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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 10/76 -


"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.

At first she was pleased to see that he found the ditty far more to his taste than he had expected. But the rapid alternation from pleased surprise and enjoyment to something like a scowl of despair and almost hate she could not understand. Following his eyes she saw them resting on the boy, who was now eagerly joining in the chorus of the last verse. She was not sufficiently skilled to know that to Gregory's diseased moral nature things most simple and wholesome in themselves were most repugnant. She could not understand that the tripping little song, with its wild-wood life and movement--that the boy singing with the delight of a pure, fresh heart--told him, beyond the power of labored language, how hackneyed and blase he had become, how far and hopelessly he had drifted from the same true childhood.

And Miss Walton, turning suddenly toward him, saw the same dark expression, full of suffering and impotent revolt at his destiny, as he regarded it, and she too was puzzled.

"You do not like our foolish little song," she said.

"I envy that boy, Miss Walton," was his reply.

Then she began to understand him, and said, gently, "You have no occasion to."

"I wish you, or any one, could find the logic to prove that."

"The proof is not in logic but in nature, that is ever young. They who draw their life from nature do not fall into the only age we need dread."

"Do you not expect to grow old?"

She shook her head half humorously and said, "But these children will before I get them to bed."

He ostensibly resumed his magazine, but did not turn any leaves.

His first mental query was, "Have I rightly gauged Miss Walton? I half believe she understands me better than I do her. I estimated her as a goodish, fairly educated country girl, of the church-going sort, one that would be dreadfully shocked at finding me out, and deem it at once her mission to pluck me as a brand from the burning. I know all about the goodness of such girls. They are ignorant of the world; they have never been tempted, and they have a brood of little feminine weaknesses that of course are not paraded in public.

"And no doubt all this is true of Miss Walton, and yet, for some reason, she interests me a little this evening. She is refined, but nowhere in the world will you meet drearier monotony and barrenness than among refined people. Having no real originality, their little oddities are polished away. In Miss Walton I'm beginning to catch glimpses of vistas unexplored, though perhaps I am a fool for thinking so.

"What a peculiar voice she has! She would make a poor figure, no doubt, in an opera; and yet she might render a simple aria very well. But for songs of nature and ballads I have never heard so sympathetic a voice. It suggests a power of making music a sweet home language instead of a difficult, high art, attainable by few. Really Miss Walton is worth investigation, for no one with such a voice can be utterly commonplace. Strange as it is, I cannot ignore her. Though she makes no effort to attract my attention, I am ever conscious of her presence."

CHAPTER VII

A CONSPIRACY

When Miss Walton returned to the parlor her father said, "Annie, I am going to trespass on your patience again."

She answered with a little piquant gesture, and was soon reading in natural, easy tones, without much stumbling, what must have been Greek to her.

Gregory watched her with increasing interest, and another question than the one of finance involved in the article was rising in his mind.

"Is this real? Is this seeming goodness a fact?" It was the very essence of his perverted nature to doubt it. Now that his eyes were opened, and he closely observed Miss Walton, he saw that his prejudices against her were groundless. Although not a stylish, pretty woman, she was evidently far removed from the goodish, commonplace character that he could regard as part of the furniture of the house, useful in its place, but of no more interest than a needful piece of cabinet work. Nor did she assert herself as do those aggressive, lecturing females who deem it their mission to set everybody right within their sphere.

And yet she did assert herself; but he was compelled to admit that it was like the summer breeze or the perfume of a rose. He had resolved that very day to avoid and ignore her as far as possible, and yet, before the first evening in her presence was half over, he had left a magazine story unfinished; he was watching her, thinking and surmising about her, and listening, as she read, to what he did not care a straw about. Although she had not made the slightest effort, some influence from her had stolen upon him like a cool breeze on a sultry day, and wooed him as gently as the perfume of a flower that is sweet to all. He said to himself, "She is not pretty," and yet found pleasure in watching her red lips drop figures and financial terms as musically as a little rill murmurs over a mossy rock.

From behind his magazine he studied the group at the opposite table, but it was with the pain which a despairing swimmer, swept seaward by a resistless current, might feel in seeing the safe and happy on the shore.

Gray Mr. Walton leaned back in his chair, the embodiment of peace and placid content.

The subject to which he was listening and kindred topics had so far receded that his interest was that of a calm, philosophic observer, and Gregory thought, with a glimmer of a smile, "He is not dabbling in stocks or he could not maintain that quiet mien."

His habits of thought as a business man merely made it a pleasure to keep up with the times. In fact he was in that serene border-land between the two worlds where the questions of earth are growing vague and distant and those of the "better country" more real and engrossing, for Gregory observed, later in the evening, that he took the family Bible with more zest than he had bestowed on the motive power of the world. It was evident where his most valued treasures were stored. With a bitter sigh, Gregory thought, "I would take his gray hairs if I could have his peace and faith."

Miss Eulie, to whom he gave a passing glance, seemed even less earthly in her nature. Indeed, it appeared as if she had never more than half belonged to the material creation. Slight, ethereal, with untroubled blue eyes, and little puff curls too light to show their change to gray, she struck Gregory unpleasantly, as if she were a connecting link between gross humanity and spiritual existence, and his eyes reverted to Miss Walton, and dwelt with increasing interest on her. There at least were youth, health, and something else--what was it in the girl that had so strongly and suddenly gained his attention? At any rate there was nothing about her uncanny and spirit-like.

He did not understand her. Was it possible that a young girl, not much beyond twenty, was happy in the care of orphan children, in the quiet humdrum duties of housekeeping, and in reading stupid articles through the long, quiet evenings, with few excitements beyond church-going, rural tea-drinkings, and country walks and rides? With a grim smile he thought how soon the belles he had admired would expire under such a regimen. Could this be good acting because a guest was present? If so it was perfect, for it seemed, her daily life.

"I will watch her," he thought. "I will solve this little feminine enigma. It will divert my mind, and I've nothing else to do."


Opening a Chestnut Burr - 10/76

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