At first she was pleased to see that he found the ditty far more to his taste than he had expected. But the rapid alternation from pleased surprise and enjoyment to something like a scowl of despair and almost hate she could not understand. Following his eyes she saw them resting on the boy, who was now eagerly joining in the chorus of the last verse. She was not sufficiently skilled to know that to Gregory's diseased moral nature things most simple and wholesome in themselves were most repugnant. She could not understand that the tripping little song, with its wild-wood life and movement—that the boy singing with the delight of a pure, fresh heart—told him, beyond the power of labored language, how hackneyed and blase he had become, how far and hopelessly he had drifted from the same true childhood.
And Miss Walton, turning suddenly toward him, saw the same dark expression, full of suffering and impotent revolt at his destiny, as he regarded it, and she too was puzzled.
"You do not like our foolish little song," she said.
"I envy that boy, Miss Walton," was his reply.
Then she began to understand him, and said, gently, "You have no occasion to."
"I wish you, or any one, could find the logic to prove that."
"The proof is not in logic but in nature, that is ever young. They who draw their life from nature do not fall into the only age we need dread."
"Do you not expect to grow old?"
She shook her head half humorously and said, "But these children will before I get them to bed."
He ostensibly resumed his magazine, but did not turn any leaves.
His first mental query was, "Have I rightly gauged Miss Walton? I half believe she understands me better than I do her. I estimated her as a goodish, fairly educated country girl, of the church-going sort, one that would be dreadfully shocked at finding me out, and deem it at once her mission to pluck me as a brand from the burning. I know all about the goodness of such girls. They are ignorant of the world; they have never been tempted, and they have a brood of little feminine weaknesses that of course are not paraded in public.
"And no doubt all this is true of Miss Walton, and yet, for some reason, she interests me a little this evening. She is refined, but nowhere in the world will you meet drearier monotony and barrenness than among refined people. Having no real originality, their little oddities are polished away. In Miss Walton I'm beginning to catch glimpses of vistas unexplored, though perhaps I am a fool for thinking so.
"What a peculiar voice she has! She would make a poor figure, no doubt, in an opera; and yet she might render a simple aria very well. But for songs of nature and ballads I have never heard so sympathetic a voice. It suggests a power of making music a sweet home language instead of a difficult, high art, attainable by few. Really Miss Walton is worth investigation, for no one with such a voice can be utterly commonplace. Strange as it is, I cannot ignore her. Though she makes no effort to attract my attention, I am ever conscious of her presence."
When Miss Walton returned to the parlor her father said, "Annie, I am going to trespass on your patience again."
She answered with a little piquant gesture, and was soon reading in natural, easy tones, without much stumbling, what must have been Greek to her.
Gregory watched her with increasing interest, and another question than the one of finance involved in the article was rising in his mind.
"Is this real? Is this seeming goodness a fact?" It was the very essence of his perverted nature to doubt it. Now that his eyes were opened, and he closely observed Miss Walton, he saw that his prejudices against her were groundless. Although not a stylish, pretty woman, she was evidently far removed from the goodish, commonplace character that he could regard as part of the furniture of the house, useful in its place, but of no more interest than a needful piece of cabinet work. Nor did she assert herself as do those aggressive, lecturing females who deem it their mission to set everybody right within their sphere.
And yet she did assert herself; but he was compelled to admit that it was like the summer breeze or the perfume of a rose. He had resolved that very day to avoid and ignore her as far as possible, and yet, before the first evening in her presence was half over, he had left a magazine story unfinished; he was watching her, thinking and surmising about her, and listening, as she read, to what he did not care a straw about. Although she had not made the slightest effort, some influence from her had stolen upon him like a cool breeze on a sultry day, and wooed him as gently as the perfume of a flower that is sweet to all. He said to himself, "She is not pretty," and yet found pleasure in watching her red lips drop figures and financial terms as musically as a little rill murmurs over a mossy rock.
From behind his magazine he studied the group at the opposite table, but it was with the pain which a despairing swimmer, swept seaward by a resistless current, might feel in seeing the safe and happy on the shore.
Gray Mr. Walton leaned back in his chair, the embodiment of peace and placid content.
The subject to which he was listening and kindred topics had so far receded that his interest was that of a calm, philosophic observer, and Gregory thought, with a glimmer of a smile, "He is not dabbling in stocks or he could not maintain that quiet mien."
His habits of thought as a business man merely made it a pleasure to keep up with the times. In fact he was in that serene border-land between the two worlds where the questions of earth are growing vague and distant and those of the "better country" more real and engrossing, for Gregory observed, later in the evening, that he took the family Bible with more zest than he had bestowed on the motive power of the world. It was evident where his most valued treasures were stored. With a bitter sigh, Gregory thought, "I would take his gray hairs if I could have his peace and faith."
Miss Eulie, to whom he gave a passing glance, seemed even less earthly in her nature. Indeed, it appeared as if she had never more than half belonged to the material creation. Slight, ethereal, with untroubled blue eyes, and little puff curls too light to show their change to gray, she struck Gregory unpleasantly, as if she were a connecting link between gross humanity and spiritual existence, and his eyes reverted to Miss Walton, and dwelt with increasing interest on her. There at least were youth, health, and something else—what was it in the girl that had so strongly and suddenly gained his attention? At any rate there was nothing about her uncanny and spirit-like.
He did not understand her. Was it possible that a young girl, not much beyond twenty, was happy in the care of orphan children, in the quiet humdrum duties of housekeeping, and in reading stupid articles through the long, quiet evenings, with few excitements beyond church-going, rural tea-drinkings, and country walks and rides? With a grim smile he thought how soon the belles he had admired would expire under such a regimen. Could this be good acting because a guest was present? If so it was perfect, for it seemed, her daily life.
"I will watch her," he thought. "I will solve this little feminine enigma. It will divert my mind, and I've nothing else to do."
"My daughter spoils me, you see, Mr. Gregory," said Mr. Walton, starting up as Annie finished a theory that would make every one rich by the printing-press process,
"Don't plume yourself, papa," replied Annie, archly; "I shall make you do something for me to pay for all this."
With a humorous look he replied, "No matter, I have the best of the bargain, for I should have to do the 'something' anyway. But what do you think of this theory, sir?" And he explained, not knowing that Walter had been listening.
The gentlemen were soon deep in the mysteries of currency and finance, topics on which both could talk well. Annie listened with polite attention for a short time—indeed Gregory was exerting himself more for her sake than for Mr. Walton's—and she was satisfied from her father's face that his guest was interesting him; but as the subject was mainly unintelligible to her she soon turned with real zest to Miss Eulie's fancy-work, and there was an earnest whispered discussion in regard to the right number of stitches. Walter noted this and sneeringly thought, with a masculine phase of justice often seen, "That's like a woman. She drops one of the deepest and most important subjects of the day" (and he might have added, "As explained by me")— "and gives her whole soul to a bit of thread lace;" and he soon let Mr. Walton have the discussion all his own way.
In furtherance of his purpose to draw Annie out he said, rather banteringly, "Miss Walton, I am astonished that so good a man as your father should have as an ardent friend the profane and disreputable character that I found living in the cottage opposite on the day of my arrival."
"Profane, I admit he is," she replied, "but not disreputable. Indeed, as the world goes, I think old Daddy Tuggar, as he is called in this vicinity, is a good man."
"O, Annie!" said Miss Eulie. "How can you think so? You have broader charity than I. He is breaking his poor wife's heart."
"Indeed?" said Annie, dryly; "I was not aware of it."
"I too am astonished," said Walter, in mock solemnity. "How is it that a refined and orthodox young lady, a pillar of the church, too, I gather, can regard with other than unmixed disapprobation a man who breaks the third commandment and all the rules of Lindley Murray at every breath?"
"I imagine the latter offence is the more heinous sin in your eyes, Mr. Gregory," she said, scanning his face with a quick look.
"Oh, you become aggressive. I was under the impression that I was making the attack and that you were on the defensive. But I can readily explain the opinion which you, perhaps not unjustly, impute to me. You and I judge this venerable sinner from different standpoints."
"You explain your judgment, but do not justify it," replied Annie, quietly.
"Annie, I don't see on what grounds you call Daddy Tuggar a good man," said Miss Eulie, emphatically.
"Please understand me, aunty," said Annie, earnestly. "I did not say he was a Christian man, but merely a good man as the world goes; and I know I shall shock you when I say that I have more faith in him than in his praying and Scripture-quoting wife. There, I knew I should," she added, as she saw Miss Eulie's look of pained surprise.
Mr. Walton was listening with an amused smile. He evidently understood his quaint old friend and shared Annie's opinion of him.
Gregory was growing decidedly interested, and said, "Really, Miss Walton, I must side with your aunt in this matter. I shall overwhelm you with an awful word. I think you are latitudinarian in your tendencies."
"Which Daddy Tuggar would call a new-fangled way of swearing at me," retorted Annie, with her frank laugh that was so genuinely mirthful that even Aunt Eulie joined in it.
"I half think," continued Annie, "that the churchmen in the ages of controversy did a good deal of worse swearing than our old neighbor is guilty of when they hurled at each other with such bitter zest the epithets Antinomian, Socinian, Pelagian, Calvinistic, etc."
"Those terms have an awful sound. They smite my ear with all the power that vagueness imparts, and surely must have caused stout hearts to tremble in their day," he remarked.
"We are no longer on the ground of currency and finance," said Annie, archly, "and I shall leave you to imagine that I know all about the ideas represented by the polysyllabic terms of churchmen's warfare."
He looked at her a moment in comic dismay. Really this country girl was growing too much for him in his game of banter.
"Miss Walton, I shall not dispute or question your knowledge of the Socin—cin—(you know the rest) heresy—"
"Alas!" put in Annie, quietly, "I do know all about the 'sin heresy.' I can say that honestly."
"I am somewhat inclined to doubt that," he said, quickly; then added, in sudden and mock severity, "Miss Walton, if I were a judge upon the bench I should charge that you were evading the question and befogging the case. The point at issue is, How can you regard Daddy Tuggar as a good man? As evidence against him I can affirm that I do not remember to have had such a good square cursing in my life, and I have received several."
This last expression caused Miss Eulie to open her eyes at him.
"Not for your sake, sir," said Annie, with a keen yet humorous glance at him, "who as judge on the bench have in your pocket a written verdict, I fear, but for Aunt Eulie's I will give the reasons for my estimate. I regard her in the light of an honest jury. In the first place the term you used, 'square,' applies to him. I do not think he could be tempted to do a dishonest thing; and that, as the world goes, is certainly a good point."
"And as the church goes, too," he added, cynically.
"He is a good neighbor, and considerate of the rights of others. He can feel, and is not afraid to show a sincere indignation when seeing a wrong done to another."
"I can vouch for that. I shall steal no more of your apples, Mr. Walton."
"There is not a particle of hypocrisy about him. I wish I could think the same of his wife. For some reason she always gives me the impression of insincerity. If I were as good as you are, aunty, perhaps I should not be so suspicious. One thing more, and my eulogy of Daddy—the only one he will ever receive, I fear—is over. He is capable of sincere friendship, and that is more than you can say of a great many."
"It is indeed," said Gregory, with bitter emphasis. "I should be willing to take my chances with Daddy Tuggar in this or any other world."
"You had better not," she answered, now thoroughly in earnest.
"I should think memories of this place would make my meaning clear," she replied, gently.
Gregory's face darkened, and he admitted to himself that most unexpectedly she had sent an arrow home, and yet he could take no exception.
His indifference toward her had vanished now. So far from regarding her as a dull, good, country girl with a narrow horizon of little feminine and commonplace interests, he began to doubt whether he should be able to cope with her in the tilt of thought. He saw that she was quick, original, and did her own thinking, that in repartee she hit back unexpectedly, in flashes, as the lightning strikes from the clouds. He could not keep pace with her quick intuition.
Moreover, in her delicate reference to his parents' faith she had suggested an argument for Christianity that he had never been able to answer. For a little time she had caused him to forget his wretched self, but her last remark had thrown him back on his old doubts, fears, and memories. As we have said, his cynical, despondent expression returned, and he silently lowered at the fire.
Annie had too much tact to add a word. "He must be hurt—well probed indeed—before he can be well," she thought.
Country bedtime had now come, and Mr. Walton said, "Mr. Gregory, I trust you will not find our custom of family prayers distasteful."
"The absence of such a custom would seem strange to me in this place," he replied, but he did not say whether it would be agreeable or distasteful.
Annie went to the piano as if it were a habit, and after a moment chose the tender hymn—
"Come, ye disconsolate."
At first, in his morbid sensitiveness, he was inclined to resent this selection as aimed at him, but soon he was under the spell of the music and the sentiment, which he thought had never before been so exquisitely blended.
Miss Walton was not very finished or artistic in anything. She would not be regarded as a scholar, even among the girls of her own age and station, and her knowledge of classical music was limited. But she was gifted in a peculiar degree with tact, a quick perception, and the power of interpreting the language of nature and of the heart. She read and estimated character rapidly. Almost intuitively she saw people's needs and weaknesses, but so far was she from making them the ground of satire and contempt that they awakened her pity and desire to help. In other words, she was one of those Christians who in some degree catch the very essence of Christ's character, who lived and died to save. She did not think of condemning the guilty and disconsolate man that brooded at her fireside, but she did long to help him.
"I may never be able to say such words to him directly," she thought, "but I can sing them, and if he leaves our home to-morrow he shall hear the truth once more."
And she did sing with tenderness and feeling. In rendering something that required simplicity, nature, and pathos, no prima donna could surpass her, for while her voice was not powerful, and had no unusual compass, it was as sweet as that of a thrush in May.
Only deaf ears and a stony heart could have remained insensible, and Gregory was touched. A reviving breath from Paradise seemed to blow upon him and gently urge, "Arise, struggle, make one more effort, and you may yet cross the burning sands of the desert. It is not a mirage that is mocking you now."
As the last words trembled from the singer's lips he shaded his eyes with the hand on which his head was leaning, but Miss Eulie saw a tear fall with momentary glitter, and she exulted over it as his good angel might have done.
If penitent tears could be crystallized they would be the only gems of earth that angels would covet, and perhaps God's co-workers here will find those that they caused to flow on earth, set as gems in their "crown of glory that fadeth not away."
Mr. Walton, in reverential tones, read the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, which, with greater beauty and tenderness, carried forward the thought of the hymn; and then he knelt and offered a prayer that was so simple and child-like, so free from form and cant, and so direct from the heart, that Gregory was deeply moved. The associations of his early home were now most vividly revealed and crowned by the sacred hour of family worship, the memory of which, like a reproachful face, had followed him in all his evil life.
When he arose from his knees he again shaded his face with his hand to hide his wet eyes and twitching muscles. After a few moments he bade the family an abrupt goodnight, and retired to his room.
At first they merely exchanged significant glances. Then Miss Eulie told of the tear as if it were a bit of dust from a mine that might enrich them all. For a while Annie sat thoughtfully gazing into the fire, but at last she said, "It must be plain to us that Mr. Gregory has wandered further from his old home in spirit than he has in body; but it seems equally evident that he is not happy and content. He seems suffering and out of health in soul and body. Perhaps God has sent him to us and to his childhood's home for healing. Let us, therefore, be very careful, very tender and considerate. He is naturally proud and sensitive, and is morbidly so now."
"I think he is near the Kingdom," said Miss Eulie, with a little sigh of satisfaction.
"Perhaps all are nearer than we think," said Annie, in a musing tone. "God is not far from any one of us. But it is the curse of sin to blind. He has, no doubt, been long in reaching his present unhappy condition, and he may be long in escaping from it."
"Well, the Lord reigns," said Mr. Walton, sententiously, as if that settled the question.
"Dear old father!" said Annie, smiling fondly at him, "that's your favorite saying. You have a comfortable habit of putting all perplexing questions into the Lord's hand and borrowing no further trouble. Perhaps that is the wisest way after all, only one is a long time learning it."
"I've been a long time learning it, my child," said her father. "Let us agree to carry his case often to the throne of mercy, and in His good time and way our prayers will be answered."
Thus in quaint old scriptural style they conspired for the life of their unconscious guest. This was in truth a "holy alliance." How many dark conspiracies there have been, resulting in blood, wrong, and outrage, that some unworthy brow might wear for a little time a petty, perishing crown of earth! Oh, that there were more conspiracies like that in Mr. Walton's parlor for the purpose of rendering the unworthy fit to wear the crown immortal!
Miss Eulie was doomed to disappointment, for Gregory came down late to breakfast the following morning with not a trace of his softened feelings. Indeed, because of pride, or for some reason, he chose to seem the very reverse of all she had hoped. The winter of his unbelief could not pass away so easily.
Even in January there are days of sudden relenting, when the frost's icy grasp upon nature seems to relax. Days that rightfully belong to spring drop down upon us with birds that have come before their time. But such days may end in a northeast snowstorm and the birds perish.
The simile appeared true of Gregory. As far as he took part in the table-talk he was a cold, finished man of the world, and the gloom of the early morning rested on his face. But Annie noticed that he made an indifferent breakfast and did not appear well.
After he had retired to his room to write some letters, as he said, she remarked to her father when alone with him:
"I suppose you remember Mr. Gregory's manner when you spoke of Mr. Hunting. They evidently are acquainted and not on good terms. What could have occurred between them?"
"Some quarrel resulting from business, perhaps," said Mr. Walton, musingly.
"I believe Charles has been trying to restrain Mr. Gregory in some of his fast ways," Annie continued, emphatically, "and they have had hot words. Men have so little discretion in their zeal."
"Business men are not apt to interfere with each other's foibles unless they threaten their pockets," her father replied. "It is more probable that Gregory has borrowed money of Hunting, and been compelled to pay it against his will; and yet I have no right to surmise anything of the kind."
"But Mr. Hunting is not a mere business man, father. He is bent on doing good wherever he can find opportunity. I incline to my solution. But it is clear that we must be silent in regard to him while Mr. Gregory is with us, for I never saw such bitter enmity expressed in any face. It is well that Charles is to be absent for some time, and that we have no prospect of a visit from him while our guest is here. Oh, dear! I wish Charles could come and make us a visit instead of this moody, wayward stranger."
"I can echo that wish heartily, Annie, for in the son I find little of my old friend, his father. But remember what you said last night. It may be that he was sent to us in order that we should help him become what his father was."
"I will do my best; but I do not look forward to his society with much pleasure. Still, if there should be any such result as we hope for, I should feel repaid a thousand-fold."
Gregory finished his letters and then paced restlessly up and down his room.
"That this country girl should have so moved me!" he muttered. "What does it mean? What is there about her that takes hold of my attention and awakens my interest? I wish to go downstairs now, and talk to her, and have her read to me, and am provoked with myself that I do. Yesterday at this time I wished to avoid her.
"Why should I wish to avoid her? If she amuses me, diverts my mind, beguiles my pain, or more dreary apathy, why not let her exert her power to the utmost and make herself useful? Yes, but she will try to do more than amuse. Well, suppose she does; one can coolly foil such efforts. Not so sure of that. If I were dealing with a man I could, but one must be worse than a clod to hear her sing and not feel. I suppose I made a weak fool of myself before them all last night, and they thought I was on the eve of conversion. I half wish I were, or on the eve of anything else. Any change from my present state would seem a relief. But a man cannot go into these things like an impulsive girl, even if he believes in them, which is more than I do. I seem to have fallen into a state of moral and physical imbecility, in which I can only doubt, suffer, and chafe.
"I won't avoid her. I will study and analyze her character. I doubt whether she is as good, fresh, and original as she seems. Such girls exist only in moral stories, and I've met but few even there. I will solve her mystery. Probably it is not a very deep one, and after a day or two she will become an old story and life resume its normal monotony;" and he at once descended the stairs to carry out his purpose.
The children were just coming from the sitting-room where they had their school, exclaiming, "Oh, aunty, what shall we do this awful rainy day?"
"Wait till I have given some directions to Zibbie, and I will read you a fairy story, and then you can go up into the garret until dinner- time."
"May I listen to the fairy story also?" asked Walter.
Miss Walton looked up with a smile and said, "You must be half- desperate from your imprisonment to accept of such solace. But if you can wait till I have kept my word to the children I will read something more to your taste."
"I think I should like to hear how a fairy story sounds once again after all these years."
"As Shakespeare may sound to us some time in the future," she replied, smiling.
"I can't believe we shall ever outgrow Shakespeare," he said.
"I can believe it, but cannot understand how it is possible. As yet I am only growing up to Shakespeare."
"You seem very ready to believe what you cannot understand."
"And that is woman's way, I suppose you would like to add," she answered, smiling over her shoulder, as she turned to the kitchen department. "You men have a general faith that there will be dinner at two o'clock, though you understand very little how it comes to pass, and if you are disappointed the best of your sex have not fortitude enough to wait patiently, so I must delay no longer to propitiate the kitchen divinity."
"There!" he said, "I have but crossed her steps in the hall, and she has stirred me and set my nerves tingling like an October breeze. She is a witch."
After a few minutes Miss Walton entered. Each of the children called for a story, and both clamored for their favorites.
"Johnny," said Miss Walton, "it is manly to yield to the least and weakest, especially if she be a little woman."
The boy thought a moment, and then with an amusing assumption of dignity said, "You may read Susie's story first, aunty."
"Susie, promise Johnny that his story shall be read first next time;" which Susie promptly did with a touch of the womanly grace which accompanies favors bestowed after the feminine will has triumphed.
"Now, little miniature man and woman, listen!" and their round eyes were ready for the world of wonders.
And this child of nature was at the same time showing Gregory a world as new and strange—a world that he had caught glimpses of when a boy, but since had lost hopelessly. She carried the children away into fairy-land. She suggested to him a life in which simplicity, truth, and genuine goodness might bring peace and hope to the heart.
"Well, what do you think of the fairy story?" she asked after she had finished and the children had drawn sighs of intense relief at the happy denouement, in which the ugly ogre was slain and the prince and princess were married:
"I did not hear it," he said.
"That's complimentary. But you appeared listening very closely."
"You have heard of people reading a different meaning between the lines, and I suppose one can listen to a different meaning."
"And what could you find between the lines of this fairy tale?" she asked with interest.
"It would be difficult for me to explain—something too vague and indefinite for words, I fear. But if you will read me something else I will listen to the text itself."
"Come, children, scamper off to the garret," said Annie, "and remember you are nearer heaven up there, and so must be very kind and gentle to each other."
"You will fill those youngsters' heads with beautiful superstitions."
"Superstition and faith are not so very far apart, though so unlike."
"Yes, it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins."
"I don't like to contradict you, sir."
"You have contradicted me, and I suppose it is manly to yield to a lady.'"
"Not in matters of principle and honest conviction."
"Alas! if one has not very much of either!"
"It is a very great misfortune, and, I suppose I ought to add, fault."
"I have no doubt it is a misfortune, Miss Walton, but you are not reading."
"Well, make your choice."
"I leave it entirely to you."
"You don't look very well to-day. I will select something light and cheerful from Dickens."
"Excuse me, please. I am in no mood for his deliberate purpose to make one laugh."
"Then here is Irving. His style flows like a meadowbrook."
"No, he is too sentimental."
"Walter Scott, then, will form a happy medium."
"No, he wearies one with explanations and history."
"Some of Tennyson's dainty idylls will suit your fastidious taste."
"I couldn't abide his affected, stilted language to-day."
"Shakespeare, then; you regard him as perfect."
"No, he makes me think, and I do not wish to."
"Well, here are newspapers, the latest magazine, and some new novels."
"Modern rubbish—a mushroom growth. They will soon kindle kitchen fires instead of thought."
"Then I must make an expedition to the library. What shall I bring? There is Mosheim's 'Ecclesiastical Ancient History'; that has a solid, venerable sound. Or, if you prefer poetry, I will get Gray's 'Elegy.' That cannot be a literary mushroom, for he was twenty years writing it. But perhaps it is Tupper you would like. That would suit your mood exactly, Tupper's 'Proverbial Philosophy.'"
"You are growing satirical, Miss Walton. Why don't you assert plainly that I am as full of whims as a—"
"Woman, would you like to say?"
"Present company excepted. The fact is, I am two-thirds ill to-day, and the most faultless style and theme in our language would weary me. I am possessed by the evil spirits of ennui, unrest, and disgust at myself and all the world, present company always excepted. Do you know of any spell that can exorcise these demons?"
"Yes, a very simple one. Will you put yourself absolutely in my power and obey?"
"I am your slave."
Miss Walton left the room and soon returned with a large afghan. "You must take a horizontal position in order that my spell may work."
"Pshaw! you are prescribing an ordinary nap."
"I am glad to say the best things in this world are ordinary. But permit me to suggest that in view of your pledged word you have nothing to do in this matter but to obey."
"Very well;" and he threw himself on the sofa.
"The day is chilly, sir, and I must throw this afghan over you;" and she did so with a little touch of delicacy which is so grateful when one is indisposed.
Her manner both soothed and pleased him.
He was more lonely than he realized, for it had been years since he had experienced woman's gentle care and ministry; and Annie Walton had a power possessed by few to put jangling nerves at rest. Suddenly he said, "I wish I had a sister like you."
"My creed, you know," she replied, "makes all mankind kindred."
"Nonsense!" said Gregory, irritably; "deliver me from your church sisters."
"Take care!" she answered, with a warning nod, "I'm a church sister; so don't drive me away, for I am going to sing you to sleep."
"I'm half inclined to join your church that I may call you sister."
"You would be disciplined and excommunicated within a month. But hush; you must not talk."
"How would you treat me after I had been anathematized?"
"If you were as ill as you are to-day I would make you sleep. Hush; not another word. I am going to sing."
A luxurious sense of comfort stole over him, and he composed himself to listen and criticise, little imagining, though, that he would fall asleep. He saw through the window a lowering sky with leaden clouds driven wildly across it. The wind moaned and soughed around the angles of the house, and the rain beat against the glass. All without seemed emblematic of himself. But now he had a brief but blessed sense of shelter from both the storm and himself. The fire blazed cheerily on the hearth. The afghan seemed to envelop him like a genial atmosphere. Had Miss Walton bewitched it by her touch? And now she has found something to suit her, or rather him, and is singing.
"What an unusual voice she has!" he thought "Truly the spirit of David's harp, that could banish the demon from Saul, dwells in it. I wonder if she is as good and real as she seems, or whether, under the stress of temptation or the poison of flattery, she would not show herself a true daughter of Eve? I must find out, for it is about the only remaining question that interests me. If she is like the rest of us—if she is a female Hunting—then good-by to all hope. I shall not live to find anybody or anything to trust. If she is what she seems, it's barely possible that she might help me out of this horrible 'slough of despond,' if she would take the trouble. I wish that she were my sister, or that my sister had lived and had been just like her."
MISS WALTON RECOMMENDS A HOBBY
To Gregory's surprise he waked and then admitted to himself that, contrary to his expectation and purpose, he had been asleep. His last remembered consciousness was that of sweet, low music; and how long ago was that? He looked at his watch; it was nearly two, and he must have slept several hours. He glanced around and saw that he was alone, but the fire still blazed on the hearth, and the afghan infolded him with its genial warmth as before, and it seemed that although by himself he was still cared for.
"She is a witch," he muttered. "Her spells are no jokes. But I will investigate her case like an old-time Salem inquisitor. With more than Yankee curiosity, which was at the bottom of their superstitious questionings, I will pry into her power. But she will find that she has a wary sceptic to convince. I have seen too many saints and sinners to be again deceived by fair seeming."
A broad ray of sunlight shot across the room. "By my soul! it's clearing off. Is this her work also? Has she swept away the clouds with her broomstick? And there goes the dinner-bell, too;" and he went to his room two steps at a time, as he had done when a boy.
Annie coming out of the sitting-room at that moment, smiled and said: "He must be better."
At the table she asked, "How do you find yourself now?"
"Much given to appetite." Then, turning to Mr. Walton, he said, abruptly, "Do you believe in witchcraft?"
"Well, no, sir," said Mr. Walton, a little taken aback.
"I do!" continued he, emphatically.
"When and where have you had experience of the black art?"
"This morning, and in your house, sir."
"You seem none the worse for it," said his host, smiling.
"Indeed, I have not felt so well in months. Your larder will suffer if I am practiced upon any more."
"Well, of all modern and prosaic results of witchery this exceeds," said Annie, laughing, "since only a good appetite comes of it."
"It yet remains to be seen whether this is the only result," replied Gregory. "What possessed the old Puritans to persecute the Salem witches is a mystery to me, if their experience was anything like mine."
"You must remember that the question of what was agreeable or otherwise scarcely entered into a Puritan's motives."
"I am not so sure of that," he answered, quickly. "It has ever seemed to me that the good people of other days went into persecution with a zeal that abstract right can hardly account for. People will have their excitements, and a good rousing persecution used to stir things like the burning of Chicago or a Presidential election in our day."
"Granting," said Annie, "the bigotry and cruelty of the persecutor— and these must be mainly charged to the age—still you must admit that among them were earnest men who did from good motives what appears very wrong to us. What seemed to them evil and destructive principles were embodied in men and women, and they meant to destroy the evil through the suffering and death of these poor creatures."
"And then consider the simplicity and ease of the persecutor's method," continued Gregory, mockingly. "A man's head has become full of supposed doctrinal errors. To refute and banish these would require much study and argument on the part of the opponent. It was so much easier to take an obstinate heretic's head off than to argue with him! I think it was the simplicity of the persecutor's method that kept it in favor so long."
"But it never convinced any one," said Annie, "and the man killed merely goes into another world of the same opinion still."
"And there probably learns, poor fellow, that both were wrong, and that he had better have been content with good dinners and a quiet life, and let theology alone."
"The world would move but slowly, if all men were content with 'good dinners and a quiet life,'" said Annie, satirically. "But you have not answered my question. Could not good, earnest men have been very cruel, believing that everything depended on their uprooting some evil of their day?"
"To tell the truth, Miss Walton," he replied, a little nettled, "I have no sympathy with that style of men. To me they are very repulsive and ridiculous. They remind me of the breathless, perspiring politicians of our time, who button-hole you and assert that the world will come to an end unless John Smith is elected. To me, the desperate earnestness of people who imagine it their mission to set the world right is excessively tiresome. For one man or a thousand to proclaim that they speak for God and embody truth, and that the race should listen and obey, is the absurdity of arrogance."
"If we were to agree with you, should we not have to say that the prophets should have kept their visions to themselves, and that Luther should have remained in his cell, and Columbus have coasted alongshore and not insisted on what was to all the world an absurdity?"
"Come, Miss Walton," said Gregory, with a vexed laugh as they rose from the table, "you are a witch. I am willing to argue with flesh and blood, but I would rather hear you sing. Still, since you have swept away these clouds so I can have my ramble, I will forgive you for unhorsing me in our recent tilt."
"If you would mount some good honest hobby and ride it hard, I doubt whether any one could unhorse you," she replied in a low tone, as she accompanied him to the parlor.
"Men with hobbies are my detestation, Miss Walton."
"Nevertheless, they are the true knights-errant of our age. Of course it depends upon what kind of hobbies they ride, or whether they can manage their steeds."
"Miss Walton, your figure suggests a half-idiot, with a narrow forehead and one idea, banging back and forth on a wooden horse, but making no progress—in other words, a fussy, bustling man who can do and talk but one thing."
"Your understanding of the popular phrase is narrow and literal, and while it may have such a meaning, it can also have a very different one. Suppose that, instead of looking with languid eyes alike upon all things, a man finds some question of vital import, or a pursuit that promises good to himself and to others and that enlists his interest. He comes at last to give it his best energies and thought. The whole current of his life is setting in that direction. Of course he must ever be under the restraints of good sense and refinement. A man's life without a hobby is a weak and wavering line of battle indefinitely long. One's life with a hobby is a concentrated charge."
There was in Miss Walton's face and manner, as she uttered these words, that which caused him to regard her with involuntary admiration. Suddenly he asked, "Have you a hobby?"
Her manner changed instantly, and with an arch look she said, "If you detest a man with a hobby, what a monster a woman with one would be in your eyes!"
"I have admitted that you are a witch."
"Oh, I am a monster already, and so have no character to lose. But where is your penetration? If a man with a hobby is idiotic, narrow- browed, fussy and bustling, excessively obtrusive with his one idea, a woman must be like him with all these things exaggerated. Has it not occurred to you that I have a hobby of the most wooden and clumsy order?"
"But that was my idea of a hobby. You have spiritualized my wooden block into a Pegasus—the symbol of inspiration. Have you such a hobby?"
"What is it?"
She went out of the room, saying smilingly over her shoulder, "You must find that out for yourself."
A PLOT AGAINST MISS WALTON
Gregory was soon off for his ramble. The storm had cleared away, leaving the air so warm and genial as to suggest spring rather than fall; but he was quite oblivious of the outer world, and familiar scenes had not the power to awaken either pleasant or painful associations. He was trying to account for the influence that Annie Walton had suddenly gained over him, but it was beyond his philosophy. This provoked him. His cool, worldly nature doubted everything and especially everybody. He believed in the inherent weakness of humanity, and that if people were exceptionally good it was because they had been exceptionally fortunate in escaping temptation. He also had a cynical pleasure in seeing such people tripping and stumbling, so that he might say in self-excusing, "We are all alike."
And yet he was compelled to admit that if Annie's goodness was seeming it was higher art than he had known before. There was also an unconscious assertion of superiority in her manner that he did not like. True, things had turned out far better than he had expected. There was no cant about her. She did not lecture him or "talk religion" in what he regarded as the stereotyped way, and he was sure she would not, even if they became better acquainted. But there is that in genuine goodness and nobility of character that always humiliates the bad and makes them feel their degradation. A real pity and sympathy for him tinged her manner, but these qualities are not agreeable to pride. And it must be admitted that she had a little self-righteous satisfaction that she was so much better than this sadly robbed and wounded man suddenly appearing at the wayside of her life. In human strength there is generally a trace of arrogance. Only divine strength and purity can say with perfect love and full allowance for all weakness and adverse influences, "Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more."
Gregory had now reached a rustic bridge across a little stream that, swollen from the recent rain, came gurgling and clamoring down from the hills. Leaning upon the rail he seemed to watch the foaming water glide under his feet; but the outward vision made no impression on his mind.
At last in the consciousness of solitude he said: "She told me I must find her out. I will. I will know whether she is as free from human frailty as she seems. I have little doubt that before many days I can cause her to show all the inherent weaknesses of her sex; and I should think New York and Paris had taught me what they are. She has never been tempted. She has never been subjected to the delicate flattery of an accomplished man of the world. I am no gross libertine. I could not be in this place. I could not so wrong hospitality and the household of my father's friend. But I should like to prove to that girl her delusion, and show her that she is a weak woman like the rest; that she is a pretty painted ship that has never been in a storm, and therefore need not sail so confidently. We all start on the voyage of life as little skiffs and pleasure boats might cross the ocean. If any get safely over, it is because they were lucky enough not to meet dangerous currents or rough weather. I should like her better with her piquant ways if she were more like myself. Saints and Madonnas are well enough in pictures, but such as I would find them very uncomfortable society."
With sudden power the thought flashed upon him, "Why not let her make you as she is?" Where did the thought come from? Tell me not that the Divine Father forgets His children. He is speaking to them continually, only they will not hear. There was a brief passionate wish on the part of this bad man that she might be what she seemed and that he could become like her. As the turbulent, muddy Jordan divided that God's people might pass through, so this thought from heaven found passage through his heart, and then the current of sinful impulse and habit flowed on as before. With the stupidity of evil he was breaking the clew that God had dropped into his hand even when desperately weary of his lost state. He is wrecked and helpless on the wide ocean; a ship is coming to his rescue; and his first effort is that this vessel also may be wrecked or greatly injured in the attempt.
There is no insanity like that of a perverted heart. The adversary of souls has so many human victims doing his work that he can fold his hands in idleness. And yet according to the world's practice, and we might almost say its code, Gregory purposed nothing that would be severely condemned—nothing more than an ordinary flirtation, as common in society as idleness, love of excitement, and that power over others which ministers to vanity. He had no wish to be able to say anything worse of her than that under temptation she would be as vain and heartless a coquette as many others that he knew in what is regarded as good society. He would have cut off his right hand, as he then felt, rather than have sought to lead her into gross sin.
And yet what did Gregory purpose in regard to Annie but to take the heavenly bloom and beauty from her character? As if they can be lovely to either God or man of whom it can be said only, They commit no overt crime. What is the form of a rose without its beauty and fragrance? They who tempt to evil are the real iconoclasts. They destroy God's image.
But the supreme question of the selfish heart is, "What do I want now?"
Gregory wished to satisfy himself and Miss Walton that she had no grounds for claiming any special superiority over him, and he turned on his heel and went back to the house to carry out his purpose. Nature, purified and beautiful by reason of its recent baptism from heaven, had no attractions for him. Gems of moisture sparkled unseen. He was planning and scheming to turn her head with vanity, make her quiet life of ministry to others odious, and draw her into a fashionable flirtation.
Annie did not appear until the supper-bell summoned her, and then said, "Mr. Gregory, I hope you will not think it rude if father and I leave you to your books and Aunt Eulie's care this evening. It is our church prayer-meeting night, and father never likes to be absent."
"I shall miss you beyond measure. The evening will seem an age."
Something in his tone caused her to give him a quick glance, but she only said, with a smile, "You are very polite to say so, but I imagine the last magazine will be a good substitute."
"I doubt whether there is a substitute for you, Miss Walton. I am coming to believe that your absence would make that vacuum which nature so dreads. You shall see how good I will be this evening, and you shall read me everything you please, even to that 'Ancient Ecclesiastical History.' If you will only stay I will be your slave; and you shall rule me with a rod of iron or draw me with the silken cords of kindness, according to your mood."
"It is not well to have too many moods, Mr. Gregory," said Annie, quietly. "In reply to all your alluring reasons for staying at home I have only to say that I have promised father to go with him; besides, I think it is my duty to go."
"'Duty' is a harsh, troublesome word to be always quoting. It is a kind of strait-jacket which we poor moral lunatics are compelled to wear."
"'Duty' seems to me a good solid road on which one may travel safely. One never knows where the side paths lead: into the brambles or a morass like enough."
"Indeed, Miss Walton, such austerity is not becoming to your youth and beauty."
"What am I to think of your sincerity when you speak of my beauty, Mr. Gregory?"
"Beauty is a question of taste," answered Gregory, gallantly. "It is settled by no rigid rules or principles, but by the eyes of the observer."
"Oh! I understand now. My beauty this evening is the result of your bad taste."
"Calling it 'bad' does not make it so. Well, since you will not remain at home with me, will you not let me go with you to the prayer- meeting? If I'm ever to join your church, it is time I entered on the initiating mysteries."
"I think a book will do you more good in your present mood."
"What a low estimate you make of the 'means of grace'! Why, certain of your own poets have said, 'And fools who came to scoff remained to pray.'"
"The quotation does not apply to you, Mr. Gregory. For, even if you can doubt the power and truth of Christianity, the memory of your childhood will prevent you from scoffing at it."
A sudden shadow came across his face, but after a moment he said, in his old tones:
"Will you not let me go to the prayer-meeting?"
"Father will be glad to have you go with us, if you think it prudent to venture out in the night air."
"Prudence to the dogs! What is the use of living if we cannot do as we please? But will you be glad to have me go?"
"That depends upon your motives."
"If I should confess you wouldn't let me go," he replied with a bow. "But I will try to be as good as possible, just to reward your kindness."
The rest of the family now joined them in the supper-room, and during the meal Walter exerted himself to show how entertaining he could be if he chose. Anecdotes, incidents of travel, graphic sketches of society, and sallies of wit, made an hour pass before any one was aware.
Even the children listened with wondering eyes, and Mr. Walton and Miss Eulie were delighted with the vivacity of their guest. Annie apparently had no reason to complain of him, for his whole manner toward her during the hour was that of delicately sustained compliment. When she spoke he listened with deference, and her words usually had point and meaning. He also gave to her remarks the best interpretation of which they were capable, and by skilfully drawing her out made her surpass even herself, so that Miss Eulie said, "Why, Annie, there surely is some witchcraft about. You and Mr. Gregory are as brilliant as fireworks."
"It's all Miss Walton's work, I assure you," said Gregory. "As Pat declared, 'I'm not meself any more,' and shall surprise you, sir, by asking if I may go to the prayer-meeting. Miss Walton says I can if I will behave myself. The last time I went to the old place I made faces at the girls. I suppose that would be wrong."
"That is the sin of our age—making faces," said Annie. "Many have two, and some can make for themselves even more."
"Now that was a barbed arrow," said Gregory, looking at her keenly. "Did you let it fly at a venture?"
"Bless me!" said Mr. Walton, rising hastily, "we should have been on the road a quarter of an hour ago. You mustn't be so entertaining another prayer-meeting night, Mr. Gregory. Of course we shall be glad to have you accompany us if you feel well enough. I give you both but five minutes before joining me at the wagon."
Walter again mounted the stairs with something of his old buoyancy, and Annie followed, looking curiously after him.
It was not in human nature to be indifferent to that most skilful flattery which can be addressed to woman—the recognition of her cleverness, and the enhancing of it by adroit and suggestive questions—and yet all his manner was tinged by a certain insincere gallantry, rather than by a manly, honest respect. She vaguely felt this, though she could not distinctly point it out. He puzzled her. What did he mean, and at what was he aiming?
A DRINKING-SONG AT A PRAYER-MEETING
Having failed in his attempt to induce Annie to remain at home, Gregory resolved that the prayer-meeting should not be one of quiet devotion. Mr. Walton made him, as an invalid, take the back seat with Annie, while he sat with the driver, and Gregory, after a faint show of resistance, gladly complied.
"It's chilly. Won't you give me half of your shawl?" he said to her.
"You may have it all," she replied, about to take it off.
"No, I'll freeze first. Do the brethren and sisters sit together?"
"No," she answered, laughing, "we have got in the queer way of dividing the room between us, and the few men who attend sit on one side and we on the other."
"Oh, it's almost a female prayer-meeting then. Do the sisters pray?"
"Mr. Gregory, you are not a stranger here that you need pretend to such ignorance. I think the meeting is conducted very much as when you were a boy."
"With this most interesting difference, that you will be there and will sing, I hope. Miss Walton, where did you learn to sing?"
"Mainly at home."
"I should think so. Your voice is as unlike that of a public singer as you are unlike the singer herself."
"It must seem very tame to you."
"It seems very different. We have an artificial-flower department in our store. There is no lack of color and form there, I assure you, but after all I would prefer your rose garden in June."
"But you would probably prefer your artificial-flower department the rest of the year," said Annie, laughing.
"Our roses are annuals and are only prosaic briers after their bloom."
"Imagine them hybrid perpetuals and monthlies and you have my meaning. But your resemblance to a rose extends even to its thorns. Your words are a little sharp sometimes."
"In the thorns the resemblance begins and ends, Mr. Gregory. I assure you I am a veritable Scotch brier. But here we are at our destination. I wonder if you will see many old, remembered faces."
"I shall be content in seeing yours," he replied in a low tone, pressing her hand as he assisted her to alight.
If he could have seen the expression of her face in the darkness it would have satisfied him that she did not receive that style of compliment like many of the belles of his acquaintance, who would take the small change of flattery with the smiling complacency of a public door-keeper.
They were late. The good old pastor was absent, and one of the brethren was reading a chapter in the Bible. Gregory took a seat where he could see Annie plainly, and she sat with her side face toward him.
He watched her keenly, in order to see if she showed any consciousness of his presence. The only evidence in his favor was a slight flush and a firmness about the lips, as if her will was asserting itself. But soon her face had the peaceful and serious expression becoming the place and hour, and he saw that she had no thoughts for him whatever. He was determined to distract her attention, and by restlessness, by looking fixedly at her, sought her eye, but only secured the notice of some young girls who thought him "badly smitten with Miss Walton."
The long chapter having been read, a hymn was given out. The gentleman who usually led the music was also absent, and there was an ominous pause, in which the good brother's eye wandered appealingly around the room and at last rested hopefully on Annie. She did not fail him, but, with heightened color and voice that trembled slightly at first, "started the tune." It was a sweet, familiar air, and she soon had the support of other voices. One after another they joined her in widely varying degrees of melody, even as the example of a noble life will gradually secure a number of more or less successful imitators.
Gregory had seen the appeal to her with an amused, half-comical look, but her sincere and ready performance of the duty that had unexpectedly revealed itself rapidly changed the expression of his face to one of respect and admiration. Distinct, and yet blending with the others, her voice seemed both to key up and hide the little roughnesses and discords of some who perhaps had more melody in their hearts than in their tones.
Again a divine impulse, like a flower-laden breeze sweeping into a dark and grated vault at Greenwood, stirred Gregory's evil nature.
"Let her teach you the harmony of noble, unselfish living. Follow her in thought, feeling, and action, as those stammering, untuned tongues do in melody, and the blight of evil will pass from your life. Seek not to muddy and poison this clear little rill that is watering a bit of God's world. Grant that her goodness is not real, established, and thoroughly tested—that it is only a pretty surface picture. Seek not to blur that picture."
But the evil heart is like Sodom. Good angel-thoughts may come to it, but they are treated with violence and driven out. His habit of cynical doubt soon returned, and his purpose to show Miss Walton that she was a weak, vain woman after all became stronger than ever.
It seemed to have come to this, that his salvation depended on, not what Miss Walton could say or do directly in his behalf, but upon her maintenance of a character that even a sceptical world must acknowledge as inspired by heaven, and this, too, against a tempter of unusual skill and tact. She might sing with resistless pathos, and argue and plead with Paul's logic and eloquence. His nature might be stirred for a moment as a stagnant pool is agitated by the winds of heaven, and, like the pool, he would soon settle back into his old apathy. But if she could be made to show weakness, to stumble and fall, it would confirm him in his belief that goodness, if it really existed, was accidental; that those whose lives were apparently free from stain deserved no credit, because untempted; and that those who fell should be pitied rather than blamed, since they were unfortunate rather than guilty. Anything that would quiet and satisfy his conscience in its stern arraignment of his evil life would be welcome. The more he saw of Miss Walton the more he felt that she would be a fair subject upon whom to test his favorite theory. Therefore, by the time one of the brethren present had finished his homely exhortation he was wholly bent upon carrying out his plan.
But Miss Walton sat near, as innocently oblivious of this plot against her as Eve of the serpent's guile before the tempter and temptation came into fatal conjunction.
What thoughts for and against each other may dwell utterly hidden and unknown in the hearts of those so near that their hands may touch! Conspiracies to compass the death that is remediless may lurk just behind eyes that smile upon us. Of course Gregory desired no such fatal result to follow his little experiment. Few who for their own pleasure, profit, or caprice tempt others wish the evil to work on to the bitter end. They merely want a sufficient letting down of principle and virtue for the accomplishment of their purpose, and then would prefer that the downward tendency should cease or be reversed. The merchant who requires dishonorable practices of his clerk wishes him to stop at a point which, in the world's estimation, is safe. And those who, like Gregory, would take the bloom from woman's purity and holiness in thought and action, that they may enjoy a questionable flirtation, would be horrified to see that woman drop into the foul gulf of vice. With the blind egotism of selfishness, they wish merely to gratify their present inclinations, ignoring the consequences. They are like children who think it would be sport to see a little cataract falling over a Holland dike. Therefore, when the tide is in they open a small channel, but are soon aghast to find that the deep sea is overwhelming the land.
Gregory, as is usual with his kind, thought only of his own desires. When he had accomplished these Miss Walton must take care of herself. When from seeming a sweet, pure woman she had, by a little temptation, proved to be capable of becoming a vain flirt, he would go back to business and dismiss her from his thoughts with the grim chuckle, "She is like the rest of us."
And thus Annie was destined to meet her mother Eve's experience; and with the energy and promptness of evil Gregory was keenly on the alert for anything to further his purpose.
It would seem that the satanic ally in such schemes does not permit opportunity to be wanting long. The leader of the meeting again selected a hymn, but of a peculiar metre. He read only two lines, and then looked expectantly toward Annie, who could not at the moment think of a tune that would answer; and while with knit brows she was bending over her book, to her unbounded surprise she heard the hymn started by a clear, mellow tenor voice. Looking up she saw Gregory singing as gravely as a deacon. She was sufficiently a musician to know that the air did not belong to sacred music, though she had never heard it before.
In his watchfulness he had noted her hesitation, and glancing at the metre saw instantly that the measure of a drinking-song he knew well would fit the words. This fell out better than he had hoped, and with the thought, "I will jostle her out of her dignity now," he began singing without any embarrassment, though every eye was upon him. He had been out in the world long enough for that.
As Annie turned with a shocked and half-frightened expression toward him his eyes met hers with a sudden gleam of drollery which was irresistible, and he had the satisfaction of seeing her drop her head to conceal a smile. But he noticed, a moment later, that her face became grave with disapprobation.
Having sung a stanza he looked around with an injured air, as if reproaching the others for not joining in with him.
"The tune is not exactly familiar to us," said the good man leading the meeting, "but if the brother will continue singing we will soon catch the air; or perhaps the brother or some one else (with a glance at Annie) will start one better known."
Gregory deliberately turned over the leaves, and to the tune of Old Hundred started a hymn commencing:
"Unveil thy bosom, faithful tomb, Take this new treasure to thy trust, And give these sacred relics room To slumber in the silent dust."
Annie had a keen sense of the ludicrous, and the transition from what he had been singing to the funereal and most inappropriate words was almost too much for her. To her impotent anger and self-disgust she felt a hysterical desire to laugh, and only controlled herself by keeping her head down and her lips firmly pressed together during the remainder of the brief service.
Even others who did not know Gregory could not prevent a broad smile at the incongruous hymn he had chosen, but they unitedly wailed it through, for he persisted in singing it all in the most dirge-like manner. They gave him credit for doing the best he could, and supposed his unhappy choice resulted from haste and embarrassment. In the spontaneity of social meetings people become accustomed to much that is not harmonious.
Mr. Walton was puzzled. His guest was certainly appearing in an unexpected role, and he feared that all was not right.
After the meeting the brethren gathered round Gregory and thanked him for his assistance, and he shook hands with them and the elderly ladies present with the manner of one who might have been a "pillar in the temple." Many of them remembered his father and mother and supposed their mantle had fallen on him.
An ancient "mother in Israel" thanked him that he had "started a tune that they all could sing, instead of the new-fangled ones the young people are always getting up nowadays. But," said she, "I wish you could learn us that pretty one you first sang, for it took my fancy amazingly. I think I must have heard it before somewhere."
Gregory gave Annie another of his suggestive glances, that sent her out hastily into the darkness, and a moment later he joined her at the carriage steps.
FOILED IN ONE DIRECTION
Gregory lifted Miss Walton very tenderly into the carriage and took his place by her side, while her father was detained by some little matter of business.
"I am not an invalid," said Annie, rather curtly.
"Indeed you are not, Miss Walton; from your super-abundance you are even giving life to me."
"I thought from your manner you feared I was about to faint," she answered, dryly.
Mr. Walton joined them and they started homeward.
"Come, Miss Annie," said Gregory (addressing her thus for the first time); "why so distant? Was I not called a brother in the meeting? If I am a brother you are a sister. I told you I would secure this relationship."
She did not answer him.
"I think it was too bad," he continued, "that you did not second my efforts better. You would not help me sing either of the tunes I started."
"Mr. Gregory," said Annie, emphatically, "I will never go to a prayer- meeting with you again."
"What a rash resolve! But I confess that I preferred to have you stay at home with me."
"You have spoiled the whole evening for me."
"And you spoiled mine. So we are quits," he replied, laughingly.
"No, we are not. How can you turn sacred things into a jest?"
"I was possessed to see a smile light up the awful gravity of your face, and I feel amply repaid in that I succeeded. It was a delicious bit of sunshine on a cloudy day."
"And I am provoked at myself beyond measure, that I could have laughed like a silly child."
"But did you not like the first tune I sang? 'Old Hundred' was selected in deference to the wishes of the meeting."
"No, I did not like it. It was not suitable to the place and words. Though I never heard it before, its somewhat slow movement did not prevent it from smacking of something very foreign to a prayer- meeting."
"A most happy and inspired expression. Many a time I have smacked my lips when it was being sung over the best of wine."
"Was it a drinking-song, then?" she asked, quickly.
"What will you do with me if I say it was?"
"Mr. Gregory, I would not have thought this even of you."
"Even of me! That is complimentary. I now learn what a low estimate you have of me. But see how unjust you are. The musical commissaries of the church militant are ever saying, 'It's a pity the devil should have all the good music,' and so half the Sunday-school tunes, and many sung in churches, have had a lower origin than my drinking-song. I assure you that the words are as fine as the air. Why have I not as good a right to steal a tune from the devil as the rest of them?"
"It's the motive that makes all the difference," said Annie. "But I fear that in this case the devil suffered no loss."
"I'm sure my motive was not bad. I only wished to see a bonny smile light up your face."
Before she could reply the carriage stopped at Mr. Walton's door, and with Mr. Gregory she passed into the cosey parlor. Her father did not immediately join them.
As Gregory looked at her while she took off her wraps, he thought, "By Jove! she's handsome if she is not pretty."
In fact Annie's face at that time would have attracted attention anywhere. The crisp air had given her a fine color. Her eyes glowed with suppressed excitement and anger, while the firm lines about the mouth indicated that when she spoke it would be decidedly. In spite of herself the audacity, cleverness, and wickedness of this stranger had affected her greatly. As he threw off his moodiness, as he revealed himself by word and action, she saw that he was no ordinary character, but a thorough man of the world, and with some strange caprices. The suspicion crossed her mind that he might be not only in peril himself but also a source of danger. She had determined during the ride home that even though he meant no slur upon sacred things he should carry his mocking spirit no more into them. Therefore, after a moment's thought, she turned toward him with a manner of mingled frankness and dignity, and said, "Mr. Gregory, I regret what has occurred this evening. I have a painful sense of the ludicrous, and you have taken unfair advantage of it. I am usually better and happier for going to our simple little meeting, but now I can think of the whole hour only with pain. I think I am as mirth-loving as the majority of my age, and perhaps more so. I say truly that my heart is very light and happy. But, Mr. Gregory, we look at certain things very differently from you. While I would not for a moment have you think that religion brings into my life gloom and restraint—quite the reverse—still it gives me great pain when anything connected with my faith is made a matter of jest. These things are sacred to us, and I know my father would feel deeply grieved if he understood you this evening. Do you not see? It appears to us differently from what it does to you and perhaps to the world at large. These things are to us what your mother's memory is to you. I would sooner cut off my right hand than trifle with that."
Gregory had been able to maintain his quizzical look of mischief till she named his mother; then his face changed instantly. A flush of shame crossed it, and after a moment, with an expression something like true manhood, he stepped forward and took Annie's hand, saying, "Miss Walton, I sincerely ask your pardon. I did not know—I could not believe that you felt as you do. I will give you no further reason to complain of me on this ground. I hope you will forgive me."
She at once relented, and said:
"'Who by repentance is not satisfied Is not of heaven nor earth.'
There is an apt quotation from your favorite Shakespeare."
"You seem a delightful mixture of both, Miss Walton."
"If you were a better judge, sir, you would know that the earthly ingredient is too great. But that is in your favor, for I am sufficiently human to make allowance for human folly."
"I shall tax your charity to the utmost."
As Gregory sat in his arm-chair recalling the events of the day before retiring, he thought: "Well, my attempt has failed signally. While by her involuntary smile she showed that she was human, she has also managed this evening to prove that she is perfectly sincere in her religion, and to render it impossible for me to assail her in that direction again. As the old hymn goes, I must 'let her religious hours alone.' But how far her religion or superstition will control her action is another question. I have learned both at home and abroad that people can be very religious and very sincere in matters of faith and ceremony, and jealous of any hand stretched out to touch their sacred ark, but when through with the holy business they can live the life of very ordinary mortals. This may be true of Miss Walton. At any rate I have made a mistake in showing my hand somewhat at a prayer- meeting, for women are so tenacious on religious matters. Deference, personal attention, and compliments—these are the irresistible weapons. These inflate pride and vanity to such a degree that a miserable collapse is necessary. And yet I must be careful, for she is not like some belles I know, who have the swallow of a whale for flattery. She is too intelligent, too refined, to take compliments as large and glaring as a sunflower. Something in the way of a moss-rose bud will accomplish more. I will appear as if falling under her power; as if bewitched by her charms. Nothing pleases your plain girls more than to be thought beautiful. I shall have her head turned in a week. I am more bent than ever on teaching this little Puritan that she and I live upon the same level."
Saturday morning dawned clear and bracing, and the grass was white with hoar-frost. The children came in to breakfast with glowing cheeks and hair awry, crying excitedly in the same breath that they "had been to the chestnut trees and that Jack had opened the burrs all night."
In answer to their clamorous petitions a one-o'clock dinner was promised, and Aunt Annie was to accompany them on a nutting expedition with Jeff as pioneer to thresh and club the trees.
"Can I go too?" Gregory asked of the children.
"I suppose so," said Johnny, rather coldly; "if Aunt Annie is willing."
"You can go with me," said kind-hearted little Susie.
"Now I can go whether Aunt Annie is willing or not," said Gregory, with mock defiance at the boy.
He glanced at his aunt's face to gather how he should take this, but she settled the matter satisfactorily to him by saying, "You shall be my beau, and Mr. Gregory will be Susie's."
"Good, good!" exclaimed Susie. "I've got a beau already;" and she beamed upon Gregory in a way that made them all laugh.
"'Coming events cast their shadows before,' you perceive, Miss Walton," said he, meaningly.
"Sometimes the events themselves are but shadows," she replied, dryly.
"Now that is severe upon the beaux. How about the belles?" he asked, quickly.
"I have nothing to say against my own sex, sir."
"That is not fair. Of course I can say nothing adverse."
"If you should say what you think, I fear we should be little inclined to cry with Shylock, 'A Daniel come to judgment!'"
"You have a dreadful opinion of me, Miss Walton. I wish you would teach me how I can change it."
"You discovered so much in a chestnut burr the day you came I should not be surprised if you could find anything else there that you wish to know."
"I shall not look in burrs for chestnuts this afternoon, but for something else far more important."
Gregory spent the forenoon quietly in his own room reading, in order that he might have all the vigor possible for the ramble. And to Annie, as housekeeper, Saturday morning brought many duties.
By two o'clock the nutting expedition was organized, and with Jeff in advance, carrying a short ladder and a long limber pole, the party started for the hills. At first Johnny, oppressed with his dignity as Aunt Annie's "beau," stalked soberly at her side, and Susie also claimed Gregory according to agreement, and insisted on keeping hold of his hand.
He submitted with such grace as he could muster, for children were tiresome to him, and he wanted to talk to Miss Walton, without "little pitchers with large ears" around.
Annie smiled to herself at his half-concealed annoyance and his wooden gallantry to Susie, but she understood child life well enough to know that the present arrangement would not last very long. And she was right. They had hardly entered the shady lane leading to the trees before a chipmonk, with its shrill note of exclamation at unexpected company, started out from some leaves near and ran for its hole.
Away went Aunt Annie's beau after it, and Susie also, quite oblivious of her first possession in that line, joined in the pursuit. There was an excited consultation above the squirrel's retreat, and then Johnny took out his knife and cut a flexible rod with which to investigate the "robber's den."
Gregory at once joined Annie, saying, "Since the beau of your choice has deserted you, will you accept of another?"
"Yes, till he proves alike inconstant."
"I will see to that. A burr shall be my emblem."
"Or I do," she added, laughing.
"Now the future is beyond my power."
"Perhaps it is anyway. Johnny was bent upon being a true knight. You may see something that will be to you what the chipmonk was to him."
"And such is your opinion of man's constancy? Miss Walton, you are more of a cynic than I am."
"Indeed! Do women dwell in your fancy as fixed stars?"
"Fixed stars are all suns, are they not? I know of one with wonderful powers of attraction," said he, with a significant glance.
"Does she live in New York?" quietly asked Annie.
"You know well she does not. She is a votaress of nature, and, as I said, I shall search in every burr for the hidden clew to her favor."
"You had better look for chestnuts, sir."
"Chestnuts! Fit food for children and chipmonks. I am in quest of the only manna that ever fell from heaven. Have you read Longfellow's 'Golden Legend,' Miss Walton?"
"Yes," she replied, with a slight contraction of the brow as if the suggestion were not pleasing.
The children now came running toward them and wished to resume their old places. "No, sir," said Walter, decisively. "You deserted your lady's side and your place is filled; and Susie—
"'Thou fair, false one,'
—you renounced me for a chipmonk. My wounded heart has found solace in another."
Johnny received this charge against his gallantry with a red face and eyes that began to dilate with anger, while Susie looked at Gregory poutingly and said, "I don't like big beaux. I think chipmonks are ever so much nicer."
The laugh that followed broke the force of the storm that was brewing; and Annie, by saying, "See, children, Jeff is climbing the tree on top of the hill; I wonder who will get the first nuts," caused the wind to veer round from the threatening quarter, and away they scampered with grievances all forgotten.
"If grown-up children could only forget their troubles as easily!" sighed Gregory. "Miss Walton, you are gifted with admirable tact. Your witchery has cleared up another storm."
"They have not forgotten," said Annie, ignoring the compliment—"they have only been diverted from their trouble. Children can do by nature what we should from intelligent choice—turn away the mind from painful subjects to those that are pleasing. You don't catch me brooding over trouble when there are a thousand pleasant things to think of."
"That is easier said than done, Miss Walton. I read on your smooth brow that you have had few serious troubles, and, as you say, 'you have a thousand pleasant things to think of.' But with others it may be very different. Some troubles have a terrible magnetism that draws the mind back to them as if by a malign spell, and there are no 'pleasant things to think of.'"
"No 'pleasant things'? Why, Mr. Gregory! The universe is very wide."
"Present company excepted," replied he gallantly. "But what do I care for the universe? As you say, it is 'very wide'—a big, uncomfortable place, in which one is afraid of getting lost."
"I am not," said Annie, gently.
"It's all my Father's house. I am never for a moment lost sight of. Wherever I am, I am like a little child playing outside the door while its mother, unseen, is watching it from the window."
He looked at her keenly to see if she were perfectly sincere. Her face had the expression of a child, and the thought flashed across him, "If she is so watched and guarded, how vain are my attempts!"
But he only said with a shrug, "It would be a pity to dissipate your happy superstition, Miss Walton, but after what I have seen and experienced in the world it would seem more generally true that the mother forgot her charge, left the window, and the child was run over by the butcher's cart."
"Do you think it vain confidence," said Annie, earnestly, "when I say that you could not dissipate what you term my 'superstition,' any more than you could argue me out of my belief in my good old father's love?"
INTERPRETING CHESTNUT BURRS
The conversation had taken a turn that Gregory wished to avoid, so he said: "Miss Walton, you regard me as wretched authority on theology, and therefore my opinions will go for nothing. Suppose we join the children on the hill, for I am most anxious to commence the search for the clew to your favor. Give me your hand, that as your attendant I may at least appear to assist you in climbing, though I suppose you justly think you could help me more than I can you."
"And if I can, why should I not?" asked Annie, kindly.
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I would crawl up first. But thanks to your reviving influences, I am not so far gone as that."
"Then you would not permit a woman to reach out a helping hand to you? Talk not against Turks and Arabs. How do Christian men regard us?"
"But you look upon me as a 'heathen.'"
"Beg your pardon, I do not."
"Miss Walton, give your honest opinion of me—just what you think."
"Will you do the same of me?"
"No, do not answer in that tone. On your honor."
Gregory was now caught. If he agreed he must state his doubts of her real goodness; his low estimate of women in general which led to his purpose to tempt her. This would not only arm her against his efforts, but place him in a very unpleasant light. "I beat a retreat, Miss Walton. I am satisfied that your opinion would discourage me utterly."
"You need have no fears of that kind," she said; "although my opinion would not be flattering it would be most encouraging."
"No, Miss Walton, I am not to be caught. My every glance and word reveal my opinion of you, while yours of me amounts to what I used to hear years ago: 'You are a bad boy now, but may become a good one.' Come, give me your hand."
As she complied she gave him a quick, keen look. Her intuition told her of something hidden, and he puzzled her.
Her hand was ungloved, and he thought, "When have I clasped such a hand before? It could help a Hercules. At any rate he would like to hold it, for it is alive."
There is as much diversity of character in hands as in faces. Some are very white and shapely, and a diamond flashes prettily upon them, but having said this you have said all. Others suggest honest work and plenty of it, and for such the sensible will ever have a genuine respect. There are some hands that make you think of creatures whose blood is cold. A lady's hand in society often suggests feebleness, lack of vitality. It is a thing to touch decorously, and if feeling betray you into giving a hearty grasp and pressure, you find that you are only causing pain and reducing the member to a confused jumble of bones and sinews. There are hands that suggest fancy-work, light crochet needles, and neuralgia.
Annie's hand was not one that a sculptor would care to copy, though he would find no great fault with it; but a sculptor would certainly take pleasure in shaking hands with her—the pleasure that is the opposite of our shrinking from taking the hand of the dead. It was soft and delicate to the pressure, and yet firm. It reminded one of silk drawn over steel, and was all electric and throbbing with life. You felt that it could give you the true grasp of friendship—that it had power to do more than barely cling to something—that it could both help and sustain, yet its touch would be gentleness itself beside the couch of suffering.
When they had reached the brow of the hill he was much more exhausted than she, and sat down panting.
"Miss Walton," he asked, "do you not despise a feeble man?"
"What kind of feebleness do you mean?"
"The weakness that makes me sit pale and panting here, while you stand there glowing with life and vigor, a veritable Hebe."
"All your compliments cannot balance that imputation against me. Such weakness awakens my pity, sympathy, and wish to help."
"Ah! the emotions you would bestow on a beggar—very agreeable to a man. Well, what kind of feebleness do you despise?"
"I think I should despise a feeble, vacillating Hercules most of all— a burly, assuming sort of person, who could be made a tool of, and led to do what he knew to be mean and wrong."
"You must despise a great many people then."
"No, I do not. Honestly, Mr. Gregory, I have no right to despise any one. I was only giving the reverse of my ideal man. But I assure you I share too deeply in humanity's faults to be very critical."
"I am delighted to hear, Miss Walton, that you share in our fallen humanity, for I was beginning to doubt it, and you can well understand that I should be dreadfully uncomfortable in the presence of perfection."
"If you could escape all other sources of discomfort as surely as this one, you would be most happy," replied Annie, with heightened color. "I shall ever think you are satirical when you speak in such style."
"A truce, Miss Walton; only, in mercy to my poor mortality, be as human as you can. Though you seem to suspect me of a low estimate of your sex, I much prefer women to saints and Madonnas. I am going to look for the burr."
This was adroitness itself on the part of Gregory, for, of all things, sensible Annie, conscious of faults and many struggles, did not wish to give the impression that she thought herself approaching perfection. And yet he had managed to make her sensitive on that point, and given her a strong motive to relax strict rules of duty, and act "like other people," as he would say.