On the first evening of their visit Captain Aylmer was very attentive to his aunt. He was quite alive to the propriety of such attentions, and to their expediency; and Clara was amused as she watched him while he sat by her side, by the hour together, answering little questions and making little remarks suited to the temperament of the old lady’s mind. She, herself, was hardly called upon to join in the conversation on that evening, and as she sat and listened, she could not but think that Will Belton would have been less adroit, but that he would also have been more straightforward. And yet why should not Captain Aylmer talk to his mat? Will Belton would also have talked to his aunt if he had one, but then he would have talked his own talk, and not his aunt’s talk. Clara could hardly make up her mind whether Captain Aylmer was or was not a sincere man. On the following day Aylmer was out all the morning, paying visits among his constituents, and at three o’clock he was to make his speech in the town-hall. Special places in the gallery were to be kept for Mrs Winterfield and her niece, and the old woman was quite resolved that she would be there. As the day advanced she became very fidgety, and at length she was quite alive to the perils of having to climb up the town-hall stairs; but she persevered, and at ten minutes before three she was seated in her place.
‘I suppose they will begin with prayer,’ she said to Clara. Clara, who knew nothing of the manner in which things were done at such meetings, said that she supposed so. A town councillor’s wife who sat on the other side of Mrs Winterfield here took the liberty of explaining that as the captain was going to talk politics there would be no prayers. ‘But they have prayers in the Houses of Parliament,’ said Mrs Winterfield, with much anger. To this the town councillor’s wife, who was almost silenced by the great lady’s wrath, said that indeed she did not know. After this Mrs Winterfield continued to hope for the best, till the platform was filled and the proceedings had commenced. Then she declared the present men of Perivale to be a godless set, and expressed herself very sorry that her nephew had ever had anything to do with them. ‘No good can come of it, my dear,’ she said. Clara from the beginning had feared that no good would come of her aunt’s visit to the town-hall.
The business was put on foot at once, and with some little flourishing at the commencement, Captain Aylmer made his speech the same speech which we have all heard and read so often, specially adapted to the meridian of Perivale. He was a Conservative, and of course he told his hearers that a good time was coming; that he and his family were really about to buckle themselves to the work, and that Perivale would hear things that would surprise it. The malt tax was to go, and the farmers were to have free trade in beer the arguments from the other side having come beautifully round in their appointed circle and old England was to be old England once again. He did the thing tolerably well, as such gentlemen usually do, and Perivale was contented with its Member, with the exception of one Perivalian. To Mrs Winterfield, sitting up there and listening with all her ears, it seemed that he had hitherto omitted all allusion to any subject that was worthy of mention. At last he said some word about the marriage and divorce court, condemning the iniquity of the present law, to which Perivale had opposed itself violently by petition and general meetings; and upon hearing this Mrs Winterfield had thumped with her umbrella, and faintly cheered him with her weak old voice. But the surrounding Perivalians had heard the cheer, and it was repeated backward and forwards through the room, till the Member’s aunt thought that it might be her nephew’s mission to annul that godless Act of Parliament and restore the matrimonial bonds of England to their old rigidity. When Captain Aylmer came out to hand her up to her little carriage, she patted him, and thanked him, and encouraged him; and on her way home she congratulated herself to Clara that she should have such a nephew to leave behind in her place.
Captain Aylmer was dining with the Mayor on that evening, and Mrs Winterfield was therefore able to indulge herself in talking about him. ‘I don’t see much of young men, of course,’ she said; ‘but I do not even hear of any that are like him.’ Again Clara thought of her cousin Will. Will was not at all like Frederic Aylmer; but was he not better? And yet, as she thought thus, she remembered that she had refused her cousin Will because she loved that very Frederic Aylmer whom her mind was thus condemning.
‘I’m sure he does his duty as a Member of Parliament very well,’ said Clara.
‘That alone would not be much; but when that is joined to so much that is better, it is a great deal. I am told that very few of the men in the House now are believers at all.’
‘It is terrible to think of, my dear.’
‘But, aunt; they have to take some oath, or something of that sort, to show that they are Christians.’
‘Not now, my dear. They’ve done away with all that since we had Jew members. An atheist can go into Parliament now; and I’m told that most of them are that, or nearly as bad. I can remember when no Papist could sit in Parliament. But they seem to me to be doing away with everything. It’s a great comfort to me that Frederic is what he is.’
‘I’m sure it must be, aunt.’
Then there was a pause, during which, however, Mrs Winterfield gave no sign that the conversation was to be considered as being over. Clara knew her aunt’s ways so well, that she was sure something more was coming, and therefore waited patiently, without any thought of taking up her book. ‘I was speaking to him about you yesterday,’ Mrs Winterfield said at last.
‘That would not interest him very much.’
‘Why not? Do you suppose he is not interested in those I love? Indeed, it did interest him; and he told me what I did not know before, and what you ought to have told me.’
Clara now blushed, she knew not why, and became agitated. ‘I don’t know that I have kept anything from you that I ought to have told,’ she said.
‘He says that the provision made for you by your father has all been squandered.’
‘If he used that word he has been very unkind,’ said Clara, angrily.
‘I don’t know what word he used, but he was not unkind at all; he never is. I think he was very generous.
‘I do not want his generosity, aunt,’
‘That is nonsense, my dear. If he has told me the truth, what have you to depend on?’
‘I don’t want to depend on anything. I hate hearing about it.’
‘Clara, I wonder you can talk in that way. If you were only seventeen it would be very foolish; but at your age it is inexcusable. When I am gone, and your father is gone, who is to provide for you? Will your cousin do it Mr Belton, who is to have the property?’
‘Yes, he would if I would let him of course I would not let him. But, aunt, pray do not go on. I would sooner have to starve than talk about it at all.’
There was another pause; but Clara again knew that the conversation was not over; and she knew also that it would be vain for her to endeavour to begin another subject. Nor could she think of anything else to say, so much was she agitated.
‘What makes you suppose that Mr Belton would be so liberal?’ asked Mrs Winterfield.
‘I don’t know. I can’t say. He is the nearest relation I shall have; and of all the people I ever knew he is the best, and the most generous, and the least selfish. When he came to us papa was quite hostile to him disliking his very name; but when the time came, papa could not bear to think of his going, because he had been so good.’
‘I hope you know my affection for you.’
‘Of course I do, aunt; and I hope you trust mine for you also.’
‘Is there anything between you and Mr Belton besides cousinship?’
‘Because if I thought that, my trouble would of course be at an end.’
‘There is nothing but pray do not lot me be a trouble to you.’ Clara, for a moment, almost resolved to tell her aunt the whole truth; but she remembered that she would be treating her cousin badly if she told the story of his rejection.
There was another short period of silence, and then Mrs Winterfield went on. ‘Frederic thinks that I should make some provision for you by will. That, of course, is the same as though he offered to do it himself. I told him that it would be so, and I read him my will last night. He said that that made no difference, and recommended me to add a codicil. I asked him how much I ought to give you, and he said fifteen hundred pounds. There will be as much as that after burying me without burden to the estate. You must acknowledge that he has been very generous.’
But Clara, in her heart, did not at all thank Captain Aylmer for his generosity. She would have had everything from him, or nothing. It was grievous to her to think that she should owe to him a bare pittance to keep her out of the workhouse to him who had twice seemed to be on the point of asking her to share everything with him. She did not love her cousin Will as she loved him; but her cousin Will’s assurance to her that he would treat her with a brother’s care was sweeter to her by far than Frederic Aylmer’s well-balanced counsel to his aunt on her behalf. In her present mood, too, she wanted no one to have fore. thought for her; she desired no provision; for her, in the discomfiture of heart, there was consolation in the feeling that when she should find herself alone in the world, she would have been ill-treated by her friends all round her. There was a charm in the prospect of her desolation of which she did not wish to be robbed by the assurance of some seventy pounds a year, to be given to her by Captain Frederic Aylmer. To be robbed of one’s grievance is the last and foulest wrong a wrong under which the most enduring temper will at last yield and become soured by which the strongest back will be broken. ‘Well, my dear,’ continued Mrs Winterfield, when Clara made no response to this appeal for praise.
‘It is so hard for me to say anything about it, aunt. What can I say but that I don’t want to be a burden to any one?’
‘That is a position which very few women can attain, that is, very few single women.’
‘I think it would be well if all single women were strangled by the time they are thirty,’ said Clara with a fierce energy which absolutely frightened her aunt.
‘Clara! how can you say anything so wicked so abominably wicked?’
‘Anything would be better than being twitted in this way. How can I help it that I am not a man and able to work for my bread? But I am not above being a housemaid, and so Captain Aylmer shall find. I’d sooner be a housemaid, with nothing but my wages, than take the money which you say he is to give me. It will be of no use, aunt, for I shall not take it.’
‘It is I that am to leave it to you. It is not to be a present from Frederic.’
‘It is the same thing, aunt. He says you are to do it; and you told me just now that it was to come out of his pocket.’
‘I should have done it myself long ago, had you told me all the truth about your father’s affairs.’
‘How was I to tell you? I would sooner have bitten my tongue out. But I will tell you the truth now. If I had known that all this was to be said to me about money, and that our poverty was to be talked over between you and Captain Aylmer, I would not have come to Perivale. I would rather that you should be angry with me and think that I had forgotten you.’
‘You would not say that, Clara, if you remembered that this will probably be your last visit to me.’
‘No, no; it will not be the last. But do not talk about these things. And it will be so much better that I should be here when he is not here.’
‘I had hoped that when I died you might both be with me together as husband and wife.’
‘Such hopes never come to anything.’
‘I still think that he would wish it.’
‘That is nonsense, aunt. it is indeed, for neither of us wish it.’ A lie on such a subject from a woman under such circumstances is hardly to be considered a lie at all. It is spoken with no mean object, and is the only bulwark which the woman has ready at her need to cover her own weakness.
‘From what he said yesterday,’ continued Mrs Winterfield, ‘I think it is your own fault.’
‘Pray pray do not talk in that way. It cannot be matter of any fault that two people do not want to marry each other.’
‘Of course I asked him no positive question. It would be indelicate even in me to have done that. But he spoke as though he thought very highly of you.’
‘No doubt he does. And so do I of Mr Possitt.’
‘Mr Possitt is a very excellent young man,’ said Mrs Winterfield, gravely. Mr Possitt was, indeed, her favourite curate of Perivale, and always dined at the house on Sundays between services, when Mrs Winter-field was very particular in seeing that he took two glasses of her best port wine to support him. ‘But Mr Possitt has nothing but his curacy.’
‘There is no danger, aunt, I can assure you.’
‘I don’t know what you call danger; but Frederic seemed to think that you are always sharp with him. You don’t want to quarrel with him, I hope, because I love him better than any one in the world?’
‘Oh, aunt, what cruel things you say to me without thinking of them!’
‘I do not mean to be cruel, but I will say nothing more about him. As I told you before that I had not thought it expedient to leave away any portion of my little property from Frederic believing, as I did then, that the money intended for you by your father was still remaining it is best that you should now know that I have at last learnt the truth, and that I will at once see my lawyer about making the change.’
‘Dear aunt, of course I thank you.’
‘I want no thanks, Clara. I humbly strive to do what I believe to be my duty. I have never felt myself to be more than a steward of my money. That I have often failed in my stewardship I know well for in what duties do we not all fail?’ Then she gently laid herself back in her arm-chair, closing her eyes, while she kept fast clasped in her hands the little book of daily devotion which she had been striving to read when the conversation had been commenced. Clara knew then that nothing more was to be said, and that she was not at present to interrupt her aunt. From her posture, and the closing of her eyelids, Mrs Winterfield might have been judged to be asleep; but Clara could see the gentle motion of her lips, and was aware that her aunt was solacing herself with prayer.
Clara was angry with herself, and angry with all the world. She knew that the old lady who was sitting then before her was very good; and that all this that had now been said had come from pure goodness, and a desire that strict duty might be done; and Clara was angry with herself in that she had not been more ready with her thanks and more demonstrative with her love and gratitude. Mrs Winterfield was affectionate as well as good, and her niece’s coldness, as the niece well knew, had hurt her sorely. But still what could Clara have done or said? She told herself that it was beyond her power to burst out into loud praises of Captain Aylmer; and of such nature was the gratitude which Mrs Winterfield had desired. She was not grateful to Captain Aylmer, and wanted nothing that was to come from his generosity. And then her mind went away to that other portion of her aunt’s discourse. Could it be possible that this man was in truth attached to her, and was repelled simply by her own manner? She was aware that she had fallen into a habit of fighting with him, of sparring against him with words about indifferent things, and calling his conduct in question in a manner half playful and half serious. Could it be the truth that she was thus robbing herself of that which would be to her as to herself she had frankly declared the one treasure which she would desire? Twice, as has been said before, words had seemed to tremble on his lips which might have settled the question for her for ever; and on both occasions, as she knew, she herself had helped to laugh off the precious word that had been coming. But had he been thoroughly in earnest in earnest as she would have him to be no laugh would have deterred him from his purpose. Could she have laughed Will Belton out of his declaration?
At last the lips ceased to move, and she knew that her aunt was in truth asleep. The poor old lady hardly ever slept at night; but nature, claiming something of its due, would give her rest such as this in her arm-chair by the fire-side. They were sitting in a large double drawing-room upstairs, in which there were, as was customary with Mrs Winterfield in winter, two fires; and the candles were in the back-room, while the two ladies sat in that looking out into the street. This Mrs Winterfield did to save her eyes from the candles, and yet to be within reach of light if it were wanted. And Clara also sat motionless in the dark, careful not to disturb her aunt, and desirous of being with her when she should awake. Captain Aylmer bad declared his purpose of being home early from the Mayor’s dinner, and the ladies were to wait for his arrival before tea was brought to them. Clara was herself almost asleep when the door was opened, and Captain Aylmer entered the room.
‘H sh!’ she said, rising gently from her chair, and putting up her finger. He saw her by the dull light of the fire, and closed the door without a sound. Clara then crept into the back-room and he followed her with a noiseless step. ‘ She did not sleep at all last night,’ said Clara; ‘and now the unusual excitement of the day has fatigued her, and I think it is better not to wake her.’ The rooms were large, and they were able to place themselves at such a distance from the sleeper that their low words could hardly disturb her.
‘Was she very tired when she got home? ‘he asked.
‘Not very. She has been talking much since that.’
‘Has she spoken about her will to you?’
‘Yes she has.’
‘I thought she would.’ Then he was silent, as though he expected that she would speak again on that matter. But she had no wish to discuss her aunt’s will with him, and therefore, to break the silence, asked him some trifling question. ‘Are you not home earlier than you expected?
‘It was very dull, and there was nothing more to be said. I did come away early, and perhaps have given affront. I hope you will accept the compliment implied.’
‘Your aunt will, when she wakes. She will be delighted to find you here.’
‘I am awake,’ said Mrs Winterfield. ‘I heard Frederic come in. It is very good of him to come so soon. Clara, my dear, we will have tea.’
During tea, Captain Aylmer was called upon to give an account of the Mayor’s feast how the rector had said grace before dinner, and Mr Possitt had done so after dinner, and how the soup had been uneatable. ‘Dear me!’ said Mrs Winterfield. ‘And yet his wife was housekeeper formerly in a family that lived very well!’ The Mrs Winterfields of this world allow themselves little spiteful pleasures of this kind, repenting of them, no doubt, in those frequent moments in which they talk to their friends of their own terrible vilenesses. Captain Aylmer then explained that his own health had been drunk, and his aunt desired to know whether, in returning thanks, he had been able to say anything further against that wicked Divorce Act of Parliament. This her nephew was constrained to answer with a negative, and so the conversation was carried on till tea was over. She was very anxious to hear every word that he could be made to utter as to his own doings in Parliament, and as to his doings in Perivale, and hung upon him with that wondrous affection which old people with warm hearts feel for those whom they have selected as their favourites. Clara saw it all, and knew that her aunt was almost doting.
‘I think I’ll go up to bed now, my dears,’ said Mrs Winterfield, when she had taken her cup of tea. ‘I am tired with those weary stairs in the Town-hall, and I shall be better in my own room.’ Clara offered to go with her, but this attendance her aunt declined as she did always. So the bell was rung, and the old maid. servant walked off with her mistress, and Miss Amedroz and Captain Aylmer were left together.
‘I don’t think she will last long,’ said Captain Aylmer, soon after the door was closed.
‘I should be sorry to believe that; but she is certainly much altered.’
‘She has great courage to keep her up and a feeling that she should not give way, but do her duty to the last. In spite of all that, however, I can see how changed she is since the summer. Have you ever thought how sad it will be if she should be alone when the day comes?’
‘She has Martha, who is more to her now than any one else unless it is you.’
‘You could not remain with her over Christmas, I suppose?’
‘Who, I? What would my father do? Papa is as old, or nearly as old, as my aunt.’
‘But he is strong.’
‘He is very lonely. He would be more lonely than she is, for he has no such servant as Martha to be with him. Women can do better than men, I think, when they come to my aunt’s age.’
>From this they got into a conversation as to the character of the lady with whom they were both so nearly connected, and, in spite of all that Clara could do to prevent it, continual references were made by Captain Aylmer to her money and will, and the need of an addition to that will on Clara’s behalf. At last she was driven to speak out. ‘Captain Aylmer,’ she said, ‘the subject is so distasteful to me, that I must ask you not to speak about it.’
‘In my position I am driven to think about it.’
‘I cannot, of course, help your thoughts; but I can assure you that they are unnecessary.’
‘It seems to me so hard that there should be such a gulf between you and me.’ This he said after he had been silent for a while; and as he spoke he looked away from her at the fire.
‘I don’t know that there is any particular gulf,’ she replied.
‘Yes, there is. And it is you that make it. Whenever I attempt to speak to you as a friend you draw yourself off from me, and shut yourself up. I know that it is not jealousy.’
‘Jealousy, Captain Aylmer!’
‘Jealousy with my aunt, I mean.’
‘You are infinitely too proud for that; but I am sure that a stranger seeing it would think that it was so.’
‘I don’t know what it is that I do or that I ought not to do. But all my life everything that I have done at Perivale has always been wrong.’
‘It would have been so natural that you and I should be friends.’
‘If we are enemies, Captain Aylmer, I don’t know it.’
‘But if ever I venture to speak of your future life you always repel me as though you were determined to let me know that it should not be a matter of care to me.’
‘That is exactly what I am determined to let you know. You are, or will be, a rich man, and you have everything the world can give you. I am, or shall be, a very poor woman.’
‘Is that a reason why I should not be interested in your welfare?’
‘Yes the best reason in the world. We are not related to each other, though we have a common connexion in dear Mrs Winterfield. And nothing, to my idea, can be more objectionable than any sort of dependence from a woman of my age on a man of yours there being no real tie of blood between them. I have spoken very plainly, Captain Aylmer, for you have made me do it.’
‘Very plainly,’ he said.
‘If I have said anything to offend you, I beg your pardon; but I was driven to explain myself.’
Then she got up and took her bed-candle in her hand.
‘You have not offended me,’ he said, as he also rose.
‘Good-night, Captain Aylmer.’
He took her hand and kept it. ‘Say that we are friends.’
‘Why should we not be friends?’
‘There is no reason on my part why we should not be the dearest friends,’ he said. ‘Were it not that I am so utterly without encouragement, I should say the very dearest.’ He still held her hand, and was looking into her face as he spoke. For a moment she stood there, bearing his gaze, as though she expected some further words to be spoken. Then she withdrew her hand, and again saying, in a clear voice, ‘Good-night, Captain Aylmer,’ she left the room.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14