Chapter 6




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 upstairs, 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. Fm 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 are you 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 tenderness 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 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 in 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 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 maybe 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 hail 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 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 God speed 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 had 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. 'Goodbye,' 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 hut 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.




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