My Tom came to our house today.
He had just a servant at his back. I watched from the window of my mother’s chamber, for I knew to expect him. He rode into the front court, his spaniel Sorrel at his horse’s heels, and I saw that he was clad in a new suit of clothes: he had left off his mourning attire, for it is now more than a year since his mother died, and although his garments are still a sober colour, the deep green which becomes his coppery hair so well, even from this distance I can tell that they are made of fine cloth, his neck cloth and cuffs of foamy white lace and his boots polished so they shine in the sun – for it is pleasant weather for February, the air soft and mild, promising spring, and all the birds are singing, for this is the day when they choose their mates, or so my nurse used to tell me.
His servant, Will, takes their horses to lead them round to the stables, and as my Tom crosses the courtyard, he looks up and sees me standing at the window. At once he smiles, and lifts his hand, and I think what a fine man he has become, and how lucky I am, that he has chosen me.
For he has chosen, and so have I. At Christmas, we had music and dancing, and many of our neighbours came to celebrate the season with us. I wore my new blue satin mantua, over a petticoat that I had embroidered myself, with a design of flowers and birds, and I had my maid Moll dress my hair in the new style, high off my forehead with a confection of lace and ribbon that the French call a Fontange, and which I could see in my mirror became me well, which I know is vanity, but no more than the truth, for when my Tom beheld me in the hall, he smiled in greeting, and told me so. In the country dance he asked me to be his partner, and every time his hand grasped mine, warm and living, I felt a thrill pass through me, as if our very souls were linked together. Afterwards, he drew me away a little, to a quiet corner of the gallery, and we talked for a while, of small things, the dancing and the music (one of the fiddles being sadly out of tune), and the cold frosty weather, and my ever-increasing array of nieces and nephews, who are eleven now in number, my eldest sister Mary having three boys and three girls, and my next sister Harriet two boys and a girl, and Dilly still with her boy and girl, though she is expecting another. And then he looked at me very seriously, and asked me whether I would like to add to their number in a little while. I did not at first know what he meant, or how to answer, and the expression on his face made me blush and lower my eyes, and then he said, very low, “I know what my feelings are for you, can I hope that yours are the same for me? Do you love me at least a little?” And at that a great surge of joy rushed through me, and I looked up at him, and smiled, and said, “Oh, Tom, how could you doubt me? Of course I do!” And I added, smiling wider, “Very much more than a little!”
And at that he drew me into his arms, and I felt them round me, warm and sheltering and safe, and it was as if I looked into the future and knew that we would be together for always, until death parted us. Of course then my sister Dilly approached, for she cannot bear not to interfere, with a loud cough that made us separate with alacrity, and she gave both of us a knowing smile, and asked us if we wished to partake of the refreshments which were laid out on the tables at the end of the gallery, since there would be no more dancing for a little while. And so there was no more opportunity for talk, but I did not need it, for I knew that we were pledged to each other.
I had hoped that he would speak to my father in the New Year, but the weather turned for the worse, with snow and ice, and then after the thaw Father had to travel to London on business, but my Tom wrote to me several times a week, just a brief but loving letter brought by one of his serving boys, and I always sent one back in reply. And his little notes, folded and creased, I kept in the secret drawer of my embroidered casket, until it became so full that I could not squeeze any more in, and then I hid the older ones at the bottom of my sewing box to make space for those more recent, knowing that soon there would come a time when we had no need of writing to each other, for we would be together.
And now it is Valentine’s day, when the birds choose their mates, and he has come to ask my father for my hand in marriage, as has been agreed between us two in the most recent of our notes, and I told Father this morning to expect him today. And he looked at me, as I stood before him in my plain carnation gown and blue petticoat, which I have embellished with ruffles of lace as I saw the ladies wearing when last I visited London, and he smiled a little sadly, and said, “I am so glad for you, my dear child, but I must confess that I do not look forward very happily to the day when your mother and I have no daughters left at home.”
There will only be Pen, of course, for though she is older than I by three years, she has resolutely remained uninterested in any of the young men of our acquaintance, and indeed has told me privately that only a perfect paragon will suit her, and since such beings seem to be as rare as unicorns, she does not expect to marry at all. But she has a generous spirit, and knows my feelings and thoughts, and when our mother brought word that Father wished to speak with me, she gave me a hug and a quick kiss and bade me go downstairs, with her love.
So I enter my father’s domain, and there is my beloved Tom, looking flushed and so handsome that my heart leaps at the sight, and he smiles at me so that I know that all is well. Then Father steps forward from behind his desk, and tells me that he has good news for me, for Tom has requested permission to marry me, and he has gladly given it. I thank him joyfully, and we embrace, and then Tom embraces me, and Father asks me when I would like the day to be. I have already given some thought to this, and discussed it with Tom, and we tell him that we wish it to be in the spring, perhaps in May. Father says that he will speak to Parson Agas, and arrange for a suitable day, and for the banns to be read. There will be three months in which to organise invitations to all our friends and kin – I remember that half the county seemed to attend Mary’s wedding, which was held here at home, though both my other sisters were married in London – and to plan the wedding breakfast, and to make me a splendid gown, and my head fills up with all the things that Mother and Pen and I must do before the wonderful day arrives.
Then Tom thanks my father again, and bids him goodbye, and I do likewise, and when we have left the study he asks me if I would like a turn in the garden. So we walk outside, and across the moat, and stroll amongst the knots and borders. The sun is still shining, warm for February and giving promise of that day, not so long distant now, when we shall be married, and I tuck my arm in Tom’s, and lean against him, partaking of his warmth too.
At the arbour, where sweet honeysuckle and jessamine flower in summer, he turns, and brings a package from inside his coat, wrapped in soft velvet and tied with ribbon. “These are for you, sweetheart,” he says, and when I have opened up the parcel I gasp with delight, for it contains two exquisite white lace gloves, so beautiful that tears spring to my eyes. It is an old country custom, for a man to give a pair to his intended bride, but I do not think that any of my sisters’ husbands did so.
“Do they fit?” Tom asks anxiously, and with very great care, for the lace is so fine that I fear I might damage it, I draw them over my hands.
“Perfectly, my love,” I tell him, savouring the words ‘my love’, for I have never been so bold as to call him that before, just as he has never before called me ‘sweetheart’ – but now we are betrothed, so we are true lovers. “They are wonderful – I have never seen gloves made of lace.”
He looks so pleased. “Nor have I, until I saw them in the New Exchange. They are Italian, so I was told.”
Even more carefully (for if they are Italian, they must have cost a great deal) I take the gloves off, and wrap them up again in the velvet so they will not become damaged or dirty. When I look up, Tom is holding out something else to me – a crocus flower, pale as milk, or as the lace gloves, but for the soft creamy yellow at the base of each petal. “For my own dear love,” he says, and takes me in his arms, and kisses me in a way he has never done before, his mouth on mine, and it seems as if my heart and my bones are melting into him, so that we become one, and once more I feel that I am remembering the future, and there is no possibility that we will not be together for ever.
Later, when dinner is done and he has left so that he may reach his home before dark, I lay that flower in my casket, between two sheets of thin paper, as my mother once showed me, so that the stem and petals may be dried and preserved, and so that in years to come I may have some small sweet reminder of such a happy and momentous day. And then I close the lid and gently touch his dear form, embroidered amongst the apple trees of autumn, and marvel at the wondrous good fortune that has brought him to love me.