Clara Amedroz had made one great mistake about her cousin, Will Belton, when she came to the conclusion that she might accept his proffered friendship without any apprehension that the friend would become a lover; and she made another, equally great, when she convinced herself that his love had been as short-lived as it had been eager. Throughout his journey back to Plaistow, he bad thought of nothing else but his love, and had resolved to persevere, telling himself sometimes that he might perhaps be successful, and feeling sure at other times that he would encounter renewed sorrow and permanent disappointment but equally resolved in either mood that he would persevere. Not to persevere in pursuit of any desired object let the object be what it might was, to his thinking, unmanly, weak, and destructive of self-respect. He would sometimes say of himself, joking with other men, that if he did not succeed in this or that thing, he could never speak to himself again. To no man did he talk of his love in such a strain as this; but there was a woman to whom he spoke of it; and though he could not joke on such a matter, the purport of what he said showed the same feeling. To be finally rejected, and to put up with such rejection, would make him almost contemptible in his own eyes.
This woman was his sister, Mary Belton. Something has been already said of this lady, which the reader may perhaps remember. She was a year or two older than her brother, with whom she always lived, but she had none of those properties of youth which belonged to him in such abundance. She was, indeed, a poor cripple, unable to walk beyond the limits of her own garden, feeble in health, dwarfed in stature, robbed of all the ordinary enjoyments of life by physical deficiencies, which made even the task of living a burden to her. To eat was a pain, or at best a trouble. Sleep would not comfort her in bed, and weariness during the day made it necessary that the hours passed in bed should be very long. She was one of those whose lot in life drives us to marvel at the inequalities of human destiny, and to inquire curiously within ourselves whether future compensation is to be given.
It is said of those who are small and crooked-backed in their bodies, that their minds are equally cross-grained and their tempers as ungainly as their stature. But no one had ever said this of Mary Belton. Her friends, indeed, were very few in number; but those who knew her well loved her as they knew her, and there were three or four persons in the world who were ready at all times to swear that she was faultless. It was the great happiness of her life that among those three or four her own brother was the foremost. Will Belton’s love for his sister amounted almost to veneration, and his devotion to her was so great, that in all the affairs of his life he was prepared to make her comfort one of his first considerations. And she, knowing this, had come to fear that she might be an embargo on his prosperity, and a stumbling-block in the way of his success. It had occurred to her that he would have married earlier in life if she had not been, as it were, in his way; and she had threatened him playfully for she could be playful that he would leave him if he did not soon bring a mistress to Plaistow Hall. ‘I will go to uncle Robert,’ she had said. Now uncle Robert was the clergyman in Lincolnshire of whom mention has been made, and he was among those two or three who believed in Mary Belton with an implicit faith as was also his wife. ‘ I will go to uncle Robert, Will, and then you will be driven to get a wife.’
‘If my sister ever leaves my house, whether there be a wife in it or not,’ Will had answered, ‘I will never put trust in any woman again.’
Plaistow Manor-house or Hall was a fine brick mansion, built in the latter days of Tudor house architecture, with many gables and countless high chimneys very picturesque to the eye, but not in all respects comfortable as are the modern houses of the well-to-do squirearchy of England. And, indeed, it was subject to certain objectionable characteristics which in some degree justified the scorn which Mr Amedroz intended to throw upon it when he declared it to be a farm-house. The gardens belonging to it were large and excellent; but they did not surround it, and allowed the farm appurtenances to come close up to it on two sides. The door which should have been the front door, opening from the largest room in the house, which had been the hall and which was now the kitchen, led directly into the farm-yard. From the farther end of this farm-yard a magnificent avenue of elms stretched across the home pasture down to a hedge which crossed it at the bottom. That there had been a road through the rows of trees or, in other words, that there had in truth been an avenue to the house on that side was, of course, certain. But now there was no vestige of such road, and the front entrance to Plaistow Hall was by a little path across the garden from a modern road which had been made to run cruelly near to the house. Such was Plaistow Hall, and such was its mistress. Of the master, the reader, I hope, already knows so much as to need no further description.
As Belton drove himself home from the railway station late on that August night, he made up his mind that he would tell his sister all his story about Clara Amedroz. She had ever wished that he should marry, and now he had made his attempt. Little as had been her opportunity of learning the ways of men and women from experience in society, she had always seemed to him to know exactly what every one should do in every position of life. And she would be tender with him, giving him comfort even if she could not give him hope. Moreover Mary might be trusted with his secret; for Belton felt, as men always do feel, a great repugnance to have it supposed that his suit to a woman had been rejected. Women, when they have loved in vain, often almost wish that their misfortune should be known. They love to talk about their wounds mystically telling their own tales under feigned names, and extracting something of a bitter sweetness out of the sadness of their own romance. But a man, when he has been rejected rejected with a finality that is acknowledged by himself is unwilling to speak or hear a word upon the subject, and would willingly wash the episode out from his heart if it were possible.
But not on that his first night would he begin to speak of Clara Amedroz. He would not let his sister believe that his heart was too full of the subject to allow of his thinking of other matters. Mary was still up, waiting for him when he arrived, with tea, and cream, and fruit ready for him. ‘Oh, Mary!’ he said, ‘why are you not in bed? You know that I would have come to you upstairs.’ She excused herself, smiling, declaring that she could not deny herself the pleasure of being with him for half an hour on his first return from his travels. ‘Of course I want to know what they are like,’ she said.
‘He is a nice-looking old man,’ said Will ‘and she is a nice-looking young woman.’
‘That is graphic and short, at any rate.’
‘And he is weak and silly, but she is strong and and and’
‘Not silly also, I hope?’
‘Anything but that. I should say she is very clever.’
‘I’m afraid you don’t like her, Will.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘And did she take your coming well?’
‘Very well. I think she is much obliged to me for going.’
‘And Mr Amedroz?’
‘He liked my coming too very much.’
‘What after that cold letter?
‘Yes, indeed. I shall explain it all by degrees. I have taken a lease of all the land, and I’m to go back at Christmas; and as to the old gentleman he’d have me live there altogether if I would.’
‘Is it not odd? I’m so glad I didn’t make up my mind not to go when I got that letter. And yet I don’t know.’ These last words he added slowly, and in a low voice, and Mary at once knew that everything was not quite as it ought to be.
‘Is there anything wrong, Will?’
‘No, nothing wrong; that is to say, there is nothing to make me regret that I went. I think I did some good to them.’
‘It was to do good to them that you went there.’
‘They wanted to have some one near them who could be to them as one of their own family. He is too old too much worn out to be capable of managing things; and the people there were, of course, robbing him. I think I have put a stop to that.’
‘And you are to go again at Christmas?’
‘Yes; they can do without me at my uncle’s, and you will be there. I have taken the land, and already bought some of the stock for it, and am going to buy more.’
‘I hope you won’t lose money, Will.’
‘No not ultimately, that is. I shall get the place in good condition, and I shall have paid myself when he goes, in that way, if in no other. Besides, what’s a little money? I owe it to them for robbing her of her inheritance.’
‘You do not rob her, Will.’
‘It is hard upon her, though.’
‘Does she feel it hard?’
‘Whatever may be her feelings on such a matter, she is a woman much too proud to show them.’
‘I wish I knew whether you liked her or not.’
‘I do like her I love her better than any one in the world; better even than you, Mary; for I have asked her to be my wife.’
‘And she has refused me. Now you know the whole of it the whole history of what I have done while I have been away.’ And he stood up before her, with his thumbs thrust into the arm-holes of his waistcoat, with something serious and almost solemn in his gait, in spite of a smile which played about his mouth.
‘I meant to have told you, of course, Mary to have told you everything; but I did not mean to tell it to-night; only it has somehow fallen from me. Out of the full heart the mouth speaks, they say.’
‘I never can like her if she refuses your love.’
‘Why not? That is unlike you, Mary. Why should she be bound to love me because I love her?’
‘Is there any one else, Will?’
‘How can I tell? I did not ask her. I would not have asked her for the world, though I would have given the world to know.’
‘And she is so very beautiful?’
‘Beautiful! It isn’t that so much though she is beautiful. But but I can’t tell you why but she is the only girl that I ever saw who would suit me for a wife. Oh, dear!’
‘My own Will!’
‘But I’m not going to keep you up all night, Mary. And I’ll tell you something else; I’m not going to break my heart for love. Arid I’ll tell you something else again; I’m not going to give it up yet. I believe I’ve been a fool. Indeed, I know I’ve been a fool. I went about it just as if I were buying a horse, and had told the seller that that was my price he might take it or leave it. What right had I to suppose that any girl was to be had in that way; much less such a girl as Clara Amedroz?’
‘It would have been a great match for her.’
‘I’m not so sure of that, Mary. Her education has been different from mine, and it may well be that she should marry above me. But I swear I will not speak another word to you to-night. Tomorrow, if you’re well enough, I’ll talk to you all day.’ Soon after that he did get her to go up to her room, though, of course, he broke that oath of his as to not speaking another word. After that he walked out by moonlight round the house, wandering about the garden and farm-yard, and down through the avenue, having in his own mind some pretence of the watchfulness of ownership, but thinking little of his property and much of his love. Here was a thing that he desired with all his heart, but it seemed to be out of his reach absolutely out of his reach. He was sick and weary with a feeling of longing sick with that covetousness wherewith Ahab coveted the vineyard of Naboth. What was the world to him if he could not have this thing on which he had set his heart? He had told his sister that he would not break his heart; and so much, he did not doubt, would be true. A man or woman with a broken heart was in his estimation a man or woman who should die of love; and he did not look for such a fate as that. But he experienced the palpable misery of a craving emptiness within his breast, and did believe of himself that he never could again be in comfort unless he could succeed with Clara Amedroz. He stood leaning against one of the trees, striking his hands together, and angry with himself at the weakness which had reduced him to such a state. What could any man be worth who was so little master of himself as he had now become?
After awhile he made his way back through the farm-yard, and in at the kitchen door, which he locked and bolted; and then, throwing himself down into a wooden armchair which always stood there, in the corner of the huge hearth, he took a short pipe from the mantelpiece, filled it with tobacco, and lighting it almost unconsciously, began to smoke with vehemence.
Plaistow Hall was already odious to him, and he longed to be back at Belton, which he had left only that morning. Yes, on that very morning she had brought to him his coffee, looking sweetly into his face so sweetly as she ministered to him. And he might then well have said one word more in pleading his suit, if he had not been too awkward to know what that word should be. And was it not his own awkwardness that had brought him to this state of misery? What right had he to suppose that any girl should fall in love with such a one as he at first sight without a moment’s notice to her own heart? And then, when he had her there, almost in his arms, why had he let her go without kissing her? It seemed to him now that if he might have once kissed her, even that would have been a comfort to him in his present affliction. ‘D tion!’ he said at last, as he jumped to his feet and kicked the chair on one side, and threw the pipe among the ashes. I trust it will be understood that he addressed himself, and not his lady-love, in this uncivil way ‘D tion!’ Then when the chair had been well kicked out of his way, he took himself up to bed. I wonder whether Clara’s heart would have been hardened or softened towards him had she heard the oath, and understood all the thoughts and motives which had produced it.
On the next morning poor Mary Belton was too ill to come down-stairs; and as her brother spent his whole day out upon the farm, remaining among reapers and wheat stacks till nine o’clock in the evening, nothing was said about Clara on that day. Then there came a Sunday, and it was a matter of course that the subject of which they both were thinking should be discussed. Will went to church, and, as was their custom on Sundays, they dined immediately on his return. Then, as the afternoon was very warm, he took her out to a favourite seat she had in the garden, and it became impossible that they could longer abstain.
‘And you really mean to go again at Christmas?’ she asked.
‘Certainly I shall I promised.’
‘Then I am sure you will.’
‘And I must go from time to time because of the land I have taken. Indeed there seems to be an understanding that I am to manage the property for Mr Amedroz.’
‘And does she wish you to go?’
‘Yes she says so.’
‘Girls, I believe, think sometimes that men are indifferent in their love. They suppose that a man can forget it at once when he is not accepted, and that things can go on just as before.’
‘I suppose she thinks so of me,’ said Belton wofully.
‘She must either think that, or else be willing to give herself the chance of learning to like you better.’
‘There’s nothing of that, I’m sure. She’s as true as steel.’
‘But she would hardly want you to go there unless she thought you might overcome either your love or her indifference. She would not wish you to be there that you might be miserable.’
‘Before I had asked her to be my wife I had promised to be her brother. And so I will, if she should ever want a brother. I am not going to desert her because she will not do what I want her to do, or be what I want her to be. She understands that. There is to be no quarrel between us.’
‘But she would be heartless if she were to encourage you to be with her simply for the assistance you may give her, knowing at the same time that you could not be happy in her presence.’
‘She is not heartless.’
‘Then she must suppose that you are.’
‘I dare say she doesn’t think that I care much about it. When I told her, I did it all of a heap, you see; and I fancy she thought I was just mad at the time.’
‘And did you speak about it again?’
‘No; not a word. I shouldn’t wonder if she hadn’t forgotten it before I went away.’
‘That would be impossible.’
‘You wouldn’t say so if you knew how it was done. It was all over in half an hour; and she had given me such an answer that I thought I had no right to say anything more about it. The morning when I left her she did seem to be kinder.’
‘I wish I knew whether she cares for any one else.’
‘Ah! I so often think of that. But I couldn’t ask her, you know. I had no right to pry into her secrets. When I came away, she got up to see me off; and I almost felt tempted to carry her into the gig and drive her off.’
‘I don’t think that would have done, Will.’
‘I don’t suppose anything will do. We all know what happens to the child who cries for the top brick of the chimney. The child has to do without it. The child goes to bed and forgets it; but I go to bed and can’t forget it.’
‘My poor Will!’
Then he got up and shook himself, and stalked about the garden always keeping within a few yards of his sister’s chair and carried on a strong battle within his breast, struggling to get the better of the weakness which his love produced, though resolved that the love itself should be maintained.
‘I wish it wasn’t Sunday,’ he said at last, ‘because then I could go and do something. If I thought that no one would see me, I’d fill a dung-cart or two, even though it is Sunday. I’ll tell you what I’ll go and take a walk as far as Denvir Sluice; and I’ll be hack to tea. You won’t mind?’
‘Denvir Sluice is eight miles off.’
‘Exactly I’ll be there and back in something over three hours.’
‘But, Will there’s a broiling sun.’
‘It will do me good. Anything that will take something out of me is what I want. I know I ought to stay and read to you; but I couldn’t do it. I’ve got the fidgets inside, if you know what that means. To have the big hay-rick on fire, or something of that sort, is what would do me most good.’
Then he started, and did walk to Denvir Sluice and back in three hours. The road from Plaistow Hall to Denvir Sluice was not in itself interesting. It ran through a perfectly flat country, without a tree. For the greater part of the way it was constructed on the top of a great bank by the side of a broad dike, and for five miles its course was straight as a line. A country walk less picturesque could hardly be found in England. The road, too, was very dusty, and the sun was hot above Belton’s head as he walked. But nevertheless, he persevered, going on till he struck his stick against the waterfall which was called Denvir Sluice, and then returned not once slackening his pace, and doing the whole distance at a rate somewhat above five miles an hour. They used to say in the nursery that cold pudding is good to settle a man’s love; but the receipt which Belton tried was a walk of sixteen miles, along a dusty road, after dinner, in the middle of an August day.
I think it did him some good. When he got back he took a long draught of home-brewed beer, and then went upstairs to dress himself.
‘What a state you are in,’ Mary said to him when he showed himself for a moment in the sitting. room.
‘I did it from milestone to milestone in eleven minutes, backwards and forwards, all along the five — mile reach.’
Then Mary knew from his answer that the exercise had been of service to him, perceiving that he had been able to take an interest in his own prowess as a walker.
‘I only hope you won’t have a fever,’ she said.
‘The people who stand still are they who get fevers,’ he answered. ‘Hard work never does harm to any one. If John Bowden would walk his five miles an hour on a Sunday afternoon he wouldn’t have the gout so often.’
John Bowden was a neighbour in the next parish, and Mary was delighted to find that her brother could take a pride in his performance.
By degrees Miss Belton began to know with some accuracy the way in which Will had managed his affairs at Belton Castle, and was enabled to give him salutary advice.
‘You see, Will,’ she said, ‘ladies are different from men in this, that they cannot allow themselves to be in love so suddenly.’
‘I don’t see how a person is to help it. It isn’t like jumping into a river, which a person can do or not, just as he pleases.’
‘But I fancy it is something like jumping into a river, and that a person can help it. What the person can’t help is being in when the plunge has once been made.’
‘No, by George! There’s no getting out of that river.’
‘And ladies don’t take the plunge till they’ve had time to think what may come after it. Perhaps you were a little too sudden with our Cousin Clara?’
‘Of course I was. Of course I was a fool, and a brute too.’
‘I know you were not a brute, and I don’t think you were a fool; but yet you were too sudden. You see a lady cannot always make up her mind to love a man, merely because she is asked all in a moment. She should have a little time to think about it before she is called upon for an answer.’
‘And I didn’t give her two minutes.’
‘You never do give two minutes to anyone do you, Will? But you’ll be back there at Christmas, and then she will have had time to turn it over in her mind.’
‘And you think that I may have a chance?’
‘Certainly you may have a chance.’
‘Although she was so sure about it?’
‘She spoke of her own mind and her own heart as she knew them then. But it depends chiefly on this, Will whether there is any one else. For anything we know, she may be engaged now.’
‘Of course she may.’ Then Belton speculated on the extreme probability of such a contingency; arguing within his own heart that of course every unmarried man who might see Clara would want to marry her, and that there could not but be some one whom even she would be able to love.
When he had been home about a fortnight, there came a letter to him from Clara, which was a great treasure to him. In truth, it simply told him of the completion of the cattle-shed, of her father’s health, and of the milk which the little cow gave; but she signed herself his affectionate cousin, and the letter was very gratifying to him. There were two lines of a postscript, which could not but flatter him: ‘Papa is so anxious for Christmas, that you may be here again and so, indeed, am I also.’ Of course it will be understood that this was written before Clara’s visit to Perivale, and before Mrs Winterfield’s death. Indeed, much happened in Clara’s history between the writing of that letter and Will Belton’s winter visit to the Castle.
But Christmas came at last, all too slowly for Will and he started on his journey. On this occasion he arranged to stay a week in London, having a lawyer there whom he desired to see; and thinking, perhaps, that a short time spent among the theatres might assist him in his love troubles.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55