It should be directly they arrived, though! She vowed it.
She had watched tremulously till nearly three o'clock, when a cab rumbled to the house at last; and her heart turned sicker still as she saw that her stepdaughters were accompanied by their aunt.
" We persuaded her to come".
" I'm afraid I shall be a sad visitor for you, my dear".
" They were quite right. The change will do you good".
They explained that they had lunched early, and they sat awhile in the drawing-room, with their hats and coats on—her sister-in-law oppressive with much crape; the young women also wearing black dresses, very badly made.
" A glass of wine, Harriet ? You must be tired after the journey." She rang the bell.
Sipping the port, and alternately nibbling a biscuit, and nicking crumbs from her lap, Aunt Harriet was taciturn and tearful. And she had little to say between tea and dinner, excepting when she spoke huskily of her son's last hours. But in the evening her thoughts reverted to the " happy days she had spent in the house when her dear brother was alive," and she discoursed on them, remarking how " sadly different it seemed now".
" It was a terrible loss for you, Belle," she moaned. " But the parting is only for this life. That's all, my dear, only for this life. You'll meet again where there are no partings. You must keep thinking of that. It's only faith that helps us all to bear up".
And the hypocrite, loathing her hypocrisy, heard herself answer, " Oh, I know ! Oh yes ! "
At Harrogate the orchestra would be playing now, and he was wondering if she had told them yet! She gazed before her helplessly. She would have to put it off till to-morrow.
Said Mildred, " I daresay Aunt would like to go to bed early".
" If you'll all excuse me, dear, I think I should".
" I think we're all of us ready, aren't we? " murmured Mrs. Findon.
And as they got up and filed from the room, Amy said in sacerdotal tones, " There's one thing we want to do, isn't there, before wre go upstairs to-night? " And, like one who performs a rite, she opened the study door; and on the threshold they drooped devoutly.
" O God, forgive me, and help me to be truthful! " prayed the hypocrite when she was alone.
The morrow was Sunday, and in the morning they went to church; and after service they walked dismally to the cemetery. At dinner she could scarcely swrallow. She felt faint, and her hands trembled when the return to the drawing-room was made. It had to be now ! Her sister-in-law was settling herself for a nap. Amy turned listlessly the pages of a book. Mildred, her shallow eyes upturned, and her head slightly sideways, wore an air of pious resignation to some unexpressed calamity. Turning from the window, with a gulp, the coward stammered :
"Oh . . . after you had gone from Harrogate, Mr. Murray asked me to marry him".
The silence seemed to her to last for minutes.
" To do what ? " gasped Amy.
" Well! " exclaimed Mildred. " It didn't take long to put him in his place, I hope. What impudence ! "
" He had an impudent look," said Amy.
" Some man who was staying at the hydro where you were?" inquired Aunt Harriet. "Fancy! That's the worst of those large places. But I shouldn't let it worry you, my dear. It isn't worth worrying about. Very likely he didn't mean any harm by it. He didn't understand, that's all—didn't know your heart was buried with him who's gone".
"Disgusting, I call it," said Mildred. "But Aunt's quite right—we needn't talk about it. . . . I thought this morning—I don't know if you noticed it—that the saxifrage on the grave had gone rather thin; there was a gap here and there. I think we'd better see the superintendent. It isn't what it ought to be, by any means".
She stood struggling to say the rest—she struggled with all the puny will that was within her. And so unfit was she to struggle, that on surrendering, her paramount emotion was relief. She said, " Yes, we'll see him about it, and have some more".
She had intended to write to Murray in time for the evening collection. But she could not write that she had kept her word, and she shrank from writing that she had paltered with it. She lay sleepless, crying with mortification. Once a desperate impulse to be done with her compliance then and there, pulled her up, and she thrust on her dressing-gown; but her mind quailed even as she reached the door, and she sank on to the edge of the bed, procrastinating—and then crept back between the sheets.
She could not write that she had kept her word on the next day either, nor during the two days that followed. The just thing to them both would have been to write him exactly what had happened, but as she was a woman, the thing natural to her when she was to blame was to behave worse still by not writing at all. A feeble attempt she made, but . . . what was there to say, excepting that she had failed? In every moment she was conscious of his waiting; she realised the glances that he cast at that letter-rack over the console table, and saw his mouth tighten at every disappointment that it dealt. And she was fond of him. Yet it was beyond her to sustain the effort to confess herself demeaned.
He telegraphed : " Coming to you by the seven o'clock train to-morrow Friday morning".
From her bedroom window, before breakfast, she saw the boy crossing the road with the message, and she darted downstairs and took it from him before the double knock could crash. No one was aware, when the family group made their matins to the study, that in her pocket she had a telegram from a lover. No one surmised, when she served the eggs and bacon, that she was questioning, terrified, how to keep his coming secret. If any of them were in, when the maid said that he was asking for her? She would be tongue-tied. And they—how insulting they'd be to him ! It would be awful . . . awful, unless she were to prepare them, unless she were to say now that she had heard from him and that they must receive him properly. She knew she wasn't going to say it, but she imagined the sensation if she said it: " Mr. Murray's calling this morning. You've made a mistake—I accepted him." She shivered at the mere notion, at fancying how horror would distort their faces.
Just after she had been shamming in that room ! . . . She would make an excuse to go out—she'd meet him at the station.
It was going to be very painful—she wished he weren't coming. In love with him though she was, she knew that she wished he weren't coming. And in that moment it was borne upon her that her expectation of marrying him had died days ago. She could never go through with it! She would have to tell him so—and he wouldn't understand, wouldn't make allowances for her. He had not understood at Harrogate. He'd reproach her, tell her she had treated him badly. And she'd have to sit there, in the waiting-room, trying not to cry, with people looking on. . . .
If she could have been picked up in his arms and carried off this morning, without coming back to the house at all! That would be nice. The girls and Harriet might say what they chose, if she hadn't got to listen to it. But he wouldn't ask her to go like that; she would have to propose it herself. How could she? Besides, when she went out to meet him she couldn't even take a suit-case. . . . Oh, what good would it do to meet him? Pain for nothing. He thought he would be able to argue her into it, make her promise over again. Wretched. And very likely she would promise—and then what was she going to do? She would feel worse then than she felt now. It would have been far better for them not to see each other. If she told the servant- She couldn't say " Not at home," that would sound dreadful.
He might be here soon, she supposed, unless he had to wait long for the change of trains. If she did mean to go to the station, she ought to go directly she had given orders to the cook. Walking into misery with her eyes open ! And walking back with her heart in her shoes. It wouldn't be any easier to say it to them later than it was at this minute—and she would know it even while he was wringing the promise from her. Oh, what was he coming for, to make things worse still? He might have known by her not having written to him- She pushed back her chair with vexation.
After breakfast, when the beds were being made, Mrs. Findon said :
" Doreen, if anybody calls this morning—a gentleman—say we're away from home for a few days. You understand? For a few days—all of us. Oh, and, Doreen, if he asks where we are, you don't know".
More than six years have gone by since Mrs. Findon peeped, breathless, as Mr. Murray got into a cab again and was driven out of her life. And now when she reads in her newspaper, every day, on one page or another, how sublimely mankind has progressed by relapsing into barbarism, and that the new human nature is purged of frailties that were inherent in men and women until the 4th August 1914, she vaguely wonders how it is that her household, and her social circle, and Beckenhampton at large, and she herself have not had their characters regenerated, like the rest of the world. For each morning she goes with the Misses Findon to gaze upon the study, and each Sunday she goes with them to gaze upon the grave; and on their return, while the Misses Findon sit by the fireplace, speaking at long intervals, in subdued tones, their stepmother stares from the window, knowing that her pretence of mourning a husband she did not love will continue as long as she lives. And when she looks back on her romance, she marvels—not at the recreancy of her submission, but that once she briefly dared to dream she would rebel.