IT was winter now. Christmas-tide was scarcely past, and the holly and mistletoe still decorated the walls of the beautiful church where Richard and Agnes had knelt that morning, happy with a strange restless happiness in one another's society, which they would scarce have ventured to analyze. They agreed that they had never spent a Christmas of such unalloyed gladness. Mr. Clayton always made it his especial care that this season should be one of true rejoicing to every individual in his parish, and they had readily and generously assisted him in this endeavour. Agnes had carried her gifts and good wishes to every house in the village, and there was warmth and light on the humblest hearth amongst them, when the chimes rung out on the clear midnight air, bearing forth the glad tidings of great joy which the angels brought from heaven at the selfsame hour.
In their own house Agnes had taken care that all should be cheerfulness and gaiety, and Richard thought with delight of the bright scene that waited him as he rode home through the darkness that evening. He had been called to some distance on business; he was chilled and wearied, and he pictured to himself the well lighted room, with the huge fire blazing on the hearth, and the little Mary springing from the arms of her young aunt to meet him.
The scene which did in fact await him at the Mount, was a melancholy contrast to this pleasing vision. He went first to the drawing-room, already surprised that no one met him at the door. There was no light there, and the room was in disorder; but most of all, he missed the sweet face of Agnes brightening so gaily at his approach. It was the first time she had ever failed to welcome him, and a sudden foreboding of evil assailed him. He went hurriedly from room to room in search of her. He called her anxiously, but no answer was returned. At last a sound of stifled sobbing met his ear. It came from the sleeping room of his children, and he opened the door at once and went in. Agnes was kneeling beside the cradle of the little Mary, who had fallen asleep, her cheeks yet wet with the tears she had shed in her innocent sympathy for the sorrow of her aunt, though she had been unable to comprehend the cause of it. Agnes had buried her face in the pillow, and was weeping as though her very heart would break. She started at the sound of Richard's voice, as he took her hands in his and besought her to tell him what had grieved her. Her distress was so violent that she could not speak for a few minutes; then she could only utter a few incoherent words. She pointed to the child, so beautiful and smiling in its quiet slumber.
"How can I ever bear to leave her!" she exclaimed; "and still more, how could I leave you, dear Richard, and this happy home--all, all I love in the world! How can I go? I cannot, I cannot! I should die! I know that I should!" She spoke with that frantic impatience of suffering which we should all be disposed to feel, had we no pure and holy motive given us for a calm endurance. Richard was bewildered with astonishment.
"What can you mean, Agnes?" he said; "Where would you go? Who is it that would dare to take you from me?" She was sobbing so much that she could not answer, but she pointed to the letter which lay on the ground beside her. He took it up and read it through. Agnes looked up at him when he had finished it, and she was perfectly appalled by the storm of passion which convulsed his features. He actually shook with anger; he crushed the letter in his hand till not a word was legible; then, trampling it under foot, he burst into the most tremendous invectives against those who had written it. Agnes trembled with terror at his violence. She almost forgot her grief in her anxiety. She rose up, and clinging to his arm, implored of him to be more composed.
"Dear Richard," she said, "it can do no good to use these terrible words against them; let us think rather what we are to do. I cannot go, I feel that I cannot; it would kill me!"
"You shall not," said Richard, turning to her almost fiercely. "I tell you, you shall not leave me; no power on earth will induce me to part from you."
"But how? how?" said Agnes. "I cannot stay when such terms have been used towards me." She covered her face with her hands as she spoke: her movement seemed to increase the fury of Richard's indignation, but a stern resolution made him now more calm; he drew away her hands, and bid her look up boldly.
"Agnes," he said, "I must take this night to consider how the matter had best be managed, but I charge you in the mean time to remain convinced of this--you shall not leave me; we shall not be separated, come what may; I will never consent to part with you." His tone of decision, and his look of settled determination, gave Agnes an involuntary faith in his words, though she could not at all perceive how they were to be verified; but her womanly feeling of helplessness compelled her to rely with unquestioning trust on his promise, that he would save her from the trial she could not and would not bear.
"I will leave it all to you, then," she said, "for I am bewildered,--I cannot tell what is to be done. I only know I cannot leave you and those dear children:--Who would care for them as I have done?"
"Who indeed? and for their sakes, Agnes, we must not scruple at any measure which shall ensure to them your tender love and watchfulness. Fear nothing, then; go and sleep in peace; to-morrow we will make some arrangement by which we can defy the world to separate us."
And Agnes did rest calmly that night with Mary nestling in her arms. She felt as though she must keep guard over this precious child, even through the darkness, lest they stole her away; but she trusted with the most perfect security to Richard's assurances, nothing doubting that he could perform what he had promised.
For Richard Clayton, however, there was no rest that night; hour after hour he paced to and fro in anxious reflection as to his future conduct. He was a shrewd and a clever man, and from the first moment when he read the Hardmans' letter, his acute mind had grasped the details of the case in their full extent, and he had perceived that there remained but one alternative for himself and his sister-in-law. It was perfectly impossible that Agnes Maynard should continue to reside in his house in a position which had called forth such remarks; he would have been the first to despise her had she done so; and yet with the same impatience of sorrow which she had manifested, and which is the characteristic of all undisciplined minds, he felt that he could not, he would not, lose her. Even for his children's sake she must remain. How could he endure to see them dying for want of the assiduous care which she alone could give them? Mary, who seemed to have no power to live, save in an atmosphere of love; and the fragile infant, his son, the pride of his heart, on whom so many hopes were built, only now beginning to exhibit symptoms of increasing strength and health, which all would vanish, as he knew full well, if a cold heart and careless hand alone were to be concerned in his welfare. Moreover Richard Clayton, although of a generous temper, was essentially selfish--peculiarities of disposition which are by no means incompatible. He could not bear to think of his house in disorder, cheerless, and lonely, with all the petty cares of the "menage," which are so essentially a woman's province, devolving on himself. No; Agnes must remain with him; but there was one only position in which it was possible for her to do so--she must become his wife!
He would never have desired to look upon Agnes in any other light than as his sister, had the unlawfulness of a union, such as that which he now projected, been sufficiently felt and understood in this country to have enabled her to remain with impunity in charge of his establishment.
This, however, is not the case,--to the destruction of much domestic happiness, and of many of the holiest and best feelings of our nature. It is certain that the unjustifiable license which has been given to these marriages by the diversity of opinion on this point (so long decided by primitive and holy authority), has driven many to form the connexion from which their better feelings would otherwise have revolted.
Richard Clayton was determined to retain the society of his sister-in-law, and by this arrangement alone could he do so. Therefore, following the inflexible law of his own inclination, he resolved to accomplish it. He had no pure and lofty principle in his own soul to restrain him, and for external obstacles he cared little, for he knew that such marriages had taken place. But he was not aware of the fact, that they are very generally reprobated by society.
Had Richard known that the world he loved so truly, severe in the enforcement of its own code of conventional laws, has affixed a stigma to the name of him who takes for his wife the woman who has been called his sister, he would perhaps have been prevented by his worship of public opinion from taking that step which his professed Christianity in vain prohibited. He was ignorant, however, of the general feeling which is fortunately so strong on this point, and he anticipated no opposition excepting from his father. Mr. Clayton, he was certain, would view such a deed with the sternest disapprobation.
But Richard had long ceased attempting even to follow in the straight and narrow path which his father, uncompromising in his high standard of right and wrong, had traced out before him. He could not have taken one step in such a course, unassisted by that self-denial, without which it is worse than mockery to profess the Holy Christian Faith, but which was a blessing yet unknown to him. He, therefore, constantly declared that it was quite impossible for him to please his father, and made this conviction a license to himself, recklessly to brave his displeasure at all times. One measure only must be taken with regard to Mr. Clayton,--the marriage must be carefully concealed from him until it was too late to prohibit it. From Agnes herself Richard expected no opposition; the idea would be startling to her at first, for he felt certain she bad never entertained a thought as to the possibility of such an arrangement; but he knew that he possessed great influence over her--the influence which a man of strong will must at all times possess over a weak and timid woman, unless there be in her that strength which is best shown forth in weakness. But most of all he relied on the all-powerful argument of his children's welfare, and her own bitter grief at the mere thought of leaving her happy home.
Richard Clayton had plausibly reasoned himself into the full belief that he was acting for the best when he went next morning to offer Agnes Maynard the position of wife in the house where she had dwelt as sister; and yet there was a feeling of conscious guilt at his heart when she came to meet him with her frank warm greeting, and addressed him by the name of brother, which, for the first time, grated so unpleasantly on his ears. The sight of his children, however, reassured him--they seemed to plead his cause already. The infant lay on Agnes' knees, now showing signs of intelligence, and smiling at the sound of her sweet well-known voice; whilst Mary clung to her hand, which she kissed repeatedly. Richard looked on the group for a moment, and then spoke in an earnest and serious tone which his anxiety rendered impressive. He told her calmly and boldly the result of his deliberations. They had mutually agreed that, happen what might, they would remain together. In one manner only was this possible--she must consent to marry him. The violent start, the rush of warm blood to her very forehead, the wild bewildered glance of her eyes upon his face--for all this Richard was fully prepared; but he trembled for the success of his plan, when he saw that she shrunk from his side where she had placed herself so confidingly, and that her breast seemed heaving with some strong emotion. It was many minutes before she could speak; and when at last her words came, seemingly from her very heart, with a heavy sigh, they were but these:--"Oh, Elizabeth, Elizabeth!" It was the voice of her conscience which spoke in that brief exclamation, too much warped and deadened by indifference and false sentiment to arouse her at once with the remembrance of the immaculate holiness of the faith to which she was pledged; it seemed, with a sudden instinct, to raise up the dead before her as a barrier between herself and the man who sought to make her his wife.
Yet this was but a vague and weak obstacle wherewith to oppose the concentrated strength of her affection for all those dear ones round her. Had there ever been in her soul one pure and firm determination to follow in the painful steps of Him, who for her sake had not where to lay His head, how willingly would she have abandoned home and friends, and all earth's dearest joys, rather than have deviated one hair's breadth from the line of severest holiness and rectitude! But she had never known any such solemn and blessed delivering up of self at the foot of the Cross; she had made herself at all times so much the slave of her own feelings, that it could not be expected that they should fail to obtain the mastery at this the crisis of her fate.
It is needless to repeat all the arguments by which Richard induced her to give him a favourable answer. They were such as have been mentioned already, and for a mind constituted like that of Agnes Maynard certainly most powerful. Her French education had tended sadly to falsify her sense of right and wrong; and many things seemed to her pardonable, and even justifiable, that would have shocked a mind never subjected to the poisonous influence that had not been without effect on hers. It was this that enabled her to adopt so readily the shallow sophistry of Richard, who answered her, when she attempted feebly to urge the peculiar connexion which already existed between them, by reminding her that he had known her before his engagement with her sister, she would not have scrupled to have married him then, and why should she do so now? Their connexion was but in name. Would she, for the sake of a name--a shadow, sacrifice his happiness and her own--the life of those dear children? He took the little hands of his innocent Mary and folded them in his own that she might plead for him, and Agnes yielded. Richard Clayton effected his purpose--his sister-in-law agreed to become his wife.