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No Distance Too Far
By Lauraine Snelling
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2010 Lauraine Snelling
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarch 1904 Athens, Georgia
The dream was a lie. She was in Georgia, not Blessing.
Staring out the window did nothing to calm the butterflies rampaging in her middle. Astrid tried swallowing-once, twice-no matter, they continued to spiral and cavort. She laid a hand on her diaphragm and closed her eyes. Please, Lord, fill me with your calm and peace.
A throat being cleared behind her caught her attention. She turned, swallowed again, and smiled. At least she hoped she smiled.
"Dean Highsmith will see you now." The young man needed to loosen his collar. He appeared to be near to strangling.
"Come this way." He motioned her to accompany him, opened a heavy carved door, and escorted her in. "Dr. Bjorklund to see you, sir."
Stiff, regal, he might have been a herald to a king. Were they always this formal? Astrid gave the book-lined room a quick glance, her attention snapping back to a huge map of the continent of Africa on one wall. She skipped over that and focused on the silver-haired gentleman behind a handsome desk of some dark wood she did not recognize. He stood and came around the end of the desk, a hand held out in greeting.
"Welcome, Dr. Bjorklund. I am exceedingly glad and grateful you decided to join us." He shook her hand, his washed-blue eyes staring directly into hers, as if seeking her soul. "Please, be seated and tell me about your journey." He motioned her to a leather winged chair in front of a cheery fire. "Marlin, please bring us tea ..." He paused. "Unless you would prefer coffee?" When Astrid shook her head, he finished, "And make sure Cook sends up some of her pecan cookies. They might be a special treat for this northerner we have with us."
"Thank you, sir." Astrid sat, grateful for both the happy snap of the fire and the heat. The guest room where she'd stayed the previous night had not been heated, and while the South was known for its warmth, today, with a damp wind blowing, it felt more like Chicago. It had been raining yesterday and earlier this morning, not exactly a welcome she'd have associated with the South. All the things she'd read about this part of the country included sunshine, heat, and humidity.
Dean Highsmith, gold glasses perched on the end of a rather aquiline nose, sat down in the chair opposite her, nodding and smiling. "I received your application with enthusiasm. Rev. Schuman is an old friend of mine, and he has been raving about you." He paused for a moment. "I must say, you look amazingly young for a person of your accomplishments."
"I understand that, and yes, my youth has caused some to doubt my ability."
"I wonder why that is, that we do not expect a lovely young woman to be involved in the medical field. Stereotypes are sometimes difficult to overcome." He propped his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepled his fingers. "Be that as it may, tell me about yourself. What brings you here and where do you dream of going?"
I dream of going back to Blessing, she thought but knew that was not what he wanted to hear. "All of the story or a brief synopsis?"
A knock came at the door, and Marlin peeked in. "Cook will be sending up a tray as soon as it is ready."
"Thank you." Highsmith turned back to Astrid. "All of it."
All of it. Where to start? "I grew up in a very small town in North Dakota, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded there. My mother is a gifted healer. She took care of all those that she could and developed quite a pharmacopeia of herbs and natural medicines, gaining her knowledge from the native people, her mother's training, and a dependence on God to guide and continue her efforts."
"She sounds like an admirable woman."
"She is. Because I was interested in what she was doing, I sometimes accompanied her on calls, helped her forage and preserve her simples, as she called them, and learned by observation. My brother married a physician, and when he brought Dr. Elizabeth to Blessing, my mother stepped back so that people would go to a more formally or scientifically trained doctor and accept her into the community." Astrid felt as though she were telling someone else's story, as clinical as this was sounding.
"Through all this, I decided to become a nurse in order to assist Dr. Elizabeth with her practice. She began training me while I was still in high school. It was all such a natural thing. I have always been fascinated by God's creation of the human body. How intricately and wonderfully made we are. While my goal was to go to Grand Forks to study nursing, Dr. Elizabeth's goal was to train me so that I could go for further instruction at the hospital she trained at in Chicago, but as a doctor, not a nurse.
"After I graduated from the school in Blessing, a catastrophe of hoof-and-mouth disease wiped out all the cloven-footed animals, including the dairy herds that provided milk for my mother's cheese house. I decided we couldn't afford for me to leave for school right then, so I spent the next year in rigorous training with Dr. Elizabeth. She is a firm taskmaster, and we both loved all the textbook learning she put me through. As I said, I am in awe of the human body and loved every moment of the time spent learning and practicing. There is nothing more thrilling than helping a baby into this world." Her voice caught on that line.
He smiled. "I've not had that privilege, but I can believe that with you." Another knock sounded, and this time a white-aproned young woman brought in a tray with a silver tea service and plates of tarts and cookies.
"Set it there." Highsmith pointed to the low table in front and between the chairs. "And please pour."
Once they were served, the young woman left with a smile toward Astrid, and Dean Highsmith nodded. "Please continue." Holding her saucer with cup on her knee, she did as he asked. "Dr. Elizabeth finally convinced me that I was ready for more training. We didn't do many surgeries in Blessing, so she made arrangements with Dr. Morganstein in Chicago that I be allowed to take the six-month surgical rotation if I could pass all the examinations a student at her school would have taken. One of the prime reasons for my going there, as far as I was concerned, was the opportunity to work on a cadaver so that I could learn more about the human body. I did pass the examinations, and I have now finished that training. I was planning to return to Blessing to assist in Dr. Elizabeth's practice there and hopefully become part of the new hospital that is being planned."
"Most commendable. Which is why you are so young in years. But evidently not so young in maturity. You appear to be very strong and capable."
"Thank you." She sipped her tea and took a bite of one of the nut cookies. If he had any idea how frightened she'd been, he'd not have thought that. While she had handled the trip to Georgia well, the thought of trains and ships and who knew what else to get her to Africa sent her entire insides into full revolt. Malaria alone was enough to keep her from going. After all, she had seen the long-term effects of that disease in Gerald Valders in Blessing.
"But what happened to bring you here?"
"Your friend, Rev. Schuman, was invited to speak in our church one Sunday. When he said the fields were ripe unto harvest in Africa and they desperately needed missionaries, especially medical missionaries, he looked right at me, as if I were the only person in the room. I feared ... er ... felt like God was speaking right at me. Dean Highsmith, going to Africa had never occurred to me until that point, and I have struggled with that idea ever since. Was God calling me to be a missionary or not? I have written back and forth with Rev. Schuman, who has been so encouraging-"
"No, if I know Ted, and I do, he has been rather overwhelming in his certainty that you are going to Africa to serve there." His broad smile made her smile back.
"Well, yes, but if this isn't God calling, what is it?" She studied her teacup before looking at him again. The peace within the room lay like a benevolent benediction. "So instead of going home to Blessing, I took the step to come here. Mor, my mother, always says God leads step by step, not mile by mile. That He never lights the whole path but only one step at a time. I want to be obedient, so I'm taking the next step." She wondered if she should add that her whole being was rebelling against it.
"And here you are." He held out the cookie plate to her. "Help yourself. These are one of Cook's many specialties." He took a cookie himself and crossed one leg over the other. "It is interesting to me that you have requested a two-year term of service. I hope you understand that when we train missionaries, we plan for them to serve as long as they are able-a lifetime. That is the kind of dedication God calls us to."
"But you see, I already have a calling to return to Blessing and work there. Is there some reason that I cannot be accepted for a two-year program? The person I spoke with on the telephone said that was a possibility." Because if I can't, then we have wasted both your time and mine, as well as a train ticket. Her heart leaped at the thought of going home, of being relieved from this confusion and uncertainty.
"Have you considered going as a nurse?"
His question caught her by surprise. She shook her head. "Why would I be willing to do that when I am a certified medical doctor?"
"And you are also nothing if not blunt and forthright." The corner of his mouth deepened as if he meant to smile.
She wasn't sure if that was a compliment or an accusation. She took another cookie from the offered plate and finished her tea, pondering if there should be an answer to his comment. She knew she had a tendency to bluntness; it seemed the fastest way to deal with questions. After all, why beat around the bush? She lifted her gaze to find him studying her.
"Is that a bad thing?" she asked.
"My mother used to say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
"That is, if you were in need of catching flies."
His hoot of laughter surprised her. Her brash comment surprised her even more. Her mother would be shocked. It seemed Chicago had changed her in more ways than just surgical knowledge.
"Life in Africa is not easy, but growing up on a farm in North Dakota, you did not grow up taking it easy either, I presume."
"No. We were taught to work hard. And now that I have been away from home, I understand that we grew up with very little in the way of niceties. But both my mother and my father are honorable, God-fearing people who try to live their faith in the serving of others. Some in Blessing consider us wealthy, but wealth is relative. No one has much." Thoughts of Mrs. Josephson's foundation and Dr. Morganstein, who were prepared to give thousands of dollars to build a new hospital, slipped through her mind. But like the widow's mite, her family gave what they had-and made sure no one went hungry.
"I see." He tapped his index fingers against his chin, studying her all the while. "All I can do is submit your name and application to our mission board to see if they will approve a two-year enlistment. In the meantime I have here a list of classes you will be required to take. If all goes well, you would be leaving for Africa in early July. We allow our students to return home for a short period of time before embarking if they have any affairs that need to be put in order. You will receive a list of suggested clothing and supplies for you to assemble to take along. As a medical missionary, the more supplies you can accumulate, the better. Our missionaries are always in need of the most basic of medical aids and equipment."
"I see." But she didn't. How could a doctor care for the people if there were no medicines, surgical instruments, and dressings?
Dean Highsmith started to say something and stopped.
Astrid caught a look in his eyes of ... she wasn't sure what. Concern? Confusion?
"Do you have any questions?"
"Not at the moment, but I'm sure things will come up."
"I must tell you that you will be the only unmarried female in the school at this time. There are a number of single men, along with four or five couples who are accepting the call together. There's only one other doctor going through our program right now, and his wife is a nurse. Some of our teachers are missionaries on furlough or those who have returned from the field. They will surely be able to answer any questions you may have."
"One question. Will I be sent to the same area as Rev. Schuman? He said they are in need of a doctor there."
"Dr. Bjorklund, you have to understand something. There is a need for medical people all over Africa. The term Dark Continent is actually an apt description. There is little education, there's a terrible lack of transportation, and the sanitary conditions are beyond belief. But"-he held up one finger-"when the light of Jesus shines there, it glows so brightly that it cannot be extinguished."
Astrid resolved right then to talk to those who had been there.
"Mrs. Abercrombie will be here to show you to your room. We have placed you on the main floor, with the married couples. Tomorrow you will be interviewing with various staff members, and the following day you'll join the classes. Meals are served in the dining room. I have asked Dr. and Mrs. Gansberg to be your hosts for the first few days."
"Thank you." Astrid looked over her shoulder when she heard the door open.
"Good. You are just in time." He stood, signaling the end of the meeting. "Mrs. Abercrombie, meet Dr. Bjorklund. And don't let her apparent youth fool you."
"Thank you, sir, for the tea. And you are right; your cook makes delicious pecan cookies."
"I will tell her you said so."
"I am glad to meet you, Dr. Bjorklund. Your trunk has already been moved from the guest room and delivered to your new room, along with the books and supplies we provide for your studies. I thought I'd show you around our campus so you have a better idea of life here." Mrs. Abercrombie, who reminded Astrid of her grandmother, Bridget, with her white hair caught up in a bun high on the back of her head and wisps flying every direction, wore a warm smile that made Astrid feel at home immediately.
Since she'd come in after supper the night before and been shown straight to her guest room, she'd not seen any of the campus. Mrs. Abercrombie patted her arm. "Have you been in the South before?"
"No. This is my first time. I've lived in North Dakota all my life."
"Up there where it is so cold that people can freeze to death in their houses?"
"Yes, I am sure that has happened, but usually not if there is wood or coal for a fire. Sometimes people even burn straw or hay twists if they are desperate."
"Well, keeping warm is not a difficulty where you are going." Mrs. Abercrombie smiled up at her. "The building we are in was the first to be built here back in the late 1700s, when the college was established for educating the young sons of planters. Cardin didn't begin sending missionaries to other parts of the world until 1890, so while our college has already celebrated our centennial anniversary, our program for missions isn't really that old."
By the time they had toured the campus, Mrs. Abercrombie informed her there would be a tea the next afternoon for her to meet the other mission candidates in the program. She leaned closer. "Several of them are single and very handsome. With your striking blue eyes and warm smile ..." She stopped and rolled her eyes. "My husband always says I see romance everywhere." Her chuckle made Astrid smile. "You are now free until suppertime. I'd suggest you unpack and get settled in, because you have a tight schedule ahead."
"Thank you. And thank you for the tour. What a lovely campus, and the flowers, well, my mor would be absolutely thrilled to see all these lovely flower beds and bushes. The magnolia trees-I'd read about them but to see them growing like this ... This most certainly is a different world than home."
"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask one of us." Mrs. Abercrombie turned to leave. "You can find your way to the dining room, can you not?"
"If I get lost, I'm sure someone will show me the way. Thank you again."
Astrid watched her hostess smile and float away. How did she walk like that, so gracefully? Maydell would be green with envy. Astrid slipped into her room and, after closing the door, leaned against it to survey her new home. The walls were painted a lovely yellow and framed with white woodwork. Lace curtains graced the window, and French doors opened onto a peaceful courtyard. While the day was much like the cold and damp of Chicago, here a tiny breeze kissed the tree leaves. There was no such thing as a breeze on that northern lake; there was only wind or no wind.
Excerpted from No Distance Too Far by Lauraine Snelling Copyright © 2010 by Lauraine Snelling . Excerpted by permission.
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