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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 55/76 -
When Annie stole noiselessly back to Gregory's room he was sleeping, though his breathing seemed difficult.
What a poor mockery the dinner hour was! Even the children were oppressed by the general gloom and talked in whispers. But before it was over there came a bright ray of light to Annie in the form of a telegram from Hunting, saying that he had arrived in New York safely, and would be at the village on the 5 P.M. train.
"O I am so glad!" cried Annie; "never was he so needed before."
And yet there was a remorseful twinge at her heart as she thought of Gregory. But she felt sure of reconciliation now, for would not Hunting overwhelm her preserver with gratitude, and forgive everything in the past?
She said to Jeff, "Have Dolly and the low buggy ready for me at half- past four."
Her father seemed peculiarly glad when he heard that his relative, the man he hoped would soon be his son, was coming.
"It's all turning out for the best," he said, softly.
The hour soon came, for it was already late, and Annie slipped away, leaving both her father and Gregory sleeping. To her great joy Hunting stepped down from the train and was quickly seated by her side. As they drove away in the dusk he could not forbear a rapturous kiss and embrace which she did not resist.
"O Charles, I'm so glad you've come--so very glad!" she exclaimed almost breathlessly; "and I've so much to tell you that I hardly know where to begin. How good God is to send you to me now, just when I need you most!"
"So you find that you can't do without me altogether? That's grand news. How I've longed for this hour! If I'd had my own way I would have exploded the boilers in my haste to reach port to see you again. It was real good of you to come, and not send for me. Come Annie, celebrate my return by the promise that you will soon make a home for me. I am happy to say that I can now give you the means of making it a princely one."
"I haven't the time nor the heart to think about that now, Charles. Father is very ill. I'm exceedingly anxious about him."
"Indeed!" said Hunting, "that is bad news;" and yet his grief was not very deep, for he thought, "If she is left alone she will come to me at once."
"What is more," cried Annie, a little hurt at the quiet manner in which he received her tidings, "suppose, instead of meeting me strong and well, you had found me a crushed and lifeless corpse to-night?"
"Annie," he said, "what do you mean?"
"I mean that this would have been true but for one with whom I am sorry you are on bad terms. Walter Gregory is at our house."
He gave a great start at the mention of this name, and even in the deep twilight his face seemed very white.
"I don't understand," he almost gasped.
"I knew you would be deeply affected," said the unsuspicious Annie. "He stood between me and death to-day, and it may cost him his own life. He was severely injured--how badly we can hardly tell yet;" and she rapidly related all that had occurred. "And now, Charles," she concluded, "no matter what he may have done, or how deeply he may have wronged you, I'm sure you'll do everything in your power to effect a complete reconciliation, and cement a lasting friendship. If possible, you must become his untiring nurse. How much you owe him!"
She noticed that he was trembling. After a moment he asked, hesitatingly, "Has he--how long has he been here, did you say?"
"About three weeks. You know our place was his old home, and his father was a very dear friend of my father."
"If I knew it I had forgotten it," he answered, with a chill of fear growing deeper every moment. "Did he--has he said anything about our difficulties?"
"Nothing definite," said she, a little wonderingly at Hunting's manner. "Father happened to mention your name the first evening of his arrival, and the bitter enmity that came out upon his face quite startled me. You know well that I wouldn't hear a word against you. He once commenced saying something to your prejudice, but I stopped him and said I would neither listen to nor believe him--that he did not know you, and was entirely mistaken in his judgment. It was evident to us that Mr. Gregory was not a good man. Indeed, he made no pretence of being one; but he has changed since, as yon can well understand, or he couldn't have sacrificed himself as he has to-day. I told father that I thought the cause of your trouble arose from your trying to restrain him in some of his fast ways, but he thought it resulted from business relations."
"You were both right," said Hunting, slowly, as if he were feeling his way along. "He was inclined to be very dissipated, and I used to remonstrate with him; but the immediate cause was a business difficulty. He would have kept me out of a great deal of money if he could."
His words were literally true, but they gave an utterly false impression. Annie was satisfied, however. It seemed a natural explanation, and she trusted Hunting implicitly. Indeed, with her nature, love could scarcely exist without trust.
"That's all past now," said Annie, eagerly. "You surely will not let it weigh with you a moment. Indeed, Charles, I shall expect you to do everything in your power to make that man your friend."
"O, certainly, I could not act otherwise," he said, rather absently. He was scheming with desperate earnestness to meet and avert the impending dangers. Annie's frank and cordial reception showed him that so far as she was concerned he was as yet safe. But he knew her well enough to feel sure that if she detected falsehood in him his case would be nearly hopeless. He recognized that he was walking on a mine that at any moment might be sprung. With his whole soul he loved Annie Walton, and it would be worse than death to lose her. The thought of her had made every gross temptation fall harmless at his feet, and even his insatiate love of wealth had been mingled with the dearer hope that it would eventually minister to her happiness. But he had lived so long in the atmosphere of Wall Street that his ideas of commercial integrity had become exceedingly blurred. When a questionable course opened by which he could make money, he could not resist the temptation. He tried to satisfy himself that business required such action, and called his sharp practice by the fine names of skill, sagacity. But when on his visits to Annie, which, of late, during the worst of his transactions, had been frequent rather than prolonged, he had had a growing sense of humiliation and fear. He saw that she could never be made to look upon his affair with Burnett & Co. as he regarded it, and that her father was the soul of commercial honor. Though Mr. Walton's fortune was moderate, not a penny had come to him stained. After these visits Hunting would go back to the city, resolved to quit everything illegitimate and become in his business and other relations just what he seemed to them. But some glittering temptation would assail him. He would make one more adroit shuffle of the cards, and then, from being hollow, would become morally and religiously sound at once.
During his voyage home, there was time for thought. A severe gale, while lashing the sea into threatening waves, had also disturbed his guilty conscience. He had amassed sufficient to satisfy even his greed of gold for the present, and his calculating soul hinted that it was time to begin to put away a little stock in heaven as well as on earth. He resolved that he would withdraw from the whirlpool of Wall Street speculation and engage in only legitimate operations. Moreover, he began to long for the refuge and more quiet joys of home, and he felt, as did poor Gregory, that Annie of all women could do most to make him happy here and fit him for the future life. Therefore he had returned with the purpose of pressing his suit for a speedy marriage as strongly as a safe policy would permit.
The bright October day of his arrival in New York seemed emblematic of his hopes and prospects, and now again the deepening night, the rising wind, and the wildly hurrying clouds but mirrored back himself.
His safest and wisest course would have been to make an honest confession to Annie of the wrong he had done Gregory. As his mind recovered from its first confusion this thought occurred to him. But he had already given her the impression that he had received the wrong, or rather that it had been attempted against him. Moreover, by any truthful confession he would stand convicted of deceiving and swindling Burnett & Co. He justly feared that Annie would break with him the moment she learned this. So like all schemers, he temporized, and left his course open to be decided by circumstances rather than principle.
His first course was to learn of Annie all that he could concerning Gregory and his visit, so that he might act in view of the fullest knowledge possible. She told him frankly what had occurred, so far as time permitted during their ride home. But of Gregory's love she did not speak, and was perplexed as to her proper course. Loyalty to her lover seemed to require that he should know all, and yet she was sure that Gregory would not wish her to speak of it, and she owed so much to him that she felt she could not do what was contrary to his wishes. But Hunting well surmised that, whether Annie knew it or not, Gregory could not have been in her society three weeks and go away an indifferent stranger.
"Jeff can give me more light," he thought.
Conscious of deceit himself, he distrusted every one, even crystal- souled Annie.
Mr. Walton received Hunting in a fatherly way. Indeed, he looked upon the young man as a son, and the thought of leaving Annie to his protection was an unspeakable comfort.
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