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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter IV

page 18

Chapter IV.

TThe next morning Addie came to the breakfast table, not only with pale cheeks and hollow eyes, but with her hair twisted up at the back of her head, instead of hanging over her shoulders in graceful curls, as usual; and poor Addie, in her first attempt at coiling her hair, had screwed it up so tightly that it really looked most painful, as well as comical.

"Addie, child! What have you done with your hair?" was the general exclamation as she entered the breakfast room; but Addie's pale cheeks and quivering lips stopped all further comment, and breakfast was proceeded with in silence.

It was Netta's day for visiting the workhouse; and her father was also going out for the day to pay a round of visits. In the evening they were to meet at the Grange Farm, and walk home together.

The Hall, the Manor-house, and the Grange formed almost a triangle, and were about a mile apart. The families had in past years been on very good terms—indeed, too good, most of the neighbours thought; for if they had anything special at the Hall, the young folks at the Manor-house and at the Grange thought they would have the same, which, of course, did not answer, for the Mordaunts were really very wealthy people; whereas the Villiers, of the Manor-house, had for many years bees 'never-do-wells;' and the Wisemans, of the Grange—although very well off at the time, for their position as farmers,—still they had only their farm, although a very large and a very good one. But, bit by bit, they were obliged to part with it; till, at last. Mr. Mordaunt bought the house and a few acres of the land just for a home for the old people.

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When their youngest son, Joe, saw how matters stood he struck out for himself, and entered Mr. King's factory in the neighbouring town—though very much against his father's and his mother's wishes. By care and industry he soon worked his way up to be general manager of the firm. He then married a Miss Bernard, a cousin of the Batemans', and, very soon after, he and his young wife went out to New Zealand; so there was always very great excitement at the Grange when the foreign mail came in. Netta also very often heard from her cousin, and expected a letter that day; and she was not disappointed, for when Mr. Bateman reached the Grange she was busy reading the New Zealand letters.

"Oh! papa," she cried, on seeing her father; "there are such nice letters from Joe and Lucy. Shall I read them again?"

"I think not, dear; it is getting rather late," answered her father; "you shall give me the contents of them as we go along."

They were scarcely out of the gate when Netta began talking on her usual topic.

"Papa, dear! don't you think there is a possibility of some arrangements being made so that not quite so many old people be sent to the workhouse?" she said.

"My dear Netta, don't you think they are very fortunate in having the workhouse to go to?"

"Of course, in one way, papa; but some of them must feel it very much. I was so sorry to see an old couple that were brought in to-day. Do you remember reading that bit, about being parted by 'Reggilations?' "

"Yes, I think I do," answered Mr. Bateman.

"Well," said Netta, "it was an exact description of what I saw to-day. It seems these two old people had been living in a very pretty little cottage near Bromly, for over forty years. You remember we remarked on the very neat appeance of the cottage the other day when we went to the Art Exhibition—the one with the pretty creeper so nicely trained up the front?"

"What! Not Mr. Duncan?" said her fathor.

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"Yes, that was the name. He was a very clever artisan,-mason, I think. It seems some years ago he had a fall, and he has never been quite the same since; and they have been going from bad to worse. Last winter, poor old Mrs. Duncan was obliged to sell the feathers from their bed to buy bread. In the summer they did pretty well again, and Mr. Duncan did a little work; but about a fortnight ago the old man took a severe cold, and one of the neighbours—quite against the old people's wish-sent the doctor there. What was his surprise to find that, although the house looked quite nice on the outside, inside there was scarcely an article of furniture, no fuel, nothing but bare boards for the poor old people to lie on, scarcely any-thing for them to cover themselves with, and not a scrap of food of any description! They begged hard to be left alone to die there together; but, of course, the doctor could not allow that: so they were brought to the 'house' to-day; and, papa, you should have seen their parting at the gate! They were more like a pair of young lovers, than a poor old couple of—perhaps-seventy years of age."

"Don't you think there are middle-aged and old lovers as well as young?" said her father, remembering his own happy married life. "Such cases are very, very sad, but I can't quite see how it is to be remedied just yet. Of course a great deal depends upon the people themselves. But," continued Mr. Bateman, "you have not given me the contents of Lucy's letter; of course they must be doing well, or they could not send the father and mother what they do."

"Oh, very well, papa. You know Joe has had a factory of his own now for several years, and, I believe, employs two or three hundred hands; and some day he says he is going to try if he can persuade some of them at least, to allow a certain percentage of their wages each week to be put away for old age."

"May he succeed, say I," replied Mr. Bateman; "but I fancy most of them will think it a long time to wait; and then, of course, they cannot realize the extreme poverty that we have, for with their high wages and genial climate they will not have many very poor people among them."

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"Indeed, you are mistaken, papa. Lucy says we would be surprised at the distress in some of their large towns, and the number of people who have been in good circumstances, and who are now dependent on their charities, is really wonderful. Joe thinks there should be a law made to compel everybody to make some provision for old age; and he thinks very soon there will be something of the kind done; more than one of their—not M.P.'s, what do they call them, papa?"

"M.H.R.'s, I believe."

"Yes, more than one of their M.H.R.'s have spoken on the subject."

"Well done, New Zealand!" exclaimed Mr. Bateman; "they may give us a lesson in that yet, as they have done in one or two other things."

"But why should they?" said Netta, a little hotly, "with a population not as great as some of our large towns."

"My dear child, that is the very reason why they should," said the father. "Now is the time for them to strike out for themselves instead of keeping in the ruts of the older countries, and committing the same mistakes as our forefathers did; and with their fine climate, fertile land, wealth of resources, and sparse population they have every chance. State aid is all very well; but if the people could be persuaded to provide for themselves it would be a grand thing. It would foster habits of thrift and independence, too—qualifications very necessary in the building of a nation's character, as well as of the individual."

"Did you notice the ages of the London cab-drivers, in the papers last week, papa?"

"Yes, and I thought what a healthy employment it must be."

"But, papa, fancy being obliged to work at that age!"

"Very likely, child, they are only too glad to get work. Think of the many able-bodied men who cannot get work;—the hundreds of our unemployed."

"That's just it," cried Netta. "Don't you see, papa, if these were all pensioned off there would be so many less in the labour market. What did the papers say? About six hundred and page 22 seventeen between sixty and seventy years of age; while there were about one hundred and fifty between seventy and eighty. If those could give up work there would, of course, be all that room for younger men to step into, and that is only in one department of labour. I suppose most other departments would be the same, or nearly so."

"My dear Netta," said her father, laughing, "I think you had better study political econony, and go out to New Zealand to help them form their laws; you would have more scope there than here."

"You need not laugh, papa," said Netta. "Joe says that, unless something is done, they will be in a worse condition than we are at present. Lucy tells a very amusing story—or, rather, shall I say, a very sad story—although the factory hands got considerable amusement out of it. An old man called at their place one day, and pleaded very hard for work. Joe did not like his appearance very much; he seemed to have such a very old face, and yet his hair was jet black. However, Joe said he would give him a trial. After he had been there for a little while they noticed that his hair was becoming very grey, and wondered what could be the reason; and one Monday morning a bright-faced white-haired old man called at the office and asked if he might see the 'boss?'

"The young fellows at the office had not taken much notice of him; but Joe knew him directly, and exclaimed—

"'Why, Benny! what have you done to yourself?'

"'Had a bath, sur,' said Benny, simply.

"'Had a bath!' answered Joe, laughing outright. 'A bath does wonders for my little ones sometimes, but I never knew it work such a transformation as that.'

"'Well, sur,' said Benny; 'on Saturday night, after washing that black stuff away—and pretty hard work it was, too—ses I, to myself: Benny, ses I, don't you cheat no longer, but make a clean breast of it to the "boss,".and I am here for that purpose,' said Benny, drawing himself up like one determined to do his duty.

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"'I am glad to hear it, Benny,' said Joe. 'Now tell me all about it.'

"'Well, sur, it was like this. Me and my mate came down from the gumfields at the beginning of winter, and we walked the place for three whole weeks, looking for a job; but no one seemed to want anything done. One day we called at rather a "biggish" place, like this, and one of them chaps at the desk larfed in our faces! Ses he, "D' ye think the 'boss' would have sich old forsils as ye about the place?" That made my mate's blood boil, and ses he, "Benny," ses he, "you can do as you like; but I'm going to have three months' shelter somehow!" and, sur, he went straight up the road and stole a pair of boots; and sure enough he got his three months' shelter. He had been in before, and didn't mind it so much; but I didn't want to begin at my age, and so I got some of that black stuff and plastered my hair: and I got work, too,' said Benny, with a chuckle.

"'But, Benny,' said Joe, 'don't forget that your black hair nearly lost you the job. I much prefer your appearance as you are.'

"'Thank ye, sur—thank ye,' said Benny; 'then ye'll keep me on?'

"'Of course Joe was only too glq.d to help the poor old man, and very, very sorry to hear that old people were obliged to resort to such things before they could obtain food and shelter, or even the means of getting them.' "

"I am truly sorry to hear such tales from a young country like New Zealand," said Mr. Bateman; "and I can hardly understand why it should be so, with such wealth of resources as they seem to possess."

When Netta and her father entered the house they found that Ernest Mordaunt had just gone in before them, and was waiting in the study to see Mr. Bateman. He had been over in the morning and had got a ready consent from Addie to "tell all." She found her secret much too heavy for her to bear, and was on the point of telling Agnes herself, when Ernest knocked at the door.

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When Netta heard the news her only comment was, "I am very glad the child is settled for."

"Netta!" cried Agnes, "you are positively getting quite mercenary! I am afraid that some day you will he looking out for some rich old bachelor, and marrying him for his money."

"No, Aggie, you are not afraid of anything of the kind," said Netta, looking at her sister affectionately; "you know me better than that."

And Agnes did know that no one would have held such a thing in greater contempt than Netta did.

Nevertheless, neither of the sisters were sorry to know that the "child" was provided for; and Ernest Mordaunt was even thing they could have wished as a brother-in-law. They thought also that very likely Addie would go and live at the Hall, so that they would still be near each other.

When Ernest came out from the study, his face was beaming. Mr. Bateman had not only readily sanctioned the engagement, but had said one or two very complimentary things. Ernest had always been a great favourite of his, and he told him candidly that there was no one to whom he could have given his daughter with greater confidence. That was one of the secrets of Mr. Bateman's influence with young people; he was always lavish in his praise, and never withheld it when he thought it was deserved—and that was very often. It took a good deal to make him lose faith in human nature. He used to say that if you could thoroughly believe in yourself, it would go a long way towards helping you to believe in your fellows, and that he would not give much for the man who thought all the world a fraud.