Gregory was more affected by the old man's quaint talk than he would have believed possible. It seemed true that he was "shut up" to one or the other of the alternatives presented. He commenced pacing up and down the little porch in deep thought. Mr. Tuggar puffed away at his pipe with such vigor that he was exceedingly beclouded, however clear his mind. At last Gregory said, "I shall think over what you have said, very carefully, for I admit it has a great deal of force to my mind."
"That's right," said Mr. Tuggar; "argue it out, just as I did. Show yourself no favors, and be fair to yourself, and you can't get away from my conclusion. You've got to come to it."
"I should be very glad to come to it," said Gregory, gravely.
"I should think you would. There'll be some good neighbors up there, Mr. Gregory; these Waltons are all bound to be there. Miss Annie would be kinder good company—eh, Mr. Gregory?"
In spite of himself he flushed deeply under the old man's keen scrutiny.
"There's one thing that's mighty 'plexing to me," said Mr. Tuggar, led to the subject by its subtle connection with Gregory's blush, "and that's why the Lord didn't keep John Walton alive a few minutes longer, so that the marriage could take place."
Gregory gave a great start. "What marriage?" he asked.
"Why, don't you know about it?" said Mr. Tuggar, in much surprise.
"No, nothing at all."
"Then perhaps I ortn't ter speak of it."
"Certainly not, if you don't think it right."
"Well, I've said so much I might as well say it all," said the old man, musingly. "It's no secret, as I knows of;" and he told Gregory how near Annie came to being a wife.
Gregory drew a long breath and looked deathly pale and faint.
"Well, now, I'd no idea that you'd be so struck of a heap," said the old man, in still deeper surprise.
"God's hand was in that," murmured Gregory; "God's hand was in that."
"Do you think so, now? Well, it does seem kinder cur'us, and per'aps it was, for somehow I never took to that Hunting, though he seems all right."
"Good-by, Mr. Tuggar," said Gregory, rising; "you have given me a good deal to think about, and I'm going to think, and act, too, if I can. I am going to New York to-morrow, and one of the first things I do will be to fill your pipe for a long time;" and he pressed the old man's hand most cordially.
"Let yourself go limber when you come to trust, and it will be all right," were Daddy Tuggar's last words, as he balanced himself on his crutches in parting.
Gregory found Annie in the parlor, and he said, "I have good news for you; Daddy Tuggar is a Christian."
Annie sprang joyfully up and said, "I'm going over to see him at once."
When she returned, Gregory was quietly reading in the parlor, showing thus that he had no wish to avoid her.
She came directly to him and said, "Daddy Tuggar says that you propose going home to-morrow."
"Well, really, Miss Walton, I have no home to go to; but I expect to return to the city."
"Now I protest against it."
"I'm glad you do."
"Then you won't go?"
"Yes, I must; but I'm glad you don't wish me to go"
"Why need you go yet? You ought not. You should wait till you are strong."
"That is just why I go—to get strong. I never could here, with you looking so kindly at me as you do now. You see I am as frank as I promised to be. So please say no more, for you cannot and you ought not to change my purpose."
"O dear!" cried Annie, "how one's faith is tried! Why need this be so?"
"On the contrary," he said, "what little faith I ever had has been quite revived this afternoon. Daddy Tuggar has been 'talking religion' to me, and, pardon me for saying it, I found his words more convincing than even yours."
"I am not jealous of him," said Annie, gladly.
"I can't help thinking that God does see and care, in that He prevented your marriage."
Annie blushed deeply, and said, coldly, "I am sorry you touched upon that subject," and she left the room.
Gregory went quietly on with his reading, or seemed to do so. Indeed, he made a strong effort, and succeeded, for he was determined to master himself outwardly.
She soon relented and came back. When she saw him apparently so undisturbed, the thought came to her, "He has truly given me up. There is nothing of the lover in that calmness, and he makes no effort to win my favor," but she said, "Mr. Gregory, I fear I hurt your feelings. You certainly did mine. I cannot endure the injustice you persist in doing Mr. Hunting."
"I only repeat your own words, 'We all three shall understand each other in God's good time'; and after what I heard to-day, I have the feeling that He is watching over you."
"Won't you promise not to speak any more on this subject?"
"Yes, for I have done my duty."
She took up his book and read to him, thus giving one more hour of mingled pain and pleasure; though when he thought how long it would be before he heard that sweet voice again, if ever, his pain almost reached the point of anguish. As she turned toward him and saw his look of suffering, she realized somewhat the effort he had made to keep up before her.
She came to him and said, "I was about to ask a favor, but perhaps it's hardly right."
"Ask it, anyway," he said, with a smile.
"I don't urge it, but I expect Mr. Hunting this evening. Won't you come down to supper and meet him?"
"For your sake I will, now that I have gained some self-control. I am not one to quarrel in a lady's parlor under any provocation. For your sake I will treat Mr. Hunting like a gentleman, and make my last evening with you as little of a restraint as possible."
"Thank you—thank you. You now promise to make it one of peculiar happiness."
Annie drove to the depot for Hunting, and told of Gregory's consent to meet him. She said, "Now is your opportunity, Charles. Meet him in such a way as to make enmity impossible."
His manner was not very reassuring, but, in his pleasure at hearing that Gregory was soon to depart, and that in his absence Annie's confidence in him had not been disturbed, he promised to do the best he could. She was nervously excited as the moment of meeting approached, and, somewhat to her surprise, Hunting seemed to share her uneasiness.
Gregory did not come down till the family were all in the supper-room. Annie was struck with his appearance as he entered. Though his left arm was in a sling, there was a graceful and almost courtly dignity in his bearing, a brilliancy in his eyes and a firmness, about his mouth, which proved that he had nerved himself for the ordeal and would maintain himself. Instantly she thought of the time when he had first appeared in that room, a half-wrecked, blase man of the world. Now he looked and acted like a nobleman.
Hunting, on the contrary, had a shuffling and embarrassed manner; but he approached Gregory and held out his hand, saying, "Come, Mr. Gregory, let by-gones be by-gones."
But Gregory only bowed with the perfection of distant courtesy, and said, "Good-evening, Mr. Hunting," and took his seat.
Both Hunting and Annie blushed deeply and resentfully. After they were seated, Annie looked toward Hunting to say "grace" as usual, but he could not before the man who knew him so well, and there was another moment of deep embarrassment, while a sudden satirical light gleamed from Gregory's eyes. Annie saw it, and it angered her.
Then Gregory broke the ice with quiet, well-bred ease. In natural tones he commenced conversation, addressing now one, now another, in such a way that they were forced to answer him in like manner. He asked Hunting about the news and gossip of the city as naturally as if they had met that evening for the first time. He even had pleasant repartee with Johnny and Susie, who had now come to like him very much, and his manner toward Miss Eulie was peculiarly gentle and respectful, for he was deeply grateful to her. Indeed, that good lady could scarcely believe her eyes and ears; but Gregory had always been an enigma to her. At first he spoke to Annie less frequently than to any one else, for he dreaded the cloud upon her brow and her outspoken truthfulness, and he was determined the evening should pass off as he had planned. Though so crippled that his food had to be prepared for him, he only made it a matter of graceful jest, and gave ample proof that a highly bred and cultivated man can be elegant in manners under circumstances the most adverse.
Even Annie thawed and relented under his graceful tact, and felt that perhaps he was doing all she could expect in view of the simple promise to "treat Hunting like a gentleman, for her sake." But it had pained her deeply that he had not met Hunting's advances; and she saw that, though perfectly courteous, he was not committing himself in the slightest degree toward reconciliation.
Moreover, she was excessively annoyed that Hunting acted so poor a part. It is as natural for a woman to take pride in her lover as to breathe, but she could have no pride in Hunting that evening. He seemed annoyed beyond endurance with both himself and Gregory, though he strove to disguise it. He knew that he was appearing to disadvantage, and this increased his embarrassment, and he was most unhappy in his words and manner. Yet he could take exception at nothing, for Gregory, secure in his polished armor, grew more brilliant and entertaining as he saw his adversary losing ground.
All were glad when he supper-hour was over and they could adjourn to the parlor. Here Gregory changed his tactics, and drawing the children aside, told them a marvellous tale as a good-by souvenir, thus causing them to feel deep regret for his departure. He next drew Miss Eulie into an animated discussion upon a subject he knew her to be interested in. From this he made the conversation general, and continued to speak to Hunting as naturally as if there were no differences between them. But all saw that he was growing very weary, and early in the evening he quietly rose and excused himself, saying that he needed rest for his journey on the morrow. There was the same polite, distant bow to Hunting as at first, and in deep disappointment Annie admitted that nothing had been gained by the interview from which she had hoped so much. They were no nearer reconciliation. While Gregory's manner had compelled respect and even admiration, it had annoyed her excessively, for he had made her lover appear to disadvantage, and she was almost vexed with Hunting that he had not been equal to the occasion. She was sorry that she had asked Gregory to come down while Hunting was present, and yet courtesy seemed to require that he should be with them, since he was now sufficiently well. Altogether it was a silent little group that Gregory left in the parlor, as all were busy with their own thoughts.
Hunting determined to remain the following day and see Gregory off and out of the way forever, he hoped.
The next morning Gregory did not come down to breakfast. But at about ten o'clock he started for a short farewell stroll about the old place. Annie joined him in the garden.
"I do not think you were generous last evening," she said. "Mr. Hunting met you half-way."
"Did I not do just what I promised?"
"But I was in hopes you would do more, especially when the way was opened."
"Do you think, Miss Walton, that Mr. Hunting's manner and feelings toward me were sincerely cordial and friendly? Was it the prompting of his heart, or your influence, that led him to put out his hand?"
Annie blushed, in conscious confusion. "I fear I shall never reconcile you," she said, sadly.
"I fear not," he replied. "There must be a great change in us both before you can. Though the reason I give you was a sufficient one for not taking his hand in friendly feeling, it was not the one that influenced me. I would not have taken it under any circumstances."
"Mr. Gregory, you grieve me most deeply," she said, in a tone of real distress. "Won't you, when you come to part, take his hand for my sake, and let a little of the ice thaw?"
"No," he said, almost sternly; "not even for your sake, for whom I would die, will I be dishonest with myself or him; and you are not one to ask me to act a lie."
"You wound me deeply, sir!" she said, coldly.
"Faithful are the wounds of a friend," he replied. She did not answer.
"We shall not part in this way, Annie," he said, in a low, troubled voice.
"The best I can do is to give you credit for very mistaken sincerity," she answered, sadly.
"That is all now, I fear," replied he, gently. "Good-by, Annie Walton. We are really parting now. My mission to you is past, and we go our different ways. You will never believe anything I can say on this painful subject, and I would not have spoken of it again of my own accord. Keep your promise to me, and all will yet be well, I believe. As that poor woman who saved us in the mountains said, 'There will at least be one good thing about me. Whether I can pray for myself or not, I shall daily pray for you'; and I feel that God who shielded you so strangely once, will still guard you. Do not grieve because I go away with pain in my heart. It's a better kind of suffering than that with which I came, and lasting good may come out of it, for my old reckless despair is gone. If I ever do become a good man—a Christian —I shall have you to thank; and even heaven would be happier if you were the means of bringing me there."
"When you speak that way, Walter," she said, tears starting to her eyes, "I must forgive everything; and when you become a Christian you will love even your enemy. Please take this little package from me, but do not open it till you reach the quiet and seclusion of your own rooms. Good-by, my brother, for as such my father told me to act and feel toward you, and from my heart I obey."
He looked at her with moistened eyes, but did not trust himself to answer, and without another word they returned to the house.
Gregory's leave-taking from the rest of the household was no mere form. Especially was this true of Miss Eulie, to whom he said most feelingly, "Miss Morton, my mother could not have been kinder or more patient with me."
When he pressed Zibbie's hand and left a banknote in it, she broke out in the broadest Scotch, "Maister Gregory, an' when I think me auld gray head would ha' been oot in the stourm wi' na hame to cover it, I pray the gude God to shelter yours fra a' the cauld blasts o' the wourld."
Silent Hannah, alike favored, seemed afflicted with a sudden attack of St. Vitus's dance, so indefinite was the number of her courtesies; while Jeff, on the driver's seat, looked as solemn as if he were to drive Gregory to the cemetery instead of the depot.
At the moment of final parting, Gregory merely took Annie's hand and looked into her eyes with an expression that caused them speedily to droop, tear-blinded.
To Hunting he had bowed his farewell in the parlor.
When the last object connected with his old home was hidden from his wistful, lingering gaze, he said, with the sorrow of one who watches the sod placed above the grave of his dearest, "So it all ends."
But when in his city apartments, which never before had seemed such a cheerless mockery of the idea of home, he opened the package Annie had given him—when he found a small, worn Bible, inscribed with the words, "To my dear little daughter Annie, from mother," and written beneath, in a child's hand, "I thank you, dear mother. I will read it every day"—he sprang up, and exclaimed it strongest feeling, "No, all has not ended yet."
When he became sufficiently calm he again took up the Bible, and found the leaves turned down at the 14th chapter of St. John, with the words, "Begin here."
He read, "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
"In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you."
"How sweetly—with what exquisite delicacy—she points me beyond the shadows of time!" he said, musingly. "I believe in God. I ever have. Then why not trust the 'Man of Sorrows,' who also must be God? Both Annie and her quaint old friend are right. He never turned one away who came sincerely. In Him who forgave the outcast and thief there glimmers hope for me. How thick the darkness as I look elsewhere. Lord Jesus," he cried, with a rush of tears, "I am palsied through sin: lift me up, that I may come to Thee."
Better for him that night than a glowing hearth with genial friends around it was Annie's Bible.
Looking at it fondly, he said, "It links me to her happy childhood before that false man came, and it may join me to her in the 'place' which God is preparing, when he who now deceives her is as far removed as sin."
AT SEA—A MYSTERIOUS PASSENGER
Immediately after Mr. Walton's funeral Miss Eulie had written to a brother-in-law, then, in Europe, full particulars of all that had occurred. This gentleman's name was Kemp, and he had originally married a sister of Miss Eulie and Mrs. Walton. But she had died some years since, and he had married as his second wife one who was an entire stranger to the Walton family, and with whom there could be but little sympathy. For this reason, though no unfriendliness existed, there had been a natural falling-off of the old cordial intimacy. Mr. Walton had respected Mr. Kemp as a man of sterling worth and unimpeachable integrity, and his feelings were shared by Miss Eulie and Annie, while Mr. Kemp himself secretly cherished a tender and regretful memory of his earlier marriage connection. When he heard that his niece, Annie, was orphaned, his heart yearned toward her, for he had always been fond of her as a child. But when he came to read of her relations with Hunting, and that this man was in charge of her property, he was in deep distress. He would have returned home immediately, but his wife's health would not permit his leaving her. He wrote to Miss Eulie a long letter of honest sympathy, urging her and Annie to come to him at Paris, saying that the change would be of great benefit to both.
This letter was expressed in such a way that it could be shown to Annie. But he inclosed another under seal to the aunt, marked private, in which by strong and guarded language he warned her against Hunting. He did not dare commit definite charges to writing, not knowing how much influence Hunting had over Miss Eulie. He felt sure that Annie would not listen to anything against her lover, and justly feared that she would inform him of what she heard, thus putting him on his guard, and increasing his power for mischief. Mr. Kemp's hope was to act through Miss Eulie, and get both her and Annie under his protection as soon as possible. He knew that when he was face to face with Annie he could prove to her the character of her lover, and through her compel him to resign his executorship. Therefore he solemnly charged Miss Eulie, as she loved Annie, not to permit her marriage with Hunting, and, as executrix, to watch his financial management closely.
Miss Eulie was greatly distressed by the contents of this letter. Mr. Kemp's words, combined with Gregory's manner, destroyed her confidence in Hunting, and made her feel that he might cause them irretrievable disaster. She knew her brother to be a man of honor, and when he wrote such words as these, "If Mr. Walton had known Hunting as I do he would rather have buried his daughter than permit her to marry him," she was sure that he did not speak unadvisedly.
"Moreover," Mr. Kemp wrote, "I am not giving my mere opinion of Hunting. I have absolute proof of what he is and has done."
But it was his opinion that it would not be safe to reveal to Annie the contents of this letter, as Hunting, in the desperation of his fears, might find means to compass a hasty marriage, or disastrously use his power over her property.
As we have seen, in quiet home-ministerings Miss Eulie had no superior, but she felt peculiarly timid and self-distrustful in dealing with matters like these. Her first impulse and her growing desire were that she and Annie might reach the shelter and protection of her brother. She did not understand business, and felt powerless to thwart Hunting.
Annie's spirits greatly flagged after her father's death. Hunting did not seem to have the power to comfort and help her that she had expected to find in him. She could not definitely find fault with a single act, save his treatment of Gregory; he was devotion itself to her, but it was to her alone. He proved no link between her and God. Even when in careful phrases he sought to use the "language of Canaan," he did not speak it as a native, and ever left a vague, unsatisfied pain in her heart. He was true and strong when he spoke of his own love. He was eloquent and glowing when his fancy painted their future home, but cold and formal in comparison when he dwelt on that which her Christian nature most needed in her deep affliction.
When Annie found that she could leave the children in charge of a careful, trustworthy relative, she was readily persuaded into the plan of going abroad. She felt the need of change, for her health had begun to fail, and she was sinking into one of those morbid states which are partly physical and partly mental.
Hunting, also, strongly approved of the project. Business would require him to visit Europe during the winter, and in having Annie as a companion he thought himself fortunate indeed. He felt sure that as soon as she regained her health and spirits she would consent to their marriage; moreover, it would place the sea between her and Gregory, thus averting all danger of disclosure. A trip abroad promised to further his interests in all respects. He knew nothing of Mr. Kemp save as a New York business man, and supposed that Mr. Kemp had only a general and favorable knowledge of himself.
For Annie's sake and her own Miss Eulie tried to prevent any marked change in her manner toward Hunting, and though she was not a very good actress he did not care enough about her to notice her occasional restraints and formality of manner. But Annie did, and it was another source of vague uneasiness and pain, though the causes were too intangible to speak of. She thought it possible that Gregory had prejudiced her aunt slightly. But it was her nature to prove all the more loyal to Hunting, especially when he was so devoted to her.
Before they could complete arrangements for departure, Annie was taken seriously ill, and January of the ensuing year had nearly passed before she was strong enough for the journey. During her illness no one could have been more kind and attentive than Hunting, and Annie felt exceedingly grateful. Still, in their prolonged and close intimacy since her father's death, something in the man himself had caused her love for him to wane. She had a growing consciousness that he was not what she had supposed. She reproached herself bitterly for this, and under the sense of the wrong she felt herself doing him, was disposed to show more deference to his wishes, and in justice to him to try to make amends. When, therefore, he again urged that the marriage take place before they sailed, giving as his reasons that he could take better care of her, and that henceforth she could be with him, and that he would not be compelled to leave her so often on account of his business, she was half inclined to yield. She felt that the marriage-tie would confirm her true feelings as a wife, and that it was hardly fair to ask him to be away from his large and exacting business so much, especially when he had appeared so generous in the time he had given her, which must have involved to him serious loss and inconvenience. She said to herself, "I shall be better and happier, and so will Charles, when I cease secretly finding fault with him, and devote myself unselfishly to making a good wife and a good home."
Hunting exultantly thought that he would carry his point, but Miss Eulie proved she was not that nonentity which, in his polite and attentive indifference, he had secretly considered her. With quiet firmness she said that, as Annie's natural guardian, she would not give her consent to the marriage. As a reason she said, "I think it would show a great lack of respect and courtesy to Annie's uncle and my brother, who is so fond of her, and has been so kind. I see no pressing need for the marriage now, for I am going with Annie and can take care of her as I have done. If it seems best, you can be married over there, and I know that Mr. Kemp would feel greatly hurt if we acted as if we were indifferent to his presence at the ceremony."
The moment her aunt expressed this view Annie agreed with her, and Hunting felt that he could not greatly complain, as the marriage would be delayed but a few weeks.
Annie felt absolved from her promise to Gregory by an event that occurred not very long after his departure. Gregory had sent a box, directed to Miss Eulie's care, containing some toys and books for the children, and the promised tobacco for Daddy Tuggar, also a note for Annie, inclosed in one to Miss Eulie, in which were these words only, "If you had searched the world you could not have given me anything that I would value more."
In his self-distrust, and in his purpose not to give the slightest ground for the imputation that he had sought her promise of delay to obtain time to gain a hearing himself, he had said no more. But Annie thought that he might have said more. The note seemed cold and brief in view of all that had passed between them. Still, she hoped much from the influence of her Bible.
One evening Hunting came up from the city evidently much disturbed. To her expressions of natural solicitude he replied, "I don't like to speak of it, for you seem to think that I ought to stand everything from Mr. Gregory. And so I suppose I ought, and indeed I was grateful, but one can't help having the natural feelings of a man. I was with some friends and met him face to face in an omnibus. Knowing how great was your wish that we should be friendly, I spoke courteously to him, but he looked at me as if I were a dog. He might as well have struck me. I saw that my friends were greatly surprised, but of course I could not explain there, and yet it's not pleasant to be treated like a pickpocket, with no redress. I defy him," continued Hunting, assuming the tone and manner of one greatly wronged, "to prove anything worse against me than that I compelled him and his partners to pay money to which I had a legal right, and which I could have collected in a court of law."
The politic Hunting said nothing of moral right, and innocent Annie was not on the lookout for such quibbles.
Her quick feelings were strongly stirred, and on the impulse of the moment she sat down and wrote:
"Mr. Gregory—I think your course toward Mr. Hunting to-day was not only unjust, but even ungentlemanly. You cannot hurt his feelings without wounding mine. I cannot help feeling that your hostility is both 'unreasonable and implacable.' In sadness and disappointment, "Annie Walton."
"There," she said, "read that, and please mail it for me."
"That's my noble Annie," he said, gratefully. "Now you prove your love anew, and show you will not stand quietly by and see me insulted."
"You may rest assured I will not," she said, promptly; adding very sadly after a moment, "I cannot understand how Mr. Gregory, with all his good qualities, can act so."
"You do not know him so well as I do," said Hunting; "and yet even I feel grateful to him for his services to you, and would show it if he would treat me decently."
"He shall treat you decently, and politely too, if he wishes to keep my favor," said she, hotly.
But the next day, when she thought it all over quietly, she regretted that she had written so harshly. "My words will not help my Bible's influence," she thought in self-reproach, "and only when he becomes a Christian will he show a different disposition."
Her regret would have been still deeper, if she had known that Hunting had sent her note with one from himself to this effect:
"You perceive from the inclosed that you cannot insult me as you did yesterday and still retain the favor of one whose esteem you value too highly perhaps. My only regret is that you were not a witness to the words and manner which accompanied the act of writing."
Still stronger would have been her indignation had she known that Hunting had greatly exaggerated his insult. Gregory had merely acted as if unconscious of his presence, and there had been no look of scorn.
When Gregory received the missives he tossed Hunting's contemptuously into the fire, but read Annie's more than once, sighed deeply, and said, "He keeps his ascendency over her. O God! quench not my spark of faith by permitting this great wrong to be consummated." Then he indorsed on her note, "Forgiven, my dear, deceived sister. You will understand in God's good time."
But he felt that God must unravel the problem, for Annie would listen to nothing against her lover.
She hoped that Gregory would write an explanation, or at least some words in self-defence, and then she meant to soften her hasty note, but no answer came. This increased her depression, and she was surprised at her strong and abiding interest in him. She could not understand how their eventful acquaintance should end as it promised to. Then came her illness, and through many long, sleepless hours, she thought of the painful mystery.
As she recovered strength of body and mind she felt that it was one of those things that she must trustingly put in God's hands and leave there. This she did, and resolutely and patiently addressed herself to the duties of her lot.
As for Gregory, from the first evening of his return to the city, he adopted the resolution in regard to Annie's Bible which she, as a little child, had written in it so many years ago, "I will read it every day."
It became his shrine and constant solace. Instead of going to his club, as was his former custom, he spent the long, quiet evenings in its study. The more he read the more fascinated he became by its rich and varied truths. Sometimes as he was tracing up a line of thought through its pages, so luminously and beautifully would it develop that it seemed to him that Annie and his mother, with unseen hands, were pointing the way. Though almost alone in the great city, he grew less and less lonely, and welcomed the shades of evening, that he might return to a place now sacred to him, where the gift Bible, like a living presence, awaited him.
His doubts and fears vanished slowly. His faith kindled even more slowly; but the teachings of that inspired Book gave him principle, true manhood, and strength to do right, no matter how he felt. He had honestly and sturdily resolved to be guided by it, and it did guide him. He was a Christian, though he did not know it, and would not presume to call himself such even to himself. In view of his evil past he was exceedingly humble and self-distrustful. As Mr. Walton had told poor old Daddy Tuggar, he was simply trying to "trust Jesus Christ and do the best he could."
But those associated with him in business, and many others, wondered at the change in him. Old Mr. Burnett, his senior partner, was especially delighted, and would often say to him, "I thank God, Mr. Gregory, that you nearly had your neck broken last October"; for the good old man associated this accident with the change.
Gregory also began attending church—not a gorgeous temple on Fifth Avenue, where he was not needed; but he hunted up an obscure and struggling mission, and said to the minister, "I am little better than a heathen, but if you will trust me I will do the best I can to help you."
Within a month, through his liberal gifts and energetic labors, the usefulness of the mission was almost doubled. It was touching to see him humbly and patiently doing the Lord's lowliest work, as if he were not worthy. He hoped that in time he might receive the glad assurance that he was accepted; but whether it came or not, he purposed to do the best he could, and leave his fate in God's hands. At any rate God seemed not against him, for both his business and his Christian work prospered.
One bright morning late in January, Annie, Miss Eulie, and Hunting were driven down, to the steamer, and having gone to their state-rooms and seen that their luggage was properly stowed away, they came up on deck to watch the scenes attending the departure of the great ship, and observe the views as they sailed down the bay. Hunting had told them to make the most of this part of the voyage, for in a winter passage it might be long before they could enjoy another promenade.
Annie was intensely interested, for all was new and strange. She had a keen, quick eye for character, and a human interest in humanity, even though those around her did not belong to her "set." Therefore it was with appreciative eyes that she watched the motley groups of her fellow-passengers waving handkerchiefs and exchanging farewells with equally diversified groups on the wharf.
"It seems," she said to her aunt, "as if all the world had sent their representatives here. It makes me almost sad that there is no one to see us off."
Then her eye rested upon a gentleman who evidently had no one to see him off. He was leaning on the railing upon the opposite side of the ship, smoking a cigar. His back was toward all this bustle and confusion, and he seemed to have an air of isolation and of indifference to what was going on about him. His tall person was clad in a heavy overcoat, which seemed to combine comfort with elegance, and gave to him, even in his leaning posture, a distingue air. But that which drew Annie's attention was the difference of his manner from that of all others, who were either excited by their surroundings, or were turning wistfully and eagerly toward friends whom it might be long before they saw again. The motionless, apathetic figure, smoking quietly, with his hat drawn down over his eyes, and looking away from everything and everybody, came to have a fascination for her.
The steamer slowly and majestically moved out into the stream. Shouts, cries, final words, hoarse orders from the officers—a perfect babel of sounds—filled the air, but the silently-curling smoke-wreaths were the only suggestion of life from that strangely indifferent form. He seemed like one so deeply absorbed in his own thoughts that he would have to be awakened as from sleep.
Suddenly he turned and came toward them with the air of one who feels himself alone, though jostled in a crowd, and instantly, with a strange thrill at heart, Annie recognized Walter Gregory.
Hunting saw him also, and Annie noted that, while the blackest frown gathered on his brow, he grew very pale.
In his absorption, Gregory would have passed by them, but Annie said, "Mr. Gregory, are you not going to speak to us?"
He started violently, and his face mantled with hot blood, and Annie also felt that she was blushing unaccountably. But he recovered instantly, and came and shook her hand most cordially, saying, "This is a strangely unexpected pleasure. And Miss Morton, also! When was I ever so fortunate before?"
Then he saw Hunting, to whom he bowed with his old, distant manner, and Hunting returned the acknowledgment in the most stiff and formal way.
"Do you know," said Annie, "I have been watching you with curiosity for some time past, though I did not know who you were till you turned. I could not account for your apathy and indifference to this scene, which to me is so novel and exciting, and which seems to find every one interested save yourself. I should hardly have thought you alive if you had not been smoking."
"Well," he said, "I have been abroad so often that it has become like crossing the ferry, and I was expecting no one down to see me off. But you do not look well;" and both she and Miss Eulie noticed that he glanced uneasily from her to Hunting, and did not seem sure how he should address her.
"Miss Walton has just recovered from a long illness," said Miss Eulie, quietly.
His face instantly brightened, and as quickly changed to an expression of sincerest sympathy.
"Not seriously ill, I hope," he said, earnestly.
"I'm afraid I was," replied Annie, adding, cheerfully, "I am quite well now, though."
His face became as pale as it had been flushed a moment before, and he said, in a low tone, "I did not know it."
His manner touched her, and proved that there was no indifference on his part toward her, though there might be to the bustling world around him.
Then he inquired particularly after each member of the household, and especially after old Daddy Tuggar.
Annie told him how delighted the children had been with the toys and books. "And as for Daddy Tuggar," she said, smiling, "he has been in the clouds, literally and metaphorically, ever since you sent him the tobacco. Whenever I go to see him he says, most cheerfully, 'It's all settled, Miss Annie. It grows clearer with every pipe' (while I can scarcely see him), 'I'm all right, 'cause I'm an awful sinner.'"
She was rather surprised at the look of glad sympathy which Gregory gave her, but he only said, "He is to be envied."
Then at her request he began to point out the objects of interest they were passing, and with quiet courtesy drew Hunting into the conversation, who rather ungraciously permitted it because he could not help himself.
Annie again, with pain, saw the unfavorable contrast of her lover with this man, who certainly proved himself the more finished gentleman, if nothing else.
With almost a child's delight she said, "You have no idea how novel and interesting all this is to me, though so old and matter-of-fact to you. I have always wanted to cross the ocean, and look forward to this voyage with unmingled pleasure."
"I'm sincerely sorry such a disastrous change is so soon to take place in your sensations, for it will be rough outside to-day, and I fear you and Miss Morton will soon be suffering from the most forlorn and prosaic of maladies."
"I won't give up to it," said Annie, resolutely.
"I have no doubt," he replied, humorously, "as our quaint old friend used to say, that you are 'well meanin',' but we must all submit to fate. I fear you will soon be confined to the dismal lower regions."
"Are you sick?"
"I was at first."
His prediction was soon verified. From almost a feeling of rapture and a sense of the sublime as they looked out upon the broad Atlantic with its tumultuous waves, the ladies suddenly became silent, and glanced nervously toward the stairway that led to the cabin.
Gregory promptly gave his arm to Miss Eulie, while Hunting followed with Annie, and that was the last appearance of the ladies for three days.
COLLISION AT SEA—WHAT A CHRISTIAN COULD DO
On the morning of the fourth day, as the sea had become more calm, the ladies ventured upon deck for a short time. Gregory immediately joined them and complimented their courage in coming out during a winter voyage.
"Nature and I are friends all the year round," said Annie, with a faint attempt at a smile, for she was still sick and faint. "I rather like her wild, rough moods. It has been a great trial to my patience to lie in my berth, helpless and miserable from what you well term a 'prosaic malady,' when I was longing to see the ocean. Now that we have made a desperate attempt to reach deck, there is nothing to see. Do you think this dense fog will last long?"
"I hope not, especially for your sake. But do not regret coming out, for you will soon feel better for it."
"I do already; I believe I could live out of doors. Have you been ill?"
"O no; I should have been a sailor."
"Mr. Hunting has fared almost as badly as we," said Annie, determined that they should make one group.
"Indeed! I'm sorry," said Gregory, quietly.
"I hate the ocean," snarled Hunting, with a grim, white face; "I'm always sick."
"And I'm afraid of it," said Miss Eulie. "How can they find their way through such a mist? Then, we might run into something."
"In any case you are safe, Miss Morton," said Gregory, with a smile.
She gave him a bright look and replied, "I trust we all are. But the sea is rough, boisterous, treacherous, and mysterious, just the qualities I don't like. What a perfect emblem of mystery this fog is through which we are going so rapidly!"
"Well," said Gregory, with one of his expressive shrugs, "I find all these experiences equally on the land, especially the latter."
Annie gave him a quick, inquiring look, while color came into even Hunting's pale face.
Annie felt no little curiosity as to Gregory's developing character, for though he had said nothing definite, his softened manner and quiet dignity made him seem very unlike his old self.
"How do you pass your time?" she asked.
"Well, I read a great deal, and I take considerable exercise, for I wish fully to regain my health."
She gave him a grateful look. He was keeping his promise. She said, "You look very much better than I expected to see you, and I'm very glad, for you were almost ghostly when you left us. What do you find so interesting to read?"
His color rose instantly, but he said with a smile, "A good old book that I brought with me."
The expression of his face answered her swift, questioning look. It was her Bible. Neither Miss Eulie nor Hunting understood why she became so quiet; but the latter, who was watching them closely, thought he detected some secret understanding. In his jealous egotism it could only mean what was adverse to himself, and he had an attack of something worse than sea-sickness.
Gregory quietly turned the conversation upon ocean travel, and for a half-hour entertained the ladies without any effort on their part, and then they went back to their state-rooms.
By evening the ship was running so steadily that they all came out to supper. Gregory, who was a personal friend of the captain, had secured them a place near the head of the table, where they received the best of attention. Annie, evidently, was recovering rapidly, and took a genuine interest in the novel life and scenes around her. She found herself vis-a-vis and side by side with great diversities of character, and listened with an amused, intelligent face to the brisk conversation. She noted with surprise that Gregory seemed quite a favorite, but soon saw the reason in his effort to make the hour pass pleasantly to his fellow-passengers. The captain had given him a seat at his right hand, and appealed to him on every disputed point that was outside of his special province.
She was also pleased to see how Gregory toned up the table-talk and skilfully led it away from disagreeable topics. But he had a rather difficult task, for, sitting near her, was a man whose ostentatious dress reflected his character and words.
Some one was relating an anecdote of a narrow escape, and another remarked, "That's what I should call a special Providence."
"Special Providence!" said Annie's loud neighbor, contemptuously. "A grown man is very weak-minded to believe in any Providence whatever."
There was a shocked, pained expression on many faces, and Annie's eyes flashed with indignation. She turned to Hunting, expecting him to resent such an insult to their faith, but saw only a cold sneer on his face. Hunting was decidedly English in his style, and would travel around the world and never speak to a stranger, or make an acquaintance, if he could help it. Then, instinctively, she turned to Gregory. He was looking fixedly at the man, whose manner had attracted general attention. But he only said, "Then I am very weak-minded."
There was a general expression of pleased surprise and sympathy on the faces of those who understood his reply, while the captain stared at him in some astonishment.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said the man; "I meant nothing personal. It was only a rather blunt way of saying that I didn't believe in any such things myself."
"I give you credit for your honesty, but some of us do."
"Then you pretend to be a Christian?"
"I should not pretend to be one under any circumstances," said Gregory, with the perfection of quiet dignity, "and I am very sorry to say that I am not so favored. But I have full belief in a Providence, both special and general."
"I like your honesty, too," said the man, seemingly anxious for an argument. "By the word 'pretend' I only meant claim, or assert. But it seems to me that the facts in the case are all against your belief. I find nothing but law in the universe. You might as well say that this ship is run by special Providence, when, in fact, it is run by accurately gauged machinery, system, and rules."
"Now your argument is lame," said the captain, laughing. "We have plenty of good machinery, system, and rules aboard, but if I wasn't around, looking after everything all the time, as a special Providence, I'm afraid you'd find salt water before Liverpool."
A general laugh followed this sally, and Gregory said: "And so I believe that the Divine Providence superintends His own laws and system. I think my friend the captain has given a most happy illustration of the truth, and I had no idea he was so good a theologian."
"That's not an argument," said the man, considerably crestfallen. "That's only a joke."
"By the way, Mr. Gregory, it seems to me that your views have changed since you crossed with me last," remarked the captain.
"I frankly admit they have," was the prompt reply. "Perhaps I can explain myself by the following question: If you find, by a careful observation, that you are heading your ship the wrong way, what do you do?"
"Put her about on the right course."
"That is just what I have tried to do, sir. I think my meaning is plain?"
"Nothing could be clearer, and I'd rather be aboard now than when you were on the old tack."
Annie gave Gregory a glance of glad, grateful approval that warmed his heart like sunshine.
Hunting said, enviously, sotto voce, "I think such conversation at a public table wretched taste."
"I cannot agree with you," said Annie, decidedly; "but, granting it, Mr. Gregory did not introduce the subject, and I wish you had spoken as he did when every Christian at the table was insulted."
He colored deeply, but judiciously said nothing.
With increasing pain she thought, "He who says he is not a Christian acts more like one than he who claims the character."
But she now had the strongest hopes for Gregory, and longed for a private talk with him.
The next day it blew quite a gale, and Hunting and Miss Eulie were helplessly confined to their staterooms. But Annie had become a sailor, and having done all she could for her aunt, came upon deck, where she saw Gregory walking back and forth with almost the steadiness of one of the ship's officers.
She tried to go to him, but would have fallen had he not seen her and reached her side almost at a bound. With a gentleness and tenderness as real as delicate, he placed her in a sheltered nook where she could see the waves in their mad sport, and said, "Now you can see old ocean in one of his best moods. The wind, though strong, is right abaft, filling all the sails they dare carry, and we are making grand progress."
"How wonderful it is!" cried Annie, looking with a child's interest upon the scene. "Just see those briny mountains, with foam and spray for foliage. If our own Highlands with their mingled evergreens and snow were changed from granite to water, and set in this wild motion, it could hardly seem more strange and sublime. Look at that great monster coming so threateningly toward us. It seems as if we should be engulfed beyond a chance."
"Now see how gracefully the ship will surmount it," said Gregory, smiling.
"O dear!" said she, sighing, "if we could only rise above our troubles in the same way!" Then, feeling that she had touched on delicate ground, she hastened to add, "This boundless waste increases my old childish wonder how people ever find their way across the ocean."
"The captain is even now illustrating your own teaching and practice in regard to the longer and more difficult voyage of life," said Gregory, meaningly. "He is 'looking up'—taking an observation of the heavens, and will soon know just where we are and how to steer."
Annie looked at him wistfully, and said, in a low tone, "I was so glad to learn, last evening, that you had taken an observation also, and I was so very grateful, too, that you had the courage to defend our faith."
"I have to thank you that I could do either. It was really you who spoke."
"No, Mr. Gregory," she said, gently, "my work for you reached its limit. God is leading you now."
"I try to hope so," he said; "but it was your hand that placed in mine that by which He is leading me. He surely must have put it into your heart to give me that Bible. When I reached my cheerless rooms in New York I felt so lonely and low-spirited that I had not the courage to go a single step further. But your Bible became a living, comforting presence from that night. What exquisite tact you showed in giving me that little worn companion of your childhood, instead of a new gilt- leaved one, with no associations. I first hoped that you might with it give me also something of your childhood's faith. But that does not come yet. That does not come."
"It will," said she, earnestly, and with moistened eyes.
"That, now, is one of my dearest hopes. But after what I have been, I am not worthy that it should come soon. But if I perish myself I want to try to help others."
Then he asked, in honest distrustfulness, "Do you think it right for one who is not a Christian to try to teach others?"
"Before I answer that question I wish to ask a little more about yourself;" and she skilfully drew him out, he speaking more openly in view of the question to be decided than he would otherwise have done. He told of the long evenings spent over her Bible; of his mission work, and of his honest effort to deal justly with all; at the same time dwelling strongly on his doubts and spiritual darkness, and the unspent influences of his old evil life.
The answer was different from what he expected; for she said: "Mr. Gregory, why do you say that you are not a Christian?"
"Because I feel that I am not."
"Does feeling merely make a Christian?" she asked. "Is not action more than feeling? Do not trusting, following, serving, and seeking to obey, make a Christian? But suppose that even with your present feeling you were living at the time of Christ's visible presence on earth, would you be hostile or indifferent, or would you join His band even though small and despised?"
"I think I would do the latter, if permitted."
"I know you would, from your course last night. And do you think Jesus would say, 'Because you are not an emotional man like Peter, you are no friend of mine'? Why, Mr. Gregory, He let even Judas Iscariot, though with unworthy motive, follow Him as long as he would, giving him a chance to become true."
"Miss Walton, do not mislead me in this matter. You know how implicitly I trust you."
"And I would rather cast myself over into those waves than deceive you," she said; "and if I saw them swallowing you up I should as confidently expect to meet you again, as my father. How strange it is you can believe that Jesus died for you and yet will not receive you when you are doing just that which He died to accomplish."
He took a few rapid turns up and down the deck and then leaned over the railing. She saw that he brushed more than one tear into the waves. At last he turned and gave his hand in warm pressure, saying, "I cannot doubt you, and I will doubt Him no longer. I see that I have wronged Him, and the thought causes me sorrow even in my joy."
"Now you are my brother in very truth," she said, gently, with glad tears in her own eyes. "All that we have passed through has not been in vain. How wonderfully God has led us!"
It was a long time before either spoke again.
At last he said, with a strange, wondering smile, "To think that such as I should ever reach heaven! As Daddy Tuggar says, 'there will be good neighbors there.'"
She answered him by a happy smile, and then both were busy with their own thoughts again. Annie was thinking how best to introduce the subject so near her heart, his reconciliation with Hunting.
But that gentleman had become so tortured with jealousy and so alarmed at the thought of any prolonged conference between Annie and Gregory, that he dragged himself on deck. As he watched them a moment before they saw him, he was quite reassured. Gregory was merely standing near Annie, and both were looking away to sea, as if they had nothing special to say to each other. Annie was pained to see that Gregory's manner did not change toward Hunting. He was perfectly polite, but nothing more; soon he excused himself, thinking they would like to be alone.
In the afternoon she found a moment to say, "Mr. Gregory, will you never become reconciled to Mr. Hunting? You surely cannot hate him now?"
He replied, gravely, "I do not hate him any longer. I would do him any kindness in my power, and that is a great deal for me to say. But Mr. Hunting has no real wish for reconciliation."
In bitter sorrow she was compelled to admit to herself the truth of his words. After a moment he added, "If he does he knows the exact terms on which it can be effected."
She could not understand it, and reproached herself bitterly that so many doubts in regard to her affianced would come unbidden, and force themselves on her mind. The feeling grew stronger that there was wrong on both sides, and perhaps the more on Hunting's.
That was a memorable day to Gregory. It seemed to him that Annie's hand had drawn aside the sombre curtain of his unbelief, and shown the path of light shining more and more unto the perfect day. Though comparatively lonely, he felt that his pilgrimage could not now be unhappy, and that every sorrow would at last find its cure. In regard to her earthly future he could only hope and trust. It would be a terrible trial to his faith if she were permitted to marry Hunting, and yet he was sure it would all be well at last; for was it not said that God's people would come to their rest out of "great tribulation"? She had given him the impression that, under any circumstances, her love for him could only be sisterly in its character.
But he was too happy in his new-born hope to think of much else that day; and, finding a secluded nook, he searched Annie's Bible for truths confirmatory of her words. On every side they glowed as in letters of light. Then late that night he went on deck, and in his strong excitement felt as if walking on air in his long, glad vigil.
At last, growing wearied, he leaned upon the railing and looked out upon the dark waves—not dark to him, for the wanderer at last had seen the light of his heavenly home, and felt that it would cheer his way till the portals opened and received him into rest.
Suddenly, upon the top of a distant wave, something large and white appeared, and then sank into an ocean valley. Again it rose—a sail, then the dark hull of a ship.
In dreamy musing he began, wondering how, in mid-ocean, with so many leagues of space, two vessels should cross each other's track so near. "It's just the same with human lives," he thought. "A few months or years ago, people that I never knew, and might have passed on the wider ocean of life, unknowing and uncaring, have now come so near! Why is it? Why does that ship, with the whole Atlantic before it, come so steadily toward us?"
It did come so steadily and so near that a feeling of uneasiness troubled him, but he thought that those in charge knew their business better than he.
A moment later he started forward. The ship that had come so silently and phantom-like across the waves seemed right in the path of the steamer.
Was it not a phantom?
No; there's a white face at the wheel—the man is making a sudden, desperate effort—it's too late.
With a crash like thunder the seeming phantom ship plows into the steamer's side.
For a moment Gregory was appalled, stunned; and stared at the fatal intruder that fell back in strong rebound, and dropped astern.
Then he became conscious of the confusion, and awakening uproar on both vessels. Cries of agony, shouts of alarm, and hoarse orders pierced the midnight air. He ran forward and saw the yawning cavern which the blow had made in the ship's side, and heard the rush of water into the hold. Across the chasm he saw the captain's pale face looking down with a dismay like his own.
"The ship will sink, and soon," Gregory shouted.
There was no denial.
Down to the startled passengers he rushed, crying, "Awake! Escape for your lives!"
His words were taken up and echoed in every part of the ship.
He struck a heavy blow upon the door of Annie's stateroom. "Miss Walton!"
"Oh, what has happened?" she asked.
"You and Miss Morton come on deck, instantly; don't stop to dress; snatch a shawl—anything. Lose not a moment. What is Hunting's number?"
"Forty, on the opposite side."
"I will be back in a moment; be ready."
Hunting's state-room was so near where the steamer had been struck that its door was jammed and could not be opened.
"Help! help! I can't get out," shrieked the terrified man.
Gregory wrenched a leaf from a dining-room table and pried the door open.
"Come," he said, "you've no time to dress."
Hunting wrapped his trembling form in a blanket and gasped, as he followed, "I'll pay you back every cent of that money with interest."
"Make your peace with God. We may soon be before Him," was the awful response.
Miss Eulie and Annie stood waiting, draped in heavy shawls.
"I'm sorry for the delay; Hunting's door was jammed and had to be broken open. Come;" and putting his arm around Miss Eulie and taking Annie's hand, he forced them rapidly through the increasing throng of terror-stricken passengers that were rushing in all directions.
Even then, with a strange thrill at heart, Annie thought, "He has saved his enemy's life."
He took them well aft, and said, "Don't move; stand just here until I return," and then pushed his way to the point where a frantic crowd were snatching for the life preservers which were being given out. The officer, knowing him, tossed him four as requested.
Coming back, he said to Hunting, "Fasten that one on Miss Morton and keep the other." Throwing down his own for a moment, he proceeded to fasten Annie's. He would not trust the demoralized Hunting to do anything for her, and he was right, for Hunting's hands so trembled that he was helpless. Having seen that Annie's was secured beyond a doubt, Gregory also tied on Miss Eulie's.
In the meantime a passenger snatched his own preserving-belt, which he had been trying to keep by placing his foot upon it.
"Stop," Annie cried. "O Mr. Gregory! he has taken it and you have none. You shall have mine;" and she was about to unfasten it.
He laid a strong grasp upon her hands. "Stop such folly," he said, sternly. "Come to where they are launching that boat. You have no choice;" and he forced her forward while Hunting followed with Miss Eulie.
They stood waiting where the lantern's glare fell upon their faces, with many others more pale and agonized.
Annie clung to him as her only hope (for Hunting seemed almost paralyzed with fear), and whispered, "Will you the same as die for me again?"
"Yes, God bless you! a thousand times if there were need," he said, in tones whose gentleness equalled the harshness of his former words.
She looked at him wonderingly. There was no fear upon his face, only unspeakable love for her.
"Are you not afraid?" she asked.
"You said I was a Christian to-day, and your Bible and God's voice in my heart have confirmed your words. No, I am at peace in all this uproar, save anxiety for you."
She buried her face upon his shoulder.
"My darling sister!" he murmured in her ear. "How can I ever thank you enough?"
Then he started suddenly, and tearing off the cape of his coat, said to Hunting, "Fasten that around Miss Morton;" and before Annie quite knew what he was doing he had taken off the body part and incased her in it.
"Here, Hunting, your belt is not secure"; and he tightened the straps.
"Pass the women forward," shouted the captain.
Of course those nearest were embarked first. The ladies in Gregory's charge had to take their turn, and the boat was about full when Miss Eulie was lowered over the side.
At that moment the increasing throng, with a deeper realization of danger, as the truth of their situation grew plainer, felt the first mad impulse of panic, and there was a rush toward the boat. Hunting felt the awful contagion. His face had the look of a hunted wild beast. Annie gazed wonderingly at him, but as he half-started with the others for the boat she understood him. Laying a restraining hand upon his arm, she said, in a low tone, "If you leave my side now, you leave it forever."
He cowered back in shame.
The officer in charge of the boat had shouted, "This boat is for women and children; as you are men and not brutes, stand back."
This checked the desperate mob for a moment, and Gregory was about to pass Annie down when there was another mad rush led by the blatant individual who had scouted the idea of Providence.
"Cut away all," shouted the captain from the bridge, and the boat dropped astern.
It was only by fierce effort that Gregory kept himself and Annie from being carried over the side by the surging mass, many of whom leaped blindly over, supposing the boat to be still there.
Pressing their way out they went where another boat was being launched. Hunting followed them like a child, and was as helpless. He now commenced moaning, "O God! what shall I do? what shall I do?"
"Trust Him, and be a man. What else should you do?" said Gregory, sternly, for he was deeply disgusted at Hunting's behavior.
Around this boat the officer in charge had placed a cordon of men to keep the crowd away, and stood pistol in hand to enforce his orders. But the boat was scarcely lowered before there was the same wild rush, mostly on the part of the crew and steerage passengers. The officer fired and brought down the foremost, but the frenzied wretches trampled him down with those helping, together with women and children, as a herd of buffaloes might have done. They poured over into the boat, swamped it, and as the steamer moved slowly ahead, were left struggling and perishing in the waves.
Gregory had put his arm around Annie and drawn her out of the crush. Fortunately they had been at one side, so that this was possible.
"The boats are useless," he said, sadly. "There will be the same suicidal folly at every one, even if they have time to lower any more. Come aft. That part will sink last, and there will be less suction there when the ship goes down. We may find something that will keep us afloat."
Annie clung to his arm and said, quietly, "I will do just as you say," while Hunting followed in the same maze of terror.
They had hardly got well away before a mast, with its rigging, fell where they had stood, crushing many and maiming others, rendering them helpless.
"Awful! awful" shuddered Hunting, and Annie put her hands before her eyes.
An officer, with some men, now came toward them with axes, and commenced breaking up the after wheelhouse.
"Here is our best chance," said Gregory. "Let us calmly await the final moment and then do the best we can. All this broken timber will float, and we can cling to it."
The ship was settling fast, and had become like a log upon the water, responding slowly and heavily to the action of the waves. But under the cold, pitiless starlight of that winter night, what heartrending scenes were witnessed upon her sinking deck! Death had already laid its icy finger on many, and many more were grouped near in despairing expectation of the same fate.
While many, like Hunting, were almost paralyzed with fear, and others shrieked and cried aloud in agony—while some prayed incoherently, and others rushed back and forth as if demented—there were not wanting numerous noble examples of faith and courage. Fortunately, there were not many ladies on board, and most of these proved that woman's fortitude is not a poetic fiction. One or two family groups stood near in close embrace, and some men calmly folded their arms across their breasts, and met their fate as God would have them.
Annie was conscious of a strange peace and hopefulness. She thrilled with the thought which she expressed to Gregory—"How soon I may see father and mother!"
She stood now with one hand on Hunting's trembling arm, for at that supreme moment her heart was very tender, and she pitied while she wondered at him. But Gregory was a tower of strength. He took her hand in both his own, and said, "I can say the same, and more. Both father and mother are awaiting me—and, Annie," he whispered, tenderly, "you, too, will be there. So, courage! 'Good neighbors,' soon."
Why did her heart beat so strangely at his words?
"O God! have mercy on me!" groaned the man who had seemed, but was not.
"Amen!" breathed both Annie and Gregory, fervently.
Suddenly they felt themselves lifted in the air, and, looking toward the bow, saw it going under, while what seemed a great wave came rolling toward them, bearing upon its dark crest white, agonized faces and struggling forms.
Annie gave a swift, inquiring look to Gregory. His face was turned heavenward, in calm and noble trust.
Hunting's wild cry mingled with the despairing shriek of many others, but ended in a gurgling groan as he and all sank beneath the waters.
It seemed that they passed through miles of water that roared around them like a cataract. But Annie and Gregory held to each other in their strong, convulsive grasp, and her belt caused him to rise with her to the surface again. A piece of the wheelhouse floated near; Gregory swam for it, and pushing it to Annie helped her upon it. Hunting also grasped it. But it would not sustain the weight of all three, especially as Gregory had no preserver on.
One must leave it that the other two might escape.
"Good-by, Annie, darling," said Gregory. "We will meet again in heaven if not on earth. Cling to your plank as long as you can, and a boat may pick you up. Good-by, poor Hunting, I'm sorry for you."
"What are you going to do?" gasped Annie.
"Don't you see that this won't float all three? I shall try to find something else."
"No, no," cried Annie, "don't leave me: you have no belt on. If you go I will too."
"I once lived for your sake; now you must for mine. I may save myself; but if you leave we shall both drown. Good-by, dearest. If I reach home first, I'll watch and wait till you come."
She felt him kiss her hand where she clung to her frail support, and then he disappeared in the darkness.
"Why did you let him go?" she said to Hunting—"you who have a preserver on?"
"O God, have mercy on me!" groaned the wretched man.
Annie now gave up all hope of escape, and indeed wished to die. She was almost sure that Gregory had perished, and she felt that her best- loved ones were in heaven.
She would have permitted herself to be washed away had not a sense of duty to live until God took her life kept her firm. But every moment it seemed that her failing strength would give way, and her benumbed hands loosen their hold.
"But," she murmured in the noblest triumph of faith, "I shall sink, not in these cold depths, but into my Saviour's arms."
Toward the last, when alone in the very presence of death, He seemed nearest and dearest. She could not bear to look at the dark, angry waters strewn with floating corpses. She had a sickening dread that Gregory's white face might float by. So she closed her eyes, and only thought of heaven, which was so near that its music seemed to mingle with the surging of the waves.
She tried to say a comforting word to Hunting, but the terror-stricken man could only groan mechanically, "God have mercy on me!"
Soon she began to grow numb all over. A dreamy peace pervaded her mind, and she was but partially conscious.
She was aroused by hearing her name called. Did the voice come from that shore beyond all dark waves of earthly trouble? At first she was not sure.
Again and louder came the cry, but too full of human agony to be a heavenly voice—
"Here!" she cried, faintly, while Hunting, helpful for once, shrieked aloud above the roar of the waves.
Then she heard the sound of oars, and a moment later strong hands lifted her into the boat, and she found herself in Gregory's arms, her head pillowed on his breast. Then all grew dark.
When she again became conscious she found herself in a small cabin, with many others in like pitiable plight. Her aunt was bending over her on one side and Gregory on the other, chafing her hands. At first she could not remember or understand, and stared vacantly at them.
"Annie, darling," said Miss Eulie, "don't you know me?"
Then glad intelligence dawned in her face, and she reached out her arms, and each clasped the other as one might receive the dead back to life.
But quickly she turned and asked, "Where is Mr. Gregory?"
"Here, safe and sound," he said, joyously, "and Hunting, too. I shall bless him all the days of my life, for his cries drowned old ocean's hoarse voice and brought us right to you."
Hunting looked as if he did not exactly relish the tribute, but he stooped down and kissed Annie, who permitted rather than received the caress.
"How did you escape?" she asked Gregory, eagerly.
"Well, I swam toward the ship that struck us, whose lights I saw twinkling in the distance, till almost exhausted. I was on the point of giving up, when a small piece of the wreck floated near. By a great effort I succeeded in reaching it. Then a little later a boat from this ship picked me up and we started after you or any others that could be found. I am glad to say that quite a number that went down with the ship were saved."
She looked at him in a way to bring the warm blood into his face, and said, in a low tone, "How can I ever repay yon?"
"By doing as you once said to me, 'Live! get strong and well.' Good-by now. Miss Morton will take care of you."
Her eyes followed him till he disappeared, then she turned and hid her face on Miss Eulie's shoulder. The good old lady was a little puzzled, and so was Hunting, though he had dismal forebodings. But he was so glad to have escaped that he could not indulge in very bitter regrets just then. As his mind recovered its poise, however, and he had time to think it all over, there came a sickening sense of humiliation.
In a few minutes Gregory returned and said to Annie, "See how honored you are. I've been so lucky as to get the captain's best coat for you, and those wet things that would chill you to death can be taken off. You can give my coat to Hunting. You see I was up at the time of the accident, and so am dressed."
"If I am to wear the captain's coat," said Annie, "then, with some of his authority, I order you to go and take care of yourself. You have done enough for others for a little while."
"Ay, ay, captain," said Gregory, smiling, as he again vanished.
It would only be painful to dwell on the dreary days and nights during which the comparatively small sailing vessel was beating back against a stormy wind to the port from which she had sailed. She had been much injured by the collision, and many were doubtful whether, after all, they would ever see land. Thus, to the manifold miseries of the rescued passengers, was added continued anxiety as to their fate. It was, indeed, a sad company that was crowded in that small cabin, half- clothed, bruised, sick, and fearful. What seemed to them an endless experience was but a long nightmare of trouble, while some, who had lost their best and dearest, refused to be comforted and almost wished they had perished also.
Annie's gratitude that their little party had all been spared grew stronger every hour, and the one through whose efforts they had been saved grew daily dearer.
At first she let her strong affection go out to him unchecked, not realizing whither she was drifting; but a little characteristic event occurred which revealed her to herself.
Her exposure had again caused quite a serious illness, and she saw little of Gregory for a few days. Hunting claimed his right to be with her as far as it was possible. Though she would not admit it to herself, she almost shrunk from him. Of course the sailing ship had been provisioned for only a comparatively small crew, and the sudden and large accession to the number threatened to add the terrors of famine to their other misfortunes.
Annie had given almost all of her allowance away. Indeed she had no appetite, and revolted at the coarse food served. But she noticed that Hunting ate all of his, or else put some quietly away, in view of future need. She said to him, upon this occasion, "Can't you spare a little of your portion for those poor people over there? They look half-famished."
"I will do so if you wish," he replied, "but it would hardly be wise. Think what tremendous business interests I represent, and it is of the first importance that I keep up."
"Mr. Gregory is almost starving himself," said Miss Eulie, quietly. "I feel very anxious about him."
"I represent a business of thousands where Mr. Gregory does hundreds," said Hunting, complacently.
"I wish you represented something else," said Annie, bitterly, turning away.
Her words and manner jostled him out of himself. A principle that seemed to him so sound and generally accepted appeared sordid and selfish calculation to Annie and she felt that Gregory represented infinitely greater riches in his self-denial for others.
Hunting saw his blunder and instantly carried all his portion to those whom Annie had pointed out. But it was too late. He had shown his inner nature again in a way that repelled Annie's very soul. She turned sick at the thought of being bound to such a man.
At first she had tried to excuse his helpless terror on the ship by thinking it a physical trait; but this was a moral trait. It gave a sudden insight into the cold, dark depths of his nature.
Immediately after the disaster she had been too sick and bewildered to realize her situation. Her engagement was such an old and accepted fact that at first no thought of any other termination of it than by marriage entered her mind. Yet she already looked forward to it only as a duty, and she felt that her love for Hunting would be that of pity rather than trust and honor. But she was so truthful—so chained by her promises—that her engagement rested upon her like a solemn obligation. Again, it had been entered into under circumstances so tenderly sacred that even the wish to escape from it seemed like sacrilege. Still, she said, in intense bitterness, "Dear father was deceived also. We did not know him as we should."
Yet she had nothing against Hunting, save a growing lack of congeniality and his cowardice at a time when few men could be heroic. In her strong sense of justice she felt that she should not condemn a man for an infirmity. But her cheeks tingled with shame as she remembered his weakness, and she felt that a Christian ought to have done a little better under any circumstances. When, in the event above described, she saw his hard, calculating spirit, her whole nature revolted from him almost in loathing.
After a brief time she told him that she wanted to be alone, and he went away cursing his own folly. Miss Eulie, thinking she wished to sleep, also left her.
"How can I marry him?" she groaned; "and yet how can I escape such an engagement?"
When her aunt returned she found her sobbing as if her heart would break.
"Why, Annie, dear, what is the matter?" she asked.
"Don't ask me," she moaned, and buried her face in her pillow.
Then that judicious lady looked very intelligent, but said nothing more. She sat down and began to stroke Annie's brown, dishevelled hair. But instead of showing very great sympathy for her niece, she had an unusually complacent expression. Gregory had a strong but discreet friend in the camp.
When Annie became calmer, she said, hesitatingly, "Do you think—is Mr. Gregory—doesn't he eat anything?"
"No; he is really wronging himself. I heard it said that the captain had threatened, jokingly, to put him in irons if he did not obey orders and eat his allowance."
"Do you think I could make—do you think he would do better if I should ask him?" inquired Annie, with her face buried in her pillow.
"Well," said Miss Eulie, gravely, though with a smile upon her face, "Mr. Gregory is very self-willed, especially about some things, but I do think that you have more power over him than any one else."
"Won't you tell him that I want to see him?"
He was very glad to come. Annie tried hard to be very firm and composed, but, with her red eyes and full heart, did not succeed very well.
At first he was a little embarrassed by her close scrutiny, for she had wrought herself up into the expectation of seeing a gaunt, famine- stricken man. But his cheeks, though somewhat hollow, were ruddy, and his face was bronzed by exposure. Instead of being pained by his cadaverous aspect, she was impressed by his manly beauty; but she said, "I have sent for you that I might give you a scolding."
"I'm all meekness," he said, a little wonderingly.
"Aunty tells me that you don't eat anything."
"That is just what she says of you."
"But I'm ill and can't eat."
"Neither can I."
"How can a man eat when there are hungry women aboard? It would choke me."
Instead of scolding him, she again buried her face in her pillow, and burst into tears.
He was a little perplexed, but said, gently, "Come, my dear little sister, I hope you are not worrying about me. I assure you there is no cause. I never felt better, and the worst that can happen is a famine in England when I reach. It grieves me to the heart to see you so pale and weak. The captain says I have a bad conscience, but it's only anxiety for you that makes me so restless."
"Do you stay upon deck all night this bitter weather?"
"Well, I want to be ready if anything should happen."
"O Walter, Walter! how I have wronged you!"
"No, beg your pardon, you have righted me. What was I when I first knew you, Annie Walton? There is some chance of my being a man now. But come, let me cheer you up. I have good news for you. If I had lost every dollar on that ship I should still be rich, for your little Bible (I shall always call it yours) remained safe in my overcoat pocket, and you brought it aboard. Now let me read you something that will comfort you. I find a place where it is written, 'Begin here.' Can you account for that?"
And he read that chapter, so old but inexhaustible, beginning, "Let not your heart be troubled."
Having finished it, he said, "I will leave my treasure with you, as you may wish to read some yourself. In regard to the subject of the 'scolding,' which, by the way, I have not yet received, if Miss Morton here can tell me that you are eating more, I will. Good-by."
Annie's appetite improved from that hour. She seized upon the old Bible and turned its stained leaves with the tenderest interest. As she did so, her harsh note to Gregory, written when Hunting complained that he had been insulted, dropped out. How doubly harsh and unjust her words seemed now! Then she read his words, "Forgiven, my dear, deceived sister." She kissed them passionately, then tore the note to fragments.
Miss Eulie watched her curiously, then stole away with another smile. She liked the spell that was acting now, but knew Annie too well to say much. Miss Eulie was one of those rare women who could let a good work of this kind go on without meddling.
Annie did not read the Bible, but only laid it against her cheek. Then Hunting came back looking very discontented, for he had managed to catch glimpses of her interview with Gregory.
"Shall I read to you from that book?" he said.
She shook her head.
"You seemed to enjoy having Mr. Gregory read it to you," he said, meaningly.
Color came into her pale face, but she only said, "He did not stay long. I'm ill and tired."
"It's rather hard, Annie," he continued, with a deeply injured air, "to see another more welcome at your side than I am."
"What do you mean?" she asked, in a sudden passion. "How much time has Mr. Gregory been with me since he saved both our lives? You heard my father say that I should be a sister to him; and yet I believe that you would like me to become a stranger. Have you forgotten that but for him you would have been at the bottom of the Atlantic? There, there, leave me now, I'm weak and ill—leave me till we both can get into better moods."
Pale with suppressed shame and anger, he went away, wishing in the depth of his soul that Gregory was at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Again she buried her face in her pillow and sobbed and moaned, "How can I marry that man! He makes my very flesh creep."
Then for the first time came the swift thought, "I could marry Gregory; I'm happy the moment I'm near him;" and her face burned as did the thought in her heart.
Then she turned pale with fear at herself. A sudden sense of guilt alarmed her, for she had the feeling that she belonged to Hunting. So solemn had been her engagement that the thought of loving another seemed almost like disloyalty to the marriage-tie. With a despairing sigh, she murmured, "Chained, chained."
Then strongly arose the womanly instinct of self-shielding, and the purpose to hide her secret. An hour before, Gregory could not come too often. He might have stooped down and as a brother kissed her lips, and she would not have thought it strange or unnatural. Now she dreaded to see him. And yet when would he be out of her thoughts? She hoped and half-believed that he was beginning to regard her as a sister, and still, deep in her soul, this thought had an added sting of pain.
Ah, Annie! you thought you loved before, but a master-spirit has now come who will stir depths in your nature of which neither you nor Hunting dreamed.
Hunting, seemingly, had no further cause to be jealous of Gregory during the rest of the voyage. With the whole strength of her proud, resolute nature, Annie guarded her secret. She sent kind messages to Gregory, and returned the Bible, but did not ask him to visit her again. Neither did she come on deck herself till they were entering the harbor of an English port.
When Gregory came eagerly toward her, though her face flushed deeply, she greeted him with a kind and gentle dignity, which, nevertheless, threw a chill upon his heart. All the earnest words he meant to say died upon his lips, and gave way to mere commonplaces. Drawing her heavy shawl about her, she sat down and looked back toward the sea as if regretting leaving it with all its horrors. He thought, "When have I seen such a look of patient sorrow on any human face? She saw the love I could not hide at our last interview. I did not deceive her by calling her 'sister.' Her great, generous heart is grieving because of my hopeless love, while in the most delicate manner she reminds me how vain it is. Now I know why she did not send for me again."