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A short story by James Runciman

The Squire

Title:     The Squire
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Every afternoon when the weather was bright, an erect old man used to ride round the Fisher Row on a stout cob. If the men happened to be sitting in the sun, on the benches, he would stop and speak to them, in sharp, ringing accents, and he always had a word for the women as they sat baiting their lines in the open air. He called the men by their Christian names, and they called him by the name of his estate. None of the fishermen ever ventured to be familiar with him; but he often held long talks with them about commonplace matters. They considered that they had a proprietary interest in him, and they always inquired about his family affairs. He would tell them that Mr. Harry had gone with his regiment to India, or that Miss Mabel had gone to stay with her aunt at the West Moor, or, that Miss Ella was coming home from school for altogether next month. All this cross-questioning was carried on without the least vulgarity. The people were really anxious to hear news of the boys and girls who had grown up amongst them, and they thought it would please the Squire if they treated him as a sort of Patriarch.

The old man lived for nearly a century in the one place. It may be said that not long before he died he wagered that he would reach his hundredth year, but he missed that by three years. His whole energy and thought were devoted to improving his estate. He had no notion of art or things of that kind, yet he managed to make his village and its surroundings very beautiful by long years of care. The sleepy place where he lived was right away from the currents of modern life. If you walked over a mile of moorland, then through five miles of deep wood, where splendid elms and fine beeches made shade for you, you would come at last to some rising ground, and, if you waited, you might see far away the trailing smoke of a train. But there are men now, on the Squire's estate, who have never seen an engine, and there must be a score or so of the population who have never slept one night away from their native place. While Mr. Pitt was breaking his heart over Austerlitz; while Napoleon was playing his last throw at Waterloo; while the Birmingham men were threatening to march on London, the Squire was riding peacefully day by day, in the lanes and spinneys of his lovely countryside. He never would allow a stranger to settle on his property, and he was never quite pleased if any of the fisher girls married pitmen. He did not mind when the hinds and the fishers intermarried, but anything that suggested noise and smoke was an abhorrence to him, and thus he disliked the miners. A splendid seam of coal ran beneath his land. This coal could have been easily won; in fact, at the place where the cliffs met the sea, a two-foot seam cropped out, and the people could go with a pickaxe and break off a basketful for themselves whenever they chose; but the Squire would never allow borings to be made. He did not object to the use of coal on abstract grounds, but he was determined that his property should not be disfigured. Once, when a smart agent came to make proposals respecting the sinking of a pit, the Squire took him by the shoulders and solemnly pushed him out of his study. He fancied that a colliery would bring poachers and squalor and drunkenness, and many other bad consequences, so he kept his fields unsullied and his little streams pure. Without knowing it, the Squire was a bit of a poet. For example, he had one long dell, which ran through his woods, planted with hyacinths and the wild pink geranium. These flowers came in bloom together, and the effect of the great sheet of blue and pink was indescribable. He was very proud of this piece of work, and he always looked happy as he went down the path in the spring time.

The Squire had the most intimate acquaintance with the circumstances of every man, woman, and child on his property. If he rode out at two in the afternoon and heard that a fisherman was suffering with rheumatism, it was almost certain that the fat man-servant from the Hall would call at the sick man's house before the day was out with blankets and wine, and whatever else might be needed. Yet the Squire was by no means lavish. In making a bargain with a tenant he never showed the least generosity. On one occasion he set a number of gardeners to work in a very large orchard where the trees were beginning to feel the effects of time. The men were likely to be employed for at least three years, so each of them was fixed by a formal engagement. The married men were paid fifteen shillings a week, but on coming to a young man, the Squire said, "Now I am going to give you a shilling a week less than the others because you live with your mother." This sounds like the speech of a very stingy person; but in spite of the apparent hardness of the great landlord, poverty was never known on his estate. The hinds had to eat barley bread, and beef and mutton were not plentiful, for the butcher's visit only came once in the week. Yet nevertheless the men were healthy and powerful, and the women and children were neatly and decently dressed.

Once every year the Squire met the whole of his tenants. As Michaelmas came round he drew his rents, and then the dandy agent, the solid farmers, and the poor cottiers sat down at one table for the rent dinner. The strict discipline of ordinary life was relaxed, and the Squire allowed even the fishermen to make jokes in his presence. When the company broke up in the evening it often happened that various members were obliged to lie down in the hedge-sides, and once the Squire had to ride his cob right over his own head mason. The mason happened to be thinking about nautical affairs when the grey cob swept down upon him, and just as the Squire cleared him he cried "Ship ahoy." This occurrence supplied the Squire with a joke which lasted nearly forty years.

All the sayings which the Squire dropped at the rent dinner were carefully treasured, and formed the subject of occasional conversation on the benches until the year went round again.

The good man did not like newspapers. When he began his life as a landlord, at the end of the last century, the folk who lived on the estate managed perfectly well without journals, and he did not see why a change should be made. He never could understand why a man could not be content with his own life, and his own sensations, instead of wanting to know what other people in other parts of the world were saying and doing.

About the time of the Reform agitation of 1867 he rode round to the masons' shed. The men were having their eleven o'clock meal, and as they ate their bread and cheese, Fat Jack, the stone-cutter, read to them one of Mr. John Bright's speeches. The Squire did not exactly know, or care to know, who Mr. John Bright might be, but he gathered enough from Fat Jack's guttural elocution to cause uneasiness. He declared that if ever the postman brought such a thing into the village again he would never allow a letter to be delivered on his estate. But with all this bluster, the common people knew that their landlord wished them well, and they were ready to do anything for him.

One night, while he was dragging his trout stream, he fell into the ugliest part of the water. He had hardly had time to come to the surface when six men were in after him, and he had to thank each one of the six in the same formal terms before any of them would consent to resign the whole credit of the rescue.

His eldest son was killed in battle. Before departing for the fatal campaign, the young officer had dragged the burn, and placed all the brown trout that he caught in a great tarn that lay amongst the low hills on the moor. The fish increased and multiplied until the little lake was swarming. Big fat trout used to roll easily round on summer evenings, and make lazy lunges at the flies. It would have been easy to have taken twenty dozen out of the lake in a day; but the Squire said he did not want the pond fished because his boy had stocked it. So no native ever cast a line there, although the temptation was almost unbearable.

A very smart young person came from the neighbouring market town once, and tried the pond with the fly. He had just reached his third dozen when he was caught by old Sam, the gamekeeper, and three fishermen. They tied a cart-rope round his waist and threw him into the pond; they then pitched the whole of the trout back into the water, and after that they dragged the trespasser out, floured him carefully, and sent him on his road.

These incidents are not idyllic, but they serve to show what kind of a hold a strong, just man may obtain upon simple people if he only shows that he is ready to work for them. The whole of the tenantry and the villagers knew that their stern old master gave up his life for their sake. They knew that he worked like a common bailiff; they knew that he drank nothing but water; they knew that he put by money every year with the sole object of making improvements which might better their condition, and they respected him accordingly.

When he reached the age of ninety-six years he was no longer capable of guiding his pony: the pony guided him. On one afternoon the beast turned just at the end of the Fisher Row and walked the old man quietly back to the stables. He could not dismount without assistance, and he had to wait in the stall, while Matchem munched his oats, until one of the stable boys came and released him. From that day the Squire rode no more, and the occasion was memorable, alike for fishers and hinds.

When the old man died he was followed to his grave by the entire population from nine farms and two fishing villages. Old men of eighty, who remembered him when he was a bright young fellow in George the Third's time, went and stood round his grave. Everybody wanted some remembrance of him, but this could not be attained until the clever national schoolmaster of the village suggested that an engraving should be made from a photograph. You cannot go into one cottage or one farm-house on the whole of the estate without finding an engraved portrait of the splendid old man hung in a place of honour.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Squire