When once Mrs. Morton had taken her departure for London, on the day after her grandson’s death, nothing further was heard of her at Bragton. She locked up everything and took all the keys away, as though still hoping — against hope — that the will might turn out to be other than she expected. But when the lawyer came down to read the document he brought the keys back with him, and no further tidings reached Dillsborough respecting the old woman. She still drew her income as she had done for half a century, but never even came to look at the stone which Reginald put up on the walls of Bragton church to perpetuate the memory of his cousin. What moans she made she made in silent obscurity, and devoted the remainder of her years to putting together money for members of her own family who took no notice of her.
After the funeral, Lady Ushant returned to the house at the request of her nephew, who declared his purpose of remaining at Hoppet Hall for the present. She expostulated with him and received from him an assurance that he would take up his residence as squire at Bragton as soon as he married a wife — should he ever do so. In the meantime he could, he thought, perform his duties from Hoppet Hall as well as on the spot. As a residence for a bachelor he preferred, he said, Hoppet Hall to the park. Lady Ushant yielded and returned once again to her old home, the house in which she had been born — and gave up her lodgings at Cheltenham. The word that he said about his possible marriage set her mind at work, and induced her to put sundry questions to him. “Of course you will marry?” she said.
“Men who have property to leave behind them usually do marry, and as I am not wiser than others, I probably may do so. But I will not admit that it is a matter of course. I may escape yet”
“I do hope you will marry. I hope it may be before I die, so that I may see her.”
“And disapprove of her, ten to one.”
“Certainly I shall not if you tell me that you love her.”
“Then I will tell you so, to prevent disagreeable results.”
“I am quite sure there must be somebody that you like, Reginald,” she said after a pause.
“Are you? I don’t know that I have shown any very strong preference. I am not disposed to praise myself for many things, but I really do think that I have been as undemonstrative as most men of my age.”
“Still I did hope —”
“What did you hope?”
“I won’t mention any name. I don’t think it is right. I have observed that more harm than good comes of such talking, and I have determined always to avoid it. But —” Then there was another pause. “Remember how old I am, Reginald, and when it is to be done give me at any rate the pleasure of knowing it” Of course he knew to whom she alluded, and of course he laughed at her feeble caution. But he would not say a word to encourage her to mention the name of Mary Masters. He thought that he was sure that were the girl free he would now ask her to be his wife. If he loved any one it was her. If he had ever known a woman with whom he thought it would be pleasant to share the joy and labours of life, it was Mary Masters. If he could imagine that any one constant companion would be a joy to him, she would be that person. But he had been distinctly informed that she was in love with some one, and not for worlds would he ask for that which had been given to another. And not for worlds would he hazard the chance of a refusal. He thought that he could understand the delight, that he could thoroughly enjoy the rapture, of hearing her whisper with downcast eyes, that she could love him. He had imagination enough to build castles in the air in which she reigned as princess, in which she would lie with her head upon his bosom and tell him that he was her chosen prince. But he would, hardly know how to bear himself should he ask in vain. He believed he could love as well as Lawrence Twentyman, but he was sure that he could not continue his quest as that young man had done.
When Lady Ushant had been a day or two at the house she asked him whether she might invite Mary there as her guest; — as her perpetual guest. “I have no objection in life,” he said; “but take care that you don’t interfere with her happiness.”
“Because of her father and sisters?” suggested the innocent old lady.
“‘Has she a father, has she a mother;
Or has she a dearer one still than all other?’”
said Reginald laughing.
“Perhaps she has.”
“Then don’t interfere with her happiness in that direction. How is she to have a lover come to see her out here?”
“Why not? I don’t see why she shouldn’t have a lover here as well as in Dillsborough. I don’t object to lovers, if they are of the proper sort; and I am sure Mary wouldn’t have anything else.” Reginald told her she might do as she pleased and made no further inquiry as to Mary’s lovers.
A few days afterwards Mary went with her boxes to Bragton — Mrs. Masters repeating her objections, but repeating them with but little energy. Just at this time a stroke of good fortune befell the Masters family generally which greatly reduced her power over her husband. Reginald Morton had spent an hour in the attorney’s office, and had declared his purpose of restoring Mr. Masters to his old family position in regard to the Bragton estate. When she heard it she felt at once that her dominion was gone. She had based everything on the growing inferiority of her husband’s position, and now he was about to have all his glory back again! She had inveighed against gentlemen from the day of her marriage — and here he was, again to be immersed up to his eyes in the affairs of a gentleman. And then she had been so wrong about Goarly, and Lord Rufford had been so much better a client! And ready money had been so much more plentiful of late, owing to poor John Morton’s ready-handed honesty! She had very little to say about it when Mary packed her boxes and was taken in Mr. Runciman’s fly to Bragton.
Since the old days, the old days of all, since the days to which Reginald had referred when he asked her to pass over the bridge with him, she had never yet walked about the Bragton grounds. She had often been to the house, visiting Lady Ushant; but she had simply gone thither and returned. And indeed, when the house had been empty, the walk from Dillsborough to the bridge and back had been sufficient exercise for herself and her sisters. But now she could go whither she listed and bring her memory to all the old spots. With the tenacity as to household matters which characterised the ladies of the country some years since, Lady Ushant employed all her mornings and those of her young friend in making inventories of everything that was found in the house; but her afternoons were her own, and she wandered about with a freedom she had never known before. At this time Reginald Morton was up in London and had been away nearly a week. He had gone intending to be absent for some undefined time, so that Lady Ushant and Mrs. Hopkins were free from all interruption. It was as yet only the middle of March and the lion had not altogether disappeared; but still Mary could get out. She did not care much for the wind; and she roamed about among the leafless shrubberies, thinking — probably not of many things — meaning always to think of the past, but unable to keep her mind from the future, the future which would so soon be the present. How long would it be before the coming of that stately dame? Was he in quest of her now? Had he perhaps postponed his demand upon her till fortune had made him rich? Of course she had no right to be sorry that he had inherited the property which had been his almost of right; but yet, had it been otherwise, might she not have had some chance? But, oh, if he had said a word to her, only a word more than he had spoken already — a word that might have sounded like encouragement to others beside herself, and then have been obliged to draw back because of the duty which he owed to the property, how much worse would that have been! She did own to herself that the squire of Bragton should not look for his wife in the house of a Dillsborough attorney. As she thought of this a tear ran down her cheek and trickled down on to the wooden rail of the little bridge.
“There’s no one to give you an excuse now, and you must come and walk round with me,” said a voice, close to her ear.
“Oh, Mr. Morton, how you have startled me!”
“Is there anything the matter, Mary?” said he, looking up into her face.
“Only you have startled me so.”
“Has that brought tears into your eyes.”
“Well — I suppose so,” she said trying to smile. “You were so very quiet and I thought you were in London.”
“So I was this morning, and now I am here. But something else has made you unhappy.”
“I wish we could be friends, Mary. I wish I could know your secret. You have a secret.”
“No,” she said boldly.
“Is there nothing?”
“What should there be, Mr. Morton!”
“Tell me why you were crying.”
“I was not crying. Just a tear is not crying. Sometimes one does get melancholy. One can’t cry when there is any one to look, and so one does it alone. I’d have been laughing if I knew that you were coming.”
“Come round by the kennels. You can get over the wall; — can’t you?”
“And we’ll go down the old orchard, and get out by the corner of the park fence.” Then he walked and she followed him, hardly keeping close by his side, and thinking as she went how foolish she had been not to have avoided the perils and fresh troubles of such a walk. When he was helping her over the wall he held her hands for a moment and she was aware of unusual pressure. It was the pressure of love — or of that pretence of love which young men, and perhaps old men, sometimes permit themselves to affect. In an ordinary way Mary would have thought as little of it as another girl. She might feel dislike to the man, but the affair would be too light for resentment. With this man it was different. He certainly was not justified in making the slightest expression of factitious affection. He at any rate should have felt himself bound to abstain from any touch of peculiar tenderness. She would not say a word. She would not even look at him with angry eyes. But she twitched both her hands away from him as she sprang to the ground. Then there was a passage across the orchard — not more than a hundred yards, and after that a stile. At the stile she insisted on using her own hand for the custody of her dress. She would not even touch his outstretched arm. “You are very independent,” he said.
“I have to be so.”
“I cannot make you out, Mary. I wonder whether there is still anything rankling in your bosom against me.”
“Oh dear no. What should rankle with me?”
“What indeed; — unless you resent my — regard.”
“I am not so rich in friends as to do that, Mr. Morton.”
“I don’t suppose there can be many people who have the same sort of feeling for you that I have.”
“There are not many who have known me so long, certainly.”
“You have some friend, I know,” he said.
“More than one I hope.”
“Some special friend. Who is he, Mary?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Morton” She then thought that he was still alluding to Lawrence Twentyman.
“Tell me, Mary.”
“What am I to tell you?”
“Your father says that there is some one.”
“Yes; — your father.”
Then she remembered it all; — how she had been driven into a half confession to her father. She could not say there was nobody. She certainly could not say who that some one was. She could not be silent, for by silence she would be confessing a passion for some other man — a passion which certainly had no existence. “I don’t know why papa should talk about me,” she said, “and I certainly don’t know why you should repeat what he said.”
“But there is some one?” She clenched her fist, and hit out at the air with her parasol, and knit her brows as she looked up at him with a glance of fire in her eye which he had never seen there before. “Believe me, Mary,” he said; “if ever a girl had a sincere friend, you have one in me. I would not tease you by impertinence in such a matter. I will be as faithful to you as the sun. Do you love any one?”
“Yes,” she said turning round at him with ferocity and shouting out her answer as she pressed on.
“Who is he, Mary?”
“What right have you to ask me? What right can any one have? Even your aunt would not press me as you are doing.”
“My aunt could not have the same interest. Who is he, Mary?”
“I will not tell you.”
He paused a few moments and walked on a step or two before he spoke again. “I would it were I,” he said.
“What!” she ejaculated.
“I would it were I,” he repeated.
One glance of her eye stole itself round into his face, and then her face was turned quickly to the ground. Her parasol which had been raised drooped listless from her hand. All unconsciously she hastened her steps and became aware that the tears were streaming from her eyes. For a moment or two it seemed to her that all was still hopeless. If he had no more to say than that, certainly she had not a word. He had made her no tender of his love. He had not told her that in very truth she was his chosen one. After all she was not sure that she understood the meaning of those words “I would it were I” But the tears were coming so quick that she could see nothing of the things around her, and she did not dare even to put her hand up to her eyes. If he wanted her love — if it was possible that he really wished for it — why did he not ask for it? She felt his footsteps close to hers, and she was tempted to walk on quicker even than before. Then there came the fingers of a hand round her waist, stealing gradually on till she felt the pressure of his body on her shoulders. She put her hand up weakly, to push back the intruding fingers — only to leave it tight in his grasp. Then — then was the first moment in which she realized the truth. After all he did love her. Surely he would not hold her there unless he meant her to know that he loved her. “Mary,” he said. To speak was impossible, but she turned round and looked at him with imploring eyes. “Mary — say that you will be my wife.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01