"A score of hearts have been broken this day, for sure."
I glance at my son, standing tall and proud beside me. Sometimes he looks so like his father that I can almost imagine that it is my beloved Tom, miraculously restored to life. The amber hair, the look of mischief, the slender build, all come from him. But also, strangely, Will resembles my own father, a kind but serious man to whom the word 'mischievous' was surely never applied.
I cannot help but agree with him, for today is the wedding day of my second daughter Mary, or Molly as we all call her, and 'mischievous' might have been coined to describe her: indeed, when she was but a little child, Tom named her 'Miss Chief', for she was always getting into scrapes. And even now, as a grown woman of twenty seven years, she is famed throughout our part of the county for her gaiety, her unquenchable spirit, and her beauty. Men of every stamp, rich and poor and middling, have professed their love for her, have even written poems addressed to her, and she has flirted outrageously with all of them, sad souls, but given no real encouragement to any of them - until now.
And here she comes, clad in a gorgeous new gown of palest pink satin, lined with silver tissue. The petticoat is a darker shade, embroidered with a graceful design of roses, their petals veined with silver thread. It will be much admired, and she will be asked if the stitching is her own handiwork, and I expect that she will turn the compliments aside with her usual charm and a modest smile that is not at all usual, she being, alas, prone to the sin of vanity. Molly has never been an accomplished needlewoman, despite all my efforts, and although she contributed some of the leaves and curving stems, I have to confess that her petticoat was embroidered almost entirely by her mother and her elder sister.
But it matters little, in the end, whose fingers chose the thread or held the needles, for the petticoat is very beautiful, and the shimmering colours of the gown set off her dark curls and her bright complexion, walking down the aisle on the arm of her stepfather. My second husband is now well into his seventies, but you would never think it, for he walks as straight and vigorous as a man half his age, and his face is plump and ruddy from the hours he spends in the fresh air, for he still loves to ride to hounds and to inspect his domains several times a week, to say nothing of his beloved gardens, which he has brought to a perfection much admired by our friends and families. We have been fifteen years wed, and what was begun as a friendly wish for companionship has flourished and grown into a deep, loving contentment for us both.
I glance at my other daughters, her bride maidens, walking demurely behind her. They are all lovely, but to the undiscerning observer, they do not shine as bright as Molly. Yet there is no trace of poisonous envy on their pretty faces, and they are smiling. Indeed my youngest, Dilly, is trying very hard to catch her sister Harriet's eye, doubtless hoping to reduce her to a fit of the giggles. But Hattie is very much on her dignity today, and ignores Dilly's sly, sideways glance. I am reminded of the poem that Major Pack, a great admirer of my daughters, wrote about them, praising 'little Dilly, sly and sleek, and Molly with the dimpled cheek'. Those dimples are not in evidence yet, but we all expect to see them later, once the serious part of the marriage ceremony is ended.
Her intended husband turns as she arrives before the altar, and smiles with delight. I cannot see Molly's response, but I can imagine it. Very few of our family or friends are able to understand her choice, for she could have had her pick of half the county - indeed, many young men far more eligible than John were jostling for her attention. Instead, though, she fixed her heart upon this young parson, of good family admittedly, handsome and charming and intelligent - but still a parson, with limited prospects though he has a comfortable living not far distant. My husband and I urged her to take her time and consider all the circumstances before coming to a decision, but she was adamant that she would marry John and no other. And when, in the privacy of my chamber, I asked her why, she replied very simply, "I love him. And he will be good for me. I have been a sad racket and flirt all my youth, and now I am ready to cast away childish things, and settle down."
I knew that she was right. Her lightness of heart has always been accompanied by a restlessness that sometimes has seemed almost feverish, as if she was urgently seeking something of vast importance, but had not yet found it. I do not think that losing her father so early in her life - she was five years old when he died - was helpful. And young though John is, he has the wisdom and insight to make her happy, and to keep her content. Unlike many of my family, (my nephew was especially surprised and doubtful, though he knows John well and is the patron of his living), both my husband and I thoroughly approve of her choice.
Afterwards, at the wedding breakfast, our very numerous friends and family - for most of the gentry for many miles around are one or the other, or both - cluster round to offer their congratulations to the young couple. My younger daughters, Hattie and Dilly, wearing new gowns of soft gold and deep blue respectively, are amongst their number, but my eldest child, my namesake, stands still beside me. She had a new gown too, to celebrate the occasion, and hers is silver grey satin, with white lace at the wrist, and a ruffled petticoat the colour of lavender. It suits her well, and she is as lovely as my other girls, but quieter, more thoughtful, more serious.
If she is unhappy that her younger sister, rather than she herself, is the first of them to wed, she gives no sign, but watches on with a smile on her face. "I will wait until the crush is gone, before I go to wish them happy."
"I too," I say, linking my arm in hers. "And happy they will be, I think."
She glances at me, her likeness to Molly suddenly more apparent than it usually is. "I think so too, Mama, unlikely though it may seem. He will steady her."
I nod in agreement. We both know that although her sister's flirtatious behaviour is entirely innocent, there are always malicious tongues wagging, and some of our older neighbours strongly disapprove of Molly. One or two have even spread rumours that she has been seen meeting young men in a secluded glade in our woods. But Molly herself made light of it when the tales came to her ears, pointing out that she goes nowhere without at least a groom in attendance, and almost always with her brother or one of her sisters. "And besides, that clearing is so full of nettles and brambles it would have been impossible to find a space long enough to lie down!"
Of course, it was that lightness of manner that prompted the rumours in the first place, but Molly has never paid attention to what others might think. However, as the wife of a respected parson, she now has a position to keep up and a reputation to maintain, and it will do neither her nor her new husband any good to be the subject of unkind and damaging gossip.
"And you?" I enquire, turning to my eldest daughter. "Has your fancy lit on anyone?" For I have seen her eyes following the progress of one man through the crowds around the tables and about the happy couple, and I desire above anything that this quiet, steadfast young woman, who has always been a little overshadowed by her livelier sisters, should find happiness herself. And she is approaching thirty, almost on the shelf - a term I despise, although at the same age I myself had been twelve years wed, had borne nine children, and was all unwittingly about to become a widow.
At my words she laughs and shakes her head, but I see the colour rise in her face and cannot believe her denials. However, I have no intention of prying into the secrets of her heart. The man she looks at is known to me only slightly - he is a lawyer in the town, well respected and with a name for fair dealing unusual in his profession, but not of our intimate circle, hailing as he does from Norfolk, which seems to us almost like another country, and the vulgar often make jest of the supposed ignorance and inbreeding of its inhabitants. But it seems significant to me that he is another Thomas, the name of the three most beloved men in my life. And I do hope, very much, that one day soon his eyes will follow my eldest child as she moves amongst her friends, and that they will have a future together.