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- Nature's Serial Story - 30/78 -


and yet your plan has made the children half-wild."

Indeed, Alf had already given his approval by tearing off toward the house for the materials of this unprecedented March feast in the woods, and the old gentleman, as if made buoyant by the good promise of his little project in the children's behalf, followed with a step wonderfully elastic for a man of fourscore.

"Well, Heaven grant I may attain an age like that!" said Webb, looking wistfully after him. "There is more of spring than autumn in father yet, and I don't believe there will be any winter in his life. Well, Amy, like the birds and squirrels around us, we shall dine out-of-doors today. You must be mistress of the banquet; Ned, Johnnie, and I place ourselves under your orders; don't we, Johnnie?"

"To be sure, uncle Webb; only I'm so crazy over all this fun that I'm sure I can never do anything straight."

"Well, then, 'bustle! bustle!'" cried Amy. "I believe with Maggie that housekeeping and dining well are high arts, and not humdrum necessities. Webb, I need a broad, flat rock. Please provide one at once, while Johnnie gathers clean dry leaves for plates. You, Ned, can put lots of dry sticks between the stones there, and uncle Webb will kindle the right kind of a fire to leave plenty of hot coals and ashes. Now is the time for him to make his science useful."

Webb was becoming a mystery unto himself. Was it the exquisitely pure air and the exhilarating spring sunshine that sent the blood tingling through his veins? Or was it the presence, tones, and gestures of a girl with brow and neck like the snow that glistened on the mountain slopes above them, and large true eyes that sometimes seemed gray and again blue? Amy's developing beauty was far removed from a fixed type of prettiness, and he felt this in a vague way. The majority of the girls of his acquaintance had a manner rather than an individuality, and looked and acted much the same whenever he saw them. They were conventionalized after some received country type, and although farmers' daughters, they seemed unnatural to this lover of nature. Allowing for the difference in years, Amy was as devoid of self-consciousness as Alf or Johnnie. Not the slightest trace of mannerism perverted her girlish ways. She moved, talked, and acted with no more effort or thought of effort than had the bluebirds that were passing to and fro with their simple notes and graceful flight, She was nature in its phase of girlhood. To one of his temperament and training the perfect day itself would have been full of unalloyed enjoyment, although occupied with his ordinary labors; but for some reason this unpremeditated holiday, with Amy's companionship, gave him a pleasure before unknown--a pleasure deep and satisfying, unmarred by jarring discords or uneasy protests of conscience or reason. Truly, on this spring day a "first time" came to him, a new element was entering into his life. He did not think of defining it; he did not even recognize it, except in the old and general way that Amy's presence had enriched them all, and in his own case had arrested a tendency to become materialistic and narrow. On a like day the year before he would have been absorbed in the occupations of the farm, and merely conscious to a certain extent of the sky above him and the bird song and beauty around him. To-day they were like revelations. Even a March world was transfigured. His zest in living and working was enhanced a thousand-fold, because life and work were illumined by happiness, as the scene was brightened by sunshine. He felt that he had only half seen the world before; now he had the joy of one gradually gaining vision after partial blindness.

Amy saw that he was enjoying the day immensely in his quiet way; she also saw that she had not a little to do with the result, and the reflection that she could please and interest the grave and thoughtful man, who was six years her senior, conveyed a delicious sense of power. And yet she was pleased much as a child would be. "He knows so much more than I do," she thought, "and is usually so wrapped up in some deep subject, or so busy, that it's awfully jolly to find that one can beguile him into having such a good time. Burt is so exuberant in everything that I am afraid of being carried away, as by a swift stream, I know not where. I feel like checking and restraining him all the time. For me to add my small stock of mirth to his immense spirits would be like lighting a candle on a day like this; but when I smile on Webb the effect is wonderful, and I can never get over my pleased surprise at the fact."

Thus, like the awakening forces in the soil around them, a vital force was developing in two human hearts equally unconscious.

Alf and his grandfather at last returned, each well laden, and preparations went on apace. Mr. Clifford made as if he would return and dine at home, but they all clamored for his company. With a twinkle in his eye, he said:

"Well, I told mother that I might lunch with you, and I was only waiting to be pressed a little. I've lived a good many years, but never was on a picnic in March before."

"Grandpa, you shall be squeezed as well as pressed," cried Johnnie, putting her arms about his neck. "You shall stay and see what a lovely time you have given us. Oh, if Cinderella were only here!" and she gave one little sigh, the first of the day.

"Possibly Cinderella may appear in time for lunch;" and with a significant look he directed Amy to the basket he had brought, from the bottom of which was drawn a doll with absurdly diminutive feet, and for once in her life Johnnie's heart craved nothing more.

"Maggie knew that this little mother could not be content long without her doll, and so she put it in. You children have a thoughtful mother, and you must be thoughtful of her," added the old man, who felt that the incident admitted of a little homily.

What appetites they all had! If some of the potatoes were slightly burned and others a little raw, the occasion added a flavor better than Attic salt. A flock of chickadees approached near enough to gather the crumbs that were thrown to them.

"It's strange," said Webb, "how tame the birds are when they return in the spring. In the fall the robins are among the wildest of the birds, and now they are all around us. I believe that if I place some crumbs on yonder rock, they'll come and dine with us, in a sense;" and the event proved that he was right.

"Hey, Johnnie," said her grandfather, "you never took dinner with the birds before, did you? This is almost as wonderful as if Cinderella sat up and asked for an oyster."

But Johnnie was only pleased with the fact, not surprised. Wonderland was her land, and she said, "I don't see why the birds can't understand that I'd like to have dinner with them every day."

"By the way, Webb," continued his father, "I brought out the field-glass with me, for I thought that with your good eyes you might see Burt;" and he drew it from his pocket.

The idea of seeing Burt shooting ducks nearly broke up the feast, and Webb swept the distant river, full of floating ice that in the sunlight looked like snow. "I can see several out in boats," he said, "and Burt, no doubt, is among them."

Then Amy, Alf, and Johnnie must have a look, but Ned devoted himself strictly to business, and Amy remarked that he was becoming like a little sausage.

"Can the glass make us hear the noise of the gun better?" Johnnie asked, at which they all laughed, Ned louder than any, because of the laughter of the others. It required but a little thing to make these banqueters hilarious.

But there was one who heard them and did not laugh. From the brow of the hill a dark, sad face looked down upon them. Lured by the beauty of the day, Mr. Alvord had wandered aimlessly into the woods, and, attracted by merry voices, had drawn sufficiently near to witness a scene that awakened within him indescribable pain and longing. He did not think of joining them. It was not a fear that he would be unwelcomed that kept him away; he knew the family too well to imagine that. A stronger restraint was upon him. Something in the past darkened even that bright day, and built in the crystal air a barrier that he could not pass. They would give him a place at their rustic board, but he could not take it. He knew that he would be a discord in their harmony, and their innocent merriment smote his morbid nature with almost intolerable pain. With a gesture indicating immeasurable regret, he turned and hastened away to his lonely home. As he mounted the little piazza his steps were arrested. The exposed end of a post that supported the inner side of its roof formed a little sheltered nook in which a pair of bluebirds had begun to build their nest. They looked at him with curious and distrustful eyes as they flitted to and fro in a neighboring tree, and he sat down and looked at them. The birds were evidently in doubt and in perturbed consultation. They would fly to the post, then away and all around the house, but scarcely a moment passed that Mr. Alvord did not see that he was observed and discussed. With singular interest and deep suspense he awaited their decision. At last it came, and was favorable. The female bird came flying to the post with a beakful of fine dry grass, and her mate, on a spray near, broke out into his soft, rapturous song. The master of the house gave a great sigh of relief. A glimmer of a smile passed over his wan face as he muttered, "I expected to be alone this summer, but I am to have a family with me, after all."

Soon after the lunch had been discussed leisurely and hilariously the maple-sugar camp was left in the care of Alf and Johnnie, with Abram to assist them. Amy longed for a stroll, but even with the protection of rubber boots she found that the departing frost had left the sodded meadow too wet and spongy for safety. Under Webb's direction she picked her way to the margin of the swollen stream, and gathered some pussy willows that were bursting their sheaths.

CHAPTER XXIII

REGRETS AND DUCK-SHOOTING

Saturday afternoon, as is usual in the country, brought an increased number of duties to the inhabitants of the farmhouse, but at the supper hour they all, except Burt, looked back upon the day with unwonted satisfaction. He had returned weary, hungry, and discontented, notwithstanding the fact that several brace of ducks hung on the piazza as trophies of his skill. He was in that uncomfortable frame of mind which results from charging one's self with a blunder. In the morning he had entered on the sport with his usual zest, but it had soon declined, and he wished he had remained at home. He remembered the children's intention of spending the day among the maples, and as the sun grew warm, and the air balmy, the thought occurred with increasing frequency that he might have induced Amy to join them, and so have enjoyed long hours of companionship under circumstances most favorable to his suit. He now admitted that were the river alive with ducks, the imagined opportunities of the maple grove were tenfold more attractive. At one time he half decided to return, but pride prevented until he should have secured a fair amount of game. He would not go home to be laughed at. Moreover, Amy had not been so approachable of late as he could wish, and he proposed to punish her a little, hoping that she would miss his presence


Nature's Serial Story - 30/78

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