From Some of Our Neighbours (J. M. Dent & Co: 1898)
We all agree that Lydia Wheelock is very plain-looking, but that she is very good. She was never handsome, even as a girl. She never had any youthful bloom, and her figure was always as clumsy and awkward as it is now. Poor Lydia, with her round shoulders and her high hips, always moved heavily among the light-tripping maids of her own age. Seen from behind, her broad, matronly back made her look old enough to be the mother of them all. Bright and delicate girlish ribbons and muslins, which set off their happy, youthful, flower-like faces, made poor Lydia's dull, thick cheeks look duller, and thicker, and heavier.
Some women as plain-visaged as Lydia, seeing themselves, as it were, like dingy barnyard fowls among flocks of splendid snowy doves and humming-birds, might have deliberately tried to cultivate loving-kindness and sweet obligingness of manner as an offset. But Lydia was not brilliant enough for that, neither had she much personal ambition. It is doubtful if she has ever looked in the glass much, except to ascertain if her face was clean and her hair smooth, and if her lack of comeliness ever cost her an anxious hour.
Besides, Lydia's goodness, contrary to the orthodox tenets, really seems to be the result of nature, and nothing which she has acquired at any know period since her advent upon this earth. Nobody can remember when Lydia was not just as good and devout as she is now; just as faithful in her ministrations to the afflicted and needy, just as constant at meeting, just as patient under her own trials.
As a child at school Lydia never whispered, was never tardy, seldom failed in her lessons, and never teased away another little girl's candy. Besides, her mother always vouched for the fact that she was good as a young and tender infant, and consequently seemed to have been actually born good.
“Lyddy never cried except when she was real sick,” her mother used to say. (She lived to be a very old woman, and harped upon her good daughter as if she were the favourite string of her whole life.) “Never knowed her cry because she was mad, as the other children did. Lyddy allers took her nap regular an' slept all night without fussin'. An' she never banged her head on the floor 'cause she couldn't have her own way. She allers give in real pleasant an' smilin'.”
What was true of Lydia as a baby has undoubtedly been true of her ever since — she has “allers give in real pleasant an' smilin'.” There may be some people who would urge the plea that Lydia has an easy temperament, and not naturally such a firm clutch upon her desires that it is agony to relinquish them. But if all the ways that Lydia has patiently and smilingly accepted have been her own ways, she must, even if her temperament had been ever so stolid, have had peculiar tastes and likings. Sometimes it would have been almost like a relish for the scalping-knife or the branding-iron. If Lydia has not, metaphorically speaking, many times during her life banged her head upon the floor, it has not been from lack of proper temptation. She has had from any human standpoint a hard life. Her father died when she was a young girl. She had to leave school and go about helping the neighbours with sewing and cleaning and extra household tasks when they had company, to earn a pittance for the support of herself and her mother. Lydia's mother, although she lived to be so old, was always a feeble woman, crippled with rheumatism.
Lydia lived patiently and laboriously, earning just enough to keep her mother comfortably and herself uncomfortably alive, and that was all. She had one good meal a day when she was working at a neighbour's. Often we know that was all she had, although she never said so and never complained.
Lydia's shawl was always too thin for winter wear, and we felt that we ought to avoid looking at her poor bonnets in order not to hurt her feelings. Every cent that Lydia earned, beyond what she spent for the barest necessaries, went for her mother's comfort.
Her mother was never without her three meals a day and her warm flannels, when the dread of Lydia's life was that she might faint away some day at a neighbour's from lack of proper nourishment, and the state of her attire in midwinter be discovered. She confessed her great dread to somebody once, after she was married.
When Lydia was about thirty she suddenly got married, to the surprise of the whole village. Nobody had dreamed she would ever marry. She was so plain and so poor, and seemed years older than she was — old enough to be her own grandmother, as Mrs Harrison White said. She married a man who had paid some attention to Mrs Harrison White when she was a girl, and she was popularly supposed to favour him, but her parents objected, so she married Harrison White instead.
Elisha Wheelock, the man Lydia married, all the neighbours had called “a poor tool.” He was good-looking and good-hearted, but seemed to have little ambition and no taste for industry. Moreover, everybody said he drank. Lurinda Snell said she had seen him when he could scarcely walk and many others agreed with her. Although the village was surprised, the village gave a sort of negative approval of the banns. Everybody agreed that a man like Elisha Wheelock couldn't hope to do any better. No pretty girl with a good home would forsake it for him, and as for Lydia, it was probably her first and only chance, and she could never hope to do any better either. Moreover, Elisha owned a comfortable house — his father had just died and left it to him, with quite a good-sized farm; and it was said positively that Lydia's mother was to live there. “Lydia's got a good home for herself and her mother if 'Lisha don't drink it up,” people said. Some thought he would. Everybody watched to see the old homestead and the fertile acres transformed into fiery draughts going down Elisha's throat, but they never did.
Lydia has had her way in one respect, if not in others, and that one may suffice for much. She has certainly had her way with Elisha Wheelock and made a man of him. Not a drop has he drunk, so far as people know — and all the neighbours have watched — in all the years since he married Lydia. He has worked steadily on his farm, he does not owe a dollar, and he is said to have a nice little sum in the savings bank. Moreover, he is a deacon of the church, and on the school committee.
Some of the neighbours say openly that Elisha would never have been deacon if it had not been for his wife; that Lydia ought to have been deacon, and since she could not, because she was a woman, they made her one by proxy through her husband. Elisha is a good deacon — a very good deacon, indeed — and he has Lydia to fully and carefully advise him.
Lydia has never had any children, but she always had a large family. She began with her own mother and her husband's mother, and a little orphan second cousin of her husband's who had lived with the Wheelocks since her parents died. Her own mother, as I said before, was very feeble and a deal of care; her husband's mother had a jealous, irritable disposition and was very difficult to live with; the orphan cousin was delicate, had the rickets, and, people said, none too clear a mind. Lydia kept no servant, and she had to work hard to keep her house in order, sew and mend, build up her husband's character, and reconcile all the opposite dispositions and requirements of her family. She has had to delve in a spiritual as well as temporal field, and employ heart, and soul, and hands at the same time ever since she was married. After her mother died an old aunt of Elisha's, who would otherwise have had to go upon the town, came to live with them. She is stone-deaf and has a curiously inquiring mind, but it is said that Lydia never loses her patience and never wearies of shouting the most useless information into her straining ears.
It was accounted somewhat fortunate that Elisha's mother did not live long after Aunt Inez appeared, for it would have been, not too great a strain upon Lydia's patience — nobody doubts the long-suffering of that — but for her strength, to reconcile two such characters and keep the peace for any length of time. However, Elisha's mother had not been dead long before a sister of the rickety orphan cousin, who grows more and more of a charge as the years go on, lost her husband and came to live at the Wheelock place with her four children. They said she would be a great help to Lydia, but she is a pretty young thing, in spite of her four children; she is a good singer, and she is constant at all the sociables and singing-schools, and does a deal of fancy-work, and the neighbours think Lydia has to take nearly all the care of the children. They also think that the young widow is setting her cap here and there, and hope she may marry and so relieve poor Lydia of herself and her children. But, after all, it would be only a temporary relief. Some other widow, or orphan, or aged and infirm aunt, would descend upon her, for it is well known that it is Lydia who aids and abets her husband in his charity toward his needy relations. And, moreover, it is told how she lets the children and the additional expense be as small a source of worry to him as possible. Some of the neighbours think that if Lydia Wheelock stints herself much more, to provide for widows and orphans, she cannot go to meeting for lack of simply decent covering. Lurinda Snell is positive that she keeps her shawl on in hot weather to cover up her sleeves, which are past mending in any decorous fashion, and simply make a show of their innumerable and not very harmonious patches. And as for her bonnets, it is actually an insult to look attentively at them.
Poor Lydia has not had a new carpet in her sitting-room since she was married. The one Elisha's mother had was old then, and long ago went to the rag-man. Ever since she has lived on the bare boards. It is a dreadful thing in this village not to have a carpet in the sitting-room. The neighbours never get over being shocked at the loud taps of their shoes on the hard boards when they enter Lydia's. She had a rag carpet almost done, they say, when Lottie Green and her children came; since then she has had no time nor opportunity to finish it.
But everybody knew that if Lydia and Elisha did not do so much for other people she could have a tapestry carpet in her sitting-room, and a black silk dress every year. She sees to it, however, that Elisha is not stinted to his discomfort. He has his nice Sunday clothes and looks as well as any man in the whole village.
Lydia is a good cook, and is said to simply pamper her husband's appetite, and take more pains to do so the more she has in her family. We are all very sure that Lydia never neglects her husband for his needy relations, nor relaxes for an instant her watchful eye upon his spiritual and temporal needs. Miss Lurinda Snell declares that she has built up a fire in the north parlour every evening this winter that Elisha may sit in there and read his paper, and not be annoyed by Lottie Green's children. They are very noisy boisterous children.
Lydia Wheelock, busy as she is with her own, and the needs of her own, tried as her strength must be by her own household cares, does not confine her ministrations to them. If a neighbour is ill Lydia is always ready to watch with her, and a most invaluable nurse she is. Not a neighbour but would rather have Lydia than anybody else over her when she is ill.
Absolutely untiring is Lydia when ministering to the sick, tender as if the sufferer were her own child, and yet so firm and wise that one can feel her almost sufficient of herself to pull one back to health.
Lydia is always in the house of mourning; people claim her sympathy as if it were their right, and she seems to recognise her obligation toward all suffering without a question. She is also always ready with her aid on occasions of rejoicings, at wedding feasts, as well as funerals. She comes to the front with her kindly sympathy when the exigencies of human life arise.
We look across the meeting-house on a Sunday and see Lydia sitting listening to the sermon, her plain face uplifted with the expression of a saint, under that bonnet which we avoid glancing at for love of her, and our hearts are full of gratitude for this good woman in our village.