The elder sister watched them—Alce a little oafish in his Sunday blacks, Ellen wearing her new spring hat with the daisies. As she spoke to him she lifted her face on her graceful neck like a swan, and her voice was eager and rather secret. Joanna lost the thread of Mrs. Southland’s reminiscences of her last dairy-girl, and she watched Ellen, watched her hands, watched the shrug of her shoulders under her gown—the girl’s whole body seemed to be moving, not restlessly or jerkily, but with a queer soft ripple.
Then Joanna suddenly said to herself—“She loves him. Ellen wants Arthur Alce.” Her first emotion was of anger, a resolve to stop this impudence; but the next minute she pitied instead—Ellen, with her fragile beauty, her little die-away airs, would never be able to get Arthur Alce from Joanna, to whom he belonged. He was hers, both by choice and habit, and Ellen would never get him. Then from pity, she passed into tenderness—she was sorry Ellen could not get Arthur, could not have him when she wanted him, while Joanna, who could have him, did not want him. It would be a good thing for her, too. Alce was steady and well-established—he was not like those mucky young Vines and Southlands. Ellen would be safe to marry him. It was a pity she hadn’t a chance.
Joanna looked almost sentimentally at the couple ahead—then she suddenly made up her mind. “If I spoke to Arthur Alce, I believe I could make him do it.” She could make Arthur do most things, and she did not see why he should stop at this. Of course she did not want Ellen to marry him or anybody, but now she had once come to think of it she could see plainly, in spite of herself, that marriage would be a good thing for her sister. She was being forced up against the fact that her schemes for Ellen had failed—school-life had spoiled her, home-life was making both her and home miserable. The best thing she could do would be to marry, but she must marry a good man and true—Alce was both good and true, and moreover his marriage would set Joanna free from his hang-dog devotion, of which she was beginning to grow heartily tired. She appreciated his friendship and his usefulness, but they could both survive, and she would at the same time be free of his sentimental lapses, the constant danger of a declaration. Yes, Ellen should have him—she would make a present of him to Ellen.
“Arthur, I want a word with you.”
They were alone in the parlour, Ellen having been dispatched resentfully on an errand to Great Ansdore.
“About them wethers?”
“No—it’s a different thing. Arthur, have you noticed that Ellen’s sweet on you?”
Joanna’s approach to a subject was ever direct, but this time she seemed to have taken the breath out of Arthur’s body.
“Ellen ... sweet on me?” he gasped.
“Yes, you blind-eyed owl. I’ve seen it for a dunnamany weeks.”