XV

"A MATTER OF THE HEART"

-as narrated by Rose-

I was delirious, intoxicated with an overwhelming feeling of reassurance, and with a powerful belief in our love. After one full month by myself, I had nearly lost my hope that he and I would ever be together again, and, lo and behold, he has just come back into my life, as handsome and strong as ever, and full of vitality, while I have become weaker with every passing day.

Times have been rough for me. The chilly weather with its showers of rain caused me a mild cold, but my friend, Jim and Martha have taken good care of me. Now, even though I still sneezed and coughed from time to time, I knew I was regaining my health. Despite my physical condition that was not yet at its best, I was as joyous as ever. I could've remained ill for the rest of my life, and still I wouldn't have cared, nor felt the pain, as long as I had William by my side. Love was the best medicine anyone could ever give to me. Even Martha, upon seeing me so cheerful when I suddenly jumped at her neck, shouting from the top of my lungs "Martha, Martha, he is back! Can you believe it?", commented that my cheeks regained their colour, and my eyes — their usual spark.

Indeed, I was no longer afraid of solitude (which was my worst fear), but of revealing a part of my life which William would have never agreed to let unresolved. Yesterday, when he suggested that he could come in for a little while, I was quick on assuring him that one more day could not make my heart grow any fonder, nor cause her any more pain. My house has been half emptied of the furniture and paintings, my drawers — of the beautiful dresses I had owned. Almost no trace of what once belonged to me (and of what now only reminded me of the superficial life I had led) was visible to the eye from the interior. What frightened me most was the idea that William might find out and perhaps despise me for my insincerity. I could not let this happen.

As soon as night came, though, every uneasy thought was forgotten, for in my dreams I had visions of a love fulfilled, dreams of white and church bells ringing for us, somewhere in the distance, but not too far... and there was also a ring which I had on my finger — such realistic an image that I woke up searching every finger for that piece of jewellery. I found none, but expected one in the near future. Such beautiful were my dreams, that I could not but believe in their coming true.

Right before noon, Jim announced William's arrival. I powdered my face, dressed in my most simple, yet most elegant dress that I had — it was also one of the fewest dresses that I still had — and descended the stairs in a hurry. I had pleasure of being greeted with a loving kiss. While we parted, because of the powder I had used on my face, or of the cold, which has not yet left me, I sneezed, offering William the thing I dreaded the most — a reason to worry over me.

"Yesterday, too; now — again. Is something the matter with you... something that you are hiding from me?"

"No, not at all," I offered my answer with confidence. I did not want to trouble him with this insignificant cold that I had suffered of. "I — I think —" But another sneeze stopped my words. "I think I've used too much powder on my face."

"Are you sure? What have you over your dress?" Upon noticing that the coat I wore was too thin for such a cold weather, William urged me to go back inside and ask my maid to bring me something that was warmer. He could not know, however, that I had sold all of my winter clothing.

"You worry too much. It's of no importance, truly."

"Anything that could put your health in danger is of the utmost importance to me. I pray you, please put on your woollen coat. You would take a great concern away from me."

"Please, William, I am fine the way I am, there is no need —"

"Nonsense, I am going inside to get you something warmer." To no avail could I stop him. Before I realised it, he was already inside of my house, running to my bedchamber — to which he knew the way so well. I followed him, trying to stop him from entering the room, knowing that he would be shocked by what he'd find inside.

It seems I was too late, though. "My Lord," William's voice echoed from my room, as a testimonial to the secret I hid from him, "what happened to this place? Where has all of your furniture gone?" Indeed, the room was empty. Except for the bed, the wardrobe, which had very few dresses in it anyway, and a small nightstand, everything else had been sold. How could I be able to explain him my reasons without worrying him at all? "Tell me, Rose! What kind of awful reason silences you?"

"I only sold them, William," I said, trying not to sound concerned at all.

"Why would you do this?"

"I did not need them anymore. And they all reminded me of that duke… so I just got rid of them." Turning away from me, he made one step forward, opening the doors of my wardrobe. I sat on the bed, waiting for his inspection to come to an end. I was beginning to feel uneasy, now that William was about to find out that I was financially broken.

"Your dresses… Where are all your dresses? The red gown you wore when I met you, the one you wore at Miss Jones's ball? Did you sell your clothes, as well? Where is your woollen coat, the one trimmed with fur? Martha," he shouted from the hallway to my maid, "could you bring the lady a winter coat?" No answer came from her, this cold silence causing me to worry. "Why won't you answer me?"

"She would not answer you, because the answer is that I don't have any left. I asked her not to tell you about my situation, and she doesn't want to give me away." Whirling around, he neared me. I could feel my voice tensing up with every word I said and with every step he made. "Forgive me, William, I could not tell you… that I've run out of money. I feel miserable for having to tell you now."

It took all the courage I had to confess to him. Now that everything had been revealed, I could breathe with ease. Though, I still feared that William might hate me for hiding the truth from him. It was a risk I had assumed when I decided to keep this secret away from him. I could feel my limbs stiffen as he approached me, anticipating a bitter quarrel.

Instead of shouting at me, or accusing me of not being honest, however, William kneeled at the edge of my bed, taking my hands in his. I looked up at him with shame, only to find that there was no trace of anger, no hate whatsoever in his eyes. "You… you do not hate me for what I've done?"

"Could one love and hate at the same time? Here," he said, taking his coat off and leaving it over my shoulders, "have my coat. Let us go now and discuss this later."

"I cannot let you go out dressed like this. You will get a cold instead of me."

"Who? I?" he said, laughing at my remark. "My dear… you forget that I'm a man. I shall make sure that you won't fail to remember this again."

"William! How can you make fun of the poor girl..."

"How could the poor girl keep a secret away from the man who loves her so dearly? Why did you not tell me? I could've helped you. I would've never left alone had I known about your suffering... but this is precisely why you did not tell me, isn't it? These problems... you knew of them before my leave, did you not?"

I nodded blushingly. "How could I have told you? I have made mistakes in my life, now it is only fair that I pay for them. How could I ever let you share my misery — you, who have no part in the wrongs I have committed? I have a duty to my own heart and I must follow it."

"But I...? What about my own duties — the duties of my heart to you? Do you think I would let you lose your home, and watch you grow ill, without doing everything that is in my power in order to help you?"

"William, this is absurd! You must realise that I would never accept your money, otherwise you know nothing about me at all. I am grateful to you, honestly I am, for everything you've given me and for all the rest that you would still give me, but this does not involve you. It is none of your concerns."

"Anything that concerns you concerns me as well. How easy it is for you to say it! But think for a moment: would you not want to help me if I were you? The issue goes far beyond the question of money. It is a matter of the heart. 'For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…' — is this not what one says, when offering his heart to his beloved? Are these not the vows of the lovers?"

I startled at the hearing of the vows. Could it be that he...? But no, I erased the possibility from my mind immediately. I should've learned by now never to expect too much from life. "But of what sort lovers? Those days are gone, William, and gone will they be. I can only be yours in one way..."

"The only way that I know of... is that of two married people living under the same roof and sharing everything with each other. Is it what you want as well, my dear Rose? Will you marry me, if I asked you? It is the only way I can love you, you know..."

Slipping one hand into one of the pockets of his coat — the one I still wore — William revealed a small box made of red velvet, and put it in my trembling hands. I opened it with the eagerness of a child who has waited till Christmas to receive the long-awaited present. Now was my Christmas — the holiday in my heart. Inside, there was a beautiful ring with a red gemstone in the centre. It was the ring in my dreams. The moment William took it out and placed it on my finger my heart stood still, my breath caught in my throat.

"Thank you..." I added, in a clumsy manner. My eyes I could not believe, my ears — even less. "I... wish I would've had a present for you too... because this is what it is, is it not — a simple present?"

"Simple it may be, but a present?! Rather a token of my love! How silly of you to think...! Ah, my dear Rose, you are so quick in denying the truth, even when you have the proof before your eyes. You have been so unhappy, that you are no longer used to the idea of being otherwise. But it is not a dream, not one that you own in your sleep at least, it is true, real, as sure as my name is William and as true as the love I have for you. I am asking you to be my wife, and you take so much of my time — time in which I am dying to hear your answer. It is hardly the way I imagined it. Do you not wish to be my wife?"

"What —" My words stopped in my throat, as I woke as if from a dream. "What have you said? You… wish me to be your wife? For… forever?"

"Is there any other way? Yes, my love, until the end of our lives, and may they be long!" William spoke in a soft, warm voice. No words could describe how I felt when he, holding my hands in his, glanced at me with such loving eyes, as if he begged for a positive answer.

"William… You're not saying it because you know I am ruined, are you? Forgive me, I must be sure —"

"No, no! By no means! I've been wanting to tell you for some time... I bought this ring before my leave. I could not make up my mind right then, nor come up with a reason why I should marry you."

"And now… you have a reason?"

"I do. Having been parted from you, I now realise I cannot be without you."

"And… that is all?"

"And because I wish to make you happy, the happiest and most loved woman in this world. I want to be able to hold your hand on the street, and not have anybody around us thinking that we are not entitled to do so. I want to turn all the wrongs that you've made into rights. I don't want to hide our love anymore."

"William, you did make me the happiest, most loved woman in this world," I spoke, looking up at him through tears of joy.

"Should I take it as a 'yes' then?"

"Yes, certainly! The greatest 'yes' in the world! I accept with all my heart!"

"How long it has taken you! You have no idea how it hurt!"

Poor William! There can't be any other feeling more gratifying than simply knowing that one's love is being shared, and that his dreams are coming true. He must've felt this way, too. I, for one, have never felt as complete, as content as now, when William and I were locked in an embrace as future husband and wife.

Of course, our love was not changed; William was the same man I fell in love with, and I — the same woman whom he had missed him so greatly. There was only me and him… but there was something else between us, some spiritual connection that bonded us. It felt as if our love was not something to be hidden, not anymore. We were free now to go out in the public as a couple; there was no need to hide my love towards him from now on. I knew now that no other human force could separate us… only God — to which we would swear to love and respect each other — had that power.

Afterwards, William took me to Kingston Bridge to watch the sunset. It was, indeed, a breathtaking show, worthy of admiration. The sky above me was spectacular — a diversion of colours that melted into a splendid sunset. It was of a purple shade that slowly faded away into red tones as it descended the sky. The Thames was never a beautiful view, but as the burning sun reflected into its water, it made a wonderful scenery.

William and I stood before the bridge and stared at the landscape in silence, until the bright colours died out, the end of the day tarnishing the sky that had, all of a sudden, become dull. We were two lovers at the gates of Paradise, in nature's great, and full perfection, experiencing a greatness of our own, that was our love — perfect in its own way. I kept his body close to mine, secretly praying that he wouldn't get sick afterwards. I was too concerned, it seems, for he did not shiver at all, in spite of the low temperature. My future married man was so well built and strong, that it was silly of me to ever think that a cold could get him.

My trail of thoughts has been discontinued as William leaned over me to kiss my lips. No other time has been so inviting for our love to be expressed as then, while we stood before the miracle of God, being part of a miracle ourselves as well. We talked for a while — tender whispers were they rather than words —, and then fell into silence again. The wind has ceased to blow. There was something soothing in the air, something that spurred us to be quiet. I rested my head against William's chest for a while, until he proceeded to interrupt the stillness.

"Would you... would you consider living with me, if we were to have a house of our own? I feel I've had enough time spent by my own."

"You know I would," I said with a smile. "But are we not living in your apartment already?"

"That horrid room can hardly be called a lovers' home. But it is not this reason alone. I Know you do not care as long as you have me, and you know I feel the same, but I have grown tired of London; this is no place for a love like ours."

"Still, it is where our love bloomed..."

"Yes, but it cannot but whither here. I went outside the town this morning, and found a house I think you'd like. It is small, half your manor perhaps, but the surroundings are wonderful. Besides, it's not very far from London, should you ever wish to see your friend. I wish to show it to you tomorrow, and if you like it, I will gladly buy it."

"But do you have the money needed?"

"I do. I've inherited a great sum of money from a distant relative of mine. Together with my savings, and what I've been earning from Henry's business, it is enough to buy a home for us both. The owner is both a wealthy person, and eager to sell it, I think we might persuade her into selling it at a lower price. If not, we should continue to look around; I'm sure we could find something cheaper, and to your liking. What do you think?"

"I cannot but agree with you, William; But you must let me help you too; I will sell my manor. I'm not letting you alone pay for our house."

"If you really wish so... But are you certain? I can manage by myself."

"I am decided. Why should I keep it anyway? We'll have a house of our own. As long as I have a roof above my head, and you — by my side, I don't need anything else." Moments later, I allowed my imagination to play with the idea. "To wake up in the morning with you being the first thing I see, and go to sleep in the same bed with you…" I spoke in a low voice, almost to myself, "must be a heavenly feeling."