It would be difficult to say why the village of Oldfields should have been placed in the least attractive part of the township, if one were not somewhat familiar with the law of growth of country communities. The first settlers, being pious kindred of the Pilgrims, were mindful of the necessity of a meeting-house, and the place for it was chosen with reference to the convenience of most of the worshipers. Then the parson was given a parsonage and a tract of glebe land somewhere in the vicinity of his pulpit, and since this was the centre of social attraction, the blacksmith built his shop at the nearest cross-road. And when some enterprising citizen became possessed of an idea that there were traders enough toiling to and fro on the rough highways to the nearest larger village to make it worth his while to be an interceptor, the first step was taken toward a local centre of commerce, and the village was fairly begun. It had not yet reached a remarkable size, though there was a time-honored joke because an enthusiastic old woman had said once, when four or five houses and a new meeting-house were being built all in one summer, that she expected now that she might live to see Oldfields a seaport town. There had been a great excitement over the second meeting-house, to which the conservative faction had strongly objected, but, after the radicals had once gained the day, other innovations passed without public challenge. The old First Parish Church was very white and held aloft an imposing steeple, and strangers were always commiserated if they had to leave town without the opportunity of seeing its front by moonlight. Behind this, and beyond a green which had been the playground of many generations of boys and girls, was a long row of horse-sheds, where the farmers' horses enjoyed such part of their Sunday rest as was permitted them after bringing heavy loads of rural parishioners to their public devotions. The Sunday church-going was by no means so carefully observed in these days as in former ones, when disinclination was anything but a received excuse. In Parson Leslie's—the doctor's grandfather's—day, it would have condemned a man or woman to the well-merited reproof of their acquaintances. And indeed most parishioners felt deprived of a great pleasure when, after a week of separation from society, of a routine of prosaic farm-work, they were prevented from seeing their friends parade into church, from hearing the psalm-singing and the sermon, and listening to the news afterward. It was like going to mass and going to the theatre and the opera, and making a round of short calls, and having an outing in one's own best clothes to see other people's, all rolled into one; beside which, there was (and is) a superstitious expectation of good luck in the coming week if the religious obligations were carefully fulfilled. So many of the old ideas of the efficacy of ecclesiasticism still linger, most of them by no means unlawfully. The elder people of New England are as glad to have their clergyman visit them in their last days as if he granted them absolution and extreme unction. The old traditions survive in our instincts, although our present opinions have long since ticketed many thoughts and desires and customs as out of date and quite exploded.
We go so far in our vigorous observance of the first commandment, and our fear of worshiping strange gods, that sometimes we are in danger of forgetting that we must worship God himself. And worship is something different from a certain sort of constant church-going, or from even trying to be conformers and to keep our own laws and our neighbors'.
Because an old-fashioned town like Oldfields grows so slowly and with such extreme deliberation, is the very reason it seems to have such a delightful completeness when it has entered fairly upon its maturity. It is possessed of kindred virtues to a winter pear, which may be unattractive during its preparatory stages, but which takes time to gather from the ground and from the air a pleasant and rewarding individuality and sweetness. The towns which are built in a hurry can be left in a hurry without a bit of regret, and if it is the fate or fortune of the elder villages to find themselves the foundation upon which modern manufacturing communities rear their thinly built houses and workshops, and their quickly disintegrating communities of people, the weaknesses of these are more glaring and hopeless in the contrast. The hurry to make money and do much work, and the ambition to do good work, war with each other, but, as Longfellow has said, the lie is the hurrying second-hand of the clock, and the truth the slower hand that waits and marks the hour. The New England that built itself houses a hundred years ago was far less oppressed by competition and by other questions with which the enormous increase of population is worrying its younger citizens. And the overgrown Oldfields that increase now, street by street, were built then a single steady sound-timbered house at a time, and all the neighbors watched them rise, and knew where the planks were sawn, and where the chimney bricks were burnt.
In these days when Anna Prince was young and had lately come to live in the doctor's square house, with the three peaked windows in the roof, and the tall box borders and lilac bushes in its neat front yard, Oldfields was just beginning to wake from a fifty years' architectural sleep, and rub its eyes, and see what was thought about a smart little house with a sharp gabled roof, and much scalloping of its edges, which a new store-keeper had seen fit to build. There was one long street which had plenty of room on either side for most of the houses, and where it divided, each side of the First Parish Church, it became the East road and the West road, and the rest of the dwellings strayed off somewhat undecidedly toward the world beyond. There were a good many poplars in the front yards, though their former proud ranks were broken in many places, so that surviving veterans stood on guard irregularly before the houses, where usually one or two members of the once busy households were also left alone. Many of the people who lived in the village had outlying land and were farmers of it, but beside the doctor's there were some other households which the land supported indirectly, either through professions or because some kind ancestor had laid by enough money for his children and grandchildren. The ministers were both excellent men; but Dr. Leslie was the only man who looked far ahead or saw much or cared much for true success. In Titian's great Venetian picture of the Presentation of the Virgin, while the little maiden goes soberly up the steps of the temple, in the busy crowd beneath only one man is possessed by the thought that something wonderful is happening, and lifts his head, forgetting the buyers and sellers and gossipers, as his eyes follow the sacred sight. Life goes on everywhere like that fragment of it in the picture, but while the man who knows more than his fellows can be found in every company, and sees the light which beckons him on to the higher meanings and better gifts, his place in society is not always such a comfortable and honored one as Dr. Leslie's. What his friends were apt to call his notions were not of such aggressive nature that he was accused of outlawry, and he was apt to speak his mind uncontradicted and undisturbed. He cared little for the friction and attrition, indeed for the inspiration, which one is sure to have who lives among many people, and which are so dear and so helpful to most of us who fall into ruts if we are too much alone. He loved his friends and his books, though he understood both as few scholars can, and he cared little for social pleasure, though Oldfields was, like all places of its size and dignity, an epitome of the world. One or two people of each class and rank are as good as fifty, and, to use the saying of the doctor's friend, old Captain Finch: "Human nature is the same the world over."
Through the long years of his solitary life, and his busy days as a country practitioner, he had become less and less inclined to take much part in what feeble efforts the rest of the townspeople made to entertain themselves. He was more apt to loiter along the street, stopping here and there to talk with his neighbors at their gates or their front-yard gardening, and not infrequently asked some one who stood in need of such friendliness to take a drive with him out into the country. Nobody was grieved at remembering that he was a repository of many secrets; he was a friend who could be trusted always, though he was one who had been by no means slow to anger or unwilling at times to administer rebuke.
One Sunday afternoon, late in November, while the first snow-storm of the year was beginning, Dr. Leslie threw down a stout French medical work of high renown as if it had failed to fulfil its mission of being instructive first and interesting afterward. He rose from his chair and stood looking at the insulted volume as if he had a mind to apologize and try again, but kept his hands behind him after all. It was thinly dressed in fluttering paper covers, and was so thick and so lightly bound that it had a tendency to divide its material substance into parts, like the seventhlies and eighthlies of an old-fashioned sermon. "Those fellows must be in league with the book-binders over here," grumbled the doctor. "I must send word to that man in New York to have some sort of cover put on these things before they come down." Then he lifted the book again and poised it on one hand, looking at its irregular edges, and reflecting at length that it would be in much better condition if he had not given it a careless crushing in the corner of his carriage the day before. It had been sunshiny, pleasant weather, and he had taken Nan for a long drive in the Saturday half-holiday. He had decided, before starting, that she should manage the reins and he would think over one or two matters and read a while; it had been a great convenience lately that Nan understood the responsibility of a horse and carriage. He was finding her a more and more useful little companion. However, his studies and reflections had been postponed until some other time, for Nan had been very eager to talk about some of her lessons in which it seemed his duty to take an interest. The child seemed stronger and better that autumn than he had ever known her, and her mind had suddenly fastened itself upon certain of her studies. She seemed very quick and very accurate, the doctor thought, and the two traits do not always associate themselves.
He left the table and walked quickly to the west window, and, clasping his hands behind him, stood looking out into the front yard and the street beyond. The ground was already white and he gave a little sigh, for winter weather is rarely a source of happiness to a doctor, although this member of the profession was not made altogether sorrowful by it. He sometimes keenly enjoyed a hard tramp of a mile or two when the roads were so blocked and the snow so blinding that he left his horse in some sheltering barn on his way to an impatient sufferer.
A little way down the street on the other side was a house much like his own, with a row of tall hemlocks beside it, and a front fence higher and more imposing than his, with great posts at the gateway, which held slender urns aloft with funereal solemnity. The doctor's eyesight was not far from perfect, and he looked earnestly at the windows of one of the lower rooms and saw a familiar sight enough; his neighbor Mrs. Graham's face in its accustomed quarter of the sash. Dr. Leslie half smiled as the thought struck him that she always sat so exactly in the same place that her white cap was to be seen through the same lower window-pane. "Most people would have moved their chairs about until they wore holes in the floor," he told himself, and then remembered how many times he had gone to look over at his placid friend, in her favorite afternoon post of observation. He was strongly attached to her, and he reminded himself that she was growing old and that he must try to see her oftener. He valued her companionship, more because he knew it was always ready for him, than because he always availed himself of it, but the sense of mutual dependence made them very familiar to each other when they did meet and had time for a bit of quiet talk.
Dr. Leslie suddenly turned; he had watched long enough to make sure that Mrs. Graham was alone; her head had not moved for many minutes; and at first he was going out of the front door, from some instinct he would hardly have been willing to acknowledge, but he resolutely turned and went out to the dining-room, to tell Marilla, after his usual professional custom of giving notice of his whereabouts, that he was going to Mrs. Graham's. A prompt inquiry came from the kitchen to know if anything ailed her, to which the doctor returned a scornful negative and escaped through the side-door which gave entrance both to the study and the dining-room. There was the usual service at Marilla's meeting-house, but she had not ventured out to attend it, giving the weather and a grumbling toothache for her reasons, though she concealed the fact that the faithless town milliner had disappointed her about finishing her winter bonnet. Marilla had begun life with certain opinions which she had never changed, though time and occasion had lessened the value of some of them. She liked to count herself among those who are persecuted for conscience's sake, and was immensely fond of an argument and of having it known that she was a dissenter from the First Parish Church.
Mrs. Graham looked up with surprise from her book to see the doctor coming in from the street, and, being helplessly lame, sat still, and put out her hand to greet him, with a very pleased look on her face. "Is there anything the matter with me?" she asked. "I have begun to think you don't care to associate with well people; you don't usually go to church in the afternoon either, so you haven't taken refuge here because Mr. Talcot is ill. I must say that I missed hearing the bell; I shall lose myself altogether by the middle of the week. One must have some landmarks."
"Marilla complained yesterday that she was all at sea because her apple pies gave out a day too soon. She put the bread to rise the wrong night, and everything went wrong about the sweeping. It has been a week of great domestic calamity with us, but Nan confided to me this morning that there was some trouble with our bonnet into the bargain. I had forgotten it was time for that," said the doctor, laughing. "We always have a season of great anxiety and disaster until the bonnet question is settled. I keep out of the way as much as I can. Once I tried to be amusing, and said it was a pity the women did not follow their grandmothers' fashion and make a good Leghorn structure last ten years and have no more trouble about it; but I was assured that there wasn't a milliner now living who could set such an arrangement going."
"Marilla's taste is not what one might call commonplace," said Mrs. Graham, with a smile. "I think her summer head-covering was a little the most remarkable we have had yet. She dresses so decently otherwise, good soul!"
"It was astonishing," said the doctor gravely, as he stood before the fire thinking how pleasant the room looked; almost as familiar as his own study, with its heavy mahogany furniture and two old portraits and few quaint ornaments. Mrs. Graham's geraniums were all flourishing and green and even in bloom, unlike most treasures of their kind. There was a modern element in the room also,—some pretty cushions and other bits of embroidery; for Mrs. Graham had some grandchildren who were city born and bred, and who made little offerings to her from time to time. On the table near her and between the front windows were many new books and magazines, and though the two neighbors kept up a regular system of exchange, the doctor went nearer to see what might be found. There were a few minutes of silence, and he became conscious that Mrs. Graham was making up her mind to say something, but when she spoke it was only to ask if there were anything serious the matter with the minister.
"Oh, no," said the doctor, "he's a dyspeptic, nervous soul, too conscientious! and when the time arrives for the sacrifice of pigs, and his whole admiring parish vie with each other to offer spare-ribs on that shrine, it goes hard with the poor man."
This was worth hearing, but Mrs. Graham was a little sorry that she had let such a good chance go by for saying something that was near her heart, so presently she added, "I am sorry that poor Marilla hasn't a better gift at personal decoration. It seems a pity to let her disfigure that pretty child with such structures in the way of head-gear. I was so glad when that abominable great summer hat was laid by for the season."
"It was pretty bad," the doctor agreed, in a provokingly indifferent tone, whereupon Mrs. Graham's interest was rekindled, and saying to herself that the poor man did not know the danger and foolishness of such carelessness, she ventured another comment.
"So much depends upon giving a child's taste the right direction."
Dr. Leslie had taken up a magazine, and seemed to have found something that pleased him, but he at once laid it down and glanced once or twice at his hostess, as if he hoped for future instructions. "You see I don't know anything about it, and Nan doesn't think of her clothes at all, so far as I can tell, and so poor Marilla has to do the best she can," he said mildly.
"Oh dear, yes," answered Mrs. Graham, not without impatience. "But the child's appearance is of some importance, and since a dollar or two doesn't make any difference to you, she should be made to look like the little lady that she is. Dear old Mrs. Thacher would turn in her grave, for she certainly had a simple good taste that was better than this. Marilla became the easy prey of that foolish little woman who makes bonnets on the East road. She has done more to deprave the ideas of our townspeople than one would believe, and they tell you with such pleasure that she used to work in New York, as if that settled the question. It is a comfort to see old Sally Turner and Miss Betsy Milman go by in their decent dark silk bonnets that good Susan Martin made for them. If I could go out to-morrow I believe I would rather hunt for a very large velvet specimen of her work, which is somewhere upstairs in a big bandbox, than trust myself to these ignorant hands. It is a great misfortune to a town if it has been disappointed in its milliner. You are quite at her mercy, and, worse than all, liable to entire social misapprehension when you venture far from home."
"So bonnets are not a question of free will and individual responsibility?" asked the doctor soberly. "I must say that I have wondered sometimes if the women do not draw lots for them. But what shall I do about the little girl? I am afraid I do her great injustice in trying to bring her up at all—it needs a woman's eye."
"Your eye is just as good as anybody's," responded Mrs. Graham quickly, lest the doctor should drift into sad thought about his young wife who had been so long dead and yet seemed always a nearer and dearer living presence to him. He was apt to say a word or two about her and not answer the next question which was put to him, and presently go silently away,—but to-day Mrs. Graham had important business in hand.
"My daughter will be here next week," she observed, presently, "and I'm sure that she will do any shopping for you in Boston with great pleasure. We might forestall Marilla's plans. You could easily say when you go home that you have spoken to me about it. I think it would be an excellent opportunity now, while the East Road establishment is in disfavor," and when the doctor smiled and nodded, his friend and hostess settled herself comfortably in her chair, and felt that she had gained a point.
The sunshine itself could hardly have made that south parlor look pleasanter. There was a log in the fire that was wet, and singing gently to itself, as if the sound of the summer rustlings and chirpings had somehow been stored away in its sap, and above it were some pieces of drier white birch, which were sending up a yellow conflagration to keep the marauding snow-flakes from coming down the chimney. The geraniums looked brighter than by daylight, and seemed to hold their leaves toward the fireplace as if they were hands; and were even leaning out a little way themselves and lifting their blossoms like torches, as if they were a reserve force, a little garrison of weaker soldiers who were also enemies of the cold. The gray twilight was gathering out of doors; the trees looked naked and defenceless, as one saw them through the windows. Mrs. Graham tapped the arms of her chair gently with the tips of her fingers, and in a few minutes the doctor closed the book he was looking over and announced that the days were growing very short. There was something singularly pleasant to both the friends in their quiet Sunday afternoon companionship.
"You used to pay me a Sunday visit every week," said the old lady, pleased to find that her guest still lingered. "I don't know why, but I always have a hope that you will find time to run over for half an hour. I said to myself yesterday that a figure of me in wax would do just as well as anything nowadays. I get up and dress myself, and make the journey downstairs, and sit here at the window and have my dinner and go through the same round day after day. If it weren't for a certain amount of expense it incurs, and occupation to other people, I think it would be of very little use. However, there are some people still left who need me. Who is it says—Béranger perhaps—that to love benefits one's self, and to inspire love benefits others. I like to think that the children and grandchildren have the old place to think of and come back to. I can see that it is a great bond between them all, and that is very good. I begin to feel like a very old woman; it would be quite different, you know, if I were active and busy out of doors, and the bustling sort of person for which nature intended me. As it is, my mind is bustling enough for itself and its body both."
"Well," said the doctor, laughing a little, "what is it now?"
"The little girl," answered Mrs. Graham, gravely. "I think it is quite time she knew something of society. Don't tell yourself that I am notional and frivolous; I know you have put a great deal of hope and faith and affection into that child's career. It would disappoint you dreadfully if she were not interesting and harmonious to people in general. It seems a familiar fact now that she should have come to live with you, that she should be growing up in your house; but the first thing we know she will be a young lady instead of an amusing child, and I think that you cannot help seeing that a great deal of responsibility belongs to you. She must be equipped and provisioned for the voyage of life; she must have some resources."
"But I think she has more than most children."
"Yes, yes, I dare say. She is a bright little creature, but her brightness begins to need new things to work upon. She does very well at school now, I hear, and she minds very well and is much less lawless than she used to be; but she is like a candle that refuses to burn, and is satisfied with admiring its candlestick. She is quite the queen of the village children in one way, and in another she is quite apart from them. I believe they envy her and look upon her as being of another sort, and yet count her out of half their plans and pleasures, and she runs home, not knowing whether to be pleased or hurt, and pulls down half a dozen of your books and sits proudly at the window. Her poor foolish mother had some gifts, but she went adrift very soon, and I should teach Nan her duty to her neighbor, and make her take in the idea that she owes something to the world beside following out her own most satisfying plans. When I was a young woman it was a most blessed discovery to me—though I was not any quicker at making it than other people, perhaps,—that, beside being happy myself and valuable to myself, I must fit myself into my place in society. We are seldom left to work alone, you know. No, not even you. I know too much about you to believe that. And it isn't enough that we are willing to talk about ourselves. We must learn to understand the subjects of the day that everybody talks about, and to make sure of a right to stand upon the highest common ground wherever we are. Society is a sort of close corporation, and we must know its watchwords, and keep an interest in its interests and affairs. I call a gentleman the man who, either by birth or by nature, belongs to the best society. There may be bad gentlemen and good gentlemen, but one must feel instinctively at home with a certain class, representatives of which are likely to be found everywhere.
"And as for Nan, you will be disappointed if she does not understand a little later your own way of looking at things. She mustn't grow up full of whims and indifferences. I am too fond of you to look forward calmly to your being disappointed, and I do believe she will be a most lovely, daughterly, friendly girl, who will keep you from being lonely as you grow older, and be a great blessing in every way. Yet she has a strange history, and is in a strange position. I hope you will find a good school for her before very long."
This was said after a moment's pause, and with considerable hesitation, and Mrs. Graham was grateful for the gathering darkness which sheltered her, and not a little surprised at the doctor's answer.
"I have been thinking of that," he said quickly, "but it is a great puzzle at present and I am thankful to say, I think it is quite safe to wait a year or two yet. You and I live so much apart from society that we idealize it a good deal, though you are a stray-away bit of it. We too seldom see the ideal gentleman or lady; we have to be contented with keeping the ideal in our minds, it seems to me, and saying that this man is gentlemanly, and that woman ladylike. But I do believe in aiming at the best things, and turning this young creature's good instincts and uncommon powers into the proper channels instead of letting her become singular and self-centred because she does not know enough of people of her own sort."
Mrs. Graham gave a little sound of approval that did not stand for any word in particular: "I wonder if her father's people will ever make any claim to her? She said something about her aunt one day; I think it was to hear whatever I might answer. It seemed to me that the poor child had more pleasure in this unknown possession than was worth while; she appeared to think of her as a sort of fairy godmother who might descend in Oldfields at any moment."
"I did not know she thought of her at all," announced the doctor, somewhat dismayed. "She never has talked about her aunt to me. I dare say that she has been entertained with the whole miserable story."
"Oh, no," answered Mrs. Graham, placidly. "I don't think that is likely, but it is quite reasonable that the child should be aware of some part of it by this time. The Dyer neighbors are far from being reticent, good creatures, and they have little to remember that approaches the interest and excitement of that time. Do you know anything about Miss Prince nowadays? I have not heard anything of her in a long while."
"She still sends the yearly remittance, which I acknowledge and put into the savings bank as I always have done. When Nan came to me I advised Miss Prince that I wished to assume all care of her and should be glad if she would give me entire right to the child, but she took no notice of the request. It really makes no practical difference. Only," and the doctor became much embarrassed, "I must confess that I have a notion of letting her study medicine by and by if she shows a fitness for it."
"Dear, dear!" said the hostess, leaning forward so suddenly that she knocked two or three books from the corner of the table, and feeling very much excited. "John Leslie, I can't believe it! but my dear man used to say you thought twice for everybody else's once. What can have decided you upon such a plan?"
"How happened the judge to say that?" asked the doctor, trying to scoff, but not a little pleased. "I'm sure I can't tell you, Mrs. Graham, only the idea has grown of itself in my mind, as all right ideas do, and everything that I can see seems to favor it. You may think that it is too early to decide, but I see plainly that Nan is not the sort of girl who will be likely to marry. When a man or woman has that sort of self-dependence and unnatural self-reliance, it shows itself very early. I believe that it is a mistake for such a woman to marry. Nan's feeling toward her boy-playmates is exactly the same as toward the girls she knows. You have only to look at the rest of the children together to see the difference; and if I make sure by and by, the law of her nature is that she must live alone and work alone, I shall help her to keep it instead of break it, by providing something else than the business of housekeeping and what is called a woman's natural work, for her activity and capacity to spend itself upon."
"But don't you think that a married life is happiest?" urged the listener, a good deal shocked at such treason, yet somewhat persuaded by its truth.
"Yes," said Dr. Leslie, sadly. "Yes indeed, for most of us. We could say almost everything for that side, you and I; but a rule is sometimes very cruel for its exceptions; and there is a life now and then which is persuaded to put itself in irons by the force of custom and circumstances, and from the lack of bringing reason to bear upon the solving of the most important question of its existence. Of course I don't feel sure yet that I am right about Nan, but looking at her sad inheritance from her mother, and her good inheritances from other quarters, I cannot help feeling that she might be far more unhappy than to be made ready to take up my work here in Oldfields when I have to lay it down. She will need a good anchor now and then. Only this summer she had a bad day of it that made me feel at my wits' end. She was angry with one of the children at school, and afterward with Marilla because she scolded her for not keeping better account of the family times and seasons, and ran away in the afternoon, if you please, and was not heard from until next morning at breakfast time. She went to the old place and wandered about the fields as she used, and crept into some shelter or other. I dare say that she climbed in at one of the windows of the house, though I could not make quite sure without asking more questions than I thought worth while. She came stealing in early in the morning, looking a little pale and wild, but she hasn't played such a prank since. I had a call to the next town and Marilla had evidently been awake all night. I got home early in the morning myself, and was told that it was supposed I had picked up Nan on the road and carried her with me, so the blame was all ready for my shoulders unless we had both happened to see the young culprit strolling in at the gate. I was glad she had punished herself, so that there was no need of my doing it, though I had a talk with her a day or two afterward, when we were both in our right minds. She is a good child enough."
"I dare say," remarked Mrs. Graham drily, "but it seems to me that neither of you took Marilla sufficiently into account. That must have been the evening that the poor soul went to nearly every house in town to ask if there were any stray company to tea. Some of us could not help wondering where the young person was finally discovered. She has a great fancy for the society of Miss Betsy Milman and Sally Turner at present, and I quite sympathize with her. I often look over there and see the end of their house with that one little square window in the very peak of it spying up the street, and wish I could pay them a visit myself and hear a bit of their wise gossip. I quite envy Nan her chance of going in and being half forgotten as she sits in one of their short chairs listening and watching. They used to be great friends of her grandmother's. Oh no; if I could go to see them they would insist upon my going into the best room, and we should all be quite uncomfortable. It is much better to sit here and think about them and hear their flat-irons creak away over the little boys' jackets and trousers."
"I must confess that I have my own clothes mended there to this day," said the doctor. "Marilla says their mending is not what it used to be, too, but it is quite good enough. As for that little window, I hardly ever see it without remembering the day of your aunt Margaret's funeral. I was only a boy and not deeply afflicted, but of course I had my place in the procession and was counted among the mourners, and as we passed the Milman place I saw the old lady's face up there just filling the four small panes. You know she was almost helpless, and how she had got up into the little garret I cannot imagine, but she was evidently determined to inspect the procession as it went down the burying-ground lane. It was a pity they did not cut the window beneath it in the lower room in her day. You know what an odd face she had; I suppose it was distorted by disease and out of all shape it ever knew; but I can see it now, framed in with its cap border and the window as if there were no more of her."
"She really was the most curious old creature; it more than accounts for Mrs. Turner's and Miss Betsy's love for a piece of news," said Mrs. Graham, who was much amused. "But I wish we understood the value of these old news-loving people. So much local history and tradition must die with every one of them if we take no pains to save it. I hope you are wise about getting hold of as much as possible. You doctors ought to be our historians, for you alone see the old country folks familiarly and can talk with them without restraint."
"But we haven't time to do any writing," the guest replied. "That is why our books amount to so little for the most part. The active men, who are really to be depended upon as practitioners, are kept so busy that they are too tired to use the separate gift for writing, even if they possess it, which many do not. And the literary doctors, the medical scholars, are a different class, who have not had the experience which alone can make their advice reliable. I mean of course in practical matters, not anatomy and physiology. But we have to work our way and depend upon ourselves, we country doctors, to whom a consultation is more or less a downfall of pride. Whenever I hear that an old doctor is dead I sigh to think what treasures of wisdom are lost instead of being added to the general fund. That was one advantage of putting the young men with the elder practitioners; many valuable suggestions were handed down in that way."
"I am very well contented with my doctor," said Mrs. Graham, with enthusiasm, at this first convenient opportunity. "And it is very wise of you all to keep up our confidence in the face of such facts as these. You can hardly have the heart to scold any more about the malpractice of patients when we believe in you so humbly and so ignorantly. You are always safe though, for our consciences are usually smarting under the remembrance of some transgression which might have hindered you if it did not. Poor humanity," she added in a tone of compassion. "It has to grope its way through a deal of darkness."
The doctor sighed, but he was uncommonly restful and comfortable in the large arm-chair before the fender. It was quite dark out of doors now, and the fire gave all the light that was in the room. Presently he roused himself a little to say "'Poor humanity,' indeed! And I suppose nobody sees the failures and miseries as members of my profession do. There will be more and more sorrow and defeat as the population increases and competition with it. It seems to me that to excel in one's work becomes more and more a secondary motive; to do a great deal and be well paid for it ranks first. One feels the injury of such purposes even in Oldfields."
"I cannot see that the world changes much. I often wish that I could, though surely not in this way," said the lame woman from her seat by the window, as the doctor rose to go away. "I find my days piteously alike, and you do not know what a pleasure this talk has been. It satisfies my hungry mind and gives me a great deal to think of; you would not believe what an appetite I had. Oh, don't think I need any excuses, it is a great pleasure to see you drive in and out of the gate, and I like to see your lamp coming into the study, and to know that you are there and fond of me. But winter looked very long and life very short before you came in this afternoon. I suppose you have had enough of society for one day, so I shall not tell you what I mean to have for tea, but next Sunday night I shall expect you to come and bring your ward. Will you please ring, so that Martha will bring the lights? I should like to send Nan a nice letter to read which came yesterday from my little grand-daughter in Rome. I shall be so glad when they are all at home again. She is about Nan's age, you know; I must see to it that they make friends with each other. Don't put me on a dusty top shelf again and forget me for five or six weeks," laughed the hostess, as her guest protested and lingered a minute still before he opened the door.
"You won't say anything of my confidences?" at which Mrs. Graham shakes her head with satisfactory gravity, though if Doctor Leslie had known she was inwardly much amused, and assured herself directly that she hoped to hear no more of such plans; how could he tell that the girl herself would agree to them, and whether Oldfields itself would favor Nan as his own successor and its medical adviser? But John Leslie was a wise, far-seeing man, with a great power of holding to his projects. He really must be kept to his promise of a weekly visit; she was of some use in the world after all, so long as these unprotected neighbors were in it, and at any rate she had gained her point about the poor child's clothes.
As for the doctor, he found the outer world much obscured by the storm, and hoped that nobody would need his services that night, as he went stumbling home though the damp and clogging snow underfoot. He felt a strange pleasure in the sight of a small, round head at the front study window between the glass and the curtain, and Nan came to open the door for him, while Marilla, whose unwonted Sunday afternoon leisure seemed to have been devoted to fragrant experiments in cookery, called in pleased tones from the dining-room that she had begun to be afraid he was going to stay out to supper. It was somehow much more homelike than it used to be, the doctor told himself, as he pushed his feet into the slippers which had been waiting before the fire until they were in danger of being scorched. And before Marilla had announced with considerable ceremony that tea was upon the table, he had assured himself that it had been a very pleasant hour or two at Mrs. Graham's, and it was the best thing in the world for both of them to see something of each other. For the little girl's sake he must try to keep out of ruts, and must get hold of somebody outside his own little world.
But while he called himself an old fogy and other impolite names he was conscious of a grave and sweet desire to make the child's life a successful one,—to bring out what was in her own mind and capacity, and so to wisely educate her, to give her a place to work in, and wisdom to work with, so far as he could; for he knew better than most men that it is the people who can do nothing who find nothing to do, and the secret of happiness in this world is not only to be useful, but to be forever elevating one's uses. Some one must be intelligent for a child until it is ready to be intelligent for itself, and he told himself with new decision that he must be wise in his laws for Nan and make her keep them, else she never would be under the grace of any of her own.