During the next few years, while Nan was growing up, Oldfields itself changed less than many country towns of its size. Though some faces might be missed or altered, Dr. Leslie's household seemed much the same, and Mrs. Graham, a little thinner and older, but more patient and sweet and delightful than ever, sits at her parlor window and reads new books and old ones, and makes herself the centre of much love and happiness. She and the doctor have grown more and more friendly, and they watch the young girl's development with great pride: they look forward to her vacations more than they would care to confess even to each other; and when she comes home eager and gay, she makes both these dear friends feel young again. When Nan is not there to keep him company, Dr. Leslie always drives, and has grown more careful about the comfort of his carriages, though he tells himself with great pleasure that he is really much more youthful in his feelings than he was twenty years before, and does not hesitate to say openly that he should have been an old fogy by this time if it had not been for the blessing of young companionship. When Nan is pleased to command, he is always ready to take long rides and the two saddles are brushed up, and they wonder why the bits are so tarnished, and she holds his horse's bridle while he goes in to see his patients, and is ready with merry talk or serious questions when he reappears. And one dark night she listens from her window to the demand of a messenger, and softly creeps down stairs and is ready to take her place by his side, and drive him across the hills as if it were the best fun in the world, with the frightened country-boy clattering behind on his bare-backed steed. The moon rises late and they come home just before daybreak, and though the doctor tries to be stern as he says he cannot have such a piece of mischief happen again, he wonders how the girl knew that he had dreaded for once in his life the drive in the dark, and had felt a little less strong than usual.
Marilla still reigns in noble state. She has some time ago accepted a colleague after a preliminary show of resentment, and Nan has little by little infused a different spirit into the housekeeping; and when her friends come to pay visits in the vacations they find the old home a very charming place, and fall quite in love with both the doctor and Mrs. Graham before they go away. Marilla always kept the large east parlor for a sacred shrine of society, to be visited chiefly by herself as guardian priestess; but Nan has made it a pleasanter room than anybody ever imagined possible, and uses it with a freedom which appears to the old housekeeper to lack consideration and respect. Nan makes the most of her vacations, while the neighbors are all glad to see her come back, and some of them are much amused because in summer she still clings to her childish impatience at wearing any head covering, and no matter how much Marilla admires the hat which is decorously worn to church every Sunday morning, it is hardly seen again, except by chance, during the week, and the brown hair is sure to be faded a little before the summer sunshine is past. Nan goes about visiting when she feels inclined, and seems surprisingly unchanged as she seats herself in one of the smoke-browned Dyer kitchens, and listens eagerly to whatever information is offered, or answers cordially all sorts of questions, whether they concern her own experiences or the world's in general. She has never yet seen her father's sister, though she still thinks of her, and sometimes with a strange longing for an evidence of kind feeling and kinship which has never been shown. This has been chief among the vague sorrows of her girlhood. Yet once when her guardian had asked if she wished to make some attempt at intercourse or conciliation, he had been answered, with a scorn and decision worthy of grandmother Thacher herself, that it was for Miss Prince to make advances if she ever wished for either the respect or affection of her niece. But the young girl has clung with touching affection to the memory and association of her childhood, and again and again sought in every season of the year the old playgrounds and familiar corners of the farm, which she has grown fonder of as the months go by. The inherited attachment of generations seems to have been centred in her faithful heart.
It must be confessed that the summer which followed the close of her school-life was, for the most part, very unsatisfactory. Her school-days had been more than usually pleasant and rewarding, in spite of the sorrows and disappointments and unsolvable puzzles which are sure to trouble thoughtful girls of her age. But she had grown so used at last to living by rules and bells that she could not help feeling somewhat adrift without them. It had been so hard to put herself under restraint and discipline after her free life in Oldfields that it was equally hard for a while to find herself at liberty; though, this being her natural state, she welcomed it heartily at first, and was very thankful to be at home. It did not take long to discover that she had no longer the same desire for her childish occupations and amusements; they were only incidental now and pertained to certain moods, and could not again be made the chief purposes of her life. She hardly knew what to do with herself, and sometimes wondered what would become of her, and why she was alive at all, as she longed for some sufficient motive of existence to catch her up into its whirlwind. She was filled with energy and a great desire for usefulness, but it was not with her, as with many of her friends, that the natural instinct toward marriage, and the building and keeping of a sweet home-life, ruled all other plans and possibilities. Her best wishes and hopes led her away from all this, and however tenderly she sympathized in other people's happiness, and recognized its inevitableness, for herself she avoided unconsciously all approach or danger of it. She was trying to climb by the help of some other train of experiences to whatever satisfaction and success were possible for her in this world. If she had been older and of a different nature, she might have been told that to climb up any other way toward a shelter from the fear of worthlessness, and mistake, and reproach, would be to prove herself in most people's eyes a thief and a robber. But in these days she was not fit to reason much about her fate; she could only wait for the problems to make themselves understood, and for the whole influence of her character and of the preparatory years to shape and signify themselves into a simple chart and unmistakable command. And until the power was given to "see life steadily and see it whole," she busied herself aimlessly with such details as were evidently her duty, and sometimes following the right road and often wandering from it in willful impatience, she stumbled along more or less unhappily. It seemed as if everybody had forgotten Nan's gift and love for the great profession which was her childish delight and ambition. To be sure she had studied anatomy and physiology with eager devotion in the meagre text-books at school, though the other girls had grumbled angrily at the task. Long ago, when Nan had confided to her dearest cronies that she meant to be a doctor, they were hardly surprised that she should determine upon a career which they would have rejected for themselves. She was not of their mind, and they believed her capable of doing anything she undertook. Yet to most of them the possible and even probable marriage which was waiting somewhere in the future seemed to hover like a cloudy barrier over the realization of any such unnatural plans.
They assured themselves that their school-mate showed no sign of being the sort of girl who tried to be mannish and to forsake her natural vocation for a profession. She did not look strong-minded; besides she had no need to work for her living, this ward of a rich man, who was altogether the most brilliant and beautiful girl in school. Yet everybody knew that she had a strange tenacity of purpose, and there was a lack of pretension, and a simplicity that scorned the deceits of school-girl existence. Everybody knew too that she was not a commonplace girl, and her younger friends made her the heroine of their fondest anticipations and dreams. But after all, it seemed as if everybody, even the girl herself, had lost sight of the once familiar idea. It was a natural thing enough that she should have become expert in rendering various minor services to the patients in Dr. Leslie's absence, and sometimes assist him when no other person was at hand. Marilla became insensible at the sight of the least dangerous of wounds, and could not be trusted to suggest the most familiar household remedy, after all her years of association with the practice of medicine, and it was considered lucky that Nan had some aptness for such services. In her childhood she had been nicknamed "the little doctor," by the household and even a few familiar friends, but this was apparently outgrown, though her guardian had more than once announced in sudden outbursts of enthusiasm that she already knew more than most of the people who tried to practice medicine. They once in a while talked about some suggestion or discovery which was attracting Dr. Leslie's attention, but the girl seemed hardly to have gained much interest even for this, and became a little shy of being found with one of the medical books in her hand, as she tried to fancy herself in sympathy with the conventional world of school and of the every-day ideas of society. And yet her inward sympathy with a doctor's and a surgeon's work grew stronger and stronger, though she dismissed reluctantly the possibility of following her bent in any formal way, since, after all, her world had seemed to forbid it. As the time drew near for her school-days to be ended, she tried to believe that she should be satisfied with her Oldfields life. She was fond of reading, and she had never lacked employment, besides, she wished to prove herself an intelligent companion to Dr. Leslie, whom she loved more and more dearly as the years went by. There had been a long time of reserve between her childish freedom of intercourse with him and the last year or two when they had begun to speak freely to each other as friend to friend. It was a constant surprise and pleasure to the doctor when he discovered that his former plaything was growing into a charming companion who often looked upon life from the same standpoint as himself, and who had her own outlooks upon the world, from whence she was able to give him by no means worthless intelligence; and after the school-days were over he was not amazed to find how restless and dissatisfied the girl was; how impossible it was for her to content herself with following the round of household duties which were supposed to content young women of her age and station. Even if she tried to pay visits or receive them from her friends, or to go on with her studies, or to review some text-book of which she had been fond, there was no motive for it; it all led to nothing; it began for no reason and ended in no use, as she exclaimed one day most dramatically. Poor Nan hurried through her house business, or neglected it, as the case might be, greatly to Manila's surprise and scorn, for the girl had always proved herself diligent and interested in the home affairs. More and more she puzzled herself and everybody about her, and as the days went by she spent them out of doors at the old farm, or on the river, or in taking long rides on a young horse; a bargain the doctor had somewhat repented before he found that Nan was helped through some of her troubled hours by the creature's wildness and fleetness. It was very plain that his ward was adrift, and at first the doctor suggested farther study of Latin or chemistry, but afterward philosophically resigned himself to patience, feeling certain that some indication of the right course would not be long withheld, and that a wind from the right quarter would presently fill the flapping sails of this idle young craft and send it on its way.
One afternoon Nan went hurrying out of the house just after dinner, and the doctor saw that her face was unusually troubled. He had asked her if she would like to drive with him to a farm just beyond the Dyers' later in the day, but for a wonder she had refused. Dr. Leslie gave a little sigh as he left the table, and presently watched her go down the street as he stood by the window. It would be very sad if the restlessness and discord of her poor mother should begin to show themselves again; he could not bear to think of such an inheritance.
But Nan thought little of anybody else's discomforts as she hurried along the road; she only wished to get to the beloved farm, and to be free there from questions, and from the evidences of her unfitness for the simple duties which life seemed offering her with heartless irony. She was not good for anything after all, it appeared, and she had been cheating herself. This was no life at all, this fretful idleness; if only she had been trained as boys are, to the work of their lives! She had hoped that Dr. Leslie would help her; he used to talk long ago about her studying medicine, but he must have forgotten that, and the girl savagely rebuked society in general for her unhappiness. Of course she could keep the house, but it was kept already; any one with five senses and good health like hers could prove herself able to do any of the ordinary work of existence. For her part it was not enough to be waited upon and made comfortable, she wanted something more, to be really of use in the world, and to do work which the world needed.
Where the main road turned eastward up the hills, a footpath, already familiar to the reader, shortened the distance to the farm, and the young girl quickly crossed the rude stile and disappeared among the underbrush, walking bareheaded with the swift steps of a creature whose home was in some such place as this. Often the dry twigs, fallen from the gray lower branches of the pines, crackled and snapped under her feet, or the bushes rustled backed again to their places after she pushed against them in passing; she hurried faster and faster, going first through the dense woods and then out into the sunlight. Once or twice in the open ground she stopped and knelt quickly on the soft turf or moss to look at a little plant, while the birds which she startled came back to their places directly, as if they had been quick to feel that this was a friend and not an enemy, though disguised in human shape. At last Nan reached the moss-grown fence of the farm and leaped over it, and fairly ran to the river-shore, where she went straight to one of the low-growing cedars, and threw herself upon it as if it were a couch. While she sat there, breathing fast and glowing with bright color, the river sent a fresh breeze by way of messenger, and the old cedar held its many branches above her and around her most comfortably, and sheltered her as it had done many times before. It need not have envied other trees the satisfaction of climbing straight upward in a single aspiration of growth.
And presently Nan told herself that there was nothing like a good run. She looked to and fro along the river, and listened to the sheep-bell which tinkled lazily in the pasture behind her. She looked over her shoulder to see if a favorite young birch tree had suffered no harm, for it grew close by the straight-edged path in which the cattle came down to drink. So she rested in the old playground, unconscious that she had been following her mother's footsteps, or that fate had again brought her here for a great decision. Years before, the miserable, suffering woman, who had wearily come to this place to end their lives, had turned away that the child might make her own choice between the good and evil things of life. Though Nan told herself that she must make it plain how she could spend her time in Oldfields to good purpose and be of most use at home, and must get a new strength for these duties, a decision suddenly presented itself to her with a force of reason and necessity the old dream of it had never shown. Why should it not be a reality that she studied medicine?
The thought entirely possessed her, and the glow of excitement and enthusiasm made her spring from the cedar boughs and laugh aloud. Her whole heart went out to this work, and she wondered why she had ever lost sight of it. She was sure this was the way in which she could find most happiness. God had directed her at last, and though the opening of her sealed orders had been long delayed, the suspense had only made her surer that she must hold fast this unspeakably great motive: something to work for with all her might as long as she lived. People might laugh or object. Nothing should turn her aside, and a new affection for kind and patient Dr. Leslie filled her mind. How eager he had been to help her in all her projects so far, and yet it was asking a great deal that he should favor this; he had never seemed to show any suspicion that she would not live on quietly at home like other girls; but while Nan told herself that she would give up any plan, even this, if he could convince her that it would be wrong, still her former existence seemed like a fog and uncertainty of death, from which she had turned away, this time of her own accord, toward a great light of satisfaction and certain safety and helpfulness. The doctor would know how to help her; if she only could study with him that would be enough; and away she went, hurrying down the river-shore as if she were filled with a new life and happiness.
She startled a brown rabbit from under a bush, and made him a grave salutation when he stopped and lifted his head to look at her from a convenient distance. Once she would have stopped and seated herself on the grass to amaze him with courteous attempts at friendliness, but now she only laughed again, and went quickly down the steep bank through the junipers and then hurried along the pebbly margin of the stream toward the village. She smiled to see lying side by side a flint arrowhead and a water-logged bobbin that had floated down from one of the mills, and gave one a toss over the water, while she put the other in her pocket. Her thoughts were busy enough, and though some reasons against the carrying out of her plan ventured to assert themselves, they had no hope of carrying the day, being in piteous minority, though she considered them one by one. By and by she came into the path again, and as she reached the stile she was at first glad and then sorry to see the doctor coming along the high road from the Donnell farm. She was a little dismayed at herself because she had a sudden disinclination to tell this good friend her secret.
But Dr. Leslie greeted her most cheerfully, giving her the reins when she had climbed into the wagon, and they talked of the weather and of the next day's plans as they drove home together. The girl felt a sense of guilt and a shameful lack of courage, but she was needlessly afraid that her happiness might be spoiled by a word from that quarter.
That very evening it was raining outside, and the doctor and Nan were sitting in the library opposite each other at the study-table, and as they answered some letters in order to be ready for the early morning post, they stole a look at each other now and then. The doctor laid down his pen first, and presently, as Nan with a little sigh threw hers into the tray beside it, he reached forward to where there was one of the few uncovered spaces of the dark wood of the table and drew his finger across it. They both saw the shining surface much more clearly, and as the dusty finger was held up and examined carefully by its owner, the girl tried to laugh, and then found her voice trembling as she said: "I believe I haven't forgotten to put the table in order before. I have tried to take care of the study at any rate."
"Nan dear, it isn't the least matter in the world!" said Dr. Leslie. "I think we are a little chilly here this damp night; suppose you light the fire? At any rate it will clear away all those envelopes and newspaper wrappers," and he turned his arm-chair so that it faced the fireplace, and watched the young girl as she moved about the room. She lifted one of the large sticks and stood it on one end at the side of the hearth, and the doctor noticed that she did it less easily than usual and without the old strength and alertness. He had sprung up to help her just too late, but she had indignantly refused any assistance with a half pettishness that was not a common mood with her.
"I don't see why Jane or Marilla, or whoever it was, put that heavy log on at this time of the year," said Dr. Leslie, as if it were a matter of solemn consequence. By this time he had lighted a fresh cigar, and Nan had brought her little wooden chair from some corner of the room where it had always lived since it came with her from the farm. It was a dear old-fashioned little thing, but quite too small for its owner, who had grown up tall and straight, but who had felt a sudden longing to be a child again, as she quietly took her place before the fire.
"That log?" she said, "I wonder if you will never learn that we must not burn it? I saw Marilla myself when she climbed the highest wood-pile at the farther end of the wood-house for it. I suppose all the time I have been away you have been remorselessly burning up the show logs. I don't wonder at her telling me this very morning that she was born to suffer, and suffer she supposed she must. We never used to be allowed to put papers in the fireplace, but you have gained ever so many liberties. I wonder if Marilla really thinks she has had a hard life?" the girl said, in a different tone.
"I wonder if you think yours is hard too?" asked the doctor.
And Nan did not know at first what to say. The bright light of the burning papers and the pine-cone kindlings suddenly faded out and the study seemed dark and strange by contrast; but the doctor did not speak either; he only bent towards her presently, and put his hand on the top of the girl's head and stroked the soft hair once or twice, and then gently turned it until he could see Nan's face.
Her eyes met his frankly as ever, but they were full of tears. "Yes," she said; "I wish you would talk to me. I wish you would give me a great scolding. I never needed it so much in my life. I meant to come home and be very good, and do everything I could to make you happy, but it all grows worse every day. I thought at first I was tired with the last days of school, but it is something more than that. I don't wish in the least that I were back at school, but I can't understand anything; there is something in me that wants to be busy, and can't find anything to do. I don't mean to be discontented; I don't want to be anywhere else in the world."
"There is enough to do," answered the doctor, as placidly as possible, for this was almost the first time he had noticed distinctly the mother's nature in her daughter; a restless, impatient, miserable sort of longing for The Great Something Else, as Dr. Ferris had once called it. "Don't fret yourself, Nan, yours is a short-lived sorrow; for if you have any conscience at all about doing your work you will be sure enough to find it."
"I think I have found it at last, but I don't know whether any one else will agree with me," half whispered poor Nan; while the doctor, in spite of himself, of his age, and experience, and sympathy, and self-control, could not resist a smile. "I hate to talk about myself or to be sentimental, but I want to throw my whole love and life into whatever there is waiting for me to do, and—I began to be afraid I had missed it somehow. Once I thought I should like to be a teacher, and come back here when I was through school and look after the village children. I had such splendid ideas about that, but they all faded out. I went into the school-house one day, and I thought I would rather die than be shut up there from one week's end to another."
"No," said Dr. Leslie, with grave composure. "No, I don't feel sure that you would do well to make a teacher of yourself."
"I wish that I had known when school was over that I must take care of myself, as one or two of the girls meant to do, and sometimes it seems as if I ought," said Nan, after a silence of a few minutes, and this time it was very hard to speak. "You have been so kind, and have done so much for me; I supposed at first there was money enough of my own, but I know now."
"Dear child!" the doctor exclaimed, "you will never know, unless you are left alone as I was, what a blessing it is to have somebody to take care of and to love; I have put you in the place of my own little child, and have watched you grow up here, with more thankfulness every year. Don't ever say another word to me about the money part of it. What had I to spend money for? And now I hear you say all these despairing things; but I am an old man, and I take them for what they are worth. You have a few hard months before you, perhaps, but before you know it they will be over with. Don't worry yourself; look after Marilla a little, and that new hand-maid, and drive about with me. To-morrow I must be on the road all day, and, to tell the truth, I must think over one or two of my cases before I go to bed. Won't you hand me my old prescription book? I was trying to remember something as I came home."
Nan, half-comforted, went to find the book, while Dr. Leslie, puffing his cigar-smoke very fast, looked up through the cloud abstractedly at a new ornament which had been placed above the mantel shelf since we first knew the room. Old Captain Finch had solaced his weary and painful last years by making a beautiful little model of a ship, and had left it in his will to the doctor. There never was a more touching gift, this present owner often thought, and he had put it in its place with reverent hands. A comparison of the two lives came stealing into his mind, and he held the worn prescription-book a minute before he opened it. The poor old captain waiting to be released, stranded on the inhospitable shore of this world, and eager Nan, who was sorrowfully longing for the world's war to begin. "Two idle heroes," thought Dr. Leslie, "and I neither wished to give one his discharge nor the other her commission;" but he said aloud, "Nan, we will take a six o'clock start in the morning, and go down through the sandy plains before the heat begins. I am afraid it will be one of the worst of the dog-days."
"Yes," answered Nan eagerly, and then she came close to the doctor, and looked at him a moment before she spoke, while her face shone with delight. "I am going to be a doctor, too! I have thought it would be the best thing in the world ever since I can remember. The little prescription-book was the match that lit the fire! but I have been wishing to tell you all the evening."
"We must ask Marilla," the doctor began to say, and tried to add, "What will she think?" but Nan hardly heard him, and did not laugh at his jokes. For she saw by his face that there was no need of teasing. And she assured herself that if he thought it was only a freak of which she would soon tire, she was quite willing to be put to the proof.
Next morning, for a wonder, Nan waked early, even before the birds had quite done singing, and it seemed a little strange that the weather should be clear and bright, and almost like June, since she was a good deal troubled.
She felt at first as if there were some unwelcome duty in her day's work, and then remembered the early drive with great pleasure, but the next minute the great meaning and responsibility of the decision she had announced the evening before burst upon her mind, and a flood of reasons assailed her why she should not keep to so uncommon a purpose. It seemed to her as if the first volume of life was ended, and as if it had been deceitfully easy, since she had been led straight-forward to this point. It amazed her to find the certainty take possession of her mind that her vocation had been made ready for her from the beginning. She had the feeling of a reformer, a radical, and even of a political agitator, as she tried to face her stormy future in that summer morning loneliness. But by the time she had finished her early breakfast, and was driving out of the gate with the doctor, the day seemed so much like other days that her trouble of mind almost disappeared. Though she had known instinctively that all the early part of her life had favored this daring project, and the next few years would hinder it if they could, still there was something within her stronger than any doubts that could possibly assail her. And instead of finding everything changed, as one always expects to do when a great change has happened to one's self, the road was so familiar, and the condition of the outer world so harmonious, that she hardly understood that she had opened a gate and shut it behind her, between that day and its yesterday. She held the reins, and the doctor was apparently in a most commonplace frame of mind. She wished he would say something about their talk of the night before, but he did not. She seemed very old to herself, older than she ever would seem again, perhaps, but the doctor had apparently relapsed into their old relations as guardian and child. Perhaps he thought she would forget her decision, and did not know how much it meant to her. He was quite provoking. He hurried the horse himself as they went up a somewhat steep ascent, and as Nan touched the not very fleet steed with the whip on the next level bit of road, she was reminded that it was a very hot morning and that they had a great way to drive. When she asked what was the matter with the patient they were on their way to see, she was answered abruptly that he suffered from a complication of disorders, which was the more aggravating because Nan had heard this answer laughed at as being much used by old Dr. Jackson, who was usually unwilling or unable to commit himself to a definite opinion. Nan fancied herself at that minute already a member of the profession, and did not like to be joked with in such a fashion, but she tried to be amused, which generosity was appreciated by her companion better than she knew.
Dr. Leslie was not much of a singer, but he presently lifted what little voice he had, and began to favor Nan with a not very successful rendering of "Bonny Doon." Every minute seemed more critical to the girl beside him, and she thought of several good ways to enter upon a discussion of her great subject, but with unusual restraint and reserve let the moments and the miles go by until the doctor had quickly stepped down from the carriage and disappeared within his patient's door. Nan's old custom of following him had been neglected for some time, since she had found that the appearance of a tall young woman had quite a different effect upon a household from that of a little child. She had formed the habit of carrying a book with her on the long drives, though she often left it untouched while she walked up and down the country roads, or even ventured upon excursions as far afield as she dared, while the doctor made his visit, which was apt to be a long one in the lonely country houses. This morning she had possessed herself of a square, thin volume which gave lists and plates of the nerve system of the human body. The doctor had nearly laughed aloud when he caught sight of it, and when Nan opened it with decision and gravity and read the first page slowly, she was conscious of a lack of interest in her subject. She had lost the great enthusiasm of the night before, and felt like the little heap of ashes which such a burning and heroic self might well have left.
Presently she went strolling down the road, gathering some large leaves on her way, and stopped at the brook, where she pulled up some bits of a strange water-weed, and made them into a damp, round bundle with the leaves and a bit of string. This was a rare plant which they had both noticed the day before, and they had taken some specimens then, Nan being at this time an ardent botanist, but these had withered and been lost, also, on the way home.
Dr. Leslie was in even less of a hurry than usual, and when he came out he looked very much pleased. "I never was more thankful in my life," he said eagerly, as soon as he was within convenient distance. "That poor fellow was at death's door yesterday, and when I saw his wife and little children, and thought his life was all that stood between them and miserable destitution, it seemed to me that I must save it! This morning he is as bright as a dollar, but I have been dreading to go into that house ever since I left it yesterday noon. They didn't in the least know how narrow a chance he had. And it isn't the first time I have been chief mourner. Poor souls! they don't dread their troubles half so much as I do. He will have a good little farm here in another year or two, it only needs draining to be excellent land, and he knows that." The doctor turned and looked back over the few acres with great pleasure. "Now we'll go and see about old Mrs. Willet, though I don't believe there's any great need of it. She belongs to one of two very bad classes of patients. It makes me so angry to hear her cough twice as much as need be. In your practice," he continued soberly, "you must remember that there is danger of giving too strong doses to such a sufferer, and too light ones to the friends who insist there is nothing the matter with them. I wouldn't give much for a doctor who can't see for himself in most cases, but not always,—not always."
The doctor was in such a hospitable frame of mind that nobody could have helped telling him anything, and happily he made an excellent introduction for Nan's secret by inquiring how she had got on with her studies, but she directed his attention to the wet plants in the bottom of the carriage, which were complimented before she said, a minute afterward, "Oh, I wonder if I shall make a mistake? I was afraid you would laugh at me, and think it was all nonsense."
"Dear me, no," replied the doctor. "You will be the successor of Mrs. Martin Dyer, and the admiration of the neighborhood;" but changing his tone quickly, he said: "I am going to teach you all I can, just as long as you have any wish to learn. It has not done you a bit of harm to know something about medicine, and I believe in your studying it more than you do yourself. I have always thought about it. But you are very young; there's plenty of time, and I don't mean to be hurried; you must remember that,—though I see your fitness and peculiar adaptability a great deal better than you can these twenty years yet. You will be growing happier these next few years at any rate, however impossible life has seemed to you lately."
"I suppose there will be a great many obstacles," reflected Nan, with an absence of her usual spirit.
"Obstacles! Yes," answered Dr. Leslie, vigorously. "Of course there will be; it is climbing a long hill to try to study medicine or to study anything else. And if you are going to fear obstacles you will have a poor chance at success. There are just as many reasons as you will stop to count up why you should not do your plain duty, but if you are going to make anything of yourself you must go straight ahead, taking it for granted that there will be opposition enough, but doing what is right all the same. I suppose I have repeated to you fifty times what old Friend Meadows told me years ago; he was a great success at money-making, and once I asked him to give me some advice about a piece of property. 'Friend Leslie,' says he, 'thy own opinion is the best for thee; if thee asks ten people what to do, they will tell thee ten things, and then thee doesn't know as much as when thee set out,'" and Dr. Leslie, growing very much in earnest, reached forward for the whip. "I want you to be a good woman, and I want you to be all the use you can," he said. "It seems to me like stealing, for men and women to live in the world and do nothing to make it better. You have thought a great deal about this, and so have I, and now we will do the best we can at making a good doctor of you. I don't care whether people think it is a proper vocation for women or not. It seems to me that it is more than proper for you, and God has given you a fitness for it which it is a shame to waste. And if you ever hesitate and regret what you have said, you won't have done yourself any harm by learning how to take care of your own health and other people's."
"But I shall never regret it," said Nan stoutly. "I don't believe I should ever be fit for anything else, and you know as well as I that I must have something to do. I used to wish over and over again that I was a boy, when I was a little thing down at the farm, and the only reason I had in the world was that I could be a doctor, like you."
"Better than that, I hope," said Dr. Leslie. "But you mustn't think it will be a short piece of work; it will take more patience than you are ready to give just now, and we will go on quietly and let it grow by the way, like your water-weed here. If you don't drive a little faster, Sister Willet may be gathered before we get to her;" and this being a somewhat unwise and hysterical patient, whose recovery was not in the least despaired of, Dr. Leslie and his young companion were heartlessly merry over her case.
The doctor had been unprepared for such an episode; outwardly, life had seemed to flow so easily from one set of circumstances to the next, and the changes had been so gradual and so natural. He had looked forward with such certainty to Nan's future, that it seemed strange that the formal acceptance of such an inevitable idea as her studying medicine should have troubled her so much.
Separated as he was from the groups of men and women who are responsible for what we call the opinion of society, and independent himself of any fettering conventionalities, he had grown careless of what anybody might say. He only hoped, since his ward had found her proper work, that she would hold to it, and of this he had little doubt. The girl herself quickly lost sight of the fancied difficulty of making the great decision, and, as is usually the case, saw all the first objections and hindrances fade away into a dim distance, and grow less and less noticeable. And more than that, it seemed to her as if she had taken every step of her life straight toward this choice of a profession. So many things she had never understood before, now became perfectly clear and evident proofs that, outside her own preferences and choices, a wise purpose had been at work with her and for her. So it all appeared more natural every day, and while she knew that the excitement and formality of the first very uncomfortable day or two had proved her freedom of choice, it seemed the more impossible that she should have shirked this great commission and trust for which nature had fitted her.