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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 57/76 -

him inclined to be sullen and uncommunicative. Jeff had changed sides, and was now an ardent adherent of Gregory's, who had given him five dollars without imposing any conditions; and then, what was of far greater import, had saved the house and Annie's life, and, according to Jeff's simple views of equity, he ought to have both. And yet a certain rude element of honesty made him feel that he had made a bargain with Hunting, and that he must fulfil his part and then they would be quits. But he was not disposed to do it with a very good grace. So when Hunting said, "Well, Jeff, I suppose you've seen a good deal since I was last here."

"Yes, I've seen a mighty lot," said Jeff, sententiously.

"Well, Jeff, you remember our agreement. What did you see? Only the truth now."

"Sartin, sah, only de truf. I'se belong to de Walton family, and yous doesn't get nothin' but de truf from dem."

"All right, Jeff; I'm glad your employers have so good an influence on you. Well?"

"I'se seen Misser Gregory on de roof," said Jeff, drawing on his imagination, as he had only heard about that event through Zibbie's highly colored story, "where some other folks wouldn't dar go, and now I'se see dat house dar, which I wouldn't see dar, wasn't it for Misser Gregory."

"Well, well," said Hunting, impatiently, "I've heard all about that. What else?"

"I'se seen Miss Annie roun' all day bloomin' and sweet as a rose, and I'se seen how she might have been a crushed white lily," Jeff continued, solemnly, with a rhetorical wave of the hand.

There existed in Jeff the raw material of a colored preacher, only it was very crude and undeveloped. But upon any important occasion he always grew rhetorical and figurative in his language.

"Come, come, Jeff, tell me something new."

"Well," said Jeff, "since I'se promised to tell you, and since I'se spent de ten dollars, and hasn't got it to give you back again, I'se seen Misser Gregory las' Sunday evenin', a kneelin' afore Miss Annie as if he was a sayin' his prayers to her, and I shouldn't wonder if she heard 'em (with a chuckle); anyhow she wasn't lofty and scornful, and Misser Gregory he's looked kinder glorified ever since; afore that he looked glum, and Miss Annie, she's been kinder bendin' toward him since dat evenin', like a rosebud wid de dew on it."

Hunting's face darkened with suppressed anger and jealousy. After a moment he said, "Is that all?"

"Dat's all."

"Well, Jeff, here's ten dollars more, and look sharper than ever now."

"'Scuse me, Misser Hunting. We'se squar' now. I'se done what I agreed, and now I'se gwine out ob de business."

"Has Gregory engaged your services?" asked Hunting, quickly.

"No, sah, he hab not. I reckon Misser Gregory tink he doesn't need any help."

"Why won't you do as I wish, then?"

"Well, Mr. Hunting, it kinder makes me feel bad here," said Jeff, rubbing his hand indefinitely over several physical organs. "I don't jes' believe Miss Annie would like it, and after seein' Mr. Gregory under dat pesky ladder, I couldn't do nothin' dat he wouldn't like. If it hadn't been for him I'd sorter felt as if I'd killed Miss Annie by leavin' dat doggoned ladder so straight up, and I nebber could hab gone out in de dark agin all my life."

"Why, you old black fool," said Hunting, irritably, "don't you know I'm going to marry Miss Annie? You'd better keep on the right side of me."

"Which is de right side?" Jeff could not forbear saying, with a suppressed chuckle.

"Come, sir, no impudence. You won't serve me any more then?"

"Oh yes, Misser Hunting. I'se black yer boots, make de fire, harness de hoss, do anything dat won't hurt in here," with a gesture that seemed to indicate the pit of his stomach. "Anything more, please 'scuse me."

"You will not speak of what has passed between us?"

"I'se given my word," said Jeff, drawing himself up, "de word ob one dat belongs to de Waltons."

Hunting turned on his heel and strode away. Annie had given one aspect to the scene on that Sabbath evening, and Jeff had innocently given another. Hunting was not loyal enough even to such a woman as Annie to believe her implicitly. But it is the curse of conscious deceit to breed suspicion. Only the true can have absolute faith in the truth of others. Moreover, Hunting, in his hidden selfishness and worldliness could not understand Annie's ardent effort to save a fellow-creature from sin. Skilled in the subtle impulses of the heart, he believed that Annie, unconsciously even to herself, was drifting toward the man he hated all the more because he had wronged him, while the danger of his presence made him almost vindictive. Yet he realized the necessity of disguising his feelings, for if Annie discovered them he might well dread the consequence. But the idea of watching alone with Gregory was revolting. It suggested dark thoughts which he tried to put from him in horror, for he was far from being a hardened villain. He was only a man who had gradually formed the habit of acting from expedience and self-interest, instead of principle. Such a rule of life often places us where expedience and self-interest require deeds that are black indeed.

But he was saved from the ordeal of spending hours alone with a man who even in his helplessness might injure him beyond remedy, for on the following morning Annie again sought Gregory's room bent on securing reconciliation at once. She felt that she could endure this estrangement no longer.

The young man employed as watcher was out at the time.

Gregory was gazing at the fire with the same look of listless apathy. A deep flush overspread his deathly pale face as she came and sat down beside him, but he did not turn from her.

"Mr. Gregory," she said, very gently, "it seems that I can do nothing but receive favors from you, and I've come now to ask a great one."

He suspected something concerning Hunting, and his face darkened forbiddingly. Though Annie noted this, she would not be denied.

"Do you think," she said, earnestly, "that, after your sacrifice for me, I can ever cease to be your friend in the truest and strongest sense?"

"Miss Walton," he said, calmly, "I've made no sacrifice for you. The thought of that episode in the orchard is my one comfort while lying here, and will be through what is left of life. But please do not speak of it, for it will become a pain to me if I see the obligation is a burden to you."

"It is not," she said, eagerly. "I'm glad to owe my life to you. But do you think I can go on my way and forget you?"

"It's the very best you can do, Miss Walton."

"But I tell you it's impossible. Thank God, it's not my nature to do it!"

He turned toward her with a wistful, searching look.

"We must carry out our old agreement," continued Annie. "We must be close and lasting friends. You should not blame me for an attachment formed years ago."

"I do not blame you."

"Then you should not punish me so severely. You first make your friendship needful to me, and then you deny it."

"I am _your_ friend, and more."

"How can we enjoy a frank and happy friendship through coming years, after--after--you feel differently from what you do now, when you will not even hear the name of him who will one day be my second self?"

Again his face darkened; but she continued rapidly, "Mr. Hunting is deeply grateful to you, and would like to express his feelings in person. He wishes to bury the past--"

"He will, with me, soon," interrupted Gregory, gloomily.

"No; please do not speak in that way," she pleaded. "He wishes to make what little return he can, and offers to watch with you night and day."

He turned upon her almost fiercely, and said, "Are you too in league with my evil destiny, in that you continually persecute me with that man? Miss Walton, I half doubt whether you know what love means, or you would not make such a proposition. Let me at least die quietly. With the memory of the past and the knowledge of the present, his presence in my room would be death by torture. Pardon me, but let us end this matter once for all. We have both been unfortunate, you in inspiring a love that you cannot return; I in permitting my heart to go from me, beyond recall, before learning that my passion would be hopeless. I do not see that either of us has been to blame, you certainly not in the slightest degree. But, however vain, my love is an actual fact, and I cannot act as if it were not. As well might a man with a mortal wound smile and say it's but a scratch. I cannot change my mind merely in view of expedience and invest such feelings in another way. The fact of my love is now a past disaster, and I must bear the consequences with such fortitude as I can. But what you ask would drive me mad. If I should live, possibly in the future I might meet you often without the torturing regret I now feel. But to make a smiling member of Charles Hunting's friendly circle would require on my part the baldest hypocrisy; and I can't do it, and won't try. If that man comes into my room, I will crawl out if I can."

He was trembling with excitement, his face flushed and feverish, and

Opening a Chestnut Burr - 57/76

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