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Chapter I.

A domestic episode.—Love at first sight; a simple matter, which had a weighty influence on the subsequent career of the Stubble family.

MR JOSEPH STUBBLE was sitting on a stump in front of his homestead one evening in autumn; the sun had dipped below the horizon, and a flock of “laughing Jackasses” (Ducelo gigantea), perched on a blue gum-tree, were making the bush resound with their merry cachinnations, as they invariably do at sunset and sunrise. Mr Stubble was wishing that his heart were as free from care for the morrow as those chattering birds were, and was sighing over some unseen trouble, when he felt one of his grizzly locks pulled by a playful hand behind him, and on turning round he beheld his wife, her ruddy face looking as pleasant as the moon, which was just showing its full orb, and turning the ripples of the distant river into quicksilver.

“Hey, Peggy lass, arn't thee done with skittish tricks?” said Mr Stubble, smiling affectionately at his wife; then drawing her towards him by her apron-string, he gave her a kiss, so lovingly loud that it seemed to excite the birds in the gumtree, for they began to chuckle again in that peculiar way which no naturalist has ever been able adequately to describe or imitate. “What's up now, Peg? I know there be's summat comical coming, by the way thee lips twiddle.”

“What do you think, Joe?”

“Why, I think thee art the buxomest old 'ooman in Daisybank. Give us another buss, lass?”

“Get out with your nonsense, master; there's Biddy

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yonder grinning at us. I am going to tell you something about our Mag as will astonish you a bit.”

“Well, I'd like to know summat nice about her, for to tell'ee the truth, Peg, I've been sitting on this stump for an hour or more trying to guess what ails the maid, and I can't come at it for the life of me,” replied Joe, with a sigh.

“I thought you were bothering your head about something or other, by the way you were biting your beard and pulling at your whiskers. But you needn't look so suart, master, there's nothing shocking the matter.”

“I be glad to hear that, lass; for what's all the world to a man if his family be's miserable around him. My old dad used to say, ‘The horse-shoe that clatters wants a nail,’ and I be sartain sure there is summat uncommon the matter with Mag, for her looks as paky as a bush parrot caged in an old tea-chest, and a bit agone her used to be giggling all day long at nothing at all, or singing songs by the dozen. I hope her hasn't cotched the measles from Giles' young uns.”

“Measles! not at all. Don't you remember she had 'em when we were up at Luckyboy? But she has cotched something else, Joe. Ha, ha, ha! how you do stare.”

“It bean't dangerous, I hope; but out with it at once, Peggy, for I be a bit nervous to-night.”

“Why, where is all your wit gone to, Joe? Ha, ha, ha! Can't you see the maid is in love?”

“Oh, ho! Love is it? Well, well, I forgot to think of that; and it's a likely complaint for a young lass to catch too. But bather it all, missis, thee didn't look mopey when thee wast in love wi' me; and when I was over head and ears in love wi' thee, I never went paking about with my chin down to my waistcoat pockets, and my eyes looking as dull as boiled horse-beans. Not at all.”

“You forget how you used to look, Joe,” said Peggy, laughing.

“Not I, lass; I don't forget those merry days, nor never shall. But it's my notion, Peg, that love bean't such a real genuine thing out in this country as it used to be at whoam. Perhaps the hot winds have summat to do with the change; 'em do shrivel up the hearts of the cabbages in our garden, you know. At any odds, I don't think young folks are so steady in their love affairs as 'em used to be in our time; there is too much gallivantation about 'em, especially the gals.”

“What is that, Joe?”

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“Why, talking nonsense, and whirling about like giddy butterflies, that is what I mean. Some folks call it flirting, and think there bean't much harm in it; but I think t'other way, for I've seen lasses gad about till 'em flutter into the nets of them poaching fellows who are always on the look-out for soft nawnies.”

“I hope you don't mean to say that our girl is a soft nawny, master?”

“No, no, I didn't say that at all, Peg; still I'll say this— her bean't half as spirited as her mother was at her age. I don't like the way her has been dilly-dallying with Sam Rafter this while back, because it isn't fair and square according to my notion. If her doesn't mean to have the lad, why don't her tell 'en so honestly, and let him go and look out for some gal who will like him better?”

“Well, Mag doesn't mean to have him, father; at any rate she won't if things go on as straight as we expect, and she can get a better man.”

“Her is getting plaguey crooked herself.”

“Crooked! What are you talking about, Stubble? There isn't a better shaped girl in”——

“Stop, stop, Peggy! it was her temper I was talking about, not her limbs. I don't know what sort of a man her wants if Sam can't please her.”

“That is a matter of fancy you know, master. When John Duff asked me to marry him, I said, nay, though he had a bakery of his own at Winkleigh: I preferred you, Joe.”

“I should think so, indeed! Duff had got a wooden leg. Now Sam Rafter is a big-fisted, manly-looking young fellow as there is in the district, and a first-rate hand at his trade. He'll mount up in the world by-and-bye, never fear, for he has lots of book-larning in his head, though he doesn't talk so much as some chaps do who know precious little. My word! Sam is worth a dray-load of Jack-o'-dandies, who would starve their grannies for a bottle of scent or a bundle of cigars.”

“Sam is sober, and steady, and good-looking enough; I don't deny all that, Joe; but you know he has only got his bare wages to depend on, and what is that to begin the world with and keep a wife? Mag likes him a bit I daresay, but she thinks she ought to look a little higher in life, and no blame to her neither, for she is as fine a maid as can be found on the three rivers, though I am her mother.”

“That is right enough, Peggy. Her is a real strapping

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wench, and I be her feyther: still for all that, I don't think her is a bit too good for Sam. It's true he is only a journeyman at present, but I don't care about seeing young fellows their own masters before they have learnt experience. Sam will have a shop of his own by and bye, never fear.”

“Suppose he does get a shop of his own, father, what will that be after all? Mag is worthy of a gentleman.”

“Well, Sam is a gentleman to my thinking, though he does wear a paper cap sometimes, and carries a two-foot rule in his breeches pocket. I don't believe he would do a shabby thing if it would make his fortune. I never heard him speak a slang word, much less curse and swear as some of the lads in the neighbourhood do. He hasn't got any bad habits that I know of; he is kind to his feeble old mother, and he is as religious as the parson himself. If all that bean't gentility, I be out in my reckoning, that's all. I wish thee thought of the lad as I do, Peggy, then Mag would not see many objections, I'll warrant, for thee can manage her like churning.”

“But you haven't let me tell you who she is in love with, Joe,” said Peggy, with a knowing look.

“I ax pardon for stopping you, lass. Speak up now; I'll listen.”

“Of course you saw that young gentleman who was out 'possum shooting with Bob the moonlight nights last week.”

“Hi, hi! what! that long dandy chap with a glass eye, who's been stopping at the Major's?”

“With an eye-glass, you mean, Joe.”

“It's all the same, Peggy.”

“It isn't all the same though; a glass eye is”——

“Yes, yes, I know; what 'em put in a stuffed head or a dark lantern; but do 'ee tell me who the chap is, and where he comes from, and what his name is, and all that.”

“He is a regular gentleman. Mr Benjamin Goldstone, that is his name. His father is one of the richest men in Sydney, and his grandfather was”——

“Stop a bit, Peg, never mind his grandmother; tell me how Mag came to get in love with a man her knows naught about, and whom I suppose her has never spoken to. That doesn't look sensible, missis?”

“Ah, but she has spoken to him several times, I can tell you. The first afternoon he called here for Bob to go round the swamps with him to shoot ducks, I was certain sure he was struck comical at Mag all of a sudden, for I was peeping

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through the chinks of the dairy, and I saw how he looked. And when she went into the orchard to pull some ripe figs, he walked after her as polite as could be, and said a pretty deal to her, in a loving way too, I'll be bound; for she came back blushing like a royal red-streak apple.”

“Well, her might blush I think,” said Joe, testily. “To go gallivanting under a fig-tree with a young fellow as her never seed afore.”

“You are woful sharp, master. You'll cut my head off, in a minute.”

“Not I, lass. I wouldn't cut thee little finger nail. I love thee too well to hurt thee; I love my girl too, and that's why I be cautious that nobody hurts her.”

“Nobody has tried to hurt her the least bit in life, so you needn't get fightable, Stubble. I am sure Mr Goldstone is as nice a gentleman as ever entered a house, and no more pride in him than our Bob has. He sat down in your old chair t'other day, and sipped a mug of milk, and talked to me and Mag for an hour or more as pleasantly as if he had known us all our days.”

“If I had guessed he wor going to stay here so long, I wouldn't have gone into the township that afternoon,” said Joe, drily. “As far as I can make out this Coldstone”——

“Goldstone, I told you; not Coldstone, master,” interrupted Peggy.

“Well, it's all the same to me; I don't believe he is much good.”

“How can you say such spiteful things behind a gentleman's back, Stubble?”

“Doan't 'ee get angry, Peggy, for that won't make him a bit better. I know what I be talking about. It's only fair to judge of a man by his companions, and I seed him riding with a precious lot of Tom-and-Jerry boys only last Sunday morning. They were going kangaroo-hunting, I think. I don't want such visitors as them in my humble home, and I won't have 'em in it either, and that's all about it.”

“Hoity-toity! I've helped to make your home, Mr Stubble, and I hope I have enough pride in me to keep it decent,” retorted Peggy, while her colour heightened with excitement.

“Thee has quite enow pride, missis,—a little bit too much in some ways; and I've naught to say against your keeping the house tidy and decent; but if thee can't see the danger of

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encouraging that Will-o'-the-wisp customer, thee must let me look out, and I'll do't a bit sharper than thee, I'll warrant.”

“Yes, you are wonderfully sharp, no doubt. Didn't Jock, the dealer, do you out of the price of twenty dozen of pumpkins the week before last?”

“I don't care twopence about the pumpkins, Peggy; but let any caterwauling fellow try to do me out of my darter, and he'll see what stuff I be made of. If I'd seed that long chap in the orchard 'other day, sky-larking with Mag, I'd soon a telled him to morris out, and go and shoot his wild-ducks, and it would have been good for his bones to have gone off pretty quick. I know what that sort of courting means with the like of him, and I wonder thee hadn't more wit than to encourage the gal to think he meant anything more than nonsense, if he didn't plot mischief.”

“I can't think what ails you, father. You get so touchy all in a minute, as if the gentleman was coming here to burn us all out of house and home, and you snap me up before I can tell you what he said to Mag.”

“I don't want to know what he said, Peggy; but I'll take care he doesn't say any more to her, if I be at home the next time he calls, except he comes to me first and foremost, and gives me better reasons for it than I think he's got in his head. It bean't honest courting with him, according to my notion, or he would set about it in a more modest, straightforward way. And if it be honest, it bean't common sense for us to match Mag with a man who seemingly doesn't know better than to go sky-larking about Sundays as well as Mondays, with Dick Swallow and other young reprobates.”

“Why, you know very well, Stubble, that the Swallow family is as high as any in the district; old Mr Swallow is”—

“I bean't saying aught disrespectful of old Mr Swallow, Peggy; but it's plain enow that his son Dick is a low scamp; and high up as his family is, I bean't going to let our boy associate with him, or with any of his companions either. Bob is now as sober and steady as your old daddy was; but there bean't no saying how soon he might be spoilt if us let him get too thick with this dandy chap that you and Mag are going crazy about.”

“He isn't a chap, Stubble: and I am shocked at your bad manners for calling him such a vulgar name.”

“Hush, Peggy! keep thee temper, lass. Soft words, if us have hard arguments. I can't see how thee can be a good

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judge of a man on so short an acquaintance, though you be a cleverish sort of 'ooman.”

“I am thankful to say I am not of such a dreadfully suspicious nature as you are, Stubble; one would fancy you had been an er—I dont-know-what, to think so wickedly of others as you do.”

“Never mind; if the biggest rogues make the best fathers, as the saying is, I be a good hand for looking after my gal. But thee hast know'd me all my life, Peggy, and if I'd done much in the flirting way, thee'd have tell'd me of it afore to-day, I reckon. Thee bean't too modest for that, lass.”

“I don't notice all that some people do, or I should be wretched.”

“Come, come, doan't'ee pout so Peggy. Thee was looking as glad as a singing bird when thee first pulled my wig a few minutes agone. Brighten up again, lass! There bean't a bit of common sense in being cross with one another; at any odds, us ought to be agreed about what concerns the life and happiness of our only darter.”

“How can we agree if you say one thing and I say another, if you pull backwards while I pull forward? I am trying to rear our children up respectably, and you always go dead against me.”

“Thee art mistaken there, Peggy, lass! I love my children as much as thee dost, and I want to see 'em grow up industrious, sober, honest, and all that sort of thing, which will make 'em respectable.”

“I have never said aught against their being sober and honest and industrious; you know that very well, Stubble. Of course I have objected to Bob driving bullocks, or Mag milking cows, since we have made our fortune, and that is reasonable enough.”

“Thee hast had thee own way there, Peg, though I think a little work of that sort wouldn't do the young uns any harm. Us did plenty of it, you know, and it didn't stint our growth.”

“I don't suppose it would stint their growth, Mr Stubble, but it would stop 'em from mixing in good society, and that is what I am anxious for 'em to do, though you set your face against it.”

“Thee never heard me object to good society for 'em Peg— quite t'other way; for haven't I always stood up for Sophy Rowley, and”——

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“Faugh! Sophy Rowley, indeed! The mealy-mouthed, countryfied—er—er—slap-cabbage!” vociferated Mrs Stubble, whose contempt was bubbling over.

“That bean't pretty talk, mother; I guess good society wouldn't stand much of it,” said Joe, getting off the stump and walking towards the house, closely followed by his wife, who was talking loudly. “Doan't 'ee be so cross, Peg; I tell'ee that bean't the way to agree together.”

“It is you that makes me cross, Stubble, with your contrary ways. It is the greatest anxiety of my life to see my children grow up genteel, but you always spoil all I do. Here is a fine chance for Mag to marry into high life, and perhaps be the making of Bob, besides raising us all up in the world; and as soon as I tell you about it, you upset all I have been planning and doing for the last fortnight, with your common remarks. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Stubble, for calling a gentleman a chap, as if he were a coarse vulgar fellow coming to do, I don't know what, to us all.”

“I bean't afeard of what he'll do to thee, Peg, but thee must be a precious old goosey not to see what the fellow be's up to, with his city blarney and his impudent winks at Mag through his glass eye. I am 'mazed that thee hasn't got more gumption, mother!”

“Ugh! you wicked man!” sobbed Peggy, beginning to cry with vexation and wounded pride. “If Mr Goldstone comes here again, I'll tell him you said I was to order him off the place.”

“Very well, Peg, tell 'en so; and thee'd better advise him, as he is such a friend of yourn, to march off pretty quick, for if I cotch 'en here again talking soft nonsense to my gal, barn me if I doan't pitch 'en head and heels into the lagoon, his gun and all. That's the way to say it, and I mean it too.”

Mr Stubble delivered that forcible ultimatum with a calmly determined air, like a jack-tar aiming a swivel gun at a piratical junk. He then put on his coat and went for a stroll in his bush paddock, in order to avoid the circle of a connubial storm. He knew from past experience that his wife would not be pacified with anything short of absolute submission to her views, which he was not prepared to yield, from a conviction that Goldstone had not an honest motive in his visits to Buttercup Glen.

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