WITHIN a week from the funeral of Mr. Maynard, Mr. Hardman's plans with respect to his orphan daughters had been put into full effect. Agnes was established at a school in Paris, there to have the natural tenderness of her disposition fostered into a weak and pernicious sensibility, and the romance with which her character was already too much tinctured converted into a false sentimentality, in which she learned to believe it was meritorious to indulge. She was taught to imagine that self-command showed a want of feeling--that self-discipline and self-denial were possible only to those who were cold of heart and stern in character. Life was presented before her in an unreal colouring, which a bitter experience was alone to disperse hereafter; and her young unformed mind soon became imbued with that dangerous sophistry which so much pervades the tone of society in France.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was profoundly unhappy at Mr. Hardman's. His wife was what is called a strong-minded woman, fiercely intolerant of every sentiment or feeling which she did not herself possess, and which for this reason she assumed to be a weakness. Well versed in all the proprieties of life, she was rigidly implacable in her adherence to them.
One great duty she had placed before herself, the duty of respectability and prosperity, and this she performed with unremitting and unflinching exactitude. Of the gentle charities of home, she knew nothing; the loving sympathy--the tender care--the anxious watchfulness over the comforts and interests of others--still less of that true and beautiful wisdom which remembers always that the sum of domestic happiness is made up of seeming trifles, the little acts of self-sacrifice, the light words and looks of every hour, and takes care to shed round them all, the sunshine of unselfish love and kindness.
Mrs. Hardman received Elizabeth Maynard into her house because it seemed to her that her husband had given very sufficient reasons why she should do so; but it was no part of her business to love her, or to supply her with that measure of affection which is as necessary to human life as refreshing water to the traveller in the desert. Elizabeth was consigned to a fate which a mind far more elevated than hers would have found hard to bear--desolation without solitude; she was not even allowed the freedom which might have rendered her position somewhat more tolerable.
Mrs. Hardman took the most careful and annoying cognizance of her every word and action, and there were few which she did not find it necessary to reprehend, in the arrogance of her own fancied perfection. Elizabeth's sorrow for the absence of her sister she considered a most childish and ridiculous weakness. Her grief for her father's loss, after the period of her mourning had expired, was positively improper, as being contrary to all laws of etiquette.
Mrs. Hardman could not compassionate the follies which circumstances had given her no temptation to commit, and she would have spurned a penitent from her feet with as little pity as though she was never to stand one day in fearful need of mercy herself. Let no one think that the evil of his own soul is to injure himself alone. These peculiarities of Mrs. Hardman's character had a terrible effect on the fate of the orphans committed to her care.
The first gleam of sunshine which penetrated into Elizabeth's most cheerless existence was an event which took place about a year after her father's death. One of Mr. Hardman's children became so seriously unwell, that change of air was pronounced necessary, and the family went to spend the summer in the country. Elizabeth had passed her whole existence in London, where the natural and moral atmosphere are both alike so foul and clouded. The fresh pure air, the bright green fields, the quiet woods, were all therefore so many sources of delight to her.
Man has a strange sympathy with nature. In the solitude which is filled with earth's loveliness alone, he seems to lose the sentiment of individuality, and the sting is taken from all personal sorrows; he finds himself suddenly in blessed companionship with the glorious stars, and the fragrant flowers, and the waving trees; and these all seem to call out to him, saying, "Be not dismayed, though thou art sad at heart and lonely; behold, we are the creatures of thy God, and thou mayest read in our beauty of His goodness and loving-kindness."
To Elizabeth Maynard it seemed new life when she first learned how deep is the eloquence of the living nature, in telling, by the things seen and temporal, of those which are unseen and eternal.
There is not in all England a more charming spot than the village of B--, near which her new residence was placed. It is situated in the heart of one of the midland counties, and the scenery all around it has that fair peaceful aspect which, for the time, blots out from the memory of him who looks on it, all thoughts of the ghastly sin and woe with which this world is haunted.
There are rich pasture lands, soft and undulating as the green hunting-fields of the Indian's Paradise; thick shadowy woods, where the sunshine glances like hope on the soul, and the singing-birds make merry with the long summer day; and a quiet murmuring river, that glides along serene and bright as a good man's life.
The village itself, although a portion of it is disfigured by the public house, dissenting chapel, and one or two houses of unseemly pretension, is singularly picturesque; little thatched dwellings nestling among the ivy, inhabited, as the prettiest cottages always are, by withered old women most quaint and simple; huge old trees filling up three quarters of the diminutive gardens, and a broad road turning and winding amongst them, every here and there displaying by an abrupt descent a bright glimpse of the far-spreading landscape beyond. But the fairest object of all is the beautiful church, with its old grey tower, and the more modern portion lately restored, so striking from its chaste and simple elegance of architecture.
The light within it is dimmed by the thick branches of the great trees that hang over its green and still churchyard, where the long grass waves on the humble graves of the lowly dead. At night, when the moon is high, there is one broad flat tombstone all wet with the evening dew, on which its pure rays gleam with extraordinary brightness while the rest are left in shadow, as though it would prove how even the grave can be made radiant by a light from heaven.
But the moment when this fair English church is seen to most advantage is at the setting of the sun, when a gush of golden light flows through it from the west, like a path for the angels desiring to enter there; and brightens with a warm glow the stained glass of the rich east window, whilst through the low arch of the open doorway, the evening star may be seen going up into heaven, there to shine with its pure pale light, like a silver lamp burning before the shrine of the Eternal.
Mr. Hardman fixed his residence at "The Mount," a fine old place close to the village, which was destined to become the scene of the events here recorded.
Mr. Clayton, the vicar of the parish, was well worthy of the pleasant spot in which his lot had been cast.
He was a noble-hearted old man; a Christian like unto those who of old were wont to manifest their sincerity in martyrdom, and show forth the brightness of their hopes in torture. He had sought from his youth upward to make his life as it were a sacrament, of which the inward and spiritual grace was faith, the outward and visible sign good works.
Pure in doctrine, uncompromising in practice, his standard of holiness seemed to many whom he taught almost hopelessly exalted; all things were with him resolved into the simple question of right or wrong; he never allowed his feelings and affections, or even his compassion, to interfere with his rigid discharge of duty. From this course, so essentially right, he unwittingly let an error spring up which bore much bitter fruit to himself; he learned to condemn the short-comings of his weaker brethren too severely, trying them by the inflexible law wherewith he judged himself.
Mr. Clayton had one only child, a son whose birth he had hailed as the crowning joy in his cup of happiness, and at whose hand it was decreed he should receive the full measure of his trial and tribulation in this world.
Richard Clayton had already grown to man's estate, and for him, even now, his father wept those tears of exceeding bitterness which we shed for the unfaithfulness, or unworthiness, of those we love. Many might have thought that he was rather one for whom a parent would have given thanks with joy, for he was kind-hearted, prepossessing in appearance, winning in manner, and generous in temper. But his father saw deeper; he knew that they who are not with Him are against Him, and he saw that other gods had dominion over his son besides the God of all purity, who requires of his children that awful obedience, that they shall be holy even as He is holy.
There is chaos on the human mind till the Spirit of God moves over it and dwells in it; and, despite these bright flashes of goodness, like meteor lights in the gloom, there was darkness yet on the soul of Richard Clayton, even as once on the face of the deep.
Within the shrine of his own spirit, where the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, and yet dwelleth with the contrite and humble, should have reigned supreme, he had set up the idol Self, before whom he bowed down and worshipped. It might have seemed strange that, with his father's bright example before him, Richard Clayton should so have loved this present world; but he was the rather scared by the severe, unqualified holiness of the service rendered by that father to his Master; he had no energy of desire, no thirsting of the soul after the living God, which constrains us to claim, without measure, the promise of the Spirit. Weak and vacillating, he would not remember that nothing is commanded which cannot be performed--that there is no limit set to the strength given wherewith to do His will. Outwardly, he had not cast off the faith of Christ; but he lacked the fortitude and courage to take up his cross and follow Him.
It had been Mr. Clayton's fondest wish, that his son should follow his own high calling; but as Richard's character developed itself, he not only abandoned the idea, but he would himself have refused his consent. His child was very dear to him, but dearer still the glory of his God. Not to such an one as Richard could he ever have allowed the inestimable privilege of ministering in the sanctuary; but his son did not desire it, nor was it at all necessary for him to adopt any profession, as Mr. Clayton had succeeded to a considerable property shortly after he had obtained the living of B--, which would ultimately revert of course to his son.
Richard remained therefore without any occupation for his time, which he devoted chiefly to field sports and similar amusements.
Mr. and Mrs. Hardman very soon manifested a strong desire to cultivate the acquaintance of the vicar and his family, and it was not long before Richard became a constant visitor at the Mount.
Mr. Clayton saw them occasionally, for he considered them as his parishioners for the time being; but they were singularly uncongenial to himself on all points, and it was some time before he understood the motive of his son's frequent visits to their house.
Richard had found a powerful attraction in the society of Elizabeth Maynard. The first feeling with which she inspired him was one of profound compassion for the position in which she was placed. He saw that her young life was wasting away cheerless and dark, unbrightened by one ray of the sweet human love which is the sunshine of this world, and whose gentle influence is mighty in power to still the tempests and the cutting blasts of sorrow which every mortal man shall meet with on his path of life. For her, whose gaze was yet too dim to discern the glory of that Love, to gain one hour of which an eternity of earthly care and tenderness might well be battered, it was in truth a bitter thing to dwell in so chilling an atmosphere.
Her vivid imagination and warm feelings, having no holier aliment whereon to feed, were centred altogether in the joys of earth, and she felt keenly that desolation of affection which is perhaps the saddest trial this life can offer us.
Richard had, as we have said, much kindliness of disposition, though weak and unstable in principle. He endeavoured, by his anxious friendship and tender sympathy, to dispel her bitter sense of loneliness; and he perceived that in consequence her whole heart turned irresistibly to him, with all the concentrated strength of that tenderness which had been allowed to flow in no other channel.
Richard knew that the true and devoted affection of such a person as Elizabeth was by no means a gift to be despised; he could not bear to cast it from him by indifference or contempt, as some might have done; and before the summer was over, their marriage was announced as a settled affair.
Richard acted on impulse, that instinctive law so attractive to our human nature, by which no man ought to be guided; at the same time he was too essentially selfish to have taken this step had he not been really attached to Elizabeth. His attachment, however, was very different in its nature from hers, whose love was too much akin to idolatry. She little knew how frail and uncertain was that good on which she had staked the whole hopes of her existence, that should have rested rather on that sure Foundation, whereon if a man do build, his work shall abide.
Their marriage gave great satisfaction. Mr. Clayton would indeed have preferred that the life-long companion of his son should have been a more decided servant of the cross; but Elizabeth seemed humble-minded and docile, well disposed to profit by the instructions he would now have an opportunity of giving her; and he trusted that she was one whose soul could not long remain in exile from the only source of life and joy which can satisfy our immortality. He trusted much to her influence with Richard, should she indeed become what he hoped; and he gladly afforded them the means of living in comfort, by making an ample allowance to his son.
Mr. and Mrs. Hardman were highly pleased at finding themselves thus suddenly relieved of the care of both their wards; for Elizabeth had made it the sole condition of her marriage that Agnes should reside with them entirely, and that she should never be separated from her sister so long as she remained unmarried.
To this Richard willingly agreed, and it was further decided that they should take up their residence at "The Mount," where Agnes was to join them after having spent some time in London with the Hardman family.
The delight of Agnes at these arrangements was unbounded, and her letters to her sister were full of such vivid anticipations of happiness for the whole party, that Elizabeth trembled as she read them, with that vague terror which arrests us when we look with too much hope into the future.
Agnes did not leave Paris for London until the week before the wedding took place. On the day when she was expected, Richard came to Mr. Hardman's at Elizabeth's own request, in order that he might be present at her sister's arrival.
They were sitting alone together in the drawing-room, when the carriage drove to the door, and Elizabeth started to her feet that she might hurry to welcome her. Before, however, they could even reach the door, it burst open, and Agnes flew into the room breathless with an overwhelming joy, and flung herself half-sobbing half-laughing into her sister's arms. For a moment neither spoke; the orphans, who had so long been all in all to each other, were together once more, and their happiness was too great for utterance. When at length Agnes disengaged herself from her sister's embrace, Elizabeth almost started in astonishment at the change which an interval of nearly two years had made upon her. Agnes was now nearly eighteen, and the childlike loveliness which had always characterised her had ripened into a most winning beauty. She looked so radiant and joyous, that her entrance was like the passing of a sunbeam into the room; her countenance had retained the soft trusting expression which formed its greatest charm, and her eyes had still their candid and innocent gaze.
Elizabeth turned with a proud delight to present her to Richard, but she stopped short suddenly when she saw his face, whilst an indescribable pang shot through her heart;--her future husband was standing with his eyes fixed on Agnes, gazing at her with a look of the most warm and unqualified admiration, a look such as had never been bestowed on herself! At a moment like this, one of a temper less jealous and suspicious than Elizabeth Maynard would never have dreamt of bestowing a thought on this trifling circumstance; but she was, as we have said, peculiarly sensitive in disposition; her affection for Richard Clayton was so absorbing that her whole heart and mind were bound up in it, and she had not a thought unconnected with him; she felt indeed that it had most utterly superseded all other sentiments and feelings, for at that moment she could have wished that the fairer and younger sister (her own dear Agnes!) had not been standing by her side, thus to rob her of a single look from one so passionately loved.
But in another instant she repelled this unworthy feeling almost with horror, for she remembered how, in a very few days, Richard Clayton would hold for Agnes Maynard the sacred name of brother. They twain were about to be made by a most holy ordinance ONE FLESH, and from that hour her sister must be his sister also, in the sight of God and man. Her cheek burned with a flush of shame, to think that she should have harboured for one moment what was in truth an unholy thought; and taking Richard by the hand, she drew him towards Agnes, and prayed him to love their sister dearly for her sake.
Richard welcomed her frankly and warmly by that title, telling her, with the utmost kindness in his look and tone, that she must teach him the duties of a brother, as he had never known that gentle tie, which is the source of so much true and enduring happiness on earth. He was in fact greatly interested in the orphan sister of his future wife, for Elizabeth had not failed to tell him of the solemn charge she had received from her dying mother; and the impression made upon his mind by the description of that scene was so great that he was now equally determined with herself that Agnes should find a happy home in his house. Meanwhile Agnes, who was always won in a moment by kindness, put her hand into his with a bright gay smile, and inwardly resolved that she would do all in her power to please the husband of her dear Elizabeth.