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- The Belton Estate - 70/84 -


see my friends as other people do at least, not very well; and therefore I write to you with the object of asking you to come and see me here. This is an interesting old house in its way; and though I must not conceal from you that life here is very, very quiet, I would do my best to make the days pass pleasantly with you. I had heard that you were gone to Aylmer Park. Indeed, William told me of his taking you up to London. Now it seems you have left Yorkshire, and I suppose you will not return there very soon. If it be so, will it not be well that you should come to me for a short time?

Both William and I feel that just for the present for a little time you would perhaps prefer to be alone with me. He must go to London for awhile, and then on to Belton, to settle your affairs and his. He intends to be absent for six weeks. If you would not be afraid of the dullness of this house for so long a time, pray come to us. The pleasure to me would be very great, and I hope that you have some of that feeling, which with me is so strong, that we ought not to be any longer personally strangers to each other. You could then make up your mind as to what you would choose to do afterwards. I think that by the end of that time that is, when William returns my uncle and aunt from Sleaford will be with us. He is a clergyman, you know; and if you then like to remain, they will be delighted to make your acquaintance.

It seems to be a long journey for a young lady to make alone, from Belton to Plaistow; but travelling is so easy now-a-days, and young ladies seem to be so independent, that you may be able to manage it. Hoping to see you soon, I remain

Your affectionate Cousin,

MARY BELTON.'

This letter she received before breakfast, and was therefore able to read it in solitude, and to keep its receipt from the knowledge of Mrs Askerton, if she should be so minded. She understood at once all that it intended to convey a hint that Plaistow Hall would be a better resting place for her than Mrs Askerton's cottage; and an assurance that if she would go to Plaistow Hall for her convenience, no advantage should be taken of her presence there by the owner of the house for his convenience. As she sat thinking of the offer which had been made to her she fancied that she could see and hear her Cousin Will as he discussed the matter with his sister, and with a half assumption of surliness declared his own intention of going away. Captain Aylmer, after that interview in London, had spoken of Belton's conduct as being unpardonable; but Clara had not only pardoned him, but had, in her own mind, pronounced his virtues to be so much greater than his vices as to make him almost perfect. 'But I will not drive him out of his own house,' she said. 'What does it matter where I go?'

'Colonel Askerton has had a letter from your cousin,' said Mrs Askerton as soon as the two ladies were alone together.

'And what does he say?'

'Not a word about you.'

'So much the better. I have given him trouble enough, and am glad to think that he should be free of me for awhile. Is Colonel Askerton to stay at the cottage?'

'Now, Clara, you are a hypocrite. You know that you are a hypocrite.'

'Very likely but I don't know why you should accuse me just now.'

'Yes, you do. Have not you heard from Norfolk also?' 'Yes I have.'

'I was sure of it. I knew he would never have written in that way, in answer to my letter, ignoring your visit here altogether, unless he had written to you also.'

'But he has not written to me. My letter is from his sister. There it is.' Whereupon she handed the letter to Mrs Askerton, and waited patiently while it was being read. Her friend returned it to her without a word, and Clara was the first to speak again. 'It is a nice letter, is it not? I never saw her, you know.'

'So she says.'

'But is it not a kind letter?'

'I suppose it is meant for kindness. It is not very complimentary to me. It presumes that such a one as I may be treated without the slightest consideration. And so I may. It is only fit that I should be so treated. If you ask my advice, I advise you to go at once at once.'

'But I have not asked your advice, dear; nor do I intend to ask it.'

'You would not have shown it me if you had not intended to go.'

'How unreasonable you are! You told me just now that I was a hypocrite for not telling you of my letter, and now you are angry with me because I have shown it you.'

'I am not angry. I think you have been quite right to show it me. I don't know how else you could have acted upon it.'

'But I do not mean to act upon it. I shall not go to Plaistow. There are two reasons against it, each sufficient. I shall not leave you just yet unless you send me away; and I shall not cause my cousin to be turned out of his own house.'

'Why should he be turned out? Why should you not go to him? You love him and as for him, he is more in love than any man I ever knew. Go to Plaistow Hall, and everything will run smooth.'

'No, dear; I shall not do that.'

'Then you are foolish. I am bound to tell you so, as I have inveigled you here.'

'I thought I had invited myself.'

'No; I asked you to come, and when I asked you I knew that I was wrong. Though I meant to be kind, I knew that I was unkind. I saw that my husband disapproved it, though he had not the heart to tell me so. I wish he had. I wish he had.'

'Mrs Askerton, I cannot tell you how much you wrong yourself, and how you wrong me also. I am more than contented to be here.'

'But you should not be contented to be here. It is just that. In learning to love me or rather, perhaps, to pity me, you lower yourself. Do you think that I do not see it all, and know it all? Of course it is bad to be alone, but I have no right not to be alone.' There was nothing for Clara to do but to draw herself once again close to the poor woman, and to embrace her with protestations of fair, honest, equal regard and friendship. 'Do you think I do not understand that letter?' continued Mrs Askerton. 'If it had come from Lady Aylmer I could have laughed at it, because I believe Lady Aylmer to be an overbearing virago, whom it is good to put down in every way possible. But this comes from a pure-minded woman, one whom I believe to be little given to harsh judgments on her fellow-sinners; and she tells you, in her calm wise way, that it is bad for you to be here with me.'

'She says nothing of the kind.'

'But does she not mean it? Tell me honestly do you not know that she means it?'

'I am not to be guided by what she means.'

'But you are to be guided by what her brother means. It is to come to that, and you may as well bend your neck at once. It is to come to that, and the sooner the better for you. it is easy to see that you are badly off for guidance when you take up me as your friend.' When she had so spoken Mrs Askerton got up and went to the door. 'No, Clara, do not come with me; not now,' she said, turning to her companion, who had risen as though to follow her. 'I will come to you soon, but I would rather be alone now. And, look here, dear; you must answer your cousin's letter. Do so at once, and say that you will go to Plaistow. In any event it will be better for you.'

Clara, when she was alone, did answer her cousin's letter, but she did not accept the invitation that had been given her. She assured Miss Belton that she was most anxious to know her, and hoped that she might do so before long, either at Plaistow or at Belton; but that at present she was under an engagement to stay with her friend Mrs Askerton. In an hour or two Mrs Askerton returned, and Clara handed to her the note to read. 'Then all I can say is you are very silly, and don't know on which side your bread is buttered.' It was evident from Mrs Askerton's voice that she had recovered her mood and tone of mind. 'I don't suppose it will much signify, as it will all come right at last,' she said afterwards. And then, after luncheon, when she had been for a few minutes with her husband in his own room, she told Clara that the colonel wanted to speak to her. 'You'll find him as grave as a judge, for he has got something to say to you in earnest. Nobody can be so stern as he is when he chooses to put on his wig and gown.' So Clara went into the colonel's study, and seated herself in a chair which he had prepared for her.

She remained there for over an hour, and during the hour the conversation became very animated. Colonel Askerton's assumed gravity had given way to ordinary eagerness, during which he walked about the room in the vehemence of his argument; and Clara, in answering him, had also put forth all her strength. She had expected that he also was going to speak to her on the propriety of her going to Norfolk; but he made no allusion to that subject, although all that he did say was founded on Will Belton's letter to himself. Belton, in speaking of the cottage, had told Colonel Askerton that Miss Amedroz would be his future landlord, and had then gone on to explain that it was his, Belton's, intention to destroy the entail, and allow the property to descend from the father to the daughter. 'As Miss Amedroz is with you now,' he said, 'may I beg you to take the trouble to explain the matter to her at length, and to make her understand that the estate is now, at this moment, in fact her own. Her possession of it does not depend on any act of hers or, indeed, upon her own will or wish in the matter.' On this subject Colonel Askerton had argued, using all his skill to make Clara in truth perceive that she was her father's heiress through the generosity undoubtedly of her cousin and that she had no alternative but to assume the possession which was thus thrust upon her.

And so eloquent was the colonel that Clara was staggered, though she was not convinced. 'It is quite impossible,' she said. 'Though he may be able to make it over to me, I can give it back again.'

'I think not. In such a matter as this a lady in your position can only be guided by her natural advisers her father's lawyer and other family friends.'

'I don't know why a young lady should be in any way different from an


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