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Lambford put in her oar again and unceremoniously robbed the former mistress of Whitehills of all save her bare perquisites, while Lady Thwaite was too much of a woman of the world to do more than shrug her shoulders imperceptibly and smile, and gracefully waive her superior claims.
Lady Fermor took the initiative. She knew, or held that she knew, exactly what to do. She had the programme cut and dry. She drove straight to the hay-field, where Sir William was restlessly awaiting his guests, while his reception of them there could be made a more informal and easy matter than it could have been managed in the house. The old lady at once occupied the arm-chair which she had directed to be brought out for her, and asked for a glass of wine to drink the hay-makers' healths and prosperity to the crop and its master, which she did in a spirited little speech composed for the occasion. Then she ordered all the select company to find rakes and toss the grass with the best, while she sat and presided over the work and boasted of the hay-making machine which had superseded hay-makers at Lambford. Thus the hay-field was as it were declared open to the better classes, and the fête
set a-going sheerly by the energy of Lady Fermor.
The scene was pleasant to see. The great hay-field consisted of acre upon acre of billowy meadow land just adjoining the park of Whitehills. The field commanded clumps of fine old trees and vistas of green. At the end of one vista stood the long, low, white manorhouse, which had survived the vicissitudes of centuries, of kings, and of people, and had still been handed down from Thwaite to Thwaite, till it fell into the hands of a sergeant in a marching regiment.
Not infrequently the moist climate of Eastwich had a mist—silver or golden, or dankwhite-like a shroud, to hang its light, loose, wavy veil, or to wind its hazy, tight, straight folds about the landscape. To-day, after long dry, warm weather, there was no more of this mist than the softest amber haze of heat, which tempered the droughty blue of the sky even: more than one or two fleecy white clouds flecking the expanse, and, making chequers of shade, afforded a sense of refreshment. The weatherwise pointed to these clouds, and coupling with them the well-known sign of the low darts here and there of the rooks, said Sir William
was drying his hay in time, for the fine weather would not last much longer.
The swathes of grass passing from green to russet filled the air with dusty sweetness, as they were whirled and swirled about, not with the precision and monotony of the hay-making machine, but with the more picturesque irregularity of human arms and human wills. Here and there a precocious cluster of haycocks showed where the early sun had shone most strongly and the early workers toiled most diligently.
The true workers, tanned and freckled, with an ancient green-stained smockfrock or two lingering in the ranks of jackets, and a snowwhite, deep pink, or fresh lilac sun-bonnet asserting itself at different points among the brown straw-hats, were in keeping with the occupation. It was pursued with a sort of dogged industry and slow humorous pretence .of the primitive hay-makers at not so much as seeing their esoteric fitful assistants.
Lady Fermor, in her chair, with her nodding plumes, and her stiff fingers covered with rings, looked the mediæval châtelaine to perfection. The artificial workers lent greater animation and gaiety to the heavier, more sombre groups among which they mingled for a few hours. The ladies and gentlemen brought delicate play and airy flutter, like the accompaniment of fairy music to the deeper tones of the human choir. There were the lighter swish of soft dresses, and the daintier effect of wonderful shades of colour in primrose and daffodil, peacock-blue, cardinalred, and sea-coral. There were graceful gambols, with badly poised new rakes and pitchforks, freedom to rest every other moment, the continual refrain of merry jesting and laughter accompanying a labour of love and fancy, and not of strict necessity and a workaday use and wont.
Doubtless there were some gloomy and saturnine souls that resisted the intrusion of fairies among the battered warriors and amazons, the beaten victims of the sweat of the, brow and the bondage to poverty and toil. Sir William himself was not without a tendency to look, from time to time, in this light at the party he had permitted, if not originated. But the apathetic, much-enduring Eastwich labouring men and women for the most part treated the liberty taken with their class in a more genial and wholesome, if more superficial spirit. The appearance of the gentlefolks in the field
formed a fine sight, their antics proved a famous diversion to their humbler neighbours, and for that matter the grandees had their troubles as well as their gay doings, and were but dust like the rest of the world, which was a comfortable reflection.
There was the squire, looking none so hearty and heedless that anybody need eat out his heart with envying him. Mayhap he wished himself back among his early friends, doing a day's work, trudging on the march, talking and smoking their clay pipes over their mugs of beer, when the sun went down. Mayhap working at being a gentleman, to which he had not been bred, turned out the hardest work of all. The women among the real hay-makers thought surely they would have a taste of cowslip wine—still extant in Eastwich—or elderberry wine and diet cake to sweeten their mouths after the usual field fare, when the gentlefolks were holding their feast.
In the meantime Sir William, though he wore an expression of inflexible gravity, as one on the eve of a grand epoch in his life, was not a blot on his company. He showed best in his morning dress, in which he was most at