Despite my silent struggles, the tide of responsibility drags me forward, pulling me ever closer to the fate I dread, and every second further from the one I love; the one who can never be mine.
My legs keep walking, but my heart is screaming at them to stop, to turn around and run, and keep running until I find him. My efforts are futile. Each step brings me closer to the altar, where I will become bound by a contract to live a life of regret.
I feel the burning stares of the guests on my back, pushing me forwards.
Another step closer.
I think of him, and how I would watch him from my window. How I would gaze wistfully, longingly as he worked, and dream of a future that could never be. Sometimes, he would look up from his work, catch my gaze, and smile at me. Our eyes would lock for what seemed like forever, but I would always break it after a second, scared of the consequences of what I was feeling.
I spoke to him once, when I was taking a walk through the grounds. He was there, grooming one of my father’s finest horses, whistling. I approached him, heart fluttering. The conversation was brief – my mother saw us, then oddly, hurried me back inside. I didn’t understand why, back then. Despite the pitiful length of our first meeting, I suddenly felt like I knew everything about the gentle stable-hand and him about myself.
I stare down the aisle, which now seems to have been halved in length. I have ten – maybe less – steps until I’m there. Then I’ll say the words and there’s no turning back. Inside I’m thrashing against the current, but I can’t break away. It would destroy my family.
I glance at my mother, swathed in finery, seated at the front of the church with my father. She’s watching me expectantly, eyes full of pride and dignity, yet sensing that something is not quite right. If only she knew.
They had this suitor selected for me before I could toddle. A fine man he is too, but he’s not the one I want. Does that matter though? I was brought up to do as I was told. So I’m destined to marry this gentleman, when my heart beats for another.
If my family knew that I was in love with a stable-hand, a poor, peasant man with little to offer but love, I would be in the gutter with the rest of them in a heartbeat. They would be horrified, ashamed, and heart-broken. I can’t disappoint my parents, who I owe so much to.
Which is why I’m now stood shakily at the altar, hand entwined with that of a man I can’t - could never - love. Not as much as I love the other man. The peasant. The servant.
I try to imagine my suitor’s face as the other, but it only makes the pain inside me sharpen, like a wound being reopened. My soon-to-be husband smiles at me. Part of me wishes I loved him instead, so I wouldn’t be in this horrible mess.
I tune out, and the vicar’s heartfelt words fly by me in a faint blur. I force myself to look at the man my parents chose for me. My parents surely know what’s best for me, so why can’t I feel the same way? He’s rich, handsome and kind, but he’s not /him/.
I want you, I think hard. I falter, because I don’t, not really. I can’t kid myself, force myself to love this man, no matter how nice, wealthy and good-looking he may be. I look into his eyes. Do I feel what I feel when I look at the other, the poor man? No.
It’s true love or my family’s wishes.
Suddenly the room falls silent, and all eyes are on me. It’s time. Two little words: I do. So easy to say, yet with such sacrifice.
I can’t say them, but I can. I mustn’t say them, yet I must. I won’t say them, but I have to. It’s time to choose. Go with the flow, or be the master of my own fate.
My throat is dry, and I can only manage an odd, strangled sound. I look into my fiancé’s eyes, and all I can see is the other man. I feel faint with the burden of the choice I must make.
Whispering erupts behind me, brows furrow in concern, fingers point at the bride who has lost her voice. Who can’t bring herself to marry the man she should be in love with.
I snap into focus. My husband to be gazes at me, eyes cloudy with anxiety and confusion. He loves me; I can tell. Sadly the feelings cannot be reciprocated on my part, and never will be. Suddenly I find my feet. The burning desire inside me has made my decision for me.
“I’m sorry,” I choke, tears spilling forth onto my cheeks. I drop his hand, where it hangs limply by his side. The realization washes over him, and I feel him break right there and then. He stands there, stunned, broken, as I stumble down the aisle, blinded by salty tears. I’m horrified at what I’ve just done to this man, but I know it is right. It wouldn’t be fair to have him love a woman who couldn’t ever return it. He needs to find someone who can love him back – who can offer what I can never.
I run, leaving the shocked gasps and hushed gossip behind me. My mother screams for me, but I’m deaf to her words.
No looking back now, Pearl. You’ve made your choice. You chose the servant man you barely know but you’re certain you love. I tell myself this, over and over as I run through town, startling passer-bys as I streak past, a flurry of white lace, pearls, and wracking sobs. Maybe he won’t even love me back, but it’s too late to think about that now. If he does, we’ll have to leave. Run away, live our lives as outcasts, away from disapproving eyes.
I reach the manor, and I push the wrought iron gates open, not caring about the dirt on my soft, slender hands. I must look a sight for sore eyes; muddy, ripped wedding dress, face tear-stained and red.
I know where he’ll be.
I run through the grounds, until I come to the courtyard that lies beneath my bedroom window. He’s there, a horse at the ready.
Like he knew I wouldn’t go through with the wedding. Like he knew I’d come for him.