Aisleen slipped the final button of her lace-bodiced gown into place. Her fingers unconsciously tightened at her throat as she gazed at her reflection. She was as pale as the white lace she wore, her nostrils pinched and her mouth drawn. Her eyes, always clear and serious, were on this morning dull and puffy from lack of sleep. Only her bright red hair tumbled colorfully about her shoulders in riotous waves.
“Altogether, I look like a banshee braving the light of day,” she murmured. She could not imagine a picture that was less bridelike. She felt no elation, no eagerness. How could she? She was about to marry a man about whom she knew nothing.
She picked up the rock-crystal brooch. The large stone sliced rainbow flakes from the morning light and shattered them upon the floor and wall. She ran a finger lightly over the gold filigree and wondered how her father had allowed it to pass unnoticed and unpawned. But, of course, it was not a diamond and was not of much value. She supposed that she should be grateful that there was anything left of the once proud Fitzgeralds. Everything else gone: the land, Liscarrol, even the belief that they would withstand and endure. Even her name was about to change, and she would be a Fitzgerald no more.
With infinite sadness, Aisleen reached up to pin the brooch at her throat, wondering what she should tell her mother about her marriage. Should she tell her the truth? While she had not changed her low opinion of marriage, she was capable of viewing wedlock as a reasonable alternative to starvation. It was a marriage of practicality, mutual need, a transaction in which both parties gained. Mr. Gibson would have his lady wife, and she would have the management of her own household.
No doubt her mother and Mr. Kirwan would choose to believe that she had fallen under the romantic spell of some colonial rogue when, in reality, she cared nothing for the man she was to wed. No, she would not mention her marriage to her mother.
Aisleen ignored the guilty flush that climbed her cheeks. Not even marriage would hold her if she chose to forsake her vows.
The idea had come to her in the middle of the night as she lay waiting for dawn. It should be a simple matter to gain command of Mr. Gibson. After all, he was a simple fellow. No man of sound reasoning would have offered his name to a stranger. While she would have preferred to wed a man whose vigor had been tempered by the years, his youth might well be an advantage. Immediately after the ceremony, she would take him in hand just as she would any new nursery charge placed in her care and begin molding him into a gentleman. She would rid him of that embarrassing brogue, pare the rough edges off his manners, and teach him how to treat a lady. In time, and if she were half as clever as she should be, she would domesticate Mr. Gibson. If that proved impossible, she would gather her monthly salary and leave him without regret or misgiving. After all, theirs was a contract, and contracts could be broken.
“You will bend to the rules of society, but men, Miss Aisleen Fitzgerald, you shall bend those rules to your own purposes!” she whispered to the gaunt-faced reflection in her mirror.
“Are you ready—? Why, Miss Fitzgerald!” Though Mrs. Freeman had known the young lady a month, she scarcely recognized her in the gown of lace and lavender silk. The flattering cut revealed the youthful figure she kept hidden. Absent, too, was the shrouding bonnet or frilled house cap she usually wore. The blazing head of hair revealed was quite the most lovely shade Mrs. Freeman had ever seen. She wondered if Mr. Gibson were aware of his bride’s crowning glory and doubted it. What a nice surprise he had in store.
The matron nodded in approval. “You’re the very picture of a bride! How fortuitous that you had such a gown in your possession.”
“Thank you,” Aisleen answered, embarrassed and not quite certain of what to answer. “My mother forced the frivolity upon me.” When Mrs. Freeman’s smile dimmed, she knew she had said the wrong thing. Why could she not accept the compliment? Because she knew what Mrs. Freeman was thinking: that despite her claims to the contrary she had brought the gown like an item in a hope chest in the expectation of attracting a marriage proposal. If it had been five degrees cooler, she told herself, she would have resorted to the gray wool. She quite ignored the tiny voice inside her head which whispered, Liar!
“Mr. Gibson has sent a carriage for you,” Mrs. Freeman said “Are you packed and ready?”
“Yes, thank you. You may send the fellow for my baggage. I have only to put on my bonnet.” Aisleen quickly gathered her fire-bright cloud of hair into a ball and pinned it into a knot.
Mrs. Freeman hesitated as Aisleen picked up the straw bonnet with matching pink and lavender ribbons. She looked down at the garment in her hand. Should she make the gesture? Of course she should. “Miss Fitzgerald, I have a gift for you.” She held out a length of white lace. It was a wedding veil. “The girls of the barracks purchased it for you when they heard you did not have time to buy a proper trousseau.”
Aisleen gazed blankly at the lace veiling. She had not made a single friend among the barracks girls, nor had she attempted to do so. “Why should they give me a present?”
Mrs. Freeman’s lips thinned. “I wonder myself,” she murmured and cast the veil upon the cot before folding her arms. Really, the young woman had a great deal to learn about graciousness. “We wish you well, Miss Fitzgerald,” she said stiffly. “If at any time we of the Immigration Society may be of further aid to you, do feel free to contact us.”
Aisleen blushed. She had offended the lady once more. “Thank you, Mrs. Freeman, and I ask that you thank the others for me. When I am done with it, I would like to return the veil to the barracks.” She saw Mrs. Freeman stiffen further and hurriedly added, “That it may be used by other barracks brides.”
Mrs. Freeman thawed slightly. “A generous gesture, Miss Fitzgerald, but the girls would be hurt if you did not keep it for your own daughter’s wedding.”
This time Aisleen held her tongue and merely nodded. There would be no point in saying that she doubted she would ever have a daughter. That was another of the matters she meant to take in hand.
She picked up the lace veil and carefully folded it. After a final glance in the mirror, she turned to the matron, and suddenly she needed very badly someone’s assurance. “Do you think I’ll do, Mrs. Freeman?”
The feminine question, posed as any bride might, disarmed the older woman. Bridal nervousness would account for the young woman’s pallor and skittishness.
“You look very fine, indeed, Miss Fitzgerald.” She reached out and took Aisleen’s hand in her own. “I know you’ve had a bad start in New South Wales, but you’ve shown yourself to be a most sensible young woman. Marriage is the best thing for you. You’ll see. You must come and visit when next you’re in Sydney and tell me how you’ve fared.”
“I will,” Aisleen answered and gave the woman’s hand a quick squeeze. “And thank you.”
“Now hurry along, dear; your groom awaits you.”