Once upon a time, long ago when love in marriage was entirely a matter of chance, there lived three sisters. Born to an old, distinguished family, the girls were all lively, pretty, and accomplished. Imminently marriageable, they were happily endowed both in fortune and figure. To their innocent eyes, it seemed that the world was at their feet.
Sadly, their mother died when they were still young--the eldest being sixteen and the youngest but twelve when this sad event occurred. The girls were left to the care of their father, a vain man, more concerned with the hue of his complexion than the order in his household. Fortunately, an old family friend stepped into the breach left by the mother's passing, and this lady--Milady as she was called by the girls--counseled the daughters of her friend as if they had been her own. She guided their reading and painting and music. She hired their tutors and governesses. She escorted them to concerts and balls. In short, Milady ensured that all three would have every advantage when it came to making an excellent match. Some people are organizers, some people are organized. Milady was an organizer.
"I want to marry a rich man," the oldest girl declared. "Someone who will buy me pretty things. Someone who will fill my closets with clothes and my jewelry boxes with gems. I want to live in a big house and have lots of servants."
"I want to marry a respectable man," cried the youngest girl. "Someone who will uphold our good family name. All I care is that we are given the precedence due us. I want everyone to know how important we are."
The middle daughter was quiet, thinking about what her sisters had said. Finally she spoke up. "Nothing but the deepest love will ever induce me to marry. I don't care for money or jewels, and I don't care for family pride. All I want is to love the man I marry."
Years passed and the girls grew in beauty. Beaus there were aplenty for the oldest daughter, but her father scornfully turned them away. "You must have a titled husband as well as a rich one," he insisted. Milady took the girls to balls in Bath and balls in London. She dragged them throughout the realm, looking for the right man for each of the girls.
As it happened, one day while Milady and the oldest and youngest daughters were away in search of the perfect match, there came a young man to the village where the family lived. Very tall and handsome, this man was a midshipman with no money or prospects except his driving ambition and his intelligence. In no time at all, he won the heart of the middle daughter and she agreed to marry him.
When Milady returned, she was angry that the middle daughter had promised her life to such a nobody as the handsome, young sailor.
"To throw away yourself is wrong. You, of all your sisters, deserves better. I would so dearly love to see you take your mother's place. You're so like her--you have her gentleness, her kindness, her loveliness. What do you know of this man?"
"I know that I love him," the middle daughter replied.
Try as she would, Milady could not persuade the middle daughter to break her engagement. And so, in due time, the middle daughter was married to her handsome sailor. A year or so later, the youngest daughter was married to a respectable man whose family honored her own and deferred to her own superior breeding. And finally, the oldest daughter was married to a rich man, who had recently been elevated to the knighthood and so met her father's single requirement.
From time to time, Milady visited the three sisters in their respective homes, but she never could decide which girl had truly gotten what she wanted. Maria, the oldest daughter, certainly seemed happy as the wife of Sir Thomas Bertram, but her indolence grieved Milady. The youngest daughter, Ellen, as first the wife and later the widow of the Reverend Mr. Norris never lost sight of her own importance in the world. But it was the life of the middle daughter, Frances, that truly broke Milady's heart. As Mrs. Price, Frances gradually faded from a laughing beauty to a tired woman, broken in spirit and disillusioned in love. She had not been raised to work, had not been taught fortitude and patience. Accomplished as she was, she had never learned how to find joy when joy did not find her. As Midshipman Price's hopes for advancement faded, the hardships of too many children and too little money displaced the love that seemed enough so long ago.
The last time Milady visited Frances, the woman turned on her, "Why did you let me marry for love and love alone? You were the one I looked to after my mother died. Why didn't you persuade me to give him up? I would rather be alone than to have married for love."
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