He walked away from the little group pale and faint, and she could not keep back the hot tears as she watched him. Miss Eulie was also observant, and saw how they misunderstood each other. But she acted as if blind, feeling that quickly coming events would right everything better than any words of hers.
Gregory went to another part of the vessel, and leaned over the railing. Annie noticed with an absorbing interest that he seemed as indifferent to the delight of the passengers at the prospect of soon being on land, and the bustle on the wharf, as he had appeared at the commencement of the voyage. But she rightly guessed that there was tumult at his heart. There certainly was at hers. When the vessel dropped anchor and they would soon go ashore, he turned with the resolve, "I will show her that I can bear my hard lot like a man," and again came toward them, a proud and courteous gentleman.
Annie saw and understood the change, and her heart was chilled by a sense of loneliness and isolation greater than if the stormy Atlantic had rolled between them. And yet his manner toward her was very gentle, very considerate.
He took charge of Miss Eulie, and soon they were at the best hotel in the place. The advent of the survivors caused great excitement in the city, and they were all overwhelmed with kindness and sympathy.
After a few hours Gregory returned to the hotel, dressed in quiet elegance, and he seemed to Annie the very ideal of manhood; while she, in her mourning robes, seemed to him the perfection of womankind. But their manner toward each other was very quiet, and only Miss Eulie guessed the subterranean fires that were burning in each heart.
"Are you sure that you will be perfectly comfortable here?" he asked.
"Entirely so," Annie replied. "Mr. Hunting has telegraphed to my uncle, and we will await him here. I do not feel quite strong enough to travel yet."
"Then I can leave you for a day or two with a quiet mind. I must go to Liverpool."
She turned a shade paler, but only said, "I am very sorry you must leave us so soon."
"I missed a note from your Bible," he said, in a low tone.
"Forgive me! I destroyed it," and she turned and walked to the window to hide her burning face.
Just then Hunting entered, and a few moments later Gregory bade them a quiet farewell.
"How wonderful is her constancy!" he sighed as he went away. "How can she love and cling to that man after what he has shown himself!"
He had utterly misunderstood her and believed that she had destroyed the note, not because of her own harsh words, but of his reflecting on Hunting.
Annie thought she knew what sorrow was, but confessed to herself in bitterness, after he had gone, that such had not been the case before.
If Hunting secretly exulted that Gregory was out of the way, and had been taught by Annie that he must keep his distance, as he would express it, he was also secretly uneasy at her manner toward him. She merely endured his lavish attentions, and seemed relieved when he was compelled to leave her for a time. "She will feel and act differently," he thought, "when she gets well and strong, and will be the same as before." Thus the harassing fears and jealousy that had tortured him at sea gave way to complacent confidence. But he was greatly provoked that he could scarcely ever see Annie without the embarrassing presence of Miss Eulie.
He had a growing antipathy for that lady, while he felt sure that she did not like him. Annie was very grateful to her aunt for quietly shielding her from caresses that every hour grew more unendurable.
Gregory was detained for some time in Liverpool, and on his return to the city where he had left Annie and Miss Eulie he met Mr. Kemp, whom he had known well in New York, also seeking them. This gentleman greeted him most warmly, for he had read in the papers good accounts of Gregory's behavior. In a few moments they entered the hotel together. Fortunately, as Gregory thought, but most unfortunately, has he learned afterward, Hunting was out at the time.
The warm color came into Annie's face as he greeted her, and she seemed so honestly and eagerly glad to see him that his sore heart was comforted.
Mr. Kemp's manner toward his niece and sister was affectionate in the extreme. Indeed, the good old man seemed quite overcome by his feelings, and Gregory was about to retire, but he said, "No, please stay, sir. Forgive my weakness, if it is such. You don't know how dear these people are to me, and when I think of all they have passed through I can hardly control myself."
"We should not be here, uncle," said Annie, in a low, thrilling voice, "had it not been for Mr. Gregory."
Then the old gentleman came and gave Gregory's hand such a grasp that it ached for hours after. "I have been reading," he said, "warm tributes to his conduct in the papers, but I did not know that we were all under such deep personal obligations to him. Come, Annie, you must tell me all about it."
"Not now, please," said Gregory. "I start in a few moments for Paris, and must even now say good-by for a little time. I warn you, Mr. Kemp, that Miss Walton will exaggerate my services. She has a way of overvaluing what is done for her, and undervaluing what she does for others."
"Well," said Mr. Kemp, with a significant nod, "that's a trait that runs in the Walton blood."
"I long ago came to regard their blood as of the truest blue," said Gregory, laughing.
"Must you leave us again so soon?" said Annie, with a slight tremble in her voice.
"Yes, Miss Walton, even now I should be on the way to the train. But you are surrounded by those who can best take care of you. Still I earnestly hope that, before many days, I shall see you in Paris, and in greatly improved health. So I won't say good-by, but only good- morning."
Ah, he did not know, or he would have said "farewell" with a heavy heart.
His parting from her was most friendly, and the pressure of his hand warm and strong, but Annie felt, with a deep, unsatisfied pain at heart, that it was all too formal. Mr. Kemp was exceedingly demonstrative, and said, "Wait till I see you in Paris, and I will overwhelm you with questions, especially about your partner, my dear old friend, Mr. Burnett."
But staid, quiet Miss Eulie surprised them all. She just put her arms about his neck, and gave him a hearty kiss, saying, "Take that, Mr. Gregory, from one who loves you like a mother."
He returned the caress most tenderly, and hastened away to hide his emotion.
Then envious Annie bitterly reproached herself that she had been so cold, and, to make amends, began giving a glowing account of all that Gregory had done for them.
The old gentleman listened with an amused twinkle in his eyes, secretly exulting over the thought, "It is not going to break her heart to part with Hunting."
In the midst of her graphic story that unfortunate man entered, and her words died upon her lips. She rose quietly, and said, "Charles, this is my uncle, Mr. Kemp."
But she was amazed to see Mr. Kemp, who thus far had seemed geniality itself, acknowledge her affianced with freezing coldness, and Hunting turned deathly pale with a presentiment of disaster.
"Be seated, sir," said Mr. Kemp, stiffly; "I wish to make a brief explanation, and after that will relieve you of the care of these ladies."
Hunting sank into a chair, and Annie saw something of the same terror on his face which had sickened her on the sinking ship. "Annie," said her uncle, very gravely, "have you entire confidence in me? Your father had."
"Certainly," said Annie, wondering beyond measure at this most unaccountable scene.
"Will you take my word for it, that this man, who seems most conscious of his guilt, deceived—yes, lied to Burnett & Co., and swindled them out of so large a sum of money that the firm would have failed but for me? Because, if you cannot take my word, I can give you absolute proof."
Annie buried her face in her hands and said, "Now I understand all this wretched mystery. How I have wronged Mr. Gregory!"
"You could not do other than wrong him while Mr. Hunting had any influence over you. I know Mr. Gregory well. He is an honorable business man, and always was, with all his faults. And now, sir, for your satisfaction, let me inform you that Mr. Burnett is one of my most intimate friends. He told me all about it, and gave ample proof of the nature of the entire transaction. I am connected with the bank with which the firm deposited, and through my influence I secured them such accommodation as tided them over the critical time in their affairs which your villany had occasioned."
Hunting now recovered himself sufficiently to say, "I did nothing different from what often occurs in business. I had a legal right to every cent that I collected from Burnett & Co."
"But how about moral right? Do we not all know that often the most barefaced robberies take place within the limits of the law? And such was your act. Even the hardened gamblers of the Street were disgusted."
"You have no right to speak to me in this way, sir," said Hunting, trying to work up a little indignation. "Mr. Walton trusted me, and I became engaged to Miss Walton under circumstances the most solemn and sacred; we are the same as married."
"Come, sir," interrupted Mr. Kemp, hotly, "don't make me lose my temper. John Walton was the soul of Christian honor. He would have buried his daughter rather than have her marry you, if he had known you as I do. I now insist that you resign your executorship and relieve us of your presence."
"Annie," cried Hunting, in a voice of anguish, "can you sit quietly by and hear me so insulted?"
She sat motionless—her face, burning with shame, buried in her hands. With her intense Walton hatred of deceit, the thought that she had come so near marrying a swindler and liar scorched her very soul.
He came to her side and tried to take her hand, but she shrunk from him in loathing, and, springing up, said passionately, "When I think, sir, that with this guilty secret you would have tricked me into marriage by my father's death-bed, I am perfectly appalled at your wickedness. God in mercy snatched me then from a fate worse than death."
She turned away for a moment and pressed her hands upon her throbbing heart. Then turning her dark and flashing eyes to where he stood, pale, speechless, and trembling, she said, more calmly, "May God forgive you. I will when I can. Go."
She proved what is often true, that the gentle, when desperately wronged, are the most terrible.
He slunk cowering away without a word, and to avoid exposure Mr. Kemp at once compelled him to sign papers that took from him all further power of mischief. Mr. Kemp eventually became executor in his stead.
As soon as Annie grew calmer she had a glad sense of escape greater than that which had followed her rescue from the wrecked ship. Her heart sprung up within her bosom and sung for joy. Then again she would shudder deeply at what she had so narrowly avoided. Stronger than her gratitude for life twice saved was her feeling of obligation to Gregory for his persistent effort to shield her from this marriage. She was eager to start for Paris at once that she might ask forgiveness for all her injustice toward him. But in the excess of her feelings she was far more unjust toward herself, as he would have told her.
Still, even if Hunting's dishonesty had not been revealed to her, Annie would have broken with him. As soon as she gained her mental strength and poise—as soon as she realized that her love was hopelessly gone from him—her true, strong nature would have revolted from the marriage as from a crime, and she would have told him, in deepest pity, but with rock-like firmness, that it could not be.
The next day she greatly relented toward him, and, in her deep pity, sent a kind farewell message which it would nave been well for him to heed.
A CHESTNUT BURR AND A HOME
When Gregory reached Paris, to his grief and consternation he found a despatch informing him of the sudden death of old Mr. Burnett, and the illness of Mr. Seymour, the other partner. "Return instantly," it read; "the senior clerk is coming out to take your place."
At first it appeared a double grief that he could scarcely endure, for it seemed that if he went back now Annie would be lost to him beyond hope. But after thinking it all over he became calmer, "It may be best after all, for as my wife she is lost to me beyond hope, and God sees that I am not strong enough to meet her often yet and sustain myself, and so snatches me from the temptation."
Thus little children guess at the meaning of an earthly father, but Gregory did what a child should—he trusted.
He wrote a warm but hasty note to Annie, which through some carelessness was never delivered, attended to some necessary matters, and was just in time to catch the French steamer outward bound.
When Annie reached Paris, she learned in dismay that he had sailed for New York. Seemingly he had left no message, no explanation; all they could learn at his hotel was that he had received a despatch summoning him instantly home. Annie was deeply wounded, though she tried to believe that he had written and that the letter had been missent or lost. A thousand conjectures of evil ran in her mind, and the thought of his being again on the ocean, which she now so dreaded, at the stormiest season of the year, was a source of deep anxiety. In her morbid fears she even thought that the scheming Hunting might have something to do with it. She gave way to despondency. Then her aunt tried to comfort her by saying, "Annie, I am sure I understand you both better than you do each other, and I think I can write Mr. Gregory a line which will clear up everything."
But the quiet little lady was quite frightened by the way in which Annie turned upon her.
"As you love me, aunty," she said, "never write a line on this subject. I am not one to seek, but must be sought, even by Gregory. Not one line, I charge you, containing a hint of my feelings."
"Well, Annie, darling," she said, gently, "it's all going to come out right."
But Annie, in her weak, depressed state, saw only the dark side. As with Gregory there was nothing for her but patient trust.
But when, in due time, there came a despatch from him announcing his safe arrival, she was greatly reassured. The light came back into her eyes and the color to her cheeks.
"What kind of medicine have you been taking to-day?" asked her uncle, slyly.
"She has been treated with electricity," Miss Eulie remarked, quietly.
"O, aunty!" said Annie, with a deep blush, "when did I ever hear you indulge in such a witticism before?"
And when, some days later, she received a cordial, brotherly letter from Gregory, relating all that had occurred, a deep content stole into her heart, and she felt, with Miss Eulie, that all would eventually be well. She replied scrupulously, in like vein with himself, and thus began a correspondence that to each became a source of the truest happiness. Their letters were intensely brotherly and sisterly in character, but Annie felt almost sure that, under his fraternal disguise, she detected the warmth and glow of a far stronger affection; and, before many months had passed, he hoped the same of her dainty letters, though he could not lay his finger on a single word and say, "This proves it." But Annie's warm heart unconsciously colored the pages, nevertheless.
Of Hunting he briefly wrote, "God pity him."
In May, Gregory was glad to find that he would have to go to Europe again, and purposed to give Annie a surprise. But he received only a very sad one himself, for, on arriving at Paris, he learned, to his intense disappointment, that Mr. Kemp and his party had suddenly decided to return home. He was eventually comforted by receiving a letter from Annie, showing clearly that she had been as greatly disappointed as himself; but, woman-like, most of the letter was an effort to cheer him.
Still he was growing almost superstitious at the manner in which she seemed to elude his loving grasp, and sighed, "I fear she will always prove to me a spirit of the air."
One bright morning, in the ensuing October, Gregory again greeted, like the face of a friend, the shores of his native country, and the thought that Annie was beyond that blue line of land thrilled his heart with impatient expectation.
As they approached Sandy Hook, the pilot brought abroad a New York paper, and as he was carelessly glancing over it, his eyes were caught by an advertisement of the sale by auction of the Walton estate, his old home. He saw by the date that the sale would not take place till the following day, and he now felt sure that he could give Annie a double surprise, for he had not written of his return. He had learned from Annie that her father must have intrusted large sums to Hunting which could not be accounted for, and that beyond the country-place not much had been left. He rightly guessed that this place was about to be sold to provide means for the support of the family. He was surprised that Annie had not written to him about the sale, and indeed she had wished to, thinking that he might like to buy it. But Mr. Kemp had dissuaded her, saying that it was not at all probable that Gregory had the means to buy so large a property, and judging Gregory by himself, he added, "A business man does not want a country-place anyway. Besides, Annie, if you should suggest it, it might be a source of much pain to him to feel that he could not."
But as soon as Gregory was ashore he hunted up one of his senior clerks, and instructed him to go up the following morning and buy the place at any cost, but not to let any one know it was for him. He also told him to assure the family that they need not vacate the place in any haste.
It soon became evident at the sale that the stranger from the city was determined to have the property, and the other bidders gave way.
When the clerk returned that evening Gregory plied him with questions, and learned that Miss Walton seemed to have great regret at leaving, and was very grateful when told that she could take her own time for departure. In fact, Annie grudged every October day at the old place, that brought back the past so vividly. Gregory could not forbear asking, with a slight flush, "How did Miss Walton look?"
"Like her surroundings," said the clerk, politely blind, "and not like a city belle. Mr. Gregory, I congratulate you on possessing the most home-like place on the river."
Gregory took the earliest train the following morning, and at noon found himself by the cedar thicket again, with a strange thrill, as he recalled all that had occurred there and since. He sat down to rest for a moment on the rock where Annie had first found him more than a year before. Beneath him lay his home—his now in truth—embowered in crimson and golden foliage, that seemed doubly bright in the genial October sunlight, while at his very feet were the orchard's laden boughs, beneath which he had proved to Annie the reality and depth of his love; and there beyond was the cottage of Daddy Tuggar, with that old man smoking upon the porch. But, chief of all, he could mark the very spot by the brook in the garden where Annie's hand, like an angel's, had plucked him from the brink of despair, and given the first faint hope of immortal life. Tears blinded his eyes, but the bow of promise shone in them as he looked heavenward, and said, "Merciful Father! how kind of Thee, in view of my past, to give me this dear earnest of my heavenly home!"
The sound of approaching steps aroused him, and springing up he saw through the thicket, with an emotion so deep that it made him tremble, the one woman of the world to him.
With an expression of deep sadness, and the manner of one taking a lingering leave of a very dear friend, Annie came slowly toward him along the brow of the hill. He tried to still even the beating of his heart, for he would not lose one moment of exquisite anticipation. And yet he was deeply agitated, for he knew that he could not maintain the brotherly disguise an hour longer.
Suddenly she looked toward the cedar thicket, and, as if recalling what had occurred there, covered her face with her hands, to hide the painful scene. Then he saw that she would not even come to the place, but was turning to go to the house by another way.
He darted out from his concealment and rushed toward her. At first, in wild alarm, she put her hand to her side, and leaned against a chestnut-tree for support. Then recognizing him, with a glad cry, she permitted him to take her in his arms, while she hid her face on his shoulder. A moment later they recoiled from each other in blushing confusion.
"Well?" said Gregory, stupidly.
She was the first to recover herself, and said, "O, Walter, I'm so—so glad you have come at last!"
"Do I look sorry?" he asked, taking her hand.
"Oh!" she exclaimed; "this is too good to be true!"
"That's what I think, I feared you would take flight the moment I appeared."
"When did you arrive? Come, tell me everything."
"Not all at once, dear—Annie. But let me give you a seat on the rock by the thicket, and then I will say the catechism."
"Please, no, Walter; not there," she said, drawing back.
"Yes, there; we will give that place a new association."
But she was glad to reach the seat, for she trembled so she could hardly stand.
Then he told her how he purposed to surprise her, and answered every eager question.
"O, Annie!" he concluded, "how I have longed for this hour! Never did that dreadful ocean seem so wide before."
She looked at him more fondly than she knew, and said, "Ah, Walter! your blood is not on my hands after all."
"Let me see," he said.
"I know it is not," she replied, putting them behind her back; "don't I see you there well and happy?"
"I don't know but it will be on your hands yet," he said, half- tragically, springing up.
She gave him a swift look of inquiry, but her eyes dropped as quickly beneath his eager gaze, while her deep blush caused her to vie with the sugar-maple on the lawn in very truth. But he said after a moment, "Annie, dear, won't you let me interpret another chestnut burr for you?"
"Certainly, Walter," she tried to say innocently, "all that are on the tree."
"Now don't make fun of me, because I'm desperately in earnest. I don't want one like that I chose with a great lonely worm-infested chestnut in it. What a good, wholesome lesson you gave me then! Thank you, Annie, darling."
"Brothers don't use such strong language toward their sisters," said Annie, looking on the ground.
"I can't help it. To tell the honest truth I'm not much of a brother. Neither do I want one like that which you chose with three chestnuts in it. Three, faugh! I've had enough of that. I want to find one like that which you brought me the first day I met you here."
"You will never find it if you stand talking forever."
"You won't go away?"
He looked at her doubtfully, but she would not meet his eye. Then he started on his search, but kept looking back so often that she laughed, and said, "I'm not a chestnut burr."
"I'm afraid of you."
"Then you had better run away."
"Sisters shouldn't tease their brothers."
"Well, forgive me this time."
He caught a branch full of half-open burrs, and peered eagerly in them till he found one to his mind, and pulled it off regardless of the pricking spines, then came and kneeled at her side, and said, "Now, Annie, dear, look into it carefully. This is nature's oracle. You see two solid, plump chestnuts."
"Well?" she said, faintly.
"And you see this false, empty form of shell between them?"
"Yes"—with a touch of sadness.
"That's Hunting, poor wretch! How unspeakable was his loss!" and he tossed the worthless emblem away.
"And now, Annie, loved beyond all words I can ever find to tell you, see how near these two chestnuts are together—as near as you and I are in heart, I trust. Surely my poor pretence of brotherly character has not deceived you for a moment. Won't you please put your dainty fingers down into the burr and join the two together?"
She lifted her drooping eyes a moment to the more eloquent pleading of his face, but they fell as speedily.
In a low, thrilling tone she said, "No, Walter, but you may."
He dropped the burr and sealed the unspoken covenant upon her lips.
After a few moments he said, very gently and gravely, "Annie, do you remember when my arm last encircled you?"
The crimson face turned pale as she recalled that awful midnight when he rescued her from death.
Both breathed fervently, "How good God has been to us!"
In their joy, as in fear and sorrow, they remembered Him.
"O, see!" cried Annie, "your hands are bleeding where the burr pricked them, and you have stained my hands again. Your blood is on them," she added, almost in fear.
"Yes, and the best blood of my heart ever will be. Is not the 'blood upon us' the deepest and most sacred hope of our hearts? Is it not the proof of the strongest love the world has known? Let mine there be the pledge that my life is as nothing when it can shield and shelter you."
And so he changed the meaning of the omen.
The hours passed unheeded. At last they went across the orchard as before, and stopped and looked at the place where the ladder fell, and then at each other.
"Walter," said Annie, shyly, "I gave you my first kiss here."
"I am repaid then."
Before going to the house, they called on Daddy Tuggar. He was so amazed that he could only ejaculate, "Evenin'."
"Mr. Tuggar, I have acted on your suggestion," said Gregory. "I thought Miss Walton would be good company forever, and I have the promise of it."
"To think that I should have cussed you!" said the old man, in an awed tone.
"But you will give us your blessing, now?" said Annie, smiling.
"My blessin' ain't worth nothin'; but I know the good Lord will bless you both, even if Miss Annie never was an awful sinner."
"Mr. Tuggar," said Gregory, "I own that place over there. Will you take me for a neighbor till you are ready to be Mr. Walton's?"
"O, Walter!" said Annie, with a glad cry, "is that really true?"
"Yes, it became mine yesterday; or, rather, it remained yours."
"Mr. Gregory," said Daddy Tuggar, his quaint face twitching strangely, "if anybody steals your apples, I'm afraid I'll swear at 'em, even yet."
"No, you won't, Daddy," said he. "But I'm going to bring you over to spend an evening with us soon. Good-by!"
They found Miss Eulie in the parlor, pensively packing up some dear little relics of a home she supposed lost. Gregory put his arm around her and said, "Aunty, I'm going to claim relationship right away; put those things back where you found them, and sit down here in the cosiest corner of the hearth, your place from this time forth."
"How is this?" she exclaimed, in breathless astonishment.
"Well, Annie owns me, and therefore this place."
Johnny came bounding in, and Gregory caught him, and said, "Here is the prophet of my fate. How did you tell me your Aunt Annie managed people, the morning after my first arrival here?"
"I said she kinder made people love her, and then they wanted to do as she said," replied the boy, timidly.
"Let me tell you a secret," and he drew the boy and whispered in his ear, "she is going to manage me on just those terms."
Then little Susie came sidling in, and Gregory took her in his arms, saying, "So dimpled, yet so false, you renounced me for a chipmonk; and now I am going to be Aunt Annie's beau till I'm gray."
Jeff next appeared with a basket of wood. Gregory gave his black hand an honest shake, and said, "Why, Jeff, old fellow, what is the matter with you to-night? The last time I saw you you looked as if you were driving me to the cemetery."
"Well, Misser Gregory," said Jeff, ducking and shuffling. "Ise did come mighty neah takin' de turnin' to de cem'try dat day. I tho't you looked as if you wanted to go dar."
As they sat down to tea, Zibbie put her head in at the door, and said, "The gude God bless ye, for ye ha' kept the auld 'ooman fra the cauld wourld yet."
Delighted Hannah could not pass a biscuit without a courtesy.
That evening the hickory fire glowed and turned to bright and fragrant coals as in the days past, but Annie looked wistfully toward her father's vacant chair, and sighed, "If father were only here!"
"Don't grieve, darling," said Gregory, tenderly. "He is at home, as we are."
A few evenings later Gregory brought up from the city a large, square bundle.
"What have you there?" said Annie, greeting him as the reader can imagine.
"O, Walter! so soon?"
His answer was a smile, and quickly opening the pack age, he showed a rich, quaint frame containing some lines in illuminated text. Placing it where the light fell clearly, he drew her to him and said, "Read that."
"God sent His messenger of faith, And whispered in the maiden's heart, 'Rise up and look from where thou art, And scatter with unselfish hands Thy freshness on the barren sands And solitudes of death.'"
"O beauty of holiness, Of self-forgetfulness!"
With a caress of unspeakable tenderness he said, "You are the maiden, and God sent you to me."