A Country Doctor - XIX: Friend and Lover
In these summer days the young lawyer's thoughts had often been busy elsewhere while he sat at the shaded office window and looked out upon the river. The very housekeeping on the damaged ship became more interesting to him than his law books, and he watched the keeper's wife at her various employments on deck, or grew excited as he witnessed the good woman's encounters with marauding small boys, who prowled about hoping for chances of climbing the rigging or solving the mysteries of the hold. It had come to be an uncommon event that a square-rigged vessel should make the harbor of Dunport, and the elder citizens ignored the deserted wharves, and talked proudly of the days of Dunport's prosperity, convicting the railroad of its decline as much as was consistent with their possession of profitable stock. The younger people took the empty warehouses for granted, and listened to their grandparents' stories with interest, if they did not hear them too often; and the more enterprising among them spread their wings of ambition and flew away to the larger cities or to the westward. George Gerry had stayed behind reluctantly. He had neither enough desire for a more active life, nor so high a purpose that he could disregard whatever opposition lay in his way. Yet he was honestly dissatisfied with his surroundings, and thought himself hardly used by a hindering fate. He believed himself to be most anxious to get away, yet he was like a ship which will not be started out of port by anything less than a hurricane. There really were excuses for his staying at home, and since he had stopped to listen to them they beguiled him more and more, and his friends one by one commended his devotion to his mother and sisters, and sometimes forgot to sympathize with him for his disappointments as they praised him for being such a dutiful son. To be sure, he might be a great lawyer in Dunport as well as anywhere else; he would not be the first; but a more inspiring life might have made him more enthusiastic and energetic, and if he could have been winning his way faster elsewhere, and sending home good accounts of himself, not to speak of substantial aid, there is no question whether it would not have given his family greater happiness and done himself more good. He was not possessed of the stern determination which wins its way at all hazards, and so was dependent upon his surroundings for an occasional stimulus.
But Dunport was very grateful to him because he had stayed at home, and he was altogether the most prominent young man in the town. It is so easy to be thankful that one's friends are no worse that one sometimes forgets to remember that they might be better; and it would have been only natural if he thought of himself more highly than he ought to think, since he had received a good deal of applause and admiration. It is true that he had avoided vice more noticeably than he had pursued virtue; but the senior member of the firm, Mr. Sergeant, pronounced his young partner to have been a most excellent student, and not only showed the greatest possible confidence in him, but was transferring a good deal of the business to him already. Miss Prince and her old lawyer had one secret which had never been suspected, and the townspeople thought more than ever of young Mr. Gerry's ability when it was known that the most distinguished legal authority of that region had given him a share of a long established business. George Gerry had been led to think better of himself, though it had caused him no little wonder when the proposal had been made. It was possible that Mr. Sergeant feared that there might be some alliance offered by his rivals in Dunport. To be sure, the younger firm had been making a good deal of money, but it was less respected by the leading business men. Mr. Sergeant had even conferred with his young friend one morning upon the propriety of some new investments; but Mr. Gerry had never even suspected that they were the price of his own new dignity and claim upon the public honor. Captain Walter Parish and Mr. Sergeant had both been aids and advisers of Miss Prince; but neither had ever known the condition of all her financial affairs, and she had made the most of a comfortable sense of liberty. To do young Gerry justice, he had not hesitated to express his amazement; and among his elders and betters, at any rate, he had laid his good fortune at the door of Mr. Sergeant's generosity and kindness instead of his own value.
But at certain seasons of the year, like this, there was no excitement in the office, and after an attendance at court and the proper adjustment, whether temporary or permanent, of the subsequent business, the partners had returned to a humdrum fulfilling of the minor duties of their profession, and the younger man worked at his law books when there were no deeds or affidavits to engage his attention. He thought of many things as he sat by his window; it was a great relief to the tiresomeness of the dull rooms to look at the river and at the shores and hills beyond; to notice carelessly whether the tide came in or went out. He was apt to feel a sense of dissatisfaction in his leisure moments; and now a new current was bringing all its force to bear upon him in his quiet anchorage.
He had looked upon Miss Prince as a kind adviser; he was on more intimate terms with her than with any woman he knew; and the finer traits in his character were always brought out by some compelling force in her dignity and simple adherence to her somewhat narrow code of morals and etiquette. He was grateful to her for many kindnesses; and as he had grown older and come to perceive the sentiment which had been the first motive of her affection toward him, he had instinctively responded with a mingling of gallantry and sympathy which made him, as has been already said, appear at his very best. The gossips of Dunport had whispered that he knew that it was more than worth his while to be polite to Miss Prince; but he was too manly a fellow to allow any trace of subserviency to show itself in his conduct. As often happens, he had come back to Dunport almost a stranger after his years of college life were over, and he had a mingled love and impatience for the old place. The last year had been very pleasant, however: there were a few young men whose good comrade and leader he was; his relations with his fellow-citizens were most harmonious; and as for the girls of his own age and their younger sisters, who were just growing up, he was immensely popular and admired by them. It had become a subject of much discussion whether he and Mary Parish would not presently decide upon becoming engaged to each other, until Miss Prince's long-banished niece came to put a new suspicion into everybody's mind.
Many times when George Gerry had a new proof that he had somehow fallen into the habit of walking home with the pleasant girl who was his friend and neighbor, he had told himself abruptly that there was no danger in it, and that they never could have any other feeling for each other. But he had begun to think also that she belonged to him in some vague way, and sometimes acknowledged that it might be a thing to consider more deeply by and by. He was only twenty-six, and the world was still before him, but he was not very sympathetic with other people's enthusiasm over their love affairs, and wondered if it were not largely a matter of temperament, though by and by he should like to have a home of his own.
He was somewhat attracted toward Miss Prince, the younger, for her aunt's sake, and had made up his mind that he would be very attentive to her, no matter how displeasing and uninteresting she might be: it was sure to be a time of trial to his old friend, and he would help all he could to make the visit as bearable as possible. Everybody knew of the niece's existence who had known the Prince family at all, and though Miss Prince had never mentioned the unhappy fact until the day or two before her guest was expected, her young cavalier had behaved with most excellent discretion, and feigning neither surprise nor dismay, accepted the announcement in a way that had endeared him still more to his patroness.
But on the first Sunday morning, when a most admirable young lady had walked up the broad aisle of St. Ann's church, and Mr. Gerry had caught a glimpse of her between the rows of heads which all looked commonplace by contrast, it seemed to begin a new era of things. This was a welcome link with the busier world outside Dunport; this was what he had missed since he had ended his college days, a gleam of cosmopolitan sunshine, which made the provincial fog less attractive than ever. He was anxious to claim companionship with this fair citizen of a larger world, and to disclaim any idea of belonging to the humdrum little circle which exaggerated its own importance. He persuaded himself that he must pay Miss Prince's guest an early visit. It was very exciting and interesting altogether; and as he watched the flicker of light in our heroine's hair as she sat on the straight sofa in her aunt's parlor on the Sunday evening, a feeling of great delight stole over him. He had known many nice girls in his lifetime, but there was something uncommonly interesting about Miss Anna Prince; besides, who could help being grateful to her for being so much nicer than anybody had expected?
And so the days went by. Nobody thought there was any objection when the junior partner of the law firm took holiday after holiday, for there was little business and Mr. Sergeant liked to keep on with his familiar routine. His old friends came to call frequently, and they had their conferences in peace, and were not inclined to object if the younger ears were being used elsewhere. Young people will be young people, and June weather does not always last; and if George Gerry were more devoted to social duties than to legal ones, it was quite natural, and he had just acquitted himself most honorably at the May term of court, and was his own master if he decided to take a vacation.
He had been amused when the announcement had been made so early in their acquaintance that Nan meant to study medicine. He believed if there were any fault, it was Dr. Leslie's, and only thought it a pity that her evident practical talents had not been under the guidance of a more sensible director. The girl's impetuous defense of her choice was very charming; he had often heard Mr. Sergeant speak of the rare insight and understanding of legal matters which his favorite daughter had possessed, and her early death had left a lonely place in the good man's heart. Miss Prince's life at Oldfields must have been very dull, especially since her boarding-school days were over. For himself he had a great prejudice against the usurpation of men's duties and prerogatives by women, and had spoken of all such assumptions with contempt. It made a difference that this attractive young student had spoken bravely on the wrong side; but if he had thought much about it he would have made himself surer and surer that only time was needed to show her the mistake. If he had gone deeper into the subject he would have said that he thought it all nonsense about women's having the worst of it in life; he had known more than one good fellow who had begun to go down hill from the day he was married, and if girls would only take the trouble to fit themselves for their indoor business the world would be a vastly more comfortable place. And as for their tinkering at the laws, such projects should be bitterly resented.
It only needed a few days to make it plain to this good fellow that the coming of one of the summer guests had made a great difference in his life. It was easy to find a hundred excuses for going to Miss Prince's, who smiled benignantly upon his evident interest in the fair stranger within her gates. The truth must be confessed, however, that the episode of the lamed shoulder at the picnic party had given Mr. George Gerry great unhappiness. There was something so high and serene in Anna Prince's simplicity and directness, and in the way in which she had proved herself adequate to so unusual an occasion, that he could not help mingling a good deal of admiration with his dissatisfaction. It is in human nature to respect power; but all his manliness was at stake, and his natural rights would be degraded and lost, if he could not show his power to be greater than her own. And as the days went by, every one made him more certain that he longed, more than he had ever longed for anything before, to win her love. His heart had never before been deeply touched, but life seemed now like a heap of dry wood, which had only waited for a live coal to make it flame and leap in mysterious light, and transfigure itself from dullness into a bewildering and unaccountable glory. It was no wonder any longer that poets had sung best of love and its joys and sorrows, and that men and women, since the world began, had followed at its call. All life and its history was explained anew, yet this eager lover felt himself to be the first discoverer of the world's great secret.
It was hard to wait and to lack assurance, but while the hours when he had the ideal and the dream seemed to make him certain, he had only to go back to Miss Prince's to become doubtful and miserable again. The world did not consent to second his haste, and the persons most concerned in his affairs were stupidly slow at understanding the true state of them. While every day made the prize look more desirable, every day seemed to put another barrier between himself and Nan; and when she spoke of her visit's end it was amazing to him that she should not understand his misery. He wondered at himself more and more because he seemed to have the power of behaving much as usual when he was with his friends; it seemed impossible that he could always go on without betraying his thoughts. There was no question of any final opposition to his suit, it seemed to him; he could not be more sure than he was already of Miss Prince's willingness to let him plead his cause with her niece, so many vexed questions would be pleasantly answered; and he ventured to hope that the girl herself would be glad to spend her life in dear old Dunport, where her father's people had been honored for so many years. The good Dr. Leslie must be fast growing old, and, though he would miss his adopted child, it was reasonable that he should be glad to see her happily anchored in a home of her own, before he died. If Nan were friendless and penniless it would make no difference; but nevertheless, for her sake, it was good to remember that some one had said that Dr. Leslie, unlike most physicians, was a man of fortune. And nothing remained but to win an affection which should match his own, and this impatient suitor walked and drove and spent the fleeting hours in waiting for a chance to show himself in the lists of love. It seemed years instead of weeks at last, and yet as if he had only been truly alive and free since love had made him captive. He could not fasten himself down to his work without great difficulty, though he built many a castle in Spain with his imagined wealth, and laid deep plans of study and acquirement which should be made evident as time went on.
All things seemed within his reach in these first days of his enlightenment: it had been like the rising of the sun which showed him a new world of which he was lawful master, but the minor events of his blissful existence began to conspire against him in a provoking way, and presently it was sadly forced upon his understanding that Anna Prince was either unconscious or disdainful of his affection. It could hardly be the latter, for she was always friendly and hospitable, and took his courtesies in such an unsuspecting and grateful way. There was something so self-reliant about her and so independent of any one's protection, that this was the most discouraging thing of all, for his own instinct was that of standing between her and all harm,—of making himself responsible for her shelter and happiness. She seemed to get on capitally well without him, but after all he could not help being conqueror in so just and inevitable a war. The old proverb suddenly changed from a pebble to a diamond, and he thanked the philosopher more than once who had first reminded the world that faint heart ne'er won fair lady; presently he grew sad, as lovers will, and became paler and less vigorous, and made his friends wonder a good deal, until they at last suspected his sweet sorrow, and ranged themselves in eager ranks upon his side, with all history and tradition in their favor.
Nan herself was not among the first to suspect that one of her new friends had proved to be a lover; she had been turned away from such suspicions by her very nature; and when she had been forced to believe in one or two other instances that she was unwillingly drawing to herself the devotion which most women unconsciously seek, she had been made most uncomfortable, and had repelled all possibility of its further progress. She had believed herself proof against such assailment, and so indeed she had been; but on the very evening of her battle for her opinions at Mrs. Fraley's she had been suddenly confronted by a new enemy, a strange power, which seemed so dangerous that she was at first overwhelmed by a sense of her own defenselessness.
She had waited with Miss Fraley, who was not quite ready to leave the dining-room with the rest, and had been much touched by her confidence. Poor Eunice had been very fond of one of her school-fellows, who had afterward entered the navy, and who had been fond of her in return. But as everybody had opposed the match, for her sake, and had placed little reliance in the young man, she had meekly given up all hope of being his wife, and he had died of yellow fever at Key West soon after. "We were not even engaged you know, dear," whispered the little lady, "but somehow I have always felt in my heart that I belonged to him. Though I believe every word you said about a girl's having an independence of her own. It is a great blessing to have always had such a person as my mother to lean upon, but I should be quite helpless if she were taken away.... Of course I have had what I needed and what we could afford," she went on, after another pause, "but I never can get over hating to ask for money. I do sometimes envy the women who earn what they spend."
Nan's eyes flashed. "I think it is only fair that even those who have to spend their husband's or their father's money should be made to feel it is their own. If one does absolutely nothing in one's home, and is not even able to give pleasure, then I think it is stealing. I have felt so strongly about that since I have grown up, for you know Dr. Leslie, my guardian, has done everything for me. Aunt Nancy gave me money every year, but I never spent any of it until I went away to school, and then I insisted upon taking that and what my grandmother left me. But my later studies have more than used it all. Dr. Leslie is so kind to me, like an own father, and I am looking forward to my life with him most eagerly. After the next year or two I shall be at home all the time, and I am so glad to think I can really help him, and that we are interested in the same things."
Miss Eunice was a little incredulous, though she did not dare to say so. In the first place, she could not be persuaded that a woman could possibly know as much about diseases and their remedies as a man, and she wondered if even the rural inhabitants of Oldfields would cheerfully accept the change from their trusted physician to his young ward, no matter what sails of diplomas she might spread to the breeze. But Nan's perfect faith and confidence were not to be lightly disputed; and if the practice of medicine by women could be made honorable, it certainly was in able hands here, as far as an admiring friend could decide. Nan was anything but self-asserting, and she had no noisy fashion of thrusting herself before the public gaze, but everybody trusted her who knew her; she had the rare and noble faculty of inspiring confidence.
There was no excuse for a longer absence from the parlor, where Mrs. Fraley was throned in state in her high-backed chair, and was already calling the loiterers. She and Miss Prince were smiling indulgently upon the impatient young man, who was describing to them a meeting of the stockholders of the Turnpike Company, of which he had last year been made secretary. A dividend had been declared, and it was larger than had been expected, and the ladies were as grateful as if he had furnished the means from his own pocket. He looked very tall and handsome and business-like as he rose to salute Miss Fraley and Nan, and presently told his real errand. He apologized for interfering with the little festival, but two or three of the young people had suddenly made a plan for going to see a play which was to be given that night in the town hall by a traveling company. Would Miss Anna Prince care to go, and Miss Fraley?
Nan hardly knew why she at once refused, and was filled with regret when she saw a look of childish expectancy on Miss Eunice's face quickly change to disappointment.
"It is too hot to shut one's self into that close place, I am afraid," she said. "And I am enjoying myself very much here, Mr. Gerry." Which was generous on Nan's part, if one considered the premeditated war which had been waged against her. Then the thought flashed through her mind that it might be a bit of good fun for her companion; and without waiting for either approval or opposition from the elder women, she said, in a different tone, "However, if Miss Fraley will go too, I will accept with pleasure; I suppose it is quite time?" and before there could be a formal dissent she had hurried the pleased daughter of the house, who was not quick in her movements, to her room, and in a few minutes, after a good deal of laughter which the presence of the escort kept anybody from even wishing to silence, the three were fairly started down the street. It was of no avail that Mrs. Fraley condemned her own judgment in not having advised Eunice to stay at home and leave the young people free, and that Miss Prince made a feeble protest for politeness' sake,—the pleasure-makers could not be called back.
Nan had really grown into a great liking for George Gerry. She often thought it would have been very good to have such a brother. But more than one person in the audience thought they had never seen a braver young couple; and the few elderly persons of discretion who had gone to the play felt their hearts thrill with sudden sympathy as our friends went far down the room to their seats. Miss Fraley was almost girlish herself, and looked so pleased and bright that everybody who cared anything about her smiled when they caught sight of her, she was so prim and neat; it was impossible for her, under any circumstances, to look anything but discreet and quaint; but as for Nan, she was beautiful with youth and health; as simply dressed as Miss Eunice, but with the gayety of a flower,—some slender, wild thing, that has sprung up fearlessly under the great sky, with only the sunshine and the wind and summer rain to teach it, and help it fulfill its destiny,—a flower that has grown with no painful effort of its own, but because God made it and kept it; that has bloomed because it has come in the course of its growth to the right time. And Miss Eunice, like a hindered little house-plant, took a long breath of delight as she sat close by her kind young friend, and felt as if somebody had set her roots free from their familiar prison.
To let God make us, instead of painfully trying to make ourselves; to follow the path that his love shows us, instead of through conceit or cowardice or mockery choosing another; to trust Him for our strength and fitness as the flowers do, simply giving ourselves back to Him in grateful service,—this is to keep the laws that give us the freedom of the city in which there is no longer any night of bewilderment or ignorance or uncertainty. So the woman who had lived a life of bondage, whose hardest task-master was herself, and the woman who had been both taught and inspired to hold fast her freedom, sat side by side: the one life having been blighted because it lacked its mate, and was but half a life in itself; while the other, fearing to give half its royalty or to share its bounty, was being tempted to cripple itself, and to lose its strait and narrow way where God had left no room for another.
For as the play went on and the easily pleased audience laughed and clapped its hands, and the tired players bowed and smiled from behind the flaring foot-lights, there was one spectator who was conscious of a great crisis in her own life, which the mimicry of that evening seemed to ridicule and counterfeit. And though Nan smiled with the rest, and even talked with her neighbors while the tawdry curtain had fallen, it seemed to her that the coming of Death at her life's end could not be more strange and sudden than this great barrier which had fallen between her and her girlhood, the dear old life which had kept her so unpuzzled and safe. So this was love at last, this fear, this change, this strange relation to another soul. Who could stand now at her right hand and give her grace to hold fast the truth that her soul must ever be her own?
The only desire that possessed her was to be alone again, to make Love show his face as well as make his mysterious presence felt. She was thankful for the shelter of the crowd, and went on, wishing that the short distance to her aunt's home could be made even shorter. She had felt this man's love for her only in a vague way before, and now, as he turned to speak to her from time to time, she could not meet his eyes. The groups of people bade each other good-night merrily, though the entertainment had been a little tiresome to every one at the last, and it seemed the briefest space of time before Miss Fraley and Nan and their cavalier were left by themselves, and at last Nan and George Gerry were alone together.
For his part he had never been so happy as that night. It seemed to him that his wish was coming true, and he spoke gently enough and of the same things they might have talked about the night before, but a splendid chorus of victory was sounding in his ears; and once, as they stopped for a moment to look between two of the old warehouses at the shining river and the masts and rigging of the ship against the moonlighted sky, he was just ready to speak to the girl at his side. But he looked at her first and then was silent. There was something in her face that forbade it,—a whiteness and a strange look in her eyes, that made him lose all feeling of comradeship or even acquaintance. "I wonder if the old Highflyer will ever go out again?" she said slowly. "Captain Parish told me some time ago that he had found her more badly damaged than he supposed. A vessel like that belongs to the high seas, and is like a prisoner when it touches shore. I believe that the stray souls that have no bodies must sometimes make a dwelling in inanimate things and make us think they are alive. I am always sorry for that ship"—
"Its guardian angel must have been asleep the night of the collision," laughed young Gerry, uneasily; he was displeased with himself the moment afterward, but Nan laughed too, and felt a sense of reprieve; and they went on again and said good night quietly on the steps of the old Prince house. It was very late for Dunport, and the door was shut, but through the bull's-eyed panes of glass overhead a faint light was shining, though it could hardly assert itself against the moonlight. Miss Prince was still down-stairs, and her niece upbraided her, and then began to give an account of the play, which was cut short by the mistress of the house; for after one eager, long look at Nan, she became sleepy and disappointed, and they said good-night; but the girl felt certain that her aunt was leagued against her, and grew sick at heart and tired as she climbed the stairs. There was a letter on the long mahogany table in the hall, and Nan stopped and looked over the railing at it wearily. Miss Prince stopped too, and said she was sorry she had forgotten,—it was from Oldfields, and in Dr. Leslie's writing. But though Nan went back for it, and kissed it more than once before she went to bed, and even put it under her pillow as a comfort and defense against she knew not what, for the first time in her life she was afraid to open it and read the kind words. That night she watched the moonlight creep along the floor, and heard the cocks crow at midnight and in the morning; the birds woke with the new day while she tried to understand the day that had gone, wondering what she must do and say when she faced the world again only a few hours later.
Sometimes she felt herself carried along upon a rushing tide, and was amazed that a hundred gifts and conditions to which she had scarcely given a thought seemed dear and necessary. Once she fancied herself in a quiet home; living there, perhaps, in that very house, and being pleased with her ordering and care-taking. And her great profession was all like a fading dream; it seemed now no matter whether she had ever loved the studies of it, or been glad to think that she had it in her power to make suffering less, or prevent it altogether. Her old ambitions were torn away from her one by one, and in their place came the hardly-desired satisfactions of love and marriage, and home-making and housekeeping, the dear, womanly, sheltered fashions of life, toward which she had been thankful to see her friends go hand in hand, making themselves a complete happiness which nothing else could match. But as the night waned, the certainty of her duty grew clearer and clearer. She had long ago made up her mind that she must not marry. She might be happy, it was true, and make other people so, but her duty was not this, and a certainty that satisfaction and the blessing of God would not follow her into these reverenced and honored limits came to her distinctly. One by one the reasons for keeping on her chosen course grew more unanswerable than ever. She had not thought she should be called to resist this temptation, but since it had come she was glad she was strong enough to meet it. It would be no real love for another person, and no justice to herself, to give up her work, even though holding it fast would bring weariness and pain and reproach, and the loss of many things that other women held dearest and best.
In the morning Nan smiled when her aunt noticed her tired look, and said that the play had been a pursuit of pleasure under difficulties. And though Miss Prince looked up in dismay, and was full of objections and almost querulous reproaches because Nan said she must end her visit within a day or two, she hoped that George Gerry would be, after all, a reason for the girl's staying. Until Nan, who had been standing by the window, looking wistfully at the garden, suddenly turned and said, gently and solemnly, "Listen, Aunt Nancy! I must be about my business; you do not know what it means to me, or what I hope to make it mean to other people." And then Miss Prince knew once for all, that it was useless to hope or to plan any longer. But she would not let herself be vanquished so easily, and summoned to her mind many assurances that girls would not be too easily won, and after a short season of disapproving silence, returned to her usual manner as if there had been neither difference nor dispute.