Captain Aylmer had never before this knelt to Clara Amedroz. Such kneeling on the part of lovers used to be the fashion because lovers in those days held in higher value than they do now that which they asked their ladies to give or because they pretended to do so. The forms at least of supplication were used; whereas in these wiser days Augustus simply suggests to Caroline that they two might as well make fools of themselves together and so the thing is settled without the need of much prayer. Captain Aylmer’s engagement had been originally made somewhat after this fashion. He had not, indeed, spoken of the thing contemplated as a folly, not being a man given to little waggeries of that nature; but he had been calm, unenthusiastic, and reasonable. He bad not attempted to evince any passion, and would have been quite content that Clara should believe that he married as much from obedience to his aunt as from love for herself, had he not found that Clara would not take him at all under such a conviction. But though she had declined to come to him after that fashion though something more than that had been needed still she had been won easily, and, therefore, lightly prized. I fear that it is so with everything that we value with our horses, our houses, our wines, and, above all, with our women. Where is the man who has heart and soul big enough to love a woman with increased force of passion because she has at once recognized in him all that she has herself desired? Captain Aylmer having won his spurs easily, had taken no care in buckling them, and now found, to his surprise, that he was like to lose them. He had told himself that he would only be too glad to shuffle his feet free of their bondage; but now that they were going from him, he began to find that they were very necessary for the road that he was to travel. ‘Clara,’ he said, kneeling by her side,’ you are more to me than my mother; ten times more!’
This was all new to her. Hitherto, though she had never desired that he should assume such attitude as this, she had constantly been unconsciously wounded by his coldness by his cold propriety and unbending self-possession. His cold propriety and unbending self-possession were gone now, and he was there at her feet. Such an argument, used at Aylmer Park, would have conquered her would have won her at once, in spite of herself; but now she was minded to be resolute. She had sworn to herself that she would not peril herself, or him, by joining herself to a man with whom she had so little sympathy, and who apparently had none with her. But in what way was she to answer such a prayer as that which was now made to her? The man who addressed her was entitled to use all the warmth of an accepted lover. He only asked for that which had already been given to him.
‘Captain Aylmer ‘ she began.
‘Why is it to be Captain Aylmer? What have I done that you should use me in this way? It was not I who who made you unhappy at Aylmer Park.’
‘I will not go back to that. It is of no use. Pray get up. It shocks me to see you in this way.’
‘Tell me, then, that it is once more all right between us. Say that, and I shall be happier than I ever was before yes, than I ever was before. I know how much I love you now, how sore it would be to lose you. I have been wrong. I had not thought enough of that, but I will think of it now.’
She found that the task before her was very difficult so difficult that she almost broke down in performing it. It would have been so easy and, for the moment, so pleasant to have yielded. He had his hand upon her arm, having attempted to take her hand. In preventing that she had succeeded, but she could not altogether make herself free from him without rising. For a moment she had paused paused as though she were about to yield. For a moment, as he looked into her eyes, he had thought that he would again be victorious. Perhaps there was something in his glance, some too visible return of triumph to his eyes, which warned her of her danger. ‘No!’ she said, getting up and walking away from him; ‘no!’
‘And what does “no” mean, Clara?’ Then he also rose, and stood leaning on the table. ‘Does it mean that you will be forsworn?’
‘It means this that I will not come between you and your mother; that I will not be taken into a family in which I am scorned; that I will not go to Aylmer Park myself or be the means of preventing you from going there.’
‘There need be no question of Aylmer Park.’
‘There shall be none!’
‘But, so much being allowed, you will be my wife?’
‘No, Captain Aylmer no. I cannot be your wife. Do not press it further; you must know that on such a subject I would think much before I answered you. I have thought much, and I know that I am right.’
‘And your promised word is to go for nothing?’
‘If it will comfort you to say so, you may say it. If you do not perceive that the mistake made between us has been as much your mistake as mine, and has injured me more than it has injured you, I will not remind you of it will never remind you of it after this.’
‘But there has been no mistake and there shall be no injury.’
‘Ah, Captain Aylmer you do not understand; you cannot understand. I would not for worlds reproach you; but do you think I suffered nothing from your mother?’
‘And must I pay for her sins?’
‘There shall be no paying, no punishment, and no reproaches. There shall be none at least from me. But do not think that I speak in anger or in pride I will not marry into Lady Aylmer’s family.’
‘This is too bad too bad! After all that is past, it is too bad!’
‘What can I say? Would you advise me to do that which would make us both wretched?’
‘It would not make me wretched. It would make me happy. It would satisfy me altogether.’
‘It cannot be, Captain Aylmer. It cannot be. When I speak to you in that way, will you not let it be final?’
He paused a moment before he spoke again, and then he turned sharp upon her. ‘Tell me this, Clara; do you love me? Have you ever loved me?’ She did not answer him, but stood there, listening quietly to his accusations. ‘You have never loved me, and yet you have allowed yourself to say that you did. Is not that true?’ Still she did not answer. ‘I ask you whether that is not true?’ But though he asked her, and paused for an answer, looking the while full into her face, yet she did not speak. And now I suppose you will become your cousin’s wife?’ he said. ‘It will suit you to change, and to say that you love him.’
Then at last she spoke. ‘I did not think that you would have treated me in this way, Captain Aylmer! I did not expect that you would insult me!’
‘I have not insulted you.’
‘But your manner to me makes my task easier than I could have hoped it to be. You asked me whether I ever loved you? I once thought that I did so; and so thinking, told you, without reserve, all my feeling. When I came to find that I had been mistaken, I conceived myself bound by my engagement to rectify my own error as best I could; and I resolved, wrongly as I now think, very wrongly that I could learn as your wife to love you. Then came circumstances which showed me that a release would be good for both of us, and which justified me in accepting it. No girl could be bound by any engagement to a man who looked on and saw her treated in his own home, by his own mother, as you saw me treated at Aylmer Park. I claim to be released myself, and I know that this release is as good for you as it is for me.’
‘I am the best judge of that.’
‘For myself at any rate I will judge. For myself I have decided. Now I have answered the questions which you asked me as to my love for yourself. To that other question which you have thought fit to put to me about my cousin, I refuse to give any answer whatsoever.’ Then, having said so much, she walked out of the room, closing the door behind her, and left him standing there alone.
We need not follow her as she went up, almost mechanically, into her own room the room that used to be her own and then shut herself in, waiting till she should be assured, first by sounds in the house, and then by silence, that he was gone. That she fell away greatly from the majesty of her demeanour when she was thus alone, and descended to the ordinary ways of troubled females, we may be quite sure. But to her there was no further difficulty. Her work for the day was done. In due time she would take herself to the cottage, and all would be well, or, at any rate, comfortable with her. But what was he to do? How was he to get himself out of the house, and take himself back to London? While he had been in pursuit of her, and when he was leaving his vehicle at the public — house in the village of Belton, he like some other invading generals had failed to provide adequately for his retreat. When he was alone he took a turn or two about the room, half thinking that Clara would return to him. She could hardly leave him alone in a strange house him, who, as he had twice told her, had come all the way from Yorkshire to see her. But she did not return, and gradually he came to understand that he must provide for his own retreat without assistance. He was hardly aware, even now, how greatly he had transcended his usual modes of speech and action, both in the energy of his supplication and in the violence of his rebuke. He had been lifted for awhile out of himself by the excitement of his position, and now that he was subsiding into quiescence, he was unconscious that he had almost mounted into passion that he had spoken of love very nearly with eloquence. But he did recognize this as a fact that Clara was not to be his wife, and that he had better get back from Belton to London as quickly as possible. It would be well for him to teach himself to look back on the result of his aunt’s dying request as an episode in his life satisfactorily concluded. His mother had undoubtedly been right. Clara, he could see now, would have led him a devil of a life; and even had she come to him possessed of a moiety of the property a supposition as to which he had very strong doubts still she might have been dear at the money. ‘No real feeling,’ he said to himself, as he walked about the room ‘none whatever; and then so deficient in delicacy!’ But still he was discontented because he had been rejected, and therefore tried to make him. self believe that he could still have her if he chose to persevere. ‘But no,’ he said, as he continued to pace the room, ‘I have done everything more than every. thing that honour demands. I shall not ask her again. it is her own fault. She is an imperious woman, and my mother read her character aright.’ It did not occur to him, as he thus consoled himself for what he had lost, that his mother’s accusation against Clara had been altogether of a different nature. When we console ourselves by our own arguments, we are not apt to examine their accuracy with much strictness.
But whether he were consoled or not, it was necessary that he should go, and in his going he felt himself to be ill-treated. He left the room, and as he went downstairs was disturbed and tormented by the creaking of his own boots. He tried to be dignified as he walked through the hall, and was troubled at his failure, though he was not conscious of any one looking at him. Then it was grievous that he should have to let himself out of the front door without attendance. At ordinary times he thought as little of such things as most men, and would not be aware whether he opened a door for himself or had it opened for him by another but now there was a distressing awkwardness in the necessity for self-exertion. He did not know the turn of the handle, and was unfamiliar with the manner of exit. He was being treated with indignity, and before he had escaped from the house had come to think that the Amedroz and Belton people were somewhat below him. He endeavoured to go out without a noise, but there was a slam of the door, without which he could not get the lock to work; and Clara, up in her own room, knew all about it.
‘Carriage yes; of course I want the carnage,’ he said to the unfortunate boy at the public-house. ‘Didn’t you hear me say that I wanted it?’ He had come down with a pair of horses, and as he saw them being put to the vehicle he wished he had been contented with one. As he was standing there, waiting, a gentleman rode by, and the boy, in answer to his question, told him that the horseman was Colonel Askerton. Before the day was over Colonel Askerton would probably know all that had happened to him. ‘Do move a little quicker; will you?’ he said to the boy and the old man who was to drive him. Then he got into the carriage, and was driven out of Belton, devoutly purposing that he never would return; and as he made his way back to Perivale he thought of a certain Lady Emily, who would, as he assured himself, have behaved much better than Clara Amedroz had done in any such scene as that which had just taken place.
When Clara was quite sure that Captain Aylmer was off the premises, she, too, descended, but she did not immediately leave the house. She walked through the room, and rang for the old woman, and gave certain directions as to the performance of which she certainly was not very anxious, and was careful to make Mrs Bunce understand that nothing had occurred between her and the gentleman that was either exalting or depressing in its nature. ‘I suppose Captain Aylmer went out, Mrs Bunce?’ ‘Oh yes, miss, a went out. I stood and see’d un from the top of the kitchen stairs.’ ‘You might have opened the door for him, Mrs Bunce.’ ‘Indeed then I never thought of it, miss, seeing the house so empty and the like.’ Clara said that it did not signify; and then, after an hour of composure, she walked back across the park to the cottage.
‘Well?’ said Mrs Askerton as soon as Clara was inside the drawing-room.
‘Well,’ replied Clara.
‘What have you got to tell? Do tell me what you have to tell.’
‘I have nothing to tell.’
‘Clara, that is impossible. Have you seen him? I know you have seen him, because he went by from the house about an hour since.’
‘Oh yes; I have seen him.’
‘And what have you said to him?’
‘Pray do not ask me these questions just now. I have got to think of it all to think what he did say and what I said.’
‘But you will tell me.’
‘Yes; I suppose so.’ Then Mrs Askerton was silent on the subject for the remainder of the day, allowing Clara even to go to bed without another question. And nothing was asked on the following morning nothing till the usual time for the writing of letters.
‘Shall you have anything for the post?’ said Mrs Askerton.
‘There is plenty of time yet.’
‘Not too much if you mean to go out at all. Come, Clara, you had better write to him at once.’
‘Write to whom? I don’t know that I have any letter to write at all.’ Then there was a pause. ‘As far as I can see,’ she said, ‘I may give up writing altogether for the future, unless some day you may care to hear from me.’
‘But you are not going away.’
‘Not just yet if you will keep me. To tell you the truth, Mrs Askerton, I do not yet know where on earth to take myself.’
‘Wait here till we turn you out.’
‘I have got to put my house in order. You know what I mean. The job ought not to be a troublesome one, for it is a very small house.’
‘I suppose I know what you mean.’
‘It will not be a very smart establishment. But I must look it all in the face; must I not? Though it were to be no house at all, I cannot stay here all my life.’
‘Yes, you may. You have lost Aylmer Park because you were too noble not to come to us.’
‘No,’ said Clara, speaking aloud, with bright eyes almost with her hands clenched. ‘No I deny that.’
‘I shall choose to think so for my own purposes. Clara, you are savage to me almost always savage; but next to him I love you better than all the world beside. And so does he. “It’s her courage,” he said to me the other day. “That she should dare to do as she pleases here, is nothing; but to have dared to persevere in the fangs of that old dragon,” it was just what he said “that was wonderful!”’
‘There is an end of the old dragon now, so far as I am concerned.’
‘Of course there is and of the young dragon too. You wouldn’t have had the heart to keep me in suspense if you had accepted him again. You couldn’t have been so pleasant last night if that had been so.’
‘I did not know I was very pleasant.’
‘Yes, you were. You were soft and gracious gracious for you, at least. And now, dear, do tell me about it. Of course I am dying to know.’
‘There is nothing to tell.’
‘That is nonsense. There must be a thousand things to tell. At any rate it is quite decided?’
‘Yes; it is quite decided.’
‘All the dragons, old and young, are banished into outer darkness.’
‘Either that, or else they are to have all the light to themselves.’
‘Such light as glimmers through the gloom of Aylmer Park. And was he contented? I hope not. I hope you had him on his knees before he left you.’
‘Why should you hope that? How can you talk such nonsense?’
‘Because I wish that he should recognize what he has lost that he should know that he has been a fool a mean fool.’
‘Mrs Askerton, I will not have him spoken of like that. He is a man very estimable of estimable qualities.’
‘Fiddle-de-dee. He is an ape a monkey to be carried on his mother’s organ. His only good quality was that you could have carried him on yours. I can tell you one thing there is not a woman breathing that will ever carry William Belton on hers. Whoever his wife may be, she will have to dance to his piping.’
‘With all my heart and I hope the tunes will be good.’
‘But I wish I could have been present to have heard what passed hidden, you know, behind a curtain. You won’t tell me?’
‘I will tell you not a word more.’
‘Then I will get it out from Mrs Bunce. I’ll be bound she was listening.’
‘Mrs Bunce will have nothing to tell you; I do not know why you should be so curious.’
‘Answer me one question at least when it came to the last, did he want to go on with it? Was the final triumph with him or with you?’
‘There was no final triumph. Such things, when they have to end, do not end triumphantly.’
‘And is that to be all?’ ‘Yes that is to be all.’
‘And you say that you have no letter to write.’
‘None no letter; none at present; none about this affair. Captain Aylmer, no doubt, will write to his mother, and then all those who are concerned will have been told.’
Clara Amedroz held her purpose and wrote no letter, but Mrs Askerton was not so discreet, or so indiscreet as the case might be. She did write not on that day or on the next, but before a week had passed by. She wrote to Norfolk, telling Clara not a word of her letter, and by return of post the answer came. But the answer was for Clara, not for Mrs Askerton, and was as follows:
‘Plaistow Hall, April, 186
My dear Clara,
I don’t know whether I ought to tell you but I suppose I may as well tell you, that Mary has had a letter from Mrs Askerton. It was a kind, obliging letter, and I am very grateful to her. She has told us that you have separated yourself altogether from the Aylmer Park people. I don’t suppose you’ll think I ought to pretend to be very sorry. I can’t be sorry, even though I know how much you have lost in a worldly point of view. I could not bring myself to like Captain Aylmer, though I tried hard.’ Oh Mr Belton, Mr Belton! ‘He and I never could have been friends, and it is no use my pretending regret that you have quarrelled with them. But that, I suppose, is all over, and I will not say a word more about the Aylmers.
I am writing now chiefly at Mary’s advice, and because she says that something should be settled about the estate. Of course it is necessary that you should feel yourself to be the mistress of your own income, and understand exactly your own position. Mary says that this should be arranged at once, so that you may be able to decide how and where you will live. I therefore write to say that I will have nothing to do with your father’s estate at Belton nothing, that is, for myself. I have written to Mr Green to tell him that you are to be considered as the heir. If you will allow me to undertake the management of the property as your agent, I shall be delighted. I think I could do it as well as any one else: and, as we agreed that we would always be dear and close friends, I think that you will not refuse me the pleasure of serving you in this way.
And now Mary has a proposition to make, as to which she will write herself tomorrow, but she has permitted me to speak of it first. If you will accept her as a visitor, she will go to you at Belton. She thinks, and I think too, that you ought to know each other. I suppose nothing would make you come here, at present, and therefore she must go to you. She thinks that all about the estate would be settled more comfortably if you two were together. At any rate, it would be very nice for her and I think you would like my sister Mary. She proposes to start about the 10th of May. I should take her as far as London and see her off, and she would bring her own maid with her. In this way she thinks that she would get as far as Taunton very well. She had, perhaps, better stay there for one night, but that can all be settled if you will say that you will receive her at the house.
I cannot finish my letter without saying one word for myself. You know what my feelings have been, and I think you know that they still are, and always must be, the same. From almost the first moment that I saw you I have loved you. When you refused me I was very unhappy; but I thought I might still have a chance, and therefore I resolved to try again. Then, when I heard that you were engaged to Captain Aylmer, I was indeed broken-hearted. Of course I could not be angry with you. I was not angry, but I was simply broken-hearted. I found that I loved you so much that I could not make myself happy without you. It was all of no use, for I knew that you were to be married to Captain Aylmer. I knew it, or thought that I knew it. There was nothing to be done only I knew that I was wretched. I suppose it is selfishness, but I felt, and still feel, that unless I can have you for my wife, I cannot be happy or car for anything. Now you are free again free, I mean, from Captain Aylmer and how is it possible that I should not again have a hope? Nothing but your marriage or death could keep me from hoping.
I don’t know much about the Aylmers. I know nothing of what has made you quarrel with the people at Aylmer Park nor do I want to know. To me you are once more that Clara Amedroz with whom I used to walk in Belton Park, with your hand free to be given wherever your heart can go with it. While it is free I shall always ask for it. I know that it is in many ways above my reach. I quite understand that in education and habits of thinking you are my superior. But nobody can love you better than I do. I sometimes fancy that nobody could ever love you so well. Mary thinks that I ought to allow a time to go by before I say all this again but what is the use of keeping it back? It seems to me to be more honest to tell you at once that the only thing in the world for which I care one straw is that you should be my wife.
Your most affectionate Cousin,
‘Miss Belton is coming here, to the castle, in a fortnight,’ said Clara that morning at breakfast. Both Colonel Askerton and his wife were in the room, and she was addressing herself chiefly to the former.
‘Indeed, Miss Belton! And is he coming?’ said Colonel Askerton.
‘So you have heard from Plaistow?’ said Mrs Askerton.
‘Yes in answer to your letter. No, Colonel Askerton, my Cousin William is not coming. But his sister purposes to be here, and I must go up to the house and get it ready.’
‘That will do when the time comes,’ said Mrs Askerton.
‘I did not mean quite immediately.’
‘And are you to be her guest, or is she to be yours? said Colonel Askerton.
‘It’s her brother’s home, and therefore I suppose I must be hers. Indeed it must be so, as I have no means of entertaining any one,’
‘Something, no doubt, will be settled,’ said the colonel.
‘Oh, what a weary word that is,’ said Clara; ‘weary, at least, for a woman’s ears! It sounds of poverty and dependence, and endless trouble given to others, and all the miseries of female dependence. If I were a young man I should be allowed to settle for myself.’
‘There would be no question about the property in that case,’ said the colonel.
‘And there need be no question now,’ said Mrs Askerton.
When the two women were alone together, Clara, of course, scolded her friend for having written to Norfolk without letting it be known that she was doing so scolded her, and declared how vain it was for her to make useless efforts for an unattainable end; but Mrs Askerton always managed to slip out of these reproaches, neither asserting herself to be right, nor owning herself to be wrong. ‘But you must answer his letter,’ she said.
‘Of course I shall do that.’
‘I wish I knew what he said.’
‘I shan’t show it you, if you mean that.’
‘All the same I wish I knew what he said.’
Clara, of course, did answer the letter; but she wrote her answer to Mary, sending, however, one little scrap to Mary’s brother. She wrote to Mary at great length, striving to explain, with long and laborious arguments, that it was quite impossible that she should accept the Belton estate from her cousin. That subject, however, and the manner of her future life, she would discuss with her dear Cousin Mary, when Mary should have arrived. And then Clara said how she would go to Taunton to meet her cousin, and how she would prepare William’s house for the reception of William’s sister; and how she would love her cousin when she should come to know her. All of which was exceedingly proper and pretty. Then there was a little postscript, ‘Give the enclosed to William.’ And this was the note to William:
Did you not say that you would be my brother? Be my brother always. I will accept from your hands all that a brother could do; and when that arrangement is quite fixed, I will love you as much as Mary loves you, and trust you as completely; and I will be obedient, as a younger sister should be.
Your loving Sister, C. A.’
‘It’s all no good,’ said William Belton, as he crunched the note in his hand. ‘I might as well shoot myself. Get out of the way there, will you?’ And the injured groom scudded across the farm-yard, knowing that there was something wrong with his master.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14