The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XII
"Oh, Harry, Harry, I give in. I am the weaker vessel. At least, I have the shorter legs."
"What, you're asking me to spare you already? Lord, how will you bear me as a husband?"
They were under the great beeches in Hampstead Lane, breasting the rise to the heath, on their march for that kindly chapel, where, if you dined in the tavern annexed, the incumbent would marry you for nothing, charge but the five shillings, cost price of the Queen's licence, and ask no questions.
Harry shortened his stride, and looked down with grim amusement at Alison's breathless bosom.
"I believe you mean to make an end of me before you have begun with me," she panted. "Lord, sir, what a figure you'll cut if you bring me to church too faint to say, 'I will.'"
"Why, the Levite would but take it for maiden modesty. Not knowing you."
"You are trying to play the brute. It won't save you, Harry. I shan't be frightened."
"You! No, faith, it's I. I am beside myself with terror."
"I do believe that's true!" She laughed at him. "But, oh, dear sir, why?"
"Lest I should not fulfil the heroical expectations of Miss Lambourne. Confess it, ma'am; you count on me to exalt you into heavens of ecstasy, to bewilder the world with my glories, and be shaved by breakfast-time."
"To be sure, I'll always expect the impossible of you."
"There it is. I suppose you expect me to begin by creating a wedding-ring."
"Why, you have created me."
"Oh, no, no, no. You're a splendid iniquity, but not mine, I vow."
"This woman of yours never lived till you made her. I profess Miss Lambourne was ever known for a dull cold thing born 'to suckle fools and chronicle small beer.'"
"So she wrote me down her property. Egad, ma'am, it was very natural."
"You know what you have made of me," Alison said.
"God knows what you'll make of me. And now in the matter of the ring—"
"Oh Lud, what a trivial thing is a man!" She drew off her glove and held out a hand with two rings on it. "Marry me with which you will." One was a plain piece of gold, paler than the common, carved into an odd device of a snake biting its tail.
"With thine own ring I thee wed," Harry said, and took it off. "I take you to witness, Mrs. Alison, the snake was in your paradise before I came."
They were across the heath now and going down the steep, narrow lane beyond. The chapel of the Hampstead marriages stood raw red beside a garden with lawns and arbours shaggy in winter's untidiness. Even the tavern at the gate, a spreading one-story place of timber, looked dead and desolate.
Harry forced open the sticking door and strode in, Madame Alison loitering behind. He was met by a dirty lad whose gaping clothes were half hidden by a leather apron, and whose shoes protruded straw—a lad who smelt of the stable and small beer.
"Where's the priest?" said Harry.
"In the tap," said the boy, and shuffled off.
There came out into the passage, wheezing and wiping his chops, a little bloated man in a cassock, with his bands under his right ear. He leered at Harry and tried to look round him at Alison.
"You're out of season, my lord," said he. "These chill rains, they play the mischief with lusty blood. Go to, you'll not be denied, won't you? Do you dine here?"
"We have no time for it."
"What, you're hasty, ain't you?" He gave a hoarse laugh. "There's my fee to pay then."
"Here's a guinea to pay for all," said Harry.
The dirty fist took it, the little red eyes peered at it closely, the dirty mouth bit it and was satisfied. "Go you round to the chapel door and wait. Lord, but man and wench never had to wait for me." He waddled off.
Harry turned upon Alison. "So with all my worldly goods I thee endow," he said, with a crooked smile. "God give you joy of them. I vow I was never so frightened of spending a guinea."
"Why, d'ye doubt if I'm worth it? Nay, sir, I'm honest stuff and challenge any trial."
Harry looked down at her and was met by eyes as bold as his own.
The chapel door opened, and the little priest beckoned them in. A pair of witnesses were already posted by the altar, the dirty lad of the tavern and a shock-headed wench.
"Licence first, licence first." The parson bustled off to a table in a corner. "I warrant you we do things decently in Sion. Aye, and tightly, my pretty. Never a lawyer can undo my knots, never fear."
He scratched laboriously over their names, while the dank smell of the place sank into them.
They were marched to the altar. A hoarse muttering poured from the priest. He made no pretence of solemnity or even of meaning. He was concerned only to make an end and have done with them. Of all the service they heard nothing clearly but what they said themselves, and while they were deliberate over that the little priest grunted and puffed at them.
He ended with a leer and drove them before him back to the table. There was more scratching in his register. The two uncouth witnesses scrawled something for their names and shambled off.
"Let's breathe some free air," said Harry, and laid hold of his wife.
The parson chuckled. "Free? You'll never be free again, my lord. I can see that in madame's eye. What, you ha' sold your birthright for a mess of pottage, ain't you? And mighty savoury pottage, too, says you." He rolled his eyes and smacked his lips. "Softly now, softly, madame wants her certificate. Madame wants to warrant herself a lawful married wife, if you don't … There, my lady. And happy to marry you again any day at the same price."
They were away from him at last and in clean air stretching their legs up the hill again.
"Poor Harry!" Alison laughed. "Before you looked like a man fighting for his life. Now you look like a man going to be hanged. Dear lad! Pray how much would you give to escape me now?" She put her arm into his. He let her shorten his stride a little, but made no other confession of her existence. "Fie, Harry, it's over early to repent. In all reason you should first be sure of your sin. Who knows? I may not be deadly after all. 'Alack,' says he, 'I will not be comforted. Egad, the world's a cheat. A fool and his folly are soon parted they told me, and here am I tied to her till death us do part. So, a halter, gratis, for God's sake.'"
"You're full of other folks' nonsense, Mrs. Boyce," said Harry with a grim look at her.
"Oh, noble name!" She bobbed a curtsy. "Full? I am full of nothing but fasting, aye," she sighed, and turned up her eyes—"fasting from all but our sacrament."
They were upon the ridge of the heath and Harry checked her, and stood looking away over the wide prospect of mist-veiled meadow and dim blue woods. She was beginning her mocking chatter again when he broke in with, "Ods life, ha' done!" and turned to look deep into her eyes. "There's mystery in this, and I think you see nothing of it."
"Why, yes, faith. If you were no mystery, should I want you? If you had discovered all of me, would you want me?"
"Bah, what do we know of living, you and I, or—or of love?"
She laughed, with a scrap of twisted song:
"Most living is feigning.
Most loving mere folly,
Then heigho the holly,
This life is most jolly."
He shrugged and marched her on again.
"Pray, sir, will you dine at home?" she said demurely.
Harry flushed. "I must go tell my father and all," he growled. "I'll be with you soon enough, madame wife."
"Oh brave! Dear sir, have with you. I must see Geoffrey's face."
"Egad, let's be decent!" Harry cried.
"Decent! For shame, sir! What's more decent than man and wife?"
"Man and wife!" Harry echoed it with a sour laugh. "Do you feel a wife? I never felt less of a man."
"You shall be satisfied," she said, and looked at him gravely. "And I—I am not afraid, Harry."