If there was anything in the world as to which Isabella Dale was quite certain, it was this — that she was not in love with Dr Crofts. As to being in love with her cousin Bernard, she had never had occasion to ask herself any question on that head. She liked him very well, but she had never thought of marrying him; and now, when he made his proposal, she could not bring herself to think of it. But as regards Dr Crofts, she had thought of it, and had make up her mind — in the manner above described.
It may be said that she could not have been justified in discussing the matter even within her own bosom, unless authorised to do so by Dr Crofts himself. Let it then be considered that Dr Crofts had given her some such authority. This may be done in more ways than one; and Miss Dale could not have found herself asking herself questions about him, unless there had been fitting occasion for her to do so.
The profession of a medical man in a small provincial town is not often one which gives to its owner in early life a large income. Perhaps in no career has a man to work harder for what he earns, or to do more work without earning anything. It has sometimes seemed to me as though the young doctors and the old doctors had agreed to divide between them the different results of their profession — the young doctors doing all the work and the old doctors taking all the money. If this be so it may account for that appearance of premature gravity which is borne by so many of the medical profession. Under such an arrangement a man may be excused for a desire to put away childish things very early in life.
Dr Crofts had now been practising in Guestwick nearly seven years, having settled himself in that town when he was twenty-three years old, and being at this period about thirty. During those seven years his skill and industry had been so fully admitted that he had succeeded in obtaining the medical care of all the paupers in the union, for which work he was paid at the rate of one hundred pounds a year. He was also assistant-surgeon at a small hospital which was maintained in that town, and held two or three other similar public positions, all of which attested his respectability and general proficiency. They, moreover, thoroughly saved him from any of the dangers of idleness; but, unfortunately, they did not enable him to regard himself as a successful professional man. Whereas old Dr Gruffen, of whom but few people spoke well, had made a fortune in Guestwick, and even still drew from the ailments of the town a considerable and hardly yet decreasing income. Now this was hard upon Dr Crofts — unless there was existing some such well-understood arrangement as that above named.
He had been known to the family of the Dales long previous to his settlement at Guestwick, and had been very intimate with them from that time to the present day. Of all the men, young or old, whom Mrs Dale counted among her intimate friends, he was the one whom she most trusted and admired. And he was a man to be trusted by those who knew him well.
He was not bright and always ready, as was Crosbie, nor had he all the practical worldly good sense of Bernard Dale. In mental power I doubt whether he was superior to John Eames — to John Eames, such as he might become when the period of his hobbledehoyhood should have altogether passed away. But Crofts, compared with the other three, as they all were at present, was a man more to be trusted than any of them. And there was, moreover, about him an occasional dash of humour, without which Mrs Dale would hardly have regarded him with that thorough liking which she had for him. But it was a quiet humour, apt to show itself when he had but one friend with him, rather than in general society. Crosbie, on the other hand, would be much more bright among a dozen, than he could with a single companion. Bernard Dale was never bright; and as for Johnny Eames — but in this matter of brightness, Johnny Eames had not yet shown to the world what his character might be.
It was now two years since Crofts had been called upon for medical advice on behalf of his friend Mrs Dale. She had then been ill for a long period — some two or three months, and Dr Crofts had been frequent in his visits at Allington. At that time he became very intimate with Mrs Dale’s daughters, and especially so with the eldest. Young unmarried doctors ought perhaps to be excluded from homes in which there are young ladies. I know, at any rate, that many sage matrons hold very strongly to that opinion, thinking, no doubt, that doctors ought to get themselves married before they venture to begin working for a living. Mrs Dale, perhaps, regarded her own girls as still merely children, for Bell, the elder, was then hardly eighteen; or perhaps she held imprudent and heterodox opinions on this subject; or it may be that she selfishly preferred Dr Crofts, with all the danger to her children, to Dr Gruffen, with all the danger to herself. But the result was that the young doctor one day informed himself, as he was riding back to Guestwick, that much of his happiness in this world would depend on his being able to marry Mrs Dale’s eldest daughter. At that time his total income amounted to little more than two hundred a year, and he had resolved within his own mind that Dr Gruffen was esteemed as much the better doctor by the general public opinion of Guestwick, and that Dr Gruffen’s sandy-haired assistant would even have a better chance of success in the town than himself, should it ever come to pass that the doctor was esteemed too old for personal practice. Crofts had no fortune of his own, and he was aware that Miss Dale had none. Then, under those circumstances, what was he to do?
It is not necessary that we should inquire at any great length into those love passages of the doctor’s life which took place three years before the commencement of this narrative. He made no declaration to Bell; but Bell, young as she was, understood well that he would fain have done so, had not his courage failed him, or rather had not his prudence prevented him. To Mrs Dale he did speak, not openly avowing his love even to her, but hinting at it, and then talking to her of his unsatisfied hopes and professional disappointments.
“It is not that I complain of being poor as I am,” said he “or at any rate, not so poor that my poverty must be any source of discomfort to me; but I could hardly marry with such an income as I have at present.”
“But it will increase, will it not?” said Mrs Dale.
“It may some day, when I am becoming an old man,” he said. “But of what use will it be to me then?”
Mrs Dale could not tell him that, as far as her voice in the matter went, he was welcome to woo her daughter and marry her, poor as he was, and doubly poor as they would both be together on such a pittance. He had not even mentioned Bell’s name, and had he done so she could only have bade him wait and hope. After that he said nothing further to her upon the subject. To Bell he spoke no word of overt love; but on an autumn day, when Mrs Dale was already convalescent, and the repetition of his professional visits had become unnecessary, he got her to walk with him through the half-hidden shrubbery paths, and then told her things which he should never have told her, if he really wished to bind her heart to his. He repeated that story of his income, and explained to her that his poverty was only grievous to him in that it prevented him from thinking of marriage.
“I suppose it must,” said Bell.
“I should think it wrong to ask any lady to share such an income as mine,” said he. Whereupon Bell had suggested to him that some ladies had incomes of their own, and that he might in that way get over the difficulty.
“I should be afraid of myself in marrying a girl with money,” said he; “besides, that is altogether out of the question now.” Of course Bell did not ask him why it was out of the question, and for a time they went on walking in silence.
“It is a hard thing to do,” he then said — not looking at her, but looking at the gravel on which he stood.
“It is a hard thing to do, but I will determine to think of it no further. I believe a man may be as happy single as he may married — almost.”
“Perhaps more so,” said Bell. Then the doctor left her, and Bell, as I have said before, made up her mind with great firmness that she was not in love with him. I may certainly say that there was nothing in the world as to which she was so certain as she was of this.
And now, in these days, Dr Crofts did not come over to Allington very often. Had any of the family in the Small House been ill, he would have been there of course. The squire himself employed the apothecary in the village, or if higher aid was needed, would send for Dr Gruffen. On the occasion of Mrs Dale’s party, Crofts was there, having been specially invited; but Mrs Dale’s special invitations to her friends were very few, and the doctor was well aware that he must himself make occasion for going there if he desired to see the inmates of the house. But he very rarely made such occasion, perhaps feeling that he was more in his element at the workhouse and the hospital.
Just at this time, however, he made one very great and unexpected step towards success in his profession. He was greatly surprised one morning by being summoned to the Manor House to attend upon Lord De Guest. The family at the Manor had employed Dr Gruffen for the last thirty years, and Crofts, when he received the earl’s message, could hardly believe the words.
“The earl ain’t very bad,” said the servant, “but he would be glad to see you if possible a little before dinner.”
“You’re sure he wants to see me?” said Crofts.
“Oh, yes; I’m sure enough of that, sir.”
“It wasn’t Dr Gruffen?
“No, sir; it wasn’t Dr Gruffen. I believe his lordship’s had about enough of Dr Gruffen. The doctor took to chaffing his lordship one day.”
“Chaffed his lordship — his hands and feet, and that sort of thing?” suggested the doctor.
“Hands and feet!” said the man.
“Lord bless you, sir, he poked his fun at him, just as though he was nobody. I didn’t hear, but Mrs Connor says that my lord’s back was up terribly high.” And so Dr Crofts got on his horse and rode up to Guestwick Manor.
The earl was alone, Lady Julia having already gone to Courcy Castle.
“How d’ye do, how d’ye do?” said the earl.
“I’m not very ill, but I want to get a little advice from you. It’s quite a trifle, but I thought it well to see somebody.” Whereupon Dr Crofts of course declared that he was happy to wait upon his lordship.
“I know all about you, you know,” said the earl.
“Your grandmother Stoddard was a very old friend of my aunt’s. You don’t remember Lady Jemima?”
“No,” said Crofts.
“I never had that honour.”
“An excellent old woman, and knew your grandmother Stoddard well. You see, Gruffen has been attending us for I don’t know how many years; but upon my word” and then the earl stopped himself.
“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” said Crofts, with a slight laugh.
“Perhaps it’ll blow me some good, for Gruffen never did me any. The fact is this; I’m very well, you know — as strong as a horse.”
“You look pretty well.”
“No man could be better — not of my age. I’m sixty, you know.”
“You don’t look as though you were ailing.”
“I’m always out in the open air, and that, I take it, is the best thing for a man.”
“There’s nothing like plenty of exercise, certainly.”
“And I’m always taking exercise,” said the earl.
“There isn’t a man about the place works much harder than I do. And, let me tell you, sir, when you undertake to keep six or seven hundred acres of land in your own hand, you must look after it, unless you mean to lose money by it.”
“I’ve always heard that your lordship is a good farmer.”
“Well, yes; wherever the grass may grow about my place, it doesn’t grow under my feet. You won’t often find me in bed at six o’clock, I can tell you.”
After this Dr Crofts ventured to ask his lordship as to what special physical deficiency his own aid was invoked at the present time.
“Ah, I was just coming to that,” said the earl.
“They tell me it’s a very dangerous practice to go to sleep after dinner.”
“It’s not very uncommon at any rate,” said the doctor.
“I suppose not; but Lady Julia is always at me about it. And, to tell the truth, I think I sleep almost too sound when I get to my arm-chair in the drawing-room. Sometimes my sister really can’t wake me — so, at least, she says.”
“And how’s your appetite at dinner?”
“Oh, I’m quite right there. I never eat any luncheon, you know, and enjoy my dinner thoroughly. Then I drink three or four glasses of port wine —”
“And feel sleepy afterwards?”
“That’s just it,” said the earl.
It is not perhaps necessary that we should inquire what was the exact nature of the doctor’s advice; but it was, at any rate, given in such a way that the earl said he would be glad to see him again.
“And look here, Doctor Crofts, I’m all alone just at present. Suppose you come over and dine with me tomorrow; then, if I should go to sleep, you know, you’ll be able to let me know whether Lady Julia doesn’t exaggerate. Just between ourselves, I don’t quite believe all she says about my — my snoring, you know.”
Whether it was that the earl restrained his appetite when at dinner under the doctor’s eyes, or whether the mid-day mutton chop which had been ordered for him had the desired effect, or whether the doctor’s conversation was more lively than that of the Lady Julia, we will not say; but the earl, on the evening in question, was triumphant. As he sat in his easy-chair after dinner he hardly winked above once or twice; and when he had taken the large bowl of tea, which he usually swallowed in a semi-somnolent condition, he was quite lively.
“Ah, yes,” he said, jumping up and rubbing his eyes; “I think I do feel lighter. I enjoy a snooze after dinner; I do indeed; I like it; but then, when one comes to go to bed, one does it in such a sneaking sort of way, as though one were in disgrace! And my sister, she thinks it a crime — literally a sin, to go to sleep in a chair. Nobody ever caught her napping! By-the-by, Dr Crofts, did you know that Mr Crosbie whom Bernard Dale brought down to Allington? Lady Julia and he are staying at the same house now.”
“I met him once at Mrs Dale’s.”
“Going to marry one of the girls, isn’t he?”
Whereupon Dr Crofts explained that Mr Crosbie was engaged to Lilian Dale.
“Ah, yes; a nice girl I’m told. You know all those Dales are connections of ours. My sister Fanny married their uncle Orlando. My brother-in-law doesn’t like travelling, and so I don’t see very much of him; but of course I’m interested about the family.”
“They’re very old friends of mine,” said Crafts.
“Yes, I dare say. There are two girls, are there not?”
“And Miss Lily is the youngest. There’s nothing about the elder one getting married, is there?
“I’ve not heard anything of it.”
“A very pretty girl she is, too. I remember seeing her at her uncle’s last year. I shouldn’t wonder if she were to marry her cousin Bernard. He is to have the property, you know; and he’s my nephew.”
“I’m not quite sure that it’s a good thing for cousins to marry,” said Crofts.
“They do, you know, very often; and it suits some family arrangements. I suppose Dale must provide for them, and that would take one off his hands without any trouble.”
Dr Crofts didn’t exactly see the matter in this light, but he was not anxious to argue it very closely with the earl.
“The younger one,” he said, “has provided for herself.”
“What; by getting a husband? But I suppose Dale must give her something. They’re not married yet, you know, and, from what I hear, that fellow may prove a slippery customer. He’ll not marry her unless old Dale gives her something. You’ll see if he does. I’m told that he has got another string to his bow at Courcy Castle.”
Soon after this, Crofts took his horse and rode home, having promised the earl that he would dine with him again before long.
“It’ll be a great convenience to me if you’d come about that time,” said the earl, “and as you’re a bachelor perhaps you won’t mind it. You’ll come on Thursday at seven, will you? Take care of yourself. It’s as dark as pitch. John, go and open the first gates for Dr Crofts.” And then the earl took himself off to bed.
Crofts, as he rode home, could not keep his mind from thinking of the two girls at Allington.
“He’ll not marry her unless old Dale gives her something.” Had it come to that with the world, that a man must be bribed into keeping his engagement with a lady? Was there no romance left among mankind — no feeling of chivalry?
“He’s got another string to his bow at Courcy Castle,” said the earl; and his lordship seemed to be in no degree shocked as he said it. It was in this tone that men spoke of women nowadays, and yet he himself had felt such awe of the girl he loved, and such a fear lest he might injure her in her worldly position, that he had not dared to tell her that he loved her.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55