VICTOR HAD REFUSED his bride at the altar! That was the brute fact which agitated the little party in the vestry. No amount of explanation could mitigate it. As best man I had been in a good position to observe events; and even I, who had formerly been fairly intimate with Victor, was completely taken by surprise. True, I had long suspected that there was something queer about him; but up to the very moment of his quietly shattering remark, as he put the ring into his pocket, I had no idea that anything serious was amiss.
James Victor Cadogan-Smith, later to be known as plain Victor Smith, had seemed the ideal bridegroom. He was the son of a successful colonial administrator who had climbed by his own ability from a very lowly position, and had recently acquired a knighthood. The family had been humble "Smiths" until Victor's father had married the only child of a more aristocratic family, and had agreed to splice his wife's name to his own.
The new "Cadogan-Smith" assured his friends that he had done this mainly to please his father-in-law. But in later life he used to say, "In those days my snobbery was unconscious."
His son Victor was born in 1890. He was now a bridegroom of thirty-one, and certainly a catch for any girl. Looking at him in his wedding clothes, one could not help using the cliché "every inch a gentleman". His financial prospects were excellent. He was already reputed to be one of the most brilliant young business men of his city, and he was well established as a junior partner in a great shipping firm. Victor had come through the Great War, as we called it in those days, undamaged and with a Military Cross; and now, in the brief period of optimism that followed the war, it seemed that he had excellent prospects of working out for himself a triumphant business career in the phase of post-war recovery. To crown all, he had secured as his bride the charming daughter of the head of his firm.
The wedding celebrations had been planned in appropriate style. The only factor which was not in perfect harmony with the spirit of the occasion, I fear, was the best man. I had been greatly flattered by Victor's request that I should fill this office, but I could not help wondering why he had not asked one of his many more presentable friends. His subsequent behaviour toward me almost suggested that he regretted his choice. Certainly I did not fit at all into the picture of a smart wedding; and from the moment when I found that I should have to hire a conventional wedding garment my heart had failed me. Victor must have found me a very inefficient manager, for he had to re-arrange almost everything that I had undertaken. I knew, of course, that in one of his moods he had sometimes an almost obsessive passion for correctness, but I had been surprised and exasperated by his meticulous scrutiny of every detail of our clothing and of the time-table of the honeymoon tour.
At the church, Victor's erect and perfectly tailored figure had seemed the very pattern of orthodoxy; and Edith, I am sure, must have been admired by the whole congregation as the ideal bride, so "radiant" was she (yes, that is the fatally right word), and so expensively adorned.
I remember I was rather surprised when the bridegroom suddenly scratched his head, as though in perplexity, and began looking about him in a frank, inquisitive manner that seemed out of keeping with the occasion. And perhaps it was not quite seemly suddenly to turn his face full upon the lovely creature at his side; but everyone must have readily forgiven him, since his expression suggested great tenderness. I remember noticing that his eyelids, normally inclined to droop, so that his face wore the drowsy look of a lion in captivity, were now fully raised. His blue eyes gazed with a vitality- yes, and a warmth of feeling- which I had never before seen in them. "Such," I thought ," is the power of love." But the words had scarcely formed themselves in my mind, when Victor cut into the rector's solemn recitative in a voice that was unusually gentle but also unusually decisive. "Edith," he said, "we mustn't go on with this. I've-I've just waked up, and I see quite clearly that I am not the one for you, nor you for me."
For a moment, silence. The bride stared at the bridegroom like a startled hind, then let herself be hurried away on her father's arm. Victor, protesting his contrition, and offering to explain himself, followed the outraged bridal party into the vestry, with me upon his heels, and behind me his own distressed father.
When the door was shut, the bride's father turned on Victor with indignation, spluttering of breach of promise. Her mother attempted to console her. Edith herself was very properly in tears; but also, through streaming eyes, she stared at Victor with such an expression of fascinated terror that I looked to see what could have caused it. Certainly it seemed a new Victor that took charge of this very awkward situation. Except for the fact that he sometimes tugged at his collar and mopped the sweat from his face, he behaved with complete composure. He looked from one to the other of us all with a curious intensity and exhilaration, almost as though it was we that had changed, and he must size us up afresh. Presently in a tone of authority that silenced the rest of us he said, "Listen to me for a minute! I know I can't ever put things right after the mess I have made, but I'll do whatever I can. Anyhow, I must try to explain. Standing there in these damned silly clothes and listening to the rector, I- well, as I said, I just woke up from a sort of dream. I saw Edith and me as we really are, me a young snob without a mind, and Edith- well, she s good to look at, very" (he smiled ruefully at her), "and what's more, underneath all the conventional trappings of her mind there's something sensitive and honest; yes, and much too good for me, for that drowsy snob. In my dream-life I really did think I was in love with her, but I wasn't really, even then, and I'm certainly not now." He was watching Edith, and an expression of pain passed over his face as he said, " God! What a mess! Edith, I know I have hurt you horribly, but I have saved you from something far worse, from marrying that somnambulant snob."
No one had supposed Victor capable of talking like this. Or no one but myself. To me, though the whole incident had of course been very surprising, it had not seemed entirely out of keeping with certain events in the past; particularly so, when Victor turned from Edith to me with a special smile. It was a twisted smile, half quizzical but wholly amiable, which in the old days I had learnt to regard as revealing the true Victor, but had lately missed. The smile faded into a grave and steady gaze, while he said to the company, “Harry, here, perhaps knows what I mean, partly." This remark turned the attention of the three parents upon me, and I could feel them blaming me for Victor's shocking deed. Victor's father looked at his son, then back at me, and the look said as clearly as words could have done, “My boy, why did you get tangled up with this fellow? He's not one of us. And now, see where he has led you!" At this point Edith brought the scene to a close by imploring her parents to take her home.Chapter 2 A Man Divided Contents