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XIV. The Prodigal’s Return

Steele Rudd

HARVEST-TIME: Dave and Joe and Bill carting barley off the housepaddock. Dad poking round on his old mare annoying the cows.

Dave, in the act of heaving a sheaf into the dray, paused and looked up:

“Who’s the cove?” he said wonderingly.

Joe, from the top of the load, stared in the direction of the house. Bill, on the opposite side to Dave, walked round and took observations. Bill, always dog-tired, never lost an opportunity to recover.

“Dunno,” Joe said; “They’re all shakin’ his hand, anyway.”

“Another parson, I s’pose,” Dave groaned apprehensively. Dave disliked the clergy. Their presence always made him unhappy, and one of them in the house would almost drive him from home. And parsons were never in any hurry to leave our place now. Different from Shingle Hut. It was rarely that they remained there for a meal; never when there was a well-butchered leg of a kangaroo hanging under the veranda; Dad mostly saw that one was dangling there whenever a parson was reckoned to be due. And he would tear it down and heave it into the grass the moment the pilot had left. Dad was a wise man, though he is not mentioned in Proverbs.

“His nag’s p-poor enough for a parson’s,” Joe chuckled; “on’y y’ never see ’em with two—one’s always dead ’fore they get another.”

Bill laughed a stiff, ready-made laugh—to encourage the conversation and prolong the “recovery”. But Dave wired in with the fork in silence.

To gain time Bill asked Dave a useless question. He said:

“’Ow’d yer like t’ be a parson, Dave?”

Had it been anyone else Dave might have committed some violence. But he always got on well with Bill. He only turned his eyes on him in forgiveness.

The stranger, wagging his head and working his hands and arms like a temperance orator, was walking between Mother and Sarah—both hatless and holding newspapers above their heads, towards the house. They seemed to know him, and listened eagerly to things he had to say.

Joe couldn’t make him out. Bill volunteered to run up and see what he was. Then Joe grinned. He remembered when he had been like Bill. The stranger tossed a greasy bundle he had taken from his saddle on to the veranda, and the next moment was striding over the stubble towards the dray. He carried his head high, his hat well back, and walked like a person not afraid of trespassing.

“I know that stride,” Dave said thoughtfully and stared hard.

The man drew near. His hair and whiskers were long and wild, and running to seed.

Bill giggled and stared. Dave stood thinking of “that stride.”

In the tongue of the cheerful aboriginal the man called out things as he approached. Joe didn’t understand, but he disapproved of them and yelled back, “Get y’r ’air cut!” Bill sniggered and, crouching down, took the pitchfork with him under the dray. But Dave suddenly cast his away.

“Bless me! It’s Dan!” he exclaimed, and damaged several barley stooks tumbling over them to reach him.

Bill crawled out from under the dray without the pitch-fork and rolled his eyes about. Joe slid off the top and tore his trousers and dragged half the load down on top of himself.

“Dan!” each murmured, following Dave.

Dan it was. The same old Dan that Dad had twice hunted from home, but older, shabbier, more useless, and more dilapidated.

He shook Dave’s hand with fervour, but he didn’t know Joe from Bill or Bill from Joe till Dave mentioned their names.

Bill looked pleased. He felt proud of Dan. Often he had heard of him; he used to wonder if he would ever see him; and now all at once Dan stood before him. And as Dan proceeded rapidly to account for fourteen years of absence, Bill stared him all over, and hugged the ground near his careless, greasy form.

Almost before you could think, Dan had plunged into the back country; fought several fights with naked blacks; dashed into a scrub in pursuit of brumbies on a horse called Silverstar, coming out without a stitch on but his boots and belt; had broken his right leg three times in the same place; lost £300 on the Cooper, and was rejoicing on his way to Sydney in charge of a thousand wild C.O.B. bullocks.

Bill’s breath threatened to leave him. His mind wasn’t nearly large enough to hold the impressions Dan made on it. Even Joe—Joe who was always cool enough to calculate—was carried away, and a lively longing to see some “out-back” life filled his soul. But Dave was only moved to a smile. Dave remembered Dan.

“Let’s go up to the house,” Dave said, and as they all walked on Dan continued.

“I’ve seen life! Fancy humpin’ a swag from Nudgee Nudgee to Normanton—five hundred miles—without a boot on or a bob about y’, and the last stage havin’ t’ pull off and fight two infernal big Danes fer three hours fer your own water-bag. An’” (pausing to breathe) “after knockin’ ’em both out, t’ have t’ pour every drop o’ water down their blanky throats t’ bring ’em round!”

A thrill of excitement went through Bill. He swung his clenched fist at the imaginary forms of the Danes and caught Dave in the small of the neck.

“D—n you!” Dave yelled. “D—n y’!” And he sprang on Bill, and squeezed his neck, and there must have been trouble only Bill managed to gasp that he “didn’t m-mean t’”.

They reached the house just as Dad arrived at the steps on the mare.

“Don’t! See if he knows me,” Dan said, silencing Bill, who began yelling to announce the home-coming of the heir.

Dad stared hard from the party approaching him to the horses left unprotected in the dray, scowled, and looked ugly.

Dan separated himself from the others.

“Doesn’t know me from a crow—told y’ he wouldn’t,” he said, saluting Dad as though Dad were a colonel with gold lace and a wooden leg.

“I don’t know who y’ are, man,” Dad answered gruffly and was about to revile Dave for wasting time when Dan bowed like a man winding water and said—

“Your fust-born . . . Daniel, sir . . . Daniel Damascus Rudd.”

Dad nearly fell off the mare.

“Dan!” he blurted out and urged the old mare towards the prodigal and stretched out his hand. But all at once he checked himself. He remembered he had kicked Dan out and never wanted to see him again. He changed colour.

Then it was that Dan showed himself a strategist.

“Not a word—not one syllable,” he said in grave tones, seizing Dad’s hand without a blush. “I know what’s in your mind, exactly. Say nothing—it’s past. Let it slide. . . . You turned me out, that’s true, but I don’t mind—I deserved it. But I went—I obeyed like a man, didn’t I? And now” (Dan paused, so that Mother and all standing round might hear) “and now I’m back ” (paused again) “back a wiser” (another pause) “a better” (here Dan smote himself hard on the thigh where his pocket had been, before he tore it out to wear on his foot) “and” (elevating his voice) “a richer man—wanting no one’s favour, fearing nobody’s frown!”

Dan was a rare speaker.

Dad never before displayed so much agility in dismounting, except when he fell off.

He gripped Dan by both hands. Large tears like hailstones gathered and broke in his big eyes, and one smothered sob like a colt choking was all we heard. It was too much for us. We stared at our feet and felt we should have been dead. If there was one thing more than another we couldn’t stand it was Dad blubbering.

“Never mind!”—Dan said in tones of forgiveness, holding a hand high above Dad’s head. “Never mind! . . . Fer me own part it’s fergotten long enough ago, ’n’ I’m back. ’N’, as I hinted before, well off, Dad, well off—independent!”

And he looked down on Dad and smiled.

Dan was an object lesson in filial affection.

Dave smiled, too, and went back to work. Dave smiled because he knew what a beautiful liar Dan was.

Dan followed Dad inside and had something to eat. He ate everything Sarah placed before him. Then he sat back, and all the rest of the afternoon talked to Dad and Mother, and admired the furniture, and smoked and spat. But he didn’t spit on the floor. He rose every time and went to the door and did it on the clean boards of the veranda that had just been scrubbed.

Dan confided to Dad his plans for the future. He’d had enough outback life, he said, and intended putting a bit of money into a farm and settling down. If he could get a suitable place, about eighteen hundred acres with water, he’d start dairying, milk a hundred cows, feed them on lucerne, and fatten wethers and steers beside.

Dad said there was a big thing in it, and knew the very place Dan required—“Curry’s,” he said, “joining me. Two thousand acres, creek runnin’ right through it, £2 10s. an acre.”

“We’ll have a look at it,” Dan said reflectively.

Approaching tea-time Dan apologized to Mother for the sad condition of his clothes. “Fact is,” he remarked, “me wardrobe’s comin’ down be train, so I’m afraid y’ll have to put up with me as I am till it’s here.”

Mother said if he liked he could put on some of Dave’s for a change. Dan thought he would. He put on a full suit of Dave’s, besides a shirt and collar, and came to tea a new man. He put them all on the next day, too, and never took them off any more.

For nearly a month Dad accompanied Dan through the district, inspecting farms that were for sale, and at night they would sit together on the veranda and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each. And when Dad would advise Dan to buy a certain one, Dan would disagree and express a preference for some other, always concluding with “Better t’ wait a bit yet, ’fore decidin’.” In the morning Dad would have to go to work, but Dan preferred to sit on the veranda smoking, and making up his mind.

Dan was going to give £5 to a young lady who called one day collecting for the hospital, but all his money was in the Savings Bank and he hadn’t any change about him. “Worst of banks,” he said, “can’t run to them when y’ wants to.”

But Mother had plenty in the house and offered him the sum till he could draw some of his wealth. Dan accepted it and went to the veranda and gave the young lady a half-sovereign he had found in Dave’s trouser-pocket.

“Alwez like t’ give t’ the hospital,” he said, returning to Mother. “Altergether, I s’pose I’ve given hundreds o’ pounds, now.”

Mother was delighted with the way Dan had turned out and was anxious to know the property he meant to buy. She questioned Dad about it one morning.

“I don’t know,” Dad said angrily, “I don’t know what the devil he’s going t’ do.”

Dad began to treat Dan badly again. He showed feelings of distrust towards him and refused to accompany him any more to inspect properties. Dan took offence. He went away one morning to buy Curry’s place, and when we heard of him again he was working among the selectors at McCatta’s Corner, about eighty miles away.

Dan never bought any farm, but he settled down. He married Mary MacSmith; had a great wedding, too; and lived comfortably and happily on his wife’s people. And he promised to do well, till one day, about three months after his marriage, Mrs. Geraghty dragged her daughter Polly, who was crying, into MacSmith’s place, and, within hearing of the whole family, told Dan he wasn’t a man or he would have married Polly, and asked him what he meant to do.

Dan was imperturbable. He laughed and said, “Git out!” and would have argued himself innocent, but his wife, the very person you’d expect to stand up and fight for him and decline to hear anything the MacSmiths would say, believed it all and flew into tears and hysterics . . . and Dan, of course, was thrown on the cold world again.


In compensation for Dan’s infidelity, his wife rushed to the store and got a cart-load of goods in his name. Dan got the bill. It made him restless. He came to Dave for advice. Dave read the bill and when he saw the last item looked up and asked:

“What did she want with twenty-four pair o’ stockin’s?” “Dunno,” Dan said.

“She must be a blessed santerpee!”

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