Authors: Mary Burchell
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
GwYNETH lifted her wedding dress from the layers of tissue paper, and held it up for a moment of admiring inspection. She had refused to let Cranston unpack the box because it was absurd to let someone else have the thrill of taking one's wedding dress from its final wrappings. And now, as the cool, shining folds slid across her bare arms, she experienced a thrill that was more strangely moving than anything she had known for a long time.
Against the mildly expressed wishes of her father, Gwyneth had chosen this pinky-parchment shade, and now she was glad. No white could have had the warmth and graciousness of this lovely shade. Canon Vilner, a conventional man, had said:
"White is the only right choice for a bride, my dear. White for virginity."
At the time, Gwyneth had wondered with a fearful curiosity what her father would have done if she had told him:
"Then, judged by that standard, I have no right to wear it."
But one never said things like that to Canon Vilner, of course. Indeed, one tried very hard not even to think of them. Because all that was so far back in the past, and if one held the page down very firmly there was no need to read again the lines which fate had written in the book of one's life.
Gwyneth shivered slightly in spite of the warm wind blowing in through the open window. It was strange and disturbing that memory could play such malicious tricks, so that even with her hand on her wedding dress—even with the image of Van so clear in her heart—she could not keep her thoughts from turning to those other days, so much better forgotten.
There was a light tap on the half-open door just then and her mother came into the room.
"Cranston said your dress had come. Dear me, Gwyneth, how really charming! You were quite right to choose that shade. And the veil? Yes, that's right too. It has a wonderfully gracious effect. Evremonde is a real artist in these matters."
"Yes," Gwyneth agreed, and that was all. Her mother often had the effect of making her reduce her conversation to monosyllables, for they had so little in common that they had remained strangers all their lives. And in spite of the fact that mother—with the exception of Aunt Eleanor—was the only person alive who knew the full story of that dark patch in Gwyneth's life.
Perhaps that was really half the trouble. Mother knew too much about her. She never said a word of it, she never even looked the faintest bit significant, for that was not Mother's way. But it was like living forever surrounded by mirrors—mirrors which reflected the past as well as the present.
One of the loveliest things about marrying Van and going right away with him was that he knew nothing about all that. One couldn't even imagine his knowing. It was a heavenly, comforting thought. When she was with him the page was turned down, and it stayed down.
Her mother, having inspected the dress and veil from every angle, turned now to the girl who was to wear them.
"I'm glad Van is so tall and distinguished. Nothing looks worse than an insignificant bridegroom beside a striking bride—and you will be that, Gwyneth, for you're a good-looking girl, thank heaven. I shouldn't have taken a tenth of the trouble I have with you if you'd been plain."
Gwyneth smiled slightly in tribute to this supposed pleasantry. But she knew it was nothing less than the cold, brutal truth. Her mother touched nothing that would not be worth touching. Self-interest ruled every action of her life with an ice-cold rod.
Gvv^neth sometimes wondered how the studious, conventional man who was her father had ever come to marry her worldly mother.
"My dear, it's extraordinary that even at your age you are still perfectly capable of going off into a day-dream. The faintly irritated tone of her mother's really beautiful voice recalled Gwyneth suddenly to the fact that her thoughts had been very far away.
"I'm sorry, Mother. There's such a lot to think about just now. What were you saying?"
"I was speaking about your Aunt Eleanor."
No one could have told from Gwyneth's calm expression that the very name gave her an unspeakably disagreeable thrill.
"She has decided to come to the wedding, after all. Very tiresome of her and quite tactless, I consider, but there it is. We can't alter her decision and it's always best to accept disagreeable necessities with good grace. That's not Christianity, as your father supposes, but common sense."
"I suppose you mean she is staying here?" Gwyneth's voice was cold and a little expressionless.
"Of course. Where else would she stay? That's what I was saying. She is arriving this afternoon."
"Is she?'* Gwyneth steeled herself to accept even that quietly.
"You'll have to go and fetch her from the station, my
dear. Just a moment " Like an accomplished animal
trainer, Mrs. Vilner anticipated to a nicety the detail that would make her daughter wince angrily, and she provided for it. "It can't possibly be helped. Your father has the other car. Sanders is driving him over to Chirley this afternoon. In fact, they have gone already. So there is no one else to send down with the httle car except you."
"We could send a hired car for her." Gwyneth's voice quivered with feeling which was, however, well under control.
"And have her arrive thinking she had been slighted?" Mrs. Vilner shook her head and smiled faintly. "Most unwise. Don't you think so?"
Gwyneth looked at her mother. Her dark blue eyes held both pain and fear, but her mother's eyes remained cool and green and opaque. After a moment Gwyneth said:
"No doubt you're right. It's only a quarter of an hour's drive anyway. What time is her train?"
"The five-twenty. And there is no need to worry. She's as discreet as she is objectionable. You can talk of the weather and your wedding presents. She won't mention anything else."
And with this assurance, Mrs. Vilner went out of the room.
When her mother had gone, closing the door behind her, Gwyneth crossed over to the open window and sat down on the seat there. The scent of grass and clover drifted up
from the fields beyond the garden, and the heavy hum of a bee nearby was the only sound disturbing the silence.
So peaceful—so beautiful—so soothing.
Damn Aunt Eleanor!—and the shattering memories she brought with her. Why did she have to come all the way from Scotland to disturb the peace of one's wedding day? Why was it not possible to go to Van with a tranquil mind and memory laid to sleep? Mother didn't understand, of course. She called it a disagreeable necessity and left it at that.
Gwyneth leant her head back against the shutter and closed her eyes—and immediately time slipped away. It was more than six years ago, and a day just like this. Only she was not in her bedroom, but in the garden, and a man's arms were round her.
Not Van's arms—that was what seemed so strange now. Another man had held her in his arms and she had thought it the most wonderful thing in the world—^then.
She had been only seventeen, to be sure—^very little more than a child. With something like pity and the faintest touch of contempt, she could see herself now as she had been then. Romantic, passionately affectionate, seeking, almost unknowingly, for someone on whom to lavish her feelings.
There had not been a sister or brother to act as that blessed safety valve which all only children lack, and she would never have thought of either her father or her mother as a suitable confidant. Her father was too much wrapped up in his seeking after truth and learning. Her mother was too much wrapped up in herself.
In any case, at this dangerous period, they were both away on a world tour. Aunt Eleanor had come to rule in their stead over Gwyneth's destiny.
Aunt Eleanor, Canon Vilner's only sister, was, like her brother, a seeker after truth. Unlike him, she considered she had found it, and that very few other people had. This put anyone as young as Gwyneth at a serious disadvantage. She could not accept Aunt Eleanor's rather narrow, harsh ideas of truth and morality, and therefore she was wrong. To Aunt Eleanor there were no two ways about it—sither you agreed with her or you were wrong.
In her way she was fond of Gwyneth. Certainly she
believed that she was, for she would have considered it definitely sinful not to be fond of her only brother's only child. But she had really not the faintest interest or understanding with regard to her niece's immature thoughts and hopes and affections.
It was a pity that Terence Muirkirk should have chosen to spend that summer sketching in the district. Even now, Gwyneth could remember the thrill of that first afternoon, when she came upon him in the glade down by the river, where she used to play as a child.
He had just glanced up from his sketching to smile at her and say:
"Hello. Does this glade belong to you?'*
"Very nearly," Gwyneth had told him, because no one ever came there except herself. And she had stood there looking at him, almost afraid to go nearer.
"And do you change people into trees if they trespass here?" he wanted to know, as he reached for a tube of paint which had fallen on the grass.
"No," Gwyneth said, but she had gone nearer then, and she thought what a big, straight, handsome tree he would have made. She had never seen quite such blue eyes or quite such black hair, and she was fascinated by the ripple of muscle under the brown skin of his bare arm. Indeed, she was distinctly aware of a desire to put out her hand and touch his warm, tanned arm, just where the sleeve ot his shirt was rolled above his elbow.
"Well, what do you do to trespassers in your magic glade?" he asked presently, still without leaving his work.
"I don't do anything to them." She sat down on the grass and looked at him with grave, transparent interest. "I see so few visitors that I'm glad when one comes."
He glanced up again then, to give her a smile that literally dazzled her.
"You don't want to chop their heads off, or anything like that?
"Oh no. May I look at what you're doing please?'*
"You may." He leant a little away from his work, so that she could come, and she bent forward until her soft, golden-brown hair just touched his bare arm. She didn't know about that until he told her afterwards that that was the moment when he fell in love with her. She only knew
that, as she seriously examined the sketch, his voice said softly, just above her head:
"I never saw hair with so much sunshine caught in ito Are you really not a little enchanted princess?"
More than six years ago! Of course one was so thrilled by such speeches at that age. Gwyneth opened her eyes and looked round the room again.
She didn't see her wedding dress this time. She saw only the room where she had lain through hot summer nights, watching a heavy golden moon move slowly across the sky. By day she wandered in the woods and along the river bank, accompanied—so Aunt Eleanor believe4—only by her dog and a copy of Bacon's essays, which she was supposed to read as a holiday task.
But Gwyneth's dog ran just where he pleased, and Bacon's essays remained almost unopened. For Terry walked at her side, or lay sometimes with his head in her lap, while he taught her very much more about love than was to be found in Bacon's essay on marriage.
They were happy, feverish, bewildering days and unhappy, feverish, bewildering nights, because every hour spent away from Terry was an hour wasted.
When he told her she would have to steal away with him secretly if they were ever to marry and be together, she believed him, and she thought she had found perfect joy at last.
He was right, of course—her parents would never dream of letting her marry a penniless artist before she was out of her teens. But when the deed was accomplished, and there was nothing to gain by withholding their approval—then her parents would become resigned to facts and discover for themselves how enchanting Terry was.
In this very room she had packed her things for the tragi-romantic adventure. On that table by her bed she had left the silly, melodramatic little note for Aunt Eleanor. And then she had stolen down the stairs, out into the warm, moonlit night, to where Terry was waiting for her in the deep patch of shadow at the end of the drive.
Two weeks—three weeks—was that really all the time it had taken to disillusion her completely? No, perhaps a few frightened hopes had lingered even after that, or else the final, shattering discovery could scarcely have hurt so much.
The first suspicion came with that horrid scene when he was so angry at discovering she had come without her jewellery. It had seemed to her such a small point. She could do without jewellery—even without the few very good pieces left to her by her grandmother, and of which she v/as genuinely fond.
But Terry had been furious—called her a stupid, unworldly little thing. And even though she pointed out that later on, when they were reconciled with her parents, she could easily collect her jewellery again, he remained un-moUified. It was so difficult to imagine why. The whole thing seemed so unnecessary. And she was not entirely comforted by the passionate, disturbing scene of reconciliation which came later.
She loved him, of course. She wanted to be his. But there were some things about Terry's love-making which shocked and even horrified her. Perhaps it was a little because she scarcely felt married to him. That hurried business at the register office, with a lie about her age and a few half-truths about other particulars, was sadly unlike a wedding as she knew the meaning of the word.
Still, she must try to look at these things in a more sophisticated way, as Terry said. It was absurd to argue everything from the childish premises which he seemed to find now more irritating than endearing.
So Gwyneth struggled on through the wretched weeks, trying not to see that it was disillusionment, not knowledge, which was growing upon her, and that the romantic dream had passed into a sordid awakening.
Gwyneth got up suddenly and, crossing the room, began to move some of the things on her dressing-table. There was nothing there which needed re-arranging really, but even now she could not bear to sit still while her mind went over that final scene.