of such a sister-in-law, but I want to keep you a little while longer before you follow Burt's example."

"I shall never give you a sister-in-law, Amy."

"You don't know what you'll do. How sure Burt was of himself!"

"Burt and I are different."

"Yes, Webb, you are. If you ever love, it will be for always; and I don't like to think of it. I'd like to keep you just as you are. Now that you see how selfish I am, where is woman's highest charm?"

Webb laughed, and urged his horse into a sharp trot. "I am unchangeable in my opinions too, as far as you are concerned," he remarked. "She is not ready yet," was his silent thought.

When she came down to the late supper her eyes were shining with happiness, and Maggie thought the decisive hour had come; but in answer to a question about the drive, Amy said, "I couldn't have believed that so much enjoyment was to be had in one afternoon. Webb is a brother worth having, and I'm sorry I'm going to New York."

"Am I not a brother worth having?" Leonard asked.

"Oh, you are excellent, as far as you go, but you are so wrapped up in Maggie that you are not of much account; and as for Burt, he is more over head and ears than you are. Even if a woman was in love, I should think she would like a man to be sensible."

"Pshaw, Amy! you don't know what you are talking About," said Maggie.

"Probably not. I suppose it is a kind of disease, and that all are more or less out of their heads."

"We've been out of our heads a good many years, mother, haven't we?" said Mr. Clifford, laughing.

"Well," said Leonard, "I just hope Amy will catch the disease, and have it very bad some day."

"Thank you. When I do, I'll send for Dr. Marvin."

A few days later Webb took her to New York, and left her with her friend. "Don't be persuaded into staying very long," he found opportunity to say, in a low tone.

"Indeed I won't; I'm homesick already;" and she looked after him very wistfully. But she was mistaken. Gertrude looked so hurt and disappointed when she spoke of returning, and had planned so much, that days lengthened into weeks.