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A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett
Dr. Leslie held too securely the affection of his townspeople to be in danger of losing their regard or respect, yet he would have been half pained and half amused if he had known how foolishly his plans, which came in time to be his ward's also, were smiled and frowned upon in the Oldfields houses. Conformity is the inspiration of much second-rate virtue. If we keep near a certain humble level of morality and achievement, our neighbors are willing to let us slip through life unchallenged. Those who anticipate the opinions and decisions of society must expect to be found guilty of many sins.
There was not one of the young village people so well known as the doctor's little girl, who drove with him day by day, and with whom he kept such delightful and trustful companionship. If she had been asked in later years what had decided her to study not only her profession, but any profession, it would have been hard for her to answer anything beside the truth that the belief in it had grown with herself. There had been many reasons why it seemed unnecessary. There was every prospect that she would be rich enough to place her beyond the necessity of self-support. She could have found occupation in simply keeping the doctor's house and being a cordial hostess in that home and a welcome guest in other people's. She was already welcome everywhere in Oldfields, but in spite of this, which would have seemed to fill the hearts and lives of other girls, it seemed to her like a fragment of her life and duty; and when she had ordered her housekeeping and her social duties, there was a restless readiness for a more absorbing duty and industry; and, as the years went by, all her desire tended in one direction. The one thing she cared most to learn increased its attraction continually, and though one might think the purpose of her guardian had had its influence and moulded her character by its persistence, the truth was that the wise doctor simply followed as best he could the leadings of the young nature itself, and so the girl grew naturally year by year, reaching out half unconsciously for what belonged to her life and growth; being taught one thing more than all, that her duty must be followed eagerly and reverently in spite of the adverse reasons which tempted and sometimes baffled her. As she grew older she was to understand more clearly that indecision is but another name for cowardice and weakness; a habit of mind that quickly increases its power of hindrance. She had the faults that belonged to her character, but these were the faults of haste and rashness rather than the more hopeless ones of obstinacy or a lack of will and purpose.
The Sunday evening tea-drinking with Mrs. Graham, though somewhat formidable at first to our heroine, became quickly one of her dearest pleasures, and led to a fast friendship between the kind hostess and her young guest. Soon Nan gave herself eagerly to a plan of spending two or three evenings a week across the way for the purpose of reading aloud, sometimes from books she did not understand, but oftener from books of her own choice. It was supposed to be wholly a kindness on the young girl's part, and Mrs. Graham allowed the excuse of a temporary ailment of her own strong and useful eyes to serve until neither she nor Nan had the least thought of giving up their pleasant habit of reading together. And to this willing listener Nan came in time with her youthful dreams and visions of future prosperities in life, so that presently Mrs. Graham knew many things which would have surprised the doctor, who on the other hand was the keeper of equally amazing and treasured confidences of another sort. It was a great pleasure to both these friends, but most especially to the elderly woman, that Nan seemed so entirely satisfied with their friendship. The busy doctor, who often had more than enough to think and worry about, sometimes could spare but little time to Nan for days together, but her other companion was always waiting for her, and the smile was always ready by way of greeting when the child looked eagerly up at the parlor window. What stories of past days and memories of youth and of long-dead friends belonging to the dear lady's own girlhood were poured into Nan's delighted ears! She came in time to know Mrs. Graham's own immediate ancestors, and the various members of her family with their fates and fortunes, as if she were a contemporary, and was like another grandchild who was a neighbor and beloved crony, which real blessing none of the true grandchildren had ever been lucky enough to possess. She formed a welcome link with the outer world, did little Nan, and from being a cheerful errand-runner, came at last to paying friendly visits in the neighborhood to carry Mrs. Graham's messages and assurances. And from all these daily suggestions of courtesy and of good taste and high breeding, and helpful fellowship with good books, and the characters in their stories which were often more real and dear and treasured in her thoughts than her actual fellow townsfolk, [;] Nan drew much pleasure and not a little wisdom; at any rate a direction for which she would all her life be thankful. It would have been surprising if her presence in the doctor's house had not after some time made changes in it, but there was no great difference outwardly except that she gathered some trifling possessions which sometimes harmonized, and as often did not, with the household gods of the doctor and Marilla. There was a shy sort of intercourse between Nan and Mrs. Graham's grandchildren, but it was not very valuable to any of the young people at first, the country child being too old and full of experience to fellowship with the youngest, and too unversed in the familiar machinery of their social life to feel much kinship with the eldest.
It was during one of these early summer visits, and directly after a tea-party which Marilla had proudly projected on Nan's account, that Dr. Leslie suddenly announced that he meant to go to Boston for a few days and should take Nan with him. This event had long been promised, but had seemed at length like the promise of happiness in a future world, reasonably certain, but a little vague and distant. It was a more important thing than anybody understood, for a dear and familiar chapter of life was ended when the expectant pair drove out of the village on their way to the far-off railway station, as another had been closed when the door of the Thacher farm-house had been shut and padlocked, and Nan had gone home one snowy night to live with the doctor. The weather at any rate was different now, for it was early June, the time when doctors can best give themselves a holiday; and though Dr. Leslie assured himself that he had little wish to take the journey, he felt it quite due to his ward that she should see a little more of the world, and happily due also to certain patients and his brother physicians that he should visit the instrument-makers' shops, and some bookstores; in fact there were a good many important errands to which it was just as well to attend in person. But he watched Nan's wide-open, delighted eyes, and observed her lack of surprise at strange sights, and her perfect readiness for the marvelous, with great amusement. He was touched and pleased because she cared most for what had concerned him; to be told where he lived and studied, and to see the places he had known best, roused most enthusiasm. An afternoon in a corner of the reading-room at the Athenæum library, in which he had spent delightful hours when he was a young man, seemed to please the young girl more than anything else. As he sat beside the table where he had gathered enough books and papers to last for many days, in his delight at taking up again his once familiar habit, Nan looked on with sympathetic eyes, or watched the squirrels in the trees of the quiet Granary Burying Ground, which seemed to her like a bit of country which the noisy city had caught and imprisoned. Now that she was fairly out in the world she felt a new, strange interest in her mysterious aunt, for it was this hitherto unknown space outside the borders of Oldfields to which her father and his people belonged. And as a charming old lady went by in a pretty carriage, the child's gaze followed her wistfully as she and the doctor were walking along the street. With a sudden blaze of imagination she had wished those pleasant eyes might have seen the likeness to her father, of which she had been sometimes told, and that the carriage had been hurried back, so that the long estrangement might be ended. It was a strange thing that, just afterward, Dr. Leslie had, with much dismay, caught sight of the true aunt; for Miss Anna Prince of Dunport had also seen fit to make one of her rare visits to Boston. She looked dignified and stately, but a little severe, as she went down the side street away from them. Nan's quick eyes had noticed already the difference between the city people and the country folks, and would have even recognized a certain provincialism in her father's sister. The doctor had only seen Miss Prince once many years before, but he had known her again with instinctive certainty, and Nan did not guess, though she was most grateful for it, why he reached for her hand, and held it fast as they walked together, just as he always used to do when she was a little girl. She was not yet fully grown, and she never suspected the sudden thrill of dread, and consciousness of the great battle of life which she must soon begin to fight, which all at once chilled the doctor's heart. "It's a cold world, a cold world," he had said to himself. "Only one thing will help her through safely, and that is her usefulness. She shall never be either a thief or a beggar of the world's favor if I can have my wish." And Nan, holding his hand with her warm, soft, childish one, looked up in his face, all unconscious that he thought with pity how unaware she was of the years to come, and of their difference to this sunshine holiday. "And yet I never was so happy at her age as I am this summer," the doctor told himself by way of cheer.
They paid some visits together to Dr. Leslie's much-neglected friends, and it was interesting to see how, for the child's sake, he resumed his place among these acquaintances to whom he had long been linked either personally in times past, or by family ties. He was sometimes reproached for his love of seclusion and cordially welcomed back to his old relations, but as often found it impossible to restore anything but a formal intercourse of a most temporary nature. The people for whom he cared most, all seemed attracted to his young ward, and he noted this with pleasure, though he had not recognized the fact that he had been, for the moment, basely uncertain whether his judgment of her worth would be confirmed. He laughed at the insinuation that he had made a hermit or an outlaw of himself; he would have been still more amused to hear one of his old friends say that this was the reason they had seen so little of him in late years, and that it was a shame that a man of his talent and many values to the world should be hiding his light under the Oldfields bushel, and all for the sake of bringing up this child. As for Nan, she had little to say, but kept her eyes and ears wide open, and behaved herself discreetly. She had ceased to belong only to the village she had left; in these days she became a citizen of the world at large. Her horizon had suddenly become larger, and she might have discovered more than one range of mountains which must be crossed as the years led her forward steadily, one by one.
There is nothing so interesting as to be able to watch the change and progress of the mental and moral nature, provided it grows eagerly and steadily. There must be periods of repose and hibernation like the winter of a plant, and in its springtime the living soul will both consciously and unconsciously reach out for new strength and new light. The leaves and flowers of action and achievement are only the signs of the vitality that works within.
conformity is the inspiration of much second-rate virtue: This echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in "Self-Reliance" (1841).
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at the Athenæum library ... Granary Burying Ground: The Boston Athenæum is a small private library, founded in 1807. It sits adjacent to the Old Granary Burying Ground, named for a 17th-century granary on the site. Several heroes of the American Revolution are buried here, including Samuel Adams.
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hiding his light under the Oldfields bushel: See Matthew 5:15-16.
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