A Passive Coquette

It is not to be supposed that such an encounter as Mr. Preston had just had with Roger Hamley sweetened the regards in which the two young men henceforward held each other. They had barely spoken to one another before, and but seldom met; for the land-agent’s employment had hitherto lain at Ashcombe, some sixteen or seventeen miles from Hamley. He was older than Roger by several years; but, during the time he had lived in the country, Osborne and Roger had been at school and at college. Mr. Preston was prepared to dislike the Hamleys for many unreasonable reasons. Cynthia and Molly had both spoken of the brothers with familiar regard, implying considerable intimacy; their flowers had been preferred to his on the occasion of the ball; most people spoke well of them; and Mr. Preston had an animal’s instinctive jealousy and combativeness against all popular young men. Their “position”—poor as the Hamleys might be—was far higher than his own in the county; and, moreover, he was agent for the great Whig lord, whose political interests were diametrically opposed to those of the old Tory squire. Not that Lord Cumnor troubled himself much about his political interests. His family had obtained property and title from the Whigs at the time of the Hanoverian succession; and so, traditionally, he was a Whig, and had belonged in his youth to Whig clubs, where he had lost considerable sums of money to Whig gamblers. All this was satisfactory and consistent enough. And, if Lord Hollingford had not been returned for the county on the Whig interest—as his father had been before him, until he had succeeded to the title—it is quite probable Lord Cumnor would have considered the British constitution in danger, and the patriotism of his ancestors ungratefully ignored. But, excepting at elections, he had no notion of making Whig and Tory a party-cry. He had lived too much in London, and was of too sociable a nature, to exclude any man who jumped with his humour from the hospitality he was always ready to offer, be the agreeable acquaintance Whig, Tory, or Radical. But in the county of which he was lord-lieutenant the old party distinction was still a shibboleth by which men were tested as to their fitness for social intercourse, as well as on the hustings. If by any chance a Whig found himself at a Tory dinner-table—or vice versâ—the food was hard of digestion, and the wine and viands were criticised rather than enjoyed. A marriage between the young people of the separate parties was almost as unheard-of and prohibited an alliance as that of Romeo and Juliet. And, of course, Mr. Preston was not a man in whose breast such prejudices would die away. They were an excitement to him for one thing, and called out all his talent for intrigue on behalf of the party to which he was allied. Moreover, he considered it as loyalty to his employer to “scatter his enemies” by any means in his power. He had always hated and despised the Tories in general; and, after that interview on the marshy common in front of Silas’s cottage, he hated the Hamleys, and Roger especially, with a very choice and particular hatred. “That prig”—as hereafter he always designated Roger—“he shall pay for it yet,” he said to himself by way of consolation, after the father and son had left him. “What a lout it is!”—watching the receding figures. “The old chap has twice as much spunk”— as the Squire tugged at his bridle reins. “The old mare could make her way better without being led, my fine fellow! But I see through your dodge. You’re afraid of your old father turning back and getting into another rage. ‘Position’ indeed! a beggarly squire—a man who did turn off his men just before winter, to rot or starve, for all he cared—it’s just like a venal old Tory!” And, under the cover of sympathy with the dismissed labourers, Mr. Preston indulged his own private pique very pleasantly.

Mr. Preston had many causes for rejoicing; he might have forgotten this discomfiture, as he chose to feel it, in the remembrance of an increase of income, and in the popularity he enjoyed in his new abode. All Hollingford came forward to do the earl’s new agent honour. Mr. Sheepshanks had been a crabbed, crusty old bachelor, frequenting inn-parlours on market-days, not unwilling to give dinners to three or four chosen friends and familiars, with whom, in return, he dined from time to time, and with whom, also, he kept up an amicable rivalry in the matter of wines. But he “did not appreciate female society,” as Miss Browning elegantly worded his unwillingness to accept the invitations of the Hollingford ladies. He was even unrefined enough to speak of these invitations to his intimate friends aforesaid as “those old women’s worrying”; but, of course, they never heard of this. Little quarter-of-sheet notes, without any envelopes— that invention was unknown in those days—but sealed in the corners when folded-up, instead of gummed (as they are fastened at present)—occasionally passed between Mr. Sheepshanks and the Miss Brownings, Mrs. Goodenough, or others. From the first-mentioned ladies the form ran as follows:—“Miss Browning and her sister, Miss Phœbe Browning, present their respectful compliments to Mr. Sheepshanks, and beg to inform him that a few friends have kindly consented to favour them

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