"Indeed!" said Hunting, "that is bad news;" and yet his grief was not very deep, for he thought, "If she is left alone she will come to me at once."
"What is more," cried Annie, a little hurt at the quiet manner in which he received her tidings, "suppose, instead of meeting me strong and well, you had found me a crushed and lifeless corpse to-night?"
"Annie," he said, "what do you mean?"
"I mean that this would have been true but for one with whom I am sorry you are on bad terms. Walter Gregory is at our house."
He gave a great start at the mention of this name, and even in the deep twilight his face seemed very white.
"I don't understand," he almost gasped.
"I knew you would be deeply affected," said the unsuspicious Annie. "He stood between me and death to-day, and it may cost him his own life. He was severely injured—how badly we can hardly tell yet;" and she rapidly related all that had occurred. "And now, Charles," she concluded, "no matter what he may have done, or how deeply he may have wronged you, I'm sure you'll do everything in your power to effect a complete reconciliation, and cement a lasting friendship. If possible, you must become his untiring nurse. How much you owe him!"
She noticed that he was trembling. After a moment he asked, hesitatingly, "Has he—how long has he been here, did you say?"
"About three weeks. You know our place was his old home, and his father was a very dear friend of my father."
"If I knew it I had forgotten it," he answered, with a chill of fear growing deeper every moment. "Did he—has he said anything about our difficulties?"
"Nothing definite," said she, a little wonderingly at Hunting's manner. "Father happened to mention your name the first evening of his arrival, and the bitter enmity that came out upon his face quite startled me. You know well that I wouldn't hear a word against you. He once commenced saying something to your prejudice, but I stopped him and said I would neither listen to nor believe him—that he did not know you, and was entirely mistaken in his judgment. It was evident to us that Mr. Gregory was not a good man. Indeed, he made no pretence of being one; but he has changed since, as yon can well understand, or he couldn't have sacrificed himself as he has to-day. I told father that I thought the cause of your trouble arose from your trying to restrain him in some of his fast ways, but he thought it resulted from business relations."
"You were both right," said Hunting, slowly, as if he were feeling his way along. "He was inclined to be very dissipated, and I used to remonstrate with him; but the immediate cause was a business difficulty. He would have kept me out of a great deal of money if he could."
His words were literally true, but they gave an utterly false impression. Annie was satisfied, however. It seemed a natural explanation, and she trusted Hunting implicitly. Indeed, with her nature, love could scarcely exist without trust.
"That's all past now," said Annie, eagerly. "You surely will not let it weigh with you a moment. Indeed, Charles, I shall expect you to do everything in your power to make that man your friend."
"O, certainly, I could not act otherwise," he said, rather absently. He was scheming with desperate earnestness to meet and avert the impending dangers. Annie's frank and cordial reception showed him that so far as she was concerned he was as yet safe. But he knew her well enough to feel sure that if she detected falsehood in him his case would be nearly hopeless. He recognized that he was walking on a mine that at any moment might be sprung. With his whole soul he loved Annie Walton, and it would be worse than death to lose her. The thought of her had made every gross temptation fall harmless at his feet, and even his insatiate love of wealth had been mingled with the dearer hope that it would eventually minister to her happiness. But he had lived so long in the atmosphere of Wall Street that his ideas of commercial integrity had become exceedingly blurred. When a questionable course opened by which he could make money, he could not resist the temptation. He tried to satisfy himself that business required such action, and called his sharp practice by the fine names of skill, sagacity. But when on his visits to Annie, which, of late, during the worst of his transactions, had been frequent rather than prolonged, he had had a growing sense of humiliation and fear. He saw that she could never be made to look upon his affair with Burnett & Co. as he regarded it, and that her father was the soul of commercial honor. Though Mr. Walton's fortune was moderate, not a penny had come to him stained. After these visits Hunting would go back to the city, resolved to quit everything illegitimate and become in his business and other relations just what he seemed to them. But some glittering temptation would assail him. He would make one more adroit shuffle of the cards, and then, from being hollow, would become morally and religiously sound at once.
During his voyage home, there was time for thought. A severe gale, while lashing the sea into threatening waves, had also disturbed his guilty conscience. He had amassed sufficient to satisfy even his greed of gold for the present, and his calculating soul hinted that it was time to begin to put away a little stock in heaven as well as on earth. He resolved that he would withdraw from the whirlpool of Wall Street speculation and engage in only legitimate operations. Moreover, he began to long for the refuge and more quiet joys of home, and he felt, as did poor Gregory, that Annie of all women could do most to make him happy here and fit him for the future life. Therefore he had returned with the purpose of pressing his suit for a speedy marriage as strongly as a safe policy would permit.
The bright October day of his arrival in New York seemed emblematic of his hopes and prospects, and now again the deepening night, the rising wind, and the wildly hurrying clouds but mirrored back himself.
His safest and wisest course would have been to make an honest confession to Annie of the wrong he had done Gregory. As his mind recovered from its first confusion this thought occurred to him. But he had already given her the impression that he had received the wrong, or rather that it had been attempted against him. Moreover, by any truthful confession he would stand convicted of deceiving and swindling Burnett & Co. He justly feared that Annie would break with him the moment she learned this. So like all schemers, he temporized, and left his course open to be decided by circumstances rather than principle.
His first course was to learn of Annie all that he could concerning Gregory and his visit, so that he might act in view of the fullest knowledge possible. She told him frankly what had occurred, so far as time permitted during their ride home. But of Gregory's love she did not speak, and was perplexed as to her proper course. Loyalty to her lover seemed to require that he should know all, and yet she was sure that Gregory would not wish her to speak of it, and she owed so much to him that she felt she could not do what was contrary to his wishes. But Hunting well surmised that, whether Annie knew it or not, Gregory could not have been in her society three weeks and go away an indifferent stranger.
"Jeff can give me more light," he thought.
Conscious of deceit himself, he distrusted every one, even crystal- souled Annie.
Mr. Walton received Hunting in a fatherly way. Indeed, he looked upon the young man as a son, and the thought of leaving Annie to his protection was an unspeakable comfort.
Altogether Hunting was reassured by his reception, which proved that his relations were as yet undisturbed. But in the depths of his soul he trembled at the presence of Gregory in the house; and when Miss Eulie came down and said, after an affectionate greeting, that Gregory was in something like a stupor, he was even base enough to wish that he might never come out of it.
At the word "stupor," Annie's face grew pale. She had a growing dissatisfaction with Hunting's manner in regard to Gregory, and felt that he did not feel or show the interest or gratitude that he ought; but there was nothing tangible with which she could tax him.
The doctor, who came early in the evening, reassured her, and said that the state of partial consciousness was not necessarily a dangerous symptom, as it might be the result of a severe shock. The young man he brought was installed as nurse under Miss Eulie's charge, and Annie said that Mr. Hunting would also take his turn as watcher.
Then she, Mr. Hunting, and her father had a long talk over what had happened in his absence, Mr. Walton dwelling most feelingly on what he regarded as the providential character of the visit from the son of his old friend.
"If he never leaves our house alive, I have a strong assurance that he will join his father in the better home. Indeed, I may soon be there with them."
"Please don't talk so, father," pleaded Annie.
"Well, my child, perhaps it's best I should, and prepare your minds for what may be near. It's a great consolation to see Charles again, and he will help you bear whatever is God's will."
"You can trust her to me," said Hunting, fervently. "I have ample means to gratify her most extravagant wish, and my love will shelter her and think for her even as yours would. But I trust you will soon share our home with us."
"I expect to, my children, but it will be our eternal home."
Annie strove bravely to keep her tears back, for her father's sake, but they would come.
"Annie," said Hunting, "won't you please let your father put this ring on your engagement finger?" and he gave Mr. Walton a magnificent solitaire diamond.
Mr. Walton took his daughter's hand, and looked earnestly into her tearful, blushing face.
"Annie," he said, in a grave, sweet tone, "I hope for your sake that I may be wrong, but I have a presentiment that my pilgrimage is nearly ended. You have made its last stage very happy. A good daughter makes a good wife, Mr. Hunting; and, Annie, dear, I shall tell your mother that you supplied her place, as far as a daughter could. It will add greatly to my peace if I can leave you and my sister, and the dear little ones, under the care of one so competent to protect and provide for you all. Mr. Hunting, do you feel that you can take them to your home and heart, with my daughter?"
"Certainly," said Hunting. "I had no other thought; and Annie's will shall be supreme in her future home."
"But, after all, the chief question is, Does this ring join your hearts? I'm sure I'm right in thinking so, Annie?"
"Yes," she said, in a low tone.
Slowly, with his feeble, trembling hands he put the flashing gem on Annie's finger, and then placed her hand in Hunting's, and, looking solemnly to heaven, said, "May God bless this betrothal as your father blesses it."
Hunting stooped and kissed her hand and then her lips. With mingled truth and policy, he said, "This ceremony is more solemn and binding to me than the one yet to come at the altar."
Annie was happy in her engagement. It was what she expected, and had been consummated in a way that seemed peculiarly sweet and sacred; and yet her thoughts, with a remorseful tinge, would keep recurring to the man who even then might be dying for her sake.
After they had sat a little while in silence, which is often the best expression of deep feeling, she suddenly said, with an involuntary sigh, "Poor Mr. Gregory! I'm so sorry for him!"
Thus Hunting knew where her thoughts were, and instantly the purpose formed itself in his mind to induce her through her father to consent to an immediate marriage. He saw more plainly than Annie the great change in her father, and based his hope on the fact that the parent might naturally wish to give his child a legal protector before he passed away.
Mr. Walton now showed such signs of weariness that they left him in Miss Eulie's care, who seemed to flit like a ministering spirit between the two patients.
After the great excitement of the day, Annie, too, was very weary, and soon the household sought such rest as was possible with two of its inmates apparently very near the boundaries that separate the known world from the unknown. Glimmering all night long, like signals of distress at sea, the faint lights of the watchers reminded late passers-by of the perilous nature of earthly voyaging.
Annie had gone with Miss Eulie to take a parting look at Gregory. She bent over him and said, "Mr. Gregory," but his spirit seemed to have sunk into such far depths that even her voice could not summon him.
"Oh, if he should die now!" she moaned, shudderingly, and on the night of her engagement sobbed herself to sleep.
The next morning saw little change in the patients, save that Mr. Walton was evidently weaker. Miss Eulie said that Gregory had roused up during the night and seemed perfectly conscious. He had inquired after Mr. Walton and Annie, but toward morning had fallen into his old lethargy.
After breakfast Annie took Hunting up to see him, but was pained at the darkening of her lover's face as he looked at the prostrate and unconscious man. She could not understand it. He seemed to have no wish to remain. She felt almost indignant, and yet what could she say more than she had said? Gregory's condition, and the cause, should naturally plead for him beyond all words.
Annie spent most of the day with her father, and purposed watching with him that night. The doctor came and reported more favorably of Gregory, but said that everything depended upon his being quiet. Annie purposed that Hunting should commence the duties of watcher as soon as possible. Therefore she told her aunt to tell Gregory, as soon as she thought it would answer, that Hunting had arrived. In the afternoon, Gregory seemed to come out of his lethargy more decidedly than he had before, and took some nourishment with marked relish. Then he lay quietly looking at the fire.
"Do you feel better now?" Miss Eulie asked, gently.
"I'm sure I don't know," he answered, wearily. "I have a numb, strange feeling."
"Would you like to see Miss Walton?"
"No, not now; I am satisfied to know she is well."
"She wished me to tell you that Mr. Hunting had arrived."
He turned away his face with a deep scowl, but said nothing.
After some time she came to his side and said, "Is there anything you would like?"
"Nothing," he replied, gently. "I appreciate your great kindness."
Miss Eulie sighed and left the room, feeling dimly that there were internal injuries after all, but such as were beyond the doctor's skill.
Annie echoed her sigh when she heard how he received Miss Eulie's information. She determined to prepare and take him his supper.
When she noiselessly entered, he was again looking fixedly at the fire. But she had not advanced far into the room before he recognized her step and looked up quickly.
"See," she said, cheerily, coming to his side, "I've prepared and brought you this supper with my own hands, and shall expect in return that you compliment it highly. Now, isn't it a good supper?" she asked, holding it before him.
But his eyes fastened on the glittering and significant ring, whose meaning he too well understood. With an expression of intense pain he turned his face to the wall without a word.
"Mr. Gregory," pleaded Annie, "I never thought you would turn away from me."
"Not from you, not from you," he said, in a low tone, "but I'm very weak, and the light of that diamond is too strong for me yet."
"Forgive me," she said, in a tone of deep reproach; "I did not think."
"No, forgive me. Please leave me now, and remember in charity how weak I am."
She put the tray down and hastened from the room. He ate no supper that night, neither did she. Hunting watched her gloomily, with both fear and jealousy at heart. The latter, however, was groundless, for Annie's feeling was only that of profound sorrow for something she could not help. But lack of strongly manifested interest and sympathy for Gregory injured him in her estimation; for woman-like she unconsciously took the side of the one he wronged. She could understand Gregory's enmity, but it seemed to her that Hunting should be full of generous enthusiasm for one who was suffering so much in her behalf.
"Men are so strange!" she said, half-vexedly. "They fall in love without the slightest provocation, and hate each other forever, when a woman would have sharp words and be over with it. They never do what you would naturally expect."
During the day Hunting had found time to see Jeff alone, but had found him inclined to be sullen and uncommunicative. Jeff had changed sides, and was now an ardent adherent of Gregory's, who had given him five dollars without imposing any conditions; and then, what was of far greater import, had saved the house and Annie's life, and, according to Jeff's simple views of equity, he ought to have both. And yet a certain rude element of honesty made him feel that he had made a bargain with Hunting, and that he must fulfil his part and then they would be quits. But he was not disposed to do it with a very good grace. So when Hunting said, "Well, Jeff, I suppose you've seen a good deal since I was last here."
"Yes, I've seen a mighty lot," said Jeff, sententiously.
"Well, Jeff, you remember our agreement. What did you see? Only the truth now."
"Sartin, sah, only de truf. I'se belong to de Walton family, and yous doesn't get nothin' but de truf from dem."
"All right, Jeff; I'm glad your employers have so good an influence on you. Well?"
"I'se seen Misser Gregory on de roof," said Jeff, drawing on his imagination, as he had only heard about that event through Zibbie's highly colored story, "where some other folks wouldn't dar go, and now I'se see dat house dar, which I wouldn't see dar, wasn't it for Misser Gregory."
"Well, well," said Hunting, impatiently, "I've heard all about that. What else?"
"I'se seen Miss Annie roun' all day bloomin' and sweet as a rose, and I'se seen how she might have been a crushed white lily," Jeff continued, solemnly, with a rhetorical wave of the hand.
There existed in Jeff the raw material of a colored preacher, only it was very crude and undeveloped. But upon any important occasion he always grew rhetorical and figurative in his language.
"Come, come, Jeff, tell me something new."
"Well," said Jeff, "since I'se promised to tell you, and since I'se spent de ten dollars, and hasn't got it to give you back again, I'se seen Misser Gregory las' Sunday evenin', a kneelin' afore Miss Annie as if he was a sayin' his prayers to her, and I shouldn't wonder if she heard 'em (with a chuckle); anyhow she wasn't lofty and scornful, and Misser Gregory he's looked kinder glorified ever since; afore that he looked glum, and Miss Annie, she's been kinder bendin' toward him since dat evenin', like a rosebud wid de dew on it."
Hunting's face darkened with suppressed anger and jealousy. After a moment he said, "Is that all?"
"Well, Jeff, here's ten dollars more, and look sharper than ever now."
"'Scuse me, Misser Hunting. We'se squar' now. I'se done what I agreed, and now I'se gwine out ob de business."
"Has Gregory engaged your services?" asked Hunting, quickly.
"No, sah, he hab not. I reckon Misser Gregory tink he doesn't need any help."
"Why won't you do as I wish, then?"
"Well, Mr. Hunting, it kinder makes me feel bad here," said Jeff, rubbing his hand indefinitely over several physical organs. "I don't jes' believe Miss Annie would like it, and after seein' Mr. Gregory under dat pesky ladder, I couldn't do nothin' dat he wouldn't like. If it hadn't been for him I'd sorter felt as if I'd killed Miss Annie by leavin' dat doggoned ladder so straight up, and I nebber could hab gone out in de dark agin all my life."
"Why, you old black fool," said Hunting, irritably, "don't you know I'm going to marry Miss Annie? You'd better keep on the right side of me."
"Which is de right side?" Jeff could not forbear saying, with a suppressed chuckle.
"Come, sir, no impudence. You won't serve me any more then?"
"Oh yes, Misser Hunting. I'se black yer boots, make de fire, harness de hoss, do anything dat won't hurt in here," with a gesture that seemed to indicate the pit of his stomach. "Anything more, please 'scuse me."
"You will not speak of what has passed between us?"
"I'se given my word," said Jeff, drawing himself up, "de word ob one dat belongs to de Waltons."
Hunting turned on his heel and strode away. Annie had given one aspect to the scene on that Sabbath evening, and Jeff had innocently given another. Hunting was not loyal enough even to such a woman as Annie to believe her implicitly. But it is the curse of conscious deceit to breed suspicion. Only the true can have absolute faith in the truth of others. Moreover, Hunting, in his hidden selfishness and worldliness could not understand Annie's ardent effort to save a fellow-creature from sin. Skilled in the subtle impulses of the heart, he believed that Annie, unconsciously even to herself, was drifting toward the man he hated all the more because he had wronged him, while the danger of his presence made him almost vindictive. Yet he realized the necessity of disguising his feelings, for if Annie discovered them he might well dread the consequence. But the idea of watching alone with Gregory was revolting. It suggested dark thoughts which he tried to put from him in horror, for he was far from being a hardened villain. He was only a man who had gradually formed the habit of acting from expedience and self-interest, instead of principle. Such a rule of life often places us where expedience and self-interest require deeds that are black indeed.
But he was saved from the ordeal of spending hours alone with a man who even in his helplessness might injure him beyond remedy, for on the following morning Annie again sought Gregory's room bent on securing reconciliation at once. She felt that she could endure this estrangement no longer.
The young man employed as watcher was out at the time.
Gregory was gazing at the fire with the same look of listless apathy. A deep flush overspread his deathly pale face as she came and sat down beside him, but he did not turn from her.
"Mr. Gregory," she said, very gently, "it seems that I can do nothing but receive favors from you, and I've come now to ask a great one."
He suspected something concerning Hunting, and his face darkened forbiddingly. Though Annie noted this, she would not be denied.
"Do you think," she said, earnestly, "that, after your sacrifice for me, I can ever cease to be your friend in the truest and strongest sense?"
"Miss Walton," he said, calmly, "I've made no sacrifice for you. The thought of that episode in the orchard is my one comfort while lying here, and will be through what is left of life. But please do not speak of it, for it will become a pain to me if I see the obligation is a burden to you."
"It is not," she said, eagerly. "I'm glad to owe my life to you. But do you think I can go on my way and forget you?"
"It's the very best you can do, Miss Walton."
"But I tell you it's impossible. Thank God, it's not my nature to do it!"
He turned toward her with a wistful, searching look.
"We must carry out our old agreement," continued Annie. "We must be close and lasting friends. You should not blame me for an attachment formed years ago."
"I do not blame you."
"Then you should not punish me so severely. You first make your friendship needful to me, and then you deny it."
"I am your friend, and more."
"How can we enjoy a frank and happy friendship through coming years, after—after—you feel differently from what you do now, when you will not even hear the name of him who will one day be my second self?"
Again his face darkened; but she continued rapidly, "Mr. Hunting is deeply grateful to you, and would like to express his feelings in person. He wishes to bury the past—"
"He will, with me, soon," interrupted Gregory, gloomily.
"No; please do not speak in that way," she pleaded. "He wishes to make what little return he can, and offers to watch with you night and day."
He turned upon her almost fiercely, and said, "Are you too in league with my evil destiny, in that you continually persecute me with that man? Miss Walton, I half doubt whether you know what love means, or you would not make such a proposition. Let me at least die quietly. With the memory of the past and the knowledge of the present, his presence in my room would be death by torture. Pardon me, but let us end this matter once for all. We have both been unfortunate, you in inspiring a love that you cannot return; I in permitting my heart to go from me, beyond recall, before learning that my passion would be hopeless. I do not see that either of us has been to blame, you certainly not in the slightest degree. But, however vain, my love is an actual fact, and I cannot act as if it were not. As well might a man with a mortal wound smile and say it's but a scratch. I cannot change my mind merely in view of expedience and invest such feelings in another way. The fact of my love is now a past disaster, and I must bear the consequences with such fortitude as I can. But what you ask would drive me mad. If I should live, possibly in the future I might meet you often without the torturing regret I now feel. But to make a smiling member of Charles Hunting's friendly circle would require on my part the baldest hypocrisy; and I can't do it, and won't try. If that man comes into my room, I will crawl out if I can."
He was trembling with excitement, his face flushed and feverish, and his eyes unnaturally bright.
"And you banish me too," said Annie, hurt and alarmed at the same time.
"Yes, yes; forgive me for saying so. Yes; till I'm stronger. See how I've spoken to you. I've no self-control."
She was most reluctant to go, and stood a moment, hesitating. Timidly she ventured to quote the line:
"Earth has no sorrows that Heaven cannot cure."
"That's a comforting fact for those who are going there," he said, coldly.
With a sudden burst of passionate grief she stooped and kissed his hand, then fled to her own room, and cried as if her heart would break. It seemed as if he were lost to her and heaven, and yet he was capable of being so noble and good!
Miss Eulie entered Gregory's room soon after, and was alarmed at his feverish and excited appearance. She decided that Annie's visits must cease for the present. However, she took no apparent notice of his disturbed condition, but immediately gave a remedy to ward off fever, and a strong opiate, which, with the reaction and his weakness, caused him to sink back into something like his old lethargy.
Hunting had spent the morning with Mr. Walton, preparing his mind for the plan of immediate marriage. He found the failing man not averse to the project, as his love ought to secure to Annie every help and solace possible.
After Annie had removed from her face, to the best of her ability, every trace of her emotion, she came down and took her place at her father's side, intending to leave it only when compelled to. Hunting knew of her mission to Gregory, and looked at her inquiringly, but she sadly shook her head. He tried to look hurt, but only succeeded in looking angry. He soon controlled himself, however, though he noted with deep uneasiness Annie's sad face and red eyes. Mr. Walton fortunately was dozing and needed no explanation.
That night he was much worse, and had some very serious symptoms. Annie did not leave his side. But toward morning he rallied and fell into a quiet sleep. Then she took a little rest.
The next day she was told that there was a gentleman in the parlor who wished to see her. The stranger proved to be one of Gregory's partners, Mr. Seymour, who courteously said, "I should have been here before, but the senior partner, Mr. Burnett, is unable to attend to business at present, and I came away the first moment I could leave. I felt sure also that everything would be done that could be. I hope the injury is not so serious as was first supposed."
"You may rest assured that we have tried to do everything," said Annie, gravely, "but Mr. Gregory is in a very precarious condition. You would like to see him, I suppose."
"If I can with safety to him."
"I think a brief interview may do him good. He needs rallying."
At that moment Hunting, not knowing who was present, entered. Both gentleman started, but Mr. Seymour gave no sign of recognition, nor did Hunting, though he could not at first hide a certain degree of nervous agitation. Annie presented him. Mr. Seymour bowed stiffly, and said, rather curtly, "We have met before," and then gave him no further attention, but continuing to address Annie, said, "I well understand that Mr. Gregory needs rallying. That has been just his need for the last few months, during which time his health has been steadily failing. I was in hopes he would come back—" and then he stopped, quite puzzled for a moment by the sudden change in Annie's manner, which had become freezingly cold toward him, while there was a look of honest indignation upon her face.
"Excuse me, sir," she said, briefly. "I will send you my aunt, who will attend to your wishes;" and she left Mr. Seymour standing in the middle of the room, both confused and annoyed; but he at once surmised that it was on account of his manner toward Hunting, who sat down with a paper at the further side of the room, as if he were alone.
But when, a moment later, Miss Eulie entered with her placid, unruffled face, Mr. Seymour could not be otherwise than perfectly polite, and after a few words, followed her to Gregory's room.
Annie at once came to Hunting and asked, "Why did that man act so?"
"Why, don't you see?" answered he, hastily. "Mr. Seymour is Mr. Gregory's partner. They all have the same reason for feeling hostile toward me, though perhaps Gregory has special reasons," he added, with a searching look.
Annie blushed deeply at this allusion, but said with emphasis, "No man shall treat you in that way in my presence and still receive courtesy from me."
But his jealous spirit had noticed her quick blush more than her generous resentment of the insult she supposed offered him. Therefore he said, "Mr. Gregory would treat me worse if he got a chance."
"But his case is different from any one's else," she said, with another quick flush.
"Evidently so in your estimation."
Then for the first time she noted his jealousy, and it hurt her sorely. She took a step nearer and looked very gravely into his face for a moment without speaking, and then said, with that calmness which is more effective than passion, "Charles, take care. I'm one that will be trusted. Though it seems a light matter to you that he has saved my life, at perhaps the cost of his own, it does not to me."
The cool and usually cautious man had for once lost his poise, and he said, with sudden irritation, "I hear that and nothing else. What else could he have done? If you had stayed at your father's side you would have been safe. He took you out to walk, and any man would have risked his life to bring you back safely."
He now saw in Annie a spirit he could never control as he managed people in Wall Street, for, with a sudden flash in her eyes, she said, hotly, "I do not reason thus coldly about those to whom I owe so much," and abruptly left him.
In bitterness of fear and self-reproach he at once realized his blunder. He followed her, but she was with her father, and he could not speak there. He looked imploringly at her, but could not catch her eye, for she was deeply incensed. Had she not heard him she would not have believed that he could be so ungenerous.
He wrote on a scrap of paper, "Annie, forgive me. I humbly ask your pardon. I'm not myself to-day, and that man's conduct, which you so nobly resented in my behalf, vexed me to that degree that I acted like a fool. I am not worthy of you, but you will perceive that my folly arises from my excess of love for you. I'm going for a walk. Please greet me with pardon in your face on my return."
Impulsive, loving, warm-hearted Annie could not resist such an appeal. She at once relented, and began to make a thousand better excuses for her lover than he could for himself. But she had taught him a lesson, and proved that she was not a weak, willowy creature that would cling to him no matter what he was or did. He saw that he must seem to be worthy of her.
Gregory greeted his partner with a momentary glow of gratitude that he had come so far to see him, and began talking about his business.
"Not a word of that, old fellow," said Mr. Seymour. "Your business is to get well. It seems to me that you have everything here for comfort —good medical attendance, eh?"
"Yes; if anything, too much is done for me."
"I don't understand just how it happened."
Gregory told him briefly.
"By Jove! this Miss Walton ought to be very grateful to you."
"She is too grateful."
"I don't know about that. I met that infernal Hunting downstairs. Of course I couldn't treat him with politeness, and do you know the little lady spunked up about it to that degree that she almost turned her back upon me and left the room."
"Of course," said Gregory, coolly, shielding his secret by a desperate effort; "they are engaged."
"Oh, I understand now. Well, I rather like her spirit. Does she know how accomplished her lover is in Wall Street?"
"No. Hunting is a distant relative of the family. They believe him to be a gentleman, and would not listen to a word against him."
"But they ought to know. He lied like a scoundrel to us, and in your trying all summer to make up the losses, he has nearly been the death of you. I wouldn't let my daughter marry him though he had enough money to break the Street: and it is a pity that a fine girl, as this Miss Walton seems, should throw herself away on him."
"Well, Seymour, that's not our affair," said Gregory, pale and faint from his effort at self-control. "They would listen to nothing."
"Well, good-by, old fellow. I see it won't do to talk with you any more. Get well as soon as you can, for we want you woefully in town. Get well, and carry off this Miss Walton yourself. It would be a neat way of turning the tables on Hunting."
"Don't set your heart on seeing me at the office again," said Gregory, feelingly. "I have a presentiment that I shan't pull through this, and I don't much care. Give my kindest regards to Mr. Burnett, and tell him I shall think of him to the last as among my best friends."
Seymour made a few hearty remonstrances against such a state of mind, and took his departure with many misgivings. Gregory relapsed into his old dreary apathy. Life had so many certain ills that upon the whole he felt he would rather die. But he was too stunned and weak to think much, save when Annie came to him. Her presence was always life, but now it was a sharp revival of the consciousness of his loss. Left to himself, his mind sank down into a sort of painless lethargy, from which he did not wish to be aroused.
Mr. Walton passed a quieter night, but was clearly failing fast. He sent frequent messages of love and sympathy to Gregory, and had an abiding faith that all would be well with him in the next life, if not in this. Annie had not the heart to undeceive him. When he thought it a little strange that Hunting was not with Gregory, Annie explained by saying that the doctor insisted on perfect quiet of mind, and the presence of Hunting might unpleasantly revive old memories, and so unduly excite him.
After the physician saw his patients the following morning, he looked grave and dissatisfied. Annie followed him to the door, and said, "Doctor, I don't like the expression of your face."
"Well, Miss Annie," said the doctor, discontentedly, "I've a difficult task on my hands, in trying to cure two patients that make no effort to live. Your father seems homesick for heaven, and mere drugs can't rouse Mr. Gregory out of his morbid, gloomy apathy. I could get him ashore if he would strike out for himself, but he just floats down stream like driftwood. But really I'm doing all that can be done, I think."
"I believe you are," she said, sadly. "Good-by."
"O merciful God!" she exclaimed when alone. "What shall I do—what shall I do to save him? Father's going to heaven and mother. Where is he going?"
KEPT FROM THE EVIL
With the light of the following day Annie gave up all hope of her father's recovery. He was sinking fast, and conscious himself that death was near. But his end was like the coming into harbor of a stately ship after a long, successful voyage. He looked death in the face with that calmness and dignity, that serene certainty that it was a change for the better, which Christian faith alone can inspire. His only solicitude was for those he was leaving, and yet he had no deep anxiety, for his strong faith committed them trustingly to God.
Annie tried to feel resigned, since it was God's will. But the tie that bound her to him was so tender, so interwoven with every fibre of her heart, that she shrunk with inexpressible pain from its sundering. She knew that she was not losing her father, that the worst before them was but a brief separation, but how could she, who had lived so many happy years at his side, endure even this? It seemed as if she could not let him go, and in the strong, passionate yearning of her heart, she was almost ready to leave youth, friends, lover, and all, to go with him.
She was one who lived in her affections rather than her surroundings. The latter would matter little to her could she keep her heart- treasures. It would have touched the coldest to see how she clung to him toward the last. All else was forgotten, even Gregory, who might be dying also. The instinct of nature was strong, and her father was first.
Moreover, the relation between this parent and child was peculiarly close, for they were not only in perfect sympathy in views, character, and faith, but Annie had stepped to the side of the widowed man years before and sought successfully to fill the place of one who had reached home before him. Though so young, she had been his companion and daily friend, interesting herself in that which interested him, and thus he had been saved from that terrible loneliness which often breaks the heart even in the midst of a household. It was therefore with a love beyond words that his eyes rested most of the time on her and followed her every movement.
She also had a vague and peculiar dread in looking forward to her bereavement. An anticipating sense of isolation and loneliness chilled her heart.
Though she would not openly admit it to herself, Hunting had disappointed her since his return. She did not get from him the support and Christian sympathy she expected. She tried to excuse him, and charged herself with being too exacting, and yet the sense of something wanting pained her. She had hoped that in these dark days he would be serene and strong, and yet abounding in the tenderest sympathy. She had expected words of faith and consolation that would have sustained her spirit, fainting under a double and peculiar sorrow. She had felt sure that before this his just gratitude, like a torrent, would have overwhelmed and destroyed Gregory's enmity. But all had turned out so differently! Instead of being a help, he had almost added to her burden by his hostile feeling toward her preserver, which he had not been able wholly to disguise. Such a feeling on his part seemed both unnatural and wrong. He professed himself ready to do anything she wished for Gregory, but it was in a half-hearted way, to oblige her, and not for the sake of the injured man. When she went to him for Christian consolation, his words, though well-chosen, lacked heartiness and the satisfying power of truth.
Why this was so can be well understood. Hunting could not give what he did not possess. Of necessity there would be a hollow ring when he spoke of that which he did not understand or feel. During his brief visits, and in his carefully written letters, he could appear all she wished. He could honestly show his sincere love for her, and there was no special opportunity to show anything else. In her vivid, loving imagination she supplied all else, and she believed that when they were more together, or in affliction, he would reveal more distinctly his deeper and religious nature, for such a nature he professed to have; and his letters, which could be written deliberately, abounded in Christian sentiment. Self-deceived, he meant to be honestly religious as soon as he could afford to give up his questionable speculations.
But when a man least expects it the test and strain will come, that clearly manifest the character of his moral stamina. It had now come to Hunting, and though he strove with all the force and adroitness of a resolute will and though he was a practiced dissembler, he was not equal to the searching demands of those trying days, and steadily lost ground. The only thing that kept him up was his sincere love for Annie. That was so apparent and honest that, loving him herself, she was able to forgive the rest. But it formed no small part of her sorrow at that dark time, that she must lower her lofty ideal of her lover. Hunting and Gregory seemed nearer together morally than she could have believed possible. Thus she already had the dread that she would not be able to "look up" to Hunting as she had expected, and that it would be her mission to deepen and develop his character instead of "leaning" upon it.
It seemed strange to her as she thought of it, during her long hours of watching, that after all she would have to do for Hunting something like what poor Gregory had asked her to do for him. She prayerfully purposed to do it, for the idea of being disloyal to her engagement never entered her mind.
"Unless men have a Christian home, in which their religious life can be daily strengthened and fostered, they cannot be what they ought," she said to herself. "In continual contact with the world, with nothing to counteract, it's not strange that they act and feel as they do."
Thus she was more disposed to feel sorry for both Hunting and Gregory than to blame them. And yet she looked upon the two men very differently. She regarded Hunting as a true Christian who simply needed warming and quickening into positive life, while she thought of Gregory with only fear and trembling. Her hope for the latter was in the prayers stored up in his behalf.
But now upon this day that would ever be so painfully memorable she had thoughts only for her father, and nothing could tempt her from his side.
Hunting also saw that the crisis was approaching, and made but a formal semblance of a breakfast. He then entered the sick-room, and was thinking how best to broach the subject of an immediate marriage, when a thumping of crutches was heard in the hall.
Miss Eulie entered and said that Daddy Tuggar had managed to hobble over, and had set his heart upon seeing his old friend.
"Certainly," said Mr. Walton; "he shall come in at once."
"Caution him to stay but a few minutes," warned Annie.
Miss Eulie helped the old man in, and he sat down by Mr. Walton's side, with a world of trouble on his quaint, wrinkled face.
But he said abruptly, as if he expected an affirmative answer, "Yer gettin' better this mornin'—yer on the mend?"
"Yes, my kind old neighbor," said Mr. Walton, feebly. "I shall soon be well. It was kind of you, in your crippled state, to come over to see me."
"Well, now," said Mr. Tuggar, greatly relieved, "there is use of prayin'. I ain't much of a hand at it, and didn't know how the Lord would take it from me; but when I heard you was sick, I began to feel like prayin', and when I heard you was gettin' wuss, I couldn't help prayin'. When I heard how that city chap as saved the house—(what an old fool I was to cuss him when he first came! The Lord knew what He was doin' when He brought him here)—when I heard how he kept the ladder from falling on Miss Annie, I prayed right out loud. My wife, she thought I was gettin' crazy. But I didn't care what anybody thought. I've been prayin' all night, and it seemed as if the Lord must hear me, and I kinder felt it in my bones that He had. So I expected to hear you say you was goin' to get well; and Mr. Gregory, he's better too—ain't he?"
There was no immediate answer. Neither Miss Eulie nor Annie seemed to know how to reply to the old man at first. But Mr. Walton reached slowly out and took his neighbor's hand, saying, "Your prayers will be answered, my friend. Honest prayer to God always is. I shall be well soon, never to be old, feeble, and sick any more. I'm going where there's 'no more pain.' Perhaps I've seen my last night, for there is 'no night there.'"
"But the Lord knows I didn't mean nothin' of that kind. We need you here, and He orter know it. What's the use of prayin' if you get just the opposite of what you pray for?"
"Suppose the opposite is best? I'm an old man—a shock of corn fully ripe. I'm ready to be gathered."
"Are yer goin' to die?" asked the old man, in an awed whisper.
"No, Mr. Tuggar; I've been growing old and feeble, I've been dying for a long time. Now I'm going to live—to be strong and well, forever and ever. So don't grieve, but rather rejoice with me."
The old man sat musing a moment, and then said softly to himself, "This is what the Scripter means when it tells about the 'death of the righteous.'"
"Yes," continued Mr. Walton, though more feebly; "and the Scripture is true. The dear Lord doesn't desert His people. He who has been my friend and helper so many years now tells me that my sins, which are many, are all forgiven. It seems that I have also heard Him say, 'To- day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.'"
Tears gathered in Daddy Tuggar's eyes, and he said, brokenly, "The Lord knows—I've allers been a sort—of well-meanin' man—but I couldn't talk that way—if I was where you be."
"Mr. Tuggar," said Mr. Walton, "I'm too weak to say much more, but I want to ask you one question. You have read the Bible. Whom did the Lord Jesus come to save?"
"Sinners," was the prompt response.
"Are you one?"
"What else be I?"
"Then, old neighbor, you are safe, if you will just receive Him as your Saviour. If you were sure you were good enough and didn't need any Saviour, I should despair of you. But according to the Bible you are just such as He came after. If you feel that you are a sinner, all you have to do is to trust Him and do the best you can."
"Is that all you did?"
"All. I couldn't do anything more. And now, good-by. Remember my last words—Whom did Jesus come to save?"
"Why, He come to save me," burst out the old man, rising up. "What a cussed old fool I was, not to see it afore! I was allers thinkin' He came after the good folks, and I felt that no matter how I tried I could not be good enough. Good-by, John Walton. If they are goin' to let sinners into heaven who are willin' to come any way the Lord will let 'em come, I'll be yer neighbor again 'fore long;" and with his withered, bronzed visage working with an emotion that he did not seek to control, he wrung the dying man's hand, and hobbled out.
But he pleaded with Miss Eulie to let him stay. "I want to see it out," he said, "for if grim Death ain't goin' to get one square knock- down now, then he never had it, I want to see the victory. 'Pears to me that when the gates open the glory will shine out upon us all."
So she installed him in Mr. Walton's arm-chair by the parlor fire, and made him thoroughly at home.
"I'm a waitin' by the side of the river," he said. "I wish I could go over with him. 'Pears I'd feel sure they wouldn't turn me back then."
"Jesus will go over the river with you," she said, gently, "and then they can't turn you back."
"I hope so, I hope so," said this old, child-like man, "for I'm an awful sinner."
After this interview, which greatly fatigued him, Mr. Walton dozed for an hour, and then brightened up so decidedly that Annie had faint hopes that he was better.
The children were brought to him, and he kissed and fondled them very tenderly. Then, in a way that would make a deep impression on their childish natures, he told them how he was going to see their father and mother, and would tell what good children they had been, and how they always meant to be good, and how all would be waiting for them in heaven.
Thus the little ones received no grim and terrible impressions at that death-bed, but rather memories and hopes that in all their future would hold them back, like angel hands, from evil.
Hunting now believed that the time for him to act had come. He had told Jeff to have the horse and buggy ready so that he might send for the old pastor at once.
He came to Annie's side, and taking her hand and her father's, thus seeming a link between them, said very gently, very tenderly, "Annie, your father has told me that it would be a great consolation to him to leave me in charge of you all as his son, legally and in the eyes of the world, as I feel I am in reality. I could then do everything for you, relieve you of every care, and protect with unquestionable right all the interests of the household. Again, the marriage tie, like that of our betrothal, consummated here at his side, would ever seem to us peculiarly tender and sacred. It will almost literally be a marriage made in heaven. I hope you will feel that you can grant this, your father's last wish."
Annie felt a sudden and strong repugnance to the plan. In that hour of agonized parting she did not wish to think of marriage, even to one she loved. Her thoughts immediately recurred to Gregory, and she felt that such an act might, in his weak state, cause disastrous results. And yet if it were her father's wish—his last wish—how could she refuse him—how could she refuse him anything? The marriage day would eventually come. If by making this the day she could once more show her filial love and add to his dying peace, did she not owe him her first duty? The dying are omnipotent with us. Who can refuse their last requests?
She looked inquiringly, but with tear-blinded eyes, at her father.
"Yes, Annie," he said, answering her look, "it would be a great consolation to me, because I can see how it will be of much advantage to you—more than you can now understand. It will enable Charles to step in at once as head of the household, and so you will be relieved of many perplexities and details of business which would be very trying to you, as you will feel. I want to spare you and sister all this, and you have no idea how much it will save your feelings, and add to your comfort, to have one like Charles act for you with such power as he would have as your husband. After seeing you all thus provided for, it seems to me that I could depart in perfect peace."
"Dear father," said Annie, tenderly, "how can I deny you anything! This seems to me no time for marriage, but, since you wish it, your will shall be mine. It must be right or you would not ask it; and yet—" She did not finish the sentence, but buried her face in her hands, weeping.
"That's my noble Annie," Hunting exclaimed, with a glad exultation in his voice that he could not disguise; and, hastening out, he told Jeff to bring the minister as speedily as possible.
Miss Eulie was called, and acquiesced in her brother's opinion, and hovered around Annie in a tender flutter of maternal love.
Hunting now felt that he was master of destiny, and in his heart bade defiance to Gregory and all his own fears. His elation and self- applause were great, for had he not snatched the prize out of the hand of death itself, and made events that would have awed and disheartened other men combine for his good? He had schemed, planned, and overreached them all, though, in this case, for their interests as well as his own, he believed. While he would naturally wish the marriage to take place as soon as possible, his chief reason was to forestall any revelations which might come through Gregory; and this motive made his whole course, though apparently dictated by the purest feeling, a crafty trick. Yet such was the complex nature of the man that he honestly meant to fulfil all Mr. Walton's expectations, and become Annie's loving shield from every care and trial, and a faithful guardian of the household. Nay, more, as soon as he was securely intrenched, with all his coveted possessions, he purposed that Annie should help him to be a true, good man—a Christian in reality.
Well may the purest and strongest pray to be kept from the evil of the world. It lurks where least suspected, and can plot its wrongs in the chamber of death, and on the threshold of heaven. Annie and her father might at least suppose themselves safe now. Were they so, with God's minister on his way to join truth with untruth—a pure-hearted maiden to a man from whom she would shrink the moment she came to know him? Not on the human side. They were safe only as God kept them. If Annie Walton had found herself married to a swindler, hers would have been a life-long martyrdom. But unconsciously she drew momentarily nearer the edge of the precipice. Time was passing, and their venerable pastor would soon be present. Annie had welcomed him every day previously, as he came to take sweet counsel with her father rather than prepare him for death, but now she had a strange, secret dread of his coming.
Her father suddenly put his hand to his heart.
"Have you pain there?" asked Annie.
"It's gone," he replied, after a moment. "They will soon be all past, Annie dear. How does Mr. Gregory seem now?" he asked of Miss Eulie.
"Greatly depressed, I'm sorry to say," she answered. "He knows that you are no better, and it seems to distress him very much."
"God bless him for saving my darling's life!" he said, fervently; "and He will bless him. I have a feeling that he will see brighter and better days. I can send him almost a father's love and blessing, for he now seems like a son to me. Say to him that I shall tell his father of his noble deeds. Be a sister to him, Annie. Carry on the good work you have so wisely begun. May the friendship of the parents descend to the children. And you, Charles, my son, will surely feel toward him as a brother, whatever may have been the differences of the past."
Innocent but deeply embarrassing words to both Hunting and Annie.
Again Mr. Walton put his hand to his heart.
Hunting left the room, for it was surely time for Jeff to return. With a gleam of exultant joy he saw him driving toward the house with the white-haired minister at his side. He returned softly to the sick- room.
Mr. Walton had just taken Annie's hands, and after a look of unutterable fondness, said, "Before I give you to another—while you are still my own little girl—let me thank you for having been all and more than a father could ask. How good God was to give me such a comfort in your mother's place!"
"Dear father!" was all that Annie could say.
Even then the minister was entering the house.
"I bless thee, my child," the father continued; then turning his eyes heavenward he reverently closed them in prayer, saying, "and God bless thee also, and keep thee from every evil."
God answered him.
His grasp on Annie's hand relaxed; without even a sigh he passed away.
Annie started up with a look of alarm, and saw the same expression on the faces of her aunt and Hunting. They spoke to him; he did not answer. Hunting felt his pulse. Its throb had ceased forever. The chill of a great dread turned his own face like that of the dead.
Miss Eulie put her hand on her brother's heart. It was at rest. Annie stood motionless with dilating eyes watching them. But when her aunt came toward her with streaming eyes she realized the truth and fell fainting to the floor.
Just then the old minister crossed the threshold, but Hunting said to him, almost savagely, "You are too late."
"LIVE! LIVE!"—ANNIE'S APPEAL
Annie's swoon was so prolonged that both her aunt and Hunting were alarmed. It was the reaction from the deep and peculiar excitement of the last few days. Every power of mind and body had been under the severest strain, and nature now gave way.
The doctor, when he came to make his morning call, was most welcome. He said there was nothing alarming about Miss Walton's symptoms, but added very decisively that she would need rest and quiet of mind for a long time in order to regain her former tone and health.
When Annie revived he gave something that would tend to quiet her nervous system and produce sleep.
"I now understand Mr. Walton's case," he said to Miss Eulie. "I could not see why his severe cold, which he had apparently cured, should result as it did. But now it's plain that it was complicated with heart difficulties."
His visit to Gregory was not at all satisfactory, for his patient's depression was so great that he was sinking under it. Mr. Walton's death, leaving Annie defenceless, as it were, in the hands of a man like Hunting, seemed another of the dark and cruel mysteries which to him made up human life. The death that had given Daddy Tuggar such an impulse toward faith and hope only led him to say with intense bitterness, "God has forgotten His world, and the devil rules it."
"Mr. Gregory," said the physician, gravely, "do you know that you are about the same as taking your own life? All the doctors in the world cannot help you unless you try to live. Drugs cannot remove your apathy and morbid depression."
"Very well, doctor," he replied; "do not trouble yourself to come any more. I absolve you from all blame."
"But I cannot absolve myself. Besides, it's not manly to give up in this style."
"I make no pretence of being manly or anything else. I am just what you see. Can a broken reed stand up like a sturdy oak? Can such a thing as I reverse fate? Thank you, doctor, for all you have done, but waste no more time upon me. I knew, weeks ago, that the end was near, and I would like to die in the old place."
The doctor looked at him a moment in deep perplexity, and then silently left the room.
"Internal injuries that I can't get at," he muttered, as he drove away.
Miss Eulie came to Gregory's side, and laying her hand gently on his brow said, "You are mistaken, my young friend. You are going to live."
"Why do you think so?" he asked.
"The dying often have almost prophetic vision;" and she told him all that Mr. Walton had said, though nothing of the contemplated marriage. She dwelt with special emphasis on the facts that he had told Annie to be a sister to Gregory and had gone to heaven with the assurance to his old friend that his son would join him there.
Gregory was strongly moved, and turning his face upon the pillow, gave way to a passion of tears; but they were despairing, bitter, regretful tears. He soon seemed ashamed of them, and when he again turned his face toward Miss Eulie, it had a hard, stony look.
Almost with sternness he said, "If the dying have supernatural insight, why could not Mr. Walton see what kind of a man Hunting is? Please leave me now. I know how kind and well-meant your words are, but they are mockery to me;" and he turned his face to the wall.
Miss Eulie sighed very deeply, but felt that his case was beyond her skill.
Daddy Tuggar was at first grievously disappointed. He had wrought himself up into the hope of a celestial scene, and the abrupt and quiet termination of Mr. Walton's life seemed inadequate to the occasion. But Miss Eulie comforted him by saying that "the Christian walked by faith, and not by sight—that God knew what was best, better than we, His little children.
"Death had not even the power to cause him a moment's pain," she said. "God gave him a sweet surprise, by letting him through the gates before he was aware."
Thus she led the strange old man to think it was for the best after all. The Rev. Mr. Ames, who had come on such a different mission, also tried to make clearer what Mr. Walton had said to him. But Daddy Tuggar would not permit his mind to wander a moment from the simple truth, which he kept saying over and over to himself, "I'm an awful sinner, and the good Lord come after just such."
Another thing that greatly perplexed the old man was that Mr. Walton had not been permitted to live long enough to see his daughter married. As an old neighbor, and because of his strong attachment to Annie, he had been invited to be present.
"'Pears to me that the Lord might have spared him a few minutes longer," he said.
"It appears to you so," replied Mr. Ames, "but the Lord knows why he did not."
"Well, parson," said Daddy Tuggar, "I thank you very kindly for what you have said, but John Walton has done the business for me. I'm just goin' to trust—I'm just goin' to let myself go limber and fall right down on the Lord Jesus' word. I don't believe it will break with me. Anyhow, it's all I can do, and John Walton told me to do it and I allers found he was about right." And thus late in the twilight of life the old man took his pilgrim's staff and started homeward.
As soon as Hunting recovered from his bitter disappointment and almost superstitious alarm at the sudden thwarting of his purpose, his wily and scheming mind fell to work on a new combination. If he still could induce Annie to be married almost immediately, as he greatly hoped, all would be well. If not, then he would assume that they were the same as married, and at once take his place so far as possible at the head of the household, in accordance with Mr. Walton's wish. On one hand, by tender care and thoughtfulness for them all, he would place Annie under the deepest obligation; on the other, he would gain, to the extent he could, control of her affairs and property. In the latter purpose Mr. Walton had greatly aided by naming him one of the executors of his will; and only Miss Eulie, the sister-in-law, was united with him as executrix. Thus he would substantially have his own way. Indeed, Mr. Walton, in his perfect trust, meant that he should.
Having seen Annie quietly sleeping, he started for New York to make arrangements for the funeral, and look after some personal matters that had already been neglected too long.
His feelings on the journey were not enviable. He had enough faith to fear God, but not to trust and obey. The thought recurred with disheartening frequency, "If God is against this, He will thwart me every time."
The day had closed in thick darkness and a storm before Annie awoke from the deep sleep which the sedative had prolonged. Though weak and languid, she insisted on getting up. Her aunt almost forced her to take a little supper, and then she went instinctively and naturally to that room which had always been a place of refuge, but which now was the chamber of death.
She turned up the light that she might look at the dear, dear face. How calm and noble it was in its deep repose! It did not suggest death—only peaceful sleep.
With a passionate burst of sorrow she moaned, "O father, let me sleep beside you, and be at rest!"
Then she took his cold hand, and sat down mechanically to watch, as in the days and nights just passed. But as she became composed and thought grew busy, the deep peace of the sleeper seemed imparted to her. In vivid imagination she followed him to the home and greetings that he had so joyously anticipated. She saw him meet her mother and sister, and other loved ones who had gone before. She saw him at his Saviour's feet, blessed and crowned. She heard the wild storm raging without in the darkness, and then thought of his words "There is no night there."
"Dear father," she murmured, "I would not call you back if I could. God give me patience to come to you in His own appointed way."
Then she dwelt upon the strange events of the day. How near she had come to being a wife! Why had she not become one? That the marriage should have been so suddenly and unexpectedly prevented on the very eve of consummation, caused some curious thoughts to flit through her mind.
"It is enough to know that it was God's will," she said; "and my future is still in His hands. Poor Charles! it will be a disappointment to him; and yet what difference will a few weeks or months make?"
Then her father's words, "Be a sister to Gregory," recurred to her, and she reproached herself that she had so long forgotten him. "Father is safe home," she said, "and I am leaving him to wander further and further away. Father told me to be a sister to him, and I will. When he gets well and strong, if he ever does, he will feel very differently; and if he is to die (which God forbid), what more sacred duty can I have than to plead with him and for him to the last?"
Pressing a kiss on her father's silent lips, she went to fulfil one of their last requests. She first asked her aunt if it would be prudent to visit Gregory. "I hardly know, Annie, what to say," said Miss Eulie, in deep perplexity; and she told her what had occurred in relation to Gregory, the doctor, and herself, omitting all reference to Hunting. "If he is not roused out of his gloom and apathy, I fear he will die," concluded her aunt; "and if you can't rouse him, I don't know who can."
Annie gave her a quick, questioning glance.
"Yes, Annie, I understand," she said, quietly. "He received his worst injury before the ladder fell."
"O aunty, what shall I do?"
"Indeed, my dear child, I can hardly tell you. You are placed in a difficult and delicate position. Perhaps your father's words were wisest, 'Be a sister to him.' At any rate, you have more power with him than any one else, and you owe it to him to do all you can to save him."
"I am ready to do anything, aunty, for it seems as if I could never be happy if he should die an unbeliever."
Annie stole noiselessly to Gregory's side, and motioned to the young man who was in charge to withdraw to the next room. Gregory was still asleep. She sat down by him and was greatly shocked to see how emaciated and pale he was. It seemed as if he had suffered from an illness of weeks rather than days.
"He will die," she murmured, with all her old terror at the thought returning. "He will die, and for me. Though innocent, I shall always feel that his blood is upon me;" and she buried her face in her hands, and her whole frame shook with a passion of grief.
Her emotion awoke him, and he recognized with something like awe the bowed head at his side.
Her grief for her father, as he supposed it to be, seemed such a sacred thing! And yet he could not bear to see her intense sorrow. His heart ached to comfort her, but what words of consolation could such as he offer? Still, had she not come to him as if for comfort? This thought touched him deeply, and he almost cursed his unbelieving soul that made him dumb at such a time. What could he say but miserable commonplaces in regard to a bereavement like hers?
He did not say anything, but merely reached out his hand and gently stroked her bowed head.
Then she knew he was awake, and she took his hand and bowed her head upon it.
"Miss Walton," he said, in a husky voice, "it cuts me to the heart to see you grieve so. But, alas! I do not know how to comfort you, and I can't say trite words which mean nothing. After losing such a father as yours, what can any one say?"
She raised her head and said, impetuously, "It's not for father I am grieving. He is in heaven—he is not lost to me. It's for you—you. You are breaking my heart."
"Miss Walton," he began, in much surprise, "I don't understand—"
"Why don't you understand?" she interrupted. "What do you think I am made of? Do you think that you can lie here and die for me and I go serenely on? Do you not see that you would blight the life you have saved?"
His apathy was gone now. But he was bewildered, so sudden and overpowering was her emotion. He only found words to say, "Miss Walton, God knows I am yours, body and soul. What can I do?"
"Live! live!" she continued, with the same passionate earnestness. "I impose no conditions, I ask nothing else. Only get well and strong again. If you will do this, I have such confidence in your better nature, and the many prayers laid up for you, as to feel sure that all will come out right. But if you will just lie here and die, you will imbitter my life. What did the doctor tell you this morning? And yet I shall feel that I am partly the cause. O, Mr. Gregory, you may think me foolish, but that strange little omen of the chestnut burr is in my mind so often! I never was superstitious before, but it haunts me. Don't you remember how you stained my hand with your blood? I can't get it out of my mind, and it has for me now a strange significance. If I had to remember through coming years that you died for me all hopeless and unbelieving, do you think so poorly of me as to imagine I could be happy? Why can't you be generous enough to brighten the life you have saved? Among my father's last words he said I must be a sister to you. How can I if you die? You would make this dear old place, that we both love, full of terrible memories."
He was deeply moved, and after a moment said, "I did not know that you felt in this way. I thought the best thing that I could do was to get out of the world and out of the way. I thought I knew you, but I do not half understand your large, generous heart. For your sake I will try and get well, nor will I impose any conditions whatever. But pardon me: I am going to ask one thing, which you can grant or not as you choose. Please do not wrong me by thinking that I have any personal end in view. I have given all that up as truly as if I were dead. I ask that you do not speedily marry Charles Hunting—not till you are sure you know him."
"O dear!" exclaimed Annie, in real distress, "this dreadful quarrel! What trouble it makes all around!"
"If your father," continued Gregory, with grave earnestness, "told you to be a sister to me, then I have some right to act as a brother toward you. But as an honest man, with all my faults, and with your interests nearest my heart, I entreat you to heed my request. Nay, more: I am going to seem ungenerous, and refer for the first and last time to the obligation you are under to me. By all the influence I gained by that act, I beg of you to hesitate before you marry Charles Hunting. Believe me, I would not lay a straw in the way of your marrying a good man."
"Your words pain me more than I can tell you," said Annie, sadly. "I do not understand them. Once they would have angered me. But, however mistaken you are, I cannot do injustice to your motive.
"I do not see how your request can injure Charles," she continued, musingly. "I have no wish to marry now for a long time—not till these sad scenes have faded somewhat from memory. If you will only promise to live I will not marry him till you get strong and well—till you can look upon this matter as a man—as a brother ought. But your hostility must not be unreasonable or implacable. I know you do Mr. Hunting great injustice. And yet such is my solicitude for you that I will do what seems to me almost disloyal. But I know that I owe a great deal to you as well as Charles."
"What I ask is for your sake, not mine. I only used the obligation as a motive."
"Well," said Annie, "I yield; and surely a sister could do no more than I have done to-night."
"And I have simply done my duty," he answered, quietly. "And yet I thank you truly. You also may see the time when you will thank me more than when I interposed my worthless person between you and danger."
"Please never call yourself 'worthless' to me again. We never did agree, and I fear we shall be gray before we do. But mark this: I am never going to give you up, whatever happens. I shall obey dear father's last words from both duty and inclination. But let us end this painful conversation. What have you eaten to-day?"
"I'm sure I don't know," he said.
"Will you eat something if I bring it?"
"I will do anything you ask."
"Now you give me hope," and she vanished, sending the regular watcher back to his post.
Gregory found it no difficult task to eat the dainty little supper she brought. She had broken the malign spell he was under. As we have seen, his was a physical nature peculiarly subject to mental conditions.
Soon after she said, in a low tone meant only for his ear, "Good- night, my poor suffering brother. We all three shall understand each other better in God's good time."
"I hope so," he said, with a different meaning. "You have made me feel that I am not alone and uncared for in the world, though I cannot call you sister yet. Good-night."
Annie went back to her father's side, and remained till her aunt almost forced her away.
It is not necessary to dwell on the events of the next few days. Such is our earthly lot, nearly all can depict them by recalling their own sad experience: the hushed and solemn household, even the children speaking low and treading softly, as if they might awake one whom only "the last trump" could arouse.
John Walton's funeral was no formal pageant, but an occasion of sincere and general mourning. Even those whose lives and characters were the opposite of his had the profoundest respect for him, and the entire community united in honoring his memory.
Perhaps the most painful time of all to the stricken family was the evening after their slow, dreary ride to the village cemetery. Then, as not before, they realized their loss.
Annie felt that her best solace would be in trying to cheer others. She had seen Gregory but seldom and briefly since the interview last described, but had been greatly comforted by his decided change for the better. He had kept his word. Indeed, it was only the leaden hand of despondency that kept him down, and he rallied from the moment it was lifted. This evening he was dressed and sitting by the fire. As she entered, in her deep mourning, his look was so wistful and kind, so eloquent with sympathy, that instead of cheering him, as she had intended, she sat down on a low ottoman, and burying her face in her hands, cried as if her heart would break.
"Oh that I knew how to comfort you!" said Gregory, in the deepest distress. "I cannot bear to see you suffer."
He rose with difficulty and came to her side, saying, "What can I do, Miss Walton? Would that I could prevent you, at any cost to myself, from ever shedding another tear!"
His sympathy was so true and strong that it was a luxury for her to receive it; and she had kept up so long that tears were nature's own relief.
At last he said timidly, hesitatingly, as if venturing on forbidden ground, "I think the Bible says that in heaven all tears will be wiped away. Your father is surely there."
"Would that I were there with him!" she sobbed.
"Not yet, Annie, not yet," he said, gently. "Think how dark this world would be to more than one if you were not in it."
"But will you never seek this dear home of rest?" she asked.
"The way of life is closed to me," he said, sadly.
"O, Mr. Gregory! Who is it that says, 'I am the way?'"
"But He says to me, 'Depart.'"
"And yet I, knowing all—I, a weak, sinful creature like yourself— say, Come to Him. I am better and kinder than He who died for us all! What strange, sad logic! Good-night, Walter. You will not always so wrong your best Friend."
Gregory's despairing conviction that his day of mercy was past was hardly proof against her words and manner, but he was in thick darkness and saw no way out.
Annie went down to her aunt and Hunting in the parlor. "Why will Mr. Gregory be so hard and unbelieving?" she said, tearfully.
"If you knew him as well as I do you would understand," said Hunting, politicly, and then changed the conversation.
He was consumed by a jealousy which he dared not show. Annie's manner toward him was all that he could ask, and he felt sure of her now. But it was the future he dreaded, for he was satisfied that Gregory had formed an attachment for Annie, whether she knew it or not, and, unless he could secure her by marriage, the man he had wronged might find means of tearing off his mask. With desperate earnestness he resolved to press his suit.
His course since Mr. Walton's death had been such as to win Annie's sincerest gratitude. When action rather than moral support was required, he was strong, and no one could be more delicately thoughtful of her feelings and kinder than he had been.
"Dear Charles," said Annie, when they were alone. "What should I have done without you in all these dreary days! How you have saved me from all painful contact with the world!"
"And so I ever wish to shield you," said Hunting. "Will you not, as your father purposed, give me the right at once?"
"You have the right, Charles. I ask no more than you have done and are doing. But do not urge marriage now. I yielded then for father's sake, not my own. My heart is too sore and crushed to think of it now. After all, what difference can a few months make to you? Be generous. Give me a respite, and I will make you a better wife and a happier home."
"But it looks, Annie, as if you could not trust me," he said, gloomily.
"No, Charles," she said, gravely, "it looks rather as if you distrusted me; and you must learn to trust me implicitly. Out of both love for you and justice to myself, I exercise my woman's right of naming the day. In the meantime I give you my perfect confidence. No words of others—nothing but your own acts can disturb it, and of this I have no fear."
He did not seek to disguise his deep disappointment. While she felt sorry for him, she remained firm, and he saw that it would not be wise to urge her.
Annie would not carelessly give pain to any one, much less to those she loved. And yet her mind was strong and well-balanced. She knew it was no great misfortune to Hunting to wait a few months when her own feelings and the duty she owed another required it. "When Mr. Gregory gets strong and well and back to business," she thought, "he will wonder at himself. I have no right almost to destroy him now in his weakness by doing that which can be done better at another time; and indeed, for my own sake, I should have required delay."
The next day Hunting was reluctantly compelled to go to the city. Somewhat to Annie's surprise, Gregory made no effort to secure her society. In her frank, sisterly regard she was slow in understanding that her presence caused regretful pain to him. But he seemed resolutely bent upon getting well, and was gaining rapidly. He walked out a little while during the middle of the day, and her eyes followed him wistfully as he moved slowly and feebly along the garden walk. She saw, with quickly starting tears, that he went to the rustic seat by the brook where they had spent that memorable Sunday afternoon, and that he stood in long, deep thought.
When he came back she offered to read to him.
"Not now—not yet," he said, sadly. "I know my own weakness, and would be true to my word."
"Why do you shun me?" she asked.
"May you never understand from experience," he said with a smile that was sadder than tears, and passed on up to his room.
And yet, though he did not know it, his course was the best policy, for it awakened stronger respect and sympathy on her part.
The next morning ushered in the first of the dreamy Indian-summer days, when Nature, as if grieved over the havoc of the frost, would hide the dismantled trees and dead flowers by a purple haze, and seek as do fading beauties to disguise the ravages of time by drawing over her withered face a deceptive veil.
Gregory felt so much better that he thought he could venture to make a parting call on Daddy Tuggar. He found the old man smoking on his porch, and his reception was as warm and demonstrative as his first had been a month ago, though of a different nature. Gregory lighted a cigar and sat down beside him.
"I'm wonderful glad to see you," said Mr. Tuggar. "To think that I should have cussed you when it was the good Lord that brought you here!"
"Do you think so?" asked Gregory.
"Certain I do. Would that house be there? Wouldn't all our hearts be broke for Miss Annie if it wasn't for you?"
Gregory felt that his heart was "broke" for her as it was, but he said, "It was my taking her out to walk that caused her danger. So you wouldn't have lost her if I had not come."
"You didn't knowin'ly git her in danger, and you did knowin'ly git her out, and that's enough for me," said the old man.
"Well, well, Mr. Tuggar, if I had broken my neck it would have been a little thing compared with saving the life of such a woman as Miss Walton. Still, I fear the Lord has not much to do with me."
"And have you been all this time with John Walton and Miss Annie and still feel that way?"
"It's not their fault."
"I believe that. Are you willin' to say you are a great sinner?"
"Of course. What else am I?"
"That's it—that's it," cried the old man, delightedly. "Now you're all right. That's just where I was. When John Walton bid me good-by, he asked me one question that let more light into my thick head than all the readin' and preachin' and prayin' I ever heard. He asked, 'Whom did Jesus Christ come to save?' Answer that."
"The Bible says He came to save sinners," replied Gregory, now deeply interested.
"Well, I should think that meant you and me," said Mr. Tuggar, emphatically. "Anyhow, I know it means me. John Walton told me that all I had to do was to just trust the Saviour—not of good people—but of sinners, and do the best I could; and I have just done it, and I'm all right, Mr. Gregory, I'm all right. I don't know whether I can stop swearin', but I'm a tryin'. I don't know whether I can ever get under my old ugly temper, but I'm a tryin' and a prayin'. But whether I can or not, I'm all right, for the good Lord came to save sinners; and if that don't mean me, what's the use of words?"
"But can you trust Him?" asked Gregory.
"Certain I can. Wasn't John Walton an honest man? Wasn't Jesus Christ honest? Didn't he know what He come for?"
"Admitting that He came to save sinners, how can you be sure He will save all? He might save you and not me."
"Well," said Mr. Tuggar, "I hadn't been home long before that question come up to me, and I thought on it a long time. I smoked wellnigh a hundred pipes on it afore I got it settled, but 'tis settled, and when I settle a thing I don't go botherin' back about it. But like enough 'twon't satisfy you."
"At any rate, I should like to hear your conclusion."
"Well, I argued it out to myself. I says, 'Suppose there's some sinners too bad, or too somethin' or other, for the Lord to save, and suppose you are one of them, ain't ''lected,' as my wife says. If I could be an unbelievin' sinner for eighty years, it seemed to me that if anybody wasn't 'lected I wasn't. I was dreadfully down, I tell yer, for I'd set my heart on bein' John Walton's neighbor again. After I'd smoked a good many pipes, I cussed myself for an old fool. 'There, you've brought your case into court,' I says, 'and you're goin' to give it up afore it's argued.' Then I argued it. I was honest, you may be sure. It wouldn't do me any good to pettifog in this matter. First I says, if there was any doubt about the Lord savin' all sinners who wanted Him to, John Walton orter have spoken of it, and from what I know of the man he would. Then I says, arter all, it's the Lord I've got to deal with. Now what kind of a Lord is He? Then I commenced rememberin' all that Miss Eulie and Miss Annie had read to me about Him, and all I'd heard, and I got my wife to read some, and my hopes grew every minute. I tell you what, Mr. Gregory, it was a queer crowd He often had around Him. I'd kinder felt at home among 'em, 'specially with that swearin' fisherman Peter.
"Well, the upshot of it was, I couldn't find that He ever turned one sinner away. Then why should He me? Then my wife, as she was readin', come across the words, 'Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.' I had heard them words afore often, but it seemed now as the first time, and I just shouted, 'I've got His word for it,' and my wife thought I was crazy, sure 'nuff, for she didn't know what I was drivin' at. And now, Mr. Gregory, you're just shut up to two things, just two things. Either the Lord Jesus will save every sinner that comes to Him, or he ain't honest, and don't mean what he says, and won't do as he used to. I tell yer I'm settled, better settled than yonder mountain. I just let myself go limber right down upon the promise, and it's all right. I'm going to be John Walton's neighbor again."