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   Chapter 14 THE SECRET SIN.

May Brooke By Anna Hanson Dorsey Characters: 20961

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"This is shocking news, Walter!" said Mrs. Jerrold to her son, when he imparted to her the news of Mr. Stillinghast's illness. "Do you know-has he-did he send-"

"I don't know, indeed," said the young man, abstractly.

"I mean, has he altered his will?" said the lady, speaking out.

"I do not know; Helen tells me that a lawyer has been with him, and a priest."

"A priest!" shrieked the lady. "Order the carriage instantly, Walter;

I must see Helen."

"I have not seen her since the morning," said the young man, after having delivered the order, and returned to the sofa. "She looks harassed and ill, poor girl."

"I am sorry we have been so precipitate in this affair, Walter," said Mrs. Jerrold, fuming. "After all, this eccentric old person may change his mind, and it will be so awkward to break off the match, for you cannot afford to marry a poor woman."

"I do not apprehend any thing of the kind, mother. Helen's beauty and accomplishments are dower enough," he replied, calmly.

"Walter, I will never consent to this marriage if Helen is portionless," exclaimed the lady.

"My dear mother, you sometimes forget, do you not, that I have reached the mature age of thirty-one? Really, where my happiness is concerned, I shall submit to no control," he said, calmly.

"Happiness!" repeated the lady, scornfully.

"The carriage is at the door, madam," said a servant, at the door.

"Very well. Tell Rachael to bring down my bonnet and wrappings."

Soon accoutred for her drive, Mrs. Jerrold took her son's arm, and went down to her carriage. He handed her in, and stepped in after her.

"Why do you go, Walter?" she asked, looking annoyed.

"I wish to inquire after Mr. Stillinghast's health," he said, quietly.

A few minutes' drive brought them to Mr. Stillinghast's door. Helen heard the carriage stop, and her toilette, as usual, being very becomingly and carefully made-for Helen never forgot her self-homage-she met them at the door. Her countenance had assumed a sad and mournful expression, and in answer to their inquiries, she spoke in an agitated and subdued tone.

"It is horrible. I did not hear a word of it until to-day. I was dreadfully shocked," said Mrs. Jerrold, kissing her cheek.

"How is Mr. Stillinghast now, dear Helen?" asked Walter Jerrold, folding her hand closer in his own.

"They fear he is sinking," said Helen, in the same tone of counterfeit feeling.

"How melancholy!" said Mrs. Jerrold, taking possession of the corner of the sofa, almost dying with curiosity.

"Has he inquired after me, do you know Helen?"

"I have not heard."

"I thought, perhaps, he might wish to see me in relation to the firm, and its concerns; though every thing has been conducted with such strict regularity, that I do not suppose it is necessary."

"Perhaps as May has been with him all the time, she can give you some information," said Helen, with one of her cold, haughty glances towards May, who just then came in.

"I will not detain you one moment," said Mr. Jerrold, bowing to May. "I am anxious to know particularly how Mr. Stillinghast is, and if he has inquired for me?"

"But this moment, Mr. Jerrold, he awoke, and requested to see you. I thought you were here, and ran down to see. He is very low indeed, sir, and I will just let him know that you are waiting to see him."

"It may not be important; but if he is not too ill, I should be glad to see him a moment."

"I will come down for you immediately. Excuse me, Mrs. Jerrold," said

May, who hurrying out, was met by Father Fabian. He spoke kindly to

Helen, bowed courteously to the strangers, and went up stairs.

"Who is that, dear?" asked Mrs. Jerrold, whose attention had been arrested by the dignified courtesy of Father Fabian's manner.

"A Catholic clergyman," said Helen, blushing.

"Your uncle is not a Catholic?"

"He was not, but he is now."

A look of ineffable scorn spread over Mrs. Jerrold's handsome face, while a low, contemptuous laugh from her son, was the response.

"Dear Helen," said Mrs. Jerrold, taking the weak girl's hand in her own, with a caress, "excuse me, for no doubt you still feel some hankering after those mysterious idolatries which you have wisely abandoned; but this is so absurd. How came it about?"

"I cannot imagine," she replied, in a faltering voice; for at that moment the thorn-crowned head of Jesus Christ-his sorrowful face stained with drops of blood, until its divinely beautiful lineaments were almost covered-was visioned in her soul with such distinctness, that she almost shrieked; then it faded away, and she went on:

"I have seen very little of my uncle since his illness. He keeps my cousin May by his side, and is uneasy if she leaves him an instant."

"And she is a Catholic?" asked Mrs. Jerrold, anxiously.

"Yes, a perfect devotee," replied Helen, bitterly.

"An infatuation! He is weak; his nerves and senses are shattered by this attack. He has been influenced by her and the priest. My dear Helen, I fear your interests will suffer."

"Do you really think so?" said Helen, growing pale.

"Mr. Jerrold, you will please to come up for a moment. My uncle desires to see you particularly," said May, appearing at the door.

"That is a designing girl, depend on it," whispered Mrs. Jerrold, as her son left the room; "and now, Helen, I must warn you. Be on your guard, and do not feel hurt when I say, that if she should have succeeded in cozening your uncle to revoke his will in her favor, my poor son's happiness will be wrecked for ever. He is not rich, you know, and is too proud to marry a woman whom he cannot support in good style; consequently, this marriage, which, under existing circumstances, gives us so much pleasure, would then have to be broken off."

"Mr. Fielding was with him, and I heard them talking about a will, but whether it was the old, or a new one, I could not determine," said Helen, becoming very white.

"Hush! not another word; Walter is coming down. But remember what I tell you. Well, dear Walter?"

"I think Mr. Stillinghast is sinking, but he is perfectly himself," said the young man, in a low tone, as he seated himself. "He is much changed, and speaks in broken sentences."

"He knew you?" asked Mrs. Jerrold.

"Perfectly. He told me that our recent engagement was all secured, and begged me to keep up the credit of the old house; spoke of our marriage, dear Helen, and gave me some advice, which I could not understand, about faith and baptism, and truth, and all that kind of thing, peculiar to old men who are dying," said the young man, with a light smile.

"Then he has not made another will?" asked Mrs. Jerrold.

"No, I fancy not; merely a codicil, if any thing. But be careful of yourself, Helen; don't sit up at night-it will hurt your eyes and good looks. May Brooke is an indefatigable nurse," said the worldly man.

"Farewell, sweet Helen," whispered Mrs. Jerrold, embracing her. "We shall soon have you to ourselves. But be on the qui vive; there may be something, you know, under all this."

"Another will!" thought Helen, after they went away; "if another exists, different from the first--well-I see no reason why a whim should wreck my happiness." Then, tempted and scheming, she sat motionless for hours. Alas! for the soul which of its own free will, unmoors itself from the Rock of Ages, to drift away on dark and uncertain seas; who, lured away by the sun-gilt mirage, throws down the cross, scorns the thorny crown, and despises Calvary, to perish at last miserably in the arid desert! Although Helen had never been a pious Catholic, she had always declared herself one, and resisted every open attack on her faith; but now, insidious scorn, worldly interests, and human love had entered her soul, and poisoned it, and for a season they would triumph.

"Uncle Stillinghast wants you, dear Helen," said May, tapping her on the shoulder.

"Me!" she exclaimed, starting up like a guilty thing.

"Yes, dear. He will receive the Holy Viaticum soon, and he wishes to speak with you before," said May, winding her arm around Helen's waist, and wishing, in the charity that filled her soul, that she could as easily lead her back, weeping and penitent, to the foot of the cross.

"Come hither, child," said the old man, turning his feeble eyes towards her. "I fear-I have-assisted-encouraged you-to forsake your faith. God-forgive me-for my ignorance and sin. But hear me. I am dying-hear me testify to the saving and divine truths of that faith-and repent you-repent ere-it is-too late for ever. It is an awful thing-girl-to live away-from-the-true fold of Jesus Christ;-but how horrible-is it-to forsake it! Father Fabian-come closer," he said, feebly, while he placed Helen's hand in that of the clergyman, "bring-watch her-guide her, until she is saved."

"My poor child! you will not forsake your religion; you dare not peril your salvation by severing, with sacrilegious hand, the ties which unite you to JESUS CHRIST, as a member of His glorious body?" asked the priest, in a tone of blended pity and authority.

"Oh, no, no!" sobbed Helen, quite overcome by the scene. "I am very young, and love the world. I have never intended to forsake my religion entirely. I intend, at some early day, to go to confession. I have only procrastinated."

"Of course, my dear child, you will return to your duty," said Father Fabian; "you cannot do otherwise, unless you wish to seal deliberately your eternal perdition."

"You will marry-marry Jerrold," gasped Mr. Stillinghast; "but do-not-forget-that your prevarications-may ruin his soul-with your own. Are-you willing-to assume the responsibility?"

"Oh, sir, this is horrible!" exclaimed Helen, falling on her knees beside the bed.

"But true," added Father Fabian, at a sign from Mr. Stillinghast, who leaned back exhausted. "It is a perilous thing, under the most favorable circumstances, for a Catholic to wed with a Protestant. If the Catholic has not the patience of a saint, and the constancy of a martyr, scandal must come. Concessions must be made-vital principles too often yielded, and at last the unbeliever triumphs-not over the mere human will, and the weak nature of his victim, but over religion-and exultingly thinks how frail are the defences of this faith, which is called divine. Then, confirmed in his errors by your betrayal, his whole life is a scoff at Eternal Truth; while

you, bringing forth children, who, instead of becoming heirs of Christ, become aliens from His fold, while your sin-your treachery-your apostasy will, like an onward billow, roll through future generations, until it dashes itself, with its black abominations, at the feet of the Eternal Judge. But, my dear child, through the mercy of God, and your own example, you may win this wandering soul to embrace the truth: at any rate, you may, by your pious constancy, plant the seeds of a better life in his soul, which may bear the fruits of salvation."

"It was-my act. I would undo it-but-it is too late-too late.

Helen-forgive me."

"Dear uncle, do not say so.-I have nothing to forgive," she sobbed.

"Time will come, I fear-when-you will not think so. Go, now-I-have provided-for you-see-that you provide-for the eternal future," he said, with difficulty.

Helen kissed the hand already shadowed by the approach of death, and left the room, weeping.

"It is horrible!" she exclaimed, almost shrieking, as she threw herself on the bed, after she reached her apartment. "I hope he will not send for me again. I never loved this harsh, bitter old man, nor do I intend to risk my happiness by promising impossibilities. I'll go to confession, and all that, when I am ready, and not before. Walter detests Catholics; and if he thought I was still one, he'd never wed me. But it cannot last long-I shall soon be free; and, once Jerrold's wife, I can practise my religion if I choose. At any rate, I shall die a Catholic!"

It was midnight. All was silent in the death-chamber. The night-taper was placed behind a screen; and the fire-light flickered with a tremulous motion on the richly-carved, antique furniture, black and polished by age, and creeping upwards, threw long, wavering shadows on the wall. Amidst this solemn twilight, a table spread with white, which supported a crucifix, wax lights, and flowers, stood near the sick man's bed. A guest was expected ere long-a divine and honored guest was coming into the shadowy room where death held his awful presence, to strengthen and console that penitent spirit on is passage to eternity, when, like Elias, after his miraculous repast, strengthened and courageous, it would walk with humble, but sure steps towards its eternal Horeb!

May knelt by her uncle's side, with his hand clasped in hers, praying, and whispering sweet words of cheer. A footstep sounded on the pavement; it ascended the steps, and Father Fabian, accompanied by Helen and Doctor Burrell, who had been waiting in the parlor below, came in, bearing with him the Lord of Life. May lit the candles on the temporary altar, and retired with the rest for a few moments, while Father Fabian held a brief conversation with the penitent old man, touching the affairs of his conscience; then he summoned them in; and while they knelt, he arranged himself in surplice and stole, and in a solemn, impressive manner, began the sacramental rite. "'Behold him-behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world,'" he said, holding up the sacred host. "'He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood,' says the Redeemer, 'hath ever-lasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day.' The day of life was almost spent, when you came to him; night was coming on, but He, in the plenitude of His divine compassion, turned you not away, but gives you a princely reward-even Himself. Like the Prodigal, destitute and naked, you return, and receiving you, He spreads a mystic feast, in which He gives you heavenly food; and while the shadow of death falls around you, lo! He comes to go with you towards those dismal portals, and admit you to a region of probation and everlasting hope. Humbly confiding, and strong in faith, receive Him, not as a representation or mere memorial of the Son of God, but Jesus Christ himself. 'Corpus Domini nostri Jesu;'" and, as Father Fabian pronounced the words, he administered the bread of Eternal Life to the dying man. What could have changed that dark, repulsive face so entirely, that it looked an image of humility? Was it death? Was it memory? Or was it the effect of new and divine influences? It was surely nothing mortal. He lifted his eyes to Father Fabian's face-then turned them in search of May. She was by his side in a moment.

"Unworthy-unworthy," he whispered; then they saw his lips moving in silent and earnest prayer. Dr. Burrell had regarded the whole scene with interest and awe. The whole scene preached to his inmost soul. Doctrinal arguments and learned polemics, he could have tilted with, word for word; but here were facts, and realities and influences, which disarmed and defied all that was skeptical in his nature. The dying man-the priest of God-that young and fragile girl, illustrated by their acts a faith which, though mysterious to him, could be nothing less than divine; but Father Fabian, ignorant of the thoughts which were passing, like ripples of light, through his mind, approached, and asked him in a low voice, "how long he supposed Mr. Stillinghast might linger?"

"He may live until noon to-morrow," said the doctor.

"He may," said Father Fabian, "but I fear not, however, God's holy will be done!"

During the night Mr. Stillinghast's mind wandered. May, overcome by fatigue, had leaned her head on the bed-side, and fallen into a profound sleep. Helen, timid, and startling at every sound, sat near him, fearing to move, lest it should rouse him.-Her guilty, selfish thoughts, terrified and haunted her like phantoms.

"There are-some papers," murmured the old man, without turning his head, and thinking he spoke to May, "papers which I wish burnt."

"Shall I get them, sir?" whispered Helen, while every bad, avaricious, and selfish instinct in her nature, started to sudden life; "where shall I find them?"

"On the second shelf-of the closet-where the wills are. They are records-of sorrows-and bitterness; but be careful, child-those two wills-the last one, which concerns you-is in-a white-envelope; the old one-in a brown wrapper. On the-second shelf; mind-the wills."

"Yes, sir!" whispered Helen, while her heart throbbed almost to bursting, and a wild gleam of triumph shot across her visage, giving it the fearful beauty of a demon. She would throw the new will amongst the condemned papers-it would be consumed with them; he would be silent and cold when it was missed, and could tell nothing; but then, might not she be suspected? No! she would not burn it-she would secrete it, and only destroy it in case she was disinherited. These thoughts rushed through her mind with a strange velocity, while she went towards the closet; and, just as she laid her hand on a package of papers, Mr. Stillinghast, suddenly turning, discovered his mistake.

"Come away-come away," he cried, with strange energy, "how dare you go there? Come away."

It was the work of an instant to snatch up the new will, thrust it into her bosom, and return, pale, trembling, and almost fainting, to his side.

"I thought you were May; call her here, Helen, then go away," he said, gently.

"Uncle Stillinghast wants you, May," said Helen, stooping over, and touching her.

"What can I do for you, uncle?" she said, instantly roused.

"I wish-you to burn-some papers-quick-quick-child. On the second shelf-there-in the small closet-where the wills are. Is she gone?"

"Helen? yes, sir; shall I bring all the papers-or are those you wish me to burn, numbered?" asked May, taking the candle with her.

"Yes, yes; numbered-1, 2, 3,-1796-1799-1800."

"Here they are, sir."

"Lay them there-under the blaze-so-so-so-perish-so blot out-so farewell the past. Forgive me the sins of my pride-of my ignorance-of my avarice-through, the bitter passion of Jesus Christ-forgive me-as I forgive-all," he murmured, as he watched the rapid destruction of these records of his life.

"Take a spoonful of this," said May, holding some brandy to his lips. He drank it, and cast a long, earnest, loving look on her, drew her face towards his, and kissed her forehead.

"The blessing of Almighty God abide with you, little one; hand me that, now," he said, looking towards the crucifix, "lay it here-where my eyes can rest on it-so." He never spoke again; but, with the image of the CRUCIFIED in view, his failing eyes gradually and softly closed. May thought he slept. So he did, but he slept the sleep of death.

Helen had fled up to her room, locked the door, and, with a white, pallid face, and trembling fingers, took the will from her bosom and opened it.

"To May-to May-to May-beloved niece-I knew it; but May shall never have it," she said, through her set teeth, as her eye ran rapidly over it. "They will think she burned it with those papers. I am saved-I shall marry Jerrold!" A mouse gnawing in her wainscot near her, caused her to start up and look around; and there, looking down from the cross, where the sins of the world had hung Him, was the image of His divine and woeful face. In the flickering light, the drops of blood appeared to flow from those cruel wounds, and the thorn-crowned head seemed to droop towards her. With a shuddering cry, she fell heavily to the floor. But the paroxysm passed away-she remembered her crime, and, fearful of detection-for already had conscience begun to scourge her-she flew to her trunk, and touching a spring in the side, a secret compartment slid back, revealing a narrow interstice between the body of the trunk and the exterior. In this she dropped the will, and fastened it securely. What and who instigated her to evil? Shall any dare say it was religion? She was a Catholic by birthright-but an alien from the practices of her holy faith by choice, and through human pride and worldliness-did its spirit lead her into crime? Judge of its effects by May's humble and earnest life. She was true and practical in her character, and acted out the precepts of her faith. Judge it, by the wonderful change it effected in the harsh and bitter nature of that hoary man, whom it excited to acts of perfect Christian virtue, and who, full of humble hope, had just breathed his last.

Who would measure the patriotism and purity of Washington, by the treason of Arnold? Dare not then, be guilty of the manifest injustice of judging the Church by the conduct of those, who, although bearing her sign on their foreheads, become traitors to her holy precepts, and scandalize her in their lives.

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