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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (6)

Today I met the man I will marry.

He does not know this. Nor does my mother, nor do any of my sisters. I am only fourteen, after all, and although such things are usually decided before long, I am considered too young as yet to be thinking of a husband. Indeed, I have wondered (and so Pen has hinted) if Mother may be hoping to keep me at home with her as long as possible, for a companion. Of course I have been brought up to love and obey my parents, but I do not wish for such a future. I would like a handsome husband, and a home of my own, and above all I would like children. My three eldest sisters are married, and Mary now has two boys and a girl, and Harriet the sweetest little boy called Henry, who smiles and gurgles and winds my hair round his fingers when I hold him in my arms, so solid and heavy and loving even though he is only six months old. And I love him dearly, as I love Precious Tom, though now he has passed his ninth birthday and considers himself far too old and manly to tolerate the kisses and hugs of his sisters, which gives me a little grief, although I know that it is only natural.

So today I saw my husband in waiting, all unaware of it. He was with several other young men and girls who rode over to see us. I have encountered him before, of course: ours is a small society, and we all visit each other’s houses or go hunting or attend the races or bowls matches or balls. But I have never properly noticed him until now. What made me notice him today? I think that it was because he brought his dog with him, a beautiful spaniel bitch with long silky red hair, which he calls Sorrel, and the bond between man and beast was a delight to behold, it doing his bidding merely by sign rather than by voice, and such adoration in its brown eyes that I must look at its master afresh. And I saw a boy of fifteen or so, grown tall but still to fill out to a man’s shape, wearing not a wig like the older lads, but his own hair of a soft honey gold, unruly, flopping in his eyes as the breeze blew in the garden. Then he saw me looking, and gave me a smile of such sweetness that I at once felt warm all over, and must make great efforts not to simper as Dilly does when a man pays her attention. Instead, I asked him about his dog, and he told me how he has trained her, with kind words and tit-bits, very different to the harsh methods that Father’s huntsman uses, and which disturb me, for I have never liked to see cruelty, whether to human or animal.

Then we all went riding out, along our country lanes, our visitors and Precious Tom and myself and Pen, a very pleasant thing to do on a fine warm day in spring time, and although Harriet is also with us, having left little Henry with his nurse, my other sisters Mary and Dilly stay behind, for they are both expecting babies, Mary her fourth and Dilly her first, and Dilly has not been well and complains of feeling sick and tired and has grown somewhat peevish and fretful. But if that is the price to be paid for having children, then I would gladly pay it, for all must surely be forgotten once you have your own babe swaddled in your arms, and I long for it.

For our amusement, we sang, and my future husband – whose name, confusingly, is also Tom, like my father and my brother – proved to have a fine voice, light but not boyish. Pen sang too, but I did not, for I know (as several of my sisters have informed me unkindly over the years) that I cannot hold a tune for more than a few notes put together, though I can play well enough on the harpsichord and the guitar. But my Tom – for so I do think of him, even after so little a time acquainted - did notice that I failed to join in, and asked me why I did not, and I said, with a smile (though it hurt me to confess it), that my singing was not pleasant to the ear, so that I did not wish to inflict it on others on such a fine day. At this, he professed disbelief, and asked me again, with smiles and coaxes, pretty to hear, but I refused utterly, and instead complimented him on his own singing, and said, greatly wondering at my boldness, that I would play for him when we returned to the house. Then we fell to discussing the spaniel Sorrel, who had been trotting obediently beside his horse’s heels all this while, and he told us about a game which he often played with her when out riding or walking, where he would make her sit, and walk on past her, and then direct her to go whichever way he wished purely by the movement of his hand. Of course we were all eager to see this done, and the little dog obliged so sweetly and prettily that I wished, as did my sister Pen and brother Tom, that I too could have such a pet. Indeed, Harriet asked him straight out whether he planned to have a litter from his dog, and if so, if she could have a whelp: at which, my Tom smiled with that sweetness I had already noted, and said that he would certainly give her one, if enough pups were born, but that he had already received so many similar requests that poor Sorrel must produce a dozen litters to satisfy the demand for her offspring. I was secretly pleased at this answer, for Harriet has never had any particular fondness for the canine species and when she lived at home, frequently complained about the smells and mess and hairs of our father’s dogs, and I cannot imagine that she really and truly wants one of her own. And I think that Sorrel’s pups should go only to people who will love and care for them as my Tom so obviously cares for her. As I would also care for one, should I ever be so fortunate as to possess such a beautiful and intelligent creature.

When the ride is done, and we have partaken of refreshments at home, and waved goodbye to our visitors, Harriet is first with a sly comment regarding the amount of time I spent talking to my Tom, at which I blush and stammer like the child she obviously thinks me still to be. But Pen springs to my defence, and demands of our sister, why should I not be pleasant with a guest, and takes her to task for her teasing, at which Harriet tosses her head and announces that she must go check on little Henry, who has accompanied her here with his nurse, and who is upstairs in the chamber next to one of the turret rooms, that used to be our nursery when we were younger. When she has gone, Pen grins at me, and tells me that it was plain to see that my Tom enjoyed my company, and why should I feel embarrassed by such attention? And then, seeing my face, she adds very kindly that I must not pay Harriet any mind, for she is jealous. This bewilders me, for does she not already have a fine husband and a sweet healthy son? At this Pen laughs, and tells me that she has heard Harriet complain to our mother that her supposedly fine husband does not treat her with respect and when they are in London, spends much time carousing with his friends and sometimes does not come home until the morning. This is very surprising to me, for I like Mr. Bond, who seems cheerful and good-natured, and never fails to have a kind word for me when we meet, and always speaks to our mother, and indeed to Harriet, with courtesy when he visits. And for the first time I realise that sometimes, the outward semblance of people is merely that which they wish to display, and not their real selves at all, and I wonder with misgivings if my Tom is similar and would disparage me once we were wed – if we were wed.

There is no reason, of course, why we should not be, for he is of an old and wealthy family in these parts, and moreover, since his father’s death three years since, master of a considerable estate and a baronet, so that he is now Sir Tom. I know, without having to be told, that a match with him would not merely be approved by my father and mother, but actively encouraged. But I am but fourteen years old, and he is only fifteen, so I will say nothing yet, but I know that my heart has been given, and I cannot imagine that it will ever change. And I pray that his has been given also, and to me, though I have few hopes that this might be so, for although my mirror tells me I am a pretty girl, I do not turn heads as Dilly and Harriet do, even though they are now married women.

Later, when I have a quiet moment, I go to my chamber and open the chest in which I keep my clothes, layered with lavender to sweeten them and orris root to keep away the moth. Beneath all, wrapped in tissue, are the panels I have so far completed for my casket. The lid, with its design of Lady Flora, was the first to be finished, and then I made the garden to sit inside it, with the lady and the unicorn, and a pond below the fountain made of a fragment of glass to reflect the light as water does, and then I embroidered those four smaller panels which will form the edge of the lid, for they were quick and comparatively easy to sew, being scrolls of stems and leaves and flowers of the kind I learned to do when I was eight or nine years old. But alas, over the last year or two, many other matters have intruded on my time, my sisters' marriages and the preparations for them, and more trips to London and to cousins in other parts, and all last winter I was ill with a cough and a low fever that left me so tired and listless that I could do very little but lie on a couch and have Pen read to me, so the work for my casket has been sadly neglected. But with God's help I have at last recovered all my strength, and this spring I have worked extremely hard at my sewing, so that I have completed the designs for Autumn, and Winter, and all but one of the Five Senses, and there are just two blank pieces of white satin left, on which I will next embroider the picture of Summer and the picture of Smell, and then all will be done and my embroidery will go off to Master Haley in London, to be made up at long last into my precious casket, which will announce to the world that I am a needlewoman of great skill, and have completed my education in the domestic arts. And I will show it to my Tom, when it is finished, and I hope he will marvel at it, and I think I will work his lovely dog into the design for the Smell panel, as well as my sister Pen, with her chestnut hair, holding a perfumed rose, a dark red one like those my mother uses to make rosewater every summer. For this is my casket, and I will have all the things I love embroidered on it, so that when I am gone to my reward, many years hence I pray, my daughters and my granddaughters in days long after may look at it and remember me, and think of the girl I am now, and the woman I will become.

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