Easter in this year fell about the middle of April, and it still wanted three weeks of that time when Captain Aylmer started for London. Clara was quite alive to the fact that the next three weeks would not be a happy time for her. She looked forward, indeed, to so much wretchedness during this period, that the days as they came were not quite so bad as she had expected them to be. At first Lady Aylmer said little or nothing to her. It seemed to be agreed between them that there was to be war, but that there was no necessity for any of the actual operations of war during the absence of Captain Aylmer. Clara had become Miss Amedroz again; and though an offer to be driven out in the carriage was made to her every day, she was in general able to escape the infliction so that at last it came to be understood that Miss Amedroz did not like carriage exercise. She has never been used to it,’ said Lady Aylmer to her daughter. ‘I suppose not,’ said Belinda; ‘but if she wasn’t so very cross she’d enjoy it just for that reason.’ Clara sometimes walked about the grounds with Belinda, but on such occasions there was hardly anything that could be called conversation between them, and Frederic Aylmer’s name was never mentioned.
Captain Aylmer had not been gone many days before she received a letter from her cousin, in which he spoke with absolute certainty of his intention of giving up the estate. He had, he said, consulted Mr Green, and the thing was to be done. ‘But it will be better, I think,’ he went on to say, ‘that I should manage it for you till after your marriage. I simply mean what I say. You are not to suppose that I shall interfere in any way afterwards. Of course there will be a settlement, as to which I hope you will allow me to see Mr Green on your behalf.’ In the first draught of his letter he had inserted a sentence in which he expressed a wish that the property should be so settled that it might at last all come to some one bearing the name of Belton. But as he read this over, the condition for coming from him it would be a condition seemed to him to be ungenerous, and he expunged it. ‘What does it matter who has it,’ he said to himself bitterly, ‘or what he is called? I will never set eyes upon his children, nor yet upon the place when he has become the master of it.’ Clara wrote both to her cousin and to the lawyer, repeating her assurance with great violence, as Lady Aylmer would have said that she would have nothing to with the Belton estate. She told Mr Green that it would be useless for him to draw up any deeds. ‘It can’t be made mine unless I choose to have it,’ she said, ‘and I don’t choose to have it.’ Then there came upon her a terrible fear. What if she should marry Captain Aylmer after all; and what if he, when he should be her husband, should take the property on her behalf! Something must be done before her marriage to prevent the possibility of such results something as to the efficacy of which for such prevention she could feel altogether certain.
But could she marry Captain Aylmer at all in her present mood? During these three weeks she was unconsciously teaching herself to hope that she might be relieved from her engagement. She did not love him. She was becoming aware that she did not love him. She was beginning to doubt whether, in truth, she had ever loved him. But yet she felt that she could not, escape from her engagement if he should show himself to. be really actuated by any fixed purpose to carry it out; nor could she bring herself to be so weak before Lady Aylmer as to seem to yield. The necessity of not striking her colours was forced upon her by the warfare to which she was subjected. She was unhappy, feeling that her present position in life was bad, and unworthy of her. She could have brought herself almost to run away from Aylmer Park, as a boy runs away from school, were it not that she had no place to which to run. She could not very well make her appearance at Plaistow Hall, and say that she had come there for shelter and succour. She could, indeed, go to Mrs Askerton’s cottage for awhile; and the more she thought of the state of her affairs, the more did she feel sure that that would, before long, be her destiny. It must be her destiny unless Captain Aylmer should return at Easter with purposes so firmly fixed that even his mother should not be able to prevail against them.
And now, in these days, circumstances gave her a new friend or perhaps, rather, a new acquaintance, where she certainly had looked neither for the one or for the other. Lady Aylmer and Belinda and the carriage and the horses used, as I have said, to go off without her. This would take place soon after luncheon. Most of us know how the events of the day drag themselves on tediously in such a country house as Aylmer Park — a country house in which people neither read, nor flirt, nor gamble, nor smoke, nor have resort to the excitement of any special amusement. Lunch was on the table at half-past one, and the carriage was at the door at three. Eating and drinking and the putting on of bonnets occupied the hour and a half. From breakfast to lunch Lady Aylmer, with her old ‘front’, would occupy herself with her household accounts. For some days after Clara’s arrival she put on her new ‘front’ before lunch; but of late since the long conversation in the carriage the new ‘front’ did not appear till she came down for the carriage. According to the theory of her life, she was never to be seen by any but her own family in her old ‘front’. At breakfast she would appear with head so mysteriously enveloped with such a bewilderment of morning caps that old ‘front’ or new ‘front’ was all the same. When Sir Anthony perceived this change when he saw that Clara was treated as though she belonged to Aylmer Park then he told himself that his son’s marriage with Miss Amedroz was to be; and, as Miss Amedroz seemed to him to be a very pleasant young woman, he would creep out of his own quarters when the carriage was gone and have a little chat with her being careful to creep away again before her ladyship’s return. This was Clara’s new friend.
‘Have you heard from Fred since he has been gone?’ the old man asked one day, when he had come upon Clara still seated in the parlour in which they had lunched. He had been out, at the front of the house, scolding the under-gardener; but the man had taken away his barrow and left him, and Sir Anthony had found himself without employment.
‘Only a line to say that he is to be here on the sixteenth.’
‘I don’t think people write so many love-letters as they did when I was young,’ said Sir Anthony.
‘To judge from the novels, I should think not. The old novels used to be full of love-letters.’
‘Fred was never good at writing, I think.’
‘Members of Parliament have too much to do, I suppose,’ said Clara.
‘But he always writes when there is any business. He’s a capital man of business. I wish I could say as much for his brother or for myself.’
‘Lady Aylmer seems to like work of that sort.’
‘So she does. She’s fond of it I am not. I sometimes think that Fred takes after her. Where was it you first knew him?’
‘At Perivale. We used, both of us, to be staying with Mrs Winterfield.’
‘Yes, yes; of course. The most natural thing in life. Well, my dear, I can assure you that I am quite satisfied.’
‘Thank you, Sir Anthony. I’m glad to hear you say even as much as that.’
‘Of course money is very desirable for a man situated like Fred; but he’ll have enough, and if he is pleased, I am. Personally, as regards yourself, I am more than pleased. I am indeed.’
‘It’s very good of you to say so.’
Sir Anthony looked at Clara, and his heart was softened towards her as he saw that there was a tear in her eye. A man’s heart must be very hard when it does not become softened by the trouble of a woman with whom he finds himself alone. ‘I don’t know how you and Lady Aylmer get on together,’ he said; ‘but it will not be my fault if we are not friends.’
‘I am afraid that Lady Aylmer does not like me,’ said Clara.
‘Indeed. I was afraid there was something of that. But you must remember she is hard to please. You’ll find she’ll come round in time.’
‘She thinks that Captain Aylmer should not marry a woman without money.’
‘That’s all very well; but I don’t see why Fred shouldn’t please himself, He’s old enough to know what he wants.’
‘Is he, Sir Anthony? That’s just the question. I’m not quite sure that he does know what he wants.’
‘Fred doesn’t know, do you mean?’
‘I don’t quite think he does, sir. And the worst of it is, I am in doubt as well as he.’
‘In doubt about marrying him?’
‘In doubt whether it will be good for him or for any of us. I don’t like to come into a family that does not desire to have me.’
‘You shouldn’t think so much of Lady Aylmer as all that, my dear.’
‘But I do think a great deal of her.’
‘I shall be very glad to have you as a daughter-inlaw. And as for Lady Aylmer between you and me, my dear, you shouldn’t take every word she says so much to heart. She’s the best woman in the world, and I’m sure I’m bound to say so. But she has her temper, you know; and I don’t think you ought to give way to her altogether. There’s the carriage. It won’t do you any good if we’re found together talking over it all; will it?’ Then the baronet hobbled off, and Lady Aylmer, when she entered the room, found Clara sitting alone.
Whether it was that the wife was clever enough to extract from her husband something of the conversation that had passed between him and Clara, or whether she had some other source of information or whether her conduct might proceed from other grounds, we need not inquire; but from that afternoon Lady Aylmer’s manner and words to Clara became much less courteous than they had been before. She would always speak as though some great iniquity was being committed, and went about the house with a portentous frown, as though some terrible measure must soon be taken with the object of putting an end to the present extremely improper state of things. All this was so manifest to Clara, that she said to Sir Anthony one day that she could no longer bear the look of Lady Aylmer’s displeasure and that she would be forced to leave Aylmer Park before Frederic’s return, unless the evil were mitigated. She had by this time told Sir Anthony that she much doubted whether the marriage would be possible, and that she really believed that it would be best for all parties that the idea should be abandoned. Sir Anthony, when he heard this, could only shake his head and hobble away. The trouble was too deep for him to cure.
But Clara still held on; and now there wanted but two days to Captain Aylmer’s return, when, all suddenly, there arose a terrible storm at Aylmer Park, and then came a direct and positive quarrel between Lady Aylmer and Clara a quarrel direct and positive and, on the part of both ladies, very violent.
Nothing had hitherto been said at Aylmer Park about Mrs Askerton nothing, that is, since Clara’s arrival. And Clara had been thankful for this silence. The letter which Captain Aylmer had written to her about Mrs Askerton will perhaps be remembered, and Clara’s answer to that letter. The Aylmer Park opinion as to this poor woman, and as to Clara’s future conduct towards the poor woman, had been expressed very strongly; and Clara had as strongly resolved that she would not be guided by Aylmer Park opinions in that matter. She had anticipated much that was disagreeable on this subject, and had therefore congratulated herself not a little on the absence of all allusion to it. But Lady Aylmer had, in truth, kept Mrs Askerton in reserve, as a battery to be used against Miss Amedroz if all other modes of attack should fail as a weapon which would be powerful when other weapons had been powerless. For a while she had thought it possible that Clara might be the owner of the Belton estate, and then it had been worth the careful mother’s while to be prepared to accept a daughter-inlaw so dowered. We have seen how the question of such ownership had enabled her to put forward the plea of poverty which she had used on her son’s behalf. But since that, Frederic had declared his intention of marrying the young woman in spite of his poverty, and Clara seemed to be equally determined. ‘He has been fool enough to speak the word, and she is determined to keep him to it,’ said Lady Aylmer to her daughter. Therefore the Askerton battery was brought to bear not altogether unsuccessfully.
The three ladies were sitting together in the drawing-room, and had been as mute as fishes for half an hour. In these sittings they were generally very silent, speaking only in short little sentences. ‘Will you drive with us today, Miss Amedroz?’ ‘Not today, I think, Lady Aylmer.’ ‘As you are reading, perhaps you won’t mind our leaving you?’ ‘Pray do not put yourself to inconvenience for me, Miss Aylmer,’ Such and such like was their conversation; but on a sudden, after a full half — hour’s positive silence, Lady Aylmer asked a question altogether of another kind. ‘I think, Miss Amedroz, my son wrote to you about a certain Mrs Askerton?’
Clara put down her work and sat for a moment almost astonished. It was not only that Lady Aylmer had asked so very disagreeable a question, but that she had asked it with so peculiar a voice a voice as it were a command, in a manner that was evidently intended to be taken as serious, and with a look of authority in her eye, as though she were resolved that this battery of hers should knock the enemy absolutely in the dust! Belinda gave a little spring in her chair, looked intently at her work, and went on stitching faster than before. ‘Yes, he did,’ said Clara, finding that an answer was imperatively demanded from her.
‘It was quite necessary that he should write. I believe it to be an undoubted fact that Mrs Askerton is is is not at all what she ought to be.’
‘Which of us is what we ought to be?’ said Clara.
‘Miss Amedroz, on this subject I am not at all inclined to joke. Is it not true that Mrs Askerton’
‘You must excuse me, Lady Aylmer, but what I know of Mrs Askerton, I know altogether in confidence; so that I cannot speak to you of her past life.’
‘But, Miss Amedroz, pray excuse me if I say that I must speak of it. When I remember the position in which you do us the honour of being our visitor here, how can I help speaking of it?’ Belinda was stitching very hard, and would not even raise her eyes. Clara, who still held her needle in her hand, resumed her work, and for a moment or two made no further answer. But Lady Aylmer had by no means completed her task. ‘Miss Amedroz,’ she said, ‘you must allow me to judge for myself in this matter. The subject is one on which I feel myself obliged to speak to you.’
‘But I have got nothing to say about it.’
‘You have, I believe, admitted the truth of the allegations made by us as to this woman.’ Clara was becoming very angry. A red spot showed itself on each cheek, and a frown settled upon her brow. She did not as yet know what she would say or how she would conduct herself. She was striving to consider how best she might assert her own independence. But she was fully determined that in this matter she would not bend an inch to Lady Aylmer. ‘I believe we may take that as admitted?’, said her ladyship.
‘I am not aware that I have admitted anything to you, Lady Aylmer, or said anything that can justify you in questioning me on the subject.’
‘Justify me in questioning a young woman who tells me that she is to be my future daughter-inlaw!’
‘I have not told you so. I have never told you anything of the kind.’
‘Then on what footing, Miss Amedroz, do you do us the honour of being with us here at Aylmer Park?’
‘On a very foolish footing.’
‘On a foolish footing! What does that mean?’
‘It means that I have been foolish in coming to a house in which I am subjected to such questioning.’
‘Belinda, did you ever hear anything like this? Miss Amedroz, I must persevere, however much you may dislike it. The story of this woman’s life whether she be Mrs Askerton or not, I don’t know’
‘She is Mrs Askerton,’ said Clara.
‘As to that I do not profess to know, and I dare say that you are no wiser than myself. But what she has been we do know.’ Here Lady Aylmer raised her voice and continued to speak with all the eloquence which assumed indignation could give her. ‘What she has been we do know, and I ask you, as a duty which I own to my son, whether you have put an end to your acquaintance with so very disreputable a person a person whom even to have known is a disgrace?’
‘I know her, and’
‘Stop one minute, if you please. My questions are these Have you put an end to that acquaintance? Are you ready to give a promise that it shall never be resumed?
‘I have not put an end to that acquaintance or rather that affectionate friendship as I should call it, and I am ready to promise that it shall be maintained with all my heart.’
‘Belinda, do you hear her?’
‘Yes, mamma.’ And Belinda slowly shook her head, which was now bowed lower than ever over her lap.
‘And that is your resolution?’
‘Yes, Lady Aylmer; that is my resolution.’
‘And you think that becoming to you, as a young woman?’
‘Just so; I think that becoming to me as a young woman.’
‘Then let me tell you, Miss Amedroz, that I differ from you altogether altogether.’ Lady Aylmer, as she repeated the last word, raised her folded hands as though she were calling upon heaven to witness how thoroughly she differed from the young woman!
‘I don’t see how I am to help that, Lady Aylmer. I dare say we may differ on many subjects.’
‘I dare say we do. I dare say we do. And I need not point out to you how very little that would be a matter of regret to me but for the hold you have upon my unfortunate son.’
‘Hold upon him, Lady Aylmer! How dare you insult me by such language?’ Hereupon Belinda again jumped in her chair; but Lady Aylmer looked as though she enjoyed the storm.
‘You undoubtedly have a hold upon him, Miss Amedroz, and I think that it is a great misfortune. Of course, when he hears what your conduct is with reference to this person, he will release himself from his entanglement.’
‘He can release himself from his entanglement whenever he chooses,’ said Clara, rising from her chair. ‘Indeed, he is released. I shall let Captain Aylmer know that our engagement must be at an end, unless he will promise that I shall never in future be subjected to the unwarrantable insolence of his mother.’ Then she walked off to the door, not regarding, and indeed not hearing, the parting shot that was fired at her.
And now what was to be done! Clara went up to her own room, making herself strong and even comfortable, with an inward assurance that nothing should ever induce her even to sit down to table again with Lady Aylmer. She would not willingly enter the same room with Lady Aylmer, or have any speech with her. But what should she at once do? She could not very well leave Aylmer Park without settling whither she would go; nor could she in any way manage to leave the house on that afternoon. She almost resolved that she would go to Mrs Askerton. Everything was of course over between her and Captain Aylmer, and therefore there was no longer any hindrance to her doing so on that score. But what would be her Cousin Will’s wish? He, now, was the only friend to whom she could trust for good counsel. What would be his advice? Should she write and ask him? No she could not do that. She could not bring herself to write to him, telling him that the Aylmer ‘entanglement’ was at an end. Were she to do so, he, with his temperament, would take such letter as meaning much more than it was intended to mean. But she would write a letter to Captain Aylmer. This she thought that she would do at once, and she began it.
She got as far as ‘My dear Captain Aylmer,’ and then she found that the letter was one which could not be written very easily. And she remembered, as the greatness of the difficulty of writing the letter became plain to her, that it could not now be sent so as to reach Captain Aylmer before he would leave London. If written at all, it must be addressed to him at Aylmer Park, and the task might be done tomorrow as well as today. So that task was given up for the present.
But she did write a letter to Mrs Askerton a letter which she would send or not on the morrow, according to the state of her mind as it might then be. In this she declared her purpose of leaving Aylmer Park on the day after Captain Aylmer’s arrival, and asked to be taken in at the cottage. An answer was to be sent to her, addressed to the Great Northern Railway Hotel.
Richards, the maid, came up to her before dinner, with offers of assistance for dressing offers made in a tone which left no doubt on Clara’s mind that Richards knew all about the quarrel. But Clara declined to be dressed, and sent down a message saying that she would remain in her room, and begging to be supplied with tea. She would not even condescend to say that she was troubled with a headache. Then Belinda came up to her, just before dinner was announced, and with a fluttered gravity advised Miss Amedroz to come down-stairs. ‘Mamma thinks it will be much better that you should show yourself, let the final result be what it may.’
‘But I have not the slightest desire to show myself.’
‘There are the servants, you know.’
‘But, Miss Aylmer, I don’t care a straw for the servants really not a straw.’
‘And papa will feel it so.’
‘I shall be sorry if Sir Anthony is annoyed but I cannot help it. It has not been my doing.’
‘And mamma says that my brother would of course wish it.’
‘After what your mother has done, I don’t see what his wishes would have to do with it even if she knew them which I don’t think she does.’
‘But if you will think of it, I’m sure you’ll find it is the proper thing to do. There is nothing to be avoided so much as an open quarrel, that all the servants can see.’
‘I must say, Miss Aylmer, that I disregard the servants. After what passed downstairs, of course I have had to consider what I should do. Will you tell your mother that I will stay here, if she will permit it?’
‘Of course. She will be delighted.’
‘I will remain, if she will permit it, till the morning after Captain Aylmer’s arrival. Then I shall go.’
‘Where to, Miss Amedroz?’
‘I have already written to a friend, asking her to receive me.’
Miss Aylmer paused a moment before she asked her next question but she did ask it, showing by her tone and manner that she had been driven to summon up all her courage to enable her to do so. ‘To what friend, Miss Amedroz? Mamma will be glad to know.’
‘That is a question which Lady Aylmer can have no right to ask,’ said Clara.
‘Oh very well. Of course, if you don’t like to tell, there’s no more to be said.’
‘I do not like to tell, Miss Aylmer.’
Clara had her tea in her room that evening, and lived there the whole of the next day. The family downstairs was not comfortable. Sir Anthony could not be made to understand why his guest kept her room which was not odd, as Lady Aylmer was very sparing in the information she gave him; and Belinda found it to be impossible to sit at table, or to say a few words to her father and mother, without showing at every moment her consciousness that a crisis had occurred. By the next day’s post the letter to Mrs Askerton was sent, and at the appointed time Captain Aylmer arrived. About an hour after he entered the house, Belinda went upstairs with a message from him would Miss Amedroz see him? Miss Amedroz would see him, but made it a condition of doing so that she should not be required to meet Lady Aylmer. She need not be afraid,’ said Lady Aylmer. ‘Unless she sends me a full apology, with a promise that she will have no further intercourse whatever with that woman, I will never willingly see her again.’ A meeting was therefore arranged between Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz in a sitting-room upstairs.
‘What is all this, Clara?’ said Captain Aylmer, at once.
‘Simply this that your mother has insulted me most wantonly.’
‘She says that it is you who have been uncourteous to her.’
‘Be it so you can of course believe whichever you please, and it is desirable, no doubt, that you should prefer to believe your mother.’
‘But I do not wish there to be any quarrel.’
‘But there is a quarrel, Captain Aylmer, and I must leave your father’s house. I cannot stay here after what has taken place. Your mother told me I cannot tell you what she told me, but she made against me just those accusations which she knew it would be the hardest for me to bear.’
‘I’m sure you have mistaken her.’
‘No; I have not mistaken her.’
‘And where do you propose to go?’
‘To Mrs Askerton.’
‘I have written to Mrs Askerton to ask her to receive me for awhile. Indeed, I may almost say that I had no other choice.’
‘If you go there, Clara, there will be an end to everything.’
‘And there must be an end of what you call everything, Captain Aylmer,’ said she, smiling. ‘It cannot be for your good to bring into your family a wife of whom your mother would think so badly as she thinks of me.’
There was a great deal said, and Captain Aylmer walked very often up and down the room, endeavouring to make some arrangement which might seem in some sort to appease his mother. Would Clara only allow a telegram to be sent to Mrs Askerton, to explain that she had changed her mind? But Clara would allow no such telegram to be sent, and on that evening she packed up all her things. Captain Aylmer saw her again and again, sending Belinda backwards and forwards, and making different appointments up to midnight; but it was all to no purpose, and on the next morning she took her departure alone in the Aylmer Park carriage for the railway station. Captain Aylmer had proposed to go with her; but she had so stoutly declined his company that he was obliged to abandon his intention. She saw neither of the ladies on that morning, but Sir Anthony came out to say a word of farewell to her in the hall. ‘I am very sorry for all this,’ said he. ‘It is a pity,’ said Clara, ‘but it cannot be helped. Good-bye, Sir Anthony.’ ‘I hope we may meet again under pleasanter circumstances,’ said the baronet. To this Clara made no reply, and was then handed into the carriage by Captain Aylmer.
‘I am so bewildered,’ said he, ‘that I cannot now say anything definite, but I shall write to you, and probably follow you.’
‘Do not follow me, pray, Captain Aylmer,’ said she, Then she was driven to the station; and as she passed through the lodges of the park entrance she took what she intended to be a final farewell of Aylmer Park.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14