Read IF ONLY: CHAPTER I of If Only etc., free online book, by Francis Clement Philips and Augustus Harris, on ReadCentral.com.

There is a vast deal talked in the present day about Freewill. We like to feel that we are independent agents and are ready to overlook the fact that our surroundings and circumstances and the hundred and one subtle and mysterious workings of the fate we can none of us escape, control our actions and are responsible for our movements, and make us to a great extent what we are.

A man is not even a free agent when he takes the most important step of his whole life, and marries a wife. He is impelled to it by considerations outside of himself; it affects not only his own present and future, but that of others, very often, and he must be guided accordingly.

Emerson says; “The soul has inalienable rights, and the first of these is love,” but he does not say marriage. Love is the business of the idle and the idleness of the busy, but marriage is quite another affair a grave matter, and not to be undertaken lightly, since it is the one step that can never be retraced, save through the unsavoury channels of shame and notoriety, or death itself.

But perhaps Jack Chetwynd was hampered with fewer restraining influences than most men, for he was alone in the world, without kith or kin, and might be fairly allowed to please himself, and pleasing himself in this case meant leading to the altar, or rather to the Registry Office, Miss Bella Blackall, music-hall singer and step dancer.

It was unquestionably a case of love at first sight. The girl was barely seventeen, and her girlishness attracted him quite as much as her beauty, which was exceptional. There was nothing meretricious about it, for as yet she owed nothing to art brown hair, warm lips, soft blue eyes, and a complexion like the leaf of a white rose a woman blossom. Then, too, she was a happy creature, full of life and happiness and bubbling over with childish merriment no one could help liking her, he told himself, but it was something warmer than that. What makes the difference between liking and love? It is so little and yet so much. There was an air of refinement about her, too, which to his fancy seemed to protest against the vulgarities of her surroundings. He thought he could discern the stuff that meant an actress in her, and prophesied that she would before long be playing Juliet at the Haymarket. He was still at the age when the habit is to discover geniuses in unlikely places, especially when the women are pretty. He raved about her when he adjourned with his companions to the bar, and they chaffed him a good deal to his face and sneered at him behind his back. He was there the next night, and the night, after and by-and-by he managed to get introduced to her.

She was prettier off the stage than on, and her manner was charming, and her voice delicious with its racy accent.

She was an American, and had been in London only a few months; and he was duly taken to a second-rate lodging in a side street near the Waterloo Road, and presented to “Ma,” a black satined and beaded type of the race. There was also a sister, whom, truth to tell, he objected to more than her maternal relative, for she was distinctly professional, not to say loud, and the little mannerisms which were so taking in his inamorata were very much the reverse in Miss Saidie Blackall.

Still, he told himself, he was not going to marry the whole family; which might be true in a sense and yet might not mean the entire independence it implied. Bella’s relations must, if he made her his wife, mean more or less to him.

However, youth is sanguine, and Jack Chetwynd did not look too closely at the thorns which hedged his dainty rose-bud round. She at least was all he could wish her to be unsophisticated as a child, and pure and good at heart.

After a month’s acquaintance it began to be understood that he was engaged to her. “Ma” wept copious tears, and reckoned her Bella was a lucky girl to get such an “elegant” husband; and Saidie wished him happiness in a voice like a corn-crake, and declared that her sister was “just the sweetest and best girl out of N’York,” which she was; “and born to lead a private life,” which she wasn’t.

Bella herself had very little to say. She blushed rosily when Jack made fervent love to her; acquiesced confusedly when he told her she must give up the music-hall stage, and seemed to take happily to the idea of a quiet, uneventful life as Mrs. Jack Chetwynd.

They took a small house in Camberwell New Road. Jack put up a brass plate with his name on it, and M.D. in imposing letters, and invested in a telephone for the accommodation of night callers; and Bella began to busy herself about the furnishing.

That was a delightful time. The little bride elect was so excited and eager, and showed herself wonderfully capable, and with quite a pretty taste in draping and ornamenting; but there was a terrible hole in Jack’s purse: chairs and tables seemed to cost a mint of money; and the young man sighed and hoped fervently that it would not be long before patients appeared, or he would be obliged to say No to his darling when she turned her appealing eyes upon him and begged him to give her money for that “duck of a screen,” or something else that was from her point of view the most extraordinary bargain, but which, Jack reflected, privately, they could very well have done without.

He was giving up a certainty in settling in Camberwell, for as House Surgeon at St. Mark’s his income was assured; but then as a married man he could no longer have lived at the hospital, and “one must risk something” said Jack, hopefully.

They were married in May, just three months from that eventful night when our hero first saw pretty Bella Blackall, on the boards at the “Band Box,” and Mrs. John Chetwynd was altogether so sweet and winsome in her simple white gown, that Saidie was right when she hilariously remarked that Jack might well be forgiven for falling in love with her “all over again.”

The wedding was just as quiet as it could be, for Jack did not care to invite any of his friends. “Ma” and Saidie were altogether too impossible; and unfortunately no one seemed to mind whether he did or not. There was one unpleasantness connected with the day which Chetwynd felt Bella might have had tact enough to avoid. Two or three of Saidie’s friends, in light and eminently professional attire, were of the party, the women a good deal worse than the men; and they all returned together to Holly Street, where a meal had been prepared in the front parlours, the landlady having generously placed them at the disposal of her lodgers for the occasion. There was a good deal of banter and side jokes were bandied about from one to another; which was galling to young Chetwynd, and made him devoutly thankful that none of his own companions and friends were present. When at last Bella rose from the table to change her gown for the pale grey he himself had chosen, with the big hat and nodding plumes in which she had looked such a dainty little mortal, he pushed his chair back with a look of disgust on his face and left them to talk amongst themselves.

Saidie was distributing small pieces of wedding cake, laughing and screaming at the top of her voice.

“Saikes, man! you are not to eat it. Put it under your pillow and as sure as I’m a Yank you’ll see your intended,” she cried. And then followed an amount of vulgar chaff and coarse pleasantry which caused the “happy man” to set his teeth hard and register a vow at the bottom of his heart that this should be the last occasion on which his wife should associate with her sister’s friends.

And then Bella came tripping down the narrow staircase, her cheeks warm with a pale pink colour that made her inexpressibly lovely; and the carriage which Mrs. Blackall had insisted upon ordering to take the young couple to the station was at the door, and in the bustle that ensued Jack lost sight of all annoyances and remembered only that he had married the girl he loved and that he was the happiest fellow in the universe; and amid a shower of rice and a white satin slipper (one of Saidie’s), which fell right into Bella’s lap; the last farewell was spoken, and they drove away.

“Only to Brighton!” cried Nina Nankin, the celebrity famed for the height to which she could raise one leg while standing upon the other. “What a mean chap! He might have forked out enough for a trip to Paris, I should have thought.”

“It wouldn’t satisfy me,” returned Saidie, turning up her nose disdainfully; “but he isn’t my style, anyway.”

“Bit of a prig, eh?”

Saidie nodded.

“I do detest a man who fancies himself a head and shoulders above the rest of his kind,” said that young lady vehemently; “you’ll generally find out he don’t amount to a row of pins. My! ain’t I glad I’m not going to live with him. I would as lief go to Bible-class every day of the week. I’ll bet my bottom dollar Bella’ll see the mistake she’s made before she’s many weeks older. There’s a chip of the old block about that young woman, for all her baby ways and her innocent know-nothing. He’ll be a spry man, will Dr. Chetwynd, to come up to her. It’ll take him all he knows to get ahead, you bet”.

Saidie lay back in the chair and laughed till the tears ran down her cheeks.