When Clara received the letter from Captain Aylmer on which so much is supposed to hang, she made up her mind to say nothing of it to any one not to think of it if she could avoid thinking of it till her cousin should have left her. She could not mention it to him; for, though there was no one from whom she would sooner have asked advice than from him, even on so delicate a matter as this, she could not do so in the present case, as her informant was her cousin’s successful rival. When, therefore, Mrs Askerton on leaving the church had spoken some customary word to Clara, begging her to come to the cottage on the following day, Clara had been unable to answer not having as yet made up her mind whether she would or would not go to the cottage again. Of course the idea of consulting her father occurred to her or rather the idea of telling him; but any such telling would lead to some advice from him which she would find it difficult to obey, and to which she would be unable to trust. And, moreover, why should she repeat this evil story against her neighbours?
She had a long morning by herself after Will had started, and then she endeavoured to arrange her thoughts and lay down for herself a line of conduct. Presuming this story to be true, to what did it amount? It certainly amounted to very much. If, in truth, this woman had left her own husband and gone away to live with another man, she had by doing so at any rate while she was doing so fallen in such a way as to make herself unfit for the society of an unmarried young woman who meant to keep her name unblemished before the world. Clara would not attempt any further unravelling of the case, even in her own mind but on that point she could not allow herself to have a doubt. Without condemning the unhappy victim, she understood well that she would owe it to all those who held her dear, if not to herself, to eschew any close intimacy with one in such a position. The rules of the world were too plainly written to allow her to guide herself by any special judgment of her own in such a matter. But if this friend of hers having been thus unfortunate had since redeemed, or in part redeemed, her position by a second marriage, would it be then imperative upon her to remember the past for ever, and to declare that the stain was indelible? Clara felt that with a previous knowledge of such a story she would probably have avoided any intimacy with Mrs Askerton. She would then have been justified in choosing whether such intimacy should or should not exist, and would so have chosen out of deference to the world’s opinion. But now it was too late for that. Mrs Askerton had for years been her friend; and Clara had to ask herself this question: was it now needful did her own feminine purity demand that she should throw her friend over because in past years her life had been tainted by misconduct.
It was clear enough at any rate that this was expected from her nay, imperatively demanded by him who was to be her lord by him to whom her future obedience would be due. Whatever might be her immediate decision, he would have a right to call upon her to be guided by his judgment as soon as she would become his wife. And indeed, she felt that he had such right now unless she should decide that no such right should be his, now or ever. It was still within her power to say that she could not submit herself to such a rule as his but having received his commands she must do that or obey them. Then she declared to herself, not following the matter out logically, but urged to her decision by sudden impulse, that at any rate she would not obey Lady Aylmer. She would have nothing to do, in any such matter, with Lady Aylmer. Lady Aylmer should be no god to her. That question about the house at Perivale had been very painful to her. She felt that she could have endured the dreary solitude at Perivale without complaint, if, after her marriage, her husband’s circumstances had made such a mode of living expedient. But to have been asked to pledge her consent to such a life before her marriage, to feel that he was bargaining for the privilege of being rid of her, to know that the Aylmer people were arranging that he, if he would marry her, should be as little troubled with his wife as possible all this had been very grievous to her. She had tried to console herself by the conviction that Lady Aylmer not Frederic had been the sinner; but even in that consolation there had been the terrible flaw that the words had come to her written by Frederic’s hand. Could Will Belton have written such a letter to his future wife?
In her present emergency she must be guided by her own judgment or her own instincts not by any edicts from Aylmer Park! If in what she might do she should encounter the condemnation of Captain Aylmer, she would answer him she would be driven to answer him by counter-condemnation of him and his mother. Let it be so. Anything would be better than a mean, truckling subservience to the imperious mistress of Aylmer Park.
But what should she do as regarded Mrs Askerton? That the story was true she was beginning to believe. That there was some such history was made certain to her by the promise which Mrs Askerton had given her.
‘If you want to ask any questions, and will ask them of me, I will answer them.’ Such a promise would not have been volunteered unless there was something special to be told. It would be best, perhaps, to demand from Mrs Askerton the fulfilment of this promise. But then in doing so she must own from whence her information had come. Mrs Askerton had told her that the ‘communication’ would be made by her Cousin Will. Her Cousin Will had gone away without a word of Mrs Askerton, and now the ‘communication’ had come from Captain Aylmer!
The Monday and Tuesday were rainy days, and the rain was some excuse for her not going to the cottage. On the Wednesday her father was ill, and his illness made a further excuse for her remaining at home. But on the Wednesday evening there came a note to her from Mrs Askerton. ‘You naughty girl, why do you not come to me? Colonel Askerton has been away since yesterday morning, and I am forgetting the sound of my own voice. I did not trouble you when your divine cousin was here for reasons; but unless you come to me now I shall think that his divinity has prevailed. Colonel Askerton is in Ireland, about some property, and will not be back till next week.’
Clara sent back a promise by the messenger, and on the following morning she put on her hat and shawl, and started on her dreaded task. When she left the house she had not even yet quite made up her mind what she would do. At first she put her lover’s letter into her pocket, so that she might have it for reference; but, on second thoughts, she replaced it in her desk, dreading lest she might be persuaded into showing or reading some part of it. There had come a sharp frost after the rain, and the ground was hard and dry. In order that she might gain some further last moment for thinking, she walked round, up among the rocks, instead of going straight to the cottage; and for a moment though the air was sharp with frost she sat upon the stone where she had been seated when her Cousin Will blurted out the misfortune of his heart. She sat there on purpose that she might think of him, and recall his figure, and the tones of his voice, and the look of his eyes, and the gesture of his face. What a man he was so tender, yet so strong; so thoughtful of others, and yet so self — sufficient! She had, unconsciously, imputed to him one fault, that he had loved and then forgotten his love unconsciously, for she had tried to think that this was a virtue rather than a fault but now with a full knowledge of what she was doing, but without any intention of doing it she acquitted him of that one fault. Now that she could acquit him, she owned that it would have been a fault. To have loved, and so soon to have forgotten it! No; he had loved her truly, and alas! he was one who could not be made to forget it. Then she went on to the cottage, exercising her thoughts rather on the contrast between the two men than on the subject to which she should have applied them.
‘So you have come at last!’ said Mrs Askerton. ‘Till I got your message I thought there was to be some dreadful misfortune.’
‘Something dreadful! One often anticipates something very bad without exactly knowing what. At least, I do. I am always expecting a catastrophe when I am alone that is and then I am so often alone.’
‘That simply means low spirits, I suppose?’
‘It’s more than that, my dear.’
‘Not much more, I take it.’
‘Once when we were in India we lived close to the powder magazine, and we were always expecting to be blown up. You never lived near a powder magazine.’
‘No, never unless there’s one at Belton. But I should have thought that was exciting.’
‘And then there was the gentleman who always had the sword hanging over him by the horse’s hair.’
‘What do you mean, Mrs Askerton?’
‘Don’t look so innocent, Clara. You know what I mean. What were the results at last of your cousin’s diligence as a detective officer?’
‘Mrs Askerton, you wrong my cousin greatly. He never once mentioned your name while he was with us. He did not make a single allusion to you, or to Colonel Askerton, or to the cottage.’
‘He did not?’
‘Then I beg his pardon. But not the less has he been busy making inquiries.’
‘But why should you say that there is a powder magazine, or a sword hanging over your head?’
Here was the subject ready opened to her hand, and yet Clara did not know how to go on with it. It seemed to her now that it would have been easier for her to commence it, if Mrs Askerton had made no commencement herself. As it was, she knew not how to introduce the subject of Captain Aylmer’s letter, and was almost inclined to wait, thinking that Mrs Askerton might tell her own story without any such introduction. But nothing of the kind was forthcoming. Mrs Askerton began to talk of the frost, and then went on to abuse Ireland, complaining of the hardship her husband endured in being forced to go thither in winter to look after his tenants.
‘What did you mean’, said Clara, at last, ‘by the sword hanging over your head?’
‘I think I told you what I meant pretty plainly. If you did not understand me I cannot tell you more plainly.’
‘It is odd that you should say so much, and not wish to say more.’
‘Ah! you are making your inquiries now.’
‘In my place would not you do so too? How can I help it when you talked of a sword? Of course you make me ask what the sword is.’
‘And am I bound to satisfy your curiosity?’
‘You told me, just before my cousin came here, that if I asked any question you would answer me.’
‘And I am to understand that you are asking such a question now?’
‘Yes if it will not offend you.’
‘But what if it will offend me offend me greatly? Who likes to be inquired into?’
‘But you courted such inquiry from me.’
‘No, Clara, I did not do that. I’ll tell you what I did. I gave you to understand that if it was needful that you should hear about me and my antecedents certain matters as to which Mr Belton had been inquiring into in a manner that I thought to be most unjustifiable I would tell you that story.’
‘And do so without being angry with me for asking.’
‘I meant, of course, that I would not make it a ground for quarrelling with you. If I wished to tell you, I could do so without any inquiry.’
‘I have sometimes thought that you did wish to tell me.’
‘Sometimes I have almost.’
‘But you have no such wish now?’
‘Can’t you understand? It may well be that one so much alone as I am living here without a female friend, or even acquaintance, except yourself should often feel a longing for that comfort which full confidence between us would give me.’
‘Then why not’
‘Stop a moment. Can’t you understand that I may feel this, and yet entertain the greatest horror against inquiry? We all like to tell our own sorrows, but who likes to be inquired into? Many a woman burns to make a full confession, who would be as mute as death before a policeman.’
‘I am no policeman.’
‘But you are determined to ask a policeman’s questions?’
To this Clara made no immediate reply. She felt that she was acting almost falsely in going on with such questions, while she was in fact aware of all the circumstances which Mrs Askerton could tell but she did not know how to declare her knowledge and to explain it. She sincerely wished that Mrs Askerton should be made acquainted with the truth; but she had fallen into a line of conversation which did not make her own task easy. But the idea of her own hypocrisy was distressing to her, and she rushed at the difficulty with hurried, eager words, resolving that, at any rate, there should be no longer any doubt between them.
‘Mrs Askerton,’ she said, ‘I know it all. There is nothing for you to tell. I know what the sword is.’
‘What is it that you know?’
‘That you were married long ago to Mr Berdmore.’
‘Then Mr Belton did do me the honour of talking about me when he was here?’ As she said this she rose from her chair, and stood before Clara with flashing eyes.
‘Not a word. He never mentioned your name, or the name of any one belonging to you. I have heard it from another.’
‘From what other?’
‘I do not know that that signifies but I have learned it.’
‘Well and what next?’
‘I do not know what next. As so much has been told me, and as you had said that I might ask you, I have come to you, yourself. I shall believe your own story more thoroughly from yourself than from any other teller.’
‘And suppose I refuse to answer you?’
‘Then I can say nothing further.’
‘And what will you do?’
‘Ah that I do not know. But you are harsh to me, while I am longing to be kind to you. Can you not see that this has been all forced upon me partly by yourself?’
‘And the other part who has forced that upon you? Who is your informant? If you mean to be generous, be generous altogether. Is it a man or a woman that has taken the trouble to rip up old sorrows that my name may be blackened? But what matters? There I was married to Captain Berdmore. I left him, and went away with my present husband. For three years I was a man’s mistress, and not his wife. When that poor creature died we were married, and then came here. Now you know it all all all though doubtless your informant has made a better story of it. After that, perhaps, I have been very wicked to sully the air you breathe by my presence.’
‘Why do you say that to me?’
‘But no you do not know it all. No one can ever know it all. No one can ever know how I suffered before I was driven to escape, or how good to me has been he who who who ‘ Then she turned her back upon Clara, and, walking off to the window, stood there, hiding the tears which clouded her eyes, and concealing the sobs which choked her utterance.
For some moments for a space which seemed long to both of them Clara kept her seat in silence. She hardly dared to speak; and though she longed to show her sympathy, she knew not what to say. At last she too rose and followed the other to the window. She uttered no words, however, but gently putting her arm around Mrs Askerton’s waist, stood there close to her, looking out upon the cold wintry flower-beds not venturing to turn her eyes upon her companion. The motion of her arm was at first very gentle, but after a while she pressed it closer, and thus by degrees drew her friend to her with an eager, warm, and enduring pressure. Mrs Askerton made some little effort towards repelling her, some faint motion of resistance; but as the embrace became warmer the poor woman yielded herself to it, and allowed her face to fall upon Clara’s shoulder. So they stood, speaking no word, making no attempt to rid themselves of the tears which were blinding their eyes, but gazing out through the moisture on the bleak wintry scene before them. Clara’s mind was the more active at the moment, for she was resolving that in this episode of her life she would accept no lesson whatever from Lady Aylmer’s teaching no, nor any lesson whatever from the teaching of any Aylmer in existence. And as for the world’s rules, she would fit herself to them as best she could; but no such fitting should drive her to the unwomanly cruelty of deserting this woman whom she had known and loved and whom she now loved with a fervour which she had never before felt towards her.
‘You have heard it all now,’ said Mrs Askerton at last.
‘And is it not better so?’
‘Ah I do not know. How should I know?’
‘Do you not know?’ And as she spoke, Clara pressed her arm still closer. ‘Do you not know yet?’ Then, turning herself half round, she clasped the other woman full in her arms, and kissed her forehead and her lips.
‘Do you not know yet?’
‘But you will go away, and people will tell you that you are wrong.’
‘What people?’ said Clara, thinking as she spoke of the whole family at Aylmer Park.
‘Your husband will tell you so.’
‘I have no husband as yet to order me what to think or what not to think.’
‘No not quite as yet. But you will tell him all this.’
‘He knows it. It was he who told me.
‘What! Captain Aylmer?’
‘Yes; Captain Aylmer.’
‘And what did he say?’
‘Never mind. Captain Aylmer is not my husband not as yet. If he takes me, he must take me as I am, not as he might possibly have wished me to be. Lady Aylmer’
‘And does Lady Aylmer know it?’
‘Yes. Lady Aylmer is one of those hard, severe women who never forgive.’
‘Ah, I see it all now. I understand it all. Clara, you must forget me, and come here no more. You shall not be ruined because you are generous.’
‘Ruined! If Lady Aylmer’s displeasure can ruin me, I must put up with ruin. I will not accept her for my guide. I am too old, and have had my own way too long. Do not let that thought trouble you. In this matter I shall judge for myself. I have judged for myself already.’
‘And your father?’
‘Papa knows nothing of it.’
‘But you will tell him?’
‘I do not know. Poor papa is very ill. If he were well I would tell him, and he would think as I do.’
‘And your cousin?’
‘You say that he has heard it all.’
‘I think so. Do you know that I remembered him the first moment that I saw him? But what could I do? When you mentioned to me my old name, my real name, how could I be honest? I have been driven to do that which has made honesty to me impossible. My life has been a lie; and yet how could I help it? I must live somewhere and how could I live anywhere without deceit?’
‘And yet that is so sad.’
‘Sad indeed! But what could I do? Of course I was wrong in the beginning. Though how am I to regret it, when it has given me such a husband as I have? Ah if you could know it all, I think I think you would forgive me.’
Then by degrees she told it all, and Clara was there for hours listening to her story. The reader will not care to hear more of it than he has heard. Nor would Clara have desired any closer revelation; but as it is often difficult to obtain a confidence, so is it impossible to stop it in the midst of its effusion. Mrs Askerton told the history of her life of her first foolish engagement, her belief, her half-belief, in the man’s reformation, of the miseries which resulted from his vices, of her escape and shame, of her welcome widowhood, and of her second marriage. And as she told it, she paused at every point to insist on the goodness of him who was now her husband. ‘I shall tell him this,’ she said at last. ‘as I do everything; and then he will know that I have in truth got a friend.’
She asked again and again about Mr Belton, but Clara could only tell her that she knew nothing of her cousin’s knowledge. Will might have heard it all, but if so he had kept his information to himself.
‘And now what shall you do?’ Mrs Askerton asked of Clara, at length prepared to go.
‘Do? in what way? I shall do nothing.’
‘But you will write to Captain Aylmer?’
‘Yes I shall write to him.’
‘And about this?’
‘Yes I suppose I must write to him.’
‘And what will you say?’
‘That I cannot tell. I wish I knew what to say. If it were to his mother I could write my letter easily enough.’
‘And what would you say to her?’
‘I would tell her that I was responsible for my own friends. But I must go now. Papa will complain that I am so long away.’ Then there was another embrace, and at last Clara found her way out of the house and was alone again in the park.
She clearly acknowledged to herself that she had a great difficulty before her. She had committed herself altogether to Mrs Askerton, and could no longer entertain any thought of obeying the very plainly expressed commands which Captain Aylmer had given her. The story as told by Captain Aylmer had been true throughout; but, in the teeth of that truth, she intended to maintain her acquaintance with Mrs Askerton. From that there was now no escape. She had been carried away by impulse in what she had done and said at the cottage, but she could not bring herself to regret it. She could not believe that it was her duty to throw over and abandon a woman whom she loved, because that woman had once, in her dire extremity, fallen away from the path of virtue. But how was she to write the letter?
When she reached her father he complained of her absence, and almost scolded her for having been so long at the cottage. ‘I cannot see’, said he, ‘what you find in that woman to make so much of her.’
‘She is the only neighbour I have, papa.’
‘And better none than her, if all that people say of her is true.’
‘All that people say is never true, papa.’
‘There is no smoke without fire. I am not at all sure that it’s good for you to be so much with her.’
‘Oh, papa don’t treat me like a child.’
‘And I’m sure it’s not good for me that you should be so much away. For anything I have seen of you all day you might have been at Perivale. But you are going soon, altogether, so I suppose I may as well make up my mind to it.’
‘I’m not going for a long time yet, papa.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘I mean that there’s nothing to take me away from here at present.’
‘You are engaged to be married.’
‘But it will be a long engagement. It is one of those engagements in which neither party is very anxious for an immediate change.’ There was something bitter in Clara’s tone as she said this, which the old man perceived, but could only half understand. Clara remained with him then for the rest of the day, going down-stairs for five minutes to her dinner, and then returning to him and reading aloud while he dozed. Her winter evenings at Belton Castle were not very bright, but she was used to them and made no complaint.
When she left her father for the night she got out her desk and prepared herself for her letter to her lover. She was determined that it should be finished that night before she went to bed. And it was so finished; though the writing of it gave her much labour, and occupied her till the late hours had come upon her. When completed it was as follows:
Dear Frederic I received your letter last Sunday, but I could not answer it sooner, as it required much consideration, and also some information which I have only obtained today. About the plan of living at Perivale I will not say much now, as my mind is so full of other things. I think, however, I may promise that I will never make any needless difficulty as to your plans. My cousin Will left us on Monday, so your mother need not have any further anxiety on that head. It does papa good to have him here, and for that reason I am sorry that he has gone. I can assure you that I don’t think what you said about him meant anything at all particular. Will is my nearest cousin, and of course you would be glad that I should like him which I do, very much.
And now about the other subject, which I own has distressed me, as you supposed it would I mean about Mrs Askerton. I find it very difficult in your letter to divide what comes from your mother and what from yourself. Of course I want to make the division, as every word from you has great weight with me. At present I don’t know Lady Aylmer personally, and I cannot think of her as I do of you. Indeed, were I to know her ever so well, I could not have the same deference for her that I have for the man who is to be my husband. I only say this, as I fear that Lady Aylmer and I may not perhaps agree about Mrs Askerton.
I find that your story about Mrs Askerton is in the main true. But the person who told it you does not seem to have known any of the provocations which she received. She was very badly treated by Captain Berdmore, who, I am afraid, was a terrible drunkard; and at last she found it impossible to stay with him. So she went away. I cannot tell you how horrid it all was, but I am sure that if I could make you understand it, it would go a long way in inducing you to excuse her. She was married to Colonel Askerton as soon as Captain Berdmore died, and this took place before she came to Belton. I hope you will remember that. It all occurred out in India, and I really hardly know what business we have to inquire about it now.
At any rate, as I have been acquainted with her a long time, and very intimately, and as I am sure that she has repented of anything that has been wrong, I do not think that I ought to quarrel with her now. Indeed I have promised her that I will not. I think I owe it you to tell you the whole truth, and that is the truth.
Pray give my regards to your mother, and tell her that I am sure she would judge differently if she were in my place. This poor woman has no other friend here; and who am I, that I should take upon myself to condemn her? I cannot do it. Dear Frederic, pray do not be angry with me for asserting my own will in this matter. I think you would wish me to have an opinion of my own. In my present position I am bound to have one, as I am, as yet, responsible for what I do myself. I shall be very, very sorry, if I find that you differ from me; but still I cannot be made to think that I am wrong. I wish you were here, that we might talk it over together, as I think that in that case you would agree with me.
If you can manage to come to us at Easter, or any other time when Parliament does not keep you in London, we shall be so delighted to see you.
Yours very affectionately,
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01