Authors: Mary Burchell
"I was wondering whether " She broke off, and then
started again. "You don't think that when two people marry there ought to be a sort of owning up to anything that went before?—So that you start clear, I mean.'*
"No, my dear, I don't!" Van's smile was dry and he spoke with great firmness. "I can imagine nothing more profitless and unpleasant than raking over old flirtations which should have been decently buried long ago. I don't doubt you had some, but I should hate to hear about them—I am quite jealous enough for that. And if I had found another woman interesting, years ago, I don't think it would make you any happier to hear about it."
"You think it's best just to put a line through one's past?"
"Without any question. Only don't make it sound quite
so lurid, Gwyn. I feel that nothing you or I are likely to have done quite merits the dramatic word *past'."
She was silent, and he glanced at her again, penetratingly, but not without a hint of amusement.
"My httle girl, are you really so troubled about this?"
Her mouth quivered slightly, because it was unusual for him to be so tender with her. She nodded.
"But there is not the slightest need. If you want my perfectly serious view, it is that even two people who love each other and marry have a right to some private thoughts and memories of their own. That's sound sense, my dear, as well as sound morality. In theory, I know some other man has probably kissed you before I did, but I can bear it. In practice, I should probably want to wring his neck if I knew who it was."
She wondered fascinatedly what he would want to do to a man with whom she had slept, and to whom she had borne a child. But she didn't interrupt him.
"It's enough for me that I know you're dear and sweet and decent. Within that framework, it's hardly my business what you did before I knew you. And I'm perfectly willing to expound my view to the aunt herself, if that would satisfy you," he added with a touch of grim amusement again.
She knew that here was her opportunity to say—^what about the things which might happen outside the framework of sweetness and decency, but the words simply wouldn't come.
With a quick movement, which she knew he would take for relief, she buried her face against him and held him very tightly. From his muttered exclamation she could tell he was unusually touched. She supposed it must seem strange and moving to him that his cool, self-confident fiancee should suddenly behave like this.
"Is it all right now?" his voice asked quietly, just above her head.
"Yes," Gwyneth whispered, and she could not have said herself whether her sigh was relieved or despairing.
She couldn't tell him. She couldn't! It would mean losing him, beyond question. The way he had spoken—slightly, but meaning it—of how he would feel towards a man who had only kissed her! No, she couldn't teU him. She
couldn't alter things. They had stood like this for five years. It was too late to alter them now. She didnt want to use the calm, hateful, selfish arguments which Mother advanced, but they were true—they were true.
"Anyway, it isn't arguments that have convinced me," Gwyneth told herself with ruthless determination to face the truth. "It's simply that I can't bear to lose Van. It may be selfish and heartless, or it may be common sense and all for the best—but I'm not really working that out in my heart, I know. I only know that I can't lose Van."
With a tremendous effort, she regained her normal expression and looked up to smile at him. He was relieved, she saw and—not for the first time—she was struck by the strangeness of the fact, that sometimes her slightest change of mood could affect him deeply.
In business, he was known as a stern, even a hard man, very difficult to move from any stand which he took up. She had once heard someone say of him dryly: "Steel is the right medium for Evander Onslie to deal in. It's like himself—clean and cold and unbreakable."
But when he was with her there was something warmer and more pliable about him. Only one was aware that, beneath the surface of his personal tenderness, there was that steely strength which his friends valued and his enemies feared.
"And now there are no more doubts?" he suggested, keeping his arm round her as they strolled on through the shrubbery.
"No, none at all.'* Gwyneth made that sound cool and confident again. She was beginning to re-adjust her mask once more—though oh, how she hated to have to wear it! For a little while she had supposed that the past was really dead and buried. It was living again now—^living in a very real sense. She could only pretend it was not there. But it was there, all the same.
That night, when she was almost ready for bed, her mother came and knocked on her door,
"Gwyneth, may I come in?"
She hesitated, and then said:
"Yes, if you want to."
The last person she really wanted to see was her mother,
but she supposed it was only natural that some sort ot discussion should take place.
Gwyneth had been seated at her dressing-table, and she turned now, with her arm over the back of the chair, her thick, bright hair falling forward a little over her forehead.
Mrs. Vilner didn't bother to sit down. She just asked baldly:
"Well, what did you tell him?"
"Nothing." Gwyneth said, just as curtly.
Gwyneth shook her head, and her mother gave a short, relieved laugh.
"You have more sense than I thought, Gwyneth."
"Or less conscience."
"It's the same thing," her mother replied cynically, and Gwyneth wondered again how her father had come to marry this strange and rather terrible woman.
"So you have decided, on balance, that what I did was right?" Mrs. Vilner said slowly. "I'm not perhaps so hateful and wicked, after aU."
"I haven't worked out whether it's right or not," Gwyneth told her coldly. "In fact, I'm probably being weak and selfish. But I—love Van. I can't give him up, arid it would mean doing that if—if he ever knew."
"It most certainly would. It is too much to ask any man to stand for—even a much more tolerant man than he is. If you want a child so much, I expect you and he will have one. You'd better leave it at that, and forget what is so much better forgotten. Good night, child." And her mother went out of the room.
Gwyneth looked after her for a moment, thinking how weirdly their conversation contrasted with the conversations which prospective brides were popularly supposed to have with their mothers.
She wished her mothef had not said that last thing— about having a child by Van and forgetting whatever had gone before. It was fanciful, perhaps, but somehow those words seemed the last base piece of disloyalty to the poor unwanted little boy who was to be definitely shut out of everything.
"Am I really a very wicked woman?" thought Gwyneth, with a slight shiver. And the dark blue eyes which looked
back at her from the mirror only asked the question again without answering it.
Chi the day of the wedding, weeks of fine weather broke in a violent thunderstorm.
While her mother and aunt spoke bitterly of the nuisance, and her father of his belief that it would clear up at any moment, Gwyneth thought: "How strange, there's always a storm on the important days of my life. If I were superstitious I should think it was unlucky."
But she was not superstitious, and she refused to think it was unlucky. She was marrying Van today and nothing else—or practically nothing else—mattered.
She was singularly unvain about her appearance in the ordinary way, but she knew she looked utterly beautiful in her wedding dress. Excitement had made her eyes very bright and her lips a deep, soft red. The faint, pinky glow of her dress seemed to repeat itself in the faint pink glow in her cheeks, and through the soft cloud of her veil gleamed her bright gold-brown hair.
As she came up the aisle on her father's arm, Van turned to watch her coming. He was completely at ease, cool and unperturbed by the people who stared at him, only waiting for her with a confident little smile of happiness that lightened his dark face indescribably.
Gwyneth had been extremely serious until then, but as her eyes met his, she smiled too. He looked so happy! What she was doing was right. To have killed so much happiness—and for what?—would have been stupid and cruel.
The voices of the choir soared upwards, clearly and sweetly. Distant thunder muttered a strangely effective accompaniment. In sonorous tones the Bishop demanded that anyone who knew just cause why they should not be joined together in holy matrimony should speak, or else (blessed words!) forever hold their peace.
In the deepest chamber of her memory, Gwyneth heard again a faint, childish wailing at those words. Then the fanciful moment passed. Van's ring was on her finger— bright, slender, infinitely dear.
She was his wife.
Afterwards, nearly everyone she had ever known came crowding round her. They wished her well, they compli-
mented her on her appearance, they kissed her and congratulated her. It was all very charming and gay.
Gwyneth listened to the steady, murmured chorus of approval, and was glad to see that it made her father very happy indeed. Yes—again she could tell herself with certainty, she had been right to do what she had done.
"You looked beautiful, darling." Her mother, always studiedly affectionate to her in public, smiled approval upon her, and Gwyneth smiled back at her with the requisite amount of daughterly feeling.
But it was at that moment that she was conscious of being extraordinarily tired and wishing she could be alone with Van.
At least twenty people told Gwyneth it was the nicest wedding" they remembered, and one added:
"There's something so natural and straightforward and happy about your story, Gwyneth. No upsets or crises or complications. Just a charming only daughter falling in love and getting married and living happily ever after."
Gwyneth acknowledged that with a smile and some pretty, conventional speech. But she took great care not to meet her mother's eyes at that moment.
If they could have known! If they could have known!
But they didn't know. No one knew. That was what made it possible to go on.
It was over at last. The last good wish had been expressed, the last good-bye said, and she and Van were alone in the car on their way to London, where they were to spend the night. The following day they were to fly over to Switzerland for the ten' days' honeymoon which was all Van could allow himself from the business just now. But in between came these iew hours' interval, for which they had made no plans and about which they felt deliciously free.
The thunderstorm had cleared the air, and now the late afternoon sunshine shed a soft, clear light on the surrounding country. The heavy stillness which had preceded the storm had gone, and there was the almost imperceptible but ceaseless movement of nature again.
Trees moved their branches and the leaves whispered together, the grass bent once more before the faintest breeze,
the birds twittered and sang and quarrelled, and occasionally a venturesome rabbit scurried through the hedge.
"It's heavenly, Van, isn't it?" she said impulsively.
"To have it all over, you mean?"
"Well—yes, that, too. I meant, really, that it's a wonderful evening, and it's good just to be alone together again."
"It's always good to be alone together," he assured her.
"Yes, of course." She leant back in her seat again and, taking off her hat, let the breeze stir the thick waves of her bright hair. "Were you nervous, Van?"
"At the wedding? Not in the least. Nor were you, were you?"
"No," Gwyneth said, and laughed slightly. "We weren't at all in character, were we? I ought to have whispered my responses shyly, and you ought to have fumbled with the ring and looked hot."
"Wouldn't you have hated that?"
"Yes, I should."
"And I should have hated it if you hadn't been cool and self-possessed. Your poise is one of the things I love about you." He said that almost casually, but she knew how deeply he meant it.
"I wasn't always like that, you know." She spoke remin-iscently. "Cool and self-possessed, I mean. At seventeen I think I was unusually ingenuous and—shy."
"At seventeen one often is, I imagine."
He laughed then with real amusement.
"Gwyneth dear, does it seem at all possible to you that I was ever ingenuous or shy?"
"No," Gwyr^eth had to admit, "it doesn't. And yet you must have been unsure of yourself once."
"I can't remember it," he confessed.
"Not as a child?"
Though he was looking ahead and smiling, he seemed to give that his serious attention.
"Sorry, Gwyneth. I was a self-sufficient little animal even then, I think. But I believe only children often are."
"I was an only child, but I was horribly dependent on other people's opinions and approval."
"And what changed you?"
That was spoken quite lightly, but she felt her throat contract at the thought of what had changed her.
"I just—grew up, I suppose," she said after a slight pause, but her tone was suddenly strangely hard and indifferent. I
"Which means that you had a rotten experience you would rather forget."
"Van!" The coolness of that took her breath away. "What makes you think that?" she asked in a rather small voice.
"The tone of your voice, my dear, and a little elementary psychology. Besides, I always knew it."
"What do you mean? Always knew it?"
"The first time I saw you."
"It isn't possible!"
"Oh yes. You were talking to young Courtenay. Or rather, he was talking to you—trying to intrigue you and fascinate you. You were perfectly polite and charming to him, but he never even touched the fringe of the real you. You were thinking "I've heard all this before, and I've found it bitterly hollow." And then I knew that if I were to win you, I should have to start from something entirely different. The usual light, romantic stuff was not for you. You wanted something—stark and convincing."