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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 63/76 -
Annie felt that her best solace would be in trying to cheer others. She had seen Gregory but seldom and briefly since the interview last described, but had been greatly comforted by his decided change for the better. He had kept his word. Indeed, it was only the leaden hand of despondency that kept him down, and he rallied from the moment it was lifted. This evening he was dressed and sitting by the fire. As she entered, in her deep mourning, his look was so wistful and kind, so eloquent with sympathy, that instead of cheering him, as she had intended, she sat down on a low ottoman, and burying her face in her hands, cried as if her heart would break.
"Oh that I knew how to comfort you!" said Gregory, in the deepest distress. "I cannot bear to see you suffer."
He rose with difficulty and came to her side, saying, "What can I do, Miss Walton? Would that I could prevent you, at any cost to myself, from ever shedding another tear!"
His sympathy was so true and strong that it was a luxury for her to receive it; and she had kept up so long that tears were nature's own relief.
At last he said timidly, hesitatingly, as if venturing on forbidden ground, "I think the Bible says that in heaven all tears will be wiped away. Your father is surely there."
"Would that I were there with him!" she sobbed.
"Not yet, Annie, not yet," he said, gently. "Think how dark this world would be to more than one if you were not in it."
"But will you never seek this dear home of rest?" she asked.
"The way of life is closed to me," he said, sadly.
"O, Mr. Gregory! Who is it that says, 'I am the way?'"
"But He says to me, 'Depart.'"
"And yet I, knowing all--I, a weak, sinful creature like yourself-- say, Come to Him. I am better and kinder than He who died for us all! What strange, sad logic! Good-night, Walter. You will not always so wrong your best Friend."
Gregory's despairing conviction that his day of mercy was past was hardly proof against her words and manner, but he was in thick darkness and saw no way out.
Annie went down to her aunt and Hunting in the parlor. "Why will Mr. Gregory be so hard and unbelieving?" she said, tearfully.
"If you knew him as well as I do you would understand," said Hunting, politicly, and then changed the conversation.
He was consumed by a jealousy which he dared not show. Annie's manner toward him was all that he could ask, and he felt sure of her now. But it was the future he dreaded, for he was satisfied that Gregory had formed an attachment for Annie, whether she knew it or not, and, unless he could secure her by marriage, the man he had wronged might find means of tearing off his mask. With desperate earnestness he resolved to press his suit.
His course since Mr. Walton's death had been such as to win Annie's sincerest gratitude. When action rather than moral support was required, he was strong, and no one could be more delicately thoughtful of her feelings and kinder than he had been.
"Dear Charles," said Annie, when they were alone. "What should I have done without you in all these dreary days! How you have saved me from all painful contact with the world!"
"And so I ever wish to shield you," said Hunting. "Will you not, as your father purposed, give me the right at once?"
"You have the right, Charles. I ask no more than you have done and are doing. But do not urge marriage now. I yielded then for father's sake, not my own. My heart is too sore and crushed to think of it now. After all, what difference can a few months make to you? Be generous. Give me a respite, and I will make you a better wife and a happier home."
"But it looks, Annie, as if you could not trust me," he said, gloomily.
"No, Charles," she said, gravely, "it looks rather as if you distrusted me; and you must learn to trust me implicitly. Out of both love for you and justice to myself, I exercise my woman's right of naming the day. In the meantime I give you my perfect confidence. No words of others--nothing but your own acts can disturb it, and of this I have no fear."
He did not seek to disguise his deep disappointment. While she felt sorry for him, she remained firm, and he saw that it would not be wise to urge her.
Annie would not carelessly give pain to any one, much less to those she loved. And yet her mind was strong and well-balanced. She knew it was no great misfortune to Hunting to wait a few months when her own feelings and the duty she owed another required it. "When Mr. Gregory gets strong and well and back to business," she thought, "he will wonder at himself. I have no right almost to destroy him now in his weakness by doing that which can be done better at another time; and indeed, for my own sake, I should have required delay."
The next day Hunting was reluctantly compelled to go to the city. Somewhat to Annie's surprise, Gregory made no effort to secure her society. In her frank, sisterly regard she was slow in understanding that her presence caused regretful pain to him. But he seemed resolutely bent upon getting well, and was gaining rapidly. He walked out a little while during the middle of the day, and her eyes followed him wistfully as he moved slowly and feebly along the garden walk. She saw, with quickly starting tears, that he went to the rustic seat by the brook where they had spent that memorable Sunday afternoon, and that he stood in long, deep thought.
When he came back she offered to read to him.
"Not now--not yet," he said, sadly. "I know my own weakness, and would be true to my word."
"Why do you shun me?" she asked.
"May you never understand from experience," he said with a smile that was sadder than tears, and passed on up to his room.
And yet, though he did not know it, his course was the best policy, for it awakened stronger respect and sympathy on her part.
The next morning ushered in the first of the dreamy Indian-summer days, when Nature, as if grieved over the havoc of the frost, would hide the dismantled trees and dead flowers by a purple haze, and seek as do fading beauties to disguise the ravages of time by drawing over her withered face a deceptive veil.
Gregory felt so much better that he thought he could venture to make a parting call on Daddy Tuggar. He found the old man smoking on his porch, and his reception was as warm and demonstrative as his first had been a month ago, though of a different nature. Gregory lighted a cigar and sat down beside him.
"I'm wonderful glad to see you," said Mr. Tuggar. "To think that I should have cussed you when it was the good Lord that brought you here!"
"Do you think so?" asked Gregory.
"Certain I do. Would that house be there? Wouldn't all our hearts be broke for Miss Annie if it wasn't for you?"
Gregory felt that his heart was "broke" for her as it was, but he said, "It was my taking her out to walk that caused her danger. So you wouldn't have lost her if I had not come."
"You didn't knowin'ly git her in danger, and you did knowin'ly git her out, and that's enough for me," said the old man.
"Well, well, Mr. Tuggar, if I had broken my neck it would have been a little thing compared with saving the life of such a woman as Miss Walton. Still, I fear the Lord has not much to do with me."
"And have you been all this time with John Walton and Miss Annie and still feel that way?"
"It's not their fault."
"I believe that. Are you willin' to say you are a great sinner?"
"Of course. What else am I?"
"That's it--that's it," cried the old man, delightedly. "Now you're all right. That's just where I was. When John Walton bid me good-by, he asked me one question that let more light into my thick head than all the readin' and preachin' and prayin' I ever heard. He asked, 'Whom did Jesus Christ come to save?' Answer that."
"The Bible says He came to save sinners," replied Gregory, now deeply interested.
"Well, I should think that meant you and me," said Mr. Tuggar, emphatically. "Anyhow, I know it means me. John Walton told me that all I had to do was to just trust the Saviour--not of good people--but of sinners, and do the best I could; and I have just done it, and I'm all right, Mr. Gregory, I'm all right. I don't know whether I can stop swearin', but I'm a tryin'. I don't know whether I can ever get under my old ugly temper, but I'm a tryin' and a prayin'. But whether I can or not, I'm all right, for the good Lord came to save sinners; and if that don't mean me, what's the use of words?"
"But can you trust Him?" asked Gregory.
"Certain I can. Wasn't John Walton an honest man? Wasn't Jesus Christ honest? Didn't he know what He come for?"
"Admitting that He came to save sinners, how can you be sure He will save all? He might save you and not me."
"Well," said Mr. Tuggar, "I hadn't been home long before that question come up to me, and I thought on it a long time. I smoked wellnigh a hundred pipes on it afore I got it settled, but 'tis settled, and when I settle a thing I don't go botherin' back about it. But like enough 'twon't satisfy you."
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