A Little Country Girl by Susan Coolidge

A Little Country Girl by Susan Coolidge.jpg

CHAPTER I.

ON THE “EOLUS.”

IT was on one of the cool, brilliant days which early June brings to the Narragansett country, that the steamer “Eolus” pushed out from Wickford Pier on her afternoon trip to Newport. The sky was of a beautiful translucent blue; the sunshine had a silvery rather than a golden radiance. A sea-wind blew up the Western Passage, so cool as to make the passengers on the upper deck glad to draw their wraps about them. The low line of the mainland beyond Conanicut and down to Beaver Tail glittered with a sort of clear-cut radiance, and seemed lifted a little above[8] the water. Candace Arden heard the Captain say that he judged, from the look of things, that there was going to be a change of weather before long.

Captain Peleg King was a great favorite on his line of travel. He had a pleasant, shrewd face, grizzled hair, a spare, active figure; and he seemed to notice every one of his passengers and to take an interest in them.

“Going down to Newport, Miss?” he said to Candace, after giving her one or two quick looks.

The question was superfluous, for the “Eolus” went nowhere else except to Newport; but it was well-meant, for the Captain thought that Candace seemed lonely and ill at ease, and he wished to cheer her.

“Yes, sir,” she answered, shyly.

“Your folks there for the summer?” he went on.

“No, sir; I’m going to stay with my cousin Mrs. Gray.”

“Mrs. Courtenay Gray you mean, I guess. Well, it’s queer, but I sort er thought that[9] you favored her a little. She’s down early this year. I fetched her and the family across on my evening trip more ‘n two weeks ago. Mrs. Gray’s a mighty nice lady; I’m always pleased when she comes aboard. Wouldn’t you like to take a seat in the wheel-house, Miss? The wind’s blowing pretty fresh.”

Candace was not aware that this was a distinguishing attention which the Captain did not pay everybody, and which she owed partly to her connection with Mrs. Gray and partly to her solitary look, which had touched Captain Peleg’s benevolent heart. He had a girl of his own “over to Wickford,” who was about the same age; and it made him “kind of tender” toward other girls who didn’t seem to have any one to look after them. But the wind was fresh, and it was pleasant to be spoken to and noticed by some one on this, the first long journey of her short life; so she thankfully accepted the Captain’s invitation, and let him escort her along the deck, and assist her to mount the two steps which led into the wheel-house.[10]

It was rather a pleasant-looking place in which she found herself. Three sides of the little enclosure were lined with windows, through which the green shores, which seemed to be rapidly drifting past them, could be seen. The fourth side was filled with a long cushioned bench. In the middle of the glassed front was the big brass wheel, shining with polish and friction, and revolving artistically in the hands of its steersman, who kept his eye fixed alternately on the water and on his compass. There seemed to be no regulation against speaking to this “man at the wheel,” or if there were, it was not strictly regarded; for two young ladies, who were already ensconced in one corner of the long seat, were plying him with all manner of questions.

They were rather pretty girls of that hard modern type which carries the air of knowing everything worth the knowing, having a right to everything worth the having, and being fully determined to claim that right to its fullest extent. As Candace entered, they[11] favored her with one rapid, scrutinizing glance that took in every detail of her apparel, from the goat-skin boots which were too large for her feet to the round hat whose every bow bore witness to a country milliner, and after that they noticed her no more.

She, for her part, only too glad to be left unnoticed, looked shyly out of the corners of her eyes at them. They seemed to her inexpressibly stylish; for their tailor-made suits, though almost as plain as her own dress and jacket of blue alpaca, had that perfect fit and finish which makes the simplest dress seem all that can be desired. There was a knowing look to each little detail, from the slender silver bangles which appeared beneath the loose wrinkled wrists of their very long gloves to the tortoise-shell pins with which their hats were fastened to the tightly braided hair coiled low down on the nape of the neck. Candace’s hair fell in curls to her waist. She had always worn it so, and no one had ever thought anything about it; but now, all in a moment, she felt that it was wrong and improper.[12]

“Been up to New York, Miss Joy?” said the Captain.

“No; only as far as the Junction, to meet a friend,” replied the prettier of the two girls. “Why weren’t you on the boat this morning, Captain?”

“I was on the boat. I never miss a trip, except sometimes the night one in the summer-time, when the sleeping-train is a running. I don’t always come over in that. Let me see, how did I come to miss you to-day?”

“Oh, I sat in the ladies’ cabin all the way, not on deck. But I didn’t see you when we landed.”

“Well, I don’t know how it happened, I’m sure. Are your folks down for the season?”

“Yes: that is, mamma and I and my brother are here; my married sister won’t come till next month.” Then she turned to her friend, but without lowering her voice.

“You can’t think how dull it’s been, Ethel: no men, no dinners; nothing going on as yet. The Casino is only just opened, and people haven’t begun to go there. We tried to get[13] up a tennis match, but there weren’t enough good players to make it worth while. There’s absolutely nothing. Mrs. Courtenay Gray had a girls’ lunch on Tuesday; but that is all, and that didn’t count for much.”

“That’s Georgie Gray’s mother, isn’t it? Is she there?”

“Oh, yes,—she and Gertrude, all the Grays. They’re as nice and delightful as can be, of course, but somehow they’re so literary and quiet, and Mrs. Gray is awfully particular about the girls. She makes them keep on with studying all summer, and she’s so exclusive,—she won’t let them visit half the new people.”

“Gracious! why not?”

“Oh, I don’t know,—she says they’re not good form, and all that; but I’m sure she knows queer people enough herself. There is that tiresome old Miss Gisborne down in Washington Street,—the girls are forever going there; and I’ve seen them myself ever so many times coming out of the Hares’,—and they take boarders!”[14]

“Fancy! How extraordinary! Oh, there are the frigates!”

For the “Eolus,” leaving the wooded, wall-like bank of Gould’s Island behind, and rounding a point, had now reached the small curving bay to the eastward of Coasters’ Harbor, where lay the training-ships, the “New Hampshire” and the “Minnesota.” It was a beautiful sight,—the two great war-vessels at anchor, with their tall tapering spars and flying flags reflected in the water on which they floated. Lines of glinting white flashed along the decks; for it was “wash-day,” and the men’s clothes were drying in the sun. Two or three barges were disembarking visitors at the gangway ladders, and beyond them a sail-boat was waiting its turn to do the same. On the pier a file of blue-uniformed boys were marching with measured tread. The sound of their feet came across the distance like the regular beat of a machine. A girl in a row-boat was just pushing out from the farther beach, above which rose a stone house covered with vines.[15]

“That’s Miss Isherwood,” said one of the young ladies. “She’s a splendid rower, and Tom says she swims as well as he does.”

The whole scene was like enchantment to Candace, who had lived all her life among the hills of Connecticut, and had never till that day seen the ocean. She was much too shy to ask questions, but she sat like one in a dream, taking in with wide-open eyes all the details of the charming view,—the shores, broken by red-roofed villas and cottages rising from clouds of leafy greenery; the Torpedo Island with its tall flag-staff and floating banner over the dwelling of the Commandant; Fort Adams, whose steep glacis seemed powdered with snow just then from the multitude of daisies in bloom upon them; the light-houses; the soft rises of hill; and beyond, the shimmering heave of the open sea. Cat-boats and yachts flitted past in the fair wind like large white-winged moths; row-boats filled with pleasure-parties dipped their oars in the wake of the “Eolus;” steam-launches with screeching whistles were putting into their docks, among[16] old boat-houses and warehouses, painted dull-red, or turned of a blackish gray by years of exposure to weather. Behind rose Newport, with the graceful spire of Trinity Church and the long bulk of the Ocean House surmounting the quaint buildings on the lower hill. The boat was heading toward a wharf, black with carriages, which were evidently drawn up to wait the arrival of the “Eolus.”

“There’s Mrs. Gray’s team now, Miss,” said the sharp-eyed Captain; “come down for you, I reckon.”

The two girls glanced at her and then at each other. They shrugged their shoulders, and Candace heard one of them whisper,—

“Did you ever?” and the reply, “No; but after all, we didn’t say anything very bad, and who would have dreamed that a hat like that had anything to do with the Grays?”

She felt herself blush painfully. The hat was a new one of brown straw trimmed with dark blue ribbon. She had felt rather proud of it when it came home from the milliner’s the day before, and had considered the little[17] blue pompon with which Miss Wilson, who was authority in matters of fashion in North Tolland, had enriched the middle bow, as a masterpiece of decoration. Alas! the apple of knowledge was at her lips; already she felt herself blush at the comments of these unknown girls whose hats were so different from her own, and was thoroughly uncomfortable, though she could hardly have told why.

Captain Peleg politely carried her bag for her across the landing-plank to where the “team,” a glossy coupé with one horse, was waiting. He beckoned to the smart coachman, who wore a dark green overcoat with big metal buttons, to draw nearer.

“Here’s your passenger,” he said, helping Candace into the carriage. “Good-day, Miss. I hope we’ll see you again on the ‘Eolus.’ All right, driver.”

“Oh, thank you,” cried Candace, finding voice and forgetting shyness in her gratitude; “you’ve been real kind to me, Captain.”

“That child’s got mighty pretty eyes,” soliloquized Captain King, as he marched down[18] the wharf. “I wonder what relation she is to the Grays. She don’t seem their sort exactly. She’s been raised in the country, I expect; but Mrs. Gray’ll polish her up if anybody can, or I’m mistaken. Steady there—what’re you about?” as a trunk came bounding and ricochetting across the gangway; “this wharf ain’t no skittle-ground!”

Meanwhile the coupé was slowly climbing a steep side-street which led to the Avenue. Looking forth with observant eyes, Candace noted how the houses, which at first were of the last-century build, with hipped roofs and dormer windows like those to which she was accustomed in the old hill village that had been her birthplace, gave way to modernized old houses with recent additions, and then to houses which were unmistakably new, and exhibited all manner of queer peaks and pinnacles and projections, shingled, painted in divers colors, and broken by windows of oddly tinted glass. Next the carriage passed a modern church built of pinkish-brown stone; and immediately after, the equable roll of the[19] wheels showed that they were on a smooth macadamized road. It was, in fact, though Candace did not know it, the famous Bellevue Avenue, which in summer is the favorite drive for all fashionable persons, and thronged from end to end on every fair afternoon by all manner of vehicles, from dainty pony-wagons to enormous mail-coaches.

There were only a few carriages in sight now, though they seemed many to our little country maid. Shops were opening for the season. Men were busy in hanging Eastern rugs and curtains up to view, and arranging in the windows beautiful jars and plates of porcelain and pottery, glittering wares from Turkey and Damascus, carved furniture, and inlaid cabinets. Half a dozen florists exhibited masses of hot-house flowers amid a tangle of palms and tree-ferns; beyond was the announcement of an “opening” by a well-known dressmaker, whose windows were hung with more beautiful things than Candace in her small experience had ever dreamed of before,—laces, silks, embroideries.[20]

The shops gave way to houses, each set in a court-yard gay with newly planted beds of flowers or foliage plants. Vines clustered everywhere; the trees, not yet fully in leaf, were like a tossing spray of delicate fresh green: a sense of hope, of expectation, of something delightful which was being prepared for, seemed to be in the air.

Suddenly the coupé turned in between a pair of substantial stone gate-posts, and drew up before a large square house, with piazzas on two sides, and a small but very smooth lawn, whose closely cut grass looked like green velvet. It was dappled with weeping-trees and evergreens, and hedged with a high wall of shrubs which shut off the view of the street. A continuous flower-bed ran all round the house close to its walls, planted full of geraniums, heliotrope, nasturtiums, mignonette, and pansies. Every window and balcony boasted its box of ferns or flowers; and in spite of the squareness of the building, and the sombre green-gray with which it was painted, the general effect was of cheerfulness,[21] and shade broken by color,—an effect which is always pleasant.

Candace had forgotten herself in the excitement of new sights and experiences; but her shyness came back with a rush as the carriage stopped and the door was opened by a very smart French butler.

“Is Mrs. Gray at home?” she asked timidly, bending forward.

“Descendez, Mademoiselle, s’il vous plaît. Madame est occupée pour le moment; il y a du monde dans le salon.” Then, seeing the perplexed look in Candace’s eyes, he explained in broken English: “Mees is to get out. Madame is beesy with coompany for little while. Mees will please go up-stair.”

Candace got out; the carriage drove away, and she followed the butler into the hall. He gave a low call at the foot of the stairs, which brought down a ladies’-maid with a ruffed cap perched on the back of her head.

“This way, if you please, Miss,” she said, and led Candace up the staircase, which was a wide one with three square turns and a[22] broad landing, lit with a range of windows and furnished with a low cushioned seat; then came an upper hall, and she was shown into a pretty corner room.

“If you’ll please sit down and rest yourself, Miss,” said the maid, “Mrs. Gray’ll be up as soon as some company she has is gone. Would you like to have a cup of tea, Miss?”

“No, thank you,” faltered Candace; and then the maid went away, shutting the door behind her.

The room, which had no bed in it, and was, in fact, Mrs. Gray’s morning-room, was so full of curious things that Candace’s first thought was that it would take a week at least to see half that was in it. The sage-green walls were thickly hung with photographs, watercolors, charcoal sketches, miniatures, bits of faience, lacquered trays and discs, and great shining circles of Syrian and Benares metalwork. There were many pieces of pottery of various sorts, set here and there, on the chimney-piece, on book-shelves, on the top of a strangely carved black cabinet, with hinges[23] and handles of wrought iron. In one corner stood an Italian spinning-wheel of ebony and silver; in another an odd instrument, whose use Candace could not guess, but which was in reality a Tyrolean zither. An escritoire, drawn near a window, was heaped with papers and with writing appliances of all sorts, and all elegant. There were many little tables covered with books and baskets of crewels and silks, and easy-chairs of every description. Every chair-back and little stand had some quaint piece of lace-work or linen-work thrown over it. It was, in fact, one of those rooms belonging distinctly to our modern life, for the adornment of which every part of the world is ransacked, and their products set forth in queer juxtapositions, to satisfy or to exhibit the varied tastes and pursuits of its occupants. To Candace it was as wonderful as any museum; and while her eyes slowly travelled from one object to another, she forgot her strangeness and was happy.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, went the little French clock on the mantelpiece. Suddenly it struck[24] her that it was a long while that she had been left alone in this room. She glanced at the clock; it really was almost an hour. All her latent homesickness returned with fresh force. Her eyes filled with sudden tears; in another moment she would have been actually crying, but just then came a quick step, a little rustle, and she had just time to wipe away the drops when the door opened, and Mrs. Gray hurried into the room.

“My poor child,” she exclaimed, “have you been alone all this time? It is quite too bad! I made sure that I should hear the carriage drive up, and at least run out and give you a welcome, but somehow I didn’t; and people came so fast and thick that I couldn’t get a chance to glance at the clock.” She kissed Candace, and looked at her with a sort of soft scrutiny. It was to the full as penetrating as that of the strange girls on the steamer had been; but it did not hurt like theirs. Mrs. Gray had beautiful, big, short-sighted blue eyes with black lashes; when she smiled they seemed to brim with a sudden[25] fascinating radiance. She smiled now, and reminded Candace somehow of a great, soft, fully opened garden rose.

“You have something of your mother’s looks, Cannie,” she said. “I knew her best when she was about your age. I never saw much of her after she married your father and went up to live among the hills.” She sighed softly: there was a short pause. Then, with a sudden change of tone, she continued: “And all this time you have never been shown your room. I can’t think why they were so stupid. Who was it put you here, Cannie?”

“It was—a lady—in a cap,” replied Candace, hesitatingly.

“A lady?—cap? Oh, it must have been Elizabeth. She’s my maid,—don’t make such a mistake again, dear; you must learn to discriminate. Well, come with me now, and let me see you comfortably established. The girls are gone on a yachting-party to the upper end of the island. It was an old engagement, made before your aunt’s letter[26] came, or they would not have been absent when you arrived. They were very sor—”

But in the very middle of the word came Frederic, the butler, with the announcement of new visitors; and, just taking time to lead Candace down the entry to a room whose door stood wide open, Mrs. Gray hurried away, saying rapidly: “Take off your hat, dear. Lie down for a rest, hadn’t you better? I’ll be up again presently.”

“I wonder if everybody is always in a hurry in Newport?” Candace thought.

She was again alone, but this time she felt no disposition to cry. Her trunk had been brought up by somebody, and stood already in its place, with the straps unloosened. She took off her hat and jacket, unpacked a little, and peeped out of the window to see where she was. The room faced the east, and across a corner of the lawn and the stable-yard she had a glimpse of the sea, which had become intensely blue with the coming of the later afternoon.

“Oh, that is good,” she said to herself. “I[27] shall see it all summer.” She glanced about the room with a growing sense of proprietorship which was pleasant. It was not a large room, but it looked cheerful, with its simple furniture of pale-colored ash and a matted floor, over which lay a couple of Persian rugs. There was a small fireplace bordered with blue tiles which matched the blue papering on the walls; and the tiles on the washstand, and the chintz of the easy-chair and lounge, and the flower-jars on the mantelpiece were blue also. Altogether it was a pretty little chamber, with which any girl might be sufficiently well-pleased; and as Candace noticed the tiny nosegay of mignonette and tea-roses which stood on the bureau, her heart lightened with the sense that it had been put there for her. Some one had thought of her coming, and prepared for it.

She brushed out her curls and washed her face and hands, but did not change her dress. The blue alpaca was the newest she had, and she wished to look her best on that first evening. She sat down in the window to listen to[28] the soft boom of the surf, which seemed to grow louder as the night drew on, and did not hear Mrs. Gray as she came down the entry. That lady stood a moment in the half-open door, surveying her young visitor.

“What am I to do with her?” she thought. “I want to befriend Candace’s child, but I did not quite realize, till I saw her just now, what a disadvantage she would be at among all these girls here, with their French clothes and their worse than French ideas. She’s not plain. There’s a good deal of beauty about that shy little face of hers, and refinement too, if only she were not so awkward. If I can once get her into a dress that fits, and do something with that mop of curls, she would look well enough. I wonder if she will take it kindly, or flare up and feel offended at every little suggestion. That would be terrible!— You are listening to the surf, dear. I’m afraid it means rain to-morrow. That sound generally is a symptom of mischief.”

“Is it?” said Candace; “what a pity!”[29]

“A pity about the rain?”

“No—but it’s such a pretty sound.”

“So it is. Well, if you are ready, let us go downstairs. I expect the girls every moment. Ah, there they are now!”

The line of windows on the staircase landing commanded a view of the gate and approach, and looking through them Candace saw a village cart with two girls on the front seat, one driving, and a third girl in the rumble behind, approaching the house. A couple of young men on horseback rode close beside the cart. One of them jumped from his horse, helped the young ladies out, there was a moment of laughter and chat; then, touching their hats, the riders departed, and the three girls came into the hall.

“Mamma! mammy! where are you, dear?” sang out three youthful voices.

“Here I am, half-way upstairs,” replied Mrs. Gray, seating herself on the cushioned bench of the landing.

“What on earth are you doing up there? And who’s that with you?”[30]

“It’s your cousin Candace. Come up and be introduced.”

Up they came at a run, each trying to be the first to arrive. Candace had never known many girls, but these were of a different species from any she had seen before. They seemed full of spirits, and conveyed the idea of being, so to speak, bursting with happiness, though I suppose not one of the three but would have resented the imputation of being happier than people in general are or ought to be. Georgie, the eldest, was short and round, and had her mother’s blue near-sighted eyes without her mother’s beauty. Gertrude was unusually tall, and had a sort of lily-like grace; her light hair was very thick, and so fine in quality that it stood out like a nimbus round her pale pretty face. Little Marian, the youngest, two years Candace’s junior, was not yet in society, but had been allowed to go to the picnic as a great favor. Her hair had a reddish tint in its chestnut, and was braided in one large plait down her back; she had brown eyes and[31] a capable little face which was full of expression.

They all spoke kindly to Candace, they all kissed her, but she felt much less at ease with them than with their mother, whose peculiarly charming manner seemed to invite confidence from everybody. After a few questions and a few words of welcome, they plunged into a description of their picnic,—the yacht-sail, the landing, the luncheon, the general delightfulness of everything.

“Berry Joy was not there,” remarked Georgie. “She had gone up to Wickford to meet some one. By the way, she must have come down on the ‘Eolus’ with you, Candace. Did you see her?”

“There were two young ladies,” answered Candace, timidly.

“Did you hear their names? Did you talk to them?” asked Gertrude.

“No—yes—no—I mean the Captain called one of them Miss Joy. I didn’t talk to them, but they knew you.”

“Why, how could you tell that?”[32]

“I heard them talking about you.”

“What fun! What did they say?”

Candace hesitated. Her face grew crimson. “I’d rather—I don’t—” she began. Then with a great effort, rallying her powers, she went on: “I didn’t like to sit there and hear them and not tell them that I was your cousin; but I was too—too—frightened to speak to them, so I thought I would never repeat what they said, and then it wouldn’t be any matter.”

“Quite right, Cannie,” said Mrs. Gray, quickly. Something in the girl’s little speech seemed to please her very much.

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Categories: English Literature

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