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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 2/76 -
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
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