Chapter LIX. The Hose Reveals Its Heart
 

Webb returned to a region that was haunted. Wherever he went, a presence was there before him. In every room, on the lawn, in the garden, in lanes no longer shaded, but carpeted with brown, rustling leaves, on mountain roads, he saw Amy with almost the vividness of actual vision, as he had seen her in these places from the time of her first coming. At church he created her form in her accustomed seat, and his worship was a little confused. She had asked him to write, and he made home life and the varying aspects of nature real to her. His letters, however, were so impersonal that she could read the greater part of them to Gertrude, who had resolved to be pleased out of good-will to Webb, and with the intention of aiding his cause. But she soon found herself expressing genuine wonder and delight at their simple, vigorous diction, their subtile humor, and the fine poetic images they often suggested. "Oh, Amy," she said, "I couldn't have believed it. I don't think he himself is aware of his power of expression."

"He has read and observed so much," Amy replied, "that he has much to express."

"It's more than that," said Gertrude; "there are touches here and there which mere knowledge can't account for. They have a delicacy and beauty which seem the result of woman's influence, and I believe it is yours. I should think you would be proud of him."

"I am," she answered, with exultation and heightened color, "but it seems absurd to suppose that such a little ignoramus as I am can help him much."

Meanwhile, to all appearance, Webb maintained the even tenor of his way. He had been so long schooled in patience that he waited and hoped on in silence as before, and busied himself incessantly. The last of the corn was husked, and the golden treasure stored. The stalks were stacked near the barn for winter use, and all the labors of the year were rounded out and completed. Twice he went to the city to see Amy, and on one of these occasions he was a guest at a large party given in her honor. During much of the evening he was dazzled by her beauty, and dazed by her surroundings. Her father had had her instructed carefully in dancing, and she and Burt had often waltzed together, but he could scarcely believe his eyes as she appeared on the floor unsurpassed in beauty and grace, her favor sought by all. Was that the simple girl who on the shaggy sides of Storm King had leaned against his shoulder?

Miss Hargrove gave him little time for such musings. She, as hostess, often took his arm and made him useful. The ladies found him reserved rather than shy, but he was not long among the more mature and thoughtful men present before a knot gathered around him, and some of Mr. Hargrove's more intimate friends ventured to say, "There seems to be plenty of brains in the family into which your daughter is to enter."

After an hour or two had passed, and Amy had not had a chance to speak to him, he began to look so disconsolate that she came and whispered, "What's the matter, old fellow?"

"Oh, Amy," he replied, discontentedly, "I wish we were back on Storm King. I'm out of place here."

"So do I," she said, "and so we will be many a time again. But you are not out of place here. I heard one lady remarking how 'reserved and distingue you were, and another," she added, with a flash of her ever-ready mirthfulness, "said you were 'deliciously homely.' I was just delighted with that compliment," and she flitted away to join her partner in the dance. Webb brightened up amazingly after this, and before he departed in the "wee sma' hours," when the rooms were empty, Gertrude gave him a chance for a brief, quiet talk, which proved that Amy's heart was still in the Highlands, even if he did not yet possess it.

Burt would not return till late in December; but Amy came home about the middle of the month, and received an ovation that was enough "to turn any one's head," she declared. Their old quiet life was resumed, and Webb watched keenly for any discontent with it. Her tranquil satisfaction was undoubted. "I've had my little fling," she said, "and I suppose it was time I saw more of the world and society, but oh, what a refuge and haven of rest the old place is! Gertrude is lovely, her father very gallant and polite, but Mrs. Hargrove's stateliness oppresses me, and in society I felt that I had to take a grain of salt with everything said to me. Gertrude showed her sense in preferring a home. I was in some superb houses in the city that did not seem like homes."

Webb, in his solicitude that the country-house should not appear dull, found time to go out with her on pleasant days, and to interest her deeply in a course of reading. It was a season of leisure; but his mother began to smile to herself as she saw how absorbed he was in his pupil.

The nights grew colder, the stars gained a frosty glitter, the ground was rock-like, and the ponds were covered with a glare of black ice. Amy was eager to learn to skate, and Webb found his duty of instructor delightful. Little danger of her falling, although, with a beginner's awkwardness, she essayed to do so often; strong arms were ever near and ready, and any one would have been glad to catch Amy in such peril.

They were now looking forward to Burt's return and the holiday season, which Gertrude would spend with them. Mystery lurked behind every door. Not merely the shops, but busy and stealthy fingers, would furnish the gifts. Webb had bought his present for Amy, but had also burned the midnight oil in the preparation of another--a paper for a magazine, and it had been accepted. He had planned and composed it while at work stripping the husks from the yellow corn, superintending the wood teams and the choppers in the mountain, and aiding in cutting from an adjacent pond the crystal blocks of ice--the stored coolness for the coming summer. Then while others thought him sleeping he wrote and rewrote the thoughts he had harvested during the day.

One of his most delightful tasks, however, was in aiding Amy to embower the old house in wreaths and festoons of evergreens. The rooms grew into aromatic bowers. Autumn leaves and ferns gave to the heavier decorations a light, airy beauty which he had never seen before. Grace itself Amy appeared as she mounted the step-ladder and reached here and there, twining and coaxing everything into harmony.

What was the effect of all this companionship on her mind? She least of all could have answered: she did not analyze. Each day was full and joyous. She was being carried forward on a shining tide of happiness, and yet its motion was so even, quiet, and strong that there was nothing to disturb her maidenly serenity. If Webb had been any one but Webb, and if she had been in the habit of regarding all men as possible admirers, she would have understood herself long before this. If she had been brought up with brothers in her own home she would have known that she welcomed this quiet brother with a gladness that had a deeper root than sisterly affection. But the fact that he was Webb, the quiet, self-controlled man who had called her sister Amy for a year, made his presence, his deep sympathy with her and for her, seem natural. His approaches had been so gradual that he was stealing into her heart as spring enters a flower. You can never name the first hour of its presence; you take no note of the imperceptible yet steady development. The process is quiet, yet vital and sure, and at last there comes an hour when the bud is ready to open. That time was near, and Webb hoped that it was. His tones were now and then so tender and gentle that she looked at him a little wonderingly, but his manner was quiet and far removed from that of the impetuous Burt. There was a warmth in it, however, like the increasing power of the sun, and in human hearts bleak December can be the spring-time as truly as May.

It was the twenty-third--one of the stormiest days of a stormy month. The snowflakes were whirling without, and making many a circle in the gale before joining their innumerable comrades that whitened the ground. The wind sighed and soughed about the old house as it had done a year before, but Webb and Amy were armed against its mournfulness. They were in the parlor, on whose wide hearth glowed an ample fire. Burt and Gertrude were expected on the evening train.

"Gertie is coming home through the snow just as I did," said Amy, fastening a spray of mistletoe that a friend had sent her from England to the chandelier; "and the same old warm welcome awaits her."

"What a marvellous year it has been!" Webb remarked.

"It has, indeed. Just think of it! Burt is engaged to one of whose existence he did not know a year ago. He has been out West, and found that you have land that will make you all rich."

"Are these the greatest marvels of the year, Amy?"

"No, there is a greater one. I didn't know you a year ago to-day, and now I seem to have known you always, you great patient, homely old fellow--'deliciously homely.' I shall never get over that."

"The eyes of scores of young fellows looked at you that evening as if you were deliciously handsome."

"And you looked at me one time as if you hadn't a friend in the world, and you wanted to be back in your native wilds."

"Not without you, Amy; and you said you wished you were looking at the rainbow shield with me again."

"Oh, I didn't say all that; and then I saw you needed heartening up a little."

"I did indeed. You were dancing with a terrible swell, worth, it was said, half a million, who was devouring you with his eyes."

"I'm all here, thank you, and you look as if you were doing some devouring yourself. What makes you look at me so? Is there anything on my face?"

"Yes, some color, but it's just as Nature arranged it, and you know Nature's best work always fascinates me."

"What a gallant you are becoming! There, don't you think that is arranged well?" and she stood beneath the mistletoe looking up critically at it.

"Let me see if it is," and he advanced to her side. "This is the only test," he said, and quick as a flash he encircled her with his arm and pressed a kiss upon her lips.

She sprang aloof and looked at him with dilating eyes. He had often kissed her before, and she had thought nothing more of it than of a brother's salute. Was it a subtile, mysterious power in the mistletoe itself with which it had been endowed by ages of superstition? Was that kiss like the final ray of the Jane sun that opens the heart of the rose when at last it is ready to expand? She looked at him wonderingly, tremblingly, the color of the rose mounting higher and higher, and deepening as if the blood were coming from the depths of her heart. He did not speak. In answer to her wondering, questioning look, he only bent full upon her his dark eyes that had held hers once before in a moment of terror. She saw his secret in their depths at last, the devotion, the love, which she herself had unsuspectingly said would "last always." She took a faltering step toward him, then covered her burning face with her hands.

"Amy," he said, taking her gently in his arms, "do you understand me now? Dear, blind little girl, I have been worshipping all these months, and you have not known it."

"I--I thought you were in love with nature," she whispered.

"So I am, and you are nature in its sweetest and highest embodiment. Every beautiful thing in nature has long suggested you to me. Amy, I can wait. You shall have your girlhood. It seems to me now that I have loved you almost from the first hour I saw you. I have known that I loved you ever since that June evening when you left me in the rose garden. Have I not proved that I can be patient and wait?"

She only pressed her burning face closer upon his shoulder. "It's all growing clear now," she again whispered. "How blind I've been! I thought you were only my brother."

"I can be 'only your brother,' if you so wish," he said, gravely. "Your happiness is my first thought."

She looked up at him shyly, tears in her eyes, and a smile hovering about her tremulous lips. "I don't think I understood myself any better than I did you. I never had a brother, and--and--I don't believe I loved you just right for a brother;" and her face was hidden again.

His eyes went up to heaven, as if he meant that his mating should be recognized there. Then gently stroking her brown hair, he asked, "Then I shan't have to wait, Amy?"

"Am I keeping you waiting, Webb?" she faltered from her deep seclusion.

"Oh, that blessed mistletoe!" cried Webb, lifting the dewy, flower-like face and kissing it again and again. "You are my Christmas gift, Amy."

"Oh, I beg your pardon; I didn't know," began Mr. Clifford from the doorway, and was about to make a hasty and excited retreat.

"Stay, father!" cried Webb. "A year ago you received this dear girl as your daughter. She has consented to make the tie closer still if possible."

The old gentleman took Amy in his arms for a moment, and then said, "This is too good to keep to myself for a moment," and he hastened the blushing, laughing girl to his wife, and exclaimed, "See what I've brought you for a Christmas present. See what that sly, silent Webb has been up to. He has been making love to our Amy right under our noses, and we didn't know it,"

"You didn't know it, father; mother's eyes are not so blind. Amy, darling, I've been hoping and praying for this. You have made a good choice, my dear, if it is his mother that says it. Webb will never change, and he will always be as gentle and good to you as he has been to me."

"Well, well, well," said Mr. Clifford, "our cup is running over, sure enough. Maggie, come here," he called, as he heard her step in the hall. "Here is a new relative. I once felt a little like grumbling because we hadn't a daughter, and now I have three, and the best and prettiest in the land. You didn't know what Webb was about."

"Didn't I, Webb--as long ago as last October, too?"

"Oh, Webb, you ought to have told me first," said Amy, reproachfully, when they were alone.

"I did not tell Maggie; she saw," Webb answered. Then, taking a rosebud which she had been wearing, he pushed open the petals with his finger, and asked, "Who told me that 'this is no way for a flower to bloom'? I've watched and waited till your heart was ready, Amy." And so the time flew in mutual confidences, and the past grew clear when illumined by love.

"Poor old Webb!" said Amy, with a mingled sigh and laugh. "There you were growing as gaunt as a scarecrow, and I loving you all the time. What a little goose I was! If you had looked at Gertrude as Burt did I should have found myself out long ago. Why hadn't you the sense to employ Burt's tactics?"

"Because I had resolved that nature should be my sole ally. Was not my kiss under the mistletoe a better way of awakening my sleeping beauty than a stab of jealousy?"

"Yes, Webb, dear, patient Webb. The rainbow shield was a true omen, and I am sheltered indeed."