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- The Belton Estate - 80/84 -

'It has made a difference. I see and feel it now. I shall never hear him ask me that question any more.'

'And if you did hear him, what answer would you make him?'

'I don't know.'

'That is just it. Women are so cross-grained that it is a wonder to me that men should ever have any. thing to do with them. They have about them some madness of a phantasy which they dignify with the name of feminine pride, and under the cloak of this they believe themselves to be justified in tormenting their lovers' lives out. The only consolation is that they torment themselves as much. Can anything be more cross-grained than you are at this moment? You were resolved just now that it would be the most unbecoming thing in the world if he spoke a word more about his love for the next twelve months'

'Mrs Askerton, I said nothing about twelve months.'

'And now you are broken-hearted because he did not blurt it all out before Colonel Askerton in a business interview, which was very properly had at once, and in which he has had the exceeding good taste to confine himself altogether to the one subject.'

'I am not complaining.'

'It was good taste; though if he had not been a bear he might have asked after me, who am fighting his battles for him night and day.'

'But what will he do next?'

'Eat his dinner, I should think, as it is now nearly five o'clock. Your father used always to dine at five.'

'I can't go to see Mary,' she said, 'till he comes here again.'

'He will be here fast enough. I shouldn't wonder if he was to come here tonight.' And he did come again that night.

When Belton's interview was over in the colonel's study, he left the house without even asking after the mistress, as that mistress had taken care to find out and went off, rambling about the estate which was now his own. It was a beautiful place, and he was not insensible to the gratification of being its owner. There is much in the glory of ownership of the ownership of land and houses, of beeves and woolly flocks, of wide fields and thick-growing woods, even when that ownership is of late date, when it conveys to the owner nothing but the realization of a property on the soil; but there is much more in it when it contains the memories of old years; when the glory is the glory of race as well as the glory of power and property. There had been Beltons of Belton living there for many centuries, and now he was the Belton of the day, standing on his own ground the descendant and representative of the Beltons of old Belton of Belton without a flaw in his pedigree! He felt himself to be proud of his position prouder than he could have been of any other that might have been vouchsafed to him. And yet amidst it all he was somewhat ashamed of his pride. 'The man who can do it for himself is the real man after all,' he said. 'But I have got it by a fluke and by such a sad chance too!' Then he wandered on, thinking of the circumstances under which the property had fallen into his hands, and remembering how and when and where the first idea had occurred to him of making Clara Amedroz his wife. He had then felt that if he could only do that he could reconcile himself to the heirship. And the idea had grown upon him instantly, and had become a passion by the eagerness with which he had welcomed it. From that day to this he had continued to tell himself that he could not enjoy his good fortune unless he could enjoy it with her. There had come to be a horrid impediment in his way a barrier which had seemed to have been placed there by his evil fortune, to compensate the gifts given to him by his good fortune, and that barrier had been Captain Aylmer. He had not, in fact, seen much of his rival, but he had seen enough to make it matter of wonder to him that Clara could be attached to such a man. He had thoroughly despised Captain Aylmer, and had longed to show his contempt of the man by kicking him out of the hotel at the London railway station. At that moment all the world had seemed to him to be wrong and wretched.

But now it seemed that all the world might so easily be made right again! The impediment had got itself removed. Belton did not even yet altogether comprehend by what means Clara had escaped from the meshes of the Aylmer Park people, but he did know that she had escaped. Her eyes had been opened before it was too late, and she was a free woman to be compassed if only a man might compass her. While she had been engaged to Captain Aylmer, Will had felt that she was not assailable. Though he had not been quite able to restrain himself as on that fatal occasion when he had taken her in his arms and kissed her still he had known that as she was an engaged woman, he could not, without insulting her, press his own suit upon her. But now all that was over. Let him say what he liked on that head, she would have no proper plea for anger. She was assailable and, as this was so, why the mischief should he not set about the work at once? His sister bade him wait. Why should he wait when one fortunate word might do it? Wait! He could not wait. How are you to bid a starving man to wait when you put him down at a well-covered board? Here was he, walking about Belton Park just where she used to walk with him and there was she at Belton Cottage, within half an hour of him at this moment, if he were to go quickly; and yet Mary was telling him to wait! No; he would not wait. There could be no reason for waiting. Wait, indeed, till some other Captain Aylmer should come in the way and give him more trouble!

So he wandered on, resolving that he would see his cousin again that very day. Such an interview as that which had just taken place between two such dear friends was not natural was not to be endured. What might not Clara think of it! To meet her for the first time after her escape from Aylmer Park, and to speak to her only on matters concerning money! He would certainly go to her again on that afternoon. In his walking he came to the bottom of the rising ground on the top of which stood the rock on which he and Clara had twice sat. But he turned away, and would not go up to it. He hoped that he might go up to it very soon but, except under certain dream. stances, he would never go up to it again.

'I am going across to the cottage immediately after dinner,' he said to his sister.

'Have you an appointment?'

'No; I have no appointment. I suppose a man doesn't want an appointment to go and see his own cousin down in the country.'

'I don't know what their habits are.'

'I shan't ask to go in; but I want to see her.'

Mary looked at him with loving, sorrowing eyes, but she said no more. She loved him so well that she would have given her right hand to get for him what he wanted but she sorrowed to think that he should want such a thing so sorely. Immediately after his dinner, he took his hat and went out without saying a word further, and made his way once more across to the gate of the cottage. It was a lovely summer evening, at that period of the year in which our summer evenings just begin, when the air is sweeter and the flowers more fragrant, and the forms of the foliage more lovely than at any other time. it was now eight o'clock, but it was hardly as yet evening; none at least of the gloom of evening had come, though the sun was low in the heavens. At the cottage they were all sitting out on the lawn; and as Belton came near he was seen by them, and he saw them.

'I told you so,' said Mrs Askerton, to Clara, in a whisper.

'He is not coming in,' Clara answered. 'He is going on.'

But when he had come nearer, Colonel Askerton called to him over the garden paling, and asked him to join them. He was now standing within ten or fifteen yards of them, though the fence divided them. 'I have come to ask my Cousin Clara to take a walk with me,' he said. 'She can be back by your tea time.' He made his request very placidly, and did not in any way look like a lover.

'I am sure she will be glad to go,' said Mrs Askerton. But Clara said nothing.

'Do take a turn with me, if you are not tired,' said he.

'She has not been out all day, and cannot be tired,' said Mrs Askerton, who had now walked up to the paling. 'Clara, get your hat. But, Mr Belton, what have I done that I am to be treated in this way? Perhaps you don't remember that you have not spoken to me since your arrival.'

'Upon my word, I beg your pardon,' said he, endeavouring to stretch his hand across the bushes.

'I forgot I didn't see you this morning.'

'I suppose I musn't be angry, as this is your day of taking possession; but it is exactly on such days as this that one likes to be remembered.'

'I didn't mean to forget you, Mrs Askerton; I didn't, indeed. And as for the special day, that's all bosh, you know. I haven't taken particular possession of anything that I know of.'

'I hope you will, Mr Belton, before the day is over,' said she. Clara had at length arisen, and had gone into the house to fetch her hat. She had not spoken a word, and even yet her cousin did not know whether she was coming. 'I hope you will take possession of a great deal that is very valuable. Clara has gone to get her hat.'

'Do you think she means to walk?'

'I think she does, Mr Belton. And there she is at the door. Mind you bring her back to tea.'

Clara, as she came forth, felt herself quite unable to speak, or walk, or look after her usual manner. She knew herself to be a victim to be so far a victim that she could no longer control her own fate. To Captain Aylmer, at any rate, she had never succumbed. In all her dealings with him she had fought upon an equal footing. She had never been compelled to own herself mastered. But now she was being led out that she might confess her own submission, and acknowledge that hitherto she had not known what was good for her. She knew that she would have to yield. She must have known how happy she was to have an opportunity of yielding; but yet yet, had there been any room for choice, she thought she would have refrained from walking with her cousin that evening. She had wept that afternoon because she had thought that he would not come again; and now that he had come at the first moment that was possible for him, she was almost tempted to wish him once more away.

'I suppose you understand that when I came up this morning I came merely to talk about business,' said Belton, as soon as they were off together.

The Belton Estate - 80/84

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