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- The Belton Estate - 20/84 -


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.'

'No, indeed.'

'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.

CHAPTER IX

CAPTAIN AYLMER'S PROMISE TO HIS AUNT

What had Captain Aylmer meant by telling her that they might be the dearest friends by saying so much as that, and then saying no more? Of course Clara asked herself that question as soon as she was alone in her bedroom, after leaving Captain Aylmer below. And she made two answers to herself two answers which were altogether distinct and contradictory one of the other. At first she decided that he had said so much and no more because he was deceitful because it suited his vanity to raise hopes which he had no intention of fulfilling because he was fond of saying soft things which were intended to have no meaning. This was her first answer to herself. But in her second she accused herself as much as before she had accused him. She had been cold to him, unfriendly, and harsh. As her aunt had told her, she spoke sharp words to him, and repulsed the kindness which he offered her. What right had she to expect from him a declaration of love when she was studious to stop him at every avenue by which he might approach it? A little management on her side would, she almost knew, make things right. But then the idea of any such management distressed her nay, more, disgusted her. The management, if any were necessary, must come from him. And it was manifest enough that if he had any strong wishes in this matter he was not a good manager. Her cousin, Will Belton, knew how to manage much better.

On the next morning, however, all her thoughts respecting Captain Aylmer were dissipated by tidings which Martha brought to her bedside. Her aunt was ill. Martha was afraid that her mistress was very ill. She did not dare to send specially for the doctor on her own responsibility, as Mrs Winterfield had strong and peculiar feelings about doctors' visits, and had on this very morning declined to be so visited. On the next day the doctor would come in the usual course of things, for she had submitted for some years back to such periodical visitings; but she had desired that nothing might be done out of the common way. Martha, however, declared that if she were alone with her mistress the doctor would be sent for; and she now petitioned for aid from Clara. Clara was, of course, by her aunt's bedside in a few minutes, and in a few minutes more the doctor from the other side of the way was there also.

It was ten o'clock before Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz met at breakfast, and they had before that been together in Mrs Winterfield's room. The doctor had told Captain Aylmer that his aunt was very ill very ill, dangerously ill. She had been wrong to go into such a place as the cold, unaired Town-hall, and that, too, in the month of November; and the fatigue had also been too much for her. Mrs Winterfield, too, had admitted to Clara that she know herself to be very ill. 'I felt it coming on me last night,' she said, 'when I was talking to you; and I felt it still more strongly when I left you after tea. I have lived long enough. God's will be done.' At that moment, when she said she had lived long enough, she forgot her intention with reference to her will. But she remembered it before Clara had left the room. 'Tell Frederic', she said, 'to send at once for Mr Palmer.' Now Clara knew that Mr Palmer was the attorney, and resolved that she would give no such message to Captain Aylmer. But Mrs Winterfield sent for her nephew, who had just left her, and herself gave her orders to him. In the course of the morning there came tidings from the attorney's office that Mr Palmer was away from Perivale, that he would be back on the morrow, and that he would of course wait on Mrs Winterfield immediately on his return.

Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz discussed nothing but their aunt's state of health that morning over the breakfast-table. Of course, under such circumstances in the house, there was no further immediate reference made to that offer of dearest friendship. It was clear to them both that the doctor did not expect that Mrs Winterfield would again leave her bed; and it was clear to Clara also that her aunt was of the same opinion.

'I shall hardly be able to go home now,' she said.

'It will be kind of you if you can remain.'

'And you?'

'I shall remain over the Sunday. If by that time she is at all better, I will run up to town and come down again before the end of the week. I know you don't believe it, but a man really has some things which he must do.'

'I don't disbelieve you, Captain Aylmer.'

'But you must write to me daily if I do go.'

To this Clara made no objection and she must write also to some one else. She must let her cousin know how little chance there was that she would be at home at Christmas, explaining to him at the same time that his visit to her father would on that account be all the more welcome.

'Are you going to her now?' he asked, as Clara got up immediately after breakfast. 'I shall be in the house all the morning, and if you want me you will of course send for me.'

'She may perhaps like to see you.'

'I will come up every now and again. I would remain there altogether, only I should be in the way.' Then he got a newspaper and made himself comfortable over the fire, while she went up to her weary task in her aunt's room.

Neither on that day nor on the next did the lawyer come, and on the following morning all earthly troubles were over with Mrs Winterfield. It was early on the Sunday morning that she died, and late on the Saturday evening Mr Palmer had sent up to say that he had been detained at Taunton, but that he would wait on Mrs Winterfield early on the Monday morning. On the Friday the poor lady had said much on the subject, but had been comforted by an assurance from her nephew that the arrangement should be carried out exactly as she wished it, whether the codicil was or was not added to the will. To Clara she said nothing more on the subject, nor at such a time did Captain Aylmer feel that he could offer her any assurance on the matter. But Clara knew that the will was not altered; and though at the time she was not thinking much about money, she had, nevertheless, very clearly made up her own mind as to her own conduct. Nothing should induce her to take a present of fifteen hundred pounds or, indeed, of as many pence from Captain Aylmer. During those hours of sickness in the house they had been much thrown together, and no one could have been kinder or more gentle to her than he had been. He had come to call her Clara, as people will do when joined together in such duties, and had been very pleasant as well as affectionate in his manner with her. It had seemed to her that he also wished to take upon himself the cares and love of an adopted


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