MEANWHILE Mr. Verney was by no means disposed to submit without a struggle to the stern commands of his proud father. His affection for the quiet gentle Mary Clayton had taken deep root in his heart, with a strength of which he was not aware till she was actually taken from him. For the time it absorbed all other considerations, and extinguished whatever pride he might have inherited from his parents. They had accustomed him from childhood to the unrestrained indulgence of every wish, and now when, for the first time, they thwarted him, he resolved to cast off their authority altogether. If they would not give their consent to his union with Mr. Clayton's daughter, he would marry her without it.
After about three weeks spent in vain expostulations with Lord and Lady Verney, Mr. Verney went to The Mount, to announce his resolution to Mary, and to obtain her consent to a private marriage. He was perfectly aware of the depth of the attachment with which he had inspired her, and of all the worldly advantages of an alliance with him; and his astonishment was therefore unbounded when Mary positively refused to marry him without the full consent of his father and mother.
Mr. Verney would not believe it possible that she could continue firm in her determination, for her extreme agitation showed what the sacrifice cost her, and he used every argument to induce her to relent. He assured her that as soon as the marriage was over, and opposition of no further avail, Lord and Lady Verney would gladly receive her; and he called upon Richard to use all his influence with her. It was, perhaps, the bitterest pang which Mary Clayton had yet experienced in this sore trial, when her father, complying with Mr. Verney's request, urged her to do that which was actually wrong. Gently and even humbly, (for was she not his daughter?) she implored of him to desist from further entreaties, and again quietly repeated her refusal to Mr. Verney. He saw that she was too resolute in the strait and narrow path of duty, to be allured from it, though he tempted her with a whole life of happiness; and in his bitter anger and disappointment, he upbraided her with many a cruel reproach. He declared that she had never really felt any true affection for him, that she was cold and heartless, that it cost her nothing to consign him to misery. These were terrible words to her who would so thankfully have devoted her whole existence to make him happy--but no answering word of bitterness came from her colourless lips. She bade him farewell meekly, as though she had really injured him; and when he was gone, she returned to all her home duties with a strong effort to appear contented and at peace, at least in her father's eyes.
During Richard Clayton's illness, Mr. Lambert, now Vicar of B----, had, unasked, come to visit him, and from that period he continued ministering to the spiritual necessities of the various members of the family, with faithfulness and zeal. Agnes had surrendered herself as an humble penitent entirely to his guidance. Richard himself seemed now well disposed to follow her example; and to Mary, his counsels were of inestimable benefit. He advised her as to her conduct towards her father and stepmother, for her position was by no means an easy one in their house, and he now confirmed and strengthened her in her resolution to do that which was right, however much suffering it might entail upon herself. Very soon, however, her miserable father began to fear that she would prove, with her life itself, the falsity of Mr. Verney's assertion, that he was the only sufferer in this trial, for her health and strength began gradually to sink under her constant mental exertion.
Mr. Verney, though he professed to leave The Mount angry and hopeless, had in truth only felt his esteem and affection for Mary increased by her holy resignation and obedience to the Will of Heaven. He was more than ever determined not to lose her, and he spent his days in devising some means of overcoming the difficulties in his way. Lord and Lady Verney had returned to their own home, but he himself persisted in remaining at B--, though he consented, at their earnest request, to stay at the house of their friends, who received private instructions to watch his proceedings. They were continually enlarging on the disgrace which he would have incurred by his marriage with Mary Clayton; and one day in particular they expatiated much on the miserable position of her brother Edward; who, although he would be allowed quietly to succeed to his father's property, might have his legitimacy called in question any day.
These casual remarks suddenly gave Mr. Verney a new and hopeful idea. It struck him that if Mary could be put in possession of the whole of the large fortune which belonged to the Clayton family, by the setting aside of her brother's claim, his proud but poverty-stricken parents might possibly be induced to overlook Richard's disgraced name, and receive her as their daughter even yet. It seemed clear to him, that if Edward's legal right were disproved, Mary would succeed to an amount of wealth which might well cover the dishonour of her family, and enable him at once to obtain the consent of his parents; but it was a question which a lawyer alone could answer, and Mr. Verney repaired without loss of time to Mr. Sharp, who had now a considerable reputation in the neighbourhood of B----.
He was too much absorbed in his resolution to remember how cruel and selfish he was towards Edward and his unhappy parents, in contemplating such a measure. He quieted his conscience with the conviction, that Mary would make a much better use of the money than her dissipated brother, and never thought of the shame and misery he was bringing upon Agnes, or of her son's existence thus early ruined and blighted.
Mr. Verney put the question to Mr. Sharp, and received at once a decisive answer. The passing of the act in 1835, respecting marriages within the prohibited degrees of affinity, has made the law in the present day different to what it was at the period to which we refer. At that time, as the lawyer informed Mr. Verney, the legitimacy of the offspring of a man and his sister-in-law could be set aside if an action were brought against them during the lifetime of both parents. Thus, in the case of Edward Clayton, the thing was perfectly possible, and his sister might unquestionably succeed to the property; but, of course, the necessary measures could only be taken by Mr. Verney when he should be her husband. This was, however, quite satisfactory to him; as he thought it by no means impossible that his father and mother might consent to his marriage, if he could hold out so sure a prospect of his wife's becoming a wealthy heiress.
He therefore determined to proceed at once to his own home, in order to acquaint his parents with his plans; but he could not resist the temptation of first paying a visit at The Mount, that Mary might learn the new hopes which cheered him. He informed both her and Richard, that he had found a means whereby he hoped to overcome all the obstacles to their union; and with all the ardour of his peculiarly sanguine temperament, he assured her, that he doubted not his parents would soon come themselves to claim her as their daughter. Mr. Verney was scrupulously careful to conceal from Mary the cruel and wicked scheme he had devised. He knew enough of her character and principles to feel certain that she would never consent to be his wife on such terms, and he resolved that she should only know the truth, when as her husband he could claim her obedience to his wishes.
Mary never asked, however, what was the plan of which he spoke. She was bewildered with joy; for she implicitly believed his assurance, that they should yet be happy, and the sudden revulsion of feeling was almost too much for her enfeebled frame.
After he left her Mr. Verney wrote to Mr. Sharp, to inform him that his marriage would be concluded very shortly, and that he held him engaged to commence immediately afterwards the legal proceedings against Edward Clayton.
This letter was entrusted by Mr. Sharp to his son, who was in the habit of making copies of such documents for his father's use. It so chanced that this young man had once a violent quarrel with Edward when he was little more than a boy. He had taunted him, as many others were in the habit of doing, with the circumstances of his birth, and the insult had been answered by a blow. This indignity was never forgotten by the lawyer's son, who was a mean and pitiful character; and even if he had been disposed to forgive it, his mother was at hand to foster his anger and encourage his desire for revenge. Mrs. Sharp saw, in the insult her son had received from Edward, only an aggravation of that offered to herself by Agnes, many years previously; for the lapse of time had but served to strengthen her enmity against the whole family, which was now brought to its height by her son's complaints. Of late she had been bitterly displeased at the bright prospects which had seemed to dawn for them in the proposed marriage of Mary Clayton, and it was now with a spiteful pleasure that she learnt, from Mr. Verney's letter, the disgrace and misery which were preparing for them. Neither she nor her son, however, could resist forestalling the evils which threatened the Claytons, when so favourable an opportunity for revenge presented itself. Together they arranged a plan for Edward's public humiliation, which Mr. Sharp's son knew he could put in execution without loss of time.
That same evening he took Mr. Verney's letter with him when he went to join a dinner party of young men, where he knew he should meet Edward. There he openly repeated the insult which years before had provoked the return he resented; and when Edward, stung almost to fury at his words, would have called him to account for them, he flung Mr. Verney's letter across the table to him, and told him he might learn there how he would soon have to fight the whole world for attributing to him a disgrace which was to be publicly and legally proved. The lawyer's son was perfectly aware that he was betraying his employer's confidence by this proceeding, but he had the less scruple in doing it for the gratification of his own malice, because he knew that it was perfectly impossible for Edward or his family to avert the threatened evil, if Mary's husband chose to institute proceedings against him.
It was late in the evening, and the family at The Mount were assembled together in the drawing-room. Richard and Agnes were both silently watching Mary, whose sweet face, though still pale from recent suffering, was now once again brightened by the light of hope, like sunshine beaming on a placid lake. There was no balm to the wounded conscience of Agnes Clayton like to that of a smile on the face of Elizabeth's daughter; but Richard could not yet believe there was any happiness in store for them; his health was dreadfully shaken by his late attack, and he was now the victim to a settled despondency. Still the sound of Mary's cheerful voice was as music to his ears to-night, and he felt a greater sensation of peace than he had known for many weeks.
Suddenly, as they sat there quietly, there was a sound of rushing footsteps in the hall without; exclamations of astonishment from some of the servants, and the door of the room was burst open by a furious hand. They all looked round trembling, and the conviction of some new misfortune darted like lightning into the minds of each member of this unhappy family. They were not mistaken.
Edward Clayton rushed into the room, seemingly half frantic; he had never curbed his anger, even for trifling causes, and now it was ungovernable. His face was actually livid with rage, his teeth set, the veins starting on his forehead. In his clenched hand he held a letter, which he flung down before his father, and in a few words, that sounded to the miserable man like the sentence of a terrible judgment, he told him how it contained the assurance that he, his innocent son, should for his parents' sin be publicly branded with disgrace, deprived of the property he had always considered his own, and sent out into the world to struggle in poverty with a blighting stain upon his name. Then (the sense of his misery, and of the injustice done to him increasing as he spoke,) Edward looked for a moment on both his parents with a glance they never forgot, and burst into a storm of invective against them, upbraiding them in terms too dreadful to be recorded here, for having given him an existence, which by their fault was already blighted and destroyed.
To Mary, also, he turned, and thanked her with taunting bitterness for the lessons of Christianity which she had given him; her religion was bearing noble fruit truly, when it permitted her to rob her brother by such a cruel means, and to seek for his ruin and dishonour, that she might herself become the happy wife of her proud lover. He heeded not her wild frantic protestation, that she knew nothing of such a scheme; but, gathering all the passion that was bursting from his lips, as it were into one sentence, he frantically declared, that he would not remain another moment in the place, where he was soon to be stripped of his lawful inheritance, and made an object of public scorn. He would never look again on those who had so injured him; he would go to plunge into the only mode of life, which now was open to him in the haunts of vice and misery; he would find an existence in gaming, or cheating; and when his parents heard of him in disgrace, in crime, in infamy, let them remember that they themselves had driven him to it!
With these words he dashed aside the clinging hands of his mother, who had fallen almost at his feet, and rushed from the room. They heard his frantic steps in the hall, then outside, passing the window; his flying figure appeared for a moment among the trees; it vanished swiftly, and he was gone--their only son--self-exiled from his home; driven forth from it by the shadow of their crime, which haunted him like a mysterious avenger.
For a few moments all three were so paralyzed with the suddenness of this event, that they were incapable of speaking or moving. Mary was the first to awaken from the sort of stupor into which they were plunged: she started up with an expression of so much anguish, that it attracted the attention even of the parents, in whose ears the terrible words of their son were yet ringing.
"He must not go, thinking I could be so base, so wicked!" she exclaimed; "I cannot bear it--I must find him, or I shall never know peace again!" And careless of the rain, which now was pouring down in torrents, or of the chill and gloom of the night, she darted from the house, and followed wildly on the path which Edward had taken.
More than an hour elapsed before Richard could find her again. He sought for her in vain through the grounds, and out on the road which Edward had already quitted long since on his way to London. It was a wild tempestuous night, and the father felt an indescribable terror as he thought of his child, so fragile and tender, exposed to the fury of the storm. He saw that she had gone out bewildered and almost unconscious of what she did, her brain reeling under the terrible remorse which her brother's misery had caused her, though she was so innocent of it. And when at length he discerned her standing on the brink of the river, which rolled with a deep strong current below the house, a dreadful fear took possession of him that she was about to seek oblivion of her bitter sorrow within its whelming waters.
She was standing fixed and rigid on the steep bank, gazing on the stream with eyes wide and dilated, unconscious apparently of the drenching rain. Richard flew towards her--he seized her in his arms, and called her by every endearing name, but she did not seem to hear him; and he saw at once, by the vacant stare of her glazed eyes, and the expression of her open mouth, that reason had for the time deserted her. He could not wonder that it was so, for to a person of her peculiarly sensitive nature, Edward's bitter accusation against herself, and his look and manner when he well-nigh cursed his parents, was in truth a trial sufficient, seriously to affect her mind. He carried her back, passive and unconscious, to the house. Throughout the whole of that long dreadful night he watched beside her, with Agnes kneeling by his side, and when morning broke, just as he expected, she was in the first stage of a violent brain fever.