Gregory knelt at her feet, and kissed her hand with the fervor of a captive who had just received life and liberty.
"See, I do not shrink from you," she continued. "My Master would not. Why should I? He came to save just such, and just such we all would be but for His grace and shielding. I'm so—sorry for you."
He turned hastily away for a moment to hide his feelings, and said, slowly, "I cannot trust myself—I cannot trust God yet; but I trust you, and I believe you have saved a soul from death."
He stood looking toward the glowing west, and, for the first time in years, hoped that his life might close in brightness.
"Mr. Gregory," said Annie, in a voice so changed that he started and turned toward her hardly knowing what to expect. She stood beside him, no longer a tender, compassionate woman grieving for him, as if his sin were only misfortune, but her face was almost stern in its purity and earnestness. "Mr. Gregory, the mercy which God shows, and which I faintly reflect, is for you in sharp distinction from your sin. Do not for a moment think that I can look with any lenience or indulgence on all the horrible evil you have laid before me. Do not think I can excuse or pass lightly over it as something of little consequence. I hate your sin as I hate my own. I can honestly feel and frankly show the sympathy I have manifested, only in view of your penitence, and your sincere purpose, with God's help, to root out the evil of your life. This I am daily trying to do, and this you must do in the one and only way in which there is any use in trying. It is only with this clear understanding that I can give you my hand in the friendship of mutual helpfulness, and in the confidence of respect."
He reverently took her hand and said, "Your conditions are just, Miss Walton, and I accept your friendship as offered with a gratitude beyond words. I can never use deceit where you are concerned, even in thought. But please do not expect too much of me. I have formed the habit of doubting. It may be very long before I have your simple, beautiful faith. I will do just the best I can! It seems that if you will trust me, help me, pray for me, I can succeed. If I am mistaken, I will carry my wretchedness where the sight of it will not pain you. If I ever do reach your Christian life, I will lavish a wealth of gratitude upon you that cannot be expressed. Indeed, I will in any case, for you have done all that I could hope and more."
"I will do all you ask," she said, heartily, giving at the same time his hand a strong pressure with her warm, throbbing palm, that sent a subtle current of hope and strength into his heart. Her face softened into an expression of almost sisterly affection, and with a gleam of her old mirthfulness she continued, "Take counsel of practical common- sense, Mr. Gregory. Why talk so doubtfully of success, seeking it as you purpose to? What right have you even to imagine that God will bestow upon you the great distinction of making you the first one of the race He refused to hear and answer? Be humble and believe that He will treat you like other people."
He stopped in their slow walk toward the house and said, with glad animation, "Miss Walton, do you know you have done more to strengthen me in that little speech than by a long and labored argument?"
And so they passed in out of the purple twilight, Annie's heart thrilling with something of the joy of heaven, and Gregory feeling as if the dawn were coming after Egyptian night.
As they left the garden a dusky face peered out of some thick shrubbery and looked cautiously around. Then Jeff appeared and attributed to the scene just described a very different meaning from its real significance.
THE OLD HOME IN DANGER—GREGORY RETRIEVES HIMSELF
Gregory made desperate efforts to keep up at the supper-table, but could not prevent slight evidences of physical pain, which Annie silently noticed. After tea he hoped to escape to his room, for he could not endure to show even his physical weakness so soon again. On the contrary, he was longing intensely for an opportunity to manifest a little strength of some kind. After his recent interview he felt that he could even bear one of his nervous headaches alone. But as he was about to excuse himself, Annie interrupted, saying, "Now, Mr. Gregory, that is not according to agreement. Do you suppose I cannot see that you are half beside yourself with one of your old headaches? Was I such a poor physician the last time that you seek to escape me now? Come back to the parlor. I will not go out to church this evening, but devote myself to you."
"Miss Walton," he replied, in a low tone, "when can I make any return for all your kindness? I must seem weakness itself in every respect, and I dread to appear to you always in that light."
"Your pride needs bringing down, sir; see how towering it is. Here you would go off by yourself, and endure a useless martyrdom all night perhaps, when by a few simple remedies I can relieve you, or at least help you forget the pain. I have not the slightest objection to your being a martyr, but I want some good to come out of it." "But I shall spoil your evening."
"Certainly you will, if I think of you groaning up there by yourself, while I am singing, perhaps:
"'I love to steal awhile away From every cumbering care!'"
"Then I'm a cumbering care!"
"Whether you are or not, I'm not going to steal away from you to- night. Come, do as I bid you."
He was only too glad to submit to her delicious tyranny. She wheeled the lounge up to the fire, and placed her chair beside it, while the rest of the family, seeing that he had his old malady, went to the sitting-room.
"I have great pride in my nursing powers," she continued, in her cheery way. "Now, if I were a man, I'd certainly be a doctor."
"Thank Heaven you are not!" he said, with a devout earnestness that quite startled her.
"What? A doctor?" she asked, quickly.
"Yes—no; I mean a man, and doctor too."
"I see no reason why you should show such bitter opposition to my being a man or a doctor either. Why should you?"
"O—well—I think you are just right as a woman. You make me believe in the doctrine of election, for it seems to me that you were destined from all eternity to be just what you are."
"What a strange, unfathomable doctrine that is!" said Annie, softly and musingly.
"It's nothing but mystery all around us," he replied, wearily and dejectedly.
"No, not 'all around us,'" she answered, quickly. "It's clear when we look up. Faith builds a safe bridge to God, and to Him there are no mysteries."
Her touch upon his brow thrilled him, and her presence was both exhilarating and restful.
At last she said, "I am sorry you have these dreadful headaches so often."
"I shall never be again."
"Because they have led to this evening. It has been so many long, miserable years since I experienced anything like this."
"Ah, I see, you have been very lonely. You have had no one to care for you, and that I believe has been the cause of half your trouble—evil, I mean. Indeed, they are about the same thing. Don't you see? The world is too large a place for a home. You need a nook in it, with some one there to look after you and for you to think about."
He looked at her searchingly, and then turned away his face in pain. She could not utter such words in that placid style, were she not utterly devoid of the feeling that was filling his soul with an ecstasy of hope and fear.
"Do not think that even many of our sex are like Miss Bently. You will see and choose more wisely hereafter, and find that, in exchanging that wretched club-life for a cosey home of your own, you take a good step in all respects."
"Would to Heaven that I had met such a girl as you at first!" he ventured to say. "How different then all might have been!"
"There is no use in dwelling on the past," she replied, innocently. "You are now pledged to make the future right."
"God helping me, I will. I will use every means in my power," he said, in a tone of deep earnestness; and, as principal part of the means, determined to take her advice, but with reference to herself. After a few moments he said, "Miss Walton, as I promised to be perfectly frank with you, I want to ask an explanation of something that I do not understand, and which has been almost a heavenly surprise to me. I was nearly certain before this afternoon that when you came to know what a stained, evil man I am—"
"Was," interrupted Annie.
"No, what I am. Character is not made in a moment. As yet, I only hope and purpose to do better. I can hardly understand why you do not shrink from me in disgust. It seemed that both your faith and your nature would lead you to do this. I thought it possible that out of your kindness you might try to stand at a safe distance and give me some good advice across the gulf. But that which I feared would drive you from me forever has only brought you nearer. Again I say, it has been a heavenly surprise."
"You use the word 'heavenly' with more appropriateness than you think," she replied, gravely. "All such surprises are heavenly in their origin, and my course is but a faint reflection of Heaven's disposition toward you, and was prompted by the duty I owe to God as well as to you. Self-righteousness would have led me in Pharisaic pride to say, 'Stand aside, I am holier than thou.' But you have only to read the life of the perfect One to know that in so doing I should not have been like Him. He laid His rescuing hands on both the physical and the moral leper—"
"As you have upon me," said Gregory, with a look of such intense gratitude that she was embarrassed.
"I deserve no great credit, for it was only right that I should do the utmost in my power to help you. How else could I be a Christian in any real sense? But there is nothing strange about it. Christianity is not like false religions, that require unnatural and useless sacrifices. If I were a true physician, and found you suffering from a terrible and contagious disease, while I feared and loathed the disease, I might have the deepest sympathy for you and do my best to cure you. I do loathe the sin you confessed, inexpressibly. See how near it came to destroying you. While God hates the sin, He ever loves the sinful."
"I hope you will always be divine in that respect," he could not forbear saying, with rising color.
But her thoughts were so intent on what was uppermost in her heart that she did not notice his covert meaning, and said, innocently, "I will give you honest friendship so long as you honestly try to redeem the pledges of to-day."
"Then I have your friendship for life, be it long or short," said he, decisively.
With more lightness in her tone she continued, "And I too will ask a question that has a bearing on a little theory of my own. Supposing I had shrunk from you, and tried to give some good advice from a safe distance, what would you have done?"
"Left for New York to-morrow, and gone straight to the devil as one of his own imps," he replied, without a moment's hesitation.
She sighed deeply, and said, "I fear you would—that is, if left to yourself. And the worst of it is, it seems to me that this is the way the Church is trying to save the world. Suppose a doctor should address his patients through a speaking-trumpet and hand them his remedies on the end of a very long rod. Death would laugh at his efforts. People can be saved only as Christ saved them. We must go where they are, lay our hands upon them, and look sympathy and hope right into their eyes. If Christ's followers would only do this, how many more might be rescued who now seem hopelessly given over to evil!"
"Those who won't do it," said Gregory, bitterly, "are in no sense His true followers, but are merely the 'hangers on' of His army, seeking to get out of it all they can for self. Every general knows that the 'camp-followers' are the bane of an army."
"Come, Mr. Gregory," said she, gently, "we are not the general, and therefore not the judge. After this I shall expect to see you in the regular ranks, ready to give and take blows."
They now joined Mr. Walton and Miss Eulie in the sitting-room, and Gregory professed to feel, and indeed was, much better, and after a little music they separated for the night. Although still suffering, Gregory sat by his fire a long time, forgetful of pain.
High, blustering winds prevailed all the following day, but they only made the quiet and cosiness of Mr. Walton's fireside more delightful. Gregory did not care to go out if he went alone. He wished to be where he could see Annie as often as possible, for every word and smile from her in the intervals of her duties was precious. He did honestly mean to become a good man if it were possible, but he saw in her the only hopeful means. He did not pretend to either faith in God or love for Him as yet, but only felt a glow of gratitude, a warming of his heart toward Him in view of His great mercy in sending to his aid such a ministering spirit as Annie had proved. He took it as an omen that God meant kindly by him, and through this human hand might save at last.
And he clung to this hand as the drowning do to anything that keeps them from sinking into dark and unknown depths. He saw in Annie Walton earthly happiness certainly, and his best prospect of heaven. What wonder then that his heart lay at her feet in entire consecration? Apart from the peculiar fascination that she herself had for him, he had motives for loving her that actuate but few. If she had saved him from physical death it would have been a little thing in comparison, but he shuddered to think of the precipice from which she had drawn him back.
He was cautious in revealing himself to her. The presence of others was a restraint, and he plainly saw that she had no such regard for him as he felt for her. But he hoped with intense fervor—yes, he even prayed to that God whom he had so long slighted—that in time she might return his love. To-day he would close his eyes on the past and future. She, the sunshine of his soul, was near, and he was content to bask in her smiles.
Annie had given her father and aunt to understand that their conspiracy promised to result in success, and they treated him with marked but delicate kindness. The day passed in music, reading, and conversation, and it was to Gregory the happiest he remembered—one of the sweet May days that, by some happy blunder of nature, occasionally bless us in March—and he made the very most of it. Its close found Annie Walton enthroned in his heart.
As for Annie, he perplexed her a little, but she explained everything peculiar in his words and manner on the ground of his gratitude only, and the glow of his newly awakened moral nature. If she had been an experienced belle, she might have understood his symptoms better, but she was one of the last in the world to imagine people falling in love with her. Never having received much admiration from strangers, with no long list of victims, and believing from her own experience that love was a gradual growth resulting from long knowledge and intimacy with its object, she could not dream that this critical man, who had seen the beauties of two continents, would in a few days be carried away by her plain face. Nor was he by her face, but by herself.
Men of mind are rarely captivated by a face merely, however beautiful, but by what it represents, or what they imagine it does. Woe be to the beauty who has no better capital than her face! With it she can allure some one into marrying her; but if he marries for an intelligent companion, he is likely to prove the most disappointed and indifferent of husbands on discovering the fraud. The world will never get over its old belief that the fair face is the index of graces slightly veiled, and ready to be revealed when the right to know is gained. In nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and the average novel, the beautiful heroine is also lovely, and so in spite of adverse experience the world will ever expect wisdom and truth from red lips, till they say too much—till the red lips themselves prove the contrary. Then come the anger and disgust which men ever visit upon those who deceive and disappoint them. Beauty is a dainty and exquisite vestibule to a temple; but when a worshipper is beguiled into entering, only to find a stony, misshapen idol and a dingy shrine, this does not conduce to future devotion.
Annie's face would not arrest passers-by, and so she had not been spoiled by too much homage, which is not good for man or woman. But after passing the plain, simple portico of externals into the inner temple of her sweet and truthful life, the heart once hers would worship with undying faith and love.
Gregory had come to interest her deeply, not only on the ground of his need, but because she saw in him great capabilities for good. In all his evil, his downright honesty and lack of conceit inspired a kind of respect. She also saw that this excessively fastidious man had learned to admire and esteem her greatly. It was not in her woman's nature to be indifferent to this fact. She felt that if he could be redeemed from his evil he might become a congenial and valuable friend indeed, and if she could be the means of rescuing the son of her father's friend it would ever be one of her happiest memories. But with her heart already occupied by a noble ideal of Hunting, the possibility of anything more than friendship never entered her mind. The very fact that her affections were so engaged made her blind to manifestations on the part of Gregory which might otherwise have awakened suspicion. Still the confidential relations growing up between them made her wish that she might reveal to him her virtual engagement to Hunting; and she would have done so, had he not resented the slightest allusion in that direction. It now seemed probable that Hunting would return before Gregory took his departure, and if so, she felt that she could immediately reconcile them. She came to the conclusion that her best course was to wait till she could bring them together, and so make the reconciliation certain by her own presence and influence; for now, in her increasing regard for Gregory, she was determined that they all should be on good terms, so that in the city home to which she looked forward the man she was trying to lead to true life might be a frequent and welcome visitor.
But it is a difficult thing to keep such friendships Platonic in their nature under any circumstances, and in view of Gregory's feelings, Annie's pretty dreams of the future would be but baseless visions.
Monday evening brought one of those genial domestic experiences that make home more satisfying in its pleasures than all the excitements of the world. Mr. Walton had a slight cold, and Annie was nursing and petting him, while contributing to the general enjoyment by reading the daily paper and singing some new ballads which she had just obtained from New York. Her father's indisposition was so slight that it merely called for those little attentions which are pleasant for affection to bestow and receive. The wind howled dismally without, only to enhance the sense of peace and comfort within, and at the usual hour all retired to rest, without even the passing thought that anything might disturb them before they should meet again at the cheerful breakfast-table.
Some time during the night Gregory seemed to hear three distinct peals of thunder, wrathful and threatening, and then a voice like that of Annie Walton calling him to escape a great danger. But it seemed that he was paralyzed, and strove in vain to move hand or foot. Again and louder pealed the thunder, and more urgent came the call of the warning voice. By a desperate effort he sprung with a bound upon the floor, and then realized that what seemed thunder in the exaggeration of his dream was loud knocking at his door. Annie's voice again called, "Mr. Gregory, awake, dress. There is a fire. There may be danger."
He assured her that he would be out in a few moments, and had only to open a shutter to obtain plenty of light, though he could not see whence it came. In five minutes he hastened downstairs and found Mr. Walton just issuing from his room; and all went out on the front piazza. Gregory then saw that a large factory some distance up the stream was burning, and that the fire was under such headway that nothing could save the building. The wind had increased during the night and fanned the flames into terrific fury. The building was old and dry, inviting destruction in every part.
For a while they gazed with that fearful awe which this terrible element, when no longer servant, but master, always inspires. Susie had not been well during the night, and in waiting on her, Annie had discovered the disaster.
A warning cough from Mr. Walton revealed to Annie the danger of staying out in the raw winds; but from the windows everything was apparent, and silently they watched the rapid progress of the flames. The fire had caught in the lower part of the building, and was advancing up from floor to floor with its horrid illumination at the windows.
"Do you think I can do any good by going there?" asked Gregory.
"Not at all," said Mr. Walton. "The whole of the New York Fire Department could not save it now; and from the sounds I hear, there will soon be throngs of people there. Indeed, I am anxious about my own place. When that shingle roof begins to burn there is no telling how far the wind will carry the cinders."
Annie looked at her father in quick alarm, then drew Miss Eulie aside, and they immediately went upstairs.
With a more painful interest, Gregory now watched the scene. The tall ladders which had first been raised against the building were withdrawn. They were useless for the whole interior seemed ablaze. Great tongues of fire began leaping from the windows, mocking every effort. The rapid steps of those hastening to the scene resounded along the road, and the startling cry of "Fire! Fire!" was heard up and down the valley till all merged in the shouts and cries around the burning building. Mingling with the deeper, hoarser tones of men were the shrill voices of women, showing that they too had been drawn to witness a destruction that meant to them loss of bread. The foliage near was red as blood in the dreadful glare, and the neighboring pines tossed their tasselled boughs like dark plumes at a torch-light funeral. With a sudden roar a pyramid of flame shot up through the roof, and was echoed by a despairing cry from those whose vocation now indeed was gone. A moment later a fiery storm of flakes and burning shingles filled the sky.
To the great joy of our friends the wind was from such a quarter as to carry this destructive tempest past them into the woodland back of the house, which happily had been rendered damp by recent rains.
But a cinder frequently sailed by unpleasantly near, reminding one of scattering shots in a battle. A slight change of wind would be their destruction, and a single stray fire-brand would endanger them.
Just as they began to breathe somewhat freely, hoping that danger was past, a sudden side-eddy of the gale scattered a shower of sparks and burning shingles over the house and out-buildings. Mr. Walton immediately rushed forth, and, with a little whistle which he usually carried, gave a shrill summons for Jeff, who lived in a cottage near. But Jeff was off to the fire, and so did not appear. Gregory and Annie also hastened out, and the former ran to the barn and out-buildings first, as from their nature they were most inflammable. To his and Mr. Walton's joy, no traces of fire were seen. One or two smoking brands lay in the door-yard, where they could cause no injury. But a cry of alarm from Annie, who had stayed nearer the house, brought Mr. Walton and Gregory to her side instantly. Pointing to the roof of their house, she said, in tones of strong excitement, "See there—oh, see there!"
A burning piece of wood had caught on the highest part near the ridge, and was smoking and smouldering in a way that, with the strong wind fanning it, would surely cause destruction if it were not dislodged.
"Oh, what shall we do?" she cried, wringing her hands. "Can a ladder reach it?"
"The roof is too steep, even if it did," said Mr. Walton.
"Where is the ladder?" cried Gregory.
"By the carriage-house. But I fear it is useless."
"Will you help me bring it, sir?"
They instantly brought the longest ladder on the place, but saw that though it might touch the eaves, it would not reach the ridge. The roof was so steep that one could not keep footing on it; and when they took time to look and consider, both gentlemen admitted that an effort in that direction would fail, and probably at the cost of life.
"Is there no scuttle by which to get out on the roof?" asked Gregory.
"No. Quick, Annie, get out what you can, for we shall soon be homeless."
"Wait," said Gregory. "Is there no way to reach the roof?"
"None that we can use. A light and daring climber might possibly reach the ridge by the lighting-rod, after leaving the ladder."
"Where is it?" cried Gregory, eager to do something to make impossible even the thought that he was cowardly; for the memory of his course in the counterfeiter's den rankled deeply.
"No," cried both Mr. Walton and Annie, laying their hands on him. "Your life is worth more than the house."
"My life is my own," he answered. "I will make an effort to save the old place. Quick, help me. Here, girls" (to Zibbie and Hannah, who now stood beside them in dismay), "take hold of that end of the ladder and carry it out there. Now push it up while I hold its foot. There, that's it. I will do it. You cannot hinder, but only help. Miss Walton, get me a rope. Hurry, while I prepare to climb."
With the help of the stout women, whose strength was doubled by their fears and excitement, he placed the ladder against the lightning-rod and siding of the house just under the ridge. His tones were determined and authoritative.
He was now acting as Annie would if she were a man, and she admired and respected him as never before. In two or three moments she and her father returned with a line, but again expostulated.
"Mr. Gregory, the risk is too great."
"You can't prevent it," said he, firmly. "I absolve you from all responsibility. I take the risk in spite of you. Make haste—see how it's burning. There, that will do. Stand back."
Even as he spoke he was climbing.
"Now that's generous," said Annie; "but if you are injured, I shall never forgive myself."
He turned, and for a second smiled down upon her.
The strength of his new-born love made him glad to endanger even life in her service, and the thought, "I can at last win a little respect, as well as sympathy," nerved him to double his ordinary powers. Like most country boys, he had been a bold, active climber, and his knowledge and former skill made the attempted feat possible. The main question was whether in his feeble state his strength would hold out. But the strong excitement of the moment would serve him in place of muscle. He had thrown off his coat and boots, and, with a small rope fastened about his waist, he swiftly ascended to the top of the ladder. But there were three or four feet that he must overhand up the lightning-rod in order to reach the ridge. It was large and twisted, and gave him a good hold, but he had to take the risk of its being strong enough in its fastening to sustain his weight. Fortunately it was, and he unhesitatingly commenced the perilous effort. He made good progress till he was within a foot of the ridge. Then his strength began to fail, and plainly to those below he wavered.
With white face, clasped hands, and lips moving in prayer, Annie watched him. Her heart almost stood still with dread; and when toward the last he slowly and still more slowly overhanded upward, plainly indicating that his strength was ebbing, she cried, in an agony of fear, "Come back, oh come back! What is all here to your life?" A second before it seemed to him that he must fail, that he might suddenly fall at her feet a crushed and lifeless mass; but her voice revived him, and the passionate thought came with inspiring power, "I can do more to win her love now than by years of effort"; and he made a desperate struggle, gained the ridge, and crawled out upon it, panting for a moment, and powerless to do more than cling for support.
The burning cinder was now but little in advance of him, and he saw that there was not a second to lose. It had charred and blackened the roof where it had caught, and, fanned by the wind, was a live, glowing coal. The shingles under it were smoking—yes, smouldering. Had it not been for their dampness and mossy age, they would have been blazing. In a few moments nothing could have saved the house.
As soon as he got his breath, he crept along the ridge within reach of the fiery flake. There seemed no place where he could lay hold of it without burning himself. It would not do to simply detach it, as it might catch further down the steep roof where it could not be reached. Above all, there was not a moment to spare. He did not hesitate, but with sufficient presence of mind to use his left instead of his right hand, he seized the fatal brand and hurled it, a fiery meteor, clear of the house. It hurt him cruelly, and for a moment he felt sick and faint; but a round of applause from those below (for now Miss Eulie and the children were out, looking tremblingly on), and Annie's cry of joy and encouragement, again gave him strength.
But as he looked closely at the spot where the cinder had laid, his fears were realized. It had ignited the roof. A little water would extinguish it now, but in a few moments, under the wild wind that was blowing, all would be ablaze.
He crawled to the end of the ridge and shouted, "Tie a light pail of water to the cord—not much at a time, or I can't draw it up."
Annie darted to the house for a lighter pail than Hannah had brought, and to Gregory's joy he found that he had strength enough to lift it, though with his burned band it was agony to do so. But with the now good prospect of finishing his work successfully, his spirits rose. He grew more familiar and confident in his dangerous position. He did not look down from his giddy height, and permitted himself to think of nothing but his task. Indeed, in his strong excitement, he felt that it would not be a bitter thing to die thus serving the woman he loved; and in his false philosophy he hoped this brave act might atone for the wrong of the past.
It is the nature of noble, generous deeds to exalt a man's soul so that he can fearlessly face death, when in calm moments he would shrink back appalled. In the excitement of the hour, and under the inspiration of his strong human love, Gregory was not afraid to die, though life seemed, with its new possibilities, sweeter than ever before. He knew that his strength was failing fast, that reaction would soon set in, and that he would be helpless, and his great hope was that he could save the house first.
He determined therefore not to waste a drop of water, and to make this one pail answer if possible. He therefore poured it slowly out, and let it run over the burning part. The continued hissing and smoke proved that the fire had penetrated deeper than he thought. The last drop was gone, and still the place smoked. A little more was absolutely necessary.
"Will my strength hold out?" he asked himself, in almost an agony of doubt.
Crawling back to the end of the ridge, he once more lowered the pail.
"Fill it again," he cried.
"Can you stand it?" Mr. Walton asked.
"I must, or all is useless," was his answer.
Again, but more slowly and painfully, he pulled the water up.
Annie wrung her hands in anguish as she saw in the red glare of the still burning factory how pale and exhausted he was.
But he once more managed to reach the point above the still smouldering spot, and caused the water to trickle down upon it. By the time he had half emptied the pail the smoke ceased.
After a moment it again faintly exuded, but another little stream of water quenched the fire utterly. But for five minutes he watched the place to make sure that there was not a lingering spark, and then let the rest of the water flow over the place to saturate it completely.
He was now certain that the house was saved. But he was satisfied from his sensations that he had but little time in which to save himself. Reaction was fast setting in.
He untied the rope from his waist, and let pail and all roll clattering down the roof. This noise was echoed by a cry of alarm from those below, who feared for a moment that he was falling. They all had the sickening dread which is felt when we look at one in great peril, and yet can do nothing to help.
At first Gregory thought that he would lie down upon the ridge and cling to it, thus gaining strength by a little rest. But he soon found that this would not answer. His overtaxed frame was becoming nerveless, and his only hope was to escape at once. In trembling weakness he crawled back to the edge and looked over. Annie stepped forward to the foot of the ladder and extended her hands as if to catch him.
"Stand back," he cried; "if I fall, I shall kill you."
"I will not stand back," she answered. "You shall not take all the risk."
But her father, who still kept his presence of mind in the terrible excitement of the moment, forced her away, and saved her from the danger of this useless sacrifice. As soon as she could do nothing, her fortitude vanished, and she covered her face with her hands and wept bitterly.
The chief point of difficulty in Gregory's weak state was to get off the ridge upon the lightning-rod without losing his hold and falling at once. If he could turn the edge and begin to descend in safety, his strength might hold out till he reached the ladder and so the ground. But he realized the moment of supreme peril, and hesitated.
Then, with something like a prayer to God and with a wistful look at Annie, he resolutely swung himself over. His hands held the weight of his body, and he commenced the descent. Annie's glad cry once more encouraged him. He gained the ladder and descended till not far from the ground.
Suddenly everything turned black before his eyes, and he fell.
CHANGES IN GREGORY
When Gregory became conscious, he was lying on the ground, with his head in Miss Eulie's lap, and Annie was bending over him with a small flask. She again gave him a teaspoonful of brandy, and after a moment he lifted himself up, and, passing his hand across his brow, looked around.
"You are not hurt. Oh, please say you are not hurt!" she exclaimed, taking his hand.
He looked at her a moment, and then it all came back to him, and he smiled and said, "Not much, I think; and if I am it does not signify. You've helped me on my feet once or twice before. Now see if you can again;" and he attempted to rise.
As Daddy Tuggar had intimated, there was plenty of muscle in Annie's round arms, and she almost lifted him up, but he stood unsteadily. Mr. Walton gave him his arm, and in a few moments he was on the sofa in the sitting-room, where a fire was soon kindled. Zibbie was told to make coffee, and to provide something more substantial.
They were all profuse in expressions of gratitude, in praises of his heroism, but he waived the whole matter off by saying, "Think of me as well as you can, for Heaven knows I have need to retrieve my character. But please do not speak as if I had done more than I ought. For a young man to stand idly by, and see the home of his childhood, the place where he had received unbounded hospitality, destroyed, would be simply base. If I had not been reduced by months of ill health, the thing would not have been difficult at all. But you, Miss Walton, displayed the real heroism in the case, when you stood beneath with your arms out to catch me. I took a risk, but you took the certainty of destruction if I had fallen. Still," he added, with a humorous look as if in jest, though he was only too sincere, "the prospect was so inviting that I should have liked to fall a little way."
"And so you did," cried innocent Johnny, eagerly. "You fell ever so far, and Aunt Annie caught you."
"What!" exclaimed Gregory, rising. "Is this true? And are you not hurt?"
"That's the way with children," said Annie, with heightened color and a reproachful look at the boy, who in the excitement of the hour was permitted to stay up for an hour or more; "they let everything all out. No, I'm not hurt a bit. You didn't fall very far. I'm so thankful that your strength did not give out till you almost reached the ground. O dear! I shudder to think what might have happened. Do you know that I thought, with a thrill of superstitious dread, of your chestnut-burr omen, when you stained my hand with your blood. If you had fallen—if—" and she put her hand over her eyes to hide the dreadful vision her imagination presented. "If anything had happened," she continued, "my hands would have been stained, in that they had not held you back."
"What a tender, innocent conscience you have!" he replied, looking fondly at her. "I confess I'd rather be here listening to you than somewhere else."
She gave him a troubled, startled look. To her that "somewhere else" had a sad and terrible meaning. She sat near him, and could not help saying in a low, earnest tone, "How could you, how could you take such a risk without—" She did not finish the sentence, which was plain enough in its meaning, however.
On the impulse of the moment, Gregory was about to reply indiscreetly —in a way that would have revealed more of his feelings toward her than he knew would be wise at that time. But just then Hannah came in with the lunch, and the attention of the others, who had been talking eagerly on the other side of the room, was directed toward them. He checked some rash words as they rose to his lips, and Annie, suspecting nothing of the wealth of love that he was already lavishing upon her, rose with alacrity, glad to serve one who had just served her so well. The generous coffee and the dainty lunch, combined with feelings to which he had long been a stranger, revived Gregory greatly, and he sprang up and walked the room, declaring that with the exception of his burned hand, which had been carefully dressed, he felt better than he had for a long time.
"I'm so thankful!" said Annie, with glistening eyes.
"We all have cause for thankfulness," said Mr. Walton, with fervor. "Our kind Father in heaven has dealt with us all in tender mercy. Home, and more precious life, have been spared. Before we again seek a little rest, let us remember all His goodness;" and he led them in a simple, fervent prayer, the effect of which was heightened by Mr. Walton saying, after he rose from his knees, "Annie, we must see that none of our poor neighbors lack for anything, now that their employment has so suddenly been taken away."
That is acceptable devotion to God which leads to practical, active charity toward men, and the most unbelieving are won by such a religion.
Annie noticed with some anxiety that her father's voice was very hoarse, and that he put his hand upon his chest several times, and she expressed the fear that the exposure would greatly add to his cold. He treated the matter lightly, and would do nothing more that evening than take some simple remedies.
When Gregory bade them good-night, Annie followed him to the foot of the stairs, and giving his hand one of her warm grasps, said, "Mr. Gregory, I can't help feeling that your mother knows what you have done to-night."
Tears started to his eyes. He did not trust himself to reply, but, with a strong answering pressure, hastened to his room, happier than he had been in all his past.
It was late the next morning when they assembled at the breakfast- table, and they noted with pain that Mr. Walton did not appear at all well, though he made a great effort to keep up. He was very hoarse, and complained of a tightness in his chest.
"Now, father," said Annie, "you must stay in the house, and let me nurse you."
"I am very willing to submit," he replied, "and hope I shall need no other physician." But he was feverish all day. His indisposition did not yield to ordinary remedies. Still, beyond a little natural solicitude, no anxiety was felt.
Gregory was a different man. Even his sincere human love for so worthy an object had lifted him out of the miserable depths into which he had been sinking. It had filled his heart with pure longings, and made him capable of noble deeds.
As a general thing a woman inspires love in accordance with her own character. Of course we recognize the fact that there are men with natures so coarse that they are little better than animals. These men may have a passing passion for any pretty woman; but the holy word Love should not be used in such connection. But of men—of those possessing true manhood, even in humblest station—the above assertion I think will be found true. The woman who gains the boundless power which the undivided homage of an honest heart confers will develop in it, and quicken into life, traits and feelings corresponding to her own. If the great men of the world have generally had good mothers, so as a parallel fact will it be found that the strong, useful, successful men—men who sustain themselves, and more than fulfil the promise of their youth—have been supplemented and continually inspired to better things by the ennobling companionship of true women.
Good breeding, the ordinary restraints of self-respect, and fear of the world's adverse opinion, greatly reduce the outward diversities of society. Well-bred men and women act and appear very much alike in the public eye. But there is an inner life, a real character, upon which happiness here and heaven hereafter depend, which results largely from that tie and intimacy which is closest of all. A shallow, frivolous girl, having faith in little else than her pretty face and the dressmaker's art, may unfortunately inspire a good, talented man, who imagines her to possess all that the poets have portrayed in woman, with a true and strong affection, but she will disappoint and dwarf him, and be a millstone about his neck. She will cease to be his companion. She may be thankful if, in his heart, he does not learn to despise her, though a man can scarcely do this and be guiltless toward the mother of his children.
What must be the daily influence on a man who sees in his closest friend, to whom he is joined for life, a passion for the public gaze, a boundless faith in eternals, a complete devotion to the artificial enhancing of ordinary and vanishing charms, combined with a contemptuous neglect of the graces of mind and heart? These alone can keep the love which outward appearance in part may have won at first. Mere dress and beauty are very well to skirmish with during the first approaches; but if a woman wishes to hold the conquered province of a man's heart, and receive from it rich revenues of love and honor, she must possess some queenly traits akin to divine royalty, otherwise she only overruns the heart she might have ruled, and leaves it a blighted waste.
As we have seen, Annie's actual character rebuked and humiliated the evil-minded Gregory from the first. He could not rest in her presence. To relieve himself from self-condemnation, he must prove her goodness a sham or an accident—mere chance exemption from temptation. Her safety and happy influence did not depend upon good resolutions, wise policy, and careful instruction, but upon her real possession of a character which had been formed long before, and which met and foiled him at every point. Lacking this, though a well-meaning, good girl in the main, she would have been a plaything in the hands of such a man. Her absolute truth and crystal purity of principle incased her in heaven's armor, and neither he nor any other evil-disposed person could harm her. She would not listen to the first insidious suggestion of the tempter. Thus the man who expected to go away despising now honored, reverenced, loved her, and through her strong but gentle ministry had turned his back on evil, and was struggling to escape its degrading bondage.
Gregory was right in thinking that such a woman as Annie could help him to an extent hard to estimate, but fatally wrong in looking to her alone. The kind Father who regards the well-being of His children for eternity rather than for the moments of time, must effectually cure him of this error.
But those two days were memorable ones to him. The cold and stormy weather shut them all in the house, and that meant to him Annie's society. He was seldom alone with her; he noted with pain that her manner was too frank and kindly, too free from all consciousness, to indicate anything more than the friendship she had promised; but, not knowing how her heart was preoccupied, he hoped that the awakening of deeper feeling was only a question of time. His present peace and rest were so blessed, her presence was so satisfying, and his progress in her favor so apparent as he revealed his better nature, that he was content to call his love friendship until he saw her friendship turning into love.
Had not Annie expected Hunting every day she would have told Gregory all about her relation with him, but now she determined that she would bring them together under the same roof, and not let them separate till she had banished every trace of their difficulty. A partial reconciliation might result in future coolness and estrangement. This she would regard as a misfortune, even if it had no unfavorable influence on Gregory, for he now proved himself the best of company. Indeed, they seemed to have a remarkable gift for entertaining each other.
While Wednesday did not find Mr. Walton seriously ill to all appearance, he was still far from being well. He employed himself with his papers and seemed to enjoy Gregory's conversation greatly.
"He now grows very like his father, and reminds me constantly of him," he said more than once to Annie.
Mr. Walton's indisposition was evidently not trivial. There was a soreness about the lungs that made it painful for him to talk much, and he had a severe, racking cough. They were all solicitude in his behalf. The family physician had been called, and it was hoped that a few days of care would remove this cold.
As he sat in his comfortable arm-chair by the fire he would smilingly say he was having such a good time and so much petting that he did not intend to get well very soon.
Though Gregory's burn was painful, and both hands were bruised and cut from climbing, he did not regret the suffering, since it also secured from Annie some of the attention she would otherwise have given her father.
Wednesday afternoon was pleasant, and Gregory went out for a walk. He did not return till rather late, and, coming down to supper, found by his plate a letter which clouded his face instantly.
Annie was radiant, for the same mail had brought her one from Hunting, stating that he might be expected any day now. As she saw Gregory's face darken, she said, "I fear your letter has brought you unpleasant news."
"It has," he replied. "Mr. Burnett, the senior partner, is quite ill, and it is necessary that I return immediately."
"I'm so sorry," she exclaimed, with such hearty emphasis that he looked at her earnestly and said, "Are you really?"
"You shouldn't ask such a question," she answered, reproachfully.
"Why, Miss Walton, I've made a very long visit."
"So much has happened that it does seem a long time since you came. But I wish it were to be longer. We shall miss you exceedingly. Besides," she added, with rising color, "I have a special reason for wishing you to stay a little longer."
His color rose instantly also. She puzzled him, while he perplexed her.
"I hope Mr. Gregory's visit has taught him," said Mr. Walton, kindly, "that he has not lost his former home through our residence here, and that he can run up to the old place whenever he finds opportunity."
"I can say sincerely," he responded, "that I have enjoyed the perfection of hospitality;" adding, in a low tone and with a quick, remorseful look at Annie, "though little deserving it."
"You have richly repaid us," said Mr. Walton, heartily. "It would have been very hard for me at my years to have to seek a new home. I have become wedded to this old place with my feelings and fancies, and the aged, you know, dislike change. I wish to make only one more, then rest will be complete."
"Now, father," said Annie, with glistening eyes, "you must not talk in that way. You know well that we cannot spare you even to go to heaven."
"Well, my child," answered he, fondly. "I am content to leave that in our best Friend's hands. But I cannot say," he added, with a touch of humor, "that it's a heavy cross to stay here with you."
"Would that such a cross were imposed upon me!" echoed Gregory, with sudden devoutness. "Miss Walton, did not my business imperatively demand my presence, I would break anything save my neck, in order to be an invalid on your hands."
"Come," cried Annie, half-vexed; "a truce to this style of remark. I think it's verging toward the sentimental, and I'm painfully matter- of-fact. Father, you must not think of going to heaven yet, and I don't like to hear you talk about it. Mr. Gregory can break his little finger, if he likes, so we may keep him longer. But do let us all be sensible, and not think of anything sad till it comes. Why should we? Mr. Gregory surely can find time to run up and see us, if he wishes, and I think he will."
Before he could reply, an anxious remark from little Susie enabled them to leave the table in the midst of one of those laughs that banish all embarrassment.
"But we'll be burned up if Mr. Gregory goes away."
PLEADING FOR LIFE AND LOVE
Knowing that it was to be Gregory's last day with them, Annie determined it should be full of pleasant memories. She sung with him, and did anything he asked. Her heart overflowed toward him in a genial and almost sisterly regard, but his most careful analysis could find no trace even of the inception of warmer feelings. She evidently had a strong and growing liking for him, but nothing more, and she clearly felt the great interest in his effort to become a man of Christian principles. This fact gave him his main hope. Her passion to save seemed so strong that he trusted she might be approached even thus early upon that side.
He felt that he must speak—must get some definite hope for the future before he went away. It seemed to him that he could fairly bring his great need as a motive to bear upon her. Her whole course encouraged him to do this, for she had responded to every such appeal. Still with fear and trembling he admitted that he was about to ask for more now than ever before.
But he felt that he must speak. He had no hope that he could ever be more than his wretched self without her. He would ask nothing definite—only encouragement that if he could make himself worthy of her she would give him a chance to win her love. In her almost sisterly frankness it seemed that the idea of loving him had never occurred to her, and would not after he had gone. The thought of leaving her heart all disengaged, for some other to come and make a stronger impression, was torture. He never could be satisfied with the closest friendship, therefore he must plainly seek a dearer tie, even though for a time their frank, pleasant relations should be disturbed. He resolved to take no denial, but to give fair warning, before it was too late, that he was laying siege to her heart. He dreaded that attitude of mind upon her part which enables a woman to say to some men, "I could be your sister, but never your wife."
So he said before they separated for the night, "Miss Walton, I'm going to snatch a few hours from the hurry and grind of business, and shall not return to town till to-morrow afternoon. Won't you take one more ramble with me in the morning?"
"With pleasure," she replied, promptly. "I will devote myself to you to-morrow, and leave you without excuse for not coming again."
He flushed with pleasure at her reply, but said, quickly, "By the way that reminds me. Won't you tell me what your 'special reason' was for wishing me to stay a little longer?"
It was her turn to blush now, which she did in a way that puzzled him. She answered, hesitatingly, "Well, I think I'll tell you to-morrow."
"Good-night," said Mr. Walton, feelingly retaining Gregory's hand when he came to his chair. "We are coming to treat you almost as one of the family. Indeed it seems hard to treat you in any other way now, especially in your old home, now doubly yours since you have saved it from destruction. Every day you remind me more of my dear old friend. For some reason he has seemed very near me of late. If it should be my lot to see your sainted parents before you do, as it probably will, I believe it will be in my power to add even to their heavenly joys by telling them of your present prospects. Good-night, and may the blessing of your father's and mother's God rest upon you."
Tears sprung into the young man's eyes, and with a strong responsive pressure of Mr. Walton's hand, he hastened to his room, to hide what was not weakness.
That was the last time he saw his father's friend.
Annie's eyes glistened as she looked after him, and throwing her arms around her father's neck, she whispered, "God did send him here I now truly believe. We have not conspired and prayed in vain."
Mr. Walton fondly stroked his daughter's brown hair, and said, "You are right, Annie; he will be a gem in your crown of rejoicing. You have acted very wisely, very womanly, as your mother would, in this matter. He was a bad man when he first came here, and if I had not known you so well, I should not have trusted you with him as I have. Be as faithful through life, and you may lead many more out of darkness."
"Dear father," said Annie, tenderly, "this whole day, with Charles's good letter, and crowned with these precious words from you, seem like a benediction. May we have many more such."
"May God's will be done," said the riper Christian, with eyes turned homeward.
Thus in hope, peace, and gladness the day ended for all.
"Ye know not what shall be on the morrow."
To Gregory's unfeigned sorrow Mr. Walton was not well enough to appear at the breakfast-table the following morning. Annie was flitting in and out with a grave and troubled face. But by ten o'clock he seemed better and fell asleep. Leaving Miss Eulie watching beside him, she came and said, "Now, Mr. Gregory, I can keep my promise in part, and take a short walk with you. You can well understand why I cannot be away long."
"Please do not feel that you must go," he said. "However great the disappointment, I could not ask you to leave your father if he needs you."
"You may rest assured that nothing would tempt me from father if he needed me. But I think the worst is now over. He is sleeping quietly. I can trust aunty even better than myself. Besides, I want to go. I need the fresh air, and I wish to see more of you before you leave us."
He cordially thanked her and said, "I shall wait for you on the piazza."
They went down across the lawn through the garden. The sun was shining brightly, though occasionally obscured by clouds.
"How beautiful everything is," said Annie, "even now, when the leaves are half off the trees and falling fast! At any season, the moment I get out of doors I feel new life and hope."
"What nature does for you, Miss Annie, you seem to do for others. I feel 'new life and hope' the moment I am with you."
She looked at him quickly, for she did not quite like his tone and manner. But she only said, "You must believe, as I do, in a power behind nature."
"But even you believe He works through human agencies."
"Yes, up to a certain point."
"But who can say where that point is in any experience? Miss Walton," he continued, in grave earnestness, stopping and pointing to the rustic seat where, on the previous Sabbath, he had revealed to her his evil life, "that place is sacred to me. No hallowed spot of earth to which pilgrimages are made can compare with it. You know that in some places in Europe they raise a rude cross by the roadside where a man has been murdered. Should there not be a monument where one was given life?"
As they resumed their walk, he said in a low, meaning tone, "Do you remember old Daddy Tuggar's words—'You could take the wickedest man living straight to heaven if you'd stay right by him?'"
"But he was wrong," she replied.
"Pardon me if I differ with you, and agree with him. Miss Walton, I've been in your society scarcely three weeks. You know what I was when I came. I make no great claims now, but surely if tendencies, wishes, purposes count for anything, I am very different. How can you argue me out of the consciousness that I owe it all to you?"
"You will one day understand," she answered, earnestly, "that God has helped us both, and how futile my efforts would have been without such help. But, Mr. Gregory," she continued, looking frankly into his flushed face (for she was beginning to suspect now something of his drift, and instinctively sought to ward off words which might disturb their pleasant relations), "I do not intend to give you up from this day forth. As our quaint old friend suggests, I do mean to stand right by you as far as circumstances will allow me. I recognize how isolated and lonely you are, and I feel almost a sister's interest in you."
"You emphasize the word 'sister.' I suppose I ought to be more than satisfied. Believe me I am very grateful that you can so speak. But suppose the frankness I promised compels me to say that it does not, and never can satisfy?"
"Then I shall think you very unreasonable. You have no right to ask more than one has the power to give," she answered, with a look and manner that were full of pain. "But surely, Mr. Gregory, we do not understand each other."
"But I want you to understand me," he exclaimed, earnestly. "If you had the vanity and worldly experience of most women, you would have known before this that I love you."
Tears rushed into Annie's eyes, and for a few moments she walked on in utter silence. This was so different an ending from what she had expected! She felt that she must be very careful or she would undo all she had attempted. She now dreaded utter failure, utter estrangement, and how to avoid these was her chief thought.
They had reached the cedar thicket near which they had first met, and she sat down upon the rock where she had found Gregory. Her whole aim was to end this unfortunate matter so that they might still continue friends. And yet the task seemed wellnigh impossible, for if he felt as he said, how could she tell him about Hunting without increasing alienation? But her impression was strong that he was acting under an exaggerated sense of her services and under a mistaken belief that she was essential to him. Therefore she tried at first to turn the matter off lightly by saying, "Mr. Gregory, you are the most grateful man I ever heard of. You need not think you must reward my slight services by marrying me."
"Now you greatly wrong me," he answered. "Did I not say I loved you? How deeply and truly you can never know. I cannot reward you. I did not dream of such a thing. My best hope was that some time in the future, when by long and patient effort I had become truly a man, you might learn to think of me in the way I wish."
"Mr. Gregory," said she, in a voice full of trouble, "has my manner or words led you to hope this? If so, I can never forgive myself."
"You have no cause for self-reproaches," he said, earnestly. "Though my suit should ever prove hopeless, in the depths of my heart I will acquit you of all blame. You have been what you promised—a true friend, nothing more. But please understand me. I ask nothing now, I am not worthy. Perhaps I never shall be. If so, I will not bind you to me with even a gossamer thread. I have too deep a respect for you. But I am so self-distrustful! I know my weakness better than you can. Still I am confident that if you could 'reward' me, and give the hope that you would crown the victory with yourself, I could do anything. In loving me, you would save me."
"Pardon me, but you are all wrong. I'm only an oar, but you look upon me as the lifeboat itself. In that you persist in looking to me, a weak, sinful creature, instead of to Him who alone 'taketh away the sin of the world,' you discourage me utterly."
"I will look to Him, but I want you to lead me to Him, and keep me at His side."
"I can do that just as well by being your friend."
"I can never think so. I shall go away from this place utterly disheartened unless you give me some hope, no matter how faint, that I shall not have to struggle alone."
She sprung up quickly, for he incensed her, while at the same time she pitied him. She could not understand how he had so soon learned to love her "deeply and truly." It rather appeared true that he had formed the mistaken opinion that she was essential to his success, and that he was bent upon bolstering himself up in his weakness, and sought to place her as a barrier between him and his old evil life; and she felt that he might need some wholesome truth rather than tender sympathy. At any rate her womanly nature took offence at his apparent motive, as she understood it—a motive that appeared more selfish and unworthy every moment. He was asking what he had no right to expect of any one. But she would not misunderstand him, and therefore said with a grave, searching look, "Only then as I give you the hope you ask for, will you make the effort you have promised to make?"
"Only then can I make it," he replied, in some confusion. "Can effort of any kind be asked of one utterly disabled?"
Sudden fire leaped into her dark eyes, but she said, with dignity, "Mr. Gregory, you disappoint me greatly. You assume a weakness—a disability—which does not and cannot exist under the circumstances. You made me a promise, but now impose a new condition which I did not dream of at the time, and which I cannot accept. You are asking more than you have a right to ask. However imperfect my efforts have been in your behalf, they were at least sincere and unselfish, and I was beginning to have a warm regard for you as a friend. I tell you frankly that I am most anxious that we should remain friends as before. If so, this kind of folly must cease now and forever. I have no right to listen to such words at all, and would not but for your sake, and in the hope of removing from your mind a very mistaken and unworthy idea. You are entirely wrong in thinking that your future depends solely upon me. It cannot—it ought not. It rests between you and God, and you cannot shift the responsibility. I am willing to do all you can ask of a sister, but no more. Do you think I have no needs, no weakness, myself? In a husband I want a man I can lean upon as well as help. I wish to marry one with a higher moral character than mine, to whom I can look up. There is the widest difference in the world between giving help, and even sincere affection to those who win it, and giving one's self away. Simple justice requires that my happiness and feelings be considered also. It is selfish in you to ask of me this useless sacrifice of myself."
Annie's quick, passionate nature was getting the better of her. It seemed in a certain sense disloyalty to Hunting to have listened thus long to Gregory. Moreover, not believing in nor understanding the latter's love for her, she was indignant that he should seek to employ her as a sort of stepping-stone into heaven. She would despise the man who sought her merely to advance his earthly interests, and she was growing honestly angry at Gregory, who, it seemed, wanted her only as a guide and staff in his pilgrimage—justly angry, too, if she were right.
Gregory became very pale as her words quivered in his heart like arrows, but in the consciousness of a true and unselfish love, he looked at her unfalteringly to the last, and said, "In justice to myself I might again urge that you misunderstand me. I asked for nothing now, only a hope for the future based on what I possibly might become. But, as you say, I now know I asked too much—more than I had a right to. You can never look up to me, and with a sadness you will never understand, I admit myself answered finally. But there is one imputation in your words that I cannot rest under. I solemnly assert before God, and in the name of my mother, that my love for you is as strong, pure, and unselfish as can exist in my half-wrecked nature."
"Oh dear!" exclaimed Annie, in a tone of mingled vexation and distress, "why has it all turned out so miserably? I'm so sorry, so very sorry; but in kindness I must show you how hopeless it all is. I am the same as engaged to another."
Gregory started violently. His despairing words had been not quite despairing. But now a chill like death settled about his heart. He was well satisfied that she was one who would be true as steel to all such ties, and that no man who had learned to know her would ever prove inconstant. But, with a white face and firmly compressed lips, he still listened quietly.
"I came out this morning hoping to tell you a little secret as I might confide in a brother, and I trusted that your friendship for me would prove strong enough to enable me to make you his friend also. I wanted you to stay a little longer, that you might meet him, and that I might reconcile you, and prepare the way for pleasant companionship in the future. I am expecting Charles Hunting now every—
"What is the matter? What do you mean by that look of horror? What have you against him, that you should show such deep hostility before, and now stare at me in almost terror?"
But he only staggered against a tree for support.
"Speak," cried she, passionately seizing his arm. "I will not endure the innuendo of your look and manner."
"I will speak," he answered, in sudden vehemence. "I've lost too much by him. Charles Hunting is—"
But he stopped, clinched his hands, and seemed to make a desperate effort at self-control. She heard him mutter as he turned away a few steps, "Stop! stop! All that is left you now is a little self-respect. Keep that—keep that."
Annie misunderstood him, and thought he referred to some slander that he had hesitated to utter against his enemy even in his anger and jealousy. With flashing eyes she said, "Let me complete the sentence for you. Charles Hunting is a Christian gentleman. You may well think twice before you speak one word against him in my presence."
"Did I say one word against him?" he asked, eagerly.
"No, but you looked much more than words can express."
"I could not help that. Your revelation was sudden, Miss Walton."
"How could it be otherwise?" she asked, indignantly. "The first evening of your arrival, when his name was mentioned, your face grew as black as night. When I again sought to speak to you of him, you adjured me never to mention his name. You taxed my forbearance severely at that time. But I hoped you would become so changed that such enmity would be impossible."
"I see it all now," he groaned—"the miserable fatality of it all. I must shut off the one way of escape, and then go forward. By my own act, I must destroy my one chance. If I had only known this in time. And yet it's through my own act that I did not know. Your God is certainly one of justice. I'm punished now for all the past. But it seems a trifle cruel to show one heaven and then shut the door in one's face. If I had only known!"
"There," exclaimed Annie, in the deepest distress; "because of this little thing you fall back into your old scepticism."
"This 'little thing' is death to me," he said, in a hard, bitter tone. "Oh no, I'm not at all sceptical. The 'argument from design,' the nature of the result, are both too clear. I'm simply being dealt with according to law. Though perfectly sincere, you were entirely too lenient that Sunday evening when I told you what I was. My conscience was right after all. I only wish that I had fallen from yonder roof the other night. I might then have made my exit decently."
"Mr. Gregory, you shock me," she said, almost sternly. "You have no right to insult my faith in a merciful God by such words, and your believing Him cruel and vindictive on this one bit of your experience is the sheerest egotism. It is the essence of selfishness to think everything wrong when one does not have one's own way."
He only bowed his answer, then stepped out to the point of the hill, and took a long, lingering look at the valley and his old home, sighed deeply, turned, and said to her, quietly, "Perhaps it is time for you to return to your father."
WHAT A LOVER COULD DO
Without a word they descended the hill. Gregory was very pale, and this, with a certain firmness about his mouth, was the only indication of feeling on his part. Otherwise, he was the same finished man of the world that he had appeared when he came. Annie's face grew more and more troubled with every glance at him.
"He is hardening into stone," she thought; and she was already reproaching herself for speaking so harshly. "I might have known," she thought, "that his rash, bitter words were only incoherent cries of pain and disappointment."
He perplexed her still more by saying at the foot of the hill, in his old light tone, "See, Miss Walton, our 'well-meaning friend' has not been here to put up the bars, and we can take the shorter way through the orchard. I would like to see them picking apples once more. By the way, you must say good-by for me to your old neighbor, and tell him that out of respect for his first honest greeting, I'm going to fill his pipe for the winter."
But Annie's heart was too full to answer.
"How familiar these mossy-trunked trees are!" he continued, determined that there should be no awkward pauses, no traces to the eyes of others of what had occurred. "How often I've picked apples from this one and that one—indeed from all! Good-by, old friends."
"Do you never expect to come back to these 'old friends,' and others that would be friends again?" she asked, in low, trembling tones. "Mr. Gregory, you are cruel. You are saying good-by as if it were a very ordinary matter."
He did not trust himself to look at her, but he said, firmly, "Miss Walton, in a few moments we shall be under the eyes of others, and perhaps I shall never have another chance to speak to you alone. Let me say a few plain, honest words before I go. I am not ashamed of my love for you, nor to have it known. I am glad there was man enough in me to love such a woman as you are. You are not one of those society belles who wish to boast of their conquests. I wish merely to leave in a manner that will save you all embarrassing questions and surmises, and enable you to go back to your father as if nothing had happened. The best I can do is to maintain the outward semblance of a gentleman with which I came. In regard to Charles Hunting—please listen patiently—I know that you will not believe any statement of mine. It is your nature to trust implicitly those you love. But since I have had time to think, even the little conscience I possess will not permit me to go away in silence in regard to him. Do not think my words inspired by jealousy. I have given you up. You are as unattainable by me as heaven. But that man is not worthy of you. Think well before you—"
"You are right," she interrupted, hotly. "I will not believe anything against him whom I have known and loved for years. If sincere, you are mistaken. But I entreat you, for my own sake as well as yours, never speak a word against him again. Because, if you do, it will be hard for me to forgive you. If you place the slightest value on my good opinion and continued regard, you will not throw them away so uselessly. I do feel—I ever wish to feel—a deep and friendly interest in you, therefore speak for yourself, and I will listen with honest sympathy. Give me hope, if possible, that you will think better of all this folly—that you will visit your old home and those who wish to be your true friends—that you will give me a chance to make you better acquainted with one whom you now greatly wrong. Please give me something better than this parting promises to end in."
He merely bowed and said, "I supposed it would be so. It is like you. As for myself—I do not know what my future will be, save that it will be full of pain. Rest assured of one thing, however. I can never be a common, vulgar sinner again, after having loved you. That would be sacrilege. Your memory will blend with that of my mother, and shine like a distant star in my long night. But you have no right to ask me to come here any more. Though you do not believe in my love, it is a reality nevertheless, and I cannot inflict upon myself the unbearable pain of seeing you, yet hedged about with that which must ever keep me at a distance. With my feelings, even my poor sense of honor forbids my seeking your presence. Can I visit you feigning friendship, while my heart is consuming with love? Come, Miss Walton, we shall have our real leave taking here, and our formal one at the house. I don't think gratitude will ever fade out of my heart for all you have tried to do for me, wherever I am. Even the 'selfish' Walter Gregory can honestly wish you happiness unalloyed. And you will have it, too, in spite of— well, in spite of everything, for your happiness is from within, not without. Give me your hand, and say good-by under the old mossy trees."
Annie burst into tears and said, "I can't say good-by and have you leave us so unhappy—so unbelieving. Mr. Gregory, will you never trust in God?"
"I fear not—not after what I know to-day. He seems wronging you who are so true to Him, as well as me. You see I am honest with you, as I said I would be. Can you take the hand of such as I?"
She did take it in both of hers, and said, with passionate earnestness, "O that I could save you from yourself by main force!"
He was deeply moved, but after a moment said, gently, "That is like your warm heart. But you cannot. Good-by, Annie Walton. Go on in your brave, noble life to the end, and then heaven will be the better for your coming."
"Will you forgive my harsh words?"
"They were more true than harsh. They were forgiven when spoken."
"Mr. Gregory," she cried, "I will not say farewell as you say it. I have prayed for you, and so has your mother. I will still pray for you unceasingly. You cannot prevent it, and I will not doubt God's promise to hear."
"I cannot share your faith. I am saying good-by in the saddest sense."
He stooped and kissed her hand, and then said, firmly, "The end has come. We really part here. I leave you as I came."
With eyes downcast and blinded with tears she accompanied him out of the deep shade to the further side of the orchard nearest the house. Jeff was on a tall ladder that leaned against a heavily laden tree, and was just about to descend.
"That's right," cried Gregory; "come down with your basket and give me a taste of those apples. They look the same as when I used to pick them sixteen years ago."
Jeff obeyed with alacrity. Gregory accompanied him a few steps, and dropped a banknote into the basket, saying, "That's for the jolly wood-fires you made for me," and then turned quickly toward Annie to escape the profuse thanks impending.
He had turned none too soon. The apple-boughs, relieved of the weight of the fruit and Jeff's solid person, threw out the heavy ladder that had been placed too nearly in a perpendicular position at first. It had trembled and wavered a moment, but was now inclining over the very spot where Annie was standing.
"Miss Walton!" he cried, with a look of horror; rushed toward her, and stood with head bent down between her and the falling ladder.
She heard a rushing sound, and then with a heavy thud the ladder struck him, glanced to one side, grazing her shoulder, and fell to the ground.
He lay motionless beneath it.
For a moment she gazed vacantly at him, too stunned to think or speak.
But Jeff ran and lifted the ladder off Gregory, exclaiming, "Lor' bless him, Miss Annie, he jus' done save your life."
She knelt at his side and took his hand, but it seemed that of the dead. She moaned, "The omen's true. His blood is on me now—his blood is on me now. He died for my sake, and I called him selfish."
She took his head into her lap, and put her hand over his heart.
She thought she felt a faint pulsation.
In a moment all trace of weakness vanished, and her face became resolute and strong.
"Jeff," she said, in clear-cut, decided tones, "go to the house, tell Hannah and Zibbie to come here; tell Hannah to bring brandy and a strong double blanket. Not a word of this to my father. Go, quick."
Jeff ran as he had done once before when the bloodhounds were after him, saying under his breath all the way, "Lor' bless him! He save Miss Annie's life; he orter have her sure 'nuff."
Annie was left alone with the unconscious man. She pushed his hair from his damp brow, and, bending down, impressed a remorseful kiss upon it.
"God forgive me that I called you selfish," she murmured. "Where is your spirit wandering that I cannot call it back? O live, live; I can never be happy if you die. Can this be the end? God keep my faith from failing."
Again she put her hand over his heart, whose love she could doubt no more. Did it beat? or was it only the excited throbbing of her own hand?
Jeff now returned, and, with white, scared faces, the women soon followed. Annie tried to give Gregory brandy, but he did not seem to swallow it. They then lifted him on the blanket and carried him to the house, and up the back stairway to his room, so that Mr. Walton might not know.
"Now, Jeff," whispered Annie, "harness the fastest horse to the buggy, and bring the doctor—mind, bring him. Don't tell him to come. Hannah, tell Miss Eulie to come here—quietly now. Zibbie, bring hot water."
Again she poured a teaspoonful of brandy into his mouth, and this time he seemed to swallow it. She bathed his face and hands with spirits, while her every breath was a prayer.
Miss Eulie did not want a long explanation. Annie's hurried words, "A ladder fell on him," satisfied her, and she set to work, and more effectively with her riper experience. She took off his collar and opened his shirt at the throat, and soon, with a look of joy, to Annie, said, "His heart beats distinctly."
Again they gave him brandy, and this time he made a manifest effort to swallow it.
With eyes aglow with excitement and hope they re-doubled their exertions, Hannah and Zibbie helping, and at last they were rewarded by seeing their patient make a faint movement.
Now with every breath Annie silently sent the words heavenward, "O God, I thank thee."
She bent over him, and said, in a low, thrilling tone, "Mr. Gregory." A happy smile came out upon his face, but this was the only response.
"Do you think he is conscious?" she whispered to her aunt.
"I hardly know. Let me give him a little more stimulant."
After receiving it he suddenly opened his eyes and looked fearfully around. Then he tried to rise, but fell back, and asked, faintly, "Where is Miss Walton? Is she safe? I heard her voice."
"You did. I'm here. Don't you know me?"
"Are you really here unhurt?"
"Yes, yes," she answered, eagerly; "thanks to you."
Again he closed his eyes with a strange and quiet smile.
"Can't you see me?" she asked.
"There seems a blur before my eyes. It does not signify. I know your voice, so true and kind."
"Why can't he see?" she asked, drawing her aunt aside.
"I don't know. What I fear most are internal injuries. Did the ladder strike his head?"
"O merciful Heaven!" said Annie, again in an agony of fear. "I don't know. Oh, if he should die—if he should die—" and she wrung her hands with terror at the thought.
The doctor now stepped lightly in. Jeff had told him enough to excite the gravest apprehensions. He made a few inquiries and felt Gregory's pulse.
"It's very feeble," he said. "More brandy."
Then he added, "I must make such examination as I can now without disturbing him much. Miss Morton, you and Jeff stay and help me."
Annie went down to her father with a greater anxiety as to the result of the examination than if the danger had been her own.
She found her father awake, and wondering at the sounds in the room above.
"Annie," he said, feebly, "what is going on in Mr. Gregory's room?"
As she looked at him, she saw that he was not better, as she hoped, but that his face had a shrunken look, betokening the rapid failing of the vital forces. The poor girl felt that trouble was coming like an avalanche, and in spite of herself she sat down, and, burying her face in her father's bosom, sobbed aloud. But she soon realized the injury she might do him in thus giving way, and by a great effort controlled herself so as to tell him the softened outlines of the accident. But the ashen hue deepened on the old man's face, as he said, fervently, "God bless him! God bless him! He has saved my darling's life. What should I have done in these last days without you?"
"But, father, don't you think he will get well?" she asked, eagerly.
"I hope so. I pray so, my child. But I know the ladder, and it is a heavy one. This is time for faith in God. We cannot see a hand's- breadth in the darkness before us. He has been very merciful to us thus far, very merciful, and no doubt has some wise, good purpose in these trials and dangers. Just cling to Him, my child, and all will be well."
"O father, how you comfort me! We must leave everything in His hands. But, father, you feel better, do you not?"
"Yes, much better; not much pain now; and yet for some reason I feel that I shall soon be where pain never comes. How otherwise can I explain my almost mortal weakness?"
Annie again hid her tearful eyes on the bedside. Her father placed his hand upon her bowed head and continued, "It won't break your heart, my little girl, will it, to have your father go to heaven?"
But she could not answer him.
At last the doctor came down, and said, "His injuries are certainly serious, and may be more so than I can yet discover. The ladder grazed his head, inflicting some injury, and struck him on the shoulder, which is much bruised, and the collar-bone is badly broken. The whole system has received a tremendous shock, but I hope that with good care he will pull through. But he must be kept very quiet in mind and body. And so must you, sir. Now you know all, and have nothing to suspect. It's often injurious kindness to half hide something from the sick."
"Well, doctor, do your very best by him, as if he were my own son. You know what a debt of gratitude we owe him. Spare no expense. If he needs anything, let it be sent for. If I were only up and around; but the Lord wills it otherwise."
Annie followed the physician out and said, "You have told us the very worst then?"
"Yes, Miss Walton, the very worst. Unless there are injuries that I cannot now detect I think he will get better. I will send a young man whom I can trust to take care of him. Best assured I will do all that is possible, for I feel very grateful to this stranger for saving my much-esteemed little friend. I suppose you know we all think a great deal of you in our neighborhood, and I shudder to think how near we came to a general mourning. You see he was nearer the base of the ladder than you, Jeff says. The ladder therefore would have struck you with greater force, and you would not have had a ghost of a chance. You ought to be very grateful, eh, Miss Annie?" he added, with a little sly fun in his face.
But she shook her head sadly, and only said with deep feeling, "I am very, very grateful." Then she added, quickly, "What about father?"
The doctor's face changed instantly and became grave.
"I don't quite understand his case. He was threatened with pneumonia; but there seems no acute disease now, and yet he appears to be failing. The excitement and exposure of the other night were too much for him. You must make him take all the nourishment possible. Medicine is of no use."
Agitated by conflicting fears and hopes Annie went to the kitchen to make something that might tempt her father's appetite.
Blessed are the petty and distracting cares of the household, the homely duties of the sick-room. They divert the mind and break the force of the impending blow. If, when illness and death invade a house, the fearing and sorrowing ones had naught to do but sit down and watch the remorseless approach of the destroyer, they might go mad.
When Annie stole noiselessly back to Gregory's room he was sleeping, though his breathing seemed difficult.
What a poor mockery the dinner hour was! Even the children were oppressed by the general gloom and talked in whispers. But before it was over there came a bright ray of light to Annie in the form of a telegram from Hunting, saying that he had arrived in New York safely, and would be at the village on the 5 P.M. train.
"O I am so glad!" cried Annie; "never was he so needed before."
And yet there was a remorseful twinge at her heart as she thought of Gregory. But she felt sure of reconciliation now, for would not Hunting overwhelm her preserver with gratitude, and forgive everything in the past?
She said to Jeff, "Have Dolly and the low buggy ready for me at half- past four."
Her father seemed peculiarly glad when he heard that his relative, the man he hoped would soon be his son, was coming.
"It's all turning out for the best," he said, softly.
The hour soon came, for it was already late, and Annie slipped away, leaving both her father and Gregory sleeping. To her great joy Hunting stepped down from the train and was quickly seated by her side. As they drove away in the dusk he could not forbear a rapturous kiss and embrace which she did not resist.
"O Charles, I'm so glad you've come—so very glad!" she exclaimed almost breathlessly; "and I've so much to tell you that I hardly know where to begin. How good God is to send you to me now, just when I need you most!"
"So you find that you can't do without me altogether? That's grand news. How I've longed for this hour! If I'd had my own way I would have exploded the boilers in my haste to reach port to see you again. It was real good of you to come, and not send for me. Come Annie, celebrate my return by the promise that you will soon make a home for me. I am happy to say that I can now give you the means of making it a princely one."
"I haven't the time nor the heart to think about that now, Charles. Father is very ill. I'm exceedingly anxious about him."