At Charlotte's wedding Susan cried as much as even she thought necessary, and Charlotte wore a bonnet with white lace strings instead of a veil. Her crinoline was enormous and, with bows, ruchings, and bunches of orange-blossom, almost extenguished Mark, who was a gentle edition of wizened Henry and watched her with a dog-like devotion. There were many speeches and toasts, with the Captain and Oliver and Brevis to propose and reply, and even Humphrey found one in the last Graphic and brought it out with pride.
"May courtship be ever in fashion and kissing the pink of the mode," he cried, splashing champagne on a blushing Maria gone into white muslin for the occasion. Ellen giggled, hiding her gaunt face in gaunt fingers.
"Oh, la! Ain't you ashamed, Humphrey!" she shrilled, and then made confidences to Brevis in a corner. "I might have been standing there, you know, just like Lottie. Only I'd have a veil. I think it quite shocking she don't have a veil. There was a gentleman, but I would not have him. Naughty of me, wasn't it? Oh, la! We women are naughty. But don't tell."
She put her finger to her lip, peeping with sly glances. Brevis looked at her steadily. He knew, although apparently these careless people did not, that her life or some more definite tragedy had touched old Ellen's brain. The clue was here if he could find it. He said, secure behind the noise and laughter, "Perhaps the gentleman will come back."
"Hush!" Ellen bent closer. "He did, just lately. But I could not have him now, of course. Mab said … But don't tell." She moved off with mincing steps; came back to whisper: "I page 273really was married to him, you know. But Mab said … Don't tell."
Now she was gone, and Brevis, suppressing a whistle, went to pay his respects to the bride, who, to Madam's content, looked older than Jenny, radiant Jenny who was sparkling everywhere.
"Why didn't your father come?" asked Charlotte. "Is it true that he has grown afraid of our sex, Brevis? Tell him to come and see us at Bredon Cottage. It is really a huge house on the estate, but we call it a cottage. Like the dear Queen's York Cottage, you know. And the furniture is all new, is it not, Uncle Noll?"
"Oh, quite new and, let us hope, unique," said Oliver, inspecting Brevis with dislike. If it were to be Jenny and Brevis—and he feared so—there would be few pickings for him. Brevis was no fool; and, Oliver was cynically aware, any one who tried to keep a male Comyn afloat must have more money than sense. Paige certainly clung to him still; but Lydia made scenes and the aristocrat in Oliver could not abide scenes. He moved here and there, courteous, witty, carefully preserved, and watching his boisterous father with a new bitterness. Money pouring out like water to-day, and there was nothing the Captain liked better. What heritage had he given his sons but a similar desire to spend? If he, Oliver, had had a profession such as Brevis, he might have gone as far as Brevis seemed likely to go.
Profoundly pitying himself, he watched his mother while old James got off one of his prosy speeches. Madam, in lavender silks and laces yellowed by time, listened with her head cocked wickedly like a bird, hearing herself called the flower of womanhood and the Captain a long-respected friend, before James went on to give a résumé of his own services to the country. People were repressing yawns by the time the Captain rose to return thanks, and Madam had her eyes shut. A dull dog, James, she was thinking, although—God be thanked—she once had tied a tin can to his tail. And this wedding was the result, even if——
"For the love of God, maman," said Mab in her ear, "can you stop him?"
Madam's mind returned sharply to the long sunflooded room with its loaded tables, its groups of well-dressed startled people. She saw William with cockatoo crest up and pale eyes glaring; page 274Charlotte angrily red inside her white bonnet; Louisa ready to cry; Brevis with his fine cynical smile; Sigurd, Joe Merrick … and before them all her bonhomme, thick white hair on end, blue eyes popping under the bristling brows, red fist thumping the table until the glasses danced.
"And again I say it before the face of any man that the carriage-tax is an iniquitous proceeding which I utterly refuse to countenance. It shall never be collected in my district, and only an utterly contemptible and inefficient parliament would dare to offer …"
Madam sat aghast. It was Jenny who ran to put an arm about his neck. "Dear, we're not a public meeting. And this is Lottie's day," she said.
"Mean fellows!" shouted the Captain at the end of his breath. Then he kissed Jenny and looked round with smiling courtesy. "Ladies, pray forgive me. I fear I was slightly excited for the moment. Lottie dear, I apologize. But when I think of the infernal——"
"Sigurd," said Madam, "please fill the Captain's glass. He is going to toast the Queen."
A military man could say nothing about the Queen but "God bless her." So that was safe, and Jenny had saved their bacon when Madam failed. Jenny, looking like a bubbling champagne glass in her wide-spread champagne-colour brocade: Jenny with her bronze hair swept sternly back from the delicate temples to show to the full the piquancy of her pointed face with its arched brows and ripe scarlet lips. Jenny with her wit, her burning life, her laughter. If that dark chilly Brevis should take her, Madam would bear it ill. She hated Brevis leaning on a chair listening to Sigurd being eloquent over the poems of Mr. Shelley.
"But he could inspire a clod," cried Sigurd. "Pure, clear, sparkling like cut glass. Keats has only a soft rich sensuousness."
"In fact," said Brevis, "if you dropped Shelley he'd break, but if you dropped Keats he would squash. Isn't that what you wanted to say, Sigs?"
He moved away after Jenny. Madam saw her laugh back at him as she fled off on some errand. Ah, youth! Youth "the rose-light, the one light that never shall plague us again."page 275
Charlotte came down, very self-possessed in mulberry satin with a blue bonnet veiled in white lace and orange-blossoms, and her three younger sisters—slim fair Fanny promised to be a beauty, while the twins were stoutly bucolic—flung rose-leaves over her, with little piping cries and shy laughter at finding themselves so prominent. When she was gone and the tears and toasts were done, old Jerrold, going in to clear the broken meats, found young Master Richard sick-drunk under the table and called Oliver and Mab. Richard, tall and lusty at fifteen, resented being carried to his room, where Mab would have thrashed him, but Oliver said: "He has your looks, Mab, and possibly more, but apparently he has my stomach. Leave him to me."