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Chapter XIII 


A STRANGE WEDDING

My moralisings were cut short by my entering a village, and, it being about the hour of noon, finding myself in the thick of a village wedding.

Undoubtedly the nicest way to get married is on the sly, and indeed it is at present becoming quite fashionable. Many young couples of my acquaintance, who have had no other reason for concealing the fact beyond their own whim, have thus slipped off without saying a word to anybody, and returned full-blown housekeepers, with "at home" days of their own, and everything else like real married people,--for, as said an old lady to me, "one can never be sure of married people nowadays unless you have been at the wedding."

My friend George Muncaster, who does everything charmingly different from any one else, hit upon one of the quaintest plans for his marriage. It was simple, and some may say prosaic enough. His days being spent at a great office in the city, he got leave of absence for a couple of hours, met his wife, went with her to the registrar's, returned to his office, worked the rest of the day as usual, and then went to his new home to find his wife and dinner awaiting him,--all just as it was going to be every night for so many happy years. Prosaic, you say! Not your idea of poetry, perhaps, but, after a new and growing fashion in poetry, truly poetic. George Muncaster's marriage is a type of the new poetry, the poetry of essentials. The old poetry, as exemplified in the old-fashioned marriage, is a poetry of externals, and certainly it has the advantage of picturesqueness.

There is perhaps more to be said for it than that. Indeed, if I were ever to get married, I am at a loss to know which way I should choose,--George Muncaster's way or the old merry fashion, with the rice and the old shoes and the orange-blossom. No doubt the old cheery publicity is a little embarrassing to the two most concerned, and the old marriage customs, the singing of the bride and bridegroom to their nuptial couch, the frank jests, the country horse-play, must have fretted the souls of many a lover before Shelley, who, it will be remembered, resented the choral celebrations of his Scotch landlord and friends by appearing at his bedroom door with a brace of pistols.

How like Shelley! The Scotch landlord meant well, we may be sure, and a very small pinch of humour, or even mere ordinary humanity, as distinct from humanitarianism, would have taken in the situation. Of course Shelley's mind was full of the sanctity of the moment, and indignant that "the hour for which the years did sigh" should thus be broken in upon by vulgar revelry; but while we may sympathise with his view, and admit to the full the sacredness, not to say the solemnity, of the marriage ceremony, yet it is to be hoped that it still retains a naturally mirthful side, of which such public merriment is but the crude expression.

With all its sweet and mystical significance, surely the prevailing feeling in the hearts of bride and bridegroom is, or should be, that of happiness,--happiness bubbling and dancing, all sunny ripples from heart to heart.

Surely they can spare a little of it, just one day's sight of it, to a less happy world,--a world long since married and done for, and with little happiness in it save the spectacle of other people's happiness. It is good for us to see happy people, good for the symbols of happiness to be carried high amidst us on occasion; for if they serve no other purpose, they inspire in us the hope that we too may some day be happy, or remind our discontented hearts that we have been.

If it were only for the sake of those quaint old women for whom life would be entirely robbed of interest were it not for other people's weddings and funerals, one feels the public ceremony of marriage a sort of public duty, the happiness tax, so to say, due to the somewhat impoverished revenues of public happiness. Other forms of happiness are taxed; why not marriage?

In a village, particularly, two people who robbed the community of its perquisites in this respect would be looked upon as "enemies of the people," and their joint life would begin under a social ban which it would cost much subsequent hospitality to remove. The dramatic instinct to which the life of towns is necessarily unfavourable, is kept alive in the country by the smallness of the stage and the fewness of the actors. A village is an organism, conscious of its several parts, as a town is not.

In a village everybody is a public man. The great events of his life are of public as well as private significance, appropriately, therefore, invested with public ceremonial. Thus used to living in the public eye, the actors carry off their parts at weddings and other dramatic ceremonials, with more spirit than is easy to a townsman, who is naturally made self-conscious by being suddenly called upon to fill for a day a public position for which he has had no training. That no doubt is the real reason for the growth of quiet marriages; and the desire for them, I suspect, comes first from the man, for there are few women who at heart do not prefer the old histrionic display.

However, the village wedding at which I suddenly found myself a spectator was, for a village, a singularly quiet one. There was no bell-ringing, and there were no bridesmaids. The bride drove up quietly with her father, and there was a subdued note even in the murmur of recognition which ran along the villagers as they stood in groups near the church porch. There was an absence of the usual hilarity which struck me. One might almost have said that there was a quite ominous silence.

Seating myself in a corner of the transept where I could see all and be little seen, I with the rest awaited the coming of the overdue bridegroom. Meanwhile the usual buzzing and bobbing of heads went on amongst the usual little group near the foot of the altar. Now and then one caught a glisten of tears through a widow's veil, and the little bride, dressed quietly in grey, talked with the usual nervous gaiety to her girl friends, and made the usual whispered confidences about her trousseau. The father, in occasional conversation with one and another, appeared to be avoiding the subject with the usual self-conscious solemnity, and occasionally he looked, somewhat anxiously, I thought, towards the church door. The bridegroom did not keep us waiting long,--I noticed that he had a rather delicate sad face,--and presently the service began.

I don't know myself what getting married must feel like, but it cannot be much more exciting than watching other people getting married. Probably the spectators are more conscious of the impressive meaning of it all than the brave young people themselves. I say brave, for I am always struck by the courage of the two who thus gaily leap into the gulf of the unknown together, thus join hands over the inevitable, and put their signatures to the irrevocable. Indeed, I always get something like a palpitation of the heart just before the priest utters those final fateful words, "I declare you man and-- wife." Half a second before you were still free, half a second after you are bound for the term of your natural life. Half a second before you had only to dash the book from the priest's hands, and put your hand over his mouth, and though thus giddily swinging on the brink of the precipice, you are saved. Half a second after

Not all the king's horses and all the king's men Can make you a bachelor ever again.

It is the knife-edge moment 'twixt time and eternity.

And, curiously enough, while my thoughts were thus running on towards the rapids of that swirling moment, the very thing happened which I had often imagined might happen to myself. Suddenly, with a sob, the bridegroom covered his face with his hands, and crying, "I cannot! I cannot!" hurriedly left the church, tears streaming down his cheeks, to the complete dismay of the sad little group at the altar, and the consternation of all present.

"Poor young man! I thought he would never go through with it," said an old woman half to herself, who was sitting near me. I involuntarily looked my desire of explanation.

"Well, you see," she said, "he had been married before. His first wife died four years ago, and he loved her beyond all heaven and earth."

That evening, I afterwards heard, the young bridegroom's body was found by some boys as they went to bathe in the river. As I recalled once more that sad yearning face, and heard again that terrible "I cannot! I cannot!" I thought of Heine's son of Asra, who loved the Sultan's daughter.

"What is thy name, slave?" asked the princess, "and what thy race and birthplace?"

"My name," the young slave answered, "is Mahomet. I come from Yemen. My race is that of Asra, and when we love, we die."

And likewise a voice kept saying in my heart, "If ever you find your Golden Bride, be sure she will die."

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