Dad rode across to the humpy, got off, and asked for a billy of hot water to make tea with. Mrs. Talty filled the billy, and would have handed it up when he was mounted, but Dad did not allow that—he always refused assistance in such small things. So he waved her off, and, seizing the billy, held it with the reins in his left hand. Scrambling up clumsily, he spilt the water over the mare’s neck, scalded her badly, and made her buck right on to Mrs Talty. Then he fell off, and made a fool of himself.
That was how Dad happened to be in bed when a lot of people came to the house one day.
Dad was very bad—bruised all over, and the pain made him groan all day long, and whenever Mother smeared oil on him he yelled till he could be heard over at Regan’s. And bad temper! If any of us poked a head into his room and asked meekly how he was, he bellowed, “Clear out!” We always obeyed. And when we didn’t go in to ask how he was, he roared out to know where the devil we all were, and accused us of having no more sympathy in our compositions than a lot of blackfellows. He said we were only hanging round, waiting for him to die.
Dad was a difficult old man to please when he wasn’t well. Joe reckoned if he put the same energy into prayer that he put into profanity he would never be sick.
Nearly every female in the district called to inquire how Dad was. At least they made that their excuse. They didn’t care how Dad was. It mattered little to them whether he lived or died. They came only to yarn and drink tea, and tell lies about themselves, and libel absent friends. “So sorry,” they said, and made mouths and ugly faces about it. Women always make themselves ugly when they wish to appear sympathetic. It’s a way they have of carrying conviction.
None ventured into the room, though, to see Dad. They questioned Mother, then sat down and sighed and took their handkerchiefs out. Fifty times and more Mother had to relate how the accident happened, and every time she came to the “bucking off” part Dad’s voice would break through the wooden wall, “Dammit, I tell y’ again I wasn’t bucked off! Wasn’t on the mare”—and Mother would get confused, and turn all colours. And some of the ladies would smile, and some wouldn’t. Then rounds of heavy groans would come from Dad, and Mother would shiver on the verge of nervous collapse lest he should break out in a passion and yell violence at the company.
Mother was unhappy. She wished the visitors had stayed away. But they didn’t notice her discomfiture. They sipped tea, and ate up all the scones and cake Sarah carried in, then became boisterously convivial—screamed and took possession of the house. They forgot there was a suffering invalid on the premises, and no one heard Dad groan any more—no one heard him growl savagely, “Blarst them—blarst, why th’ devil don’t they shut up and go home?”—no one but Mother. And she ran in to pacify him.
The bedlam eased off a little, and a political discussion commenced on the general election that was approaching.
Mrs. Brown asked Mother whom Dad intended voting for, and, without waiting to hear an answer, Mrs McFluster, a crane-necked, antagonistic old aunt of Mary Gray’s, said her man (meaning McFluster) didn’t believe in Griffith at all. In Mrs. McFluster’s own sinewy opinion he was of no account. She was proceeding to make remarks about him when Dad’s voice fairly shook the partition. Dad believed in Griffith as he did in milk. He was Dad’s political god.
Mrs. McFluster pricked her ears. “What’s he saying?” she asked of Mrs. Higgins.
“Wher’ th’ devil’s ther’ a better man for th’ country?” Dad shouted, his voice quivering with rage.
“Thun who?” Mrs. McFluster shouted back.
“Than Griffith!” (very loud).
“McIlwraith is,” squealed Mrs. McFluster, “McIlwraith is—McIlwraith!”
“Never in his life! Rubbish!” Dad roared, raising himself on his elbow in the bed and glaring at the wall. “Pshaw! y’ don’t know the ruffian!”
Fire flashed from Mrs. McFluster’s eyes as she stood up and faced the wall on the other side.
“He is—doesn’t everyone know it?”
“A lie, woman; no one knows it.”
Mrs. Higgins and some more tugged at Mrs. McFluster’s skirts to induce her, in the interests of peace, to desist.
“Name me one act,” Dad yelled, “one single act of McIlwraith’s that was ever any good to the country; name one—name it!”
Mrs. McFluster, struggling to disengage herself from the clutches of her scared niece and Mrs. Higgins, lost the thread of the argument.
Encouraged by the lady’s silence, Dad got fairly on his mettle. Forgetting his bruised back, he bounded clean out of bed and grabbed his trousers.
“Name one!” he continued, yelling while he fumbled the garment excitedly. “Name one single”—(he got one leg in, and, giving the pants a tug, sprang to the door, which he opened just wide enough to disclose his face and the leg that was clothed; the rest of him was concealed)—“one single act”—(fixing Mrs. McFluster with a wild eye to keep her to the point)—“of your McIlwraith’s that was ever any good to the country. Name it!”
“The school,” Mrs. McFluster screeched, flying at Dad like a wild cat. “The school, the dam, the—the roads, an’—”
“Dammit, woman, they’re Griffith’s!” And in his excitement Dad threw open the door and stepped right out, waving his right hand (the left held up his trousers), and swinging an empty trouser-leg and displaying a huge undressed limb, all hair and joints. Sensation!
Girls squealed and jumped up and ran out in disorder.
“Father! father!” Mother pleaded, placing her hands lightly on Dad to restrain him.
“Fanny!” Mrs. Bruse called to her daughter. “Fanny! come home.”
“I declare t’ God,” Miss Mahony (a single old body, grave and religious) cried as she hurried away, “th’ man have no trousers on. Shame for him!”
And when she reached the door she turned and cast another glance of reprobation at Dad, then, passing the window, outside, looked in once more to satisfy herself that she wasn’t doing him an injustice after all.
But Mrs. McFluster saw nothing wrong. She stood up to Dad and stamped her foot and squealed out, “It’s a lie! It’s a lie!”—until Dave came in with a run, seized Dad in his arms and carried him back to bed.
Dad ceased yelling and calmed down, and was taking kindly to a basin of gruel Mother brought him when someone knocked at the door again.
Mother answered the call.
It was Mr Macfarlane, the minister. He smiled and squeezed Mother’s hand, then his face changed its expression. He became solemn as a death sentence. He had heard Dad was in a nigh fever, and spoke in a low anxious tone about him. He wouldn’t see Dad—he thought it well he shouldn’t be disturbed—and he suggested a short prayer for his recovery. Sarah came, and Mother sent her to call the boys.
“Yous fellows is wanted at th’ house,” Dave said to Joe and Bill, neither of whom knew the minister was there. Then Dave, who did know, went away to close the slip-rails in the seventeen-acres. He took till night to close those slip-rails.
The minister was proceeding in soft, solemn tones to pray when Dad’s voice broke in upon the service.
“Ellen!” he called. Joe grinned, Mother fidgeted.
“Ellen!” he called more loudly.
“Grant them strength to bear their trial”—came feelingly from the good minister. “Where th’ devil ’a’ they gone t’—El-len!” came from Dad.
“Restore our dear brother to health, an—”
There was an irreverent interruption.
“Dammit!” Dad yelled, punching the partition with his fist till it seemed the house would fall—“damn it!”
Mother went into him.
“Where the devil’ve y’ been?” Dad roared.
Mother motioned him to be silent, and whispered that the minister was in the dining-room.
Dad howled harder. “Has he brought Darkey back?” Darkey was a horse Dad had lent the parson some weeks before.
Mother thought it wise to answer in the affirmative, and told a lie. “Has he been feeding him?”
Mother lied again.
“Has he fetched the ten shillings he borrowed?”
“He’s wandering!” the minister remarked to Sarah; “they all do in fever.” Then he thought he would be going and went away.