A Voice from the Past
One afternoon, when the chestnuts were coming into flower, Maggie had brought her chair outside the front door, and was seated there with a book on her knees. Her dark eyes had wandered from the book, but they did not seem to be enjoying the sunshine which pierced the screen of jasmine on the projecting porch at her right, and threw leafy shadows on her pale round cheek; they seemed rather to be searching for something that was not disclosed by the sunshine. It had been a more miserable day than usual; her father, after a visit of Wakem's had had a paroxysm of rage, in which for some trifling fault he had beaten the boy who served in the mill. Once before, since his illness, he had had a similar paroxysm, in which he had beaten his horse, and the scene had left a lasting terror in Maggie's mind. The thought had risen, that some time or other he might beat her mother if she happened to speak in her feeble way at the wrong moment. The keenest of all dread with her was lest her father should add to his present misfortune the wretchedness of doing something irretrievably disgraceful. The battered school-book of Tom's which she held on her knees could give her no fortitude under the pressure of that dread; and again and again her eyes had filled with tears, as they wandered vaguely, seeing neither the chestnut-trees, nor the distant horizon, but only future scenes of home-sorrow.
Suddenly she was roused by the sound of the opening gate and of footsteps on the gravel. It was not Tom who was entering, but a man in a sealskin cap and a blue plush waistcoat, carrying a pack on his back, and followed closely by a bullterrier of brindled coat and defiant aspect.
"Oh, Bob, it's you!" said Maggie, starting up with a smile of pleased recognition, for there had been no abundance of kind acts to efface the recollection of Bob's generosity; "I'm so glad to see you."
"Thank you, Miss," said Bob, lifting his cap and showing a delighted face, but immediately relieving himself of some accompanying embarrassment by looking down at his dog, and saying in a tone of disgust, "Get out wi' you, you thunderin' sawney!"
"My brother is not at home yet, Bob," said Maggie; "he is always at St. Ogg's in the daytime."
"Well, Miss," said Bob, "I should be glad to see Mr. Tom, but that isn't just what I'm come for, — look here!"
Bob was in the act of depositing his pack on the door-step, and with it a row of small books fastened together with string.
Apparently, however, they were not the object to which he wished to call Maggie's attention, but rather something which he had carried under his arm, wrapped in a red handkerchief.
"See here!" he said again, laying the red parcel on the others and unfolding it; "you won't think I'm a-makin' too free, Miss, I hope, but I lighted on these books, and I thought they might make up to you a bit for them as you've lost; for I heared you speak o' picturs, — an' as for picturs, look here!"
The opening of the red handkerchief had disclosed a superannuated "Keepsake" and six or seven numbers of a "Portrait Gallery," in royal octavo; and the emphatic request to look referred to a portrait of George the Fourth in all the majesty of his depressed cranium and voluminous neckcloth.
"There's all sorts o' genelmen here," Bob went on, turning over the leaves with some excitement, "wi' all sorts o' nones, — an' some bald an' some wi' wigs, — Parlament genelmen, I reckon. An' here," he added, opening the "Keepsake," — here's ladies for you, some wi' curly hair and some wi' smooth, an' some a-smiling wi' their heads o' one side, an' some as if they were goin' to cry, — look here, — a-sittin' on the ground out o' door, dressed like the ladies I'n seen get out o' the carriages at the balls in th' Old Hall there. My eyes! I wonder what the chaps wear as go a-courtin' 'em! I sot up till the clock was gone twelve last night, a-lookin' at 'em, — I did, — till they stared at me out o' the picturs as if they'd know when I spoke to 'em. But, lors! I shouldn't know what to say to 'em. They'll be more fittin' company for you, Miss; and the man at the book-stall, he said they banged iverything for picturs; he said they was a fust-rate article."
"And you've bought them for me, Bob?" said Maggie, deeply touched by this simple kindness. "How very, very good of you! But I'm afraid you gave a great deal of money for them."
"Not me!" said Bob. "I'd ha' gev three times the money if they'll make up to you a bit for them as was sold away from you, Miss. For I'n niver forgot how you looked when you fretted about the books bein' gone; it's stuck by me as if it was a pictur hingin' before me. An' when I see'd the book open upo' the stall, wi' the lady lookin' out of it wi' eyes a bit like your'n when you was frettin', — you'll excuse my takin' the liberty, Miss, — I thought I'd make free to buy it for you, an' then I bought the books full o' genelmen to match; an' then" — here Bob took up the small stringed packet of books — "I thought you might like a bit more print as well as the picturs, an' I got these for a sayso, — they're cram-full o' print, an' I thought they'd do no harm comin' along wi' these bettermost books. An' I hope you won't say me nay, an' tell me as you won't have 'em, like Mr. Tom did wi' the suvreigns."
"No, indeed, Bob," said Maggie, "I'm very thankful to you for thinking of me, and being so good to me and Tom. I don't think any one ever did such a kind thing for me before. I haven't many friends who care for me."
"Hev a dog, Miss! — they're better friends nor any Christian," said Bob, laying down his pack again, which he had taken up with the intention of hurrying away; for he felt considerable shyness in talking to a young lass like Maggie, though, as he usually said of himself, "his tongue overrun him" when he began to speak. "I can't give you Mumps, 'cause he'd break his heart to go away from me — eh, Mumps, what do you say, you riff-raff?" (Mumps declined to express himself more diffusely than by a single affirmative movement of his tail.) "But I'd get you a pup, Miss, an' welcome."
"No, thank you, Bob. We have a yard dog, and I mayn't keep a dog of my own."
"Eh, that's a pity; else there's a pup, — if you didn't mind about it not being thoroughbred; its mother acts in the Punch show, — an uncommon sensible bitch; she means more sense wi' her bark nor half the chaps can put into their talk from breakfast to sundown. There's one chap carries pots, — a poor, low trade as any on the road, — he says, 'Why Toby's nought but a mongrel; there's nought to look at in her.' But I says to him, 'Why, what are you yoursen but a mongrel? There wasn't much pickin' o' your feyther an' mother, to look at you.' Not but I like a bit o' breed myself, but I can't abide to see one cur grinnin' at another. I wish you good evenin', Miss," said Bob, abruptly taking up his pack again, under the consciousness that his tongue was acting in an undisciplined manner.
"Won't you come in the evening some time, and see my brother, Bob?" said Maggie.
"Yes, Miss, thank you — another time. You'll give my duty to him, if you please. Eh, he's a fine growed chap, Mr. Tom is; he took to growin' i' the legs, an' I didn't."
The pack was down again, now, the hook of the stick having somehow gone wrong.
"You don't call Mumps a cur, I suppose?" said Maggie, divining that any interest she showed in Mumps would be gratifying to his master.
"No, Miss, a fine way off that," said Bob, with pitying smile; "Mumps is as fine a cross as you'll see anywhere along the Floss, an' I'n been up it wi' the barge times enow. Why, the gentry stops to look at him; but you won't catch Mumps a-looking at the gentry much, — he minds his own business, he does."
The expression of Mump's face, which seemed to be tolerating the superfluous existence of objects in general, was strongly confirmatory of this high praise.
"He looks dreadfully surly," said Maggie. "Would he let me pat him?"
"Ay, that would he, and thank you. He knows his company, Mumps does. He isn't a dog as 'ull be caught wi' gingerbread; he'd smell a thief a good deal stronger nor the gingerbread, he would. Lors, I talk to him by th' hour together, when I'm walking i' lone places, and if I'n done a bit o' mischief, I allays tell him. I'n got no secrets but what Mumps knows 'em. He knows about my big thumb, he does."
"Your big thumb — what's that, Bob?" said Maggie.
"That's what it is, Miss," said Bob, quickly, exhibiting a singularly broad specimen of that difference between the man and the monkey. "It tells i' measuring out the flannel, you see. I carry flannel, 'cause it's light for my pack, an' it's dear stuff, you see, so a big thumb tells. I clap my thumb at the end o' the yard and cut o' the hither side of it, and the old women aren't up to't."
"But Bob," said Maggie, looking serious, "that's cheating; I don't like to hear you say that."