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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 hand, neither as white nor as soft as she would have expected, but giving her a comfortable sense both of present support and affection, and of identity with that eager one which had sought to fondle and caress her. There was a certain tremor about both, but hers was from bashful fright, his, from scarcely suppressed eagerness.
The steward had a form of certificate ready for signature. When it was presented to the bridegroom he put up his hand for a moment as if to push back the shade, but, in dread of admitting even a feeble ray of light, gave up the attempt, took the pen and wrote Amyas Belamour where the clergyman pointed. Aurelia could hardly see what she was doing, and knew she had written very badly. The lawyer and housekeeper followed as witnesses; and the bridegroom, laying a fee of ten guineas on the desk, took his bride by the hand and led her within the door whence he had issued. It was instantly closed, and at the same moment she was enfolded in a pair of rapturous arms, and held to a breast whose throbs wakened response in her own, while passionate kisses rained on her face, mingled with ecstatic whispers and murmurs of "Mine! mine! my own!"
On a knock at the door she was hastily released, and Mr. Hargrave said, "Here are the certificates, sir."--Mr. Belamour put one into her hand, saying "Keep it always about you; never part with it. And now, my child, after all the excitement you have gone through, you shall be subjected to no more to-night. Fare you well, and blessings attend your dreams."
Strange that while he was uttering this almost peremptory dismissal, she should feel herself in a clinging grasp, most unwilling to let her go! What did it all mean? Could she indeed be a wife, when here she was alone treading the long dark stair, in looks, in habits, in externals, still only the little governess of my Lady's children! However, she had hardly reached her room, before there was a knock at the door, and the giggling, blushing entrance of Molly with "Please, ma'am, Madam Belamour, I wishes you joy with all my heart. Please can't I do nothing for you? Shall I help you undress, or brush your hair?"
Perhaps she expected a largesse in honour of the occasion, but Aurelia had spent all her money on Christmas gifts, and had nothing to bestow. However, she found on the breakfast-table a parcel addressed to Madam Belamour, containing a purse with a startling amount of golden guineas in it. She was rather surprised at the title, which was one generally conferred on dignified matrons whose husbands were below the rank of knighthood, such as the wives of country squires and of the higher clergy. The calling her mother Madam Delavie had been treated as an offence by Lady Belamour; and when the day had gone by, with nothing else to mark it from others, Aurelia, finding her recluse in what she mentally called his quiet rational mood, ventured, after thanking him, modestly to inquire whether that was what she was to be called.
"It is better thus," hes said. "You have every right to the title."
She recollected that he was a baronet's younger son, a distinction in those days; and that she had been told that his patent of knighthood had been made out, though he had never been able to appear at court to receive the accolade, and had never assumed the title; so she only said "Very well, sir, I merely thought whether my Lady would think it presuming."
He laughed a little. "My Lady will soon understand it," he said. "Her husband will be at home in a few weeks. And now, my dear Madam Belamour," he add playfully, "tell me whether there is any wish that I can gratify."
"You are very kind, sir---"
"What does that pause mean, my fair friend?"
"I fear it is too much to ask, sir, but since you inquire what would please me most, it would be if you could spare me to go to my sister Harriet's wedding?"
"My child," he said, with evident regret, "I fear that cannot be. It will not be prudent to make any move until Mr. Wayland's return; but after that I can assure you of more liberty. Meantime, let us consider what wedding present you would like to send her."
Aurelia had felt her request so audacious that she subsided easily; and modestly suggested a tea-service. She thought of porcelain, but Mr. Belamour's views were of silver, and it ended in the lady giving the cups and saucers, and the gentleman the urn and the tea and coffee pots and other plate; but it was a drawback to the pleasure of this munificence that the execution of the order had to be entrusted to Mr. Hargrave. The daring hope Aurelia had entertained of shopping for a day, with Mrs. Aylward as an escort, and choosing the last fashions to send to her sisters was quashed by the grave reply that it was better not for the present. What was the meaning of all this mystery, and when was it to end? She felt that it would be ungrateful to murmur, for Mr. Belamour evidently was full of sorrow whenever he was obliged to disappoint her, and much was done for her pleasure. A charming little saddle- horse, two riding-habits, with a groom, and a horse for him, were sent down from London for her benefit; gifts showered upon her; and whenever she found her husband in one of those perplexing accesses of tenderness she was sure to carry away some wonderful present, a beautiful jewelled watch, an etui case, a fan, a scent-bottle, or patch-box with a charming enamel of a butterfly. The little girls were always looking for something pretty that she would show them in the morning, and thought it must be a fine thing to have a husband who gave such charming things. Those caressing evenings, however, always frightened Aurelia, and sent her away vaguely uneasy, often to lie awake full of a vague yearning and alarm; and several days of restlessness would pass before she could return to her ordinary enjoyment of her days with the children and her evenings with Mr. Belamour. Yet when there was any long intermission of those fits of tender affection, she missed them sorely, and began to fear she had given offence, especially as this strangely capricious man seemed sometimes to repel those modest, timid advances which at other times would fill him with ill-suppressed transport. Then came longings to see and satisfy herself as to what was indeed the aspect of him whom she was learning to love.
No wonder there was something unsettled and distressed about her, overthrowing much of that gentle duteous ness which she had brought from home. She wrote but briefly and scantily to her sister, not feeling as if she could give full confidence; she drifted away from some of the good habits enjoined on her, feeling that, as a married woman, she was less under authority. She was less thorough in her religious ways, less scrupulous in attending to the children's lessons; and the general fret of her uncertainties told upon her temper with them. They loved her heartily still, and she returned their affection, but she was not so uniformly patient and good- humoured. Indeed since Amoret's departure some element of harmony was missing, and it could not now be said that a whine, a quarrel, or a cry was a rare event. Even the giving up my lady's wearisome piece of embroidery had scarcely a happy effect, for Aurelia missed the bracing of the task-work and the attention it required, and the unoccupied time was spent in idle fretting. A little self- consequence too began to set in, longing for further recognition of the dignities of Madam Belamour.
The marriage had been notified to Lady Belamour and to Major Delavie, and letters had been received from each. My Lady travelled to London early in April in company with Lady Aresfield, and, to the relief of the inmates of Bowstead, made no deviation thither. No one else was officially told that the wedding had taken place, but all the village knew it; and Mrs. Phoebe and Mrs. Delia so resented it that they abandoned the state pew to Madam Belamour and the children, made their curtsies more perpendicularly than ever, and, when formally invited to supper, sent a pointed and ceremonious refusal, so that Aurelia felt hurt and angered.
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