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An essay by Richard Jefferies

An Ambitious Squire

Title:     An Ambitious Squire
Author: Richard Jefferies [More Titles by Jefferies]

Perhaps the magistrate most regular in his attendance at a certain country Petty Sessional Court is young Squire Marthorne. Those who have had business to transact at such Courts know the difficulty that often arises from the absence of a second magistrate, there being a numerous class of cases with which one justice of the peace is not permitted to deal. There must be two, and it sometimes happens that only one is forthcoming. The procedure adopted varies much in different divisions, according to the population and the percentage of charges brought up. Usually a particular day is appointed when it is understood that a full bench will be present, but it not unfrequently happens that another and less formal meeting has to be held, at which the attendance is uncertain. The district in which Mr. Marthorne resides chances to be somewhat populous, and to include one or two turbulent places that furnish a steady supply of offenders. The practice therefore is to hold two Courts a week; at one of these, on the Saturday, the more important cases are arranged to be heard, when there are always plenty of magistrates. At the other, on the Tuesday, remands and smaller matters are taken, and there then used to be some delay.

One justice thought his neighbour would go, another thought the same of his neighbour, and the result was nobody went. Having tacitly bound themselves to attend once a week, the justices, many of whom resided miles away, did not care formally to pledge themselves to be invariably present on a second day. Sometimes the business on that second day was next to nothing, but occasionally serious affairs turned up, when messengers had to be despatched to gather a quorum.

But latterly this uncertainty has been put an end to through the regular attendance of young Squire Marthorne, of Marthorne House. The Marthornes are an old family, and one of the best connected in the county, though by no means rich, and, whether it was the lack of great wealth or a want of energy, they had until recently rather dropped out of the governing circle. When, however, the young squire, soon after his accession to the property, in the natural course of events, was nominated to the Commission of the Peace, he began to exhibit qualities calculated to bring him to the front. He developed an aptitude for business, and at the same time showed a personal tact and judgment which seemed to promise a future very different from the previous stagnation of his family.

These qualities came first into play at the Petty Sessions, which, apart from the criminal business, is practically an informal weekly Parliament of local landowners. Marthorne, of course, was well known to the rest long before his appearance among them as a colleague. He had gained some reputation at college; but that had long since been forgotten in the prestige he had attained as a brilliant foxhunter. Even in the days before his accession, when his finances were notoriously low, he had somehow contrived to ride a first-rate horse. Everybody likes a man who rides a good horse. At the same time there was nothing horsey about him; he was always the gentleman. Since his succession the young squire, as he was familiarly described--most of the others being elderly---had selected his horses with such skill that it was well known a very great man had noticed them, so that when he came to the Bench, young as he was, Marthorne escaped the unpleasant process of finding his level--_i.e._ being thoroughly put down.

If not received quite as an equal by that assemblage of elderly gentlemen, he was made to feel that at all events they would listen to what he had to say. That is a very great point gained. Marthorne used his advantage with judgment. He displayed a modesty highly commendable in a young man. He listened, and only spoke for the purpose of acquiring information. Nothing is so pleasing as to find a man of intelligence willingly constituting himself your pupil. They were all anxious to teach him the business of the county, and the more he endeavoured to learn from them the cleverer they thought him.

Now, the business of the county was not very intricate; the details were innumerable, but the general drift was easy to acquire. Much more complicated to see through were all the little personal likings, dislikings, petty spites, foibles, hobbies, secret understandings, family jars, and so forth, which really decide a man's vote, or the scale into which he throws his influence. There were scores of squires dotted over the county, each of whom possessed local power more or less considerable, and each of whom might perchance have private relations with men who held high office in the State. Every family had its history and its archives containing records of negotiations with other families. People who met with all outward friendliness, and belonged to the same party, might have grudges half a century old, but not yet forgotten. If you made friends with one, you might mortally offend the other. The other would say nothing, but another day a whisper to some great authority might destroy the hopes of the aspirant. Those who would attain to power must study the inner social life, and learn the secret motives that animate men. But to get at the secret behind the speech, the private thought behind the vote, would occupy one for years.

Marthorne, of course, having been born and bred in the circle, knew the main facts; but, when he came to really set himself to work, he quickly felt that he was ignorant, and that at any moment he might irritate some one's hidden prejudice. He looked round for an older man who knew all about it, and could inform him. This man he found in the person of the Vice-Chairman of the Petty Sessions. The nominal Chairman, like many other unpaid officials, held the place because of old family greatness, not from any personal ability--family greatness which was in reality a mere tradition. The Vice-Chairman was the true centre and spirit of the circle.

A man of vast aptitude for details, he liked county business for its own sake, and understood every technicality. With little or no personal ambition, he had assisted in every political and social movement in the county for half a century, and knew the secret motives of every individual landowner. With large wealth, nothing to do, and childless, he took a liking to young Marthorne. The old man wished for nothing better than to talk; the young squire listened attentively. The old man was delighted to find some one who would sit with him through the long hours of Petty Sessional business. Thus it was that the people who had to attend the Local Board, whether it was a Saturday, the principal day, or whether it was a Tuesday, that had previously been so trying, found their business facilitated by the attendance of two magistrates. The Vice-Chairman was always there, and Mr. Marthorne was always there. It sometimes happened that while Hodge the lately intoxicated, or Hodge the recent pugilist, was stolidly waiting for his sentence, the two justices in the retiring room were convulsed with laughter; the one recounting, the other imbibing, some curious racy anecdote concerning the family history of a local magnate.

Meantime, the young squire was steadily gaining a reputation for solid qualities, for work and application. Not only at the Bench, but at the Board of Guardians and at other Boards where the justice of the peace is _ex officio_ a member, he steadily worked at details, sat patiently upon committees, audited endless accounts, read interminable reports, and was never weary of work. The farmers began to talk about him, and to remark to each other what a wonderful talent for business he possessed, and what a pleasant-speaking young gentleman he was. The applause was well earned, for probably there is no duller or more monotonous work than that of attending Boards which never declare dividends. He next appeared at the farmers' club, at first as a mere spectator, and next, though with evident diffidence, as a speaker.

Marthorne was no orator; he felt when he stood up to speak an odd sensation in the throat, as if the glottis had contracted. He was, in fact, very nervous, and for the first two or three sentences had not the least idea what he had said. But he forced himself to say it--his will overruled his physical weakness. When said it was not much--only a few safe platitudes--but it was a distinct advance. He felt that next time he should do better, and that his tongue would obey his mind. His remarks appeared in the local print, and he had started as a speaker. He was resolved to be a speaker, for it is evident to all that, without frequent public speech, no one can now be a representative man. Marthorne, after this, never lost an opportunity of speaking--if merely to second a resolution, to propose a toast, he made the most of it. One rule he laid down for himself, namely, never to say anything original. He was not speaking to propound a new theory, a new creed, or view of life. His aim was to become the mouthpiece of his party. Most probably the thought that seemed to him so clever might, if publicly expressed, offend some important people. He, therefore, carefully avoided anything original. High authorities are now never silent; when Parliament closes they still continue to address the public, and generally upon more or less stirring questions of the time.

In those addresses, delivered by the very leaders of his own party, Marthorne found the material, and caught from their diligent perusal the spirit in which to use it. In this way, without uttering a single original idea of his own, and with very little originality of expression, the young orator succeeded perfectly in his aim. First, he became recognised as a speaker, and, therefore, extremely useful; secondly, he was recognised as one of the soundest exponents of politics in the county. Marthorne was not only clever, but 'safe.' His repute for the latter quality was of even more service to him than for talent; to be 'safe' in such things is a very great recommendation. Personal reputation is of slow growth, but it does grow. The Vice-Chairman, Marthorne's friend and mentor, had connections with very high people indeed. He mentioned Marthorne to the very high people. These, in their turn, occasionally cast a glance at what Marthorne was doing. Now and then they read a speech of his, and thought it extremely good, solid, and well put. It was understood that a certain M.P. would retire at the next election; and they asked themselves whom they had to take his place?

While this important question was exercising the minds of those in authority, Marthorne was energetically at work gaining the social suffrage. The young squire's lady--he had married in his minority for beauty and intelligence, and not for money--was discovered to be a very interesting young person. Her beauty and intelligence, and, let it be added, her true devotion to her husband's cause, proved of fifty times more value to him than a dowry of many manors. Her tact smoothed the way everywhere; she made friends for him in all directions, especially perhaps during the London season. Under the whirl and glitter of that fascinating time there are latent possibilities of important business. Both Marthorne and his lady had by birth and connections the _entree_ into leading circles; but many who have that _entree_ never attain to more influence in society than the furniture of the drawing-room.

These two never for a moment lost sight of the country while they enjoyed themselves in town. Everything they said or did was said and done with a view to conciliate people who might have direct or indirect influence in the country. In these matters, ladies of position still retain considerable power in their hands. The young squire and his wife put themselves to immense trouble to get the good-will of such persons, and being of engaging manners they in time succeeded. This was not effected at once, but three or four years are a very short time in which to develop personal influence, and their success within so brief a period argues considerable skill.

At home again in the autumn the same efforts were diligently continued. The mansion itself was but of moderate size and by no means convenient, but the squire's lady transformed it from a gaunt, commonplace country house into an elegant and charming residence. This she contrived without great expense by the exercise of good taste and a gift of discriminating between what was and what was not. The exterior she left alone--to alter an exterior costs a heavy sum and often fails. But the interior she gradually fitted in a novel fettle, almost entirely after her own design. The gardens, too, under her supervision, became equally inviting. The house got talked about, and was itself a social success.

On his part, the squire paid as much attention to the estate. It was not large, far from sufficient of itself, indeed, to support any social or political pretensions without the most rigid economy. And the pair were rigidly economical. The lady dressed in the height of the fashion, and drove the most beautiful horses, and yet she never wasted a shilling upon herself. Her own little private whims and fancies she resolutely refused to gratify. Every coin was spent where it would produce effect. In like manner, the squire literally never had half a sovereign in his pocket. He selected the wines in his cellar with the greatest care, and paid for them prices which the wine merchant, in these days of cheap wines, was unaccustomed to receive from men of thrice his income. The squire paid for the very best wine, and in private drank a cheap claret. But his guests, many of them elderly gentlemen, when once they had dined with him never forgot to come again. His bins became known throughout the county; very influential people indeed spoke of them with affection. It was in this way that the squire got a high value out of his by no means extensive rents.

He also looked after the estate personally. Hodge, eating his luncheon under the hedge in October, as he slowly munched his crust, watched the squire strolling about the fields, with his gun under his arm, and wondered why he did not try the turnips. The squire never went into the turnip field, and seemed quite oblivious that he carried a gun, for when a covey rose at his feet he did not fire, but simply marked them down. His mind, in fact, was busy with more important matters, and, fond as he was of shooting, he wanted the birds for some one else's delectation. After he had had the place a little while, there was not a square inch of waste ground to be found. When the tenants were callous to hints, the squire gave them pretty clearly to understand that he meant his land to be improved, and improved it was. He himself of his own free motive and initiative ordered new buildings to be erected where he, by personal inspection, saw that they would pay. He drained to some extent, but not very largely, thinking that capital sunk in drains, except in particular soils, did not return for many years.

Anxious as he was to keep plenty of game, he killed off the rabbits, and grubbed up many of the small covers at the corners and sides of arable fields which the tenants believed injurious to crops. He repaired labourers' cottages, and added offices to farmsteads. In short, he did everything that could be done without too heavy an expenditure. To kill off the rabbits, to grub the smaller coverts, to drain the marshy spots, to thatch the cottages, put up cattle sheds, and so on, could be effected without burdening the estate with a loan. But, small as these improvements were in themselves, yet, taken together, they made an appreciable difference.

There was a distinct increase in the revenue of the estate after the first two years. The increase arose in part from the diminished expenses, for it has been found that a tumble-down place is more costly to maintain than one in good repair. The tenants at first were rather alarmed, fearing lest the change should end in a general rise of rents. It did not. The squire only asked an increase when he had admittedly raised the value of the land, and then only to a moderate amount. By degrees he acquired a reputation as the most just of landlords. His tenantry were not only satisfied, but proud of him; for they began to foresee what was going to happen.

Yet all these things had been done for his own interest--so true is it that the interest of the landlord and the tenant are identical. The squire had simply acted judiciously, and from personal inspection. He studied his estate, and attended to it personally. Of course he could not have done these things had he not succeeded to a place but little encumbered with family settlements. He did them from interested motives, and not from mere sentiment. But, nevertheless, credit of a high order was justly accorded to him. So young a man might naturally have expended his income on pleasure. So young a wife might have spent his rents in frivolity. They worked towards an end, but it was a worthy end--for ambition, if not too extravagant, is a virtue. Men with votes and influence compared this squire in their minds with other squires, whose lives seemed spent in a slumberous donothingness.

Thus, by degrees, the young squire's mansion and estate added to his reputation. The labour which all this represented was immense. Both the squire and his wife worked harder than a merchant in his office. Attending Boards and farmers' clubs, making speeches, carrying on correspondence, looking after the estate, discharging social duties, filled up every moment of his time. Superintending the house, the garden, corresponding, and a hundred other labours, filled up every moment of hers. They were never idle; to rise socially and politically requires as great or greater work than for a poor man to achieve a fortune.

Ultimately the desired result began to be apparent. There grew up a general feeling that the squire was the best man for the place in Parliament which, in the course of events, must ere long be vacant. There was much heartburning and jealousy secretly felt among men twice his age, who had waited and hoped for years for such an opening, till at last they had rusted and become incapable of effort. But, cynical as they might be in private, they were too wise to go openly against the stream. A few friendly words spoken in season by a great man whose goodwill had been gained decided the matter. At an informal meeting of the party--how much more is effected at informal than at formal assemblies!--Marthorne was introduced as the successor to the then representative. The young squire's estate could not, of course, bear the heavy pecuniary strain which must arise; but before those who had the control of these things finally selected him they had ascertained that there would be no difficulty with respect to money. Marthorne's old friend and mentor, the wealthy Vice-Chairman of the Petty Sessions, who had inducted him into the county business, announced that he should bear the larger part of the expense. He was not a little proud of his _protege_.

The same old friend and mentor, wise with the knowledge and experience which long observation of men had given him, advised the young squire what to do when the depression first came upon agriculture. The old man said, 'Meet it; very likely it will not last two years. What is that in the life of an estate?' So the young squire met it, and announced at once that he should return a percentage of his rents. 'But not too high a percentage,' said the old man; 'let us ascertain what the rest of the landowners think, else by a too liberal reduction you may seem to cast a reflection upon them.' The percentage was returned, and continued, and the young squire has tided over the difficulty.

His own tenantry and the farming interest generally are proud of him. Hodge, who, slow as he is, likes a real man, says, 'He beant such a bad sort of a veller, you; a' beant above speaking to we!' When the time comes the young squire will certainly be returned.

[The end]
Richard Jefferies's essay: An Ambitious Squire