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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 40/76 -
From anger and disgust Gregory passed to the profoundest pity. The children's unbounded affection for Annie proved that she was usually kind and patient toward them. A little thought convinced him that the act he saw was a sudden outburst of passion for which the exasperating events of the day had been a preparation. Her face showed as no language could how sincere and deep would be her repentance. He had not gone very far into the early twilight of a grove before he was conscious of a strong and secret exultation.
"She is not made of different clay from others," he said. "She cannot condemn me so utterly now; and, in view of what I have seen, she cannot loftily deny the kinship of human weakness.
"What a nature she has, with its subterranean fires! She is none of your cool, calculating creatures, who cipher out from day to day what is policy to do. She will act rightly till there is an irrepressible irruption, and then, beware. And yet these ebullitions enrich her life as the lava flow does the sides of Vesuvius. I shall be greatly disappointed if she is not ten times more kind, sympathetic, and self- forgetful than she was before; and as for that boy, she will keep him in the tallest clover for weeks to come, to make up for this.
"How piquant she is! I do not fear her quick, flame-like spirit when it is combined with so much conscience and principle. Indeed, I like her passion. It warms my cold, heavy heart. I wish she had shaken me, who deserved it, instead of the child, and if any makings-up like that in yonder room could follow, I would like to be shaken every day in the week. It would make a new man of me."
In the excitement of his feelings, he had gone further than he had intended, and the dusk was deepening fast when he reached the house on his return. He felt not a little uneasy as to his reception after the rebuke he had given, but counted much on Annie's just and generous disposition. He entered quietly at a side door and passed through the dining-room into the hall. The lamp in the parlor was unlighted, but the bright wood fire shed a soft, uncertain radiance throughout the room. A few notes of prelude were struck on the piano, and he knew that Miss Walton was there. Stepping silently forward opposite the open door, he stood in the dark hall watching her as she sung the following words:
"My Father, once again Thy wayward child In sorrow, shame, and weakness comes to Thee, Confessing all my sin, my passion wild, My selfishness and petty vanity.
"O Jesus, gentle Saviour, at Thy feet I fall, where often I have knelt before; Thou wilt not spurn, nor charge me with deceit, Because old faults have mastered me once more.
"Thou knowest that I would be kind and true, And that I hate the sins that pierced Thy side; Thou seest that I often sadly view The wrong that in my heart will still abide.
"But Thou didst come such erring ones to save, And weakness wins Thy strong and tender love; So not in vain I now forgiveness crave, And cling to hopes long stored with Thee above.
"And yet I plead that Thou would'st surely keep My weak and human heart in coming days; Though now in penitence I justly weep, O fill my future life with grateful praise."
As in tremulous, melting tones she sung this simple prayer with tears glistening in her eyes, Gregory was again conscious of the strong, answering emotion which the presence of deep feeling in those bound to us by some close tie of sympathy often excites. But far more than mere feeling moved him now. Her words and manner vivified an old truth familiar from infancy, but never realized or intelligently believed-- the power of prayer to secure practical help from God.
How often men have lived and died poor just above mines of untold wealth! Gaunt famine has been the inmate of households while there were buried treasures under the hearthstone. So multitudes in their spiritual life are weak, despairing, perishing, when by the simple divinely appointed means of prayer they might fill their lives with strength and fulness. How long men suffered and died with diseases that seemed incurable, before they discovered in some common object a potent remedy that relieved pain and restored health!
As is the case with many brought up in Christian homes, with no one thing was Gregory more familiar than prayer. For many years he had said prayers daily, and yet he had seldom in all his life prayed, and of late years had come to be a practical infidel in regard to this subject. People who only say prayers, and expect slight, or no results from them, or are content year after year to see no results--who lack simple, honest, practical faith in God's word, such as they have in that of their physician or banker--who only feel that they ought to pray, and that in some vague, mystical manner it may do them good, are very apt to end as sceptics in regard to its efficacy and value. Or they may become superstitious, and continue to say prayers as the poor Indian mutters his incantation to keep off the witches. God hears prayer when His children cry to Him--when His faithful friends speak to Him straight and true from their hearts; and such know well that they are answered.
As Gregory looked at and listened to Annie Walton, he could no more believe that she was expressing a little aimless religious emotion, just as she would sing a sentimental ballad, than he could think that she was only showing purposeless filial affection if she were hanging on her father's arm and pleading for something vital to her happiness. The thought flashed across him, "Here may be the secret of her power to do right--the help she gets from a source above and beyond herself. Here may be the key to both her strength and weakness. Here glimmers light even for me."
Annie was about to sing again, but the interest which she had awakened was so strong that he could not endure delay. Anxiety as to his personal reception was forgotten, and he stepped forward and interrupted her with a question.
"Miss Walton, do you honestly believe that?"
"Believe what?" said she, hastily, quite startled.
"What I gathered from the hymn you sung--that your prayer is really heard and answered?"
"Why, certainly I believe it," said Annie, in a shocked and pained tone. "Do you think me capable of mockery in such things? And yet," she added, sadly, "perhaps after to-day you think me capable of anything."
"Now you do both yourself and me wrong," Gregory eagerly replied. "I do believe you are sincerely trying to obey your conscience. Did I not see your look of sorrow as you passed me on the stairs?--when shall I forget it! Remember words that must have been inspired, which you once quoted to me--
"'Who by repentance is not satisfied Is not of heaven nor earth,'
and pardon me when I tell you that I have been listening the last few moments out in the hall. Your tones and manner would melt the heart of an infidel, and they have made me wish that I were not so unbelieving. Forgive me for even putting such thoughts in your mind--I feel it is wicked and selfish in me to do it--but how do you know that your prayer, though so direct and sincere, was not sound lost in space?"
"Because it has been answered," she replied, eagerly. "Peace came even as I spoke the words. Because whenever I really pray to God he answers me."
They now stood on opposite sides of the hearth, with the glowing fire between them. In its light Annie's wet eyes glistened, but she had forgotten herself in her sincere and newly awakened interest in him whom she had secretly hoped and purposed before to lead to better things. It had formed no small part of her keen self-reproach that she had forgotten that purpose, and wished him out of the way, just as she was beginning to gain a decided influence over him for good. After what he had witnessed that afternoon she felt that he would never listen to her again.
He would not had he detected the slightest tinge of acting or insincerity on her part, but her penitence had been as real as her passion.
She was glad and grateful indeed when he approached her again in the spirit he now manifested.
As she stood there in the firelight, self-forgetful, conscious only of her wish to say some words that would be like light to him, her large, humid eyes turned up to his face, she made a picture that his mother would like to see.
He leaned against the mantel and looked dejectedly into the fire. After a moment he said, sadly, "I envy you, Miss Walton. I wish I could believe in a personal God who thought about us and cared for us --that is, each one of us. Of course I believe in a Supreme Being--a great First Cause; but He hides Himself behind the stars; He is lost to me in His vast universe. I think my prayers once had an effect on my own mind, and so did me some good. But that's past, and now I might as well pray to gravitation as to anything else."
Then, turning to her, he caught her wistful, interested look--an expression which said plainly, "I want to help you," and it touched him. He continued, feelingly, "Perhaps you are not conscious of it, but you now look as if you cared whether I was good or bad, was sad or happy, lived or died. If I could only see that God cared in something the same way! He no doubt intends to do what is best for the race in the long run, but that may involve my destruction. I dread His terrible, inexorable laws."
"Alas!" said Annie, tears welling up into her eyes, "I am not wise enough to argue out these matters and demonstrate the truth. I suppose it can be done by those who know how."
"I doubt it," said he, shaking his head decisively.
"Well, I can tell you only what I feel and know."
"That is better than argument--that is what I would like. You are not a weak, sentimental woman, full of mysticism and fancies, and I should have much confidence in what you know and feel."
"Do not say that I am not a weak woman; I have shown you otherwise. Be sincere with me, for I am with you. Well, it seems to me that this
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