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- Celibates - 3/57 -
dances like those. She said that I must feel lonely living in a house without another woman.'
'I know what it'll be. I shall never hear the end of Mrs. Fargus. I wish I'd never asked them.'
'Men are so selfish! If by any chance they do anything that pleases any one but themselves, how they regret it.'
Harold was about the middle height, but he gave the impression of a small man. He was good-looking; but his features were without charm, for his mind was uninteresting--a dry, barren mind, a somewhat stubbly mind--but there was an honest kindliness in his little eyes which was absent from his sister's. The conversation had paused, and he glanced quickly every now and then at her pretty, wistful face, expressive at this moment of much irritated and nervous dissatisfaction; also an irritated obstinacy lurked in her eyes, and, knowing how obstinate she was in her ideas, Harold sincerely dreaded that she might go off to Girton to learn Greek--any slightest word might precipitate the catastrophe.
'I think at least that I might have a companion,' she said at last.
'Of course you can have a companion if you like, Mildred; but I thought you were going to marry Alfred Stanby?'
'You objected to him; you said he had nothing--that he couldn't afford to marry.'
'Yes, until he got his appointment; but I hear now that he's nearly certain of it.'
'I don't think I could marry Alfred.'
'You threw Lumly over, who was an excellent match, for Alfred. So long as Alfred wasn't in a position to marry you, you would hear of no one else, and now--but you don't mean to say you are going to throw him over.'
'I don't know what I shall do.'
'Well, I have no time to discuss the matter with you now. It is seven minutes to nine. I shall only have just time to catch the train by walking very fast. Good-bye.'
'Please, mam, any orders to-day for the butcher?'
'Always the same question--how tired I am of hearing the same words. I suppose it is very wicked of me to be so discontented,' thought Mildred, as she sat on the sofa with her key-basket in her hand; 'but I have got so tired of Sutton. I know I shouldn't bother Harold; he is very good and he does his best to please me. It is very odd. I was all right till Mrs. Fargus came, she upset me. It was all in my mind before, no doubt; but she brought it out. Now I can't interest myself in anything. I really don't care to go to this tennis party, and the people who go there are not in the least interesting. I am certain I should not meet a soul whom I should care to speak to. No, I won't go there. There's a lot to be done in the greenhouses, and in the afternoon I will write a long letter to Mrs. Fargus. She promised to send me a list of books to read.'
There was nothing definite in her mind, but something was germinating within her, and when the work of the day was done, she wondered at the great tranquillity of the garden. A servant was there in a print dress, and the violet of the skies and the green of the trees seemed to be closing about her like a tomb. 'How beautiful!' Mildred mused softly; 'I wish I could paint that.'
A little surprised and startled, she went upstairs to look for her box of water-colours; she had not used it since she left school. She found also an old block, with a few sheets remaining; and she worked on and on, conscious only of the green stillness of the trees and the romance of rose and grey that the sky unfolded. She had begun her second water-colour, and was so intent upon it as not to be aware that a new presence had come into the garden. Alfred Stanby was walking towards her. He was a tall, elegantly dressed, good-looking young man.
'What! painting? I thought you had given it up. Let me see.'
'Oh, Alfred, how you startled me!'
He took the sketch from the girl's lap, and handing it back, he said:
'I suppose you had nothing else to do this afternoon; it was too hot to go out in the cart. Do you like painting?'
'Yes, I think I do.'
They were looking at each other--and there was a questioning look in the girl's eyes--for she perceived in that moment more distinctly than she had before the difference in their natures.
'Have you finished the smoking cap you are making for me?'
'No; I did not feel inclined to go on with it.'
Something in Mildred's tone of voice and manner struck Alfred, and, dropping his self-consciousness, he said:
'You thought that I'd like a water-colour sketch better.'
Mildred did not answer.
'I should like to have some drawings to hang in the smoking-room when we're married. But I like figures better than landscapes. You never tried horses and dogs, did you?'
'No, I never did,' Mildred answered languidly, and she continued to work on her sky. But her thoughts were far from it, and she noticed that she was spoiling it. 'No, I never tried horses and dogs.'
'But you could, dearest, if you were to try. You could do anything you tried. You are so clever.'
'I don't know that I am; I should like to be.'
They looked at each other, and anxiously each strove to read the other's thoughts.
'Landscapes are more suited to a drawing-room than a smoking-room. It will look very well in your drawing-room when we're married. We shall want some pictures to cover the walls.'
At the word marriage, Mildred's lips seemed to grow thinner. The conversation paused. Alfred noticed that she hesitated, that she was striving to speak. She had broken off her engagement once before with him, and he had begun to fear that she was going to do so again. There was a look of mingled irresolution and determination in her face. She continued to work on her sky; but at every touch it grew worse, and, feeling that she had irretrievably spoilt her drawing, she said:
'But do you think that we shall ever be married, Alfred?'
'Of course. Why? Are you going to break it off?'
'We have been engaged nearly two years, and there seems no prospect of our being married. Harold will never consent. It does not seem fair to keep you waiting any longer.'
'I'd willingly wait twenty years for you, Mildred.'
She looked at him a little tenderly, and he continued more confidently. 'But I'm glad to say there is no longer any question of waiting. My father has consented to settle four hundred a year upon me, the same sum as your brother proposes to settle on you. We can be married when you like.'
She only looked at the spoilt water-colour, and it was with difficulty that Alfred restrained himself from snatching it out of her hands.
'You do not answer. You heard what I said, that my father had agreed to settle four hundred a year upon me?'
'I'm sure I'm very glad, for your sake.'
'That's a very cold answer, Mildred. I think I can say that I'm sure of the appointment.'
'I'm glad, indeed I am, Alfred.'
'But only for my sake?'
Mildred sat looking at the water-colour.
'You see our marriage has been delayed so long; many things have come between us.'
'Much that I'm afraid you'd not understand. You've often reproached me,' she said, her voice quickening a little, 'with coldness. I'm cold; it is not my fault. I'm afraid I'm not like other girls. ... I don't think I want to be married.'
'This is Mrs. Fargus' doing. What do you want?'
'I'm not quite sure. I should like to study.'
'This must be Mrs. Fargus.'
'I should like to do something.'
'Marriage is not everything. There are other things. I should like to study art.'
'But marriage won't prevent your studying art.'
'I want to go away, to leave Sutton. I should like to travel.'
'But we should travel--our honeymoon.'
'I don't think I could give up my freedom, Alfred; I've thought it all over. I'm afraid I'm not the wife for you.'
'Some one else has come between us? Some one richer. Who's this other fellow?'
'No; there's no one else. I assure you there's no one else. I don't
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