Mr. Wood seemed at a loss. "What is the nature of the impediment?" he asked. "Perhaps it may be got over — explained away?"
"Hardly," was the answer. "I have called it insuperable, and I speak advisedly."
The speaker came forward and leaned on the rails. He continued, uttering each word distinctly, calmly, steadily, but not loudly —
"It simply consists in the existence of a previous marriage. Mr. Rochester has a wife now living."
My nerves vibrated to those low-spoken words as they had never vibrated to thunder — my blood felt their subtle violence as it had never felt frost or fire; but I was collected, and in no danger of swooning. I looked at Mr. Rochester: I made him look at me. His whole face was colourless rock: his eye was both spark and flint. He disavowed nothing: he seemed as if he would defy all things. Without speaking, without smiling, without seeming to recognise in me a human being, he only twined my waist with his arm and riveted me to his side.
"Who are you?" he asked of the intruder.
"My name is Briggs, a solicitor of — - Street, London."
"And you would thrust on me a wife?"
"I would remind you of your lady's existence, sir, which the law recognises, if you do not."
"Favour me with an account of her — with her name, her parentage, her place of abode."
"Certainly." Mr. Briggs calmly took a paper from his pocket, and read out in a sort of official, nasal voice: —
"'I affirm and can prove that on the 20th of October A.D. — - (a date of fifteen years back), Edward Fairfax Rochester, of Thornfield Hall, in the county of — -, and of Ferndean Manor, in — -shire, England, was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, daughter of Jonas Mason, merchant, and of Antoinetta his wife, a Creole, at — - church, Spanish Town, Jamaica. The record of the marriage will be found in the register of that church — a copy of it is now in my possession. Signed, Richard Mason.'"
"That — if a genuine document — may prove I have been married, but it does not prove that the woman mentioned therein as my wife is still living."
"She was living three months ago," returned the lawyer.
"How do you know?"
"I have a witness to the fact, whose testimony even you, sir, will scarcely controvert."
"Produce him — or go to hell."
"I will produce him first — he is on the spot. Mr. Mason, have the goodness to step forward."
Mr. Rochester, on hearing the name, set his teeth; he experienced, too, a sort of strong convulsive quiver; near to him as I was, I felt the spasmodic movement of fury or despair run through his frame. The second stranger, who had hitherto lingered in the background, now drew near; a pale face looked over the solicitor's shoulder — yes, it was Mason himself. Mr. Rochester turned and glared at him. His eye, as I have often said, was a black eye: it had now a tawny, nay, a bloody light in its gloom; and his face flushed — olive cheek and hueless forehead received a glow as from spreading, ascending heart-fire: and he stirred, lifted his strong arm — he could have struck Mason, dashed him on the church-floor, shocked by ruthless blow the breath from his body — but Mason shrank away, and cried faintly, "Good God!" Contempt fell cool on Mr. Rochester — his passion died as if a blight had shrivelled it up: he only asked — "What have you to say?"
An inaudible reply escaped Mason's white lips.
"The devil is in it if you cannot answer distinctly. I again demand, what have you to say?"
"Sir — sir," interrupted the clergyman, "do not forget you are in a sacred place." Then addressing Mason, he inquired gently, "Are you aware, sir, whether or not this gentleman's wife is still living?"
"Courage," urged the lawyer, — "speak out."
"She is now living at Thornfield Hall," said Mason, in more articulate tones: "I saw her there last April. I am her brother."
"At Thornfield Hall!" ejaculated the clergyman. "Impossible! I am an old resident in this neighbourhood, sir, and I never heard of a Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall."
I saw a grim smile contort Mr. Rochester's lips, and he muttered —
"No, by God! I took care that none should hear of it — or of her under that name." He mused — for ten minutes he held counsel with himself: he formed his resolve, and announced it —
"Enough! all shall bolt out at once, like the bullet from the barrel. Wood, close your book and take off your surplice; John Green (to the clerk), leave the church: there will be no wedding to-day." The man obeyed.
Mr. Rochester continued, hardily and recklessly: "Bigamy is an ugly word! — I meant, however, to be a bigamist; but fate has out-manoeuvred me, or Providence has checked me, — perhaps the last. I am little better than a devil at this moment; and, as my pastor there would tell me, deserve no doubt the sternest judgments of God, even to the quenchless fire and deathless worm. Gentlemen, my plan is broken up: — what this lawyer and his client say is true: I have been married, and the woman to whom I was married lives! You say you never heard of a Mrs. Rochester at the house up yonder, Wood; but I daresay you have many a time inclined your ear to gossip about the mysterious lunatic kept there under watch and ward. Some have whispered to you that she is my bastard half-sister: some, my cast-off mistress. I now inform you that she is my wife, whom I married fifteen years ago, — Bertha Mason by name; sister of this resolute personage, who is now, with his quivering limbs and white cheeks, showing you what a stout heart men may bear. Cheer up, Dick! — never fear me! — I'd almost as soon strike a woman as you. Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! — as I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points. I had a charming partner — pure, wise, modest: you can fancy I was a happy man. I went through rich scenes! Oh! my experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it! But I owe you no further explanation. Briggs, Wood, Mason, I invite you all to come up to the house and visit Mrs. Poole's patient, and my wife! You shall see what sort of a being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human. This girl," he continued, looking at me, "knew no more than you, Wood, of the disgusting secret: she thought all was fair and legal and never dreamt she was going to be entrapped into a feigned union with a defrauded wretch, already bound to a bad, mad, and embruted partner! Come all of you — follow!"