At six o’clock one November morning, Mr. Masters, the attorney, was sitting at home with his family in the large parlour of his house, his office being on the other side of the passage which cut the house in two and was formally called the hall. Upstairs, over the parlour, was a drawing-room; but this chamber, which was supposed to be elegantly furnished, was very rarely used. Mr. and Mrs. Masters did not see much company, and for family purposes the elegance of the drawing-room made it unfit. It added, however, not a little to the glory of Mrs. Masters’ life. The house itself was a low brick building in the High Street, at the corner where the High Street runs into the market-place, and therefore, nearly opposite to the Bush. It had none of the elaborate grandeur of the inn nor of the simple stateliness of Hoppet Hall, but, nevertheless, it maintained the character of the town and was old, substantial, respectable, and dark.
“I think it a very spirited thing of him to do, then,” said Mrs. Masters.
“I don’t know, my dear. Perhaps it is only revenge.”
“What have you to do with that? What can it matter to a lawyer whether it’s revenge or anything else? He’s got the means, I suppose?”
“I don’t know, my dear.”
“What does Nickem say?”
“I suppose he has the means,” said Mr. Masters, who was aware that if he told his wife a fib on the matter, she would learn the truth from his senior clerk, Mr. Samuel Nickem. Among the professional gifts which Mr. Masters possessed, had not been that great gift of being able to keep his office and his family distinct from each other. His wife always knew what was going on, and was very free with her advice; generally tendering it on that side on which money was to be made, and doing so with much feminine darkness as to right or wrong. His Clerk, Nickem, who was afflicted with no such darkness, but who ridiculed the idea of scruple in an attorney, often took part against him. It was the wish of his heart to get rid of Nickem; but Nickem would have carried business with him and gone over to some enemy, or, perhaps have set up in some irregular manner on his own bottom; and his wife would have given him no peace had he done so, for she regarded Nickem as the mainstay of the house.
“What is Lord Rufford to you?” asked Mrs. Masters.
“He has always been very friendly.”
“I don’t see it at all. You have never had any of his money. I don’t know that you are a pound richer by him.”
“I have always gone with the gentry of the county.”
“Fiddlesticks! Gentry! Gentry are very well as long as you can make a living out of them. You could afford to stick up for gentry till you lost the Bragton property.” This was a subject that was always sore between Mr. Masters and his wife. The former Mrs. Masters had been a lady — the daughter of a neighbouring clergyman; and had been much considered by the family at Bragton. The present Mrs. Masters was the daughter of an ironmonger at Norrington, who had brought a thousand pounds with her, which had been very useful. No doubt Mr. Masters’ practice had been considerably affected by the lowliness of his second marriage. People who used to know the first Mrs. Masters, such as Mrs. Mainwaring, and the doctor’s wife, and old Mrs. Cooper, the wife of the vicar of Mallingham, would not call on the second Mrs. Masters. As Mrs. Masters was too high-spirited to run after people who did not want her, she took to hating gentry instead.
“We have always been on the other side,” said the old attorney, “I and my father and grandfather before me.”
“They lived on it and you can’t. If you are going to say that you won’t have any client that isn’t a gentleman, you might as well put up your shutters at once.”
“I haven’t said so. Isn’t Runciman my client?” “He always goes with the gentry. He a’most thinks he’s one of them himself.”
“And old Nobbs, the greengrocer. But it’s all nonsense. Any man is my client, or any woman, Who can come and pay me for business that is fit for me to do.”
“Why isn’t this fit to be done? If the man’s been damaged, why shouldn’t he be paid?”
“He’s had money offered him.”
“If he thinks it ain’t enough, who’s to say that it is — unless a jury?” said Mrs. Masters, becoming quite eloquent. “And how’s a poor man to get a jury to say that, unless he comes to a lawyer? Of course, if you won’t have it, he’ll go to Bearside. Bearside won’t turn him away.” Bearside was another attorney, an interloper of about ten years’ standing, whose name was odious to Mr. Masters.
“You don’t know anything about it, my dear,” said he, aroused at last to anger.
“I know you’re letting anybody who likes take the bread out of the children’s mouths.” The children, so called, were sitting round the table and could not but take an interest in the matter. The eldest was that Mary Masters, the daughter of the former wife, whom Lady Ushant had befriended, a tall girl, with dark brown hair, so dark as almost to be black, and large, soft, thoughtful grey eyes. We shall have much to say of Mary Masters, and can hardly stop to give an adequate description of her here. The others were Dolly and Kate, two girls aged sixteen and fifteen. The two younger “children” were eating bread and butter and jam in a very healthy manner, but still had their ears wide open to the conversation that was being held. The two younger girls sympathised strongly with their mother. Mary, who had known much about the Mortons, and was old enough to understand the position which her grandfather had held in reference to the family, of course leaned in her heart to her father’s side. But she was wiser than her father, and knew that in such discussions her mother often showed a worldly wisdom which, in their present circumstances, they could hardly afford to disregard, unpalatable through it might be.
Mr. Masters disliked these discussions altogether, but he disliked them most of all in presence of his children. He looked round upon them in a deprecatory manner, making a slight motion with his hand and bringing his head down on one side, and then he gave a long sigh. If it was his intention to convey some subtle warning to his wife, some caution that she alone should understand, he was deceived. The “children” all knew what he meant quite as well as did their mother.
“Shall we go out, mamma?” asked Dolly. “Finish your teas, my dears,” said Mr. Masters, who wished to stop the discussion rather than to carry it on before a more select audience.
“You’ve got to make up your mind to-night,” said Mrs. Masters, “and you’ll be going over to the Bush at eight”
“No, I needn’t. He is to come on Monday. I told Nickem I wouldn’t see him to-night; nor, of course, to-morrow.”
“Then he’ll go to Bearside.”
“He may go to Bearside and be —! Oh, Lord! I do wish you’d let me drop the business for a few minutes when I am in here. You don’t know anything about it. How should you?”
“I know that if I didn’t speak you’d let everything slip through your fingers. There’s Mr. Twentyman. Kate, open the door.”
Kate, who was fond of Mr. Twentyman, rushed up, and opened the front door at once. In saying so much of Kate, I do not mean it to be understood that any precocious ideas of love were troubling that young lady’s bosom. Kate Masters was a jolly bouncing schoolgirl of fifteen, who was not too proud to eat toffy, and thought herself still a child. But she was very fond of Lawrence Twentyman, who had a pony that she could ride, and who was always good-natured to her. All the family liked Mr. Twentyman — unless it might be Mary, who was the one that he specially liked himself. And Mary was not altogether averse to him, knowing him to be good-natured, manly, and straightforward. But Mr. Twentyman had proposed to her, and she had certainly not accepted him. This, however, had broken none of the family friendship. Every one in the house, unless it might be Mary herself, hoped that Mr. Twentyman might prevail at last. The man was worth six or seven hundred a year, and had a good house, and owed no one a shilling. He was handsome, and about the best-tempered fellow known. Of course they all desired that he should prevail with Mary. “I wish that I were old enough, Larry, that’s all!” Kate had said to him once, laughing. “I wouldn’t have you, if you were ever laughing.” “I wouldn’t have you, if you were ever so old,” Larry had replied; “you’d want to be out hunting every day.” That will show the sort of terms that Larry was on with his friend Kate. He called at the house every Saturday with the declared object of going over to the club that was held that evening in the parlour at the Bush, whither Mr. Masters also always went. It was understood at home that Mr. Masters should attend this club every Saturday from eight till eleven, but that he was not at any other time to give way to the fascinations of the Bush. On this occasion, and we may say on almost every Saturday night, Mr. Twentyman arrived a full hour before the appointed time. The reason of his doing so was of course well understood, and was quite approved by Mrs. Masters. She was not, at any rate as yet, a cruel stepmother; but still, if the girl could be transferred to so eligible a home as that which Mr. Twentyman could give her, it would be well for all parties.
When he took his seat he did not address himself specially to the lady of his love. I don’t know how a gentleman is to do so in the presence of her father, and mother, and sisters. Saturday after Saturday he probably thought that some occasion would arise; but, if his words could have been counted, it would have been found that he addressed fewer to her than to any one in the room.
“Larry,” said his special friend Kate, “am I to have the pony at the Bridge meet?”
“How very free you are, Miss!” said her mother.
“I don’t know about that,” said Larry. “When is there to be a meet at the Bridge? I haven’t heard.”
“But I have. Tony Tuppett told me that they would be there this day fortnight.” Tony Tuppett was the huntsman of the U.R.U.
“That’s more than Tony can know. He may have guessed it.”
“Shall I have the pony if he has guessed right?”
Then the pony was promised; and Kate, trusting in Tony Tuppett’s sagacity, was happy.
“Have you heard of all this about Dillsborough Wood?” asked Mrs. Masters. The attorney shrank at the question, and shook himself uneasily in his chair.
“Yes; I’ve heard about it,” said Larry.
“And what do you think about it? I don’t see why Lord Rufford is to ride over everybody because he’s a lord.” Mr. Twentyman scratched his head. Though a keen sportsman himself, he did not specially like Lord Rufford — a fact which had been very well known to Mrs. Masters. But, nevertheless, this threatened action against the nobleman was distasteful to him. It was not a hunting affair, or Mr. Twentyman could not have doubted for a moment. It was a shooting difficulty, and as Mr. Twentyman had never been asked to fire a gun on the Rufford preserves, it was no great sorrow to him that there should be such a difficulty. But the thing threatened was an attack upon the country gentry and their amusements, and Mr. Twentyman was a country gentleman who followed sport. Upon the whole his sympathies were with Lord Rufford.
“The man is an utter blackguard, you know,” said Larry. “Last year he threatened to shoot the foxes in Dillsborough Wood.”
“No!” said Kate, quite horrified.
“I’m afraid he’s a bad sort of fellow all round,” said the attorney.
“I don’t see why he shouldn’t claim what he thinks due to him,” said Mrs. Masters.
“I’m told that his lordship offered him seven-and-six an acre for the whole of the two fields,” said the gentleman-farmer.
“Goarly declares,” said Mrs. Masters, “that the pheasants didn’t leave him four bushels of wheat to the acre.”
Goarly was the man who had proposed himself as a client to Mr. Masters, and who was desirous of claiming damages to the amount of forty shillings an acre for injury, done to the crops on two fields belonging to himself which lay adjacent to Dillsborough Wood, a covert belonging to Lord Rufford, about four miles from the town, in which both pheasants and foxes were preserved with great care.
“Has Goarly been to you?” asked Twentyman.
Mr. Masters nodded his head. “That’s just it,” said Mrs. Masters. “I don’t see why a man isn’t to go to law if he pleases — that is, if he can afford to pay for it. I have nothing to say against gentlemen’s sport; but I do say that they should run the same chance as others. And I say it’s a shame if they’re to band themselves together and make the county too hot to hold any one as doesn’t like to have his things ridden over, and his crops devoured, and his fences knocked to Jericho. I think there’s a deal of selfishness in sport and a deal of tyranny.”
“Oh, Mrs. Masters!” exclaimed Larry.
“Well, I do. And if a poor man — or a man whether he’s poor or no,” added Mrs. Masters, correcting herself, as she thought of the money which this man ought to have in order that he might pay for his lawsuit — “thinks himself injured, it’s nonsense to tell me that nobody should take up his case. It’s just as though the butcher wouldn’t sell a man a leg of mutton because Lord Rufford had a spite against him. Who’s Lord Rufford?”
“Everybody knows that I care very little for his lordship,” said’ Mr. Twentyman.
“Nor I; and I don’t see why Gregory should. If Goarly isn’t entitled to what he wants he won’t get it; that’s all. But let it be tried fairly.”
Hereupon Mr. Masters took up his hat and left the room, and Mr. Twentyman followed him, not having yet expressed any positive opinion on the delicate matter submitted to his judgment. Of course, Goarly was a brute. Had he not threatened to shoot foxes? But, then, an attorney must live by lawsuits, and it seemed to Mr. Twentyman that an attorney should not stop to inquire whether a new client is a brute or not.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01