Clara felt herself to be a coward as the Aylmer Park carriage, which had been sent to meet her at the station, was drawn up at Sir Anthony Aylmer’s door. She had made up her mind that she would not bow down to Lady Aylmer, and yet she was afraid of the woman. As she got out of the carriage, she looked up, expecting to see her in the hall; but Lady Aylmer was too accurately acquainted with the weights and measures of society for any such movement as that. Had her son brought Lady Emily to the house as his future bride, Lady Aylmer would probably have been in the hall when the arrival took place; and had Clara possessed ten thousand pounds of her own, she would probably have been met at the drawing-room door; but as she had neither money nor title as she in fact brought with her no advantages of any sort Lady Aylmer was found stitching a bit of worsted, as though she had expected no one to come to her. And Belinda Aylmer was stitching also by special order from her mother. The reader will remember that Lady Aylmer was not without strong hope that the engagement might even yet be broken off. Snubbing, she thought, might probably be efficacious to this purpose, and so Clara was to be snubbed.
Clara, who had just promised to do her best to gain Lady Aylmer’s opinion, and who desired to be in some way true to her promise, though she thoroughly believed that her labour would be in vain, put on her pleasantest smile as she entered the room. Belinda, under the pressure of the circumstances, forgetting somewhat of her mother’s injunctions, hurried to the door to welcome the stranger. Lady Aylmer kept her chair, and even maintained her stitch, till Clara was half across the room. Then she got up, and with great mastery over her voice, made her little speech.
‘We are delighted to see you, Miss Amedroz,’ she said, putting out her hand of which Clara, however, felt no more than the finger.
‘Quite delighted,’ said Belinda, yielding a fuller grasp. Then there were affectionate greetings between Frederic and his mother and Frederic and his sister, during which Clara stood by, ill at ease. Captain Aylmer said not a word as to the footing on which his future wife had come to his father’s house. He did not ask his mother to receive her as another daughter, or his sister to take his Clara to her heart as a sister. There had been no word spoken of recognized intimacy. Clara knew that the Aylmers were cold people. She had learned as much as that from Captain Aylmer’s words to herself, and from his own manner. But she had not expected to be so frozen by them as was the case with her now. In ten minutes she was sitting down with her bonnet still on, and Lady Aylmer was again at her stitches.
‘Shall I show you your room?’ said Belinda.
‘Wait a moment, my dear,’ said Lady Aylmer. ‘Frederic has gone to see if Sir Anthony is in his study.’
Sir Anthony was found in his study, and now made his appearance.
‘So this is Clara Amedroz,’ he said. ‘My dear, you are welcome to Aylmer Park.’ This was so much better, that the kindness expressed though there was nothing special in it brought a tear into Clara’s eye, and almost made her love Sir Anthony.
‘By the by, Sir Anthony, have you seen Darvel? Darvel was wanting to see you especially about Nuggins. Nuggins says that he’ll take the bullocks now.’ This was said by Lady Aylmer, and was skilfully arranged by her to put a stop to anything like enthusiasm on the part of Sir Anthony. Clara Amedroz had been invited to Aylmer Park, and was to be entertained there, but it would not be expedient that she should be made to think that anybody was particularly glad to see her, or that the family was at all proud of the proposed connexion. Within five minutes after this she was up in her room, and had received from Belinda tenders of assistance as to her lady’s maid. Both the mother and daughter had been anxious to learn whether Clara would bring her own maid. Lady Aylmer, thinking that she would do so, had already blamed her for extravagance. ‘Of course Fred will have to pay for the journey and all the rest of it,’ she had said. But as soon as she had perceived that Clara had come without a servant, she had perceived that any young woman who travelled in that way must be unfit to be mated with her son. Clara, whose intelligence in such matters was sharp enough, assured Belinda that she wanted no assistance. ‘I dare say you think it very odd,’ she said, ‘but I really can dress myself.’ And when the maid did come to unpack the things, Clara would have sent her away at once had she been able. But the maid, who was not a young woman, was obdurate. ‘Oh no, miss; my lady wouldn’t be pleased. If you please, miss, I’ll do it.’ And so the things were unpacked.
Clara was told that they dined at half-past seven, and she remained alone in her room till dinner — time, although it had not yet struck five when she had gone upstairs. The maid had brought her up a cup of tea, and she seated herself at her fire, turning over in her mind the different members of the household in which she found herself. It would never do. She told herself over and over again that it would never come to pass that that woman should be her mother-inlaw, or that that other woman should be her sister. It was manifest to her that she was distasteful to them; and she had not lost a moment in assuring herself that they were distasteful to her. What purpose could it answer that she should strive not to like them, for no such strife was possible but to appear to like them? The whole place and everything about it was antipathetic to her. Would it not be simply honest to Captain Aylmer that she should tell him so at once, and go away? Then she remembered that Frederic had not spoken to her a single word since she had been under his father’s roof. What sort of welcome would have been accorded to her had she chosen to go down to Plaistow Hall?
At half-past seven she made her way by herself downstairs. In this there was some difficulty, as she remembered nothing of the rooms below, and she could not at first find a servant. But a man at last did come to her in the hall, and by him she was shown into the drawing-room. Here she was alone for a few minutes. As she looked about her, she thought that no room she had ever seen had less of the comfort of habitation. It was not here that she had met Lady Aylmer before dinner. There had, at any rate, been in that other room work things, and the look of life which life gives to a room. But here there was no life. The furniture was all in its place, and everything was cold and grand and comfortless. They were making company of her at Aylmer Park!
Clara was intelligent in such matters, and understood it all thoroughly.
Lady Aylmer was the first person to come to her. ‘I hope my maid has been with you,’ said she to which Clara muttered something intended for thanks. ‘You’ll find Richards a very clever woman, and quite a proper person.’
‘I don’t at all doubt that.’
‘She has been here a good many years, and has perhaps little ways of her own but she means to be obliging.’
‘I shall give her very little trouble, Lady Aylmer. I am used to dress myself.’ I am afraid this was not exactly true as to Clara’s past habits; but she could dress herself, and intended to do so in future, and in this way justified the assertion to herself.
‘You had better let Richards come to you, my dear, while you are here,’ said Lady Aylmer, with a slight smile on her countenance which outraged Clara more even than the words. ‘We like to see young ladies nicely dressed here.’ To be told that she was to be nicely dressed because she was at Aylmer Park! Her whole heart was already up in rebellion. Do her best to please Lady Aylmer! It would be utterly impossible to her to make any attempt whatever in that direction. There was something in her ladyship’s eye a certain mixture of cunning, and power, and hardness in the slight smile that would gather round her mouth, by which Clara was revolted. She already understood much of Lady Aylmer, but in one thing she was mistaken. She thought that she saw simply the natural woman; but she did, in truth, see the woman specially armed with an intention of being disagreeable, made up to give offence, and prepared to create dislike and enmity. At the present moment nothing further was said, as Captain Aylmer entered the room, and his mother immediately began to talk to him in whispers.
The first two days of Clara’s sojourn at Aylmer Park passed by without the occurrence of anything that was remarkable. That which most surprised and annoyed her, as regarded her own position, was the coldness of all the people around her, as connected with the actual fact of her engagement. Sir Anthony was very courteous to her, but had never as yet once alluded to the fact that she was to become one of his family as his daughter-inlaw. Lady Aylmer called her Miss Amedroz using the name with a peculiar emphasis, as though determined to show that Miss Amedroz was to be Miss Amedroz as far as any one at Aylmer Park was concerned and treated her almost as though her presence in the house was intrusive. Belinda was as cold as her mother in her mother’s presence; but when alone with Clara would thaw a little. She, in her difficulty, studiously avoided calling the new-corner by any name at all. As to Captain Aylmer, it was manifest to Clara that he was suffering almost more than she suffered herself. His position was so painful that she absolutely pitied him for the misery to which he was subjected by his own mother. They still called each other Frederic and Clara, and that was the only sign of special friendship which manifested itself between them. And Clara, though she pitied him, could not but learn to despise him. She had hitherto given him credit at any rate for a will of his own. She had believed him to be a man able to act in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. But now she perceived him to be so subject to his mother that he did not dare to call his heart his own. What was to be the end of it all? And if there could only be one end, would it not be well that that end should be reached at once, so that she might escape from her purgatory?
But on the afternoon of the third day there seemed to have come a change over Lady Aylmer. At lunch she was especially civil civil to the extent of picking out herself for Clara, with her own fork, the breast of a hashed fowl from a dish that was before her. This she did with considerable care I may say, with a show of care; and then, though she did not absolutely call Clara by her Christian name, she did call her ‘my dear’. Clara saw it all, and felt that the usual placidity of the afternoon would be broken by some special event. At three o’clock, when the carriage as usual came to the door, Belinda was out of the way, and Clara was made to understand that she and Lady Aylmer were to be driven out without any other companion. ‘Belinda is a little busy, my dear. So, if you don’t mind, we’ll go alone.’ Clara of course assented, and got into the carriage with a conviction that now she would hear her fate. She was rather inclined to think that Lady Aylmer was about to tell her that she had failed in obtaining the approbation of Aylmer Park, and that she must be returned as goods of a description inferior to the order given. If such were the case, the breast of the chicken had no doubt been administered as consolation. Clara had endeavoured, since she had been at Aylmer Park, to investigate her own feelings in reference to Captain Aylmer; but had failed, and knew that she had failed. She wished to think that she loved him, as she could not endure the thought of having accepted a man whom she did not love. And she told herself that he bad done nothing to forfeit her love. A woman who really loves will hardly allow that her love should be forfeited by any fault. True love breeds forgiveness for all faults. And, after all, of what fault had Captain Aylmer been guilty? He had preached to her out of his mother’s mouth. That had been all! She had first accepted him, and then rejected him, and then accepted him again; and now she would fain be firm, if firmness were only possible to her. Nevertheless, if she were told that she was to be returned as inferior, she would hold up her head under such disgrace as best she might, and would not let the tidings break her heart.
‘My dear,’ said Lady Aylmer, as soon as the trotting horses and rolling wheels made noise enough to prevent her words from reaching the servants on the box. ‘I want to say a few words to you and I think that this will be a good opportunity.’
‘A very good opportunity,’ said Clara.
‘Of course, my dear, you are aware that I have heard of something going on between you and my son Frederic.’ Now that Lady Aylmer had taught herself to call Clara ‘my dear’, it seemed that she could hardly call her so often enough.
‘Of course I know that Captain Aylmer has told you of our engagement. But for that, I should not be here.’
‘I don’t know how that might be,’ said Lady Aylmer; ‘but at any rate, my dear, he has told me that since the day of my sister’s death there has been in point of fact, a sort of engagement.’
‘I don’t think Captain Aylmer has spoken of it in that way.’
‘In what way? Of course he has not said a word that was not nice and lover-like, and all that sort of thing. I believe he would have done anything in the world that his aunt had told him; and as to his’
‘Lady Aylmer!’ said Clara, feeling that her voice was almost trembling with anger,’ I am sure you cannot intend to be unkind to me?’
‘Or to insult me?’
‘Insult you, my dear! You should not use such strong words, my dear; indeed you should not. Nothing of the kind is near my thoughts.’
‘If you disapprove of my marrying your son, tell me so at once, and I shall know what to do.’
‘It depends, my dear it depends on circumstances, and that is just why I want to speak to you.’
‘Then tell me the circumstances though indeed I think it would have been better if they could have been told to me by Captain Aylmer himself.’
‘There, my dear, you must allow me to judge. As a mother, of course I am anxious for my son. Now Frederic is a poor man. Considering the kind of society in which he has to live, and the position which he must maintain as a Member of Parliament, he is a very poor man.’
This was an argument which Clara certainly had not expected that any of the Aylmer family would condescend to use. She had always regarded Captain Aylmer as a rich man since he had inherited Mrs Winterfield’s property, knowing that previously to that he had been able to live in London as rich men usually do live. ‘Is he?’ said she. ‘It may seem odd to you, Lady Aylmer, but I do not think that a word has ever passed between me and your son as to the amount of his income.’
‘Not odd at all, my dear. Young ladies are always thoughtless about those things, and when they are looking to be married think that money will come out of the skies.’
‘If you mean that I have been looking to be married’
‘Well expecting. I suppose you have been expecting it.’ Then she paused; but as Clara said nothing, she went on. ‘Of course, Frederic has got my sister’s moiety of the Perivale property about eight hundred a year, or something of that sort, when all deductions are made. He will have the moiety when I die, and if you and he can be satisfied to wait for that event which may not perhaps be very long ‘. Then there was another pause, indicative of the melancholy natural to such a suggestion, during which Clara looked at Lady Aylmer, and made up her mind that her ladyship would live for the next twenty-five years at least. ‘If you can wait for that,’ she continued, it may be all very well, and though you will be poor people, in Frederic’s rank of life, you will be able to live.’
‘That will be so far fortunate,’ said Clara.
‘But you’ll have to wait,’ said Lady Aylmer, turning upon her companion almost fiercely. ‘That is, you certainly will have to do so if you are to depend upon Frederic’s income alone.’
‘I have nothing of my own as he knows; absolutely nothing.’
‘That does not seem to be quite so clear,’ said Lady Aylmer, speaking now very cautiously or rather with a purpose of great caution; ‘I don’t think that that is quite so clear. Frederic has been telling me that there seems to be some sort of a doubt about the settlement of the Belton estate.’
‘There is no sort of doubt whatsoever no shadow of a doubt. He is quite mistaken.’
‘Don’t be in such a hurry, my dear. It is not likely that you yourself should be a very good lawyer.’
‘Lady Aylmer, I must be in a hurry lest there should be any mistake about this. There is no question here for lawyers. Frederic must have been misled by a word or two which I said to him with quite another purpose. Everybody concerned knows that the Belton estate goes to my cousin Will. My poor father was quite aware of it.’
‘That is all very well; and pray remember, my dear, that you need not attack me in this way. I am endeavouring, if possible, to arrange the accomplishment of your own wishes. It seems that Mr Belton himself does not claim the property.’
‘There is no question of claiming. Because he is a man more generous than any other person in the world romantic ally generous he has offered to give me the property which was my father’s for his lifetime; but I do not suppose that you would wish, or that Captain Aylmer would wish, that I should accept such an offer as that.’ There was a tone in her voice as she said this, and a glance in her eye as she turned her face full upon her companion, which almost prevailed against Lady Aylmer’s force of character.
‘I really don’t know, my dear,’ said Lady Aylmer. ‘You are so violent.’
‘I certainly am eager about this. No consideration on earth would induce me to take my cousin’s property from him.’
‘It always seemed to me that that entail was a most unfair proceeding.’
‘What would it signify even if it were which it was not? Papa got certain advantages on those conditions. But what can all that matter? It belongs to Will Belton.’
Then there was another pause, and Clara thought that that subject was over between them. But Lady Aylmer had not as yet completed her purpose. Shall I tell you, my dear, what I think you ought to do?’
‘Certainly, Lady Aylmer; if you wish it.’
‘I can at any rate tell you what it would become any young lady to do under such circumstances. I suppose you will give me credit for knowing as much as that. Any young lady placed as you are would be recommended by her friends if she had friends able and fit to give her advice to put the whole matter into the hands of her natural friends and her lawyer together. Hear me out, my dear, if you please. At least you can do that for me, as I am taking a great deal of trouble on your behalf. You should let Frederic see Mr Green. I understand that Mr Green was your father’s lawyer. And then Mr Green can see Mr Belton. And so the matter can be arranged. It seems to me, from what I hear, that in this way, and in this way only; something can be done as to the proposed marriage. In no other way can anything be done.’
Then Lady Aylmer had finished her argument, and throwing herself back into the carriage, seemed to intimate that she desired no reply. She had believed and did believe that her guest was so intent upon marrying her son, that no struggle would be regarded as too great for the achievement of that object. And such belief was natural on her part. Mothers always so think of girls engaged to their sons, and so think especially when the girls are penniless and the sons are well-to-do in the world. But such belief, though it is natural, is sometimes wrong and it was altogether wrong in this instance. ‘Then,’ said Clara, speaking very plainly,’ nothing can be done.’
‘Very well, my dear.’
After that there was not a word said between them till the carriage was once more within the park. Then Lady Aylmer spoke again. ‘I presume you see, my dear, that under these circumstances any thought of marriage between you and my son must be quite out of the question at any rate for a great many years.’
‘I will speak to Captain Aylmer about it, Lady Aylmer.’
‘Very well, my dear. So do. Of course he is his own master. But he is my son as well, and I cannot see him sacrificed without an effort to save him.’
When Clara came down to dinner on that day she was again Miss Amedroz, and she could perceive from Belinda’s manner quite as plainly as from that of her ladyship that she was to have no more tit-bits of hashed chicken specially picked out for her by Lady Aylmer’s own fork., That evening and the two next days passed, just as had passed the two first days, and everything was dull, cold, and uncomfortable. Twice she had walked out with Frederic, and on each occasion had thought that he would refer to what his mother had said; but he did not venture to touch upon the subject. Clara more than once thought that she would do so herself; but when the moment came she found that it was impossible. She could not bring herself to say anything that should have had the appearance of a desire on her part to hurry on a marriage. She could not say to him, ‘If you are too poor to be married or even if you mean to put forward that pretence say so at once.’ He still called her Clara, and still asked her to walk with him, and still talked, when they were alone together, in a distant cold way, of the events of their future combined life. Would they live at Perivale? Would it be necessary to refurnish the house? Should he keep any of the land on his own hands? These are all interesting subjects of discussion between an engaged man and the girl to whom he is engaged; but the man, if he wish to make them thoroughly pleasant to the lady, should throw something of the urgency of a determined and immediate purpose into the discussion. Something should be said as to the actual destination of the rooms. A day should be fixed for choosing the furnishing. Or the gentleman should declare that he will at once buy the cows for the farm. But with Frederic Aylmer all discussions seemed to point to some cold, distant future, to which Clara might look forward as she did to the joys of heaven. Will Belton would have bought the ring long since, and bespoken the priest, and arranged every detail of the honeymoon, tour and very probably would have stood looking into a cradle shop with longing eyes.
At last there came an absolute necessity for some plain speaking. Captain Aylmer declared his intention of returning to London that he might resume his parliamentary duties. He had purposed to remain till after Easter, but it was found to be impossible. ‘I find I must go up tomorrow,’ he said at breakfast. ‘They are going to make a stand about the poor-rates, and I must be in the House in the evening.’ Clara felt herself to be very cold and uncomfortable. As things were at present arranged, she was to be left at Aylmer Park without a friend. And how long was she to remain there? No definite ending had been proposed for her visit. Something must be said and something settled before Captain Aylmer went away.
‘You will come down for Easter, of course,’ said his mother.
‘Yes; I shall come down for Easter, I think or at any rate at Whitsuntide.’
‘You must come at Easter, Frederic,’ said his mother.
‘I don’t doubt but I shall,’ said he.
‘Miss Amedroz should lay her commands upon him,’ said Sir Anthony gallantly.
‘Nonsense, said Lady Aylmer.
‘I have commands to lay upon him all the same,’ said Clara; ‘and if he will give me half an hour this morning he shall have them.’ To this Captain Aylmer, of course, assented as how could he escape from such assent and a regular appointment was made, Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz were to be closeted together in the little back drawing-room immediately after breakfast. Clara would willingly have avoided any such formality could she have done so compatibly with the exigencies of the occasion. She had been obliged to assert herself when Lady Aylmer had rebuked Sir Anthony, and then Lady Aylmer had determined that an air of business should be assumed. Clara, as she was marched off into the back drawing-room followed by her lover with more sheep-like gait even than her own, felt strongly the absurdity and the wretchedness of her position. But she was determined to go through with her purpose.
‘I am very sorry that I have to leave you so soon,’ said Captain Aylmer, as soon as the door was shut and they were alone together.
‘Perhaps it may be better as it is, Frederic; as in this way we shall all come to understand each other, and something will be settled.’
‘Well, yes; perhaps that will be best.’
‘Your mother has told me that she disapproves of our marriage.’
‘No; not that, I think, I don’t think she can have quite said that.’
‘She says that you cannot marry while she is alive that is, that you cannot marry me because your income would not be sufficient.’
‘I certainly was speaking to her about my income.’
‘Of course I have got nothing.’ Here she paused. ‘Not a penny-piece in the world that I can call my own.’
‘Oh yes, you have.’
‘You have your aunt’s legacy?’
‘No; I have not. She left me no legacy. But as that is between you and me, if we think of marrying each other, that would make no difference.’
‘None at all, of course.’
‘But in truth I have got nothing. Your mother said something to me about the Belton estate; as though there was some idea that possibly it might come to me.’
‘Your cousin himself seemed to think so.’
‘Frederic, do not let us deceive ourselves. There can be nothing of the kind. I could not accept any portion of the property from my cousin even though our marriage were to depend upon it.’
‘Of course it does not.’
‘But if your means are not sufficient for your wants I am quite ready to accept that reason as being sufficient for breaking our engagement.’
‘There need be nothing of the kind.’
‘As for waiting for the death of another person for your mother’s death, I should think it very wrong. Of course, if our engagement stands there need be no hurry; but some time should be fixed.’ Clara as she said this felt that her face and forehead were suffused with a blush; but she was determined that it should be said, and the words were pronounced.
‘I quite think so too,’ said he.
‘I am glad that we agree. Of course, I will leave it to you to fix the time.’
‘You do not mean at this very moment?’ said Captain Aylmer, almost aghast.
‘No; I did not mean that.’
‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll make a point of coming down at Easter. I wasn’t sure about it before, but now I will be. And then it shall be settled.’
Such was the interview; and on the next morning Captain Aylmer started for London. Clara felt, aware that she had not done or said all that should have been done and said; but, nevertheless, a step in the right direction had been taken.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14