Mrs. Garth, hearing Caleb enter the passage about tea-time, opened the parlor-door and said, "There you are, Caleb. Have you had your dinner?" (Mr. Garth's meals were much subordinated to "business.")
"Oh yes, a good dinner - cold mutton and I don't know what. Where is Mary?"
"In the garden with Letty, I think."
"Fred is not come yet?"
"No. Are you going out again without taking tea, Caleb?" said Mrs. Garth, seeing that her absent-minded husband was putting on again the hat which he had just taken off.
"No, no; I'm only going to Mary a minute."
Mary was in a grassy corner of the garden, where there was a swing loftily hung between two pear-trees. She had a pink kerchief tied over her head, making a little poke to shade her eyes from the level sunbeams, while she was giving a glorious swing to Letty, who laughed and screamed wildly.
Seeing her father, Mary left the swing and went to meet him, pushing back the pink kerchief and smiling afar off at him with the involuntary smile of loving pleasure.
"I came to look for you, Mary," said Mr. Garth. "Let us-walk about a bit." Mary knew quite well that her father had something particular to say: his eyebrows made their pathetic angle, and there was a tender gravity in his voice: these things had been signs to her when she was Letty's age. She put her arm within his, and they turned by the row of nut-trees.
"It will be a sad while before you can be married, Mary," said her father, not looking at her, but at the end of the stick which he held in his other hand.
"Not a sad while, father - I mean to be merry," said Mary, laughingly. "I have been single and merry for four-and-twenty years and more: I suppose it will not be quite as long again as that." Then, after a little pause, she said, more gravely, bending her face before her father's, "If you are contented with Fred?"
Caleb screwed up his mouth and turned his head aside wisely.
"Now, father, you did praise him last Wednesday. You said he had an uncommon notion of stock, and a good eye for things."
"Did I?" said Caleb, rather slyly.
"Yes, I put it all down, and the date, anno Domini, and everything," said Mary. "You like things to be neatly booked. And then his behavior to you, father, is really good; he has a deep respect for you; and it is impossible to have a better temper than Fred has."
"Ay, ay; you want to coax me into thinking him a fine match."
"No, indeed, father. I don't love him because he is a fine match."
"What for, then?"
"Oh, dear, because I have always loved him. I should never like scolding any one else so well; and that is a point to be thought of in a husband."
"Your mind is quite settled, then, Mary?" said Caleb, returning to his first tone. "There's no other wish come into it since things have been going on as they have been of late?" (Caleb meant a great deal in that vague phrase;) "because, better late than never. A woman must not force her heart - she'll do a man no good by that."
"My feelings have not changed, father," said Mary, calmly. "I shall be constant to Fred as long as he is constant to me. I don't think either of us could spare the other, or like any one else better, however much we might admire them. It would make too great a difference to us - like seeing all the old places altered, and changing the name for everything. We must wait for each other a long while; but Fred knows that."
Instead of speaking immediately, Caleb stood still and screwed his stick on the grassy walk. Then he said, with emotion in his voice, "Well, I've got a bit of news. What do you think of Fred going to live at Stone Court, and managing the land there?"
"How can that ever be, father?" said Mary, wonderingly.
"He would manage it for his aunt Bulstrode. The poor woman has been to me begging and praying. She wants to do the lad good, and it might be a fine thing for him. With saving, he might gradually buy the stock, and he has a turn for farming."
"Oh, Fred would be so happy! It is too good to believe."
"Ah, but mind you," said Caleb, turning his head warningly, "I must take it on MY shoulders, and be responsible, and see after everything; and that will grieve your mother a bit, though she mayn't say so. Fred had need be careful."
"Perhaps it is too much, father," said Mary, checked in her joy. "There would be no happiness in bringing you any fresh trouble."
"Nay, nay; work is my delight, child, when it doesn't vex your mother. And then, if you and Fred get married," here Caleb's voice shook just perceptibly, "he'll be steady and saving; and you've got your mother's cleverness, and mine too, in a woman's sort of way; and you'll keep him in order. He'll be coming by-and-by, so I wanted to tell you first, because I think you'd like to tell HIM by yourselves. After that, I could talk it well over with him, and we could go into business and the nature of things."
"Oh, you dear good father!" cried Mary, putting her hands round her father's neck, while he bent his head placidly, willing to be caressed. "I wonder if any other girl thinks her father the best man in the world!"
"Nonsense, child; you'll think your husband better."
"Impossible," said Mary, relapsing into her usual tone; "husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order."
When they were entering the house with Letty, who had run to join them, Mary saw Fred at the orchard-gate, and went to meet him.
"What fine clothes you wear, you extravagant youth!" said Mary, as Fred stood still and raised his hat to her with playful formality. "You are not learning economy."
"Now that is too bad, Mary," said Fred. "Just look at the edges of these coat-cuffs! It is only by dint of good brushing that I look respectable. I am saving up three suits - one for a wedding-suit."
"How very droll you will look! - like a gentleman in an old fashion-book."
"Oh no, they will keep two years."
"Two years! be reasonable, Fred," said Mary, turning to walk. "Don't encourage flattering expectations."
"Why not? One lives on them better than on unflattering ones. If we can't be married in two years, the truth will be quite bad enough when it comes."
"I have heard a story of a young gentleman who once encouraged flattering expectations, and they did him harm."
"Mary, if you've got something discouraging to tell me, I shall bolt; I shall go into the house to Mr. Garth. I am out of spirits. My father is so cut up - home is not like itself. I can't bear any more bad news."
"Should you call it bad news to be told that you were to live at Stone Court, and manage the farm, and be remarkably prudent, and save money every year till all the stock and furniture were your own, and you were a distinguished agricultural character, as Mr. Borthrop Trumbull says - rather stout, I fear, and with the Greek and Latin sadly weather-worn?"
"You don't mean anything except nonsense, Mary?" said Fred, coloring slightly nevertheless.
"That is what my father has just told me of as what may happen, and he never talks nonsense," said Mary, looking up at Fred now, while he grasped her hand as they walked, till it rather hurt her; but she would not complain.
"Oh, I could be a tremendously good fellow then, Mary, and we could be married directly."
"Not so fast, sir; how do you know that I would not rather defer our marriage for some years? That would leave you time to misbehave, and then if I liked some one else better, I should have an excuse for jilting you."
"Pray don't joke, Mary," said Fred, with strong feeling. "Tell me seriously that all this is true, and that you are happy because of it-because you love me best."
"It is all true, Fred, and I am happy because of it - because I love you best," said Mary, in a tone of obedient recitation.
They lingered on the door-step under the steep-roofed porch, and Fred almost in a whisper said -
"When we were first engaged, with the umbrella-ring, Mary, you used to - "
The spirit of joy began to laugh more decidedly in Mary's eyes, but the fatal Ben came running to the door with Brownie yapping behind him, and, bouncing against them, said -
"Fred and Mary! are you ever coming in? - or may I eat your cake?"