A Country Doctor - XVI: A June Sunday
It was Miss Prince's custom to indulge herself by taking a long Sunday afternoon nap in summer, though on this occasion she spoke of it to her niece as only a short rest. She was glad to gain the shelter of her own room, and as she brushed a little dust from her handsome silk gown before putting it away she held it at arm's length and shook it almost indignantly. Then she hesitated a moment and looked around the comfortable apartment with a fierce disdain. "I wonder what gives me such a sense of importance," she whispered. "I have been making mistakes my whole life long, and giving excuses to myself for not doing my duty. I wish I had made her a proper allowance, to say the least. Everybody must be laughing at me!" and Miss Prince actually stamped her foot. It had been difficult to keep up an appearance of self-respect, but her pride had helped her in that laudable effort, and as she lay down on the couch she tried to satisfy herself with the assurance that her niece should have her rights now, and be treated justly at last.
Miss Fraley had come in to pay a brief visit on her way to Sunday-school just as they finished dinner, and had asked Nan to tea the following Wednesday, expressing also a hope that she would come sooner to call, quite without ceremony. Finding the state of affairs so pleasant, Miss Eunice ventured to say that Nan's father had been a favorite of her mother, who was now of uncommon age. Miss Prince became suddenly stern, but it was only a passing cloud, which disturbed nobody.
Nan had accepted willingly the offered apologies and gayly wished her aunt a pleasant dream, but being wide awake she gladly made use of the quiet time to send a letter home, and to stroll down the garden afterward. It all seemed so unlike what she had expected, yet her former thoughts about her aunt were much more difficult to recall as every hour went by and made the impression of actual things more distinct. Her fancied duty to a lonely old lady who mourned over a sad past seemed quite quixotic when she watched this brisk woman come and go without any hindrance of age, or, now that the first meeting was over, any appearance of former melancholy. As our friend went down the garden she told herself that she was glad to have come; it was quite right, and it was very pleasant, though there was no particular use in staying there long, and after a few days she would go away. Somehow her life seemed a great deal larger for this new experience, and she would try to repeat the visit occasionally. She wished to get Dunport itself by heart, but she had become so used to giving the best of herself to her studies, that she was a little shy of the visiting and the tea-parties and the apparently fruitless society life of which she had already learned something. "I suppose the doctor would say it is good for me," said Nan, somewhat grimly, "but I think it is most satisfactory to be with the persons whose interests and purposes are the same as one's own." The feeling of a lack of connection with the people whom she had met made life appear somewhat blank. She had already gained a certain degree of affection for her aunt; to say the least she was puzzled to account for such an implacable hostility as had lasted for years in the breast of a person so apparently friendly and cordial in her relations with her neighbors. Our heroine was slow to recognize in her relative the same strength of will and of determination which made the framework of her own character,—an iron-like firmness of structure which could not be easily shaken by the changes or opinions of other people. Miss Prince's acquaintances called her a very set person, and were shy of intruding into her secret fastnesses. There were all the traits of character which are necessary for the groundwork of an enterprising life, but Miss Prince seemed to have neither inherited nor acquired any high aims or any especial and fruitful single-heartedness, so her gifts of persistence and self-confidence had ranked themselves for the defense of a comparatively unimportant and commonplace existence. As has been said, she forbade, years before, any mention of her family troubles, and had lived on before the world as if they could be annihilated, and not only were not observable, but never had been. In a more thoughtful and active circle of social life the contrast between her rare capacity and her unnoticeable career would have been more striking. She stood as a fine representative of the old school, but it could not be justly said that she was a forward scholar, since, however sure of some of her early lessons, she was most dull and reluctant before new ones of various enlightening and uplifting descriptions.
Nan had observed that her aunt had looked very tired and spent as she went up-stairs after dinner, and understood better than she had before that this visit was moving the waters of Miss Prince's soul more deeply than had been suspected. She gained a new sympathy, and as the hours of the summer afternoon went by she thought of a great many things which had not been quite plain to her, and strolled about the garden until she knew that by heart, and had made friends with the disorderly company of ladies-delights and periwinkles which had cropped up everywhere, as if the earth were capable of turning itself into such small blossoms without anybody's help, after so many years of unvarying tuition. The cherry-trees and pear-trees had a most venerable look, and the plum-trees were in dismal mourning of black knots. There was a damp and shady corner where Nan found a great many lilies of the valley still lingering, though they had some time ago gone out of bloom in the more sunshiny garden at Oldfields. She remembered that there were no flowers in the house and gathered a great handful at last of one sort and another to carry in.
The dining-room was very dark, and Nan wished at first to throw open the blinds which had been carefully closed. It seemed too early in the summer to shut out the sunshine, but it seemed also a little too soon to interfere with the housekeeping, and so she brought two or three tall champagne glasses from a high shelf of the closet and filled them with her posies, and after putting them in their places, went back to the garden. There was a perfect silence in the house, except for the sound of the tall clock in the dining-room, and it seemed very lonely. She had taken another long look at her father's portrait, but as she shut the rusty-hinged garden gate after her, she smiled at the thought of her unusual idleness, and wondered if it need last until Tuesday, which was the day she had fixed upon for her departure. Nan wished that she dared to go away for a long walk; it was a pity she had not told her aunt of a wish to see something of the town and of the harbor-side that afternoon, but it would certainly be a little strange if she were to disappear, and very likely the long nap would soon come to an end. Being well taught in the details of gardening, she took a knife from her pocket and pruned and trained the shrubs and vines, and sang softly to herself as she thought about her next winter's study and her plans for the rest of the summer, and also decided that she would insist upon the doctor's going away with her for a journey when she reached home again.
After a little while she heard her aunt open the blinds of the garden door and call her in most friendly tones, and when she reached the house Miss Prince was in the south parlor entertaining a visitor,—Captain Walter Parish, who had gladly availed himself of some trifling excuse of a business nature, which involved the signing and sending of a paper by the early post of next day. He was going to his daughter's to tea, and it was quite a long drive to her house, so he had not dared to put off his errand, he explained, lest he should be detained in the evening. But he had been also longing to take a look at Miss Prince's guest. His wife went to another church and he dutifully accompanied her, though he had been brought up with Miss Prince at old St. Ann's.
"So this is my young cousin?" said the captain gallantly, and with great simplicity and tenderness held both Nan's hands and looked full in her face a moment before he kissed her; then to Miss Prince's great discomposure and embarrassment he turned to the window and looked out without saying a word, though he drew the back of his hand across his eyes in sailor-fashion, as if he wished to make them clear while he sighted something on the horizon. Miss Prince thought it was all nonsense and would have liked to say so, though she trusted that her silence was eloquent enough.
"She brings back the past," said Captain Walter as he returned presently and seated himself where he could look at Nan as much as he liked. "She brings back the past."
"You were speaking of old Captain Slater," reminded Miss Prince with some dignity.
"I just came from there," said Captain Parish, with his eyes still fixed on his young relative, though it was with such a friendly gaze that Nan was growing fonder of him every minute. "They told me he was about the same as yesterday. I offered to watch with him to-morrow night. And how do you like the looks of Dunport, my dear?"
Nan answered eagerly with brightening face, and added that she was longing to see more of it; the old wharves especially.
"Now that's good," said the captain; "I wonder if you would care anything about taking a stroll with me in the morning. Your aunt here is a famous housekeeper, and will be glad to get you off her hands, I dare say."
Nan eagerly accepted, and though it was suggested that Miss Prince had a plan for showing the town in the afternoon, she was promptly told that there was nothing easier than taking both these pleasant opportunities. "You would lose yourself among the old storehouses, I'm sure, Nancy," laughed the old sailor, "and you must let me have my way. It's a chance one doesn't get every day, to tell the old Dunport stories to a new listener."
Some one had opened the front door, and was heard coming along the hall. "This is very kind, George," said Miss Prince, with much pleasure, while the captain looked a little disconcerted at his young rival; he assured himself that he would make a long morning's cruise of it, next day, with this attractive sightseer, and for once the young beaux would be at a disadvantage; the girls of his own day used to think him one of the best of their gallants, and at this thought the captain was invincible. Mr. Gerry must take the second chance.
The blinds were open now, and the old room seemed very pleasant. Nan's brown hair had been blown about not a little in the garden, and as she sat at the end of the long, brass-nailed sofa, a ray of sunshine touched the glass of a picture behind her and flew forward again to tangle itself in her stray locks, so that altogether there was a sort of golden halo about her pretty head. And young Gerry thought he had never seen anything so charming. The white frock was a welcome addition to the usually sombre room, and his eyes quickly saw the flowers on the table. He knew instantly that the bouquet was none of Miss Prince's gathering.
"I hope you won't think I mean to stay as much too late as I have come too early," he laughed. "I must go away soon after tea, for I have promised to talk with the captain of a schooner which is to sail in the morning. Mr. Wills luckily found out that he could give some evidence in a case we are working up."
"The collision?" asked Captain Parish, eagerly. "I was wondering to-day when I saw the Highflyer's foremast between the buildings on Fleet Street as I went to meeting, if they were going to let her lie there and dry-rot. I don't think she's being taken proper care of. I must say I hate to see a good vessel go to ruin when there's no need of it."
"The man in charge was recommended very highly, and everything seemed to be all right when I was on board one day this week," said young Gerry, good-naturedly, and turned to explain to Nan that this vessel had been damaged by collision with another, and the process of settling the matter by litigation had been provokingly slow.
The captain listened with impatience. "I dare say she looked very well to your eyes, but I'd rather have an old ship-master's word for it than a young lawyer's. I haven't boarded her for some weeks; I dare say 'twas before the snow was gone; but she certainly needed attention then. I saw some bad-looking places in the sheathing and planking. There ought to be a coat of paint soon, and plenty of tar carried aloft besides, or there'll be a long bill for somebody to pay before she's seaworthy."
"I wish you would make a careful inspection of her," said the young man, with gratifying deference. "I don't doubt that it is necessary; I will see that you are well satisfied for your services. Of course the captain himself should have stayed there and kept charge, but you remember he was sick and had to resign. He looks feeble yet. I hope nothing will happen to him before the matter is settled up, but we are sure of the trial in September."
"She's going to be rigged with some of your red tape, I'm afraid," said Captain Parish, with great friendliness. "I don't see any reason why I can't look her over to-morrow morning, I'm obliged to you, or at least make a beginning," and he gave a most knowing nod at Nan, as if they would divide the pleasure. "I'll make the excuse of showing this young lady the construction of a good-sized merchant vessel, and then the keeper can't feel affronted. She is going to take a stroll with me along the wharves," he concluded triumphantly. While Mr. Gerry looked wistful for a moment, and Miss Prince quickly took advantage of a pause in the conversation to ask if he knew whether anything pleasant was going forward among the young people this week. She did not wish her niece to have too dull a visit.
"Some of us are going up the river very soon," said the young man, with eager pleasure, looking at Nan. "It would be so pleasant if Miss Prince would join us. We think our Dunport supper parties of that sort would be hard to match."
"The young folks will all be flocking here by to-morrow," said the captain; and Miss Prince answered "Surely," in a tone of command, rather than entreaty. She knew very well how the news of Nan's coming must be flying about the town, and she almost regretted the fact of her own previous silence about this great event. In the mean time Nan was talking to the two gentlemen as if she had already been to her room to smooth her hair, which her aunt looked at reproachfully from time to time, though the sunshine had not wholly left it. The girl was quite unconscious of herself, and glad to have the company and sympathy of these kind friends. She thought once that if she had a brother she would like him to be of young Mr. Gerry's fashion. He had none of the manner which constantly insisted upon her remembering that he was a man and she a girl; she could be good friends with him in the same way that she had been with some Oldfields schoolfellows, and after the captain had reluctantly taken his leave, they had a pleasant talk about out-of-door life and their rides and walks, and were soon exchanging experiences in a way that Miss Nancy smiled upon gladly. It was not to be wondered at that she could not get used to so great a change in her life. She could not feel sure yet that she no longer had a secret, and that this was the niece whom she had so many years dreaded and disclaimed. George Gerry had taken the niece's place in her affections, yet here was Anna, her own namesake, who showed plainly in so many ways the same descent as herself, being as much a Prince as herself in spite of her mother's low origin and worse personal traits, and the loutish companions to whom she had always persuaded herself poor Nan was akin. And it was by no means sure that the last of the Princes was not the best of them; she was very proud of her brother's daughter, and was more at a loss to know how to make excuses for being shortsighted and neglectful. Miss Prince hated to think that Nan had any but the pleasantest associations with her nearest relative; she must surely keep the girl's affection now. She meant to insist at any rate upon Dunport's being her niece's home for the future, though undoubtedly it would be hard at first to break with the many associations of Oldfields. She must write that very night to Dr. Leslie to thank him for his care, and to again express her regret that Anna's misguided young mother should have placed such restrictions upon the child's relations with her nearest of kin, and so have broken the natural ties of nature. And she would not stop there; she would blame herself generously and say how sorry she was that she had been governed by her painful recollections of a time she should now strive to forget. Dr. Leslie must be asked to come and join his ward for a few days, and then they would settle her plans for the future. She should give her niece a handsome allowance at any rate, and then, as Miss Prince looked across the room and forgot her own thoughts in listening to the young people's friendly talk, a sudden purpose flashed through her mind. The dream of her heart began to unfold itself slowly: could anything be so suitable, so comforting to her own mind, as that they should marry each other?
Two days before, her pleasure and pride in the manly fellow, who was almost as dear to her as an own son could be, would have been greatly shocked, but Miss Prince's heart began to beat quickly. It would be such a blessed solution of all the puzzles and troubles of her life if she could have both the young people near her through the years that remained, and when she died, or even before, they could live here in the old house, and begin a new and better order of things in the place of her own failures and shortcomings. It was all so distinct and possible in Miss Prince's mind that only time seemed necessary, and even the time could be made short. She would not put any hindrances between them and their blessed decision. As she went by them to seek Priscilla, she smoothed the cushion which Nan had leaned upon before she moved a little nearer George Gerry in some sudden excitement of the conversation, which had begun while the captain was still there, and there was a needless distance between them. Then Miss Prince let her hand rest for a minute on the girl's soft hair. "You must ask Mr. Gerry to excuse you for a few minutes, my dear, you have been quite blown about in the garden. I meant to join you there."
"It is a dear old garden," said Nan. "I can't help being almost as fond of it already as I am of ours at home;" but though Aunt Nancy's unwonted caress had been so unlike her conduct in general, this reference to Oldfields called her to her senses, and she went quickly away. She did not like to hear Nan speak in such loving fashion of a house where she had no real right.
But when Mr. George Gerry was left alone, he had pleasant thoughts come flocking in to keep him company in the ladies' stead. He had not dreamed of such a pleasure as this; who could have? and what could Aunt Nancy think of herself!
"It is such a holiday," said Nan, when tea was fairly begun, and her new friend was acknowledging an uncommon attack of hunger, and they were all merry in a sedate way to suit Miss Prince's ideas and preferences. "I have been quite the drudge this winter over my studies, and I feel young and idle again, now that I am making all these pleasant plans." For Mr. Gerry had been talking enthusiastically about some excursions he should arrange to certain charming places in the region of Dunport. Both he and Miss Prince smiled when Nan announced that she was young and idle, and a moment afterward the aunt asked doubtfully about her niece's studies; she supposed that Anna was done with schools.
Nan stopped her hand as it reached for the cup which Miss Prince had just filled. "School; yes," she answered, somewhat bewildered; "but you know I am studying medicine." This most important of all facts had been so present to her own mind, even in the excitement and novelty of her new surroundings, that she could not understand that her aunt was still entirely ignorant of the great purpose of her life.
"What do you mean?" demanded Miss Prince, coldly, and quickly explained to their somewhat amused and astonished companion, "My niece has been the ward of a distinguished physician, and it is quite natural she should have become interested in his pursuits."
"But I am really studying medicine; it is to be my profession," persisted Nan fearlessly, though she was sorry that she had spoiled the harmony of the little company. "And my whole heart is in it, Aunt Nancy."
"Nonsense, my dear," returned Miss Prince, who had recovered her self-possession partially. "Your father gave promise of attaining great eminence in a profession that was very proper for him, but I thought better of Dr. Leslie than this. I cannot understand his indulgence of such a silly notion."
George Gerry felt very uncomfortable. He had been a good deal shocked, but he had a strong impulse to rush into the field as Nan's champion, though it were quite against his conscience. She had been too long in a humdrum country-town with no companion but an elderly medical man. And after a little pause he made a trifling joke about their making the best of the holiday, and the talk was changed to other subjects. The tide was strong against our heroine, but she had been assailed before, and had no idea of sorrowing yet over a lost cause. And for once Miss Prince was in a hurry for Mr. Gerry to go away.