ONLY one stipulation will I make, my dearest, and that is that we shall not be married in a church.”

He was taken somewhat aback when she said this—they were sitting together among the apple blossoms of the orchard. She fancied that she felt his hand loosen slightly on hers at the moment; but it might only have been fancy.

“I thought that women always went it blind for the church and ‘The Voice that breathed o’er Eden,’ with the Wedding March to follow,” said he.

“They do. I believe that there are dozens of girls who get married solely for the sake of the ceremony,” she replied.

“And I can swear that there are thousands of men who will have nothing to do with it simply on account of the ceremony,” said he. “If there was none of that nonsense of carriages and clergymen and top hats and a new frock coat, the marriage-rate would soon go up instead of down. What has the parson to do with the thing any way?”

“He can be done without, and so can the whole service, which is really only a melancholy mockery. Oh, never, never again will I repeat those phrases formally at the bidding of a clergyman or any one else. The ‘love, honour, and obey’ will be between you and me, Jack, and two of the three will be contingencies.”

“Oh, I say!”

“I sympathize with you and all that, of course; but I can only promise to love you; the honour and obedience——”

“Oh, throw them in to make up weight!”

“They are both conditional. But we can hope for the best.... Jack, I would not go through another marriage ceremony in a church even if there was no other way of getting married. The horrible mockery! Think what would have happened if that man whom I had promised before God’s altar to honour, love, and obey had come straight to me on getting out of gaol! Could he not have claimed me as his wife?”

“Not he. There is no law that could compel you to go with him.”

“Then there was no sacred obligation implied in the vows, as they call them; and every sensible person is aware of this, and yet the mockery of repeating the words is carried on day by day. Jack, I am willing to believe that God instituted marriage, but not the marriage service according to the Church of England.”

“I agree with you, my dearest; but for the sake of peace and quiet, and all that, don’t you say that to my mother.”

“Nothing will induce me. I am not given to forcing my views on this or any other subject on people who may have feelings or prejudices in favour of the conventional. If I were to suggest to my father a marriage before a registrar or in a British Consulate he would look on me as an outcast.”

“He goes back to the Heptarchy. Yes, what you say is quite right. This little affair of ours concerns our two selves only.”

She gave him her hand and he put it to his lips, but she could not help noticing that his eyes were fixed musingly upon a promising gooseberry bush. She wondered if he was considering how he was to break the news to his mother; or was he wondering how she was to break the news to her father? Either the one problem or the other would, she knew, entail a fair amount of musing.

And that was why she sent him away—it was actually approaching noon, so quickly does a day pass when lovers who have recognized each other as such for the first time come together. They had not stirred from the apple orchard. When they had left the house immediately after breakfast there had been some talk between them about the great dairy; he avowed himself to be dying to see the dairy and she had promised to make him acquainted with all the details of it’s working. But they had not stirred from the orchard. She sat among the apple blossoms; all the world before their eyes was filled with apple blossoms; apple blossoms were trembling in the air between their eyes and the blue sky, and with every gracious breath that came among the overhanging boughs a snow of apple blossoms fluttered to their feet.

And then the high walls of the orchard gave them such a sense of security.

They never went near the dairy. Neither of them had a thought for it; even though its management was on the borders of the sublime. The first move that they made meant separating (for the time being), and they were long in making it. Of course it was she who sent him away. She thought that she would do well to meet her father alone and break the news to him.

When her lover had gone from her, she ran into the house and up the stairs that led to a small gable room with a window commanding a view of the steep lane through which he would have to pass crossing the country to the Manor. She waited breathless until he swam into her ken. He remained in her sight for the better part of three minutes, and then his occultation took place by the denseness of the foliage of the hedgerow. But that three minutes!...

Slowly she went to her own room and threw herself into an easy chair—the very one in which she had sat scarcely more than a month ago when reading the batch of American newspapers. That was the thought which came to her now, and with it came a sense of the enormous space of time that lay between the events of that day and the event of the hour in which she was living. It was impossible to believe that it was to be measured by weeks and not by years. Had she no premonition on that afternoon, when the earth was smiling in all its newly washed greenery, that the man whom she had seen for the first time that day would become so much a part of her life—a part?—nay, all—all her life? She could not remember having had such a thought suggested to her at that time; but that only made her feel that her memory was treacherous. She felt sure that she must have had such a premonition. Even though she had had a great deal to think about on that afternoon she must have had space to ask herself if she did not hope to meet him again.

She remembered how extraordinary had been her sense of relief when she had sat at this window in this same chair trying to realize the truth—trying to realize that she was once more free—that the course of life which she had planned out for herself and to which she was becoming reconciled, as men who have been sentenced to imprisonment for life become reconciled to their servitude, was to be changed—that she was free to live and to love as she pleased.

It had taken her a long time to realize the exact extent of what the news meant to her; and among the details of the vista of realization that opened itself out before her then, the figure of Jack Wingfield sitting by her side among the apple blossoms had no place. She had never so much as dreamt that within a month she should be within a step of possessing that park through which she had been walking and that house with the spacious rooms she had always admired, but, of course, in a distant and impersonal way.

Now she thoroughly realized how extraordinary was the happiness which was within her reach; but, as is usual in the case of imaginative people in similar circumstances, there came to her a cold suggestion of the possibility of disaster—a feeling that it was impossible for such happiness as hers to continue—a dread lest the cup which was being filled for her lips should be shattered before it reached them. She had experienced these pranks of Fate before now, and she had found that it was wise not to count upon anything on which she had set her heart, taking place in all the perfection in which it existed in her imagination.

That was why she now made herself miserable for some time, saying in her heart:

“It is too bright—the prospect is too full of sunshine. He will be killed in a motor accident—the house will catch fire and he will be burnt in his room—something will happen—I know it! It is not given to any girl to realize such happiness as I see before me.”

In another minute, however, she was rejoicing in her thought: “Never mind! Whatever may be in store for us of evil, we shall have had our day—neither Fate nor any other power of malice can make us unlive to-day. His kisses, the clasp of his arms, the sense of possessing me which he had, delighting me to feel that I had surrendered myself to him—these cannot be erased from the things that have been. The joy that is past cannot be taken away from us.”

This stimulating reflection was enough for her. She went over all the delightful incidents of the morning from the moment of her hearing his voice until that last kiss of his had left its mark upon her cheek—she could feel the brand of his ardour upon her face; it was still burning her white flesh, and she had seen its glow when she had passed the looking-glass. It was very sweet to her to recall all such incidents, even though a quarter of an hour had scarcely passed since the last had taken place; and gradually she groped her way free from the gloomy forebodings which she had forced upon herself so as to cheat Fate out of some of the malignant surprise which that power might be devising for her undoing. The roseate tint of that kiss which lay upon her face had tinted all the atmosphere of the past and the future as a drop of blood tints a basin of water, and she saw everything through this medium. When a girl believes that all her future life will be as exquisite as that of a pink flower—as exquisite as that carnation bloom which she wore on her cheek—she can have no serious misgivings—even when she hears the heavy boot of her father. A father’s boot may awaken one from a pleasing dream, but it need not portend disaster.

He was hungry and hot when she joined him in the dining-room. He had had a tiring day, and he had been compelled to wear a hat. He was a quarter of an hour too soon for the early dinner which was the rule at the farm; but still he thought that it should have been ready for him, because he was ready for it.

She managed to clip five minutes off his waiting, but he did not think it necessary to applaud her achievement. It was an excellent meal and he did ample justice to it, scarcely speaking a word—certainly no word that had not a direct bearing upon the joint before him. It was not until the cheese was being brought into the room that she noticed the marks of a smile on his face. (She wondered if he saw the marks of something else on hers.)

“A funny thing has happened,” said he. “You remember that we were talking some time ago about Mr. Dunning and his pigheadedness in letting Glyn give up his farm rather than allow him a year’s rent in starting a market garden? Well, it seems that young Wingfield has been out at the farm and has come to the conclusion that Dunning did wrong, and down he came upon Dunning like a sack of potatoes the other morning, accusing him of cheating him out of two years’ rent and so forth; and then nothing would do him but he looks up Verrall at the Manor Farm, and makes it pretty lively for everyone there, winding up by turning out Verrall neck and crop. I saw Verrall just now at Gollingford looking for a job. He gave me his version of the story; and I asked him if he hadn’t left out the part about his being drunk—I took it for granted that he had been drunk; he wasn’t many hours off being drunk at eleven this morning. He was, I fancy, mid-channel between. Wingfield is less of a fool than we fancied. Why are you laughing in that queer way, Priscilla, eh?”

“I am laughing because I was about to mention Mr. Wingfield’s name to you, in a way that may possibly make you believe that there’s a great deal more in him than you could believe, for he has been with me all the morning, and long before eight he had asked me to marry him, and I—I—gave him my word—at least, I gave him to understand that I would marry him.”

While she was speaking he had cut up his cheese. He paused with a piece on the point of his knife in the act of conveying it to his mouth. It never reached its destination. When she had spoken he did not give a start, nor did he make an exclamation; he simply lowered the point of his knife slowly until the cheese dropped off it, and then he laid the knife across his plate, staring at her all the time.

He stared at her, but he could not utter a word. She saw him make the attempt, and smiled.

“Of course I have given you a great surprise,” she said; “but I am sure that it must be a pleasant surprise, father. You did not know that I was acquainted with Jack Wingfield.”

But her speaking thus easily had not, it appeared, done much to help him. After the lapse of a minute or two, however, she saw a gleam come into his eyes. He groped for his tankard of beer on the table-cloth, for he had not taken his eyes away from her face. Nor did he do so even when he was swallowing his beer; his eyes looking over the rim of the tankard gave him a very comical look.

Her smile became a laugh, and then the blank look on his face became a very definite frown.

“I don’t see the fun in such jokes, girl,” he said moodily, and he picked up the piece of cheese in his fingers and jerked it into his mouth. “I can’t for the life of me see how you—you, with the experience you have had, can make a jest of anything that has to do with marriage.”

He pushed his chair back from the table and got upon his feet, brushing to the floor some crumbs that had clung to his knees.

“I have told you the truth, father,” she said. “I have been acquainted with Jack Wingfield for some time. I liked him very much from the first, and I could see that he came suddenly to like me. I paid a visit to his mother—such a charming woman! I expected him to come to me some of these days. He came to-day—quite early in the morning, and—I gave him breakfast; but that was, of course, afterwards. That’s the whole story.”

“Marriage—does he mean marriage—marriage? You are sure that he doesn’t mean to make a fool of you, girl?” he said in a low voice that had a good deal of meaning in it. “I have heard that he is a scamp—an empty-headed man who was expelled from college for bad conduct. Would his grandfather have tied up the estate, think you, if it hadn’t been that he knew the young fellow would make ducks and drakes of it? Does he mean marriage?”

“What else does a man mean when he asks a girl to marry him?”

“There’s such a thing as a left-handed marriage. I know these idle gentry. Game rights—some of them believe that the maidens on their estates are fair game. The rascals! Is that what’s in this youngster’s mind, do you think?”

“He brought me to see his mother.”

She spoke in a low voice, and rose from the table.

“Why didn’t he come to me in the first place?” said her father. “What business had he making advances to you before he had got my consent—tell me that?”

“I told him my story,” she replied. “Perhaps he gathered from it that, having once obeyed the commands of my parents, I should take care ever after to act on my own judgment. He talked to-day about seeing you; I told him that there was no need.”

“Why should there be no need if he means to run straight? I would see that he meant right before I gave my consent. I don’t want you to be fooled by him or any other man even if he was a lord. You’re not in his station in life, and you know it. If he was making up to some one in his own station he would have to see her father first. What is there to laugh at?”

She had become rosy, and had given a laugh when he made use of the old phrase; but she could scarcely explain to him that her laugh was due to her recalling the sequel to her introduction of the same phrase a few hours earlier.

“I can’t tell you how funny—I mean how—how—no; all that I can tell you is that I have accepted Jack Wingfield and that I mean to marry him and be a good wife to him.”

“You can say that—you can talk about marrying another man before two months have passed! I’m ashamed of you.”

At first she did not know what he meant by his reference to two months—two months’ since what? Then all at once it flashed upon her that he had in his mind the incident that should have been appropriately commemorated (according to his idea) by widow’s weeds.

“I think that we had better not return to that particular matter,” she said. “We can never look at it from the same standpoint. I married once to please you and my mother; I will marry now to please myself.”

“Decency is decency, all the same, whatever your notions may be,” said he. “No daughter of mine with my consent will become engaged to a man so as to outrage every sense of decency. A year is the very shortest space of time that must elapse—even a year is too short for good taste.”

“A year and more has passed since you gave me to that man—the man you choose for me—a year since I outraged a sense that is very much higher than your sense of decency by promising to honour a wretch who was trying to accomplish my dishonour.”

“What do you mean, Priscilla? Didn’t he marry you honestly in the church? Give the man his due. I doubt if this young Wingfield’s intentions are so honourable.”

She rose from the table saying: “I will talk no more to you on this subject, father. I thought that after my year of suffering—oh, my God! what I suffered! And you could look on and know nothing of it! Was ever a girl plunged as I was into such a seven-times-heated furnace of shame? Was it nothing to me, do you think, to walk in the street and see women nudge one another as I came up—to see myself pointed out to strangers and to hear them mutter ‘Poor thing!’ or ‘What a pity she made such a fool of herself!’—to have it set down to me that I was a girl so anxious to find a husband that I jumped at the first man that offered, without making the least enquiry as to his character? I told you that when that man wrote to you for your consent—he was so scrupulous, you know, he would do nothing without your consent—I told you that I disliked him—that I distrusted him—that I could never be happy with him, and yet you put me aside as if I were not worthy of a moment’s consideration—you put my opinion aside and urged on my poor mother to make her appeal to me, the consequences of which killed her. With all that fresh in your mind—with some knowledge at least of what my sufferings for that horrible year must have been—feeling my life ruined—linked for ever to that man’s handcuffs—in spite of all this you can still question my right to choose for myself—you can still insult both me and the man whom I have promised to marry! That being so we would do well not to talk any further on this topic.”

She walked out of the room, leaving him still in his chair, his head set square upon his shoulders and his lips tight shut. He allowed her to go without a word from him. The truth was that she had given him a surprise and a shock. Never once had she accused him during the year of having failed to do his duty as a father in protecting her from the possibility of such a calamity as had befallen her. Never once had she referred to his persistence in urging her to marry Marcus Blaydon; so that he had come to fancy, first, that she had forgotten this circumstance, and, later on, that he had been all too ready to condemn himself for the part he had taken in insisting on her marrying that man. Whatever slight qualms he may have felt during the days of the man’s trial, when the infernally sympathetic newspapers were referring to his daughter as a victim, and pointing their usual moral in the direction of the necessity there was for fathers to take a stricter view of their duties as the protectors of their daughters from the schemes of adventurers—whatever qualms he may have felt about this time at the thought that, but for his persistence and his daughter’s sense of duty, Priscilla might never have been subjected to such an ordeal, had long ago waned, and he had come to think of himself once again as a model father. The thought that his daughter was about to make what worldly people would call a brilliant match, quite without his assistance, was displeasing to him. Still, he might have got over his chagrin and given his consent; but that long speech of hers had taken his breath away. It had left him staring at the tablecloth and absolutely dumfounded.

She had clearly been having a little savings bank of grievances during the year, and now she had flung the result of her thrift in his face.

It was no wonder that he remained dumb.

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