Clara wrote her letter to the lawyer, returning the cheque, before she would allow herself a moment to dwell upon the news of her cousin’s arrival. She felt that it was necessary to do that before she should even see her cousin thus providing against any difficulty which might arise from adverse advice on his part; and as soon as the letter was written she sent it to the post-office in the village. She would do almost any. thing that Will might tell her to do, but Captain Aylmer’s money she would not take, even though Will might so direct her. They would tell her, no doubt, among them, that the money was her own that she might take it without owing any thanks for it to Captain Aylmer. But she knew better than that as she told herself over and over again. Her aunt had left her nothing, and nothing would she have from Captain Aylmer unless she had all that Captain Aylmer had to give, after the fashion in which women best love to take such gifts.
Then, when she had done that, she was able to think of her cousin’s visit. ‘I knew he would come,’ she said to herself, as she sat herself in one of the old chairs in the hall, with a large shawl wrapped round her shoulders. She had just been to the front door, with the nominal purpose of dispatching her messenger thence to the post-office; but she had stood for a minute or two under the portico, looking in the direction by which Belton would come from Redicote, expecting, or rather hoping, that she might see his figure or hear the sound of his gig. But she saw nothing and heard nothing, and so returned into the hall, slowly shutting the door. ‘I knew that he would come,’ she said, repeating to herself the same words over and over again. Yet when Mrs Askerton had told her that he would do this thing which he had now done, she had expressed herself as almost frightened by the idea. ‘God forbid,’ she had said. Nevertheless now that he was there at Redicote, she assured herself that his coming was a thing of which she had been certain; and she took a joy in the knowledge of his nearness to her which she did not attempt to define to herself. Had he not said that he would be a brother to her, and was it not a brother’s part to go to a sister in affliction? ‘I knew that he would come. I was sure of it. He is so true.’ As to Captain Aylmer’s not coming she said nothing, even to herself; but she felt that she had been equally sure on that subject. Of course, Captain Aylmer would not come! He had sent her seventy-five pounds in lieu of coming, and in doing so was true to his character. Both men were doing exactly that which was to have been expected of them. So at least Clara Amedroz now assured herself. She did not ask herself how it was that she had come to love the thinner and the meaner of the two men, but she knew well that such had been her fate.
On a sudden she rose from her chair, as though remembering a duty to be performed, and went to the kitchen and directed that breakfast might be got ready for Mr Belton. He would have travelled all night and would be in want of food. Since the old squire’s death there had been no regular meal served in the house, and Clara had taken such scraps of food and cups of tea as the old servant of the house had brought to her. But now the cloth must be spread again, and as she did this with her own hands she remembered the dinners which had been prepared for Captain Aylmer at Perivale after his aunt’s death. It seemed to her that she was used to be in the house with death, and that the sadness and solemn ceremonies of woe were. becoming things familiar to her. There grew upon her a feeling that it must be so with her always. The circumstances of her life would ever be sad. What right had she to expect any other fate after such a catastrophe as that which her brother had brought upon the family? It was clear to her that she had done wrong in supposing that she could marry and live with a prosperous man of the world like Captain Aylmer. Their natures were different, and no such union could lead to any good. So she told herself, with much misery of spirit, as she was preparing the breakfast-table for William Belton.
But William Belton did not come to eat the breakfast. He got what he wanted in that way at the inn at Redicote, and even then hesitated, loitering at the bar, before he would go over. What was he to say, and how would he be received? After all, had he not done amiss in coming to a house at which he probably might not be wanted? Would it not be thought that his journey had been made solely with a view to his own property? He would be regarded as the heir pouncing upon the inheritance before as yet the old owner was under the ground. At any rate it would be too early for him to make his visit yet awhile; and, to kill time, he went over to a carpenter who had been employed by him about the place at Belton. The carpenter spoke to him as though everything were his own, and was very intent upon future improvements. This made Will more disgusted with himself than ever, and before he could get out of the carpenter’s yard he thoroughly wished himself back at Plaistow. But having come so far, he could hardly return without seeing his cousin, and at last he had himself driven over, reaching the house between eleven and twelve o’clock in the day.
Clara met him in the hall, and at once led him into the room which she had prepared for him. He had given her his hand in the hall, but did not speak to her till she had spoken to him after the closing of the room door behind them. ‘I thought that you would come’ she said, still holding him by the hand.
‘I did not know what to do,’ he answered. ‘I couldn’t say which was best. Now I am here I shall only be in your way.’ He did not dare to press her hand, nor could he bring himself to take his away from her.
‘In my way yes; as an angel, to tell me what to do in my trouble. I knew you would come, because you are so good. But you will have breakfast see, I have got it ready for you.’
‘Oh no; I breakfasted at Redicote. I would not trouble you.’
‘Trouble me, Will! Oh, Will, if you knew!’ Then there came tears in her eyes, and at the sight of them both his own were filled. How was he to stand it? To take her to his bosom and hold her there for always; to wipe away her tears so that she should weep no more; to devote himself and all his energy and all that was his comfort to her this he could have done; but he knew not how to do anything short of this. Every word that she spoke to him was an encouragement to this, and yet he knew that it could not be so. To say a word of his love, or even to look it, would now be an unmanly insult. And yet, how was he not to look it not to speak of it? ‘It is such a comfort that you should be here with me,’ she said.
‘Then I am glad I am here, though I do not know what I can do. Did he suffer much, Clara?’
‘No, I think not; very little. He sank at last quicker than I expected, but just as I thought he would go. He used to speak of you so often, and. always with regard and esteem!’
‘ Dear old man!’
‘Yes, Will; he was, in spite of his little faults. No father ever loved his daughter better than he loved me.’
After a while the servant brought in the tea, explaining to Belton that Miss Clara had neither eaten nor drank that morning. ‘She wouldn’t take anything till you came, sir.’ Then Will added his entreaties, and Clara was persuaded, and by degrees there grew between them more ease of manner and capability for talking than had been within their reach when they first met. And during the morning many things were explained, as to which Clara would a few hours previously have thought it to be almost impossible that she should speak to her cousin. She had told him of her aunt’s money, and the way in which she had on that very morning sent back the cheque to the lawyer; and she had said something also as to Lady Aylmer’s views, and her own views as to Lady Aylmer. With Will this subject was one most difficult of discussion; and he blushed and fidgeted in his chair, and walked about the room, and found himself unable to look Clara in the face as she spoke to him. But she went on, goading him with the name, which of all names was the most distasteful to him; and mentioning that name almost in terms of reproach of reproach which he felt it would be ungenerous to reciprocate, but which he would have exaggerated to unmeasured abuse if he had given his tongue licence to speak his mind.
‘I was right to send back the money wasn’t I, Will? Say that I was right. Pray tell me that you think so!’
‘I don’t understand it at present, you see; I am no lawyer.’
‘But it doesn’t want a lawyer to know that I couldn’t take the money from him. I am sure you feel that.’
‘If a man owes money of course he ought to pay it.’
‘But he doesn’t owe it, Will. It is intended for generosity.’
‘You don’t want anybody’s generosity, certainly.’ Then he reflected that Clara must, after all, depend entirely on the generosity of some one till she was married; and he wanted to explain to her that everything he had in the world was at her service was indeed her own. Or he would have explained, if he knew how, that he did not intend to take advantage of the entail that the Belton estate should belong to her as the natural heir of her father. But he conceived that the moment for explaining this had hardly as yet arrived, and that he bad better confine himself to some attempt at teaching her that no extraneous assistance would be necessary to her, ‘In money matters,’ said he, ‘of course you are to look to me. That is a matter of course. I’ll see Green about the other affairs. Green and I are friends. We’ll settle it.’
‘That’s not what I meant, Will.’
‘But it’s what I mean. This is one of those things in which a man has to act on his own judgment. Your father and I understood each other.’
‘He did not understand that I was to accept your bounty.’
‘Bounty is a nasty word, and I hate it. You accepted me as your brother, and as such I mean to act.’ The word almost stuck in his throat, but be brought it out at last in a fierce tone, of which she understood accurately the cause and meaning. ‘All money matters about the place must be settled by me. Indeed, that’s why I came down.’
‘Not only for that, Will?’
‘Just to be useful in that way, I mean.’
‘You came to see me because you knew I should want you.’ Surely this was malice prepense! Knowing what was his want, how could she exasperate it by talking thus of her own? ‘As for money, I have no claim on any one. No creature was ever more forlorn. But I will not talk of that.’
‘Did you not say that you would treat me as a brother?’
‘I did not mean that I was to be a burden on you.’
‘I know what I meant, and that is sufficient.’ Belton had been at the house some hours before he made any signs of leaving her, and when he did so he had to explain something of his plans. He would remain, he said, for about a week in the neighbourhood.
She of course was obliged to ask him to stay at the house at the house which was in fact his own; but he declined to do this, blurting out his reason at last very plainly. ‘Captain Aylmer would not like it, and I suppose you are bound to think of what he likes and dislikes.’ ‘I don’t know what right Captain Aylmer would have to dislike any such thing,’ said Clara. But, nevertheless, she allowed the reason to pass as current, and did not press her invitation. Will declared that he would stay at the inn at Redicote,, striving to explain in some very unintelligible manner that such an arrangement would be very convenient. He would remain at Redicote, and would come over to Belton every day during his sojourn in the country. Then he asked one question in a low whisper as to the last sad ceremony, and, having received an answer, started off with the declared intention of calling on Colonel Askerton.
The next two or three days passed uncomfortably enough with Will Belton. He made his head — quarters at the little inn of Redicote, and drove himself backwards and forwards between that place and the estate which was now his own. On each of these days he saw Colonel Askerton, whom he found to be a civil pleasant man, willing enough to rid himself of the unpleasant task he had undertaken, but at the same time, willing also to continue his services if any further services were required of him. But of Mrs Askerton on these occasions Will saw nothing, nor had he ever spoken to her since the time of his first visit to the Castle. Then came the day of the funeral, and after that rite was over he returned with his cousin to the house. There was no will to be read. The old squire had left no will, nor was there anything belonging to him at the time of his death that he could bequeath. The furniture in the house, the worn-out carpets and old-fashioned chairs, belonged to Clara; but, beyond that, property had she none, nor had it been in her father’s power to endow her with anything. She was alone in the world, penniless, with a conviction on her own mind that her engagement with Frederic Aylmer must of necessity come to an end, and with a feeling about her cousin which she could hardly analyse, but which told her that she could not go to his house in Norfolk, nor live with him at Belton Castle, nor trust herself in his hands as she would into those of a real brother.
On the afternoon of the day on which her father had been buried, she brought to him a letter, asking him to read it, and tell her what she should do. The letter was from Lady Aylmer, and contained an invitation to Aylmer Castle. It had been accompanied, as the reader may possibly remember, by a letter from Captain Aylmer himself. Of this she of course informed her cousin; but she did not find it to be necessary to show the letter of one rival to the other. Lady Aylmer’s letter was cold in its expression of welcome, but very dictatorial in pointing out the absolute necessity that Clara should accept the invitation so given. ‘I think you will not fail to agree with me, dear Miss Amedroz,’ the letter said, ‘that under these strange and perplexing circumstances, this is the only roof which can, with any propriety, afford you a shelter.’ ‘And why not the poor-house?’ she said, aloud to her cousin, when she perceived that his eye had descended so far on the page. He shook his head angrily, but said nothing; and when he had finished the letter he folded it and gave it back still in silence. ‘And what am I to do?’ she said. ‘You tell me that I am to come to you for advice in everything.’
‘You must decide for yourself here.’
‘And you won’t advise me.. You won’t tell me whether she is right?
‘I suppose she is right.’
‘Then I had better go?’
‘If you mean to marry Captain Aylmer, you had better go.’
‘I am engaged to him.’
‘Then you had better go.’
‘But I will not submit myself to her tyranny.’
‘Let the marriage take place at once, and you will have to submit only to his. I suppose you are prepared for that?’
‘I do not know. I do not like tyranny.’
Again he stood silent for awhile, looking at her, and then he answered: ‘ I should not tyrannize over you, Clara.’
‘Oh, Will, Will, do not speak like that. Do not destroy everything.’
‘What am I to say?’
‘What would you say if your sister, your real sister, asked advice in such a strait? If you had a sister, who came to you, and told you all her difficulty, you would advise her. You would not say words to make things worse for her.’
‘It would be very different.’
‘But you said you would be my brother.’
‘How am I to know what you feel for this man? It seems to me that you half hate him, half fear him, and sometimes despise him.’
‘Hate him! No I never hate him.’
‘Go to him, then, and ask him what you had better do. Don’t ask me.’ Then he hurried out of the room, slamming the door behind him. But before he had half gone down the stairs he remembered the ceremony at which he had just been present, and how desolate she was in the world, and he returned to her. ‘I beg your pardon, Clara,’ he said, ‘I am passionate; but I must be a beast to show my passion to you on such a day as this. If I were you I should accept Lady Aylmer’s invitation merely thanking her for it in the ordinary way. I should then go and see how the land lay. That is the advice I should give my sister.’
‘And I will if it is only because you tell me.’
‘But as for a home tell her you have one of your own at Belton Castle, from which no one can turn you out, and where no one can intrude on you. This house belongs to you.’ Then, before she could answer him, he had left the room and she listened to his heavy quick footsteps as he went across the hall and out of the front door.
He walked across the park and entered the little gate of Colonel Askerton’s garden, as though it were his habit to go to the cottage when he was at Belton. There had been various matters on which the two men had been brought into contact concerning the old squire’s death and the tenancy of the cottage, so that they had become almost intimate. Belton had nothing new that he specially desired to say to Colonel Askerton, whom, indeed, he had seen only a short time before at the funeral; but he wanted the relief of speaking to some one before he returned to the solitude of the inn at Redicote. On this occasion, however, the colonel was out, and the maid asked him if he would see Mrs Askerton. When he said something about not troubling her, the girl told him that her mistress wished to speak to him, and then he had no alternative but to allow himself to be shown into the drawing-room.
‘I want to see you a minute,’ said Mrs Askerton, bowing to him without putting out her hand, ‘that I might ask you how you find your cousin.’
‘She is pretty well, I think’
‘Colonel Askerton has seen more of her than I have since her father’s death, and he says that she does not bear it well. He thinks that she is ill.’
‘I do not think her ill. Of course she is not in good spirits.’
‘No; exactly. How should she be? But he thinks she seems so worn. I hope you will excuse me, Mr Belton, but I love her so well that I cannot bear to be quite in the dark as to her future. Is anything settled yet?’
‘She is going to Aylmer Castle.’
‘To Aylmer Castle! Is she indeed? At once?’
‘Very soon. Lady Aylmer has asked her.’
‘Lady Aylmer! Then I suppose’
‘You suppose what?’ Will Belton asked.
‘I did not think she would have gone to Aylmer Castle though I dare say it is the best thing she could do She seemed to me to dislike the Aylmers that is, Lady Aylmer so much! But I suppose she is right?’
‘She is right to go if she likes it.’
‘She is circumstanced so cruelly! Is she not? Where else could she go? I do so feel for her. I believe I need hardly tell you, Mr Belton, that, she would be as welcome here as flowers in May but that I do not dare to ask her to come to us.’ She said this in a low voice, turning her eyes away from him, looking first upon the ground, and then again up at the window but still not daring to meet his eye.
‘I don’t exactly know about that,’ said Belton awkwardly.
‘You know, I hope, that I love her dearly.’
‘Everybody does that,’ said Will.
‘You do, Mr Belton.’
‘Yes I do; just as though she were my sister.’
‘And as your sister would you let her come here to us?’ He sat silent for awhile, thinking, and she waited patiently for his answer. Bat she spoke again before he answered her. ‘I am well aware that you know all my history, Mr Belton.’
‘I shouldn’t tell it her, if you mean that, though she were my sister. If she were my wife I should tell her.’
‘And why your wife?’
‘Because then I should be sure it would do no harm.’
‘Then I find that you can be generous, Mr Belton. But she knows it all as well as you do.’
‘I did not tell her.’
‘Nor did I but I should have done so had not Captain Aylmer been before me. And now tell me whether I could ask her to come here.’
‘It would be useless, as she is going to Aylmer Castle’.
‘But she is going there simply to find a home having no other.’
‘That is not so, Mrs Askerton. She has a home as perfectly her own as any woman in the land. Belton Castle is hers, to do what she may please with it. She can live here if she likes it, and nobody can say a word to her. She need not go to Aylmer Castle to look for a home.’
‘You mean you would lend her the house?’
‘It is hers.’
‘I do not understand you, Mr Belton.’
‘It does not signify we will say no more about it.’
‘And you think she likes going to Lady Aylmer’s?’
‘How should I say what she likes?’
Then there was another pause before Mrs Askerton spoke again. ‘I can tell you one thing,’ she said: ‘she does not like him.’
‘That is her affair.’
‘But she should be taught to know her own mind before she throws herself away altogether. You would not wish your cousin to marry a man whom she does not love because at one time she had come to think that she loved him. That is the truth of it, Mr Belton. If she goes to Aylmer Castle she will marry him and she will be an unhappy woman always afterwards. If you would sanction her coming here for a few days, I think all that would be cured. She would come in a moment, if you advised her.’
Then he went away, allowing himself to make no further answer at the moment, and discussed the matter with himself as he walked back to Redicote, meditating on it with all his mind, and all his heart, and all his strength. And, as he meditated, it came on to rain bitterly a cold piercing February rain and the darkness of night came upon him, and he floundered on through the thick mud of the Somersetshire lanes, unconscious of the weather and of the darkness. There was a way open to him by which he might even yet get what he wanted. He thought he saw that there was a way open to him through the policy of this woman, whom he perceived to have become friendly to him. He saw, or thought that he saw, it all. No day had absolutely been fixed for this journey to Yorkshire; and if Clara were induced to go first to the cottage, and stay there with Mrs Askerton, no such journey might ever be taken. He could well understand that such a visit on her part would give a mortal offence to all the Aylmers. That tyranny of which Clara spoke with so much dread would be exhibited then without reserve, and so there would be an end altogether of the Aylmer alliance. But were she once to start for Aylmer Park, then there would be no hope for him. Then her fate would be decided — and his. As far as he could see, too as far as he could see then, there would be no dishonesty in this plan. Why should Clara not go to Mrs Askerton’s house? What could be more natural than such a visit at such a time? If she were in truth his sister he would not interfere to prevent it if she wished it. He had told himself that the woman should be forgiven her offence, and had thought that that forgiveness should be complete. If the Aylmers were so unreasonable as to quarrel with her on this ground, let them quarrel with her. Mrs Askerton had told him that Clara did not really like Captain Aylmer. Perhaps it was so; and if so, what greater kindness could he do her than give her an opportunity for escaping such a union?
The whole of the next day he remained at Redicote, thinking, doubting, striving to reconcile his wishes and his honesty. It rained all day, and as he sat alone, smoking in the comfortless inn, he told himself that the rain was keeping him but in truth it was not the rain. Had he resolved to do his best to prevent this visit to Yorkshire, or had he resolved to further it, I think he would have gone to Belton without much fear of the rain. On the second day after the funeral he did go, and he had then made up his mind. Clara, if she would listen to him, should show her independence of Lady Aylmer by staying a few days with the Askertons before she went to Yorkshire, and by telling Lady Aylmer that such was her intention. ‘If she really loves the man,’ he said to himself, ‘she will go at once, in spite of anything that I can say. If she does not, I shall be saving her.’
‘How cruel of you not to come yesterday! ‘ Clara said, as soon as she saw him.,
‘It rained hard,’ he answered.
‘ But men like you care so little for rain; but that is when you have business to take you out or pleasure.’
‘You need not be so severe. The truth is I had things to trouble me.’
‘What troubled you, Will. I thought all the trouble was mine.’
‘I suppose everybody thinks that his own shoe pinches the hardest.’
‘Your shoe can’t pinch you very bad, I should think. Sometimes when I think of you it seems that you are an embodiment of prosperity and happiness.’
‘I don’t see it myself that’s all. Did you write to Lady Aylmer, Clara?’
‘I wrote; but I didn’t send it. I would not send any letter till I had shown it to you, as you are my confessor and adviser. There; read it. Nothing, I think, could be more courteous or less humble.’ He took the letter and read it. Clara had simply expressed herself willing to accept Lady Aylmer’s invitation, and asked her ladyship to fix a day. There was no mention of Captain Aylmer’s name in the note.
‘And you think this is best?’ he said. His voice was hardly like his own as he spoke. There was wanting to it that tone of self-assurance which his voice almost always possessed, even when self — assurance was lacking to his words.
‘I thought it was your own advice,’ she said.
‘Well yes; that is, I don’t quite know. You couldn’t go for a week or so yet, I suppose.’
‘Perhaps in about a week.’
‘And what will you do till then.?’
‘What will I do!’
‘Yes where do you mean to stay?’
‘I thought, Will, that perhaps you would let me remain here.’
‘Let you! Oh, heavens! Look here, Clara.’
‘Before heaven I want what may be the best for you without thinking of you, if I could only help it.’
‘I have never doubted you. I never will doubt you. I believe in you next to my God. I do, Will; I do.’ He walked up and down the room half-a-dozen times before he spoke again, while she stood by the table watching him. ‘I wish,’ she said, ‘I knew what it is that troubles you.’ To this he made no answer, but went on walking till she came up to him, and putting both her hands upon his arm said, ‘It will be better, Will, that I should go will it not? Speak to me, and say so. I feel that it will be better.’ Then he stopped in his walk and looked down upon her, as her hands still rested upon his shoulder. He gazed upon her for some few seconds, remaining quite motionless, and then, opening his arms, he surrounded her with his embrace, and pressing her with all his strength close to his bosom, kissed her forehead, and her cheeks, and her lips, and her eyes. His will was so masterful, his strength so great, and his motion so quick, that she was powerless to escape from him till he relaxed his hold. Indeed she hardly struggled, so much was she surprised and so soon released. But the moment that he left her he saw that her face was burning red, and that the tears were streaming from her eyes. She stood for a moment trembling, with her hands clenched, and with a look of scorn upon her lips and brow that he had never seen before; and then she threw herself on a sofa, and, burying her face, sobbed aloud; while her whole body was shaken as with convulsions. He leaned over her repentant, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to speak. All ideas of his scheme had gone from him now. He had offended her for ever past redemption. What could be the use now of any scheme? And as he stood there he hated himself because of his scheme. The utter misery and disgrace of the present moment had come upon him because he had thought more of himself than of her. It was but a few moments since she had told him that she trusted him next to her God; and yet in those few moments, he had shown himself utterly unworthy of that trust, and had destroyed all her confidence. But he could not leave, her without speaking to her. ‘Clara!’ he said ‘Clara.’ But she did not answer him. ‘Clara; will you not speak to me? Will you not let me ask you to forgive me?’ But still she only sobbed. For her, at that moment, we may say that sobbing was easier than speech. How was she to pardon so great an offence? How was she to resent such passionate love?
But he could not continue to stand there motionless, all but speechless, while she lay with her face turned away from him. He must at any rate in some manner take himself away out of the room; and this he could not do, even in his present condition of unlimited disgrace, without a word of farewell. ‘Perhaps I had better go and leave you,’ he said.
Then at last there came a voice, ‘Oh, Will, why have you done this? Why have you treated me so badly?’ When he had last seen her face her mouth had been full of scorn, but, there was, no scorn now in her voice. ‘Why why why?’
Why indeed except that it was needful for him that she should know the depth of his passion. ‘If you will forgive me, Clara, I will not offend you so again,’ he said.
‘You have offended me. What am I to say? What am I to do? I have no other friend.’
‘I am a wretch. I know that I am a wretch.’
‘I did not suspect that you would be so cruel. Oh, Will!’
But before he went she told him that she had forgiven him, and she had preached to him a solemn, sweet sermon on the wickedness of yielding, to momentary impulses. Her low, grave words sank into his ears as though they were divine; and when she said a word to him, blushing as she spoke, of the sin of his passion and of what her sin would be, if she were to permit it, he sat by her weeping like an infant, tears which were certainly tears of innocence. She had been very angry with him; but I think she loved him better when, her sermon was finished than she had ever loved him before.
There was no further question as to her going to Aylmer Castle, nor was any mention made of Mrs Askerton’s invitation to the cottage. The letter for Lady Aylmer was sent, and it was agreed between them that Will should remain at Redicote till the answer from Yorkshire should come, and should then convey Clara as far as London on her journey. And when he took leave of her that afternoon, she was able to give him her hand in her old hearty, loving way, and to call him Will with the old hearty, loving tone. And he he was able to accept these tokens of her graciousness, as though they were signs of a pardon which she had been good to give, but which he certainly had not deserved.
As he went back to Redicote, he swore to himself that he would never love any woman but her even though she must be the wife of Captain Aylmer.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01