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- The Belton Estate - 3/84 -


'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.

CHAPTER II

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. tinder 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,


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