Project Canterbury

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

By Felicia Skene

London: Joseph Masters, 1849.

Chapter VIII.

RICHARD CLAYTON had written to announce his marriage to his father and also to his household; and although it was with considerable trepidation that he awaited a meeting with the former, it never occurred to him to anticipate any manifestation of feeling on the part of those who formed his establishment. He never bestowed a thought on persons in that inferior station, and certainly did not imagine them to be capable of forming an opinion on such a matter as that now in question. But it is a peculiarity of the lower classes which must have been remarked by many, that they display a singular delicacy of feeling in their reverence for the dead. They seem to consider it a holy duty to be most scrupulous in all things pertaining to the honour of those helpless ones departed. And though Richard's servants could not understand how far Agnes had sinned against all conventional laws by remaining in the house, not of her brother-in-law (for to that no right-minded person should have objected), but of a man whom she thought it possible to marry, they could yet feel the instinctive revolting of conscience against a union between those two, for death had dissolved the tie between Richard and Elizabeth in one sense only--it had not dissolved the relationship which that tie had produced--Agnes was still sister to her who mouldered in the dust--Richard was still one flesh with her--the fraternity between them remained unbroken as between children of the same parents; the humble servants felt these things, though they could not have expressed them, and their natural indignation and repugnance at the step which their master had taken were fostered to the uttermost by the assiduous efforts of Mrs. Sharp.

This lady, under pretence of visiting the little Mary, had come to the Mount every day since the departure of Richard and Agnes, in order to glean what information she could respecting their mysterious journey, which she could not help connecting with her own visit to Mr. and Mrs. Hardman, and the letter which she knew they had written in consequence. She was herself under the full belief that Agnes had returned to her guardian's protection; and when she heard of their marriage, she was, to do her justice, sincerely and deeply shocked. In fact, no person, even worldly minded and unrefined as Mrs. Sharp was, could fail to be otherwise on first hearing of a union of that description, unless their mind had received a bias to a contrary opinion from the sophistical arguments of those who fear not to show a practical contempt of God's laws and ordinances; and it seemed to her a very horrible thing that Richard should hold in such light esteem the sacred tie which had united him to Elizabeth, that he thus openly set at nought the indissoluble bonds with which it had bound him as brother to her sister. Soon, however, when the first feelings of astonishment and indignation had subsided, it was with no small delight that Mrs. Sharp found she had now a fair and most legitimate ground for inveighing against Agnes in the strongest terms; and she so worked on the minds of Richard's servants, already sufficiently excited on the subject, that they received the newly-married couple on their arrival with the most cold and sullen looks; some of them, full of that superstitious dread of a judgment on those who do such deeds (which is not altogether a superstition), did not even delay an hour informing their master that they would not remain in his service. This was a chilling reception for the unhonoured bride; but a sharper pang awaited her. Mary had been left entirely to the care of the servants, and to the tender mercies of Mrs. Sharp, and they had not failed to fill her young mind with many painful ideas respecting her father and aunt, which, with all the strength and power of early impressions, were destined to influence her feelings towards them during the remainder of her life. No attempt is made at the age of this innocent little being to hide what passes in the mind, and they received their first bitter lesson as to the manner in which both God and man were to view this deed, from the pure lips of the child they loved so well.

Richard was furiously angry, Agnes miserable, and their first evening at home was a very sad one.

The next morning, Richard wrote a note to Mr. Clayton, requesting to know when he could see him. It was not without a pang that they felt such a measure to be necessary. The answer was delayed some hours; it came at last, merely a verbal message, naming an hour on the following day, when Mr. Clayton would receive them. They looked forward with the most painful anxiety to the interview. The profound affection which both felt almost equally for him, was mingled with a respect amounting to awe; for it does not require a mind of a high order to feel the influence of superior holiness.

At the appointed hour they walked together to the vicarage. They had to cross the churchyard, which was separated from the garden only by an invisible fence; there was a grave laid there, which they passed with hurried steps and averted head; the church stood so near the house, that it seemed placed almost within the grounds, and the east window was close to that of the drawing-room.

It was impossible at the vicarage of B---- to be indifferent to the proximity of that holy and beautiful house, with its quiet grass-grown tombs, telling of the body sown in dishonour and weakness, and its cross, giving a hope of that which is raised in glory and power. It was a blessed thing when some earthly sorrow was at work, and many a hidden pang smote through the soul, to be able at once to lift the eyes to that fair church and think of the sure rest that remaineth for the people of God: but these two, as they sat waiting in the drawing-room of the vicarage, turned away their eyes from the sight.

It was some time before Mr. Clayton appeared. Agnes had buried her face in her hands. Richard walked moodily to and fro. He entered at last. Their hearts sunk within them at sight of him who for their sakes had spent the last three days in fasting and prayer. He was not stern, but grave and calm; his face had the traces of bitter suffering, but it wore also an expression of firm determination, which they knew resulted from the triumph of duty over natural affection.

They all seemed simultaneously to feel that the customary expressions of welcome and greeting would be a bitter mockery, and for a few minutes no one spoke. The tears which Agnes had shed abundantly over the estrangement of the little Mary were dried up now by the burning blush that crimsoned her face when she found herself standing before that grey-haired old man, who had so struggled after a rigid and unshrinking holiness, that his life and thoughts were pure as those of an innocent child. Richard seemed endeavouring to conceal his fierce uneasiness, his restless angry suffering. Mr. Clayton looked from the one to the other, and became much agitated; he turned to the window to hide his emotion; the sight probably of the church, at whose altar he ministered as priest, restored to him his courage and his strength. He came and stood before them severe and unmoved.

"It is best we should understand each other," he said, addressing his son. "Richard, you have taken a step which you were perfectly aware could only meet with the most severe and unqualified disapprobation from me; but you will doubtless say that you have long since cast off the trammels of paternal authority--that you are no longer of an age when it is necessary for you to be influenced by my opinions, or to consult my wishes--that we stand together as man with man, the one as likely to be right in his ideas as the other, each holding his own views in independence, acting by his own standard of right and wrong. Be this as it may, certain it is that you stand on your own responsibility so far as regards the ordering of your life in the sight of God. I have not the power, because I am your earthly father, of compelling you to serve your Father which is in heaven. As your parent, then, I profess no authority to condemn the deed which you have done; but on far higher ground I do most solemnly condemn it, even as a priest of the Most High! Let me set aside, then, all other relationship save that of a clergyman and his parishioner; as such, I must tell you plainly, that the union you have contracted is contrary to the will of God, to the authority of the Church, and to the law of the land; it is unhallowed, it must be unblest. Your purpose in coming here to-day is to request that I, a minister of Christ, will sanction the marriage of a man with a woman who is virtually his sister. You are aware that my first and highest duty is to my flock; I am set before them not as a teacher only, but as an example, in humblest imitation of Him whose servant I am, and who was Teacher and Example to the world. You know that I have always most strongly prohibited amongst them such marriages as that which you have contracted. I have turned away persons so connected from the very steps of the altar where they came to be united. I have spoken against them from the pulpit. I have admonished my people on the subject in their own houses. I have openly refused to sanction parties joined in such unlawful unions, even though already married when they came into my parish. And now, Richard, I ask it of yourself,--do you think it possible for me, to whom is committed authority in the Church of God, without derogating fearfully from my holy calling, to countenance the man who has made such a marriage, although that man is my son?"

"You need not have said all this, to prove to me what you mean to do," exclaimed Richard, taking refuge from the painful feelings that oppressed him, in a burst of anger; "I have guessed it from the first. You mean that you will cast us off,--at least that you will not receive us, or come to visit us."

"I do mean it," said Mr. Clayton, calmly, though sadly; "since by no other means can I prove to my flock how profoundly I disapprove of your act, now, alas! so irrevocable."

"What an existence!" said Richard, rising and pacing the room in violent agitation; "father and son living within a few hundred yards of each other on such terms as these! You will bear it calmly, I doubt not; but to me it will be insupportable."

"Richard," said Mr. Clayton, his voice trembling with emotion, "I did not expect that you would do me justice in believing with what bitter anguish to myself I have taken this resolution respecting you; but I have at least an opportunity of showing you that, however rigidly I must adhere to my most painful duty, I have not been without consideration for your feelings. I am quite aware how galling it would be to you to have your residence henceforward so near to mine. I know, also, that it would be very injurious to your prospects in life, were you to quit this place, on many accounts. I have, therefore, determined on leaving B---- myself, at the same time openly informing my flock of the reason which induces me to do so. A clergyman with whom I am acquainted, in Kent, has long been desirous of holding this living. I have effected an exchange with him: in a week he comes to this house, and I leave it for ever."

"Impossible--it cannot be!" exclaimed Richard and Agnes both at once. "Oh no!" continued the latter, horror-stricken at finding that they were to be the means of driving the old man from his sweet and peaceful home;--"you must not go,--you cannot leave a place you have loved so well."

"I love him more than all upon this earth," said Mr. Clayton, pointing to his son; "and yet I leave him for conscience sake. Therefore the love of this home shall not detain me, though you said truly that it has been very dear to me."--He looked towards the church as he spoke, with quivering lips, and then continued, after a moment's silence,--"I may still believe and hope that the unnumbered prayers I have uttered within these sacred walls for him have not all been said in vain. Thank Heaven, I need not scruple to come to you, were you in sickness or in sorrow: suffering casts down all barriers for the servant of Him who in all our afflictions was afflicted. Meantime, do not think to change my resolution in any way; there is but one path opened for me in this, as in all other earthly trials--the path of duty--and that alone will I follow."

Agnes turned away, weeping bitterly. Richard flung himself into a chair, and hid his face on his arm. There was a painful silence for a few minutes, till Mr. Clayton spoke again.

"I have yet a painful task to perform," he said; "I have to request a favour of you both, which you can only grant with a great sacrifice to yourselves, but which I might, perhaps, claim as a right."

"We will refuse you nothing," said Richard, in a voice hoarse from agitation; "you may ask what you will of us."

"Oh yes," exclaimed Agnes, "give us the means of making some sacrifice for you who have made such an one for us!"

They were rewarded for these words by the look of tenderness which Mr. Clayton cast upon them both; but he went on:--

"Mary Clayton is my god-child," he said; "I am responsible for her spiritual welfare, and, as her grandfather, deeply interested also in her temporal concerns. Agnes, it grieves me to utter so painful a truth, but I am compelled to tell you that I must now consider you as wholly unfit to have the charge of this child, and that it would be highly injurious to her interests, both earthly and eternal, were she to remain with you. Her prospects in this world would be seriously affected by it. It is perfectly clear to me that you have never either of you viewed the matter in this light,--that you are altogether unaware how severely your conduct will be denounced in society. Would that you had known it! it might have deterred you from the step you have taken;--but at least this innocent child must not suffer. You, Agnes, have lived for two years in the house of the man whom you have now thought fit to marry; you could only do so,--you only obtained my sanction for so doing, on the ground that he was your brother. Had you continued to consider him as such, not the faintest breath of slander could have reached your name, even though such a letter as that of Mr. Hardman compelled you to leave your home. But you have not done so. Since you have now married him, it is impossible that you can ever have looked upon him as your brother,--at least so must the world conclude. If you cast aside the relationship, they must do so also,--nay, Heaven forbid it should now be supposed to exist!" he added, with a slight shudder, as his eye fell on Agnes' wedding-ring. "I leave you, therefore, to draw your own conclusion as to the opinion that will be formed of your conduct, in residing for so long a period alone with the person to whom you are now united; and from that you may also clearly perceive what a fatal influence it might have on Mary's whole existence, that she should be educated by you."

"Do you really mean," interrupted Richard, "that our marriage will be so strongly disapproved of by society in general,--by any, in fact, excepting, perhaps, a few clergymen like yourself?"

"I fear you will not have to ask me that question a month or two hence," replied Mr. Clayton. "I feel certain you will have but too many palpable proofs of the truth of my words. However fearfully corrupt may be the internal machinery of society, they yet have outwardly a code of laws, against which they allow none to rebel with impunity."

It was evident that this idea was as new as it was bitter to Richard. He saw at once, that if his marriage was a sin against the world's rule of propriety, he might expect to be visited with no light punishment. He literally groaned as he thought of what he had done, and of what was to come. The union he had contracted, suddenly appeared before him in the light of an irretrievable mistake. Agnes saw what was passing in his mind; and no words can describe how her heart died within her.

"And now," said Mr. Clayton, "I have shown you why, in a worldly point of view, it is necessary that Mary should not remain with you. I have myself far higher motives for requiring of you that she should be entrusted to my own care. I dare not, Agnes, consider you fit, at least at present, to guide an immortal soul in that most difficult and painful course of bitter self-denial which alone can bring us to the feet of the Crucified. In the most important occasion of your life, you have preferred your own will to the will of God. You have thrown off the yoke of the Saviour, who bade you serve Him in suffering. You have trampled under foot the cross which He presented before you, in the heavy trial laid upon you, to quit all most dear on earth, rather than remain with them by means of an unhallowed alliance. You will say you did not know that the course you took was so wrong;--how wrong it was, I believe, in truth, you did not dream; but that you had more than misgivings on the subject, is sufficiently proved by the fact that you concealed it from me. Had you felt but one conscientious earnest desire to do what was right, at the expense of any amount of pain to yourself; you would have consulted Mr. Lambert, or myself, and you know that we would have prohibited your doing as you have done. You will say you did it for the sake of Richard's children, but I ask by what right you did evil that good might come? How did you dare to doubt, that He who carries the lambs in his bosom would have cared for these little ones? But I spare you; only I must repeat and enforce my request, that you submit to a separation from Mary, and that you entrust her entirely to my care. I demand this sacrifice of you. My sister, Mrs. Harewood, has consented to come and reside with me in order to take charge of her; you need have no fear for the dear child's welfare." He paused waiting for a reply. Richard rose instantly.

"Agnes, you must not dream of hesitating one instant; he shall have the child. I would rather never see her again, than that my innocent daughter should suffer by any imprudence of yours--or mine," he added more gently, as he saw her start with the pang his words had caused. "It is better clearly that Mary should go to her grandfather," continued Richard, bitterly; "we have had a specimen these last two days as to the manner in which the mind of a child may be worked upon; I have no doubt that in a very little time we should find the sacrifice far less severe than it seems to us at present; her health is besides well established now--it was for my little son that I was chiefly desirous to secure your care; there is, therefore, no reason why I should scruple to give my free and full consent, and I wish that the matter should be settled at once." And it was so decided.

Agnes offered no opposition, she was utterly bewildered and overwhelmed with all that had passed, she did not even remind him of what rose so painfully to her own mind at the moment, that by giving up Mary, however advisable such a measure might be, they were rendering altogether null the one potent argument which had principally induced them to marry, namely, the absolute necessity of the children being left to her care! She said nothing of this, although it proved to her how weak and sophistical had been the reasoning with which they had quieted their consciences, for she felt crushed to the very earth with the painful thoughts that were crowding on her. The whole affair had been shown to her in a new and terrible light; she had acted thoughtlessly, recklessly; and now all was most different from what she had expected, her heart was full of a bitter dread for the consequences, enduring even to her life's end, of the deed she had done. She could not collect her ideas, or bring her mind thoroughly to understand her position; she had a sort of feeling as though she had been hardly dealt with; she had always anticipated a happy and an honoured life as a kind of right; gay and beautiful as she had ever been, she had looked upon admiration and affection as her due; and now, she scarce knew how, she found herself in a situation where it would seem that not only trial, but disgrace was to be her portion.

Agnes was too much absorbed with a miserable foreboding of future suffering to herself, to find any difficulty in submitting to her husband's decision that Mary should be taken from her; and when the matter was thus finally arranged, Richard Clayton and his wife left the Vicarage to enter it no more.

Mr. Clayton dismissed them with one parting injunction, addressed chiefly to Agnes. He implored them if sorrow or suffering came upon them, more especially if penitence came--as he prayed it might--to apply at once to Mr. Lambert, and to open their griefs to him; doubtless the Curate would not countenance them now, but in their distress he would be a valuable and faithful friend. They saw that the old man murmured a blessing as they passed him, but Richard was in no humour to feel softened by it: he drew Agnes almost roughly from the room, and they quitted the house that had been as a home to them, with downcast eyes and sorrowful hearts.

Agnes Clayton had never been accustomed, as we have said before, to control her feelings. She did not remember, that there is a profound selfishness in allowing those around us to be saddened with the aspect of our suffering; there is enough of sorrow in this world without our adding to it by constraining others to feel for us a painful sympathy. We have a Friend most merciful, to whom we may pour out the bitterness of our soul; but let us ever walk among men with calm face and serene aspect, whatever may be our internal anguish, lest haply we cast a shadow over the sunshine which He hath given them. She had no thought for this; as soon as they had entered their own house, she went and flung herself upon a sofa, and burst into a passion of tears. It could not be an agreeable sight for Richard to see her there; her face disfigured with weeping, her frame convulsed with sobs. He had followed her into the room, in the hope that her cheerful voice and loving eyes might have dispelled the gloom that hung upon him; when he saw how she thought only of indulging her grief he turned abruptly and went out. Agnes loved him well and truly, but she had not for him that noble affection which would have made her rather die of her inward agony than let him suffer by it.

Richard took a long walk, but solitude was unsupportable to him, and he returned towards evening, trusting to find his house restored to cheerfulness and comfort. Agnes still lay in the same position; her tangled hair falling over her face stained with tears, and for the time devoid of beauty. The room was dark and cold, the whole establishment in confusion. Richard was violent in temper, and he was not a man to submit easily to annoyance or vexation. He walked up to Agnes, and taking her angrily by the arm, he forced her to raise herself up. She trembled when she saw the expression of his countenance, and still more when he spoke, his voice was so stern and harsh.

"Agnes," he said, "let me beg of you to tell me once for all, whether you intend to render my life insupportable by this absurd and intolerable conduct? Instead of the gaiety and cheerfulness which made you attractive to me formerly, do you mean henceforward to regale me with scenes such as these, tears and ill humour, discomfort and confusion throughout the house?"

Agnes felt her face crimson at these words, with a feeling of something very like anger.

"Have I nothing to make me sorrowful?" she asked, reproachfully.

"Not half so much as I have, at all events," replied Richard; "but that is not the question. I wish to tell you most plainly that I will not submit for one hour to have a dismal companion at my side, complaining and groaning. I will give you your choice. You have your room, where you may go and weep and pine as much as you please, but there you must stay. You shall either appear before me with a look of cheerfulness at all times on your face, or else you shall not come into my presence at all. In the one case, I shall have you merry and bright as you were before; in the other, I may try to forget your existence--so make your choice."

Agnes was completely subdued. She fancied that Richard was cruel to her, but still he was her husband, and she loved him. It was a mockery to say that he gave her any choice; she had no alternative; she could not go and shut herself up from him; she must submit to wear ever a smile as gay as her heart was sad. It was with a dreary sense of desolation that she thought how she must drive back all her feelings within her own breast, and never hope for the sympathy which, with her naturally frank disposition, she would so earnestly have sought; but her womanly powers of endurance came to her assistance. She scarce knew with what a strength of determination she at that moment resolved, henceforward, to bear all in silence. She was driven to it, partly by pride, partly by a helpless feeling of submission. She looked up, she dashed the tears from her eyes, and said calmly:--

"I will endeavour to please you; you need not be afraid; I will look sad no more." She said this with a bitter conviction of his unkindness--with a sullen morbid feeling rankling at her heart; and Richard understood, readily enough, what was passing in her mind, but from that hour she obeyed him so implicitly to the letter, that it was impossible for him to find fault with the thoughts which he could only guess to be in her heart; and, as a natural result, a sort of indefinite estrangement rose up between them. So commenced the married life of Elizabeth's husband and sister.

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