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Jewels For A Crown
By Lawana Blackwell
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1996 Lawana Blackwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, 1875
Just as the omnibus rolled to a stop at the corner of Park Lane and South Street, Jenny Price caught sight of an old Gypsy woman. The woman's wizened looks and filthy clothing contrasted sharply with the backdrop of Park Lane mansions. The Gypsy only stood there, hunched and statuelike behind an upturned apple crate, yet something about her posture gave the impression that she was waiting for someone.
Jenny moved to the front of the horse-drawn vehicle, handing the conductor fourpence before stepping down to the pavement. She had taken only two or three steps when an inexplicable impulse seized her and she looked to the right. As departing passengers and pedestrians passed by on both sides, Jenny found herself locking eyes with the old Gypsy woman.
A gold tooth gleamed as she smiled, but the woman's eyes were as dark and lifeless as bits of coal. "Read yer fortune, pretty miss?" Surprisingly, the soft voice carried through the frenzied street noises. A clawed hand scooped up several tarot cards from the apple crate. "Tell yer future?"
For a fraction of a second Jenny stood frozen to the spot, unable to tear her eyes from the woman. Then a loud clattering startled her, bringing her back to her senses. "Hey! Watch where yer goin', you clumsy lout!" an angry voice railed. Jenny looked through the crowd to see a crimson-faced peddler on his hands and knees, chasing after the snuff tins that had been knocked from his tray.
She started down South Street at almost a run, not looking back at the Gypsy and not slowing down until she reached the stoop of a narrow four-story house. Leaning against the door-post, Jenny let out a long breath and waited for her heart to stop hammering against her chest.
Tell my future? A shiver ran down her neck at the memory of those dark eyes. I hope I never get that desperate.
Straightening, she forced the old Gypsy from her thoughts. Her future, at least for the next two years, had already been decided by God ... and the woman who lived inside the house in front of her. That had to be the reason for the invitation Mrs. Wardroper had delivered that morning. The matron of the Nightingale School of Nursing had smiled broadly as she held out the invitation to afternoon tea, penned in a distinct and familiar script.
Florence Nightingale often sent notes of encouragement to "her" students, sometimes accompanied by flowers, fruit, or little gifts. Miss Nightingale had yet to visit the nursing school that she had founded fifteen years ago, yet she was heavily involved in every aspect of running the place.
"You should wear your nicest dress," Mrs. Wardroper had advised. Jenny reached behind her waist to make certain that the velvet bow was still tied securely over the bustle of her mauve silk gown. She hadn't needed to be told to dress nicely. Any summons from Florence Nightingale was a special occasion.
Except for church, it was practically the only time that Jenny wore anything other than her brown uniform gown, white apron, and cap. Nursing was a vocation, according to Miss Nightingale-not just a career, but a calling from God. Dressing the part only seemed natural and proper, even when a student was not actually at her studies.
Confident that her bow was still in place, Jenny took a few more seconds to tuck some loose strands of hair under her bonnet. Her hair, so straight that a curling rod was of little use, had a tendency to slip out of her hairpins, no matter how tightly they were fastened. When she was younger, it had grieved her that she had no curls to frame her heart-shaped face. Now she had little time for vanity, and her hair was annoying only because of the stray tendrils that tickled the back of her neck or dangled in her eyes.
You'll be standing out here all day if you wait till your looks are perfect, she told herself, then took hold of the brass knocker on the door in front of her. A young housemaid answered almost immediately, as if she had been waiting on the other side of the door. "The missus is ready to see you," she told Jenny with a smile, then accompanied her up two flights of stairs.
Miss Nightingale's bedroom did not have the appearance of a sickroom. It was a bright, airy chamber with white walls, and the windows had no blinds or curtains to keep out the light. The furnishings were cheerful as well-a cozy bed, tables and chairs scattered about, pictures, a rose-shaded lamp, and a bowl of flowers on a chest of drawers. Miss Nightingale sat propped up on several pillows in her bed. Two cats lay curled at her feet, and another occupied a place on one of the Persian carpets.
"Cook should have our tea ready, Abigail," Miss Nightingale said to the maid. She smiled at Jenny and nodded toward the chair at the right side of her bed. "Come sit close so we can talk, Miss Price."
Jenny always felt a sense of awe in the presence of the great lady, whose revolutionary ideas had brought about improvements in hospital procedures as far away as the United States and Australia. Invalid that she was, Florence Nightingale was not feeble looking. A visitor did not notice the silver in her hair so much as the strength in her eyes. They were gray, like Jenny's, and didn't appear to miss anything.
Jenny's chair was placed only inches away from a square table covered with neat stacks of correspondence from all corners of the globe. Miss Nightingale faithfully kept up with her graduates. And now that Jenny's year-long internship at St. Thomas's Hospital was almost finished, she was about to join the ranks of those nurses. Exactly where she would serve was a decision that lay in the hands of this deceptively placid-looking woman before her.
"I hope you are feeling well, Miss Nightingale," Jenny offered. It struck her that it was a superfluous way to greet an invalid, but what else could she say? The opposite, that she hoped her hostess was not feeling well?
"Very well today, Miss Price. I've already lived a good ten years longer than I imagined I would, so it would be ungrateful of me to complain." She shifted on her pillows a bit, causing one of the cats at her feet to rouse and stretch. The animal gave Jenny a bored look of appraisal and curled back up into a ball.
With typical straightforwardness, Miss Nightingale got right to the point. "I asked you to come here so that we could discuss your assignment upon graduation. You've been a most exemplary student in all areas, according to Dr. Sutherland and Mrs. Wardroper."
"Thank you. It's hard to believe the term is almost finished."
To Jenny's surprise the woman in the bed laughed, bringing spots of color to her plump cheeks. "I like people who are mature enough to take a compliment without blushing and simpering little protests to prove their humility. My main reason for not accepting probationers under the age of twenty-five is because I don't want anyone who is likely to marry and leave the profession, wasting the effort put in to train her. But I must confess there has always been an ulterior motive in the back of my mind." She shook her head. "I simply don't have the patience to deal with anyone much younger than that these days."
"And yet you accepted me."
"The first exception I've made in the fifteen years since the school began. And only after Mr. Adam Burke assured us of your maturity and sobriety. Rare qualities in a lass of twenty-two, if you ask me."
Jenny smiled at being referred to as a "lass"-after all, most women her age were already married and starting families. "Mr. Burke has been a good friend to my family," she responded.
"And a generous contributor to the school at St. Thomas." Miss Nightingale paused briefly. "And speaking of school, I've decided where you are to serve after you graduate."
Jenny sat straighter in her chair. "You have?"
The maid returned just then, carrying a silver tray of sandwiches and biscuits. She was followed by another maid with their tea. The two servants drew a round table up to the bedside between Jenny and their mistress, arranged dishes and poured cups with practiced ease, then slipped out of the room with the mewing cats at their heels.
All of this took less than three minutes, but to Jenny the time seemed to crawl by. She was about to say Ontario, she told herself. After all, Jenny had requested to fulfill her two-year commitment to the Nightingale Fund there, and the rumor in the halls of the nursing school was that the top graduates usually were given a choice of assignments.
Jenny hadn't gone into nursing because of its opportunities for travel. Nurturing others had been a basic part of her personality for as long as she could remember. But ever since Jenny was eleven years old, when her mother had married a former private detective named Joseph Price, she had loved to hear about the countless places her stepfather had been in the course of his career. His stories awakened a desire in her own heart to see something besides Leawick, Bristol, and London.
How exciting life would be if both of her interests, nursing and travel, could be combined! Of course she would miss her family. Her parents and younger brother and sister, as well as the numerous relatives on her adoptive father's side, were all very important to her. But two years wasn't a terribly long time. And think of the experiences she would be able to write about in letters back home!
Miss Nightingale reached for her cup, took a sip of her tea, and then continued as if the conversation had never been interrupted. "I was paid a visit last month by a Mr. Graham Harrington, an acquaintance of my sister and her husband, who lives here in London. Mr. Harrington is a widower, and his daughter has epilepsy. The child's nurse is to be married next month."
The older woman smiled, and the only sound Jenny was aware of was the pounding of her pulse in her ears. What does this have to do with Ontario? she wondered, then felt a twinge of guilt for not considering the plight of the poor child. She had been praised for her maturity only a few minutes ago, and here she was thinking only of herself. "How ... how old is the little girl?" she asked.
"Twelve years old. Mr. Harrington has asked for someone with a great deal of compassion for children, along with more than competent nursing skills. Someone who is willing to attend the Church of England, too, for the child will need to have a nurse in attendance even on Sundays. You came to my mind right away, but of course I wanted to spend some time in prayer about it. Such decisions shouldn't be made lightly."
Miss Nightingale set her cup down on the table, dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a napkin, and turned her attention back to Jenny. "You look distressed, dear. Is something wrong?"
Her appetite suddenly gone, Jenny set her half-empty cup on the table as well. "I appreciate your confidence in me, Miss Nightingale," she said carefully. "But I was hoping ..."
"You were hoping to be assigned to the hospital in Ontario."
Jenny's breath caught in her throat. "I don't wish to sound selfish, Miss Nightingale, but there are other students who are competent enough to take on this assignment. And I know several who are hoping to stay here in London."
Miss Nightingale was quiet for a long time, staring down at her folded hands. Finally she said, "Why do you wish to go to Canada?"
"I'm going to be a nurse. There are people there I can help."
"Even if God would rather you stay and help someone here in London?"
I've got to make her understand, Jenny thought. "I've lived in three places in my life, Miss Nightingale," she began with a respectful firmness. "I've been praying God would send me to Ontario so that I could help people and, at the same time, see something of another part of the world. You've traveled ... I've read your journals. Didn't you feel the same way?"
"I went where God directed me," the older woman answered. "And only to the places where I felt his leading." Her eyes became somewhat sad as she studied Jenny's face. "You just said that you've prayed to be sent to Canada. Has God answered? Do you feel he has directed you to go there?"
"He has," Jenny replied immediately. Even as she spoke, she chose to ignore the voice of her conscience, reminding her that she had suffered doubts. Who didn't have doubts at some time or another?
Even her calling to be a nurse hadn't always been crystal clear. Jenny had always loved children, having practically raised three younger cousins when she was just a child herself. At one time in her life she thought that her nurturing spirit could be satisfied by marriage and a family. At the age of nineteen she became engaged to a fine young man, an architect. His death in a train derailment near Manchester had sent her into mourning for months.
Afterward Jenny had turned down invitations from other prospective suitors. She was determined never again to allow herself to attach all of her dreams for the future to one person. People had a way of dying-people like her natural father, and her fiancé. Depending on another person was likely to end in disappointment.
By the time Jenny had begun to cope with her grief, she started to feel that there was a higher calling to her life-something that hovered, especially in the wee hours of the night, just out of her mind's grasp. She prayed for direction while she kept herself occupied, helping her parents care for her two younger siblings and operate the bookstore they had founded in Bristol shortly after their marriage.
One day in the store she came across a pamphlet entitled Una and the Lion, written by Florence Nightingale herself, about Nightingale nurses working at a Liverpool workhouse infirmary. She could not read fast enough. Every word seemed to drive away more and more of the restlessness that had taken hold of her. By the time she knelt for her bedside prayers, she knew with all certainty that God was calling her into the nursing field.
And she was still certain of that. After all, hadn't God miraculously opened the door for her to come to school here in London, in spite of the age requirement? And surely he was calling her to go to Ontario. There weren't enough trained nurses to meet the demand over there. Wasn't it written in the Bible that one of the signs of true Christianity was visiting the sick? Well, there were sick people in Canada, too.
Jenny realized that Miss Nightingale was still staring at her. The woman had not replied to the affirmation she had spoken seconds ago, that God was indeed directing her to go to Ontario. Jenny cleared her throat. "I don't feel that our Lord would be displeased if I helped others in any location, do you?"
"Of course not." She smiled. "Ours is a noble calling.
Excerpted from Jewels For A Crown by Lawana Blackwell Copyright © 1996 by Lawana Blackwell. Excerpted by permission.
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