"Not quite a year ago! Do you mind it, Gilbert?"
Martha pointed to the green turf in front of the house, and said with an arch voice,—
"Gilbert, do you remember the question you put to me, that evening?"
And finally Sally burst out, in mock indignation,—
"Gilbert, there's where you snapped me up, because I wanted you to dance with Martha; what do you think of yourself now?"
"You all forget," he answered, "that you are speaking of somebody else."
"How? somebody else?" asked Sally.
"Yes; I mean Gilbert Potter."
"Not a bad turn-off," remarked Miss Lavender. "He's too much for you. But I'm glad, anyhow, you've got your tongues, for it was too much like a buryin' before, and me fixed up like King Solomon, what for, I'd like to know? and the day made o' purpose for a weddin', and true-love all right for once't—I'd like just to holler and sing and make merry to my heart's content, with a nice young man alongside o' me, too, a thing that don't often happen!"
They were heartily, but not boisterously, merry after this; but as they reached the New-Garden road, there came a wild yell from the rear, and the noise of galloping hoofs. Before the first shock of surprise had subsided, the Fairthorn gray mare thundered up, with Joe and Jake upon her back, the scarlet lining of their blue cloaks flying to the wind, their breeches covered with white hair from the mare's hide, and their faces wild with delight. They yelled again as they drew rein at the head of the procession.
"Why, what upon earth"—began Sally; but Joe saved her the necessity of a question.
"Daddy said we shouldn't go!" he cried. "But we would,—we got Bonnie out o' the field, and put off! Cousin Martha, you'll let us go along and see you get married; won't you, now? Maybe we'll never have another chance!"
This incident produced great amusement. The boys received the permission they coveted, but were ordered to the rear Mark reminding them that as he was soon to be their uncle, they must learn, betimes, to give heed to his authority.
"Be quiet, Mark!" exclaimed Sally, with a gentle slap.
"Well, I don't begrudge it to 'em," said Miss Lavender. "It's somethin' for 'em to remember when they're men-grown; and they belong to the fam'ly, which I don't; but never mind, all the same, no more do you, Mr. Pratt; and I wish I was younger, to do credit to you!"
Merrily trotted the horses along the bit of level upland; and then, as the land began to fall towards the western branch of Redley Creek, they saw the Squire's house on a green knoll to the north, and Dr. Deane's new chair already resting in the shade of the gigantic sycamore at the door. The lane-gates were open, the Squire's parlor was arranged for their reception; and after the ladies had put themselves to rights, in the upper rooms, the company gathered together for the ceremony.
Sunshine, and hum of bees, and murmur of winds, and scent of flowers, came in through the open windows, and the bridal pair seemed to stand in the heart of the perfect spring-time. Yet tears were shed by all the women except the bride; and Sally Fairthorn was so absorbed by the rush of her emotions, that she came within an ace of saying "I will!" when the Squire put the question to Martha. The ceremony was brief and plain, but the previous history of the parties made it very impressive. When they had been pronounced man and wife, and the certificate of marriage had been duly signed and witnessed by all present, Mary Barton stepped forward and kissed her son and daughter with a solemn tenderness. Then the pent-up feelings of all the others broke loose, and the amount of embracing which followed was something quite unusual for Kennett. Betsy Lavender was not cheated out of her due share; on the contrary, it was ever afterwards reported that she received more salutes than even the bride. She was kissed by Gilbert, by Mark, by her young partner, by Dr. Deane, and lastly by the jolly Squire himself,—to say nothing of the feminine kisses, which, indeed, being very imperfect gifts, hardly deserve to be recorded.
"Well!" she exclaimed, pushing her ruffled hair behind her ears, and smoothing down her purple skirt, "to think o' my bein' kissed by so many men, in my old days!—but why not?—it may be my last chance, as Joe Fairthorn says, and laugh if you please, I've got the best of it; and I don't belie my natur', for twistin' your head away and screechin' is only make-believe, and the more some screeches the more they want to be kissed; but fair and square, say I,—if you want it take it, and that's just what I've done!"
There was a fresh rush for Miss Lavender after this, and she stood her ground with commendable patience, until Mark ventured to fold her in a good-natured hug, when she pushed him away, saying,—
"For the Lord's sake, don't spile my new things! There—go 'way, now! I've had enough to last me ten year!"
Dr. Deane soon set out with Mary Barton, in the chair, and the rest of the company mounted their horses, to ride back to Kennett Square by the other road, past the quarries and across Tuffkenamon.
As they halted in the broad, shallow bed of the creek, letting their horses drink from the sparkling water, while the wind rollicked among the meadow bloom of golden saxifrage and scarlet painted-cup and blue spiderwort before them, the only accident of the day occurred; but it was not of a character to disturb their joyous mood.
The old Fairthorn mare stretched her neck to its utmost length before she bent it to drink, obliging Joe to lean forwards over her shoulder, to retain his hold of the short rein. Jake, holding on to Joe, leaned with him, and they waited in this painful posture till the mare slowly filled herself from the stream. Finally she seemed to be satisfied; she paused, snorted, and then, with wide nostrils, drank an equal amount of air. Her old sides swelled; the saddle-girth, broken in two places long before, and mended with tow-strings, suddenly parted, and Joe, Jake, saddle and all, tumbled down her neck into the water. They scrambled out in a lamentable plight, soused and dripping, amid the endless laughter of the company, and were glad to keep to the rear for the remainder of the ride.
In Dr. Deane's house, meanwhile, there were great preparations for the wedding-dinner. A cook had been brought from Wilmington, at an unheard-of expense, and the village was filled with rumors of the marvellous dishes she was to produce. There were pippins encased in orange-peel and baked; a roasted peacock, with tail spread; a stuffed rock-fish; a whole ham enveloped in dough, like a loaf of bread, and set in the oven; and a wilderness of the richest and rarest pies, tarts, and custards.
Whether all these rumors were justified by the dinner, we will not undertake to say; it is certain that the meal, which was spread in the large sitting-room, was most bountiful. No one was then shocked by the decanters of Port and Canary wine upon the sideboard, or refused to partake of the glasses of foamy egg-nog offered to them from time to time, through the afternoon. The bride-cake was considered a miracle of art, and the fact that Martha divided it with a steady hand, making the neatest and cleanest of cuts, was considered a good omen for her married life. Bits of the cake were afterwards in great demand throughout the neighborhood, not so much to eat, as to dream upon.
The afternoon passed away rapidly, with mirth and noise, in the adjoining parlor. Sally Fairthorn found a peculiar pleasure in calling her friend "Martha Barton!" whereupon Mark said,—
"Wait a bit, Martha, and you can pay her back. Daddy Fairthorn promised this morning to give me a buildin' lot off the field back o' the corner, and just as soon as Rudd's house is up, I'm goin' to work at mine."
"Mark, do hush!" Sally exclaimed, reddening, "and before everybody!"
Miss Lavender sat in the midst, stately, purple, and so transformed that she professed she no longer knew her own self. She was, nevertheless, the life of the company; the sense of what she had done to bring on the marriage was a continual source of inspiration. Therefore, when songs were proposed and sung, and Mark finally called upon her, uproariously seconded by all the rest, she was moved, for the last time in her life, to comply.
"I dunno what you mean, expectin' such a thing o' me," she said. "Tears to me I'm fool enough already, settin' here in purple and fine linen, like the Queen o' Rome,—not that I don't like singin', but the contrary, quite the reverse; but with me it'd be a squawk and nothin' else; and fine feathers may make fine birds for what I care, more like a poll-parrot than a nightingale, and they say you must stick thorns into 'em to make 'em sing; but I guess it'll be t' other way, and my singin'll stick thorns into you!"
They would take no denial; she could and must sing them a song. She held out until Martha said, "for my wedding-day, Betsy!" and Gilbert added, "and mine, too." Then she declared, "Well, if I must, I s'pose I must But as for weddin'-songs, such as I've heerd in my younger days, I dunno one of 'em, and my head's pretty much cleared o' such things, savin' and exceptin' one that might be a sort o' warnin' for Mark Deane, who knows?—not that there's sea-farin' men about these parts; but never mind, all the same; if you don't like it, Mark, you've brung it onto yourself!"
Thereupon, after shaking herself, gravely composing her face, and clearing her throat, she began, in a high, shrill, piercing voice, rocking her head to the peculiar lilt of the words, and interpolating short explanatory remarks, to sing—
THE BALLAD OF THE HOUSE-CARPENTER.
"'Well-met, well-met, my own true-love!'
"'Well-met, well-met, cried he; For't is I have returned from the salt, salt sea, And it's all for the love of thee!'
"'It's I might ha' married a king's daughter fair,'
"He goes on sayin',—
"'And fain would she ha' married me, But it's I have refused those crowns of gold, And it's all for the love of thee!'
"'If you might ha' married a king's daughter fair,' I think you are for to blame; For it's I have married a house-carpenter, And I think he's a fine young man!'
"So look out, Mark! and remember, all o' you, that they're talkin' turn about; and he begins—
"'If you'll forsake your house-carpenter And go along with me, I'll take you to where the grass grows green On the banks of the sweet Wil-lee!'
"'If I forsake my house-carpenter. And go along with thee, It's what have you got for to maintain me upon, And to keep me from slave-ree?'
"'It's I have sixteen ships at sea, All sailing for dry land, And four-and-twenty sailors all on board Shall be at your command!'
"She then took up her lovely little babe, And she gave it kisses three; 'Lie still, lie still, my lovely little babe, And keep thy father compa-nee!'
"She dressed herself in rich array, And she walked in high degree, And the four-and-twenty sailors took 'em on board. And they sailed for the open sea!
"They had not been at sea two weeks, And I'm sure it was not three, Before this maid she began for to weep, And she wept most bitter-lee.
"'It's do you weep for your gold?' cries he; 'Or do you weep for your store, Or do you weep for your house-carpenter You never shall see any more?'
"'I do not weep for my gold,' cries she, 'Nor I do not weep for my store, But it's I do weep for my lovely little babe, I never shall see any more!'
"They had not been at sea three weeks, And I'm sure it was not four, When the vessel it did spring a leak, And it sank to rise no more!"
"Now, Mark, here comes the Moral:
"Oh, cruel be ye, sea-farin' men, Oh, cruel be your lives,— A-robbing of the house-carpenters, And a-taking of their wives!"
The shouts and laughter which greeted the conclusion of Miss Lavender's song brought Dr. Deane into the room. He was a little alarmed lest his standing in the Society might be damaged by so much and such unrestrained merriment under his roof. Still he had scarcely the courage to reprimand the bright, joyous faces before him; he only smiled, shook his head, and turned to leave.
"I'm a-goin', too," said Miss Lavender, rising. "The sun's not an hour high, and the Doctor, or somebody, must take Mary Barton home; and it's about time the rest o' you was makin' ready; though they've gone on with the supper, there's enough to do when you get there!"
The chair rolled away again, and the bridal party remounted their horses in the warm, level light of the sinking sun. They were all in their saddles except Gilbert and Martha.
"Go on!" he cried, in answer to their calls; "we will follow."
"It won't be half a home-comin', without you're along," said Mark; "but I see you want it so. Come on, boys and girls!"
Gilbert returned to the house and met Martha, descending the stairs in her plain riding-dress. She descended into his open arms, and rested there, silent, peaceful, filled with happy rest.
"My wife at last, and forever!" he whispered.
They mounted and rode out of the village. The fields were already beginning to grow gray under the rosy amber of the western sky. The breeze had died away, but the odors it had winnowed from orchard and meadow still hung in the air. Faint cheeps and chirps of nestling life came from the hedges and grassy nooks of bank and thicket, but they deepened, not disturbed, the delicious repose settling upon the land. Husband and wife rode slowly, and their friendly horses pressed nearer to each other, and there was none to see how their eyes grew deeper and darker with perfect tenderness, their lips more sweetly soft and warm, with the unspoken, because unspeakable, fortune of love. In the breath of that happy twilight all the pangs of the Past melted away; disgrace, danger, poverty, trial, were behind them; and before them, nestling yet unseen in the green dell which divided the glimmering landscape, lay the peace, the shelter, the life-long blessing of Home.