The Works of E. P. Roe VOLUME FOUR
OPENING A CHESTNUT BURR
IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED TO MY WIFE
In sending this, my fourth venture, out upon the uncertain waters of public opinion, I shall say but few words of preface. In the past I have received considerable well-deserved criticism from the gentlemen of the caustic pen, but so far from having any hard feeling toward them, I have rather wondered that they found so much to say that was favorable. How they will judge this simple October story (if they think it worth while to judge it at all) I leave to the future, and turn to those for whom the book was really written.
In fancy I see them around the glowing hearth in quiet homes, such as I have tried to describe in the following pages, and hope that this new-comer will be welcomed for the sake of those that preceded it. Possibly it may make friends of its own.
From widely separated parts of the country, and from almost every class, I have received many and cordial assurances that my former books were sources not only of pleasure, but also of help and benefit, and I am deeply grateful for the privilege of unobtrusively entering so many households, and saying words on that subject which is inseparable from happiness in both worlds.
I think the purpose of the book will become apparent to the reader. The incidents and characters are mainly imaginary.
Observation has shown me that there are many in the world, like my hero, whose condition can be illustrated by the following lines:
Were some great ship all out of stores, When half-way o'er the sea, Fit emblem of too many lives, Such vessel doomed would be.
Must there not be something fatally wrong in that scheme of life which finds an heir of eternity weary, listless, discouraged, while yet in the dawning of existence? It is not in perishing things, merely, to give back the lost zest. But a glad zest and hopefulness might be inspired even in the most jaded and ennui-cursed, were there in our homes such simple, truthful natures as that of my heroine; and in the sphere of quiet homes—not elsewhere—I believe that woman can best rule and save the world.
Highland Falls, N.Y., September, 1874.
CHAPTER I A HERO BUT NOT HEROIC
CHAPTER II OPENING A CHESTNUT BURR
CHAPTER III MORBID BROODING
CHAPTER IV HOW MISS WALTON MANAGED PEOPLE
CHAPTER V WAS IT AN ACCIDENT?
CHAPTER VI UNEXPECTED CHESTNUT BURRS
CHAPTER VII A CONSPIRACY
CHAPTER VIII WITCHCRAFT
CHAPTER IX MISS WALTON RECOMMENDS A HOBBY
CHAPTER X A PLOT AGAINST MISS WALTON
CHAPTER XI A DRINKING SONG AT A PRAYER-MEETING
CHAPTER XII FOILED IN ONE DIRECTION
CHAPTER XIII INTERPRETING CHESTNUT BURRS
CHAPTER XIV A WELL-MEANIN' MAN
CHAPTER XV MISS WALTON'S DREAM
CHAPTER XVI AN ACCIDENT IN THE MOUNTAINS
CHAPTER XVII PROMISE OR DIE
CHAPTER XVIII IN THE DEPTHS
CHAPTER XIX MISS WALTON MADE OF DIFFERENT CLAY FROM OTHERS
CHAPTER XX MISS WALTON MADE OF ORDINARY CLAY
CHAPTER XXI PASSION AND PENITENCE
CHAPTER XXII NOT A HEROINE BUT A WOMAN
CHAPTER XXIII GREGORY'S FINAL CONCLUSION
CHAPTER XXIV THE WORM-INFESTED CHESTNUT—GREGORY TELLS THE WORST
CHAPTER XXV THE OLD HOME IN DANGER—GREGORY RETRIEVES HIMSELF
CHAPTER XXVI CHANGES IN GREGORY
CHAPTER XXVII PLEADING FOR LIFE AND LOVE
CHAPTER XXVIII WHAT A LOVER COULD DO
CHAPTER XXIX DEEPENING SHADOWS
CHAPTER XXX KEPT FROM THE EVIL
CHAPTER XXXI LIVE! LIVE! ANNIE'S APPEAL
CHAPTER XXXII AT SEA—A MYSTERIOUS PASSENGER
CHAPTER XXXIII A COLLISION AT SEA—WHAT A CHRISTIAN COULD DO
CHAPTER XXXIV UNMASKED
CHAPTER XXXV A CHESTNUT BURR AND A HOME
A HERO, BUT NOT HEROIC
"Shall I ever be strong in mind or body again?" said Walter Gregory, with irritation, as he entered a crowded Broadway omnibus.
The person thus querying so despairingly with himself was a man not far from thirty years of age, but the lines of care were furrowed so deeply on his handsome face, that dismal, lowering morning, the first of October, that he seemed much older. Having wedged himself in between two burly forms that suggested thrift down town and good cheer on the avenue, he appears meagre and shrunken in contrast. He is tall and thin. His face is white and drawn, instead of being ruddy with health's rich, warm blood. There is scarcely anything remaining to remind one of the period of youth, so recently vanished; neither is there the dignity, nor the consciousness of strength, that should come with maturer years. His heavy, light-colored mustache and pallid face gave him the aspect of a blase man of the world who had exhausted himself and life at an age when wisely directed manhood should be just entering on its richest pleasures.
And such an opinion of him, with some hopeful exceptions and indications, would be correct. The expression of irritation and self- disgust still remaining on his face as the stage rumbles down town is a hopeful sign. His soul at least is not surrounded by a Chinese wall of conceit. However perverted his nature may be, it is not a shallow one, and he evidently has a painful sense of the wrongs committed against it. Though his square jaw and the curve of his lip indicate firmness, one could not look upon his contracted brow and half- despairing expression, as he sits oblivious of all surroundings, without thinking of a ship drifting helplessly and in distress. There are encouraging possibilities in the fact that from those windows of the soul, his eyes, a troubled rather than an evil spirit looks out. A close observer would see at a glance that he was not a good man, but he might also note that he was not content with being a bad one. There was little of the rigid pride and sinister hardness or the conceit often seen on the faces of men of the world who have spent years in spoiling their manhood; and the sensual phase of coarse dissipation was quite wanting.
You will find in artificial metropolitan society many men so emasculated that they are quite vain of being blase—fools that with conscious superiority smile disdainfully at those still possessing simple, wholesome tastes for things which they in their indescribable accent characterize as a "bore."
But Walter Gregory looked like one who had early found the dregs of evil life very bitter, and his face was like that of nature when smitten with untimely frosts.
He reached his office at last, and wearily sat down to the routine work at his desk. Instead of the intent and interested look with which a young and healthy man would naturally enter on his business, he showed rather a dogged resolution to work whether he felt like it or not, and with harsh disregard of his physical weakness.
The world will never cease witnessing the wrongs that men commit against each other; but perhaps if the wrongs and cruelties that people inflict on themselves could be summed up the painful aggregate would be much larger.
As Gregory sat bending over his writing, rather from weakness than from a stooping habit, his senior partner came in, and was evidently struck by the appearance of feebleness on the part of the young man. The unpleasant impression haunted him, for having looked over his letters he came out of his private office and again glanced uneasily at the colorless face, which gave evidence that only sheer force of will was spurring a failing hand and brain to their tasks.
At last Mr. Burnett came and laid his hand on his junior partner's shoulder, saying, kindly, "Come, Gregory, drop your work. You are ill. The strain upon you has been too long and severe. The worst is over now, and we are going to pull through better than I expected. Don't take the matter so bitterly to heart. I admit myself that the operation promised well at first. You were misled, and so were we all, by downright deception. That the swindle was imposed on us through you was more your misfortune than your fault, and it will make you a keener business man in the future. You have worked like a galley-slave all summer to retrieve matters, and have taken no vacation at all. You must take one now immediately, or you will break down altogether. Go off to the woods; fish, hunt, follow your fancies; and the bracing October air will make a new man of you."
"I thank you very much," Gregory began. "I suppose I do need rest. In a few days, however, I can leave better—"
"No," interrupted Mr. Burnett, with hearty emphasis; "drop everything. As soon as you finish that letter, be off. Don't show your face here again till November."
"I thank you for your interest in me," said Gregory, rising. "Indeed, I believe it would be good economy, for if I don't feel better soon I shall be of no use here or anywhere else."
"That's it," said old Mr. Burnett, kindly. "Sick and blue, they go together. Now be off to the woods, and send me some game. I won't inquire too sharply whether you brought it down with lead or silver."
Gregory soon left the office, and made his arrangements to start on his trip early the next morning. His purpose was to make a brief visit to the home of his boyhood and then to go wherever a vagrant fancy might lead.
The ancestral place was no longer in his family, though he was spared the pain of seeing it in the hands of strangers. It had been purchased a few years since by an old and very dear friend of his deceased father—a gentleman named Walton. It had so happened that Gregory had rarely met his father's friend, who had been engaged in business at the West, and of his family he knew little more than that there were two daughters—one who had married a Southern gentleman, and the other, much younger, living with her father. Gregory had been much abroad as the European agent of his house, and it was during such absence that Mr. Walton had retired from business and purchased the old Gregory homestead. The young man felt sure, however, that though a comparative stranger himself, he would, for his father's sake, be a welcome visitor at the home of his childhood. At any rate he determined to test the matter, for the moment he found himself at liberty he felt a strange and an eager longing to revisit the scenes of the happiest portion of his life. He had meant to pay such a visit in the previous spring, soon after his arrival from Europe, when his elation at being made partner in the house which he so long had served as clerk reached almost the point of happiness.
Among those who had welcomed him back was a man a little older than himself, who, in his absence, had become known as a successful operator in Wall Street. They had been intimate before Gregory went abroad, and the friendship was renewed at once. Gregory prided himself on his knowledge of the world, and was not by nature inclined to trust hastily; and yet he did place implicit confidence in Mr. Hunting, regarding him as a better man than himself. Hunting was an active member of a church, and his name figured on several charities, while Gregory had almost ceased to attend any place of worship, and spent his money selfishly upon himself, or foolishly upon others, giving only as prompted by impulse. Indeed, his friend had occasionally ventured to remonstrate with him against his tendencies to dissipation, saying that a young man of his prospects should not damage them for the sake of passing gratification. Gregory felt the force of these words, for he was exceedingly ambitious, and bent upon accumulating wealth and at the same time making a brilliant figure in business circles.
In addition to the ordinary motives which would naturally lead him to desire such success he was incited by a secret one more powerful than all the others combined.
Before going abroad, when but a clerk, he had been the favored suitor of a beautiful and accomplished girl. Indeed the understanding between them almost amounted to an engagement, and he revelled in a passionate, romantic attachment at an age when the blood is hot, the heart enthusiastic, and when not a particle of worldly cynicism and adverse experience had taught him to moderate his rose-hued anticipations. She seemed the embodiment of goodness, as well as beauty and grace, for did she not repress his tendencies to be a little fast? Did she not, with more than sisterly solicitude, counsel him to shun certain florid youth whose premature blossoming indicated that they might early run to seed? and did he not, in consequence, cut Guy Bonner, the jolliest fellow he had ever known? Indeed, more than all, had she not ventured to talk religion to him, so that for a time he had regarded himself as in a very "hopeful frame of mind," and had been inclined to take a mission-class in the same school with herself? How lovely and angelic she had once appeared, stooping in elegant costume from her social height to the little ragamuffins of the street that sat gaping around her! As he gazed adoringly, while waiting to be her resort home, his young heart had swelled with the impulse to be good and noble also.
But one day she caused him to drop out of his roseate clouds. With much sweetness and resignation, and with appropriate sighs, she said that "it was her painful duty to tell him that their intimacy must cease—that she had received an offer from Mr. Grobb, and that her parents, and indeed all her friends, had urged her to accept him. She had been led to feel that they with their riper experience and knowledge of life knew what was best for her, and therefore she had yielded to their wishes and accepted the offer." She was beginning to add, in a sentimental tone, that "had she only followed the impulses of her heart"—when Gregory, at first too stunned and bewildered to speak, recovered his senses and interrupted with, "Please don't speak of your heart, Miss Bently. Why mention so small a matter? Go on with your little transaction by all means. I am a business man myself, and can readily understand your motives;" and he turned on his heel and strode from the room, leaving Miss Bently ill at ease.
The young man's first expression of having received, as it were, a staggering blow, and then his bitter satire, made an impression on her cotton-and-wool nature, and for a time her proceedings with Mr. Grobb did not wear the aspect in which they had been presented by her friends. But her little world so confidently and continually reiterated the statement that she was making a "splendid match" that her qualms vanished, and she felt that what all asserted must be true, and so entered on the gorgeous preparations as if the wedding were all and the man nothing.
It is the custom to satirize or bitterly denounce such girls, but perhaps they are rather to be pitied. They are the natural products of artificial society, wherein wealth, show, and the social eminence which is based on dress and establishment are held out as the prizes of a woman's existence. The only wonder is that so much heart and truth assert themselves among those who all their life have seen wealth practically worshipped, and worth, ungilded, generally ignored. From ultra-fashionable circles a girl is often seen developing into the noblest womanhood; while narrow, mercenary natures are often found where far better things might have been expected. If such girls as Miss Bently could only be kept in quiet obscurity, like a bale of merchandise, till wanted, it would not be so bad; but some of them are such brilliant belles and incorrigible coquettes that they are like certain Wall Street speculators who threaten to "break the street" in making their own fortunes.
Some natures can receive a fair lady's refusal with a good-natured shrug, as merely the result of a bad venture, and hope for better luck next time; but to a greater number this is impossible, especially if they are played with and deceived. Walter Gregory pre-eminently belonged to the latter class. In early life he had breathed the very atmosphere of truth, and his tendency to sincerity ever remained the best element of his character. His was one of those fine-fibred natures most susceptible to injury. Up to this time his indiscretions had only been those of foolish, thoughtless youth, while aiming at the standard of manliness and style in vogue among his city companions. High-spirited young fellows, not early braced by principle, must pass through this phase as in babyhood they cut their teeth. If there is true mettle in them, and they are not perverted by exceptionally bad influences, they outgrow the idea that to be fast and foolish is to be men as naturally as they do their roundabouts.
What a man does is often not so important as the state of the heart that prompts the act. In common parlance, Walter was as good-hearted a fellow as ever breathed. Indeed, he was really inclined to noble enthusiasms.
If Miss Bently had been what he imagined her, she might have led him swiftly and surely into true manhood; but she was only an adept at pretty seeming with him, and when Mr. Grobb offered her his vast wealth, with himself as the only incumbrance, she acted promptly and characteristically.
But perhaps it can be safely said that in no den of iniquity in the city could Walter Gregory have received such moral injury as poisoned his very soul when, in Mr. Bently's elegant and respectable parlor, the "angel" he worshipped "explained how she was situated," and from a "sense of duty" stated her purpose to yield to the wishes of her friends. Gregory had often seen Mr. Grobb, but had given him no thought, supposing him some elderly relative of the family. That this was the accepted suitor of the girl who had, with tender, meaning glances, sung for him sentimental ballads, who had sweetly talked to him of religion and mission work, seemed a monstrous perversion. Call it unjust, unreasonable, if you will, yet it was the most natural thing in the world for one possessing his sensitive, intense nature to pass into harsh, bitter cynicism, and to regard Miss Bently as a typical girl of the period.
A young man is far on the road to evil when he loses faith in woman. During the formative period of character she is, of earthly influences, the most potent in making or marring him. A kind refusal, where no false encouragement has been given, often does a man good, and leaves his faith intact; but an experience similar to that of young Gregory is like putting into a fountain that which may stain and embitter the waters of the stream in all its length.
At the early age of twenty-two he became what is usually understood by the phrase "a man of the world." Still his moral nature could not sink into the depths without many a bitter outcry against its wrongs. It was with no slight effort that he drowned the memory of his early home and its good influences. During the first two or three years he occasionally had periods of passionate remorse, and made spasmodic efforts toward better things. But they were made in human strength, and in view of the penalties of evil, rather than because he was enamored of the right. Some special temptation would soon sweep him away into the old life, and thus, because of his broken promises and repeated failures, he at last lost faith in himself also, and lacked that self-respect without which no man can cope successfully with his evil nature and an evil world.
Living in a boarding-house, with none of the restraints and purifying influences of a good home, he formed intimacies with brilliant but unscrupulous young men. The theatre became his church, and at last the code of his fast, fashionable set was that which governed his life. He avoided gross, vulgar dissipation, both because his nature revolted at it, and also on account of his purpose to permit nothing to interfere with his prospects of advancement in business. He meant to show Miss Bently that she had made a bad business speculation after all. Thus ambition became the controlling element in his character; and he might have had a worse one. Moreover, in all his moral debasement he never lost a decided tendency toward truthfulness and honesty. He would have starved rather than touch anything that did not belong to him, nor would he allow himself to deceive in matters of business, and it was upon these points that he specially prided himself.
Gregory's unusual business ability, coupled with his knowledge of French and German, led to his being sent abroad as agent of his firm. Five years of life in the materialistic and sceptical atmosphere of continental cities confirmed the evil tendencies which were only too well developed before he left his own land. He became what so many appear to be in our day, a practical materialist and atheist. Present life and surroundings, present profit and pleasure, were all in all. He ceased to recognize the existence of a soul within himself having distinct needs and interests. His thoughts centred wholly in the comfort and pleasures of the day and in that which would advance his ambitious schemes. His scepticism was not intellectual and in reference to the Bible and its teachings, but practical and in reference to humanity itself. He believed that with few exceptions men and women lived for their own profit and pleasure, and that religion and creeds were matters of custom and fashion, or an accident of birth. Only the reverence in which religion had been held in his early home kept him from sharing fully in the contempt which the gentlemen he met abroad seemed to have for it. He could not altogether despise his mother's faith, but he regarded her as a gentle enthusiast haunted by sacred traditions. The companionships which he had formed led him to believe that unless influenced by some interested motive a liberal- minded man of the world must of necessity outgrow these things. With the self-deception of his kind, he thought he was broad and liberal in his views, when in reality he had lost all distinction between truth and error, and was narrowing his mind down to things only. Jew or Gentile, Christian or Pagan, it was becoming all one to him. Men changed their creeds and religions with other fashions, but all looked after what they believed to be the main chance, and he proposed to do the same.
As time passed on, however, he began to admit to himself that it was strange that in making all things bend to his pleasure he did not secure more. He wearied of certain things. Stronger excitements were needed to spur his jaded senses. His bets, his stakes at cards grew heavier, his pleasures more gross, till a delicate organization so revolted at its wrongs and so chastised him for excess that he was deterred from self-gratification in that direction.
Some men's bodies are a "means of grace" to them. Coarse dissipation is a physical impossibility, or swift suicide in a very painful form. Young Gregory found that only in the excitements of the mind could he hope to find continued enjoyment. His ambition to accumulate wealth and become a brilliant business man most accorded with his tastes and training, and on these objects he gradually concentrated all his energies, seeking only in club-rooms and places of fashionable resort recreation from the strain of business.
He recognized that the best way to advance his own interests was to serve his employers well; and this he did so effectually that at last he was made a partner in the business, and, with a sense of something more like pleasure than he had known for a long time, returned to New York and entered upon his new duties.
As we have said, among those who warmly greeted and congratulated him, was Mr. Hunting. They gradually came to spend much time together, and business and money-getting were their favorite themes. Gregory saw that his friend was as keen on the track of fortune as himself, and that he had apparently been much more successful. Mr. Hunting intimated that after one reached the charmed inner circle Wall Street was a perfect Eldorado, and seemed to take pains to drop occasional suggestions as to how an investment shrewdly made by one with his favored point of observation often secured in a day a larger return than a year of plodding business.
These remarks were not lost on Gregory, and the wish became very strong that he might share in some of the splendid "hits" by which his friend was accumulating so rapidly.
Usually Mr. Hunting was very quiet and self-possessed, but one evening in May he came into Gregory's rooms in a manner indicating not a little excitement and elation.
"Gregory!" he exclaimed, "I am going to make my fortune."
"Make your fortune! You are as rich as Croesus now."
"The past will be as nothing. I've struck a mine rather than a vein."
"It's a pity some of your friends could not share in your luck."
"Well, a few can. This is so large, and such a good thing, that I have concluded to let a few intimates go in with me. Only all must keep very quiet about it;" and he proposed an operation that seemed certain of success as he explained it.
Gregory concluded to put into it nearly all he had independent of his investment in the firm, and also obtained permission to interest his partners, and to procure an interview between them and Mr. Hunting.
The scheme looked so very plausible that they were drawn into it also; but Mr. Burnett took Gregory aside and said: "After all, we must place a great deal of confidence in Mr. Hunting's word in this matter. Are you satisfied that we can safely do so?"
"I would stake my life on his word in this case," said Gregory, eagerly, "and I pledge all I have put in the firm on his truth."
This was the last flicker of his old enthusiasm and trust in anybody or anything, including himself. With almost the skill of genius Mr. Hunting adroitly, within the limits of the law, swindled them all, and made a vast profit out of their losses. The transaction was not generally known, but even some of the hardened gamblers of the street said "it was too bad."
But the bank-officers with whom Burnett & Co. did business knew about it, and if it had not been for their lenience and aid the firm would have failed. As it was, it required a struggle of months to regain the solid ground of safety.
At first the firm was suspicious of Gregory, and disposed to blame him very much. But when he proved to them that he had lost his private means by Hunting's treachery, and insisted on making over to them all his right and title to the property he had invested with them, they saw that he was no confederate of the swindler, but that he had suffered more than any of them.
He had, indeed. He had lost his ambition. The large sum of money that was to be the basis of the immense fortune he had hoped to amass was gone. He had greatly prided himself on his business ability, but had signalized his entrance on his new and responsible position by being overreached and swindled in a transaction that had impoverished himself and almost ruined his partners. He grew very misanthropic, and was quite as bitter against himself as against others. In his estimation people were either cloaking their evil or had not been tempted, and he felt after Hunting dropped the mask that he would never trust any one again.
It may be said, all this is very unreasonable. Yes, it is; but then people will judge the world by their own experience of it, and some natures are more easily warped by wrong than others. No logic can cope with feeling and prejudice. Because of his own misguided life and the wrong he had received from others, Walter Gregory was no more able to form a correct estimate of society than one color-blind is to judge of the tints of flowers. And yet he belonged to that class who claim pre- eminently to know the world. Because he thought he knew it so well he hated and despised it, and himself as part of it.
The months that followed his great and sudden downfall dragged their slow length along. He worked early and late, without thought of sparing himself. If he could only see what the firm had lost through him made good, he did not care what became of himself. Why should he? There was little in the present to interest him, and the future looked, in his depressed, morbid state, as monotonous and barren as the sands of a desert. Seemingly, he had exhausted life, and it had lost all zest for him.
But while his power to enjoy had gone, not so his power to suffer. His conscience was uneasy, and told him in a vague way that something was wrong. Reason, or, more correctly speaking, instinct, condemned his life as a wretched blunder. He had lived for his own enjoyment, and now, when but half through life, what was there for him to enjoy?
As in increasing weakness he dragged himself to the office on a sultry September day, the thought occurred to him that the end was nearer than he expected.
"Let it come," he said, bitterly. "Why should I live?"
The thought of his early home recurred to him with increasing frequency, and he had a growing desire to visit it before his strength failed utterly. Therefore it was with a certain melancholy pleasure that he found himself at liberty, through the kindness of his partners, to make this visit, and at the season, too, when his boyish memories of the place, like the foliage, would be most varied and vivid.
OPENING A CHESTNUT BURR
If the reader could imagine a man visiting his own grave, he might obtain some idea of Walter Gregory's feelings as he took the boat which would land him not far from his early home. And yet, so different was he from the boy who had left that home fifteen years before, that it was almost the same as if he were visiting the grave of a brother who had died in youth.
Though the day was mild, a fresh bracing wind blew from the west. Shielding himself from this on the after-deck, he half reclined, on account of his weakness, in a position from which he could see the shores and passing vessels upon the river. The swift gliding motion, the beautiful and familiar scenery, the sense of freedom from routine work, and the crisp, pure air, that seemed like a delicate wine, all combined to form a mystic lever that began to lift his heart out of the depths of despondency.
A storm had passed away, leaving not a trace. The October sun shone in undimmed splendor, and all nature appeared to rejoice in its light. The waves with their silver crests seemed chasing one another in mad glee. The sailing vessels, as they tacked to and fro across the river under the stiff western breeze, made the water foam about their blunt prows, and the white-winged gulls wheeled in graceful circles overhead. There was a sense of movement and life that was contagious. Gregory's dull eyes kindled with something like interest, and then he thought: "The storm lowered over these sunny shores yesterday. The gloom of night rested upon these waters but a few hours since. Why is it that nature can smile and be glad the moment the shadow passes and I cannot? Is there no sunlight for the soul? I seem as if entering a cave, that grows colder and darker at every step, and no gleam shines at the further end, indicating that I may pass through it and out into the light again."
Thus letting his fancy wander at will, at times half-dreaming and half-waking, he passed the hours that elapsed before the boat touched at a point in the Highlands of the Hudson, his destination. Making a better dinner than he had enjoyed for a long time, and feeling stronger than for weeks before, he started for the place that now, of all the world, had for him the greatest attraction.
There was no marked change in the foliage as yet, but only a deepening of color, like a flush on the cheek of beauty. As he was driving along the familiar road, farm-house and grove, and even tree, rock, and thicket, began to greet him as with the faces of old friends. At last he saw, nestling in a wild, picturesque valley, the quaint outline of his former home. His heart yearned toward it, and he felt that next to his mother's face no other object could be so welcome.
"Slower, please," he said to the driver.
Though his eyes were moist, and at times dim with tears, not a feature in the scene escaped him. When near the gateway he sprung out with a lightness that he would not have believed possible the day before, and said, "Come for me at five."
For a little time he stood leaning on the gate. Two children were playing on the lawn, and it almost seemed to him that the elder, a boy of about ten years, might be himself, and he a passing stranger, who had merely stopped to look at the pretty scene.
"Oh that I were a boy like that one there! Oh that I were here again as of old!" he sighed. "How unchanged it all is, and I so changed! It seems as if the past were mocking me. That must be I there playing with my little sister. Mother must be sewing in her cheery south room, and father surely is taking his after-dinner nap in the library. Can it be that they are all dead save me? and that this is but a beautiful mirage?"
He felt that he could not meet any one until he became more composed, and so passed on up the valley. Before turning away he noticed that a lady come out at the front door. The children joined her, and they started for a walk.
Looking wistfully on either side, Gregory soon came to a point where the orchard extended to the road. A well-remembered fall pippin tree hung its laden boughs over the fence, and the fruit looked so ripe and golden in the slanting rays of October sunlight that he determined to try one of the apples and see if it tasted as of old. As he climbed upon the wall a loose stone fell clattering down and rolled into the road. He did not notice this, but an old man dozing in the porch of a little house opposite did. As Gregory reached up his cane to detach from its spray a great, yellow-cheeked fellow, his hand was arrested, and he was almost startled off his perch by such a volley of oaths as shocked even his hardened ears. Turning gingerly around so as not to lose his footing, he faced this masked battery that had opened so unexpectedly upon him, and saw a white-haired old man balancing himself on one crutch and brandishing the other at him.
"Stop knockin' down that wall and fillin! the road with stuns, you—," shouted the venerable man, in tones that indicated anything but the calmness of age. "Let John Walton's apples alone, you—thief. What do you mean by robbin' in broad daylight, right under a man's nose?"
Gregory saw that he had a character to deal with, and, to divert his mind from thoughts that were growing too painful, determined to draw the old man out; so he said, "Is not taking things so openly a rather honest way of robbing?"
"Git down, I tell yer," cried the guardian of the orchard.
"Suppose 'tis, it's robbin' arter all. So now move on, and none of yer cussed impudence."
"But you call them John Walton's apples," said Gregory, eating one with provoking coolness. "What have you got to do with them? and why should you care?"
"Now look here, stranger, you're an infernal mean cuss to ask such questions. Ain't John Walton my neighbor? and a good neighbor, too? D'ye suppose a well-meanin' man like myself would stand by and see a neighbor robbed? and of all others, John Walton? Don't you know that robbin' a good man brings bad luck, you thunderin' fool?"
"But I've always had bad luck, so I needn't stop on that account," retorted Gregory, from the fence.
"I believe it, and you allers will," vociferated the old man, "and I'll tell yer why. I know from the cut of yer jib that yer've allers been eatin' forbidden fruit. If yer lived now a good square life like 'Squire Walton and me, you'd have no reason to complain of yer luck. If I could get a clip at yer with this crutch I'd give yer suthin' else to complain of. If yer had any decency yer wouldn't stand there a jibin' at a lame old man."
Gregory took off his hat with a polite bow and said: "I beg your pardon; I was under the impression that you were doing the 'cussing.' I shall come and see you soon, for somehow it does me good to have you swear at me. I only wish I had as good a friend in the world as Mr. Walton has in you." With these words he sprung from the fence on the orchard side, and made his way to the hill behind the Walton residence, leaving the old man mumbling and muttering in a very profane manner.
"Like enough it was somebody visitin' at the Walton's, and I've made a—fool of myself after all. What's worse, that poor little Miss Eulie will hear I've been swearin' agin, and there'll be another awful prayin' time. What a cussed old fool I be, to promise to quit swearin'! I know I can't. What's the good o' stoppin'? It's inside, and might as well come out. The Lord knows I don't mean no disrespect to Him. It's only one of my ways. He knows well enough that I'm a good neighbor, and what's the harm in a little cussin'?" and so the strange old man talked on to himself in the intervals between long pulls at his pipe.
By the time Gregory reached the top of the hill his strength was quite exhausted, and, panting, he sat down on the sunny side of a thicket of cedars, for the late afternoon was growing chilly. Beneath him lay the one oasis in a desert world.
With an indescribable blending of pleasure and pain, he found himself tracing with his eye every well-remembered path, and marking every familiar object.
Not a breath of air was stirring, and it would seem that Nature was seeking to impart to his perturbed spirit, full of the restless movement of city life and the inevitable disquiet of sin, something of her own calmness and peace. The only sounds he heard seemed a part of nature's silence,—the tinkle of cowbells, the slumberous monotone of water as it fell over the dam, the grating notes of a katydid, rendered hoarse by recent cool nights, in a shady ravine near by, and a black cricket chirping at the edge of the rock on which he sat— these were all. And yet the sounds, though not heard for years, seemed as familiar as the mother's lullaby that puts a child to sleep, and a delicious sense of restfulness stole into his heart. The world in which he had so greatly sinned and suffered might be another planet, it seemed so far away. Could it be that in a few short hours he had escaped out of the hurry and grind of New York into this sheltered nook? Why had he not come before? Here was the remedy for soul and body, if any existed.
Not a person was visible on the place, and it seemed that it might thus have been awaiting him in all his absence, and that now he had only to go and take possession.
"So our home in heaven awaits us, mother used to say," he thought, "while we are such willing exiles from it. I would give all the world to believe as she did."
He found that the place so inseparably associated with his mother brought back her teachings, which he had so often tried to forget.
"I wish I might bury myself here, away from the world," he muttered, "for it has only cheated and lied to me from first to last. Everything deceived me, and turned out differently from what I expected. These loved old scenes are true and unchanged, and smile upon me now as when I was here a happy boy. Would to heaven I might never leave them again!"
He was startled out of his revery by the sharp bark of a squirrel that ran chattering and whisking its tail in great excitement from limb to limb in a clump of chestnuts near. The crackling of a twig betrayed to Gregory the cause of its alarm, for through an opening in the thicket he saw the lady who had started out for a walk with the children while he was leaning on the front gate.
Shrinking further behind the cedars he proposed to reconnoitre a little before making himself known. He observed that she was attired in a dark, close-fitting costume suitable for rambling among the hills. At first he thought that she was pretty, and then that she was not. His quick, critical eye detected that her features were not regular, that her profile was not classic. It was only the rich glow of exercise and the jaunty gypsy hat that had given the first impression of something like beauty. In her right hand, which was ungloved, she daintily held, by its short stem, a chestnut burr which the squirrel in its alarm had dropped, and now, in its own shrill vernacular, was scolding about so vociferously. She was glancing around for some means to break it open, and Gregory had scarcely time to notice her fine dark eyes, when, as if remembering the rock on which he had been sitting, she advanced toward him with a step so quick and elastic that he envied her vigor.
Further concealment was now impossible. Therefore with easy politeness he stepped forward and said: "Let me open the burr for you, Miss Walton."
She started violently at the sound of his voice, and for a moment reminded him of a frightened bird on the eve of flight.
"Pardon me for so alarming you," he hastened to say, "and also pardon a seeming stranger for addressing you informally. My name may not be unknown to you, although I am in person. It is Walter Gregory."
She had been so startled that she could not immediately recover herself, and still stood regarding him doubtfully, although with manner more assured.
"Come," said he, smiling and advancing toward her with the quiet assurance of a society man. "Let me open the burr for you, and you shall take its contents in confirmation of what I say. If I find sound chestnuts in it, let them be a token that I am not misrepresenting myself. If my test fails, then you may justly ask for better credentials."
Half smiling, and quite satisfied from his words and appearance in advance, she extended the burr toward him. But as she did so it parted from the stem, and would have fallen to the ground had he not, with his ungloved hand, caught the prickly thing. His hand was as white and soft as hers, and the sharp spines stung him sorely, yet he permitted no sign of pain to appear upon his face.
"Ah!" exclaimed Miss Walton, "I fear it hurt you."
He looked up humorously and said, "An augury is a solemn affair, and no disrespect must be allowed to nature's oracle, which in this case is a chestnut burr;" and he speedily opened it.
"There!" he said, triumphantly, "what more could you ask? Here are two solid, plump chestnuts, with only a false, empty form of shell between them. And here, like the solid nuts, are two people entitled to each other's acquaintance, with only the false formality of an introduction, like the empty shell, keeping them apart. Since no mutual friend is present to introduce us, has not Nature taken upon herself the office through this chestnut burr? But perhaps I should further Nature's efforts by giving you my card."
As Miss Walton regained composure, she soon proved to Gregory that she was not merely a shy country girl. At the close of his rather long and fanciful speech she said, genially, extending her hand: "My love for Nature is unbounded, Mr. Gregory, and the introduction you have so happily obtained from her weighs more with me than any other that you could have had. Let me welcome you to your own home, as it were. But see, your hand is bleeding, where the burr pricked you. Is this an omen, also? If our first meeting brings bloody wounds, I fear you will shun further acquaintance."
There was a spice of bitterness in Gregory's laugh, as he said: "People don't often die of such wounds. But it is a little odd that in taking your hand I should stain it with my blood. I am inclined to drop the burr after all, and base all my claims on my practical visiting card. You may come to look upon the burr as a warning, rather than an introduction, and order me off the premises."
"It was an omen of your choice," replied Miss Walton, laughing. "You have more to fear from it than I. If you will venture to stay you shall be most welcome. Indeed, it almost seems that you have a better right here than we, and your name has been so often heard that you are no stranger. I know father will be very glad to see you, for he often speaks of you, and wonders if you are like his old friend, the dearest one, I think, he ever had. How long have you been here?"
"Well, I have been wandering about the place much of the afternoon."
"I need not ask you why you did not come in at once," she said, gently. "Seeing your old home after so long an absence is like meeting some dear friend. One naturally wishes to be alone for a time. But now I hope you will go home with me."
He was surprised at her delicate appreciation of his feelings, and gave her a quick pleased look, saying: "Nature has taught you to be a good interpreter, Miss Walton. You are right. The memories of the old place were a little too much for me at first, and I did not know that those whom I met would appreciate my feelings so delicately."
The two children now appeared, running around the brow of the hill, the boy calling in great excitement: "Aunt Annie, oh! Aunt Annie, we've found a squirrel-hole. We chased him into it. Can't Susie sit by the hole and keep him in, while I go for a spade to dig him out?"
Then they saw the unlooked-for stranger, who at once rivalled the squirrel-hole in interest, and with slower steps, and curious glances, they approached.
"These are my sister's children," said Miss Walton, simply.
Gregory kindly took the boy by the hand, and kissed the little girl, who looked half-frightened and half-pleased, as a very little maiden should, while she rubbed the cheek that his mustache had tickled.
"Do you think we can get the squirrel, Aunt Annie?" again asked the boy.
"Do you think it would be right, Johnny, if you could?" she asked. "Suppose you were the squirrel in the hole, and one big monster, like Susie here, should sit by the door, and you heard another big monster say, 'Wait till I get something to tear open his house with.' How would you feel?"
"I won't keep the poor little squirrel in his hole," said sympathetic Susie.
But the boy's brow contracted, and he said, sternly: "Squirrels are nothing but robbers, and their holes are robbers' dens. They take half our nuts every year."
Miss Walton looked significantly at Gregory, and laughed, saying, "There it is, you see, man and woman."
A momentary shadow crossed his face, and he said, abruptly, "I hope Susie will be as kindly in coming years."
Miss Walton looked at him curiously as they began to descend the hill to the house. She evidently did not understand his remark, coupled with his manner.
As they approached the barn there was great excitement among the poultry. Passing round its angle, Walter saw coming toward them a quaint-looking old woman, in what appeared to be a white scalloped nightcap. She had a pan of corn in her hand, and was attended by a retinue that would have rejoiced an epicure's heart. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and Guinea fowls thronged around and after her with an intentness on the grain and a disregard of one another's rights and feelings that reminded one unpleasantly of political aspirants just after a Presidential election. Johnny made a dive for an old gobbler, and the great red-wattled bird dropped his wings and seemed inclined to show fight, but a reluctant armistice was brought about between them by the old woman screaming: "Maister Johnny, an' ye let not the fowls alone ye'll ha' na apples roast the night."
Susie clung timidly to her aunty's side as they passed through these clamorous candidates for holiday honors, and the young lady said, kindly, "You have a large family to look after, Zibbie, but I'm afraid we'll lessen it every day now."
"Indeed, an' ye will, and it goes agin the grain to wring the necks of them that I've nursed from the shell," said the old woman, rather sharply.
"It must be a great trial to your feelings," said Miss Walton, laughing; "but what would you have us do with them, Zibbie? You don't need them all for pets."
Before Zibbie could answer, an old gentleman in a low buggy drove into the large door-yard, and the children bounded toward him, screaming, "Grandpa."
A colored man took the horse, and Mr. Walton, with a briskness that one would not expect at his advanced age, came toward them.
He was a noble-looking old man, with hair and beard as white as snow, and with the stately manners of the old school. When he learned who Gregory was he greeted him with a cordiality that was so genuine as to compel the cynical man of the world to feel its truth.
Mr. Walton's eyes were turned so often and wistfully on his face that Gregory was embarrassed.
"I was looking for my friend," said the old gentleman, in a husky voice, turning hastily away to hide his feeling. "You strongly remind me of him; and yet—" But he never finished the sentence.
Gregory well understood the "and yet," and in bitterness of soul remembered that his father had been a good man, but that the impress of goodness could not rest on his face.
He had now grown very weary, and gave evidence of it.
"Mr. Gregory, you look ill," said Miss Walton, hastily.
"I am not well," he said, "and have not been for a long time. Perhaps I am going beyond my strength to-day."
In a moment they were all solicitude. The driver, who then appeared according to his instructions, was posted back to the hotel for Mr. Gregory's luggage, Mr. Walton saying, with hearty emphasis that removed every scruple, "This must be your home, sir, as long as you can remain with us, as truly as ever it was."
A little later he found himself in the "spare room," on whose state he had rarely intruded when a boy. Jeff, the colored man, had kindled a cheery wood fire on the ample hearth, and, too exhausted even to think, Gregory sank back in a great easy-chair with the blessed sense of the storm-tossed on reaching a quiet haven.
To the millions who are suffering in mind or body there certainly come in this world moments of repose, when pain ceases; and the respite seems so delicious in contrast that it may well suggest the "rest that remaineth." Thinking of neither the past nor the future, Gregory for a little time gave himself up to the sense of present and luxurious comfort. With closed eyes and mind almost as quiet as his motionless body, he let the moments pass, feeling dimly that he would ask no better heaven than the eternal continuance of this painless, half- dreaming lethargy.
He was soon aroused, however, by a knocking at the door, and a middle- aged servant placed before him a tempting plate of Albert biscuit and a glass of home-made currant wine of indefinite age. The quaint and dainty little lunch caught his appetite as exactly as if manna had fallen adapted to his need; but it soon stimulated him out of his condition of partial non-existence. With returning consciousness of the necessity of living and acting came the strong desire to spend as much of his vacation as possible in his old home, and he determined to avail himself of Mr. Walton's invitation to the utmost limit that etiquette would permit.
His awakened mind gave but little thought to his entertainers, and he did not anticipate much pleasure from their society. He was satisfied that they were refined, cultivated people, with whom he could be as much at ease as would be possible in any companionship, but he hoped and proposed to spend the most of his time alone in wandering amid old scenes and brooding over the past. The morbid mind is ever full of unnatural contradictions, and he found a melancholy pleasure in shutting his eyes to the future and recalling the time when he had been happy and hopeful. In his egotism he found more that interested him in his past and vanished self than in the surrounding world. Evil and ill-health had so enfeebled his body, narrowed his mind, and blurred the future, that his best solace seemed a vain and sentimental recalling of the crude yet comparatively happy period of childhood.
This is sorry progress. A man must indeed have lived radically wrong when he looks backward for the best of his life. Gray-haired Mr. Walton was looking forward. Gregory's habit of self-pleasing—of acting according to his mood—was too deeply seated to permit even the thought of returning the hospitality he hoped to enjoy by a cordial effort on his part to prove himself an agreeable guest. Polite he ever would be, for he had the instincts and training of a gentleman, in society's interpretation of the word, but he had lost the power to feel a generous solicitude for the feelings and happiness of others. Indeed, he rather took a cynical pleasure in discovering defects in the character of those around him, and in learning that their seeming enjoyment of life was but hollow and partial. Conscious of being evil himself, he liked to think others were not much better, or would not be if tempted. Therefore, with a gloomy scepticism, he questioned all the seeming happiness and goodness he saw. "It is either unreal or untried," he was wont to say bitterly.
About seven o'clock, Hannah, the waitress, again appeared, saying: "Supper is ready, but the ladies beg you will not come down unless you feel able. I can bring up your tea if you wish."
Thinking first and only of self, he at once decided not to go down. He felt sufficiently rested and revived, but was in no mood for commonplace talk to comparative strangers. His cosey chair, glowing fire, and listless ease were much better than noisy children, inquisitive ladies, and the unconscious reproach of Mr. Walton's face, as he would look in vain for the lineaments of his lost friend. Therefore he said, suavely: "Please say to the ladies that I am so wearied that I should make but a dull companion, and so for their sakes, as well as my own, had better not leave my room this evening."
It is the perfection of art in selfishness to make it appear as if you were thinking only of others. This was the design of Walter's polite message. Soon a bit of tender steak, a roast potato, tea, and toast were smoking appetizingly beside him, and he congratulated himself that he had escaped the bore of company for one evening.
Notwithstanding his misanthropy and cherished desolation the supper was so inviting that he was tempted to partake of it heartily. Then incasing himself in his ample dressing-gown he placed his slippered feet on the fender before a cheery fire, lighted a choice Havana, and proceeded to be miserable after the fashion that indulged misery often affects.
Hannah quietly removed the tea-tray, and Mr. Walton came up and courteously inquired if there was anything that would add to his guest's comfort.
"After a few hours of rest and quiet I hope I shall be able to make a better return for your hospitality," Gregory rejoined, with equal politeness.
"Oh, do not feel under any obligation to exert yourself," said kind Mr. Walton. "In order to derive full benefit from your vacation, you must simply rest and follow your moods."
This view of the case suited Gregory exactly, and the prospect of a visit at his old home grew still more inviting. When he was left alone, he gave himself up wholly to the memories of the past.
At first it was with a pleasurable pain that he recalled his former life. With an imagination naturally strong he lived it all over again, from the date of his first recollections. In the curling flames and glowing coals on the hearth a panorama passed before him. He saw a joyous child, a light-hearted boy, and a sanguine youth, with the shifting and familiar scenery of well-remembered experience. Time softened the pictures, and the harsh, rough outlines which exist in every truthful portraiture of life were lost in the haze of distance. The gentle but steady light of mother love, and through her a pale, half-recognized reflection of the love of God, illumined all those years; and his father's strong, quiet affection made a background anything but dark. He had been naturally what is termed a very good boy, full of generous impulses. There had been no lack of ordinary waywardness or of the faults of youth, but they showed a tendency to yield readily to the correcting influence of love. Good impulses, however, are not principles, and may give way to stronger impulses of evil. If the influences of his early home had alone followed him, he would not now be moodily recalling the past as the exiled convict might watch the shores of his native land recede.
And then, as in his prolonged revery the fire burned low, and the ruddy coals turned to ashes, the past faded into distance, and his present life, dull and leaden, rose before him, and from regretful memories that were not wholly painful he passed to that bitterness of feeling which ever comes when hope is giving place to despair.
The fire flickered out and died, his head drooped lower and lower, while the brooding frown upon his brow darkened almost into a scowl. Outwardly he made a sad picture for a young man in the prime of life, but to Him who looks at the attitude of the soul, what but unutterable love kept him from appearing absolutely revolting?
Suddenly, like light breaking into a vault a few notes of prelude were struck upon the piano in the parlor below, and a sweet voice, softened by distance sung:
"Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee,"
How often he had heard the familiar words and music in that same home! They seemed to crown and complete all the memories of the place, but they reminded him more clearly than ever before that its most inseparable associations were holy, hopeful, and suggestive of a faith that he seemed to have lost as utterly as if it had been a gem dropped into the ocean.
He had lived in foreign lands far from his birthplace, but the purpose to return ever dwelt pleasurably in his mind. But how could he cross the gulf that yawned between him and the faith of his childhood? Was there really anything beyond that gulf save what the credulous imagination had created? Instinctively he felt that there was, for he was honest enough with himself to remember that his scepticism was the result of an evil life and the influence of an unbelieving world, rather than the outcome of patient investigation. The wish was father to the thought.
Yet sweet, unfaltering, and clear as the voice of faith ever should be, the hymn went forward in the room below, his memory supplying the well-known words that were lost from remoteness:—
"When mine eyelids close in death, When I soar to worlds unknown."
"Oh, when!" he exclaimed, bitterly. "What shall be my experience then? If I continue to fail in health as I have of late I shall know cursedly soon. That must be Miss Walton singing. Though she does not realize it, to me this is almost as cruel mockery as if an angel sang at the gates of hell."
The music ceased, and the monotone of one reading followed.
"Family prayers as of old," he muttered. "How everything conspires to- day to bring my home-life back again! and yet there is a fatal lack of something that is harder to endure than the absence of my own kindred and vanished youth. I doubt whether I can stay here long after all. Will not the mocking fable of Tantalus be repeated constantly, as I see others drinking daily at a fountain which though apparently so near is ever beyond my reach?"
Shivering with the chill of the night and the deeper chill at heart, he retired to troubled sleep.
HOW MISS WALTON MANAGED PEOPLE
Rest, and the sunny light and bracing air of the following morning, banished much of Gregory's moodiness, and he descended the stairs proposing to dismiss painful thoughts and get what comfort and semblance of enjoyment he could out of the passing hours. Mr. Walton met him cordially—indeed with almost fatherly solicitude—and led him at once to the dining-room, where an inviting breakfast awaited them. Miss Walton also was genial, and introduced Miss Eulalia Morton, a maiden sister of her mother. Miss Eulie, as she was familiarly called, was a pale, delicate little lady, with a face sweetened rather than hardened and imbittered by time. If, as some believe, the flesh and the spirit, the soul and the body, are ever at variance, she gave the impression at first glance that the body was getting the worst of the conflict. But in truth the faintest thoughts of strife seemed to have no association with her whatever. She appeared so light and aerial that one could imagine her flying over the rough places of life, and vanishing when any one opposed her.
Miss Walton reversed all this, for she was decidedly substantial. She was of only medium height, but a fine figure made her appear taller than she was. She immediately gave the impression of power and reserve force. You felt this in her quick, elastic step, saw it in her decided though not abrupt movements, and heard it in her tone. Even the nonchalant Mr. Gregory could not ignore her in his customary polite manner, though quiet refinement and peculiar unobtrusiveness seemed her characteristics. She won attention, not because she sought it, nor on the ground of eccentricities, but because of her intense vitality. From her dark eyes a close observer might catch glimpses of a quick, active mind, an eager spirit, and—well, perhaps a passionate temper. Though chastened and subdued, she ever gave the impression of power to those who came to know her well. In certain ways, as they interpreted her, people acknowledged this force of character. Some spoke of her as very lively, others as exceedingly energetic and willing to enter on any good work. Some thought her ambitious, else why was she so prominent in church matters, and so ready to visit the sick and poor? They could explain this in but one way. And some looked knowingly at each other and said: "I wonder if she is always as smiling and sweet as when in society;" and then followed shaking of heads which intimated, "Look out for sudden gusts."
Again, as in simple morning wrapper she turned to greet Gregory, she gave him the impression of something like beauty. But his taste, rendered critical by much observation both at home and abroad, at once told him that he was mistaken.
"The expression is well enough," he thought, "but she has not a single perfect feature—not one that an artist would copy, except perhaps the eyes, and even they are not soft and Madonna-like."
He had a sybarite's eye for beauty, and an intense admiration for it. At the same time he was too intellectual to be satisfied with the mere sensuous type. And yet, when he decided that a woman was not pretty, she ceased to interest him. His exacting taste required no small degree of outward perfection crowned by ready wit and society polish. With those so endowed he had frequently amused himself in New York and Paris by a passing flirtation since the politic Miss Bently had made him a sceptic in regard to women. All his intercourse with society had confirmed his cynicism. The most beautiful and brilliant in the drawing-rooms were seldom the best. He flattered them to their faces and sneered at them in his heart. Therefore his attentions were merely of a nature to excite their vanity, stimulated by much incense from other sources. He saw this plainly manifested trait, which he contributed to develop, and despised it. He also saw that many were as eager for a good match as ever the adored Miss Bently had been, and that, while they liked his compliments, they cared not for him. Why should they? Insincere and selfish himself, why should he expect to awaken better feelings on the part of those who were anything but unsophisticated, and from knowledge of the world could gauge him at his true worth? Not even a sentimental girl would show her heart to such a man. And yet with the blind egotism of selfishness he smiled grimly at their apparent heartlessness and said, "Such is woman."
At the same time it must in justice be said that he despised men in general quite as sincerely. "Human nature is wretched stuff," had come to be the first article in his creed.
In regard to Miss Walton he concluded: "She is a goodish girl, more of a lady than the average, pious and orthodox, an excellent housekeeper, and a great comfort to her father, no doubt. She is safe from her very plainness, though confident, of course, that she could resist temptation and be a saint under all circumstances;" and he dismissed her from his mind with a sort of inward groan and protest against the necessity of making himself agreeable to her during his visit.
He did not think it worth while to disguise his face as he made these brief critical observations, and quick-witted Annie gathered something of the drift of his thoughts, as she stole a few glances at him from behind the coffee-urn. It piqued her pride a little, and she was disappointed in him, for she had hoped for a pleasant addition to their society for a time. But she was so supremely indifferent to him, and had so much to fill her thoughts and days, that his slight promise to prove an agreeable visitor caused but momentary annoyance. Yet the glimmer of a smile flitted across her face as she thought: "He may find himself slightly mistaken in me, after all. His face seems to say, 'No doubt she is a good young woman, and well enough for this slow country place, but she has no beauty, no style.' I think I can manage to disturb the even current of his vanity, if his visit is long enough, and he shall learn at least that I shall not gape admiringly at his artificial metropolitan airs."
Her manner toward Gregory remained full of kindness and grace, but she made no effort to secure his attention and engage him in conversation, as he had feared she would do. She acted as if she were accustomed to see such persons as himself at her father's breakfast-table every morning; and, though habitually wrapped up in his own personality, he soon became dimly conscious that her course toward him was not what he had expected.
Miss Eulie was all solicitude in view of his character of invalid; and the children looked at him with curious eyes and growing disapprobation. There was nothing in him to secure their instinctive friendship, and he made no effort to win their sympathies.
The morning meal began with a reverent looking to heaven for God's blessing on the gifts which were acknowledged as coming from Him; and even Gregory was compelled to admit that the brief rite did not appear like a careless signing of the cross, or a shrivelled form from which spirit and meaning had departed, but a sincere expression of loving trust and gratitude.
During the greater part of the meal, Mr. Walton dwelt on the circumstances that had led to his friendship with Gregory's father, but at last the conversation flagged a little, since the young man made so slight effort to maintain it.
Suddenly Mr. Walton turned to his daughter and said, "By the way, Annie, you have not told me where you found Mr. Gregory, for my impression is that you brought him down from the hills."
"I was about to say that I found him in a chestnut burr," replied Annie, with a twinkle in her eye. "At least I found a stranger by the cedar thicket, and he proved from a chestnut burr who he was, and his right to acquaintance, with a better logic than I supposed him capable of."
"Indeed?" asked Gregory, quickly, feeling the prick of her last words; "on what grounds were you led to estimate my logic so slightingly?"
"On merely general grounds; but you see I am open to all evidence in your favor. City life no doubt has great advantages, but it also has greater drawbacks."
"What are they?"
"I cannot think of them all now. Suffice it to say that if you had always lived in the city you could not have interpreted a chestnut burr so gracefully. Many there seem to forget Nature's lore."
"But may they not learn other things more valuable?"
Miss Walton shook her head, and said, with a laugh: "An ignorant exhorter once stated to his little schoolhouse audience that Paul was brought up at the foot of the hill Gamaliel. I almost wish he were right, for I should have had more confidence in the teachings of the hill than in those of the narrow-minded Jewish Rabbi."
"And yet you regard Paul as the very chief of the apostles."
"He became such after he was taught of Him who teaches through the hills and nature generally."
"My daughter is an enthusiast for nature," remarked Mr. Walton.
"If the people are the same as when I was here a boy, the hills have not taught the majority very much," said Gregory, with a French shrug.
"Many of them have a better wisdom than you think," answered Annie, quietly.
"In what does it consist?"
"Well, for one thing they know how to enjoy life and add to the enjoyment of others."
Gregory looked at her keenly for a moment, but saw nothing to lead him to think that she was speaking on other than general principles; but he said, a little moodily, as they rose from the table, "That certainly is a better wisdom than is usually attained in either city or country."
"It is not our custom to make company of our friends," said Mr. Walton, cordially. "We hope you will feel completely at home, and come and go as you like, and do just what you find agreeable. We dine at two, and have an early supper on account of the children. There are one or two fair saddle horses on the place, but if you do not feel strong enough to ride, Annie can drive you out, and I assure you she is at home in the management of a horse."
"Yes, indeed," echoed the little boy. "Aunt Annie can manage anything or anybody."
"That is a remarkable power," said Gregory, with an amused look and a side glance at the young girl. "How does she do it?"
"Oh, I don't know," replied the boy; "she makes them love her, and then they want to do as she says."
A momentary wrathful gleam shot from Annie's eyes at her indiscreet little champion, but with heightened color she joined in the laugh that followed.
Gregory had the ill grace to say with a sort of mocking gallantry, as he bowed himself out, "It must be delightful to be managed on such terms."
WAS IT AN ACCIDENT?
Putting on a light overcoat, for the morning air was sharp and bracing, Gregory soon found himself in the old square garden. Though its glory was decidedly on the wane, it was as yet unnipped by the frost It had a neatness and an order of its own that were quite unlike those where nature is in entire subordination to art. Indeed it looked very much as he remembered it in the past, and he welcomed its unchanged aspect. He strolled to many other remembered boyish haunts, and it seemed that the very lichens and mosses grew in the same places as of old, and that nature had stood still and awaited his return.
And yet every familiar object chided him for being so changed, and he began to find more of pain than pleasure as this contrast between what he had been and what he might have been was constantly forced upon him.
"Oh that I had never left this place!" he exclaimed, bitterly: "It would have been better to stay here and drudge as a day laborer. What has that career out in the world to which I looked forward so ardently amounted to? The present is disappointment and self-disgust, the future an indefinite region of fears and forebodings, and even the happy past is becoming a bitter mockery by reminding me of what can never be again."
Wearied and despondent, he moodily returned to the house and threw himself on a lounge in the parlor. A smouldering wood fire upon the hearth softened the air to summer temperature. The heat was grateful to his chilled, bloodless body, and gave him a luxurious sense of physical comfort, and he muttered: "I had about resolved to leave this place with its memories that are growing into torment, but I suppose it would be the same anywhere else. I am too weak and ill to face new scenes and discomfort. A little animal enjoyment and bodily respite from pain seem about all that is left to me of existence, and I think I can find these here better than elsewhere. If I am expected, however, to fall under the management of the daughter of the house on the terms blurted out by that fidgety nephew of hers, I will fly for my life. A plague on him! His restlessness makes me nervous! If I could endure a child at all, the blue-eyed little girl would make a pretty toy."
Sounds from the sitting-room behind the parlor now caught his attention, and listening he soon became aware that Miss Walton was teaching the children. "She has just the voice for a 'schoolmarm,'" he thought—"quick, clear-cut, and decided."
If he had not given way to unreasonable prejudice he might also have noted that there was nothing harsh or querulous in it.
"With her management and love of nature, she doubtless thinks herself the personification of goodness. I suppose I shall be well lectured before I get away. I had a foretaste of it this morning. 'Drawbacks of city life,' forsooth! She no doubt regards me as a result of these disadvantages. But if she should come to deem it her mission to convert or reform me, then will be lost my small remnant of peace and comfort."
But weakness and weariness soon inclined him to sleep. Miss Walton's voice sounded far away. Then it passed into his dream as that of Miss Bently chiding him affectedly for his wayward tendencies; again it was explaining that conscientious young lady's "sense of duty" in view of Mr. Grobb's offer, and even in his sleep his face darkened with pain and wrath.
Just then, school hours being over, Miss Walton came into the parlor. For a moment, as she stood by the fire, she did not notice its unconscious occupant. Then, seeing him, she was about to leave the room noiselessly, when the expression of his face arrested her steps.
If Annie Walton's eyes suggested the probability of "sudden gusts," they also at times announced a warm, kind heart, for as she looked at him now her face instantly softened to pity.
"Good he is not," she thought, "but he evidently suffers in his evil. Something is blighting his life, and what can blight a life save evil? Perhaps I had better change my proposed crusade against his vanity and cynicism to a kind, sisterly effort toward making him a better and therefore a happier man. It will soon come out in conversation that I have long been the same as engaged to another, and this will relieve me of absurd suspicions of designs upon him. If I could win a friendly confidence on his part, I'm sure I could tell him some wholesome truths, for even an enemy could scarcely look on that face without relenting."
There was nothing slow or cumbrous about Annie. These thoughts had flashed through her mind during the brief moment in which her eyes softened from surprise into sympathy as they caught the expression of Gregory's face. Then, fearing to disturb him, with silent tread she passed out to her wonted morning duties.
How seemingly accidental was that visit to the parlor! Its motive indefinite and forgotten. Apparently it was but a trivial episode of an uneventful day, involving no greater catastrophe than the momentary rousing of a sleeper who would doze again. But what day can we with certainty call uneventful? and what episode trivial? Those half- aimless, purposeless steps of Annie Walton into the quiet parlor might lead to results that would radically change the endless future of several lives.
In her womanly, pitying nature, had not God sent His angel? If a viewless "ministering spirit," as the sinful man's appointed guardian, was present, as many believe is the case with every one, how truly he must have welcomed this unselfish human companionship in his loving labor to save life; for only they who rescue from sin truly save life.
And yet the sleeper, even in his dreams, was evidently at war with himself, the world, and God. He was an example of the truth that good comes from without and not from within us. It is heaven stooping to men; heaven's messengers sent to us; truth quickened in our minds by heavenly influence, even as sunlight and rain awaken into beautiful life the seeds hidden in the soil; and, above all, impulses direct from God, that steal into our hearts as the south wind penetrates ice- bound gardens in spring.
But, alas! multitudes like Walter Gregory blind their eyes and steel their hearts against such influences. God and those allied to Him longed to bring the healing of faith and love to his wounded spirit. He scowled back his answer, and, as he then felt, would shrink with morbid sensitiveness and dislike from the kindest and most delicate presentation of the transforming truth. But the divine love is ever seeking to win our attention by messengers innumerable; now by the appalling storm, again by a summer sunset; now by an awful providence, again by a great joy; at times by stern prophets and teachers, but more often by the gentle human agencies of which Annie was the type, as with pitying face she bent over the worn and jaded man of the world and hoped and prayed that she might be able to act the part of a true sister toward him. Thorny and guarded was every avenue to his heart; and yet her feminine tact, combined with the softening and purifying influence of his old home, might gain her words acceptance, where the wisest and most eloquent would plead in vain.
After dinner he again hastened forth for a walk, his purpose being to avoid company, for he was so moody and morbid, so weak, nervous, and irritable, that the thought of meeting and decorously conversing with those whose lives and character were a continual reproach to him was intolerable. Then he had the impression that the "keen-eyed, plain- featured Miss Walton," as he characterized her in his mind, would surely commence discoursing on moral and religious subjects if he gave her a chance; and he feared that if she did, he would say or do something very rude, and confirm the bad impression that he was sure of having already made. If he could have strolled into his club, and among groups engaged with cards, papers, and city gossip, he would have felt quite at home. Ties formed at such a place are not very strong as a usual thing, and the manner of the world can isolate the members and their real life completely, even when the rooms are thronged. As Gregory grew worn and thin and his pallor increased, as he smoked and brooded more and more apart, his companions would shrug their shoulders significantly and whisper, "It looks as if Gregory would go under soon. Something's the matter with him."
At first good-natured men would say, "Come, Gregory, take a hand with us," but when he complied it was with such a listless manner that they were sorry they had asked him. At last, beyond mere passing courtesies, they had come to leave him very much alone; and in his unnatural and perverted state this was just what he most desired. His whole being had become a diseased, sensitive nerve, shrinking most from any effort toward his improvement, even as a finger pointed at a festering wound causes anticipatory agonies.
At the club he would be let alone, but these good people would "take an interest in him," and might even "talk religion," and probe with questions and surmises. If they did, he knew, from what he had already seen of them, that they would try to do it delicately and kindly, but he felt that the most considerate efforts would be like the surgical instruments of the dark ages. He needed good, decisive, heroic treatment. But who would have the courage and skill to give it? Who cared enough for him to take the trouble?
Not merely had Annie Walton looked with eyes of human pity upon his sin-marred visage that morning. The Divine personality, enthroned in the depths of her soul and permeating her life, looked commiseratingly forth also. Could demons glare from human eyes and God not smile from them?
As Annie thought much of him after her stolen glance in the morning, she longed to do that which he dreaded she would try to do—attempt his reformation. Not that she cared for him personally, or that she had grown sentimentally interested in his Byronic style of wretchedness. So far from it, her happy and healthful nature was repelled by his diseased and morbid one. She found him what girls call a "disagreeable man." But she yearned toward a sinning, suffering soul, found in any guise. It was not in her woman's heart to pass by on the other side.
UNEXPECTED CHESTNUT BURRS
Gregory's afternoon walk was not very prolonged, for a shivering sense of discomfort soon drove him back to the house. Although the morning had been cool, the sun had shone bright and warm, but now the fore- shadowing of a storm was evident. A haze had spread over the sky, increasing in leaden hue toward the west. The chilly wind moaned fitfully through the trees, and the landscape darkened like a face shadowed by coming trouble.
Walter dreaded a storm, fearing it would shut him up with the family without escape; but at last the sun so enshrouded itself in gloom that he was compelled to return. He went to his room, for a book, hoping that when they saw him engaged they would leave him more to himself. But to his agreeable surprise he found a cheerful fire blazing on the hearth, and an ample supply of wood in a box near. The easy-chair was wheeled forward, and a plate of grapes and the latest magazine were placed invitingly on the table. Even his cynicism was not proof against this, delicate thoughtfulness, and he exclaimed, "Ah, this is better than I expected, and a hundred-fold better than I deserve. I make but poor return for their kindness. This cosey room seems to say, 'We won't force ourselves on you. You can be alone as much as you like,' for I suppose they must have noticed my disinclination for society. But they are wise after all, for I am cursed poor company for myself and worse than none at all for others."
Eating from time to time a purple grape, he so lost himself in the fresh thoughts of the magazine that the tea-bell rang ere he was aware.
"In the name of decency I must try to make myself agreeable for a little while this evening," he muttered, as he descended to the cheerful supper-room.
To their solicitude for his health and their regret that the approaching storm had driven him so early to the house, he replied, "I found in my room a better substitute for the sunlight I had lost; though as a votary of nature, Miss Walton, I suppose you will regard this assertion as rank heresy."
"Not at all, for your firelight is the result of sunlight." answered Annie, smiling.
"How is that?"
"It required many summers to ripen the wood that blazed on your hearth. Indeed, good dry wood is but concentrated sunshine put by for cold, gloomy days and chilly nights."
"That is an odd fancy. I wish there were other ways of storing up sunshine for future use."
"There are," said Miss Walton, cheerfully; and she looked up as if she would like to say more, but he instantly changed the subject in his instinctive wish to avoid the faintest approach to moralizing. Still, conversation continued brisk till Mr. Walton asked suddenly, "By the way, Mr. Gregory, have you ever met Mr. Hunting of Wall Street?"
There was no immediate answer, and they all looked inquiringly at him. To their surprise his face was darkened by the heaviest frown. After a moment he said, with peculiar emphasis, "Yes; I know him well."
A chill seemed to fall on them after that; and he, glancing up, saw that Annie looked flushed and indignant, Miss Eulie pained, and Mr. Walton very grave. Even the little boy shot vindictive glances at him. He at once surmised that Hunting was related to the family, and was oppressed with the thought that he was fast losing the welcome given him on his father's account. But in a few moments Annie rallied and made unwonted efforts to banish the general embarrassment, and with partial success, for Gregory had tact and good conversational powers if he chose to exert them. When, soon after, they adjourned to the parlor, outward serenity reigned.
On either side of the ample hearth, on which blazed a hickory fire, a table was drawn up. An easy-chair stood invitingly by each, with a little carpet bench on which to rest the feet.
"Take one of these," said Mr. Walton, cordially, "and join me with a cigar. The ladies of my household are indulgent to my small vices."
"And I will send for your magazine," said Annie, "and then you can read and chat according to your mood. You gee that we do not intend to make a stranger of you."
"For which I am very glad. You treat me far better than I deserve."
Instead of some deprecatory remark, Annie gave him a quick, half- comical look which he did not fully understand.
"There is more in her than I at first imagined," he thought.
Seated with the magazine, Gregory found himself in the enjoyment of every element of comfort. That he might be under no constraint to talk, Annie commenced speaking to her father and Miss Eulie of some neighborhood affairs, of which he knew nothing. The children and a large greyhound were dividing the rug between them. The former were chatting in low tones and roasting the first chestnuts of the season on a broad shovel that was placed on the glowing coals. The dog was sleepily watching them lest in their quick movements his tail should come to grief.
Gregory had something of an artist's eye, and he could not help glancing up from his reading occasionally, and thinking what a pretty picture the roomy parlor made.
"Annie," said Mr. Walton, after a little while, "I can't get through this article with my old eyes. Won't you finish it for me? Shall we disturb you, Mr. Gregory?"
"Not at all."
Gregory soon forgot to read himself in listening to her. Not that he heard the subject-matter with any interest, but her sweet, natural tones and simplicity arrested and retained his attention. Even the statistics and the prose of political economy seemed to fall from her lips in musical cadence, and yet there was no apparent effort and not a thought of effect. Walter mused as he listened.
"I should like to hear some quiet, genial book read in that style, though it is evident that Miss Walton is no tragedy queen."
Having finished the reading, Annie started briskly up and said, "Come, little people, your chestnuts are roasted and eaten. It's bedtime. The turkeys and squirrels will be at the nut-trees long before you to- morrow unless you scamper off at once."
"O, Aunt Annie," chimed their voices, "you must sing us the chestnut song first; you promised to."
"With your permission, Mr. Gregory, I suppose I must make my promise good," said Annie.
"I join the children in asking for the song," he replied, glad to get them out of the way on such easy conditions, though he expected a nursery ditty or a juvenile hymn from some Sabbath-school collection, wherein healthy, growing boys are made to sing, "I want to be an angel." "Moreover," he added, "I have read that one must always keep one's word to a child."
"Which is a very important truth: do you not think so?"
"Since you are using the word 'truth' so prominently, Miss Walton, I must say that I have not thought much about it. But I certainly would have you keep your word on this occasion."
"Aunt Annie always keeps her word," said Johnny, rather bluntly. By some childish instinct he divined that Gregory did not appreciate Aunt Annie sufficiently, and this added to his prejudice.
"You have a stout little champion there," Gregory remarked.
"I cannot complain of his zeal," she answered significantly, at the same time giving the boy a caress. "Mr. Gregory, this is a rude country ballad, and we are going to sing it in our accustomed way, even though it shock your city ears. Johnny and Susie, you can join in the chorus;" and she sang the following simple October glee:
Katydid, your throat is sore, You can chirp this fall no more; Robin red-breast, summer's past, Did you think 'twould always last? Fly away to sunny climes, Lands of oranges and limes; With the squirrels we shall stay And put our store of nuts away. O the spiny chestnut burrs! O the prickly chestnut burrs! Harsh without, but lined with down, And full of chestnuts, plump and brown.
Sorry are we for the flowers; We shall miss our summer bowers; Still we welcome frosty Jack, Stealing now from Greenland back. And the burrs will welcome him; When he knocks, they'll let him in. They don't know what Jack's about; Soon he'll turn the chestnuts out. O the spiny, etc.-
Turkey gobbler, with your train, You shall scratch the leaves in vain; Squirrel, with your whisking tail, Your sharp eyes shall not avail; In the crisp and early dawn, Scampering across the lawn. We will beat you to the trees, Come you then whene'er you please. O the spiny, etc.—
Gregory's expression as she played a simple prelude was one of endurance, but when she began to sing the changes of his face were rapid. First he turned toward her with a look of interest, then of surprise. Miss Eulie could not help watching him, for, though she was well on in life, just such a character had never risen above her horizon. Too gentle to censure, she felt that she had much cause for regret.