The Thorn Birds (Chapter 11-15)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
Frank’s face flushed, his lips came together; his lack of stature was a very sore point with him. At school he had always been the smallest boy in his class, and fought twice as many battles as anyone else because of it. Of late a terrible doubt had begun to invade his being, for at seventeen he was exactly the same five feet three he had been at fourteen; perhaps he had stopped growing. Only he knew the agonies to which he subjected his body and his spirit, the stretching, the exercises, the fruitless hoping.
Smithying had given him a strength out of all proportion to his height, however; had Paddy consciously chosen a profession for someone of Frank’s temperament, he could not have chosen better. A small structure of pure power, at seventeen he had never been defeated in a fight and was already famous throughout the Taranaki peninsula. All his anger, frustration and inferiority came into a fight with him, and they were more than the biggest, strongest local could contend with, allied as they were to a body in superb physical condition, an excellent brain, viciousness and indomitable will.
The bigger and tougher they were, the more Frank wanted to see them humbled in the dust. His peers trod a wide detour around him, for his aggressiveness was well known. Of late he had branched out of the ranks of youths in his search for challenges, and the local men still talked about the day he had beaten Jim Collins to a pulp, though Jim Collins was twenty-two years old, stood six feet four in his socks and could lift horses. With his left arm broken and his ribs cracked, Frank had fought on until Jim Collins was a slobbering mass of bloodied flesh at his feet, and he had to be forcibly restrained from kicking the senseless face in. As soon as the arm healed and the ribs came out of strapping, Frank went into town and lifted a horse, just to show that Jim wasn’t the only one who could, and that it didn’t depend on a man’s size.
As the sire of this phenomenon, Paddy knew Frank’s reputation very well and understood Frank’s battle to gain respect, though it did not prevent his becoming angry when fighting interfered with the work in the forge. Being a small man himself, Paddy had had his share of fights to prove his courage, but in his part of Ireland he was not diminutive and by the time he arrived in New Zealand, where men were taller, he was a man grown. Thus his size was never the obsession with him it was with Frank.
Now he watched the boy carefully, trying to understand him and failing; this one had always been the farthest from his heart, no matter how he struggled against discriminating among his children. He knew it grieved Fee, that she worried over the unspoken antagonism between them, but even his love for Fee could not overcome his exasperation with Frank.
Frank’s short, finely made hands were spread across the open paper defensively, his eyes riveted on Paddy’s face in a curious mixture of pleading and a pride that was too stiff-necked to plead. How alien the face was! No Cleary or Armstrong in it, except perhaps a little look of Fee around the eyes, if Fee’s eyes had been dark and could have snapped and flashed the way Frank’s did on slightest provocation. One thing the lad did not lack, and that was courage.
The subject ended abruptly with Paddy’s remark about Frank’s size; the family ate stewed rabbit in unusual silence, even Hughie and Jack treading carefully through a sticky, self-conscious conversation punctuated by much shrill giggling. Meggie refused to eat, fixing her gaze on Frank as if he were going to disappear from sight any moment. Frank picked at his food for a decent interval, and as soon as he could excused himself from the table. A minute later they heard the axe clunking dully from the woodheap; Frank was attacking the hardwood logs Paddy had brought home to store for the slow-burning fires of winter.
When everyone thought she was in bed, Meggie squeezed out of her bedroom window and sneaked down to the woodheap. It was a tremendously important area in the continuing life of the house; about a thousand square feet of ground padded and deadened by a thick layer of chips and bark, great high stacks of logs on one side waiting to be reduced in size, and on the other side mosaic-like walls of neatly prepared wood just the right size for the stove firebox. In the middle of the open space three tree stumps still rooted in the ground were used as blocks to chop different heights of wood.
Frank was not on a block; he was working on a massive eucalyptus log and undercutting it to get it small enough to place on the lowest, widest stump. Its two-foot-diameter bulk lay on the earth, each end immobilized by an iron spike, and Frank was standing on top of it, cutting it in two between his spread feet. The axe was moving so fast it whistled, and the handle made its own separate swishing sound as it slid up and down within his slippery palms. Up it flashed above his head, down it came in a dull silver blur, carving a wedge-shaped chunk out of the iron-hard wood as easily as if it had been a pine or a deciduous tree. Sundered pieces of wood were flying in all directions, the sweat was running in streams down Frank’s bare chest and back, and he had wound his handkerchief about his brow to keep the sweat from blinding him. It was dangerous work, undercutting; one mistimed or badly directed hack, and he would be minus a foot. He had his leather wristbands on to soak up the sweat from his arms, but the delicate hands were ungloved, gripping the axe handle lightly and with exquisitely directed skill.
Meggie crouched down beside his discarded shirt and undervest to watch, awed. Three spare axes were lying nearby, for eucalyptus wood blunted the sharpest axe in no time at all. She grasped one by its handle and dragged it onto her knees, wishing she could chop wood like Frank. The axe was so heavy she could hardly lift it. Colonial axes had only one blade, honed to hair-splitting sharpness, for double-bladed axes were too light for eucalyptus. The back of the axe head was an inch thick and weighted, the handle passing through it, firmly anchored with small bits of extra wood. A loose axe head could come off in midswing, snap through the air as hard and fast as a cannonball and kill someone.
Frank was cutting almost instinctively in the fast-fading light; Meggie dodged the chips with the ease of long practice and waited patiently for him to spy her. The log was half severed, and he turned himself the opposite way, gasping; then he swung the axe up again, and began to cut the second side. It was a deep, narrow gap, to conserve wood and hasten the process; as he worked toward the center of the log the axe head disappeared entirely inside the cut, and the big wedges of wood flew out closer and closer to his body. He ignored them, chopping even faster. The log parted with stunning suddenness, and at the same moment he leaped lithely into the air, sensing that it was going almost before the axe took its last bite. As the wood collapsed inward, he landed off to one side, smiling; but it was not a happy smile.
He turned to pick up a new axe and saw his sister sitting patiently in her prim nightgown, all buttoned up and buttoned down. It was still strange to see her hair clustering in a mass of short ringlets instead of done up in its customary rags, but he decided the boyish style suited her, and wished it could remain so. Coming over to her, he squatted down with his axe held across his knees.
“How did you get out, you little twerp?”
“I climbed through the window after Stu was asleep.”
“If you don’t watch out, you’ll turn into a tomboy.”
“I don’t mind. Playing with the boys is better than playing all by myself.”
“I suppose it is.” He sat down with his back against a log and wearily turned his head toward her. “What’s the matter, Meggie?”
“Frank, you’re not really going away, are you?” She put her hands with their mangled nails down on his thigh and stared up at him anxiously, her mouth open because her nose was stuffed full from fighting tears and she couldn’t breathe through it very well.
“I might be, Meggie.” He said it gently.
“Oh, Frank, you can’t! Mum and I need you! Honestly, I don’t know what we’d do without you!”
He grinned in spite of his pain, at her unconscious echoing of Fee’s way of speaking.
“Meggie, sometimes things just don’t happen the way you want them to. You ought to know that. We Clearys have been taught to work together for the good of all, never to think of ourselves first. But I don’t agree with that; I think we ought to be able to think of ourselves first. I want to go away because I’m seventeen and it’s time I made a life for myself. But Daddy says no, I’m needed at home for the good of the family as a whole. And because I’m not twenty-one, I’ve got to do as Daddy says.”
Meggie nodded earnestly, trying to untangle the threads of Frank’s explanation.
“Well, Meggie, I’ve thought long and hard about it. I’m going away, and that’s that. I know you and Mum will miss me, but Bob’s growing up fast, and Daddy and the boys won’t miss me at all. It’s only the money I bring in interests Daddy.”
“Don’t you like us anymore, Frank?”
He turned to snatch her into his arms, hugging and caressing her in tortured pleasure, most of it grief and pain and hunger. “Oh, Meggie! I love you and Mum more than all the others put together! God, why weren’t you older, so I could talk to you? Or maybe it’s better that you’re so little, maybe it’s better….”
He let her go abruptly, struggling to master himself, rolling his head back and forth against the log, his throat and mouth working. Then he looked at her. “Meggie, when you’re older you’ll understand better.”
“Please don’t go away, Frank,” she repeated.
He laughed, almost a sob. “Oh, Meggie! Didn’t you hear any of it? Well, it doesn’t really matter. The main thing is you’re not to tell anyone you saw me tonight, hear? I don’t want them thinking you’re in on it.”
“I did hear, Frank, I heard all of it,” Meggie said. “I won’t say a word to anybody, though, I promise. But oh, I do wish you didn’t have to go away!”
She was too young to be able to tell him what was no more than an unreasoning something within her heart; who else was there, if Frank went? He was the only one who gave her overt affection, the only one who held her and hugged her. When she was smaller Daddy used to pick her up a lot, but ever since she started at school he had stopped letting her sit on his knee, wouldn’t let her throw her arms around his neck, saying, “You’re a big girl now, Meggie.” And Mum was always so busy, so tired, so wrapped in the boys and the house. It was Frank who lay closest to her heart, Frank who loomed as the star in her limited heaven. He was the only one who seemed to enjoy sitting talking to her, and he explained things in a way she could understand. Ever since the day Agnes had lost her hair there had been Frank, and in spite of her sore troubles nothing since had speared her quite to the core. Not canes or Sister Agatha or lice, because Frank was there to comfort and console.
But she got up and managed a smile. “If you have to go, Frank, then it’s all right.”
“Meggie, you ought to be in bed, and you’d better be back there before Mum checks. Scoot, quickly!”
The reminder drove all else from her head; she thrust her face down and fished for the trailing back of her gown, pulled it through between her legs and held it like a tail in reverse in front of her as she ran, bare feet spurning the splinters and sharp chips.
In the morning Frank was gone. When Fee came to pull Meggie from her bed she was grim and terse; Meggie hopped out like a scalded cat and dressed herself without even asking for help with all the little buttons.
In the kitchen the boys were sitting glumly around the table, and Paddy’s chair was empty. So was Frank’s. Meggie slid into her place and sat there, teeth chattering in fear. After breakfast Fee shooed them outside dourly, and behind the barn Bob broke the news to Meggie.
“Frank’s run away,” he breathed.
“Maybe he’s just gone into Wahine,” Meggie suggested.
“No, silly! He’s gone to join the army. Oh, I wish I was big enough to go with him! The lucky coot!”
“Well, I wish he was still at home.”
Bob shrugged. “You’re only a girl, and that’s what I’d expect a girl to say.”
The normally incendiary remark was permitted to pass unchallenged; Meggie took herself inside to her mother to see what she could do.
“Where’s Daddy?” she asked Fee after her mother had set her to ironing handkerchiefs.
“Gone in to Wahine.”
“Will he bring Frank back with him?”
Fee snorted. “Trying to keep a secret in this family is impossible. No, he won’t catch Frank in Wahine, he knows that. He’s gone to send a telegram to the police and the army in Wanganui. They’ll bring him back.”
“Oh, Mum, I hope they find him! I don’t want Frank to go away!”
Fee slapped the contents of the butter churn onto the table and attacked the watery yellow mound with two wooden pats. “None of us want Frank to go away. That’s why Daddy’s going to see he’s brought back.” Her mouth quivered for a moment; she whacked the butter harder. “Poor Frank! Poor, poor Frank!” she sighed, not to Meggie but to herself. “I don’t know why the children must pay for our sins. My poor Frank, so out of things…” Then she noticed that Meggie had stopped ironing, and shut her lips, and said no more.
Three days later the police brought Frank back. He had put up a terrific struggle, the Wanganui sergeant on escort duty told Paddy.
“What a fighter you’ve got! When he saw the army lads were a wakeup he was off like a shot, down the steps and into the street with two soldiers after him. If he hadn’t had the bad luck to run into a constable on patrol, I reckon he’d a got away, too. He put up a real wacko fight; took five of them to get the manacles on.”
So saying, he removed Frank’s heavy chains and pushed him roughly through the front gate; he stumbled against Paddy, and shrank away as if the contact stung.
The children were skulking by the side of the house twenty feet beyond the adults, watching and waiting. Bob, Jack and Hughie stood stiffly, hoping Frank would put up another fight; Stuart just looked on quietly, from out of his peaceful, sympathetic little soul; Meggie held her hands to her cheeks, pushing and kneading at them in an agony of fear that someone meant to hurt Frank.
He turned to look at his mother first, black eyes into grey in a dark and bitter communion which had never been spoken, nor ever was. Paddy’s fierce blue gaze beat him down, contemptuous and scathing, as if this was what he had expected, and Frank’s downcast lids acknowledged his right to be angry. From that day forward Paddy never spoke to his son beyond common civility. But it was the children Frank found hardest to face, ashamed and embarrassed, the bright bird brought home with the sky unplumbed, wings clipped, song drowned into silence.
Meggie waited until after Fee had done her nightly rounds, then she wriggled through the open window and made off across the backyard. She knew where Frank would be, up in the hay in the barn, safe from prying eyes and his father.
“Frank, Frank, where are you?” she said in a stage whisper as she shuffled into the stilly blackness of the barn, her toes exploring the unknown ground in front of her as sensitively as an animal.
“Over here, Meggie,” came his tired voice, hardly Frank’s voice at all, no life or passion to it.
She followed the sound to where he was stretched out in the hay, and snuggled down beside him with her arms as far around his chest as they would reach. “Oh, Frank, I’m so glad you’re back,” she said.
He groaned, slid down in the straw until he was lower than she, and put his head on her body. Meggie clutched at his thick straight hair, crooning. It was too dark to see her, and the invisible substance of her sympathy undid him. He began to weep, knotting his body into slow twisting rails of pain, his tears soaking her nightgown. Meggie did not weep. Something in her little soul was old enough and woman enough to feel the irresistible, stinging joy of being needed; she sat rocking his head back and forth, back and forth, until his grief expended itself in emptiness.
The road to Drogheda brought back no memories of his youth, thought Father Ralph de Bricassart, eyes half shut against the glare as his new Daimler bounced along in the rutted wheel tracks that marched through the long silver grass. No lovely misty green Ireland, this. And Drogheda? No battlefield, no high seat of power. Or was that strictly true? Better disciplined these days but acute as ever, his sense of humor conjured in his mind an image of a Cromwellian Mary Carson dealing out her particular brand of imperial malevolence. Not such a highflown comparison, either; the lady surely wielded as much power and controlled as many individuals as any puissant war lord of elder days.
The last gate loomed up through a stand of box and stringybark; the car came to a throbbing halt. Clapping a disreputable grey broad-brimmed hat on his head to ward off the sun, Father Ralph got out, plodded to the steel bolt on the wooden strut, pulled it back and flung the gate open with weary impatience. There were twenty-seven gates between the presbytery in Gillanbone and Drogheda homestead, each one meaning he had to stop, get out of the car, open the gate, get into the car and drive it through, stop, get out, go back to close the gate, then get in the car again and proceed to the next one. Many and many a time he longed to dispense with at least half the ritual, scoot on down the track leaving the gates open like a series of astonished mouths behind him; but even the awesome aura of his calling would not prevent the owners of the gates from tarring and feathering him for it. He wished horses were as fast and efficient as cars, because one could open and close gates from the back of a horse without dismounting.
“Nothing is given without a disadvantage in it,” he said, patting the dashboard of the new Daimler and starting off down the last mile of the grassy, treeless Home Paddock, the gate firmly bolted behind him.
Even to an Irishman used to castles and mansions, this Australian homestead was imposing. Drogheda was the oldest and the biggest property in the district, and had been endowed by its late doting owner with a fitting residence. Built of butter-yellow sandstone blocks hand-hewn in quarries five hundred miles eastward, the house had two stories and was constructed on austerely Georgian lines, with large, many-paned windows and a wide, iron-pillared veranda running all the way around its bottom story. Gracing the sides of every window were black wooden shutters, not merely ornamental but useful; in the heat of summer they were pulled closed to keep the interior cool.
Though it was autumn now and the spindling vine was green, in spring the wistaria which had been planted the day the house was finished fifty years before was a solid mass of lilac plumes, rioting all over the outer walls and the veranda roof. Several acres of meticulously scythed lawn surrounded the house, strewn with formal gardens even now full of color from roses, wallflowers, dahlias and marigolds. A stand of magnificent ghost gums with pallid white trunks and drifting thin leaves hanging seventy feet above the ground shaded the house from the pitiless sun, their branches wreathed in brilliant magenta where bougainvillaea vines grew intertwined with them. Even those indispensable Outback monstrosities the water tanks were thickly clothed in hardy native vines, roses and wistaria, and thus managed to look more decorative than functional. Thanks to the late Michael Carson’s passion for Drogheda homestead, he had been lavish in the matter of water tanks; rumor had it Drogheda could afford to keep its lawns green and its flower beds blooming though no rain fell in ten years.
As one approached down the Home Paddock the house and its ghost gums took the eye first, but then one was aware of many other yellow sandstone houses of one story behind it and to each side, interlocking with the main structure by means of roofed ramps smothered in creepers. A wide gravel driveway succeeded the wheel ruts of the track, curving to a circular parking area at one side of the big house, but also continuing beyond it and out of sight down to where the real business of Drogheda lay: the stockyards, the shearing shed, the barns. Privately Father Ralph preferred the giant pepper trees which shaded all these outbuildings and their attendant activities to the ghost gums of the main house. Pepper trees were dense with pale-green fronds and alive with the sound of bees, just the right lazy sort of foliage for an Outback station.
As Father Ralph parked his car and walked across the lawn, the maid waited on the front veranda, her freckled face wreathed in smiles.
“Good morning, Minnie,” he said.
“Oh, Father, happy it is to see you this fine dear mornin’,” she said in her strong brogue, one hand holding the door wide and the other outstretched to receive his battered, unclerical hat.
Inside the dim hall, with its marble tiles and great brass-railed staircase, he paused until Minnie gave him a nod before entering the drawing room.
Mary Carson was sitting in her wing chair by an open window which extended fifteen feet from floor to ceiling, apparently indifferent to the cold air flooding in. Her shock of red hair was almost as bright as it had been in her youth; though the coarse freckled skin had picked up additional splotches from age, for a woman of sixty-five she had few wrinkles, rather a fine network of tiny diamond-shaped cushions like a quilted bed-spread. The only clues to her intractable nature lay in the two deep fissures which ran one on either side of her Roman nose, to end pulling down the corners of her mouth, and in the stony look of the pale-blue eyes.
Father Ralph crossed the Aubusson carpet silently and kissed her hands; the gesture sat well on a man as tall and graceful as he was, especially since he wore a plain black soutane which gave him something of a courtly air. Her expressionless eyes suddenly coy and sparkling, Mary Carson almost simpered.
“Will you have tea, Father?” she asked.
“It depends on whether you wish to hear Mass,” he said, sitting down in the chair facing hers and crossing his legs, the soutane riding up sufficiently to show that under it he wore breeches and knee-high boots, a concession to the locale of his parish. “I’ve brought you Communion, but if you’d like to hear Mass I can be ready to say it in a very few minutes. I don’t mind continuing my fast a little longer.”
“You’re too good to me, Father,” she said smugly, knowing perfectly well that he, along with everybody else, did homage not to her but to her money. “Please have tea,” she went on. “I’m quite happy with Communion.”
He kept his resentment from showing in his face; this parish had been excellent for his self-control. If once he was offered the chance to rise out of the obscurity his temper had landed him in, he would not again make the same mistake. And if he played his cards well, this old woman might be the answer to his prayers.
“I must confess, Father, that this past year has been very pleasant,” she said. “You’re a far more satisfactory shepherd than old Father Kelly was, God rot his soul.” Her voice on the last phrase was suddenly harsh, vindictive.
His eyes lifted to her face, twinkling. “My dear Mrs. Carson! That’s not a very Catholic sentiment.”
“But the truth. He was a drunken old sot, and I’m quite sure God will rot his soul as much as the drink rotted his body.” She leaned forward. “I know you fairly well by this time; I think I’m entitled to ask you a few questions, don’t you? After all, you feel free to use Drogheda as your private playground—off learning how to be a stockman, polishing your riding, escaping from the vicissitudes of life in Gilly. All at my invitation, of course, but I do think I’m entitled to some answers, don’t you?”
He didn’t like to be reminded that he ought to feel grateful, but he had been waiting for the day when she would think she owned him enough to begin demanding things of him. “Indeed you are, Mrs. Carson. I can’t thank you enough for permitting me the run of Drogheda, and for all your gifts—my horses, my car.”
“How old are you?” she asked without further preamble.
“Twenty-eight,” he replied.
“Younger than I thought. Even so, they don’t send priests like you to places like Gilly. What did you do, to make them send someone like you out here into the back of beyond?”
“I insulted the bishop,” he said calmly, smiling.
“You must have! But I can’t think a priest of your peculiar talents can be happy in a place like Gillanbone.”
“It is God’s will.”
“Stuff and nonsense! You’re here because of human failings—your own and the bishop’s. Only the Pope is infallible. You’re utterly out of your natural element in Gilly, we all know that, not that we’re not grateful to have someone like you for a change, instead of the ordained remittance men they send us usually. But your natural element lies in some corridor of ecclesiastical power, not here among horses and sheep. You’d look magnificent in cardinal’s red.”
“No chance of that, I’m afraid. I fancy Gillanbone is not exactly the epicenter of the Archbishop Papal Legate’s map. And it could be worse. I have you, and I have Drogheda.”
She accepted the deliberately blatant flattery in the spirit in which it was intended, enjoying his beauty, his attentiveness, his barbed and subtle mind; truly he would make a magnificent cardinal. In all her life she could not remember seeing a better-looking man, nor one who used his beauty in quite the same way. He had to be aware of how he looked: the height and the perfect proportions of his body, the fine aristocratic features, the way every physical element had been put together with a degree of care about the appearance of the finished product God lavished on few of His creations. From the loose black curls of his head and the startling blue of his eyes to the small, slender hands and feet, he was perfect. Yes, he had to be conscious of what he was. And yet there was an aloofness about him, a way he had of making her feel he had never been enslaved by his beauty, nor ever would be. He would use it to get what he wanted without compunction if it would help, but not as though he was enamored of it; rather as if he deemed people beneath contempt for being influenced by it. And she would have given much to know what in his past life had made him so.
Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?
“Why do you put up with Gillanbone?” she asked. “Why not leave the priesthood rather than put up with it? You could be rich and powerful in any one of a number of fields with your talents, and you can’t tell me the thought of power at least doesn’t appeal to you.”
His left eyebrow flew up. “My dear Mrs. Carson, you’re a Catholic. You know my vows are sacred. Until my death I remain a priest. I cannot deny it.”
She snorted with laughter. “Oh, come now! Do you really believe that if you renounced your vows they’d come after you with everything from bolts of lightning to bloodhounds and shotguns?”
“Of course not. Nor do I believe you’re stupid enough to think fear of retribution is what keeps me within the priestly fold.”
“Oho! Waspish, Father de Bricassart! Then what does keep you tied? What compels you to suffer the dust, the heat and the Gilly flies? For all you know, it might be a life sentence.”
A shadow momentarily dimmed the blue eyes, but he smiled, pitying her. “You’re a great comfort, aren’t you?” His lips parted, he looked toward the ceiling and sighed. “I was brought up from my cradle to be a priest, but it’s far more than that. How can I explain it to a woman? I am a vessel, Mrs. Carson, and at times I’m filled with God. If I were a better priest, there would be no periods of emptiness at all. And that filling, that oneness with God, isn’t a function of place. Whether I’m in Gillanbone or a bishop’s palace, it occurs. But to define it is difficult, because even to priests it’s a great mystery. A divine possession, which other men can never know. That’s it, perhaps. Abandon it? I couldn’t.”
“So it’s a power, is it? Why should it be given to priests, then? What makes you think the mere smearing of chrism during an exhaustingly long ceremony is able to endow any man with it?”
He shook his head. “Look, it’s years of life, even before getting to the point of ordination. The careful development of a state of mind which opens the vessel to God. It’s earned! Every day it’s earned. Which is the purpose of the vows, don’t you see? That no earthly things come between the priest and his state of mind—not love of a woman, nor love of money, nor unwillingness to obey the dictates of other men. Poverty is nothing new to me; I don’t come from a rich family. Chastity I accept without finding it difficult to maintain. And obedience? For me, it’s the hardest of the three. But I obey, because if I hold myself more important than my function as a receptacle for God, I’m lost. I obey. And if necessary, I’m willing to endure Gillanbone as a life sentence.”
“Then you’re a fool,” she said. “I, too, think that there are more important things than lovers, but being a receptacle for God isn’t one of them. Odd. I never realized you believed in God so ardently. I thought you were perhaps a man who doubted.”
“I do doubt. What thinking man doesn’t? That’s why at times I’m empty.” He looked beyond her, at something she couldn’t see. “Do you know, I think I’d give up every ambition, every desire in me, for the chance to be a perfect priest?”
“Perfection in anything,” she said, “is unbearably dull. Myself, I prefer a touch of imperfection.”
He laughed, looking at her in admiration tinged with envy. She was a remarkable woman.
Her widowhood was thirty-three years old and her only child, a son, had died in infancy. Because of her peculiar status in the Gillanbone community she had not availed herself of any of the overtures made to her by the more ambitious males of her acquaintance; as Michael Carson’s widow she was indisputably a queen, but as someone’s wife she passed control of all she had to that someone. Not Mary Carson’s idea of living, to play second fiddle. So she had abjured the flesh, preferring to wield power; it was inconceivable that she should take a lover, for when it came to gossip Gillanbone was as receptive as a wire to an electrical current. To prove herself human and weak was not a part of her obsession.
But now she was old enough to be officially beyond the drives of the body. If the new young priest was assiduous in his duties to her and she rewarded him with little gifts like a car, it was not at all incongruous. A staunch pillar of the Church all her life, she had supported her parish and its spiritual leader in fitting fashion even when Father Kelly had hiccuped his way through the Mass. She was not alone in feeling charitably inclined toward Father Kelly’s successor; Father Ralph de Bricassart was deservedly popular with every member of his flock, rich or poor. If his more remote parishioners could not get into Gilly to see him, he went to them, and until Mary Carson had given him his car he had gone on horseback. His patience and kindness had brought him liking from all and sincere love from some; Martin King of Bugela had expensively refurnished the presbytery, Dominic O’Rourke of Dibban-Dibban paid the salary of a good housekeeper.
So from the pedestal of her age and her position Mary Carson felt quite safe in enjoying Father Ralph; she liked matching her wits against a brain as intelligent as her own, she liked outguessing him because she was never sure she actually did outguess him.
“Getting back to what you were saying about Gilly not being the epicenter of the Archbishop Papal Legate’s map,” she said, settling deeply into her chair, “what do you think would shake the reverend gentleman sufficiently to make Gilly the pivot of his world?”
The priest smiled ruefully. “Impossible to say. A coup of some sort? The sudden saving of a thousand souls, a sudden capacity to heal the lame and the blind…. But the age of miracles is past.”
“Oh, come now, I doubt that! It’s just that He’s altered His technique. These days He uses money.”
“What a cynic you are! Maybe that’s why I like you so much, Mrs. Carson.”
“My name is Mary. Please call me Mary.”
Minnie came in wheeling the tea trolley as Father de Bricassart said, “Thank you, Mary.”
Over fresh bannocks and anchovies on toast, Mary Carson sighed. “Dear Father, I want you to pray especially hard for me this morning.”
“Call me Ralph,” he said, then went on mischievously, “I doubt it’s possible for me to pray any harder for you than I normally do, but I’ll try.”
“Oh, you’re a charmer! Or was that remark innuendo? I don’t usually care for obviousness, but with you I’m never sure if the obviousness isn’t actually a cloak for something deeper. Like a carrot before a donkey. Just what do you really think of me, Father de Bricassart? I’ll never know, because you’ll never be tactless enough to tell me, will you? Fascinating, fascinating…But you must pray for me. I’m old, and I’ve sinned much.”
“Age creeps on us all, and I, too, have sinned.”
A dry chuckle escaped her. “I’d give a lot to know how you’ve sinned! Indeed, indeed I would.” She was silent for a moment, then changed the subject. “At this minute I’m minus a head stockman.”
“Five in the past year. It’s getting hard to find a decent man.”
“Well, rumor hath it you’re not exactly a generous or a considerate employer.”
“Oh, impudent!” she gasped, laughing. “Who bought you a brand-new Daimler so you wouldn’t have to ride?”
“Ah, but look how hard I pray for you!”
“If Michael had only had half your wit and character, I might have loved him,” she said abruptly. Her face changed, became spiteful. “Do you think I’m without a relative in the world and must leave my money and my land to Mother Church, is that it?”
“I have no idea,” he said tranquilly, pouring himself more tea.
“As a matter of fact, I have a brother with a large and thriving family of sons.”
“How nice for you,” he said demurely.
“When I married I was quite without worldly goods. I knew I’d never marry well in Ireland, where a woman has to have breeding and background to catch a rich husband. So I worked my fingers to the bone to save my passage money to a land where the rich men aren’t so fussy. All I had when I got here were a face and a figure and a better brain than women are supposed to have, and they were adequate to catch Michael Carson, who was a rich fool. He doted on me until the day he died.”
“And your brother?” he prompted, thinking she was going off at a tangent.
“My brother is eleven years younger than I am, which would make him fifty-four now. We’re the only two still alive. I hardly know him; he was a small child when I left Galway. At present he lives in New Zealand, though if he emigrated to make his fortune he hasn’t succeeded.
“But last night when the station hand brought me the news that Arthur Teviot had packed his traps and gone, I suddenly thought of Padraic. Here I am, not getting any younger, with no family around me. And it occurred to me that Paddy is an experienced man of the land, without the means to own land. Why not, I thought, write to him and ask him to bring himself and his sons here? When I die he’ll inherit Drogheda and Michar Limited, as he’s my only living relative closer than some unknown cousins back in Ireland.”
She smiled. “It seems silly to wait, doesn’t it? He might as well come now as later, get used to running sheep on the black soil plains, which I’m sure is quite different from sheep in New Zealand. Then when I’m gone he can step into my shoes without feeling the pinch.” Head lowered, she watched Father Ralph closely.
“I wonder you didn’t think of it earlier,” he said.
“Oh, I did. But until recently I thought the last thing I wanted was a lot of vultures waiting anxiously for me to breathe my last. Only lately the day of my demise seems a lot closer than is used to, and I feel…oh, I don’t know. As if it might be nice to be surrounded by people of my own flesh and blood.”
“What’s the matter, do you think you’re ill?” he asked quickly, a real concern in his eyes.
She shrugged. “I’m perfectly all right. Yet there’s something ominous about turning sixty-five. Suddenly old age is not a phenomenon which will occur; it has occurred.”
“I see what you mean, and you’re right. It will be very pleasant for you, hearing young voices in the house.”
“Oh, they won’t live here,” she said. “They can live in the head stockman’s house down by the creek, well away from me. I’m not fond of children or their voices.”
“Isn’t that a rather shabby way to treat your only brother, Mary? Even if your ages are so disparate?”
“He’ll inherit—let him earn it,” she said crudely.
Fiona Cleary was delivered of another boy six days before Meggie’s ninth birthday, counting herself lucky nothing but a couple of miscarriages had happened in the interim. At nine Meggie was old enough to be a real help. Fee herself was forty years old, too old to bear children without a great deal of strength-sapping pain. The child, named Harold, was a delicate baby; for the first time anyone could ever remember, the doctor came regularly to the house.
And as troubles do, the Cleary troubles multiplied. The aftermath of the war was not a boom, but a rural depression. Work became increasingly harder to get.
Old Angus MacWhirter delivered a telegram to the house one day just as they were finishing tea, and Paddy tore it open with trembling hands; telegrams never held good news. The boys gathered round, all save Frank, who took his cup of tea and left the table. Fee’s eyes followed him, then turned back as Paddy groaned.
“What is it?” she asked.
Paddy was staring at the piece of paper as if it held news of a death. “Archibald doesn’t want us.”
Bob pounded his fist on the table savagely; he had been so looking forward to going with his father as an apprentice shearer, and Archibald’s was to have been his first pen. “Why should he do a dirty thing like this to us, Daddy? We were due to start there tomorrow.”
“He doesn’t say why, Bob. I suppose some scab contractor undercut me.”
“Oh, Paddy!” Fee sighed.
Baby Hal began to cry from the big bassinet by the stove, but before Fee could move Meggie was up; Frank had come back inside the door and was standing, tea in hand, watching his father narrowly.
“Well, I suppose I’ll have to go and see Archibald,” Paddy said at last. “It’s too late now to look for another shed to replace his, but I do think he owes me a better explanation than this. We’ll just have to hope we can find work milking until Willoughby’s shed starts in July.”
Meggie pulled a square of white towel from the huge pile sitting by the stove warming and spread it carefully on the work table, then lifted the crying child out of the wicker crib. The Cleary hair glittered sparsely on his little skull as Meggie changed his diaper swiftly, and as efficiently as her mother could have done.
“Little Mother Meggie,” Frank said, to tease her.
“I’m not!” she answered indignantly. “I’m just helping Mum.”
“I know,” he said gently. “You’re a good girl, wee Meggie.” He tugged at the white taffeta bow on the back of her head until it hung lopsided.
Up came the big grey eyes to his face adoringly; over the nodding head of the baby she might have been his own age, or older. There was a pain in his chest, that this should have fallen upon her at an age when the only baby she ought to be caring for was Agnes, now relegated forgotten to the bedroom. If it wasn’t for her and their mother, he would have been gone long since. He looked at his father sourly, the cause of the new life creating such chaos in the house. Served him right, getting done out of his shed.
Somehow the other boys and even Meggie had never intruded on his thoughts the way Hal did; but when Fee’s waistline began to swell this time, he was old enough himself to be married and a father. Everyone except little Meggie had been uncomfortable about it, his mother especially. The furtive glances of the boys made her shrink like a rabbit; she could not meet Frank’s eyes or quench the shame in her own. Nor should any woman go through that, Frank said to himself for the thousandth time, remembering the horrifying moans and cries which had come from her bedroom the night Hal was born; of age now, he hadn’t been packed off elsewhere like the others. Served Daddy right, losing his shed. A decent man would have left her alone.
His mother’s head in the new electric light was spun gold, the pure profile as she looked down the long table at Paddy unspeakably beautiful. How had someone as lovely and refined as she married an itinerant shearer from the bogs of Galway? Wasting herself and her Spode china, her damask table napery and her Persian rugs in the parlor that no one ever saw, because she didn’t fit in with the wives of Paddy’s peers. She made them too conscious of their vulgar loud voices, their bewilderment when faced with more than one fork.
Sometimes on a Sunday she would go into the lonely parlor, sit down at the spinet under the window and play, though her touch had long gone from want of time to practice and she could no longer manage any but the simplest pieces. He would sit beneath the window among the lilacs and the lilies, and close his eyes to listen. There was a sort of vision he had then, of his mother clad in a long bustled gown of palest pink shadow lace sitting at the spinet in a huge ivory room, great branches of candles all around her. It would make him long to weep, but he never wept anymore; not since that night in the barn after the police had brought him home.
Meggie had put Hal back in the bassinet, and gone to stand beside her mother. There was another one wasted. The same proud, sensitive profile; something of Fiona about her hands, her child’s body. She would be very like her mother when she, too, was a woman. And who would marry her? Another oafish Irish shearer, or a clodhopping yokel from some Wahine dairy farm? She was worth more, but she was not born to more. There was no way out, that was what everyone said, and every year longer that he lived seemed to bear it out.
Suddenly conscious of his fixed regard, Fee and Meggie turned together, smiling at him with the peculiar tenderness women save for the most beloved men in their lives. Frank put his cup on the table and went out to feed the dogs, wishing he could weep, or commit murder. Anything which might banish the pain.
Three days after Paddy lost the Archibald shed, Mary Carson’s letter came. He had opened it in the Wahine post office the moment he collected his mail, and came back to the house skipping like a child.
“We’re going to Australia!” he yelled, waving the expensive vellum pages under his family’s stunned noses.
There was silence, all eyes riveted on him. Fee’s were shocked, so were Meggie’s, but every male pair had lit with joy. Frank’s blazed.
“But, Paddy, why should she think of you so suddenly after all these years?” Fee asked after she had read the letter. “Her money’s not new to her, nor is her isolation. I never remember her offering to help us before.”
“It seems she’s frightened of dying alone,” he said, as much to reassure himself as Fee. “You saw what she wrote: ‘I am not young, and you and your boys are my heirs. I think we ought to see each other before I die, and it’s time you learned how to run your inheritance. I have the intention of making you my head stockman—it will be excellent training, and those of your boys who are old enough to work may have employment as stockmen also. Drogheda will become a family concern, run by the family without help from outsiders.’”
“Does she say anything about sending us the money to get to Australia?” Fee asked.
Paddy’s back stiffened. “I wouldn’t dream of dunning her for that!” he snapped. “We can get to Australia without begging from her; I have enough put by.”
“I think she ought to pay our way,” Fee maintained stubbornly, and to everyone’s shocked surprise; she did not often voice an opinion. “Why should you give up your life here and go off to work for her on the strength of a promise given in a letter? She’s never lifted a finger to help us before, and I don’t trust her. All I ever remember your saying about her was that she had the tightest clutch on a pound you’d ever seen. After all, Paddy, it’s not as if you know her so very well; there was such a big gap between you in age, and she went to Australia before you were old enough to start school.”
“I don’t see how that alters things now, and if she is tight-fisted, all the more for us to inherit. No, Fee, we’re going to Australia, and we’ll pay our own way there.”
Fee said no more. It was impossible to tell from her face whether she resented being so summarily dismissed.
“Hooray, we’re going to Australia!” Bob shouted, grabbing at his father’s shoulder. Jack, Hughie and Stu jigged up and down, and Frank was smiling, his eyes seeing nothing in the room but something far beyond it. Only Fee and Meggie wondered and feared, hoping painfully it would all come to nothing, for their lives could be no easier in Australia, just the same things under strange conditions.
“Where’s Gillanbone?” Stuart asked.
Out came the old atlas; poor though the Clearys were, there were several shelves of books behind the kitchen dining table. The boys pored over yellowing pages until they found New South Wales. Used to small New Zealand distances, it didn’t occur to them to consult the scale of miles in the bottom left-hand corner. They just naturally assumed New South Wales was the same size as the North Island of New Zealand. And there was Gillanbone, up toward the top left-hand corner; about the same distance from Sydney as Wanganui was from Auckland, it seemed, though the dots indicating towns were far fewer than on the North Island map.
“It’s a very old atlas,” Paddy said. “Australia is like America, growing in leaps and bounds. I’m sure there are a lot more towns these days.”