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Valeria Woodville’s first act as a married woman is to sign her name in the marriage register incorrectly, and this slip is followed by the gradual disclosure of a series of secrets about her husband’s earlier life, each of which leads on to another set of questions and enigmas. Her discoveries prompt her to defy her husband’s authority, to take the law into into a labyrinthine maze of false clues and deceptive identities, in which the exploration of the tangled workings of the mind becomes linked to an investigation into the masquerades of femininity. Probably the first full-length novel with a woman detective as its heroine, The Law and the Lady is a fascinating example of Collins’s later fiction. First published in 1875, it employs many of the techniques used in The Moonstone, developing them in bizarre and unexpected ways, and in its Gothic and fantastic elements The Law and the Lady adds a significant dimension to the history of detective fiction.
“For after this manner in the old time the holy women also who trusted in God adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands; even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord; whose daughters ye are as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”
Concluding the Marriage Service of the Church of England in those well-known words, my uncle Starkweather shut up his book, and looked at me across the altar rails with a hearty expression of interest on his broad, red face. At the same time my aunt, Mrs. Starkweather, standing by my side, tapped me smartly on the shoulder, and said,
“Valeria, you are married!”
Where were my thoughts? What had become of my attention? I was too bewildered to know. I started and looked at my new husband. He seemed to be almost as much bewildered as I was. The same thought had, as I believe, occurred to us both at the same moment. Was it really possible–in spite of his mother’s opposition to our marriage–that we were Man and Wife? My aunt Starkweather settled the question by a second tap on my shoulder.
“Take his arm!” she whispered, in the tone of a woman who had lost all patience with me.
I took his arm.
“Follow your uncle.”
Holding fast by my husband’s arm, I followed my uncle and the curate who had assisted him at the marriage.
The two clergymen led us into the vestry. The church was in one of the dreary quarters of London, situated between the City and the West End; the day was dull; the atmosphere was heavy and damp. We were a melancholy little wedding party, worthy of the dreary neighborhood and the dull day. No relatives or friends of my husband’s were present; his family, as I have already hinted, disapproved of his marriage. Except my uncle and my aunt, no other relations appeared on my side. I had lost both my parents, and I had but few friends. My dear father’s faithful old clerk, Benjamin, attended the wedding to “give me away,” as the phrase is. He had known me from a child, and, in my forlorn position, he was as good as a father to me.
The last ceremony left to be performed was, as usual, the signing of the marriage register. In the confusion of the moment (and in the absence of any information to guide me) I committed a mistake–ominous, in my aunt Starkweather’s opinion, of evil to come. I signed my married instead of my maiden name.
“What!” cried my uncle, in his loudest and cheeriest tones, “you have forgotten your own name already? Well, well! let us hope you will never repent parting with it so readily. Try again, Valeria–try again.”
With trembling fingers I struck the pen through my first effort, and wrote my maiden name, very badly indeed, as follows:
When it came to my husband’s turn I noticed, with surprise, that his hand trembled too, and that he produced a very poor specimen of his customary signature:
My aunt, on being requested to sign, complied under protest. “A bad beginning!” she said, pointing to my first unfortunate signature with the feather end of her pen. “I hope, my dear, you may not live to regret it.”
Even then, in the days of my ignorance and my innocence, that curious outbreak of my aunt’s superstition produced a certain uneasy sensation in my mind. It was a consolation to me to feel the reassuring pressure of my husband’s hand. It was an indescribable relief to hear my uncle’s hearty voice wishing me a happy life at parting. The good man had left his north-country Vicarage (my home since the death of my parents) expressly to read the service at my marriage; and he and my aunt had arranged to return by the mid-day train. He folded me in his great strong arms, and he gave me a kiss which must certainly have been heard by the idlers waiting for the bride and bridegroom outside the church door.
“I wish you health and happiness, my love, with all my heart. You are old enough to choose for yourself, and–no offense, Mr. Woodville, you and I are new friends–and I pray God, Valeria, it may turn out that you have chosen well. Our house will be dreary enough without you; but I don’t complain, my dear. On the contrary, if this change in your life makes you happier, I rejoice. Come, come! don’t cry, or you will set your aunt off–and it’s no joke at her time of life. Besides, crying will spoil your beauty. Dry your eyes and look in the glass there, and you will see that I am right. Good-by, child–and God bless you!”
He tucked my aunt under his arm, and hurried out. My heart sank a little, dearly as I loved my husband, when I had seen the last of the true friend and protector of my maiden days.