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Sketch Book of the North
A Forest Wedding


Though it is not yet seven o’clock, the winter night, in this Northern parish, has quite closed in, and it is already very dark. When the sun set, far in the south, some hours ago, its disc gleamed coppery red through brown mist veils as of rising smoke, and the shepherd’s wife on the moor, as she brought in her peats for the night, said she thought there would be more snow before morning. It has not yet begun to fall, however, when the minister, wrapped up to the ears in his heavy coat, and his feet encased in strong, thick-soled boots, pulling on a pair of rough worsted gloves, and calling his spaniel from her place on the study hearth, sets out from his comfortable manse.

Presently, as he turns from the beaten highway into the snow-clad woods of the manor, hearing the bell of the distant town steeple behind him striking the hour, he gives an encouraging word to his dog, and quickens his steps a little. As he passes the humble window of the gate-lodge, he pauses a moment—there was, a sound; yes, it is audible again—a mother crooning softly over her child; and his eye glistens as his ear catches the lullaby, old bachelor as he is. From the chimney on the low roof; too, there steals down among the trees the savoury fragrance of the evening meal. The father, one of the under-gamekeepers on the estate, evidently has not come home yet, and his young wife is waiting for him.

The sky is soft and very dark overhead, the tree-tops are all but lost in it, and one can almost fancy he hears the drifting of the coming snow. But all is silent, not a branch in the forest stirs, and between the black tree-trunks the white sheet can be seen stretching stainless and undisturbed on either hand into the mysterious depths of the woods. The trees themselves, unshaken all these weeks by wind or squirrel or woodbird, raise into the night their branches robed to the remotest twig in the matchless lacework of the frost.

But see! Along the hollow, to the left, can be caught a glimpse of the manor house, its windows, most of them, aglow with light. A grey, stately old place it is, in the midst of its woods, eloquent with the memories of long-past centuries. Royalty has been entertained there in bygone days, and in the woodland aisles around has echoed merrily the laughter of many a gay party from the Court, distant only a morning’s ride. But storm after storm has swept the land since then; that gay Court’s palace is a ruin now; and while the race of the humble peasant still thrives in the manor woods, the race of the manor lord and the race of the kings themselves of those days have passed from the earth for ever. There is no spot in so old a land but has its memories, sad and gay. Somewhere in these woods, in days still further gone, a national hero was betrayed, and on the moorland ridge, a mile away, a king’s army suffered defeat. But the minister passes on. His errand to-night is neither to palace nor castle, yet it may be that the simple hearts he is presently to unite will beat as happily under a lowly roof of thatch as do those of the gentle owners of the manor yonder.

By degrees, as he presses on, the path becomes rougher, the trees deepen the darkness overhead, and hardly a former footstep has left its trace in the undrifted snow. The solitude might almost be primeval, so absolute is the silence in these untrodden recesses. The solitary snapping, once, of a rime-laden branch has only testified amid the stillness to the intensity of the frost. At last, however, the path widens somewhat, there is a little clearing and a forsaken lodge, and beyond, here and there in the open, gleam the scattered lights of the village.

A sequestered spot it is, bowered in summer by the whispering woods, and in winter buried in the forest solitudes by the swathing snow.

But there is merriment enough to-night in the little community; and the frequent ring of laughter from the nearest cottage, as well as the warm glow of firelight streaming from its threshold and windows, deep-set under the thatch, tell where the festivities are going forward. It is the cottage of the bride’s father; all the village has assembled here to assist in the ceremony, and they are waiting now for the minister. The laughter subsides as he lifts the latch and enters, stamping in the doorway to shake the snow from his feet; and all eyes are turned upon him, as the goodman of the house, a grizzled forester of sixty winters, hastens forward with a welcome to help him out of his coat. It is a comfortable scene—the interior of the low-raftered kitchen, lit up rather by the warm glow of the open fire than by the candles set on table and window-shelf. By the hearth are gathered the older folk; the many-wrinkled granny, in comely white mutch and kerchief; the few matrons, with smoothly-braided hair, and little ornament, except a well-worn ring or two; and the men in decent homespun; while further back are grouped the more youthful members of the party—broad-shouldered young fellows and merry-eyed lasses, excited a little by the somewhat infectious inspiration of the occasion. Everything in the humble apartment is as clean as housewifely care can make it; not a speck is to be seen on the brown stones of the floor, and above the black shining chimney-piece the brass candlesticks glitter like gold. On the snowy dresser, below the well-filled plate-rack, is piled in profusion the substantial fare which will do duty later on. Meanwhile, on the white deal table in the middle of the room is set only the well-worn family Bible.

The minister with a kindly word, has shaken the hand of the somewhat embarrassed bridegroom, and stands now, inquiring pleasantly after granny’s eyesight, by the fire. There is a pause of expectancy, a hurried messenger or two pass between the rooms, and then the bride, a handsome young woman of twenty-two or so, is brought in by her mother from "ben the hoose," as the only other apartment is called. With a look of happy pride at the object of his affection, the bridegroom takes his place by her side at the further end of the table, and the minister, glancing round to see that all is ready, opens the Bible. After a brief but earnest prayer, and the reading of a short passage of Scripture, the good old man addresses them in a few solemn yet kindly words. They are taking the most serious step in life; let them look to Heaven for a blessing upon it. The future may bring them prosperity; let them see that it does not cool their affection. It may also have trials in store for them; let these be lightened by being shared between them. Above all, let them remember to be open-hearted to one another. Then he asks if they are willing to be wedded "for better or for worse," bids them join hands, engages in another most momentous prayer, and finally declaring them man and wife, with the solemn injunction, "Whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder," ends the short ceremony. Immediately there is a great stir, shaking of hands with the bridegroom, and kissing of the bride; the gallant groomsman, somehow, unwarrantably extending the salutation to the blushing bridesmaid. The mother sheds a few quiet tears, and granny, by the fire, wakens up to speak of her own wedding day.

But the proper papers have been signed, and the minister, followed to the door by the overflowing thanks of the little family, and refusing all offers of escort, leaves the homely company to its enjoyment—for the dance will be kept up till a late hour in the morning. The night air is bracing, after the warmth inside, and, as the sky has cleared a little by this time, the pathway back through the woods will be better seen by the silvery sparkle of the frosty stars.


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