[Transcriber's note: Lady Georgiana Fullerton (1812-1885), Ellen Middleton - a tale (1844), 1846 Tauchnitz edition]
ELLEN MIDDLETON BY LADY GEORGIANA FULLERTON.
IN ONE VOLUME.
LADY GEORGIANA FULLERTON.
BERNH. TAUCHNITZ JUN.
"I have read of a bird which hath a face like, and yet will prey upon, a man, who, coming to the water to drink, and finding there by reflexion that he had killed one like himself, pineth away by degrees, and never after enjoyeth itself. Such was in some sort the condition of—. This accident that he had killed one put a period to his carnal mirth, and was a covering to his eyes all the days of his life. Death was so sent to him as to allow him time to rise up on his knees and to crie, 'Lord have mercy upon me.'"
Fuller's Worthies, vol. II. p. 17.
"From each carved nook, and fretted bend, Cornice and gallery, seem to send Tones that with Seraph hymns might blend.
"Three solemn parts together twine, In Harmony's mysterious line, Three solemn aisles approach the shrine.
"Yet all are one, together all, With thoughts that awe but not appal, Teach the adoring heart to fall."
"But let my due feet never fail To walk the studious cloister's pale, And love the high-embowered roof, With antic pillars massy proof, And storied windows richly dight, Casting a dim religious light; There let the pealing organ blow, To the full voiced quire below, In service high and anthems clear, As may with sweetness through mine ear Dissolve me into extasies, And bring all Heaven before mine eyes."
"What child of sorrow Art thou, that com'st wrapt up in weeds of sadness, And mov'st as if thy steps were towards a grave?"
It was on the 15th of October, 18—, that one of the best and most respected clergymen in the town of—, and a canon of the cathedral, turned his steps towards the western door of that ancient pile. It was a little before the hour of evening service; the rays of the declining sun were shining brightly through the windows of painted glass, and producing that mellow and chastened light that accords so well with the feeling of religious awe, which a gothic edifice, the noblest of the works of man, is calculated to inspire; a work where he has been enabled to stamp on what is material an indelible impress of that spirit of devotion, which unites the utmost simplicity of faith with the highest sublimity of creed.
Mr. Lacy's attachment to this particular cathedral had grown with his growth and strengthened with his years. In his youth he had learnt to love its long deep aisles, its solemn arches, its quaint carvings. During the pauses between the several parts of divine service, his childish imagination would dwell upon the topics of thought suggested by the histories of saints and martyrs depicted in the glowing colours of the stained glass windows, or in the intricate workmanship of the minster screen. The swelling peal of the organ, the chaunting of the choristers, awoke in his young mind strange and bright imaginings of those things "which the eye of man has not seen, nor his ear heard, and that it has not entered into his heart to conceive."
To wander in the cloisters, and gather the flowers growing there among the old tombstones, and to think the while of the lilies of the field, which Solomon in all his glory could not equal; or of the wilderness that blossomed like the rose, at the word of the Lord; to collect in his own hands at Christmas as much holly as his puny strength could carry, and add it to the shining heap already standing at the cathedral door; to follow it in, with timid steps, and watch with wondering eyes, the adorning of the altar, the pulpit, the stalls, and the pews; to observe with childish glee two tall branches, all glowing with their coral berries, placed by the bench where he knelt in church with his mother; to sit at home by that mother of an evening, and with his Prayer Book on his knee, learn from her lips how that glorious hymn which he so loved to chaunt in church, and which spoke of angels and martyrs, of saints and apostles, of Heaven and earth, uniting in one concert of adoration, had been bequeathed to the holy church universal by a saint who had served his Creator from the days of his youth, and never wandered from the sacred shade of the sanctuary; for the baptism of another, who, after straying far and wide in the ways of sin and the maze of error, followed the while by a mother's prayers and tears, returned at last to the foot of the cross,* [* The Te Deum is supposed to have been composed by St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, for the baptism of St. Augustine.]
"With that free spirit blest, Who to the contrite can dispense The princely heart of innocence;"
to hear her tell how the three solemn parts of his beloved cathedral, all approaching the shrine in distinct majesty, and in mystical union, were a type and an emblem of the "Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity," so devoutly worshipped in the opening verses of the Litany; to be often reminded by her, when the deep melodious bells of the old tower spoke their loud summons to the house of God on festival and holiday, of the time when the faith in Christ was a matter of danger and of death, and the sanctuaries were laid among the vaults and the tombs—when in darkness and in silence Christians knelt on the cold stones, and a short hurried bell from the altar alone warned them of the moment when the blessed pledges of salvation were consecrated there. These were the joys of his childhood. These were the thoughts and the feelings which entwined themselves with his very being, and wound themselves round his heart; blending the memory of the past with the hopes of futurity. And when Mrs. Lacy, whose health had been gradually declining, died soon after her son had received the sacred rite of confirmation, and for the first time knelt by her side at the altar; it was not before her trembling lips had pronounced a blessing on the child, who, with her hand locked in his, and his eyes fixed on hers with the steady gaze of earnest, but, as far as this world was concerned, of hopeless affection, had given her the assurance that her people should be his people, and her God his God; that where she had lived there would he live, there would he die, and there also would he be buried.
As soon as his age warranted it he became a priest; and in the course of time, a canon of the cathedral of—. What had been the joys of his boyhood, became, afterwards, the safe-guards of his manhood, and finally the support and comfort of his declining years. The business of his life was prayer, and the exercise of the most unwearied and ardent charity. Its ruling principle, love to God, and to man. In the few hours of relaxation which he allowed himself, he found his pleasures in the study of ecclesiastical architecture, of the lives of saints and martyrs, above all, of everything that was in any way connected with the foundation, and the history of the several parts of that minster which he loved with all the holy love which men are wont to feel for the country of their birth and for the home of their youth, and, moreover, with a feeling akin to that which made Jacob exclaim, as he rose from his resting-place at Bethel, "This is the house of God, and the gate of Heaven!"
As I am not writing Mr. Lacy's history, it is unnecessary to enter into further details respecting the events of his life, if events they can be called, that chiefly consisted in the casual opportunities vouchsafed to him, of soothing some extraordinary sorrow; of recalling to the fold of Christ some wandering sinner, and of performing works of mercy and self-denial such as are seldom met with or even heard of in this luxurious and self-indulgent age. I will, therefore, revert to that hour of evening prayer which this chapter began by describing, as it will introduce us at once to the subject of this story.
Mr. Lacy had seated himself in his stall, and his eyes were glancing over the small congregation that had gathered together, on a week-day, for divine worship, when his attention was attracted by a woman who was sitting on one of the benches generally occupied by the poorest inhabitants of the town. She was very simply dressed, in deep mourning; but there was something about her attitude and countenance which I plainly indicated that she belonged to the higher classes of society. It was impossible to guess at her age; for although the slightness of her figure and the delicate beauty of her features gave her the appearance of youth, her face bore a wild and haggard expression that we seldom see in those who have not far advanced on their pilgrimage through life. Her arm was thrown against one of the adjoining pillars, and just before the beginning of the service she laid her head upon it, and neither stirred nor looked up during the time the prayers lasted. She neither knelt when others knelt, nor stood when they stood. Once only, when the organ sounded the first notes of one of the most beautiful anthems of our church, she rose from her seat almost mechanically, and an instant after resumed her former attitude. At the conclusion of the service, when the worshippers had all left the cathedral, Mr. Lacy passed near the place where the stranger still remained in a state of apparent abstraction; the sound of his approaching footsteps startled her; she hastily withdrew, and walked rapidly out of the church, and down one of the small streets that faced the entrance door. Two or three times during the succeeding fortnight, Mr. Lacy noticed the same person occupying the same place, and conducting herself in the same manner. His interest was powerfully excited, but he neither ventured to address her, nor could he succeed in ascertaining from the vergers, or from one or two other persons whom he questioned on the subject, anything respecting her. Chance, however, as it often happens in such cases, threw the information he sought in his way.
He was sitting one evening in his room, busily engaged in preparing his sermon for the Feast of All Saints, which occurred on the ensuing day, and on which it was his turn to preach, when he was disturbed by a knock at the door, and the subsequent entrance of an elderly woman, whom he had known for many years, and who had been in the habit of consulting him whenever any little scruple of conscience disturbed her in the exercise of her line of business, which was no other than that of lodging-letting. Mr. Lacy was so well acquainted with the character of his old friend, and with the nature of the difficulties usually submitted to him, that, after begging her to sit down, and draw her chair close to the fire, (for the last day of October was ushering in with suitable severity the first of November,) he immediately began—
"Well, my good Mrs. Denley, any more drunken lodgers, whom you keep on, for fear that no one but yourself would help them up to their rooms, and see that they did not spend the night in a less comfortable place than their beds? or are you still doubting as to the propriety of giving notice to quit to the gentleman who spoils your furniture, and never pays his rent, thereby keeping you from sending Johnny to school, as you had intended?"
"No, no, Sir; it has nothing to do with drunken lodgers, or with poor dear Johnny's going to school, or with not getting the rent paid, and all that, what's disturbing me now; but only just the contrary."
As it was difficult to understand, without farther explanation, how the contrary of these three things could be disturbing Mrs. Denley's mind, Mr. Lacy looked at her inquiringly, and she continued:
"You see, Sir, it is not exactly, as one might say, any business of mine; and I mind well what is said in St. Paul's Epistle to Timothy, that women should not be tattlers and busy-bodies; but for all that, I hope it is no sin to wish a young creature that's under one's roof, and that's dying by inches—of something—the Lord only knows what—for Dr. Reid doesn't. He saw her walking in, Sir, the other day, and I made so bold as to ask her if she wouldn't speak to him, but she wouldn't; and he says as how he can't guess what's the matter with her; and if he can't, why, who should? Well, as I was saying, Sir, I hope it isn't a sin to wish the poor young thing not to die, without medicine for her body, or means of grace for her soul."
"Assuredly, you are quite right in forming such a wish, and in endeavouring to prevent so terrible an occurrence. But who is the person you are alluding to?"
"She is my lodger, Sir, and has been for the last six weeks."
"What is her name?" inquired Mr. Lacy.
"Mrs. Rodney, Sir."
"Has she no friends that you know of? How came she to hear of your lodgings?"
"Why, she stopped (on a Monday, I think it was) at the 'Rose,' and she asked Mr. Chapman if he could tell her of a quiet kind of respectable lodging in the town; now, Mr. Chapman is always willing to do one a good turn. It was him, Sir, that sent Johnny back to Ashby, on Tuesday last, in a return post-chaise, after he had sprained his ancle. A very good man, and a neighbourly, is Mr. Chapman; and, as I was saying, he likes to do one a good turn; so that when the lady asked for decent respectable lodgings, he said he knew of the very thing as would suit her; and sure enough, the next morning she came to see the rooms, and took them at once; and nothing would serve her but to pay down at once the rent for six months; and when I made so free as to say she had better not, for fear of changing her mind about them, she grew quite savage like; for all that she is a gentle-looking creature, and said as violent as could be, 'It must be so—take the money.' Well, thought I to myself, may be she fancies I don't like her for a lodger; so I just said, in an easy kind of manner, 'Well, Ma'am, and I hope, when the six months are past, that you may take them on for another half-year.' But 'No,' says she; 'six months will do,' which, to be sure, was a natural thing enough for her to say; but I take it, that if you had been there, Sir, and had heard her say it, you would not have thought it quite natural either."
"Is this lady whom you are speaking of in deep mourning? and does she occasionally attend the cathedral service?"
"She does. Sir; and is always dressed in black. She sits near the pillar where Mrs. Jones used to sit, poor soul, when she was alive."
"I have remarked her; she does indeed look both ill and unhappy. Do you know anything of her history?"
"Not a word, Sir; she wears a wedding-ring, but her clothes are marked with an E. and an M., for all that she calls herself Mrs. Rodney."
"Does she ever enter into conversation with you?"
"Sometimes, a little. Last week, Joe Irving, the undergardener at Clomley lodge, brought me, as a present, a large nosegay of dahlias and china-asters. I carried them upstairs, and while Mrs. Rodney was in church, I put them into jars, on the table, and on the chimney-piece, and very bright and pretty they looked. So when she came in, she noticed them and thanked me, and spoke quite cheerful. As she was standing a-talking to me about them, an insect ran out from between the leaves, and I tried to kill it, but she caught my hand and stopped me; and her hand, Sir!—why it was more like one of those bits of hot coal there, than the little white soil thing it looked like, and when I looked at her face, there was a bright fever spot on each cheek, and her lips were as white as could be.
"'You are very ill. Ma'am,' says I to her; 'your hand is burning-hot.' She put it to her forehead and 'it does not feel hot to me,' says she, and walks away to the window and opens it, for all that it was almost as cold and raw as to-night. But, now, and that's what I'm come about. Sir, she has taken to her bed, and is in a very bad way indeed, I take it."
"What! and has not she seen the doctor?"
"No, indeed, Mr. Lacy; she won't as much as let him come into the house. When she found herself so ill, that she could not do for herself, she sent me to get one of the hospital nurses; and as Mary Evans was to be had, the girl that you was so good to last year when she broke her arm, I got her to come, and she has been with her these two days."
"Has she never spoken of seeing a clergyman?"
"Why, to say the truth, Sir, I made so bold as to ask her on it; it was yesterday when Mary Evans and I had been a-begging of her to let us fetch the doctor. 'No, no,' says she, 'he can do me no good;' and she fell to crying, which I had not seen her do before. 'Well, Ma'am,' says I, 'if he can do you no good, I know some one that would.' 'And who is that?' says she, sitting up in her bed, and looking hard at me. 'Mr. Lacy, Ma'am,' I said, 'the clergyman that read prayers last Sunday afternoon.' She laid down again, disappointed like, and I went on to say how you was quite a saint and a martyr, and a luminary of the church, as Johnny's schoolmaster says..."
"Hush, hush, my good Mrs. Denley; take care how you apply, or rather misapply, such names as those. But did Mrs. Rodney decline seeing me, or any other clergyman?"
"She did, Sir, and begged me not to mention it again."
"This is, indeed, a sad case: a woman young, friendless—dying, perhaps, and probably labouring under some mental affliction, and yet refusing to have recourse to the consolations of religion, and the ministry of the church," said Mr. Lacy, speaking rather to himself than to Mrs. Denley. "Have you," added he, turning to her, "any reason to suppose that this poor woman, notwithstanding her occasional attendance on the cathedral service, is a dissenter?"
"No, Sir, I think not; she has a small prayer-book, which I sometimes see lying on her table."
"Well, my dear Mrs. Denley," said Mr. Lacy, after a few moments' reflection; "we must both pray that God, of his infinite mercy, may dispose the heart of this young creature to turn to Him, and to the means of grace, which He has Himself appointed. To-morrow, when we kneel in the house of God, rejoicing with joy unspeakable over the glory of the church triumphant, and meditating on the blessedness of that holy multitude
'Who climbed the steep ascent to Heaven Through peril, toil, and pain,'
each in our place, we will bear in mind this suffering lamb of the fold, and pray earnestly that to her, as well as to us,
"Grace may be given, to follow in their train.'"
"I will, Sir: I will," replied the good old woman, with tears in her eyes. "But won't you try and see her?"
"I cannot force myself into her presence," answered Mr. Lacy; "but every day I will call at your house to inquire after her health, hoping and trusting that the hour will come when she will cease to shut her doors against one commissioned by our Lord, to bear words of peace to the wretched, and of pardon to the guilty. Whatever you can do to hasten that moment, I know you will do, my good friend, and so farewell to you."
"Good-night to you, and thank you kindly, Mr. Lacy; it must be a heavy heart indeed, that goes away from you no lighter than when it came to you;" and so saying, Mrs. Denley put on her cloak, took up her lanthorn, and trudged home, through the dark streets of the old town.
The next morning Mr. Lacy's thoughts were divided between the joyful contemplations which the holy festival it was ushering in was calculated to inspire, and the painful solicitude which the conversation of the preceding evening had left on his mind. In church, however, the latter feeling subsided, and gave way to that earnest calmness, and that intense devotion, which absorb for the time the cares and troubles of the soul, "like motes in light divine." When from the pulpit this aged minister dwelt in glowing words on the communion between the saints above and the saints below; on the link that unites the church militant here on earth with the church triumphant in Heaven; above all, when in terms of the deepest reverence and of the intensest love, he spoke of our Lord Jesus Christ, and prayed that he himself, and all those who joined with him in prayer that day, might each, in God's own time, enter into the fulness of his presence, and worship in his courts evermore, yea in time and in eternity, there was something so ardent in his aspirations, and yet so chastened in his devotion, that the assembled multitude heard him with a reverence, mingled with awe; they felt as if Elijah's car of fire might bear him away from their sight; from the shelter of the sanctuary on earth to the glories of the new Jerusalem on high.
After the conclusion of the sermon, Mr. Lacy remained absorbed in earnest prayer, till the last of the worshippers had withdrawn, and the parting strain from the organ had died away on the walls of the cathedral. As he was slowly descending the aisle, he paused before the place where Mrs. Rodney had been seated some days before; as he stood musing on the account which he had heard of her from Mrs. Denley, he observed a few lines written in pencil on the column against which she had been in the habit of leaning. They were so faintly marked, and had probably been so much effaced since, that he found great difficulty in making them out. At last he succeeded in doing so, and they were as follows:—
"My aching heart is breaking, My burning brain is reeling, My very soul is riven, I feel myself forsaken. And phantom forms of horror, And shapeless dreams of terror. And mocking tones of laughter, About me seem to gather; And death, and hell, and darkness Are driving me to madness."
It would be difficult to describe the revulsion of feeling which Mr. Lacy experience on reading the expression of a despair that contrasted so strikingly with the joy and the peace which had been filling his own heart. There was also something which indicated a kind of reckless helplessness in the fact of leaving that confession of mental agony to be scanned, perhaps, by indifferent eyes. It must have been done in one of those moments when the tortured heart would break if it did not in some mode or other give vent to its anguish. Mr. Lacy, after some minutes' consideration, took out of his pocket a pencil and a bit of paper, and transcribed upon it the lines he had found, and then carefully effaced them from the pillar on which they had been written. As he slowly walked out of the cathedral, and towards Mrs. Denley's house, he revolved in his mind the means by which he would be most likely to gain admission to Mrs. Rodney's presence. It struck him that if she could be made aware that he had read the words that were now in his possession, she would feel less reluctance to enter into communication with him: but it was difficult to convey this fact to her without wounding her feelings. When he reached the house and knocked, he was still undecided as to the course he should pursue. Mary Evans, the girl who was in attendance upon Mrs. Rodney, came to the door; and when Mr. Lacy inquired after Mrs. Rodney's health, answered: "Why, Sir, she says as how she is wonderful better to-day, and so strong that she's been a getting up and walking about her room; but, I take it, her strength is fever strength, for her cheeks are red as crimson, and she seems as if she could not sit still."
"She should not be allowed to exert herself in that way," observed Mr. Lacy;—"she may do herself much harm."
"Indeed, and that's quite true, Sir; but there's no persuading her when she's in one of her ways. She speaks as gentle as a lamb in common, and never scolds or complains; but when she gets into a tantrum about something as one wants her to do or not to do, she grows to look quite wild like. It's just now that Mrs. Denley saw you a-coming down the street; and says she to Mrs. Rodney (Mrs. Denley had stepped up to see how the fire was burning. Sir,)—well, says she to Mrs. Rodney, 'There's Mr. Lacy a-coming down this way Ma'am; I think he'll be after asking to see you:' and Mrs. Rodney on that turns round and says so sudden, 'If I am to be persecuted in this manner, I shall leave the house at once,' that Mrs. Denley let fall the coal-scuttle, and she says as how it gave her quite a revulsion. But won't you walk in, Sir?"
"No; I came only to inquire after Mrs. Rodney's health; and as, from what you have just told me, she certainly would not be inclined to see me, I shall send up no message on the subject." And so saying, Mr. Lacy took his departure.
On the Sunday following, a few minutes after the beginning of evening service, he saw, gliding to her usual place, with a noiseless step, the poor woman who during the past week had so much occupied his thoughts. Her shrunken form and flushed cheeks revealed the fatal progress of a disease which betrays its victims all the more surely, by imparting to them, at certain stages of its course, a false strength, that lures them to exertions only serving to accelerate its fearful termination. As Mr. Lacy mounted the pulpit, he breathed an ardent prayer that something in the words he was going to utter might carry a token of peace to this poor creature's breast, a ray of light to her mind. In the course of his sermon he introduced the following sentences:—
"When the heart of man is breaking, and his brain is reeling, to whom should he turn, but to Him who said, 'Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest?' When the soul of man is shaken, and he feels himself forsaken, to whom should he turn, but to Him who once cried out upon the cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' When phantom forms of horror, and shapeless dreams of terror, assail the soul of man, to whom should he turn, but to Him who was once in such great agony, that his sweat fell like drops of blood upon the earth? When mocking tones of laughter are wildly ringing round him, to whom should he turn, but to Him who was jeered at, and reviled on the cross, because others he saved, but himself he could not save. When death, and hell, and darkness, are driving man to madness, to whom should he turn, but to him who took from the grave its victory, from death its sting, and from hell its prey?—to Him who died and rose again the third day, in order that death, and hell, and darkness, should never more drive men to madness."
On the evening of this day, Mr. Lacy received the following note. It seemed written at once with difficulty and with rapidity, and in parts was somewhat illegible.
"If you still wish to see me, Mr. Lacy,—if you are not wearied with vainly seeking admittance to one who is not worthy to wipe the dust from your feet, come to me now. You spoke to me to-day, though you never turned your eyes towards me. I looked into your face, and it seemed to me as if it had been the face of an angel and when your lips uttered the words that my hand had written, I hung upon your lips. It was as a voice from Heaven; my heart melted within me, and I wept; not as I have often wept, for my eyes are worn out with crying; not tears that scorch the eyelids as they flow, but tears that seem to loosen the iron band that binds my temples, and to melt the dull hard stone in my breast. I came home, and knelt by my bedside—my Prayer-book was in my hand: I opened it, and these words met my eyes, 'The order for the Visitation of the Sick.' I closed the book, and read no more. Mr. Lacy, I am sick in body, and sick at heart. Will you come and visit me? You will not question me; you will not ask me why my sorrow is like no other sorrow; but you will pray for me, and by me. Perhaps you may say some words like this morning's—not words of comfort, words of hope, but words that will make me weep, as I wept then.
The next morning at twelve o'clock, Mr. Lacy was at the door of Mrs. Denley's house. His Prayer-book was in his hand, and as he entered, he slowly pronounced the appointed blessing, "Peace be to this house, and to all that dwell in it." Mrs. Denley led the way up stairs, and opened the door of the room, where Ellen was lying on a sofa, supported by cushions. Her face was paler than the day before, but a sudden flush overspread it as Mr. Lacy entered.
"You are welcome," she said, extending to him at the same time her thin transparent hand. "It is kind of you to come, and kind of you (she added, tuning to Mrs. Denley, and to Mary Evans, who were standings by,) to join in these prayers. There are responses to be made, I believe."
Mr. Lacy perceived that she was anxious that he should begin the service at once, without previously entering into conversation with her; and feeling deeply himself that no words of his could bring such powerful consolation to the soul, if burthened with sorrow, or so forcibly awaken the sense of sin, if guilt and remorse were troubling it, as those which the Church supplied him with, he knelt at once by Ellen's couch, and with more emotion than he had perhaps ever felt before in the exercise of this portion of his sacred ministry, he read the solemn prayer for mercy, with which this service opens.
After the Lord's Prayer, in which Ellen had feebly joined, Mr. Lacy and the two women, who knelt opposite to him, repeated alternately the impressive sentences of the Litany, which immediately follows it.
There was something in these supplications that seemed to accord, in some extraordinary manner, with the state of Ellen's mind. When the minister prayed "that her enemy should have no advantage of her," she started convulsively, and gazed wildly about her, as the women responded, "Nor the wicked approach to hurt her." When the words "From the face of her enemy," were uttered, she hid her face in her hands, and a slight shudder shook her frame. After a pause, Mr. Lacy read the prayers that follow, and then rising from his knees, turned towards Ellen, and addressed to her the beautiful and touching exhortation, that forms part of the service; but when towards the end of it—"Forasmuch as after this life there is an account to be given unto the Righteous Judge, by whom all must be judged, without respect of persons"—he required her to examine herself and her estate, both towards God and towards man, so that accusing and condemning herself for her own faults, she might find mercy at our Heavenly Father's hand for Christ's sake, then Ellen trembled. When he rehearsed to her the Apostles' Creed, and asked her if all these articles of the Christian faith she stedfastly believed, she bowed her assent. And now they had arrived at that solemn period in the service when the minister was bound by his sacred office to examine whether she truly repented her of her sins, and was in charity with all the world;—when he was to exhort her to forgive from the bottom of her heart the persons that had offended her; and if she had offended any other, to ask of them forgiveness; and where she had done injury or wrong to any man, to make amends to the uttermost of her power. He did so in words of awful warning, and at the same time of soothing tenderness; but no answer came from her lips—she turned her face towards the wall; and, to use the expressive words of Holy Scripture, she lifted up her voice and wept.
Mr. Lacy directed Mrs. Denley and Mary Evans to leave him alone with Ellen, but to remain within call in case their presence was required.
When the door was closed he addressed her in the following words:—"Your conscience is troubled with some weighty matter—the heaviness of guilt is on your soul, ay, and that of deep anguish too," he added, as the heart-rending expression of her countenance, which she suddenly turned towards him, revealed the acuteness of her sufferings. "Perhaps, too, you may have been more sinned against than sinning. Perhaps the hand of man has been against you, and you have wandered, young as you are, through the wilderness of the world, and found no rest for the sole of your foot. You have longed, perhaps, like the dove, to flee away and be at rest."
In a hoarse voice Ellen murmured, "There is no peace for the wicked!"
"But there is pardon for the penitent, and peace for the pardoned," rejoined Mr. Lacy.
"Pardoned! pardoned!" exclaimed Ellen, pressing her hand to her forehead, "I shall never feel myself pardoned! Mr. Lacy, I have sometimes opened the Bible, and I have read in it words of pity, words of mercy, words of promise, and for a moment they seemed to bring comfort to my soul; but the dark spirit within me would still whisper, They are not written for thee,—not for thee. O God! O God! when shall I ever feel forgiven?"
"When, laying aside all human pride, all human fears," solemnly replied Mr. Lacy, "in meek distrust of your own judgment, in deep humility of spirit, you make, as the Church requires, a special confession of your sins to one, who, if you truly repent and believe, can absolve you from them, by the authority committed to him by our Lord Jesus Christ."
Ellen listened to these words in deep silence, and Mr. Lacy did not interrupt her meditation. After a long pause daring which she seemed absorbed in the most intense thought, she once more extended her hand to him, and said, "I think, I hope, that a change has come over me. Thoughts are crowding upon my mind, that never came there before, and things begin to appear to me in a new light. Perhaps it is from the approach of death, which since yesterday has seemed to draw very near to me; and to one who has suffered as I have suffered, death, if it could be robbed of its terror, ought not to be very dreadful. I have often said, 'Would that I could lay myself down and die;' but now, now that I see death coming in its stern reality, I would fain shrink from it; and yet nothing but the cold hand of death will ever still the passionate throbbings of my heart, and teach it to love less wildly, or to hate less fiercely. Forgive me, forgive me, Mr. Lacy! Oh, do not turn away from me! God has sent you to me as an angel of mercy, not as the minister of his wrath. You bade me confess my sins. See, I confess them! I will kneel to you!" and Ellen, in spite of Mr. Lacy's efforts to prevent her, flung herself on the ground at his feet, and clung to them in an agony of tears. He instantly raised her, and, replacing her on the sofa, with a voice of authority desired her to be calm, and to compose herself. She obeyed, and in a few minutes, and with an altered manner, she again addressed him. "I cannot confess my sins without revealing the history of my life; my guilt and my sorrows are so closely linked together, that they cannot be separated: but I wish to keep no secret from you—you have brought a vision of peace and of hope before me; and perhaps, when you know how miserable I have been, though how guilty, you may not think me utterly unworthy of it."
"None are unworthy of pardon in the eyes of our adorable Saviour," said Mr. Lacy, "who heartily repent and sue for it; but remember that we must forgive as we hope to be forgiven."
"Since I have seen you and heard you," said Ellen, "I can pray, I dare pray, and I will pray that God may change my heart, and teach me to forgive as I hope to be forgiven: and now as I am not strong enough to speak much at a time, and that I wish to open my heart to you without reserve, I will put into your hands a history of my life, which, during days of solitude and nights of weary watchings, I have written—and which will disclose to you all the secrets of my soul; it is the most complete confession I can make. When you have read it, Mr. Lacy, you will return to me. By that time, perhaps, the grace of God will have quelled the storms within me, and I may then hear from your lips the blessed words of absolution."
The following history was contained in the manuscript which Mr. Lacy carried home with him.
"What thousand voices pass through all the rooms, What cries and hurries! ........................................ My cousin's death sits heavy on my conscience; hark! ........................................ In every room confusion, they're all mad. Most certain all stark mad within the house."
BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER.
I was born and educated in the house of my uncle, Mr. Middleton, one of the wealthiest squires in D—shire. He had received my mother with kindness and affection, on her return from India, where she had lost her husband and her eldest child. She was his youngest and favourite sister, and when after having given birth to a daughter she rapidly declined in health, and soon after expired, bequeathing that helpless infant to his protection, he silently resolved to treat it as his own, and, like most resolutions formed in silence, it was religiously adhered to. At the time of my birth, my uncle was about forty years old; a country gentleman in the most respectable sense of the word.
Devoted to the improvement of his tenants on the one hand, and to that of his estate on the other; zealous as a magistrate, active as a farmer, charitable towards the poor, and hospitable towards the rich, he was deservedly popular with his neighbours, and much looked up to in his county. He had been attached in his youth to the daughter of a clergyman of eminent abilities and high character, who resided in the neighbourhood of Elmsley. For six years his father had opposed his intended marriage with Miss Selby, and when at the end of that time he extorted from him a reluctant consent, it was too late to press his suit; she was dying of a hopeless decline, and to cheer her few remaining days of life by every token of the most devoted affection, and after her death to mourn deeply and silently over the wreck of his early hopes, was the conclusion of an attachment to which Mr. Middleton had looked, as to the source and means of all his future happiness. At the age of thirty-five he became possessed, by his father's death, of the manor-house of Elmsley, and of the large property adjoining to it. In the happiness which his wealth gave him the means of diffusing around him, in the friendly attachment with which he was regarded by those among whom he now fixed his residence, he found subjects of interest, and sources of gratification, which gradually obliterated the traces of his early affliction.
From what I have already said, it will be plainly perceived that my uncle was a man that one could not fail to esteem; though whether or not it was as easy to love him, may be questioned. To the strictest principles of religious morality, he added a heart full of kind feeling for others, and an invariable serenity of temper, but an unconquerable reserve, a want of confidence in others, and an absence of sympathy in their tastes and pursuits, interfered with the expression, if not with the existence, of those affections, which his merits and his kindness would otherwise have been so well calculated to inspire. I never remember his taking the slightest interest in any of my childish pleasures, or his uttering any but the most formal phrase of commendation when my performances were submitted to his inspection. Young as I was, I felt this want of sympathy, in the only person who was really interested in my welfare, and would have gladly agreed to be less calmly reproved when I was wrong, and more warmly praised when I was right.
Till the age of six years old, I am not conscious of having loved any human being. From accidental circumstances my nurses had been so often changed, that I had not had the opportunity of attaching myself to any of them; and as to my uncle, I believe he might have left Elmsley for days, weeks or months, without causing me the slightest sensation of regret or solitude. He did not often absent himself from home, but on one occasion he did so for three months, and a few days before his return, my nurse informed me that he was married, and that I should soon see my new aunt. The announcement caused me neither pleasure nor pain; and curiosity was the only feeling with which I anticipated the arrival so eagerly looked forward to by the whole of my uncle's establishment. When Mrs. Middleton arrived I was immediately summoned into the drawing-room. The tenderness of her manner, the expressions of fondness with which she greeted me; the emotion which her countenance betrayed, were all so totally different from anything that I had ever witnessed, that I felt as if a being from another world had come among us. There was something heavenly in the expression of her countenance, there was something original in every word she uttered; in her gaiety there was a bubbling joyousness, an intense enjoyment in enjoyment, that was irresistibly attractive, and in sorrow or in emotion, her tears fell unconsciously from her eyes, and would trickle down her cheeks without any of the disfiguring grimaces which usually attend the act of weeping. I loved her from the first instant I saw her, and my childish heart clung to her with all the strength of feeling that had lain dormant in it during the first years of my existence. To use a familiar expression, we took to each other instantaneously; I do not know that she was fond of children, as it is called; she did not stop to caress those we met in our walks, and of romping and noise she grew very soon weary; but there was so much originality in her understanding, and so much simplicity in her character; she was so in earnest about every employment and amusement which she admitted me to share, that, superior as she was, I never felt that she was making an effort to bring herself down to my level, and consequently in her society never experienced the weariness which children are apt to feel, from those flat and unprofitable attempts to amuse them, which are so often made and so often fail. She required sympathy; it was as necessary to her as the air of heaven, and what she so much needed herself, she amply yielded to others, I never met in my life with any one who entered into the feelings of those about her as she did.
Altogether, she was a person more calculated to diffuse happiness than to enjoy it; perhaps to inspire more enthusiastic feelings of affection, than she herself often experienced. Be that as it may, she opened a new era in the history of my childhood; and, during the six or seven years that followed the epoch of my uncle's marriage, my life was as happy as that of a human creature can be. About a year after that event, Mrs. Middleton was confined of a girl, and this circumstance, far from diminishing my happiness, served but to increase it. My aunt was not a person capable of being engrossed by an infant, and though greatly pleased at the birth of her little girl, her affection for me suffered no diminution. The cares which little Julia required—the task of entertaining her, which often fell to my share—formed a delightful amusement; and I do not remember, till the time when she was eight and I fifteen, having ever felt, or, indeed, having had cause to feel, one jealous pang on her account.
Mrs. Middleton took great pains with my education,—at least with those parts of it which were congenial to her taste and mine; for, to follow with ardour whatever was the impulse and fancy of the moment, was at once the charm and the danger of my aunt's character. She could not resist the temptation of initiating me, perhaps too early, into those studies which captivate the imagination and excite the feelings. German and Italian we studied together. The most romantic parts of history—all that was most interesting and bewitching in poetry, furnished materials for those hours which we devoted to reading. Reading! that most powerful instrument in the education of the heart!—silently searching into its secrets, rousing its dormant passions, and growing sometimes itself into a passion! But there was scarcely less excitement in conversing with my aunt, than in reading with her. She never took a common-place view of any subject, or shrunk from expressing her real opinion upon it, whatever it might be. With regard to her own feelings, she took nothing for granted; she never persuaded herself (as so many people do) that, because it would be right or desirable to feel and to act in a particular manner, she did so feel and act, while her conscience bore witness to the contrary. She was a great searcher into motives, and fearfully true in her judgment of people and of things: had not her character been one of the noblest, and her mind one of the purest that ever woman was gifted with, there would have been something startling in the boldness of her opinions, and in the candour of her admissions. Had she been within reach of any associates whose feelings and understandings were in any way congenial to her own, she would not, in all probability, have treated me, rather as a pupil and companion, than as an intimate friend. She would not have poured out her thoughts, to me with the most unbounded confidence, or taught me to feel that I was essential to her happiness; but, as it was, (for at Elmsley she had neighbours and acquaintances, but no friends,) she did all this, and the intense gratification which I derived from my constant intercourse with one whom I loved with the tenderest affection, kept me in a state of highly wrought excitement, which, while it subdued, and even effaced, the trivial faults of that early age, exercised on my character an influence far from beneficial to my future happiness. One of the subjects on which Mrs. Middleton would often speak to me with eagerness and eloquence, was the self-deception with which most people persuade themselves that their affections flow in their most natural channels, without proving their own feelings by the stern test of reality. Fully aware of her partiality to me; aware, too, how unattractive a child my cousin Julia was, and how unsuited to my aunt's nature and taste must be the cold, sluggish, selfish disposition which her daughter evinced, and which she seemed painfully alive to, I never for an instant doubted that her affection for me exceeded in kind, as well as in degree, that which she felt for her own child. Often would she lament to me that Julia gave no promise of future excellence of mind or character; that in her she never expected to find the sympathy, the responsive tenderness, that characterised our intimacy, and which shed such a charm over every detail of life. The selfishness inherent in the human heart, superadded to the exclusive nature of a passionate attachment, made me listen to these forebodings with a secret satisfaction, laying, meanwhile, the flattering unction to my soul, that nothing but the purest spirit of devoted tenderness led me to rejoice that I could fill a place in my aunt's affections, which would prevent her suffering from the disappointment which my cousin's repulsive and apathetic disposition would otherwise have caused to a heart as warm, and a spirit as ardent, as hers.
A few years (the happiest of my life) carried me rapidly to the verge of womanhood. I attained my fifteenth year, and began to form acquaintances, and to mix in the society which occasionally met at Elmsley. It chiefly consisted of relations of my uncle and of Mrs. Middleton, who came at certain intervals, and spent a few weeks at the old Priory, which then became the scene of more active amusements than were customary in our usually retired mode of life. Edward Middleton, a nephew of my uncle, and Henry Lovell, a younger brother of my aunt, who were college friends and constant associates, were among our most frequent visitors. The latter, who had lost his mother several years before the time I am speaking of, and whose father held a situation in one of the government offices, which obliged him to remain in London almost all the year round, had been in the habit of spending first his holidays from Eton, and subsequently the Oxford vacations, with his sister at Elmsley. There he formed an acquaintance with Edward Middleton, which soon grew into a close intimacy; and both at college and at Elmsley they were inseparable. As it so often happens in such cases, there was hardly any perceptible bond of sympathy between them; they were so strikingly dissimilar in character and in tastes, that one could scarcely understand the pleasure they took in each other's society. It is necessary to the subsequent unfolding of my story that I should give some account of them, and of the feelings with which I regarded, at that time, these two men. They were both several years older than myself, but the disparity was not enough to prevent my considering them as friends and companions. They had both left Oxford some two or three years before the time I am speaking of. Henry Lovell was at once like and unlike his sister, Mrs. Middleton; he was exceedingly attractive; there was no denying the charm that existed in the rapid intelligence, the quick conception, and the ready humour that lit up his eyes and countenance, and sparkled in his repartee. His powers of captivation were as great as hers, but he knew that power, and even used it for an end; while in her it was spontaneous as the bubbling of a stream, as the song of the birds, or as the joy of childhood. Both had a keen perception of the ludicrous, but in her it never amounted to ill-nature: she was as severe upon herself as he was upon others; while she penetrated into their motives she judged them kindly, and was at ready to detect evil in her own heart as he was to suspect it in theirs. His smile was sarcastic, and his remarks were often bitter. If he had not been charming, he would have been odious; and to have been loved at all, he must have been passionately loved, for no feeling short of passion could have withstood the withering influence of his profound selfishness. He was well versed in the language of feeling, in the theory of enthusiasm; he could speak of "whatsoever things are pure, of whatsoever things are lovely, of whatsoever things are honest, of whatsoever things are of good report." Where there was virtue, and where there was praise, there was he ready to descant with eloquence, to discuss with ability; there he was at home, at least in conversation, for, in the varied range of human affections, his intellect conceived what his heart did not feel.
At the time that I am writing of, when he and Edward Middleton were the two persons who most occupied my thoughts, and interested my girlish imagination, it would have been difficult for me to describe what I thought of each. For Edward I felt an involuntary respect, which made me shrink from expressing, before him, any opinion, or any sentiment which he was likely to condemn; he seemed inclined to judge me with peculiar severity, and I sometimes felt provoked at the calm sternness of his manner on these occasions, especially on comparing it with the smiling indifference with which he would listen to Henry Lovell's satirical remarks, which I secretly felt to be more deserving of blame than my own thoughtless observations, little as I could withstand myself the extraordinary fascination which his peculiar tone of mind and conversation exercised on those about him.
In the summer of the year 18—, my cousin Julia had a long and severe illness. For some days she lay at the point of death; and, for the first time in my life, I saw the expression of anguish in the face I loved best in the world. Mrs. Middleton's grief seemed out of proportion with the degree of affection she had hitherto apparently felt for her child; and there was a wildness in her sorrow which surprised as much as it affected me. Long afterwards, it struck me that something of remorse, at the preference she had so openly shown for me, and at the coldness with which she had regarded her daughter, might have added to the misery she then experienced. But, at the time, this idea never occurred to me; I thought I had underrated the strength of my aunt's feelings, and only wondered at the intensity of an affection which had never betrayed itself to that extent before.
After a few anxious days and nights, my cousin rallied, and by degrees recovered; but did not regain the state of robust health which she had previously enjoyed. My aunt's devotion to her was unceasing: she patiently watched over her, and attended to every wish and fancy that she expressed. Julia's temper, which had never been good, grew gradually worse; and it required all a mother's forbearance to endure her continual waywardness and caprice. She had never seemed to feel much affection for me, but now her indifference grew into positive dislike, and nothing I could say or do ever succeeded in pleasing her. When left in my charge, she would invariably insist upon doing something or other which I was obliged to prohibit or prevent; and the slightest opposition to her will would instantly produce such fits of passion, and of crying, that my aunt at her return found her frequently in such a state of hysterical nervousness, or else so pale and exhausted by her own violence, that it was some time before she could be restored to anything like calmness or good-humour. I can truly say that I made every possible effort to gain the affection of my little cousin, and I was seldom betrayed into any irritable expression, or sign of impatience, much as I was daily and hourly tried.
Once or twice I had observed an expression of displeasure in Mrs. Middleton's countenance, on overhearing Julia's screams, on some of the occasions alluded to; and I had sometimes noticed a sudden cloud pass over her brow, and an abrupt change in her manner, at the moments when she was on the point of giving utterance to those expressions of tenderness which she was wont to bestow upon me: but that tenderness was so evident; it had been spoken in words; it had been proved by deeds; I had read it in every look of her eyes; I had traced it in every tone of her voice, during so many years, that I should as soon have doubted that the rays of the sun cheered and warmed me, as that my aunt loved me.
I am now come to an epoch of my life, the events of which, in their minutest details, are engraved on my memory as if a burning iron had stamped them on my brain. I will not anticipate, but, with unflinching resolution, record every particular of the day which changed me from a happy child into a miserable woman.
Some description of Elmsley Priory is requisite to the understanding of my story, and I will endeavour to make it short and clear.
The house itself, formerly a monastery, was built on the brow of a steep hill; irregular in shape, it seemed to have been added to, bit by bit, according to the increasing size of the convent. A verandah or balcony of modern date, followed the sinuosities of the old pile, and, from its peculiar position, while at one extremity it was on a level with the grounds, at the other it overhung a precipitous declivity. This bank shelved down to the edge of a rapid stream, which chafed and foamed along the base of the hill against which the house stood.
At one of the ends of the verandah was a rough flight of stone steps, much overgrown with moss, at all times difficult to descend, and, after rain, positively dangerous, from the slippery nature of the footing it afforded. It led to the edge of the river down the bank already described. A longer and more circuitous path began at the opposite extremity of the verandah, and ended at the same point.
The view which this balcony commanded was one of the most beautiful that can be conceived; and in the first freshness of a spring morning, in the intense heat and repose of a summer noon, in the glorious beauty of an autumnal sunset, or in the grandeur of a wintry storm, we were wont to stand and revel in the varying aspects which this lovely landscape presented to our eyes. It was a combination of wood, stream, and mountain, with a few cottages scattered here and there, as if a painter's hand had placed them where they stood. Altogether, they formed a picture which the eye loved to dwell upon, and which memory strives to recall.
It was on one of those glorious days, when existence in itself, and apart from all other circumstances, is felt to be a blessing, that I stood leaning against one of the pillars of the gallery I have described.
There had been a thunder-storm, and torrents of rain, in the night, but then the sky was perfectly cloudless; that thin transparent haze, which in England sobers without obscuring the brightness of a hot sunny day, hung lightly on the horizon; the lights and shades played in the stream below, and the busy hum of insects was the only sound that reached my ears. The rose of May, and the slender jessamine, twined round the pilasters, near which I stood. They were giving out all their sweetness, and seemed to be rearing their graceful heads again, after the storm that had so rudely shaken them.
I had thrown back my bonnet, to enjoy more completely the warm perfumed breeze; and was so absorbed by the beauty of the scene, that it was only on being called to for the second time, that I turned round, and saw Julia, standing on the edge of the stone parapet, with her arm round one of the columns. The dangerous nature of her position immediately struck me; I told her to come down, and, on her refusing to do so, took hold of her, and placed her on the ground. She instantly set up one of her loudest screams, and, exclaiming that I had hurt her, she rushed past me, and ran into the drawing-room, one of the recesses of which formed an angle in the building. A small paned latticed window, which opened on the verandah, was at this moment imperfectly closed, and from the spot where I stood, I could hear every word that was spoken in that recess. I heard Julia complaining to her mother of my unkindness, in a voice broken by sobs, and tremulous with passion. The child's statement of the facts that had led to my interference, was totally false; for an instant I felt inclined to follow her, in order to contradict it, but the bane of my nature, pride, which always made me hate an explanation or a justification, restrained the impulse, and I then caught the sound of Mrs. Middleton's voice; she was speaking in a low earnest manner to her husband.
"This cannot last," she was saying; "it cannot be suffered to last; these children must be separated, and the sooner the better."
"But what can be done?" was the reply; "Ellen has no home but this."
I listened breathlessly for the answer. It seemed to me, at that moment, as if my life depended upon it; my breath seemed to stop, and my whole frame to quiver.
"She might go to some good school for a year or two," was the answer: "it would be painful to decide on such a step; but nothing can signify to us in comparison with Julia's health." I did not hear any more, but, snatching up my bonnet, I rushed along the verandah till I came to its farthest extremity. I knelt, and leant my head against the stones of the parapet. Every vein in my brow seemed swelled to bursting, and I felt as if I had waked from a happy dream to a state of things which my understanding could scarcely master.
Was it indeed my aunt? was it Mrs. Middleton? who had spoken of sending me away from her—away from Elmsley? Was it she that had said I was nothing to her in comparison with the selfish child whom, for her sake alone, I had endured? It was even so—I was nothing to her; I felt convinced of it at once; and it seemed to me in that moment as if a sudden chill struck to my heart, and crept through my whole frame. I have often wondered whether the sensation of moral suffering is as nearly allied to physical pain in every one else as in myself. The expression of an aching heart has always appeared to me to have a literal as well as a figurative sense; there is a sort of positive pain that accompanies certain kinds of mental sufferings, different in its nature from the feeling of grief, even in its highest degree; and disappointment in its various forms is perhaps the species of suffering which generally produces it.
I was, at the moment I have described, experiencing this kind of pain in its acutest shape. I felt reluctant to move from where I stood; the sound of my own quick breathing was oppressive to me. My eyes were closed, that the light of the sun, in all its glorious brightness, should not reach me. The sounds, the smells, that I was enjoying a few minutes before, were growing intolerable to me. No voice could then have been welcome to me (for the voice I loved best, the voice that had ever spoken peace and joy to my heart, I had just heard utter words that had destroyed at one blow the fabric of bliss which my heart had so long reared for itself); no voice, I say, could have been welcome to me; but when I heard the sharp and querulous tones of Julia, God in mercy forgive me for what I felt. She was again standing at the head of the stone steps, that I have described as forming one of the extremities of the verandah; and as she placed her foot on one of the moss-covered slippery steps, she called out, "I'm going down—I'll have my own way now." I seized her hand, and drawing her back, exclaimed, "Don't, Julia!" on which she said, "You bad better not teaze me; you are to be sent away if you teaze me." I felt as if a viper had stung me; the blood rushed to my head, and I struck her;—she reeled under the blow, her foot slipped, and she fell headlong down the stone steps. A voice near me said, "She has killed her!" There was a plunge in the water below; her white frock rose to the surface—sunk—rose again—and sunk to rise no more. Two men rushed wildly down the bank, and one of them turned and looked up as he passed. I heard a piercing scream—a mother's cry of despair. Nobody said again "She has killed her." I did not die—I did not go mad, for I had not an instant's delusion—I never doubted the reality of what had happened; but those words—"She has killed her!" "She has killed her!"—were written as with a fiery pencil on my brain, and day and night they rang in my ears. Who had spoken them?
There was the secret of my fate!
"Whence is that knocking? How is 't with me when every noise appals me; What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand?"
"In the wind there is a voice Shall forbid thee to rejoice; And to thee shall night deny All the quiet of her sky; And the day shall have a sun Which shall make thee wish it done."
I know not how long I remained in the same place, rooted to the spot, the blood rushing at one instant with such violence to my head, that it seemed as if it would burst from my temples; and the next I felt a cold sweat on my forehead, and a horrible fear creeping over my heart. I could not move, and my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth; my eyes felt as if they were starting out of my head, and I sought to close them and could not. There was that torrent before them; it roared, it foamed; and the foam looked like a shroud; and the roaring of the waters sounded like a scream; and I screamed too—a dreadful scream—and then all at once I grew calm; for there were hurried steps on the gallery, and terror paralysed me. It was the housekeeper and the doctor; as they came, the latter said:—"Take the other child to her,—perhaps she will cry when she sees her." And as I was trembling violently, and did not seem to hear what they said to me, though I did hear every word, the man took me up in his arms, and carried me like a baby into the drawing-room. Mrs. Middleton was there with a face paler than a sheet; when she saw me her mouth quivered, but she did not speak or cry; she waved her hand, and then laid her head again against the open door, and seemed to listen with her heart. I felt as if I could hear it beat where I sat. Five or six minutes passed, and then Mr. Middleton rushed into the room. She looked up into his face and shrieked—the same fearful shriek I had heard once before. He took her hands, which she was wringing wildly, and putting his arm round her, he whispered, "Now, Mary, all is over; show me that you believe in God." She struggled for a moment, her chest heaved convulsively, and then she burst into a violent fit of hysterical crying. He supported her out of the room, and they went away together. The housekeeper came up to the sofa where I was, and taking one of my hands, she said, "And where were you when the poor thing fell?"
I started up as if she had shot me; I rushed out of the room, across the hall, through the winding passages, and up the stairs into my own room. I locked the door, and falling on my knees with my face against the bed-post, I pressed my temples with my hands as if to still their throbbing. During the next two or three hours, each knock at my door made me jump as if a cannon had gone off at my ear; each time I opened it I expected to be accused of Julia's death,—to be told that I had killed her; and once, when it was my uncle's step that I heard approaching, I opened my window, and was on the point of throwing myself out of it: strange to say, the only thing that stopped me was the fear of adding to Mrs. Middleton's anguish. I suppose it was the excessive terror that I felt of being denounced, or of betraying myself, that saved me from a brain fever; the very intensity of this anxiety subdued the extravagance of my despair, and I calmed myself that I might appear calm. I took some food, because I instinctively felt that I needed strength and support. It never occurred to me, it never once crossed my mind, to reveal what I had done. I felt that if any one accused me, I must have died on the spot—fled, destroyed myself—I know not what; but at the same time there was a rigid determination in my soul, that as in the first moments that had followed Julia's death, I could not, so now I would not, speak. Each hour that elapsed confirmed this resolution; for every hour that passed by in silence, every word that was uttered by me, or before me, on the subject, made the act of self-accusation grow into a moral impossibility.
When it became dusk the solitude of my room grew intolerable to me, and I wandered through the house seeking for companionship, and yet starting off in a different direction, if the sound of steps or of voices drew near to me. At last I found my way unobserved into the drawing-room, and sat there, or paced up and down for a length of time, till at last the door opened, and my uncle came in.
He walked up to me, laid his hand on my shoulder, and said, in a voice of subdued emotion "You are now our only child, Ellen."
I suppose my countenance bore a very wild expression at that moment, for he looked at me with surprise, and then added in a still more soothing manner, "Go to your aunt, my dear Ellen; she will not feel herself childless while you are spared to us."
A choking sensation rose in my throat, and a cold sweat stood on my forehead, but I got up, and walked resolutely to my aunt's room.
She was overwhelmed with grief; her hands were feverish, and her head burning. I sat down by her, and silently employed myself in bathing her temples with cold water. She now and then laid her aching head on my shoulder, and burst into an agony of crying, which seemed to relieve her.
She asked me where my uncle was; and I could have told her, for I had heard the servants say, as I was coming up stairs, that he was returning to the river side, to make one search more after the body of his child.
The moon was shining brightly, and several men were employed in dragging the deep and rapid stream; I pointed that way, and she seemed at once to understand me, for a deep groan was her only answer. Once she said, "Pray for me, Ellen;" and then for the first time remorse took its place by the side of terror in my mind. I felt I could not pray—no exactly-defined idea of guilt presented itself to my mind, and yet there was a murmur in my ears, the burden of which was, "She has killed her—she has killed her;" (and as when standing on a dizzy height, with a firm hold on some railing or plank of support, something whispers to one, "If I should let it go!") I felt afraid that the next moment I should say out loud, "I have killed her."
The idea of prayer made me tremble. Once I said mechanically, "O God! forgive me," and then shuddered. It sounded to myself like a confession of murder. I dared not address God as I had done the day before. One instant I thought of myself as of a guilty wretch, unworthy to live, unworthy to lift up her voice in prayer, or to raise her eyes to the calm and cloudless sky. At other times I felt as if God had dealt too hardly with me: I pitied myself, and my heart waxed rebellious in its grief. I said to myself, like Cain, "My punishment is greater than I can bear;" and then I almost cursed myself for having thought of Cain—for I had not murdered my cousin, though somebody said I had killed her. For one instant anger had maddened me; without thought, without intention, I had struck her—one hasty blow was given, and now my youth was blighted, my peace of mind was gone; the source of all pure joys, of all holy thoughts, was dried up within me. I should never stand again in the sacred silence of the solemn night, and feel as if its whispering winds were bringing tidings from a better world to my soul. And in those days of glowing beauty, when streams of light intoxicate the eye, when all nature breaks into song, or blossoms into flower, never again should I feel myself as in past years, a part of that bright creation, longing only, in the fulness of my heart, to prostrate myself in fervent adoration before Him who gave to the birds and to the streams a voice to praise Him; to the glorious heavens a charge to magnify Him; and to man, enthusiasm, emotion, poetry, music—all that lifts the soul above itself and the material world around it, to the wide fields of enraptured contemplation.
But now a chain would evermore weigh down my spirits—a dark remembrance would ever stand between me and the sunny skies—a tone, as of the dying and the dead, would ever mingle with the sounds of melody, with the voice of love, with the words of affection. Yes—
"All bright hopes and hues of day Had faded into twilight grey;"
or rather into the darkness of night. I wept over myself, over my blighted youth, my destroyed happiness, my lost innocence—and I was only sixteen!
There I sat, that long night through; my aunt had sunk into the heavy slumber of exhaustion, her hand in mine, her head on my shoulder. I dared not move—scarcely breathe; hot searing tears were slowly chasing each other down my cheeks, and the storm within was raging wildly in my breast—but I did not pray; I could not: a sheet of lead seemed to stretch itself between me and Heaven; and when the light of day broke slowly into the chamber of mourning, I closed my eyes, not to see the sun in its calm majesty, dawning on the first day of changed existence.
The first days that follow a great and sudden misfortune carry with them a kind of excitement that keeps off for a time the stunning sense of desolation from the soul. My uncle returned on the following morning, bearing with him the body of his child, which he had at length succeeded in rescuing from the bed of the torrent, which had carried it down far below Elmsley.
The preparations for the interment in the village church seemed to rouse the afflicted parents to exertions, that, though intimately connected with the loss that had befallen them, were almost a relief to Mrs. Middleton, after the inactivity of the last twenty-four hours.
I had hardly left her room all day, and when she told me that my uncle expected us all to meet him at dinner, I felt it would be impossible to go through the trial; but, as she was going to make the exertion, I could not refuse to follow her.
When we entered the drawing-room together, Edward Middleton and Henry Lovell were both standing before the fire-place. It was well for me that our meeting took place while the catastrophe of the day before was so recent, that the agitation I betrayed could pass under the garb of sorrow and nervousness. I was trembling violently; I felt a degree of conviction, that amounted to moral certainty, that one of those two men had witnessed the frightful scene, which resembled more a hideous dream than an actual reality. Both were coming to me with outstretched hands. Could they both mean to take mine? Did not one of them know what that hand had done? A mist rose before my eyes, and I fainted.
When my senses returned, I found myself in bed, my aunt by my side, and a number of restoratives employed to bring me back from my swoon. I recovered, and the next morning, on awaking after some hours of feverish and restless sleep, I heard a noise in the court under my windows.
I rose hastily, and saw the funeral procession moving slowly from the house across the grounds, and taking its way towards the village church. The little coffin was carried by four of the grey-headed servants of the house; my uncle and aunt were walking on foot beside it, and my cousin and Henry Lovell were following them. The rest of the servants, among whom was Julia's nurse, and almost all the inhabitants of the village, closed the procession. I watched the funeral train till it was out of sight, and for the first time I forgot myself, for a few minutes, and my own dreadful share in this calamity, and thought only of my aunt, and of her misery. I called to mind too the image of that child, whom I had so often nursed to sleep in her infancy, whom I had carried in my arms, and held to my bosom. When I pictured to myself the little body laid in its narrow grave, and thought how short a time ago life was strong within it, and that it was my hand that had sent her to her watery grave, my agony grew so intense that I wonder it did not kill me, or drive me to some desperate act of madness. It did not; and pity for myself soon hardened my heart against the sufferings of others. I ceased to weep for Julia; she was dead indeed; but was not death a blessing compared to such a life as mine would be? My aunt had lost her child; but was not her sorrow as nothing in comparison with mine—mine, who had made her childless? And now a sudden thought flashed on my brain. Why was I at home? Why was I alone? Did they suspect me? Had the master of my fate, the witness of my crime, warned them to keep the murderess away from the grave of their child? Was I already become as a monster to them? Did they loathe the sight of me? Would they send me to prison? or would they turn me out of their house; and should I fly along dusty roads, and through dark alleys and crowded streets, and would the mob follow, as I once read that they followed a woman who was thought to have murdered her child, and point at me, and hoot, and groan, and cry "There goes the wretch that murdered the child?" I fell on my knees; it seemed as if there was a sound of footsteps behind me—a shout of execration in my ears. It wan a waking nightmare; I was growing delirious, and when I felt something touch me, and a warm breath on my shoulders, I gave a piercing scream, and fell with my face on the ground. A low moaning roused me from this state. I looked up and saw my great Newfoundland dog, who always slept in my room; he was licking my hands and neck. His kind eyes were looking at me from under the rough hair that shaded them; and he moaned gently as he did so. I was still almost a child, for I suppose that none but a child would have found comfort in this creature's mute sympathy. As it was, I flung my arms wildly round its neck, and sobbed. He did not struggle, but patiently stood there, though my tears were falling fast on his head. "Poor, poor Hector I you never will be told what I have done; you never will turn away from me with horror, though all the world should do so. Poor, poor Hector! my good, my kind dog!" This little incident had done me good, and the tears I had shed had relieved me. I dressed myself, and when my aunt entered my room at her return from the funeral—when she embraced me with much emotion—when she told me how she and my uncle had hoped that I might have slept over the last trying hour—when she tenderly reproached me for having left my bed—when she drew me to her, and, parting the hair that hung loosely and heavily on my forehead, laid her cold hand upon it, and then pressed me to her bosom—I felt a relief that for the moment almost resembled joy. Under the influence of this momentary reaction I followed her to the dining-room, where we found my uncle sitting in mournful silence; he pressed my hand as I approached him, and we all sat down to eat, or try to eat, the breakfast prepared for us. This melancholy meal over, I withdrew to the furthest end of the drawing-room, and sat down at my embroidery frame, which stood near to an open window, and began to work with something like composure. From this moment everything about us resumed its former aspect, and the habits of our daily life seemed to have experienced scarcely any change. My uncle's reserve and gloom were, perhaps, somewhat deeper than before; and Mrs. Middleton at times gave way to uncontrollable bursts of grief; but her elastic spirit, bowed down for awhile by the pressure of sorrow, rose again with the buoyancy which affliction can repress, but hardly destroy in a nature like hers, to which happiness seemed almost a condition of existence. A sorrow which would have broken this spring within her must have killed her—but this did not; and the full flow of her affections seemed to return in what had once appeared to be their natural channel—she clung to me with a fondness that seemed every hour to increase. Superior as she was, there was about her a kind of dependence upon others—upon their love and their sympathy—which was inexpressibly endearing. In those early times of sorrow I received her caresses, and listened to the words of love which she addressed to me, with something of the spirit with which I can imagine that the Holy Francoise de Chantal may have pressed to her bosom the burning cross, that stamped upon her breast the sign of salvation,* [* Madame de Chantal, the Founder of the Order of the Visitation, impressed upon her breast, with a burning iron, the sign of the cross.]—at once the object of intense adoration and the instrument of acute torture.
My cousin and Henry Lovell staid on at Elmsley, and nothing, in the manner of either, gave me the least clue to discover which was the possessor of my dreadful secret. Both were kind to me, and both seemed to regard me with more interest than usual. In Edward's countenance I sometimes read a look of severity, which made the blood forsake my heart; but then at other times his voice was so gentle in speaking to me, his countenance had so much sweetness in it, as he turned his eyes full upon me, that I felt re-assured, though, at the same time, intensely miserable.
With Henry I felt more at my ease—why I cannot tell, but he was the only person with whom, since the fatal day of Julia's death, I could speak in the same manner as I did before. There was something soothing to my wayward feelings in the thoughtless gaiety which he soon resumed. In the course of a few weeks I persuaded myself nearly, if not entirely, that fancy, allied with terror, had conjured up, in that fatal hour, the cry which had sounded in my ears; at least I pacified my fears by repeating this supposition to myself. It was like a sedative, that numbs without removing the pain we feel. It made me better able to endure what I had to go through. Church was a terrible ordeal to me. I went of an afternoon only, for several following Sundays, because I could not bear to hear the commandments read; and yet I hated myself for my weakness. One Sunday morning Edward said to me, across the breakfast-table, "Pray, Ellen, have you made a vow never to go to church of a morning?" I felt myself turning pale, but answered quietly, "I am going now;" and I went, and God only knows what I suffered there.
Biding grew into a passion with me at that time. There is such excitement in the rapid motion—in the impatience of the animal that bears one along—in the sense of power—in the feeling of life, which is never so strong within one, as when, over a common, or a wild muir, one can dash along at the horse's full speed, with the wind in one's face, and the turf under one's feet. In every weather I rode; the more heavily it rained, the more wildly it blew, the more I enjoyed excursions that lasted several hours, and after which I returned home, fatigued in body, excited in mind, and able to sleep at night from sheer exhaustion. Henry was my constant companion on these occasions, and indulged every fancy I formed, as to the length and direction of these excursions. He applauded my courage when, arrested by no obstacles, I cleared fence after fence, or waded through rapid streams, in order to arrive, a quarter of an hour sooner, at some point I had fixed upon. His talent for conversation was great, and he possessed the art of captivating the attention to an extraordinary degree. Intercourse with him became to me, in a moral point of view, what riding was in a physical: It was an exercise of the mental faculties, that stilled the process of self-tormenting within me. He admired me—I saw it plainly, and far more than he had done before the change that had come over me; at least I fancied so; and one day, as I was turning over the leaves of a blotting-paper book, in the library, I found the following verses:
"She was a child, and in her dreamless eyes There slept a world of unawakened thought— And in her voice, her laughter, and her sighs, No spirit lingered, and no magic wrought; For as the haze that veils the glorious skies At morning prime; or as the mist that lies On ocean's might: or as the solemn hour Of Nature's silence, when the Heavens lower, Such was her childhood; but its hour is past; The veil is drawn, the mist has cleared at last. And what though with a storm! Who does not find In wind, in waves, in Nature's wildest strife With things material, or in man's own mind, A deeper and more glorious sense of life Than in the calm of silent apathy? Who would not stand within the Sun's full blaze, Though scorched and dazzled by his burning rays? Oh, we can watch with ardent sympathy. The stormy floods of rising passion roll Their swelling surges o'er the silent soul! And we can gaze exulting on the brow Where restless thoughts and new, are crowding now: Each throb, each struggle, serving but to feed The flame of genius, and the source of thought. Be mine the task, be mine the joy, to read Each mood, each change, by time and feeling wrought, And as the mountain stream reflects the light That shoots athwart the sky's tempestuous track, So shall my soul, her soul's impassioned might, As in a broken mirror, image back."