E-text prepared by Andrew Turek; corrections by Rita Bailey
THE BELTON ESTATE
First published in serial form in the Fortnightly Review in 1865 and in book form the same year
THE REMNANTS OF THE AMEDROZ FAMILY
Mrs Amedroz, the wife of Bernard Amedroz, Esq, of Belton Castle, and mother of Charles and Clara Amedroz, died when those children were only eight and six years old, thereby subjecting them to the greatest misfortune which children born in that sphere of life can be made to suffer. And, in the case of this boy and girl, the misfortune was aggravated greatly by the peculiarities of the father's character. Mr Amedroz was not a bad man as men are held to be bad in the world's esteem. He was not vicious was not a gambler or a drunkard was not self-indulgent to a degree that brought upon him any reproach; nor was he regardless of his children. But he was an idle, thriftless man, who, at the age of sixty-seven, when the reader will first make his acquaintance, had as yet done no good in the world whatever. Indeed he had done terrible evil; for his son Charles was now dead had perished by his own hand and the state of things which had brought about this woeful event had been chiefly due to the father's neglect.
Belton Castle is a pretty country seat, standing in a small but beautifully wooded park, close under the Quantock hills in Somersetshire; and the little town of Belton clusters round the park gates. Few Englishmen know the scenery of England well, and the prettinesses of Somersetshire are among those which are the least known. But the Quantock hills are very lovely, with their rich valleys lying close among them, and their outlying moorlands running off towards Dulverton and the borders of Devonshire moorlands which are not flat, like Salisbury Plain, but are broken into ravines and deep watercourses and rugged dells hither and thither; where old oaks are standing, in which life seems to have dwindled down to the last spark; but the last spark is still there, and the old oaks give forth their scanty leaves from year to year.
In among the hills, somewhat off the high road from Minehead to Taunton, and about five miles from the sea, stands the little town, or village, of Belton, and the modern house of Mr Amedroz, which is called Belton Castle. The village for it is in truth no more, though it still maintains a charter for a market, and there still exists on Tuesdays some pretence of an open sale of grain and butcher's meat in the square before the church-gate contains about two thousand persons. That and the whole parish of Belton did once and that not long ago belong to the Amedroz family. They had inherited it from the Beltons of old, an Amedroz having married the heiress of the family. And as the parish is large, stretching away to Exmoor on one side and almost to the sea on the other, containing the hamlet of Redicote, lying on the Taunton high road Redicote, where the post-office is placed, a town almost in itself, and one which is now much more prosperous than Belton as the property when it came to the first Amedroz had limits such as these, the family had been considerable in the county. But these limits had been straitened in the days of the grandfather and the father of Bernard Amedroz; and he, when he married a Miss Winterfield of Taunton, was thought to have done very well, in that mortgages were paid off the property with his wife's money to such an extent as to leave him in clear possession of an estate that gave him two thousand a year. As Mr Amedroz had no grand neighbours near him, as the place is remote and the living therefore cheap, and as with this income there was no question of annual visits to London, Mr and Mrs Amedroz might have done very well with such of the good things of the world as had fallen to their lot. And had the wife lived, such would probably have been the case; for the Winterfields were known to be prudent people. But Mrs Amedroz had died young, and things with Bernard Amedroz had gone badly.
And yet the evil had not been so much with him as with that terrible boy of his. The father had been nearly forty when he married. He had then never done any good; but as neither had he done much harm, the friends of the family had argued well of his future career. After him, unless he should leave a son behind him, there would be no Amedroz left among the Quantock hills; and by some arrangement in respect to that Winterfield money which came to him on his marriage the Winterfields having a long-dated connexion with the Beltons of old the Amedroz property was, at Bernard's marriage, entailed back upon a distant Belton cousin, one Will Belton, whom no one had seen for many years, but who was by blood nearer the squire in default of children of his own than any other of his relatives. And now Will Belton was the heir to Belton Castle; for Charles Amedroz, at the age of twenty-seven, had found the miseries of the world to be too many for him, and had put an end to them and to himself.
Charles had been a clever fellow a very clever fellow in the eyes of his father. Bernard Amedroz knew that he himself was not a clever fellow, and admired his son accordingly; and when Charles had been expelled from Harrow for some boyish freak in his vengeance against a neighbouring farmer, who had reported to the school authorities the doings of a few beagles upon his land, Charles had cut off the heads of all the trees in a young fir plantation his father was proud of the exploit. When he was rusticated a second time from Trinity, and when the father received an intimation that his son's name had better be taken from the College books, the squire was not so well pleased; but even then he found some delight in the stories which reached him of his son's vagaries; and when the young man commenced Bohemian life in London, his father did nothing to restrain him. Then there came the old story debts, endless debts; and lies, endless lies. During the two years before his death, his father paid for him, or undertook to pay, nearly ten thousand pounds, sacrificing the life assurances which were to have made provision for his daughter; sacrificing, to a great extent, his own life income sacrificing everything, so that the property might not be utterly ruined at his death. That Charles Amedroz should be a brighter, greater man than any other Amedroz, had still been the father's pride. At the last visit which Charles had paid to Belton his father had called upon him to pledge himself solemnly that his sister should not be made to suffer by what had been done for him. Within a month of that time he had blown his brains out in his London lodgings, thus making over the entire property to Will Belton at his father's death. At that last pretended settlement with his father and his father's lawyer, he had kept back the mention of debts as heavy nearly as those to which he had owned; and there were debts of honour, too, of which he had not spoken, trusting to the next event at Newmarket to set him right. The next event at Newmarket had set him more wrong than ever, and so there had come an end to everything with Charles Amedroz.
This had happened in the spring, and the afflicted father afflicted with the double sorrow of his son's terrible death and his daughter's ruin had declared that he would turn his face to the wall and die. But the old squire's health, though far from strong, was stronger than he had deemed it, and his feelings, sharp enough, were less sharp than he thought them; and when a month had passed by, he had discovered that it would be better that he should live, in order that his daughter might still have bread to eat and a house of her own over her head. Though he was now an impoverished man, there was still left to him the means of keeping up the old home; and he told himself that it must, if possible, be so kept that a few pounds annually might be put by for Clara. The old carriage-horses were sold, and the park was let to a farmer, up to the hall door of the castle. So much the squire could do; but as to the putting by of the few pounds, any dependence on such exertion as that on his part would, we may say, be very precarious.
Belton Castle was not in truth a castle. Immediately before the front door, so near to the house as merely to allow of a broad road running between it and the entrance porch, there stood an old tower, which gave its name to the residence an old square tower, up which the Amedroz boys for three generations had been able to climb by means of the ivy and broken stones in one of the inner corners and this tower was a remnant of a real castle that had once protected the village of Belton. The house itself was an ugly residence, three stories high, built in the time of George II, with low rooms and long passages, and an immense number of doors. It was a large unattractive house—unattractive that is, as regarded its own attributes but made interesting by the beauty of the small park in which it stood. Belton Park did not, perhaps, contain much above a hundred acres, but the land was so broken into knolls and valleys, in so many places was the rock seen to be cropping up through the verdure, there were in it so many stunted old oaks, so many points of vantage for the lover of scenery, that no one would believe it to be other than a considerable domain. The farmer who took it, and who would not under any circumstances undertake to pay more than seventeen shillings an acre for it, could not be made to think that it was in any way considerable. But Belton Park, since first it was made a park, had never before been regarded in this fashion. Farmer Stovey, of the Grange, was the first man of that class who had ever assumed the right to pasture his sheep in Belton chase as the people around were still accustomed to call the woodlands of the estate.
It was full summer at Belton, and four months had now passed since the dreadful tidings had reached the castle. It was full summer, and the people of the village were again going about their ordinary business; and the shop-girls with their lovers from Redicote were again to be seen walking among the oaks in the park on a Sunday evening; and the world in that district of Somersetshire was getting itself back into its grooves. The fate of the young heir had disturbed the grooves greatly, and had taught many in those parts to feel that the world was coming to an end. They had not loved young Amedroz, for he had been haughty when among them, and there had been wrongs committed by the dissolute young squire, and grief had come from his misdoings upon more than one household; but to think that he should have destroyed himself with his own hand! And then, to think that Miss Clara would become a beggar when the old squire should die! All the neighbours around understood the whole history of the entail, and knew that the property was to go to Will Belton. Now Will Belton was not a gentleman! So, at least, said the Belton folk, who had heard that the heir had been brought up as a farmer somewhere in Norfolk. Will Belton had once been at the Castle as a boy, now some fifteen years ago, and then there had sprung up a great quarrel between him and his distant cousin Charles and Will, who was rough and large of stature, had thrashed the smaller boy severely; and the thing had grown to have dimensions larger than those which generally attend the quarrels of boys; and Will had said something which had shown how well he understood his position in reference to the estate and Charles had hated him. So Will had gone, and had been no more seen among the oaks whose name he bore. And the people, in spite of his name, regarded him as an interloper. To them, with their short memories and scanty knowledge of the past, Amedroz was more honourable than Belton, and they looked upon the coming man as an intruder. Why should not Miss Clara have the property? Miss Clara had never done harm to any one!
Things got back into their old grooves, and at the end of the third month the squire was once more seen in the old family pew at church. He was a large man, who had been very handsome, and who now, in his yellow leaf, was not without a certain beauty of manliness. He wore his hair and his beard long; before his son's death they were grey, but now they were very white. And though he stooped, there was still a dignity in his slow step a dignity that came to him from nature rather than from any effort. He was a man who, in fact, did little or nothing in the world whose life had been very useless; but he had been gifted with such a presence that he looked as though he were one of God's nobler creatures. Though always dignified he was ever affable, and the poor liked him better than they might have done had he passed his time in searching out their wants and supplying them. They were proud of their squire, though he had done nothing for them. It was something to them to have a man who could so carry himself sitting in the family pew in their parish church. They knew that he was poor, but they all declared that he was never mean. He was a real gentleman was this last Amedroz of the family; therefore they curtsied low, and bowed on his reappearance among them, and made all those signs of reverential awe which are common to the poor when they feel reverence for the presence of a superior.
Clara was there with him, but she had shown herself in the pew for four or five weeks before this. She had not been at home when the fearful news had reached Belton, being at that time with a certain lady who lived on the farther side of the county, at Perivale a certain Mrs Winterfield, born a Folliott, a widow, who stood to Miss Amedroz in the place of an aunt. Mrs Winterfield was, in truth, the sister of a gentleman who had married Clara's aunt there having been marriages and intermarriages between the Winterfields and the Folliotts and the Belton-Amedroz families. With this lady in Perivale, which I maintain to be the dullest little town in England, Miss Amedroz was staying when the news reached her father, and when it was brought direct from London to herself. Instantly she had hurried home, taking the journey with all imaginable speed though her heart was all but broken within her bosom. She had found her father stricken to the ground, and it was the more necessary, therefore, that she should exert herself. It would not do that she also should yield to that longing for death which terrible calamities often produce for a season.
Clara Amedroz, when she first heard the news of her brother's fate, had felt that she was for ever crushed to the ground. She had known too well what had been the nature of her brother's life, but she had not expected or feared any such termination to his career as this which had now come upon him to the terrible affliction of all belonging to him. She felt at first, as did also her father, that she and he were annihilated as regards this world, not only by an enduring grief, but also by a disgrace which would never allow her again to hold up her head. And for many a long year much of this feeling clung to her clung to her much more strongly than to her father. But strength was hers to perceive, even before she had reached her home, that it was her duty to repress both the feeling of shame and the sorrow, as far as they were capable of repression. Her brother had been weak, and in his weakness had sought a coward's escape from the ills of the world around him. She must not also be a coward! Bad as life might be to her henceforth, she must endure it with such fortitude as she could muster. So resolving she returned to her father, and was able to listen to his railings with a fortitude that was essentially serviceable both to him and to herself.
'Both of you! Both of you!' the unhappy father had said in his woe. 'The wretched boy has destroyed you as much as himself!' 'No, sir,' she had answered, with a forbearance in her misery, which, terrible as was the effort, she forced herself to accomplish for his sake. 'It is not so. No thought of that need add to your grief. My poor brother has not hurt me not in the way you mean.' 'He has ruined us all,' said the father; 'root and branch, man and woman, old and young, house and land. He has brought the family to an end ah me, to such an end!' After that the name of him who had taken himself from among them was not mentioned between the father and daughter, and Clara settled herself to the duties of her new life, striving to live as though there was no great sorrow around her as though no cloud-storm had burst over her head.
The family lawyer, who lived at Taunton, had communicated the fact of Charles's death to Mr Belton, and Belton had acknowledged the letter with the ordinary expressions of regret. The lawyer had alluded to the entail, saying that it was improbable that Mr Amedroz would have another son. To this Belton had replied that for his cousin Clara's sake he hoped that the squire's life might be long spared. The lawyer smiled as he read the wish, thinking to himself that luckily no wish on the part of Will Belton could influence his old client either for good or evil. What man, let alone what lawyer, will ever believe in the sincerity of such a wish as that expressed by the heir to a property? And yet where is the man who will not declare to himself that such, under such circumstances, would be his own wish?
Clara Amedroz at this time was not a very young lady. She had already passed her twenty-fifth birthday, and in manners, appearance, and habits was, at any rate, as old as her age. She made no pretence to youth, speaking of herself always as one whom circumstances required to take upon herself age in advance of her years. She did not dress young, or live much with young people, or correspond with other girls by means of crossed letters; nor expect that, for her, young pleasures should be provided. Life had always been serious with her; but now, we may say, since the terrible tragedy lit the family, it must be solemn as well as serious. The memory of her brother must always be upon her; and the memory also of the fact that her father was now an impoverished man, on whose behalf it was her duty to care that every shilling spent in the house did its full twelve pennies' worth of work. There was a mixture in this of deep tragedy and of little cares, which seemed to destroy for her the poetry as well as the pleasure of life. The poetry and tragedy might have gone hand in hand together; and so might the cares and pleasures of life have done, had there been no black sorrow of which she must be ever mindful. But it was her lot to have to scrutinize the butcher's bill as she was thinking of her brother's fate; and to work daily among small household things while the spectre of her brother's corpse was ever before her eyes.
A word must be said to explain how it had come to pass that the life led by Miss Amedroz had been more than commonly serious before that tragedy had befallen the family. The name of the lady who stood to Clara in the place of an aunt has been already mentioned. When a girl has a mother, her aunt may be little or nothing to her. But when the mother is gone, if there be an aunt unimpeded with other family duties, then the family duties of that aunt begin and are assumed sometimes with great vigour. Such had been the case with Mrs Winterfield. No woman ever lived, perhaps, with more conscientious ideas of her duty as a woman than Mrs Winterfield of Prospect Place, Perivale. And this, as I say it, is intended to convey no scoff against that excellent lady. She was an excellent lady unselfish, given to self-restraint, generous, pious, looking to find in her religion a safe path through life a path as safe as the facts of Adam's fall would allow her feet to find. She was a woman fearing much for others, but fearing also much for herself, striving to maintain her house in godliness, hating sin, and struggling with the weakness of her humanity so that she might not allow herself to hate the sinners. But her hatred for the sin she found herself bound at all times to pronounce to show it by some act at all seasons. To fight the devil was her work was the appointed work of every living soul, if only living souls could be made to acknowledge the necessity of the task. Now an aunt of that kind, when she assumes her duties towards a motherless niece, is apt to make life serious.
But, it will be said, Clara Amedroz could have rebelled; and Clara's father was hardly made of such stuff that obedience to the aunt would be enforced on her by parental authority. Doubtless Clara could have rebelled against her aunt. Indeed, I do not know that she had hitherto been very obedient. But there were family facts about these Winterfield connexions which would have made it difficult for her to ignore her so-called aunt, even had she wished to do so. Mrs Winterfield had twelve hundred a year at her own disposal, and she was the only person related to the Amedroz family from whom Mr Amedroz had a right to have expectations on his daughter's behalf. Clara had, in a measure, been claimed by the lady, and the father had made good the lady's claim, and Clara had acknowledged that a portion of her life was due to the demands of Perivale. These demands had undoubtedly made her life serious.
Life at Perivale was a very serious thing. As regards amusement, ordinarily so called, the need of any such institution was not acknowledged at Prospect House. Food, drink, and raiment were acknowledged to be necessary to humanity, and, in accordance with the rules of that house, they were supplied in plenty, and good of their kind. Such ladies as Mrs Winterfield generally keep good tables, thinking no doubt that the eatables should do honour to the grace that is said for them. And Mrs Winterfield herself always wore a thick black silk dress not rusty or dowdy with age but with some gloss of the silk on it; giving away, with secret, underhand, undiscovered charity, her old dresses to another lady of her own sort, on whom fortune had not bestowed twelve hundred a year. And Mrs Winterfield kept a low, four-wheeled, one-horsed phaeton, in which she made her pilgrimages among the poor of Perivale, driven by the most solemn of stable-boys, dressed up in a great white coat, the most priggish of hats, and white cotton gloves. At the rate of five miles an hour was she driven about, and this driving was to her the amusement of life. But such an occupation to Clara Amedroz assisted to make life serious.
In person Mrs Winterfield was tall and thin, wearing on her brow thin braids of false hair. She had suffered much from acute ill health, and her jaws were sunken, and her eyes were hollow, and there was a look of woe about her which seemed ever to be telling of her own sorrows in this world and of the sorrows of others in the world to come. Ill-nature was written on her face, but in this her face was a false face. She had the manners of a cross, peevish woman; but her manners also were false, and gave no proper idea of her character. But still, such as she was, she made life very serious to those who were called upon to dwell with her.
I need, I hope, hardly say that a young lady such as Miss Amedroz, even though she had reached the age of twenty-five for at the time to which I am now alluding she had nearly done so and was not young of her age, had formed for herself no plan of life in which her aunt's money figured as a motive power. She had gone to Perivale when she was very young, because she had been told to do so, and had continued to go, partly from obedience, partly from habit, and partly from affection. An aunt's dominion, when once well established in early years, cannot easily be thrown altogether aside even though a young lady have a will of her own. Now Clara Amedroz had a strong will of her own, and did not at all at any rate in these latter days belong to that school of divinity in which her aunt shone almost as a professor. And this circumstance, also, added to the seriousness of her life. But in regard to her aunt's money she had entertained no established hopes; and when her aunt opened her mind to her, on that subject, a few days before the arrival of the fatal news at Perivale, Clara, though she was somewhat surprised, was by no means disappointed. Now there was a certain Captain Aylmer in the question, of whom in this opening chapter it will be necessary to say a few words.
Captain Frederic Folliott Aylmer was, in truth, the nephew of Mrs Winterfield, whereas Clara Amedroz was not, in truth, her niece. And Captain Aylmer was also Member of Parliament for the little borough of Perivale, returned altogether on the Low Church interest for a devotion to which, and for that alone, Perivale was noted among boroughs. These facts together added not a little to Mrs Winterfield's influence and professorial power in the place, and gave a dignity to the one-horse chaise which it might not otherwise have possessed. But Captain Aylmer was only the second son of his father, Sir Anthony Aylmer, who had married a Miss Folliott, sister of our Mrs Winterfield. On Frederic Aylmer his mother's estate was settled. That and Mrs Winterfield's property lay in the neighbourhood of Perivale; and now, on the occasion to which I am alluding, Mrs Winterfield thought it necessary to tell Clara that the property must all go together. She had thought about it, and had doubted about it, and had prayed about it, and now she found that such a disposition of it was her duty.
'I am quite sure you're right, aunt,' Clara had said. She knew very well what had come of that provision which her father had attempted to make for her, and knew also how great were her father's expectations in regard to Mrs Winterfield's money.
'I hope I am; but I have thought it right to tell you. I shall feel myself bound to tell Frederic. I have had many doubts, but I think I am right.'
'I am sure you are, aunt. What would he think of me if, at some future time, he should have to find that I had been in his way?'
'The future time will not be long now, my dear.'
'I hope it may; but long or short, it is better so.'
'I think it is, my dear; I think it is. I think it is my duty.'
It must be understood that Captain Aylmer was member for Perivale on the Low Church interest, and that, therefore, when at Perivale he was decidedly a Low Churchman. I am not aware that the peculiarity stuck to him very closely at Aylmer Castle, in Yorkshire, or among his friends in London; but there was no hypocrisy in this, as the world goes. Women in such matters are absolutely false if they be not sincere; but men, with political views, and with much of their future prospects in jeopardy also, are allowed to dress themselves differently for different scenes. Whatever be the peculiar interest on which a man goes into Parliament, of course he has to live up to that in his own borough. Whether malt, the franchise, or teetotalism be his rallying point, of course he is full of it when among his constituents. But it is not desirable that he should be full of it also at his club. Had Captain Aylmer become Prime Minister, he would no doubt have made Low Church bishops. It was the side to which he had taken himself in that matter not without good reasons. And he could say a sharp word or two in season about vestments; he was strong against candles, and fought for his side fairly well. No one had good right to complain of Captain Aylmer as being insincere; but had his aunt known the whole history of her nephew's life, I doubt whether she would have made him her heir thinking that in doing so she was doing the best for the good cause.
The whole history of her niece's life she did know, and she knew that Clara was not with her, heart and soul. Had Clara left the old woman in doubt on this subject, she would have been a hypocrite. Captain Aylmer did not often spend a Sunday at Perivale, but when he did, he went to church three times, and submitted himself to the yoke. He was thinking of the borough votes quite as much as of his aunt's money, and was carrying on his business after the fashion of men But Clara found herself compelled to maintain some sort of a fight, though she also went to church three times on Sunday. And there was another reason why Mrs Winterfield thought it right to mention Captain Aylmer's name to her niece on this occasion.
'I had hoped', she said, 'that it might make no difference in what way my money was left.'
Clara well understood what this meant, as will, probably, the reader also. 'I can't say but what it will make a difference,' she answered, smiling; 'but I shall always think that you have done right. Why should I stand in Captain Aylmer's way?'
'I had hoped your ways might have been the same,' said the old lady, fretfully.
'But they cannot be the same.'
'No; you do not see things as he sees them. Things that are serious to him are, I fear, only light to you. Dear Clara, would I could see you more in earnest as to the only matter that is worth our earnestness.' Miss Amedroz said nothing as to the Captain's earnestness, though, perhaps, her ideas as to his ideas about religion were more correct than those held by Mrs Winterfield. But it would not have suited her to raise any argument on that subject. 'I pray for you, Clara,' continued the old lady, 'and will do so as long as the power of prayer is left to me. I hope I hope you do not cease to pray for yourself?'
'I endeavour, aunt.'
'It is an endeavour which, if really made, never fails.' Clara said nothing more, and her aunt also remained silent. Soon afterwards, the four-wheeled carriage, with the demure stable-boy, came to the door, and Clara was driven up and down through the streets of Perivale in a manner which was an injury to her. She knew that she was suffering an injustice, but it was one of which she could not make complaint. She submitted to her aunt, enduring the penances that were required of her; and, therefore, her aunt had opportunity enough to see her shortcomings. Mrs Winterfield did see them, and judged her accordingly. Captain Aylmer, being a man and a Member of Parliament, was called upon to bear no such penances, and, therefore, his shortcomings were not suspected.
But, after all, what title had she ever possessed to entertain expectations from Mrs Winterfield? When she thought of it all in her room that night, she told herself that it was strange that her aunt should have spoken to her in such a way on such a subject. But, then, so much had been said to her on the matter by her father, so much, no doubt, had reached her aunt's ears also, the hope that her position with reference to the rich widow at Perivale might be beneficial to her had been so often discussed at Belton as a make-weight against the extravagances of the heir, there had already been so much of this mistake, that she taught herself to perceive that the communication was needed. 'In her honesty 'she has not chosen to leave me with false hopes,' said Clara to herself. And at that moment she loved her aunt for her honesty.
Then, on the day but one following this conversation as to the destiny of her aunt's property, came the terrible tidings of her brother's death. Captain Aylmer, who had been in London at the time, hurried down to Perivale, and had been the first to tell Miss Amedroz what had happened. The words spoken between them had not been many, but Clara knew that Captain Aylmer had been kind to her; and when he had offered to accompany her to Belton, she had thanked him with a degree of gratitude which had almost seemed to imply more of regard between them than Clara would have acknowledged to exist. But in moments such as those, soft words may be spoken and hands may be pressed without any of that meaning which soft words and the grasping of hands generally carry with them. As far as Taunton Captain Aylmer did go with Miss Amedroz, and there they parted, he on his journey up to town, and she for her father's desolate house at Belton.
THE HEIR PROPOSES TO VISIT HIS COUSIN
It was full summer at Belton, and the sweet scene of the new hay filled the porch of the old house with fragrance, as Clara sat there alone with her work. Immediately before the house door, between that and the old tower, there stood one of Farmer Stovey's hay-carts, now empty, with an old horse between the shafts looking as though he were asleep in the sun. Immediately beyond the tower the men were loading another cart, and the women and children were chattering as they raked the scattered remnants up to the rows. Under the shadow of the old tower, but in sight of Clara as she sat in the porch, there lay the small beer-barrels of the hay-makers, and three or four rakes were standing erect against the old grey wall. It was now eleven o'clock, and Clara was waiting for her father, who was not yet out of his room. She had taken his breakfast to him in bed, as was her custom; for he had fallen into idle ways, and the luxury of his bed was, of all his remaining luxuries, the one that he liked the best. After a while he came down to her, having an open letter in his hand. Clara saw that he intended either to show it to her or to speak of it, and asked him therefore, with some tone of interest in her voice, from whom it had come. But Mr Amedroz was fretful at the moment, and instead of answering her began to complain of his tenant's ill-usage of him.
'What has he got his cart there for? I haven't let him the road up to the hall door. I suppose he will bring his things into the parlour next.'
'I rather like it, papa.'
'Do you? I can only say that you're lucky in your tastes. I don't like it, I can tell you.'
'Mr Stovey is out there. Shall I ask him to have the things moved farther off?'
'No, my dear no. I must bear it, as I do all the rest of it. What does it matter? There'll be an end of it soon. He pays his rent, and I suppose he is right to do as he pleases. But I can't say that I like it.'
'Am I to see the letter, papa?' she asked, wishing to turn his mind from the subject of the hay-cart.
'Well, yes. I brought it for you to see; though perhaps I should be doing better if I burned it, and said nothing more about it. It is a most impudent production; and heartless very heartless.'
Clara was accustomed to such complaints as these from her father. Everything that everybody did around him he would call heartless. The man pitied himself so much in his own misery, that he expected to live in an atmosphere of pity from others; and though the pity doubtless was there, he misdoubted it. He thought that Farmer Stovey was cruel in that he had left the hay-cart near the house, to wound his eyes by reminding him that he was no longer master of the ground before his own hall door. He thought that the women and children were cruel to chatter so near his ears. He almost accused his daughter of cruelty, because she had told him that she liked the contiguity of the hay-making. Under such circumstances as those which enveloped him and her, was it not heartless in her to like anything? It seemed to him that the whole world of Belton should be drowned in woe because of his misery.
'Where is it from, papa?' she asked.
'There, you may read it. Perhaps it is better that you should know that it has been written.' Then she read the letter, which was as follows:—
'Plaistow Hall, — July, 186—.'
Though she had never before seen the handwriting, she knew at once from whence came the letter, for she had often heard of Plaistow Hall. It was the name of the farm at which her distant cousin, Will Belton, lived, and her father had more than once been at the trouble of explaining to her, that though the place was called a hall, the house was no more than a farmhouse. He had never seen Plaistow Hall, and had never been in Norfolk; but so much he could take upon himself to say, 'They call all the farms halls down there.' It was not wonderful that he should dislike his heir; and perhaps not unnatural that he should show his dislike after this fashion. Clara, when she read the address, looked up into her father's face. 'You know who it is now,' he said. And then she read the letter.
'Plaistow Hall, — July, 186—.
'My dear Sir,
'I have not written to you before since your bereavement, thinking it better to wait awhile; but I hope you have not taken me to be unkind in this, or have supposed me to be unmindful of your sorrow. Now I take up my pen, hoping that I may make you understand how greatly I was distressed by what has occurred. I believe I am now the nearest male relative that you have, and as such I am very anxious to be of service to you if it may be possible. Considering the closeness of our connexion, and my position in reference to the property, it seems bad that we should never meet. I can assure you that you would find me very friendly if we could manage to come together.
'I should think nothing of running across to Belton, if you would receive me at your house. I could come very well before harvest, if that would suit you, and would stay with you for a week. Pray give my kindest regards to my cousin Clara, whom I can only just remember as a very little girl. She was with her aunt at Perivale when I was at Belton as a boy. She shall find a friend in me if she wants a friend.
'Your affectionate cousin,
Clara read the letter very slowly, so that she might make herself sure of its tone and bearing before she was called upon by her father to express her feeling respecting it. She knew that she would be expected to abuse it violently, and to accuse the writer of vulgarity, insolence, and cruelty, but she had already learned that she must not allow herself to accede to all her father's fantasies. For his sake, and for his protection, it was necessary that she should differ from him, and even contradict him. Were she not to do so, he would fall into a state of wailing and complaining that would exaggerate itself almost to idiotcy. And it was imperative that she herself should exercise her own opinion on many points, almost without reference to him. She alone knew how utterly destitute she would be when he should die. He, in the first days of his agony, had sobbed forth his remorse as to her ruin; but, even when doing so, he had comforted himself with the remembrance of Miss Winterfield's money and Mrs Winterfield's affection for his daughter. And the aunt, when she had declared her purpose to Clara, had told herself that the provision made for Clara by her father was sufficient. To neither of them had Clara told her own position. She could not inform her aunt that her father had given up to the poor reprobate who had destroyed himself all that had been intended for her. Had she done so she would have been asking her aunt for charity. Nor would she bring herself to add to her father's misery, by destroying the hopes which still supported him. She never spoke of her own position in regard to money, but she knew that it had become her duty to live a wary, watchful life, taking much upon herself in their impoverished household, and holding her own opinion against her father's when her doing so became expedient. So she finished the letter in silence, and did not speak at the moment when the movement of her eyes declared that she had completed the task.
'Well?' said he.
'I do not think my cousin means badly.'
'You don't! I do, then. I think he means very badly. What business has he to write to me, talking of his position?'
'I can't see anything amiss in his doing so, papa. I think he wishes to be friendly. The property will be his some day, and I don't see why that should not be mentioned, when there is occasion.'
'Upon my word, Clara, you surprise me. But women never understood delicacy in regard to money. They have so little to do with it, and think so little about it, that they have no occasion for such delicacy.'
Clara could not help the thought that to her mind the subject was present with sufficient frequency to make delicacy very desirable, if only it were practicable. But of this she said nothing. 'And what answer will you send to him, papa?' she asked.
'None at all. Why should I trouble myself to write to him?'
'I will take the trouble off your hands.'
'And what will you say to him?'
'I will ask him to come here, as he proposes.'
'Why not, papa? He is the heir to the property, and why should he not be permitted to see it? There are many things in which his co-operation with you might be a comfort to you. I can't tell you whether the tenants and people are treating you well, but he can do so; and, moreover, I think he means to be kind. I do not see why we should quarrel with our cousin because he is the heir to your property. It is not through any doing of his own that he is so.'
This reasoning had no effect upon Mr Amedroz, but his daughter's resolution carried the point against him in spite of his want of reason. No letter was written that day, or on the next; but on the day following a formal note was sent off by Clara, in which Mr Belton was told that Mr Amedroz would be happy to receive him at Belton Castle. The letter was written by the daughter, but the father was responsible for the formality. He sat over her while she wrote it, and nearly drove her distracted by discussing every word and phrase. At last, Clara was so annoyed with her own production, that she was almost tempted to write another letter unknown to her father; but the formal note went.
'My Dear Sir
'I am desired by my father to say that he will be happy to receive you at Belton Castle, at the time fixed by yourself.
There was no more than that, but that had the desired effect; and by return of post there came a rejoinder saying that Will Belton would be at the Castle on the fifteenth of August. 'They can do without me for about ten days,' he said in his postscript, writing in a familiar tone, which did not seem to have been at all checked by the coldness of his cousin's note 'as our harvest will be late; but I must be back for a week's work before the partridges.'
'Heartless! quite heartless!' Mr Amedroz said as he read this. 'Partridges! to talk of partridges at such a time as this!'
Clara, however, would not acknowledge that she agreed with her father; but she could not altogether restrain a feeling on her own part that her cousin's good humour towards her and Mr Amedroz should have been repressed by the tone of her letter to him. The man was to come, however, and she would not judge of him until he was there.
In one house in the neighbourhood, and in only one, had Miss Amedroz a friend with whom she was intimate; and as regarded even this single friend, the intimacy was the effect rather of circumstances than of real affection. She liked Mrs Askerton, and saw her almost daily; but she could hardly tell herself that she loved her neighbour.
In the little town of Belton, close to the church, there stood a pretty, small house, called Belton Cottage. It was so near the church that strangers always supposed it to be the parsonage; but the rectory stood away out in the country, half a mile from the town, on the road to Redicote, and was a large house, three stories high, with grounds of its own, and very ugly. Here lived the old bachelor rector, seventy years of age, given much to long absences when he could achieve them, and never on good terms with his bishop. His two curates lived at Redicote, where there was a second church. Belton Cottage, which was occupied by Colonel Askerton and Mrs Askerton, was on the Amedroz property, and had been hired some two years since by the Colonel, who was then a stranger in the country and altogether unknown to the Belton people. But he had come there for shooting, and therefore his coming had been understood. Even as long ago as two years since, there had been neither use nor propriety in keeping the shooting for the squire's son, and it had been let with the cottage to Colonel Askerton. So Colonel Askerton had come there with his wife, and no one in the neighbourhood had known anything about them. Mr Amedroz, with his daughter, had called upon them, and gradually there had grown up an intimacy between Clara and Mrs Askerton. There was an opening from the garden of Belton Cottage into the park, so that familiar intercourse was easy, and Mrs Askerton was a woman who knew well how to make herself pleasant to such another woman as Miss Amedroz.
The reader may as well know at ones that rumours prejudicial to the Askertons reached Belton before they had been established there for six months. At Taunton, which was twenty miles distant, these rumours were very rife, and there were people there who knew with accuracy though probably without a grain of truth in their accuracy every detail in the history of Mrs Askerton's life. And something, too, reached Clara's ears something from old Mr Wright, the rector, who loved scandal, and was very ill-natured. 'A very nice woman,' the rector had said; 'but she does not seem to have any belongings in particular.' 'She has got a husband,' Clara had replied with some little indignation, for she had never loved Mr Wright. 'Yes; I suppose she has got a husband.' Then Clara had, in her own judgment, accused the rector of lying, evil-speaking, and slandering, and had increased the measure of her cordiality to Mrs Askerton. But something more she had heard on the same subject at Perivale. 'Before you throw yourself into close intimacy with the lady, I think you should know something about her,' Mrs Winterfield had said to her. 'I do know something about her; I know that she has the manners and education of a lady, and that she is living affectionately with her husband, who is devoted to her. What more ought I to know?' 'If you really do know all that, you know a great deal,' Mrs Winterfield had replied.
'Do you know anything against her, aunt?' Clara asked, after a pause.
There was another pause before Mrs Winterfield answered. 'No, my dear; I cannot say that I do. But I think that young ladies, before they make intimate friendships, should be very sure of their friends.'
'You have already acknowledged that I know a great deal about her,' Clara replied. And then the conversation was at an end. Clara had not been quite ingenuous, as she acknowledged to herself. She was aware that her aunt would not permit herself to repeat rumours as to the truth of which she had no absolute knowledge. She understood that the weakness of her aunt's caution was due to the old lady's sense of charity and dislike of slander. But Clara had buckled on her armour for Mrs Askerton, and was glad, therefore, to achieve her little victory. When we buckle on our armour in any cause, we are apt to go on buckling it, let the cause become as weak as it may; and Clara continued her intimacy with Mrs Askerton, although there was something in the lady's modes of speech, and something also in her modes of thinking, which did not quite satisfy the aspirations of Miss Amedroz as to a friend.
Colonel Askerton himself was a pleasant, quiet man, who seemed to be contented with the life which he was leading. For six weeks in April and May he would go up to town, leaving Mrs Askerton at the cottage as to which, probably jovial, absence in the metropolis there seemed to be no spirit of grudging on the part of the wife. On the first of September a friend would come to the cottage and remain there for six weeks' shooting: and during the winter the Colonel and his wife always went to Paris for a fortnight. Such had been their life for the last two years; and thus so said Mrs Askerton to Clara did they intend to live as long as they could keep the cottage at Belton. Society at Belton they had none, and as they said desired none. Between them and Mr Wright there was only a speaking acquaintance. The married curate at Redicote would not let his wife call on Mrs Askerton, and the unmarried curate was a hard-worked, clerical hack, a parochial minister at all times and seasons, who went to no houses except the houses of the poor, and who would hold communion with no man, and certainly with no woman, who would not put up with clerical admonitions for Sunday backslidings. Mr Amedroz himself neither received guests nor went as a guest to other men's houses. He would occasionally stand for a while at the gate of the Colonel's garden, and repeat the list of his own woes as long as his neighbour would stand there to hear it. But there was no society at Belton, and Clara, as far as she herself was aware, was the only person with whom Mrs Askerton held any social intercourse, except what she might have during her short annual holiday in Paris.
'Of course, you are right,' she said, when Clara told her of the proposed coming of Mr Belton. 'If he turn out to be a good fellow, you will have gained a great deal. And should he be a bad, fellow, you will have lost nothing. In either case you will know him, and considering how he stands towards you, that itself is desirable.'
'But if he should annoy papa?'
'In your papa's condition, my dear, the coming of any one will annoy him. At least, he will say so; though I do not in the least doubt that he will like the excitement better even than you will.'
'I can't say there will be much excitement to me.'
'No excitement in a young man's coming into the house! Without shocking your propriety, allow me to say that that is impossible. Of course, he is coming to see whether he can't make matters all right by marrying you.'
'That's nonsense, Mrs Askerton.'
'Very well. Let it be nonsense. But why shouldn't he? It's just what he ought to do. He hasn't got a wife; and, as far as I know, you haven't got a lover.'
'I certainly have not got a lover.'
'Our religious nephew at Perivale does not seem to be of any use.'
'I wish, Mrs Askerton, you would not speak of Captain Aylmer in that way. I don't know any man whom I like so much, or at any rate better, than Captain Aylmer; but I hate the idea that no girl can become acquainted with an unmarried man without having her name mentioned with his, and having to hear ill-natured remarks of that kind.'
'I hope you will learn to like this other man much better. Think how nice it will be to be mistress of the old place after all. And then to go back to the old family name! If I were you I would make up my mind not to let him leave the place till I had brought him to my feet.'
'If you go on like that I will not speak to you about him again.'
'Or rather not to my feet for gentlemen have laid aside the humble way of making love for the last twenty years at least; but I don't know whether the women haven't gained quite as much by the change as the men.'
'As I know nothing will stop you when you once get into a vein of that kind, I shall go,' said Clara. 'And till this man has come and gone I shall not mention his name again in your presence.'
'So be it,' said Mrs Askerton; 'but as I will promise to say nothing more about him, you need not go on his account.' But Clara had got up, and did leave the cottage at once.
Mr Belton came to the castle, and nothing further had been said at the cottage about his coming. Clara had seen Mrs Askerton in the meantime frequently, but that lady had kept her promise almost to Clara's disappointment. For she though she had in truth disliked the proposition that her cousin could be coming with any special views with reference to herself had nevertheless sufficient curiosity about the stranger to wish to talk about him. Her father, indeed, mentioned Belton's name very frequently, saying something with reference to him every time he found himself in his daughter's presence. A dozen times he said that the man was heartless to come to the house at such a time, and he spoke of his cousin always as though the man were guilty of a gross injustice in being heir to the property. But not the less on that account did he fidget himself about the room in which Belton was to sleep, about the food that Belton was to eat, and especially about the wine that Belton was to drink. What was he to do for wine? The stock of wine in the cellars at Belton Castle was, no doubt, very low. The squire himself drank a glass or two of port daily, and had some remnant of his old treasures by him, which might perhaps last him his time; and occasionally there came small supplies of sherry from the grocer at Taunton; but Mr Amedroz pretended to think that Will Belton would want champagne and claret and he would continue to make these suggestions in spite of his own repeated complaints that the man was no better than an ordinary farmer. 'I've no doubt he'll like beer,' said Clara. 'Beer!' said her father, and then stopped himself, as though he were lost in doubt whether it would best suit him to scorn his cousin for having so low a taste as that suggested on his behalf, or to ridicule his daughter's idea that the household difficulty admitted of so convenient a solution.
The day of the arrival at last came, and Clara certainly was in a twitter, although she had steadfastly resolved that she would be in no twitter at all. She had told her aunt by letter of the proposed visit, and Mrs Winterfield had expressed her approbation, saying that she hoped it would lead to good results. Of what good results could her aunt be thinking? The one probable good result would surely be this that relations so nearly connected should know each other. Why should there be any fuss made about such a visit? But, nevertheless, Clara, though she made no outward fuss, knew that inwardly she was not as calm about the man's coming as she would have wished herself to be.
He arrived about five o'clock in a gig from Taunton. Five was the ordinary dinner hour at Belton, but it had been postponed till six on this day, in the hope that the cousin might make his appearance at any rate by that hour. Mr Amedroz had uttered various complaints as to the visitor's heartlessness in not having written to name the hour of his arrival, and was manifestly intending to make the most of the grievance should he not present himself before six but this indulgence was cut short by the sound of the gig wheels. Mr Amedroz and his daughter were sitting in a small drawing-room which looked out to the front of the house, and he, seated in his accustomed chair near the window, could see the arrival. For a moment or two he remained quiet in his chair, as though he would not allow so insignificant a thing as his cousin's coming to ruffle him but he could not maintain this dignified indifference, and before Belton was out of the gig he had shuffled out into the hall.
Clara followed her father almost unconsciously, and soon found herself shaking hands with a big man, over six feet high, broad in the shoulders, large limbed, with bright quick grey eyes, a large mouth, teeth almost too perfect and a well-formed nose, with thick short brown hair and small whiskers which came half-way down his cheeks a decidedly handsome man with a florid face, but still, perhaps, with something of the promised roughness of the farmer. But a more good-humoured looking countenance Clara felt at once that she had never beheld.
'And you are the little girl that I remember when I was a boy at Mr Folliott's?' he said. His voice was clear, and rather loud, but it sounded very pleasant in that sad old house.
'Yes; I am the little girl,' said Clara smiling.
'Dear, dear! and that's twenty years ago now,' said he.
'But you oughtn't to remind me of that, Mr Belton.'
'Oughtn't I? Why not?'
'Because it shows how very old I am.'
'Ah, yes to be sure. But there's nobody here that signifies. How well I remember this room and the old tower out there. It isn't changed a bit!'
'Not to the outward eye, perhaps,' said the squire.
'That's what I mean. So they're making hay still. Our hay has been all up these three weeks. I didn't know you ever meadowed the park.' Here he trod with dreadful severity upon the corns of Mr Amedroz, but he did not perceive it. And when the squire muttered something about a tenant, and the inconvenience of keeping land in his own hands, Belton would have gone on with the subject had not Clara changed the conversation. The squire complained bitterly of this to Clara when they were alone, saying that it was very heartless.
She had a little scheme of her own a plan arranged for the saying of a few words to her cousin on the earliest opportunity of their being alone together and she contrived that this should take place within half an hour after his arrival, as he went through the hall up to his room. 'Mr Belton,' she said, 'I'm sure you will not take it amiss if I take a cousin's privilege at once and explain to you something of our way of living here. My dear father is not very strong.'
'He is much altered since I saw him last.'
'Oh, yes. Think of all that he has had to bear! Well, Mr Belton, the fact is, that we are not so well off as we used to be, and are obliged to live in a very quiet way. You will not mind that?'
'I take it very kind of you, your coming all this way to see us—'
'I'd have come three times the distance.'
'But you must put up with us as you find us, you know. The truth is we are very poor.'
'Well, now that's just what I wanted to know. One couldn't write and ask such a question; but I was sure I should find out if I came.'
'You've found it out already, you see.'
'As for being poor, it's a thing I don't think very much about not for young people. But it isn't comfortable when a man gets old. Now what I want to know is this; can't something be done?'
'The only thing to do is to be very kind to him. He has had to let the park to Mr Stovey, and he doesn't like talking about it.'
'But if it isn't talked about, how can it be mended?'
'It can't be mended.'
'We'll see about that. But I'll be kind to him; you see if I ain't. And I'll tell you what, I'll be kind to you too, if you'll let me. You have got no brother now.'
'No,' said Clara; 'I have got no brother now.' Belton was looking full into her face, and saw that her eyes had become clouded with tears.
'I will be your brother,' said he. 'You see if I don't. When I say a thing I mean it. I will be your brother.' And he took her hand, caressing it, and showing her that he was not in the least afraid of her. He was blunt in his bearing, saying things which her father would have called indelicate and heartless, as though they gave him no effort, and placing himself at once almost in a position of ascendency. This Clara had not intended. She had thought that her farmer cousin, in spite of the superiority of his prospects as heir to the property, would have acceded to her little hints with silent acquiescence; but instead of this he seemed prepared to take upon himself the chief part in the play that was to be acted between them. 'Shall it be so?' he said, still holding her hand.
'You are very kind.'
'I will be more than kind; I will love you dearly if you will let me. You don't suppose that I have looked you up here for nothing. Blood is thicker than water, and you have nobody now so near to you as I am. I don't see why you should be so poor, as the debts have been paid.'
'Papa has had to borrow money on his life interest in the place.'
'That's the mischief! Never mind. We'll see if we can't do something. And in the meantime don't make a stranger of me. Anything does for me. Lord bless you! if you were to see how I rough it sometimes! I can eat beans and bacon with any one; and what's more, I can go without 'em if I can't get 'em.'
'We'd better get ready for dinner now. I always dress, because papa likes to see it.' This she said as a hint to her cousin that he would be expected to change his coat, for her father would have been annoyed had his guest sat down to dinner without such ceremony. Will Belton was not very good at taking hints; but he did understand this, and made the necessary change in his apparel.
The evening was long and dull, and nothing occurred worthy of remark except the surprise manifested by Mr Amedroz when Belton called his daughter by her Christian name. This he did without the slightest hesitation, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for him to do. She was his cousin, and cousins of course addressed each other in that way. Clara's quick eye immediately saw her father's slight gesture of dismay, but Belton caught nothing of this. The squire took an early opportunity of calling him Mr Belton with some little peculiarity of expression; but this was altogether lost on Will, who five times in the next five minutes addressed 'Clara' as though they were already on the most intimate terms. She would have answered him in the same way, and would have called him Will, had she not been afraid of offending her father.
Mr Amedroz had declared his purpose of coming down to breakfast during the period of his cousin's visit, and at half-past nine he was in the parlour. Clara had been there some time, but had not seen her cousin. He entered the room immediately after her father, bringing his hat with him in his hand, and wiping the drops of perspiration from his brow. 'You have been out, Mr Belton,' said the squire.
'All round the place, sir. Six o'clock doesn't often find me in bed, summer or winter. What's the use of laying in bed when one has had enough of sleep?'
'But that's just the question,' said Clara; 'whether one has had enough at six o'clock.'
'Women want more than men, of course. A man, if he means to do any good with land, must be out early. The grass will grow of itself at nights, but it wants looking after as soon as the daylight comes.'
'I don't know that it would do much good to the grass here,' said the squire, mournfully.
'As much here as anywhere. And indeed I've got something to say about that.' He had now seated himself at the breakfast-table, and was playing with his knife and fork. 'I think, sir, you're hardly making the best you can out of the park.'
'We won't mind talking about it, if you please,' said the squire.
'Well; of course I won't, if you don't like it; but upon my word you ought to look about you; you ought indeed.'
'In what way do you mean?' said Clara.
'If your father doesn't like to keep the land in his own hands, he should let it to some one who would put stock in it not go on cutting it year after year and putting nothing back, as this fellow will do. I've been talking to Stovey, and that's just what he means.'
'Nobody here has got money to put stock on the land,' said the squire, angrily.
'Then you should look for somebody somewhere else. That's all. I'll tell you what now, Mr Amedroz, I'll do it myself.' By this time he had helped himself to two large slices of cold mutton, and was eating his breakfast and talking with an equal amount of energy for either occupation.
'That's out of the question,' said the squire.
'I don't see why it should be out of the question. It would be better for you and better for me too, if this place is ever to be mine.' On hearing this the squire winced, but said nothing. This terrible fellow was so vehemently outspoken that the poor old man was absolutely unable to keep pace with him even to the repeating of his wish that the matter should be talked of no further. 'I'll tell you what I'll do, now,' continued Belton. 'There's altogether, outside the palings and in, about a hundred and fifty acres of it. I'll give you one pound two and sixpence an acre, and I won't cut an acre of grass inside the park no, nor much of it outside either only just enough to give me a little fodder for the cattle in winter.'
'And give up Plaistow Hall?' asked Clara.
'Lord love you, no. I've a matter of nine hundred acres on hand there, and most of it under the plough. I've counted it up, and it would just cost me a thousand pounds to stock this place. I should come and look at it twice a year or so, and I should see my money home again, if I didn't get any profit out of it.'
Mr Amedroz was astonished. The man had only been in his house one night, and was proposing to take all his troubles off his hands. He did not relish the proposition at all. He did not like to be accused of not doing as well for himself as others could do for him. He did not wish to make any change although he remembered at the moment his anger with Farmer Stovey respecting the haycarts. He did not desire that the heir should have any immediate interest in the place. But he was not strong enough to meet the proposition with a direct negative. 'I couldn't get rid of Stovey in that way,' he said, plaintively. I've settled it all with Stovey already,' said Belton. 'He'll be glad enough to walk off with a twenty-pound note, which I'll give him. He can't make money out of the place. He hasn't got means to stock it, and then see the wages that hay-making runs away with! He'd lose by it even at what he's paying, and he knows it. There won't be any difficulty about Stovey.'
By twelve o'clock on that day Mr Stovey had been brought into the house, and had resigned the land. It had been let to Mr William Belton at an increased rental a rental increased by nearly forty pounds per annum and that gentleman had already made many of his arrangements for entering upon his tenancy. The twenty pounds had already been paid to Stovey, and the transaction was complete. Mr Amedroz sat in his chair bewildered, dismayed and, as he himself declared shocked, quite shocked, at the precipitancy of the young man. It might be for the best. He didn't know. He didn't feel at all sure. But such hurrying in such a matter was, under all the circumstances of the family, to say the least of it, very indelicate. He was angry with himself for having yielded, and angry with Clara for having allowed him to do so. 'It doesn't signify much,' he said, at last. 'Of course he'll have it all to himself before long.'
'But, papa, it really seems to be a much better arrangement for you. You'll get more money.'
'Money is not everything, my dear.'
'But you'd sooner have Mr Belton, our own cousin, about the place, than Mr Stovey.'
'I don't know. We shall see. The thing is done now, and there is no use in complaining. I must say he hasn't shown a great deal of delicacy.'
On that afternoon Belton asked Clara to go out with him, and walk round the place. He had been again about the grounds, and had made plans, and counted up capabilities, and calculated his profit and losses. 'If you don't dislike scrambling about,' said he, 'I'll show you everything that I intend to do.'
'But I can't have any changes made, Mr Belton,' said Mr Amedroz, with some affectation of dignity in his manner. 'I won't have the fences moved, or anything of that kind.'
'Nothing shall be done, sir, that you don't approve. I'll just manage it all as if I was acting as your own bailiff.' 'Son,' he was going to say, but he remembered the fate of his cousin Charles just in time to prevent the use of the painful word.
'I don't want to have anything done,' said Mr Amedroz.
'Then nothing shall be done. We'll just mend a fence or two, to keep in the cattle, and leave other things as they are. But perhaps Clara will walk out with me all the same.'
Clara was quite ready to walk out, and had already tied on her hat and taken her parasol.
'Your father is a little nervous,' said he, as soon as they were beyond hearing of the house.
'Can you wonder at it, when you remember all that he has suffered.'
'I don't wonder at it in the least; and I don't wonder at his disliking me either.'
'I don't think he dislikes you, Mr Belton.'
'Oh, but he does. Of course he does. I'm the heir to the place instead of you. It is natural that he should dislike me. But I'll live it down. You see if I don't. I'll make him so fond of me, he'll always want to have me here. I don't mind a little dislike to begin with.'
'You're a wonderful man, Mr Belton.'
'I wish you wouldn't call me Mr Belton. But of course you must do as you please about that. If I can make him call me Will, I suppose you'll call me so too.'
'Oh, yes; then I will.'
'It don't much matter what a person is called; does it! Only one likes to be friendly with one's friends. I suppose you don't like my calling you Clara.'
'Now you've begun you had better go on.'
'I mean to. I make it a rule never to go back in the world. Your father is half sorry that he has agreed about the place; but I shan't let him off now. And I'll tell you what. In spite of what he says, I'll have it as different as possible before this time next year. 'Why, there's lots of timber that ought to come out of the plantation; and there's places where the roots want stubbing up horribly. These things always pay for themselves if they are properly done. Any good done in the world always pays.' Clara often remembered those words afterwards when she was thinking of her cousin's character. Any good done in the world always pays!
'But you mustn't offend my father, even though it should do good,' she said.
'I understand,' he answered. 'I won't tread on his toes. Where do you get your milk and butter?'
'We buy them.'
'From Stovey, I suppose.'
'Yes; from Mr Stovey. It goes against the rent.'
'And it ought to go against the grain too living in the country and paying for milk! I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you a cow. It shall be a little present from me to you.' He said nothing of the more important present which this would entail upon him in the matter of the grass for the cow; but she understood the nature of the arrangement, and was anxious to prevent it.
'Oh, Mr Belton, I think we'd better not attempt that,' she said.
'But we will attempt it. I've pledged myself to do nothing to oppose your father; but I've made no such promise as to you. We'll have a cow before I'm many days older. What a pretty place this is! I do like these rocks so much, and it is such a comfort to be off the flat.'
'It is pretty.'
'Very pretty. You've no conception what an ugly place Plaistow is. The land isn't actual fen now, but it was once. And it's quite flat. And there is a great dike, twenty feet wide, oozing through it just oozing, you know; and lots of little dikes, at right angles with the big one. And the fields are all square. And there are no hedges and hardly a tree to be seen in the place.
'What a picture you have drawn! I should commit suicide if I lived there.'
'Not if you had so much to do as I have.'
'And what is the house like?'
'The house is good enough an old-fashioned manor-house, with high brick chimneys, and brick gables, tiled all over, and large square windows set in stone. The house is good enough, only it stands in the middle of a farm-yard. I said there were no trees, but there is an avenue.'
'Come, that is something.'
'It was an old family seat, and they used to have avenues in those days; but it doesn't lead up to the present hail door. It comes sideways up to the farm-yard; so that the whole thing must have been different once, and there must have been a great court-yard. In Elizabeth's time Plaistow Manor was rather a swell place, and belonged to some Roman Catholics who came to grief, and then the Howards got it. There's a whole history about it, only I don't care much about those things.'
'And is it yours now?'
'It's between me and my uncle, and I pay him rent for his part. He's a clergyman you know, and he has a living in Lincolnshire not far off.'
'And do you live alone in that big house?'
'There's my sister. You've heard of Mary haven't you?'
Then Clara remembered that there was a Miss Belton, a poor sickly creature, with a twisted spine and a hump back, as to whose welfare she ought to have made inquiries.
'Oh yes; of course,' said Clara. 'I hope she's better than she used to be when we heard of her.'
'She'll never be better. But then she does not become much worse. I think she does grow a little weaker. She's older than I am, you know two years older; but you would think she was quite an old woman to look at her.' Then, for the next half-hour, they talked about Mary Belton as they visited every corner of the place. Belton still had an eye to business as he went on talking, and Clara remarked how many sticks he moved as he went, how many stones he kicked on one side, and how invariably he noted any defect in the fences. But still he talked of his sister, swearing that she was as good as gold, and at last wiping away the tears from his eyes as he described her maladies. 'And yet I believe she is better off than any of us,' he said, 'because she is so good.' Clara began to wish that she had called him Will from the beginning, because she liked him so much. He was just the man to have for a cousin a true loving cousin, stalwart, self-confident, with a grain or two of tyranny in his composition as becomes a man in relation to his intimate female relatives; and one, moreover, with whom she could trust herself to be familiar without any danger of love-making! She saw his character clearly, and told herself that she understood it perfectly. He wag a jewel of a cousin, and she must begin to call him Will as speedily as possible.
At last they came round in their walk to the gate leading into Colonel Askerton's garden; and here in the garden, close to the gate, they found Mrs Askerton. I fancy that she had been watching for them, or at any rate watching for Clara, so that she might know how her friend was carrying herself with her cousin. She came at once to the wicket, and there she was introduced by Clara to Mr Belton. Mr Belton, as he made his bow, muttered something awkwardly, and seemed to lose his self-possession for the moment. Mrs Askerton was very gracious to him, and she knew well how to be both gracious and ungracious. She talked about the scenery, and the charms of the old place, and the dullness of the people around them, and the inexpediency of looking for society in country places; till after awhile Mr Belton was once more at his ease.
'How is Colonel Askerton?' asked Clara.
'He's in-doors. Will you come and see him? He's reading a French novel, as usual. It's the only thing he ever does in summer. Do you ever read French novels, Mr Belton?'
'I read very little at all, and when I do I read English.'
'Ah, you're a man who has a pursuit in life, no doubt.'
'I should rather think so that is, if you mean, by a pursuit, earning my bread. A man has not much time for French novels with a thousand acres of land on his hands; even if he knew how to read French, which I don't.'
'But you're not always at work on your farm?'
'It's pretty constant, Mrs Askerton. Then I shoot, and hunt.'
'You're a sportsman?'
'All men living in the country are more or less.'
'Colonel Askerton shoots a great deal. He has the shooting of Belton, you know. He'll be delighted, I'm sure, to see you if you are here some time in September. But you, coming from Norfolk, would not care for partridge-shooting in Somersetshire.'
'I don't see why it shouldn't be as good here as there.'
'Colonel Askerton thinks he has got a fair head of game upon the place.'
'I dare say. Game is easily kept if people knew how to set about it.'
'Colonel Askerton has a very good keeper, and has gone to a great deal of expense since he has been here.'
'I'm my own head-keeper,' said Belton;' and so I will be or rather should be, if I had this place.'
Something in the lady's tone had grated against his feelings and offended him; or perhaps he thought that she assumed too many of the airs of proprietorship because the shooting of the place had been let to her husband for thirty pounds a year.
'I hope you don't mean to say you'll turn us out,' said Mrs Askerton, laughing.
'I have no power to turn anybody out or in,' said he. 'I've got nothing to do with it.'
Clara, perceiving that matters were not going quite pleasantly between her old and new friend, thought it best to take her departure. Belton, as he went, lifted his hat from his head, and Clara could not keep herself from thinking that he was not only very handsome, but that he looked very much like a gentleman, in spite of his occupation as a farmer.
'Bye-bye, Clara,' said Mrs Askerton; 'come down and see me tomorrow, there's a dear. Don't forget what a dull life I have of it.' Clara said that she would come. And I shall be so happy to see Mr Belton if he will call before he leaves you.' At this Belton again raised his hat from his head, and muttered some word or two of civility. But this, his latter muttering, was different from the first, for he had altogether regained his presence of mind.
'You didn't seem to get on very well with my friend,' said Clara, laughing, as soon as they had turned away from the cottage.
'Well, no that is to say, not particularly well or particularly badly. At first I took her for somebody else I knew slightly ever so long ago, and I was thinking of that other person at the time.'
'And what was the other person's name?'
'I can't even remember that at the present moment.'
'Mrs Askerton was a Miss Oliphant.'
'That wasn't the other lady's name. But, independently of that, they can't be the same. The other lady married a Mr Berdmore.'
'A Mr Berdmore!' Clara as she repeated the name felt convinced that she had heard it before, and that she had heard it in connexion with Mrs Askerton. She certainly had heard the name of Berdmore pronounced, or had seen it written, or had in some shape come across the name in Mrs Askerton's presence; or at any rate somewhere on the premises occupied by that lady. More than this she could not remember; but the name, as she had now heard it from her cousin, became at once distinctly connected in her memory with her friends at the cottage.
'Yes,' said Belton; 'a Berdmore. I knew more of him than of her, though for the matter of that, I knew very little of him either. She was a fast-going girl, and his friends were very sorry. But I think they are both dead or divorced, or that they have come to grief in some way.'
'And is Mrs Askerton like the fast-going lady?'
'In a certain way. Not that I remember what the fast-going lady was like; but there was something about this woman that put me in mind of the other. Vigo was her name; now I recollect it a Miss Vigo. It's nine or ten years ago now, and I was little more than a boy.'
'Her name was Oliphant.'
'I don't suppose they have anything to do with each other. What riled me was the way she talked of the shooting. People do when they take a little shooting. They pay some trumpery thirty or forty pounds a year, and then they seem to think that it's almost the same as though they owned the property themselves. I've known a man talk of his manor because he had the shooting of a wood and a small farm round it. They are generally shop-keepers out of London, gin distillers, or brewers, or people like that.'
'Why, Mr Belton, I didn't think you could be so furious!
'Can't I? When my back's up, it is up! But it isn't up yet.'
'And I hope it won't be up while you remain in Somersetshire.'
'I won't answer for that. There's Stovey's empty cart standing just where it stood yesterday; and he promised he'd have it home before three today. My back will be up with him if he doesn't mind himself.'
It was nearly six o'clock when they got back to the house, and Clara was surprised to find that she had been out three hours with her cousin. Certainly it had been very pleasant. The usual companion of her walks, when she had a companion, was Mrs Askerton; but Mrs Askerton did not like real walking. She would creep about the grounds for an hour or so, and even such companionship as that was better to Clara than absolute solitude; but now she had been carried about the place, getting over stiles and through gates, and wandering through the copses, till she was tired and hungry, and excited and happy. 'Oh, papa,' she said, 'we have had such a walk!'
'I thought we were to have dined at five,' he replied, in a low wailing voice.
'No, papa, indeed indeed you said six.'
'That was for yesterday.'
'You said we were to make it six while Mr Belton was here.'
'Very well if it must be, I suppose it must be.'
'You don't mean on my account,' said Will. 'I'll undertake to eat my dinner, sir, at any hour that you'll undertake to give it me. If there's a strong point about me at all, it is my appetite.'
Clara, when she went to her father's room that evening, told him what Mr Belton had said about the shooting, knowing that her father's feelings would agree with those which had been expressed by her cousin. Mr Amedroz of course made this an occasion for further grumbling, suggesting that Belton wanted to get the shooting for himself as he had got the farm. But, nevertheless, the effect which Clara had intended was produced, and before she left him he had absolutely proposed that the shooting and the land should go together.
'I'm sure that Mr Belton doesn't mean that at all,' said Clara.
'I don't care what he means,' said the squire.
'And it wouldn't do to treat Colonel Askerton in that way,' said Clara.
'I shall treat him just as I like,' said the squire.
SAFE AGAINST LOVE-MAKING
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.