Project Canterbury

The Inheritance of Evil
Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife's Sister.

By Felicia Skene

London: Joseph Masters, 1849.

Chapter I.

THROUGH the mist and gloom of a dull November morning, a pompous funeral procession went its way along the busy streets of London.

It was a common sight--so common that it attracted no attention from the multitude who crowded on its path, as with eager care-worn faces they hurried on in their several avocations; and yet it was a strange sight too for them if they would but have thought upon it--the passing amongst them of that quiet traveller to the realms unseen! For so surely as he was even now moving on to the portals of the land which is very far off, they themselves, with their swift impatient feet, were speeding unconsciously on the same journey.

We say unconsciously, for each one had set before himself some desirable object of attainment for which he toiled that day--wealth, fame, ambition, love--some bright vision, to realize which he gave up unreservedly the redeemless hours of his existence, whilst, with every breath he drew in labouring for it, he shortened the life for which it was to be attained. Yet even as he had done, who was now carried past so helplessly, that his dust might duly be returned to its kindred dust--that living mass of human beings would toil and yearn for their fancied good, till, with strength and energy all spent and gone, they saw the fair phantom of their hopes dissolve in air, disclosing to their view the grave alone--that actual reality for which they had been working! It had been so with him whose rigid corpse now went so still and silently through the noise and turmoil of the world he had loved.

Mr. Maynard had been a wealthy city merchant; in early youth he had been thrown on his own resources, penniless, and well nigh friendless. He was a man resolute of will, and of good abilities; but his mind, having never been directed to the Unseen Truths, had fixed itself entirely on the fleeting realities of this life. He looked keenly into his own position, and he perceived that, in this world, wealth is the one thing needful. He therefore determined to attain it.

From that time his life was given up to this object only. He toiled, he slaved, he speculated; he rose up early, and late took rest; he ate the bread of carefulness; he wasted lavishly his health and strength and intellect; he devoured widows' houses, and made the orphan desolate: for as his desire strengthened till he grew to be its very slave, he cared little for the injury done to others in its accomplishment--and he succeeded. Man has a mighty power in working out a resolute purpose, be it for good or evil, if his whole soul is concentrated upon it. Mr. Maynard became rich, beyond what he had ever hoped for when he set out on his pilgrimage to the shrine of his god, Mammon; but still he laboured on, plunging into speculation, for to make money was the aim and end of his existence, and he could not stop now. Some dim vision may have been before him of a luxurious retirement hereafter, where he should dwell, surrounded by all the splendour and comfort wealth could procure him; but his health failed him meantime, sacrificed to his laborious and unremitting industry. Death came and took him when his soul was so wrapped up in the cares of life, that this tremendous reality was to him but a far-off haunting shadow, too distant and uncertain to be heeded. Death came and took him, and then it was found that he had gained but one thing with the toil and labour and sacrifice of his whole life; he had earned for himself the gorgeous monument whose ponderous bulk was henceforth to weigh down upon his mouldering remains. To the last hour of his existence he worked like a slave, and this was the sole fruit he reaped from his labours--the costly tomb, wherein his worn and wasted body would fall perhaps a little less quickly to decay than in some green churchyard of holier and humbler aspect.

Mr. Maynard left two daughters. He had married somewhat late in life, for the sole purpose of connecting himself with the father of his bride, the head of a great mercantile house. It was his desire to succeed to this man's position at his death, and this wish was fulfilled.

A very few years had passed away, and his wife died. Neglected, though uncomplaining, she perished for want of sympathy and affection, as flowers fade when deprived of air and sunshine. Her little daughters were given up to the care of nurses and governesses, and Mr. Maynard required, not unfrequently, to be reminded of their existence. If he remembered them at all in his dying hour, so appalling in its suddenness, it must have been with a pang of remorse, for he had made no provision for them--not from wilful neglect, but simply because he never thought of death at all; it was a contingency which did not enter into his speculations.

He left no will, and the management of his affairs naturally devolved on his partner, Mr. Hardman. By some process of calculation peculiar to himself, this gentleman discovered that all which remained of Mr. Maynard's capital must now become merged in that of the house. His speculations had in fact ruined him, and the rich man's orphan children did not inherit from him so much as the cost of that same stately tombstone which Mr. Hardman deemed it his duty to erect over his grave.

Some little property Elizabeth and Agnes Maynard had received at their mother's death, and this circumstance had induced Mr. Hardman voluntarily to constitute himself their guardian. To do him justice, he was certainly in some degree influenced in his decision by the glimmerings of better feeling, which shone through this worldly man's profound and inherent selfishness when he thought of the desolate condition of his partner's daughters.

They sat together now in the darkened room from which their father's coffin had been carried an hour before, and both were in bitter sorrow. It is a blessed thing, that atmosphere of love which pervades this whole wide restless world, emanating, no doubt, from the unseen presence of Him who is Love, and penetrating, in some one shape or other, into the life of the most forlorn amongst us. Not a flower perishes from the green earth, but the dews of heaven weep over it; not a human being is laid down in the unresisting helplessness of death, but tears are found from human eyes to fall upon him.

Mr. Maynard had certainly done as little to awaken affection or inspire regret as most men, and yet the sobs of his orphan children came thick and fast, as they heard the tramp of the horses which bare him away.

But there are two kinds of sorrow with which the dead are mourned, and Mr. Maynard could lay claim to one of them only; there is the natural instinct, the mysterious claim of the ties of blood, which sends a bitter pang through the heart when they are rent asunder, added to that strange pity which we never fail to experience for the powerless corpse stretched out so pale and cold before us, although we know well that ourselves shall soon be laid as cold and pale, and haply the thought is sweet to us, as that of the evening rest to the wearied labourer toiling in the heat of noon. But there is another far deeper misery which rises up from the grave of the departed to overwhelm us, when it is, so to speak, the soul of him who is gone forth that we have loved; the soul whose superior holiness has been perhaps like the brightness of an angel to our less elevated gaze, whose goodness has won our reverence, whose gentleness has gained our deepest love.

No such lofty and holy affection as this had bound the soul of the stern worldly-minded man to his young daughters; and perhaps we might rightly enough estimate the nature of the welcome which the departed shall receive from the brotherhood of saints above, by the character of the sorrow with which they are lamented here.

Had Elizabeth and Agnes Maynard analyzed their feelings in this the saddest hour of their lives, they would have found that they mourned far less for their father, to whom they were almost strangers, than for that bitter sense of desolation against which the warm, loving heart of youth rebels so strongly.

They nestled close together; Agnes, who was scarce sixteen, and five years younger than her sister, clung to her with a sort of innocent helplessness, which resulted more from her peculiar disposition than from her early youth.

She was singularly sweet-tempered and guileless, but altogether deficient in moral courage and strength of mind; as she advanced out of childhood, she seemed only to lean the more hopelessly on the guidance of others, instead of exerting the powers of her own mind; and the prevailing feature of her character was a clinging and passionate tenderness of disposition, over which she neither had, nor attempted to have, any control whatever. Elizabeth had far more depth of character, with an intensity and sensitiveness of feeling which would scarce have been looked for under her outward reserve of manner. Her affection for those she loved was of a nature so profound and exacting, that it had engendered that jealousy of disposition which makes such havoc of the soul that harbours it. As yet this fatal propensity had been little called forth, for her whole thoughts were centred on Agnes, and the sisters had now no other home but in their mutual love.

There was one circumstance in the life of Elizabeth Maynard which was destined to influence her whole existence, and the recollection of it was busy at her heart even now, as she sat with her fair young sister sobbing in her arms. She remembered when she was but nine years old how she had been one night aroused out of the sweet slumber of childhood, to go and witness the closing of her mother's eyes in a sleep yet deeper.

There is something very awful in the death-bed of one who dies of a broken heart. Death by the judgment of Heaven is a holy, though terrible thing; but the heart revolts from the sight, when His inscrutable decree permits a human hand to sap the springs of a fellow-creature's life by wanton or careless cruelty.

Elizabeth still shuddered when she thought of that white drawn face, so young, but rowed with unavailing tears, and the pale lips from which no murmur ever passed, now wreathing themselves into a strange smile of joy at her release. Close to her breast, whence the breath came faint and gasping, the mother had drawn her youngest born, as though she thought the warmth of that little healthy frame could have driven back the chill that was curdling round her heart.

Mr. Maynard was not there, for the dying woman, true and tender even yet to the husband she had loved so vainly, would not let his slumbers be disturbed, though her heart yearned to tell him how she forgave him all, and loved him to the last. When she saw Elizabeth by her side, she raised herself up and looked at her with eyes gleaming, even through the shades of death, with an expression of intense entreaty. One care--one thought of earth still chained back that fluttering spirit yearning to depart--it was for the little child who lay in her bosom. With the quick instinct of a mother, she had perceived that the little Agnes would possess to the uttermost that warm and loving disposition which had made of herself so wretched a wife. Another might have cared little for the cold neglect which had destroyed her; and when she thought of all the storms and dangers on that wide sea of life where she had made so sad a shipwreck, she trembled with an agonizing fear for the rosy happy child who slept upon her bed of death.

She had no hope but in her eldest daughter; for she knew that she left her children friendless--not even their father could be called their friend! For Elizabeth herself she feared nothing; the child was strangely reserved even then, and her mother never dreamt of the strong tide of feeling which lurked under that calm exterior, though she could duly appreciate the superiority of intellect and force of character, which were already so manifest.

Addressing herself far less to the child then present with her, than to the woman she was hereafter to be, the dying mother solemnly implored of Elizabeth to look upon her infant sister henceforward as a sacred charge--so long as they both should live she besought her to watch over her, even as she would herself have done, but for the implacable death, which alone could have torn that child from her arms. She required from her especially a positive pledge that no other tie or affection hereafter springing up in her life should interfere with this her earliest and most binding duty.

Elizabeth had, as we have said, a mind beyond her years; and she knew well that it was no light promise which she gave in that hour, and sealed in the farewell kiss, with which she drained her mother's last breath upon her lips. She thought of it now in the time of their common desolation, as she looked on poor Agnes in her helpless sorrow, and lifted up the veil of sunny hair that she might gaze into her sweet innocent face. Deeply she resolved that, whatever might be their fate, her work and office must ever be to guard that little one close by her side, and shield her from all sorrow and danger.

To both these sisters, earth and the things of it were as yet all in all. Their governess had given them what she termed a "religious education,"--that is, she had carefully instilled into them her own peculiar and most bounded views, on various points of completely minor importance, dwelling chiefly on the great danger of trusting to forms--whilst she furnished them with nothing else, either more or less tangible, wherein to trust;--thus, while the outward semblance of piety might now be fairly ranked amongst the accomplishments she had taught them, they knew far less of the faith, hope, and love, with which if a soul be girt it can battle with life and face eternity, than the infant who smiles in his slumbers to the unseen angelic guardians round him.

The sisters were still seated together in silence, when the door opened, and Mr. Hardman entered with the slow solemn step suitable to this mournful occasion.

He had come to acquaint his wards with his intentions respecting them, immediately on returning from the funeral of their father, this being the proper and legitimate moment for such a communication.

Mr. Hardman was systematic in everything: systematic in selfishness, in covetousness, and in the virtues which he deemed necessary to his respectability. He had as keen a relish for money-making as his partner, Mr. Maynard, but his toil and labour were to a certain end. He was a man who could judge of cause and effect, and the desire of wealth was not with him a passion absorbing in itself; he sought to make a fortune because it was his will and pleasure to enjoy the good things of life; he knew that there are none of this world's gifts which riches cannot purchase--not even the most shadowy and unsubstantial, such as the outward respect and consideration of his fellow-men.

Slowly and surely he advanced in a solid prosperity; gradually he surrounded himself with all that his soul coveted--luxury, comfort, ostentatious splendour for himself, his wife, and his family; and then he set himself systematically to enjoy them according to his previous calculations.

He was now a man of weight and influence in the city, but he continued to pursue, with rigid firmness, the system to which he owed so much of his advancement, namely, the inflexible determination with which, even in the most unimportant matters, he carried out his own plans and ideas in spite of all obstacles or opposition.

Mr. Hardman proceeded to inform his wards of the arrangement which he and his wife had adopted for them after mature consideration.

Elizabeth was to take up her residence in his house, and become, for some time at least, a member of his family. Agnes was to accompany one of his own daughters to a fashionable school in Paris, there to complete her education. With a cry almost of despair, both sisters vehemently deprecated the idea of their separation; there were but two of them all alone in the wide world, surely he would not part them?

Mr. Hardman was immovable, and they were too helpless to resist. He had already two daughters older than Elizabeth, and his wife was resolutely determined not to have the charge of more than three.

Mr. Hardman continued to acquaint them with the details of his plan as firmly and composedly as though they had gladly acquiesced in it. His carriage was to come for them that evening, to conduct them both to his house--the following week Agnes was to go to Paris. He mentioned the sums he would deduct yearly from their little fortunes as payment to himself for their expenses; recommended them to prepare for the removal of their effects from the house they were to enter no more, and so took his leave.

The door had no sooner closed upon him than Agnes gave way to a burst of the most passionate sorrow, whilst Elizabeth, whose feelings were at all times painfully intense and strong, dwelt without scruple on the profound dislike to her guardian, which struck deep root in her heart from that hour.

After a little time, however, she tenderly raised her sister's drooping head, and said, with an effort at calmness--

"It is of no use to struggle, dear Agnes; we must submit--we have no home!"

"No home?" echoed Agnes. "Oh, shall we never have a home again? shall we never find a spot where we may dwell together again, and no one shall have power to divide us?"

"We know not what may be in reserve for us," said Elizabeth, sadly; "but most certainly they shall not separate us long: the time must come when we shall be free from Mr. Hardman's tutelage, and then I will defy the whole world to rob me of the charge which I received from our mother on her death-bed."

"Ah! but that will not be for a long time," said Agnes, sighing heavily. Then suddenly, with all the buoyancy of youth, her expression changed from one of deep despondency to a hopeful joy. "I will tell you how it must be," she exclaimed; "you must marry very soon, and then we shall have a home together once again: you would take me to live with you always in your own house, would you not, dear sister?"

"I would, indeed," replied Elizabeth, with a faint smile at the rapidity with which Agnes's ideas rose. "If ever I have a home, it shall in truth be yours also; and you may rest assured that I will never accept of any unless you are to share it with me."

Project Canterbury