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Her Own Free Will
“Well, it’s all over now, for better, for worse, as they say. And I hope very much as it won’t be for worse.”
A loud sniff expressive of grave misgiving succeeded the remark. The speaker—one of a knot of village women—edged herself a little further forward to look up the long strip of red baize that stretched from the church porch to the lych gate near which she stood. The two cracked bells were doing their best to noise abroad the importance of the event that had just taken place, which was nothing less than the marriage of Colonel Everard’s daughter to Piet Cradock, the man of millions. Of the latter’s very existence none of the villagers had heard till a certain day, but a few weeks before, when he had suddenly appeared at the Hall as the accepted suitor of Nan Everard, whom everyone loved.
She was only twenty, prettiest, gayest, wildest, of the whole wild tribe. Three sons and eight daughters had the Colonel—a handsome, unruly family, each one of them as lavish, as extravagant, and as undeniably attractive as he was himself.
His wife had been dead for years. They lived on the verge of bankruptcy, had done so as long as most of them could remember; but it was only of late that matters had begun to look really serious for them. It was rumoured that the Hall was already mortgaged beyond its value, and it was common knowledge that the Colonel’s debts were accumulating with alarming rapidity. This marriage, so it was openly surmised, had been arranged in haste for the sole purpose of easing the strain.
For that Nan Everard cared in the smallest degree for the solemn, thick-set son of a Boer mother, to whom she had given herself, no one ever deemed possible for an instant. But he was rich, fabulously rich, and that fact counterbalanced many drawbacks. Piet Cradock owned a large share in a diamond mine in the South African Republic, and he was a person of considerable importance in his native land in consequence. He had visited England on business, but his time there had been limited to a bare six weeks. This fact had necessitated a brief wooing and a speedy marriage.
He had met the girl of his choice by a mere accident. He had chanced to be seated on her right hand at a formal dinner-party in town. Very little had passed between them then, but later, through the medium of his host, he had sought her out, and called upon her. Within a week he had asked her to be his wife. And Nan Everard, impulsive, dazzled by the prospect of unbounded wealth, and feverishly eager to ease the family burden, had accepted him.
He was obliged to sail for South Africa within three weeks of his proposal, and preparations for the marriage had therefore to be hurried forward with all speed. They were to leave for Plymouth immediately after the ceremony, and to sail on the following day.