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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 60/76 -
"Are yer goin' to die?" asked the old man, in an awed whisper.
"No, Mr. Tuggar; I've been growing old and feeble, I've been dying for a long time. Now I'm going to live--to be strong and well, forever and ever. So don't grieve, but rather rejoice with me."
The old man sat musing a moment, and then said softly to himself, "This is what the Scripter means when it tells about the 'death of the righteous.'"
"Yes," continued Mr. Walton, though more feebly; "and the Scripture is true. The dear Lord doesn't desert His people. He who has been my friend and helper so many years now tells me that my sins, which are many, are all forgiven. It seems that I have also heard Him say, 'To- day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.'"
Tears gathered in Daddy Tuggar's eyes, and he said, brokenly, "The Lord knows--I've allers been a sort--of well-meanin' man--but I couldn't talk that way--if I was where you be."
"Mr. Tuggar," said Mr. Walton, "I'm too weak to say much more, but I want to ask you one question. You have read the Bible. Whom did the Lord Jesus come to save?"
"Sinners," was the prompt response.
"Are you one?"
"What else be I?"
"Then, old neighbor, you are safe, if you will just receive Him as your Saviour. If you were sure you were good enough and didn't need any Saviour, I should despair of you. But according to the Bible you are just such as He came after. If you feel that you are a sinner, all you have to do is to trust Him and do the best you can."
"Is that all you did?"
"All. I couldn't do anything more. And now, good-by. Remember my last words--Whom did Jesus come to save?"
"Why, He come to save me," burst out the old man, rising up. "What a cussed old fool I was, not to see it afore! I was allers thinkin' He came after the good folks, and I felt that no matter how I tried I could not be good enough. Good-by, John Walton. If they are goin' to let sinners into heaven who are willin' to come any way the Lord will let 'em come, I'll be yer neighbor again 'fore long;" and with his withered, bronzed visage working with an emotion that he did not seek to control, he wrung the dying man's hand, and hobbled out.
But he pleaded with Miss Eulie to let him stay. "I want to see it out," he said, "for if grim Death ain't goin' to get one square knock- down now, then he never had it, I want to see the victory. 'Pears to me that when the gates open the glory will shine out upon us all."
So she installed him in Mr. Walton's arm-chair by the parlor fire, and made him thoroughly at home.
"I'm a waitin' by the side of the river," he said. "I wish I could go over with him. 'Pears I'd feel sure they wouldn't turn me back then."
"Jesus will go over the river with you," she said, gently, "and then they can't turn you back."
"I hope so, I hope so," said this old, child-like man, "for I'm an awful sinner."
After this interview, which greatly fatigued him, Mr. Walton dozed for an hour, and then brightened up so decidedly that Annie had faint hopes that he was better.
The children were brought to him, and he kissed and fondled them very tenderly. Then, in a way that would make a deep impression on their childish natures, he told them how he was going to see their father and mother, and would tell what good children they had been, and how they always meant to be good, and how all would be waiting for them in heaven.
Thus the little ones received no grim and terrible impressions at that death-bed, but rather memories and hopes that in all their future would hold them back, like angel hands, from evil.
Hunting now believed that the time for him to act had come. He had told Jeff to have the horse and buggy ready so that he might send for the old pastor at once.
He came to Annie's side, and taking her hand and her father's, thus seeming a link between them, said very gently, very tenderly, "Annie, your father has told me that it would be a great consolation to him to leave me in charge of you all as his son, legally and in the eyes of the world, as I feel I am in reality. I could then do everything for you, relieve you of every care, and protect with unquestionable right all the interests of the household. Again, the marriage tie, like that of our betrothal, consummated here at his side, would ever seem to us peculiarly tender and sacred. It will almost literally be a marriage made in heaven. I hope you will feel that you can grant this, your father's last wish."
Annie felt a sudden and strong repugnance to the plan. In that hour of agonized parting she did not wish to think of marriage, even to one she loved. Her thoughts immediately recurred to Gregory, and she felt that such an act might, in his weak state, cause disastrous results. And yet if it were her father's wish--his last wish--how could she refuse him--how could she refuse him anything? The marriage day would eventually come. If by making this the day she could once more show her filial love and add to his dying peace, did she not owe him her first duty? The dying are omnipotent with us. Who can refuse their last requests?
She looked inquiringly, but with tear-blinded eyes, at her father.
"Yes, Annie," he said, answering her look, "it would be a great consolation to me, because I can see how it will be of much advantage to you--more than you can now understand. It will enable Charles to step in at once as head of the household, and so you will be relieved of many perplexities and details of business which would be very trying to you, as you will feel. I want to spare you and sister all this, and you have no idea how much it will save your feelings, and add to your comfort, to have one like Charles act for you with such power as he would have as your husband. After seeing you all thus provided for, it seems to me that I could depart in perfect peace."
"Dear father," said Annie, tenderly, "how can I deny you anything! This seems to me no time for marriage, but, since you wish it, your will shall be mine. It must be right or you would not ask it; and yet--" She did not finish the sentence, but buried her face in her hands, weeping.
"That's my noble Annie," Hunting exclaimed, with a glad exultation in his voice that he could not disguise; and, hastening out, he told Jeff to bring the minister as speedily as possible.
Miss Eulie was called, and acquiesced in her brother's opinion, and hovered around Annie in a tender flutter of maternal love.
Hunting now felt that he was master of destiny, and in his heart bade defiance to Gregory and all his own fears. His elation and self- applause were great, for had he not snatched the prize out of the hand of death itself, and made events that would have awed and disheartened other men combine for his good? He had schemed, planned, and overreached them all, though, in this case, for their interests as well as his own, he believed. While he would naturally wish the marriage to take place as soon as possible, his chief reason was to forestall any revelations which might come through Gregory; and this motive made his whole course, though apparently dictated by the purest feeling, a crafty trick. Yet such was the complex nature of the man that he honestly meant to fulfil all Mr. Walton's expectations, and become Annie's loving shield from every care and trial, and a faithful guardian of the household. Nay, more, as soon as he was securely intrenched, with all his coveted possessions, he purposed that Annie should help him to be a true, good man--a Christian in reality.
Well may the purest and strongest pray to be kept from the evil of the world. It lurks where least suspected, and can plot its wrongs in the chamber of death, and on the threshold of heaven. Annie and her father might at least suppose themselves safe now. Were they so, with God's minister on his way to join truth with untruth--a pure-hearted maiden to a man from whom she would shrink the moment she came to know him? Not on the human side. They were safe only as God kept them. If Annie Walton had found herself married to a swindler, hers would have been a life-long martyrdom. But unconsciously she drew momentarily nearer the edge of the precipice. Time was passing, and their venerable pastor would soon be present. Annie had welcomed him every day previously, as he came to take sweet counsel with her father rather than prepare him for death, but now she had a strange, secret dread of his coming.
Her father suddenly put his hand to his heart.
"Have you pain there?" asked Annie.
"It's gone," he replied, after a moment. "They will soon be all past, Annie dear. How does Mr. Gregory seem now?" he asked of Miss Eulie.
"Greatly depressed, I'm sorry to say," she answered. "He knows that you are no better, and it seems to distress him very much."
"God bless him for saving my darling's life!" he said, fervently; "and He will bless him. I have a feeling that he will see brighter and better days. I can send him almost a father's love and blessing, for he now seems like a son to me. Say to him that I shall tell his father of his noble deeds. Be a sister to him, Annie. Carry on the good work you have so wisely begun. May the friendship of the parents descend to the children. And you, Charles, my son, will surely feel toward him as a brother, whatever may have been the differences of the past."
Innocent but deeply embarrassing words to both Hunting and Annie.
Again Mr. Walton put his hand to his heart.
Hunting left the room, for it was surely time for Jeff to return. With a gleam of exultant joy he saw him driving toward the house with the white-haired minister at his side. He returned softly to the sick- room.
Mr. Walton had just taken Annie's hands, and after a look of unutterable fondness, said, "Before I give you to another--while you are still my own little girl--let me thank you for having been all and more than a father could ask. How good God was to give me such a comfort in your mother's place!"
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