MoboReader> Literature > Fallen Fortunes

   Chapter 20 MERRY AS A MARRIAGE BELL.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 21555

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The brilliant light of a sunny June morning was illumining the private chapel, where a marriage was being solemnized in presence of the Queen, and of certain favoured persons connected with the Court, of whom the Duchess of Marlborough was one.

The Duke himself was in Holland, whither he had gone so soon as the army was able to leave its winter quarters. The year of victory, from which he had returned a few months before, was destined to be followed by a year of disaster to the Allies, and already the brow of the Duchess seemed somewhat clouded by care. She had her own troubles, too, at Court. The Queen's favour was distinctly waning, and the imperious temper of the Duchess knew not how to put up with what seemed to her coldness or slights. She felt the influence of Harley, and of her kinswoman and his, Mrs. Masham, gaining ground daily; and the presage of coming trouble seemed to be hanging over her now. Yet she bore herself bravely, and to-day her face was wreathed in smiles; for Sir Grey Dumaresq was her particular favourite, and had been her guest for a great part of the year, whenever he was in town; and the Queen's interest in the young man and his career and success was one of the strongest links which still bound them together.

And to-day Grey Dumaresq was to wed the Lady Geraldine, and the Queen had decreed that the ceremony should take place at an early hour in her own private chapel in Kensington Palace, that she might witness the nuptials herself; for she had been greatly pleased by the beauty and modesty and gentleness of Geraldine, who had been presented to her by the Duchess, and she desired to show her approval of the young baronet's choice by her own presence at his espousals.

Lady Romaine had forgotten her anger and jealousy against her daughter in her pride and delight at the honour bestowed upon them. It had pleased her to speak slightingly of the Queen and her Court at such times as she had been uncertain of the nature of her own reception there; but now she could not boast sufficiently of the condescension and kindness of the Queen, of her intimacy with the Duchess, and of the favour in which her son-in-law-elect was held by royalty and by all the Court. The matron had even found it well to throw aside some of those frivolities and follies that hitherto had been jealously retained, as giving her favour in the eyes of the young bloods of fashion, with whom she had been wont to amuse herself. Her ready observation told her that she was derided for these by graver persons, and that at the Court they would hinder rather than help her advance to favour. With quick adaptability, she had sought to model herself upon the graver ladies surrounding the Queen, and even to emulate the Duchess of Marlborough in her stately dignity of demeanour. If she had not succeeded in this, she had at least gained much that had hitherto been lacking, and her husband and daughter rejoiced heartily in the change. If some of her admirers forsook her, she found their place taken by men of far greater standing, who regarded Lord Romaine as a man likely to be useful to his party, and paid a certain polished court to his handsome wife. The lady began to talk politics now, to discuss the Act of Union, the Occasional Conformity Bill, and other topics of the day, with an air of interest and knowledge; and being gifted with considerable quickness and powers of assimilation and reproduction, she was soon able to hold her own, and pass for a woman of acuteness and observation.

She had found her daughter of great use to her at the first, for Geraldine was remarkably well educated, and had a very clear notion of the state of parties and the history of public movements. All her stores of information were at her mother's disposal, and so a new link had been formed between them during the months of the girl's betrothal, and instead of the mother's looking forward with delight to being rid of the incubus of a grown-up daughter, she was disposed to be pathetic over the separation and her own personal loss.

Now this was a very happy change for Geraldine, for the lack of a mother's love had been very keenly felt by her. Her face, as she stood at the altar, plighting her troth to the man she loved, was full of a wonderful happiness and joy-a different face from the grave and almost wistful one of the past; different, and yet with an enhanced beauty which riveted the eyes of all beholders, and caused the Queen to wipe her eyes with her lace kerchief as she gazed, whisper softly in the ear of one of her ladies,-

"Ah me! it is good to be young and beloved! Heaven send she may never know aught to dim that joy and that love!"

Sir Grey's happiness and joy was no whit less than that of his bride, and was written almost as clear upon his face. Bride and bridegroom were both clad in white, as became the season and the ceremony; and the young man's gleaming whiteness was well set off by the gorgeous colours of Lord Sandford's attire, as he stood beside him as his supporter and "best man." This he did by his own request, and with the ready consent of the Queen. She had been told enough of Lord Sandford to be interested in that rather remarkable personage. She had given him audience more than once, and had intrusted him earlier in the year with a special embassy to the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene, which he had so ably carried out that it was whispered he was likely to obtain more such secret service errands. It was the sort of work for which he was eminently fitted, and the responsibility had sobered him and kept in check all disposition on his part to break out into any of the wild excesses with which he had been wont to amuse himself in order to while away the time. He was now setting to work to get his affairs into order. Having failed to win the fortune of the heiress, he had to turn his mind to other methods. He had sold his horses for large sums to the gilded dandies who fluttered about him, and with some heavy winnings at the card-tables he paid off a number of his debts, and began to feel like a free man. The sale of his property at St. Albans, which he no longer wanted, enabled him to pay off a mortgage upon his ancestral acres; and with a little care and moderate luck in gaming (for Lord Sandford was not possessed of the scruples which had harassed Grey, and which were far in advance of his day), he hoped soon to retrieve the position of a man of wealth and position, which he had been inclined to fling away for the pleasures of a careless and vicious age.

His friendship with Grey Dumaresq, strangely begun, and strangely broken, was now cemented afresh, and seemed likely to last and to increase. It was by his own wish that he stood beside him on his marriage day. He had so schooled himself that he could do this without pain, and he would have grudged the place to any other, claiming his own right as being Grey's oldest available friend.

And now the brief ceremony was ended. Sir Grey and his bride came down from the steps of the altar to receive the felicitations and gratulations of their friends. The Queen kissed the bride upon her brow, wished her happiness, and presented her with a beautiful clasp of diamonds and pearls, which she took from the laces about her throat, and bade the young wife wear for her sake. Then when the royal lady had taken her departure, and the little procession had left the chapel, other friends and well-wishers crowded round, prophesying happiness and all other good things to the youthful pair. They streamed out-a rainbow-tinted bevy-into the courtyard, where coaches waited to convey them to the wedding feast at Lord Romaine's house; and this they found laid out in al fresco fashion beneath the trees of the beautiful old garden, which had been Geraldine's place of refuge for so long, and to which she would be half sorry now to bid farewell.

"Do you remember, sweetheart," whispered Grey in her ear, as they stood together and a little apart at the conclusion of the banquet-"do you remember that summer morning a year ago when I did hear you singing, and could not keep away?"

"Remember! Do I ever forget it as I stand here looking at the shining river? Ah dear my lord, methinks it was upon that day that my heart first did leave mine own keeping, albeit it was long ere I knew it!"

"Could we but have seen how it would be a year hence with us, how little would the clouds and darkness which followed have disturbed and troubled our peace!"

"And yet methinks, dear love, it is better not to know; for so do we learn to trust the love of our heavenly Father, and to put our faith and confidence in Him. So He leads us from darkness into light, and our hearts are filled with love and gratitude towards Him."

Grey bent and kissed her on the brow.

"You shall teach me more of your pure faith and love, my wife, that we may be one in all things."

Don Carlos was pawing the stones of the courtyard, in fretted impatience which Dick had some ado to curb. Beside him stood a light, graceful barb, bearing a lady's saddle on his back. A little in the rear were some half-dozen horses and some liveried servants. The clock in the tower of Lord Romaine's house had just struck the hour of three.

The doors were flung open wide, and forth there came a gay company of guests, all eager to speed upon their way the newly-wedded pair. These had changed their wedding finery for riding dress. Grey wore his favourite workman-like suit of fine buff, stamped in silver, with white buckskin breeches and long boots. His lady was habited in a riding-dress of white face-cloth, with lacings of golden cord, a white hat with a drooping plume, and long white gauntlet gloves. Her palfrey was snow-white too, as became the bearer of a bride; and as Grey swung her deftly to her saddle, the pretty creature curveted and pranced, as though in pride at bearing so fair a burden.

The next minute the bridegroom had leaped upon Don Carlos, and both riders were waving their hands in response to the eager clamour of gratulation and farewell which sprang to the lips of the bystanders. Smiling and waving his hat, Grey put Don Carlos at a trot, and the little procession swept out of the courtyard in all the glory of the summer afternoon, with the voices of their friends sounding gaily in their ears.

"We shall be at Hartsbourne ere the day dies, sweet wife," spoke Grey, as he looked up at the sunny sky. "You will not be fatigued by the ride, after all you have gone through? You would not rather spend a night upon the way?"

"Ah no; this is rest," answered Geraldine, as her light, mettlesome palfrey cantered gently alongside the stalwart Don Carlos. "I could ride for ever through t

his clear, soft sunshine, with the wind fanning our faces. Nay, nay, but we will reach Hartsbourne to-night. Have I not waited long enough to see my future home, O tyrant husband, who would not take me there before?" and a laugh sparkled in her eyes as she spoke these words, for it had always been one of their cherished jests that not till she came there as his wife should she look upon the beauties and the charms of Hartsbourne.

"Did you desire it then so much, dearest?" he asked. "It was my wish that it should be made a meet and fitting home for you ere I did bring you thither. It looked so desolate when I reached it after being long absent. I did desire to take away that air of desolation ere your dear eyes should behold it. Yet had I thought you wished it so much-"

"I wish nothing but to do your will, good my lord," she answered, with a look in her eyes that set his heart beating tumultuously within him. "And is not this worth waiting for? Can any sight of it be precious as this one will be, when my husband takes me home?"

They had distanced their servants, and were riding alone in the lane; for they skirted the great city instead of passing through it, and kept to the softer, pleasanter tracks through fields and woodlands; so he could reach forth and take her hand, and hold it in his as they rode onwards with free elastic stride.

"My beloved, my beloved, my beloved!" he replied, and his tongue refused all other words.

The glory of the summer sunset was in the sky as they breasted the last wooded ridge which hid them from the hollow in which Hartsbourne lay. The woods, shimmering in their exquisite dress of golden green, seemed to take fire from the level glory of the ruddy rays lying across them. The waving grass tossed like a restless sea of light, as the breeze played over it; and the birds in the thickets, silent during the hours of heat, now burst into liquid melody to sing to rest the dying day.

Halting at the top of the ridge, as Grey had halted there so long ago, as it now seemed to him, he pointed downwards with his whip, and there was a little quiver in his voice as he said,-

"Yonder, in that hollow, lies our home. You can scarce see it for the screen of the trees; but you will see it anon-there where the shining stream meanders and the glades of the wood open out. Come, let us leave the road, and ride through my favourite glade. So shall I show you a glimpse of your home, where to my eyes it looks the fairest."

They moved along side by side. The horses' feet made scarce a sound, sunk deep in grass and moss. The golden glamour of the beech wood encircled them, lights and shadows played hide-and-seek along the sward, flowers gemmed the hollows, and the breath of the honeysuckle was sweet to their senses as they pursued their way. The deer got up in haste at their approach, and scuttled away into deeper shadow; and squirrels and rabbits whisked hither and thither, astonished at this sudden invasion of their silvan solitude.

But the bride and bridegroom scarce exchanged a word; their hearts were well-nigh too full. The happiness was almost oppressive. Suddenly Grey paused, and, drawing her a little to the left, pointed through an opening in the trees and said,-

"There is your home, my dearest!"

She saw it then, and her heart gave a great throb. They were looking upon the west front of the gray old house, no longer lying desolate, forlorn, shut up, its windows broken or shuttered, neglect and decay everywhere. No, all that was changed now. The windows shone between their carved mullions; the creepers which curtained the walls had been cut and trained, so that they could bloom and breathe once more, instead of hanging in vast masses, almost broken down by their own weight. The last of the sunlight gilded the tracery of oriel window and ancient carving; lay like a caress upon the smooth green of the wide terrace in front, with its clipped yew trees, its stone vases and statues, and its ancient sundial. Two stately peacocks walked up and down, uttering from time to time their strange, melancholy trumpet note. A great hound rose up from a sheltered corner, threw his head into the air, sniffed for a few moments, and then bounded towards them with a mighty baying sound.

"Our first welcome, dear heart," spoke Grey. "This is one of the guardians of Hartsbourne's treasure. Well, he must learn that he has a new and a greater treasure to guard now."

The hound knew the master well. He fawned upon him with delight; and, after having gravely sniffed at Geraldine's proffered hand, took her once and for all beneath his protection, and shared the love of his faithful heart betwixt her and her lord.

The young wife slipped from her saddle as they reached the little wooden bridge which led over the stream, and the servants coming up in a few moments took the horses round by the road, whilst husband and wife went onwards with the hound in attendance, up the sloping greensward, where flowers gemmed the borders, and roses gave forth their sweetness upon the evening air; through the gardens, already partially restored, and in time to be made yet more beautiful; towards the house which was their home, lying dim and dreamlike in the gathering twilight.

"Dear heart, we are at home. Welcome to Hartsbourne!" spoke he. And she could only lift her quivering lips to his, for she had no words in which to answer him.

And so they passed into the ancient house together, to receive the loving greetings of their retainers and servants, who all knew the master by this time, and were eager and joyfully ready to receive the bride of his choice. Old Jock was there, in the glory of his new place as house-steward, the tears of joy standing in his eyes as he kissed the hand the lady graciously extended, when she thanked him for his protestations of devotion, and told him how she had heard of his fidelity to his master. It was all so happy, so full of simple joy and good will. She read affection to her lord in every face; she saw by the flower-decked rooms and the loving care everywhere visible throughout the quaint old house how much all had desired that this home-coming should bring joy to their hearts and bespeak the welcome of loving service. That was more to her than the beauty of the things her eyes rested upon-the soft hangings, the quaint carvings, the pictures, the plenishings, the rare and costly objects which met her gaze at every turn.

"They were found in the secret chamber, most of them," Grey told her as, after having supped, they walked hand in hand through the house, which was all lighted up for their inspection. "When and how and whence they came there, I know not. Jock declares that many are heirlooms, which must have been hidden away in some time of peril-possibly at the rising of Monmouth, or at the Revolution; some perhaps even in the civil war; others, methinks, my poor father must have won from luckless gamblers, and have sold to his kinsman, or paid over to him as interest upon debts. I know not, I cannot tell; but here they are, and all men tell me they are mine. They will serve to make a fitting setting for the priceless jewel which my house doth now enshrine; and in so doing, they and we must needs find contentment."

It would have been hard, in sooth, not to feel contentment in such environment. Grey had taken care not to destroy, but to restore, when the old house passed into his keeping once more. The old world charm hung yet upon it; nothing garish or bizarre was to be found there, as in the houses of fashionable dames such as Lady Romaine, who loved to jumble together trophies and curiosities from every part of the globe in confusion worse confounded. There was none of this lavish profusion or confusion here; but each thing looked in its own place, set off by polished panelling or dusky arras. And even the scent of rose leaves was the same as in his mother's day; and Grey whispered to his bride that he liked to think she could see them now, and share in some sort their happiness.

As they reached the end of a long gallery, which brought their wanderings almost to a close, Grey paused before the door of a certain room, and instead of turning the handle immediately, he knocked upon the panels of the door.

A deep sonorous voice bade him enter; and taking his wife's hand in his, he led her into a large, low, airy apartment, which had windows looking both south and west, where, upon a cleverly-contrived couch, running very easily upon wheels, lay an old man with a lion-like face and a mass of snow-white hair, whose hands were extended in eager yet restrained and dignified greeting.

"Welcome-thrice welcome-happy bridegroom! Methought you would not fail to come and visit me to-night!"

"Of course I should not fail, good friend; and here I bring you my wife, whom you have ofttimes desired to see.-Geraldine, need I tell you that this is my friend, Mr. Jonathan Wylde, whom last you saw as Father Time with his scythe and hour-glass? Well, he has cheated both, you see, albeit he was like to be mown down once. He will remain as our honoured guest and friend so long as he is spared to us. For he did come to my aid when I was very near to desperation and despair, and we have stood shoulder to shoulder ever since."

"I know all the tale," answered Geraldine, and she knelt down and took the old man's hands in hers, bending upon him one of her sweetest glances. "It is a tale that goes to my heart, for it is hard to think even of sufferings past, where those we love are concerned. I thank you from my heart for all you did at that time for my husband. And indeed it was (under Providence) through you that his bark reached at the last so fair a haven, and that we are here together this night."

The tears which had sprung to the old man's eyes slowly rolled down his cheeks. His happiness in seeing again the man he loved with his bride at his side was almost too much for him. Geraldine saw this, and pressed his hands gently, rising to her feet at the same time.

"Nay, nay," he answered brokenly; "I was but an instrument in the hands of Providence-a link of the chain not made by human hands."

"Yes, truly, we will think of it like that. It is God who has brought good out of evil, peace out of strife, calm out of storm for us all. To Him will we give the thanks and the praise. And now, good friend, we must bid you farewell, though only till the morrow."

He took their hands, one in each of his, and looked at them as one of the old patriarchs might have gazed upon his beloved ones.

"God bless and prosper you, my children!" he said; and they softly answered, "Amen."

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