"Annie," said her father, humorously, "it seems to me that this fowl must have reminiscences of the ark."
But she could not take a jest then, and pettishly answered that "if he kept such a stupid man as Jeff, he could not expect anything else."
Annie was Jeff's best friend, and had interceded for him in some of his serious scrapes, but her mood now was like a gusty day that gives discomfort to all.
After a few moments she said, suddenly, "O father, I forgot to tell you. I invited the Camdens here to dinner to-day."
His face clouded instantly, and he looked exceedingly annoyed.
"I am very sorry to hear it," he said.
"Why so?" asked Annie, with an accent that Gregory had never heard her use toward her father.
"Because I shall have to be absent, for one reason. I meant to tell you about it last evening, but you seemed so occupied with your own thoughts, and disappeared at last so suddenly, that I did not get a chance. But there is no help for it. I have very important business that will take me out to Woodville, and you know it requires a good long day to go and come."
"It will never do in the world for you to be away," cried Annie.
"Can't help it, my dear; it's business that must be attended to."
"But, father," she urged, "the Camdens are new people, and said to be very wealthy. We ought to show them some attention. They were so cordial yesterday, and spoke so handsomely of you, expressing a wish to meet you and be social, that I felt that I could not do otherwise than invite them. For reasons you understand it may not be convenient to see them very soon after to-day."
The old gentleman seemed to share his daughter's vexation, but from a different cause, and after a moment said, "You are right; they are 'new people' in more senses than one, and appear to me to be assuming a great deal more than good taste dictates in view of the past. As mistress of my home I wish you to feel that you have the right to invite any one you please, within certain limits. The Camdens are people that I would do any kindness to and readily help if they were in trouble, but I do not wish to meet them socially."
Tears of shame and anger glistened in Annie's eyes as she said, "I'm sure you know very well that I wish to entertain no vulgar, pushing people. I knew nothing of their 'past.' They seemed pleasant when they called. They were said to have the means to be liberal if they wished, and I thought they would be an acquisition to our neighborhood, and that we might interest them in our church and other things."
"In my view," replied Mr. Walton, a little hotly, "the church and every good cause would be better off without their money, for, in plain English, it was acquired in a way that you and I regard as dishonorable. I'm very sorry they've come to spend it in our neighborhood. The fact may not be generally known here, but it soon will be. I consider such people the greatest demoralizers of the age, flaunting their ill-gotten wealth in the faces of the honest, and causing the young to think that if they only get money, no matter how, society will receive them all the same. I am annoyed beyond measure that we should seem to give them any countenance whatever. Moreover, it is necessary that I go to Woodville."
"O dear!" exclaimed Annie, in a tone of real distress, "what shall I do? If I had only known all this before!" Then, turning with sudden irritation to her father, she asked, "Why did you not tell me about them?"
"Because you never asked, and I saw no occasion to. I do not like to speak evil of my neighbors, even if it be true. I did not know of your call upon them till after it occurred, and then remarked, if you will remember, that they were people that I did not admire."
"Yes," she exclaimed, in a tone of strong self-disgust, "I do remember your saying so, though I had no idea you meant anything like what you now state. The wretched mystery of it all is, why could I not have remembered it yesterday?"
"Well, my dear," replied the father, with the glimmer of a smile, "you were a bit preoccupied yesterday; though I don't wonder at that."
"I see it all now," cried Annie, impetuously. "But it was with myself I was preoccupied, and therefore I made a fool of myself. I was rude to you last night also, Mr. Gregory, so taken up was I with my own wonderful being."
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I thought you were thinking of another," said he, with a keen glance, and she blushed so deeply that he feared she was; but he added, quickly, "You once told me that it was as wrong to judge one's self harshly as another. I assure you that I've no complaints to make, but rather feel gratitude for your kindness. As to this other matter, it seems to me that in your ignorance of these people you have acted very naturally."
"I'm sorry I did not tell you more about them," said her father. "I did intend to, but somehow it escaped me."
"Well," said Annie, with a long breath, "I am fairly in the scrape. I've invited them, and the question now is, what shall we do?"
The old merchant, with his intense repugnance to anything like commercial dishonesty, was deeply perturbed. The idea of entertaining at his board as guest a man with whom he would not have a business transaction was exceedingly disagreeable. Leaving the unsatisfactory breakfast half-finished, he rose and paced the room in his perplexity. At last he spoke, as much to himself as to his daughter. "It shall never be said that John Walton was deficient in hospitality. They have been invited by one who had the right, so let them come, and be treated as guests ever are at our house. This much is due to ourselves. But after to-day let our relations be as slight as possible. Mr. Gregory, you are under no obligation to meet such people, and need not appear unless you wish."
"With your permission I will be present, sir, and help Miss Walton entertain them. Indeed, I can claim such slight superiority to these Camdens or any one else that I have no scruples."
"How is that?" asked Mr. Walton, with a grave, questioning look. "I trust you do not uphold the theory that seems to prevail in some commercial circles, that any mode by which a man can get money and escape State prison is right?"
"I imagine I am the last one in the world to uphold such a 'theory,'" replied Gregory, quickly, with one of his expressive shrugs, "inasmuch as I am a poor man to-day because this theory has been put in practice against me. No, Mr. Walton," he continued, with the dignity of truth, "it is but justice to myself to say that my mercantile life has been as pure as your own, and that is the highest encomium that I could pass upon it. At the same time it has been evident to you from the first day I came under your roof that I am not the good man that you loved in my father."
The old gentleman sighed deeply. He was too straightforward to utter some trite, smooth remark, such as a man of the world might make. Regarding Gregory kindly, he said, almost as if it were a prayer, "May his mantle fall on you. You have many traits and ways that remind me strongly of him, and you have it in you to become like him."
Gregory shook his head in deep dejection, and said in a low tone, "No, never."
"You know not the power of God," said Mr. Walton, gravely. "At any rate, thank Him that He has kept you from the riches of those who I am sorry to find must be our guests to-day."
The children now came in from their early visit to the chestnut-trees, and the subject was dropped. Mr. Walton left the room, and Gregory also excused himself. Miss Eulie had taken no part in the discussion. It was not in her nature to do so. She sat beaming with sympathy on both Annie and her brother-in-law, and purposing to do all she could to help both out of the dilemma. She felt sorry for them, and sorry for the Camdens and Gregory, and indeed everybody in this troubled world; but such were her pure thoughts and spiritual life that she was generally on the wing, so far above earthly things that they had little power to depress her.
The burden of the day fell upon Annie, and a heavy one she found it. Her lack of peace within was reflected upon her face, and in her satellites that she usually managed with such quiet grace. Zibbie was in one of her very worst tantrums, and when she heard that there was to be company to dinner, seemed in danger of flying into fragments. The thistle, the emblem of her land, was a meek and downy flower compared with this ancient dame. When she took up or laid down any utensil, it was in a way that bade fair to reduce the kitchen to chaos before night. Jeff had "got his back up" also about the hen, and was as stupid and sullen as only Jeff knew how to be; and even quiet Hannah was almost driven to frenzy by Zibbie reproaching her for being everything under heaven that she knew she was not. In her usual state of mind Annie could have partly allayed the storm, and poured oil on the troubled waters, but now disquietude sat on her own brow, and she gave her orders in the sharp, decisive tone that compels reluctant obedience.
The day was raw and uncomfortable, and Gregory resolved to make his easy-chair by the parlor fire the point from which he would watch the development of this domestic drama. He had no vulgar, prying curiosity, but an absorbing interest in the chief actor; and was compelled to admit that the being whom he had come to regard as faultless was growing human faster than he liked.
This impression was confirmed when the children came tearing through the main hall past the parlor to the dining-room opposite, which they entered, leaving the door open. Annie was there preparing the dessert. Country house-keepers can rarely leave these matters to rural cooks, and Zibbie could be trusted to sweeten nothing that day.
With exclamations of delight the children clamored to help, or "muss" a little in their own way, a privilege often given them at such times. But Annie sent them out-of-doors again with a tone and manner that caused them to tip-toe back past the parlor with a scared look on their faces, and the dining-room door was shut with a bang.
Gregory was puzzled. Here was one who had foiled his most adroit temptations, and resisted wrong in a way that was simply heroic, first showing something very like vanity and selfishness, and then temper and passion on what seemed but slight provocation. He did not realize, as many do not, that the petty vexations of life will often sting into the most humiliating displays of weakness one who has the courage and strength to be a martyr. Generals who were as calm and grand in battle as Mont Blanc in a storm have been known to fume like small beer, in camp, at very slight annoyances.
Annie's spirit was naturally quick and imperious, brooking opposition from no one. She was also fond of approbation. She rated Gregory's hollow French gallantry at its true worth, but his subsequent sincere respect and admiration, after their mountain adventure, had unconsciously elated her, especially as she felt that she had earned them well.
Thus, when he had not intended it, and had given over as hopeless his purpose to tempt her, and dropped it in self-loathing that he should ever have entertained it, he had by his honest gratitude and esteem awakened the dormant vanity which was more sensitive to tributes to her character than to mere personal compliments. The attention she had received the day before had developed this self-complacency still more, and the nice balance of her moral life had been disturbed.
It seems that the tempter watches for every vantage. At any rate, as she expressed it, "everything went wrong" that day. One weakness, one wrong, prepares the way for another as surely as when one soldier of Diabolus gets within the city he will open the gates to others; and Annie's temper, that she had so long and prayerfully schooled, was the weak point inevitably assailed. She was found with her armor off. She had closed the preceding day and entered on the present with the form and not the reality of prayer. Therefore it was Annie Walton alone who was coping with temptation. She felt that all was wrong without and within. She felt that she ought to go to God at once in acknowledgment and penitence, and regain her peace; but pride and passion were aroused. She was hurried and worried, full of impotent revolt at herself and everything. She was in no mood for the dreaded self- examination that she knew must come. She was like a little wayward child, that, while it loves its parents, yet grieves and wrongs them by lack of obedience and simple trust, and having wronged them, partly from pride and partly from fear, does not humbly seek reconciliation.
The obnoxious guests came, and the dinner followed. Mr. Walton was the embodiment of stately courtesy, but it was a courtesy due to John Walton rather than to them, and it somewhat awed and depressed the Camdens. Zibbie had done her best to spoil the dinner, and, in spite of Annie, had succeeded tolerably well. Only the dessert, which Annie had made, did credit to her housekeeping. Hannah waited on them as if she were assisting at their obsequies. Altogether it was a rather heavy affair, though Gregory honestly did his best to entertain, and talked on generalities and life abroad, which the Camdens were glad to hear about, so incessantly that he scarcely had time to eat. But he was abundantly rewarded by a grateful look from Annie.
As for herself, she could not converse connectedly or well. She was trammelled by her feeling toward the guests; she was so vexed with herself, mortified at the dinner, and angry with Zibbie, whom she mentally vowed to discharge at once, that she felt more like crying than talking graceful nonsense; for the Camdens soon proved themselves equal only to chit-chat. She sat at her end of the table, red, flurried, and nervous, as different as possible from the refined, elegant hostess that she could be.
Gregory was also much interested in observing how one so truthful would act under the circumstances, and he saw that she was sorely puzzled continually by her efforts to be both polite and honest.
The Camdens were puzzled also, and severely criticised their entertainers, mentally concluding and afterward asserting, with countless variations, that Miss Walton was wonderfully overrated—that she was a poor housekeeper, and, they should judge, but little accustomed to good society.
"I never saw a girl so flustered," Mrs. Camden would remark, complacently. "Perhaps our city style rather oppressed her; and as for Mr. Walton, he put on so much dignity that he leaned over backward. They evidently don't belong to our set."
That was just the trouble, and Mrs. Camden was right and wrong at the same time.
Their early departure was satisfactory to both parties. Mr. Walton drew a long breath of immeasurable relief, and then called briskly to Jeff, who was coming up from the garden, "Harness Dolly to my buggy."
"Why, father, where are you going?" exclaimed Annie.
"Now, father—" began Annie, laying hold of his arm.
"Not a word, my dear; I must go."
"But it will be late in the night before you can get back. The day is cold and raw, and it looks as if it would rain."
"I can't help it. It's something I can't put off. Hurry, Jeff, and get ready to go with me."
"O dear!" cried Annie; "this is the worst of all. Let me go for you— please do."
"I'm not a child," said the old gentleman, irritably. "Since I could not go this morning, I must go now. Please don't worry me. It's public business that I have no right to delay, and I promised that it should be attended to today;" and with a hasty "good-by" he took his overcoat and started.
Annie was almost beside herself with vexation and self-reproach, and her feelings must find vent somewhere. Gregory prudently retired to his room.
"There's Zibbie," she thought; "I'll teach her one lesson;" and she went to the kitchen and discharged the old servant on the spot.
Zibbie was in such a reckless state of passion that she didn't care if the world came to an end. The only comfort Annie got in this direction was a volley of impudence.
"I hod discharged mesel' afore ye spoke," said the irate dame. "An' ye think I'm gang to broil an ould hen for a spring chicken in peace and quietness, ye're a' wrong. An' then to send that dour nagur a speerin' roun' among my fowl that I've raised from babies—I'll na ston it. I'll gang, I'll gang, but ye'll greet after the ould 'ooman for a' o' that."
Annie then retreated to the sitting-room, where Miss Eulie was placidly mending Susie's torn apron, and poured into her ears the story of her troubles.
"To be sure—to be sure," Aunt Eulie would answer, soothingly; "but then, Annie dear, it all won't make any difference a hundred years from now."
This only irritated Annie more, and at the same time impressed her with her own folly in being so disturbed by comparative trifles.
Gregory found his room chill and comfortless, therefore he put on his overcoat, and started for a walk, full of surprise and painful musings. As he was descending the stairs, Johnny came running in, crying in a tone of real distress, "Oh, Aunt Annie, Aunt Annie, I'm so sorry, so very sorry—"
Annie came running out of the sitting-room, exclaiming sharply, "What on earth is the matter now? Hasn't there been trouble enough for one day?"
"I'm so sorry," sobbed the little boy, "but I got a letter at the post-office, and I—I—lost it coming across the lots, and I—I—can't find it."
This was too much. This was the ardently-looked-for letter that had glimmered like a star of hope and promise of better things throughout this miserable day, and Annie lost all control of herself. Rushing upon the child, she cried, "You naughty, careless boy! I'll give you one lesson"; and she shook him so violently that Gregory's indignation got the better of him, and he said, in a low, deep tone, "Miss Walton, the child says he is 'very, very sorry.' He has not meant to do wrong."
Annie started back as if she were committing sacrilege, and covered her face with her hands. Her back was toward Gregory, but he could see the hot blood mantling her very neck. She stood there for a moment, trembling like a leaf, and he, repenting of his hasty words, was about to apologize, when she suddenly caught the boy in her arms, and sped past him up the stairs to her own room.
To his dying day he would never forget the expression of her face.
It cannot be described. It was the look of a noble spirit, deeply wounded, profoundly penitent. Her intense feeling touched him, and the rough October winds brushed a tear from his own eyes more than once before he returned.
NOT A HEROINE, BUT A WOMAN
The cold, cynical man of the world was in a maze. He was deeply and painfully surprised at Miss Walton, and scarcely less so at himself. How could he account for the tumult at his heart? When he first saw that outburst of passion against a trembling, pleading child, he felt that he wished to leave the house then and forever. The next moment, when he saw Annie's face as she convulsively clasped the boy to her breast, and with supernatural strength fled to the refuge of her room, he was not only instantly disarmed of anger, but touched and melted as he had never been before.
Feeling is sometimes so intense that it is like the lightning, and burns its way instantly to the consciousness of others. Words of condemnation would have died on the lips of the sternest judge had he seen Annie's face. It would have shown him that the harshest things that he could utter were already anticipated in unmeasured self- upbraidings.
From anger and disgust Gregory passed to the profoundest pity. The children's unbounded affection for Annie proved that she was usually kind and patient toward them. A little thought convinced him that the act he saw was a sudden outburst of passion for which the exasperating events of the day had been a preparation. Her face showed as no language could how sincere and deep would be her repentance. He had not gone very far into the early twilight of a grove before he was conscious of a strong and secret exultation.
"She is not made of different clay from others," he said. "She cannot condemn me so utterly now; and, in view of what I have seen, she cannot loftily deny the kinship of human weakness.
"What a nature she has, with its subterranean fires! She is none of your cool, calculating creatures, who cipher out from day to day what is policy to do. She will act rightly till there is an irrepressible irruption, and then, beware. And yet these ebullitions enrich her life as the lava flow does the sides of Vesuvius. I shall be greatly disappointed if she is not ten times more kind, sympathetic, and self- forgetful than she was before; and as for that boy, she will keep him in the tallest clover for weeks to come, to make up for this.
"How piquant she is! I do not fear her quick, flame-like spirit when it is combined with so much conscience and principle. Indeed, I like her passion. It warms my cold, heavy heart. I wish she had shaken me, who deserved it, instead of the child, and if any makings-up like that in yonder room could follow, I would like to be shaken every day in the week. It would make a new man of me."
In the excitement of his feelings, he had gone further than he had intended, and the dusk was deepening fast when he reached the house on his return. He felt not a little uneasy as to his reception after the rebuke he had given, but counted much on Annie's just and generous disposition. He entered quietly at a side door and passed through the dining-room into the hall. The lamp in the parlor was unlighted, but the bright wood fire shed a soft, uncertain radiance throughout the room. A few notes of prelude were struck on the piano, and he knew that Miss Walton was there. Stepping silently forward opposite the open door, he stood in the dark hall watching her as she sung the following words:
"My Father, once again Thy wayward child In sorrow, shame, and weakness comes to Thee, Confessing all my sin, my passion wild, My selfishness and petty vanity.
"O Jesus, gentle Saviour, at Thy feet I fall, where often I have knelt before; Thou wilt not spurn, nor charge me with deceit, Because old faults have mastered me once more.
"Thou knowest that I would be kind and true, And that I hate the sins that pierced Thy side; Thou seest that I often sadly view The wrong that in my heart will still abide.
"But Thou didst come such erring ones to save, And weakness wins Thy strong and tender love; So not in vain I now forgiveness crave, And cling to hopes long stored with Thee above.
"And yet I plead that Thou would'st surely keep My weak and human heart in coming days; Though now in penitence I justly weep, O fill my future life with grateful praise."
As in tremulous, melting tones she sung this simple prayer with tears glistening in her eyes, Gregory was again conscious of the strong, answering emotion which the presence of deep feeling in those bound to us by some close tie of sympathy often excites. But far more than mere feeling moved him now. Her words and manner vivified an old truth familiar from infancy, but never realized or intelligently believed— the power of prayer to secure practical help from God.
How often men have lived and died poor just above mines of untold wealth! Gaunt famine has been the inmate of households while there were buried treasures under the hearthstone. So multitudes in their spiritual life are weak, despairing, perishing, when by the simple divinely appointed means of prayer they might fill their lives with strength and fulness. How long men suffered and died with diseases that seemed incurable, before they discovered in some common object a potent remedy that relieved pain and restored health!
As is the case with many brought up in Christian homes, with no one thing was Gregory more familiar than prayer. For many years he had said prayers daily, and yet he had seldom in all his life prayed, and of late years had come to be a practical infidel in regard to this subject. People who only say prayers, and expect slight, or no results from them, or are content year after year to see no results—who lack simple, honest, practical faith in God's word, such as they have in that of their physician or banker—who only feel that they ought to pray, and that in some vague, mystical manner it may do them good, are very apt to end as sceptics in regard to its efficacy and value. Or they may become superstitious, and continue to say prayers as the poor Indian mutters his incantation to keep off the witches. God hears prayer when His children cry to Him—when His faithful friends speak to Him straight and true from their hearts; and such know well that they are answered.
As Gregory looked at and listened to Annie Walton, he could no more believe that she was expressing a little aimless religious emotion, just as she would sing a sentimental ballad, than he could think that she was only showing purposeless filial affection if she were hanging on her father's arm and pleading for something vital to her happiness. The thought flashed across him, "Here may be the secret of her power to do right—the help she gets from a source above and beyond herself. Here may be the key to both her strength and weakness. Here glimmers light even for me."
Annie was about to sing again, but the interest which she had awakened was so strong that he could not endure delay. Anxiety as to his personal reception was forgotten, and he stepped forward and interrupted her with a question.
"Miss Walton, do you honestly believe that?"
"Believe what?" said she, hastily, quite startled.
"What I gathered from the hymn you sung—that your prayer is really heard and answered?"
"Why, certainly I believe it," said Annie, in a shocked and pained tone. "Do you think me capable of mockery in such things? And yet," she added, sadly, "perhaps after to-day you think me capable of anything."
"Now you do both yourself and me wrong," Gregory eagerly replied. "I do believe you are sincerely trying to obey your conscience. Did I not see your look of sorrow as you passed me on the stairs?—when shall I forget it! Remember words that must have been inspired, which you once quoted to me—
"'Who by repentance is not satisfied Is not of heaven nor earth,'
and pardon me when I tell you that I have been listening the last few moments out in the hall. Your tones and manner would melt the heart of an infidel, and they have made me wish that I were not so unbelieving. Forgive me for even putting such thoughts in your mind—I feel it is wicked and selfish in me to do it—but how do you know that your prayer, though so direct and sincere, was not sound lost in space?"
"Because it has been answered," she replied, eagerly. "Peace came even as I spoke the words. Because whenever I really pray to God he answers me."
They now stood on opposite sides of the hearth, with the glowing fire between them. In its light Annie's wet eyes glistened, but she had forgotten herself in her sincere and newly awakened interest in him whom she had secretly hoped and purposed before to lead to better things. It had formed no small part of her keen self-reproach that she had forgotten that purpose, and wished him out of the way, just as she was beginning to gain a decided influence over him for good. After what he had witnessed that afternoon she felt that he would never listen to her again.
He would not had he detected the slightest tinge of acting or insincerity on her part, but her penitence had been as real as her passion.
She was glad and grateful indeed when he approached her again in the spirit he now manifested.
As she stood there in the firelight, self-forgetful, conscious only of her wish to say some words that would be like light to him, her large, humid eyes turned up to his face, she made a picture that his mother would like to see.
He leaned against the mantel and looked dejectedly into the fire. After a moment he said, sadly, "I envy you, Miss Walton. I wish I could believe in a personal God who thought about us and cared for us —that is, each one of us. Of course I believe in a Supreme Being—a great First Cause; but He hides Himself behind the stars; He is lost to me in His vast universe. I think my prayers once had an effect on my own mind, and so did me some good. But that's past, and now I might as well pray to gravitation as to anything else."
Then, turning to her, he caught her wistful, interested look—an expression which said plainly, "I want to help you," and it touched him. He continued, feelingly, "Perhaps you are not conscious of it, but you now look as if you cared whether I was good or bad, was sad or happy, lived or died. If I could only see that God cared in something the same way! He no doubt intends to do what is best for the race in the long run, but that may involve my destruction. I dread His terrible, inexorable laws."
"Alas!" said Annie, tears welling up into her eyes, "I am not wise enough to argue out these matters and demonstrate the truth. I suppose it can be done by those who know how."
"I doubt it," said he, shaking his head decisively.
"Well, I can tell you only what I feel and know."
"That is better than argument—that is what I would like. You are not a weak, sentimental woman, full of mysticism and fancies, and I should have much confidence in what you know and feel."
"Do not say that I am not a weak woman; I have shown you otherwise. Be sincere with me, for I am with you. Well, it seems to me that this question of prayer is simply one of fact. We know that God answers prayer, not only because He said He would, but because He does. From my own experience I am as certain of it as of my existence. I think that many who sneer or doubt in regard to prayer are very unfair. I ask you, is it scientific for men to say, 'Nothing is true save what we have seen and know ourselves?' How that would limit one's knowledge. If some facts are discovered in Europe and established by a few proper witnesses, we believe them here. Now in every age multitudes have said that it was a fact that God heard and answered their prayers. What right has any one to ignore these truths any more than any other truths of human experience? I ask my earthly father for something. The next day I find it on my dressing-table. Is it a delusion to believe that he heard and granted my request? When I ask my Heavenly Father for outward things, He sometimes gives them, and sometimes He does not, as He sees is best for me, just as my parents did when I was a little child. And I have already seen that He has often been kinder in refusing. But when I ask for that which will meet my deeper and spiritual needs I seldom ask in vain. If you should ask me how I know it, I in return ask how you know that you are ill, or well, that you are glad or sad, or tired, or anything about yourself that depends on your own inner consciousness? If I should say unjust, insulting things to you now, how would you know you were angry? If I should say, Mr. Gregory, you are mocking me; what I am now saying has no interest for you; you don't hear me, you don't understand me, you are thinking of something else, what kind of proof to the contrary could you offer? Suppose that I should say I want mathematical proof that you do feel an interest, or physical proof—something that I can measure, weigh, or see—should I be reasonable? Do I make it clear to you why I say I know this?"
"Clearer than it was ever made to me before. I cannot help seeing that you are sincere and sure about it. But pardon me—I've got in such an inveterate habit of doubting—are not good Catholics just as sure about the Virgin and the saints hearing and answering them? and do not pagans feel the same way about their deities?"
"Now, Mr. Gregory," said Annie, with a little indignant reproach in her tone, "do you think it just and reasonable to compare my faith, or that of any intelligent Christian, with the gross superstitions you name? Christianity is not embraced only by the ignorant and weak- minded: multitudes of the best and ripest scholars in the world are honest believers."
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I did not mean you to draw any such inference as that," replied he, hastily and in some confusion.
"I do not see how any other can be drawn," she continued; "and I know from what I have read and heard that unbelievers usually seek to give that impression. But it's not a fair one. The absurdities of paganism, monkish legends, and even the plausible errors of the Romish Church, will not endure the light of intelligent education; but the more I know the more I see the beauty and perfection of the Christian religion and the reasonableness of prayer, and so it is with far stronger and wiser heads than mine. Your father and mine were never men to be imposed upon, nor to believe anything just because they were told to do so when children."
"Really, Miss Walton, you said you couldn't argue about this matter. I think you can, like a lawyer."
"If you mean that I am using a lawyer's proverbial sleight of hand, I'm sorry."
"I don't mean that at all, but that you put your facts in such a way that it's hard to meet them."
"I only try to use common-sense. It's about the only sense I have. But I was in hopes you did not want to meet what I say adversely, but would like to believe."
"I would, Miss Walton, honestly I would; but wishes go little way against stubborn doubt. This one now rises: How is it that scientific men are so apt to become infidel in regard to the Bible and its teachings, and especially prayer?"
"I'm sure I hardly know," she answered, with a sigh; "but I will tell you what I think. I don't believe the majority of them know much about either the Bible or prayer. With my little smattering of geology I should think it very presuming to give an opinion contrary to that held by the best authorities in that science; and I think it very presuming in those who rarely look into a Bible and never pray, to tell those who read and pray daily that they don't know what they do know. Then again, scientific people often apply gross material tests to matters of faith and religious experience. The thing is absurd. Suppose a man should seek to investigate light with a pair of scales that could not weigh anything less than a pound. There is a spiritual and moral world as truly as a physical, and spiritual facts are just as good to build on as any other; and I should think they ought to be better, because the spirit is the noblest part of us. A man who sees only one side of a mountain has no right to declare that the other is just like it. Then again your scientific oracles are always contradicting one another, and upsetting one another's theories. Science to-day laughs at the absurdities believed by the learned a hundred years ago; and so will much that is now called science, and because of which men doubt the Bible, be laughed at in the future. But my belief is the same substantially as that of Paul, St. Augustine, Luther, and the best people of my own age; and Luther, who did more for the world than any other mere man, said that to 'pray well was to work well.'"
When Annie was under mental excitement, she was a rapid, fluent talker, and this was especially her condition this evening. As she looked earnestly at Gregory while she spoke, her dark eyes glowing with feeling and intelligence and lighting her whole face, he was impressed more than he could have been by the labored arguments of a cool, logical scholar. Her intense earnestness put a soul into the body of her words. He was affected more than he wished her to know, more than was agreeable to his pride. What she had said seemed so perfectly true and real to her that for the time she made it true to him; and yet to admit that his long-standing doubts could not endure so slight an assault as this, was to show that they had a very flimsy basis. Moreover, he knew that when, left to himself, he should think it all over, new questions would rise that could not be answered, and new doubts return. Therefore he could not receive now what he might be disposed to doubt to-morrow. He was a trifle bewildered, and wanted time to think. He was as much interested in Miss Walton as in what she was saying, and when her words proved that she was a thoughtful woman, and could be the intelligent companion of any man, the distracting fear grew stronger that when she came to know him well, she would coldly stand aloof. The very thought was unendurable. In all the world, only in the direction of Annie Walton seemed there any light for him. So to gain time he instinctively sought to give a less serious turn to the conversation, by saying, "Come, Miss Walton, this is the best preaching I've ever heard. It seems to me quite unusual to find a young lady so interested and well versed in these matters. You must have given a good deal of thought and reading to the subject."
Annie looked disappointed. She had hoped for a better result from her earnest words than a compliment and a little curiosity as to herself. But she met him in his own apparent mood, and said, "Now see how easily imposed upon your sceptical people are! I could palm myself off, like Portia, as a Daniel come to judgment, and by a little discreet silence gain a blue halo as a woman of deep research and profound reading. Just the contrary is true. I am not a very great reader on any subject, and certainly not on theology and kindred topics. The fact is I am largely indebted to my father. He is interested in the subjects and takes pains to explain much to me that would require study; and since mother died he has come to talk to me very much as he did to her. But it seems to me that all I have said is very simple and plain, and you surely know that my motive was not to air the little instruction I have received."
Gregory's policy forsook him as he saw her expression of disappointment; and as he looked at her flushed and to him now lovely face, acting upon a sudden impulse he asked, "Won't you please tell me your motive?"
His manner and tone convinced her in a moment that he was more moved and interested than she had thought, and answering with a like impulse on her part, she said, frankly, "Mr. Gregory, pardon me for saying it, but from the very first day of your visit it seemed clear to me that you were not living and feeling as those who once made this your home could wish, and the thought was impressed upon me, impressed strongly, that perhaps God had sent you in your feeble health and sadness (for you evidently were depressed in mind also), to this place of old and holy memories, that you might learn something better than this world's philosophy. I have hoped and prayed that I might be able to help you. But when to-day," she continued, turning away her head to hide the rising tears, "I showed such miserable weakness, I felt that you would never listen to me again on such subjects, and would doubt more than ever their reality, and it made me very unhappy. I feel grateful that you have listened to me so patiently. I hope you won't let my weakness hurt my cause. Now you see what a frank, guileless conspirator I am," she added, trying to smile at him through her tears.
While she spoke Gregory bent upon her a look that tried to search her soul. But the suspicious man of the world could not doubt her perfect sincerity. Her looks and words disclosed her thought as a crystal stream reveals a white pebble over which it flows. He stepped forward and took her hand with a pressure that caused it pain for hours after, but he trusted himself to say only, "You are my good angel, Miss Walton. Now I understand your influence over me," and then abruptly left the room.
But he did not understand her influence. A man seldom does when he first meets the woman whose words, glances, and presence have the subtle power to fill his thoughts, quicken his pulse, stir his soul, and awaken his whole nature into new life. He usually passes through a luminous haze of congeniality, friendship, Platonic affinity, or even brotherly regard, till something suddenly clears up the mist and he finds, like the first man, lonely in Eden, that there is but one woman for him in all the world.
Gregory was in the midst of the cloud, but it seemed very bright around him as he paced his room excitedly.
GREGORY'S FINAL CONCLUSION IN REGARD TO MISS WALTON
Annie Walton was now no longer an enigma to Gregory. He had changed his views several times in regard to her. First, she was a commonplace, useful member of the community, in a small way, and part of the furniture of a well-ordered country-house—plain furniture too, he had said to himself. But one evening in her company had convinced him that such a Miss Walton was a fiction of his own mind, and he who had come to regard average society girls as a weariness beyond endurance was interested in her immediately.
Then her truth and unselfishness, and the strong religious element in her character, had been a constant rebuke to him, but he had soothed himself with the theory that she differed from others only in being untempted. He then had resolved to amuse himself, ease his conscience, and feed his old grudge against her sex, by teaching the little saint that she was only a weak, vain creature. Yet she had sustained not only his temptations, but another ordeal, so searching and terrible that it transformed her into a heroine, a being of superior clay to that of ordinary mortals. "It's her nature to be good, mine to be bad," he had said; "I'm a weed, she is a flower." But Annie herself had rudely dispelled this illusion.
Now he saw her to be a woman who might, did she yield to the evil within her and without, show all the vanity, weakness, and folly generally, of which he had at first believed her capable, but who, by prayer and effort, daily achieved victories over herself. In addition, she had manifested the most beautiful and God-like trait that can ennoble human character—the desire to save and sweeten others' lives. To have been lectured and talked to on the subject of religion in any conventional way by one outside of his sympathies would have been as repulsive as useless, but Annie had the tact to make her effort appear like angelic ministry.
There is that about every truly refined woman with a large loving heart which is irresistible. The two qualities combined give a winning grace that is an "open sesame" everywhere. The trouble is that culture and polish are too often the sheen of an icicle.
He believed he saw just her attitude toward him. It reminded him of Miss Bently's efforts in his behalf, but with the contrast that existed between Miss Bently and Annie. He now wondered that he could have been interested in such a vain, shallow creature as Mrs. Grobb had proved herself, and he excused himself on the ground that he had idealized her into something that she was not. All that Annie said and did had the solidity of truth, and not the hollowness of affectation. And yet there was one thing that troubled him. While her effort to help him out of his morbid, unhappy state was so sincere, she showed no special personal interest in himself, such as he had in her. If he should now go away, she would place him merely in the outer circle of her friends or acquaintance, and make good the old saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." But already the conviction was growing strong that it would be long before she would be out of his mind. Though he had plenty of pride, as we have seen, he was not conceited, and from long familiarity with society could readily detect the difference between the regard she would feel for a man personally attractive and the interest of aroused sympathies which she might have in any one, and which her faith and nature led her to have in every one. Of course he was not satisfied with the latter, and it was becoming one of his dearest hopes to awaken a personal feeling, though of just what kind he had not yet even defined to himself.
When the tea-bell rang, much later than usual on account of the chaos of the day, he was glad to go down. Her society was far pleasanter than his own, and future events might make everything clearer.
His supposition in regard to Johnny was correct. As he descended the stairs, the boy came out of the sitting-room, holding Annie tightly by the hand and beaming upon her like the sun after a shower, and when he found by his plate a huge apple that had been roasted specially for him, his cup of happiness was full and he was ready for another shaking. If the apple once caused discord it here confirmed peace.
The supper was as inviting as the dinner had been forbidding, indicating a change of policy in the kitchen cabinet. In fact, after Zibbie cooled off, she found that she was not ready for "the world to come to an end" (or its equivalent, her leaving the Waltons after so many years of service and kindness). She had not yet reached the point of abject apology, though she knew she would go down on her old rheumatic knees rather than leave her ark of refuge and go out into the turbulent waters of the world; still she made propitiating overtures in the brownest of buttered toast, and a chicken salad that might have been served as ambrosia on Mount Olympus. Zibbie was a guileless strategist, for in the success of the supper she proved how great had been her malign ingenuity and deliberation in spoiling the dinner. She could never claim that it was accidental. Hannah no longer waited as if it were a funeral occasion, and the domestic skies were fast brightening up, except in one quarter: Mr. Walton's chair was vacant, and Gregory noticed that Annie often looked wistfully and sadly toward it.
With the sensitiveness of one who habitually hid his deeper feeling from the world, Gregory tried to act as if his last conversation with Annie had been upon the weather; and as might be expected of refined people, no allusion was made to the unpleasant features of the day. Neither then nor afterward was a word adverse to the Camdens spoken. They had been guests, and that was enough for the Waltons' nice sense of courtesy. Only Susie, with a little sigh of relief, gave expression to the general feeling by saying, "Somehow I feel kind of light to- night. I felt dreadfully heavy this morning."
Annie, with a smile on her lips and something like a tear in her eye, noticed the child's remark by adding, "I think we should all feel light if grandpa were only here."
After supper she sung to the children and told them a bedtime story, and then with a kiss of peace sent them off to their dream-wanderings.
During Annie's absence from the parlor, Gregory remained in his room. He was in no mood to talk with any one else. Even Miss Eulie's gentle patter of words would fall with a sting of pain.
When Annie came down to the parlor she said, "Now, Mr. Gregory, I will sing as much as you wish, to make up for last evening. Indeed I must do something to get through the hours till father's return, for I feel so anxious and self-reproachful about him."
"And so make happiness for others out of your pain," said he. "Why don't you complain and fret all the evening and make it uncomfortable generally?"
"I have done enough of that for one day. What will you have?"
An impulse prompted him to say "You," but he only said, "Your own choice," and walked softly up and down the room while she sung, now a ballad, now a hymn, and again a simple air from an opera, but nothing light or gay.
He was taking a dangerous course for his own peace. As we have seen, Annie's voice was not one to win special admiration. It was not brilliant and highly cultivated, and had no very great compass. She could not produce any of the remarkable effects of the trained vocalist. But it was exceedingly sweet in the low, minor notes. It was sympathetic, and so colored by the sentiment of the words that she made a beautiful language of song. It was a voice that stole into the heart, and kept vibrating there long hours after, like an Aeolian harp just breathed upon by a dying zephyr.
As was often the case, she forgot her auditor, and began to reveal herself in this mode of expression so natural to her, and to sing as she did long evenings when alone. At times her tones would be tremulous with pathos and feeling, and again strong and hopeful. Then, as if remembering the great joy that soon would be hers in welcoming back her absent lover, it grew as tender and alluring as a thrush's call to its mate.
"O'er the land and o'er the sea Swiftly fly my thoughts to thee; Haste thee and come back to me: I'm waiting.
"Thou away, how sad my song! When alone, the days are long; Soon thou'lt know how glad and strong My welcome.
"Haste thee, then, o'er sea and land: Quickly join our loving band, Waiting here to clasp thy hand In greeting."
"Indeed, Miss Walton," said Gregory, leaning upon the piano, "that would bring me from the antipodes."
She did not like his tone and manner, and also became conscious that in her choice of a ballad she had expressed thoughts that were not for him; so she tried to turn the matter lightly off by saying, "Where you probably were in your thoughts. What have you been thinking about all this long time while I have fallen into the old habit of talking to myself over the piano?"
"You, I might say; but I should add, in truth, what you have said to me this evening."
"I hope only the latter."
"Chiefly, I've been enjoying your singing. You have a very peculiar voice. You don't 'execute' or 'render' anything, any more than a bird does. I believe they have been your music teachers."
"Crows abound in our woods," she answered, laughing.
"So do robins and thrushes."
Her face suddenly had an absent look as if she did not hear him. It was turned from the light, or the rich color that was mantling it would have puzzled him, and might have inspired hope. With some abruptness and yet hesitation, such as is often noted when a delicate subject is broached, she said, "Mr. Gregory, I wish I could make peace between you and Mr. Hunting. I think you are not friendly."
As she looked to see the effect of her remark the light shone on his face, and she was again deeply pained to see how instantly it darkened. For a moment he did not reply; then in a cold, constrained voice, he said, "He is a friend of the family, I suppose."
"Yes," she replied, eagerly.
"I too would like to be regarded as a friend, and especially to you; so I ask it as a great personal favor that you will not mention that gentleman's name again during the brief remnant of my visit."
"Do you mean any imputation against him?" she asked, hotly.
Policy whispered, "Don't offend her. Hunting may be a near relation;" so he said, quietly, "Gentlemen may have difficulties concerning which they do not like to speak. I have made no imputation against him whatever, but I entreat you to grant my request."
Annie was not satisfied, but sat still with knit brows. At that moment she heard her father's step and ran joyfully to meet him. He had come home chilled from a long ride in the raw wind, and she spent the rest of the evening in remorseful ministrations to his comfort. As she flitted around him, served his tea and toast, and petted him generally, Gregory felt that he would ride for a night after the "Wild Huntsman" to be so treated.
He also rightly felt that Annie's manner was a little cool toward him. It was not in her frank, passionate nature to feel and act the same toward one who had just expressed such bitter hostility toward her lover. But the more he thought of it the more determined he was that there should be no alienation between them on account of Hunting.
"Curse him!" he muttered, "he has cost me too much already."
He had the impression that Hunting was a relative of the family. That he was the accepted lover of the pure and true girl that he himself was unconsciously learning to love was too monstrous a thought to be entertained. Still Annie's words and manner caused him some sharp pangs of jealousy, till he cast the very idea away in scorn as unworthy of both himself and her.
"Evil as my life has been, it is white compared with his," he said to himself.
In accordance with his purpose to keep the vantage-ground already gained, he was geniality itself, and so entertained Miss Eulie and Mr. Walton that Annie soon relented and smiled upon him as kindly as ever. She was in too humbled and softened a mood that evening to be resentful, except under great provocation, and she was really very grateful to Gregory for his readiness to overlook her weakness and give her credit for trying to do right. Indeed, his sincere admiration and outspoken desire for her esteem inclined her toward him, for was she not a woman?
"After all," she thought, "he has said nothing against Charles. They have had a quarrel, and he no doubt is the one to blame. He is naturally very proud and resentful, and would be all the more so in that degree that he was wrong himself. If I can help him become a Christian, making peace will be an easy affair; so I will not lose the hold that I have gained upon him. When Charles comes he will tell me all about it, and I will make him treat Gregory in such a way that enmity cannot last."
How omnipotent girls imagine themselves to be with those who swear they will do anything under heaven to please them, but who usually go on in the old ways!
It was late when the family separated for the night, but later far when Gregory retired. The conclusion of his long revery was that in Annie Walton existed his only chance of life and happiness. She seemed to possess the power to wake up all the man left in him, and if there were any help in God, she only could show him how to find it.
Thus his worldly wisdom had taught him, as many others had been taught, to lean on a human arm for his main support and chief hope, while possibly in the uncertain future some help from heaven might be obtained. He was like a sickly plant in the shade saying to itself, "Yonder ray of sunlight would give me new life," while it has no thought of the sun from which the ray came. He truly wished to become a good man for his own sake as well as Annie's, for he had sufficient experience in the ills of evil; but he did not know that a loving God does not make our only chance dependent on the uncertain action and imperfect wisdom of even the best of earthly friends. The One who began His effort of saving man by dying for him will not afterward neglect the work, or commit it wholly to weak human hands.
The next morning, being that of Saturday, brought Annie many duties, and these, with callers, so occupied her time that Gregory saw but little of her. The shadow between them seemed to have passed away, and she treated him with the utmost kindness. But there was a new shadow on her face that he could not understand, and after breakfast he said to her as they were passing to the parlor, "Miss Walton, you seem out of spirits. I hope nothing painful has happened."
"Jeff found my lost letter this morning," she said, "and I have been deservedly punished anew, for it brought me unpleasant tidings;" and she hastily left the room, as if not wishing to speak further on the matter.
It had indeed inflicted a heavy disappointment, for it was from Hunting, stating that business would detain him some days longer in Europe. But she had accepted it with resignation, and felt that it was but a light penalty for all her folly of the two preceding days.
Gregory was not a little curious about it, for he was interested now in everything connected with her; but as she did not speak of it again, good taste required that he should not. An uncomfortable thought of Hunting as the possible writer crossed his mind, but he drove it from him with something like rage.
As Gregory sat brooding by his fire, waiting till the sun should grow higher before starting for a walk, Jeff came up with an armful of wood, and seemed bubbling over with something. He, too, had suffered sorely in the storm he had helped to raise the preceding day, and had tremblingly eaten such dinner as the irate Zibbie had tossed on the table for him, as a man might lunch in the vicinity of a bombshell. He seemed to relieve himself by saying, with his characteristic grin, as he replenished the fire, "It was dreadful 'pestuous yesterday, but de winds is gone down. I'se glad dat ole hen is done for, but she hatch a heap ob trouble on her las' day."
Jeff belonged to that large school of modern philosophers who explain the evils of the day on very superficial grounds. The human heart is all right. It's only "dat ole hen" or unfavorable circumstances of some kind, that do the mischief.
"THE WORM-INFESTED CHESTNUT"—GREGORY TELLS THE WORST
In his solitary ramble, Gregory again thought long and deeply over the situation. The impression was growing strong that the supreme hour of his life, which would decide his destiny for good or evil, was fast approaching. For years previously he had given up the struggle against the latter, and had sunk deep in moral apathy, making greater effort to doubt everything concerning God than to believe. Then he had lost even his earthly ambition, and become mere driftwood on the tide of time. But a sweet, true woman was doing a work for him like that of Elsie for Prince Henry in the Golden Legend. A consciousness of power to take up his burden again and be a man among men was coming back, and old Daddy Tuggar's words were growing into a hope-inspiring prophecy: "She could take the wickedest man livin' to heaven, if she'd stay right by him."
And yet his self-distrust was painfully and dangerously great, and he feared that when Annie came to know the worst about him, and how he had plotted against her, she would shrink from him. If she despaired of him he would despair of himself. He was certain that he could not win even an intimate congenial acquaintance, much less a more tender regard, unless he became a true, good man, worthy of her confidence. He could not become such by commencing in deception—by hiding the past, and trying to appear what he was not. For in the first place she would certainly find him out and despise him, and in the second place his own nature now revolted at anything false in his relations with her. After long anxious thought, he concluded that the only safe, as well as the only honorable, course was perfect frankness. If he began wrong, the end would be disastrous. He was no longer subject to school-boy impulses, but was a mature and thoughtful man, and had trained himself in business to look far and keenly into the consequences of present action. He saw in this Walton blood an intense antipathy to deceit. His own nature was averse to it also, and his experience with Hunting had made it doubly hateful. His pride revolted at it, for his lack of hypocrisy had been the one ground of self- respect that remained in him. If in his folly and wickedness he had blotted out the possibility of a happy future, he must endure the terrible truth as he could. To try to steal into heaven, earthly or celestial, by the back door of specious seeming, only to be discovered in his true character and cast out with greater ignominy, was a course as revolting as foolish. Annie knew him to be a man of the world, with sceptical tendencies, but to her guileless nature and inexperience this might not mean anything very bad. In the secret of his own soul, however, he had to meet these terrible questions:
"Can God receive and pardon a willing unbeliever, a man who has sinned against the clearest light, a gambler, a libertine, an embodiment of selfishness? Can it be that Annie Walton will ever receive even friendship from one so stained, knowing the additional fact that I plotted against her and sought for my own senseless gratification to prove that she was a weak, vain woman, who would be no better than myself if tempted in like manner? It is true that I never betrayed innocence or wronged a man out of a dollar. It is true that in the code of the world I have done nothing to lose my character as a gentleman, and even my design upon Miss Walton would pass as a harmless flirtation in society; but the code of the world has no force in her pure mind, and the license it permits is an insult to the law of God. And now it is not with the world, but with her and Heaven that I have to deal. Things at which society shrugs its shoulders indifferently are to them crimes, and black ones too. I might as well seek her love with a felon's indictment hanging over me as to seek it hiding my past life. When she came to find me out she would feel that I had wronged her unutterably, and confidence, the only basis of lasting esteem, would be gone.
"Deep in my heart I have never doubted my mother's faith. When I imagined I did I was self-deceived. Everything here confirms it, and Miss Walton more than all. I will consult the divine oracle. She shall be the fair vestal, the gentle priestess. She lives near to heaven, and knows its mind. If her kind and womanly nature shrinks from me, if she coldly draws her skirts aside that I pollute them not even with a touch—if she by word or even manner proves that she sees an impassable gulf between us—then she need waste no breath in homilies over repentance and in saying that God can receive those whom man cannot. I'll not even listen, but go back to the city and meet my fate. If imperfect human creatures cannot forgive each other—if I have gone so far beyond the mercy of a tender-hearted woman—then I need look for nothing from a just and holy God. It's mockery for good people, with horror and disgust slightly veiled upon their faces, to tell poor wretches that God will receive them and love them, while they would no more take them into their confidence and esteem than they would a pestilence. It's like people saying to one in the last stage of consumption, 'I hope you will be better soon.' They don't hope or expect any such thing. The Bible is said to teach that a man can sin away his day of grace. I had about believed that I had sinned away mine. This genuine, honest Christian girl has made me think differently. She has inspired the strong hope that she could lead me to become a good man—even a Christian. She shall either fulfil that hope or show it to be false."
Such was the outline of his thoughts that long day, during which hope and fear balanced an even scale. But the evening shadows found fear predominating. His awakened conscience and his recent contact with true moral standards revealed him to himself in darker and still darker shadow. At times he was almost ready to despair, to bid his entertainers a courteous farewell on Monday, and go back to the city as he came, with the additional wretchedness of having seen the heaven he could not enter.
But when he came down to supper, Annie smiled so sweetly and looked so gentle and kind, that he thought, "She does not seem one to push a wretch over a precipice. That warm little hand that charmed away my headache so gently cannot write Dante's inscription over my 'Inferno,' and bid me enter it as 'my own place'; and yet I dread her sense of justice."
In his anxiety and perturbation of mind he was unusually grave and silent during the meal and evening. Annie exulted secretly over him.
"He is thinking in earnest now. His old apathy and trifling manner are gone."
He was indeed thinking in terrible earnest. Her effort had awakened no school-girl interest and penitence that she could soothe and reward by quoting a few sweet promises, but had aroused a spirit like that which came down from the hills of Gadara, and which no man could bind.
Men and women in good society may be very polished and refined, and yet their souls in God's sight and their own be shameful, "naked," wearing no robe of righteousness, bound by no laws of purity and right, and "always, night and day, crying and cutting" themselves in the unrest of remorse. Sad and yet true it was that the demon- possessed man, the terror of the Gadarenes, was but too true a type of the gentlemanly and elegant Walter Gregory, as he sat that night in a torment of dread and hope at the peaceful fireside of a Christian family. If his fears were realized—if Annie turned from him when he revealed his true self to her—there seemed to him every probability that evil evermore would be his master. While she was innocently hoping and praying that her words and influence might lead him to read his Bible, go to church, and eventually find his way into the "green pastures beside the still waters," it seemed that within a few hours she would either avert or complete that most awful of tragedies—the loss of a soul.
He accompanied them to church the following morning, and his manner was grave even to solemnity. Little wonder. In a certain sense, in view of his resolution, the Judgment Day had come to him.
With heavy, contracted brows he listened to a sermon anything but reassuring. The good old minister inclined to a legal and doctrinal gospel, and to-day his subject was the perfection and searching character of the divine law. He showed how God could make no terms with sin—that he hated it with a terrible and vindictive hatred, because in all respects it was opposite and antagonistic to His nature—because it defiled, degraded, and destroyed. He traced all human wretchedness to this poisonous root, and Gregory trembled and his face grew dark with despair as he realized how it was inwoven with every fibre of his heart. Then in simple but strong language the silver-haired old man, who seemed a type of the ancient prophets, portrayed the great white throne of God's justice, snowy, too dazzling for human eyes, and the conscience-stricken man shrunk and cowered.
He turned to Annie to see how this train of thought, so terrific to him, affected her. Not a trace of fear was upon her face, but only serene, reverent awe. He glanced at Mr. Walton, but the old magistrate sat in his place, calm and dignified, evidently approving the action of the greater Judge. Miss Eulie's face, as seen between himself and the light of the window, appeared spirit-like.
"Thus they will look on the Judgment Day," thought Gregory, "while I tremble even at its picture. O the vital difference between guilt and innocence, between faith and unbelief!"
If the venerable clergyman had been talking personally to Gregory or any sinful creature, he would not have concluded his subject where he did. He would have shown how between the throne of justice and the sinner there stood an Advocate, an Intercessor, a Saviour. But having logically developed his text, he finished his discourse. Perhaps on the following Sabbath he might present the mercy of God with equal clearness. But the sermon of the day, standing alone and confirming the threatenings of an accusing conscience, depressed Gregory greatly. It did not anger him, as such truth usually did. He was too weak and despairing. He now felt the hopelessness and folly of opposition. The idea of getting into a passion with fate! Only weak natures fume at the inevitable. There is a certain dignity in silent, passive despair.
Annie's voice singing the closing hymn beside him sounded like an angel's voice across the "great gulf." Almost mechanically he walked down the aisle out into the sunny noon of a warm October day. Birds were twittering around the porch. Fall insects filled the air with their cheery chirpings. The bay of a dog, the shrill crowing of a cock, came softened across the fields from a neighboring farm. Cow- bells tinkled faintly in the distance, and two children were seen romping on a hillside, flitting here and there like butterflies. The trees were in gala dress of crimson and gold, and even the mountains veiled their stern grandeur in a purple haze, through which the sun's rays shimmered with genial but not oppressive warmth.
The people lingered around the door, shaking hands and greeting one another with the plain but cordial courtesy of the country. Gregory heard one russet-apple-faced man say that "Betsy was better," and an old colored woman, with a visage like that apple in black and mottled decay, said in cheerful tones that "little Sampson was gittin' right peart." A great raw-boned farmer asked a half-grown boy, "How's yer mare?" and the boy replied that the animal was better also. All seemed better that bright day, and from a group near came the expression, "Crops were good this year." While the wealthier and more cultured members of the congregation had kindly nods and smiles for all, they naturally drew together, and there seemed a little flutter of excitement over the renewal of the sewing society that had been discontinued during the summer.
Gregory stood apart from all this, with the heavy contraction still upon his brow, and asked himself, "What have these simple, cheery, commonplace people, with their petty earth-born cares and interests, to do with that 'great white throne' of which we have just heard? and where in this soft, dreamy landscape, so suggestive of peace, rest, and everyday life, lurks any hint of the 'wrath of a just and holy God'?"
And then the old pastor, who a little before had seemed a prototype of John, the stern reformer from the wilderness, came out smiling and benignant, greeting his flock as a father might his children. The very hand that had been raised in denunciation, and in threatening a doom that would appall the heart of courage itself, was given to Gregory in a warm and cordial grasp. The man he had trembled before now seemed the personification of sweet-tempered human kindness. The contrast was so sharp that it seemed to Gregory that either what he saw or what he had heard must be an utter delusion.
As they were driving home, he suddenly broke the moody silence by asking Miss Walton, "How do you reconcile the scene at the church door, so matter-of-fact, cheery, and earthly, with the terrible pictures suggested by the sermon? If such things are before us, it seems to me that bright, sunny days like these are mockery."
She looked at him wistfully. The sermon had not been what she would have wished, but she trusted it would do him good by cutting away every hope based on anything in himself or in vague general ideas of God's indiscriminate mercy. She answered gently, "The contrast was indeed great, now I think of it, and yet each scene was matter-of-fact to me in the sense of being real. Besides, that one which our pastor described was a court of justice. I shall have an Advocate there who will clear me. As for 'bright days,' I believe they are just what God means His people to have always."
"Yes," said he, gloomily, "that is your side of the question."
"It may be yours also," she replied, in a low tone.
He shook his head and looked away to hide his pain.
After a short time he again said, "Do you not think that the view of God which your minister gave is very depressing to the average man? Is not His law too perfect for imperfect humanity?"
"Not at all," she answered, eagerly; but before she could say more, Mr. Walton, unaware of the subject occupying them, turned from the front seat and introduced another topic.
After dinner, Gregory went to his room, which he restlessly paced.
"Even her creed, her faith, as well as her purity and truth, raises a wall as high as heaven between us," he exclaimed, bitterly. "She has only to see me as God sees, to shrink away appalled, disgusted. Well, she shall," he muttered, grinding his teeth; "I shall not add the worst torment of all to my perdition by deceiving her."
As he came down stairs, Annie had just finished reading to the children, and he said, "Miss Walton, will your ideas of Sabbath- keeping prevent you from taking a stroll in the garden with me?"
"Not at all," she replied, smiling. "A garden is a good place to keep Sunday in."
He walked silently at her side across the lawn down a shady walk. Annie hoped much from this interview, and sent a swift, earnest prayer to Heaven that she might speak wisely. She feared that his dejection would pass into discouragement and despair. She saw that he was much depressed, and judged correctly that it was because he had seen only one side of a great truth. She hoped to cheer and inspire him with the other side. Moreover, her religion was very simple. It was only becoming God's friend, instead of remaining indifferent or hostile. To her, no matter what the burden, it was simply leading the heavy-laden to the strong Divine Friend as people were brought to Him of old, and establishing the personal relations of love, faith, and following.
But she did not realize the desperate nature or the complications of Gregory's moral infirmity. Still she was a safe adviser, for she did not propose to cure him herself. She wished to rally and cheer him, to inspire hope, and to turn his eyes from sin to the Saviour, so she said, "Mr. Gregory, why do you look as if marching to execution?"
"Perhaps because I feel as if I were," he said.
Just then a variegated leaf parted from a spray overhanging the path somewhat in advance of them, and fluttered to their feet.
"Poor little leaf!" said Gregory, picking it up, "your bright colors will soon be lost. Death has come to you too. Why must this wretched thought of death be thrust on one at every turn? Nature is full of it. Things only live, apparently, for the sake of dying. Just as this leaf becomes most beautiful it drops. What a miserable world this is, with death making havoc everywhere! Then your theology exaggerates the evil a thousand-fold. If a man must die, let him die and cease to be. But your minister spoke to-day of a living death, in which one only exists to suffer. What a misfortune to have existed!"
As Gregory gloomily uttered these bitter words, they stood looking at the leaf that had suggested them. Annie's face brightened with a sudden thought. She turned, and after a few rapid steps sprung lightly up and caught the twig from which the leaf had fallen. Then turning to her companion, who regarded with surprise and admiration the agile grace of the act, she said, "Mr. Gregory, you need lessons in logic. If the leaf you hold is your theme, as you gave me reason to believe, you don't stick to it, and you draw from it conclusions that don't follow the premise. Another thing, it is not right to develop a subject without regard to its connection. Now from just this place," she continued, pointing with her finger, "the leaf dropped. What do you see? What was its connection?"
"Why, a little branch full of other leaves. These would soon have dropped off and died also, if you had not hastened their fate."
"That's a superficial view, like the one you just took of this 'miserable world,' as you call it. I think it is a very good world—a much better one than we deserve. And now look closely and justly at your theme's connection, and tell me what you see. Look just here;" and her finger rested on the little green spot where the stem of the leaf had joined the spray.
"I see a very small bud," he said, intelligence of her meaning dawning in his face.
"Which will develop next spring into other leaves and perhaps into a new branch. All summer long your leaf has rustled and fluttered joyously over the certainty that a richer and fuller life would come after it, a life that it was providing for through the sunny days and dewy nights. There is no death here, only change for the better. And so with everything that has bloomed and flourished in this garden during the past season, provision has been made for new and more abundant life. All these bright but falling leaves and fading flowers are merely Nature's robes, ornaments that she is throwing carelessly aside as she withdraws for a little time from her regal state. Wait till she appears again next spring, as young, fresh, and beautiful as when, like Eve, she saw her first bright morning. Come and see her upon her throne next June. Nature full of death! Why, Mr. Gregory, she speaks of nothing but life to those who understand her language."
"O that you would teach it to me!" he said, with a deeper meaning than she detected.
"Again," she continued, "our theology does not represent death as making havoc anywhere. It is sin that makes the havoc, and death is only one of its consequences. And even this enemy God compels to work for the good of His friends. Do not think," she continued, coming a step nearer in her earnestness, "that I make such allusions to pain you, but only in my sincere wish to help you, and illustrate my meaning by something you know so well. Did death make havoc in your mother's case? Was it not rather a sombre-liveried janitor that opened for her the gates of heaven?"
He was deeply touched, and turned away his face. After a moment he continued his walk, that they might get further away from the house and the danger of interruption.
He suddenly startled Annie by saying, in a tone of harsh and intense bitterness, "Her death made 'havoc' for me. If she had lived I might have been a good man instead of the wretch I am. If death as janitor opens the gates of heaven, your religion teaches that it also opens the gates of hell. How can I love a God who shuts up the sinful in an inferno—in dungeons of many and varied tortures, and racks them forever? Can I, just to escape all this, pretend that I love Him, when in truth I fear and dread Him unspeakably? No, I'll never be a hypocrite."
Tears glistened in Annie's eyes as he turned to look at her.
"You pity me," he said, more gently. "Your God does not. If He wanted to be loved He should never have revealed a hell."
"Should He not in mercy, if it really existed? And does it not exist? Will merely a beautiful place make heaven for anybody? Mr. Gregory, look around this lovely autumn evening. See the crimson glory of those clouds yonder in the west. See that brightness shading off into paler and more exquisite tints. Look, how those many-hued leaves reflect the glowing sky. The air is as sweet and balmy as that of Eden could have been. The landscape is beautiful in itself, and especially attractive to you. To our human eyes it hardly seems as if heaven could be more perfect than this. And yet, standing in the one spot of all the earth most beautiful to you, Mr. Gregory, pardon me for saying it, your face expresses nothing but pain. There is not a trace of happiness in it. You were not happy when you came here. I saw that the first day. All the pleasant surroundings of your own home have not made you happy. Have they given you even peace and quiet? Place does not make heaven, but something we carry in our own bosoms," she concluded, leaving him to supply the rest of her thought.
His face was white with fear, and there was terror in his tone as he turned and said to her, in a low voice, "Miss Walton, that is what I have been coming to see and dread, of late, and as you put the thoughts into words I see that it is true. I carry perdition in my own heart. When I am alone my imaginings frighten me; and when with others, impulses arise to do the devil's own work."
"But it is the nature of God to save from all this. I am so sorry that you do not understand Him better."
"He saves some," said Gregory, gloomily.
"But many will not let Him save them," urged Annie.
"I should be only too glad to have Him save me, but whether He will or not is the point at issue, and my hope is very faint. Everything to- day, but you, seems to confirm my fate. Miss Walton, won't you take that little rustic seat there by the brook? I wish to tell you something that will probably settle this question."
Annie wonderingly complied. This was an experience she had never had before. She was rapidly realizing the difference between being the spiritual guide of the girls in her Bible-class and being the adviser of this strong-minded yet greatly perverted man. But she turned to him a face full of sympathy and encouragement.
For a moment it seemed he did not know how to begin, and he paced restlessly up and down before her. Then he said, "Miss Walton, you remember that worm-infested chestnut through which you gave me such a just lesson?"
"Please do not speak of my foolish words at that time," she replied, eagerly.
"Pardon me, they were not foolish. They, with the illustration of my own choice, revealed me to myself as nothing had ever done before. Had it not been for your graceful tact, I should have made a fool of myself by being angry. If you had known what I deserved then you would not have let me off so easily. But it's true. That lonely, selfish chestnut, with a worm in its kernel, was a good emblem of myself. Evil is throned in my heart supreme and malignant. I suppose it's through my own fault, but be that as it may, it's there, my master. I groan over and curse the fact, but I do evil and think evil continually, and I fear I always shall.
"No, listen to me to the end," he continued, as she was about to speak.
"When on that strange mountain expedition, you made the remark, 'What congenial friends we might be!' Those words have echoed in my heart ever since, like the refrain of a home-song to a captive. I would give more than I can express for your friendship—for the privilege of seeing you and speaking to you frankly on these subjects occasionally, for you and you only have inspired a faint hope that I might become a better man. You are making Christianity seem a reality and not a fashion. Though possessing human weakness, you triumph over it, and you say it is through prayer to God. I find it impossible not to believe everything you say, for whatever your faults are you are truth itself. Through your influence the thought has come that God might also hear and help me, but I have the fear and almost the belief that I have placed myself beyond His mercy. At any rate I have almost lost hope in anything I can do by myself. I was in moral despair when I came here, and might as well have been dead, but you have led me to a willingness to make one more struggle, and a great one, if I can see in it any chance of success. I fear I am deceiving myself, but when with you, though you are immeasurably better than I, hope steals into my heart, that before was paralyzed by despair. When you come to know me as I know myself, I fear that you will shrink in just horror away, and that I shall see reflected in your face the verdict of heaven. But you shall know the worst—the very worst. I can never use deceit with you. If afterward you ever take my stained hand again—"
He did not finish the sentence, but heaved a great sigh, as if of longing and hope that words could not utter.
It was the old truth illustrated, that God must become human to gain humanity. Abstract truth could not save this lost and guilty man, but the wanderer hoped that in this sweet human life he had found the clew back to the divine life.
Annie trembled at the responsibility that now suddenly burdened her as she saw this trembling spirit clinging to her as the one frail barrier between himself and the gulf of utter despair. She nerved herself, by prayer and the exertion of all her will, to be equal to the emergency.
And yet it was a fearful ordeal that she was called to go through as the remorseful and deeply agitated man, his face flushed with shame, now with impassioned, more often with despairing gesture and accent, poured out the story of his past life, and laid bare his evil heart, while he paced up and down the little walk before her.
The transaction with Hunting he purposely passed over, speaking of it merely as a business misfortune that had robbed him even of earthly ambition. She saw a few sin-stained pages of that dreadful book of human guilt which God must look at every day.
Gregory did not spare himself, and palliated nothing, softening and brightening no harsh and dark lines. On the contrary, he was stern and blunt, and it was strange indeed to hear him charging himself before a pure, innocent young girl, whose good opinion was life to him, with what she regarded as crimes. When he at last came to speak of his designs against herself, of how he had purposed to take the bloom and beauty from her character that he might laugh at goodness as a dream and pretence, and despise her as he did himself, his eye flashed angrily, and he grew vindictive as if denouncing an object of his hate. He could not even look at her during the last of his confession, but turned away his face, fearing to see Annie's expression of aversion and disgust.
It was with a paling cheek and growing dread that she looked into that dark and fearful place, a perverted human heart, and her every breath was a prayer that God would enable her to see and act as Christ would were some poor creature revealing to Him his desperate need.
Gregory suddenly paused in his low but passionate flow of words, and put his hand to his head as if the pain were insupportable. In fact, his anguish and the intense feeling of the day had again brought on one of his old nervous headaches. Thus far he had scarcely noticed it, but now the sharp, quivering pangs proved how a wronged physical nature could retaliate; how much more the higher and more delicate moral nature!
After the paroxysm had passed, he continued, in the hard, weary tone of utter dejection (for he had dreaded even to look at Annie, and her silence confirmed his worst fears), "Well, Miss Walton, you now know the worst. On this peaceful Sabbath evening you have seen more of perdition than you ever will again. You cannot even speak to me, and I dare not look at your face. The expression of horror and disgust which I know must be there would blast me and haunt me forever. It would be worse than death, for I did have a faint hope—"
He was interrupted by an audible sob, and turning, saw Annie with her face buried in her hands, weeping as if her heart would break. He was puzzled for a moment, and then, in the despairing condition of his mind interpreted her wrongly. Standing near her with clenched hands, he said, in the same hard tones which seemed to have passed beyond the expression of feeling, "I'm a brute and worse. I have been wounding you as with blows by my vile story. I have been dragging your pure thoughts through the mire of my wretched life."
Annie tried to speak, but apparently could not for excess of emotion.
"Why could I not have gone away and died by myself, like some unclean beast?" he muttered. Then, in a tone which she never forgot, and with the manner of one who was indeed leaving hope and life behind him, he said, "Farewell, Miss Walton; you will be better after I am gone."
She sprung up, and laying restraining hands upon his arm, sobbed, "No—no. Why don't you—you—understand me? My heart's—breaking for you—wait till I can speak."
He placed her gently on the seat again. A great light was coming into his eyes, and he stood bending toward her as if existence depended on her next words. Could it be that her swelling throat and sobs meant sympathy for him?
She soon controlled herself, and looking up at him, with a light in her eyes that shone through her tears as sun-rays through the rain, said, "Forgive me. I never realized before that so much sin and suffering could exist in one unhappy life. I do pity you, as God does far more. I will help you as He will."