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- The Belton Estate - 5/84 -


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.

CHAPTER III

WILL BELTON

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?'


The Belton Estate - 5/84

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