The doctor got on his cob and went his way, returning duly to Greshamsbury. But, in truth, as he went he hardly knew whither he was going, or what he was doing. Sir Roger had hinted that the cob would be compelled to make up for lost time by extra exertion on the road; but the cob had never been permitted to have his own way as to pace more satisfactorily than on the present occasion. The doctor, indeed, hardly knew that he was on horseback, so completely was he enveloped in the cloud of his own thoughts.
In the first place, that alternative which it had become him to put before the baronet as one unlikely to occur—that of the speedy death of both father and son—was one which he felt in his heart of hearts might very probably come to pass.
‘The chances are ten to one that such a clause will never be brought to bear.’ This he had said partly to himself, so as to ease the thoughts which came crowding on his brain; partly, also, in pity for the patient and the father. But now that he thought the matter over, he felt that there were no such odds. Were not the odds the other way? Was it not almost probable that both these men might be gathered to their long account within the next four years? One, the elder, was a strong man, indeed; one who might yet live for years to come if he could but give himself fair play. But then, he himself protested, and protested with a truth too surely grounded, that fair play to himself was beyond his own power to give. The other, the younger, had everything against him. Not only was he a poor, puny creature, without physical strength, one of whose life a friend could never feel sure under any circumstances, but he also was already addicted to his father’s vices; he also was already killing himself with alcohol.
And then, if these two men did die within the prescribed period, if this clause of Sir Roger’s will were brought to bear, it should become his, Dr Thorne’s, duty to see that clause carried out, how would he be bound to act? That woman’s eldest child was his own niece, his adopted bairn, his darling, the pride of his heart, the cynosure of his eye, his child also, his own Mary. Of all his duties on this earth, next to that one great duty to his God and conscience, was his duty to her. What, under these circumstances, did his duty to her require of him?
But then, that one great duty, that duty which she would be the first to expect from him; what did that demand of him? Had Scatcherd made his will without saying what its clauses were, it seemed to Thorne that Mary must have been the heiress, should that clause become necessarily operative. Whether she were so or not would at any rate be for lawyers to decide. But now the case was very different. This rich man had confided in him, and would it not be a breach of confidence, an act of absolute dishonesty—an act of dishonesty both to Scatcherd and to that far-distant American family, to that father, who, in former days, had behaved so nobly, and to that eldest child of his, would it not be gross dishonesty to them all if he allowed this man to leave a will by which his property might go to a person never intended to be his heir?
Long before he had arrived at Greshamsbury his mind on this point had been made up. Indeed, it had been made up while sitting there by Scatcherd’s bedside. It had not been difficult to make up his mind to so much; but then, his way out of this dishonesty was not so easy for him to find. How should he set this matter right to as to inflict no injury on his niece, and no sorrow to himself—if that indeed could be avoided?
And then other thoughts crowded on his brain. He had always professed—professed at any rate to himself and to her—that of all the vile objects of a man’s ambition, wealth, wealth merely for its own sake, was the vilest. They, in their joint school of inherent philosophy, had progressed to ideas which they might find it not easy to carry out, should they be called on by events to do so. And if this would have been difficult to either when acting on behalf of self alone, how much more difficult when one might have to act for the other! This difficulty had now come to the uncle. Should he, in this emergency, take upon himself to fling away the golden chance which might accrue to his niece if Scatcherd should be encouraged to make her partly his heir?
‘He’d want her to go and live there—to live with him and his wife. All the money in the Bank of England would not pay her for such misery,’ said the doctor to himself, as he slowly rode into is own yard.
On one point, and one only, had he definitely made up his mind. On the following day he would go over again to Boxall Hill, and would tell Scatcherd the whole truth. Come what might, the truth must be best. And so, with some gleam of comfort, he went into the house, and found his niece in the drawing-room with Patience Oriel.
‘Mary and I have been quarrelling,’ said Patience. ‘She says the doctor is the greatest man in a village; and I say the parson is of course.’
‘I only say that the doctor is the most looked after,’ said Mary. ‘There’s another horrid message for you to go to Silverbridge, uncle. Why can’t that Dr Century manage his own people?’
‘She says,’ continued Miss Oriel, ‘that if a parson was away for a month, no one would miss him; but that a doctor is so precious that his very minutes are counted.’
‘I am sure uncle’s are. They begrudge him his meals. Mr Oriel never gets called away to Silverbridge.’
‘No; we in the Church manage our parish arrangements better than you do. We don’t let strange practitioners in among our flocks because the sheep may chance to fancy them. Our sheep have to put up with our spiritual doses whether they like them or not. In that respect we are much the best off. I advise you, Mary, to marry a clergyman, by all means.’
‘I will when you marry a doctor,’ said she.
‘I am sure nothing on earth would give me greater pleasure,’ said Miss Oriel, getting up and curtseying very low to Dr Thorne; ‘but I am not quite prepared for the agitation of an offer this morning, so I’ll run away.’
And so she went; and the doctor, getting to his other horse, started again for Silverbridge, wearily enough. ‘She’s happy now where she is,’ said he to himself, as he rode along. ‘They all treat her there as an equal at Greshamsbury. What though she be no cousin to the Thornes of Ullathorne. She has found her place there among them all, and keeps it on equal terms with the best of them. There is Miss Oriel; her family is high; she is rich, fashionable, a beauty, courted by every one; but yet she does not look down on Mary. They are equal friends together. But how would it be if she were taken to Boxall Hill, even as a recognized niece of the rich man there? Would Patience Oriel and Beatrice Gresham go there after her? Could she be happy there as she is in my house here, poor though it be? It would kill her to pass a month with Lady Scatcherd and put up with that man’s humours, to see his mode of life, to be dependent on him, to belong to him.’ And then the doctor, hurrying on to Silverbridge, again met Dr Century at the old lady’s bedside, and having made his endeavours to stave off the inexorable coming of the grim visitor, again returned to his own niece and his own drawing-room.
‘You must be dead, uncle,’ said Mary, as she poured out his tea for him, and prepared the comforts of that most comfortable meal-tea, dinner, and supper, all in one. ‘I wish Silverbridge was fifty miles off.’
‘That would only make the journey worse; but I am not dead yet, and, what is more to the purpose, neither is my patient.’ And as he spoke he contrived to swallow a jorum of scalding tea, containing in measure somewhat near a pint. Mary, not a whit amazed at this feat, merely refilled the jorum without any observation; and the doctor went on stirring the mixture with his spoon, evidently oblivious that any ceremony had been performed by either of them since the first supply had been administered to him.
When the clatter of knives and forks was over, the doctor turned himself to the hearthrug, and putting one leg over the other, he began to nurse it as he looked with complacency at his third cup of tea, which stood untasted beside him. The fragments of the solid banquet had been removed, but no sacrilegious hand had been laid on the teapot and the cream-jug.
‘Mary,’ said he, ‘suppose you were to find out tomorrow morning that, by some accident, you had become a great heiress, would you be able to suppress your exultation?’
‘The first thing I’d do, would be to pronounce a positive edict that you should never go to Silverbridge again; at least without a day’s notice.’
‘Well, and what next? what would you do next?’
‘The next thing—the next thing would be to send to Paris for a French bonnet exactly like the one Patience Oriel had on. Did you see it?’
‘Well I can’t say I did; bonnets are invisible now; besides I never remark anybody’s clothes, except yours.’
‘Oh! do look at Miss Oriel’s bonnet the next time you see her. I cannot understand why it should be so, but I am sure of this—no English fingers put together such a bonnet as that; and I am nearly sure that no French fingers could do it in England.’
‘But you don’t care so much about bonnets, Mary!’ This the doctor said as an assertion; but there was, nevertheless, somewhat of a question involved in it.
‘Don’t I though?’ said she. ‘I do care very much about bonnets; especially since I saw Patience this morning. I asked how much it cost—guess.’
‘Oh! I don’t know—a pound?’
‘A pound, uncle!’
‘What! a great deal more? Ten pounds?’
‘What! more than ten pounds? Then I don’t think even Patience Oriel ought to give it.’
‘No, of course she would not; but, uncle, it really cost a hundred francs!’
‘Oh! a hundred francs; that’s four pounds, isn’t it? Well, and how much did your last new bonnet cost?’
‘Mine! oh, nothing—five and ninepence, perhaps; I trimmed it myself. If I were left a great fortune, I’d send to Paris tomorrow; no, I’d go myself to Paris to buy a bonnet, and I’d take you with me to choose it.’
The doctor sat silent for a while meditating about this, during which he unconsciously absorbed the tea beside him; and Mary again replenished his cup.
‘Come, Mary,’ he said at last, ‘I’m in a generous mood; and as I am rather more rich than usual, we’ll send to Paris for a French bonnet. The going for it must wait a while longer I am afraid.’
‘No, indeed. If you know the way to send—that I must confess would puzzle me; but if you’ll manage the sending, I’ll manage the paying; and you shall have a French bonnet.’
‘Uncle!’ said she, looking up at him.
‘Oh, I’m not joking; I owe you a present, and I’ll give you that.’
‘And if you do, I’ll tell you what I’ll do with it. I’ll cut it into fragments, and burn them before your face. Why, uncle, what do you take me for? You’re not a bit nice to-night to make such an offer as that to me; not a bit, not a bit.’ And then she came over from her seat at the tea-tray and sat down on a foot-stool close at his knee. ‘Because I’d have a French bonnet if I had a large fortune, is that a reason why I should like one now? if you were to pay four pounds for a bonnet for me, it would scorch my head every time I put it on.’
‘I don’t see that: four pounds would not ruin me. However, I don’t think you’d look a bit better if you had it; and, certainly, I should not like to scorch these locks,’ and putting his hand upon her shoulders, he played with her hair.
‘Patience has a pony-phaeton, and I’d have one if I were rich; and I’d have all my books bound as she does; and, perhaps, I’d give fifty guineas for a dressing-case.’
‘Patience did not tell me; but so Beatrice says. Patience showed it to me once, and it is a darling. I think I’d have the dressing-case before the bonnet. But, uncle —’
‘You don’t suppose I want such things?’
‘Not improperly. I am sure you do not.’
‘Not properly, or improperly; not much, or little. I covet many things; but nothing of that sort. You know, or should know, that I do not. Why do you talk of buying a French bonnet for me?’
Dr Thorne did not answer this question, but went on nursing his leg.
‘After all,’ said he, ‘money is a fine thing.’
‘Very fine, when it is well come by,’ she answered; ‘that is, without detriment to the heart and soul.’
‘I should be a happier man if you were provided for as Miss Oriel. Suppose, now, I could give you up to a rich man who would be able to insure you against all wants?’
‘Insure me against all wants! Oh, that would be a man. That would be selling me, wouldn’t it, uncle? Yes, selling me; and the price you would receive would be freedom from future apprehensions as regards me. It would be a cowardly sale for you to make; and then, as to me—me the victim. No, uncle; you must bear the misery of having to provide for me—bonnets and all. We are in the same boat, and you shan’t turn me overboard.’
‘But if I were to die, what would you do then?’
‘And if I were to die, what would you do? People must be bound together. They must depend on each other. Of course, misfortunes may come; but it is cowardly to be afraid of them beforehand. You and I are bound together, uncle; and though you say these things to tease me, I know you do not wish to get rid of me.’
‘Well, well; we shall win through, doubtless; if not in one way, then in another.’
‘Win through! Of course we shall; who doubts our winning? but, uncle —’
‘You haven’t got another cup of tea, have you?’
‘Oh, uncle! you have had five.’
‘No, my dear! not five; only four—only four. I assure you; I have been very particular to count. I had one while I was —’
‘Five uncle; indeed and indeed.’
‘Well, then, as I hate the prejudice which attaches luck to an odd number, I’ll have the sixth to show that I am not superstitious.’
While Mary was preparing the sixth jorum, there came a knock at the door. Those late summonses were hateful to Mary’s ear, for they were usually forerunners of a midnight ride through the dark lanes to some farmer’s house. The doctor had been in the saddle all day, and, as Janet brought the note into the room, Mary stood up as though to defend her uncle from any further invasion on his rest.
‘A note from the house, miss,’ said Janet: now ‘the house’, in Greshamsbury parlance, always meant the squire’s mansion.
‘No one ill at the house, I hope,’ said the doctor, taking the note from Mary’s hand. ‘Oh—ah—yes; it’s from the squire—there’s nobody ill: wait a minute, Janet, and I’ll write a line. Mary, lend me your desk.’
The squire, anxious as usual for money, had written to ask what success the doctor had had in negotiating the new loan with Sir Roger. That fact, however, was, that in his visit to Boxall Hill, the doctor had been altogether unable to bring on the carpet the matter of this loan. Subjects had crowded themselves in too quickly during that interview—those two interviews at Sir Roger’s bedside; and he had been obliged to leave without even alluding to the question.
‘I must at any rate go back now,’ he said to himself. So he wrote to the squire, saying that he was to be at Boxall Hill again on the following day, and that he would call at the house on his return.
‘That’s all settled, at any rate,’ said he.
‘What’s settled?’ said Mary.
‘Why, I must go to Boxall Hill again tomorrow. I must go early, too, so we’d better both be off to bed. Tell Janet I must breakfast at half-past seven.’
‘You couldn’t take me, could you? I should so like to see that Sir Roger.’
‘To see Sir Roger! Why, he’s ill in bed.’
‘That’s an objection, certainly; but some day, when he’s well, could you not take me over? I have the greatest desire to see a man like that; a man who began with nothing and now has more than enough to buy the whole parish of Greshamsbury.’
‘I don’t think you’d like him at all.’
‘Why not? I am sure I should; I am sure I should like him, and Lady Scatcherd too. I’ve heard you say that she is an excellent woman.’
‘Yes, in her way; and he, too, is good in his way; but they are neither of them in your way: they are extremely vulgar —’
‘Oh! I don’t mind that; that would make them more amusing; one doesn’t go to those sort of people for polished manners.’
‘I don’t think you’d find the Scatcherds pleasant acquaintances at all,’ said the doctor, taking his bed-candle, and kissing his niece’s forehead as he left the room.
Last updated Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 20:41