That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xl.

As the Clock Struck.

I do not attend weddings in general, but great as my suspense was in reference to Miss Oliver, I felt that I could not miss seeing Miss Althorpe married.

I had ordered a new dress for the occasion, and was in the best of spirits as I rode to the church in which the ceremony was to be performed. The excitement of a great social occasion was for once not disagreeable to me, nor did I mind the crowd, though it pushed me about rather uncomfortably till an usher came to my assistance and seated me in a pew, which I was happy to see commanded a fine view of the chancel.

I was early, but then I always am early, and having ample opportunity for observation, I noted every fine detail of ornamentation with approval, Miss Althorpe’s taste being of that fine order which always falls short of ostentation. Her friends are in very many instances my friends, and it was no small part of my pleasure to note their well-known faces among the crowd of those that were strange to me. That the scene was brilliant, and that silks, satins, and diamonds abounded, goes without saying.

At last the church was full, and the hush which usually precedes the coming of the bride was settling over the whole assemblage, when I suddenly observed, in the person of a respectable-looking gentleman seated in a side pew, the form and features of Mr. Gryce, the detective. This was a shock to me, yet what was there in his presence there to alarm me? Might not Miss Althorpe have accorded him this pleasure out of the pure goodness of her heart? I did not look at anybody else, however, after once my eyes fell upon him, but continued to watch his expression, which was non-commital, though a little anxious for one engaged in a purely social function.

The entrance of the clergyman and the sudden peal of the organ in the well-known wedding march recalled my attention to the occasion itself, and as at that moment the bridegroom stepped from the vestry to await his bride at the altar, I was absorbed by his fine appearance and the air of mingled pride and happiness with which he watched the stately approach of the bridal procession.

But suddenly there was a stir through the whole glittering assemblage, and the clergyman made a move and the bridegroom gave a start, and the sound, slight as it was, of moving feet grew still, and I saw advancing from the door on the opposite side of the altar a second bride, clad in white and surrounded by a long veil which completely hid her face. A second bride! and the first was half-way up the aisle, and only one bridegroom stood ready!

The clergyman, who seemed to have as little command of his faculties as the rest of us, tried to speak; but the approaching woman, upon whom every regard was fixed, forestalled him by an authoritative gesture.

Advancing towards the chancel, she took her place on the spot reserved for Miss Althorpe.

Silence had filled the church up to this moment; but at this audacious move, a solitary wailing cry of mingled astonishment and despair went up behind us; but before any of us could turn, and while my own heart stood still, for I thought I recognized this veiled figure, the woman at the altar raised her hand and pointed towards the bridegroom.

“Why does he hesitate?” she cried. “Does he not recognize the only woman with whom he dare face God and man at the altar? Because I am already his wedded wife, and have been so for five long years, does that make my wearing of this veil amiss when he a husband, unreleased by the law, dares enter this sacred place with the hope and expectation of a bridegroom?”

It was Ruth Oliver who spoke. I recognized her voice as I had recognized her apparel; but the emotions aroused in me by her presence and the almost incredible claims she advanced were lost in the horror inspired by the man she thus vehemently accused. No lost spirit from the pit could have shown a more hideous commingling of the most terrible passions known to man than he did in the face of this terrible arraignment; and if Ella Althorpe, cowering in her shame and misery half-way up the aisle, saw him in all his depravity at that instant as I did, nothing could have saved her long-cherished love from immediate death.

Yet he tried to speak.

“It is false!” he cried; “all false! The woman I once called wife is dead.”

“Dead, Olive Randolph? Murderer!” she exclaimed. “The blow struck in the dark found another victim!” And pulling the veil from her face, Ruth Oliver advanced to his side and laid her trembling hand with a firm and decisive movement on his arm.

Was it her words, her touch, or the sound of the clock striking eight in the great tower over our heads, which so totally overwhelmed him? As the last stroke of the hour which was to have seen him united with Miss Althorpe died out in the awed spaces above him, he gave a cry such as I am sure never resounded between those sacred walls before, and sank in a heap on the spot where but a few minutes previous he had lifted his head in all the glow and pride of a prospective bridegroom.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37