THE NEW MASTERS

The funeral was over, and Thornsett Mill was closed for the day.
Fortunately the ‘Spotted Cow’ was not closed, so that the majority
of the hands did not find themselves without resources. Added to
the subtle pleasure which so many derive from drinking small beer
in a sanded kitchen furnished with oak benches, there was to-day
the excitement of discussing a great event, for to the average mind
of Thornsett the death and burial of old Richard Ferrier were great
events indeed. And then there appears to be something inherent in the
nature of a funeral which produces intense and continued thirst in all
persons connected, however remotely, with the ceremony. So John Bolt,
the landlord, had his hands pretty full, and the state of the till
was so satisfactory that it was a really praiseworthy sacrifice to
the decencies of society for him to persist in not shortening by one
fraction of an inch the respectfully long face which he had put on in
the morning as appropriate to the occasion.

‘Well, for my part, I’m sorry he’s gone,’ he said, drawing himself
a pot of that tap which seemed best calculated to assist moral
reflections. ‘That I am! He was always a fair dealer, if he wasn’t a
giving one.’

‘He was more a havin’ nor a givin’ one,’ said old Bill Murdoch.
‘Givin’ don’t build mills, my lad, nor yet muck up two acres o’ good
pasture wi’ bits o’ flowers wi’ glass windows all over ’em. I never
seen sic foolin’.’

‘Surely a man’s a right to do what he will with his own,’ ventured
a meek-looking man, who had himself a few pounds laid by, and felt
acutely the importance of leaving unchallenged the rights of property.

‘I’m none so sure o’ that,’ remarked Bill, who had a conviction which
is shared by a few more of us, that one’s superiority shows itself
naturally and unmistakably in one’s never agreeing with any statement
whatever which is advanced by anyone else.

‘There’ll be more flowers than ever now, if Mr Roland has his way,’
said Sigley the meek.

‘D’ye think, now, Sigley, he’ll be like to get that where Mr Richard
is?’ asked Bill. ‘Mr Roland thinks too much o’ flowers and singin’, and
book learnin’, to give much time to getten o’ his own way.’

‘Mr Roland may be this, or he may be that,’ Potters, the village
grocer, observed, with the air of one clearly stating a case, ‘but he
can get his way where he cares to.’

‘Tha’s fond o’ saying words as might mean owt–or nowt, for that
matter. Can’t tha say what tha does mean?’

‘Tha’d know what I mean if tha weren’t too blind to see owt. How about
Alice Hatfield?’

‘Gently, gently,’ said Bolt. ‘Tha was i’ the right, Potters, not to
name names, but when it comes to namin’ o’ names I asks tha where’s tha
proof?’

Here there was a general ‘movement of adhesion,’ and an assenting
murmur ran round, while the mild man repeated like an echo, ‘Where’s
your proof?’

‘Her father don’t think ther’s proof,’ said Sigley.

‘A man doesn’t want to prove the bread out of his mouth, and the roof
off his children.’

‘John Hatfield wouldn’t work for a man as had ruined his girl.’

‘Hungry dogs eat dirty pudding,’ remarked Potters.

‘Hatfield does na’ deal o’ thee, Potters,’ observed Murdoch, drily.

‘And it would be just one if he did,’ answered Potters, his large face
growing crimson, ‘and Alice was a good lass and a sweet lass till she
took up wi’ fine notions and told a’ the lads as none on ’em was good
enough to tie her shoon, and as she’d be a lady, and I don’t know what
all, and Mr Roland was the only gentleman as ever took any notice of
her, except Mr Richard; and Mr Roland, he went away when she went away,
and it’s all as plain as the nose on your face.’

‘Tha says too much,’ said Murdoch slowly, ‘for’t a’ to be true.’

‘Now, now!’ interposed Bolt. ‘Enow said on all sides, I’m sure. The
poor old master’s gone, and the mill’s got a holiday, and I think
you’ll all be better employed i’ turning your thoughts on him as is
gone than i’ picking holes i’ them as is to be your masters, and raking
up yesterday’s fires i’ this fashion. And so I say, as I said before, I
for one am sorry he’s gone.’

‘Yes; and so am I,’ said Bill; ‘for as long as he lived I always
expected him to do summat for me, as worked alongside o’ him when he
were a lad i’ Carrington’s Mills, and now I know _that_ chance is ower.’

‘Well, he gave thee work here, and he’d always a kind word for thee.’

‘Kind words spread no butties, and when he was rolling in brass, work
at the usual wages was a’ he ever give me.’

‘Did’st thee ever gie him owt, lad?’

‘I never had owt to give him, or anyone else for that matter.’

A general laugh arose, and Bill buried his face in his mug of beer.

‘The next work-day the mill’s closed’ll be a wedden-day, I s’pose,’
said Sigley, after a pause.

‘Ay, and not long fust.’

‘Mr Roland’s always up at Aspinshaw.’

‘So’s Mr Richard if you come to that.’

‘They can’t both marry the girl.’

‘No, nor I shouldn’t think either of them would yet a bit. Miss Clare’s
only just come home fro’ endin’ her schoolin’.’

‘And a gradely lass she is.’

‘Ay, that’s so,’ cut in old Murdoch. ‘She thinks a sight more o’
workin’-folk nor either o’ they boys do.’

‘Where’s your proof o’ that, Bill?’ asked Bolt, the village logician.

‘Proof,’ snarled Murdoch; ‘don’t ‘ee call to mind two years agone when
we had a kind o’ strike like, and didn’t she go about speakin’ up for
us like a good un?’

A murmur of assent mingled with the gurgling of liquor down
half-a-dozen throats.

‘There’s one I hope she’ll never take to,’ Potters was beginning, but
Bolt interrupted him with–




‘Whichever has her will have a fine wife. Let’s drink good luck to the
new masters, lads.’

‘Or, so to say, to oursel’, for their’s’ll be ours,’ said Sigley.

‘Their bad luck’ll be ours; but their good luck’s their own,’ said Bill
Murdoch sententiously.

This startling economic theory meeting with no support, the original
toast was drunk with a feeble attempt at honours.

* * * * *

The ‘new masters’ whose health had thus been unenthusiastically drunk
found it hard to realise the peculiar position in which they found
themselves.

The will was a great surprise to them both. Neither had thought that
the slight breach which had come between them was sufficiently wide to
be noticed, and the very fact of its having been noticed made it appear
deeper and more serious than they had before considered it to be.

It was a bitter thought to Richard Ferrier that the old man’s last
moments should have been made unquiet through any conduct of his, and
he reproached himself for not having concealed his own feelings better,
and for not having watched more keenly over those of his father. The
most crushing part of bereavement is always the consciousness that so
little more thought, so little more tact and tenderness, would have
sufficed to spare that ended life many an hour of sorrow, that quiet
heart many a pang of pain. It is then that we would give our heart’s
blood for one hour with the beloved in which to tell them all that we
might have said so easily while they were here. This universal longing
is responsible for that deeply rooted belief in the life beyond the
grave which causes two-thirds of human-kind to dispense with evidence
and to set reason at nought. So long as the sons and daughters of men

Weep by silent graves alone,

so long will the priest find his penitent, the professor of modern
spiritualism his open-mouthed dupe, and the shrine its devotee. The
ages roll on, each year the old earth opens her bosom for our dearest,
and still man–slow learner that he is–will not realise that (whatever
may be the chances of another life in which to set right what has been
here done amiss) in this life, which is the only one he can be sure of
having, it rests with him to decide whether there shall be any acts of
unkindness that will seem to need atonement.

The consolation which so many find in the idea of a future life was
a closed door to Dick. He had belonged to the ‘advanced’ school of
thought at college, and to him the gulf which separated him from his
father was one that could never be bridged over.

Roland’s grief was more absorbing than his brother’s, though it was not
so acute; and by its very nature could not be so lasting. Yet through
it all he felt rather–not vexed–but grieved that his father should
have not only divined his inmost feelings, but should have published
them to the world by means of this will. He had an uneasy consciousness
that he was made to appear ridiculous, and for Roland to be possibly
absurd was to be certainly wretched. It was very irritating that two
brothers could not have an occasional difference without having their
‘sparring’ made the subject of a solemn legal document; and without
being themselves placed in such a situation that the eyes of all their
acquaintances must be turned expectantly on them to see what they would
do next.

The differences arose from an only too complete agreement on one
particular point. When they had come back from Cambridge a year before,
they had found a new and interesting feature in the social aspect of
Firth Vale. Clare Stanley had come home from the German boarding-school
where she had spent the last three years. The young men had not seen
her since she was a child, and now they met her in the full blossom of
very pretty and sufficiently-conscious young womanhood.

For about two months they discussed her freely in their more sociable
hours, admired her prodigiously, and congratulated each other on their
good luck. Then came reticence; then occasional half-hearted sarcasms,
directed against her, varied by a criticism of each other, the
sincerity of which was beyond a doubt. For some months before the old
man’s death the rivalry that had sprung up between them had been too
strong to be always kept under, even in his presence, and he had seen
the effect, though not guessed the cause.

Strangely enough, another cause of dissension between the brothers
had been also touched on by their critics in the tap of the Spotted
Cow: Alice Hatfield. When Mrs. Ferrier had died Mrs. Hatfield had been
foster-mother to the two boys, and during their childhood they were the
constant playfellows of little Alice. Of course as they grew older the
distance between them increased, but Richard was still very fond of
Alice, and it was a great blow to him when one day, about three months
after their return from college, the girl suddenly disappeared, taking
leave of no one, and leaving no word of explanation. All that anyone
could gather was that during a visit she had recently paid to an aunt
in Liverpool she had been seen to talk more than once to a gentleman,
and that she had left the Firth Vale Station for Manchester by an
early train alone. But the worst of it was that Roland had that very
day abruptly announced his intention of taking a holiday, and had gone
North without any apparent object; and village gossip busied itself
rarely with this portentous coincidence. At the end of a month Roland
returned, looking worn and harassed. His brother asked him point blank
where he had been, and for what. Roland indignantly denied his right to
question, and flatly refused to answer. A quarrel ensued–the first of
many, which grew more frequent as they saw more of Miss Stanley.

On the morning on which Mr Ferrier died, she and her father had gone
to London to spend a month; and the time of her absence was the most
peaceful the young men had known for some time.

Clare herself was glad to go to London, though not so glad to leave the
scene of her conquests. One cannot blame her much for knowing that she
was charming. The two Ferriers were the most desirable young men the
country-side could offer, and no girl could have wished a finer pair of
captives to grace her chariot-wheels. And–Aspinshaw was very dull.