At last, it is your wedding day. The month of courtship has run its course. Robed and veiled in white you hear a voice call to you to hasten down. At the foot of the stairs, Mr. Rochester is waiting for you.
“Lingerer,” he says, “my brain is on fire with impatience, and you tarry so long!” Surveying you keenly he then pronounces you “fair as a lily, and not only the pride of his life but the desire of his eyes.”
There are no groomsmen, no bridesmaids, and no relatives as the two of you walk to the church. Mrs. Fairfax had been there to see you off, but Mr. Rochester had taken your hand and rushed past her - so grimly resolute to have you at the church on time.
Entering the quiet and humble temple, the priest waits in his white surplice at the lowly altar with the clerk beside him. All is still with only two shadows moving in a remote corner. You wonder if two people saw your procession to the church and decided to witness the ceremony.
The ceremony commences.
“I require and charge you both (as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed) that if either of you knows any impediment why ye may not lawfully be joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it; for be ye well assured that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s worth doth allow, are not joined together by God, neither is their matrimony lawful.”
The priest pauses as is the custom. When has that pause ever been broken by a reply?
“The marriage cannot go on; I declare the existence of an impediment.”
The clergyman looks up at the speaker - it is the stranger who walked into the church ahead of you. Mr. Rochester moved slightly at the interruption but not turning his head or eyes he says, “Proceed.”
“I cannot proceed without some investigation into what has been asserted.”
“The ceremony is quite broken off,” subjoins the voice behind you. “I am in a condition to prove my allegation.”
Mr. Rochester possesses himself of your hand - what a hot and strong grasp he has! How his eyes, shining, still watchful, are yet wild beneath!
“What is the impediment?” the clergyman asks.
“It simply consists in the existence of a previous marriage; Mr. Rochester has a wife now living.”
Your nerves vibrate to these words as they have never vibrated to thunder - your eyes turn to Mr. Rochester; you make him look at you. His whole face is colorless rock; his eye both spark and flint. He disavows nothing and without speaking to you he twines his arm around your waist - as if to hold you up against the outrageous accusation.
“Who are you that you would thrust upon me a wife?” he says in a voice of rising violence.
“My name is Briggs, I am a solicitor from London. I have here a document that affirms your marriage in Spanish Town, Jamaica to a Bertha Antionetta Mason. It is signed by her brother, Richard Mason.”
Mr. Rochester, on hearing the name, sets his teeth; his strong frame convulsively quivers - you can feel the spasmodic movement of fury or despair run through him. The second stranger, who has hitherto lingered in the background, now draws near. You recognize your patient from before - it is Mason himself.
Mason’s voice falters as he speaks, he seems reluctant to stand before Rochester. “His wife, my sister, is now living at Thornfield Hall. I saw her there last April.”
A grim smile contorts Mr. Rochester’s lips. “Enough!” he cries. “All shall bolt out at once, and let us leave the church, there will be no wedding today. Bigamy is an ugly word! I meant, however, to be a bigamist. But Providence has checked me. What this lawyer and his client say is true. I have been married and the woman to whom I married, still lives! I wed Bertha Mason fifteen years ago - her family connived to rush me into marriage for you see, Bertha Mason is mad, and she comes of a mad family. Her mother was both a madwoman and a drunkard and Bertha has copied her on both accounts. I invite you all to come and meet Mrs. Poole’s patient, and my wife! You shall see what sort of being I was cheated into espousing and whether or not I had a right to break the compact and seek sympathy with something at least human. This girl,” he continues, looking at you, “knew nothing of this. She thought all was fair and legal. Come, all of you, follow!”
Still holding you fast; Mr. Rochester leads the way back to Thornfield Hall - the two gentlemen and the clergyman follow. At your entrance to the hall, the inhabitants advance to greet you, but Mr. Rochester angrily turns them away.
The grim party ascends the stairs to the third story. “You know this place, Mason,” says Rochester. “She bit and stabbed you here.”
Lifting the hangings from the wall, he uncovers the door to the inner room. You see a space without a window but with a fire in a small grate and a lamp suspended by a chain from the ceiling. Grace Poole is bent over a saucepan by the fire. In the deep shade, a figure runs backwards and forwards; seemingly covered in clothing and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair.
“Good-morrow, Mrs. Poole,” said Mr. Rochester. “How are you and your charge today?”
“We’re tolerable, sir, I thank you,” replies Grace. “Rather snappish, but not ’rageous.”
A fierce cry seems to give the lie to her favorable report as the woman rises and stands. She parts shaggy locks from her visage and gazes wildly at her visitors. Without warming, the lunatic springs and grapples with Mr. Rochester. She is a big woman in stature - almost equaling her husband. She shows virile force as Mr. Rochester wrestles with her. At last, he masters her arms and Grace Poole gives him a cord; he pinions her arms behind her. With more rope, they bind her to a chair.
“That is my wife,” says he. “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know. Such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours! And this is what I wished to have (he lays his hand on your shoulder); this girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell. Off with you all now! I must shut up my prize.”
You withdraw. Mr. Rochester stays a moment behind to give some further order to Grace Poole. The solicitor addresses you as you descend the stair.
“You madam,” said he, “are cleared from all blame; your uncle will be glad to hear of it - when Mr. Mason returns to Madeira.”
You start at his words. “My uncle! What of him? Do you know him?”
“Mr. Mason does, your Uncle has been the Funchal correspondent of his house for some years. When your uncle received your letter intimating your union with Mr. Rochester, he told Mr. Mason who was staying at Madeira to recruit his health. He revealed the real state of matters and your Uncle enjoined him to extricate you from the snare into which you had fallen.”
Mr. Mason and the solicitor leave quickly, exchanging only a few sentences with the clergyman as they all depart.
With the house cleared, you shut yourself into your own room - fastening the bolt and mechanically taking off the wedding dress. Then you sit down to think. Hitherto you have only heard, seen, moved, and followed. The full consciousness of your life lorn, your love lost, and hope quenched sways above you full and mighty in one sullen mass. That bitter hour cannot be described. The floods overflow you.
Go to THIRTY-EIGHT