Instead of minding his New-Year pudding, Master Huckaback carried on so about his mighty grievance, that at last we began to think there must be something in it, after all; especially as he assured us that choice and costly presents for the young people of our household were among the goods divested. But mother told him her children had plenty, and wanted no gold and silver, and little Eliza spoke up and said, 'You can give us the pretty things, Uncle Ben, when we come in the summer to see you.'
Our mother reproved Eliza for this, although it was the heel of her own foot; and then to satisfy our uncle, she promised to call Farmer Nicholas Snowe, to be of our council that evening, 'And if the young maidens would kindly come, without taking thought to smoothe themselves, why it would be all the merrier, and who knew but what Uncle Huckaback might bless the day of his robbery, etc., etc.--and thorough good honest girls they were, fit helpmates either for shop or farm.' All of which was meant for me; but I stuck to my platter and answered not.
In the evening Farmer Snowe came up, leading his daughters after him, like fillies trimmed for a fair; and Uncle Ben, who had not seen them on the night of his mishap (because word had been sent to stop them), was mightily pleased and very pleasant, according to his town bred ways. The damsels had seen good company, and soon got over their fear of his wealth, and played him a number of merry pranks, which made our mother quite jealous for Annie, who was always shy and diffident. However, when the hot cup was done, and before the mulled wine was ready, we packed all the maidens in the parlour and turned the key upon them; and then we drew near to the kitchen fire to hear Uncle Ben's proposal. Farmer Snowe sat up in the corner, caring little to bear about anything, but smoking slowly, and nodding backward like a sheep-dog dreaming. Mother was in the settle, of course, knitting hard, as usual; and Uncle Ben took to a three-legged stool, as if all but that had been thieved from him. Howsoever, he kept his breath from speech, giving privilege, as was due, to mother.
'Master Snowe, you are well assured,' said mother, colouring like the furze as it took the flame and fell over, 'that our kinsman here hath received rough harm on his peaceful journey from Dulverton. The times are bad, as we all know well, and there is no sign of bettering them, and if I could see our Lord the King I might say things to move him! nevertheless, I have had so much of my own account to vex for--'
'You are flying out of the subject, Sarah,' said Uncle Ben, seeing tears in her eyes, and tired of that matter.
'Zettle the pralimbinaries,' spoke Farmer Snowe, on appeal from us, 'virst zettle the pralimbinaries; and then us knows what be drivin' at.'
'Preliminaries be damned, sir,' cried Uncle Ben, losing his temper. 'What preliminaries were there when I was robbed; I should like to know? Robbed in this parish as I can prove, to the eternal disgrace of Oare and the scandal of all England. And I hold this parish to answer for it, sir; this parish shall make it good, being a nest of foul thieves as it is; ay, farmers, and yeomen, and all of you. I will beggar every man in this parish, if they be not beggars already, ay, and sell your old church up before your eyes, but what I will have back my tarlatan, time-piece, saddle, and dove-tailed nag.'
Mother looked at me, and I looked at Farmer Snowe, and we all were sorry for Master Huckaback, putting our hands up one to another, that nobody should browbeat him; because we all knew what our parish was, and none the worse for strong language, however rich the man might be. But Uncle Ben took it in a different way. He thought that we all were afraid of him, and that Oare parish was but as Moab or Edom, for him to cast his shoe over.
'Nephew Jack,' he cried, looking at me when I was thinking what to say, and finding only emptiness, 'you are a heavy lout, sir; a bumpkin, a clodhopper; and I shall leave you nothing, unless it be my boots to grease.'
'Well, uncle,' I made answer, 'I will grease your boots all the same for that, so long as you be our guest, sir.'
Now, that answer, made without a thought, stood me for two thousand pounds, as you shall see, by-and-by, perhaps.
'As for the parish,' my mother cried, being too hard set to contain herself, 'the parish can defend itself, and we may leave it to do so. But our Jack is not like that, sir; and I will not have him spoken of. Leave him indeed! Who wants you to do more than to leave him alone, sir; as he might have done you the other night; and as no one else would have dared to do. And after that, to think so meanly of me, and of my children!'
'Hoity, toity, Sarah! Your children, I suppose, are the same as other people's.'
'That they are not; and never will be; and you ought to know it, Uncle Reuben, if any one in the world ought. Other people's children!'
'Well, well!' Uncle Reuben answered, 'I know very little of children; except my little Ruth, and she is nothing wonderful.'
'I never said that my children were wonderful Uncle Ben; nor did I ever think it. But as for being good--'
Here mother fetched out her handkerchief, being overcome by our goodness; and I told her, with my hand to my mouth, not to notice him; though he might be worth ten thousand times ten thousand pounds.
But Farmer Snowe came forward now, for he had some sense sometimes; and he thought it was high time for him to say a word for the parish.
'Maister Huckaback,' he began, pointing with his pipe at him, the end that was done in sealing-wax, 'tooching of what you was plaized to zay 'bout this here parish, and no oother, mind me no oother parish but thees, I use the vreedom, zur, for to tell 'e, that thee be a laiar.'
Then Farmer Nicholas Snowe folded his arms across with the bowl of his pipe on the upper one, and gave me a nod, and then one to mother, to testify how he had done his duty, and recked not what might come of it. However, he got little thanks from us; for the parish was nothing at all to my mother, compared with her children's interests; and I thought it hard that an uncle of mine, and an old man too, should be called a liar, by a visitor at our fireplace. For we, in our rude part of the world, counted it one of the worst disgraces that could befall a man, to receive the lie from any one. But Uncle Ben, as it seems was used to it, in the way of trade, just as people of fashion are, by a style of courtesy.
Therefore the old man only looked with pity at Farmer Nicholas; and with a sort of sorrow too, reflecting how much he might have made in a bargain with such a customer, so ignorant and hot-headed.
'Now let us bandy words no more,' said mother, very sweetly; 'nothing is easier than sharp words, except to wish them unspoken; as I do many and many's the time, when I think of my good husband. But now let us hear from Uncle Reuben what he would have us do to remove this disgrace from amongst us, and to satisfy him of his goods.'
'I care not for my goods, woman,' Master Huckaback answered grandly; 'although they were of large value, about them I say nothing. But what I demand is this, the punishment of those scoundrels.'
'Zober, man, zober!' cried Farmer Nicholas; 'we be too naigh Badgery 'ood, to spake like that of they Dooneses.'
'Pack of cowards!' said Uncle Reuben, looking first at the door, however; 'much chance I see of getting redress from the valour of this Exmoor! And you, Master Snowe, the very man whom I looked to to raise the country, and take the lead as churchwarden--why, my youngest shopman would match his ell against you. Pack of cowards,' cried Uncle Ben, rising and shaking his lappets at us; 'don't pretend to answer me. Shake you all off, that I do--nothing more to do with you!'
We knew it useless to answer him, and conveyed our knowledge to one another, without anything to vex him. However, when the mulled wine was come, and a good deal of it gone (the season being Epiphany), Uncle Reuben began to think that he might have been too hard with us. Moreover, he was beginning now to respect Farmer Nicholas bravely, because of the way he had smoked his pipes, and the little noise made over them. And Lizzie and Annie were doing their best--for now we had let the girls out--to wake more lightsome uproar; also young Faith Snowe was toward to keep the old men's cups aflow, and hansel them to their liking.
So at the close of our entertainment, when the girls were gone away to fetch and light their lanthorns (over which they made rare noise, blowing each the other's out for counting of the sparks to come), Master Huckaback stood up, without much aid from the crock- saw, and looked at mother and all of us.
'Let no one leave this place,' said he, 'until I have said what I want to say; for saving of ill-will among us; and growth of cheer and comfort. May be I have carried things too far, even to the bounds of churlishness, and beyond the bounds of good manners. I will not unsay one word I have said, having never yet done so in my life; but I would alter the manner of it, and set it forth in this light. If you folks upon Exmoor here are loath and wary at fighting, yet you are brave at better stuff; the best and kindest I ever knew, in the matter of feeding.'
Here he sat down with tears in his eyes, and called for a little mulled bastard. All the maids, who were now come back, raced to get it for him, but Annie of course was foremost. And herein ended the expedition, a perilous and a great one, against the Doones of Bagworthy; an enterprise over which we had all talked plainly more than was good for us. For my part, I slept well that night, feeling myself at home again, now that the fighting was put aside, and the fear of it turned to the comfort of talking what we would have done.