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Billy Egg by Unknown


'Can you direct me to Mr William Egg's?' said I one morning to a smart shopman, who was loitering at the door of a showy haberdasher in the principal street of a town in Ireland, in which, for a few months, I once resided. I had been told by two or three persons that Billy Egg's was the best shop in the place; for that, he being a general dealer on a very large scale, I should be sure to get 'everything in the world' there. Moreover, I had been instructed that he sold good articles at a cheap rate; and being a stranger, I felt truly glad that I had been recommended to a tradesman on whom I could confidently rely. 'Can you direct me to Mr Egg's?' I repeated, seeing that the smart shopman was so much occupied either in admiring his window or his own person, that he had not at first attended to my question.

'I know no such person, ma'am,' he replied rather sharply; and as I now perceived that the house bore the evidence of fresh paint and recent alterations, it occurred to me that the smart shopkeeper might be a new-comer, and ignorant of the old residents. Nothing daunted, I next entered the shop of a neighbouring bookseller, and repeated my inquiries, but with no better success. I then made my way to that of a milliner; and though a young girl, who was busily engaged at her needle, looked up for a moment with an arch smile, and then turned away, as I plainly perceived, to repress a hearty laugh, her mistress dismissed me with the expression of her opinion 'that no such person lived in that town, nor, she believed, in any other.' I felt a little puzzled to know what the girl had found so ludicrous in my simple question, and wondered if my repeated disappointments had given me a forlorn air. 'At any rate,' thought I, 'this Mr Egg is not so generally known as I expected to find him. I had better walk up the street and try if I can discover any outward indications of his abode.'

I spent a weary half-hour in this endeavour, and as it now seemed evident to me that no considerable shop could belong to the object of my search, I lowered my tone in addressing an old apple-woman, who sat behind a table covered with her stores at the corner of the street. 'Pray, can you direct me to Billy Egg's?' I asked, dropping the Mr altogether, and adopting the familiar term which had been used to me.

'Och, then, to be shure I will, an' welcome, if it was a mile off; but there it's just furnint ye—that big grand shop there, wid the big letthers gilt wid goold over the big windees.'

'My good woman,' I replied, 'I am afraid you must be mistaken; the name there is William Carter.'

'Och, don't I know that? but they call him Billy Egg, because all he has—and half the town that's his—came out of an egg.'

An exclamation of surprise escaped me, and the old woman continued—'Och, but well he desarves it, for he is a dacent man, and good to the poor; God bless him every day he rises, and make the heavens his bed at last!'

As I took part of her speech as a hint to myself, I gave her sixpence, and believing there was some story worth the hearing, I begged my new acquaintance to call on me in the evening and relate it, instead of hindering her business and mine by listening to it at that moment; although I suspect she would have been nothing loath to have given me the full and particular account there and then, for she told me she knew every circumstance 'consarning him and his.'

I proceeded without further delay to the 'big grand shop,' where I saw in the master the veritable Billy Egg. He was a fine portly personage, with a good open countenance, and it was evident he could not have acquired his nickname from bearing even the most remote resemblance to an egg. He served me himself with zeal and civility, and my purchases were soon completed.

In the evening, my old apple-woman was true to her appointment, and from her I gathered the following particulars: William Carter was a poor boy, the eldest of a large family, who, with their mother, were left destitute by the death of their father. Their poor neighbours were charitable, as the poor, to their credit be it spoken, so often are; and one took one child, and one another, until something could be thought of and done for their subsistence. William had made the most of the scanty schooling his father had afforded him, and could read a little. He was, moreover, a steady, hard-working boy; yet the only occupation he was able to obtain was that of tending a cow on the border of a large bog. In return for this service, he was comfortably lodged and fed, and for a time the clothes he had were sufficient. He was in the habit of saving any scraps of printed paper which fell in his way, and by means of these he somewhat improved in his reading; for while the cow was munching away, little Billy had ample time for his studies, without neglecting her either, for he made a point of looking out for the sweetest grass, and leading her to it.

By his care and attention, he gave such satisfaction to his employer, that by the time his clothes were worn out, he was allowed wages sufficient to replenish them; and his good-behaviour gave such confidence and respectability to his family, that a neighbouring farmer engaged one of his younger brothers in a capacity similar to his own. One day this farmer gave Billy a newly-laid goose's egg, thinking it might make him a good meal, and be something of a dainty, and as a sort of return for an act of good-nature and watchfulness on Billy's part, he having noticed that a certain gate leading to the kitchen-garden had been left open, took the precaution to close it, thereby preventing the incursion of a greedy sow and her interesting family, which would undoubtedly have played the part of the Goths in that flourishing spot. It is very likely that Billy's first impulse was to boil his egg and eat it; but a moment's reflection convinced him that this would be conduct very like that of the boy in the fable, who slaughtered the goose that laid golden eggs. But how to hatch his egg—for this was what he thought of—became now the question. The good woman of the house noticed that Billy was unusually silent at supper-time, and thought at first that some disaster must have happened. She learned, however, that the cow had her customary bed of soft heather, which it was Billy's pride to pick for her, and had been as carefully attended to as usual in every particular. We ought to mention that Billy was a great favourite with his mistress; and perhaps he had won her heart by the care and attention he had bestowed at every spare moment on one of her little ones, who was a very sickly, fretful child, but who, somehow or other, was always most quickly pacified by Billy. She soon learned the cause of his thoughtful silence, and kindly offered to remove two or three eggs from under a duck which was then sitting, and give their place to her cow-boy's single treasure. This was the foundation of William Carter's fortune; and it is worthy of remark, that both the gift of the egg, and the opportunity of hatching it, he owed to acts of thoughtful good-nature on his own part.

In due time the goslin appeared, and Billy fed it from his own scanty fare, taking it with him when he was herding. By Christmas it had become a large fat goose, and its owner was offered half-a-crown for it. But he had a higher ambition for it than this, and he was not to be tempted from his purpose by the prospect of present gain. The following spring he set her on twelve eggs, which she had herself produced, and by and by twelve goslins appeared. Our hero was now obliged to exercise some ingenuity in finding food for so large a family of dependents; but he accomplished his end by bartering away three of them, in exchange for permission that the remainder should feed in his master's yard, until they should be old enough to pick up their subsistence in company with their mother and the cow upon the common, and indulge in swimming there in the abundant pools. At the proper time, he sold the young geese for the largest sum he had ever seen in his life; for, though to have kept some of them might have proved an additional source of profit, he knew that he had only accommodation for one to hatch. A portion of his money he gave to his mother, but he placed a one-pound note in the safe-keeping of his kind mistress, and when spring again came round, he bought with it a year-old heifer, which he sent to graze on the mountains, paying with it a small sum, the remnant of his money, which he had reserved for this purpose. Old goosy again presented him with young ones, the sale of which enabled him to purchase fodder for his cow, when she was sent home at the end of the season. And now he built a little shed for her with fir sticks from the bog and heather sods, so that perhaps she was better cared for than many a rich man's cow. We may be pretty sure, however, that Billy never neglected his master's business to attend to his own private affairs, or he and his wife would not have encouraged him in his plans, as they evidently did. It is not worth while to follow the fortunes of the prudent industrious little fellow step by step, or to declare precisely how he dealt in cows and geese. It may be enough to say, that at the end of six years he quitted servitude a richer man than ever his father had been; on which occasion he presented the venerable goose to his mother, to whose necessities and comforts he had for some time constantly contributed. So soon as he was thoroughly established in the world, he married; but not till he had provided a neat cottage for his parent, who had the happiness to enjoy for many years the prosperity of her son, and who lived to see the poor cow-boy a man among the most respected and esteemed in his native county.

'And so, you see,' said the old apple-woman in conclusion, 'it is a foolish thing to despise small beginnings. Thrue as I am telling it ye, this is how Mr Carter got the name of Billy Egg, though, d'ye see, he never was called Billy Goose—no, never.'