AGNES MAYNARD was within a few months of her majority when Mrs. Clayton died; and the funeral was scarcely over when Mr. Hardman, with systematic propriety, wrote both to herself and Richard for the purpose of arranging her future residence. His letters were first answered by Mr. Clayton, who informed him that it was his own express desire, as well as that of both Agnes and her brother-in-law, that she should remain to take charge of her sister's infant children.
Mr. Clayton's views respecting such alliances as that, the very thought of which had terrified Elizabeth into her grave, were so strong and decisive, that it never occurred to him to suppose that Agnes could ever be considered in any other light than as the sister of his son. He, therefore, felt it to be most desirable, both for the children and Richard, that she should be placed at the head of his establishment under that title; an arrangement which would, in truth, be highly advantageous in almost all similar cases, had no idea of an unlawful union between persons so connected ever been admitted into the minds of men.
None of the parties concerned in this affair had, however, in appearance at least, the most distant idea of any such alliance; and, consequently, no obstacle seemed to exist against a plan in all other respects so very suitable.
Mr. Hardman was quite satisfied that an arrangement which met with the sanction of the vicar of B--, must be perfectly right, and he imagined that he had gathered from Mr. Clayton's letter that Agnes and his son were to reside with himself. In this Mr. Hardman was altogether mistaken, as Richard had no intention of quitting The Mount. But this erroneous idea satisfied the demands of Mrs. Hardman's implacable propriety, and she thankfully consented that Agnes should remain at a comfortable distance from her own less attractive daughter.
Richard Clayton was, during some time, completely absorbed in grief for the loss of his wife. There are few who can bear unmoved, that the heart which has loved them best on earth is cold for ever, however little they may have valued the affection while it lasted. And his sorrow was by no means unmingled with remorse. He could not endure the society of any one excepting Agnes, with whom he could talk of his Elizabeth, and who in voice and manner so often reminded him of her. Agnes, deeply moved at his distress, and feeling that there was a bond between them in the love they had borne to the departed, devoted herself to the task of soothing and consoling him. Her efforts were not without success; she soon removed the first bitterness of his regrets, and, after a time, Richard could not but feel that his home was still a most happy one. He found himself carefully surrounded with all the comforts and elegance which a woman alone can give to the details of domestic life. His children were cared for, his household well arranged; and when he returned in the evening, wearied with his day's sport, he never failed to be received with a bright smile of welcome, and to find many little preparations for his coming:--the chair drawn towards the fire, the new book placed beside it, and other marks of attention to his wishes, which, trifling in themselves, yet tend wonderfully to promote the happiness of each day as it passes.
Agnes herself, though she never ceased to regret her sister, gradually recovered her natural cheerfulness and gaiety of heart. Occupation is the sovereign remedy for despondency, and she had but little time now to brood over the past. Full of the sad enthusiasm with which we seek to fulfil our duties to the dead, she gave herself up almost entirely to the care of her sister's children, both of whom required much of her time and attention. The little Mary was a sweet engaging child, timid and sensitive, and displaying, even at that early age, all her mother's acuteness of feeling; she and her brother were the only relations Agnes now had in the world, and she loved her little niece with the most passionate affection. Mary continued to regret her mother with a tenacity of recollection very uncommon in so young a child, so that Agnes spent many hours of the day in endeavouring to amuse her.
The infant, for whom this world's miseries had commenced almost with his first breath, was a still greater anxiety to his young aunt. During his mother's illness he had been little attended to, and now he was struggling for the life that seemed to have so slight a hold on his little feeble frame. Richard's physician told him very plainly that the most constant watchfulness and attention alone could preserve an existence so precarious; and he implored of Agnes, almost with tears, to devote herself to this arduous task; for he had long desired most earnestly to have a son, and he could not bear to think that the gift had only been given to be resumed.
Thus she had much to occupy her thoughts; and Mr. Clayton not unfrequently employed her in attending on the poor of his parish. He was anxious, by making her acquainted with the sober realities of life, to induce her to take a more serious and practical view of our condition in this world, and of the duties incumbent on us all. There was a certain taint of false poetical sentiment and overstrained romance in the character of Agnes Maynard, which she owed no doubt to the influence of her Parisian teachers, and which Mr. Clayton felt to be sadly at variance with the rigid self-denial and invincible holiness that ought to control the actions of a Christian in all the circumstances of life.
She seemed to think that the unbounded indulgence of her feelings at all times was almost a matter of duty; and her best actions were performed, not because they were right, but because they were generally agreeable to her naturally sweet disposition.
She visited the poor, not from that blessed motive once given for the performance of this duty, which makes it the highest privilege on earth, but simply because it really gave her pleasure to relieve their sufferings; and even her attention to the little children was the mere natural result of her fond regrets for their dead mother, and was never viewed by her as a means given to her whereby she might serve her Master. The manner in which she devoted herself to them however, won for her the esteem and admiration of her acquaintances in the neighbourhood of B--; and it became the fashion to seek her friendship. This was extremely agreeable both to Richard and herself, for they were alike fond of society and amusement, having but few resources in themselves. They failed not to place the highest value on the favour and consideration of those whom wealth or rank seemed to render desirable friends; and Richard especially, who fervently loved this world, was most ambitious of its honours. Their happiness was, therefore, increased in no small degree by the position they had now attained in society, and for considerably more than a year they lived in the enjoyment of the greatest ease and comfort. This state might have continued long, and their contentment would doubtless but have increased as they saw the children improving in health, and Richard acquiring great influence in the county; but they were doomed to suffer by that fatal laxity of principle, which has caused it to be considered as a possibility in Christian England that a man should become the husband of one who is virtually his sister!
No one had ever dreamt of questioning the propriety of Agnes's residence with her brother-in-law. Mr. Clayton would as soon have thought of objecting to the presence of his own daughter in the house of his son. But there are to be found in every neighbourhood persons whose business it seems to be to attend to the affairs of their neighbours--who occupy themselves in arranging the plans of others, and prosecute their unjustifiable interference with the ostensible motive of offering well meant advice and judicious kindness. B---- was infested by a lady of this description. Mrs. Sharp was the wife of a lawyer, who resided in the village because it placed him at a convenient distance from an estate which he managed in the absence of the proprietor. She was a person of a busy, active disposition, and a perfectly vacant mind. She took a singularly microscopic view of those things which are alone of any importance in this world, whilst it was her delight to magnify trifles, especially if they were sources of annoyance, into matters of weight and consequence. She loved to dig out all those little evils of life which men wisely seek to bury in oblivion, and make their sting be thoroughly felt and understood; and she had a sort of spasmodic irritability of temper, which made it impossible for her to endure quietly the resignation or cheerfulness of her friends. Being excessively ambitious and very vain, she soon found that her standing in society was not by any means what she could have wished, and she therefore betook herself to that peculiar species of self-aggrandizement, which consisted in the depreciation and abuse of others, so as to produce a comparison favourable to herself; clearly believing, that while enlarging on the faults and follies of her friends, her own virtues grew brighter in proportion. Mr. Sharp systematically encouraged her to take an active and engrossing interest in the affairs of her neighbours, as he thereby diverted her energy of mind and warmth of eloquence from himself and his proceedings.
Thus Mrs. Sharp, with her inquisitive eyes, her busy tongue, and her spiteful disposition, was an object of terror to the whole neighbourhood--from the vicar, who generally saw her enter the cottages of his parishioners as soon as he quitted them, in order to learn what he had been saying, and counteract its effects, down to the little village girl, who as required to enter into minute details respecting the quality of her Sunday dinner, and other such interesting particulars. This lady Agnes Maynard had the misfortune to offend. Mrs. Sharp had been extremely anxious to cultivate her acquaintance when she found how intimate she had become with the leading families of the country; and Agnes, who was at all times accustomed to think far more of her own pleasure than of the courtesies of life, had not scrupled, as she thought her a particularly disagreeable person, to repel her advances in a very marked and humiliating manner. This slight was never forgiven or forgotten by Mrs. Sharp; she cherished a sense of injury with all the tenacity of a little mind; and from that day it became one of the chief objects of her existence to find some means of indulging her deep-rooted and bitter dislike of Agnes. It was so, perhaps, unconsciously to herself; for Mrs. Sharp, like most people, was well grounded in the art of self-deceit; and she persuaded herself that it was a laudable zeal for the well-being of society, which induced her to spread many evil reports respecting the residence of Agnes Maynard with her brother-in-law, instead of a mean and ungenerous desire of revenge.
It so chanced, that in the course of the second year after the death of Elizabeth Clayton, Mrs. Sharp went for a few days to London. One of her first proceedings on arriving there was to call on Mrs. Hardman, as she had long looked forward with a keen relish to some favourable opportunity of stirring up that respectable lady to a virtuous indignation against her ward, for whose conduct Mr. Hardman was to a certain degree responsible.
Mrs. Sharp had been acquainted with the family during their six months' residence at the Mount; and the first polite speeches were scarcely over, when she proceeded gradually to insinuate what was in fact the real object of her visit. She began by looking fixedly and with an air of profound compassion on Mrs. Hardman, and having given vent to several heavy sighs, remarked that she was thankful to see her in tolerable spirits.
"I believe my spirits are generally very good," said Mrs. Hardman, who sat stiff and impassible as usual. "No one can accuse me of being variable: my temper is even and equable, as it ought to be."
"Ah, well! you are a very strong-minded person, I know," said Mrs. Sharp; "still I must say I expected to see you a little moved by such a trial."
"Mrs. Sharp, may I ask to what you allude?" inquired Mrs. Hardman. "Trials I have, no doubt, such as I believe no one but a person of my strength of character could have undergone; but I am not aware that you are acquainted with them: they are buried in my own bosom."
"My dear Mrs. Hardman, I can assure you this one is not buried anywhere," exclaimed Mrs. Sharp; "no one talks of anything else at B--. It was only the other day that I met Lady C-- on the road, and she stopped her carriage, and put her head out of the window, (you know I am very intimate with Lady C--) and she held up her hands just in this way, and said,--"Well, Mrs. Sharp, this is a sad affair, only to think that Mrs. Hardman should have sanctioned-- I won't annoy you by repeating the rest; but it is the opinion of every one. Why, there was Mr. L--; he said to my husband, that his opinion of Mr. Hardman's good sense and respectability were unavoidably shaken,--these were his words, 'unavoidably shaken.'"
"Mrs. Sharp, I beg you will explain yourself," exclaimed Mrs. Hardman, becoming crimson with anger and impatience; "I cannot guess what you are talking of."
"Can you not, indeed? Well, then, it must be because you do not see it in the light that I do, and that every one else does. Perhaps it is not the kind of misfortune that affects you--people are so different! To be sure, it is not like a loss of money; but, for my part, I am so sensitive, there is no misfortune I would not bear sooner than disgrace. It would be to me worse than any affliction. I declare to you I would rather see Mr. Sharp expire before my eyes than be disgraced as you have been."
"Disgrace is not a word that ever applied to me or any of my family," exclaimed Mrs. Hardman; "I am sure of that, at all events!"
"Of course you are; and that is just what makes this, in my opinion, so heavy a trial to you. If it had been one of your own family, (and I am sure I hope none of them ever will follow her example,) you would have endured it as a domestic affliction; but to be so lowered in the eyes of the world by a person who is not even a relation!"
"How often am I to tell you that I don't know what you mean?" screamed Mrs. Hardman, fairly driven out of her usual dignity by her frantic curiosity; "if you have anything to say at all, why don't you speak out?"
At these words Mrs. Sharp turned slowly round, and fixed her staring eyes on the excited lady with a look of well-acted astonishment:--"Do you really mean to say," she replied, as the words dropped from her lips with exasperating coolness, "that you have not heard--"
"I have heard nothing," shouted Mrs. Hardman, "I have been telling you so for the last hour!" With that Mrs. Sharp elevated her eyes, shook her head, clasped her hands, and nodded mysteriously several times. During these evolutions, Mrs. Hardman looked at her as if she could have devoured her. Finally, losing all patience, she actually shook her by the arm and desired her to speak.
Mrs. Sharp, seeing that she had worked up her friend to a suitable state of excitement, at once complied, and hastened to enlarge on the residence of Agnes Maynard in the house of Richard Clayton, in terms which could have been imagined only by a mind not merely devoid of the slightest refinement or delicacy, but of principle also. We say devoid of principle, because, had she judged Agnes and Richard by the high and holy standard set before us all, she could not have considered them otherwise than as brother and sister.
Mrs. Hardman and her husband, who had now come in, shocked and dismayed at the manner in which she spoke, hurriedly demanded if Agnes had not been residing with the elder Mr. Clayton. They had received but few communications from the Mount since the death of Elizabeth, and were, consequently, ignorant of many details.
A triumphant negative was given to their question by Mrs. Sharp, who further proceeded to mix up with her statement the leaven of falsity and exaggeration which is always to be found in the discourse of such persons. She assured them that the conduct of Agnes was strongly reprobated by the society in the neighbourhood of B----, and that it was a matter of universal astonishment that Mr. Hardman should permit her to remain in so equivocal a situation. The furious indignation of the Hardmans at this account may be imagined; that their sense of propriety should be called in question by the world of their idolatry, was an affront not to be endured, and it might prove very injurious to Mr. Hardman were it known that he had left his ward in a doubtful position. They declared to Mrs. Sharp, that they were under a deep sense of obligation to her, that they had been grossly deceived, but that they would rectify their unconscious error that very day. To which she responded with an air of virtuous modesty, that she had only done her duty--that she applauded their resolution of speedily interfering in this unpleasant affair; and then took her leave, fortified by their praises for some yet more determined assault on the domestic happiness of a few more of her friends.
By that night's post a letter was despatched to Agnes, the joint composition of Mr. and Mrs. Hardman, in which her present position, as it appeared in the eyes of the world, was qualified in terms that must wound her beyond endurance; and which terminated with a peremptory order to her to place herself without delay under the escort of the person they would send to conduct her to London, where she was henceforward to reside in their house as her sister had done.