The shepherd on the east hill could shout out lambing intelligence to the shepherd on the west hill, over the intervening town chimneys, without great inconvenience to his voice, so nearly did the steep pastures encroach upon the burghers’ backyards. And at night it was possible to stand in the very midst of the town and hear from their native paddocks on the lower levels of greensward the mild lowing of the farmer’s heifers, and the profound, warm blowings of breath in which those creatures indulge. But the community which had jammed itself in the valley thus flanked formed a veritable town, with a real mayor and corporation, and a staple manufacture.
During a certain damp evening five-and-thirty years ago, before the twilight was far advanced, a pedestrian of professional appearance, carrying a small bag in his hand and an elevated umbrella, was descending one of these hills by the turnpike road when he was overtaken by a phaeton.
‘Hullo, Downe–is that you?’ said the driver of the vehicle, a young man of pale and refined appearance. ‘Jump up here with me, and ride down to your door.’
The other turned a plump, cheery, rather self-indulgent face over his shoulder towards the hailer.
‘O, good evening, Mr. Barnet–thanks,’ he said, and mounted beside his acquaintance.
They were fellow-burgesses of the town which lay beneath them, but though old and very good friends, they were differently circumstanced. Barnet was a richer man than the struggling young lawyer Downe, a fact which was to some extent perceptible in Downe’s manner towards his companion, though nothing of it ever showed in Barnet’s manner towards the solicitor. Barnet’s position in the town was none of his own making; his father had been a very successful flax-merchant in the same place, where the trade was still carried on as briskly as the small capacities of its quarters would allow. Having acquired a fair fortune, old Mr. Barnet had retired from business, bringing up his son as a gentleman-burgher, and, it must be added, as a well-educated, liberal-minded young man.
‘How is Mrs. Barnet?’ asked Downe.
‘Mrs. Barnet was very well when I left home,’ the other answered constrainedly, exchanging his meditative regard of the horse for one of self-consciousness.
Mr. Downe seemed to regret his inquiry, and immediately took up another thread of conversation. He congratulated his friend on his election as a council-man; he thought he had not seen him since that event took place; Mrs. Downe had meant to call and congratulate Mrs. Barnet, but he feared that she had failed to do so as yet.
Barnet seemed hampered in his replies. ‘We should have been glad to see you. I–my wife would welcome Mrs. Downe at any time, as you know . . . Yes, I am a member of the corporation–rather an inexperienced member, some of them say. It is quite true; and I should have declined the honour as premature–having other things on my hands just now, too–if it had not been pressed upon me so very heartily.’
‘There is one thing you have on your hands which I can never quite see the necessity for,’ said Downe, with good-humoured freedom. ‘What the deuce do you want to build that new mansion for, when you have already got such an excellent house as the one you live in?’
Barnet’s face acquired a warmer shade of colour; but as the question had been idly asked by the solicitor while regarding the surrounding flocks and fields, he answered after a moment with no apparent embarrassment –
‘Well, we wanted to get out of the town, you know: the house I am living in is rather old and inconvenient.’ Mr. Downe declared that he had chosen a pretty site for the new building. They would be able to see for miles and miles from the windows. Was he going to give it a name? He supposed so.