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Chapter VI.

Ben Goldstone's interview with his father.—His ideas on the qualifications for a politician.—Ben's sympathy with his father's trials.—Various negotiations.

“WHO are you, sir?” asked Mr Goldstone, senior, as his son entered the dusky room where he was sitting on the afternoon alluded to in the preceding chapter.

“I am Benjamin Goldstone, sir,” replied Ben, bowing politely, and without showing any sign of annoyance at his sire's abrupt address.

“Oh, Ben Goldstone, are you? Humph! I was not sure about it. You have so horribly altered in appearance since I last saw you.”

Mr Goldstone meant this as a cutting reproof to his son for allowing his beard and moustache to grow. Mr Goldstone had shaved his face bare twice a week ever since he was nineteen years of age, and although his hands had got very shaky, and he often cut little corners off his wrinkles, he still persisted in the use of his razor, and, like many other old fogies who want all the world to copy them in everything, he professed the utmost contempt for any man who chose to let those gifts of nature go unclipped. Ben knew his father's humour too well to reason with him on the philosophy of beard culture; and though there might have been some little excuse for Ben if he had been ruffled, he did not look in the least degree unamiable. It is very difficult to raise a dispute where there is only one person inclined thereto, and Ben was not going to quarrel with his father about a few bristles. Moreover, he had a premeditated design of conciliating his neglected sire; so he smiled as if he thought the caustic remark were pleasantly witty, and said, as he took a seat, “How are you, father?”

“It is a matter of small concern to you how I am, sir, or you would have come to see me when I was ill.”

“I am very sorry to hear you have been ill, father,” said Ben, rising and taking the old man's tremulous hand. “I did not

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know it, I assure you, sir. What has been the matter with you, father?”

“I was laid up with typhoid fear—at death's door, you may say—for six weeks, but not a soul came near me except old Mrs Smith.”

“Ben thought it was not at all unlikely that his father might have typhoid again, and Mrs Smith also, for the atmosphere of the room was as fœtid as if it had not had a change for a week. Throwing all the pathos he could into his expression, he said, “Dear me! I am very sorry, father. I wish you had sent a special messenger for me. The fact is, I have been out of town for the last three months looking after my tenants on the Hunter River.”

“Tenants on the Hunter! I was not aware that you had any tenants in that direction,” said Simon, in a milder tone, for he was suddenly relieved of the idea that his son had come to ask for money. Ben marked the effect of that one little “white lie,” and was prepared to back it up by a hundred more, if necessary, but in order to divert the old man from the subject, he said, “I have called this afternoon, father, to speak to you on several matters of importance, and in the first place, let me tell you before I forget it, that I can get you a first-rate tenant for the old house in Slumm Street that has been so long empty.”

“I shall be very glad to let it at a reduced rent, Benjamin. It is a trouble to me. The last tenant left without paying any rent, and I did not know he was gone until a policeman came to tell me that all the lead had been stolen off the roof, and everything else that could be moved, including the knocker on the front door, and the bell-handle at the back gate.”

“What a shame!” exclaimed Ben, trying to look grieved. “But what was your agent about to let the tenant bolt, and then to leave the house to the mercy of petty thieves. Let me go and talk Greek to him, father!”

Simon calmly thanked his son for his readiness to turn his classics to practical account, but explained that he had no agent, for he managed his business himself, and saved commission. Ben thought it was an equivocal method of saving, but he knew that to argue the point with his sire would be useless; so he said in a sympathising tone, “I wish you had sent for me, father, when you were taken ill. I would have looked after your affairs for you.”

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“But you know, Ben, that I like punctuality in business, and that is a quality which you have not evidenced whenever I have entrusted you with the collection of rents for me.”

“I am sorry to say I have not acted right, father—in fact, I have been tempted to do wrong; but I have turned over a new leaf lately. I am happy to say my pecuniary circumstances have improved very much, and I am in a position to pay all my just debts. The money that I have misappropriated shall all be refunded to you in a few weeks. By the bye, let me tell you another important fact, father; I am going to be married!”

“Married! married, did you say, boy?”

“Yes, father. I am going to be married to a young lady possessing wealth, beauty, and intellect. She is of a good family too—descended from a Sax”——

“I don't care whether she is descended from Saxon, Celt, or Gael,” interrupted Simon. “There are honest people in every country. Tell me if she knows how to keep a house tidy, and if she has common sense, and if she is likely to be a suitable companion for you through life.”

“I was going to tell you, father. She is quite domesticated, can make a loaf with Bones the baker any day, and do scores of useful things besides. The only failing that I have seen in her yet is, that she is inclined to be stingy; she has learnt that from her mother; but I can break her off it.”

“She will soon get over that failing if she follows your example. If you have really found a girl with wealth, beauty, intellect, and of economical habits as well, you are a fortunate fellow, Ben, and the sooner you get married the better, lest she should change her mind, and marry some one more like herself.”

“I am glad to know that you are so favourable to my union, father. It was my duty to consult you before I decided. Would you like to see Miss Stubble, sir?”

“I cannot go out of doors at present. You can give my compliments to her, of course.”

“She would very much like to see you, father,” said Ben, in his most insinuating tone.

“Yes, yes; so would the blind man under the post-office portico. You know I am an invalid. ‘When Æschylus was sitting under the walls of his house, an eagle, hovering over his bald head, mistook it for a stone, and let fall his oyster, hoping thus to break the shell, but pierced the poor

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man's skull.’ If the poor man had kept within the walls of his house, the eagle would not have seen him,” added Simon, who had a habit of quoting from classic authors, without any apparent relevancy to the subject of conversation.

“When is this wealthy, handsome, and intellectual young lady going to give herself away?”

Ben felt much annoyed at his father's irony, but he mastered his feelings, and replied softly, “I presume you mean to ask when we are to be married, father. Not for a month or more, for I have some very important matters to attend to in the interim. The fact is, I am putting up as member for Muddleton.”

“Peck of nonsense!” exclaimed Simon, looking thoroughly amazed. “Member for Muddleton, indeed! A pretty muddle you would make of it. What do you know about political science, boy?”

“I could soon tell you all that, father; but it is no matter, as times go. I suppose I can learn, as everybody else is obliged to do.”

“Pooh! get out with you. I have no patience left.”

“Don't be so touchy, father, Let me explain matters to you,” said Ben, looking rather abashed, for he had expected his father would have been highly pleased at the idea of his son getting into Parliament. He was surprised, too, at his father's patriotism, for he had never before expressed so much interest in the institutions of the land in the presence of his son. “I assure you, sir, I have not sought for this honour. It has been thrust upon me. The idea was first suggested to me by an honourable member, and I recoiled from the grave responsibility. But a week or two afterwards, I received a powerfully-signed requisition from the electors of Muddleton, to which I could not but accede; so I sent a modest reply, which I will read to you, sir, if you will allow me.” Ben thereupon took a paper from his pocket, and boldly read as follows, while his father sat in silence, with his eyebrows raised as high as they would go, and the angles of his mouth drawn down to the folds of his neckcloth, expressive of surprise, chagrin, and unmitigated contempt:—

To the Independent Electors of Muddleton.

“GENTLEMEN,—To say that I was astounded at your most respectably-signed requisition, would be but to express my feelings in the faintest language; but my sense of the honour

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you have conferred on me exceeds every other feeling except a consciousness of my own inability to reciprocate the weighty obligation under which your confidence has laid me.

“We are obliged to act so far as our power reacheth towards the good of the whole community; and he who doth not perform the part assigned him towards advancing the benefit of the whole, in proportion to his opportunities and abilities, is not only a useless, but a very mischievous, member of the public, because he takes his share of the profit, and yet leaves his share of the burden to be borne by others, which is the true principal cause of most miseries and misfortunes in life.

“Deeply impressed with”——

“Stop, stop! Where did you get that last paragraph?”

“Where, father? why out of my own head, to be sure. You shall hear some more.”

“I have heard more than I wanted to hear; and you must not try to befool me by declaring that the windy bunkum at the beginning of your address and the next paragraph are out of the same head. Tell me where you stole that little bit of common sense, or I will see if I can find out,” said Simon, rising and hobbling towards his book-shelves.

“Sit down, father,” said Ben, trying to laugh; “I cribbed that little bit from Swift, but all the rest is my own composition, I'll swear.”

“Don't swear in my house, or I will call a constable; you prating, brain-stealing”——

“Pray don't be so cross, father, I will explain”——

“Cross, indeed! Perhaps it was Dean Swift who said that children would not cross their parents so much when they grow up, if they crossed their knees oftener when they were young,” growled Simon. “Whoever it was that said it, I can feelingly endorse the sentiment; and I am cross with myself for sparing the rod to you when I ought to have used it.”

“I can tell you a remedy for a cross temper, father, which the Dean did not invent,” said Ben, who, though he was much annoyed at his father's sharp rebukes, felt nevertheless determined to keep his own temper, for reasons of his own. So, in the hope of making the old gentleman smile, he told him when he felt inclined to say angry words he was to run to the pump, fill his mouth with cold water, and keep it there for ten minutes before he spoke. But Simon still looked as sour as if his mouth were full of pickles, and Ben thought he had

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better change his tactics, as stale jokes would not tickle his father in the least degree. So he put on a perplexed look, and said, “If I had had an idea that you would object to my going into the House, father, I certainly should not have accepted the invitation from the electors of Muddleton; but now my honour is at stake, you know.”

“And my honour is at stake also. It would not only disgrace my reputation, but it would worry me into a fever again, to see my son in Parliament. You confess that you are ignorant of the duties required of you.”

“But I am willing to learn them, father.”

“Benjamin, I am sorry to say I do not believe you have ability to fill the post of a junior clerk,—at any rate, you have not industry enough for it; and it pains me to see you presume to set yourself up for a legislator, to make laws for the good government of nearly half-a-million of people! Any one of common sense will admit that it is necessary to serve years to learn any handicraft; and to master any of the arts or sciences requires long and diligent application; but it is a curious fact that many men suppose they have an intuitive knowledge of political economy, which is the most difficult study that I know of. A member of Parliament has moral responsibilities which he should not lightly estimate nor undertake without necessary qualification.”

“Do you think, then, that a man should not go into the House unless he is a thorough statesman?”

“I did not say that, Benjamin; but I do certainly say that he should not go in if he is thoroughly ignorant of statesmanship. Where a man has a full share of common sense, and that experience of the world which only years can give him, and provided he is able to express his ideas in a tolerably clear manner, he may be excused for going into the House, if there be no more eligible candidate for the seat; but then he must work hard, and study hard afterwards, otherwise he is negligent of his solemn trust, and will merit public contempt.”

“I begin to see that I have been precipitate in putting up as a ruler before I am qualified. I am sorry I did not consult you before, father, but I do not see how I can honourably retract. It would look so foolish to back out of it now.”

“Alexander Pope says, ‘A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong’; which is but saying in other words that he is wiser to-day than he was yesterday,” said Simon. “You are an Australian, Ben, and if you have

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any ambition to see the land of your birth advance, do all you can to secure wise legislators for it. And the best thing you can do in that way at present is to stand aside and let a wiser man than yourself stand for Muddleton; and surely the constituents would not have far to go to find one.”

“Excuse me, sir; but how is it that you have lived so long in the land and have never tried to advance it through means of the superior knowledge that you possess? I think there is more credit due to me, and to other young men of comparatively small experience, in being willing to come forward and do what we can for the country, than there is in all the wise old Solons who will do nothing but sit in their libraries and grumble at things they never try to mend. But I beg pardon, father, I don't want to vex you; I will think over your good advice. Please to tell me what rent you want for the house in Slumm Street, for I must be off.”

Simon's features relaxed into a sickly smile, and he said, “Ah, yes—the house: it is a very convenient one for a family. I want £150 a year for it, Ben. The last tenant was to have paid me £200 a year, but he paid me nothing at all, the shabby rogue.”

“You will put it into good tenantable order, I presume, father?”

“I certainly will not spend any more money upon the house, Benjamin. Previous to the last tenant going in I put it in thorough order, and he ran away without paying me a shilling.”

“You should employ a good sharp agent, father; then your tenants are not likely to run away in your debt,” said Ben, with an insinuating look, which seemed to imply that he himself would be just the man for the post.

“The agent himself might run away you know, Ben; and it would be a strong incentive for him to do so, seeing that I could not run after him. I once heard of a man who had exhausted himself in chasing a thief who had stolen his hat. He was leaning against a post, when a sympathising lounger came up and asked him why he did not pursue the robber and recover his hat. ‘I cannot possibly run another yard,’ said the poor man, panting for breath. ‘If that be the case, I may as well take your wig,’ replied the sympathising rascal. He then snatched the peruke from the helpless man's head, and ran off in another direction.”

“Ha, ha! that was a good joke,” said Ben. “But I say,

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father, suppose I can get you a cash customer for the house, what will you take for it?”

“I will take £2000 for it, Ben.”

“All right, sir; I will see what I can do. In the meantime I will let the house for you, and guarantee the rent, if you like. If I get you £2000 for it, will you have any objection to lend me the money on security of my estate in Cumberland?”

“I happen to know that your estate, as you call it, is already mortgaged, Benjamin,” said Simon, with a reproving look at his spendthrift son.

“I supposed you knew it, sir; but of course I intend to pay off that trifling incumbrance, and give you security on the whole estate.”

“Yes, that is the proper way, Benjamin; and when you have paid it off, you can let me know, and then we may talk about a fresh loan. But I must say, it is not very creditable to a young man like yourself to want a loan at all.”

After a little more conversation on the subject, Ben took an affectionate leave of his mollified sire, and departed.

“After all, I believe old daddy's surliness of manner proceeds more from bad digestion than from lack of paternal affection for his dutiful son,” soliloquised Ben, as he walked towards Redfern. “With respect to my parliamentary project, I must say his counsel is worth thinking about; but if I shy off from this constituency, I shall get awfully abused in certain quarters, and shall perhaps be driven to pen and ink in self-defence. My wig! I wonder if any of the Muddletonians have ever read Dean Swift's works. If any of them should detect that little bit of cribbage, I shall be nicely roasted. Never mind, I'll swear Swift stole it from me. Stop, that will not do, though, for he has been dead I don't know how long. Ah, well, I'll chance it!”