I can hardly describe accurately the exact position of the Masters family without first telling all that I know about the Morton family; and it is absolutely essential that the reader should know all the Masters family intimately. Mr. Masters, as I have said in the last chapter, was the attorney in Dillsborough, and the Mortons had been for centuries past the squires of Bragton.
I need not take the reader back farther than old Reginald Morton. He had come to the throne of his family as a young man, and had sat upon it for more than half a century. He had been a squire of the old times, having no inclination for London seasons, never wishing to keep up a second house, quite content with his position as quire of Bragton, but with considerable pride about him as to that position. He had always liked to have his house full, and had hated petty oeconomies. He had for many years hunted the county at his own expense, the amusement at first not having been so expensive as it afterwards became. When he began the work, it had been considered sufficient to hunt twice a week. Now the Rufford and Ufford hounds have four days, and sometimes a bye. It went much against Mr. Reginald Morton’s pride when he was first driven to take a subscription.
But the temporary distress into which the family fell was caused not so much by his own extravagance as by that of two sons, and by his indulgence in regard to them. He had three children, none of whom were very fortunate in life. The eldest, John, married the daughter of a peer, stood for Parliament, had one son, and died before he was forty, owing something over 20,000 pounds. The estate was then worth 7,000 pounds a year. Certain lands not lying either in Bragton or Mallingham were sold, and that difficulty was surmounted, not without a considerable diminution of income. In process of time the grandson, who was a second John Morton, grew up and married, and became the father of a third John Morton, the young man who afterwards became owner of the property and Secretary of Legation at Washington. But the old squire outlived his son and his grandson, and when he died had three or four great-grand-children playing about the lawns of Bragton Park. The peer’s daughter had lived, and had for many years drawn a dower from the Bragton property, and had been altogether a very heavy incumbrance.
But the great trial of the old man’s life, as also the great romance, had arisen from the career of his second son, Reginald. Of all his children, Reginald had been the dearest to him. He went to Oxford, and had there spent much money; not as young men now spend money, but still to an extent that had been grievous to the old squire. But everything was always paid for Reginald. It was necessary, of course, that he should have a profession, and he took a commission in the army. As a young man he went to Canada. This was in 1829, when all the world was at peace, and his only achievement in Canada was to marry a young woman who is reported to have been pretty and good, but who had no advantages either of fortune or birth. She was, indeed, the daughter of a bankrupt innkeeper in Montreal. Soon after this he sold out and brought his wife home to Bragton. It was at this period of the squire’s life that the romance spoken of occurred. John Morton, the brother with the aristocratic wife, was ten or twelve years older than Reginald, and at this time lived chiefly at Bragton when he was not in town. He was, perhaps, justified in regarding Bragton as almost belonging to him, knowing as he did that it must belong to him after his father’s lifetime, and to his son after him. His anger against his brother was hot, and that of his wife still hotter. He himself had squandered thousands, but then he was the heir. Reginald, who was only a younger brother, had sold his commission. And then he had done so much more than this! He had married a woman who was not a lady! John was clearly of opinion that at any rate the wife should not be admitted into Bragton House. The old squire in those days was not a happy man; he had never been very strong-minded, but now he was strong enough to declare that his house-door should not be shut against a son of his — or a son’s wife, as long as she was honest. Hereupon the Honourable Mrs. Morton took her departure, and was never seen at Bragton again in the old squire’s time. Reginald Morton came to the house, and soon afterwards another little Reginald was born at Bragton Park. This happened as long ago as 1835, twenty years before the death of the old squire.
But there had been another child, a daughter, who had come between the two sons, still living in these days, who will become known to any reader who will have patience to follow these pages to the end. She married, not very early in life, a certain Sir William Ushant, who was employed by his country in India and elsewhere, but who found, soon after his marriage, that the service of his country required that he should generally leave his wife at Bragton. As her father had been for many years a widower, Lady Ushant became the mistress of the house.
But death was very busy with the Mortons. Almost every one died, except the squire himself and his daughter, and that honourable dowager, with her income and her pride who could certainly very well have been spared. When at last, in 1855, the old squire went, full of years, full of respect, but laden also with debts and money troubles, not only had his son John, and his grandson John, gone before him, but Reginald and his wife were both lying in Bragton Churchyard.
The elder branch of the family, John the great-grandson, and his little sisters, were at once taken away from Bragton by the honourable grandmother. John, who was then about seven years old, was of course the young squire, and was the owner of the property. The dowager, therefore, did not undertake an altogether unprofitable burden. Lady Ushant was left at the house, and with Lady Ushant, or rather immediately subject to her care, young Reginald Morton, who was then nineteen years of age, and who was about to go to Oxford. But there immediately sprang up family lawsuits, instigated by the honourable lady on behalf of her grandchildren, of which Reginald Morton was the object. The old man had left certain outlying properties to his grandson Reginald, of which Hoppet Hall was a part. For eight or ten years the lawsuit was continued, and much money was expended. Reginald was at last successful, and became the undoubted owner of Hoppet Hall; but in the meantime he went to Germany for his education, instead of to Oxford, and remained abroad even after the matter was decided — living, no one but Lady Ushant knew where, or after what fashion.
When the old squire died the children were taken away, and Bragton was nearly deserted. The young heir was brought up with every caution, and, under the auspices of his grandmother and her family, behaved himself very unlike the old Mortons. He was educated at Eton, after leaving which he was at once examined for Foreign Office employment, and commenced his career with great eclat. He had been made to understand clearly that it would be better that he should not enter in upon his squirearchy early in life. The estate when he came of age had already had some years to recover itself, and as he went from capital to capital, he was quite content to draw from it an income which enabled him to shine with peculiar brilliance among his brethren. He had visited Bragton once since the old squire’s death, and had found the place very dull and uninviting. He had no ambition whatever to be master of the U.R.U.; but did look forward to a time when he might be Minister Plenipotentiary at some foreign court.
For many years after the old man’s death, Lady Ushant, who was then a widow, was allowed to live at Bragton. She was herself childless, and being now robbed of her great-nephews and nieces, took a little girl to live with her, named Mary Masters. It was a very desolate house in those days, but the old lady was careful as to the education of the child, and did her best to make the home happy for her. Some two or three years before the commencement of this story there arose a difference between the manager of the property and Lady Ushant, and she was made to understand, after some half-courteous manner, that Bragton house and park would do better without her. There would be no longer any cows kept, and painters must come into the house, and there were difficulties about fuel. She was not turned out exactly; but she went and established herself in lonely lodgings at Cheltenham. Then Mary Masters, who had lived for more than a dozen years at Bragton, went back to her father’s house in Dillsborough.
Any reader with an aptitude for family pedigrees will now understand that Reginald, Master of Hoppet Hall, was first cousin to the father of the Foreign Office paragon, and that he is therefore the paragon’s first cousin once removed. The relationship is not very distant, but the two men, one of whom was a dozen years older than the other, had not seen each other for more than twenty years — at a time when one of them was a big boy, and the other a very little one; and during the greater part of that time a lawsuit had been carried on between them in a very rigorous manner. It had done much to injure both, and had created such a feeling of hostility that no intercourse of any kind now existed between them.
It does not much concern us to know how far back should be dated the beginning of the connection between the Morton family and that of Mr. Masters, the attorney; but it is certain that the first attorney of that name in Dillsborough became learned in the law through the patronage of some former Morton. The father of the present Gregory Masters, and the grandfather, had been thoroughly trusted and employed by old Reginald Morton, and the former of the two had made his will. Very much of the stewardship and management of the property had been in their hands, and they had thriven as honest men, but as men with a tolerably sharp eye to their own interests. The late Mr. Masters had died a few years before the squire, and the present attorney had seemed to succeed to these family blessings. But the whole order of things became changed. Within a few weeks of the squire’s death Mr. Masters found that he was to be entrusted no further with the affairs of the property, but that, in lieu of such care, was thrown upon him the task of defending the will which he had made against the owner of the estate. His father and grandfather had contrived between them to establish a fairly good business, independently of Bragton, which business, of course, was now his. As far as reading went, and knowledge, he was probably a better lawyer than either of them; but he lacked their enterprise and special genius, and the thing had dwindled with him. It seemed to him, perhaps not unnaturally, that he had been robbed of an inheritance. He had no title deeds, as had the owners of the property; but his ancestors before him, from generation to generation, had lived by managing the Bragton property. They had drawn the leases, and made the wills, and collected the rents, and had taught themselves to believe that a Morton could not live on his land without a Masters. Now there was a Morton who did not live on his land, but spent his rents elsewhere without the aid of any Masters, and it seemed to the old lawyer that all the good things of the world had passed away. He had married twice, his first wife having, before her marriage, been well known at Bragton Park. When she had died, and Mr. Masters had brought a second wife home, Lady Ushant took the only child of the mother, whom she had known as a girl, into her own keeping, till she also had been compelled to leave Bragton. Then Mary Masters had returned to her father and stepmother.
The Bragton Park residence is a large, old-fashioned, comfortable house, but by no means a magnificent mansion. The greater part of it was built one hundred and fifty years ago, and the rooms are small and low. In the palmy days of his reign, which is now more than half a century since, the old squire made alterations, and built new stables and kennels, and put up a conservatory; but what he did then has already become almost old-fashioned now. What he added he added in stone, but the old house was brick. He was much abused at the time for his want of taste, and heard a good deal about putting new cloth as patches on old rents; but, as the shrubs and ivy have grown up, a certain picturesqueness has come upon the place, which is greatly due to the difference of material. The place is somewhat sombre, as there is no garden close to the house. There is a lawn, at the back, with gravel walks round it; but it is only a small lawn; and then divided from the lawn by a ha-ha fence, is the park. The place, too, has that sad look which always comes to a house from the want of a tenant. Poor Lady Ushant, when she was there, could do little or nothing. A gardener was kept, but there should have been three or four gardeners. The man grew cabbages and onions, which he sold, but cared nothing for the walks or borders. Whatever it may have been in the old time, Bragton Park was certainly not a cheerful place when Lady Ushant lived there. In the squire’s time the park itself had always been occupied by deer. Even when distress came he would not allow the deer to be sold. But after his death they went very soon, and from that day to the time of which I am writing, the park has been leased to some butchers or graziers from Dillsborough.
The ground hereabouts is nearly level, but it falls away a little and becomes broken and pretty where the river Dill runs through the park, about half a mile from the house. There is a walk called the Pleasance, passing down through shrubs to the river, and then crossing the stream by a foot-bridge, and leading across the fields towards Dillsborough. This bridge is, perhaps, the prettiest spot in Bragton, or, for that matter, anywhere in the county round; but. even here there is not much of beauty to be praised. It is here, on the side of the river away from the house, that the home meet of the hounds used to be held; and still the meet at Bragton Bridge is popular in the county.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01