The dogs outside barked. Those inside, lying full-stretch beneath the table, instantly darted up and rushed out. One of them carried off little Bill—who was standing at the table with his legs spread out and a pint of tea in his hand—as far as the door on its back, and there scraped him off and spilled tea over him. Dad spoke. He said, “Damn the dogs!” Then he rose and looked out the window. We all rose—all except Joe. Joe reached for the last scone.
A horseman dismounted at the slip-rails.
“Some stranger,” Dad muttered, turning to re-seat himself.
“Why, it’s—it’s the minister!” Sal cried—“the minister that married Kate!”
Dad nearly fell over. “Good God!” was all he said, and stared hopelessly at Mother. The minister—for sure enough it was the Rev. Daniel Macpherson—was coming in. There was commotion. Dave finished his tea at a gulp, put on his hat, and left by the back-door. Dad would have followed, but hesitated, and so was lost. Mother was restless—“on pins and needles.”
“And there ain’t a bite to offer him,” she cried, dancing hysterically about the table—“not a bite; nor a plate, nor a knife, nor a fork to eat it with!” There was humour in Mother at times. It came from the father’s side. He was a dentist.
Only Joe was unconcerned. He was employed on the last scone. He commenced it slowly. He wished it to last till night. His mouth opened and received it fondly. He buried his teeth in it and lingered lovingly over it. Mother’s eyes happened to rest on him. Her face brightened. She flew at Joe and cried:
“Give me that scone!—put it back on the table this minute!”
Joe became concerned. He was about to protest. Mother seized him by the hair (which had n’t been cut since Dan went shearing) and hissed:
“Put—it—back—sir!” Joe put it back.
The minister came in. Dad said he was pleased to see him—poor Dad!—and enquired if he had had dinner. The parson had not, but said he did n’t want any, and implored Mother not to put herself about on his account. He only required a cup of tea—nothing else whatever. Mother was delighted, and got the tea gladly. Still she was not satisfied. She would be hospitable. She said:
“Won’t you try a scone with it, Mr. Macpherson?” And the parson said he would—“just one.”
Mother passed the rescued scone along, and awkwardly apologised for the absence of plates. She explained that the Andersons were threshing their wheat, and had borrowed all our crockery and cutlery—everybody’s, in fact, in the neighbourhood—for the use of the men. Such was the custom round our way. But the minister did n’t mind. On the contrary, he commended everybody for fellowship and good-feeling, and felt sure that the district would be rewarded.
It took the Rev. Macpherson no time to polish off the scone. When the last of it was disappearing Mother became uneasy again. So did Dad. He stared through the window at the parson’s sleepy-looking horse, fastened to the fence. Dad wished to heaven it would break away, or drop dead, or do anything to provide him with an excuse to run out. But it was a faithful steed. It stood there leaning on its forehead against a post. There was a brief silence.
Then the minister joked about his appetite—at which only Joe could afford to smile—and asked, “May I trouble you for just another scone?”
Mother muttered something like “Yes, of course,” and went out to the kitchen just as if there had been some there. Dad was very uncomfortable. He patted the floor with the flat of his foot and wondered what would happen next. Nothing happened for a good while. The minister sipped and sipped his tea till none was left . . .
Dad said: “I’ll see what’s keeping her,” and rose—glad if ever man was glad—to get away. He found Mother seated on the ironbark table in the kitchen. They did n’t speak. They looked at each other sympathisingly.
“Well?” Dad whispered at last; “what are you going to do?” Mother shook her head. She did n’t know.
“Tell him straight there ain’t any, an’ be done with it,” was Dad’s cheerful advice. Mother several times approached the door, but hesitated and returned again.
“What are you afraid of?” Dad would ask; “he won’t eat y’.” Finally she went in.
Then Dad tiptoed to the door and listened. He was listening eagerly when a lump of earth—a piece of the cultivation paddock—fell dangerously near his feet. It broke and scattered round him, and rattled inside against the papered wall. Dad jumped round. A row of jackasses on a tree near by laughed merrily. Dad looked up. They stopped. Another one laughed clearly from the edge of the tall corn. Dad turned his head. It was Dave. Dad joined him, and they watched the parson mount his horse and ride away.
Dad drew a deep and grateful breath. “Thank God!” he said.