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

By Felicia Skene

London: Joseph Masters, 1849.

Chapter IX.

MR. CLAYTON left B---- the following week, and Mr. Lambert duly communicated to all the parishioners the reasons which had induced him so to do. The event made a most powerful impression on them all. Their Vicar could not have taken any step which could have brought more strongly before them his uncompromising submission to the call of duty whenever it demanded the surrender of his own will, and also his deep disapprobation of that act of his son's which he was compelled thus openly to reprobate--but he was greatly beloved. His departure was bitterly lamented, and a strong feeling against Richard and Agnes soon pervaded the village. What Mr. Clayton condemned, his people felt must be very wrong, and the marriage was loudly spoken against by all.

Never had Mr. Sharp enjoyed a season of such exquisite repose as that which followed the departure of the Vicar from B--. This event would alone, at any time, have been sufficient to have engrossed the mind of his energetic wife, and provided her with a fund of matter whereon to exercise her conversational powers; but the circumstances attending it, the unlawful marriage, and the indignation which was felt against Richard and Agnes, were indeed to her sources of absorbing delight and occupation, such as she had seldom known. With ineffable satisfaction her husband saw her sally forth every morning, without having even remembered to take that peculiar cognizance of his own proceedings for the day, which often inspired him with a wild and frantic desire to embark forthwith for New Zealand, or to fly and endeavour to make a fortune in Kamtschatka. Mr. Sharp might do as he pleased now; he might have written a letter every day to his client without her looking over his shoulder, and he might have drawn up ever so many marriage contracts without her even asking who the parties were. Mrs. Sharp was far too busy to think of him at all; and not only she ceased for the time to watch over his affairs, but she resigned all thought of attending to his comforts. This was, however, one of the conditions of his unwonted peace to which that greatly persecuted gentleman was too happy to agree, and no one interfered with the excited lady in the pursuit of her present delightful occupation.

What in truth could be more charming than to go from house to house, informing every one that, after the most reprehensible conduct of Agnes, it would be impossible to visit her, or to acknowledge her acquaintance? Agnes! the haughty and exclusive person, who had refused to call upon her! Mrs. Sharp had such really substantial grounds for all she said, that she was listened to with more attention than she usually met with.

There was one painful idea, which had long been floating in the minds of those acquainted with the circumstances, which Mrs. Sharp now assisted in ripening into certainty--it was the belief that Elizabeth's melancholy death had been occasioned by her jealousy of her husband and sister. Such being the case, nothing certainly could seem more revolting than the whole conduct of Agnes and Richard; and even the most charitable of their neighhours could not but think that they were not only devoid of all principle, but heartless and indelicate to the last degree, in thus speedily reaping the fruits of her death in their unblest union, and returning, without remorse or fear, to the very home where she had dwelt whom they had sent to her grave by so cruel a means. Mrs. Sharp loved to expatiate on these points with a warm enthusiasm, but she found that her eloquence was scarcely required to heighten the universal indignation. And then she would rush out to waylay Mr. Lambert at every corner, and detain him for a whole half hour, while she condoled with him on having so much to do since Mr. Clayton's departure, or comforted him by assuring him that he might do what he would, but that he never could make up to the people for their good old Vicar. He was far too young, so it was no fault of his; but she had no doubt he would kill himself in trying, for he looked very ill, and she did not think he had long to live; but if he did die, they would at least know at whose door to lay his death. It was Richard Clayton who would be guilty of it, as he had sent away his father, besides all the other mischief he had done.

At first Richard and Agnes were scarcely aware of the universal condemnation of their union. They had become more cheerful, in the hope that their father had exaggerated the extent to which they would be lowered in the opinion of the world; but they soon found that he had spoken but too truly; his own proceedings with regard to them had rendered it necessary for all persons of any weight in the society of the neighhourhood to adopt a marked line of conduct in the matter; and their decision was soon made. They were by birth and education entitled to delicacy of feeling; and Mr. Clayton had not been for so many years their pastor without instilling into their minds somewhat of his purity and strictness of principle. They determined that the brother and sister-in-law, now man and wife, were not to be visited or received; and the few influenced the many: it became the fashion to slight them as it had been the fashion to court them, and they were cut off from all society, except of such persons as they did not care to associate with. This trial, which to some minds would have been a light evil, was to them a most serious and grievous distress; it galled the proud spirit of Richard; it wounded the morbid sensibility of Agnes; it deprived them both of the excitement and amusement, without which they felt as though they could not exist. Richard became irritable and fretful; his wife was weighed down by a heavy despondency which she sought to hide under a forced unnatural gaiety.

After a time Agnes determined to enliven her dreary hours at least by resuming her visits in the village. Her mind had been so much preoccupied for some time past that she had neglected her poorer friends completely; but she had always been beloved and respected amongst them. She felt that now, humble as they were, even their homage and attention would be soothing to her.

On a beautiful mourning in the early spring, she went out into the village, nothing doubting that she would be received as she had always been; for she and her husband had never thought of inquiring into the opinion of their humbler neighbours respecting their conduct. The first person she went to visit, was old Martha Hyans, who, with her husband, were parishioners of long standing in the village of B--. This good old couple exhibited in their lives a practical refutation of the saying, that love cannot exist in a cottage, more especially if it be allied to poverty. The little hut where they dwelt had been decked, fifty years before, for their wedding-day; and the love that bound them, now wrinkled and decrepit as they were, was fresh and pure as in their prime of youth and joy. They had gone through many trials together in that narrow space, but never had an unkind word passed the lips of either. Poor Elizabeth had often felt that she might have learnt a valuable lesson from old Martha's patient and tried affection; and now, of this good old woman's many trials, it seemed to her that one of the greatest was Mr. Clayton's departure. He had baptized her children, and laid more than one of them in their graves. She had verily trusted that he should have closed her eyes also. But he was gone; and she knew perfectly well that he had good reasons for going. She never doubted that everything he did was right at all times; but in this instance, simple and humble as she was, her own opinion and feelings perfectly coincided with his. Her childlike, unbiassed mind revolted against the union of Richard and his wife's sister.

Agnes perceived the change in the old woman's feelings towards her, the moment she entered the house. Martha was civil; but she manifested not the slightest pleasure on seeing her. She did not ask her advice, or detail her grievances, and positively declined accepting various little comforts which Agnes proposed to send her. The only words she spoke were, to inquire after the children, in a tone dearly full of profound commiseration for the little ones. She shook her head when Agnes volunteered the information that Richard was well, as though she thought he had no right to be so; and then sat sighing and lifting up her eyes in the most eloquent manner. Agnes made one last attempt to induce her to speak, by quoting the Litany, which Martha was in the habit of repeating from beginning to end, for the edification of her visitors; but even this tempting bait had no allurements to-day. She remained unmoved; and Agnes angrily left the house, with the determination never to enter it again. She could not, however, yet believe it possible that she was exiled from the society of the village, as well as that of the higher classes. She attributed Martha's conduct merely to her peculiar attachment for Mr. Clayton, and trusted to find matters very different in the other cottages where she was going.

Her next visit was to Mrs. Savage, the hard-featured, large-handed Mrs. Savage, who was singularly unfortunate in appearance (to the annoyance of all lovers of the picturesque, as her little dwelling was beyond measure charming and romantic), and who appeared for the last twenty years to have been engaged in the care of a huge baby, who never grew, and never became a day older,--a phenomenon which was to be accounted for by the fact that she was constantly supplied with a succession of grandchildren, who, after a certain troublesome age, were removed, to be replaced with another just entering on it.

In the house of this good woman poor Agnes fared much worse than with Martha. Mrs. Savage did not scruple to tell her openly all she thought and felt, and all that was thought and felt by her neighbours, on the subject of Richard's second marriage; and Agnes brought the visit speedily to a conclusion, by hurrying out to hide the indignant tears that rose to her eyes as she listened.

She walked along the road towards The Mount, her heart swelling within her, and as she passed on she perceived Thomas, the clerk and schoolmaster, the most respectful and estimable of men, coming towards her. Instead of approaching to give her all the details of the progress of her class or of the choir, he passed on the other side with merely a grave salutation, which sufficiently proved to her that henceforward the doors of the school were closed against her.

She had to pass yet another cottage before reaching home; it was one of the humblest in B--, and was the abode of a poor imbecile creature, known in the village by the name of Jack, who lived in it with his old mother. He was perfectly harmless in his idiotcy, and was allowed to wander about at will, even within the grounds of The Mount. It was in fact his favourite resort, as Agnes took a particular interest in him, and always treated him with the utmost kindness. She used to bring him his food herself, that she might teach him to recognise her; and now when he saw her, he never failed to greet her with his wild laugh of discordant glee. Jack was seated at the door of his house as she approached, and starting up, he ran to meet her with a shout of delight. She stopped to speak to him, and he stood joyfully before her, clapping his hands, and muttering in his own senseless language his unintelligible expressions of pleasure.

Poor Jack was little aware of the pang which he caused to Agnes at that moment, for there was in truth a most bitter sting in the thought that his was the first smile of kindness and the first words of welcome which had been bestowed upon her that day, who formerly had been so warmly received by all. No sterner lesson could have been given to her than this one fact, that she had been shunned and scorned as one who had done an unholy deed, by all save this poor idiot, to whom it had pleased Heaven to deny the knowledge of right and wrong!

The bitter experience of this day was quite enough. Agnes now understood what was in fact the truth, that the poor people of the village had lost all respect for her, and that consequently her influence amongst them was gone for ever. The casualties of birth and education are by no means sufficient to command the esteem of the lower orders. They are keen and penetrating judges as to what is really estimable in the character of their superiors, and thoroughly alive to any inconsistency in their precepts and practice. The villagers of B---- thought that Agnes had greatly erred, and therefore it would have been in vain for her to have talked to them of the errors of their own ways; whilst some of the younger girls possibly found no small excuse for levity in their conduct from the fact, that even the lady at The Mount had thought the Vicar's notions on the subject of marriage so very strict, that she had distinctly acted against them. Agnes felt all this, and though perhaps in her secret heart she acknowledged its justice, it was yet with a proud indignation that she determined never again to visit a single person in the village.

The annoyance which all these circumstances caused to Richard and his wife is not to be told. On the fiery temper and undisciplined mind of the former especially, the effect was most grievous. He now found himself deprived of all the amusement which hunting and similar occupations had afforded him, for he was far too proud ever to place himself voluntarily in the society of those who would no longer admit him to their houses. Wounded to the uttermost by the treatment he had met with, he shut himself up entirely in his own house, and gave way to a sullen, discontented state of mind, which was most distressing to all around him. A man without employment is always a miserable individual, and he had no intellectual resources. He betook himself to amusements which were frivolous and useless, if not pernicious; and much of his time, which now hung so heavily on his hands, was spent in exercising a most harassing control over his household. He occupied himself with all the little petty arrangements and minor details on which it was painful to see the strong mind of a man engaged; and it almost seemed as though he sought to compensate himself for the humiliations he met with in the world, by his overbearing treatment of his wife and servants.

In the midst of all this misery, for it was misery both to Agnes and Richard, though no positive misfortune had as yet befallen them, a gleam of sunshine came to revive their hearts in the birth of a son,--an event which soon banished all their regrets for the absence of Mary, who had long since been removed from her father's house, to enter it no more for years.

On the other poor infant, the son of Elizabeth, Agnes had in truth bestowed the utmost care and attention ever since her marriage. It had been chiefly on his account that they had taken this step, which in all other respects had proved so unfortunate; and it seemed to her an imperative duty to render it productive of good results to this child at least. With unremitting tenderness she had therefore watched over him; all the careful affection which Richard had trusted she would bestow upon his son, and which he had married her partly to ensure, she did, indeed, give to the infant, whose health had greatly improved; and now, as though to show how very vainly (as well as sinfully) we would seek to interfere with the Providence of God, by doing evil that good may come, and what madness it is to follow any other course save that of rigid duty, (leaving the result submissively in His hands,) the little child was suddenly taken from them. There had been no neglect, no illness even to cause them any apprehension; but unexpectedly one night he was seized with convulsions, and died whilst they stood helpless beside him. With a brief struggle his brief life closed. Pure and innocent he went with his baptismal cross yet shining on his brow, to join his brethren who had borne theirs through the burden and heat of the day.

It was impossible for Richard and Agnes, as they stood looking down upon that infant face--sublime now, because of the holy peace that was stamped upon it--not to perceive how clearly the sin and folly of their deed was pointed out to them in this bereavement. They had acted against the laws of God and man for the sake of these children; the one they had themselves delivered up to their father's charge, and the other had now been taken to a Care more tender still. No good could now result from their union to these or to any other; but themselves must reap its bitter fruits. And from that hour Richard and his wife repented them of the deed which they had done, because the world had visited them heavily for it; but they repented not yet of the crime, for the judgment of God was still to come.

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