It was a standard question in Dinnent - Why had Dr. Hardy married Miss Ray? Even when that lady had been Mrs Hardy for some years, the old puzzle would serve to quicken Dinnent conversation when it flagged, or to point the moral of the general uncertainty of human actions.
There was no such terrible disparity between the worldly circumstances of the couple. Both belonged to respectable Dinnent families. Perhaps the Hardys had been the more respected, but the Rays were held to be the better off, a belief which Miss Lydia Ray's astonishing marriage had tended to confirm. Old Mr Ray was thought to be a miser, perhaps on the theory that nobody but a rich man could look poor so frankly. The Rays had mixed little in Dinnent society, only giving a stiff tea-party now and then. Mrs Ray had been long dead, and the family consisted of the old gentleman and three daughters, the youngest of whom, Lydia, became the fortunate Mrs Hardy. The Rays' house was called Briar Cottage; and there were no flowers in its garden and very few ornaments in its rooms. The Misses Ray had always dressed with an artificial and elaborate primness, and the two elder sisters were dry and stiff in manner, as if the over-forward advances of the world needed much repelling.
The Hardy family had been of quite another stamp. They lived in the Red House, and every little urchin in Dinnent knew the Red House and its ways, and its abundant jams and sweeties. There had been rather "hard lines" there in Dr Hardy's boyhood, for his father had died suddenly, and left his widow very poorly provided for. But she got through somehow, and was still seated in the chimney corner - a jolly old lady, who received her daughter-in-law without wincing, and who, if she shared Dinnent's wonder at the match, never allowed Dinnent to know it.
Dr Hardy himself had been a popular character from his very cradle. He was thoroughly good-hearted and well-meaning, and yet he had certain weaknesses and foibles which got him into scrapes, and saved him from the spite which is too often the lot of a strong and militant virtue.
He was a curious mixture of activity and indolence. Perhaps he may be described as physically active and mentally lazy. It was easy for him to perform feats of strength and endurance - to ride twenty miles at midnight to see a sick child; to spend night after night beside sick-beds instead of in his own. But it had never been easy for Edward Hardy to make up his mind, and then stick to it.
Perhaps some of Dr Hardy's popularity was due to the fact that it was by no means easy for him to run counter to anybody while he was in that person's presence. Silence was his utmost dissent, and rarely indeed was that unaccompanied by a smile or a dubious gesture.
But these trifles were not likely to detract from his importance, when he turned his back on colleges and hospitals, and settled down in Dinnent, a clever young medical man, bright in face and kindly in manner, with pleasant family traditions behind him and good financial prospects before.
Whom would he marry? had then been Dinnent's question regarding him. Laura Devine, the Mayor's daughter, had been suggested. Laura's beauty had a consumptive cast, and the young doctor was often at the Mayor's house. Some people said a doctor would be too wise to marry a sickly woman, but others remarked that it was a proverb that nobody went so ill-shod as the shoemaker's wife. Others, again, suggested one of the daughters of Mrs. Rowe, the widow of the last vicar. The doctor went there often too, and that must be quite non-professionally, for Rose and Sarah Rowe were as sturdy as the hawthorn trees, and their mother was constantly boasting that nobody who had a good constitution and common sense needed to trouble a doctor at all. In fact, Rose and Sarah sometimes wished that their mother would not be so loud in these proclamations. They feared they might hurt Dr Hardy's feelings, and could scarcely believe in the sincerity with which he endorsed them.
Though these three young ladies carried off the palm of probability, almost every other girl in Dinnent was casually contemplated in the same light. Even the poor orphan, Lucy Craven, who served in the Dinnent bookseller's shop, was suspected of having " upsetting ideas," and of being just the girl (well, her gown was very black and her face was very white !) " to bewitch a fine young fellow with more chivalry than knowledge of the world."
But nobody - no, not deep old Mrs Simeon, at the Gate House, nor sharp Miss Rutter, of the Grange, ever thought of Lydia Ray.
The oversight was not wonderful. Dinnent had seen the three sisters coming in and going out for nearly forty years, always dressed alike, always prim, precise, and proper. If anybody had thought of Lydia, they must have also thought of Miss Eliza and Miss Jane. Only quite elderly people knew exactly which were the elder of the three, for between thirty-two and forty there is not always a very striking difference of appearance. But one must draw a line somewhere, and considering that Dr Hardy was not much more than seven-and-twenty, the Dinnent ladies thought they drew the line among themselves wide enough when they drew it from sixteen to thirty. If you were to draw a line wider than that, where were you to stop?
Nobody felt any suspicion, even when Lydia Ray sickened, and Dr. Hardy was summoned to attend her. It was not his first introduction to Briar Cottage, for Lydia's sickness grew out of a dangerous illness of her father's. The Rays did not call in a doctor for slight occasions. They made no such boast as Mrs Rowe's, and indeed that valiant matron would probably have said that there was not a good constitution or a grain of common sense among the lot. But they had their little dietings and dosings, and never dreamed of a doctor until the vision of an undertaker loomed not very far behind him.
Old Mr Ray really had " a very bad turn," as the old ladies called it. He lost the use of his limbs and he wandered in his mind, and for a long time it was very doubtful whether strength or consciousness would ever return. Dinnent pressed all sorts of help on Briar Cottage, for Dinnent was not an unkindly place, though it loved to serve with its right hand that its left hand might know what it had done. But the pale ladies of Briar Cottage put aside all proffers of succour. In those days enquirers always saw Miss Eliza, or Miss Jane. They said that Miss Lydia was the nurse, and Miss Jane was apt to add, rather sarcastically, that "Lydia thought nobody was any use but herself."
"And if she's any use at all, she's right in her opinion of the others," said candid Mrs. Rowe.
But old Mr. Ray rallied, though slowly, and proved a very troublesome convalescent. Briar Cottage returned to its accustomed ways, except that Miss Eliza and Miss Jane took their walks alone, and had their meals together in the faded dining-room, sending portions upstairs for the invalid and the nurse. They felt that Lydia had put them aside when " there was really something to be done," and it never occurred to their peevish pride to offer to relieve her now, when all danger was past. So, worn out with anxiety and watching, Lydia spent day after day in a close and heated atmosphere, driven to her wits' end by the ceaseless worrying of a narrow and embittered nature, and pained and chilled by the coolness and implied disapprobation of her sisters.
All this while she and the young doctor had scarcely exchanged twenty unnecessary words. Lydia herself had a friendly heart, but it had lived among unfriendly natures. She thought that Eliza and Jane felt as she did, and she believed it was right, and indeed necessary, that she should act as they did, and draw back and keep aloof from any kindly contact with one's fellow creatures. Not that she could ever do it from the same motives, for Eliza and Jane did it from an innate sense of superiority, while she was deeply impressed with her own unworthiness. Though a casual observer might have found it hard to distinguish one of the " three old maids"" from the others, Lydia Ray was quite of a different nature from Eliza and Jane. She must have resembled their mother, who had been dead so long that none of her daughters remembered her. But this difference only made her the more subject to the family will and tradition. Eliza and Jane differed, wrangled, and were far more independent of each other than was Lydia of either of them. They were at bottom in sympathy: they made their own atmosphere, and throve in it, to the limited extent of the thriving power which was in them. Lydia was simply repressed. Like a withering plant in a dark closet, her real life was shut up within herself while externally she reflected as a mirror the forms of those about her.
Had Lydia Ray ever left Briar Cottage and gone out alone for a single month, it is not likely that on her return she would have succumbed so utterly. But Briar Cottage represented her world, and if anything within her found no response there, she had no idea, no hope that it might find response elsewhere. Few men can realise the existence of such women. They pass about the world, they look contented, often cheerful, they seem well provided. In reality, they are creatures who have never found their element; though, less fortunate than fishes, they can go on living without it.
Lydia had had her young dreams of friendship - even of love. She knew her sisters would call these foolish, and she innocently accepted their verdict. She looked with her gentle, wistful eyes into other people's households, and wished that Eliza or Jane had found somebody good enough to marry, so that she might have been godmother to their children, and helped with their bringing up. She had not courage to have a dream husband and dream babies of her own: she had only a dream brother-in-law and dream nephews and nieces.
And all these years the wolf of poverty had been drawing nearer and nearer to the shabby porch of Briar Cottage. Little house-properties lost in value; one or two investments stopped their dividends altogether; Eliza and Jane grew only sharper and sourer, and condemned the little luxuries they were obliged to cut off. It was under a blow of this sort that old Mr Ray had sickened.
Then, for the first time, Lydia had been obliged to oppose herself to her sisters. She had no will of her own to do it. It was the sick man himself who drove the others from his room, saying that their voices went through his head, that their hands were cold, and their attentions worrying. He had never before preferred Lydia - of his three children perhaps she had been the least favoured hitherto. Eliza and Jane withdrew affronted. Each shed some bitter tears apart, and then by common consent, but without one spoken word, they henceforth implied that Lydia had arrogated to herself the post of nurse, and that they only hoped she had sense and strength to do her duty to their poor dear father.
While their father's illness continued at its height, Lydia believed that her sisters' asperity was due to their anxiety about him, and to their very natural doubts of her skill and ability. But during his recovery it slowly dawned upon her that a gulf had suddenly opened in the dry soil of the family life, and that she was left standing alone on one side of it. For as he regained strength, her father's preference for her vanished, and he openly chafed at the " other girls" leaving him so much to her society, as, with a malicious dutifulness, they persisted in doing, except when expressly commanded to the contrary.
It was not much that Lydia had lost, for it was little that she had ever had. But it seemed a great deal to her, and it was her all. Nobody knew that she suffered; probably she did not know herself: she was too humble to think that anything she could feel could be worthy the name of pain. But day after day the stairs grew more wearisome, and the furniture heavier, and the food less appetising. And one evening a strange mist hung over everything - indoors as well as out-of-doors. And next morning she could not lift her head from her pillow, and Dr Hardy had a new patient.
Dr Hardy understood the situation very fairly, as doctors often do. He had had his colloquies with Eliza and Jane. Even now they were not slow to lay Lydia's illness at her own door. " She would not let them take their fair share of their father's illness, and now she had come upon them herself." He wanted them to hire a trained nurse to wait on their sister; and fearing lest their pride might resent and resist any supposed slight on their own powers, he slyly urged that the train of illness was likely to lengthen out if all the care were cast on delicate and sensitive relatives. That did not gain his end, but it mollified the ladies. Had Lydia been conscious, she might have wondered at the effect produced by so slight a compliment from one of that sex which her sisters despised so heartily !
Lydia's illness was that sort of low fever which lingers long and often leaves deep traces behind it. Eliza and Jane never quite believed in it. They thought Lydia did not bear up well. When she was worse they chid her; when she was better they exhorted her. They would read aloud to her; and if she asked them to stop, they felt so injured that it was easier to let them go on, at any cost of confused brain and bewildered dream.
Dr Hardy grew to pity the pale, quiet woman, who seemed to watch for his coming, because he brought the comfort of a comprehending and sympathetic presence. She interested him as the first revelation of the sad subjection which underlies so many women's lives. Its result he had often seen before: the secret of its process had not hitherto been displayed to him. But he felt little more than a pathological interest, with a genuine healer's instinct to relieve. Not only was she thirty-six, and wan and faded, but her mind was as little likely to fascinate him as her face. It had been starved on the direst and poorest nutriment, and her sympathies, like the limbs of a man long fettered to a seat, were now scarcely able to stir themselves.
Dr Hardy was twenty-seven, his whole nature throbbing with the ambitions and visions of an ardent, warm-hearted young man who does not even dream that anything in the world or in himself can hinder or check the strong tide of energy he feels within him. It was simply because he was so glorying in the race of life before him that this poor thing, who had never left the starting-point, touched his heart and craved from him a little help, which at its utmost could be so small.
He brought her books to beguile her convalescence. He could easily see where she stood intellectually, and he did not startle her by presenting too violently-opposed mental standpoints, nor shock her by requiring too far a leap from her accustomed ground. It might have astounded Edward Hardy had he guessed how difficult it would have been for anything from him to startle or shock her. Accustomed all her life to unquestioning loyalty to her standards, she had now made him one of them. Under cover of his medical authority had grown up another. She began to make an unconscious reference to his opinion on all subjects. It was a formidable rival, even to that of Eliza and Jane.
As she recovered, one wretched trace of her illness did not yield. In its course, she had grown deaf; and this deafness continued, though, like most nervous affections, it varied much in intensity. This troubled her sadly, because she saw it troubled others, who did not disguise that they found it troublesome. Jane wore a wrap round her throat because she "had strained it, shouting at Lydia." Lydia's recovery was visibly retarded when she found the deafness did not go. In her heart she wished she had died, and then shed sorrowful tears over her wicked rebellion. She clung more and more to Dr Hardy's daily visits. He did not seem to blame her for her suffering. After he had been with her for a few minutes, she could hear his voice more readily than the others, though on his first coming in, she was always at her worst, since any excitement, painful or pleasing, served to increase the affliction.
Still she gradually progressed, and she said to herself that Dr Hardy would very soon discontinue his visits. (She had already overheard Eliza and Jane discussing their cost, and she felt a pang of self-reproach that she had pleasure in what involved the expenditure of their scanty means.) No further thought was in that simple, unworldly mind. There had been grey days before - there was a gleam of sunshine now - and then there would be grey days again, just a little darker. She hoped that perhaps Dr Hardy might oftener than before find his way to Briar Cottage as a friendly visitor. After his long professional attendance, even Eliza and Jane might think him privileged to dispense with a formal invitation.
It was a glorious summer afternoon. On Dinnent High Street, the sun had poured mightily, and there the air was close, and a little thickened by dust. But on the moorland roads around a breeze would be blowing, and past snug old farms those roads would dip through leafy hollows, where even noontide had not scorched. Dr Hardy, leisurely driving out, behind his sturdy pony, thought on these things, and how, at the very moment, Lydia Ray was probably tottering round her narrow weedy garden, hearing just enough to catch some of her sisters' sharpest words. Why should not he volunteer to give his patient a drive? He was going some miles by a lovely route to visit a case in which there was no fear of infection. Dr Hardy was never slow to carry out an idea, when there was nobody to oppose it. He pulled up his pony before the gate of Briar Cottage. And there sure enough was Lydia, seated on a garden-chair, quite alone, looking very pale and draggled.
Dr Hardy had to repeat his invitation twice before she caught his meaning, and then her face lit with intense pleasure. Such a thing was so unprecedented so outside the usual range of Eliza and Jane's opinions, that she actually forgot all about them, and accepted it without any reference to them. The very idea seemed to bring back her youth. A long, long drive over the moors gave a sense of boundless freedom to one whose peregrinations had for years been limited to the shops, the church, and the neighbouring villas. She assured Dr Hardy that her preparation should not detain him five minutes, and left him in the garden, smiling indeed, yet half sad to think that so small a pleasure seemed to be worth so much.
But Lydia remembered Eliza and Jane, and trembled when, on her way to her own room, she had to pass those ladies seated at the window, working. She paused timidly, and said that Dr Hardy had offered to take her for a drive; he thought it would do her good, and so did she.
Eliza said " Humph." Jane remarked, " You are quite your own mistress, Lydia. But all Dinnent will say you are trying to delude that youth into marrying you."
"Surely Dinnent can never be so foolish," answered Lydia, opening her eyes wide at a suggestion so entirely new to her own mind. "Well, I can't say I will not go, now I have said I will." And secretly she was very glad that for once she had made a decision before asking advice.
She left the door open between the rooms while she dressed, and Eliza, watching her drily, remarked, "The ride won't do you any the more good, Lydia, for your putting on your best bonnet. This afternoon, between sun and dust, will do it more damage than three months' ordinary wear." "Never mind, it has been saved for three months during my illness," Lydia answered, and resolutely tied her strings. It was not a very expensive bonnet, nor a very smart one, for straw and ribbons were alike of a very modest brown, except where a single blue bow adorned the cap, which was the fashion of those days. Lydia had scarcely put it on before, and as she looked in the mirror she thought it was more becoming than most ofher bonnets. Perhaps it was the flush and excitement of her pleasure which did it justice.
In her harmless happiness her gentle heart wanted to be in peace and love with everybody, and as she passed her sisters she kissed first Jane and then Eliza, only winning from the former the sardonic response,
"I don't suppose you are going away for ever, Lydia."
But when she rejoined Dr. Hardy there was a restraint in her manner which would not have been there but for her sister's words. The more foolish and uncalled for she felt they were, the more they hurt her, and underneath their petty worry there stirred a strange pang which she could not comprehend, a sense of too-lateness and of irrevocable years. But she bravely set herself to drink the cup of simple pleasure which was offered to her, albeit there was a taste of wormwood on its brim. And summer skies, and yellow gorse and leafy dingles keep spells of their own, even for a kept-down old maiden, so long as her heart is not bitter, nor her eyes turned inward. And as they drove swiftly through the freshening breezes, Lydia felt quite contented and very thankful for many things.
Edward Hardy remembered that her deafness would be probably increased, for the time, by the unwonted scenes and motion, to say nothing of the rattle of the wheels. And like a true doctor, he resolved to do nothing to call her attention to her affliction, but to leave her to take her own pleasure in her own quiet way. Every now and then he glanced at the soft blue eyes gazing so eagerly around, and presently he smiled to hear that, quite unconsciously, she was crooning an old song. While he visited his patient, she dutifully held his horse for him, and when he came out, and saw the reviving vigour of her pose, and the faint rose on her thin cheek, he said to himself that the springs of our neighbour's life and health may often lie among little thoughtfulnesses and kindnesses which we too often forget or neglect.
" Poor thing," he thought, "if I may prescribe quinine for her, why may I not do this?" And then he added, aloud, "Miss Lydia, will you like to take another drive with me to-morrow?"
She started, and flushed deeply, and did not answer for a moment. Dr Hardy made a mental note: "More nervous than I thought she was." Her voice sounded full of tears, as she replied - "You cannot mean it."
"Indeed I do," he returned.
" Oh, Dr Hardy !" she said, "how can I answer such a question like this?"
"Why not?" asked the young man, quite feelingly, for he was shocked at what seemed to be such a fatal sign of exhaustion and feebleness. "Why not ? It concerns nobody but you and me?"
"But I am so old and so stupid," she said. "I should think you were mocking me, but I know you are too good to do that."
"She has stayed at home, and been scolded, until her brain is softening," reflected the doctor; " but I certainly never saw any signs of this before. Why, there is nothing to make a fuss about!" he cried cheerily; " just yes or no, and the matter is settled."
" Then " yes,"" she said, adding, with a sudden burst of tears, "it ought to be "no" for your sake, for it is not fair to you."
"Why, Miss Ray," went on the doctor, pretending not to notice her agitation, " the very chaise is made for two, and I don't believe the pony knows you are here to-day."
" What will Eliza and Jane say ?" she asked, presently, in a very subdued voice.
" Hang Eliza and Jane!" said Dr Hardy. "And your mother?" she suggested, timidly.
The doctor burst into a hearty laugh, and rejoined: " The dear old mammy does not mind what else I do, so long as I keep a little of my charming society for herself."
" And of course you will give her as much of that as ever," said Lydia, "and indeed I hope I may be some little comfort to her myself."
"What a sentimental way of putting things women have," thought the doctor. "That's a hint that she would like to come to our house a little. I don't wonder at it; the dear old mammy and her knitting-needles are quite lively dissipation compared with those dreadful Fates and their everlasting embroidery."
"Well, I never expected this; it never occurred to me that such a thing was possible," said Lydia gently, as to herself.
"I don't quite see why she need have expected it," thought Dr Hardy, glancing down at her, and thinking how bright and hopeful she looked, and marvelling how one short drive could have wrought such a change in a woman's face.
"I have heard some say that they felt when this was coming," she went on softly. "I'm glad I didn't, or I should have been frightened, and then it might never have happened. But, oh," she said, looking up, with a pain flitting across her forehead, " now the people will think they have every right to say what Jane said they would."
"And in the name of wonder what was that ?" asked the doctor, pulling at his reins, and not profoundly interested, though he feigned a civil curiosity.
"She said they would say I was trying to delude you into marrying me," answered Lydia. "I'm sure I did not. I'm sure you, at least, know that I did nothing to make you ask me so suddenly."
Dr Hardy's heart jumped and pounded heavily against his side. He saw it all now. His simple question, "Will you like to take another drive with me to-morrow?" had been heard as "Will you let me take you to be my wife for ever?" or words to the like effect. The offer he had never made was accepted, and he was an engaged man against his will. What could he do? A word would set it right - would drive away the strange sunshine that was beginning to palely glimmer over that barren life - aye, and send that poor heart back to its hopeless imprisonment with a new stamp of shame and wrong upon it. And Dinnent was already in sight. And here were Mrs Rowe and her two daughters walking towards them up the hill!
That buxom matron hailed them with a loud and hearty greeting - was glad to see the invalid looking so well, and hoped Dr Hardy was not over-working himself.
"And upon my word, Miss Ray," went on the vicar's widow, accustomed to plan and control, " now we've met you, I think we may as well go back with you to Briar Cottage, for I want to ask your father a question about my life insurance. If you can get down here I'll take charge of you to your home. You can lean on me as much as you like; and that will spare Dr Hardy driving out of his way to set you down at your gate; for I'm sure he looks as if he needed his tea!"
"Won't you come home with me now ?" said Lydia, rather piteously, to the doctor, as he instantly prepared to alight. She knew nothing of the ways and manners of lovers, so that she was not hurt by his alacrity in parting from her. But she felt frightened to meet her father and sisters, to whom she felt it was her bounden duty at once to announce the strange and momentous change in her existence.
"I'll come in this evening," he said huskily, "in about an hour's time." It seemed impossible to break the truth to her here and now: it would be easier when she was resting on her own little couch in her own shady parlour.
He hurried on to his own home. His stable-boy wondered what was the matter with him when he flung him the reins without his usual word and joke. His mother was out, had gone to take tea with a neighbour; and the surgery was full of people - tedious, worrying people, with chronic neuralgias and indigestion. Dr Hardy could find neither the sympathetic society which soothes nor the solitude which strengthens; yet, had his mother been at home, he doubted if he could have told her of his dilemma, its ludicrousness was so patent, its pathos was so subtle. She would certainly have laughed, and somehow a laugh would have jarred him. And he fancied she might have made some severe remarks on Lydia Ray, and they would have jarred him still more. Besides, he had no right to share this trial with anybody. He and Lydia must get through it by themselves. Women must forgive him that he did not remember this at once. It only escaped his mind, because, being a man, he did not fully realise how disgraceful it is for a woman to be ready to fall in love!
He dismissed the last grumbling old woman from the surgery, hastily swallowed a cup of tea, and then set off to Briar Cottage. He would not give himself time to think. "The best operations are often done impromptu," he said to himself.
As he turned into the lane where the Cottage stood, there was Mrs Rowe, not a hundred yards from its gate, in full conversation with the greatest gossip in Dinnent, and both were laughing heartily. " Was it possible?" - but no, he would not believe it, and pushed forward manfully, intending to pass the ladies with a wave of his hat and a brief "good evening." But they both held out their hands to him.
"Let us wish you joy, doctor," cried Mrs Rowe, in a voice strong enough to reach Mrs Simeon, who was watering the flowers in her garden hard by. "Let us wish you joy. But you have given us a turn, for all that. You've put us quite on a wrong scent! And to see how grave you looked this afternoon, as if all the poor sick babies and grandmothers were weighing on your mind! But why did you let me separate you? I've had a courting time myself, doctor, and I have feelings. Poor thing! I noticed she was trembling like a leaf; and when I led her in, I said to Eliza, "Take her away to lie down awhile." And in five minutes' time Eliza came down and told us all the news."
Now, what could Dr Hardy do? Could he tell Lydia's blunder to these two amused women, before she even knew it herself? Perhaps he could scarcely do better than he did, which was to say quietly,
"Thank you, ladies; I am sure you will excuse me from any delay."
"Oh, certainly," they both said. And he felt they turned and watched him as he went on.
"That's not love," observed the gossip. "He's thinking of old Ray's money. Perhaps he's in some difficulty - one never knows."
"Poor fellow!" said Mrs. Rowe. "He doesn't know what he's doing. Money may pay for the coals, but it does not warm a hearth, for all that."
When the little servant of Briar Cottage opened the door, he saw she knew all about it. Jane met him in the hall, and she intended her words to be cordial, but her tone was acid as she said,
"Well, Dr Hardy, we never expected this!"
Again he could not bring himself to respond "Neither did I." He had a vision of Lydia, lonely, weeping, utterly humiliated beneath the scoffs and jeers of these two cold, hard sisters. He even had a vision of a new name on the Ray tombstone in Dinnent churchyard. He was a soft-hearted fellow. And he was not vain. It was not from any sense of his own value that he estimated Lydia's loss, but from his knowledge of her poor cabined life.
"I should have thought Lydia would not like to have such a young lover," said Eliza. "It almost looks as if she could not be appreciated by her contemporaries. Poor dear Lydia, she never did seem to be very attractive. I always wondered at it, for she never seemed hard to please. But perhaps that was the explanation. Would not you like to go upstairs to see her, Dr Hardy? I told her she had better not leave her own room again to-night. This sort of thing is so new to her that it has quite upset her."
Walking like a man in a dream, Dr Hardy found his way to the well-known room. Was this where he had coolly felt pulses, and lightly talked small talk? Yes; there was the familiar row of devotional books, and the little work-basket with the red lining. And there was Lydia herself, with tearful eyes and outstretched hands, exclaiming,
"Oh, Dr Hardy, Jane and Eliza are so angry, and I don't know what to do! They say you can't understand what you are about. Am I really so hateful that it is ridiculous for anybody to - like me?"
"My dear Miss Lydia, you are very sweet and lovable," said the doctor, soothingly.
"And Jane made me tell her everything - and she said there was nothing natural about it," sobbed Lydia, adding, with a faint spurt of feminine malice, "I can't think how Jane knows!"
Dr Hardy stood astounded. He knew that the pitiful appeal, and the little family revelations were quite what might be expected under the circumstances which Lydia believed in; but under those which he knew, they seemed terrible and shocking.
"Please, sir," said the little servant, opening the door, " master says will you come to him in his room; he wants to speak with you."
"Now for it!" thought Dr Hardy. "Now I'll make it right somehow. I'll get a chance of explaining, or perhaps the old gentleman will take the papa's usual part and raise objections, and I'll accept them, and get out of it without hurting the poor thing's feelings."
But what was his horror, when the grim old man, miser by repute, and cynic and misanthrope by profession, advanced towards him with tearful eye and trembling lips, and said, eagerly:
"Sir, I honour you. From any other man, I should have suspected this offer was made with a view to the fortune with which Dinnent credits us. But you have known the secrets of our prison-house. And you have had a heart pure enough to be attracted by Liddy's filial devotion and sisterly patience, although the first bloom of her youth is past, and gibing girls, whom most fools think so angelic, would scorn her as half an old maid. Sir, you have given me back some of my lost faith in human nature. And you have relieved a father's heart, and a proud heart, sir, that would rather be deemed a miser than be counted poor. That's because Daniel Ray knows the world, sir. The other girls won't be a burden to you; there's enough for them: but it's sometimes troublesome to get at, Dr Hardy - troublesome to get at, and it's a relief to my mind that they'll have a man to look to them, and keep them from making their poor little money matters a laughing-stock in Dinnent. Many a time did I say to my poor wife, when she was lying, slowly dying,
"What am I to do with three helpless girls?" And she used to say, "Daniel, there will be ways opened before you." She had always faith in God, my dear wife had, and Lydia takes after her, and I'm beginning to think there's something in it after all."
Could Dr Hardy open his mouth, and with one sentence destroy the old man's new-found faith in him, in human nature, and in God? Dr Hardy could not. Nothing fought on his side. He was fancy free. Not only had Lydia no living rival - she had not even an ideal one. The young man had had his passing attractions; but he had never yet seen a woman whom for three whole months together he had desired to be his wife. And he let old Mr Ray take his arm and lead him back to Lydia's room, and when the feeble, aged hands joined Lydia's and his, and folded softly over them, then in her father's presence the young man bowed his head and solemnly kissed the drooping forehead of the trembling woman. He did it, as in a dream, and yet, as in some dreams, he felt a weight about his heart, and a sense that something had gone wrong, which could never be set right.
"I hope Jane noticed he kissed me now," mused Lydia. For that had been one of Jane's tart questions after the revelation on the return from the ride. When Lydia had modestly answered "No," Jane had laughed so mockingly, that Lydia, roused, had reminded her that they had been only on the moor under the open eye of Heaven; and Jane had returned that she knew well enough that those who wished could easily give a kiss and take a kiss on Dinnent Moor. Lydia wondered at Jane, and wondered what else Jane might know, and now she hoped that Jane would notice that her lover had paid her the due attention, so that his previous reticence had been evidently but the most delicate chivalry.
On his return home, Dr Hardy found his mother seated at her knitting beside the fire, for one was always lit for her in the evening, summer or winter. He sat down beside her, but he did not much respond to her cheery chatter. He rose to retire before she did, and gave her his usual good-night without adding another word. But when she went to her own room, she found a slip of paper on her toilet table.
"Dearie me!" she cried, fumbling for her spectacles, "this is an old trick of his. This is what he always did when he wanted a new cricket set, or leave to go botanising! He has not done it since those days, and what can he want now, that he can't get without my leave? What does it say?"
"Dear mother," she read, " I am engaged to marry Miss Lydia Ray. I am sure she is a good woman, and I hope she will make you a kind daughter. - Your loving son, Edward."
The old lady took off her spectacles and sat down. She had often 1ooked forward to this occasion, and all the possible circumstances she had foreseen had been different from the reality - except one condition, which, as it rested with herself, was in her own hands. This was, that her first duty would be to remember that Edward must marry to please himself and that she must look at his wife through his eyes.
"And, indeed," she said, with a pathetic laugh, "I've hardly got to try to do that, for it really seems as if Edward, in his choice, had looked through my eyes instead of his own. There's no denying that Lydia Ray will be a pleasanter daughter-in-law to me than ninety-nine out of a hundred. She won't want everything changed and chopped about. I have known what that loud-talking Mrs Rowe has had in her mind, when she has come here and looked about, and said, "If this was my house I should do so and so, and have such and such." Still, my boy did seem worthy of all that is sweetest and best in womankind. And why should I seem to imply that Lydia Ray is less than that? Perhaps the angels see a younger heart in her than in many a red-cheeked girl. If only - but "if" is a little word that can be slipped in in most places. And so I'll go and kiss my boy; I'll not tell him that Lydia Ray has set a trap and caught him, for that is only what I always felt I did myself with his dear father; but I'll tell him that what pleases him pleases me, and that it seems in this matter as if what pleases me pleases him."
The dear old woman left her candle outside her son's door. He took her kind words very quietly, and put up his hand and gently squeezed the fingers she passed tenderly over his hair. But when she was gone, he turned his face to the wall, and who shall say if, in the darkness, there came a few hot tears? With his own hand he thus put away for ever all that most men call the romance of existence. He had thought to do a slight kindness, and the sacrifice of a lifetime had fallen upon him. It must fall now, on him or on Lydia. He was the stronger; he had had most happiness hitherto. Even this would not blight his life so thoroughly as her life would be blighted otherwise. And she was a good woman, and might have been so pretty and attractive if she had had a fair chance! If men, on all hands, regardless of the highest happiness of the heart, married for money, for connection, for comfort, was he not free to surrender his to save from humiliation, and to give peace and joy to, a patient creature, who had lived so long and so well without them?
It was a heroism which grew out of a weakness. But more heroisms do that than we always care to fancy. We all do wrong, for we are all, as simple folks say, "mortal." But some of us choose to suffer as far as we can for our own errors, rather than to inflict that suffering on others, even on those whose own mistakes may have originated our errors.
That very night Dr Edward Hardy took up his cross, none the less a cross because it showed to others as grotesque.
And this is the story which answers the standard Dinnent question, "Why did Dr Hardy marry Miss Ray?"
But only the other day, when that was asked in the hearing of a stranger, that stranger answered, "Why? - because she's the pleasantest woman in the place, of course, and her three children are the nicest and handsomest in all Dinnent." Her deafness gradually lessened until it is nothing at all, or only something which gives her a winning way of waiting on one's words. One thing is very certain, that while other women have grown older, Lydia Hardy has grown younger. Some people say we are all young once, and, perhaps, if we miss our youth at one end of our life we get it at the other. As for the doctor, when he married he certainly did grow very sober and staid, which was good for him professionally, as some people had hardly liked to trust him before. But after a while, perhaps when his responsibilities weighed less upon him - perhaps when he felt his reputation was quite established, he gradually returned to his own self and his own old merry ways. To look at him, one would say that bearing a cross was not unwholesome exercise. It is a very curious thing that when anything is said in their presence about proposals of marriage, Dr and Mrs. Hardy have been seen to look at each other and to smile very significantly. How much can she know? Is it possible that he has told her all, because at last he can end the story by saying heartily, "And if it was to do again, wifie, I hope you'd do the same"?
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