Miss or Mrs?, by Wilkie Collins

Sixth Scene.

The Church.

The time is morning; the date is early in the month of November. The place is a church, in a poor and populous parish in the undiscovered regions of London, eastward of the Tower, and hard by the river-side.

A marriage procession of five approaches the altar The bridegroom is pale, and the bride is frightened. The bride’s friend (a resolute-looking little lady) encourages her in whispers. The two respectable persons, apparently man and wife, who complete the procession, seem to be not quite clear as to the position which they occupy at the ceremony. The beadle, as he marshals them before the altar, sees something under the surface in this wedding-party. Marriages in the lower ranks of life are the only marriages celebrated here. Is this a runaway match? The beadle anticipates something out of the common in the shape of a fee.

The clergyman (the junior curate) appears from the vestry in his robes. The clerk takes his place. The clergyman’s eye rests with a sudden interest and curiosity on the bride and bridegroom, and on the bride’s friend; notices the absence of elderly relatives; remarks, in the two ladies especially, evidences of refinement and breeding entirely unparalleled in his professional experience of brides and brides’ friends standing before the altar of that church; questions, silently and quickly, the eye of the clerk, occupied also in observing the strangers with interest “Jenkinson” (the clergyman’s look asks), “is this all right?” “Sir” (the clerk’s look answers), “a marriage by banns; all the formalities have been observed.” The clergyman opens his book. The formalities have been observed; his duty lies plainly before him. Attention, Launcelot! Courage, Natalie! The service begins.

Launce casts a last furtive look round the church. Will Sir Joseph Graybrooke start up and stop it from one of the empty pews? Is Richard Turlington lurking in the organ-loft, and only waiting till the words of the service appeal to him to prohibit the marriage, or “else hereafter forever to hold his peace?” No. The clergyman proceeds steadily, and nothing happens. Natalie’s charming face grows paler and paler, Natalie’s heart throbs faster and faster, as the time comes nearer for reading the words which unite them for life. Lady Winwood herself feels an unaccustomed fluttering in the region of the bosom. Her ladyship’s thoughts revert, not altogether pleasantly, to her own marriage: “Ah me! what was I thinking of when I was in this position? Of the bride’s beautiful dress, and of Lady Winwood’s coming presentation at court!”

The service advances to the words in which they plight their troth. Launce has put the ring on her finger. Launce has repeated the words after the clergyman. Launce has married her! Done! Come what may of it, done!

The service ends. Bridegroom, bride, and witnesses go into the vestry to sign the book. The signing, like the service, is serious. No trifling with the truth is possible here. When it comes to Lady Winwood’s turn, Lady Winwood must write her name. She does it, but without her usual grace and decision. She drops her handkerchief. The clerk picks it up for her, and notices that a coronet is embroidered in one corner.

The fees are paid. They leave the vestry. Other couples, when it is over, are talkative and happy. These two are more silent and more embarrassed than ever. Stranger still, while other couples go off with relatives and friends, all socially united in honor of the occasion, these two and their friends part at the church door. The respectable man and his wife go their way on foot. The little lady with the coronet on her handkerchief puts the bride into a cab, gets in herself, and directs the driver to close the door, while the bridegroom is standing on the church steps! The bridegroom’s face is clouded, as well it may be. He puts his head in at the window of the cab; he possesses himself of the bride’s hand; he speaks in a whisper; he is apparently not to be shaken off. The little lady exerts her authority, separates the clasped hands, pushes the bridegroom away, and cries peremptorily to the driver to go on. The cab starts; the deserted husband drifts desolately anyhow down the street. The clerk, who has seen it all, goes back to the vestry and reports what has happened.

The rector (with his wife on his arm) has just dropped into the vestry on business in passing. He and the curate are talking about the strange marriage. The rector, gravely bent on ascertaining that no blame rests with the church, interrogates, and is satisfied. The rector’s wife is not so easy to deal with. She has looked at the signatures in the book. One of the names is familiar to her. She cross-examines the clerk as soon as her husband is done with him. When she hears of the coronet on the handkerchief she points to the signature of “Louisa Winwood,” and says to the rector, “I know who it is! Lord Winwood’s second wife. I went to school with his lordship’s daughters by his first marriage. We occasionally meet at the Sacred Concerts (on the ‘Ladies’ Committee’); I shall find an opportunity of speaking to them. One moment, Mr. Jenkinson, I will write down the names before you put away the book. ‘Launcelot Linzie,’ ‘Natalie Graybrooke.’ Very pretty names; quite romantic. I do delight in a romance. Good-morning.”

She gives the curate a parting smile, and the clerk a parting nod, and sails out of the vestry. Natalie, silently returning in Lady Winwood’s company to Muswell Hill; and Launce, cursing the law of Abduction as he roams the streets — little think that the ground is already mined under their feet. Richard Turlington may hear of it now, or may hear of it later. The discovery of the marriage depends entirely on a chance meeting between the lord’s daughters and the rector’s wife.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30