WHEN the matter was fairly decided, Agnes readily consented to the wish of her future husband, that she would leave all the minor details entirely to him, and not even question him as to his arrangements till they could be put into execution; he was to take all measures requisite with Mr. Hardman and Mr. Clayton; on her he enjoined only the most profound secresy.
During the interval which followed, Agnes seemed desirous to drive the whole affair from her thoughts altogether. She appeared to be animated with a forced and unnatural gaiety; laughed and talked far more than usual; and would not allow the children to quit her for a moment. Richard occupied himself so incessantly with the necessary and somewhat difficult preparations, that he excluded all other thoughts; but the truth was, that neither of them was so calm inwardly as they sought to appear to one another. Without communicating their feelings to each other, they simultaneously avoided the church, for they could not endure to pass the grave of Elizabeth.
No answer was sent to Mr. Hardman's letter, and it was speedily followed by another full of the most bitter indignation against Agnes. He concluded by saying, that if she did not appear at his house in London within a given time, he would himself come in search of her to B----.
"We shall pass him on the road," said Richard scornfully, as he handed the letter to Agnes; "we must be married in London."
"Not here?" asked Agnes, in a tremulous voice. "Here!" replied Richard, angrily; "what are you thinking of?--how is it possible? do you suppose my father, or Mr. Lambert, would ever consent?" Agnes felt a cold shiver pass through her frame, she scarce knew why, but she made no answer.
Richard had found that it was more easy to decide upon such a step than to put it in execution; there were several difficulties to be overcome. He had to investigate into the state of the law respecting marriages of this nature; and he found, although not at that period declared null and void, as they have since been by the passing of the Act to that effect in 1835, they were even then voidable, and capable of being set aside altogether. This could only be done, however, if an action was brought against them during the life-time of both parties, and Richard's fears were quieted at once when he discovered that it was so, as he did not conceive it possible that any one could ever find it his interest to attempt such a measure.
Another obstacle seemed to him more serious, which was the possibility that no clergyman would consent to perform the ceremony. A little reflection, however, soon overcame this difficulty. It was very easy to go to London, where the parish priest of some populous district, in which the names of Richard Clayton and Agnes Maynard were quite unknown, would never think of asking if any peculiar connexion subsisted between them.
Richard wrote to a lady, a cousin of his own, who resided in London, whose theory it was, that all duties which interfered with inclination were overmuch righteousness; and having communicated to her the state of the case, begged of her to receive Agnes into her house during the three weeks which must be given to the publishing of the banns. He received an answer complying with his request and promising secresy. He then told his father that he was going to take Agnes to London for a few weeks to visit a friend, and the next day they left the Mount together.
It was a cold gloomy morning on which they commenced their journey. Agnes was deadly pale: she shivered violently, and averted her head as they passed the churchyard. Richard asked, with considerable irritation, what was the reason of the tears that filled her eyes? and she answered, that she grieved to leave the children--it was the first time she had quitted them. "Well, now you will be with them always after this; so pray let me see you gay and happy, Agnes. You could not have seemed more dismal, if I had been taking you to Mr. Hardman's." This allusion had the effect he desired: her face brightened immediately. She began to laugh merrily at the idea that her guardian was probably leaving London that day in search of her; and Richard had no further reason to complain of her sadness, although her gaiety was somewhat forced.
During the three weeks which followed their arrival in London, Richard took care, with the willing assistance of his cousin, that Agnes should be continually occupied with some amusement, which left her no time for thought. She was thankful, indeed, to be spared all reflection; for, in spite of herself, there was a vague and painful feeling which she could not define, that haunted her at all times when Richard alluded to their marriage. Even the night before it took place,--the night that surely, in all similar cases, should be devoted to most earnest prayer for grace to perform the solemn vows about to be taken,--was spent by Agnes Maynard at the theatre; and when she awoke next morning, tired and depressed, she could scarce believe that this was indeed her wedding-day. Her wedding-day! How differently had she pictured it to herself in her bright visions years ago! How often had she fancied herself going forth an honoured bride, amid warm congratulations and friendly wishes, to become a happy wife in face of all the world! If ever a day in her whole life was to be bright and joyous, she had thought it should be this, when, by a most holy ordinance, she was to receive the promise of unchanging affection from one who was to be her protector and guide even to her life's end; and to herself was to be given the blessed task of smoothing for him the rugged path of life, and devoting herself to him as tender friend and faithful wife. And now the day was come; but how could she feel glad or thankful for it, when she was going forth stealthily--as if about to do some evil deed--to unite herself to one whom she well knew many would say ought never to have been her husband! Instead of rejoicings and festivities to celebrate her marriage, concealment and deception were necessary, before it could be effected at all. The numerous friends sympathising in her happiness were to be replaced by two witnesses whose services were remunerated; and this hour, so momentous and agitating for her, must be met alone and unsupported.
There was a heavy weight at the heart of Agnes Maynard, as she looked out and saw the one single carriage that stood at the door, to convey herself and her future husband to the church. Heaven did not smile upon her; for a dull, heavy rain was pouring from the thick black clouds; and she remembered, with the painfully-superstitious feeling which at times assails us all, the old proverb, that a weeping sky forebodes a weeping bride.
Richard's cousin accompanied them; but, as she was a lady profoundly devoted to her own comfort, it was not without considerable difficulty that he could induce her to leave the house in such weather; and she did not scruple to manifest her discontent during the whole of their cheerless drive, shivering and complaining of the cold, without a thought for poor Agnes, who sat crouching in the corner, pale as death. When they reached the church, the lady ensconced herself in a pew, and, desiring them to call her when they were ready to return, left them to proceed alone towards the altar. Agnes trembled so violently, that she could scarcely walk; and Richard rebuked her somewhat harshly, for being, as he said, absurdly nervous. They had been on too intimate terms during their former intercourse to admit of his treating her with that peculiar homage which is generally offered to a young bride at such an hour; and the angry words that at another time would have affected her but little, seemed cruel to Agnes, as she ascended the altar-steps. They stood side by side: the clergyman hurried over a duty which the cold and comfortless aspect of all around rendered by no means pleasant. They took those solemn vows whereby two human beings are constituted guardians of one another's happiness, and each is provided with a friend whom neither time nor change, sickness nor sorrow, shall ever alienate; and at that moment, when surely no other thought should have been in their hearts, save the imploring of a blessing on one another's heads,--the blessing which henceforward they would seek to embody in every action of their lives,--why was it that before the eyes of Richard Clayton and Agnes Maynard there seemed to pass the form of Elizabeth, turning away from them the wan pale face, as she turned it at the last hour when they would have given her their farewell kiss?
The ceremony was over--the cold, unfelt blessing was uttered by the lips of the stranger, who had never seen them before, and cared never to see them again--and it was not without an involuntary shudder that they heard themselves pronounced man and wife in the very same words which when spoken for Richard and Elizabeth had constituted them brother and sister!
They took leave of their cousin at the door of the church, and proceeded to a village on the sea-shore, where they remained for some little time before they returned to the Mount to take up their residence once more in the home where they had dwelt together under the plea of a relationship of so very different a nature.