Soon Raye wrote about the wedding. Having decided to make the best of what he feared was a piece of romantic folly, he had acquired more zest for the grand experiment. He wished the ceremony to be in London, for greater privacy. Edith Harnham would have preferred it at Melchester; Anna was passive. His reasoning prevailed, and Mrs. Harnham threw herself with mournful zeal into the preparations for Anna’s departure. In a last desperate feeling that she must at every hazard be in at the death of her dream, and see once again the man who by a species of telepathy had exercised such an influence on her, she offered to go up with Anna and be with her through the ceremony—‘to see the end of her,’ as her mistress put it with forced gaiety; an offer which the girl gratefully accepted; for she had no other friend capable of playing the part of companion and witness, in the presence of a gentlemanly bridegroom, in such a way as not to hasten an opinion that he had made an irremediable social blunder.
It was a muddy morning in March when Raye alighted from a four-wheel cab at the door of a registry-office in the S.W. district of London, and carefully handed down Anna and her companion Mrs. Harnham. Anna looked attractive in the somewhat fashionable clothes which Mrs. Harnham had helped her to buy, though not quite so attractive as, an innocent child, she had appeared in her country gown on the back of the wooden horse at Melchester Fair.
Mrs. Harnham had come up this morning by an early train, and a young man—a friend of Raye’s—having met them at the door, all four entered the registry-office together. Till an hour before this time Raye had never known the wine-merchant’s wife, except at that first casual encounter, and in the flutter of the performance before them he had little opportunity for more than a brief acquaintance. The contract of marriage at a registry is soon got through; but somehow, during its progress, Raye discovered a strange and secret gravitation between himself and Anna’s friend.
The formalities of the wedding—or rather ratification of a previous union—being concluded, the four went in one cab to Raye’s lodgings, newly taken in a new suburb in preference to a house, the rent of which he could ill afford just then. Here Anna cut the little cake which Raye had bought at a pastrycook’s on his way home from Lincoln’s Inn the night before. But she did not do much besides. Raye’s friend was obliged to depart almost immediately, and when he had left the only ones virtually present were Edith and Raye who exchanged ideas with much animation. The conversation was indeed theirs only, Anna being as a domestic animal who humbly heard but understood not. Raye seemed startled in awakening to this fact, and began to feel dissatisfied with her inadequacy.
At last, more disappointed than he cared to own, he said, ‘Mrs. Harnham, my darling is so flurried that she doesn’t know what she is doing or saying. I see that after this event a little quietude will be necessary before she gives tongue to that tender philosophy which she used to treat me to in her letters.’
They had planned to start early that afternoon for Knollsea, to spend the few opening days of their married life there, and as the hour for departure was drawing near Raye asked his wife if she would go to the writing-desk in the next room and scribble a little note to his sister, who had been unable to attend through indisposition, informing her that the ceremony was over, thanking her for her little present, and hoping to know her well now that she was the writer’s sister as well as Charles’s.
‘Say it in the pretty poetical way you know so well how to adopt,’ he added, ‘for I want you particularly to win her, and both of you to be dear friends.’
Anna looked uneasy, but departed to her task, Raye remaining to talk to their guest. Anna was a long while absent, and her husband suddenly rose and went to her.
He found her still bending over the writing-table, with tears brimming up in her eyes; and he looked down upon the sheet of note-paper with some interest, to discover with what tact she had expressed her good-will in the delicate circumstances. To his surprise she had progressed but a few lines, in the characters and spelling of a child of eight, and with the ideas of a goose.
‘Anna,’ he said, staring; ‘what’s this?’
‘It only means—that I can’t do it any better!’ she answered, through her tears.
‘I can’t!’ she insisted, with miserable, sobbing hardihood. ‘I—I—didn’t write those letters, Charles! I only told her what to write! And not always that! But I am learning, O so fast, my dear, dear husband! And you’ll forgive me, won’t you, for not telling you before?’ She slid to her knees, abjectly clasped his waist and laid her face against him.
He stood a few moments, raised her, abruptly turned, and shut the door upon her, rejoining Edith in the drawing-room. She saw that something untoward had been discovered, and their eyes remained fixed on each other.
‘Do I guess rightly?’ he asked, with wan quietude. ‘You were her scribe through all this?’
‘It was necessary,’ said Edith.
‘Did she dictate every word you ever wrote to me?’
‘Not every word.’
‘In fact, very little?’
‘You wrote a great part of those pages every week from your own conceptions, though in her name!’
‘Perhaps you wrote many of the letters when you were alone, without communication with her?’
He turned to the bookcase, and leant with his hand over his face; and Edith, seeing his distress, became white as a sheet.
‘You have deceived me—ruined me!’ he murmured.
‘O, don’t say it!’ she cried in her anguish, jumping up and putting her hand on his shoulder. ‘I can’t bear that!’
‘Delighting me deceptively! Why did you do it—why did you!’
‘I began doing it in kindness to her! How could I do otherwise than try to save such a simple girl from misery? But I admit that I continued it for pleasure to myself.’
Raye looked up. ‘Why did it give you pleasure?’ he asked.
‘I must not tell,’ said she.
He continued to regard her, and saw that her lips suddenly began to quiver under his scrutiny, and her eyes to fill and droop. She started aside, and said that she must go to the station to catch the return train: could a cab be called immediately?
But Raye went up to her, and took her unresisting hand. ‘Well, to think of such a thing as this!’ he said. ‘Why, you and I are friends—lovers—devoted lovers—by correspondence!’
‘Yes; I suppose.’
‘Plainly more. It is no use blinking that. Legally I have married her—God help us both!—in soul and spirit I have married you, and no other woman in the world!’
‘But I will not hush! Why should you try to disguise the full truth, when you have already owned half of it? Yes, it is between you and me that the bond is—not between me and her! Now I’ll say no more. But, O my cruel one, I think I have one claim upon you!’
She did not say what, and he drew her towards him, and bent over her. ‘If it was all pure invention in those letters,’ he said emphatically, ‘give me your cheek only. If you meant what you said, let it be lips. It is for the first and last time, remember!’
She put up her mouth, and he kissed her long. ‘You forgive me?’ she said crying.
‘But you are ruined!’
‘What matter!’ he said shrugging his shoulders. ‘It serves me right!’
She withdrew, wiped her eyes, entered and bade good-bye to Anna, who had not expected her to go so soon, and was still wrestling with the letter. Raye followed Edith downstairs, and in three minutes she was in a hansom driving to the Waterloo station.
He went back to his wife. ‘Never mind the letter, Anna, to-day,’ he said gently. ‘Put on your things. We, too, must be off shortly.’
The simple girl, upheld by the sense that she was indeed married, showed her delight at finding that he was as kind as ever after the disclosure. She did not know that before his eyes he beheld as it were a galley, in which he, the fastidious urban, was chained to work for the remainder of his life, with her, the unlettered peasant, chained to his side.
Edith travelled back to Melchester that day with a face that showed the very stupor of grief; her lips still tingling from the desperate pressure of his kiss. The end of her impassioned dream had come. When at dusk she reached the Melchester station her husband was there to meet her, but in his perfunctoriness and her preoccupation they did not see each other, and she went out of the station alone.
She walked mechanically homewards without calling a fly. Entering, she could not bear the silence of the house, and went up in the dark to where Anna had slept, where she remained thinking awhile. She then returned to the drawing-room, and not knowing what she did, crouched down upon the floor.
‘I have ruined him!’ she kept repeating. ‘I have ruined him; because I would not deal treacherously towards her!’
In the course of half an hour a figure opened the door of the apartment.
‘Ah—who’s that?’ she said, starting up, for it was dark.
‘Your husband—who should it be?’ said the worthy merchant.
‘Ah—my husband!—I forgot I had a husband!’ she whispered to herself.
‘I missed you at the station,’ he continued. ‘Did you see Anna safely tied up? I hope so, for ’twas time.’
‘Yes—Anna is married.’
Simultaneously with Edith’s journey home Anna and her husband were sitting at the opposite windows of a second-class carriage which sped along to Knollsea. In his hand was a pocket-book full of creased sheets closely written over. Unfolding them one after another he read them in silence, and sighed.
‘What are you doing, dear Charles?’ she said timidly from the other window, and drew nearer to him as if he were a god.
‘Reading over all those sweet letters to me signed “Anna,”’ he replied with dreary resignation.