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A MAD WEDDING

Half-a-crown ticket-holders alone admitted. We shilling people remain without. It is as well. The scene in the chapel cannot be edifying, considering who they are that press in, fox-hunting, dog-fighting, cocking, country gentry, some already half-tipsy, Lewis Falcon wholly so; the parson a man of indifferent character; the marriage the result of a fight.

Stourton Castle, once the favourite residence of King John, and possessing a venerable history, built originally of red sandstone, had been given a rakish modern aspect by a proprietor who conceived that what was old must be bad, and whose taste was at the service of the fashion of the day. He had delivered over this ancient structure to an architect to modernise at the period when taste was at the lowest ebb in England.

At one time the Castle had been surrounded by an extensive deer park, in which were stately oaks of the growth of centuries. Card-playing, dicing, toping, law-suits, had reduced the Squires of Stourton to the cutting down of their oaks, and the selling them so as to pay with the proceeds their debts of honour and of dishonour.

The second half of last century was a period when something more than artistic taste had reached its lowest depth. Common morality and the sense of decency were equally depraved. At the close of the seventeenth century, moral corruption had been open and flagrant in high quarters, but a religious leaven was in the land, and there was a sturdy substance and inner core of virtue to be found among the middle and lower classes, an hereditary, traditional respect for what was good and true and honest.

But with the expulsion of the Non-jurors, those who were respectable in life and learning were driven from the pulpits of the Church, and their places were occupied by time-servers, by men of inferior moral, mental, and social position. The relics of Puritanism had been too narrow, too sour to influence the mass of mankind. Dissociating themselves from all amusements, however harmless, condemning them as evil, holding together in small acrid clusters, the Saints had done nothing to check and moderate what was boisterous, and their very extravagance of strictness made of their sons the most debauched and shameless when freed from parental control. The decay which had begun at the head under the last Stuarts worked slowly yet steadily downwards: it attacked the heart of the community, and then sent rottenness to the very roots, in the time of the last Georges.

In few parts of England was there more hard drinking, hard swearing, law-breaking, and licentious living than in that portion of the Midlands where the scene of our tale lies. There, as already intimated, the convergence and dislocation at point of contact of three counties afforded every opportunity for making light of the law.

Often a fat living rewarded a complaisant tutor who would marry the discarded mistress of his patron; as often the best way to preferment in the Church was for the clerk in orders to be a fellow-sot with the man who presented to the cure of souls where spread his acres.

Had Parson Toogood lived near Lichfield, he would have been respectable in conduct, and only forfeited his dignity by cringing and spittle-licking to the Bishop, but as Lichfield was a long way off he toadied his squire.

"Here they come!"

The crowd became agitated, compacted itself closer, broke out into jocosity, and was broad in its mirth, noisy in its ejaculations.

Out through the doorway burst a couple of gentlemen in top-boots, one Squire Stourton of Stourton Castle, and he in a claret coat, cracking a whip, and shouting:

"Clear a road for the happy pair! Clear the way, or I'll cut you across your faces."

"Clear the course, or be—to you all!" shouted George, commonly designated Captain Stracey, who was armed with a silver-headed walking-cane, with which he belaboured such as stood in the way.

"Come along to Stewponey and drink to their healths and happiness!" roared the Squire.

Then forth issued Luke Francis and Bladys.

The latter walked as in a dream, her face colourless, her eyes glazed. She paid no regard to the congratulations showered on her, nor returned the salutations offered, nor did a particle of colour mount to her cheek at the coarse sallies that flew about her. She walked uncertainly, and unless Francis had guided her, she would have stepped off the path and into a bush.

"No bells!" exclaimed the tipsy Lewis Falcon; "Odds boddikins! I don't hold it a proper wedding without b—b—bells."

"Bells!" echoed Stourton. "Gad! We'll have the dinner-bell; well thought on, Lewis. You take my whip and sweep a way among 'em, and I'll fetch it in the twinkling of a marline-spike."

Then, surrendering the hunting-whip to the tipsy youth, he ran into the Castle.

A minute had scarcely elapsed before he returned blowing a Saxhorn, that he held in one hand, and clanging a bell with the other.

The people cheered. Falcon cracked his whip. A boy started out of the crowd and twanged a Jews' harp; but not a sound of this feeble instrument could be heard in the universal din.

Thus the procession moved, drifted, tumbled along, on the way to the inn; some of those in it treading on the heels of the others, now falling and being trodden on by those behind—laughter, screams, oaths, jests, blasphemies, together with the clangour of the bell, the braying of the horn, and the cracking of the whip, forming an indescribable hubbub.

At the tavern door appeared the landlord, waving his cap in one hand, flourishing a tankard of ale in the other, and spilling the contents over those near. He had not attended his daughter to Stourton. He had asked the Squire to act as his deputy and give her away. He knew that eating and drinking would follow on the return of the rabble, and he had to provide accordingly.

"Well, Bla!" shouted he to his daughter, with boisterous mirth, "I wish you joy. It's right the parent should show the way to the child that it should walk in; but, by George, you have distanced me, and given me the go-by. I shan't be long after you."

Bladys looked up at him, but said nothing, neither was there intelligence in her eyes. Even he was struck at her appearance, and asked, in a low tone,

"Does aught ail thee, wench?"

She made no reply, and passed within.

"Come here, son Luke, as I must now entitle thee. And so you have resolved to leave at once?"

"I must be off. My duty exacts my presence at Shrewsbury"

"A deed to be engrossed?"

"No—executed."

"And you start to-night?"

"The day is closing in. Half-an-hour is the most I can allow. I must sleep at Bridgenorth, that I may be in Shrewsbury in good time tomorrow."

The Stewponey was like to a hive into which a wasp has penetrated. The open space in front was dense with people; the interior was packed with them. The bowling-green, the yard, the stables, every portion of ground belonging to it was swarming. People, unable to endure the crush and heat within the house, worked their way out, and simultaneously another stream was intent on forcing its way within, where ale and spirits were thought to be obtainable without charge. Outside the rabble was as in a dance. Men, women, dived in and out amongst the rest in quest of friends and acquaintances. Knots were formed, then dispersed when a drawer appeared bearing refreshment. Then at once a rush ensued that upset him—or his supplies—amidst curses and laughter and outcries.

Tobacco smoke curled in the air; tongues chattered. A boy who had climbed an elm fell with the branch on which he had planted himself and was saved from hurt by knocking down three women and a man, on whose heads and shoulders he tumbled.

A Savoyard with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey arrived and formed a nucleus around which the young congregated, and not the young only. The sallies of the red-coated ape, its grimaces, produced general mirth and some disturbance.

"Now then! Make room! Now then! Do you want to be run over?"

Clack! clack! went the whip of a post-boy, and a yellow-bodied carriage was brought out of the yard, drawn by two horses, and mounted by a boy in a yellow jacket, white hat, and breeches and top-boots.

When this appeared, for a while attention was diverted from the ape, and the cluster that had formed round the hurdy-gurdy was broken up.

An avenue was opened with difficulty, to allow the horses to draw the vehicle to the inn door.

Then a scream rang out ear-piercingly.

The ape had made a grip at a youth's head of hair as the lad revolved to see the post-boy and carriage, and, what is more, with malicious blinkings and with tenacity the creature retained its hold. The young fellow clutched and struggled to free himself mad with terror. Some of those standing by applauded the monkey and bade him pull harder. Others attempted to release the boy by plucking at the chain attached to the beast's collar.

Instantly the monkey set up his crest of hair, mouthed, growled, and leaped at those who tweaked his chain. This scattered them like chaff and some in their attempt to escape the monkey got under the legs of the horses. The post-boy used his whip on the backs of such as came within reach of his lash, and cast at them the most abusive expletives. The chain had been wrenched from its hold. The monkey was free, and the Savoyard, striving to forge his way after it, joined in the hubbub, dominating the uproar by his shrill cries that Jacko was loose, interlarded with oaths in Italian and entreaties in broken English.

The ape, conscious that it was free, with cunning dropped out of sight to the ground, tucked up the chain, and dived in and out among the feet and petticoats of the crowd, who sprang apart, as though the earth had gaped, whenever they became aware of its proximity. Every now and then it ran up the back of some shrieking individual to take a look round, then jumped down again.

After the ape, as well as he was able to judge his direction, came the Italian, crying out for his Jacko, now appealing to the beast's sense of gratitude, then invoking the assistance of the crowd, then calling down imprecations on all alike.

He was torn, distracted, by alarm lest he should lose his monkey and by solicitude for his instrument, that was subjected to jolts and crushing by the crowd.

None attended to the Italian; all were on the look-out to escape from the hoofs of the post-horses, the wheels of the carriage, or the hands of the ape. Then—none knew exactly when, not at all how—Jacko ceased to provoke uneasiness. He was gone, whither none asked, where none cared, glad to be relieved of menace from him.

The alarm of the rabble abated. They formed hedges, leaving an open way for the travelling carriage, and the post-boy drew up before the inn door. At the same moment the bride and bridegroom appeared in the entrance—he triumphant, with a flame in his bold, dark eyes and a flush on his cheeks, she white as death, impassive, inanimate, some women said indifferent.

Cornelius followed, his bloated face gleaming as a poppy. In his hand was a leather bag.

"By gad, it's heavy," said he, "and ought to be. A good take to-day. Help you on with the housekeeping. All to-day's profits in silver and about fifty in gold in a canvas bag to itself. It shan't be said my daughter has left the Stewponey like a beggar. But, i' fecks, I don't half like your leaving at this time of the evening, and with all this money. The roads are not safe."

"Safe enough for me," said Luke.

"There have been highwaymen about. Not afraid?"

"I! I afraid of highwaymen!" scoffed Francis. "I should consider rather that they would fear me."

"Ah! the law, the law! All well enough in a town, but no protection in the country."

"I have a pair of loaded pistols in the chaise. If any man come to the window without leave, I shall add a dab of lead to his already stupid brain."

"You know best. Where is Captain Stracey?"

"Captain George!" shouted those near, but there was no answer.

"Haven't seen him since we left Stourton," said the Squire.

"We must start," said Luke, and the ostler opened the door of the travelling carriage.

"By George," laughed Rea, and drew himself up, "my daughter's marriage is like that of a lady—with a carriage and pair, and driving away for a honeymoon."

"You haven't put the money bag on the pistols?" asked Francis.

"Not such an ass. The pistols are at top."

"Jacko! Who has seen, stole my Jacko?" cried the Savoyard, running forward.

"Be hanged with your Jacko; stand back," said the landlord. "Now then," to the post-boy. "Tom, off!"

The postillion cracked his whip, the horses pranced and dashed ahead.

Then from the spectators rose a cheer. It was repeated, again repeated. The maids looked from the windows and waved kerchiefs and aprons. The vicar, already in the tavern, smoking, stumbled to the door, and waving his three-cornered hat in one hand and his clay pipe in the other, shouted—

"It's a mad wedding, my masters."

"It is one of your making," said the evening lecturer, who was outside.

"Ah! Brother Priest! and a merry one—because mine. If yours, 'twould have been dull—deadly dull. My masters—it is a mad wedding."