In the gray house on the hill, one spring went by and another, and it seemed to the busy doctor only a few months from the night he first saw his ward before she was old enough to come soberly to church with her grandmother. He had always seen her from time to time, for he had often been called to the farm or to the Dyers and had watched her at play. Once she had stopped him as he drove by to give him a little handful of blue violets, and this had gone straight to his heart, for he had been made too great a bugbear to most children to look for any favor at their hands. He always liked to see her come into church on Sundays, her steps growing quicker and surer as her good grandmother's became more feeble. The doctor was a lonely man in spite of his many friends, and he found himself watching for the little brown face that, half-way across the old meeting-house, would turn round to look for him more than once during the service. At first there was only the top of little Nan Prince's prim best bonnet or hood to be seen, unless it was when she stood up in prayer-time, but soon the bright eyes rose like stars above the horizon of the pew railing, and next there was the whole well-poised little head, and the tall child was possessed by a sense of propriety, and only ventured one or two discreet glances at her old friend.
The office of guardian was not one of great tasks or of many duties, though the child's aunt had insisted upon making an allowance for her of a hundred dollars a year, and this was duly acknowledged and placed to its owner's credit in the savings bank of the next town. Her grandmother Thacher always refused to spend it, saying proudly that she had never been beholden to Miss Prince and she never meant to be, and while she lived the aunt and niece should be kept apart. She would not say that her daughter had never been at fault, but it was through the Princes all the trouble of her life had come.
Dr. Leslie was mindful of his responsibilities, and knew more of his ward than was ever suspected. He was eager that the best district school teacher who could be found should be procured for the Thacher and Dyer neighborhood, and in many ways he took pains that the little girl should have all good things that were possible. He only laughed when her grandmother complained that Nan would not be driven to school, much less persuaded, and that she was playing in the brook, or scampering over the pastures when she should be doing other things. Mrs. Thacher, perhaps unconsciously, had looked for some trace of the father's good breeding and gentlefolk fashions, but this was not a child who took kindly to needlework and pretty clothes. She was fearlessly friendly with every one; she did not seem confused even when the minister came to make his yearly parochial visitation, and as for the doctor, he might have been her own age, for all humility she thought it necessary to show in the presence of this chief among her elders and betters. Old Mrs. Thacher gave little pulls at her granddaughter's sleeves when she kept turning to see the doctor in sermon-time, but she never knew how glad he was, or how willingly he smiled when he felt the child's eyes watching him as a dog's might have done, forcing him to forget the preaching altogether and to attend to this dumb request for sympathy. One blessed day Dr. Leslie had waited in the church porch and gravely taken the child's hand as she came out; and said that he should like to take her home with him; he was going to the lower part of the town late in the afternoon and would leave her then at the farm-house.
"I was going to ask you for something for her shoulder," said Grandmother Thacher, much pleased, "she'll tell you about it, it was a fall she had out of an apple-tree,"—and Nan looked up with not a little apprehension, but presently tucked her small hand inside the doctor's and was more than ready to go with him. "I thought she looked a little pale," the doctor said, to which Mrs. Thacher answered that it was a merciful Providence who had kept the child from breaking her neck, and then, being at the foot of the church steps, they separated. It had been a great trial to the good woman to give up the afternoon service, but she was growing old, as she told herself often in those days, and felt, as she certainly looked, greatly older than her years.
"I feel as if Anna was sure of one good friend, whether I stay with her or not," said the grandmother sorrowfully, as she drove toward home that Sunday noon with Jacob Dyer and his wife. "I never saw the doctor so taken with a child before. 'Twas a pity he had to lose his own, and his wife too; how many years ago was it? I should think he'd be lonesome, though to be sure he isn't in the house much. Marilla Thomas keeps his house as clean as a button and she has been a good stand-by for him, but it always seemed sort o' homesick there ever since the day I was to his wife's funeral. She made an awful sight o' friends considering she was so little while in the place. Well I'm glad I let Nanny wear her best dress; I set out not to, it looked so much like rain."
Whatever Marilla Thomas's other failings might have been, she certainly was kind that day to the doctor's little guest. It would have been a hard-hearted person indeed who did not enter somewhat into the spirit of the child's delight. In spite of its being the first time she had ever sat at any table but her grandmother's, she was not awkward or uncomfortable, and was so hungry that she gave pleasure to her entertainers in that way if no other. The doctor leaned back in his chair and waited while the second portion of pudding slowly disappeared, though Marilla could have told that he usually did not give half time enough to his dinner and was off like an arrow the first possible minute. Before he took his often interrupted afternoon nap, he inquired for the damaged shoulder and requested a detailed account of the accident; and presently they were both laughing heartily at Nan's disaster, for she owned that she had chased and treed a stray young squirrel, and that a mossy branch of one of the old apple-trees in the straggling orchard had failed to bear even so light a weight as hers. Nan had come to the ground because she would not loose her hold of the squirrel, though he had slipped through her hands after all as she carried him towards home. The guest was proud to become a patient, especially as the only remedy that was offered was a very comfortable handful of sugar-plums. Nan had never owned so many at once, and in a transport of gratitude and affection she lifted her face to kiss so dear a benefactor.
Her eyes looked up into his, and her simple nature was so unconscious of the true dangers and perils of this world, that his very heart was touched with compassion, and he leagued himself with the child's good angel to defend her against her enemies.
And Nan took fast hold of the doctor's hand as they went to the study. This was the only room in the house which she had seen before; and was so much larger and pleasanter than any she knew elsewhere that she took great delight in it. It was a rough place now, the doctor thought, but always very comfortable, and he laid himself down on the great sofa with a book in his hand, though after a few minutes he grew sleepy and only opened his eyes once to see that Nan was perched in the largest chair with her small hands folded, and her feet very far from the floor. "You may run out to see Marilla, or go about the house anywhere you like; or there are some picture-papers on the table," the doctor said drowsily, and the visitor slipped down from her throne and went softly away.
She had thought the study a very noble room until she had seen the dining-room, but now she wished for another look at the pictures there and the queer clock, and the strange, grand things on the sideboard. The old-fashioned comfort of the house was perfect splendor to the child, and she went about on tiptoe up stairs and down, looking in at the open doors, while she lingered wistfully before the closed ones. She wondered at the great bedsteads with their high posts and dimity hangings, and at the carpets, and the worthy Marilla watched her for a moment as she stood on the threshold of the doctor's own room. The child's quick ear caught the rustle of the housekeeper's Sunday gown; she whispered with shining eyes that she thought the house was beautiful. Did Marilla live here all the time?
"Bless you, yes!" replied Marilla, not without pride, though she added that nobody knew what a sight of care it was.
"I suppose y'r aunt in Dunport lives a good deal better than this;" but the child only looked puzzled and did not answer, while the housekeeper hurried away to the afternoon meeting, for which the bell was already tolling.
The doctor slept on in the shaded study, and after Nan had grown tired of walking softly about the house, she found her way into the garden. After all, there was nothing better than being out of doors, and the apple-trees seemed most familiar and friendly, though she pitied them for being placed so near each other. She discovered a bench under a trellis where a grape-vine and a clematis were tangled together, and here she sat down to spend a little time before the doctor should call her. She wished she could stay longer than that one short afternoon; perhaps some time or other the doctor would invite her again. But what could Marilla have meant about her aunt? She had no aunts except Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin; Marilla must well know that their houses were not like Dr. Leslie's; and little Nan built herself a fine castle in Spain, of which this unknown aunt was queen. Certainly her grandmother had now and then let fall a word about "your father's folks"—by and by they might come to see her!
The grape leaves were waving about in the warm wind, and they made a flickering light and shade upon the ground. The clematis was in bloom, and its soft white plumes fringed the archway of the lattice work. As the child looked down the garden walk it seemed very long and very beautiful to her. Her grandmother's flower-garden had been constantly encroached upon by the turf which surrounded it, until the snowberry bush, the London pride, the tiger-lilies, and the crimson phlox were like a besieged garrison.
Nan had already found plenty of wild flowers in the world; there were no entertainments provided for her except those the fields and pastures kindly spread before her admiring eyes. Old Mrs. Thacher had been brought up to consider the hard work of this life, and though she had taken her share of enjoyment as she went along, it was of a somewhat grim and sober sort. She believed that a certain amount of friskiness was as necessary to young human beings as it is to colts, but later both must be harnessed and made to work. As for pleasure itself she had little notion of that. She liked fair weather, and certain flowers were to her the decorations of certain useful plants, but if she had known that her grand-daughter could lie down beside the anemones and watch them move in the wind and nod their heads, and afterward look up into the blue sky to watch the great gulls above the river, or the sparrows flying low, or the crows who went higher, Mrs. Thacher would have understood almost nothing of such delights, and thought it a very idle way of spending one's time.
But as Nan sat in the old summer-house in the doctor's garden, she thought of many things that she must remember to tell her grandmother about this delightful day. The bees were humming in the vines, and as she looked down the wide garden-walk it seemed like the broad aisle in church, and the congregation of plants and bushes all looked at her as if she were in the pulpit. The church itself was not far away, and the windows were open, and sometimes Nan could hear the preacher's voice, and by and by the people began to sing, and she rose solemnly, as if it were her own parishioners in the garden who lifted up their voices. A cheerful robin began a loud solo in one of Dr. Leslie's cherry-trees, and the little girl laughed aloud in her make-believe meeting-house, and then the gate was opened and shut, and the doctor himself appeared, strolling along, and smiling as he came.
He was looking to the right and left at his flowers and trees, and once he stopped and took out his pocket knife to trim a straying branch of honeysuckle, which had wilted and died. When he came to the summer-house, he found his guest sitting there demurely with her hands folded in her lap. She had gathered some little sprigs of box and a few blossoms of periwinkle and late lilies of the valley, and they lay on the bench beside her. "So you did not go to church with Marilla?" the doctor said. "I dare say one sermon a day is enough for so small a person as you." For Nan's part, no sermon at all would have caused little sorrow, though she liked the excitement of the Sunday drive to the village. She only smiled when the doctor spoke, and gave a little sigh of satisfaction a minute afterward when he seated himself beside her.
"We must be off presently," he told her. "I have a long drive to take before night. I would let you go with me, but I am afraid I should keep you too long past your bedtime."
The little girl looked in his kind face appealingly; she could not bear to have the day come to an end. The doctor spoke to her as if she were grown up and understood everything, and this pleased her. It is very hard to be constantly reminded that one is a child, as if it were a crime against society. Dr. Leslie, unlike many others, did not like children because they were children; he now and then made friends with one, just as he added now and then to his narrow circle of grown friends. He felt a certain responsibility for this little girl, and congratulated himself upon feeling an instinctive fondness for her. The good old minister had said only that morning that love is the great motive power, that it is always easy to do things for those whom we love and wish to please, and for this reason we are taught to pray for love to God, and so conquer the difficulty of holiness. "But I must do my duty by her at any rate," the doctor told himself. "I am afraid I have forgotten the child somewhat in past years, and she is a bright little creature."
"Have you been taking good care of yourself?" he added aloud. "I was very tired, for I was out twice in the night taking care of sick people. But you must come to see me again some day. I dare say you and Marilla have made friends with each other. Now we must go, I suppose," and Nan Prince, still silent,—for the pleasure of this time was almost too great,—took hold of the doctor's outstretched hand, and they went slowly up the garden walk together. As they drove slowly down the street they met the people who were coming from church, and the child sat up very straight in the old gig, with her feet on the doctor's medicine-box, and was sure that everybody must be envying her. She thought it was more pleasant than ever that afternoon, as they passed through the open country outside the village; the fields and the trees were marvelously green, and the distant river was shining in the sun. Nan looked anxiously for the gray farmhouse for two or three minutes before they came in sight of it, but at last it showed itself, standing firm on the hillside. It seemed a long time since she had left home in the morning, but this beautiful day was to be one of the landmarks of her memory. Life had suddenly grown much larger, and her familiar horizon had vanished and she discovered a great distance stretching far beyond the old limits. She went gravely into the familiar kitchen, holding fast the bits of box and the periwinkle flowers, quite ready to answer her grandmother's questions, though she was only too certain that it would be impossible to tell any one the whole dear story of that June Sunday.
A little later, as Marilla came sedately home, she noticed in the driveway some fresh hoofmarks which pointed toward the street, and quickly assured herself that they could not have been made very long before. "I wonder what the two of 'em have been doing all the afternoon?" she said to herself. "She's a little lady, that child is; and it's a burnin' shame she should be left to run wild. I never set so much by her mother's looks as some did, but growin' things has blooms as much as they have roots and prickles—and even them Thachers will flower out once in a while."