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In June, when Susan came down from Town for her niece’s christening, accompanied by James Perry, things took a bizarre turn. The long and the short of it was that he and Mary fell in love.
When he arrived, soberly apparelled beside Susan in pink quilted satin, he flung down his hat and held out his arms, crushing Mary to his breast in brotherly fashion.
“Why, lassie, you found your way home.”
From that instant, the sympathy which had taken root at the Lenten masque more than two years ago, burgeoned into bud. Mary could not describe or excuse the sweet madness which swept over her at beholding him. That species of passion created an incandescent sphere of its own, immobilising reason. Nevertheless, it was the soul of sanity after the machinations of Lord Berkeley.
“You were kindness itself,” Mary recalled. “When I was in desperate want of a friend, you were there and never looked for a single favour in return.”
“Well, I am now come to make a wee claim on your hospitality. Och, but you are tired and lily-pale.”
The Scots lawyer saluted Mrs Cole and Ann with jocular warmth. Anxious for something to do, Susannah put on the kettle to boil and brought out the new Coalport teapot which had been bought for a song at a warehouse on the quay dealing in slightly imperfect goods from the Black Country. Mary could not tell what their guest made of it all, but he graciously sat beside her on the horsehair sofa and interested himself in the bundle of rags she had cut into strips ready for knotting on to a canvas backing for a rug, a commonplace craft in households like theirs which did not merit the attention he paid it. Perhaps he would have preferred to see her embroidering a sampler, as the fine ladies did, or submerged in a volume of plangent verse on Ettrick’s fair forest and the bloody braes of Yarrow. For him, Mary wished she could boast these refinements. Not that he had never tasted poverty, but he strongly aspired to make a name for himself among the nation’s rulers by dint of hard work and a finely-tooled brain.
James Perry put up at The Bell Inn for five days and visited the Coles every day. He filled the compact sitting room in Southgate Street with his exuberance, spreading strongly-veined hands to emphasise a theme. He seemed quite at home among them, though Mary could not think they provided a stimulus for a man of his vigorous intellect. Away from his London chambers, the brusque Scottish accent broadened and was tempered by a blend of roguishness and the lilting sensitivity of the Border poets. He sang The Flowers of the Forest in a resonant baritone voice. He made his audience yearn for other times and places. He threw open new landscapes, mountains and moors and silver-blue lochs, that men fought and died for, so that Mary mourned the Jacobites’ lost cause, Catholics and Pretenders all. She lived for his smile, for the whimsical eyes that were like cairngorm stones seen through clear water and which occasionally startled hers with a burning tenderness. In her innocence, she longed to express the most wholesome and natural affection towards him which circumstances denied. No thought of disloyalty entered her head.
Breaking with tradition, the smallest Farren was christened at St Mary de Crypt whose parish boundaries encompassed that part of Southgate Street where they now lived. She was named Susannah Perry after her grandmother and her godfather who generously bought her a silver porringer at Mayer’s shop.
It was the hottest Whitsuntide any of them could remember and they took a picnic and spread themselves upon College Green in the lea of the Abbey. Sunlight saturated the chestnut leaves and the sugar-cone blossoms scarcely stirred. Henry and Liam romped with a bobbin and string. The baby rebelled against the heat and nothing would soothe her but that Granny should wheel her in her basket perambulator about the Green. Susan languished in the shade of a parasol and regaled Ann and Will and Billy with her adventures at Bagnigge Wells on May Day. James Perry, meanwhile, strove to elucidate the tangled plot of a Restoration comedy which had amused him in London. Mary was charmed by the hypnotic rhythm of the sentences. He had been watchful of the quartet with their heads together and presently proposed that he and Mary take refuge in the cool of the Abbey.
They walked in silence about the stately tombs decked with painted effigies of the dead, rapt in the transcendent calm of space and time. Upon reaching the Lady Chapel, Perry sought Mary’s hand and fastened it in his own. She could feel a strong pulse beating there and a quicksilver shock flowed through her. He was half-smiling, half-grave.
“I’ve tried my damnedest to be alone with you and have not succeeded until now. Often, while I have been sporting the oak, you have entered my thoughts and sometimes I have been tormented by the conviction that you were unhappy. Thankfully, I see it is not so.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Mary in dismay. “You must not think…”
Before she had done faltering, he stifled her mouth with a most unbrotherly kiss. Her blood fizzed as though from potent cider fumes and she found herself incapable of resistance. He was too honest, when it was done, to apologise for the liberty and she was distressed to have responded as she did.
“We must not. I…I can never care for you...only as an acquaintance.”
At that, he burst into laughter. “Then I shall earnestly hope to be here when you have a change of heart! I’m persuaded I have not imagined those pensive glances, the tender affinity.”
In panic, Mary gabbled a swarm of objections.
“You’re too honourable a man to be dallying,” she said, “and there can be no proper connection between the likes of you and me. You have a promising career ahead of you and one day you’ll be rich and much talked of in high places. I should be the most miserable of beings when you learned to despise me for my want of education.”
He sat down in a pew and patiently drew her down beside him.
“You will always be beautiful. When you are old and the smiling and suffering have etched themselves upon your countenance, your spirit will shine through. Any man must pay homage to that. Don’t you think I have wrestled with doubts – yes, I must be frank – but, lassie, I love you sore. There is no other woman I want for my wife. You are the inspiration of all my endeavours.”
Oh James, my dearest, my truest friend, Mary thought wildly, if only I could pour out the whole sorry tale to you. If only I were free! Had you been silent, I could have woven you into the texture of my life, seen you, heard you, touched the quick of you, watched you come and go. God knows I would willingly have conquered that other drive for togetherness. Now it is impossible. You will hate me for rejecting you so cruelly.
The saints in the gem-bright windows did not stir. The brass cross on the altar gleamed. “Sir, I cannot marry you,” she told him, jumping up. “It is written in the stars. I do not…cannot... love you.”
She hadn’t gone more than two paces when he caught her wrist and swung her round, his fine eyes brilliant with pained indignation. “You lie! Why are you lying when you were born so honest?”
In a forced whisper, she urged him to desist lest this unseemly scene be remarked.
“You owe me an answer.”
“Oh, sir, let me go,” she implored him. “I mustn’t see you again. Ever!”
She ran out through the cloisters, into the blinding sunshine, across the daisy-flecked green, not stopping to look for the others. Hardly caring where her feet led, she hurried up Westgate, turned the corner and, gaining Ann’s door, sought the key under the pelargonium pot. Shaking uncontrollably, she stabbed it into the keyhole and, in the refuge of the cottage, wept and wept and inveighed against God for denying her the love of a good man and her one chance of contentment. She had tried to do what was right, and not out of piety, but because she trusted that all would turn out for the best if she stuck to the faith. Her reward had been humiliation and heartache and a forbidden taste of heaven. To preserve truth and virtue, she had had to lie.
When her mother and sisters returned with the children, sticky and begrimed from twists of barley sugar, she told them she had a bad headache. It was a relief to see no gentleman, except Will, step into the room.
“Youm a touch of the sun, my girl,” Mrs Cole pronounced. “It’s hot as mustard out there, spoiling for a storm an’ no mistake. The poor bairn’s been bawling all the way home. She’s a good pair of lungs, I’ll say that.”
“James was put about by your abrupt departure and hopes he has not offended you,” said Susan in a quizzical way. “Indeed, I do not know why he should think so, for a more sweet-mannered fellow you could not wish to meet.”
Mrs Cole sent her youngest daughter to bed with a powder. The noise outside and below drummed in her skull and Mary’s thoughts charged about like a frenzied stallion. Not one of Adam’s race was worth this anguish, she told herself, but her heart would not assent to the proposition.
At cock crow, she set to and made the cottage ship-shape, swept out the cobwebs and polished the brasses, took a vinegar solution and a patch of soft hide and made the windows gleam, pegged out the linen and baked a fresh loaf, driving herself as hard as she might towards exhaustion. Mrs Cole said: “You’re brainsick. You’ll have a relapse. Come, put your feet up and drink this sweet tea.” When the rap came on the door and a slanted shadow fell across the sunlit aperture, she was half-way upstairs and scrambled to the top in a jiffy, holding her breath. Her mother came bustling up the lower steps after her, accosting her through the banister rail in an urgent whisper.
“Mary, come down. There’s that likely Mr Perry enquiring for you.”
Her beleaguered offspring was so stiff with apprehension she could hardly stammer a reply. What did it mean? What did they want of her? Surely they knew she could not possibly entertain his advances.
“No, Mother, I cannot. Give him my respects...make some apology.”
Mary heard her address him in fawning tones. She could not make out his reply. It must have been his accessible character and professional standing that made her mother so anxious not to displease him. Sneaking a glance into Bell Lane, Mary spied the crown of Susan’s Leghorn hat bobbing up and down beside his tall silk one and the sight smote her with jealousy. Inhaling deeply, she sank against the wall and thanked Heaven for deliverance when the baby set up a wail and brought her very material needs to the attention of the household.
The Widow Cole’s prognostics proved ill-founded and the fair weather continued to hold. At eventide, Mary escaped from the buzz and strife of Southgate and went down to the meadows where Hathaway’s sheep were grazing. They were fertile pastures on the banks of the Severn, flooded once or twice a year which deposited a silt that kept the soil rich. She’d heard Hathaway say that come hay-making, he could crop near two tons an acre and make a tidy fortune selling it to the bargees going up to the mines and the ironworks of Shropshire where teams of horses were employed day and night in so great a number that the local farms could not keep them supplied with fodder. The lambs were long-weaned and, far from being the frisky sprigs they’d been in the spring, would soon be ready for their first shearing. Their throats were daubed with a band of reddle which Hathaway swore kept foxes at bay.
Solitude. Breezes swelled the surface of Mary’s white dimity frock and carried wispy seeds to new ground. She picked a nosegay of campions, ox-eye daisies and coltsfoot and knelt and bound them with plaited stalks. Across the fields, the church clocks chimed seven in happy disunion.
Just then, she jumped. The dandelions’ silky spheres were breaking all around her and a long shadow fell across the grass. Turning, she gasped to see James standing there, his back to the sun, a cravatless shirt pulling loose from his nankeen breeches in Bohemian disarray.
“How you startled me!”
“If I’d not taken you unawares, you’d have run away.” He squatted down on his haunches beside her. “Hinny, I’m away to the smoke in the morn.”
“Oh.” Her numb fingers could work the grasses no more. They were slipping undone.
“Shall you wish me Godspeed, then?”
He was leaving. Their paths were unlikely to converge again since Mary was forbidden to socialise with Susan in Town. She did not want to remain unforgiven.
“I shall be sad without you.”
“Shall you?” he said hopefully. “Oh Mary, let me not go without hope we’ll be wed.”
Her heart lurched; her tongue prevaricated. “I’ll love you for ever and ever,” she breathed. And if lying was subversive, so was speaking the truth. She melted into his embrace, oxtering, he called it in his quaint Scottish way, and drowned in the elemental rightness of loving. How pale and trite were Lord Berkeley’s effusions, how powerless to induce the vanquishing ecstasy which dissolved bone and tissue, reason and caution. Nature had plotted the sweetest of ironies to make Mary the fool of her own lofty ideals.
But she did not care. She could no longer distinguish between truth and falsehood. Let me, she thought helplessly, have one memory of pure love as a keepsake against the disgrace of treating with Berkeley.
“Love me. Show me what it is like to be loved.”
“Nay, hinny,” Perry said thickly, “I’ll not tumble you here among the weeds like some quean from a byre. You are roses and lilies and all things fair.”
“And a butcher’s daughter,” she reminded him, for that was the only weapon to hand against his romanticism, the catches of airs that had spun a mystique around maidenhood and those echoes of Calvin from which no true Scot could find permanent sanctuary. Could he have loved anyone as humble as Mary had he not made her epitomise all the virtues?
“I care naught for that. You shall be the chiefest jewel in my crown. Always wear white as you are doing today.”
Shamelessly, there on the towpath, under the pendent willows, she kissed him with an ardour no innocent should have dared to demonstrate. Her racing blood matched the sweep of the tide, bringing cutters upstream into port from all points of the compass, and fishing smacks attended by flurries of excitable gulls. Limpet-like, she clung to him, and then it was he who would not release her. She was conscious of the smell of his maleness beneath the starched shirt, and the pulse’s fluttering beat beneath the Adam’s apple.
“Come, then,” he relented, “and we’ll plight our troth as soon as maybe.”
Glancing over his shoulder, he took Mary by the hand and led her to a ramshackle boathouse in the curve of the river which, unexpectedly, sheltered a clinker-built wherry such as she’d seen used on the Thames to ferry passengers from one bank to the other. The door had a bolt, but no padlock and chain and needed no forcing to let them inside. There, in the gloom, they were close and secure, cradled in the bobbing boat on a bed of tarpaulins covered by Mary’s shawl, a soft lapping noise in the background. She whimpered and wept and the splintered fire of a ripening sunset came through a crack in the warped timbers, flooded the earth-coloured water and limned darting reflections on the cobwebbed rafters above.
James wiped her wet temples on the ruff of his sleeve. “Wisht, hinny, it’ll nae pain you so next time.”
But it wasn’t physical pain that brought tears to the surface, it was the other kind, the having and not having, the saying goodbye and turning one’s back on the prospect of happiness.
“Come to London with me tomorrow,” he urged. “We’ll bribe a plump bishop for a special licence and be married at once! I’m thinking your mother wouldn’t object to a swack lawyer for a son-in-law, and Farren will tell you you could do a deal worse.”
Choking, Mary shook her head. “You must go back to your books and I to my lambs.”
“But what nonsense is this?” he asked in alarm, guiding her by the chin to look into his eyes. “Dare to say you don’t love me now. I defy you to do it.”
“I love you,” she sobbed, “but you must take silk and become a great man. You cannot support a wife and children at this stage without spoiling your career.”
“I’m a dab hand with my pen, I’ll have you know, Mary. With you at my side, I’ll soar to the gods!”
“I won’t marry you. Don’t entreat me so.”
“Shall you wait for me, then, till I’m through with my studies?”
“You do not know what you ask. Let this be a special memory to keep in your heart.”
“A memory! Faith, what is it you want?”
“James, I can never be your wife!” she cried. And she blurted out the story of her commitment to Berkeley who had saved her sister from the spunging-house, then buried her head in her knees. She did not tell him of Susan’s part in the plot, she was so ashamed. Whatever he might have suspected of her sister, Perry infrequently attended the parties at Charles Street and was unaware that Mr Turnour was a fiction.
Now he was wild with anger; the grip of his hands upon her shoulders was like scorching bruises.
“You peddled your virtue, you who were so fine and chaste when your sister went astray?”
“But he ruined poor Will and the babes needed food.”
“By God, let me get my hands on the blackguard! I’ll horsewhip him within an inch of his life! Mary, you must leave him, and at once, and be damned to his threats! He’s taken his joy of you, what more can he demand?”
“I tell you I cannot!”
Beneath the fury with Berkeley, Mary was sure that Perry despised her for being weak and spineless. He could not be expected to understand just how dependent and circumscribed was the lot of women, how there was her family to consider. Maybe she was beginning to despise herself for clinging to those principles which were forcing her to reject and disappoint the love of a lifetime.
“Why can you not? What is it you fear?”
Weeping desperately now, she hoisted the chain beneath her modest bodice and showed him the ring where the crucifix should have been.
“Because,” she said softly, “he is my husband.”