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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 30/76 -
IN THE DEPTHS
After the departure of their strange guide, who had befriended them as best she could, Gregory at once went to the house and knocked. There was a movement within, and a quavering voice asked, "Who's there?"
"Friends who have lost their way, and need shelter."
"I don't know about lettin' strangers in this time o' night," answered the voice.
"There are only two of us," said Annie. "Perhaps you know who Miss Walton is. I entreat you to let us in."
"Miss Walton, Miss Walton, sartin, I know who she is. But I can't believe she's here."
"Our wagon broke down this afternoon, and we have lost our way," explained Gregory.
Again there was a stir inside, and soon a glimmer of light. After a few moments the door was opened slightly, and a woman's voice asked, apprehensively, "Be you sure it's Miss Walton?"
"Yes," said Annie, "you need have no fears. Hold the light, and see for yourself."
This the woman did, and, apparently satisfied, gave them admittance at once.
She seemed quite aged, and a few gray locks straggled out from under her dingy cap, which suggested anything but a halo around her wrinkled, withered face. A ragged calico wrapper incased her tall, gaunt form, and altogether she did not make a promising hostess.
Before she could ask her unexpected guests any further questions, the cry of a whippoorwill was again heard three times. She listened with a startled, frightened manner. The sounds were repeated, and she seemed satisfied:
"Isn't it rather late in the season for whippoorwills?" asked Annie, uneasily, for this bird's note, now heard again, seemed like a signal.
"I dunno nothin' about whippoorwills," said the woman, stolidly. "The pesky bird kind o' started me at first. Don't like to hear 'em round. They bring bad luck. I can't do much for you, Miss Walton, in this poor place. But such as 'tis you're welcome to stay. My son has been off haulin' wood; guess he won't be back now afore to-morrow."
"When do you think he will come?" asked Annie, anxiously.
"Well, not much afore night, I guess."
"What will my poor father do?" moaned Annie. "He will be out all night looking for us."
"Sure now, will he though?" said the woman, showing some traces of anxiety herself. "Well, miss, you'll have to stay till my son gits back, for it's a long way round through the valley to your house."
There was nothing to do but wait patiently till morning. The woman showed Gregory up into a loft over the one room of the house, saying, "Here's where my son sleeps. It's the best I can do, though I s'pose you ain't used to such beds."
He threw his exhausted form on the wretched couch, and soon found respite in troubled sleep.
Annie dozed away the night in a creaky old rocking-chair, the nearest approach to a thing of comfort that the hovel contained. The old woman had evidently been so "started" that she needed the sedative of a short clay pipe, highly colored indeed, still a connoisseur in meerschaums would scarcely covet it. This she would remove from her mouth now and then, as she crouched on a low stool in the chimney- corner, to shake her head ominously. Perhaps she knew more about whippoorwills than she admitted. At last it seemed that the fumes, which half strangled Annie, had their wonted effect, and she hobbled to her bed and was soon giving discordant evidence of her peace. Annie then noiselessly opened a window, that she too might breathe.
When Gregory waked next morning, it was broad day. He felt so stiff and ill he could scarcely move, and with difficulty made his way to the room below. The old woman was at the stove, frying some sputtering pork, and its rank odor was most repulsive to the fastidious habitue of metropolitan clubs.
"Where is Miss Walton?" he asked, in quick alarm.
"Only gone to the spring after water," replied the woman, shortly. "Why didn't you git up and git it for her?"
"I would if I had known," he muttered, and he escaped from the intolerable air of the room to the door, where he met Annie, fresh and rosy from her morning walk and her toilet at the brook that brawled down the ravine.
"Mr. Gregory, you are certainly ill," she exclaimed. "I am so sorry it has all happened!"
He looked at her wonderingly, and then said, "You appear as if nothing had happened. I am ill, Miss Walton, and I wish I were dead. You can not feel toward me half the contempt I have for myself."
"Now, honestly, Mr. Gregory, I have no contempt for you at all."
He turned away and shook his head dejectedly.
"But I mean what I say," she continued, earnestly.
"Then it is your goodness, and not my desert."
"As I told you last night, so again I sincerely say, I think I understand you better than you do yourself."
"You are mistaken," he answered, with gloomy emphasis. "Your intuitions are quick, I admit. I have never known your equal in that respect. But there are some things I am glad to think you never can understand. You can never know what a proud man suffers when he has utterly lost hope and self-respect. Though I acted so mean a part myself, I can still appreciate your nobleness, courage, and fidelity to conscience. I thought such heroism belonged only to the past."
"Mr. Gregory, I wish I could make you understand me," said Annie, with real distress in her tone. "I am not brave; I was more afraid than you. Indeed, I was in an agony of fear. I refused that man's demand because I was compelled to. If you looked at things as I do, you would have done the same."
"Please say no more, Miss Walton," said he, his face distorted by an expression of intense self-loathing. "Do not try to palliate my course. I would much rather you would call my cowardly selfishness and lack of principle by their right names. The best thing I can do for the world is to get out of it, and from present feelings, this 'good- riddance' will soon occur. Will you excuse me if I sit down?" and he sank upon the door-step in utter weakness.
Annie had placed her pail of water on the door-step and forgotten it in her wish to cheer and help this bitterly wounded spirit.
"Mr. Gregory," she said, earnestly, "you are indeed ill in body and mind, and you take a wrong and morbid view of everything. My heart aches to show you how complete and perfect a remedy there is for all this. It almost seems as if you were dying from thirst with that brook yonder running--"
"There is no remedy for me," interrupted he, almost harshly. Then he added in a weary tone, pressing his hand on his throbbing brow, "Forgive me, Miss Walton; you see what I am. Please waste no more thought on me."
"If yer want any breakfast to-day, yer better bring that water," called the old woman from within.
Annie gave him a troubled, anxious look, and then silently carried in the pail.
"Have you any tea?" she asked, not liking the odor of the coffee.
"Mighty little," was the short answer.
"Please let me have some, and I will send you a pound of our best in its place," said Annie.
"I hain't such a fool as to lose that bargain," and the old woman hobbled with alacrity to a cupboard; but to Annie's dismay the hidden treasure had been hoarded too near the even more prized tobacco, and seemed redolent of the rank odor of some unsavory preparation of that remarkable weed which is conjured into so many and such diverse forms. But she brewed a little as best she could before eating any breakfast herself, and brought it to Gregory as he still sat on the step, leaning against the door-post.
"Please swallow this as medicine," she said.
"Indeed, Miss Walton, I cannot," he replied.
"Please do," she urged, "as a favor to me. I made it myself; and I can't eat any breakfast till I have seen you take this."
He at once complied, though with a wry face.
"There," said she, with a touch of playfulness, "I have seldom received a stronger compliment. After this compliance I think I could venture to ask anything of you."
"The tea is like myself," he answered. "You brought to it skilled hands and pure spring water, and yet, from the nature of the thing itself, it was a villanous compound. Please don't ask me to take any more. Perhaps you have heard an old saying, 'Like dislikes like.'"
She determined that he should not yield to this morbid despondency, but had too much tact to argue with him; therefore she said, kindly, "We never did agree very well, Mr. Gregory, and don't now. But before many hours I hope I can give you a cup of tea and something with it more to your taste. I must admit that I am ready even for this dreadful breakfast, that threatens to destroy my powers of digestion in one fatal hour. You see what a poor subject I am for romance;" and she smilingly turned away to a meal that gave her a glimpse of how the
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