Lady Ushant at Bragton
On the Sunday Larry came into Dillsborough and had "his gossip with the girls" according to order;--but it was not very successful. Mrs. Masters who opened the door for him instructed him in a special whisper "to talk away just as though he did not care a fig for Mary." He made the attempt manfully,--but with slight effect. His love was too genuine, too absorbing, to leave with him the power which Mrs. Masters assumed him to have when she gave him such advice. A man cannot walk when he has broken his ankle-bone, let him be ever so brave in the attempt. Larry's heart was so weighed that he could not hide the weight. Dolly and Kate had also received hints and struggled hard to be merry. In the afternoon a walk was suggested, and Mary complied; but when an attempt was made by the younger girls to leave the lover and Mary together, she resented it by clinging closely to Dolly;--and then all Larry's courage deserted him. Very little good was done on the occasion by Mrs. Masters' manoeuvres.
On the Monday morning, in compliance with a request made by Lady Ushant, Mary walked over to Bragton to see her old friend. Mrs. Masters had declared the request to be very unreasonable. "Who is to walk five miles and back to see an old woman like that?" To this Mary had replied that the distance across the fields to Bragton was only four miles and that she had often walked it with her sisters for the very pleasure of the walk. "Not in weather like this," said Mrs. Masters. But the day was well enough. Roads in February are often a little wet, but there was no rain falling. "I say it's unreasonable," said Mrs. Masters. "If she can't send a carriage she oughtn't to expect it." This coming from Mrs. Masters, whose great doctrine it was that young women ought not to be afraid of work, was so clearly the effect of sheer opposition that Mary disdained to answer it. Then she was accused of treating her stepmother with contempt.
She did walk to Bragton, taking the path by the fields and over the bridge, and loitering for a few minutes as she leant upon the rail. It was there and there only that she had seen together the two men who between them seemed to cloud all her life,--the man whom she loved and the man who loved her. She knew now,--she thought that she knew quite well,--that her feelings for Reginald Morton were of such a nature that she could not possibly become the wife of any one else. But had she not seen him for those few minutes on this spot, had he not fired her imagination by telling her of his desire to go back with her over the sites which they had seen together when she was a child, she would not, she thought, have been driven to make to herself so grievous a confession. In that case it might have been that she would have brought herself to give her hand to the suitor of whom all her friends approved. And then with infinite tenderness she thought of all Larry's virtues,--and especially of that great virtue in a woman's eyes, the constancy of his devotion to herself. She did love him,--but with a varied love,--a love which was most earnest in wishing his happiness, which would have been desirous of the closest friendship if only nothing more were required. She swore to herself a thousand times that she did not look down upon him because he was only a farmer, that she did not think herself in any way superior to him. But it was impossible that she should consent to be his wife. And then she thought of the other man,--with feelings much less kind. Why had he thrust himself upon her life and disturbed her? Why had he taught her to think herself unfit to mate with this lover who was her equal? Why had he assured her that were she to do so her old friends would be revolted? Why had he exacted from her a promise,--a promise which was sacred to her,--that she would not so give herself away? Yes;-- the promise was certainly sacred; but he had been cold and cruel in forcing it from her lips. What business was it of his? Why should he have meddled with her? In the shallow streamlet of her lowly life the waters might have glided on, slow but smoothly, had he not taught them to be ambitious of a rapider, grander course. Now they were disturbed by mud, and there could be no pleasure in them.
She went on over the bridge, and round by the shrubbery to the hall door which was opened to her by Mrs. Hopkins. Yes, Lady Ushant was there;--but the young Squire was very ill and his aunt was then with him. Mr. Reginald was in the library. Would Miss Masters be shown in there, or would she go up to Lady Ushant's own room? Of course she replied that she would go up-stairs and there wait for Lady Ushant.
When she was found by her friend she was told at length the story of all the circumstances which had brought Lady Ushant to Bragton. When John Morton had first been taken ill,--before any fixed idea of danger had occurred to himself or to others,--his grandmother had come to him. Then, as he gradually became weaker he made various propositions which were all of them terribly distasteful to the old woman. In the first place he had insisted on sending for Miss Trefoil. Up to this period Mary Masters had hardly heard the name of Miss Trefoil, and almost shuddered as she was at once immersed in all these family secrets. "She is to be here to-morrow," said Lady Ushant.
"Oh dear,--how sad!"
"He insists upon it, and she is coming. She was here before, and it now turns out that all the world knew that they were engaged. That was no secret, for everybody had heard it"
"And where is Mrs. Morton now?" Then Lady Ushant went on with her story. The sick man had insisted on making his will and had declared his purpose of leaving the property to his cousin Reginald. As Lady Ushant said, there was no one else to whom he could leave it with any propriety;--but this had become matter for bitter contention between the old woman and her grandson.
"Who did she think should have it?" asked Mary.
"Ah;--that I don't know. That he has never told me. But she has had the wickedness to say,--oh,--such things of Reginald. I knew all that before;---but that she should repeat them now, is terrible. I suppose she wanted it for some of her own people. But it was so horrible you know,--when he was so ill! Then he said that he should send for me, so that what is left of the family might be together. After that she went away in anger. Mrs. Hopkins says that she did not even see him the morning she left Bragton."
"She was always high-tempered," said Mary.
"And dictatorial beyond measure. She nearly broke my poor dear father's heart. And then she left the house because he would not shut his doors against Reginald's mother. And now I hardly know what I am to do here, or what I must say to this young lady when she comes to-morrow."
"Is she coming alone?"
"We don't know. She has a mother, Lady Augustus Trefoil, but whether Lady Augustus will accompany her daughter we have not heard. Reginald says certainly not, or they would have told us so. You have seen Reginald?"
"No, Lady Ushant."
"You must see him. He is here now. Think what a difference it will make to him."
"But Lady Ushant,--is he so bad?"
"Dr. Fanning almost says that there is no hope. This poor young woman that is coming;--what am I to say to her? He has made his will. That was done before I came. I don't know why he shouldn't have sent for your father, but he had a gentleman down from town. I suppose he will leave her something; but it is a great thing that Bragton should remain in the family. Oh dear, oh dear,--if any one but a Morton were to be here it would break my heart. Reginald is the only one left now of the old branch. He's getting old and he ought to marry. It is so serious when there's an old family property."
"I suppose he will--only--"
"Yes; exactly. One can't even think about it while this poor young man is lying so ill. Mrs. Morton has been almost like his mother, and has lived upon the Bragton property,--absolutely lived upon it,--and now she is away from him because he chooses to do what he likes with his own. Is it not awful? And she would not put her foot in the house if she knew that Reginald was here. She told Mrs. Hopkins as much, and she said that she wouldn't so much as write a line to me. Poor fellow; he wrote it himself. And now he thinks so much about it. When Dr. Fanning went back to London yesterday I think he took some message to her."
Mary remained there till lunch was announced but refused to go down into the parlour, urging that she was expected home for dinner. "And there is no chance for Mr. Twentyman?" asked Lady Ushant. Mary shook her head. "Poor man! I do feel sorry for him as everybody speaks so well of him. Of course, my dear, I have nothing to say about it. I don't think girls should ever be in a hurry to marry, and if you can't love him--"
"Dear Lady Ushant, it is quite settled."
"Poor young man! But you must go and see Reginald." Then she was taken into the library and did see Reginald. Were she to avoid him,--specially,--she would tell her tale almost as plainly as though she were to run after him. He greeted her kindly, almost affectionately, expressing his extreme regret that his visit to Cheltenham should have been postponed and a hope that she would be much at Bragton. "The distance is so great, Reginald," said Lady Ushant.
"I can drive her over. It is a long walk, and I had made up my mind to get Runciman's little phaeton. I shall order it for to-morrow if Miss Masters will come." But Miss Masters would not agree to this. She would walk over again some day as she liked the walk, but no doubt she would only be in the way if she were to come often.
"I have told her about Miss Trefoil," said Lady Ushant. "You know, my dear, I look upon you almost as one of ourselves because you lived here so long. But perhaps you had better postpone coming again till she has gone."
"Certainly, Lady Ushant"
"It might be difficult to explain. I don't suppose she will stay long. Perhaps she will go back the same day. I am sure I shan't know what to say to her. But when anything is fixed I will send you in word by the postman."
Reginald would have walked back with her across the bridge but that he had promised to go to his cousin immediately after lunch. As it was he offered to accompany her a part of the way, but was stopped by his aunt, greatly to Mary's comfort. He was now more beyond her reach than ever,--more utterly removed from her. He would probably become Squire of Bragton, and she, in her earliest days, had heard the late Squire spoken of as though he were one of the potentates of the earth. She had never thought it possible; but now it was less possible than ever. There was something in his manner to her almost protective, almost fatherly,--as though he had some authority over her. Lady Ushant had authority once, but he had none. In every tone of his voice she felt that she heard an expression of interest in her welfare, but it was the interest which a grown-up person takes in a child, or a superior in an inferior. Of course he was her superior, but yet the tone of his voice was distasteful to her. As she walked back to Dillsborough she told herself that she would not go again to Bragton without assuring herself that he was not there.
When she reached home many questions were asked of her, but she told nothing of the secrets of the Morton family which had been so openly confided to her. She would only say that she was afraid that Mr. John Morton was very ill.
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