MR. VERNEY might have spared all the misery which his unworthy scheme had caused to the Clayton family, for it entirely failed of the effect he had hoped it would have produced on his father and mother. Desirable as wealth would now have been to them, pride was their first idol, and they were true in their allegiance to it.
No advantages which were to be found in the alliance, would have induced them to allow the daughter of Richard Clayton to be the wife of their son and heir; still less, by means of a project against which their honourable feelings revolted, and which would but have entailed a more effectual disgrace on the despised family.
Bitterly disappointed, and hopeless at last, Mr. Verney returned to B---- in time to hear that Mary Clayton lay insensible and dangerously ill. It was known at the village and at The Mount that Edward was pursuing a reckless course of dissipation in London. His extravagance was carried on with money borrowed on false pretences. But his father and mother seemed to take little heed of the details of the progressive ruin of their only son. Their whole thoughts were now absorbed in the most overwhelming anxiety for the daughter of Elizabeth, who lay upon her bed of sickness and pain, uttering such plaintive words in her delirium as pierced their very hearts. Richard was convinced she would die. His diseased imagination now set no limit to the misfortunes which were to spring from his marriage. His own health was completely shaken, and his mind filled with the darkest thoughts. He neither ate nor slept, but haunted Mary's room night and day like a spectre. He felt exactly as though he had killed her--killed the gentle, loving child that never had injured a human being. He could not endure the sight of Agnes: he never looked upon her now but he heard the words of Elizabeth ringing on his ear, as though she were repeating them even then in her grave:--"Oh, Richard, she is your sister, your sister!"
One night, by a most unusual occurrence, Mary was left for a few minutes alone, although her fever was then at its height. Richard and Agnes had quitted her while the nurse arranged the room, and the woman had carelessly gone down stairs, intending to return immediately, and thinking that Mary was asleep.
The peculiar form which her delirium had taken was naturally enough the continual repetition in her own fancy of the scene which had caused her illness. She was incessantly imagining she saw Edward rushing in with his livid distorted face; she heard his terrible words; she saw him leave them, maddened with the injuries they had done him; and she fled out to follow him through the storm and the gloom. Many times she had actually risen to pursue the phantom of her raving, and they had held her down. To-night the vision returned, and there was no one to prevent her following the wild impulse. She rose from her bed, and, in the strength of fever, fled from the room and the house with noiseless steps.
There was but one person who saw that white ghost-like figure passing rapidly among the trees. This was old Jack, the idiot, who had come to The Mount for his dinner as usual. Poor Jack was no wiser than he had been years before, when he alone had been found to welcome Agnes Clayton as the wife of her brother-in-law; but as his mother was now bedridden from age, she had provided him with a guardian, without whom she would not have allowed him to leave her sight. This was his dog Charlie, who invariably accompanied him wherever he went.
Charlie was certainly not a beauty, especially when he had been indulging in a duel with a neighbouring cat, of which delectable amusement he was extremely fond, although he never failed to retire from the combat with one eye unfit for use, and the whole of his intelligent countenance seamed and scored in a most disfiguring manner. His coat also, which ought to have been of a pure white, was much soiled and blackened by his unfortunate predilection for rolling in the dust, and squeezing himself through all sorts of unpracticable holes, instead of taking the legitimate entrances; but in temper and disposition Charlie was of inestimable worth, and his faithful attachment to poor Jack was beautiful in the extreme. The old woman, in fact, had literally given the latter in charge to this sage animal, who was infinitely more rational and intelligent than her poor son, and both Jack and Charlie thoroughly understood their respective positions. The man yielded obedience with the utmost submission to the authority which the dog wielded in a very dignified manner; and many a time Charlie had, on the dark winter's nights, brought his charge safe home when he would have been lost in the snow without his protection.
They were seated together under a tree on this calm mild evening, when poor Mary tottered past them, moaning and calling out her brother's name. Jack looked after her with the wild senseless laugh to which he was continually giving vent unconsciously; but Charlie seemed to consider that this was a matter in which they ought to interfere, and, with that strange instinct that often seems almost prophetic in dogs, he took Jack's coat between his teeth, and insisted on his following in Mary's steps.
She went staggering on, taking exactly the path she had gone on that fatal night; but when she reached the precipitous bank of the river, her unsteady feet failed her, and she fell headlong into the water. With one single bound Charlie plunged in after her, and he secured a firm hold of her dress as soon as she rose to the surface; then panting, snorting, and struggling, he swam with her to the bank, found footing for himself, and intimated to Jack, by his impatient pulling at the weight so far beyond his own strength, that he was to lift the sinking body from the water. The poor fool understood, and obeyed. He was of great bodily strength, and he drew poor Mary out of the river, with perfect ease, and laid her on the bank, where he stood over her, laughing out in his discordant glee.
Charlie, however, was not yet satisfied; he once more seized hold of Jack, and drew him towards the house, where, by his vehement barking, and Jack's incoherent exclamations, the servants became convinced that something had occurred. They followed the sagacious dog and his companion to the spot where Mary was lying, now quite senseless, though still living.
They took her home, and carried her straight into the first room they came to, where Richard Clayton was sitting alone. He heard the shuffling feet, and started up; he saw the men enter with their burden. With the first glimpse he obtained of that seemingly lifeless form, with the wet hair streaming over her death-like face, the terrible idea took possession of him at once that she had destroyed herself. He had fancied that this was her intention when he had found her, on that night, standing by the river side, because he knew the depth of her mental anguish, and he did not know the strength of a Christian's submission and resignation; and now he never doubted but that she had seized the first moment when she was left unguarded, to rid herself, by this violent means, of a life that was insupportable.
Careless and worldly as Richard Clayton had been, he never could have thought, with any thing but horror, of the awful sin of suicide--that crime which never can be repented of! And to find that this beloved daughter, for whom he had so securely anticipated an eternity of happiness, although for his sake this mortal life had grown so bitter to her--to find that she, in her agony, had forgotten alike her faith and her obedience, and had rushed madly to the destruction both of soul and body, was more than the father, broken spirited and feeble, could endure.
He would have advanced to meet his hapless child, but his steps were suddenly arrested; it was as though an iron hand had fastened on his heart; its action was impeded; his breath was choked; his face assumed a dark leaden hue; he well knew whose was the grasp that was checking the pulses of his life, and he lifted up his darkening eyes imploringly. The terrible expression of his countenance long after haunted all those who saw it; for, in that one awful moment, there passed before his spirit all the occurrences of his past life. Clear, distinct, rapid as the lightning's flash, he could discern the unbroken links of the whole chain of events which had risen out of that one hour when he had knelt at the altar with the sister of his wife--now but a part of the irrevocable past. Their joy and their sorrow alike were gone, and he must go forth to see what fruits they would bear to his soul in eternity. His whole existence now was shrivelling up into a vapour, a dream that was flitting away from him. One thing only stood real and palpable before him: the judgment to come for the deeds done in the body. He made one wild effort to place himself upon his knees, but strength and life failed him at the same moment, and he fell heavily and unresisting on the floor.
When Mary Clayton gradually returned to consciousness, the first sight that met her eyes was the corpse of her father, round which those who had carried her from the river were standing in hopeless dismay.