SEVENTEEN years had passed away since the birth of Edward Clayton, the only child of Richard and Agnes, when Mr. Clayton died. His life had been greatly protracted, doubtless, because he laboured well in the vineyard of the Lord; but at length his weary feet were arrested at the gate of the heavenly fold; his aged form was laid down to rest among the green pastures and by the still waters. Mary Clayton knelt beside his coffin, looking for the last time on his serene face; restored now to the look of innocence and of placid rest which only guileless infants and the dead can know; but she shed no tears whilst she laid her cheek upon his cold stiff hand, for she dared not weep for him.
She had been his chief thought and care; for the last years of his life he had but one wish respecting her, and that was to educate in her a true and devoted servant for his Master. He set before himself, as the type of what he desired her to be, a lily of the field--humble, spotless, having but slender root in the earth; giving no fragrance to the world around, but lifting up the sweet head ever towards heaven:--and she became such. His tenderness and prayers were not in vain. Deep set within her heart was the desire to keep herself blameless against the coming of our Lord. In disposition she was meek, gentle, and unselfish; but her grandfather saw that she inherited all her mother's acuteness of feeling and intensity of affection, and from this peculiarity in her character he rightly judged that her trials in life would spring. He sought then to fortify her beforehand for that struggle, which sooner or later comes to us all, of our human wishes and feelings with our sworn allegiance to the cross; for none ever sought in sincerity to follow Him, but at some one period of their existence they are called on to suffer for His sake. Mr. Clayton saw with delight that on Mary his lessons were not thrown away; and he died in peace at last, with the firm conviction, that whatever might be her fate in this world, she would never accept the highest joys it could offer if they involved a dereliction from duty.
Very different had been the education and very different was now the character of Edward Clayton, Mary's half-brother, whom she had seen only at rare intervals. He resembled his father in disposition; he was clever, impetuous, and wilful--proud to the very uttermost; and he had become profoundly selfish. His was precisely one of those characters which, rightly controlled and judiciously guided, might have been moulded to great excellence. Had he been drawn to follow and to seek after the good, he would have struggled on in the right path with all the energy of his ardent mind; but he was left to pursue the bent of his own inclination, and he turned reckless and unthinking to evil.
It may seem strange that the only child of parents yet living should have been abandoned to the fatal guidance of his own will; but it arose from the fact, that although outwardly they held him in control, they had lost all moral influence over him so soon as he was of an age to gather from the remarks of the servants and the taunts of his schoolfellows in what light esteem they themselves were held by the world in general; from that hour he lost all respect for them, and they became powerless to sway his mind for right or wrong, however much they might regulate his outward actions. There is no observer more keen and acute than a shrewd and clever child. Edward soon understood that his parents were exiled from society solely on account of their own conduct; he saw that they were not treated with the same consideration as the relations of his companions at school; he learnt that his own grandfather had been driven from the village because he would not countenance his son, and that his sister had been taken away because his mother was deemed an unfit guide for her. Mr. Lambert, revered and respected by the whole neighbourhood, never visited his father; he himself was sent to church with a servant only, because his parents were too proud and too ashamed to face, in that holy place, all those who so openly disapproved of their conduct, and therefore seldom went there, thinking too little of the guilt they were incurring by neglecting so inestimable a privilege. Was it not, therefore, inevitable that when Agnes and Richard attempted to enforce upon their son the necessity of religious principle and self-discipline, he could only treat their effort as a mockery? Still deeper, however, lay the cause which rendered it impossible for Edward to feel either respect or esteem for his parents--it lay in the dissension and misery which reigned in his own home, in the mutual recriminations and disagreements which seemed to have taken the place of the affection that had once subsisted between his father and mother.
Richard Clayton had become embittered to the very last degree by the results of what he now termed his most unfortunate marriage. After the birth of Edward, when he saw how completely he was cut off from society, he was very anxious to go abroad, and seek acquaintances in some part of the world where his name was not known. But his circumstances rendered it quite out of the question for him to think of leaving B--; he had nothing to depend upon but the allowance which his father still continued to give him; and as The Mount was Mr. Clayton's property, where he allowed him to reside, free of expense, he could not have lived in the same manner elsewhere. He was, therefore, compelled to remain where every day and hour he was subjected to treatment most galling to his haughty spirit. The sinful pride which restrained himself and Agnes from entering the church door, augmented very much the discomfort of their position: it prevented the possibility of any softening of the severity with which the world had visited his conduct. It was quite impossible for Mr. Lambert to hold any intercourse with persons who showed so pernicious an example to the poor of his parish--who had, in fact, removed themselves from communion with the Church; and his open disapprobation was necessarily imitated by the parishioners, who held him in such high esteem.
Mr. and Mrs. Clayton were, probably, not altogether aware how great was the sin they committed in allowing an unholy pride to debar them of the means of grace. Richard had always been careless respecting these things; and now his inward uneasiness and bitterness of spirit, which arose, though he admitted it not, from the smitings of an unquiet conscience, had rendered him sneering, and well-nigh sceptical, on the subject of religion. It is no uncommon case, when a man has wilfully sinned against the light, that he should seek for a refuge in the falsehood which calls it darkness.
Richard Clayton had taken his first step in the downward course, when he placed his foot within the church where Agnes became his wife; and the descent was becoming daily more abrupt and easy, although he was himself, perhaps, scarce aware of the danger in which he stood, when he began to find relief and satisfaction in scoffing at what he had once at least held sacred. Even Agnes had not learnt, in her fashionable Parisian school, to attach much value to Church principles. Both now resented very strongly the judgment of public opinion, which consigned them, in the midst of a populous neighbourhood, to an exile as complete as though they had been sent to the wilds of Siberia. But this resentment Richard vented on his wife, being unable to give it scope elsewhere.
A torturing conviction took possession of his mind, that the consequences of his marriage were to follow him throughout his life, in every possible shape in which misfortune could visit him. He felt certain that it would cause the failure of every scheme and every hope,--that it would pursue him, to his continual vexation and annoyance, and would finally hunt him down, as it were, to a dishonoured and untimely end. This idea, which really became a species of monomania, caused him to acquire an irritable dislike to Agnes, which he made her feel every hour of the day. During Edward's childhood, it sufficed that his mother had given him some order, for the father to reverse it,--a system which would ruin any child; and as the boy grew up, when Richard perceived that his son openly showed how little respect he felt for the parents whom he heard universally slighted and condemned, his father declared it was but a part of the fatality which had pursued him since his Union with Agnes; and he recklessly abandoned Edward, without an attempt to reclaim him, to the evil course which he began so early.
Edward found that his own position in the world was seriously injured by that of his father; and whilst he nourished a most unhallowed anger against his parents for what he considered an injury inflicted on him by them, he was too proud to court the acquaintance of those who shunned him; and therefore flung himself, without restraint, into the only society which was open to him,--that of low and dissipated company.
It was impossible for the father and mother not to tremble at the course which it seemed likely would be taken by their only son. They had made no attempt to place him in any profession, because Richard had been so completely severed from all connexion with the world that he would have found great difficulty in opening out for him any honourable career. Edward was his grandfather's heir, and therefore, in a pecuniary point of view, it was not necessary that he should find any means of existence for himself; but both Richard and Agnes were passionately attached to their son, and keenly alive to the incalculable evils which would probably result to him from their unhappy position. This feeling produced, however, a very different effect upon the minds of each. In Richard it only increased to an alarming extent the gloomy morbid despondency in which he indulged, under the belief that all was to go wrong with him henceforward, and which paralyzed him so much, that he made no attempt to rectify the evil fruits of his own action, though he failed not bitterly to reproach Agnes as the cause of it all. Mrs. Clayton meantime felt that her husband was both unjust and cruel, in accusing her so harshly of the consequences of that which she had done at his own solicitation for the sake of his own children. But there was now in the midst of her trials a dawning of better feeling than she had ever been blessed with in happier days.
That is a beautiful provision of nature, which causes the purest and tenderest affections of our humanity to be very often the instruments for awakening in our souls a holier love. In the deep anxiety and terror which the mother felt lest her only son should suffer by her former conduct, she was led to turn imploringly to Him who alone could avert the evil she dreaded. But she could not approach the Throne of all Purity without looking also into her own life, and learning how far she had erred and strayed from His ways. Her heart was full of penitence, but she was too much bewildered by the mists and obscurity of a life of negligence and sin, to understand as yet what the Lord would have her to do, and how, if she could not retrieve the past, she might at least sanctify the future by deep submission and repentance. She longed earnestly to apply to Mr. Lambert for counsel and instruction; but she dared not do it--she dared not brave the fierce anger which she knew such a proceeding would awaken in her husband. In like manner she would now gladly have gone to church, though she did not even yet appreciate either the duty or the privilege of worshipping in His courts; but this was equally impossible--Richard would never have permitted it. Remorse and uncertainty for herself, and profound anxiety for her son, rendered Agnes Clayton a miserable being.
Such was the condition of the inhabitants of The Mount at the period of Mr. Clayton's death. But immediately on this event there followed another, which gave Mr. and Mrs. Clayton the first moment of joy, real heartfelt joy, which they had known for years. Intelligence was brought them of the approaching marriage of Mary Clayton with one to whom it was most desirable, under every point of view, that she should be united.
Mr. Verney was the heir and future representative of a most ancient and noble house. He was the only child of Lord and Lady Verney, who were chiefly remarkable for the pride of birth, which was to them almost a hereditary possession. Forgetting how their name would avail them nothing in the dust, their whole thoughts and hopes and schemes in this life were given to maintain the honour of that which had come to them unstained through a long line of ancestry. In their only son, as was to be expected, all their plans and wishes were centred. Their pride and their ancient title were allied to a poverty which they held to be a most unseemly condition for the members of so noble a family; and it was their favourite project that he should make some wealthy alliance, which should restore them to their former grandeur; at the same time, no desire for riches could have induced them to overlook the necessity that the wife of their son should bear a name, if not as noble, at least as honourable and unsullied as their own. It was their wish that she should be possessed of rank also, and for this reason they were at first highly displeased when they perceived that their son had formed a very serious attachment with Mary Clayton, whose grandfather's residence was close to their own. Gradually, however, they became somewhat more reconciled to the idea that she was to be their daughter-in-law, not because she was in herself everything they could wish, but because they believed her to be the heiress of all Mr. Clayton's property: and they were also well aware, that though not of noble birth, he was of a good old family, and of a most honourable reputation. Of the existence of her father, mother-in-law, and brother, they knew nothing whatever; Mary never mentioned them, knowing how painful the subject was to her grandfather; and he himself never allowed those names to pass his lips which he sent up hourly in prayer to heaven.
If Mr. Clayton had entertained the slightest idea that Mr. Verney wished to marry his granddaughter, he would at once have stated the whole circumstances of his son's second marriage and present position to Lord Verney, with which it was in fact impossible he could be acquainted, as the family had resided abroad until lately. But the good old Vicar was far too unworldly and simple-minded to think of such an occurrence at all; he could scarce have believed that his little Mary had left her childhood so far behind her. And his death, somewhat unexpected at the last, occurred before Mr. Verney had taken any steps for arranging the matter beyond his own secret determination.
When Mr. Clayton died, Lady Verney, at her son's solicitation, persuaded Mary to leave the house where she was now quite alone (as Mrs. Harewood had died some years previously), and conveyed her to their own home, to remain with them till her future plans were arranged.
Mary then communicated to them the fact, that her father was living, and that she had decided, of course, on returning to his house.
This intelligence was rather startling to Lord and Lady Verney, but as Mary herself had been kept very much in ignorance of the circumstances of her family, they still believed that her grandfather must have left her a large fortune, and at all events, the universal lamentations which his death called forth from high and low, sufficiently proved that his virtues had rendered an alliance with her in truth, an honour. They therefore acquiesced in their son's wishes, when he announced to them that Mary had given her consent to the marriage, provided theirs could be obtained. And they could not but admit that by doing so they insured him every prospect of happiness, for the quiet and gentle Mary Clayton was not one to feel a light attachment for her future husband. They saw that her affection for him was deeply rooted and intense, of a nature to endure even to her life's end, alike unchanging whether it were destined to work her happiness or misery.
Lady Verney could not but agree with Mary, that she ought now at once to repair to her father's house, there to pass the time which must intervene till the period fixed for her marriage. But as they were all anxious that they should not be completely separated for so many months, the Verneys determined to come themselves to spend the interval at a place of public resort in the vicinity of B--. It so chanced that one of the most aristocratic and exclusive of the families in the neighbourhood of that village were old acquaintances of theirs, which was of course an additional inducement to them to visit the place. But it more than once occurred to Lady Verney as a strange circumstance, that her noble friends had never mentioned the father of her future daughter-in-law among their list of acquaintances, for she never doubted but that he was held in the same consideration as Mr. Clayton had been in their own county. She did not, however, dwell much on the fact; and when Mary left them to proceed to The Mount, she promised that they would all join her at B---- in a very short time. Mr. Verney himself followed her almost immediately, that he might be introduced to the family of his future wife; their ready consent having been obtained, of course, before the marriage was finally settled.