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 upturned 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 once, 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 barrowsful 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 the fellow 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, of course; 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 to-day, I am. I should like you to look after th’ covers in th’ 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

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