Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXX

Old Ways and New Ways

Mr. Preston was now installed in his new house at Hollingford; Mr Sheepshanks having entered into dignified idleness at the house of his married daughter, who lived in the county town. His successor had plunged with energy into all manner of improvements; and among others he fell to draining a piece of outlying waste and unreclaimed land of Lord Cumnor’s, which was close to Squire Hamley’s property; that very piece for which he had had the Government grant, but which now lay neglected, and only half-drained, with stacks of mossy tiles, and lines of up-turned furrows telling of abortive plans. It was not often that the squire rode in this direction now-a-days; but the cottage of a man who had been the squire’s gamekeeper in those more prosperous days when the Hamleys could afford to preserve, was close to the rush-grown ground. This old servant and tenant was ill, and had sent a message up to the Hall, asking to see the squire; not to reveal any secret, or to say anything particular, but only from the feudal loyalty, which made it seem to the dying man as if it would be a comfort to shake the hand, and look once more into the eyes of the lord and master whom he had served, and whose ancestors his own forbears had served for so many generations. And the squire was as fully alive as old Silas to the claims of the tie that existed between them. Though he hated the thought, and, still more, should hate the sight of the piece of land, on the side of which Silas’s cottage stood, the squire ordered his horse, and rode off within half-an-hour of receiving the message. As he drew near the spot he thought he heard the sound of tools, and the hum of many voices, just as he used to hear them a year or two before. He listened with surprise. Yes. Instead of the still solitude he had expected, there was the clink of iron, the heavy gradual thud of the fall of barrows-full of soil — the cry and shout of labourers. But not on his land — better worth expense and trouble by far than the reedy clay common on which the men were, in fact, employed. He knew it was Lord Cumnor’s property; and he knew Lord Cumnor and his family had gone up in the world (‘the Whig rascals!’), both in wealth and in station, as the Hamleys had gone down. But all the same — in spite of long known facts, and in spite of reason — the squire’s ready anger rose high at the sight of his neighbour doing what he had been unable to do, and he a Whig; and his family only in the county since Queen Anne’s time. He went so far as to wonder whether they might not — the labourers he meant — avail themselves of his tiles, lying so conveniently close to hand. All these thoughts, regrets, and wonders were in his mind as he rode up to the cottage he was bound to, and gave his horse in charge to a little lad, who had hitherto found his morning’s business and amusement in playing at ‘houses’ with a still younger sister, with some of the squire’s neglected tiles. But he was old Silas’s grandson, and he might have battered the rude red earthenware to pieces — a whole stack — one by one, and the squire would have said little or nothing. It was only that he would not spare one to a labourer of Lord Cumnor’s. No! not one.

Old Silas lay in a sort of closet, opening out of the family living-room. The small window that gave it light looked right on to the ‘moor,’ as it was called; and by day the check curtain was drawn aside so that he might watch the progress of the labour. Everything about the old man was clean, if coarse; and, with Death, the leveller, so close at hand, it was the labourer who made the first advances, and put out his horny hand to the squire.

‘I thought you’d come, squire. Your father came for to see my father as he lay a-dying.’

‘Come, come, my man!’ said the squire, easily affected, as he always was. ‘Don’t talk of dying, we shall soon have you out, never fear. They’ve sent you up some soup from the Hall, as I bade ’em, haven’t they?’

‘Ay, ay, I’ve had all as I could want for to eat and to drink. The young squire and Master Roger was here yesterday.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘But I’m a deal nearer Heaven today, I am. I should like you to look after the covers in the West Spinney, squire; them gorse, you know, where th’ old fox had her hole — her as give ’em so many a run. You’ll mind it, squire, though you was but a lad. I could laugh to think on her tricks yet.’ And, with a weak attempt at a laugh, he got himself into a violent fit of coughing, which alarmed the squire, who thought he would never get his breath again. His daughter-inlaw came in at the sound, and told the squire that he had these coughing-bouts very frequently, and that she thought he would go off in one of them before long. This opinion of hers was spoken simply out before the old man, who now lay gasping and exhausted upon his pillow. Poor people acknowledge the inevitableness and the approach of death in a much more straightforward manner than is customary among more educated folk. The squire was shocked at the hard-heartedness, as he considered it; but the old man himself had received much tender kindness in action from his daughter-inlaw; and what she had just said was no more news to him than the fact that the sun would rise tomorrow. He was more anxious to go on with his story.

‘Them navvies — I call ’em navvies because some on ’em is strangers, though some on ’em is th’ men as was turned off your own works, squire, when there came orders to stop ’em last fall — they’re a-pulling up gorse and brush to light their fire for warming up their messes. It’s a long way off to their homes, and they mostly dine here; and there’ll be nothing of a cover left, if you don’t see after ’em. I thought I should like to tell ye afore I died. Parson’s been here; but I did na tell him. He’s all for the earl’s folk, and he’d not ha’ heeded. It’s the earl as put him into his church, I reckon, for he said what a fine thing it were for to see so much employment a-given to the poor, and he never said nought o’ th’ sort when your works were agait, squire.’

This long speech had been interrupted by many a cough and gasp for breath; and having delivered himself of what was on his mind, he turned his face to the wall, and appeared to be going to sleep. Presently he roused himself with a start.

‘I know I flogged him well, I did. But he were after pheasants’ eggs, and I didn’t know he were an orphan. Lord, forgive me!’

‘He’s thinking on David Morton, the cripple, as used to go about trapping vermin,’ whispered the woman.

‘Why, he died long ago — twenty year, I should think,’ replied the squire.

‘Ay, but when grandfather goes off i’ this way to sleep after a bout of talking he seems to be dreaming on old times. He’ll not waken up yet, sir; you’d best sit down if you’d like to stay,’ she continued, as she went into the house-place and dusted a chair with her apron. ‘He was very particular in bidding me wake him if he were asleep, and you or Mr. Roger was to call. Mr. Roger said he’d be coming again this morning — but he’ll likely sleep an hour or more, if he’s let alone.’

‘I wish I’d said good-by, I should like to have done that.’

‘He drops off so sudden,’ said the woman. ‘But if you’d be better pleased to have said it, squire, I’ll waken him up a bit.’

‘No, no!’ the squire called out as the woman was going to be as good as her word. ‘I’ll come again, perhaps tomorrow. And tell him I was sorry; for I am indeed. And be sure and send to the Hall for anything you want! Mr. Roger is coming, is he? He’ll bring me word how he is, later on. I should like to have bidden him good-by.’

So, giving sixpence to the child who had held his horse, the squire mounted. He sate still a moment, looking at the busy work going on before him, and then at his own half-completed drainage. It was a bitter pill. He had objected to borrowing from Government, in the first instance; and then his wife had persuaded him to the step; and after it was once taken, he was as proud as could be of the only concession to the spirit of progress he ever made in his life. He had read and studied the subject pretty thoroughly, if also very slowly, during the time his wife had been influencing him. He was tolerably well up in agriculture, if in nothing else; and at one time he had taken the lead among the neighbouring landowners, when he first began tile-drainage. In those days people used to speak of Squire Hamley’s hobby; and at market ordinaries, or county dinners, they rather dreaded setting him off on long repetitions of arguments from the different pamphlets on the subject which he had read. And now the proprietors all around him were draining — draining; his interest to Government was running on all the same, though his works were stopped, and his tiles deteriorating in value. It was not a soothing consideration, and the squire was almost ready to quarrel with his shadow. He wanted a vent for his ill-humour; and suddenly remembering the devastation on his covers, which he had heard about not a quarter of an hour before, he rode up to the men busy at work on Lord Cumnor’s land. Just before he got up to them he encountered Mr. Preston, also on horseback, come to overlook his labourers. The squire did not know him personally, but from the agent’s manner of speaking, and the deference that was evidently paid to him, Mr Hamley saw that he was a responsible person. So he addressed the agent — ‘I beg your pardon, I suppose you are the manager of these works?’

Mr. Preston replied — ‘Certainly. I am that and many other things besides, at your service. I have succeeded Mr. Sheepshanks in the management of my lord’s property. Mr. Hamley of Hamley, I believe?’

The squire bowed stiffly. He did not like his name to be asked or presumed upon in that manner. An equal might conjecture who he was, or recognize him, but, till he announced himself, an inferior had no right to do more than address him respectfully as ‘sir.’ That was the squire’s code of etiquette.

‘I am Mr. Hamley of Hamley. I suppose you are as yet ignorant of the boundary of Lord Cumnor’s land, and so I will inform you that my property begins at the pond yonder — just where you see the rise in the ground.’

‘I am perfectly acquainted with that fact, Mr. Hamley,’ said Mr Preston, a little annoyed at the ignorance attributed to him. ‘But may I inquire why my attention is called to it just now?’

The squire was beginning to boil over; but he tried to keep his temper in. The effort was very much to be respected, for it was a great one. There was something in the handsome and well-dressed agent’s tone and manner inexpressibly irritating to the squire, and it was not lessened by an involuntary comparison of the capital roadster on which Mr. Preston was mounted with his own ill-groomed and aged cob.

‘I have been told that your men out yonder do not respect these boundaries, but are in the habit of plucking up gorse from my covers to light their fires.’

‘It is possible they may!’ said Mr. Preston, lifting his eyebrows, his manner being more nonchalant than his words. ‘I daresay they think no great harm of it. However, I’ll inquire.’

‘Do you doubt my word, sir?’ said the squire, fretting his mare till she began to dance about. ‘I tell you I’ve heard it only within this last half-hour.’

‘I don’t mean to doubt your word, Mr. Hamley; it’s the last thing I should think of doing. But you must excuse my saying that the argument which you have twice brought up for the authenticity of your statement, “that you have heard it within the last half-hour,” is not quite so forcible as to preclude the possibility of a mistake.’

‘I wish you’d only say in plain language that you doubt my word,’ said the squire, clenching and slightly raising his horsewhip. ‘I can’t make out what you mean — you use so many words.’

‘Pray don’t lose your temper, sir. I said I should inquire. You have not seen the men pulling up gorse yourself, or you would have named it. I surely may doubt the correctness of your informant until I have made some inquiry; at any rate, that is the course I shall pursue, and if it gives you offence, I shall be sorry, but I shall do it just the same. When I am convinced that harm has been done to your property, I shall take steps to prevent it for the future, and of course, in my lord’s name, I shall pay you compensation — it may probably amount to half-a-crown.’ He added these last words in a lower tone, as if to himself, with a slight, contemptuous smile on his face.

‘Quiet, mare, quiet,’ said the squire, quite unaware that he was the cause of her impatient movements by the way he was perpetually tightening her reins; and also, perhaps, he unconsciously addressed the injunction to himself.

Neither of them saw Roger Hamley, who was just then approaching them with long, steady steps. He had seen his father from the door of old Silas’s cottage, and, as the poor fellow was still asleep, he was coming to speak to his father, and was near enough now to hear the next words.

‘I don’t know who you are, but I’ve known land-agents who were gentlemen, and I’ve known some who were not. You belong to this last set, young man,’ said the squire, ‘that you do. I should like to try my horsewhip on you for your insolence.’

‘Pray, Mr. Hamley,’ replied Mr. Preston, coolly, ‘curb your temper a little, and reflect. I really feel sorry to see a man of your age in such a passion’— moving a little farther off, however, but really more with a desire to save the irritated man from carrying his threat into execution, out of a dislike to the slander and excitement it would cause, than from any personal dread. Just at this moment Roger Hamley came close up. He was panting a little, and his eyes were very stern and dark; but he spoke quietly enough.

‘Mr. Preston, I can hardly understand what you mean by your last words. But, remember, my father is a gentleman of age and position, and not accustomed to receive advice as to the management of his temper from young men like you.’

‘I desired to keep his men off my land,’ said the squire to his son — his wish to stand well in Roger’s opinion restraining his temper a little; but though his words might be a little calmer, there were all other signs of passion present — the discoloured complexion, the trembling hands, the fiery cloud in his eyes. ‘He refused, and doubted my word.’

Mr. Preston turned to Roger, as if appealing from Philip drunk to Philip sober, and spoke in a tone of cool explanation, which, though not insolent in words, was excessively irritating in manner. ‘Your father has misunderstood me — perhaps it is no wonder,’ trying to convey, by a look of intelligence at the son, his opinion that the father was in no state to hear reason. ‘I never refused to do what was just and right. I only required further evidence as to the past wrong-doing; your father took offence at this’— and then he shrugged his shoulders, and lifted his eyebrows in a manner he had formerly learnt in France.

‘At any rate, sir! I can scarcely reconcile the manner and words to my father, which I heard you use when I first came up, with the deference you ought to have shown to a man of his age and position. As to the fact of the trespass —’

‘They are pulling up all the gorse, Roger — there’ll be no cover whatever for game soon,’ put in the squire. Roger bowed to his father, but took up his speech at the point it was at before the interruption.

‘I will inquire into it myself at a cooler moment; and if I find that such trespass or damage has been committed, of course I shall expect that you will see it put a stop to. Come, father! I am going to see old Silas — perhaps you don’t know that he is very ill.’ So he endeavoured to wile the squire away to prevent further words. He was not entirely successful.

Mr. Preston was enraged by Roger’s calm and dignified manner, and threw after them this parting shaft, in the shape of a loud soliloquy —

‘Position, indeed! What are we to think of the position of a man who begins works like these without counting the cost, and comes to a stand-still, and has to turn off his labourers just at the beginning of winter, leaving —’

They were too far off to hear the rest. The squire was on the point of turning back before this, but Roger took hold of the reins of the old mare, and led her over some of the boggy ground, as if to guide her into sure footing, but, in reality, because he was determined to prevent the renewal of the quarrel. It was well that the cob knew him, and was, indeed, old enough to prefer quietness to dancing; for Mr. Hamley plucked hard at the reins, and at last broke out with an oath — ‘Damn it, Roger! I’m not a child; I won’t be treated as such. Leave go, I say!’

Roger let go; they were not on firm ground, and he did not wish any watchers to think that he was exercising any constraint over his father; and this quiet obedience to his impatient commands did more to soothe the squire than anything else could have effected just then.

‘I know I turned them off — what could I do? I’d no more money for their weekly wages; it’s a loss to me, as you know. He doesn’t know, no one knows, but I think your mother would, how it cut me to turn ’em off just before winter set in. I lay awake many a night thinking of it, and I gave them what I had — I did, indeed. I hadn’t got money to pay ’em, but I had three barren cows fattened, and gave every scrap of meat to the men, and I let ’em go into the woods and gather what was fallen, and I winked at their breaking off old branches, and now to have it cast up against me by that cur — that servant. But I’ll go on with the works, by — I will, if only to spite him. I’ll show him who I am. My position, indeed! A Hamley of Hamley takes a higher position than his master. I’ll go on with the works, see if I don’t! I’m paying between one and two hundred a year interest on Government money. I’ll raise some more if I go to the Jews; Osborne has shown me the way, and Osborne shall pay for it — he shall. I’ll not put up with insults. You shouldn’t have stopped me, Roger! I wish to heaven I’d horsewhipped the fellow!

He was lashing himself again into an impotent rage, painful to a son to witness; but just then the little grandchild of old Silas, who had held the squire’s horse during his visit to the sick man, came running up, breathless —

‘Please, sir, please, squire, mammy has ‘sent me; grandfather has wakened up sudden, and mammy says he’s dying, and would you please come; she says he’d take it as a kind compliment, she’s sure.’

So they went to the cottage, the squire speaking never a word, but suddenly feeling as if lifted out of a whirlwind and set down in a still and awful place.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/wives/chapter30.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18