Of course Stephen’s brief term of favour with Black Thompson was at an end; but whether Miss Anne had given him a hint that the boy was under her protection, and had confessed all to her, or because he might be busy in some deeper scheme of wickedness, he did not display as much anger as Stephen expected, when he refused to show him the haunts of the grouse, or go with him again on a poaching expedition. Stephen was more humble and vigilant than he had been before falling into temptation. He set a close watch upon himself, lest he should be betrayed into a self-confident spirit again; and Tim’s loud praises sounded less pleasantly in his ears, so that one evening he told him, with much shame, into what sin he had been led by his desire to avenge Snip’s murder. Unfortunately, this disclosure so much heightened Tim’s estimation of his character, that from time to time he gave utterance to mysterious hints of the extraordinary courage and spirit Stephen could manifest when occasion required. These praises were, however, in some measure balanced by Martha’s taunts and reproaches at home.
The shooting season had commenced, and the lord of the manor was come, with a number of his friends, to shoot over the hills and plantations. He was a frank, pleasant-looking gentleman, but far too grand and high for Stephen to address, though he gazed wistfully at him whenever he chanced to meet him on the hills. One afternoon Martha saw him and the master walking towards Fern’s Hollow, where the fencing-in of the green and of the coppice behind the hut were being finished rapidly; and she crept with stealthy steps under the hedge of the garden, until she came within earshot of them; but they were just moving on, and all she heard of the conversation were these words, from the lord of the manor: ’You shall have it at any rate you fix, Wyley—at a peppercorn rent, if you please; but I will not sell a square yard of my land out and out.’ How Martha and Stephen did talk about those words over and over again, and could never come to any conclusion about them.
It was about noon on Michaelmas Day, a day which was of no note up at Fern’s Hollow, where there was no rent to be paid, and Martha was busily hanging out clothes to dry on the gorse bushes before the house, when she saw a troop of labourers coming over the brow of the hill and crossing the newly-enclosed pasture. They were armed with mattocks and pickaxes; but as the peaceful little cottage rose before them, with blind old Fern basking in the warm sunshine, and little Nan playing quietly about the door-sill, the men gathered into a little knot, and stood still with an irresolute and ashamed aspect.
‘They know nothing about it,’ said William Morris; ’look at them, as easy and unconcerned as lambs. I was afeared there’d be a upshot, when the master were after old Fern so long. I don’t half like the job; and Stephen isn’t here. He does look a bit like a man, and we could argy with him; but that old man, and that girl—they’ll take on so.’