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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 5/76 -
tracing with his eye every well-remembered path, and marking every familiar object.
Not a breath of air was stirring, and it would seem that Nature was seeking to impart to his perturbed spirit, full of the restless movement of city life and the inevitable disquiet of sin, something of her own calmness and peace. The only sounds he heard seemed a part of nature's silence,--the tinkle of cowbells, the slumberous monotone of water as it fell over the dam, the grating notes of a katydid, rendered hoarse by recent cool nights, in a shady ravine near by, and a black cricket chirping at the edge of the rock on which he sat-- these were all. And yet the sounds, though not heard for years, seemed as familiar as the mother's lullaby that puts a child to sleep, and a delicious sense of restfulness stole into his heart. The world in which he had so greatly sinned and suffered might be another planet, it seemed so far away. Could it be that in a few short hours he had escaped out of the hurry and grind of New York into this sheltered nook? Why had he not come before? Here was the remedy for soul and body, if any existed.
Not a person was visible on the place, and it seemed that it might thus have been awaiting him in all his absence, and that now he had only to go and take possession.
"So our home in heaven awaits us, mother used to say," he thought, "while we are such willing exiles from it. I would give all the world to believe as she did."
He found that the place so inseparably associated with his mother brought back her teachings, which he had so often tried to forget.
"I wish I might bury myself here, away from the world," he muttered, "for it has only cheated and lied to me from first to last. Everything deceived me, and turned out differently from what I expected. These loved old scenes are true and unchanged, and smile upon me now as when I was here a happy boy. Would to heaven I might never leave them again!"
He was startled out of his revery by the sharp bark of a squirrel that ran chattering and whisking its tail in great excitement from limb to limb in a clump of chestnuts near. The crackling of a twig betrayed to Gregory the cause of its alarm, for through an opening in the thicket he saw the lady who had started out for a walk with the children while he was leaning on the front gate.
Shrinking further behind the cedars he proposed to reconnoitre a little before making himself known. He observed that she was attired in a dark, close-fitting costume suitable for rambling among the hills. At first he thought that she was pretty, and then that she was not. His quick, critical eye detected that her features were not regular, that her profile was not classic. It was only the rich glow of exercise and the jaunty gypsy hat that had given the first impression of something like beauty. In her right hand, which was ungloved, she daintily held, by its short stem, a chestnut burr which the squirrel in its alarm had dropped, and now, in its own shrill vernacular, was scolding about so vociferously. She was glancing around for some means to break it open, and Gregory had scarcely time to notice her fine dark eyes, when, as if remembering the rock on which he had been sitting, she advanced toward him with a step so quick and elastic that he envied her vigor.
Further concealment was now impossible. Therefore with easy politeness he stepped forward and said: "Let me open the burr for you, Miss Walton."
She started violently at the sound of his voice, and for a moment reminded him of a frightened bird on the eve of flight.
"Pardon me for so alarming you," he hastened to say, "and also pardon a seeming stranger for addressing you informally. My name may not be unknown to you, although I am in person. It is Walter Gregory."
She had been so startled that she could not immediately recover herself, and still stood regarding him doubtfully, although with manner more assured.
"Come," said he, smiling and advancing toward her with the quiet assurance of a society man. "Let me open the burr for you, and you shall take its contents in confirmation of what I say. If I find sound chestnuts in it, let them be a token that I am not misrepresenting myself. If my test fails, then you may justly ask for better credentials."
Half smiling, and quite satisfied from his words and appearance in advance, she extended the burr toward him. But as she did so it parted from the stem, and would have fallen to the ground had he not, with his ungloved hand, caught the prickly thing. His hand was as white and soft as hers, and the sharp spines stung him sorely, yet he permitted no sign of pain to appear upon his face.
"Ah!" exclaimed Miss Walton, "I fear it hurt you."
He looked up humorously and said, "An augury is a solemn affair, and no disrespect must be allowed to nature's oracle, which in this case is a chestnut burr;" and he speedily opened it.
"There!" he said, triumphantly, "what more could you ask? Here are two solid, plump chestnuts, with only a false, empty form of shell between them. And here, like the solid nuts, are two people entitled to each other's acquaintance, with only the false formality of an introduction, like the empty shell, keeping them apart. Since no mutual friend is present to introduce us, has not Nature taken upon herself the office through this chestnut burr? But perhaps I should further Nature's efforts by giving you my card."
As Miss Walton regained composure, she soon proved to Gregory that she was not merely a shy country girl. At the close of his rather long and fanciful speech she said, genially, extending her hand: "My love for Nature is unbounded, Mr. Gregory, and the introduction you have so happily obtained from her weighs more with me than any other that you could have had. Let me welcome you to your own home, as it were. But see, your hand is bleeding, where the burr pricked you. Is this an omen, also? If our first meeting brings bloody wounds, I fear you will shun further acquaintance."
There was a spice of bitterness in Gregory's laugh, as he said: "People don't often die of such wounds. But it is a little odd that in taking your hand I should stain it with my blood. I am inclined to drop the burr after all, and base all my claims on my practical visiting card. You may come to look upon the burr as a warning, rather than an introduction, and order me off the premises."
"It was an omen of your choice," replied Miss Walton, laughing. "You have more to fear from it than I. If you will venture to stay you shall be most welcome. Indeed, it almost seems that you have a better right here than we, and your name has been so often heard that you are no stranger. I know father will be very glad to see you, for he often speaks of you, and wonders if you are like his old friend, the dearest one, I think, he ever had. How long have you been here?"
"Well, I have been wandering about the place much of the afternoon."
"I need not ask you why you did not come in at once," she said, gently. "Seeing your old home after so long an absence is like meeting some dear friend. One naturally wishes to be alone for a time. But now I hope you will go home with me."
He was surprised at her delicate appreciation of his feelings, and gave her a quick pleased look, saying: "Nature has taught you to be a good interpreter, Miss Walton. You are right. The memories of the old place were a little too much for me at first, and I did not know that those whom I met would appreciate my feelings so delicately."
The two children now appeared, running around the brow of the hill, the boy calling in great excitement: "Aunt Annie, oh! Aunt Annie, we've found a squirrel-hole. We chased him into it. Can't Susie sit by the hole and keep him in, while I go for a spade to dig him out?"
Then they saw the unlooked-for stranger, who at once rivalled the squirrel-hole in interest, and with slower steps, and curious glances, they approached.
"These are my sister's children," said Miss Walton, simply.
Gregory kindly took the boy by the hand, and kissed the little girl, who looked half-frightened and half-pleased, as a very little maiden should, while she rubbed the cheek that his mustache had tickled.
"Do you think we can get the squirrel, Aunt Annie?" again asked the boy.
"Do you think it would be right, Johnny, if you could?" she asked. "Suppose you were the squirrel in the hole, and one big monster, like Susie here, should sit by the door, and you heard another big monster say, 'Wait till I get something to tear open his house with.' How would you feel?"
"I won't keep the poor little squirrel in his hole," said sympathetic Susie.
But the boy's brow contracted, and he said, sternly: "Squirrels are nothing but robbers, and their holes are robbers' dens. They take half our nuts every year."
Miss Walton looked significantly at Gregory, and laughed, saying, "There it is, you see, man and woman."
A momentary shadow crossed his face, and he said, abruptly, "I hope Susie will be as kindly in coming years."
Miss Walton looked at him curiously as they began to descend the hill to the house. She evidently did not understand his remark, coupled with his manner.
As they approached the barn there was great excitement among the poultry. Passing round its angle, Walter saw coming toward them a quaint-looking old woman, in what appeared to be a white scalloped nightcap. She had a pan of corn in her hand, and was attended by a retinue that would have rejoiced an epicure's heart. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and Guinea fowls thronged around and after her with an intentness on the grain and a disregard of one another's rights and feelings that reminded one unpleasantly of political aspirants just after a Presidential election. Johnny made a dive for an old gobbler, and the great red-wattled bird dropped his wings and seemed inclined to show fight, but a reluctant armistice was brought about between them by the old woman screaming: "Maister Johnny, an' ye let not the fowls alone ye'll ha' na apples roast the night."
Susie clung timidly to her aunty's side as they passed through these clamorous candidates for holiday honors, and the young lady said,
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