Clara began to doubt whether any possible arrangement of the circumstances of her life could be regarded as fortunate. She was very fond, in a different degree and after a different fashion, of both Captain Aylmer and Mr Belton. As regarded both, her position was now exactly what she herself would have wished. The man that she loved was betrothed to her, and the other man, whom she loved indeed also as a brother, was coming to her in that guise with the understanding that that was to be his position. And yet everything was going wrong! Her father, though he did not actually say anything against Captain Aylmer, showed by a hundred little signs, of which he was a skilful master, that the Aylmer alliance was distasteful to him, and that he thought himself to be aggrieved in that his daughter would not marry her cousin; whereas, over at the cottage, there was a still more bitter feeling against Mr Belton a feeling so bitter, that it almost induced Clara to wish that her cousin was not coming to them.
But the cousin did come, and was driven up to the door in the gig from Taunton, just as had been the case on his previous visit. Then, however, he had come in the full daylight, and the hay-carts had been about, and all the prettiness and warmth of summer had been there; now it was mid-winter, and there had been some slight beginnings of snow, and the wind was moaning about the old tower, and the outside of the house looked very unpleasant from the hall-door. As it had become dusk in the afternoon, the old squire had been very careful in his orders as to preparations for Will’s comfort as though Clara would have forgotten all those things in the preoccupation of her mind, caused by the constancy of her thoughts towards Will’s rival. He even went so far as to creep across the upstairs landing-place to see that the fire was lighted in Will’s room, this being the first time that he had left his chamber for many days and bad given special orders as to the food which was to be prepared for Will’s dinner in a very different spirit from that which bad dictated some former orders when Will was about to make his first visit, and when his coming had been regarded by the old man as a heartless, indelicate, and almost hostile proceeding.
‘I wish I could go down to receive him,’ said Mr Amedroz, plaintively. ‘I hope he won’t take it amiss.’
‘You may be sure he won’t do that.’
‘Perhaps I can tomorrow.’
‘Dear papa, you had better not think of it till the weather is milder.’
‘Milder! how is it to get milder at this time of the year?’
‘Of course he’ll come up to you, papa.’
‘He’s very good. I know he’s very good. No one also would do as much.’
Clara understood accurately what all this meant. Of course she was glad that her father should feel so kindly towards her cousin, and think so much of his coming; but every word said by the old man in praise of Will Belton implied an equal amount of dispraise as regarded Captain Aylmer, and contained a reproach against his daughter for having refused the former and accepted the latter.
Clara was in the ball when Belton arrived, and received him as he entered, enveloped in his damp great-coats. ‘It is so good of you to come in such weather,’ she said.
‘Nice seasonable weather, I call it,’ he said. It was the same comfortable, hearty, satisfactory voice which had done so much towards making his way for him on his first arrival at Belton Castle The voices to which Clara was most accustomed were querulous as though the world had been found by the owners of them to be but a bad place. But Belton’s voice seemed to speak of cheery days and happy friends, and a general state of things which made life worth having. Nevertheless, forty-eight hours had not yet passed over his head since he was walking about London in such misery that he had almost cursed the hour in which be was born. His misery still remained with him, as black now as it had been then; and yet his voice was cheery. The sick birds, we are told, creep into holes, that they may die alone and unnoticed; and the wounded beasts hide themselves that their grief may not be seen of their fellows. A man has the same instinct to conceal the weakness of his sufferings; but, if he be a man, he hides it in his own heart, keeping it for solitude and the watches of the night, while to the outer world he carries a face on which his care has made no marks.
‘You will be sorry to hear that papa is too ill to come downstairs.’
‘Is he, indeed? I am truly sorry. I had beard he was ill; but did not know he was so ill as that.’
‘Perhaps he fancies himself weaker than he is.’
‘We must try and cure him of that. I can see him, I hope?’
‘Oh dear, yes. He is most anxious for you to go to him. As soon as ever you can come upstairs I will take you.’ He had already stripped himself of his wrappings, and declaring himself ready, at once followed Clara to the squire’s room.
‘I’m sorry, sir, to find you in this way,’ he said.
‘I’m very poorly, Will very,’ said the squire, putting out his hand as though he were barely able to lift it above his knee. Now it certainly was the fact that half an hour before he had been walking across the passage.
‘We must see if we can’t soon make you better among us,’ said Will.
The squire shook his head with a slow, melancholy movement, not raising his eyes from the ground. ‘I don’t think you’ll ever see me much better, Will,’ he said. And yet half an hour since he had been talking of being down in the dining-room on the next day. ‘I shan’t trouble you much longer,’ said the squire. ‘You’ll soon have it all without paying rent for it.’
This was very unpleasant, and almost frustrated Belton’s attempts to be cheery. But he persevered nevertheless. ‘It’ll be a long time yet before that day comes, sir.’
‘Ah; that’s easily said. But never mind. Why should I want to remain when I shall have once seen her properly settled. I’ve nothing to live for except that she may have a home.’
On this subject it was quite impossible that Belton should say anything. Clara was standing by him, and she, as he knew, was engaged to Captain Aylmer. So circumstanced, what could he say as to Clara’s settlement in life? That something should be said between him and the old man, and something also between him and Clara, was a matter of course; but it was quite out of the question that he should discuss Clara’s prospects in life in presence of them both together.
‘Papa’s illness makes him a little melancholy,’ said Clara.
‘Of course of course. It always does,’ said Will.
‘I think he will be better when the weather becomes milder,’ said Clara.
‘I suppose I may be allowed to know how I feel myself,’ said the squire. ‘But don’t keep Will up here when he wants his dinner. There; that’ll do. You’d better leave me now.’ Then Will went out to his old room, and a quarter of an hour afterwards he found himself seated with Clara at the dinner — table; and a quarter of an hour after that the dinner was over, and they had both drawn their chairs to the fire.
Neither of them knew how to begin with the other. Clara was under no obligation to declare her engagement to her cousin, but yet she felt that it would be unhandsome in her not to do so. Had Will never made the mistake of wanting to marry her himself, she would have done so as a matter of course. Had she supposed him to cherish any intention of renewing that mistake she would have felt herself bound to tell him so that he might save himself from unnecessary pain. But she gave him credit for no such intention, and yet she could not but remember that scene among the rocks. And then was she, or was she not, to say anything to him about the Askertons? With him also the difficulty was as great. He did not in truth believe that the tidings which he had heard from his friend the lawyer required corroboration; but yet it was necessary that he should know from herself that she had disposed of her hand and it was necessary also that he should say some word to her as to their future standing and friendship.
‘You must be very anxious to see how your farm goes on,’ said she.
He had not thought much of his agricultural venture at Belton for the last three or four days, and would hardly have been vexed had he been told that every head of cattle about the place had died of the murrain. Some general idea of the expediency of going on with a thing which he had commenced still actuated him; but it was the principle involved, and not the speculation itself, which interested him. But he could not explain all this, and he therefore was driven to some cold agreement with her. ‘The farm! you mean the stock. Yes; I shall go and have a look at them early tomorrow. I suppose they’re all alive.’
‘Pudge says that they are doing uncommonly well.’ Pudge was a leading man among the Belton labourers, whom Will had hired to look after his concerns.
‘That’s all right. I dare say Pudge knows quite as much about it as I do.’
‘But the master’s eye is everything.’
‘Pudge’s eye is quite as good as mine; and probably much better, as he knows the country.’
‘You used to say that it was everything for a man to look after his own interests.’
‘And I do look after them. Pudge and I will go and have a look at every beast tomorrow, and I shall look very wise and pretend to know more about it than he does. In stock-farming the chief thing is not to have too many beasts. They used to say that half-stocking was whole profit, and. whole — stocking was half profit. If the animals have plenty to eat, and the rent isn’t too high, they’ll take care of. their owner.’
‘But then there is so much illness.’
‘I always insure.’
Clara perceived that the subject of the cattle didn’t suit the present occasion. When he had before been at Belton. he had liked nothing so much as talking about the cattle-sheds, and the land, and the kind of animals which would suit the place; but now the novelty of the thing was gone and the farmer did not wish to talk of his farm. In her anxiety to find a topic which would not be painful, she went from the cattle to the cow. ‘You can’t think what a pet Bess has been with us. And she seems to think that she is privileged to go everywhere, and do anything.’
‘I hope they have taken care that she has had winter food.’
‘Winter food! Why Pudge, and all the Pudges, and all the family in the house, and all your cattle would have to want, before Bessy would be allowed to miss a meal. Pudge always says, with his sententious shake of the head, that the young squire was very particular about Bessy.’
‘Those Alderneys want a little care that’s all.’
Bessy was. of no better service to Clara in her present difficulty than the less aristocratic herd of common cattle. There was a pause for a moment, and then she began again. ‘How did you leave your sister, Will?’
‘Much the same as usual. I think she has borne the first of the cold weather better than she did last year.’
‘I do so wish that I knew her.’
‘Perhaps you will some day. But I don’t suppose that you ever will.’
‘It’s not likely that you’ll ever come to Plaistow now and Mary never leaves it except to go to my uncle’s.’
Clara instantly knew that he had heard of her engagement, though she could not imagine from what source he had heard it. There was something in the tone of his voice something especially in the expression of that word ‘now’, which told her that it must be so. ‘I should be so glad to go there if I could,’ she said, with that special hypocrisy which belongs to women, and is allowed to them; ‘but, of course, I cannot leave papa in his present state.’
‘And if you did leave him you would not go to Plaistow.’
‘Not unless you and Mary asked me.’
‘And you wouldn’t if we did. How could you?’
‘What do you mean, Will? It seems as though you were almost savage to me.’
‘Am I? Well I feel savage, but not to you.’
‘Nor to any one, I hope, belonging to me.’ She knew that it was all coming; that the whole subject of her future life must now be discussed; and she began to fear that the discussion might not be easy. But she did not know how to give it a direction. She feared that he would become angry, and yet she knew not why. He had accepted his own rejection tranquilly, and could hardly take it as an offence that she should now be engaged to Captain Aylmer.
‘Mr Green has told me’, said he, ‘that you are going to be married.’
‘How could Mr Green have known?’
‘He did know at least I suppose he knew, for he told me.’
‘How very odd.’
‘I suppose it is true?’ Clara did not make any immediate answer, and then he repeated the question. ‘I suppose it is true?’
‘It is true that I am engaged.’
‘To Captain Aylmer?’
‘Yes; to Captain Aylmer. You know that I had known him very long. I hope that you are not angry with me because I did not write and tell you. Strange as it may seem, seeing that you had heard it already, it is not a week yet since it was settled; and had I written to you, I could only have addressed my letter to you here.’
‘I wasn’t thinking about that. I didn’t specially want you to write to me. What difference would it make?’
‘But I should have felt that I owed it to your kindness and your regard for me.’
‘My regard! What’s the use of regard?’
‘You are not going to quarrel with me, Will, because because because . If you had really been my brother, as you once said you would be, you could not but have approved of what I have done.’
‘But I am not your brother.’
‘Oh, Will; that sounds so cruel!’
‘I am not your brother, and I have no right to approve or disapprove.’
‘I will not say that I could make my engagement with Captain Aylmer dependent on your approval. It would not be fair to him to do so, and it would put me into a false position.’
‘ Have I asked you to make any such absurd sacrifice?’
‘Listen to me, Will. I say that I could not do that. But, short of that, there is nothing I would not do to satisfy you. I think so much of your judgment and goodness, and so very much of your affection; I love you so dearly, that Oh, Will, say a kind word to me!’
‘A kind word; yes, but what sort of kindness?
‘You must know that Captain Aylmer’
‘Don’t talk to me of Captain Aylmer. Have I said anything against him? Have I ventured to make any objection? Of course, I know his superiority to myself. I know that he is a man of the world, and that I am not; that he is educated, and that I am ignorant; that he has a position, and that I have none; that he has much to offer, and that I have nothing. Of course, I see the difference; but that does not make me comfortable.’
‘Will, I had learned to love him before I had ever seen you.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me so, that I might have known there was no hope, and have gone away utterly out of the kingdom? If it was all settled then, why didn’t you tell me, and save me from breaking my heart with false hopes?’
‘Nothing was settled then. I hardly knew my own mind; but yet I loved him. There; cannot you understand it? Have I not told you enough?’
‘Yes, I understand it.’
‘And do you blame me?’
He paused awhile before he answered her. ‘No; I do not blame you. I suppose I must blame no one but myself. But you should bear with me. I was so happy, and now I am so wretched.’
There was nothing that she could say to comfort him. She had altogether mistaken the nature of the man’s regard, and had even mistaken the very nature of the man. So much she now learned, and could tell herself that had she known him better she would either have prevented this second visit, or would have been careful that he should have learned the truth from herself before he came. Now she could only wait till he should again have got strength to hide his suffering under the veil of his own manliness.
‘I have not a word to say against what you are doing,’ he said at last; ‘not a word. But you will understand what I mean when I tell you that it is not likely that you will come to Plaistow.’
‘Some day, Will, when you have a wife of your own’
‘Very well; but we won’t talk about that at present, if you please. When I have, things will be different. In the meantime your course and mine will be separate. You, I suppose, will be with him in London, while I shall be at the devil as likely as not.’
‘How can you speak to me in that way? Is that like being my brother?’
‘I don’t feel like being your brother. However, I beg your pardon, and now we will have done with it. Spilt milk can’t be helped, and my milk pans have got themselves knocked over. That’s all. Don’t you think we ought to go up to your father again?’
On the following day Belton and Mr Amedroz discussed the same subject, but the conversation went off very quietly. Will was determined not to exhibit his weakness before the father as he had done before the daughter. When the squire, with a maundering voice, drawled out some expression of regret that his daughter’s choice had not fallen in another place, Will was able to say that bygones must he bygones. He regretted it also, but that was now over. And when the squire endeavoured to say a few ill-natured words about Captain Aylmer, Will stopped him at once by asserting that the captain was all that he ought to be.
‘And it would have made me so happy to think that my daughter’s child should come to live in his grandfather’s old house,’ murmured Mr Amedroz.
‘And there’s no knowing that he mayn’t do so yet,’ said Will. ‘But all these things are so doubtful that a man is wrong to fix his happiness upon them.’ After that he went out to ramble about, the place, and before the third day was over Clara was able to perceive that, in spite of what he had said, he was as busy about the cattle as though his bread depended on them.
Nothing had been said as yet about the Askertons, and Clara had resolved that their name should not first be mentioned by her. Mrs Askerton had prophesied that Will would have some communication to make about herself, and Clara would at any rate see whether her cousin would, of his own accord, introduce the subject. But three days passed by, and he had made no allusion to the cottage or its inhabitants. This in itself was singular, as the Askertons were the only local friends whom Clara knew, and as Belton had become personally acquainted with Mrs Askerton. But such was the case; and when Mr Amedroz once said something about Mrs Askerton in the presence of both Clara and Belton, they both of them shrank from the subject in a manner that made Clara understand that any conversation about the Askertons was to be avoided. On the fourth day Clara saw Mrs Askerton, but then Will Belton’s name was not mentioned. There was therefore, among them all, a sense of some mystery which made them uncomfortable, and which seemed to admit of no solution. Clara was more sure than ever that her cousin had made no inquiries that he should not have made, and that he would put no information that he might have to an improper use. But of such certainty on her part she could say nothing.
Three weeks passed by, and it seemed as though Belton’s visit were to come to an end without any further open trouble. Now and then something was said about. Captain Aylmer; but it was very little, and Belton made no further reference to his own feelings. It had come to be understood that his visit was to be limited to a month; and to both him and Clara the month wore itself away slowly, neither of them having much pleasure in the society of the other. The old squire came downstairs once for an hour or two, and spent the whole time in bitter complaints. Everything was wrong, and everybody was ill-treating him. Even with Will he quarrelled, or did his best to quarrel, in regard to everything about the place, though at the same time he did not cease to grumble at his visitor for going away and leaving him. Belton bore it all so well that the grumbling and quarrelling did not lead to much; but it required all his good-humour and broad common sense to prevent serious troubles and misunderstanding.
During the period of her cousin’s visit at Belton, Clara received two letters from Captain Aylmer, who was spending the Christmas holidays with his father and mother, and on the day previous to that of her cousin’s departure there came a third. In neither of these letters was there much said about Sir Anthony, but they were all very full of Lady Aylmer. In the first he wrote with something of the personal enthusiasm of a lover and therefore Clara hardly felt the little drawbacks to her happiness which were contained in certain innuendoes respecting Lady Aylmer’s ideas, and Lady Aylmer’s hopes, and Lady Aylmer’s fears. Clara was not going to marry Lady Aylmer, and did not fear but that she could hold her own against any mother-inlaw in the world when once they should be brought face to face. And as long as Captain Aylmer seemed to take her part rather than that of his mother it was all very well. The second letter was more trying to her temper, as it contained one or two small morsels of advice as to conduct which had evidently originated with her ladyship. Now there is nothing, I take it, so irritating to an engaged young lady as counsel from her intended husband’s mamma. An engaged young lady, if she be really in love, will take almost anything from her lover as long as she is sure that it comes altogether from himself. He may take what liberties he pleases with her dress. He may prescribe high church or low church if he be not, as is generally the case, in a condition to accept, rather than to give, prescriptions on that subject. He may order almost any course of reading providing that he supply the books. And he may even interfere with the style of dancing, and recommend or prohibit partners. But he may not thrust his mother down his future wife’s throat. In answer to the second letter, Clara did not say much to show her sense of objection. Indeed she said nothing. But in saying nothing she showed her objection, and Captain Aylmer understood it. Then came the third letter, and as it contained matter touching upon our story, it shall be given entire and I hope it may be taken by gentlemen about to marry as a fair specimen of the sort of letter they ought not to write to the girls of their hearts:
19th January, 186 .
‘Dearest Clara I got your letter of the 16th yesterday, and was sorry you said nothing in reference to my mother’s ideas as to the house at Perivale. Of course she knew that I heard from you, and was disappointed when, I was obliged to tell her, that you had not alluded to the subject. She is very anxious about you, and, having now given her assent to our marriage, is of course desirous of knowing that her kindly feeling is reciprocated. I assured her that my own Clara was the last person to be remiss in such a matter, and reminded her that young ladies are seldom very careful in their mode of answering letters. Remember, therefore, that I am now your guarantee, and send some message to relieve me from my liability.
When I told her of your father’s long illness, which she laments greatly, and of your cousin’s continued presence at Belton Castle, she seemed to think that Mr Belton’s visit should not be prolonged. When I told her that he was your nearest relative, she remarked that cousins are the same as any other people which indeed they are. I know that my Clara Will not suppose that I mean more by this than the words convey. Indeed I mean less. But not having the advantage of a mother of your own, you will not be sorry to know what are my mother’s opinions on matters which so nearly concern you.
And now I come to another subject, as to which what I shall say will surprise you very much. You know, I think, that my aunt Winterfield and I had some conversation about your neighbours, the Askertons; and you will remember that my aunt, whose ideas on such matters were always correct, was a little afraid that your father had not made sufficient inquiry respecting them before he allowed them to settle near him as tenants. It now turns out that she is very far, indeed, from what she ought to be. My mother at first thought of writing to you about this; but she is a little fatigued, and at last resolved that under all the circumstances it might be as well that I should tell you. It seems that Mrs Askerton was married before to a certain Captain Berdmore, and that she left her first husband during his lifetime under the protection of Colonel Askerton. I believe they, the Colonel and Mrs Askerton, have been since married. Captain Berdmore died about four years ago in India, and it is probable that such a marriage has taken place. But under these circumstances, as Lady Aylmer says, you will at once perceive that all acquaintance between you and the lady should be brought to an end. Indeed, your own sense of what is becoming to you, either as an unmarried girl or as my future wife, or indeed as a woman at all, will at once make you feel that this must be so. I think, if I were you, I would tell the whole to Mr Amedroz; but this I will leave to your own discretion. I can assure you that Lady Aylmer has full proof as to the truth of what I tell you.
I go up to London in February. I suppose I may hardly hope to see you before the recess in July or August; but I trust that before that we shall have fixed the day when you will make me the happiest of men.
Yours, with truest affection,
F. F. AYLMER.’
It was a disagreeable, nasty letter from the first line to the last. There was not a word in it which did not grate against Clara’s feelings not a thought expressed which did not give rise to fears as to her future happiness. But the information which it contained about the Askertons ‘the communication,’ as Mrs Askerton herself would have called it made her for the moment almost forget Lady Aylmer and her insolence. Could this story be true? And if true, how far would it be imperative on her to take the hint,, or rather obey the order, which had been given her? What steps should she take to learn the truth? Then she remembered Mrs Askerton’s promise ‘If you want to ask any questions, and will ask them of me, I will answer them.’ The communication, as to which Mrs Askerton had prophesied, had now been made but it had been made not by Will Belton, whom Mrs Askerton had reviled, but by Captain Aylmer, whose praises Mrs Askerton had so loudly sung. As Clara thought of this, she could not analyse her own feelings, which were not devoid of a certain triumph. She had known that Belton would not put on his armour to attack a woman. Captain Aylmer had done so, and she was hardly surprised at his doing it. Yet Captain Aylmer was the man she loved! Captain Aylmer was the man she had promised to marry. But, in truth, she hardly knew which was the man she loved!
This letter came on a Sunday morning, and on that day she and Belton went to church together. On the following morning early he was to start for Taunton. At church they saw Mrs Askerton, whose attendance there was not very frequent. It seemed, indeed, as though she had come with the express purpose of seeing Belton once during his visit. As they left the church she bowed to him, and that was all they saw of each other throughout the month that he remained in Somersetshire.
‘Come to me tomorrow Clara,’ Mrs Askerton said as they all passed through the village together. Clara muttered some reply, having not as yet made up her mind as to what her conduct must be. Early on the next morning Will Belton went away, and again Clara got up to give him his breakfast. On this occasion he had no thought of kissing her. He went away without having had a word said to him about Mrs Askerton, and then Clara settled herself down to the work of deliberation. What should she do with reference to the communication that had been made to her by Captain Aylmer?
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55