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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 4/76 -
tempted, and he felt after Hunting dropped the mask that he would never trust any one again.
It may be said, all this is very unreasonable. Yes, it is; but then people will judge the world by their own experience of it, and some natures are more easily warped by wrong than others. No logic can cope with feeling and prejudice. Because of his own misguided life and the wrong he had received from others, Walter Gregory was no more able to form a correct estimate of society than one color-blind is to judge of the tints of flowers. And yet he belonged to that class who claim pre- eminently to know the world. Because he thought he knew it so well he hated and despised it, and himself as part of it.
The months that followed his great and sudden downfall dragged their slow length along. He worked early and late, without thought of sparing himself. If he could only see what the firm had lost through him made good, he did not care what became of himself. Why should he? There was little in the present to interest him, and the future looked, in his depressed, morbid state, as monotonous and barren as the sands of a desert. Seemingly, he had exhausted life, and it had lost all zest for him.
But while his power to enjoy had gone, not so his power to suffer. His conscience was uneasy, and told him in a vague way that something was wrong. Reason, or, more correctly speaking, instinct, condemned his life as a wretched blunder. He had lived for his own enjoyment, and now, when but half through life, what was there for him to enjoy?
As in increasing weakness he dragged himself to the office on a sultry September day, the thought occurred to him that the end was nearer than he expected.
"Let it come," he said, bitterly. "Why should I live?"
The thought of his early home recurred to him with increasing frequency, and he had a growing desire to visit it before his strength failed utterly. Therefore it was with a certain melancholy pleasure that he found himself at liberty, through the kindness of his partners, to make this visit, and at the season, too, when his boyish memories of the place, like the foliage, would be most varied and vivid.
OPENING A CHESTNUT BURR
If the reader could imagine a man visiting his own grave, he might obtain some idea of Walter Gregory's feelings as he took the boat which would land him not far from his early home. And yet, so different was he from the boy who had left that home fifteen years before, that it was almost the same as if he were visiting the grave of a brother who had died in youth.
Though the day was mild, a fresh bracing wind blew from the west. Shielding himself from this on the after-deck, he half reclined, on account of his weakness, in a position from which he could see the shores and passing vessels upon the river. The swift gliding motion, the beautiful and familiar scenery, the sense of freedom from routine work, and the crisp, pure air, that seemed like a delicate wine, all combined to form a mystic lever that began to lift his heart out of the depths of despondency.
A storm had passed away, leaving not a trace. The October sun shone in undimmed splendor, and all nature appeared to rejoice in its light. The waves with their silver crests seemed chasing one another in mad glee. The sailing vessels, as they tacked to and fro across the river under the stiff western breeze, made the water foam about their blunt prows, and the white-winged gulls wheeled in graceful circles overhead. There was a sense of movement and life that was contagious. Gregory's dull eyes kindled with something like interest, and then he thought: "The storm lowered over these sunny shores yesterday. The gloom of night rested upon these waters but a few hours since. Why is it that nature can smile and be glad the moment the shadow passes and I cannot? Is there no sunlight for the soul? I seem as if entering a cave, that grows colder and darker at every step, and no gleam shines at the further end, indicating that I may pass through it and out into the light again."
Thus letting his fancy wander at will, at times half-dreaming and half-waking, he passed the hours that elapsed before the boat touched at a point in the Highlands of the Hudson, his destination. Making a better dinner than he had enjoyed for a long time, and feeling stronger than for weeks before, he started for the place that now, of all the world, had for him the greatest attraction.
There was no marked change in the foliage as yet, but only a deepening of color, like a flush on the cheek of beauty. As he was driving along the familiar road, farm-house and grove, and even tree, rock, and thicket, began to greet him as with the faces of old friends. At last he saw, nestling in a wild, picturesque valley, the quaint outline of his former home. His heart yearned toward it, and he felt that next to his mother's face no other object could be so welcome.
"Slower, please," he said to the driver.
Though his eyes were moist, and at times dim with tears, not a feature in the scene escaped him. When near the gateway he sprung out with a lightness that he would not have believed possible the day before, and said, "Come for me at five."
For a little time he stood leaning on the gate. Two children were playing on the lawn, and it almost seemed to him that the elder, a boy of about ten years, might be himself, and he a passing stranger, who had merely stopped to look at the pretty scene.
"Oh that I were a boy like that one there! Oh that I were here again as of old!" he sighed. "How unchanged it all is, and I so changed! It seems as if the past were mocking me. That must be I there playing with my little sister. Mother must be sewing in her cheery south room, and father surely is taking his after-dinner nap in the library. Can it be that they are all dead save me? and that this is but a beautiful mirage?"
He felt that he could not meet any one until he became more composed, and so passed on up the valley. Before turning away he noticed that a lady come out at the front door. The children joined her, and they started for a walk.
Looking wistfully on either side, Gregory soon came to a point where the orchard extended to the road. A well-remembered fall pippin tree hung its laden boughs over the fence, and the fruit looked so ripe and golden in the slanting rays of October sunlight that he determined to try one of the apples and see if it tasted as of old. As he climbed upon the wall a loose stone fell clattering down and rolled into the road. He did not notice this, but an old man dozing in the porch of a little house opposite did. As Gregory reached up his cane to detach from its spray a great, yellow-cheeked fellow, his hand was arrested, and he was almost startled off his perch by such a volley of oaths as shocked even his hardened ears. Turning gingerly around so as not to lose his footing, he faced this masked battery that had opened so unexpectedly upon him, and saw a white-haired old man balancing himself on one crutch and brandishing the other at him.
"Stop knockin' down that wall and fillin! the road with stuns, you--," shouted the venerable man, in tones that indicated anything but the calmness of age. "Let John Walton's apples alone, you--thief. What do you mean by robbin' in broad daylight, right under a man's nose?"
Gregory saw that he had a character to deal with, and, to divert his mind from thoughts that were growing too painful, determined to draw the old man out; so he said, "Is not taking things so openly a rather honest way of robbing?"
"Git down, I tell yer," cried the guardian of the orchard.
"Suppose 'tis, it's robbin' arter all. So now move on, and none of yer cussed impudence."
"But you call them John Walton's apples," said Gregory, eating one with provoking coolness. "What have you got to do with them? and why should you care?"
"Now look here, stranger, you're an infernal mean cuss to ask such questions. Ain't John Walton my neighbor? and a good neighbor, too? D'ye suppose a well-meanin' man like myself would stand by and see a neighbor robbed? and of all others, John Walton? Don't you know that robbin' a good man brings bad luck, you thunderin' fool?"
"But I've always had bad luck, so I needn't stop on that account," retorted Gregory, from the fence.
"I believe it, and you allers will," vociferated the old man, "and I'll tell yer why. I know from the cut of yer jib that yer've allers been eatin' forbidden fruit. If yer lived now a good square life like 'Squire Walton and me, you'd have no reason to complain of yer luck. If I could get a clip at yer with this crutch I'd give yer suthin' else to complain of. If yer had any decency yer wouldn't stand there a jibin' at a lame old man."
Gregory took off his hat with a polite bow and said: "I beg your pardon; I was under the impression that you were doing the 'cussing.' I shall come and see you soon, for somehow it does me good to have you swear at me. I only wish I had as good a friend in the world as Mr. Walton has in you." With these words he sprung from the fence on the orchard side, and made his way to the hill behind the Walton residence, leaving the old man mumbling and muttering in a very profane manner.
"Like enough it was somebody visitin' at the Walton's, and I've made a--fool of myself after all. What's worse, that poor little Miss Eulie will hear I've been swearin' agin, and there'll be another awful prayin' time. What a cussed old fool I be, to promise to quit swearin'! I know I can't. What's the good o' stoppin'? It's inside, and might as well come out. The Lord knows I don't mean no disrespect to Him. It's only one of my ways. He knows well enough that I'm a good neighbor, and what's the harm in a little cussin'?" and so the strange old man talked on to himself in the intervals between long pulls at his pipe.
By the time Gregory reached the top of the hill his strength was quite exhausted, and, panting, he sat down on the sunny side of a thicket of cedars, for the late afternoon was growing chilly. Beneath him lay the one oasis in a desert world.
With an indescribable blending of pleasure and pain, he found himself
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