Jeff's limber pole was now doing effective service. With many a soft thud upon the sward and leaves the burrs rained around, while the detached chestnuts rattled down like hail. The children were careering about this little tempest of Jeff's manufacture in a state of wild glee, dodging the random burrs, and snatching what nuts they could in safety on the outskirts of the prickly shower. At last the tree was well thrashed, and bad the appearance of a school-boy bully who, after bristling with threats and boasts for a long time, suddenly meets his master and is left in a very meek and plucked condition.
But the moment Jeff's pole ceased its sturdy strokes there was a rush for the spoils, the children awakening the echoes with their exclamations of delight as they found the ground covered with what was more precious to them than gold. Even Gregory's sluggish pulses tingled and quickened at the well-remembered scene, and he felt a little of their excitement. For the moment he determined to be a boy again, and running into the charmed circle, picked away as fast as any of them till his physical weakness painfully reminded him that his old tireless activity had passed away, perhaps forever.
He leaned against the trunk of the tree and noted with something of an artist's eye the pretty picture. The valley beneath was beginning to glow with the richest October tints, in the midst of which was his old home, that to his affection seemed like a gem set in gold, ruby, and emerald. The stream appeared white and silvery as seen through openings of the bordering trees, and in the distance the purple haze and mountains blended together, leaving it uncertain where the granite began, as in Gregory's mind fact and fancy were confusedly mingling in regard to Miss Walton.
And he soon turned from even that loved and beautiful landscape to her as an object of piquant interest, and the pleasure of analyzing and testing her character, and—well, some hidden fascination of her own, caused a faint stir of excitement at his heart, even as the October air and exercise had just tinged his pale cheeks.
But Miss Walton reminded him of a young sugar maple that he had noticed, all aflame, from his window that morning, so rich and high was her color, as, still intent upon the thickly scattered nuts, she followed the old unspent childish impulse to gather now as she had done when of Susie's age. With a half-wondering smile Gregory watched her intent expression, so like that of the other children, and thought, "Well, she is the freshest and most unhackneyed girl I have ever met for one who knows so much. It seems true, as she said, that she draws her life from nature and will never grow old. Now she is a child with those children, looking and acting like them. A moment later she will be a self-possessed young lady, with a quick, trained intellect that I can scarcely cope with. And yet in each and every character she seems so real and vital that even I, in spite of myself, feel compelled to admit her truth. Her life is like a glad, musical mountain stream, while I am a stagnant pool that she passes and leaves behind. I wonder if it is possible for one life to be awakened and quickened by another. I wonder if her vital force would be strong enough to drag another on who had almost lost the power to follow. It is said that young fresh blood can be infused directly into the veins of the old and feeble. Can the same be true of moral forces, and a glad zest and interest in life be breathed into the jaded, cloyed, ennui-cursed spirit of one who regards existence with dull eye, sluggish pulse, and heart of lead? It seems to me that if any one could have such power it would be that girl there with her intense vitality and subtle connection with nature, which, as she says, is ever young and vigorous. And yet I propose to reveal her to herself as a weak, vain creature, whose fair seeming like a pasteboard castle falls before the breath of flattery. By Jove, I half hope I shan't succeed, and yet to satisfy myself I shall carry the test to the utmost limit."
In her absorbed search for nuts, Annie had approached the trunk of the tree, and was stooping almost at Gregory's feet without noticing him. Suddenly she turned up a burr whose appearance so interested her that she stood up to examine it, and then became conscious of his intent gaze.
"There you stand," she said, "cool and superior, criticising and laughing at me as a great overgrown child."
"If you had looked more closely you would have seen anything rather than cool criticism in my face. I wish you could tell me your secret, Miss Walton. What is your hidden connection with Nature, that her strong, beautiful life flows so freely into yours?"
"You would not believe me if I told you."
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I should be inclined to believe anything you told me, you seem so real. But, pardon me, you have in your hand the very burr I have been looking vainly for. Perhaps in it I may find the coveted clew to your favor. It may winningly suggest to you my meaning, while plain, bald words would only repel. If I could only interpret Nature as you breathe her spirit I might find that the autumn leaves were like illuminated pages, and every object—even such an insignificant one as this burr—an inspired illustration. When men come to read Nature's open book, publishers may despair. If I wished to tell you how I would dwell in your thoughts, what poet has written anything equal to this half-open burr? It portrays our past, it gives our present relations, and suggests the future; only, like all parables, it must not be pressed too far, and too much prominence must not be given to some mere detail. These prickly outward pointing spines represent the reserve and formality which keep comparative strangers apart. But now the burr is half-open, revealing its heart of silk and down. So if one could get past the barriers which you, alike with all, turn toward an indifferent or unfriendly world, a kindliness would be found that would surround a cherished friend as these silken sides envelop this sole and favored chestnut. Again, note that the burr is half-open, indicating, I hope, the progress we have made toward such friendship. I have no true friend in the wide world that I can trust, and I would like to believe that your regard, like this burr, is opening toward me. The final suggestion that I should draw may seem selfish, and yet is it not natural? This chestnut dwells alone in the very centre of the burr. We do not like to share a supreme friendship. There are some in whose esteem we would be first."
When Gregory finished he was half-frightened at his words, for in developing his fanciful parallel in the bold style of gallantry he had learned to employ toward the belles of the ball-room, and from a certain unaccountable fascination that Annie herself had for him, he had said more than he meant.
"Good heavens!" he thought, "if she should take this for a declaration and accept me on the spot, I should then be in the worst scrape of my sorry life."
Miss Walton's manner rather puzzled him. Her heightened color and quickened breathing were alarming, while the contraction of her brow and the firmness of her lips, together with an intent look on the chestnut in the centre of the burr, rather than a languishing look at him or at nothing, were more assuring. She perplexed him still more when, as her only response to all this sentiment, she asked, "Mr. Gregory, will you lend me your penknife?"
Without a word he handed it to her, and she at the same time took the burr from his hand, and daintily plucking out the chestnut tossed the burr rather contemptuously away. "Mr. Gregory, if I understand your rather far-fetched and forced interpretation of this little 'parable of nature,' you chose to represent yourself by this great lonely chestnut occupying the space where three might have grown. On observing this emblematic nut closely I detect something that may also have a place in your 'parable';" and she pushed aside the little quirl at the small end of the nut, which partially concealed a worm-hole, and cutting through the shell showed the destroyer in the very heart of the kernel.
There was nothing far-fetched in this suggestion of nature, and he saw—and he understood that Miss Walton saw—evil enthroned in the very depths of his soul. The revelation of the hateful truth was so sudden and sharp that his face darkened with involuntary pain and anger. It seemed to him that, by the simple act of showing him the worm-infested chestnut, she had rejected anything approaching even friendship, and had also given him a good but humiliating reason why. He lost his self-possession and forgot that he deserved a stinging rebuke for his insincerity. He would have turned away in coldness and resentment. His visit might have come to an abrupt termination, had not Annie, with that delicate, womanly tact which was one of her most marked characteristics, interrupted him as he was about to say something to the effect, "Miss Walton, since you are so much holier than I, it were better that I should contaminate the air you breathe no longer."
She looked into his clouded face with an open smile, and said, "Mr. Gregory, you have been unfortunate in the choice of a burr. Now let me choose for you;" and she began looking around for one suited to her taste and purpose.
This gave him time to recover himself and to realize the folly of quarrelling or showing any special feeling in the matter. After a moment he was only desirous of some pretext for laughing it off, but how to manage it he did not know, and was inwardly cursing himself as a blundering fool, and no match for this child of nature.
Annie soon came toward him, saying, "Perhaps this burr will suggest better meanings. You see it is wide open. That means perfect frankness. There are three chestnuts here instead of one. We must be willing to share the regard of others. One of these nuts has the central place. As we come to know people well, we usually find some one occupying the supreme place in their esteem, and though we may approach closely we should not wish to usurp what belongs to another. Under Jeff's vigorous blows the burr and its contents have had a tremendous downfall, but they have not parted company. True friends should stick together in adversity. What do you think of my interpretation?"
"I think you are a witch, beyond doubt, and if you had lived a few centuries ago, you would have been sent to heaven in a chariot of fire."
"Really, Mr. Gregory, you give me a hot answer, but it is with such a smiling face that I will take no exception. Let us slowly follow Jeff and the children along the brow of the hill to the next tree. The fact is I am a little tired."
What controversy could a man have with a pretty and wearied girl? Gregory felt like a boy who had received a deserved whipping and yet was compelled and somewhat inclined to act very amiably toward the donor. But he was fast coming to the conclusion that this unassuming country girl was a difficult subject on which to perform his experiment. He was learning to have a wholesome respect for her that was slightly tinged with fear, and doubts of success in his plot against her grew stronger every moment. And yet the element of persistence was large in his character, and he could not readily give over his purpose, though his cynical confidence had vanished. He now determined to observe her closely and discover if possible her weak points. He still held to the theory that flattery was the most available weapon, though he saw he could employ it no longer in the form of fulsome and outspoken compliment. The innate refinement and truthfulness of Annie's nature revolted at broad gallantry and adulation. He believed that he must reverse the tactics he usually employed in society, but not the principles. Therefore he resolved that his flattery should be delicate, subtle, manifested in manner rather than in words. He would seem submissive; he would humbly wear the air of a conquered one. He would delicately maintain the "I-am-at- your-mercy" attitude.
These thoughts flashed through his mind as they passed along the brow of the hill, which at every turn gave them a new and beautiful landscape. But vales in Eden would not have held his attention then. To his perplexity this new acquaintance had secured his undivided interest. He felt that he ought to be angry at her and yet was not. He felt that a man who had seen as much of the world as he should be able to play with this little country girl as with a child; but he was becoming convinced that, with all his art, he was no match for her artlessness.
In the interpretation of the burr of her own choice, Annie had suggested that the central and supreme place in her heart was already occupied, and his thoughts recurred frequently to that fact with uneasiness. The slightest trace of jealousy, even as the merest twinge of pain is often precursor of serious disease, indicated the power Miss Walton might gain over one who thought himself proof against all such influence. But he tried to satisfy himself by thinking, "It is her father who occupies the first place in her affections."
Then a moment later with a mental protest at his folly, "What do I care who has the first place? It's well I do not, for she would not permit such a reprobate as I, with evil in my heart like that cursed worm in the chestnut, to have any place worth naming—unless I can introduce a little canker of evil in her heart also. I wish I could. That would bring us nearer together and upon the same level." Annie saw the landscapes. She looked away from the man by her side and for a few moments forgot him. The scenes upon which she was gazing were associated with another, and she ardently wished that that other and more favored one could exchange places with Gregory. Her eyes grew dreamy and tender as she recalled words spoken in days gone by, when, her heart thrilling with a young girl's first dream of love, she had leaned upon Charles Hunting's arm, and listened to that sweetest music of earth, all the more enchanting when broken and incoherent; and Hunting, with all his coolness and precision in Wall Street, had been excessively nervous and unhappy in his phraseology upon one occasion, and tremblingly glad to get any terms from the girl who seemed a child beside him. Annie would not permit an engagement to take place. Hunting was a distant relative. She had always liked him very much, but was not sure she loved him. She was extremely reluctant to leave her father, and was not ready for a speedy marriage; so she frankly told him that he had no rival, nor was there a prospect of any, but she would not bind him, or permit herself to be bound at that time. If they were fated for each other the way would eventually be made perfectly clear.
He was quite content, especially as Mr. Walton gave his hearty approval to the match, and he regarded the understanding as a virtual engagement. He wanted Annie to wear the significant ring, saying that it should not be regarded as binding, but she declined to do so.
Nearly two years had passed, and, while she put him off, she satisfied him that he was steadily gaining the place that he wished to possess in her affections. He was gifted with much tact and did not press his suit, but quietly acted as if the matter were really settled, and it were only a question of time. Annie had also come to feel in the same way. She did not see a very great deal of him, though he wrote regularly, and his letters were admirable. He became her ideal man and dwelt in her imagination as a demi-god. To the practical mind of this American girl his successes in the vast and complicated transactions of business were as grand as the achievements of any hero. Her father had been a merchant, and she inherited a respect for the calling. Her father also often assured her that her lover bade fair to lead in commercial circles.
"Hunting has both nerve and prudence," he was wont to say; and to impetuous Annie these qualities, combined with Christian principles, formed her very ideal man.
Her lover took great pains not to undeceive her as to his character, and indeed, with the infatuation of his class, hoped that, when he had amassed the fortune that glittered ever just before him, he could assume, in some princely mansion, the princely, knightly soul with which she had endowed him.
So he did not press matters. Indeed in his rapid accumulation of money he scarcely wished any interruption, and Annie thought all the more of him that he was not dawdling around making love half the time. There was also less danger of disenchanting her by his presence, for woman's perception is quick.
But now she inwardly contrasted her strong, masterful knight, "sans peur et sans reproche," as she believed, with the enfeebled, shrunken man at her side. Gregory suffered dreadfully by the comparison. The worm-eaten chestnut seemed truly emblematic, and in spite of herself her face lighted up with exultation and joy that the man of her choice was a man, and not one upon whom she could not lean for even physical support.
Gregory caught her expression and said, quickly: "Your face is full of sudden gleams. Tell me what you are thinking about."
She blushed deeply in the consciousness of her thoughts, but after a moment said, "I do not believe in the confessional."
He looked at her keenly, saying, "I wish you did and that I were your father confessor."
She replied, laughing, "You are neither old nor good enough. If I were of that faith I should require one a great deal older and better than myself. But here we are at our second tree, which Jeff has just finished. I am going to be a child again and gather nuts as before. I hope you will follow suit, and not stand leaning against the tree laughing at me."
"A WELL-MEANIN' MAN"
The western horizon vied with the autumn foliage as at last they turned homeward. Their path led out upon the main road some distance above the house, and, laden with the spoils that would greatly diminish the squirrels' hoard for the coming winter, they sauntered along slowly, from a sense of both weariness and leisure.
They soon reached the cottage of the lame old man who had fired such a broadside of lurid words at Gregory, as he stood on the fence opposite. With a crutch under one arm and leaning on his gate, Daddy Tuggar seemed awaiting them, and secured their attention by the laconic salutation, "Evenin'!"
"Why, Daddy," exclaimed Annie, coming quickly toward him. "I am real glad to see you so spry and well. It seems to me that you are getting young again;" and she shook the old man's hand heartily.
"Now don't praise my old graveyard of a body, Miss Annie. My sperit is pert enough, but it's all buried up in this old clumsy, half-dead carcass. The worms will close their mortgage on it purty soon."
"But they haven't a mortgage on your soul," said Annie, in a low tone. "You remember what I said to you a few days ago."
"Now bless you, Miss Annie, but it takes you to put in a 'word in season.' The Lord knows I'm a well-meanin' man, but I can't seem to get much furder. I've had an awful 'fall from grace,' my wife says. I did try to stop swearin', but that chap there—"
"Oh, excuse me," interrupted Annie. "Mr. Gregory, this is our friend and neighbor Mr. Tuggar. I was under the impression that you were acquainted," she added, with a mischievous look at her companion.
"We are. I have met this gentleman before," he replied, with a wry face. "Pardon the interruption, Mr. Tuggar, and please go on with your explanation."
"Mr. Gregory, I owe you a 'pology. I'm a well-meanin' man, and if I do any one a wrong I'm willin' to own it up and do the square thing. But I meant right by you and I meant right by John Walton when I thought you was stealin' his apples. I couldn't hit yer with a stun and knock yer off the fence, as I might a dozen years ago, so I took the next hardest thing I could lay hands on. If I'd known that you was kinder one of the family my words would have been rolls of butter."
"Well, Mr. Tuggar, it has turned out very well, for I would rather you had fired what you did than either stones or butter."
"Now my wife would say that that speech showed you was 'totally depraved.' And this brings me back to my 'fall from grace.' Now, yer see, to please my wife some and Miss Eulie more, I was tryin' cussed hard to stop swearin'—"
"Didn't you try a little for my sake, too?" interrupted Annie.
"Lord bless you, child; I don't have to try when you're around, for I don't think swearin'. Most folks rile me, and I get a-thinkin' swearin', and then 'fore I know it busts right out. You could take the wickedest cuss livin' to heaven in spite of himself if you would stay right by him all the time."
"I should 'rile' you, too, if I were with you long, for I get 'riled' myself sometimes."
"Do you, now?" asked Mr. Tuggar, looking at her admiringly. "Well, I'm mighty glad to hear it."
"O Daddy! glad to hear that I do wrong?"
"Can't help it, Miss Annie. I kinder like to know you're a little bit of a sinner. 'Tain't often I meet with a sinner, and I kind o' like 'em. My wife says she's a 'great sinner,' but she means she's a great saint. 'Twouldn't do for me to tell her she's a 'sinner.' Then Miss Eulie says she's a 'great sinner,' and between you and me that's the only fib I ever caught Miss Eulie in. Good Lord! there's no more sin in Miss Eulie's heart than there is specks of dirt on the little white ruff she wears about her neck that looks like the snow we had last April around the white hyacinths. She's kind of a half-sperit anyhow. Now your goodness, Miss Annie, is another kind. Your cheeks are so red, and eyes so black, and arms so round and fat—I've seen 'em when you was over here a-beatin' up good things for the old man—that you make me think of red and pink posies. I kinder think you might be a little bit of a sinner—just enough, you know, to make you understand how I and him there can be mighty big ones, and not be too hard on us for it."
"Mr. Tuggar, you are the man of all others to plead my cause."
"Now look here, young gentleman, you must do yer own pleadin'. It would be a 'sinful waste of time' though, as my wife would say—eh, Miss Annie? I never had no luck at pleadin' but once, and that was the worst luck of all."
Annie's face might well suggest "red posies" during the last remarks, and its expression was divided between a frown and a laugh.
"But I want you to understand," continued Daddy Tuggar, straightening himself up with dignity, and addressing Gregory, "that I'm not a mean cuss. All who know me know I'm a well-meanin' man. I try to do as I'd be done by. If I'm going through a man's field and find his bars down, so the cattle would get in the corn, I'd put 'em up—"
"Yes, Daddy, that is what you always say," interrupted Annie; "but you can't go through the fields any more and put up bars. You should try to do the duties that belong to your present state."
"But I've got the sperit to put up a man's bars, and it's all the same as if I did put 'em up," answered the old man, with some irritation. "Miss Eulie and the rest of yer is allers sayin' we must have the sperit of willingness to give up the hull world and suffer martyrdom on what looks in the picture like a big gridiron. She says we must have the sperit of them who was cold and hungry and the lions eat up and was sawn in two pieces and had an awful time generally for the sake of the Lord, and that's the way the Christians manage it nowadays. My wife gets all the money she can and keeps it, but she says she has the sperit to give up the hull world. I wish she'd give up enough of it to keep me in good terbacker. Mighty few nice bits would the old man git wasn't it for you and Miss Eulie. Then I watch the good people goin' to church. 'Mazin' few out wet Sundays. But no doubt they've all got the 'sperit' to go. They would jist as lief be sawn in two pieces 'in sperit' as not, if they can only sleep late in the mornin' and have a good dinner and save their Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes from gettin' wet. It must be so, for the Lord gets mighty little worship out of the church on rainy Sundays. If it wasn't for you and Miss Eulie I don't know what would become of the old man and all the rest of the sick and feeble foiks around here. I ask my wife why she doesn't go to see 'em sometimes. She says she has the 'sperit to go,' but she hasn't time and strength. So I have the 'sperit' to put up a man's bars while I sit here and smoke, and what's more, Miss Annie, I did it as long as I was able."
"You did indeed, Daddy, and, though unintentionally, you have given me a good lesson. We little deserve to be mentioned with those Christians who in olden times suffered the loss of all things, and life itself."
"Lord bless you, child, I didn't mean you. Whether you've got the sperit to do a thing or not yer allers do it, and in a sweet, natteral way, as if you couldn't help it. When my wife enters on a good work it makes me think of a funeral. I'm 'mazin' glad you didn't live in old times, 'cause the lions would have got you sure 'nuff. Though, if it had to be, I would kinder liked to have been the lion:" and the old man's eyes twinkled humorously, while Gregory laughed heartily.
"Oh, Daddy Tuggar!" exclaimed Annie, "that is the most awful compliment I ever received. If you, with your spirit, were the only lion I had to deal with, I should never become a martyr. You shall have some jelly instead, and now I must go home in order to have it made before Sunday."
"Wait a moment," said Gregory. "You were about to tell us how I caused you to 'fall from grace.'"
"So I was, so I was, and I've been goin' round Robin Hood's barn ever since. Well, I'd been holdin' in on my swearin' a long time, 'cause I promised Miss Eulie I'd stop if I could. My wife said I was in quite a 'hopeful state,' while I felt all the time as if I was sort of bottled up and the cork might fly out any minute. Miss Eulie, she came and rejoiced over me that mornin', and my wife she looked so solemn (she allers does when she says she feels glad) that somehow I got nervous, and then my wife went to the store and didn't get the kind of terbacker I sent for, and I knew the cork was going to fly out. I was smokin' and in a sort of a doze, when the first thing I knowed a big stun rolled into the road, and there I saw a strange chap, as I thought, a stealin' John Walton's apples and knockin' down the fence. If they'd a been my apples I might have held in a little longer, but John Walton's—it was like a dam givin' way."
"It was, indeed," said Gregory, significantly. "It was like several."
"I knowed my wife heard me, and if she'd come right out and said, 'You've made a cussed old fool of yourself,' I think I would have felt better. I knowed she was goin' to speak about it and lament over it, and I wanted her to do it right away; but she put it off, and kept me on pins and needles for ever so long. At last she said with solemn joy, 'Thomas Tuggar, I told Miss Eulie I feared you was still in a state of natur, and, alas! I am right; but how she'll mourn, how great will be her disappointment, when she hears'; and then I fell into a 'state of natur' agin. Now, Miss Annie, if the Lord, Miss Eulie, and you all could only see I'm a well-meanin' man, and that I don't mean no disrespect to anybody; that it's only one of my old, rough ways that I learned from my father—and mother too, for that matter, I'm sorry to say—and have followed so long that it's bred in the bone, it would save a heap of worry. One must have some way of lettin' off steam. Now my wife she purses up her mouth so tight you couldn't stick a pin in it when she's riled. I often say to her, 'Do explode. Open your mouth and let it all out at once.' But she says it is not becoming for such as her ter 'explode.' But it will come out all the same, only it's like one of yer cold northeast, drizzlin', fizzlin' rain-storms. And now I've made a clean breast of it, I hope you'll kinder smooth matters over with Miss Eulie; and I hope you, sir, will just think of what I said as spoken to a stranger and not a friend of the family."
"Give me your hand, Mr. Tuggar. I hope we shall be the best of friends. I am coming over to have a smoke with you, and see if I can't fill your pipe with some tobacco that is like us both, 'in a state of natur.'"
A white-faced woman appeared at the door, and courtesying low to Miss Walton, called, "Husband, it's too late for you to be out; I fear your health will suffer."
"She's bound up in me, you see," said the old man, with a curious grimace. "Nothing but the reading of my will will ever comfort her when I die."
"Daddy, Daddy," said Annie, reproachfully, "have charity. Good-night; I will send you something nice for to-morrow."
An amused smile lingered on Gregory's face as they pursued their way homeward, now in the early twilight; but Annie's aspect was almost one of sadness. After a little he said, "Well, he is one of the oddest specimens of humanity I ever met."
She did not immediately reply, and he, looking at her, caught her expression.
"Why is your face so clouded, Miss Annie?" he asked. "You are not given to Mrs. Tuggar's style of 'solemn joy'?"
"What a perplexing mystery life is after all!" she replied, absently. "I really think poor old Daddy Tuggar speaks truly. He is a 'well- meaning' man, but he and many others remind me of one not having the slightest ear for music trying to catch a difficult harmony."
"Why is the harmony so difficult?" asked Gregory, bitterly.
"Perhaps it were better to ask, Why has humanity so disabled itself?"
"I do not think it matters much how you put the case. It amounts to the same thing. Something is required of us beyond our strength. The idea of punishing that old man for being what he is, when in the first place he inherited evil from his parents, and then was taught it by precept and example. I think he deserves more credit than blame."
"The trouble is, Mr. Gregory, evil carries its own punishment along with it every day. But I admit that we are surrounded by mystery on every side. Humanity, left to itself, is a hopeless problem. But one thing is certain: we are not responsible for questions beyond our ken. Moreover, many things that were complete mysteries to me as a child are now plain, and I ever hope to be taught something new every day. You and I at least have much to be grateful for in the fact that we neither inherited evil nor were taught it in any such degree as our poor neighbor."
"And you quietly prove, Miss Walton, by your last remark, that I am much more worthy of blame than your poor old neighbor."
"Then I said more than I meant," she answered, eagerly. "It is not for me to judge or condemn any one. The thought in my mind was how favored we have been in our parentage—our start in existence, as it were."
"But suppose one loses that vantage-ground?"
"I do not wish to suppose anything of the kind."
"But one can lose it utterly."
"I fear some can and do. But why dwell on a subject so unutterably sad and painful? You have not lost it, and, as I said before to-day, I will not dwell upon the disagreeable any more than I can help."
"Your opinion of me is poor enough already, Miss Walton, so I, too, will drop the subject."
They had now reached the house, and did ample justice to the supper awaiting them.
Between meals people can be very sentimental, morbid, and tragical. They can stare at life's deep mysteries and shudder or scoff, sigh or rejoice, according to their moral conditions. They can even grow cold with dread, as did Gregory, realizing that he had "lost his vantage- ground," his good start in the endless career. "She is steering across unknown seas to a peaceful, happy shore. I am drifting on those same mysterious waters I know not whither," he thought. But a few minutes after entering the cheerfully lighted dining-room he was giving his whole soul to muffins.
These homely and ever-recurring duties and pleasures of life have no doubt saved multitudes from madness. It would almost seem that they have also been the innocent cause of the destruction of many. There are times when the mind is almost evenly balanced between good and evil. Some powerful appeal or startling providence has aroused the sleeping spirit, or some vivifying truth has pierced the armor of indifference or prejudice, and quivered like an arrow in the soul, and the man remembers that he is a man, and not a brute that perishes. But just then the dinner-bell sounds. After the several courses, any physician can predict how the powers of that human organization must of necessity be employed the next few hours, and the partially awakened soul is like one who starts out of a doze and sleeps again. If the spiritual nature had only become sufficiently aroused to realize the situation, life might have been secured. Thought and feeling in some emergencies will do more than the grandest pulpit eloquence quenched by a Sunday dinner.
MISS WALTON'S DREAM
The hickory fire burned cheerily in the parlor after tea, and all drew gladly around its welcome blaze. But even the delights of roasting chestnuts from the abundant spoils of the afternoon could not keep the heads of the children from drooping early.
Gregory was greatly fatigued, and soon went to his room also.
Sabbath morning dawned dim and uncertain, and by the time they had gathered at the breakfast-table, a northeast rain-storm had set in with a driving gale.
"I suppose you will go to church 'in sperit' this morning, as Mr. Tuggar would say," said Gregory, addressing Annie.
"If I were on the sick list I should, but I have no such excuse."
"You seriously do not mean to ride two miles in such a storm as this?"
"No, not seriously, but very cheerfully and gladly."
"I do not think it is required of you, Miss Walton. Even your Bible states, 'I will have mercy and not sacrifice.'"
"The 'sacrifice' in my case would be in staying at home. I like to be out in a storm, and have plenty of warm blood to resist its chilling effects. But even were it otherwise, what hardship is there in my wrapping myself up in a waterproof and riding a few miles to a comfortable church? I shall come back with a grand appetite and a double zest for the wood fire."
"But it is not fair on the poor horses. They have no waterproofs or wood fires."
"I think I am not indifferent to the comfort of dumb animals, and though I drive a good deal, father can tell you I am not a 'whip.' Of all shams the most transparent is this tenderness for one's self and the horses on Sunday. I am often out in stormy weather during the week, and meet plenty of people on the road. The farmers drive to the village on rainy days because they can neither plow, sow, nor reap. But on even a cloudy Sabbath, with the faintest prospect of rain, there is but one text in the Bible for them: 'A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.' People attend parties, the opera, and places of amusement no matter how bad the night. It is a miserable pretence to say that the weather keeps the majority at home from church. It is only an excuse. I should have a great deal more respect for them if they would say frankly, 'We would rather sleep, read a novel, dawdle around en deshabille, and gossip.' Half the time when they say it's too stormy to venture out (oh, the heroism of our Christian age!), they should go and thank God for the rain that is providing food for them and theirs.
"And granting that our Christian duties do involve some risk and hardship, does not the Bible ever speak of life as a warfare, a struggle, an agonizing for success? Do not armies often fight and march in the rain, and dumb beasts share their exposure? There is more at stake in this battle. In ancient times God commanded the bloody sacrifice of innumerable animals for the sake of moral and religious effect. Moral and religious effect is worth just as much now. Nothing can excuse wanton cruelty; but the soldier who spurs his horse against the enemy, and the sentinel who keeps his out in a winter storm, are not cruel. But many farmers about here will overwork and underfeed all the week, and on Sunday talk about being 'merciful to their beasts.' There won't be over twenty-five out to-day, and the Christian heroes, the sturdy yeomanry of the church, will be dozing and grumbling in chimney-corners. The languid half-heartedness of the church discourages me more than all the evil in the world."
Miss Walton stated her views in a quiet undertone of indignation, and not so much in answer to Gregory as in protest against a style of action utterly repugnant to her earnest, whole-souled nature. As he saw the young girl's face light up with the will and purpose to be loyal to a noble cause, his own aimless, self-pleasing life seemed petty and contemptible indeed, and again he had that painful sense of humiliation which Miss Walton unwittingly caused him; but, as was often his way, he laughed the matter off by saying, "There is no need of my going to-day, for I have had my sermon, and a better one than you will hear. Still, such is the effect of your homily that I am inclined to ask you to take me with you."
Annie's manner changed instantly, and she smilingly answered, "You will find an arm-chair before a blazing fire in your room upstairs, and an arm-chair before a blazing fire in the parlor, and you can vacillate between them at your pleasure."
"As a vacillating man should, perhaps you might add."
"I add nothing of the kind."
"Will you never let me go to church with you again?"
"Certainly, after what you said, any pleasant day."
"Why can't I have the privilege of being a martyr as well as yourself?"
"I am not a martyr. I would far rather go out to-day than stay at home."
"It will be very lonely without you."
"Oh, you are the martyr then, after all. I hope you will have sufficient fortitude to endure, and doze comfortably during the two hours of my absence."
"Now you are satirical on Sunday, Miss Walton. Let that burden your conscience. I'm going to ask your father if I may go."
"Of course you will act at your pleasure," said Mr. Walton, "but I think, in your present state of health, Annie has suggested the wiser and safer thing to do."
"I should probably be ill on your hands if I went, so I submit; but I wish you to take note, Miss Walton, that I have the 'sperit to go.'"
The arm-chairs were cosey and comfortable, and the hickory wood turned, as is its wont, into glowing and fragrant coals, but the house grew chill and empty the moment that Annie left. Though Mr. Walton and Miss Eulie accompanied her, their absence was rather welcome, but he felt sure that Annie could have beguiled the heavy-footed hours.
"She has some unexplained power of making me forget my miserable self," he muttered.
And yet, left to himself, he had now nothing to do but think, and a fearful time he had of it, lowering at the fire, in the arm-chair, from which he scarcely stirred.
"I have lost my vantage-ground," he groaned—"lost it utterly. I am not even a 'well-meaning man.' I purpose evil against this freshest, purest spirit I have ever known since in this house I looked into my mother's eyes. I am worse than the wild Arab of the desert. I have eaten salt with them; I have partaken of their generous hospitality, given so cordially for the sake of one that is dead, and in return have wounded their most sacred feelings, and now propose to prove the daughter a creature that I can go away and despise. Instead of being glad that there is one in the world noble and good, even though by accident—instead of noting with pleasure that every sweet flower has not become a weed—I wish to drag her down to my own wretched level, or else I would have her exhibit sufficient weakness to show that she would go as far as she was tempted to go. A decent devil could hardly wish her worse. I would like to see her show the same spirit that animates Miss Belle St. Glair of New York, or Mrs. Grobb, my former adored Miss Bently—creatures that I despise as I do myself, and what more could I say? If I could only cause her to show some of their characteristics the reproach of her life would pass away, and I should be confirmed in my belief that humanity's unutterable degradation is its misfortune, and the blame should rest elsewhere than on us. How absurd to blame water for running down hill! Give man or woman half a chance, that is, before habits are fixed, and they plunge faster down the inclined moral plane. And the plague of it is, this seeming axiom does not satisfy me. What business has my conscience, with a lash of scorpion stings, to punish me this and every day that I permit myself to think? Did I not try for years to be better? Did I not resist the infernal gravitation? and yet I am falling still. I never did anything so mean and low before as I am doing now. If it is my nature to do evil, why should I not do it without compunction? And as I look downward—there is no looking forward for me—there seems no evil thing that I could not do if so inclined. Here in this home of my childhood, this sacred atmosphere that my mother breathed, I would besmirch the character of one who as yet is pure and good, with a nature like a white hyacinth in spring. I see the vileness of the act, I loathe it, and yet it fascinates me, and I have no power to resist. Why should a stern, condemning voice declare in recesses of my soul, 'You could and should resist'? For years I have been daily yielding to temptation, and conscience as often pronounces sentence against me. When will the hateful farce cease? Multitudes appear to sin without thought or remorse. Why cannot I? It's my mother's doings, I suppose. A plague upon the early memories of this place. Will they keep me upon the rack forever?"
He rose, strode up and down the parlor, and clenched his hands in passionate protest against himself, his destiny, and the God who made him.
A chillness, resulting partly from dread and partly from the wild storm raging without, caused him to heap up the hearth with wood. It speedily leaped into flame, and, covering his face with his hands, he sat cowering before it. A vain but frequent thought recurred to him with double power.
"Oh that I could cease to exist, and lose this miserable consciousness! Oh that, like this wood, I could be aflame with intense, passionate life, and then lose identity, memory, and everything that makes me, and pass into other forms. Nay, more, if I had my wish, I would become nothing here and now."
The crackling of flames and the rush of wind and rain against the windows had caused the sound of wheels, and a light step in the room, to be unheard.
He was aroused by Miss Walton, who asked, "Mr. Gregory, are you ill?"
He raised his woe-begone face to hers, and said, almost irritably, "Yes—no—or at least I am as well as I ever expect to be, and perhaps better." Then with a sudden impulse he asked, "Does annihilation seem such a dreadful thing to you?"
"What! the losing of an eternity of keen enjoyment? Could anything be more dreadful! Really, Mr. Gregory, brooding here alone has not been good for you. Why do you not think of pleasant things?"
"For the same reason that a man with a raging toothache does not have pleasant sensations," he answered, with a grim smile.
"I admit the force of your reply, though I do not think the case exactly parallel. The mind is not as helpless as the body. Still, I believe it is true that when the body is suffering the mind is apt to become the prey of all sorts of morbid fancies, and you do look really ill. I wish I could give you some of my rampant health and spirits to- day. Facing the October storm has done me good every way, and I am ravenous for dinner."
He looked at her enviously as she stood before him, with her waterproof, still covered with rain-drops, partially thrown back and revealing the outline of a form which, though not stout, was suggestive of health and strength. She seemed, with her warm, high color, like a hardy flower covered with spray. Instead of shrinking feebly and delicately from the harsher moods of nature, and coming in pinched and shivering, she had felt the blood in her veins and all the wheels of life quickened by the gale.
"Miss Walton," he said, with a glimmer of a smile, "do you know that you are very different from most young ladies? You and nature evidently have some deep secrets between you. I half believe you never will grow old, but are one of the perennials. I am glad you have come home, for you seem to bring a little of yesterday's sunshine into the dreary house."
As they returned to the parlor after dinner, Gregory remarked, "Miss Walton, what can you do to interest me this afternoon, for I am devoured with ennui?"
She turned upon him rather quickly and said, "A young man like you has no business to be 'devoured with ennui.' Why not engage in some pursuit, or take up some subject that will interest you and stir your pulse?"
With a touch of his old mock gallantry he bowed and said, "In you I see just the subject, and am delighted to think I'm going to have you all to myself this rainy afternoon."
With a half-vexed laugh and somewhat heightened color she answered, "I imagine you won't have me all to yourself long."
She had hardly spoken the words before the children bounded in, exclaiming, "Now, Aunt Annie, for our stories."
"You see, Mr. Gregory, here are previous and counter-claims already."
"I wish I knew of some way of successfully disputing them."
"It would be difficult to find. Well, come, little people, we will go into the sitting-room and not disturb Mr. Gregory."
"Now, I protest against that," he said. "You might at least let me be one of the children."
"But the trouble is, you won't be one, but will sit by criticising and laughing at our infantile talk."
"Now you do me wrong. I will be as good as I can, and if you knew how long and dreary the day has been you would not refuse."
She looked at him keenly for a moment, and then said, a little doubtfully, "Well, I will try for once. Run and get your favorite Sunday books, children."
When they were alone he asked, "How can you permit these youngsters to be such a burden?"
"They are not a burden," she answered.
"But a nurse could take care of them and keep them quiet."
"If their father and mother were living they would not think 'keeping them quiet' all their duty toward them, nor do I, to whom they were left as a sacred trust."
"That awful word 'duty' rules you, Miss Walton, with a rod of iron."
"Do I seem like a harshly driven slave?" she asked, smilingly.
"No, and I cannot understand you."
"That is because your philosophy of life is wrong. You still belong to that old school who would have it that sun, moon, and stars revolve around the earth. But here are the books, and if you are to be one of the children you must do as I bid you—be still and listen."
It was strange to Gregory how content he was to obey. He was surprised at his interest in the old Bible stories told in childish language, and as Annie stopped to explain a point or answer a question, he found himself listening as did the eager little boy sitting on the floor at her feet. The hackneyed man of the world could not understand how the true, simple language of nature, like the little brown blossoms of lichens, has a beauty of its own.
At the same time he had a growing consciousness that perhaps there was something in the reader also which mainly held his interest. It was pleasant to listen to the low, musical voice. It was pleasant to see the red lips drop the words so easily yet so distinctly, and chief of all was the consciousness of a vitalized presence that made the room seem full when she was in it, and empty when she was absent, though all others remained.
He truly shared the children's regret when at last she said, "Now I am tired, and must go upstairs and rest awhile before supper, after which we will have some music. You can go into the sitting-room and look at the pictures till the tea-bell rings. Mr. Gregory, will my excuse to the children answer for you also?"
"I suppose it must, though I have no pictures to look at."
She suddenly appeared to change her mind, and said, briskly, "Come, sir, what you need is work for others. I have read to you, and you ought to be willing to read to me. If you please, I will rest in the arm-chair here instead of in my room."
"I will take your medicine," he said, eagerly, "without a wry face, though an indifferent reader, while I think you are a remarkably good one; and let me tell you it is one of the rarest accomplishments we find. You shall also choose the book."
"What unaccountable amiableness!" she replied, laughing. "I fear I shall reward you by going to sleep."
"Very well, anything so I am not left alone again. I am wretched company for myself."
"Oh, it is not for my sake you are so good, after all!"
"You think me a selfish wretch, Miss Walton."
"I think you are like myself, capable of much improvement. But I wish to rest, and you must not talk, but read. There is the 'Schonberg- Cotta Family.' I have been over it two or three times, so if I lose the thread of the story it does not matter."
He wheeled the arm-chair up to the fire for her, and for a while she listened with interest; but at last her lids drooped and soon closed, and her regular breathing showed that she was sleeping. His voice sank in lower and lower monotone lest his sudden stopping should awaken her, then he laid down his book and read a different story in the pure young face turned toward him.
"It is not beautiful," he thought, "but it is a real, good face. I should not be attracted toward it in a thronged and brilliant drawing- room. I might not notice it on Fifth Avenue, but if I were ill and in deep trouble, it is just such a face as I should like to see bending over me. Am I not ill and in deep trouble? I have lost my health and lost my manhood. What worse disasters this side death can I experience? Be careful, Walter Gregory, you may be breaking the one clew that can lead you out of the labyrinth. You may be seeking to palsy the one hand that can help you. Mother believed in a special Providence. Is it her suggestion that now flashes in my mind that God in mercy has brought me to this place of sacred memories, and given me the companionship of this good woman, that the bitter waters of my life may be sweetened? I do not know from whom else it can come.
"And yet the infernal fascination of evil! I cannot—I will not give up my purpose toward her. Vain dreams! Miss Walton or an angel of light could not reclaim me. My impetus downward is too great.
"Oh, the rest and peace of that face! Physical rest and a quiet, happy spirit dwell in every line. She sleeps there like a child, little dreaming that a demon is watching her. But she says that she is guarded. Perhaps she is. A strong viewless one with a flaming sword may stand between her and me.
"Weak fool! Enough of this. I shall carry out my experiment fully, and when I have succeeded or failed, I can come to some conclusion on matters now in doubt.
"I should like to kiss those red parted lips. I wonder what she would do if I did?" Annie's brow darkened into a frown. Suddenly she started up and looked at him, but seemed satisfied from his distance and motionless aspect.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing. I had a dream," she said, with a slight flush.
"Please tell it," he said, though he feared her answer.
"You will not like it. Besides, it's too absurd."
"You pique my curiosity. Tell it by all means."
"Well, then, you mustn't be angry; and remember, I have no faith in sleeping vagaries. I dreamed that you were transformed into a large tiger, and came stealthily to bite me."
He was startled as he recalled his thought at the moment of her awaking, but had the presence of mind to say, "Let me interpret the dream."
"You know, I suppose, that dreams go by contraries. Suppose a true friend wished to steal a kiss in your unconsciousness."
"True friends do not steal from us," she replied, laughing. "I don't know whether it was safe to let you read me to sleep?"
"It's not wrong to be tempted, is it? One can't help that. As Mr. Tuggar says, I might have the 'sperit to do it,' and yet remain quietly in my chair, as I have."
"You make an admission in your explanation. Well, it was queer," she added, absently.
Gregory thought so too, and was annoyed at her unexpected clairvoyant powers. But he said, as if a little piqued, "If you think me a tiger you had better not sleep within my reach, or you may find your face sadly mutilated on awaking."
"Nonsense," she said. "Mr. Gregory, you are a gentleman. We are talking like foolish children."
The tea-bell now rang, and Gregory obeyed its summons in a very perplexed state. His manner was rather absent during the meal, but Annie seemed to take pains to be kind and reassuring. The day, so far from being a restraint, appeared one of habitual cheerfulness, which even the dreary storm without could not dampen.
"We shall have a grand sing to-night with the assistance of your voice, I hope, Mr. Gregory," said Mr. Walton, as they all adjourned to the parlor.
"I do not sing by note," he replied. "When I can I will join you, though I much prefer listening to Miss Walton."
"Miss Walton prefers nothing of the kind, and we shall sing only what you know," she said, with a smiling glance at him over her shoulder, as she was making selections from the music-stand.
Soon they were all standing round the piano, save Mr. Walton, who sat near in his arm-chair, his face the picture of placid enjoyment as he looked on the little group so dear to him. They began with the children's favorites from the Sabbath-school books, the little boy dutifully finding the place for his grandfather. Many of them were the same that Gregory had sung long years before, standing in the same place, a child like Johnny, and the vivid memories thus recalled made his voice a little husky occasionally. Annie once gave him a quick look of sympathy, not curious but appreciative.
"She seems to know what is passing in my soul," he thought; "I never knew a woman with such intuitions."
The combined result of their voices was true home music, in which were blended the tones of childhood and age. Annie, with her sweet soprano, led, and gave time and key to them all, very much as by the force and loveliness of her character she influenced the daily harmony of their lives. The children, with their imitative faculty, seemed to gather from her lips how to follow with fair correctness, and they chirped through the tunes like two intelligent robins. Miss Eulie sang a sweet though rather faint alto that was like a low minor key in a happy life. Mr. Walton's melody was rather that of the heart, for his voice was returning to the weakness of childhood, and his ear was scarcely quick enough for the rapid changes of the air, and yet, unless "grandpa" joined with them, all felt that the circle was incomplete.
Gregory was a foreign element in the little group, almost a stranger to its personnel, and more estranged from the sacred meanings and feeling of the hour; yet such was the power of example, so strong were the sweet home-spells of this Christian family, that to his surprise he found himself entering with zest into a scene that on the Sabbath before he would have regarded as an unmitigated bore. The thought flashed across him, "How some of my club acquaintances would laugh to see me standing between two children singing Sabbath-school hymns!"
It was also a sad truth that he could go away from all present influences to spend the next Sabbath at his club in the ordinary style.
When the children's hour had passed and they had been tucked away to peaceful spring-time dreams, though a storm, the precursor of winter, raged without, Annie returned to the parlor and said, "Now, Mr. Gregory, we can have some singing more to your taste."
"I have been one of the children to-day," he replied, "so you must let me off with them from any further singing myself."
"If you insist on playing the children's role you must go to bed. I have some grand old hymns that I've been wishing to try with you."
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I am but half a man. At the risk of your contempt I must say in frankness that my whole physical nature yearns for my arm-chair. But please do not call my weakness laziness. If you will sing to me just what you please, according to your mood, I for one will be grateful."
"Even a dragon could not resist such an appeal," said Annie, laughing. She sat down to her piano and soon partially forgot her audience, in an old Sabbath evening habit, well known to natural musicians, of expressing her deeper and more sacred feelings in words and notes that harmonized with them. Gregory sat and listened as the young girl unwittingly revealed a new element in her nature.
In her every-day life she appeared to him full of force and power, practical and resolute. To one of his sporting tastes she suggested a mettled steed whose high spirit was kept in check by thorough training. Her conversation was piquant, at times a little brusque, and utterly devoid of sentimentality. But now her choice of poetic thought and her tones revealed a wealth of womanly tenderness, and he was compelled to feel that her religion was not legal and cold, a system of duties, beliefs, and restraints, but something that seemed to stir the depths of her soul with mystic longings, and overflow her heart with love. She was not adoring the Creator, nor paying homage to a king; but, as the perfume rises from a flower, so her voice and manner seemed the natural expression of a true, strong affection for God Himself, not afar off, but known as a near and dear friend. In her sweet tones there was not the faintest suggestion of the effect or style that a professional singer would aim at. She thought no more of these than would a thrush swaying on its spray in the twilight of a June evening. As unaffectedly as the bird she sang according to the inward promptings of a nature purified and made lovely by the grace of God.
No one not utterly given over to evil could have listened unmoved, still less Gregory, with his sensitive, beauty-loving, though perverted nature. The spirit of David's harp again breathed its divine peace on his sin-disquieted soul. The words of old Daddy Tuggar flashed across him, and he muttered:
"Yes, she could take even me to heaven, 'if she stayed right by me.'"
When finally, with heartfelt sincerity, she sang the following simple words to an air that seemed a part of them, he envied her from the depths of his soul, and felt that he would readily barter away any earthly possession and life itself for a like faith:
Nearer, nearer, ever nearer, Come I gladly unto Thee; And the days are growing brighter With Thy presence nearer me.
Though a pilgrim, not a stranger; This Thy land, and I Thine own; At Thy side, thus free from danger, Find I paths with flowers strown.
Voices varied, nature speaking, Call to me on every side; Friends and kindred give their greeting, In Thy sunshine I abide.
Though my way were flinty, thorny, Were I sure it led to Thee, Could I pass one day forlornly, Home and rest so near to me?
Then she brought the old family Bible, indicating that after that hour she was in no mood for commonplace conversation. In the hush that followed, the good old man reverently read a favorite passage, which seemed not to consist of cold, printed words, but to be a part of a loving letter sent by the Divine Father to His absent children.
As such it was received by all save Gregory. He sat among them as a stranger and an alien, cut off by his own acts from those ties which make one household of earth and heaven. But such was the influence of the evening upon him that he realized as never before his loss and loneliness. He longed intensely to share in their feelings, and to appropriate the words of love and promise that Mr. Walton read.
The prayer that followed was so tender, so full of heart-felt interest in his guest, that Gregory's feelings were deeply touched. He arose from his knees, and again shaded his face to hide the traces of his emotion.
When at last he looked up, Mr. Walton was quietly reading, and the ladies had retired. He rose and bade Mr. Walton good-night with a strong but silent grasp of the hand.
The thought flashed across him as he went to his room, that after this evening and the grasp as of friendship he had just given the father, he could not in the faintest degree meditate evil against the daughter. But so conscious was he of moral weakness, so self- distrustful in view of many broken resolutions, that he dared resolve on nothing. He at last fell into a troubled sleep with the vain, regretful thought, "Oh that I had not lost my vantage-ground! Oh that I could live my life over again!"
AN ACCIDENT IN THE MOUNTAINS
In view of her recent stormy mood, Nature seemed full of regretful relentings on Monday, and, as if to make amends for her harshness, assumed something of a summer softness. The sun had not the glaring brightness that dazzles, and the atmosphere, purified by the recent rain, revealed through its crystal depths objects with unusual distinctness.
"It is a splendid day for a mountain ramble," said Annie, with vivacity, at the breakfast-table.
"Why don't you take old Dolly and the mountain wagon, and show Mr. Gregory some of our fine views this afternoon?" asked Mr. Walton.
"Nothing would please me more," said his daughter, cordially; "that is, if Mr. Gregory feels equal to the fatigue."
"I'd be at my last gasp if I refused such an offer," said Gregory, eagerly. "It would do me good, for I feel much stronger than when I first came, and Miss Walton's society is the best tonic I know of."
"Very well," said she, laughing. "You shall take me this afternoon as a continuation of the tonic treatment under which you say you are improving."
"To carry on the medical figure," he replied, "I fear that I am to you the embodiment of the depletive system."
"From my feelings this bright morning you have very little effect. I prescribe for you a quiet forenoon, as our mountain roads will give you an awful jolting. You, if not your medicine, will be well shaken to-day."
"You are my medicine, as I understand it, so I shall take it according to the old orthodox couplet."
"No, the mountain is your medicine, and I anticipate no earthquakes."
"It is settled then," said Mr. Walton, smiling, "that you adopt Mahomet's compromise and go to the mountain. I will tell Jeff to fit you out in suitable style."
Gregory, in excellent spirits, retired to his room for a quiet morning. The prospect for the afternoon pleased him greatly, and a long tete-a-tete with Annie among the grand and beautiful solitudes of nature had for him an attraction that he could scarcely understand.
"She is just the one for a companion on such an expedition," he said to himself. "She seems a part of the scenes we shall look upon. The free, strong mountain spirit breathes in her every word and act. Old Greek mythology would certainly make her a nymph of the hills."
After dinner they started, Gregory's interest centring mainly in his companion, but Annie regarding him as a mere accessory to a sort of half-holiday in her busy life, and expecting more enjoyment from the scenery and the exhilarating air than from his best efforts to entertain her. And yet in this respect she was agreeably disappointed. Gregory was in a mood that he scarcely understood himself. If Annie had been somewhat vain and shallow, though possessing many other good traits, with the practiced skill of a society man he would have made the most of these weaknesses, amused himself with a piquant flirtation, and soon have been ready for his departure for New York with a contemptuous French shrug at the whole affair. But her weaknesses did not lie in that direction. Her naturally truthful and earnest nature, deepened and strengthened by Christian principle, from the first had foiled his unworthy purposes, and disturbed his contemptuous cynicism. Then as he was compelled to believe in her reality, her truth and nobleness, all that was in his own nature responsive to these traits began to assert itself. Even while he clung to it and felt that he had no power to escape it, the evil of his life grew more hateful to him, and he condemned himself with increasing bitterness. When good influences are felt in a man's soul, evil seems to become specially active. The kingdom of darkness disputes every inch of its ill-gotten power. Winter passes away in March storms. It is the still cold of indifference that is nearest akin to death.
The visit to his old home, and the influence of Annie Walton, were creating March weather in Walter Gregory's soul. There were a few genial moods like gleams of early spring sunshine. There were sudden relentings and passionate longings for better life, as at times gentle, frost-relaxing showers soften the flinty ground. There were fierce spiritual conflicts, wild questionings, doubts, fears, and forebodings, and sometimes despair, as in this gusty month nature often seems resolving itself back to primeval chaos. But too often his mood was that of cold hard scepticism, the frost of midwinter. The impetus of his evil life would evidently be long in spending itself.
And yet the quiet influence of the hallowed Sabbath evening, and Annie Walton's hymns of faith and love, could not readily be lost. The father's prayer still echoed in his soul, and even to him it seemed that the heavens could not be deaf to such entreaty. These things affected him as no direct appeals possibly could. They were like the gentle but irresistible south wind.
He was now simply drifting. He had not definitely abandoned his purpose of tempting Annie, nor did he consciously thrust it from him. Quite convinced that she was what she seemed, and doubting greatly whether during his brief visit there would be time to affect her mind seriously by any evil influences he could bring to bear, and won unwittingly by her pure spirit to better things himself, he let the new and unexpected influence have full play.
He was like a man who finds himself in the current above Niagara, and gives up in despair, allowing his boat to glide onward to the fatal plunge. A breeze springs up and blows against the current. He spreads a sail and finds his downward progress checked. If the wind increases and blows steadily, he may stem the rushing tide and reach smooth, safe waters.
A faint glimmering of hope began to dawn in his heart. An unexpected gale from heaven, blowing against the current of evil, made it seem possible that he too might gain the still waters of a peaceful faith. But the hope dwelt in his mind more as a passing thought, a possibility, than an expectation.
In his wavering state the turn of the scales would depend mainly upon the mood of his companion. If she had been trifling and inclined to flirt, full of frivolous nonsense, bent upon having a good time in the frequent acceptation of the phrase, little recking the consequences of words or acts, as is often the case with girls in the main good- hearted and well-meaning, Gregory would have fallen in with such a mood and pushed it to the extreme.
But Annie was simply herself, bright and exhilarating as the October sunshine, but as pure and strong. She was ready for jest and repartee. She showed almost a childish delight in every odd and pretty thing that met her eye, but never for a moment permitted her companion to lose respect for her.
Her cheeks were like the crimson maple-leaves which overhung them. Her eyes were like the dark sparkle of the little brook as it emerged from the causeway over which they drove. Her brown hair, tossed by the wind, escaped somewhat from its restraints and enhanced the whiteness of her neck, and the thought occurred to Gregory more than once, "If she is not pretty, I never saw a face more pleasant to look at."
The wish to gain her esteem and friendship grew stronger every moment, and he exerted himself to the utmost to please her. Abandoning utterly his gallantry, his morbid cynicism, he came out into the honest sunlight of truth, where Annie's mind dwelt, and directed the conversation to subjects concerning which, as an educated and travelled man, he could speak frankly and intelligently. Annie had strong social tastes and the fondness for companionship natural to the young, and she was surprised to find how he stimulated and interested her mind, and how much they had in common. He appeared to understand her immediately, and to lead her thoughts to new and exciting flights.
It was their purpose to cross a spur of the main mountain range. After a long and toilsome climb, stopping to give Dolly many a breathing spell, they at last reached the brow of the wooded height, and turned to look at the autumn landscape glimmering in the bright October sunshine. It is impossible by either pen or brush to give a true picture of wide reaches of broken and beautiful country, as seen from some of the more favored points of outlook among the Highlands on the Hudson. The loveliness of a pretty bit of scenery or of a landscape may be enhanced by art, but the impressive grandeur of nature, when the feature of vast and varied expanse predominates, cannot be adequately expressed. The mind itself is oppressed by the extensiveness of the scene, and tends to select some definite object, as a village, hamlet, or tree-embowered farmhouse, on which to dwell. These accord more with the finite nature of the beholder. Spires and curling wreaths of smoke suggested to Annie and Gregory many a simple altar and quiet hearth, around which gathered the homely, contented life, spiritual and domestic, of those who occupied their own little niche in the great world, and were all unburdened with thought or care for the indefinite regions that stretched away beyond their narrow circle of daily acquaintance. Only God can give to the whole of His creation the all-seeing gaze that we bestow upon some familiar scene. His glance around the globe is like that of a mother around her nursery, with her little children grouped at her feet.
The laden orchards, with men climbing long ladders, and boys in the topmost branches looking in the distance like huge squirrels, were pleasant objects to the mountain ramblers. Huskers could be discerned in the nearer cornfields, and the great yellow ears glistened momentarily in the light, as they were tossed into golden heaps. There was no hum of industry as from a manufacturing village, or roar of turbulent life as from a city, but only the quiet evidence to the eye of a life kindred to that which nature so silently and beautifully elaborates.
"How insignificant we are!" said Gregory, gloomily; "how the great world goes right on without us! It is the same when one dies and leaves it, as we left it by climbing this mountain. In the main we are unknown and uncared for, and even to those who know us it is soon the same as if we had never been."
"But the world cannot go on without God. Though forgotten, He never forgets! His friends need never have the sense of being lost or lonely—any more than a child travelling with his father in a foreign land among indifferent strangers. God does not look at us, His creatures, as we do at the foliage of these forests, seeing only the general effect. He sees each one as directly as I now look at you."
"I wish I could believe He looked as kindly."
"I wish you could, Mr. Gregory. It is sad to me that people can't believe what is so true. The fondest look your mother ever gave you was cold compared with the yearning, loving face God turns toward every one of us, even as we go away from Him."
He looked at her earnestly for a moment and saw that sincerity was written on her face. He shook his head sadly, and then said, rather abruptly, "Those lengthening shadows remind us that we must be on our way"; and then their thoughts dwelt on lighter subjects as they ascended another lofty mountain terrace, and paused again to scan the wider prospect that made the sense of daily life in the valleys below as remote as the world seems to the hermit in his devotional seclusion. Then they began to descend the sloping plateau which inclined toward the brow of the hill overlooking the region of the Walton residence.
After one or two hours of broken but very agreeable conversation Annie suddenly sighed deeply.
"Now, Miss Walton," said Gregory, "that sigh came from the depths. What hidden sorrow could have caused it?"
With a slight flush and laugh, she said, "It was caused by a mere passing thought, like that cloud there sailing over the mountain slope."
"Your simile is so pretty that I should like to know the thought."
"I hardly know whether to tell it to you. It might have the same effect as if that cloud should expand and cover the sky."
"Might not the telling also have the same effect as if the cloud were dissipated altogether?"
She looked at him quickly and said, "How apt your answer is! Yes, it might if you would be sensible. I do not know you so very well yet. Are you not a little ready to take offence?"
"You do not look as if about to say anything I should resent very deeply. But I promise that the cloud shall vanish."
"I am not so sure about that. The cloud represents my thought; and yet I hope it may eventually vanish utterly. The thought occurred to me after the pleasant hours of this afternoon what congenial friends we might be."
"And that caused you to sigh so deeply?"
"I laid emphasis on the word might."
"And why should you, Miss Annie? Why need you?" he asked, eagerly.
"You have shown a great deal of tact and consideration this afternoon, Mr. Gregory, in choosing topics on which we could agree, or about which it is as nice to differ a little. I wish it were the same in regard to those things that make up one's life, as it were;" and she looked at him closely to see how he would take this.
After a moment he said, a little bitterly, "In order to be your friend, must one look at everything through the same colored glass that you employ?"
"Oh, no," she replied, earnestly; "it is not fair to say that. But you seem almost hostile to all that I love best and think most of, and my sigh was rather an earnest and oft-recurring wish that it were otherwise."
Again he was silent for a short time, then said, with sudden vehemence, "And I also wish it were otherwise"; adding more quietly, "but it is not, Miss Walton. You know me too well, even if I wished to deceive you. And yet I would give a great deal for such a friendship as you could bestow. Why can you not give it as it is? The Founder of your faith was a friend of publicans and sinners."
"He was indeed their friend, and has been ever since," she answered. "But was it not natural that He found more that was attractive and congenial in that little group of disciples who were learning to know and believe in Him?"
"I understand you, Miss Walton. I was unfortunate in my illustration, and you have turned it against me. You can be my friend, as the missionary is the friend of the heathen."
"You go to extremes, Mr. Gregory, and are hardly fair. I am not a missionary, nor are you a heathen. I make my meaning clear when I echo your thought of a moment ago, and wish that just such a friendship might exist between us as that between your father and mine."
"I am what I am," he said, with genuine sadness.
"I wish you had my faith in the possibilities of the future," she replied, turning brightly toward him.
But he shook his head, saying, "I have about lost all faith in everything as far as I am concerned. Still I feel that if any one could do me any good, you might, but I fear it is a hopeless task." Then he changed the subject in such a way as to show that it was painful, and that he preferred it should be dropped.
After all, the cloud had overcast the sky. The inevitable separation between those guided by divine principles and those controlled by earthly influences began to dawn upon him. He caught a glimpse of the "great gulf," that is ever "fixed" between the good and evil in their deepest consciousness. The "loneliness of guilt" chilled and oppressed him, even with the cheery, sympathetic companion at his side. But he hid his feelings under a forced gayety, in which Annie joined somewhat, though it gave her a vague shiver of pain. She felt they had been en rapport for a little while, but now a change had come, even as the damp and chill of approaching night were taking the place of genial sunshine.
Suddenly she said, as they were riding along on the comparatively level plateau among thick copse-wood and overshadowing trees that already created a premature twilight, "It is strange we do not come out on the brow of the mountain overlooking our home. This road does not seem familiar either, though it is two or three years since I have been over it, and then Jeff drove. I thought I knew the way well. Can it be possible we have taken the wrong turning?"
"I ought to be familiar with these roads, Miss Walton, but I am sorry to say I too am confused. I hunted over these hills to some extent when a boy, but did not pay much heed to the roads, as I took my own courses through the woods."
"I think I must be right," said Annie, after a little time; "the brow of the hill must be near;" and they hastened the old horse along as fast as possible under the circumstances. But the road continually grew rougher and gave evidence of very little travel, and the evening deepened rapidly. At last they resolved to turn round at the first place that would permit of it, but this was not readily found, there being only a single wheel-track, which now stretched away before them like a narrow cut between banks of foliage, that looked solid in the increasing darkness; the road also was full of rocks, loose stones, and deep ruts, over which the wagon jolted painfully. With a less sure-footed horse than Dolly they would soon have come to grief. Gregory was becoming greatly fatigued, though he strove to hide it, and both were filled with genuine uneasiness at the prospect before them. To make matters seemingly desperate, as they were descending a little hill a fore-wheel caught between two stones and was wrenched sharply off. Quick, agile Annie sprang as she felt the wagon giving, but Walter was thrown out among the brushwood by the roadside. Though scratched and bruised, he was not seriously hurt, and as quickly as possible came to the assistance of his companion. He found her standing by Dolly's head, holding and soothing the startled beast. Apparently she was unhurt. They looked searchingly at the dusky forest, their broken vehicle, and then at each other. Words were unnecessary to explain the awkwardness of their situation.
"PROMISE OR DIE"
While they were thus standing irresolute after the accident, suddenly a light glimmered upon them. It appeared to come from a house standing a little off from the road. "Shall I leave you here and go for assistance?" asked Walter.
"I think I would rather go with you. Dolly will stand, and I do not wish to be left alone."
They soon found a grassy path leading to a small house, from which the light shone but faintly through closely curtained windows. They met no one, nor were their footsteps heard till they knocked at the door. A gruff voice said, "Come in," and a huge bull-dog started up from near the fire with a savage growl.
They entered. A middle-aged man with his coat off sat at work with his back toward them. He rose hastily and stared at them with a strangely blended look of consternation and anger.
"Call off your dog," said Gregory, sharply.
"Down, Bull," said the man, harshly, and the dog slunk growling into a corner, but with a watchful, ugly gleam in his eyes.
The man's expression was quite as sinister and threatening.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" he asked, sternly.
"We want help," said Gregory, with a quickened and apprehensive glance around, which at once revealed to him why their visit was so unwelcome. The man had been counterfeiting money, and the evidences of his guilt were only too apparent. "We have lost our way, and our wagon is broken. I hope you have sufficient humanity to act the part of a neighbor."
"Humanity to the devil!" said the man, brutally, "I am neighbor to no one. You have come here to pry into what is none of your business."
"We have not," said Gregory, eagerly. "You will find our broken wagon in the road but a little way from here."
The man's eye was cold, hard, and now had a snake-like glitter as he looked at them askance with a gloomy scowl. He seemed thinking over the situation in which he found himself.
Gregory, in his weak, exhausted state, and shaken somewhat by his fall, was nervous and apprehensive. Annie, though pale, stood firmly and quietly by.
Slowly and hesitatingly, as if deliberating as to the best course, the man reached up to the shelf and took down a revolver, saying, with an evil-boding look at them, "If I thought you had come as detectives, you would have no chance to use your knowledge. You, sir, I do not know, but I think this lady is Squire Walton's daughter. As it is, you must both solemnly promise me before God that you will never reveal what you have seen here. Otherwise I have but one method of self- protection," and he cocked his pistol. "Let me tell you," he added, in a blood-curdling tone, "you are not the first ones I have silenced. And mark this—if you go away and break this promise, I have confederates who will take vengeance on you and yours."
"No need of any further threats," said Gregory, with a shrug. "I promise. As you say, it is none of my business how much of the 'queer' you make."
Though naturally not a coward, Gregory, in his habit of self-pleasing and of shunning all sources of annoyance, would not have gone out of his way under any circumstances to bring a criminal to justice, and the thought of risking anything in this case did not occur to him. Why should they peril their lives for the good of the commonwealth? If he had been alone and escaped without further trouble, he would have thought of the matter afterward as of a crime recorded in the morning paper, with which he had no concern, except perhaps to scrutinize more sharply the currency he received.
But with conscientious Annie it was very different. Her father was a magistrate of the right kind, who sincerely sought to do justice and protect the people in their rights. From almost daily conversation her mind had been impressed with the sacredness of the law. When she was inclined to induce her father to give a lighter sentence than he believed right he had explained how the well-being and indeed the very existence of society depended upon the righteous enforcement of the law, and how true mercy lay in such enforcement. She had been made to feel that the responsibility for good order and morals rested on every one, and that to conceal a known crime was to share deeply in the guilt. She also was not skilled in that casuistry which would enable her to promise anything with mental reservations. The shock of their savage and threatening reception had been severe, but she was not at all inclined to be hysterical; and though her heart seemed to stand still with a chill of dread which deepened every moment as she realized what would be exacted of her, she seemed more self-possessed than Gregory. Indeed, in the sudden and awful emergencies of life, woman's fortitude is often superior to man's, and Annie's faith was no decorous and conventional profession for Sabbath uses, but a constant and living reality. She was like the maidens of martyr days, who tremblingly but unhesitatingly died for conscience' sake. While there was no wavering of purpose, there was an agony of fear and sorrow, as, after the momentary confusion of mind caused by the suddenness of the occurrence, the terrible nature of the ordeal before her became evident.
Through her father she had heard a vague rumor of this man before. Though he lived so secluded and was so reticent, his somewhat mysterious movements had awakened suspicion. But his fierce dog and his own manner had kept all obtrusive curiosity at a distance. Now she saw her father's worst fears and surmises realized.
But the counterfeiter at first gave all his attention to her companion, thinking that he would have little trouble with a timid girl; and after Gregory's ready promise, looked searchingly at him for a moment, and then said, with a coarse, scornful laugh, "No fear of you. You will keep your skin whole. You are a city chap, and know enough of me and my tribe to be sure I can strike you there as well as here. I can trust to your fears, and don't wish to shed blood when it is unnecessary. And now this girl must make the same promise. Her father is a magistrate, and I intend to have no posse of men up here after me to-morrow."
"I can make no such promise," said Annie, in a low tone.
"What?" exclaimed the man, harshly, and a savage growl from the dog made a kindred echo to his tone.
Deathly pale, but with firm bearing, Annie said, "I cannot promise to shield crime by silence. I should be a partaker in your guilty secrets."
"Oh, for God's sake, promise!" cried Gregory, in an agony of fear, but in justice it must be said that it was more for her than for himself.
"For God's sake I cannot promise."
The man stepped menacingly toward her, and the great dog also advanced unchecked out of his corner.
"Young woman," he hissed in her ear, "you must promise or die. I have sworn never to go to prison again if I wade knee-deep in blood."
There came a rush of tears to Annie's eyes. Her bosom heaved convulsively a moment, and then she said, in a tone of agony, "It is dreadful to die in such a way, but I cannot make the promise you ask. It would burden my conscience and blight my life. I will trust to God's mercy and do right. But think twice before you shed my innocent blood."
Gregory covered his face with his hands and groaned aloud.
The man hesitated. He had evidently hoped by his threats to frighten her into compliance, and her unexpected refusal, while it half frenzied him with fear and anger, made his course difficult to determine upon. He was not quite hardened enough to slay the defenceless girl as she stood so bravely before him, and the killing of her would also involve the putting of Gregory out of the way, making a double murder that would be hard to conceal. He looked at the dog, and the thought occurred that by turning them out of doors and leaving them to the brute's tender mercies their silence might be effectually secured.
It is hard to say what he would have done, left to his own fears and evil passions; but a moment after Annie had spoken, the doors opened and a woman entered with a pail of water, which she had just brought from a spring at some little distance from the house.