“Not that way,” said Mother. “That’s upside down; give them to me straight, ’cause your father sometimes likes to read them when they’re up.”
They chatted about the christening.
“Indeed, then, she won’t be asked,” Sal said; “not if she goes down on her knees—the skinny little—”
“Min’, min’, mind, girl!” Mother screeched, and Sal dropped the newspaper she was about to hand up, and, jumping a stool, caught the baby by the skirt-tail just as it was about to wobble into the fire.
“My goodness! You little rat!” The baby laughed playfully and struggled to get out of her arms. Sal placed it at the opposite side of the room and the decorating continued.
“I can remember the time, then,” Mother said, “when they hadn’t so much to be flash about, when the old woman and that eldest girl, Johanna, used to go about in their bare feet and with dresses on—dear me—that I wouldn’t give a black-gin!”
“Not Johanna, Mother?”
“Yes. Johanna. You wouldn’t remember it, of course. Norah was the baby then.”
“You little wretch!” And Sal rushed for the baby and pulled it from the fire once more. She dumped it down in a different corner, and returned to the paste. The baby made eagerly for the fire again, but when half-way across the room it stopped, rested its cheek on the floor and fell asleep—and it on the verge of being christened “Bartholomew”—until Dad came in and took it up.
Mother went into her bed-room and came out with a flaring red sash flying over her greasy gown, and asked Dad if he liked it. Dad looked at the ribbon, then out of the window and chuckled.
“What d’y’ think of me?”
“Think of y’?” And Dad grinned.
Mother looked fondly at the ribbon. She was very satisfied with herself. She was a true woman, was Mother. She tripped into the room again and came out with some yards of print, and asked Dad what he thought of that. Mother was fond of dress.
“Dear me, woman,” Dad said, “what’s going to happen?”
“But how do y’ like it?”—letting it hang like a skirt.
Dad grinned more.
“Is it a nice pattern?”
Dad still grinned.
“Does it suit me?”
Dad looked out the window and saw Joe knock Little Bill down with a pumpkin. He ran out.
“Men haven’t a bit of taste,” Mother said to Sal, folding the print, “except just for what”—(Joe rushed in at the front door and out at the back one—“’cept for what’s to go in their stomachs. All they think about’s an old—” Dad rushed in at the front door and out the back one)—“old horse or something. And then they think”—(Joe rushed in again at the front door, but dived under the sofa)—“think every old screw is a race-horse”—(Dad rushed in again at the front door and out at the back one)—“My word, if he finds you there, me shaver, y’ll catch it!”
Joe grinned and breathed hard. Mother put the print away and mounted the box again. Then Mrs Flannigan—a glib-tongued old gossip, the mother of sixteen shy selector children—dropped in, and they drank tea together and talked about christenings and matches and marriages and babies and bad times and bad husbands until dark—until Mrs. Flannigan thought her husband would be wanting his supper and went home.
Joe talked of the christening at school. For a time nobody paid any attention to him; but as days passed and one and another went home to find that mother and father and bigger brothers and sisters had been “asked,” the interest grew, and a revulsion of feeling in favour of Joe set in. First Nell Anderson suddenly evinced a desire for his society—previously she would weep if made stand next him in class. Then the Murphys and the Browns and young Roberts surrounded him, and Reuben Burton put his string bridle on him and wouldn’t ride any other horse in a race, till at last Joe became the idol of the institution. They all fawned on him and followed him about—all but the two Caseys. They were isolated, and seemed to feel their position keenly.
Joe was besieged with questions and answered them all with a headshake and a snuffling of one nostril. He disclosed all the arrangements and gave melting descriptions of the pies and puddings Mother was preparing. How they danced round him and called him “Joseph”! The two Caseys stood off in silence, and in fancy saw those pies and puddings—a pleasant contemplation till Nell Anderson pointed to them and asked Joe if they were invited.
“Nah,” Joe said, “n-n-none of ’em is.”
“Ain’t their mother?”
“N-nah, we d-don’t want ’em”, and he snuffled more. Then the two Caseys stole away to the rear of the school, where they sat and nursed their chagrin in lugubrious silence, and caught flies mechanically, and looked down at their dusty bare feet over which the ants crawled, until the teacher thumped the end of the little building with a huge paling and school went in.
The Day came, and we all rose early and got ready. The parson, who had to ride twenty-five miles to be present, came about midday. His clothes were dusty, and he looked tired. Mother and Sal wondered if they should offer him something to eat or let him wait until the guests arrived and all sat down to the big spread. They called Dad and Dave into the little tumble-down kitchen to discuss the matter. Dad said he didn’t care what they did, but Dave settled it. He said, “Get the chap a feed.”
Joe sat on the sofa beside the parson’s tall hat and eyed it in wonder. Joe had never seen so much respectability before. The parson ate with his back turned to Joe, while Mother and Sal flew busily about. Joe cautiously put out his hand to feel the beaver. Mother saw him and frowned. Joe withdrew his hand and stared at the rafters.
“Delicious tea,” said the parson, and Mother served him with more.
Joe’s hand stole out to the hat again. Dave, standing outside near the front door, noticed him and grinned. That emboldened Joe, and he lifted the hat and placed his head inside it and grinned out at Dave. Mother frowned more, but Joe couldn’t see her. She hurried out. Then from the back of the house Dad’s voice thundered, “Joe!” Joe removed the beaver and obeyed the call. Harsh, angry whispers came from the door, then sounds of a scuffle, and an empty bucket flew after Joe as he raced across the yard towards the haystack.
Soon the guests began to arrive. The Maloneys and the Todds and the Taits and the Thomsons and others, with children and dogs, came in spring-carts and drays from Back Creek. The Watsons and the Whites and old Holmes and Judy Jubb, from Prosperity Peak, appeared on horse-back. Judy, in the middle of the yard, stepped out of a torn and tattered old riding habit, with traces of the cow-yard about it, and displayed a pair of big boots and “railway” stockings and a nice white muslin dress with red bows and geraniums and a lot of frills and things on it. Judy was very genteel.
The Sylvesters—nice people who had come from Brisbane with new ideas and settled near us, people who couldn’t leg-rope a cow, who were going to make a big thing out of fowls, who were for ever asking Dad if jew-lizards were snakes—came on foot with their baby in a little painted cart. A large black dog, well groomed and in new harness, without reins, pulled the cart along.
We had never seen a dog pulling a cart before—neither had our dog. He rushed off to meet the Sylvesters, but stopped half-way and curled his tail over his back and growled and threw earth about with his legs. The Sylvesters’ dog stood also, and curled his tail over his harness. Mrs. Sylvester patted him and said, “Carlo,—Carlo, you naughty boy!”
Our dog suddenly made off. The Sylvesters’ dog pursued him. He tore along the fence at coursing speed, making a great noise with the cart until he turned a corner, where it upset and left the baby. But he didn’t catch our dog. And Paddy Maloney and Steve Burton and young Wilkie galloped up through the paddock shouting and whipping their horses and carried away the clothes-line stretched between two trees at the back.
The house soon filled—just room for big Mrs. McDoolan to squeeze in. She came on foot, puffing and blowing, and drank the glass of holy water that stood on the table with bull-frogs careering round in it. She shook hands with everybody she knew, and with everybody she didn’t know, and kissed the baby. There was no pride about Mrs. McDoolan.
The ceremony was about to commence. Joe and the young Todds and the young Taits, who, with the tomahawk and some dogs—about twenty-six dogs—had been up the paddock hunting kangaroo-rats, returned with a live jew-lizard. They squatted round the door guarding the trophy.
Dad and Mother, with the baby in a dress of rebellious hues, stood up and faced the parson. All became silent and expectant. The parson whispered something to Mother, and she placed the baby in Dad’s great arms. The band of hunters at the door giggled, and the jew-lizard tried to escape. Dad, his hair and beard grown very long, stared at the parson with a look of wild, weird reverence about him.
“In the name of the Father,” the parson drawled, dipping his fingers into the water and letting it drip on to the baby’s face—“I baptize thee, Barthol—”
The jew-lizard escaped and, with open mouth and head up, raced across the floor. Had it been a boa-constrictor or a bunyip the women couldn’t have squealed with more enthusiasm. It made straight for Judy Jubb. But Judy had been chased by a jew-lizard before. She drew back her skirts—also her leg—and kicked the vermin in the chest and lifted it to the rafters. It fell behind the sofa and settled on Todd’s bull-dog that was planted there. Bully seized it and shook it vigorously and threw it against Mrs. McDoolan, and seized it again and shook it more—shook it until our dog and a pack of others rushed in. “T’ the devil!” said Dad indignantly, aiming heavy kicks at the brutes. “The child!—Gimme the child!” Mother shrieked, pulling at Dad. “Out w’ y’!” said Anderson, letting fly his foot. “Down, Bully!” shouted Todd, and between them all they kicked the dogs right through the door, then heaved the lizard after them.
But the ceremony was soon over, and everybody was radiant with joy—everybody but Bartholomew. He had been asleep until the parson dropped the water on his face, when he woke suddenly. He glared at the strange assemblage a moment, then whined and cried hard. Mother “hooshed” him and danced him up and down, saying, “Did they fri-ten ’im?” Mrs. McDoolan took him and “hooshed” him and jumped him about and said, “There now,—there now.”
But Bartholomew resented it all and squealed till it seemed that some part of him must burst. Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Anderson and Judy Jubb each had a go at him. “Must have the wind,” murmured Mrs. Ryan feelingly, and Mrs. Johnson agreed with her by nodding her head. Mother took him again and showed him the dog, but he didn’t care for dogs. Then Sal ran out with him and put him on the gee-gee—the parson’s old moke that stood buried in thought at the fence—and he was quiet.
A long table erected in the barn was laden with provisions, and Dad invited the company to “come along and make a start.” They crowded in and stared about. Green boughs and corn-cobs hung on the walls, some bags of shelled corn stood in one corner, and from a beam dangled a set of useless old cart-harness that Dad used to lend anyone wanting to borrow. Dad and Paddy Maloney took up the carving. Dad stood at one end of the table—Paddy at the other. Both brandished long knives. Dad proceeded silently—Paddy with joyous volubility. “Fowl or pig!” he shouted, and rattled the knife, and piled the provender on their plates, and told them to “back in their carts” when they wanted more; and he called the minister “Boss”. Paddy was in his element.
’Twas a magnificent feast and went off most successfully. It went off until only the ruins remained. Then the party returned to the house and danced. Through the afternoon, and far into the night, the concertina screeched its cracked refrain, while the forms of weary females, with muffled infants in their arms, hovered about the drays in the yard, and dogtired men, soaked to the knees with dew-wet grass, bailing and blocking horses in a paddock corner, took strange, shadowy shape. It wasn’t until all was bright and the sun seemed near that the last dray rolled heavily away from the christening of Bartholomew.