A land agent managed the day-to-day affairs of a large estate -- typically thousands and thousands of acres -- for a member of the landed aristocracy. He supervised the farming of the property by rural laborers and tenants and collected payments as well.
Mr. Preston, formerly the land agent at Ashcombe, takes over the Hollingford job from Mr. Sheepshanks in Wives and Daughters. He first encounters Squire Hamley in Part Three, Chapter XXX:
...[Squire Hamley] rode up to the men busy at work on Lord Cumnor's land. Just before he got up to them he encountered Mr. Preston, also on horseback, come to overlook his labourers. The squire did not know him personally, but from the agent's manner of speaking, and the deference that was evidently paid to him, Mr Hamley saw that he was a responsible person. So he
addressed the agent, - 'I beg your pardon, I suppose you are the manager of these works?'
Mr. Preston replied, - 'Certainly. I am that and many other things besides, at your service. I have succeeded Mr. Sheepshanks in the management of my lord's property. Mr. Hamley of Hamley, I believe?'
The squire bowed stiffly. He did not like his name to be asked or presumed upon in that manner. An equal might conjecture
who he was, or recognize him, but, till he announced himself, an inferior had no right to do more than address him respectfully as 'sir.' That was the squire's code of etiquette.
'I am Mr Hamley of Hamley. I suppose you are as yet ignorant of the boundary of Lord Cumnor's land, and so I will inform you that my property begins at the pond yonder - just where you see the rise in the ground.'
'I am perfectly acquainted with that fact, Mr Hamley,' said Mr. Preston, a little annoyed at the ignorance attributed to him.
'But may I inquire why my attention is called to it just now?'
The squire was beginning to boil over; but he tried to keep his temper in. The effort was very much to be respected, for it was a great one. There was something in the handsome and well-dressed agent's tone and manner inexpressibly irritating to the squire, and it was not lessened by an involuntary comparison of the capital roadster on which Mr Preston was mounted with his own ill-groomed and aged cob...