Ella and Alex sit nervously in the rector's parlour. He has some questions, he says. They mustn't worry. The questions are not intended to be intrusive, but rather to help them understand one another, so that they can work through the different approaches that they, like every other couple, bring to a relationship.
(Where an early nineteenth century rector found a set of twenty-first century marriage preparation questions, I could not say. In an envelope on his mantel-piece, perhaps?)
But here he is, armed with a pot of strong tea and some hearty slices of pound cake.
Rector: What are your priorities and expectations in a relationship?
Ella: My priorities have changed since I have been with Alex. At one time, my top priority was to protect myself from further harm, and to do that, I kept my emotions tightly buttoned up. Perhaps if any of my children had lived, it might have been different. Yes. I would have needed to protect them, I imagine. Now, I want what Alex wants. I know I can trust him to put me first, and so I am safe to put him first. My priorities have changed because my expectations have changed.
Alex: I must agree with Ella. My earlier experiences meant I disbelieved in love, at least for me. I wanted to give and receive pleasure, and beyond that I wanted to do and receive no harm. Now I want a great deal more. I am seizing happiness, which I never expected. Joy, even. Ella and I are partners and friends, as well as lovers.
(Ella gives Alex a shove, and whispers, "Alex, you can't say 'lovers' to the Rector!" The rector just smiles and continues.)
Rector: What's your biggest fear in a relationship?
Alex (taking Ella's hand and smiling): I have no fears for the relationship. It's not that I think we'll always agree. I'm sure we'll have misunderstandings and arguments. But we will talk them through. I've never had that with a lover before.
Ella: I am not afraid that we shall cease loving one another. (She leans into Alex's shoulder, hiding her face as she admits,) I am afraid of losing him. Life is very uncertain, and he will do dangerous things like clambering around on the stable roof to check the shingles.
Rector: You have both had past relationships. Do you blame yourself when a relationship fails?
Ella: I blamed myself for years. If only I had been more conformable, better born, prettier, more responsive to... (She trails off, blushing).
Alex (kissing the hand he holds): None of that is true, Ella. Melville would have been a bully and an arsewipe no matter what you had done.
Ella: I realise that now. He was the problem; not me. And you must know the same is true of you, my love. The Bad Baroness was to blame for that horrible incident, not you.
Alex: I am, at the very least, to blame for my poor taste, Ella. Not just with the baroness, but with others. They coloured my view of women, and therefore the way I treated you. I am so sorry, my dear heart. I will spend my life making it up to you.
(They kiss, while the rector smiles benevolently.)
Rector: Lady Melville, why did your relationship end? Who ended it?
Ella: In a legal sense, it ended when Gervase died. How else can a marriage end? But in another sense it never began. He did not want me as wife from the first, and I certainly would not have married him given a choice.
Rector: If you could have, would you have fixed it and got back together? Would he?
Ella (hesitating): I feel I should say yes, and perhaps if my children had lived... But he would have been, at best, an indifferent father. It sounds dreadful to say I was better off without him even before I met Alex. At least until Gervase's brother and his wife tried to destroy me. And now? Now I know what a real marriage can be. How can I wish myself back in the nightmare that was my first marriage?
Rector: Lord Renshaw, why did your relationship end? Who ended it?
Alex (blushing): This is a little embarrassing. I was infatuated with a woman, Reverend. I would have done anything for her. But I suffered a complete revulsion of feeling when I discovered that she had seduced me at the behest of her husband, who enjoyed watching her with her lovers! I found out at a most inconvenient and intimate moment, and I left the house immediately, pausing only to resume my clothing.
Rector: If you could have, would you have fixed it and got back together? Would she?
Alex: She would have. Indeed, she made the attempt. But I have never considered sexual intimacy to be a spectator sport, and objected to being made a performer against my knowledge or wishes. I found---I still find---the idea repulsive.
Rector: What's the most important thing in your life?
Ella: Alex. And family. I have one now, thanks to him.
Alex: Yes, family. And Ella is the most important person in my family.
Rector: Where do you see yourself in five years? In twenty years?
Ella (exchanging a melting glance with her beloved): Beside my Alex. If God sees fit to bless us, in five years he will have his heir and perhaps another child or two. Our stables will be established, and our horses winning notice. In twenty years, I see us at the height of our fame as horse breeders, but beginning to think about handing the enterprise to the younger generation. They will be young for it then, of course, but we can begin to prepare them. And, of course, we might have a daughter of an age to be presented. We will need to rely on Alex's sister for that. I have never made a come out and would not know how to go on! But I am sure Susan will be glad to help.
Alex (his eyebrows climbing into his hairline in his alarm): Good heavens. She is not even born, perhaps not conceived yet, and you would have me put her on the marriage mart? Have mercy, dear Ella. Rector, I share Ella's vision, and her and I growing old together, with our family and our tenants around us. If we are given children, I will be grateful and will treasure them. If not, then I am already rich, for I have the woman of my dreams to share my life with.