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Wilson's Border Tales
The Interrupted Ceremony

Henry Merton was a young man of prepossessing appearance, lively disposition, and agreeable manners. A liberal education had put him in possession of all the accomplishments becoming his position in society, which was highly respectable; and a generous nature and honourable spirit completed his claims to the esteem and respect of all who knew him. Henry Merton’s father was a merchant in Glasgow, and reputed wealthy. His concerns were extensive, his credit unbounded, and his character of the highest respectability. Mr Merton was, in short, one of the most eminent men in the city. On completing his education, the youth was apprenticed to a writer in Glasgow—it being his father’s wish that he should follow the profession of the law as an advocate; but he wisely considered it a necessary preliminary step that his son should acquire, in the experience of a writer’s office, a knowledge of the practical details of law proceedings before entering into the higher departments of the profession. In the views of his father, both present and future, the son himself cordially concurred. He had a strong inclination for the bar, and early discovered talents that promised to render him one of its most conspicuous and eminent members. In truth, few young men have started in life with fairer prospects, or who could have been warranted in indulging more sanguine hopes of success, than Henry Merton. On serving out his apprenticeship in Glasgow, the young man was sent to Edinburgh, to complete his legal education in the office of one of the most eminent advocates in that city.

While thus situated, Henry, who was now in his twenty-first year, became acquainted with a young lady of the name of Alice Morlington, the daughter of a gentleman of considerable landed property, who resided in Stirlingshire, and was, when Henry first became acquainted with her, completing her education in Edinburgh. The two first saw each other at the house of a mutual friend; and from that moment both felt that they had seen the person whom they could, if they did not already, love above all others. With these feelings, the acquaintance of the young pair soon ripened into intimacy, and that, again, speedily passed into love—a love as passionate and devoted as ever warmed the hearts of two human beings. In the more ordinary cases of persons situated as they were with regard to their attachment to each other, the youth of the parties, and the still more important circumstance, that they had no resources of their own to look to, would render all idea of their marrying, the very extreme of imprudence and folly. But in their case there was fortune on both sides. Alice’s father could give his daughter £10,000; and Henry’s father, there was no doubt, could with ease give his son at least an equal sum, if circumstances should require and warrant any such advance. Under these circumstances, then, it will not seem so preposterous that the young pair contemplated an immediate union, and that they did not anticipate any objection on the part of their parents. They felt there could be none on the score of ineligibility as regarded each other. In fortune, and in their respective positions in society, they were equal. There was, in short, no discrepancies in their case to be reconciled, no difficulties to be got over, save and except the consent of their parents; and this, they had no doubt, would readily be accorded them. In the meantime—that is, for about two years after their first acquaintance—Alice and Henry were content to remain as lovers and in this relationship the latter visited Alice, with the full consent of her father, at his country seat, a beautiful and romantic residence in the shire already named. Here the young pair spent several happy weeks together, during the summers of 1753 and 1754—for so old a date is our story—enjoying all the felicity which a virtuous attachment, and the unrestrained enjoyment of each other’s society, were capable of affording. They wandered, side by side, with their hands locked together, by the woods and waters of Bargardine, breathing to each other vows of constancy and love, and looking forward, with bounding hearts, to the greater happiness that was yet in store for them.

At the end of the period just mentioned, Henry, on returning to Edinburgh from a visit to Bargardine, wrote to his father, whom he had long previously advised of his attachment to Alice, requesting his consent to their union. This consent he readily obtained; when a correspondence immediately took place between all the parties concerned, including Alice’s father, which ended in a final adjustment of all preliminaries, and in the settlement of the day on which the marriage should take place. That day was named at the distance of a month. Amongst other arrangements made on this occasion was, that the young couple should take up house in Edinburgh after their marriage, that city being the purposed scene of Henry’s future career, and this house Henry took upon himself the charge of furnishing. This, however, was an undertaking in which Henry, of course, could do nothing without the assistance of his father; but that, he knew, he had only to ask to obtain. He, accordingly, wrote to him for the necessary means, and relying, as he was aware he well might, on his father’s ability and willingness to aid him, confidently expected that the next post would bring him the desired remittance. What was poor Henry’s surprise and disappointment then, when, after a delay of three days, which alone was matter at once of great uneasiness and astonishment to him, he received, instead of the expected funds, the following painfully mysterious communication:--

"MY DEAR HENRY,—I duly received your letter, and would have answered it in course, but delayed, for reasons which will afterwards appear. I am afraid we have been too hasty in the matter of your marriage. I wish things had not gone so far yet. The truth is, I have received some very bad accounts of my last shipments for the West Indies, and have been disappointed of remittances from that quarter. You must, therefore, have patience for a few days longer, when I shall again write you, and hope to enclose, at the same time, an order for the amount you want—I am, DEAR HENRY," &c.

We leave the reader to conceive with what feelings Henry read this most alarming and most distressing communication, and he will readily believe that the poignancy of these feelings was not lessened by its being wholly unexpected. The possibility of his father’s being unable to supply him with what money he might want, had never for a moment entered into his mind. It was a misfortune he had never contemplated—never dreamt of. He believed him—as everybody else did--to be one of the wealthiest men in Glasgow; and undoubtedly he was, if remunerating returns could have been warranted for all his adventures; but, as this could not be, he was still within reach of the stroke of adversity. Much, however, as Henry felt on this occasion, he sanguinely hoped that his father’s second letter would amply compensate for the first, by its good tidings; and, in this hope, he waited patiently for its arrival. At length the anxiously looked for letter came. Henry opened it with trembling hand, and read. It communicated his father’s bankruptcy.

On reading this distressing letter, which at once dispelled all his fond dreams of coming bliss, Henry threw himself down into a chair. His face was pale as death; his lips white as unstained paper; and an overwhelming sense of misery came over him, that prevented him for some time fully comprehending the extent of his misfortunes. He saw, however, plainly enough, with fatal distinctness, that that misfortune included the loss of Alice—the greatest, the most distracting of all the evils which his father’s reverses could entail upon him. Had these reverses not involved this misery, he could have looked on their consequences, so far as regarded himself, with a steady eye and unflinching heart—for he felt conscious of possessing talents that would enable him to make his own way in the world; but to lose Alice, to forego all the felicity which he had promised himself from their contemplated union, was more than he could bear. To see the cup of bliss thus unexpectedly dashed from his hand at the moment he was about to raise it to his lips, was a trial of fortitude to which he found himself unequal. It almost unsettled his reason. He started from his seat, paced up and down his room in violent agitation, and struck his forehead, from time to time, with the forcible energy of despair. He suddenly paused. A thought had occurred to him. He gazed fixedly on the floor for a few seconds, with his hand pressed on his burning brow. The thought urged itself more and more forcibly on his contemplation. It presented all its aspects to his mind’s eye. It assumed shape and consistency, and was finally adopted; and, in the same instant, the resolution to execute it was formed. Desperate and fatal resolution!

Henry Merton determined to conceal from both Alice’s father and Alice herself the bankruptcy of his father, and to allow the marriage to proceed in their ignorance of the fact. But, dishonourable and indefensible as was this determination—a determination so inconsistent with the general character of him who had formed it, as rendered it one of those striking moral anomalies in human nature which so frequently occur to startle and astound us, and to overturn all previous calculation—but both dishonourable and indefensible, we say, as was this determination of Henry Merton’s, it was wholly untinctured by the baseness of pecuniary avidity. He cared not for Alice’s fortune; he wanted none of it : it was Alice herself— it was Alice alone he desired to secure; and it was this desire, unmingled with any other, that, in an unfortunate moment, overturned all those principles by which it had hitherto been his pride to square all his actions. But there was much more to do to complete the contemplated work of deception. If the marriage was still to take place, there was a house to furnish, and a variety of disbursements of various kinds to make; a number of small items of expense, small individually, but considerable in the aggregate, to be incurred; and Henry had not a guinea to meet them. It was within a week, too, of the day fixed for the marriage, and it was not Henry’s interest to have it delayed. In delay there was danger of discoveries taking place—indeed, certainty; for the failure of Henry’s father could not but soon reach the ears of Mr Morlington, through some channel or other. In truth, it was matter of marvel, every day that passed, that the intelligence had not reached him. All this Henry knew well; but he was prepared. He had matured his plans, and provided for contingencies. He had no money, but he had thought of a way of obtaining it. Henry started one night for Glasgow, with little more in his purse than paid the expenses of his journey. He returned on the following night with £450 in his pocket. Had he procured it from his father, or by his father’s means? No; he had never even called on his father. Some friend, then? No; he had seen no friend. How, then, or from whom had he it? That will appear by the sequel.

Henry, as we have said, returned to Edinburgh with £450 in his pocket, and instantly began purchasing furniture for his new house. But there was a singular change in Henry’s demeanour—a change that was not fully accounted for by the known causes of uneasiness under which he laboured. His look was now wild and haggard. He was morbidly nervous too; he started and shook on the slightest sudden sound, and seemed to wince under the casual gaze of the passer by, if protracted but for an instant. There was, in short, a degree of feverish alarm expressed in everything he said and did, that indicated but too plainly a distracted and tortured mind. No less remarkable than any of the other singular parts of his conduct, was the mystery in which he seemed to desire to involve both his own identity and his transactions with the different tradesmen whom he employed; and, above all, the reluctance with which he gave up his name—never doing this as long and as often as it was possible to avoid it. Having completed the furnishing of his house, which he effected in an incredibly short space of time, Henry wrote to Alice, informing her that "everything was ready," and accompanied the letter by a handsome marriage ring, a necklace of beautiful workmanship, and a pair of superb earrings. This letter was replied to in course by Alice, who poured out in that reply, almost unknowingly and iuvoluntarily, all the joyous feelings with which her approaching happiness inspired her. The letter was a compound of mingled playfulness and tenderness. She threatened to subject the house to a severe scrutiny, and to cashier the master of her household, if she found anything amiss or in bad taste. To any one situated as Henry was at this moment, but without the causes of secret misery which were his, such a letter as this would have been a source of exquisite delight; but to him it brought no such pleasurable feelings. There was a counteracting power, against which no joy could prevail. On reading the letter of his betrothed, Henry sighed deeply—nay, it was a groan, a groan of anguish — folded it up with a melancholy and disturbed air, and put it in his pocket. It had not had the power to excite even one faint smile of satisfaction; but seemed, on the contrary, only to have added a deeper shade of sadness to a countenance already strongly marked by such indication of a broken spirit.

At length the day of Henry Merton’s marriage with Alice Morlington arrived, and nothing had yet transpired to discover to the bride’s father the actual position of his intended son-in-law. It had been arranged that the ceremony should take place in the house in Edinburgh in which the young people intended to reside; and for this purpose, the bride, her father, and a young lady who was to act as bridesmaid, came to town on the previous night. Henry, who had been duly advised of their coming, was waiting, with a friend, for their arrival. They came; and, notwithstanding the efforts which the former made to display the happiness which he ought to have felt, his changed, embarrassed, and distracted look did not long escape the observation of his intended bride.

On the following day the wedding guests mustered in Merton’s house; and the laugh, and the joke, and the mirth, and the banter, usual on such occasions, were not wanting on this. Henry made some attempts to join in the spirit of the hour, and to appear as light-hearted as his apparently happy position demanded; but it was in vain. There was an utter prostration of soul, an utter wretchedness of feeling which no degree of felicity could overcome, and no effort conceal. It did not, however, attract any very particular observation, or, if it was noticed, it only called forth some bantering remark. The party was now waiting the arrival of the clergyman who was to unite the young couple. He came; and, after a short interval, there was a general move towards the centre of the floor. The ceremony was about to be performed. At this instant a loud and startling knock, or rather series of knocks, rapid and fierce, was heard at the door. On the ear of the unhappy bridegroom, they struck like the knell of death. A faintness came over him, and he would have fallen where he stood, but for the aid of the person who was next him. It was a strange and singular effect these knocks had, and, to those present, most unaccountable. But, strange as it was, it was not without a reason. Henry had a presentiment of evil. What he had all along dreaded, all along lived in terror of, he felt convinced was now about to happen. In the meantime, the rude summons was answered. The door was opened, and loud, sharp, and harsh voices were heard in the passage, and the name of Henry Merton was more than once distinctly repeated.

"But you can’t see him," the girl who answered the door was heard to say.

"But we must see him, my girl," was the rejoinder, in a gruff, peremptory voice.

"He’s engaged. There is company with him. There is a marriage in the house, and you cannot see him," replied the girl.

"It’s no use saying more about it, my lass," was responded in the same decisive voice; "we shall and will see him—so show us where he is at once." And the speaker turned round and beckoned two men who accompanied him, but who still stood in the doorway, to enter. They obeyed.

"Stop, stop, then!" said the girl, seeing the men were determined on having an interview with her master; "and I’ll tell him to come out to you." And she tripped into the room where the marriage party was assembled; but the three equivocal and uncourteous visitors were close behind her.

They had not chosen to observe any ceremony in their proceedings. On their entering, the principal of the three advanced to Henry Merton, who was standing in the midst of his assembled friends in a sort of stupor, and seemingly quite unconscious of what was passing, and touching him on the shoulder—

"You are my prisoner," he said, "I apprehend you, in the king’s name, on a charge of forgery; and here is my warrant"—producing and holding out in his hand a slip of paper, partly written and partly printed.

One simultaneous cry of horror and amazement burst from the listeners to this dreadful announcement; but there was one whose expression of agony rose above them all, and spoke of a despair and wretchedness which none but that one could feel. It was Alice Morlington. Her frantic cries, as she endeavoured to reach Henry—which she was prevented doing by her father and her other friends—to fling her arms around him, to hinder him being taken away, were dreadful and heart-rending. But her strength was not equal to the struggle. She finally sank senseless into the arms of the bridesmaid, and, in this piteous condition, was carried out of the apartment. But how was the unfortunate bridegroom conducting himself during this trying scene? He was standing immovable; fixed as a statue; his countenance cadaverous; his lips glued together; his eye wild and unsettled. From the moment the officers of justice entered, he neither spoke nor moved; neither expressed, by sign or word, what were his feelings on this dreadful occasion; but stood motionless, speechless, and apparently lost in the mazes of a frightful bewilderment. Horror, despair, had benumbed every faculty, and left him in possession only of a vague, stupifying consciousness of the dreadful situation in which he stood. This scene, however, could not be of long continuance. Neither was it. The officers intimated to their prisoner that he must accompany them, and moved towards the door, preceded by the latter, who mechanically obeyed the intimation given him, but still without speaking, or making any sign of his situation. In the next instant the party with their prisoner had left the house, and, in a moment after, the wheels of a chaise were heard rattling away in the distance.

The harrowing sequel of our tale is soon given. Henry Merton had forged a bill on his former employer in Glasgow, a respectable solicitor, in the vain hope that he might be able to retire it, from the funds which he calculated his marriage would put him in possession of, before it became due but the forgery had been detected, and the consequences we have in part seen. The inevitable remainder followed; for the laws were then administered with sanguinary ferocity. Henry Merton was tried, convicted, and executed. It was endeavoured to conceal this horrid issue of the unfortunate young man’s guilt from his scarcely less unfortunate betrothed; but, by some means or other, she learned it all; and the same week that witnessed the ignominious death of her Henry, saw her cut off in the bloom and pride of youth and beauty, deposited within the precincts of the silent tomb.

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