A Country Doctor - XVIII: A Serious Tea-Drinking
It was very good for Nan to find herself cordially welcomed to a company of young people who had little thought of anything but amusement in the pleasant summer weather. Other young guests came to Dunport just then, and the hospitable town seemed to give itself up to their entertainment. Picnics and tea-drinkings followed each other, and the pleasure boats went up river and down river, while there were walks and rides and drives, and all manner of contrivances and excuses for spending much time together on the part of the young men and maidens. It was a good while since Nan had taken such a long holiday, though she had by no means been without the pleasures of society. Not only had she made friends easily during her school-life and her later studies, but Oldfields itself, like all such good old nests, was apt to call back its wandering fledglings when the June weather came. It delighted her more and more to be in Dunport, and though she sometimes grew impatient, wise Dr. Leslie insisted that she must not hurry home. The change was the very best thing in the world for her. Dr. Ferris had alighted for a day or two in the course of one of his wandering flights; and it seemed to the girl that since everything was getting on so well without her in Oldfields, she had better, as the doctor had already expressed it, let her visit run its course like a fever. At any rate she could not come again very soon, and since her aunt seemed so happy, it was a pity to hurry away and end these days sooner than need be. It had been a charming surprise to find herself such a desired companion, and again and again quite the queen of that little court of frolickers, because lately she had felt like one who looks on at such things, and cannot make part of them. Yet all the time that she was playing she thought of her work with growing satisfaction. By other people the knowledge of her having studied medicine was not very well received. It was considered to have been the fault of Miss Prince, who should not have allowed a whimsical country doctor to have beguiled the girl into such silly notions, and many were the shafts sped toward so unwise an aunt for holding out against her niece so many years. To be sure the child had been placed under a most restricted guardianship; but years ago, it was thought, the matter might have been rearranged, and Nan brought to Dunport. It certainly had been much better for her that she had grown up elsewhere; though, for whatever was amiss and willful in her ways, Oldfields was held accountable. It must be confessed that every one who had known her well had discovered sooner or later the untamed wildnesses which seemed like the tangles which one often sees in field-corners, though a most orderly crop is taking up the best part of the room between the fences. Yet she was hard to find fault with, except by very shortsighted persons who resented the least departure by others from the code they themselves had been pleased to authorize, and who could not understand that a nature like Nan's must and could make and keep certain laws of its own.
There seemed to be a sort of inevitableness about the visit; Nan herself hardly knew why she was drifting on day after day without reasonable excuse. Her time had been most carefully ordered and spent during the last few years, and now she sometimes had an uneasy feeling and a lack of confidence in her own steadfastness. But everybody took it for granted that the visit must not come to an end. The doctor showed no sign of expecting her. Miss Prince would be sure to resent her going away, and the pleasure-makers marked one day after another for their own. It seemed impossible, and perhaps unwise, to go on with the reading she had planned, and, in fact, she had been urged to attend to her books rather by habit than natural inclination; and when the temptation to drift with the stream first made itself felt, the reasons for opposing it seemed to fade away. It was easier to remember that Dr. Leslie, and even those teachers who knew her best at the medical school, had advised a long vacation.
The first formal visits and entertainments were over with for the most part, and many of the Dunport acquaintances began to seem like old friends. There had been a little joking about Nan's profession, and also some serious remonstrance and unwise championship which did not reach this heroine's ears. It all seemed romantic and most unusual when anybody talked about her story at all, and the conclusion was soon reached that all such whims and extravagances were merely incident to the pre-Dunportian existence, and that now the young guest had come to her own, the responsibilities and larger field of activity would have their influence over her plan of life. The girl herself was disposed to talk very little about this singular fancy; it may have been thought that she had grown ashamed of it as seen by a brighter light, but the truth was it kept a place too near her heart to allow her to gossip with people who had no real sympathy, and who would ask questions from curiosity alone. Miss Eunice Fraley had taken more than one opportunity, however, to confess her interest, though she did this with the manner of one who dares to be a conspirator against public opinion, and possibly the permanent welfare of society, and had avowed, beside, her own horror of a doctor's simplest duties. But poor Miss Fraley looked at her young friend as a caged bird at a window might watch a lark's flight, and was strangely glad whenever there was a chance to spend an hour in Nan's company.
The first evening at Mrs. Fraley's had been a great success, and Miss Prince had been vastly pleased because both the hostess and the guest had received each other's commendation. Mrs. Fraley was, perhaps, the one person whom Miss Prince recognized as a superior officer, and she observed Nan's unconscious and suitable good behavior with great pride. The hostess had formerly been an undisputed ruler of the highest social circles of Dunport society, and now in her old age, when she could no longer be present at any public occasions, she was still the queen of a little court that assembled in her own house. It was true that the list of her subjects grew shorter year by year, but the survivors remained loyal, and hardly expected, or even desired, that any of the newcomers to the town should recognize their ruler. Nan had been much interested in the old lady's stories, and had gladly accepted an invitation to come often to renew the first conversation. She was able to give Mrs. Fraley much welcome information of the ways and fashions of other centres of civilization, and it was a good thing to make the hours seem shorter. The poor old lady had few alleviations; even religion had served her rather as a basis for argument than an accepted reliance and guide; and though she still prided herself on her selection of words, those which she used in formal conversations with the clergyman seemed more empty and meaningless than most others. Mrs. Fraley was leaving this world reluctantly; she had been well fitted by nature for social preeminence, and had never been half satisfied with the opportunities provided for the exercise of her powers. It was only lately that she had been forced to acknowledge that Time showed signs of defeating her in the projects of her life, and she had begun to give up the fight altogether, and to mourn bitterly and aggressively to her anxious and resourceless daughter. It was plain enough that the dissatisfactions and infirmities of age were more than usually great, and poor Eunice was only too glad when the younger Miss Prince proved herself capable of interesting the old friend of her family, and Mrs. Fraley took heart and suggested both informal visits and future entertainments. The prudent daughter was careful not to tell her mother of the guest's revolutionary ideas, and for a time all went well, until some unwise person, unaware of Miss Fraley's warning gestures from the other side of the sitting-room, proceeded to give a totally unnecessary opinion of the propriety of women's studying medicine. Poor Eunice expected that a sharp rebuke, followed by a day or two's disdain and general unpleasantness, would descend upon her quaking shoulders; but, to her surprise, nothing was said until the next morning, when she was bidden, at much inconvenience to the household, to invite Miss Prince and her niece to come that afternoon to drink tea quite informally.
There was a pathetic look in the messenger's faded face,—she felt unusually at odds with fortune as she glided along the street, sheltered by the narrow shadows of the high fences. Nan herself came to the door, and when she threw back the closed blinds and discovered the visitor, she drew her in with most cordial welcome, and the two friends entered the darkened south parlor, where it was cool, and sweet with the fragrance of some honeysuckle which Nan had brought in early that morning from the garden.
"Dear me," said the little woman deprecatingly. "I don't know why I came in at all. I can't stop to make a call. Mother was very desirous that you and your aunt should come over to tea this evening. It seems a good deal to ask in such hot weather, but she has so little to amuse her, and I really don't see that the weather makes much difference, she used to feel the heat very much years ago." And Miss Eunice gave a sigh, and fanned herself slowly, letting the fan which had been put into her hand turn itself quite over on her lap before it came up again. There was an air of antique elegance about this which amused Nan, who stood by the table wiping with her handkerchief some water that had dropped from the vase. A great many of the ladies in church the Sunday before had fanned themselves in this same little languishing way; she remembered one or two funny old persons in Oldfields who gave themselves airs after the same fashion.
"I think we shall both be very pleased," she answered directly, with a bit of a smile; while Miss Fraley gazed at her admiringly, and thought she had never seen the girl look so fresh and fair as she did in this plain, cool little dress. There had been more water than was at first suspected; the handkerchief was a limp, white handful, and they both laughed as it was held up. Miss Fraley insisted that she could not stay. She must go to the shops to do some errands, and hoped to meet Miss Prince who had gone that way half an hour before.
"Don't mind anything mother may say to you," she entreated, after lingering a minute, and looking imploringly in Nan's face. "You know we can't expect a person of her age to look at everything just as we do."
"Am I to be scolded?" asked Nan, serenely. "Do you know what it is about?"
"Oh, perhaps nothing," answered Miss Fraley, quickly. "I ought not to have spoken, only I fancied she was a little distressed at the idea of your being interested in medicines. I don't know anything that is more useful myself. I am sure every family needs to have some one who has some knowledge of such things; it saves calling a doctor. My sister Susan knows more than any of us, and it has been very useful to her with her large family."
"But I shouldn't be afraid to come, I think," said Nan, laughing. "Mrs. Fraley told me that she would finish that story of the diamond ring, you know, and we shall get on capitally. Really I think her stories of old times are wonderfully interesting. I wish I had a gift for writing them down whenever I am listening to her."
Miss Eunice was much relieved, and felt sure that Nan was equal to any emergency. The girl had put a strong young arm quickly round her guest's thin shoulders, and had kissed her affectionately, and this had touched the lonely little woman's very heart.
There were signs of storm in Madam Fraley's face that evening, but everybody feigned not to observe them, and Nan behaved with perilous disregard of a lack of encouragement, and made herself and the company uncommonly merry. She described the bad effect her coming had had upon her aunt's orderly house. She confessed to having left her own possessions in such confusion the evening before when she dressed again to go up the river, that Priscilla had called it a monkey's wedding, and had gone away after one scornful look inside the door. Miss Fraley dared to say that no one could mind seeing such pretty things, and even Miss Prince mentioned that her niece was not so careless as she would make them believe; while Nan begged to know if anybody had ever heard of a monkey's wedding before, and seemed very much amused.
"She called such a disarray in the kitchen one morning the monkey's wedding breakfast," said Miss Prince, as if she never had thought it particularly amusing until this minute. "Priscilla has always made use of a great many old-fashioned expressions."
They had seated themselves at the tea-table; it was evident that Miss Fraley had found it a hard day, for she looked tired and worn. The mistress of the house was dressed in her best and most imposing clothes, and sat solemnly in her place. A careful observer might have seen that the best blue teacups with their scalloped edges were not set forth. The occasion wore the air of a tribunal rather than that of a festival, and it was impossible not to feel a difference between it and the former tea-party.
Miss Prince was not particularly sensitive to moods and atmospheres; she happened to be in very good spirits, and talked for some time before she became entirely aware that something had gone wrong, but presently faltered, and fell under the ban, looking questioningly toward poor Eunice, who busied herself with the tea-tray.
"Nancy," said Mrs. Fraley impatiently, "I was amazed to find that there is a story going about town that your niece here is studying to be a doctor. I hope that you don't countenance any such nonsense?"
Miss Prince looked helpless and confounded, and turned her eyes toward her niece. She could only hope at such a mortifying juncture that Nan was ready to explain, or at least to shoulder the responsibility.
"Indeed she doesn't give me any encouragement, Mrs. Fraley," said Nan, fearlessly. "Only this morning she saw a work on ventilation in my room and told me it wasn't proper reading for a young woman."
"I really didn't look at the title," said Miss Prince, smiling in spite of herself.
"It doesn't seem to improve the health of you young folks because you think it necessary to become familiar with such subjects," announced the irate old lady. It was her habit to take a very slight refreshment at the usual tea hour, and supplement it by a substantial lunch at bed-time, and so now she was not only at leisure herself, but demanded the attention of her guests. She had evidently prepared an opinion, and was determined to give it. Miss Eunice grew smaller and thinner than ever, and fairly shivered with shame behind the tea-tray. She looked steadily at the big sugar-bowl, as if she were thinking whether she might creep into it and pull something over her head. She never liked an argument, even if it were a good-natured one, and always had a vague sense of personal guilt and danger.
"In my time," Mrs. Fraley continued, "it was thought proper for young women to show an interest in household affairs. When I was married it was not asked whether I was acquainted with dissecting-rooms."
"But I don't think there is any need of that," replied Nan. "I think such things are the duty of professional men and women only. I am very far from believing that every girl ought to be a surgeon any more than that she ought to be an astronomer. And as for the younger people's being less strong than the old, I am afraid it is their own fault, since we understand the laws of health better than we used. 'Who breaks, pays,' you know."
It was evidently not expected that the young guest should venture to discuss the question, but rather have accepted her rebuke meekly, and acknowledged herself in the wrong. But she had the courage of her opinions, and the eagerness of youth, and could hardly bear to be so easily defeated. So when Mrs. Fraley, mistaking the moment's silence for a final triumph, said again, that a woman's place was at home, and that a strong-minded woman was out of place, and unwelcome everywhere, the girl's cheeks flushed suddenly.
"I think it is a pity that we have fallen into a habit of using strong-mindedness as a term of rebuke," she said. "I am willing to acknowledge that people who are eager for reforms are apt to develop unpleasant traits, but it is only because they have to fight against opposition and ignorance. When they are dead and the world is reaping the reward of their bravery and constancy, it no longer laughs, but makes statues of them, and praises diem, and thanks them in every way it can. I think we ought to judge each other by the highest standards, Mrs. Fraley, and by whether we are doing good work."
"My day is past," said the hostess. "I do not belong to the present, and I suppose my judgment is worth nothing to you;" and Nan looked up quickly and affectionately.
"I should like to have all my friends believe that I am doing right," she said. "I do feel very certain that we must educate people properly if we want them to be worth anything. It is no use to treat all the boys and girls as if nature had meant them for the same business and scholarship, and try to put them through the same drill, for that is sure to mislead and confuse all those who are not perfectly sure of what they want. There are plenty of people dragging themselves miserably through the world, because they are clogged and fettered with work for which they have no fitness. I know I haven't had the experience that you have, Mrs. Fraley, but I can't help believing that nothing is better than to find one's work early and hold fast to it, and put all one's heart into it."
"I have done my best to serve God in the station to which it has pleased Him to call me," said Mrs. Fraley, stiffly. "I believe that a young man's position is very different from a girl's. To be sure, I can give my opinion that everything went better when the master workmen took apprentices to their trades, and there wasn't so much schooling. But I warn you, my dear, that your notion about studying to be a doctor has shocked me very much indeed. I could not believe my ears,—a refined girl who bears an honorable and respected name to think of being a woman doctor! If you were five years older you would never have dreamed of such a thing. It lowers the pride of all who have any affection for you. If it were not that your early life had been somewhat peculiar and most unfortunate, I should blame you more; as it is, I can but wonder at the lack of judgment in others. I shall look forward in spite of it all to seeing you happily married." To which Miss Prince assented with several decided nods.
"This is why I made up my mind to be a physician," said the culprit; and though she had been looking down and growing more uncomfortable every moment, she suddenly gave her head a quick upward movement and looked at Mrs. Fraley frankly, with a beautiful light in her clear eyes. "I believe that God has given me a fitness for it, and that I never could do anything else half so well. Nobody persuaded me into following such a plan; I simply grew toward it. And I have everything to learn, and a great many faults to overcome, but I am trying to get on as fast as may be. I can't be too glad that I have spent my childhood in a way that has helped me to use my gift instead of hindering it. But everything helps a young man to follow his bent; he has an honored place in society, and just because he is a student of one of the learned professions, he ranks above the men who follow other pursuits. I don't see why it should be a shame and dishonor to a girl who is trying to do the same thing and to be of equal use in the world. God would not give us the same talents if what were right for men were wrong for women."
"My dear, it is quite unnatural you see," said the antagonist, impatiently. "Here you are less than twenty-five years old, and I shall hear of your being married next thing,—at least I hope I shall,—and you will laugh at all this nonsense. A woman's place is at home. Of course I know that there have been some women physicians who have attained eminence, and some artists, and all that. But I would rather see a daughter of mine take a more retired place. The best service to the public can be done by keeping one's own house in order and one's husband comfortable, and by attending to those social responsibilities which come in our way. The mothers of the nation have rights enough and duties enough already, and need not look farther than their own firesides, or wish for the plaudits of an ignorant public."
"But if I do not wish to be married, and do not think it right that I should be," said poor Nan at last. "If I have good reasons against all that, would you have me bury the talent God has given me, and choke down the wish that makes itself a prayer every morning that I may do this work lovingly and well? It is the best way I can see of making myself useful in the world. People must have good health or they will fail of reaching what success and happiness are possible for them; and so many persons might be better and stronger than they are now, which would make their lives very different. I do think if I can help my neighbors in this way it will be a great kindness. I won't attempt to say that the study of medicine is a proper vocation for women, only that I believe more and more every year that it is the proper study for me. It certainly cannot be the proper vocation of all women to bring up children, so many of them are dead failures at it; and I don't see why all girls should be thought failures who do not marry. I don't believe that half those who do marry have any real right to it, at least until people use common sense as much in that most important decision as in lesser ones. Of course we can't expect to bring about an ideal state of society all at once; but just because we don't really believe in having the best possible conditions, we make no effort at all toward even better ones. People ought to work with the great laws of nature and not against them."
"You don't know anything about it," said Mrs. Fraley, who hardly knew what to think of this ready opposition. "You don't know what you are talking about, Anna. You have neither age nor experience, and it is easy to see you have been associating with very foolish people. I am the last person to say that every marriage is a lucky one; but if you were my daughter I should never consent to your injuring your chances for happiness in this way."
Nan could not help stealing a glance at poor Miss Eunice, behind her fragile battlement of the tea-set, and was deeply touched at the glance of sympathy which dimly flickered in the lonely eyes. "I do think, mother, that Anna is right about single women's having some occupation," was timidly suggested. "Of course, I mean those who have no special home duties; I can see that life would not"—
"Now Eunice," interrupted the commander in chief, "I do wish you could keep an opinion of your own. You are the last person to take up with such ideas. I have no patience with people who don't know their own minds half an hour together."
"There are plenty of foolish women who marry, I'll acknowledge," said Miss Prince, for the sake of coming to the rescue. "I was really angry yesterday, when Mrs. Gerry told me that everybody was so pleased to hear that Hattie Barlow was engaged, because she was incapable of doing anything to support herself. I couldn't help feeling that if there was so little power that it had never visibly turned itself in any practical direction, she wasn't likely to be a good housekeeper. I think that is a most responsible situation, myself."
Nan looked up gratefully. "It isn't so much that people can't do anything, as that they try to do the wrong things, Aunt Nancy. We all are busy enough or ought to be; only the richest people have the most cares and have to work hardest. I used to think that rich city people did nothing but amuse themselves, when I was a little girl; but I often wonder nowadays at the wisdom and talent that are needed to keep a high social position respected in the world's eyes. It must be an orderly and really strong-minded woman who can keep her business from getting into a most melancholy tangle. Yet nobody is afraid when the most foolish girls take such duties upon themselves, and all the world cries out with fear of disaster, if once in a while one makes up her mind to some other plan of life. Of course I know being married isn't a trade: it is a natural condition of life, which permits a man to follow certain public careers, and forbids them to a woman. And since I have not wished to be married, and have wished to study medicine, I don't see what act of Parliament can punish me."
"Wait until Mr. Right comes along," said Mrs. Fraley, who had pushed back her chair from the table and was beating her foot on the floor in a way that betokened great displeasure and impatience. "I am only thankful I had my day when women were content to be stayers at home. I am only speaking for your good, and you'll live to see the truth of it, poor child!"
"I am sure she will get over this," apologized Miss Prince, after they had reached the parlor, for she found that her niece had lingered with Miss Fraley in the dining-room.
"Don't talk to me about the Princes changing their minds," answered the scornful old hostess. "You ought to know them better than that by this time." But just at that moment young Gerry came tapping at the door, and the two ladies quickly softened their excited looks and welcomed him as the most powerful argument for their side of the debate. It seemed quite a thing of the past that he should have fancied Mary Parish, and more than one whisper had been listened to that the young man was likely to have the Prince inheritance, after all. He looked uncommonly well that evening, and the elder women could not imagine that any damsel of his own age would consider him slightingly. Nan had given a little shrug of impatience when she heard his voice join the weaker ones in the parlor, and a sense of discomfort that she never had felt before came over her suddenly. She reminded herself that she must tell her aunt that very night that the visit must come to an end. She had neglected her books and her drives with the doctor altogether too long already.