Read CHAPTER VIII. of The Doctor's Family , free online book, by Mrs Margaret Oliphant, on

Such a parting, however, is sadly apt to lead to future meetings.  Notwithstanding his smouldering quarrel with Fred, which was always ready to burst out afresh, Dr Rider would not give up coming to St Roque’s.  He came to some clandestine arrangement with Mrs Smith, of which nobody ever was aware, and which he himself was rather ashamed of than otherwise; and he attended Freddy with the most dutiful exactness till the child was quite restored.  But all this time Nettie put on a coat of armour, and looked so thoroughly unlike herself in her unusual reserve and propriety, that the doctor was heartily discouraged, and could go no further.  Besides, it would not be positively correct to assert that-though he would gladly have carried her off in the drag anywhere, to the end of the world, in the enchantment of the moment-he was just as ready to propose setting up a new household, with Fred and his family hanging on to it as natural dependants.  That was a step the doctor was not prepared for.  Some people are compelled to take the prose concerns of life into full consideration even when they are in love, and Edward Rider was one of these unfortunate individuals.  The boldness which puts everything to the touch to gain or lose was not in this young man.  He had been put to hard encounters enough in his day, and had learned to trust little to chance or good fortune.  He did not possess the boldness which disarms an adverse fate, nor that confidence in his own powers which smooths down wounded pride, and accounts even for failure.  He was, perhaps it is only right to say, not very capable of heroism:  but he was capable of seeing the lack of the heroic in his own composition, and of feeling bitterly his own self-reproaches, and the remarks of the world, which is always so ready to taunt the very cowardice it creates.  After that moment in which he could have dared anything for her and with her, it is sad to be obliged to admit that perhaps Dr Edward too, like Nettie, withdrew a little from that climax of feeling.  Not that his heart grew colder or his sentiments changed; but only that, in sight of the inevitable result, the poor young fellow paused and pondered, obeying the necessity of his nature.  People who jump at conclusions, if they have to bear the consequences of folly often enough, are at least spared those preliminary heartaches.  Dr Rider, eager as love and youth could make him, was yet incapable of shutting his eyes to the precipice at his feet.  That he despised himself for doing so, did not make the matter easier.  These were the limits of his nature, and beyond them he could not pass.

Accordingly matters went on in this dangerous fashion for many weeks longer.  The fire smouldered, strengthening its pent-up flames.  Day by day malicious sprites of thought went out behind Dr Rider in his drag, leading him into the wildest calculations, the most painful complication of schemes.  If Fred and his family could only be persuaded to return to Australia, his brother thought-if any bribe within Edward’s means could tempt the ruined man to such a step; and when he was there, why there was Providence to take care of the helpless unlovely household, and necessity might compel the wretched father to work for his children.  Such were the vain projects that revolved and fermented through the doctor’s agitated brain as he went among his patients.  Luckily he had a very favourable and well-disposed lot of sick people at that crisis-they all got well in spite of the doctor, and gave their own special cases and his anxiety all the credit for his grave looks; and all these half-finished streets and rough new roads in the east end of Carlingford were sown thick with the bootless suggestions of Dr Rider’s love and fears.  The crop did not show upon the vulgar soil, but gave lurking associations to every half-built street corner which he passed in his rounds many a day after, and served at this present momentous era to confuse doubly the chaos of his thoughts.

At last one night the crisis came.  Spring had begun to show faintly in the lengthening days-spring, that so often belies itself, and comes with a serpent’s tooth.  Dr Rider on that particular day had met Dr Marjoribanks at some meeting convened in the interests of Carlingford.  The old physician had been very gracious and cordial to the young one-had spoken of his own declining health, of his possible retirement, of the excellent prospects which a rising young man in their profession had in Carlingford; and, finally, had asked Dr Rider to go with him next day to see an interesting patient, and advise as to the treatment of the case.

The young doctor was more pleased than he could or would have told any one; and, with a natural impulse, seized the earliest moment to direct his steps towards St Roque’s.

It was twilight when Dr Edward went down the long and rather tiresome line of Grange Lane.  These garden-walls, so delicious in their bowery retirements within, were not interesting outside to the pedestrian.  But the doctor’s attention was so speedily riveted on two figures eagerly talking near Mr Wodehouse’s garden-door, that the long sweep of wall seemed but a single step to him as he hurried along.  Those two figures were unquestionably Nettie for one, and Mr Wentworth for another.  Handsome young coxcomb, with all his Puseyitical pretences!  Was Lucy Wodehouse not enough for him, that he must have Nettie too?  Dr Rider hurried forward to interrupt that meeting.  He was actually turning with her, walking slowly back again the very way he had just come!  Edward’s blood boiled in his impatient veins.  He swept along in a whirlwind of sudden wrath.  When he came up to them Nettie was talking low, and the curate’s lofty head was bent to hear her in a manner which, it is probable, Lucy Wodehouse would no more have admired than Edward Rider.  They came to a sudden pause when he joined them, in that particular conversation.  The doctor’s dread civility did not improve matters.  Without asking himself what cause he had, this amiable young man plunged into the wildest jealousy without pause or interval.  He bestowed upon Nettie the most cutting looks, the most overwhelming politeness.  When the three had marched solemnly abreast down the road for some few minutes, the curate, perhaps with an intuition of fellow-feeling, perceiving how the matter was, stopped short and said good-bye.  “I will make inquiries, and let you know next time I pass the cottage,” said Mr Wentworth; and he and the doctor took off their hats, not without deadly thoughts on one side at least.  When the young clergyman left them, Nettie and her sulky cavalier went on in silence.  That intrepid little woman was not in her usual spirits, it appeared.  She had no talk for Dr Edward any more than he had for her.  She carried a multiplicity of little parcels in her hands, and walked with a certain air of fatigue.  The doctor walked on, stealing silent looks at her, till his heart melted.  But the melting of his heart displayed itself characteristically.  He would not come down from his elevation without suffering her to see how angry he was.

“I fear I interrupted an interesting conversation-I that have so little hope of equalling Mr Wentworth.  Priests are always infallible with women,” said the doctor, betraying his ill-temper in vulgar sneers.

“I was asking him for some one to teach the boys,” said Nettie.  “Johnnie ought to have his education attended to now.  Mr Wentworth is very good-tempered, Dr Edward.  Though he was just going to knock at Miss Wodehouse’s door when I met him, he offered, and would have done it if you had not come up, to walk home with me.  Not that I wanted anybody to walk home with me; but it was very kind,” said Nettie, with rising spirit.

“I am afraid I am a very poor substitute for Mr Wentworth,” said the jealous doctor, “and I don’t pretend to be kind.  But I am surprised to find Miss Underwood walking so late.  This is not a road for a lady by herself.”

“You know I don’t mind in the least for the road,” said Nettie, with a little indignation.  “How wonderfully cross you are sometimes!  If you are going as far as the Cottage,” she added, with a little sigh of fatigue, “will you please carry some of these things for me!  I could not get out sooner, I have been so busy to-day.  It is wonderful how much needlework it takes to keep three children going, and how many little jobs there are to do.  If you take this parcel, carry it carefully, please:  it is something for my bonnet.  There!  Don’t be absurd.  I am quite able to walk by myself, thank you-I’d rather, please!”

This remonstrance was called forth by the fact that the relenting doctor, much moved by having the parcels confided to his care, had drawn the little hand which gave them within his arm, a proceeding which Nettie distinctly disapproved of.  She withdrew her hand quickly, and walked on with much dignity by his side.

“I can carry your parcels,” said Edward, after a little pause, “but you will not let me help yourself.  You take the heaviest burdens upon your shoulders, and then will have no assistance in bearing them.  How long are these children of Fred’s-detestable little imps!-to work you to death?”

“You are speaking of my children, sir!” cried Nettie, with a little blaze of resentment.  “But you don’t mean it, Dr Edward,” she said, a moment after, in a slightly coaxing tone.  “You are tired and cross after your day’s work.  Perhaps it will be best, if you are very cross, not to come down all the way to the Cottage, thank you.  I don’t want you to quarrel with Fred.”

“Cross!  Nettie, you are enough to drive twenty men distracted!” cried the poor doctor.  “You know as well as I do what I have been dying to say to you these three months past; and to see you go on with these confounded children without so much as a glance for a fellow who -”

“Don’t speak like that,” cried Nettie, with brilliant female instinct; “you’ll be sorry for it after; for you know, Dr Edward, you have not said anything particular to me these three months past.”

This touch gave the last exasperation to the agitated mind of the doctor.  He burst forth into a passionate outbreak of love and anger, curiously mingled, but too warm and real to leave Nettie much coolness of observation under the circumstances.  She took the advantage over him which a woman naturally does in such a case.  She went on softly, trembling sufficiently to her own consciousness, but not to his, suffering him to pour out that torrent without interruption.  She made no answer till the whole agitated self-disclosure was complete.  In the interval she got a little command of herself, and was able to speak when it came to her turn.

“Dr Edward,” said Nettie, solemnly, “you know it is impossible.  If we cared for each other ever so much, what could we do?  I am not free to-to make any change; and I know very well, and so do you, that you never could put up with Fred and Susan and the children, were things as you say ten times over.  I don’t mean I don’t believe you.  I don’t mean I might not have been pleased had things been different.  But you know it is just plainly impossible.  You know your own temper and your own spirit-and perhaps you know mine as well.  No, no-we cannot manage it anyhow, Dr Edward,” said Nettie, with a little sigh.

“Is this all you have to say to me?” cried the astonished lover.

“I am sure I do not know what else to say,” said Nettie, with matter-of-fact distinctness.  “I don’t need to enter into all the business again, and tell you how things stand; you know as well as I do.  One may be sorry, but one must do what one has to do all the same.”

A painful pause followed.  Nettie, with all her feminine acuteness, could not divine that this calm way of treating a business which had wrought her companion into such a pitch of passion, was the most humiliating and mortifying possible to a man in whose bosom love and pride were so combined.  He tried to speak more than once, but could not.  Nettie said nothing more-she was uneasy, but secure in the necessity of her own position.  What else could she do or say?

“Then, I presume, this is my answer,” said the doctor, at last, gulping an amount of shame and anger which Nettie could not conceive of, and which the darkness concealed from her sight.

“Oh, Dr Edward, what can I say?” cried the girl; “you know it all as well as I do.  I cannot change it with a word.  I am very, very sorry,” said Nettie, faltering and startled, waking to a sudden perception of the case all at once, by reason of catching a sudden gleam of his eyes.  They came to a dead stop opposite each other, she half frightened and confused, he desperate with love and rage and mortification.  By this time they had almost reached the cottage door.

“Don’t take the trouble to be sorry.  I’ll-oh, I’ll get over it!” cried the doctor, with a sneer at himself and his passion, which came out of the bitterness of his heart.  Then, after a pause-“Nettie!” cried the young man-“Nettie! do you see what you are doing?-do you choose Fred and those wretched imps instead of your own life and mine?  You are not so indifferent as you think you are.  We shall never get over it, neither you nor me.  Nettie, once for all, is this all you have to say?”

“If I were to say all the words in the language,” said Nettie, after a pause, with a breathless indistinctness and haste, “words will not change things if we should break our hearts.”

The open door, with the light shining out from it, shone upon them at that moment, and Mrs Smith waiting to let the young lady in.  Neither of the two dared face that sudden gleam.  The doctor laid down his parcels on the step, muttered something, which she could not distinguish, into Nettie’s agitated ear, and vanished back again into the darkness.  Only now was Nettie awaking to the sense of what had happened, and its real importance.  Perhaps another minute, another word, might have made a difference-that other word and minute that are always wanting.  She gazed out after him blankly, scarcely able to persuade herself that it was all over, and then went in with a kind of stupefied, stunned sensation, not to be described.  Edward Rider heard the door shut in the calm silence, and swore fierce oaths in his heart over her composure and cold-heartedness.  As usual, it was the woman who had to face the light and observation, and to veil her trouble.  The man rushed back into the darkness, smarting with wounds which fell as severely upon his pride as upon his heart.  Nettie went in, suddenly conscious that the world was changed, and that she had entered upon another life.