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Philistia (Chapter18)

2006-08-28 23:25

  Chapter XVIII. A Quiet Wedding.

  Fate was adverse for the moment to Arthur Berkeley's well meant designs for shuffling off the trammels of his ecclesiastical habit. He was destined to appear in public at least once more, not only in the black coat and white tie of his everyday professional costume, but even in the flowing snowy surplice of a solemn and decorous spiritual function. The very next morning's post brought him a little note from Ernest Le Breton specially begging him, in his own name and Edie's, to come down to Calcombe Pomeroy, and officiate as parson at their approaching wedding. The note had cost Ernest a conscientious struggle, for he would have personally preferred to be married at a Registry Office, as being more in accordance with the duties of a good citizen, and savouring less of effete ecclesiastical superstition; but he felt he couldn't even propose such a step to Edie; she wouldn't have considered herself married at all, unless she were married quite regularly by a duly qualified clerk in holy orders of the Church of England as by law established. Already, indeed, Ernest was beginning to recognise with a sigh that if he was going to live in the world at all, he must do so by making at least a partial sacrifice of political consistency. You may step out of your own century, if you choose, yourself, but you can't get all the men and women with whom you come in contact to step out of it also in unison just to please you.

  So Ernest had sat down reluctantly to his desk, and consented to ask Arthur Berkeley to assist at the important ceremony in his professional clerical capacity. If he was going to have a medicine man or a priest at all to marry him to the girl of his choice——a barbaric survival, at the best, he thought it——he would, at any rate, prefer having his friend Arthur——a good man and true——to having the fat, easy-going, purse-proud rector of the parish; the younger son of a wealthy family who had gone into the Church for the sake of the living, and who rolled sumptuously down the long hilly High Street every day in his comfortable carriage, leaning back with his fat hands folded complacently over his ample knees, and gazing abstractedly, with his little pigs'-eyes half buried in his cheek, at the beautiful prospect afforded him by the broad livery-covered backs of his coachman and his footman. Ernest could never have consented to lot that lazy, overfed, useless encumbrance on a long-suffering commonwealth, that idle gorger of dainty meats and choice wines from the tithes of the tolling, suffering people, bear any part in what was after all the most solemn and serious contract of his whole lifetime. And, to say the truth, Edie quite agreed with him on that point, too. Though her moral indignation against poor, useless, empty-headed old Mr. Walters didn't burn quite so fierce or so clear as Ernest's——she regarded the fat old parson, indeed, rather from the social point of view, as a ludicrously self-satisfied specimen of the lower stages of humanity, than from the political point of view, as a greedy swallower of large revenues for small work inefficiently performed——she would still have felt that his presence at her wedding jarred and grated on all the finer sensibilities of her nature, as out of accord with the solemn and tender associations of that supreme moment. To have been married by prosy old Mr. Walters, to have taken the final benediction on the greatest act of her life from those big white fat fingers, would have spoilt the reminiscence of the wedding day for her as long as she lived. But when Ernest suggested Arthur Berkeley's name to her, she acquiesced with all her heart in the happy selection. She liked Berkeley better than anybody else she had ever met, except Ernest; and she knew that his presence would rather add one more bright association to the day than detract from it in the coming years. Her poor little wedding would want all the additions that friends could make to its cheerfulness, to get over the lasting gloom and blank of dear Harry's absence.

  'You will come and help us, I know, Berkeley,' Ernest wrote to Arthur in his serious fashion. 'We feel there is nobody else we should so like to have present at our wedding as yourself. Come soon, too, for there are lots of things I want to talk over with you. It's a very solemn responsibility, getting married: you have to take upon yourself the duty of raising up future citizens for the state; and with our present knowledge of how nature works through the laws of heredity, you have to think whether you two who contemplate marriage are well fitted to act as parents to the generations that are to be. When I remember that all my own faults and failings may be handed on relentlessly to those that come after us——built up in the very fibre of their being——I am half appalled at my own temerity. Then, again, there is the inexorable question of money; is it prudent or is it wrong of us to marry on such an uncertainty? I'm afraid that Schurz and Malthas would tell us ——very wrong. I have turned over these things by myself till I'm tired of arguing them out in my own head, and I want you to come down beforehand, so as to cheer me up a bit with your lighter and brighter philosophy. On the very eve of my marriage, I'm somehow getting dreadfully pessimistic.'

  Arthur read the letter through impatiently and crumpled it up in his hands with a gesture of despondency. 'Poor little Miss Butterfly,' he said to himself, pityingly, 'was there ever such an abstraction of an ethical unit as this good, solemn, self-torturing Ernest! How will she ever live with him? How will he ever live with her? Poor little soul! Harry is gone like the sunshine out of her life; and now this well-meaning, gloomy, conscientious cloud comes caressingly to overspread her with the shadowing pall of its endless serious doubts and hesitations. Fancy a man who has won little Miss Butterfly's heart——dear little Miss Butterfly's gay, laughing, tender little heart——writing such a letter as that to the friend who's going to marry them! Upon my word, I've half a mind to go into the concientious scruples business on my own account! Have I any right to be a party to fettering poor airy fairy little Miss Butterfly, with a heavy iron chain for life and always, to this great lumbering elephantine moral Ernest? Am I justified in tying the cable round her dainty little neck with a silken thread, and then fastening it round his big leg with rivets of hardened steel on the patent Bessemer process? If a couple of persons, duly called by banns in their own respective parishes, or furnished with the right reverend's perquisite, a licence, come to me, a clerk in holy orders, and ask me to marry them, I've a vague idea that unless I comply I lay myself open to the penalties of praemunire, or something else equally awful and mysterious. But if the couple write and ask me to come down into Devonshire and marry them, that's quite another matter. I can lawfully answer, 'Non possumus.' There's a fine ecclesiastical ring, by the way, about answering 'Non possumus;' it sums up the entire position of the Church in a nutshell! Well, I doubt whether I ought to go; but as a matter of friendship, I'll throw overboard my poor conscience. It's used to the process by this time, no doubt, like eels to skinning; and as Hudibras says,

  However tender it may be,'Tis passing blind where 'twill not see.

  If she'd only have taken me, now, who knows but I might in time have risen to be a Prebendary or even a Dean? 'They that have used the office of a deacon well, purchase to themselves a good degree,' Paul wrote to Timothy once; but it's not so now, it's not so now; preferment goes by favour, and the deacon must e'en shift as best he can on his own account.' So, in the end, Arthur packed up his surplice in his little handbag, and took his way peacefully down to Calcombe Pomeroy.

  It was a very quiet, almost a sombre wedding, for the poor Oswalds were still enveloped in the lasting gloom of their great loss, and not much outward show or preparation, such as the female heart naturally delights in, could possibly be made under these painful circumstances. Still, all the world of Calcombe came to see little Miss Oswald married to the grave gentleman from Oxford; and most of them gave her their hearty good wishes, for Edie was a general favourite with gentle and simple throughout the whole borough. Herbert was there, like a decorous gentleman, to represent the bridegroom's family, and so was Ronald, who had slipped away from London without telling Lady Le Breton, for fear of another distressful scone at the last moment. Arthur Berkeley read the service in his beautiful impressive manner, and looked his part well in his flowing white surplice. But as he uttered the solemn words, 'Whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,' the musical ring of his own voice sounded to his heart like the knell of his own one love——the funeral service over the only romance he could ever mix in throughout his whole lifetime. Poor fellow, he had taken the duty upon him with all friendly heartiness; but he felt an awful and lonely feeling steal over him when it was all finished, and when he knew that his little Miss Butterfly was now Ernest Le Breton's lawful wife for ever and ever.

  In the vestry, after signing the books, Herbert and Ronald and some of the others insisted on their ancient right of kissing the bride in good old English fashion. But Arthur did not. It would not have been loyal. He felt in his heart that he had loved little Miss Butterfly too deeply himself for that; to claim a kiss would be abusing the formal dues of his momentary position. Henceforth he would not even think of her to himself in that little pet name of his brief Oxford dream: he would call her nothing in his own mind but Mrs. Le Breton.

  Edie's simple little presents were all arranged in the tiny parlour behind the shop. Most of them were from her own personal friends: a few were from the gentry of the surrounding neighbourhood: but there were two handsomer than the rest: they came from outside the narrow little circle of Calcombe Pomeroy society. One was a plain gold bracelet from Arthur Berkeley; and on the gold of the inner face, though neither Edie nor Ernest noticed it, he had lightly cut with his knife on the soft metal the one word, 'Frustra.' The other was a dressing-case, with a little card inside, 'Miss Oswald, from Lady Hilda Tregellis.' Hilda had heard of Ernest's approaching wedding from Herbert (who took an early opportunity of casually lunching at Dunbude, in order to show that he mustn't be identified with his socialistic brother); and the news had strangely proved a slight salve to poor Hilda's wounded vanity——or, perhaps it would be fairer to say, to her slighted higher instincts. 'A country grocer's daughter!' she said to herself: 'the sister of a great mathematical scholar! How very original of him to think of marrying a grocer's daughter! Why, of course, he must have been engaged to her all along before he came here! And even if he hadn't been, one might have known at once that such a man as he is would never go and marry a girl whose name's in the peerage, when he could strike out a line for himself by marrying a grocer's daughter. I really like him better than ever for it. I must positively send her a little present. They'll be as poor as church mice, I've no doubt. I ought to send her something that'll be practically useful.' And by way of sending something practically useful, Lady Hilda chose at last a handsome silver-topped Russia leather dressing-case.

  It was not such a wedding as Edie had pictured to herself in her first sweet maidenly fancies; but still, when they drove away alone in the landau from the side-door of the Red Lion to Calcombe Road Station, she felt a quiet pride and security in her heart from the fact that she was now the wedded wife of a man she loved so dearly as Ernest Le Breton. And even Ernest so far conquered his social scruples that he took first-class tickets, for the first time in his life, to Ilfracombe, where they were to spend their brief and hasty fragment of a poor little honeymoon. It's so extremely hard to be a consistent socialist where women are concerned, especially on the very day of your own wedding!

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