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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (13)

If some oracle or soothsayer had told me, when my beloved Tom died so suddenly and so young, that one day I would be happy to wed again, I would not have believed them. Yet here I am, in my finest gown, the silver grey silk with an underskirt of palest blue, scattered with embroidered roses, walking to the little church, with its round tower and splendid tombs, to meet the man who asked me, only last month, to marry him.

It is not a marriage that has met with universal approval amongst my family. The chiefest objection seems to be, not that he is some twenty years older than I am, but that he is a Papist. This smacks to me of a certain hypocrisy, for so was my uncle, a loyal servant and supporter of the ousted King James, and I do not recall him being the subject of dismay and opprobrium because of his religion. But Sir William is a loyal subject of the Queen, and although one of his daughters is a nun, he is happy to allow me to worship in the Protestant faith in which I was brought up, and besides, although of course I had met him many times in my life, we first seriously conversed when his eldest son (yet another Thomas) married Dilly’s eldest daughter last year (and I do not remember many objections to that match, although Thomas is of course a Papist like his father and the rest of his family, and young Dilly, for so we call her, bids fair to following him into that religion). But I am a widow, and my own mistress, and my mother likes Sir William, for she can see, as can I, that he is a good, kind and decent man. And as I am now a matronly thirty-six, and my betrothed is not very far from sixty, it is unlikely that there will be any offspring of the marriage, so no dispute about the faith in which they would be brought up.

And I have been so lonely, since Tom died. Yes, I have had my children to rear (and suffered the sad loss of little Penelope, who was only seven when she died of the measles two years ago), and my Tom’s lands and household to oversee, but I have felt the lack so often of a friend with whom I can discuss the day’s doings in the evenings, who can support and advise me, and above all with whom I can talk, and laugh, and converse in an adult manner. My eldest daughter is fourteen years old, and although she is sensible and intelligent, she is not yet old enough to be a truly equal companion. And I have only two sisters left, and Mary is too busy running her own and her family’s lives to have much time left over for me, while Pen, my dearest Pen, is living far away in Shropshire with her husband and children.

At first, in my relations with Sir William, no thought of marriage entered my head, though he is a handsome man for his age, well set up, vigorous and hearty, who rides to hounds twice a week and thinks of nothing of spending half a day tramping round his park. We fell into talk at the wedding breakfast, over our plans for our gardens. I had had a fancy to have a walk under an arch planted with trees such as hornbeams, but he suggested a plant that I have never heard of before, called a Laburnum, which is native to the southern parts of Europe, but which nevertheless does well here in England. Apparently it bears great clusters of golden yellow flowers in early summer, like bunches of grapes, and looks glorious when planted in the way I had intended. Then he described the fruit trees he had brought over from France, a country he knows well, including plums and pears of surpassing sweetness. And he told me a tale that one of the trees had lost its label, so no-one could tell its name, but that the plums it bore, of a rich golden green colour and the finest and best tasting of all, were so delicious that it was given a new name in his honour. He spoke without conceit, and made a jest of it, so that we both laughed, and I invited him to visit so that he might inspect my gardens, which have proved some small consolation for me, since my Tom’s death.

And so began our friendship, born of a shared interest and pleasure in growing things. His house is very much more grand and impressive than my Tom’s ancestral home, and indeed, more than a hundred years ago, entertained Good Queen Bess in great state: even now, there is a path in the park, marked out with thorns, which is known as The Queen’s Walk. But the gardens do not grace and enhance the Hall as they should, and he has begun to improve them, with new designs for the parterres and avenues, and the best plants now in fashion, like this laburnum. He has had the moat dredged (and showed me some of the objects found in it, which included a child’s toy horse, a silver and amethyst ring, and a rusting old pan from the kitchen), and planted with waterlilies and stocked with fine fish. I told him the tale of my own childhood home, which is also surrounded by a moat, and how my brother Tom used to fish out of his chamber window, and once caught a small wriggling carp, and in his excitement nearly fell headfirst down into the water, had not I and my sister Pen seized him by the breeches and dragged him back over the sill. That made him laugh, and enhanced the ease of manner and conversation that was growing between us. We talked too of our children – he has two sons and six daughters, all grown, some wed, and a grandchild soon to be born to his eldest son and my niece – and our pride and joy in them.

When he asked me to marry him, it was not as the romances would have it, there were no protestations of undying adoration, merely a proposition that as we were such good friends, and agreed so well on so many things, it would be pleasant to make a permanent alliance together. At first I was astonished, for marriage had never entered my head. So I begged him for some time to consider his proposal, and to consult with my family and friends – which he readily agreed to, for he wishes to remain on good terms with them, who are usually his kin as well as his neighbours, for all the gentry in this part of our county, whether Protestant or Catholic, have married into each other’s families for hundreds of years, so that we are all linked by blood. Indeed, we ourselves are kin, for he and my mother are first cousins.

My mother wished me happy, but my sister Mary’s husband was angry, although he is a vehement Tory and might be thought to be sympathetic to those of the Catholic faith. However, he wields no power or influence over me, and as I have always disliked him (something which I have tried to hide from Mary, who is so sweet and loving she can tolerate his uncouth manners and lack of breeding and education, he having been reared in the Barbados) I feel no urge to please him. My son Will was doubtful to begin with, but I reassured him that he would always come first in my estimation, and besides, he was delighted at the prospect of a removal to Sir William’s house, so much more commodious and splendid than our own small manor, and I could hold out the prospect to him, of his entering into his inheritance in a few years' time, and running his estates without maternal interference. My girls teased me about my 'elderly swain’, and Molly in particular was full of knowing winks and laughter, but despite these I could tell that she and her sisters were happy for me, and, like their brother, excited by the imminent change in our lives.

So one lovely summer morning, I rode over to Sir William, to give him his answer. I took for company my two elder daughters, for Will had gone back to the Grammar School in Bury – he lodges in the town during the week. We were a merry party, and Molly, who has the sweetest voice and the highest spirits, whiled away the seven miles with songs. We all joined in, even Jack, the groom who was our escort, and so we came to my ‘swain’s’ house in time for dinner, as arranged. My girls were taken away, laughing and talking, by Sir William’s daughters, who are all grown, but young enough still to be good friends with Molly and her sister: and their father drew me aside, into a pleasant parlour which looked out onto the inner court.

I think he had known my answer from the moment I stepped across his threshold, for no woman who is going to refuse an offer of marriage comes to give her response with smiles and song and merriment. He looked at me, with an expression at once of hope and apprehension, and I realised suddenly that for him, at least, this was not entirely an arrangement of convenience, but something much desired, and I felt a little ashamed, for my heart was not engaged to such a degree, and thoughtlessly, I had not considered that his feelings might be different. And yet, any doubts I might have harboured were put to flight by his relieved and delighted smile, when I told him that I would be happy to be his bride.

And so I am here, on a brilliant morning of summer sunshine, on the arm of my son, who will give me away. My sister Mary’s husband, Sir Robert, once he realised that his disapproval would not dissuade me from marrying Sir William, had vehemently insisted that he perform this office, but I would not countenance walking up the aisle with a man whom I dislike and who had urged me not to marry, as if it were all his business and none of mine. Young Will was my choice, and he thinks it a great lark, and has had to receive a long and serious lecture on the proper behaviour due to the office, and to his position in the county as the fourth Baronet of his name. But when I glance at his face – he is thirteen now, and near to me in height – I see the laughter and merriment suppressed in his hazel eyes, so like his father’s, and joy rises up in me, that my children at least have welcomed this second marriage.

So we enter the church, I carrying a great bunch of opulent roses from my garden, filling the cool air with their scent. My four daughters, my bride maidens, walk behind me, garlanded with flowers, and I see Sir William waiting for me by the chancel rail. His elder son Thomas, a tall young man with a marked resemblance to his father, stands beside him, as his best man. There are few guests, but my mother, now of a great age and increasingly frail, smiles at me from beside my sister Mary and her boorish husband, and my niece Dilly is there too, great with her first child.

The ceremony is conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer, and there is no Popish Mass or any other rite to offend my family. Later, privately, Sir William’s priest will bless us, and I have agreed to this, though I have not told Mary or anyone else, considering it to be none of their business. Afterwards, a splendid wedding breakfast is served in the Great Hall, and there is much laughter and merriment, and my Molly flirts outrageously with her new step-brother Johnny, who is ten years older than she is, but seems dazzled by her pretty face and precocious manner. I must be careful, for all my girls are cut from the same delightful cloth, though the eldest of them, my namesake, is more quiet and thoughtful than her sisters. And Johnny is plainly most susceptible to Molly’s charms, though I would hope that he would not take the innocent high spirits of a twelve year old child too seriously.

Much later, when our guests have gone, Sir William and I walk in his garden, which is now our garden, and I think of the other gardens where I have walked in my life, and the men – my father, my brother, my first husband – who have walked with me. They are all gone, though I know I will meet them again one day, God willing, long hence, but my new husband is beside me, and I feel the warmth of his arm through his coat, and the warmth of the sun on my back as we stroll, and I treasure this unexpected happiness. Then we pause, and he brings a small leather bag from his pocket, and tells me, with that diffident smile, that he has a gift for me on our wedding day. And when I look inside the bag, there is a beautiful golden locket on a chain, and when I open it, I exclaim with wonder, for within there are two tiny miniatures, one of him, copied from the picture of him that hangs above the fireplace in the Great Hall, and one of me, copied from the portrait my first husband had taken of me some ten years ago, so that I look very young – and so does Sir William, for that matter, despite the considerable difference in our ages.

“Then you like it, my dear?” he asks, as if my delight were not obvious enough, and I smile at him and tell him, with perfect truth, that I love his gift, and ask him to fasten it around my neck, and I find the deft touch of his hands most pleasurable. And much later, before we retire for the night, I unfasten the clasp and lay the locket carefully within my casket, with my other most precious things, a symbol of this new episode, this new beginning, and of a surprising love, born of friendship and cemented with sincere respect and affection.

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