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- Nature's Serial Story - 2/78 -


XLIX. ECHOES OF A PAST STORM

L. IMPULSES OF THE HEART

LI. WEBB'S FATEFUL EXPEDITION

LII. BURT'S SORE DILEMMA

LIII. BURT'S RESOLVE

LIV. A GENTLE EXORCIST

LV. BURT TELLS HIS LOVE AGAIN

LVI. WEBB'S FOUR-LEAVED CLOVER

LVII. OCTOBER HUES AND HARVESTS

LVIII. THE MOONLIGHT OMEN

LIX. THE ROSE REVEALS ITS HEART

LX. CHRISTMAS LIGHTS AND SHADOWS

NATURE'S SERIAL STORY

THIS BOOK IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED TO MY WIFE

NATURE'S SERIAL STORY

CHAPTER I

A COUNTRY HOME

How much it means--what possibilities it suggests! The one I shall describe was built not far from half a century ago, and the lapsing years have only made it more homelike. It has long ceased to be a new object-- an innovation--and has become a part of the landscape, like the trees that have grown up around it. Originally painted brown, with the flight of time it has taken a grayish tinge, as if in sympathy with its venerable proprietor. It stands back from the roadway, and in summer has an air of modest seclusion. Elms, maples, and shrubbery give to the passer-by but chance glimpses of the wide veranda, which is indicated, rather than revealed, beyond the thickly clustering vines.

It is now late December, and in contrast with its leafy retirement the old homestead stands out with a sharp distinctness in the white landscape; and yet its sober hue harmonizes with the dark boles of the trees, and suggests that, like them, it is a natural growth of the soil, and quite as capable of clothing itself with foliage in the coming spring. This in a sense will be true when the greenery and blossoms of the wistaria, honeysuckle, and grape-vines appear, for their fibres and tendrils have clung to the old house so long that they may well be deemed an inseparable part of it. Even now it seems that the warmth, light, and comfort within are the sustaining influences which will carry them through, the coming days of frost and storm. A tall pine-tree towers above the northern gable of the dwelling, and it is ever sighing and moaning to itself, as if it possessed some unhappy family secret which it can neither reveal nor forget. On the hither side of its shade a carriage-drive curves toward an ancient horse-block, with many a lichen growing on the under side of the weather-beaten planks and supports. From this platform, where guests have been alighting for a generation or more, the drive passes to an old-fashioned carriage-house, in which are the great family sleigh and a light and gayly painted cutter, revealing that the home is not devoid of the young life to which winter's most exhilarating pastime is so dear. A quaint corn-crib is near, its mossy posts capped with inverted tin pans much corroded by rust. These prevent prowling rats and mice from climbing up among the golden treasures. Still further beyond are the gray old barn and stables, facing the south. Near their doors on the sunny side of the ample yard stand half a dozen ruminating cows, with possibly, between their wide-branching horns, a dim consciousness of the fields, now so white and cold, from which were cropped, in the long-past summer, far juicier morsels than now fall to their lot. Even into their sheltered nook the sun, far down in the south, throws but cold and watery gleams from a steel-colored sky, and as the northern blast eddies around the sheltering buildings the poor creatures shiver, and when their morning airing is over are glad to return to their warm, straw-littered stalls. Even the gallant and champion cock of the yard is chilled. With one foot drawn up into his fluffy feathers he stands motionless in the midst of his disconsolate harem with his eye fixed vacantly on the forbidding outlook. His dames appear neither to miss nor to invite his attentions, and their eyes, usually so bright and alert, often film in weary discontent. Nature, however, is oblivious to all the dumb protests of the barnyard, and the cold steadily strengthens.

Away on every side stretch the angular fields, outlined by fences that are often but white, continuous mounds, and also marked by trees and shrubs that, in their earlier life, ran the gantlet of the bush-hook. Here and there the stones of the higher and more abrupt walls crop out, while the board and rail fences appear strangely dwarfed by the snow that has fallen and drifted around them. The groves and wood-crowned hills still further away look as drearily uninviting as roofless dwellings with icy hearthstones and smokeless chimneys. Towering above all, on the right, is Storm King mountain, its granite rocks and precipices showing darkly here and there, as if its huge white mantle were old and ragged indeed. One might well shiver at the lonely, desolate wastes lying beyond it, grim hills and early-shadowed valleys, where the half-starved fox prowls, and watches for unwary rabbits venturing from their coverts to nibble the frozen twigs. The river, which above the Highlands broadens out into Newburgh Bay, has become a snowy plain, devoid, on this bitter day, of every sign of life. The Beacon hills, on the further side, frown forbiddingly through the intervening northern gale, sweeping southward into the mountain gorge.

On a day like this the most ardent lover of Nature could scarcely fail to shrink from her cold, pallid face and colder breath. Our return to the home, whose ruddy firelight is seen through the frosted window-panes, will be all the more welcome because we have been shivering so long without. The grace of hospitality has been a characteristic of the master of the house for over half a century, and therefore the reader need not fear to enter, especially at this Christmas-time, when the world, as if to make amends for the churlish welcome it gave to its Divine Guest, for whom no better place was found than a stable, now throws open the door and heart in kindly feeling and unselfish impulses.

We propose to make a long visit at this old-fashioned homestead. We shall become the close friends of its inmates, and share in their family life; they will introduce us to some of their neighbors, and take us on many breezy drives and pleasant excursions, with which it is their custom to relieve their busy life; we shall take part in their rural labors, and learn from them the secret of obtaining from nature that which nourishes both soul and body; they will admit us to their confidence, and give us glimpses of that mystery of mysteries, the human heart; and we shall learn how the ceaseless story of life, with its hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows, repeats itself in the quiet seclusion of a country home as truly as in the turmoil of the city. Nor would our visit be complete did we not witness among the ripened fruits of conjugal affection the bud and blossom of that immortal flower which first opened in Eden, and which ever springs unbidden from the heart when the conditions that give it life and sustenance are present.

The hallway of this central scene of our story is wide, and extends to a small piazza in the rear. The front half of this family thoroughfare, partitioned off by sliding-doors, can thus be made into a roomy apartment. Its breezy coolness causes it to be a favorite resort on sultry days, but now it is forsaken, except that a great heater, with its ample rotundity and glowing heart, suggests to the visitor that it stands there as a representative of the host until he shall appear. Some portraits, a fine old engraving, a map of the county, and some sprays of evergreen intermingled with red berries, take away all bareness from the walls, while in a corner near the door stands a rack, formed in part by the branching antlers of a stag, on which hang fur caps and collars, warm wraps and coats, all suggesting abundant means of robbing winter of its rigor. On hooks above the sliding-doors are suspended a modern rifle and a double-barrelled shot-gun, and above these is a firelock musket that did good service in the Revolution.

The doors opening into the rear hall were pushed back, revealing a broad stairway, leading with an abrupt turn and a landing to the upper chambers. A cheerful apartment on the left of this hall was the abode of an invalid, whose life for many years disease had vainly sought to darken. There were lines of suffering on her thin, white face, and her hair, once black, was silvered; but it would seem that, in the dark, lustrous eyes of the patient woman, courage and hope had been kindled, rather than quenched, by pain. She was now reclining on a sofa, which had been wheeled near to a wood-fire glowing on the hearth of a large Franklin stove; and her dreamy, absent expression often gave place to one of passing interest as her husband, sitting opposite, read from his paper an item of news--some echo from the busy, troubled world, that seemed so remote from their seclusion and peaceful age. The venerable man appeared, however, as if he might still do his share in keeping the world busy, and also in banishing its evils. Although time had whitened his locks, it had touched kindly his stalwart frame, while his square jaw and strong features indicated a character that had met life's vicissitudes as a man should meet them. His native strength and force, however, were like the beautiful region in which he dwelt--once wild and rugged indeed, but now softened and humanized by generations of culture. Even his spectacles could not obscure the friendly and benevolent expression of his large blue eyes. It was evident that he looked at the world, as mirrored before him in the daily journal, with neither cynicism nor mere curiosity, but with a heart in sympathy with all the influences that were making it better.

The sound of a bell caused the old man to rise and assist his wife to her feet; then, with an affectionate manner, tinged with a fine courtesy of the old school, he supported her to the dining-room, placed her in a cushioned chair on his right, at the head of the table, and drew a footstool to her feet. There was a gentleness and solicitude in his bearing which indicated that her weakness was more potent than strength would have been in maintaining her ascendency!

Meanwhile the rest of the family flocked in with an alacrity which proved either that the bitter cold had sharpened their appetites, or that the old-fashioned one-o'clock dinner was a cheerful break in the monotony of the day. There was a middle-aged man, who was evidently the strong stay and staff on which the old people leaned. His wife was the housekeeper of the family, and she was emphatically the "house-mother," as the Germans phrase it. Every line of her good, but rather care-worn, face bespoke an anxious solicitude about everybody and everything except herself. It was apparent


Nature's Serial Story - 2/78

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