Prince Charles ends his royal hunt for a princess

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"Oh, I just can't get this right," twittered the salesgirl as she tried to measure a length of cloth in Bentall's Department Store in Kingston, Surrey. "I've just heard Prince Charles is getting married and I'm all of a flutter. Yes, I'll go [into London to see the wedding], I wouldn't miss it for anything."

The news of a royal wedding in July for the heir to the throne swept around the store and the street and the country outside. It was a joyful touch of color to lighten the drabness of prolonged economic slump and crisis in a winter-weary Britain -- cheers in the House of Commons, and a large sapphire and diamond engagement ring briefly displacing the grim faces of the unemployed on television screens.

It was also the end of one of Britain's favorite sports: "Charlie watching" to see who would almost certainly become the next Queen of England by marrying one of the world's richest and most eligible bachelors.

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"Lady Diana, is it?" asked another Kingston sales assistant.

Indeed, it was: Lady Diana Frances Spencer, aged 19, youngest child of the 8 th Earl of Spencer.

Her father, once equerry to Charles' grandfather (King George VI) and to Charles' mother (Queen Elizabeth II) was so excited about it all that he rushed out into the street to photograph the crowds that gathered at Buckingham Palace hoping for a glimpse of the couple.

Lady Diana pleased many here by being a member of the British, rather than the European, aristocracy. She can trace her ancestry back to Charles II. And she was literally the "girl next door," as she grew up on an estate next to the royal residence at Sandringham.

"The royal family really does its job at hard times like these," said another Kingston woman, beaming at the report.

"Yes, but she's only 19," said a friend disapprovingly, echoing a widespread concern here. "A young girl, like that -- she doesn't know what she's getting into."

"Well, I'll go to see the wedding," said a young man in a gray suit. "I want to see what Charlie's got himself. . . ."

Lady Diana says she accepted as soon as the Prince proposed about three weeks ago. In her first TV and radio interviews after news of the engagement Feb. 24, she displayed an irrepressible giggle as she stood in a two-piece blue suit and white blouse holding hands with the Prince, who was his usual immaculate self in gray suit and blue and white polka dot tie.

Pronouncing herself "blissfully happy," she showed a resolute side to her character as she said that keeping the secret of the engagement for three weeks was "good for us." She is a slim girl with thick blond hair and blue-gray eyes. The prospect ahead was "quite daunting" she confessed, but "with Prince Charles beside me I can't go wrong."

The engagement dramatically changes the life of the young Lady Diana, who says she first met the Prince "in a plowed field" at a royal shoot in November 1977. The Prince was with her older sister Sarah. She herself, 16 at the time, says she was frequently paired off with Charles' younger brother Andrew.

Neither dreamed they would one day wed. Charles' search for a bride was headline news all over the world: She was well- born but not well-known, a young lady who taught kindergarten in London's Pimlico.

Now her red Mini-Metro subcompact car is dogged by a brown Rover carrying two detectives. She has moved out of her apartment. She has left her job. And all britain is asking if her mother-in-law-to-be (Queen Elizabeth II) might now plan to abdicate sooner than expected. That would make the Pimlico schoolteacher Queen herself.

Does the Prince worry about the 12-year difference in their ages? No, "You are as old as you think you are -- and Diana will help keep me young."

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