Eustace gave learned and elaborate opinions on Nep, and gained the hearts of the ladies, who thenceforth proclaimed that Mr. Alison was a wonderfully finished gentleman, considering his opportunities; but Mr. Harold was at the best a rough diamond, so that once more his conquest had been for Eustace rather than for himself. They showed me, in self-justification, letters from their relations in Melbourne, speaking of the notorious Harry Alison as a huge bearded ruffian, and telling horrid stories of his excesses in no measured terms. Of course we denied them, and represented that some other man must have borne the same name, and gratitude made them agree; but the imputation lay there, ready to revive at any time. And there had been something in the whole affair that had not a happy effect on Harold. He was more blunt, more gruff, less tolerant or ready to be pleased; Eustace’s folly was no longer incapable of provoking him; and even his gentleness towards Dora and me was with a greater effort, and he was plainly in an irritable state of suppressed suffering of mind or temper, which only the strong force he put upon himself kept in check. My poor Harold, would he see that there were moral achievements higher than his physical ones, and would he learn that even his strength was not equal to them, unaided?
The next frosty day Dora and I set forth for a visit to the double cottage, where, on one side, dwelt a family with a newly-arrived baby; on the other was Dame Jennings’, with the dilapidated roof and chimney. I was glad to see Dora so happily and eagerly interested over the baby as to be more girl-like than I had yet seen her, though, comparing her to what she had been on her arrival, she was certainly a good deal softened and tamed. “Domesticated” would really not have been so inappropriate a word in her case as it is in advertisements of companions.
We had come to the door, only divided from Mrs. Jennings’s by a low fence and a few bushes, when voices struck on our ears, and we saw Bullock’s big, sturdy, John Bull form planted in a defiant attitude in the garden-path before the door, where the old woman stood courtesying, and mingling entreating protestations against an additional sixpence a week on her rent with petitions that at least the chimney might be made sound and the roof water-tight.
There is no denying that I did stand within the doorway to listen, for not only did I not wish to encounter Bullock, but it seemed quite justifiable to ascertain whether the current whispers of his dealings with the poor were true; indeed, there was no time to move before he replied with a volley of such abuse, as I never heard before or since, at her impudence in making such a demand.