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XX. Old Uncle

Steele Rudd

IT WAS about three months after the tremendous excitement of Dad’s trip to Brisbane. Things had gradually got back into their old routine; and by degrees we had patched up a peace with all our insulted guests. We were quite calm and happy. Then, one day suddenly, trouble came.

Often we had wondered if Dad had any relations in Australia. As a rule Dad rarely discussed his pedigree or bragged of his native country. Unlike hundreds of others who left home to better their condition, Dad wasn’t given to boasting of the place and the people he had left behind. Dad was honest and generous.

“They’re all dead now,” Dad said one day, referring to his family—“all dead—but one.” Then he changed the subject. Occasionally, though, he would talk freely of those who were dead, and tell us if we resembled any of them, and laugh over things they used to do. But about the surviving one Dad was reticent. He seemed to value the dead more than the living.

Harvesting in full swing; all of us busy; Dad digging potatoes to feed the men on.

An oldish, odd-looking little man with scars, a faded, famished beard, tender feet, boots of hard wrinkled leather that turned up at the toes and collected roley-poley grass, and a small calico swag on his back, greeted Dad cheerfully across the fence.

Dad straightened up and stared.

“You was diggin’ a dam, last time I saw you Murty,” the stranger said, crawling through the fence.

They shook hands—the odd-looking one hard and heartily, Dad almost reluctantly.

The stranger was delighted to see Dad. He complimented him on his looks and the way he carried his age. “You’ve got awfully like the ol’ man,” he said, looking at Dad again with weak eyes full of affection or something.

Dad wasn’t moved much. He hardly said anything. He seemed to be thinking of a lot of things at once. The presence of the stranger appeared to flood Dad’s mind with all his past errors and omissions or debts or things of that kind.

The little man cast his eyes about and in a surprised tone asked Dad if he owned “all this!”

“Oh—yes,” Dad drawled restlessly.

Just then Mother came out, carrying a dish.

“Hello!” the little fellow said, “there’s Ellen!” and he hastened to meet her.

“Lookin’ younger than y’ did twenty year ago,” he remarked, joyously shaking Mother’s hand.

“Bless me!” Mother answered, staring hard at him, “is it Peter?”

“All that’s left of him!” And “Peter” placed his hands on his hips and gazed down at his boots, the tops of which were several inches below the legs of his soiled, sorrowful-looking moleskins.

Mother was pleased to meet “Peter,” and was asking where he had been all the years he was away, when Sarah, just returned from the store, came along in a riding-habit and leading her horse.

“Norah, if I ain’t mistaken,” Peter said warmly, extending his hand to Sarah.

Sarah hesitated, blushed, looked at Mother, then smiled.

“Doesn’t know ’er old Uncle!” Peter said with a deep grin.

Mother confirmed his claim to relationship.

“Brother to your father,” she said, looking at Sarah. Then our Uncle held out his hand again and Sarah gave him hers, for Dad’s sake. Uncle shook vigorously, and, looking Sarah in the eyes, said he’d have known her from Mother if he had met her in the dark.

“You’d better come inside,” Dad said to his brother in passing with a load of potatoes on his back, and without turning his head to look at him. Uncle followed along with Mother. Sarah went and let her horse go.

Dad didn’t remain in the house any time. He left his brother in Mother’s charge and went down the paddock and quarrelled with Joe.

In the evening, as we came in from work, Sarah, with a broad smile, met us in the yard and asked us to guess who was inside. It wasn’t the parson or the pig-man or the governor. So we gave it up.

“Dad’s brother,” she said, “and he’s no more like Dad than a crow!”

“Thank God for that, anyway,” Joe said, pulling the harness angrily from off the draught horses and heaving it from him, We laughed.

“What do y’ call him?” Dave asked, chuckling—“Uncle?”

We laughed again.

When we were ready and reached the door of the house we felt nervous—we were almost afraid to enter. We expected to see a man with a presence—an imposing personality—a stern old warrior like Dad himself. But when we saw the man he was all our composure suddenly returned.

Our Uncle didn’t look anything except poor and dirty. We had seen plenty of him going along the roads every day of our lives. We tried to think what he could be. He looked like a “sundowner,” but he might have been a burr-cutters’ cook. Being a relation, we were inclined to favour him. We decided he was a cook.

“Don’t remember any of this lot,” he said, limping across the room to shake hands with us.

We grinned and gave him ours.

“How are y’, Uncle?” Joe said, shaking him several times violently; “pleased t’ meet y’; glad you’ve”—(Uncle hollered and pulled to free himself from Joe’s grip)—“come to see us!”

“Lord Harry!” Uncle said, and returned to his corner with tears in his eyes. Then we all took our places at the table and stared at our Uncle and grinned at one another.

Mother and Sarah engaged Uncle Peter in conversation. Dad didn’t take any notice of him. We couldn’t make Dad out. We expected he would be overcome with joy. But he didn’t show any delight at all. He looked morose and surly.

“You going to have meat?” he asked, glaring at Bill.

Bill didn’t hear him. Bill was gaping at Uncle.

“You going to have meat?” Dad’s voice shook the things on the table and made Mother nervous.

Joe laughed. Dad glared at Joe, but suppressed his wrath when Mother called “Father,” and savagely slashed at the joint.

Dad didn’t ask his brother what he would have. He just piled meat and potatoes on a plate and sent it along to him.

In the middle of the meal Uncle apologised to Mother for the old clothes he was wearing. “Out west,” he explained between mouthfuls, “we ain’t so p’tic’lar; no one thinks o’ clothes there. He can tell y’ that,” pointing to Dad with his fork. But Dad neither endorsed nor denied Uncle’s explanation.

When Uncle had finished he didn’t sit back and talk old times with Dad. He strolled out and stretched himself on the verandah, and at intervals made remarks about the stars. After a while he found fault with the verandah boards.

“Too ’ard f’ me!” he said, and crept down the steps and lay on the grass.

A useless old cattle-dog of Dad’s joined him, and they made friends. He said he had seen the time when he would have given ten pounds for Rover. Joe offered him the brute for five bob.

Mother prepared a bed for Uncle, and came and told him where to find the room when he was ready to turn in.

Uncle laughed. Mother’s idea of hospitality seemed to amuse him.

“A bed,” he chuckled. “I hav’n’t slep’ in one for forty year!”

Old Uncle went off to the barn and made a bed for himself out of the empty bales. In the morning he was out early and watched the milking going on. After breakfast he dodged about and took an interest in the place. Different from other people who came to see us, Uncle required no waiting on or running after. Whenever he saw anyone at work he made for the spot and offered to give a hand. When he finished helping one he went to the next. We had never seen anyone so willing. But Dave wouldn’t accept any assistance from him. Dave said it was a mean thing to let him work when he was only on a visit. Joe didn’t hold the same views as Dave. Joe had Uncle almost bursting himself during the heat of the day, and in the afternoon he handed him his pitchfork and asked him “if he didn’t mind” to fork-up while he went up the paddock to run a horse in.

“Certainly,” old Uncle said, and went at it like a young colt.

With the first sheaf he tossed up, Uncle nearly knocked off the dray the man who was loading. The man glared down at Uncle, but didn’t say anything. Next attempt Uncle put a prong of the fork into the man’s leg. The man yelled; then he swore and nearly unloaded the dray throwing sheaves at Uncle’s head.

Dave smoothed matters over and Uncle continued. But he seemed to have no wind. He began to flounder. The sheaves got heavier and heavier, till at last Uncle couldn’t put them on the dray at all. He kept looking anxiously round to see if Joe was returning. But Joe didn’t get the horse in till night.

Next day Uncle didn’t go into the paddocks. He found a lot of things required attention about the house, and put in some time in the kitchen. The day following he put in all his time in the kitchen.

Three weeks went by, and we began to wonder how long Uncle intended staying. We asked Mother, but she hadn’t any idea.

Three months passed. Old Uncle was still with us. He mostly lived in the kitchen now. Took all his meals there in company with the dog, and waited on himself. From the dining-room we could hear him chuckling and talking to Rover. To us he became the subject of remark and amusement; to Dad he was an irritant. Sometimes Mother would show compassion for him, and in a half-hearted sort of way she’d reproach Dad for not inviting him to the table.

“Did I tell him to eat there?” Dad would snort. “If he likes it, let ’im!”

Now and again, though, Dad would relent. “What d’ y’ want buryin’ y’self out here f’?” he’d say to Uncle; “why th’ devil can’t y’ eat inside like anyone else?”

But old Uncle would only shake his head and say, “Go on, go on; it’s all right.”

If any one else asked him why he ate in the kitchen, though, he would sneer and say he hadn’t a dress suit.

Years went by. Uncle Peter was one of us. He owned the kitchen and most of the barn. Somehow we were not proud of our Uncle. We knew we should have loved him and all that sort of thing, and sometimes felt remorse; but when Sarah, who taught Sunday school and believed in loving her enemies, couldn’t endear herself to him, we were consoled. Uncle was a bigger nuisance to us than the Bathurst burr. The burr we had to eradicate, but there was no way of ridding ourselves of old Uncle. He wouldn’t ride on a flash horse or go about where any trees were likely to fall, and we didn’t like to murder a relation. He was always in good spirits, though, and nothing ever seemed to go wrong with him. It was all the same to Uncle whether corn was bringing five shillings or five pence. He took his meals just as heartily.

Old Uncle was always at his best when any visitors came to the house. He would be first to show out—with patches and long stitches all over him, too! He would take charge of the visitors’ horses if they had any, and fasten them to the fence. When they were settled inside having tea, he would hobble in and ask if their horses had had water or if any of them would pull away. Then he’d loiter at the door and pass remarks about the crops and the weather, till Mother felt forced to ask him to have a cup of tea. Uncle would. Then he’d sit down to it and be one of the company, and lead the conversation into family history, and rake up things that needn’t have been mentioned at all, and make Sarah uncomfortable.

In Uncle, Sarah had an everlasting grievance. We could forget him sometimes, but with Sarah he was always present.

“Can’t you give him something to do that will keep him down the paddock?” she said to Dad one day.

“Do?” Dad yelled; “what th’ devil can he do? Could he ever do anything?”

Joe sympathised with Sarah. He said: “Get him to crawl up a hollow log after something, Sal: then you run and block the hole!”

There were times, though, when old Uncle might have been useful to us—when he might have harnessed a horse or chopped wood or chased calves out of the greenstuff. But he never did any of these things; he was a hopeless waster, not worth his salt.

Uncle caught a heavy cold one winter, and for several weeks we were all anxious about him. We wondered if he would die. But he didn’t. He cured himself with a medicine he made from a common herb growing round the barn.

It was a great blow to us. We cut down every scrap we could find of that herb, and burnt it.

For seven years old Uncle stayed with us. Stayed till one Christmas Sandy and Kate came to spend the week. Uncle liked their style, so he said, and decided to go back to Sleepy Creek with them. When we saw he really was going we felt that for once, anyway, the Lord had remembered us. But we were sorry for Sandy and Kate!

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