A Country Doctor - XV: Hostess and Guest
Nan had, indeed, resolved to take a most important step. She had always dismissed the idea of having any communication with her aunt most contemptuously when she had first understood their unhappy position toward each other; but during the last year or two she had been forced to look at the relationship from a wider point of view. Dr. Leslie protested that he had always treated Miss Prince in a perfectly fair and friendly manner, and that if she had chosen to show no interest in her only niece, nobody was to blame but herself. But Nan pleaded that her aunt was no longer young; that she might be wishing that a reconciliation could be brought about; the very fact of her having constantly sent the yearly allowance in spite of Mrs. Thacher's and Dr. Leslie's unwillingness to receive it appealed to the young girl, who was glad to believe that her aunt had, after all, more interest in her than others cared to observe. She had no near relatives except Miss Prince. There were some cousins of old Mrs. Thacher's and their descendants settled in the vicinity of Oldfields; but Nan clung more eagerly to this one closer tie of kindred than she cared to confess even to her guardian. It was too late now for any interference in Dr. Leslie's plans, or usurping of his affectionate relationship; so, after he found that Nan's loyal heart was bent upon making so kind a venture, he said one day, with a smile, that she had better write a letter to her aunt, the immediate result of which we already know. Nan had been studying too hard, and suffering not a little from her long-continued city life, and though the doctor had been making a most charming plan that later in the season they should take a journey together to Canada, he said nothing about that, and told himself with a sigh that this would be a more thorough change, and even urged Nan to stay as long as she pleased in Dunport, if she found her aunt's house pleasant and everything went well. For whether Nan liked Miss Prince remained to be proved, though nobody in their senses could doubt that Miss Prince would be proud of her niece.
It was not until after Nan had fairly started that she began to feel at all dismayed. Perhaps she had done a foolish thing after all; Marilla had not approved the adventure, while at the last minute Nan had become suspicious that the doctor had made another plan, though she contented herself with the remembrance of perfect freedom to go home whenever she chose. She told herself grimly that if her aunt died she should be thankful that she had done this duty; yet when, after a journey of several hours, she knew that Dunport was the next station, her heart began to beat in a ridiculous manner. It was unlike any experience that had ever come to her, and she felt strangely unequal to the occasion. Long ago she had laughed at her early romances of her grand Dunport belongings, but the memory of them lingered still, in spite of this commonplace approach to their realities, and she looked eagerly at the groups of people at the railway station with a great hope and almost certainty that she should find her aunt waiting to meet her. There was no such good fortune, which was a chill at the outset to the somewhat tired young traveler, but she beckoned a driver whom she had just ignored, and presently was shut into a somewhat antiquated public carriage and on her way to Miss Prince's house.
So this was Dunport, and in these very streets her father had played, and here her mother had become deeper and deeper involved in the suffering and tragedy which had clouded the end of her short life. It seemed to the young stranger as if she must shrink away from the curious glances that stray passers-by sent into the old carriage; and that she was going to be made very conspicuous by the newly-awakened interest in a sad story which surely could not have been forgotten. Poor Nan! she sent a swift thought homeward to the doctor's house and Mrs. Graham's; even to the deserted little place which had sheltered her good old grandmother and herself in the first years she could remember. And with strange irony came also a picture of the home of one of her schoolmates,—where the father and mother and their children lived together and loved each other. The tears started to her eyes until some good angel whispered the kind "Come back soon, Nan dear," with which Dr. Leslie had let her go away.
The streets were narrow and roughly paved in the old provincial seaport town; the houses looked a good deal alike as they stood close to the street, though here and there the tops of some fruit trees showed themselves over a high garden fence. And presently before a broad-faced and gambrel-roofed house, the driver stopped his horses, and now only the front door with its bull's-eyed top-lights and shining knocker stood between Nan and her aunt. The coachman had given a resounding summons at this somewhat formidable entrance before he turned to open the carriage door, but Nan had already alighted, and stepped quickly into the hall. Priscilla directed her with some ceremony to the south parlor, and a prim figure turned away from one of the windows that overlooked the garden, and came forward a few steps. "I suppose this is Anna," the not very cordial voice began, and faltered; and then Miss Prince led her niece toward the window she had left, and without a thought of the reserve she had decided upon, pushed one of the blinds wide open, and looked again at Nan's appealing face, half eager herself, and half afraid. Then she fumbled for a handkerchief, and betook herself to the end of the sofa and began to cry: "You are so like my mother and Jack," she said. "I did not think I should be so glad to see you."
The driver had deposited Nan's box, and now appeared at the door of the parlor with Priscilla (who had quite lost her wits with excitement) looking over his shoulder. Nan sprang forward, glad of something to do in the midst of her vague discomfort, and at this sight the hostess recovered herself, and, commanding Priscilla to show Miss Prince to her room, assumed the direction of business affairs.
The best bedroom was very pleasant, though somewhat stiff and unused, and Nan was glad to close its door and find herself in such a comfortable haven of rest and refuge from the teasing details of that strange day. The wind had gone to the eastward, and the salt odor was most delightful to her. A vast inheritance of memories and associations was dimly brought to mind by that breath of the sea and freshness of the June day by the harbor side. Her heart leaped at the thought of the neighborhood of the wharves and shipping, and as she looked out at the ancient street, she told herself with a sense of great fun that if she had been a boy she would inevitably have been a surgeon in the navy. So this was the aunt whom Nan had thought about and dreamed about by day and by night, whose acquaintance had always been a waiting pleasure, and the mere fact of whose existence had always given her niece something to look forward to. She had not known until this moment what a reserved pleasure this meeting had been, and now it was over with. Miss Prince was so much like other people, though why she should not have been it would be difficult to suggest, and Nan's taste had been so educated and instructed by her Oldfields' advantages, not to speak of her later social experiences, that she felt at once that her aunt's world was smaller than her own. There was something very lovable about Miss Prince, in spite of the constraint of her greeting, and for the first time Nan understood that her aunt also had dreaded the meeting. Presently she came to the door, and this time kissed Nan affectionately. "I don't know what to say to you, I am sure," she told the girl, "only I am thankful to have you here. You must understand that it is a great event to me;" at which Nan laughed and spoke some cheerful words. Miss Prince seated herself by the other front window, and looked at her young guest with ever-growing satisfaction. This was no copy of that insolent, ill-bred young woman who had so beguiled and ruined poor Jack; she was a little lady, who did honor to the good name of the Princes and Lesters,—a niece whom anybody might be proud to claim, and whom Miss Prince could cordially entreat to make herself quite at home, for she had only been too long in coming to her own. And presently, when tea was served, the careful ordering of it, which had been meant partly to mock and astonish the girl who could not have been used to such ways of living, seemed only a fitting entertainment for so distinguished a guest. "Blood will tell," murmured Miss Prince to herself as she clinked the teacups and looked at the welcome face the other side of the table. But when they talked together in the evening, it was made certain that Nan was neither ashamed of her mother's people nor afraid to say gravely to Miss Prince that she did not know how much injustice was done to grandmother Thacher, if she believed she were right in making a certain statement. Aunt Nancy smiled, and accepted her rebuff without any show of disapproval, and was glad that the next day was Sunday, so that she could take Nan to church for the admiration of all observers. She was even sorry that she had not told young Gerry to come and pay an evening visit to her niece, and spoke of him once or twice. Her niece observed a slight self-consciousness at such times, and wondered a little who Mr. George Gerry might be.
Nan thought of many things before she fell asleep that night. Her ideas of her father had always been vague, and she had somehow associated him with Dr. Leslie, who had shown her all the fatherliness she had ever known. As for the young man who had died so long ago, if she had said that he seemed to her like a younger brother of Dr. Leslie, it would have been nearest the truth, in spite of the details of the short and disappointed life which had come to her ears. Dr. Ferris had told her almost all she knew of him, but now that she was in her own father's old home, among the very same sights he had known best, he suddenly appeared to her in a vision, as one might say, and invested himself in a cloud of attractive romance. His daughter felt a sudden blaze of delight at this first real consciousness of her kinship. Miss Prince had shown her brother's portrait early in the evening, and had even taken the trouble to light a candle and hold it high, so that Nan could see the handsome, boyish face, in which she recognized quickly the likeness to her own. "He was only thirteen then," said Miss Prince, "but he looks several years older. We all thought that the artist had made a great mistake when it was painted, but poor Jack grew to look like it. Yes, you are wonderfully like him," and she held the light near Nan's face and studied it again as she had just studied the picture. Nan's eyes filled with tears as she looked up at her father's face. The other portraits in the room were all of older people, her grandfather and grandmother and two or three ancestors, and Miss Prince repeated proudly some anecdotes of the most distinguished. "I suppose you never heard of them," she added sadly at the close, but Nan made no answer; it was certainly no fault of her own that she was ignorant of many things, and she would not confess that during the last few years she had found out everything that was possible about her father's people. She was so thankful to have grown up in Oldfields that she could not find it in her heart to rail at the fate that had kept her away from Dunport; but the years of silence had been very unlovely in her aunt.
She wondered, before she went to sleep that night, where her father's room had been, and thought she would ask Miss Prince in the morning. The windows were open, and the June air blew softly in, and sometimes swayed the curtains of the bed. There was a scent of the sea and of roses, and presently up the quiet street came the sound of footsteps and young voices. Nan said to herself that some party had been late in breaking up, and felt her heart thrill with sympathy. She had been dwelling altogether in the past that evening, and she liked to hear the revelers go by. But as they came under the windows she heard one say, "I should be afraid of ghosts in that best room of Miss Prince's," and then they suddenly became quiet, as if they had seen that the windows were open, and Nan first felt like a stranger, but next as if this were all part of the evening's strange experiences, and as if these might be her father's young companions, and she must call to them as they went by.
The next morning both the hostess and her guest waked early, and were eager for the time when they should see each other again. The beauty and quiet of the Sunday morning were very pleasant, and Nan stood for some minutes at the dining-room windows, looking out on the small paved courtyard, and the flowers and green leaves beyond the garden gate. Miss Prince's was one of the fine old houses which kept its garden behind it, well-defended from the street, for the family's own pleasure.
"Those are the same old bushes and trees which we used to play among; I have hardly changed it at all," said Miss Prince, as she came in. It must be confessed that she had lost the feeling of patroness with which she had approached her acquaintance with Nan. She was proud and grateful now, and as she saw the girl in her pretty white dress, and found her as simple and affectionate and eager to please as she had thought her the night before, she owned to herself that she had not looked for such happiness to fall into her life. And there was something about the younger Anna Prince which others had quickly recognized; a power of direction and of command. There are some natures like the Prussian blue on a painter's palette, which rules all the other colors it is mixed with; natures which quickly make themselves felt in small or great companies.
Nan discovered her father's silver mug beside her plate, and was fired with a fiercer resentment than she had expected to feel again, at the sight of it. The thought of her childhood in good grandmother Thacher's farm-house came quickly to her mind, with the plain living, to her share of which she had been made a thousand times welcome; while by this richer house, of which she was also heir, such rightful trinkets and treasures had been withheld. But at the next minute she could meet Miss Prince's observant eyes without displeasure, and wisely remembered that she herself had not been responsible for the state of affairs, and that possibly her aunt had been as wronged and insulted and beaten back as she complained. So she pushed the newly-brightened cup aside with an almost careless hand, as a sort of compromise with revenge, and Miss Prince at once caught sight of it. "Dear me," she said, not without confusion, "Priscilla must have thought you would be pleased," and then faltered, "I wish with all my heart you had always had it for your own, my dear." And this was a great deal for Miss Prince to say, as any of her acquaintances could have told her nearest relative, who sat, almost a stranger, at the breakfast-table.
The elder woman felt a little light-headed and unfamiliar to herself as she went up the stairway to get ready for church. It seemed as if she had entered upon a new stage of existence, since for so many years she had resented the existence of her brother's child, and had kept up an imaginary war, in which she ardently fought for her own rights. She had brought forward reason after reason why she must maintain her position as representative of a respected family who had been shamed and disgraced and insulted by her brother's wife. Now all aggressors of her peace, real and imaginary, were routed by the appearance of this young girl upon the field of battle, which she traversed with most innocent and fearless footsteps, looking smilingly into her aunt's face, and behaving almost as if neither of them had been concerned in the family unhappiness. Beside, Nan had already added a new interest to Miss Prince's life, and as this defeated warrior took a best dress from the closet without any of the usual reflection upon so important a step, she felt a great consciousness of having been added to and enriched, as the person might who had suddenly fallen heir to an unexpected property. From this first day she separated herself as much as possible from any thought of guilt or complicity in the long estrangement. She seemed to become used to her niece's presence, and with the new relationship's growth there faded away the thought of the past times. If any one dared to hint that it was a pity this visit had been so long delayed, Miss Prince grandly ignored all personality.
Priscilla had come to the guest's room on some undeclared errand, for it had already been put in order, and she viewed with pleasure the simple arrangements for dressing which were in one place and another about the room. Priscilla had scorned the idea of putting this visitor into the best bedroom, and had had secret expectations that Miss Prince's niece would feel more at home with her than with her mistress. But Miss Anna was as much of a lady as Miss Prince, which was both pleasing and disappointing, as Priscilla hoped to solace some disrespectful feelings of her own heart by taking down Miss Nancy's pride. However, her loyalty to the house was greater than her own very small grudges, and as she pretended to have some difficulty with the fastening of the blind, she said in a whisper, "Y'r aunt'll like to have you make yourself look pretty," which was such a reminder of Marilla's affectionate worldliness that Nan had to laugh aloud. "I'm afraid I haven't anything grand enough," she told the departing housekeeper, whose pleasure it was not hard to discern.
It was with a very gratified mind that Miss Prince walked down the street with her niece and bowed to one and another of her acquaintances. She was entirely careless of what any one should say, but she was brimful of excitement, and answered several of Nan's questions entirely wrong. The old town was very pleasant that Sunday morning. The lilacs were in full bloom, and other early summer flowers in the narrow strips of front-yards or the high-fenced gardens were in blossom too, and the air was full of sweetness and delight. The ancient seaport had gathered for itself quaint names and treasures; it was pleased with its old fashions and noble memories; its ancient bells had not lost their sweet voices, and a flavor of the past pervaded everything. The comfortable houses, the elderly citizens, the very names on the shop signs, and the worn cobblestones of the streets and flagstones of the pavements, delighted the young stranger, who felt so unreasonably at home in Dunport. The many faces that had been colored and fashioned by the sea were strangely different from those which had known an inland life only, and she seemed to have come a great deal nearer to foreign life and to the last century. Her heart softened as she wondered if her father knew that she was following his boyish footsteps, for the first time in her life, on that Sunday morning. She would have liked to wander away by herself and find her way about the town, but such a proposal was not to be thought of, and all at once Miss Nancy turned up a narrow side street toward a high-walled brick church, and presently they walked side by side up the broad aisle so far that it seemed to Nan as if her aunt were aiming for the chancel itself, and had some public ceremony in view, of a penitential nature. They were by no means early, and the girl was disagreeably aware of a little rustle of eagerness and curiosity as she took her seat, and was glad to have fairly gained the shelter of the high-backed pew as she bent her head. But Miss Prince the senior seemed calm; she said her prayer, settled herself as usual, putting the footstool in its right place and finding the psalms and the collect. She then laid the prayer-book on the cushion beside her and folded her hands in her lap, before she turned discreetly to say good-morning to Miss Fraley, and exchange greetings until the clergyman made his appearance. Nan had taken the seat next the pew door, and was looking about her with great interest, forgetting herself and her aunt as she wondered that so dear and quaint a place of worship should be still left in her iconoclastic native country. She had seen nothing even in Boston like this, there were so many antique splendors about the chancel, and many mural tablets on the walls, where she read with sudden delight her own family name and the list of virtues which had belonged to some of her ancestors. The dear old place! there never had been and never could be any church like it; it seemed to have been waiting all her life for her to come to say her prayers where so many of her own people had brought their sins and sorrows in the long years that were gone. She only wished that the doctor were with her, and the same feeling that used to make her watch for him in her childhood until he smiled back again filled all her loving and grateful heart. She knew that he must be thinking of her that morning; he was not in church himself, he had planned a long drive to the next town but one, to see a dying man, who seemed to be helped only by this beloved physician's presence. There had been some talk between Dr. Leslie and Nan about a medicine which might possibly be of use, and she found herself thinking about that again and again. She had reminded the doctor of it and he had seemed very pleased. It must be longer ago than yesterday since she left Oldfields, it already counted for half a lifetime.
One listener at least was not resentful because the sermon was neither wise nor great, for she had so many things to think of; but while she was sometimes lost in her own thoughts, Nan stole a look at the thinly filled galleries now and then, and at one time was pleased with the sight of the red-cheeked cherubs which seemed to have been caught like clumsy insects and pinned as a sort of tawdry decoration above the tablets where the Apostle's Creed and the Ten Commandments were printed in faded gilt letters. The letter s was made long in these copies and the capitals were of an almost forgotten pattern, and after Nan had discovered her grandfather's name in the prayer-book she held, and had tried again to listen to the discourse, she smiled at the discovery of a familiar face in one of the wall pews. It somehow gave her a feeling of security as being a link with her past experiences, and she looked eagerly again and again until this old acquaintance, who also was a stranger and a guest in Dunport, happened to direct a careless glance toward her, and a somewhat dull and gloomy expression was changed for surprised and curious recognition. When church was over at last Miss Prince seemed to have a great deal to say to her neighbor in the next pew, and Nan stood in her place waiting until her aunt was ready. More than one person had lingered to make sure of a distinct impression of the interesting stranger who had made one of the morning congregation, and Nan smiled suddenly as she thought that it might seem proper that she and her aunt should walk down the aisle together as if they had been married, or as if the ceremony were finished which she had anticipated as they came in. And Miss Prince did make an admirable exit from the church, mustering all her self-possession and taking stately steps at her niece's side, while she sometimes politely greeted her acquaintances. There were flickering spots of color in her cheeks when they were again in the sun-shiny street.
"It is really the first day this summer when I have needed my parasol," said Aunt Nancy, as she unfurled the carefully preserved article of her wardrobe and held it primly aloft. "I am so sorry that our rector was absent this morning. I suppose that you have attended an Episcopal church sometimes; I am glad that you seem to be familiar with the service;" to which Nancy replied that she had been confirmed while she was first at boarding-school, and this seemed to give her aunt great satisfaction. "Very natural and proper, my dear," she said. "It is one thing I have always wished when I thought of you at serious moments. But I was persuaded that you were far from such influences, and that there would be nothing in your surroundings to encourage your inherited love of the church."
"I have always liked it best," said Nan, who seemed all at once to grow taller. "But I think one should care more about being a good woman than a good Episcopalian, Aunt Nancy."
"No doubt," said the elder woman, a little confused and dismayed, though she presently rallied her forces and justly observed that the rules of the church were a means to the end of good living, and happily, before any existing differences of opinion could be discovered, they were interrupted by a pleasant-faced young man, who lifted his hat and gracefully accepted his introduction to the younger Miss Prince.
"This is Mr. George Gerry, Anna, one of my young friends," smiled Aunt Nancy, and saying, as she walked more slowly, "You must come to see us soon, for I shall have to depend upon the younger people to make my niece's stay agreeable."
"I was looking forward to my Sunday evening visit," the wayfarer said hesitatingly; "you have not told me yet that I must not come;" which appeal was only answered by a little laugh from all three, as they separated. And Miss Prince had time to be quite eloquent in her favorite's praise before they reached home. Nan thought her first Dunport acquaintance very pleasant, and frankly said so. This seemed to be very gratifying to her aunt, and they walked toward home together by a roundabout way and in excellent spirits. It seemed more and more absurd to Nan that the long feud and almost tragic state of family affairs should have come to so prosaic a conclusion, and that she who had been the skeleton of her aunt's ancestral closet should have dared to emerge and to walk by her side through the town. After all, here was another proof of the wisdom of the old Spanish proverb, that it takes two to make a quarrel, but only one to end it.