The death of the old man at Belton Castle had been very sudden. At three o’clock in the morning Clara had been called into his room, and at five o’clock she was alone in the world having neither father, mother, nor brother; without a home, without a shilling that she could call her own with no hope as to her future life, if as she had so much reason to suppose Captain Aylmer should have chosen to accept her last letter as a ground for permanent separation. But at this moment, on this saddest morning, she did not care much for that chance. It seemed to be almost indifferent to her, that question of Lady Aylmer and her anger. The more that she was absolutely in need of external friendship, the more disposed was she to reject it, and to declare to herself that she was prepared to stand alone in the world.
For the last week she had understood from the doctor that her father was in truth sinking, and that she might hardly hope ever to see him again convalescent. She had therefore in some sort prepared herself for her loneliness, and anticipated the misery of her position. As soon as it was known to the women in the room that life had left the old man, one of them had taken her by the hand and led her back to her own chamber. ‘Now, Miss Clara, you had better lie down on the bed again you had indeed; you can do nothing sitting up.’ She took the old woman’s advice, and allowed them to do with her as they would. It was true that there was no longer any work by which she could make herself useful in that house in that house, or, as far as she could see, in any other. Yes; she would go to bed, and lying there would feel how convenient it would be for many persons if she also could be taken away to her long rest, as her father, and aunt, and brother had been taken before her.
Her name and family had been unfortunate, and it would be well that there should be no Amedroz left to trouble those more fortunate persons who were to come after them. In her sorrow and bitterness she included both her Cousin Will and Captain Aylmer among those more fortunate ones for whose sake it might be well that she should be made to vanish from off the earth. She had read Captain Aylmer’s letter over and over again since she had answered it, and had read nearly as often the copy of her own reply and had told herself, as she read them, that of course he would not forgive her. He might perhaps pardon her, if she would submit to him in everything; but that she would not submit to his commands respecting Mrs Askerton she was fully resolved and, therefore, there could be no hope. Then, when she remembered how lately her dear father’s spirit had fled, she hated herself for having allowed her mind to dwell on any. thing beyond her loss of him.
She was still in her bedroom, having fallen into that half-waking slumber which the numbness of sorrow so often produces, when word was brought to her that Mrs Askerton was in the house. It was the first time that Mrs Askerton had ever crossed the door, and the remembrance that it was so came upon her at once. During her father’s lifetime it had seemed to be understood that their neighbour should have no admittance there but now now that her father was gone the barrier was to be overthrown. And why not? Why should not Mrs Askerton come to her? Why, if Mrs Askerton chose to be kind to her, should she not altogether throw herself into her friend’s arms? Of course her doing so would give mortal offence to everybody at Aylmer Park; but why need she stop to think of that? She had already made up her mind that she would not obey orders from Aylmer Park on this subject.
She had not seen Mrs Askerton since that interview between them which was described some few chapters back. Then everything had been told between them, so that there was no longer any mystery either on the one side or on the other. Then Clara had assured her friend of her loving friendship in spite of any edicts to the contrary which might come from Aylmer Park; and after that what could be more natural than that Mrs Askerton should come to her in her sorrow? ‘She says she’ll come up to you if you’ll let her,’ said the servant. But Clara declined this proposition, and in a few minutes went down to the small parlour in which she had lately lived, and where she found her visitor.
‘My poor dear, this has been very sudden,’ said Mrs Askerton.
‘Very sudden very sudden. And yet, now that he has gone, I know that I expected it.’
‘Of course I came to you as soon as I heard of it, because I knew you were all alone. If there had been any one else I should not have come.’
‘It is very good of you.’
‘Colonel Askerton thought that perhaps he had better come. I told him of all that which we said to each other the other day. He thought at first that it would be better that I should not see you.’
‘It was very good of you to come,’ said Clara again, and as she spoke she put out her hand and took Mrs Askerton’s continuing to hold it for awhile; ‘very good indeed.’
‘I told him that I could not but go down to you that I thought you would not understand it if I stayed away.’
‘At any rate it was good of you to come to me.’
‘I don’t believe,’ said Mrs Askerton, ‘that what people call consolation is ever of any use. It is a terrible thing to lose a father.’
‘Very terrible. Ah, dear, I have hardly yet found out how sad it is. As yet I have only been thinking of myself, and wishing that I could be with him.’
‘How can I help it? What am I to do? Or where am I to go? Of what use is life to such a one as me? And for him who would dare to wish him back again? When people have fallen and gone down in the world, it is bad for them to go on living. Everything is a trouble, and there is nothing but vexation.’
‘Think what I have suffered, dear.’
‘But you have had somebody to care for you somebody whom you could trust.’
‘And have not you?’
‘No; no one.’
‘What do you mean, Clara?’
‘I mean what I say. I have no one. It is no use asking questions not now, at such a time as this. And I did not mean to complain. Complaining is weak and foolish. I have often told myself that I could bear anything, and so I will. When I can bring myself to think of what I have lost in my father I shall be better, even though I shall be more sorrowful. As it is, I hate myself for being so selfish.’
‘You will let me come and stay with you today, will you not?’
‘No, dear; not today.’
‘Why not today, Clara?’
‘I shall be better alone. I have so many things to think of.’
‘I know well that it would be better that you should not be alone much better. But I will not press it. I cannot insist with you as another woman would.’
‘You are wrong there; quite wrong. I would be led by you sooner than by any woman living. What other woman is there to whom I would listen for a moment?’ As she said this, even in the depth of her sorrow she thought of Lady Aylmer, and strengthened herself in her resolution to rebel against her lover’s mother. Then she continued, ‘I wish I knew my Cousin Mary Mary Bolton; but I have never seen her.’
‘Is she nice?
‘So Will tells me; and I know that what he says must be true even about his sister.’
‘Will, Will! You are always thinking of your Cousin Will. If he be really so good he will show it now.’
‘How can he show it? What can he do?’
‘Does he not inherit all the property?’
‘Of course he does. And what of that? When I say that I have no friend I am not thinking of my poverty.’
‘If he has that regard for you which he pretends, he can do much to assist you. Why should he not come here at once?’
‘Why? Why do you say so? He is your nearest relative.’
‘If you do not understand I cannot explain.’
‘Has he been told what has happened?’ Mrs Askerton asked.
‘Colonel Askerton sent a message to him, I believe.’
‘And to Captain Aylmer also?’
‘Yes; and to Captain Aylmer. It was Colonel Askerton who sent it.’
‘Then he will come, of course.’
‘I think not. Why should he come? He did not even know poor papa.’
‘But, my dear Clara, has he not known you?’
‘You will see that he will not come. And I tell you beforehand that he will be right to stay away. Indeed, I do not know how he could come and I do not want him here.’
‘I cannot understand you, Clara.’
‘I suppose not. I cannot very well understand myself.’
‘I should not be at all surprised if Lady Aylmer were to come herself.’
‘Oh, heavens! How little you can know of Lady Aylmer’s position and character!’
‘But if she is to be your mother-inlaw?’
‘And even if she were! The idea of Lady Aylmer coming away from Aylmer Park all the way from Yorkshire, to such a house as this! If they told me that the Queen was coming it would hardly disconcert me more. But, dear, there is no danger of that at least.’
‘I do not know what may have passed between you and him; but unless there has been some quarrel he will come. That is, he will do so if he is at all like any men whom I have known.’
‘He will not come.’
Then Mrs Askerton made some half-whispered offers of services to be rendered by Colonel Askerton, and soon afterwards took her leave, having first asked permission to come again in the afternoon, and when that was declined, having promised to return on the following morning. As she walked back to the cottage she could not but think more of Clara’s engagement to Captain Aylmer than she did of the squire’s death. As regarded herself, of course she could not grieve for Mr Amedroz; and as regarded Clara, Clara’s father had for some time past been apparently so insignificant, even in his own house, that it was difficult to acknowledge the fact that the death of such a one as he might leave a great blank in the world. But what had Clara meant by declaring so emphatically that Captain Aylmer would not visit Belton, and by speaking of herself as one who had neither position nor friends in the world? If there had been a quarrel, indeed, then it was sufficiently intelligible and if there was any such quarrel, from what source must it have arisen? Mrs Askerton felt the blood rise to her cheeks as she thought of this, and told herself that there could be but one such source. Mrs Askerton knew that Clara had received orders from Aylmer Castle to discontinue all acquaintance with herself, and, therefore, there could be no doubt as to the cause of the quarrel. It had come to this then, that Clara was to lose her husband because she was true to her friend; or rather because she would not consent to cast an additional stone at one who for some years past had become a mark for many stones.
I am not prepared to say that Mrs Askerton was a high-minded woman. Misfortunes had come upon her in life of a sort which are too apt to quench high nobility of mind in woman. There are calamities which, by their natural tendencies, elevate the character of women and add strength to the growth of feminine virtues but then, again, there are other calamities which few women can bear without some degradation, without some injury to that delicacy and tenderness which is essentially necessary to make a woman charming as a woman. In this, I think, the world is harder to women than to men; that a woman often loses much by the chance of adverse circumstances which a man only loses by his own misconduct. That there are women whom no calamity can degrade is true enough and so it is true that there are some men who are heroes; but such are exceptions both among men and women. Not such a one had Mrs Askerton been. Calamity had come upon her partly, indeed, by her own fault, though that might have been pardoned but the weight of her misfortunes had been too great for her strength, and she had become in some degree hardened by what she had endured; if not unfeminine, still she was feminine in an inferior degree, with womanly feelings of a lower order. And she had learned to intrigue, not being desirous of gaining aught by dishonest intriguing, but believing that she could only hold her own by carrying on her battle after that fashion. In all this I am speaking of the general character of the woman, and am not alluding to the one sin which she had committed. Thus, when she had first become acquainted with Miss Amedroz, her conscience had not rebuked her in that she was deceiving her new friend. When asked casually in conversation as to her maiden name, she had not blushed as she answered the question with a falsehood. When, unfortunately, the name of her first husband had in some way made itself known to Clara, she had been ready again with some prepared fib. And when she had recognized William Belton, she had thought that the danger to herself of having any one near her who might know her quite justified her in endeavouring to create ill-will between Clara and her cousin. ‘Self-preservation is the first law of nature,’ she would have said; and would have failed to remember, as she did always fail to remember that nature does not require by any of its laws that self-preservation should be aided by falsehood.
But though she was not high-minded, so also was she not ungenerous; and now, as she began to understand that Clara was sacrificing herself because of that promise which had been given when they two had stood together at the window in the cottage drawing-room, she was capable of feeling more for her friend than for herself. She was capable even of telling herself that it was cruel on her part even to wish for any continuance of Clara’s acquaintance. ‘I have made my bed, and I must lie upon it,’ she said to herself; and then she resolved that, instead of going up to the house on the following day, she would write to Clara, and put an end to the intimacy which existed between them. ‘The world is hard, and harsh, and unjust,’ she said, still speaking to herself. ‘But that is not her fault; I will not injure her because I have been injured myself.’
Colonel Askerton was up at the house on the same day, but he did not ask for Miss Amedroz, nor did she see him. Nobody else came to the house then, or on the following morning, or on that afternoon, though Clara did not fail to tell herself that Captain Aylmer might have been there if he had chosen to take the journey and to leave home as soon as he had received the message; and she made the same calculation as to her Cousin Will though in that calculation, as we know, she was wrong. These two days had been very desolate with her, and she had begun to look forward to Mrs Askerton’s coming when instead of that there came a messenger with a letter from the cottage.
‘You can do as you like, my dear,’ Colonel Askerton had said on the previous evening to his wife. He had listened to all she had been saying without taking his eyes from off his newspaper, though she had spoken with much eagerness.
‘But that is not enough. You should say more to me than that.’
‘Now I think you are unreasonable. For myself, I do not care how this matter goes; nor do I care one straw what any tongues may say. They cannot reach me, excepting so far as they may reach me through you.’
‘But you should advise me.’
‘I always do copiously, when I think that I know better than you; but in this matter I feel so sure that you know better than I, that I don’t wish to suggest anything.’ Then he went on with his newspaper, and she sat for a while looking at him, as though she expected that something more would be said. But nothing more was said, and she was left entirely to her own guidance.
Since the days in which her troubles had come upon Mrs Askerton, Clara Amedroz was the first female friend who had come near her to comfort her, and she was very loth to abandon such comfort. There had, too, been something more than comfort, something almost approaching to triumph, when she found that Clara had clung to her with affection after hearing the whole story of her life. Though her conscience had not pricked her while she was exercising all her little planned deceits, she had not taken much pleasure in them. How should any one take pleasure in such work? Many of us daily deceive our friends, and are so far gone in deceit that the deceit alone is hardly painful to us. But the need of deceiving a friend is always painful. The treachery is easy; but to be treacherous to those we love is never easy never easy, even though it be so common. There had been a double delight to this poor woman in the near neighbourhood of Clara Amedroz since there had ceased to be a necessity for falsehood on her part. But now, almost before her joy had commenced, almost before she had realized the sweetness of her triumph, had come upon her this task of doing that herself which Clara in her generosity had refused to do. ‘I have made my bed and I must lie upon it,’ she said. And then, instead of going down to the house as she had promised, she wrote the following letter to Miss Amedroz:
‘The Cottage, Monday.
I need not tell you that I write as I do now with a bleeding heart. A few days since I should have laughed at any woman who used such a phrase of herself, and declared her to be an affected fool; but now I know how true such a word may be. My heart is bleeding, and I feel myself to be overcome by my disgrace. You told me that I did not understand you yesterday. Of course I understood you. Of course I know how it all is, and why you spoke as you did of Captain Aylmer. He has chosen to think that you could not know me without pollution, and has determined that you must give up either me or him. Though he has judged me, I am not going to judge him. The world is on his side; and, perhaps, he is right. He knows nothing of my trials and difficulties and why should he? I do not blame him for demanding that his future wife shall not be intimate with a woman who is supposed to have lost her fitness for the society of women.
At any rate, dearest, you must obey him and we will see each other no more. I am quite sure that I should be very wicked were I to allow you to injure your position in life on my account. You at any rate love him, and would be happy with him, and as you are engaged to him, you have no just ground for resenting his interference.
You will understand me now as well as though I were to fill sheets and sheets of paper with what I could say on the subject. The simple fact is, that you and I must forget each other, or simply remember one another as past friends. You will know in a day or two what your plans are. If you remain here, we will go away. If you go away, we will remain here that is, if your cousin will keep us as tenants. I do not, of course, know what you may have written to Captain Aylmer since our interview up here, but I beg that you will write to him now, and make him understand that he need have no fears in respect of me. You may send him this letter if you will. Oh, dear! If you could know what I suffer as I write this.
I feel that I owe you an apology for harassing you on such a subject at such a time; but I know that I ought not to lose a day in tolling you that you are to see nothing more of the friend who has loved you.
Clara’s first impulse on receiving this letter was to go off at once to the cottage, and insist on her privilege of choosing her own friends. If she preferred Mrs Askerton to Captain Aylmer, that was no one’s business but her own. And she would have done so had she not been afraid of meeting with Colonel Askerton. To him she would not have known how to speak on such a subject nor would she have known how to conduct herself at the cottage without speaking of it. And then, after a while, she felt that were she to do so should she now deliberately determine to throw herself into Mrs Askerton’s arms she must at the same time give up all ideas of becoming Captain Aylmer’s wife. As she thought of this she asked herself various questions concerning him, which she did not find it easy to answer. Did she wish to be his wife? Could she assure herself that if they were married they would make each other happy? Did she love him? She was still able to declare to herself that the answer to the last question should be an affirmative; but, nevertheless, she thought that she could give him up without great unhappiness. And when she began to think of Lady Aylmer, and to remember that Frederic Aylmer’s imperative demands upon her obedience had, in all probability, been dictated by his mother, she was again anxious to go at once to the cottage, and declare that she would not submit to any interference with her own judgment.
On the next morning the postman brought to her a letter which was of much moment to her but he brought to her also tidings which moved her more even than the letter. The letter was from the lawyer, and enclosed a cheque for seventy-five pounds, which he had been instructed to pay to her, as the interest of the money left to her by her aunt. What should be her answer to that letter she knew very well, and she instantly wrote it, sending back the cheque to Mr Green. The postman’s news, more important than the letter, told her that William Belton was at the inn at Redicote.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14