A Country Doctor - XX: Ashore and Afloat
"Your cousin Walter Parish is coming to dine with us to-day," said Miss Prince, later that morning. "He came to the Fraleys just after you went out last evening, to speak with me about a business matter, and waited to walk home with me afterward. I have been meaning to invite him here with his wife, but there doesn't seem to be much prospect of her leaving her room for some time yet, and this morning I happened to find an uncommonly good pair of young ducks. Old Mr. Brown has kept my liking for them in mind for a great many years. Your grandfather used to say that there was nothing like a duckling to his taste; he used to eat them in England, but people in this country let them get too old. He was willing to pay a great price for ducklings always; but even Mr. Brown seems to think it is a great wrong not to let them grow until Thanksgiving time, and makes a great many apologies every year. It is from his farm that we always get the best lamb too; they are very nice people, the Browns, but the poor old man seems very feeble this summer. Some day I should really like to take a drive out into the country to see them, you know so well how to manage a horse. You can spare a day or two to give time for that, can't you?"
Nan was sorry to hear the pleading tone, it was so unlike her aunt's usually severe manner, and answered quickly that she should be very glad to make the little excursion. Mr. Brown had asked her to come to the farm one day near the beginning of her visit.
"You must say this is home, if you can," said Miss Prince, who was a good deal excited and shaken that morning, "and not think of yourself as a visitor any more. There are a great many things I hope you can understand, even if I have left them unsaid. It has really seemed more like home since you have been here, and less like a lodging. I wonder how I—When did you see Mr. Brown? I did not know you had ever spoken to him."
"It was some time ago," the girl answered. "I was in the kitchen, and he came to the door. He seemed very glad to see me," and Nan hesitated a moment. "He said I was like my father."
"Yes, indeed," responded Miss Prince, drearily; and the thought seized her that it was very strange that the same mistaken persistency should show itself in father and child in exactly opposite ways. If Nan would only care as much for marrying George Gerry, as her father had for marrying his wretched wife! It seemed more and more impossible that this little lady should be the daughter of such a woman; how dismayed the girl would be if she could be shown her mother's nature as Miss Prince remembered it. Alas! this was already a sorrow which no vision of the reality could deepen, and the frank words of the Oldfields country people about the bad Thachers had not been spoken fruitlessly in the ears of their last descendant.
"I am so glad the captain is coming," Nan said presently, to break the painful silence. "I do hope that he and Dr. Leslie will know each other some time, they would be such capital friends. The doctor sent his kind regards to you in last night's letter, and asked me again to say that he hoped that you would come to us before the summer is over. I should like so much to have you know what Oldfields is like." It was hard to save herself from saying "home" again, instead of Oldfields, but the change of words was made quickly.
"He is very courteous and hospitable, but I never pay visits nowadays," said Miss Prince, and thought almost angrily that there was no necessity for her making a target of herself for all those curious country-people's eyes. And then they rose and separated for a time, each being burdened less by care than thought.
The captain came early to dine, and brought with him his own and Miss Prince's letters from the post-office, together with the morning paper, which he proceeded to read. He also seemed to have a weight upon his mind, but by the time they were at table a mild cheerfulness made itself felt, and Nan summoned all her resources and was gayer and brighter than usual. Miss Prince had gone down town early in the day, and her niece was perfectly sure that there had been a consultation with Mr. Gerry. He had passed the house while Nan sat at her upper window writing, and had looked somewhat wistfully at the door as if he had half a mind to enter it. He was like a great magnet: it seemed impossible to resist looking after him, and indeed his ghost-like presence would not forsake her mind, but seemed urging her toward his visible self. The thought of him was so powerful that the sight of the young man was less strange and compelling, and it was almost a relief to have seen his familiar appearance,—the strong figure in its every-day clothes, his unstudent-like vigor, and easy step as he went by. She liked him still, but she hated love, it was making her so miserable,—even when later she told Captain Parish some delightful Oldfields stories, of so humorous a kind that he laughed long and struck the table more than once, which set the glasses jingling, and gave a splendid approval to the time-honored fun. The ducklings were amazingly good; and when Captain Walter had tasted his wine and read the silver label on the decanter, which as usual gave no evidence of the rank and dignity of the contents, his eyes sparkled with satisfaction, and he turned to his cousin's daughter with impressive gravity.
"You may never have tasted such wine as that," he said. "Your grandfather, the luckiest captain who ever sailed out of Dunport, brought it home fifty years ago, and it was well ripened then. I didn't know there was a bottle of it left, Nancy," he laughed. "My dear, your aunt has undertaken to pay one of us a handsome compliment."
"Your health, cousin Walter!" said the girl quickly, lifting her own glass, and making him a little bow over the old Madeira.
"Bless your dear heart!" responded the captain; "the same good wishes to you in return, and now you must join me in my respects to your aunt. Nancy! I beg you not to waste this in pudding-sauces; that's the way with you ladies."
The toast-drinking had a good effect upon the little company, and it seemed as if the cloud which had hung over it at first had been blown away. When there was no longer any excuse for lingering at the table, the guest seemed again a little ill at ease, and after a glance at his hostess, proposed to Nan that they should take a look at the garden. The old sailor had become in his later years a devoted tiller of the soil, and pleaded a desire to see some late roses which were just now in bloom. So he and Nan went down the walk together, and he fidgeted and hurried about for a few minutes before he could make up his mind to begin a speech which was weighing heavily on his conscience.
Nan was sure that something unusual was perplexing him, and answered his unnecessary questions patiently, wondering what he was trying to say.
"Dear me!" he grumbled at last, "I shall have to steer a straight course. The truth is, Nancy has been telling me that I ought to advise with you, and see that you understand what you are about with young Gerry. She has set her heart on your fancying him. I dare say you know she has treated him like a son all through his growing up; but now that you have come to your rightful place, she can't bear to have anybody hint at your going back to the other people. 'Tis plain enough what he thinks about it, and I must say I believe it would be for your good. Here you are with your father's family, what is left of it; and I take no liberty when I tell you that your aunt desires this to be your home, and means to give you your father's share of the property now and the rest when she is done with it. It is no more than your rights, and I know as much as anybody about it, and can tell you that there's a handsomer fortune than you may have suspected. Money grows fast if it is let alone; and though your aunt has done a good deal for others, her expenses have been well held in hand. I must say I should like to keep you here, child," the captain faltered, "but I shall want to do what's for your happiness. I couldn't feel more earnest about that if I were your own father. You must think it over. I'm not going to beseech you: I learned long ago that 'tis no use to drive a Prince."
Nan had tried at first to look unconcerned and treat the matter lightly, but this straightforward talk appealed to her much more than the suggestion and general advice which Miss Prince had implored the captain to give the night before. And now her niece could only thank him for his kindness, and tell him that by and by she would make him understand why she put aside these reasons, and went back to the life she had known before.
But a sudden inspiration made her resolution grow stronger, and she looked at Captain Parish with a convincing bravery.
"When you followed the sea," she said quickly, "if you had a good ship with a freight that you had gathered with great care and hopefulness, and had brought it almost to the market that it was suited for, would you have been persuaded to turn about and take it to some place where it would be next to useless?"
"No," said Captain Parish, "no, I shouldn't," and he half smiled at this illustration.
"I can't tell you all my reasons for not wishing to marry," Nan went on, growing very white and determined, "or all my reasons for wishing to go on with my plan of being a doctor; but I know I have no right to the one way of life, and a perfect one, so far as I can see, to the other. And it seems to me that it would be as sensible to ask Mr. Gerry to be a minister since he has just finished his law studies, as to ask me to be a wife instead of a physician. But what I used to dread without reason a few years ago, I must forbid myself now, because I know the wretched inheritance I might have had from my poor mother's people. I can't speak of that to Aunt Nancy, but you must tell her not to try to make me change my mind."
"Good God!" said the captain. "I dare say you have the right points of it; but if I were a young man 't would go hard with me to let you take your life into your own hands. It's against nature."
"No," said Nan. "The law of right and wrong must rule even love, and whatever comes to me, I must not forget that. Three years ago I had not thought about it so much, and I might not have been so sure; but now I have been taught there is only one road to take. And you must tell Aunt Nancy this."
But when they went back to the house, Miss Prince was not to be seen, and the captain hurried away lest she should make her appearance, for he did not wish just then to talk about the matter any more. He told himself that young people were very different in these days; but when he thought of the words he had heard in the garden, and remembered the pale face and the steadfast, clear-toned voice, he brushed away something like a tear. "If more people used judgment in this same decision the world would be better off," he said, and could not help reminding himself that his own niece, little Mary Parish, who was wearing a wistful countenance in these days, might by and by be happy after all. For Nan's part it was a great relief to have spoken to the kind old man; she felt more secure than before; but sometimes the fear assailed her that some unforeseen event or unreckoned influence might give her back to her indecisions, and that the battle of the night before might after all prove not to be final.
The afternoon wore away, and late in the day our heroine heard George Gerry's step coming up the street. She listened as she sat by the upper window, and found that he was giving a message for her. It was perfect weather to go up the river, he was saying; the tide served just right and would bring them home early; and Miss Prince, who was alone in the parlor, answered with pleased assurance that she was sure her niece would like to go. "Yes," said Nan, calling from the window, urged by a sudden impulse. "Yes indeed, I should like it above all things; I will get ready at once; will you carry two pairs of oars?"
There was a ready assent, but the uncertainty of the tone of it struck Anna Prince's quick ear. She seemed to know that the young man and her aunt were exchanging looks of surprise, and that they felt insecure and uncertain. It was not the yielding maiden who had spoken to her lover, but the girl who was his good comrade and cordial friend. The elder woman shook her head doubtfully; she knew well what this foreboded, and was impatient at the overthrow of her plans; yet she had full confidence in the power of Love. She had seen apparent self-reliance before, and she could not believe that her niece was invincible. At any rate nothing could be more persuasive than a twilight row upon the river, and for her part, she hoped more eagerly than ever that Love would return chief in command of the boat's young crew; and when the young man flushed a little, and looked at her appealingly, as he turned to go down the street, his friend and counselor could not resist giving him a hopeful nod. Nan was singularly frank, and free from affectations, and she might have already decided to lower her colors and yield the victory, and it seemed for a moment that it would be much more like her to do so, than to invite further contest when she was already won. Miss Prince was very kind and sympathetic when this explanation had once forced itself upon her mind; she gave the young girl a most affectionate kiss when she appeared, but at this unmistakable suggestion of pleasure and treasured hopes, Nan turned back suddenly into the shaded parlor, though Mr. Gerry was waiting outside with his favorite oars, which he kept carefully in a corner of the office.
"Dear Aunt Nancy," said the girl, with evident effort, "I am so sorry to disappoint you. I wish for your sake that I had been another sort of woman; but I shall never marry. I know you think I am wrong, but there is something which always tells me I am right, and I must follow another way. I should only wreck my life, and other people's. Most girls have an instinct towards marrying, but mine is all against it, and God knew best when He made me care more for another fashion of life. Don't make me seem unkind! I dare say that I can put it all into words better by and by, but I can never be more certain of it in my own heart than now."
"Sit down a minute," said Miss Prince, slowly. "George can wait. But, Anna, I believe that you are in love with him, and that you are doing wrong to the poor lad, and to yourself, and to me. I lost the best happiness of my life for a whim, and you wish to throw away yours for a theory. I hope you will be guided by me. I have come to love you very much, and it seems as if this would be so reasonable."
"It does make a difference to me that he loves me," confessed the girl. "It is not easy to turn away from him," she said,—still standing, and looking taller than ever, and even thin, with a curious tenseness of her whole being. "It is something that I have found it hard to fight against, but it is not my whole self longing for his love and his companionship. If I heard he had gone to the other side of the world for years and years, I should be glad now and not sorry. I know that all the world's sympathy and all tradition fight on his side; but I can look forward and see something a thousand times better than being his wife, and living here in Dunport keeping his house, and trying to forget all that nature fitted me to do. You don't understand, Aunt Nancy. I wish you could! You see it all another way." And the tears started to the eager young eyes. "Don't you know that Cousin Walter said this very day that the wind which sets one vessel on the right course may set another on the wrong?"
"Nonsense, my dear," said the mistress of the house. "I don't think this is the proper time for you to explain yourself at any rate. I dare say the fresh air will do you good and put everything right too. You have worked yourself into a great excitement over nothing. Don't go out looking so desperate to the poor fellow; he will think strangely of it;" and the girl went out through the wide hall, and wished she were far away from all this trouble.
Nan had felt a strange sense of weariness, which did not leave her even when she was quieted by the fresh breeze of the river-shore, and was contented to let her oars be stowed in the bottom of the boat, and to take the comfortable seat in the stern. She pulled the tiller ropes over her shoulders, and watched her lover's first strong strokes, which had quickly sent them out into the stream, beyond the course of a larger craft which was coming toward the wharf. She wished presently that she had chosen to row, because they would not then be face to face; but, strange to say, since this new experience had come to her, she had not felt so sure of herself as now, and the fear of finding herself too weak to oppose the new tendency of her life had lessened since her first recognition of it the night before. But Nan had fought a hard fight, and had grown a great deal older in those hours of the day and night. She believed that time would make her even more certain that she had done right than she could be now in the heat of the battle, but she wished whatever George Gerry meant to say to her might be soon over with.
They went slowly up the river, which was now quite familiar to the girl who had come to it a stranger only a few weeks before. She liked out-of-door life so well that this countryside of Dunport was already more dear to her than to many who had seen it bloom and fade every year since they could remember. At one moment it seemed but yesterday that she had come to the old town, and at the next she felt as if she had spent half a lifetime there, and as if Oldfields might have changed unbearably since she came away.
Sometimes the young oarsman kept in the middle of the great stream, and sometimes it seemed pleasanter to be near the shore. The midsummer flowers were coming into blossom, and the grass and trees had long since lost the brilliance of their greenness, and wore a look of maturity and completion, as if they had already finished their growth. There was a beautiful softness and harmony of color, a repose that one never sees in a spring landscape. The tide was in, the sun was almost down, and a great, cloudless, infinite sky arched itself from horizon to horizon. It had sent all its brilliance to shine backward from the sun,—the glowing sphere from which a single dazzling ray came across the fields and the water to the boat. In a moment more it was gone, and a shadow quickly fell like that of a tropical twilight; but the west grew golden, and one light cloud, like a floating red feather, faded away upward into the sky. A later bright glow touched some high hills in the east, then they grew purple and gray, and so the evening came that way slowly, and the ripple of the water plashed and sobbed against the boat's side; and presently in the midst of the river's inland bay, after a few last eager strokes, the young man drew in his oars, letting them drop with a noise which startled Nan, who had happened to be looking over her shoulder at the shore.
She knew well enough that he meant to put a grave question to her now, and her heart beat faster and she twisted the tiller cords around her hands unconsciously.
"I think I could break any bonds you might use to keep yourself away from me," he said hurriedly, as he watched her. "I am not fit for you, only that I love you. Somebody told me you meant to go away, and I could not wait any longer before I asked you if you would give yourself to me."
"No, no!" cried Nan, "dear friend, I must not do it; it would all be a mistake. You must not think of it any more. I am so sorry, I ought to have understood what was coming to us, and have gone away long ago."
"It would have made no difference," said the young man, almost angrily. He could not bear delay enough even for speech at that moment; he watched her face desperately for a look of assurance; he leaned toward her and wondered why he had not risked everything, and spoken the evening before when they stood watching the ship's mast, and Nan's hands were close enough to be touched. But the miserable knowledge crept over him that she was a great deal farther away from him than half that small boat's length, and as she looked up at him again, and shook her head gently, a great rage of love and shame at his repulse urged him to plead again. "You are spoiling my life," he cried. "You do not care for that, but without you I shall not care for anything."
"I would rather spoil your life in this way than in a far worse fashion," said Nan sadly. "I will always be your friend, but if I married you I might seem by and by to be your enemy. Yes, you will love somebody else some day, and be a great deal happier than I could have made you, and I shall be so glad. It does not belong to me."
But this seemed too scornful and cold-hearted. "Oh, my love is only worth that to you," the lover said. "You shall know better what it means. I don't want you for my friend, but for my own to keep and to have. It makes me laugh to think of your being a doctor and going back to that country town to throw yourself away for the fancies and silly theories of a man who has lived like a hermit. It means a true life for both of us if you will only say you love me, or even let me ask you again when you have thought of it more. Everybody will say I am in the right."
"Yes, there are reasons enough for it, but there is a better reason against it. If you love me you must help me do what is best," said Nan. "I shall miss you and think of you more than you know when I am away. I never shall forget all these pleasant days we have been together. Oh George!" she cried, in a tone that thrilled him through and through, "I hope you will be friends with me again by and by. You will know then I have done right because it is right and will prove itself. If it is wrong for me I couldn't really make you happy; and over all this and beyond it something promises me and calls me for a life that my marrying you would hinder and not help. It isn't that I shouldn't be so happy that it is not easy to turn away even from the thought of it; but I know that the days would come when I should see, in a way that would make me long to die, that I had lost the true direction of my life and had misled others beside myself. You don't believe me, but I cannot break faith with my duty. There are many reasons that have forbidden me to marry, and I have a certainty as sure as the stars that the only right condition of life for me is to follow the way that everything until now has pointed out. The great gain and purpose of my being alive is there; and I must not mind the blessings that I shall have to do without."
He made a gesture of impatience and tried to interrupt her, but she said quickly, as if to prevent his speaking: "Listen to me. I can't help speaking plainly. I would not have come with you this afternoon, only I wished to make you understand me entirely. I have never since I can remember thought of myself and my life in any way but unmarried,—going on alone to the work I am fit to do. I do care for you. I have been greatly surprised and shaken because I found how strongly something in me has taken your part, and shown me the possibility of happiness in a quiet life that should centre itself in one man's love, and within the walls of his home. But something tells me all the time that I could not marry the whole of myself as most women can; there is a great share of my life which could not have its way, and could only hide itself and be sorry. I know better and better that most women are made for another sort of existence, but by and by I must do my part in my own way to make many homes happy instead of one; to free them from pain, and teach grown people and little children to keep their bodies free from weakness and deformities. I don't know why God should have made me a doctor, so many other things have seemed fitter for women; but I see the blessedness of such a useful life more and more every year, and I am very thankful for such a trust. It is a splendid thing to have the use of any gift of God. It isn't for us to choose again, or wonder and dispute, but just work in our own places, and leave the rest to God."
The boat was being carried downward by the ebbing tide, and George Gerry took the oars again, and rowed quietly and in silence. He took his defeat unkindly and drearily; he was ashamed of himself once, because some evil spirit told him that he was losing much that would content him, in failing to gain this woman's love. It had all been so fair a prospect of worldly success, and she had been the queen of it. He thought of himself growing old in Mr. Sergeant's dusty office, and that this was all that life could hold for him. Yet to be was better than to have. Alas! if he had been more earnest in his growth, it would have been a power which this girl of high ideals could have been held and mastered by. No wonder that she would not give up her dreams of duty and service, since she had found him less strong than such ideals. The fancied dissatisfaction and piteousness of failure which she would be sure to meet filled his heart with dismay; yet, at that very next moment, resent it as he might, the certainty of his own present defeat and powerlessness could not be misunderstood. Perhaps, after all, she knew what was right; her face wore again the look he had feared to disturb the night before, and his whole soul was filled with homage in the midst of its sorrow, because this girl, who had been his merry companion in the summer holidays, so sweet and familiar and unforgetable in the midst of the simple festivals, stood nearer to holier things than himself, and had listened to the call of God's messengers to whom his own doors had been ignorantly shut. And Nan that night was a soul's physician, though she had been made to sorely hurt her patient before the new healthfulness could well begin.
They floated down the river and tried to talk once or twice, but there were many spaces of silence, and as they walked along the paved streets, they thought of many things. An east wind was blowing in from the sea, and the elm branches were moving restlessly overhead. "It will all be better to-morrow," said Nan, as they stood on the steps at last. "You must come to see Aunt Nancy very often after I have gone, for she will be lonely. And do come in the morning as if nothing had been spoken. I am so sorry. Good-night, and God bless you," she whispered; and when she stood inside the wide doorway, in the dark, she listened to his footsteps as he went away down the street. They were slower than usual, but she did not call him back.