Every Sunday Mrs. Findon went with her two stepdaughters to the cemetery and put flowers on the grave. Every Sunday since her husband's death she had done so—every Sunday for four years, excepting during the month of August, which was passed in the unattractive village where his widowed sister lived. When the melancholy walk was over and they had returned to the house, the Misses Findon used to sit on either side of the fireplace, moist-eyed, and slightly pink about the noses, speaking at long intervals in subdued tones; and their young stepmother would gaze from the window, wondering whether the pretence of mourning a husband she had not loved was to be her lot for life.
When she was twenty her father had said to her, " Belle, Mr. Findon wants to marry you. Don't look like that. He is much older than you are, of course, and it isn't the ideal, but what have you got to look forward to? I'm a pauper, and we both know I can't last much longer, and when I've gone you'll be all alone. How are you to live ? You'll be left with about fifty pounds, and waste some of that on crape. It's a ghastly thing for me to lie here and know you'll soon be destitute. He's decent enough in a dull way, and if you were to marry him I should feel I had a right to die".
So she had married him; and Mr. Findon had endeavoured to mould her disposition to his requirements. He moulded so much that it seemed to her he must lament that she wasn't an entirely different person, and she wondered why he had asked her to be his wife. The provincial town to which he took her was depressing, and the furniture and ornaments of his house made her want to shriek, and the people who paid her visits never mentioned any subject that had any interest for her.
More dejecting than the visitors were her stepchildren. To the two colourless schoolgirls— Amy, fourteen years of age, Mildred nearly sixteen —she had turned eagerly; turned achingly, because no child of her own came to lighten the gloom; and for long she had striven to believe that the slowness of their minds was due to their environment. " They need waking up," she would think, and exhausted herself in efforts to make them fluent. But she found that nothing that was done could make them fluent. And as they grew older, she found that nothing that was said could make them laugh. They laughed only when the wind blew somebody's hat off.
They were sandy, undemonstrative girls, and they had manifested no great affection for their father till he died suddenly five years after the marriage. Then, however, the words " dear father " were for ever on their lips, and a strain of unsuspected sentiment in their nature had opposed itself morbidly to the slightest departure from any domestic arrangement that he had desired. She still remembered Amy's pained stare, and Mildred's startled " I don't think dear father would have liked that ! " when she had diffidently proposed to transfer a huge photograph of his mother from the drawing-room wall to the spare bedroom. She still reproached herself for her compliant " Oh, I won't, then, of course." It was among the first of the concessions that had made the house seem to her a sepulchre. By her stepdaughters' wish, nothing had been altered in his study—not the position of an armchair, or of the footstool. Even to the pipes on the table, and a gum-bottle on the mantelpiece, the room, which was never used now, remained as he had left it last. And every morning for four years she had accompanied Mildred and Amy solemnly to the threshold, and regarded the armchair and the pipes with an air of reverence; and afterwards sat down to breakfast, thinking that the girls looked as if they had been to the funeral over again. At the beginning, if she had not shrunk from wounding them, she might have hinted that that piece of hypocrisy was horrible to her. Now she could do so no more than she could hint that she did not want to feign bereavement in the cemetery every Sunday, or to take an annual change that was made doleful by the triteness of Aunt Harriet, and the presence of her invalid son. At the age of five-and-twenty, the gentleness and weakness of the woman had committed her to act a lie. At the age of twenty-nine, the woman reflected miserably that, unless her stepdaughters married, she would have to act the lie for life.
The oppressive thought was no new one—and she had asked stupid people to dinner, and accepted invitations to wearisome households. She had urged Mildred and Amy to join the golf and tennis clubs, though they were apathetic about golf and tennis, and she usually took them to London to buy their frocks, instead of to the local High Street. But girls less becomingly dressed had got married, and no young man had paid any attentions to Mildred or Amy. Though Mildred was but twenty-five, and Amy only twenty-three, both had already the air of girls destined for spinsterhood. Sometimes, as she regarded their premature primness, she found it impossible to suppose that proposals would ever come to them, impossible to picture either of the staid, angular figures in a man's arms. Timidly, once, when her dread of a lifetime spent in Beckenhampton had grown unbearable, she had nerved herself to suggesting a removal. " Don't you think we should find it brighter to live somewhere else?" she had pleaded. "In London we should have concerts, and pictures and things".
"London?" Amy had faltered, with dismay. " Oh, no, I shouldn't like that at all".
" Well, it needn't be London, then; but there are nicer towns than this. What do you think, Mildred? "
" I'm sure we could, none of us, be as happy as we are at home," said Mildred in a shocked voice. " It would seem dreadful to leave the home where dear father used to be with us".
And the little stepmother, her hope extinguished, had found herself murmuring, " Yes, of course, there is that, I know." The terms of their father's will had made the house more theirs than hers; it seemed to her that she lacked the right to persist, even if she could have felt sanguine of persistence prevailing. But what she lacked most of all, of course, was courage. She was good-natured, she was charming, she had some beautiful qualities, but she was without the force of mind to oppose anybody. She was a tender, lovable, and exasperating coward. That is to say, she would have been exasperating if there had been anyone to regret her cowardice, anyone to care much whether she was miserable or not.