A DEAR cousin, and safe against love-making! This was Clara’s verdict respecting Will Belton, as she lay thinking of him in bed that night. Why that warranty against love-making should be a virtue in her eyes I cannot, perhaps, explain. But all young ladies are apt to talk to themselves in such phrases about gentlemen with whom they are thrown into chance intimacy as though love-making were in itself a thing injurious and antagonistic to happiness, instead of being, as it is, the very salt of life. Safe against love-making! And yet Mrs Askerton, her friend, had spoken of the probability of such love-making as being the great advantage of his coming. And there could not be a second opinion as to the expediency of a match between her and her cousin in a worldly point of view. Clara, moreover, had already perceived that he was a man fit to guide a wife, very good — humoured and good-tempered also, anxious to give pleasure to others, a man of energy and forethought, who would be sure to do well in the world and hold his head always high among his fellows as good a husband as a girl could have. Nevertheless, she congratulated herself in that she felt satisfied that he was safe against love-making! Might it be possible that the pressing of hands at Taunton had been so tender, and those last words spoken with Captain Aylmer so soft, that on his account she felt delighted to think that her cousin was warranted not to make love?
And what did Will Belton think about his cousin, insured as he was thus supposed to be against the dangers of love? He, also, lay awake for awhile that night, thinking over his new friendship. Or rather he thought of it walking about his room, and looking out at the bright harvest moon for with him to be in bed was to be asleep. He sat himself down, and he walked about, and he leaned out of the window into the cool night air; and he made some comparisons in his mind, and certain calculations; and he thought of his present home, and of his sister, and of his future prospects as they were concerned with the old place at which he was now staying; and he portrayed to himself, in his mind, Clara’s head and face and figure and feet and he resolved that she should be his wife. He had never seen a girl who seemed to suit him so well. Though he had only been with her for a day, he swore to himself that he knew he could love her. Nay he swore to himself that he did love her. Then when he had quite made up his mind, he tumbled into his bed and was asleep in five minutes.
Miss Amedroz was a handsome young woman, tall, well-made, active, and full of health. She carried herself as though she thought her limbs were made for use, and not simply for ease upon a sofa. Her head and neck stood well upon her shoulders, and her waist showed none of those waspish proportions of which ladies used to be more proud than I believe them to be now, in their more advanced state of knowledge and taste. There was much about her in which she was like her cousin, as though the blood they had in common between them had given to both the same proportions and the same comeliness. Her hair was of a dark brown colour, as was his. Her eyes were somewhat darker than his, and perhaps not so full of constant movement; but they were equally bright, and possessed that quick power of expressing tenderness which belonged to them. Her nose was more finely cut, as was also her chin, and the oval of her face; but she had the same large expressive mouth, and the same perfection of ivory-white teeth. As has been said before, Clara Amedroz, who was now nearly twenty-six years of age, was not a young-looking woman. To the eyes of many men that would have been her fault; but in the eyes of Belton it was no fault. He had not made himself fastidious as to women by much consort with them, and he was disposed to think that she who was to become his wife had better be something more than a girl not long since taken out of the nursery. He was well-to-do in the world, and could send his wife out in her carriage, with all becoming bravery of appurtenances. And he would do so, too, when he should have a wife. But still he would look to his wife to be a useful partner to him. She should be a woman not above agricultural solicitude, or too proud to have a care for her cows. Clara, he was sure, had no false pride; and yet as he was sure also she was at every point such a lady as would do honour to the carriage and the bravery when it should be forthcoming. And then such a marriage as this would put an end to all the trouble which he felt in reference to the entail on the estate. He knew that he was to be master of Belton, and of course had, in that knowledge, the satisfaction which men do feel from the consciousness of their future prosperity. And this with him was enhanced by a strong sympathy with old-fashioned prejudices as to family. He would be Belton of Belton; and there had been Beltons of Belton in old days, for a longer time backwards than he was able to count. But still the prospect had not been without its alloy, and he had felt real distress at the idea of turning his cousin out of her father’s house. Such a marriage as that he now contemplated would put all these things right.
When he got up in the morning he was quite as keen about it as he had been on the previous evening and as he thought about it the more, he became keener and still more keen. On the previous evening, as he was leaning out of the window endeavouring to settle in his own mind what would be the proper conduct of the romance of the thing, he had considered that he had better not make his proposal quite at once. He was to remain eight days at Belton, and as eight days was not a long period of acquaintance, he had reflected that it might be well for him to lay what foundation for love it might be in his power to construct during his present sojourn, and then return and complete the work before Christmas. But as he was shaving himself, the habitual impatience of his nature predominated, and he became disposed to think that delay would be useless, and might perhaps be dangerous. It might be possible that Clara would be unable to give him a decisive answer so quickly as to enable him to return home an accepted lover; but if such doubt were left, such doubt would give him an excuse for a speedy return to Belton. He did not omit to tell himself that very probably he might not succeed at all. He was a man not at all apt to feel assurance that he could carry all before him in love. But in this matter, as in all others which required from him any personal effort, he prepared himself to do his best, leaving the consequences to follow as they might. When he threw his seed corn into the earth with all such due appliances of agricultural skill and industry as his capital and experience enabled him to use, he did his part towards the production of next year’s crop; and after that he must leave it to a higher Power to give to him, or to withhold from him, the reward of his labour. He had found that, as a rule, the reward had been given when the labour had been honest; and he was now prepared to follow the same plan, with the same hopes, in this matter of his love-making.
After much consideration very much consideration, a consideration which took him the whole time that he was brushing his hair and washing his teeth he resolved that he would, in the first instance, speak to Mr Amedroz. Not that he intended that the father should win the daughter for him. He had an idea that he would like to do that work for himself. But he thought that the old squire would be better pleased if his consent were asked in the first instance. The present day was Sunday, and he would not speak on the subject till Monday. This day he would devote to the work of securing his future father-inlaw’s good opinion; to that and to his prayers.
And he had gained very much upon Mr Amedroz before the evening of the day was over. He was a man before whom difficulties seemed to yield, and who had his own way simply because he had become accustomed to ask for it to ask for it and to work for it. He had so softened the squire’s tone of thought towards him, that the future stocking of the land was spoken of between them with something like energy on both sides; and Mr Amedroz had given his consent, without any difficulty, to the building of a shed for winter stall-feeding. Clara sat by listening, and perceived that Will Belton would soon be allowed to do just what he pleased with the place. Her father talked as she had not heard him talk since her poor brother’s death, and was quite animated on the subject of woodcraft. ‘We don’t know much about timber down where I am,’ said Will, ‘just because we’ve got no trees.’
‘I’ll show you your way,’ said the old man. ‘I’ve managed the timber on the estate myself for the last forty years.’ Will Belton of course did not say a word as to the gross mismanagement which had been apparent even to him. What a cousin he was! Clara thought what a paragon among cousins! And then he was so manifestly safe against love-making! So safe, that he only cared to talk about timber, and oxen, and fences, and winter-forage! But it was all just as it ought to be; and if her father did not call him Will before long, she herself would set the way by doing so first. A very paragon among cousins!
‘What a flatterer you are,’ she said to him that night.
‘A flatterer! I?’
‘Yes, you. You have flattered papa out of all his animosity already. I shall be jealous soon; for he’ll think more of you than of me.’
‘I hope he’ll come to think of us as being nearly equally near to him,’ said Belton, with a tone that was half serious and half tender. Now that he had made up his mind, he could not keep his hand from the work before him an instant. But Clara had also made up her mind, and would not be made to think that her cousin could mean anything that was more than cousinly.
‘Upon my word,’ she said, laughing, ‘that is very cool on your part.’
‘I came here determined to be friends with him at any rate.’
‘And you did so without any thought of me. But you said you would be my brother, and I shall not forget your promise. Indeed, indeed, I cannot tell you how glad I am that you have come both for papa’s sake and my own. You have done him so much good that I only dread to think that you are going so soon.’
‘I’ll be back before long. I think nothing of running across here from Norfolk. You’ll see enough of me before next summer.’
Soon after breakfast on the next morning he got Mr Amedroz out into the grounds, on the plea of showing him the proposed site for the cattle shed; but not a word was said about the shed on that occasion. He went to work at his other task at once, and when that was well on hand the squire was quite unfitted for the consideration of any less important matter, however able to discuss it Belton might have been himself.
‘I’ve got something particular that I want to say to you, sir,’ Belton began.
Now Mr Amedroz was of opinion that his cousin had been saying something very particular ever since his arrival, and was rather frightened at this immediate prospect of a new subject.
‘There’s nothing wrong; is there?’
‘No, nothing wrong at least, I hope it’s not wrong. Would not it be a good plan, sir, if I were to marry my cousin Clara?’
What a terrible young man! Mr Amedroz felt that his breath was so completely taken away from him that he was quite unable to speak a word of answer at the moment. Indeed, he was unable to move, and stood still, where he had been fixed by the cruel suddenness of the proposition made to him.
‘Of course I know nothing of what she may think about it,’ continued Belton. ‘I thought it best to come to you before I spoke a word to her. And I know that in many ways she is above me. She is better educated, and reads more, and all that sort of thing. And it may be that she’d rather marry a London man than a fellow who passes all his time in the country. But she couldn’t get one who would love her better or treat her more kindly. And then as to the property; you must own it would be a good arrangement. You’d like to know it would go to your own child and your own grandchild wouldn’t you, sir? And I’m not badly off, without looking to this place at all, and could give her every thing she wants. But then I don’t know that she’d care to marry a farmer.’ These last words he said in a melancholy tone, as though aware that he was confessing his own disgrace.
The squire had listened to it all, and had not as yet said a word. And now, when Belton ceased, he did not know what word to speak. He was a man whose thoughts about women were chivalrous, and perhaps a little old-fashioned. Of course, when a man contemplates marriage, he could do nothing better, nothing more honourable, than consult the lady’s father in the first instance. But he felt that even a father should be addressed on such a subject with great delicacy. There should be ambages in such a matter. The man who resolved to commit himself to such a task should come forward with apparent difficulty with great diffidence, and even with actual difficulty. He should keep himself almost hidden, as behind a mask, and should tell of his own ambition with doubtful, quivering voice. And the ambages should take time. He should approach the citadel to be taken with covered ways working his way slowly and painfully. But this young man, before he had been in the house three days, said all that he had to say without the slightest quaver in his voice, and evidently expected to get an answer about the squire’s daughter as quickly as he had got it about the squire’s land.
‘You have surprised me very much,’ said the old man at last, drawing his breath.
‘I’m quite in earnest about it. Clara seems to me to be the very girl to make a good wife to such a one as I am. She’s got everything that a woman ought to have By George, she has!’
‘She is a good girl, Mr Belton.’
‘She is as good as gold, every inch of her.’
‘But you have not known her very long, Mr Belton.’
‘Quite long enough for my purposes. You see I knew all about her beforehand who she is, and where she comes from. There’s a great deal in that, you know.’
Mr Amedroz shuddered at the expressions used. It was grievous to him to hear his daughter spoken of as one respecting whom some one knew who she was and whence she came. Such knowledge respecting the daughter of such a family was, as a matter of course, common to all polite persons. ‘Yes,’ said Mr Amedroz, stiffly: ‘you know as much as that about her, certainly.’
‘And she knows as much about me. Now the question is, whether you have any objection to make?’
‘Really, Mr Belton, you have taken me so much by surprise that I do not feel myself competent to answer you at once.’
‘Shall we say in an hour’s time, sir?’ An hour’s time! Mr Amedroz, if he could have been left to his own guidance, would have thought a month very little for such a work.
‘I suppose you would wish me to see Clara first,’ said Mr Amedroz.
‘Oh dear, no. I would much rather ask her myself if only I could get your consent to my doing so.’
‘And you have said nothing to her?’
‘Not a word.’
‘I am glad of that. You would have behaved badly, I think, had you done so while staying under my roof.’
‘I thought it best, at any rate, to come to you first. But as I must be back at Plaistow on this day week, I haven’t much time to lose. So if you could think about it this afternoon, you know Mr Amedroz, much bewildered, promised that he would do his best, and eventually did bring himself to give an answer on the next morning. ‘I have been thinking about this all night,’ said Mr Amedroz.
‘I’m sure I’m very much obliged to you,’ said Belton, feeling rather ashamed of his own remissness as he remembered how soundly he had himself slept.
‘If you are quite sure of yourself’
‘Do you mean sure of loving her? I am as sure of that as anything.’
‘But men are so apt to change their fancies.’
‘I don’t know much about my fancies; but I don’t often change my purpose when I’m in earnest. In such a matter as this I couldn’t change. I’ll say as much as that for myself, though it may seem bold.’
‘Of course, in regard to money such a marriage would be advantageous to my child. I don’t know whether you know it, but I shall have nothing to give her literally nothing.’
‘All the better, sir, as far as I am concerned. I’m not one who wants to be saved from working by a wife’s fortune.’
‘But most men like to get something when they marry.’
‘I want to get nothing nothing, that is, in the way of money. If Clara becomes my wife I’ll never ask you for one shilling.’
‘I hope her aunt will do something for her.’ This the old man said in a wailing voice, as though the expression of such a hope was grievous to him.
‘If she becomes my wife, Mrs Winterfield will be quite at liberty to leave her money elsewhere.’ There were old causes of dislike between Mr Belton and Mrs Winterfield, and even now Mrs Winterfield was almost offended because Mr Belton was staying at Belton Castle.
‘But all that is quite uncertain,’ continued Mr Amedroz.
‘And I have your leave to speak to Clara myself?’
‘Well, Mr Belton; yes; I think so. I do not see why you should not speak to her. But I fear you are a little too precipitate. Clara has known you so very short a time, that you can hardly have a right to hope that she should learn to regard you at once as you would have her do.’ As he heard this, Belton’s face became long and melancholy. He had taught himself to think that he could dispense with that delay till Christmas which he had at first proposed to himself, and that he might walk into the arena at once, and perhaps win the battle in the first round. ‘Three days is such a very short time,’ said the squire.
‘It is short certainly,’ said Belton.
The father’s leave was however given, and armed with that, Belton was resolved that he would take, at any rate, some preliminary steps in love-making before he returned to Plaistow. What would be the nature of the preliminary steps taken by such a one as him, the reader by this time will probably be able to surmise.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55