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But little chance had Amy to talk with Webb for the next few days. He had seen the cloud on Burt's brow, and had observed that he was suspicious, unhappy, and irritable; that reason and good sense were not in the ascendant; and he understood his brother sufficiently well to believe that his attack must run its natural course, as like fevers had done before. From what he had seen he also thought that Amy could deal with Burt better than any one else, for although high-strung, he was also manly and generous when once he got his bearings. In his present mood he would bitterly resent interference from any one, but would be bound to obey Amy and to respect her wishes. Therefore he took especial pains to be most kindly, but also to appear busy and pre-occupied.
It must not be thought that Burt was offensive or even openly obtrusive in his attentions. He was far too well-bred for that. There was nothing for which even his mother could reprove him, or of which Amy herself could complain. It was the suit itself from which she shrank, or rather which she would put off indefinitely. But Burt was not disposed to put anything that he craved into the distance. Spring-tide impulses were in his veins, and his heart was so overcharged that it must find expression. His opportunity came unexpectedly. A long, exquisite day had merged into a moonlight evening. The apple-blossoms were in all their white-and-pink glory, and filled the summer-like air with a fragrance as delicate as that of the arbutus. The petals of the cherry were floating down like snow in every passing breeze, glimmering momentarily in the pale radiance. The night was growing so beautiful that Amy was tempted to stroll out in the grounds, and soon she yielded to a fancy to see the effect of moonlight through an apple-tree that towered like a mound of snow at some little distance from the house. She would not have been human had the witchery of the May evening been without its influence. If Burt could have understood her, this was his opportunity. If he had come with step and tone that accorded with the quiet evening, and simply said, "Amy, you know--you have seen that I love you; what hope can you give me?" she in her present mood would have answered him as gently and frankly as a child. She might have laughingly pointed him to the tree, and said: "See, it is in blossom now. It will be a long time before you pick the apples. You must wait. If you will be sensible, and treat me as you would Johnnie, were she older, I will ride and walk with you, and be as nice to you as I can."
But this Burt could not do and still remain Burt. He was like an overcharged cloud, and when he spoke at last his words seemed to the sensitive girl to have the vividness and abruptness of the lightning. It was her custom to make a special toilet for the evening, and when she had come down to supper with a rose in her hair, and dressed in some light clinging fabric, she had proved so attractive to the young fellow that he felt that the limit of his restraint was reached. He would appeal to her so earnestly, so passionately, as to kindle her cold nature. In his lack of appreciation of Amy he had come to deem this his true course, and she unconsciously enabled him to carry out the rash plan. He had seen her stroll away, and had followed her until she should be so far from the house that she must listen. As she emerged from under the apple-tree, through which as a white cloud she had been looking at the moon, he appeared so suddenly as to startle her, and without any gentle reassurance he seized her hand, and poured out his feelings in a way that at first wounded and frightened her.
"Burt," she cried, "why do you speak to me so? Can't you see that I do not feel as you do? I've given you no reason to say such words to me."
"Have you no heart, Amy? Are you as cold and elusive as this moonlight? I have waited patiently, and now I must and will speak. Every man has a right to speak and a right to an answer."
"Well then," she replied, her spirit rising; "if you will insist on my being a woman instead of a young girl just coming from the shadow of a great sorrow, I also have my rights. I've tried to show you gently and with all the tact I possessed that I did not want to think about such things. I'm just at the beginning of my girlhood and I want to be a young girl as long as I can and not an engaged young woman. No matter who spoke the words you have said, they would pain me. Why couldn't you see this from my manner and save both yourself and me from this scene? I'll gladly be your loving sister, but you must not speak to me in this way again."
"You refuse me then," he said, throwing back his head haughtily.
"Refuse you? No. I simply tell you that I won't listen to such words from any one. Why can't you be sensible and understand me? I no more wish to talk about such things than do Alf and Johnnie."
"I do understand you," he exclaimed, passionately, "and better perhaps than you understand yourself. You are not a child. You are a woman, but you seem to lack a woman's heart, as far as I am concerned;" and with a gesture that was very tragic and despairing he strode away.
She was deeply troubled and incensed also, and she returned to the house with drooping head and fast-falling tears.
"Why, Amy, what is the matter?" Looking up, she saw Webb coming down the piazza steps. Yielding to her impulse, she sprang forward and took his arm, as she said:
"Webb, you have always acted toward me like a brother. Tell me true: am I cold? am I heartless? is it unnatural in me that I do not wish to hear such words as Burt would speak to-night? All I ask is that he will let me stay a happy young girl till I am ready for something else. This is no way for a flower to bloom"--she snatched the rose from her hair, and pushed open the red petals--"and yet Burt expects me to respond at once to feelings that I do not even understand. If it's best in the future--but surely I've a right to my freedom for a long time yet. Tell me, do you think I'm unnatural?"
"No, Amy," he answered, gently. "It is because you are so perfectly natural, so true to your girlhood, that you feel as you do. In that little parable of the rose you explain yourself fully. You have no cause for self-reproach, nor has Burt for complaint. Will you do what I ask?"
"Yes, Webb. You say you do not understand me, and yet always prove that you do. If Burt would only treat me as you do, I should be perfectly happy."
"Well, Burt's good-hearted, but sometimes he mislays his judgment," said Webb, laughing. "Come, cheer up. There is no occasion for any high tragedy on his part or for grieving on yours. You go and tell mother all about it, and just how you feel. She is the right one to manage this affair, and her influence over Burt is almost unbounded. Do this, and, take my word for it, all will soon be serene."
And so it proved. Amy felt that night what it is to have a mother's boundless love and sympathy, and she went to her rest comforted, soothed, and more assured as to the future than she had been for a long time. "How quiet and sensible Webb was about it all!" was her last smiling thought before she slept. His thought as he strolled away in the moonlight after she left him was, "It is just as if I half believed. She has the mind of a woman, but the heart of a child. How apt was her use of that rose! It told all."
Burt did not stroll; he strode mile after mile, and the uncomfortable feeling that he had been very unwise, to say the least, and perhaps very unjust, was growing upon him. When at last he returned, his mother called to him through the open door. Sooner or later, Mrs. Clifford always obtained the confidence of her children, and they ever found that it was sacred. All that can be said, therefore, was, that he came from her presence penitent, ashamed, and hopeful. His mood may best be explained, perhaps, by a note written before he retired. "My dear sister Amy," it ran, "I wish to ask your pardon. I have been unjust and ungenerous. I was so blinded and engrossed by my own feelings that I did not understand you. I have proved myself unworthy of even a sister's love; but I will try to make amends. Do not judge me harshly because I was so headlong. There is no use in trying to disguise the truth. What I have said so unwisely and prematurely I cannot unsay, and I shall always be true to my words. But I will wait patiently as long as you please; and if you find, in future years, that you cannot feel as I do, I will not complain or blame you, however sad the truth may be to me. In the meantime, let there be no constraint between us. Let me become once more your trusted brother Burt." This note he pushed under her door, and then slept too soundly for the blighted youth he had a few hours before deemed himself.
He felt a little embarrassed at the prospect of meeting her the next morning, but she broke the ice at once by coming to him on the piazza and extending her hand in smiling frankness as she said: "You are neither unjust nor ungenerous, Burt, or you would not have written me such a note. I take you at your word. As you said the first evening I came, we shall have jolly times together."
The young fellow was immensely relieved and grateful, and he showed it. Soon afterward he went about the affairs of the day happier than he had been for a long time. Indeed, it soon became evident that his explosion on the previous evening had cleared the air generally. Amy felt that the one threatening cloud had sunk below the horizon. As the days passed, and Burt proved that he could keep his promise, her thoughts grew as serene as those of Johnnie. Her household duties were not very many, and yet she did certain things regularly. The old people found that she rarely forgot them, and she had the grace to see when she could help and cheer. Attentions that must be constantly asked for have little charm. A day rarely passed that did she not give one or more of its best hours to her music and drawing; for, while she never expected to excel in these arts, she had already learned that they would enable her to give much pleasure to others. Her pencil, also, was of great assistance in her study of out-door life, for the fixed attention which it required to draw a plant, tree, or bit of scenery revealed its characteristics. She had been even more interested in the unfolding of the leaf-buds than in the flowering of the trees, and the gradual advance of the foliage, like a tinted cloud, up the mountain-slopes, was something she never tired of watching. When she spoke of this one day to Webb, he replied:
"I have often wondered that more is not said and written about our spring foliage, before it passes into its general hue of green. To me it has a more delicate beauty and charm than anything seen in October. Different trees have their distinct coloring now as then, but it is evanescent, and the shades usually are less clearly marked. This very fact, however, teaches the eye to have a nicety of distinction that is pleasing."
The busy days passed quickly on. The blossoms faded from the trees, and the miniature fruit was soon apparent. The strawberry rows, that had been like lines of snow, were now full of little promising cones. The grass grew so lusty and strong that the dandelions were hidden except as the breeze caught up the winged seeds that the tuneful yellow-birds often seized in the air. The rye had almost reached its height, and Johnnie said it was "as good as going to the ocean to see it wave." At last the swelling buds on the rose-bushes proclaimed the advent of June.
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