It was full summer at Belton, and the sweet scene of the new hay filled the porch of the old house with fragrance, as Clara sat there alone with her work. Immediately before the house door, between that and the old tower, there stood one of Farmer Stovey’s hay-carts, now empty, with an old horse between the shafts looking as though he were asleep in the sun. Immediately beyond the tower the men were loading another cart, and the women and children were chattering as they raked the scattered remnants up to the rows. tinder the shadow of the old tower, but in sight of Clara as she sat in the porch, there lay the small beer-barrels of the hay-makers, and three or four rakes were standing erect against the old grey wall. It was now eleven o’clock, and Clara was waiting for her father, who was not yet out of his room. She had taken his breakfast to him in bed, as was her custom; for he had fallen into idle ways, and the luxury of his bed was, of all his remaining luxuries, the one that he liked the best. After a while he came down to her, having an open letter in his hand. Clara saw that he intended either to show it to her or to speak of it, and asked him therefore, with some tone of interest in her voice, from whom it had come. But Mr Amedroz was fretful at the moment, and instead of answering her began to complain of his tenant’s ill-usage of him.
‘What has he got his cart there for? I haven’t let him the road up to the hall door. I suppose he will bring his things into the parlour next.’
‘I rather like it, papa.’
‘Do you? I can only say that you’re lucky in your tastes. I don’t like it, I can tell you.’
‘Mr Stovey is out there. Shall I ask him to have the things moved farther off?’
‘No, my dear no. I must bear it, as I do all the rest of it. What does it matter? There’ll be an end of it soon. He pays his rent, and I suppose he is right to do as he pleases. But I can’t say that I like it.’
‘Am I to see the letter, papa?’ she asked, wishing to turn his mind from the subject of the hay-cart.
‘Well, yes. I brought it for you to see; though perhaps I should be doing better if I burned it, and said nothing more about it. It is a most impudent production; and heartless very heartless.’
Clara was accustomed to such complaints as these from her father. Everything that everybody did around him he would call heartless. The man pitied himself so much in his own misery, that he expected to live in an atmosphere of pity from others; and though the pity doubtless was there, he misdoubted it. He thought that Farmer Stovey was cruel in that he had left the hay-cart near the house, to wound his eyes by reminding him that he was no longer master of the ground before his own hall door. He thought that the women and children were cruel to chatter so near his ears. He almost accused his daughter of cruelty, because she had told him that she liked the contiguity of the hay-making. Under such circumstances as those which enveloped him and her, was it not heartless in her to like anything? It seemed to him that the whole world of Belton should be drowned in woe because of his misery.
‘Where is it from, papa?’ she asked.
‘There, you may read it. Perhaps it is better that you should know that it has been written.’ Then she read the letter, which was as follows
Though she had never before seen the handwriting, she knew at once from whence came the letter, for she had often heard of Plaistow Hall. It was the name of the farm at which her distant cousin, Will Belton, lived, and her father had more than once been at the trouble of explaining to her, that though the place was called a hall, the house was no more than a farmhouse. He had never seen Plaistow Hall, and had never been in Norfolk; but so much he could take upon himself to say, ‘They call all the farms halls down there.’ It was not wonderful that he should dislike his heir; and perhaps not unnatural that he should show his dislike after this fashion. Clara, when she read the address, looked up into her father’s face. ‘You know who it is now,’ he said. And then she read the letter.
I have not written to you before since your bereavement, thinking it better to wait awhile; but I hope you have not taken me to be unkind in this, or have supposed me to be unmindful of your sorrow. Now I take up my pen, hoping that I may make you understand how greatly I was distressed by what has occurred. I believe I am now the nearest male relative that you have, and as such I am very anxious to be of service to you if it may be possible. Considering the closeness of our connexion, and my position in reference to the property, it seems bad that we should never meet. I can assure you that you would find me very friendly if we could manage to come together.
I should think nothing of running across to Belton, if you would receive me at your house. I could come very well before harvest, if that would suit you, and would stay with you for a week. Pray give my kindest regards to my cousin Clara, whom I can only just remember as a very little girl. She was with her aunt at Perivale when I was at Belton as a boy. She shall find a friend in me if she wants a friend.
Your affectionate cousin,
Clara read the letter very slowly, so that she might make herself sure of its tone and bearing before she was called upon by her father to express her feeling respecting it. She knew that she would be expected to abuse it violently, and to accuse the writer of vulgarity, insolence, and cruelty, but she had already learned that she must not allow herself to accede to all her father’s fantasies. For his sake, and for his protection, it was necessary that she should differ from him, and even contradict him. Were she not to do so, he would fall into a state of wailing and complaining that would exaggerate itself almost to idiotcy. And it was imperative that she herself should exercise her own opinion on many points, almost without reference to him. She alone knew how utterly destitute she would be when he should die. He, in the first days of his agony, had sobbed forth his remorse as to her ruin; but, even when doing so, he had comforted himself with the remembrance of Miss Winterfield’s money and Mrs Winterfield’s affection for his daughter. And the aunt, when she had declared her purpose to Clara, had told herself that the provision made for Clara by her father was sufficient. To neither of them had Clara told her own position. She could not inform her aunt that her father had given up to the poor reprobate who had destroyed himself all that had been intended for her. Had she done so she would have been asking her aunt for charity. Nor would she bring herself to add to her father’s misery, by destroying the hopes which still supported him. She never spoke of her own position in regard to money, but she knew that it had become her duty to live a wary, watchful life, taking much upon herself in their impoverished household, and holding her own opinion against her father’s when her doing so became expedient. So she finished the letter in silence, and did not speak at the moment when the movement of her eyes declared that she had completed the task.
‘Well?’ said he.
‘I do not think my cousin means badly.’
‘You don’t! I do, then. I think he means very badly. What business has he to write to me, talking of his position?’
‘I can’t see anything amiss in his doing so, papa. I think he wishes to be friendly. The property will be his some day, and I don’t see why that should not be mentioned, when there is occasion.’
‘Upon my word, Clara, you surprise me. But women never understood delicacy in regard to money. They have so little to do with it, and think so little about it, that they have no occasion for such delicacy.’
Clara could not help the thought that to her mind the subject was present with sufficient frequency to make delicacy very desirable, if only it were practicable. But of this she said nothing. ‘And what answer will you send to him, papa?’ she asked.
‘None at all. Why should I trouble myself to write to him?’
‘I will take the trouble off your hands.’
‘And what will you say to him?’
‘I will ask him to come here, as he proposes.’
‘Why not, papa? He is the heir to the property, and why should he not be permitted to see it? There are many things in which his co-operation with you might be a comfort to you. I can’t tell you whether the tenants and people are treating you well, but he can do so; and, moreover, I think he means to be kind. I do not see why we should quarrel with our cousin because he is the heir to your property. It is not through any doing of his own that he is so.’
This reasoning had no effect upon Mr Amedroz, but his daughter’s resolution carried the point against him in spite of his want of reason. No letter was written that day, or on the next; but on the day following a formal note was sent off by Clara, in which Mr Belton was told that Mr Amedroz would be happy to receive him at Belton Castle. The letter was written by the daughter, but the father was responsible for the formality. He sat over her while she wrote it, and nearly drove her distracted by discussing every word and phrase. At last, Clara was so annoyed with her own production, that she was almost tempted to write another letter unknown to her father; but the formal note went.
‘My Dear Sir
‘I am desired by my father to say that he will be happy to receive you at Belton Castle, at the time fixed by yourself.
There was no more than that, but that had the desired effect; and by return of post there came a rejoinder saying that Will Belton would be at the Castle on the fifteenth of August. ‘They can do without me for about ten days,’ he said in his postscript, writing in a familiar tone, which did not seem to have been at all checked by the coldness of his cousin’s note ‘as our harvest will be late; but I must be back for a week’s work before the partridges.’
‘Heartless! quite heartless!’ Mr Amedroz said as he read this. ‘Partridges! to talk of partridges at such a time as this!’
Clara, however, would not acknowledge that she agreed with her father; but she could not altogether restrain a feeling on her own part that her cousin’s good humour towards her and Mr Amedroz should have been repressed by the tone of her letter to him. The man was to come, however, and she would not judge of him until he was there.
In one house in the neighbourhood, and in only one, had Miss Amedroz a friend with whom she was intimate; and as regarded even this single friend, the intimacy was the effect rather of circumstances than of real affection. She liked Mrs Askerton, and saw her almost daily; but she could hardly tell herself that she loved her neighbour.
In the little town of Belton, close to the church, there stood a pretty, small house, called Belton Cottage. It was so near the church that strangers always supposed it to be the parsonage; but the rectory stood away out in. the country, half a mile from the town, on the road to Redicote, and was a large house, three stories high, with grounds of its own, and very ugly. Here lived the old bachelor rector, seventy years of age, given much to long absences when he could achieve them, and never on good terms with his bishop. His two curates lived at Redicote, where there was a second church. Belton Cottage, which was occupied by Colonel Askerton and Mrs Askerton, was on the Amedroz property, and had been hired some two years since by the Colonel, who was then a stranger in the country and altogether unknown to the Belton people. But he had come there for shooting, and therefore his coming had been understood. Even as long ago as two years since, there had been neither use nor propriety in keeping the shooting for the squire’s son, and it had been let with the cottage to Colonel Askerton. So Colonel Askerton had come there with his wife, and no one in the neighbourhood had known anything about them. Mr Amedroz, with his daughter, had called upon them, and gradually there had grown up an intimacy between Clara and Mrs Askerton. There was an opening from the garden of Belton Cottage into the park, so that familiar intercourse was easy, and Mrs Askerton was a woman who knew well how to make herself pleasant to such another woman as Miss Amedroz.
The reader may as well know at ones that rumours prejudicial to the Askertons reached Belton before they had been established there for six months. At Taunton, which was twenty miles distant, these rumours were very rife, and there were people there who knew with accuracy though probably without a grain of truth in their accuracy every detail in the history of Mrs Askerton’s life. And something, too, reached Clara’s ears something from old Mr Wright, the rector, who loved scandal, and was very ill-natured. ‘A very nice woman,’ the rector had said; ‘but she does not seem to have any belongings in particular.’ ‘She has got a husband,’ Clara had replied with some little indignation, for she had never loved Mr Wright. ‘Yes; I suppose she has got a husband.’ Then Clara had, in her own judgment, accused the rector of lying, evil-speaking, and slandering, and had increased the measure of her cordiality to Mrs Askerton. But something more she had heard on the same subject at Perivale. ‘Before you throw yourself into close intimacy with the lady, I think you should know something about her,’ Mrs Winterfield had said to her. ‘ I do know something about her; I know that she has the manners and education of a lady, and that she is living affectionately with her husband, who is devoted to her. What more ought I to know?’ ‘If you really do know all that, you know a great deal,’ Mrs Winterfield had replied.
‘Do you know anything against her, aunt?’ Clara asked, after a pause.
There was another pause before Mrs Winterfield answered. ‘No, my dear; I cannot say that I do. But I think that young ladies, before they make intimate friendships, should be very sure of their friends.’
‘You have already acknowledged that I know a great deal about her,’ Clara replied. And then the conversation was at an end. Clara had not been quite ingenuous, as she acknowledged to herself. She was aware that her aunt would not permit herself to repeat rumours as to the truth of which she had no absolute knowledge. She understood that the weakness of her aunt’s caution was due to the old lady’s sense of charity and dislike of slander. But Clara had buckled on her armour for Mrs Askerton, and was glad, therefore, to achieve her little victory. When we buckle on our armour in any cause, we are apt to go on buckling it, let the cause become as weak as it may; and Clara continued her intimacy with Mrs Askerton, although there was something in the lady’s modes of speech, and something also in her modes of thinking, which did not quite satisfy the aspirations of Miss Amedroz as to a friend.
Colonel Askerton himself was a pleasant, quiet man, who seemed to be contented with the life which he was leading. For six weeks in April and May he would go up to town, leaving Mrs Askerton at the cottage as to which, probably jovial, absence in the metropolis there seemed to be no spirit of grudging on the part of the wife. On the first of September a friend would come to the cottage and remain there for six weeks’ shooting: and during the winter the Colonel and his wife always went to Paris for a fortnight. Such had been their life for the last two years; and thus so said Mrs Askerton to Clara did they intend to live as long as they could keep the cottage at Belton. Society at Belton they had none, and as they said desired none. Between them and Mr Wright there was only a speaking acquaintance. The married curate at Redicote would not let his wife call on Mrs Askerton, and the unmarried curate was a hard-worked, clerical hack a parochial minister at all times and seasons, who went to no houses except the houses of the poor, and who would hold communion with no man, and certainly with no woman, who would not put up with clerical admonitions for Sunday backslidings. Mr Amedroz himself neither received guests nor went as a guest to other men’s houses. He would occasionally stand for a while at the gate of the Colonel’s garden, and repeat the list of his own woes as long as his neighbour would stand there to hear it. But there was no society at Belton, and Clara, as far as she herself was aware, was the only person with whom Mrs Askerton held any social intercourse, except what she might have during her short annual holiday in Paris.
‘Of course, you are right,’ she said, when Clara told her of the proposed coming of Mr Belton. ‘If he turn out to be a good fellow, you will have gained a great deal. And should he be a bad, fellow, you will have lost nothing. In either case you will know him, and considering how he stands towards you, that itself is desirable.’
‘But if he should annoy papa?’
‘In your papa’s condition, my dear, the coming of any one will annoy him. At least, he will say so; though I do not in the least doubt that he will like the excitement better even than you will.’
‘I can’t say there will be much excitement to me.’
‘No excitement in a young man’s coming into the house! Without shocking your propriety, allow me to say that that is impossible. Of course, he is coming to see whether he can’t make matters all right by marrying you.’
‘That’s nonsense, Mrs Askerton.’
‘Very well. Let it be nonsense. But why shouldn’t he? It’s just what he ought to do. He hasn’t got a wife; and, as far as I know, you haven’t got a lover.’
‘I certainly have not got a lover.’
‘Our religious nephew at Perivale does not seem to be of any use.’
‘I wish, Mrs Askerton, you would not speak of Captain Aylmer in that way. I don’t know any man whom I like so much, or at any rate better, than Captain Aylmer; but I hate the idea that no girl can become acquainted with an unmarried man without having her name mentioned with his, and having to hear ill-natured remarks of that kind.’
‘I hope you will learn to like this other man much better. Think how nice it will be to be mistress of the old place after all. And then to go back to the old family name! If I were you I would make up my mind not to let him leave the place till I had brought him to my feet.’
‘If you go on like that I will not speak to you about him again.’
‘Or rather not to my feet for gentlemen have laid aside the humble way of making love for the last twenty years at least; but I don’t know whether the women haven’t gained quite as much by the change as the men.’
‘As I know nothing will stop you when you once get into a vein of that kind, I shall go,’ said Clara. ‘And till this man has come and gone I shall not mention his name again in your presence.’
‘So be it,’ said Mrs Askerton; ‘but as I will promise to say nothing more about him, you need not go on his account.’ But Clara had got up, and did leave the cottage at once.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14