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Chapter X.

Ben accompanies Mr Stubble and Bob on a visit of inspection to the house in Slumm Street.—Rejoicing of the ladies over the big house.—Suggestions for a carriage.—Joe's objection thereto.

AFTER leaving Entwistle's hotel, Mr Goldstone and his two friends went straightway to inspect the house which he had recommended for the occupancy of the family.

If Mr Stubble had ever read Tom Hood's “Haunted House,” he might have been forcibly reminded of it on entering the dreary domicile in Slumm Street. It had been built in the days of forced labour, and was perhaps designed by a turnkey, for it had a decidedly jailish look, especially about its rear. The front-window sashes were small, and had outside wooden shutters with diamond-shaped clusters of auger holes in them to admit some of the morning rays. The back-windows were protected by massive iron bars, evidently showing that the original owner or his gloomy architect had a strong suspicion that there were robbers in the land. The yard was badly paved, and an unsavoury odour indicated imperfect sewerage, untidy neighbours, and rats. A tall mouldy wall, several degrees out of the perpendicular, separated the property from a cow-shed, which was on somewhat higher ground, as was shown by a perpetual ooze of liquid through some fissures in the brickwork, which kept the yard disagreeably moist.

Mr Stubble's facial twists and involuntary shrugs from time to time were anything but favouring symptoms, but his modesty kept him from expressing the disapproval which his nose suggested. He was glad his wife and daughter were not there, or they would have condemned the place in a minute, and Ben's feelings might have been hurt by their blunt depreciation of his father's property.

Goldstone took a more cheerful view of cach grimy nook and corner, and explained, with the decisive utterance of an auctioneer praising damaged goods, that a dash of whitewash here, a dab of paint there, and a barrowful of bricks and mortar in another place, would make a wondrous improvement.

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In his opinion, a painter or two, a couple of carpenters, a mason, and a good scavenger, would, in a fortnight's time, make the place smart enough for the Prime Minister to live in. The adjoining cow-yard, he considered, was a double advantage to an incoming tenant, inasmuch as almost everybody who knew anything about natural philosophy admitted that the scent of cattle was wholesome; and the family might see their own milk drawn from the cow every day by merely peeping over the wall—a privilege which they would learn to prize when they became more alive to the wily ways of town dairymen in general.

“Blamed if I know what to say about it, and that's the truth. What do you think, Bob?” said Mr Stubble, who was anxious to keep the responsibility from resting entirely on his own shoulders this time. “Why don't you speak up, boy?”

“I think, as Mr Goldstone thinks, that the place will look very different after it has had a regular cleaning out,” said Bob. “There is a good stable and coach-house, which we shall find handy. I don't exactly see what we want with so many rooms; but mother and Mag are always singing out for a big house, so it will suit them in that respect. I expect the rent will be tremendously high though, as houses go in Sydney.”

“Not at all: and that is a strong reason why I recommend it,” said Ben. “I can let you have it for £100 a year less than you could get a house of its size elsewhere in the city, and I don't think it will cost more than £50 to put it in order. But please yourselves, and don't let me persuade you against your own judgment; for though the house belongs to my father, and my mother died in it, I would not allow you to take it if I thought it would not suit you. It is no pecuniary interest of mine, you will understand; at any rate, I shall not be benefited by it while the old man is alive. If he should happen to pop off, you shall live in the house for nothing.”

“I'm sure you be very kind, Benjamin. I'd take the place in a minute if I worn't afeard of missis and Mag grumbling at me.”

“Well, as I said before, I think it can be made to look first-rate at very little expense. It is not in a fashionable neighbourhood, but you don't care for that I know; comfort and convenience is what you think most about. I have no doubt that the ladies will be pleased with the place after

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it is put to rights; in fact, I am willing to take the responsibility upon myself, and if they don't like it they may blame me.”

“That will do, mate,” said Mr Stubble, excitedly. “I'll have the house then, and thee may set men to work as soon as thee likes. I'll tell the missis and Mag just what you say.”

“All right, it's a bargain,” said Goldstone. “£150 a year and taxes—lease for a year, with the option of taking it for a longer term—rent payable quarterly—all serene. I'll settle the thing for you with the governor, and the house shall be all in order—as smart as a new sentry-box—in three weeks from to-day.”

After a little more conversation, the friends separated; Joe and his son going home to tell mother and Mag the particulars of their new bargain, and Ben going straightway to his father's house to acquaint him with the prompt way in which he had procured him a first-rate tenant, and to renew his efforts to ingratiate himself into the favour of his eccentric sire.

“I've got a house as will suit'ee now, Peggy, I'll warrant,” said Joe when he returned to Redfern.

“Have you now? That's right, measter! I know'd you could do it if you set about the job in earnest. Have you seen the house, Bob?”

“I have so—been all over it from the coal-hole to the top of the shingles, mother. There is a prime place for a pigeon-coot in the front attic, and a long pole for a monkey or a native bear in the back-yard.”

“Is it a good big house, Bob?” asked Maggie.

“My word, it is. There are a dozen rooms in it, without counting the cellar: and some of them are real smart rooms too, with whigmaleeries in the centre of the ceilings, and crinkem-crankems all round the edges. I reckon it will cost above a trifle to fill it with furniture, and Biddy will have to brush up to keep it tidy.”

“But what, in the name of Fortune, did you go and take such an out-of-the-way big house as that for, father?” asked Peggy, with frowns forming on her brow.

“There, now; at it again, lass! Beginning to grumble afore thee hast seed the consarn. Goldstone persuaded me to take 'en, and he said, if thee didn't like 'en, he'd be 'sponsible, and thee needn't have it at all.”

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“Oh—ay—well—yes; that's fair enough, Joe. It is all correct, I daresay; I am not going to grumble at you. But what is it like at all? Tell us about it.”

“Thee knew Squire Bangham's house at Barnstaple? Well, it's bigger nor that a pretty deal. Then there is a coach-house and stable, with brick muck-hole and an iron pump, and all the rest of 'en, quite grand I can tell'ee.”

“Do you mean to treat us to a carriage, father?” asked Maggie; at the same time she cast a significant glance at her brother, who winked in return.

“Ha, ha, ha!” laughed Joe. “Carriage, eh? Doant 'ee want a footman in velvet breeches to ride behind? Ho, ho, ho! What would my poor old granny say if she wor alive, and could hear us talk so big?”

“Joking aside, father, I don't see why we should not have a vehicle of some sort,” said Bob. “We have a place to keep it, and a good three-stall stable. It wouldn't cost much to keep a couple of horses, and one man to look after them. We could get our hay and corn down from Daisybank you know.”

“But us would have to pay for it, boy, get it where us would. Doan't 'ee be going ahead too fast altogether. Us don't want a coach, and I bean't going to buy one neither; so that's all about it,” said Joe, who was beginning to lose his patience at the extravagant notions of his children. Peggy said nothing, for though she would have had no objection to a coach of her own to ride in, she thought it would be launching too much into expense.

“By Jericho! it's a rale pity ye should jogger on the ould cart, Masther Bob, so it is; for thin ye might have guv us all a trot now an' agin, for a trate, same as ye guv me whin ye dhrove me to Daisybank an' smashed all the eggs an' butther,” said Biddy, who had just entered the room to hear what was going on. She was peremptorily ordered to leave the room instantly: but her remarks stopped the discussion on the carriage question, and turned the conversation to the subject of her incorrigible habit of speaking without being spoken to. After all the family except Joe had expressed their opinion on Biddy's demerits, Mrs Stubble finally remarked that, as she should always sit on thorns when they had company in the house, lest that vulgar old thing should open her mouth, she had resolved to get rid of her as soon as it could be done quietly.

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In somewhat less than a fortnight, the house in Slumm Street looked decidedly better. Ben Goldstone had been very assiduous in looking after his workmen and in directing their efforts. As he had predicted, a wonderful improvement had been wrought through the skilful application of whitewash, paint, plaster, paper-hangings, &c. The cost of the work was double what he had estimated, but that was no consequence; estimates always did exceed expectations. Mr Stubble and Bob had paid daily visits to the house while the renovating process was going on, and their report at night was eagerly listened to by the ladies, who were impatient to see their new home, but had been requested by Ben not to go near it until he had got it into apple-pie order. It was with difficulty that Joe could be restrained from going to work when at the house; indeed he had one day stripped off his coat to help a labourer to load his cart with rubbish from the back-yard, when Bob came up in time to stop the undignified proceeding, and, as he afterwards explained to his sister, he made the old man drop his shovel as hastily as if there were a centipede on the handle, by merely telling him that “Ben was coming round the corner.”

At length the house was finished, and Bob went home with the key in his pocket. The next day the whole family paid a visit of inspection, and Ben had the gratification of receiving the approving smiles and encomiums of the ladies, who expressed themselves thoroughly pleased with the dwelling from bottom to top. Mrs Stubble ventured to remark that she would have preferred having a nice view of the harbour and the lovely Domain from the front windows, instead of the pawnbroker's shop and the green-grocery over the way, but when Ben explained to her the high prices that people have to pay for such fine views from their fronts, Peggy was satisfied. “After all, it did not matter,” she remarked, “for they could see a little bit of Cockle Bay from their attic window, and they might easily walk to the Domain in twenty minutes any day.”

“Yes, but you will have a carriage, mother; so you can ride there in ten minutes. It is quite a fashionable afternoon drive round Lady Macquarie's chair.”

“I don't know about our driving, Benjamin,” said Peggy, with a modest simper; “father doesn't see as how he can afford us a vehicle, and I don't wish to be extravagant.”

“Nonsense! not afford it, indeed! I say, old man, you'll

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treat them to a trap, surely?” said Ben, slapping Joe's shoulder facetiously. “I know where there is one which will suit you to a T. Bob and I were looking at it the day before yesterday.” But the old man shook his head so decisively, that Ben thought he had better not press the matter, for he could plainly see that Mr Stubble did not mean to yield that point.

“Now, the next thing to be thought of is the furniture. Excuse me for asking the question, but have you decided who you will engage to furnish the house for you?” said Ben. “I don't wish to interfere, you know, but I thought I might be able to offer you a useful hint or two.”

“I was thinking that the missis and I could take a walk round about them cheap shops in Pitt Street, or attend some of them Monday morning auctions. I seed a fine strong cedar bedstead, mattress and all, knocked down t'other morning for five and twenty shillings, and it worn't much worse for wear neither.”

“Faugh! you won't persuade me to have any second-hand wooden bedsteads in my house, Stubble; so you needn't boast about your bargains in that way,” said Mrs Stubble, firmly. “I remember old Johnny Doddle bought a wooden bedstead for his wife a bit ago, and thought he was doing wonders. It was warranted bran-new, though I think it must have been pretty stale, judging by the scent of it; anyway it was a grand-looking concern, with great big polished legs as thick as a donkey's thigh, and heaps of carved things on 'em. It had great heavy cornices too, like the top of a church organ, and shiny poles and monhogony rings for curtains, quite out of the common way. But by and bye, when the warm weather set in, they found they couldn't sleep a wink till sunrise of a morning; so they hired a strong man to take the bedstead down again, and rub its joints with camphor and turpentine. Still that was no good; it only made a wicked smell for nothing; there were things in the wood that wouldn't come out by daylight, whatever the man did to coax 'em, but they would come out lively enough at night, and Johnny did not like 'em at all. Mrs Doddle was very proud of her bedstead's fine polished legs, but her old man said he was tired of lying awake at night looking at 'em; so he got cross one day and sent the whole concern away to a sale-room, where it was knocked down for next to nothing, same as the bedstead was that father talks about.”

“Just so. I have heard of such things before; in fact, I have seen unpleasant bedsteads in the course of my travels,” said

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Ben, with a shrug. “It would be a pity to bring any old furniture into this house, now it has been done up so nicely. If you will allow me to make a suggestion, mother, I would say that you had better go to Lenehan's, or Hill's, or Hunt's, or Moore's. But stay, you are a stranger to them; so I will take that little job upon myself, if you like, and will see that the house is furnished respectably. What do you say, mother?”

“Hem, I'm afraid it is giving you too much trouble, Benjamin. You have been very kind in seeing after the doing up of the house, we couldn't think of asking you to furnish it for us.”

“Don't say a syllable about that, mother. The trouble is a pleasure. If you like to entrust me with that duty, I'll see that the house is furnished, all ready for you to come into on Friday week, or say Saturday week—Friday is an unlucky day you know.”

“I am sure we are all very much obliged to you, Benjamin. What do you think about it, father?”

“It will cost a mighty lot of money, that is what I be thinking of, and I be getting skeered, Peggy; so I tell'ee.”

“But didn't you say that mother was to take a house and furnish it as she liked, and you would not say a word against it, father?” whispered Maggie; at the same time she passed her arm coaxingly round father's neck.

“All right, girl, I forgot that. Go to work; only doan't 'ee ruin me out and out—that's all I've got to say,” replied Joe, trying to force a smile, though he was really concerned at the prospect of having to pay so much money for living in a grand style, which was thoroughly opposed to his own humble taste. Gladly would he have seconded a proposition to return at once to the old house at Buttercup Glen, even if he had to buy it back again at double the price that he had sold it for. But there was no such proposition thought of by any of his family; they had one and all become fascinated by the prospect of grandeur before them, and Joe felt his utter inability to alter their views; so he sighed, but said nothing further.

“Perhaps you would like to go with me to choose the carpets and oil-cloth, and to select the drawing-room suite?” said Ben, appealing to Mrs and Miss Stubble, who replied that they should very much like to do so; whereupon Ben promised to bring his trap for them on the following afternoon and drive them to the upholsterer's.

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Throughout the ensuing week, the topic of conversation at every meal was the new house and the new furniture. Ben was a nightly visitor, and each time he reported progress, which was always regarded as satisfactory by the ladies. Poor Joe was the only one who did not seem joyful; even Biddy was always laughing; but whether it was an ebullition of gladsome feeling at the prospect of her change, or a derisive laugh at the fulsome pride of the family, I will not stay to consider.