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BREAKING THE NEWS
Sir Marmaduke talked openly of this plan of going to Canterbury with Editha de Chavasse, mentioning the following Friday as the most likely date for his voyage.
Full of joy she brought the welcome news to her lover that same evening; nor had she cause to regret then her ready acquiescence to his wishes. He was full of tenderness then, of gentle discretion in his caresses, showing the utmost respect to his future princess. He talked less of his passion and more of his plans, in which now she would have her full share. He confided some of his schemes to her: they were somewhat vague and not easy to understand, but the manner in which he put them before her, made them seem wonderfully noble and selfless.
In a measure this evening--so calm and peaceful in contrast to the turbulence of the other night--marked one of the great crises in the history of her love. Even when she heard that Fate itself was conspiring to help on the clandestine marriage by causing Sir Marmaduke and Mistress de Chavasse to absent themselves at a most opportune moment, she had resolved to break the news to her lover of her own immense wealth.
Of this he was still in total ignorance. One or two innocent remarks which he had let fall at different times convinced her of that. Nor was this ignorance of his to be wondered at: he saw no one in or about the village except the old Quakeress and Adam Lambert with whom he lodged. The woman was deaf and uncommunicative, whilst there seemed to be some sort of tacit enmity against the foreigner, latent in the mind of the blacksmith. It was, therefore, quite natural that he should suppose her no whit less poor than Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse or the other neighboring Kentish squires whose impecuniousness was too blatant a fact to be unknown even to a stranger in the land.
Sue, therefore, was eagerly looking forward to the happy moment when she would explain to her prince that her share in the wonderful enterprise which he always vaguely spoke of as his "great work" would not merely be one of impassiveness. Where he could give the benefit of his personality, his eloquence, his knowledge of men and things, she could add the weight of her wealth.
Of course she was very, very young, but already from him she had realized that it is impossible even to regenerate mankind and give it political and religious freedom without the help of money.
Prince Amédé d'Orléans himself was passing rich: the fact that he chose to hide in a lonely English village and to live as a poor man would live, was only a part of his schemes. For the moment, too, owing to that ever-present vengefulness of the King of France, his estates and revenues were under sequestration. All this Sue understood full well, and it added quite considerably to her joy to think that soon she could relieve the patriot and hero from penury, and that the news that she could do so would be a glad surprise for him.
Nor must Lady Sue Aldmarshe on this account be condemned for an ignorant or a vain fool. Though she was close on twenty-one years of age, she had had absolutely no experience of the world or of mankind: all she knew of either had been conceived in the imaginings of her own romantic brain.
Her entire childhood, her youth and maidenhood had gone by in silent and fanciful dreamings, whilst one of the greatest conflicts the world had ever known was raging between men of the same kith and the same blood. The education of women--even of those of rank and wealth--was avowedly upon a very simple plan. Most of the noble ladies of that time knew not how to spell--most of them were content to let the world go by them, without giving it thought or care, others had accomplished prodigies of valor, of heroism, aye! and of determination to help their brothers, husbands, fathers during the worst periods of the civil war.
But Sue had been too young when these same prodigies were being accomplished, and her father died before she had reached the age when she could take an active part in the great questions of the day. A mother she had never known, she had no brothers and sisters. A brief time under the care of an old aunt and a duenna in a remote Surrey village, and her stay at Pegwell Court under Sir Marmaduke's guardianship, was all that she had ever seen of life.
Prince Amédé d'Orléans was the embodiment of all her dreams--or nearly so! The real hero of her dreams had been handsomer, and also more gentle and more trusting, but on the whole, he had not been one whit more romantic in his personality and his doings.
The manner in which he received the news that unbeknown to him, he had been wooing one of the richest brides in the land, was characteristic of him. He seemed boundlessly disappointed.
It was a beautiful clear night and she could see his face quite distinctly, and could note how its former happy expression was marred suddenly by a look of sorrow. He owned to being disappointed. He had loved the idea, so he explained, of taking her to him, just as she was, beautiful beyond compare, but penniless--having only her exquisite self to give.
Oh! the joy after that of coaxing him back to smiles! the pride of proving herself his Egeria for the nonce, teaching him how to look upon wealth merely as a means for attaining his great ends, for continuing his great work.
It had been perhaps the happiest evening in her short life of love.
For that day at Dover now only seemed a dream. The hurried tramp to the main road in a torrent of pouring rain: the long drive in the stuffy chaise, the arrival just in time for the brief--very brief--ceremony in the dark church, with the clergyman in a plain black gown muttering unintelligible words, and the local verger and the church cleaner acting as the witnesses to her marriage.
How differently had she conceived that great, that wonderful day, the turning point of a maiden's life. Music, flowers, beautiful gowns and sweet scents filling the air! the sunlight peeping gold, red, purple or blue through the glass windows of some exquisite cathedral! The bridegroom arrayed in white, full of joy and pride, she the bride with a veil of filmy lace falling over her face to hide the happy blushes!
It was a beautiful dream, and the reality was so very, very different.
A dark little country church, with the plaster peeling off the walls! the drone of a bewhiskered, bald-headed parson being the sole music which greeted her ears. The rain beating against the broken window-panes, through which icy cold draughts of damp air reached her shoulders and caused her to shiver beneath her kerchief. She wore her pretty dove-colored gown, but it was not new nor had she a veil over her face, only a straw hat such as countrywomen wore, for though she was an heiress and passing rich, her guardian did but ill provide her with smart clothing.
And the bridegroom?
He had been waiting for her inside the church, and seemed impatient when she arrived. No one had helped her to alight from the rickety chaise, and she had to run in the pouring rain, through the miserable and deserted churchyard.
His face seemed to scowl as she finally stood up beside him, in front of that black-gowned man, who was to tie between them the sacred and irrevocable knot of matrimony. His hand had perceptibly trembled when he slipped the ring on her finger, whilst she felt that her own was irresponsive and icy cold.
She tried to speak the fateful "I will!" buoyantly and firmly, but somehow--owing to the cold, mayhap--the two little words almost died down in her throat.
Aye! it had all been very gloomy, and inexpressibly sad. The ceremony--the dear, sweet, sacred ceremony which was to give her wholly to him, him unreservedly to her--was mumbled and hurried through in less than ten minutes.
Her bridegroom said not a word. Together they went into the tiny vestry and she was told to sign her name in a big book, which the bald-headed parson held open before her.
The prince also signed his name, and then kissed her on the forehead.
The clergyman also shook hands and it was all over.
She understood that she had been married by a special license, and that she was now legally and irretrievably the wife of Amédé Henri, Prince d'Orléans, de Bourgogne and several other places and dependencies abroad.
She also understood from what the bald-headed clergyman had spoken when he stood before them in the church and read the marriage service that she as the wife owed obedience to her husband in all things, for she had solemnly sworn so to do. She herself, body and soul and mind, her goods and chattels, her wealth and all belongings were from henceforth the property of her husband.
Yes, she had sworn to all that, willingly, and there was no going back on that, now or ever!
But, oh! how she wished it had been different!
Afterwards, when in the privacy of her own little room at Acol Court, she thought over the whole of that long and dismal day, she oft found herself wondering what it was through it all that had seemed so terrifying to her, so strange, so unreal.
Something had struck her as weird: something which she could not then define; but she was quite sure that it was not merely the unusual chilliness of that rainy summer's day, which had caused her to tremble so, when--in the vestry--her husband had taken her hand and kissed her.
She had then looked into his face, which--though the vestry was but ill lighted by a tiny very dusty window--she had never seen quite so clearly before, and then it was that that amazing sense of something awful and unreal had descended upon her like a clammy shroud.
He had very swiftly averted his own gaze from her, but she had seen something in his face which she did not understand, over which she had pondered ever since without coming to any solution of this terrible riddle.
She had pondered over it during that interminable journey back from Dover to Acol. Her husband had not even suggested accompanying her on her homeward way, nor did she ask him to do so. She did not even think it strange that he gave her no explanation of the reason why he should not return to his lodgings at Acol. She felt like a somnambulist, and wondered how soon she would wake and find herself in her small and uncomfortable bed at the Court.
The next day that feeling of unreality was still there; that sensation of mystery, of something supernatural which persistently haunted her.
One thing was quite sure; that all joy had gone out of her life. It was possible that love was still there--she did not know--she was too young to understand the complex sensations which suddenly had made a woman of her ... but it was a joyless love now: and all that she knew of a certainty about her own feelings at the present was that she hoped she would never have to gaze into her lover's face again ... and ... Heaven help her! ... that he might never touch her again with his lips.
Obedient to his behests--hurriedly spoken as she stepped into the chaise at Dover after the marriage ceremony--she had wandered out every evening beyond the ha-ha into the park, on the chance of meeting him.
The evenings now were soft and balmy after the rain: the air carried a pungent smell of dahlias and of oak-leaved geraniums to her nostrils, which helped her to throw off that miserable feeling of mental lassitude which had weighed her down ever since that fateful day at Dover. She walked slowly along, treading the young tendrils of the moss, watching with wistful eyes the fleecy clouds, as they appeared through the branches of the elms, scurrying swiftly out towards the sea ... out towards freedom.
But evening after evening passed away, and she saw no sign of him. She felt the futility, the humiliating uselessness of these nightly peregrinations in search of a man who seemed to have a hundred more desirable occupations than that of meeting his wife. But she had not the power to drift out towards freedom now. She obeyed mechanically because she must. She had sworn to obey and he had bidden her come and wait for him.
August yielded to September, the oak-leaved geraniums withered whilst from tangled bosquets the melancholy eyes of the Michaelmas daisies peeped out questioningly upon the coming autumn.
Then one evening his voice suddenly sounded close to her ear, causing her to utter a quickly-smothered cry. It had been the one dull day throughout this past glorious month, the night was dark and a warm drizzle had soaked through to her shoulders and wetted the bottom of her kirtle so that it hung heavy and dank round her ankles. He had come to her as usual from out the gloom, just as she was about to cross the little bridge which spanned the sunk fence.
She realized then, with one of those sudden quivers of her sensibilities, to which, alas! she had become so accustomed of late, that he had always met her thus in the gloom--always chosen nights when she could scarce see him distinctly, and this recollection still further enhanced that eerie feeling of terror which had assailed her since that fateful moment in the vestry.
But she tried to be natural and even gay with him, though at the first words of tender reproach with which she gently chided him for his prolonged absence, he broke into one of those passionate accesses of fury which had always frightened her, but now left her strangely cold and unresponsive.
Was the subtle change in him as well as in her? She could not say. Certain it is that, though his hands had sought hers in the darkness, and pressed them vehemently, when first they met he had not attempted to kiss her.
For this she was immeasurably grateful.
He was obviously constrained, and so was she, and when she opposed a cold silence to his outburst of passion, he immediately, and seemingly without any effort, changed his tone and talked more reasonably, even glibly of his work, which he said was awaiting him now in France.
Everything was ready there, he explained, for the great political propaganda which he had planned and which could be commenced immediately.
All that was needed now was the money. In what manner it would be needed and for what definite purpose he did not condescend to explain, nor did she care to ask. But she told him that she would be sole mistress of her fortune on the 2d of November, the date of her twenty-first birthday.
After that he spoke no more of money, but promised to meet her at regular intervals during the six weeks which would intervene until the great day when she would be free to proclaim her marriage and place herself unreservedly in the hands of her husband.
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