A Country Doctor - XVII: By the River

As Nan went down the street next morning with Captain Parish, who had been most prompt in keeping his appointment, they were met by Mr. Gerry and a young girl who proved to be Captain Parish's niece and the bearer of a cordial invitation. It would be just the evening for a boat-party, and it was hoped that Miss Prince the younger would be ready to go up the river at half-past five.

"Dear me, yes," said the captain; "your aunt will be pleased to have you go, I'm sure. These idle young folks mustn't expect us to turn back now, though, to have a visit from you. We have no end of business on hand."

"If Miss Prince will remember that I was really on my way to see her," said Mary Parish pleasantly, while she looked with eager interest at the stranger. The two girls were quite ready to be friends. "We will just stop to tell your aunt, lest she should make some other plan for you," she added, giving Nan a nod that was almost affectionate. "We have hardly used the boats this year, it has been such a cold, late spring, and we hope for a very good evening. George and I will call for you," and George, who had been listening to a suggestion about the ship business, smiled with pleasure as they separated.

"Nice young people," announced the captain, who was in a sympathetic mood. "There has been some reason for thinking that they meant to take up with each other for good and all. I don't know that either of them could do better, though I like the girl best; that's natural; she's my brother's daughter, and I was her guardian; she only came of age last year. Her father and yours were boys together, younger than I am by a dozen years, both gone before me too," sighed the captain, and quickly changed so sad a subject by directing his companion's attention to one of the old houses, and telling the story of it as they walked along. Luckily they had the Highflyer all to themselves when they reached the wharf, for the keeper had gone up into the town, and his wife, who had set up a frugal housekeeping in the captain's cabin, sat in the shade of the house with her sewing, the Monday's washing having been early spread to the breeze in a corner of the main deck. She accepted Captain Parish's explanations of his presence with equanimity, and seemed surprised and amused at the young landswoman's curiosity and eagerness, for a ship was as commonplace to herself as any farm-house ashore.

"Dear me! you wouldn't know it was the same place," said the captain, in the course of his enumeration of the ropes and yards and other mysterious furnishings of the old craft. "With a good crew aboard, this deck is as busy as a town every day. I don't know how I'm going below until the keeper gets back. I suppose you don't want me to show you the road to the main-to'gallant cross-trees; once I knew it as well as anybody, and I could make quicker time now than most of the youngsters," and the captain gave a knowing glance aloft, while at this moment somebody crossed the gangway plank. It was a broken-down old sailor, who was a familiar sight in Dunport.

"Mornin' to you, sir," and the master of the Highflyer, for the time being, returned the salute with a mixture of dignity and friendliness.

"Goin' to take command?" chuckled the bent old fellow. "I'd like to ship under ye; 'twouldn't be the first time," and he gave his hat an unsettling shake with one hand as he looked at Nan for some sign of recognition, which was quickly given.

"You've shipped under better masters than I. Any man who followed the sea with Cap'n Jack Prince had more to teach than to learn. And here's his grand-daughter before you, and does him credit too," said Captain Walter. "Anna, you won't find many of your grandfather's men about the old wharves, but here's one of the smartest that ever had hold of a hawser."

"Goodsoe by name: I thank ye kindly, cap'n, but I ain't much account nowadays," said the pleased old man, trying to get the captain's startling announcement well settled in his mind. "Old Cap'n Jack Prince's grand-darter? Why Miss Nancy's never been brought to change her mind about nothing, has she?"

"It seems so," answered Nan's escort, laughing as if this were a good joke; and Nan herself could not help smiling.

"I don't believe if the old gentleman can look down at ye he begrudges the worst of his voyages nor the blackest night he ever spent on deck, if you're going to have the spending of the money. Not but what Miss Prince has treated me handsome right straight along," the old sailor explained, while the inspector, thinking this not a safe subject to continue, spoke suddenly about some fault of the galley; and after this was discussed, the eyes of the two practiced men sought the damaged mizzen mast, the rigging of which was hanging in snarled and broken lengths. When Nan asked for some account of the accident, she was told with great confidence that the Highflyer had been fouled, and that it was the other vessel's fault; at which she was no wiser than before, having known already that there had been a collision. There seemed to be room enough on the high seas, she ventured to say, or might the mischief have been done in port?

"It does seem as if you ought to know the sense of sea talk without any learning, being Cap'n Jack Prince's grand-darter," said old Goodsoe; for Captain Parish had removed himself to a little distance, and was again investigating the condition of the ship's galley, which one might suppose to have been neglected in some unforgivable way, judging from his indignant grumble.

"Fouled, we say aboard ship, when two vessels lay near enough so that they drift alongside. You can see what havick 't would make, for ten to one they don't part again till they have tore each other all to shoestrings; the yards will get locked together, and the same wind that starts one craft starts both, and first one and then t' other lifts with a wave, don't ye see, and the rigging's spoilt in a little time. I've sometimes called it to mind when I've known o' married couples that wasn't getting on. 'T is easy to drift alongside, but no matter if they was bound to the same port they'd 'a' done best alone;" and the old fellow shook his head solemnly, and was evidently selecting one of his numerous stories for Nan's edification, when his superior officer came bustling toward them.

"You might as well step down here about four o'clock; I shall have the keys then. I may want you to hold a lantern for me; I'm going into the lower hold and mean to do my work thoroughly, if I do it at all," to which Goodsoe responded "ay, ay, sir," in most seamanlike fashion and hobbled off.

"He'd have kept you there all day," whispered Captain Walter. "He always loved to talk, and now he has nothing else to do; but we are all friendly to Goodsoe. Some of us pay a little every year toward his support, but he has always made himself very useful about the wharves until this last year or two; he thought everything of your grandfather, and I knew it would please him to speak to you. It seems unfortunate that you should have grown up anywhere else than here; but I hope you'll stay now?"

"It is not very likely," said Nan coldly. She wished that the captain would go on with his stories of the former grandeur of Dunport, rather than show any desire to talk about personal matters. She had been little troubled at first by her aunt's evident disapproval the evening before of her plans for the future, for she was so intent upon carrying them out and certain that no one had any right to interfere. Still it would have been better to have been violently opposed than to have been treated like a child whose foolish whim would soon be forgotten when anything better offered itself. Nan felt much older than most girls of her years, and as if her decisions were quite as much to be respected as her aunt's. She had dealt already with graver questions than most persons, and her responsibilities had by no means been light ones. She felt sometimes as if she were separated by half a lifetime from the narrow limits of school life. Yet there was an uncommon childlikeness about her which not only misled these new friends, but many others who had known her longer. And when these listened to accounts of her devotion to her present studies and her marked proficiency, they shook their wise heads smilingly, as if they knew that the girl was innocent of certain proper and insurmountable obstacles farther on.

The air was fresh, and it was so pleasant on the wharf that the captain paced to and fro several times, while he pointed out different objects of interest along the harbor-side, and tapped the rusty anchor and the hawsers with his walking-stick as he went by. He had made some very pointed statements to the keeper's wife about the propriety of opening the hatches on such a morning as that, which she had received without comment, and wished her guests good-day with provoking equanimity. The captain did not like to have his authority ignored, but mentioned placidly that he supposed every idler along shore had been giving advice; though he wondered what Nan's grandfather and old Captain Peterbeck would have said if any one had told them this would be the only square-rigged vessel in Dunport harbor for weeks at a time.

"Dear me!" he exclaimed again presently, "there's young Gerry hard at work!" and he directed his companion's attention to one of the upper windows of the buildings whose fronts had two stories on the main street, while there were five or six on the rear, which faced the river. Nan could see the diligent young man and thought it hard that any one must be drudging within doors that beautiful morning.

"He has always been a great favorite of your aunt's," said Captain Parish, confidentially, after the law student had pretended to suddenly catch sight of the saunterers, and waved a greeting which the captain exultantly returned. "We have always thought that she was likely to make him her heir. She was very fond of his father, you see, and some trouble came between them. Nobody ever knew, because if anybody ever had wit enough to keep her own counsel 'twas Nancy Prince. I know as much about her affairs as anybody, and what I say to you is between ourselves. I know just how far to sail with her and when to stop, if I don't want to get wrecked on a lee shore. Your aunt has known how to take care of what she had come to her, and I've done the best I could to help her; it's a very handsome property,—very handsome indeed. She helped George Gerry to get his education, and then he had some little money left him by his father's brother,—no great amount, but enough to give him a start; he's a very smart, upright fellow, and I am glad for whatever Nancy did for him; but it didn't seem fair that he should be stepping into your rights. But I never have dared to speak up for you since one day—she wouldn't hear a word about it, that's all I have to remark," the captain concluded in a hurry, for wisdom's sake, though he longed to say more. It seemed outrageous to him at this moment that the girl at his side should have been left among strangers, and he was thankful that she seemed at last to have a good chance of making sure of her rightful possessions.

"But I haven't needed anything," she said, giving Captain Walter a grateful glance for his championship. "And Mr. Gerry is very kind and attentive to my aunt, so I am glad she has been generous to him. He seems a fine fellow, as you say," and Nan thought suddenly that it was very hard for him to have had her appear on the scene by way of rival, if he had been led to suppose that he was her aunt's heir. There were so many new things to think of, that Nan had a bewildering sense of being a stranger and a foreigner in this curiously self-centred Dunport, and a most disturbing element to its peace of mind. She wondered if, since she had not grown up here, it would not have been better to have stayed away altogether. Her own life had always been quite unvexed by any sort of social complications, and she thought how good it would be to leave this talkative and staring little world and go back to Oldfields and its familiar interests and associations. But Dunport was a dear old place, and the warm-hearted captain a most entertaining guide, and by the time their walk was over, the day seemed a most prosperous and entertaining one. Aunt Nancy appeared to be much pleased with the plan for the afternoon, and announced that she had asked some of the young people to come to drink tea the next evening, while she greeted Nan so kindly that the home-coming was particularly pleasant. As for the captain, he was unmistakably happy, and went off down the street with a gentle, rolling gait, and a smile upon his face that fairly matched the June weather, though he was more than an hour late for the little refreshment with which he and certain dignified associates commonly provided themselves at eleven o'clock in the forenoon. Life was as regular ashore as on board ship with these idle mariners of high degree. There was no definite business among them except that of occasionally settling an estate, and the forming of decided opinions upon important questions of the past and future.

The shadows had begun to grow long when the merry company of young people went up river with the tide, and Nan thought she had seldom known such a pleasure away from her own home. She begged for the oars, and kept stroke with George Gerry, pulling so well that they quickly passed the other boat. Mary Parish and the friend who made the fourth of that division of the party sat in the stern and steered with fine dexterity, and the two boats kept near each other, so that Nan soon lost all feeling of strangeness, and shared in the good comradeship to which she had been willingly admitted. It was some time since she had been on the water before, and she thought more than once of her paddling about the river in her childhood, and even regaled the company once with a most amusing mishap, at the remembrance of which she had been forced to laugh outright. The river was broad and brimful of water; it seemed high tide already, and the boats pulled easily. The fields sloped down to the river-banks, shaded with elms and parted by hedgerows like a bit of English country. The freshest bloom of the June greenness was in every blade of grass and every leaf. The birds were beginning to sing the long day to a close, and the lowing of cattle echoed from the pastures again and again across the water; while the country boats were going home from the town, sometimes with a crew of women, who seemed to have made this their regular conveyance instead of following the more roundabout highways ashore. Some of these navigators rowed with a cross-handed stroke that jerked their boats along in a droll fashion, and some were propelled by one groping oar, the sculler standing at the stern as if he were trying to push his craft out of water altogether and take to the air, toward which the lifted bow pointed. And in one of the river reaches half a mile ahead, two heavy packet boats, with high-peaked lateen sails, like a great bird's single wing, were making all the speed they could toward port before the tide should begin to fall two hours later. The young guest of the party was very happy; she had spent so many of her childish days out of doors that a return to such pleasures always filled her with strange delight. The color was bright in her cheeks, and her half-forgotten girlishness came back in the place of the gravity and dignity that had brought of late a sedate young womanliness to her manner. The two new friends in the stern of the boat were greatly attracted to her, and merry laughter rang out now and then. Nan was so brave and handsome, so willing to be pleased, and so grateful to them for this little festivity, that they quickly became interested in each other, as girls will. The commander thought himself a fortunate fellow, and took every chance of turning his head to catch a glimpse of our heroine, though he always had a good excuse of taking his bearings or inspecting for himself some object afloat or ashore which one of the boat's company had pointed out. And Nan must be told the names of the distant hills which stood out clear in the afternoon light, and to what towns up river the packet boats were bound, and so the time seemed short before the light dory was run in among the coarse river grass and pulled up higher than seemed necessary upon the shore.

Their companions had not chosen so fleet a craft, and were five instead of four at any rate, but they were welcomed somewhat derisively, and all chattered together in a little crowd for a few minutes before they started for a bit of woodland which overhung the river on a high point. The wind rustled the oak leaves and roughened the surface of the water, which spread out into a wide inland bay. The clouds began to gather in the west and to take on wonderful colors, as if such a day must be ended with a grand ceremony, and the sun go down through banners and gay parades of all the forces of the sky. Nan had watched such sunsets from her favorite playground at the farm, and somehow the memory of those days touched her heart more tenderly than they had ever done before, and she wished for a moment that she could get away from the noisy little flock who were busy getting the supper ready, though they said eagerly what a beautiful evening it would be to go back to town, and that they must go far up the river first to meet the moonlight.

In a few minutes Nan heard some one say that water must be brought from a farm-house not far away, and quickly insisted that she should make one of the messengers, and after much discussion and remonstrance, she and young Gerry found themselves crossing the open field together. The girl had left her hat swinging from one of the low oak branches; she wondered why Mary Parish had looked at her first as if she were very fond of her, and then almost appealingly, until the remembrance of Captain Walter's bit of gossip came to mind too late to be acted upon. Nan felt a sudden sympathy, and was sorry she had not thought to share with this favorite among her new friends, the companion whom she had joined so carelessly. George Gerry had some very attractive ways. He did not trouble Nan with unnecessary attentions, as some young men had, and she told herself again, how much she liked him. They walked fast, with free, light steps, and talked as they went in a way that was very pleasant to both of them. Nan was wise to a marvel, the good fellow told himself, and yet such an amusing person. He did not know when he had liked anybody so much; he was very glad to stand well in the sight of these sweet, clear eyes, and could not help telling their owner some of the things that lay very near his heart. He had wished to get away from Dunport; he had not room there; everybody knew him as well as they knew the courthouse; he somehow wanted to get to deeper water, and out of his depth, and then swim for it with the rest. And Nan listened with deep sympathy, for she also had felt that a great engine of strength and ambition was at work with her in her plans and studies.

She waited until he should have finished his confidence, to say a word from her own experience, but just then they reached the farm-house and stood together at the low door. There was a meagre show of flowers in the little garden, which the dripping eaves had beaten and troubled in the late rains, and one rosebush was loosely caught to the clapboards here and there.

There did not seem to be anybody in the kitchen, into which they could look through the open doorway, though they could hear steps and voices from some part of the house beyond it; and it was not until they had knocked again loudly that a woman came to answer them, looking worried and pale.

"I never was so glad to see folks, though I don't know who you be," she said hurriedly. "I believe I shall have to ask you to go for help. My man's got hurt; he managed to get home, but he's broke his shoulder, or any ways 'tis out o' place. He was to the pasture, and we've got some young cattle, and somehow or 'nother one he'd caught and was meaning to lead home give a jump, and John lost his balance; he says he can't see how 't should 'a' happened, but over he went and got jammed against a rock before he could let go o' the rope he'd put round the critter's neck. He's in dreadful pain so 't I couldn't leave him, and there's nobody but me an' the baby. You'll have to go to the next house and ask them to send; Doctor Bent's always attended of us."

"Let me see him," said Nan with decision. "Wait a minute, Mr. Gerry, or perhaps you had better come in too," and she led the way, while the surprised young man and the mistress of the house followed her. The patient was a strong young fellow, who sat on the edge of the bed in the little kitchen-bedroom, pale as ashes, and holding one elbow with a look of complete misery, though he stopped his groans as the strangers came in.

"Lord bless you, young man! don't wait here," he said; "tell the doctor it may only be out o' place, but I feel as if 'twas broke."

But Nan had taken a pair of scissors from the high mantelpiece and was making a cut in the coarse, white shirt, which was already torn and stained by its contact with the ground, and with quick fingers and a look of deep interest made herself sure what had happened, when she stood still for a minute and seemed a little anxious, and all at once entirely determined. "Just lie down on the floor a minute," she said, and the patient with some exclamations, but no objections, obeyed.

Nan pushed the spectators into the doorway of the kitchen, and quickly stooped and unbuttoned her right boot, and then planted her foot on the damaged shoulder and caught up the hand and gave a quick pull, the secret of which nobody understood; but there was an unpleasant cluck as the bone went back into its socket, and a yell from the sufferer, who scrambled to his feet.

"I'll be hanged if she ain't set it," he said, looking quite weak and very much astonished. "You're the smartest young woman I ever see. I shall have to lay down just to pull my wits together. Marthy, a drink of water," and by the time this was brought the excitement seemed to be at an end, though the patient was a little faint, and his wife looked at Nan admiringly. Nan herself was fastening her boot again with unwonted composure. George Gerry had not a word to say, and listened to a simple direction of Nan's as if it were meant for him, and acceded to her remark that she was glad for the shoulder's sake that it did not have to wait and grow worse and worse all the while the doctor was being brought from town. And after a few minutes, when the volley of thanks and compliments could be politely cut short, the two members of the picnic party set forth with their pail of water to join their companions.

"Will you be so good as to tell me how you knew enough to do that?" asked Mr. Gerry humbly, and looking at his companion with admiration. "I should not have had the least idea."

"I was very glad it turned out so well," said Nan simply. "It was a great pleasure to be of use, they were so frightened, poor things. We won't say anything about it, will we?"

But the young man did not like to think yet of the noise the returning bone had made. He was stout-hearted enough usually; as brave a fellow as one could wish to see; but he felt weak and womanish, and somehow wished it had been he who could play the doctor. Nan hurried back bareheaded to the oak grove as if nothing had happened, though, if possible, she looked gayer and brighter than ever. And when the waiting party scolded a little at their slow pace, Miss Prince was much amused and made two or three laughing apologies for their laziness, and even ventured to give the information that they had made a pleasant call at the farm-house.

The clouds were fading fast and the twilight began to gather under the trees before they were ready to go away, and then the high tide had floated off one of the boats, which must be chased and brought back. But presently the picnickers embarked, and, as the moon came up, and the river ebbed, the boats went back to the town and overtook others on the way, and then were pulled up stream again in the favoring eddy to make the evening's pleasure longer; at last Nan was left at her door. She had managed that George Gerry should give Mary Parish his arm, and told them, as they came up the street with her from the wharf, that she had heard their voices Saturday night as they passed under her window: it was Mary Parish herself who had talked about the best room and its ghosts.