" But—good heavens ! . . . Besides, there's this aunt they've gone to—they could live with her. You aren't telling me—you can't mean you won't marry me because you imagine it's your duty to sacrifice our happiness for the sake of two young women you don't care about? You know you don't care about them ! It's mad ! I need you more than they do; I can make you happier than they do. I shall never be a millionaire, but I shall come into a bit by and by, and I can make things bright for you at home, one day. You'd have rather a good time out there, for that matter. I want to make things bright for you—I want to see you what you were meant to be. You've never had your youth yet, you've been done out of it; I want to give it to you, I want you to forget what it means to feel depressed. That'd be just my loveliest joy, to see you in high spirits, laughing, waking up younger instead of older, growing more like a girl every day. . . . People'd begin to take me for your father! That'd be rough on me, wouldn't it ? "
She looked, misty-eyed and smiling, at this man who had transfigured life for her.
" I know it sounds silly of me".
" That's meek," he laughed. " Very well, then. As soon as they come back we'll tell them. Perhaps they won't mind as much as you think—they aren't so devoted to you, are they? "
" It isn't that. Their father's memory means so much to them—they'll think it so awful of me. And-"
" You don't know everything—I haven't told you all about it. It sounds hideous, I know, but I couldn't help it—I drifted into it. I—I've had to pretend so much. Pretend to miss him, I mean.
All the time. Every day. I- To tell them that it wasn't true- How can I? "
" You wouldn't be the only woman who had loved twice; other women have cared for their husbands, and married again".
" It has been all the time," she muttered, shamefaced. " Even since we have been here I've had to- Just before they went, we sent flowers to the cemetery and I was supposed to—I mean, I had to pretend to be sorry we couldn't take them ourselves. What a hypocrite I shall seem! What'll they say? "
He grasped her hands, and held her tight, and told her what he would be willing to do for her— and though he was older than she, and looked it, he talked like a boy. " Do you disbelieve me? " he asked. " And if you don't disbelieve me, won't you face a little awkwardness for me ? If it comes to that, I can speak to them first. Once the news is broken, the worst'll be over for you. What a baby you are, darling ! May I call you a baby the moment I'm engaged to you, Mrs. Findon, madam? Oh, you little timid, foolish, sweetest soul, fancy talking about missing all our happiness for life, to avoid a bad half-hour ! It'd be a funny choice, wouldn't it, Belle my Belle? "
She nodded, radiant; and aglow with the courage he had communicated, she thought she could have proclaimed her intention straightway, if the young women had returned then.
They did not, however, return at all. Next morning the post brought from them the news that they felt too sad to find Harrogate congenial now, and that they would rather be at home. They were going back to Beckenhampton the " day after to-morrow".
It meant that her precious hours here were numbered. She showed the letter disconsolately to Murray.
" I shall have to go this afternoon," she said.
" I don't see what for—I don't see why you should be dragged away at a minute's notice. You're not a child to be ' sent for.' "
" Oh, I must go," she sighed; "I must get there before them, to see to things".
They stood together in the hall—the hall that he knew would look so pathetically blank to him this afternoon.
"We haven't had long, have we?" he said. " How I'm going to hate everybody in this hydro when you've gone !—the people that mention you, and the people that don't mention you; every single one of them; because I shall be missing you in every second and they'll all be chattering and scandalmongering just the same. When shall I hear from you? You'll tell them as soon as you see them—you won't put it off, even for an hour? Oh, my darling, don't think I'm not alive to all that's beautiful in you, but "—he tried to smile— " you are a little bit of a coward where they're concerned, aren't you ? Keep remembering you're free to do as you like. If they aren't pleased, they can be displeased. You haven't got to ask their permission. It's a perfectly simple statement— you're1 going to marry me.' They haven't a shadow of right to complain. If you'll remind yourself of that, it'll make it smoother for you. ... I wish we could have had a day together first—away from all this crew, I mean. Couldn't you make it tomorrow instead? We'd have a car and go somewhere. Couldn't you, Belle ? "
" I can't," she said wistfully. " It'd be heavenly. But I can't. I ought to go upstairs and pack now".
"All right, little woman," said he; "I don't want to make it worse for you. Go along, then. I may see you off, mayn't I? And I'll 'phone at once about your passage on the boat. And I'll come to Beckenhampton the instant you send for me. And we're to be married by special licence next week. Oh, isn't it great! And then your new life begins—the laughter life, the girl life. I'm going to wipe out that troubled look they've put in your eyes—I'm going to make you self-willed, make you tyrannise over me".
" Tyrannise over the Judge ! Wouldn't it be a shame?" she laughed. "What a reward for you ! "
" I don't know," he said; " I believe I'd like it—it's time you did a little tyrannising. I can't kiss you, darling, because somebody's coming down the stairs, but look at me and let's pretend ! "
Downcast as she felt, as the train bore her from him, she felt firm. She could not view the ordeal before her as lightly as he—he did not understand, she told herself; it was natural that he shouldn't—but she was resolved to meet it without delay, and to be bold in the face of the consternation she foresaw. How easy it would have been but for the insincerities she had been guilty of, the craven insincerities! It was her own horrible hypocrisy, not her stepdaughters' disapproval, that made the task so difficult. As she dwelt upon the difficulties, as she realised the almost incredible shock she was about to deal, the fortitude within her faded, and during the latter half of the journey it was with thankfulness she reflected that she would not have to confront the situation that day.