‘Why don’t you call him Will?’ Clara said to her father. This question was asked on the evening of that Monday on which Mr Amedroz had given his consent as to the marriage proposal.
‘Call him Will! Why should I?’
‘You used to do so, when he was a boy.’
‘Of course I did; but that is years ago. He would think it impertinent now.’
‘Indeed he would not; he would like it. He has told me so. It sounds so cold to him to be called Mr Belton by his relations.’
The father looked at his daughter as though for a moment he also suspected that matters had really been arranged between her and her future lover without his concurrence, and before his sanction had been obtained. But if for a moment such a thought did cress his mind, it did not dwell there. He trusted Belton; but as to his daughter, he knew that he might be sure of her. It would be impossible with her to keep such a secret from him, even for half a day. And yet, how odd it was! Here was a man who in three days had fallen in love with his daughter; and here was his daughter apparently quite as ready to be in love with the man. How could she, who was ordinarily circumspect, and almost cold in her demeanour towards strangers who was from circumstances and from her own disposition altogether hostile to flirting intimacies how could this Clara have changed her nature so speedily? The squire did not understand it, but was prepared to believe that it was all for the best. ‘I’ll call him Will, if you like it,’ said he.
‘Do, papa, and then I can do so also. He is such a good fellow, and I am so fond of him.’
On the next morning Mr Amedroz did, with much awkwardness, call his guest by his Christian name. Clara caught her cousin’s eye and smiled, and he also smiled. At that moment he was more in love than ever. Could anything be more charming than this? Immediately after breakfast he was going over to Redicote, to see a builder in a small way who lived there, and whom he proposed to employ in putting up the shed for the cattle; but he almost begrudged the time, so anxious was he to begin his suit. But his plan had been laid out and he would follow it. ‘I think I shall be back by three o’clock,’ he said to Clara, ‘and then we’ll have our walk.’
‘I’ll be ready; and you can call for me at Mr Askerton’s. I must go down there, and it will save you something in your walk to pick me up at the cottage.’ And so the arrangements for the day were made.
Clara had promised that she would soon call at the cottage, and was, indeed, rather anxious to see Mrs Askerton on her own account. What she had heard from her cousin as to a certain Miss Vigo of old days had interested her, and also what she had heard of a certain Mr Berdmore. It had been evident to her that her cousin had thought little about it. The likeness of the lady he then saw to the lady he had before known. had at first struck him; but when he found that the two ladies were not represented by one and the same person, he was satisfied, and there was an end of the matter for him. But it was not so with Clara. Her feminine mind dwelt on the matter with more earnestness than he had cared to entertain, and her clearer intellect saw possibilities which did not occur to him. But it was not till she found herself walking across the park to the cottage that she remembered that any inquiries as to her past life might be disagreeable to Mrs Askerton. She had thought of asking her friend plainly whether the names of Vigo and Berdmore had ever been familiar to her; but she reminded herself that there had been rumours afloat, and that there might be a mystery. Mrs Askerton would sometimes talk of her early life; but she would do this with dreamy, indistinct language, speaking of the sorrows of her girlhood, but not specifying their exact nature, seldom mentioning any names, and never referring with clear personality to those who had been nearest to her when she had been a child. Clara had seen her friend’s maiden name, Mary Oliphant, written in a book, and seeing it had alluded to it. On that occasion Mrs Askerton had spoken of herself as having been an Oliphant, and thus Clara had come to know the fact. But now, as she made her way to the cottage, she remembered that she had learned nothing more than this as to Mrs Askerton’s early life. Such being the case, she hardly knew how to ask any question about the two names that had been mentioned. And yet, why should she not ask such a question? Why should she doubt Mrs Askerton? And if she did doubt, why should not her doubts be solved?
She found Colonel Askerton and his wife together, and she certainly would ask no such question in his presence. He was a slight built, wiry man, about fifty, with iron-grey hair and beard who seemed to have no trouble in life, and to desire but few pleasures. Nothing could be more regular than the course of his days, and nothing more idle. He breakfasted at eleven, smoked and read till the afternoon, when he rode for an hour or two; then he dined, read again, smoked again, and went to bed. In September and October he shot, and twice in the year, as has been before stated, went away to seek a little excitement elsewhere. He seemed to be quite contented with his lot, and was never heard to speak an angry word with any one. Nobody cared for him much; but then he troubled himself with no one’s affairs. He never went to church, and had not eaten or drank in any house but his own since he had come to Belton.
‘Oh, Clara, you naughty girl,’ said Mrs Askerton, ‘why didn’t you come yesterday? I was expecting you all day.’
‘I was busy. Really, we’ve grown to be quite industrious people since my cousin came.’
‘They tell me he’s taking the land into his own hands,’ said the colonel.
‘Yes, indeed; and he is going to build sheds, and buy cattle; and I don’t know what he doesn’t mean to do; so that we shall be alive again.’
‘I hope he won’t want my shooting.’
‘He has shooting of his own in Norfolk,’ said Clara.
‘Then he’ll hardly care to come here for that purpose. When I heard of his proceedings I began to be afraid.’
‘I don’t think he would do anything to annoy you for the world,’ said Clara, enthusiastically. ‘He’s the most unselfish person I ever met.’
‘He’d have a perfect right to take the shooting if he liked it that is always supposing that he and your father agreed about it.’
‘They agree about everything now. He has altogether disarmed papa’s prejudices, and it seems to be recognized that he is to have his own way about the place. But I don’t think he’ll interfere about the shooting.’
‘He won’t, my dear, if you ask him not,’ said Mrs Askerton.
‘I’ll ask him in a moment if Colonel Askerton wishes it.’
‘Oh dear no,’ said he. ‘It would be teaching the ostler to grease the horse’s teeth. Perhaps he hasn’t thought of it.’
‘He thinks of everything,’ said Clara.
‘I wonder whether he’s thinking of .’ So far Mrs Askerton spoke, and then she paused. Colonel Askerton looked up at Clara with an ill-natured smile, and Clara felt that she blushed. Was it not cruel that she could not say a word in favour of a friend and a cousin a cousin who had promised to be a brother to her, without being treated with such words and such looks as these? But she was determined not to be put down. ‘I’m quite sure of this,’ she said, ‘that my cousin would do nothing unfair or ungentlemanlike.’
‘There would be nothing unfair or ungentlemanlike in it. I shouldn’t take it amiss at all but I should simply take up my bed and walk. Pray tell him that I hope I shall have the pleasure of seeing him before he goes. I did call yesterday, but he was out.’
‘He’ll be here soon. He’s to come here for me.’ But Colonel Askerton’s horse was brought to the door, and he could not therefore wait to make Mr Belton’s acquaintance on that occasion.
‘What a phoenix this cousin of yours is,’ said Mrs Askerton, as soon as her husband was gone.
‘He is a splendid fellow he is indeed. There’s so much life about him! He’s always doing something. He says that doing good will always pay in the long run. Isn’t that a fine doctrine?’
‘Quite a practical phoenix!’
‘It has done papa so much good! At this moment he’s out somewhere, thinking of what is going on, instead of moping in the house. He couldn’t bear the idea of Will’s coming, and now he is already beginning to complain because he’s going away.’
‘And why not Will? He’s my cousin.’
‘Yes ten times removed. But so much the better if he’s to be anything more than a cousin.’
‘He is to be nothing more, Mrs Askerton.’
‘You’re quite sure of that?
‘I am quite sure of it. And I cannot understand why there should be such a suspicion because he and I are thrown closely together, and are fond of each other. Whether he is a sixth, eighth, or tenth cousin makes no difference. He is the nearest I have on that side; and since my poor brother’s death he is papa’s heir. It is so natural that he should be my friend and such a comfort that he should be such a friend as he is! I own it seems cruel to me that under such circumstances there should be any suspicion.’
‘Suspicion, my dear suspicion of what?’
‘Not that I care I or it. I am prepared to love him as if he were my brother. I think him one of the finest creatures I ever knew perhaps the finest I ever did know. His energy and good-nature together are just the qualities to make the best kind of man. I am proud of him as my friend and my cousin, and now you may suspect what you please.’
‘But, my dear, why should not he fall in love with you? It would be the most proper, and also the most convenient thing in the world.’
‘I hate talking of falling in love as though a woman had nothing else to think of whenever she sees a man.’
‘A woman has nothing else to think of.’
‘I have a great deal else. And so has he.’
‘It’s quite out of the question on his part, then?’
‘Quite out of the question. I’m sure he likes me; I can see it in his face, and hear it in his voice, and am so happy that it is so. But it isn’t in the way that you mean. Heaven knows that I may want a friend some of these days, and I feel that I may trust to him. His feelings to me will be always those of a brother.’
‘Perhaps so. I have seen that fraternal love before under similar circumstances, and it has always ended in the same way.’
‘I hope it won’t end in any way between us.’
‘But the joke is that this suspicion, as you call it which makes you so indignant is simply a suggestion that a thing should happen which, of all things in the world, would be the best for both of you.’
‘But the thing won’t happen, and therefore let there be an end of it. I hate the twaddle talk of love, whether it’s about myself or about any one else. It makes me feel ashamed of my sex, when I find that I cannot talk of myself to another woman without being supposed to be either in love or thinking of love cither looking for it or avoiding it. When it comes, if it cornea prosperously, it’s a very good thing. But I for one can do without it, and I feel myself injured when such a state of things is presumed to be impossible.’
‘It is worth any one’s while to irritate you, because your indignation is so beautiful.’
‘It is not beautiful to me; for I always feel ashamed afterwards of my own energy. And now, if you please, we won’t say anything more about Mr Will Belton.’
‘May I not talk about him, even as the enterprising cousin?
‘Certainly; and in any other light you please. Do you know he seemed to think that he had known you ever so many years ago.’ Clara, as she said this, did not look direct at her friend’s face; but still she could perceive that Mrs Askerton was disconcerted. There came a shade of paleness over her face, and a look of trouble on her brow, and for a moment or two she made no reply.
‘Did he?’ she then said. ‘And when was that?’
‘I suppose it was in London. But, after all, I believe it was not you, but somebody whom he remembers to have been like you. He says that the lady was a Miss Vigo.’ As she pronounced the name, Clara turned her face away, feeling instinctively that it would be kind to do so.
‘Miss Vigo!’ said Mrs Askerton at once; and there was that in the tone of her voice which made Clara feel that all was not right with her. ‘I remember that there were Miss Vigos; two of them, I think. I didn’t know that they were like me especially.’
‘And he says that the one he remembers married a Mr Berdmore.’
‘Married a Mr Berdmore!’ The tone of voice was still the same, and there was an evident struggle, as though the woman was making a vehement effort to speak in her natural voice. Then Clara looked at her, feeling that if she abstained from doing so, the very fact of her so abstaining would be remarkable. There was the look of pain on Mrs Askerton’s brow, and her cheeks were still pale, but she smiled as she went on speaking. ‘I’m sure I’m flattered, for I remember that they were both considered beauties. Did he know anything more of her?
‘No; nothing more.’
‘There must have been some casual likeness I suppose.’ Mrs Askerton was a clever woman, and had by this time almost recovered her self-possession. Then there came a ring at the front door, and in another minute Mr Belton was in the room. Mrs Askerton felt that it was imperative on her to make some allusion to the conversation which had just taken place, and dashed at the subject at once. ‘Clara tells me that I am exactly like some old friend of yours, Mr Belton.’
Then he looked at her closely as he answered her. ‘I have no right to say that she was my friend, Mrs Askerton,’ he said; ‘indeed there was hardly what might be called an acquaintance between us; but you certainly are extremely like a certain Miss Vigo that I remember.’
‘I often wonder that one person isn’t more often found to be like another,’ said Mrs Askerton.
‘People often are like,’ said he, ‘but not like in such a way as to give rise to mistakes as to identity. Now, I should have stopped you in the street and called you Mrs Berdmore.’
‘Didn’t I once see or hear the name of Berdmore in this house?’ asked Clara.
Then that look of pain returned. Mrs Askerton had succeeded in recovering the usual tone of her countenance, but now she was once more disturbed. ‘I think I know the name,’ said she.
‘I fancy that I have seen it in this house,’ said Clara. ‘You may more likely have heard it, my dear. My memory is very poor, but if I remember rightly, Colonel Askerton did know a Captain Berdmore a long while ago, before he was married; and you may probably have heard him mention the name.’ This did not quite satisfy Clara, but she said nothing more about it then. If there was a mystery which Mrs Askerton did not wish to have explored, why should she explore it?
Soon after this Clara got up to go, and Mrs Askerton, making another attempt to be cheerful, was almost successful. So you’re going back into Norfolk on Saturday, Clara tells me. You are making a very short visit now that you’re come among us.’
‘It is a long time for me to be away from home. Farmers can hardly ever dare to leave their work. But in spite of my farm, I am talking of coming here again about Christmas.’
‘But you are going to have a farming establishment here too?’
‘That will be nothing. Clara will look after that for me; will you not?’ Then they went, and Belton had to consider how he would begin the work before him. He had some idea that too much precipitancy might do him an injury, but he hardly knew how to commence without coming to the point at once. When they were out together in the park, he went back at first to the subject of Mrs Askerton.
‘I would almost have sworn they were one and the same woman,’ he said.
‘But you see that they are not.’
‘It’s not only the likeness, but the voice. It so chanced that I once saw that Miss Vigo in some trouble. I happened to meet her in company with a man who was who was tipsy, in fact, and I had to relieve her.’
‘Dear me how disagreeable!’
‘It’s a long time ago, and there can’t be any harm in mentioning it now. It was the man she was going to marry, and whom she did marry.’
‘What the Mr Berdmore?’
‘Yes; he was often in that way. And there was a look about Mrs Askerton just now so like the look of that Miss Vigo then, that I cannot get rid of the idea.’
‘They can’t be the same, as she was certainly a Miss Oliphant. And you hear, too, what she says.’
‘Yes I heard what she said. You have known her long?’
‘These two years.’
‘Very intimately. She is our only neighbour; and her being here has certainly been a great comfort to me. It is sad not having some woman near one that one can speak to and then, I really do like her very much.’
‘No doubt it’s all right.’
‘Yes; it’s all right,’ said Clara. After that there was nothing more said about Mrs Askerton, and Belton began his work. They had gone from the cottage, across the park, away from the house, up to a high rock which stood boldly out of the ground, from whence could be seen the sea on one side, and on the other a far track of country almost away to the moors. And when they reached this spot they seated themselves. ‘There,’ said Clara, ‘I consider this to be the prettiest spot in England.’
‘I haven’t seen all England,’ said Belton.
‘Don’t be so matter-of-fact, Will. I say it’s the prettiest in England, and you can’t contradict me.’
‘And I say you’re the prettiest girl in England, and you can’t contradict me.’
This annoyed Clara, and almost made her feel that her paragon of a cousin was not quite so perfect as she had represented him to be. ‘I see’, she said, ‘that if I talk nonsense I’m to be punished.’
‘Is it a punishment to you to know that I think you very handsome?’ he said, turning round and looking full into her face.
‘It is disagreeable to me very, to have any such subject talked about at all. What would you think if I began to pay you foolish personal compliments?’
‘What I say isn’t foolish; and there’s a great difference. Clara, I love you better than all the world put together.’
She now looked at him; but still she did not believe it. It could not be that after all her boastings she should have made so gross a blunder. ‘I hope you do love me,’ she said; ‘indeed, you are bound to do so, for you promised that you would be my brother.’
‘But that will not satisfy me now, Clara. Clara, I want to be your husband.’
‘Will!’ she exclaimed.
‘Now you know it all; and if I have been too sudden, I must beg your pardon.’
‘Oh, Will, forget that you have said this. Do not go on until everything must be over between us.’
‘Why should anything be over between us? Why should it be wrong in me to love you?’
‘What will papa say?’
‘Mr Amedroz knows all about it already, and has given me his consent. I asked him directly I had made up my own mind, and he told me that I might go to you.’
‘You have asked papa? Oh dear, oh dear, what am I to do?’
‘Am I so odious to you then?’ As he said this he got up from his seat and stood before her. He was a tall, well-built, handsome man, and he could assume a look and mien that were almost noble when he was moved as he was moved now.
‘Odious! Do you not know that I have loved you as my cousin that I have already learned to trust you as though you were really my brother? But this breaks it all.’
‘You cannot love me then as my wife?’
‘No.’ She pronounced the monosyllable alone, and then he walked away from her as though that one little word settled the question for him, now and for ever. He walked away from her, perhaps a distance of two hundred yards, as though the interview was over, and he were leaving her. She, as she saw him go, wished that he would return that she might say some word of comfort to him. Not that she could have said the only word that would have comforted him. At the first blush of the thing, at the first sound of the address which he had made to her, she had been angry with him. He had disappointed her, and she was indignant. But her anger had already melted and turned itself to ruth. She could not but love him better, in that he had loved her so well; but yet she could not love him with the love which he desired.
But he did not leave her. When he had gone from her down the hill the distance that has been named, he turned back and came up to her slowly. He had a trick of standing and walking with his thumbs fixed into the armholes of his waistcoat, while his large hands rested on his breast. He would always assume this attitude when he was assured that he was right in his views, and was eager to carry some point at issue. Clara already understood that this attitude signified his intention to be autocratic. He now came close up to her and again stood over her, before he spoke. ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘I have been rough and hasty in what I have said to you, and I have to ask you to pardon my want of manners.’
‘No, no, no,’ she exclaimed.
‘But in a matter of so much interest to us both you will not let an awkward manner prejudice me.’
‘It is not that; indeed, it is not.’
‘Listen to me, dearest. It is true that I promised to be your brother, and I will not break my word unless I break it by your own sanction. I did promise to be your brother, but I did not know then how fondly I should come to love you. Your father, when I told him of this, bade me not to be hasty; but I am hasty, and I haven’t known how to wait. Tell me that I may come at Christmas for my answer, and I will not say a word to trouble you till then. I will be your brother, at any rate till Christmas.’
‘Be my brother always.’
A black cloud crossed his brow as this request reached his ears. She was looking anxiously into his face, watching every turn in the expression of his countenance. ‘Will you not let it wait till Christmas?’ he asked.
She thought it would be cruel to refuse this request, and yet she knew that no such waiting could be of service to him. He had been awkward in his love-making, and was aware of it. He should have contrived this period of waiting for himself; giving her no option but to wait and think of it. He should have made no proposal, but have left her certain that such proposal was coming. In such case she must have waited and if good could have come to him from that, he might have received it. But, as the question was now presented to her, it was impossible that she should consent to wait. To have given such consent would have been tantamount to receiving him as her lover. She was therefore forced to be cruel.
‘It will be of no avail to postpone my answer when I know what it must be. Why should there be suspense?’
‘You mean that it is impossible that you should love me?’
‘Not in that way, Will.’
‘And why not?’ Then there was a pause. ‘But I am a fool to ask such a question as that, and I should be worse than a fool were I to press it. It must then be considered as settled?’
She got up and clung to his arm. ‘Oh, Will, do not look at me like that!
‘It must then be considered as settled?’ he repeated.
‘Yes, Will, yes. Pray consider it as settled.’ He then sat down on the rock again, and she came and sat by him near to him, but not close as she had been before. She turned her eyes upon him, gazing on him, but did not speak to him; and he sat also without speaking for a while, with his eyes fixed upon the ground. ‘I suppose we may go back to the house?’ he said at last.
‘Give me your hand, Will, and tell me that you will still love me as your sister.’
He gave her his hand. ‘If you ever want a brother’s care you shall have it from me,’ he said.
‘But not a brother’s love?’
‘No. How can the two go together? I shan’t cease to love you because my love is in vain. Instead of making me happy it will make me wretched. That will be the only difference.’
‘I would give my life to make you happy, if that were possible.’
‘You will not give me your life in the way that I would have it.’
After that they walked in silence back to the house, and when he had opened the front door for her, he parted from her and stood alone under the porch, thinking of his misfortune.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01