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- Celibates - 30/57 -
'Oh yes, we understand each other very well. I used to think we didn't.... I don't think there's anything in me that any one could not understand. I am afraid I'm a very ordinary person.'
'But I can see that you're bored. I don't mean that you show it. But it would be impossible otherwise, all alone in this house all day by yourself. You used to read a great deal. You never read now. Are there any books I can bring you from London? Do you want any paints, canvases? You haven't touched your paints since you've been back. You might have your drawing master here, you might go out painting with him. This is just the time of year.'
'I've given up painting. No, Harold, thank you all the same. I know I'm dull, cheerless; you mustn't mind me, it is only a fit of the blues; it will wear off. One of these days I shall be all right.'
'But do you mind my asking people to the house?'
'Not if it pleases you. But don't do so for me.'
Harold looked at his watch. 'I must say good-bye now. I've only just time to catch the train.'
That same evening brother and sister sat together in the library; neither had spoken for some time, and, coming at the end of a long silence, Mildred's voice sounded clear and distinct.
'Alfred Stanby called here to-day.'
'I wonder he did not call before.' There was a note of surprise in his voice which did not quite correspond with his words.
'Did he stay long?'
'He stayed for tea.'
'Did you find him changed? It must be five years since you met.'
'He has grown stouter.'
'What did he talk about?'
'Ordinary things. He was very formal.'
'He was very much cut up when you broke off your engagement.'
'You never approved of it.'
No, but it was not for me that you broke it off.'
'No, it wasn't on account of you.'
The conversation paused. At last Harold said:
'Are you as indisposed as ever towards marriage? If Alfred were to propose again would you have him?'
'I really don't know. Do you want me to marry? I'm not very pleasant company, I'm well aware of that.'
'You know that I didn't mean that, Mildred. I don't want to press you into any marriage. I've always wished you to do what you like.'
'And I have done so.'
'I still want you to do what you like. But I can't forget that if I were to die to-morrow you would be practically alone in the world--a few cousins----'
'But what makes you think of dying? You're in as good health as ever.'
'I'm forty-three, and father died when he was forty-eight. He died of heart disease; I have suffered from my heart, so it is not probable that I shall make very old bones. If I were to die, you would inherit everything. What would become of this place--of this business? Isn't it natural that I should wish to see you settled in life?'
'You think that Alfred would be a suitable match? Would you like to see me marry him?'
'There's nothing against him; he's not very well off. But he's got on while you've been away. He's making, I should say now, at least 500 pounds a year. That isn't much, but to have increased his income from three to five hundred a year in five years proves that he is a steady man.'
'No one ever doubted Alfred's steadiness.'
'Mildred, it is time to have done with those sneers.'
'I suppose it is. I suppose what you say is right. I've been from pillar to post and nothing has come of it. Perhaps I was only fitted for marriage after all.'
'And for what better purpose could a woman be fitted?'
'We won't discuss that subject,' Mildred answered. 'If I'm to marry any one, as well Alfred as another.'
It was the deeper question that perplexed: Could she accept marriage at all? And in despair she decided that things must take their chance. If she couldn't marry when it came to the point, why, she couldn't; if she married and found marriage impossible, they would have to separate. The experience might be an unpleasant one, but it could not be more unpleasant than her present life which was driving her to suicide. Marriage seemed a thing that every one must get through; one of the penalties of existence. Why it should be so she couldn't think! but it was so. Marriage was supposed to be for ever, but nothing was for ever. Even if she did marry, she felt that it would not be for ever. No; it would not be for ever. Further into the future she could not see, nor did she care to look. She remembered that she was not acting fairly towards Alfred. But instead of considering that question, she repelled it. She had suffered enough, suffering had made her what she was; she must now think of herself. She must get out of her present life; marriage might be worse, but it would be a change, and change she must have. Things must take their course, she did not know whether she would accept or refuse: but she was sure she would like him to propose. He had loved her, and, as he had not married, it was probable that he still loved her, anyway she would like to find out.
He interested her, yes, in a way, for she no longer understood him. Five years are a long while; he was practically a new man; and she wondered if he had changed as much as she. Perhaps he hated her. Perhaps he had forgiven her. Perhaps she was indifferent to him. Perhaps his conventional politeness was the real man. Perhaps no real man existed underneath it. In that case the pursuit would not prove very exciting. But she did not think that this was so. She remembered certain traits of character, certain looks.
Thinking of Alfred carried her back to the first years of her girlhood. She was only eighteen when she first met him. He was the first man who had kissed her, and she had lain awake thinking of something which his sister Edith had told her. Edith knew that she did not love a man to whom she was engaged, because when he kissed her his kiss did not thrill her. Alfred's kiss had not thrilled, so far as Mildred could make out. But she had admired his frock coat, his gloves, and his general bearing had seemed to her most gentlemanly, not to say distinguished. She had felt that she would never feel ashamed of him; his appearance had flattered her girlish vanity, and for nearly two years they had been engaged. She remembered that she had not discovered any new attractions about him; he had always remained at the frock coat and the gloves stage; she remembered that she had, on more than one occasion, wearied of his society and suspected that there was little in him. They had nevertheless very nearly been married when she was twenty. But Harold had always been opposed to the match, and at the bottom of her heart she had never cared much about it. If she had, she would have married him then...
The first stirring influence that had entered into her life was Mrs. Fargus. She could trace everything back to Mrs. Fargus. Mrs. Fargus had awakened all that lay dormant in her desire of self-realisation, and, although Mrs. Fargus had not directly impugned marriage, she had said enough to make her understand that it were possible to rebel against marriage; and that in proclaiming antipathy to marriage she would win admiration, and would in a measure distinguish herself.
And, with the first discovery of a peculiarity of temperament, Mildred had grown intensely interested in herself; she remembered how day by day she had made new discoveries in herself, how she had wondered at this being which was she. Her faults at all times had especially interested her. She remembered how frightened, how delighted she had been, when she discovered that she was a cruel woman. She had not suspected this till the day she sat in the garden listening to Alfred's reproaches and expostulations. She had thrilled at the thought that she could make a man so unhappy. His grief was wonderful to witness, and involuntary remarks had escaped her admirably designed to draw it forth, to exhibit it; she was sorry for him, but in the background of her mind she could not help rejoicing; the instinct of cruelty would not be wholly repressed. But once the interview over, she had thought very little of him; there was little in his nature to attract hers; nothing beyond the mere antagonism of opposites--he was straightforward and gross, she was complex and artificial.
But, in her relations with Ralph, there had been sympathy and affection, she had felt sorry that she would not marry him, and his death had come as a painful shock which had affected her life. She had not been able to grieve for him as violently as she would have liked, but she retained a very tender memory. Tears sometimes rose to her eyes when she thought of him, and that past in the National Gallery and in St. James' Park. For the sentiment of love, if not its realisation was largely appreciated by Mildred, and that a man should choose and, failing to obtain, should reject all else as inadequate, was singularly attractive to her. All the tenderness that her nature was capable of had vented itself in Ralph; he had been so good to her, so kind, so unquestioning; the time they had spent together had been peaceful, and full of gentle inspiration; she remembered and thought of him differently from the others. His love had gratified her vanity, but not grossly as Alfred's had done, there had been no feeling of cruelty; she would have been glad to have made him happy; she would have done so if she had been able.
But at that time all her energy, will, and all her desire of personal fame were in art. She had striven on the thorny and rocky hill till she could climb no more, and then had crept away to Barbizon anxious to accept life unconditionally. But life, even as art, had been refused to her. She could not live as others lived; she could only enjoy in her way, and her way was not that of mankind. She had liked Morton very dearly. She had felt pleasure in his conversation, in himself, and, moved by the warmth of the night, she had been drawn to
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