THE TIE THAT BINDS
Some Recollections of a Veteran Issuer of Marriage Licenses
CHARLES L. COYNE
THE first fact to be recorded is that I have been an issuer of marriage licenses for over thirty years. During that time I have put the first legal loop in the knot that has tied to gether some thing over six
thousand couples. So, although my life has been a rather uneventful one, I can't help thinking that I have played
an important part and been first assistant to Fate in many rosy romances, countless comedies and, perhaps, not a few tragedies.
There has been a story behind nearly every one of the six thousand bits of paper with their red seals that I have
issued but, of course, I have seldom had any inkling of the facts. Sometimes I have had a little peep at them through a bit of information dropped casually by the prcspective groom or by subsequent events but, even in 3uch cases, I have seldom seen the end of it. So it has been rather like reading the first few chapters of a book and then missing the rest. Sometimes I have been suf ficiently interested to piece it out or even to ascertain the ending, happy or otherwise, by making enquiries.
The Irate Father and the Gun Í REMEMBER about two years ago, I was alone here in the store. It was getting near ten o’clock and I was preparing to close up when two men came in. One was quite a young man and the other much older. The young man asked for a marriage license. I didn’t pay much attention to them at first but set about getting my papers. Then I came back and began to ask the usual questions. There was nothing unusual in his replies, but the young man’s voice shook so and was so low that sometimes I had to ask him to repeat, and when I looked up I noticed that his face was white as chalk, and that his hands were shaking. So I looked at the tall grey man who was standing beside him, and it seemed to me that old stern face had not much the look of friendship. He stood beside the young man, their coat sleeves touching, and the older man kept his right hand in his coat pocket. I watched and I am sure that now and then when the young fellow seemed to hesitate the hand of the older man moved in his pocket; and the younger would start and go on. Well, I suppose that I might have suspected something, and perhaps I did, but there was no flaw in the young fellow’s answers. He asked for a license and got it, with the old man standing by. Perhaps there was a real story there, for it seemed to me from his look that the old man was following some stern idea of justice. Perhaps that is why I issued that license, perhaps it was just because I couldn’t give any real reason why I shouldn’t, but I’ve often wondered what was the end of that story, and what happened in the last chapters, for I am as certain as though I had seen it that the old man was holding a pistol against that young man’s side.
T'ES, there are stories if you look for them and that one happened right here in Toronto. It’s funny too what strange ideas people get. I remember once I was making out a license, and both the young man and young lady ■were there, and w'hile I was writing a terrific thunderstorm sprang up. That finished the whole proceedings. The young lady burst out crying, and nothing in the world would make her go on. We both tried to argue with her, but it wasn t any use. She thought it was an omen. I don’t know if they ever got married or not, but I know I didn’t issue the license.
_ Another time almost the same thing happened. The girl and the man were both in the shop with me, and the girl’s mother was waiting in a car outside, when suddenly the electric power went off and the lights went out. I found some stumps of candle and, sticking them on the counter, went on making out the license. Then the mother bounced into the store. When she saw the candles she let out a shriek. She said if her daughter married that man after this she wouldn’t expect her to live a year. She
seemed to lay all the blame on the young fellow, and talked to him as though she had just discovered him burying his wife’s body in the cellar. I don’t know w’hether they got married either but I have a very strong impression that they didn’t. I judged that the mother hadn’t been particularly strong for the young fellow' from the start, and the incident of the candles was too much for her.
The Value of a Wife
OOMETIMES there is a touch of humor in this business too. I remember a middle-aged Scotchman once who came to get a license. He was marrying a lady of settled years, whom I fancy had been chosen as one who was not likely to dissipate the family fortune. He caught my attention because he was the only applicant that had ever in my memory questioned the fee. Most men behave as though the marriage license bureau was a chamber of horrors from which they would gladly escape at any cost less than their lives. But this one was unquestionably counting the cost. There were real heartburnings marked on his face as he withdrew the bill slowly from the bottom of a small black leather purse.
The minister, who he had told me was to perform the ceremony, was more or less a friend of mine, and so meeting him some months later, I asked about the wedding. The minister was glad to recount the story. It was evidently one that he had tolda good many times without it losing its pleasant flavor on his lips.
“When the wedding was over,” he said, “your friend asked me what was my charge. They usually do not put it quite so bluntly in the presence of the bride. However I said that I usually liked a man to set a value on his own bride. I must say at that, that your friend looked somewhat relieved, and he gave me a dollar bill. I let it go at that, and thought no more about it. A little while ago I chanced to meet him on the street and stopped to ask after his wife. ‘Parson,’ he said, ‘I’ll no’ say that ye were to blame. I was over leeberal from lack of experience, but ye fashed me wi’ ye’r talk o’ setting a value on the wife. I’ll no’ blame ye. But, Parson, I’d gae ye twice that if you could undae it.’ ”
But getting back to marriage licenses, sometimes I get a good deal of quiet amusement out of the innocence of the applicants. Especially when they’re young, they often come together to apply. One of the questions we are required to ask is “Who is going to marry you?” so that our records will show the officiating clergyman. I don’t know how many times I have asked that question of blushing young ladies, and I hardly remember a case where the blushing young lady has not replied, “Why John, of course,” or whatever the young man’s name happens to be.
Sometimes, but not often, the lady alone, comes to apply for the license.
One case I remember was that of a spinster of very uncertain years. The man was a widower and had been boarding at her home for some time. One day she dropped in and bought a ring, and took out a license. She had all the necessary information, and certainly they were both of
age, so there was no reason why I should not issue the license. I did ask, however, why the gentleman had not come in person to apply. “Oh! James is so bashful,” she simpered.
I have an impression that James had never been consulted on the matter, and that she was contemplating an attack in force, beating down his defence with a weight of evidence. I never heard the end of that story either, but the lady had evidently made up her mind, so I guess what James might have thought didn’t really matter.
Sometimes you do happen to learn the end’ of a story, and perhaps it is commonplace enough, sometimes perhaps it is a little tragic.
There was an old man dropped in one day from a little town just north of Toronto and asked for a license. He was to marry a woman only slightly younger than himself. I issued the
license, and he went away. A few day. later he dropped in again looking rather dejected. He asked me to take back the license and return him his money I explained to him that I couldn’t do that. It was against the law. I couldn’t issue a license to my own brother without charging him for it. Then, finally, it came out. He had intended to marry the lady with the wedding ring of his first wife, and the lady’s two sons who had returned from the war would not
hear of it. Anyway, they urged, their mother was too old to marry again. I advised the old gentleman to wait awhile and see what turned up. Some months later he came back, bought a new ring, and asked if the license was all right. I had to tell him that, being over three months old, it was of no use except as a memento. But he bought another. I didn’t learn how he had overcome the objections of the sons. Perhaps they had married themselves. Anyway he got married. Sometime later I met someone from his town and. asked about him. He had married and taken his wife home, and three weeks after he had buried her. So ended that little romance.
Sometimes you meet a cheery, optimistic sort of chap, who takes the whole thing as something of a joke. One of them dropped in from Hamilton recently to get a certificate. He was a friendly chap, and before the license was made out I knew pretty well the whole story. He wasn’t exactly engaged to the young lady, but he had been keeping company with her for some time, and had spent a goodly sum of money in giving her a good time and she had evidently made the most of him and given him good cause to believe that she was interested. Anyway that is how the young fellow figured it out, and he was so sure that he bought a wedding ring as well as the license, the biggest, fattest ring he could get. Then he strolled off as merry as a cricket to get married. Robbie Burns, wasn’t it, who said something about “the best laid plans of mice and men going agley?” Well I guess he was one of those mice, anyway he turned up at the shop about an hour later, and laid the license and the ring on the counter.
“It seems,” he remarked in a somewhat more subdued tone, “that there isn’t going to be any wedding, at least with these. Now, just what does a chap do when he has a wedding ring and marriage license over?”
I felt kind of sorry for him, for, while he was still trying to be jaunty, there was a limpness about it that suggested the lady had talked to him good and plenty. So I told him, I would gladly take back the wedding ring and refund his money, but that I couldn’t do anything about the marriage license.
“Fine,” he said, “fine; I was wondering what I would do with that ring, not aiming to have anything for it to do from now on. As for the license I wouldn’t part with it. Going to have it framed, so that I can have a look at it any time I feel a trifle wobbly at the knees regarding this marriage business. No, I reckon that part of it was a good investment.”
He Advertised for a Wife
I HAVE sometimes run into a hodge-podge romance, the sort that starts in the personal column of the newspaper and usually ends in the
columns for police doings.
There was one case where I had issued the license, that became so interesting to me that I worked back from that point till I had dug up the whole story.
The man in the case was apparently a decent enough sort of young fellow, away from home and lonely, so he started one of those “Presentable young man of good character
wishes to meet attractive young lady”—the sort of thing that appears in the personal column of the paper. Finally after squandering quite a little sum in adding to his attractions in print every day or so, he got an answer. For a while things were quite lively in print, and finally it was arranged that the lady in question should be in a certain big store at a certain time and date, and that she should wear a pink rose as a distinguishing mark.
The young man waited at the rendezvous for a long
while but no lady appeared.
Finally he sighted a young lady who looked about as he had hoped his enamorata would look. She was wearing a flower, too, only it wasn’t a rose. “Still,” he argued, “perhaps she couldn’t get a pink rose.”
Anyway he determined to take a chance. The young lady seemed considerably surprised when addressed, but the boy wasn’t a badlooking chap, and I guess
she was somewhat interested. She let him talk, until he had uncovered the whole story of the newspaper campaign. She let him take her to dinner and finally even agreed to marry him.
The young fellow was somewhat more prompt than she had imagined, I fancy, for he had a license from me in no time, and almost as soon was at a minister’s, where they were married in due form, the girl a trifle breathless perhaps but no more so than many young folks being married. When it was all over and they were driving away, the girl asked him to wait a moment in front of a certain large store while she went in and got a few things. Being in a pleasant frame of mind he suspected nothing and let her go. He waited quite a while. Finally he got out and made a thorough search of the store, but no wife was to be found anywhere. After conducting a littie private search, he finally called the police to his assistance. Some weeks later the lady was discovered and the two were brought together. The lady was tearfully indignant. She had just done it for a joke, and had never thought of getting married really. It was good fun for a while, but she wouldn’t live with that man for worlds. Ami she didn’t. She disappeared again somehow and has never been seen since. But they were married all right.
There was no doubt of that.
OF course the marriage license man is supposed to use his discretion in issuing licenses. He has not only to see that the answers are correct but to be sure that the parties are telling the truth. Of course if they swear their
answers, whether they are the truth or not, the license issuer is not legally responsible. It is the youngsters who give most of the trouble. They will drop in at 16 and 17 years of age, and often unblushingly swear that they are years older. That causes you some trouble and unceftainty. There was a young fellow here a little while ago who gave me all the particulars and left me to make out the license, promising to come back and pay for it later. That evening I phoned up to his home to tell him that the license was ready, and his mother answered. I didn’t tell her what I was phoning about, but she was very curious. Finally she landed down at the store with the boy, who, it appeared, was only sixteen. He and his lady love had contemplated elopement.
“I guess I didn’t want to get married much anyway,” he remarked. But it cost him five dollars to find out, and he had the pleasure of watching his mother tear up that five dollars’ worth before his eyes.
Of course, we are supposed to use our own discretion, and refuse a license if a man is under the influence of liquor or drugs, but it is pretty difficult to tell sometimes. I lost several licenses when I first started in this business, because .the man applying seemed perfectly sober, and only showed that he was under the influence when the license was practically prepared. I have had some pretty hot arguments, too, with these fellows. They cannot see any reason why they should not celebrate the purchase of the license. I make it a point to tell them that I can’t sell them a license while in that condition, but that I will serve them if they come back sober in the morning. I remember one young fellow like that. When I came to open the shop door a little before eight in the morning there he was. He had been tramping around all night walking off the spree, and I must say that he didn’t look much like wedding festivities. . However, he was sober, and he got his license. That, I think was about the only license that I have issued in the morning. Most of them are issued in the late evening and a very few in the late
afternoon. IWe can’t issue a license after 10 o’clock at night and it’s pretty hard to convince people that there is any good reason for this rule, but it has stopped a lot of run-away marriages and that sort of thing, so I suppose it is a good rule, after all.
When the Bride Was Lost T REMEMBER one rather unusual case that happened some years ago. It was one of those whirlwind courtships that happens when the groom is a little mellowed with liquor. Anyway he and the bride-to-be applied for a license. I did not notice that the man was under the influence of liquor so I gave him the license. But it seems that, with the license in his possession, the fellow began to imbibe more freely. Sometime during the evening the woman grew tired of the mellowing process and left him. He didn’t worry much till well on into the next day. Then, he dropped into the store to make enquiries. He admitted he was drunk when he got the license, and had been more so during the evening. He had a hazy remembrance of having appeared before a parson shortly after getting the license, but he hadn’t the faintest idea how he had mislaid his wife. He didn’t even know her name in fact. From the record he was supplied with the name Mary Smith—a good name but not one that lends itself naturally to swift detective work. About the only thing that detective work could do for him was to find out eventually that he actually had married. Somewhere in the land one of the fairly numerous Mary Smiths was his wife; but which one? He had only the vaguest idea what she looked like and a husband looking for a lost wife is naturally supposed to be able to supply some data as to her appearance.
So he is probably still looking, and turning around with an uneasy start every time he hears the name of Smith.
Oh yes-, there are. some hints of stories in these musty old records. Stories everywhere if you are only quick to catch the hint. Do you remember how O.
Henry closed one of his stories about Detroit, with the question: “I wonder what’s happening in Buffalo?” When you begin to wonder, they are about you everywhere. I haven’t paid much attention as it gets pretty commonplace in this business, but I’ve seen enough to know that the stories are there if you tried to look for them.