It was on a Sunday morning that Clara’s letter reached Aylmer Park, and Frederic Aylmer found it on his plate as he took his place at the breakfast-table. Domestic habits at Aylmer Park had grown with the growth of years till they had become adamantine, and domestic habits required prayers every morning at a quarter before nine o’clock. At twenty minutes before nine Lady Aylmer would always be in the dining-room to make the tea and open the post-bag, and as she was always there alone, she knew more about other people’s letters than other people ever knew about hers. When these operations were over she rang the bell, and the servants of the family, who by that time had already formed themselves into line in the hail, would march in, and settle themselves on benches prepared for them near the sideboard which benches were afterwards carried away by the retiring procession. Lady Aylmer herself always read prayers, as Sir Anthony never appeared till the middle of breakfast. Belinda would usually come down in a scurry as she heard her mother’s bell, in such a way as to put the army in the hail to some confusion; but Frederic Aylmer, when he was at home, rarely entered the room till after the service was over. At Perivale no doubt he was more strict in his conduct; but then at Perivale he had special interests and influences which were wanting to him at Aylmer Park. During those five minutes Lady Aylmer would deal round the letters to the several plates of the inmates of her house not without looking at the post-office marks upon them; and on this occasion she had dealt a letter from Clara to her son.
The arrival of the letter was announced to Frederic Aylmer before he took his seat.
‘Frederic,’ said her ladyship, in her most portentous voice, ‘I am glad to say that at last there is a letter from Belton.’
He made no immediate reply, but making his way slowly to his place, took up the little packet, turned it over in his hand, and then put it into his pocket. Having done this, he began very slowly with his tea and egg. For three minutes his mother was contented to make, or to pretend to make, some effort in the same direction. Then her impatience became too much for her, and she began to question him.
‘Will you not read it, Frederic?’
‘Of course I shall, ma’am.’
‘But why not do so now, when you know how anxious we are?’
‘There are letters which one would sooner read in private.’
‘But when a matter is of so much importance,’ said Belinda.
‘The importance, Bel, is to me, and not to you,’ said her brother.
‘All we want to know is,’ continued the sister, ‘that she promises to be guided by you in this matter; and of course we feel quite sure that she will.’
‘If you are quite sure that must be sufficient for you.’
‘I really think you need not quarrel with your sister,’ said Lady Aylmer, ‘because she is anxious as to the the respectability, I must say, for there is no other word, of a young lady whom you propose to make your wife. I can assure you that I am very anxious myself very anxious indeed.’
Captain Aylmer made no answer to this, but he did not take the letter from his pocket. He drank his tea in silence, and in silence sent up his cup to be refilled. In silence also was it returned to him. He ate his two eggs and his three bits of toast, according to his custom, and when he had finished, sat out his three or four minutes as was usual. Then be got up to retire to his room, with the envelope still unbroken in his pocket.
‘You will go to church with us, I suppose?’ said Lady Aylmer.
‘I won’t promise, ma’am; but if I do, I’ll walk across the park so that you need not wait for me.’
Then both the mother and sister knew that the Member for Perivale did not intend to go to church on that occasion. To morning service Sir Anthony always went, the habits of Aylmer Park having in them more of adamant in reference to him than they had as regarded his son.
When the father, mother, and daughter returned, Captain Aylmer had read his letter, and bad, after doing so, received further tidings from Belton Castle further tidings which for the moment prevented the necessity of any reference to the letter, and almost drove it from his own thoughts. When his mother entered the library he was standing before the fire with a scrap of paper in his hand.
‘Since you have been at church there has come a telegraphic message,’ he said.
‘What is it, Frederic? Do not frighten me if you can avoid it!’
‘You need not be frightened, ma’am, for you did not know him. Mr Amedroz is dead.’
‘No!’ said Lady Aylmer, seating herself.
‘Dead!’ said Belinda, holding up her hands.
‘God bless my soul!’ said the baronet, who had now followed the ladies into the room. ‘Dead! Why, Fred, he was five years younger than I am!’
Then Captain Aylmer read the words of the message ‘ Mr Amedroz died this morning at five o’clock. I have sent word to the lawyer and to Mr Belton.’
‘Who does it come from?’ asked Lady Aylmer.
‘From Colonel Askerton.’
Lady Aylmer paused, and shook her head, and moved her foot uneasily upon the carpet. The tidings, as far as they went, might be unexceptionable, but the source from whence they had come had evidently polluted them in her ladyship’s judgment. Then she uttered a series of inter-ejaculations, expressions of mingled sorrow and anger.
‘There was no one else near her,’ said Captain Aylmer apologetically.
‘Is there no clergyman in the parish?’
‘He lives a long way off. The message had to be sent at once.’
‘Are there no servants in the house? It looks it looks . But I am the last person in the world to form a harsh judgment of a young woman at such a moment as this. What did she say in her letter, Fred?’
Captain Aylmer had devoted two hours of consideration to the letter before the telegram had come to relieve his mind by a fresh subject, and in those two hours he had not been able to extract much of comfort out of the document. It was, as he felt, a stubborn, stiff-necked, disobedient, almost rebellious letter. It contained a manifest defiance of his mother, and exhibited doctrines of most questionable morality. It had become to him a matter of doubt whether he could possibly marry a woman who could entertain such ideas and write such a letter. If the doubt was to be decided in his own mind against Clara, he had better show the letter at once to his mother, and allow her ladyship to fight the battle for him a task which, as he well knew, her ladyship would not be slow to undertake. But he had not succeeded in answering the question satisfactorily to himself when the telegram arrived and diverted all his thoughts. Now that Mr Amedroz was dead, the whole thing might be different. Clara would come away from Belton and Mrs Askerton, and begin life, as it were, afresh It seemed as though in such an emergency she ought to have another chance; and therefore he did not hasten to pronounce his judgment. Lady Aylmer also felt something of this, and forbore to press her question when it was not answered.
‘She will have to leave Belton now, I suppose?’ said Sir Anthony.
‘The property will belong to a distant cousin a Mr William Belton.’
‘And where will she go?’ said Lady Aylmer. ‘I suppose she has no place that she can call her home?’
‘Would it not be a good thing to ask her here?’ said Belinda. Such a question as that was very rash on the part of Miss Aylmer. In the first place, the selection of guests for Aylmer Park was rarely left to her; and in this special case she should have understood that such a proposal should have been fully considered by Lady Aylmer before it reached Frederic’s ears.
‘I think it would be a very good plan,’ said Captain Aylmer, generously.
Lady Aylmer shook her head. ‘I should like much to know what she has said about that unfortunate connexion before I offer to take her by the hand myself. I’m sure Fred will feel that I ought to do so.’
But Fred retreated from the room without showing the letter. He retreated from the room and betook himself to solitude, that he might again endeavour to make up his mind as to what he would do. He put on his hat and his great-coat and gloves, and went off without his luncheon that he might consider it all. Clara Amedroz had now no home and, indeed, very little means of providing one. If he intended that she should be his wife, he must furnish her with a home at once. It seemed to him that three houses might possibly be open to her of which one, the only one which under such circumstances would be proper, was Aylmer Park. The other two were Plaistow Hall and Mrs Askerton’s cottage at Belton. As to the latter should she ever take shelter there, everything must be over between him and her. On that point there could be no doubt. He could not bring himself to marry a wife out of Mrs Askerton’s drawing-room, nor could he expect his mother to receive a young woman brought into the family under such circumstances. And Plaistow Hall was almost as bad. It was as bad to him, though it would, perhaps, be less objectionable in the eyes of Lady Aylmer. Should Clara go to Plaistow Hall there must be an end to everything. Of that also he taught himself to be quite certain. Then he took out Clara’s letter and read it again. She acknowledged the story about the woman to be true such a story as it was too and yet refused to quarrel with the woman had absolutely promised the woman not to quarrel with her! Then he read and re-read the passage in which Clara claimed the right of forming her own opinion in such matters. Nothing could be more indelicate nothing more unfit for his wife. He began to think that he had better show the letter to his mother, and acknowledge that the match must be broken off. That softening of his heart which had followed upon the receipt of the telegraphic message departed from him as he dwelt upon the stubborn, stiff-necked, unfeminine obstinacy of the letter. Then he remembered that nothing had as yet been done towards putting his aunt’s fifteen hundred pounds absolutely into Clara’s hands; and he remembered also that she might at the present moment be in great want. William Belton might, not improbably, assist her in her want, and this idea was wormwood to him in spite of his almost formed resolution to give up his own claims. He calculated that the income arising from fifteen hundred pounds would be very small, and he wished that he had counselled his aunt to double the legacy. He thought very much about the amount of the money and the way in which it might be beat expended, and was, after his cold fashion, really solicitous as to Clara’s welfare. If he could have fashioned her future life, and his own too, in accordance with his own now existing wishes, I think he would have arranged that neither of them should marry at all, and that to him should be assigned the duty and care of being Clara’s protector with full permission to tell her his mind as often as he pleased on the subject of Mrs Askerton. Then he went in and wrote a note to Mr Green, the lawyer, desiring that the interest of the fifteen hundred pounds for one year might be at once remitted to Miss Amedroz. He knew that he ought to write to her himself immediately, without loss of a post; but how was he to write while things were in their present position? Were he now to condole with her on her father’s death, without any reference to the great Askerton iniquity, he would thereby be condoning all that was past, and acknowledging the truth and propriety of her arguments. And he would be doing even worse than that. He would be cutting the ground absolutely from beneath his own feet as regarded that escape from his engagement which he was contemplating.
What a cold-hearted, ungenerous wretch he must have been! That will be the verdict against him. But the verdict will be untrue. Cold-hearted and ungenerous he was; but he was no wretch as men and women are now-a-days called wretches. He was chilly hearted, but yet quite capable of enough love to make him a good son, a good husband, and a good father too. And though he was ungenerous from the nature of his temperament, he was not close-fisted or over covetous. And he was a just man, desirous of obtaining nothing that was not fairly his own. But, in truth, the artists have been so much in the habit of painting for us our friends’ faces without any of those flaws and blotches with which work and high living are apt to disfigure us, that we turn in disgust from a portrait in which the roughnesses and pimples are made apparent.
But it was essential that he should now do something, and before he sat down to dinner he did show Clara’s letter to his mother. ‘Mother,’ he said, as he sat himself down in her little room upstairs and she knew well by the tone of his voice, and by the mode of his address, that there was to be a solemn occasion, and a serious deliberative council on the present existing family difficulty ‘mother, of course I have intended to let you know what is the nature of Clara’s answer to my letter.’
‘I am glad there is to be no secret between us, Frederic. You know how I dislike secrets in families.’ As she said this she took the letter out of her son’s hands with an eagerness that was almost greedy. As she read it, he stood over her, watching her eyes, as they made their way down the first page and on to the second, and across to the third, and so, gradually on, till the whole reading was accomplished. What Clara had written about her Cousin Will, Lady Aylmer did not quite understand; and on this point now she was so little anxious that she passed over that portion of the letter readily. But when she came to Mrs Askerton and the allusions to herself, she took care to comprehend the meaning and weight of every word. ‘Divide your words and mine! Why should we want to divide them? Not agree with me about Mrs Askerton! How is it possible that any decent young woman should not agree with me! It is a matter in which there is no room for a doubt. True the story true! Of course it is true. Does she not know that it would not have reached her from Aylmer Park if it were not true? Provocation! Badly treated! Went away! Married to Colonel Askerton as soon as Captain Berdmore died! Why, Frederic, she cannot have been taught to understand the first principle of morals in life! And she that was so much with my poor sister! Well, well!’ The reader should understand that the late Mrs Winterfield and Lady Aylmer had never been able to agree with each other on religious subjects. ‘Remember that they are married. Why should we remember anything of the kind? It does not make an atom of difference to the woman’s character. Repented! How can Clara say whether she has repented or not? But that has nothing to do with it. Not quarrel with her as she calls it! Not give her up! Then, Frederic, of course it must be all over, as far as you are concerned.’ When she had finished her reading, she returned the letter, still open, to her son, shaking her head almost triumphantly. As far as I am a judge of a young woman’s character, I can only give you one counsel,’ said Lady Aylmer solemnly.
‘I think that she should have another chance,’ said Captain Aylmer.
‘What other chance can you give her? It seems to me that she is obstinately bent on her own destruction.’
‘You might ask her to come here, as Belinda suggested.’
‘Belinda was very foolish to suggest anything of the kind without more consideration.’
‘I suppose that my future wife would be made welcome here?
‘Yes, Frederic, certainly. I do not know who could be more welcome. But is she to be your wife?’
‘We are engaged.’
‘But does not that letter break any engagement? Is there not enough in that to make such a marriage quite out of the question? What do you think about it yourself, Frederic?’
‘I think that she should have another chance.’
What would Clara have thought of all this herself if she could have heard the conversation between Lady Aylmer and her betrothed husband, and have known that her lover was proposing to give her ‘another chance?’ But it is lucky for us that we seldom know what our best friends say on our behalf, when they discuss us and our faults behind our backs.
‘What chance, Frederic, can she have? She knows all about this horrid woman, and yet refuses to give her up! What chance can she have after that?’
‘I think that you might have her here and talk to her.’ Lady Aylmer, in answer to this, simply shook her head. And I think she was right in supposing that such shaking of her head was a sufficient reply to her son’s proposition. What talking could possibly be of service to such a one as this Miss Amedroz? Why should she throw her pearls before swine? ‘We must either ask her to come here, or else I must go to her,’ said Captain Aylmer.
‘I don’t see that at all, Frederic.’
‘I think it must be so. As she is situated at present she has got no home; and I think it would be very horrid that she should be driven into that woman’s house, simply because she has no other shelter for her head.’
‘I suppose she can remain where she is for the present?
‘She is all alone, you know; and it must be very gloomy and her cousin can turn her out at a moment’s notice.’
‘But that would not entitle her to come here, unless’
‘No I quite understand that. But you cannot wonder that I should feel the hardship of her position.’
‘Who is to be blamed if it be hard? You see, Frederic, I take my standing upon that letter her own letter. How am I to ask a young woman into my house who declares openly that my opinion on such a matter goes for nothing with her? How am I to do it? That’s what I ask you. How am I to do it? It’s all very well for Belinda to suggest this and that. But how am I to do it? That’s what I want to know.’
But at last Lady Aylmer managed to answer the question for herself, and did do it. But this was not done on that Sunday afternoon, nor on the Monday, nor on the Tuesday. The question was closely debated, and at last the anxious mother perceived that the giving of the invitation would be more safe than withholding it. Captain Aylmer at last expressed his determination to go to Belton unless the invitation were given; and then, should he do that, there might be danger that he would never be again seen at Aylmer Park till he brought Clara Amedroz with him as his wife. The position was one of great difficulty, but the interests at stake were so immense that something must be risked. It might be that Clara would not come when invited, and in that case her obstinacy would be a great point gained. And if she came! Well; Lady Aylmer admitted to herself that the game would be difficult difficult and very troublesome; but yet it might be played, and perhaps won. Lady Aylmer was a woman who had great confidence in herself. Not so utterly had victory in such contests deserted her hands, that she need fear to break a lance with Miss Amedroz beneath her own roof, when the occasion was so pressing.
The invitation was therefore sent in a note written by herself, and was enclosed in a letter from her son. After much consultation and many doubts on the subject, it was at last agreed that nothing further should now be urged about Mrs Askerton. ‘She shall have her chance,’ said Lady Aylmer over and over again, repeating her son’s words. ‘She shall have her chance.’ Lady Aylmer, therefore, in her note, confined herself strictly to the giving of the invitation, and to a suggestion that, as Clara had now no settled home of her own, a temporary sojourn at Aylmer Park might be expedient. And Captain Aylmer in his letter hardly said much more. He knew, as he wrote the words, that they were cold and comfortless, and that he ought on such an occasion to have written words that should have been warm at any rate, even though they might not have contained comfort. But, to have written with affection, he should have written at once, and he had postponed his letter from the Sunday till the Wednesday. It had been absolutely necessary that that important question as to the invitation should be answered before he could write at all.
When all this was settled he went up to London; and there was an understanding between him and his mother that he should return to Aylmer Park with Clara, in the event of her acceptance of the invitation.
‘You won’t go down to Belton for her?’ said the mother.
‘No I do not think that will be necessary,’ said the son.
‘I should think not,’ said the mother.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55