A few days after that on which Lady Augustus and her daughter left Bragton old Mrs. Morton returned to that place. She had gone away in very bitterness of spirit against her grandson in the early days of his illness. For some period antecedent to that there had been causes for quarrelling. John Morton had told her that he had been to Reginald’s house, and she, in her wrath, replied that he had disgraced himself by doing so. When those harsh words had been forgotten, or at any rate forgiven, other causes of anger had sprung up. She had endeavoured to drive him to repudiate Arabella Trefoil, and in order that she might do so effectually had contrived to find out something of Arabella’s doings at Rufford and at Mistletoe. Her efforts in this direction had had an effect directly contrary to that which she had intended. There had been moments in which Morton had been willing enough to rid himself of that burden. He had felt the lady’s conduct in his own house, and had seen it at Rufford. He, too, had heard something of Mistletoe. But the spirit within him was aroused at the idea of dictation, and he had been prompted to contradict the old woman’s accusation against his intended bride, by the very fact that they were made by her. And then she threatened him. If he did these things — if he would consort with an outcast from the family such as Reginald Morton, and take to himself such a bride as Arabella Trefoil, he could never more be to her as her child. This of course was tantamount to saying that she would leave her money to some one else — money which, as he well knew, had all been collected from the Bragton property. He had ever been to her as her son, and yet he was aware of a propensity on her part to enrich her own noble relatives with her hoards — a desire from gratifying which she had hitherto been restrained by conscience. Morton had been anxious enough for his grandmother’s money, but, even in the hope of receiving it, would not bear indignity beyond a certain point. He had therefore declared it to be his purpose to marry Arabella Trefoil, and because he had so declared he had almost brought himself to forgive that young lady’s sins against him. Then, as his illness became serious, there arose the question of disposing of the property in the event of his death. Mrs. Morton was herself very old, and was near her grave. She was apt to speak of herself as one who had but a few days left to her in this world. But, to her, property was more important than life or death; — and rank probably more important than either. She was a brave, fierce, evil-minded, but conscientious old woman — one, we may say, with very bad lights indeed, but who was steadfastly minded to walk by those lights, such as they were. She did not scruple to tell her grandson that it was his duty to leave the property away from his cousin Reginald, nor to allege as a reason for his doing so that in all probability Reginald Morton was not the legitimate heir of his great-grandfather, Sir Reginald. For such an assertion John Morton knew there was not a shadow of ground. No one but this old woman had ever suspected that the Canadian girl whom Reginald’s father had brought with him to Bragton had been other than his honest wife; — and her suspicions had only come from vague assertions, made by herself in blind anger till at last she had learned to believe them. Then, when in addition to this, he asserted his purpose of asking Arabella Trefoil to come to him at Bragton, the cup of her wrath was overflowing, and she withdrew from the house altogether. It might be that he was dying. She did in truth believe that he was dying. But there were things more serious to her than life or death. Should she allow him to trample upon all her feelings because he was on his death-bed — when perhaps in very truth he might not be on his death-bed at all? She, at any rate, was near her death — and she would do her duty. So she packed up her things — to the last black skirt of an old gown, so that every one at Bragton might know that it was her purpose to come back no more. And she went away.
Then Lady Ushant came to take her place, and with Lady Ushant came Reginald Morton. The one lived in the house and the other visited it daily. And, as the reader knows, Lady Augustus came with her daughter. Mrs. Morton, though she had gone — for ever — took care to know of the comings and goings at Bragton. Mrs. Hopkins was enjoined to write to her and tell her everything; and though Mrs. Hopkins with all her heart took the side of Lady Ushant and Reginald, she had never been well inclined to Miss Trefoil. Presents too were given and promises were made; and Mrs. Hopkins, not without some little treachery, did from time to time send to the old lady a record of what took place at Bragton. Arabella came and went, and Mrs. Hopkins thought that her coming had not led to much. Lady Ushant was always with Mr. John — such was the account given by Mrs. Hopkins; — and the general opinion was that the squire’s days were numbered.
Then the old woman’s jealousy was aroused, and, perhaps, her heart was softened. It was still hard black winter, and she was living alone in lodgings in London. The noble cousin, a man nearly as old as herself whose children she was desirous to enrich, took but little notice of her, nor would she have been Nappy had she lived with him. Her life had been usually solitary — with little breaks to its loneliness occasioned by the visits to England of him whom she had called her child. That this child should die before her, should die in his youth, did not shock her much. Her husband had done so, and her own son, and sundry of her noble brothers and sisters. She was hardened against death. Life to her had never been joyous, though the trappings of life were so great in her eyes. But it broke her heart that her child should die in the arms of another old woman who had always been to her as an enemy. Lady Ushant, in days now long gone by but still remembered as though they were yesterday, had counselled the reception of the Canadian female. And Lady Ushant, when the Canadian female and her husband were dead, had been a mother to the boy whom she, Mrs. Morton, would so fain have repudiated altogether. Lady Ushant had always been “on the other side;” and now Lady Ushant was paramount at Bragton.
And doubtless there was some tenderness, though Mrs. Morton was unwilling to own even to herself that she was moved by any such feeling. If she had done her duty in counselling him to reject both Reginald Morton and Arabella Trefoil — as to which she admitted no doubt in her own mind; — and if duty had required her to absent herself when her counsel was spurned, then would she be weak and unmindful of duty should she allow any softness of heart to lure her back again. It was so she reasoned. But still some softness was there; and when she heard that Miss Trefoil had gone, and that her visit had not, in Mrs. Hopkins’s opinion, “led to much,” she wrote to say that she would return. She made no request and clothed her suggestion in no words of tenderness; but simply told her grandson that she would come back — as the Trefoils had left him.
And she did come. When the news were first told to Lady Ushant by the sick man himself, that Lady proposed that she should at once go back to Cheltenham. But when she was asked whether her animosity to Mrs. Morton was so great that she could not consent to remain under the same roof, she at once declared that she had no animosity whatsoever. The idea of animosity running over nearly half a century was horrible to her; and therefore, though she did in her heart of hearts dread the other old woman, she consented to stay. “And what shall Reginald do?” she asked. John Morton had thought about this too, and expressed a wish that Reginald should come regularly — as he had come during the last week or two.
It was just a week from the day on which the Trefoils had gone that Mrs. Morton was driven up to the door in Mr. Runciman’s fly. This was at four in the afternoon, and had the old woman looked out of the fly window she might have seen Reginald making his way by the little path to the bridge which led back to Dillsborough. It was at this hour that he went daily, and he had not now thought it worth his while to remain to welcome Mrs. Morton. And she might also have seen, had she looked out, that with him was walking a young woman. She would not have known Mary Masters; but had she seen them both, and had she known the young woman, she would have declared in her pride that they were fit associates. But she saw nothing of this, sitting there behind her veil, thinking whether she might still do anything, and if so; what she might do to avert the present evil destination of the Bragton estate. There was an honourable nephew of her own — or rather a great-nephew — who might easily take the name, who would so willingly take the name! Or if this were impracticable, there was a distant Morton, very distant, whom she had never seen and certainly did not love, but who was clearly a Morton, and who would certainly be preferable to that enemy of forty years’ standing. Might there not be some bargain made? Would not her dying grandson be alive to the evident duty of enriching the property and leaving behind him a wealthy heir? She could enrich the property and make the heir wealthy by her money.
“How is he?” That of course was the first question when Mrs. Hopkins met her in the hall. Mrs. Hopkins only shook her head and said that perhaps he had taken his food that day a little better than on the last. Then there was a whisper, to which Mrs. Hopkins whispered back her answer. Yes — Lady Ushant was in the house — was at this moment in the sick man’s room. Mr. Reginald was not staying there — had never stayed there — but came every day. He had only just left. “And is he to come still?” asked Mrs. Morton with wrath in her eyes. Mrs. Hopkins did not know but was disposed to think that Mr. Reginald would come every day. Then Mrs. Morton went up to her own room — and while she prepared herself for her visit to the sick room Lady Ushant retired. She had a cup of tea, refusing all other refreshment, and then, walking erect as though she had been forty instead of seventy-five, she entered her grandson’s chamber and took her old place at his bedside.
Nothing was then said about Arabella, nor, indeed, at any future time was her name mentioned between them; — nor was anything then said about the future fate of the estate. She did not dare to bring up the subject at once, though, on the journey down from London, she had determined that she would do so. But she was awed by his appearance and by the increased appanages of his sick-bed. He spoke, indeed, of the property, and expressed his anxiety that Chowton Farm should be bought, if it came into market. He thought that the old acres should be redeemed, if the opportunity arose — and if the money could be found. “Chowton Farm!” exclaimed the old woman, who remembered well the agony which had attended the alienation of that portion of the Morton lands.
“It may be that it will be sold.”
“Lawrence Twentyman sell Chowton Farm! I thought he was well off.” Little as she had been at Bragton she knew all about Chowton Farm — except that its owner was so wounded by vain love as to be like a hurt deer. Her grandson did not tell her all the story, but explained to her that Lawrence Twentyman, though not poor, had other plans of life and thought of leaving the neighbourhood. She, of course, had the money; and as she believed that land was the one proper possession for an English gentleman of ancient family, she doubtless would have been willing to buy it had she approved of the hands into which it would fall. It seemed to him that it was her duty to do as much for the estate with which all her fortune had been concerned. “Yes,” she said; “it should be bought — if other things suited. We will talk of it to-morrow, John.” Then he spoke of his mission to Patagonia and of his regret that it should be abandoned. Even were he ever to be well again his strength would return to him too late for this purpose. He had already made known to the Foreign Office his inability to undertake that service. But she could perceive that he had not in truth abandoned his hopes of living, for he spoke much of his ambition as to the public service. The more he thought of it, he said, the more certain he became that it would suit him better to go on with his profession than to live the life of a country squire in England. And yet she could see the change which had taken place since she was last there and was aware that he was fading away from day to day.
It was not till they were summoned to dine together that she saw Lady Ushant. Very many years had passed since last they were together, and yet neither seemed to the other to be much changed. Lady Ushant was still soft, retiring, and almost timid; whereas Mrs. Morton showed her inclination to domineer even in the way in which she helped herself to salt. While the servant was with them very little was said on either side. There was a word or two from Mrs. Morton to show that she considered herself the mistress there — and a word from the other lady proclaiming that she had no pretensions of that kind. But after dinner in the little drawing-room they were more communicative. Something of course was said as to the health of the invalid. Lady Ushant was not the woman to give a pronounced opinion on such a subject. She used doubtful, hesitating words, and would in one minute almost contradict what she had said in the former. But Mrs. Morton was clever enough to perceive that Lady Ushant was almost without hope. Then she made a little speech with a fixed purpose. “It must be a great trouble to you, Lady Ushant, to be so long away from home.”
“Not at all,” said Lady Ushant in perfect innocence. “I have nothing to bind me anywhere.”
“I shall think it my duty to remain here now — till the end.”
“I suppose so. He has always been almost the same to you as your own.”
“Quite so; quite the same. He is my own.” And yet — she left him in his illness! She, too, had heard something from Mrs. Hopkins of the temper in which Mrs. Morton had last left Bragton. “But you are not bound to him in that way.”
“Not in that way certainly.”
“In no way, I may say. It was very kind of you to come when business made it imperative on me to go to town, but I do not think we can call upon you for further sacrifice.”
“It is no sacrifice, Mrs. Morton.” Lady Ushant was as meek as a worm, but a worm will turn. And though innocent, she was quick enough to perceive that at this, their first meeting, the other old woman was endeavouring to turn her out of the house.
“I mean that it can hardly be necessary to call upon you to give up your time.”
“What has an old woman to do with her time, Mrs. Morton?”
Hitherto Mrs. Morton had smiled. The smile indeed had been grim, but it had been intended to betoken outward civility. Now there came a frown upon her brow which was more grim and by no means civil. “The truth is that at such a time one who is almost a stranger —”
“I am no stranger,” said Lady Ushant.
“You had not seen him since he was an infant”
“My name was Morton as is his, and my dear father was the owner of this house. Your husband, Mrs. Morton, was his grandfather and my brother. I will allow no one to tell me that I am a stranger at Bragton. I have lived here many more years than you.”
“A stranger to him, I meant. And now that he is ill —”
“I shall stay with him — till he desires me to go away. He asked me to stay and that is quite enough.” Then she got up and left the room with more dignity; — as also she had spoken with more earnestness — than Mrs. Morton had given her credit for possessing. After that the two ladies did not meet again till the next day.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01