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Chapter VIII.

A sulky trio.—Arrival of letter-bag containing letter from Ben Goldstone, asking permission to pay his addresses to Miss Maggie.

WHEN Bob and his sister reached home they found their mother sitting in the front verandah with visible signs of her recent excitement in her face; and it was not long before they knew the cause, for Peggy was never remarkable for a prudent reticence respecting her domestic troubles. She had often suffered for her lack of judgment in that way, and had good reason to regret that she had not thought a little more and spoken less about her real or imaginary grievances. But experience did not make her very wise.

After hearing her dolorous version of the disagreement between herself and her husband (in which she owned to a very small share of blame), Bob and Mag strongly sympathised with her, as usual; and when their father returned home about ten o'clock, there were three sulky faces for him to look at, which were enough to depress any ordinary man's spirits. But Joe was a philosopher in his way, as I have before shown; and his example is worthy of note by other unhappy sires in divided households. He had often seen those faces sullen, and had proved by repeated trials that gentle arguments were as powerless to cure ill-humour in its first stage, as they would be to draw cattle from a bog; so to avoid a domestic brawl, which even soft words would be sure to raise, he used to keep silent and try to show a cheerful face, even though his heart were aching with sadness.

Accordingly he opened the post-office bag, which Bob had carelessly thrown into a corner, and sat down at a side-table to read his correspondence. There were three letters in the bag. The first one Joe opened was from his agent in Sydney, advising him of a brisk demand for prime dairy-fed porkers, and of a fall of three pence a pound in butter. It also contained a pathetic refutation of a charge of neglect in returning empty butter kegs, and some other little differences of opinion respecting the weight of certain consignments. But

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those were controversial matters of too common occurrence to yield even the attraction which novelty sometimes lends even to disagreeable subjects, and Joe yawned over every sentence. The second letter was from a speculative friend in town, asking for the loan of twenty pounds, for only three weeks; but as Joe had not forgotten a former loan to the same person, which had extended over three years, he coolly threw the missive into the fire, and then opened the third letter, of which the following is a copy:—



“DEAR SIR,—I take the liberty of writing to inform you that I have formed a strong attachment to your daughter; and to request your permission to pay my addresses to that young lady with a view to marriage. Though I have not the honour of an intimate acquaintance with you, I presume that you know me sufficiently well to grant me the preliminary interview which I solicit. My father must be well known to you by name, if not otherwise; and I flatter myself there will be no objection to my suit on the ground of doubtful respectability. I may also state, that being my father's only son, I am heir-at-law to his property; besides having a present competency, derived under the will of my late grandfather, whom you doubtless knew by repute. I am at present staying with Major Hawkins, but shall probably return to Sydney next week. If you will in the meantime favour me with an intimation when it will be agreeable to you for me to wait on you personally, I shall be much obliged.—I remain, dear sir, yours respectfully, BENJAMIN GOLDSTONE.”

Joe's dubious looks as he read and re-read the latter document could not escape the notice of his family, who were sitting in the room, silently nursing their ill-humour, or occasionally interchanging short sentences in tones just above a whisper. It was Joe's usual custom to read all his correspondence aloud for the general edification; but he knew that at the present time his company were too sullen to be interested in the rise of pork or the fall of butter, and that the letter of the needy town friend would not call forth even an ironical “wish he may get it” from his wife, or a sly joke from Bob, which it would certainly have done in a peaceful season; so Joe ruminated in silence, while his family were secretly vexed

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that they were not made acquainted with his solemn thoughts. They could not but opine that the letter which father had last opened was on an exciting subject, for his winks and blinks, and his occasional interjections showed that plainly enough; but they were all too sulky to ask him any questions, and he did not volunteer a word of explanation, for he rightly judged that such an important subject should be discussed in a calmer temper than either of them just then evidenced. After a while, Joe folded up Goldstone's letter and put it into his pocket, and went into the garden for a walk, as he was accustomed to do when he had anything uncommon to cogitate.

“There was something queer in that last letter which father read, I'll bet twopence,” said Bob, looking sorry he could not guess what it was. “It made him twist his mouth about as if he were eating native currant-jam. I wonder what it is about?”

“Don't know, I'm sure,” replied his mother. “But I'll pretty soon find out after father's gone to sleep. I seed what pocket he put it into.”

“Perhaps it is a letter from the lawyer, wanting father to have another new trial with old Groodle for putting his corner post half a rod the wrong way,” suggested Bob.

“Not it, boy. The lawyer knows father won't have any more law about that twopenny-halfpenny corner post. He has had two trials, as they call 'em, and pretty dearly he has paid for the fun.”

“But didn't you teach me to sing ‘Try, try again,’ mother?” said Bob, laughing. “I wonder if it was a lawyer who made that little song?”

“Ah, well, it's no odds to me who made it; father won't try to move that old post again while I'm alive, that's certain,” said Peggy, positively. “The letter isn't about that concern, I know, or we should have heard father whistle directly he opened it.”

“Perhaps it's a letter from brother Dick,” whispered Mag, tenderly conscious that she was opening up a painful subject.

“Ah, poor dear boy! I'm 'feard we shall never hear from him again,” sighed Peggy. “It bean't from him neither, because he can't write—more's the pity.”

“Well, I don't see what is the use of trying to guess what the letter is about. We shall know when father chooses to tell us, and that will be quite soon enough for us if it is full of bad news; and if it's got good news in it, it won't spoil

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with keeping,” said Bob, who was anxious to stop a lamentation over his lost brother, which he saw was forthcoming. He then kissed his mother and sister, and they all retired for the night.

Long after midnight Mr Stubble might have been seen walking slowly up and down the centre path of his garden with his hands behind him, and his head bent downwards in the attitude of deep abstraction. Goldstone's letter had set him thinking, until, as he quaintly muttered, he was as dazed as though his brains were turned to cream cheese. He had sense enough left, however, to know that the letter was written in a civil style, and required a suitable reply; but what to say to it he could not make up his mind. He was certainly relieved from the exasperating belief that the young man was flirting with his daughter with dishonourable motives, for the letter plainly alluded to marriage. If his mind were equally free from misgivings respecting Goldstone's reputable habits, Joe would have felt some of his difficulties removed; though there would still be posing objections to the connexion. It was an unequal match, he thought; and notwithstanding the young man was rolling in riches, he would rather give Mag to Sam Rafter whose sole wealth were his tools and a small sum in the savings-bank. But then Sam had a thorough knowledge of his trade, and was both able and willing to work; he had a well-stored mind too, which Joe, humble as he was, highly appreciated; in short, “Sam was a real man,” as Joe tritely remarked. And he had troublesome doubts about the manly principles of Goldstone, simply on account of the companions with whom he was frequently associated, some of whom were well known to Joe as idle, dissolute young men, although of respectable parentage.

All these and other perplexing matters occupied the mind of Mr Stubble, as he perambulated the garden path till the moon began to dip low in the western sky, and the morning dew-drops on his whiskers warned him that he had better go in-doors, if he did not want to provoke a return of his old rheumatic pains; so he hastened in to bed.