Chapter 10




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 void 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 hops 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 be 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 ha 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 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 today. I could hardly bring myself to do it today.'

'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 farmyard. '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 in 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 bad 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 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.




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