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On the 13th of June Sir Gerald Malloring, returning home to dinner from the House of Commons, found on his hall table, enclosed in a letter from his agent, the following paper:
"We, the undersigned laborers on Sir Gerald Malloring's estate, beg respectfully to inform him that we consider it unjust that any laborer should be evicted from his cottage for any reason connected with private life, or social or political convictions. And we respectfully demand that, before a laborer receives notice to quit for any such reason, the case shall be submitted to all his fellow laborers on the estate; and that in the future he shall only receive such notice if a majority of his fellow laborers record their votes in favor of the notice being given. In the event of this demand being refused, we regretfully decline to take any hand in getting in the hay on Sir Gerald Malloring's estate."
Then followed ninety-three signatures, or signs of the cross with names printed after them.
The agent's letter which enclosed this document mentioned that the hay was already ripe for cutting; that everything had been done to induce the men to withdraw the demand, without success, and that the farmers were very much upset. The thing had been sprung on them, the agent having no notion that anything of the sort was on foot. It had been very secretly, very cleverly, managed; and, in the agent's opinion, was due to Mr. Freeland's family. He awaited Sir Gerald's instructions. Working double tides, with luck and good weather, the farmers and their families might perhaps save half of the hay.
Malloring read this letter twice, and the enclosure three times, and crammed them deep down into his pocket.
It was pre-eminently one of those moments which bring out the qualities of Norman blood. And the first thing he did was to look at the barometer. It was going slowly down. After a month of first-class weather it would not do that without some sinister intention. An old glass, he believed in it implicitly. He tapped, and it sank further. He stood there frowning. Should he consult his wife? General friendliness said: Yes! A Norman instinct of chivalry, and perhaps the deeper Norman instinct, that, when it came to the point, women were too violent, said, No! He went up-stairs three at a time, and came down two. And all through dinner he sat thinking it over, and talking as if nothing had happened; so that he hardly spoke. Three-quarters of the hay at stake, if it rained soon! A big loss to the farmers, a further reduction in rents already far too low. Should he grin and bear it, and by doing nothing show these fellows that he could afford to despise their cowardly device? For it WAS cowardly to let his grass get ripe and play it this low trick! But if he left things unfought this time, they would try it on again with the corn--not that there was much of that on the estate of a man who only believed in corn as a policy.
Should he make the farmers sack the lot and get in other labor? But where? Agricultural laborers were made, not born. And it took a deuce of a lot of making, at that! Should he suspend wages till they withdrew their demand? That might do--but he would still lose the hay. The hay! After all, anybody, pretty well, could make hay; it was the least skilled of all farm work, so long as the farmers were there to drive the machines and direct. Why not act vigorously? And his jaws set so suddenly on a piece of salmon that he bit his tongue. The action served to harden a growing purpose. So do small events influence great! Suspend those fellows' wages, get down strike-breakers, save the hay! And if there were a row--well, let there be a row! The constabulary would have to act. It was characteristic of his really Norman spirit that the notion of agreeing to the demand, or even considering whether it were just, never once came into his mind. He was one of those, comprising nowadays nearly all his class, together with their press, who habitually referred to his country as a democratic power, a champion of democracy--but did not at present suspect the meaning of the word; nor, to say truth, was it likely they ever would. Nothing, however, made him more miserable than indecision. And so, now that he was on the point of deciding, and the decision promised vigorous consequences, he felt almost elated. Closing his jaws once more too firmly, this time on lamb, he bit his tongue again. It was impossible to confess what he had done, for two of his children were there, expected to eat with that well-bred detachment which precludes such happenings; and he rose from dinner with his mind made up. Instead of going back to the House of Commons, he went straight to a strike-breaking agency. No grass should grow under the feet of his decision! Thence he sought the one post-office still open, despatched a long telegram to his agent, another to the chief constable of Worcestershire; and, feeling he had done all he could for the moment, returned to the 'House,' where they were debating the rural housing question. He sat there, paying only moderate attention to a subject on which he was acknowledged an authority. To-morrow, in all probability, the papers would have got hold of the affair! How he loathed people poking their noses into his concerns! And suddenly he was assailed, very deep down, by a feeling with which in his firmness he had not reckoned--a sort of remorse that he was going to let a lot of loafing blackguards down onto his land, to toss about his grass, and swill their beastly beer above it. And all the real love he had for his fields and coverts, all the fastidiousness of an English gentleman, and, to do him justice, the qualms of a conscience telling him that he owed better things than this to those born on his estate, assaulted him in force. He sat back in his seat, driving his long legs hard against the pew in front. His thick, wavy, still brown hair was beautifully parted above the square brow that frowned over deep-set eyes and a perfectly straight nose. Now and again he bit into a side of his straw-colored moustache, or raised a hand and twisted the other side. Without doubt one of the handsomest and perhaps the most Norman-looking man in the whole 'House.' There was a feeling among those round him that he was thinking deeply. And so he was. But he had decided, and he was not a man who went back on his decisions.
Morning brought even worse sensations. Those ruffians that he had ordered down--the farmers would never consent to put them up! They would have to camp. Camp on his land! It was then that for two seconds the thought flashed through him: Ought I to have considered whether I could agree to that demand? Gone in another flash. If there was one thing a man could not tolerate, it was dictation! Out of the question! But perhaps he had been a little hasty about strike-breakers. Was there not still time to save the situation from that, if he caught the first train? The personal touch was everything. If he put it to the men on the spot, with these strike-breakers up his sleeve, surely they must listen! After all, they were his own people. And suddenly he was overcome with amazement that they should have taken such a step. What had got into them? Spiritless enough, as a rule, in all conscience; the sort of fellows who hadn't steam even to join the miniature rifle-range that he had given them! And visions of them, as he was accustomed to pass them in the lanes, slouching along with their straw bags, their hoes, and their shamefaced greetings, passed before him. Yes! It was all that fellow Freeland's family! The men had been put up to it--put up to it! The very wording of their demand showed that! Very bitterly he thought of the unneighborly conduct of that woman and her cubs. It was impossible to keep it from his wife! And so he told her. Rather to his surprise, she had no scruples about the strike-breakers. Of course, the hay must be saved! And the laborers be taught a lesson! All the unpleasantness he and she had gone through over Tryst and that Gaunt girl must not go for nothing! It must never be said or thought that the Freeland woman and her children had scored over them! If the lesson were once driven home, they would have no further trouble.
He admired her firmness, though with a certain impatience. Women never quite looked ahead; never quite realized all the consequences of anything. And he thought: 'By George! I'd no idea she was so hard! But, then, she always felt more strongly about Tryst and that Gaunt girl than I did.'
In the hall the glass was still going down. He caught the 9.15, wiring to his agent to meet him at the station, and to the impresario of the strike-breakers to hold up their departure until he telegraphed. The three-mile drive up from the station, fully half of which was through his own land, put him in possession of all the agent had to tell: Nasty spirit abroad--men dumb as fishes--the farmers, puzzled and angry, had begun cutting as best they could. Not a man had budged. He had seen young Mr. and Miss Freeland going about. The thing had been worked very cleverly. He had suspected nothing--utterly unlike the laborers as he knew them. They had no real grievance, either! Yes, they were going on with all their other work--milking, horses, and that; it was only the hay they wouldn't touch. Their demand was certainly a very funny one--very funny--had never heard of anything like it. Amounted almost to security of tenure. The Tryst affair no doubt had done it! Malloring cut him short:
"Till they've withdrawn this demand, Simmons, I can't discuss that or anything."
The agent coughed behind his hand.
Naturally! Only perhaps there might be a way of wording it that would satisfy them. Never do to really let them have such decisions in their hands, of course!
They were just passing Tod's. The cottage wore its usual air of embowered peace. And for the life of him Malloring could not restrain a gesture of annoyance.
On reaching home he sent gardeners and grooms in all directions with word that he would be glad to meet the men at four o'clock at the home farm. Much thought, and interviews with several of the farmers, who all but one--a shaky fellow at best--were for giving the laborers a sharp lesson, occupied the interval. Though he had refused to admit the notion that the men could be chicaned, as his agent had implied, he certainly did wonder a little whether a certain measure of security might not in some way be guaranteed, which would still leave him and the farmers a free hand. But the more he meditated on the whole episode, the more he perceived how intimately it interfered with the fundamental policy of all good landowners--of knowing what was good for their people better than those people knew themselves.
As four o'clock approached, he walked down to the home farm. The sky was lightly overcast, and a rather chill, draughty, rustling wind had risen. Resolved to handle the men with the personal touch, he had discouraged his agent and the farmers from coming to the conference, and passed the gate with the braced-up feeling of one who goes to an encounter. In that very spick-and-span farmyard ducks were swimming leisurely on the greenish pond, white pigeons strutting and preening on the eaves of the barn, and his keen eye noted that some tiles were out of order up there. Four o'clock! Ah, here was a fellow coming! And instinctively he crisped his hands that were buried in his pockets, and ran over to himself his opening words. Then, with a sensation of disgust, he saw that the advancing laborer was that incorrigible 'land lawyer' Gaunt. The short, square man with the ruffled head and the little bright-gray eyes saluted, uttered an "Afternoon, Sir Gerald!" in his teasing voice, and stood still. His face wore the jeering twinkle that had disconcerted so many political meetings. Two lean fellows, rather alike, with lined faces and bitten, drooped moustaches, were the next to come through the yard gate. They halted behind Gaunt, touching their forelocks, shuffling a little, and looking sidelong at each other. And Malloring waited. Five past four! Ten past! Then he said:
"D'you mind telling the others that I'm here?"
"If so be as you was waitin' for the meetin', I fancy as 'ow you've got it, Sir Gerald!"
A wave of anger surged up in Malloring, dyeing his face brick-red. So! He had come all that way with the best intentions--to be treated like this; to meet this 'land lawyer,' who, he could see, was only here to sharpen his tongue, and those two scarecrow-looking chaps, who had come to testify, no doubt, to his discomfiture. And he said sharply:
"So that's the best you can do to meet me, is it?"
Gaunt answered imperturbably:
"I think it is, Sir Gerald."
"Then you've mistaken your man."
"I don't think so, Sir Gerald."
Without another look Malloring passed the three by, and walked back to the house. In the hall was the agent, whose face clearly showed that he had foreseen this defeat. Malloring did not wait for him to speak.
"Make arrangements. The strike-breakers will be down by noon to-morrow. I shall go through with it now, Simmons, if I have to clear the whole lot out. You'd better go in and see that they're ready to send police if there's any nonsense. I'll be down again in a day or two." And, without waiting for reply, he passed into his study. There, while the car was being got ready, he stood in the window, very sore; thinking of what he had meant to do; thinking of his good intentions; thinking of what was coming to the country, when a man could not even get his laborers to come and hear what he had to say. And a sense of injustice, of anger, of bewilderment, harrowed his very soul.
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