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The Hand of Ethelberta.
KNOLLSEA.—THE ROAD THENCE.—LYCHWORTH.
LL eyes were directed to the church-gate, as the
travellers descended the hill. No wedding carriages were there, no favours, no slatternly group of women brimming with interest, no aged pauper on two sticks, who comes because he has nothing else to do till dying time, no nameless female passing by on the other side with a laugh of indifference, no ringers taking off their coats as they vanish up a turret, no hobbledehoys on tiptoe outside the chancel windows in short, none whatever of the customary accessories of a country wedding was anywhere visible.
“ Thank God !” said Chickerel. “ Wait till you know he deserves it," said Mountclere.
Nothing 's done yet between them."
“It is not likely that anything is done, at this time of day. But I have decided to go to the church first. You will probably go to your relative's house at once ?”
Sol looked to his father for a reply.
“No, I too shall go to the church first, just to assure myself,” said Chickerel. “I shall then go on to Mrs. Petherwin's.”
The carriage was stopped at the corner of a steep incline leading down to the edifice. Mountclere and Chickerel alighted and walked on towards the gates, Sol remaining in his place. Christopher was some way off, descending the hill on foot, having halted to leave his horse and trap at a small inn at the entrance to the village.
When Chickerel and Mountclere reached the churchyard gate they found it slightly open. The church-door beyond it was also open, but nobody was near the spot.
“We have arrived not a minute too soon, however," said Mountclere. “ Preparations have apparently begun. Ha ! ha! It was to be an early wedding, no doubt.”
Entering the building, they looked around; it was quite empty. Chickerel turned towards the chancel, his eye being attracted by a red
kneeling-cushion, placed at about the middle of the altar-railing, as if for early use. Mountclere strode to the vestry, somewhat at a loss how to proceed in his difficult task of unearthing his brother, obtaining a private interview with him, and then, by the introduction of Sol and Chickerel, causing a general convulsion.
“Ha! here's somebody," he said, observing a man in the vestry. He advanced with the intention of asking where Lord Mountclere was to be found. Chickerel came forward in the same direction.
“ Are you the parish clerk ? " said Mountclere to the man, who was dressed
in his best clothes. “I hev the honour of that calling," the man replied.
Two large books were lying before him on the vestry table, one of them being open. As the clerk spoke he looked slantingly on the page, as a person might do to discover if some writing were dry. Mountclere and Chickerel gazed on the same page. The book was the marriage register.
6 Too late!” said Chickerel.
There plainly enough stood the signatures of Lord Mountclere and Ethelberta. The viscount's was very black, and had not yet dried. Her strokes were firm, and comparatively thick for a woman, though paled by juxtaposition with her husband's muddled characters. In the space for witnesses' names appeared in trembling lines as fine as silk the autograph of Picotee, the second name being that of a stranger, probably the clerk.
“Yes, yes--we are too late it seems,” said Mountclere, coolly.
Chickerel stood like a man baked hard and dry. Further than his first two words he could say nothing.
“ They must have set about it early, upon my soul,” Mountelere continued. “When did the wedding take place ?” he asked of the clerk, sharply.
“It was over about five minutes before you came in,” replied that luminary, pleasantly, as he played at an invisible game of pitch-andtoss with some half-sovereigns in his pocket. “I received orders to have the church ready at five minutes to eight this morning, though I knew nothing about such a thing till bedtime last night. It was very private and plain, not that I should mind another such a one, sir ; " and he secretly pitched and tossed again.
Meanwhile Sol had found himself too restless to sit waiting in the carriage for more than a minute after the other two had left it. He stepped out at the same instant that Christopher came past, and together they too went on to the church.
“Father, ought we not to go on at once to Ethelberta's, instead o waiting ?” said Sol, on reaching the vestry. “ 'Twas no use coming is here."
“ No use at all,” said Chickerel, as if he had straw in his threst. “ Look at this. I would almost sooner have had it that in leaving this
church I came from her grave-well, no; perhaps not that, but I fear it is a bad thing!”
Sol then saw the names in the register, Christopher saw them, and the man closed the book. Christopher could not well command himself, and he retired.
“I knew it. I always said that pride would lead Berta to marry an unworthy man, and so it has !” said Sol, bitterly. What shall we do now? I'll see her."
“Do no such thing, young man,” said Mountclere. “ The best course is to leave matters alone. They are married. If you are wise, you will try to think the match a good one, and be content to let her keep her position without inconveniencing her by your intrusions or complaints. It is possible that the satisfaction of her ambition will help her to endure any few surprises to her propriety that may occur. She is a clever young woman, and has played her cards adroitly. I only hope she may never repent of the game. A-hem. Good morning.” Saying this, Mountclere slightly bowed to his relations, and marched out of the church with dignity; but it was told afterwards by the coachman, who had no love for Mountclere, that when he stepped into the fly, and was as he believed unobserved, he was quite overcome with fatuous rage, his lips frothing like a mug of hot ale.
“What an impertinent gentleman 'tis," said Chickerel. “As if we had tried for ber to marry his brother !”
“He knows better than that,” said Sol. “But he'll never believe that Berta didn't lay a trap for the old fellow. He thinks at this moment that Lord Mountclere has never been told of us, and of our belongings."
“I wonder if she has deceived him in anything," murmured Chickerel. “I can hardly suppose it. But she is altogether beyond me. However, if she has misled him on any point she will suffer for it.”
“ You need not fear that, father. It isn't her way of working. Why couldn't we have been sooner? Why couldn't she have known that when a title is to be had for the asking, the owner must be a shocking one indeed ? Do the title !"
“The title is well enough. Any poor scrubs in our place must be fools not to think the match a very rare and astonishing honour, as far as the position goes. But that my brave girl will be miserable is a part of the honour I can't stomach so well. If he had been
peer in the kingdom, we might have been merry indeed. I believe he'll ruin her happiness-yes, I do—not by any personal injury or rough conduct, but by causing her to be despised ; and that is a thing she can't endure.'
“ She's not to be despised without a deal of trouble-we must remember that. And if he insults her by introducing new favourites, as they say he did his first wife, I'll call upon him and ask his meaning, and take her away."
“Nonsense we shall never know what he does, or how she feels; she will never let out a word. However unhappy she may be, she will always deny it—that's the unfortunate part of such marriages.”
“An old chap like that ought to leave young women alone, dhim!”
The clerk came nearer. “I am afraid I cannot allow bad words to be spoke in this sacred pile," he said. “As far as my personal self goes, I should have no objection to your cussing as much as you liked, but as a servant of the church my conscience won't allow it to be done."
“Your conscience has allowed something to be done that cussing and swearing are godly worship to."
“The prettiest maid is left out of harness, however," said the clerk. “ The little witness was the chicken to my taste-Lord forgive me for saying it, and a man with a wife and family!"
Sol and his father turned to withdraw, and soon forgot the remark, but it was frequently recalled by Christopher.
“Do you think of trying to see Ethelberta before you leave?” said Sol.
“Certainly not,” said Chickerel. “Mr. Mountclere's advice was good in that. The more we keep out of the way the more good we are doing her. I shall go back to Anglebury by the carrier, and get on at once to London. You will
“I shall walk on, and let him overtake me. If possible, I will get one glimpse of Lychworth, and Berta's new home; there may be time, if I start at once."
“I will walk with you," said Sol.
“ There is room for one with me," said Christopher. . "I shall drive back early in the afternoon."
“Thank you,” said Sol. “I will endeavour to meet you at Coomb."
Thus it was arranged. Chickerel could have wished to search for Picotee, and learn from her the details of this mysterious matter. But it was particularly painful to him to make himself busy after the event; and to appear suddenly and uselessly where he was plainly not wished to appear would be an awkwardness which the pleasure of seeing either daughter could scarcely counterbalance. Hence he had resolved to return at once to town, and there await the news, together with the detailed directions as to his own future movements, carefully considered and laid down, which were sure to be given by the far-seeing Ethelberta.
Sol and his father walked on together, Chickerel to meet the carrier just beyond Lychworth, Sol to wait for Christopher at Coomb. His wish
company with his father, the outline of the seat to which Ethel. berta had been advanced that day, was the triumph of youthful curiosity and interest over dogged objection. His father's wish was based on calmer reasons.
Christopher, lone and out of place, remained in the church yet a little