Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802
Sir Joseph Mason is nearing seventy years of age when he marries a second wife forty-five years his junior. Having been in turn merchant, alderman, mayor, and knight, he has by this time amassed a large fortune, out of which he has purchased Groby Park, a landed estate in Yorkshire. He turns over this property to the son of his first marriage, Joseph Mason, Esq., who under his father’s generous provision is able to lead the life of a country gentleman with as much magnificence as his mean, grasping nature will allow. Sir Joseph himself makes his home at Orley Farm, a country residence not far from London. Joseph Mason has always been assured that the farm will go to him, as head of the family, at his father’s death.
The baronet’s second marriage is little more than an old man’s attempt to find companionship and comfort in his declining years, and young Lady Mason, a quiet, sensible, clever woman, cheerfully accepts it as such. One son, Lucius, is born to Sir Joseph and Lady Mason. Then Sir Joseph dies suddenly, and when the time comes for the reading of his will, it is discovered that in an attached codicil he has bequeathed Orley Farm to his infant son. Joseph Mason feels that he has been deprived of property rightfully his, and he contests the codicil.
The Orley Farm Case, as it is called, has many complications. The will was drawn up by Jonathan Usbech, Sir Joseph’s attorney, but it, like the codicil, is in Lady Mason’s handwriting, because old Usbech had suffered from a gouty hand at the time. It was witnessed by John Kennerby, Sir Joseph’s clerk, and by Bridget Bolster, a housemaid. In court, both witnesses swear that they were called to their master’s bedside and there, in the presence of Usbech and Lady Mason, signed a document that all assumed was the codicil. Lady Mason readily admits that while she had asked nothing for herself, she had wanted much for her child. She also states that before Usbech and Mr. Furnival, a barrister, she had often urged her husband to leave Orley Farm to little Lucius. Old Usbech having died in the meantime, she is unable to have her statement confirmed by him, but Mr. Furnival testifies to the truth of her assertion.
Joseph Mason loses his case. The will and codicil are upheld, and Lady Mason and her son continue to live at Orley Farm and to enjoy its yearly income of eight hundred pounds. Joseph Mason retires to Groby Park to sulk. Miriam Usbech, old Jonathan’s daughter, also benefits under the terms of the codicil to the extent of two thousand pounds, an inheritance she loses when she entrusts it to her husband, Samuel Dockwrath, a shady young attorney from the neighboring town of Hamworth. Relations between Usbech’s daughter and the mistress of Orley Farm are always friendly. Thanks to Lady Mason, Dockwrath holds two outlying fields on the estate at low rental.
Sir Peregrine Orme of The Cleeve is among the neighbors who stood by Lady Mason during the trial. Other members of his household are his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Orme, who is Lady Mason’s best friend, and his grandson, namesake, and heir. Young Peregrine Orme and Lucius Mason are the same age but have little else in common. As the boys have grown up, Peregrine, heir to a great estate, has been educated at Harrow and Oxford. A well-meaning but somewhat wild young man, Peregrine pursues two chief interests: foxhunting and rat baiting. He is also in love with Madeline Stavely, the lovely daughter of Judge Stavely of Noningsby.
After a term at a German university, Lucius Mason returns to Orley Farm with the plan of putting into practice some methods of scientific farming he learned abroad. One of his first acts is to serve notice of his intention to repossess the fields leased to Dockwrath. An unpleasant interview between Lady Mason and the angry attorney follows, and, concerned about Dockwrath’s vague threats, Lady Mason then goes to Sir Peregrine for advice, as she has on many occasions during the previous twenty years. Sir Peregrine snorts with disgust over Lucius’s agricultural theories and announces that he will bring the young man to his senses. Lucius dines with Sir Peregrine at The Cleeve, but the older man is unable to convince him to give up his plans. Sir Peregrine decides that the earnest young man is as conceited as he is stubborn.
In the meantime, Dockwrath has been busy. He has gone through his father-in-law’s papers and has learned that on the date carried by the codicil, Sir Joseph signed a deed of separation dissolving a business partnership between him and a man named Mr. Martock. Either Sir Joseph signed two legal documents on that day, a possibility that the evidence presented in court makes unlikely, or the codicil is a forgery. Armed with this information, Dockwrath goes to Groby Park to confer with Joseph Mason. As a result of that conference, Mason decides to reopen the Orley Farm Case.
Dockwrath hopes to advance himself in his profession and begs for an opportunity to handle the case, but the squire, aware of Dockwrath’s reputation, tells him to take his information to the firm of Round and Crook, reputable London lawyers who will be above suspicion. Mason, however, does promise that Dockwrath will be rewarded if Lady Mason is convicted and Orley Farm is returned to its rightful owner. The Hamworth lawyer then goes to London and offers his services to Round and Crook. They are willing to use him, but only to collect information that might prove useful.
When Miriam Dockwrath carries an account of her husband’s activities to Orley Farm, Lady Mason appeals to Sir Peregrine, her good friend, and Mr. Furnival, her attorney, for advice and help. With the passing of time, Mr. Furnival has changed from a hardworking young barrister into a fashionable attorney with a weakness for port wine and lovely women. Lady Mason is still attractive, and so he comforts her more as a woman than as a client, assuring her that the Orley Farm Case, unappealed at the time, is not likely to be reviewed. The chivalrous Sir Peregrine is stirred to great indignation by what he considers the dastardly conduct of Joseph Mason, whom he has always disliked. Hearing the news, Lucius is equally indignant and tells his mother to leave the matter in his hands. Sir Peregrine and Mr. Furnival have difficulty in restraining him from acting rashly.
The outcome of the suit is more important to Lucius than he realizes. He is in love with Sophia Furnival, daughter of his mother’s attorney, but the prudent young woman intends to choose her husband with discretion. Another of her suitors is Adolphus Stavely, son of the distinguished jurist. She can afford to wait for the present time.
Meanwhile, Peregrine’s wooing of Madeline Stavely has fared badly, for Madeline has no interest in anyone except Felix Graham, a penniless young barrister. The judge, convinced that Graham will make his way in the world, silently approves his daughter’s choice, but her mother, eager to see her daughter mistress of The Cleeve, grows impatient with her husband because of his refusal to speak up for young Orme.
There is some delay in the determination of grounds for a lawsuit. The will was upheld years before, so it is felt that a charge of forgery is impossible after such a long time. Finally, Round and Crook decide to prosecute for perjury; they charge that in the previous trial Lady Mason swore falsely to the execution of the will. When word comes that Lady Mason will have to stand trial, Mrs. Orme invites her to stay at The Cleeve. This invitation, dictated by Sir Peregrine, is intended to show to the county the Ormes’s confidence in their neighbor’s innocence. Sir Peregrine’s chivalry, however, does not stop there. At last, he offers Lady Mason the protection of his name as well as his house, and she, almost overwhelmed by the prospect of the coming trial, promises to marry him.
Lucius and Peregrine are both opposed to the marriage, although Sir Peregrine reconciles his grandson to it in part by encouraging the young man in his own unsuccessful suit. Mr. Furnival becomes less gallant. Lady Mason’s conscience, however, will not allow her to accept Sir Peregrine’s offer after all. One night she goes to him and confesses that she forged the codicil in a desperate effort to keep the property for her son. Sir Peregrine is shocked by this information, but he is still determined to stand by her during the trial.
Mr. Furnival is shrewd. When he hears that his client is not going to marry Sir Peregrine after all, he is convinced that the whole story has not been told. Suspecting Lady Mason’s possible guilt, he hires the famous Mr. Chaffanbrass and his associate, Mr. Solomon Aram, noted criminal lawyers, to defend Lady Mason at the trial. Felix Graham is to act as junior counsel for the defense.
The trial lasts for two days and part of another. The heckling attorneys so confuse John Kennerby that his testimony is worthless. Bridget Bolster insists, however, that she signed only one document on that particular day. Even Mr. Chaffanbrass is unable to break down her story; the most damaging admission she makes is that she likes an occasional glass of liquor. Dockwrath, however, is completely discredited, especially after Mr. Chaffanbrass forces him to admit his vengeful motives and Joseph Mason’s promise to reward him for his services. At the end of the second day of the trial, Lady Mason confesses her guilt to her son. He is not in court with her the next morning when the verdict is announced: Lady Mason is acquitted.
The jury’s verdict is legal but not moral, and a few days later, Mr. Furnival notifies Joseph Mason that Lucius is transferring ownership of Orley Farm to his half brother. Lucius is returning to Germany with his mother; eventually, he hopes to become a farmer in Australia. Sir Peregrine goes to London to see Lady Mason before she leaves for Germany. Their farewell is gentle and sad on his part, final on hers. Dockwrath sues Joseph Mason to collect payment for his help and is completely ruined in the suit. Sophia Furnival decides that she can never be anything but a sister to Lucius. Madeline Stavely marries her penniless barrister and lives more happily than her mother thinks she deserves. Young Peregrine Orme eases his broken heart by shooting lions and elephants in central Africa.
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