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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 3/76 -

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

Opening a Chestnut Burr - 3/76

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