Aylmer Park and the great house of the Aylmers together formed an important and, as regarded in some minds, an imposing country residence. The park was large, including some three or four hundred acres, and was peopled, rather thinly, by aristocratic deer. It was surrounded by an aristocratic paling, and was entered, at three different points, by aristocratic lodges. The sheep were more numerous than the deer, because Sir Anthony, though he had a large income, was not in very easy circumstances. The ground was quite flat; and though there were thin belts of trees, and some ornamental timber here and there, it was not well wooded. It had no special beauty of its own, and depended for its imposing qualities chiefly on its size, on its three sets of double lodges, and on its old established character as an important family place in the county. The house was of stone, with a portico of Ionic columns which looked as though it hardly belonged of right to the edifice, and stretched itself out grandly, with two pretentious wings, which certainly gave it a just claim to be called a mansion. It required a great many servants to keep it in order, and the numerous servants required an experienced duenna, almost as grand in appearance as Lady Aylmer herself, to keep them in order. There was an open carriage and a close carriage, and a butler, and two footmen, and three gamekeepers, and four gardeners, and there was a coachman, and there were grooms, and sundry inferior men and boys about the place to do the work which the gardeners and game-keepers and grooms did not choose to do themselves. And they all became fat, and lazy, and stupid, and respectable together; so that, as the reader will at once perceive, Aylmer Park was kept up in the proper English style. Sir Anthony very often discussed with his steward the propriety of lessening the expenditure of his residence, and Lady Aylmer always attended and probably directed these discussions; but it was found that nothing could be done. Any attempt to remove a gamekeeper or a gardener would evidently throw the whole machinery of Aylmer Park out of gear. If retrenchment was necessary Aylmer Park must be abandoned, and the glory of the Aylmers must be allowed to pale. But things were not so had as that with Sir Anthony. The gardeners, grooms, and gamekeepers were maintained; ten domestic servants sat down to four heavy meals in the servants’ hall every day, and Lady Aylmer contented herself with receiving little or no company, and with stingy breakfasts and bad dinners for herself and her husband and daughter. By all this it must be seen that she did her duty as the wife of an English country gentleman, and properly maintained his rank as a baronet.
He was a heavy man, over seventy years of age, much afflicted with gout, and given to no pursuit on earth which was available for his comfort. He had been a hunting man, and he had shot also; but not with that energy which induces a sportsman to carry on those amusements in opposition to the impediments of age. He had been, and still was, a county magistrate; but he had never been very successful in the justice-room, and now seldom troubled the county with his judicial incompetence. He had been fond of good dinners and good wine, and still, on occasions, would make attempts at enjoyment in that line; but the gout and Lady Aylmer together were too many for him, and he had but small opportunity for filling up the blanks of his existence out of the kitchen or cellar. He was a big man, with a broad chest, and a red face, and a quantity of white hair and was much given to abusing his servants. He took some pleasure in standing, with two sticks, on the top of the steps before his own front door, and railing at any one who came in his way. But he could not do this when Lady Aylmer was by; and his dependents, knowing his habits, had fallen into an ill-natured way of deserting the side of the house which he frequented. With his eldest son, Anthony Aylmer, he was not on very good terms; and though there was no positive quarrel, the heir did not often come to Aylmer Park. Of his son Frederic he was proud and the best days of his life were probably those which Captain Aylmer spent at the house. The table was then somewhat more generously spread, and this was an excuse for having up the special port in which he delighted. Altogether his life was not very attractive; and though he bad been born to a baronetcy, and eight thousand a-year, and the possession of Aylmer Park, I do not think that he was, or had been, a happy man.
Lady Aylmer was more fortunate. She had occupations of which her husband knew nothing, and for which he was altogether unfit. Though she could not succeed in making retrenchments, the could and did succeed in keeping the household books. Sir Anthony could only blow up the servants when they were thoughtless enough to come in his way, and in doing that was restricted by his wife’s presence. But Lady Aylmer could get at them day and night. She had no gout to impede her progress about the house and grounds, and could make her way to places which the master never saw; and then she wrote many letters daily, whereas Sir Anthony hardly ever took a pen in his hand. And she knew the cottages of all the poor about the place, and knew also all their sins of omission and commission. She was driven out, too, every day, summer and winter, wet and dry, and consumed enormous packets of wool and worsted, which were sent to her monthly from York. And she had a companion in her daughter, whereas Sir Anthony had no companion. Wherever Lady Aylmer went, Miss Aylmer went with her, and relieved what might otherwise have been the tedium of her life. She had been a beauty on a large scale, and was still aware that she had much in her personal appearance which justified pride. She carried herself uprightly, with a commanding nose and broad forehead; and though the graces of her own hair had given way to a front, there was something even in the front which added to her dignity, if it did not make her a handsome woman.
Miss Aylmer, who was the eldest of the younger generation, and who was now gently descending from her fortieth year, lacked the strength of her mother’s character, but admired her mother’s ways, and followed Lady Aylmer in all things at a distance. She was very good as indeed was Lady Aylmer entertaining a high idea of duty, and aware that her own life admitted of but little self — indulgence. She had no pleasures, she incurred no expenses; and was quite alive to the fact that as Aylmer Park required a regiment of lazy, gormandizing servants to maintain its position in the county, the Aylmers themselves should not be lazy, and should not gormandize. No one was more careful with her few shillings than Miss Aylmer. She had, indeed, abandoned a life’s correspondence with an old friend because she would not pay the postage on letters to Italy. She knew that it was for the honour of the family that one of her brothers should sit in Parliament, and was quite willing to deny herself a new dress because sacrifices must be made to lessen electioneering expenses. She knew that it was her lot to be driven about slowly in a carriage with a livery servant before her and another behind her, and then eat a dinner which the cook-maid would despise. She was aware that it was her duty to be snubbed by her mother, and to encounter her father’s ill-temper, and to submit to her brother’s indifference, and to have, so to say, the slightest possible modicum of personal individuality. She knew that she had never attracted a man’s love, and might hardly hope to make friends for the comfort of her coming age. But still she was contented, and felt that she had consolation for it all in the fact that she was am. Aylmer. She read many novels, and it cannot but be supposed that something of regret would steal over her as she remembered that nothing of the romance of life had ever, or could ever, come in her way. She wept over the loves of many women, though she had never been happy or unhappy in her own. She read of gaiety, though she never encountered it, and must have known that the world elsewhere was less dull than it was at Aylmer Park. But she took her life as it came, without a complaint, and prayed that God would make her humble in the high position to which it had pleased Him to call her. She hated Radicals, and thought that Essays and Reviews, and Bishop Colenso, came direct from the Evil One. She taught the little children in the parish, being specially urgent to them always to courtesy when they saw any of the family and was as ignorant, meek, and stupid a poor woman as you shall find anywhere in Europe.
It may be imagined that Captain Aylmer, who knew the comforts of his club and was accustomed to life in London, would feel the dullness of the paternal roof to be almost unendurable. In truth, he was not very fond of Aylmer Park, but he was more gifted with patience than most men of his age and position, and was aware that it behoved him to keep the Fifth Commandment if he expected to have his own days prolonged in the land. He therefore made his visits periodically, and contented himself with clipping a few days at both ends from the length prescribed by family tradition, which his mother was desirous of exacting. September was always to be passed at Aylmer Park, because of the shooting. In September, indeed, the eldest son himself was wont to be there probably with a friend or two and the fat old servants bestirred themselves, and there was something of life about the place. At Christmas, Captain Aylmer was there as the only visitor, and Christmas was supposed to extend from the middle of December to the opening of Parliament. It must, however, be explained, that on the present occasion his visit had been a matter of treaty and compromise. He had not gone to Aylmer Park at all till his mother had in some sort assented to his marriage with Clara Amedroz. To this Lady Aylmer had been very averse, and there had been many serious letters. Belinda Aylmer, the daughter of the house, had had a bad time in pleading her brother’s cause and some very harsh words had been uttered but ultimately the matter had been arranged, and, as is usual in such contests, the mother had yielded to the son. Captain Aylmer had therefore gone down a few days before Christmas, with a righteous feeling that he owed much to his mother for her condescension, and almost prepared to make himself very disagreeable to Clara by way of atoning to his family for his folly in desiring to marry her.
Lady Aylmer was very plain-spoken on the subject of all Clara’s shortcomings very plain-spoken, and very inquisitive. ‘She will never have one shilling, I suppose?’ she said.
‘Yes, ma’am.’ Captain Aylmer always called his mother ‘ma’am’. ‘She will have that fifteen hundred pounds that I told you of.’
‘That is to say, you will have back the money which you yourself have given her, Fred. I suppose that is the English of it?’ Then Lady Aylmer raised her eyebrows and looked very wise.
‘Just so, ma’am.’
‘You can’t call that having anything of her own. In point of fact she is penniless.’
‘It is no good harping on that,’ said Captain Aylmer, somewhat sharply.
‘Not in the least, my dear; no good at all. Of course you have looked it all in the face. You will be a poor man instead of a rich man, but you will have enough to live on that is if she doesn’t have a large family which of course she will.’
‘I shall do very well, ma’am.’
‘You might do pretty well, I dare say, if you could live privately at Perivale, keeping up the old family house there, and having no expenses; but you’ll find even that close enough with your seat in Parliament, and the necessity there is that you should be half the year in London. Of course she won’t go to London. She can’t expect it. All that had better be made quite clear at once.’ Hence had come the letter about the house at Perivale, containing Lady Aylmer’s advice on that subject, as to which Clara made no reply.
Lady Aylmer, though she had given her assent, was still not altogether without hope. It might be possible that the two young people could be brought to see the folly and error of their ways before it would be too late; and that Lady Aylmer, by a judicious course of constant advice, might be instrumental in opening the eyes, if not of,the lady, at any rate of the gentleman. She had great reliance on her own powers, and knew well that a falling drop will hollow a stone. Her son manifested no hot eagerness to complete his folly in a hurry, and to cut the throat of his prospects out of hand. Time, therefore, would be allowed to her, and she was a woman who could use time with patience. Having, through her son, dispatched her advice about the house at Perivale which which simply amounted to this, that Clara should expressly state her willingness to live there alone whenever it might suit her husband to be in London or elsewhere she went to work on other points, connected with the Amedroz family, and eventually succeeded in learning something very much like the truth as to poor Mrs Askerton and her troubles. At first she was so comfortably horror-stricken by the iniquity she had unravelled so delightfully shocked and astounded as to believe that the facts as they then stood would suffice to annul the match.
‘You don’t tell me’, she said to Belinda, ‘that Frederic’s wife will have been the friend of such a woman as that!’ And Lady Aylmer, sitting upstairs with her household books before her, put up her great fat hands and her great fat arms, and shook her head front and all in most satisfactory dismay.
‘But I suppose Clara did not know it.’ Belinda had considered it to be an act of charity to call Miss Amedroz Clara since the family consent had been given.
‘Didn’t know it! They have been living in that sort of way that they must have been confidantes in everything. Besides, I always hold that a woman is responsible for her female friends.’
‘I think if she consents to drop her at once that is, absolutely to make a promise that she will never speak to her again Frederic ought to take that as sufficient. That is, of course, mamma, unless she has had anything to do with it herself.’
‘After this I don’t know how I’m to trust her. I don’t indeed. It seems to me that she has been so artful throughout. It has been a regular case of catching.’
‘I suppose, of course, that she has been anxious to marry Frederic but perhaps that was natural.’
‘Anxious look at her going there just when he had to meet his constituents. How young women can do such things passes me! And how it is that men don’t see it all, when it’s going on just under their noses, I can’t understand. And then, her getting my poor dear sister to speak to him when she was dying! I didn’t think your aunt would have been so weak.’ It will be thus seen that there was entire confidence on this subject between Lady Aylmer and her daughter.
We know what were the steps taken with reference to the discovery, and how the family were waiting for Clara’s reply. Lady Aylmer, though in her words she attributed so much mean cunning to Miss Amedroz, still was disposed to believe that that lady would show rather a high spirit on this occasion; and trusted to that high spirit as the means for making the breach which she still hoped to accomplish. It had been intended or rather desired that Captain Aylmer’s letter should have been much sharper and authoritative than he had really made it; but the mother could not write the letter herself, and had felt that to write in her own name would not have served to create anger on Clara’s part against her betrothed. But she had quite succeeded in inspiring her son with a feeling of horror against the iniquity of the Askertons. He was prepared to be indignantly moral; and perhaps perhaps the misguided Clara might be silly enough to say a word for her lost friend! Such being the present position of affairs, there was certainly ground for hope.
And now they were all waiting for Clara’s answer. Lady Aylmer had well calculated the course of post, and knew that a letter might reach them by Wednesday morning. ‘Of course she will not write on Sunday,’ she had said to her son, ‘but you have a right to expect that not another day should go by.’ Captain Aylmer, who felt that they were putting Clara on her trial, shook his head impatiently, and made no immediate answer. Lady Aylmer, triumphantly feeling that she had the culprit on the hip, did not care to notice this. She was doing the best she could for his happiness as she had done for his health, when in days gone by she had administered to him his infantine rhubarb and early senna; but as she had never then expected him to like her doses, neither did she now expect that he should be well pleased at the remedial measures to which he was to be subjected.
No letter came on the Wednesday, nor did any come on the Thursday, and then it was thought by the ladies at the Park that the time had come for speaking a word or two. Belinda, at her mother’s instance, began the attack not in her mother’s presence, but when she only was with her brother.
‘Isn’t it odd, Frederic, that Clara shouldn’t write about those people at Belton?’
‘Somersetshire is the other side of London, and letters take a long time.’
‘But if she had written on Monday, her answer would have been here on Wednesday morning indeed, you would have had it Tuesday evening, as mamma sent over to Whitby for the day mail letters.’ Poor Belinda was a bad lieutenant, and displayed too much of her senior officer’s tactics in thus showing how much calculation and how much solicitude there had been as to the expected letter.
‘If I am contented I suppose you may be,’ said the brother.
‘But it does seem to me to be so very important! If she hasn’t got your letter, you know, it would be so necessary that you should write again, so that the the the contamination should be stopped as soon as possible.’ Captain Aylmer shook his head and walked away. He was, no doubt, prepared to be morally indignant morally very indignant at the Askerton iniquity; but he did not like the word contamination as applied to his future wife.
‘Frederic,’ said his mother, later on the same day when the hardly-used groom had returned from his futile afternoon’s inquiry at the neighbouring post. town ‘I think you should do something in this affair.’
‘Do what, ma’am? Go off to Belton myself?’
‘No, no. I certainly would not do that. In the first place it would be very inconvenient to you, and in the next place it would not be fair upon us. I did not mean that at all. But I think that something should be done. She should be made to understand.’
‘You may be sure, ma’am, that she understands as well as anybody.’
‘I dare say she is clever enough at these kind of things.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘Don’t bite my nose off, Frederic, because I am anxious about your wife.’
‘What is it that you wish me to do? I have written to her, and can only wait for her answer.’
‘It may be that she feels a delicacy in writing to you on such a subject; though I own However, to make a long story short, if you like, I will write to her myself.’
‘I don’t see that that would do any good. It would only give her offence.’
‘Give her offence, Frederic, to receive a letter from her future mother-inlaw from me! Only think, Frederic, what you are saying.’
‘If she thought she was being bullied about this, she would turn rusty at once.’
‘Turn rusty! What am I to think of a young lady who is prepared to turn rusty at once, too because she is cautioned by the mother of the man she professes to love against an improper acquaintance against an acquaintance so very improper?’ Lady Aylmer’s eloquence should have been heard to be appreciated. It is but tame to say that she raised her fat arms and fat hands, and wagged her front her front that was the more formidable as it was the old one, somewhat rough and dishevelled, which she was wont to wear in the morning. The emphasis of her words should have been heard, and the fitting solemnity of her action should have been seen. ‘If there were any doubt,’ she continued to say, ‘but there is no doubt. There are the damning proofs.’ There are certain words usually confined to the vocabularies of men, which women such as Lady Aylmer delight to use on special occasions, when strong circumstances demand strong language. As she said this she put her hand below the table, pressing it apparently against her own august person; but she was in truth indicating the position of a certain valuable correspondence, which was locked up in the drawer of her writing-table.
‘You can write if you like it, of course; but I think you ought to wait a few more days.’
‘Very well, Frederic; then I will wait. I will wait till Sunday. I do not wish to take any step of which you do not approve. If you have not heard by Sunday morning, then I will write to her on Monday.’
On the Saturday afternoon life was becoming inexpressibly disagreeable to Captain Aylmer, and he began to meditate an escape from the Park. In spite of the agreement between him and his mother, which he understood to signify that nothing more was to be said as to Clara’s wickedness, at any rate till Sunday after post-hour, Lady Aylmer had twice attacked him on the Saturday, and had expressed her opinion that affairs were in a very frightful position. Belinda went about the house in melancholy guise, with her eyes rarely lifted off the ground, as though she were prophetically weeping the utter ruin of her brother’s respectability. And even Sir Anthony had raised his eyes and shaken his head, when, on opening the post-bag at the breakfast-table an operation which was always performed by Lady Aylmer in person her ladyship had exclaimed, ‘again no letter!’ Then Captain Aylmer thought that he would fly, and resolved that, in the event of such flight, he would give special orders as to the re-direction of his own letters from the post-office at Whitby.
That evening, after dinner, as soon as his mother and sister had left the room, he began the subject with his father. ‘I think I shall go up to town on Monday, sir,’ said he.
‘So soon as that. I thought you were to stop till the 9th.’
‘There are things I must see to in London, and I believe I had better go at once.’
‘Your mother will be greatly disappointed.’
‘I shall be sorry for that but business is business, you know.’ Then the father filled his glass and passed the bottle. He himself did not at all like the idea of his son’s going before the appointed time, but he did not say a word of himself. He looked at the red-hot coals, and a hazy glimmer of a thought passed through his mind, that he too would escape from Aylmer Park if it were possible.
‘If you’ll allow me, I’ll take the dog-cart over to Whitby on Monday, for the express train.’
‘You can do that certainly, but’
‘Have you spoken to your mother yet?’
‘Not yet. I will to-night.’
‘I think she’ll be a little angry, Fred.’ There was a sudden tone of subdued confidence in the old man’s voice as he made this suggestion, which, though it was by no means a customary tone, his son well understood. ‘Don’t you think she will be eh, a little?’
‘She shouldn’t go on as she does with me about Clara,’ said the captain.
‘Ah I supposed there was something of that. Are you drinking port?
‘Of course I know that she means all that is good,’ said the son, passing back the bottle.
‘Oh yes she means all that is good.’
‘She is the best mother in the world.’
‘You may say that, Fred and the best wife.’
‘But if she can’t have her own way altogether ‘ then the son paused, and the father shook his head.
‘Of course she likes to have her own way,’ said Sir Anthony.
‘It’s all very well in some things.’
‘Yes it’s very well in some things’
‘But there are things which a man must decide for himself.’
‘I suppose there are,’ said Sir Anthony, not venturing to think what those things might be as regarded himself.
‘Now, with reference to marrying’
‘I don’t know what you want with marrying at all, Fred. You ought to be very happy as you are. By heavens, I don’t know any one who ought to be happier. If I were you, I know’
‘But you see, sir, that’s all settled.’
‘If it’s all settled, I suppose there’s an end of it.’
‘It’s no good my mother nagging at one.’
‘My dear boy, she’s been nagging at me, as you call it, for forty years. That’s her way. The best woman in the world, as we were saying but that’s her way. And it’s the way with most of them. They can do anything if they keep it up anything. The best thing is to bear it if you’ve got it to bear. But why on earth you should go and marry, seeing that you’re not the eldest son, and that you’ve got everything on earth that you want as a bachelor, I can’t understand. I can’t indeed, Fred. By heaven, I can’t!’ Then Sir Anthony gave a long sigh, and sat musing awhile, thinking of the club in London to which he belonged, but which he never entered of the old days in which he had been master of a bedroom near St. James’s Street of his old friends whom he never saw now, and of whom he never heard, except as one and another, year after year, shuffled away from their wives to that world in which there is no marrying or giving in marriage. Ah, well,’ he said, ‘I suppose we may as well go into the drawing-room. If it is settled, I suppose it is settled. But it really seems to me that your mother is trying to do the best she can for you. It really does.’
Captain Aylmer did not say anything to his mother that night as to his going, but as he thought of his prospects in the solitude of his bedroom, he felt really grateful to his father for the solicitude which Sir Anthony had displayed on his behalf. It was not often that he received paternal counsel, but now that it had come he acknowledged its value. That Clara Amedroz was a self-willed woman he thought that he was aware. She was self-reliant, at any rate and by no means ready to succumb with that pretty feminine docility which he would like to have seen her evince. He certainly would not wish to be ‘nagged’ by his wife Indeed he knew himself well enough to assure himself that he would not stand it for a day. In his own house he would be master, and if there came tempests he would rule them. He could at least promise himself that. As his mother had been strong, so had his father been weak. But he had as he felt thankful in knowing inherited his mother’s strength rather than his father’s weakness. But, for all that, why have a tempest to rule at all? Even though a man do rule his domestic tempests, he cannot have a very quiet house with them. Then again he remembered how very easily Clara had been won. He wished to be just to all men and women, and to Clara among the number. He desired even to be generous to her with a moderate generosity. But above all things he desired not to be duped. What if Clara had in truth instigated her aunt to that deathbed scene, as his mother had more than once suggested! He did not believe it. He was sure that it had not been so. But what if it were so? His desire to be generous and trusting was moderate but his desire not to be cheated, not to be deceived, was immoderate. Upon the whole might it not be well for him to wait a little longer, and ascertain how Clara really intended to behave herself in this emergency of the Askertons? Perhaps, after all, his mother might be right.
On the Sunday the expected letter came but before its contents are made known, it will be well that we should go back to Belton, and see what was done by Clara in reference to the tidings which her lover had sent her.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55