Sarah was never done with inflicting new ideas upon us. She would doll Mother up and parade her round in things that made the good old soul blush the whole time she was in them. And such innovations! She scrawled “Ruddville” on some tin and nailed it to the front gate. She wrote out laboriously a lot of rules for good manners and tacked up the list in our room as a kind of perpetual warning. She checked Dad for stirring his tea with a knife and quarrelled with Joe if he swigged milk from a jug or grabbed up the bread and pitched it to her when she asked him nicely to pass the plate. The table, too, was never twice laid the same way, while pieces of furniture constantly swapped corners. Enter the rooms in the dark and approach the corner where, in the morning, you had seen the couch, and the chances were you would wreck the whatnot or tramp on a toy dog or something. Had Sarah been able to slew the house round, she would have made it face the east one day and the back yard the next.
One New Year’s Eve we had visitors. Farrell’s wife was at our place (Farrell, who was the schoolmaster, frequently handed her over to us while he went to town to enjoy himself). Miss Mason, a young lady from town, was spending the week with Sarah. And the Rev. Peter Macfarlane dropped in—but only for dinner.
Sarah called Joe and Bill into the kitchen.
“Have some manners to-day!” she said to Joe, “and don’t act as though you had never seen anyone before. And you”—to Bill—“you great gawk, be careful and don’t make a fool of yourself.”
“We’ll be most p-p-lite,” Joe said (he only stuttered occasionally now and often carried pebbles in his mouth to cure himself). And Joe bowed low to the kitchen wall, and inquired how it did and whether it would oblige by “p-p-passing th’ s-s-spuds”. But Bill blushed to the ears. He anticipated a bad time. Like Dave, Bill abhorred company. Dave was sullen over the matter. Bill was fidgety and flurried, and his large, lake-like eyes would roll in their watery sockets.
We were restless. Dinner was very late, but when we were called we forgave Sarah everything, for the table was most inviting. It would have attracted a painter, or a pig, or even a cockatoo, there was so much variety. Ferns, flowers, corn-cobs, wattle blossoms, corn-stalks and things waved all over it, and a large, healthy piece of pumpkin-vine sheltered the butter. Sarah stood by, smiling, her hands clasped on her apron, waiting the effect.
Joe was the first to enter. He stood, stared, guffawed rudely, and would have run back only the others were on his heels. “Dear me, girl!” said Dad, “what’s all this?”
Sarah smiled. Everyone sat down. The visitors talked cheerfully and in turn admired the piece of pumpkin-vine.
Dave was solemn and silent and indifferent as a tombstone. Dave had no taste, no eye for art. Joe passed him a corncob, and he grinned in his weird way, but, recollecting there was company, composed himself and was silent again. Dave was never boisterous long at a time. He looked along his nose and waited.
Dad rattled a knife on the steel and began to carve.
A short interval of silence.
Mrs. Farrell looked at Dave and asked him had he seen the lovely corn Mullins had. As if she couldn’t have asked someone else! Dave started, fumbled his fingers, lifted his eyes and dropped them again, but couldn’t think of a word to say. Joe rescued him. Joe had seen Mullins’s corn.
Dave was very unhappy. He thought everybody must be staring at him, and sat in dread of Mrs. Farrell’s asking more questions.
“A very, very small helping of fowl—if you please,” the parson said, in answer to Dad.
Bill’s eyes and mouth moved rapidly. He seemed to be repeating poetry or a prayer to himself.
“’N’ what’s fer you, Bill?”
“Er—a very, very small helping of fowl, if you please,” he said rapidly.
Joe made an ugly spluttering noise in his throat which disconcerted Bill. He changed colour.
Sarah tried to frown at Bill, but his eyes were on the parson. Mrs. Farrell smiled.
The parson stirred his tea, took up his knife and fork, and began. Bill did these things, too.
Dave was getting on well. The others talked about music and concerts.
“Do you sing, Mr Rudd?” Miss Mason asked, fixing her lovely big eyes fair on Dave. Poor old chap! His fork fell right out of his fingers and he did look sheepish.
“He won’t sing,”—Sarah chimed in; “we can never get him to try, Miss Mason.”
It was good of Sarah to help Dave out.
Joe grinned. He always did when he was going to say something useless.
“He t-t-ried one night,” he said. “The night the s-s-stallion broke out!”
There was a lot of tittering. Everyone seemed to enjoy it but Bill and Dad—and Dave. Bill was studying the parson and Dad had failed to hear what Joe said.
Joe lifted his voice.
“I say D-Dave s-sang orright th’ night he f-f-rightened th’ s-s-stallion!”
Dad looked at Dave and “hoo-hooed”. Everyone looked at Dave. Dave could feel them. He stared stolidly and stubbornly into his plate, wishing to Heaven an earthquake or something would shatter the house.
Dinner continued, but Dave couldn’t eat another mouthful—and puddings and fruit and things on the table, too! He sat for a while, then, as if he had had a real good dinner, rose and left. Outside he kicked the dog for nothing at all, and went across to the thresher’s tent and threw himself on a bunk. McPhee, the boss-thresher—who had knocked off early and put on his Sunday clothes in honour of “the nicht”—produced a bottle from the head of his bed and asked Dave if he’d have a drop. Dave smiled and took two or three drops, and stayed all the afternoon.
At tea-time—“Call Dave!” Mother said to Bill.
Bill found it hard to make Dave hear. But he came at last, came singing, “Poorsh honish parensh, born in Cashl (hic) maine!” Everyone listened.
“No stransher he (hic) didsh fear”—and in the door Dave walked, looking happy. He sat at the table close to Miss Mason and smiled.
Bill began to giggle. Mother and Sarah stared at each other.
“Wheresh parshun?” Dave said, looking about the room. Joe got the giggles too.
Dave grinned and closed one eye, and said to Joe, “C’n you (hic) shing, Miss Rudd?” Mrs. Farrell leant back, and shrieked, and held her sides.
“Where’ve you been?” Dad said, looking across at Dave like a Chief Justice.
“Been? Shup there—” And Dave spread himself out and took possession of the table. And how he did eat!
Dad finished and left abruptly, and went straight to the thresher’s tent.
Mother became anxious, and went to the veranda. She was afraid of a quarrel, and stood watching. The tall green corn rustled and rasped its tangled leaves as it tossed and bent in the breeze that was springing up.
Mother gave a nervous start. Dad’s voice, strong and loud, floated in the air. “You dud!” “I deed-ant!”
“You dud! d—n you, man, you dud!”
But the row ceased suddenly. McPhee, who was a good judge of character, resorted to persuasion. He spoke softly to Dad, and patted him on the back.
“I’m frae Dumfries,” he said. (So was Dad.)
“Ye’er haun’,” said McPhee.
Dad gave it, and they shook like brothers and peered affectionately into each other’s eyes. Then McPhee sprung the bottle on Dad. Dad wouldn’t take very much—he took about an inch.
They talked of Scotland—at least McPhee did. Dad didn’t know anything about Scotland.
“No—no more,” Dad said and shook his head. “Beh! Ye’re nae frae Dumfries!”
“Wull—just a drop, then!” And Dad took some more, and smacked his lips, and said it was good stuff.
Mother remained on the veranda. As it got dark Dad came along and with him McPhee, the thresher.
The night was bright as day and a cool breeze blowing. Mother and Sarah and Joe and the visitors sat on the veranda listening to Cook’s boys, about a mile down, putting their calves in. Curlews and mopokes were about, and we could hear the possums round the corn at the seventeen-acres. Dad was inside entertaining McPhee.
Dave came out and leant against a veranda-post. “Cansh make up dansh?” he said.
“Make up a dance? Make up your bed!” Sarah answered, and Mrs Farrell shrieked again.
“D-dance, y’ want?” Joe said. “Well, come on”—and he seized Dave round the waist and proceeded to pull him about. They were tumbling and sprawling on the veranda like two bears when the dogs rushed out and barked. The tramp and rattle of horse hoofs, the clinging of bits and irons blended with voices, came from the rear. Next moment quite an army of mounted men and women were crowding and clamouring at the front. They yelled all sorts of friendly greetings. One, to attract attention, spurred his horse into the paling fence and swore because the animal couldn’t shake an old kerosene tin off its foot. Sarah ran down the steps and hugged and kissed everything that dismounted in a riding habit.
Dave stood on the brink of the veranda and called out, “Night!” and raised one hand, as though he would address them. Then he slipped, and fell on top of a pack of snarling dogs, and sent one yelling round the house, and made Jim Black’s horse pull back and rear and mix itself up with other horses.
Dad came out and wanted to know what the devil all the row was about. Then the mob, which was a surprise party, fastened its horses to the palings and proceeded to load the veranda with provender. All were armed with eatables. Some carried them in baskets, some in bags, some in paper. Wild Dick Saunders—a rough, hairy man with a harsh, aggressive voice, who carried his in a red handkerchief, volunteered to stand guard over the pile and keep the — dogs away.
Such a crowd! And so tall and sombre-looking at night! They tramped clumsily on the veranda and seethed and shoved like scrub cattle yarded in the moonlight.
Dad and Mother were ever so long shaking hands before they got round the lot. Long Jerry Johnson was the last, but he couldn’t shake hands at all—his arms were full. He carried their baby, six weeks old, concealed in a shawl and a long dress. There the great elf stood like a dead tree, holding his offspring out from him as though it were a wet dog.
“Ullo! wot’ve y’ here?” Dad said; “more grub?”
“No—a ba-by,” said Jerry meekly.
“A baby? Wull, keep it, keep it; we don’t want any o’ them—do we ol’ woman?”—to Mother—“we’ve had plenty. Wot wer’ it ol’ gal—sixteen!”
“Go along!” Mother said.
“Sixteen o’ ’em, Jerry! But let’s see if it’s like y’.” And Dad grabbed the child and pushed his way in with it.
Joe grinned and whispered in Jerry’s ear, “W-watch if the ol’ man don’t dd- drop it. He’s a bit m-merry.” Jerry jumped as if he had been struck with something. “Look out!” he said, and went through the crowd at the door like a race-horse. He asked Dad to give back the baby, but Mrs. Johnson came and took the mite and put it on a bed in a back room where you couldn’t hear it squeal if anyone sat on it.
The surprise party took possession of the house—bundled the tables out—hunted round for chairs and gin-cases, and set the concertina going. Then they proceeded to play “games”. They arranged chairs and gin-cases in a line down the room and half-way to the kitchen, and while the musician strained and jerked out a jig they pranced round until the music shut up suddenly, when they yelled and squealed and rushed headlong at the same chair, and fell on it until it collapsed and went to pieces. After that the concertina broke out again, and they picked each other out of the dust and puffed and prepared to prance more.
Wild Saunders, left in charge of the provisions, appeared at the door. “Jerry Johnson!” he shouted. “Come out here an’ mind this ham-bone o’ yours or the — dogs’ll have it, bag and all!”
“Oh, dear!” some said. Others went, “Sh! sh!”—and Miss Mason, sitting near the door, covered her ears with her hands.
But Saunders didn’t apologize; he simply added, “It’s a — good job y’ didn’t leave the piccaninny i’ th’ bag!”
Dave sauntered in and looked round. Prompted by new-born feelings of hospitality, he went silently through the company, and, with a broad smile and no collar, shook hands with everyone, including Joe and Sarah. Then he raised himself in triumph against the wall, and struck his head hard against the shelf, and shook down the clock, and a cob of corn, and a bottle of murky looking water in which Bill, a year before, had corked a snake. The clock didn’t break much, nor did the cob of corn, but the bottle containing the snake did. And the crash was hardly over when a panic set in. Such a scramble! To see them getting out both doors! And to hear them choking when they got out!
“Whatever wer’ in the bottle?” said old Andrew O’Day in an injured tone.
Joe explained, and Andrew spat more.
“A deed horrse is naething t’ it!” said McPhee, walking towards his tent. And they all assembled at the foot of the steps and laughed. Inside the bottle lay silently on the floor, and the snake cast its robust fragrance upon the atmosphere in a visible cloud.
They collected the provisions and, making use of the kitchen, invited Dad and Mother and the rest of us to supper. Then all went out again and danced on the grass. And as midnight approached, and the Old Year went and the New crept in, in the shade of the sinking moon and the light of a million stars they joined hands in hearty grip and filled the corn-fields and hollow with dragging echoes of “For Auld Lang Syne”.