The handle of the door of the sitting room in the west wing of Laverwick House turned and in walked a sheepish looking Sir Edward Fitzwalter. He closed the door softly behind him before nervously looking over to the corner of the room where he saw Harriet Melksham seated on the chaise longue, awaiting him. In contrast to his somewhat awkward appearance, she was as ever the very epitome of poise and tranquillity. Her soft, delicate features radiated pleasantness towards her suitor and her eyes beckoned him to speak.
After an uneasy silence, in which Sir Edward shifted nervously from foot to foot, and walked over to the fireplace and then back towards the door, a measure of courage finally arose in him and he opened his mouth to speak:
“Miss Melksham,” he said with trembling heart.
“Yes Sir Edward?” she replied looking up at him from her chair. “What is it?”
He looked at her in silence for a moment or two and then turned away towards the window.
“I seem to have waited so long for this moment, and now when I need them most, words fail me,” he muttered to himself.
Harriet looked at him imploringly. She knew what he wanted to say. She could be in no doubt as to his intentions, but to see the agony he was in was wrenching her in two. As gently as she was able, she motioned for him to continue.
“Miss Melksham,” he said taking her cue. “We have known each other for nigh on a year now.”
“Tis more than a year,” she corrected him. “Twas on November 4th last year that we were introduced at Lord Grantham’s Dinner Party. Today is December 3rd.”
“Yes I believe you are right. Tis more than a year,” replied Sir Edward almost dreamily. “Miss Melksham, from the very first moment I set eyes on you, I knew that there was something about you that noother woman on earth possessed. Until that point I can honestly say that I had never really so much as looked at a woman. But as soon as I saw you enter the room, I knew that I had seen the only woman that would ever interest me.”
“Stop it Edward, stop,” said Harriet blushing. “There is only so much flattery one can take.”
“No don’t stop me now,” he replied earnestly. “Not now that I have found my flow. And ‘tis no flattery, Miss Melksham, I can assure you of that. I never spoke truer words than these. And nothing that has happened between us since I first set eyes on you has changed my mind. You have made me happy, Miss Melksham, deliriously happy, yet my happiness is not yet complete. Nor shall it ever be complete unless you answer yes to my proposition.”
Without warning, he moved towards her andthrust himself down onto bended knee.
“Miss Melksham,” he cried. “My dear Harriet, I pray you – nay I beg you to become my lawful wedded husband.”
Harriet stared at him in astonishment for a moment. Yet her astonishment was short lived and soon gave way to what was at first a giggle and then to a roar of laughter.
Sir Edward Fitzwalter, on bended knee before her, looked mortified. Had he just made the biggest misjudgement of his life? He had been sure that she felt the same way about him as he did about her, but now it seemed that the idea of marrying him ranked alongside the biggest amusements she had ever had in her life.
Harriet, sensitive as ever, soon realised what was on his mind and quickly sought to reassure him:
“Oh my dearest Edward, of course I love you and of course I’ll marry you,” she said. “That was not the reason for my laughter. I do believe that in your state of nervous apprehension you have been left tongue-tied. You asked me if I would consent to become your husband.”
Sir Edward gazed up at her with a look of genuine bemusement on his face.
“I did indeed,” he said. “But I fail to see why my words were cause for such mirth.”
“Oh Edward,” she said smiling lovingly at him. “You asked me to become your husband. Don’t you see? You meant to say wife, or perhaps you meant to say you wanted to become my husband. Whichever it was, you got the words mixed up and I couldn’t help but laugh. It was so sweet. Please forgive me if I offended you.”
“But my dear Harriet,” answered a more bemused looking Sir Edward. “Upon my word I see no such occasion for such merriment for my speech contained no such mistake.”
Now it was Harriet’s countenance that gave way to puzzlement. “What can you mean, Sir?” she said. “You asked me if I would consent to become your husband, when you clearly meant to ask for my consent to become your wife.”
“I meant no such thing at all,” he replied indignantly. “My proposal was for you to become my husband and I make no apology for making this request of you.”
Harriet stared hard at him for a moment, apparently lost for words. Had he gone mad? Had he lost all ability to reason? She decided that if he had had some momentary lapse of reason, now was not the time for an argument, but rather to apply a gentle touch.
“Edward,” she said mildly. “If I were to consent to be married to you, then you would be my husband and I would be your wife.”
“Miss Melksham,” he answered with a long and clearly exasperated sigh. “I hope I am not about to find out – on the cusp of our engagement mind you – that you still hold to outmoded and stereotypical views of what constitutes a marriage where a man must be a husband and a woman must be a wife.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” said Harriet taken aback. “There is nothing outmoded or stereotypical about it. A married man is called a husband and a married woman is called a wife. That is what the words mean and there’s an end to it.”
Sir Edward rose sharply to his feet and walked over to the hearth, clearly vexed. For some moments he prodded the dying embers of the fire with the poker, before placing his elbow firmly on the mantelpiece and turning round to fix his stare toward Harriet.
“Tell me Miss Melksham,” he said coldly. “Do you know what year it is? No don’t answer. I’ll tell you. It’s 2015. Not 1815 or 1615, but 2015. And in case you haven’t yet heard, your foolish opinions and beliefs are on their way out and I soon hope to have the law on my side to prove it.”
Without waiting for an answer, he reached into the pocket of his breeches and pulled out his Apple iPhone 5. After a few moments of tapping, he gave a cry of jubilation:
“Aha! You see. Here it is. Listen to what was written in the text of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2013, as proposed by the government of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I quote: ‘”Husband” here will include a man or a woman in a same sex marriage, as well as a man married to a woman. In a similar way, “wife” will include a woman married to another woman or a man married to a man.’ Of course in theend their nerve failed them and they pandered to popular opinion by removing that bit about a man being a wife or a woman being a husband. But you see the inequality and injustice of that, I trust, Miss Melksham? If a man can marry a man and call him his husband, and if he can marry a woman and call her his wife, how on earth could anyone possibly object to a man marrying a woman and calling her his husband? Utter intolerance I tell you, and I for one shall fight on until this gross injustice has been put to rights.”
Harriet Melksham sat with her mouth open, clearly flabbergasted and quite unable to take in what she had just heard. Could a man really have a husband and could a woman really have a wife? Furthermore, could a man be a wife and could a woman be a husband? Clearly the thought had been expressed in high places and had almost made it onto the statute books. But wasn’t that the height of absurdity?
Her mind was flustered, but she retained enough sense and composure to make some quick calculations. Marriage, as it has always been before these “enlightened” times, she reasoned, had but one configuration:
- Man (Husband) – Woman (Wife)
That seemed simple enough, but in the new scheme of things, wasn’t there a danger of ending up with the following:
- Man (Husband) – Woman (Wife)
- Man (Husband) – Woman (Husband)
- Man (Wife) – Woman (Wife)
- Man (Wife) – Woman (Husband)
- Man (Husband) – Man (Wife)
- Man (Husband) – Man (Husband)
- Man (Wife) – Man (Wife)
- Man (Wife) – Man (Husband)
- Woman (Husband) – Woman (Wife)
- Woman (Husband) – Woman (Husband)
- Woman (Wife) – Woman (Wife)
- Woman (Wife) – Woman (Husband)
The whole thing seemed to her to be just the kind of absurd confusion that you might expect if you abandon God’s laws and then profess yourselves to be wiser than Him. However, her contemplations were abruptly interrupted as Sir Edward’s voice broke into her thoughts:
“Come now Harriet,” he said gently. “I can see this is difficult for you to take in. But then change is always difficult at first. Especially when we’ve been stewing in our own prejudices for so long. What do you say? Will you consent to becoming my husband? And will you take me for your wife? Or we can both be husbands if you really like. I know the law is not yet on our side, but trust me — we’ll get there. Maybe we could marry as husband and wife and then you could claim that you find the term wife oppressive and demeaning, and we could bring a legal case forcing the law to recognise your full equality with me as my husband. What say you?”
Gathering her thoughts together as best she could, Harriet arose and walked over to the door. As she turned the handle she looked back at her erstwhile lover. “I refuse,” she said firmly.
“You refuse?” replied Sir Edward indignantly. “Do you refuse because you are an intolerant, bigoted homo/hetero/transgender/redefiningwordsaphobe with no understanding of equality and diversity?”
“No,” she replied. “I refuse because redefining marriage is by far and away the most stupid and self-evidently absurd thing that any group of people has come up with, probably in the history of the world. That’s why.”
And with that she closed the door on him and went off to find someone to marry who had not succumbed to the collective insanity of her times.