THESE events had taken place so rapidly and unexpectedly, that Richard and Agnes had scarce time to speculate on the cause of Elizabeth's illness, before they became altogether absorbed in their overpowering anxiety for her life. Her state became appalling in the extreme; it seemed as though she could neither live nor die; for she lingered many days after the physicians thought it impossible she could survive. Some thought for this world, some earthly passion or feeling, seemed to hold her back when already in the grasp of death; and whatever that thought might be, it filled her immortal soul, thus standing on the threshold of eternity, so exclusively, that it swallowed up all anxiety or fear for the tremendous judgment close at hand. They could not tell what was the one idea which had power thus to absorb a spirit already summoned into the awful Presence, for Elizabeth was reduced to a state of weakness which deprived her altogether of speech. She could not raise herself or move without assistance, and she would scarce have seemed alive at all but for the wild restless gaze of her sleepless eyes. There was in them a terrible expression of anxiety and misery, which told but too eloquently of the fierce human anguish with which that silent sufferer was wrestling.
It was a horrible thing to see one about to enter into those habitations which are everlasting, whether for good or ill, thus concentrating all her expiring faculties, not on earnest repentance, but on the perishing remnant of the mortal life that now might be reckoned by days and hours. She seemed ever struggling madly to express some one last wish, as though her soul could not go forth till it had uttered certain words; but they could comprehend nothing from her inarticulate efforts;--it was to Agnes that she strove to address herself principally, though also to Richard, and they very naturally concluded that, her whole anxiety was for her children only--that all her endeavours were to make her sister understand that she committed them to her care. Impressed with this idea, Agnes tried to soothe and comfort her, by repeating again and again to her that she understood her wishes, and that she would never leave her children, but that she would make it the business of her life to watch over them and devote herself entirely to them.
Richard also, in the same belief, assured her repeatedly that she might be at peace with regard to the poor little infants whom she must leave behind in this chill world. He would never allow Agnes to leave him--she should stay with him to tend and care for them--they should be consigned completely to her charge.
Those promises which, but for the one horrible idea that now possessed the mind of Elizabeth, would have been to her so inexpressibly soothing and consolatory, served only to madden and torture her as she lay there in her helpless weakness, unable to tell them that they offered for her comfort the very assurance she most dreaded.
Though not without hope, it was yet a death-bed most unquiet and unblest. Could the dying woman have been altogether disengaged from the engrossing thoughts of this world, it would doubtless have been a season of inestimable profit to her departing soul, for Mr. Lambert attended her assiduously, labouring with unwearied efforts to draw the poor straying sheep in safety to the heavenly fold. But he saw almost with terror that she let the redeemless hours pass recklessly away, with scarce a feeling but for the inward conflict of the heart, whose beating was so soon to cease for ever.
Her father-in-law, Mr. Clayton, had been so painfully affected by the state in which he found her, that he had been obliged to relinquish the task of ministering to her in her last hours to his curate; and Mr. Lambert, well accustomed as he was to scenes of a similar nature, found it a most difficult duty. There was something in her mind which he could not fathom, whether anxiety for her children, or, as he was inclined to believe, some deeper and more envenomed cause. But he saw that it rendered nearly powerless all his efforts to awaken her to a more earnest consideration of the awful realities to which she was hurrying so swiftly. His voice, even when hallowed by the Name in which alone is Life Eternal, fell unheeded on the ears that were ever straining to catch the import of the words that passed between Richard and Agnes. It was well nigh in vain that he held up the Majesty of Justice as developed in the Mercy of the Cross, before the soul that vibrated between those feelings ever contending fearfully--the bitter jealousy against the once loved sister, for the sake of the yet dearer husband; or, when some kind act of the childhood's companion recalled the old affection, the horror akin to hate of the husband, who might destroy the bright prospects of that tender friend's young life.
But the first feeling predominated; and often when Mr. Lambert would have joined her feeble hands in the attitude of supplication, she strove rather to use their failing strength in driving from her bed of death the sister whom she had caressed so often; or, when he endeavoured to pray with her, if he saw that she was really moved by the awful truths he brought before her, a spasm of horror would pass over her face at sight of these two, who were kneeling there side by side. Ultimately Mr. Lambert thought he had reason to hope that this poor sufferer, so bitterly tried in her dying hours, had yet been mercifully dealt with. There was often a look of most earnest pleading and of deepest penitence in her upraised eyes, which led him to trust that this tempest-driven soul had in truth flown to the One True Refuge, although its earthly anguish and anxiety had so sadly interfered with its last solemn duties.
It was a lovely June morning,--the sky was bright, as though it never had a cloud, and the earth radiant, as though it knew no sin. It was just such a day, when it would have been a glorious thing to have seen a ransomed spirit burst the bonds of its clay, and fly from this land of perishing beauty and fading sunbeams up to the fields of light above, where the Sun of Righteousness for ever shines.
All those who had any claim on the affection of Elizabeth Clayton were gathered round her, for her last hour was come. They had placed her little children in her arms, and a few bitter tears, the first she had shed, wet her cold cheek when she felt the little caressing hands passed round her neck. Yet she looked on them with a strange unnatural longing, as though she desired to convey them with her to the grave. Soon the one thought, which had obscured for her the glory of eternity, deadened the mother's heart within her. She signed to them to take away the smiling infants, for they intercepted her gaze upon those two standing as chief mourners side by side, whom to the last she must watch in her impotent jealousy. Her eyes were glazing fast--the chill of death was creeping through her stiffening members to her pallid breast; but she only felt that the struggle was at its climax--that in a few minutes more she would be powerless to say the words with which she sought to separate them, to interdict their unhallowed union, that now came choking to the lips too palsied to articulate.
She struggled fearfully for utterance; it was so terrible to see her efforts that Agnes sank upon her knees beside her, and clasping her cold hands, exclaimed--"Dear, dear Elizabeth, I know what you would say, it is for your children; fear nothing, they shall be safe and happy in my keeping; I will be as a mother to them."
"Yes," said Richard, bending over her; "my poor wife, be at rest; do not doubt our love and care; together we will live only to watch over those dear children."
Some dreadful emotion seemed to shake the whole frame of Elizabeth; with a convulsive effort she half raised herself from her pillow; her eyes glanced with the wildest eagerness from the one to the other; her pale lips moved, and they could distinguish the faltering words, "Agnes--not--marry;" it was all they could hear, but Richard anxiously exclaimed, imagining he had understood at last the meaning of her efforts:--"Agnes, she fears you will marry and leave the poor children, but you will not--you will stay with them."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Agnes, sobbing; "I will, indeed; I will never leave this house; I promise it to you, my dearest sister." The gleam faded from the despairing eyes of the dying woman--an expression of utter hopelessness settled on her features--they had misunderstood her to the last! It was all over now: it was too late--she could do no more; life was ebbing; all things had grown indistinct around her; she must resign herself to the grave, and them to their unblest union. She sank back; the thought was not in her soul, that He would remember her when He came to His kingdom; or, that He would be merciful to her a sinner; but only the horror of the compact which it seemed to her they had sealed at her very bed of death. She made one feeble effort to turn away her face from both when they stooped to kiss her, and so expired.