Armadale/Book the Third/Chapter XI

Armadale by Wilkie Collins
Book the Third/Chapter XI: Love and Law

On the morning of Monday, the 28th of July, Miss Gwilt—once more on the watch for Allan and Neelie—reached her customary post of observation in the park, by the usual roundabout way.

She was a little surprised to find Neelie alone at the place of meeting. She was more seriously astonished, when the tardy Allan made his appearance ten minutes later, to see him mounting the side of the dell, with a large volume under his arm, and to hear him say, as an apology for being late, that "he had muddled away his time in hunting for the Books; and that he had only found one, after all, which seemed in the least likely to repay either Neelie or himself for the trouble of looking into it."

If Miss Gwilt had waited long enough in the park, on the previous Saturday, to hear the lovers' parting words on that occasion, she would have been at no loss to explain the mystery of the volume under Allan's arm, and she would have understood the apology which he now offered for being late as readily as Neelie herself.

There is a certain exceptional occasion in life—the occasion of marriage—on which even girls in their teens sometimes become capable (more or less hysterically) of looking at consequences. At the farewell moment of the interview on Saturday, Neelie's mind had suddenly precipitated itself into the future; and she had utterly confounded Allan by inquiring whether the contemplated elopement was an offense punishable by the Law? Her memory satisfied her that she had certainly read somewhere, at some former period, in some book or other (possibly a novel), of an elopement with a dreadful end—of a bride dragged home in hysterics—and of a bridegroom sentenced to languish in prison, with all his beautiful hair cut off, by Act of Parliament, close to his head. Supposing she could bring herself to consent to the elopement at all—which she positively declined to promise—she must first insist on discovering whether there was any fear of the police being concerned in her marriage as well as the parson and the clerk. Allan, being a man, ought to know; and to Allan she looked for information—with this preliminary assurance to assist him in laying down the law, that she would die of a broken heart a thousand times over, rather than be the innocent means of sending him to languish in prison, and of cutting his hair off, by Act of Parliament, close to his head. "It's no laughing matter," said Neelie, resolutely, in conclusion; "I decline even to think of our marriage till my mind is made easy first on the subject of the Law."

"But I don't know anything about the law, not even as much as you do," said Allan. "Hang the law! I don't mind my head being cropped. Let's risk it."

"Risk it?" repeated Neelie, indignantly. "Have you no consideration for me? I won't risk it! Where there's a will, there's a way. We must find out the law for ourselves."

"With all my heart," said Allan. "How?"

"Out of books, to be sure! There must be quantities of information in that enormous library of yours at the great house. If you really love me, you won't mind going over the backs of a few thousand books, for my sake!"

"I'll go over the backs of ten thousand!" cried Allan, warmly. "Would you mind telling me what I'm to look for?"

"For 'Law,' to be sure! When it says 'Law' on the back, open it, and look inside for Marriage—read every word of it—and then come here and explain it to me. What! you don't think your head is to be trusted to do such a simple thing as that?"

"I'm certain it isn't," said Allan. "Can't you help me?"

"Of course I can, if you can't manage without me! Law may be hard, but it can't be harder than music; and I must, and will, satisfy my mind. Bring me all the books you can find, on Monday morning—in a wheelbarrow, if there are a good many of them, and if you can't manage it in any other way."

The result of this conversation was Allan's appearance in the park, with a volume of Blackstone's Commentaries under his arm, on the fatal Monday morning, when Miss Gwilt's written engagement of marriage was placed in Midwinter's hands. Here again, in this, as in all other human instances, the widely discordant elements of the grotesque and the terrible were forced together by that subtle law of contrast which is one of the laws of mortal life. Amid all the thickening complications now impending over their heads—with the shadow of meditated murder stealing toward one of them already from the lurking-place that hid Miss Gwilt—the two sat down, unconscious of the future, with the book between them; and applied themselves to the study of the law of marriage, with a grave resolution to understand it, which, in two such students, was nothing less than a burlesque in itself!

"Find the place," said Neelie, as soon as they were comfortably established. "We must manage this by what they call a division of labor. You shall read, and I'll take notes."

She produced forthwith a smart little pocket-book and pencil, and opened the book in the middle, where there was a blank page on the right hand and the left. At the top of the right-hand page she wrote the word Good. At the top of the left-hand page she wrote the word Bad. "'Good' means where the law is on our side," she explained; "and 'Bad' means where the law is against us. We will have 'Good' and 'Bad' opposite each other, all down the two pages; and when we get to the bottom, we'll add them up, and act accordingly. They say girls have no heads for business. Haven't they! Don't look at me—look at Blackstone, and begin."

"Would you mind giving one a kiss first?" asked Allan.

"I should mind it very much. In our serious situation, when we have both got to exert our intellects, I wonder you can ask for such a thing!"

"That's why I asked for it," said the unblushing Allan. "I feel as if it would clear my head."

"Oh, if it would clear your head, that's quite another thing! I must clear your head, of course, at any sacrifice. Only one, mind," she whispered, coquettishly; "and pray be careful of Blackstone, or you'll lose the place."

There was a pause in the conversation. Blackstone and the pocket-book both rolled on the ground together.

"If this happens again," said Neelie, picking up the pocket-book, with her eyes and her complexion at their brightest and best, "I shall sit with my back to you for the rest of the morning. Will you go on?"

Allan found his place for the second time, and fell headlong into the bottomless abyss of the English Law.

"Page 280," he began. "Law of husband and wife. Here's a bit I don't understand, to begin with: 'It may be observed generally that the law considers marriage in the light of a Contract.' What does that mean? I thought a contract was the sort of a thing a builder signs when he promises to have the workmen out of the house in a given time, and when the time comes (as my poor mother used to say) the workmen never go."

"Is there nothing about Love?" asked Neelie. "Look a little lower down."

"Not a word. He sticks to his confounded 'Contract' all the way through."

"Then he's a brute! Go on to something else that's more in our way."

"Here's a bit that's more in our way: 'Incapacities. If any persons under legal incapacities come together, it is a meretricious, and not a matrimonial union.' (Blackstone's a good one at long words, isn't he? I wonder what he means by meretricious?) 'The first of these legal disabilities is a prior marriage, and having another husband or wife living—'"

"Stop!" said Neelie; "I must make a note of that." She gravely made her first entry on the page headed "Good," as follows: "I have no husband, and Allan has no wife. We are both entirely unmarried at the present time."

"All right, so far," remarked Allan, looking over her shoulder.

"Go on," said Neelie. "What next?"

"'The next disability,'" proceeded Allan, "'is want of age. The age for consent to matrimony is, fourteen in males, and twelve in females.' Come!" cried Allan, cheerfully, "Blackstone begins early enough, at any rate!"

Neelie was too business-like to make any other remark, on her side, than the necessary remark in the pocket-book. She made another entry under the head of "Good": "I am old enough to consent, and so is Allan too. Go on," resumed Neelie, looking over the reader's shoulder. "Never mind all that prosing of Blackstone's, about the husband being of years of discretion, and the wife under twelve. Abominable wretch! the wife under twelve! Skip to the third incapacity, if there is one."

"'The third incapacity,'" Allan went on, "'is want of reason.'"

Neelie immediately made a third entry on the side of "Good": "Allan and I are both perfectly reasonable. Skip to the next page."

Allan skipped. "'A fourth incapacity is in respect of proximity of relationship.'"

A fourth entry followed instantly on the cheering side of the pocket-book: "He loves me, and I love him—without our being in the slightest degree related to each other. Any more?" asked Neelie, tapping her chin impatiently with the end of the pencil.

"Plenty more," rejoined Allan; "all in hieroglyphics. Look here: 'Marriage Acts, 4 Geo. IV., c. 76, and 6 and 7 Will. IV., c. 85 (q).' Blackstone's intellect seems to be wandering here. Shall we take another skip, and see if he picks himself up again on the next page?"

"Wait a little," said Neelie; "what's that I see in the middle?" She read for a minute in silence, over Allan's shoulder, and suddenly clasped her hands in despair. "I knew I was right!" she exclaimed. "Oh, heavens, here it is!"

"Where?" asked Allan. "I see nothing about languishing in prison, and cropping a fellow's hair close to his head, unless it's in the hieroglyphics. Is '4 Geo. IV.' short for 'Lock him up'? and does 'c. 85 (q)' mean, 'Send for the hair-cutter'?"

"Pray be serious," remonstrated Neelie. "We are both sitting on a volcano. There," she said pointing to the place. "Read it! If anything can bring you to a proper sense of our situation, that will."

Allan cleared his throat, and Neelie held the point of her pencil ready on the depressing side of the account—otherwise the "Bad" page of the pocket-book.

"'And as it is the policy of our law,'" Allan began, "'to prevent the marriage of persons under the age of twenty-one, without the consent of parents and guardians'"—(Neelie made her first entry on the side of "Bad!" "I'm only seventeen next birthday, and circumstances forbid me to confide my attachment to papa")—"'it is provided that in the case of the publication of banns of a person under twenty-one, not being a widower or widow, who are deemed emancipated'"—(Neelie made another entry on the depressing side: "Allan is not a widower, and I am not a widow; consequently, we are neither of us emancipated")—"'if the parent or guardian openly signifies his dissent at the time the banns are published'"—("which papa would be certain to do")— "'such publication would be void.' I'll take breath here if you'll allow me," said Allan. "Blackstone might put it in shorter sentences, I think, if he can't put it in fewer words. Cheer up, Neelie! there must be other ways of marrying, besides this roundabout way, that ends in a Publication and a Void. Infernal gibberish! I could write better English myself."

"We are not at the end of it yet," said Neelie. "The Void is nothing to what is to come."

"Whatever it is," rejoined Allan, "we'll treat it like a dose of physic—we'll take it at once, and be done with it." He went on reading: "'And no license to marry without banns shall be granted, unless oath shall be first made by one of the parties that he or she believes that there is no impediment of kindred or alliance'—well, I can take my oath of that with a safe conscience! What next? 'And one of the said parties must, for the space of fifteen days immediately preceding such license, have had his or her usual place of abode within the parish or chapelry within which such marriage is to be solemnized!' Chapelry! I'd live fifteen days in a dog-kennel with the greatest pleasure. I say, Neelie, all this seems like plain sailing enough. What are you shaking your head about? Go on, and I shall see? Oh, all right; I'll go on. Here we are: 'And where one of the said parties, not being a widower or widow, shall be under the age of twenty-one years, oath must first be made that the consent of the person or persons whose consent is required has been obtained, or that there is no person having authority to give such consent. The consent required by this act is that of the father—'" At those last formidable words Allan came to a full stop. "The consent of the father," he repeated, with all needful seriousness of look and manner. "I couldn't exactly swear to that, could I?"

Neelie answered in expressive silence. She handed him the pocket-book, with the final entry completed, on the side of "Bad," in these terms: "Our marriage is impossible, unless Allan commits perjury."

The lovers looked at each other, across the insuperable obstacle of Blackstone, in speechless dismay.

"Shut up the book," said Neelie, resignedly. "I have no doubt we should find the police, and the prison, and the hair-cutting—all punishments for perjury, exactly as I told you!—if we looked at the next page. But we needn't trouble ourselves to look; we have found out quite enough already. It's all over with us. I must go to school on Saturday, and you must manage to forget me as soon as you can. Perhaps we may meet in after-life, and you may be a widower and I may be a widow, and the cruel law may consider us emancipated, when it's too late to be of the slightest use. By that time, no doubt, I shall be old and ugly, and you will naturally have ceased to care about me, and it will all end in the grave, and the sooner the better. Good-by," concluded Neelie, rising mournfully, with the tears in her eyes. "It's only prolonging our misery to stop here, unless—unless you have anything to propose?"

"I've got something to propose," cried the headlong Allan. "It's an entirely new idea. Would you mind trying the blacksmith at Gretna Green?"

"No earthly consideration," answered Neelie, indignantly, "would induce me to be married by a blacksmith!"

"Don't be offended," pleaded Allan; "I meant it for the best. Lots of people in our situation have tried the blacksmith, and found him quite as good as a clergyman, and a most amiable man, I believe, into the bargain. Never mind! We must try another string to our bow."

"We haven't got another to try," said Neelie.

"Take my word for it," persisted Allan, stoutly, "there must be ways and means of circumventing Blackstone (without perjury), if we only knew of them. It's a matter of law, and we must consult somebody in the profession. I dare say it's a risk. But nothing venture, nothing have. What do you say to young Pedgift? He's a thorough good fellow. I'm sure we could trust young Pedgift to keep our secret."

"Not for worlds!" exclaimed Neelie. "You may be willing to trust your secrets to the vulgar little wretch; I won't have him trusted with mine. I hate him. No!" she concluded, with a mounting color and a peremptory stamp of her foot on the grass. "I positively forbid you to take any of the Thorpe Ambrose people into your confidence. They would instantly suspect me, and it would be all over the place in a moment. My attachment may be an unhappy one," remarked Neelie, with her handkerchief to her eyes, "and papa may nip it in the bud, but I won't have it profaned by the town gossip!"

"Hush! hush!" said Allan. "I won't say a word at Thorpe Ambrose, I won't indeed!" He paused, and considered for a moment. "There's another way!" he burst out, brightening up on the instant. "We've got the whole week before us. I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll go to London!"

There was a sudden rustling—heard neither by one nor the other—among the trees behind them that screened Miss Gwilt. One more of the difficulties in her way (the difficulty of getting Allan to London) now promised to be removed by an act of Allan's own will.

"To London?" repeated Neelie, looking up in astonishment.

"To London!" reiterated Allan. "That's far enough away from Thorpe Ambrose, surely? Wait a minute, and don't forget that this is a question of law. Very well, I know some lawyers in London who managed all my business for me when I first came in for this property; they are just the men to consult. And if they decline to be mixed up in it, there's their head clerk, who is one of the best fellows I ever met with in my life. I asked him to go yachting with me, I remember; and, though he couldn't go, he said he felt the obligation all the same. That's the man to help us. Blackstone's a mere infant to him. Don't say it's absurd; don't say it's exactly like me. Do pray hear me out. I won't breathe your name or your father's. I'll describe you as 'a young lady to whom I am devotedly attached.' And if my friend the clerk asks where you live, I'll say the north of Scotland, or the west of Ireland, or the Channel Islands, or anywhere else you like. My friend the clerk is a total stranger to Thorpe Ambrose and everybody in it (which is one recommendation); and in five minutes' time he'd put me up to what to do (which is another). If you only knew him! He's one of those extraordinary men who appear once or twice in a century—the sort of man who won't allow you to make a mistake if you try. All I have got to say to him (putting it short) is, 'My dear fellow, I want to be privately married without perjury.' All he has got to say to me (putting it short) is, 'You must do so-and-so and so-and-so, and you must be careful to avoid this, that, and the other.' I have nothing in the world to do but to follow his directions; and you have nothing in the world to do but what the bride always does when the bridegroom is ready and willing!" His arm stole round Neelie's waist, and his lips pointed the moral of the last sentence with that inarticulate eloquence which is so uniformly successful in persuading a woman against her will.

All Neelie's meditated objections dwindled, in spite of her, to one feeble little question. "Suppose I allow you to go, Allan?" she whispered, toying nervously with the stud in the bosom of his shirt. "Shall you be very long away?"

"I'll be off to-day," said Allan, "by the eleven o'clock train. And I'll be back to-morrow, if I and my friend the clerk can settle it all in time. If not, by Wednesday at latest."

"You'll write to me every day?" pleaded Neelie, clinging a little closer to him. "I shall sink under the suspense, if you don't promise to write to me every day."

Allan promised to write twice a day, if she liked—letter-writing, which was such an effort to other men, was no effort to him!

"And mind, whatever those people may say to you in London," proceeded Neelie, "I insist on your coming back for me. I positively decline to run away, unless you promise to fetch me."

Allan promised for the second time, on his sacred word of honor, and at the full compass of his voice. But Neelie was not satisfied even yet. She reverted to first principles, and insisted on knowing whether Allan was quite sure he loved her. Allan called Heaven to witness how sure he was; and got another question directly for his pains. Could he solemnly declare that he would never regret taking Neelie away from home? Allan called Heaven to witness again, louder than ever. All to no purpose! The ravenous female appetite for tender protestations still hungered for more. "I know what will happen one of these days," persisted Neelie. "You will see some other girl who is prettier than I am; and you will wish you had married her instead of me!"

As Allan opened his lips for a final outburst of asseveration, the stable clock at the great house was faintly audible in the distance striking the hour. Neelie started guiltily. It was breakfast-time at the cottage—in other words, time to take leave. At the last moment her heart went back to her father; and her head sank on Allan's bosom as she tried to say, Good-by. "Papa has always been so kind to me, Allan," she whispered, holding him back tremulously when he turned to leave her. "It seems so guilty and so heartless to go away from him and be married in secret. Oh, do, do think before you really go to London; is there no way of making him a little kinder and juster to you?" The question was useless; the major's resolutely unfavorable reception of Allan's letter rose in Neelie's memory, and answered her as the words passed her lips. With a girl's impulsiveness she pushed Allan away before he could speak, and signed to him impatiently to go. The conflict of contending emotions, which she had mastered thus far, burst its way outward in spite of her after he had waved his hand for the last time, and had disappeared in the depths of the dell. When she turned from the place, on her side, her long-restrained tears fell freely at last, and made the lonely way back to the cottage the dimmest prospect that Neelie had seen for many a long day past.

As she hurried homeward, the leaves parted behind her, and Miss Gwilt stepped softly into the open space. She stood there in triumph, tall, beautiful, and resolute. Her lovely color brightened while she watched Neelie's retreating figure hastening lightly away from her over the grass.

"Cry, you little fool!" she said, with her quiet, clear tones, and her steady smile of contempt. "Cry as you have never cried yet! You have seen the last of your sweetheart."