IT may be imagined with what delight Richard welcomed his child and her future husband to the home which had so long been cheerless and unblest. He almost fancied, as he looked on his fair and innocent daughter, that she was to be the means of redeeming him from the fatality which pursued him, from the sort of curse which he asserted had settled upon him and his family since the day when he made his sister-in-law his wife. Not only did he believe that Mary would herself have a most happy fate, but by her marriage with a man of rank and station, he trusted she would restore to him the honour and consideration he had lost, and she might even regain for him his former footing in society. He forgot in what awful words it had been said, that the sins of the fathers should be visited on the children.
Mary Clayton found much in her father's house to startle and distress her. Of her father and step-mother's conduct and state of mind she would not allow herself to form an opinion. At her age and in their relative positions she would have held it the height of presumption to have done so; but the condition of her brother Edward filled her with anxiety. She saw that he had already gone very far astray; his parents had not now the slightest authority over him, and he treated them both with disrespect and unkindness; he took care to let them see how much he thought they had injured him; and yet Mary could not help perceiving clearly, that his faults and follies were only the result of his neglected education, and of the unfortunate circumstances in which he was placed. She believed that he might even yet be led to know the unspeakable happiness of abjuring all unholy things, and doing His will in submission and in love; and she determined to try at least what her own gentle influence could effect.
She soon won his warmest affection; for few could know Mary Clayton without loving her. Her pure and elevated character, and the daily shining forth in all her actions of the holy faith which Edward had never before seen thus practically illustrated in the life of an individual, failed not to inspire him with a degree of respect and almost reverence for his sister, which had a strong effect upon his mind. Already he had begun to attend to her counsels; he seemed disposed to admit, at least, the Glory and the Beauty of the Truths which she set before him; and Richard Clayton dwelt more and more on the flattering hope, that his daughter was as a good angel sent to restore peace and honour and happiness to his house.
At this juncture Lord and Lady Verney arrived at B----. They were to spend the first few weeks of their stay in this place at the house of the noble family who had been the most rigid and uncompromising in their just exclusion of Richard and his wife from all respectable society. The marriage of Mary and Mr. Verney had not been announced till the arrival of his father and mother, and they were themselves the first to mention it to their friends.
Their horror and indignation may be imagined at the revelation which followed from their astonished acquaintance. They were told at once who and what was the man to whose daughter their son and heir was to be united. They learnt that he was one who had contracted a union which, by the most holy authority, has been pronounced a sin worthy to be branded with a fearful name; a union which the Church of Christ in all ages has openly denounced and solemnly prohibited; so that none professing themselves members of the same, dare countenance him who has not feared to disregard that stern prohibition; a union which, if ever in a Christian country it came to be regarded with other feelings than those of the profoundest abhorrence, would serve as a precedent to the license that might then be taken for the commission of the most awful crimes. This unnatural and most unholy union Richard Clayton had contracted, in defiance of his father's righteous indignation as a Priest, steward of the mysteries of God, and as a man serving an All-pure Master--in defiance of a distinct law Divine and human.
Lord and Lady Verney further learnt that Richard, and the wife who had co-operated with him in this sinful act, had been by just and universal judgment expelled from society in all the bitterness of disgrace. The history of their life from that period to the present day was then detailed;--the birth of the son, whose social position was so questionable, that the very companions of his games taunted him with many a galling name;--the reckless and dissipated course he was now pursuing, whereby it seemed likely that he would add to the dishonour which had in fact made him what he was;--the self-excommunication of Mr. and Mrs. Clayton, sufficiently showing that they dared not for very shame pass the sacred threshold of the house of God;--and, finally, the condition to which they had for some years been reduced, so disgraceful and humiliating, shunned by high and low, and above all, avoided by those, like Mr. Lambert, whose holiness of life and faithful obedience to the given laws, rendered their disapprobation of any individual a sure sign of his unworthiness.
Amidst the contending feelings of excessive anger and vexation, which filled the minds of Lord and Lady Verney when they had heard all these facts, there were two ideas which predominated over the rest. The first was, a sensation of profound thankfulness, that it was yet time to prevent their only son from contracting the disgraceful alliance, to which no power on earth would ever induce them to consent; and the next, a feeling of the very deepest indignation against Mary and her relations, for having concealed these dishonouring circumstances from them, and so having artfully stolen, as it were, their consent from them.
Their anger at what they held to be an unworthy deception had certainly been justly incurred by Richard, who ought in strictest honour to have acquainted them with the whole truth the moment he heard of the proposed alliance; and who had not done so merely because he was too weak and selfish to risk the failure of the plan which gave him so much pleasure. A man who once indulges in laxity of principle, as Richard had done when he married his sister-in-law, will have no scruple in carrying out the same system in all other matters.
But poor Mary was most innocent of the contemptible and wicked conduct of which they had accused her. No one had ever ventured to enlarge to her upon her father's sins, or their consequences; she knew far too little of the world to be aware of their peculiar and painful position in society. She was perfectly aware, as a Christian, what a great and grievous sin Richard and Agnes had committed in their marriage; but, as a daughter, she considered it unwarrantable in herself to allow her mind to dwell one moment on their failings; and she had never opened her lips on the subject to any human being, or allowed a whisper connected with it to meet her ear. But as for concealment, Mary was too guileless to suppose that it could exist; she had never doubted but that Lord and Lady Verney were thoroughly acquainted with all circumstances connected with herself and her family.
Meantime, they determined at once to take vigorous measures for terminating an affair which they considered already but too dishonouring to themselves. That their son's name should ever have been even coupled with that of Richard Clayton's daughter was a disgrace most galling to their pride. They sent for Mr. Verney, they acquainted him with all the unhappy circumstances of the case, and commanded him from that moment to give up all thoughts of ever making Mary Clayton his wife. Never, under any circumstances, would they consent to such a marriage; sooner would they see him laid in his grave with an unstained name--sooner would they disown him altogether, and alienate from him the family estates, so that he should have but an empty title to dishonour. Nothing is too violent for injured pride, when pride has become a passion; and Lord and Lady Verney spoke violently, unmoved by their son's despair. But they took a yet stronger measure for putting a complete stop to an affair now most hateful to them.
They wrote two letters, Lord Verney to Richard, his wife to Mary; the tenor of both was the same. In unsparing terms they qualified the dishonourable position of Mr. and Mrs. Clayton; solemnly and with a cruel haughtiness they declared that nothing should ever induce them to allow their son to have the slightest connexion with such a family. With the most cutting bitterness they intimated that if Richard chose to take legal measures for forcing Mr. Verney to keep his engagement, they were willing to sacrifice their whole fortune to save him from the disgrace of the proposed marriage; and they concluded by openly expressing their utter contempt of the miserable deception which they declared had been practised upon them by Mary and her father.
Richard Clayton was alone when this cruel letter reached him, whereby he saw that the retribution of his sin, which he termed a curse, so far from being removed by his daughter's hand, was now about to take effect upon herself. By this anticipated marriage he had looked for happiness to Mary, and restored honour to himself, and straightway his unforgotten deed, his ineffaceable act, rose up before him, and turned that bright prospect into gloom and bitterness; it changed the hope of his daughter's happiness to the certainty of her misery; it converted the vision of his own renewed prosperity into the palpable evidence of the actual dishonour that sullied his name with a stain never to be blotted out. At once his conviction of the fatality which he believed had pursued him ever since his marriage, (bringing upon him the results of that fatal step in the shape of unceasing misfortune,) returned to his mind with redoubled vigour. It had but gained new strength from its temporary banishment by that delusive hope, and it came to him now in the guise of despair. He saw clearly that the effects of his crime were coming at last to their full fruition; they were spreading on to sufferers most innocent of the guilt. "The father had eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth were set on edge."
Hitherto the punishment of his deed had been administered by the world, because of his dereliction from the merely human laws of morality; but now, for the first time, he perceived and understood his sin in its true nature and actual criminality, for the judgment of God had commenced. Truly Lord Verney's letter was an awful blow to Richard Clayton.
When Agnes, alarmed at his long absence, entered his room, she found him lying back in his armchair, speechless and well nigh senseless; breathing only in short suffocating gasps, his face livid, his whole frame convulsed, his appearance was fearful. It was clear that he had been stricken with some physical attack of a dreadful nature. The screams of his terrified wife brought the servants flocking in. A physician was instantly sent for; he soon arrived, and seemed quite appalled at the state in which he found Mr. Clayton. He used the strongest remedies, but for some hours he would give little hope. At length his patient breathed more freely, his countenance resumed its natural hue, and without having spoken, or appeared aware of his position, he sunk into a deep lethargic sleep. The physician then pronounced him out of danger, and informed Agnes that her husband had been seized with an attack evidently brought on by some overpowering mental excitement, and which had well nigh proved fatal. He earnestly urged upon her the necessity of his being kept free henceforward from all agitation or uneasiness. It would be next to impossible that he should rise from another such seizure.
Agnes literally shuddered at these words. She knew it would be madness even to hope that Richard could henceforward be preserved, either from mental anxiety, or from bitter corroding grief. She had taken Lord Verney's letter from the stiffened hand of her unhappy husband, and she knew its contents. She had already seen that which Lady Verney had written to her step-daughter; and she had met the piteous despairing gaze of Mary Clayton's sweet blue eyes, when she received from it the blow whereby she was smitten to the very dust.
Agnes Clayton betook herself to her knees, crushed and bewildered with anguish, but she scarce knew what to pray for; it seemed to her a hopeless task to seek to avert from Richard and herself the misfortunes that were springing so thickly from the seed they had sown in their reckless sin and folly years ago. Truly it was bearing such fruit as they had never dreamt of; and there fell a terrible weight upon her heart, when she thought of that innocent one whose whole existence was too probably blighted by her father's fault.
It was some days before Richard was sufficiently recovered to inquire how it fared with his daughter since she had learnt the utter destruction of her whole earthly happiness. The misery which Mary Clayton was enduring would have been altogether insupportable to her but for one thought of holy hope. The affection she felt for him she had believed was to be her husband, was of a nature to be felt but once in a lifetime, and never to be forgotten or replaced--full of an unchanging clinging tenderness, which must turn to bitterest suffering if rejected. There is no trial purely of this earth which can bring greater agony to a human heart, than the conviction that its true and devoted affection has been for ever given in vain. It seemed to her, when she was thus suddenly flung down from her bright hope and joy into such exceeding wretchedness, as though the eyes that were to look on him no more might well refuse to meet again the light of day; and the sinking heart revolt from bearing the heavy load of that dark cheerless future, which was all that now remained to her on earth Her sorrow had every aggravation which man could give it; for not only was she rejected and cast off by him to whom she had trusted for her life's happiness, but she was treated with the most unmerited and cutting contempt by his family.
Mary would have sunk altogether under this overwhelming burden of sudden trial, had it not been, as we have said, for one thought. It was the recollection of the Love of Him who alone is holy, who only is the Lord, for her that was even as a worm in His sight; a love that was manifest in His unutterable agony, that hereafter might be manifest in her unutterable bliss; that even now was shown forth in the light affliction, enduring but for a moment, wherewith He chastened her, in order that at the last it might bear fruit in a great and exceeding weight of glory. She felt that though by His will the soul may be cast forth into the deep waters of human misery, whose bitterness no earthly power can assuage, still this one hope shall uphold it in the fearful struggle, as with the hand of an angel, and teach it through its very suffering (tempered by submission and faith) that neither in this world nor in the world to come can the redeemed of Christ know aught of despair.
Richard Clayton rose from his dangerous illness a humbled and remorseful man. It may be doubted whether his was a repentance not to be repented of; but, at least, he now thoroughly understood how glaring was the sin from which so much suffering was springing, not to those only who had erred, but to those also who were altogether guiltless of it. He no longer felt any power to struggle with the retribution which had so clearly commenced; silent and hopeless, he seemed constrained to sit by and watch the working of all the misery and ruin which his selfishness had wrought.
The first meeting between the father and daughter was a terrible one. Richard gave but one glance to that pale sad face, with its look of patient wretchedness, and to the dim eyes from which the sunshine of hope and joy was for ever fled, quenched in bitterest tears, and then he almost crouched down before her as though he would have implored her forgiveness.