“Something between an hindrance and a help.”
THE next day as, with nerves unstrung and an exhausted brain, I entered my office, I was greeted by the announcement:
“A gentleman, sir, in your private room — been waiting some time, very impatient.”
Weary, in no mood to hold consultation with clients new or old, I advanced with anything but an eager step towards my room, when, upon opening the door, I saw — Mr. Clavering.
Too much astounded for the moment to speak, I bowed to him silently, whereupon he approached me with the air and dignity of a highly bred gentleman, and presented his card, on which I saw written, in free and handsome characters, his whole name, Henry Ritchie Clavering. After this introduction of himself, he apologized for making so unceremonious a call, saying, in excuse, that he was a stranger in town; that his business was one of great urgency; that he had casually heard honorable mention of me as a lawyer and a gentleman, and so had ventured to seek this interview on behalf of a friend who was so unfortunately situated as to require the opinion and advice of a lawyer upon a question which not only involved an extraordinary state of facts, but was of a nature peculiarly embarrassing to him, owing to his ignorance of American laws, and the legal bearing of these facts upon the same.
Having thus secured my attention, and awakened my curiosity, he asked me if I would permit him to relate his story. Recovering in a measure from my astonishment, and subduing the extreme repulsion, almost horror, I felt for the man, I signified my assent; at which he drew from his pocket a memorandum-book from which he read in substance as follows:
“An Englishman travelling in this country meets, at a fashionable watering-place, an American girl, with whom he falls deeply in love, and whom, after a few days, he desires to marry. Knowing his position to be good, his fortune ample, and his intentions highly honorable, he offers her his hand, and is accepted. But a decided opposition arising in the family to the match, he is compelled to disguise his sentiments, though the engagement remained unbroken. While matters were in this uncertain condition, he received advices from England demanding his instant return, and, alarmed at the prospect of a protracted absence from the object of his affections, he writes to the lady, informing her of the circumstances, and proposing a secret marriage. She consents with stipulations; the first of which is, that he should leave her instantly upon the conclusion of the ceremony, and the second, that he should intrust the public declaration of the marriage to her. It was not precisely what he wished, but anything which served to make her his own was acceptable at such a crisis. He readily enters into the plans proposed. Meeting the lady at a parsonage, some twenty miles from the watering-place at which she was staying, he stands up with her before a Methodist preacher, and the ceremony of marriage is performed. There were two witnesses, a hired man of the minister, called in for the purpose, and a lady friend who came with the bride; but there was no license, and the bride had not completed her twenty-first year. Now, was that marriage legal? If the lady, wedded in good faith upon that day by my friend, chooses to deny that she is his lawful wife, can he hold her to a compact entered into in so informal a manner? In short, Mr. Raymond, is my friend the lawful husband of that girl or not?”
While listening to this story, I found myself yielding to feelings greatly in contrast to those with which I greeted the relator but a moment before. I became so interested in his “friend’s” case as to quite forget, for the time being, that I had ever seen or heard of Henry Clavering; and after learning that the marriage ceremony took place in the State of New York, I replied to him, as near as I can remember, in the following words: “In this State, and I believe it to be American law, marriage is a civil contract, requiring neither license, priest, ceremony, nor certificate — and in some cases witnesses are not even necessary to give it validity. Of old, the modes of getting a wife were the same as those of acquiring any other species of property, and they are not materially changed at the present time. It is enough that the man and woman say to each other, ‘From this time we are married,’ or, ‘You are now my wife,’ or, ‘my husband,’ as the case may be. The mutual consent is all that is necessary. In fact, you may contract marriage as you contract to lend a sum of money, or to buy the merest trifle.”
“Then your opinion is ——”
“That upon your statement, your friend is the lawful husband of the lady in question; presuming, of course, that no legal disabilities of either party existed to prevent such a union. As to the young lady’s age, I will merely say that any fourteen-year-old girl can be a party to a marriage contract.”
Mr. Clavering bowed, his countenance assuming a look of great satisfaction. “I am very glad to hear this,” said he; “my friend’s happiness is entirely involved in the establishment, of his marriage.”
He appeared so relieved, my curiosity was yet further aroused. I therefore said: “I have given you my opinion as to the legality of this marriage; but it may be quite another thing to prove it, should the same be contested.”
He started, cast me an inquiring look, and murmured:
“Allow me to ask you a few questions. Was the lady married under her own name?”
“Did the lady receive a certificate?”
“Properly signed by the minister and witnesses?”
He bowed his head in assent.
“Did she keep this?”
“I cannot say; but I presume she did.”
“The witnesses were ——”
“A hired man of the minister ——”
“Who can be found?”
“Who cannot be found.”
“Dead or disappeared?”
“The minister is dead, the man has disappeared.”
“The minister dead!”
“Three months since.”
“And the marriage took place when?”
“The other witness, the lady friend, where is she?”
“She can be found; but her action is not to be depended upon.”
“Has the gentleman himself no proofs of this marriage?”
Mr. Clavering shook his head. “He cannot even prove he was in the town where it took place on that particular day.”
“The marriage certificate was, however, filed with the clerk of the town?” said I.
“It was not, sir.”
“How was that?”
“I cannot say. I only know that my friend has made inquiry, and that no such paper is to be found.”
I leaned slowly back and looked at him. “I do not wonder your friend is concerned in regard to his position, if what you hint is true, and the lady seems disposed to deny that any such ceremony ever took place. Still, if he wishes to go to law, the Court may decide in his favor, though I doubt it. His sworn word is all he would have to go upon, and if she contradicts his testimony under oath, why the sympathy of a jury is, as a rule, with the woman.”
Mr. Clavering rose, looked at me with some earnestness, and finally asked, in a tone which, though somewhat changed, lacked nothing of its former suavity, if I would be kind enough to give him in writing that portion of my opinion which directly bore upon the legality of the marriage; that such a paper would go far towards satisfying his friend that his case had been properly presented; as he was aware that no respectable lawyer would put his name to a legal opinion without first having carefully arrived at his conclusions by a thorough examination of the law bearing upon the facts submitted.
This request seeming so reasonable, I unhesitatingly complied with it, and handed him the opinion. He took it, and, after reading it carefully over, deliberately copied it into his memorandum-book. This done, he turned towards me, a strong, though hitherto subdued, emotion showing itself in his countenance.
“Now, sir,” said he, rising upon me to the full height of his majestic figure, “I have but one more request to make; and that is, that you will receive back this opinion into your own possession, and in the day you think to lead a beautiful woman to the altar, pause and ask yourself: ‘Am I sure that the hand I clasp with such impassioned fervor is free? Have I any certainty for knowing that it has not already been given away, like that of the lady whom, in this opinion of mine, I have declared to be a wedded wife according to the laws of my country? ‘”
But he, with an urbane bow, laid his hand upon the knob of the door. “I thank you for your courtesy, Mr. Raymond, and I bid you good-day. I hope you will have no need of consulting that paper before I see you again.” And with another bow, he passed out.
It was the most vital shock I had yet experienced; and for a moment I stood paralyzed. Me! me! Why should he mix me up with the affair unless — but I would not contemplate that possibility. Eleanore married, and to this man? No, no; anything but that! And yet I found myself continually turning the supposition over in my mind until, to escape the torment of my own conjectures, I seized my hat, and rushed into the street in the hope of finding him again and extorting from him an explanation of his mysterious conduct. But by the time I reached the sidewalk, he was nowhere to be seen. A thousand busy men, with their various cares and purposes, had pushed themselves between us, and I was obliged to return to my office with my doubts unsolved.
I think I never experienced a longer day; but it passed, and at five o’clock I had the satisfaction of inquiring for Mr. Clavering at the Hoffman House. Judge of my surprise when I learned that his visit to my office was his last action before taking passage upon the steamer leaving that day for Liverpool; that he was now on the high seas, and all chance of another interview with him was at an end. I could scarcely believe the fact at first; but after a talk with the cabman who had driven him off to my office and thence to the steamer, I became convinced. My first feeling was one of shame. I had been brought face to face with the accused man, had received an intimation from him that he was not expecting to see me again for some time, and had weakly gone on attending to my own affairs and allowed him to escape, like the simple tyro that I was. My next, the necessity of notifying Mr. Gryce of this man’s departure. But it was now six o’clock, the hour set apart for my interview with Mr. Harwell. I could not afford to miss that, so merely stopping to despatch a line to Mr. Gryce, in which I promised to visit him that evening, I turned my steps towards home. I found Mr. Harwell there before me.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09