If you got the prettiest girl in town to agree to marry you, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to meet her at the church? Even if it meant overcoming death itself? Those are the questions that face the hapless protagonist of E. Nesbit’s John Charrington’s Wedding, from her collection of spooky ghost stories, Grim Tales.
You listen to me read it outloud, can read it here, or online at Gutenberg.org
John Charrington’s Wedding
No one ever thought that May Forster would marry John Charrington; but he thought differently, and things which John Charrington intended had a queer way of coming to pass. He asked her to marry him before he went up to Oxford. She laughed and refused him. He asked her again next time he came home. Again she laughed, tossed her dainty blonde head, and again refused. A third time he asked her; she said it was becoming a confirmed bad habit, and laughed at him more than ever.
John was not the only man who wanted to marry her: she was the belle of our village coterie, and we were all in love with her more or less; it was a sort of fashion, like heliotrope ties or Inverness capes. Therefore we were as much annoyed as surprised when John Charrington walked into our little local Club—we held it in a loft over the saddler’s, I remember—and invited us all to his wedding.
“You don’t mean it?”
“Who’s the happy fair? When’s it to be?”
John Charrington filled his pipe and lighted it before he replied. Then he said—
“I’m sorry to deprive you fellows of your only joke—but Miss Forster and I are to be married in September.”
“You don’t mean it?”
“He’s got the mitten again, and it’s turned his head.”
“No,” I said, rising, “I see it’s true. Lend me a pistol some one—or a first-class fare to the other end of Nowhere. Charrington has bewitched the only pretty girl in our twenty-mile radius. Was it mesmerism, or a love-potion, Jack?”
“Neither, sir, but a gift you’ll never have—perseverance—and the best luck a man ever had in this world.”
There was something in his voice that silenced me, and all chaff of the other fellows failed to draw him further.
The queer thing about it was that when we congratulated Miss Forster, she blushed and smiled and dimpled, for all the world as though she were in love with him, and had been in love with him all the time. Upon my word, I think she had. Women are strange creatures.
We were all asked to the wedding. In Brixham every one who was anybody knew everybody else who was any one. My sisters were, I truly believe, more interested in the trousseau than the bride herself, and I was to be best man. The coming marriage was much canvassed at afternoon tea-tables, and at our little Club over the saddler’s, and the question was always asked: “Does she care for him?”
I used to ask that question myself in the early days of their engagement, but after a certain evening in August I never asked it again. I was coming home from the Club through the churchyard. Our church is on a thyme-grown hill, and the turf about it is so thick and soft that one’s footsteps are noiseless.
I made no sound as I vaulted the low lichened wall, and threaded my way between the tombstones. It was at the same instant that I heard John Charrington’s voice, and saw Her. May was sitting on a low flat gravestone, her face turned towards the full splendour of the western sun. Its expression ended, at once and for ever, any question of love for him; it was transfigured to a beauty I should not have believed possible, even to that beautiful little face.
John lay at her feet, and it was his voice that broke the stillness of the golden August evening.
“My dear, my dear, I believe I should come back from the dead if you wanted me!”
I coughed at once to indicate my presence, and passed on into the shadow fully enlightened.
The wedding was to be early in September. Two days before I had to run up to town on business. The train was late, of course, for we are on the South-Eastern, and as I stood grumbling with my watch in my hand, whom should I see but John Charrington and May Forster. They were walking up and down the unfrequented end of the platform, arm in arm, looking into each other’s eyes, careless of the sympathetic interest of the porters.
Of course I knew better than to hesitate a moment before burying myself in the booking-office, and it was not till the train drew up at the platform, that I obtrusively passed the pair with my Gladstone, and took the corner in a first-class smoking-carriage. I did this with as good an air of not seeing them as I could assume. I pride myself on my discretion, but if John were travelling alone I wanted his company. I had it.
“Hullo, old man,” came his cheery voice as he swung his bag into my carriage; “here’s luck; I was expecting a dull journey!”
“Where are you off to?” I asked, discretion still bidding me turn my eyes away, though I saw, without looking, that hers were red-rimmed.
“To old Branbridge’s,” he answered, shutting the door and leaning out for a last word with his sweetheart.
“Oh, I wish you wouldn’t go, John,” she was saying in a low, earnest voice. “I feel certain something will happen.”
“Do you think I should let anything happen to keep me, and the day after to-morrow our wedding-day?”
“Don’t go,” she answered, with a pleading intensity which would have sent my Gladstone on to the platform and me after it. But she wasn’t speaking to me. John Charrington was made differently; he rarely changed his opinions, never his resolutions.
He only stroked the little ungloved hands that lay on the carriage door.
“I must, May. The old boy’s been awfully good to me, and now he’s dying I must go and see him, but I shall come home in time for——” the rest of the parting was lost in a whisper and in the rattling lurch of the starting train.
“You’re sure to come?” she spoke as the train moved.
“Nothing shall keep me,” he answered; and we steamed out. After he had seen the last of the little figure on the platform he leaned back in his corner and kept silence for a minute.
When he spoke it was to explain to me that his godfather, whose heir he was, lay dying at Peasmarsh Place, some fifty miles away, and had sent for John, and John had felt bound to go.
“I shall be surely back to-morrow,” he said, “or, if not, the day after, in heaps of time. Thank Heaven, one hasn’t to get up in the middle of the night to get married nowadays!”
“And suppose Mr. Branbridge dies?”
“Alive or dead I mean to be married on Thursday!” John answered, lighting a cigar and unfolding the Times.
At Peasmarsh station we said “good-bye,” and he got out, and I saw him ride off; I went on to London, where I stayed the night.
When I got home the next afternoon, a very wet one, by the way, my sister greeted me with—
“Where’s Mr. Charrington?”
“Goodness knows,” I answered testily. Every man, since Cain, has resented that kind of question.
“I thought you might have heard from him,” she went on, “as you’re to give him away to-morrow.”
“Isn’t he back?” I asked, for I had confidently expected to find him at home.
“No, Geoffrey,”—my sister Fanny always had a way of jumping to conclusions, especially such conclusions as were least favourable to her fellow-creatures—”he has not returned, and, what is more, you may depend upon it he won’t. You mark my words, there’ll be no wedding to-morrow.”
My sister Fanny has a power of annoying me which no other human being possesses.
“You mark my words,” I retorted with asperity, “you had better give up making such a thundering idiot of yourself. There’ll be more wedding to-morrow than ever you’ll take the first part in.” A prophecy which, by the way, came true.
But though I could snarl confidently to my sister, I did not feel so comfortable when, late that night, I, standing on the doorstep of John’s house, heard that he had not returned. I went home gloomily through the rain. Next morning brought a brilliant blue sky, gold sun, and all such softness of air and beauty of cloud as go to make up a perfect day. I woke with a vague feeling of having gone to bed anxious, and of being rather averse to facing that anxiety in the light of full wakefulness.
But with my shaving-water came a note from John which relieved my mind and sent me up to the Forsters’ with a light heart.
May was in the garden. I saw her blue gown through the hollyhocks as the lodge gates swung to behind me. So I did not go up to the house, but turned aside down the turfed path.
“He’s written to you too,” she said, without preliminary greeting, when I reached her side.
“Yes, I’m to meet him at the station at three, and come straight on to the church.”
Her face looked pale, but there was a brightness in her eyes, and a tender quiver about the mouth that spoke of renewed happiness.
“Mr. Branbridge begged him so to stay another night that he had not the heart to refuse,” she went on. “He is so kind, but I wish he hadn’t stayed.”
I was at the station at half-past two. I felt rather annoyed with John. It seemed a sort of slight to the beautiful girl who loved him, that he should come as it were out of breath, and with the dust of travel upon him, to take her hand, which some of us would have given the best years of our lives to take.
But when the three o’clock train glided in, and glided out again having brought no passengers to our little station, I was more than annoyed. There was no other train for thirty-five minutes; I calculated that, with much hurry, we might just get to the church in time for the ceremony; but, oh, what a fool to miss that first train! What other man could have done it?
That thirty-five minutes seemed a year, as I wandered round the station reading the advertisements and the time-tables, and the company’s bye-laws, and getting more and more angry with John Charrington. This confidence in his own power of getting everything he wanted the minute he wanted it was leading him too far. I hate waiting. Every one does, but I believe I hate it more than any one else. The three thirty-five was late, of course.
I ground my pipe between my teeth and stamped with impatience as I watched the signals. Click. The signal went down. Five minutes later I flung myself into the carriage that I had brought for John.
“Drive to the church!” I said, as some one shut the door. “Mr. Charrington hasn’t come by this train.”
Anxiety now replaced anger. What had become of the man? Could he have been taken suddenly ill? I had never known him have a day’s illness in his life. And even so he might have telegraphed. Some awful accident must have happened to him. The thought that he had played her false never—no, not for a moment—entered my head. Yes, something terrible had happened to him, and on me lay the task of telling his bride. I almost wished the carriage would upset and break my head so that some one else might tell her, not I, who—but that’s nothing to do with his story.
It was five minutes to four as we drew up at the churchyard gate. A double row of eager on-lookers lined the path from lychgate to porch. I sprang from the carriage and passed up between them. Our gardener had a good front place near the door. I stopped.
“Are they waiting still, Byles?” I asked, simply to gain time, for of course I knew they were by the waiting crowd’s attentive attitude.
“Waiting, sir? No, no, sir; why, it must be over by now.”
“Over! Then Mr. Charrington’s come?”
“To the minute, sir; must have missed you somehow, and, I say, sir,” lowering his voice, “I never see Mr. John the least bit so afore, but my opinion is he’s been drinking pretty free. His clothes was all dusty and his face like a sheet. I tell you I didn’t like the looks of him at all, and the folks inside are saying all sorts of things. You’ll see, something’s gone very wrong with Mr. John, and he’s tried liquor. He looked like a ghost, and in he went with his eyes straight before him, with never a look or a word for none of us; him that was always such a gentleman!”
I had never heard Byles make so long a speech. The crowd in the churchyard were talking in whispers and getting ready rice and slippers to throw at the bride and bridegroom. The ringers were ready with their hands on the ropes to ring out the merry peal as the bride and bridegroom should come out.
A murmur from the church announced them; out they came. Byles was right. John Charrington did not look himself. There was dust on his coat, his hair was disarranged. He seemed to have been in some row, for there was a black mark above his eyebrow. He was deathly pale. But his pallor was not greater than that of the bride, who might have been carved in ivory—dress, veil, orange blossoms, face and all.
As they passed out the ringers stooped—there were six of them—and then, on the ears expecting the gay wedding peal, came the slow tolling of the passing bell.
A thrill of horror at so foolish a jest from the ringers passed through us all. But the ringers themselves dropped the ropes and fled like rabbits out into the sunlight. The bride shuddered, and grey shadows came about her mouth, but the bridegroom led her on down the path where the people stood with the handfuls of rice; but the handfuls were never thrown, and the wedding-bells never rang. In vain the ringers were urged to remedy their mistake: they protested with many whispered expletives that they would see themselves further first.
In a hush like the hush in the chamber of death the bridal pair passed into their carriage and its door slammed behind them.
Then the tongues were loosed. A babel of anger, wonder, conjecture from the guests and the spectators.
“If I’d seen his condition, sir,” said old Forster to me as we drove off, “I would have stretched him on the floor of the church, sir, by Heaven I would, before I’d have let him marry my daughter!”
Then he put his head out of the window.
“Drive like hell,” he cried to the coachman; “don’t spare the horses.”
He was obeyed. We passed the bride’s carriage. I forebore to look at it, and old Forster turned his head away and swore. We reached home before it.
We stood in the hall doorway, in the blazing afternoon sun, and in about half a minute we heard wheels crunching the gravel. When the carriage stopped in front of the steps old Forster and I ran down.
“Great Heaven, the carriage is empty! And yet——”
I had the door open in a minute, and this is what I saw—
No sign of John Charrington; and of May, his wife, only a huddled heap of white satin lying half on the floor of the carriage and half on the seat.
“I drove straight here, sir,” said the coachman, as the bride’s father lifted her out; “and I’ll swear no one got out of the carriage.”
We carried her into the house in her bridal dress and drew back her veil. I saw her face. Shall I ever forget it? White, white and drawn with agony and horror, bearing such a look of terror as I have never seen since except in dreams. And her hair, her radiant blonde hair, I tell you it was white like snow.
As we stood, her father and I, half mad with the horror and mystery of it, a boy came up the avenue—a telegraph boy. They brought the orange envelope to me. I tore it open.
“Mr. Charrington was thrown from the dogcart on his way to the station at half-past one. Killed on the spot!”
And he was married to May Forster in our parish church at half-past three, in presence of half the parish.
“I shall be married, dead or alive!”
What had passed in that carriage on the homeward drive? No one knows—no one will ever know. Oh, May! oh, my dear!
Before a week was over they laid her beside her husband in our little churchyard on the thyme-covered hill—the churchyard where they had kept their love-trysts.
Thus was accomplished John Charrington’s wedding.