Chapter 12




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 recognized 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, Frederick,' 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 recognized it as a fact that he was no longer bound to her as her future husband. Indeed, he had no power of not recognizing 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 bad 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 be would be sure to do, his lamentation as to her future poverty?

On arriving at the house she learned that he was upstairs 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 the 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 grounds 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 checks. 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.




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