And forthwith the fond mother proceeded to tell me (as what mother is not ready to do?) of all Bessie's virtues (and vices too, for the matter of that) and of the many fearful maladies which, notwithstanding those ruddy cheeks and that plump little figure, had nearly, time and again, swept her from the face of the earth.
When the full stream of loving memories had nearly run itself out, I began to question her about the working men of that neighbourhood, and specially the `Willie', whom we had heard of at his cottage. `He was a good fellow once,' said my kind hostess: `but it's the drink has ruined him! Not that I'd rob them of the drink--it's good for the most of them--but there's some as is too weak to stand agin' temptations: it's a thousand pities, for them, as they ever built the Golden Lion at the corner there!'
`The Golden Lion?' I repeated.
`It's the new Public,' my hostess explained. `And it stands right in the way, and handy for the workmen, as they come back from the brickfields, as it might be to-day, with their week's wages. A deal of money gets wasted that way. And some of'em gets drunk.'
`If only they could have it in their own houses--' I mused, hardly knowing I had said the words out loud.
`That's it!' she eagerly exclaimed. It was evidently a solution, of the problem, that she had already thought out. `If only you could manage, so's each man to have his own little barrel in his own house--there'd hardly be a drunken man in the length and breadth of the land!'
And then I told her the old story--about a certain cottager who bought himself a little barrel of beer, and installed his wife as bar-keeper: and how, every time he wanted his mug of beer, he regularly paid her over the counter for it: and how she never would let him go on `tick', and was a perfectly inflexible bar- keeper in never letting him have more than his proper allowance: and how, every time the barrel needed refilling, she had plenty to do it with, and something over for her money-box: and how, at the end of the year, he not only found himself in first-rate health and spirits, with that undefinable but quite unmistakable air which always distinguishes the sober man from the one who takes `a drop too much', but had quite a box full of money, all saved out of his own pence!
`If only they'd all do like that!' said the good woman, wiping her eyes, which were overflowing with kindly sympathy. `Drink hadn't need to be the curse it is to some--'
`Only a curse,' I said, `when it is used wrongly. Any of God's gifts may be turned into a curse, unless we use it wisely. But we must be getting home. Would you call the little girls? Matilda Jane has seen enough of company, for one day, I'm sure!'
`I'll find 'em in a minute,' said my hostess, as she rose to leave the room. `Maybe that young gentleman saw which way they went?'
`Where are they, Bruno?' I said.
`They ain't in the field,' was Bruno's rather evasive reply, `'cause there's nothing but pigs there, and Sylvie isn't a pig. Now don't interrupt me any more, 'cause I'm telling a story to this fly; and it wo'n't attend!'
`They're among the apples, I'll warrant 'em!' said the Farmer's wife. So we left Bruno to finish his story, and went out into the orchard, where we soon came upon the children, walking sedately side by side, Sylvie carrying the doll, while little Bess carefully shaded its face, with a large cabbage-leaf for a parasol.
As soon as they caught sight of us, little Bess dropped her cabbage-leaf and came running to meet us, Sylvie following more slowly, as her precious charge evidently needed great care and attention.
`I'm its Mamma, and Sylvie's the Head-Nurse,' Bessie explained: `and Sylvie's taught me ever such a pretty song, for me to sing to Matilda Jane!'
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