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- The Belton Estate - 40/84 -

should now be engaged to Captain Aylmer.

'Mr Green has told me', said he, 'that you are going to be married.'

'How could Mr Green have known?'

'He did know at least I suppose he knew, for he told me.'

'How very odd.'

'I suppose it is true?' Clara did not make any immediate answer, and then he repeated the question. 'I suppose it is true?'

'It is true that I am engaged.'

'To Captain Aylmer?'

'Yes; to Captain Aylmer. You know that I had known him very long. I hope that you are not angry with me because I did not write and tell you. Strange as it may seem, seeing that you had heard it already, it is not a week yet since it was settled; and had I written to you, I could only have addressed my letter to you here.'

'I wasn't thinking about that. I didn't specially want you to write to me. What difference would it make?'

'But I should have felt that I owed it to your kindness and your regard for me.'

'My regard! What's the use of regard?'

'You are not going to quarrel with me, Will, because because because . If you had really been my brother, as you once said you would be, you could not but have approved of what I have done.'

'But I am not your brother.'

'Oh, Will; that sounds so cruel!'

'I am not your brother, and I have no right to approve or disapprove.'

'I will not say that I could make my engagement with Captain Aylmer dependent on your approval. It would not be fair to him to do so, and it would put me into a false position.'

' Have I asked you to make any such absurd sacrifice?'

'Listen to me, Will. I say that I could not do that. But, short of that, there is nothing I would not do to satisfy you. I think so much of your judgment and goodness, and so very much of your affection; I love you so dearly, that Oh, Will, say a kind word to me!'

'A kind word; yes, but what sort of kindness?

'You must know that Captain Aylmer'

'Don't talk to me of Captain Aylmer. Have I said anything against him? Have I ventured to make any objection? Of course, I know his superiority to myself. I know that he is a man of the world, and that I am not; that he is educated, and that I am ignorant; that he has a position, and that I have none; that he has much to offer, and that I have nothing. Of course, I see the difference; but that does not make me comfortable.'

'Will, I had learned to love him before I had ever seen you.'

'Why didn't you tell me so, that I might have known there was no hope, and have gone away utterly out of the kingdom? If it was all settled then, why didn't you tell me, and save me from breaking my heart with false hopes?'

'Nothing was settled then. I hardly knew my own mind; but yet I loved him. There; cannot you understand it? Have I not told you enough?'

'Yes, I understand it.'

'And do you blame me?'

He paused awhile before he answered her. 'No; I do not blame you. I suppose I must blame no one but myself. But you should bear with me. I was so happy, and now I am so wretched.'

There was nothing that she could say to comfort him. She had altogether mistaken the nature of the man's regard, and had even mistaken the very nature of the man. So much she now learned, and could tell herself that had she known him better she would either have prevented this second visit, or would have been careful that he should have learned the truth from herself before he came. Now she could only wait till he should again have got strength to hide his suffering under the veil of his own manliness.

'I have not a word to say against what you are doing,' he said at last; 'not a word. But you will understand what I mean when I tell you that it is not likely that you will come to Plaistow.'

'Some day, Will, when you have a wife of your own'

'Very well; but we won't talk about that at present, if you please. When I have, things will be different. In the meantime your course and mine will be separate. You, I suppose, will be with him in London, while I shall be at the devil as likely as not.'

'How can you speak to me in that way? Is that like being my brother?'

'I don't feel like being your brother. However, I beg your pardon, and now we will have done with it. Spilt milk can't be helped, and my milk pans have got themselves knocked over. That's all. Don't you think we ought to go up to your father again?'

On the following day Belton and Mr Amedroz discussed the same subject, but the conversation went off very quietly. Will was determined not to exhibit his weakness before the father as he had done before the daughter. When the squire, with a maundering voice, drawled out some expression of regret that his daughter's choice had not fallen in another place, Will was able to say that bygones must he bygones. He regretted it also, but that was now over. And when the squire endeavoured to say a few ill-natured words about Captain Aylmer, Will stopped him at once by asserting that the captain was all that he ought to be.

'And it would have made me so happy to think that my daughter's child should come to live in his grandfather's old house,' murmured Mr Amedroz.

'And there's no knowing that he mayn't do so yet,' said Will. 'But all these things are so doubtful that a man is wrong to fix his happiness upon them.' After that he went out to ramble about, the place, and before the third day was over Clara was able to perceive that, in spite of what he had said, he was as busy about the cattle as though his bread depended on them.

Nothing had been said as yet about the Askertons, and Clara had resolved that their name should not first be mentioned by her. Mrs Askerton had prophesied that Will would have some communication to make about herself, and Clara would at any rate see whether her cousin would, of his own accord, introduce the subject. But three days passed by, and he had made no allusion to the cottage or its inhabitants. This in itself was singular, as the Askertons were the only local friends whom Clara knew, and as Belton had become personally acquainted with Mrs Askerton. But such was the case; and when Mr Amedroz once said something about Mrs Askerton in the presence of both Clara and Belton, they both of them shrank from the subject in a manner that made Clara understand that any conversation about the Askertons was to be avoided. On the fourth day Clara saw Mrs Askerton, but then Will Belton's name was not mentioned. There was therefore, among them all, a sense of some mystery which made them uncomfortable, and which seemed to admit of no solution. Clara was more sure than ever that her cousin had made no inquiries that he should not have made, and that he would put no information that he might have to an improper use. But of such certainty on her part she could say nothing.

Three weeks passed by, and it seemed as though Belton's visit were to come to an end without any further open trouble. Now and then something was said about. Captain Aylmer; but it was very little, and Belton made no further reference to his own feelings. It had come to be understood that his visit was to be limited to a month; and to both him and Clara the month wore itself away slowly, neither of them having much pleasure in the society of the other. The old squire came downstairs once for an hour or two, and spent the whole time in bitter complaints. Everything was wrong, and everybody was ill-treating him. Even with Will he quarrelled, or did his best to quarrel, in regard to everything about the place, though at the same time he did not cease to grumble at his visitor for going away and leaving him. Belton bore it all so well that the grumbling and quarrelling did not lead to much; but it required all his good-humour and broad common sense to prevent serious troubles and misunderstanding.

During the period of her cousin's visit at Belton, Clara received two letters from Captain Aylmer, who was spending the Christmas holidays with his father and mother, and on the day previous to that of her cousin's departure there came a third. In neither of these letters was there much said about Sir Anthony, but they were all very full of Lady Aylmer. In the first he wrote with something of the personal enthusiasm of a lover and therefore Clara hardly felt the little drawbacks to her happiness which were contained in certain innuendoes respecting Lady Aylmer's ideas, and Lady Aylmer's hopes, and Lady Aylmer's fears. Clara was not going to marry Lady Aylmer, and did not fear but that she could hold her own against any mother-in-law in the world when once they should be brought face to face. And as long as Captain Aylmer seemed to take her part rather than that of his mother it was all very well. The second letter was more trying to her temper, as it contained one or two small morsels of advice as to conduct which had evidently originated with her ladyship. Now there is nothing, I take it, so irritating to an engaged young lady as counsel from her intended husband's mamma. An engaged young lady, if she be really in love, will take almost anything from her lover as long as she is sure that it comes altogether from himself. He may take what liberties he pleases with her dress. He may prescribe high church or low church if he be not, as is generally the case, in a condition to accept, rather than to give, prescriptions on that subject. He may order almost any course of reading providing that he supply the books. And he may even interfere with the style of dancing, and recommend or prohibit partners. But he may not thrust his mother down his future wife's throat. In answer to the second letter, Clara did not say much to show her sense of objection. Indeed she said nothing. But in saying nothing she showed her objection, and Captain Aylmer understood it. Then came the third letter, and as it contained matter touching upon our story, it shall be given entire and I hope it may be taken by gentlemen about to marry as a fair specimen of the sort of letter they ought not to write to the girls of their hearts:

The Belton Estate - 40/84

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