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ONCE MORE BACK TO BELTON
When the carriage was driven away, Sir Anthony and Captain Aylmer were left standing alone at the ball 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 upstairs. 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 upstairs; 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 a 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 groper 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.'
'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 band, 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 him. self 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 Briton, 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,
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 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.
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