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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 20/76 -
she stood up to examine it, and then became conscious of his intent gaze.
"There you stand," she said, "cool and superior, criticising and laughing at me as a great overgrown child."
"If you had looked more closely you would have seen anything rather than cool criticism in my face. I wish you could tell me your secret, Miss Walton. What is your hidden connection with Nature, that her strong, beautiful life flows so freely into yours?"
"You would not believe me if I told you."
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I should be inclined to believe anything you told me, you seem so real. But, pardon me, you have in your hand the very burr I have been looking vainly for. Perhaps in it I may find the coveted clew to your favor. It may winningly suggest to you my meaning, while plain, bald words would only repel. If I could only interpret Nature as you breathe her spirit I might find that the autumn leaves were like illuminated pages, and every object--even such an insignificant one as this burr--an inspired illustration. When men come to read Nature's open book, publishers may despair. _If_ I wished to tell you how I would dwell in your thoughts, what poet has written anything equal to this half-open burr? It portrays our past, it gives our present relations, and suggests the future; only, like all parables, it must not be pressed too far, and too much prominence must not be given to some mere detail. These prickly outward pointing spines represent the reserve and formality which keep comparative strangers apart. But now the burr is half-open, revealing its heart of silk and down. So if one could get past the barriers which you, alike with all, turn toward an indifferent or unfriendly world, a kindliness would be found that would surround a cherished friend as these silken sides envelop this sole and favored chestnut. Again, note that the burr is half-open, indicating, I hope, the progress we have made toward such friendship. I have no true friend in the wide world that I can trust, and I would like to believe that your regard, like this burr, is opening toward me. The final suggestion that I should draw may seem selfish, and yet is it not natural? This chestnut dwells alone in the very centre of the burr. We do not like to share a supreme friendship. There are some in whose esteem we would be first."
When Gregory finished he was half-frightened at his words, for in developing his fanciful parallel in the bold style of gallantry he had learned to employ toward the belles of the ball-room, and from a certain unaccountable fascination that Annie herself had for him, he had said more than he meant.
"Good heavens!" he thought, "if she should take this for a declaration and accept me on the spot, I should then be in the worst scrape of my sorry life."
Miss Walton's manner rather puzzled him. Her heightened color and quickened breathing were alarming, while the contraction of her brow and the firmness of her lips, together with an intent look on the chestnut in the centre of the burr, rather than a languishing look at him or at nothing, were more assuring. She perplexed him still more when, as her only response to all this sentiment, she asked, "Mr. Gregory, will you lend me your penknife?"
Without a word he handed it to her, and she at the same time took the burr from his hand, and daintily plucking out the chestnut tossed the burr rather contemptuously away. "Mr. Gregory, if I understand your rather far-fetched and forced interpretation of this little 'parable of nature,' you chose to represent yourself by this great lonely chestnut occupying the space where three might have grown. On observing this emblematic nut closely I detect something that may also have a place in your 'parable';" and she pushed aside the little quirl at the small end of the nut, which partially concealed a worm-hole, and cutting through the shell showed the destroyer in the very heart of the kernel.
There was nothing far-fetched in this suggestion of nature, and he saw--and he understood that Miss Walton saw--evil enthroned in the very depths of his soul. The revelation of the hateful truth was so sudden and sharp that his face darkened with involuntary pain and anger. It seemed to him that, by the simple act of showing him the worm-infested chestnut, she had rejected anything approaching even friendship, and had also given him a good but humiliating reason why. He lost his self-possession and forgot that he deserved a stinging rebuke for his insincerity. He would have turned away in coldness and resentment. His visit might have come to an abrupt termination, had not Annie, with that delicate, womanly tact which was one of her most marked characteristics, interrupted him as he was about to say something to the effect, "Miss Walton, since you are so much holier than I, it were better that I should contaminate the air you breathe no longer."
She looked into his clouded face with an open smile, and said, "Mr. Gregory, you have been unfortunate in the choice of a burr. Now let me choose for you;" and she began looking around for one suited to her taste and purpose.
This gave him time to recover himself and to realize the folly of quarrelling or showing any special feeling in the matter. After a moment he was only desirous of some pretext for laughing it off, but how to manage it he did not know, and was inwardly cursing himself as a blundering fool, and no match for this child of nature.
Annie soon came toward him, saying, "Perhaps this burr will suggest better meanings. You see it is wide open. That means perfect frankness. There are three chestnuts here instead of one. We must be willing to share the regard of others. One of these nuts has the central place. As we come to know people well, we usually find some one occupying the supreme place in their esteem, and though we may approach closely we should not wish to usurp what belongs to another. Under Jeff's vigorous blows the burr and its contents have had a tremendous downfall, but they have not parted company. True friends should stick together in adversity. What do you think of my interpretation?"
"I think you are a witch, beyond doubt, and if you had lived a few centuries ago, you would have been sent to heaven in a chariot of fire."
"Really, Mr. Gregory, you give me a _hot_ answer, but it is with such a smiling face that I will take no exception. Let us slowly follow Jeff and the children along the brow of the hill to the next tree. The fact is I am a little tired."
What controversy could a man have with a pretty and wearied girl? Gregory felt like a boy who had received a deserved whipping and yet was compelled and somewhat inclined to act very amiably toward the donor. But he was fast coming to the conclusion that this unassuming country girl was a difficult subject on which to perform his experiment. He was learning to have a wholesome respect for her that was slightly tinged with fear, and doubts of success in his plot against her grew stronger every moment. And yet the element of persistence was large in his character, and he could not readily give over his purpose, though his cynical confidence had vanished. He now determined to observe her closely and discover if possible her weak points. He still held to the theory that flattery was the most available weapon, though he saw he could employ it no longer in the form of fulsome and outspoken compliment. The innate refinement and truthfulness of Annie's nature revolted at broad gallantry and adulation. He believed that he must reverse the tactics he usually employed in society, but not the principles. Therefore he resolved that his flattery should be delicate, subtle, manifested in manner rather than in words. He would seem submissive; he would humbly wear the air of a conquered one. He would delicately maintain the "I-am-at- your-mercy" attitude.
These thoughts flashed through his mind as they passed along the brow of the hill, which at every turn gave them a new and beautiful landscape. But vales in Eden would not have held his attention then. To his perplexity this new acquaintance had secured his undivided interest. He felt that he ought to be angry at her and yet was not. He felt that a man who had seen as much of the world as he should be able to play with this little country girl as with a child; but he was becoming convinced that, with all his art, he was no match for her artlessness.
In the interpretation of the burr of her own choice, Annie had suggested that the central and supreme place in her heart was already occupied, and his thoughts recurred frequently to that fact with uneasiness. The slightest trace of jealousy, even as the merest twinge of pain is often precursor of serious disease, indicated the power Miss Walton might gain over one who thought himself proof against all such influence. But he tried to satisfy himself by thinking, "It is her father who occupies the first place in her affections."
Then a moment later with a mental protest at his folly, "What do I care who has the first place? It's well I do not, for she would not permit such a reprobate as I, with evil in my heart like that cursed worm in the chestnut, to have any place worth naming--unless I can introduce a little canker of evil in her heart also. I wish I could. That would bring us nearer together and upon the same level." Annie saw the landscapes. She looked away from the man by her side and for a few moments forgot him. The scenes upon which she was gazing were associated with another, and she ardently wished that that other and more favored one could exchange places with Gregory. Her eyes grew dreamy and tender as she recalled words spoken in days gone by, when, her heart thrilling with a young girl's first dream of love, she had leaned upon Charles Hunting's arm, and listened to that sweetest music of earth, all the more enchanting when broken and incoherent; and Hunting, with all his coolness and precision in Wall Street, had been excessively nervous and unhappy in his phraseology upon one occasion, and tremblingly glad to get any terms from the girl who seemed a child beside him. Annie would not permit an engagement to take place. Hunting was a distant relative. She had always liked him very much, but was not sure she loved him. She was extremely reluctant to leave her father, and was not ready for a speedy marriage; so she frankly told him that he had no rival, nor was there a prospect of any, but she would not bind him, or permit herself to be bound at that time. If they were fated for each other the way would eventually be made perfectly clear.
He was quite content, especially as Mr. Walton gave his hearty approval to the match, and he regarded the understanding as a virtual engagement. He wanted Annie to wear the significant ring, saying that it should not be regarded as binding, but she declined to do so.
Nearly two years had passed, and, while she put him off, she satisfied him that he was steadily gaining the place that he wished to possess in her affections. He was gifted with much tact and did not press his suit, but quietly acted as if the matter were really settled, and it were only a question of time. Annie had also come to feel in the same way. She did not see a very great deal of him, though he wrote regularly, and his letters were admirable. He became her ideal man and dwelt in her imagination as a demi-god. To the practical mind of this American girl his successes in the vast and complicated transactions
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