When Reginald Morton received his aunt’s letter he understood from it more than she had intended. Of course the man to whom allusion was made was Mr. Twentyman; and of course the discomfort at. home had come from Mrs. Masters’ approval of that suitor’s claim. Reginald, though he had seen but little of the inside of the attorney’s household, thought it very probable that the stepmother would make the girl’s home very uncomfortable for her. Though he knew well all the young farmer’s qualifications as a husband — namely that he was well to do in the world and bore a good character for honesty and general conduct — still he thoroughly, nay heartily approved of Mary’s rejection of the man’s hand. It seemed to him to be sacrilege that such a one should have given to him such a woman. There was, to his thinking, something about Mary Masters that made it altogether unfit that she should pass her life as the mistress of Chowton Farm, and he honoured her for the persistence of her refusal. He took his pipe and went out into the garden in order that he might think of it all as he strolled round his little domain.
But why should he think so much about it? Why should he take so deep an interest in the matter? What was it to him whether Mary Masters married after her kind, or descended into what he felt to be an inferior manner of life? Then he tried to tell himself what were the gifts in the girl’s possession which made her what she was, and he pictured her to himself, running over all her attributes. It was not that she specially excelled in beauty. He had seen Miss Trefoil as she was being driven about the neighbourhood, and having heard much of the young lady as the future wife of his own cousin, had acknowledged to himself that she was very handsome. But he had thought at the same time that under no possible circumstances could he have fallen in love with Miss Trefoil. He believed that he did not care much for female beauty, and yet he felt that he could sit and look at Mary Masters by the hour together. There was a quiet even composure about her, always lightened by the brightness of her modest eyes, which seemed to tell him of some mysterious world within, which was like the unseen loveliness that one fancies to be hidden within the bosom of distant mountains. There was a poem to be read there of surpassing beauty, rhythmical and eloquent as the music of the spheres, if it might only be given to a man to read it. There was an absence, too, of all attempt at feminine self-glorification which he did not analyse but thoroughly appreciated. There was no fussy amplification of hair, no made-up smiles, no affectation either in her good humour or her anger, no attempt at effect in her gait, in her speech, or her looks. She seemed to him to be one who had something within her on which she could feed independently of the grosser details of the world to which it was her duty to lend her hand. And then her colour charmed his eyes. Miss Trefoil was white and red; white as pearl powder and red as paint. Mary Masters, to tell the truth, was brown. No doubt that was the prevailing colour, if one colour must be named. But there was so rich a tint of young life beneath the surface, so soft but yet so visible an assurance of blood and health and spirit, that no one could describe her complexion by so ugly a word without falsifying her gifts. In all her movements she was tranquil, as a noble woman should be. Even when she had turned from him with some anger at the bridge, she had walked like a princess. There was a certainty of modesty about her which was like a granite wall or a strong fortress. As he thought of it all he did not understand how such a one as Lawrence Twentyman should have dared to ask her to be his wife — or should even have wished it.
We know what were her feelings in regard to himself, how she had come to look almost with worship on the walls within which he lived; but he had guessed nothing of this. Even now, when he knew that she had applied to his aunt in order that she might escape from her lover, it did not occur to him that she could care for himself. He was older than she, nearly twenty years older, and even in his younger years, in the hard struggles of his early life, had never regarded himself as a man likely to find favour with women. There was in his character much of that modesty for which he gave her such infinite credit. Though he thought but little of most of those around him, he thought also but little of himself. It would break his heart to ask and be refused; but he could, he fancied, live very well without Mary Masters. Such, at any rate, had been his own idea of himself hitherto; and now, though he was driven to think much of her, though on the present occasion he was forced to act on her behalf, he would not tell himself that he wanted to take her for his wife. He constantly assured himself that he wanted no wife, that for him a solitary life would be the best. But yet it made him wretched when he reflected that some man would assuredly marry Mary Masters. He had heard of that excellent but empty-head young man Mr. Surtees. When the idea occurred to him he found himself reviling Mr. Surtees as being of all men the most puny, the most unmanly, and the least worthy of marrying Mary Masters. Now that Mr. Twentyman was certainly disposed of, he almost became jealous of Mr. Surtees.
It was not till three or four o’clock in the afternoon that he went out on his commission to the attorney’s house, having made up his mind that he would do everything in his power to facilitate Mary’s proposed return to Cheltenham. He asked first for Mr. Masters and then for Miss Masters, and learned that they were both out together. But he had been desired also to see Mrs. Masters, and on inquiring for her was again shown into the grand drawing-room. Here he remained a quarter of an hour while the lady of the house was changing her cap and apron, which he spent in convincing himself that this house was altogether an unfit residence for Mary. In the chamber in which he was standing it was clear enough that no human being ever lived. Mary’s drawing-room ought to be a bower in which she at least might pass her time with books and music and pretty things around her. The squalor of the real living room might be conjectured from the untouched cleanliness of this useless sanctum. At last the lady came to him and welcomed him with very grim courtesy. As a client of her husband he was very well; — but as a nephew of Lady Ushant he was injurious. It was he who had carried Mary away to Cheltenham where she had been instigated to throw her bread-and-butter into the fire — as Mrs. Masters expressed it — by that pernicious old woman Lady Ushant. “Mr. Masters is out walking,” she said. Reginald clearly understood by the contempt which she threw almost unconsciously into her words that she did not approve of her husband going out walking at such an hour.
“I had a message for him — and also for you. My aunt, Lady Ushant, is very anxious that your daughter Mary should return to her at Cheltenham for a while.” The proposition to Mrs. Masters’ thinking was so monstrous, and was at the same time so unexpected, that it almost took away her breath. At any rate she stood for a moment speechless. “My aunt is very fond of your daughter,” he continued, “and if she can be spared would be delighted to have her. Perhaps she has written to Miss Masters, but she has asked me to come over and see if it can be arranged.”
“It cannot be arranged,” said Mrs. Masters. “Nothing of the kind can be arranged.”
“I am sorry for that”
“It is only disturbing the girl, and upsetting her, and filling her head full of nonsense. What is she to do at Cheltenham? This is her home and here she had better be.” Though things had hitherto gone very badly, though Larry Twentyman had not shown himself since the receipt of the letter, still Mrs. Masters had not abandoned all hope. She was fixed in opinion that if her husband were joined with her they could still, between them, so break the girl’s spirit as to force her into a marriage. “As for letters,” she continued, “I don’t know anything about them. There may have been letters but if so they have been kept from me. “She was so angry that she could not even attempt to conceal her wrath.
“Lady Ushant thinks —” began the messenger.
“Oh yes, Lady Ushant is very well of course. Lady Ushant is your aunt, Mr. Morton, and I haven’t anything to say against her. But Lady Ushant can’t do any good to that girl. She has got her bread to earn, and if she won’t do it one way then she must do it another. She’s obstinate and pigheaded, that’s the truth of it. And her father’s just as bad. He has taken her out now merely because she likes to be idle, and to go about thinking herself a fine lady. Lady Ushant doesn’t do her any good at all by cockering her up.”
“My aunt, you know, saw very much of her when she was young.”
“I know she did, Mr. Morton; and all that has to be undone — and I have got the undoing of it. Lady Ushant is one thing and her papa’s business is quite another. At any rate if I have my say she’ll not go to Cheltenham any more. I don’t mean to be uncivil to you, Mr. Morton, or to say anything as oughtn’t to be said of your aunt. But when you can’t make people anything but what they are, it’s my opinion that it’s best to leave them alone. Good day to you, sir, and I hope you understand what it is that I mean.”
Then Morton retreated and went down the stairs, leaving the lady in possession of her own grandeur. He had not quite understood what she had meant, and was still wondering at the energy of her opposition. when he met Mary herself at the front door. Her father was not with her, but his retreating form was to be seen entering the portal of the Bush. “Oh, Mr. Morton!” exclaimed Mary surprised to have the house-door opened for her by him.
“I have come with a message from my aunt”
“She told me that you would do so.”
“Lady Ushant would of course be delighted to have you if it could be arranged.”
“Then Lady Ushant will be disappointed,” said Mrs. Masters who had descended the stairs. “There has been something going on behind my back.”
“I wrote to Lady Ushant,” said Mary.
“I call that sly and deceitful; — very sly and very deceitful. If I know it you won’t stir out of this house to go to Cheltenham. I wonder Lady Ushant would go to put you up in that way against those you’re bound to obey.”
“I thought Mrs. Masters had been told,” said Reginald.
“Papa did know that I wrote,” said Mary.
“Yes; — and in this way a conspiracy is to be made up in the House! If she goes to Cheltenham I won’t stay here. You may tell Lady Ushant that I say that. I’m not going to be one thing one day and another, and to be made a tool of all round.” By this time Dolly and Kate had cone down from the upper regions and were standing behind their mother. “What do you two do there, standing gaping like fools,” said the angry mother. “I suppose your father has gone over to the public-house again. That, miss, is what comes from your pig headiness. Didn’t I tell you that you were ruining everybody belonging to you?” Before all this was over Reginald Morton had escaped, feeling that he could do no good to either side by remaining a witness to such a scene. He must take some other opportunity of finding the attorney and of learning from him whether he intended that his daughter should be allowed to accept Lady Ushant’s invitation.
Poor Mary as she shrunk into the house was nearly heartbroken. That such things should be at all was very dreadful, but that the scene should have taken place in the presence of Reginald Morton was an aggravation of the misery which nearly overwhelmed her. How could she make him understand whence had arisen her stepmother’s anger and that she herself had been neither sly nor deceitful nor pigheaded?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01