Changes at Bragton
Day after day old Mrs. Morton urged her purpose with her grandson at Bragton, not quite directly as she had done at first, but by gradual approaches and little soft attempts made in the midst of all the tenderness which, as a nurse, she was able to display. It soon came to pass that the intruders were banished from the house, or almost banished. Mary's daily visits were discontinued immediately after that last walk home with Reginald Morton which has been described. Twice in the course of the next week she went over, but on both occasions she did so early in the day, and returned alone just as he was reaching the house. And then, before a week was over, early in March, Lady Ushant told the invalid that she would be better away. "Mrs. Morton doesn't like me," she said, "and I had better go. But I shall stay for a while at Hoppet Hall; and come in and see you from time to time till you get better." John Morton replied that he should never get better; but though he said so then, there was at times evidence that he did not yet quite despond as to himself. He could still talk to Mrs. Morton of buying Chowton Farm, and was very anxious that he should not be forgotten at the Foreign Office.
Lady Ushant had herself driven to Hoppet Hall, and there took up her residence with her nephew. Every other day Mr. Runciman's fly came for her and carried her backwards and forwards to Bragton. On those occasions she would remain an hour with the invalid, and then would go back again, never even seeing Mrs. Morton, though always seen by her. And twice after this banishment Reginald walked over. But on the second occasion there was a scene. Mrs. Morton to whom he had never spoken since he was a boy, met him in the hall and told him that his visits only disturbed his sick cousin. "I certainly will not disturb him," Reginald had said. "In the condition in which he is now he should not see many people," rejoined the lady. "If you will ask Dr. Fanning he will tell you the same." Dr. Fanning was the London doctor who came down once a week, whom it was improbable that Reginald should have an opportunity of consulting. But he remembered or thought that he remembered, that his cousin had been fretful and ill-pleased during his last visit, and so turned himself round and went home without another word.
"I am afraid there may be--I don't know what," said Lady Ushant to him in a whisper the next morning.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know what I mean. Perhaps I ought not to say a word. Only so much does depend on it!"
"If you are thinking about the property, aunt, wipe it out of your mind. Let him do what he pleases and don't think about it. No one should trouble their minds about such things. It is his, to do what he pleases with it."
"It is not him that I fear, Reginald."
"If he chooses to be guided by her, who shall say that he is wrong? Get it out of your mind. The very thinking about such things is dirtiness!" The poor old lady submitted to the rebuke and did not dare to say another word.
Daily Lady Ushant would send over for Mary Masters, thinking it cruel that her young friend should leave her alone and yet understanding in part the reason why Mary did not come to her constantly at Hoppet Hall. Poor Mary was troubled much by these messages. Of course she went now and again. She had no alternative but to go, and yet, feeling that the house was his house, she was most unwilling to enter it. Then grew within her a feeling, which she could not analyse, that he had ill-used her. Of course she was not entitled to his love. She would acknowledge to herself over and over again that he had never spoken a word to her which could justify her in expecting his love. But why had he not let her alone? Why had he striven by his words and his society to make her other than she would have been had she been left to the atmosphere of her stepmother's home? Why had he spoken so strongly to her as to that young man's love? And then she was almost angry with him because, by a turn in the wheel of fortune, he was about to become, as she thought, Squire of Bragton. Had he remained simply Mr. Morton of Hoppet Hall it would still have been impossible. But this exaltation of her idol altogether out of her reach was an added injustice. She could remember, not the person, but all the recent memories of the old Squire, the veneration with which he was named, the masterdom which was attributed to him, the unequalled nobility of his position in regard to Dillsborough. His successor would be to her as some one crowned, and removed by his crown altogether from her world. Then she pictured to herself the stately dame who would certainly come, and she made fresh resolutions with a sore heart.
"I don't know why you should be so very little with me," said Lady Ushant, almost whining. "When I was at Cheltenham you wanted to come to me."
"There are so many things to be done at home."
"And yet you would have come to Cheltenham."
"We were in great trouble then, Lady Ushant. Of course I would like to be with you. You ought not to scold me, because you know how I love you"
"Has the young man gone away altogether now, Mary?"
"And Mrs. Masters is satisfied?"
"She knows it can never be, and therefore she is quiet about it."
"I was sorry for that young man, because he was so true."
"You couldn't be more sorry than I was, Lady Ushant. I love him as though he was a brother. But--"
"Mary, dear Mary, I fear you are in trouble."
"I think it is all trouble," said Mary, rushing forward and hiding her face in her old friend's lap as she knelt on the ground before her. Lady Ushant longed to ask a question, but she did not dare. And Mary Masters longed to have one friend to whom she could confide her secret,--but neither did she dare.
On the next day, very early in the morning, there came a note from Mrs. Morton to Mr. Masters, the attorney. Could Mr. Masters come out on that day to Bragton and see Mrs. Morton. The note was very particular in saying that Mrs. Morton was to be the person seen. The messenger who waited for an answer, brought back word that Mr. Masters would be there at noon. The circumstance was one which agitated him considerably, as he had not been inside the house at Bragton since the days immediately following the death of the old Squire. As it happened, Lady Ushant was going to Bragton on the same day, and at the suggestion of Mr. Runciman, whose horses in the hunting season barely sufficed for his trade, the old lady and the lawyer went together. Not a word was said between them as to the cause which took either of them on their journey, but they spoke much of the days in which they had known each other, when the old Squire was alive, and Mr. Masters thanked Lady Ushant for her kindness to his daughter. "I love her almost as though she were my own," said Lady Ushant. "When I am dead she will have half of what I have got."
"She will have no right to expect that," said the gratified father.
"She will have half or the whole, just as Reginald may be situated then. I don't know why I shouldn't tell her father what it is I mean to do." The attorney knew to a shilling the amount of Lady Ushant's income and thought that this was the best news he had heard for many a day.
While Lady Ushant was in the sick man's room, Mrs. Morton was closeted with the attorney. She had thought much of this step before she had dared to take it and even now doubted whether it would avail her anything. As she entered the book-room in which Mr. Masters was seated she almost repented. But the man was there and she was compelled to go on with her scheme. "Mr. Masters," she said, "it is I think a long time since you have been employed by this family."
"A very long time, Madam."
"And I have now sent for you under circumstances of great difficulty," she answered; but as he said nothing she was forced to go on. "My grandson made his will the other day up in London, when he thought that he was going out to Patagonia." Mr. Masters bowed. "It was done when he was in sound health, and he is now not satisfied with it" Then there was another bow, but not a word was spoken. "Of course you know that he is very ill."
"We have all been very much grieved to hear it"
"I am sure you would be, for the sake of old days. When Dr. Fanning was last here he thought that my grandson was something better. He held out stronger hopes than before. But still he is very ill. His mind has never wavered for a moment, Mr. Masters." Again Mr. Masters bowed. "And now he thinks that some changes should be made;--indeed that there should be a new will."
"Does he wish me to see him, Mrs. Morton?"
"Not to-day, I think. He is not quite prepared to-day. But I wanted to ask whether you could come at a moment's notice,--quite at a moment's notice. I thought it better, so that you should know why we sent for you if we did send,--so that you might be prepared. It could be done here, I suppose?"
"It would be possible, Mrs. Morton."
"And you could do it?"
Then there was a long pause. "Altering a will is a very serious thing, Mrs. Morton. And when it is done on what perhaps may be a death-bed, it is a very serious thing indeed. Mr. Morton, I believe, employs a London solicitor. I know the firm and more respectable gentlemen do not exist. A telegram would bring down one of the firm from London by the next train."
A frown, a very heavy frown, came across the old woman's brow. She would have repressed it had it been possible;--but she could not command herself, and the frown was there. "If that had been practicable, Mr. Masters," she said, "we should not have sent for you."
"I was only suggesting, madame, what might be the best course."
"Exactly. And of course I am much obliged. But if we are driven to call upon you for your assistance, we shall find it?"
"Madame," said the attorney very slowly, "it is of course part of my business to make wills, and when called upon to do so, I perform my business to the best of my ability. But in altering a will during illness great care is necessary. A codicil might be added--"
"A new will would be necessary."
A new will, thought the attorney, could only be necessary for altering the disposition of the whole estate. He knew enough of the family circumstances to be aware that the property should go to Reginald Morton whether with or without a will,--and also enough to be aware that this old lady was Reginald's bitter enemy. He did not think that he could bring himself to take instructions from a dying man,--from the Squire of Bragton on his death-bed,--for an instrument which should alienate the property from the proper heir. He too had his strong feelings, perhaps his prejudices, about Bragton. "I would wish that the task were in other hands, Mrs. Morton."
"It is hard to measure the capacity of an invalid."
"His mind is as clear as yours"
"It might be so,--and yet I might not be able to satisfy myself that it was so. I should have to ask long and tedious questions, which would be offensive. And I should find myself giving advice,-- which would not be called for. For instance, were your grandson to wish to leave this estate away from the heir--"
"I am not discussing his wishes, Mr. Masters."
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Morton, for making the suggestion;--but as I said before, I should prefer that he should employ some one else."
"You refuse then?"
"If Mr. Morton were to send for me, I should go to him instantly. But I fear I might be slow in taking his instructions;--and it is possible that I might refuse to act on them." Then she got up from her chair and bowing to him with stately displeasure left the room.
All this she had done without any authority from her grandson, simply encouraged in her object by his saying in his weakness, that he would think of her proposition. So intent was she on her business that she was resolved to have everything ready if only he could once be brought to say that Peter Morton should be his heir. Having abandoned all hopes for her noble cousin she could tell her conscience that she was instigated simply by an idea of justice. Peter Morton was at any rate the legitimate son of a well-born father and a wellborn mother. What had she or any one belonging to her to gain by it? But forty years since a brat had been born at Bragton in opposition to her wishes,--by whose means she had been expelled from the place; and now it seemed to her to be simple justice that he should on this account be robbed of that which would otherwise be naturally his own. As Mr. Masters would not serve her turn she must write to the London lawyers. The thing would be more difficult; but, nevertheless, if the sick man could once be got to say that Peter should be his heir she thought that she could keep him to his word. Lady Ushant and Mr. Masters went back to Dillsborough in Runciman's fly, and it need hardly be said that the attorney said nothing of the business which had taken him to Bragton.
This happened on a Wednesday,--Wednesday the 3rd of March. On Friday morning, at 4 o'clock, during the darkness of the night, John Morton was lying dead on his bed, and the old woman was at his bedside. She had done her duty by him as far as she knew how in tending him, had been assiduous with the diligence of much younger years; but now as she sat there, having had the fact absolutely announced to her by Dr. Nupper, her greatest agony arose from the feeling that the roof which covered her, probably the chair in which she sat, were the property of Reginald Morton--"Bastard!" she said to herself between her teeth; but she so said it that neither Dr. Nupper, who was in the room, nor the woman who was with her should hear it.
Dr. Nupper took the news into Dillsborough, and as the folk sat down to breakfast they all heard that the Squire of Bragton was dead. The man had been too little known, had been too short a time in the neighbourhood, to give occasion for tears. There was certainly more of interest than of grief in the matter. Mr. Masters said to himself that the time had been too short for any change in the will, and therefore felt tolerably certain that Reginald would be the heir. But for some days this opinion was not general in Dillsborough. Mr. Mainwaring had heard that Reginald had been sent away from Bragton with a flea in his ear, and was pretty certain that when the will was read it would be found that the property was to go to Mrs. Morton's friends. Dr. Nupper was of the same opinion. There were many in Dillsborough with whom Reginald was not popular;--and who thought that some man of a different kind would do better as Squire of Bragton. "He don't know a fox when he sees 'un," said Tony Tuppett to Larry Twentyman, whom he had come across the county to call upon and to console.
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