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- Love and Life - 30/60 -


prepared her for the proposal; and as Aurelia was far too simple to conceal anything under cross-examination, Mr. Belamour soon found out what her Ladyship's threats and promises had been.

"The Manor House?" he said. "That is the original nucleus of the property which had hitherto gone to the heir male?"

"So my sister told me," said Aurelia.

"That letter, which Dr. Godfrey read to me, spoke of my poor brother's discomfort in holding it. It is well if thus tardily she refund it, though not as your price, my poor child. It should have been as matter of justice, if not by her husband's dying wish. So this is the alternative set before you! Has it been set before your father likewise?"

"Almost certainly she will have threatened to dismiss him if he do not consent. It was that which made my sister decide on sending me here, or what would become of him and Eugene? But I should think my Lady knew my father better than to seem to offer any kind of price, as you call it, for me."

"Precisely. You have heard from this maternal sister of yours? Does he then give his consent?"

"They say they will not have my inclinations forced, and that they had rather undergo anything than that I should be driven to--to--"

"To be as much a sacrifice as Iphigenia," he concluded the sentence.

"Indeed, sir," said Aurelia, quite restored, "I cannot see why they should imagine me to have such objections, or want me to be so cautious and considerate. I shall write to my papa that it is not at all repugnant to me, for that you are very, very good to me; and if I can make your time pass ever so little more pleasantly, it is a delight to me. I am sure I shall like you better than if---"

"Stay, stay, child," he said, half laughing; "remember, it is as a father that I ask you to love and trust the old recluse."

She thought she had been forward, crimsoned in the dark, and retired into her shell for the rest of the evening. She was glad when with his usual tact, Mr. Belamour begged for the recitation he knew she could make with the least effort of memory.

At the end, however, she ventured to ask--"Sir, shall I be permitted ever to see my father and sister?"

"Certainly, my child. In due time I hope you will enjoy full liberty, though you may have to wait for it."

Aurelia durst not ask what was in her mind, whether they would not come to the wedding, but that one great hope began to outweigh all the strange future. She began to say something about being too young, ignorant, and foolish for him, but this was kindly set aside, she hardly knew how. Mr. Belamour himself suggested the formula in which she might send her consent to Lady Belamour, begging at the same time to retain the company of the little Misses Wayland. To her father she wrote such a letter as might satisfy all doubts as to the absence of all repugnance to the match, and though the Major had sacrificed all to love and honour himself, _mariages de convenance_ were still so much the rule, and wives, bestowed in all passiveness with unawakened hearts, so often proved loving and happy matrons, that it would have been held unreasonable to demand more than absence of dislike on the part of the bride.

Therewith things returned to their usual course, and she was beginning to feel as if all had been a dream, when one evening, about a week later, her suitor appeared to have one of those embarrassing fits of youthful ardour; her hand was passionately seized, caressed, toyed with by a warm strong hand, and kissed by lips that left a burning impression and that were no longer hairy. Surely he had been shaving! Was the time for which he bade her wait, his full recovery, and the resumption of the youthfulness that seemed to come on him in fits and starts, and then to ebb away, and leave him the grave courteous old man she had first known? And why was it always in a whisper that he spoke forth all those endearments which thrilled her with such strange emotions?

When she came into the light, she found her fourth finger encircled with an exquisite emerald ring, which seemed to bind her to her fate, and make her situation tangible. Another time she was entreated to give a lock of her hair, and she of course did so, though it was strange that it should confer any pleasure on her suitor in the dark.

CHAPTER XX. THE MUFFLED BRIDEGROOM.

This old fantastical Duke of dark corners.-- _Measure for Measure._

There was some coming and going of Mr. Hargrave in the ensuing weeks; and it began to be known that Miss Delavie was to become the wife of the recluse. Mrs. Aylward evidently knew it, but said nothing; Molly preferred a petition to be her waiting maid; Jumbo grinned as if over- powered with inward mirth; the old ladies in the pew looked more sour and haughty than ever to discourage "the artful minx," and the little girls asked all manner of absurd and puzzling questions.

My Lady was still at Bath, and Aurelia supposed that the marriage would take place on her return; and that the Major and Betty would perhaps accompany her. The former was quite in his usual health again, and had himself written to give her his blessing as a good dutiful maiden, and declare that he hoped to be with her for her wedding, and to give himself to his honoured friend.

She was the more amazed and startled when, one Sunday evening in spring, Mr. Hargrave came to her as she sat in her own parlour, saying, "Madam, you will be amazed, but under the circumstances, the parson and myself being both here, Mr. Belamour trusts you will not object to the immediate performance of the ceremony."

Aurelia took some moments to realise what the ceremony was; and then she cried, "Oh! but my father meant to have been here."

"Mr. Belamour thinks it better not to trouble Major Delavie to come up," said Mr. Hargrave; and as Aurelia stood in great distress and disappointment at this disregard of her wishes, he added, "I think Miss Delavie cannot fail to understand Mr. Belamour's wishes to anticipate my Lady's arrival, so that he may be as little harassed as possible with display and publicity. You may rely both on his honour and my vigilance that all is done securely and legally."

"Oh! I know that," said Aurelia, blushing; "but it is so sudden! And I was thinking of my father---"

"Your honoured father has given full consent in writing," said the steward. "Your doubts and scruples are most natural, my dear madam, but under the circumstances they must give way, for it would be impossible to Mr. Belamour to go through a public wedding."

That Aurelia well knew, though she had expected nothing so sudden or so private; but she began to feel that she must allow all to be as he chose; and she remembered that she had never pressed on him her longing for her father's presence, having taken it as a matter of course, and besides, having been far too shy to enter on the subject of her wedding. So she rose up as in a dream, saying, "Shall I go as I am?"

"I fear a fuller toilet would be lost upon the bridegroom," said the lawyer with some commiseration, as he looked at the beautiful young creature about to be bound to the heart-broken old hermit. "You will have to do me the honour of accepting my services in the part of father."

He was a man much attached to the family, and especially to Mr. Belamour, his first patron, and was ready to do anything at his bidding or for his pleasure. Such private weddings were by no uncommon up to the middle of the last century. The State Law was so easy as to render Gretna Green unnecessary, when the presence of any clergyman anywhere, while the parties plighted their troth before witnesses, was sufficient to legalise the union; nor did any shame or sense of wrong necessarily attach to such marriages. Indeed they were often the resource of persons too bashful or too refined to endure the display and boisterous merriment by which a public wedding was sure to be attended. Every one knew of excellent and respectable couples who had not been known to be married till the knot had been tied for several days or weeks--so that there was nothing in this to shock the bride. And as usual she did as she was told, and let Mr. Hargrave lead her by her finger-tips towards Mr. Belamour's apartments. Mrs. Aylward was waiting in the lobby, with a fixed impassive countenance, intended to imply that though obedient to the summons to serve as a witness, it was no concern of hers. On the stairs behind her the maids were leaning over the balusters, stuffing their aprons into their mouths lest their tittering should betray them.

The sitting-room was nearly, but not quite, dark, for a lamp, closely shaded, cast a dim light on a Prayer-book, placed on a small table, behind which stood poor Mr. Greaves--a black spectre, whose white bands were just discernible below a face whose nervous, disturbed expression was lost in the general gloom. He carefully avoided looking at the bride, fearing perhaps some appeal on her part such as would make his situation perplexing. Contempt and poverty had brought his stamp of clergymen very low, and rendered them abject. He had been taken by surprise, and though assured that this was according to my Lady's will, and with the consent of the maiden's father, he was in an agony of fright, shifting awkwardly from leg to leg, and ruffling the leaves of the book, as a door opened and the bridegroom appeared, followed by Jumbo.

Aurelia looked up with bashful eagerness, and saw in the imperfect light a tall figure entirely covered by a long dark dressing-gown, a grey, tight curled lawyer's wig on the head, and the upper part of the face sheltered from the scanty rays of the lamp by a large green shade.

Taking his place opposite to her as Mr. Hargrave arranged them, he bowed in silence to the clergyman, who, in a trembling voice, began the rite which was to unite Amyas Belamour to Aurelia Delavie. He intended to shorten the service, but his nervous terror and the obscurity of the room made him stumble in finding the essential passages, and blunder in dictating the vows, thus increasing the confusion and bewilderment of poor little Aurelia. Somehow her one comfort was in the touch of the hand that either clasped hers, or held the ring on her finger--a strong, warm, tender, trustworthy


Love and Life - 30/60

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