A Country Doctor - XXI: At Home Again

In Oldfields Dr. Leslie had outwardly lived the familiar life to which his friends and patients had long since accustomed themselves; he had seemed a little preoccupied, perhaps, but if that were observed, it was easily explained by his having one or two difficult cases to think about. A few persons suspected that he missed Nan, and was, perhaps, a little anxious lest her father's people in Dunport should claim her altogether. Among those who knew best the doctor and his ward there had been an ardent championship of Nan's rights and dignity, and a great curiosity to know the success of the visit. Dr. Leslie had answered all questions with composure, and with a distressing meagreness of details; but at length Mrs. Graham became sure that he was not altogether free from anxiety, and set her own quick wits at work to learn the cause. It seemed a time of great uncertainty, at any rate. The doctor sometimes brought one of Nan's bright, affectionate letters for his neighbor to read, and they agreed that this holiday was an excellent thing for her, but there was a silent recognition of the fact that this was a critical time in the young girl's history; that it either meant a new direction of her life or an increased activity in the old one. Mrs. Graham was less well than usual in these days, and the doctor found time to make more frequent visits than ever, telling himself that she missed Nan's pleasant companionship, but really wishing as much to receive sympathy as to give it. The dear old lady had laughingly disclaimed any desire to summon her children or grandchildren, saying that she was neither ill enough to need them, nor well enough to enjoy them; and so in the beautiful June weather the two old friends became strangely dear to each other, and had many a long talk which the cares of the world or their own reserve had made them save until this favoring season.

The doctor was acknowledged to be an old man at last, though everybody still insisted that he looked younger than his age, and could not doubt that he had half a lifetime of usefulness before him yet. But it makes a great difference when one's ambitions are transferred from one's own life to that of a younger person's; and while Dr. Leslie grew less careful for himself, trusting to the unconscious certainty of his practiced skill, he pondered eagerly over Nan's future, reminding himself of various hints and suggestions, which must be added to her equipment. Sometimes he wished that she were beginning a few years later, when her position could be better recognized and respected, and she would not have to fight against so much of the opposition and petty fault-finding that come from ignorance; and sometimes he rejoiced that his little girl, as he fondly called her, would be one of the earlier proofs and examples of a certain noble advance and new vantage-ground of civilization. This has been anticipated through all ages by the women who, sometimes honored and sometimes persecuted, have been drawn away from home life by a devotion to public and social usefulness. It must be recognized that certain qualities are required for married, and even domestic life, which all women do not possess; but instead of attributing this to the disintegration of society, it must be acknowledged to belong to its progress.

So long as the visit in Dunport seemed to fulfill its anticipated purpose, and the happy guest was throwing aside her cares and enjoying the merry holiday and the excitement of new friendships and of her uncommon position, so long the doctor had been glad, and far from impatient to have the visit end. But when he read the later and shorter letters again and again in the vain hope of finding something in their wording which should explain the vague unhappiness which had come to him as he had read them first, he began to feel troubled and dismayed. There was something which Nan had not explained; something was going wrong. He was sure that if it were anything he could set right, that she would have told him. She had always done so; but it became evident through the strange sympathy which made him conscious of the mood of others that she was bent upon fighting her way alone.

It was a matter of surprise, and almost of dismay to him early one morning, when he received a brief note from her which told him only that she should be at home late that afternoon. It seemed to the wise old doctor a day of most distressing uncertainty. He tried to make up his mind to accept with true philosophy whatever decision she was bringing him. "Nan is a good girl," he told himself over and over again; "she will try to do right." But she was so young and so generous, and whether she had been implored to break the old ties of home life and affection for her aunt's sake, or whether it was a newer and stronger influence still which had prevailed, waited for explanation. Alas, as was written once, it is often the higher nature that yields, because it is the most generous. The doctor knew well enough the young girl's character. He knew what promises of growth and uncommon achievement were all ready to unfold themselves,—for what great uses she was made. He could not bear the thought of her being handicapped in the race she had been set to run. Yet no one recognized more clearly than he the unseen, and too often unconsidered, factor which is peculiar to each soul, which prevents any other intelligence from putting itself exactly in that soul's place, so that our decisions and aids and suggestions are never wholly sufficient or available for those even whom we love most. He went over the question again and again; he followed Nan in his thoughts as she had grown up,—unprejudiced, unconstrained as is possible for any human being to be. He remembered that her heroes were the great doctors, and that her whole heart had been stirred and claimed by the noble duties and needs of the great profession. She had been careless of the social limitations, of the lack of sympathy, even of the ridicule of the public. She had behaved as a bird would behave if it were assured by beasts and fishes that to walk and to swim were the only proper and respectable means of getting from place to place. She had shown such rare insight into the principles of things; she had even seemed to him, as he watched her, to have anticipated experience, and he could not help believing that it was within her power to add much to the too small fund of certainty, by the sure instinct and aim of her experiment. It counted nothing whether God had put this soul into a man's body or a woman's. He had known best, and He meant it to be the teller of new truth, a revealer of laws, and an influence for good in its capacity for teaching, as well as in its example of pure and reasonable life.

But the old doctor sighed, and told himself that the girl was most human, most affectionate; it was not impossible that, in spite of her apparent absence of certain domestic instincts, they had only lain dormant and were now awake. He could not bear that she should lose any happiness which might be hers; and the tender memory of the blessed companionship which had been withdrawn from his mortal sight only to be given back to him more fully as he had lived closer and nearer to spiritual things, made him shrink from forbidding the same sort of fullness and completion of life to one so dear as Nan. He tried to assure himself that while a man's life is strengthened by his domestic happiness, a woman's must either surrender itself wholly, or relinquish entirely the claims of such duties, if she would achieve distinction or satisfaction elsewhere. The two cannot be taken together in a woman's life as in a man's. One must be made of lesser consequence, though the very natures of both domestic and professional life need all the strength which can be brought to them. The decision between them he knew to be a most grave responsibility, and one to be governed by the gravest moral obligations, and the unmistakable leadings of the personal instincts and ambitions. It was seldom, Dr. Leslie was aware, that so typical and evident an example as this could offer itself of the class of women who are a result of natural progression and variation, not for better work, but for different work, and who are designed for certain public and social duties. But he believed this class to be one that must inevitably increase with the higher developments of civilization, and in later years, which he might never see, the love for humanity would be recognized and employed more intelligently; while now almost every popular prejudice was against his ward, then she would need no vindication. The wielder of ideas has always a certain advantage over the depender upon facts; and though the two classes of minds by no means inevitably belong, the one to women, and the other to men, still women have not yet begun to use the best resources of their natures, having been later developed, and in many countries but recently freed from restraining and hindering influences.

The preservation of the race is no longer the only important question; the welfare of the individual will be considered more and more. The simple fact that there is a majority of women in any centre of civilization means that some are set apart by nature for other uses and conditions than marriage. In ancient times men depended entirely upon the women of their households to prepare their food and clothing,—and almost every man in ordinary circumstances of life was forced to marry for this reason; but already there is a great change. The greater proportion of men and women everywhere will still instinctively and gladly accept the high duties and helps of married life; but as society becomes more intelligent it will recognize the fitness of some persons, and the unfitness of others, making it impossible for these to accept such responsibilities and obligations, and so dignify and elevate home life instead of degrading it.

It had been one thing to act from conviction and from the promptings of instinct while no obstacles opposed themselves to his decisions, and quite another thing to be brought face to face with such an emergency. Dr. Leslie wished first to be able to distinctly explain to himself his reasons for the opinions he held; he knew that he must judge for Nan herself in some measure; she would surely appeal to him; she would bring this great question to him, and look for sympathy and relief in the same way she had tearfully shown him a wounded finger in her childhood. He seemed to see again the entreating eyes, made large with the pain which would not show itself in any other way, and he felt the rare tears fill his own eyes at the thought. "Poor little Nan," he said to himself, "she has been hurt in the great battle, but she is no skulking soldier." He would let her tell her story, and then give her the best help he could; and so when the afternoon shadows were very long across the country, and the hot summer day was almost done, the doctor drove down the wide street and along East Road to the railroad station. As he passed a group of small houses he looked at his watch and found that there was more than time for a second visit to a sick child whose illness had been most serious and perplexing at first, though now she was fast recovering. The little thing smiled as her friend came in, and asked if the young lady were coming to-morrow, for Dr. Leslie had promised a visit and a picture-book from Nan, whom he wished to see and understand the case. They had had a long talk upon such ailments as this just before she went away, and nothing had seemed to rouse her ambition so greatly as her experiences at the children's hospitals the winter before. Now, this weak little creature seemed to be pleading in the name of a great army of sick children, that Nan would not desert their cause; that she would go on, as she had promised them, with her search for ways that should restore their vigor and increase their fitness to take up the work of the world. And yet, a home and children of one's very own,—the doctor, who had held and lost this long ago, felt powerless to decide the future of the young heart which was so dear to him.

Nan saw the familiar old horse and carriage waiting behind the station, and did not fail to notice that the doctor had driven to meet her himself. He almost always did, but her very anxiety to see him again had made her doubtful. The train had hardly stopped before she was standing on the platform and had hastily dropped her checks into the hand of the nearest idle boy, who looked at them doubtfully, as if he hardly dared to hope that he had been mistaken for the hackman. She came quickly to the side of the carriage; the doctor could not look at her, for the horse had made believe that some excitement was necessary, and was making it difficult for the welcome passenger to put her foot on the step. It was all over in a minute. Nan sprang to the doctor's side and away they went down the road. He had caught a glimpse of her shining eyes and eager face as she had hurried toward him, and had said, "Well done!" in a most cheerful and every-day fashion, and then for a minute there was silence.

"Oh, it is so good to get home," said the girl, and her companion turned toward her; he could not wait to hear her story.

"Yes," said Nan, "it is just as well to tell you now. Do you remember you used to say to me when I was a little girl, 'If you know your duty, don't mind the best of reasons for not doing it'?" And the doctor nodded. "I never thought that this reason would come to me for not being a doctor," she went on, "and at first I was afraid I should be conquered, though it was myself who fought myself. But it came to me clearer than ever after a while. I think I could have been fonder of some one than most people are of those whom they marry, but the more I cared for him the less I could give him only part of myself; I knew that was not right. Now that I can look back at it all I am so glad to have had those days; I shall work better all my life for having been able to make myself so perfectly sure that I know my way."

The unconsidered factor had asserted itself in the doctor's favor. He gave the reins to Nan and leaned back in the carriage, but as she bent forward to speak to a friend whom they passed she did not see the look that he gave her.

"I am sure you knew what was right," he said, hastily. "God bless you, dear child!"

Was this little Nan, who had been his play-thing? this brave young creature, to whose glorious future all his heart and hopes went out. In his evening it was her morning, and he prayed that God's angels should comfort and strengthen her and help her to carry the burden of the day. It is only those who can do nothing who find nothing to do, and Nan was no idler; she had come to her work as Christ came to his, not to be ministered unto but to minister.

The months went by swiftly, and through hard work and much study, and many sights of pain and sorrow, this young student of the business of healing made her way to the day when some of her companions announced with melancholy truth that they had finished their studies. They were pretty sure to be accused of having had no right to begin them, or to take such trusts and responsibilities into their hands. But Nan and many of her friends had gladly climbed the hill so far, and with every year's ascent had been thankful for the wider horizon which was spread for their eyes to see.

Dr. Leslie in his quiet study almost wished that he were beginning life again, and sometimes in the twilight, or in long and lonely country drives, believed himself ready to go back twenty years so that he could follow Nan into the future and watch her successes. But he always smiled afterward at such a thought. Twenty years would carry him back to the time when his ward was a little child, not long before she came to live with him. It was best as God had planned it. Nobody had watched the child's development as he had done, or her growth of character, of which all the performances of her later years would be to him only the unnecessary proofs and evidences. He knew that she would be faithful in great things, because she had been faithful in little things, and he should be with her a long time yet, perhaps. God only knew.

There was a great change in the village; there were more small factories now which employed large numbers of young women, and though a new doctor had long ago come to Oldfields who had begun by trying to supersede Dr. Leslie, he had ended by longing to show his gratitude some day for so much help and kindness. More than one appointment had been offered the heroine of this story in the city hospitals. She would have little trouble in making her way since she had the requisite qualities, natural and acquired, which secure success. But she decided for herself that she would neither do this, nor carry out yet the other plan of going on with her studies at some school across the sea. Zurich held out a great temptation, but there was time enough yet, and she would spend a year in Oldfields with the doctor, studying again with him, since she knew better than ever before that she could find no wiser teacher. And it was a great pleasure to belong to the dear old town, to come home to it with her new treasures, so much richer than she had gone away that beside medicines and bandages and lessons in general hygiene for the physical ails of her patients, she could often be a tonic to the mind and soul; and since she was trying to be good, go about doing good in Christ's name to the halt and maimed and blind in spiritual things.

Nobody sees people as they are and finds the chance to help poor humanity as a doctor does. The decorations and deceptions of character must fall away before the great realities of pain and death. The secrets of many hearts and homes must be told to this confessor, and sadder ailments than the text-books name are brought to be healed by the beloved physicians. Teachers of truth and givers of the laws of life, priests and ministers,—all these professions are joined in one with the gift of healing, and are each part of the charge that a good doctor holds in his keeping.

One day in the beginning of her year at Oldfields, Nan, who had been very busy, suddenly thought it would be well to give herself a holiday; and with a sudden return of her old sense of freedom was going out at the door and down toward the gateway, which opened to a pleasantly wide world beyond. Marilla had taken Nan's successes rather reluctantly, and never hesitated to say that she only hoped to see her well married and settled before she died; though she was always ready to defend her course with even virulence to those who would deprecate it. She now heard Nan shut the door, and called at once from an upper window to know if word had been left where she was going, and the young practitioner laughed aloud as she answered, and properly acknowledged the fetter of her calling.

The leaves were just beginning to fall, and she pushed them about with her feet, and sometimes walked and sometimes ran lightly along the road toward the farm. But when she reached it, she passed the lane and went on to the Dyer houses. Mrs. Jake was ailing as usual, and Nan had told the doctor before she came out that she would venture another professional visit in his stead. She was a great help to him in this way, for his calls to distant towns had increased year by year, and he often found it hard to keep his many patients well in hand.

The old houses had not changed much since she first knew them, and neither they nor their inmates were in any danger of being forgotten by her; the old ties of affection and association grew stronger instead of weaker every year. It pleased and amused the old people to be reminded of the days when Nan was a child and lived among them, and it was a great joy to her to be able to make their pain and discomfort less, and be their interpreter of the outside world.

It was a most lovely day of our heroine's favorite weather. It has been said that November is an epitome of all the months of the year, but for all that, no other season can show anything so beautiful as the best and brightest November days. Nan had spent her summer in a great hospital, where she saw few flowers save human ones, and the warmth and inspiration of this clear air seemed most delightful. She had been somewhat tempted by an offer of a fine position in Canada, and even Dr. Leslie had urged her acceptance, and thought it an uncommonly good chance to have the best hospital experience and responsibility, but she had sent the letter of refusal only that morning. She could not tell yet what her later plans might be; but there was no place like Oldfields, and she thought she had never loved it so dearly as that afternoon.

She looked in at Mrs. Martin's wide-open door first, but finding the kitchen empty, went quickly across to the other house, where Mrs. Jake was propped up in her rocking-chair and began to groan loudly when she saw Nan; but the tonic of so gratifying a presence soon had a most favorable effect. Benignant Mrs. Martin was knitting as usual, and the three women sat together in a friendly group and Nan asked and answered questions most cordially.

"I declare I was sort of put out with the doctor for sending you down here day before yesterday instead of coming himself," stated Mrs. Jake immediately, "but I do' know's I ever had anything do me so much good as that bottle you gave me."

"Of course!" laughed Nan. "Dr. Leslie sent it to you himself. I told you when I gave it to you."

"Well now, how you talk!" said Mrs. Jake, a little crestfallen. "I begin to find my hearing fails me by spells. But I was bound to give you the credit, for all I've stood out against your meddling with a doctor's business."

Nan laughed merrily. "I am going to steal you for my patient," she answered, "and try all the prescriptions on your case first."

"Land, if you cured her up 'twould be like stopping the leaks in a basket," announced Mrs. Martin with a beaming smile, and clicking her knitting-needles excitedly. "She can't hear of a complaint anywheres about but she thinks she's got the mate to it."

"I don't seem to have anything fevery about me," said Mrs. Jake, with an air of patient self-denial; and though both her companions were most compassionate at the thought of her real sufferings, they could not resist the least bit of a smile. "I declare you've done one first-rate thing, if you're never going to do any more," said Mrs. Jake, presently. "'Liza here's been talking for some time past, about your straightening up the little boy's back,—the one that lives down where Mis' Meeker used to live you know,—but I didn't seem to take it in till he come over here yisterday forenoon. Looks as likely as any child, except it may be he's a little stunted. When I think how he used to creep about there, side of the road, like a hopper-toad, it does seem amazin'!"

Nan's eyes brightened. "I have been delighted about that. I saw him running with the other children as I came down the road. It was a long bit of work, though. The doctor did most of it; I didn't see the child for months, you know. But he needs care yet; I'm going to stop and have another talk with his mother as I go home."

"She's a pore shiftless creature," Mrs. Martin hastened to say. "There, I thought o' the doctor, how he'd laugh, the last time I was in to see her; her baby was sick, and she sent up to know if I'd lend her a variety of herbs, and I didn't know but she might p'isen it, so I stepped down with something myself. She begun to flutter about like she always does, and I picked my way acrost the kitchen to the cradle. 'There,' says she, 'I have been laying out all this week to go up to the Corners and git me two new chairs.' 'I should think you had plenty of chairs now,' said I, and she looked at me sort of surprised, and says she, 'There ain't a chair in this house but what's full.'"

And Nan laughed as heartily as could have been desired before she asked Mrs. Jake a few more appreciative questions about her ailments, and then rose to go away. Mrs. Martin followed her out to the gate; she and Nan had always been very fond of each other, and the elder woman pointed to a field not far away where the brothers were watching a stubble-fire, which was sending up a thin blue thread of smoke into the still air. "They were over in your north lot yisterday," said Mrs. Martin. "They're fullest o' business nowadays when there's least to do. They took it pretty hard when they first had to come down to hiring help, but they kind of enjoy it now. We're all old folks together on the farm, and not good for much. It don't seem but a year or two since your poor mother was playing about here, and then you come along, and now you're the last o' your folks out of all the houseful of 'em I knew. I'll own up sometimes I've thought strange of your fancy for doctoring, but I never said a word to nobody against it, so I haven't got anything to take back as most folks have. I couldn't help thinking when you come in this afternoon and sat there along of us, that I'd give a good deal to have Mis' Thacher step in and see you and know what you've made o' yourself. She had it hard for a good many years, but I believe 't is all made up to her; I do certain."

Nan meant to go back to the village by the shorter way of the little foot-path, but first she went up the grass-grown lane toward the old farm-house. She stood for a minute looking about her and across the well-known fields, and then seated herself on the door-step, and stayed there for some time. There were two or three sheep near by, well covered and rounded by their soft new winter wool, and they all came as close as they dared and looked at her wonderingly. The narrow path that used to be worn to the door-step had been overgrown years ago with the short grass, and in it there was a late little dandelion with hardly any stem at all. The sunshine was warm, and all the country was wrapped in a thin, soft haze.

She thought of her grandmother Thacher, and of the words that had just been said; it was beginning to seem a very great while since the days of the old farm-life, and Nan smiled as she remembered with what tones of despair the good old woman used to repeat the well-worn phrase, that her grandchild would make either something or nothing. It seemed to her that she had brought all the success of the past and her hopes for the future to the dear old place that afternoon. Her early life was spreading itself out like a picture, and as she thought it over and looked back from year to year, she was more than ever before surprised to see the connection of one thing with another, and how some slight acts had been the planting of seeds which had grown and flourished long afterward. And as she tried to follow herself back into the cloudy days of her earliest spring, she rose without knowing why, and went down the pastures toward the river. She passed the old English apple-tree, which still held aloft a flourishing bough. Its fruit had been gathered, but there were one or two stray apples left, and Nan skillfully threw a stick at these by way of summons.

Along this path she had hurried or faltered many a time. She remembered her grandmother's funeral, and how she had walked, with an elderly cousin whom she did not know, at the head of the procession, and had seen Martin Dyer's small grandson peeping like a rabbit from among the underbrush near the shore. Poor little Nan! she was very lonely that day. She had been so glad when the doctor had wrapped her up and taken her home.

She saw the neighborly old hawthorn-tree that grew by a cellar, and stopped to listen to its rustling and to lay her hand upon the rough bark. It had been a cause of wonder once, for she knew no other tree of the kind. It was like a snow-drift when it was in bloom, and in the grass-grown cellar she had spent many an hour, for there was a good shelter from the wind and an excellent hiding-place, though it seemed very shallow now when she looked at it as she went by.

The burying-place was shut in by a plain stone wall, which she had long ago asked the Dyers to build for her, and she leaned over it now and looked at the smooth turf of the low graves. She had always thought she would like to lie there too when her work was done. There were some of the graves which she did not know, but one was her poor young mother's, who had left her no inheritance except some traits that had won Nan many friends; all her evil gifts had been buried with her, the neighbors had said, when the girl was out of hearing, that very afternoon.

There was a strange fascination about these river uplands; no place was so dear to Nan, and yet she often thought with a shudder of the story of those footprints which had sought the river's brink, and then turned back. Perhaps, made pure and strong in a better world, in which some lingering love and faith had given her the true direction at last, where even her love for her child had saved her, the mother had been still taking care of little Nan and guiding her. Perhaps she had helped to make sure of the blessings her own life had lost, of truth and whiteness of soul and usefulness; and so had been still bringing her child in her arms toward the great shelter and home, as she had toiled in her fright and weakness that dark and miserable night toward the house on the hill.

And Nan stood on the shore while the warm wind that gently blew her hair felt almost like a hand, and presently she went closer to the river, and looked far across it and beyond it to the hills. The eagles swung to and fro above the water, but she looked beyond them into the sky. The soft air and the sunshine came close to her; the trees stood about and seemed to watch her; and suddenly she reached her hands upward in an ecstasy of life and strength and gladness. "O God," she said, "I thank thee for my future."