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...
(The entire section is 1802 words.)