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When he finished medical college Dick Livingstone had found, like other men, that the two paths of ambition and duty were parallel and did not meet. Along one lay his desire to focus all his energy in one direction, to follow disease into the laboratory instead of the sick room, and there to fight its unsung battles. And win. He felt that he would win.
Along the other lay David.
It was not until he had completed his course and had come home that he had realized that David was growing old. Even then he might have felt that, by the time David was compelled to relinquish his hold on his practice, he himself would be sufficiently established in his specialty to take over the support of the household. But here there was interposed a new element, one he had not counted on. David was fiercely jealous of his practice; the thought that it might pass into new and alien hands was bitter to him. To hand it down to his adopted son was one thing; to pass it over to "some young whipper-snapper" was another.
Nor were David's motives selfish or unworthy. His patients were his friends. He had a sense of responsibility to them, and very little faith in the new modern methods. He thought there was a great deal of tomfoolery about them, and he viewed the gradual loss of faith in drugs with alarm. When Dick wore rubber gloves during their first obstetric case together he snorted.
"I've delivered about half the population of this town," he said, "and slapped 'em to make 'em breathe with my own bare hands. And I'm still here and so are they."
For by that time Dick had made his decision. He could not abandon David. For him then and hereafter the routine of a general practice in a suburban town, the long hours, the varied responsibilities, the feeling he had sometimes that by doing many things passably he was doing none of them well. But for compensation he had old David's content and greater leisure, and Lucy Crosby's gratitude and love.
Now and then he chafed a little when he read some article in a medical journal by one of his fellow enthusiasts, or when, in France, he saw men younger than himself obtaining an experience in their several specialties that would enable them to reach wide fields at home. But mostly he was content, or at least resigned. He was building up the Livingstone practice, and his one anxiety was lest the time should come when more patients asked for Doctor Dick than for Doctor David. He did not want David hurt.
After ten years the strangeness of his situation had ceased to be strange. Always he meant some time to go back to Norada, and there to clear up certain things, but it was a long journey, and he had very little time. And, as the years went on, the past seemed unimportant compared with the present. He gave little thought to the future.
Then, suddenly, his entire attention became focused an the future.
Just when he had fallen in love with Elizabeth Wheeler he did not know. He had gone away to the war, leaving her a little girl, apparently, and he had come back to find her, a woman. He did not even know he was in love, at first. It was when, one day, he found himself driving past the Wheeler house without occasion that he began to grow uneasy.
The future at once became extraordinarily important and so also, but somewhat less vitally, the past. Had he the right to marry, if he could make her care for him?
He sat in' his chair by the window the night after the Homer baby's arrival, and faced his situation. Marriage meant many things. It meant love and companionship, but it also meant, should mean, children. Had he the right to go ahead and live his life fully and happily? Was there any chance that, out of the years behind him, there would come some forgotten thing, some taint or incident, to spoil the carefully woven fabric of his life?
Not his life. Hers.
On the Monday night after he had asked Elizabeth to go to the theater he went into David's office and closed the door. Lucy, alive to every movement in the old house, heard him go in and, rocking in her chair overhead, her hands idle in her lap, waited in tense anxiety for the interview to end. She thought she knew what Dick would ask, and what David would answer. And, in a way, David would be right. Dick, fine, lovable, upstanding Dick, had a right to the things other men had, to love and a home of his own, to children, to his own full life.
But suppose Dick insisted on clearing everything up before he married? For to Lucy it was unthinkable that any girl in her senses would refuse him. Suppose he went back to Norada? He had not changed greatly in ten years. He had been well known there, a conspicuous figure.
Her mind began to turn on the possibility of keeping him away from Norada.
Some time later she heard the office door open and then close with Dick's characteristic slam. He came up the stairs, two at a time as was his custom, and knocked at her door. When he came in she saw what David's answer had been, and she closed her eyes for an instant.
"Put on your things," he said gayly, "and we'll take a ride on the hill-tops. I've arranged for a moon."
And when she hesitated:
"It makes you sleep, you know. I'm going, if I have to ride alone and talk to an imaginary lady beside me."
She rather imagined that that had been his first idea, modified by his thought of her. She went over and put a wrinkled hand on his arm.
"You look happy, Dick," she said wistfully.
"I am happy, Aunt Lucy," he replied, and bending over, kissed her.
On Wednesday he was in a state of alternating high spirits and periods of silence. Even Minnie noticed it.
"Mr. Dick's that queer I hardly know how to take him." she said to Lucy. "He came back and asked for noodle soup, and he put about all the hardware in the kitchen on him and said he was a knight in armor. And when I took the soup in he didn't eat it."
It was when he was ready to go out that Lucy's fears were realized. He came in, as always when anything unusual was afoot, to let her look him over. He knew that she waited for him, to give his He a final pat, to inspect the laundering of his shirt bosom, to pick imaginary threads off his dinner coat.
"Well?" he said, standing before her, "how's this? Art can do no more, Mrs. Crosby."
"I'll brush your back," she said, and brought the brush. He stooped to her, according to the little ceremony she had established, and she made little dabs at his speckless back. "There, that's better."
"How do you think Uncle David is?" he asked, unexpectedly.
"Better than he has been in years. Why?"
"Because I'm thinking of taking a little trip. Only ten days," he added, seeing her face. "You could house-clean my office while I'm away. You know you've been wanting to."
She dropped the brush, and he stooped to pick it up. That gave her a moment.
"'Where?" she managed.
"To Dry River, by way of Norada."
"Why should you go back there?" she asked, in a carefully suppressed voice. "Why don't you go East? You've wanted to go back to Johns Hopkins for months?"
"On the other hand, why shouldn't I go hack to Norada?" he asked, with an affectation of lightness. Then he put his hand on her shoulders. "Why shouldn't I go back and clear things up in my own mind? Why shouldn't I find out, for instance, that I am a free man?"
"You are free."
"I've got to know," he said, almost doggedly. "I can't take a chance. I believe I am. I believe David, of course. But anyhow I'd like to see the ranch. I want to see Maggie Donaldson."
"She's not at the ranch. Her husband died, you know."
"I have an idea I can find her," he said. "I'll make a good try, anyhow."
When he had gone she got her salts bottle and lay down on her bed. Her heart was hammering wildly.
Elizabeth was waiting for him in the living-room, in the midst of her family. She looked absurdly young and very pretty, and he had a momentary misgiving that he was old to her, and that - Heaven save the mark! - that she looked up to him. He considered the blue dress the height of fashion and the mold of form, and having taken off his overcoat in the hall, tried to put on Mr. Wheeler's instead in his excitement. Also, becoming very dignified after the overcoat incident, and making an exit which should conceal his wild exultation and show only polite pleasure, he stumbled over Micky, so that they finally departed to a series of staccato yelps.
He felt very hot and slightly ridiculous as he tucked Elizabeth into the little car, being very particular about her feet, and starting with extreme care, so as not to jar her. He had the feeling of being entrusted temporarily with something infinitely precious, and very, very dear. Something that must never suffer or be hurt.
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