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23. CHAPTER XXIII.

THE WOLF AT THE DOOR.

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‘Well, Issy, and how goes on the matchmaking, eh?’ asked Mr. Lang, giving his daughter a loving pinch on her ear as he spoke.

‘Which?’ Isabel asked.

‘What, which?—how many are there, then? and pray are you in the fashion too, Issy? Mean'st thou to desert the old nest, young bird?’

She did not answer, but a blush mounted even to her brow.

He went on—'Is it prospering? Ought we to ask the Grand Signor to dinner? because you see, if it is right, and any good to the little woman, Issy, let it be done. Since he has thought fit to pocket his pride and come here, so making me an apology, in point of fact, d'ye see?—I have no objection to doing what I can to help on this little affair; but between ourselves, Issy, it must be quick; for how long we shall call this our own is more than I know.’

‘Mr. Herbert has only been here once, you know daddy; I thought then he made good use of his time, and I don't doubt he will very soon be here again. It is great fun.’

‘Ah, well!—don't get fond of that occupation, girl. Leave folks to manage their own affairs; it is not safe to meddle with matrimony. Does Kate's admirer continue to play the devoted? I fancy I have heard less of his being here.’

‘He is absent; looking out about his own home, they say.’

‘Ah, indeed! Making his house ready?—Is that it, Issy?’

‘I don't know, sir; Kate thinks or hopes so. I have my doubts, rather.


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I don't like a hard twinkle in Mrs. Vesey's eye.’

‘Your mother would fret, wouldn't she, Issy?’

‘She would feel hurt, I am sure; she likes Mr. Fitz.’

‘Ah, then, mind if he comes in my way I shall assuredly break his head; that is, if he serves my child in a shabby fashion. But here they come. Mamma has been brewing the coffee; and here is bonnie Kate, as fine as a scraped carrot. By Jove, Kate, that's a very pretty dress!’

The letter-bag was brought in with coffee and the more substantial parts of the meal; and Mr. Lang, after passing on a letter or two to his wife and daughters, proceeded to read one of his own.

Long was the silence. The ‘broil’ was growing cold; Isabel took on herself to help it, and putting some on her father's plate, she said—'Now, papa.’ But this and many other attempts to recal him to the fact that breakfast was waiting for him, failed to rouse Mr. Lang from his intent perusal of this absorbing letter.

Mrs. Lang grew nervous and troubled; glanced at her husband, and at the fast spoiling viands which she had taken pains to cook herself for his pleasure and benefit.

‘News of the wool, Mr. Lang?’ she asked. ‘Have the last drays from the station reached Sydney? What ship is it to go by? No more failures, I hope!’

Still not a word; but as Isabel thought a very ominous neglect of his coffee and egg.

‘Hang the rascals!’ he exclaimed presently in a loud voice, and with a sudden jerk of his legs which considerably splashed the table-cloth, and made them all start.

‘Am I made of money? Can I force people to buy? Can I coin money? A pretty kind of an offer! Pack up, girls! pack up!—we must leave this.’

‘Pray, Mr. Lang!——I beseech you not to be so abrupt, if you have any mercy on my nerves!’ murmured poor Mrs. Lang, plaintively.

‘Nerves!—fiddlesticks! That's a nice fellow!’ drawing his mouth on one side, and then giving a long whistle. ‘ 'Pon my word and say so, Kate.’

‘Do eat your egg, papa!’ said Isabel.

‘Eat? I can't afford to eat! Hang that vile Jew! Eat indeed!——’

The letter was then read again, examined, turned upside down, grinned at, twisted, then folded carefully and deposited in his waistcoat pocket, the cold coffee hastily swallowed, a piece of dry toast caught up, and Mr. Lang marched off.

Mrs. Lang burst out crying, and Isabel looked grave as she said, ‘I am sure it is bad news!’




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‘O dear! I wish it would come at once, if it is to come!’ said Kate. ‘One so often hears the cry of Wolf, that one really ceases to believe in it.’

‘It is something serious, I am sure,’ again said Isabel, as she played with her teaspoon.

Soon Mrs. Lang dried her eyes before proceeding to her store, and Kate shook her flounced apron, and very philosophically resolved not to believe there was such a thing as ruin or poverty. All gentlemen talked so! So she went to the drawing-room and placed the furniture as much as she could in Vine Lodge fashion, and hummed the air of a certain comic song, and then she went to finish her new dress in the work-room, meditating a ride with the boys to the Settlement, as she wished to try if she could get a few hooks-and-eyes at the store there.

Isabel sat on in the dining-room, doing nothing till she heard her father's step in the hall, as he left his room. He went out at the front door, and she followed with her parasol. After walking a little way, he turned almost as if he expected to see her behind him, and waited till she came up.

‘How very dry the ground is again,’ she said.

‘Very; but there's plenty of grass, that's one good thing.’

After a pause, she said, ‘Do you think that the boiling down will really pay?’

‘Pay? nothing will pay. The country is ruined—ruined!’ Presently he added, ‘Confound me if I know what to do! I'm at a dead halt, Issy. If I could only raise this paltry sum I could perhaps manage to swim on till things came round.’

‘Can't you borrow it?’

‘Of whom?’

‘Of any friend.’

‘Pooh! you talk nonsense, girl. I've had enough of borrowing of ‘friends,’ as you call it. That's why my friend of the mustaches rides the high horse over me, because I borrowed that unlucky 500l. off him—no, I can't stand that.’

‘Whom do you mean, sir?’

‘Herbert, to be sure. Didn't you know I was debtor to him for 500l.? ha, ha! Let him come down on me if he likes; but I will pay him off as soon as ever I can sell stock to cover principal and interest. But I believe he likes the honour of lending me cash rather than not; hey, Issy?’

‘I should think he would be very glad of it himself, sir. But you don't mean that he duns you?’

‘O, no! he never mentioned it; but I see it in his face pretty often. But, there—go in, girl, go in; the men are waiting for me. Keep up mamma's


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spirits, and don't all of ye go into the die-aways, or I shall take to the Bush, I believe. Keep the ball up, Issy!’

She smiled, as she saw him smile; and yet her heart beat as she marked the dimness in his eye and felt the fond pressure of his heavy hand on her shoulder.

‘O that I were a man,’ she thought, as she returned to the house; ‘how much I could do to help him!’

Isabel went to the school-room when she returned, and waited patiently till the little girls were dismissed.

‘Now, then, that tiresome work is over, and I hope you are going to sit idle for a little, and let us have a snug cosy chat, my dear little woman,’ said Isabel, drawing a stool close to Miss Terry.

‘You will not object to my netting my purse, will you? I can always talk better when my fingers are employed.’

‘O dear! oh dear!’ yawned Isabel, ‘I am weary—I am tired, Miss Terry!’

‘What hard work have you been doing, Isabel?’

‘None! it is from lack of work. I am tired of having nothing to do.’

‘Then pray rouse up, for I can find you plenty of sewing. There are the children's aprons to be braided——’

‘Rummage and—O, I forgot! But no, I wont do that. The aprons are just as good minus the braid; besides, I call sewing doing nothing. Now you may laugh, but I am sure I am made for real work. I have a craving for it. I envy every man who has a farm or station to manage; every person, in fact, who has a certain work which must be done. Why, Miss Terry, just look at Kate and me! What is there to occupy us? Mamma will not give up any management to us; though of course we may make puddings and pastry, and stick on flounces, and make up bows, and trim aprons, and change our bonnet trimmings when we are at a standstill. Yes, and we may ride; that is the only pleasurable part—to ride through the air fast. Ah, how much you miss by not riding! And then we must play a few tunes of an evening and be good girls and go to bed. Dear, dear! is this life? Is this all I am to look forward to, I wonder? And now, too, when I want so much to work! Don't you think I could work—gain money?’

‘Yes; no doubt, if necessary.’

‘What work?’

‘What will be, what is in store for you, of course I know not; but it seems to me, Isabel, there is work at your feet even now.’

‘Point it out, you good little Mentor.’

‘The work of daily obedience and forbearance, the work of quiet,


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practical influence which a child may be permitted to exercise even over parents, the work of self-control—even better than the making money.’

‘Yes, yes! but, unfortunately, there is no opportunity for me. I am not ordered to do anything very trying, and so cannot show my powers of obedience; unless, indeed, you mean those little hourly frets—those wretched little rubs and pinches which seem quite beneath notice. 'Tisn't that. I want something more; something on a larger scale. O dear! I could, if I might, work for my daddy, and now he is in difficulty, too. Do you know,’ she added suddenly, ‘I almost wish the worst would come. A great misfortune there would be satisfaction in meeting and bearing. It is, after all, better to bear—I am sure it must be—than little daily vexations!’

‘But a great misfortune is generally accompanied by little ones, though we do not see them at a distance—it takes many threads to make a cable, Isabel. When trial comes, I do not doubt you will bear it nobly; but I should like—I wish you would not suppose that the present brings you no work.’

After a pause, Isabel said, ‘Well, set me some work, and I'll try to do it.’

‘There is so much time necessarily your own, and there seems here so little field for you to employ yourself for others as you might at home in England, for instance, that my advice to you is, to force yourself into certain work. Read and study, and that not idly and at the spur of the moment, but regularly, as a duty, if there is nothing else to be done. For it is the habit, and not the thing done that is important.’

‘If you knew how I hate books, or sewing, or any of those feminine occupations! How irksome it is to sit still so long—except, indeed, good tough work, such as mending stockings and so on——But see, here are the Veseys and Mr. Fitz. Ah, then he is come back. Well, I was beginning to wonder—and Kate looked palish. Pshaw!’ she broke off sharply. ‘Do you like scent, and studs, and rings for a man, Miss Terry? I wish they would stay away—hospitable now, ain't I? but I am sick of every one. However, perhaps it will cheer up papa, but it will only drive mamma further into the idea that is fixed in her mind about Kate and Mr. Fitz.’

‘Don't you yourself expect something there, Isabel?’

‘Me? I dont know’ (going to the window). ‘O, I suppose so. I can't make him out. Deary me, but he will be a funny brother. I shall never like him as I do Tom, incomparable Tom!’

Here Kate came in to tell the news that Mr. and Mrs. Vesey and their brother were come, and mamma was asking them to stay till evening, and that Issy must be sure and change her dress before she made her


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appearance.

‘Nonsense!’ and she looked at the soiled hem of her gown. ‘Dressing once a day is enough, isn't it, Miss Terry?’

‘Not if your mother wishes you to do so twice.’

‘Ah, No. 1 of my work, I see. Well, I asked for it. Obedience, and so forth, in trifles—that is to say, ‘Change your gown, Isabel; smooth your hair, Isabel; avoid rough words, Isabel.’ Very well, Miss Terry, I have learnt my lesson; so, good-bye.’

She appeared in the drawing-room in a quarter of an hour in her best dress, and readily took her share in the duty of entertaining their guests.

‘What did you come for to-day?’ she asked of Mr. Vesey.

‘Well done, Isabel; you are polite!’ said Kate, sotto voce.

‘Aw—ha, ha!—come for?—aw, of course, to the pleasure and all that, you know, of seeing you, aw——’

‘Thank you.’

‘To tell the truth,’ said Mrs. Vesey, laughing, ‘it was washing-day, and it is the old song of ‘Scrub, scrub,’ and so on. We were all glad to bestow ourselves on you and fly from soap-suds, steam, and grumbling women.’

‘I guessed as much,’ said Isabel. ‘Well, and though it is not washing-day with us, it is a kind of black day; we were all in the dumps, I assure you. Kate looked as melancholy as possible, and I have been very nearly going to do all sorts of things. So you see you were glad to come to us, and we are glad of you; and that's a more sensible way of putting it than pleasure, and happiness, and so forth, Mr. Vesey, isn't it? It is being neighbourly.’

‘Aw, exactly—new idea that—'pon my word you are very sincere and all that, you know.’

Mr. Lang soon popped in his head. ‘Ah, ah! well, glad to see you.’ In another half hour he returned dressed for dinner in a clean white jacket and white trousers. He was excessively ‘put out’ about something, Isabel saw, though as hospitable as usual to his visitors, and evidently amused at Mrs. Vesey's jokes. As soon as the cloth was removed, the cause of his present annoyance burst forth. Mr. Vesey had been speaking of the difficulty he had in managing a certain assigned man of his.

‘The thing is, sir,’ said Mr. Lang, thumping the table, ‘ 'tisn't possible to manage them without power to punish. Sir, the colony is ruined in every way. Why, a man can't get his men punished now. There must be a regular formal trial,note and so on. Well, so far, good; but get a few hare-brained reformers on the bench, like a certain friend of ours who shall


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be nameless, and hang it if the matter isn't turned this way and that way, and after all the fellow dismissed in your very teeth as undeserving of punishment! I should like to know who is the best judge of that. I should like to know if he would not be the better for a flogging. And now here's the rascal sent back to make a fool of me! 'Twont do, 'twont do, Mr. Vesey! However, let—hem—a certain gentleman take his own course. I'm sure I don't care, not I. But he'll smart yet under his new-fangled creeds.’

Mrs. Lang inquired who had been tried, but received no answer; so she turned to Mr. Vesey, and told him how sensitive Mr. Lang was, and naturally enough, at being opposed by so much younger a man than himself, and one not owning half or a quarter his property, &c.

Mr. Vesey wanted to know a great deal about ‘boiling down,’ and a walk to the farm was proposed, which Kate begged might be extended to Diamond Creek. This was agreed to, and they dispersed for parasols, bonnets, and hats.

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