Project Canterbury

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

By Felicia Skene

London: Joseph Masters, 1849.

Chapter III.

SOME time had elapsed since the marriage of Elizabeth and Richard Clayton; already the spring was brightening into summer for the second time since they had resided at "the Mount;" and the interval had, to all appearance, been a season of unmixed prosperity for them all.

Mr. and Mrs. Clayton enjoyed the utmost esteem and consideration among the inhabitants of B---- and the vicinity, whilst their sister, Agnes Maynard, was a universal favourite. Her peculiarly attractive appearance, sweet disposition, and joyousness of spirit, had won the affection of all to whom she was known. She was at least beyond a doubt most truly happy: happy in the society of her sister, and in the warm friendship of her brother-in-law, whom she had sought to propitiate by every means in her power, in order that the harmony of their domestic life might be completed.

The birth of a daughter had been no small addition to the happiness of Elizabeth and Richard; more especially to the latter, who felt for this little infant all that passionate tenderness which a young father so often feels for his first-born child. He was also at this time highly gratified to find that his popularity was increasing considerably; he had acquired greater weight and influence as a married man. His wife and her beautiful sister were much sought after and respected by the leading families of the county, and he soon found that he might take a high position in the neighbourhood.

And yet, surrounded with all these outward blessings, Elizabeth Clayton was very wretched. Her father-in-law had in vain endeavoured to draw the wandering gaze of her dimmed eyes upward to that glorious Star, on which if a man look steadily, he shall learn to take no heed of the mortal tempests roaring round his head, or the fading of all mortal joys; he had found an insurmountable barrier to all his efforts in the overwhelming and almost idolatrous love which she bore to her husband. The love of Him, who first loved us, alone should reign supreme in the immortal soul, and all other feelings be the rather called fourth by it, as flowers give out fragrance when the sun shines on them; but if an earthly affection, however lawful in itself, be permitted to supersede it, thereby becoming a sinful indulgence, then does the holier love fade and perish away before that engrossing influence, like the pure sunlight when the night sets in.

Day and night, waking and sleeping, Elizabeth had no thought but for her husband; watching his every word and look, thinking she never could do enough to please him, and harassing both herself and him by exacting an amount of attention and tenderness which she was by no means justified in expecting. The one overpowering idea which was always present in her mind, was the conviction that his attachment for her fell far short of her own in depth and fervour.

She was, in fact, very right in her opinion, but this was no excuse for the unreasonable manner in which she wearied him with her repining at his coldness. She should have remembered that there is but one affection that can be of any real value to those who inspire it, it is that love, noble and disinterested, which is pure from the slightest taint of selfishness; which has for its sole object and desire the happiness of those on whom it is bestowed. She should never have allowed her own feelings and desires to interfere in the most minute particular with his comfort. If she discovered that her presence wearied him, she should have left him with a smile, and with a smile been ready to return to him if he wished it. If he seemed happier while neglecting her, cheerfully she should have submitted to his neglect, and striven only to prevent his home from being ever darkened by a look of sorrow on her face, or its quiet disturbed by a word of discontent. But Elizabeth had sought no other happiness for herself than that which she derived from this affection, and therefore it was profoundly selfish. She was jealous of every thing and every one on whom her husband bestowed a look; and jealous even of the necessary business which took him from her side.

It was not unnatural that Richard, annoyed and often irritated at her unceasing watchfulness, should gladly turn from her to seek the society of Agnes, whose gaiety and light-heartedness rendered her so pleasing a contrast to the anxious care-worn wife. He never acted under the guidance of principle, but he habitually obeyed a law scarce less exacting, for he invariably followed the bent of his own inclination, without pausing to scrutinize his motives, or to examine into the possible result of his actions. It therefore never occurred to him, that it must have cost poor Elizabeth many a bitter pang to see him so openly preferring the society of her sister; while Agnes, with that careless egotism to which the young and the happy so often yield themselves unconsciously, was ever ready to enjoy with him the long walks and rides which Elizabeth's enfeebled health prevented her from attempting.

Thus, while to a casual observer all was bright and prosperous in the lives of the Clayton family, there was ripening in the heart of her who should have been the happiest, one of those dark tragedies which often run their course in the narrow compass of an individual mind alone.

Soon, however, the anxieties and fears of Elizabeth took a new shape. Her health began to fail her altogether. She had reduced herself to a very weak and nervous state, solely by distress of mind and harassing annoyances; and now the conviction had settled with a dull dead weight upon her heart, that she should not survive the birth of her second child.

This idea was in reality but an imagination springing from her morbid state of mind, for which there was not the slightest foundation; but the conviction, deeply rooted, ate like a canker into her soul. It was not death which she dreaded, not the coffin and the shroud; nor yet, chained to the dust as she was by the ties of earth, the awful judgment to come; but it was the horror of the dread which filled her heart night and day, that when she lay cold and helpless in her grave, Richard would find some unknown stranger, fairer and dearer, to take her place in his love and in his home. To a mind like Elizabeth's this thought was torture; it haunted her like a spectral phantom: she had loved him too exclusively when living, to give him up even when she was dead; and she longed, had it been possible, to have held him still within the stiff cold arms from which the warmth of life was fled. She had ever before her eyes the terrible image of one more loved perhaps, who should dwell in his house as she had dwelt, and walk by his side as she had walked, honoured, cherished as his wife, the mother of his children. This vision of her brain took a thousand agonizing forms. Sometimes she fancied that through the mould, and the dust, and the coffin-lid, his voice would reach her if he spoke in accents of endearment to another; that, she should even hear the tramping of their feet round her dark abode as they walked through the beautiful church-yard, too happy in their mutual affection to think of her who mouldered there so lonely! And her child, too--her little fragile, gentle Mary, was she to be delivered to the cold unloving care of a stepmother!

Over these ideas the jealous heart of Elizabeth brooded with all the strength of her diseased fancy; but suddenly, whilst she speculated on the probable results of her death, a thought occurred to her which brought with it at once the most complete consolation.

The sincere attachment of Richard to their sister Agnes became the source of her utmost joy and thankfulness; he would never consent to part with her sister, now become in affection, as well as in actual fact, his own also; he would never send her away to a miserable and cheerless existence with the Hardmans: no, Agnes would remain with him to take carevof her little niece, of whom she was devotedly fond; and so long as she continued unmarried, she would prevent; the possibility of another wife entering into the house of which she would be the beloved inmate. This idea gave a totally new current to Elizabeth's thoughts; it was like balm to her wounded spirit; she could look forward with perfect calm to her death, when she felt convinced that, so far from her place being filled by a rival, Richard and Agnes would remain alone together to remember her, and talk of her often with unchanging love, whilst her little Mary would find in the young aunt the same tender and watchful friend which she had herself been to Agnes.

Elizabeth had never concealed from either Richard or Agnes how near a close she believed her life to be, although her natural delicacy of feeling had restrained her from telling them of the dread which rendered this conviction one of such agony to her.

Now, however, she repeatedly implored of them both to promise her that Agnes should always remain with her brother-in-law; urging as her reason for wishing it, that to her alone would she commit the care of her little daughter, and the new-born babe if it survived.

Both were very willing to promise their poor Elizabeth all she desired, but neither of them had the slightest apprehension for her life. Their medical adviser was too skilful a physician not to know that her fears were perfectly groundless, and he had completely reassured Agnes on the subject; they therefore contented themselves with soothing her in the mean time, and looked forward anxiously to the period when all anxiety should cease.

Such was the state of matters at "The Mount," when Elizabeth took her seat one fine evening in the early summer at the drawing-room window, which was thrown wide open that she might enjoy the soft mild air; directly below it was a smooth piece of turf, on which Richard was slowly walking to and fro in conversation with his father's Curate.

Mr. Lambert was one of those characters which are, too unfortunately, rare in this world, but of which alone shall doubtless be composed the population of that Holy City, where nothing that defileth shall in any wise enter in: with a powerful mind, and many a noble intellectual quality, he had sought and attained to the innocency of life and humility of heart of a little child, who once was set as an example to the gifted of this earth.

From the hour when he had received the awful commission for the work and office of a priest in the Church of God, he had, with determinate resolution, set the seal of "Holiness to the Lord" on every action of his future life. Severe and unflinching towards himself in following out this difficult course, he was ever most gentle and merciful to others; winning back to the old paths with sweet persuasive accents those who had erred and strayed, and dealing with penitents in the spirit of that unutterably blessed and touching declaration which has been as the words of life to many a sinking soul--"Neither do I condemn thee."

Notwithstanding his youth, there was a peculiar calm and dignity in his manner which won the respect of all whom he approached; though few would have suspected, from his habitual silence and reserve, that there was in his character an under current of profound and intense feeling, which he seldom if ever displayed. Careless and indifferent as Richard Clayton was, he could not but admire the pure and exalted views which raised this man so far above himself; and he was always more ready to listen to Mr. Lambert's remonstrances than to the sterner warnings of his father, whose faith and obedience shone forth rather in the severity of holiness than in its beauty.

Their conversation was distinctly audible to Elizabeth as she sat at the window, and she soon became so deeply and painfully interested in it that she forgot to ascertain whether they were aware of her vicinity. Richard had asked Mr. Lambert what was the cause of a tumult which he had witnessed that morning at the church door, as he passed through the village.

Mr. Lambert answered that it had originated in one of those distressing cases which were often a source of so much annoyance to the clergy. Two persons had come before him to be married; they did not belong to this parish of B--, and the banns had been published elsewhere; consequently, it was not until they were actually within the church that he discovered the relationship in which they already stood to one another. The woman was sister to the former wife of the man.

"Of course I refused to marry them," he added quietly.

"Then you share my father's opinion," said Richard. "I think him quite absurdly rigid on this point. I cannot coincide in the strong objection which is raised against it by so many. Such a marriage might often be a very convenient arrangement."

"And a most unhallowed alliance," said Mr. Lambert, warmly.

"You will find few to look upon it in that light," replied Richard; "think how frequently the connexion is made without the slightest scruple."

"There is nothing so common in this world as evil," said Mr. Lambert, with quiet emphasis; "you may give men authority to commit the greatest crimes with impunity, if they are to find their license for it in the practice of others." He paused, for Richard's peculiar position rendered this a subject scarce fit for discussion.

Richard, however, would not let the matter drop till he had very clearly made known his own opinion; he spoke much of the advantage which might result from such an arrangement, in procuring for the children of the deceased wife so kind and natural a protectress as their aunt.

Mr. Lambert replied, that, were the matter viewed as it ought to be, there could be no more reason why the sister of the mother should not remain to take care of the children than the sister of the father himself. Even on the score of expediency alone, he could show the incalculable evil of such connexions, bringing distrust and misery and confusion into the nearest and dearest relations of life; but it was on a far higher ground that he would denounce them, that of being altogether repugnant to the will of God; a fact which might be proved from Scripture, and which had been set forth by the authority of the Church in all ages. It was, in fact, a putting asunder of those whom God had joined in the holy tie, whereby he declared that man and wife were to be one flesh: if there were any meaning in those words at all, the relations of the one must become the relations of the other also, and the sister-in-law be in the sight of heaven counted as the sister in blood.

Richard could not answer this argument, though he still held to his own opinion; and after a few more remarks from both, the conversation changed. But Elizabeth Clayton had heard enough, and too much.

Richard little knew what deadly power there had been in his words so carelessly spoken. He did not see, as his voice died away, how a figure rushed from that darkened room with hurried steps and suffocated breath; he did not hear how the bolt was drawn across the door of the apartment above, by a hand that trembled till it was well nigh palsied; nor the dull heavy fall upon the ground, of a form convulsed by its fierce mental agony.

One thought alone was present in the mind of Elizabeth Clayton--a thought so torturing and unsupportable that she strove to escape from it with that impotent frenzy which in its full development drives men to the awful crime of self-destruction. She had a RIVAL in her SISTER! The wife whom she had dreaded would supplant her after her death, would be her, who for two years past had called her husband--brother! It was an idea too horrible even to have entered into her mind, had it not been literally forced upon her by the words of Richard himself.

Elizabeth had not the strong religious principles which induced Mr. Lambert to view it with such warm indignation, but she had that which in this instance supplied their place--the instinctive delicacy of feeling with which a pure mind must revolt from a transaction so opposed to all that is just and holy. What a horrible shade was now cast over the past intercourse of her husband and sister, and the happy familiarity she had herself loved to promote between them! It maddened her even to think of the result which would probably follow on her own death. Instead of living to watch over her children and remember her with unchanged affection, they would remain together in a union condemned of God, and reprobated even by the world itself.

Had she then, when she gave her orphan sister a home, been but preparing for herself a rival, who would hereafter blot out her very memory from the heart of the husband she loved so well? Oh! surely she had in truth been nourishing a viper in her bosom: but at least it should be so no longer; she would not sit idly by and see another preparing, under such false pretences, to rob her of the love which she would have had her own even in the grave. She started up--Elizabeth was ever violent in her resolutions as well as in her feelings--she went to the door, scarce knowing what she did, strong in one determination only--that Agnes should not stay another day in the house, to rise up between her and the husband whose affection was her lawful right.

Suddenly, as she was about to draw the bolt, she started and staggered back; a vision passed before her of a scene never forgotten. She saw the pale, death-stricken face; the uplifted hands of the expiring mother, clasped in passionate entreaty to her the daughter! She heard again that voice, coming so faint and thrilling over the cold lips--

"Elizabeth, Elizabeth! I trust to you alone! promise--swear that you will never desert my child; swear that no dearer tie shall ever induce you to forsake your charge!" And she heard, as it were, the echo of her own voice when she answered, child as she was, with such a solemn firmness--

"Mother, fear not; I promise--I swear!"

And was it thus she was about to redeem that pledge given to the dead--to fulfil that oath administered on a death-bed?--by driving forth Agnes, that mother's youngest darling, from her house and home; casting her out into that dangerous and chilling world, where she would be so friendless and alone!

There was a sudden revulsion of feeling in the breast of Elizabeth; a new horror rose out of the idea of this unhallowed marriage. Was Agnes, the gentle Agnes, so fair and joyous, thereby to become a being unworthy of the favour of heaven, and an outcast even from society? Was the sister for whom she had indulged in so many a bright ambitious dream, reserved for such a fate as this?--a wife disowned both by the laws of God and man!

Elizabeth flung herself down once more with a sort of powerless despair. Which of these two was she to hate the most, whom, until now, she had so dearly loved--the husband, who, by his selfish act, might blight and blacken the whole existence of her only sister; or the sister, who, under that sacred name, had stolen into the husband's heart, to dwell happy in his love when she was mouldering forgotten in the dust? Her thoughts became confused--her senses seemed abandoning her--the shock had been so sudden. She had never before contemplated the possibility of such a marriage. She had believed it forbidden by all laws, Divine or human; and now, not only was it brought suddenly before her as a matter of frequent occurrence, but there had been an energy and an anxiety in Richard's manner of expressing himself, which proved that, however unconsciously, it was yet for his own sake that he sought so earnestly to prove the truth of his assertions.

There is a peculiar faculty in the human mind, which sometimes causes it, when a new and absorbing idea is first presented to it, at once to grasp it in its full extent, in all its bearings--past, present, and future. Elizabeth's vivid imagination would not allow her to find consolation in the great uncertainty of the evil she dreaded; it carried her on at once to anticipate the marriage of her husband and sister as the infallible result of her own death,--now, as she believed, so near at hand. With her face buried in her hands, she lay on the ground, wrestling with the great agony of all the contending feelings which this terrible conviction had aroused within her.

Meanwhile Richard and Agnes sat together in the drawing-room below. "Where is Elizabeth?" said Agnes, at last; "I have not seen her at all this evening."

"I really do not know," said Richard, indifferently; "perhaps she has gone to lie down. She fancies herself fatigued now, whenever she has made the slightest exertion. Do go and sing to me, Agnes," he continued, flinging aside his book; "this is just the hour when I can best enjoy music."

Agnes complied, and in a few minutes Elizabeth could distinguish, through the choking sobs that were bursting from her own lips, the sweet tones of her sister's voice, as she sang, one after another, the favourite songs which her husband most preferred.

"It is strange that Elizabeth does not come," said Agnes, after a time; "she never goes to spend the evening in her room without telling us at least. I must go and see where she is."

"Some fancy!" said Richard, in a tone of irritation. "You had better leave her to herself. I wish she had your sweet temper, Agnes."

Agnes made no answer: it had often seemed strange to her that Elizabeth was not in truth more uniformly happy, with so many blessings round her. She left the room in search of her sister; but in an instant she returned, with an agitated step, and a look of terror on her face, usually so bright and sunny.

"Dear Richard, come quickly!" she exclaimed; "I quite fear that Elizabeth is very ill: her door is locked, and she made no answer when I called, but I can hear her groaning in so strange a manner!"

Richard started from his seat, and bounded up stairs; Agnes followed. They knocked at the door, and called in vain; but they could hear moan succeeding moan. Alarmed to the last degree, Richard exerted all his strength, and burst open the door. The violent shock, and the stunning noise it occasioned, put the finishing stroke to the agitation of Elizabeth's nerves and the confusion of her mind. Her husband rushed in: all that he saw was her form stretched on the ground, trembling and convulsed. He flung himself on his knees beside her, and lifted up her head; whilst Agnes, kneeling close to him, drew back the long tangled hair that hung over her sister's livid face. Elizabeth opened her eyes: they were full of the most wild and ghastly expression. A terrible fear shot through the mind of Richard that she had suddenly become insane. There was, in truth, a sort of chaos in her thoughts; but one idea remained too fearfully distinct.

Her gaze fell upon Agnes, and her heart revolted with unnatural horror against her dear and only sister. Half frantic, she started up: with the strength almost of a maniac, she seized Agnes by the arm, which she had rested on the shoulder of Richard, and flung her back with such force, that she fell headlong against the wall. Richard uttered a cry of terror; he really thought she had killed her. He flew to Agnes, and raised her in his arms. She was only stunned, not hurt. She looked up in his face, and smiled, to reassure him. Elizabeth gazed upon them for a moment, as though her quivering frame were turning into stone. Then, stretching out her hands towards her husband, she exclaimed, in words which he then attributed to the ravings of delirium, but which years after haunted him with a fearful meaning, "Oh, Richard, Richard! she is your sister--your sister--your sister!"

There was something so horrible in the tone in which she reiterated these words, that Agnes flew towards her, and strove to pass her arms round her, calling her by every endearing name. But Elizabeth disengaged herself from her embrace, and, sinking on the sofa, she began to utter shriek on shriek, evidently in great bodily agony.

In another hour she was alarmingly ill, and before morning a little feeble child had been brought prematurely into the world, in which it seemed too fragile to exist; and the life of the mother was despaired of.

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