PERHAPS you think that is a queer title for a chapter. You would not think it queer at all if you had known her, for that is exactly what she was, and now and then it is just as well to call people by their right names. She was not old, however, in the sense of being wrinkled and white-haired and thin. Sometime, when somebody has been very kind to you, and has done you a “good turn” in real reliable fashion, haven’t you just rushed up to them and exclaimed, “You dear old thing,” as if any mere young thing would be quite incapable of such a deed of loving-kindness? Well, in just the sense of being very kind and very reliable, Aunt Frances was old, and in no other. To be sure, she was nearing her fiftieth birthday, and there was a generous sprinkling of gray hair on her temples, but the gray hair only made her face softer and sweeter, and her heart was no older than bonny Kate’s.
Well, Aunt Frances sat knitting in a high-backed rocker on the wide step in front of the Van Vleet’s door, a step that was made from one great unhewn stone, but whose roughnesses had been rounded down by the rains and storms of a hundred summers and winters. On the edge of the step, with his back against one of the large tubs of hydrangea which flanked the wide door-step on either side, sat Harry Avery. He had been silent for a long while. He was trying to get his courage up to say something to Aunt Frances, something that he knew it would grieve her to hear, and she had had so much to bear lately, he could not easily bring himself to it. “Aunt Frances,” he said, at last, “I know you’ll be sorry about it, but I think I shall have to go away to-morrow.”
“Why, Harry, what do you mean?” while the tears gathered as quickly in her kind eyes as the clouds of an April shower darken an April sky, “and besides, where will you go?”
“Home, I suppose,” and then it would have been an easy thing for Harry, grown fellow that he was, to have mustered a few honest tears on his own account.
“You see I am not willing to stay here any longer since you have to pay my board. And then you have so little money coming in now.”
“But the Van Vleets only allow me to pay a very small sum, and, Harry, you are such a comfort to me. Starlight’s a dear, good boy, but he is not old enough for me to burden him with all my troubles as I do you. Tell me this, do you want to go home?”
“No, I do not want to go home in the least. You know what I mean. I’d give a great deal to see father and mother and the youngsters; but there’s nothing for me to do in New London—that is, not the sort of work that I think I am equal to, and, after leaving it the way I did, I hate to go back empty-handed. Then, I’m sure, father would much rather I’d find something to do in New York. He believes there is a good deal more of a chance for a fellow here.”
“And you have heard of nothing, Harry; nothing whatever?” Aunt Frances let her knitting fall in her lap, and looked straight at Harry as she spoke. There was something strange about this direct look from Aunt Frances. It seemed to compel the exact truth from everybody, even from Pat, the Van Vleets’ hired man, who did not ordinarily hesitate in telling an untruth if it would make things more comfortable. And so Harry did not even succeed in making an evasive reply, as he should like to have done, but just answered, very simply and honestly: “Yes, Aunt Frances, I did hear of something—a clerkship in a lawyer’s office—but I decided not to take it.”
“Decided not to take it? Why, that is the very position you said you would like above all others!”
“Did I say that? well, fellows are queer sometimes, aren’t they?”
“Harry Avery, there is something mysterious about all this. What was the name of the lawyer?”
“Oh, no matter, Auntie! The whole matter’s decided. I made up my mind not to take it, and that ends it.”
Aunt Frances was not to be silenced in this fashion. She had a right to search this matter out, and search it she would. “Harry,” as if she were speaking to some little child, “Harry, look me right in the eyes, and tell me, was it Colonel Hamilton?”
Yes but Harry looked off at the river. He had not the sort of courage to look Aunt Frances “right in the eyes,” as she bade him, for if there was a man anywhere whom she had a right thoroughly to despise, surely it was Colonel Hamilton—Colonel Hamilton, whose skilful reasoning had deprived her of the home that was almost as dear to her as life itself.
“Is the position still open to you?” Aunt Frances was now gazing off to the river, and with the mark of deep thinking on her face. “If it is, you must take it. Colonel Hamilton is a great lawyer. It is as fine an opening as you could possibly desire. I, for one, have no notion of standing in your light, Harry, and you must not do yourself the injustice of standing in your own.”
“But, Aunt Frances—”
“No, don’t interrupt me, Harry; only listen, like a good boy, and do just as I tell you. Take the ‘Gretchen’ first thing in the morning, go straight to Colonel Hamilton’s office, and apply for the place. Tell him all about yourself, and answer every question he may ask in the most straightforward manner, but do not volunteer the information that you are a relative of mine. It would not do you any good and it might do harm—that is, it might incline the Colonel less kindly toward you. Unless some one has gotten ahead of you, you will secure the place, I am sure of it, and no one will be more glad for you than just my very self.”
“Aunt Frances,” said Harry, watching the needles that were again flashing in the afternoon sunlight, “you are the dearest old trump that ever knitted stockings for a fool of a fellow like me.”
“If I thought this stocking was really to grace a fool’s leg”—and Aunt Frances feigned great seriousness—“not another stitch would I take; but, begging your pardon, you would have been a fool indeed if you had not told me about all this, although I perfectly understand that your motives for not telling me were anything but foolish. No, Harry; somehow I am sure it is only providential that you should have heard of this place. Promise to try for it.”
“I promise,” and Harry’s lightened heart unconsciously betrayed itself in voice and look. He had wanted the situation, oh! so much, more than he would admit even to himself, but he had decided he must forego any attempt to secure it. It would be, he thought, at too great a cost to Aunt Frances’s feelings, and he simply must not ask it.
“Look, Harry,” she said, shading her eyes with one hand, “isn’t that the Boniface boat about a mile to the left of the point?”
“Yes, it is,” Harry answered, merely glancing in that direction; “but tell me one thing before I go down to the wharf: tell me, Aunt Frances, do you think Colonel Hamilton an unprincipled man?”
“Unprincipled! Why, Harry, do you suppose for a single moment that I would urge you to seek a situation under him if I thought that? No, I believe that he honestly felt that the English ought to be allowed to keep possession of the houses that we had abandoned, and so perhaps it was only natural that when Captain Wadsworth took his case to him, he should bring all his eloquence, which is very great, to bear on that side of the question. Nevertheless I confess, as that eloquence cost me my home, I cannot but feel pretty sore about it, and would go a long way out of my way to avoid meeting him, brave officer and brilliant lawyer as he is.”
Harry felt considerably relieved by this assertion, and strolled down to the boat-landing with even more admiration for “darling old Aunt Frances” than he had ever felt before. It was so unusual, he thought, to find a woman who could reason fairly, independent of her heart.
But Aunt Frances was not quite so ‘independent of her heart,’ as Harry put it, as Harry and the rest of the world thought, and for the very good reason that her heart was as big as herself. And so when Harry had left her, what did she do but lay aside her knitting, go straight up to her own little room in one of the gable ends of the house, shut the door of it, and then, sitting down in a low little rocking-chair, bury her face in her hands and cry. It had not been by any means an easy thing for her to urge Harry to seek a position under a man who had wrought her so much harm, but it had been her plain duty, at whatever cost to herself, and she had done it. Now when Aunt Frances cried, it was because that great heart of hers had had one little ache crowded upon another little ache till it could bear no more, and then the hot tears must (there was no choice at all in the matter) be allowed to flow for a while and ease it. But for all this, do not think for a moment that Aunt Frances was an unhappy sort of person. Each little experience of her life and of the lives of others had a very deep significance for her, because she believed with all her heart that God watches over every life and guides it, and no one who believes that can ever be unhappy long at a time; life is to them too beautiful and earnest. But this was the way of it with Aunt Frances: she had a great capacity for loving, if you understand what that means, but she did not have as much of a chance to spend that love as many another, who had not half as much to spend. She would always be Miss Frances Avery, she felt sure of that; yet what a tender, loving wife she could have made for somebody! She should never have any one nearer to her than Harry and Starlight (bless their hearts!) but oh, what a mother she might have been with her great passionate love for little children! And so it was that Aunt Frances trod the round of the life God had sent her, because He had sent it, contentedly and happily, and yet it would happen now and then that some thoughtless word or deed would almost unaccountably set one little spot to aching, and something else would set another, till her heart was all one great ache, and the pent-up tears must come. Aunt Frances could always tell perfectly well when there was need to retreat to the little room in the gable, the little room that had been hers now, for the two years since she had fled from her own home across the river; and while she sat there on the step with Harry she knew well enough what she should do the moment he was gone. It was not that she did not mean every word she said to him; it was only that somehow that little talk had overcharged the brave heart.
Afterward, when the Boniface’s boat had touched at the dock and all the Van Vleets were flocking out of doors to welcome them, Aunt Frances was in their midst, with the sunshine of her presence all the brighter for the storm of troubled feelings that had just swept over it, but Josephine Boniface thought she saw just the faintest trace of recent tears in Aunt Frances’s eyes as she stooped to kiss her. “Dear old Aunt Frances,” she whispered, as she put her arm about her neck, “I would give all the world ever to be such a blessed ministering angel as you are to everybody.
“Why, Josephine, darling, what foolishness,” whispered Aunt Frances; but it needed only those few sweet words to banish even the trace of tears, and to make her thoroughly light-hearted once again.