And then, one summer, after Mildred had influenza, the doctor recommended Harrogate, instead of the dismal village—and the possibility of Harrogate yielding husbands to the girls quickened the woman's heart. In the season there, among so many men— mightn't there be two to find Mildred and Amy congenial ?
It was she, not they, who pondered so carefully and paid so much for the morning, afternoon, and evening dresses in which they lagged about a fashionable hydro a fortnight later. It was she, not they, who knew a throb of hope when either of them danced twice, monosyllabically, with the same partner, and who welcomed their opportunity to play in an amateur performance, with its attraction of daily rehearsals.
" I don't think we care much for acting," Amy demurred. " I think we would rather look on, like you".
" Dr. Roberts said that Mildred needed to be taken out of herself; if you don't go in for it, she won't. Oh, I should say yes. It is sure to be a lot of fun, you know".
" I don't think that Mildred and I care much for fun," demurred Amy.
However, the Misses Findon attended the rehearsals—with the dramatic instinct possessed by pasteboard figures on a toy stage. And blankly their stepmother noted that, though young men were ambitious of " polishing their scenes " in alcoves, at various hours, with other girls, no young man's histrionic fervour urged him to any spontaneous polishing with Mildred or Amy.
The thing that did happen at Harrogate was unlooked-for: a man displayed considerable interest in Mrs. Findon herself.
They had spoken first in the hall, where he was sitting when she came out of the breakfast-room with the girls one morning; and on subsequent mornings they had all loitered for ten minutes in the hall; and then, when the rehearsals prevented Mildred and Amy from loitering, she had paused awhile without them. One day, when the rehearsal took place after luncheon, she was surprised to find that she had sat talking to him the whole afternoon. But though their tone had long since grown informal and they talked spontaneously, though he had told her he was in the last fortnight of his leave from India and spoken of his prospects of a judgeship there, she did not realise how far their acquaintance had progressed until he said to her, " You don't look like a happy woman, and yet it doesn't sound to me as if your husband had been all the world to you. If it isn't the loss of your husband that's weighing on you, what's the matter? "
She gazed at him, startled. And still stranger to her than the boldness of his question, was the intimacy of her reply, after she had made it. " Mr. Murray, I'm not a happy woman".
From that moment they were not acquaintances —they were friends. Piecemeal he learnt her story, and perceived the weakness of her character. And their confidences were more frequent and prolonged after a hurried letter from Aunt Harriet, saying that " her dear boy had passed away, and that it would help her to bear her cross if dear Mildred and Amy would go to her for two or three days." A week slid by, and they were with her still. And meanwhile Mr. Murray and Mrs. Findon fell in love with each other.
It was her first breath of romance. A father's ailments, encompassing her girlhood, had excluded sentimental episodes. To marriage she had been moved by nothing but docility. She would soon be thirty—and for the first time she found a strange pulsating promise in the birds' twittering when she woke; lingered at a looking-glass, and turned back to it, that a man might approve. She eyed intently time's touches on her face, noting with new sensitiveness that it showed her age. She knew, for the first time, restlessness if one man was absent; and if he was present, knew impatience of all others who were present too. And she sparkled at her own blitheness; and but for the recurring thought that it would all be over soon, she lived in Eden for a week.
They had been speaking of her stepdaughters, and he had said, " The first time I saw you with them I wondered what the relationship was. You can't have much in common with them? You must have hoped to see them marry, haven't you ? "
" Do you think they will ? " she asked.
" Oh, I don't know. It doesn't follow, because one finds no charm in a girl oneself, that nobody else will find any. I've known men crazy about women that I wouldn't have turned my head to look at—and men that were by no means fools. Isn't there anybody in Beckenhampton ? "
" There aren't many chances for a girl in Beckenhampton. Besides, they don't care for young men's society—that's one of the reasons why men don't find much to say to them, I think. I hoped something might come of their staying here, but-"
" But a man has wanted to talk to you, instead".
Could she control her voice? "Oh, that's a different thing".
" Why is it a different thing? "
" I meant that I hoped it might lead to something for them—I wasn't thinking of friendship".
" Vm not thinking of friendship; your friendship wouldn't be much use to me out there. I want you to be my wife. Will you? "
They were in the garden, after dinner. From the ladies' orchestra in the hall came the barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann. In sentiment she was in her teens.
" I can't," she said, in a whisper.
" I'm so fond of you. Do you know I've never heard your name? "
She told him her name.
" Belle, I'd be so good to you. Don't you like me? "
She turned to him. No one could see them. The first kiss of her first love—moonlight, and the barcarolle. Though she did not recognise it, there was a single instant in which she was capable of any weakness. But she was not capable of strength.
"I can't," she repeated. "How can I? To marry again ! I couldn't say such a thing to them. What would they—I couldn't do it".
" I don't understand. You ' can't marry me ' because they wouldn't like it? You don't mean that ? Or is it because you don't think you ought to leave them ? "