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“I have come for Meta," said Rose, as she entered. “Mamma thinks she would like to see the wedding." Will you let her come, Maria ?"
Maria hesitated. “In the church, do you mean? Suppose she should not be good ?"
“I will be good,” said Meta, in a high state of delight at the prospect. “ Mamma, I'll be very good.”
She went with Margery to be dressed. Rose turned to her sister. “ Are you pretty well this morning, Maria ?”
“ Pretty well, Rose. I cannot boast of much strength yet."
“ I wish you would return with me and Meta. Mamma told me to try and bring you. To spend the day with us will be a change, and you need not go near the church."
“I don't feel equal to it, Rose. I should not have the strength to walk. Tell mamma so, with my dear love."
“ Maria, I wonder they did not ask you to the wedding !"
" Do you? It is a foolish wonder, Rose. I am not sufficiently well for weddings, even had other circumstances been favourable. Cecil was here yesterday, and sat an hour with me."
“ Only fancy !-she is to be married in a bonnet!" exclaimed Rose, with indignation. “A bonnet and a grey dress. I wonder Lord Averil consented to it! I should hardly call it a wedding. A bonnet!
and no breakfast!-and Bessy Godolphin and Lord Averil's sister, who is older if anything than Bessy, for the bridesmaids !"
“Would a gayer wedding have been consistent-under the circumstances ?”
Rose knitted her brow at the words, but smoothed her hand over it, remembering who was looking at her. “I-I do not see, Maria," she hesitatingly said, “ that what has past need throw its shade on the wedding of Cecil and Lord Averil."
“And the state of Thomas Godolphin ?”
“Ah, yes, to be sure! I was not thinking of him. But it is very dreadful to be married without a wreath and a veil, and with only a couple of old bridesmaids.”
“And by only one clergyman," added Maria, her lips parting with a smile. “Do you think the marriage will stand good, Rose ?”
Rose felt inclined to resent the joke. The illusions of the weddingday were, in her eyes, absolutely necessary to the marriage ceremony. Meta came in, ready; as full of bustling excitement as ever ; eager to be gone. She kissed her mamma in careless haste, and was impatient because Rose lingered to say a word. Maria watched her down the path ; her face and eyes sparkling, her feet dancing with eagerness, her laughter ringing in the air.
" She has forgotten already her tears for the parting that must come,” murmured Maria. “How soon, I wonder, after I shall be gone, will she forget me ?”.
She laid her temples lightly against the window-frame, as she looked dreamily at the blue sky; as she listened dreamily to the sweet bells that rang out so merrily in the ears of Prior's Ash.
III. NEARER AND NEARER FOR THOMAS GODOLPHIN. PRIOR's Asu lingered at its doors and its windows, curious to wit. ness the outer signs of Cecilia Godolphin's wedding. The arrangements for it were to them more a matter of speculation than of certainty, since various rumours had gone afloat, and were eagerly caught up, although of the most contradictory character. All that appeared certain as yet was-that the day was charming and the bells were ringing.
How the beadle kept the gates that day, he alone knew. That staff of his was brought a great deal more into requisition than was liked by the sea of noses pressing there. And when the first carriage came, the excitement in the street was great.
The first carriage! There were but two; that and another. Prior's Ash turned up its disappointed nose, and wondered, with Rose Hastings, what the world was coming to.
It was a chariot drawn by four horses. The livery of the postilions and the coronet on the panels proclaimed it to be Lord Averil's. He sat inside it with Thomas Godolphin. The carriage following it was Lady Godolphin's, and appeared to contain only ladies, all wearing bonnets and coloured gowns. The exasperated gazers, who had bargained for something very different, set up a half groan.
They set up a whole one, those round the gates, when Lord Averil and his friend alighted. But the groan was not one of exasperation, or of anger. It was a low murmur of sorrow, of sympathy, and it was called forth by the appearance of Thomas Godolphin. It was some little time now since Thomas Godolphin had been seen in public, and the change in him was startling. He walked forward, leaning on the arm of Lord Averil, lifting his bat to the greeting that was breathed around; a greeting of sorrow meant, as he knew, not for the peer, but for him, and his fading life. The few scanty hairs stood out to their view as he uncovered his head, and the ravages of the disease that was killing him were all too conspicuous on his wasted features.
“ God bless him. He's very nigh upon the grave.”
Who said it of the crowd, Thomas Godolphin could not tell, but the words and their accent, full of rude sympathy, came distinctly upon his ear. He quitted the viscount's arm, turned to them, and raised his hands with a solemn meaning.
“God bless you all, my friends. I am indeed near upon the grave. Should there be any here who have suffered injury through me, let them forgive me for it. It was not intentionally done, and I may almost say that I am expiating it with my life. May God bless you all, here and hereafter !" • Something like a sob burst from the astonished crowd. But that he had bastened on with Lord Averil, they might have fallen on their knees and clung to him in their flood-tide of respect and love.
The Reverend Mr. Hastings stood in his surplice at the altar. He, too, was changed. The keen, vigorous, bealthy man had now a grey,
worn look. He could not forget the blow; minister though he was, he could not forgive George Godolphin. He was not quite sure that he forgave Thomas for not having looked more closely after his brother and the bank generally : had he done so, the calamity might never have occurred. Every hour of the day reminded Mr. Hastings of his loss, in the discomforts which had necessarily fallen on his home, in the position of his daughter Maria. George Godolphin had never been a favourite of his : he had tried to like him in vain. It was strange that where so many owned to the fascination of George Godolphin, the Rector of All Souls' and his daughter Grace had held aloof; had disliked him. Could it have been some mysterious friendly warning of future ill, which would make itself heard in the heart of Mr. Hastings and whisper him not to give away Maria ? At any rate, it had not answered. He had given ber, and he had striven to like her husband afterwards : but he had not fully succeeded : he never would have succeeded without this last blow, which had drawn him under its wheels with so many others. The Rector of All Souls' was a man of severe judgment, and rumour had made too free with gay George's name for him to find favour with the rector.
He stood there, waiting for the wedding-party. A few ladies were in the church in their pews, and Rose Hastings sat there with Meta. All eyes were turned to the door in expectation : but when the group entered there was not much to see. No cortége, no marshalling, no veils, no plumes, no anything! But that Rose was prepared for it, she would have shrieked out with indignation.
Lord Averil was the first to enter. Cecilia Godolphin came next with Thomas. She wore a light grey silk robe, and a plain white bonnet, trimmed inside with orange-blossoms. The Honourable Miss Averil and Bessy Godolphin followed; old in Rose Hastings's opinion, certainly old for bridesmaids; their silk dresses of a darker shade of grey, and their white bonnets without the orange-blossoms. Lady Godolphin was next, more resplendent than any, in a lemon brocaded dress that stood on end with richness.
Did the recollection of the last wedding service he had performed for a Godolphin cause the Rector of All Souls' voice to be subdued now, as he read? Seven years ago he had stood there as he was standing to-day, George and Maria before him. How had that promising union ended? And for the keeping of his sworn vows, George best knew what he had kept and what he had broken. The rector was thinking of that past ceremony now.
This one was over. The promises were made, the register signed, and Lord Averil was leading Cecilia from the church, when the rector stepped before them and took her hand.
“I pray God that your union may be more happy than some others have been,” he said. “That, in a great degree, rests with you, Lord Averil. Take care of her."
Her eyes filled with tears, but the viscount grasped bis hand warmly. “I will; I will."
“Let me bless you both, Averil!" broke in the quiet voice of Thomas Godolphin. “ It may be that I shall not see you again to do it."
"Oh, but we shall meet again ; you must not die yet," exclaimed Lord Averil, with feverish eagerness. “My friend, I would rather part with the whole world, save Cecil, than with you.”
Their hands lingered together-and separated. Not very long now would Thomas keep them out of Ashlydyat.
The beadle was nobbing his stick on the heads and noses with great force, and the excited crowd pushed and danced round that travelling carriage, but they made their way to it. The placing in Cecil and the taking his place beside her seemed to be but the work of a moment, so quickly did it pass, and Lord Averil, a pleasant smile upon his face, bowed to the shouts on either side as the carriage threaded its way through the throng. Not until it had got into clear ground did the postilions put their horses to a canter, and the bridegroom and bride were fairly away on their bridal tour.
There was more ceremony needed to place the ladies in the other carriage. Lady Godolphin's skirts, in their extensive richness, took five minutes to arrange of themselves, ere a space could be found for Thomas Godolphin beside her. The footman held the door for him.
“No," he said; “I will follow you presently."
Bessy felt startled. “You will not attempt to walk ?" she said, leaning forward.
He smiled at her; smiled at the utter futility of such an attempt now. The time for walking to Ashlydyat was past for Thomas Godolphin.
"A fly is coming for me, Bessy. I have a call or two to make."
Lady Godolphin's carriage drove away, and Thomas turned into the rectory. Mrs. Hastings, grey, worn, old, ten years older than she had been six months before, came forward to greet him, commiseration in every line of her countenance.
“I thought I would say good-by to you,” he said, as he held her bands in his. “ It will be my only opportunity. I expect this is my last quitting of Ashlydyat."
“Say good-by ?" she faltered. “Are you-are you-so near- "
“Look at me," quietly said Thomas, answering her unfinished sentence.
But there was an interruption. Bustling little feet and a busy little tongue came upon them. Miss Meta had broken from Rose and run in alone, throwing her straw bat aside as she entered.
“ Uncle Thomas! Uncle Thomas! I saw you at the wedding, Uncle Thomas."
He sat down and took the child on his knee. “And I saw Meta," he answered. “How is mamma? I am going to see ber presently."
“Mamma's not well,” said Meta, shaking her head. “Mamma cries often. She was crying this morning. Uncle Thomas”- lowering her voice and speaking slowly—“ mamma says she's going to heaven."
There was a startled pause. Thomas broke it by laying his hand upon the golden-baired head.
“I trust we are all going there, Meta. A little earlier or a little later, as God shall will. It will not much matter when."
A few minutes' conversation, and Thomas Godolphin went out to
the fly which waited for him. Bexley, who was with it, helped him in.
“ To Mrs. George Godolphin's."
The attentive old retainer-older by twenty years than Thomas, but younger in health and vigour-carefully assisted his master up the garden path. Maria saw the approach from the window. Why it was she knew not, but she was feeling unusually ill that day : scarcely able to rise to a sitting position on the sofa. Thomas was shocked at the alteration in her, and involuntarily thought of the child's words, “ Mamma says she's going to heaven.”
“I thought I should like to say farewell to you, Maria," he said, as he drew a chair near her. “I did not expect to find you looking so ill."
She had burst into tears. Whether it was the unusual depression of her own spirits, or his wan face, emotion overcame her.
" It has been too much for both of us," he murmured, holding her hands. “We must forgive him, Maria. It was done in carelessness, perhaps, but not in wilfulness."
“No, no; not in wilfulness," she whispered. “He is my husband and your brother still.”
There was a lull in their emotion. Thomas gave her some of the details of the wedding, and she was beguiled to ask different questions. “Do you know what George is likely to do ?” he suddenly inquired.
“No; I wish I did know. He talks much of this promise of Lord Averil's, and says he is looking out for something to do in the mean while. The uncertainty troubles me greatly. We cannot live on nothing."
“ Has he sent you any money lately?" asked Thomas, in a voice of hesitation.
Maria's face flushed. “ He gave me ten pounds when he was at home last, and it is not spent yet."
Thomas leaned his head on his band musingly. “I wonder where he gets it?"
Maria was silent. To say “ I think he is helped by Mr. Verrall,” might only have given Thomas fresh pain. “ It is very kind of you to come to see. me," she said, changing the subject. “I feel it dull here all day alone."
“Why do you not come to Ashlydyat sometimes ? You know we should be glad to see you."
She shook her head. “I can't go out, Thomas. And indeed I am not strong enough for it now."
“But, Maria, you should not give way to this grief; this weakness. You are young; you have no incurable complaint as I have,
“I don't know,” she sighed. “At times I feel as though I should never be well again. I-I-have been so reproached, Thomas; so much blame has been cast to me by all people; it has been as if I had made away with their money; and you know that I was as innocent as they were. And there have been other things. If-if- "
" It what ?" asked Thomas, leaning over her. She was sitting back upon the sofa, her fair young face wan and