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A dishevelled London. A London that had
gone late to bed, and was yet scarcely fit to be seen. A London that blinked at
me with eyes but half open. Such was the London that faced me as I waited for
the omnibus that should convey me to Westminster, whence another would pass me
on to the turning which led to the church whither I was bound. For it was the
morning of Boxing day. Christmas day was over; so much you could see by the
orange peel; and Boxing day was not yet really begun.
A strong wind was blowing; not a cold wind, but a wind that sought out every stray piece of paper, and made it caper and dance and twirl. The street was empty but for myself; the shops were shuttered; and it was altogether rather depressing, until the omnibus lumbered up, and the driver slowing down, from mere force of habit, lashed the window with his whip. At present, I was the only passenger. The conductor clambered on to the roof to take my fare. When he had given me my ticket, he stood for a few moments contemplating the back of the driver.
'Bangkoldy, Bill, Bangkoldy! Well, it fair knocks me,' he said, jerking his head backwards, with the air of one who finds fortune fall below his hopes.
'Bit off, eh?' said the driver, looking over his shoulder. We were not a cheerful party. We had some difficulty, too, in keeping our hats on.
'Blows like rain,' I remarked.
The conductor was swinging himself down again, but he halted on his way, and put a red face over the rail - a face designed for cheerfulness, but depressed by circumstances.
'Seems to me,' he said, 'the majority of people I've sin this mornin' wouldn't be much worse for a dash of cold water.'
'I'm just going to see a friend married,' I said; 'I hope the rain will hold off. Happy is the bride, you know-'
'Ah, your friend isn't the only one. Takes a bit of doin' to keep off being merried Boxing day. Talking of merriage-' The conductor leaned one arm on the rail, and kept one eye on the pavement for possible passengers. He did not squint; yet he gave me the impression of looking in two directions at once. 'Talking of merriage,' he said, I heard rather a rich bit the other night. There was a bit of a knock-up down there at the Coach an' 'Awses', and a chap there was doing his turn, talkin' and arstin' riddles; you know what I mean. Singing, you know, only puttin' a bit in on his own 'tween the verses. Follow me? "What's matterimony after all?" he says. "Matter o' money." See what he meant? I expect it is with these upper circles, eh? But I ain't got no cause to complain. Lived in 'armony five years come Easter Monday, and that's more'n most chaps can say. Well, 'ealth and 'appiness to your friend, - on'y, it's a bit too early, eh?'
He descended, looking a little more cheerful - cheerful enough to lean over and chaff the driver of a rival bus, which, being so far empty, was trying to pass him, and gather up any passenger that might be waiting at South Kensington Station.
'What are you doin'?' he said. 'Got a race 'awse?'
The driver of the opposition bus made a retort which did not reach my ears. It was inadequate; for our conductor became even more cheerful, and, when a girl in a waterproof clambered on to the roof, he came up, jammed his bowler closer over his ears, in defiance of an extra gust of wind and said:
' 'Ail, smiling morn!'
At Westminster Bridge, London was livelier. The southwester was blowing down the river, playing the deuce with skirts, and making toppers a misery. What was to happen to the unlucky young man whose silk hat had been blown into the river? The bus rolls on, and I leave him to lace his fate. But there are no shops open, and he has, I know, depended on that topper. What will She say? And what will he do? I am carried beyond the answer, and am borne into South London.
South London is well awake, and I am aware of genteel couples on the look-out for trains; of plodding family parties, mother with baby on her left arm; children, too, come upon the kerb, and wonder at the people who are bound for distant lands, such as Hampstead or the Zoo. Bicyclists too, by this time, male and female, recking nothing of the tram lines or the wind, and intent only on enjoyment. And what is this brougham with the flowers in the lamp? This, and another? We are in the wedding area; and we shout encouragement to them as they pass.
I swing myself off the bus, and make my way to the appointed church. A church in a wind-swept square, with a gravel path leading up to it, and hemmed in by iron palings. I walk up and down, waiting for young Alf. I am buffeted by the wind, and cannot light a pipe, but have no lack of amusement.
Couples walk up, flanked by humorous relatives; parties drive up, five in a hansom, brimming over the apron, a white ribbon tied in a tasty bow about the driver's whip. One couple come on bicycles, lean their machines against the wall by the porch, and enter, together with a gentlemanly-looking man who awaits them.
I watch them, and wonder if perchance young Alf is before his time and is already in the church. Into the dim church I peep, and there I see the surpliced clergyman tying human lives into knots, by the dozen at a time.
But young Alf and Alice were not among them.
The wind strengthens, and the churchyard trees are bending to it and dropping their tribute of twigs. From the church the couples emerge, their relatives more humorous than ever, and their cabmen, flourishing their whips tied tasty with a white bow, say things that make you giggle and shake with laughter and say 'Now, then, cheese it.'
The hour hand of the clock is creeping towards ten, closing time. For even a South London clergyman has his limits.
The hour strikes. The last couple has walked away under the blessing of the Church; and the church is empty, but for a fussing verger.
And still no young Alf.
This is serious. Has young Alf refused to start? or has the unbridled book-maker got wind of the matter, sought out young Alf, and bashed him? or has he spent his wedding-fee in riotous living? It is scarcely likely that this would stand in young Alf's way.
But I must find out what has happened. I begin to walk uneasily in the direction of Vauxhall. At the first corner a clatter of hoofs comes down the wind, followed by a pony-cart, driven at full speed, and loaded to the tail-board. As it passes at a gallop, young Alf waves a whip at me; and, halting, I catch a flash of Alice's face from the back of the cart.
The party had gained the porch by the time I arrived again at the church. The verger was not at all sure that the vicar had not gone. Anyhow young Alf was very late. But he would go and see.
Alice, her mother, and the rest of them fried into the empty church, and sat down to wait the vicar's decision. Alice, resplendent in blue, with the loveliest feathers. Young Alf remained with me by the porch.
'Supposing you can't get married this morning?' I said.
Young Alf stooped down, picked up a stone, and threw it at a sparrow to show his indifference.
The difficulty bad been with the pony-cart, it seemed. The unbridled book-maker had been somewhat overcome by the festivities of the season, had overslept himself, and started late for his race-meeting. His absence was the pivot of the marriage question, for young Alf could not put his books on the pony-cart until he had gone, and to be married without a bit of class would not do for young Alf.
'You give me away?' said young Alf, smoothing out his neckerchief - the blue with white spots - which had become disordered in the excitement of the drive.
'I can't very well do that,' I said, 'but I'll give Alice away with pleasure.'
Young Alf wanted a pin for his neckerchief ; in a moment he had secured a drawing-pin from the notice-board, and a parish notice fluttered in the wind.
I could see the wedding-party sitting, silent and expÁctant, inside the church.
'What you fink o' this?' said young Alf, diving into his vest pocket and bringing it out - the ring.
It was thick, shiny, conclusive.
'Cost much?' I suggested.
'Likely,' said young Alf, 'got it Sat'dy night at a shop in the Walk. Got it easy.'
The verger came shuffling down to where the wedding-party waited. They rose and went forward.
'Come on,' I said.
Young Alf took a parting shot at a sparrow and we advanced together from the porch into the shadows of the aisle, up to the altar rails, where Alice stood expectant. The wind howled a bridal march.
The clergyman came wearily forward, hitching his surplice over his shoulders as he came, and we lined up; Alice's mother, uncertain of her position, and tearful; young Alf, with shoulders slightly hunched, and holding his cap squeezed in his left hand; Alice with her hands dropped and clasped before her.
It was soon over. The clergyman crossed the Prayer-book with the ring - that ring! We knelt. Pious hands waved in blessing over the kneeling pair; and Alfred Eric (the names gave me quite a start) and Alice Maud were pronounced man and wife in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The verger drove the wedding-party into the vestry. I dodged, and went without.
Outside, the wind was picking twigs from the churchyard trees, and sending them hopping down the path. It had been down all the side streets, gathering up waste paper and refuse of all kinds, which it sent careering round and round the church.
The minutes dragged heavily as I walked up and down, speculating upon the future of young Alf and his bride. I hoped he would be kind to her.
Ten minutes passed, and even the pony, standing in the road, was growing impatient, and snatching at the reins which were hitched to the churchyard railings.
I had been waiting nearly a quarter of an hour, when they came out by the vestry door.
' 'Ad a bit of a argyment wiv the parson,' said young Alf, in explanation. ' 'Ow many shilluns was it 'e wanted, muvver?'
'I give you the money last night, last thing, if it was the last word I ever spoke,' said Alice's mother.
Young Alf gave me a quick glance and a wink.
'I told the parson I adn't got no shillins,' he said, an' 'e let me off. Reckon 'e makes is little bit awright.'
Alice had climbed up behind again, her mother beside her. Young Alf and a male supporter mounted in front; and indeterminate friends filled the vacant places. My wedding present was offered and accepted.
Young Alf cracked his whip, and, as the pony started with a willing effort, Alice handed her mother her pocketbandkerchief. I stood watching them as they pounded up the road. They swung round the square, and young Alf, looking back, waved his whip at me. And so young Alf turned the corner.