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Hardyman put his arm round her with a gentleness which his oldest friend would have been surprised to see in him.

“Take your time to think of it,” he said, dropping back again into his usual quiet tone. “If you had known me a little better you wouldn’t have mistaken me, and you wouldn’t be looking at me now as if you were afraid to believe your own ears. What is there so very wonderful in my wanting to marry you? I don’t set up for being a saint. When I was a younger man I was no better (and no worse) than other young men. I’m getting on now to middle life. I don’t want romances and adventures — I want an easy existence with a nice lovable woman who will make me a good wife. You’re the woman, I tell you again. I know it by what I’ve seen of you myself, and by what I have heard of you from Lady Lydiard. She said you were prudent, and sweet-tempered, and affectionate; to which I wish to add that you have just the face and figure that I like, and the modest manners and the blessed absence of all slang in your talk, which I don’t find in the young women I meet with in the present day. That’s my view of it: I think for myself. What does it matter to me whether you’re the daughter of a Duke or the daughter of a Dairyman? It isn’t your father I want to marry — it’s you. Listen to reason, there’s a dear! We have only one question to settle before we go back to your aunt. You wouldn’t answer me when I asked it a little while since. Will you answer now? Do you like me?”

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Isabel looked up at him timidly.

“In my position, sir,” she asked, “have I any right to like you? What would your relations and friends think, if I said Yes?”

Hardyman gave her waist a little admonitory squeeze with his arm

“What? You’re at it again? A nice way to answer a man, to call him ‘Sir,’ and to get behind his rank as if it was a place of refuge from him! I hate talking of myself, but you force me to it. Here is my position in the world — I have got an elder brother; he is married, and he has a son to succeed him, in the title and the property. You understand, so far? Very well! Years ago I shifted my share of the rank (whatever it may be) on to my brother’s shoulders. He is a thorough good fellow, and he has carried my dignity for me, without once dropping it, ever since. As for what people may say, they have said it already, from my father and mother downward, in the time when I took to the horses and the farm. If they’re the wise people I take them for, they won’t be at the trouble of saying it all over again. No, no. Twist it how you may, Miss Isabel, whether I’m single or whether I’m married, I’m plain Alfred Hardyman; and everybody who knows me knows that I go on my way, and please myself. If you don’t like me, it will be the bitterest disappointment I ever had in my life; but say so honestly, all the same.”

Where is the woman in Isabel’s place whose capacity for resistance would not have yielded a little to such an appeal as this?

“I should be an insensible wretch,” she replied warmly, “if I didn’t feel the honor you have done me, and feel it gratefully.”

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“Does that mean you will have me for a husband?” asked downright Hardyman.

She was fairly driven into a corner; but (being a woman) she tried to slip through his fingers at the last moment.

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“Will you forgive me,” she said, “if I ask you for a little more time? I am so bewildered, I hardly know what to say or do for the best. You see, Mr. Hardyman, it would be a dreadful thing for me to be the cause of giving offense to your family. I am obliged to think of that. It would be so distressing for you (I will say nothing of myself) if your friends closed their doors on me. They might say I was a designing girl, who had taken advantage of your good opinion to raise herself in the world. Lady Lydiard warned me long since not to be ambitious about myself and not to forget my station in life, because she treated me like her adopted daughter. Indeed — indeed, I can’t tell you how I feel your goodness, and the compliment — the very great compliment, you pay me! My heart is free, and if I followed my own inclinations —” She checked herself, conscious that she was on the brink of saying too much. “Will you give me a few days,” she pleaded, “to try if I can think composedly of all this? I am only a girl, and I feel quite dazzled by the prospect that you set before me.”

Hardyman seized on those words as offering all the encouragement that he desired to his suit.

“Have your own way in this thing and in everything!” he said, with an unaccustomed fervor of language and manner. “I am so glad to hear that your heart is open to me, and that all your inclinations take my part.”

Isabel instantly protested against this misrepresentation of what she had really said, “Oh, Mr. Hardyman, you quite mistake me!”

He answered her very much as he had answered Lady Lydiard, when she had tried to make him understand his proper relations towards Isabel.

“No, no; I don’t mistake you. I agree to every word you say. How can I expect you to marry me, as you very properly remark, unless I give you a day or two to make up your mind? It’s quite enough for me that you like the prospect. If Lady Lydiard treated you as her daughter, why shouldn’t you be my wife? It stands to reason that you’re quite right to marry a man who can raise you in the world. I like you to be ambitious — though Heaven knows it isn’t much I can do for you, except to love you with all my heart. Still, it’s a great encouragement to hear that her Ladyship’s views agree with mine —”

“They don’t agree, Mr. Hardyman!” protested poor Isabel. “You are entirely misrepresenting —”

Hardyman cordially concurred in this view of the matter. “Yes! yes! I can’t pretend to represent her Ladyship’s language, or yours either; I am obliged to take my words as they come to me. Don’t disturb yourself: it’s all right — I understand. You have made me the happiest man living. I shall ride over to-morrow to your aunt’s house, and hear what you have to say to me. Mind you’re at home! Not a day must pass now without my seeing you. I do love you, Isabel — I do, indeed!” He stooped, and kissed her heartily. “Only to reward me,” he explained, “for giving you time to think.”

She drew herself away from him — resolutely, not angrily. Before she could make a third attempt to place the subject in its right light before him, the luncheon bell rang at the cottage — and a servant appeared evidently sent to look for them.