A YEAR and more had elapsed since the awfully sudden death of Richard Clayton; and of all the actors in this tragedy, which had sprung from one single fault, Agnes and Mary alone remained. The youth and good constitution of Elizabeth's daughter had enabled her to rally from her fever. Her life was spared, but not her intellect; the succession of violent shocks she had received, had completely overthrown her reason, and she rose from her illness a confirmed and helpless idiot.
Shortly after the death of his father, the health of Edward began to give way completely under the life of dissipation and excess he was leading. At last they heard that he was sinking prematurely into the grave. Agnes could not leave her step-daughter; and Mr. Lambert himself went to London, to ascertain the real state of matters. He found Edward, deserted now by his gay companions, in an advanced stage of a hopeless decline. He was still, however, able to bear removal; and Mr. Lambert brought him back to The Mount, where he consigned him to his poor mother's care, for the brief space that yet remained of his short and unhappy life. For six months he lingered with the seal of death set surely on his forehead, and his young existence ebbing visibly away. Mr. Lambert attended him assiduously; and when, at length, the sun of his life set in its untimely night, he laid him in the grave by the side of Elizabeth and Richard, feeling that another victim was added to the number of those who had suffered by that man's unholy deed. Whilst he taught the penitent mother that it was not for them to speculate on his future fate, they must only resign him in unquestioning obedience to the mercy of his God.
It was in truth a sore chastisement to Agnes Clayton, thus to lose her only son,--to see that she had but given him life--that through her means that life might be unhallowed and unhappy, condemned to an untimely sad decay. But she bowed to the decree with the meekest submission; for it seemed to her that nothing could be more distinct than the hand of the retributive Justice, in all the trials which had visited their house. She and her husband had sinned against a law, because they believed that law to be unnecessary and overstrained;--they believed that their departure from it would be productive of good results; and it had been ordained that their deed should work precisely the opposite effects from what they expected, in order that they might see clearly that he who would gain his life shall lose it--that he who would gain aught by means contrary to the will of God, shall not only unquestionably lose it, but find that the thing he sought has turned to poison. He who would presume to take his destiny out of the hands of the Almighty, to mould it at his pleasure, shall never fail to find that he has worked his own ruin. There is but one safe course in this twilight world--"to hear and to obey." Light is given to all who follow Him, that they should not walk in darkness; but the Blessed Light irradiates only the steps which we must take this day: it shows us nothing of the morrow. Steadily we must follow it, faithfully submit to the given laws, calmly leave the result in His safe-keeping.
These were the lessons which Agnes Clayton learned from the bitter misfortunes which had tracked their path since the hour of her unlawful marriage. More terrible to her even than the death of her son, was the visitation which had fallen on Mary Clayton, her sister's child. It was, indeed, an awful punishment that was inflicted on Agnes, when she was condemned to see before her, day by day, for the remainder of her life, that melancholy spectacle--a being so young, so beautiful, with her earthly existence thus fatally destroyed, the fine mind ruined and lost, the intellect laid prostrate, nothing left but vacant, helpless idiotcy. Agnes saw distinctly what was the duty set before her now, and she determined resolutely to perform it, (by His help,) if so be she might yet be forgiven for the great transgression of which she so bitterly repented.
Her task and duty henceforward were to devote herself exclusively to Mary, the innocent sufferer by a parent's sin; and it was a touching sight to see how, from the hour of her son's death, Agnes gave up her life to the solace and comfort of the helpless being now so utterly dependent on her. Sad at heart as she was, haunted by the never-fading remembrance of those beloved and gone, she yet strove unwearied to amuse her niece, and preserve her from the bodily pain which was the only suffering she now could know; and many times a day she was constrained to kneel down before this living monument of her past sins, and implore of Mary to pardon her, though she knew she could not understand her words; for she was ever stricken with a terrible remorse when she looked into that sad young face, with its unmeaning expression, and wild vacant stare.
It was a comfort to her that poor Mary was happy. She had become as a little child again, as helpless and ignorant, but as free from care. She would sit for hours on the grass, playing with flowers, as in the days when her dead mother watched beside her. One of her chief pleasures was to go to church, although she could not now understand anything which took place within that holy house. Some dim association, connected with the past, seemed to fill her with a vague longing to go there whenever she heard the bell; and Agnes never refused her, as she was always still and quiet during the service. But it was a bitter trial to the widowed, childless woman, to sit beside her there, and see how, instead of the fervent devotion that formerly characterised poor Mary, she now sat smiling childishly, as she held up her thin white hand, to catch the bright colours of the stained glass, when the sunbeam was passing through them. At such moments, Agnes always saw, as in a vision, the scene that had taken place in the cold dark church in London, when she had taken the unlawful vows that never should have been uttered by one who called herself a Christian.
Many wondered that Mrs. Clayton could thus expose herself to the public gaze, with her whom they could not but term her victim by her side. But Agnes was now a penitent, not in name only; and she was ready--nay, anxious--to humble herself in the sight both of God and man. As for Mary, she could not but think that she was perhaps more fit to be within that church than many who came there; for she was well disposed to believe--in her case at least--that beautiful Eastern superstition which holds that those who labour under any mental infirmity are the favoured of heaven; that many things are shown to them of which we dream not; and that they hold converse with the holy angels, as we think the little infants also do.
There was another haunt, however, which Mary loved especially to frequent; and this fancy caused Agnes many a sharp remorseful pang, though she did not shrink from enduring them, for she was willing to submit to all the bitterness of the punishment laid upon her. It was to the churchyard that she had to follow her charge, day after day. Some faint recollection of the time before her illness, when she used to come and sit by her mother's grave, seemed to compel Mary to go there constantly; but she came not, as formerly, to think of those who are departed in the true faith of His holy Name, and pray that herself might have the perfect consummation and bliss in His eternal glory, but to pluck the flowers from the grass with unconscious hand, and sing gay, wild songs, ill-suited to the scene; and Agnes sat beside her, looking on the graves of all those she had loved,--on the family gathered at her feet, of which Mary was the sole living representative, and humbled herself to the very dust before the stern lessons learned in that place. Elizabeth's children, for whom she and her husband had sinned, were beside her there,--the one nestling calmly in the dust by the side of the true mother to whom he had been so soon restored, the other living a life which was most heavily afflicted by the very means wherewith they sought to make it blessed; and Agnes acknowledged those truths which she had refused to believe before, and had now learnt, at a fearful cost, that--"There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, AGAINST THE LORD;" "That he that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination;" "That out of evil no good can ever come."