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The ANCIENT CHURCH of the village of Little Amwell was crowded to its massive Norman door, its pews brimming over with flowery hats, their wearers keeping up a steady murmur of conversation which vied with Mrs Broad, the organist, as she laboured through a selection of suitable wedding music. the groom was already there, and his best man, it lacked only the bride for the ceremony to begin.
She was at the door now; Mrs Broad's sudden burst of chords sent every head over its shoulder as she began the short journey down the aisle on her uncle's arm to where her bridegroom was waiting and her father stood ready to marry them. She was a very pretty girl, fair-haired and blue-eyed and slim, a vision in white silk and lace, followed by four very small bridesmaids, enchanting in pale blue with wreaths in their hair, and behind them, shooing them gently along, came the only other bridesmaid, a tall curvy girl with a face as pretty as her sister's, only her hair was a burnished golden red and her eyes green. She was in blue too, a colour in which she didn't look her best, but since the bride had strong views about the unlucky properties of green, she had resigned herself to pale blue silk and a wide-brimmed hat of the same shade. She followed slowly down the aisle, looking demurely ahead of her and still managing to see that old Mrs Forbes from the Grange was wearing a quite astonishing mauve hat, and Lady Byron from the Manor House was in her everlasting beige. She saw Tony, too, standing on the bride's side, looking devastating in his morning coat; a pity he had refused categorically to be one of the ushers. He was marvellous, of course, but sometimes she wished he wasn't quite so conscious of his dignity. She supposed that once she was married to him, at some not yet decided date, she would have to mend her ways; there were several things for which he had already gently but firmly reproved her.
She came to a halt behind Nancy, took her bouquet and hushed the youngest of the bridesmaids. James was beaming at his bride in a most satisfactory way and her father, while not actually smiling, was looking pleased with himself. And why not? she mused. Nancy had done well for herself; James was something up and coming in the business world and had a rather grand flat in Highgate Village, besides which he was a thoroughly nice young man.
Her father began the service and presently, bored with standing still, the bridesmaids began to play up. it was in the course of preventing one of them from prancing off down the aisle that Prudence became aware of the best man. True, she had known that he was there, conspicuous even. From the back he was a large man, topping James by a good head and with massive shoulders. He turned round now, for the very good reason that the bridesmaid had him by the trouser leg, and Prudence could see his facenicelooking in a rugged way, with fair hair already sprinkled with grey. He removed the small girl's arms from his leg and handed her back and smiled at Prudence. His eyes were very blue and crinkled nicely at the corners. Not a patch on Tony, of course, but he might be fun to know She smiled back, and then composed her features into suitable solemnity as the choir launched itself into "the voice that breathed o'er Eden, the little boys cast their eyes to heaven in an unlikely piety and the men behind them rolled out their notes in a volume of sound. Prudence, from under her brim, watched Mr Clapp, the butcher, bellowing his way through the hymn; he had a powerful voice, used frequently in his shop to cry the virtues of his meat. She took a quick peep at the best man, although there wasn't much to see; broad shoulders and a ramrod back, and when he turned his head slightly, a high-bridged nose and a firm chin. She looked down at her bouquet. the choir had filled their lungs ready for the last verse, but she wasn't heeding them. Traditionally, the chief bridesmaid and the best man paired off at a wedding; it might do Tony a lot of good if he were to be given a coldwell, coolshoulder; he was, she suspected, getting too sure of her. She hadn't met the best man yet; he had been abroad, James had told her, and had only arrived in time to see that James got safely to the church. Really she knew nothing at all about him. Married most likely, certainly engaged; it would be fun to find out.
The choir, conscious of a job well done, subsided into their pews and her father began the little homily he must know by heart, for she had heard it at countless weddings at which he had officiated. By turning her head very slowly, she could see her mother, still a pretty woman, wearing a Mother of the Bride's hat, and a slightly smug expression. She caught Prudence's eye and smiled and nodded. Prudence was well aware what her mother was thinkingthat she would be the next bride, with Tony standing where James was standing now. She would have liked a quiet wedding, but there would be little chance of that. it would be exactly the same as Nancy's, white silk and chiffon and more little bridesmaids. No plans had been made, of course, but she was quite sure that her mother had it all arranged. That lady had been puzzled and disappointed that Prudence hadn't been the first to marry anyway. She was, after all, the eldest, and she was twenty-seven, with a long-standing engagement behind her, there had seemed no reason why she and Tony shouldn't have married before Nancy and James, but Tony had lightheartedly declared that they had plenty of time, there was no hurry. He had a splendid job with a big firm of architects, a pleasant house on the edge of Little Amwell and the prospect of a trip to New York within the next month or so. "After I'm back," he had told Prudence easily. "After all, you're perfectly content and happy at home, aren't you?"
She had been aware of a faint warning at the back of her mind, so absurd that she had ignored it, and then, in the excitement and bustle of the wedding, forgotten it.
But now it came back to tease her. She was by no means content to sit at home and wait for Tony; there had been no reason at all why she shouldn't have married him months ago and gone to New York with him; somehow, the excitement of marrying him had fizzled out like a kettle going off the boiland yet surely, after three, almost four years, she should know if she loved him or not? Something, she wasn't sure what, would have to be done.
Her father had finished, Mrs Broad was thumping out the opening lines of "Oh, perfect love" and the choir had surged to its feet with the congregation hard on its heels. the signing took on a new lease of life; the choir thinking of their dinner, the guests of the champagne and buffet lunch awaiting them in the marquee erected on the roomy lawns surrounding the solid Victorian vicarage. it was a bit of an anticlimax to sit down again while the wedding party trailed into the vestry, and presently out again. there had been the usual kissing and congratulations there, but beyond a rather casual greeting from the best man, Prudence had had no chance to speak to him. She went down the aisle beside him presently, her pretty face and vivid hair drawing a good many admiring glances, none of which came from the best man. Benedict van Vinke a foreign name. Later, if he was disposed to be friendly, she would ask him where he came from.
But although he was friendly enough, he wasn't disposed to tell her much. He parried her questions with lazy good humour, smiling at her with a flicker of amusement in his eyes. She ended up discovering almost nothing. He was a Dutch doctor, he travelled a good deal, he had known James for a number of years, they had in fact been at Cambridge together. Beyond these snippets of information he didn't go, and presently she wandered off, still wondering about him, to do her duty by the other guests.
Tony joined her presently, and it pleased her to see that he looked annoyed. He gave her a severe look. "Even if you are chief bridesmaid, there's no need to sit in the best man's pocket. Everyone here knows that we're going to get married and it's hardly the thing for you to spend the entire time with him."
"Are you jealous, Tony?" she wanted to know. "Certainly not! Jealousy is a complete waste of good sense, I merely observed that other people might think!"
"You mind what they think?" Prudence asked, her green eyes very bright.
"Naturally I mind. the opinion of other people is important to a professional man."
"And that's the reason you're annoyed with me?" Prudence lowered long dark lashes over her eyes. "I must go and say hullo to Lady Brinknell."
She sauntered off, but not to the lady in question.
She fetched up again beside Benedict van Vinke, waited patiently until the couple he was talking to wandered away, and asked: "If you were going to marry a girl and she spent a lot of time with another man, at a function like this one, would you be annoyed?"
He smiled down at her. "Very." "Why?"
His eyes widened. "Obvious reasons. If she were my girl, she wouldn't be allowed to wander off with any Tom, Dick or Harry around."
"you'd be jealous?" "Very." "And you wouldn't mind what everyone said? I mean, you wouldn't object just because it might make people gossip?"
"Good lord, no! Who cares what other people think? it's none of their business, anyway."
Prudence heaved a sigh. "Oh, wellthank you" She glanced without knowing it in Tony's direction, and Benedict van Vinke said kindly: "You mustn't take him too seriously, you know."
She said sharply: "I don't know what you mean! it was a purely hypothetical question."
He only smiled and asked lazily: "When are you going to marry?"
She said crossly: "I have no ideaand anyway, it's none of your business," and then, quite forgetting to be annoyed, added wistfully: "We've been engaged for years and years!"
He ignored the last bit. "No, it isn't," he agreed equably, "but after all, it was you who brought the subject up in the first place."
She was on the point of turning away when Tony joined them. He put a proprietorial arm on Prudence's shoulder. "May I suggest," he began, and she wished that he wouldn't preface so many of his wishes with that remark"that you circulate, Prudence. Lady Byron remarked to me only a few minutes ago that she'd barely set eyes on you, and the Forbesespeople at the Manor, you know," he explained kindly to Benedict, "were asking to meet you."
His voice implied that this was an honour indeed, but the large man standing before him, looking at him with a tolerant good humour which set his teeth on edge, only smiled at him. "I'll be delighted to meet them later on," he conceded. "I've a number of old friends to chat with first."
He made no effort to move away; after a small silence Tony took Prudence's elbow and walked her off. "it's fortunate that van Vinke is unlikely to see much of us," he observed frostily. "I dislike that type of man."
"What type is he?" asked Prudence; she had her own ideas on that, but it would be interesting to hear Tony's opinion.
"Arrogant, conceited, not bothering to make himself agreeable. I suggest that you avoid him for the rest of the day, Prudencebesides, he's a foreigner."
She was struck dumb by the appalling thought that over the years she had allowed herself to be dictated to by Tony. After all, they weren't married yet; he had no right to expect her to conform to his ideas. She said baldly: "I like him." She picked up a glass of champagne from the buffet table they were passing, tossed it off, shook his hand from her arm and joined a group of aunts and uncles she barely knew except for the exchange of Christmas cards each year. the champagne, coupled with her indignant feelings, gave her unwonted vivacity, so that her elderly relatives, watching her as she left them presently, remarked among themselves that dear Prudence seemed to have changed a good deal. "Of course, she is twenty-seven," observed the most elderly aunt, and pursed her lips and nodded her head wisely, as though twenty-seven was a dangerous age when anything might happen.