No man could feel more resolute till he got outside the yard gate, and a little way along the deep-rutted lane; but before he reached the next turning, which would take him out of sight of the dilapidated farm-buildings, he appeared to be smitten by some sudden thought. He checked his horse, and made it stand still in the same spot for two or three minutes, during which he turned his head from side to side in a melancholy way, as if he were looking at some painful object on more sides than one. Evidently, after his fit of promptitude, Mr. Tulliver was relapsing into the sense that this is a puzzling world. He turned his horse, and rode slowly back, giving vent to the climax of feeling which had determined this movement by saying aloud, as he struck his horse, "Poor little wench! she'll have nobody but Tom, belike, when I'm gone."
Mr. Tulliver's return into the yard was descried by several young Mosses, who immediately ran in with the exciting news to their mother, so that Mrs. Moss was again on the door-step when her brother rode up. She had been crying, but was rocking baby to sleep in her arms now, and made no ostentatious show of sorrow as her brother looked at her, but merely said:
"The father's gone to the field, again, if you want him, brother."
"No, Gritty, no," said Mr. Tulliver, in a gentle tone. "Don't you fret, — that's all, — I'll make a shift without the money a bit, only you must be as clever and contriving as you can."
Mrs. Moss's tears came again at this unexpected kindness, and she could say nothing.
"Come, come! — the little wench shall come and see you. I'll bring her and Tom some day before he goes to school. You mustn't fret. I'll allays be a good brother to you."
"Thank you for that word, brother," said Mrs. Moss, drying her tears; then turning to Lizzy, she said, "Run now, and fetch the colored egg for cousin Maggie." Lizzy ran in, and quickly reappeared with a small paper parcel.
"It's boiled hard, brother, and colored with thrums, very pretty; it was done o' purpose for Maggie. Will you please to carry it in your pocket?"
"Ay, ay," said Mr. Tulliver, putting it carefully in his side pocket. "Good-by."
And so the respectable miller returned along the Basset lanes rather more puzzled than before as to ways and means, but still with the sense of a danger escaped. It had come across his mind that if he were hard upon his sister, it might somehow tend to make Tom hard upon Maggie at some distant day, when her father was no longer there to take her part; for simple people, like our friend Mr. Tulliver, are apt to clothe unimpeachable feelings in erroneous ideas, and this was his confused way of explaining to himself that his love and anxiety for "the little wench" had given him a new sensibility toward his sister.