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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 62/76 -


mind.

"It is enough to know that it was God's will," she said; "and my future is still in His hands. Poor Charles! it will be a disappointment to him; and yet what difference will a few weeks or months make?"

Then her father's words, "Be a sister to Gregory," recurred to her, and she reproached herself that she had so long forgotten him. "Father is safe home," she said, "and I am leaving him to wander further and further away. Father told me to be a sister to him, and I will. When he gets well and strong, if he ever does, he will feel very differently; and if he is to die (which God forbid), what more sacred duty can I have than to plead with him and for him to the last?"

Pressing a kiss on her father's silent lips, she went to fulfil one of their last requests. She first asked her aunt if it would be prudent to visit Gregory. "I hardly know, Annie, what to say," said Miss Eulie, in deep perplexity; and she told her what had occurred in relation to Gregory, the doctor, and herself, omitting all reference to Hunting. "If he is not roused out of his gloom and apathy, I fear he will die," concluded her aunt; "and if you can't rouse him, I don't know who can."

Annie gave her a quick, questioning glance.

"Yes, Annie, I understand," she said, quietly. "He received his worst injury before the ladder fell."

"O aunty, what shall I do?"

"Indeed, my dear child, I can hardly tell you. You are placed in a difficult and delicate position. Perhaps your father's words were wisest, 'Be a sister to him.' At any rate, you have more power with him than any one else, and you owe it to him to do all you can to save him."

"I am ready to do anything, aunty, for it seems as if I could never be happy if he should die an unbeliever."

Annie stole noiselessly to Gregory's side, and motioned to the young man who was in charge to withdraw to the next room. Gregory was still asleep. She sat down by him and was greatly shocked to see how emaciated and pale he was. It seemed as if he had suffered from an illness of weeks rather than days.

"He will die," she murmured, with all her old terror at the thought returning. "He will die, and for me. Though innocent, I shall always feel that his blood is upon me;" and she buried her face in her hands, and her whole frame shook with a passion of grief.

Her emotion awoke him, and he recognized with something like awe the bowed head at his side.

Her grief for her father, as he supposed it to be, seemed such a sacred thing! And yet he could not bear to see her intense sorrow. His heart ached to comfort her, but what words of consolation could such as he offer? Still, had she not come to him as if for comfort? This thought touched him deeply, and he almost cursed his unbelieving soul that made him dumb at such a time. What could he say but miserable commonplaces in regard to a bereavement like hers?

He did not say anything, but merely reached out his hand and gently stroked her bowed head.

Then she knew he was awake, and she took his hand and bowed her head upon it.

"Miss Walton," he said, in a husky voice, "it cuts me to the heart to see you grieve so. But, alas! I do not know how to comfort you, and I can't say trite words which mean nothing. After losing such a father as yours, what can any one say?"

She raised her head and said, impetuously, "It's not for father I am grieving. He is in heaven--he is not lost to me. It's for you--you. You are breaking my heart."

"Miss Walton," he began, in much surprise, "I don't understand--"

"Why don't you understand?" she interrupted. "What do you think I am made of? Do you think that you can lie here and die for me and I go serenely on? Do you not see that you would blight the life you have saved?"

His apathy was gone now. But he was bewildered, so sudden and overpowering was her emotion. He only found words to say, "Miss Walton, God knows I am yours, body and soul. What can I do?"

"Live! live!" she continued, with the same passionate earnestness. "I impose no conditions, I ask nothing else. Only get well and strong again. If you will do this, I have such confidence in your better nature, and the many prayers laid up for you, as to feel sure that all will come out right. But if you will just lie here and die, you will imbitter my life. What did the doctor tell you this morning? And yet I shall feel that I am partly the cause. O, Mr. Gregory, you may think me foolish, but that strange little omen of the chestnut burr is in my mind so often! I never was superstitious before, but it haunts me. Don't you remember how you stained my hand with your blood? I can't get it out of my mind, and it has for me now a strange significance. If I had to remember through coming years that you died for me all hopeless and unbelieving, do you think so poorly of me as to imagine I could be happy? Why can't you be generous enough to brighten the life you have saved? Among my father's last words he said I must be a sister to you. How can I if you die? You would make this dear old place, that we both love, full of terrible memories."

He was deeply moved, and after a moment said, "I did not know that you felt in this way. I thought the best thing that I could do was to get out of the world and out of the way. I thought I knew you, but I do not half understand your large, generous heart. For your sake I will try and get well, nor will I impose any conditions whatever. But pardon me: I am going to ask one thing, which you can grant or not as you choose. Please do not wrong me by thinking that I have any personal end in view. I have given all that up as truly as if I were dead. I ask that you do not speedily marry Charles Hunting--not till you are sure you know him."

"O dear!" exclaimed Annie, in real distress, "this dreadful quarrel! What trouble it makes all around!"

"If your father," continued Gregory, with grave earnestness, "told you to be a sister to me, then I have some right to act as a brother toward you. But as an honest man, with all my faults, and with your interests nearest my heart, I entreat you to heed my request. Nay, more: I am going to seem ungenerous, and refer for the first and last time to the obligation you are under to me. By all the influence I gained by that act, I beg of you to hesitate before you marry Charles Hunting. Believe me, I would not lay a straw in the way of your marrying a good man."

"Your words pain me more than I can tell you," said Annie, sadly. "I do not understand them. Once they would have angered me. But, however mistaken you are, I cannot do injustice to your motive.

"I do not see how your request can injure Charles," she continued, musingly. "I have no wish to marry now for a long time--not till these sad scenes have faded somewhat from memory. If you will only promise to live I will not marry him till you get strong and well--till you can look upon this matter as a man--as a brother ought. But your hostility must not be unreasonable or implacable. I _know_ you do Mr. Hunting great injustice. And yet such is my solicitude for you that I will do what seems to me almost disloyal. But I know that I owe a great deal to you as well as Charles."

"What I ask is for your sake, not mine. I only used the obligation as a motive."

"Well," said Annie, "I yield; and surely a sister could do no more than I have done to-night."

"And I have simply done my duty," he answered, quietly. "And yet I thank you truly. You also may see the time when you will thank me more than when I interposed my worthless person between you and danger."

"Please never call yourself 'worthless' to me again. We never did agree, and I fear we shall be gray before we do. But mark this: I am never going to give you up, whatever happens. I shall obey dear father's last words from both duty and inclination. But let us end this painful conversation. What have you eaten to-day?"

"I'm sure I don't know," he said.

"Will you eat something if I bring it?"

"I will do anything you ask."

"Now you give me hope," and she vanished, sending the regular watcher back to his post.

Gregory found it no difficult task to eat the dainty little supper she brought. She had broken the malign spell he was under. As we have seen, his was a physical nature peculiarly subject to mental conditions.

Soon after she said, in a low tone meant only for his ear, "Good- night, my poor suffering brother. We all three shall understand each other better in God's good time."

"I hope so," he said, with a different meaning. "You have made me feel that I am not alone and uncared for in the world, though I cannot call you sister yet. Good-night."

Annie went back to her father's side, and remained till her aunt almost forced her away.

It is not necessary to dwell on the events of the next few days. Such is our earthly lot, nearly all can depict them by recalling their own sad experience: the hushed and solemn household, even the children speaking low and treading softly, as if they might awake one whom only "the last trump" could arouse.

John Walton's funeral was no formal pageant, but an occasion of sincere and general mourning. Even those whose lives and characters were the opposite of his had the profoundest respect for him, and the entire community united in honoring his memory.

Perhaps the most painful time of all to the stricken family was the evening after their slow, dreary ride to the village cemetery. Then, as not before, they realized their loss.


Opening a Chestnut Burr - 62/76

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