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Title: The Belton Estate
Author: Trollope, Anthony, 1815-1882
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Belton Estate" ***

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and revised by Rita Bailey and Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.



THE BELTON ESTATE

by

ANTHONY TROLLOPE



First published in serial form in the _Fortnightly Review_
in 1865 and in book form the same year



CONTENTS

        I. THE REMNANTS OF THE AMEDROZ FAMILY.
       II. THE HEIR PROPOSES TO VISIT HIS COUSINS.
      III. WILL BELTON.
       IV. SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING.
        V. NOT SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING.
       VI. SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING ONCE AGAIN.
      VII. MISS AMEDROZ GOES TO PERIVALE.
     VIII. CAPTAIN AYLMER MEETS HIS CONSTITUENTS.
       IX. CAPTAIN AYLMER'S PROMISE TO HIS AUNT.
        X. SHOWING HOW CAPTAIN AYLMER KEPT HIS PROMISE.
       XI. MISS AMEDROZ IS TOO CANDID BY HALF.
      XII. MISS AMEDROZ RETURNS HOME.
     XIII. MR. WILLIAM BELTON TAKES A WALK IN THE COUNTRY.
      XIV. MR. WILLIAM BELTON TAKES A WALK IN LONDON.
       XV. EVIL WORDS.
      XVI. THE HEIR'S SECOND VISIT TO BELTON.
     XVII. AYLMER PARK.
    XVIII. MRS. ASKERTON'S STORY.
      XIX. MISS AMEDROZ HAS ANOTHER CHANCE.
       XX. WILLIAM BELTON DOES NOT GO OUT HUNTING.
      XXI. MRS. ASKERTON'S GENEROSITY.
     XXII. PASSIONATE PLEADING.
    XXIII. THE LAST DAY AT BELTON.
     XXIV. THE GREAT NORTHERN RAILWAY HOTEL.
      XXV. MISS AMEDROZ HAS SOME HASHED CHICKEN.
     XXVI. THE AYLMER PARK HASHED CHICKEN COMES TO AN END.
    XXVII. ONCE MORE BACK TO BELTON.
   XXVIII. MISS AMEDROZ IS PURSUED.
     XXIX. THERE IS NOTHING TO TELL.
      XXX. MARY BELTON.
     XXXI. TAKING POSSESSION.
    XXXII. CONCLUSION.



CHAPTER I.

THE REMNANTS OF THE AMEDROZ FAMILY.


Mrs. Amedroz, the wife of Bernard Amedroz, Esq., of Belton Castle,
and mother of Charles and Clara Amedroz, died when those children
were only eight and six years old, thereby subjecting them to the
greatest misfortune which children born in that sphere of life can be
made to suffer. And, in the case of this boy and girl the misfortune
was aggravated greatly by the peculiarities of the father's
character. Mr. Amedroz was not a bad man,--as men are held to be bad
in the world's esteem. He was not vicious,--was not a gambler or a
drunkard,--was not self-indulgent to a degree that brought upon him
any reproach; nor was he regardless of his children. But he was an
idle, thriftless man, who, at the age of sixty-seven, when the reader
will first make his acquaintance, had as yet done no good in the
world whatever. Indeed he had done terrible evil; for his son Charles
was now dead,--had perished by his own hand,--and the state of things
which had brought about this woful event had been chiefly due to the
father's neglect.

Belton Castle is a pretty country seat, standing in a small
but beautifully wooded park, close under the Quantock hills in
Somersetshire; and the little town of Belton clusters round the park
gates. Few Englishmen know the scenery of England well, and the
prettinesses of Somersetshire are among those which are the least
known. But the Quantock hills are very lovely, with their rich
valleys lying close among them, and their outlying moorlands running
off towards Dulverton and the borders of Devonshire,--moorlands which
are not flat, like Salisbury Plain, but are broken into ravines and
deep watercourses and rugged dells hither and thither; where old oaks
are standing, in which life seems to have, dwindled down to the last
spark; but the last spark is still there, and the old oaks give forth
their scanty leaves from year to year.

In among the hills, somewhat off the high road from Minehead to
Taunton, and about five miles from the sea, stands the little town,
or village, of Belton, and the modern house of Mr. Amedroz, which
is called Belton Castle. The village,--for it is in truth no more,
though it still maintains a charter for a market, and there still
exists on Tuesdays some pretence of an open sale of grain and
butcher's meat in the square before the church-gate,--contains
about two thousand persons. That and the whole parish of Belton did
once,--and that not long ago,--belong to the Amedroz family. They had
inherited it from the Beltons of old, an Amedroz having married the
heiress of the family. And as the parish is large, stretching away to
Exmoor on one side, and almost to the sea on the other, containing
the hamlet of Redicote, lying on the Taunton high road,--Redicote,
where the post-office is placed, a town almost in itself, and one
which is now much more prosperous than Belton,--as the property when
it came to the first Amedroz had limits such as these, the family had
been considerable in the county. But these limits had been straitened
in the days of the grandfather and the father of Bernard Amedroz; and
he, when he married a Miss Winterfield of Taunton, was thought to
have done very well, in that mortgages were paid off the property
with his wife's money to such an extent as to leave him in clear
possession of an estate that gave him two thousand a year. As Mr.
Amedroz had no grand neighbours near him, as the place is remote
and the living therefore cheap, and as with this income there was
no question of annual visits to London, Mr. and Mrs. Amedroz might
have done very well with such of the good things of the world as had
fallen to their lot. And had the wife lived such would probably have
been the case; for the Winterfields were known to be prudent people.
But Mrs. Amedroz had died young, and things with Bernard Amedroz had
gone badly.

And yet the evil had not been so much with him as with that terrible
boy of his. The father had been nearly forty when he married. He had
then never done any good; but as neither had he done much harm, the
friends of the family had argued well of his future career. After
him, unless he should leave a son behind him, there would be no
Amedroz left among the Quantock hills; and by some arrangement
in respect to that Winterfield money which came to him on his
marriage,--the Winterfields having a long-dated connection with the
Beltons of old,--the Amedroz property was, at Bernard's marriage,
entailed back upon a distant Belton cousin, one Will Belton, whom
no one had seen for many years, but who was by blood nearer to the
squire, in default of children of his own, than any other of his
relatives. And now Will Belton was the heir to Belton Castle; for
Charles Amedroz, at the age of twenty-seven, had found the miseries
of the world to be too many for him, and had put an end to them and
to himself.

Charles had been a clever fellow,--a very clever fellow in the eyes
of his father. Bernard Amedroz knew that he himself was not a clever
fellow, and admired his son accordingly; and when Charles had been
expelled from Harrow for some boyish freak,--in his vengeance against
a neighbouring farmer, who had reported to the school authorities the
doings of a few beagles upon his land, Charles had cut off the heads
of all the trees in a young fir plantation,--his father was proud of
the exploit. When he was rusticated a second time from Trinity, and
when the father received an intimation that his son's name had better
be taken from the College books, the squire was not so well pleased;
but even then he found some delight in the stories which reached him
of his son's vagaries; and when the young man commenced Bohemian life
in London, his father did nothing to restrain him. Then there came
the old story--debts, endless debts; and lies, endless lies. During
the two years before his death, his father paid for him, or undertook
to pay, nearly ten thousand pounds, sacrificing the life assurances
which were to have made provision for his daughter; sacrificing, to a
great extent, his own life income,--sacrificing everything, so that
the property might not be utterly ruined at his death. That Charles
Amedroz should be a brighter, greater man than any other Amedroz,
had still been the father's pride. At the last visit which Charles
had paid to Belton his father had called upon him to pledge himself
solemnly that his sister should not be made to suffer by what had
been done for him. Within a month of that time he had blown his
brains out in his London lodgings, thus making over the entire
property to Will Belton at his father's death. At that last pretended
settlement with his father and his father's lawyer, he had kept back
the mention of debts as heavy nearly as those to which he had owned;
and there were debts of honour, too, of which he had not spoken,
trusting to the next event at Newmarket to set him right. The next
event at Newmarket had set him more wrong than ever, and so there had
come an end to everything with Charles Amedroz.

This had happened in the spring, and the afflicted father,--afflicted
with the double sorrow of his son's terrible death and his daughter's
ruin,--had declared that he would turn his face to the wall and die.
But the old squire's health, though far from strong, was stronger
than he had deemed it, and his feelings, sharp enough, were less
sharp than he had thought them; and when a month had passed by, he
had discovered that it would be better that he should live, in order
that his daughter might still have bread to eat and a house of her
own over her head. Though he was now an impoverished man, there was
still left to him the means of keeping up the old home; and he told
himself that it must, if possible, be so kept that a few pounds
annually might be put by for Clara. The old carriage-horses were
sold, and the park was let to a farmer, up to the hall door of the
castle. So much the squire could do; but as to the putting by of
the few pounds, any dependence on such exertion as that on his part
would, we may say, be very precarious.

Belton Castle was not in truth a castle. Immediately before the front
door, so near to the house as merely to allow of a broad road running
between it and the entrance porch, there stood an old tower, which
gave its name to the residence,--an old square tower, up which the
Amedroz boys for three generations had been able to climb by means
of the ivy and broken stones in one of the inner corners,--and this
tower was a remnant of a real castle that had once protected the
village of Belton. The house itself was an ugly residence, three
stories high, built in the time of George II., with low rooms and
long passages, and an immense number of doors. It was a large
unattractive house,--unattractive, that is, as regarded its own
attributes,--but made interesting by the beauty of the small park in
which it stood. Belton Park did not, perhaps, contain much above a
hundred acres, but the land was so broken into knolls and valleys,
in so many places was the rock seen to be cropping up through the
verdure, there were in it so many stunted old oaks, so many points
of vantage for the lover of scenery, that no one would believe it
to be other than a considerable domain. The farmer who took it, and
who would not under any circumstances undertake to pay more than
seventeen shillings an acre for it, could not be made to think that
it was in any way considerable. But Belton Park, since first it
was made a park, had never before been regarded after this fashion.
Farmer Stovey, of the Grange, was the first man of that class who
had ever assumed the right to pasture his sheep in Belton chase,--as
the people around were still accustomed to call the woodlands of the
estate.

It was full summer at Belton, and four months had now passed since
the dreadful tidings had reached the castle. It was full summer,
and the people of the village were again going about their ordinary
business; and the shop-girls, with their lovers from Redicote, were
again to be seen walking among the oaks in the park on a Sunday
evening; and the world in that district of Somersetshire was getting
itself back into its grooves. The fate of the young heir had
disturbed the grooves greatly, and had taught many in those parts to
feel that the world was coming to an end. They had not loved young
Amedroz, for he had been haughty when among them, and there had been
wrongs committed by the dissolute young squire, and grief had come
from his misdoings upon more than one household; but to think that he
should have destroyed himself with his own hand! And then, to think
that Miss Clara would become a beggar when the old squire should die!
All the neighbours around understood the whole history of the entail,
and knew that the property was to go to Will Belton. Now Will Belton
was not a gentleman! So, at least, said the Belton folk, who had
heard that the heir had been brought up as a farmer somewhere in
Norfolk. Will Belton had once been at the Castle as a boy, now some
fifteen years ago, and then there had sprung up a great quarrel
between him and his distant cousin Charles;--and Will, who was rough
and large of stature, had thrashed the smaller boy severely; and the
thing had grown to have dimensions larger than those which generally
attend the quarrels of boys; and Will had said something which
had shown how well he understood his position in reference to the
estate;--and Charles had hated him. So Will had gone, and had been
no more seen among the oaks whose name he bore. And the people, in
spite of his name, regarded him as an interloper. To them, with their
short memories and scanty knowledge of the past, Amedroz was more
honourable than Belton, and they looked upon the coming man as an
intruder. Why should not Miss Clara have the property? Miss Clara had
never done harm to any one!

Things got back into their old grooves, and at the end of the third
month the squire was once more seen in the old family pew at church.
He was a large man, who had been very handsome, and who now, in his
yellow leaf, was not without a certain beauty of manliness. He wore
his hair and his beard long; before his son's death they were grey,
but now they were very white. And though he stooped, there was still
a dignity in his slow step,--a dignity that came to him from nature
rather than from any effort. He was a man who, in fact, did little or
nothing in the world,--whose life had been very useless; but he had
been gifted with such a presence that he looked as though he were
one of God's nobler creatures. Though always dignified he was ever
affable, and the poor liked him better than they might have done had
he passed his time in searching out their wants and supplying them.
They were proud of their squire, though he had done nothing for them.
It was something to them to have a man who could so carry himself
sitting in the family pew in their parish church. They knew that he
was poor, but they all declared that he was never mean. He was a
real gentleman,--was this last Amedroz of the family; therefore they
curtsied low, and bowed on his reappearance among them, and made all
those signs of reverential awe which are common to the poor when they
feel reverence for the presence of a superior.

Clara was there with him, but she had shown herself in the pew for
four or five weeks before this. She had not been at home when the
fearful news had reached Belton, being at that time with a certain
lady who lived on the further side of the county, at Perivale,--a
certain Mrs. Winterfield, born a Folliott, a widow, who stood to Miss
Amedroz in the place of an aunt. Mrs. Winterfield was, in truth, the
sister of a gentleman who had married Clara's aunt,--there having
been marriages and intermarriages between the Winterfields and
the Folliotts, and the Belton-Amedroz families. With this lady in
Perivale, which I maintain to be the dullest little town in England,
Miss Amedroz was staying when the news reached her father, and when
it was brought direct from London to herself. Instantly she had
hurried home, making the journey with all imaginable speed though her
heart was all but broken within her bosom. She had found her father
stricken to the ground, and it was the more necessary, therefore,
that she should exert herself. It would not do that she also should
yield to that longing for death which terrible calamities often
produce for a season.

Clara Amedroz, when she first heard the news of her brother's fate,
had felt that she was for ever crushed to the ground. She had known
too well what had been the nature of her brother's life, but she
had not expected or feared any such termination to his career as
this which had now come upon him--to the terrible affliction of all
belonging to him. She felt at first, as did also her father, that
she and he were annihilated as regards this world, not only by an
enduring grief, but also by a disgrace which would never allow her
again to hold up her head. And for many a long year much of this
feeling clung to her;--clung to her much more strongly than to her
father. But strength was hers to perceive, even before she had
reached her home, that it was her duty to repress both the feeling
of shame and the sorrow, as far as they were capable of repression.
Her brother had been weak, and in his weakness had sought a coward's
escape from the ills of the world around him. She must not also be a
coward! Bad as life might be to her henceforth, she must endure it
with such fortitude as she could muster. So resolving she returned to
her father, and was able to listen to his railings with a fortitude
that was essentially serviceable both to him and to herself.

"Both of you! Both of you!" the unhappy father had said in his woe.
"The wretched boy has destroyed you as much as himself!" "No, sir,"
she had answered, with a forbearance in her misery, which, terrible
as was the effort, she forced herself to accomplish for his sake. "It
is not so. No thought of that need add to your grief. My poor brother
has not hurt me;--not in the way you mean." "He has ruined us all,"
said the father; "root and branch, man and woman, old and young,
house and land. He has brought the family to an end;--ah me, to such
an end!" After that the name of him who had taken himself from among
them was not mentioned between the father and daughter, and Clara
settled herself to the duties of her new life, striving to live as
though there was no great sorrow around her--as though no cloud-storm
had burst over her head.

The family lawyer, who lived at Taunton, had communicated the fact of
Charles's death to Mr. Belton, and Belton had acknowledged the letter
with the ordinary expressions of regret. The lawyer had alluded to
the entail, saying that it was improbable that Mr. Amedroz would have
another son. To this Belton had replied that for his cousin Clara's
sake he hoped that the squire's life might be long spared. The lawyer
smiled as he read the wish, thinking to himself that luckily no wish
on the part of Will Belton could influence his old client either for
good or evil. What man, let alone what lawyer, will ever believe
in the sincerity of such a wish as that expressed by the heir to a
property? And yet where is the man who will not declare to himself
that such, under such circumstances, would be his own wish?

Clara Amedroz at this time was not a very young lady. She had already
passed her twenty-fifth birthday, and in manners, appearance, and
habits was, at any rate, as old as her age. She made no pretence to
youth, speaking of herself always as one whom circumstances required
to take upon herself age in advance of her years. She did not dress
young, or live much with young people, or correspond with other
girls by means of crossed letters; nor expect that, for her, young
pleasures should be provided. Life had always been serious with her;
but now, we may say, since the terrible tragedy in the family, it
must be solemn as well as serious. The memory of her brother must
always be upon her; and the memory also of the fact that her father
was now an impoverished man, on whose behalf it was her duty to care
that every shilling spent in the house did its full twelve pennies'
worth of work. There was a mixture in this of deep tragedy and of
little care, which seemed to destroy for her the poetry as well as
the pleasure of life. The poetry and tragedy might have gone hand
in hand together; and so might the cares and pleasures of life have
done, had there been no black sorrow of which she must be ever
mindful. But it was her lot to have to scrutinize the butcher's bill
as she was thinking of her brother's fate; and to work daily among
small household things while the spectre of her brother's corpse was
ever before her eyes.

A word must be said to explain how it had come to pass that the life
led by Miss Amedroz had been more than commonly serious before that
tragedy had befallen the family. The name of the lady who stood to
Clara in the place of an aunt has been already mentioned. When a girl
has a mother, her aunt may be little or nothing to her. But when
the mother is gone, if there be an aunt unimpeded with other family
duties, then the family duties of that aunt begin--and are assumed
sometimes with great vigour. Such had been the case with Mrs.
Winterfield. No woman ever lived, perhaps, with more conscientious
ideas of her duty as a woman than Mrs. Winterfield of Prospect Place,
Perivale. And this, as I say it, is intended to convey no scoff
against that excellent lady. She was an excellent lady--unselfish,
given to self-restraint, generous, pious, looking to find in her
religion a safe path through life--a path as safe as the facts of
Adam's fall would allow her feet to find. She was a woman fearing
much for others, but fearing also much for herself, striving to
maintain her house in godliness, hating sin, and struggling with the
weakness of her humanity so that she might not allow herself to hate
the sinners. But her hatred for the sin she found herself bound at
all times to pronounce--to show it by some act at all seasons. To
fight the devil was her work--was the appointed work of every living
soul, if only living souls could be made to acknowledge the necessity
of the task. Now an aunt of that kind, when she assumes her duties
towards a motherless niece, is apt to make life serious.

But, it will be said, Clara Amedroz could have rebelled; and Clara's
father was hardly made of such stuff that obedience to the aunt would
be enforced on her by parental authority. Doubtless Clara could
have rebelled against her aunt. Indeed, I do not know that she had
hitherto been very obedient. But there were family facts about these
Winterfield connections which would have made it difficult for her
to ignore her so-called aunt, even had she wished to do so. Mrs.
Winterfield had twelve hundred a year at her own disposal, and she
was the only person related to the Amedroz family from whom Mr.
Amedroz had a right to have expectations on his daughter's behalf.
Clara had, in a measure, been claimed by the lady, and the father had
made good the lady's claim, and Clara had acknowledged that a portion
of her life was due to the demands of Perivale. These demands had
undoubtedly made her life serious.

Life at Perivale was a very serious thing. As regards amusement,
ordinarily so called, the need of any such institution was not
acknowledged at Prospect House. Food, drink, and raiment were
acknowledged to be necessary to humanity, and, in accordance with the
rules of that house, they were supplied in plenty, and good of their
kind. Such ladies as Mrs. Winterfield generally keep good tables,
thinking no doubt that the eatables should do honour to the grace
that is said for them. And Mrs. Winterfield herself always wore a
thick black silk dress,--not rusty or dowdy with age,--but with
some gloss of the silk on it; giving away, with secret, underhand,
undiscovered charity, her old dresses to another lady of her own
sort, on whom fortune had not bestowed twelve hundred a year. And
Mrs. Winterfield kept a low, four-wheeled, one-horsed little phaeton,
in which she made her pilgrimages among the poor of Perivale, driven
by the most solemn of stable-boys, dressed up in a white great coat,
the most priggish of hats, and white cotton gloves. At the rate of
five miles an hour was she driven about, and this driving was to
her the amusement of life. But such an occupation to Clara Amedroz
assisted to make life serious.

In person Mrs. Winterfield was tall and thin, wearing on her brow
thin braids of false hair. She had suffered much from acute ill
health, and her jaws were sunken, and her eyes were hollow, and there
was a look of woe about her which seemed ever to be telling of her
own sorrows in this world and of the sorrows of others in the world
to come. Ill-nature was written on her face, but in this her face was
a false face. She had the manners of a cross, peevish woman; but her
manners also were false, and gave no proper idea of her character.
But still, such as she was, she made life very serious to those who
were called upon to dwell with her.

I need, I hope, hardly say that a young lady such as Miss Amedroz,
even though she had reached the age of twenty-five,--for at the time
to which I am now alluding she had nearly done so,--and was not young
of her age, had formed for herself no plan of life in which her
aunt's money figured as a motive power. She had gone to Perivale
when she was very young, because she had been told to do so, and had
continued to go, partly from obedience, partly from habit, and partly
from affection. An aunt's dominion, when once well established in
early years, cannot easily be thrown altogether aside,--even though
a young lady have a will of her own. Now Clara Amedroz had a strong
will of her own, and did not at all,--at any rate in these latter
days,--belong to that school of divinity in which her aunt shone
almost as a professor. And this circumstance, also, added to the
seriousness of her life. But in regard to her aunt's money she had
entertained no established hopes; and when her aunt opened her mind
to her on that subject, a few days before the arrival of the fatal
news at Perivale, Clara, though she was somewhat surprised, was by
no means disappointed. Now there was a certain Captain Aylmer in the
question, of whom in this opening chapter it will be necessary to say
a few words.

Captain Frederic Folliott Aylmer was, in truth, the nephew of Mrs.
Winterfield, whereas Clara Amedroz was not, in truth, her niece. And
Captain Aylmer was also Member of Parliament for the little borough
of Perivale, returned altogether on the Low Church interest,--for
a devotion to which, and for that alone, Perivale was noted
among boroughs. These facts together added not a little to Mrs.
Winterfield's influence and professorial power in the place, and gave
a dignity to the one-horse chaise which it might not otherwise have
possessed. But Captain Aylmer was only the second son of his father,
Sir Anthony Aylmer, who had married a Miss Folliott, sister of our
Mrs. Winterfield. On Frederic Aylmer his mother's estate was settled.
That and Mrs. Winterfield's property lay in the neighbourhood of
Perivale; and now, on the occasion to which I am alluding, Mrs.
Winterfield thought it necessary to tell Clara that the property must
all go together. She had thought about it, and had doubted about it,
and had prayed about it, and now she found that such a disposition of
it was her duty.

"I am quite sure you're right, aunt," Clara had said. She knew very
well what had come of that provision which her father had attempted
to make for her, and knew also how great were her father's
expectations in regard to Mrs. Winterfield's money.

"I hope I am; but I have thought it right to tell you. I shall feel
myself bound to tell Frederic. I have had many doubts, but I think
I am right."

"I am sure you are, aunt. What would he think of me if, at some
future time, he should have to find that I had been in his way?"

"The future time will not be long now, my dear."

"I hope it may; but long or short, it is better so."

"I think it is, my dear; I think it is. I think it is my duty."

It must be understood that Captain Aylmer was member for Perivale on
the Low Church interest, and that, therefore, when at Perivale he was
decidedly a Low Churchman. I am not aware that the peculiarity stuck
to him very closely at Aylmer Castle, in Yorkshire, or among his
friends in London; but there was no hypocrisy in this, as the world
goes. Women in such matters are absolutely false if they be not
sincere; but men, with political views, and with much of their
future prospects in jeopardy also, are allowed to dress themselves
differently for different scenes. Whatever be the peculiar interest
on which a man goes into Parliament, of course he has to live up to
that in his own borough. Whether malt, the franchise, or teetotalism
be his rallying point, of course he is full of it when among his
constituents. But it is not desirable that he should be full of it
also at his club. Had Captain Aylmer become Prime Minister, he would
no doubt, have made Low Church bishops. It was the side to which he
had taken himself in that matter,--not without good reasons. And
he could say a sharp word or two in season about vestments; he was
strong against candles, and fought for his side fairly well. No one
had good right to complain of Captain Aylmer as being insincere; but
had his aunt known the whole history of her nephew's life, I doubt
whether she would have made him her heir,--thinking that in doing so
she was doing the best for the good cause.

The whole history of her niece's life she did know, and she knew that
Clara was not with her, heart and soul. Had Clara left the old woman
in doubt on this subject, she would have been a hypocrite. Captain
Aylmer did not often spend a Sunday at Perivale, but when he did, he
went to church three times, and submitted himself to the yoke. He was
thinking of the borough votes quite as much as of his aunt's money,
and was carrying on his business after the fashion of men. But Clara
found herself compelled to maintain some sort of a fight, though she
also went to church three times on Sunday. And there was another
reason why Mrs. Winterfield thought it right to mention Captain
Aylmer's name to her niece on this occasion.

"I had hoped," she said, "that it might make no difference in what
way my money was left."

Clara well understood what this meant, as will, probably, the reader
also. "I can't say but what it will make a difference," she answered,
smiling; "but I shall always think that you have done right. Why
should I stand in Captain Aylmer's way?"

"I had hoped your ways might have been the same," said the old lady,
fretfully.

"But they cannot be the same."

"No; you do not see things as he sees them. Things that are serious
to him are, I fear, only light to you. Dear Clara, would I could
see you more in earnest as to the only matter that is worth our
earnestness." Miss Amedroz said nothing as to the Captain's
earnestness, though, perhaps, her ideas as to his ideas about
religion were more correct than those held by Mrs. Winterfield. But
it would not have suited her to raise any argument on that subject.
"I pray for you, Clara," continued the old lady; "and will do so as
long as the power of prayer is left to me. I hope,--I hope you do not
cease to pray for yourself?"

"I endeavour, aunt."

"It is an endeavour which, if really made, never fails."

Clara said nothing more, and her aunt also remained silent. Soon
afterwards, the four-wheeled carriage, with the demure stable-boy,
came to the door, and Clara was driven up and down through the
streets of Perivale in a manner which was an injury to her. She knew
that she was suffering an injustice, but it was one of which she
could not make complaint. She submitted to her aunt, enduring the
penances that were required of her; and, therefore, her aunt had
opportunity enough to see her shortcomings. Mrs. Winterfield did see
them, and judged her accordingly. Captain Aylmer, being a man and a
Member of Parliament, was called upon to bear no such penances, and,
therefore, his shortcomings were not suspected.

But, after all, what title had she ever possessed to entertain
expectations from Mrs. Winterfield? When she thought of it all in her
room that night, she told herself that it was strange that her aunt
should have spoken to her in such a way on such a subject. But, then,
so much had been said to her on the matter by her father, so much, no
doubt, had reached her aunt's ears also, the hope that her position
with reference to the rich widow at Perivale might be beneficial to
her had been so often discussed at Belton as a make-weight against
the extravagance of the heir, there had already been so much of this
mistake, that she taught herself to perceive that the communication
was needed. "In her honesty she has not chosen to leave me with false
hopes," said Clara to herself. And at that moment she loved her aunt
for her honesty.

Then, on the day but one following this conversation as to the
destiny of her aunt's property, came the terrible tidings of her
brother's death. Captain Aylmer, who had been in London at the time,
hurried down to Perivale, and had been the first to tell Miss Amedroz
what had happened. The words spoken between them then had not been
many, but Clara knew that Captain Aylmer had been kind to her; and
when he had offered to accompany her to Belton, she had thanked him
with a degree of gratitude which had almost seemed to imply more of
regard between them than Clara would have acknowledged to exist. But
in moments such as those, soft words may be spoken and hands may be
pressed without any of that meaning which soft words and the grasping
of hands generally carry with them. As far as Taunton Captain Aylmer
did go with Miss Amedroz, and there they parted, he on his journey up
to town, and she for her father's desolate house at Belton.



CHAPTER II.

THE HEIR PROPOSES TO VISIT HIS COUSINS.


It was full summer at Belton, and the sweet scent of the new hay
filled the porch of the old house with fragrance, as Clara sat there
alone with her work. Immediately before the house door, between that
and the old tower, there stood one of Farmer Stovey's hay-carts, now
empty, with an old horse between the shafts looking as though he were
asleep in the sun. Immediately beyond the tower the men were loading
another cart, and the women and children were chattering as they
raked the scattered remnants up to the rows. Under the shadow of the
old tower, but in sight of Clara as she sat in the porch, there lay
the small beer-barrels of the hay-makers, and three or four rakes
were standing erect against the old grey wall. It was now eleven
o'clock, and Clara was waiting for her father, who was not yet out
of his room. She had taken his breakfast to him in bed, as was her
custom; for he had fallen into idle ways, and the luxury of his bed
was, of all his remaining luxuries, the one that he liked the best.
After a while he came down to her, having an open letter in his hand.
Clara saw that he intended either to show it to her or to speak of
it, and asked him therefore, with some tone of interest in her voice,
from whom it had come. But Mr. Amedroz was fretful at the moment, and
instead of answering her began to complain of his tenant's ill-usage
of him.

"What has he got his cart there for? I haven't let him the road up to
the hall door. I suppose he will bring his things into the parlour
next."

"I rather like it, papa."

"Do you? I can only say that you're lucky in your tastes. I don't
like it, I can tell you."

"Mr. Stovey is out there. Shall I ask him to have the things moved
further off?"

"No, my dear,--no. I must bear it, as I do all the rest of it. What
does it matter? There'll be an end of it soon. He pays his rent, and
I suppose he is right to do as he pleases. But I can't say that I
like it."

"Am I to see the letter, papa?" she asked, wishing to turn his mind
from the subject of the hay-cart.

"Well, yes. I brought it for you to see; though perhaps I should be
doing better if I burned it, and said nothing more about it. It is a
most impudent production; and heartless,--very heartless."

Clara was accustomed to such complaints as these from her father.
Everything that everybody did around him he would call heartless.
The man pitied himself so much in his own misery, that he expected
to live in an atmosphere of pity from others; and though the pity
doubtless was there, he misdoubted it. He thought that Farmer Stovey
was cruel in that he had left the hay-cart near the house, to wound
his eyes by reminding him that he was no longer master of the ground
before his own hall door. He thought that the women and children were
cruel to chatter so near his ears. He almost accused his daughter of
cruelty, because she had told him that she liked the contiguity of
the hay-making. Under such circumstances as those which enveloped him
and her, was it not heartless in her to like anything? It seemed to
him that the whole world of Belton should be drowned in woe because
of his misery.

"Where is it from, papa?" she asked.

"There, you may read it. Perhaps it is better that you should know
that it has been written." Then she read the letter, which was as
follows:--

"Plaistow Hall, -- July, 186--."

Though she had never before seen the handwriting, she knew at once
from whence came the letter, for she had often heard of Plaistow
Hall. It was the name of the farm at which her distant cousin, Will
Belton, lived, and her father had more than once been at the trouble
of explaining to her, that though the place was called a hall, the
house was no more than a farmhouse. He had never seen Plaistow
Hall, and had never been in Norfolk; but so much he could take upon
himself to say, "They call all the farms halls down there." It was
not wonderful that he should dislike his heir; and, perhaps, not
unnatural that he should show his dislike after this fashion. Clara,
when she read the address, looked up into her father's face. "You
know who it is now," he said. And then she read the letter.


   Plaistow Hall, -- July, 186--.

   MY DEAR SIR,

   I have not written to you before since your bereavement,
   thinking it better to wait awhile; but I hope you have
   not taken me to be unkind in this, or have supposed me
   to be unmindful of your sorrow. Now I take up my pen,
   hoping that I may make you understand how greatly I was
   distressed by what has occurred. I believe I am now the
   nearest male relative that you have, and as such I am very
   anxious to be of service to you if it may be possible.
   Considering the closeness of our connection, and my
   position in reference to the property, it seems bad that
   we should never meet. I can assure you that you would find
   me very friendly if we could manage to come together.

   I should think nothing of running across to Belton, if you
   would receive me at your house. I could come very well
   before harvest, if that would suit you, and would stay
   with you for a week. Pray give my kindest regards to my
   cousin Clara, whom I can only just remember as a very
   little girl. She was with her aunt at Perivale when I was
   at Belton as a boy. She shall find a friend in me if she
   wants a friend.

   Your affectionate cousin,

   W. BELTON.


Clara read the letter very slowly, so that she might make herself
sure of its tone and bearing before she was called upon by her
father to express her feeling respecting it. She knew that she would
be expected to abuse it violently, and to accuse the writer of
vulgarity, insolence, and cruelty; but she had already learned that
she must not allow herself to accede to all her father's fantasies.
For his sake, and for his protection, it was necessary that she
should differ from him, and even contradict him. Were she not to do
so, he would fall into a state of wailing and complaining that would
exaggerate itself almost to idiotcy. And it was imperative that
she herself should exercise her own opinion on many points, almost
without reference to him. She alone knew how utterly destitute she
would be when he should die. He, in the first days of his agony, had
sobbed forth his remorse as to her ruin; but, even when doing so,
he had comforted himself with the remembrance of Mrs. Winterfield's
money, and Mrs. Winterfield's affection for his daughter. And the
aunt, when she had declared her purpose to Clara, had told herself
that the provision made for Clara by her father was sufficient. To
neither of them had Clara told her own position. She could not inform
her aunt that her father had given up to the poor reprobate who had
destroyed himself all that had been intended for her. Had she done so
she would have been asking her aunt for charity. Nor would she bring
herself to add to her father's misery, by destroying the hopes which
still supported him. She never spoke of her own position in regard
to money, but she knew that it had become her duty to live a wary,
watchful life, taking much upon herself in their impoverished
household, and holding her own opinion against her father's when her
doing so became expedient. So she finished the letter in silence, and
did not speak at the moment when the movement of her eyes declared
that she had completed the task.

"Well," said he.

"I do not think my cousin means badly."

"You don't! I do, then. I think he means very badly. What business
has he to write to me, talking of his position?"

"I can't see anything amiss in his doing so, papa. I think he wishes
to be friendly. The property will be his some day, and I don't see
why that should not be mentioned, when there is occasion."

"Upon my word, Clara, you surprise me. But women never understand
delicacy in regard to money. They have so little to do with it,
and think so little about it, that they have no occasion for such
delicacy."

Clara could not help the thought that to her mind the subject was
present with sufficient frequency to make delicacy very desirable,
if only it were practicable. But of this she said nothing. "And what
answer will you send to him, papa?" she asked.

"None at all. Why should I trouble myself to write to him?"

"I will take the trouble off your hands."

"And what will you say to him?"

"I will ask him to come here, as he proposes."

"Clara!"

"Why not, papa? He is the heir to the property, and why should he
not be permitted to see it? There are many things in which his
co-operation with you might be a comfort to you. I can't tell you
whether the tenants and people are treating you well, but he can do
so; and, moreover, I think he means to be kind. I do not see why
we should quarrel with our cousin because he is the heir to your
property. It is not through any doing of his own that he is so."

This reasoning had no effect upon Mr. Amedroz, but his daughter's
resolution carried the point against him in spite of his want of
reason. No letter was written that day, or on the next; but on the
day following a formal note was sent off by Clara, in which Mr.
Belton was told that Mr. Amedroz would be happy to receive him at
Belton Castle. The letter was written by the daughter, but the father
was responsible for the formality. He sat over her while she wrote
it, and nearly drove her distracted by discussing every word and
phrase. At last, Clara was so annoyed with her own production, that
she was almost tempted to write another letter unknown to her father;
but the formal note went.


   MY DEAR SIR,

   I am desired by my father to say that he will be happy
   to receive you at Belton Castle, at the time fixed by
   yourself.

   Yours truly,

   CLARA AMEDROZ.


There was no more than that, but that had the desired effect; and by
return of post there came a rejoinder, saying that Will Belton would
be at the Castle on the fifteenth of August. "They can do without me
for about ten days," he said in his postscript, writing in a familiar
tone, which did not seem to have been at all checked by the coldness
of his cousin's note,--"as our harvest will be late; but I must be
back for a week's work before the partridges."

"Heartless! quite heartless!" Mr. Amedroz said as he read this.
"Partridges! to talk of partridges at such a time as this!"

Clara, however, would not acknowledge that she agreed with her
father; but she could not altogether restrain a feeling on her own
part that her cousin's good humour towards her and Mr. Amedroz should
have been repressed by the tone of her letter to him. The man was to
come, however, and she would not judge of him until he was there.

In one house in the neighbourhood, and in only one, had Miss Amedroz
a friend with whom she was intimate; and as regarded even this single
friend, the intimacy was the effect rather of circumstances than of
real affection. She liked Mrs. Askerton, and saw her almost daily;
but she could hardly tell herself that she loved her neighbour.

In the little town of Belton, close to the church, there stood a
pretty, small house, called Belton Cottage. It was so near the church
that strangers always supposed it to be the parsonage; but the
rectory stood away out in the country, half a mile from the town,
on the road to Redicote, and was a large house, three stories high,
with grounds of its own, and very ugly. Here lived the old bachelor
rector, seventy years of age, given much to long absences when he
could achieve them, and never on good terms with his bishop. His two
curates lived at Redicote, where there was a second church. Belton
Cottage, which was occupied by Colonel Askerton and Mrs. Askerton,
was on the Amedroz property, and had been hired some two years since
by the Colonel, who was then a stranger in the country and altogether
unknown to the Belton people. But he had come there for shooting, and
therefore his coming had been understood. Even as long ago as two
years since, there had been neither use nor propriety in keeping the
shooting for the squire's son, and it had been let with the cottage
to Colonel Askerton. So Colonel Askerton had come there with his
wife, and no one in the neighbourhood had known anything about them.
Mr. Amedroz, with his daughter, had called upon them, and gradually
there had grown up an intimacy between Clara and Mrs. Askerton. There
was an opening from the garden of Belton Cottage into the park, so
that familiar intercourse was easy, and Mrs. Askerton was a woman who
knew well how to make herself pleasant to such another woman as Miss
Amedroz.

The reader may as well know at once that rumours prejudicial to the
Askertons reached Belton before they had been established there
for six months. At Taunton, which was twenty miles distant, these
rumours were very rife, and there were people there who knew with
accuracy,--though, probably without a grain of truth in their
accuracy,--every detail in the history of Mrs. Askerton's life. And
something, too, reached Clara's ears--something from old Mr. Wright,
the rector, who loved scandal, and was very ill-natured. "A very
nice woman," the rector had said; "but she does not seem to have any
belongings in particular." "She has got a husband," Clara had replied
with some little indignation, for she had never loved Mr. Wright.
"Yes; I suppose she has got a husband." Then Clara had, in her own
judgment, accused the rector of lying, evil-speaking, and slandering,
and had increased the measure of her cordiality to Mrs. Askerton. But
something more she had heard on the same subject at Perivale. "Before
you throw yourself into close intimacy with the lady, I think you
should know something about her," Mrs. Winterfield had said to her.
"I do know something about her; I know that she has the manners and
education of a lady, and that she is living affectionately with her
husband, who is devoted to her. What more ought I to know?" "If you
really do know all that, you know a great deal," Mrs. Winterfield had
replied.

"Do you know anything against her, aunt?" Clara asked, after a pause.

There was another pause before Mrs. Winterfield answered. "No
my dear; I cannot say that I do. But I think that young ladies,
before they make intimate friendships, should be very sure of their
friends."

"You have already acknowledged that I know a great deal about her,"
Clara replied. And then the conversation was at an end. Clara had not
been quite ingenuous, as she acknowledged to herself. She was aware
that her aunt would not permit herself to repeat rumours as to the
truth of which she had no absolute knowledge. She understood that the
weakness of her aunt's caution was due to the old lady's sense of
charity and dislike of slander. But Clara had buckled on her armour
for Mrs. Askerton, and was glad, therefore, to achieve her little
victory. When we buckle on our armour in any cause, we are apt to
go on buckling it, let the cause become as weak as it may; and
Clara continued her intimacy with Mrs. Askerton, although there was
something in the lady's modes of speech, and something also in her
modes of thinking, which did not quite satisfy the aspirations of
Miss Amedroz as to a friend.

Colonel Askerton himself was a pleasant, quiet man, who seemed to
be contented with the life which he was leading. For six weeks in
April and May he would go up to town, leaving Mrs. Askerton at the
cottage,--as to which, probably jovial, absence in the metropolis
there seemed to be no spirit of grudging on the part of the wife. On
the first of September a friend would come to the cottage and remain
there for six weeks' shooting; and during the winter the Colonel and
his wife always went to Paris for a fortnight. Such had been their
life for the last two years; and thus,--so said Mrs. Askerton to
Clara,--did they intend to live as long as they could keep the
cottage at Belton. Society at Belton they had none, and,--as they
said,--desired none. Between them and Mr. Wright there was only a
speaking acquaintance. The married curate at Redicote would not
let his wife call on Mrs. Askerton, and the unmarried curate was a
hard-worked, clerical hack,--a parochial minister at all times and
seasons, who went to no houses except the houses of the poor, and who
would hold communion with no man, and certainly with no woman, who
would not put up with clerical admonitions for Sunday backslidings.
Mr. Amedroz himself neither received guests nor went as a guest to
other men's houses. He would occasionally stand for a while at the
gate of the Colonel's garden, and repeat the list of his own woes as
long as his neighbour would stand there to hear it. But there was no
society at Belton, and Clara, as far as she herself was aware, was
the only person with whom Mrs. Askerton held any social intercourse,
except what she might have during her short annual holiday in Paris.

"Of course, you are right," she said, when Clara told her of the
proposed coming of Mr. Belton. "If he turn out to be a good fellow,
you will have gained a great deal. And should he be a bad fellow,
you will have lost nothing. In either case you will know him, and
considering how he stands towards you, that itself is desirable."

"But if he should annoy papa?"

"In your papa's condition, my dear, the coming of any one will annoy
him. At least, he will say so; though I do not in the least doubt
that he will like the excitement better even than you will."

"I can't say there will be much excitement to me."

"No excitement in a young man's coming into the house! Without
shocking your propriety, allow me to say that that is impossible. Of
course, he is coming to see whether he can't make matters all right
by marrying you."

"That's nonsense, Mrs. Askerton."

"Very well. Let it be nonsense. But why shouldn't he? It's just what
he ought to do. He hasn't got a wife; and, as far as I know, you
haven't got a lover."

"I certainly have not got a lover."

"Our religious nephew at Perivale does not seem to be of any use."

"I wish, Mrs. Askerton, you would not speak of Captain Aylmer in that
way. I don't know any man whom I like so much, or at any rate better,
than Captain Aylmer; but I hate the idea that no girl can become
acquainted with an unmarried man without having her name mentioned
with his, and having to hear ill-natured remarks of that kind."

"I hope you will learn to like this other man much better. Think how
nice it will be to be mistress of the old place after all. And then
to go back to the old family name! If I were you I would make up my
mind not to let him leave the place till I had brought him to my
feet."

"If you go on like that I will not speak to you about him again."

"Or rather not to my feet,--for gentlemen have laid aside the humble
way of making love for the last twenty years at least; but I don't
know whether the women haven't gained quite as much by the change as
the men."

"As I know nothing will stop you when you once get into a vein of
that kind, I shall go," said Clara. "And till this man has come and
gone I shall not mention his name again in your presence."

"So be it," said Mrs. Askerton; "but as I will promise to say nothing
more about him, you need not go on his account." But Clara had got
up, and did leave the cottage at once.



CHAPTER III.

WILL BELTON.


Mr. Belton came to the castle, and nothing further had been said at
the cottage about his coming. Clara had seen Mrs. Askerton in the
meantime frequently, but that lady had kept her promise--almost to
Clara's disappointment. For she--though she had in truth disliked the
proposition that her cousin could be coming with any special views
with reference to herself had nevertheless sufficient curiosity about
the stranger to wish to talk about him. Her father, indeed, mentioned
Belton's name very frequently, saying something with reference to him
every time he found himself in his daughter's presence. A dozen times
he said that the man was heartless to come to the house at such a
time, and he spoke of his cousin always as though the man were guilty
of a gross injustice in being heir to the property. But not the less
on that account did he fidget himself about the room in which Belton
was to sleep, about the food that Belton was to eat, and especially
about the wine that Belton was to drink. What was he to do for wine?
The stock of wine in the cellars at Belton Castle was, no doubt, very
low. The squire himself drank a glass or two of port daily, and had
some remnant of his old treasures by him, which might perhaps last
him his time; and occasionally there came small supplies of sherry
from the grocer at Taunton; but Mr. Amedroz pretended to think that
Will Belton would want champagne and claret;--and he would continue
to make these suggestions in spite of his own repeated complaints
that the man was no better than an ordinary farmer. "I've no doubt
he'll like beer," said Clara. "Beer!" said her father, and then
stopped himself, as though he were lost in doubt whether it would
best suit him to scorn his cousin for having so low a taste as that
suggested on his behalf, or to ridicule his daughter's idea that the
household difficulty admitted of so convenient a solution.

The day of the arrival at last came, and Clara certainly was in a
twitter, although she had steadfastly resolved that she would be in
no twitter at all. She had told her aunt by letter of the proposed
visit, and Mrs. Winterfield had expressed her approbation, saying
that she hoped it would lead to good results. Of what good results
could her aunt be thinking? The one probable good result would
surely be this--that relations so nearly connected should know each
other. Why should there be any fuss made about such a visit? But,
nevertheless, Clara, though she made no outward fuss, knew that
inwardly she was not as calm about the man's coming as she would have
wished herself to be.

He arrived about five o'clock in a gig from Taunton. Five was the
ordinary dinner hour at Belton, but it had been postponed till six on
this day, in the hope that the cousin might make his appearance at
any rate by that hour. Mr. Amedroz had uttered various complaints
as to the visitor's heartlessness in not having written to name the
hour of his arrival, and was manifestly intending to make the most of
the grievance should he not present himself before six;--but this
indulgence was cut short by the sound of the gig wheels. Mr. Amedroz
and his daughter were sitting in a small drawing-room, which looked
out to the front of the house and he, seated in his accustomed
chair, near the window, could see the arrival. For a moment or two
he remained quiet in his chair, as though he would not allow so
insignificant a thing as his cousin's coming to ruffle him;--but he
could not maintain this dignified indifference, and before Belton was
out of the gig he had shuffled out into the hall.

Clara followed her father almost unconsciously and soon found herself
shaking hands with a big man, over six feet high, broad in the
shoulders, large limbed, with bright quick grey eyes, a large mouth,
teeth almost too perfect and a well-formed nose, with thick short
brown hair and small whiskers which came but half-way down his
cheeks--a decidedly handsome man with a florid face, but still,
perhaps, with something of the promised roughness of the farmer. But
a more good-humoured looking countenance Clara felt at once that she
had never beheld.

"And you are the little girl that I remember when I was a boy at Mr.
Folliott's?" he said. His voice was clear, and rather loud, but it
sounded very pleasantly in that sad old house.

"Yes; I am the little girl," said Clara, smiling.

"Dear, dear! and that's twenty years ago now," said he.

"But you oughtn't to remind me of that, Mr. Belton."

"Oughtn't I? Why not?"

"Because it shows how very old I am."

"Ah, yes;--to be sure. But there's nobody here that signifies. How
well I remember this room;--and the old tower out there. It isn't
changed a bit!"

"Not to the outward eye, perhaps," said the squire.

"That's what I mean. So they're making hay still. Our hay has been
all up these three weeks. I didn't know you ever meadowed the park."
Here he trod with dreadful severity upon the corns of Mr. Amedroz,
but he did not perceive it. And when the squire muttered something
about a tenant, and the inconvenience of keeping land in his own
hands, Belton would have gone on with the subject had not Clara
changed the conversation. The squire complained bitterly of this to
Clara when they were alone, saying that it was very heartless.

She had a little scheme of her own,--a plan arranged for the saying
of a few words to her cousin on the earliest opportunity of their
being alone together,--and she contrived that this should take place
within half an hour after his arrival, as he went through the hall
up to his room. "Mr. Belton," she said, "I'm sure you will not take
it amiss if I take a cousin's privilege at once and explain to you
something of our way of living here. My dear father is not very
strong."

"He is much altered since I saw him last."

"Oh, yes. Think of all that he has had to bear! Well, Mr. Belton,
the fact is, that we are not so well off as we used to be, and are
obliged to live in a very quiet way. You will not mind that?"

"Who? I?"

"I take it very kind of you, your coming all this way to see us--"

"I'd have come three times the distance."

"But you must put up with us as you find us, you know. The truth is
we are very poor."

"Well, now;--that's just what I wanted to know. One couldn't write
and ask such a question; but I was sure I should find out if I came."

"You've found it out already, you see."

"As for being poor, it's a thing I don't think very much about,--not
for young people. But it isn't comfortable when a man gets old. Now
what I want to know is this; can't something be done?"

"The only thing to do is to be very kind to him. He has had to let
the park to Mr. Stovey, and he doesn't like talking about it."

"But if it isn't talked about, how can it be mended?"

"It can't be mended."

"We'll see about that. But I'll be kind to him; you see if I ain't.
And I'll tell you what, I'll be kind to you too, if you'll let me.
You have got no brother now."

"No," said Clara; "I have got no brother now." Belton was looking
full into her face, and saw that her eyes had become clouded with
tears.

"I will be your brother," said he. "You see if I don't. When I say
a thing I mean it. I will be your brother." And he took her hand,
caressing it, and showing her that he was not in the least afraid
of her. He was blunt in his bearing, saying things which her father
would have called indelicate and heartless, as though they gave
him no effort, and placing himself at once almost in a position of
ascendency. This Clara had not intended. She had thought that her
farmer cousin, in spite of the superiority of his prospects as heir
to the property, would have acceded to her little hints with silent
acquiescence; but instead of this he seemed prepared to take upon
himself the chief part in the play that was to be acted between them.
"Shall it be so?" he said, still holding her hand.

"You are very kind."

"I will be more than kind; I will love you dearly if you will let me.
You don't suppose that I have looked you up here for nothing. Blood
is thicker than water, and you have nobody now so near to you as I
am. I don't see why you should be so poor, as the debts have been
paid."

"Papa has had to borrow money on his life interest in the place."

"That's the mischief! Never mind. We'll see if we can't do something.
And in the meantime don't make a stranger of me. Anything does for
me. Lord bless you! if you were to see how I rough it sometimes!
I can eat beans and bacon with any one; and what's more, I can go
without 'em if I can't get 'em."

"We'd better get ready for dinner now. I always dress, because papa
likes to see it." This she said as a hint to her cousin that he
would be expected to change his coat, for her father would have been
annoyed had his guest sat down to dinner without such ceremony. Will
Belton was not very good at taking hints; but he did understand this,
and made the necessary change in his apparel.

The evening was long and dull, and nothing occurred worthy of remark
except the surprise manifested by Mr. Amedroz when Belton called his
daughter by her Christian name. This he did without the slightest
hesitation, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for
him to do. She was his cousin, and cousins of course addressed each
other in that way. Clara's quick eye immediately saw her father's
slight gesture of dismay, but Belton caught nothing of this. The
squire took an early opportunity of calling him Mr. Belton with some
little peculiarity of expression; but this was altogether lost upon
Will, who five times in the next five minutes addressed "Clara" as
though they were already on the most intimate terms. She would have
answered him in the same way, and would have called him Will, had she
not been afraid of offending her father.

Mr. Amedroz had declared his purpose of coming down to breakfast
during the period of his cousin's visit, and at half-past nine he was
in the parlour. Clara had been there some time, but had not seen her
cousin. He entered the room immediately after her father, bringing
his hat with him in his hand, and wiping the drops of perspiration
from his brow. "You have been out, Mr. Belton," said the squire.

"All round the place, sir. Six o'clock doesn't often find me in bed,
summer or winter. What's the use of laying in bed when one has had
enough of sleep?"

"But that's just the question," said Clara; "whether one has had
enough at six o'clock."

"Women want more than men, of course. A man, if he means to do any
good with land, must be out early. The grass will grow of itself at
nights, but it wants looking after as soon as the daylight comes."

"I don't know that it would do much good to the grass here," said the
squire, mournfully.

"As much here as anywhere. And indeed I've got something to say about
that." He had now seated himself at the breakfast-table, and was
playing with his knife and fork. "I think, sir, you're hardly making
the best you can out of the park."

"We won't mind talking about it, if you please," said the squire.

"Well; of course I won't, if you don't like it; but upon my word you
ought to look about you; you ought indeed."

"In what way do you mean?" said Clara.

"If your father doesn't like to keep the land in his own hands, he
should let it to some one who would put stock in it,--not go on
cutting it year after year, and putting nothing back, as this fellow
will do. I've been talking to Stovey, and that's just what he means."

"Nobody here has got money to put stock on the land," said the
squire, angrily.

"Then you should look for somebody somewhere else. That's all. I'll
tell you what now, Mr. Amedroz, I'll do it myself." By this time he
had helped himself to two large slices of cold mutton, and was eating
his breakfast and talking with an equal amount of energy for either
occupation.

"That's out of the question," said the squire.

"I don't see why it should be out of the question. It would be better
for you,--and better for me too, if this place is ever to be mine."
On hearing this the squire winced, but said nothing. This terrible
fellow was so vehemently outspoken that the poor old man was
absolutely unable to keep pace with him,--even to the repeating
of his wish that the matter should be talked of no further. "I'll
tell you what I'll do, now," continued Belton. "There's altogether,
outside the palings and in, about a hundred and fifty acres of
it. I'll give you one pound two and sixpence an acre, and I won't
cut an acre of grass inside the park;--no, nor much of it outside
either;--only just enough to give me a little fodder for the cattle
in winter."

"And give up Plaistow Hall?" asked Clara.

"Lord love you, no. I've a matter of nine hundred acres on hand
there, and most of it under the plough. I've counted it up, and it
would just cost me a thousand pounds to stock this place. I should
come and look at it twice a year or so, and I should see my money
home again, if I didn't get any profit out of it."

Mr. Amedroz was astonished. The man had only been in his house one
night, and was proposing to take all his troubles off his hands. He
did not relish the proposition at all. He did not like to be accused
of not doing as well for himself as others could do for him. He did
not wish to make any change,--although he remembered at the moment
his anger with Farmer Stovey respecting the haycarts. He did not
desire that the heir should have any immediate interest in the place.
But he was not strong enough to meet the proposition with a direct
negative. "I couldn't get rid of Stovey in that way," he said,
plaintively.

"I've settled it all with Stovey already," said Belton. "He'll be
glad enough to walk off with a twenty-pound note, which I'll give
him. He can't make money out of the place. He hasn't got means to
stock it, and then see the wages that hay-making runs away with! He'd
lose by it even at what he's paying, and he knows it. There won't be
any difficulty about Stovey."

By twelve o'clock on that day Mr. Stovey had been brought into the
house, and had resigned the land. It had been let to Mr. William
Belton at an increased rental,--a rental increased by nearly forty
pounds per annum,--and that gentleman had already made many of his
arrangements for entering upon his tenancy. The twenty pounds had
already been paid to Stovey, and the transaction was complete. Mr.
Amedroz sat in his chair bewildered, dismayed--and, as he himself
declared,--shocked, quite shocked, at the precipitancy of the young
man. It might be for the best. He didn't know. He didn't feel at
all sure. But such hurrying in such a matter was, under all the
circumstances of the family, to say the least of it, very indelicate.
He was angry with himself for having yielded, and angry with Clara
for having allowed him to do so. "It doesn't signify much," he said,
at last. "Of course he'll have it all to himself before long."

"But, papa, it really seems to be a much better arrangement for you.
You'll get more money--"

"Money is not everything, my dear."

"But you'd sooner have Mr. Belton, our own cousin, about the place,
than Mr. Stovey."

"I don't know. We shall see. The thing is done now, and there is
no use in complaining. I must say he hasn't shown a great deal of
delicacy."

On that afternoon Belton asked Clara to go out with him, and walk
round the place. He had been again about the grounds, and had made
plans, and counted up capabilities, and calculated his profit and
losses. "If you don't dislike scrambling about," said he, "I'll show
you everything that I intend to do."

"But I can't have any changes made, Mr. Belton," said Mr. Amedroz,
with some affectation of dignity in his manner. "I won't have the
fences moved, or anything of that kind."

"Nothing shall be done, sir, that you don't approve. I'll just manage
it all as if I was acting as your own--bailiff." "Son," he was going
to say, but he remembered the fate of his cousin Charles just in time
to prevent the use of the painful word.

"I don't want to have anything done," said Mr. Amedroz.

"Then nothing shall be done. We'll just mend a fence or two, to keep
in the cattle, and leave other things as they are. But perhaps Clara
will walk out with me all the same."

Clara was quite ready to walk out, and had already tied on her hat
and taken her parasol.

"Your father is a little nervous," said he, as soon as they were
beyond hearing of the house.

"Can you wonder at it, when you remember all that he has suffered?"

"I don't wonder at it in the least; and I don't wonder at his
disliking me either."

"I don't think he dislikes you, Mr. Belton."

"Oh, but he does. Of course he does. I'm the heir to the place
instead of you. It is natural that he should dislike me. But I'll
live it down. You see if I don't. I'll make him so fond of me, he'll
always want to have me here. I don't mind a little dislike to begin
with."

"You're a wonderful man, Mr. Belton."

"I wish you wouldn't call me Mr. Belton. But of course you must do
as you please about that. If I can make him call me Will, I suppose
you'll call me so too."

"Oh, yes; then I will."

"It don't much matter what a person is called; does it? Only one
likes to be friendly with one's friends. I suppose you don't like my
calling you Clara."

"Now you've begun you had better go on."

"I mean to. I make it a rule never to go back in the world. Your
father is half sorry that he has agreed about the place; but I shan't
let him off now. And I'll tell you what. In spite of what he says,
I'll have it as different as possible before this time next year.
Why, there's lots of timber that ought to come out of the plantation;
and there's places where the roots want stubbing up horribly. These
things always pay for themselves if they are properly done. Any good
done in the world always pays." Clara often remembered those words
afterwards when she was thinking of her cousin's character. Any good
done in the world always pays!

"But you mustn't offend my father, even though it should do good,"
she said.

"I understand," he answered. "I won't tread on his toes. Where do you
get your milk and butter?"

"We buy them."

"From Stovey, I suppose."

"Yes; from Mr. Stovey. It goes against the rent."

"And it ought to go against the grain too,--living in the country and
paying for milk! I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you a cow.
It shall be a little present from me to you." He said nothing of
the more important present which this would entail upon him in the
matter of the grass for the cow; but she understood the nature of the
arrangement, and was anxious to prevent it.

"Oh, Mr. Belton, I think we'd better not attempt that," she said.

"But we will attempt it. I've pledged myself to do nothing to oppose
your father; but I've made no such promise as to you. We'll have a
cow before I'm many days older. What a pretty place this is! I do
like these rocks so much, and it is such a comfort to be off the
flat."

"It is pretty."

"Very pretty. You've no conception what an ugly place Plaistow is.
The land isn't actual fen now, but it was once. And it's quite flat.
And there is a great dike, twenty feet wide, oozing through it,--just
oozing, you know; and lots of little dikes, at right angles with the
big one. And the fields are all square. And there are no hedges,--and
hardly a tree to be seen in the place."

"What a picture you have drawn! I should commit suicide if I lived
there."

"Not if you had so much to do as I have."

"And what is the house like?"

"The house is good enough,--an old-fashioned manor-house, with high
brick chimneys, and brick gables, tiled all over, and large square
windows set in stone. The house is good enough, only it stands in the
middle of a farm-yard. I said there were no trees, but there is an
avenue."

"Come, that's something."

"It was an old family seat, and they used to have avenues in those
days; but it doesn't lead up to the present hall door. It comes
sideways up to the farm-yard; so that the whole thing must have
been different once, and there must have been a great court-yard.
In Elizabeth's time Plaistow Manor was rather a swell place, and
belonged to some Roman Catholics who came to grief, and then the
Howards got it. There's a whole history about it, only I don't much
care about those things."

"And is it yours now?"

"It's between me and my uncle, and I pay him rent for his part. He's
a clergyman you know, and he has a living in Lincolnshire,--not far
off."

"And do you live alone in that big house?"

"There's my sister. You've heard of Mary;--haven't you?"

Then Clara remembered that there was a Miss Belton,--a poor sickly
creature, with a twisted spine and a hump back, as to whose welfare
she ought to have made inquiries.

"Oh, yes; of course," said Clara. "I hope she's better than she used
to be,--when we heard of her."

"She'll never be better. But then she does not become much worse.
I think she does grow a little weaker. She's older than I am, you
know,--two years older; but you would think she was quite an old
woman to look at her." Then, for the next half-hour, they talked
about Mary Belton as they visited every corner of the place. Belton
still had an eye to business as he went on talking, and Clara
remarked how many sticks he moved as he went, how many stones he
kicked on one side, and how invariably he noted any defect in the
fences. But still he talked of his sister, swearing that she was as
good as gold, and at last wiping away the tears from his eyes as he
described her maladies. "And yet I believe she is better off than any
of us," he said, "because she is so good." Clara began to wish that
she had called him Will from the beginning, because she liked him
so much. He was just the man to have for a cousin,--a true loving
cousin, stalwart, self-confident, with a grain or two of tyranny in
his composition as becomes a man in relation to his intimate female
relatives; and one, moreover, with whom she could trust herself to
be familiar without any danger of love-making! She saw his character
clearly, and told herself that she understood it perfectly. He was a
jewel of a cousin, and she must begin to call him Will as speedily as
possible.

At last they came round in their walk to the gate leading into
Colonel Askerton's garden; and here in the garden, close to the gate,
they found Mrs. Askerton. I fancy that she had been watching for
them, or at any rate watching for Clara, so that she might know how
her friend was carrying herself with her cousin. She came at once to
the wicket, and there she was introduced by Clara to Mr. Belton. Mr.
Belton as he made his bow muttered something awkwardly, and seemed
to lose his self-possession for the moment. Mrs. Askerton was very
gracious to him, and she knew well how to be both gracious and
ungracious. She talked about the scenery, and the charms of the
old place, and the dullness of the people around them, and the
inexpediency of looking for society in country places; till after
awhile Mr. Belton was once more at his ease.

"How is Colonel Askerton?" asked Clara.

"He's in-doors. Will you come and see him? He's reading a French
novel, as usual. It's the only thing he ever does in summer. Do you
ever read French novels, Mr. Belton?"

"I read very little at all, and when I do I read English."

"Ah, you're a man who has a pursuit in life, no doubt."

"I should rather think so,--that is, if you mean, by a pursuit,
earning my bread. A man has not much time for French novels with a
thousand acres of land on his hands; even if he knew how to read
French, which I don't."

"But you're not always at work on your farm?"

"It's pretty constant, Mrs. Askerton. Then I shoot, and hunt."

"You're a sportsman?"

"All men living in the country are,--more or less."

"Colonel Askerton shoots a great deal. He has the shooting of Belton,
you know. He'll be delighted, I'm sure, to see you if you are here
some time in September. But you, coming from Norfolk, would not care
for partridge-shooting in Somersetshire."

"I don't see why it shouldn't be as good here as there."

"Colonel Askerton thinks he has got a fair head of game upon the
place."

"I dare say. Game is easily kept if people knew how to set about it."

"Colonel Askerton has a very good keeper, and has gone to a great
deal of expense since he has been here."

"I'm my own head-keeper," said Belton; "and so I will be,--or rather
should be, if I had this place."

Something in the lady's tone had grated against his feelings and
offended him; or perhaps he thought that she assumed too many of the
airs of proprietorship because the shooting of the place had been let
to her husband for thirty pounds a-year.

"I hope you don't mean to say you'll turn us out," said Mrs.
Askerton, laughing.

"I have no power to turn anybody out or in," said he. "I've got
nothing to do with it."

Clara, perceiving that matters were not going quite pleasantly
between her old and new friend, thought it best to take her
departure. Belton, as he went, lifted his hat from his head, and
Clara could not keep herself from thinking that he was not only very
handsome, but that he looked very much like a gentleman, in spite of
his occupation as a farmer.

"By-bye, Clara," said Mrs. Askerton; "come down and see me to-morrow,
there's a dear. Don't forget what a dull life I have of it." Clara
said that she would come. "And I shall be so happy to see Mr. Belton
if he will call before he leaves you." At this Belton again raised
his hat from his head, and muttered some word or two of civility. But
this, his latter muttering, was different from the first, for he had
altogether regained his presence of mind.

"You didn't seem to get on very well with my friend," said Clara,
laughing, as soon as they had turned away from the cottage.

"Well, no;--that is to say, not particularly well or particularly
badly. At first I took her for somebody else I knew slightly ever so
long ago, and I was thinking of that other person at the time."

"And what was the other person's name?"

"I can't even remember that at the present moment."

"Mrs. Askerton was a Miss Oliphant."

"That wasn't the other lady's name. But, independently of that, they
can't be the same. The other lady married a Mr. Berdmore."

"A Mr. Berdmore!" Clara as she repeated the name felt convinced that
she had heard it before, and that she had heard it in connection
with Mrs. Askerton. She certainly had heard the name of Berdmore
pronounced, or had seen it written, or had in some shape come across
the name in Mrs. Askerton's presence; or at any rate somewhere on
the premises occupied by that lady. More than this she could not
remember; but the name, as she had now heard it from her cousin,
became at once distinctly connected in her memory with her friends at
the cottage.

"Yes," said Belton; "a Mr. Berdmore. I knew more of him than of her,
though for the matter of that, I knew very little of him either. She
was a fast-going girl, and his friends were very sorry. But I think
they are both dead or divorced, or that they have come to grief in
some way."

"And is Mrs. Askerton like the fast-going lady?"

"In a certain way. Not that I remember what the fast-going lady was
like; but there was something about this woman that put me in mind of
the other. Vigo was her name; now I recollect it,--a Miss Vigo. It's
nine or ten years ago now, and I was little more than a boy."

"Her name was Oliphant."

"I don't suppose they have anything to do with each other. What riled
me was the way she talked of the shooting. People do when they take
a little shooting. They pay some trumpery thirty or forty pounds a
year, and then they seem to think that it's almost the same as though
they owned the property themselves. I've known a man talk of his
manor because he had the shooting of a wood and a small farm round
it. They are generally shopkeepers out of London, gin distillers, or
brewers, or people like that."

"Why, Mr. Belton, I didn't think you could be so furious!"

"Can't I? When my back's up, it is up! But it isn't up yet."

"And I hope it won't be up while you remain in Somersetshire."

"I won't answer for that. There's Stovey's empty cart standing
just where it stood yesterday; and he promised he'd have it home
before three to-day. My back will be up with him if he doesn't mind
himself."

It was nearly six o'clock when they got back to the house, and Clara
was surprised to find that she had been out three hours with her
cousin. Certainly it had been very pleasant. The usual companion
of her walks, when she had a companion, was Mrs. Askerton; but Mrs.
Askerton did not like real walking. She would creep about the grounds
for an hour or so, and even such companionship as that was better to
Clara than absolute solitude; but now she had been carried about the
place, getting over stiles and through gates, and wandering through
the copses, till she was tired and hungry, and excited and happy.
"Oh, papa," she said, "we have had such a walk!"

"I thought we were to have dined at five," he replied, in a low
wailing voice.

"No, papa, indeed,--indeed you said six."

"That was for yesterday."

"You said we were to make it six while Mr. Belton was here."

"Very well;--if it must be, I suppose it must be."

"You don't mean on my account," said Will. "I'll undertake to eat
my dinner, sir, at any hour that you'll undertake to give it me. If
there's a strong point about me at all, it is my appetite."

Clara, when she went to her father's room that evening, told him what
Mr. Belton had said about the shooting, knowing that her father's
feelings would agree with those which had been expressed by her
cousin. Mr. Amedroz of course made this an occasion for further
grumbling, suggesting that Belton wanted to get the shooting for
himself as he had got the farm. But, nevertheless, the effect which
Clara had intended was produced, and before she left him he had
absolutely proposed that the shooting and the land should go
together.

"I'm sure that Mr. Belton doesn't mean that at all," said Clara.

"I don't care what he means," said the squire.

"And it wouldn't do to treat Colonel Askerton in that way," said
Clara.

"I shall treat him just as I like," said the squire.



CHAPTER IV.

SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING.


A dear cousin, and safe against love-making! This was Clara's verdict
respecting Will Belton, as she lay thinking of him in bed that night.
Why that warranty against love-making should be a virtue in her eyes
I cannot, perhaps, explain. But all young ladies are apt to talk
to themselves in such phrases about gentlemen with whom they are
thrown into chance intimacy;--as though love-making were in itself
a thing injurious and antagonistic to happiness, instead of being,
as it is, the very salt of life. Safe against love-making! And yet
Mrs. Askerton, her friend, had spoken of the probability of such
love-making as being the great advantage of his coming. And there
could not be a second opinion as to the expediency of a match between
her and her cousin in a worldly point of view. Clara, moreover,
had already perceived that he was a man fit to guide a wife, very
good-humoured,--and good-tempered also, anxious to give pleasure to
others, a man of energy and forethought, who would be sure to do well
in the world and hold his head always high among his fellows;--as
good a husband as a girl could have. Nevertheless, she congratulated
herself in that she felt satisfied that he was safe against
love-making! Might it be possible that that pressing of hands at
Taunton had been so tender, and those last words spoken with Captain
Aylmer so soft, that on his account she felt delighted to think that
her cousin was warranted not to make love?

And what did Will Belton think about his cousin, insured as he was
thus supposed to be against the dangers of love? He, also, lay awake
for awhile that night, thinking over this new friendship. Or rather
he thought of it walking about his room, and looking out at the
bright harvest moon;--for with him to be in bed was to be asleep.
He sat himself down, and he walked about, and he leaned out of the
window into the cool night air; and he made some comparisons in his
mind, and certain calculations; and he thought of his present home,
and of his sister, and of his future prospects as they were concerned
with the old place at which he was now staying; and he portrayed to
himself, in his mind, Clara's head and face and figure and feet;--and
he resolved that she should be his wife. He had never seen a girl who
seemed to suit him so well. Though he had only been with her for a
day, he swore to himself that he knew he could love her. Nay;--he
swore to himself that he did love her. Then,--when he had quite made
up his mind, he tumbled into his bed and was asleep in five minutes.

Miss Amedroz was a handsome young woman, tall, well-made, active, and
full of health. She carried herself as though she thought her limbs
were made for use, and not simply for ease upon a sofa. Her head and
neck stood well upon her shoulders, and her waist showed none of
those waspish proportions of which ladies used to be more proud than
I believe them to be now, in their more advanced state of knowledge
and taste. There was much about her in which she was like her cousin,
as though the blood they had in common between them had given to both
the same proportions and the same comeliness. Her hair was of a dark
brown colour, as was his. Her eyes were somewhat darker than his,
and perhaps not so full of constant movement; but they were equally
bright, and possessed that quick power of expressing tenderness which
belonged to them. Her nose was more finely cut, as was also her chin,
and the oval of her face; but she had the same large expressive
mouth, and the same perfection of ivory-white teeth. As has been said
before, Clara Amedroz, who was now nearly twenty-six years of age,
was not a young-looking young woman. To the eyes of many men that
would have been her fault; but in the eyes of Belton it was no fault.
He had not made himself fastidious as to women by much consort with
them, and he was disposed to think that she who was to become his
wife had better be something more than a girl not long since taken
out of the nursery. He was well to do in the world, and could
send his wife out in her carriage, with all becoming bravery of
appurtenances. And he would do so, too, when he should have a wife.
But still he would look to his wife to be a useful partner to him.
She should be a woman not above agricultural solicitude, or too proud
to have a care for her cows. Clara, he was sure, had no false pride;
and yet,--as he was sure also, she was at every point such a lady as
would do honour to the carriage and the bravery when it should be
forthcoming. And then such a marriage as this would put an end to all
the trouble which he felt in reference to the entail on the estate.
He knew that he was to be master of Belton, and of course had,
in that knowledge, the satisfaction which men do feel from the
consciousness of their future prosperity. And this with him was
enhanced by a strong sympathy with old-fashioned prejudices as to
family. He would be Belton of Belton; and there had been Beltons of
Belton in old days, for a longer time backwards than he was able to
count. But still the prospect had not been without its alloy, and he
had felt real distress at the idea of turning his cousin out of her
father's house. Such a marriage as that he now contemplated would put
all these things right.

When he got up in the morning he was quite as keen about it as he had
been on the previous evening;--and as he thought about it the more,
he became keener and still more keen. On the previous evening, as he
was leaning out of the window endeavouring to settle in his own mind
what would be the proper conduct of the romance of the thing, he had
considered that he had better not make his proposal quite at once.
He was to remain eight days at Belton, and as eight days was not a
long period of acquaintance, he had reflected that it might be well
for him to lay what foundation for love it might be in his power to
construct during his present sojourn, and then return and complete
the work before Christmas. But as he was shaving himself, the
habitual impatience of his nature predominated, and he became
disposed to think that delay would be useless, and might perhaps be
dangerous. It might be possible that Clara would be unable to give
him a decisive answer so quickly as to enable him to return home an
accepted lover; but if such doubt were left, such doubt would give
him an excuse for a speedy return to Belton. He did not omit to tell
himself that very probably he might not succeed at all. He was a man
not at all apt to feel assurance that he could carry all before him
in love. But in this matter, as in all others which required from him
any personal effort, he prepared himself to do his best, leaving the
consequences to follow as they might. When he threw his seed corn
into the earth with all such due appliances of agricultural skill and
industry as his capital and experience enabled him to use, he did his
part towards the production of next year's crop; and after that he
must leave it to a higher Power to give to him, or to withhold from
him, the reward of his labour. He had found that, as a rule, the
reward had been given when the labour had been honest; and he was now
prepared to follow the same plan, with the same hopes, in this matter
of his love-making.

After much consideration,--very much consideration, a consideration
which took him the whole time that he was brushing his hair and
washing his teeth,--he resolved that he would, in the first instance,
speak to Mr. Amedroz. Not that he intended that the father should win
the daughter for him. He had an idea that he would like to do that
work for himself. But he thought that the old squire would be better
pleased if his consent were asked in the first instance. The present
day was Sunday, and he would not speak on the subject till Monday.
This day he would devote to the work of securing his future
father-in-law's good opinion; to that,--and to his prayers.

And he had gained very much upon Mr. Amedroz before the evening
of the day was over. He was a man before whom difficulties seemed
to yield, and who had his own way simply because he had become
accustomed to ask for it,--to ask for it and to work for it. He had
so softened the squire's tone of thought towards him, that the future
stocking of the land was spoken of between them with something like
energy on both sides; and Mr. Amedroz had given his consent, without
any difficulty, to the building of a shed for winter stall-feeding.
Clara sat by listening, and perceived that Will Belton would soon be
allowed to do just what he pleased with the place. Her father talked
as she had not heard him talk since her poor brother's death, and
was quite animated on the subject of woodcraft. "We don't know much
about timber down where I am," said Will, "just because we've got no
trees."

"I'll show you your way," said the old man. "I've managed the timber
on the estate myself for the last forty years." Will Belton of course
did not say a word as to the gross mismanagement which had been
apparent even to him. What a cousin he was! Clara thought,--what a
paragon among cousins! And then he was so manifestly safe against
love-making! So safe, that he only cared to talk about timber, and
oxen, and fences, and winter-forage! But it was all just as it ought
to be; and if her father did not call him Will before long, she
herself would set the way by doing so first. A very paragon among
cousins!

"What a flatterer you are," she said to him that night.

"A flatterer! I?"

"Yes, you. You have flattered papa out of all his animosity already.
I shall be jealous soon; for he'll think more of you than of me."

"I hope he'll come to think of us as being nearly equally near to
him," said Belton, with a tone that was half serious and half tender.
Now that he had made up his mind, he could not keep his hand from the
work before him an instant. But Clara had also made up her mind, and
would not be made to think that her cousin could mean anything that
was more than cousinly.

"Upon my word," she said, laughing, "that is very cool on your part."

"I came here determined to be friends with him at any rate."

"And you did so without any thought of me. But you said you would be
my brother, and I shall not forget your promise. Indeed, indeed, I
cannot tell you how glad I am that you have come,--both for papa's
sake and my own. You have done him so much good that I only dread to
think that you are going so soon."

"I'll be back before long. I think nothing of running across here
from Norfolk. You'll see enough of me before next summer."

Soon after breakfast on the next morning he got Mr. Amedroz out into
the grounds, on the plea of showing him the proposed site for the
cattle shed; but not a word was said about the shed on that occasion.
He went to work at his other task at once, and when that was well on
hand the squire was quite unfitted for the consideration of any less
important matter, however able to discuss it Belton might have been
himself.

"I've got something particular that I want to say to you, sir,"
Belton began.

Now Mr. Amedroz was of opinion that his cousin had been saying
something very particular ever since his arrival, and was rather
frightened at this immediate prospect of a new subject.

"There's nothing wrong; is there?"

"No, nothing wrong;--at least, I hope it's not wrong. Would not it be
a good plan, sir, if I were to marry my cousin Clara?"

What a terrible young man! Mr. Amedroz felt that his breath was so
completely taken away from him that he was quite unable to speak a
word of answer at the moment. Indeed, he was unable to move, and
stood still, where he had been fixed by the cruel suddenness of the
proposition made to him.

"Of course I know nothing of what she may think about it," continued
Belton. "I thought it best to come to you before I spoke a word to
her. And I know that in many ways she is above me. She is better
educated, and reads more, and all that sort of thing. And it may be
that she'd rather marry a London man than a fellow who passes all
his time in the country. But she couldn't get one who would love her
better or treat her more kindly. And then as to the property; you
must own it would be a good arrangement. You'd like to know it would
go to your own child and your own grandchild;--wouldn't you, sir? And
I'm not badly off, without looking to this place at all, and could
give her everything she wants. But then I don't know that she'd care
to marry a farmer." These last words he said in a melancholy tone, as
though aware that he was confessing his own disgrace.

The squire had listened to it all, and had not as yet said a word.
And now, when Belton ceased, he did not know what word to speak. He
was a man whose thoughts about women were chivalrous, and perhaps a
little old-fashioned. Of course, when a man contemplates marriage,
he could do nothing better, nothing more honourable, than consult
the lady's father in the first instance. But he felt that even a
father should be addressed on such a subject with great delicacy.
There should be ambages in such a matter. The man who resolved to
commit himself to such a task should come forward with apparent
difficulty,--with great diffidence, and even with actual difficulty.
He should keep himself almost hidden, as behind a mask, and should
tell of his own ambition with doubtful, quivering voice. And the
ambages should take time. He should approach the citadel to be taken
with covered ways,--working his way slowly and painfully. But this
young man, before he had been in the house three days, said all
that he had to say without the slightest quaver in his voice, and
evidently expected to get an answer about the squire's daughter as
quickly as he had got it about the squire's land.

"You have surprised me very much," said the old man at last, drawing
his breath.

"I'm quite in earnest about it. Clara seems to me to be the very girl
to make a good wife to such a one as I am. She's got everything that
a woman ought to have;--by George she has!"

"She is a good girl, Mr. Belton."

"She is as good as gold, every inch of her."

"But you have not known her very long, Mr. Belton."

"Quite long enough for my purposes. You see I knew all about her
beforehand,--who she is, and where she comes from. There's a great
deal in that, you know."

Mr. Amedroz shuddered at the expressions used. It was grievous to
him to hear his daughter spoken of as one respecting whom some one
knew who she was and whence she came. Such knowledge respecting the
daughter of such a family was, as a matter of course, common to all
polite persons. "Yes," said Mr. Amedroz, stiffly: "you know as much
as that about her, certainly."

"And she knows as much about me. Now the question is, whether you
have any objection to make?"

"Really, Mr. Belton, you have taken me so much by surprise that I do
not feel myself competent to answer you at once."

"Shall we say in an hour's time, sir?" An hour's time! Mr. Amedroz,
if he could have been left to his own guidance, would have thought a
month very little for such a work.

"I suppose you would wish me to see Clara first," said Mr. Amedroz.

"Oh dear, no. I would much rather ask her myself;--if only I could
get your consent to my doing so."

"And you have said nothing to her?"

"Not a word."

"I am glad of that. You would have behaved badly, I think, had you
done so while staying under my roof."

"I thought it best, at any rate, to come to you first. But as I must
be back at Plaistow on this day week, I haven't much time to lose. So
if you could think about it this afternoon, you know--"

Mr. Amedroz, much bewildered, promised that he would do his best, and
eventually did bring himself to give an answer on the next morning.
"I have been thinking about this all night," said Mr. Amedroz.

"I'm sure I'm very much obliged to you," said Belton, feeling rather
ashamed of his own remissness as he remembered how soundly he had
himself slept.

"If you are quite sure of yourself--"

"Do you mean sure of loving her? I am as sure of that as anything."

"But men are so apt to change their fancies."

"I don't know much about my fancies; but I don't often change my
purpose when I'm in earnest. In such a matter as this I couldn't
change. I'll say as much as that for myself, though it may seem
bold."

"Of course, in regard to money such a marriage would be advantageous
to my child. I don't know whether you know it, but I shall have
nothing to give her--literally nothing."

"All the better, sir, as far as I am concerned. I'm not one who wants
to be saved from working by a wife's fortune."

"But most men like to get something when they marry."

"I want to get nothing;--nothing, that is, in the way of money. If
Clara becomes my wife I'll never ask you for one shilling."

"I hope her aunt will do something for her." This the old man said in
a wailing voice, as though the expression of such a hope was grievous
to him.

"If she becomes my wife, Mrs. Winterfield will be quite at liberty to
leave her money elsewhere." There were old causes of dislike between
Mr. Belton and Mrs. Winterfield, and even now Mrs. Winterfield was
almost offended because Mr. Belton was staying at Belton Castle.

"But all that is quite uncertain," continued Mr. Amedroz.

"And I have your leave to speak to Clara myself?"

"Well, Mr. Belton; yes; I think so. I do not see why you should not
speak to her. But I fear you are a little too precipitate. Clara has
known you so very short a time, that you can hardly have a right to
hope that she should learn to regard you at once as you would have
her do." As he heard this, Belton's face became long and melancholy.
He had taught himself to think that he could dispense with that delay
till Christmas which he had at first proposed to himself, and that he
might walk into the arena at once, and perhaps win the battle in the
first round. "Three days is such a very short time," said the squire.

"It is short certainly," said Belton.

The father's leave was however given, and armed with that, Belton was
resolved that he would take, at any rate, some preliminary steps in
love-making before he returned to Plaistow. What would be the nature
of the preliminary steps taken by such a one as him, the reader by
this time will probably be able to surmise.



CHAPTER V.

NOT SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING.


"Why don't you call him Will?" Clara said to her father. This
question was asked on the evening of that Monday on which Mr. Amedroz
had given his consent as to the marriage proposal.

"Call him Will! Why should I?"

"You used to do so, when he was a boy."

"Of course I did; but that is years ago. He would think it
impertinent now."

"Indeed he would not; he would like it. He has told me so. It sounds
so cold to him to be called Mr. Belton by his relations."

The father looked at his daughter as though for a moment he almost
suspected that matters had really been arranged between her and her
future lover without his concurrence, and before his sanction had
been obtained. But if for a moment such a thought did cross his mind,
it did not dwell there. He trusted Belton; but as to his daughter, he
knew that he might be sure of her. It would be impossible with her to
keep such a secret from him, even for half a day. And yet, how odd
it was! Here was a man who in three days had fallen in love with his
daughter; and here was his daughter apparently quite as ready to be
in love with the man. How could she, who was ordinarily circumspect,
and almost cold in her demeanour towards strangers--who was from
circumstances and from her own disposition altogether hostile to
flirting intimacies--how could his Clara have changed her nature
so speedily? The squire did not understand it, but was prepared to
believe that it was all for the best. "I'll call him Will, if you
like it," said he.

"Do, papa, and then I can do so also. He is such a good fellow, and
I am so fond of him."

On the next morning Mr. Amedroz did, with much awkwardness, call
his guest by his Christian name. Clara caught her cousin's eye and
smiled, and he also smiled. At that moment he was more in love than
ever. Could anything be more charming than this? Immediately after
breakfast he was going over to Redicote, to see a builder in a small
way who lived there, and whom he proposed to employ in putting up the
shed for the cattle; but he almost begrudged the time, so anxious was
he to begin his suit. But his plan had been laid out and he would
follow it. "I think I shall be back by three o'clock," he said to
Clara, "and then we'll have our walk."

"I'll be ready; and you can call for me at Mrs. Askerton's. I must go
down there, and it will save you something in your walk to pick me up
at the cottage." And so the arrangements for the day were made.

Clara had promised that she would soon call at the cottage, and was,
indeed, rather anxious to see Mrs. Askerton on her own account. What
she had heard from her cousin as to a certain Miss Vigo of old days
had interested her, and also what she had heard of a certain Mr.
Berdmore. It had been evident to her that her cousin had thought
little about it. The likeness of the lady he then saw to the lady he
had before known, had at first struck him; but when he found that the
two ladies were not represented by one and the same person, he was
satisfied, and there was an end of the matter for him. But it was
not so with Clara. Her feminine mind dwelt on the matter with more
earnestness than he had cared to entertain, and her clearer intellect
saw possibilities which did not occur to him. But it was not till
she found herself walking across the park to the cottage that
she remembered that any inquiries as to her past life might be
disagreeable to Mrs. Askerton. She had thought of asking her friend
plainly whether the names of Vigo and Berdmore had ever been familiar
to her; but she reminded herself that there had been rumours afloat,
and that there might be a mystery. Mrs. Askerton would sometimes talk
of her early life; but she would do this with dreamy, indistinct
language, speaking of the sorrows of her girlhood, but not specifying
their exact nature, seldom mentioning any names, and never referring
with clear personality to those who had been nearest to her when
she had been a child. Clara had seen her friend's maiden name, Mary
Oliphant, written in a book, and seeing it had alluded to it. On
that occasion Mrs. Askerton had spoken of herself as having been an
Oliphant, and thus Clara had come to know the fact. But now, as she
made her way to the cottage, she remembered that she had learned
nothing more than this as to Mrs. Askerton's early life. Such being
the case, she hardly knew how to ask any question about the two names
that had been mentioned. And yet, why should she not ask such a
question? Why should she doubt Mrs. Askerton? And if she did doubt,
why should not her doubts be solved?

She found Colonel Askerton and his wife together, and she certainly
would ask no such question in his presence. He was a slight built,
wiry man, about fifty, with iron-grey hair and beard,--who seemed to
have no trouble in life, and to desire but few pleasures. Nothing
could be more regular than the course of his days, and nothing more
idle. He breakfasted at eleven, smoked and read till the afternoon,
when he rode for an hour or two; then he dined, read again, smoked
again, and went to bed. In September and October he shot, and twice
in the year, as has been before stated, went away to seek a little
excitement elsewhere. He seemed to be quite contented with his lot,
and was never heard to speak an angry word to any one. Nobody cared
for him much; but then he troubled himself with no one's affairs. He
never went to church, and had not eaten or drank in any house but his
own since he had come to Belton.

"Oh, Clara, you naughty girl," said Mrs. Askerton, "why didn't you
come yesterday? I was expecting you all day."

"I was busy. Really, we've grown to be quite industrious people since
my cousin came."

"They tell me he's taking the land into his own hands," said the
Colonel.

"Yes, indeed; and he is going to build sheds, and buy cattle; and
I don't know what he doesn't mean to do; so that we shall be alive
again."

"I hope he won't want my shooting."

"He has shooting of his own in Norfolk," said Clara.

"Then he'll hardly care to come here for that purpose. When I heard
of his proceedings I began to be afraid."

"I don't think he would do anything to annoy you for the world," said
Clara, enthusiastically. "He's the most unselfish person I ever met."

"He'd have a perfect right to take the shooting if he liked it,--that
is always supposing that he and your father agreed about it."

"They agree about everything now. He has altogether disarmed papa's
prejudices, and it seems to be recognised that he is to have his own
way about the place. But I don't think he'll interfere about the
shooting."

"He won't, my dear, if you ask him not," said Mrs. Askerton.

"I'll ask him in a moment if Colonel Askerton wishes it."

"Oh dear no," said he. "It would be teaching the ostler to grease the
horse's teeth. Perhaps he hasn't thought of it."

"He thinks of everything," said Clara.

"I wonder whether he's thinking of--" So far Mrs. Askerton spoke,
and then she paused. Colonel Askerton looked up at Clara with an
ill-natured smile, and Clara felt that she blushed. Was it not cruel
that she could not say a word in favour of a friend and a cousin,--a
cousin who had promised to be a brother to her, without being treated
with such words and such looks as these? But she was determined not
to be put down. "I'm quite sure of this," she said, "that my cousin
would do nothing unfair or ungentlemanlike."

"There would be nothing unfair or ungentlemanlike in it. I shouldn't
take it amiss at all;--but I should simply take up my bed and walk.
Pray tell him that I hope I shall have the pleasure of seeing him
before he goes. I did call yesterday, but he was out."

"He'll be here soon. He's to come here for me." But Colonel
Askerton's horse was brought to the door, and he could not therefore
wait to make Mr. Belton's acquaintance on that occasion.

"What a phoenix this cousin of yours is," said Mrs. Askerton, as
soon as her husband was gone.

"He is a splendid fellow;--he is indeed. There's so much life about
him! He's always doing something. He says that doing good will always
pay in the long run. Isn't that a fine doctrine?"

"Quite a practical phoenix!"

"It has done papa so much good! At this moment he's out somewhere,
thinking of what is going on, instead of moping in the house. He
couldn't bear the idea of Will's coming, and now he is already
beginning to complain because he's going away."

"Will, indeed!"

"And why not Will? He's my cousin."

"Yes;--ten times removed. But so much the better if he's to be
anything more than a cousin."

"He is to be nothing more, Mrs. Askerton."

"You're quite sure of that?"

"I am quite sure of it. And I cannot understand why there should be
such a suspicion because he and I are thrown closely together, and
are fond of each other. Whether he is a sixth, eighth, or tenth
cousin makes no difference. He is the nearest I have on that side;
and since my poor brother's death he is papa's heir. It is so natural
that he should be my friend;--and such a comfort that he should be
such a friend as he is! I own it seems cruel to me that under such
circumstances there should be any suspicion."

"Suspicion, my dear;--suspicion of what?"

"Not that I care for it. I am prepared to love him as if he
were my brother. I think him one of the finest creatures I ever
knew,--perhaps the finest I ever did know. His energy and good-nature
together are just the qualities to make the best kind of man. I am
proud of him as my friend and my cousin, and now you may suspect what
you please."

"But, my dear, why should not he fall in love with you? It would be
the most proper, and also the most convenient thing in the world."

"I hate talking of falling in love;--as though a woman has nothing
else to think of whenever she sees a man."

"A woman has nothing else to think of."

"I have,--a great deal else. And so has he."

"It's quite out of the question on his part, then?"

"Quite out of the question. I'm sure he likes me. I can see it in his
face, and hear it in his voice, and am so happy that it is so. But it
isn't in the way that you mean. Heaven knows that I may want a friend
some of these days, and I feel that I may trust to him. His feelings
to me will be always those of a brother."

"Perhaps so. I have seen that fraternal love before under similar
circumstances, and it has always ended in the same way."

"I hope it won't end in any way between us."

"But the joke is that this suspicion, as you call it,--which makes
you so indignant,--is simply a suggestion that a thing should happen
which, of all things in the world, would be the best for both of
you."

"But the thing won't happen, and therefore let there be an end of it.
I hate the twaddle talk of love, whether it's about myself or about
any one else. It makes me feel ashamed of my sex, when I find that
I cannot talk of myself to another woman without being supposed to
be either in love or thinking of love,--either looking for it or
avoiding it. When it comes, if it comes prosperously, it's a very
good thing. But I for one can do without it, and I feel myself
injured when such a state of things is presumed to be impossible."

"It is worth any one's while to irritate you, because your
indignation is so beautiful."

"It is not beautiful to me; for I always feel ashamed afterwards of
my own energy. And now, if you please, we won't say anything more
about Mr. Will Belton."

"May I not talk about him, even as the enterprising cousin?"

"Certainly; and in any other light you please. Do you know he seemed
to think that he had known you ever so many years ago." Clara, as
she said this, did not look direct at her friend's face; but still
she could perceive that Mrs. Askerton was disconcerted. There came a
shade of paleness over her face, and a look of trouble on her brow,
and for a moment or two she made no reply.

"Did he?" she then said. "And when was that?"

"I suppose it was in London. But, after all, I believe it was not
you, but somebody whom he remembers to have been like you. He says
that the lady was a Miss Vigo." As she pronounced the name, Clara
turned her face away, feeling instinctively that it would be kind to
do so.

"Miss Vigo!" said Mrs. Askerton at once; and there was that in the
tone of her voice which made Clara feel that all was not right with
her. "I remember that there were Miss Vigos; two of them, I think.
I didn't know that they were like me especially."

"And he says that the one he remembers married a Mr. Berdmore."

"Married a Mr. Berdmore!" The tone of voice was still the same, and
there was an evident struggle, as though the woman was making a
vehement effort to speak in her natural voice. Then Clara looked at
her, feeling that if she abstained from doing so, the very fact of
her so abstaining would be remarkable. There was the look of pain on
Mrs. Askerton's brow, and her cheeks were still pale, but she smiled
as she went on speaking. "I'm sure I'm flattered, for I remember that
they were both considered beauties. Did he know anything more of
her?"

"No; nothing more."

"There must have been some casual likeness I suppose." Mrs. Askerton
was a clever woman, and had by this time almost recovered her
self-possession. Then there came a ring at the front door, and in
another minute Mr. Belton was in the room. Mrs. Askerton felt that it
was imperative on her to make some allusion to the conversation which
had just taken place, and dashed at the subject at once. "Clara tells
me that I am exactly like some old friend of yours, Mr. Belton."

Then he looked at her closely as he answered her. "I have no right to
say that she was my friend, Mrs. Askerton," he said; "indeed there
was hardly what might be called an acquaintance between us; but you
certainly are extremely like a certain Miss Vigo that I remember."

"I often wonder that one person isn't more often found to be like
another," said Mrs. Askerton.

"People often are like," said he; "but not like in such a way as to
give rise to mistakes as to identity. Now, I should have stopped you
in the street and called you Mrs. Berdmore."

"Didn't I once see or hear the name of Berdmore in this house?" asked
Clara.

Then that look of pain returned. Mrs. Askerton had succeeded in
recovering the usual tone of her countenance, but now she was once
more disturbed. "I think I know the name," said she.

"I fancy that I have seen it in this house," said Clara.

"You may more likely have heard it, my dear. My memory is very poor,
but if I remember rightly, Colonel Askerton did know a Captain
Berdmore,--a long while ago, before he was married; and you may
probably have heard him mention the name." This did not quite satisfy
Clara, but she said nothing more about it then. If there was a
mystery which Mrs. Askerton did not wish to have explored, why should
she explore it?

Soon after this Clara got up to go, and Mrs. Askerton, making another
attempt to be cheerful, was almost successful. "So you're going back
into Norfolk on Saturday, Clara tells me. You are making a very short
visit now that you're come among us."

"It is a long time for me to be away from home. Farmers can hardly
ever dare to leave their work. But in spite of my farm, I am talking
of coming here again about Christmas."

"But you are going to have a farming establishment here too?"

"That will be nothing. Clara will look after that for me; will you
not?" Then they went, and Belton had to consider how he would begin
the work before him. He had some idea that too much precipitancy
might do him an injury, but he hardly knew how to commence without
coming to the point at once. When they were out together in the park,
he went back at first to the subject of Mrs. Askerton.

"I would almost have sworn they were one and the same woman," he
said.

"But you see that they are not."

"It's not only the likeness, but the voice. It so chanced that I once
saw that Miss Vigo in some trouble. I happened to meet her in company
with a man who was,--who was tipsy, in fact, and I had to relieve
her."

"Dear me,--how disagreeable!"

"It's a long time ago, and there can't be any harm in mentioning it
now. It was the man she was going to marry, and whom she did marry."

"What;--the Mr. Berdmore?"

"Yes; he was often in that way. And there was a look about Mrs.
Askerton just now so like the look of that Miss Vigo then, that I
cannot get rid of the idea."

"They can't be the same, as she was certainly a Miss Oliphant. And
you hear, too, what she says."

"Yes;--I heard what she said. You have known her long?"

"These two years."

"And intimately?"

"Very intimately. She is our only neighbour; and her being here has
certainly been a great comfort to me. It is sad not having some woman
near one that one can speak to;--and then, I really do like her very
much."

"No doubt it's all right."

"Yes; it's all right," said Clara. After that there was nothing more
said about Mrs. Askerton, and Belton began his work. They had gone
from the cottage, across the park, away from the house, up to a high
rock which stood boldly out of the ground, from whence could be seen
the sea on one side, and on the other a far tract of country almost
away to the moors. And when they reached this spot they seated
themselves. "There," said Clara, "I consider this to be the prettiest
spot in England."

"I haven't seen all England," said Belton.

"Don't be so matter-of-fact, Will. I say it's the prettiest in
England, and you can't contradict me."

"And I say you're the prettiest girl in England, and you can't
contradict me."

This annoyed Clara, and almost made her feel that her paragon of a
cousin was not quite so perfect as she had represented him to be. "I
see," she said, "that if I talk nonsense I'm to be punished."

"Is it a punishment to you to know that I think you very handsome?"
he said, turning round and looking full into her face.

"It is disagreeable to me--very, to have any such subject talked
about at all. What would you think if I began to pay you foolish
personal compliments?"

"What I say isn't foolish; and there's a great difference. Clara,
I love you better than all the world put together."

She now looked at him; but still she did not believe it. It could
not be that after all her boastings she should have made so gross a
blunder. "I hope you do love me," she said; "indeed, you are bound to
do so, for you promised that you would be my brother."

"But that will not satisfy me now, Clara. Clara, I want to be your
husband."

"Will!" she exclaimed.

"Now you know it all; and if I have been too sudden, I must beg your
pardon."

"Oh, Will, forget that you have said this. Do not go on until
everything must be over between us."

"Why should anything be over between us? Why should it be wrong in me
to love you?"

"What will papa say?"

"Mr. Amedroz knows all about it already, and has given me his
consent. I asked him directly I had made up my own mind, and he told
me that I might go to you."

"You have asked papa? Oh dear, oh dear, what am I to do?"

"Am I so odious to you then?" As he said this he got up from his seat
and stood before her. He was a tall, well-built, handsome man, and he
could assume a look and mien that were almost noble when he was moved
as he was moved now.

"Odious! Do you not know that I have loved you as my cousin--that
I have already learned to trust you as though you were really my
brother? But this breaks it all."

"You cannot love me then as my wife?"

"No." She pronounced the monosyllable alone, and then he walked away
from her as though that one little word settled the question for him,
now and for ever. He walked away from her, perhaps a distance of two
hundred yards, as though the interview was over, and he were leaving
her. She, as she saw him go, wished that he would return that she
might say some word of comfort to him. Not that she could have said
the only word that would have comforted him. At the first blush of
the thing, at the first sound of the address which he had made to
her, she had been angry with him. He had disappointed her, and she
was indignant. But her anger had already melted and turned itself to
ruth. She could not but love him better, in that he had loved her so
well; but yet she could not love him with the love which he desired.

But he did not leave her. When he had gone from her down the hill
the distance that has been named, he turned back, and came up to her
slowly. He had a trick of standing and walking with his thumbs fixed
into the armholes of his waistcoat, while his large hands rested on
his breast. He would always assume this attitude when he was assured
that he was right in his views, and was eager to carry some point
at issue. Clara already understood that this attitude signified his
intention to be autocratic. He now came close up to her, and again
stood over her, before he spoke. "My dear," he said, "I have been
rough and hasty in what I have said to you, and I have to ask you to
pardon my want of manners."

"No, no, no," she exclaimed.

"But in a matter of so much interest to us both you will not let an
awkward manner prejudice me."

"It is not that; indeed, it is not."

"Listen to me, dearest. It is true that I promised to be your
brother, and I will not break my word unless I break it by your own
sanction. I did promise to be your brother, but I did not know then
how fondly I should come to love you. Your father, when I told him of
this, bade me not to be hasty; but I am hasty, and I haven't known
how to wait. Tell me that I may come at Christmas for my answer,
and I will not say a word to trouble you till then. I will be your
brother, at any rate till Christmas."

"Be my brother always."

A black cloud crossed his brow as this request reached his ears.
She was looking anxiously into his face, watching every turn in
the expression of his countenance. "Will you not let it wait till
Christmas?" he asked.

She thought it would be cruel to refuse this request, and yet she
knew that no such waiting could be of service to him. He had been
awkward in his love-making, and was aware of it. He should have
contrived this period of waiting for himself; giving her no option
but to wait and think of it. He should have made no proposal, but
have left her certain that such proposal was coming. In such case she
must have waited--and if good could have come to him from that, he
might have received it. But, as the question was now presented to
her, it was impossible that she should consent to wait. To have given
such consent would have been tantamount to receiving him as her
lover. She was therefore forced to be cruel.

"It will be of no avail to postpone my answer when I know what it
must be. Why should there be suspense?"

"You mean that it is impossible that you should love me?"

"Not in that way, Will."

"And why not?" Then there was a pause. "But I am a fool to ask such a
question as that, and I should be worse than a fool were I to press
it. It must then be considered as settled?"

She got up and clung to his arm. "Oh, Will, do not look at me like
that!"

"It must then be considered as settled?" he repeated.

"Yes, Will, yes. Pray consider it as settled." He then sat down on
the rock again, and she came and sat by him,--near to him, but not
close as she had been before. She turned her eyes upon him, gazing on
him, but did not speak to him; and he sat also without speaking for a
while, with his eyes fixed upon the ground. "I suppose we may go back
to the house?" he said at last.

"Give me your hand, Will, and tell me that you will still love me--as
your sister."

He gave her his hand. "If you ever want a brother's care you shall
have it from me," he said.

"But not a brother's love?"

"No. How can the two go together? I shan't cease to love you because
my love is in vain. Instead of making me happy it will make me
wretched. That will be the only difference."

"I would give my life to make you happy, if that were possible."

"You will not give me your life in the way that I would have it."
After that they walked in silence back to the house, and when he had
opened the front door for her, he parted from her and stood alone
under the porch, thinking of his misfortune.



CHAPTER VI.

SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING ONCE AGAIN.


For a considerable time Belton stood under the porch of the house,
thinking of what had happened to him, and endeavouring to steady
himself under the blow which he had received. I do not know that he
had been sanguine of success. Probably he had made to himself no
assurances on the subject. But he was a man to whom failure, of
itself, was intolerable. In any other event of life he would have
told himself that he would not fail--that he would persevere and
conquer. He could imagine no other position as to which he could at
once have been assured of failure, in any project on which he had set
his heart. But as to this project it was so. He had been told that
she could not love him--that she could never love him;--and he had
believed her. He had made his attempt and had failed; and, as he
thought of this, standing under the porch, he became convinced that
life for him was altogether changed, and that he who had been so
happy must now be a wretched man.

He was still standing there when Mr. Amedroz came down into the
hall, dressed for dinner, and saw his figure through the open doors.
"Will," he said, coming up to him, "it only wants five minutes to
dinner." Belton started and shook himself, as though he were shaking
off a lethargy, and declared that he was quite ready. Then he
remembered that he would be expected to dress, and rushed up-stairs,
three steps at a time, to his own room. When he came down, Clara and
her father were already in the dining-room, and he joined them there.

Mr. Amedroz, though he was not very quick in reading facts from the
manners of those with whom he lived, had felt assured that things had
gone wrong between Belton and his daughter. He had not as yet had a
minute in which to speak to Clara, but he was certain that it was so.
Indeed, it was impossible not to read terrible disappointment and
deep grief in the young man's manner. He made no attempt to conceal
it, though he did not speak of it. Through the whole evening, though
he was alone for a while with the squire, and alone also for a time
with Clara, he never mentioned or alluded to the subject of his
rejection. But he bore himself as though he knew and they knew--as
though all the world knew that he had been rejected. And yet he did
not remain silent. He talked of his property and of his plans, and
explained how things were to be done in his absence. Once only was
there something like an allusion made to his sorrow. "But you will be
here at Christmas?" said Mr. Amedroz, in answer to something which
Belton had said as to work to be done in his absence. "I do not know
how that may be now," said Belton. And then they had all been silent.

It was a terrible evening to Clara. She endeavoured to talk, but
found it to be impossible. All the brightness of the last few days
had disappeared, and the world seemed to her to be more sad and
solemn than ever. She had no idea when she was refusing him that he
would have taken it to heart as he had done. The question had come
before her for decision so suddenly, that she had not, in fact, had
time to think of this as she was making her answer. All she had done
was to feel that she could not be to him what he wished her to be.
And even as yet she had hardly asked herself why she must be so
steadfast in her refusal. But she had refused him steadfastly, and
she did not for a moment think of reducing the earnestness of her
resolution. It seemed to be manifest to her, from his present manner,
that he would never ask the question again; but she was sure, let it
be asked ever so often, that it could not be answered in any other
way.

Mr. Amedroz, not knowing why it was so, became cross and querulous,
and scolded his daughter. To Belton, also, he was captious, making
little difficulties, and answering him with petulance. This the
rejected lover took with most extreme patience, as though such a
trifling annoyance had no effect in adding anything to his misery. He
still held his purpose of going on the Saturday, and was still intent
on work which was to be done before he went; but it seemed that he
was satisfied to do everything now as a duty, and that the enjoyment
of the thing, which had heretofore been so conspicuous, was over.

At last they separated, and Clara, as was her wont, went up to her
father's room. "Papa," she said, "what is all this about Mr. Belton?"

"All what, my dear? what do you mean?"

"He has asked me to be,--to be his wife; and has told me that he came
with your consent."

"And why shouldn't he have my consent? What is there amiss with him?
Why shouldn't you marry him if he likes you? You seemed, I thought,
to be very fond of him."

This surprised Clara more than anything. She could hardly have told
herself why, but she would have thought that such a proposition
from her cousin would have made her father angry,--unreasonably
angry;--angry with him for presuming to have such an idea; but now it
seemed that he was going to be angry with her for not accepting her
cousin out of hand.

"Yes, papa; I am fond of him; but not like that. I did not expect
that he would think of me in that way."

"But why shouldn't he think of you? It would be a very good marriage
for you, as far as money is concerned."

"You would not have me marry any one for that reason;--would you,
papa?"

"But you seemed to like him. Well; of course I can't make you like
him. I meant to do for the best; and when he came to me as he did,
I thought he was behaving very handsomely, and very much like a
gentleman."

"I am sure he would do that."

"And if I could have thought that this place would be your home when
I am gone, it would have made me very happy;--very happy."

She now came and stood close to him and took his hand. "I hope, papa,
you do not make yourself uneasy about me. I shall do very well. I'm
sure you can't want me to go away and leave you."

"How will you do very well? I'm sure I don't know. And if your aunt
Winterfield means to provide for you, it would only be kind in her
to let me know it, so that I might not have the anxiety always on my
mind."

Clara knew well enough what was to be the disposition of her aunt's
property, but she could not tell her father of that now. She almost
felt that it was her duty to do so, but she could not bring herself
to do it. She could only beg him not to be anxious on her behalf,
making vague assurances that she would do very well. "And you are
determined not to change your mind about Will?" he said at last.

"I shall not change my mind about that, papa, certainly," she
answered. Then he turned away from her, and she saw that he was
displeased.

When alone, she was forced to ask herself why it was that she was so
certain. Alas! there could in truth be no doubt on that subject in
her own mind. When she sat down, resolved to give herself an answer,
there was no doubt. She could not love her cousin, Will Belton,
because her heart belonged to Captain Aylmer.

But she knew that she had received nothing in exchange for her heart.
He had been kind to her on that journey to Taunton, when the agony
arising from her brother's death had almost crushed her. He had
often been kind to her on days before that,--so kind, so soft in
his manners, approaching so nearly to the little tendernesses of
incipient love-making, that the idea of regarding him as her lover
had of necessity forced itself upon her. But in nothing had he gone
beyond those tendernesses, which need not imperatively be made
to mean anything, though they do often mean so much. It was now
two years since she had first thought that Captain Aylmer was
the most perfect gentleman she knew, and nearly two years since
Mrs. Winterfield had expressed to her a hope that Captain Aylmer
might become her husband. She had replied that such a thing was
impossible,--as any girl would have replied; and had in consequence
treated Captain Aylmer with all the coolness which she had been
able to assume whenever she was in company with him in her aunt's
presence. Nor was it natural to her to be specially gracious to a man
under such trying circumstances, even when no Mrs. Winterfield was
there to behold. And so things had gone on. Captain Aylmer had now
and again made himself very pleasant to her,--at certain trying
periods of joy or trouble almost more than pleasant. But nothing had
come of it, and Clara had told herself that Captain Aylmer had no
special feeling in her favour. She had told herself this, ever since
that journey together from Perivale to Taunton; but never till now
had she also confessed to herself what was her own case.

She made a comparison between the two men. Her cousin Will was, she
thought, the more generous, the more energetic,--perhaps, by nature,
the man of the higher gifts. In person he was undoubtedly the
superior. He was full of noble qualities;--forgetful of self,
industrious, full of resources, a very man of men, able to command,
eager in doing work for others' good and his own,--a man altogether
uncontaminated by the coldness and selfishness of the outer world.
But he was rough, awkward, but indifferently educated, and with few
of those tastes which to Clara Amedroz were delightful. He could
not read poetry to her, he could not tell her of what the world of
literature was doing now or of what it had done in times past. He
knew nothing of the inner world of worlds which governs the world.
She doubted whether he could have told her who composed the existing
cabinet, or have given the name of a single bishop beyond the see in
which his own parish was situated. But Captain Aylmer knew everybody,
and had read everything, and understood, as though by instinct, all
the movements of the world in which he lived.

But what mattered any such comparison? Even though she should be able
to prove to herself beyond the shadow of a doubt that her cousin Will
was of the two the fitter to be loved,--the one more worthy of her
heart,--no such proof could alter her position. Love does not go by
worth. She did not love her cousin as she must love any man to whom
she could give her hand,--and, alas! she did love that other man.

On this night I doubt whether Belton did slumber with that solidity
of repose which was usual to him. At any rate, before he came down in
the morning he had found time for sufficient thought, and had brought
himself to a resolution. He would not give up the battle as lost. To
his thinking there was something weak and almost mean in abandoning
any project which he had set before himself. He had been awkward, and
he exaggerated to himself his own awkwardness. He had been hasty, and
had gone about his task with inconsiderate precipitancy. It might be
that he had thus destroyed all his chance of success. But, as he said
to himself, "he would never say die, as long as there was a puff of
breath left to him." He would not mope, and hang down his head, and
wear the willow. Such a state of things would ill suit either the
roughness or the readiness of his life. No! He would bear like a man
the disappointment which had on this occasion befallen him, and would
return at Christmas and once more try his fortune.

At breakfast, therefore, the cloud had passed from his brow. When he
came in he found Clara alone in the room, and he simply shook hands
with her after his ordinary fashion. He said nothing of yesterday,
and almost succeeded in looking as though yesterday had been in
no wise memorable. She was not so much at her ease, but she also
received some comfort from his demeanour. Mr. Amedroz came down
almost immediately, and Belton soon took an opportunity of saying
that he would be back at Christmas if Mr. Amedroz would receive him.

"Certainly," said the squire. "I thought it had been all settled."

"So it was;--till I said a word yesterday which foolishly seemed to
unsettle it. But I have thought it over again, and I find that I can
manage it."

"We shall be so glad to have you!" said Clara.

"And I shall be equally glad to come. They are already at work, sir,
about the sheds."

"Yes; I saw the carts full of bricks go by," said the squire,
querulously. "I didn't know there was to be any brickwork. You said
you would have it made of deal slabs with oak posts."

"You must have a foundation, sir. I propose to carry the brickwork a
foot and a half above the ground."

"I suppose you know best. Only that kind of thing is so very ugly."

"If you find it to be ugly after it is done, it shall be pulled down
again."

"No;--it can never come down again."

"It can;--and it shall, if you don't like it. I never think anything
of changes like that."

"I think they'll be very pretty!" said Clara.

"I dare say," said the squire; "but at any rate it won't make much
difference to me. I shan't be here long to see them."

This was rather melancholy; but Belton bore up even against this,
speaking cheery words and expressing bright hopes,--so that it
seemed, both to Clara and to her father, that he had in a great
measure overcome the disappointment of the preceding day. It was
probable that he was a man not prone to be deeply sensitive in such
matters for any long period. The period now had certainly not been
long, and yet Will Belton was alive again.

Immediately after breakfast there occurred a little incident which
was not without its effect upon them all. There came up on the drive,
immediately before the front door, under the custody of a boy, a cow.
It was an Alderney cow, and any man or woman at all understanding
cows, would at once have perceived that this cow was perfect in her
kind. Her eyes were mild, and soft, and bright. Her legs were like
the legs of a deer; and in her whole gait and demeanour she almost
gave the lie to her own name, asserting herself to have sprung from
some more noble origin among the woods, than may be supposed to
be the origin of the ordinary domestic cow,--a useful animal, but
heavy in its appearance, and seen with more pleasure at some little
distance than at close quarters. But this cow was graceful in its
movements, and almost tempted one to regard her as the far-off
descendant of the elk or the antelope.

"What's that?" said Mr. Amedroz, who, having no cows of his own, was
not pleased to see one brought up in that way before his hall door.
"There's somebody's cow come here."

Clara understood it in a moment; but she was pained, and said
nothing. Had the cow come without any such scene as that of
yesterday, she would have welcomed the animal with all cordiality,
and would have sworn to her cousin that the cow should be cherished
for his sake. But after what had passed it was different. How was she
to take any present from him now?

But Belton faced the difficulty without any bashfulness or apparent
regret. "I told you I would give you a cow," said he, "and here she
is."

"What can she want with a cow?" said Mr. Amedroz.

"I am sure she wants one very much. At any rate she won't refuse the
present from me; will you, Clara?"

What could she say? "Not if papa will allow me to keep it."

"But we've no place to put it!" said the squire. "We haven't got
grass for it!"

"There's plenty of grass," said Belton. "Come, Mr. Amedroz; I've made
a point of getting this little creature for Clara, and you mustn't
stand in the way of my gratification." Of course he was successful,
and of course Clara thanked him with tears in her eyes.

The next two days passed by without anything special to mark them,
and then the cousin was to go. During the period of his visit he did
not see Colonel Askerton, nor did he again see Mrs. Askerton. He
went to the cottage once, with the special object of returning the
Colonel's call; but the master was out, and he was not specially
invited in to see the mistress. He said nothing more to Clara about
her friends, but he thought of the matter more than once, as he
was going about the place, and became aware that he would like to
ascertain whether there was a mystery, and if so, what was its
nature. He knew that he did not like Mrs. Askerton, and he felt
also that Mrs. Askerton did not like him. This was, as he thought,
unfortunate; for might it not be the case, that in the one matter
which was to him of so much importance, Mrs. Askerton might have
considerable influence over Clara?

During these days nothing special was said between him and Clara. The
last evening passed over without anything to brighten it or to make
it memorable. Mr. Amedroz, in his passive, but gently querulous way,
was sorry that Belton was going to leave him, as his cousin had been
the creation of some new excitement for him, but he said nothing on
the subject; and when the time for going to bed had come, he bade his
guest farewell with some languid allusion to the pleasure which he
would have in seeing him again at Christmas. Belton was to start very
early in the morning,--before six, and of course he was prepared to
take leave also of Clara. But she told him very gently, so gently
that her father did not hear it, that she would be up to give him a
cup of coffee before he went.

"Oh no," he said.

"But I shall. I won't have you go without seeing you out of the
door."

And on the following morning she was up before him. She hardly
understood, herself, why she was doing this. She knew that it should
be her object to avoid any further special conversation on that
subject which they had discussed up among the rocks. She knew that
she could give him no comfort, and that he could give none to her. It
would seem that he was willing to let the remembrance of the scene
pass away, so that it should be as though it had never been; and
surely it was not for her to disturb so salutary an arrangement!
But yet she was up to bid him Godspeed as he went. She could not
bear,--so she excused the matter to herself,--she could not bear to
think that he should regard her as ungrateful. She knew all that he
had done for them. She had perceived that the taking of the land, the
building of the sheds, the life which he had contrived in so short a
time to throw into the old place, had all come from a desire on his
part to do good to those in whose way he stood by family arrangements
made almost before his birth; and she longed to say to him one
word of thanks. And had he not told her,--once in the heat of
his disappointment; for then at that moment, as Clara said to
herself, she supposed that he must have been in some measure
disappointed,--had he not even then told her that when she wanted
a brother's care, a brother's care should be given to her by him?
Was she not therefore bound to do for him what she would do for a
brother?

She, with her own hands, brought the coffee into the little breakfast
parlour, and handed the cup into his hands. The gig, which had come
overnight from Taunton, was not yet at the door, and there was a
minute or two during which they must speak to each other. Who has not
seen some such girl when she has come down early, without the full
completeness of her morning toilet, and yet nicer, fresher, prettier
to the eye of him who is so favoured, than she has ever been in more
formal attire? And what man who has been so favoured has not loved
her who has so favoured him, even though he may not previously have
been enamoured as deeply as poor Will Belton?

"This is so good of you," he said.

"I wish I knew how to be good to you," she answered,--not meaning to
trench upon dangerous ground, but feeling, as the words came from
her, that she had done so. "You have been so good to us, so very good
to papa, that we owe you everything. I am so grateful to you for
saying that you will come back at Christmas."

He had resolved that he would refrain from further love-making till
the winter; but he found it very hard to refrain when so addressed.
To take her in his arms, and kiss her twenty times, and swear that he
would never let her go,--to claim her at once savagely as his own,
that was the line of conduct to which temptation prompted him. How
could she look at him so sweetly, how could she stand before him,
ministering to him with all her pretty maidenly charms brought so
close to him, without intending that he should love her? But he did
refrain. "Blood is thicker than water," said he. "That's the real
reason why I first came."

"I understand that quite, and it is that feeling that makes you so
good. But I'm afraid you are spending a great deal of money here--and
all for our sakes."

"Not at all. I shall get my money back again. And if I didn't, what
then? I've plenty of money. It is not money that I want."

She could not ask him what it was that he did want, and she was
obliged therefore to begin again. "Papa will look forward so to the
winter now."

"And so shall I."

"But you must come for longer then;--you won't go away at the end of
a week? Say that you won't."

"I'll see about it. I can't tell quite yet. You'll write me a line to
say when the shed is finished, won't you?"

"That I will, and I'll tell you how Bessy goes on." Bessy was the
cow. "I will be so very fond of her. She'll come to me for apples
already."

Belton thought that he would go to her, wherever she might be, even
if he were to get no apples. "It's all cupboard love with them," he
said. "I'll tell you what I'll do;--when I come, I'll bring you a dog
that will follow you without thinking of apples." Then the gig was
heard on the gravel before the door, and Belton was forced to go. For
a moment he reflected whether, as her cousin, it was not his duty to
kiss her. It was a matter as to which he had doubt,--as is the case
with many male cousins; but ultimately he resolved that if he kissed
her at all he would not kiss her in that light, and so he again
refrained. "Good-bye," he said, putting out his great hand to her.

"Good-bye, Will, and God bless you." I almost think he might have
kissed her, asking himself no questions as to the light in which it
was done.

As he turned from her he saw the tears in her eyes; and as he sat in
the gig, thinking of them, other tears came into his own. By heaven,
he would have her yet! He was a man who had not read much of romance.
To him all the imagined mysteries of passion had not been made common
by the perusal of legions of love stories;--but still he knew enough
of the game to be aware that women had been won in spite, as it were,
of their own teeth. He knew that he could not now run away with her,
taking her off by force; but still he might conquer her will by his
own. As he remembered the tears in her eyes, and the tone of her
voice, and the pressure of her hand, and the gratitude that had
become tender in its expression, he could not but think that he would
be wise to love her still. Wise or foolish, he did love her still;
and it should not be owing to fault of his if she did not become his
wife. As he drove along he saw little of the Quantock hills, little
of the rich Somersetshire pastures, little of the early beauty of the
August morning. He saw nothing but her eyes, moistened with bright
tears, and before he reached Taunton he had rebuked himself with many
revilings in that he had parted from her and not kissed her.

Clara stood at the door watching the gig till it was out of
sight,--watching it as well as her tears would allow. What a grand
cousin he was! Had it not been a pity,--a thousand pities,--that
that grievous episode should have come to mar the brotherly love,
the sisterly confidence, which might otherwise have been so perfect
between them? But perhaps it might all be well yet. Clara knew,
or thought that she knew, that men and women differed in their
appreciation of love. She, having once loved, could not change. Of
that she was sure. Her love might be fortunate or unfortunate. It
might be returned, or it might simply be her own, to destroy all
hope of happiness for her on earth. But whether it were this or that,
whether productive of good or evil, the love itself could not be
changed. But with men she thought it might be different. Her cousin,
doubtless, had been sincere in the full sincerity of his heart when
he made his offer. And had she accepted it,--had she been able to
accept it,--she believed that he would have loved her truly and
constantly. Such was his nature. But she also believed that love with
him, unrequited love, would have no enduring effect, and that he
had already resolved, with equal courage and wisdom, to tread this
short-lived passion out beneath his feet. One night had sufficed
to him for that treading out. As she thought of this the tears ran
plentifully down her cheek; and going again to her room she remained
there crying till it was time for her to wipe away the marks of her
weeping, that she might go to her father.

But she was very glad that Will bore it so well;--very glad! Her
cousin was safe against love-making once again.



CHAPTER VII.

MISS AMEDROZ GOES TO PERIVALE.


It had been settled for some time past that Miss Amedroz was to go
to Perivale for a few days in November. Indeed it seemed to be a
recognised fact in her life that she was to make the journey from
Belton to Perivale and back very often, as there prevailed an idea
that she owed a divided duty. This was in some degree hard upon her,
as she had very little gratification in these visits to her aunt. Had
there been any intention on the part of Mrs. Winterfield to provide
for her, the thing would have been intelligible according to the
usual arrangements which are made in the world on such matters; but
Mrs. Winterfield had scarcely a right to call upon her niece for
dutiful attendance after having settled it with her own conscience
that her property was all to go to her nephew. But Clara entertained
no thought of rebelling, and had agreed to make the accustomed
journey in November, travelling then, as she did on all such
journeys, at her aunt's expense.

Two things only occurred to disturb her tranquillity before she went,
and they were not of much violence. Mr. Wright, the clergyman, called
at Belton Castle, and in the course of conversation with Mr. Amedroz
renewed one of those ill-natured rumours which had before been spread
about Mrs. Askerton. Clara did not see him, but she heard an account
of it all from her father.

"Does it mean, papa," she said, speaking almost with anger, "that you
want me to give up Mrs. Askerton?"

"How can you be so unkind as to ask me such a question?" he replied.
"You know how I hate to be bothered. I tell you what I hear, and then
you can decide for yourself."

"But that isn't quite fair either, papa. That man comes here--"

"That man, as you call him, is the rector of the parish, and I've
known him for forty years."

"And have never liked him, papa."

"I don't know much about liking anybody, my dear. Nobody likes me,
and so why should I trouble myself?"

"But, papa, it all amounts to this--that somebody has said that the
Askertons are not Askertons at all, but ought to be called something
else. Now we know that he served as Captain and Major Askerton for
seven years in India--and in fact it all means nothing. If I know
anything, I know that he is Colonel Askerton."

"But do you know that she is his wife? That is what Mr. Wright asks.
I don't say anything. I think it's very indelicate talking about such
things."

"If I am asked whether I have seen her marriage certificate,
certainly I have not; nor probably did you ever do so as to any lady
that you ever knew. But I know that she is her husband's wife, as we
all of us know things of that sort. I know she was in India with him.
I've seen things of hers marked with her name that she has had at
least for ten years."

"I don't know anything about it, my dear," said Mr. Amedroz, angrily.

"But Mr. Wright ought to know something about it before he says such
things. And then this that he's saying now isn't the same that he
said before."

"I don't know what he said before."

"He said they were both of them using a feigned name."

"It's nothing to me what name they use. I know I wish they hadn't
come here, if I'm to be troubled about them in this way--first by
Wright and then by you."

"They have been very good tenants, papa."

"You needn't tell me that, Clara, and remind me about the shooting
when you know how unhappy it makes me."

After this Clara said nothing more, and simply determined that Mr.
Wright and his gossip should have no effect upon her intimacy with
Mrs. Askerton. But not the less did she continue to remember what her
cousin had said about Miss Vigo.

And she had been ruffled a second time by certain observations which
Mrs. Askerton made to her respecting her cousin--or rather by little
words which were dropped on various occasions. It was very clear
that Mrs. Askerton did not like Mr. Belton, and that she wished to
prejudice Clara against him. "It's a pity he shouldn't be a lover
of yours," the lady said, "because it would be such a fine instance
of Beauty and the Beast." It will of course be understood that Mrs.
Askerton had never been told of the offer that had been made.

"You don't mean to say that he's not a handsome man," said Clara.

"I never observe whether a man is handsome or not; but I can see very
well whether he knows what to do with his arms and legs, or whether
he has the proper use of his voice before ladies." Clara remembered a
word or two spoken by her cousin to herself, in speaking which he had
seemed to have a very proper use of his voice. "I know when a man is
at ease like a gentleman, and when he is awkward like a--"

"Like a what?" said Clara. "Finish what you've got to say."

"Like a ploughboy, I was going to say," said Mrs. Askerton.

"I declare I think you have a spite against him, because he said you
were like some Miss Vigo," replied Clara, sharply. Mrs. Askerton was
on that occasion silenced, and she said nothing more about Mr. Belton
till after Clara had returned from Perivale.

The journey itself from Belton to Perivale was always a nuisance, and
was more so now than usual, as it was made in the disagreeable month
of November. There was kept at the little inn at Redicote an old
fly--so called--which habitually made the journey to the Taunton
railway-station, under the conduct of an old grey horse and an
older and greyer driver, whenever any of the old ladies of the
neighbourhood were minded to leave their homes. This vehicle usually
travelled at the rate of five miles an hour; but the old grey driver
was never content to have time allowed to him for the transit
calculated upon such a rate of speed. Accidents might happen, and why
should he be made, as he would plaintively ask, to drive the poor
beast out of its skin? He was consequently always at Belton a full
hour before the time, and though Clara was well aware of all this,
she could not help herself. Her father was fussy and impatient, the
man was fussy and impatient; and there was nothing for her but to go.
On the present occasion she was taken off in this way the full sixty
minutes too soon, and after four dreary hours spent upon the road,
found herself landed at the Taunton station, with a terrible gulf of
time to be passed before she could again proceed on her journey.

One little accident had occurred to her. The old horse, while
trotting leisurely along the level high road, had contrived to tumble
down. Clara did not think very much of this, as the same thing had
happened with her before; but, even with an hour or more to spare,
there arises a question whether under such circumstances the train
can be saved. But the grey old man reassured her. "Now, miss," said
he, coming to the window, while he left his horse recumbent and
apparently comfortable on the road, "where'd you have been now, zure,
if I hadn't a few minutes in hand for you?" Then he walked off to
some neighbouring cottage, and having obtained assistance, succeeded
in putting his beast again upon his legs. After that he looked once
more in at the window. "Who's right now, I wonder?" he said, with an
air of triumph. And when he came to her for his guerdon at Taunton,
he was evidently cross in not having it increased because of the
accident.

That hour at the Taunton station was terrible to her. I know of no
hours more terrible than those so passed. The minutes will not go
away, and utterly fail in making good their claim to be called
winged. A man walks up and down the platform, and in that way obtains
something of the advantage of exercise; but a woman finds herself
bound to sit still within the dreary dulness of the waiting-room.
There are, perhaps, people who under such circumstances can read, but
they are few in number. The mind altogether declines to be active,
whereas the body is seized by a spirit of restlessness to which delay
and tranquillity are loathsome. The advertisements on the walls are
examined, the map of some new Eden is studied--some Eden in which
an irregular pond and a church are surrounded by a multiplicity
of regular villas and shrubs--till the student feels that no
consideration of health or economy would induce him to live there.
Then the porters come in and out, till each porter has made himself
odious to the sight. Everything is hideous, dirty, and disagreeable;
and the mind wanders away, to consider why station-masters do not
more frequently commit suicide. Clara Amedroz had already got beyond
this stage, and was beginning to think of herself rather than of the
station-master, when at last there sounded, close to her ears, the
bell of promise, and she knew that the train was at hand.

At Taunton there branched away from the main line that line which
was to take her to Perivale, and therefore she was able to take her
own place quietly in the carriage when she found that the down-train
from London was at hand. This she did, and could then watch with
equanimity, while the travellers from the other train went through
the penance of changing their seats. But she had not been so watching
for many seconds when she saw Captain Frederic Aylmer appear upon the
platform. Immediately she sank back into her corner and watched no
more. Of course he was going to Perivale; but why had not her aunt
told her that she was to meet him? Of course she would be staying in
the same house with him, and her present small attempt to avoid him
would thus be futile. The attempt was made; but nevertheless she was
probably pleased when she found that it was made in vain. He came at
once to the carriage in which she was sitting, and had packed his
coats, and dressing-bag, and desk about the carriage before he had
discovered who was his fellow-traveller. "How do you do, Captain
Aylmer?" she said, as he was about to take his seat.

"Miss Amedroz! Dear me; how very odd! I had not the slightest
expectation of meeting you here. The pleasure is of course the
greater."

"Nor I of seeing you. Mrs. Winterfield has not mentioned to me that
you were coming to Perivale."

"I didn't know it myself till the day before yesterday. I'm going to
give an account of my stewardship to the good-natured Perivalians who
send me to Parliament. I'm to dine with the mayor to-morrow, and as
some big-wig has come in his way who is going to dine with him also,
the thing has been got up in a hurry. But I'm delighted to find that
you are to be with us."

"I generally go to my aunt about this time of the year."

"It is very good-natured of you." Then he asked after her father,
and she told him of Mr. Belton's visit, telling him nothing--as the
reader will hardly require to be told--of Mr. Belton's offer. And so,
by degrees, they fell into close and intimate conversation.

"I am so glad, for your father's sake!" said the captain, with
sympathetic voice, speaking still of Mr. Belton's visit.

"That's what I feel, of course."

"It is just as it should be, as he stands in that position to the
property. And so he is a nice sort of fellow, is he?"

"Nice is no word for him. He is perfect!"

"Dear me! This is terrible! You remember that they hated some old
Greek patriot when they could find no fault in him?"

"I'll defy you to hate my cousin Will."

"What sort of looking man is he?"

"Extremely handsome;--at least I should say so."

"Then I certainly must hate him. And clever?"

"Well;--not what you would call clever. He is very clever about
fields and cattle."

"Come, there is some relief in that."

"But you must not mistake me. He is clever; and then there's a
way about him of doing everything just as he likes it, which is
wonderful. You feel quite sure that he'll become master of
everything."

"But I do not feel at all sure that I should like him the better for
that!"

"But he doesn't meddle in things that he doesn't understand. And then
he is so generous! His spending all that money down there is only
done because he thinks it will make the place pleasanter to papa."

"Has he got plenty of money?"

"Oh, plenty! At least, I think so. He says that he has."

"The idea of any man owning that he had got plenty of money! What
a happy mortal! And then to be handsome, and omnipotent, and to
understand cattle and fields! One would strive to emulate him rather
than envy him, had not one learned to acknowledge that it is not
given to every one to get to Corinth."

"You may laugh at him, but you'd like him if you knew him."

"One never can be sure of that from a lady's account of a man. When
a man talks to me about another man, I can generally tell whether I
should like him or not--particularly if I know the man well who is
giving the description; but it is quite different when a woman is the
describer."

"You mean that you won't take my word?"

"We see with different eyes in such matters. I have no doubt your
cousin is a worthy man--and as prosperous a gentleman as the Thane
of Cawdor in his prosperous days;--but probably if he and I came
together we shouldn't have a word to say to each other."

Clara almost hated Captain Aylmer for speaking as he did, and yet she
knew that it was true. Will Belton was not an educated man, and were
they two to meet in her presence,--the captain and the farmer,--she
felt that she might have to blush for her cousin. But yet he was the
better man of the two. She knew that he was the better man of the
two, though she knew also that she could not love him as she loved
the other.

Then they changed the subject of their conversation, and discussed
Mrs. Winterfield, as they had often done before. Captain Aylmer had
said that he should return to London on the Saturday, the present day
being Tuesday, and Clara accused him of escaping always from the real
hard work of his position. "I observe that you never stay a Sunday at
Perivale," she said.

"Well;--not often. Why should I? Sunday is just the day that people
like to be at home."

"I should have thought it would not have made much difference to a
bachelor in that way."

"But Sunday is a day that one specially likes to pass after one's own
fashion."

"Exactly;--and therefore you don't stay with my aunt. I understand it
all completely."

"Now you mean to be ill-natured!"

"I mean to say that I don't like Sundays at Perivale at all, and that
I should do just as you do if I had the power. But women,--women,
that is, of my age,--are such slaves! We are forced to give an
obedience for which we can see no cause, and for which we can
understand no necessity. I couldn't tell my aunt that I meant to go
away on Saturday."

"You have no business which makes imperative calls upon your time."

"That means that I can't plead pretended excuses. But the true reason
is that we are dependent."

"There is something in that, I suppose."

"Not that I am dependent on her. But my position generally is
dependent, and I cannot assist myself."

Captain Aylmer found it difficult to make any answer to this, feeling
the subject to be one which could hardly be discussed between him and
Miss Amedroz. He not unnaturally looked to be the heir of his aunt's
property, and any provision made out of that property for Clara,
would so far lessen that which would come to him. For anything that
he knew, Mrs. Winterfield might leave everything she possessed to
her niece. The old lady had not been open and candid to him whom she
meant to favour in her will, as she had been to her to whom no such
favour was to be shown. But Captain Aylmer did know, with tolerable
accuracy, what was the state of affairs at Belton, and was aware
that Miss Amedroz had no prospect of maintenance on which to depend,
unless she could depend on her aunt. She was now pleading that she
was not dependent on that lady, and Captain Aylmer felt that she was
wrong. He was a man of the world, and was by no means inclined to
abandon any right that was his own; but it seemed to him that he
was almost bound to say some word to show that in his opinion Clara
should hold herself bound to comply with her aunt's requirements.

"Dependence is a disagreeable word," he said; "and one never quite
knows what it means."

"If you were a woman you'd know. It means that I must stay at
Perivale on Sundays, while you can go up to London or down to
Yorkshire. That's what it means."

"What you do mean, I think, is this;--that you owe a duty to
your aunt, the performance of which is not altogether agreeable.
Nevertheless it would be foolish in you to omit it."

"It isn't that;--not that at all. It would not be foolish, not in
your sense of the word, but it would be wrong. My aunt has been kind
to me, and therefore I am bound to her for this service. But she is
kind to you also, and yet you are not bound. That's why I complain.
You sail away under false pretences, and yet you think you do your
duty. You have to see your lawyer,--which means going to your club;
or to attend to your tenants,--which means hunting and shooting."

"I haven't got any tenants."

"You know very well that you could remain over Sunday without doing
any harm to anybody;--only you don't like going to church three
times, and you don't like hearing my aunt read a sermon afterwards.
Why shouldn't you stay, and I go to the club?"

"With all my heart, if you can manage it."

"But I can't; we ain't allowed to have clubs, or shooting, or to
have our own way in anything, putting forward little pretences about
lawyers."

"Come, I'll stay if you'll ask me."

"I'm sure I won't do that. In the first place you'd go to sleep, and
then she would be offended; and I don't know that your sufferings
would make mine any lighter. I'm not prepared to alter the ways of
the world, but I feel myself entitled to grumble at them sometimes."

Mrs. Winterfield inhabited a large brick house in the centre of the
town. It had a long frontage to the street; for there was not only
the house itself, with its three square windows on each side of the
door, and its seven windows over that, and again its seven windows in
the upper story,--but the end of the coach-house also abutted on the
street, on which was the family clock, quite as much respected in
Perivale as was the town-clock; and between the coach-house and the
mansion there was the broad entrance into the yard, and the entrance
also to the back door. No Perivalian ever presumed to doubt that Mrs.
Winterfield's house was the most important house in the town. Nor
did any stranger doubt it on looking at the frontage. But then it
was in all respects a town house to the eye,--that is, an English
town house, being as ugly and as respectable as unlimited bricks and
mortar could make it. Immediately opposite to Mrs. Winterfield lived
the leading doctor and a retired builder, so that the lady's eye was
not hurt by any sign of a shop. The shops, indeed, came within a very
few yards of her on either side; but as the neighbouring shops on
each side were her own property, this was not unbearable. To me, had
I lived there, the incipient growth of grass through some of the
stones which formed the margin of the road would have been altogether
unendurable. There is no sign of coming decay which is so melancholy
to the eye as any which tells of a decrease in the throng of men. Of
men or horses there was never any throng now in that end of Perivale.
That street had formed part of the main line of road from Salisbury
to Taunton, and coaches, waggons, and posting-carriages had been
frequent on it; but now, alas! it was deserted. Even the omnibuses
from the railway-station never came there unless they were ordered to
call at Mrs. Winterfield's door. For Mrs. Winterfield herself, this
desolation had, I think, a certain melancholy attraction. It suited
her tone of mind and her religious views that she should be thus
daily reminded that things of this world were passing away and going
to destruction. She liked to have ocular proof that grass was growing
in the highways under mortal feet, and that it was no longer worth
man's while to renew human flags in human streets. She was drawing
near to the pavements which would ever be trodden by myriads of
bright sandals, and which yet would never be worn, and would be
carried to those jewelled causeways on which no weed could find a
spot for its useless growth.

Behind the house there was a square prim garden, arranged in
parallelograms, tree answering to tree at every corner, round which
it was still her delight to creep when the weather permitted. Poor
Clara! how much advice she had received during these creepings, and
how often had she listened to inquiries as to the schooling of the
gardener's children. Mrs. Winterfield was always unhappy about her
gardener. Serious footmen are very plentiful, and even coachmen are
to be found who, at a certain rate of extra payment, will be punctual
at prayer time, and will promise to read good little books; but
gardeners, as a class, are a profane people, who think themselves
entitled to claim liberty of conscience, and who will not submit to
the domestic despotism of a serious Sunday. They live in cottages
by themselves, and choose to have an opinion of their own on church
matters. Mrs. Winterfield was aware that she ought to bid high for
such a gardener as she wanted. A man must be paid well who will
submit to daily inquiries as to the spiritual welfare of himself, his
wife, and family. But even though she did bid high, and though she
paid generously, no gardener would stop with her. One conscientious
man attempted to bargain for freedom from religion during the six
unimportant days of the week, being strong, and willing therefore to
give up his day of rest; but such liberty could not be allowed to
him, and he also went. "He couldn't stop," he said, "in justice to
the greenhouses, when missus was so constant down upon him about his
sprittual backsliding. And, after all, where did he backslide? It was
only a pipe of tobacco with the babby in his arms, instead of that
darned evening lecture."

Poor Mrs. Winterfield! She had been strong in her youth, and had
herself sat through evening lectures with a fortitude which other
people cannot attain. And she was strong too in her age, with the
strength of a martyr, submitting herself with patience to wearinesses
which are insupportable to those who have none of the martyr spirit.
The sermons of Perivale were neither bright, nor eloquent, nor
encouraging. All the old vicar or the young curate could tell she had
heard hundreds of times. She knew it all by heart, and could have
preached their sermons to them better than they could preach them to
her. It was impossible that she could learn anything from them; and
yet she would sit there thrice a day, suffering from cold in winter,
from cough in spring, from heat in summer, and from rheumatism in
autumn; and now that her doctor had forbidden her to go more than
twice, recommending her to go only once, she really thought that she
regarded the prohibition as a grievance. Indeed, to such as her, that
expectation of the jewelled causeway, and of the perfect pavement
that shall never be worn, must be everything. But if she was
right,--right as to herself and others,--then why has the world been
made so pleasant? Why is the fruit of the earth so sweet; and the
trees,--why are they so green; and the mountains so full of glory?
Why are women so lovely? and why is it that the activity of man's
mind is the only sure forerunner of man's progress? In listening
thrice a day to outpourings from the clergymen at Perivale, there
certainly was no activity of mind.

Now, in these days, Mrs. Winterfield was near to her reward. That she
had ensured that I cannot doubt. She had fed the poor, and filled the
young full with religious teachings,--perhaps not wisely, and in her
own way only too well, but yet as her judgment had directed her. She
had cared little for herself,--forgiving injuries done to her, and
not forgiving those only which she thought were done to the Lord. She
had lived her life somewhat as the martyr lived, who stood for years
on his pillar unmoved, while his nails grew through his flesh. So had
she stood, doing, I fear, but little positive good with her large
means,--but thinking nothing of her own comfort here, in comparison
with the comfort of herself and others in the world to which she was
going.

On this occasion her nephew and niece reached her together; the prim
boy, with the white cotton gloves and the low four-wheeled carriage,
having been sent down to meet Clara. For Mrs. Winterfield was a lady
who thought it unbecoming that her niece,--though only an adopted
niece,--should come to her door in an omnibus. Captain Aylmer had
driven the four-wheeled carriage from the station, dispossessing the
boy, and the luggage had been confided to the public conveyance.

"It is very fortunate that you should come together," said Mrs.
Winterfield. "I didn't know when to expect you, Fred. Indeed, you
never say at what hour you'll come."

"I think it safer to allow myself a little margin, aunt, because one
has so many things to do."

"I suppose it is so with a gentleman," said Mrs. Winterfield. After
which Clara looked at Captain Aylmer, but did not betray any of her
suspicions. "But I knew Clara would come by this train," continued
the old lady; "so I sent Tom to meet her. Ladies always can be
punctual; they can do that at any rate." Mrs. Winterfield was one of
those women who have always believed that their own sex is in every
respect inferior to the other.



CHAPTER VIII.

CAPTAIN AYLMER MEETS HIS CONSTITUENTS.


On the first evening of their visit Captain Aylmer was very attentive
to his aunt. He was quite alive to the propriety of such attentions,
and to their expediency; and Clara was amused as she watched him
while he sat by her side, by the hour together, answering little
questions and making little remarks suited to the temperament of the
old lady's mind. She, herself, was hardly called upon to join in the
conversation on that evening, and as she sat and listened, she could
not but think that Will Belton would have been less adroit, but that
he would also have been more straightforward. And yet why should
not Captain Aylmer talk to his aunt? Will Belton would also have
talked to his aunt if he had one, but then he would have talked his
own talk, and not his aunt's talk. Clara could hardly make up her
mind whether Captain Aylmer was or was not a sincere man. On the
following day Aylmer was out all the morning, paying visits among his
constituents, and at three o'clock he was to make his speech in the
Town-hall. Special places in the gallery were to be kept for Mrs.
Winterfield and her niece, and the old woman was quite resolved that
she would be there. As the day advanced she became very fidgety, and
at length she was quite alive to the perils of having to climb up the
Town-hall stairs; but she persevered, and at ten minutes before three
she was seated in her place.

"I suppose they will begin with prayer," she said to Clara. Clara,
who knew nothing of the manner in which things were done at such
meetings, said that she supposed so. A town councillor's wife who
sat on the other side of Mrs. Winterfield, here took the liberty of
explaining that as the Captain was going to talk politics there would
be no prayers. "But they have prayers in the Houses of Parliament,"
said Mrs. Winterfield, with much anger. To this the town councillor's
wife, who was almost silenced by the great lady's wrath, said that
indeed she did not know. After this Mrs. Winterfield continued to
hope for the best, till the platform was filled and the proceedings
had commenced. Then she declared the present men of Perivale to be
a godless set, and expressed herself very sorry that her nephew had
ever had anything to do with them. "No good can come of it, my dear,"
she said. Clara from the beginning had feared that no good would come
of her aunt's visit to the Town-hall.

The business was put on foot at once, and with some little
flourishing at the commencement, Captain Aylmer made his speech;--the
same speech which we have all heard and read so often, specially
adapted to the meridian of Perivale. He was a Conservative, and of
course he told his hearers that a good time was coming; that he and
his family were really about to buckle themselves to the work, and
that Perivale would hear things that would surprise it. The malt tax
was to go, and the farmers were to have free trade in beer,--the
arguments from the other side having come beautifully round in their
appointed circle,--and old England was to be old England once again.
He did the thing tolerably well, as such gentlemen usually do, and
Perivale was contented with its member, with the exception of one
Perivalian. To Mrs. Winterfield, sitting up there and listening with
all her ears, it seemed that he had hitherto omitted all allusion to
any subject that was worthy of mention. At last he said some word
about the marriage and divorce court, condemning the iniquity of
the present law, to which Perivale had opposed itself violently by
petition and general meetings; and upon hearing this Mrs. Winterfield
had thumped with her umbrella, and faintly cheered him with her weak
old voice. But the surrounding Perivalians had heard the cheer, and
it was repeated backwards and forwards through the room, till the
member's aunt thought that it might be her nephew's mission to annul
that godless Act of Parliament, and restore the matrimonial bonds of
England to their old rigidity. When Captain Aylmer came out to hand
her up to her little carriage, she patted him, and thanked him, and
encouraged him; and on her way home she congratulated herself to
Clara that she should have such a nephew to leave behind her in her
place.

Captain Aylmer was dining with the mayor on that evening, and Mrs.
Winterfield was therefore able to indulge herself in talking about
him. "I don't see much of young men, of course," she said; "but I do
not even hear of any that are like him." Again Clara thought of her
cousin Will. Will was not at all like Frederic Aylmer; but was he not
better? And yet, as she thought thus, she remembered that she had
refused her cousin Will because she loved that very Frederic Aylmer
whom her mind was thus condemning.

"I'm sure he does his duty as a member of Parliament very well," said
Clara.

"That alone would not be much; but when that is joined to so much
that is better, it is a great deal. I am told that very few of the
men in the House now are believers at all."

"Oh, aunt!"

"It is terrible to think of, my dear."

"But, aunt; they have to take some oath, or something of that sort,
to show that they are Christians."

"Not now, my dear. They've done away with all that since we had Jew
members. An atheist can go into Parliament now; and I'm told that
most of them are that, or nearly as bad. I can remember when no
Papist could sit in Parliament. But they seem to me to be doing away
with everything. It's a great comfort to me that Frederic is what he
is."

"I'm sure it must be, aunt."

Then there was a pause, during which, however, Mrs. Winterfield gave
no sign that the conversation was to be considered as being over.
Clara knew her aunt's ways so well, that she was sure something more
was coming, and therefore waited patiently, without any thought of
taking up her book. "I was speaking to him about you yesterday," Mrs.
Winterfield said at last.

"That would not interest him very much."

"Why not? Do you suppose he is not interested in those I love?
Indeed, it did interest him; and he told me what I did not know
before, and what you ought to have told me."

Clara now blushed, she knew not why, and became agitated. "I don't
know that I have kept anything from you that I ought to have told,"
she said.

"He says that the provision made for you by your father has all been
squandered."

"If he used that word he has been very unkind," said Clara, angrily.

"I don't know what word he used, but he was not unkind at all; he
never is. I think he was very generous."

"I do not want his generosity, aunt."

"That is nonsense, my dear. If he has told me the truth, what have
you to depend on?"

"I don't want to depend on anything. I hate hearing about it."

"Clara, I wonder you can talk in that way. If you were only seventeen
it would be very foolish; but at your age it is inexcusable. When I
am gone, and your father is gone, who is to provide for you? Will
your cousin do it--Mr. Belton, who is to have the property?"

"Yes, he would--if I would let him;--of course I would not let him.
But, aunt, pray do not go on. I would sooner have to starve than talk
about it at all."

There was another pause; but Clara again knew that the conversation
was not over; and she knew also that it would be vain for her to
endeavour to begin another subject. Nor could she think of anything
else to say, so much was she agitated.

"What makes you suppose that Mr. Belton would be so liberal?" asked
Mrs. Winterfield.

"I don't know. I can't say. He is the nearest relation I shall have;
and of all the people I ever knew he is the best, and the most
generous, and the least selfish. When he came to us papa was quite
hostile to him--disliking his very name; but when the time came, papa
could not bear to think of his going, because he had been so good."

"Clara!"

"Well, aunt."

"I hope you know my affection for you."

"Of course I do, aunt; and I hope you trust mine for you also."

"Is there anything between you and Mr. Belton besides cousinship?"

"Nothing."

"Because if I thought that, my trouble would of course be at an end."

"There is nothing;--but pray do not let me be a trouble to you."
Clara, for a moment, almost resolved to tell her aunt the whole
truth; but she remembered that she would be treating her cousin badly
if she told the story of his rejection.

There was another short period of silence, and then Mrs. Winterfield
went on. "Frederic thinks that I should make some provision for you
by will. That, of course, is the same as though he offered to do it
himself. I told him that it would be so, and I read him my will last
night. He said that that made no difference, and recommended me to
add a codicil. I asked him how much I ought to give you, and he said
fifteen hundred pounds. There will be as much as that after burying
me without burden to the estate. You must acknowledge that he has
been very generous."

But Clara, in her heart, did not at all thank Captain Aylmer for
his generosity. She would have had everything from him, or nothing.
It was grievous to her to think that she should owe to him a bare
pittance to keep her out of the workhouse,--to him who had twice
seemed to be on the point of asking her to share everything with him.
She did not love her cousin Will as she loved him; but her cousin
Will's assurance to her that he would treat her with a brother's
care was sweeter to her by far than Frederic Aylmer's well-balanced
counsel to his aunt on her behalf. In her present mood, too, she
wanted no one to have forethought for her; she desired no provision;
for her, in the discomfiture of heart, there was consolation in the
feeling that when she should find herself alone in the world, she
would have been ill-treated by her friends all round her. There was a
charm in the prospect of her desolation of which she did not wish to
be robbed by the assurance of some seventy pounds a year, to be given
to her by Captain Frederic Aylmer. To be robbed of one's grievance is
the last and foulest wrong,--a wrong under which the most enduring
temper will at last yield and become soured,--by which the strongest
back will be broken. "Well, my dear," continued Mrs. Winterfield,
when Clara made no response to this appeal for praise.

"It is so hard for me to say anything about it, aunt. What can I say
but that I don't want to be a burden to any one?"

"That is a position which very few women can attain,--that is, very
few single women."

"I think it would be well if all single women were strangled by the
time they are thirty," said Clara with a fierce energy which
absolutely frightened her aunt.

"Clara! how can you say anything so wicked,--so abominably wicked!"

"Anything would be better than being twitted in this way. How can I
help it that I am not a man and able to work for my bread? But I am
not above being a housemaid, and so Captain Aylmer shall find. I'd
sooner be a housemaid, with nothing but my wages, than take the money
which you say he is to give me. It will be of no use, aunt, for I
shall not take it."

"It is I that am to leave it to you. It is not to be a present from
Frederic."

"It is the same thing, aunt. He says you are to do it; and you told
me just now that it was to come out of his pocket."

"I should have done it myself long ago, had you told me all the truth
about your father's affairs."

"How was I to tell you? I would sooner have bitten my tongue out. But
I will tell you the truth now. If I had known that all this was to be
said to me about money, and that our poverty was to be talked over
between you and Captain Aylmer, I would not have come to Perivale. I
would rather that you should be angry with me and think that I had
forgotten you."

"You would not say that, Clara, if you remembered that this will
probably be your last visit to me."

"No, no; it will not be the last. But do not talk about these things.
And it will be so much better that I should be here when he is not
here."

"I had hoped that when I died you might both be with me together,--as
husband and wife."

"Such hopes never come to anything."

"I still think that he would wish it."

"That is nonsense, aunt. It is indeed, for neither of us wish it." A
lie on such a subject from a woman under such circumstances is hardly
to be considered a lie at all. It is spoken with no mean object, and
is the only bulwark which the woman has ready at her need to cover
her own weakness.

"From what he said yesterday," continued Mrs. Winterfield, "I think
it is your own fault."

"Pray,--pray do not talk in that way. It cannot be matter of any
fault that two people do not want to marry each other."

"Of course I asked him no positive question. It would be indelicate
even in me to have done that. But he spoke as though he thought very
highly of you."

"No doubt he does. And so do I of Mr. Possitt."

"Mr. Possitt is a very excellent young man," said Mrs. Winterfield,
gravely. Mr. Possitt was, indeed, her favourite curate at Perivale,
and always dined at the house on Sundays between services, when Mrs.
Winterfield was very particular in seeing that he took two glasses of
her best port wine to support him. "But Mr. Possitt has nothing but
his curacy."

"There is no danger, aunt, I can assure you."

"I don't know what you call danger; but Frederic seemed to think that
you are always sharp with him. You don't want to quarrel with him, I
hope, because I love him better than any one in the world?"

"Oh, aunt, what cruel things you say to me without thinking of them!"

"I do not mean to be cruel, but I will say nothing more about him. As
I told you before, that I had not thought it expedient to leave away
any portion of my little property from Frederic,--believing as I
did then, that the money intended for you by your father was still
remaining,--it is best that you should now know that I have at last
learnt the truth, and that I will at once see my lawyer about making
this change."

"Dear aunt, of course I thank you."

"I want no thanks, Clara. I humbly strive to do what I believe to be
my duty. I have never felt myself to be more than a steward of my
money. That I have often failed in my stewardship I know well;--for
in what duties do we not all fail?" Then she gently laid herself
back in her arm-chair, closing her eyes, while she kept fast clasped
in her hands the little book of daily devotion which she had been
striving to read when the conversation had been commenced. Clara
knew then that nothing more was to be said, and that she was not at
present to interrupt her aunt. From her posture, and the closing of
her eyelids, Mrs. Winterfield might have been judged to be asleep;
but Clara could see the gentle motion of her lips, and was aware that
her aunt was solacing herself with prayer.

Clara was angry with herself, and angry with all the world. She knew
that the old lady who was sitting then before her was very good; and
that all this that had now been said had come from pure goodness, and
a desire that strict duty might be done; and Clara was angry with
herself in that she had not been more ready with her thanks, and
more demonstrative with her love and gratitude. Mrs. Winterfield was
affectionate as well as good, and her niece's coldness, as the niece
well knew, had hurt her sorely. But still what could Clara have done
or said? She told herself that it was beyond her power to burst out
into loud praises of Captain Aylmer; and of such nature was the
gratitude which Mrs. Winterfield had desired. She was not grateful
to Captain Aylmer, and wanted nothing that was to come from his
generosity. And then her mind went away to that other portion of her
aunt's discourse. Could it be possible that this man was in truth
attached to her, and was repelled simply by her own manner? She was
aware that she had fallen into a habit of fighting with him, of
sparring against him with words about indifferent things, and calling
his conduct in question in a manner half playful and half serious.
Could it be the truth that she was thus robbing herself of that which
would be to her,--as to herself she had frankly declared,--the one
treasure which she would desire? Twice, as has been said before,
words had seemed to tremble on his lips which might have settled
the question for her for ever; and on both occasions, as she knew,
she herself had helped to laugh off the precious word that had been
coming. But had he been thoroughly in earnest,--in earnest as she
would have him to be,--no laugh would have deterred him from his
purpose. Could she have laughed Will Belton out of his declaration?

At last the lips ceased to move, and she knew that her aunt was in
truth asleep. The poor old lady hardly ever slept at night; but
nature, claiming something of its due, would give her rest such as
this in her arm-chair by the fire-side. They were sitting in a large
double drawing-room upstairs, in which there were, as was customary
with Mrs. Winterfield in winter, two fires; and the candles were in
the back-room, while the two ladies sat in that looking out into the
street. This Mrs. Winterfield did to save her eyes from the candles,
and yet to be within reach of light if it were wanted. And Clara also
sat motionless in the dark, careful not to disturb her aunt, and
desirous of being with her when she should awake. Captain Aylmer had
declared his purpose of being home early from the Mayor's dinner, and
the ladies were to wait for his arrival before tea was brought to
them. Clara was herself almost asleep when the door was opened, and
Captain Aylmer entered the room.

"H--sh!" she said, rising gently from her chair, and putting up her
finger. He saw her by the dull light of the fire, and closed the door
without a sound. Clara then crept into the back-room, and he followed
her with noiseless step. "She did not sleep at all last night," said
Clara; "and now the unusual excitement of the day has fatigued her,
and I think it is better not to wake her." The rooms were large,
and they were able to place themselves at such a distance from the
sleeper that their low words could hardly disturb her.

"Was she very tired when she got home?" he asked.

"Not very. She has been talking much since that."

"Has she spoken about her will to you?"

"Yes;--she has."

"I thought she would." Then he was silent, as though he expected that
she would speak again on that matter. But she had no wish to discuss
her aunt's will with him, and therefore, to break the silence, asked
him some trifling question. "Are you not home earlier than you
expected?"

"It was very dull, and there was nothing more to be said. I did come
away early, and perhaps have given affront. I hope you will accept
the compliment implied."

"Your aunt will, when she wakes. She will be delighted to find you
here."

"I am awake," said Mrs. Winterfield. "I heard Frederic come in. It is
very good of him to come so soon. Clara, my dear, we will have tea."

During tea, Captain Aylmer was called upon to give an account of
the Mayor's feast,--how the rector had said grace before dinner,
and Mr. Possitt had done so after dinner, and how the soup had been
uneatable. "Dear me!" said Mrs. Winterfield. "And yet his wife was
housekeeper formerly in a family that lived very well!" The Mrs.
Winterfields of this world allow themselves little spiteful pleasures
of this kind, repenting of them, no doubt, in those frequent moments
in which they talk to their friends of their own terrible vilenesses.
Captain Aylmer then explained that his own health had been drunk,
and his aunt desired to know whether, in returning thanks, he had
been able to say anything further against that wicked Divorce Act
of Parliament. This her nephew was constrained to answer with a
negative, and so the conversation was carried on till tea was over.
She was very anxious to hear every word that he could be made to
utter as to his own doings in Parliament, and as to his doings in
Perivale, and hung upon him with that wondrous affection which old
people with warm hearts feel for those whom they have selected as
their favourites. Clara saw it all, and knew that her aunt was almost
doting.

"I think I'll go up to bed now, my dears," said Mrs. Winterfield,
when she had taken her cup of tea. "I am tired with those weary
stairs in the Town-hall, and I shall be better in my own room." Clara
offered to go with her, but this attendance her aunt declined,--as
she did always. So the bell was rung, and the old maid-servant walked
off with her mistress, and Miss Amedroz and Captain Aylmer were left
together.

"I don't think she will last long," said Captain Aylmer, soon after
the door was closed.

"I should be sorry to believe that; but she is certainly much
altered."

"She has great courage to keep her up,--and a feeling that she should
not give way, but do her duty to the last. In spite of all that,
however, I can see how changed she is since the summer. Have you
ever thought how sad it will be if she should be alone when the day
comes?"

"She has Martha, who is more to her now than any one else,--unless it
is you."

"You could not remain with her over Christmas, I suppose?"

"Who, I? What would my father do? Papa is as old, or nearly as old,
as my aunt."

"But he is strong."

"He is very lonely. He would be more lonely than she is, for he has
no such servant as Martha to be with him. Women can do better than
men, I think, when they come to my aunt's age."

From this they got into a conversation as to the character of the
lady with whom they were both so nearly connected, and, in spite of
all that Clara could do to prevent it, continual references were
made by Captain Aylmer to her money and her will, and the need of an
addition to that will on Clara's behalf. At last she was driven to
speak out. "Captain Aylmer," she said, "the subject is so distasteful
to me, that I must ask you not to speak about it."

"In my position I am driven to think about it."

"I cannot, of course, help your thoughts; but I can assure you that
they are unnecessary."

"It seems to me so hard that there should be such a gulf between you
and me." This he said after he had been silent for a while; and as he
spoke he looked away from her at the fire.

"I don't know that there is any particular gulf," she replied.

"Yes, there is. And it is you that make it. Whenever I attempt to
speak to you as a friend you draw yourself off from me, and shut
yourself up. I know that it is not jealousy."

"Jealousy, Captain Aylmer!"

"Jealousy with my aunt, I mean."

"No, indeed."

"You are infinitely too proud for that; but I am sure that a stranger
seeing it all would think that it was so."

"I don't know what it is that I do or that I ought not to do. But
all my life everything that I have done at Perivale has always been
wrong."

"It would have been so natural that you and I should be friends."

"If we are enemies, Captain Aylmer, I don't know it."

"But if ever I venture to speak of your future life you always repel
me;--as though you were determined to let me know that it should not
be a matter of care to me."

"That is exactly what I am determined to let you know. You are, or
will be, a rich man, and you have everything the world can give you.
I am, or shall be, a very poor woman."

"Is that a reason why I should not be interested in your welfare?"

"Yes;--the best reason in the world. We are not related to each
other, though we have a common connection in dear Mrs. Winterfield.
And nothing, to my idea, can be more objectionable than any sort of
dependence from a woman of my age on a man of yours,--there being no
real tie of blood between them. I have spoken very plainly, Captain
Aylmer, for you have made me do it."

"Very plainly," he said.

"If I have said anything to offend you, I beg your pardon; but I was
driven to explain myself." Then she got up and took her bed-candle in
her hand.

"You have not offended me," he said, as he also rose.

"Good-night, Captain Aylmer."

He took her hand and kept it. "Say that we are friends."

"Why should we not be friends?"

"There is no reason on my part why we should not be the dearest
friends," he said. "Were it not that I am so utterly without
encouragement, I should say the very dearest." He still held her
hand, and was looking into her face as he spoke. For a moment she
stood there, bearing his gaze, as though she expected some further
words to be spoken. Then she withdrew her hand, and again saying, in
a clear voice, "Good-night, Captain Aylmer," she left the room.



CHAPTER IX.

CAPTAIN AYLMER'S PROMISE TO HIS AUNT.


What had Captain Aylmer meant by telling her that they might be the
dearest friends--by saying so much as that, and then saying no more?
Of course Clara asked herself that question as soon as she was alone
in her bedroom, after leaving Captain Aylmer below. And she made
two answers to herself--two answers which were altogether distinct
and contradictory one of the other. At first she decided that he
had said so much and no more because he was deceitful--because
it suited his vanity to raise hopes which he had no intention of
fulfilling--because he was fond of saying soft things which were
intended to have no meaning. This was her first answer to herself.
But in her second she accused herself as much as she had before
accused him. She had been cold to him, unfriendly, and harsh. As her
aunt had told her, she spoke sharp words to him, and repulsed the
kindness which he offered her. What right had she to expect from him
a declaration of love when she was studious to stop him at every
avenue by which he might approach it? A little management on her
side would, she almost knew, make things right. But then the idea of
any such management distressed her;--nay, more, disgusted her. The
management, if any were necessary, must come from him. And it was
manifest enough that if he had any strong wishes in this matter he
was not a good manager. Her cousin, Will Belton, knew how to manage
much better.

On the next morning, however, all her thoughts respecting Captain
Aylmer were dissipated by tidings which Martha brought to her
bedside. Her aunt was ill. Martha was afraid that her mistress was
very ill. She did not dare to send specially for the doctor on her
own responsibility, as Mrs. Winterfield had strong and peculiar
feelings about doctors' visits, and had on this very morning declined
to be so visited. On the next day the doctor would come in the usual
course of things, for she had submitted for some years back to such
periodical visitings; but she had desired that nothing might be done
out of the common way. Martha, however, declared that if she were
alone with her mistress the doctor would be sent for; and she now
petitioned for aid from Clara. Clara was, of course, by her aunt's
bedside in a few minutes, and in a few minutes more the doctor from
the other side of the way was there also.

It was ten o'clock before Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz met
at breakfast, and they had before that been together in Mrs.
Winterfield's room. The doctor had told Captain Aylmer that his aunt
was very ill--very ill, dangerously ill. She had been wrong to go
into such a place as the cold, unaired Town-hall, and that, too,
in the month of November; and the fatigue had also been too much
for her. Mrs. Winterfield, too, had admitted to Clara that she knew
herself to be very ill. "I felt it coming on me last night," she
said, "when I was talking to you; and I felt it still more strongly
when I left you after tea. I have lived long enough. God's will be
done." At that moment, when she said she had lived long enough, she
forgot her intention with reference to her will. But she remembered
it before Clara had left the room. "Tell Frederic," she said, "to
send at once for Mr. Palmer." Now Clara knew that Mr. Palmer was the
attorney, and resolved that she would give no such message to Captain
Aylmer. But Mrs. Winterfield sent for her nephew, who had just left
her, and herself gave her orders to him. In the course of the morning
there came tidings from the attorney's office that Mr. Palmer was
away from Perivale, that he would be back on the morrow, and that he
would of course wait on Mrs. Winterfield immediately on his return.

Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz discussed nothing but their aunt's
state of health that morning over the breakfast-table. Of course,
under such circumstances in the house, there was no further immediate
reference made to that offer of dearest friendship. It was clear to
them both that the doctor did not expect that Mrs. Winterfield would
again leave her bed; and it was clear to Clara also that her aunt was
of the same opinion.

"I shall hardly be able to go home now," she said.

"It will be kind of you if you can remain."

"And you?"

"I shall remain over the Sunday. If by that time she is at all
better, I will run up to town and come down again before the end of
the week. I know you don't believe it, but a man really has some
things which he must do."

"I don't disbelieve you, Captain Aylmer."

"But you must write to me daily if I do go."

To this Clara made no objection;--and she must write also to some one
else. She must let her cousin know how little chance there was that
she would be at home at Christmas, explaining to him at the same time
that his visit to her father would on that account be all the more
welcome.

"Are you going to her now?" he asked, as Clara got up immediately
after breakfast. "I shall be in the house all the morning, and if you
want me you will of course send for me."

"She may perhaps like to see you."

"I will come up every now and again. I would remain there altogether,
only I should be in the way." Then he got a newspaper and made
himself comfortable over the fire, while she went up to her weary
task in her aunt's room.

Neither on that day nor on the next did the lawyer come, and on
the following morning all earthly troubles were over with Mrs.
Winterfield. It was early on the Sunday morning that she died, and
late on the Saturday evening Mr. Palmer had sent up to say that
he had been detained at Taunton, but that he would wait on Mrs.
Winterfield early on the Monday morning. On the Friday the poor lady
had said much on the subject, but had been comforted by an assurance
from her nephew that the arrangement should be carried out exactly
as she wished it, whether the codicil was or was not added to the
will. To Clara she said nothing more on the subject, nor at such a
time did Captain Aylmer feel that he could offer her any assurance
on the matter. But Clara knew that the will was not altered; and
though at the time she was not thinking much about money, she had,
nevertheless, very clearly made up her own mind as to her own
conduct. Nothing should induce her to take a present of fifteen
hundred pounds,--or, indeed, of as many pence from Captain Aylmer.
During those hours of sickness in the house they had been much thrown
together, and no one could have been kinder or more gentle to her
than he had been. He had come to call her Clara, as people will do
when joined together in such duties, and had been very pleasant as
well as affectionate in his manner with her. It had seemed to her
that he also wished to take upon himself the cares and love of an
adopted brother. But as an adopted brother she would have nothing
to do with him. The two men whom she liked best in the world would
assume each the wrong place; and between them both she felt that she
would be left friendless.

On the Saturday afternoon they had both surmised how it was going to
be with Mrs. Winterfield, and Captain Aylmer had told Mr. Palmer that
he feared his coming on the Monday would be useless. He explained
also what was required, and declared that he would be at once ready
to make good the deficiency in the will. Mr. Palmer seemed to think
that this would be better even than the making of a codicil in the
last moments of the lady's life; and, therefore, he and Captain
Aylmer were at rest on that subject.

During the greater part of the Saturday night both Clara and Captain
Aylmer remained with their aunt; and once when the morning was almost
there, and the last hour was near at hand, she had said a word or two
which both of them had understood, in which she implored her darling
Frederic to take a brother's care of Clara Amedroz. Even in that
moment Clara had repudiated the legacy, feeling sure in her heart
that Frederic Aylmer was aware what was the nature of the care which
he ought to owe, if he would consent to owe any care to her. He
promised his aunt that he would do as she desired him, and it was
impossible that Clara should then, aloud, repudiate the compact. But
she said nothing, merely allowing her hand to rest with his beneath
the thin, dry hand of the dying woman. To her aunt, however, when for
a moment they were alone together, she showed all possible affection,
with thanks and tears, and warm kisses, and prayers for forgiveness
as to all those matters in which she had offended. "My pretty
one;--my dear," said the old woman, raising her hand on to the head
of the crouching girl, who was hiding her moist eyes on the bed.
Never during her life had her aunt appeared to her in so loving
a mood as now, when she was leaving it. Then, with some eager
impassioned words, in which she pronounced her ideas of what should
be the religious duties of a woman, Mrs. Winterfield bade farewell
to her niece. After that, she had a longer interview with her nephew,
and then it seemed that all worldly cares were over with her.

The Sunday was passed in all that blankness of funeral grief which is
absolutely necessary on such occasions. It cannot be said that either
Clara or Captain Aylmer were stricken with any of that agony of woe
which is produced on us by the death of those whom we have loved so
well that we cannot bring ourselves to submit to part with them. They
were both truly sorry for their aunt, in the common parlance of the
world; but their sorrow was of that modified sort which does not numb
the heart, and make the surviving sufferer feel that there never can
be a remedy. Nevertheless, it demanded sad countenances, few words,
and those spoken hardly above a whisper; an absence of all amusement
and almost of all employment, and a full surrender to the trappings
of woe. They two were living together without other companion in the
big house,--sitting down together to dinner and to tea; but on this
day hardly a dozen words were spoken between them, and those dozen
were spoken with no purport. On the Monday Captain Aylmer gave orders
for the funeral, and then went away to London, undertaking to be back
on the day before the last ceremony. Clara was rather glad that he
should be gone, though she feared the solitude of the big house. She
was glad that he should be gone, as she found it impossible to talk
to him with ease to herself. She knew that he was about to assume
some position as protector or quasi guardian over her, in conformity
with her aunt's express wish, and she was quite resolved that she
would submit to no such guardianship from his hands. That being so,
the shorter period there might be for any such discussion the better.

The funeral was to take place on the Saturday, and during the four
days that intervened she received two visits from Mr. Possitt. Mr.
Possitt was very discreet in what he said, and Clara was angry with
herself for not allowing his words to have any avail with her. She
told herself that they were commonplace; but she told herself, also,
after his first visit, that she had no right to expect anything else
but commonplace words. How often are men found who can speak words
on such occasions that are not commonplaces,--that really stir the
soul, and bring true comfort to the listener? The humble listener
may receive comfort even from commonplace words; but Clara was not
humble, and rebuked herself for her own pride. On the second occasion
of his coming she did endeavour to receive him with a meek heart,
and to accept what he said with an obedient spirit. But the struggle
within her bosom was hard, and when he bade her to kneel and pray
with him, she doubted for a moment between rebellion and hypocrisy.
But she had determined to be meek, and so hypocrisy carried the hour.

What would a clergyman say on such an occasion if the object of his
solicitude were to decline the offer, remarking that prayer at that
moment did not seem to be opportune; and that, moreover, he, the
person thus invited, would like, first of all, to know what was to
be the special object of the proposed prayer, if he found that he
could, at the spur of the moment, bring himself at all into a fitting
mood for the task? Of him who would decline, without argument, the
clergyman would opine that he was simply a reprobate. Of him who
would propose to accompany an hypothetical acceptance with certain
stipulations, he would say to himself that he was a stiff-necked
wrestler against grace, whose condition was worse than that of the
reprobate. Men and women, conscious that they will be thus judged,
submit to the hypocrisy, and go down upon their knees unprepared,
making no effort, doing nothing while they are there, allowing their
consciences to be eased if they can only feel themselves numbed into
some ceremonial awe by the occasion. So it was with Clara, when Mr.
Possitt, with easy piety, went through the formula of his devotion,
hardly ever having realised to himself the fact that, of all works in
which man can engage himself, that of prayer is the most difficult.

"It is a sad loss to me," said Mr. Possitt, as he sat for half an
hour with Clara, after she had thus submitted herself. Mr. Possitt
was a weakly, pale-faced little man, who worked so hard in the parish
that on every day, Sundays included, he went to bed as tired in all
his bones as a day labourer from the fields;--"a very great loss.
There are not many now who understand what a clergyman has to go
through, as our dear friend did." If he was mindful of his two
glasses of port wine on Sundays, who could blame him?

"She was a very kind woman, Mr. Possitt."

"Yes, indeed;--and so thoughtful! That she will have an exceeding
great reward, who can doubt? Since I knew her she always lived as a
saint upon earth. I suppose there's nothing known as to who will live
in this house, Miss Amedroz?"

"Nothing;--I should think."

"Captain Aylmer won't keep it in his own hands?"

"I cannot tell in the least; but as he is obliged to live in London
because of Parliament, and goes to Yorkshire always in the autumn, he
can hardly want it."

"I suppose not. But it will be a sad loss,--a sad loss to have this
house empty. Ah!--I shall never forget her kindness to me. Do you
know, Miss Amedroz,"--and as he told his little secret he became
beautifully confidential;--"do you know, she always used to send me
ten guineas at Christmas to help me along. She understood, as well as
any one, how hard it is for a gentleman to live on seventy pounds a
year. You will not wonder that I should feel that I've had a loss."
It is hard for a gentleman to live upon seventy pounds a year; and it
is very hard, too, for a lady to live upon nothing a year, which lot
in life fate seemed to have in store for Miss Amedroz.

On the Friday evening Captain Aylmer came back, and Clara was in
truth glad to see him. Her aunt's death had been now far enough back
to admit of her telling Martha that she would not dine till Captain
Aylmer had come, and to allow her to think somewhat of his comfort.
People must eat and drink even when the grim monarch is in the house;
and it is a relief when they first dare to do so with some attention
to the comforts which are ordinarily so important to them. For
themselves alone women seldom care to exercise much trouble in this
direction; but the presence of a man at once excuses and renders
necessary the ceremony of a dinner. So Clara prepared for the
arrival, and greeted the comer with some returning pleasantness of
manner. And he, too, was pleasant with her, telling her of his plans,
and speaking to her as though she were one of those whom it was
natural that he should endeavour to interest in his future welfare.

"When I come back to-morrow," he said, "the will must be opened and
read. It had better be done here." They were sitting over the fire in
the dining-room, after dinner, and Clara knew that the coming back
to which he alluded was his return from the funeral. But she made no
answer to this, as she wished to say nothing about her aunt's will.
"And after that," he continued, "you had better let me take you out."

"I am very well," she said. "I do not want any special taking out."

"But you have been confined to the house the whole week."

"Women are accustomed to that, and do not feel it as you would.
However, I will walk with you if you'll take me."

"Of course I'll take you. And then we must settle our future plans.
Have you fixed upon any day yet for returning? Of course, the longer
you stay, the kinder you will be."

"I can do no good to any one by staying."

"You do good to me;--but I suppose I'm nobody. I wish I could tell
what to do about this house. Dear, good old woman! I know she would
have wished that I should keep it in my own hands, with some idea of
living here at some future time;--but of course I never shall live
here."

"Why not?"

"Would you like it yourself?"

"I am not Member of Parliament for Perivale, and should not be the
leading person in the town. You would be a sort of king here; and
then, some day, you will have your mother's property as well as your
aunt's; and you would be near to your own tenants."

"But that does not answer my question. Could you bring yourself to
live here,--even if it were your own?"

"Why not?"

"Because it is so deadly dull;--because it has no attraction
whatever;--because of all lives it is the one you would like the
least. No one should live in a provincial town but they who make
their money by doing so."

"And what are the wives and daughters of such people to do,--and
especially their widows? I have no doubt I could live here very
happily if I had anybody near me that I liked. I should not wish to
have to depend altogether on Mr. Possitt for society."

"And you would find him about the best."

"Mr. Possitt has been with me twice whilst you were away, and he,
too, asked what you meant to do about the house."

"And what did you say?"

"What could I say? Of course I said I did not know. I suppose he
was meditating whether you would live here and ask him to dinner on
Sundays!"

"Mr. Possitt is a very good sort of man," said the Captain,
gravely;--for Captain Aylmer, in the carrying out of his principles,
always spoke seriously of everything connected with the Church in
Perivale.

"And quite worthy to be asked to dinner on Sundays," said Clara. "But
I did not give him any hope. How could I? Of course I knew that you
would not live here, though I did not tell him so."

"No; I don't suppose I shall. But I see very plainly that you think
I ought to do so."

"I've the old-fashioned idea as to a man's living near to his own
property; that is all. No doubt it was good for other people in
Perivale, besides Mr. Possitt, that my dear aunt lived here; and if
the house is shut up, or let to some stranger, they will feel her
loss the more. But I don't know that you are bound to sacrifice
yourself to them."

"If I were to marry," said Captain Aylmer, very slowly and in a low
voice, "of course I should have to think of my wife's wishes."

"But if your wife, when she accepted you, knew that you were living
here, she would hardly take upon herself to demand that you should
give up your residence."

"She might find it very dull."

"She would make her own calculations as to that before she accepted
you."

"No doubt;--but I can't fancy any woman taking a man who was tied by
his leg to Perivale. What do the people do who live in Perivale?"

"Earn their bread."

"Yes;--that's just what I said. But I shouldn't earn mine here."

"I have the feeling I spoke of very strongly about papa's place,"
said Clara, changing the conversation suddenly. "I very often think
of the future fate of Belton Castle when papa shall have gone. My
cousin has got his house at Plaistow, and I don't suppose he'd live
there."

"And where will you go?" he asked.

As soon as she had spoken, Clara regretted her own imprudence in
having ventured to speak upon her own affairs. She had been well
pleased to hear him talk of his plans, and had been quite resolved
not to talk of her own. But now, by her own speech, she had set him
to make inquiries as to her future life. She did not at first answer
the question; but he repeated it. "And where will you live yourself?"

"I hope I may not have to think of that for some time to come yet."

"It is impossible to help thinking of such things."

"I can assure you that I haven't thought about it; but I suppose I
shall endeavour to--to--; I don't know what I shall endeavour to do."

"Will you come and live at Perivale?"

"Why here more than anywhere else?"

"In this house I mean."

"That would suit me admirably;--would it not? I'm afraid Mr. Possitt
would not find me a good neighbour. To tell the truth, I think that
any lady who lives here alone ought to be older than I am. The
Perivalians would not show to a young woman that sort of respect
which they have always felt for this house."

"I didn't mean alone," said Captain Aylmer.

Then Clara got up and made some excuse for leaving him, and there was
nothing more said between them,--nothing, at least, of moment, on
that evening. She had become uneasy when he asked her whether she
would like to live in his house at Perivale. But afterwards, when he
suggested that she was to have some companion with her there, she
felt herself compelled to put an end to the conversation. And yet she
knew that this was always the way, both with him and with herself. He
would say things which would seem to promise that in another minute
he would be at her feet, and then he would go no further. And she,
when she heard those words,--though in truth she would have had him
at her feet if she could,--would draw away, and recede, and forbid
him as it were to go on. But Clara continued to make her comparisons,
and knew well that her cousin Will would have gone on in spite of any
such forbiddings.

On that night, however, when she was alone, she could console herself
with thinking how right she had been. In that front bedroom, the
door of which was opposite to her own, with closed shutters, in the
terrible solemnity of lifeless humanity, was still lying the body of
her aunt! What would she have thought of herself if at such a moment
she could have listened to words of love, and promised herself as a
wife while such an inmate was in the house? She little knew that he,
within that same room, had pledged himself, to her who was now lying
there waiting for her last removal--had pledged himself, just seven
days since, to make the offer which, when he was talking to her, she
was always half hoping and half fearing!

He could have meant nothing else when he told her that he had not
intended to suggest that she should live there alone in that great
house at Perivale. She could not hinder herself from thinking of
this, unfit as was the present moment for any such thoughts. How was
it possible that she should not speculate on the subject, let her
resolutions against any such speculation be ever so strong? She had
confessed to herself that she loved the man, and what else could she
wish but that he also should love her? But there came upon her some
faint suspicion--some glimpse of what was almost a dream--that he
might possibly in this matter be guided rather by duty than by love.
It might be that he would feel himself constrained to offer his hand
to her--constrained by the peculiarity of his position towards her.
If so--should she discover that such were his motives--there would be
no doubt as to the nature of her answer.



CHAPTER X.

SHOWING HOW CAPTAIN AYLMER KEPT HIS PROMISE.


The next day was necessarily very sad. Clara had declared her
determination to follow her aunt to the churchyard, and did so,
together with Martha, the old servant. There were three or four
mourning coaches, as family friends came over from Taunton, one
or two of whom were to be present at the reading of the will. How
melancholy was the occasion, and how well the work was done; how
substantial and yet how solemn was the luncheon, spread after the
funeral for the gentlemen; and how the will was read, without a
word of remark, by Mr. Palmer, need hardly be told here. The will
contained certain substantial legacies to servants--the amount to
that old handmaid Martha being so great as to produce a fit of
fainting, after which the old handmaid declared that if ever there
was, by any chance, an angel of light upon the earth, it was her late
mistress; and yet Martha had had her troubles with her mistress; and
there was a legacy of two hundred pounds to the gentleman who was
called upon to act as co-executor with Captain Aylmer. Other clause
in the will there was none, except that one substantial clause which
bequeathed to her well-beloved nephew, Frederic Folliott Aylmer,
everything of which the testatrix died possessed. The will had been
made at some moment in which Clara's spirit of independence had
offended her aunt, and her name was not mentioned. That nothing
should have been left to Clara was the one thing that surprised the
relatives from Taunton who were present. The relatives from Taunton,
to give them their due, expected nothing for themselves; but as there
had been great doubt as to the proportions in which the property
would be divided between the nephew and adopted niece, there was
aroused a considerable excitement as to the omission of the name of
Miss Amedroz--an excitement which was not altogether unpleasant. When
people complain of some cruel shame, which does not affect themselves
personally, the complaint is generally accompanied by an unexpressed
and unconscious feeling of satisfaction.

On the present occasion, when the will had been read and refolded,
Captain Aylmer, who was standing on the rug near the fire, spoke a
few words. His aunt, he said, had desired to add a codicil to the
will, of the nature of which Mr. Palmer was well aware. She had
expressed her intention to leave fifteen hundred pounds to her
niece, Miss Amedroz; but death had come upon her too quickly to
enable her to perform her purpose. Of this intention on the part of
Mrs. Winterfield, Mr. Palmer was as well aware as himself; and he
mentioned the subject now, merely with the object of saying that, as
a matter of course, the legacy to Miss Amedroz was as good as though
the codicil had been completed. On such a question as that there
could arise no question as to legal right; but he understood that the
legal claim of Miss Amedroz, under such circumstances, was as valid
as his own. It was therefore no affair of generosity on his part.
Then there was a little buzz of satisfaction on the part of those
present, and the meeting was broken up.

A certain old Mrs. Folliott, who was cousin to everybody concerned,
had come over from Taunton to see how things were going. She had
always been at variance with Mrs. Winterfield, being a woman who
loved cards and supper parties, and who had throughout her life
stabled her horses in stalls very different to those used by the
lady of Perivale. Now this Mrs. Folliott was the first to tell Clara
of the will. Clara, of course, was altogether indifferent. She had
known for months past that her aunt had intended to leave nothing
to her, and her only hope had been that she might be left free from
any commiseration or remark on the subject. But Mrs. Folliott, with
sundry shakings of the head, told her how her aunt had omitted to
name her--and then told her also of Captain Aylmer's generosity.
"We all did think, my dear," said Mrs. Folliott, "that she would
have done better than that for you, or at any rate that she would
not have left you dependent on him." Captain Aylmer's horses were
also supposed to be stabled in strictly Low Church stalls, and were
therefore regarded by Mrs. Folliott with much dislike.

"I and my aunt understood each other perfectly," said Clara.

"I dare say. But if so, you really were the only person that did
understand her. No doubt what she did was quite right, seeing that
she was a saint; but we sinners would have thought it very wicked to
have made such a will, and then to have trusted to the generosity of
another person after we were dead."

"But there is no question of trusting to any one's generosity, Mrs.
Folliott."

"He need not pay you a shilling, you know, unless he likes it."

"And he will not be asked to pay me a shilling."

"I don't suppose he will go back after what he has said publicly."

"My dear Mrs. Folliott," said Clara earnestly, "pray do not let us
talk about it. It is quite unnecessary. I never expected any of my
aunt's property, and knew all along that it was to go to Captain
Aylmer,--who, indeed, was Mrs. Winterfield's heir naturally. Mrs.
Winterfield was not really my aunt, and I had no claim on her."

"But everybody understood that she was to provide for you."

"As I was not one of the everybodies myself, it will not signify."
Then Mrs. Folliott retreated, having, as she thought, performed her
duty to Clara, and contented herself henceforth with abusing Mrs.
Winterfield's will in her own social circles at Taunton.

On the evening of that day, when all the visitors were gone and the
house was again quiet, Captain Aylmer thought it expedient to explain
to Clara the nature of his aunt's will, and the manner in which she
would be allowed to inherit under it the amount of money which her
aunt had intended to bequeath to her. When she became impatient and
objected to listen to him, he argued with her, pointing out to her
that this was a matter of business to which it was now absolutely
necessary that she should attend. "It may be the case," he said,
"and, indeed, I hope it will, that no essential difference will be
made by it;--except that it will gratify you to know how careful
she was of your interests in her last moments. But you are bound in
duty to learn your own position; and I, as her executor, am bound to
explain it to you. But perhaps you would rather discuss it with Mr.
Palmer."

"Oh no;--save me from that."

"You must understand, then, that I shall pay over to you the sum of
fifteen hundred pounds as soon as the will has been proved."

"I understand nothing of the kind. I know very well that if I were
to take it, I should be accepting a present from you, and to that I
cannot consent."

"But Clara--"

"It is no good, Captain Aylmer. Though I don't pretend to understand
much about law, I do know that I can have no claim to anything that
is not put into the will; and I won't have what I could not claim.
My mind is quite made up, and I hope I mayn't be annoyed about it.
Nothing is more disagreeable than having to discuss money matters."

Perhaps Captain Aylmer thought that the having no money matters to
discuss might be even more disagreeable. "Well," he said, "I can only
ask you to consult any friend whom you can trust upon the matter. Ask
your father, or Mr. Belton, and I have no doubt that either of them
will tell you that you are as much entitled to the legacy as though
it had been written in the will."

"On such a matter, Captain Aylmer, I don't want to ask anybody. You
can't pay me the money unless I choose to take it, and I certainly
shall not do that." Upon hearing this he smiled, assuming, as
Clara fancied that he was sometimes wont to do, a look of quiet
superiority; and then, for that time, he allowed the subject to be
dropped between them.

But Clara knew that she must discuss it at length with her father,
and the fear of that discussion made her unhappy. She had already
written to say that she would return home on the day but one after
the funeral, and had told Captain Aylmer of her purpose. So very
prudent a man as he of course could not think it right that a young
lady should remain with him, in his house, as his visitor; and to her
decision on this point he had made no objection. She now heartily
wished that she had named the day after the funeral, and that she
had not been deterred by her dislike of making a Sunday journey. She
dreaded this day, and would have been very thankful if he would have
left her and gone back to London. But he intended, he said, to remain
at Perivale throughout the next week, and she must endure the day as
best she might be able. She wished that it were possible to ask Mr.
Possitt to his accustomed dinner; but she did not dare to make the
proposition to the master of the house. Though Captain Aylmer had
declared Mr. Possitt to be a very worthy man, Clara surmised that he
would not be anxious to commence that practice of a Sabbatical dinner
so soon after his aunt's decease. The day, after all, would be but
one day, and Clara schooled herself into a resolution to bear it with
good humour.

Captain Aylmer had made a positive promise to his aunt on her
deathbed that he would ask Clara Amedroz to be his wife, and he had
no more idea of breaking his word than he had of resigning the whole
property which had been left to him. Whether Clara would accept him
he had much doubt. He was a man by no means brilliant, not naturally
self-confident, nor was he, perhaps, to be credited with the
possession of high principles of the finest sort; but he was clever,
in the ordinary sense of the word, knowing his own interest, knowing,
too, that that interest depended on other things besides money; and
he was a just man, according to the ordinary rules of justice in the
world. Not for the first time, when he was sitting by the bedside of
his dying aunt, had he thought of asking Clara to marry him. Though
he had never hitherto resolved that he would do so--though he had
never till then brought himself absolutely to determine that he would
take so important a step--he had pondered over it often, and was
aware that he was very fond of Clara. He was, in truth, as much in
love with her as it was in his nature to be in love. He was not a
man to break his heart for a girl;--nor even to make a strong fight
for a wife, as Belton was prepared to do. If refused once, he might
probably ask again,--having some idea that a first refusal was not
always intended to mean much,--and he might possibly make a third
attempt, prompted by some further calculation of the same nature. But
it might be doubted whether, on the first, second, or third occasion,
he would throw much passion into his words; and those who knew him
well would hardly expect to see him die of a broken heart, should he
ultimately be unsuccessful.

When he had first thought of marrying Miss Amedroz he had imagined
that she would have shared with him his aunt's property, and indeed
such had been his belief up to the days of the last illness of Mrs.
Winterfield. The match therefore had recommended itself to him as
being prudent as well as pleasant; and though his aunt had never
hitherto pressed the matter upon him, he had understood what her
wishes were. When she first told him, three or four days before her
death, that her property was left altogether to him, and then, on
hearing how totally her niece was without hope of provision from her
father, had expressed her desire to give a sum of money to Clara, she
had spoken plainly of her desire;--but she had not on that occasion
asked him for any promise. But afterwards, when she knew that she was
dying, she had questioned him as to his own feelings, and he, in his
anxiety to gratify her in her last wishes, had given her the promise
which she was so anxious to hear. He made no difficulty in doing so.
It was his own wish as well as hers. In a money point of view he
might no doubt now do better; but then money was not everything. He
was very fond of Clara, and felt that if she would accept him he
would be proud of his wife. She was well born and well educated, and
it was the proper sort of thing for him to do. No doubt he had some
idea, seeing how things had now arranged themselves, that he would
be giving much more than he would get; and perhaps the manner of
his offer might be affected by that consideration; but not on that
account did he feel at all sure that he would be accepted. Clara
Amedroz was a proud girl,--perhaps too proud. Indeed, it was her
fault. If her pride now interfered with her future fortune in life,
it should be her own fault, not his. He would do his duty to her and
to his aunt;--he would do it perseveringly and kindly; and then, if
she refused him, the fault would not be his.

Such, I think, was the state of Captain Aylmer's mind when he got up
on the Sunday morning, resolving that he would on that day make good
his promise. And it must be remembered, on his behalf, that he would
have prepared himself for his task with more animation if he had
hitherto received warmer encouragement. He had felt himself to be
repulsed in the little efforts which he had already made to please
the lady, and had no idea whatever as to the true state of her
feelings. Had he known what she knew, he would, I think, have been
animated enough, and gone to his task as happy and thriving a lover
as any. But he was a man somewhat diffident of himself, though
sufficiently conscious of the value of the worldly advantages which
he possessed;--and he was, perhaps, a little afraid of Clara, giving
her credit for an intellect superior to his own.

He had promised to walk with her on the Saturday after the reading
of the will, intending to take her out through the gardens down to
a farm, now belonging to himself, which lay at the back of the town,
and which was held by an old widow who had been senior in life to
her late landlady; but no such walk had been possible, as it was
dark before the last of the visitors from Taunton had gone. At
breakfast on Sunday he again proposed the walk, offering to take her
immediately after luncheon. "I suppose you will not go to church?" he
said.

"Not to-day. I could hardly bring myself to do it to-day."

"I think you are right. I shall go. A man can always do these things
sooner than a lady can. But you will come out afterwards?" To this
she assented, and then she was left alone throughout the morning.
The walk she did not mind. That she and Captain Aylmer should walk
together was all very well. They might probably have done so had Mrs.
Winterfield been still alive. It was the long evening afterwards that
she dreaded--the long winter evening, in which she would have to sit
with him as his guest, and with him only. She could not pass these
hours without talking to him, and she felt that she could not talk to
him naturally and easily. It would, however, be but for once, and she
would bear it.

They went together down to the house of Mrs. Partridge, the tenant,
and made their kindly speeches to the old woman. Mrs. Partridge
already knew that Captain Aylmer was to be her landlord, but having
hitherto seen more of Miss Amedroz than of the Captain, and having
always regarded her landlady's niece as being connected irrevocably
with the property, she addressed them as though the estate were a
joint affair.

"I shan't be here to trouble you long;--that I shan't, Miss Clara,"
said the old woman.

"I am sure Captain Aylmer would be very sorry to lose you," replied
Clara, speaking loud, and close to the poor woman's ear, for she was
deaf.

"I never looked to live after she was gone, Miss Clara;--never. No
more I didn't. Deary;--deary! And I suppose you'll be living at the
big house now; won't ye?"

"The big house belongs to Captain Aylmer, Mrs. Partridge." She was
driven to bawl out her words, and by no means liked the task. Then
Captain Aylmer said something, but his speech was altogether lost.

"Oh;--it belongs to the Captain, do it? They told me that was the way
of the will; but I suppose it's all one."

"Yes; it's all one," said Captain Aylmer, gaily.

"It's not exactly all one, as you call it," said Clara, attempting to
laugh, but still shouting at the top of her voice.

"Ah;--I don't understand; but I hope you'll both live there
together,--and I hope you'll be as good to the poor as she that is
gone. Well, well; I didn't ever think that I should be still here,
while she is lying under the stones up in the old church!"

Captain Aylmer had determined that he would ask his question on the
way back from the farm, and now resolved that he might as well begin
with some allusion to Mrs. Partridge's words about the house. The
afternoon was bright and cold, and the lane down to the farmhouse
had been dried by the wind, so that the day was pleasant for walking.
"We might as well go on to the bridge," he said, as they left the
farm-yard. "I always think that Perivale church looks better from
Creevy bridge than any other point." Perivale church stood high in
the centre of the town, on an eminence, and was graced with a spire
which was declared by the Perivalians to be preferable to that of
Salisbury in proportion, though it was acknowledged to be somewhat
inferior to it in height. The little river Creevy, which ran through
a portion of the suburbs of the town, and which, as there seen, was
hardly more than a ditch, then sloped away behind Creevy Grange, as
the farm of Mrs. Partridge was called, and was crossed by a small
wooden bridge, from which there was a view, not only of the church,
but of all that side of the hill on which Mrs. Winterfield's large
brick house stood conspicuously. So they walked down to Creevy
bridge, and, when there, stood leaning on the parapet and looking
back upon the town.

"How well I know every house and spot in the place as I see them from
here," he said.

"A good many of the houses are your own,--or will be some day; and
therefore you should know them."

"I remember, when I used to be here as a boy fishing, I always
thought Aunt Winterfield's house was the biggest house in the
county."

"It can't be nearly so large as your father's house in Yorkshire."

"No; certainly it is not. Aylmer Park is a large place; but the house
does not stretch itself out so wide as that; nor does it stand on
the side of a hill so as to show out its proportions with so much
ostentation. The coach-house and the stables, and the old brewhouse,
seem to come half way down the hill. And when I was a boy I had much
more respect for my aunt's red-brick house in Perivale than I had for
Aylmer Park."

"And now it's your own."

"Yes; now it's my own,--and all my respect for it is gone. I used to
think the Creevy the best river in England for fish; but I wouldn't
give a sixpence now for all the perch I ever caught in it."

"Perhaps your taste for perch is gone also."

"Yes; and my taste for jam. I never believed in the store-room at
Aylmer Park as I did in my aunt's store-room here."

"I don't doubt but what it is full now."

"I dare say; but I shall never have the curiosity even to inquire.
Ah, dear,--I wish I knew what to do about the house."

"You won't sell it, I suppose?"

"Not if I could either live in it, or let it. It would be wrong to
let it stand idle."

"But you need not decide quite at once."

"That's just what I want to do. I want to decide at once."

"Then I'm sure I cannot advise you. It seems to me very unlikely
that you should come and live here by yourself. It isn't like a
country-house exactly."

"I shan't live there by myself certainly. You heard what Mrs.
Partridge said just now."

"What did Mrs. Partridge say?"

"She wanted to know whether it belonged to both of us, and whether it
was not all one. Shall it be all one, Clara?"

She was leaning over the rail of the bridge as he spoke, with her
eyes fixed on the slowly moving water. When she heard his words,
she raised her face and looked full upon him. She was in some sort
prepared for the moment, though it would be untrue to say that she
had now expected it. Unconsciously she had made some resolve that
if ever the question were put to her by him, she would not be taken
altogether off her guard; and now that the question was put to her,
she was able to maintain her composure. Her first feeling was one
of triumph,--as it must be in such a position to any woman who has
already acknowledged to herself that she loves the man who then asks
her to be his wife. She looked up into Captain Aylmer's face, and his
eye almost quailed beneath hers. Even should he be triumphant, he was
not perfectly assured that his triumph would be a success.

"Shall what be all one?" she asked.

"Shall it be your house and my house? Can you tell me that you will
love me and be my wife?" Again she looked at him, and he repeated his
question. "Clara, can you love me well enough to take me for your
husband?"

"I can," she said. Why should she hesitate, and play the coy girl,
and pretend to any doubts in her mind which did not exist there?
She did love him, and had so told herself with much earnestness. To
him, while his words had been doubtful,--while he had simply played
at making love to her, she had given no hint of the state of her
affections. She had so carried herself before him as to make him
doubt whether success could be possible for him. But now,--why should
she hesitate now? It was as she had hoped,--or as she had hardly
dared to hope. He did love her. "I can," she said; and then, before
he could speak again, she repeated her words with more emphasis.
"Indeed I can; with all my heart."

As regarded herself, she was quite equal to the occasion; but had she
known more of the inner feelings of men and women in general, she
would have been slower to show her own. What is there that any man
desires,--any man or any woman,--that does not lose half its value
when it is found to be easy of access and easy of possession? Wine is
valued by its price, not its flavour. Open your doors freely to Jones
and Smith, and Jones and Smith will not care to enter them. Shut your
doors obdurately against the same gentlemen, and they will use all
their little diplomacy to effect an entrance. Captain Aylmer, when he
heard the hearty tone of the girl's answer, already began almost to
doubt whether it was wise on his part to devote the innermost bin of
his cellar to wine that was so cheap.

Not that he had any idea of receding. Principle, if not love,
prevented that. "Then the question about the house is decided," he
said, giving his hand to Clara as he spoke.

"I don't care a bit about the house now," she answered.

"That's unkind."

"I am thinking so much more of you,--of you and of myself. What does
an old house matter?"

"It's in very good repair," said Captain Aylmer.

"You must not laugh at me," she said; and in truth he was not
laughing at her. "What I mean is that anything about a house is
indifferent to me now. It is as though I had got all that I want in
the world. Is it wrong of me to say so?"

"Oh, dear, no;--not wrong at all. How can it be wrong?" He did
not tell her that he also had got all he wanted; but his lack
of enthusiasm in this respect did not surprise her, or at first
even vex her. She had always known him to be a man careful of his
words,--knowing their value,--not speaking with hurried rashness as
would her dear cousin Will. And she doubted whether, after all, such
hurried words mean as much as words which are slower and calmer.
After all his heat in love and consequent disappointment, Will
Belton had left her apparently well contented. His fervour had been
short-lived. She loved her cousin dearly, and was so very glad that
his fervour had been short-lived!

"When you asked me, I could but tell you the truth," she said,
smiling at him.

The truth is very well, but he would have liked it better had the
truth come to him by slower degrees. When his aunt had told him to
marry Clara Amedroz, he had been at once reconciled to the order by a
feeling on his own part that the conquest of Clara would not be too
facile. She was a woman of value, not to be snapped up easily,--or by
any one. So he had thought then; but he began to fancy now that he
had been wrong in that opinion.

The walk back to the house was not of itself very exciting, though
to Clara it was a short period of unalloyed bliss. No doubt had then
come upon her to cloud her happiness, and she was "wrapped up in
measureless content." It was well that they should both be silent
at such a moment. Only yesterday had been buried their dear old
friend,--the friend who had brought them together, and been so
anxious for their future happiness! And Clara Amedroz was not a young
girl, prone to jump out of her shoes with elation because she had got
a lover. She could be steadily happy without many immediate words
about her happiness. When they had reached the house, and were once
more together in the drawing-room, she again gave him her hand, and
was the first to speak. "And you; are you contented?" she asked. Who
does not know the smile of triumph with which a girl asks such a
question at such a moment as that?

"Contented?--well,--yes; I think I am," he said.

But even those words did not move her to doubt. "If you are," she
said, "I am. And now I will leave you till dinner, that you may think
over what you have done."

"I had thought about it before, you know," he replied. Then he
stooped over her and kissed her. It was the first time he had done
so; but his kiss was as cold and proper as though they had been man
and wife for years! But it sufficed for her, and she went to her room
as happy as a queen.



CHAPTER XI.

MISS AMEDROZ IS TOO CANDID BY HALF.


Clara, when she left her accepted lover in the drawing-room and went
up to her own chamber, had two hours for consideration before she
would see him again;--and she had two hours for enjoyment. She was
very happy. She thoroughly believed in the man who was to be her
husband, feeling confident that he possessed those qualities which
she thought to be most necessary for her married happiness. She had
quizzed him at times, pretending to make it matter of accusation
against him that his life was not in truth all that his aunt believed
it to be;--but had it been more what Mrs. Winterfield would have
wished, it would have been less to Clara's taste. She liked his
position in the world; she liked the feeling that he was a man of
influence; perhaps she liked to think that to some extent he was a
man of fashion. He was not handsome, but he looked always like a
gentleman. He was well educated, given to reading, prudent, steady
in his habits, a man likely to rise in the world; and she loved him.
I fear the reader by this time may have begun to think that her love
should never have been given to such a man. To this accusation I will
make no plea at present, but I will ask the complainant whether such
men are not always loved. Much is said of the rashness of women in
giving away their hearts wildly; but the charge when made generally
is, I think, an unjust one. I am more often astonished by the
prudence of girls than by their recklessness. A woman of thirty will
often love well and not wisely; but the girls of twenty seem to
me to like propriety of demeanour, decency of outward life, and a
competence. It is, of course, good that it should be so; but if it
is so, they should not also claim a general character for generous
and passionate indiscretion, asserting as their motto that Love shall
still be Lord of All. Clara was more than twenty; but she was not
yet so far advanced in age as to have lost her taste for decency of
demeanour and propriety of life. A Member of Parliament, with a small
house near Eaton Square, with a moderate income, and a liking for
committees, who would write a pamphlet once every two years, and
read Dante critically during the recess, was, to her, the model for
a husband. For such a one she would read his blue books, copy his
pamphlets, and learn his translations by heart. She would be safe in
the hands of such a man, and would know nothing of the miseries which
her brother had encountered. Her model may not appear, when thus
described, to be a very noble one; but I think it is the model most
approved among ladies of her class in England.

She made up her mind on various points during those two hours of
solitude. In the first place, she would of course keep her purpose of
returning home on the following day. It was not probable that Captain
Aylmer would ask her to change it; but let him ask ever so much it
must not be changed. She must at once have the pleasure of telling
her father that all his trouble about her would now be over; and
then, there was the consideration that her further sojourn in the
house, with Captain Aylmer as her lover, would hardly be more proper
than it would have been had he not occupied that position. And what
was she to say if he pressed her as to the time of their marriage?
Her aunt's death would of course be a sufficient reason why it should
be delayed for some few months; and, upon the whole, she thought it
would be best to postpone it till the next session of Parliament
should have nearly expired. But she would be prepared to yield to
Captain Aylmer, should he name any time after Easter. It was clearly
his intention to keep up the house in Perivale as his country
residence. She did not like Perivale or the house, but she would
say nothing against such an arrangement. Indeed, with what face
could she do so? She was going to bring nothing to the common
account,--absolutely nothing but herself! As she thought of this her
love grew warmer, and she hardly knew how sufficiently to testify to
herself her own gratitude and affection.

She became conscious, as she was preparing herself for dinner, of
some special attention to her toilet. She was more than ordinarily
careful with her hair, and felt herself to be aware of an anxiety to
look her best. She had now been for some time so accustomed to dress
herself in black, that in that respect her aunt's death had made no
difference to her. Deep mourning had ceased from habit to impress her
with any special feeling of funereal solemnity. But something about
herself, or in the room, at last struck her with awe, bidding her
remember how death had of late been busy among those who had been her
dearest and nearest friends; and she sat down, almost frightened at
her own heartlessness, in that she was allowing herself to be happy
at such a time. Her aunt had been carried away to her grave only
yesterday, and her brother's death had occurred under circumstances
of peculiar distress within the year;--and yet she was happy,
triumphant,--almost lost in the joy of her own position! She remained
for a while in her chair, with her black dress hanging across her
lap, as she argued with herself as to her own state of mind. Was it
a sign of a hard heart within her, that she could be happy at such
a time? Ought the memory of her poor brother to have such an effect
upon her as to make any joy of spirits impossible to her? Should she
at the present moment be so crushed by her aunt's demise, as to be
incapable of congratulating herself upon her own success? Should
she have told him, when he asked her that question upon the bridge,
that there could be no marrying or giving in marriage between them,
no talking on such a subject in days so full of sorrow as these?
I do not know that she quite succeeded in recognising it as a
truth that sorrow should be allowed to bar out no joy that it does
not bar out of absolute necessity,--by its own weight, without
reference to conventional ideas; that sorrow should never, under any
circumstances, be nursed into activity, as though it were a thing in
itself divine or praiseworthy. I do not know that she followed out
her arguments till she had taught herself that it is the Love that is
divine,--the Love which, when outraged by death or other severance,
produces that sorrow which man would control if he were strong
enough, but which he cannot control by reason of the weakness of
his humanity. I doubt whether so much as this made itself plain
to her, as she sat there before her toilet table, with her sombre
dress hanging from her hands on to the ground. But something of the
strength of such reasoning was hers. Knowing herself to be full of
joy, she would not struggle to make herself believe that it behoved
her to be unhappy. She told herself that she was doing what was good
for others as well as for herself;--what would be very good for her
father, and what should be good, if it might be within her power to
make it so, for him who was to be her husband. The blackness of the
cloud of her brother's death would never altogether pass away from
her. It had tended, as she knew well, to make her serious, grave, and
old, in spite of her own efforts to the contrary. The cloud had been
so black with her that it had nearly lost for her the prize which was
now her own. But she told herself that that blackness was an injury
to her, and not a benefit, and that it had now become a duty to
her,--for his sake, if not for her own,--to dispel its shadows rather
than encourage them. She would go down to him full of joy, though not
full of mirth, and would confess to him frankly, that in receiving
the assurance of his love, she had received everything that had
seemed to have any value for her in the world. Hitherto she had been
independent;--she had specially been careful to show to him her
resolve to be independent of him. Now she would put aside all that,
and let him know that she recognised in him her lord and master as
well as husband. To her father had been left no strength on which
she could lean, and she had been forced therefore to trust to her
own strength. Now she would be dependent on him who was to be her
husband. As heretofore she had rejected his offers of assistance
almost with disdain, so now would she accept them without scruple,
looking to him to be her guide in all things, putting from her that
carping spirit in which she had been wont to judge of his actions,
and believing in him,--as a wife should believe in her husband.

Such were the resolutions which Clara made in the first hour of
solitude which came to her after her engagement; and they would
have been wise resolutions but for this flaw--that the stronger was
submitting itself to the weaker, the greater to the less, the more
honest to the less honest, that which was nearly true to that which
was in great part false. The theory of man and wife--that special
theory in accordance with which the wife is to bend herself in loving
submission before her husband, is very beautiful; and would be good
altogether if it could only be arranged that the husband should be
the stronger and the greater of the two. The theory is based upon
that hypothesis;--and the hypothesis sometimes fails of confirmation.
In ordinary marriages the vessel rights itself, and the stronger and
the greater takes the lead, whether clothed in petticoats, or in
coat, waistcoat, and trousers; but there sometimes comes a terrible
shipwreck, when the woman before marriage has filled herself full
with ideas of submission, and then finds that her golden-headed god
has got an iron body and feet of clay.

Captain Aylmer when he was left alone had also something to think
about; and as there were two hours left for such thought before he
would again meet Clara, and as he had nothing else with which to
occupy himself during those two hours, he again strolled down to
the bridge on which he had made his offer. He strolled down there,
thinking that he was thinking, but hardly giving much mind to his
thoughts, which he allowed to run away with themselves as they
listed. Of course he was going to be married. That was a thing
settled. And he was perfectly satisfied with himself in that he had
done nothing in a hurry, and could accuse himself of no folly even if
he had no great cause for triumph. He had been long thinking that he
should like to have Clara Amedroz for his wife;--long thinking that
he would ask her to marry him; and having for months indulged such
thoughts he could not take blame to himself for having made to his
aunt that deathbed promise which she had exacted. At the moment in
which she asked him the question he was himself anxious to do the
thing she desired of him. How then could he have refused her? And,
having given the promise, it was a matter of course with him to
fulfil it. He was a man who would have never respected himself
again--would have hated himself for ever, had he failed to keep a
promise from which no living being could absolve him. He had been
right therefore to make the promise, and having made it, had been
right to keep it, and to do the thing at once. And Clara was very
good and very wise, and sometimes looked very well, and would never
disgrace him; and as she was in worldly matters to receive much and
give nothing, she would probably be willing to make herself amenable
to any arrangements as to their future mode of life which he might
propose. In respect of this matter he was probably thinking of
lodgings for himself in London during the parliamentary session,
while she remained alone in the big red house upon which his eyes
were fixed at the time. There was much of convenience in all this,
which might perhaps atone to him for the sacrifice which he was
undoubtedly making of himself. Had marriage simply been of itself
a thing desirable, he could doubtless have disposed of himself
to better advantage. His prospects, present fortune, and general
position were so favourable, that he might have dared to lift
his expectations, in regard both to wealth and rank, very high.
The Aylmers were a considerable people, and he, though a younger
brother, had much more than a younger brother's portion. His seat
in Parliament was safe; his position in society was excellent and
secure; he was exactly so placed that marriage with a fortune was
the only thing wanting to put the finishing coping-stone to his
edifice;--that, and perhaps also the useful glory of having some
Lady Mary or Lady Emily at the top of his table. Lady Emily Aylmer?
Yes;--it would have sounded better, and there was a certain Lady
Emily who might have suited. Now, as some slight regrets stole upon
him gently, he failed to remember that this Lady Emily had not a
shilling in the world.

Yes; some faint regrets did steal upon him, though he went on telling
himself that he had acted rightly. His stars, which were generally
very good to him, had not perhaps on this occasion been as good as
usual. No doubt he had to a certain degree become encumbered with
Clara Amedroz. Had not the direct and immediate leap with which she
had come into his arms shown him somewhat too plainly that one word
of his mouth tending towards matrimony had been regarded by her as
being too valuable to be lost? The fruit that falls easily from the
tree, though it is ever the best, is never valued by the gardener.
Let him have well-nigh broken his neck in gathering it, unripe and
crude, from the small topmost boughs of the branching tree, and the
pippin will be esteemed by him as invaluable. On that morning, as
Captain Aylmer had walked home from church, he had doubted much what
would be Clara's answer to him. Then the pippin was at the end of
the dangerous bough. Now it had fallen to his feet, and he did not
scruple to tell himself that it was his, and always might have been
his as a matter of course. Well, the apple had come of a good kind,
and, though there might be specks upon it, though it might not be fit
for any special glory of show or pride of place among the dessert
service, still it should be garnered and used, and no doubt would be
a very good apple for eating. Having so concluded, Captain Aylmer
returned to the house, washed his hands, changed his boots, and went
down to the drawing-room just as dinner was ready. She came up to him
almost radiant with joy, and put her hand upon his arm. "Martha did
not know but what you were here," she said, "and told them to put
dinner on the table."

"I hope I have not kept you waiting."

"Oh, dear, no. And what if you did? Ladies never care about things
getting cold. It is gentlemen only who have feelings in such matters
as that."

"I don't know that there is much difference; but, however--" Then
they were in the dining-room, and as the servant remained there
during dinner, there was nothing in their conversation worth
repeating. After dinner they still remained down stairs, seating
themselves on the two sides of the fire, Clara having fully resolved
that she would not on such an evening as this leave Captain Aylmer to
drink his glass of port wine by himself.

"I suppose I may stay with you, mayn't I?" she said.

"Oh, dear, yes; I'm sure I'm very much obliged. I'm not at all wedded
to solitude." Then there was a slight pause.

"That's lucky," she said, "as you have made up your mind to be wedded
in another sort of way." Her voice as she spoke was very low, but
there was a gentle ring of restrained joyousness in it which ought to
have gone at once to his heart and made him supremely blessed for the
time.

"Well,--yes," he answered. "We are in for it now, both of us;--are we
not? I hope you have no misgivings about it, Clara."

"Who? I? I have misgivings! No, indeed. I have no misgivings,
Frederic; no doubts, no scruples, no alloy in my happiness. With me
it is all as I would have it be. Ah; you haven't understood why it
has been that I have seemed to be harsh to you when we have met."

"No, I have not," said he. This was true; but it is true also that it
would have been well that he should be kept in his ignorance. She was
minded, however, to tell him everything, and therefore she went on.

"I don't know how to tell you; and yet, circumstanced as we are now,
it seems that I ought to tell you everything."

"Yes, certainly; I think that," said Aylmer. He was one of those men
who consider themselves entitled to see, hear, and know every little
detail of a woman's conduct, as a consequence of the circumstances of
his engagement, and who consider themselves shorn of their privilege
if anything be kept back. If any gentleman had said a soft word to
Clara eight years ago, that soft word ought to be repeated to him
now. I am afraid that these particular gentlemen sometimes hear
some fibs; and I often wonder that their own early passages in the
tournays of love do not warn them that it must be so. When James has
sat deliciously through all the moonlit night with his arm round
Mary's waist, and afterwards sees Mary led to the altar by John, does
it not occur to him that some John may have also sat with his arm
round Anna's waist,--that Anna whom he is leading to the altar? These
things should not be inquired into too curiously; but the curiosity
of some men on such matters has no end. For the most part, women like
telling,--only they do not choose to be pressed beyond their own
modes of utterance. "I should like to know that I have your full
confidence," said he.

"You have got my full confidence," she replied.

"I mean that you should tell me anything that there is to be told."

"It was only this, that I had learned to love you before I thought
that my love would be returned."

"Oh;--was that it?" said Captain Aylmer, in a tone which seemed to
imply something like disappointment.

"Yes, Fred; that was it. And how could I, under such circumstances,
trust myself to be gentle with you, or to look to you for assistance?
How could I guess then all that I know now?"

"Of course you couldn't."

"And therefore I was driven to be harsh. My aunt used to speak to me
about it."

"I don't wonder at that, for she was very anxious that we should be
married."

Clara for a moment felt herself to be uncomfortable as she heard
these words, half perceiving that they implied some instigation on
the part of Mrs. Winterfield. Could it be that Captain Aylmer's offer
had been made in obedience to a promise? "Did you know of her
anxiety?" she asked.

"Well;--yes; that is to say, I guessed it. It was natural enough that
the same idea should come to her and to me too. Of course, seeing us
so much thrown together, she could not but think of our being married
as a chance upon the cards."

"She used to tell me that I was harsh to you;--abrupt, she called it.
But what could I do? I'll tell you, Fred, how I first found out that
I really cared for you. What I tell you now is of course a secret;
and I should speak of it to no one under any circumstances but those
which unite us two together. My cousin Will, when he was at Belton,
made me an offer."

"He did, did he? You did not tell me that when you were saying all
those fine things in his praise in the railway carriage."

"Of course I did not. Why should I? I wasn't bound to tell you my
secrets then, sir."

"But he did absolutely offer to you?"

"Is there anything so wonderful in that? But, wonderful or not, he
did."

"And you refused him?"

"I refused him certainly."

"It wouldn't have been a bad match, if all that you say about his
property is true."

"If you come to that, it would have been a very good match; and
perhaps you think I was silly to decline it?"

"I don't say that."

"Papa thought so;--but, then, I couldn't tell papa the whole truth,
as I can tell it to you now, Captain Aylmer. I couldn't tell dear
papa that my heart was not my own to give to my cousin Will; nor
could I give Will any such reason. Poor Will! I could only say to him
bluntly that I wouldn't have him."

"And you would, if it hadn't been,--hadn't been--for me."

"Nay, Fred; there you tax me too far. What might have come of my
heart if you hadn't fallen in my way, who can say? I love Will Belton
dearly, and hope that you may do so--"

"I must see him first."

"Of course;--but, as I was saying, I doubt whether, under any
circumstances, he would have been the man I should have chosen for a
husband. But as it was,--it was impossible. Now you know it all, and
I think that I have been very frank with you."

"Oh! very frank." He would not take her little jokes, nor understand
her little prettinesses. That he was a man not prone to joking she
knew well, but still it went against the grain with her to find that
he was so very hard in his replies to her attempts.

It was not easy for Clara to carry on the conversation after this,
so she proposed that they should go up-stairs into the drawing-room.
Such a change even as that would throw them into a different way of
talking, and prevent the necessity of any further immediate allusion
to Will Belton. For Clara was aware, though she hardly knew why, that
her frankness to her future husband had hardly been successful, and
she regretted that she had on this occasion mentioned her cousin's
name. They went up-stairs and again sat themselves in chairs over
the fire; but for a while conversation did not seem to come to them
freely. Clara felt that it was now Captain Aylmer's turn to begin,
and Captain Aylmer felt--that he wished he could read the newspaper.
He had nothing in particular that he desired to say to his lady-love.
That morning, as he was shaving himself, he had something to say that
was very particular,--as to which he was at that moment so nervous,
that he had cut himself slightly through the trembling of his hand.
But that had now been said, and he was nervous no longer. That had
now been said, and the thing settled so easily, that he wondered at
his own nervousness. He did not know that there was anything that
required much further immediate speech. Clara had thought somewhat
of the time which might be proposed for their marriage, making some
little resolves, with which the reader is already acquainted; but no
ideas of this kind presented themselves to Captain Aylmer. He had
asked his cousin to be his wife, thereby making good his promise to
his aunt. There could be no further necessity for pressing haste.
Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.

It is not to be supposed that the thriving lover actually spoke to
himself in such language as that,--or that he confessed to himself
that Clara Amedroz was an evil to him rather than a blessing. But
his feelings were already so far tending in that direction, that he
was by no means disposed to make any further promise, or to engage
himself in closer connection with matrimony by the mention of any
special day. Clara, finding that her companion would not talk without
encouragement from her, had to begin again, and asked all those
natural questions about his family, his brother, his sister, his home
habits, and the old house in Yorkshire, the answers to which must
be so full of interest to her. But even on these subjects he was
dry, and indisposed to answer with the full copiousness of free
communication which she desired. And at last there came a question
and an answer,--a word or two on one side, and then a word or two on
the other, from which Clara got a wound which was very sore to her.

"I have always pictured to myself," she said, "your mother as a woman
who has been very handsome."

"She is still a handsome woman, though she is over sixty."

"Tall, I suppose?"

"Yes, tall, and with something of--of--what shall I say--dignity,
about her."

"She is not grand, I hope?"

"I don't know what you call grand."

"Not grand in a bad sense;--I'm sure she is not that. But there are
some ladies who seem to stand so high above the level of ordinary
females as to make us who are ordinary quite afraid of them."

"My mother is certainly not ordinary," said Captain Aylmer.

"And I am," said Clara, laughing. "I wonder what she'll say to
me,--or, rather, what she will think of me." Then there was a
moment's silence, after which Clara, still laughing, went on. "I see,
Fred, that you have not a word of encouragement to give me about your
mother."

"She is rather particular," said Captain Aylmer.

Then Clara drew herself up, and ceased to laugh. She had called
herself ordinary with that half-insincere depreciation of self which
is common to all of us when we speak of our own attributes, but which
we by no means intend that they who hear us shall accept as strictly
true, or shall re-echo as their own approved opinions. But in this
instance Captain Aylmer, though he had not quite done that, had done
almost as bad.

"Then I suppose I had better keep out of her way," said Clara, by no
means laughing as she spoke.

"Of course when we are married you must go and see her."

"You do not, at any rate, promise me a very agreeable visit, Fred.
But I dare say I shall survive it. After all, it is you that I am to
marry, and not your mother; and as long as you are not majestic to
me, I need not care for her majesty."

"I don't know what you mean by majesty."

"You must confess that you speak of her as of something very
terrible."

"I say that she is particular;--and so she is. And as my respect for
her opinion is equal to my affection for her person, I hope that you
will make a great effort to gain her esteem."

"I never make any efforts of that kind. If esteem doesn't come
without efforts it isn't worth having."

"There I disagree with you altogether;--but I especially disagree
with you as you are speaking about my mother, and about a lady who
is to become your own mother-in-law. I trust that you will make such
efforts, and that you will make them successfully. Lady Aylmer is not
a woman who will give you her heart at once, simply because you have
become her son's wife. She will judge you by your own qualities, and
will not scruple to condemn you should she see cause."

Then there was a longer silence, and Clara's heart was almost in
rebellion even on this, the first day of her engagement. But she
quelled her high spirit, and said no further word about Lady Aylmer.
Nor did she speak again till she had enabled herself to smile as she
spoke.

"Well, Fred," she said, putting her hand upon his arm, "I'll do my
best, and woman can do no more. And now I'll say good night, for I
must pack for to-morrow's journey before I go to bed." Then he kissed
her,--with a cold, chilling kiss,--and she left him for the night.



CHAPTER XII.

MISS AMEDROZ RETURNS HOME.


Clara was to start by a train leaving Perivale at eight on the
following morning, and therefore there was not much time for
conversation before she went. During the night she had endeavoured so
to school herself as to banish from her breast all feelings of anger
against her lover, and of regret as regarded herself. Probably, as
she told herself, she had made more of what he had said than he had
intended that she should do; and then, was it not natural that he
should think much of his mother, and feel anxious as to the way in
which she might receive his wife? As to that feeling of anger on her
own part, she did get quit of it;--but the regret was not to be so
easily removed. It was not only what Captain Aylmer had said about
his mother that clung to her, doing much to quench her joy; but there
had been a coldness in his tone to her throughout the evening which
she recognised almost unconsciously, and which made her heart heavy
in spite of the joy which she repeatedly told herself ought to be her
own. And she also felt,--though she was not clearly aware that she
did so,--that his manner towards her had become less affectionate,
less like that of a lover, since the honest tale she had told him of
her own early love for him. She should have been less honest, and
more discreet; less bold, and more like in her words to the ordinary
run of women. She had known this as she was packing last night, and
she told herself that it was so as she was dressing on this her last
morning at Perivale. That frankness of hers had not been successful,
and she regretted that she had not imposed on herself some little
reticence,--or even a little of that coy pretence of indifference
which is so often used by ladies when they are wooed. She had been
boldly honest, and had found her honesty to be bad policy. She
thought, at least, that she had found its policy to be bad. Whether
in truth it may not have been very good,--have been the best policy
in the world,--tending to give her the first true intimation which
she had ever yet received of the real character of the man who was
now so much to her,--that is altogether another question.

But it was clearly her duty to make the best of her present
circumstances, and she went down-stairs with a smiling face and with
pleasant words on her tongue. When she entered the breakfast-room
Captain Aylmer was there; but Martha was there also, and her pleasant
words were received indifferently in the presence of the servant.
When the old woman was gone, Captain Aylmer assumed a grave face, and
began a serious little speech which he had prepared. But he broke
down in the utterance of it, and was saying things very different
from what he had intended before he had completed it.

"Clara," he began, "what occurred between us yesterday is a source of
great satisfaction to me."

"I am glad of that, Frederic," said she, trying to be a little less
serious than her lover.

"Of very great satisfaction," he continued; "and I cannot but think
that we were justified by the circumstances of our position in
forgetting for a time the sad solemnity of the occasion. When I
remember that it was but the day before yesterday that I followed my
dear old aunt to the grave, I am astonished to think that yesterday I
should have made an offer of marriage."

What could be the good of his talking in this strain? Clara, too,
had had her own misgivings on the same subject,--little qualms of
conscience that had come to her as she remembered her old friend
in the silent watches of the night; but such thoughts were for the
silent watches, and not for open expression in the broad daylight.
But he had paused, and she must say something.

"One's excuse to oneself is this,--that she would have wished it so."

"Exactly. She would have wished it. Indeed she did wish it, and
therefore--" He paused in what he was saying, and felt himself to be
on difficult ground. Her eye was full upon him, and she waited for a
moment or two as though expecting that he would finish his words. But
as he did not go on, she finished them for him.

"And therefore you sacrificed your own feelings." Her heart was
becoming sore, and she was unable to restrain the utterance of her
sarcasm.

"Just so," said he; "or, rather, not exactly that. I don't mean that
I am sacrificed; for, of course, as I have just now said, nothing as
regards myself can be more satisfactory. But yesterday should have
been a solemn day to us; and as it was not--"

"I thought it very solemn."

"What I mean is that I find an excuse in remembering that I was doing
what she asked me to do."

"What she asked you to do, Fred?"

"What I had promised, I mean."

"What you had promised? I did not hear that before." These last words
were spoken in a very low voice, but they went direct to Captain
Aylmer's ears.

"But you have heard me declare," he said, "that as regards myself
nothing could be more satisfactory."

"Fred," she said, "listen to me for a moment. You and I engaged
ourselves to each other yesterday as man and wife."

"Of course we did."

"Listen to me, dear Fred. In doing that there was nothing in my mind
unbefitting the sadness of the day. Even in death we must think of
life, and if it were well for you and me that we should be together,
it would surely have been but a foolish ceremony between us to have
abstained from telling each other that it would be so because my aunt
had died last week. But it may be, and I think it is the case, that
the feelings arising from her death have made us both too
precipitate."

"I don't understand how that can be."

"You have been anxious to keep a promise made to her, without
considering sufficiently whether in doing so you would secure your
own happiness; and I--"

"I don't know about you, but as regards myself I must be considered
to be the best judge."

"And I have been too much in a hurry in believing that which I wished
to believe."

"What do you mean by all this, Clara?"

"I mean that our engagement shall be at an end;--not necessarily so
for always. But that as an engagement binding us both, it shall for
the present cease to exist. You shall be again free--"

"But I don't choose to be free."

"When you think of it you will find it best that it should be so. You
have performed your promise honestly, even though at a sacrifice to
yourself. Luckily for you,--for both of us, I should say,--the full
truth has come out; and we can consider quietly what will be best for
us to do, independently of that promise. We will part, therefore, as
dear friends, but not as engaged to each other as man and wife."

"But we are engaged, and I will not hear of its being broken."

"A lady's word, Fred, is always the most potential before
marriage;--and you must therefore yield to me in this matter. I am
sure your judgment will approve of my decision when you think of it.
There shall be no engagement between us. I shall consider myself
quite free,--free to do as I please altogether; and you, of course,
will be free also."

"If you please, of course it must be so."

"I do please, Fred."

"And yesterday, then, is to go for nothing."

"Not exactly. It cannot go for nothing with me. I told you too many
of my secrets for that. But nothing that was done or said yesterday
is to be held as binding upon either of us."

"And you made up your mind to that last night?"

"It is at any rate made up to that now. Come,--I shall have to go
without my breakfast if I do not eat it at once. Will you have your
tea now, or wait and take it comfortably when I am gone?"

Captain Aylmer breakfasted with her, and took her to the station, and
saw her off with all possible courtesy and attention, and then he
walked back by himself to his own great house in Perivale. Not a word
more had been said between him and Clara as to their engagement, and
he recognised it as a fact that he was no longer bound to her as her
future husband. Indeed, he had no power of not recognising the fact,
so decided had been her language, and so imperious her manner. It had
been of no avail that he had said that the engagement should stand.
She had told him that her voice was to be the more potential, and he
had felt that it was so. Well;--might it not be best for him that it
should be so? He had kept his promise to his aunt, and had done all
that lay in his power to make Clara Amedroz his wife. If she chose to
rebel against her own good fortune simply because he spoke to her a
few words which seemed to him to be fitting, might it not be well for
him to take her at her word?

Such were his first thoughts; but as the day wore on with him,
something more generous in his nature came to his aid, and something
also that was akin to real love. Now that she was no longer his own,
he again felt a desire to have her. Now that there would be again
something to be done in winning her, he was again stirred by a man's
desire to do that something. He ought not to have told her of the
promise. He was aware that what he had said on that point had been
dropped by him accidentally, and that Clara's resolution after that
had not been unnatural. He would, therefore, give her another chance,
and resolved before he went to bed that night that he would allow a
fortnight to pass away, and would then write to her, renewing his
offer with all the strongest declarations of affection which he would
be enabled to make.

Clara on her way home was not well satisfied with herself or with her
position. She had had great joy, during the few hours of joy which
had been hers, in thinking of the comfort which her news would give
to her father. He would be released from all further trouble on her
account by the tidings which she would convey to him,--by the tidings
which she had intended to convey to him. But now the story which she
would have to tell would by no means be comfortable. She would have
to explain to him that her aunt had left no provision for her, and
that would be the beginning and the end of her story. As for those
conversations about the fifteen hundred pounds,--of them she would
say nothing. When she reflected on what had taken place between
herself and Captain Aylmer she was more resolved than ever that she
would not touch any portion of that money,--or of any money that
should come from him. Nor would she tell her father anything of the
marriage engagement which had been made on one day and unmade on the
next. Why should she add to his distress by showing him what good
things might have been hers had she only had the wit to keep them?
No;--she would tell her father simply of the will, and then comfort
him in his affliction as best she might.

As regarded her position with Captain Aylmer, the more she thought of
it the more sure she became that everything was over in that quarter.
She had, indeed, told him that such need not necessarily be the
case,--but this she had done in her desire at the moment to mitigate
the apparent authoritativeness of her own decision, rather than with
any idea of leaving the matter open for further consideration. She
was sure that Captain Aylmer would be glad of a means of escape,
and that he would not again place himself in the jeopardy which the
promise exacted from him by his aunt had made so nearly fatal to him.
And for herself, though she still loved the man,--so loved him that
she lay back in the corner of her carriage weeping behind her veil
as she thought of what she had lost,--still she would not take him,
though he should again press his suit upon her with all the ardour
at his command. No, indeed. No man should ever be made to regard her
as a burden imposed upon him by an extorted promise! What;--let a
man sacrifice himself to a sense of duty on her behalf! And then she
repeated the odious words to herself, till she came to think that it
had fallen from his lips and not from her own.

In writing to her father from Perivale, she had merely told him of
Mrs. Winterfield's death and of her own intended return. At the
Taunton station she met the well-known old fly and the well-known
old driver, and was taken home in the accustomed manner. As she
drew nearer to Belton the sense of her distress became stronger and
stronger, till at last she almost feared to meet her father. What
could she say to him when he should repeat to her, as he would be
sure to do, his lamentation as to her future poverty?

On arriving at the house she learned that he was up-stairs in his
bedroom. He had been ill, the servant said, and though he was not now
in bed, he had not come down-stairs. So she ran up to his room, and
finding him seated in an old arm-chair by the fire-side, knelt down
at his feet, as she took his hand and asked him as to his health.

"What has Mrs. Winterfield done for you in her will?" These were the
first words he spoke to her.

"Never mind about wills now, papa. I want you to tell me of
yourself."

"Nonsense, Clara. Answer my question."

"Oh, papa, I wish you would not think so much about money for me."

"Not think about it? Why am I not to think about it? What else have I
got to think of? Tell me at once, Clara, what she has done. You ought
to have written to me directly the will was made known."

There was no help for her, and the terrible word must be spoken. "She
has left her property to Captain Aylmer, papa; and I must say that I
think she is right."

"You do not mean everything?"

"She has provided for her servants."

"And has made no provision for you?"

"No, papa."

"Do you mean to tell me that she has left you nothing,--absolutely
nothing?" The old man's manner was altogether altered as he asked
this question; and there came over his face so unusual a look of
energy,--of the energy of anger,--that Clara was frightened, and knew
not how to answer him with that tone of authority which she was
accustomed to use when she found it necessary to exercise control
over him. "Do you mean to say that there is nothing,--nothing?" And
as he repeated the question he pushed her away from his knees and
stood up with an effort, leaning against the back of his chair.

"Dear papa, do not let this distress you."

"But is it so? Is there in truth nothing?"

"Nothing, papa. Remember that she was not really my aunt."

"Nonsense, child;--nonsense! How can you talk such trash to me as
that? And then you tell me not to distress myself! I am to know
that you will be a beggar in a year or two,--probably in a few
months,--and that is not to distress me! She has been a wicked
woman!"

"Oh, papa, do not say that."

"A wicked woman. A very wicked woman. It is always so with those who
pretend to be more religious than their neighbours. She has been a
very wicked woman, alluring you into her house with false hopes."

"No, papa;--no; I must contradict you. She had given me no ground for
such hope."

"I say she had,--even though she may not have made a promise. I say
she had. Did not everybody think that you were to have her money?"

"I don't know what people may have thought. Nobody has had any right
to think about it at all."

"That is nonsense, Clara. You know that I expected it;--that you
expected it yourself."

"No;--no, no!"

"Clara,--how can you tell me that?"

"Papa, I knew that she intended to leave me nothing. She told me so
when I was there in the spring."

"She told you so?"

"Yes, papa. She told me that Frederic Aylmer was to have all her
property. She explained to me everything that she meant to do, and I
thought that she was right."

"And why was not I told when you came home?"

"Dear papa!"

"Dear papa, indeed. What is the meaning of dear papa? Why have I been
deceived?"

"What good could I do by telling you? You could not change it."

"You have been very undutiful; and as for her, her wickedness and
cruelty shock me,--shock me. They do, indeed. That she should have
known your position, and had you with her always,--and then have
made such a will as that! Quite heartless! She must have been quite
heartless."

Clara now began to find that she must in justice to her aunt's memory
tell her father something more. And yet it would be very difficult
to tell him anything that would not bring greater affliction upon
him, and would not also lead her into deeper trouble. Should it come
to pass that her aunt's intention with reference to the fifteen
hundred pounds was mentioned, she would be subjected to an endless
persecution as to the duty of accepting that money from Captain
Aylmer. But her present feelings would have made her much prefer
to beg her bread upon the roads than accept her late lover's
generosity. And then again, how could she explain to her father Mrs.
Winterfield's mistake about her own position without seeming to
accuse her father of having robbed her? But nevertheless she must
say something, as Mr. Amedroz continued to apply that epithet of
heartless to Mrs. Winterfield, going on with it in a low droning
tone, that was more injurious to Clara's ears than the first full
energy of his anger. "Heartless,--quite heartless;--shockingly
heartless,--shockingly heartless!"

"The truth is, papa," Clara said at last, "that when my aunt told
me about her will, she did not know but what I had some adequate
provision from my own family."

"Oh, Clara!"

"That is the truth, papa;--for she explained the whole thing to me.
I could not tell her that she was mistaken, and thus ask for her
money."

"But she knew everything about that poor wretched boy." And now the
father dropped back into his chair, and buried his face in his hands.

When he did this Clara again knelt at his feet. She felt that she had
been cruel, and that she had defended her aunt at the cost of her own
father. She had, as it were, thrown in his teeth his own imprudence,
and twitted him with the injuries which he had done to her. "Papa,"
she said, "dear papa, do not think about it at all. What is the use?
After all, money is not everything. I care nothing for money. If you
will only agree to banish the subject altogether, we shall be so
comfortable."

"How is it to be banished?"

"At any rate we need not speak of it. Why should we talk on a subject
which is simply uncomfortable, and which we cannot mend?"

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" And now he swayed himself backwards and
forwards in his chair, bewailing his own condition and hers, and his
past imprudence, while the tears ran down his cheeks. She still knelt
there at his feet, looking up into his face with loving, beseeching
eyes, praying him to be comforted, and declaring that all would still
be well if he would only forget the subject, or, at any rate, cease
to speak of it. But still he went on wailing, complaining of his lot
as a child complains, and refusing all consolation. "Yes; I know,"
said he, "it has all been my fault. But how could I help it? What was
I to do?"

"Papa, nobody has said that anything was your fault; nobody has
thought so."

"I never spent anything on myself--never, never; and yet,--and
yet,--and yet--!"

"Look at it with more courage, papa. After all, what harm will it be
if I should have to go out and earn my own bread like any other young
woman? I am not afraid."

At last he wept himself into an apathetic tranquillity, as though he
had at present no further power for any of the energy of grief; and
she left him while she went about the house and learned how things
had gone on during her absence. It seemed, from the tidings which
the servant gave her, that he had been ill almost since she had been
gone. He had, at any rate, chosen to take his meals in his own room,
and as far as was remembered, had not once left the house since she
had been away. He had on two or three occasions spoken of Mr. Belton,
appearing to be anxious for his coming, and asking questions as to
the cattle and the work that was still going on about the place; and
Clara, when she returned to his room, tried to interest him again
about her cousin. But he had in truth been too much distressed by the
ill news as to Mrs. Winterfield's will to be able to rally himself,
and the evening that was spent up in his room was very comfortless
to both of them. Clara had her own sorrows to bear as well as her
father's, and could take no pleasant look out into the world of her
own circumstances, She had gained her lover merely to lose him,--and
had lost him under circumstances that were very painful to her
woman's feeling. Though he had been for one night betrothed to her as
her husband, he had never loved her. He had asked her to be his wife
simply in fulfilment of a death-bed promise! The more she thought
of it the more bitter did the idea of it become to her. And she
could not also but think of her cousin. Poor Will! He, at any rate,
had loved her, though his eagerness in love had been, as she told
herself, but short-lived. As she thought of him, it seemed but the
other day that he had been with her up on the rock in the park;--but
as she thought of Captain Aylmer, to whom she had become engaged only
yesterday, and from whom she had separated herself only that morning,
she felt that an eternity of time had passed since she had parted
from him.

On the following day, a dull, dark, melancholy day, towards the end
of November, she went out to saunter about the park, leaving her
father still in his bedroom, and after a while made her way down to
the cottage. She found Mrs. Askerton as usual alone in the little
drawing-room, sitting near the window with a book in her hand; but
Clara knew at once that her friend had not been reading,--that she
had been sitting there looking out upon the clouds, with her mind
fixed upon things far away. The general cheerfulness of this woman
had often been cause of wonder to Clara, who knew how many of her
hours were passed in solitude; but there did occasionally come upon
her periods of melancholy in which she was unable to act up to the
settled rule of her life, and in which she would confess that the
days and weeks and months were too long for her.

"So you are back," said Mrs. Askerton, as soon as the first greeting
was over.

"Yes; I am back."

"I supposed you would not stay there long after the funeral."

"No; what good could I do?"

"And Captain Aylmer is still there, I suppose?"

"I left him at Perivale."

There was a slight pause, as Mrs. Askerton hesitated before she asked
her next question. "May I be told anything about the will?" she said.

"The weary will! If you knew how I hated the subject you would not
ask me. But you must not think I hate it because it has given me
nothing."

"Given you nothing?"

"Nothing! But that does not make me hate it. It is the nature of the
subject that is so odious. I have now told you all,--everything that
there is to be told, though we were to talk for a week. If you are
generous you will not say another word about it."

"But I am so sorry."

"There,--that's it. You won't perceive that the expression of such
sorrow is a personal injury to me. I don't want you to be sorry."

"How am I to help it?"

"You need not express it. I don't come pitying you for supposed
troubles. You have plenty of money; but if you were so poor that you
could eat nothing but cold mutton, I shouldn't condole with you as to
the state of your larder. I should pretend to think that poultry and
piecrust were plentiful with you."

"No, you wouldn't, dear;--not if I were as dear to you as you are to
me."

"Well, then, be sorry; and let there be an end of it. Remember how
much of all this I must of necessity have to go through with poor
papa."

"Ah, yes; I can believe that."

"And he is so far from well. Of course you have not seen him since
I have been gone."

"No; we never see him unless he comes up to the gate there." Then
there was another pause for a moment. "And what about Captain
Aylmer?" asked Mrs. Askerton.

"Well;--what about him?"

"He is the heir now?"

"Yes;--he is the heir."

"And that is all?"

"Yes; that is all. What more should there be? The poor old house at
Perivale will be shut up, I suppose."

"I don't care about the old house much, as it is not to be your
house."

"No;--it is not to be my house certainly."

"There were two ways in which it might have become yours."

"Though there were ten ways, none of those ways have come my way,"
said Clara.

"Of course I know that you are so close that though there were
anything to tell you would not tell it."

"I think I would tell you anything that was proper to be told; but
now there is nothing proper,--or improper."

"Was it proper or improper when Mr. Belton made an offer to you,--as
I knew he would do, of course; as I told you that he would? Was that
so improper that it could not be told?"

Clara was aware that the tell-tale colour in her face at once took
from her the possibility of even pretending that the allegation was
untrue, and that in any answer she might give she must acknowledge
the fact. "I do not think," she said, "that it is considered fair to
gentlemen to tell such stories as that."

"Then I can only say that the young ladies I have known are generally
very unfair."

"But who told you?"

"Who told me? My maid. Of course she got it from yours. Those things
are always known."

"Poor Will!"

"Poor Will, indeed. He is coming here again, I hear, almost
immediately, and it needn't be 'poor Will' unless you like it. But as
for me, I am not going to be an advocate in his favour. I tell you
fairly that I did not like what little I saw of poor Will."

"I like him of all things."

"You should teach him to be a little more courteous in his demeanour
to ladies; that is all. I will tell you something else, too, about
poor Will--but not now. Some other day I will tell you something of
your cousin Will."

Clara did not care to ask any questions as to this something that was
to be told, and therefore took her leave and went away.



CHAPTER XIII.

MR. WILLIAM BELTON TAKES A WALK IN THE COUNTRY.


Clara Amedroz had made one great mistake about her cousin, Will
Belton, when she came to the conclusion that she might accept his
proffered friendship without any apprehension that the friend would
become a lover; and she made another, equally great, when she
convinced herself that his love had been as short-lived as it had
been eager. Throughout his journey back to Plaistow, he had thought
of nothing else but his love, and had resolved to persevere, telling
himself sometimes that he might perhaps be successful, and feeling
sure at other times that he would encounter renewed sorrow and
permanent disappointment,--but equally resolved in either mood that
he would persevere. Not to persevere in pursuit of any desired
object,--let the object be what it might,--was, to his thinking,
unmanly, weak, and destructive of self-respect. He would sometimes
say of himself, joking with other men, that if he did not succeed in
this or that thing, he could never speak to himself again. To no man
did he talk of his love in such a strain as this; but there was a
woman to whom he spoke of it; and though he could not joke on such a
matter, the purport of what he said showed the same feeling. To be
finally rejected, and to put up with such rejection, would make him
almost contemptible in his own eyes.

This woman was his sister, Mary Belton. Something has been already
said of this lady, which the reader may perhaps remember. She was
a year or two older than her brother, with whom she always lived,
but she had none of those properties of youth which belonged to him
in such abundance. She was, indeed, a poor cripple, unable to walk
beyond the limits of her own garden, feeble in health, dwarfed in
stature, robbed of all the ordinary enjoyments of life by physical
deficiencies, which made even the task of living a burden to her. To
eat was a pain, or at best a trouble. Sleep would not comfort her in
bed, and weariness during the day made it necessary that the hours
passed in bed should be very long. She was one of those whose lot in
life drives us to marvel at the inequalities of human destiny, and to
inquire curiously within ourselves whether future compensation is to
be given.

It is said of those who are small and crooked-backed in their bodies,
that their minds are equally cross-grained and their tempers as
ungainly as their stature. But no one had ever said this of Mary
Belton. Her friends, indeed, were very few in number; but those who
knew her well loved her as they knew her, and there were three or
four persons in the world who were ready at all times to swear that
she was faultless. It was the great happiness of her life that among
those three or four her own brother was the foremost. Will Belton's
love for his sister amounted almost to veneration, and his devotion
to her was so great, that in all the affairs of his life he was
prepared to make her comfort one of his first considerations. And
she, knowing this, had come to fear that she might be an embargo on
his prosperity, and a stumbling-block in the way of his success. It
had occurred to her that he would have married earlier in life if
she had not been, as it were, in his way; and she had threatened him
playfully,--for she could be playful,--that she would leave him if he
did not soon bring a mistress home to Plaistow Hall. "I will go to
uncle Robert," she had said. Now uncle Robert was the clergyman in
Lincolnshire of whom mention has been made, and he was among those
two or three who believed in Mary Belton with an implicit faith,--as
was also his wife. "I will go to uncle Robert, Will, and then you
will be driven to get a wife."

"If my sister ever leaves my house, whether there be a wife in it or
not," Will had answered, "I will never put trust in any woman again."

Plaistow Manor-house or Hall was a fine brick mansion, built in
the latter days of Tudor house architecture, with many gables and
countless high chimneys,--very picturesque to the eye, but not in
all respects comfortable as are the modern houses of the well-to-do
squirearchy of England. And, indeed, it was subject to certain
objectionable characteristics which in some degree justified the
scorn which Mr. Amedroz intended to throw upon it when he declared
it to be a farmhouse. The gardens belonging to it were large and
excellent; but they did not surround it, and allowed the farm
appurtenances to come close up to it on two sides. The door which
should have been the front door, opening from the largest room in the
house, which had been the hall and which was now the kitchen, led
directly into the farmyard. From the further end of this farm-yard a
magnificent avenue of elms stretched across the home pasture down to
a hedge which crossed it at the bottom. That there had been a road
through the rows of trees,--or, in other words, that there had in
truth been an avenue to the house on that side,--was, of course,
certain. But now there was no vestige of such road, and the front
entrance to Plaistow Hall was by a little path across the garden from
a modern road which had been made to run cruelly near to the house.
Such was Plaistow Hall, and such was its mistress. Of the master, the
reader, I hope, already knows so much as to need no further
description.

As Belton drove himself home from the railway station late on that
August night, he made up his mind that he would tell his sister all
his story about Clara Amedroz. She had ever wished that he should
marry, and now he had made his attempt. Little as had been her
opportunity of learning the ways of men and women from experience in
society, she had always seemed to him to know exactly what every one
should do in every position of life. And she would be tender with
him, giving him comfort even if she could not give him hope. Moreover
Mary might be trusted with his secret; for Belton felt, as men always
do feel, a great repugnance to have it supposed that his suit to a
woman had been rejected. Women, when they have loved in vain, often
almost wish that their misfortune should be known. They love to
talk about their wounds mystically,--telling their own tales under
feigned names, and extracting something of a bitter sweetness
out of the sadness of their own romance. But a man, when he has
been rejected,--rejected with a finality that is acknowledged by
himself,--is unwilling to speak or hear a word upon the subject,
and would willingly wash the episode out from his heart if it were
possible.

But not on that his first night would he begin to speak of Clara
Amedroz. He would not let his sister believe that his heart was too
full of the subject to allow of his thinking of other matters. Mary
was still up, waiting for him when he arrived, with tea, and cream,
and fruit ready for him. "Oh, Mary!" he said, "why are you not in
bed? You know that I would have come to you up-stairs." She excused
herself, smiling, declaring that she could not deny herself the
pleasure of being with him for half an hour on his first return from
his travels. "Of course I want to know what they are like," she said.

"He is a nice-looking old man," said Will, "and she is a nice-looking
young woman."

"That is graphic and short, at any rate."

"And he is weak and silly, but she is strong and--and--and--"

"Not silly also, I hope?"

"Anything but that. I should say she is very clever."

"I'm afraid you don't like her, Will."

"Yes, I do."

"Really?"

"Yes; really."

"And did she take your coming well?"

"Very well. I think she is much obliged to me for going."

"And Mr. Amedroz?"

"He liked my coming too,--very much."

"What;--after that cold letter?"

"Yes, indeed. I shall explain it all by degrees. I have taken a lease
of all the land, and I'm to go back at Christmas; and as to the old
gentleman,--he'd have me live there altogether if I would."

"Why, Will?"

"Is it not odd? I'm so glad I didn't make up my mind not to go when I
got that letter. And yet I don't know." These last words he added
slowly, and in a low voice, and Mary at once knew that everything was
not quite as it ought to be.

"Is there anything wrong, Will?"

"No, nothing wrong; that is to say, there is nothing to make me
regret that I went. I think I did some good to them."

"It was to do good to them that you went there."

"They wanted to have some one near them who could be to them as one
of their own family. He is too old,--too much worn out to be capable
of managing things; and the people there were, of course, robbing
him. I think I have put a stop to that."

"And you are to go again at Christmas?"

"Yes; they can do without me at my uncle's, and you will be there. I
have taken the land, and already bought some of the stock for it, and
am going to buy more."

"I hope you won't lose money, Will."

"No;--not ultimately, that is. I shall get the place in good
condition, and I shall have paid myself when he goes, in that way,
if in no other. Besides, what's a little money? I owe it to them for
robbing her of her inheritance."

"You do not rob her, Will."

"It is hard upon her, though."

"Does she feel it hard?"

"Whatever may be her feelings on such a matter, she is a woman much
too proud to show them."

"I wish I knew whether you liked her or not."

"I do like her,--I love her better than any one in the world; better
even than you, Mary; for I have asked her to be my wife."

"Oh, Will!"

"And she has refused me. Now you know the whole of it,--the whole
history of what I have done while I have been away." And he stood
up before her, with his thumbs thrust into the arm-holes of his
waistcoat, with something serious and almost solemn in his gait, in
spite of a smile which played about his mouth.

"Oh, Will!"

"I meant to have told you, of course, Mary,--to have told you
everything; but I did not mean to tell it to-night; only it has
somehow fallen from me. Out of the full heart the mouth speaks, they
say."

"I never can like her if she refuses your love."

"Why not? That is unlike you, Mary. Why should she be bound to love
me because I love her?"

"Is there any one else, Will?"

"How can I tell? I did not ask her. I would not have asked her for
the world, though I would have given the world to know."

"And she is so very beautiful?"

"Beautiful! It isn't that so much;--though she is beautiful.
But,--but,--I can't tell you why,--but she is the only girl that
I ever saw who would suit me for a wife. Oh, dear!"

"My own Will!"

"But I'm not going to keep you up all night, Mary. And I'll tell you
something else; I'm not going to break my heart for love. And I'll
tell you something else again; I'm not going to give it up yet. I
believe I've been a fool. Indeed, I know I've been a fool. I went
about it just as if I were buying a horse, and had told the seller
that that was my price,--he might take it or leave it. What right had
I to suppose that any girl was to be had in that way; much less such
a girl as Clara Amedroz?"

"It would have been a great match for her."

"I'm not so sure of that, Mary. Her education has been different from
mine, and it may well be that she should marry above me. But I swear
I will not speak another word to you to-night. To-morrow, if you're
well enough, I'll talk to you all day." Soon after that he did get
her to go up to her room, though, of course, he broke that oath of
his as to not speaking another word. After that he walked out by
moonlight round the house, wandering about the garden and farmyard,
and down through the avenue, having in his own mind some pretence of
the watchfulness of ownership, but thinking little of his property
and much of his love. Here was a thing that he desired with all his
heart, but it seemed to be out of his reach,--absolutely out of his
reach. He was sick and weary with a feeling of longing,--sick with
that covetousness wherewith Ahab coveted the vineyard of Naboth. What
was the world to him if he could not have this thing on which he had
set his heart? He had told his sister that he would not break his
heart; and so much, he did not doubt, would be true. A man or woman
with a broken heart was in his estimation a man or woman who should
die of love; and he did not look for such a fate as that. But he
experienced the palpable misery of a craving emptiness within his
breast, and did believe of himself that he never could again be in
comfort unless he could succeed with Clara Amedroz. He stood leaning
against one of the trees, striking his hands together, and angry with
himself at the weakness which had reduced him to such a state. What
could any man be worth who was so little master of himself as he had
now become?

After awhile he made his way back through the farmyard, and in at the
kitchen door, which he locked and bolted; and then, throwing himself
down into a wooden arm-chair which always stood there, in the corner
of the huge hearth, he took a short pipe from the mantelpiece, filled
it with tobacco, and lighting it almost unconsciously, began to smoke
with vehemence. Plaistow Hall was already odious to him, and he
longed to be back at Belton, which he had left only that morning.
Yes, on that very morning she had brought to him his coffee, looking
sweetly into his face,--so sweetly as she ministered to him. And he
might then well have said one word more in pleading his suit, if he
had not been too awkward to know what that word should be. And was it
not his own awkwardness that had brought him to this state of misery?
What right had he to suppose that any girl should fall in love with
such a one as he at first sight,--without a moment's notice to her
own heart? And then, when he had her there, almost in his arms, why
had he let her go without kissing her? It seemed to him now that if
he might have once kissed her, even that would have been a comfort to
him in his present affliction. "D----tion!" he said at last, as he
jumped to his feet and kicked the chair on one side, and threw the
pipe among the ashes. I trust it will be understood that he addressed
himself, and not his lady-love in this uncivil way,--"D----tion!"
Then when the chair had been well kicked out of his way, he took
himself up to bed. I wonder whether Clara's heart would have been
hardened or softened towards him had she heard the oath, and
understood all the thoughts and motives which had produced it.

On the next morning poor Mary Belton was too ill to come down-stairs;
and as her brother spent his whole day out upon the farm, remaining
among reapers and wheat stacks till nine o'clock in the evening,
nothing was said about Clara on that day. Then there came a Sunday,
and it was a matter of course that the subject of which they both
were thinking should be discussed. Will went to church, and, as was
their custom on Sundays, they dined immediately on his return. Then,
as the afternoon was very warm, he took her out to a favourite seat
she had in the garden, and it became impossible that they could
longer abstain.

"And you really mean to go again at Christmas?" she asked.

"Certainly I shall;--I promised."

"Then I am sure you will."

"And I must go from time to time because of the land I have taken.
Indeed there seems to be an understanding that I am to manage the
property for Mr. Amedroz."

"And does she wish you to go?"

"Yes,--she says so."

"Girls, I believe, think sometimes that men are indifferent in their
love. They suppose that a man can forget it at once when he is not
accepted, and that things can go on just as before."

"I suppose she thinks so of me," said Belton wofully.

"She must either think that, or else be willing to give herself the
chance of learning to like you better."

"There's nothing of that, I'm sure. She's as true as steel."

"But she would hardly want you to go there unless she thought you
might overcome either your love or her indifference. She would not
wish you to be there that you might be miserable."

"Before I had asked her to be my wife I had promised to be her
brother. And so I will, if she should ever want a brother. I am not
going to desert her because she will not do what I want her to do,
or be what I want her to be. She understands that. There is to be no
quarrel between us."

"But she would be heartless if she were to encourage you to be with
her simply for the assistance you may give her, knowing at the same
time that you could not be happy in her presence."

"She is not heartless."

"Then she must suppose that you are."

"I dare say she doesn't think that I care much about it. When I told
her, I did it all of a heap, you see; and I fancy she thought I was
just mad at the time."

"And did you speak about it again?"

"No; not a word. I shouldn't wonder if she hadn't forgotten it before
I went away."

"That would be impossible."

"You wouldn't say so if you knew how it was done. It was all over in
half an hour; and she had given me such an answer that I thought I
had no right to say anything more about it. The morning when I left
her she did seem to be kinder."

"I wish I knew whether she cares for any one else."

"Ah! I so often think of that. But I couldn't ask her, you know. I
had no right to pry into her secrets. When I came away, she got up to
see me off; and I almost felt tempted to carry her into the gig and
drive her off."

"I don't think that would have done, Will."

"I don't suppose anything will do. We all know what happens to the
child who cries for the top brick of the chimney. The child has to
do without it. The child goes to bed and forgets it; but I go to
bed,--and can't forget it."

"My poor Will!"

Then he got up and shook himself, and stalked about the
garden,--always keeping within a few yards of his sister's
chair,--and carried on a strong battle within his breast, struggling
to get the better of the weakness which his love produced, though
resolved that the love itself should be maintained.

"I wish it wasn't Sunday," he said at last, "because then I could go
and do something. If I thought that no one would see me, I'd fill a
dung-cart or two, even though it is Sunday. I'll tell you what;--I'll
go and take a walk as far as Denvir Sluice; and I'll be back to tea.
You won't mind?"

"Denvir Sluice is eight miles off."

"Exactly,--I'll be there and back in something over three hours."

"But, Will,--there's a broiling sun."

"It will do me good. Anything that will take something out of me is
what I want. I know I ought to stay and read to you; but I couldn't
do it. I've got the fidgets inside, if you know what that means. To
have the big hay-rick on fire, or something of that sort, is what
would do me most good."

Then he started, and did walk to Denvir Sluice and back in three
hours. The road from Plaistow Hall to Denvir Sluice was not in itself
interesting. It ran through a perfectly flat country, without a tree.
For the greater part of the way it was constructed on the top of a
great bank by the side of a broad dike, and for five miles its course
was straight as a line. A country walk less picturesque could hardly
be found in England. The road, too, was very dusty, and the sun
was hot above Belton's head as he walked. But nevertheless, he
persevered, going on till he struck his stick against the waterfall
which was called Denvir Sluice, and then returned,--not once
slackening his pace, and doing the whole distance at a rate somewhat
above five miles an hour. They used to say in the nursery that cold
pudding is good to settle a man's love; but the receipt which Belton
tried was a walk of sixteen miles, along a dusty road, after dinner,
in the middle of an August day.

I think it did him some good. When he got back he took a long draught
of home-brewed beer, and then went up-stairs to dress himself.

"What a state you are in," Mary said to him when he showed himself
for a moment in the sitting-room.

"I did it from milestone to milestone in eleven minutes, backwards
and forwards, all along the five-mile reach."

Then Mary knew from his answer that the exercise had been of service
to him, perceiving that he had been able to take an interest in his
own prowess as a walker.

"I only hope you won't have a fever," she said.

"The people who stand still are they who get fevers," he answered.
"Hard work never does harm to any one. If John Bowden would walk his
five miles an hour on a Sunday afternoon he wouldn't have the gout so
often."

John Bowden was a neighbour in the next parish, and Mary was
delighted to find that her brother could take a pride in his
performance.

By degrees Miss Belton began to know with some accuracy the way in
which Will had managed his affairs at Belton Castle, and was enabled
to give him salutary advice.

"You see, Will," she said, "ladies are different from men in this,
that they cannot allow themselves to be in love so suddenly."

"I don't see how a person is to help it. It isn't like jumping into a
river, which a person can do or not, just as he pleases."

"But I fancy it is something like jumping into a river, and that a
person can help it. What the person can't help is being in when the
plunge has once been made."

"No, by George! There's no getting out of that river."

"And ladies don't take the plunge till they've had time to think what
may come after it. Perhaps you were a little too sudden with our
cousin Clara?"

"Of course I was. Of course I was a fool, and a brute too."

"I know you were not a brute, and I don't think you were a fool; but
yet you were too sudden. You see a lady cannot always make up her
mind to love a man, merely because she is asked--all in a moment. She
should have a little time to think about it before she is called upon
for an answer."

"And I didn't give her two minutes."

"You never do give two minutes to anyone;--do you, Will? But you'll
be back there at Christmas, and then she will have had time to turn
you and it over in her mind."

"And you think that I may have a chance?"

"Certainty you may have a chance."

"Although she was so sure about it?"

"She spoke of her own mind and her own heart as she knew them then.
But it depends chiefly on this, Will,--whether there is any one else.
For anything we know, she may be engaged now."

"Of course she may." Then Belton speculated on the extreme
probability of such a contingency; arguing within his own heart that
of course every unmarried man who might see Clara would want to marry
her, and that there could not but be some one whom even she would be
able to love.

When he had been home about a fortnight, there came a letter to him
from Clara, which was a great treasure to him. In truth, it simply
told him of the completion of the cattle-shed, of her father's
health, and of the milk which the little cow gave; but she signed
herself his affectionate cousin, and the letter was very gratifying
to him. There were two lines of a postscript, which could not but
flatter him:--"Papa is so anxious for Christmas, that you may be here
again;--and so, indeed, am I also." Of course it will be understood
that this was written before Clara's visit to Perivale, and before
Mrs. Winterfield's death. Indeed, much happened in Clara's history
between the writing of that letter and Will Belton's winter visit to
the Castle.

But Christmas came at last, all too slowly for Will;--and he started
on his journey. On this occasion he arranged to stay a week in
London, having a lawyer there whom he desired to see; and thinking,
perhaps, that a short time spent among the theatres might assist him
in his love troubles.



CHAPTER XIV.

MR. WILLIAM BELTON TAKES A WALK IN LONDON.


At the time of my story there was a certain Mr. Green, a worthy
attorney, who held chambers in Stone Buildings, Lincoln's Inn, much
to the profit of himself and family,--and to the profit and comfort
also of a numerous body of clients,--a man much respected in the
neighbourhood of Chancery Lane, and beloved, I do not doubt, in the
neighbourhood of Bushey, in which delightfully rural parish he was
possessed of a genteel villa and ornamental garden. With Mr. Green's
private residence we shall, I believe, have no further concern; but
to him at his chambers in Stone Buildings I must now introduce the
reader of these memoirs. He was a man not yet forty years of age,
with still much of the salt of youth about him, a pleasant companion
as well as a good lawyer, and one who knew men and things in London,
as it is given to pleasant clever fellows, such as Joseph Green, to
know them. Now Mr. Green, and his father before him, had been the
legal advisers of the Amedroz family, and our Mr. Joseph Green had
had but a bad time of it with Charles Amedroz in the last years of
that unfortunate young man's life. But lawyers endure these troubles,
submitting themselves to the extravagances, embarrassments, and even
villany of the bad subjects among their clients' families, with a
good-humoured patience that is truly wonderful. That, however, was
all over now as regarded Mr. Green and the Amedrozes, and he had
nothing further to do but to save for the father what relics of the
property he might secure. And he was also legal adviser to our friend
Will Belton, there having been some old family connection among them,
and had often endeavoured to impress upon his old client at Belton
Castle his own strong conviction that the heir was a generous fellow,
who might be trusted in everything. But this had been taken amiss
by the old squire, who, indeed, was too much disposed to take all
things amiss and to suspect everybody. "I understand," he had said
to his daughter. "I know all about it. Belton and Mr. Green have
been dear friends always. I can't trust my own lawyer any longer." In
all which the old squire showed much ingratitude. It will, however,
be understood that these suspicions were rife before the time of
Belton's visit to the family estate.

Some four or five days before Christmas there came a visitor to Mr.
Green with whom the reader is acquainted, and who was no less a man
than the Member for Perivale. Captain Aylmer, when Clara parted from
him on the morning of her return to Belton Castle, had resolved that
he would repeat his offer of marriage by letter. A month had passed
by since then, and he had not as yet repeated it. But his intention
was not altered. He was a deliberate man, who did not do such things
quite as quickly as his rival, and who upon this occasion had thought
it prudent to turn over more than once in his mind all that he
proposed to do. Nor had he as yet taken any definite steps as to that
fifteen hundred pounds which he had promised to Clara in her aunt's
name, and which Clara had been, and was, so unwilling to receive. He
had now actually paid it over, having purchased government stock in
Clara's name for the amount, and had called upon Mr. Green, in order
that that gentleman, as Clara's lawyer, might make the necessary
communication to her.

"I suppose there's nothing further to be done?" asked Captain Aylmer.

"Nothing further by me," said the lawyer. "Of course I shall write to
her, and explain that she must make arrangements as to the interest.
I am very glad that her aunt thought of her in her last moments."

"Mrs. Winterfield would have provided for her before, had she known
that everything had been swallowed up by that unfortunate young man."

"All's well that ends well. Fifteen hundred pounds are better than
nothing."

"Is it not enough?" said the Captain, blushing.

"It isn't for me to have an opinion about that, Captain Aylmer.
It depends on the nature of the claim; and that again depends on
the relative position of the aunt and niece when they were alive
together."

"You are aware that Miss Amedroz was not Mrs. Winterfield's niece?"

"Do not think for a moment that I am criticising the amount of the
legacy. I am very glad of it, as, without it, there was literally no
provision,--no provision at all."

"You will write to herself?"

"Oh yes, certainly to herself. She is a better man of business than
her father;--and then this is her own, to do as she likes with it."

"She can't refuse it, I suppose?"

"Refuse it!"

"Even though she did not wish to take it, it would be legally her
property, just as though it had been really left by the will?"

"Well; I don't know. I dare say you could have resisted the payment.
But that has been made now, and there seems to be an end of it."

At this moment a clerk entered the room and handed a card to his
employer. "Here's the heir himself," said Mr. Green.

"What heir?"

"Will Belton;--the heir of the property which Mr. Amedroz holds."
Captain Aylmer had soon explained that he was not personally
acquainted with Mr. William Belton; but, having heard much about
him, declared himself anxious to make the acquaintance. Our friend
Will, therefore, was ushered into the room, and the two rivals for
Clara's favour were introduced to each other. Each had heard much
of the other, and each had heard of the other from the same person.
But Captain Aylmer knew much more as to Belton than Belton knew in
respect to him. Aylmer knew that Belton had proposed to Clara and had
been rejected; and he knew also that Belton was now again going down
to Somersetshire.

"You are to spend your Christmas, I believe, with our friends at
Belton Castle?" said the Captain.

"Yes;--and am now on my way there. I believe you know them
also,--intimately." Then there was some explanation as to the
Winterfield connection, a few remarks as to the precarious state of
the old squire's health, a message or two from Captain Aylmer, which
of course were of no importance, and the Captain took his leave.

Then Green and Belton became very comfortably intimate in their
conversation, calling each other Will and Joe,--for they were old
and close friends. And they discussed matters in that cozy tone of
confidential intercourse which is so directly at variance with the
tones used by men when they ordinarily talk of business. "He has
brought me good news for your friend, Miss Amedroz," said the lawyer.

"What good news?"

"That aunt of hers left her fifteen hundred pounds, after all. Or
rather, she did not leave it, but desired on her death-bed that it
might be given."

"That's the same thing, I suppose?"

"Oh quite;--that is to say, it's the same thing if the person who has
to hand over the money does not dispute the legacy. But it shows how
the old lady's conscience pricked her at last. And after all it was a
shabby sum, and should have been three times as much."

"Fifteen hundred pounds! And that is all she will have when her
father dies?"

"Every farthing, Will. You'll take all the rest."

"I wish she wasn't going to have that."

"Why? Why on earth should you of all men grudge her such a moderate
maintenance, seeing that you have not got to pay it?"

"It isn't a maintenance. How could it be a maintenance for such as
her? What sort of maintenance would it be?"

"Much better than nothing. And so you would feel if she were your
daughter."

"She shall be my daughter, or my sister, or whatever you like to call
her. You don't think that I'll take the whole estate and leave her to
starve on the interest of fifteen hundred pounds a year!"

"You'd better make her your wife at once, Will."

Will Belton blushed as he answered, "That, perhaps, would be easier
said than done. That is not in my power,--even if I should wish it.
But the other is in my power."

"Will, take my advice, and don't make any romantic promises when you
are down at Belton. You'll be sure to regret them if you do. And you
should remember that in truth Miss Amedroz has no greater claim on
you than any other lady in the land."

"Isn't she my cousin?"

"Well;--yes. She is your cousin, but a distant one only; and I'm not
aware that cousinship gives any claim."

"Who is she to have a claim on? I'm the nearest she has got. Besides,
am not I going to take all the property which ought to be hers?"

"That's just it. There's no such ought in the case. The property is
as much your own as this poker is mine. That's exactly the mistake I
want you to guard against. If you liked her, and chose to marry her,
that would be all very well; presuming that you don't want to get
money in marriage."

"I hate the idea of marrying for money."

"All right. Then marry Miss Amedroz if you please. But don't make any
rash undertakings to be her father, or her brother, or her uncle, or
her aunt. Such romance always leads a man into trouble."

"But I've done it already."

"What do you mean?"

"I've told her that I would be her brother, and that as long as I had
a shilling she should never want sixpence. And I mean it. And as for
what you say about romance and repenting it, that simply comes from
your being a lawyer."

"Thank ye, Will."

"If one goes to a chemist, of course one gets physic, and has to put
up with the bad smells."

"Thank you again."

"But the chemist may be a very good sort of fellow at home all the
same, and have a cupboard full of sweetmeats and a garden full of
flowers. However, the thing is done as far as I am concerned, and I
can almost find it in my heart to be sorry that Clara has got this
driblet of money. Fifteen hundred pounds! It would keep her out of
the workhouse, and that is about all."

"If you knew how many ladies in her position would think that the
heavens had rained wealth upon them if some one would give them
fifteen hundred pounds!"

"Very well. At any rate I won't take it away from her. And now I want
you to tell me something else. Do you remember a fellow we used to
know named Berdmore?"

"Philip Berdmore?"

"He may have been Philip, or Daniel, or Jeremiah, for anything I
know. But the man I mean was very much given to taking his liquor
freely."

"That was Jack Berdmore, Philip's brother. Oh yes, I remember him.
He's dead now. He drank himself to death at last, out in India."

"He was in the army?"

"Yes;--and what a pleasant fellow he was at times! I see Phil
constantly, and Phil's wife, but they never speak of Jack."

"He got married, didn't he, after we used to see him?"

"Oh yes;--he and Phil married sisters. It was a sad affair, that."

"I remember being with him and her,--and the sister too, after they
were engaged, and he got so drunk that we were obliged to take him
away. There was a large party of us at Richmond, but I don't think
you were there."

"But I heard of it."

"And she was a Miss Vigo?"

"Exactly. I see the younger sister constantly. Phil isn't very rich,
and he's got a lot of children,--but he's very happy."

"What became of the other sister?"

"Of Jack's wife?"

"Yes. What became of her?"

"I haven't an idea. Something bad, I suppose, as they never speak of
her."

"And how long is he dead?"

"He died about three years since. I only knew it from Phil's telling
me that he was in mourning for him. Then he did speak of him for a
moment or two, and I came to know that he had carried on to the end
in the same way. If a fellow takes to drink in this country, he'll
never get cured in India."

"I suppose not."

"Never."

"And now I want to find out something about his widow."

"And why?"

"Ah;--I'm not sure that I can tell you why. Indeed I'm sure that I
cannot. But still you might be able to assist me."

"There were heaps of people who used to know the Vigos," said the
lawyer.

"No end of people,--though I couldn't for the life of me say who any
of them were."

"They used to come out in London with an aunt, but nobody knew much
about her. I fancy they had neither father nor mother."

"They were very pretty."

"And how well they danced! I don't think I ever knew a girl who
danced so pleasantly,--giving herself no airs, you know,--as Mary
Vigo."

"Her name was Mary," said Belton, remembering that Mrs. Askerton's
name was also Mary.

"Jack Berdmore married Mary."

"Well now, Joe, you must find out for me what became of her. Was she
with her husband when he died?"

"Nobody was with him. Phil told me so. No one, that is, but a young
lieutenant and his own servant. It was very sad. He had D.T., and all
that sort of thing."

"And where was she?"

"At Jericho, for anything that I know."

"Will you find out?" Then Mr. Joseph Green thought for a moment of
his capabilities in that line, and having made an engagement to dine
with his friend at his club on the evening before Will left London,
said at last that he thought he could find out through certain mutual
friends who had known the Berdmores in the old days. "But the fact
is," said the lawyer, "that the world is so good-natured,--instead of
being ill-natured, as people say,--that it always forgets those who
want to be forgotten."

We must now go back for a few moments to Captain Aylmer and his
affairs. Having given a full month to the consideration of his
position as regarded Miss Amedroz, he made up his mind to two things.
In the first place, he would at once pay over to her the money
which was to be hers as her aunt's legacy, and then he would renew
his offer. To that latter determination he was guided by mixed
motives,--by motives which, when joined together, rarely fail to be
operative. His conscience told him that he ought to do so,--and then
the fact of her having, as it were, taken herself away from him, made
him again wish to possess her. And there was another cause which,
perhaps, operated in the same direction. He had consulted his mother,
and she had strongly advised him to have nothing further to do with
Miss Amedroz. Lady Aylmer abused her dead sister heartily for having
interfered in the matter, and endeavoured to prove to her son that
he was released from his promise by having in fact performed it. But
on this point his conscience interfered,--backed by his wishes,--and
he made his resolve as has been above stated. On leaving Mr. Green's
chambers he went to his own lodgings, and wrote his letter, as
follows:--


   Mount Street, December, 186--.

   DEAREST CLARA,

   When you parted from me at Perivale you said certain
   things about our engagement which I have come to
   understand better since then, than I did at the time.
   It escaped from me that my dear aunt and I had had some
   conversation about you, and that I had told her what was
   my intention. Something was said about a promise, and I
   think it was that word which made you unhappy. At such a
   time as that, when I and my aunt were talking together,
   and when she was, as she well knew, on her deathbed,
   things will be said which would not be thought of in other
   circumstances. I can only assure you now, that the promise
   I gave her was a promise to do that which I had previously
   resolved upon doing. If you can believe what I say on this
   head, that ought to be sufficient to remove the feeling
   which induced you to break our engagement.

   I now write to renew my offer to you, and to assure you
   that I do so with my whole heart. You will forgive me if
   I tell you that I cannot fail to remember, and always to
   bear in my mind, the sweet assurances which you gave me of
   your regard for myself. As I do not know that anything has
   occurred to alter your opinion of me, I write this letter
   in strong hope that it may be successful. I believe that
   your fear was in respect to my affection for you, not as
   to yours for me. If this was so, I can assure you that
   there is no necessity for such fear.

   I need not tell you that I shall expect your answer with
   great anxiety.

   Yours most affectionately,

   F. F. AYLMER.

   P.S. I have to-day caused to be bought in your name Bank
   Stock to the amount of fifteen hundred pounds, the amount
   of the legacy coming to you from my aunt.


This letter, and that from Mr. Green respecting the money, both
reached Clara on the same morning. Now, having learned so much as to
the position of affairs at Belton Castle, we may return to Will and
his dinner engagement with Mr. Joseph Green.

"And what have you heard about Mrs. Berdmore?" Belton asked, almost
as soon as the two men were together.

"I wish I knew why you want to know."

"I don't want to do anybody any harm."

"Do you want to do anybody any good?"

"Any good! I can't say that I want to do any particular good. The
truth is, I think I know where she is, and that she is living under a
false name."

"Then you know more of her than I do."

"I don't know anything. I'm only in doubt. But as the lady I mean
lives near to friends of mine, I should like to know."

"That you may expose her?"

"No;--by no means. But I hate the idea of deceit. The truth is, that
any one living anywhere under a false name should be exposed,--or
should be made to assume their right name."

"I find that Mrs. Berdmore left her husband some years before he
died. There was nothing in that to create wonder, for he was a man
with whom a woman could hardly continue to live. But I fear she left
him under protection that was injurious to her character."

"And how long ago is that?"

"I do not know. Some years before his death."

"And how long ago did he die?"

"About three years since. My informant tells me that he believes she
has since married. Now you know all that I know." And Belton also
knew that Mrs. Askerton of the cottage was the Miss Vigo with whom he
had been acquainted in earlier years.

After that they dined comfortably, and nothing passed between them
which need be recorded as essential to our story till the time came
for them to part. Then, when they were both standing at the club
door, the lawyer said a word or two which is essential. "So you're
off to-morrow?" said he.

"Yes; I shall go down by the express."

"I wish you a pleasant journey. By-the-by, I ought to tell you that
you won't have any trouble in being either father or mother, or uncle
or aunt to Miss Amedroz."

"Why not?"

"I suppose it's no secret."

"What's no secret?"

"She's going to be married to Captain Aylmer."

Then Will Belton started so violently, and assumed on a sudden so
manifest a look of anger, that his tale was at once told to Mr.
Green. "Who says so?" he asked. "I don't believe it."

"I'm afraid it's true all the same, Will."

"Who says it?"

"Captain Aylmer was with me to-day, and he told me. He ought to be
good authority on such a subject."

"He told you that he was going to marry Clara Amedroz?"

"Yes, indeed."

"And what made him come to you, to tell you?"

"There was a question about some money which he had paid to her, and
which, under existing circumstances, he thought it as well that he
should not pay. Matters of that kind are often necessarily told to
lawyers. But I should not have told it to you, Will, if I had not
thought that it was good news."

"It is not good news," said Belton moodily.

"At any rate, old fellow, my telling it will do no harm. You must
have learned it soon." And he put his hand kindly,--almost tenderly,
on the other's arm. But Belton moved himself away angrily. The wound
had been so lately inflicted that he could not as yet forgive the
hand that had seemed to strike him.

"I'm sorry that it should be so bad with you, Will."

"What do you mean by bad? It is not bad with me. It is very well
with me. Keep your pity for those who want it." Then he walked off
by himself across the broad street before the club door, leaving
his friend without a word of farewell, and made his way up into St.
James's Square, choosing, as was evident to Mr. Green, the first
street that would take him out of sight.

"He's hit, and hit hard," said the lawyer, looking after him. "Poor
fellow! I might have guessed it from what he said. I never knew of
his caring for any woman before." Then Mr. Green put on his gloves
and went away home.

We will now follow Will Belton into St. James's Square, and we shall
follow a very unhappy gentleman. Doubtless he had hitherto known and
appreciated the fact that Miss Amedroz had refused his offer, and had
often declared, both to himself and to his sister, his conviction
that that refusal would never be reversed. But, in spite of that
expressed conviction, he had lived on hope. Till she belonged to
another man she might yet be his. He might win her at last by
perseverance. At any rate he had it in his power to work towards the
desired end, and might find solace even in that working. And the
misery of his loss would not be so great to him,--as he found himself
forced to confess to himself before he had completed his wanderings
on this night,--in not having her for his own, as it would be in
knowing that she had given herself to another man. He had often told
himself that of course she would become the wife of some man, but he
had never yet realised to himself what it would be to know that she
was the wife of any one specified rival. He had been sad enough on
that moonlight night in the avenue at Plaistow,--when he had leaned
against the tree, striking his hands together as he thought of his
great want; but his unhappiness then had been as nothing to his agony
now. Now it was all over,--and he knew the man who had supplanted
him!

How he hated him! With what an unchristian spirit did he regard that
worthy captain as he walked across St. James's Square, across Jermyn
Street, across Piccadilly, and up Bond Street, not knowing whither he
was going. He thought with an intense regret of the laws of modern
society which forbid duelling,--forgetting altogether that even had
the old law prevailed, the conduct of the man whom he so hated would
have afforded him no _casus belli_. But he was too far gone in misery
and animosity to be capable of any reason on the matter. Captain
Aylmer had interfered with his dearest wishes, and during this now
passing hour he would willingly have crucified Captain Aylmer had
it been within his power to do so. Till he had gone beyond Oxford
Street, and had wandered away into the far distance of Portman Square
and Baker Street, he had not begun to think of any interest which
Clara Amedroz might have in the matter on which his thoughts were
employed. He was sojourning at an hotel in Bond Street, and had gone
thitherwards more by habit than by thought; but he had passed the
door of his inn, feeling it to be impossible to render himself up to
his bed in his present disturbed mood. As he was passing the house
in Bond Street he had been intent on the destruction of Captain
Aylmer,--and had almost determined that if Captain Aylmer could not
be made to vanish into eternity, he must make up his mind to go that
road himself.

It was out of the question that he should go down to Belton. As to
that he had come to a very decided opinion by the time that he had
crossed Oxford Street. Go down to see her, when she had treated him
after this fashion! No, indeed. She wanted no brother now. She had
chosen to trust herself to this other man, and he, Will Belton,
would not interfere further in her affairs. Then he drew upon his
imagination for a picture of the future, in which he portrayed
Captain Aylmer as a ruined man, who would probably desert his wife,
and make himself generally odious to all his acquaintance--a picture
as to the realisation of which I am bound to say that Captain
Aylmer's antecedents gave no probability. But it was the looking
at this self-drawn picture which first softened the artist's heart
towards the victim whom he had immolated on his imaginary canvas.
When Clara should be ruined by the baseness and villany and general
scampishness of this man whom she was going to marry,--to whom she
was about to be weak enough and fool enough to trust herself,--then
he would interpose and be her brother once again,--a broken-hearted
brother no doubt, but a brother efficacious to keep the wolf from
the door of this poor woman and her--children. Then, as he thus
created Captain Aylmer's embryo family of unprovided orphans,--for
after a while he killed the captain, making him to die some death
that was very disgraceful, but not very distinct even to his own
imagination,--as he thought of those coming pledges of a love which
was to him so bitter, he stormed about the streets, performing antics
of which no one would have believed him capable, who had known him as
the thriving Mr. William Belton, of Plaistow Hall, among the fens of
Norfolk.

But the character of a man is not to be judged from the pictures
which he may draw or from the antics which he may play in his
solitary hours. Those who act generally with the most consummate
wisdom in the affairs of the world, often meditate very silly doings
before their wiser resolutions form themselves. I beg, therefore,
that Mr. Belton may be regarded and criticised in accordance with his
conduct on the following morning,--when his midnight rambles, which
finally took him even beyond the New Road, had been followed by a few
tranquil hours in his Bond Street bedroom:--for at last he did bring
himself to return thither and put himself to bed after the usual
fashion. He put himself to bed in a spirit somewhat tranquillised by
the exercise of the night, and at last--wept himself to sleep like a
baby.

But he was by no means like a baby when he took him early on the
following morning to the Paddington Station, and booked himself
manfully for Taunton. He had had time to recognise the fact that he
had no ground of quarrel with his cousin because she had preferred
another man to him. This had happened to him as he was recrossing
the New Road about two o'clock, and was beginning to find that his
legs were weary under him. And, indeed, he had recognised one or two
things before he had gone to sleep with his tears dripping on to his
pillow. In the first place, he had ill-treated Joe Green, and had
made a fool of himself in his friend's presence. As Joe Green was a
sensible, kind-hearted fellow, this did not much signify;--but not
on that account did he omit to tell himself of his own fault. Then
he discovered that it would ill become him to break his word to Mr.
Amedroz and to his daughter, and to do so without a word of excuse,
because Clara had exercised a right which was indisputably her own.
He had undertaken certain work at Belton which required his presence,
and he would go down and do his work as though nothing had occurred
to disturb him. To remain away because of this misfortune would be to
show the white feather. It would be unmanly. All this he recognised
as the pictures he had painted faded away from their canvases. As to
Captain Aylmer himself, he hoped that he might never be called upon
to meet him. He still hoped that, even as he was resolutely cramming
his shirts into his portmanteau before he began his journey. His
cousin Clara he thought he could meet, and tender to her some
expression of good wishes as to her future life, without giving way
under the effort. And to the old squire he could endeavour to make
himself pleasant, speaking of the relief from all trouble which this
marriage with Captain Aylmer would afford,--for now, in his cooler
moments, he could perceive that Captain Aylmer was not a man apt
to ruin himself, or his wife and children. But to Captain Aylmer
himself, he could not bring himself to say pleasant things or to
express pleasant wishes. She who was to be Captain Aylmer's wife, who
loved him, would of course have told him what had occurred up among
the rocks in Belton Park; and if that was so, any meeting between
Will and Captain Aylmer would be death to the former.

Thinking of all this he journeyed down to Taunton, and thinking of
all this he made his way from Taunton across to Belton Park.



CHAPTER XV.

EVIL WORDS.


Clara Amedroz had received her two letters together,--that, namely,
from the attorney, and that from Captain Aylmer,--and the result of
those letters is already known. She accepted her lover's renewed
offer of marriage, acknowledging the force of his logic, and putting
faith in the strength of his assurances. This she did without seeking
advice from any one. Who was there from whom she could seek advice on
such a matter as that?--who, at least, was there at Belton? That her
father would, as a matter of course, bid her accept Captain Aylmer,
was, she thought, certain; and she knew well that Mrs. Askerton would
do the same. She asked no counsel from any one, but taking the two
letters up to her own room, sat down to consider them. That which
referred to her aunt's money, together with the postscript in Captain
Aylmer's letter on the same subject, would be of the least possible
moment if she could bring herself to give a favourable answer to the
other proposition. But should she not be able to do this,--should she
hesitate as to doing so at once,--then she must write to the lawyer
in very strong terms, refusing altogether to have anything to do with
the money. And in such a case as this, not a word could she say to
her father either on one subject or on the other.

But why should she not accept the offer made to her? Captain Aylmer
declared that he had determined to ask her to be his wife before he
had made any promise to Mrs. Winterfield. If this were in truth so,
then the very ground on which she had separated herself from him
would be removed. Why should she hesitate in acknowledging to herself
that she loved the man and believed him to be true? So she sat
herself down and answered both the letters,--writing to the lawyer
first. To him she said that nothing need be done about the money or
the interest till he should see or hear from Captain Aylmer again.
Then to Captain Aylmer she wrote very shortly, but very openly,--with
the same ill-judged candour which her spoken words to him had
displayed. Of course she would be his; his without hesitation, now
that she knew that he expressed his own wishes, and not merely
those of his aunt. "As to the money," she said, "it would be simply
nonsense now for us to have any talk of money. It is yours in any
way, and you had better manage about it as you please. I have written
an ambiguous letter to Mr. Green, which will simply plague him, and
which you may go and see if you like." Then she added her postscript,
in which she said that she should now at once tell her father, as
the news would remove from his mind all solicitude as to her future
position. That Captain Aylmer did go to Mr. Green we already know,
and we know also that he told Mr. Green of his intended marriage.

Nothing was said by Captain Aylmer as to any proposed period for
their marriage; but that was only natural. It was not probable that
any man would name a day till he knew whether or not he was accepted.
Indeed, Clara, on thinking over the whole affair, was now disposed to
find fault rather with herself than with her lover, and forgetting
his coldness and formality at Perivale, remembered only the fact of
his offer to her, and his assurance now received that he had intended
to make it before the scene which had taken place between him and
his aunt. She did find fault with herself, telling herself that
she had quarrelled with him without sufficient cause;--and the
eager, loving candour of her letter to him was attributable to those
self-accusations.

"Papa," she said, after the postman had gone away from Belton, so
that there might be no possibility of any recall of her letter, "I
have something to tell you which I hope will give you pleasure."

"It isn't often that I hear anything of that kind," said he.

"But I think that this will give you pleasure. I do indeed. I am
going to be married."

"Going to what?"

"Going to be married, papa. That is, if I have your leave. Of course
any offer of that kind that I have accepted is subject to your
approval."

"And I have been told nothing about it!"

"It began at Perivale, and I could not tell you then. You do not ask
me who is to be my husband."

"It is not Will Belton?"

"Poor Will! No; it is not Will. It is Frederic Aylmer. I think you
would prefer him as a son-in-law even to my cousin Will."

"No I shouldn't. Why should I prefer a man whom I don't even know,
who lives in London, and who will take you away, so that I shall
never see you again?"

"Dear papa;--don't speak of it in that way. I thought you would be
glad to know that I was to be so--so--so happy!"

"But why is it to be done this way,--of a sudden? Why didn't he come
to me? Will came to me the very first thing."

"He couldn't come all the way to Belton very well;--particularly as
he does not know you."

"Will came here."

"Oh, papa, don't make difficulties. Of course that was different. He
was here when he first thought of it. And even then he didn't think
very much about it."

"He did all that he could, I suppose?"

"Well;--yes. I don't know how that might be." And Clara almost
laughed as she felt the difficulties into which she was creeping.
"Dear Will. He is much better as a cousin than as a husband."

"I don't see that at all. Captain Aylmer will not have the Belton
estate or Plaistow Hall."

"Surely he is well enough off to take care of a wife. He will have
the whole of the Perivale estate, you know."

"I don't know anything about it. According to my ideas of what is
proper he should have spoken to me first. If he could not come he
might have written. No doubt my ideas may be old-fashioned, and I'm
told that Captain Aylmer is a fashionable young man."

"Indeed he is not, papa. He is a hard-working member of Parliament."

"I don't know that he is any better for that. People seem to think
that if a man is a member of Parliament he may do what he pleases.
There is Thompson, the member for Minehead, who has bought some sort
of place out by the moors. I never saw so vulgar, pig-headed a fellow
in my life. Being in Parliament used to be something when I was
young, but it won't make a man a gentleman now-a-days. It seems to
me that none but brewers, and tallow-chandlers, and lawyers go into
Parliament now. Will Belton could go into Parliament if he pleased,
but he knows better than that. He won't make himself such a fool."

This was not comfortable to Clara; but she knew her father, and
allowed him to go on with his grumbling. He would come round by
degrees, and he would appreciate, if he could not be induced to
acknowledge, the wisdom of the step she was about to take.

"When is it to be?" he asked.

"Nothing of that kind has ever been mentioned, papa."

"It had better be soon, if I am to have anything to do with it." Now
it was certainly the case that the old man was very ill. He had not
been out of the house since Clara had returned home; and, though he
was always grumbling about his food, he could hardly be induced to
eat anything when the morsels for which he expressed a wish were got
for him.

"Of course you will be consulted, papa, before anything is settled."

"I don't want to be in anybody's way, my dear."

"And may I tell Frederic that you have given your consent?"

"What's the use of my consenting or not consenting? If you had been
anxious to oblige me you would have taken your cousin Will."

"Oh, papa, how could I accept a man I didn't love?"

"You seemed to me to be very fond of him at first; and I must say, I
thought he was ill-treated."

"Papa, papa; do not say such things as that to me!"

"What am I to do? You tell me, and I can't altogether hold my
tongue." Then there was a pause. "Well, my dear, as for my consent,
of course you may have it,--if it's worth anything. I don't know that
I ever heard anything bad about Captain Aylmer."

He had heard nothing bad about Captain Aylmer! Clara, as she left her
father, felt that this was very grievous. Whatever cause she might
have had for discontent with her lover, she could not but be aware
that he was a man whom any father might be proud to welcome as a
suitor for his daughter. He was a man as to whom no ill tales had
ever been told;--who had never been known to do anything wrong or
imprudent; who had always been more than respectable, and as to whose
worldly position no exception could be taken. She had been entitled
to expect her father's warmest congratulations, and her tidings had
been received as though she had proposed to give her hand to one
whose character and position only just made it not imperative on the
father to withhold his consent! All this was hard, and feeling it
to be so, she went up-stairs, all alone, and cried bitterly as she
thought of it.

On the next day she went down to the cottage and saw Mrs. Askerton.
She went there with the express purpose of telling her friend of her
engagement,--desirous of obtaining in that quarter the sympathy which
her father declined to give her. Had her communication to him been
accepted in a different spirit, she might probably have kept her
secret from Mrs. Askerton till something further had been fixed about
her marriage; but she was in want of a few kind words, and pined
for some of that encouragement which ladies in love usually wish to
receive, at any rate from some one chosen friend. But when she found
herself alone with Mrs. Askerton she hardly knew how to tell her
news; and at first could not tell it at all, as that lady was eager
in speaking on another subject.

"When do you expect your cousin?" Mrs. Askerton asked, almost as soon
as Clara was seated.

"The day after to-morrow."

"And he is in London now?"

"He may be. I dare say he is. But I don't know anything about it."

"I can tell you then that he is. Colonel Askerton has heard of his
being there."

"You seem to speak of it as though there were some offence in it. Is
there any reason why he should not be in London if he pleases?"

"None in the least. I would much rather that he should be there than
here."

"Why so? Will his coming hurt you?"

"I don't like him. I don't like him at all;--and now you know the
truth. You believe in him;--I don't. You think him to be a fine
fellow and a gentleman, whereas I don't think him to be either."

"Mrs. Askerton!"

"This is strong language, I know."

"Very strong language."

"Yes, my dear; but the truth is, Clara, that you and I, living
together here this sort of hermit's life, each seeing so much of
the other and seeing nothing of anybody else, must either be real
friends, telling each other what we think, or we must be nothing. We
can't go on with the ordinary make-believes of society, saying little
civil speeches and not going beyond them. Therefore I have made up my
mind to tell you in plain language that I don't like your cousin, and
don't believe in him."

"I don't know what you mean by believing in a man."

"I believe in you. Sometimes I have thought that you believe in me,
and sometimes I have feared that you do not. I think that you are
good, and honest, and true; and therefore I like to see your face and
hear your voice,--though it is not often that you say very pleasant
things to me."

"Do I say unpleasant things?"

"I am not going to quarrel with you,--not if I can help it. What
business has Mr. Belton to go about London making inquiries as to me?
What have I done to him, that he should honour me so far?"

"Has he made inquiries?"

"Yes; he has. If you have been contented with me as I am,--if you are
satisfied, why should he want to learn more? If you have any question
to ask me I will answer it. But what right can he have to be asking
questions among strangers?"

Clara had no question to ask, and yet she could not say that she was
satisfied. She would have been better satisfied to have known more of
Mrs. Askerton, but yet she had never condescended to make inquiries
about her friend. But her curiosity was now greatly raised; and,
indeed, Mrs. Askerton's manner was so strange, her vehemence so
unusual, and her eagerness to rush into dangerous subjects so unlike
her usual tranquillity in conversation, that Clara did not know how
to answer her.

"I know nothing of any questioning," she said.

"I am sure you don't. Had I thought you did, much as I love
you,--valuable as your society is to me down in this desert,--I would
never speak to you again. But remember,--if you want to ask any
questions, and will ask them of me,--of me,--I will answer them, and
will not be angry."

"But I don't want to ask any questions."

"You may some day; and then you can remember what I say."

"And am I to understand that you are determined to quarrel with my
cousin Will?"

"Quarrel with him! I don't suppose that I shall see him. After what
I have said it is not probable that you will bring him here, and the
servant will have orders to say that I am not at home if he should
call. Luckily he and Colonel Askerton did not meet when he was here
before."

"This is the most strange thing I ever heard in my life."

"You will understand it better, my dear, when he makes his
communication to you."

"What communication?"

"You'll find that he'll have a communication to make. He has been
so diligent and so sharp that he'll have a great deal to tell, I do
not doubt. Only, remember, Clara, that if anything that he tells you
makes any difference in your feelings towards me, I shall expect
you to come to me and say so openly. If he makes his statement, let
me make mine. I have a right to ask for that, after what I have
promised."

"You may be sure that I will."

"I want nothing more. I have no distrust in you,--none in the least.
I tell you that I believe in you. If you will do that, and will keep
Mr. William Belton out of my way during his visit to these parts,
I shall be satisfied." For some time past Mrs. Askerton had been
walking about the room, but, as she now finished speaking, she
sat herself down as though the subject was fully discussed and
completed. For a minute or two she made an effort to resume her usual
tranquillity of manner, and in doing so attempted to smile, as though
ridiculing her own energy. "I knew I should make a fool of myself
when you came," she said; "and now I have done it."

"I don't think you have been a fool at all, but you may have been
mistaken."

"Very well, my dear, we shall see. It's very odd what a dislike I
took to that man the first time I saw him."

"And I am so fond of him!"

"Yes; he has cozened you as he has your father. I am only glad that
he did not succeed in cozening you further than he did. But I ought
to have known you better than to suppose you could give your heart of
hearts to one who is--"

"Do not abuse him any more."

"Who is so very unlike the sort of people with whom you have lived. I
may, at any rate, say that."

"I don't know that. I haven't lived much with any one yet,--except
papa, and my aunt, and you."

"But you know a gentleman when you see him."

"Come, Mrs. Askerton, I will not stand this. I thought you had done
with the subject, and now you begin again. I had come here on purpose
to tell you something of real importance,--that is, to me; but I must
go away without telling you, unless you will give over abusing my
cousin."

"I will not say a word more about him,--not at present."

"I feel so sure that you are mistaken, you know."

"Very well;--and I feel sure that you are mistaken. We will leave it
so, and go to this matter of importance." But Clara felt it to be
very difficult to tell her tidings after such a conversation as that
which had just occurred. When she had entered the room her mind had
been tuned to the subject, and she could have found fitting words
without much difficulty to herself; but now her thoughts had been
scattered and her feelings hurt, and she did not know how to bring
herself back to the subject of her engagement. She paused, therefore,
and sat with a doubtful, hesitating look, meditating some mode of
escape. "I am all ears," said Mrs. Askerton; and Clara thought that
she discovered something of ridicule or of sarcasm in the tone of her
friend's voice.

"I believe I'll put it off till another day," she said.

"Why so? You don't think that anything really important to you will
not be important to me also?"

"I'm sure of that, but somehow--"

"You mean to say that I have ruffled you?"

"Well;--perhaps; a little."

"Then be unruffled again, like my own dear, honest Clara. I have been
ruffled too, but I'll be as tranquil now as a drawing-room cat." Then
Mrs. Askerton got up from her chair, and seated herself by Clara's
side on the sofa. "Come; you can't go till you've told me; and if you
hesitate, I shall think that you mean to quarrel with me."

"I'll come to you to-morrow."

"No, no; you shall tell me to-day. All to-morrow you'll be preparing
for your cousin."

"What nonsense!"

"Or else you'll come prepared to vindicate him, and then we shan't
get on any further. Tell me what it is to-day. You can't leave me in
curiosity after what you have said."

"You've heard of Captain Aylmer, I think."

"Of course I've heard of him."

"But you've never seen him?"

"You know I never have."

"I told you that he was at Perivale when Mrs. Winterfield died."

"And now he has proposed, and you are going to accept him? That will
indeed be important. Is it so?--say. But don't I know it is so? Why
don't you speak?"

"If you know it, why need I speak?"

"But it is so? Oh, Clara, I am so glad. I congratulate you with all
my heart,--with all my heart. My dearest, dearest Clara! What a happy
arrangement! What a success! It is just as it should be. Dear, good
man! to come forward in that sensible way, and put an end to all the
little family difficulties!"

"I don't know so much about success. Who is it that is successful?"

"You, to be sure."

"Then by the same measurement he must be unsuccessful."

"Don't be a fool, Clara."

"Of course I have been successful if I've got a man that I can love
as my husband."

"Now, my dear, don't be a fool. Of course all that is between you and
him, and I don't in the least doubt that it is all as it should be.
If Captain Aylmer had been the elder brother instead of the younger,
and had all the Aylmer estates instead of the Perivale property, I
know you would not accept him if you did not like him."

"I hope not."

"I am sure you would not. But when a girl with nothing a year has
managed to love a man with two or three thousand a year, and has
managed to be loved by him in return,--instead of going through the
same process with the curate or village doctor,--it is a success,
and her friends will always think so. And when a girl marries a
gentleman, and a member of Parliament, instead of--; well, I'm not
going to say anything personal,--her friends will congratulate her
upon his position. It may be very wicked, and mercenary, and all
that; but it's the way of the world."

"I hate hearing about the world."

"Yes, my dear; all proper young ladies like you do hate it. But I
observe that such girls as you never offend its prejudices. You can't
but know that you would have done a wicked as well as a foolish thing
to marry a man without an adequate income."

"But I needn't marry at all."

"And what would you live on then? Come Clara, we needn't quarrel
about that. I've no doubt he's charming, and beautiful, and--"

"He isn't beautiful at all; and as for charming--"

"He has charmed you at any rate."

"He has made me believe that I can trust him without doubt, and love
him without fear."

"An excellent man! And the income will be an additional comfort;
you'll allow that?"

"I'll allow nothing."

"And when is it to be?"

"Oh,--perhaps in six or seven years."

"Clara!"

"Perhaps sooner; but there's been no word said about time."

"Is not Mr. Amedroz delighted?"

"Not a bit. He quite scolded me when I told him."

"Why;--what did he want?"

"You know papa."

"I know he scolds at everything, but I shouldn't have thought he
would have scolded at that. And when does he come here?"

"Who come here?"

"Captain Aylmer."

"I don't know that he is coming at all."

"He must come to be married."

"All that is in the clouds as yet. I did not like to tell you,
but you mustn't suppose that because I've told you, everything is
settled. Nothing is settled."

"Nothing except the one thing?"

"Nothing else."

It was more than an hour after that before Clara went away, and when
she did so she was surprised to find that she was followed out of the
house by Colonel Askerton. It was quite dusk at this time, the days
being just at their shortest, and Colonel Askerton, according to his
custom, would have been riding, or returning from his ride. Clara
had been over two hours at the cottage, and had been aware when she
reached it that he had not as yet gone out. It appeared now that
he had not ridden at all, and, as she remembered to have seen his
horse led before the window, it at once occurred to her that he had
remained at home with the view of catching her as she went away. He
came up to her just as she was passing through the gate, and offered
her his right hand as he raised his hat with his left. It sometimes
happens to all of us in life that we become acquainted with persons
intimately,--that is, with an assumed intimacy,--whom in truth we
do not know at all. We meet such persons frequently, often eating
and drinking in their company, being familiar with their appearance,
and well-informed generally as to their concerns; but we never find
ourselves holding special conversations with them, or in any way
fitting the modes of our life to the modes of their life. Accident
has brought us together, and in one sense they are our friends. We
should probably do any little kindness for them, or expect the same
from them; but there is nothing in common between us, and there is
generally a mutual though unexpressed agreement that there shall
be nothing in common. Miss Amedroz was intimately acquainted with
Colonel Askerton after this fashion. She saw him very frequently, and
his name was often on her tongue; but she rarely, if ever, conversed
with him, and knew of his habits only from his wife's words
respecting them. When, therefore, he followed her through the garden
gate into the park, she was driven to suppose that he had something
special to say to her.

"I'm afraid you'll have a dark walk, Miss Amedroz," he said.

"It's only just across the park, and I know the way so well."

"Yes,--of course. I saw you coming out, and as I want to say a word
or two, I have ventured to follow you. When Mr. Belton was down here
I did not have the pleasure of meeting him."

"I remember that you missed each other."

"Yes, we did. I understand from my wife that he will be here again in
a day or two."

"He will be with us the day after to-morrow."

"I hope you will excuse my saying that it will be very desirable that
we should miss each other again." Clara felt that her face became
red with anger as she listened to Colonel Askerton's words. He spoke
slowly, as was his custom, and without any of that violence of
expression which his wife had used; but on that very account there
was more, if possible, of meaning in his words than in hers. William
Belton was her cousin, and such a speech as that which Colonel
Askerton had made, spoken with deliberation and unaccompanied by any
previous explanation, seemed to her almost to amount to insult. But
as she did not know how to answer him at the spur of the moment, she
remained silent. Then he continued, "You may be sure, Miss Amedroz,
that I should not make so strange a request to you if I had not good
reason for making it."

"I think it a very strange request."

"And nothing but a strong conviction of its propriety on my part
would have induced me to make it."

"If you do not want to see my cousin, why cannot you avoid him
without saying anything to me on the subject?"

"Because you would not then have understood as thoroughly as I wish
you to do why I kept out of his way. For my wife's sake,--and for
yours, if you will allow me to say so,--I do not wish to come to any
open quarrel with him; but if we met, a quarrel would, I think, be
inevitable. Mary has probably explained to you the nature of his
offence against us?"

"Mrs. Askerton has told me something as to which I am quite sure that
she is mistaken."

"I will say nothing about that, as I have no wish at all to set you
against your cousin. I will bid you good-night now as you are close
at home." Then he turned round and left her.

Clara, as she thought of all this, could not but call to mind her
cousin's remembrances about Miss Vigo and Mr. Berdmore. What if he
made some inquiry as to the correctness of his old recollections?
Nothing, she thought, could be more natural. And then she reflected
that, in the ordinary way of the world, persons feel none of that
violent objection to the asking of questions about their antecedents
which was now evinced by both Colonel and Mrs. Askerton. But of
one thing she felt quite assured,--that her cousin, Will Belton,
would make no inquiry which he ought not to make; and would make no
improper use of any information which he might obtain.



CHAPTER XVI.

THE HEIR'S SECOND VISIT TO BELTON.


Clara began to doubt whether any possible arrangement of the
circumstances of her life could be regarded as fortunate. She was
very fond, in a different degree and after a different fashion, of
both Captain Aylmer and Mr. Belton. As regarded both, her position
was now exactly what she herself would have wished. The man that
she loved was betrothed to her, and the other man, whom she loved
indeed also as a brother, was coming to her in that guise,--with the
understanding that that was to be his position. And yet everything
was going wrong! Her father, though he did not actually say anything
against Captain Aylmer, showed by a hundred little signs, of which
he was a skilful master, that the Aylmer alliance was distasteful to
him, and that he thought himself to be aggrieved in that his daughter
would not marry her cousin; whereas, over at the cottage, there was
a still more bitter feeling against Mr. Belton--a feeling so bitter,
that it almost induced Clara to wish that her cousin was not coming
to them.

But the cousin did come, and was driven up to the door in the gig
from Taunton, just as had been the case on his previous visit. Then,
however, he had come in the full daylight, and the hay-carts had been
about, and all the prettiness and warmth of summer had been there;
now it was mid-winter, and there had been some slight beginnings of
snow, and the wind was moaning about the old tower, and the outside
of the house looked very unpleasant from the hall-door. As it had
become dusk in the afternoon, the old squire had been very careful in
his orders as to preparations for Will's comfort,--as though Clara
would have forgotten all those things in the preoccupation of her
mind, caused by the constancy of her thoughts towards Will's rival.
He even went so far as to creep across the up-stairs landing-place to
see that the fire was lighted in Will's room, this being the first
time that he had left his chamber for many days,--and had given
special orders as to the food which was to be prepared for Will's
dinner,--in a very different spirit from that which had dictated
some former orders when Will was about to make his first visit, and
when his coming had been regarded by the old man as a heartless,
indelicate, and almost hostile proceeding.

"I wish I could go down to receive him," said Mr. Amedroz,
plaintively. "I hope he won't take it amiss."

"You may be sure he won't do that."

"Perhaps I can to-morrow."

"Dear papa, you had better not think of it till the weather is
milder."

"Milder! how is it to get milder at this time of the year?"

"Of course he'll come up to you, papa."

"He's very good. I know he's very good. No one else would do as
much."

Clara understood accurately what all this meant. Of course she was
glad that her father should feel so kindly towards her cousin, and
think so much of his coming; but every word said by the old man
in praise of Will Belton implied an equal amount of dispraise as
regarded Captain Aylmer, and contained a reproach against his
daughter for having refused the former and accepted the latter.

Clara was in the hall when Belton arrived, and received him as he
entered, enveloped in his damp great-coats. "It is so good of you to
come in such weather," she said.

"Nice seasonable weather, I call it," he said. It was the same
comfortable, hearty, satisfactory voice which had done so much
towards making his way for him on his first arrival at Belton Castle.
The voices to which Clara was most accustomed were querulous,--as
though the world had been found by the owners of them to be but a bad
place. But Belton's voice seemed to speak of cheery days and happy
friends, and a general state of things which made life worth having.
Nevertheless, forty-eight hours had not yet passed over his head
since he was walking about London in such misery that he had almost
cursed the hour in which he was born. His misery still remained with
him, as black now as it had been then; and yet his voice was cheery.
The sick birds, we are told, creep into holes, that they may die
alone and unnoticed; and the wounded beasts hide themselves that
their grief may not be seen of their fellows. A man has the same
instinct to conceal the weakness of his sufferings; but, if he be a
man, he hides it in his own heart, keeping it for solitude and the
watches of the night, while to the outer world he carries a face on
which his care has made no marks.

"You will be sorry to hear that papa is too ill to come down-stairs."

"Is he, indeed? I am truly sorry. I had heard he was ill; but did not
know he was so ill as that."

"Perhaps he fancies himself weaker than he is."

"We must try and cure him of that. I can see him, I hope?"

"Oh dear, yes. He is most anxious for you to go to him. As soon as
ever you can come up-stairs I will take you." He had already stripped
himself of his wrappings, and declaring himself ready, at once
followed Clara to the squire's room.

"I'm sorry, sir, to find you in this way," he said.

"I'm very poorly, Will;--very," said the squire, putting out his
hand as though he were barely able to lift it above his knee. Now it
certainly was the fact that half an hour before he had been walking
across the passage.

"We must see if we can't soon make you better among us," said Will.

The squire shook his head with a slow, melancholy movement, not
raising his eyes from the ground. "I don't think you'll ever see me
much better, Will," he said. And yet half an hour since he had been
talking of being down in the dining-room on the next day. "I shan't
trouble you much longer," said the squire. "You'll soon have it all
without paying rent for it."

This was very unpleasant, and almost frustrated Belton's attempts to
be cheery. But he persevered nevertheless. "It'll be a long time yet
before that day comes, sir."

"Ah; that's easily said. But never mind. Why should I want to remain
when I shall have once seen her properly settled. I've nothing to
live for except that she may have a home."

On this subject it was quite impossible that Belton should say
anything. Clara was standing by him, and she, as he knew, was engaged
to Captain Aylmer. So circumstanced, what could he say as to Clara's
settlement in life? That something should be said between him and the
old man, and something also between him and Clara, was a matter of
course; but it was quite out of the question that he should discuss
Clara's prospects in life in presence of them both together.

"Papa's illness makes him a little melancholy," said Clara.

"Of course,--of course. It always does," said Will.

"I think he will be better when the weather becomes milder," said
Clara.

"I suppose I may be allowed to know how I feel myself," said the
squire. "But don't keep Will up here when he wants his dinner. There;
that'll do. You'd better leave me now." Then Will went out to his old
room, and a quarter of an hour afterwards he found himself seated
with Clara at the dinner-table; and a quarter of an hour after that
the dinner was over, and they had both drawn their chairs to the
fire.

Neither of them knew how to begin with the other. Clara was under no
obligation to declare her engagement to her cousin, but yet she felt
that it would be unhandsome in her not to do so. Had Will never made
the mistake of wanting to marry her himself, she would have done so
as a matter of course. Had she supposed him to cherish any intention
of renewing that mistake she would have felt herself bound to tell
him,--so that he might save himself from unnecessary pain. But she
gave him credit for no such intention, and yet she could not but
remember that scene among the rocks. And then was she, or was she
not, to say anything to him about the Askertons? With him also the
difficulty was as great. He did not in truth believe that the tidings
which he had heard from his friend the lawyer required corroboration;
but yet it was necessary that he should know from herself that she
had disposed of her hand;--and it was necessary also that he should
say some word to her as to their future standing and friendship.

"You must be very anxious to see how your farm goes on," said she.

He had not thought much of his agricultural venture at Belton for
the last three or four days, and would hardly have been vexed had he
been told that every head of cattle about the place had died of the
murrain. Some general idea of the expediency of going on with a thing
which he had commenced still actuated him; but it was the principle
involved, and not the speculation itself, which interested him. But
he could not explain all this, and he therefore was driven to some
cold agreement with her. "The farm!--you mean the stock. Yes; I shall
go and have a look at them early to-morrow. I suppose they're all
alive."

"Pudge says that they are doing uncommonly well." Pudge was a leading
man among the Belton labourers, whom Will had hired to look after his
concerns.

"That's all right. I dare say Pudge knows quite as much about it as I
do."

"But the master's eye is everything."

"Pudge's eye is quite as good as mine; and probably much better, as
he knows the country."

"You used to say that it was everything for a man to look after his
own interests."

"And I do look after them. Pudge and I will go and have a look at
every beast to-morrow, and I shall look very wise and pretend to know
more about it than he does. In stock-farming the chief thing is not
to have too many beasts. They used to say that half-stocking was
whole profit, and whole-stocking was half profit. If the animals have
plenty to eat, and the rent isn't too high, they'll take care of
their owner."

"But then there is so much illness."

"I always insure."

Clara perceived that the subject of the cattle didn't suit the
present occasion. When he had before been at Belton he had liked
nothing so much as talking about the cattle-sheds, and the land, and
the kind of animals which would suit the place; but now the novelty
of the thing was gone,--and the farmer did not wish to talk of his
farm. In her anxiety to find a topic which would not be painful, she
went from the cattle to the cow. "You can't think what a pet Bessy
has been with us. And she seems to think that she is privileged to go
everywhere, and do anything."

"I hope they have taken care that she has had winter food."

"Winter food! Why Pudge, and all the Pudges, and all the family in
the house, and all your cattle would have to want, before Bessy would
be allowed to miss a meal. Pudge always says, with his sententious
shake of the head, that the young squire was very particular about
Bessy."

"Those Alderneys want a little care,--that's all."

Bessy was of no better service to Clara in her present difficulty
than the less aristocratic herd of common cattle. There was a pause
for a moment, and then she began again. "How did you leave your
sister, Will?"

"Much the same as usual. I think she has borne the first of the cold
weather better than she did last year."

"I do so wish that I knew her."

"Perhaps you will some day. But I don't suppose that you ever will."

"Why not?"

"It's not likely that you'll ever come to Plaistow now;--and Mary
never leaves it except to go to my uncle's."

Clara instantly knew that he had heard of her engagement, though
she could not imagine from what source he had heard it. There was
something in the tone of his voice,--something especially in the
expression of that word "now," which told her that it must be so.
"I should be so glad to go there if I could," she said, with that
special hypocrisy which belongs to women, and is allowed to them;
"but, of course, I cannot leave papa in his present state."

"And if you did leave him you would not go to Plaistow."

"Not unless you and Mary asked me."

"And you wouldn't if we did. How could you?"

"What do you mean, Will? It seems as though you were almost savage to
me."

"Am I? Well;--I feel savage, but not to you."

"Nor to any one, I hope, belonging to me." She knew that it was
all coming; that the whole subject of her future life must now be
discussed; and she began to fear that the discussion might not be
easy. But she did not know how to give it a direction. She feared
that he would become angry, and yet she knew not why. He had accepted
his own rejection tranquilly, and could hardly take it as an offence
that she should now be engaged to Captain Aylmer.

"Mr. Green has told me," said he, "that you are going to be married."

"How could Mr. Green have known?"

"He did know;--at least I suppose he knew, for he told me."

"How very odd."

"I suppose it is true?" Clara did not make any immediate answer, and
then he repeated the question. "I suppose it is true?"

"It is true that I am engaged."

"To Captain Aylmer?"

"Yes; to Captain Aylmer. You know that I had known him very long. I
hope that you are not angry with me because I did not write and tell
you. Strange as it may seem, seeing that you had heard it already, it
is not a week yet since it was settled; and had I written to you, I
could only have addressed my letter to you here."

"I wasn't thinking about that. I didn't specially want you to write
to me. What difference would it make?"

"But I should have felt that I owed it to your kindness and
your--regard for me."

"My regard! What's the use of regard?"

"You are not going to quarrel with me, Will,
because--because--because--. If you had really been my brother, as
you once said you would be, you could not but have approved of what
I have done."

"But I am not your brother."

"Oh, Will; that sounds so cruel!"

"I am not your brother, and I have no right to approve or
disapprove."

"I will not say that I could make my engagement with Captain Aylmer
dependent on your approval. It would not be fair to him to do so, and
it would put me into a false position."

"Have I asked you to make any such absurd sacrifice?"

"Listen to me, Will. I say that I could not do that. But, short of
that, there is nothing I would not do to satisfy you. I think so much
of your judgment and goodness, and so very much of your affection; I
love you so dearly, that--. Oh, Will, say a kind word to me!"

"A kind word; yes, but what sort of kindness?"

"You must know that Captain Aylmer--"

"Don't talk to me of Captain Aylmer. Have I said anything against
him? Have I ventured to make any objection? Of course, I know his
superiority to myself. I know that he is a man of the world, and that
I am not; that he is educated, and that I am ignorant; that he has a
position, and that I have none; that he has much to offer, and that I
have nothing. Of course, I see the difference; but that does not make
me comfortable."

"Will, I had learned to love him before I had ever seen you."

"Why didn't you tell me so, that I might have known there was no
hope, and have gone away utterly,--out of the kingdom? If it was all
settled then, why didn't you tell me, and save me from breaking my
heart with false hopes?"

"Nothing was settled then. I hardly knew my own mind; but yet I loved
him. There; cannot you understand it? Have I not told you enough?"

"Yes, I understand it."

"And do you blame me?"

He paused awhile before he answered her. "No; I do not blame you. I
suppose I must blame no one but myself. But you should bear with me.
I was so happy, and now I am so wretched."

There was nothing that she could say to comfort him. She had
altogether mistaken the nature of the man's regard, and had even
mistaken the very nature of the man. So much she now learned, and
could tell herself that had she known him better she would either
have prevented this second visit, or would have been careful that he
should have learned the truth from herself before he came. Now she
could only wait till he should again have got strength to hide his
suffering under the veil of his own manliness.

"I have not a word to say against what you are doing," he said at
last; "not a word. But you will understand what I mean when I tell
you that it is not likely that you will come to Plaistow."

"Some day, Will, when you have a wife of your own--"

"Very well; but we won't talk about that at present, if you please.
When I have, things will be different. In the meantime your course
and mine will be separate. You, I suppose, will be with him in
London, while I shall be,--at the devil as likely as not."

"How can you speak to me in that way? Is that like being my brother?"

"I don't feel like being your brother. However, I beg your pardon,
and now we will have done with it. Spilt milk can't be helped, and
my milk pans have got themselves knocked over. That's all. Don't you
think we ought to go up to your father again?"

On the following day Belton and Mr. Amedroz discussed the same
subject, but the conversation went off very quietly. Will was
determined not to exhibit his weakness before the father as he had
done before the daughter. When the squire, with a maundering voice,
drawled out some expression of regret that his daughter's choice had
not fallen in another place, Will was able to say that bygones must
be bygones. He regretted it also, but that was now over. And when
the squire endeavoured to say a few ill-natured words about Captain
Aylmer, Will stopped him at once by asserting that the Captain was
all that he ought to be.

"And it would have made me so happy to think that my daughter's child
should come to live in his grandfather's old house," murmured Mr.
Amedroz.

"And there's no knowing that he mayn't do so yet," said Will. "But
all these things are so doubtful that a man is wrong to fix his
happiness upon them." After that he went out to ramble about the
place, and before the third day was over Clara was able to perceive
that, in spite of what he had said, he was as busy about the cattle
as though his bread depended on them.

Nothing had been said as yet about the Askertons, and Clara had
resolved that their name should not first be mentioned by her. Mrs.
Askerton had prophesied that Will would have some communication to
make about herself, and Clara would at any rate see whether her
cousin would, of his own accord, introduce the subject. But three
days passed by, and he had made no allusion to the cottage or its
inhabitants. This in itself was singular, as the Askertons were
the only local friends whom Clara knew, and as Belton had become
personally acquainted with Mrs. Askerton. But such was the case;
and when Mr. Amedroz once said something about Mrs. Askerton in the
presence of both Clara and Belton, they both of them shrank from the
subject in a manner that made Clara understand that any conversation
about the Askertons was to be avoided. On the fourth day Clara saw
Mrs. Askerton, but then Will Belton's name was not mentioned. There
was therefore, among them all, a sense of some mystery which made
them uncomfortable, and which seemed to admit of no solution. Clara
was more sure than ever that her cousin had made no inquiries that he
should not have made, and that he would put no information that he
might have to an improper use. But of such certainty on her part she
could say nothing.

Three weeks passed by, and it seemed as though Belton's visit were
to come to an end without any further open trouble. Now and then
something was said about Captain Aylmer; but it was very little, and
Belton made no further reference to his own feelings. It had come
to be understood that his visit was to be limited to a month; and
to both him and Clara the month wore itself away slowly, neither
of them having much pleasure in the society of the other. The old
squire came down-stairs once for an hour or two, and spent the whole
time in bitter complaints. Everything was wrong, and everybody was
ill-treating him. Even with Will he quarrelled, or did his best to
quarrel, in regard to everything about the place, though at the
same time he did not cease to grumble at his visitor for going away
and leaving him. Belton bore it all so well that the grumbling
and quarrelling did not lead to much; but it required all his
good-humour and broad common sense to prevent serious troubles and
misunderstanding.

During the period of her cousin's visit at Belton, Clara received two
letters from Captain Aylmer, who was spending the Christmas holidays
with his father and mother, and on the day previous to that of her
cousin's departure there came a third. In neither of these letters
was there much said about Sir Anthony, but they were all very full
of Lady Aylmer. In the first he wrote with something of the personal
enthusiasm of a lover, and therefore Clara hardly felt the little
drawbacks to her happiness which were contained in certain innuendoes
respecting Lady Aylmer's ideas, and Lady Aylmer's hopes, and Lady
Aylmer's fears. Clara was not going to marry Lady Aylmer, and did not
fear but that she could hold her own against any mother-in-law in
the world when once they should be brought face to face. And as long
as Captain Aylmer seemed to take her part rather than that of his
mother it was all very well. The second letter was more trying to
her temper, as it contained one or two small morsels of advice as to
conduct which had evidently originated with her ladyship. Now there
is nothing, I take it, so irritating to an engaged young lady as
counsel from her intended husband's mamma. An engaged young lady, if
she be really in love, will take almost anything from her lover as
long as she is sure that it comes altogether from himself. He may
take what liberties he pleases with her dress. He may prescribe high
church or low church,--if he be not, as is generally the case, in
a condition to accept, rather than to give, prescriptions on that
subject. He may order almost any course of reading,--providing that
he supply the books. And he may even interfere with the style of
dancing, and recommend or prohibit partners. But he may not thrust
his mother down his future wife's throat. In answer to the second
letter, Clara did not say much to show her sense of objection. Indeed
she said nothing. But in saying nothing she showed her objection,
and Captain Aylmer understood it. Then came the third letter, and
as it contained matter touching upon our story, it shall be given
entire,--and I hope it may be taken by gentlemen about to marry as a
fair specimen of the sort of letter they ought not to write to the
girls of their hearts:--


   Aylmer Castle, 19th January, 186--.

   DEAREST CLARA,--I got your letter of the 16th yesterday,
   and was sorry you said nothing in reference to my mother's
   ideas as to the house at Perivale. Of course she knew that
   I heard from you, and was disappointed when I was obliged
   to tell her that you had not alluded to the subject. She
   is very anxious about you, and, having now given her
   assent to our marriage, is of course desirous of knowing
   that her kindly feeling is reciprocated. I assured her
   that my own Clara was the last person to be remiss in such
   a matter, and reminded her that young ladies are seldom
   very careful in their mode of answering letters. Remember,
   therefore, that I am now your guarantee, and send some
   message to relieve me from my liability.

   When I told her of your father's long illness, which she
   laments greatly, and of your cousin's continued presence
   at Belton Castle, she seemed to think that Mr. Belton's
   visit should not be prolonged. When I told her that he was
   your nearest relative, she remarked that cousins are the
   same as any other people,--which indeed they are. I know
   that my Clara will not suppose that I mean more by this
   than the words convey. Indeed I mean less. But not having
   the advantage of a mother of your own, you will not be
   sorry to know what are my mother's opinions on matters
   which so nearly concern you.

   And now I come to another subject, as to which what I
   shall say will surprise you very much. You know, I think,
   that my aunt Winterfield and I had some conversation about
   your neighbours, the Askertons; and you will remember
   that my aunt, whose ideas on such matters were always
   correct, was a little afraid that your father had not
   made sufficient inquiry respecting them before he allowed
   them to settle near him as tenants. It now turns out that
   she is,--very far, indeed, from what she ought to be. My
   mother at first thought of writing to you about this; but
   she is a little fatigued, and at last resolved that under
   all the circumstances it might be as well that I should
   tell you. It seems that Mrs. Askerton was married before
   to a certain Captain Berdmore, and that she left her
   first husband during his lifetime under the protection
   of Colonel Askerton. I believe they, the Colonel and
   Mrs. Askerton, have been since married. Captain Berdmore
   died about four years ago in India, and it is probable
   that such a marriage has taken place. But under these
   circumstances, as Lady Aylmer says, you will at once
   perceive that all acquaintance between you and the lady
   should be brought to an end. Indeed, your own sense of
   what is becoming to you, either as an unmarried girl or as
   my future wife, or indeed as a woman at all, will at once
   make you feel that this must be so. I think, if I were
   you, I would tell the whole to Mr. Amedroz; but this I
   will leave to your own discretion. I can assure you that
   Lady Aylmer has full proof as to the truth of what I tell
   you.

   I go up to London in February. I suppose I may hardly hope
   to see you before the recess in July or August; but I
   trust that before that we shall have fixed the day when
   you will make me the happiest of men.

   Yours, with truest affection,

   F. F. AYLMER.


It was a disagreeable, nasty letter from the first line to the last.
There was not a word in it which did not grate against Clara's
feelings,--not a thought expressed which did not give rise to fears
as to her future happiness. But the information which it contained
about the Askertons,--"the communication," as Mrs. Askerton herself
would have called it,--made her for the moment almost forget Lady
Aylmer and her insolence. Could this story be true? And if true, how
far would it be imperative on her to take the hint, or rather obey
the order which had been given her? What steps should she take to
learn the truth? Then she remembered Mrs. Askerton's promise--"If you
want to ask any questions, and will ask them of me, I will answer
them." The communication, as to which Mrs. Askerton had prophesied,
had now been made;--but it had been made, not by Will Belton, whom
Mrs. Askerton had reviled, but by Captain Aylmer, whose praises Mrs.
Askerton had so loudly sung. As Clara thought of this, she could not
analyse her own feelings, which were not devoid of a certain triumph.
She had known that Belton would not put on his armour to attack a
woman. Captain Aylmer had done so, and she was hardly surprised at
his doing it. Yet Captain Aylmer was the man she loved! Captain
Aylmer was the man she had promised to marry. But, in truth, she
hardly knew which was the man she loved!

This letter came on a Sunday morning, and on that day she and Belton
went to church together. On the following morning early he was to
start for Taunton. At church they saw Mrs. Askerton, whose attendance
there was not very frequent. It seemed, indeed, as though she had
come with the express purpose of seeing Belton once during his visit.
As they left the church she bowed to him, and that was all they saw
of each other throughout the month that he remained in Somersetshire.

"Come to me to-morrow, Clara," Mrs. Askerton said as they all passed
through the village together. Clara muttered some reply, having not
as yet made up her mind as to what her conduct must be. Early on the
next morning Will Belton went away, and again Clara got up to give
him his breakfast. On this occasion he had no thought of kissing
her. He went away without having had a word said to him about
Mrs. Askerton, and then Clara settled herself down to the work of
deliberation. What should she do with reference to the communication
that had been made to her by Captain Aylmer?



CHAPTER XVII.

AYLMER PARK.


Aylmer Park and the great house of the Aylmers together formed an
important, and, as regarded in some minds, an imposing country
residence. The park was large, including some three or four hundred
acres, and was peopled, rather thinly, by aristocratic deer. It
was surrounded by an aristocratic paling, and was entered, at three
different points, by aristocratic lodges. The sheep were more
numerous than the deer, because Sir Anthony, though he had a large
income, was not in very easy circumstances. The ground was quite
flat; and though there were thin belts of trees, and some ornamental
timber here and there, it was not well wooded. It had no special
beauty of its own, and depended for its imposing qualities chiefly
on its size, on its three sets of double lodges, and on its
old-established character as an important family place in the county.
The house was of stone, with a portico of Ionic columns which looked
as though it hardly belonged of right to the edifice, and stretched
itself out grandly, with two pretentious wings, which certainly gave
it a just claim to be called a mansion. It required a great many
servants to keep it in order, and the numerous servants required an
experienced duenna, almost as grand in appearance as Lady Aylmer
herself, to keep them in order. There was an open carriage and a
close carriage, and a butler, and two footmen, and three gamekeepers,
and four gardeners, and there was a coachman, and there were grooms,
and sundry inferior men and boys about the place to do the work
which the gardeners and gamekeepers and grooms did not choose to
do themselves. And they all became fat, and lazy, and stupid, and
respectable together; so that, as the reader will at once perceive,
Aylmer Park was kept up in the proper English style. Sir Anthony
very often discussed with his steward the propriety of lessening the
expenditure of his residence, and Lady Aylmer always attended and
probably directed these discussions; but it was found that nothing
could be done. Any attempt to remove a gamekeeper or a gardener would
evidently throw the whole machinery of Aylmer Park out of gear. If
retrenchment was necessary Aylmer Park must be abandoned, and the
glory of the Aylmers must be allowed to pale. But things were not so
bad as that with Sir Anthony. The gardeners, grooms, and gamekeepers
were maintained; ten domestic servants sat down to four heavy meals
in the servants' hall every day, and Lady Aylmer contented herself
with receiving little or no company, and with stingy breakfasts and
bad dinners for herself and her husband and daughter. By all this it
must be seen that she did her duty as the wife of an English country
gentleman, and properly maintained his rank as a baronet.

He was a heavy man, over seventy years of age, much afflicted with
gout, and given to no pursuit on earth which was available for
his comfort. He had been a hunting man, and he had shot also; but
not with that energy which induces a sportsman to carry on those
amusements in opposition to the impediments of age. He had been, and
still was, a county magistrate; but he had never been very successful
in the justice-room, and now seldom troubled the county with his
judicial incompetence. He had been fond of good dinners and good
wine, and still, on occasions, would make attempts at enjoyment in
that line; but the gout and Lady Aylmer together were too many for
him, and he had but small opportunity for filling up the blanks of
his existence out of the kitchen or cellar. He was a big man, with
a broad chest, and a red face, and a quantity of white hair,--and
was much given to abusing his servants. He took some pleasure in
standing, with two sticks on the top of the steps before his own
front door, and railing at any one who came in his way. But he could
not do this when Lady Aylmer was by; and his dependents, knowing his
habits, had fallen into an ill-natured way of deserting the side of
the house which he frequented. With his eldest son, Anthony Aylmer,
he was not on very good terms; and though there was no positive
quarrel, the heir did not often come to Aylmer Park. Of his son
Frederic he was proud,--and the best days of his life were probably
those which Captain Aylmer spent at the house. The table was then
somewhat more generously spread, and this was an excuse for having
up the special port in which he delighted. Altogether his life was
not very attractive; and though he had been born to a baronetcy, and
eight thousand a-year, and the possession of Aylmer Park, I do not
think that he was, or had been, a happy man.

Lady Aylmer was more fortunate. She had occupations of which her
husband knew nothing, and for which he was altogether unfit. Though
she could not succeed in making retrenchments, she could and did
succeed in keeping the household books. Sir Anthony could only blow
up the servants when they were thoughtless enough to come in his way,
and in doing that was restricted by his wife's presence. But Lady
Aylmer could get at them day and night. She had no gout to impede
her progress about the house and grounds, and could make her way to
places which the master never saw; and then she wrote many letters
daily, whereas Sir Anthony hardly ever took a pen in his hand. And
she knew the cottages of all the poor about the place, and knew also
all their sins of omission and commission. She was driven out, too,
every day, summer and winter, wet and dry, and consumed enormous
packets of wool and worsted, which were sent to her monthly from
York. And she had a companion in her daughter, whereas Sir Anthony
had no companion. Wherever Lady Aylmer went Miss Aylmer went with
her, and relieved what might otherwise have been the tedium of her
life. She had been a beauty on a large scale, and was still aware
that she had much in her personal appearance which justified pride.
She carried herself uprightly, with a commanding nose and broad
forehead; and though the graces of her own hair had given way to
a front, there was something even in the front which added to her
dignity, if it did not make her a handsome woman.

Miss Aylmer, who was the eldest of the younger generation, and who
was now gently descending from her fortieth year, lacked the strength
of her mother's character, but admired her mother's ways, and
followed Lady Aylmer in all things,--at a distance. She was very
good,--as indeed was Lady Aylmer,--entertaining a high idea of duty,
and aware that her own life admitted of but little self-indulgence.
She had no pleasures, she incurred no expenses; and was quite
alive to the fact that as Aylmer Park required a regiment of lazy,
gormandizing servants to maintain its position in the county, the
Aylmers themselves should not be lazy, and should not gormandize. No
one was more careful with her few shillings than Miss Aylmer. She
had, indeed, abandoned a life's correspondence with an old friend
because she would not pay the postage on letters to Italy. She knew
that it was for the honour of the family that one of her brothers
should sit in Parliament, and was quite willing to deny herself a
new dress because sacrifices must be made to lessen electioneering
expenses. She knew that it was her lot to be driven about slowly in a
carriage with a livery servant before her and another behind her, and
then eat a dinner which the cook-maid would despise. She was aware
that it was her duty to be snubbed by her mother, and to encounter
her father's ill-temper, and to submit to her brother's indifference,
and to have, so to say, the slightest possible modicum of personal
individuality. She knew that she had never attracted a man's love,
and might hardly hope to make friends for the comfort of her coming
age. But still she was contented, and felt that she had consolation
for it all in the fact that she was an Aylmer. She read many novels,
and it cannot but be supposed that something of regret would steal
over her as she remembered that nothing of the romance of life had
ever, or could ever, come in her way. She wept over the loves of many
women, though she had never been happy or unhappy in her own. She
read of gaiety, though she never encountered it, and must have known
that the world elsewhere was less dull than it was at Aylmer Park.
But she took her life as it came, without a complaint, and prayed
that God would make her humble in the high position to which it had
pleased Him to call her. She hated Radicals, and thought that Essays
and Reviews, and Bishop Colenso, came direct from the Evil One. She
taught the little children in the parish, being specially urgent to
them always to curtsey when they saw any of the family;--and was as
ignorant, meek, and stupid a poor woman as you shall find anywhere in
Europe.

It may be imagined that Captain Aylmer, who knew the comforts of his
club and was accustomed to life in London, would feel the dulness
of the paternal roof to be almost unendurable. In truth, he was not
very fond of Aylmer Park, but he was more gifted with patience than
most men of his age and position, and was aware that it behoved him
to keep the Fifth Commandment if he expected to have his own days
prolonged in the land. He therefore made his visits periodically,
and contented himself with clipping a few days at both ends from the
length prescribed by family tradition, which his mother was desirous
of exacting. September was always to be passed at Aylmer Park,
because of the shooting. In September, indeed, the eldest son himself
was wont to be there,--probably with a friend or two,--and the fat
old servants bestirred themselves, and there was something of life
about the place. At Christmas, Captain Aylmer was there as the
only visitor, and Christmas was supposed to extend from the middle
of December to the opening of Parliament. It must, however, be
explained, that on the present occasion his visit had been a matter
of treaty and compromise. He had not gone to Aylmer Park at all till
his mother had in some sort assented to his marriage with Clara
Amedroz. To this Lady Aylmer had been very averse, and there had been
many serious letters. Belinda Aylmer, the daughter of the house, had
had a bad time in pleading her brother's cause,--and some very harsh
words had been uttered;--but ultimately the matter had been arranged,
and, as is usual in such contests, the mother had yielded to the son.
Captain Aylmer had therefore gone down a few days before Christmas,
with a righteous feeling that he owed much to his mother for her
condescension, and almost prepared to make himself very disagreeable
to Clara by way of atoning to his family for his folly in desiring to
marry her.

Lady Aylmer was very plain-spoken on the subject of all Clara's
shortcomings,--very plain-spoken, and very inquisitive. "She will
never have one shilling, I suppose?" she said.

"Yes, ma'am." Captain Aylmer always called his mother ma'am. "She
will have that fifteen hundred pounds that I told you of."

"That is to say, you will have back the money which you yourself have
given her, Fred. I suppose that is the English of it?" Then Lady
Aylmer raised her eyebrows and looked very wise.

"Just so, ma'am."

"You can't call that having anything of her own. In point of fact she
is penniless."

"It is no good harping on that," said Captain Aylmer, somewhat
sharply.

"Not in the least, my dear; no good at all. Of course you have looked
it all in the face. You will be a poor man instead of a rich man, but
you will have enough to live on,--that is if she doesn't have a large
family;--which of course she will."

"I shall do very well, ma'am."

"You might do pretty well, I dare say, if you could live
privately,--at Perivale, keeping up the old family house there, and
having no expenses; but you'll find even that close enough with your
seat in Parliament, and the necessity there is that you should be
half the year in London. Of course she won't go to London. She can't
expect it. All that had better be made quite clear at once." Hence
had come the letter about the house at Perivale, containing Lady
Aylmer's advice on that subject, as to which Clara made no reply.

Lady Aylmer, though she had given in her assent, was still not
altogether without hope. It might be possible that the two young
people could be brought to see the folly and error of their ways
before it would be too late; and that Lady Aylmer, by a judicious
course of constant advice, might be instrumental in opening the eyes,
if not of the lady, at any rate of the gentleman. She had great
reliance on her own powers, and knew well that a falling drop will
hollow a stone. Her son manifested no hot eagerness to complete his
folly in a hurry, and to cut the throat of his prospects out of hand.
Time, therefore, would be allowed to her, and she was a woman who
could use time with patience. Having, through her son, despatched her
advice about the house at Perivale,--which simply amounted to this,
that Clara should expressly state her willingness to live there alone
whenever it might suit her husband to be in London or elsewhere,--she
went to work on other points connected with the Amedroz family, and
eventually succeeded in learning something very much like the truth
as to poor Mrs. Askerton and her troubles. At first she was so
comfortably horror-stricken by the iniquity she had unravelled,--so
delightfully shocked and astounded,--as to believe that the facts as
they then stood would suffice to annul the match.

"You don't tell me," she said to Belinda, "that Frederic's wife
will have been the friend of such a woman as that!" And Lady Aylmer,
sitting up-stairs with her household books before her, put up her
great fat hands and her great fat arms, and shook her head,--front
and all,--in most satisfactory dismay.

"But I suppose Clara did not know it." Belinda had considered it to
be an act of charity to call Miss Amedroz Clara since the family
consent had been given.

"Didn't know it! They have been living in that sort of way that they
must have been confidantes in everything. Besides, I always hold that
a woman is responsible for her female friends."

"I think if she consents to drop her at once,--that is, absolutely
to make a promise that she will never speak to her again,--Frederic
ought to take that as sufficient. That is, of course, mamma, unless
she has had anything to do with it herself."

"After this I don't know how I'm to trust her. I don't indeed. It
seems to me that she has been so artful throughout. It has been a
regular case of catching."

"I suppose, of course, that she has been anxious to marry
Frederic;--but perhaps that was natural."

"Anxious;--look at her going there just when he had to meet his
constituents. How young women can do such things passes me! And how
it is that men don't see it all, when it's going on just under their
noses, I can't understand. And then her getting my poor dear sister
to speak to him when she was dying! I didn't think your aunt would
have been so weak." It will be thus seen that there was entire
confidence on this subject between Lady Aylmer and her daughter.

We know what were the steps taken with reference to the discovery,
and how the family were waiting for Clara's reply. Lady Aylmer,
though in her words she attributed so much mean cunning to Miss
Amedroz, still was disposed to believe that that lady would show
rather a high spirit on this occasion; and trusted to that high
spirit as the means for making the breach which she still hoped to
accomplish. It had been intended,--or rather desired,--that Captain
Aylmer's letter should have been much sharper and authoritative than
he had really made it; but the mother could not write the letter
herself, and had felt that to write in her own name would not have
served to create anger on Clara's part against her betrothed. But
she had quite succeeded in inspiring her son with a feeling of
horror against the iniquity of the Askertons. He was prepared to be
indignantly moral; and perhaps,--perhaps,--the misguided Clara might
be silly enough to say a word for her lost friend! Such being the
present position of affairs, there was certainly ground for hope.

And now they were all waiting for Clara's answer. Lady Aylmer had
well calculated the course of post, and knew that a letter might
reach them by Wednesday morning. "Of course she will not write on
Sunday," she had said to her son, "but you have a right to expect
that not another day should go by." Captain Aylmer, who felt that
they were putting Clara on her trial, shook his head impatiently,
and made no immediate answer. Lady Aylmer, triumphantly feeling that
she had the culprit on the hip, did not care to notice this. She was
doing the best she could for his happiness,--as she had done for
his health, when in days gone by she had administered to him his
infantine rhubarb and early senna; but as she had never then expected
him to like her doses, neither did she now expect that he should
be well pleased at the remedial measures to which he was to be
subjected.

No letter came on the Wednesday, nor did any come on the Thursday,
and then it was thought by the ladies at the Park that the time had
come for speaking a word or two. Belinda, at her mother's instance,
began the attack,--not in her mother's presence, but when she only
was with her brother.

"Isn't it odd, Frederic, that Clara shouldn't write about those
people at Belton?"

"Somersetshire is the other side of London, and letters take a long
time."

"But if she had written on Monday, her answer would have been here on
Wednesday morning;--indeed, you would have had it Tuesday evening,
as mamma sent over to Whitby for the day mail letters." Poor Belinda
was a bad lieutenant, and displayed too much of her senior officer's
tactics in thus showing how much calculation and how much solicitude
there had been as to the expected letter.

"If I am contented I suppose you may be," said the brother.

"But it does seem to me to be so very important! If she hasn't got
your letter, you know, it would be so necessary that you should write
again, so that the--the--the contamination should be stopped as
soon as possible." Captain Aylmer shook his head and walked away.
He was, no doubt, prepared to be morally indignant,--morally very
indignant,--at the Askerton iniquity; but he did not like the word
contamination as applied to his future wife.

"Frederic," said his mother, later on the same day,--when the
hardly-used groom had returned from his futile afternoon's inquiry at
the neighbouring post-town,--"I think you should do something in this
affair."

"Do what, ma'am? Go off to Belton myself?"

"No, no. I certainly would not do that. In the first place it would
be very inconvenient to you, and in the next place it would not be
fair upon us. I did not mean that at all. But I think that something
should be done. She should be made to understand."

"You may be sure, ma'am, that she understands as well as anybody."

"I dare say she is clever enough at these kind of things."

"What kind of things?"

"Don't bite my nose off, Frederic, because I am anxious about your
wife."

"What is it that you wish me to do? I have written to her, and can
only wait for her answer."

"It may be that she feels a delicacy in writing to you on such a
subject; though I own--. However, to make a long story short, if you
like, I will write to her myself."

"I don't see that that would do any good. It would only give her
offence."

"Give her offence, Frederic, to receive a letter from her future
mother-in-law;--from me! Only think, Frederic, what you are saying."

"If she thought she was being bullied about this, she would turn
rusty at once."

"Turn rusty! What am I to think of a young lady who is prepared
to turn rusty,--at once, too, because she is cautioned by the
mother of the man she professes to love against an improper
acquaintance,--against an acquaintance so very improper?" Lady
Aylmer's eloquence should have been heard to be appreciated. It is
but tame to say that she raised her fat arms and fat hands, and
wagged her front,--her front that was the more formidable as it was
the old one, somewhat rough and dishevelled, which she was wont to
wear in the morning. The emphasis of her words should have been
heard, and the fitting solemnity of her action should have been seen.
"If there were any doubt," she continued to say, "but there is no
doubt. There are the damning proofs." There are certain words usually
confined to the vocabularies of men, which women such as Lady Aylmer
delight to use on special occasions, when strong circumstances demand
strong language. As she said this she put her hand below the table,
pressing it apparently against her own august person; but she was in
truth indicating the position of a certain valuable correspondence,
which was locked up in the drawer of her writing-table.

"You can write if you like it, of course; but I think you ought to
wait a few more days."

"Very well, Frederic; then I will wait. I will wait till Sunday. I do
not wish to take any step of which you do not approve. If you have
not heard by Sunday morning, then I will write to her--on Monday."

On the Saturday afternoon life was becoming inexpressibly
disagreeable to Captain Aylmer, and he began to meditate an escape
from the Park. In spite of the agreement between him and his mother,
which he understood to signify that nothing more was to be said as
to Clara's wickedness, at any rate till Sunday after post-hour, Lady
Aylmer had twice attacked him on the Saturday, and had expressed her
opinion that affairs were in a very frightful position. Belinda went
about the house in melancholy guise, with her eyes rarely lifted off
the ground, as though she were prophetically weeping the utter ruin
of her brother's respectability. And even Sir Anthony had raised
his eyes and shaken his head, when, on opening the post-bag at the
breakfast-table,--an operation which was always performed by Lady
Aylmer in person,--her ladyship had exclaimed, "Again no letter!"
Then Captain Aylmer thought that he would fly, and resolved that,
in the event of such flight, he would give special orders as to the
re-direction of his own letters from the post-office at Whitby.

That evening, after dinner, as soon as his mother and sister had left
the room, he began the subject with his father. "I think I shall go
up to town on Monday, sir," said he.

"So soon as that. I thought you were to stop till the 9th."

"There are things I must see to in London, and I believe I had better
go at once."

"Your mother will be greatly disappointed."

"I shall be sorry for that;--but business is business, you know."
Then the father filled his glass and passed the bottle. He himself
did not at all like the idea of his son's going before the appointed
time, but he did not say a word of himself. He looked at the red-hot
coals, and a hazy glimmer of a thought passed through his mind, that
he too would escape from Aylmer Park,--if it were possible.

"If you'll allow me, I'll take the dog-cart over to Whitby on Monday,
for the express train."

"You can do that certainly, but--"

"Sir?"

"Have you spoken to your mother yet?"

"Not yet. I will to-night."

"I think she'll be a little angry, Fred." There was a sudden tone of
subdued confidence in the old man's voice as he made this suggestion,
which, though it was by no means a customary tone, his son well
understood. "Don't you think she will be;--eh, a little?"

"She shouldn't go on as she does with me about Clara," said the
Captain.

"Ah,--I supposed there was something of that. Are you drinking port?"

"Of course I know that she means all that is good," said the son,
passing back the bottle.

"Oh yes;--she means all that is good."

"She is the best mother in the world."

"You may say that, Fred;--and the best wife."

"But if she can't have her own way altogether--" Then the son paused,
and the father shook his head.

"Of course she likes to have her own way," said Sir Anthony.

"It's all very well in some things."

"Yes;--it's very well in some things."

"But there are things which a man must decide for himself."

"I suppose there are," said Sir Anthony, not venturing to think what
those things might be as regarded himself.

"Now, with reference to marrying--"

"I don't know what you want with marrying at all, Fred. You ought to
be very happy as you are. By heavens, I don't know any one who ought
to be happier. If I were you, I know--"

"But you see, sir, that's all settled."

"If it's all settled, I suppose there's an end of it."

"It's no good my mother nagging at one."

"My dear boy, she's been nagging at me, as you call it, for forty
years. That's her way. The best woman in the world, as we were
saying;--but that's her way. And it's the way with most of them. They
can do anything if they keep it up;--anything. The best thing is to
bear it if you've got it to bear. But why on earth you should go and
marry, seeing that you're not the eldest son, and that you've got
everything on earth that you want as a bachelor, I can't understand.
I can't indeed, Fred. By heaven, I can't!" Then Sir Anthony gave a
long sigh, and sat musing awhile, thinking of the club in London to
which he belonged, but which he never entered;--of the old days in
which he had been master of a bedroom near St. James's Street,--of
his old friends whom he never saw now, and of whom he never heard,
except as one and another, year after year, shuffled away from their
wives to that world in which there is no marrying or giving in
marriage. "Ah, well," he said, "I suppose we may as well go into
the drawing-room. If it is settled, I suppose it is settled. But it
really seems to me that your mother is trying to do the best she can
for you. It really does."

Captain Aylmer did not say anything to his mother that night as to
his going, but as he thought of his prospects in the solitude of his
bedroom, he felt really grateful to his father for the solicitude
which Sir Anthony had displayed on his behalf. It was not often
that he received paternal counsel, but now that it had come he
acknowledged its value. That Clara Amedroz was a self-willed woman he
thought that he was aware. She was self-reliant, at any rate,--and by
no means ready to succumb with that pretty feminine docility which he
would like to have seen her evince. He certainly would not wish to be
"nagged" by his wife. Indeed he knew himself well enough to assure
himself that he would not stand it for a day. In his own house he
would be master, and if there came tempests he would rule them. He
could at least promise himself that. As his mother had been strong,
so had his father been weak. But he had,--as he felt thankful in
knowing,--inherited his mother's strength rather than his father's
weakness. But, for all that, why have a tempest to rule at all? Even
though a man do rule his domestic tempests, he cannot have a very
quiet house with them. Then again he remembered how very easily Clara
had been won. He wished to be just to all men and women, and to Clara
among the number. He desired even to be generous to her,--with a
moderate generosity. But above all things he desired not to be duped.
What if Clara had in truth instigated her aunt to that deathbed
scene, as his mother had more than once suggested! He did not believe
it. He was sure that it had not been so. But what if it were so? His
desire to be generous and trusting was moderate;--but his desire not
to be cheated, not to be deceived, was immoderate. Upon the whole
might it not be well for him to wait a little longer, and ascertain
how Clara really intended to behave herself in this emergency of the
Askertons? Perhaps, after all, his mother might be right.

On the Sunday the expected letter came;--but before its contents are
made known, it will be well that we should go back to Belton, and see
what was done by Clara in reference to the tidings which her lover
had sent her.



CHAPTER XVIII.

MRS. ASKERTON'S STORY.


When Clara received the letter from Captain Aylmer on which so much
is supposed to hang, she made up her mind to say nothing of it to any
one,--not to think of it if she could avoid thinking of it,--till her
cousin should have left her. She could not mention it to him; for,
though there was no one from whom she would sooner have asked advice
than from him, even on so delicate a matter as this, she could not do
so in the present case, as her informant was her cousin's successful
rival. When, therefore, Mrs. Askerton on leaving the church had
spoken some customary word to Clara, begging her to come to the
cottage on the following day, Clara had been unable to answer,--not
having as yet made up her mind whether she would or would not go
to the cottage again. Of course the idea of consulting her father
occurred to her,--or rather the idea of telling him; but any such
telling would lead to some advice from him which she would find
it difficult to obey, and to which she would be unable to trust.
And, moreover, why should she repeat this evil story against her
neighbours?

She had a long morning by herself after Will had started, and then
she endeavoured to arrange her thoughts and lay down for herself a
line of conduct. Presuming this story to be true, to what did it
amount? It certainly amounted to very much. If, in truth, this woman
had left her own husband and gone away to live with another man, she
had by doing so,--at any rate while she was doing so,--fallen in such
a way as to make herself unfit for the society of an unmarried young
woman who meant to keep her name unblemished before the world. Clara
would not attempt any further unravelling of the case, even in her
own mind;--but on that point she could not allow herself to have a
doubt. Without condemning the unhappy victim, she understood well
that she would owe it to all those who held her dear, if not to
herself, to eschew any close intimacy with one in such a position.
The rules of the world were too plainly written to allow her to guide
herself by any special judgment of her own in such a matter. But
if this friend of hers,--having been thus unfortunate,--had since
redeemed, or in part redeemed, her position by a second marriage,
would it be then imperative upon her to remember the past for ever,
and to declare that the stain was indelible? Clara felt that with a
previous knowledge of such a story she would probably have avoided
any intimacy with Mrs. Askerton. She would then have been justified
in choosing whether such intimacy should or should not exist, and
would so have chosen out of deference to the world's opinion. But
now it was too late for that. Mrs. Askerton had for years been her
friend; and Clara had to ask herself _this_ question; was it now
needful,--did her own feminine purity demand,--that she should throw
her friend over because in past years her life had been tainted by
misconduct.

It was clear enough at any rate that this was expected from
her,--nay, imperatively demanded by him who was to be her lord,--by
him to whom her future obedience would be due. Whatever might be her
immediate decision, he would have a right to call upon her to be
guided by his judgment as soon as she would become his wife. And
indeed, she felt that he had such right now,--unless she should
decide that no such right should be his, now or ever. It was still
within her power to say that she could not submit herself to such a
rule as his,--but having received his commands she must do that or
obey them. Then she declared to herself, not following the matter out
logically, but urged to her decision by sudden impulse, that at any
rate she would not obey Lady Aylmer. She would have nothing to do, in
any such matter, with Lady Aylmer. Lady Aylmer should be no god to
her. That question about the house at Perivale had been very painful
to her. She felt that she could have endured the dreary solitude at
Perivale without complaint, if, after her marriage, her husband's
circumstances had made such a mode of living expedient. But to have
been asked to pledge her consent to such a life before her marriage,
to feel that he was bargaining for the privilege of being rid of
her, to know that the Aylmer people were arranging that he, if he
would marry her, should be as little troubled with his wife as
possible;--all this had been very grievous to her. She had tried
to console herself by the conviction that Lady Aylmer,--not
Frederic,--had been the sinner; but even in that consolation there
had been the terrible flaw that the words had come to her written by
Frederic's hand. Could Will Belton have written such a letter to his
future wife?

In her present emergency she must be guided by her own judgment or
her own instincts,--not by any edicts from Aylmer Park! If in what
she might do she should encounter the condemnation of Captain Aylmer,
she would answer him,--she would be driven to answer him,--by
counter-condemnation of him and his mother. Let it be so. Anything
would be better than a mean, truckling subservience to the imperious
mistress of Aylmer Park.

But what should she do as regarded Mrs. Askerton? That the story was
true she was beginning to believe. That there was some such history
was made certain to her by the promise which Mrs. Askerton had given
her.

"If you want to ask any questions, and will ask them of me, I will
answer them." Such a promise would not have been volunteered unless
there was something special to be told. It would be best, perhaps, to
demand from Mrs. Askerton the fulfilment of this promise. But then
in doing so she must own from whence her information had come. Mrs.
Askerton had told her that the "communication" would be made by her
cousin Will. Her cousin Will had gone away without a word of Mrs.
Askerton, and now the "communication" had come from Captain Aylmer!

The Monday and Tuesday were rainy days, and the rain was some excuse
for her not going to the cottage. On the Wednesday her father was
ill, and his illness made a further excuse for her remaining at home.
But on the Wednesday evening there came a note to her from Mrs.
Askerton. "You naughty girl, why do you not come to me? Colonel
Askerton has been away since yesterday morning, and I am forgetting
the sound of my own voice. I did not trouble you when your divine
cousin was here,--for reasons; but unless you come to me now I
shall think that his divinity has prevailed. Colonel Askerton is in
Ireland, about some property, and will not be back till next week."

Clara sent back a promise by the messenger, and on the following
morning she put on her hat and shawl, and started on her dreaded
task. When she left the house she had not even yet quite made up her
mind what she would do. At first she put her lover's letter into
her pocket, so that she might have it for reference; but, on second
thoughts, she replaced it in her desk, dreading lest she might be
persuaded into showing or reading some part of it. There had come a
sharp frost after the rain, and the ground was hard and dry. In order
that she might gain some further last moment for thinking, she walked
round, up among the rocks, instead of going straight to the cottage;
and for a moment,--though the air was sharp with frost,--she sat upon
the stone where she had been seated when her cousin Will blurted out
the misfortune of his heart. She sat there on purpose that she might
think of him, and recall his figure, and the tones of his voice, and
the look of his eyes, and the gesture of his face. What a man he
was;--so tender, yet so strong; so thoughtful of others, and yet so
self-sufficient! She had, unconsciously, imputed to him one fault,
that he had loved and then forgotten his love;--unconsciously,
for she had tried to think that this was a virtue rather than a
fault;--but now,--with a full knowledge of what she was doing, but
without any intention of doing it,--she acquitted him of that one
fault. Now that she could acquit him, she owned that it would have
been a fault. To have loved, and so soon to have forgotten it! No; he
had loved her truly, and alas! he was one who could not be made to
forget it. Then she went on to the cottage, exercising her thoughts
rather on the contrast between the two men than on the subject to
which she should have applied them.

"So you have come at last!" said Mrs. Askerton. "Till I got your
message I thought there was to be some dreadful misfortune."

"What misfortune?"

"Something dreadful! One often anticipates something very bad without
exactly knowing what. At least, I do. I am always expecting a
catastrophe;--when I am alone that is;--and then I am so often
alone."

"That simply means low spirits, I suppose?"

"It's more than that, my dear."

"Not much more, I take it."

"Once when we were in India we lived close to the powder magazine,
and we were always expecting to be blown up. You never lived near a
powder magazine."

"No, never;--unless there's one at Belton. But I should have thought
that was exciting."

"And then there was the gentleman who always had the sword hanging
over him by the horse's hair."

"What do you mean, Mrs. Askerton?"

"Don't look so innocent, Clara. You know what I mean. What were the
results at last of your cousin's diligence as a detective officer?"

"Mrs. Askerton, you wrong my cousin greatly. He never once mentioned
your name while he was with us. He did not make a single allusion to
you, or to Colonel Askerton, or to the cottage."

"He did not?"

"Never once."

"Then I beg his pardon. But not the less has he been busy making
inquiries."

"But why should you say that there is a powder magazine, or a sword
hanging over your head?"

"Ah, why?"

Here was the subject ready opened to her hand, and yet Clara did not
know how to go on with it. It seemed to her now that it would have
been easier for her to commence it, if Mrs. Askerton had made no
commencement herself. As it was, she knew not how to introduce the
subject of Captain Aylmer's letter, and was almost inclined to wait,
thinking that Mrs. Askerton might tell her own story without any such
introduction. But nothing of the kind was forthcoming. Mrs. Askerton
began to talk of the frost, and then went on to abuse Ireland,
complaining of the hardship her husband endured in being forced to go
thither in winter to look after his tenants.

"What did you mean," said Clara, at last, "by the sword hanging over
your head?"

"I think I told you what I meant pretty plainly. If you did not
understand me I cannot tell you more plainly."

"It is odd that you should say so much, and not wish to say more."

"Ah!--you are making your inquiries now."

"In my place would not you do so too? How can I help it when you
talked of a sword? Of course you make me ask what the sword is."

"And am I bound to satisfy your curiosity?"

"You told me, just before my cousin came here, that if I asked any
question you would answer me."

"And I am to understand that you are asking such a question now?"

"Yes;--if it will not offend you."

"But what if it will offend me,--offend me greatly? Who likes to be
inquired into?"

"But you courted such inquiry from me."

"No, Clara, I did not do that. I'll tell you what I did. I gave you
to understand that if it was needful that you should hear about
me and my antecedents,--certain matters as to which Mr. Belton
had been inquiring into in a manner that I thought to be most
unjustifiable,--I would tell you that story."

"And do so without being angry with me for asking."

"I meant, of course, that I would not make it a ground for
quarrelling with you. If I wished to tell you I could do so without
any inquiry."

"I have sometimes thought that you did wish to tell me."

"Sometimes I have,--almost."

"But you have no such wish now?"

"Can't you understand? It may well be that one so much alone as
I am,--living here without a female friend, or even acquaintance,
except yourself,--should often feel a longing for that comfort which
full confidence between us would give me."

"Then why not--"

"Stop a moment. Can't you understand that I may feel this, and yet
entertain the greatest horror against inquiry? We all like to tell
our own sorrows, but who likes to be inquired into? Many a woman
burns to make a full confession, who would be as mute as death before
a policeman."

"I am no policeman."

"But you are determined to ask a policeman's questions?"

To this Clara made no immediate reply. She felt that she was acting
almost falsely in going on with such questions, while she was in fact
aware of all the circumstances which Mrs. Askerton could tell;--but
she did not know how to declare her knowledge and to explain it. She
sincerely wished that Mrs. Askerton should be made acquainted with
the truth; but she had fallen into a line of conversation which did
not make her own task easy. But the idea of her own hypocrisy was
distressing to her, and she rushed at the difficulty with hurried,
eager words, resolving that, at any rate, there should be no longer
any doubt between them.

"Mrs. Askerton," she said, "I know it all. There is nothing for you
to tell. I know what the sword is."

"What is it that you know?"

"That you were married long ago to--Mr. Berdmore."

"Then Mr. Belton did do me the honour of talking about me when he was
here?" As she said this she rose from her chair, and stood before
Clara with flashing eyes.

"Not a word. He never mentioned your name, or the name of any one
belonging to you. I have heard it from another."

"From what other?"

"I do not know that that signifies,--but I have learned it."

"Well;--and what next?"

"I do not know what next. As so much has been told me, and as you
had said that I might ask you, I have come to you, yourself. I shall
believe your own story more thoroughly from yourself than from any
other teller."

"And suppose I refuse to answer you?"

"Then I can say nothing further."

"And what will you do?"

"Ah;--that I do not know. But you are harsh to me, while I am longing
to be kind to you. Can you not see that this has been all forced upon
me,--partly by yourself?"

"And the other part;--who has forced that upon you? Who is your
informant? If you mean to be generous, be generous altogether. Is it
a man or a woman that has taken the trouble to rip up old sorrows
that my name may be blackened? But what matters? There;--I was
married to Captain Berdmore. I left him, and went away with my
present husband. For three years I was a man's mistress, and not
his wife. When that poor creature died we were married, and then
came here. Now you know it all;--all;--all,--though doubtless your
informant has made a better story of it. After that, perhaps, I have
been very wicked to sully the air you breathe by my presence."

"Why do you say that,--to me?"

"But no;--you do not know it all. No one can ever know it all. No one
can ever know how I suffered before I was driven to escape, or how
good to me has been he who--who--who--" Then she turned her back upon
Clara, and, walking off to the window, stood there, hiding the tears
which clouded her eyes, and concealing the sobs which choked her
utterance.

For some moments,--for a space which seemed long to both of
them,--Clara kept her seat in silence. She hardly dared to speak, and
though she longed to show her sympathy, she knew not what to say. At
last she too rose and followed the other to the window. She uttered
no words, however, but gently putting her arm around Mrs. Askerton's
waist, stood there close to her, looking out upon the cold wintry
flower-beds,--not venturing to turn her eyes upon her companion. The
motion of her arm was at first very gentle, but after a while she
pressed it closer, and thus by degrees drew her friend to her with an
eager, warm, and enduring pressure. Mrs. Askerton made some little
effort towards repelling her, some faint motion of resistance; but
as the embrace became warmer the poor woman yielded herself to it,
and allowed her face to fall upon Clara's shoulder. So they stood,
speaking no word, making no attempt to rid themselves of the tears
which were blinding their eyes, but gazing out through the moisture
on the bleak wintry scene before them. Clara's mind was the more
active at the moment, for she was resolving that in this episode
of her life she would accept no lesson whatever from Lady Aylmer's
teaching;--no, nor any lesson whatever from the teaching of any
Aylmer in existence. And as for the world's rules, she would fit
herself to them as best she could; but no such fitting should drive
her to the unwomanly cruelty of deserting this woman whom she had
known and loved,--and whom she now loved with a fervour which she had
never before felt towards her.

"You have heard it all now," said Mrs. Askerton at last.

"And is it not better so?"

"Ah;--I do not know. How should I know?"

"Do you not know?" And as she spoke Clara pressed her arm still
closer. "Do you not know yet?" Then, turning herself half round, she
clasped the other woman full in her arms, and kissed her forehead and
her lips.

"Do you not know yet?"

"But you will go away, and people will tell you that you are wrong."

"What people?" said Clara, thinking as she spoke of the whole family
at Aylmer Park.

"Your husband will tell you so."

"I have no husband,--as yet,--to order me what to think or what not
to think."

"No;--not quite as yet. But you will tell him all this."

"He knows it. It was he who told me."

"What!--Captain Aylmer?"

"Yes; Captain Aylmer."

"And what did he say?"

"Never mind. Captain Aylmer is not my husband,--not as yet. If he
takes me, he must take me as I am, not as he might possibly have
wished me to be. Lady Aylmer--"

"And does Lady Aylmer know it?"

"Yes. Lady Aylmer is one of those hard, severe women who never
forgive."

"Ah, I see it all now. I understand it all. Clara, you must forget
me, and come here no more. You shall not be ruined because you are
generous."

"Ruined! If Lady Aylmer's displeasure can ruin me, I must put up with
ruin. I will not accept her for my guide. I am too old, and have had
my own way too long. Do not let that thought trouble you. In this
matter I shall judge for myself. I have judged for myself already."

"And your father?"

"Papa knows nothing of it."

"But you will tell him?"

"I do not know. Poor papa is very ill. If he were well I would tell
him, and he would think as I do."

"And your cousin?"

"You say that he has heard it all."

"I think so. Do you know that I remembered him the first moment that
I saw him. But what could I do? When you mentioned to me my old name,
my real name, how could I be honest? I have been driven to do that
which has made honesty to me impossible. My life has been a lie; and
yet how could I help it? I must live somewhere,--and how could I live
anywhere without deceit?"

"And yet that is so sad."

"Sad indeed! But what could I do? Of course I was wrong in the
beginning. Though how am I to regret it, when it has given me such a
husband as I have? Ah!--if you could know it all, I think,--I think
you would forgive me."

Then by degrees she told it all, and Clara was there for hours
listening to her story. The reader will not care to hear more of
it than he has heard. Nor would Clara have desired any closer
revelation; but as it is often difficult to obtain a confidence,
so is it impossible to stop it in the midst of its effusion. Mrs.
Askerton told the history of her life,--of her first foolish
engagement, her belief, her half-belief, in the man's reformation, of
the miseries which resulted from his vices, of her escape and shame,
of her welcome widowhood, and of her second marriage. And as she told
it, she paused at every point to insist on the goodness of him who
was now her husband. "I shall tell him this," she said at last, "as
I do everything; and then he will know that I have in truth got a
friend."

She asked again and again about Mr. Belton, but Clara could only tell
her that she knew nothing of her cousin's knowledge. Will might have
heard it all, but if so he had kept his information to himself.

"And now what shall you do?" Mrs. Askerton asked of Clara, at length
prepared to go.

"Do? in what way? I shall do nothing."

"But you will write to Captain Aylmer?"

"Yes;--I shall write to him."

"And about this?"

"Yes;--I suppose I must write to him."

"And what will you say?"

"That I cannot tell. I wish I knew what to say. If it were to his
mother I could write my letter easily enough."

"And what would you say to her?"

"I would tell her that I was responsible for my own friends. But I
must go now. Papa will complain that I am so long away." Then there
was another embrace, and at last Clara found her way out of the house
and was alone again in the park.

She clearly acknowledged to herself that she had a great difficulty
before her. She had committed herself altogether to Mrs. Askerton,
and could no longer entertain any thought of obeying the very plainly
expressed commands which Captain Aylmer had given her. The story as
told by Captain Aylmer had been true throughout; but, in the teeth
of that truth, she intended to maintain her acquaintance with Mrs.
Askerton. From that there was now no escape. She had been carried
away by impulse in what she had done and said at the cottage, but
she could not bring herself to regret it. She could not believe that
it was her duty to throw over and abandon a woman whom she loved,
because that woman had once, in her dire extremity, fallen away from
the path of virtue. But how was she to write the letter?

When she reached her father he complained of her absence, and almost
scolded her for having been so long at the cottage. "I cannot see,"
said he, "what you find in that woman to make so much of her."

"She is the only neighbour I have, papa."

"And better none than her, if all that people say of her is true."

"All that people say is never true, papa."

"There is no smoke without fire. I am not at all sure that it's good
for you to be so much with her."

"Oh, papa,--don't treat me like a child."

"And I'm sure it's not good for me that you should be so much away.
For anything I have seen of you all day you might have been at
Perivale. But you are going soon, altogether, so I suppose I may as
well make up my mind to it."

"I'm not going for a long time yet, papa."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that there's nothing to take me away from here at present."

"You are engaged to be married."

"But it will be a long engagement. It is one of those engagements in
which neither party is very anxious for an immediate change." There
was something bitter in Clara's tone as she said this, which the old
man perceived, but could only half understand. Clara remained with
him then for the rest of the day, going down-stairs for five minutes,
to her dinner, and then returning to him and reading aloud while he
dozed. Her winter evenings at Belton Castle were not very bright, but
she was used to them and made no complaint.

When she left her father for the night she got out her desk and
prepared herself for her letter to her lover. She was determined
that it should be finished that night before she went to bed. And it
was so finished; though the writing of it gave her much labour, and
occupied her till the late hours had come upon her. When completed it
was as follows:--


   Belton Castle, Thursday Night.

   DEAR FREDERIC,--I received your letter last Sunday,
   but I could not answer it sooner, as it required much
   consideration, and also some information which I have only
   obtained to-day. About the plan of living at Perivale I
   will not say much now, as my mind is so full of other
   things. I think, however, I may promise that I will never
   make any needless difficulty as to your plans. My cousin
   Will left us on Monday, so your mother need not have any
   further anxiety on that head. It does papa good to have
   him here, and for that reason I am sorry that he has gone.
   I can assure you that I don't think what you said about
   him meant anything at all particular. Will is my nearest
   cousin, and of course you would be glad that I should like
   him,--which I do, very much.

   And now about the other subject, which I own has
   distressed me, as you supposed it would;--I mean about
   Mrs. Askerton. I find it very difficult in your letter to
   divide what comes from your mother and what from yourself.
   Of course I want to make the division, as every word from
   you has great weight with me. At present I don't know Lady
   Aylmer personally, and I cannot think of her as I do of
   you. Indeed, were I to know her ever so well, I could not
   have the same deference for her that I have for the man
   who is to be my husband. I only say this, as I fear that
   Lady Aylmer and I may not perhaps agree about Mrs.
   Askerton.

   I find that your story about Mrs. Askerton is in the main
   true. But the person who told it you does not seem to have
   known any of the provocations which she received. She
   was very badly treated by Captain Berdmore, who, I am
   afraid, was a terrible drunkard; and at last she found it
   impossible to stay with him. So she went away. I cannot
   tell you how horrid it all was, but I am sure that if I
   could make you understand it, it would go a long way in
   inducing you to excuse her. She was married to Colonel
   Askerton as soon as Captain Berdmore died, and this took
   place before she came to Belton. I hope you will remember
   that. It all occurred out in India, and I really hardly
   know what business we have to inquire about it now.

   At any rate, as I have been acquainted with her a long
   time, and very intimately, and as I am sure that she has
   repented of anything that has been wrong, I do not think
   that I ought to quarrel with her now. Indeed I have
   promised her that I will not. I think I owe it you to tell
   you the whole truth, and that is the truth.

   Pray give my regards to your mother, and tell her that
   I am sure she would judge differently if she were in my
   place. This poor woman has no other friend here; and who
   am I, that I should take upon myself to condemn her? I
   cannot do it. Dear Frederic, pray do not be angry with
   me for asserting my own will in this matter. I think
   you would wish me to have an opinion of my own. In my
   present position I am bound to have one, as I am, as yet,
   responsible for what I do myself. I shall be very, very
   sorry, if I find that you differ from me; but still I
   cannot be made to think that I am wrong. I wish you were
   here, that we might talk it over together, as I think that
   in that case you would agree with me.

   If you can manage to come to us at Easter, or any other
   time when Parliament does not keep you in London, we shall
   be so delighted to see you.

   Dear Frederic,
   Yours very affectionately,

   CLARA AMEDROZ.



CHAPTER XIX.

MISS AMEDROZ HAS ANOTHER CHANCE.


It was on a Sunday morning that Clara's letter reached Aylmer Park,
and Frederic Aylmer found it on his plate as he took his place at the
breakfast-table. Domestic habits at Aylmer Park had grown with the
growth of years till they had become adamantine, and domestic habits
required prayers every morning at a quarter before nine o'clock.
At twenty minutes before nine Lady Aylmer would always be in the
dining-room to make the tea and open the post-bag, and as she was
always there alone, she knew more about other people's letters than
other people ever knew about hers. When these operations were over
she rang the bell, and the servants of the family, who by that time
had already formed themselves into line in the hall, would march
in, and settle themselves on benches prepared for them near the
side-board,--which benches were afterwards carried away by the
retiring procession. Lady Aylmer herself always read prayers, as Sir
Anthony never appeared till the middle of breakfast. Belinda would
usually come down in a scurry as she heard her mother's bell, in such
a way as to put the army in the hall to some confusion; but Frederic
Aylmer, when he was at home, rarely entered the room till after the
service was over. At Perivale no doubt he was more strict in his
conduct; but then at Perivale he had special interests and influences
which were wanting to him at Aylmer Park. During those five minutes
Lady Aylmer would deal round the letters to the several plates of the
inmates of her house,--not without looking at the post-office marks
upon them; and on this occasion she had dealt a letter from Clara to
her son.

The arrival of the letter was announced to Frederic Aylmer before he
took his seat.

"Frederic," said her ladyship, in her most portentous voice, "I am
glad to say that at last there is a letter from Belton."

He made no immediate reply, but making his way slowly to his place,
took up the little packet, turned it over in his hand, and then put
it into his pocket. Having done this, he began very slowly with his
tea and egg. For three minutes his mother was contented to make,
or to pretend to make, some effort in the same direction. Then her
impatience became too much for her, and she began to question him.

"Will you not read it, Frederic?"

"Of course I shall, ma'am."

"But why not do so now, when you know how anxious we are?"

"There are letters which one would sooner read in private."

"But when a matter is of so much importance--" said Belinda.

"The importance, Bel, is to me, and not to you," said her brother.

"All we want to know is," continued the sister, "that she promises
to be guided by you in this matter; and of course we feel quite sure
that she will."

"If you are quite sure that must be sufficient for you."

"I really think you need not quarrel with your sister," said Lady
Aylmer, "because she is anxious as to the--the respectability, I must
say, for there is no other word, of a young lady whom you propose to
make your wife. I can assure you that I am very anxious myself,--very
anxious indeed."

Captain Aylmer made no answer to this, but he did not take the letter
from his pocket. He drank his tea in silence, and in silence sent
up his cup to be refilled. In silence also was it returned to him.
He ate his two eggs and his three bits of toast, according to his
custom, and when he had finished, sat out his three or four minutes
as was usual. Then he got up to retire to his room, with the envelope
still unbroken in his pocket.

"You will go to church with us, I suppose?" said Lady Aylmer.

"I won't promise, ma'am; but if I do, I'll walk across the park,--so
that you need not wait for me."

Then both the mother and sister knew that the member for Perivale did
not intend to go to church on that occasion. To morning service Sir
Anthony always went, the habits of Aylmer Park having in them more of
adamant in reference to him than they had as regarded his son.

When the father, mother, and daughter returned, Captain Aylmer had
read his letter, and had, after doing so, received further tidings
from Belton Castle,--further tidings which for the moment prevented
the necessity of any reference to the letter, and almost drove it
from his own thoughts. When his mother entered the library he was
standing before the fire with a scrap of paper in his hand.

"Since you have been at church there has come a telegraphic message,"
he said.

"What is it, Frederic? Do not frighten me,--if you can avoid it!"

"You need not be frightened, ma'am, for you did not know him. Mr.
Amedroz is dead."

"No!" said Lady Aylmer, seating herself.

"Dead!" said Belinda, holding up her hands.

"God bless my soul!" said the baronet, who had now followed the
ladies into the room. "Dead! Why, Fred, he was five years younger
than I am!"

Then Captain Aylmer read the words of the message:--"Mr. Amedroz died
this morning at five o'clock. I have sent word to the lawyer and to
Mr. Belton."

"Who does it come from?" asked Lady Aylmer.

"From Colonel Askerton."

Lady Aylmer paused, and shook her head, and moved her foot uneasily
upon the carpet. The tidings, as far as they went, might be
unexceptionable, but the source from whence they had come had
evidently polluted them in her ladyship's judgment. Then she uttered
a series of inter-ejaculations, expressions of mingled sorrow and
anger.

"There was no one else near her," said Captain Aylmer,
apologetically.

"Is there no clergyman in the parish?"

"He lives a long way off. The message had to be sent at once."

"Are there no servants in the house? It looks,--it looks--. But I
am the last person in the world to form a harsh judgment of a young
woman at such a moment as this. What did she say in her letter,
Fred?"

Captain Aylmer had devoted two hours of consideration to the letter
before the telegram had come to relieve his mind by a fresh subject,
and in those two hours he had not been able to extract much of
comfort out of the document. It was, as he felt, a stubborn,
stiff-necked, disobedient, almost rebellious letter. It contained
a manifest defiance of his mother, and exhibited doctrines of most
questionable morality. It had become to him a matter of doubt whether
he could possibly marry a woman who could entertain such ideas and
write such a letter. If the doubt was to be decided in his own mind
against Clara, he had better show the letter at once to his mother,
and allow her ladyship to fight the battle for him;--a task which,
as he well knew, her ladyship would not be slow to undertake. But he
had not succeeded in answering the question satisfactorily to himself
when the telegram arrived and diverted all his thoughts. Now that Mr.
Amedroz was dead, the whole thing might be different. Clara would
come away from Belton and Mrs. Askerton, and begin life, as it were,
afresh. It seemed as though in such an emergency she ought to have
another chance; and therefore he did not hasten to pronounce his
judgment. Lady Aylmer also felt something of this, and forbore to
press her question when it was not answered.

"She will have to leave Belton now, I suppose?" said Sir Anthony.

"The property will belong to a distant cousin,--a Mr. William
Belton."

"And where will she go?" said Lady Aylmer. "I suppose she has no
place that she can call her home?"

"Would it not be a good thing to ask her here?" said Belinda. Such
a question as that was very rash on the part of Miss Aylmer. In the
first place, the selection of guests for Aylmer Park was rarely left
to her; and in this special case she should have understood that such
a proposal should have been fully considered by Lady Aylmer before it
reached Frederic's ears.

"I think it would be a very good plan," said Captain Aylmer,
generously.

Lady Aylmer shook her head. "I should like much to know what she has
said about that unfortunate connection before I offer to take her by
the hand myself. I'm sure Fred will feel that I ought to do so."

But Fred retreated from the room without showing the letter. He
retreated from the room and betook himself to solitude, that he might
again endeavour to make up his mind as to what he would do. He put
on his hat and his great-coat and gloves, and went off,--without
his luncheon,--that he might consider it all. Clara Amedroz had now
no home,--and, indeed, very little means of providing one. If he
intended that she should be his wife, he must furnish her with a home
at once. It seemed to him that three houses might possibly be open to
her,--of which one, the only one which under such circumstances would
be proper, was Aylmer Park. The other two were Plaistow Hall and Mrs.
Askerton's cottage at Belton. As to the latter,--should she ever take
shelter there, everything must be over between him and her. On that
point there could be no doubt. He could not bring himself to marry
a wife out of Mrs. Askerton's drawing-room, nor could he expect his
mother to receive a young woman brought into the family under such
circumstances. And Plaistow Hall was almost as bad. It was as bad to
him, though it would, perhaps, be less objectionable in the eyes of
Lady Aylmer. Should Clara go to Plaistow Hall there must be an end to
everything. Of that also he taught himself to be quite certain. Then
he took out Clara's letter and read it again. She acknowledged the
story about the woman to be true,--such a story as it was too,--and
yet refused to quarrel with the woman;--had absolutely promised the
woman not to quarrel with her! Then he read and re-read the passage
in which Clara claimed the right of forming her own opinion in such
matters. Nothing could be more indelicate;--nothing more unfit for
his wife. He began to think that he had better show the letter to
his mother, and acknowledge that the match must be broken off. That
softening of his heart which had followed upon the receipt of the
telegraphic message departed from him as he dwelt upon the stubborn,
stiff-necked, unfeminine obstinacy of the letter. Then he remembered
that nothing had as yet been done towards putting his aunt's fifteen
hundred pounds absolutely into Clara's hands; and he remembered also
that she might at the present moment be in great want. William Belton
might, not improbably, assist her in her want, and this idea was
wormwood to him in spite of his almost formed resolution to give up
his own claims. He calculated that the income arising from fifteen
hundred pounds would be very small, and he wished that he had
counselled his aunt to double the legacy. He thought very much
about the amount of the money and the way in which it might be best
expended, and was, after his cold fashion, really solicitous as to
Clara's welfare. If he could have fashioned her future life, and his
own too, in accordance with his own now existing wishes, I think he
would have arranged that neither of them should marry at all, and
that to him should be assigned the duty and care of being Clara's
protector,--with full permission to tell her his mind as often as he
pleased on the subject of Mrs. Askerton. Then he went in and wrote
a note to Mr. Green, the lawyer, desiring that the interest of the
fifteen hundred pounds for one year might be at once remitted to Miss
Amedroz. He knew that he ought to write to her himself immediately,
without loss of a post; but how was he to write while things were
in their present position? Were he now to condole with her on her
father's death, without any reference to the great Askerton iniquity,
he would thereby be condoning all that was past, and acknowledging
the truth and propriety of her arguments. And he would be doing even
worse than that. He would be cutting the ground absolutely from
beneath his own feet as regarded that escape from his engagement
which he was contemplating.

What a cold-hearted, ungenerous wretch he must have been! That
will be the verdict against him. But the verdict will be untrue.
Cold-hearted and ungenerous he was; but he was no wretch,--as men and
women are now-a-days called wretches. He was chilly hearted, but yet
quite capable of enough love to make him a good son, a good husband,
and a good father too. And though he was ungenerous from the nature
of his temperament, he was not close-fisted or over covetous. And he
was a just man, desirous of obtaining nothing that was not fairly his
own. But, in truth, the artists have been so much in the habit of
painting for us our friends' faces without any of those flaws and
blotches with which work and high living are apt to disfigure us,
that we turn in disgust from a portrait in which the roughnesses and
pimples are made apparent.

But it was essential that he should now do something, and before
he sat down to dinner he did show Clara's letter to his mother.
"Mother," he said, as he sat himself down in her little room
up-stairs;--and she knew well by the tone of his voice, and by
the mode of his address, that there was to be a solemn occasion,
and a serious deliberative council on the present existing family
difficulty,--"mother, of course I have intended to let you know what
is the nature of Clara's answer to my letter."

"I am glad there is to be no secret between us, Frederic. You know
how I dislike secrets in families." As she said this she took the
letter out of her son's hands with an eagerness that was almost
greedy. As she read it, he stood over her, watching her eyes, as they
made their way down the first page and on to the second, and across
to the third, and so, gradually on, till the whole reading was
accomplished. What Clara had written about her cousin Will, Lady
Aylmer did not quite understand; and on this point now she was so
little anxious that she passed over that portion of the letter
readily. But when she came to Mrs. Askerton and the allusions to
herself, she took care to comprehend the meaning and weight of every
word. "Divide your words and mine! Why should we want to divide them?
Not agree with me about Mrs. Askerton! How is it possible that any
decent young woman should not agree with me! It is a matter in which
there is no room for a doubt. True;--the story true! Of course it
is true. Does she not know that it would not have reached her from
Aylmer Park if it were not true? Provocation! Badly treated! Went
away! Married to Colonel Askerton as soon as Captain Berdmore died!
Why, Frederic, she cannot have been taught to understand the first
principle of morals in life! And she that was so much with my poor
sister! Well, well!" The reader should understand that the late Mrs.
Winterfield and Lady Aylmer had never been able to agree with each
other on religious subjects. "Remember that they are married. Why
should we remember anything of the kind? It does not make an atom
of difference to the woman's character. Repented! How can Clara
say whether she has repented or not? But that has nothing to do
with it. Not quarrel with her,--as she calls it! Not give her up!
Then, Frederic, of course it must be all over, as far as you are
concerned." When she had finished her reading, she returned the
letter, still open, to her son, shaking her head almost triumphantly.
"As far as I am a judge of a young woman's character, I can only give
you one counsel," said Lady Aylmer solemnly.

"I think that she should have another chance," said Captain Aylmer.

"What other chance can you give her? It seems to me that she is
obstinately bent on her own destruction."

"You might ask her to come here, as Belinda suggested."

"Belinda was very foolish to suggest anything of the kind without
more consideration."

"I suppose that my future wife would be made welcome here?"

"Yes, Frederic, certainly. I do not know who could be more welcome.
But is she to be your wife?"

"We are engaged."

"But does not that letter break any engagement? Is there not enough
in that to make such a marriage quite out of the question? What do
you think about it yourself, Frederic?"

"I think that she should have another chance."

What would Clara have thought of all this herself, if she could have
heard the conversation between Lady Aylmer and her betrothed husband,
and have known that her lover was proposing to give her "another
chance?" But it is lucky for us that we seldom know what our best
friends say on our behalf, when they discuss us and our faults behind
our backs.

"What chance, Frederic, can she have? She knows all about this horrid
woman, and yet refuses to give her up! What chance can she have after
that?"

"I think that you might have her here,--and talk to her." Lady
Aylmer, in answer to this, simply shook her head. And I think she was
right in supposing that such shaking of her head was a sufficient
reply to her son's proposition. What talking could possibly be of
service to such a one as this Miss Amedroz? Why should she throw her
pearls before swine? "We must either ask her to come here, or else I
must go to her," said Captain Aylmer.

"I don't see that at all, Frederic."

"I think it must be so. As she is situated at present she has got no
home; and I think it would be very horrid that she should be driven
into that woman's house, simply because she has no other shelter for
her head."

"I suppose she can remain where she is for the present?"

"She is all alone, you know; and it must be very gloomy;--and her
cousin can turn her out at a moment's notice."

"But all that would not entitle her to come here, unless--"

"No;--I quite understand that. But you cannot wonder that I should
feel the hardship of her position."

"Who is to be blamed if it be hard? You see, Frederic, I take my
standing upon that letter;--her own letter. How am I to ask a young
woman into my house who declares openly that my opinion on such a
matter goes for nothing with her? How am I to do it? That's what I
ask you. How am I to do it? It's all very well for Belinda to suggest
this and that. But how am I to do it? That's what I want to know."

But at last Lady Aylmer managed to answer the question for herself,
and did do it. But this was not done on that Sunday afternoon, nor
on the Monday, nor on the Tuesday. The question was closely debated,
and at last the anxious mother perceived that the giving of the
invitation would be more safe than withholding it. Captain Aylmer
at last expressed his determination to go to Belton unless the
invitation were given; and then, should he do that, there might be
danger that he would never be again seen at Aylmer Park till he
brought Clara Amedroz with him as his wife. The position was one of
great difficulty, but the interests at stake were so immense that
something must be risked. It might be that Clara would not come
when invited, and in that case her obstinacy would be a great point
gained. And if she did come--! Well; Lady Aylmer admitted to herself
that the game would be difficult,--difficult and very troublesome;
but yet it might be played, and perhaps won. Lady Aylmer was a woman
who had great confidence in herself. Not so utterly had victory in
such contests deserted her hands, that she need fear to break a lance
with Miss Amedroz beneath her own roof, when the occasion was so
pressing.

The invitation was therefore sent in a note written by herself,
and was enclosed in a letter from her son. After much consultation
and many doubts on the subject, it was at last agreed that nothing
further should now be urged about Mrs. Askerton. "She shall have her
chance," said Lady Aylmer over and over again, repeating her son's
words. "She shall have her chance." Lady Aylmer, therefore, in her
note, confined herself strictly to the giving of the invitation, and
to a suggestion that, as Clara had now no settled home of her own,
a temporary sojourn at Aylmer Park might be expedient. And Captain
Aylmer in his letter hardly said much more. He knew, as he wrote the
words, that they were cold and comfortless, and that he ought on such
an occasion to have written words that should have been warm at any
rate, even though they might not have contained comfort. But, to
have written with affection, he should have written at once, and he
had postponed his letter from the Sunday till the Wednesday. It had
been absolutely necessary that that important question as to the
invitation should be answered before he could write at all.

When all this was settled he went up to London; and there was an
understanding between him and his mother that he should return
to Aylmer Park with Clara, in the event of her acceptance of the
invitation.

"You won't go down to Belton for her?" said the mother.

"No;--I do not think that will be necessary," said the son.

"I should think not," said the mother.



CHAPTER XX.

WILLIAM BELTON DOES NOT GO OUT HUNTING.


We will now follow the other message which was sent down into
Norfolk, and which did not get into Belton's hands till the Monday
morning. He was sitting with his sister at breakfast, and was
prepared for hunting, when the paper was brought into the room.
Telegraphic messages were not very common at Plaistow Hall, and on
the arrival of any that had as yet reached that house, something
of that awe had been felt with which such missives were always
accompanied in their earliest days. "A telegruff message, mum, for
Mr. William," said the maid, looking at her mistress with eyes opened
wide, as she handed the important bit of paper to her master. Will
opened it rapidly, laying down the knife and fork with which he was
about to operate upon a ham before him. He was dressed in boots and
breeches, and a scarlet coat,--in which garb he was, in his sister's
eyes, the most handsome man in Norfolk.

"Oh, Mary!" he exclaimed.

"What is it, Will?"

"Mr. Amedroz is dead."

Miss Belton put out her hand for the paper before she spoke again, as
though she could better appreciate the truth of what she heard when
reading it herself on the telegraph slip than she had done from her
brother's words. "How sudden! how terribly sudden!" she said.

"Sudden indeed. When I left him he was not well, certainly, but I
should have said that he might have lived for twenty years. Poor old
man! I can hardly say why it was so, but I had taken a liking to
him."

"You take a liking to everybody, Will."

"No I don't. I know people I don't like." Will Belton as he said this
was thinking of Captain Aylmer, and he pressed the heel of his boot
hard against the floor.

"And Mr. Amedroz is dead! It seems to be so terribly sudden. What
will she do, Will?"

"That's what I'm thinking about."

"Of course you are, my dear. I can see that. I wish,--I wish--"

"It's no good wishing anything, Mary. I don't think wishing ever did
any good yet. If I might have my wish, I shouldn't know how to have
it."

"I was wishing that you didn't think so much about it."

"You need not be troubled about me. I shall do very well. But what is
to become of her,--now at once? Might she not come here? You are now
the nearest female relation that she has." Mary looked at him with
her anxious, painful eyes, and he knew by her look that she did not
approve of his plan. "I could go away," he continued. "She could come
to you without being troubled by seeing me.

"And where would you go, Will?"

"What does it matter? To the devil, I suppose."

"Oh, Will, Will!"

"You know what I mean. I'd go anywhere. Where is she to find a home
till,--till she is married?" He had paused at the word; but was
determined not to shrink from it, and bolted it out in a loud, sharp
tone, so that both he and she recognised all the meaning of the
word,--all that was conveyed in the idea. He hated himself when he
endeavoured to conceal from his own mind any of the misery that was
coming upon him. He loved her. He could not get over it. The passion
was on him,--like a palsy, for the shaking off of which no sufficient
physical energy was left to him. It clung to him in his goings out
and comings in with a painful, wearing tenacity, against which he
would now and again struggle, swearing that it should be so no
longer,--but against which he always struggled in vain. It was with
him when he was hunting. He was ever thinking of it when the bird
rose before his gun. As he watched the furrow, as his men and horses
would drive it straight and deep through the ground, he was thinking
of her,--and not of the straightness and depth of the furrow, as had
been his wont in former years. Then he would turn away his face, and
stand alone in his field, blinded by the salt drops in his eyes,
weeping at his own weakness. And when he was quite alone, he would
stamp his foot on the ground, and throw abroad his arms, and curse
himself. What Nessus's shirt was this that had fallen upon him, and
unmanned him from the sole of his foot to the top of his head? He
went through the occupations of the week. He hunted, and shot, and
gave his orders, and paid his men their wages;--but he did it all
with a palsy of love upon him as he did it. He wanted her, and he
could not overcome the want. He could not bear to confess to himself
that the thing by which he had set so much store could never belong
to him. His sister understood it all, and sometimes he was almost
angry with her because of her understanding it. She sympathised with
him in all his moods, and sometimes he would shake away her sympathy
as though it scalded him. "Where is she to find a home till,--till
she is married?" he said.

Not a word had as yet been said between them about the property which
was now his estate. He was now Belton of Belton, and it must be
supposed that both he and she had remembered that it was so. But
hitherto not a word had been said between them on that point. Now she
was compelled to allude to it. "Cannot she live at the Castle for the
present?"

"What;--all alone?"

"Of course she is remaining there now."

"Yes," said he, "of course she is there now. Now! Why, remember what
these telegraphic messages are. He died only on yesterday morning.
Of course she is there, but I do not think it can be good that she
should remain there. There is no one near her where she is but that
Mrs. Askerton. It can hardly be good for her to have no other female
friend at such a time as this."

"I do not think that Mrs. Askerton will hurt her."

"Mrs. Askerton will not hurt her at all,--and as long as Clara does
not know the story, Mrs. Askerton may serve as well as another. But
yet--"

"Can I go to her, Will?"

"No, dearest. The journey would kill you in winter. And he would not
like it. We are bound to think of that for her sake,--cold-hearted,
thankless, meagre-minded creature as I know he is."

"I do not know why he should be so bad."

"No, nor I. But I know that he is. Never mind. Why should we talk
about him? I suppose she'll have to go there,--to Aylmer Park. I
suppose they will send for her, and keep her there till it's all
finished. I'll tell you what, Mary,--I shall give her the place."

"What,--Belton Castle?"

"Why not? Will it ever be of any good to you or me? Do you want to go
and live there?"

"No, indeed;--not for myself."

"And do you think that I could live there? Besides, why should she be
turned out of her father's house?"

"He would not be mean enough to take it."

"He would be mean enough for anything. Besides, I should take very
good care that it should be settled upon her."

"That's nonsense, Will;--it is indeed. You are now William Belton of
Belton, and you must remain so."

"Mary,--I would sooner be Will Belton with Clara Amedroz by my side
to get through the world with me, and not the interest of an acre
either at Belton Castle or at Plaistow Hall! And I believe I should
be the richer man at the end,--if there were any good in that." Then
he went out of the room, and she heard him go through the kitchen,
and knew that he passed out into the farm-yard, towards the stable,
by the back-door. He intended, it seemed, to go on with his hunting
in spite of this death which had occurred. She was sorry for it,
but she could not venture to stop him. And she was sorry also that
nothing had been settled as to the writing of any letter to Clara.
She, however, would take upon herself to write while he was gone.

He went straight out towards the stables, hardly conscious of what he
was doing or where he was going, and found his hack ready saddled for
him in the stall. Then he remembered that he must either go or come
to some decision that he would not go. The horse that he intended
to ride had been sent on to the meet, and if he were not to be used,
some message must be despatched as to the animal's return. But Will
was half inclined to go, although he knew that the world would judge
him to be heartless if he were to go hunting immediately on the
receipt of the tidings which had reached him that morning. He thought
that he would like to set the world at defiance in this matter. Let
Frederic Aylmer go into mourning for the old man who was dead. Let
Frederic Aylmer be solicitous for the daughter who was left lonely in
the old house. No doubt he, Will Belton, had inherited the dead man's
estate, and should, therefore, in accordance with all the ordinary
rules of the world on such matters, submit himself at any rate to the
decency of funereal reserve. An heir should not be seen out hunting
on the day on which such tidings as to his heritage had reached him.
But he did not wish, in his present mood, to be recognised as the
heir. He did not want the property. He would have preferred to rid
himself altogether of any of the obligations which the ownership of
the estate entailed upon him. It was not permitted to him to have the
custody of the old squire's daughter, and therefore he was unwilling
to meddle with any of the old squire's concerns.

Belton had gone into the stable, and had himself loosed the animal,
leading him out into the yard as though he were about to mount him.
Then he had given the reins to a stable boy, and had walked away
among the farm buildings, not thinking of what he was doing. The lad
stood staring at him with open mouth, not at all understanding his
master's hesitation. The meet, as the boy knew, was fourteen miles
off, and Belton had not allowed himself above an hour and a half for
the journey. It was his practice to jump into the saddle and bustle
out of the place, as though seconds were important to him. He would
look at his watch with accuracy, and measure his pace from spot to
spot, as though minutes were too valuable to be lost. But now he
wandered away like one distraught, and the stable boy knew that
something was wrong. "I thout he was a thinken of the white cow as
choked 'erself with the tunnup that was skipped in the chopping,"
said the boy, as he spoke of his master afterwards to the old groom.
At last, however, a thought seemed to strike Belton. "Do you get on
Brag," he said to the boy, "and ride off to Goldingham Corner, and
tell Daniel to bring the horse home again. I shan't hunt to-day. And
I think I shall go away from home. If so, tell him to be sure the
horses are out every morning;--and tell him to stop their beans. I
mightn't hunt again for the next month." Then he returned into the
house, and went to the parlour in which his sister was sitting. "I
shan't go out to-day," he said.

"I thought you would not, Will," she answered.

"Not that I see any harm in it."

"I don't say that there is any harm, but it is as well on such
occasions to do as others do."

"That's humbug, Mary."

"No, Will; I do not think that. When any practice has become the
fixed rule of the society in which we live, it is always wise to
adhere to that rule, unless it call upon us to do something that is
actually wrong. One should not offend the prejudices of the world,
even if one is quite sure that they are prejudices."

"It hasn't been that that has brought me back, Mary. I'll tell you
what. I think I'll go down to Belton--after all."

His sister did not know what to say in answer to this. Her chief
anxiety was, of course, on behalf of her brother. That he should be
made to forget Clara Amedroz, if that were only possible, was her
great desire; and his journey at such a time as this down to Belton
was not the way to accomplish such forgetting. And then she felt that
Clara might very possibly not wish to see him. Had Will simply been
her cousin, such a visit might be very well; but he had attempted to
be more than her cousin, and therefore it would probably not be well.
Captain Aylmer might not like it; and Mary felt herself bound to
consider even Captain Aylmer's likings in such a matter. And yet she
could not bear to oppose him in anything. "It would be a very long
journey," she said.

"What does that signify?"

"And then it might so probably be for nothing."

"Why should it be for nothing?"

"Because--"

"Because what? Why don't you speak out? You need not be afraid of
hurting me. Nothing that you can say can make it at all worse than it
is."

"Dear Will, I wish I could make it better."

"But you can't. Nobody can make it either better or worse. I promised
her once before that I would go to her when she might be in trouble,
and I will be as good as my word. I said I would be a brother to
her;--and so I will. So help me God, I will!" Then he rushed out of
the room, striding through the door as though he would knock it down,
and hurried up-stairs to his own chamber. When there he stripped
himself of his hunting things, and dressed himself again with all
the expedition in his power; and then he threw a heap of clothes
into a large portmanteau, and set himself to work packing as though
everything in the world were to depend upon his catching a certain
train. And he went to a locked drawer, and taking out a cheque-book,
folded it up and put it into his pocket. Then he rang the bell
violently; and as he was locking the portmanteau, pressing down the
lid with all his weight and all his strength, he ordered that a
certain mare should be put into a certain dog-cart, and that somebody
might be ready to drive over with him to the Downham Station. Within
twenty minutes of the time of his rushing up-stairs he appeared again
before his sister with a great-coat on, and a railway rug hanging
over his arm. "Do you mean that you are going to-day?" said she.

"Yes. I'll catch the 11.40 up-train at Downham. What's the good of
going unless I go at once? If I can be of any use it will be at the
first. It may be that she will have nobody there to do anything for
her."

"There is the clergyman, and Colonel Askerton,--even if Captain
Aylmer has not gone down."

"The clergyman and Colonel Askerton are nothing to her. And if that
man is there I can come back again."

"You will not quarrel with him?"

"Why should I quarrel with him? What is there to quarrel about? I'm
not such a fool as to quarrel with a man because I hate him. If he
is there I shall see her for a minute or two, and then I shall come
back."

"I know it is no good my trying to dissuade you."

"None on earth. If you knew it all you would not try to dissuade me.
Before I thought of asking her to be my wife,--and yet I thought of
that very soon;--but before I ever thought of that, I told her that
when she wanted a brother's help I would give it her. Of course I was
thinking of the property,--that she shouldn't be turned out of her
father's house like a beggar. I hadn't any settled plan then;--how
could I? But I meant her to understand that when her father died
I would be the same to her that I am to you. If you were alone, in
distress, would I not go to you?"

"But I have no one else, Will," said she, stretching out her hand to
him where he stood.

"That makes no difference," he replied, almost roughly. "A promise is
a promise, and I resolved from the first that my promise should hold
good in spite of my disappointment. Dear, dear;--it seems but the
other day when I made it,--and now, already, everything is changed."
As he was speaking the servant entered the room, and told him that
the horse and gig were ready for him. "I shall just do it nicely,"
said he, looking at his watch. "I have over an hour. God bless you,
Mary. I shan't be away long. You may be sure of that."

"I don't suppose you can tell as yet, Will."

"What should keep me long? I shall see Green as I go by, and that is
half of my errand. I dare say I shan't stay above a night down in
Somersetshire."

"You'll have to give some orders about the estate."

"I shall not say a word on the subject,--to anybody; that is, not to
anybody there. I am going to look after her, and not the estate."
Then he stooped down and kissed his sister, and in another minute was
turning the corner out of the farm-yard on to the road at a quick
pace, not losing a foot of ground in the turn, in that fashion of
rapidity which the horses at Plaistow Hall soon learned from their
master. The horse is a closely sympathetic beast, and will make his
turns, and do his trottings, and comport himself generally in strict
unison with the pulsations of his master's heart. When a horse won't
jump it is generally the case that the inner man is declining to jump
also, let the outer man seem ever so anxious to accomplish the feat.

Belton, who was generally very communicative with his servants,
always talking to any man he might have beside him in his dog-cart
about the fields and cattle and tillage around him, said not a word
to the boy who accompanied him on this occasion. He had a good
many things to settle in his mind before he got to London, and he
began upon the work as soon as he had turned the corner out of the
farm-yard. As regarded this Belton estate, which was now altogether
his own, he had always had doubts and qualms,--qualms of feeling
rather than of conscience; and he had, also, always entertained
a strong family ambition. His people, ever so far back, had been
Beltons of Belton. They told him that his family could be traced
back to very early days,--before the Plantagenets, as he believed,
though on this point of the subject he was very hazy in his
information,--and he liked the idea of being the man by whom the
family should be reconstructed in its glory. Worldly circumstances
had been so kind to him, that he could take up the Belton estate with
more of the prestige of wealth than had belonged to any of the owners
of the place for many years past. Should it come to pass that living
there would be desirable, he could rebuild the old house, and make
new gardens, and fit himself out with all the pleasant braveries of
a well-to-do English squire. There need be no pinching and scraping,
no question whether a carriage would be possible, no doubt as to
the prudence of preserving game. All this had given much that was
delightful to his prospects. And he had, too, been instigated by a
somewhat weak desire to emerge from that farmer's rank into which he
knew that many connected with him had supposed him to have sunk. It
was true that he farmed land that was half his own,--and that, even
at Plaistow, he was a wealthy man; but Plaistow Hall, with all its
comforts, was a farm-house; and the ambition to be more than a farmer
had been strong upon him.

But then there had been the feeling that in taking the Belton estate
he would be robbing his cousin Clara of all that should have been
hers. It must be remembered that he had not been brought up in the
belief that he would ever become the owner of Belton. All his high
ambition in that matter had originated with the wretched death of
Clara's brother. Could he bring himself to take it all with pleasure,
seeing that it came to him by so sad a chance,--by a catastrophe so
deplorable? When he would think of this, his mind would revolt from
its own desires, and he would declare to himself that his inheritance
would come to him with a stain of blood upon it. He, indeed, would
have been guiltless; but how could he take his pleasure in the shades
of Belton without thinking of the tragedy which had given him the
property? Such had been the thoughts and desires, mixed in their
nature and militating against each other, which had induced him to
offer his first visit to his cousin's house. We know what was the
effect of that visit, and by what pleasant scheme he had endeavoured
to overcome all his difficulties, and so to become master of Belton
that Clara Amedroz should also be its mistress. There had been a way
which, after two days' intimacy with Clara, seemed to promise him
comfort and happiness on all sides. But he had come too late, and
that way was closed against him! Now the estate was his, and what was
he to do with it? Clara belonged to his rival, and in what way would
it become him to treat her? He was still thinking simply of the
cruelty of the circumstances which had thrown Captain Aylmer between
him and his cousin, when he drove himself up to the railway station
at Downham.

"Take her back steady, Jem," he said to the boy.

"I'll be sure to take her wery steady," Jem answered.

"And tell Compton to have the samples of barley ready for me. I may
be back any day, and we shall be sowing early this spring."

Then he left his cart, followed the porter who had taken his luggage
eagerly, knowing that Mr. Belton was always good for sixpence, and in
five minutes' time he was again in motion.

On his arrival in London he drove at once to the chambers of his
friend, Mr. Green, and luckily found the lawyer there. Had he missed
doing this, it was his intention to go out to his friend's house; and
in that case he could not have gone down to Taunton till the next
morning; but now he would be able to say what he wished to say, and
hear what he wished to hear, and would travel down by the night-mail
train. He was anxious that Clara should feel that he had hurried
to her without a moment's delay. It would do no good. He knew that.
Nothing that he could do would alter her, or be of any service to
him. She had accepted this man, and had herself no power of making
a change, even if she should wish it. But still there was to him
something of gratification in the idea that she should be made
to feel that he, Belton, was more instant in his affection, more
urgent in his good offices, more anxious to befriend her in her
difficulties, than the man whom she had consented to take for her
husband. Aylmer would probably go down to Belton, but Will was very
anxious to be the first on the ground,--very anxious,--though his
doing so could be of no use. All this was wrong on his part. He knew
that it was wrong, and he abused himself for his own selfishness. But
such self-abuse gave him no aid in escaping from his own wickedness.
He would, if possible, be at Belton before Captain Aylmer; and he
would, if possible, make Clara feel that, though he was not a member
of Parliament, though he was not much given to books, though he was
only a farmer, yet he had at any rate as much heart and spirit as the
fine gentleman whom she preferred to him.

"I thought I should see you," said the lawyer; "but I hardly expected
you so soon as this."

"I ought to have been a day sooner, only we don't get our telegraphic
messages on a Sunday." He still kept his great-coat on; and it seemed
by his manner that he had no intention of staying where he was above
a minute or two.

"You'll come out and dine with me to-day?" said Mr. Green.

"I can't do that, for I shall go down by the mail train."

"I never saw such a fellow in my life. What good will that do? It is
quite right that you should be there in time for the funeral; but I
don't suppose he will be buried before this day week."

But Belton had never thought about the funeral. When he had spoken to
his sister of saying but a few words to Clara and then returning, he
had forgotten that there would be any such ceremony, or that he would
be delayed by any such necessity.

"I was not thinking about the funeral," said Belton.

"You'll only find yourself uncomfortable there."

"Of course I shall be uncomfortable."

"You can't do anything about the property, you know."

"What do you mean by doing anything?" said Belton, in an angry tone.

"You can't very well take possession of the place, at any rate, till
after the funeral. It would not be considered the proper thing to
do."

"You think, then, that I'm a bird of prey, smelling the feast from
afar off, and hurrying at the dead man's carcase as soon as the
breath is out of his body?"

"I don't think anything of the kind, my dear fellow."

"Yes, you do, or you wouldn't talk to me about doing the proper
thing! I don't care a straw about the proper thing! If I find that
there's anything to be done to-morrow that can be of any use, I shall
do it, though all Somersetshire should think it improper! But I'm not
going to look after my own interests!"

"Take off your coat and sit down, Will, and don't look so angry at
me. I know that you're not greedy, well enough. Tell me what you are
going to do, and let me see if I can help you."

Belton did as he was told; he pulled off his coat and sat himself
down by the fire. "I don't know that you can do anything to help
me,--at least, not as yet. But I must go and see after her. Perhaps
she may be all alone."

"I suppose she is all alone."

"He hasn't gone down, then?"

"Who;--Captain Aylmer? No;--he hasn't gone down, certainly. He is in
Yorkshire."

"I'm glad of that!"

"He won't hurry himself. He never does, I fancy. I had a letter from
him this morning about Miss Amedroz."

"And what did he say?"

"He desired me to send her seventy-five pounds,--the interest of her
aunt's money."

"Seventy-five pounds!" said Will Belton, contemptuously.

"He thought she might want money at once; and I sent her the cheque
to-day. It will go down by the same train that carries you."

"Seventy-five pounds! And you are sure that he has not gone himself?"

"It isn't likely that he should have written to me, and passed
through London himself, at the same time;--but it is possible, no
doubt. I don't think he even knew the old squire; and there is no
reason why he should go to the funeral."

"No reason at all," said Belton,--who felt that Captain Aylmer's
presence at the Castle would be an insult to himself. "I don't know
what on earth he should do there,--except that I think him just the
fellow to intrude where he is not wanted." And yet Will was in his
heart despising Captain Aylmer because he had not already hurried
down to the assistance of the girl whom he professed to love.

"He is engaged to her, you know," said the lawyer, in a low voice.

"What difference does that make with such a fellow as he is, a
cold-blooded fish of a man, who thinks of nothing in the world but
being respectable? Engaged to her! Oh, damn him!"

"I've not the slightest objection. I don't think, however, that
you'll find him at Belton before you. No doubt she will have heard
from him; and it strikes me as very possible that she may go to
Aylmer Park."

"What should she go there for?"

"Would it not be the best place for her?"

"No. My house would be the best place for her. I am her nearest
relative. Why should she not come to us?"

Mr. Green turned round his chair and poked the fire, and fidgeted
about for some moments before he answered. "My dear fellow, you must
know that that wouldn't do." He then said, "You ought to feel that it
wouldn't do;--you ought indeed."

"Why shouldn't my sister receive Miss Amedroz as well as that old
woman down in Yorkshire?"

"If I may tell you, I will."

"Of course you may tell me."

"Because Miss Amedroz is engaged to be married to that old woman's
son, and is not engaged to be married to your sister's brother. The
thing is done, and what is the good of interfering. As far as she is
concerned, a great burden is off your hands."

"What do you mean by a burden?"

"I mean that her engagement to Captain Aylmer makes it unnecessary
for you to suppose that she is in want of any pecuniary assistance.
You told me once before that you would feel yourself called upon to
see that she wanted nothing."

"So I do now."

"But Captain Aylmer will look after that."

"I tell you what it is, Joe; I mean to settle the Belton property
in such a way that she shall have it, and that he shan't be
able to touch it. And it shall go to some one who shall have my
name,--William Belton. That's what I want you to arrange for me."

"After you are dead, you mean."

"I mean now, at once. I won't take the estate from her. I hate the
place and everything belonging to it. I don't mean her. There is no
reason for hating her."

"My dear Will, you are talking nonsense."

"Why is it nonsense? I may give what belongs to me to whom I please."

"You can do nothing of the kind;--at any rate, not by my assistance.
You talk as though the world were all over with you,--as though you
were never to be married or have any children of your own."

"I shall never marry."

"Nonsense, Will. Don't make such an ass of yourself as to suppose
that you'll not get over such a thing as this. You'll be married and
have a dozen children yet to provide for. Let the eldest have Belton
Castle, and everything will go on then in the proper way."

Belton had now got the poker into his hands, and sat silent for some
time, knocking the coals about. Then he got up, and took his hat, and
put on his coat. "Of course I can't make you understand me," he said;
"at any rate not all at once. I'm not such a fool as to want to give
up my property just because a girl is going to be married to a man I
don't like. I'm not such an ass as to give him my estate for such a
reason as that;--for it will be giving it to him, let me tie it up
as I may. But I've a feeling about it which makes it impossible for
me to take it. How would you like to get a thing by another fellow
having destroyed himself?"

"You can't help that. It's yours by law."

"Of course it is. I know that. And as it's mine I can do what I like
with it. Well;--good-bye. When I've got anything to say, I'll write."
Then he went down to his cab and had himself driven to the Great
Western Railway Hotel.

Captain Aylmer had sent to his betrothed seventy-five pounds; the
exact interest at five per cent. for one year of the sum which his
aunt had left her. This was the first subject of which Belton thought
when he found himself again in the railway carriage, and he continued
thinking of it half the way down to Taunton. Seventy-five pounds!
As though this favoured lover were prepared to give her exactly her
due, and nothing more than her due! Had he been so placed, he, Will
Belton, what would he have done? Seventy-five pounds might have
been more money than she would have wanted, for he would have taken
her to his own house,--to his own bosom, as soon as she would have
permitted, and would have so laboured on her behalf, taking from her
shoulders all money troubles, that there would have been no question
as to principal or interest between them. At any rate he would not
have confined himself to sending to her the exact sum which was her
due. But then Aylmer was a cold-blooded man,--more like a fish than a
man. Belton told himself over and over again that he had discovered
that at the single glance which he had had when he saw Captain Aylmer
in Green's chambers. Seventy-five pounds indeed! He himself was
prepared to give his whole estate to her, if she would take it,--even
though she would not marry him, even though she was going to throw
herself away upon that fish! Then he felt somewhat as Hamlet did when
he jumped upon Laertes at the grave of Ophelia. Send her seventy-five
pounds indeed, while he was ready to drink up Esil for her, or to
make over to her the whole Belton estate, and thus abandon the idea
for ever of being Belton of Belton!

He reached Taunton in the middle of the night,--during the small
hours of the morning in a winter night; but yet he could not bring
himself to go to bed. So he knocked up an ostler at the nearest inn,
and ordered out a gig. He would go down to the village of Redicote,
on the Minehead road, and put up at the public-house there. He could
not now have himself driven at once to Belton Castle, as he would
have done had the old squire been alive. He fancied that his presence
would be a nuisance if he did so. So he went to the little inn at
Redicote, reaching that place between four and five o'clock in the
morning; and very uncomfortable he was when he got there. But in his
present frame of mind he preferred discomfort. He liked being tired
and cold, and felt, when he was put into a chill room, without fire,
and with a sanded floor, that things with him were as they ought to
be.

Yes,--he could have a fly over to Belton Castle after breakfast.
Having learned so much, and ordered a dish of eggs and bacon for his
morning's breakfast, he went up-stairs to a miserable little bedroom,
to dress himself after his night's journey.



CHAPTER XXI.

MRS. ASKERTON'S GENEROSITY.


The death of the old man at Belton Castle had been very sudden. At
three o'clock in the morning Clara had been called into his room, and
at five o'clock she was alone in the world,--having neither father,
mother, nor brother; without a home, without a shilling that she
could call her own;--with no hope as to her future life, if,--as she
had so much reason to suppose,--Captain Aylmer should have chosen to
accept her last letter as a ground for permanent separation. But at
this moment, on this saddest morning, she did not care much for that
chance. It seemed to be almost indifferent to her, that question of
Lady Aylmer and her anger. The more that she was absolutely in need
of external friendship, the more disposed was she to reject it, and
to declare to herself that she was prepared to stand alone in the
world.

For the last week she had understood from the doctor that her father
was in truth sinking, and that she might hardly hope ever to see him
again convalescent. She had therefore in some sort prepared herself
for her loneliness, and anticipated the misery of her position. As
soon as it was known to the women in the room that life had left the
old man, one of them had taken her by the hand and led her back to
her own chamber. "Now, Miss Clara, you had better lie down on the bed
again;--you had indeed; you can do nothing sitting up." She took the
old woman's advice, and allowed them to do with her as they would. It
was true that there was no longer any work by which she could make
herself useful in that house,--in that house, or, as far as she could
see, in any other. Yes; she would go to bed, and lying there would
feel how convenient it would be for many persons if she also could
be taken away to her long rest, as her father, and aunt, and brother
had been taken before her. Her name and family had been unfortunate,
and it would be well that there should be no Amedroz left to trouble
those more fortunate persons who were to come after them. In her
sorrow and bitterness she included both her cousin Will and Captain
Aylmer among those more fortunate ones for whose sake it might be
well that she should be made to vanish from off the earth. She
had read Captain Aylmer's letter over and over again since she
had answered it, and had read nearly as often the copy of her own
reply,--and had told herself, as she read them, that of course he
would not forgive her. He might perhaps pardon her, if she would
submit to him in everything; but that she would not submit to his
commands respecting Mrs. Askerton she was fully resolved,--and,
therefore, there could be no hope. Then, when she remembered how
lately her dear father's spirit had fled, she hated herself for
having allowed her mind to dwell on anything beyond her loss of him.

She was still in her bedroom, having fallen into that half-waking
slumber which the numbness of sorrow so often produces, when word
was brought to her that Mrs. Askerton was in the house. It was
the first time that Mrs. Askerton had ever crossed the door, and
the remembrance that it was so came upon her at once. During her
father's lifetime it had seemed to be understood that their neighbour
should have no admittance there;--but now,--now that her father was
gone,--the barrier was to be overthrown. And why not? Why should not
Mrs. Askerton come to her? Why, if Mrs. Askerton chose to be kind to
her, should she not altogether throw herself into her friend's arms?
Of course her doing so would give mortal offence to everybody at
Aylmer Park; but why need she stop to think of that? She had already
made up her mind that she would not obey orders from Aylmer Park on
this subject.

She had not seen Mrs. Askerton since that interview between them
which was described some few chapters back. Then everything had been
told between them, so that there was no longer any mystery either on
the one side or on the other. Then Clara had assured her friend of
her loving friendship in spite of any edicts to the contrary which
might come from Aylmer Park; and after that what could be more
natural than that Mrs. Askerton should come to her in her sorrow.
"She says she'll come up to you if you'll let her," said the servant.
But Clara declined this proposition, and in a few minutes went down
to the small parlour in which she had lately lived, and where she
found her visitor.

"My poor dear, this has been very sudden," said Mrs. Askerton.

"Very sudden;--very sudden. And yet, now that he has gone, I know
that I expected it."

"Of course I came to you as soon as I heard of it, because I knew
you were all alone. If there had been any one else I should not have
come."

"It is very good of you."

"Colonel Askerton thought that perhaps he had better come. I told him
of all that which we said to each other the other day. He thought at
first that it would be better that I should not see you."

"It was very good of you to come," said Clara again, and as she spoke
she put out her hand and took Mrs. Askerton's,--continuing to hold it
for awhile; "very good indeed."

"I told him that I could not but go down to you,--that I thought you
would not understand it if I stayed away."

"At any rate it was good of you to come to me."

"I don't believe," said Mrs. Askerton, "that what people call
consolation is ever of any use. It is a terrible thing to lose a
father."

"Very terrible. Ah, dear, I have hardly yet found out how sad it is.
As yet I have only been thinking of myself, and wishing that I could
be with him."

"Nay, Clara."

"How can I help it? What am I to do, or where am I to go? Of what use
is life to such a one as me? And for him,--who would dare to wish him
back again? When people have fallen and gone down in the world it is
bad for them to go on living. Everything is a trouble, and there is
nothing but vexation."

"Think what I have suffered, dear."

"But you have had somebody to care for you,--somebody whom you could
trust."

"And have not you?"

"No; no one."

"What do you mean, Clara?"

"I mean what I say. I have no one. It is no use asking
questions,--not now, at such a time as this. And I did not mean to
complain. Complaining is weak and foolish. I have often told myself
that I could bear anything, and so I will. When I can bring myself to
think of what I have lost in my father I shall be better, even though
I shall be more sorrowful. As it is, I hate myself for being so
selfish."

"You will let me come and stay with you to-day, will you not?"

"No, dear; not to-day."

"Why not to-day, Clara?"

"I shall be better alone. I have so many things to think of."

"I know well that it would be better that you should not be
alone,--much better. But I will not press it. I cannot insist with
you as another woman would."

"You are wrong there; quite wrong. I would be led by you sooner than
by any woman living. What other woman is there to whom I would listen
for a moment?" As she said this, even in the depth of her sorrow she
thought of Lady Aylmer, and strengthened herself in her resolution to
rebel against her lover's mother. Then she continued, "I wish I knew
my cousin Mary,--Mary Belton; but I have never seen her."

"Is she nice?"

"So Will tells me; and I know that what he says must be true,--even
about his sister."

"Will, Will! You are always thinking of your cousin Will. If he be
really so good he will show it now."

"How can he show it? What can he do?"

"Does he not inherit all the property?"

"Of course he does. And what of that? When I say that I have no
friend I am not thinking of my poverty."

"If he has that regard for you which he pretends, he can do much to
assist you. Why should he not come here at once?"

"God forbid."

"Why? Why do you say so? He is your nearest relative."

"If you do not understand I cannot explain."

"Has he been told what has happened?" Mrs. Askerton asked.

"Colonel Askerton sent a message to him, I believe."

"And to Captain Aylmer also?"

"Yes; and to Captain Aylmer. It was Colonel Askerton who sent it."

"Then he will come, of course."

"I think not. Why should he come? He did not even know poor papa."

"But, my dear Clara, has he not known you?"

"You will see that he will not come. And I tell you beforehand that
he will be right to stay away. Indeed, I do not know how he could
come;--and I do not want him here."

"I cannot understand you, Clara."

"I suppose not. I cannot very well understand myself."

"I should not be at all surprised if Lady Aylmer were to come
herself."

"Oh, heavens! How little you can know of Lady Aylmer's position and
character!"

"But if she is to be your mother-in-law?"

"And even if she were! The idea of Lady Aylmer coming away from
Aylmer Park,--all the way from Yorkshire, to such a house as this! If
they told me that the Queen was coming it would hardly disconcert me
more. But, dear, there is no danger of that at least."

"I do not know what may have passed between you and him; but unless
there has been some quarrel he will come. That is, he will do so if
he is at all like any men whom I have known."

"He will not come."

Then Mrs. Askerton made some half-whispered offers of services to
be rendered by Colonel Askerton, and soon afterwards took her leave,
having first asked permission to come again in the afternoon, and
when that was declined, having promised to return on the following
morning. As she walked back to the cottage she could not but think
more of Clara's engagement to Captain Aylmer than she did of the
squire's death. As regarded herself, of course she could not grieve
for Mr. Amedroz; and as regarded Clara, Clara's father had for some
time past been apparently so insignificant, even in his own house,
that it was difficult to acknowledge the fact that the death of such
a one as he might leave a great blank in the world. But what had
Clara meant by declaring so emphatically that Captain Aylmer would
not visit Belton, and by speaking of herself as one who had neither
position nor friends in the world? If there had been a quarrel,
indeed, then it was sufficiently intelligible;--and if there was any
such quarrel, from what source must it have arisen? Mrs. Askerton
felt the blood rise to her cheeks as she thought of this, and told
herself that there could be but one such source. Mrs. Askerton knew
that Clara had received orders from Aylmer Castle to discontinue all
acquaintance with herself, and, therefore, there could be no doubt
as to the cause of the quarrel. It had come to this then, that Clara
was to lose her husband because she was true to her friend; or rather
because she would not consent to cast an additional stone at one who
for some years past had become a mark for many stones.

I am not prepared to say that Mrs. Askerton was a high-minded woman.
Misfortunes had come upon her in life of a sort which are too apt to
quench high nobility of mind in woman. There are calamities which,
by their natural tendencies, elevate the character of women and
add strength to the growth of feminine virtues;--but then, again,
there are other calamities which few women can bear without some
degradation, without some injury to that delicacy and tenderness
which is essentially necessary to make a woman charming,--as a woman.
In this, I think, the world is harder to women than to men; that a
woman often loses much by the chance of adverse circumstances which
a man only loses by his own misconduct. That there are women whom no
calamity can degrade is true enough;--and so it is true that there
are some men who are heroes; but such are exceptions both among men
and women. Not such a one had Mrs. Askerton been. Calamity had come
upon her;--partly, indeed, by her own fault, though that might have
been pardoned;--but the weight of her misfortunes had been too great
for her strength, and she had become in some degree hardened by what
she had endured; if not unfeminine, still she was feminine in an
inferior degree, with womanly feelings of a lower order. And she had
learned to intrigue, not being desirous of gaining aught by dishonest
intriguing, but believing that she could only hold her own by
carrying on her battle after that fashion. In all this I am speaking
of the general character of the woman, and am not alluding to the
one sin which she had committed. Thus, when she had first become
acquainted with Miss Amedroz, her conscience had not rebuked her
in that she was deceiving her new friend. When asked casually in
conversation as to her maiden name, she had not blushed as she
answered the question with a falsehood. When, unfortunately, the
name of her first husband had in some way made itself known to Clara
she had been ready again with some prepared fib. And when she had
recognised William Belton, she had thought that the danger to herself
of having any one near her who might know her, quite justified her
in endeavouring to create ill-will between Clara and her cousin.
"Self-preservation is the first law of nature," she would have
said; and would have failed to remember, as she did always fail to
remember,--that nature does not require by any of its laws that
self-preservation should be aided by falsehood.

But though she was not high-minded, so also was she not ungenerous;
and now, as she began to understand that Clara was sacrificing
herself because of that promise which had been given when they two
had stood together at the window in the cottage drawing-room, she
was capable of feeling more for her friend than for herself. She was
capable even of telling herself that it was cruel on her part even
to wish for any continuance of Clara's acquaintance. "I have made
my bed, and I must lie upon it," she said to herself; and then she
resolved that, instead of going up to the house on the following
day, she would write to Clara, and put an end to the intimacy which
existed between them. "The world is hard, and harsh, and unjust," she
said, still speaking to herself. "But that is not her fault; I will
not injure her because I have been injured myself."

Colonel Askerton was up at the house on the same day, but he did
not ask for Miss Amedroz, nor did she see him. Nobody else came to
the house then, or on the following morning, or on that afternoon,
though Clara did not fail to tell herself that Captain Aylmer might
have been there if he had chosen to take the journey and to leave
home as soon as he had received the message; and she made the same
calculation as to her cousin Will,--though in that calculation, as we
know, she was wrong. These two days had been very desolate with her,
and she had begun to look forward to Mrs. Askerton's coming,--when
instead of that there came a messenger with a letter from the
cottage.

"You can do as you like, my dear," Colonel Askerton had said on the
previous evening to his wife. He had listened to all she had been
saying without taking his eyes from off his newspaper, though she had
spoken with much eagerness.

"But that is not enough. You should say more to me than that."

"Now I think you are unreasonable. For myself, I do not care how this
matter goes; nor do I care one straw what any tongues may say. They
cannot reach me, excepting so far as they may reach me through you."

"But you should advise me."

"I always do,--copiously, when I think that I know better than you;
but in this matter I feel so sure that you know better than I, that I
don't wish to suggest anything." Then he went on with his newspaper,
and she sat for a while looking at him, as though she expected that
something more would be said. But nothing more was said, and she was
left entirely to her own guidance.

Since the days in which her troubles had come upon Mrs. Askerton,
Clara Amedroz was the first female friend who had come near her
to comfort her, and she was very loth to abandon such comfort.
There had, too, been something more than comfort, something almost
approaching to triumph, when she found that Clara had clung to her
with affection after hearing the whole story of her life. Though
her conscience had not pricked her while she was exercising all her
little planned deceits, she had not taken much pleasure in them. How
should any one take pleasure in such work? Many of us daily deceive
our friends, and are so far gone in deceit that the deceit alone is
hardly painful to us. But the need of deceiving a friend is always
painful. The treachery is easy; but to be treacherous to those
we love is never easy,--never easy, even though it be so common.
There had been a double delight to this poor woman in the near
neighbourhood of Clara Amedroz since there had ceased to be any
necessity for falsehood on her part. But now, almost before her joy
had commenced, almost before she had realised the sweetness of her
triumph, had come upon her this task of doing that herself which
Clara in her generosity had refused to do. "I have made my bed and I
must lie upon it," she said. And then, instead of going down to the
house as she had promised, she wrote the following letter to Miss
Amedroz:--


   The Cottage, Monday.

   DEAREST CLARA,--I need not tell you that I write as I do
   now with a bleeding heart. A few days since I should have
   laughed at any woman who used such a phrase of herself,
   and declared her to be an affected fool; but now I know
   how true such a word may be. My heart is bleeding, and
   I feel myself to be overcome by my disgrace. You told
   me that I did not understand you yesterday. Of course I
   understood you. Of course I know how it all is, and why
   you spoke as you did of Captain Aylmer. He has chosen to
   think that you could not know me without pollution, and
   has determined that you must give up either me or him.
   Though he has judged me I am not going to judge him. The
   world is on his side; and, perhaps, he is right. He knows
   nothing of my trials and difficulties,--and why should
   he? I do not blame him for demanding that his future wife
   shall not be intimate with a woman who is supposed to have
   lost her fitness for the society of women.

   At any rate, dearest, you must obey him,--and we will see
   each other no more. I am quite sure that I should be very
   wicked were I to allow you to injure your position in life
   on my account. You at any rate love him, and would be
   happy with him, and as you are engaged to him, you have no
   just ground for resenting his interference.

   You will understand me now as well as though I were to
   fill sheets and sheets of paper with what I could say
   on the subject. The simple fact is, that you and I must
   forget each other, or simply remember one another as past
   friends. You will know in a day or two what your plans
   are. If you remain here, we will go away. If you go away,
   we will remain here;--that is, if your cousin will keep
   us as tenants. I do not of course know what you may have
   written to Captain Aylmer since our interview up here,
   but I beg that you will write to him now, and make him
   understand that he need have no fears in respect of me.
   You may send him this letter if you will. Oh, dear! if you
   could know what I suffer as I write this.

   I feel that I owe you an apology for harassing you on such
   a subject at such a time; but I know that I ought not to
   lose a day in telling you that you are to see nothing more
   of the friend who has loved you.

   MARY ASKERTON.


Clara's first impulse on receiving this letter was to go off at once
to the cottage, and insist on her privilege of choosing her own
friends. If she preferred Mrs. Askerton to Captain Aylmer, that was
no one's business but her own. And she would have done so had she not
been afraid of meeting with Colonel Askerton. To him she would not
have known how to speak on such a subject;--nor would she have known
how to conduct herself at the cottage without speaking of it. And
then, after a while, she felt that were she to do so,--should she
now deliberately determine to throw herself into Mrs. Askerton's
arms,--she must at the same time give up all idea of becoming Captain
Aylmer's wife. As she thought of this she asked herself various
questions concerning him, which she did not find it easy to answer.
Did she wish to be his wife? Could she assure herself that if they
were married they would make each other happy? Did she love him? She
was still able to declare to herself that the answer to the last
question should be an affirmative; but, nevertheless, she thought
that she could give him up without great unhappiness. And when she
began to think of Lady Aylmer, and to remember that Frederic Aylmer's
imperative demands upon her obedience had, in all probability, been
dictated by his mother, she was again anxious to go at once to the
cottage, and declare that she would not submit to any interference
with her own judgment.

On the next morning the postman brought to her a letter which was of
much moment to her,--but he brought to her also tidings which moved
her more even than the letter. The letter was from the lawyer,
and enclosed a cheque for seventy-five pounds, which he had been
instructed to pay to her, as the interest of the money left to her
by her aunt. What should be her answer to that letter she knew very
well,--and she instantly wrote it, sending back the cheque to Mr.
Green. The postman's news, more important than the letter, told her
that William Belton was at the inn at Redicote.



CHAPTER XXII.

PASSIONATE PLEADING.


Clara wrote her letter to the lawyer, returning the cheque, before
she would allow herself a moment to dwell upon the news of her
cousin's arrival. She felt that it was necessary to do that before
she should even see her cousin,--thus providing against any
difficulty which might arise from adverse advice on his part; and as
soon as the letter was written she sent it to the post-office in the
village. She would do almost anything that Will might tell her to do,
but Captain Aylmer's money she would not take, even though Will might
so direct her. They would tell her, no doubt, among them, that the
money was her own,--that she might take it without owing any thanks
for it to Captain Aylmer. But she knew better than that,--as she
told herself over and over again. Her aunt had left her nothing, and
nothing would she have from Captain Aylmer,--unless she had all that
Captain Aylmer had to give, after the fashion in which women best
love to take such gifts.

Then, when she had done that, she was able to think of her cousin's
visit. "I knew he would come," she said to herself, as she sat
herself in one of the old chairs in the hall, with a large shawl
wrapped round her shoulders. She had just been to the front door,
with the nominal purpose of despatching her messenger thence to the
post-office; but she had stood for a minute or two under the portico,
looking in the direction by which Belton would come from Redicote,
expecting, or rather hoping, that she might see his figure or hear
the sound of his gig. But she saw nothing and heard nothing, and so
returned into the hall, slowly shutting the door. "I knew that he
would come," she said, repeating to herself the same words, over and
over again. Yet when Mrs. Askerton had told her that he would do this
thing which he had now done, she had expressed herself as almost
frightened by the idea. "God forbid," she had said. Nevertheless now
that he was there at Redicote, she assured herself that his coming
was a thing of which she had been certain; and she took a joy in the
knowledge of his nearness to her which she did not attempt to define
to herself. Had he not said that he would be a brother to her, and
was it not a brother's part to go to a sister in affliction? "I knew
that he would come. I was sure of it. He is so true." As to Captain
Aylmer's not coming she said nothing, even to herself; but she felt
that she had been equally sure on that subject. Of course, Captain
Aylmer would not come! He had sent her seventy-five pounds in lieu
of coming, and in doing so was true to his character. Both men were
doing exactly that which was to have been expected of them. So at
least Clara Amedroz now assured herself. She did not ask herself how
it was that she had come to love the thinner and the meaner of the
two men, but she knew well that such had been her fate.

On a sudden she rose from her chair, as though remembering a duty to
be performed, and went to the kitchen and directed that breakfast
might be got ready for Mr. Belton. He would have travelled all
night,--and would be in want of food. Since the old squire's death
there had been no regular meal served in the house, and Clara had
taken such scraps of food and cups of tea as the old servant of the
house had brought to her. But now the cloth must be spread again,
and as she did this with her own hands she remembered the dinners
which had been prepared for Captain Aylmer at Perivale after his
aunt's death. It seemed to her that she was used to be in the house
with death, and that the sadness and solemn ceremonies of woe were
becoming things familiar to her. There grew upon her a feeling that
it must be so with her always. The circumstances of her life would
ever be sad. What right had she to expect any other fate after such
a catastrophe as that which her brother had brought upon the family?
It was clear to her that she had done wrong in supposing that she
could marry and live with a prosperous man of the world like Captain
Aylmer. Their natures were different, and no such union could lead to
any good. So she told herself, with much misery of spirit, as she was
preparing the breakfast-table for William Belton.

But William Belton did not come to eat the breakfast. He got what he
wanted in that way at the inn at Redicote, and even then hesitated,
loitering at the bar, before he would go over. What was he to say,
and how would he be received? After all, had he not done amiss in
coming to a house at which he probably might not be wanted? Would
it not be thought that his journey had been made solely with a view
to his own property? He would be regarded as the heir pouncing upon
the inheritance before as yet the old owner was under the ground. At
any rate it would be too early for him to make his visit yet awhile;
and, to kill time, he went over to a carpenter who had been employed
by him about the place at Belton. The carpenter spoke to him as
though everything were his own, and was very intent upon future
improvements. This made Will more disgusted with himself than ever,
and before he could get out of the carpenter's yard he thoroughly
wished himself back at Plaistow. But having come so far, he could
hardly return without seeing his cousin, and at last he had himself
driven over, reaching the house between eleven and twelve o'clock in
the day.

Clara met him in the hall, and at once led him into the room which
she had prepared for him. He had given her his hand in the hall, but
did not speak to her till she had spoken to him after the closing of
the room door behind them. "I thought that you would come," she said,
still holding him by the hand.

"I did not know what to do," he answered. "I couldn't say which was
best. Now I am here I shall only be in your way." He did not dare to
press her hand, nor could he bring himself to take his away from her.

"In my way;--yes; as an angel, to tell me what to do in my trouble.
I knew you would come, because you are so good. But you will have
breakfast;--see, I have got it ready for you."

"Oh no; I breakfasted at Redicote. I would not trouble you."

"Trouble me, Will! Oh, Will, if you knew!" Then there came tears in
her eyes, and at the sight of them both his own were filled. How
was he to stand it? To take her to his bosom and hold her there for
always; to wipe away her tears so that she should weep no more; to
devote himself and all his energy and all that was his to comfort
her,--this he could have done; but he knew not how to do anything
short of this. Every word that she spoke to him was an encouragement
to this, and yet he knew that it could not be so. To say a word of
his love, or even to look it, would now be an unmanly insult. And
yet, how was he not to look it,--not to speak of it? "It is such a
comfort that you should be here with me," she said.

"Then I am glad I am here, though I do not know what I can do. Did he
suffer much, Clara?"

"No, I think not; very little. He sank at last quicker than I
expected, but just as I thought he would go. He used to speak of you
so often, and always with regard and esteem!"

"Dear old man!"

"Yes, Will; he was, in spite of his little faults. No father ever
loved his daughter better than he loved me."

After a while the servant brought in the tea, explaining to Belton
that Miss Clara had neither eaten nor drank that morning. "She
wouldn't take anything till you came, sir." Then Will added his
entreaties, and Clara was persuaded, and by degrees there grew
between them more ease of manner and capability for talking than had
been within their reach when they first met. And during the morning
many things were explained, as to which Clara would a few hours
previously have thought it to be almost impossible that she should
speak to her cousin. She had told him of her aunt's money, and the
way in which she had on that very morning sent back the cheque to the
lawyer; and she had said something also as to Lady Aylmer's views,
and her own views as to Lady Aylmer. With Will this subject was one
most difficult of discussion; and he blushed and fidgeted in his
chair, and walked about the room, and found himself unable to look
Clara in the face as she spoke to him. But she went on, goading him
with the name, which of all names was the most distasteful to him;
and mentioning that name almost in terms of reproach,--of reproach
which he felt it would be ungenerous to reciprocate, but which he
would have exaggerated to unmeasured abuse if he had given his tongue
licence to speak his mind.

"I was right to send back the money;--wasn't I, Will? Say that I was
right. Pray tell me that you think so!"

"I don't understand it at present, you see; I am no lawyer."

"But it doesn't want a lawyer to know that I couldn't take the money
from him. I am sure you feel that."

"If a man owes money of course he ought to pay it."

"But he doesn't owe it, Will. It is intended for generosity."

"You don't want anybody's generosity, certainly." Then he reflected
that Clara must, after all, depend entirely on the generosity of
some one till she was married; and he wanted to explain to her that
everything he had in the world was at her service,--was indeed her
own. Or he would have explained, if he knew how, that he did not
intend to take advantage of the entail,--that the Belton estate
should belong to her as the natural heir of her father. But he
conceived that the moment for explaining this had hardly as yet
arrived, and that he had better confine himself to some attempt at
teaching her that no extraneous assistance would be necessary to her.
"In money matters," said he, "of course you are to look to me. That
is a matter of course. I'll see Green about the other affairs. Green
and I are friends. We'll settle it."

"That's not what I meant, Will."

"But it's what I mean. This is one of those things in which a man has
to act on his own judgment. Your father and I understood each other."

"He did not understand that I was to accept your bounty."

"Bounty is a nasty word, and I hate it. You accepted me,--as your
brother, and as such I mean to act." The word almost stuck in his
throat, but he brought it out at last in a fierce tone, of which she
understood accurately the cause and meaning. "All money matters about
the place must be settled by me. Indeed, that's why I came down."

"Not only for that, Will?"

"Just to be useful in that way, I mean."

"You came to see me,--because you knew I should want you." Surely
this was malice prepense! Knowing what was his want, how could she
exasperate it by talking thus of her own? "As for money, I have no
claim on any one. No creature was ever more forlorn. But I will not
talk of that."

"Did you not say that you would treat me as a brother?"

"I did not mean that I was to be a burden on you."

"I know what I meant, and that is sufficient."

Belton had been at the house some hours before he made any sign
of leaving her, and when he did so he had to explain something
of his plans. He would remain, he said, for about a week in the
neighbourhood. She of course was obliged to ask him to stay at the
house,--at the house which was in fact his own; but he declined to do
this, blurting out his reason at last very plainly. "Captain Aylmer
would not like it, and I suppose you are bound to think of what he
likes and dislikes." "I don't know what right Captain Aylmer would
have to dislike any such thing," said Clara. But, nevertheless,
she allowed the reason to pass as current, and did not press her
invitation. Will declared that he would stay at the inn at Redicote,
striving to explain in some very unintelligible manner that such an
arrangement would be very convenient. He would remain at Redicote,
and would come over to Belton every day during his sojourn in the
country. Then he asked one question in a low whisper as to the last
sad ceremony, and, having received an answer, started off with the
declared intention of calling on Colonel Askerton.

The next two or three days passed uncomfortably enough with Will
Belton. He made his head-quarters at the little inn of Redicote, and
drove himself backwards and forwards between that place and the
estate which was now his own. On each of these days he saw Colonel
Askerton, whom he found to be a civil pleasant man, willing enough to
rid himself of the unpleasant task he had undertaken, but at the same
time, willing also to continue his services if any further services
were required of him. But of Mrs. Askerton on these occasions Will
saw nothing, nor had he ever spoken to her since the time of his
first visit to the Castle. Then came the day of the funeral, and
after that rite was over he returned with his cousin to the house.
There was no will to be read. The old squire had left no will, nor
was there anything belonging to him at the time of his death that he
could bequeath. The furniture in the house, the worn-out carpets and
old-fashioned chairs, belonged to Clara; but, beyond that, property
had she none, nor had it been in her father's power to endow her with
anything. She was alone in the world, penniless, with a conviction
on her own mind that her engagement with Frederic Aylmer must of
necessity come to an end, and with a feeling about her cousin which
she could hardly analyse, but which told her that she could not go to
his house in Norfolk, nor live with him at Belton Castle, nor trust
herself in his hands as she would into those of a real brother.

On the afternoon of the day on which her father had been buried, she
brought to him a letter, asking him to read it, and tell her what
she should do. The letter was from Lady Aylmer, and contained an
invitation to Aylmer Castle. It had been accompanied, as the reader
may possibly remember, by a letter from Captain Aylmer himself. Of
this she of course informed her cousin; but she did not find it to be
necessary to show the letter of one rival to the other. Lady Aylmer's
letter was cold in its expression of welcome, but very dictatorial
in pointing out the absolute necessity that Clara should accept the
invitation so given. "I think you will not fail to agree with me,
dear Miss Amedroz," the letter said, "that under these strange and
perplexing circumstances, this is the only roof which can, with
any propriety, afford you a shelter." "And why not the poor-house?"
she said, aloud to her cousin, when she perceived that his eye had
descended so far on the page. He shook his head angrily, but said
nothing; and when he had finished the letter he folded it and gave it
back still in silence. "And what am I to do?" she said. "You tell me
that I am to come to you for advice in everything."

"You must decide for yourself here."

"And you won't advise me. You won't tell me whether she is right?"

"I suppose she is right."

"Then I had better go?"

"If you mean to marry Captain Aylmer, you had better go."

"I am engaged to him."

"Then you had better go."

"But I will not submit myself to her tyranny."

"Let the marriage take place at once, and you will have to submit
only to his. I suppose you are prepared for that?"

"I do not know. I do not like tyranny."

Again he stood silent for awhile, looking at her, and then he
answered: "I should not tyrannise over you, Clara."

"Oh, Will, Will, do not speak like that. Do not destroy everything."

"What am I to say?"

"What would you say if your sister, your real sister, asked advice in
such a strait? If you had a sister, who came to you, and told you all
her difficulty, you would advise her. You would not say words to make
things worse for her."

"It would be very different."

"But you said you would be my brother."

"How am I to know what you feel for this man? It seems to me that you
half hate him, half fear him, and sometimes despise him."

"Hate him!--No, I never hate him."

"Go to him, then, and ask him what you had better do. Don't ask me."
Then he hurried out of the room, slamming the door behind him. But
before he had half gone down the stairs he remembered the ceremony
at which he had just been present, and how desolate she was in the
world, and he returned to her. "I beg your pardon, Clara," he said,
"I am passionate; but I must be a beast to show my passion to you
on such a day as this. If I were you I should accept Lady Aylmer's
invitation,--merely thanking her for it in the ordinary way. I should
then go and see how the land lay. That is the advice I should give my
sister."

"And I will,--if it is only because you tell me.

"But as for a home,--tell her you have one of your own,--at Belton
Castle, from which no one can turn you out, and where no one can
intrude on you. This house belongs to you." Then, before she could
answer him, he had left the room; and she listened to his heavy quick
footsteps as he went across the hall and out of the front door.

He walked across the park and entered the little gate of Colonel
Askerton's garden, as though it were his habit to go to the cottage
when he was at Belton. There had been various matters on which the
two men had been brought into contact concerning the old squire's
death and the tenancy of the cottage, so that they had become almost
intimate. Belton had nothing new that he specially desired to say to
Colonel Askerton, whom, indeed, he had seen only a short time before
at the funeral; but he wanted the relief of speaking to some one
before he returned to the solitude of the inn at Redicote. On this
occasion, however, the Colonel was out, and the maid asked him if he
would see Mrs. Askerton. When he said something about not troubling
her, the girl told him that her mistress wished to speak to him, and
then he had no alternative but to allow himself to be shown into the
drawing-room.

"I want to see you a minute," said Mrs. Askerton, bowing to him
without putting out her hand, "that I might ask you how you find your
cousin."

"She is pretty well, I think."

"Colonel Askerton has seen more of her than I have since her father's
death, and he says that she does not bear it well. He thinks that she
is ill."

"I do not think her ill. Of course she is not in good spirits."

"No; exactly. How should she be? But he thinks she seems so worn. I
hope you will excuse me, Mr. Belton, but I love her so well that I
cannot bear to be quite in the dark as to her future. Is anything
settled yet?"

"She is going to Aylmer Castle."

"To Aylmer Castle! Is she indeed? At once?"

"Very soon. Lady Aylmer has asked her."

"Lady Aylmer! Then I suppose--"

"You suppose what?" Will Belton asked.

"I did not think she would have gone to Aylmer Castle,--though I dare
say it is the best thing she could do. She seemed to me to dislike
the Aylmers,--that is, Lady Aylmer,--so much! But I suppose she is
right?"

"She is right to go if she likes it."

"She is circumstanced so cruelly! Is she not? Where else could she
go? I do so feel for her. I believe I need hardly tell you, Mr.
Belton, that she would be as welcome here as flowers in May,--but
that I do not dare to ask her to come to us." She said this in a low
voice, turning her eyes away from him, looking first upon the ground,
and then again up at the window,--but still not daring to meet his
eye.

"I don't exactly know about that," said Belton awkwardly.

"You know, I hope, that I love her dearly."

"Everybody does that," said Will.

"You do, Mr. Belton."

"Yes;--I do; just as though she were--my sister."

"And as your sister would you let her come here,--to us?" He sat
silent for awhile, thinking, and she waited patiently for his answer.
But she spoke again before he answered her. "I am well aware that you
know all my history, Mr. Belton."

"I shouldn't tell it her, if you mean that, though she were my
sister. If she were my wife I should tell her."

"And why your wife?"

"Because then I should be sure it would do no harm."

"Then I find that you can be generous, Mr. Belton. But she knows it
all as well as you do."

"I did not tell her."

"Nor did I;--but I should have done so had not Captain Aylmer been
before me. And now tell me whether I could ask her to come here."

"It would be useless, as she is going to Aylmer Castle."

"But she is going there simply to find a home,--having no other."

"That is not so, Mrs. Askerton. She has a home as perfectly her own
as any woman in the land. Belton Castle is hers, to do what she may
please with it. She can live here if she likes it, and nobody can say
a word to her. She need not go to Aylmer Castle to look for a home."

"You mean you would lend her the house?"

"It is hers."

"I do not understand you, Mr. Belton."

"It does not signify;--we will say no more about it."

"And you think she likes going to Lady Aylmer's?"

"How should I say what she likes?"

Then there was another pause before Mrs. Askerton spoke again. "I can
tell you one thing," she said: "she does not like him."

"That is her affair."

"But she should be taught to know her own mind before she throws
herself away altogether. You would not wish your cousin to marry a
man whom she does not love because at one time she had come to think
that she loved him. That is the truth of it, Mr. Belton. If she goes
to Aylmer Castle she will marry him,--and she will be an unhappy
woman always afterwards. If you would sanction her coming here for
a few days, I think all that would be cured. She would come in a
moment, if you advised her."

Then he went away, allowing himself to make no further answer at the
moment, and discussed the matter with himself as he walked back to
Redicote, meditating on it with all his mind, and all his heart,
and all his strength. And, as he meditated, it came on to rain
bitterly,--a cold piercing February rain,--and the darkness of night
came upon him, and he floundered on through the thick mud of the
Somersetshire lanes, unconscious of the weather and of the darkness.
There was a way open to him by which he might even yet get what he
wanted. He thought he saw that there was a way open to him through
the policy of this woman, whom he perceived to have become friendly
to him. He saw, or thought that he saw, it all. No day had absolutely
been fixed for this journey to Yorkshire; and if Clara were induced
to go first to the cottage, and stay there with Mrs. Askerton, no
such journey might ever be taken. He could well understand that
such a visit on her part would give a mortal offence to all the
Aylmers. That tyranny of which Clara spoke with so much dread would
be exhibited then without reserve, and so there would be an end
altogether of the Aylmer alliance. But were she once to start for
Aylmer Park, then there would be no hope for him. Then her fate would
be decided,--and his. As far as he could see, too,--as far as he
could see then, there would be no dishonesty in this plan. Why should
Clara not go to Mrs. Askerton's house? What could be more natural
than such a visit at such a time? If she were in truth his sister
he would not interfere to prevent it if she wished it. He had told
himself that the woman should be forgiven her offence, and had
thought that that forgiveness should be complete. If the Aylmers
were so unreasonable as to quarrel with her on this ground, let
them quarrel with her. Mrs. Askerton had told him that Clara did
not really like Captain Aylmer. Perhaps it was so; and if so, what
greater kindness could he do her than give her an opportunity for
escaping such a union?

The whole of the next day he remained at Redicote, thinking,
doubting, striving to reconcile his wishes and his honesty. It rained
all day, and as he sat alone, smoking in the comfortless inn, he
told himself that the rain was keeping him;--but in truth it was not
the rain. Had he resolved to do his best to prevent this visit to
Yorkshire, or had he resolved to further it, I think he would have
gone to Belton without much fear of the rain. On the second day after
the funeral he did go, and he had then made up his mind. Clara,
if she would listen to him, should show her independence of Lady
Aylmer by staying a few days with the Askertons before she went to
Yorkshire, and by telling Lady Aylmer that such was her intention.
"If she really loves the man," he said to himself, "she will go at
once, in spite of anything that I can say. If she does not, I shall
be saving her."

"How cruel of you not to come yesterday!" Clara said, as soon as she
saw him.

"It rained hard," he answered.

"But men like you care so little for rain; but that is when you have
business to take you out,--or pleasure."

"You need not be so severe. The truth is I had things to trouble me."

"What troubled you, Will? I thought all the trouble was mine."

"I suppose everybody thinks that his own shoe pinches the hardest."

"Your shoe can't pinch you very bad, I should think. Sometimes when
I think of you it seems that you are an embodiment of prosperity and
happiness."

"I don't see it myself;--that's all. Did you write to Lady Aylmer,
Clara?"

"I wrote; but I didn't send it. I would not send any letter till
I had shown it to you, as you are my confessor and adviser. There;
read it. Nothing, I think, could be more courteous or less humble."
He took the letter and read it. Clara had simply expressed herself
willing to accept Lady Aylmer's invitation, and asked her ladyship to
fix a day. There was no mention of Captain Aylmer's name in the note.

"And you think this is best?" he said. His voice was hardly like his
own as he spoke. There was wanting to it that tone of self-assurance
which his voice almost always possessed, even when self-assurance was
lacking to his words.

"I thought it was your own advice," she said.

"Well;--yes; that is, I don't quite know. You couldn't go for a week
or so yet, I suppose."

"Perhaps in about a week."

"And what will you do till then?"

"What will I do!"

"Yes;--where do you mean to stay?"

"I thought, Will, that perhaps you would let me--remain here."

"Let you!--Oh, heavens! Look here, Clara."

"What is it, Will?"

"Before heaven I want to do for you what may be the best for
you,--without thinking of myself;--without thinking of myself, if I
could only help it."

"I have never doubted you. I never will doubt you. I believe in you
next to my God. I do, Will; I do." He walked up and down the room
half-a-dozen times before he spoke again, while she stood by the
table watching him. "I wish," she said, "I knew what it is that
troubles you." To this he made no answer, but went on walking till
she came up to him, and putting both her hands upon his arm said, "It
will be better, Will, that I should go;--will it not? Speak to me,
and say so. I feel that it will be better." Then he stopped in his
walk and looked down upon her, as her hands still rested upon his
shoulder. He gazed upon her for some few seconds, remaining quite
motionless, and then, opening his arms, he surrounded her with his
embrace, and pressing her with all his strength close to his bosom,
kissed her forehead, and her cheeks, and her lips, and her eyes. His
will was so masterful, his strength so great, and his motion so
quick, that she was powerless to escape from him till he relaxed his
hold. Indeed she hardly struggled, so much was she surprised and so
soon released. But the moment that he left her he saw that her face
was burning red, and that the tears were streaming from her eyes. She
stood for a moment trembling, with her hands clenched, and with a
look of scorn upon her lips and brow that he had never seen before;
and then she threw herself on a sofa, and, burying her face, sobbed
aloud, while her whole body was shaken as with convulsions. He leaned
over her repentant, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to speak.
All ideas of his scheme had gone from him now. He had offended her
for ever,--past redemption. What could be the use now of any scheme?
And as he stood there he hated himself because of his scheme. The
utter misery and disgrace of the present moment had come upon him
because he had thought more of himself than of her. It was but a few
moments since she had told him that she trusted him next to her God;
and yet, in those few moments, he had shown himself utterly unworthy
of that trust, and had destroyed all her confidence. But he could not
leave her without speaking to her. "Clara!" he said;--"Clara." But
she did not answer him. "Clara; will you not speak to me? Will you
not let me ask you to forgive me?" But still she only sobbed. For
her, at that moment, we may say that sobbing was easier than speech.
How was she to pardon so great an offence? How was she to resent such
passionate love?

But he could not continue to stand there motionless, all but
speechless, while she lay with her face turned away from him. He must
at any rate in some manner take himself away out of the room; and
this he could not do, even in his present condition of unlimited
disgrace, without a word of farewell. "Perhaps I had better go and
leave you," he said.

Then at last there came a voice, "Oh, Will, why have you done this?
Why have you treated me so badly?" When he had last seen her face
her mouth had been full of scorn, but there was no scorn now in her
voice. "Why--why--why?"

Why indeed;--except that it was needful for him that she should know
the depth of his passion. "If you will forgive me, Clara, I will not
offend you so again," he said.

"You have offended me. What am I to say? What am I to do? I have no
other friend."

"I am a wretch. I know that I am a wretch."

"I did not suspect that you would be so cruel. Oh, Will!"

But before he went she told him that she had forgiven him, and she
had preached to him a solemn, sweet sermon on the wickedness of
yielding to momentary impulses. Her low, grave words sank into his
ears as though they were divine; and when she said a word to him,
blushing as she spoke, of the sin of his passion, and of what her
sin would be if she were to permit it, he sat by her weeping like an
infant, tears which were certainly tears of innocence. She had been
very angry with him; but I think she loved him better when her sermon
was finished, than she had ever loved him before.

There was no further question as to her going to Aylmer Castle, nor
was any mention made of Mrs. Askerton's invitation to the cottage.
The letter for Lady Aylmer was sent, and it was agreed between them
that Will should remain at Redicote till the answer from Yorkshire
should come, and should then convey Clara as far as London on her
journey. And when he took leave of her that afternoon, she was able
to give him her hand in her old hearty, loving way, and to call him
Will with the old hearty, loving tone. And he,--he was able to accept
these tokens of her graciousness, as though they were signs of a
pardon which she had been good to give, but which he certainly had
not deserved.

As he went back to Redicote, he swore to himself that he would never
love any woman but her,--even though she must be the wife of Captain
Aylmer.



CHAPTER XXIII.

THE LAST DAY AT BELTON.


In course of post there came an answer from Lady Aylmer, naming a
day for Clara's journey to Yorkshire, and also a letter from Captain
Aylmer, in which he stated that he would meet her in London and
convey her down to Aylmer Park. "The House is sitting," he said, "and
therefore I shall be a little troubled about my time; but I cannot
allow that your first meeting with my mother should take place in
my absence." This was all very well, but at the end of the letter
there was a word of caution that was not so well. "I am sure, my dear
Clara, that you will remember how much is due to my mother's age,
and character, and position. Nothing will be wanted to the happiness
of our marriage, if you can succeed in gaining her affection, and
therefore I make it my first request to you that you should endeavour
to win her good opinion." There was nothing perhaps really amiss,
certainly nothing unreasonable, in such words from a future husband
to his future wife; but Clara, as she read them, shook her head and
pressed her foot against the ground in anger. It would not do. Sorrow
would come, and trouble and disappointment. She did not say so, even
to herself, in words; but the words, though not spoken, were audible
enough to herself. She could not, would not, bend to Lady Aylmer, and
she knew that trouble would come of this visit.

I fear that many ladies will condemn Miss Amedroz when I tell them
that she showed this letter to her cousin Will. It does not promise
well for any of the parties concerned when a young woman with two
lovers can bring herself to show the love-letters of him to whom
she is engaged to the other lover whom she has refused! But I have
two excuses to put forward in Clara's defence. In the first place,
Captain Aylmer's love-letters were not in truth love-letters, but
were letters of business; and in the next place, Clara was teaching
herself to regard Will Belton as her brother, and to forget that he
had ever assumed the part of a lover.

She was so teaching herself, but I cannot say that the lesson was
one easily learned; nor had the outrage upon her of which Will had
been guilty, and which was described in the last chapter, made the
teaching easier. But she had determined, nevertheless, that it should
be so. When she thought of Will her heart would become very soft
towards him; and sometimes, when she thought of Captain Aylmer, her
heart would become anything but soft towards him. Unloving feelings
would be very strong within her bosom as she re-read his letters, and
remembered that he had not come to her, but had sent her seventy-five
pounds to comfort her in her trouble! Nevertheless, he was to be
her husband, and she would do her duty. What might have happened
had Will Belton come to Belton Castle before she had known Frederic
Aylmer,--of that she stoutly resolved that she would never think at
all; and consequently the thought was always intruding upon her.

"You will sleep one night in town, of course?" said Will.

"I suppose so. You know all about it. I shall do as I'm told."

"You can't go down to Yorkshire from here in one day. Where would you
like to stay in London?"

"How on earth should I know? Ladies do sleep at hotels in London
sometimes, I suppose?"

"Oh yes. I can write and have rooms ready for you."

"Then that difficulty is over," said Clara.

But in Belton's estimation the difficulty was not exactly over.
Captain Aylmer would, of course, be in London that night, and it was
a question with Will whether or no Clara was not bound in honour
to tell the--accursed beast, I am afraid Mr. Belton called him in
his soliloquies--where she would lodge on the occasion. Or would
it suffice that he, Will, should hand her over to the enemy at the
station of the Great Northern Railway on the following morning?
All the little intricacies of the question presented themselves to
Will's imagination. How careful he would be with her, that the inn
accommodation should suffice for her comfort! With what pleasure
would he order a little dinner for them two, making something of a
gentle _fête_ of the occasion! How sedulously would he wait upon her
with those little attentions, amounting almost to worship, with which
such men as Will Belton are prone to treat all women in exceptionable
circumstances, when the ordinary routine of life has been disturbed!
If she had simply been his cousin, and if he had never regarded
her otherwise, how happily could he have done all this! As things
now were, if it was left to him to do, he should do it, with what
patience and grace might be within his power; he would do it, though
he would be mindful every moment of the bitterness of the transfer
which he would so soon be obliged to make; but he doubted whether it
would not be better for Clara's sake that the transfer should be made
over-night. He would take her up to London, because in that way he
could be useful; and then he would go away and hide himself. "Has
Captain Aylmer said where he would meet you?" he asked after a pause.

"Of course I must write and tell him."

"And is he to come to you,--when you reach London?"

"He has said nothing about that. He will probably be at the House of
Commons, or too busy somewhere to come to me then. But why do you
ask? Do you wish to hurry through town?"

"Oh dear, no."

"Or perhaps you have friends you want to see. Pray don't let me be in
your way. I shall do very well, you know."

Belton rebuked her by a look before he answered her. "I was only
thinking," he said, "of what would be most convenient for yourself.
I have nobody to see, and nothing to do, and nowhere to go to." Then
Clara understood it all, and said that she would write to Captain
Aylmer and ask him to join them at the hotel.

She determined that she would see Mrs. Askerton before she went; and
as that lady did not come to the Castle, Clara called upon her at
the cottage. This she did the day before she left, and she took her
cousin with her. Belton had been at the cottage once or twice since
the day on which Mrs. Askerton had explained to him how the Aylmer
alliance might be extinguished, but Colonel Askerton had always been
there, and no reference had been made to the former conversation.
Colonel Askerton was not there now, and Belton was almost afraid that
words would be spoken to which he would hardly know how to listen.

"And so you are really going?" said Mrs. Askerton.

"Yes; we start to-morrow," said Clara.

"I am not thinking of the journey to London," said Mrs. Askerton,
"but of the danger and privations of your subsequent progress to the
North."

"I shall do very well. I am not afraid that any one will eat me."

"There are so many different ways of eating people! Are there not,
Mr. Belton?"

"I don't know about eating, but there are a great many ways of boring
people," said he.

"And I should think they will be great at that kind of thing at
Aylmer Castle. One never hears of Sir Anthony, but I can fancy Lady
Aylmer to be a terrible woman."

"I shall manage to hold my own, I dare say," said Clara.

"I hope you will; I do hope you will," said Mrs. Askerton. "I don't
know whether you will be powerful to do so, or whether you will fail;
my heart is not absolute; but I do know what will be the result if
you are successful."

"It is much more then than I know myself."

"That I can believe too. Do you travel down to Yorkshire alone?"

"No; Captain Aylmer will meet me in town."

Then Mrs. Askerton looked at Mr. Belton, but made no immediate reply;
nor did she say anything further about Clara's journey. She looked
at Mr. Belton, and Will caught her eye, and understood that he was
being rebuked for not having carried out that little scheme which had
been prepared for him. But he had come to hate the scheme, and almost
hated Mrs. Askerton for proposing it. He had declared to himself
that her welfare, Clara's welfare, was the one thing which he should
regard; and he had told himself that he was not strong enough, either
in purpose or in wit, to devise schemes for her welfare. She was
better able to manage things for herself than he was to manage them
for her. If she loved this "accursed beast," let her marry him;
only,--for that was now his one difficulty,--only he could not bring
himself to think it possible that she should love him.

"I suppose you will never see this place again?" said Mrs. Askerton
after a long pause.

"I hope I shall, very often," said Clara. "Why should I not see it
again? It is not going out of the family."

"No; not exactly out of the family. That is, it will belong to your
cousin."

"And cousins may be as far apart as strangers, you mean; but Will and
I are not like that; are we, Will?"

"I hardly know what we are like," said he.

"You do not mean to say that you will throw me over? But the truth
is, Mrs. Askerton, that I do not mean to be thrown over. I look upon
him as my brother, and I intend to cling to him as sisters do cling."

"You will hardly come back here before you are married," said Mrs.
Askerton. It was a terrible speech for her to make, and could only
be excused on the ground that the speaker was in truth desirous of
doing that which she thought would benefit both of those whom she
addressed. "Of course you are going to your wedding now?"

"I am doing nothing of the kind," said Clara. "How can you speak in
that way to me so soon after my father's death? It is a rebuke to me
for being here at all."

"I intend no rebuke, as you well know. What I mean is this; if you do
not stay in Yorkshire till you are married, let the time be when it
may, where do you intend to go in the meantime?"

"My plans are not settled yet."

"She will have this house if she pleases," said Will. "There will be
no one else here. It will be her own, to do as she likes with it."

"She will hardly come here,--to be alone."

"I will not be inquired into, my dear," said Clara, speaking with
restored good-humour. "Of course I am an unprotected female, and
subject to disadvantages. Perhaps I have no plans for the future; and
if I have plans, perhaps I do not mean to divulge them."

"I had better come to the point at once," said Mrs. Askerton.
"If--if--if it should ever suit you, pray come here to us. Flowers
shall not be more welcome in May. It is difficult to speak of it all,
though you both understand everything as well as I do. I cannot press
my invitation as another woman might."

"Yes, you can," said Clara with energy. "Of course you can."

"Can I? Then I do. Dear Clara, do come to us." And then as she spoke
Mrs. Askerton knelt on the ground at her visitor's knees. "Mr.
Belton, do tell her that when she is tired with the grandeur of
Aylmer Park she may come to us here."

"I don't know anything about the grandeur of Aylmer Park," said Will,
suddenly.

"But she may come here;--may she not?"

"She will not ask my leave," said he.

"She says that you are her brother. Whose leave should she ask?"

"He knows that I should ask his rather than that of any living
person," said Clara.

"There, Mr. Belton. Now you must say that she may come;--or that she
may not."

"I will say nothing. She knows what to do much better than I can tell
her."

Mrs. Askerton was still kneeling, and again appealed to Clara.
"You hear what he says. What do you say yourself? Will you come
to us?--that is, if such a visit will suit you,--in point of
convenience?"

"I will make no promise; but I know no reason why I should not."

"And I must be content with that? Well: I will be content." Then
she got up. "For such a one as I am, that is a great deal. And, Mr.
Belton, let me tell you this;--I can be grateful to you, though you
cannot be gracious to me."

"I hope I have not been ungracious," said he.

"Upon my word, I cannot compliment you. But there is something so
much better than grace, that I can forgive you. You know, at any
rate, how thoroughly I wish you well."

Upon this Clara got up to take her leave, and the demonstrative
affection of an embrace between the two women afforded a remedy for
the awkwardness of the previous conversation.

"God bless you, dearest," said Mrs. Askerton. "May I write to you?"

"Certainly," said Clara.

"And you will answer my letters?"

"Of course I will. You must tell me everything about the place;--and
especially as to Bessy. Bessy is never to be sold;--is she, Will?"
Bessy was the cow which Belton had given her.

"Not if you choose to keep her."

"I will go down and see to her myself," said Mrs. Askerton, "and will
utter little prayers of my own over her horns,--that certain events
that I desire may come to pass. Good-bye, Mr. Belton. You may be as
ungracious as you please, but it will not make any difference."

When Clara and her cousin left the cottage they did not return to the
house immediately, but took a last walk round the park, and through
the shrubbery, and up to the rocks on which a remarkable scene had
once taken place between them. Few words were spoken as they were
walking, and there had been no agreement as to the path they would
take. Each seemed to understand that there was much of melancholy in
their present mood, and that silence was more fitting than speech.
But when they reached the rocks Belton sat himself down, asking
Clara's leave to stop there for a moment. "I don't suppose I shall
ever come to this place again," said he.

"You are as bad as Mrs. Askerton," said Clara.

"I do not think I shall ever come to this place again," said he,
repeating his words very solemnly. "At any rate, I will never do so
willingly, unless--"

"Unless what?"

"Unless you are either my wife, or have promised to become so."

"Oh, Will; you know that that is impossible."

"Then it is impossible that I should come here again."

"You know that I am engaged to another man."

"Of course I do. I am not asking you to break your engagement. I am
simply telling you that in spite of that engagement I love you as
well as I did love you before you had made it. I have a right to let
you know the truth." As if she had not known it without his telling
it to her now! "It was here that I told you that I loved you. I now
repeat it here; and will never come here again unless I may say the
same thing over and over and over. That is all. We might as well go
on now." But when he got up she sat down, as though unwilling to
leave the spot. It was still winter, and the rock was damp with cold
drippings from the trees, and the moss around was wet, and little
pools of water had formed themselves in the shallow holes upon the
surface. She did not speak as she seated herself; but he was of
course obliged to wait till she should be ready to accompany him. "It
is too cold for you to sit there," he said. "Come, Clara; I will not
have you loiter here. It is cold and wet."

"It is not colder for me than for you."

"You are not used to that sort of thing as I am."

"Will," she said, "you must never speak to me again as you spoke just
now. Promise me that you will not."

"Promises will do no good in such a matter."

"It is almost a repetition of what you did before;--though of course
it is not so bad as that."

"Everything I do is bad."

"No, Will:--dear Will! Almost everything you do is good. But of what
use can it be to either of us for you to be thinking of that which
can never be? Cannot you think of me as your sister,--and only as
your sister?"

"No; I cannot."

"Then it is not right that we should be together."

"I know nothing of right. You ask me a question, and I suppose you
don't wish that I should tell you a lie."

"Of course I do not wish that."

"Therefore I tell you the truth. I love you,--as any other man loves
the girl that he does love; and, as far as I know myself now, I never
can be happy unless you are my own."

"Oh, Will, how can that be when I am engaged to marry another man?"

"As to your engagement I should care nothing. Does he love you as I
love you? If he loves you, why is he not here? If he loves you, why
does he let his mother ill-use you, and treat you with scorn? If he
loves you as I love you, how could he write to you as he does write?
Would I write to you such a letter as that? Would I let you be here
without coming to you,--to be looked after by any one else? If you
had said that you would be my wife, would I leave you in solitude and
sorrow, and then send you seventy-five pounds to console you? If you
think he loves you, Clara--"

"He thought he was doing right when he sent me the money."

"But he shouldn't have thought it right. Never mind. I don't want to
accuse him; but this I know,--and you know; he does not love you as I
love you."

"What can I say to answer you?"

"Say that you will wait till you have seen him. Say that I may have a
hope,--a chance; that if he is cold, and hard, and,--and,--and, just
what we know he is, then I may have a chance."

"How can I say that when I am engaged to him? Cannot you understand
that I am wrong to let you speak of him as you do?"

"How else am I to speak of him? Tell me this. Do you love him?"

"Yes;--I do."

"I don't believe it!"

"Will!"

"I don't believe it. Nothing on earth shall make me believe it. It is
impossible;--impossible!"

"Do you mean to insult me, Will?"

"No; I do not mean to insult you, but I mean to tell you the truth. I
do not think you love that man as you ought to love the man whom you
are going to marry. I should tell you just the same thing if I were
really your brother. Of course it isn't that I suppose you love any
one else,--me for instance. I'm not such a fool as that. But I don't
think you love him; and I'm quite sure he doesn't love you. That's
just what I believe; and if I do believe it, how am I to help telling
you?"

"You've no right to have such beliefs."

"How am I to help it? Well;--never mind. I won't let you sit there
any longer. At any rate you'll be able to understand now that I shall
never come to this place any more." Clara, as she got up to obey him,
felt that she also ought never to see it again;--unless,
indeed,--unless--

They passed that evening together without any reference to the scene
on the rock, or any allusion to their own peculiar troubles. Clara,
though she would not admit to Mrs. Askerton that she was going away
from the place for ever, was not the less aware that such might very
probably be the case. She had no longer any rights of ownership at
Belton Castle, and all that had taken place between her and her
cousin tended to make her feel that under no circumstances could she
again reside there. Nor was it probable that she would be able to
make to Mrs. Askerton the visit of which they had been talking. If
Lady Aylmer were wise,--so Clara thought,--there would be no mention
of Mrs. Askerton at Aylmer Park; and, if so, of course she would not
outrage her future husband by proposing to go to a house of which
she knew that he disapproved. If Lady Aylmer were not wise;--if
she should take upon herself the task of rebuking Clara for her
friendship,--then, in such circumstances as those, Clara believed
that the visit to Mrs. Askerton might be possible.

But she determined that she would leave the home in which she had
been born, and had passed so many happy and so many unhappy days, as
though she were never to see it again. All her packing had been done,
down to the last fragment of an old letter that was stuffed into her
writing-desk; but, nevertheless, she went about the house with a
candle in her hand, as though she were still looking that nothing had
been omitted, while she was in truth saying farewell in her heart to
every corner which she knew so well. When at last she came down to
pour out for her desolate cousin his cup of tea, she declared that
everything was done. "You may go to work now, Will," she said, "and
do what you please with the old place. My jurisdiction in it is
over."

"Not altogether," said he. He no longer spoke like a despairing
lover. Indeed there was a smile round his mouth, and his voice was
cheery.

"Yes;--altogether. I give over my sovereignty from this moment;--and
a dirty dilapidated sovereignty it is."

"That's all very well to say."

"And also very well to do. What best pleases me in going to Aylmer
Castle just now is the power it gives me of doing at once that which
otherwise I might have put off till the doing of it had become much
more unpleasant. Mr. Belton, there is the key of the cellar,--which
I believe gentlemen always regard as the real sign of possession. I
don't advise you to trust much to the contents." He took the key from
her, and without saying a word chucked it across the room on to an
old sofa. "If you won't take it, you had better, at any rate, have it
tied up with the others," she said.

"I dare say you'll know where to find it when you want it," he
answered.

"I shall never want it."

"Then it's as well there as anywhere else."

"But you won't remember, Will."

"I don't suppose I shall have occasion for remembering." Then he
paused a moment before he went on. "I have told you before that I do
not intend to take possession of the place. I do not regard it as
mine at all."

"And whose is it, then?"

"Yours."

"No, dear Will; it is not mine. You know that."

"I intend that it shall be so, and therefore you might as well put
the keys where you will know how to find them."

After he had gone she did take up the key, and tied it with sundry
others, which she intended to give to the old servant who was to be
left in charge of the house. But after a few moments' consideration
she took the cellar key again off the bunch, and put it back upon the
sofa,--in the place to which he had thrown it.

On the following morning they started on their journey. The old fly
from Redicote was not used on this occasion, as Belton had ordered a
pair of post-horses and a comfortable carriage from Taunton. "I think
it such a shame," said Clara, "going away for the last time without
having Jerry and the grey horse." Jerry was the man who had once
driven her to Taunton when the old horse fell with her on the road.
"But Jerry and the grey horse could not have taken you and me too,
and all our luggage," said Will. "Poor Jerry! I suppose not," said
Clara; "but still there is an injury done in going without him."

There were four or five old dependents of the family standing round
the door to bid her adieu, to all of whom she gave her hand with a
cordial pressure. They, at least, seemed to regard her departure as
final. And of course it was final. She had assured herself of that
during the night. And just as they were about to start, both Colonel
and Mrs. Askerton walked up to the door. "He wouldn't let you go
without bidding you farewell," said Mrs. Askerton. "I am so glad to
shake hands with him," Clara answered. Then the Colonel spoke a word
to her, and, as he did so, his wife contrived to draw Will Belton for
a moment behind the carriage. "Never give it up, Mr. Belton," said
she, eagerly. "If you persevere she'll be yours yet." "I fear not,"
he said. "Stick to her like a man," said she, pressing his hand in
her vehemence. "If you do, you'll live to thank me for having told
you so." Will had not a word to say for himself, but he thought that
he would stick to her. Indeed, he thought that he had stuck to her
pretty well.

At last they were off, and the village of Belton was behind them.
Will, glancing into his cousin's face, saw that her eyes were laden
with tears, and refrained from speaking. As they passed the ugly
red-brick rectory-house, Clara for a moment put her face to the
window, and then withdrew it. "There is nobody there," she said, "who
will care to see me. Considering that I have lived here all my life,
is it not odd that there should be so few to bid me good-bye?"

"People do not like to put themselves forward on such occasions,"
said Will.

"People!--there are no people. No one ever had so few to care for
them as I have. And now--. But never mind; I mean to do very well,
and I shall do very well." Belton would not take advantage of her in
her sadness, and they reached the station at Taunton almost without
another word.

Of course they had to wait there for half an hour, and of course the
waiting was very tedious. To Will it was very tedious indeed, as he
was not by nature good at waiting. To Clara, who on this occasion
sat perfectly still in the waiting-room, with her toes on the fender
before the fire, the evil of the occasion was not so severe. "The man
would take two hours for the journey, though I told him an hour and a
half would be enough," said Will, querulously.

"But we might have had an accident."

"An accident! What accident? People don't have accidents every day."

At last the train came and they started. Clara, though she had with
her her best friend,--I may almost say the friend whom in the world
she loved the best,--did not have an agreeable journey. Belton would
not talk; but as he made no attempt at reading, Clara did not like
to have recourse to the book which she had in her travelling-bag. He
sat opposite to her, opening the window and shutting it as he thought
she might like it, but looking wretched and forlorn. At Swindon
he brightened up for a moment under the excitement of getting her
something to eat, but that relaxation lasted only for a few minutes.
After that he relapsed again into silence till the train had passed
Slough, and he knew that in another half-hour they would be in
London. Then he leant over her and spoke.

"This will probably be the last opportunity I shall have of saying a
few words to you,--alone."

"I don't know that at all, Will."

"It will be the last for a long time at any rate. And as I have got
something to say, I might as well say it now. I have thought a great
deal about the property,--the Belton estate, I mean; and I don't
intend to take it as mine.

"That is sheer nonsense, Will. You must take it, as it is yours, and
can't belong to any one else."

"I have thought it over, and I am quite sure that all the business of
the entail was wrong,--radically wrong from first to last. You are to
understand that my special regard for you has nothing whatever to do
with it. I should do the same thing if I felt that I hated you."

"Don't hate me, Will!"

"You know what I mean. I think the entail was all wrong, and I shan't
take advantage of it. It's not common sense that I should have
everything because of poor Charley's misfortune."

"But it seems to me that it does not depend upon you or upon me, or
upon anybody. It is yours,--by law, you know."

"And therefore it won't be sufficient for me to give it up without
making it yours by law also,--which I intend to do. I shall stay in
town to-morrow and give instructions to Mr. Green. I have thought
it proper to tell you this now, in order that you may mention it to
Captain Aylmer."

They were leaning over in the carriage one towards the other; her
face had been slightly turned away from him; but now she slowly
raised her eyes till they met his, and looking into the depth of
them, and seeing there all his love and all his suffering, and the
great nobility of his nature, her heart melted within her. Gradually,
as her tears came,--would come, in spite of all her constraint, she
again turned her face towards the window. "I can't talk now," she
said, "indeed I can't."

"There is no need for any more talking about it," he replied. And
there was no more talking between them on that subject, or on any
other, till the tickets had been taken and the train was again in
motion. Then he referred to it again for a moment. "You will tell
Captain Aylmer, my dear."

"I will tell him what you say, that he may know your generosity. But
of course he will agree with me that no such offer can be accepted.
It is quite,--quite,--quite,--out of the question."

"You had better tell him and say nothing more; or you can ask him
to see Mr. Green,--after to-morrow. He, as a man who understands
business, will know that this arrangement must be made, if I choose
to make it. Come; here we are. Porter, a four-wheeled cab. Do you go
with him, and I'll look after the luggage."

Clara, as she got into the cab, felt that she ought to have been
more stout in her resistance to his offer. But it would be better,
perhaps, that she should write to him from Aylmer Park, and get
Frederic to write also.



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE GREAT NORTHERN RAILWAY HOTEL.


At the door of the hotel of the Great Northern Railway Station they
met Captain Aylmer. Rooms had been taken there because they were to
start by an early train on that line in the morning, and Captain
Aylmer had undertaken to order dinner. There was nothing particular
in the meeting to make it unpleasant to our friend Will. The
fortunate rival could do no more in the hall of the inn than give his
hand to his affianced bride, as he might do to any other lady, and
then suggest to her that she should go up-stairs and see her room.
When he had done this, he also offered his hand to Belton; and Will,
though he would almost sooner have cut off his own, was obliged to
take it. In a few minutes the two men were standing alone together in
the sitting-room.

"I suppose you found it cold coming up?" said the captain.

"Not particularly," said Will.

"It's rather a long journey from Belton."

"Not very long," said Will.

"Not for you, perhaps; but Miss Amedroz must be tired."

Belton was angry at having his cousin called Miss Amedroz,--feeling
that the reserve of the name was intended to keep him at a distance.
But he would have been equally angry had Aylmer called her Clara.

"My cousin," said Will stoutly, "is able to bear slight fatigue of
that kind without suffering."

"I didn't suppose she suffered; but journeys are always tedious,
especially where there is so much road work. I believe you are twenty
miles from the station?"

"Belton Castle is something over twenty miles from Taunton."

"We are seven from our station at Aylmer Park, and we think that a
great deal."

"I'm more than that at Plaistow," said Will.

"Oh, indeed. Plaistow is in Norfolk, I believe?"

"Yes;--Plaistow is in Norfolk."

"I suppose you'll leave it now and go into Somersetshire," suggested
Captain Aylmer.

"Certainly not. Why should I leave it?"

"I thought, perhaps,--as Belton Castle is now your own--"

"Plaistow Hall is more my own than Belton Castle, if that signifies
anything,--which it doesn't." This he said in an angry tone, which,
as he became conscious of it, he tried to rectify. "I've a deal of
stock and all that sort of thing at Plaistow, and couldn't very well
leave it, even if I wished it," he said.

"You've pretty good shooting too, I suppose," said Aylmer.

"As far as partridges go I'll back it against most properties of the
same extent in any county."

"I'm too busy a man myself," said the Captain, "to do much at
partridges. We think more of pheasants down with us."

"I dare say."

"But a Norfolk man like you is of course keen about birds."

"We are obliged to put up with what we've got, you know;--not but
what I believe there is a better general head of game in Norfolk than
in any other county in England."

"That's what makes your hunting rather poor."

"Our hunting poor! Why do you say it's poor?"

"So many of you are against preserving foxes."

"I'll tell you what, Captain Aylmer; I don't know what pack you
hunt with, but I'll bet you a five-pound note that we killed more
foxes last year than you did;--that is, taking three days a week.
Nine-and-twenty brace and a half in a short season I don't call poor
at all."

Captain Aylmer saw that the man was waxing angry, and made no further
allusion either to the glories or deficiencies of Norfolk. As he
could think of no other subject on which to speak at the spur of
the moment, he sat himself down and took up a paper; Belton took up
another, and so they remained till Clara made her appearance. That
Captain Aylmer read his paper is probable enough. He was not a man
easily disconcerted, and there was nothing in his present position
to disconcert him. But I feel sure that Will Belton did not read a
word. He was angry with this rival, whom he hated, and was angry with
himself for showing his anger. He would have wished to appear to the
best advantage before this man, or rather before Clara in this man's
presence; and he knew that in Clara's absence he was making such a
fool of himself that he would be unable to recover his prestige. He
had serious thoughts within his own breast whether it would not be
as well for him to get up from his seat and give Captain Aylmer a
thoroughly good thrashing;--"Drop into him and punch his head," as
he himself would have expressed it. For the moment such an exercise
would give him immense gratification. The final results would, no
doubt, be disastrous; but then, all future results, as far as he
could see them, were laden with disaster. He was still thinking of
this, eyeing the man from under the newspaper, and telling himself
that the feat would probably be too easy to afford much enjoyment,
when Clara re-entered the room. Then he got up, acting on the spur of
the moment,--got up quickly and suddenly, and began to bid her adieu.

"But you are going to dine here, Will?" she said.

"No; I think not."

"You promised you would. You told me you had nothing to do to-night."
Then she turned to Captain Aylmer. "You expect my cousin to dine with
us to-day?"

"I ordered dinner for three," said Captain Aylmer.

"Oh, very well; it's all the same thing to me," said Will.

"And to me," said Captain Aylmer.

"It's not at all the same thing to me," said Clara. "I don't know
when I may see my cousin again. I should think it very bad of you,
Will, if you went away this evening."

"I'll go out just for half an hour," said he, "and be back to
dinner."

"We dine at seven," said the Captain. Then Belton took his hat and
left the two lovers together.

"Your cousin seems to be a rather surly sort of gentleman." Those
were the first words which Captain Aylmer spoke when he was alone
with the lady of his love. Nor was he demonstrative of his affection
by any of the usual signs of regard which are permitted to accepted
lovers. He did not offer to kiss her, nor did he attempt to take
her hand with a warmer pressure now that he was alone with her. He
probably might have gone through some such ceremony had he first met
Clara in a position propitious to such purposes; but, as it was, he
had been a little ruffled by Will Belton's want of good breeding, and
had probably forgotten that any such privileges might have been his.
I wonder whether any remembrance flashed across Clara's mind at this
moment of her cousin Will's great iniquity in the sitting-room at
Belton Castle. She thought of it very often, and may possibly have
thought of it now.

"I don't believe that he is surly, Frederic," she said. "He may,
perhaps, be out of humour."

"And why should he be out of humour with me? I only suggested to him
that it might suit him to live at Belton instead of at that farm of
his, down in Norfolk."

"He is very fond of Plaistow, I fancy."

"But that's no reason why he should be cross with me. I don't envy
him his taste, that's all. If he can't understand that he, with his
name, ought to live on the family property which belongs to him, it
isn't likely that anything that I can say will open his eyes upon the
subject."

"The truth is, Frederic, he has some romantic notion about the Belton
estate."

"What romantic notion?"

"He thinks it should not be his at all."

"Whose then? Who does he think should have it?"

"Of course there can be nothing in it, you know; of course it's all
nonsense."

"But what is his idea? Who does he think should be the owner?"

"He means--that it should be--mine. But of course, Frederic, it is
all nonsense; we know that."

It did not seem to be quite clear at the moment that Frederic had
altogether made up his mind upon the subject. As he heard these
tidings from Clara there came across his face a puzzled, dubious
look, as though he did not quite understand the proposition which
had been suggested to him;--as though some consideration were wanted
before he could take the idea home to himself and digest it, so as
to enable himself to express an opinion upon it. There might be
something in it,--some show of reason which did not make itself clear
to Clara's feminine mind. "I have never known what was the precise
nature of your father's marriage settlement," said he.

Then Clara began to explain with exceeding eagerness that there was
no question as to the accuracy of the settlement, or the legality
of the entail;--that indeed there was no question as to anything.
Her cousin Will was romantic, and that was the end of it. Of
course,--quite as a matter of course, this romance would lead to
nothing; and she had only mentioned the subject now to show that her
cousin's mind might possibly be disturbed when the question of his
future residence was raised. "I quite feel with you," she said, "that
it will be much nicer that he should live at the old family place;
but just at present I do not speak about it."

"If he is thinking of not claiming Belton, it is quite another
thing," said Aylmer.

"It is his without any claiming," said Clara.

"Ah, well; it will all be settled before long," said Aylmer.

"It is settled already," said Clara.

At seven the three met again, and when the dinner was on the table
there was some little trouble as to the helping of the fish. Which of
the two men should take the lead on the occasion? But Clara decided
the question by asking her cousin to make himself useful. There can
be little doubt but that Captain Aylmer would have distributed the
mutton chops with much more grace, and have carved the roast fowl
with much more skill; but it suited Clara that Will should have the
employment, and Will did the work. Captain Aylmer, throughout the
dinner, endeavoured to be complaisant, and Clara exerted herself to
talk as though all matters around them were easy. Will, too, made his
effort, every now and then speaking a word, and restraining himself
from snapping at his rival; but the restraint was in itself evident,
and there were symptoms throughout the dinner that the untamed man
was longing to fly at the throat of the man that was tamed.

"Is it supposed that I ought to go away for a little while?" said
Clara, as soon as she had drank her own glass of wine.

"Oh dear, no," said the Captain. "We'll have a cup of coffee;--that
is, if Mr. Belton likes it."

"It's all the same to me," said Will.

"But won't you have some more wine?" Clara asked.

"No more for me," said Captain Aylmer. "Perhaps Mr. Belton--"

"Who; I? No; I don't want any more wine," said Will; and then they
were all silent.

It was very hard upon Clara. After a while the coffee came, and even
that was felt to be a comfort. Though there was no pouring out to
be done, no actual employment enacted, still the manoeuvring of the
cups created a diversion. "If either of you like to smoke," she said,
"I shan't mind it in the least." But neither of them would smoke. "At
what hour shall we get to Aylmer Park to-morrow?" Clara asked.

"At half-past four," said the Captain.

"Oh, indeed;--so early as that." What was she to say next? Will, who
had not touched his coffee, and who was sitting stiffly at the table
as though he were bound in duty not to move, was becoming more and
more grim every moment. She almost repented that she had asked him
to remain with them. Certainly there was no comfort in his company,
either to them or to himself. "How long shall you remain in town,
Will, before you go down to Plaistow?" she asked.

"One day," he replied.

"Give my kind love,--my very kindest love to Mary. I wish I knew her.
I wish I could think that I might soon know her."

"You'll never know her," said Belton. The tone of his voice was
actually savage as he spoke;--so much so that Aylmer turned in his
chair to look at him, and Clara did not dare to answer him. But now
that he had been made to speak, it seemed that he was determined to
persevere. "How should you ever know her? Nothing will ever bring you
into Norfolk, and nothing will ever take her out of it."

"I don't quite see why either of those assertions should be made."

"Nevertheless they're both true. Had you ever meant to come to
Norfolk you would have come now." He had not even asked her to come,
having arranged with his sister that in their existing circumstances
any such asking would not be a kindness; and yet he rebuked her now
for not coming!

"My mother is very anxious that Miss Amedroz should pay her a visit
at Aylmer Park," said the Captain.

"And she's going to Aylmer Park, so your mother's anxiety need not
disturb her any longer."

"Come, Will, don't be out of temper with us," said Clara. "It is our
last night together. We, who are so dear to each other, ought not to
quarrel."

"I'm not quarrelling with you," said he.

"I can hardly suppose that Mr. Belton wants to quarrel with me," said
Captain Aylmer, smiling.

"I'm sure he does not," said Clara. Belton sat silent, with his eyes
fixed upon the table, and with a dark frown upon his brow. He did
long to quarrel with Captain Aylmer; but was still anxious, if it
might be possible, to save himself from what he knew would be a
transgression.

"To use a phrase common with us down in Yorkshire," said Aylmer, "I
should say that Mr. Belton had got out of bed the wrong side this
morning."

"What the d---- does it matter to you, sir, what side I got out of
bed?" said Will, clenching both his fists. Oh;--if he might only have
been allowed to have a round of five minutes with Aylmer, he would
have been restored to good temper for that night, let the subsequent
results have been what they might. He moved his feet impatiently on
the floor, as though he were longing to kick something; and then he
pushed his coffee-cup away from him, upsetting half the contents upon
the table, and knocking down a wine-glass, which was broken.

"Will;--Will!" said Clara, looking at him with imploring eyes.

"Then he shouldn't talk to me about getting out of bed on the wrong
side. I didn't say anything to him."

"It is unkind of you, Will, to quarrel with Captain Aylmer because he
is my friend."

"I don't want to quarrel with him; or, rather, as I won't quarrel
with him because you don't wish it, I'll go away. I can't do more
than that. I didn't want to dine with him here. There's my cousin
Clara, Captain Aylmer; I love her better than all the world besides.
Love her! It seems to me that there's nothing else in the world for
me to love. I'd give my heart for her this minute. All that I have in
the world is hers. Oh,--love her! I don't believe that it's in you
to know what I mean when I say that I love her! She tells me that
she's going to be your wife. You can't suppose that I can be very
comfortable under those circumstances,--or that I can be very fond of
you. I'm not very fond of you. Now I'll go away, and then I shan't
trouble you any more. But look here,--if ever you should ill-treat
her, whether you marry her or whether you don't, I'll crush every
bone in your skin." Having so spoken he went to the door, but stopped
himself before he left the room. "Good-bye, Clara. I've got a word or
two more to say to you, but I'll write you a line down-stairs. You
can show it to him if you please. It'll only be about business.
Good-night."

She had got up and followed him to the door, and he had taken her by
the hand. "You shouldn't let your passion get the better of you in
this way," she said; but the tone of her voice was very soft, and her
eyes were full of love.

"I suppose not," said he.

"I can forgive him," said Captain Aylmer.

"D---- your forgiveness," said Will Belton. Then Clara dropped the
hand and started back, and the door was shut, and Will Belton was
gone.

"Your cousin seems to be a nice sort of young man," said Aylmer.

"Cannot you understand it all, Frederic, and pardon him?"

"I can pardon him easily enough; but one doesn't like men who are
given to threatening. He's not the sort of man that I took him to
be."

"Upon my word I think he's as nearly perfect as a man can be."

"Then you like men to swear at you, and to swagger like Bobadils,
and to misbehave themselves, so that one has to blush for them if
a servant chances to hear them. Do you really think that he has
conducted himself to-day like a gentleman?"

"I know that he is a gentleman," said Clara.

"I must confess I have no reason for supposing him to be so but your
assurance."

"And I hope that is sufficient, Frederic."

Captain Aylmer did not answer her at once, but sat for awhile silent,
considering what he would say. Clara, who understood his moods, knew
that he did not mean to drop the subject, and resolved that she would
defend her cousin, let Captain Aylmer attack him as he would.

"Upon my word, I hardly know what to say about it," said Aylmer.

"Suppose, then, that we say nothing more. Will not that be best?"

"No, Clara. I cannot now let the matter pass by in that way. You have
asked me whether I do not think Mr. Belton to be a gentleman, and I
must say that I doubt it. Pray hear me out before you answer me. I
do not want to be harder upon him than I can help; and I would have
borne, and I did bear from him, a great deal in silence. But he said
that to me which I cannot allow to pass without notice. He had the
bad taste to speak to me of his--his regard for you."

"I cannot see what harm he did by that;--except to himself."

"I believe that it is understood among gentlemen that one man never
speaks to another man about the lady the other man means to marry,
unless they are very intimate friends indeed. What I mean is, that if
Mr. Belton had understood how gentlemen live together he would never
have said anything to me about his affection for you. He should at
any rate have supposed me to be ignorant of it. There is something
in the very idea of his doing so that is in the highest degree
indelicate. I wonder, Clara, that you do not see this yourself."

"I think he was indiscreet."

"Indiscreet! Indiscreet is not the word for such conduct. I must say,
that as far as my opinion goes, it was ungentlemanlike."

"I don't believe that there is a nobler-minded gentleman in all
London than my cousin Will."

"Perhaps it gratified you to hear from him the assurance of his
love?" said Captain Aylmer.

"If it is your wish to insult me, Frederic, I will leave you."

"It is my wish to make you understand that your judgment has been
wrong."

"That is simply a matter of opinion, and as I do not wish to argue
with you about it, I had better go. At any rate I am very tired.
Good-night, Frederic." He then told her what arrangements he had made
for the morrow, at what hour she would be called, and when she would
have her breakfast. After that he let her go without making any
further allusion to Will Belton.

It must be admitted that the meeting between the lovers had not been
auspicious; and it must be acknowledged, also, that Will Belton had
behaved very badly. I am not aware of the existence of that special
understanding among gentlemen in respect to the ladies they are
going to marry which Captain Aylmer so eloquently described; but,
nevertheless, I must confess that Belton would have done better had
he kept his feelings to himself. And when he talked of crushing his
rival's bones, he laid himself justly open to severe censure. But,
for all that, he was no Bobadil. He was angry, sore, and miserable;
and in his anger, soreness, and misery, he had allowed himself to
be carried away. He felt very keenly his own folly, even as he was
leaving the room, and as he made his way out of the hotel he hated
himself for his own braggadocio. "I wish some one would crush my
bones," he said to himself almost audibly. "No one ever deserved to
be crushed better than I do."

Clara, when she got to her own room, was very serious and very sad.
What was to be the end of it all? This had been her first meeting
after her father's death with the man whom she had promised to marry;
indeed, it was the first meeting after her promise had been given;
and they had only met to quarrel. There had been no word of love
spoken between them. She had parted from him now almost in anger,
without the slightest expression of confidence between them,--almost
as those part who are constrained by circumstances to be together,
but who yet hate each other and know that they hate each other. Was
there in truth any love between him and her? And if there was none,
could there be any advantage, any good either to him or to her, in
this journey of hers to Aylmer Park? Would it not be better that she
should send for him and tell him that they were not suited for each
other, and that thus she should escape from all the terrors of Lady
Aylmer? As she thought of this, she could not but think of Will
Belton also. Not a gentleman! If Will Belton was not a gentleman, she
desired to know nothing further of gentlemen. Women are so good and
kind that those whom they love they love almost the more when they
commit offences, because of the offences so committed. Will Belton
had been guilty of great offences,--of offences for which Clara was
prepared to lecture him in the gravest manner should opportunities
for such lectures ever come;--but I think that they had increased
her regard for him rather than diminished it. She could not, however,
make up her mind to send for Captain Aylmer, and when she went to bed
she had resolved that the visit to Yorkshire must be made.

Before she left the room the following morning, a letter was brought
to her from her cousin, which had been written that morning. She
asked the maid to inquire for him, and sent down word to him that if
he were in the house she specially wished to see him; but the tidings
came from the hall porter that he had gone out very early, and had
expressly said that he should not breakfast at the inn.

The letter was as follows:--


   DEAR CLARA,

   I meant to have handed to you the enclosed in person, but
   I lost my temper last night,--like a fool as I am,--and so
   I couldn't do it. You need not have any scruple about the
   money which I send,--£100 in ten ten-pound notes,--as it
   is your own. There is the rent due up to your father's
   death, which is more than what I now enclose, and there
   will be a great many other items, as to all of which you
   shall have a proper account. When you want more, you had
   better draw on me, till things are settled. It shall all
   be done as soon as possible. It would not be comfortable
   for you to go away without money of your own, and I
   suppose you would not wish that he should pay for your
   journeys and things before you are married.

   Of course I made a fool of myself yesterday. I believe
   that I usually do. It is not any good my begging your
   pardon, for I don't suppose I shall ever trouble you any
   more. Good-bye, and God bless you.

   Your affectionate Cousin,

   WILLIAM BELTON.

   It was a bad day for me when I made up my mind to go to
   Belton Castle last summer.


Clara, when she had read the letter, sat down and cried, holding the
bundle of notes in her hand. What would she do with them? Should she
send them back? Oh no;--she would do nothing to displease him, or to
make him think that she was angry with him. Besides, she had none of
that dislike to taking his money which she had felt as to receiving
money from Captain Aylmer. He had said that she would be his sister,
and she would take from him any assistance that a sister might
properly take from a brother.

She went down-stairs and met Captain Aylmer in the sitting-room. He
stepped up to her as soon as the door was closed, and she could at
once see that he had determined to forget the unpleasantnesses of the
previous evening. He stepped up to her, and gracefully taking her by
one hand, and passing the other behind her waist, saluted her in a
becoming and appropriate manner. She did not like it. She especially
disliked it, believing in her heart of hearts that she would never
become the wife of this man whom she had professed to love,--and whom
she really had once loved. But she could only bear it. And, to say
the truth, there was not much suffering of that kind to be borne.

Their journey down to Yorkshire was very prosperous. He maintained
his good humour throughout the day, and never once said a word about
Will Belton. Nor did he say a word about Mrs. Askerton. "Do your best
to please my mother, Clara," he said, as they were driving up from
the park lodges to the house. This was fair enough, and she therefore
promised him that she would do her best.



CHAPTER XXV.

MISS AMEDROZ HAS SOME HASHED CHICKEN.


Clara felt herself to be a coward as the Aylmer Park carriage, which
had been sent to meet her at the station, was drawn up at Sir Anthony
Aylmer's door. She had made up her mind that she would not bow down
to Lady Aylmer, and yet she was afraid of the woman. As she got out
of the carriage, she looked up, expecting to see her in the hall;
but Lady Aylmer was too accurately acquainted with the weights and
measures of society for any such movement as that. Had her son
brought Lady Emily to the house as his future bride, Lady Aylmer
would probably have been in the hall when the arrival took place;
and had Clara possessed ten thousand pounds of her own, she would
probably have been met at the drawing-room door; but as she had
neither money nor title,--as she in fact brought with her no
advantages of any sort, Lady Aylmer was found stitching a bit of
worsted, as though she had expected no one to come to her. And
Belinda Aylmer was stitching also,--by special order from her mother.
The reader will remember that Lady Aylmer was not without strong
hope that the engagement might even yet be broken off. Snubbing, she
thought, might probably be efficacious to this purpose, and so Clara
was to be snubbed.

Clara, who had just promised to do her best to gain Lady Aylmer's
opinion, and who desired to be in some way true to her promise,
though she thoroughly believed that her labour would be in vain, put
on her pleasantest smile as she entered the room. Belinda, under the
pressure of the circumstances, forgetting somewhat of her mother's
injunctions, hurried to the door to welcome the stranger. Lady Aylmer
kept her chair, and even maintained her stitch, till Clara was half
across the room. Then she got up, and, with great mastery over her
voice, made her little speech.

"We are delighted to see you, Miss Amedroz," she said, putting out
her hand,--of which Clara, however, felt no more than the finger.

"Quite delighted," said Belinda, yielding a fuller grasp. Then there
were affectionate greetings between Frederic and his mother and
Frederic and his sister, during which Clara stood by, ill at ease.
Captain Aylmer said not a word as to the footing on which his future
wife had come to his father's house. He did not ask his mother to
receive her as another daughter, or his sister to take his Clara to
her heart as a sister. There had been no word spoken of recognised
intimacy. Clara knew that the Aylmers were cold people. She had
learned as much as that from Captain Aylmer's words to herself, and
from his own manner. But she had not expected to be so frozen by them
as was the case with her now. In ten minutes she was sitting down
with her bonnet still on, and Lady Aylmer was again at her stitches.

"Shall I show you your room?" said Belinda.

"Wait a moment, my dear," said Lady Aylmer. "Frederic has gone to see
if Sir Anthony is in his study."

Sir Anthony was found in his study, and now made his appearance.

"So this is Clara Amedroz," he said. "My dear, you are welcome
to Aylmer Park." This was so much better, that the kindness
expressed,--though there was nothing special in it,--brought a tear
into Clara's eye, and almost made her love Sir Anthony.

"By the by, Sir Anthony, have you seen Darvel? Darvel was wanting
to see you especially about Nuggins. Nuggins says that he'll take
the bullocks now." This was said by Lady Aylmer, and was skilfully
arranged by her to put a stop to anything like enthusiasm on the part
of Sir Anthony. Clara Amedroz had been invited to Aylmer Park, and
was to be entertained there, but it would not be expedient that she
should be made to think that anybody was particularly glad to see
her, or that the family was at all proud of the proposed connection.
Within five minutes after this she was up in her room, and had
received from Belinda tenders of assistance as to her lady's maid.
Both the mother and daughter had been anxious to learn whether Clara
would bring her own maid. Lady Aylmer, thinking that she would do so,
had already blamed her for extravagance. "Of course Fred will have
to pay for the journey and all the rest of it," she had said. But
as soon as she had perceived that Clara had come without a servant,
she had perceived that any young woman who travelled in that way
must be unfit to be mated with her son. Clara, whose intelligence in
such matters was sharp enough, assured Belinda that she wanted no
assistance. "I dare say you think it very odd," she said, "but I
really can dress myself." And when the maid did come to unpack the
things, Clara would have sent her away at once had she been able. But
the maid, who was not a young woman, was obdurate. "Oh no, miss; my
lady wouldn't be pleased. If you please, miss, I'll do it." And so
the things were unpacked.

Clara was told that they dined at half-past seven, and she remained
alone in her room till dinner-time, although it had not yet struck
five when she had gone up-stairs. The maid had brought her a cup of
tea, and she seated herself at her fire, turning over in her mind the
different members of the household in which she found herself. It
would never do. She told herself over and over again that it would
never come to pass that that woman should be her mother-in-law, or
that that other woman should be her sister. It was manifest to her
that she was distasteful to them; and she had not lost a moment in
assuring herself that they were distasteful to her. What purpose
could it answer that she should strive,--not to like them, for no
such strife was possible,--but to appear to like them? The whole
place and everything about it was antipathetic to her. Would it not
be simply honest to Captain Aylmer that she should tell him so at
once, and go away? Then she remembered that Frederic had not spoken
to her a single word since she had been under his father's roof. What
sort of welcome would have been accorded to her had she chosen to go
down to Plaistow Hall?

At half-past seven she made her way by herself down-stairs. In this
there was some difficulty, as she remembered nothing of the rooms
below, and she could not at first find a servant. But a man at last
did come to her in the hall, and by him she was shown into the
drawing-room. Here she was alone for a few minutes. As she looked
about her, she thought that no room she had ever seen had less of the
comfort of habitation. It was not here that she had met Lady Aylmer
before dinner. There had, at any rate, been in that other room work
things, and the look of life which life gives to a room. But here
there was no life. The furniture was all in its place, and everything
was cold and grand and comfortless. They were making company of her
at Aylmer Park! Clara was intelligent in such matters, and understood
it all thoroughly.

Lady Aylmer was the first person to come to her. "I hope my maid has
been with you," said she;--to which Clara muttered something intended
for thanks. "You'll find Richards a very clever woman, and quite a
proper person."

"I don't at all doubt that."

"She has been here a good many years, and has perhaps little ways of
her own,--but she means to be obliging."

"I shall give her very little trouble, Lady Aylmer. I am used to
dress myself." I am afraid this was not exactly true as to Clara's
past habits; but she could dress herself, and intended to do so in
future, and in this way justified the assertion to herself.

"You had better let Richards come to you, my dear, while you are
here," said Lady Aylmer, with a slight smile on her countenance which
outraged Clara more even than the words. "We like to see young ladies
nicely dressed here." To be told that she was to be nicely dressed
because she was at Aylmer Park! Her whole heart was already up in
rebellion. Do her best to please Lady Aylmer! It would be utterly
impossible to her to make any attempt whatever in that direction.
There was something in her ladyship's eye,--a certain mixture of
cunning, and power, and hardness in the slight smile that would
gather round her mouth, by which Clara was revolted. She already
understood much of Lady Aylmer, but in one thing she was mistaken.
She thought that she saw simply the natural woman; but she did, in
truth, see the woman specially armed with an intention of being
disagreeable, made up to give offence, and prepared to create dislike
and enmity. At the present moment nothing further was said, as
Captain Aylmer entered the room, and his mother immediately began to
talk to him in whispers.

The two first days of Clara's sojourn at Aylmer Park passed by
without the occurrence of anything that was remarkable. That which
most surprised and annoyed her, as regarded her own position, was the
coldness of all the people around her, as connected with the actual
fact of her engagement. Sir Anthony was very courteous to her, but
had never as yet once alluded to the fact that she was to become
one of his family as his daughter-in-law. Lady Aylmer called her
Miss Amedroz,--using the name with a peculiar emphasis, as though
determined to show that Miss Amedroz was to be Miss Amedroz as far
as any one at Aylmer Park was concerned,--and treated her almost as
though her presence in the house was intrusive. Belinda was as cold
as her mother in her mother's presence; but when alone with Clara
would thaw a little. She, in her difficulty, studiously avoided
calling the new-comer by any name at all. As to Captain Aylmer, it
was manifest to Clara that he was suffering almost more than she
suffered herself. His position was so painful that she absolutely
pitied him for the misery to which he was subjected by his own
mother. They still called each other Frederic and Clara, and that
was the only sign of special friendship which manifested itself
between them. And Clara, though she pitied him, could not but learn
to despise him. She had hitherto given him credit at any rate for
a will of his own. She had believed him to be a man able to act in
accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. But now she
perceived him to be so subject to his mother that he did not dare
to call his heart his own. What was to be the end of it all? And
if there could only be one end, would it not be well that that
end should be reached at once, so that she might escape from her
purgatory?

But on the afternoon of the third day there seemed to have come a
change over Lady Aylmer. At lunch she was especially civil,--civil to
the extent of picking out herself for Clara, with her own fork, the
breast of a hashed fowl from a dish that was before her. This she did
with considerable care,--I may say, with a show of care; and then,
though she did not absolutely call Clara by her Christian name, she
did call her "my dear." Clara saw it all, and felt that the usual
placidity of the afternoon would be broken by some special event. At
three o'clock, when the carriage as usual came to the door, Belinda
was out of the way, and Clara was made to understand that she and
Lady Aylmer were to be driven out without any other companion.
"Belinda is a little busy, my dear. So, if you don't mind, we'll go
alone." Clara of course assented, and got into the carriage with a
conviction that now she would hear her fate. She was rather inclined
to think that Lady Aylmer was about to tell her that she had failed
in obtaining the approbation of Aylmer Park, and that she must be
returned as goods of a description inferior to the order given. If
such were the case, the breast of the chicken had no doubt been
administered as consolation. Clara had endeavoured, since she had
been at Aylmer Park, to investigate her own feelings in reference
to Captain Aylmer; but had failed, and knew that she had failed.
She wished to think that she loved him, as she could not endure the
thought of having accepted a man whom she did not love. And she told
herself that he had done nothing to forfeit her love. A woman who
really loves will hardly allow that her love should be forfeited by
any fault. True love breeds forgiveness for all faults. And, after
all, of what fault had Captain Aylmer been guilty? He had preached
to her out of his mother's mouth. That had been all! She had first
accepted him, and then rejected him, and then accepted him again;
and now she would fain be firm, if firmness were only possible to
her. Nevertheless, if she were told that she was to be returned as
inferior, she would hold up her head under such disgrace as best she
might, and would not let the tidings break her heart.

"My dear," said Lady Aylmer, as soon as the trotting horses and
rolling wheels made noise enough to prevent her words from reaching
the servants on the box, "I want to say a few words to you;--and I
think that this will be a good opportunity."

"A very good opportunity," said Clara.

"Of course, my dear, you are aware that I have heard of something
going on between you and my son Frederic." Now that Lady Aylmer had
taught herself to call Clara "my dear," it seemed that she could
hardly call her so often enough.

"Of course I know that Captain Aylmer has told you of our engagement.
But for that, I should not be here."

"I don't know how that might be," said Lady Aylmer; "but at any rate,
my dear, he has told me that since the day of my sister's death there
has been--in point of fact, a sort of engagement."

"I don't think Captain Aylmer has spoken of it in that way."

"In what way? Of course he has not said a word that was not nice and
lover-like, and all that sort of thing. I believe he would have done
anything in the world that his aunt had told him; and as to his--"

"Lady Aylmer!" said Clara, feeling that her voice was almost
trembling with anger, "I am sure you cannot intend to be unkind to
me?"

"Certainly not."

"Or to insult me?"

"Insult you, my dear! You should not use such strong words, my dear;
indeed you should not. Nothing of the kind is near my thoughts."

"If you disapprove of my marrying your son, tell me so at once, and I
shall know what to do."

"It depends, my dear;--it depends on circumstances, and that is just
why I want to speak to you."

"Then tell me the circumstances,--though indeed I think it would have
been better if they could have been told to me by Captain Aylmer
himself."

"There, my dear, you must allow me to judge. As a mother, of course
I am anxious for my son. Now Frederic is a poor man. Considering the
kind of society in which he has to live, and the position which he
must maintain as a Member of Parliament, he is a very poor man."

This was an argument which Clara certainly had not expected that
any of the Aylmer family would condescend to use. She had always
regarded Captain Aylmer as a rich man since he had inherited Mrs.
Winterfield's property, knowing that previously to that he had been
able to live in London as rich men usually do live. "Is he?" said
she. "It may seem odd to you, Lady Aylmer, but I do not think that a
word has ever passed between me and your son as to the amount of his
income."

"Not odd at all, my dear. Young ladies are always thoughtless about
those things, and when they are looking to be married think that
money will come out of the skies."

"If you mean that I have been looking to be married--"

"Well;--expecting. I suppose you have been expecting it." Then she
paused; but as Clara said nothing, she went on. "Of course, Frederic
has got my sister's moiety of the Perivale property;--about eight
hundred a year, or something of that sort, when all deductions are
made. He will have the other moiety when I die, and if you and he can
be satisfied to wait for that event,--which may not perhaps be very
long--" Then there was another pause, indicative of the melancholy
natural to such a suggestion, during which Clara looked at Lady
Aylmer, and made up her mind that her ladyship would live for the
next twenty-five years at least. "If you can wait for that," she
continued, "it may be all very well, and though you will be poor
people, in Frederic's rank of life, you will be able to live."

"That will be so far fortunate," said Clara.

"But you'll have to wait," said Lady Aylmer, turning upon her
companion almost fiercely. "That is, you certainly will have to do so
if you are to depend upon Frederic's income alone."

"I have nothing of my own,--as he knows; absolutely nothing."

"That does not seem to be quite so clear," said Lady Aylmer, speaking
now very cautiously,--or rather with a purpose of great caution; "I
don't think that that is quite so clear. Frederic has been telling me
that there seems to be some sort of a doubt about the settlement of
the Belton estate."

"There is no sort of doubt whatsoever;--no shadow of a doubt. He is
quite mistaken."

"Don't be in such a hurry, my dear. It is not likely that you
yourself should be a very good lawyer."

"Lady Aylmer, I must be in a hurry lest there should be any mistake
about this. There is no question here for lawyers. Frederic must have
been misled by a word or two which I said to him with quite another
purpose. Everybody concerned knows that the Belton estate goes to my
cousin Will. My poor father was quite aware of it."

"That is all very well; and pray remember, my dear, that you need not
attack me in this way. I am endeavouring, if possible, to arrange the
accomplishment of your own wishes. It seems that Mr. Belton himself
does not claim the property."

"There is no question of claiming. Because he is a man more generous
than any other person in the world,--romantically generous, he
has offered to give me the property which was my father's for his
lifetime; but I do not suppose that you would wish, or that Captain
Aylmer would wish, that I should accept such an offer as that." There
was a tone in her voice as she said this, and a glance in her eye as
she turned her face full upon her companion, which almost prevailed
against Lady Aylmer's force of character.

"I really don't know, my dear," said Lady Aylmer. "You are so
violent."

"I certainly am eager about this. No consideration on earth would
induce me to take my cousin's property from him."

"It always seemed to me that that entail was a most unfair
proceeding."

"What would it signify even if it were,--which it was not? Papa got
certain advantages on those conditions. But what can all that matter?
It belongs to Will Belton."

Then there was another pause, and Clara thought that that subject
was over between them. But Lady Aylmer had not as yet completed her
purpose. "Shall I tell you, my dear, what I think you ought to do?"

"Certainly, Lady Aylmer; if you wish it."

"I can at any rate tell you what it would become any young lady to
do under such circumstances. I suppose you will give me credit for
knowing as much as that. Any young lady placed as you are would be
recommended by her friends,--if she had friends able and fit to give
her advice,--to put the whole matter into the hands of her natural
friends and her lawyer together. Hear me out, my dear, if you please.
At least you can do that for me, as I am taking a great deal of
trouble on your behalf. You should let Frederic see Mr. Green. I
understand that Mr. Green was your father's lawyer. And then Mr.
Green can see Mr. Belton. And so the matter can be arranged. It seems
to me, from what I hear, that in this way, and in this way only,
something can be done as to the proposed marriage. In no other way
can anything be done."

Then Lady Aylmer had finished her argument, and throwing herself back
into the carriage, seemed to intimate that she desired no reply.
She had believed and did believe that her guest was so intent upon
marrying her son, that no struggle would be regarded as too great
for the achievement of that object. And such belief was natural on
her part. Mothers always so think of girls engaged to their sons,
and so think especially when the girls are penniless, and the sons
are well to do in the world. But such belief, though it is natural,
is sometimes wrong;--and it was altogether wrong in this instance.
"Then," said Clara, speaking very plainly, "nothing can be done."

"Very well, my dear."

After that there was not a word said between them till the carriage
was once more within the park. Then Lady Aylmer spoke again. "I
presume you see, my dear, that under these circumstances any
thought of marriage between you and my son must be quite out of the
question,--at any rate for a great many years."

"I will speak to Captain Aylmer about it, Lady Aylmer."

"Very well, my dear. So do. Of course he is his own master. But he is
my son as well, and I cannot see him sacrificed without an effort to
save him."

When Clara came down to dinner on that day she was again Miss
Amedroz, and she could perceive,--from Belinda's manner quite as
plainly as from that of her ladyship,--that she was to have no more
tit-bits of hashed chicken specially picked out for her by Lady
Aylmer's own fork. That evening and the two next days passed, just
as had passed the two first days, and everything was dull, cold, and
uncomfortable. Twice she had walked out with Frederic, and on each
occasion had thought that he would refer to what his mother had said;
but he did not venture to touch upon the subject. Clara more than
once thought that she would do so herself; but when the moments came
she found that it was impossible. She could not bring herself to say
anything that should have the appearance of a desire on her part to
hurry on a marriage. She could not say to him, "If you are too poor
to be married,--or even if you mean to put forward that pretence,
say so at once." He still called her Clara, and still asked her to
walk with him, and still talked, when they were alone together, in
a distant cold way, of the events of their future combined life.
Would they live at Perivale? Would it be necessary to refurnish the
house? Should he keep any of the land on his own hands? These are
all interesting subjects of discussion between an engaged man and
the girl to whom he is engaged; but the man, if he wish to make
them thoroughly pleasant to the lady, should throw something of the
urgency of a determined and immediate purpose into the discussion.
Something should be said as to the actual destination of the rooms.
A day should be fixed for choosing the furnishing. Or the gentleman
should declare that he will at once buy the cows for the farm. But
with Frederic Aylmer all discussions seemed to point to some cold,
distant future, to which Clara might look forward as she did to the
joys of heaven. Will Belton would have bought the ring long since,
and bespoken the priest, and arranged every detail of the honeymoon
tour,--and very probably would have stood looking into a cradle shop
with longing eyes.

At last there came an absolute necessity for some plain speaking.
Captain Aylmer declared his intention of returning to London that he
might resume his parliamentary duties. He had purposed to remain till
after Easter, but it was found to be impossible. "I find I must go
up to-morrow," he said at breakfast. "They are going to make a stand
about the Poor-rates, and I must be in the House in the evening."
Clara felt herself to be very cold and uncomfortable. As things were
at present arranged she was to be left at Aylmer Park without a
friend. And how long was she to remain there? No definite ending had
been proposed for her visit. Something must be said and something
settled before Captain Aylmer went away.

"You will come down for Easter, of course," said his mother.

"Yes; I shall come down for Easter, I think,--or at any rate at
Whitsuntide."

"You must come at Easter, Frederic," said his mother.

"I don't doubt but I shall," said he.

"Miss Amedroz should lay her commands upon him," said Sir Anthony
gallantly.

"Nonsense," said Lady Aylmer.

"I have commands to lay upon him all the same," said Clara; "and if
he will give me half an hour this morning he shall have them." To
this Captain Aylmer, of course, assented,--as how could he escape
from such assent,--and a regular appointment was made. Captain Aylmer
and Miss Amedroz were to be closeted together in the little back
drawing-room immediately after breakfast. Clara would willingly have
avoided any such formality could she have done so compatibly with the
exigencies of the occasion. She had been obliged to assert herself
when Lady Aylmer had rebuked Sir Anthony, and then Lady Aylmer had
determined that an air of business should be assumed. Clara, as
she was marched off into the back drawing-room, followed by her
lover with more sheep-like gait even than her own, felt strongly
the absurdity and the wretchedness of her position. But she was
determined to go through with her purpose.

"I am very sorry that I have to leave you so soon," said Captain
Aylmer as soon as the door was shut and they were alone together.

"Perhaps it may be better as it is, Frederic; as in this way we shall
all come to understand each other, and something will be settled."

"Well, yes; perhaps that will be best."

"Your mother has told me that she disapproves of our marriage."

"No; not that, I think. I don't think she can have quite said that."

"She says that you cannot marry while she is alive,--that is, that
you cannot marry me because your income would not be sufficient."

"I certainly was speaking to her about my income."

"Of course I have got nothing." Here she paused. "Not a penny-piece
in the world that I can call my own."

"Oh yes, you have."

"Nothing. Nothing!"

"You have your aunt's legacy?"

"No; I have not. She left me no legacy. But as that is between you
and me, if we think of marrying each other, that would make no
difference."

"None at all, of course."

"But in truth I have got nothing. Your mother said something to me
about the Belton estate; as though there was some idea that possibly
it might come to me."

"Your cousin himself seemed to think so."

"Frederic, do not let us deceive ourselves. There can be nothing of
the kind. I could not accept any portion of the property from my
cousin,--even though our marriage were to depend upon it."

"Of course it does not."

"But if your means are not sufficient for your wants I am quite
ready to accept that reason as being sufficient for breaking our
engagement."

"There need be nothing of the kind."

"As for waiting for the death of another person,--for your mother's
death, I should think it very wrong. Of course, if our engagement
stands there need be no hurry; but--some time should be fixed." Clara
as she said this felt that her face and forehead were suffused with a
blush; but she was determined that it should be said, and the words
were pronounced.

"I quite think so too," said he.

"I am glad that we agree. Of course, I will leave it to you to fix
the time."

"You do not mean at this very moment?" said Captain Aylmer, almost
aghast.

"No; I did not mean that."

"I'll tell you what. I'll make a point of coming down at Easter. I
wasn't sure about it before, but now I will be. And then it shall be
settled."

Such was the interview; and on the next morning Captain Aylmer
started for London. Clara felt aware that she had not done or said
all that should have been done and said; but, nevertheless, a step in
the right direction had been taken.



CHAPTER XXVI.

THE AYLMER PARK HASHED CHICKEN COMES TO AN END.


Easter in this year fell about the middle of April, and it still
wanted three weeks of that time when Captain Aylmer started for
London. Clara was quite alive to the fact that the next three weeks
would not be a happy time for her. She looked forward, indeed, to so
much wretchedness during this period, that the days as they came were
not quite so bad as she had expected them to be. At first Lady Aylmer
said little or nothing to her. It seemed to be agreed between them
that there was to be war, but that there was no necessity for any of
the actual operations of war during the absence of Captain Aylmer.
Clara had become Miss Amedroz again; and though an offer to be
driven out in the carriage was made to her every day, she was in
general able to escape the infliction;--so that at last it came to be
understood that Miss Amedroz did not like carriage exercise. "She has
never been used to it," said Lady Aylmer to her daughter. "I suppose
not," said Belinda; "but if she wasn't so very cross she'd enjoy it
just for that reason." Clara sometimes walked about the grounds with
Belinda, but on such occasions there was hardly anything that could
be called conversation between them, and Frederic Aylmer's name was
never mentioned.

Captain Aylmer had not been gone many days before she received a
letter from her cousin, in which he spoke with absolute certainty of
his intention of giving up the estate. He had, he said, consulted
Mr. Green, and the thing was to be done. "But it will be better,
I think," he went on to say, "that I should manage it for you till
after your marriage. I simply mean what I say. You are not to suppose
that I shall interfere in any way afterwards. Of course there will be
a settlement, as to which I hope you will allow me to see Mr. Green
on your behalf." In the first draught of his letter he had inserted a
sentence in which he expressed a wish that the property should be so
settled that it might at last all come to some one bearing the name
of Belton. But as he read this over, the condition,--for coming from
him it would be a condition,--seemed to him to be ungenerous, and he
expunged it. "What does it matter who has it," he said to himself
bitterly, "or what he is called? I will never set my eyes upon his
children, nor yet upon the place when he has become the master of
it." Clara wrote both to her cousin and to the lawyer, repeating
her assurance,--with great violence, as Lady Aylmer would have
said,--that she would have nothing to do with the Belton estate. She
told Mr. Green that it would be useless for him to draw up any deeds.
"It can't be made mine unless I choose to have it," she said, "and I
don't choose to have it." Then there came upon her a terrible fear.
What if she should marry Captain Aylmer after all; and what if he,
when he should be her husband, should take the property on her
behalf! Something must be done before her marriage to prevent the
possibility of such results,--something as to the efficacy of which
for such prevention she could feel altogether certain.

But could she marry Captain Aylmer at all in her present mood? During
these three weeks she was unconsciously teaching herself to hope that
she might be relieved from her engagement. She did not love him. She
was becoming aware that she did not love him. She was beginning to
doubt whether, in truth, she had ever loved him. But yet she felt
that she could not escape from her engagement if he should show
himself to be really actuated by any fixed purpose to carry it out;
nor could she bring herself to be so weak before Lady Aylmer as to
seem to yield. The necessity of not striking her colours was forced
upon her by the warfare to which she was subjected. She was unhappy,
feeling that her present position in life was bad, and unworthy of
her. She could have brought herself almost to run away from Aylmer
Park, as a boy runs away from school, were it not that she had no
place to which to run. She could not very well make her appearance
at Plaistow Hall, and say that she had come there for shelter and
succour. She could, indeed, go to Mrs. Askerton's cottage for awhile;
and the more she thought of the state of her affairs, the more did
she feel sure that that would, before long, be her destiny. It must
be her destiny,--unless Captain Aylmer should return at Easter with
purposes so firmly fixed that even his mother should not be able to
prevail against them.

And now, in these days, circumstances gave her a new friend,--or
perhaps, rather, a new acquaintance, where she certainly had looked
neither for the one or for the other. Lady Aylmer and Belinda and the
carriage and the horses used, as I have said, to go off without her.
This would take place soon after luncheon. Most of us know how the
events of the day drag themselves on tediously in such a country
house as Aylmer Park,--a country house in which people neither read,
nor flirt, nor gamble, nor smoke, nor have resort to the excitement
of any special amusement. Lunch was on the table at half-past one,
and the carriage was at the door at three. Eating and drinking
and the putting on of bonnets occupied the hour and a half. From
breakfast to lunch Lady Aylmer, with her old "front," would occupy
herself with her household accounts. For some days after Clara's
arrival she put on her new "front" before lunch; but of late,--since
the long conversation in the carriage,--the new "front" did not
appear till she came down for the carriage. According to the theory
of her life, she was never to be seen by any but her own family
in her old "front." At breakfast she would appear with head so
mysteriously enveloped,--with such a bewilderment of morning caps,
that old "front" or new "front" was all the same. When Sir Anthony
perceived this change,--when he saw that Clara was treated as though
she belonged to Aylmer Park, then he told himself that his son's
marriage with Miss Amedroz was to be; and, as Miss Amedroz seemed
to him to be a very pleasant young woman, he would creep out of his
own quarters when the carriage was gone and have a little chat with
her,--being careful to creep away again before her ladyship's return.
This was Clara's new friend.

"Have you heard from Fred since he has been gone?" the old man asked
one day, when he had come upon Clara still seated in the parlour in
which they had lunched. He had been out, at the front of the house,
scolding the under-gardener; but the man had taken away his barrow
and left him, and Sir Anthony had found himself without employment.

"Only a line to say that he is to be here on the sixteenth."

"I don't think people write so many love-letters as they did when I
was young," said Sir Anthony.

"To judge from the novels, I should think not. The old novels used to
be full of love-letters."

"Fred was never good at writing, I think."

"Members of Parliament have too much to do, I suppose," said Clara.

"But he always writes when there is any business. He's a capital man
of business. I wish I could say as much for his brother,--or for
myself."

"Lady Aylmer seems to like work of that sort."

"So she does. She's fond of it,--I am not. I sometimes think that
Fred takes after her. Where was it you first knew him?"

"At Perivale. We used, both of us, to be staying with Mrs.
Winterfield."

"Yes, yes; of course. The most natural thing in life. Well, my dear,
I can assure you that I am quite satisfied."

"Thank you, Sir Anthony. I'm glad to hear you say even as much as
that."

"Of course money is very desirable for a man situated like Fred; but
he'll have enough, and if he is pleased, I am. Personally, as regards
yourself, I am more than pleased. I am indeed."

"It's very good of you to say so."

Sir Anthony looked at Clara, and his heart was softened towards her
as he saw that there was a tear in her eye. A man's heart must be
very hard when it does not become softened by the trouble of a woman
with whom he finds himself alone. "I don't know how you and Lady
Aylmer get on together," said he; "but it will not be my fault if we
are not friends."

"I am afraid that Lady Aylmer does not like me," said Clara.

"Indeed. I was afraid there was something of that. But you must
remember she is hard to please. You'll find she'll come round in
time."

"She thinks that Captain Aylmer should not marry a woman without
money."

"That's all very well; but I don't see why Fred shouldn't please
himself. He's old enough to know what he wants."

"Is he, Sir Anthony? That's just the question. I'm not quite sure
that he does know what he wants."

"Fred doesn't know, do you mean?"

"I don't quite think he does, sir. And the worst of it is, I am in
doubt as well as he."

"In doubt about marrying him?"

"In doubt whether it will be good for him or for any of us. I don't
like to come into a family that does not desire to have me."

"You shouldn't think so much of Lady Aylmer as all that, my dear."

"But I do think a great deal of her."

"I shall be very glad to have you as a daughter-in-law. And as for
Lady Aylmer--between you and me, my dear, you shouldn't take every
word she says so much to heart. She's the best woman in the world,
and I'm sure I'm bound to say so. But she has her temper, you know;
and I don't think you ought to give way to her altogether. There's
the carriage. It won't do you any good if we're found together
talking over it all; will it?" Then the baronet hobbled off, and Lady
Aylmer, when she entered the room, found Clara sitting alone.

Whether it was that the wife was clever enough to extract from her
husband something of the conversation that had passed between him
and Clara, or whether she had some other source of information,--or
whether her conduct might proceed from other grounds, we need not
inquire; but from that afternoon Lady Aylmer's manner and words to
Clara became much less courteous than they had been before. She would
always speak as though some great iniquity was being committed, and
went about the house with a portentous frown, as though some terrible
measure must soon be taken with the object of putting an end to the
present extremely improper state of things. All this was so manifest
to Clara, that she said to Sir Anthony one day that she could no
longer bear the look of Lady Aylmer's displeasure,--and that she
would be forced to leave Aylmer Park before Frederic's return, unless
the evil were mitigated. She had by this time told Sir Anthony that
she much doubted whether the marriage would be possible, and that she
really believed that it would be best for all parties that the idea
should be abandoned. Sir Anthony, when he heard this, could only
shake his head and hobble away. The trouble was too deep for him to
cure.

But Clara still held on; and now there wanted but two days to Captain
Aylmer's return, when, all suddenly, there arose a terrible storm at
Aylmer Park, and then came a direct and positive quarrel between Lady
Aylmer and Clara,--a quarrel direct and positive, and, on the part of
both ladies, very violent.

Nothing had hitherto been said at Aylmer Park about Mrs.
Askerton,--nothing, that is, since Clara's arrival. And Clara had
been thankful for this silence. The letter which Captain Aylmer had
written to her about Mrs. Askerton will perhaps be remembered, and
Clara's answer to that letter. The Aylmer Park opinion as to this
poor woman, and as to Clara's future conduct towards the poor woman,
had been expressed very strongly; and Clara had as strongly resolved
that she would not be guided by Aylmer Park opinions in that matter.
She had anticipated much that was disagreeable on this subject, and
had therefore congratulated herself not a little on the absence of
all allusion to it. But Lady Aylmer had, in truth, kept Mrs. Askerton
in reserve, as a battery to be used against Miss Amedroz if all other
modes of attack should fail,--as a weapon which would be powerful
when other weapons had been powerless. For awhile she had thought
it possible that Clara might be the owner of the Belton estate, and
then it had been worth the careful mother's while to be prepared to
accept a daughter-in-law so dowered. We have seen how the question
of such ownership had enabled her to put forward the plea of poverty
which she had used on her son's behalf. But since that Frederic had
declared his intention of marrying the young woman in spite of his
poverty, and Clara seemed to be equally determined. "He has been fool
enough to speak the word, and she is determined to keep him to it,"
said Lady Aylmer to her daughter. Therefore the Askerton battery was
brought to bear,--not altogether unsuccessfully.

The three ladies were sitting together in the drawing-room, and had
been as mute as fishes for half an hour. In these sittings they were
generally very silent, speaking only in short little sentences. "Will
you drive with us to-day, Miss Amedroz?" "Not to-day, I think, Lady
Aylmer." "As you are reading, perhaps you won't mind our leaving
you?" "Pray do not put yourself to inconvenience for me, Miss
Aylmer." Such and such like was their conversation; but on a sudden,
after a full half-hour's positive silence, Lady Aylmer asked a
question altogether of another kind. "I think, Miss Amedroz, my son
wrote to you about a certain Mrs. Askerton?"

Clara put down her work and sat for a moment almost astonished.
It was not only that Lady Aylmer had asked so very disagreeable a
question, but that she had asked it with so peculiar a voice,--a
voice as it were a command, in a manner that was evidently intended
to be taken as serious, and with a look of authority in her eye, as
though she were resolved that this battery of hers should knock the
enemy absolutely in the dust! Belinda gave a little spring in her
chair, looked intently at her work, and went on stitching faster
than before. "Yes he did," said Clara, finding that an answer was
imperatively demanded from her.

"It was quite necessary that he should write. I believe it to be an
undoubted fact that Mrs. Askerton is,--is,--is,--not at all what she
ought to be."

"Which of us is what we ought to be?" said Clara.

"Miss Amedroz, on this subject I am not at all inclined to joke. Is
it not true that Mrs. Askerton--"

"You must excuse me, Lady Aylmer, but what I know of Mrs. Askerton,
I know altogether in confidence; so that I cannot speak to you of her
past life."

"But, Miss Amedroz, pray excuse me if I say that I must speak of
it. When I remember the position in which you do us the honour of
being our visitor here, how can I help speaking of it?" Belinda
was stitching very hard, and would not even raise her eyes. Clara,
who still held her needle in her hand, resumed her work, and for a
moment or two made no further answer. But Lady Aylmer had by no means
completed her task. "Miss Amedroz," she said, "you must allow me to
judge for myself in this matter. The subject is one on which I feel
myself obliged to speak to you."

"But I have got nothing to say about it."

"You have, I believe, admitted the truth of the allegations made
by us as to this woman." Clara was becoming very angry. A red spot
showed itself on each cheek, and a frown settled upon her brow. She
did not as yet know what she would say or how she would conduct
herself. She was striving to consider how best she might assert her
own independence. But she was fully determined that in this matter
she would not bend an inch to Lady Aylmer. "I believe we may take
that as admitted?" said her ladyship.

"I am not aware that I have admitted anything to you, Lady Aylmer, or
said anything that can justify you in questioning me on the subject."

"Justify me in questioning a young woman who tells me that she is to
be my future daughter-in-law!"

"I have not told you so. I have never told you anything of the kind."

"Then on what footing, Miss Amedroz, do you do us the honour of being
with us here at Aylmer Park?"

"On a very foolish footing."

"On a foolish footing! What does that mean?"

"It means that I have been foolish in coming to a house in which I am
subjected to such questioning."

"Belinda, did you ever hear anything like this? Miss Amedroz, I must
persevere, however much you may dislike it. The story of this woman's
life,--whether she be Mrs. Askerton or not, I don't know--"

"She is Mrs. Askerton," said Clara.

"As to that I do not profess to know, and I dare say that you are
no wiser than myself. But what she has been we do know." Here Lady
Aylmer raised her voice and continued to speak with all the eloquence
which assumed indignation could give her. "What she has been we do
know, and I ask you, as a duty which I owe to my son, whether you
have put an end to your acquaintance with so very disreputable a
person,--a person whom even to have known is a disgrace?"

"I know her, and--"

"Stop one minute, if you please. My questions are these--Have you put
an end to that acquaintance? And are you ready to give a promise that
it shall never be resumed?"

"I have not put an end to that acquaintance,--or rather that
affectionate friendship as I should call it, and I am ready to
promise that it shall be maintained with all my heart."

"Belinda, do you hear her?"

"Yes, mamma." And Belinda slowly shook her head, which was now bowed
lower than ever over her lap.

"And that is your resolution?"

"Yes, Lady Aylmer; that is my resolution."

"And you think that becoming to you, as a young woman?"

"Just so; I think that becoming to me,--as a young woman."

"Then let me tell you, Miss Amedroz, that I differ from you
altogether,--altogether." Lady Aylmer, as she repeated the last word,
raised her folded hands as though she were calling upon heaven to
witness how thoroughly she differed from the young woman!

"I don't see how I am to help that, Lady Aylmer. I dare say we may
differ on many subjects."

"I dare say we do. I dare say we do. And I need not point out to you
how very little that would be a matter of regret to me, but for the
hold you have upon my unfortunate son."

"Hold upon him, Lady Aylmer! How dare you insult me by such
language?" Hereupon Belinda again jumped in her chair; but Lady
Aylmer looked as though she enjoyed the storm.

"You undoubtedly have a hold upon him, Miss Amedroz, and I think that
it is a great misfortune. Of course, when he hears what your conduct
is with reference to this--person, he will release himself from his
entanglement."

"He can release himself from his entanglement whenever he chooses,"
said Clara, rising from her chair. "Indeed, he is released. I shall
let Captain Aylmer know that our engagement must be at an end, unless
he will promise that I shall never in future be subjected to the
unwarrantable insolence of his mother." Then she walked off to the
door, not regarding, and indeed not hearing, the parting shot that
was fired at her.

And now what was to be done! Clara went up to her own room, making
herself strong and even comfortable, with an inward assurance that
nothing should ever induce her even to sit down to table again with
Lady Aylmer. She would not willingly enter the same room with Lady
Aylmer, or have any speech with her. But what should she at once do?
She could not very well leave Aylmer Park without settling whither
she would go; nor could she in any way manage to leave the house
on that afternoon. She almost resolved that she would go to Mrs.
Askerton. Everything was of course over between her and Captain
Aylmer, and therefore there was no longer any hindrance to her doing
so on that score. But what would be her cousin Will's wish? He, now,
was the only friend to whom she could trust for good council. What
would be his advice? Should she write and ask him? No;--she could not
do that. She could not bring herself to write to him, telling him
that the Aylmer "entanglement" was at an end. Were she to do so, he,
with his temperament, would take such letter as meaning much more
than it was intended to mean. But she would write a letter to Captain
Aylmer. This she thought that she would do at once, and she began it.
She got as far as "My dear Captain Aylmer," and then she found that
the letter was one which could not be written very easily. And she
remembered, as the greatness of the difficulty of writing the letter
became plain to her, that it could not now be sent so as to reach
Captain Aylmer before he would leave London. If written at all,
it must be addressed to him at Aylmer Park, and the task might be
done to-morrow as well as to-day. So that task was given up for the
present.

But she did write a letter to Mrs. Askerton,--a letter which she
would send or not on the morrow, according to the state of her mind
as it might then be. In this she declared her purpose of leaving
Aylmer Park on the day after Captain Aylmer's arrival, and asked
to be taken in at the cottage. An answer was to be sent to her,
addressed to the Great Northern Railway Hotel.

Richards, the maid, came up to her before dinner, with offers of
assistance for dressing,--offers made in a tone which left no doubt
on Clara's mind that Richards knew all about the quarrel. But Clara
declined to be dressed, and sent down a message saying that she would
remain in her room, and begging to be supplied with tea. She would
not even condescend to say that she was troubled with a headache.
Then Belinda came up to her, just before dinner was announced, and
with a fluttered gravity advised Miss Amedroz to come down-stairs.
"Mamma thinks it will be much better that you should show yourself,
let the final result be what it may."

"But I have not the slightest desire to show myself."

"There are the servants, you know."

"But, Miss Aylmer, I don't care a straw for the servants;--really not
a straw."

"And papa will feel it so."

"I shall be sorry if Sir Anthony is annoyed;--but I cannot help it.
It has not been my doing."

"And mamma says that my brother would of course wish it."

"After what your mother has done, I don't see what his wishes would
have to do with it,--even if she knew them,--which I don't think she
does."

"But if you will think of it, I'm sure you'll find it is the proper
thing to do. There is nothing to be avoided so much as an open
quarrel, that all the servants can see."

"I must say, Miss Aylmer, that I disregard the servants. After what
passed down-stairs, of course I have had to consider what I should
do. Will you tell your mother that I will stay here, if she will
permit it?"

"Of course. She will be delighted."

"I will remain, if she will permit it, till the morning after Captain
Aylmer's arrival. Then I shall go."

"Where to, Miss Amedroz?"

"I have already written to a friend, asking her to receive me."

Miss Aylmer paused a moment before she asked her next question;--but
she did ask it, showing by her tone and manner that she had been
driven to summon up all her courage to enable her to do so. "To what
friend, Miss Amedroz? Mamma will be glad to know."

"That is a question which Lady Aylmer can have no right to ask," said
Clara.

"Oh;--very well. Of course, if you don't like to tell, there's no
more to be said."

"I do not like to tell, Miss Aylmer."

Clara had her tea in her room that evening, and lived there the
whole of the next day. The family down-stairs was not comfortable.
Sir Anthony could not be made to understand why his guest kept her
room,--which was not odd, as Lady Aylmer was very sparing in the
information she gave him; and Belinda found it to be impossible to
sit at table, or to say a few words to her father and mother, without
showing at every moment her consciousness that a crisis had occurred.
By the next day's post the letter to Mrs. Askerton was sent, and
at the appointed time Captain Aylmer arrived. About an hour after
he entered the house, Belinda went up-stairs with a message from
him;--would Miss Amedroz see him? Miss Amedroz would see him, but
made it a condition of doing so that she should not be required to
meet Lady Aylmer. "She need not be afraid," said Lady Aylmer. "Unless
she sends me a full apology, with a promise that she will have no
further intercourse whatever with that woman, I will never willingly
see her again." A meeting was therefore arranged between Captain
Aylmer and Miss Amedroz in a sitting-room up-stairs.

"What is all this, Clara?" said Captain Aylmer, at once.

"Simply this,--that your mother has insulted me most wantonly."

"She says that it is you who have been uncourteous to her."

"Be it so;--you can of course believe whichever you please, and it is
desirable, no doubt, that you should prefer to believe your mother."

"But I do not wish there to be any quarrel."

"But there is a quarrel, Captain Aylmer, and I must leave your
father's house. I cannot stay here after what has taken place. Your
mother told me;--I cannot tell you what she told me, but she made
against me just those accusations which she knew it would be the
hardest for me to bear."

"I'm sure you have mistaken her."

"No; I have not mistaken her."

"And where do you propose to go?"

"To Mrs. Askerton."

"Oh, Clara!"

"I have written to Mrs. Askerton to ask her to receive me for awhile.
Indeed, I may almost say that I had no other choice."

"If you go there, Clara, there will be an end to everything."

"And there must be an end of what you call everything, Captain
Aylmer," said she, smiling. "It cannot be for your good to bring into
your family a wife of whom your mother would think so badly as she
thinks of me."

There was a great deal said, and Captain Aylmer walked very often up
and down the room, endeavouring to make some arrangement which might
seem in some sort to appease his mother. Would Clara only allow a
telegram to be sent to Mrs. Askerton, to explain that she had changed
her mind? But Clara would allow no such telegram to be sent, and on
that evening she packed up all her things. Captain Aylmer saw her
again and again, sending Belinda backwards and forwards, and making
different appointments up to midnight; but it was all to no purpose,
and on the next morning she took her departure alone in the Aylmer
Park carriage for the railway station. Captain Aylmer had proposed to
go with her; but she had so stoutly declined his company that he was
obliged to abandon his intention. She saw neither of the ladies on
that morning, but Sir Anthony came out to say a word of farewell to
her in the hall. "I am very sorry for all this," said he. "It is a
pity," said Clara, "but it cannot be helped. Good-bye, Sir Anthony."
"I hope we may meet again under pleasanter circumstances," said the
baronet. To this Clara made no reply, and was then handed into the
carriage by Captain Aylmer.

"I am so bewildered," said he, "that I cannot now say anything
definite, but I shall write to you, and probably follow you."

"Do not follow me, pray, Captain Aylmer," said she. Then she was
driven to the station; and as she passed through the lodges of the
park entrance she took what she intended to be a final farewell of
Aylmer Park.



CHAPTER XXVII.

ONCE MORE BACK TO BELTON.


When the carriage was driven away, Sir Anthony and Captain Aylmer
were left standing alone at the hall door of the house. The servants
had slunk off, and the father and son, looking at each other, felt
that they also must slink away, or else have some words together on
the subject of their guest's departure. The younger gentleman would
have preferred that there should be no words, but Sir Anthony was
curious to know something of what had passed in the house during the
last few days. "I'm afraid things are not going quite comfortable,"
he said.

"It seems to me, sir," said his son, "that things very seldom do go
quite comfortable."

"But, Fred,--what is it all about? Your mother says that Miss Amedroz
is behaving very badly."

"And Miss Amedroz says that my mother is behaving very badly."

"Of course;--that's only natural. And what do you say?"

"I say nothing, sir. The less said the soonest mended."

"That's all very well; but it seems to me that you, in your position,
must say something. The long and the short of it is this. Is she to
be your wife?"

"Upon my word, sir, I don't know."

They were still standing out under the portico, and as Sir Anthony
did not for a minute or two ask any further questions, Captain Aylmer
turned as though he were going into the house. But his father had
still a word or two to say. "Stop a moment, Fred. I don't often
trouble you with advice."

"I'm sure I'm always glad to hear it when you offer any."

"I know very well that in most things your opinion is better than
mine. You've had advantages which I never had. But I've had more
experience than you, my dear boy. It stands to reason that in some
things I must have had more experience than you." There was a tone of
melancholy in the father's voice as he said this which quite touched
his son, and which brought the two closer together out in the porch.
"Take my word for it," continued Sir Anthony, "that you are much
better off as you are than you could be with a wife."

"Do you mean to say that no man should marry?"

"No;--I don't mean to say that. An eldest son ought to marry, so that
the property may have an heir. And poor men should marry, I suppose,
as they want wives to do for them. And sometimes, no doubt, a man
must marry--when he has got to be very fond of a girl, and has
compromised himself, and all that kind of thing. I would never advise
any man to sully his honour." As Sir Anthony said this he raised
himself a little with his two sticks and spoke out in a bolder voice.
The voice however, sank again as he descended from the realms of
honour to those of prudence. "But none of these cases are yours,
Fred. To be sure you'll have the Perivale property; but that is
not a family estate, and you'll be much better off by turning it
into money. And in the way of comfort, you can be a great deal more
comfortable without a wife than you can with one. What do you want a
wife for? And then, as to Miss Amedroz,--for myself I must say that I
like her uncommonly. She has been very pleasant in her ways with me.
But,--somehow or another, I don't think you are so much in love with
her but what you can do without her." Hereupon he paused and looked
his son full in the face. Fred had also been thinking of the matter
in his own way, and asking himself the same question,--whether he was
in truth so much in love with Clara that he could not live without
her. "Of course I don't know," continued Sir Anthony, "what has taken
place just now between you and her, or what between her and your
mother; but I suppose the whole thing might fall through without
any further trouble to you,--or without anything unhandsome on your
part?" But Captain Aylmer still said nothing. The whole thing might,
no doubt, fall through, but he wished to be neither unjust nor
ungenerous,--and he specially wished to avoid anything unhandsome.
After a further pause of a few minutes, Sir Anthony went on again,
pouring forth the words of experience. "Of course marriage is all
very well. I married rather early in life, and have always found your
mother to be a most excellent woman. A better woman doesn't breathe.
I'm as sure of that as I am of anything. But God bless me,--of course
you can see. I can't call anything my own. I'm tied down here and I
can't move. I've never got a shilling to spend, while all these lazy
hounds about the place are eating me up. There isn't a clerk with a
hundred a year in London that isn't better off than I am as regards
ready money. And what comfort have I in a big house, and no end
of gardens, and a place like this? What pleasures do I get out of
it? That comes of marrying and keeping up one's name in the county
respectably! What do I care for the county? D---- the county! I often
wish that I'd been a younger son,--as you are."

Captain Aylmer had no answer to make to all this. It was, no doubt,
the fact that age and good living had made Sir Anthony altogether
incapable of enjoying the kind of life which he desiderated, and that
he would probably have eaten and drunk himself into his grave long
since had that kind of life been within his reach. This, however,
the son could not explain to the father. But in fitting, as he
endeavoured to do, his father's words to his own case, Captain
Aylmer did perceive that a bachelor's life might perhaps be the
most suitable to his own peculiar case. Only he would do nothing
unhandsome. As to that he was quite resolved. Of course Clara must
show herself to be in some degree amenable to reason and to the
ordinary rules of the world; but he was aware that his mother was
hot-tempered, and he generously made up his mind that he would give
Miss Amedroz even yet another chance.

At the hotel in London Clara found a short note from Mrs. Askerton,
in which she was warmly assured that everything should be done to
make her comfortable at the cottage as long as she should wish to
stay there. But the very warmth of affection thus expressed made
her almost shrink from what she was about to do. Mrs. Askerton was
no doubt anxious for her coming; but would her cousin Will Belton
approve of the visit; and what would her cousin Mary say about it?
If she was being driven into this step against her own approval, by
the insolence of Lady Aylmer,--if she was doing this thing simply
because Lady Aylmer had desired her not to do it, and was doing it in
opposition to the wishes of the man she had promised to marry as well
as to her own judgment, there could not but be cause for shrinking.
And yet she believed that she was right. If she could only have had
some one to tell her,--some one in whom she could trust implicitly to
direct her! She had hitherto been very much prone to rebel against
authority. Against her aunt she had rebelled, and against her father,
and against her lover. But now she wished with all her heart that
there might be some one to whom she could submit with perfect faith.
If she could only know what her cousin Will would think. In him she
thought she could have trusted with that perfect faith;--if only he
would have been a brother to her.

But it was too late now for doubting, and on the next day she found
herself getting out of the old Redicote fly, at Colonel Askerton's
door. He came out to meet her, and his greeting was very friendly.
Hitherto there had been no great intimacy between him and her, owing
rather to the manner of life adopted by him than to any cause of
mutual dislike between them. Mrs. Askerton had shown herself desirous
of some social intercourse since she had been at Belton, but with
Colonel Askerton there had been nothing of this. He had come there
intending to live alone, and had been satisfied to carry out his
purpose. But now Clara had come to his house as a guest, and he
assumed towards her altogether a new manner. "We are so glad to have
you," he said, taking both her hands. Then she passed on into the
cottage, and in a minute was in her friend's arms.

"Dear Clara;--dearest Clara, I am so glad to have you here."

"It is very good of you."

"No, dear; the goodness is with you to come. But we won't quarrel
about that. We will both be ever so good. And he is so happy that
you should be here. You'll get to know him now. But come up-stairs.
There's a fire in your room, and I'll be your maid for the
occasion,--because then we can talk." Clara did as she was bid and
went up-stairs; and as she sat over the fire while her friend knelt
beside her,--for Mrs. Askerton was given to such kneelings,--she
could not but tell herself that Belton Cottage was much more
comfortable than Aylmer Park. During the whole time of her sojourn
at Aylmer Park no word of real friendship had once greeted her
ears. Everything there had been cold and formal, till coldness and
formality had given way to violent insolence.

"And so you have quarrelled with her ladyship," said Mrs. Askerton.
"I knew you would."

"I have not said anything about quarrelling with her."

"But of course you have. Come, now; don't make yourself disagreeable.
You have had a downright battle;--have you not?"

"Something very like it, I'm afraid."

"I am so glad," said Mrs. Askerton, rubbing her hands.

"That is ill-natured."

"Very well. Let it be ill-natured. One isn't to be good-natured all
round, or what would be the use of it? And what sort of woman is
she?"

"Oh dear; I couldn't describe her. She is very large, and wears a
great wig, and manages everything herself, and I've no doubt she's a
very good woman in her own way."

"I can see her at once;--and a very pillar of virtue as regards
morality and going to church. Poor me! Does she know that you have
come here?"

"I have no doubt she does. I did not tell her, nor would I tell her
daughter; but I told Captain Aylmer."

"That was right. That was very right. I'm so glad of that. But who
would doubt that you would show a proper spirit? And what did he
say?"

"Not much, indeed."

"I won't trouble you about him. I don't in the least doubt but all
that will come right. And what sort of man is Sir Anthony?"

"A common-place sort of a man; very gouty, and with none of his
wife's strength. I liked him the best of them all."

"Because you saw the least of him, I suppose."

"He was kind in his manner to me."

"And they were like she-dragons. I understand it all, and can see
them just as though I had been there. I felt that I knew what would
come of it when you first told me that you were going to Aylmer Park.
I did, indeed. I could have prophesied it all."

"What a pity you did not."

"It would have done no good;--and your going there has done good. It
has opened your eyes to more than one thing, I don't doubt. But tell
me,--have you told them in Norfolk that you were coming here?"

"No;--I have not written to my cousin."

"Don't be angry with me if I tell you something. I have."

"Have what?"

"I have told Mr. Belton that you were coming here. It was in this
way. I had to write to him about our continuing in the cottage.
Colonel Askerton always makes me write if it's possible, and of
course we were obliged to settle something as to the place."

"I'm sorry you said anything about me."

"How could I help it? What would you have thought of me, or what
would he have thought, if, when writing to him, I had not mentioned
such a thing as your visit? Besides, it's much better that he should
know."

"I am sorry that you said anything about it."

"You are ashamed that he should know that you are here," said Mrs.
Askerton, in a tone of reproach.

"Ashamed! No; I am not ashamed. But I would sooner that he had not
been told,--as yet. Of course he would have been told before long."

"But you are not angry with me?"

"Angry! How can I be angry with any one who is so kind to me?"

That evening passed by very pleasantly, and when she went again to
her own room, Clara was almost surprised to find how completely she
was at home. On the next day she and Mrs. Askerton together went up
to the house, and roamed through all the rooms, and Clara seated
herself in all the accustomed chairs. On the sofa, just in the spot
to which Belton had thrown it, she found the key of the cellar.
She took it up in her hand, thinking that she would give it to the
servant; but again she put it back upon the sofa. It was his key, and
he had left it there, and if ever there came an occasion she would
remind him where he had put it. Then they went out to the cow, who
was at her ease in a little home paddock.

"Dear Bessy," said Clara. "See how well she knows me." But I think
the tame little beast would have known any one else as well who
had gone up to her as Clara did, with food in her hand. "She is
quite as sacred as any cow that ever was worshipped among the
cow-worshippers," said Mrs. Askerton. "I suppose they milk her and
sell the butter, but otherwise she is not regarded as an ordinary cow
at all." "Poor Bessy," said Clara. "I wish she had never come here.
What is to be done with her?" "Done with her! She'll stay here till
she dies a natural death, and then a romantic pair of mourners will
follow her to her grave, mixing their sympathetic tears comfortably
as they talk of the old days; and in future years, Bessy will grow to
be a divinity of the past, never to be mentioned without tenderest
reminiscences. I have not the slightest difficulty in prophesying as
to Bessy's future life and posthumous honours." They roamed about
the place the whole morning, through the garden and round the farm
buildings, and in and out of the house; and at every turn something
was said about Will Belton. But Clara would not go up to the rocks,
although Mrs. Askerton more than once attempted to turn in that
direction. He had said that he never would go there again except
under certain circumstances. She knew that those circumstances would
never come to pass; but yet neither would she go there. She would
never go there till her cousin was married. Then, if in those days
she should ever be present at Belton Castle, she would creep up to
the spot all alone, and allow herself to think of the old days.

On the following morning there came to her a letter bearing the
Downham post-mark,--but at the first glance she knew that it was not
from her cousin Will. Will wrote with a bold round hand, that was
extremely plain and caligraphic when he allowed himself time for the
work in hand, as he did with the commencement of his epistles, but
which would become confused and altogether anti-caligraphic when he
fell into a hurry towards the end of his performance,--as was his
wont. But the address of this letter was written in a pretty, small,
female hand,--very careful in the perfection of every letter, and
very neat in every stroke. It was from Mary Belton, between whom and
Clara there had never hitherto been occasion for correspondence. The
letter was as follows:--


   Plaistow Hall, April, 186--.

   MY DEAR COUSIN CLARA,

   William has heard from your friends at Belton, who are
   tenants on the estate, and as to whom there seems to be
   some question whether they are to remain. He has written,
   saying, I believe, that there need be no difficulty if
   they wish to stay there. But we learn, also, from Mrs.
   Askerton's letter, that you are expected at the cottage,
   and therefore I will address this to Belton, supposing
   that it may find you there.

   You and I have never yet known each other;--which has
   been a grief to me; but this grief, I hope, may be cured
   some day before long. I myself, as you know, am such a
   poor creature that I cannot go about the world to see my
   friends as other people do;--at least, not very well; and
   therefore I write to you with the object of asking you to
   come and see me here. This is an interesting old house in
   its way; and though I must not conceal from you that life
   here is very, very quiet, I would do my best to make the
   days pass pleasantly with you. I had heard that you were
   gone to Aylmer Park. Indeed, William told me of his taking
   you up to London. Now it seems you have left Yorkshire,
   and I suppose you will not return there very soon. If it
   be so, will it not be well that you should come to me for
   a short time?

   Both William and I feel that just for the present,--for
   a little time,--you would perhaps prefer to be alone
   with me. He must go to London for awhile, and then on to
   Belton, to settle your affairs and his. He intends to be
   absent for six weeks. If you would not be afraid of the
   dullness of this house for so long a time, pray come to
   us. The pleasure to me would be very great, and I hope
   that you have some of that feeling, which with me is so
   strong, that we ought not to be any longer personally
   strangers to each other. You could then make up your mind
   as to what you would choose to do afterwards. I think
   that by the end of that time,--that is, when William
   returns,--my uncle and aunt from Sleaford will be with
   us. He is a clergyman, you know; and if you then like to
   remain, they will be delighted to make your acquaintance.

   It seems to be a long journey for a young lady to make
   alone, from Belton to Plaistow; but travelling is so easy
   now-a-days, and young ladies seem to be so independent,
   that you may be able to manage it. Hoping to see you soon,
   I remain

   Your affectionate Cousin,

   MARY BELTON.


This letter she received before breakfast, and was therefore able to
read it in solitude, and to keep its receipt from the knowledge of
Mrs. Askerton, if she should be so minded. She understood at once all
that it intended to convey,--a hint that Plaistow Hall would be a
better resting place for her than Mrs. Askerton's cottage; and an
assurance that if she would go to Plaistow Hall for her convenience,
no advantage should be taken of her presence there by the owner of
the house for his convenience. As she sat thinking of the offer which
had been made to her she fancied that she could see and hear her
cousin Will as he discussed the matter with his sister, and with a
half assumption of surliness declared his own intention of going
away. Captain Aylmer after that interview in London had spoken of
Belton's conduct as being unpardonable; but Clara had not only
pardoned him, but had, in her own mind, pronounced his virtues to be
so much greater than his vices as to make him almost perfect. "But
I will not drive him out of his own house," she said. "What does it
matter where I go?"

"Colonel Askerton has had a letter from your cousin," said Mrs.
Askerton as soon as the two ladies were alone together.

"And what does he say?"

"Not a word about you."

"So much the better. I have given him trouble enough, and am glad to
think that he should be free of me for awhile. Is Colonel Askerton to
stay at the cottage?"

"Now, Clara, you are a hypocrite. You know that you are a hypocrite."

"Very likely,--but I don't know why you should accuse me just now."

"Yes, you do. Have not you heard from Norfolk also?"

"Yes;--I have."

"I was sure of it. I knew he would never have written in that way, in
answer to my letter, ignoring your visit here altogether, unless he
had written to you also."

"But he has not written to me. My letter is from his sister. There
it is." Whereupon she handed the letter to Mrs. Askerton, and waited
patiently while it was being read. Her friend returned it to her
without a word, and Clara was the first to speak again. "It is a nice
letter, is it not? I never saw her you know."

"So she says."

"But is it not a kind letter?"

"I suppose it is meant for kindness. It is not very complimentary
to me. It presumes that such a one as I may be treated without the
slightest consideration. And so I may. It is only fit that I should
be so treated. If you ask my advice, I advise you to go at once;--at
once."

"But I have not asked your advice, dear; nor do I intend to ask it."

"You would not have shown it me if you had not intended to go."

"How unreasonable you are! You told me just now that I was a
hypocrite for not telling you of my letter, and now you are angry
with me because I have shown it you."

"I am not angry. I think you have been quite right to show it me. I
don't know how else you could have acted upon it."

"But I do not mean to act upon it. I shall not go to Plaistow. There
are two reasons against it, each sufficient. I shall not leave you
just yet,--unless you send me away; and I shall not cause my cousin
to be turned out of his own house."

"Why should he be turned out? Why should you not go to him? You love
him;--and as for him, he is more in love than any man I ever knew. Go
to Plaistow Hall, and everything will run smooth."

"No, dear; I shall not do that."

"Then you are foolish. I am bound to tell you so, as I have inveigled
you here."

"I thought I had invited myself."

"No; I asked you to come, and when I asked you I knew that I was
wrong. Though I meant to be kind, I knew that I was unkind. I saw
that my husband disapproved it, though he had not the heart to tell
me so. I wish he had. I wish he had."

"Mrs. Askerton, I cannot tell you how much you wrong yourself, and
how you wrong me also. I am more than contented to be here."

"But you should not be contented to be here. It is just that. In
learning to love me,--or rather, perhaps, to pity me, you lower
yourself. Do you think that I do not see it all, and know it all? Of
course it is bad to be alone, but I have no right not to be alone."
There was nothing for Clara to do but to draw herself once again
close to the poor woman, and to embrace her with protestations of
fair, honest, equal regard and friendship. "Do you think I do not
understand that letter?" continued Mrs. Askerton. "If it had come
from Lady Aylmer I could have laughed at it, because I believe Lady
Aylmer to be an overbearing virago, whom it is good to put down
in every way possible. But this comes from a pure-minded woman,
one whom I believe to be little given to harsh judgments on her
fellow-sinners; and she tells you, in her calm wise way, that it is
bad for you to be here with me."

"She says nothing of the kind."

"But does she not mean it? Tell me honestly;--do you not know that
she means it?"

"I am not to be guided by what she means."

"But you are to be guided by what her brother means. It is to come
to that, and you may as well bend your neck at once. It is to come
to that, and the sooner the better for you. It is easy to see that
you are badly off for guidance when you take up me as your friend."
When she had so spoken Mrs. Askerton got up and went to the door.
"No, Clara, do not come with me; not now," she said, turning to her
companion, who had risen as though to follow her. "I will come to you
soon, but I would rather be alone now. And, look here, dear; you must
answer your cousin's letter. Do so at once, and say that you will go
to Plaistow. In any event it will be better for you."

Clara, when she was alone, did answer her cousin's letter, but she
did not accept the invitation that had been given her. She assured
Miss Belton that she was most anxious to know her, and hoped that she
might do so before long, either at Plaistow or at Belton; but that
at present she was under an engagement to stay with her friend Mrs.
Askerton. In an hour or two Mrs. Askerton returned, and Clara handed
to her the note to read. "Then all I can say is you are very silly,
and don't know on which side your bread is buttered." It was evident
from Mrs. Askerton's voice that she had recovered her mood and tone
of mind. "I don't suppose it will much signify, as it will all come
right at last," she said afterwards. And then, after luncheon, when
she had been for a few minutes with her husband in his own room, she
told Clara that the Colonel wanted to speak to her. "You'll find
him as grave as a judge, for he has got something to say to you in
earnest. Nobody can be so stern as he is when he chooses to put on
his wig and gown." So Clara went into the Colonel's study, and seated
herself in a chair which he had prepared for her.

She remained there for over an hour, and during the hour the
conversation became very animated. Colonel Askerton's assumed gravity
had given way to ordinary eagerness, during which he had walked about
the room in the vehemence of his argument; and Clara, in answering
him, had also put forth all her strength. She had expected that he
also was going to speak to her on the propriety of her going to
Norfolk; but he made no allusion to that subject, although all that
he did say was founded on Will Belton's letter to himself. Belton, in
speaking of the cottage, had told Colonel Askerton that Miss Amedroz
would be his future landlord, and had then gone on to explain that
it was his, Belton's, intention to destroy the entail, and allow the
property to descend from the father to the daughter. "As Miss Amedroz
is with you now," he said, "may I beg you to take the trouble to
explain the matter to her at length, and to make her understand that
the estate is now, at this moment, in fact her own. Her possession of
it does not depend on any act of hers,--or, indeed, upon her own will
or wish in the matter." On this subject Colonel Askerton had argued,
using all his skill to make Clara in truth perceive that she was
her father's heiress,--through the generosity undoubtedly of her
cousin,--and that she had no alternative but to assume the possession
which was thus thrust upon her.

And so eloquent was the Colonel that Clara was staggered, though she
was not convinced. "It is quite impossible," she said. "Though he may
be able to make it over to me, I can give it back again."

"I think not. In such a matter as this a lady in your position can
only be guided by her natural advisers,--her father's lawyer and
other family friends."

"I don't know why a young lady should be in any way different from an
old gentleman."

"But an old gentleman would not hesitate under such circumstances.
The entail in itself was a cruelty, and the operation of it on your
poor brother's death was additionally cruel."

"It is cruel that any one should be poor," argued Clara; "but that
does not take away the right of a rich man to his property."

There was much more of this sort said between them, till Clara was
at any rate convinced that Colonel Askerton believed that she ought
to be the owner of the property. And then at last he ventured upon
another argument which soon drove Clara out of the room. "There is,
I believe, one way in which it can all be made right," said he.

"What way?" said Clara, forgetting in her eagerness the obviousness
of the mode which her companion was about to point out.

"Of course, I know nothing of this myself," he said smiling; "but
Mary thinks that you and your cousin might arrange it between you if
you were together."

"You must not listen to what she says about that, Colonel Askerton."

"Must I not? Well; I will not listen to more than I can help; but
Mary, as you know, is a persistent talker. I, at any rate, have done
my commission." Then Clara left him and was alone for what remained
of the afternoon.

It could not be, she said to herself, that the property ought to be
hers. It would make her miserable, were she once to feel that she had
accepted it. Some small allowance out of it, coming to her from the
brotherly love of her cousin,--some moderate stipend sufficient for
her livelihood, she thought she could accept from him. It seemed
to her that it was her destiny to be dependent on charity,--to eat
bread given to her from the benevolence of a friend; and she thought
that she could endure his benevolence better than that of any other.
Benevolence from Aylmer Park or from Perivale would be altogether
unendurable.

But why should it not be as Colonel Askerton had proposed? That this
cousin of hers loved her with all his heart,--with a constancy for
which she had at first given him no credit, she was well aware. And,
as regarded herself, she loved him better than all the world beside.
She had at last become conscious that she could not now marry Captain
Aylmer without sin,--without false vows, and fatal injury to herself
and him. To the prospect of that marriage, as her future fate, an
end must be put at any rate,--an end, if that which had already
taken place was not to be regarded as end enough. But yet she had
been engaged to Captain Aylmer,--was engaged to him even now. When
last her cousin had mentioned to her Captain Aylmer's name she had
declared that she loved him still. How then could she turn round
now, and so soon accept the love of another man? How could she bring
herself to let her cousin assume to himself the place of a lover,
when it was but the other day that she had rebuked him for expressing
the faintest hope in that direction?

But yet,--yet--! As for going to Plaistow, that was quite out of the
question.

"So you are to be the heiress after all," said Mrs. Askerton to her
that night in her bedroom.

"No; I am not to be the heiress after all," said Clara, rising
against her friend impetuously.

"You'll have to be lady of Belton in one way or the other at any
rate," said Mrs. Askerton.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

MISS AMEDROZ IS PURSUED.


"I suppose now, my dear, it may be considered that everything is
settled about that young lady," said Lady Aylmer to her son, on the
same day that Miss Amedroz left Aylmer Park.

"Nothing is settled, ma'am," said the Captain.

"You don't mean to tell me that after what has passed you intend to
follow her up any further."

"I shall certainly endeavour to see her again."

"Then, Frederic, I must tell you that you are very wrong
indeed;--almost worse than wrong. I would say wicked, only I feel
sure that you will think better of it. You cannot mean to tell me
that you would--marry her after what has taken place?"

"The question is whether she would marry me."

"That is nonsense, Frederic. I wonder that you, who are generally so
clear-sighted, cannot see more plainly than that. She is a scheming,
artful young woman, who is playing a regular game to catch a
husband."

"If that were so, she would have been more humble to you, ma'am."

"Not a bit, Fred. That's just it. That has been her cleverness. She
tried that on at first, and found that she could not get round me.
Don't allow yourself to be deceived by that, I pray. And then there
is no knowing how she may be bound up with those horrid people, so
that she cannot throw them over, even if she would."

"I don't think you understand her, ma'am."

"Oh;--very well. But I understand this, and you had better understand
it too;--that she will never again enter a house of which I am the
mistress; nor can I ever enter a house in which she is received.
If you choose to make her your wife after that, I have done." Lady
Aylmer had not done, or nearly done; but we need hear no more of her
threats or entreaties. Her son left Aylmer Park immediately after
Easter Sunday, and as he went, the mother, nodding her head, declared
to her daughter that that marriage would never come off, let Clara
Amedroz be ever so sly, or ever so clever.

"Think of what I have said to you, Fred," said Sir Anthony, as he
took his leave of his son.

"Yes, sir, I will."

"You can't be better off than you are;--you can't, indeed." With
these words in his ears Captain Aylmer started for London, intending
to follow Clara down to Belton. He hardly knew his own mind on this
matter of his purposed marriage. He was almost inclined to agree
with his father that he was very well off as he was. He was almost
inclined to agree with his mother in her condemnation of Clara's
conduct. He was almost inclined to think that he had done enough
towards keeping the promise made to his aunt on her deathbed,--but
still he was not quite contented with himself. He desired to be
honest and true, as far as his ideas went of honesty and truth, and
his conscience told him that Clara had been treated with cruelty by
his mother. I am inclined to think that Lady Aylmer, in spite of her
high experience and character for wisdom, had not fought her battle
altogether well. No man likes to be talked out of his marriage by his
mother, and especially not so when the talking takes the shape of
threats. When she told him that under no circumstances would she
again know Clara Amedroz, he was driven by his spirit of manhood to
declare to himself that that menace from her should not have the
slightest influence on him. The word or two which his father said was
more effective. After all it might be better for him in his peculiar
position to have no wife at all. He did begin to believe that he
had no need for a wife. He had never before thought so much of his
father's example as he did now. Clara was manifestly a hot-tempered
woman,--a very hot-tempered woman indeed! Now his mother was also
a hot-tempered woman, and he could see the result in the present
condition of his father's life. He resolved that he would follow
Clara to Belton, so that some final settlement might be made between
them; but in coming to this resolution he acknowledged to himself
that should she decide against him he would not break his heart. She,
however, should have her chance. Undoubtedly it was only right that
she should have her chance.

But the difficulty of the circumstances in which he was placed was
so great, that it was almost impossible for him to make up his mind
fixedly to any purpose in reference to Clara. As he passed through
London on his way to Belton he called at Mr. Green's chambers with
reference to that sum of fifteen hundred pounds, which it was now
absolutely necessary that he should make over to Miss Amedroz, and
from Mr. Green he learned that William Belton had given positive
instructions as to the destination of the Belton estate. He would not
inherit it, or have anything to do with it under the entail,--from
the effects of which he desired to be made entirely free. Mr. Green,
who knew that Captain Aylmer was engaged to marry his client, and
who knew nothing of any interruption to that agreement, felt no
hesitation in explaining all this to Captain Aylmer. "I suppose you
had heard of it before," said Mr. Green. Captain Aylmer certainly
had heard of it, and had been very much struck by the idea; but up
to this moment he had not quite believed in it. Coming simply from
William Belton to Clara Amedroz, such an offer might be no more than
a strong argument used in love-making. "Take back the property, but
take me with it, of course." That Captain Aylmer thought might have
been the correct translation of Mr. William Belton's romance. But he
was forced to look at the matter differently when he found that it
had been put into a lawyer's hands. "Yes," said he, "I have heard of
it. Mr. Belton mentioned it to me himself." This was not strictly
true. Clara had mentioned it to him; but Belton had come into the
room immediately afterwards, and Captain Aylmer might probably have
been mistaken.

"He's quite in earnest," said Mr. Green.

"Of course, I can say nothing, Mr. Green, as I am myself so nearly
interested in the matter. It is a great question, no doubt, how far
such an entail as that should be allowed to operate."

"I think it should stand, as a matter of course. I think Belton is
wrong," said Mr. Green.

"Of course I can give no opinion," said the other.

"I'll tell you what you can do, Captain Aylmer. You can suggest to
Miss Amedroz that there should be a compromise. Let them divide it.
They are both clients of mine, and in that way I shall do my duty to
each. Let them divide it. Belton has money enough to buy up the other
moiety, and in that way would still be Belton of Belton."

Captain Aylmer had not the slightest objection to such a plan.
Indeed, he regarded it as in all respects a wise and salutary
arrangement. The moiety of the Belton estate might probably be worth
twenty-five thousand pounds, and the addition of such a sum as that
to his existing means would make all the difference in the world as
to the expediency of his marriage. His father's arguments would all
fall to the ground if twenty-five thousand pounds were to be obtained
in this way; and he had but little doubt that such a change in
affairs would go far to mitigate his mother's wrath. But he was by
no means mercenary in his views;--so, at least, he assured himself.
Clara should have her chance with or without the Belton estate,--or
with or without the half of it. He was by no means mercenary. Had he
not made his offer to her,--and repeated it almost with obstinacy,
when she had no prospect of any fortune? He could always remember
that of himself at least; and remembering that now, he could take
a delight in these bright money prospects without having to accuse
himself in the slightest degree of mercenary motives. This fortune
was a godsend which he could take with clean hands;--if only he
should ultimately be able to take the lady who possessed the fortune!

From London he wrote to Clara, telling her that he proposed to visit
her at Belton. His letter was written before he had seen Mr. Green,
and was not very fervent in its expressions; but, nevertheless, it
was a fair letter, written with the intention of giving her a fair
chance. He had seen with great sorrow,--"with heartfelt grief," that
quarrel between his mother and his own Clara. Thinking, as he felt
himself obliged to think, about Mrs. Askerton, he could not but
feel that his mother had cause for her anger. But he himself was
unprejudiced, and was ready, and anxious also,--the word anxious
was underscored,--to carry out his engagement. A few words between
them might probably set everything right, and therefore he proposed
to meet her at the Belton Castle house, at such an hour, on such
a day. He should run down to Perivale on his journey, and perhaps
Clara would let him have a line addressed to him there. Such was his
letter.

"What do you think of that?" said Clara, showing it to Mrs. Askerton
on the afternoon of the day on which she had received it.

"What do you think of it?" said Mrs. Askerton. "I can only hope, that
he will not come within the reach of my hands."

"You are not angry with me for showing it to you?"

"No;--why should I be angry with you? Of course I knew it all without
any showing. Do not tell Colonel Askerton, or they will be killing
each other."

"Of course I shall not tell Colonel Askerton; but I could not help
showing this to you."

"And you will meet him?"

"Yes; I shall meet him. What else can I do?"

"Unless, indeed, you were to write and tell him that it would do no
good."

"It will be better that he should come."

"If you allow him to talk you over you will be a wretched woman all
your life."

"It will be better that he should come," said Clara again. And then
she wrote to Captain Aylmer at Perivale, telling him that she would
be at the house at the hour he had named, on the day he had named.

When that day came she walked across the park a little before the
time fixed, not wishing to meet Captain Aylmer before she had reached
the house. It was now nearly the middle of April, and the weather was
soft and pleasant. It was almost summer again, and as she felt this,
she thought of all the events which had occurred since the last
summer,--of their agony of grief at the catastrophe which had closed
her brother's life, of her aunt's death first, and then of her
father's following so close upon the other, and of the two offers of
marriage made to her,--as to which she was now aware that she had
accepted the wrong man and rejected the wrong man. She was steadily
minded, now, at this moment, that before she parted from Captain
Aylmer, her engagement with him should be brought to a close. Now,
at this coming interview, so much at any rate should be done. She
had tried to make herself believe that she felt for him that sort of
affection which a woman should have for the man she is to marry, but
she had failed. She hardly knew whether she had in truth ever loved
him; but she was quite sure that she did not love him now. No;--she
had done with Aylmer Park, and she could feel thankful, amidst all
her troubles, that that difficulty should vex her no more. In showing
Captain Aylmer's letter to Mrs. Askerton she had made no such promise
as this, but her mind had been quite made up. "He certainly shall not
talk me over," she said to herself as she walked across the park.

But she could not see her way so clearly out of that further
difficulty with regard to her cousin. It might be that she would be
able to rid herself of the one lover with comparative ease; but she
could not bring herself to entertain the idea of accepting the other.
It was true that this man longed for her,--desired to call her his
own, with a wearing, anxious, painful desire which made his heart
grievously heavy,--heavy as though with lead hanging to its strings;
and it was true that Clara knew that it was so. It was true also that
his spirit had mastered her spirit, and that his persistence had
conquered her resistance,--the resistance, that is, of her feelings.
But there remained with her a feminine shame, which made it seem to
her to be impossible that she should now reject Captain Aylmer, and
as a consequence of that rejection, accept Will Belton's hand. As
she thought of this, she could not see her way out of her trouble in
that direction with any of that clearness which belonged to her in
reference to Captain Aylmer.

She had been an hour in the house before he came, and never did an
hour go so heavily with her. There was no employment for her about
the place, and Mrs. Bunce, the old woman who now lived there, could
not understand why her late mistress chose to remain seated among the
unused furniture. Clara had of course told her that a gentleman was
coming. "Not Mr. Will?" said the woman. "No; it is not Mr. Will,"
said Clara; "his name is Captain Aylmer." "Oh, indeed." And then Mrs.
Bunce looked at her with a mystified look. Why on earth should not
the gentleman call on Miss Amedroz at Mrs. Askerton's cottage. "I'll
be sure to show 'un up, when a comes, at any rate," said the old
woman solemnly;--and Clara felt that it was all very uncomfortable.

At last the gentleman did come, and was shown up with all the
ceremony of which Mrs. Bunce was capable. "Here he be, mum." Then
Mrs. Bunce paused a moment before she retreated, anxious to learn
whether the new comer was a friend or a foe. She concluded from
the Captain's manner that he was a very dear friend, and then she
departed.

"I hope you are not surprised at my coming," said Captain Aylmer,
still holding Clara by the hand.

"A little surprised," she said, smiling.

"But not annoyed?"

"No;--not annoyed."

"As soon as you had left Aylmer Park I felt that it was the right
thing to do;--the only thing to do,--as I told my mother."

"I hope you have not come in opposition to her wishes," said Clara,
unable to control a slight tone of banter as she spoke.

"In this matter I found myself compelled to act in accordance with my
own judgment," said he, untouched by her sarcasm.

"Then I suppose that Lady Aylmer is,--is vexed with you for coming
here. I shall be so sorry for that;--so very sorry, as no good can
come of it."

"Well;--I am not so sure of that. My mother is a most excellent
woman, one for whose opinions on all matters I have the highest
possible value;--a value so high, that--that--that--"

"That you never ought to act in opposition to it. That is what you
really mean, Captain Aylmer; and upon my word I think that you are
right."

"No, Clara; that is not what I mean,--not exactly that. Indeed, just
at present I mean the reverse of that. There are some things on which
a man must act on his own judgment, irrespectively of the opinions of
any one else."

"Not of a mother, Captain Aylmer?"

"Yes;--of a mother. That is to say, a man must do so. With a lady of
course it is different. I was very, very sorry that there should have
been any unpleasantness at Aylmer Park."

"It was not pleasant to me, certainly."

"Nor to any of us, Clara."

"At any rate, it need not be repeated."

"I hope not."

"No;--it certainty need not be repeated. I know now that I was wrong
to go to Aylmer Park. I felt sure beforehand that there were many
things as to which I could not possibly agree with Lady Aylmer, and I
ought not to have gone."

"I don't see that at all, Clara."

"I do see it now."

"I can't understand you. What things? Why should you be determined to
disagree with my mother? Surely you ought at any rate to endeavour to
think as she thinks."

"I cannot do that, Captain Aylmer."

"I am sorry to hear you speak in this way. I have come here all the
way from Yorkshire to try to put things straight between us; but you
receive me as though you would remember nothing but that unpleasant
quarrel."

"It was so unpleasant,--so very unpleasant! I had better speak out
the truth at once. I think that Lady Aylmer ill-used me cruelly. I
do. No one can talk me out of that conviction. Of course I am sorry
to be driven to say as much to you,--and I should never have said
it, had you not come here. But when you speak of me and your mother
together, I must say what I feel. Your mother and I, Captain Aylmer,
are so opposed to each other, not only in feeling, but in opinions
also, that it is impossible that we should be friends;--impossible
that we should not be enemies if we are brought together."

This she said with great energy, looking intently into his face as
she spoke. He was seated near her, on a chair from which he was
leaning over towards her, holding his hat in both hands between his
legs. Now, as he listened to her, he drew his chair still nearer,
ridding himself of his hat, which he left upon the carpet, and
keeping his eyes upon hers as though he were fascinated. "I am sorry
to hear you speak like this," he said.

"It is best to say the truth."

"But, Clara, if you intend to be my wife--"

"Oh, no;--that is impossible now."

"What is impossible?"

"Impossible that I should become your wife. Indeed I have convinced
myself that you do not wish it."

"But I do wish it."

"No;--no. If you will question your heart about it quietly, you will
find that you do not wish it."

"You wrong me, Clara."

"At any rate it cannot be so."

"I will not take that answer from you," he said, getting up from his
chair, and walking once up and down the room. Then he returned to it,
and repeated his words. "I will not take that answer from you. An
engagement such as ours cannot be put aside like an old glove. You
do not mean to tell me that all that has been between us is to mean
nothing." There was something now like feeling in his tone, something
like passion in his gesture, and Clara, though she had no thought
of changing her purpose, was becoming unhappy at the idea of his
unhappiness.

"It has meant nothing," she said. "We have been like children
together, playing at being in love. It is a game from which you will
come out scatheless, but I have been scalded."

"Scalded!"

"Well;--never mind. I do not mean to complain, and certainly not of
you."

"I have come here all the way from Yorkshire in order that things may
be put right between us."

"You have been very good,--very good to come, and I will not say that
I regret your trouble. It is best, I think, that we should meet each
other once more face to face, so that we may understand each other.
There was no understanding anything during those terrible days at
Aylmer Park." Then she paused, but as he did not speak at once she
went on. "I do not blame you for anything that has taken place, but I
am quite sure of this,--that you and I could never be happy together
as man and wife."

"I do not know why you say so; I do not indeed."

"You would disapprove of everything that I should do. You do
disapprove of what I am doing now."

"Disapprove of what?"

"I am staying with my friend, Mrs. Askerton."

He felt that this was hard upon him. As she had shown herself
inclined to withdraw herself from him, he had become more resolute in
his desire to follow her up, and to hold by his engagement. He was
not employed now in giving her another chance,--as he had proposed to
himself to do,--but was using what eloquence he had to obtain another
chance for himself. Lady Aylmer had almost made him believe that
Clara would be the suppliant, but now he was the suppliant himself.
In his anxiety to keep her he was willing even to pass over her
terrible iniquity in regard to Mrs. Askerton,--that great sin which
had led to all these troubles. He had once written to her about Mrs.
Askerton, using very strong language, and threatening her with his
mother's full displeasure. At that time Mrs. Askerton had simply been
her friend. There had been no question then of her taking refuge
under that woman's roof. Now she had repelled Lady Aylmer's counsels
with scorn, was living as a guest in Mrs. Askerton's house; and yet
he was willing to pass over the Askerton difficulty without a word.
He was willing not only to condone past offences, but to wink at
existing iniquity! But she,--she who was the sinner, would not permit
of this. She herself dragged up Mrs. Askerton's name, and seemed to
glory in her own shame.

"I had not intended," said he, "to speak of your friend."

"I only mention her to show how impossible it is that we should ever
agree upon some subjects,--as to which a husband and wife should
always be of one mind. I knew this from the moment in which I got
your letter,--and only that I was a coward I should have said so
then."

"And you mean to quarrel with me altogether?"

"No;--why should we quarrel?"

"Why, indeed?" said he.

"But I wish it to be settled,--quite settled, as from the nature of
things it must be, that there shall be no attempt at renewal of our
engagement. After what has passed, how could I enter your mother's
house?"

"But you need not enter it." Now in his emergency he was willing
to give up anything,--everything. He had been prepared to talk her
over into a reconciliation with his mother, to admit that there had
been faults on both sides, to come down from his high pedestal and
discuss the matter as though Clara and his mother stood upon the same
footing. Having recognised the spirit of his lady-love, he had told
himself that so much indignity as that must be endured. But now, he
had been carried so far beyond this, that he was willing, in the
sudden vehemence of his love, to throw his mother over altogether,
and to accede to any terms which Clara might propose to him. "Of
course, I would wish you to be friends," he said, using now all the
tones of a suppliant; "but if you found that it could not be so--"

"Do you think that I would divide you from your mother?"

"There need be no question as to that."

"Ah;--there you are wrong. There must be such questions. I should
have thought of it sooner."

"Clara, you are more to me than my mother. Ten times more." As he
said this he came up and knelt down beside her. "You are everything
to me. You will not throw me over." He was a suppliant indeed, and
such supplications are very potent with women. Men succeed often by
the simple earnestness of their prayers. Women cannot refuse to give
that which is asked for with so much of the vehemence of true desire.
"Clara, you have promised to be my wife. You have twice promised; and
can have no right to go back because you are displeased with what my
mother may have said. I am not responsible for my mother. Clara, say
that you will be my wife." As he spoke he strove to take her hand,
and his voice sounded as though there were in truth something of
passion in his heart.



CHAPTER XXIX.

THERE IS NOTHING TO TELL.


Captain Aylmer had never before this knelt to Clara Amedroz. Such
kneeling on the part of lovers used to be the fashion because lovers
in those days held in higher value than they do now that which they
asked their ladies to give,--or because they pretended to do so. The
forms at least of supplication were used; whereas in these wiser days
Augustus simply suggests to Caroline that they two might as well
make fools of themselves together,--and so the thing is settled
without the need of much prayer. Captain Aylmer's engagement had
been originally made somewhat after this fashion. He had not,
indeed, spoken of the thing contemplated as a folly, not being a
man given to little waggeries of that nature; but he had been calm,
unenthusiastic, and reasonable. He had not attempted to evince any
passion, and would have been quite content that Clara should believe
that he married as much from obedience to his aunt as from love
for herself, had he not found that Clara would not take him at all
under such a conviction. But though she had declined to come to
him after that fashion,--though something more than that had been
needed,--still she had been won easily, and, therefore, lightly
prized. I fear that it is so with everything that we value,--with our
horses, our houses, our wines, and, above all, with our women. Where
is the man who has heart and soul big enough to love a woman with
increased force of passion because she has at once recognised in him
all that she has herself desired? Captain Aylmer having won his spurs
easily, had taken no care in buckling them, and now found, to his
surprise, that he was like to lose them. He had told himself that he
would only be too glad to shuffle his feet free of their bondage; but
now that they were going from him, he began to find that they were
very necessary for the road that he was to travel. "Clara," he said,
kneeling by her side, "you are more to me than my mother; ten times
more!"

This was all new to her. Hitherto, though she had never desired
that he should assume such attitude as this, she had constantly
been unconsciously wounded by his coldness,--by his cold propriety
and unbending self-possession. His cold propriety and unbending
self-possession were gone now, and he was there at her feet. Such an
argument, used at Aylmer Park, would have conquered her,--would have
won her at once, in spite of herself; but now she was minded to be
resolute. She had sworn to herself that she would not peril herself,
or him, by joining herself to a man with whom she had so little
sympathy, and who apparently had none with her. But in what way
was she to answer such a prayer as that which was now made to her?
The man who addressed her was entitled to use all the warmth of an
accepted lover. He only asked for that which had already been given
to him.

"Captain Aylmer--," she began.

"Why is it to be Captain Aylmer? What have I done that you should use
me in this way? It was not I who,--who,--made you unhappy at Aylmer
Park."

"I will not go back to that. It is of no use. Pray get up. It shocks
me to see you in this way."

"Tell me, then, that it is once more all right between us. Say that,
and I shall be happier than I ever was before;--yes, than I ever was
before. I know how much I love you now, how sore it would be to lose
you. I have been wrong. I had not thought enough of that, but I will
think of it now."

She found that the task before her was very difficult,--so difficult
that she almost broke down in performing it. It would have been so
easy and, for the moment, so pleasant to have yielded. He had his
hand upon her arm, having attempted to take her hand. In preventing
that she had succeeded, but she could not altogether make herself
free from him without rising. For a moment she had paused,--paused as
though she were about to yield. For a moment, as he looked into her
eyes, he had thought that he would again be victorious. Perhaps there
was something in his glance, some too visible return of triumph to
his eyes, which warned her of her danger. "No!" she said, getting up
and walking away from him; "no!"

"And what does 'no' mean, Clara?" Then he also rose, and stood
leaning on the table. "Does it mean that you will be forsworn?"

"It means this,--that I will not come between you and your mother;
that I will not be taken into a family in which I am scorned; that I
will not go to Aylmer Park myself or be the means of preventing you
from going there."

"There need be no question of Aylmer Park."

"There shall be none!"

"But, so much being allowed, you will be my wife?"

"No, Captain Aylmer;--no. I cannot be your wife. Do not press it
further; you must know that on such a subject I would think much
before I answered you. I have thought much, and I know that I am
right."

"And your promised word is to go for nothing?"

"If it will comfort you to say so, you may say it. If you do not
perceive that the mistake made between us has been as much your
mistake as mine, and has injured me more than it has injured you, I
will not remind you of it,--will never remind you of it after this."

"But there has been no mistake,--and there shall be no injury."

"Ah, Captain Aylmer! you do not understand; you cannot understand.
I would not for worlds reproach you; but do you think I suffered
nothing from your mother?"

"And must I pay for her sins?"

"There shall be no paying, no punishment, and no reproaches. There
shall be none at least from me. But,--do not think that I speak in
anger or in pride,--I will not marry into Lady Aylmer's family."

"This is too bad,--too bad! After all that is past, it is too bad!"

"What can I say? Would you advise me to do that which would make us
both wretched?"

"It would not make me wretched. It would make me happy. It would
satisfy me altogether."

"It cannot be, Captain Aylmer. It cannot be. When I speak to you in
that way, will you not let it be final?"

He paused a moment before he spoke again, and then he turned sharp
upon her. "Tell me this, Clara; do you love me? Have you ever loved
me?" She did not answer him, but stood there, listening quietly to
his accusations. "You have never loved me, and yet you have allowed
yourself to say that you did. Is not that true?" Still she did not
answer. "I ask you whether that is not true?" But though he asked
her, and paused for an answer, looking the while full into her face,
yet she did not speak. "And now I suppose you will become your
cousin's wife?" he said. "It will suit you to change, and to say that
you love him."

Then at last she spoke. "I did not think that you would have treated
me in this way, Captain Aylmer! I did not expect that you would
insult me!"

"I have not insulted you."

"But your manner to me makes my task easier than I could have hoped
it to be. You asked me whether I ever loved you? I once thought that
I did so; and so thinking, told you, without reserve, all my feeling.
When I came to find that I had been mistaken, I conceived myself
bound by my engagement to rectify my own error as best I could; and I
resolved, wrongly,--as I now think, very wrongly,--that I could learn
as your wife to love you. Then came circumstances which showed me
that a release would be good for both of us, and which justified me
in accepting it. No girl could be bound by any engagement to a man
who looked on and saw her treated in his own home, by his own mother,
as you saw me treated at Aylmer Park. I claim to be released myself,
and I know that this release is as good for you as it is for me."

"I am the best judge of that."

"For myself at any rate I will judge. For myself I have decided. Now
I have answered the questions which you asked me as to my love for
yourself. To that other question which you have thought fit to put
to me about my cousin, I refuse to give any answer whatsoever." Then,
having said so much, she walked out of the room, closing the door
behind her, and left him standing there alone.

We need not follow her as she went up, almost mechanically, into her
own room,--the room that used to be her own,--and then shut herself
in, waiting till she should be assured, first by sounds in the house,
and then by silence, that he was gone. That she fell away greatly
from the majesty of her demeanour when she was thus alone, and
descended to the ordinary ways of troubled females, we may be quite
sure. But to her there was no further difficulty. Her work for the
day was done. In due time she would take herself to the cottage, and
all would be well, or, at any rate, comfortable with her. But what
was he to do? How was he to get himself out of the house, and take
himself back to London? While he had been in pursuit of her, and
when he was leaving his vehicle at the public-house in the village
of Belton, he,--like some other invading generals,--had failed to
provide adequately for his retreat. When he was alone he took a turn
or two about the room, half thinking that Clara would return to him.
She could hardly leave him alone in a strange house,--him, who, as he
had twice told her, had come all the way from Yorkshire to see her.
But she did not return, and gradually he came to understand that he
must provide for his own retreat without assistance. He was hardly
aware, even now, how greatly he had transcended his usual modes of
speech and action, both in the energy of his supplication and in the
violence of his rebuke. He had been lifted for awhile out of himself
by the excitement of his position, and now that he was subsiding
into quiescence, he was unconscious that he had almost mounted into
passion,--that he had spoken of love very nearly with eloquence. But
he did recognise this as a fact,--that Clara was not to be his wife,
and that he had better get back from Belton to London as quickly as
possible. It would be well for him to teach himself to look back on
the result of his aunt's dying request as an episode in his life
satisfactorily concluded. His mother had undoubtedly been right.
Clara, he could now see, would have led him a devil of a life; and
even had she come to him possessed of a moiety of the property,--a
supposition as to which he had very strong doubts,--still she might
have been dear at the money. "No real feeling," he said to himself,
as he walked about the room,--"none whatever; and then so deficient
in delicacy!" But still he was discontented,--because he had been
rejected, and therefore tried to make himself believe that he could
still have her if he chose to persevere. "But no," he said, as he
continued to pace the room, "I have done everything,--more than
everything that honour demands. I shall not ask her again. It is
her own fault. She is an imperious woman, and my mother read her
character aright." It did not occur to him, as he thus consoled
himself for what he had lost, that his mother's accusation against
Clara had been altogether of a different nature. When we console
ourselves by our own arguments, we are not apt to examine their
accuracy with much strictness.

But whether he were consoled or not, it was necessary that he should
go, and in his going he felt himself to be ill-treated. He left the
room, and as he went down-stairs was disturbed and tormented by the
creaking of his own boots. He tried to be dignified as he walked
through the hall, and was troubled at his failure, though he was not
conscious of any one looking at him. Then it was grievous that he
should have to let himself out of the front door without attendance.
At ordinary times he thought as little of such things as most men,
and would not be aware whether he opened a door for himself or had
it opened for him by another;--but now there was a distressing
awkwardness in the necessity for self-exertion. He did not know the
turn of the handle, and was unfamiliar with the manner of exit. He
was being treated with indignity, and before he had escaped from
the house had come to think that the Amedroz and Belton people were
somewhat below him. He endeavoured to go out without a noise, but
there was a slam of the door, without which he could not get the lock
to work; and Clara, up in her own room, knew all about it.

"Carriage;--yes; of course I want the carriage," he said to the
unfortunate boy at the public-house. "Didn't you hear me say that
I wanted it?" He had come down with a pair of horses, and as he saw
them being put to the vehicle he wished he had been contented with
one. As he was standing there, waiting, a gentleman rode by, and
the boy, in answer to his question, told him that the horseman
was Colonel Askerton. Before the day was over Colonel Askerton
would probably know all that had happened to him. "Do move a little
quicker; will you?" he said to the boy and the old man who was to
drive him. Then he got into the carriage, and was driven out of
Belton, devoutly purposing that he never would return; and as he made
his way back to Perivale he thought of a certain Lady Emily, who
would, as he assured himself, have behaved much better than Clara
Amedroz had done in any such scene as that which had just taken
place.

When Clara was quite sure that Captain Aylmer was off the premises,
she, too, descended, but she did not immediately leave the house. She
walked through the room, and rang for the old woman, and gave certain
directions,--as to the performance of which she certainly was not
very anxious, and was careful to make Mrs. Bunce understand that
nothing had occurred between her and the gentleman that was either
exalting or depressing in its nature. "I suppose Captain Aylmer went
out, Mrs. Bunce?" "Oh yes, miss, a went out. I stood and see'd un
from the top of the kitchen stairs." "You might have opened the
door for him, Mrs. Bunce." "Indeed then I never thought of it, miss,
seeing the house so empty and the like." Clara said that it did not
signify; and then, after an hour of composure, she walked back across
the park to the cottage.

"Well?" said Mrs. Askerton as soon as Clara was inside the
drawing-room.

"Well," replied Clara.

"What have you got to tell? Do tell me what you have to tell."

"I have nothing to tell."

"Clara, that is impossible. Have you seen him? I know you have seen
him, because he went by from the house about an hour since."

"Oh yes; I have seen him."

"And what have you said to him?"

"Pray do not ask me these questions just now. I have got to think of
it all;--to think what he did say and what I said."

"But you will tell me."

"Yes; I suppose so." Then Mrs. Askerton was silent on the subject
for the remainder of the day, allowing Clara even to go to bed
without another question. And nothing was asked on the following
morning,--nothing till the usual time for the writing of letters.

"Shall you have anything for the post?" said Mrs. Askerton.

"There is plenty of time yet."

"Not too much if you mean to go out at all. Come, Clara, you had
better write to him at once."

"Write to whom? I don't know that I have any letter to write at all."
Then there was a pause. "As far as I can see," she said, "I may give
up writing altogether for the future, unless some day you may care to
hear from me."

"But you are not going away."

"Not just yet;--if you will keep me. To tell you the truth, Mrs.
Askerton, I do not yet know where on earth to take myself."

"Wait here till we turn you out."

"I have got to put my house in order. You know what I mean. The job
ought not to be a troublesome one, for it is a very small house."

"I suppose I know what you mean."

"It will not be a very smart establishment. But I must look it all in
the face; must I not? Though it were to be no house at all, I cannot
stay here all my life."

"Yes, you may. You have lost Aylmer Park because you were too noble
not to come to us."

"No," said Clara, speaking aloud, with bright eyes,--almost with her
hands clenched. "No;--I deny that."

"I shall choose to think so for my own purposes. Clara, you are
savage to me;--almost always savage; but next to him I love you
better than all the world beside. And so does he. 'It's her courage,'
he said to me the other day. 'That she should dare to do as she
pleases here, is nothing; but to have dared to persevere in the
fangs of that old dragon,'--it was just what he said,--'that was
wonderful!'"

"There is an end of the old dragon now, so far as I am concerned."

"Of course there is;--and of the young dragon too. You wouldn't have
had the heart to keep me in suspense if you had accepted him again.
You couldn't have been so pleasant last night if that had been so."

"I did not know I was very pleasant."

"Yes, you were. You were soft and gracious,--gracious for you, at
least. And now, dear, do tell me about it. Of course I am dying to
know."

"There is nothing to tell."

"That is nonsense. There must be a thousand things to tell. At any
rate it is quite decided?"

"Yes; it is quite decided."

"All the dragons, old and young, are banished into outer darkness."

"Either that, or else they are to have all the light to themselves."

"Such light as glimmers through the gloom of Aylmer Park. And was he
contented? I hope not. I hope you had him on his knees before he left
you."

"Why should you hope that? How can you talk such nonsense?"

"Because I wish that he should recognise what he has lost;--that he
should know that he has been a fool;--a mean fool."

"Mrs. Askerton, I will not have him spoken of like that. He is a man
very estimable,--of estimable qualities."

"Fiddle-de-dee. He is an ape,--a monkey to be carried on his mother's
organ. His only good quality was that you could have carried him on
yours. I can tell you one thing;--there is not a woman breathing that
will ever carry William Belton on hers. Whoever his wife may be, she
will have to dance to his piping."

"With all my heart;--and I hope the tunes will be good."

"But I wish I could have been present to have heard what
passed;--hidden, you know, behind a curtain. You won't tell me?"

"I will tell you not a word more."

"Then I will get it out from Mrs. Bunce. I'll be bound she was
listening."

"Mrs. Bunce will have nothing to tell you; I do not know why you
should be so curious."

"Answer me one question at least:--when it came to the last, did he
want to go on with it? Was the final triumph with him or with you?"

"There was no final triumph. Such things, when they have to end, do
not end triumphantly."

"And is that to be all?"

"Yes;--that is to be all."

"And you say that you have no letter to write."

"None;--no letter; none at present; none about this affair. Captain
Aylmer, no doubt, will write to his mother, and then all those who
are concerned will have been told."

Clara Amedroz held her purpose and wrote no letter, but Mrs. Askerton
was not so discreet, or so indiscreet, as the case might be. She did
write,--not on that day or on the next, but before a week had passed
by. She wrote to Norfolk, telling Clara not a word of her letter, and
by return of post the answer came. But the answer was for Clara, not
for Mrs. Askerton, and was as follows:--


   Plaistow Hall, April, 186--.

   MY DEAR CLARA,

   I don't know whether I ought to tell you but I suppose I
   may as well tell you, that Mary has had a letter from Mrs.
   Askerton. It was a kind, obliging letter, and I am very
   grateful to her. She has told us that you have separated
   yourself altogether from the Aylmer Park people. I don't
   suppose you'll think I ought to pretend to be very sorry.
   I can't be sorry, even though I know how much you have
   lost in a worldly point of view. I could not bring myself
   to like Captain Aylmer, though I tried hard.

Oh Mr. Belton, Mr. Belton!

   He and I never could have been friends, and it is no use
   my pretending regret that you have quarrelled with them.
   But that, I suppose, is all over, and I will not say a
   word more about the Aylmers.

   I am writing now chiefly at Mary's advice, and because she
   says that something should be settled about the estate. Of
   course it is necessary that you should feel yourself to be
   the mistress of your own income, and understand exactly
   your own position. Mary says that this should be arranged
   at once, so that you may be able to decide how and
   where you will live. I therefore write to say that I
   will have nothing to do with your father's estate at
   Belton;--nothing, that is, for myself. I have written to
   Mr. Green to tell him that you are to be considered as the
   heir. If you will allow me to undertake the management of
   the property as your agent, I shall be delighted. I think
   I could do it as well as any one else: and, as we agreed
   that we would always be dear and close friends, I think
   that you will not refuse me the pleasure of serving you in
   this way.

   And now Mary has a proposition to make, as to which she
   will write herself to-morrow, but she has permitted me to
   speak of it first. If you will accept her as a visitor,
   she will go to you at Belton. She thinks, and I think too,
   that you ought to know each other. I suppose nothing would
   make you come here, at present, and therefore she must
   go to you. She thinks that all about the estate would be
   settled more comfortably if you two were together. At any
   rate, it would be very nice for her,--and I think you
   would like my sister Mary. She proposes to start about the
   10th of May. I should take her as far as London and see
   her off, and she would bring her own maid with her. In
   this way she thinks that she would get as far as Taunton
   very well. She had, perhaps, better stay there for one
   night, but that can all be settled if you will say that
   you will receive her at the house.

   I cannot finish my letter without saying one word for
   myself. You know what my feelings have been, and I think
   you know that they still are, and always must be, the
   same. From almost the first moment that I saw you I have
   loved you. When you refused me I was very unhappy; but
   I thought I might still have a chance, and therefore I
   resolved to try again. Then, when I heard that you were
   engaged to Captain Aylmer, I was indeed broken-hearted. Of
   course I could not be angry with you. I was not angry, but
   I was simply broken-hearted. I found that I loved you so
   much that I could not make myself happy without you. It
   was all of no use, for I knew that you were to be married
   to Captain Aylmer. I knew it, or thought that I knew it.
   There was nothing to be done,--only I knew that I was
   wretched. I suppose it is selfishness, but I felt, and
   still feel, that unless I can have you for my wife, I
   cannot be happy or care for anything. Now you are free
   again,--free, I mean, from Captain Aylmer;--and how is it
   possible that I should not again have a hope? Nothing but
   your marriage or death could keep me from hoping.

   I don't know much about the Aylmers. I know nothing of
   what has made you quarrel with the people at Aylmer
   Park;--nor do I want to know. To me you are once more that
   Clara Amedroz with whom I used to walk in Belton Park,
   with your hand free to be given wherever your heart can
   go with it. While it is free I shall always ask for it.
   I know that it is in many ways above my reach. I quite
   understand that in education and habits of thinking you
   are my superior. But nobody can love you better than I do.
   I sometimes fancy that nobody could ever love you so well.
   Mary thinks that I ought to allow a time to go by before
   I say all this again;--but what is the use of keeping it
   back? It seems to me to be more honest to tell you at once
   that the only thing in the world for which I care one
   straw is that you should be my wife.

   Your most affectionate Cousin,

   WILLIAM BELTON.


"Miss Belton is coming here, to the castle, in a fortnight," said
Clara that morning at breakfast. Both Colonel Askerton and his wife
were in the room, and she was addressing herself chiefly to the
former.

"Indeed, Miss Belton! And is he coming?" said Colonel Askerton.

"So you have heard from Plaistow?" said Mrs. Askerton.

"Yes;--in answer to your letter. No, Colonel Askerton, my cousin
William is not coming. But his sister purposes to be here, and I must
go up to the house and get it ready."

"That will do when the time comes," said Mrs. Askerton.

"I did not mean quite immediately."

"And are you to be her guest, or is she to be yours?" said Colonel
Askerton.

"It's her brother's home, and therefore I suppose I must be hers.
Indeed it must be so, as I have no means of entertaining any one."

"Something, no doubt, will be settled," said the Colonel.

"Oh, what a weary word that is," said Clara; "weary, at least, for
a woman's ears! It sounds of poverty and dependence, and endless
trouble given to others, and all the miseries of female dependence.
If I were a young man I should be allowed to settle for myself."

"There would be no question about the property in that case," said
the Colonel.

"And there need be no question now," said Mrs. Askerton.

When the two women were alone together, Clara, of course, scolded her
friend for having written to Norfolk without letting it be known that
she was doing so;--scolded her, and declared how vain it was for her
to make useless efforts for an unattainable end; but Mrs. Askerton
always managed to slip out of these reproaches, neither asserting
herself to be right, nor owning herself to be wrong. "But you must
answer his letter," she said.

"Of course I shall do that."

"I wish I knew what he said."

"I shan't show it you, if you mean that."

"All the same I wish I knew what he said."

Clara, of course, did answer the letter; but she wrote her answer to
Mary, sending, however, one little scrap to Mary's brother. She wrote
to Mary at great length, striving to explain, with long and laborious
arguments, that it was quite impossible that she should accept the
Belton estate from her cousin. That subject, however, and the manner
of her future life, she would discuss with her dear cousin Mary, when
Mary should have arrived. And then Clara said how she would go to
Taunton to meet her cousin, and how she would prepare William's house
for the reception of William's sister; and how she would love her
cousin when she should come to know her. All of which was exceedingly
proper and pretty. Then there was a little postscript, "Give the
enclosed to William." And this was the note to William:--


   DEAR WILLIAM,

   Did you not say that you would be my brother? Be my
   brother always. I will accept from your hands all that
   a brother could do; and when that arrangement is quite
   fixed, I will love you as much as Mary loves you, and
   trust you as completely; and I will be obedient, as a
   younger sister should be.

   Your loving Sister,

   C. A.


"It's all no good," said William Belton, as he crunched the note in
his hand. "I might as well shoot myself. Get out of the way there,
will you?" And the injured groom scudded across the farm-yard,
knowing that there was something wrong with his master.



CHAPTER XXX.

MARY BELTON.


It was about the middle of the pleasant month of May when Clara
Amedroz again made that often repeated journey to Taunton, with the
object of meeting Mary Belton. She had transferred herself and her
own peculiar belongings back from the cottage to the house, and had
again established herself there so that she might welcome her new
friend. But she was not satisfied with simply receiving her guest at
Belton, and therefore she made the journey to Taunton, and settled
herself for the night at the inn. She was careful to get a bedroom
for an "invalid lady," close to the sitting-room, and before she went
down to the station she saw that the cloth was laid for tea, and that
the tea parlour had been made to look as pleasant as was possible
with an inn parlour.

She was very nervous as she stood upon the platform waiting for the
new comer to show herself. She knew that Mary was a cripple, but did
not know how far her cousin was disfigured by her infirmity; and
when she saw a pale-faced little woman, somewhat melancholy, but yet
pretty withal, with soft, clear eyes, and only so much appearance
of a stoop as to soften the hearts of those who saw her, Clara was
agreeably surprised, and felt herself to be suddenly relieved of an
unpleasant weight. She could talk to the woman she saw there, as to
any other woman, without the painful necessity of treating her always
as an invalid. "I think you are Miss Belton?" she said, holding out
her hand. The likeness between Mary and her brother was too great to
allow of Clara being mistaken.

"And you are Clara Amedroz? It is so good of you to come to meet me!"

"I thought you would be dull in a strange town by yourself."

"It will be much nicer to have you with me."

Then they went together up to the inn; and when they had taken their
bonnets off, Mary Belton kissed her cousin. "You are very nearly what
I fancied you," said Mary.

"Am I? I hope you fancied me to be something that you could like."

"Something that I could love very dearly. You are a little taller
than what Will said; but then a gentleman is never a judge of a
lady's height. And he said you were thin."

"I am not very fat."

"No; not very fat; but neither are you thin. Of course, you know, I
have thought a great deal about you. It seems as though you had come
to be so very near to us; and blood is thicker than water, is it not?
If cousins are not friends, who can be?"

In the course of that evening they became very confidential together,
and Clara thought that she could love Mary Belton better than any
woman that she had ever known. Of course they were talking about
William, and Clara was at first in constant fear lest some word
should be said on her lover's behalf,--some word which would drive
her to declare that she would not admit him as a lover; but Mary
abstained from the subject with marvellous care and tact. Though she
was talking through the whole evening of her brother, she so spoke
of him as almost to make Clara believe that she could not have heard
of that episode in his life. Mrs. Askerton would have dashed at the
subject at once; but then, as Clara told herself, Mary Belton was
better than Mrs. Askerton.

A few words were said about the estate, and they originated in
Clara's declaration that Mary would have to be regarded as the
mistress of the house to which they were going. "I cannot agree to
that," said Mary.

"But the house is William's, you know," said Clara.

"He says not."

"But of course that must be nonsense, Mary."

"It is very evident that you know nothing of Plaistow ways, or you
would not say that anything coming from William was nonsense. We are
accustomed to regard all his words as law, and when he says that a
thing is to be so, it always is so."

"Then he is a tyrant at home."

"A beneficent despot. Some despots, you know, always were
beneficent."

"He won't have his way in this thing."

"I'll leave you and him to fight about that, my dear. I am so
completely under his thumb that I always obey him in everything. You
must not, therefore, expect to range me on your side."

The next day they were at Belton Castle, and in a very few hours
Clara felt that she was quite at home with her cousin. On the second
day Mrs. Askerton came up and called,--according to an arrangement to
that effect made between her and Clara. "I'll stay away if you like
it," Mrs. Askerton had said. But Clara had urged her to come, arguing
with her that she was foolish to be thinking always of her own
misfortune. "Of course I am always thinking of it," she had replied,
"and always thinking that other people are thinking of it. Your
cousin, Miss Belton, knows all my history, of course. But what
matters? I believe it would be better that everybody should know it.
I suppose she's very straight-laced and prim." "She is not prim at
all," said Clara. "Well, I'll come," said Mrs. Askerton, "but I shall
not be a bit surprised if I hear that she goes back to Norfolk the
next day."

So Mrs. Askerton came, and Miss Belton did not go back to Norfolk.
Indeed, at the end of the visit, Mrs. Askerton had almost taught
herself to believe that William Belton had kept his secret, even from
his sister. "She's a dear little woman," Mrs. Askerton afterwards
said to Clara.

"Is she not?"

"And so thoroughly like a lady."

"Yes; I think she is a lady."

"A princess among ladies! What a pretty little conscious way she has
of asserting herself when she has an opinion and means to stick to
it! I never saw a woman who got more strength out of her weakness.
Who would dare to contradict her?"

"But then she knows everything so well," said Clara.

"And how like her brother she is!"

"Yes;--there is a great family likeness."

"And in character, too. I'm sure you'd find, if you were to try her,
that she has all his personal firmness, though she can't show it as
he does by kicking out his feet and clenching his fist."

"I'm glad you like her," said Clara.

"I do like her very much."

"It is so odd,--the way you have changed. You used to speak of him as
though he was merely a clod of a farmer, and of her as a stupid old
maid. Now, nothing is too good to say of them."

"Exactly, my dear;--and if you do not understand why, you are not so
clever as I take you to be."

Life went on very pleasantly with them at Belton for two or three
weeks;--but with this drawback as regarded Clara, that she had no
means of knowing what was to be the course of her future life. During
these weeks she twice received letters from her cousin Will, and
answered both of them. But these letters referred to matters of
business which entailed no contradiction,--to certain details of
money due to the estate before the old squire's death, and to that
vexed question of Aunt Winterfield's legacy, which had by this time
drifted into Belton's hands, and as to which he was inclined to act
in accordance with his cousin's wishes, though he was assured by Mr.
Green that the legacy was as good a legacy as had ever been left by
an old woman. "I think," he said in his last letter, "that we shall
be able to throw him over in spite of Mr. Green." Clara, as she read
this, could not but remember that the man to be thrown over was the
man to whom she had been engaged, and she could not but remember also
all the circumstances of the intended legacy,--of her aunt's death,
and of the scenes which had immediately followed her death. It was so
odd that William Belton should now be discussing with her the means
of evading all her aunt's intentions,--and that he should be doing
so, not as her accepted lover. He had, indeed, called himself her
brother, but he was in truth her rejected lover.

From time to time during these weeks Mrs. Askerton would ask her
whether Mr. Belton was coming to Belton, and Clara would answer her
with perfect truth that she did not believe that he had any such
intention. "But he must come soon," Mrs. Askerton would say. And when
Clara would answer that she knew nothing about it, Mrs. Askerton
would ask further questions about Mary Belton. "Your cousin must know
whether her brother is coming to look after the property?" But Miss
Belton, though she heard constantly from her brother, gave no such
intimation. If he had any intention of coming, she did not speak
of it. During all these days she had not as yet said a word of
her brother's love. Though his name was daily in her mouth,--and
latterly, was frequently mentioned by Clara,--there had been no
allusion to that still enduring hope of which Will Belton himself
could not but speak,--when he had any opportunity of speaking at all.
And this continued till at last Clara was driven to suppose that Mary
Belton knew nothing of her brother's hopes.

But at last there came a change,--a change which to Clara was as
great as that which had affected her when she first found that
her delightful cousin was not safe against love-making. She had
made up her mind that the sister did not intend to plead for her
brother,--that the sister probably knew nothing of the brother's
necessity for pleading,--that the brother probably had no further
need for pleading! When she remembered his last passionate words, she
could not but accuse herself of hypocrisy when she allowed place in
her thoughts to this latter supposition. He had been so intently
earnest! The nature of the man was so eager and true! But yet, in
spite of all that had been said, of all the fire in his eyes, and
life in his words, and energy in his actions, he had at last seen
that his aspirations were foolish, and his desires vain. It could not
otherwise be that she and Mary should pass these hours in such calm
repose without an allusion to the disturbing subject! After this
fashion, and with such meditations as these, had passed by the last
weeks;--and then at last there came the change.

"I have had a letter from William this morning," said Mary.

"And so have not I," said Clara, "and yet I expect to hear from him."

"He means to be here soon," said Mary.

"Oh, indeed!"

"He speaks of being here next week."

For a moment or two Clara had yielded to the agitation caused by her
cousin's tidings; but with a little gush she recovered her presence
of mind, and was able to speak with all the hypothetical propriety of
a female. "I am glad to hear it," she said. "It is only right that he
should come."

"He has asked me to say a word to you,--as to the purport of his
journey."

Then again Clara's courage and hypocrisy were so far subdued that
they were not able to maintain her in a position adequate to the
occasion. "Well," she said laughing, "what is the word? I hope it is
not that I am to pack up, bag and baggage, and take myself elsewhere.
Cousin William is one of those persons who are willing to do
everything except what they are wanted to do. He will go on talking
about the Belton estate, when I want to know whether I may really
look for as much as twelve shillings a week to live upon."

"He wants me to speak to you about--about the earnest love he bears
for you."

"Oh dear! Mary;--could you not suppose it all to be said? It is an
old trouble, and need not be repeated."

"No," said Mary, "I cannot suppose it to be all said." Clara looking
up as she heard the voice, was astonished both by the fire in the
woman's eye and by the force of her tone. "I will not think so meanly
of you as to believe that such words from such a man can be passed by
as meaning nothing. I will not say that you ought to be able to love
him; in that you cannot control your heart; but if you cannot love
him, the want of such love ought to make you suffer,--to suffer much
and be very sad."

"I cannot agree to that, Mary."

"Is all his life nothing, then? Do you know what love means with
him;--this love which he bears to you? Do you understand that it
is everything to him?--that from the first moment in which he
acknowledged to himself that his heart was set upon you, he could not
bring himself to set it upon any other thing for a moment? Perhaps
you have never understood this; have never perceived that he is so
much in earnest, that to him it is more than money, or land, or
health,--more than life itself;--that he so loves that he would
willingly give everything that he has for his love? Have you known
this?"

Clara would not answer these questions for a while. What if she had
known it all, was she therefore bound to sacrifice herself? Could it
be the duty of any woman to give herself to a man simply because a
man wanted her? That was the argument as it was put forward now by
Mary Belton.

"Dear, dearest Clara," said Mary Belton, stretching herself forward
from her chair, and putting out her thin, almost transparent, hand,
"I do not think that you have thought enough of this; or, perhaps,
you have not known it. But his love for you is as I say. To him it is
everything. It pervades every hour of every day, every corner in his
life! He knows nothing of anything else while he is in his present
state."

"He is very good;--more than good."

"He is very good."

"But I do not see that;--that-- Of course I know how disinterested he
is."

"Disinterested is a poor word. It insinuates that in such a matter
there could be a question of what people call interest."

"And I know, too, how much he honours me."

"Honour is a cold word. It is not honour, but love,--downright true,
honest love. I hope he does honour you. I believe you to be an
honest, true woman; and, as he knows you well, he probably does
honour you;--but I am speaking of love." Again Clara was silent. She
knew what should be her argument if she were determined to oppose her
cousin's pleadings; and she knew also,--she thought she knew,--that
she did intend to oppose them; but there was a coldness in the
argument to which she was averse. "You cannot be insensible to such
love as that!" said Mary, going on with the cause which she had in
hand.

"You say that he is fond of me."

"Fond of you! I have not used such trifling expressions as that."

"That he loves me."

"You know he loves you. Have you ever doubted a word that he has
spoken to you on any subject?"

"I believe he speaks truly."

"You know he speaks truly. He is the very soul of truth."

"But, Mary--"

"Well, Clara! But remember; do not answer me lightly. Do not play
with a man's heart because you have it in your power."

"You wrong me. I could never do like that. You tell me that he loves
me;--but what if I do not love him? Love will not be constrained. Am
I to say that I love him because I believe that he loves me?"

This was the argument, and Clara found herself driven to use it,--not
so much from its special applicability to herself, as on account of
its general fitness. Whether it did or did not apply to herself she
had no time to ask herself at that moment; but she felt that no man
could have a right to claim a woman's hand on the strength of his own
love,--unless he had been able to win her love. She was arguing on
behalf of women in general rather than on her own behalf.

"If you mean to tell me that you cannot love him, of course I must
give over," said Mary, not caring at all for men and women in
general, but full of anxiety for her brother. "Do you mean to say
that,--that you can never love him?" It almost seemed, from her
face, that she was determined utterly to quarrel with her new-found
cousin,--to quarrel and to go at once away if she got an answer that
would not please her.

"Dear Mary, do not press me so hard."

"But I want to press you hard. It is not right that he should lose
his life in longing and hoping."

"He will not lose his life, Mary."

"I hope not;--not if I can help it. I trust that he will be strong
enough to get rid of his trouble,--to put it down and trample it
under his feet." Clara, as she heard this, began to ask herself what
it was that was to be trampled under Will's feet. "I think he will
be man enough to overcome his passion; and then, perhaps,--you may
regret what you have lost."

"Now you are unkind to me."

"Well; what would you have me say? Do I not know that he is offering
you the best gift that he can give? Did I not begin by swearing to
you that he loved you with a passion of love that cannot but be
flattering to you? If it is to be love in vain, this to him is a
great misfortune. And, yet, when I say that I hope that he will
recover, you tell me that I am unkind."

"No;--not for that."

"May I tell him to come and plead for himself?"

Again Clara was silent, not knowing how to answer that last question.
And when she did answer it, she answered it thoughtlessly. "Of course
he knows that he can do that."

"He says that he has been forbidden."

"Oh, Mary, what am I to say to you? You know it all, and I wonder
that you can continue to question me in this way."

"Know all what?"

"That I have been engaged to Captain Aylmer."

"But you are not engaged to him now."

"No--I am not."

"And there can be no renewal there, I suppose?"

"Oh, no!"

"Not even for my brother would I say a word if I thought--"

"No;--there is nothing of that; but--. If you cannot understand, I do
not think that I can explain it." It seemed to Clara that her cousin,
in her anxiety for her brother, did not conceive that a woman,
even if she could suddenly transfer her affections from one man to
another, could not bring herself to say that she had done so.

"I must write to him to-day," said Mary, "and I must give him some
answer. Shall I tell him that he had better not come here till you
are gone?"

"That will perhaps be best," said Clara.

"Then he will never come at all."

"I can go;--can go at once. I will go at once. You shall never have
to say that my presence prevented his coming to his own house. I
ought not to be here. I know it now. I will go away, and you may tell
him that I am gone."

"No, dear; you will not go."

"Yes;--I must go. I fancied things might be otherwise, because he
once told me that--he--would--be--a brother to me. And I said I would
hold him to that;--not only because I want a brother so badly, but
because I love him so dearly. But it cannot be like that."

"You do not think that he will ever desert you?"

"But I will go away, so that he may come to his own house. I ought
not to be here. Of course I ought not to be at Belton,--either in
this house or in any other. Tell him that I will be gone before he
can come, and tell him also that I will not be too proud to accept
from him what it may be fit that he should give me. I have no one but
him;--no one but him;--no one but him." Then she burst into tears,
and throwing back her head, covered her face with her hands.

Miss Belton, upon this, rose slowly from the chair on which she was
sitting, and making her way painfully across to Clara, stood leaning
on the weeping girl's chair. "You shall not go while I am here," she
said.

"Yes; I must go. He cannot come till I am gone."

"Think of it all once again, Clara. May I not tell him to come, and
that while he is coming you will see if you cannot soften your heart
towards him?"

"Soften my heart! Oh, if I could only harden it!"

"He would wait. If you would only bid him wait, he would be so happy
in waiting."

"Yes--till to-morrow morning. I know him. Hold out your little finger
to him, and he has your whole hand and arm in a moment."

"I want you to say that you will try to love him."

But Clara was in truth trying not to love him. She was ashamed of
herself because she did love the one man, when, but a few weeks
since, she had confessed that she loved another. She had mistaken
herself and her own feelings, not in reference to her cousin, but in
supposing that she could really have sympathised with such a man as
Captain Aylmer. It was necessary to her self-respect that she should
be punished because of that mistake. She could not save herself from
this condemnation,--she would not grant herself a respite--because,
by doing so, she would make another person happy. Had Captain Aylmer
never crossed her path, she would have given her whole heart to her
cousin. Nay; she had so given it,--had done so, although Captain
Aylmer had crossed her path and come in her way. But it was matter of
shame to her to find that this had been possible, and she could not
bring herself to confess her shame.

The conversation at last ended, as such conversations always do end,
without any positive decision. Mary wrote of course to her brother,
but Clara was not told of the contents of the letter. We, however,
may know them, and may understand their nature, without learning
above two lines of the letter. "If you can be content to wait awhile,
you will succeed," said Mary; "but when were you ever content to
wait for anything?" "If there is anything I hate, it is waiting,"
said Will, when he received the letter; nevertheless the letter made
him happy, and he went about his farm with a sanguine heart, as he
arranged matters for another absence. "Away long?" he said, in answer
to a question asked him by his head man; "how on earth can I say how
long I shall be away? You can go on well enough without me by this
time, I should think. You will have to learn, for there is no knowing
how often I may be away, or for how long."

When Mary said that the letter had been written, Clara again spoke
about going. "And where will you go?" said Mary.

"I will take a lodging in Taunton."

"He would only follow you there, and there would be more trouble.
That would be all. He must act as your guardian, and in that
capacity, at any rate, you must submit to him." Clara, therefore,
consented to remain at Belton; but, before Will arrived, she returned
from the house to the cottage.

"Of course I understand all about it," said Mrs. Askerton; "and let
me tell you this,--that if it is not all settled within a week from
his coming here, I shall think that you are without a heart. He is
to be knocked about, and cuffed, and kept from his work, and made to
run up and down between here and Norfolk, because you cannot bring
yourself to confess that you have been a fool."

"I have never said that I have not been a fool," said Clara.

"You have made a mistake,--as young women will do sometimes, even
when they are as prudent and circumspect as you are,--and now you
don't quite like the task of putting it right."

It was all true, and Clara knew that it was true. The putting right
of mistakes is never pleasant; and in this case it was so unpleasant
that she could not bring herself to acknowledge that it must be done.
And yet, I think, that by this time she was aware of the necessity.



CHAPTER XXXI.

TAKING POSSESSION.


"I want her to have it all," said William Belton to Mr. Green, the
lawyer, when they came to discuss the necessary arrangements for the
property.

"But that would be absurd."

"Never mind. It is what I wish. I suppose a man may do what he likes
with his own."

"She won't take it," said the lawyer.

"She must take it, if you manage the matter properly," said Will.

"I don't suppose it will make much difference," said the
lawyer,--"now that Captain Aylmer is out of the running."

"I know nothing about that. Of course I am very glad that he should
be out of the running, as you call it. He is a bad sort of fellow,
and I didn't want him to have the property. But all that has had
nothing to do with it. I'm not doing it because I think she is ever
to be my wife."

From this the reader will understand that Belton was still fidgeting
himself and the lawyer about the estate when he passed through
London. The matter in dispute, however, was so important that he
was induced to seek the advice of others besides Mr. Green, and at
last was brought to the conclusion that it was his paramount duty
to become Belton of Belton. There seemed in the minds of all these
councillors to be some imperative and almost imperious requirement
that the acres should go back to a man of his name. Now, as there
was no one else of the family who could stand in his way, he had
no alternative but to become Belton of Belton. He would, however,
sell his estate in Norfolk, and raise money for endowing Clara with
commensurate riches. Such was his own plan;--but having fallen among
counsellors he would not exactly follow his own plan, and at last
submitted to an arrangement in accordance with which an annuity of
eight hundred pounds a year was to be settled upon Clara, and this
was to lie as a charge upon the estate in Norfolk.

"It seems to me to be very shabby," said William Belton.

"It seems to me to be very extravagant," said the leader among the
counsellors. "She is not entitled to sixpence."

But at last the arrangement as above described was the one to which
they all assented.

When Belton reached the house which was now his own he found no one
there but his sister. Clara was at the cottage. As he had been told
that she was to return there, he had no reason to be annoyed. But,
nevertheless, he was annoyed, or rather discontented, and had not
been a quarter of an hour about the place before he declared his
intention to go and seek her.

"Do no such thing, Will; pray do not," said his sister.

"And why not?"

"Because it will be better that you should wait. You will only injure
yourself and her by being impetuous."

"But it is absolutely necessary that she should know her own
position. It would be cruelty to keep her in ignorance;--though for
the matter of that I shall be ashamed to tell her. Yes;--I shall be
ashamed to look her in the face. What will she think of it after I
had assured her that she should have the whole?"

"But she would not have taken it, Will. And had she done so, she
would have been very wrong. Now she will be comfortable."

"I wish I could be comfortable," said he.

"If you will only wait--"

"I hate waiting. I do not see what good it will do. Besides, I don't
mean to say anything about that,--not to-day, at least. I don't
indeed. As for being here and not seeing her, that is out of the
question. Of course she would think that I had quarrelled with her,
and that I meant to take everything to myself, now that I have the
power."

"She won't suspect you of wishing to quarrel with her, Will."

"I should in her place. It is out of the question that I should be
here, and not go to her. It would be monstrous. I will wait till they
have done lunch, and then I will go up."

It was at last decided that he should walk up to the cottage,
call upon Colonel Askerton, and ask to see Clara in the Colonel's
presence. It was thought that he could make his statement about the
money better before a third person who could be regarded as Clara's
friend, than could possibly be done between themselves. He did,
therefore, walk across to the cottage, and was shown into Colonel
Askerton's study.

"There he is," Mrs. Askerton said, as soon as she heard the sound of
the bell. "I knew that he would come at once."

During the whole morning Mrs. Askerton had been insisting that Belton
would make his appearance on that very day,--the day of his arrival
at Belton, and Clara had been asserting that he would not do so.

"Why should he come?" Clara had said.

"Simply to take you to his own house, like any other of his goods and
chattels."

"I am not his goods or his chattels."

"But you soon will be; and why shouldn't you accept your lot quietly?
He is Belton of Belton, and everything here belongs to him."

"I do not belong to him."

"What nonsense! When a man has the command of the situation, as he
has, he can do just what he pleases. If he were to come and carry you
off by violence, I have no doubt the Beltonians would assist him, and
say that he was right. And you of course would forgive him. Belton of
Belton may do anything."

"That is nonsense, if you please."

"Indeed if you had any of that decent feeling of feminine inferiority
which ought to belong to all women, he would have found you sitting
on the door-step of his house waiting for him."

That had been said early in the morning, when they first knew that he
had arrived; but they had been talking about him ever since,--talking
about him under pressure from Mrs. Askerton, till Clara had been
driven to long that she might be spared. "If he chooses to come, he
will come," she said. "Of course he will come," Mrs. Askerton had
answered, and then they heard the ring of the bell. "There he is.
I could swear to the sound of his foot. Doesn't he step as though
he were Belton of Belton, and conscious that everything belonged
to him?" Then there was a pause. "He has been shown in to Colonel
Askerton. What on earth could he want with him?"

"He has called to tell him something about the cottage," said Clara,
endeavouring to speak as though she were calm through it all.

"Cottage! Fiddlestick! The idea of a man coming to look after his
trumpery cottage on the first day of his showing himself as lord of
his own property! Perhaps he is demanding that you shall be delivered
up to him. If he does I shall vote for obeying."

"And I for disobeying,--and shall vote very strongly too."

Their suspense was yet prolonged for another ten minutes, and at the
end of that time the servant came in and asked if Miss Amedroz would
be good enough to go into the master's room. "Mr. Belton is there,
Fanny?" asked Mrs. Askerton. The girl confessed that Mr. Belton was
there, and then Clara, without another word, got up and left the
room. She had much to do in assuming a look of composure before she
opened the door; but she made the effort, and was not unsuccessful.
In another second she found her hand in her cousin's, and his bright
eye was fixed upon her with that eager friendly glance which made his
face so pleasant to those whom he loved.

"Your cousin has been telling me of the arrangements he has been
making for you with the lawyers," said Colonel Askerton. "I can only
say that I wish all the ladies had cousins so liberal, and so able to
be liberal."

"I thought I would see Colonel Askerton first, as you are staying at
his house. And as for liberality,--there is nothing of the kind. You
must understand, Clara, that a fellow can't do what he likes with
his own in this country. I have found myself so bullied by lawyers
and that sort of people, that I have been obliged to yield to them.
I wanted that you should have the old place, to do just what you
pleased with it."

"That was out of the question, Will."

"Of course it was," said Colonel Askerton. Then, as Belton himself
did not proceed to the telling of his own story, the Colonel told
it for him, and explained what was the income which Clara was to
receive.

"But that is as much out of the question," said she, "as the other. I
cannot rob you in that way. I cannot and I shall not. And why should
I? What do I want with an income? Something I ought to have, if only
for the credit of the family, and that I am willing to take from your
kindness; but--"

"It's all settled now, Clara."

"I don't think that you can lessen the weight of your obligation,
Miss Amedroz, after what has been done up in London," said the
Colonel.

"If you had said a hundred a year--"

"I have been allowed to say nothing," said Belton; "those people have
said eight,--and so it is settled. When are you coming over to see
Mary?"

To this question he got no definite answer, and as he went away
immediately afterwards he hardly seemed to expect one. He did not
even ask for Mrs. Askerton, and as that lady remarked, behaved
altogether like a bear. "But what a munificent bear!" she said.
"Fancy;--eight hundred a year of your own. One begins to doubt
whether it is worth one's while to marry at all with such an income
as that to do what one likes with! However, it all means nothing. It
will all be his own again before you have even touched it."

"You must not say anything more about that," said Clara gravely.

"And why must I not?"

"Because I shall hear nothing more of it. There is an end of all
that,--as there ought to be."

"Why an end? I don't see an end. There will be no end till Belton
of Belton has got you and your eight hundred a year as well as
everything else."

"You will find that--he--does not mean--anything--more," said Clara.

"You think not?"

"I am--sure of it." Then there was a little sound in her throat
as though she were in some danger of being choked; but she soon
recovered herself, and was able to express herself clearly. "I have
only one favour to ask you now, Mrs. Askerton, and that is that you
will never say anything more about him. He has changed his mind. Of
course he has, or he would not come here like that and have gone away
without saying a word."

"Not a word! A man gives you eight hundred a year, and that is not
saying a word!"

"Not a word except about money! But of course he is right. I know
that he is right. After what has passed he would be very wrong
to--to--think about it any more. You joke about his being Belton of
Belton. But it does make a difference."

"It does;--does it?"

"It has made a difference. I see and feel it now. I shall never--hear
him--ask me--that question--any more."

"And if you did hear him, what answer would you make him?"

"I don't know."

"That is just it. Women are so cross-grained that it is a wonder to
me that men should ever have anything to do with them. They have
about them some madness of a phantasy which they dignify with the
name of feminine pride, and under the cloak of this they believe
themselves to be justified in tormenting their lovers' lives out.
The only consolation is that they torment themselves as much. Can
anything be more cross-grained than you are at this moment? You were
resolved just now that it would be the most unbecoming thing in the
world if he spoke a word more about his love for the next twelve
months--"

"Mrs. Askerton, I said nothing about twelve months."

"And now you are broken-hearted because he did not blurt it all out
before Colonel Askerton in a business interview, which was very
properly had at once, and in which he has had the exceeding good
taste to confine himself altogether to the one subject."

"I am not complaining."

"It was good taste; though if he had not been a bear he might have
asked after me, who am fighting his battles for him night and day."

"But what will he do next?"

"Eat his dinner, I should think, as it is now nearly five o'clock.
Your father used always to dine at five."

"I can't go to see Mary," she said, "till he comes here again."

"He will be here fast enough. I shouldn't wonder if he was to come
here to-night." And he did come again that night.

When Belton's interview was over in the Colonel's study, he left the
house,--without even asking after the mistress, as that mistress had
taken care to find out,--and went off, rambling about the estate
which was now his own. It was a beautiful place, and he was not
insensible to the gratification of being its owner. There is much
in the glory of ownership,--of the ownership of land and houses, of
beeves and woolly flocks, of wide fields and thick-growing woods,
even when that ownership is of late date, when it conveys to the
owner nothing but the realisation of a property on the soil; but
there is much more in it when it contains the memories of old years;
when the glory is the glory of race as well as the glory of power
and property. There had been Beltons of Belton living there for
many centuries, and now he was the Belton of the day, standing on
his own ground,--the descendant and representative of the Beltons
of old,--Belton of Belton without a flaw in his pedigree! He felt
himself to be proud of his position,--prouder than he could have been
of any other that might have been vouchsafed to him. And yet amidst
it all he was somewhat ashamed of his pride. "The man who can do it
for himself is the real man after all," he said. "But I have got
it by a fluke,--and by such a sad chance too!" Then he wandered on,
thinking of the circumstances under which the property had fallen
into his hands, and remembering how and when and where the first idea
had occurred to him of making Clara Amedroz his wife. He had then
felt that if he could only do that he could reconcile himself to the
heirship. And the idea had grown upon him instantly, and had become a
passion by the eagerness with which he had welcomed it. From that day
to this he had continued to tell himself that he could not enjoy his
good fortune unless he could enjoy it with her. There had come to be
a horrid impediment in his way,--a barrier which had seemed to have
been placed there by his evil fortune, to compensate the gifts given
to him by his good fortune, and that barrier had been Captain Aylmer.
He had not, in fact, seen much of his rival, but he had seen enough
to make it matter of wonder to him that Clara could be attached to
such a man. He had thoroughly despised Captain Aylmer, and had longed
to show his contempt of the man by kicking him out of the hotel at
the London railway station. At that moment all the world had seemed
to him to be wrong and wretched.

But now it seemed that all the world might so easily be made right
again! The impediment had got itself removed. Belton did not even yet
altogether comprehend by what means Clara had escaped from the meshes
of the Aylmer Park people, but he did know that she had escaped.
Her eyes had been opened before it was too late, and she was a free
woman,--to be compassed if only a man might compass her. While
she had been engaged to Captain Aylmer, Will had felt that she
was not assailable. Though he had not been quite able to restrain
himself,--as on that fatal occasion when he had taken her in his arms
and kissed her,--still he had known that as she was an engaged woman,
he could not, without insulting her, press his own suit upon her. But
now all that was over. Let him say what he liked on that head, she
would have no proper plea for anger. She was assailable;--and, as
this was so, why the mischief should he not set about the work at
once? His sister bade him to wait. Why should he wait when one
fortunate word might do it? Wait! He could not wait. How are you to
bid a starving man to wait when you put him down at a well-covered
board? Here was he, walking about Belton Park,--just where she used
to walk with him;--and there was she at Belton Cottage, within half
an hour of him at this moment, if he were to go quickly; and yet Mary
was telling him to wait! No; he would not wait. There could be no
reason for waiting. Wait, indeed, till some other Captain Aylmer
should come in the way and give him more trouble!

So he wandered on, resolving that he would see his cousin again
that very day. Such an interview as that which had just taken place
between two such dear friends was not natural,--was not to be
endured. What might not Clara think of it! To meet her for the first
time after her escape from Aylmer Park, and to speak to her only
on matters concerning money! He would certainly go to her again on
that afternoon. In his walking he came to the bottom of the rising
ground on the top of which stood the rock on which he and Clara had
twice sat. But he turned away, and would not go up to it. He hoped
that he might go up to it very soon,--but, except under certain
circumstances, he would never go up to it again.

"I am going across to the cottage immediately after dinner," he said
to his sister.

"Have you an appointment?"

"No; I have no appointment. I suppose a man doesn't want an
appointment to go and see his own cousin down in the country."

"I don't know what their habits are."

"I shan't ask to go in; but I want to see her."

Mary looked at him with loving, sorrowing eyes, but she said no more.
She loved him so well that she would have given her right hand to get
for him what he wanted;--but she sorrowed to think that he should
want such a thing so sorely. Immediately after his dinner, he took
his hat and went out without saying a word further, and made his way
once more across to the gate of the cottage. It was a lovely summer
evening, at that period of the year in which our summer evenings just
begin, when the air is sweeter and the flowers more fragrant, and the
forms of the foliage more lovely than at any other time. It was now
eight o'clock, but it was hardly as yet evening; none at least of the
gloom of evening had come, though the sun was low in the heavens. At
the cottage they were all sitting out on the lawn; and as Belton came
near he was seen by them, and he saw them.

"I told you so," said Mrs. Askerton, to Clara, in a whisper.

"He is not coming in," Clara answered. "He is going on."

But when he had come nearer, Colonel Askerton called to him over the
garden paling, and asked him to join them. He was now standing within
ten or fifteen yards of them, though the fence divided them. "I have
come to ask my cousin Clara to take a walk with me," he said. "She
can be back by your tea time." He made his request very placidly, and
did not in any way look like a lover.

"I am sure she will be glad to go," said Mrs. Askerton. But Clara
said nothing.

"Do take a turn with me, if you are not tired," said he.

"She has not been out all day, and cannot be tired," said Mrs.
Askerton, who had now walked up to the paling. "Clara, get your hat.
But, Mr. Belton, what have I done that I am to be treated in this
way? Perhaps you don't remember that you have not spoken to me since
your arrival."

"Upon my word, I beg your pardon," said he, endeavouring to stretch
his hand across the bushes. "I forgot I didn't see you this morning."

"I suppose I mustn't be angry, as this is your day of taking
possession; but it is exactly on such days as this that one likes to
be remembered."

"I didn't mean to forget you, Mrs. Askerton; I didn't, indeed. And
as for the special day, that's all bosh, you know. I haven't taken
particular possession of anything that I know of."

"I hope you will, Mr. Belton, before the day is over," said she.
Clara had at length arisen, and had gone into the house to fetch her
hat. She had not spoken a word, and even yet her cousin did not know
whether she was coming. "I hope you will take possession of a great
deal that is very valuable. Clara has gone to get her hat."

"Do you think she means to walk?"

"I think she does, Mr. Belton. And there she is at the door. Mind you
bring her back to tea."

Clara, as she came forth, felt herself quite unable to speak, or
walk, or look after her usual manner. She knew herself to be a
victim,--to be so far a victim that she could no longer control her
own fate. To Captain Aylmer, at any rate, she had never succumbed.
In all her dealings with him she had fought upon an equal footing.
She had never been compelled to own herself mastered. But now she
was being led out that she might confess her own submission, and
acknowledge that hitherto she had not known what was good for her.
She knew that she would have to yield. She must have known how happy
she was to have an opportunity of yielding; but yet,--yet, had there
been any room for choice, she thought she would have refrained from
walking with her cousin that evening. She had wept that afternoon
because she had thought that he would not come again; and now that
he had come at the first moment that was possible for him, she was
almost tempted to wish him once more away.

"I suppose you understand that when I came up this morning I came
merely to talk about business," said Belton, as soon as they were off
together.

"It was very good of you to come at all so soon after your arrival."

"I told those people in London that I would have it all settled at
once, and so I wanted to have it off my mind."

"I don't know what I ought to say to you. Of course I shall not want
so much money as that."

"We won't talk about the money any more to-day. I hate talking about
money."

"It is not the pleasantest subject in the world."

"No," said he; "no indeed. I hate it,--particularly between friends.
So you have come to grief with your friends, the Aylmers?"

"I hope I haven't come to grief,--and the Aylmers, as a family, never
were my friends. I'm obliged to contradict you, point by point,--you
see."

"I don't like Captain Aylmer at all," said Will, after a pause.

"So I saw Will; and I dare say he was not very fond of you."

"Fond of me! I didn't want him to be fond of me. I don't suppose he
ever thought much about me. I could not help thinking of him."--She
had nothing to say to this, and therefore walked on silently by his
side. "I suppose he has not any idea of coming back here again?"

"What; to Belton? No, I do not think he will come to Belton any
more."

"Nor will you go to Aylmer Park?"

"No; certainly not. Of all the places on earth, Will, to which you
could send me, Aylmer Park is the one to which I should go most
unwillingly."

"I don't want to send you there."

"You never could be made to understand what a woman she is; how
disagreeable, how cruel, how imperious, how insolent."

"Was she so bad as all that?"

"Indeed she was, Will. I can't but tell the truth to you."

"And he was nearly as bad as she."

"No, Will; no; do not say that of him."

"He was such a quarrelsome fellow. He flew at me just because I said
we had good hunting down in Norfolk."

"We need not talk about all that, Will."

"No;--of course not. It's all passed and gone, I suppose."

"Yes;--it is all passed and gone. You did not know my Aunt
Winterfield, or you would understand my first reason for liking him."

"No," said Will; "I never saw her."

Then they walked on together for a while without speaking, and Clara
was beginning to feel some relief,--some relief at first; but as
the relief came, there came back to her the dead, dull, feeling of
heaviness at her heart which had oppressed her after his visit in the
morning. She had been right, and Mrs. Askerton had been wrong. He had
returned to her simply as her cousin, and now he was walking with her
and talking to her in this strain, to teach her that it was so. But
of a sudden they came to a place where two paths diverged, and he
turned upon her and asked her quickly which path they should take.
"Look, Clara," he said, "will you go up there with me?" It did not
need that she should look, as she knew that the way indicated by him
led up among the rocks.

"I don't much care which way," she said, faintly.

"Do you not? But I do. I care very much. Don't you remember where
that path goes?" She had no answer to give to this. She remembered
well, and remembered how he had protested that he would never go to
the place again unless he could go there as her accepted lover. And
she had asked herself sundry questions as to that protestation. Could
it be that for her sake he would abstain from visiting the prettiest
spot on his estate,--that he would continue to regard the ground as
hallowed because of his memories of her? "Which way shall we go?" he
asked.

"I suppose it does not much signify," said she, trembling.

"But it does signify. It signifies very much to me. Will you go up to
the rocks?"

"I am afraid we shall be late, if we stay out long."

"What matters how late? Will you come?"

"I suppose so,--if you wish it, Will."

She had anticipated that the high rock was to be the altar at which
the victim was to be sacrificed; but now he would not wait till he
had taken her to the sacred spot. He had of course intended that he
would there renew his offer; but he had perceived that his offer had
been renewed, and had, in fact, been accepted, during this little
parley as to the pathway. There was hardly any necessity for further
words. So he must have thought; for, as quick as lightning, he flung
his arms around her, and kissed her again, as he had kissed her on
that other terrible occasion,--that occasion on which he had felt
that he might hardly hope for pardon.

"William, William," she said; "how can you serve me like that?" But
he had a full understanding as to his own privileges, and was well
aware that he was in the right now, as he had been before that he was
trespassing egregiously. "Why are you so rough with me?" she said.

"Clara, say that you love me."

"I will say nothing to you because you are so rough."

They were now walking up slowly towards the rocks. And as he had his
arm round her waist, he was contented for awhile to allow her to walk
without speaking. But when they were on the summit it was necessary
for him that he should have a word from her of positive assurance.
"Clara, say that you love me."

"Have I not always loved you, Will, since almost the first moment
that I saw you?"

"But that won't do. You know that is not fair. Come, Clara; I've had
a deal of trouble,--and grief too; haven't I? You should say a word
to make up for it;--that is, if you can say it."

"What can a word like that signify to you to-day? You have got
everything."

"Have I got you?" Still she paused. "I will have an answer. Have I
got you? Are you now my own?"

"I suppose so, Will. Don't now. I will not have it again. Does not
that satisfy you?"

"Tell me that you love me."

"You know that I love you."

"Better than anybody in the world?"

"Yes;--better than anybody in the world."

"And after all you will be--my wife?"

"Oh, Will,--how you question one!"

"You shall say it, and then it will all be fair and honest."

"Say what? I'm sure I thought I had said everything."

"Say that you mean to be my wife."

"I suppose so,--if you wish it."

"Wish it!" said he, getting up from his seat, and throwing his hat
into the bushes on one side; "wish it! I don't think you have ever
understood how I have wished it. Look here, Clara; I found when I got
down to Norfolk that I couldn't live without you. Upon my word it is
true. I don't suppose you'll believe me."

"I didn't think it could be so bad with you as that."

"No;--I don't suppose women ever do believe. And I wouldn't have
believed it of myself. I hated myself for it. By George, I did. That
is when I began to think it was all up with me."

"All up with you! Oh, Will!"

"I had quite made up my mind to go to New Zealand. I had, indeed. I
couldn't have kept my hands off that man if we had been living in the
same country. I should have wrung his neck."

"Will, how can you talk so wickedly?"

"There's no understanding it till you have felt it. But never mind.
It's all right now; isn't it, Clara?"

"If you think so."

"Think so! Oh, Clara, I am such a happy fellow. Do give me a kiss.
You have never given me one kiss yet."

"What nonsense! I didn't think you were such a baby."

"By George, but you shall;--or you shall never get home to tea
to-night. My own, own, own darling. Upon my word, Clara, when I begin
to think about it I shall be half mad."

"I think you are quite that already."

"No, I'm not;--but I shall be when I'm alone. What can I say to you,
Clara, to make you understand how much I love you? You remember the
song, 'For Bonnie Annie Laurie I'd lay me down and dee.' Of course
it is all nonsense talking of dying for a woman. What a man has to
do is to live for her. But that is my feeling. I'm ready to give you
my life. If there was anything to do for you, I'd do it if I could,
whatever it was. Do you understand me?"

"Dear Will! Dearest Will!"

"Am I dearest?"

"Are you not sure of it?"

"But I like you to tell me so. I like to feel that you are not
ashamed to own it. You ought to say it a few times to me, as I have
said it so very often to you."

"You'll hear enough of it before you've done with me."

"I shall never have heard enough of it. Oh, Heavens, only think, when
I was coming down in the train last night I was in such a bad way."

"And are you in a good way now?"

"Yes; in a very good way. I shall crow over Mary so when I get home."

"And what has poor Mary done?"

"Never mind."

"I dare say she knows what is good for you better than you know
yourself. I suppose she has told you that you might do a great deal
better than trouble yourself with a wife?"

"Never mind what she has told me. It is settled now;--is it not?"

"I hope so, Will."

"But not quite settled as yet. When shall it be? That is the next
question."

But to that question Clara positively refused to make any reply that
her lover would consider to be satisfactory. He continued to press
her till she was at last driven to remind him how very short a time
it was since her father had been among them; and then he was very
angry with himself, and declared himself to be a brute. "Anything but
that," she said. "You are the kindest and the best of men;--but at
the same time the most impatient."

"That's what Mary says; but what's the good of waiting? She wanted me
to wait to-day."

"And as you would not, you have fallen into a trap out of which you
can never escape. But pray let us go. What will they think of us?"

"I shouldn't wonder if they didn't think something near the truth."

"Whatever they think, we will go back. It is ever so much past nine."

"Before you stir, Clara, tell me one thing. Are you really happy?"

"Very happy."

"And are you glad that this has been done?"

"Very glad. Will that satisfy you?"

"And you do love me?"

"I do--I do--I do. Can I say more than that?"

"More than anybody else in the world?"

"Better than all the world put together."

"Then," said he, holding her tight in his arms, "show me that you
love me." And as he made his request he was quick to explain to her
what, according to his ideas, was the becoming mode by which lovers
might show their love. I wonder whether it ever occurred to Clara, as
she thought of it all before she went to bed that night, that Captain
Aylmer and William Belton were very different in their manners. And
if so, I must wonder further whether she most approved the manners of
the patient man or the man who was impatient.



CHAPTER XXXII.

CONCLUSION.


About two months after the scene described in the last chapter, when
the full summer had arrived, Clara received two letters from the two
lovers, the history of whose loves have just been told, and these
shall be submitted to the reader, as they will serve to explain the
manner in which the two men proposed to arrange their affairs. We
will first have Captain Aylmer's letter, which was the first read;
Clara kept the latter for the last, as children always keep their
sweetest morsels.


   Aylmer Park, August, 186--.

   MY DEAR MISS AMEDROZ,

   I heard before leaving London that you are engaged to
   marry your cousin Mr. William Belton, and I think that
   perhaps you may be satisfied to have a line from me to let
   you know that I quite approve of the marriage.

"I do not care very much for his approval or disapproval," said Clara
as she read this.

   No doubt it will be the best thing you can do, especially
   as it will heal all the sores arising from the entail.

"There never was any sore," said Clara.

   Pray give my compliments to Mr. Belton, and offer him
   my congratulations, and tell him that I wish him all
   happiness in the married state.

"Married fiddlestick!" said Clara. In this she was unreasonable;
but the euphonious platitudes of Captain Aylmer were so unlike the
vehement protestations of Mr. Belton that she must be excused if by
this time she had come to entertain something of an unreasonable
aversion for the former.

   I hope you will not receive my news with perfect
   indifference when I tell you that I also am going to be
   married. The lady is one whom I have known for a long
   time, and have always esteemed very highly. She is Lady
   Emily Tagmaggert, the youngest daughter of the Earl of
   Mull.

Why Clara should immediately have conceived a feeling of supreme
contempt for Lady Emily Tagmaggert, and assured herself that
her ladyship was a thin, dry, cross old maid with a red nose, I
cannot explain; but I do know that such were her thoughts, almost
instantaneously, in reference to Captain Aylmer's future bride.

   Lady Emily is a very intimate friend of my sister's; and
   you, who know how our family cling together, will feel how
   thankful I must be when I tell you that my mother quite
   approves of the engagement. I suppose we shall be married
   early in the spring. We shall probably spend some months
   every year at Perivale, and I hope that we may look
   forward to the pleasure of seeing you sometimes as a guest
   beneath our roof.

On reading this Clara shuddered, and made some inward protestation
which seemed to imply that she had no wish whatever to revisit the
dull streets of the little town with which she had been so well
acquainted. "I hope she'll be good to poor Mr. Possit," said Clara,
"and give him port wine on Sundays."

   I have one more thing that I ought to say. You will
   remember that I intended to pay my aunt's legacy
   immediately after her death, but that I was prevented
   by circumstances which I could not control. I have paid
   it now into Mr. Green's hands on your account, together
   with the sum of £59 18_s._ 3_d._, which is due upon it as
   interest at the rate of five per cent. I hope that this
   may be satisfactory.

"It is not satisfactory at all," said Clara, putting down the letter,
and resolving that Will Belton should be instructed to repay the
money instantly. It may, however, be explained here that in this
matter Clara was doomed to be disappointed; and that she was forced,
by Mr. Green's arguments, to receive the money. "Then it shall go to
the hospital at Perivale," she declared when those arguments were
used. As to that, Mr. Green was quite indifferent, but I do not think
that the legacy which troubled poor Aunt Winterfield so much on her
dying bed was ultimately applied to so worthy a purpose.

"And now, my dear Miss Amedroz," continued the letter,

   I will say farewell, with many assurances of my unaltered
   esteem, and with heartfelt wishes for your future
   happiness. Believe me to be always,

   Most faithfully and sincerely yours,

   FREDERIC F. AYLMER.


"Esteem!" said Clara, as she finished the letter. "I wonder which
he esteems the most, me or Lady Emily Tagmaggert. He will never get
beyond esteem with any one."

The letter which was last read was as follows:--


   Plaistow, August, 186--.

   DEAREST CLARA,

   I don't think I shall ever get done, and I am coming to
   hate farming. It is awful lonely here, too, and I pass all
   my evenings by myself, wondering why I should be doomed
   to this kind of thing, while you and Mary are comfortable
   together at Belton. We have begun with the wheat, and as
   soon as that is safe I shall cut and run. I shall leave
   the barley to Bunce. Bunce knows as much about it as I
   do,--and as for remaining here all the summer, it's out of
   the question.

   My own dear, darling love, of course I don't intend to
   urge you to do anything that you don't like; but upon my
   honour I don't see the force of what you say. You know I
   have as much respect for your father's memory as anybody,
   but what harm can it do to him that we should be married
   at once? Don't you think he would have wished it himself?
   It can be ever so quiet. So long as it's done, I don't
   care a straw how it's done. Indeed, for the matter of
   that, I always think it would be best just to walk to
   church and to walk home again without saying anything to
   anybody. I hate fuss and nonsense, and really I don't
   think anybody would have a right to say anything if we
   were to do it at once in that sort of way. I have had a
   bad time of it for the last twelvemonth. You must allow
   that, and I think that I ought to be rewarded.

   As for living, you shall have your choice. Indeed you
   shall live anywhere you please;--at Timbuctoo if you like
   it. I don't want to give up Plaistow, because my father
   and grandfather farmed the land themselves; but I am quite
   prepared not to live here. I don't think it would suit
   you, because it has so much of the farm-house about it.
   Only I should like you sometimes to come and look at the
   old place. What I should like would be to pull down the
   house at Belton and build another. But you mustn't propose
   to put it off till that's done, as I should never have the
   heart to do it. If you think that would suit you, I'll
   make up my mind to live at Belton for a constancy; and
   then I'd go in for a lot of cattle, and don't doubt I'd
   make a fortune. I'm almost sick of looking at the straight
   ridges in the big square fields every day of my life.

   Give my love to Mary. I hope she fights my battle for me.
   Pray think of all this, and relent if you can. I do so
   long to have an end of this purgatory. If there was any
   use, I wouldn't say a word; but there's no good in being
   tortured, when there is no use. God bless you, dearest
   love. I do love you so well!

   Yours most affectionately,

   W. BELTON.


She kissed the letter twice, pressed it to her bosom, and then sat
silent for half an hour thinking of it;--of it, and the man who wrote
it, and of the man who had written the other letter. She could not
but remember how that other man had thought to treat her, when it was
his intention and her intention that they two should join their lots
together;--how cold he had been; how full of caution and counsel; how
he had preached to her himself and threatened her with the preaching
of his mother; how manifestly he had purposed to make her life a
sacrifice to his life; how he had premeditated her incarceration at
Perivale, while he should be living a bachelor's life in London! Will
Belton's ideas of married life were very different. Only come to me
at once,--now, immediately, and everything else shall be disposed
just as you please. This was his offer. What he proposed to give,--or
rather his willingness to be thus generous, was very sweet to her;
but it was not half so sweet as his impatience in demanding his
reward. How she doted on him because he considered his present state
to be a purgatory! How could she refuse anything she could give to
one who desired her gifts so strongly?

As for her future residence, it would be a matter of indifference to
her where she should live, so long as she might live with him; but
for him,--she felt that but one spot in the world was fit for him.
He was Belton of Belton, and it would not be becoming that he should
live elsewhere. Of course she would go with him to Plaistow Hall as
often as he might wish it; but Belton Castle should be his permanent
resting-place. It would be her duty to be proud for him, and
therefore, for his sake, she would beg that their home might be in
Somersetshire.

"Mary," she said to her cousin soon afterwards, "Will sends his love
to you."

"And what else does he say?"

"I couldn't tell you everything. You shouldn't expect it."

"I don't expect it; but perhaps there may be something to be told."

"Nothing that I need tell,--specially. You, who know him so well, can
imagine what he would say."

"Dear Will! I am sure he would mean to write what was pleasant."

Then the matter would have dropped had Clara been so minded,--but
she, in truth, was anxious to be forced to talk about the letter.
She wished to be urged by Mary to do that which Will urged her to
do;--or, at least, to learn whether Mary thought that her brother's
wish might be gratified without impropriety. "Don't you think we
ought to live here?" she said.

"By all means,--if you both like it."

"He is so good,--so unselfish, that he will only ask me to do what
I like best."

"And which would you like best?"

"I think he ought to live here because it is the old family property.
I confess that the name goes for something with me. He says that he
would build a new house."

"Does he think he could have it ready by the time you are married?"

"Ah;--that is just the difficulty. Perhaps, after all, you had
better read his letter. I don't know why I should not show it to
you. It will only tell you what you know already,--that he is the
most generous fellow in all the world." Then Mary read the letter.
"What am I to say to him?" Clara asked. "It seems so hard to refuse
anything to one who is so true, and good, and generous."

"It is hard."

"But you see my poor, dear father's death has been so recent."

"I hardly know," said Mary, "how the world feels about such things."

"I think we ought to wait at least twelve months," said Clara, very
sadly.

"Poor Will! He will be broken-hearted a dozen times before that. But
then, when his happiness does come, he will be all the happier."
Clara, when she heard this, almost hated her cousin Mary,--not for
her own sake, but on Will's account. Will trusted so implicitly to
his sister, and yet she could not make a better fight for him than
this! It almost seemed that Mary was indifferent to her brother's
happiness. Had Will been her brother, Clara thought, and had any girl
asked her advice under similar circumstances, she was sure that she
would have answered in a different way. She would have told such girl
that her first duty was owing to the man who was to be her husband,
and would not have said a word to her about the feeling of the world.
After all, what did the feeling of the world signify to them, who
were going to be all the world to each other?

On that afternoon she went up to Mrs. Askerton's; and succeeded in
getting advice from her also, though she did not show Will's letter
to that lady. "Of course, I know what he says," said Mrs. Askerton.
"Unless I have mistaken the man, he wants to be married to-morrow."

"He is not so bad as that," said Clara.

"Then the next day, or the day after. Of course he is impatient, and
does not see any earthly reason why his impatience should not be
gratified."

"He is impatient."

"And I suppose you hesitate because of your father's death."

"It seems but the other day;--does it not?" said Clara.

"Everything seems but the other day to me. It was but the other day
that I myself was married."

"And, of course, though I would do anything I could that he would ask
me to do--"

"But would you do anything?"

"Anything that was not wrong I would. Why should I not, when he is so
good to me?"

"Then write to him, my dear, and tell him that it shall be as
he wishes it. Believe me, the days of Jacob are over. Men don't
understand waiting now, and it's always as well to catch your fish
when you can."

"You don't suppose I have any thought of that kind?"

"I am sure you have not;--and I'm sure that he deserves no such
thought;--but the higher that are his deserts, the greater should be
his reward. If I were you, I should think of nothing but him, and I
should do exactly as he would have me." Clara kissed her friend as
she parted from her, and again resolved that all that woman's sins
should be forgiven her. A woman who could give such excellent advice
deserved that every sin should be forgiven her. "They'll be married
yet before the summer is over," Mrs. Askerton said to her husband
that afternoon. "I believe a man may have anything he chooses to ask
for, if he'll only ask hard enough."

And they were married in the autumn, if not actually in the summer.
With what precise words Clara answered her lover's letter I will
not say; but her answer was of such a nature that he found himself
compelled to leave Plaistow, even before the wheat was garnered.
Great confidence was placed in Bunce on that occasion, and I have
reason to believe that it was not misplaced. They were married in
September;--yes, in September, although that letter of Will's was
written in August, and by the beginning of October they had returned
from their wedding trip to Plaistow. Clara insisted that she should
be taken to Plaistow, and was very anxious when there to learn all
the particulars of the farm. She put down in a little book how many
acres there were in each field, and what was the average produce of
the land. She made inquiry about four-crop rotation, and endeavoured,
with Bunce, to go into the great subject of stall-feeding. But Belton
did not give her as much encouragement as he might have done. "We'll
come here for the shooting next year," he said; "that is, if there is
nothing to prevent us."

"I hope there'll be nothing to prevent us."

"There might be, perhaps; but we'll always come if there is not. For
the rest of it, I'll leave it to Bunce, and just run over once or
twice in the year. It would not be a nice place for you to live at
long."

"I like it of all things. I am quite interested about the farm."

"You'd get very sick of it if you were here in the winter. The truth
is that if you farm well, you must farm ugly. The picturesque nooks
and corners have all to be turned inside out, and the hedgerows must
be abolished, because we want the sunshine. Now, down at Belton, just
about the house, we won't mind farming well, but will stick to the
picturesque."

The new house was immediately commenced at Belton, and was made
to proceed with all imaginable alacrity. It was supposed at one
time,--at least Belton himself said that he so supposed,--that the
building would be ready for occupation at the end of the first
summer; but this was not found to be possible. "We must put it off
till May, after all," said Belton, as he was walking round the
unfinished building with Colonel Askerton. "It's an awful bore, but
there's no getting people really to pull out in this country."

"I think they've pulled out pretty well. Of course you couldn't have
gone into a damp house for the winter."

"Other people can get a house built within twelve months. Look what
they do in London."

"And other people with their wives and children die in consequence of
colds and sore throats and other evils of that nature. I wouldn't go
into a new house, I know, till I was quite sure it was dry."

As Will at this time was hardly ten months married, he was not as
yet justified in thinking about his own wife and children; but he
had already found it expedient to make arrangements for the autumn,
which would prevent that annual visit to Plaistow which Clara had
contemplated, and which he had regarded with his characteristic
prudence as being subject to possible impediments. He was to be
absent himself for the first week in September, but was to return
immediately after that. This he did; and before the end of that
month he was justified in talking of his wife and family. "I suppose
it wouldn't have done to have been moving now,--under all the
circumstances," he said to his friend, Mrs. Askerton, as he still
grumbled about the unfinished house.

"I don't think it would have done at all, under all the
circumstances," said Mrs. Askerton.

But in the following spring or early summer they did get into the new
house;--and a very nice house it was, as will, I think, be believed
by those who have known Mr. William Belton. And when they were well
settled, at which time little Will Belton was some seven or eight
months old,--little Will, for whom great bonfires had been lit, as
though his birth in those parts was a matter not to be regarded
lightly; for was he not the first Belton of Belton who had been born
there for more than a century?--when that time came visitors appeared
at the new Belton Castle, visitors of importance, who were entitled
to, and who received, great consideration. These were no less than
Captain Aylmer, member for Perivale, and his newly-married bride,
Lady Emily Aylmer, _née_ Tagmaggert. They were then just married,
and had come down to Belton Castle immediately after their honeymoon
trip. How it had come to pass that such friendship had sprung up,--or
rather how it had been revived,--it would be bootless here to say.
But old alliances, such as that which had existed between the Aylmer
and the Amedroz families, do not allow themselves to die out easily,
and it is well for us all that they should be long-lived. So Captain
Aylmer brought his bride to Belton Park, and a small fatted calf was
killed, and the Askertons came to dinner,--on which occasion Captain
Aylmer behaved very well, though we may imagine that he must have had
some misgivings on the score of his young wife. The Askertons came
to dinner, and the old rector, and the squire from a neighbouring
parish, and everything was very handsome and very dull. Captain
Aylmer was much pleased with his visit, and declared to Lady Emily
that marriage had greatly improved Mr. William Belton. Now Will had
been very dull the whole evening, and very unlike the fiery, violent,
unreasonable man whom Captain Aylmer remembered to have met at the
station hotel of the Great Northern Railway.

"I was as sure of it as possible," Clara said to her husband that
night.

"Sure of what, my dear?"

"That she would have a red nose."

"Who has got a red nose?"

"Don't be stupid, Will. Who should have it but Lady Emily?"

"Upon my word I didn't observe it."

"You never observe anything, Will; do you? But don't you think she is
very plain?"

"Upon my word I don't know. She isn't as handsome as some people."

"Don't be a fool, Will. How old do you suppose her to be?"

"How old? Let me see. Thirty, perhaps."

"If she's not over forty, I'll consent to change noses with her."

"No;--we won't do that; not if I know it."

"I cannot conceive why any man should marry such a woman as that. Not
but what she's a very good woman, I dare say; only what can a man get
by it? To be sure there's the title, if that's worth anything."

But Will Belton was never good for much conversation at this hour,
and was too fast asleep to make any rejoinder to the last remark.





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