― 46 ―

Chapter IX.

Discussion between Mr and Mrs Stubble respecting Goldstone's letter. —Maggie's joy and her mother's pride.

THE next morning, to the joy of Mr Stubble, his wife and daughter appeared at the breakfast-table with smiling faces. Such a brief season of sulkiness was unusual; but he was too much delighted with the change to speculate upon the cause of it. Perhaps he hopefully thought that they had seen the folly of showing ill-temper, and had resolved to act like sensible women in future; at any rate, he was not aware of the fact that they had had a private conference soon after sunrise, and resolved “to wheedle out of father” the purport of the mysterious letter, which Peggy had failed to discover by searching his pockets while he was asleep. They well knew father's susceptibility to kind words, for they had often proved it when they wanted to get something from him out of the common way. An endearing expression was as gladdening to his heart as bird music; and a pleasant look, or the touch of a gentle hand, would make his face brighten up with joy, even when he had lumbago or the earache. But it soon became evident, from his wary answers to their interrogations, that whatever was in the letter, father was not inclined to disclose it just then; and they were half sorry that they had debarred themselves the satisfaction of a moderate sulk without the anticipated result. Joe's experienced eyes could discover certain little physiognomical changes, like murky streaks on the horizon, which sailors know are signs of “dirty weather;” so, after breakfast, he quietly intimated to his wife that if she could spare half an hour he would like to have a private chat with her. She accordingly followed him into the best parlour, closed the door, and politely waited for him to speak first.

“I be bothered to tell'ee what's in my head, Peg,” began Joe, after sitting for some time silently fingering his whiskers. “But first and foremost, I want to get rid of summat as is making my conscience uneasy. I own that I be real sorry for

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what I said as worn't right yesterday. No honest man ought to be ashamed to say that much. Anybody may make a mistake and do what's wrong—that is human nature—and only rogues or fools refuse to own when they've gone astray. I told 'ee that I'd pitch young Master Goldstone head and heels into the lagoon if I catched 'en here again; and I be sorry I said that, Peg, because I have reason to think he wasn't coming here on purpose to play mischief with our gal. I thought he wor when I said it; and, by Job, I'd punish any mortal fellow on two legs who was coolly plotting to cast shame and sorrow into my house. But I ought to have know'd, Peg, if I'd a gived it a thought, that them heart-breaking rogues seldom or never meddle with a lass who has got a brother six feet high, or a feyther who knows how to handle a flail. I doan't want to say any more about what's gone and past, so give us a buss, Peg, and let us forgive and forget. Hearts should allers agree, though heads differ. There, now, thee 'st looking like my own loving Peggy long agone. I got a letter last night,” continued Joe, taking the missive from under the lining of his hat.

“Oh, yes, ah, that is the letter! In your hat, was it?” exclaimed Peggy, excitedly. “What is it all about? Read it out, will you, father?”

“Yes, yes, thee shall hear it all in a minute,” said Joe, putting on his spectacles; and then he slowly read the epistle which I have already transcribed, while Peggy's glistening eyes betokened her high appreciation of the composition as a whole.

“What does that mean, father?” asked Peggy, stopping Joe while he was spelling over the puzzling words—“preliminary interview.”

“I dunnow dezackly what 'en means, Peg, but 'tain't nothing uncommon, I don't think. Perhaps he wants to know if us have got any ready money to give away with Mag. Shouldn't wonder, for it's often axed for on wedding-days by gentlefolks; though it seems queer enough to me that a man should expect to be paid for marrying a good wife. It ought to be t'other way, to my thinking.”

“But Master Goldstone has got loads and loads of money, father. I heard all about that before I let him say a word to Mag. Ha, ha! I knowed what I was about.”

“That is the very reason why he may want a little more money, Peggy: any odds, it's the way of the world now-a-days,

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and us bean't much unlike other folks neither, when you come to think of it. Don't thee remember, lass, when us first went into Dab cottage at Chumleigh, with just fifty shilling's worth of furniture in it, how proud us was of our home, and that all the traps in it wor paid for honestly? Jingo! if anybody had a told us then that us 'ud have more than two thousand head of cattle of our own in a few years time, us wud have capered wi' joy, like chummies on May-day; and, sure enough, us 'ud have fancied we'd be contented with that too, to all the days of our lives. Well, thee know'st, Peg, that us worn't satisfied when us had got all that and more too; nor us worn't easy when us had more sovereigns than both of us could have carried on our backs and could have afforded a golden knocker to our door, and a silver shoe-scraper too, if us had a mind to be over-grand. Us wanted summat that us couldn't get then, and that just shows that it bean't in the nature of human creatures to have enough. Though Master Goldstone has got such heaps of money as thee talks about, Peg, I'll be bound he wants a little bit more. But never mind, it's no good talking; us can't stop the world from going round, and if a little money is all that is wanted to help our girl's happiness, I'll pretty soon hand it out, for barn it all, I don't want to hoard up my gold like a miser. Not I. What dost thee think about the letter, Peg? Thee hasn't said a word about that yet.”

“Oh, my! it's the best letter I ever heard in all my born days. I knowed he was a regular gentleman: I told you that, you know, father.”

“He be's a bit of a scholar, and no mistake, for he knows some nationlong words. But to my thinking, Peggy, Mag isn't the sort of gal for him. Her wud make a prime wife for a plain honest young fellow with enough common sense in his head to find out her value, and make her respect him; but her bean't fit for a lady,—to live in a grand house and manage a squad of servants; the poor wench ain't been used to it, and her wud be as awkward at it as I should be speechifying to a judge and jury with lawyer Windmore's wig and gown on. Then again, I'm afeard that this young fellow has tumbled in love too suddenly to be much in earnest; he hasn't had time to find out half Mag's goodness, and if it is her pretty face only that has smitten him, why, his love will soon go out like the fizz of a squib, for her won't allers be young and blooming, you know, and the first show of a

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wrinkle will scare him away from her. It is likely enough too that he'll soon be ashamed of her before his rich friends; I've seen that sort of thing before to-day, Peg. He'll find out that her bean't scholar enough to confab with them, and”——

“But she is a scholar, father,” interrupted Peggy. “I am sure Mag can read and write with any girl ever so far round about; and as for her ciphering, she bean't far out in that, I'll warrant, though I'm no judge.”

“Bless thee innocent heart, missis; doan't 'ee know that ladies must be able to fiddle on the pianney, and polly-voo French to their company, and work all sorts of fal-re-rals with beads and coloured worsted; and Mag knows no more about them things than Biddy Flynn does. Her can churn, and make a cheese, or do any other clever thing about a farm-house; but what's the good of all that sort of learning to her, if her marries Goldstone and goes to live among tip-top folks in Sydney? I tell thee what it is, Peggy, Mag won't be happy, and her had a hundred times better have Sam Rafter; that's my notion.”

“There now, I was certain sure you were going to talk about Sam Rafter before you had done. I tell you again, father, Mag doesn't like him, and her won't have him; and no blame to her neither. A girl has only one heart, you know, and surely she may have her say about it as well as her dad; and she would be a goof to give it away to a man that she doesn't like.”

“I doan't want her to have a man her don't like. Not I, missis. But her liked Sam well enough afore this grand gentleman turned up, and that makes me think it's money that her's in love with more than the man; for, barn it all, Sam's a nation sight better looking fellow than t'other, any day in the week, and Sundays especially, when he is figged out in his superfine church-going clothes.”

“But what does Bob think about it? I'll warrant he won't say half a word against Sam.”

“Why, Bob thinks as I think, of course, that Mag ought to look up in the world; and to marry a journeyman joiner would be looking exactly t'other way.”

“If that is all about it, I tell thee, Peg, Sam shan't be a journeyman another month. I'll start 'en in business for himself; and I'll lay any money he'll make a fortune by and bye, for he's just the chap as is likely to do't, and what's

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more, I'll engage he'll make good use of his money when he has earned it.”

“Mag can get a man with a great fortune, all ready made, Joe; and surely that is better than to scrape and toil for ever so many years to earn it, bean't it now?”

“Noa, I doan't believe it, missis; except Mr Goldstone had got more than twice as much gumption as I think he's got in his head. Even then Mag's ready-made fortune wouldn't be half so sweet to her as if her had scraped and toiled, as thee calls it, and helped to make it. Us never know the worth of water till the hole is dry. Dost thee think that a fellow who never lets his appetite rest long enough to grow hungry, would enjoy a grand feast half as much as a thrasher would relish a squab-pie or a figgy puddin'? Not he, indeed! And suppose when us lived in Dab cottage somebody had druved up in a cart, and tilted ten thousand golden sovereigns inside our front door, and said to us, ‘There, Joe and Peggy, there's a fortune for'ee; go and enjoy it.’ Dost thee think it wad have been as relishable to us as the fortune us have made for ourselves, after long years' hard labour?”

“I don't know, I'm sure, Joe, because I have never been tried in no such way as that; but I somehow think I should have liked it better than working hard; at any rate, I should like to have tried it. Scalls of money never would have scared me, master, nor, I don't believe it, would have scared you neither, for all your talk.”

“Ah, well, I see it bean't no good of me argufying any more with thee, Peggy,” said Joe, laughing. “If thee and Bob and Mag be all agreed about Goldstone, I won't stand out against him; that's all about it. Get me a good pen, and tell me how to answer his letter, and I'll do't in a crack. Let us hope it will turn out all right.”

“Don't you think I had better go and talk to Mag about it first of all, father. It is only natural for her to wish to have a voice in the thing, you know.”

“Yes, yes, of course; I forgot that, Peg. Go and talk to Mag, and I'll take a walk and try if I can get my think back again, for I seem to have been almost be-wattled for the last day or two.”

“Didn't I tell you, girl, that it was a letter from Mr Goldstone?” said Mrs Stubble exultingly as she entered Maggie's bed-room to acquaint her with the stimulating news.

“Never, mother! It can't be, surely!”

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“It is, I tell you, Mag. It's an offer of marriage. Here is the letter itself in a wrapper, smelling like roses and lavender water.”

Maggie took the letter, and blushed deeply as she read it through; then laughingly exclaimed “O mother, what shall I do? What shall I say about it?”

“Isn't it a beautiful letter, Mag? I knew very well I wasn't mistaken the very first time I saw Benjamin looking at you. I knew he was in love, safe as eggs. You mustn't try to deceive me in them things.”

“How ever could you tell, mother?”

“Tell, girl? why, easily enough; though I can't explain it rightly. He looked queer, you know, as if he'd die if he didn't get you. Can't ye understand?”

“Ha, ha, ha! how funny!” said Maggie. “That is exactly as I feel myself, mother.”

“You are a lucky lass, sure enough, Mag.”

“It will be a help to all the family, you know, mother. But what does father say to it?”

“He prefers Sam Rafter, of course; but after a long argification, he has promised to write a letter to Benjamin, and say he may come to see you if he likes.”

“How kind of him!” sighed Maggie. “Won't Bob be pleased?”

“I mean to say we have managed this job cleverly, Mag, and all in a fortnight too. Ha, ha, ha! Won't old Dame Rowley be savage? And Sam will be jealous enough to saw his own head off.”

“I was afraid something was the matter, as Benjamin stayed away so long, mother.”

“Nonsense, girl. I told you all along that Annie Hawkins wouldn't catch him, though she tried hard enough to do it, no doubt. You need not have been so miserable about it, Mag; but never mind, that's all over. Now we must set to work a little faster with the improvements to our dowdy old house, and get some new furniture in it before Sunday. The very sight of those rickety cedar chairs always makes me feel uneasy: they are not fit for a gentleman to sit upon: and that donkey sofa looks horridly common.”

“I don't like to see that picture of grandfather in a fustian coat, hanging right over the clock, mother. Couldn't you manage to hang it up in your bedroom?”

“If we take that thing down, Mag, father will be wofully

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cross. We must keep him in good humour; then we'll get all we want. I'll settle the picture, never fear; but don't you say anything about it.”

Writing a letter to Mr Goldstone was an arduous task to Joe, and he perspired over it as though he were bursting a cross-grained log. Peggy lent important aid in the composition, but Mag had to be summoned into the room on several occasions to arbitrate on disputed questions of orthography. After a while, however, the epistle was finished and despatched to the post-office, and then Maggie's heart began to flutter with anticipations too tender to be described in plain prose.