In rural Northamptonshire, world-weary Lydia is visited by a man she has met but once, who proposes to take her to build a new life in Canada, in this story by M. L. Rubin inspired by characters from a D.H. Lawrence tale.
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“Geoffrey and Lydia kept faith one with the other.”
D.H. Lawrence, Love Among the Haystacks
Geoffrey rose well before dawn, eager to be off before anyone in his family was stirring. He’d washed the night before, and was glad of it now as he shivered into a clean shirt and pants in the chill morning air. Like as not they’d be covered with dust and sweat by the time he saw her, but at least he could say they’d been clean to start the day.
Boots in hand, he crept down to the kitchen, though the stairs still creaked beneath his weight. On the table he saw the plate of currant cakes his mother had promised, wrapped carefully in brown paper for the journey. She’d stayed up late to bake them so they’d be fresh for the morning. For weeks his father and brothers had tried to talk him out of his plan, calling it foolish and dangerous. What did he know of this woman, save that she’d married a shiftless beggar? How could he be sure she wasn’t cut from the same cloth as her husband, trying to seduce him as part of some scheme? And even if she kept her word, and was willing to go and start a new life with him in Canada, what then? How could he know that she’d be any use as a farmer’s wife? Marry a local girl, his father urged, there must be one who’d be willing to go with him. But Geoffrey shook off their arguments as a dog shakes off the wet. He knew Lydia, and he believed in her.
Only his mother kept silent on the issue, and he knew her silence for assent. Three grown sons was at least one son too many for a farm their size. Stephen, the oldest, would inherit the farm, and Maurice, the baby, was his mother’s favorite. It wasn’t that Geoffrey’s mother didn’t love him, only that he was the son with whom she could most easily bear to part. He accepted that, as he accepted her offer to bake her best cakes for him to bring on his visit. He set them carefully in the pannier, atop a soft cloth bundle, hoping they would not get crushed as he swung his long leg over the bicycle and maneuvered it carefully over the farmyard ruts to the road.
The gray morning air hit his face like icy water, washing away the cobwebs from his sleepless night. He breathed in great gulps of it as he sped down the first hill, pumping before he reached the bottom so that he picked up speed as he ascended, reveling in the warmth of his blood spreading down his arms and legs. After weeks of waiting and planning, the relief of finally being on his way was intense. He’d pored over his father’s map of the Midlands, calculating the miles he had to cover to get to Crick and back by daylight. He thought he could do it and still have time to visit with Lydia, barring something unexpected, like a broken bicycle chain or sudden change of weather. Chains do break, his cynical brother Stephen had warned, and weather always changes. But the faith that Geoffrey had found the night he spent with Lydia prevailed. Geoffrey believed he could make the trip in one day, and so he would.
“Do you really think he’s coming?” Katie asked, her hands deep in the bowl of flour. “It must be near 20 miles each way.”
“His note said so,” Lydia answered. She ducked her head down over the vegetables she was peeling to avoid the face she knew Bertram was making. Her sister thought it romantic that she and Geoffrey were promised to one another after sheltering a single night together. But her brother-in-law, nearly two decades older than her, had already made it clear what he thought of Geoffrey’s proposal. He snorted as he thrust his arms into his jacket to go outside. “The boy’s a fool, coming all this way just to sup with us.”
Lydia couldn’t disagree. She had doubted that she would ever hear from Geoffrey again once they’d parted ways. Then his first note had arrived: plainspoken and brief, he’d written that he hoped to visit once the harvest was in and the farm could spare him for a day. There was nothing of a love letter about it, and Lydia felt she understood. He was too well brought up to simply leave it in silence. Instead he’d written a polite note making a promise that would never be kept.
The second note, arriving two days ago, had come as a surprise. He would visit on Sunday, he wrote, and stay to dinner, if the fair weather held. The immediacy of it convinced Lydia that he was in earnest. Now that his visit was a reality, she almost wished that she had put him off. She had everything she needed now in life: a warm bed, a safe roof over her head, plenty of food, self-respect. She worked hard on the farm beside her sister and brother-in-law, and knew that she wasn’t a burden to them.
Nor had she any fear of her husband seeking her out. He’d been glad to be rid of her, of that she was certain. Like as not, he had another woman by now: finding women came much easier to him than finding work. Even this thought stirred nothing in Lydia. For four long years she’d tramped about the countryside with him, suffering the nights of poor shelter, or no shelter at all, the coldness of villagers who regarded her with indifference or suspicion. The passion she’d felt for him, which had burned down to a smoldering hatred their final year together, was extinguished now, leaving only a pile of ashes.
Why should she strive to gain a home of her own, or a child to replace the one she had lost? To risk everything and go off to Canada with a stranger, what need had she of that? She had risked everything once for a man – for love, she thought – had risked and lost everything, and nearly died of it. But Geoffrey had saved her. She kept circling back to that in the weeks that passed since the night they’d spent together, the night she might have perished from cold and hunger if he’d not been there. Every time she thought to end it with a note of her own telling him to forget about their plans, she came back to that: he had saved her, and believed he loved her, perhaps having no other experience of women to compare with her. And now it was too late, he was on his way.
But as the noon hour approached, Lydia began to wonder if he had changed his mind after all. The meat was cooked, the platters filled, and still there was no sign of him. No longer able to bear the sympathetic glances from her sister, nor the smug ones from her brother-in-law, she slipped off her apron and stepped outside. Seeing that the farmyard was empty, she crossed the vegetable garden, following a path that led though the orchard. Here the land rose steeply, ending in a bluff overlooking a narrow valley. The road from Nottingham stretched out below her: a thin silver ribbon laid across the fabric of rich farmland, it crested a sharp ridge to the north and disappeared beyond it. The road was empty.
It was for the best that he had not come. Except for her late father, and perhaps Bertram, men were not to be trusted; she ought to have learned that by now. Other people might find love, marry, and raise families, but that was not for her.
Lydia knew she should return to the house but instead she lingered, lifting her face to the scant warmth of the bright October sun. A speck appeared on the road, rising above the ridge. A head, two shoulders – not large enough for a cart or wagon – a man on a bicycle. As her brain registered that he had come, her first impulse was to run and hide. But it was too late, he had seen her. He paused at the top of the hill to lift his arm in a silent greeting, and she found herself waving back.
The road rose and fell with the land in great long swells, and as he pedaled, Geoffrey imagined he was sailing across the sea with Canada somewhere beyond the horizon. For as long as he could remember he’d dreamed of starting a new life in some distant place. But the thought of facing the world on his own always stood in his way. Lydia held the key to his escape: with her he felt that he could face the world, fearless. His heart quickened with the sense of his new self, no longer shy and clumsy: a brave explorer going forward now to claim his lady love. He knew that challenges still lay ahead. What would her family think of him, of his scheme? And what of Lydia herself? Her silence hung in equal measure; she had neither encouraged nor refused his visit. It was enough for Geoffrey that she had not refused him.
He grew philosophical as he cycled; thinking that the road was like life itself, full of ups and downs. Most people complained of the up-hills, but Geoffrey relished them. He’d never been afraid of hard work, and now he felt alive and strong. His muscular legs pumped harder as each hill rose higher than the last, the cool air drying the sweat as it poured down his cheeks. No, it wasn’t the challenges of the road that worried him. It was the fear of having to travel it alone, with no companion beside him to share the journey.
A great weight slipped from his shoulders when he spied her waiting for him across the valley. Small farms were not well marked, and he’d begun to worry about finding this one. The thought of arriving at the wrong place and having to explain his errand had filled him with dread. He hoped it was a good sign that she had come out to meet him.
Geoffrey wanted to embrace Lydia as he dismounted his bicycle in the farmyard, but she gave no sign of wanting him to, so he held back. She was prettier than he remembered: the weeks of good food and rest had erased the gauntness of her features and returned the freshness to her eyes and skin. His first thought was to be glad she looked so well, his second was to wonder that someone with her beauty would want to be with him.
“We’d best go in,” she said, gesturing towards the door, “dinner will be ready.”
Geoffrey was apologetic. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting – the way was longer than I thought.”
“No, but my brother-in-law is eager for his meal, we mustn’t keep them longer.”
But he would not go in as he was, and she showed him to the pump so that he could wash the dust and sweat from his face.
Katie stepped forward to greet Geoffrey as he entered the kitchen, ducking his head beneath the lintel as he often had to do. Near ten years older than Lydia, Katie was also fine-boned and petite with dark hair and delicate features. Seeing the two sisters side by side, he was minded of two pennies, one shiny and new, the other gently worn with time and care. Geoffrey handed Katie the plate of cakes, sending a mental note of thanks to his mother for making sure he did not enter their home empty-handed.
Katie’s husband stepped forward, and the contrast to his wife could not have been greater: he was a great bull of a man, barrel-chested with thick, coarse hair and large, blunt features, his massive head thrusting forward on massive shoulders.
“Had a good ride?” he asked with a derisive half-smile that suggested he imagined it wasn’t. He stuck his hand out and grasped Geoffrey’s in a powerful grip.
“Aye, it was, thank you,” Geoffrey replied, and minding what his father had taught him, he looked Bertram in the eye and stretched to his full height. Here Geoffrey had some advantage, for despite the other man’s size, he was half a head taller. He returned Bertram’s grip with all the strength he could muster and for a moment the two men stood locked in a handclasp that would have made many cry out in pain. When Bertram released his hold, Geoffrey thought he caught a glimmer of something like respect in the other man’s eye. Bertram turned to take his seat at the head of the long kitchen table, gesturing to Geoffrey to sit on his right.
“A ride like that one builds up a thirst. You’ll have some beer with your dinner?” he asked, holding the pitcher above Geoffrey’s cup.
“No, thank you, I’d rather have water,” Geoffrey replied, and Katie came forward to pour it for him. They were testing him, of course, to see if he was a drinker. He knew Lydia’s husband had been one, you could practically smell it on him. A picture of the man arose in his mind as he had been that day he’d come to their farm, pretending to look for work. Opportunistic and conniving, he’d tried to ingratiate himself while eating their food, leaving poor Lydia waiting for him in the lane. Geoffrey had loathed him on sight.
As for the beer, refusing it was no hardship for Geoffrey. A little drink had no effect on him whatsoever, a large amount only made him sleepy. He couldn’t see the point of it.
The couple’s three young children came and sat at the foot of the table, staring wide-eyed at Geoffrey but keeping quiet as children should. Geoffrey waited for the women to take their seats, but they continued circling the table in graceful orbits, bringing warm dishes from the oven and filling plates for the men and children as they ate.
This surprised Geoffrey, for Sunday dinner was a formal affair at home. His father would proudly carve the meat while his mother served the other dishes from her place at the foot of the table. It was his family’s time to review the week that had passed and make plans for the one ahead, to discuss the news of the day and the world at large. Here the silence was interrupted only by the sound of chewing, the scrape of knife and fork, or the women gently chiding the children. Bertram ate steadily, shoveling great forkfuls into his mouth. Geoffrey noticed the other man stealing glances at his plate and wondered if this, too, were some sort of contest. If so, Geoffrey felt equal to it: he always had a hearty appetite, and after his morning ride his insides felt hollow. He quickened his pace so that his fork rose and fell with Bertram’s and was rewarded with an approving smile and nod from Katie as she refilled his plate. Geoffrey’s eyes sought Lydia’s, but though she, too, brought him food, she did not meet his gaze.
Bertram emptied his plate a final time. Seeing that Geoffrey had cleared his as well, he pushed it away from him and heaved a satisfied sigh. Katie sent the children off to play as Lydia replaced the plates with mugs of steaming coffee. To Geoffrey’s relief she served coffee for Katie and herself as well, and the two women finally sat down across from him.
“So,” Bertram began, pausing to suck a piece of meat from between his teeth as he turned towards Geoffrey, “So, Canada, eh?”
“Aye, Canada,” Geoffrey replied simply. He was no chatterbox. If Bertram wanted more information, he would have to ask for it.
After a pause Bertram continued. “Our Lydia tells us you plan on starting a farm of your own in Canada and you want her to go with you. Is that right?”
“It is.” Geoffrey forced himself to speak calmly. He’d known his intentions would be questioned, and felt that it was fair. Wasn’t Bertram Lydia’s only male kin, now that her father had passed?
“And how do you plan to come by this farm in Canada, if you don’t mind me asking?” Bertram continued, his dark brows coming together in an unbroken line. “Are they giving land away for free over there?”
“No, not for free. But land costs a fair sight less than here in England.” Now that he understood what Bertram was asking, Geoffrey spoke eagerly. Months of preparation were about to pay off, hours spent poring over newspaper articles and books on Canadian farming he’d gotten with the help of his former schoolteacher who was sympathetic to Geoffrey’s dream. He quoted the current price of land with confidence, and spoke of weather, and soil. As he spoke, he saw Lydia gazing at him intently, as though seeing a man she’d never seen before.
Bertram took a swallow of his coffee and wiped his mouth with his hand, unimpressed. “Even cheap land comes at a price, an’ then there’s tools and livestock and a house to live in. Have you the money for it?”
“Not yet, but I will by spring or next fall at the latest.” Geoffrey named the sum he had already, seeing with satisfaction Bertram’s look of surprise. His savings were earning interest in the bank at Nottingham. He had a little book to prove it, and was willing to show it to Bertram, if it came to that. But a shade of suspicion gathered over the other man’s face. “An’ how would a youth of two and twenty -”
“Three and twenty,” Geoffrey interrupted hastily, “a month since.”
“Excuse me, but how does a youth of three and twenty, working on his father’s farm, manage to gain such a sum?”
“By working extra,” Geoffrey explained. “My brothers and I do chores an’ work to run the farm. But if we work more, father pays us wages. I’ve been saving mine since I was ten.” Geoffrey’s father, a fair-minded man, maintained that younger brothers should be encouraged to earn some money for their own futures. Moreover, he recognized the capacity of his middle son: by age twelve, Geoffrey was equal to many a grown man in size and strength. While Stephen studied his books and Maurice daydreamed about girls, Geoffrey had labored before dawn and past dusk, dreaming of the day he’d earn enough to purchase a new life somewhere far away. A dream that was finally coming into fruition, he hoped.
Bertram shoved back his chair and heaved himself to his feet. “Sunday may be a day of rest for some folks, or going on long bicycle rides,” he said, looking pointedly at Geoffrey, “but I’ve work to do.” Geoffrey rose as well, and thanked Katie for the meal.
“You’re welcome to stop with us for the night,” Katie offered. “That way you could start fresh in the morning.” Geoffrey shook his head; he was needed back at the farm.
Bertram beckoned to Katie. “Come along, wife, we’d best be leaving the young folk to their love-making.” With a final grin at Geoffrey, he ushered Katie from the kitchen.
Geoffrey stepped to the door and looked outside, hoping his face wasn’t as red as it felt. Already the sun had shifted to the west, casting strong shadows across the farmyard. “I must go soon,” he said, and his words sounded hollow, as though he had already left.
Lydia nodded. She would not beg him to stay longer than he wanted. “Shall we walk a bit afore you go?” she asked. He nodded, and stepping into the yard he quickly took the cloth bundle from his pannier and tucked it beneath his arm. Wordless, she turned and led the way towards the orchard, following the same path she had taken that morning.
She understood now that he wasn’t in love with her. She had thought that he was, that his proposal was born of the infatuation of first love, and had been waiting to see if his love would wear itself out. But now, after hearing his conversation with Bertram, she saw Geoffrey in a different light. Though young and inexperienced, he was ambitious: a pragmatist who viewed her as a means to an end, a way to carry out his plan. That was why his letters made no mention of love, why he didn’t even try to embrace her. Like as not, he had asked other girls to go with him, and they had refused; not many would want to leave their families and travel so far.
Still, she would accept him. He’d make a good husband, hard-working and sober. She’d have a home of her own, maybe even children one day to replace the one she had lost. She had always known that it wasn’t her share in life, to be loved. She would go to Canada with him, if he wanted her. But she felt an emptiness inside her.
Walking behind her, Geoffrey saw her shoulders straighten with resolution beneath her thin cotton dress, and wondered what she was thinking. Ever since his arrival, he’d felt the distance growing between them. Although he walked only a pace or two behind, he felt as though she were a mile away. They passed beneath the final row of trees and he saw that she had brought him to the bluff where she’d stood waiting for him that morning. Here she stopped, and he stood beside her looking down at the road stretching out below them. It was their road, he felt, their lives that lay before them, and what was said or done now might make the difference of whether they would travel it together, or alone.
Geoffrey took his courage in his hands and turned to face her. “Will you be going with me to Canada?”
“I said that I would,” she replied, her voice flat, as if stating a fact.
“I know, but I wanted to ask you again. Now that you’ve a place to live, and had time to think on it, I thought maybe you’ve changed your mind?”
“Why, have you?” she asked quickly, glancing up at him.
“No!” he exclaimed, surprised. Did she think he’d travelled all this way just to break with her? “I’ve not changed my mind at all. Every day I think on it, and every day I want it, more and more.”
She nodded, indicating the matter was settled. “But maybe,” she continued, as if speaking her thoughts aloud, “maybe you’d rather ask someone else to go with you, a girl from the village, someone you’ve known all your life.” Who isn’t already married to a beggar – the words didn’t have to be said aloud.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Geoffrey said vehemently, shaking his head. He didn’t want any of the girls from his village. In their eyes he saw the self he loathed: the great, clumsy oaf, brooding and self-conscious. By some miracle, Lydia gave him license to become someone else, the man he wanted to be. He didn’t fully understand why this was; much less could he have put it into words. “Village girls are silly,” was all he could think of, “they giggle too much. And besides,” he added more softly, “I’m not in love with any of them.”
Lydia smiled sadly. It was true, at three and twenty her days of girlish giggling were far behind her. She gave no notice of his other words.
Geoffrey took the cloth-wrapped bundle from beneath his arm and held it out to her. “I’ve brought summat for you.”
Most girls would have fallen on it at once, eager to see what it was. Lydia looked warily at the bundle, with eyes of one for whom surprises are rarely pleasant. “What is it?”
“Open it, and see,” he teased. She untied the string and pulled back the rough burlap to reveal a soft cloud of purplish-blue wool. Entranced, she reached out one fingertip to touch it.
“It’s so soft – like a kitten’s fur.”
“It’s a shawl,” he explained eagerly, unrolling it to display the length and holding it out to her. Made of imported merino, it had set him back quite a sum, but he knew he had to have it for her. “Here, try it on.”
But Lydia stepped back, holding up her hands as if to push it away. “No, thank you,” she said, shaking her head, “I could never wear that.”
“Why not?” Geoffrey asked, puzzled. “Don’t you like it?”
“I do – it’s the prettiest shawl I’ve ever seen, but it’s much too fine for me,” she added, still shaking her head, her voice beginning to quiver. “It would never do for me. Please, you keep it,” and she turned away from him, bringing her hands to her face to hide the tears he saw slipping from her lashes.
Geoffrey stood staring helplessly at her, dumbfounded, the shawl trailing from his work-reddened hands like a cloud bank at sunset. He had been so proud of himself when he’d found it at the market, certain that a gift so rare and fine would prove his feelings for her. The shawl was his love token, meant to convey what he couldn’t put into words. And now it had made her cry, and she had refused it.
She was sobbing now, her shoulders shaking. “Of course you can wear it,” he pleaded, “it’s only a shawl.” But she wouldn’t look at him. Geoffrey stared out across the valley where the sun was sinking inexorably towards the horizon, turning the road from silver to gold. He should be on it now, heading home. But first he had to somehow make things right between them. A breeze stirred the orchard, the wind turning chill.
He began to speak, struggling to keep his voice gentle and calm. “I was thinking about the cold nights that are coming, an’ how we’ll be apart. An’ I wanted to be able to hold you, and keep you warm – the way I did that night in the shed,” he added, his voice dropping although there was no one to overhear them, “do you remember?” Her hands still covered her face, but she was quiet now, and he felt that she was listening. “When I saw this shawl at the market, how soft an’ warm it was, I thought that if I gave it to you, you could put it round you, like this,” and he wound the shawl around her neck and shoulders, “and then you’d think on how I gave it to you, an’ it could embrace you the way I would if I was with you, like this.” And he wrapped his long arms around her, gently pulling her towards him until her head was resting against his chest, and he felt the dampness of her tears on his shirt.
He stopped speaking, and they stood quietly together leaning against one another. The world shrank down around them until it held only the two of them as they stood wrapped in the golden afternoon sunlight between orchard and valley.
Lydia closed her eyes and felt the tension slipping from her shoulders, encircled by the warmth of the double embrace of shawl and arms. She had been holding herself stiff and rigid against the cold for so long that she had ceased to even notice it. Fear and shame had embedded themselves like icy hooks in her heart, leaving her numb with cold. But now their hold was slipping, melting away in the warmth that enfolded her.
Rubbing her cheek against the roughness of his shirt, she smelled the clean sweat of it and felt the emptiness inside her ebbing away. As if of its own accord, her hand slid up his shirt to his collar, her fingertips tracing the warm sinew of his neck. He answered her touch by bending his head down to meet hers and they kissed for a long moment.
It was Geoffrey who spoke first. He had to clear his throat, his voice hoarse with feeling. “Will you keep the shawl, then?”
“Yes.” She met his gaze and though her eyelashes were still wet, she smiled, as if to reassure him.
“An’ will you wear it, and think on me when you do?”
And with that Geoffrey was satisfied, as much as if she’d sworn herself to him for life. They held hands as they made their way back down through the orchard, Geoffrey ducking his head beneath the low hanging branches.
“Shall I write to you?” she asked as he readied his bicycle in the farm yard, tucking his mother’s plate carefully into the pannier.
“I wish you would!” he replied. He felt sure of her now as she stood there before him with his shawl wrapped about her and the late afternoon sun burnishing her dark hair with copper. But self-doubt might take hold in the long nights that lay ahead; a letter from her would do a good deal to keep those doubts at bay.
He promised to visit her once more before winter set in. They kissed again – this time a chaste kiss as is fitting for a farmyard on a Sunday afternoon, and he set off, pedaling down the long drive. Geoffrey minded himself to pause and look back when he crested the first ridge, just in case she had climbed the bluff to wave goodbye. He knew for certain that she would be there waiting for him when he returned.