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- Opening a Chestnut Burr - 65/76 -
Annie was struck with his appearance as he entered. Though his left arm was in a sling, there was a graceful and almost courtly dignity in his bearing, a brilliancy in his eyes and a firmness, about his mouth, which proved that he had nerved himself for the ordeal and would maintain himself. Instantly she thought of the time when he had first appeared in that room, a half-wrecked, blase man of the world. Now he looked and acted like a nobleman.
Hunting, on the contrary, had a shuffling and embarrassed manner; but he approached Gregory and held out his hand, saying, "Come, Mr. Gregory, let by-gones be by-gones."
But Gregory only bowed with the perfection of distant courtesy, and said, "Good-evening, Mr. Hunting," and took his seat.
Both Hunting and Annie blushed deeply and resentfully. After they were seated, Annie looked toward Hunting to say "grace" as usual, but he could not before the man who knew him so well, and there was another moment of deep embarrassment, while a sudden satirical light gleamed from Gregory's eyes. Annie saw it, and it angered her.
Then Gregory broke the ice with quiet, well-bred ease. In natural tones he commenced conversation, addressing now one, now another, in such a way that they were forced to answer him in like manner. He asked Hunting about the news and gossip of the city as naturally as if they had met that evening for the first time. He even had pleasant repartee with Johnny and Susie, who had now come to like him very much, and his manner toward Miss Eulie was peculiarly gentle and respectful, for he was deeply grateful to her. Indeed, that good lady could scarcely believe her eyes and ears; but Gregory had always been an enigma to her. At first he spoke to Annie less frequently than to any one else, for he dreaded the cloud upon her brow and her outspoken truthfulness, and he was determined the evening should pass off as he had planned. Though so crippled that his food had to be prepared for him, he only made it a matter of graceful jest, and gave ample proof that a highly bred and cultivated man can be elegant in manners under circumstances the most adverse.
Even Annie thawed and relented under his graceful tact, and felt that perhaps he was doing all she could expect in view of the simple promise to "treat Hunting like a gentleman, for her sake." But it had pained her deeply that he had not met Hunting's advances; and she saw that, though perfectly courteous, he was not committing himself in the slightest degree toward reconciliation.
Moreover, she was excessively annoyed that Hunting acted so poor a part. It is as natural for a woman to take pride in her lover as to breathe, but she could have no pride in Hunting that evening. He seemed annoyed beyond endurance with both himself and Gregory, though he strove to disguise it. He knew that he was appearing to disadvantage, and this increased his embarrassment, and he was most unhappy in his words and manner. Yet he could take exception at nothing, for Gregory, secure in his polished armor, grew more brilliant and entertaining as he saw his adversary losing ground.
All were glad when he supper-hour was over and they could adjourn to the parlor. Here Gregory changed his tactics, and drawing the children aside, told them a marvellous tale as a good-by souvenir, thus causing them to feel deep regret for his departure. He next drew Miss Eulie into an animated discussion upon a subject he knew her to be interested in. From this he made the conversation general, and continued to speak to Hunting as naturally as if there were no differences between them. But all saw that he was growing very weary, and early in the evening he quietly rose and excused himself, saying that he needed rest for his journey on the morrow. There was the same polite, distant bow to Hunting as at first, and in deep disappointment Annie admitted that nothing had been gained by the interview from which she had hoped so much. They were no nearer reconciliation. While Gregory's manner had compelled respect and even admiration, it had annoyed her excessively, for he had made her lover appear to disadvantage, and she was almost vexed with Hunting that he had not been equal to the occasion. She was sorry that she had asked Gregory to come down while Hunting was present, and yet courtesy seemed to require that he should be with them, since he was now sufficiently well. Altogether it was a silent little group that Gregory left in the parlor, as all were busy with their own thoughts.
Hunting determined to remain the following day and see Gregory off and out of the way forever, he hoped.
The next morning Gregory did not come down to breakfast. But at about ten o'clock he started for a short farewell stroll about the old place. Annie joined him in the garden.
"I do not think you were generous last evening," she said. "Mr. Hunting met you half-way."
"Did I not do just what I promised?"
"But I was in hopes you would do more, especially when the way was opened."
"Do you think, Miss Walton, that Mr. Hunting's manner and feelings toward me were sincerely cordial and friendly? Was it the prompting of his heart, or your influence, that led him to put out his hand?"
Annie blushed, in conscious confusion. "I fear I shall never reconcile you," she said, sadly.
"I fear not," he replied. "There must be a great change in us both before you can. Though the reason I give you was a sufficient one for not taking his hand in friendly feeling, it was not the one that influenced me. I would not have taken it under any circumstances."
"Mr. Gregory, you grieve me most deeply," she said, in a tone of real distress. "Won't you, when you come to part, take his hand for my sake, and let a little of the ice thaw?"
"No," he said, almost sternly; "not even for your sake, for whom I would die, will I be dishonest with myself or him; and you are not one to ask me to act a lie."
"You wound me deeply, sir!" she said, coldly.
"Faithful are the wounds of a friend," he replied. She did not answer.
"We shall not part in this way, Annie," he said, in a low, troubled voice.
"The best I can do is to give you credit for very mistaken sincerity," she answered, sadly.
"That is all now, I fear," replied he, gently. "Good-by, Annie Walton. We are really parting now. My mission to you is past, and we go our different ways. You will never believe anything I can say on this painful subject, and I would not have spoken of it again of my own accord. Keep your promise to me, and all will yet be well, I believe. As that poor woman who saved us in the mountains said, 'There will at least be one good thing about me. Whether I can pray for myself or not, I shall daily pray for you'; and I feel that God who shielded you so strangely once, will still guard you. Do not grieve because I go away with pain in my heart. It's a better kind of suffering than that with which I came, and lasting good may come out of it, for my old reckless despair is gone. If I ever do become a good man--a Christian --I shall have you to thank; and even heaven would be happier if you were the means of bringing me there."
"When you speak that way, Walter," she said, tears starting to her eyes, "I must forgive everything; and when you become a Christian you will love even your enemy. Please take this little package from me, but do not open it till you reach the quiet and seclusion of your own rooms. Good-by, my brother, for as such my father told me to act and feel toward you, and from my heart I obey."
He looked at her with moistened eyes, but did not trust himself to answer, and without another word they returned to the house.
Gregory's leave-taking from the rest of the household was no mere form. Especially was this true of Miss Eulie, to whom he said most feelingly, "Miss Morton, my mother could not have been kinder or more patient with me."
When he pressed Zibbie's hand and left a banknote in it, she broke out in the broadest Scotch, "Maister Gregory, an' when I think me auld gray head would ha' been oot in the stourm wi' na hame to cover it, I pray the gude God to shelter yours fra a' the cauld blasts o' the wourld."
Silent Hannah, alike favored, seemed afflicted with a sudden attack of St. Vitus's dance, so indefinite was the number of her courtesies; while Jeff, on the driver's seat, looked as solemn as if he were to drive Gregory to the cemetery instead of the depot.
At the moment of final parting, Gregory merely took Annie's hand and looked into her eyes with an expression that caused them speedily to droop, tear-blinded.
To Hunting he had bowed his farewell in the parlor.
When the last object connected with his old home was hidden from his wistful, lingering gaze, he said, with the sorrow of one who watches the sod placed above the grave of his dearest, "So it all ends."
But when in his city apartments, which never before had seemed such a cheerless mockery of the idea of home, he opened the package Annie had given him--when he found a small, worn Bible, inscribed with the words, "To my dear little daughter Annie, from mother," and written beneath, in a child's hand, "I thank you, dear mother. I will read it every day"--he sprang up, and exclaimed it strongest feeling, "No, all has not ended yet."
When he became sufficiently calm he again took up the Bible, and found the leaves turned down at the 14th chapter of St. John, with the words, "Begin here."
He read, "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
"In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you."
"How sweetly--with what exquisite delicacy--she points me beyond the shadows of time!" he said, musingly. "I believe in God. I ever have. Then why not _trust_ the 'Man of Sorrows,' who also must be God? Both Annie and her quaint old friend are right. He never turned one away who came sincerely. In Him who forgave the outcast and thief there glimmers hope for me. How thick the darkness as I look elsewhere. Lord Jesus," he cried, with a rush of tears, "I am palsied through sin: lift me up, that I may come to Thee."
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