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Altogether Hunting was reassured by his reception, which proved that his relations were as yet undisturbed. But in the depths of his soul he trembled at the presence of Gregory in the house; and when Miss Eulie came down and said, after an affectionate greeting, that Gregory was in something like a stupor, he was even base enough to wish that he might never come out of it.
At the word "stupor," Annie's face grew pale. She had a growing dissatisfaction with Hunting's manner in regard to Gregory, and felt that he did not feel or show the interest or gratitude that he ought; but there was nothing tangible with which she could tax him.
The doctor, who came early in the evening, reassured her, and said that the state of partial consciousness was not necessarily a dangerous symptom, as it might be the result of a severe shock. The young man he brought was installed as nurse under Miss Eulie's charge, and Annie said that Mr. Hunting would also take his turn as watcher.
Then she, Mr. Hunting, and her father had a long talk over what had happened in his absence, Mr. Walton dwelling most feelingly on what he regarded as the providential character of the visit from the son of his old friend.
"If he never leaves our house alive, I have a strong assurance that he will join his father in the better home. Indeed, I may soon be there with them."
"Please don't talk so, father," pleaded Annie.
"Well, my child, perhaps it's best I should, and prepare your minds for what may be near. It's a great consolation to see Charles again, and he will help you bear whatever is God's will."
"You can trust her to me," said Hunting, fervently. "I have ample means to gratify her most extravagant wish, and my love will shelter her and think for her even as yours would. But I trust you will soon share our home with us."
"I expect to, my children, but it will be our eternal home."
Annie strove bravely to keep her tears back, for her father's sake, but they would come.
"Annie," said Hunting, "won't you please let your father put this ring on your engagement finger?" and he gave Mr. Walton a magnificent solitaire diamond.
Mr. Walton took his daughter's hand, and looked earnestly into her tearful, blushing face.
"Annie," he said, in a grave, sweet tone, "I hope for your sake that I may be wrong, but I have a presentiment that my pilgrimage is nearly ended. You have made its last stage very happy. A good daughter makes a good wife, Mr. Hunting; and, Annie, dear, I shall tell your mother that you supplied her place, as far as a daughter could. It will add greatly to my peace if I can leave you and my sister, and the dear little ones, under the care of one so competent to protect and provide for you all. Mr. Hunting, do you feel that you can take them to your home and heart, with my daughter?"
"Certainly," said Hunting. "I had no other thought; and Annie's will shall be supreme in her future home."
"But, after all, the chief question is, Does this ring join your hearts? I'm sure I'm right in thinking so, Annie?"
"Yes," she said, in a low tone.
Slowly, with his feeble, trembling hands he put the flashing gem on Annie's finger, and then placed her hand in Hunting's, and, looking solemnly to heaven, said, "May God bless this betrothal as your father blesses it."
Hunting stooped and kissed her hand and then her lips. With mingled truth and policy, he said, "This ceremony is more solemn and binding to me than the one yet to come at the altar."
Annie was happy in her engagement. It was what she expected, and had been consummated in a way that seemed peculiarly sweet and sacred; and yet her thoughts, with a remorseful tinge, would keep recurring to the man who even then might be dying for her sake.
After they had sat a little while in silence, which is often the best expression of deep feeling, she suddenly said, with an involuntary sigh, "Poor Mr. Gregory! I'm so sorry for him!"
Thus Hunting knew where her thoughts were, and instantly the purpose formed itself in his mind to induce her through her father to consent to an immediate marriage. He saw more plainly than Annie the great change in her father, and based his hope on the fact that the parent might naturally wish to give his child a legal protector before he passed away.
Mr. Walton now showed such signs of weariness that they left him in Miss Eulie's care, who seemed to flit like a ministering spirit between the two patients.
After the great excitement of the day, Annie, too, was very weary, and soon the household sought such rest as was possible with two of its inmates apparently very near the boundaries that separate the known world from the unknown. Glimmering all night long, like signals of distress at sea, the faint lights of the watchers reminded late passers-by of the perilous nature of earthly voyaging.
Annie had gone with Miss Eulie to take a parting look at Gregory. She bent over him and said, "Mr. Gregory," but his spirit seemed to have sunk into such far depths that even her voice could not summon him.
"Oh, if he should die now!" she moaned, shudderingly, and on the night of her engagement sobbed herself to sleep.
The next morning saw little change in the patients, save that Mr. Walton was evidently weaker. Miss Eulie said that Gregory had roused up during the night and seemed perfectly conscious. He had inquired after Mr. Walton and Annie, but toward morning had fallen into his old lethargy.
After breakfast Annie took Hunting up to see him, but was pained at the darkening of her lover's face as he looked at the prostrate and unconscious man. She could not understand it. He seemed to have no wish to remain. She felt almost indignant, and yet what could she say more than she had said? Gregory's condition, and the cause, should naturally plead for him beyond all words.
Annie spent most of the day with her father, and purposed watching with him that night. The doctor came and reported more favorably of Gregory, but said that everything depended upon his being quiet. Annie purposed that Hunting should commence the duties of watcher as soon as possible. Therefore she told her aunt to tell Gregory, as soon as she thought it would answer, that Hunting had arrived. In the afternoon, Gregory seemed to come out of his lethargy more decidedly than he had before, and took some nourishment with marked relish. Then he lay quietly looking at the fire.
"Do you feel better now?" Miss Eulie asked, gently.
"I'm sure I don't know," he answered, wearily. "I have a numb, strange feeling."
"Would you like to see Miss Walton?"
"No, not now; I am satisfied to know she is well."
"She wished me to tell you that Mr. Hunting had arrived."
He turned away his face with a deep scowl, but said nothing.
After some time she came to his side and said, "Is there anything you would like?"
"Nothing," he replied, gently. "I appreciate your great kindness."
Miss Eulie sighed and left the room, feeling dimly that there were internal injuries after all, but such as were beyond the doctor's skill.
Annie echoed her sigh when she heard how he received Miss Eulie's information. She determined to prepare and take him his supper.
When she noiselessly entered, he was again looking fixedly at the fire. But she had not advanced far into the room before he recognized her step and looked up quickly.
"See," she said, cheerily, coming to his side, "I've prepared and brought you this supper with my own hands, and shall expect in return that you compliment it highly. Now, isn't it a good supper?" she asked, holding it before him.
But his eyes fastened on the glittering and significant ring, whose meaning he too well understood. With an expression of intense pain he turned his face to the wall without a word.
"Mr. Gregory," pleaded Annie, "I never thought you would turn away from me."
"Not from you, not from you," he said, in a low tone, "but I'm very weak, and the light of that diamond is too strong for me yet."
"Forgive me," she said, in a tone of deep reproach; "I did not think."
"No, forgive me. Please leave me now, and remember in charity how weak I am."
She put the tray down and hastened from the room. He ate no supper that night, neither did she. Hunting watched her gloomily, with both fear and jealousy at heart. The latter, however, was groundless, for Annie's feeling was only that of profound sorrow for something she could not help. But lack of strongly manifested interest and sympathy for Gregory injured him in her estimation; for woman-like she unconsciously took the side of the one he wronged. She could understand Gregory's enmity, but it seemed to her that Hunting should be full of generous enthusiasm for one who was suffering so much in her behalf.
"Men are so strange!" she said, half-vexedly. "They fall in love without the slightest provocation, and hate each other forever, when a woman would have sharp words and be over with it. They never do what you would naturally expect."
During the day Hunting had found time to see Jeff alone, but had found
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