"And now Helen—my injured, but fondly beloved Helen, now that my tale of evil is fully disclosed, resolve at once the doom of my future being. Yet in mercy be prompt in your decision; and whether you determine to unfold to the whole world the measure of my guilt, or, since nothing can now extricate us from the web of sin and shame in which we are involved, to assist in shielding me from a discovery which would be fatal to the interests of our innocent child, let me briefly hear the result of your judgment. Of this alone it remains for me to assure you—that I will not one single hour survive the publication of my dishonour."
For several hours succeeding the perusal of the forgoing history, Lady Greville remained chained as it were to her seat by the bewildering perplexities of her mind. The blow, in itself so sudden, so fraught with mischiefs, involving a thousand interests, and affording no hope to lessen its infliction, appeared to stupify her faculties. Lost in the contemplation of evils from which no worldly resource availed to save herself or her child, indignation, compassion, and despair, by turns obtained possession of her bosom. Her first impulse, worthy of her gentle nature, was to rush to the bed-side of her sleeping boy, and there, on her knees, to implore divine aid to shelter his unoffending innocence, and grace to enlighten her mind in the choice of her future destiny. And He, who in dealing the wound of affliction, refuseth not, to those who seek it, the balm that softens its endurance, imparted to her soul a fortitude to bear, and a wisdom to extricate herself from the perils by which she was assailed. The following letter acquainted Lord Greville with her final determination:
"Greville,—I was about, in the inadvertence of my bewildered mind, to address you once more by the title of husband; but that holy name must hereafter perish on my lips, and be banished like a withering curse from my heart. Yet it was that alone which, holding a sacred charter over my bosom, bound me to the cheerful endurance of many a bitter hour, ere I knew that through him who bore it, a descendant of the house of Percy would be banded as an adulteress; and her child as the nameless offspring of shame. Rich as I was in worldly gifts, my birth, my character, the fair fortunes which you have blighted, and the parental care from which you have withdrawn me, alike appeared to shelter me from the evils which have befallen me—but wo is me! Even these were an insufficient protection against the craftiness of mine enemy!
"But reproaches avail me not. Henceforth I will shut up my sorrow and my complaining within the solitude of my own wounded heart—and thou, 'my companion, my counsellor, mine own familiar friend,' the beloved of my early youth, the father of my child, must be from this hour be as nothing unto me!
"Hear my decision. Since one who has already trampled upon every tie, divine and human, at the instigation of his won evil passions, would scarcely be deterred from further wickedness by any argument of mine, I dare not tempt the mischief contemplated by your ungovernable feelings against your life. I will, therefore, solemnly engage to assist you by every means in my power in the preservation of the secret on which your very existence appears to depend. As the first measure towards this object, I will myself undertake that attendance of Lady Greville, which cannot be otherwise procured without peril of disclosure. Towards this unfortunate being, my noble brother's betrothed wife, whose interests have been sacrificed to mine, no sisterly care, no affectionate watchfulness shall be wanting on my part, to lessen the measure of her afflictions. I will remain with her at Greville Cross; sharing the duties of Alice so long as she shall live, and supplying her place when she shall be no more. I feel that God has doomed my proud spirit to the humiliation of this trial; and I trust in his goodness that I may have strength cheerfully and worthily to fulfil my part. From you I have one condition to exact in return.
"Henceforward we must meet no more in this world. I can pity you—I can even forgive you,—but I cannot yet school my heart to that forgetfulness of the past, that indifference, with which I ought to regard the husband of another. Greville! we must not meet no more!
"And since my son will shortly attain an age when seclusion in this remote spot would be prejudicial to his interests and to the formation of his character, I pray you to take him from me at once, that I may have no further sacrifice to contemplate. Let him reside with you at Silsea, under the tuition of proper instructors—breed him up in nobleness and truth—and let not his early nurture, and the care with which I have sought to instil into his mind principles of honour and virtue, be utterly lost. Let his happiness be the pledge of my dutiful fulfilment of the task I have undertaken; and may God desert me and him, when I fail through negligence or hardness of heart.
"And if at times the stigma of his birth should present itself to irritate your mind against his helpless innocence, as alas! I have latterly witnessed, smite him not, Greville, in your guilty wrath—remember he is come of gentle blood, even on his mother's side—and ask yourself to whom we owe our degradation, and from whose quiver the arrow was launched against us? And now farewell—may the Almighty enlighten and forgive you—and if in this address there appears a trace of bitterness, do not ascribe it to any uncharitable feelings, but look back upon the past, and think on what I was—on what I am. Consider whether ever woman loved or trusted as I have done, or was ever more cruelly betrayed? Oh! Greville, Greville!—did I not regard you with an affection too intense for my happiness! did I not confide in you with a reverence, a veneration unmeet to be lavished on a creature of clay? But you have broken the fragile idol of my worship before my eyes—and the after-path of my life is dark with fear and loneliness. But be it so; my soul was proud of its good gifts—and now that I am stricken to the dust, its vanity is laid bare to my sight—haply, 'it is good for me that I have been afflicted.'—Farewell for ever."
The conditions of this letter were mutually and strictly fulfilled; but the mental struggle sustained by Lord Greville, his humiliation on witnessing the saintlike self-devotion of Helen Percy, combined with the necessity which rendered it expedient to accept her proffered sacrifice, were too much for his frame. In less than a year after his return to Silsea, he died—a prey to remorse.
Previous to his decease, in contemplation of the nobleness of mind which would probably induce the nominal Lady Greville to renounce his succession, he framed two testamentary acts. By one of these, he acknowledged the nullity of his second marriage, but bequeathed to Helen and her child all that the law of the land enabled him to bestow; by the other he referred to Helen only as his lawful wife, and to her son as his representative and successor; adding to their legal inheritance all his unentailed property. Both were enclosed in a letter to Lady Greville, written on his death-bed, which left it entirely at her own disposal, which to publish, which to destroy.
It is not to be supposed that the selection cost her one moment's hesitation. Having resigned into the hands of the lawful inheritor all that the strictest probity could require, and much that his admiration of her magnanimity would have prevailed on her to retain, she retired peaceably to a mansion in the South bequeathed by Lord Greville to her son, and occupied herself solely with his education. In the commencement of the ensuring reign he obtained the royal sanction to use the name and arms of Percy; and in his grateful affection and the virtuous distinctions he early attained, his mother met with her reward.
Theresa, the helpless Theresa, the guardian-ship of whose person had been bequeathed to Helen, as a mournful legacy, by Lord Greville, was removed with her from her dreary imprisonment at the Cross, and to the latest moment of her existence partook of her affectionate and watchful attention.
It was a touching sight to behold these two unfortunate beings, linked together by ties of so painful a nature, and dwelling together In companionship. The one, richly gifted with youthful loveliness, clad in a deep mourning habit, and bearing on her countenance an air of fixed dejection. The other, though far her elder in years, still beautiful,—with her long silver hair, blanched by sorrow, not by time, hanging over her shoulders; and wearing, as if in mockery of her unconscious widowhood, the gaudy and embroidered raiment to which a glimmering remembrance of happier times appeared to attach her—that vacant smile and wandering glance of insanity lending at times a terrible brilliancy to her features. But for the most part her malady assumed a cast of settled melancholy, and patient as
"The female dove ere yet her golden couplets are disclosed, Her silence would sit drooping."
Her gentleness and submission would have endeared her to a guardian even less tenderly interested in her fate than Helen Percy; towards whom, from her first interview, she had evinced the most gratifying partiality. "I know you," she said on beholding her. "You have the look and voice of Percy; you are a ministering angel whom he has sent to defend his poor Theresa from the King; now that she is sad and friendless. You will never abandon me, will you?" continued she, taking her hand and pressing it to her bosom.
"Never—never—so help me heaven!" answered the agitated Helen; and that sacred promise remained unbroken.