It was about the middle of the pleasant month of May when Clara Amedroz again made that often repeated journey to Taunton, with the object of meeting Mary Belton. She had transferred herself and her own peculiar belongings back from the cottage to the house, and had again established herself there so that she might welcome her new friend. But she was not satisfied with simply receiving her guest at Belton, and therefore she made the journey to Taunton, and settled herself for the night at the inn. She was careful to get a bedroom for an ‘invalid lady’, close to the sitting-room, and before she went down to the station she saw that the cloth was laid for tea, and that the tea parlour had been made to look as pleasant as was possible with an inn parlour.
She was very nervous as she stood upon the platform waiting for the new comer to show herself. She knew that Mary was a cripple, but did not know how far her cousin was disfigured by her infirmity; and when she saw a pale-faced little woman, somewhat melancholy, but yet pretty withal, with soft, clear eyes, and only so much appearance of a stoop as to soften the hearts of those who saw her, Clara was agreeably surprised, and felt herself to be suddenly relieved of an unpleasant weight. She could talk to the woman she saw there, as to any other woman, without the painful necessity of treating her always as an invalid. ‘I think you are Miss Belton?’ she said, holding out her hand. The likeness between Mary and her brother was too great to allow of Clara being mistaken.
‘And you are Clara Amedroz? It is so good of you to come to meet me!’
‘I thought you would be dull in a strange town by yourself.’
‘It will be much nicer to have you with me.’
Then they went together up to the inn; and when they had taken their bonnets off, Mary Belton kissed her cousin. ‘You are very nearly what I fancied you,’ said Mary.
‘Am I? I hope you fancied me to be something that you could like.’
‘Something that I could love very dearly. You are a little taller than what Will said; but then a gentleman is never a judge of a lady’s height. And he said you were thin.’
‘I am not very fat.’
‘No; not very fat; but neither are you thin. Of course, you know, I have thought a great deal about you. It seems as though you had come to be so very near to us; and blood is thicker than water, is it not? If cousins are not friends, who can be?’
In the course of that evening they became very confidential together, and Clara thought that she could love Mary Belton better than any woman that she had ever known. Of course they were talking about William, and Clara was at first in constant fear lest some word should be said on her lover’s behalf some word which would drive her to declare that she would not admit him as a lover; but Mary abstained from the subject with marvellous care and tact. Though she was talking through the whole evening of her brother, she so spoke of him as almost to make Clara believe that she could not have heard of that episode in his life. Mrs Askerton would have dashed at the subject at once; but then, as Clara told herself, Mary Bolton was better than Mrs Askerton.
A few words were said about the estate, and they originated in Clara’s declaration that Mary would have to be regarded as the mistress of the house to which they were going. ‘I cannot agree to that,’ said Mary.
‘But the house is William’s, you know,’ said Clara.
‘He says not.’
‘But of course that must be nonsense, Mary.’
‘It is very evident that you know nothing of Plaistow ways, or you would not say that anything coming from William was nonsense. We are accustomed to regard all his words as law, and when he says that a thing is to be so, it always is so.’
‘Then he is a tyrant at home.’
‘A beneficent despot. Some despots, you know, always were beneficent.’
‘He won’t have his way in this thing.’
‘I’ll leave you and him to fight about that, my dear. I am so completely under his thumb that I always obey him in everything. You must not, therefore, expect to range me on your side.’
The next day they were at Belton Castle, and in a very few hours Clara felt that she was quite at home with her cousin. On the second day Mrs Askerton came up and called according to an arrangement to that effect made between her and Clara. I’ll stay away if you like it,’ Mrs Askerton had said. But Clara had urged her to come, arguing with her that she was foolish to be thinking always of her own misfortune. ‘Of course I am always thinking of it,’ she had replied, and always thinking that other people are thinking of it. Your cousin, Miss Belton, knows all my history, of course, But what matters? I believe it would be better that everybody should know it. I suppose she’s very straight-laced and prim.‘She is not prim at all,’ said Clara. ‘Well, I’ll come,’ said Mrs Askerton, ‘but I shall not be a bit surprised if I hear that she goes back to Norfolk the next day.’
So Mrs Askerton came, and Miss Belton did not go back to Norfolk. Indeed, at the end of the visit, Mrs Askerton had almost taught herself to believe that William Belton had kept his secret, even from his sister. ‘She’s a dear little woman,’ Mrs Askerton afterwards said to Clara.
‘Is she not?’
‘And so thoroughly like a lady.’
‘Yes; I think she is a lady.’
‘A princess among ladies! What a pretty little conscious way she has of asserting herself when she has an opinion and means to stick to it! I never saw a woman who got more strength out of her weakness. Who would dare to contradict her?’
‘But then she knows everything so well,’ said Clara.
‘And how like her brother she is!’
‘Yes there is a great family likeness.’
‘And in character, too. I’m sure you’d find, if you were to try her, that she has all his personal firmness, though she can’t show it as he does by kicking out his feet and clenching his fist.’
‘I’m glad you like her,’ said Clara.
‘I do like her very much.’
‘It is so odd the way you have changed. You used to speak of him as though he was merely a clod of a farmer, and of her as a stupid old maid. Now, nothing is too good to say of them.’
‘Exactly, my dear and if you do not understand why, you are not so clever as I take you to be.’
Life went on very pleasantly with them at Belton for two or three weeks but with this drawback as regarded Clara, that she had no means of knowing what was to be the course of her future life. During these weeks she twice received letters from her Cousin Will, and answered both of them. But these letters referred to matters of business which entailed no contradiction to certain details of money due to the estate before the old squire’s death, and to that vexed question of Aunt Winterfield’s legacy, which had by this time drifted into Belton’s hands, and as to which he was inclined to act in accordance with his cousin’s wishes, though he was assured by Mr Green that the legacy was as good a legacy as had ever been left by an old woman. ‘I think,’ he said in his last letter,’ that we shall be able to throw him over in spite of Mr Green.’ Clara, as she read this, could not but remember that the man to be thrown over was the man to whom she had been engaged, and she could not but remember also all the circumstances of the intended legacy of her aunt’s death, and of the scenes which had immediately followed her death. It was so odd that William Belton should now be discussing with her the means of evading all her aunt’s intentions and that he should be doing so, not as her accepted lover. He had, indeed, called himself her brother, but he was in truth her rejected lover.
>From time to time during these weeks Mrs Askerton would ask her whether Mr Belton was coming to Belton, and Clara would answer her with perfect truth that she did not believe that he had any such intention. ‘But he must come soon,’ Mrs Askerton would say. And when Clara would answer that she knew nothing about it, Mrs Askerton would ask further questions about Mary Belton. ‘Your cousin must know whether her brother is coming to look after the property?’ But Miss Belton, though she heard constantly from her brother, gave no such intimation. If he had any intention of coming, she did not speak of it. During all these days she had not as yet said a word of her brother’s love. Though his name was daily in her mouth and latterly, was frequently mentioned by Clara there had been no allusion to that still enduring hope of which Will Belton himself could not but speak when he had any opportunity of speaking at all. And this continued till at last Clara was driven to suppose that Mary Belton knew nothing of her brother’s hopes.
But at last there came a change a change which to Clara was as great as that which had affected her when she first found that her delightful cousin was not sale against love-making. She had made up her mind that the sister did not intend to plead for her brother that the sister probably knew nothing of the brother’s necessity for pleading that the brother probably had no further need for pleading When she remembered his last passionate words, she could not but accuse herself of hypocrisy when she allowed place in her thoughts to this latter supposition. He had been so intently earnest! The nature of the man was so eager and true! But yet, in spite of all that bad been said, of all the fire in his eyes, and life in his words, and energy in his actions, he had at last seen that his aspirations were foolish, and his desires vain. It could not otherwise be that she and Mary should pass these hours in such calm repose without an allusion to the disturbing subject! After this fashion, and with such meditations as these, had passed by the last weeks and then at last there came the change.
‘I have had a letter from William this morning,’ said Mary.
‘And so have not I,’ said Clara, and yet I expect to hear from him.’
‘He means to be here soon,’ said Mary.
‘He speaks of being here next week.’
For a moment or two Clara had yielded to the agitation caused by her cousin’s tidings; but with a little gush she recovered her presence of mind, and was able to speak with all the hypocritical propriety of a female. ‘I am glad to hear it,’ she said. ‘It is only right that he should come.’
‘He has asked me to say a word to you as to the purport of his journey.’
Then again Clara’s courage and hypocrisy were so far subdued that they were not able to maintain her in a position adequate to the occasion. ‘Well,’ she said laughing, ‘what is the word? I hope it is not that I am to pack up, bag and baggage, and take myself elsewhere. Cousin William is one of those persons who are willing to do everything except what they are wanted to do. He will go on talking about the Belton estate, when I want to know whether I may really look for as much as twelve shillings a week to live upon.’
‘He wants me to speak to you about about the earnest love he bears for you.’
‘Oh dear! Mary could you not suppose it all to be said? It is an old trouble, and need not be repeated.’
‘No,’ said Mary, ‘I cannot suppose it to be all said.’ Clara looking up as she heard the voice, was astonished both by the fire in the woman’s eye and by the force of her tone. ‘I will not think so meanly of you as to believe that such words from such a man can be passed by as meaning nothing. I will not say that you ought to be able to love him; in that you cannot control your heart; but if you cannot love him, the want of such love ought to make you suffer to suffer much and be very sad.’
‘I cannot agree to that, Mary.’
‘Is all his life nothing, then? Do you know what love means with him this love which he bears to you? Do you understand that it is everything to him? that from the first moment in which he acknowledged to himself that his heart was set upon you, he could not bring himself to set it upon any other thing for a moment? Perhaps you have never understood this; have never perceived that he is so much in earnest, that to him it is more than money, or land, or health more than life itself that he so loves that he would willingly give everything that he has for his love? Have you known this?’
Clara would not answer these questions for a while. What if she had known it all, was she therefore bound to sacrifice herself? Could it be the duty of any woman to give herself to a man simply because a man wanted her? That was the argument as it was put forward now by Mary Belton.
‘Dear, dearest Clara,’ said Mary Belton, stretching herself forward from her chair, and putting out her thin, almost transparent, hand, ‘I do not think that you have thought enough of this; or, perhaps, you have not known it. But his love for you is as I say. To him it is everything. It pervades every hour of every day, every corner in his life! He knows nothing of anything else while he is in his present state.’
‘He is very good more than good.’
‘He is very good.’
‘But I do not see that that Of course I know how disinterested he is.’
‘Disinterested is a poor word. It insinuates that in such a matter there could be a question of what people call interest.’
‘And I know, too, how much he honours me.’
‘Honour is a cold word. It is not honour, but love downright true, honest love. I hope he does honour you. I believe you to be an honest, true woman; and, as he knows you well, he probably does honour you but I am speaking of love.’ Again Clara was silent. She knew what should be her argument if she were determined to oppose her cousin’s pleadings; and she knew also she thought she knew that she did intend to oppose them; but there was a coldness in the argument to which she was averse. ‘You cannot be insensible to such love as that!’ said Mary, going on with the cause which she had in hand.
‘You say that he is fond of me.’
‘Fond of you! I have not used such trifling expressions as that.’
‘That he loves me.’
‘You know he loves you. Have you ever doubted a word that he has spoken to you on any subject?’
‘I believe he speaks truly.’
‘You know he speaks truly. He is the very soul of truth.’
‘Well, Clara! But remember; do not answer me lightly. Do not play with a man’s heart because you have it in your power.’
‘You wrong me. I could never do like that. You tell me that he loves me but what if I do not love him? Love will not be constrained. Am I to say that I love him because I believe that he loves me?’
This was the argument, and Clara found herself driven to use it not so much from its special applicability to herself, as on account of its general fitness. Whether it did or did not apply to herself she had no time to ask herself at that moment; but she felt that no man could have a right to claim a woman’s hand on the strength of his own love unless he had been able to win her love. She was arguing on behalf of women in general rather than on her own behalf.
‘If you mean to tell me that you cannot love him, of course I must give over,’ said Mary, not caring at all for men and women in general, but full of anxiety for her brother. ‘Do you mean to say that that you can never love him?’ It almost seemed, from her face, that she was determined utterly to quarrel with her new-found cousin to quarrel and to go at once away if she got an answer that would not please her.
‘Dear Mary, do not press me so hard.’
‘But I want to press you hard. It is not right that he should lose his life in longing and hoping.’
‘He will not lose his life, Mary.’
‘I hope not not not if I can help it. I trust that he will be strong enough to get rid of his trouble to put it down and trample it under his feet.’ Clara, as she heard this, began to ask herself what it was that was to be trampled under Will’s feet. ‘I think he will be man enough to overcome his passion; and then, perhaps you may regret what you have lost.’
‘Now you are unkind to me.’
‘Well; what would you have me say? Do I not know that he is offering you the best gift that he can give? Did I not begin by swearing to you that he loved you with a passion of love that cannot but be flattering to you? If it is to be love in vain, this to him is a great misfortune. And, yet, when I say that I hope that he will recover, you tell me that I am unkind.’
‘No not for that.’
‘May I tell him to come and plead for himself?’
Again Clara was silent, not knowing how to answer that last question. And when she did answer it, she answered it thoughtlessly. ‘Of course he knows that he can do that.’
‘He says that he has been forbidden.’
‘Oh, Mary, what am I to say to you? You know it all, and I wonder that you can continue to question me in this way.’
‘Know all what?’
‘That I have been engaged to Captain Aylmer.’
‘But you are not engaged to him now.’
‘No I am not.’
‘And there can be no renewal there, I suppose?’
‘Not even for my brother would I say a word if I thought’
‘No there is nothing of that; but If you cannot understand, I do not think that I can explain it.’ It seemed to Clara that her cousin, in her anxiety for her brother, did not conceive that a woman, even if she could suddenly transfer her affections from one man to another, could not bring herself to say that she had done so.
‘I must write to him today,’ said Mary, ‘and I must give him some answer. Shall I tell him that he had better not come here till you are gone?’
‘That will perhaps be best,’ said Clara.
‘Then he will never come at all.’
‘I can go can go at once. I will go at once. You shall never have to say that my presence prevented his coming to his own house. I ought not to be here. I know it now. I will go away, and you may tell him that I am gone.’
‘No, dear; you will not go.’
‘Yes I must go. I fancied things might be otherwise, because he once told me that he would be a brother to me. And I said I would hold him to that not only because I want a brother so badly, but because I love him so dearly. But it cannot be like that.’
‘You do not think that he will ever desert you?’
‘But I will go away, so that he may come to his own house. I ought not to be here. Of course I ought not to be at Belton either in this house or in any other. Tell him that I will be gone before he can come, and tell him also that I will not be too proud to accept from him what it may be fit that he should give me. I have no one but him no one but him no one but him.’ Then she burst into tears, and throwing hack her head, covered her face with her hands.
Miss Belton, upon this, rose slowly from the chair on which she was sitting, and making her way painfully across to Clara, stood leaning on the weeping girl’s chair. ‘You shall not go while I am here,’ she said.
‘Yes; I must go. He cannot come till I am gone.’
‘Think of it all once again, Clara. May I not tell him to come, and that while he is coming you will see if you cannot soften your heart towards him?’
‘Soften my heart! Oh, if I could only harden it!’
‘He would wait. If you would only hid him wait, he would be so happy in waiting.’
‘Yes till tomorrow morning. I know him. Hold out your little finger to him, and he has your whole hand and arm in a moment.’
‘I want you to say that you will try to love him.’
But Clara was in truth trying not to love him. She was ashamed of herself because she did love the one man, when, but a few weeks since, she had confessed that she loved another. She had mistaken herself and her own feelings, not in reference to her cousin, but in supposing that she could really have sympathized with such a man as Captain Aylmer. It was necessary to her self-respect that she should be punished because of that mistake. She could not save herself from this condemnation she would not grant herself a respite because, by doing so, she would make another person happy. Had Captain Aylmer never crossed her path, she would have given her whole heart to her cousin. Nay; she had so given it had done so, although Captain Aylmer had crossed her path and come in her way. But it was matter of shame to her to find that this had been possible, and she could not bring herself to confess her shame.
The conversation at last ended, as such conversations always do end, without any positive decision. Mary wrote of course to her brother, but Clara was not told of the contents of the letter. We, however, may know them, and may understand their nature, without learning above two lines of the letter. ‘If you can be content to wait awhile, you will succeed,’ said Mary; ‘but when were you ever content to wait for anything?’ ‘ If there is anything I hate, it is waiting,’ said Will, when he received the letter; nevertheless the letter made him happy, and he went about his farm with a sanguine heart, as he arranged matters for another absence. ‘Away long?’ he said, in answer to a question asked him by his head man; ‘how on earth can I say how long I shall be away? You can go on well enough without me by this time, I should think. You will have to learn, for there is no knowing how often I may be away, or for how long.’
When Mary said that the letter had been written, Clara again spoke about going. ‘And where will you go?’ said Mary.
‘I will take a lodging in Taunton.’
‘He would only follow you there, and there would be more trouble. That would be all. He must act as your guardian, and in that capacity, at any rate, you must submit to him.’ Clara, therefore, consented to remain at Belton; but, before Will arrived, she returned from the house to the cottage.
‘Of course I understand all about it,’ said Mrs Askerton; ‘and let me tell you this that if it is not all settled within a week from his coming here, I shall think that you are without a heart. He is to be knocked about, and cuffed, and kept from his work, and made to run up and down between here and Norfolk, because you cannot bring yourself to confess that you have been a fool.’
‘I have never said that I have not been a fool,’ said Clara.
‘You have made a mistake as young women will do sometimes, even when they are as prudent and circumspect as you are and now you don’t quite like the task of putting it right.’
It was all true, and Clara knew that it was true. The putting right of mistakes is never pleasant; and in this case it was so unpleasant that she could not bring herself to acknowledge that it must be done. And yet, I think that, by this time, she was aware of the necessity.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55