Total Reading time: 8 mins

Did the vicar just confirm her marriage to the stranger? Fanny winced, troubled. She had heard of how people were sometimes wrongly joined in mass Christmas weddings, but never had she thought it’d be her. Perplexed, she pulled at her chemise, pacing back and forth the antique Canterbury cathedral. Had Maxwell not chosen the triviality of tending a mare over their wedding ceremony, she wouldn’t be in this mess—married to a man who wasn’t him.

“You should understand that I couldn’t afford to lose the horse.” Maxwell reached out a hand to pacify her, emphasizing the mare’s pregnant state but she refused to listen. “There will be something to do about the wedding lines.”

Merry crowd wove around them. Young people like herself and Maxwell who couldn’t afford a day off work had chosen the public holiday to wed. Thus, the cathedral was overfilled and the vicar stretched beyond capacity. Had the priest even been compassionate and not reckless, thinking naught what became of his parishioners, Fanny would have agreed there was some hope. “Reverend Lewis said to trouble him no further.” She pulled the loosed ends of her gloves in anxiety. Her stranger-husband with chestnut skin and childly, bright eyes, stood aloof, unbothered about the ridiculosity of their situation. Knowing nearly everyone here in Canterbury, she wondered why he had chosen the solitude of marrying away from his home. She also wondered if only her understood the graveness of their union. “Tis the way you handle things, Maxwell. You act as though you don’t care a great deal.”

“Care? Oh, you think I don’t?”

“I do. But—” Maxwell dismissed her with a wave of his hand and rattled off how he had chosen to help her despite her shortcomings. Appalled by his directness and unabashed accusations, Fanny stifled the urge to whimper. She had known Maxwell to have a bad temper but hadn’t expected such public disgrace. Perhaps his decision to marry her was merely out of mercy. Afterall she was hardworking and would prove a subservient wife. “I will find my way.” She thanked him, cleaning her wet eyes with gloved hands and moved an appropriate inch towards the stranger to whom she was wed. He extended a compassionate hand, but Fanny curtseyed in a polite refusal. Though they were married, weren’t they still strangers? The stranger, Arthur, gave a warm smile and Fanny felt acutely aware that she was his wife. “Where is your errr, intended, sir?”

“She has left already.” He shrugged and whispered so only Fanny could hear him. “Ours was supposed to be an arrangement.”

Fanny walked with Arthur towards a vacant alley where he explained his situation. He needed to be married by his twenty-seventh birthday otherwise his inheritance would pass to relatives.

“You must think me quite irresponsible, but the circumstances of my life necessitated such actions.” He adjusted his cravat for a while too long before continuing. “I turn twenty-seven next week. If you will help me for at least this month, we could then annul the union.”

Annul? Then what would happen to her reputation? Fanny bit her lip to keep from crying. Had she hoped for love when she shouldn’t? Perhaps it was impossible to have even a good marriage as she prayed. She was exasperated by the events of her life and wondered if God was merely watching without trying to help. She had prayed with the Psalms but nothing good seemed to come out of it. Unsure what to say, she decided to speak to her mother. “You must meet her too.”

Returning home with Arthur and not Maxwell made Mother jostle in surprise. Her brothers who had arrived from London with their wives, had begun a small tea party. Pulling Mother into the room, Fanny released deep sobs. “I cannot recall how it all happened. I only remember that while the vicar hurried us, I failed to realise that Maxwell wasn’t there, and Arthur not him, signed his name beside mine.”

“Don’t worry, dearest. Trust the Lord and pray. I will visit.” A long hug followed and Mother assured that she’d be fine.

But recalling Arthur’s neatly trimmed hair and lavender smell which was starting to distract her, Fanny wondered if she would.

The details of their arrangement were discussed and Fanny and Arthur left for Hertfordshire. She would occupy a separate room in his manor and would be attended to by his servants. She would only answer his name, but would bear no obligation towards him. With Arthur’s and her brothers’ help, Fanny loaded her box and vallise onto Arthur’s carriage. On the bumpy winter ride, he told her a little of himself. His mother was of English descent. He was the son of an abolitionist and he ran his late father’s circus business. “My younger sisters live with me in our parents’ home. They could be a handful sometimes, but do not worry. The home is large and you will have your space.” When Fanny asked more about his mother, Arthur merely said she died some months ago, giving no particulars of the circumstances. He asked Fanny about herself. “Do you enjoy knitting or painting? I could ask the servants to get whatever you need so you have an enjoyable time.”

“Knitting, just a little. But I posses a much deeper love for cooking.” He asked her what dishes she could make and she sang about English and Irish and African dishes. “I worked for a while with an African alehouse in London when I visited my brothers. I learnt to make African meals there.” Fanny enjoyed the ease of their conversation, Arthur’s deep chuckle and hoped that they could at least be friends. Her inside bubbled with an excitement she didn’t understand, but she willed herself to be still. This was just an arrangement. Or could this birth something much deeper? She shoved the thought aside as she would a worn cloth. Arthur couldn’t admire a girl whose life obviously paled in relation to his. 

The air over Arthur’s manor was one of joy and warmth. Shiny baubles, bells, wreaths and bright, Christmastime socks hung on the walls and from small fir trees which circumvented a side of Arthur’s home. Matilda and Margaret, Arthur’s sisters welcomed her as though they had been friends before now. They showed her the drawing room where portraits of their parents hung and panelled walls with intricate decorations rose high to the roof. “Who plays this?” Fanny asked, noticing a pianoforte. 

Matilda, the younger sister, flew to it, maneuvering her fingers along the keys. “You could ask Arthur to teach you. He plays much more than I do.” 

“You play a lot better than you’re willing to admit, I daresay.” Fanny laughed and Matilda gave a modest curtsey, her crimson cheeks dimpling like her mother’s in the portrait Fanny had earlier seen. Fanny sought the occasion to ask a little about what their mother was like. Perhaps, there was a reason Arthur had ignored the topic. “You both have your mother’s eyes and nose.” She noted, walking towards a portrait of the entire family. 

“Tis what everyone says.” Margaret giggled as did Matilda too. “She was a selfless, strong, devout Christian.” 

“Taught us to watch and pray. Come let me show you her diaries.” Matilda added, pulling Fanny to the study which stood a floor above the drawing room. 

Towering shelves held volumes of great wealth and depth. Fanny had never had the privilege of a formal education, so she awed at the sight of so many books. She saw a Bible with a worn leather back and asked if she could look at it. “Whose is it?” 

“Arthur’s.” Margaret explained that like the Bible, the study had been his favourite place. But not until they lost their mother. “He refuses to speak to any of us about their last conversation before Mother’s final moment.”

Fanny thanked Margaret and Matilda for sharing their lives with her, and decided to pray. This might be the reason God wanted her here. She knew Arthur was hurting and that he needed the Lord’s comfort. She would pray for him and his family.

Penny’s letter felt like ice on Fanny’s face. How could Maxwell be engaged to another? Wasn’t it only two weeks since news spread about their planned wedding ceremony? Fanny skimmed through the letter to be sure she wasn’t asleep or still overfed with the mutton and cheese Arthur had made sure they had enough of the night before. Maxwell assuredly couldn’t be so base. But then, Penny wouldn’t lie to her. Fanny walked towards the window, taking a deep breath of the fresh winter air and willing herself to trust. Hadn’t that been what Mother said? She remembered how she had been violated years before and wondered if that was why she could never be loved? You are loved by Me. She heard the voice of the Lord deep within, but rebellious tears still overflowed. It was hard to believe, hard to trust. In two weeks her union to Arthur would be annuled and what stigma would then follow? You are loved by Me. 

A servant called from outside the room so Fanny wore a pleasant smile and stopped to cry. “It’s Mr. Arthur. He was found by River Stort.” 

Although Arthur had sustained a broken rib from the fall from his horse, the apothecary assured that he’d be fine. All he would however do was remain in bed. Fanny, Matilda and Margaret thanked the elderly man for his wisdom and attended to Arthur who laid deep asleep. 

“It’s the elixir. It will leave him drowsy, but not for too long.” The apothecary assured, dressing a bruise on Arthur’s face. 

Matilda and Margaret sat by Arthur on his bed, and Fanny took a chair in front of him. She wanted to care for him too, but was not sure if Arthur would frown at it. When evening came and Matilda nearly fell off the bed from exhaustion, Fanny offered to stay with him through the night. She did with Margaret and a servant at their call. She could never lay in the comfort of her bed when she knew that Arthur writhed in pain. 

When Arthur’s temperature rose, Fanny took Matilda’s place at the bed and mopped his face with a wet towel. “You will be fine. Stay strong.”

Arthur tensed at the touch of her hand on his forehead, but relaxed when Fanny continued to calm him as a mother would. “I appreciate your help.”

Arthur’s bed rest exceeded the four weeks he and Fanny had planned towards their arrangement. He now sat in bed and had taken care of the particulars of his inheritance. But neither him nor Fanny had brought up the issue of the annulment. Truth was, Fanny feared what her heart started to feel and didn’t want their long conversations and deepening friendship to end. She remembered how God had healed her relationship with Mother some Christmases ago and had made the season most memorable. She hoped this Christmas would be just like that—one Christmas to remember again.

“You look disturbed.” Arthur said as Fanny stood to leave his room. “Whatever is the matter?”

Fanny feigned a smile but Arthur didn’t seem convinced. They had discussed several matters but Arthur never brought up his mother. She decided to ask. “Tell me about your mother.” 

Arthur hesitated before asking Fanny to sit on a chair. “She was beautiful, kind, strong.” A long pause and a nervous chuckle. “She was the only mother I knew.”

“How do you mean?”

“She wasn’t my real mother. I assume Matilda and Margaret spoke to you about my attitude after she passed.” In disjointed speech, he explained how he found out he was his father’s mistress’ child just some months ago on his mother’s dying bed.”I was angry that that had been kept from me all these years. I felt betrayed. It was why I never wanted anything which would remind me that I had lived a lie all these years.” 

Arthur gave another nervous laugh and Fanny felt a strange boldness to reach for his hand. “She was your mother anyway.”

“Assuredly, she was.” Arthur wore a reflective smile as he further explained his mother’s death had been the reason he had chosen a marriage of convenience. “I was so absorbed in my problems that I forgot my obligations to my family. When I realized the time was short, I sought the quickest match I could find.”

Arthur told Fanny more about his days growing up, and not even a servant’s call or the setting sun made him stop. 

The more Fanny knew about Arthur, the more she admired him. He was strong, hardworking, respectful of his tenants and workers, a devout Christian and agreeable. Fanny was grateful for the friendship they shared, but didn’t want her hopes tarnished so decided to prepare her clothings in preparation for her return to Canterbury. She had prayed for Arthur’s whole healing and now that she knew he was better, she believed it was time to leave. 

Matilda hurried into Fanny’s room without knocking. She muttered a quick apology but paled when she saw Fanny’s valise on her bed. “Are you leaving? I wanted you to see the horse Arthur got me.”

“Oh, dearest, no, errr yes,” Fanny wasn’t sure what to say so she promised to be at the stable in few minutes. 

Dressed in a cream gown that wrapped gracefully beneath her bust, Fanny let down her hair, tired of the tight rolls a servant curled them into, and then joined Matilda at the stable. Fanny was giving her opinion on names for the mare when she felt a hand take hers. 

“Matilda said you were leaving.” Arthur pulled her to walk so she followed, away from the stable and towards the garden. 

Arthur’s intense gaze made her heart race at an unhealthy speed so she reminded herself that she wouldn’t be a convenient option. Hadn’t that been what Maxwell did? “Yes, I am. I assume our agreement is over.”

“Over?” Arthur’s jaw clenched. “I apologize I…Do you still hold any obligation towards your intended?” 

“No, not at all.” She took her gaze off those eyes that seemed to pore deep into her. How could she be so easily smitten with love? She explained what happened with Maxwell and Arthur frowned in disgust. 

“How would he be so vile?” They walked and talked about Fanny’s stay in his home. “You remind me of my mother. Your beauty, your hair,” Arthur grinned, brushing a tress off Fanny’s face. “And much more your faith.” Arthur spoke of how much his mother liked Christmastime and how she’d remind them of the real gift of the season—Jesus Christ. “I am grateful that with Jesus, the Lord’s given you to me too—if you oblige.”

Grinning like a shy schoolgirl, Fanny pouted in the affirmative. 

 “Please be my wife.” He tilted her chin and promised to make this Christmas one she would always remember—for good. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *