It was in the height of the gay London season that this interesting ceremony, which formed the last scene connected with the Crimean War--the last chapter in its glorious yet melancholy history--was to be closed under the auspices of Royalty on a day in June, when the air was clear, bright, and sunny, the sky without a cloud. The place selected for the celebration, though perhaps not the most suitable in London, was appropriate enough, by its local and historical associations; and Hyde Park seemed beautiful and stirring when viewed through the mellow haze of the midsummer morning, with its long rows of trees and far expanse of green grass, on which the masses of cavalry and infantry, chiefly of the Household Brigade, were ranged, their arms and gay appointments flashing and glittering in the sun, and the mighty assemblage of fashionables, in splendid carriages, on horseback, or on foot--such an assemblage as London alone can produce--with the bronze Achilles, the trophy of another and far more glorious war, towering over all.
There were present not less than a hundred thousand of the sight-loving Londoners, full of generous enthusiasm. A grand review formed a portion of the programme; but as such displays are all alike, I shall skip that part of the day's proceedings; though there were present the 79th Highlanders, whom I had last seen in the trenches before the Redan, preparing for the final assault at daybreak; the 19th, that with the 23rd went side by side in the uphill charge at Alma; the showy 11th Hussars in blue with scarlet pelisses, who had ridden in the terrible death ride at Balaclava; and with glittering brass helmets the gallant Enniskillens, who, with the Greys, had followed Scarlett in the task of avenging them. And there, too, manding the whole, in his plumed bonnet and tartan trews, was old Colin Campbell, riding as quietly and as grimly, amid the youth, rank, and beauty of London, as when he brought his Highland Brigade in stately échelon of regiments along the green slopes of the Kourgané Hill, and heard the gray Kazan columns, ere they fled, send up their terrible wail to heaven, that "the angel of Death had e!" This veteran soldier, who had carried the colours of the 9th Regiment under Moore at Corunna, looked old now, worn, and service-stricken, yet he had the wars of the Indian Mutiny before him still. By his side rode the hero of Kars in artillery uniform, and that brilliant Hussar officer, the Earl of Cardigan, mounted on the same horse he had ridden at Balaclava. The royal stand, as yet empty, was elaborately decorated; gilded chairs of state were placed within it; and in front, covered with scarlet cloth, was a table whereon lay sixty-two of those black crosses, cast from Russian cannon, rude in design, but named after her Majesty, and inscribed "For Valour"--sixty-two being the number who, on that day, were to receive them.
We, "the observed of all observers," had not as yet fallen in, so I lingered near the stand, where Winifred, Dora, and Gwenny Vaughan, and many other ladies were seated, and seeking, by the aid of parasol and fan, to shield themselves from the heat of the sun, and using their lorgnettes freely in looking for friends among the crowd, and in watching the proceedings, chatting and laughing gaily the while, with all the freedom of happy and heedless girls; for the troops were "standing at ease," and her Majesty had not yet e. Winifred was looking charming in her bridal bonnet, charming amid the loveliest women in the world--and they were there by thousands; for she had the beauty of perfect goodness, and of the purest and gentlest attributes of woman-kind; for she was an artless and generous creature, too simpleminded at times, even in this cold-blooded and well-bred age, to have the power of concealing her emotions.
I wore my old and faded red coat of the Welsh Fusileers for the last time; and though there was something sad in the conviction that it was so, I never felt so proud of it, or of my looped-up sleeve, as on that day in Hyde Park. I felt that my occupation was gone, and that any other was unsuited to me, for "it is the speciality of a soldier's career, that it unfits most men for any other life. They cannot throw off the old habitudes. They cannot turn from the noisy stir of war to the tame quiet of every-day life; and even when they fancy themselves wearied and worn out, and willing to retire from the service, their souls are stirred by every sound of the distant contest, as the war-steed is roused by the blast of a trumpet." Often in fancy before this, for I was ever addicted to daydreams, I had pictured some such fête, some such ceremony, some such reward, for all our army had endured in Bulgaria, and done by the shores of the Black Sea; but the reality far exceeded all I had ever imagined. In my school-days, how I had longed, with all a boy's ardour, to fight for my country and Queen! Well, I had fought--not for either, certainly, but for the lazy, wretched, and contemptible Turks--and her royal hand was about to reward me, by placing an order on my breast.
The longing, the wild desire to achieve, to do something great, or grand, or dashing, had ever since those school-boy days been mine; now that mysterious "something" was achieved, and I was about to be made a V.C. before that vast multitude, and more than all, beneath the soft kind eyes of one who loved me more than all the world.
"Who the dooce is that handsome woman, on whom----" (I failed to catch the name) "of ours is so devilish spooney?" I heard one tall Plunger, in a marvellously new panoply, lisp to another, as he checked his beautiful black horse for a moment in passing.
"What! can it be possible you don't know? It is the talk of all town," replied the other, laughing, and in a low tone; "she is Lady Aberconway, old Pottersleigh's wife--a more ill-mated pair don't exist in Europe, by Jove!"
"So she has found consolation?"
And the two glittering warriors with black boots, shining breastplates, and fly-away whiskers, winked to each other knowingly, and separated.
I looked in the direction they had indicated. Close by me an officer of the Oxford Blues, with his horse reined in close to the stand, was engaged in a conversation, by turns gay and animated, or low and confidential, with--Estelle! She was seated near her mother, Lady Naseby, who looked as impassible and passionless as ever, with her cold and imperious dignity of face and manner, and her odious white shock, now somewhat aged and wheezy, in her lap.
"Love," it is said, "is hard as any snake to kill." Perhaps so; but I could regard her daughter now without any special throb of my pulse, or thrill in my heart.
Still I could not but confess that her high class of beauty, in style, polish, and finish, was wonderful, and when in repose, cold and aristocratic to a degree. She had achieved already that which has been justly described as "that queenly standard women so often attain after marriage, while losing none of their early charms," unless I except a little heartless flippancy of manner in the conversation, which, as I was pressed near her by the crowd, I was pelled to overhear. Her toilette was as perfect as lace, tulle, and flowers could make it. How often had I gazed tenderly and passionately on that face, so false and yet so fair, and kissed it on lips, and eyes, and cheek! and now it was turned, smilingly, laughingly, and, I am sorry to add, lovingly, to the boyish and insipid face of that long-legged, curled, and pomatumed Guardsman, who had "never set a squadron in the field," nor smelt powder elsewhere than at Wormwood Scrubs or Bushey Park.
I turned from her with something of sublime contempt, and yet, odd to say, I felt a nervous twinge, as if in the arm that was now no longer in my sleeve, when her voice reached me; but after all that had e and gone, that voice could find no echo now in my heart. Sweetly modulated it was still, but seemed to me only "low and clear as the song of a snake-charmer."
"It will be the ball of the season--you will be there, of course?" she asked.
"Only if you go, Lady Aberconway--not unless," replied the trooper, in a low tone; "what or who else should take me there?"
"So they have made your uncle a K.C.B."
"Yes--and somebody is going to marry him on Tuesday at eleven in Hanover-square."
"And your brother is ing up for his little exam. I have heard also."
"Yes--at Woolwich. The idea of any fellow fancying the Artillery!"
"Is he handsome--is he anything like you?" Then, without waiting for a reply to these important queries, she suddenly said, "Gracious, mamma, there is another poor creature without an arm!"
"Poor deyvil--so there is," drawled her male friend, and then I knew by these flattering remarks that their august regards were turned on me; but my bushy Crimean beard, my empty sleeve, and, as yet, rather pale cheek, and moreover my face being half averted, prevented Estelle from recognising me; or it might be, that I dwelt but little in her memory.
"What is that officer's regiment?" she asked, adding doubtfully, "he is an officer, isn't he--but his uniform is deplorable!"
I now turned fully round; for a moment our eyes met, and then I moved back to where Winifred sat. Estelle eyed me keenly enough now, and fanned herself, as I thought, with a little air of vexation, from time to time. Yet that was not flattering; for I knew that though a woman may forget, she does not like the idea of being forgotten, or that even when flirting with another, her empire over an old lover's heart is at an end.
She had deteriorated in style, and her tone of flippancy was not that of the Estelle I had once loved; and as for the boy Guardsman, with whom gossip was already linking her name, poor fool! his love for her and her extravagance soon ruined him. Bills were dishonoured thick and threefold; cent. per cent., London, and Judea between them cleaned him out. A meeting of the Guards' Club passed such resolutions that he was pelled to begin the sliding scale--from "the Guards to Line, and from thence to the devil," as the phrase is--and to recruiting for H.M. 2nd West India Regiment in Sierra Leone, where drink and fever finished him; and he lies now by the bank of the Bunce river, as pletely forgotten by Estelle as if he never had been.
"Do you see who is there, Harry?" asked Winifred, with a rather agitated voice.
"Yes; what of it, little one?"
"Only that I--hate her!"
"For her treatment of you."
"How odd!" said I, laughing; "had it been otherwise, Winny, we should not have had our delightful little trip to Brighton. Think of that, my British matron!"
"I am not a matron yet, but only your bride; the honeymoon is not yet over, sir."
"Thank God you are so, darling! What an escape I have had from being in old Pottersleigh's place! But there sound the trumpets, and I must fall in--fall in for the last time."
And as drum and bugle sounded on all sides, and the arms flashed in the sunshine when the order was given to "shoulder," a brightness seemed to pass over all the eyes and expectant faces in the grand stand. The Queen had e, and all that passed subsequently was like a dream to me then, and is more so now. The sixty-two officers and men who were to receive the cross (and twelve of whom belonged to the navy) were all, irrespective of rank, marshalled according to the number of their regiment under Lieutenant John Knox, of the Rifles, who, like myself, had an empty sleeve. The braided breast of his dark-green uniform seemed ablaze with medals, for he had been with the ladder party in the attack on the Redan, where he lost an arm by a grape-shot. There were but two officers of the 23rd to win the decoration, and we were posted between two privates of the 19th, and two of the 34th; but all passed the royal stand in single file. I had never seen the Queen hitherto, and suddenly I found myself before her--a smiling-faced, graceful, though stout little lady, in a low hat, adorned with a beautiful plume, and wearing a scarlet tunic and blue skirt; and I certainly felt my heart vibrate, as with her own hands she pinned the decoration on my breast--vibrate with a flush of pride and joy only to be felt at such a time and at such a ceremony; and yet amid it all I thought of the dear little wife who, with her eyes dim with tears of happiness, was watching me. I then passed on, giving place to a lame private of the 34th Foot, the Prince Consort saluting each recipient as they passed him--many slowly, painfully, and with difficulty; for some poor maimed and haggard-faced fellows were hobbling on sticks and crutches, and some, like the gallant Sir Thomas Trowbridge, who had lost both legs, were wheeled to the very feet of the Queen in Bath-chairs. At last all was over--this closing episode of our war in the Crimea; and as we drove from the crowded park to get the train for Brighton--the honeymoon was not yet finished--I had forgotten all about Estelle and her Plunger; and I thanked God in my heart that I was not lying where so many lay in the land we had left, and for the tender and true-hearted wife He had given me, as I laughingly hung round her pretty neck the black-iron order of valour--the Victoria Cross.
Fifteen years have passed since that auspicious day. And now, as I write these closing lines, I can see, through the lozenged and mullioned windows of the library, the old woods of Craigaderyn tossing their leafy branches on the evening wind, and the sunset lingering redly on the lofty peaks of Snowdon and Carneydd Llewellyn. Old Sir Madoc--too old now to back even his most favourite hunter--is sitting yonder in the sunshine, looking dreamily down the far-stretched vista of the chase to where the bright sea is rippling in the distance.
The flowers are blooming as gaily on the terrace as they did on the day of Dora's fête, and she has long been Aunt Vaughan; for at Craigaderyn there are little ones now--a violet-eyed Winifred, who scampers through the park on a Welsh pony; a dark-haired Madoc, who can almost handle a gun; and a golden-curled Harry to run after the tossing leaves, to shout to the deer and hare as they lurk among the fern; to seek for birds' nests among the shrubbery; to grab at the gold fish in the fountain with his fat little fists; to clamber about Sir Madoc's chair and knees; to ride on the backs of Owen Gwyllim and old Corporal Mulligan, and in whom we see mamma's eyes, papa's expression--nods, winks, and blinks, and so forth, all so exactly reproduced and blended, that our best friends don't know which of us he most resembles; so "Time, the avenger" of all things, has brought nothing but joy and happiness to us at Craigaderyn.
Footnote 1: Without God, without everything.
Footnote 2: The artillery of the Prussian Guard have also had constantly a goat, its neck encircled by a beautiful collar, and one, named by the soldiers "Herr Schneider," acpanied them in every battle, from the war which broke out in 1866 till the peace in 1870. He always marched with the men of the first gun. At K?ninghof, Herr Schneider was left in the rear, tied to a powder caisson; but he broke loose, came to the front at full gallop, and was recaptured under fire; the soldiers afterwards attached to his collar a copper medal, made from a pan found among the captured cooking utensils of General Coronini. His death was formally announced by the artillery of the Guard in the Berlin Vossische Zeitung.
Footnote 3: Fusileer regiments did not then wear epaulettes.
Footnote 4: May God preserve us!
Footnote 5: Good Lord deliver us.