Little Nan would be waiting for him, as well as his supper, and Stephen forgot his weariness as he bounded along the soft turf, to the great discomfiture of the brown-faced sheep, quite as anxious for their supper as he was for his.
Stephen heard far off Snip’s sharp, impatient bark, and it made him quicken his steps still more, until, coming within sight of his own Hollow, he stopped suddenly, and his heart beat even more vehemently than when he was running up the hillside.
There was, however, nothing very terrible in the scene. The hut was safe, and the sun was shining brightly upon the garden, and little Nan was standing as usual at the wicket. Only in the oat-field, with their faces looking across the green, stood two men in close conversation. These men were both of them old, and rather thin and shrivelled in figure; their features bore great resemblance to each other, the eyes being small and sunken, with many wrinkles round them, and both mouths much fallen in. You would have said at once they were brothers; and if you drew near enough to hear their conversation, you would have found your guess was right.
‘Brother Thomas,’ said the thinnest and sharpest-looking, ’I intend to enclose as far as we can see from this point. That southern bank will be a first-rate place for young animals. I shall build a house, with three rooms above and below, besides a small dairy; and I shall plant a fir-wood behind it to keep off the east winds. The lime and bricks from my own works will not cost me much more than the expense of bringing them up here.’
‘And a very pretty little hill-farm you’ll make of it, James,’ replied Thomas Wyley admiringly. ’I should not wonder now if you got L20 a year rent for it.’
‘I shall get L25 in a few years,’ said the other one: ’just think of the run for ponies on the hill, to say nothing of sheep. A young, hard-working man could make a very tidy living up here; and we shall have a respectable house, instead of a pauper’s family.’
‘It will be a benefit to the neighbourhood,’ observed Thomas Wyley.
The latter speaker, who was a degree pleasanter-looking than his brother, was the relieving officer of the large union to which Botfield belonged; and, in consequence, all poor persons who had grown too old, or were in any way unable to work, were compelled to apply to him for the help which the laws of our country provide for such cases. James Wyley, the elder brother, was the owner of Botfield works, and the master of all the people employed in them, besides being the agent of the lord of the manor. So both these men possessed great authority over the poor; and they used the power to oppress them and grind them down to the utmost. It was therefore no wonder that Stephen stopped instantly when he saw their well-known figures standing at the corner of his oat-field; nor that he should come on slowly after he had recovered his courage, pondering in his own mind what they were come up to Fern’s Hollow for, and how he should answer them if they should want him to give up the old hut.