The Thorn Birds (Chapter 16-20)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 16

They would have to go steerage on the ship, but it was only three days after all, not too bad. Not like the weeks and weeks between England and the Antipodes. All they could afford to take with them were clothes, china, cutlery, household linens, cooking utensils and those shelves of precious books; the furniture would have to be sold to cover the cost of shipping Fee’s few bits and pieces in the parlor, her spinet and rugs and chairs.

“I won’t hear of your leaving them behind,” Paddy told Fee firmly.

“Are you sure we can afford it?”

“Positive. As to the other furniture, Mary says she’s readying the head stockman’s house and that it’s got everything we’re likely to be needing. I’m glad we don’t have to live in the same house as Mary.”

“So am I,” said Fee.

Paddy went into Wanganui to book them an eight-berth steerage cabin on the Wahine; strange that the ship and their nearest town should have the same name. They were due to sail at the end of August, so by the beginning of that month everyone started realizing the big adventure was actually going to happen. The dogs had to be given away, the horses and the buggy sold, the furniture loaded onto old Angus MacWhirter’s dray and taken into Wanganui for auction, Fee’s few pieces crated along with the china and linen and books and kitchen goods.

Frank found his mother standing by the beautiful old spinet, stroking its faintly pink, streaky paneling and looking vaguely at the powdering of gold dust on her fingertips.

“Did you always have it, Mum?” he asked.

“Yes. What was actually mine they couldn’t take from me when I married. The spinet, the Persian carpets, the Louis Quinze sofa and chairs, the Regency escritoire. Not much, but they were rightfully mine.” The grey, wistful eyes stared past his shoulder at the oil painting on the wall behind him, dimmed with age a little, but still showing clearly the golden-haired woman in her pale-pink lace gown, crinolined with a hundred and seven flounces.

“Who was she?” he asked curiously, turning his head. “I’ve always wanted to know.”

“A great lady.”

“Well, she’s got to be related to you; she looks like you a bit.”

“Her? A relation of mine?” The eyes left their contemplation of the picture and rested on her son’s face ironically. “Now, do I look as if I could ever have had a relative like her?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve cobwebs in your brain; brush them out.”

“I wish you’d tell me, Mum.”

She sighed and shut the spinet, dusting the gold off her fingers. “There’s nothing to tell, nothing at all. Come on, help me move these things into the middle of the room, so Daddy can pack them.”

The voyage was a nightmare. Before the Wahine was out of Wellington harbor they were all seasick, and they continued to be seasick all the way across twelve hundred miles of gale-stirred, wintry seas. Paddy took the boys up on deck and kept them there in spite of the bitter wind and constant spray, only going below to see his women and baby when some kind soul volunteered to keep an eye on his four miserable, retching boys. Much though he yearned for fresh air, Frank had elected to remain below to guard the women. The cabin was tiny, stifling and reeked of oil, for it was below the water line and toward the bow, where the ship’s motion was most violent.

Some hours out of Wellington Frank and Meggie became convinced their mother was going to die; the doctor, summoned from first class by a very worried steward, shook his head over her pessimistically.

“Just as well it‘s only a short voyage,” he said, instructing his nurse to find milk for the baby.

Between bouts of retching Frank and Meggie managed to bottle-feed Hal, who didn’t take to it kindly. Fee had stopped trying to vomit and had sunk into a kind of coma, from which they could not rouse her. The steward helped Frank put her in the top bunk, where the air was a little less stale, and holding a towel to his mouth to stem the watery bile he still brought up, Frank perched himself on the edge beside her, stroking the matted yellow hair back from her brow. Hour after hour he stuck to his post in spite of his own sickness; every time Paddy came in he was with his mother, stroking her hair, while Meggie huddled on a lower berth with Hal, a towel to her mouth.

Three hours out of Sydney the seas dropped to a glassy calm and fog stole in furtively from the far Antarctic, wrapping itself about the old ship. Meggie, reviving a little, imagined it bellowed regularly in pain now the terrible buffeting was over. They inched through the gluey greyness as stealthily as a hunted thing until that deep, monotonous bawl sounded again from somewhere on the superstructure, a lost and lonely, indescribably sad noise. Then all around them the air was filled with mournful bellows as they slipped through ghostly smoking water into the harbor. Meggie never forgot the sound of foghorns, her first introduction to Australia.

Paddy carried Fee off the Wahine in his arms, Frank following with the baby, Meggie with a case, each of the boys stumbling wearily under some kind of burden. They had come into Pyrmont, a meaningless name, on a foggy winter morning at the end of August, 1921. An enormous line of taxis waited outside the iron shed on the wharf; Meggie gaped round-eyed, for she had never seen so many cars in one place at one time. Somehow Paddy packed them all into a single cab, its driver volunteering to take them to the People’s Palace.

“That’s the place for youse, mate,” he told Paddy. “It’s a hotel for the workingman run by the Sallies.”

The streets were thronged with cars seeming to rush in all directions; there were very few horses. They stared raptly out of the taxi windows at the tall brick buildings, the narrow winding streets, the rapidity with which crowds of people seemed to merge and dissolve in some strange urban ritual. Wellington had awed them, but Sydney made Wellington look like a small country town.

While Fee rested in one of the myriad rooms of the warren the Salvation Army fondly called the People’s Palace, Paddy went off to Central Railway Station to see when they could get a train for Gillanbone. Quite recovered, the boys clamored to go with him, for they had been told it was not very far, and that the way was all shops, including one which sold squill candy. Envying their youth, Paddy yielded, for he wasn’t sure how strong his own legs were after three days of seasickness. Frank and Meggie stayed with Fee and the baby, longing to go, too, but more concerned that their mother be better. Indeed, she seemed to gain strength rapidly once off the ship, and had drunk a bowl of soup and nibbled a slice of toast brought to her by one of the workingman’s bonneted angels.

“If we don’t go tonight, Fee, it’s a week until the next through train,” Paddy said when he returned. “Do you think you could manage the journey tonight?”

Fee sat up, shivering. “I can manage.”

“I think we ought to wait,” Frank said hardily. “I don’t think Mum’s well enough to travel.”

“What you don’t seem to understand, Frank, is that if we miss tonight’s train we have to wait a whole week, and I just don’t have the price of a week’s stay in Sydney in my pocket. This is a big country, and where we’re going isn’t served by a daily train. We could get as far as Dubbo on any one of three trains tomorrow, but then we’d have to wait for a local connection, and they told me we’d suffer a lot more traveling that way than if we make the effort to catch tonight’s express.”

“I’ll manage, Paddy,” Fee repeated. “I’ve got Frank and Meggie; I’ll be all right.” Her eyes were on Frank, pleading for his silence.

“Then I’ll send Mary a telegram now, telling her to expect us tomorrow night.”

Central Station was bigger than any building the Clearys had ever been inside, a vast glass cylinder which seemed simultaneously to echo and absorb the din of thousands of people waiting beside battered, strapped suitcases and fixedly watching a giant indicator board which men with long poles altered by hand. In the gathering evening darkness they found themselves a part of the throng, their eyes on the steel concertina gates of platform five; though shut, they bore a large hand-painted sign saying GILLANBONE MAIL. On platform one and platform two a terrific activity heralded the imminent departure of the Brisbane and Melbourne night expresses, passengers crowding through the barriers. Soon it was their turn, as the gates of platform five squashed themselves open and the people began eagerly to move.

Paddy found them an empty second-class compartment, put the older boys by the windows and Fee, Meggie and the baby by the sliding doors which led into the long corridor connecting compartments. Faces would peer in hopefully in sight of a spare seat, to vanish horrified at the sight of so many young children. Sometimes being a large family was an advantage.

The night was cold enough to warrant unstrapping of the big tartan traveling rugs all the suitcases bore on their outsides; though the carriage was not heated, steel boxes full of hot ashes lay along the floor radiating warmth, and no one had expected heating anyway because nothing in Australia or New Zealand was ever heated.

Chapter 17

“How far is it, Daddy?” Meggie asked as the train drew out, clanking and rocking gently across an eternity of points.

“A long way further than it looked on our atlas, Meggie. Six hundred and ten miles. We’ll be there late tomorrow afternoon.”

The boys gasped, but forgot it at the blossoming of a fairyland of lights outside; everyone clustered at the windows and watched while the first miles flew by and still the houses did not diminish. The speed increased, the lights grew scattered and finally went out, replaced by a constant flurry of sparks streaming past in a howling wind. When Paddy took the boys outside so Fee could feed Hal, Meggie gazed after them longingly. These days it seemed she was not to be included as one of the boys, not since the baby had disrupted her life and chained her to the house as firmly as her mother was. Not that she really minded, she told herself loyally. He was such a dear little fellow, the chief delight of her life, and it was nice to have Mum treat her as another grown-up lady. What caused Mum to grow babies she had no idea, but the result was lovely. She gave Hal to Fee; the train stopped not long after, creaking and squealing, and seemed to stand hours panting for breath. She was dying to open the window and look out, but the compartment was growing very cold in spite of the hot ashes on the floor.

Paddy came in from the corridor with a steaming cup of tea for Fee, who put Hal back on the seat, glutted and sleepy.

“What is it?” she asked.

“A place called Valley Heights. We take on another engine here for the climb to Lithgow, the girl in the refreshment room said.”

“How long have I got to drink this?”

“Fifteen minutes. Frank’s getting you some sandwiches and I’ll see the boys are fed. Our next refreshment stop is a placed called Blayney, much later in the night.”

Meggie shared her mother’s cup of hot, sugary tea, suddenly unbearably excited, and gobbled her sandwich when Frank brought it. He settled her on the long seat below baby Hal, tucked a rug firmly around her, and then did the same for Fee, stretched out full length on the seat opposite. Stuart and Hughie were bedded down on the floor between the seats, but Paddy told Fee that he was taking Bob, Frank and Jack several compartments down to talk to some shearers, and would spend the night there. It was much nicer than the ship, clicking along to the rhythmic huff-a-huff of the two engines, listening to the wind in the telegraph wires, the occasional flurry of furious huffs as steel wheels slipped on sloping steel rails, frantically sought traction; Meggie went to sleep.

In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees! The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of it rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by stands of thin, spinding, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression, but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.

From freezing night it turned to scorching day as the sun climbed toward its zenith and the train racketed on and on and on, stopping occasionally in some tiny town full of bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles; cars were scarce out here, it seemed. Paddy opened both the windows all the way in spite of the soot which swirled in and settled on everything; it was so hot they were gasping, their heavy New Zealand winter clothing sticking and itching. It did not seem possible that anywhere outside of hell could be so hot in winter.

Gillanbone came with the dying sun, a strange small collection of ramshackle wooden and corrugated iron buildings along either side of one dusty wide street, treeless and tired. The melting sun had licked a golden paste over everything, and gave the town a transient gilded dignity which faded even as they stood on the platform watching. It became once more a typical settlement on the very edge of the Back of Beyond, a last outpost in a steadily diminishing rainfall belt; not far away westward began two thousand miles of the Never-Never, the desert lands where it could not rain.

A resplendent black car was standing in the station yard, and striding unconcernedly toward them through the inches-deep dust came a priest. His long soutane made him seem a figure out of the past, as if he did not move on feet like ordinary men, but drifted dreamlike; the dust rose and billowed around him, red in the last of the sunset.

“Hello, I’m Father de Bricassart,” he said, holding out his hand to Paddy. “You have to be Mary’s brother; you’re the living image of her.” He turned to Fee and lifted her limp hand to his lips, smiling in genuine astonishment; no one could spot a gentlewoman quicker than Father Ralph. “Why, you’re beautiful!” he said, as if it were the most natural remark in the world for a priest to make, and then his eyes went onward to the boys, standing together in a huddle. They rested for a moment with puzzled bewilderment on Frank, who had charge of the baby, and ticked off each boy as they got smaller and smaller. Behind them, all by herself, Meggie stood gaping up at him with her mouth open, as if she were looking at God. Without seeming to notice how his fine serge robe wallowed in the dust, he stepped past the boys and squatted down to hold Meggie between his hands, and they were firm, gentle, kind. “Well! And who are you?” he asked her, smiling.

“Meggie,” she said.

“Her name’s Meghann.” Frank scowled, hating this beautiful man, his stunning height.

“My favorite name, Meghann.” He straightened, but held Meggie’s hand in his. “It will be better for you to stay at the presbytery tonight,” he said, leading Meggie toward the car. “I’ll drive you out to Drogheda in the morning; it’s too far after the train ride from Sydney.”

Aside from the Hotel Imperial, the Catholic church, school, convent and presbytery were the only brick edifices in Gillanbone, even the big public school having to content itself with timber frame. Now that darkness had fallen, the air had grown incredibly chill; but in the presbytery lounge a huge log fire was blazing, and the smell of food came tantalizingly from somewhere beyond. The housekeeper, a wizened old Scotswoman with amazing energy, bustled about showing them their rooms, chattering all the while in a broad western Highlands accent.

Used to the touch-me-not reserve of the Wahine priests, the Clearys found it hard to cope with Father Ralph’s easy, cheerful bonhomie. Only Paddy thawed, for he could remember the friendliness of the priests in his native Galway, their closeness to lesser beings. The rest ate their supper in careful silence and escaped upstairs as soon as they could, Paddy reluctantly following. To him, his religion was a warmth and a consolation; but to the rest of his family it was something rooted in fear, a do-it-or-thou-shalt-be-damned compulsion.

When they had gone, Father Ralph stretched out in his favorite chair, staring at the fire, smoking a cigarette and smiling. In his mind’s eye he was passing the Clearys in review, as he had first seen them from the station yard. The man so like Mary, but bowed with hard work and very obviously not of her malicious disposition; his weary, beautiful wife, who looked as if she ought to have descended from a landaulet drawn by matched white horses; dark and surly Frank, with black eyes, black eyes; the sons, most of them like their father, but the youngest one, Stuart, very like his mother, he’d be a handsome man when he grew up; impossible to tell what the baby would become; and Meggie. The sweetest, the most adorable little girl he had ever seen; hair of a color which defied description, not red and not gold, a perfect fusion of both. And looking up at him with silver-grey eyes of such a lambent purity, like melted jewels. Shrugging, he threw the cigarette stub into the fire and got to his feet. He was getting fanciful in his old age; melted jewels, indeed! More likely his own eyes were coming down with the sandy blight.

In the morning he drove his overnight guests to Drogheda, so inured by now to the landscape that he derived great amusement from their comments. The last hill lay two hundred miles to the east; this was the land of the black soil plains, he explained. Just sweeping, lightly timbered grasslands as flat as a board. The day was as hot as the previous one, but the Daimler was a great deal more comfortable to travel in than the train had been. And they had started out early, fasting, Father Ralph’s vestments and the Blessed Sacrament packed carefully in a black case.

“The sheep are dirty!” said Meggie dolefully, gazing at the many hundreds of rusty-red bundles with their questing noses down into the grass.

“Ah, I can see I ought to have chosen New Zealand,” the priest said. “It must be like Ireland, then, and have nice cream sheep.”

“Yes, it is like Ireland in many ways; it has the same beautiful green grass. But it’s wilder, a lot less tamed,” Paddy answered. He liked Father Ralph very much.

Just then a group of emus lurched to their feet and commenced to run, fleet as the wind, their ungainly legs a blur, their long necks stretched out. The children gasped and burst out laughing, enchanted at seeing giant birds which ran instead of flying.
Chapter 18

“What a pleasure it is not to have to get out and open these wretched gates,” Father Ralph said as the last one was shut behind them and Bob, who had done gate duty for him, scrambled back into the car.

After the shocks Australia had administered to them in bewildering rapidity, Drogheda homestead seemed like a touch of home, with its gracious Georgian façade and its budding wistaria vines, its thousands of rose-bushes.

“Are we going to live here?” Meggie squeaked.

“Not exactly,” the priest said quickly. “The house you’re going to live in is about a mile further on, down by the creek.”

Mary Carson was waiting to receive them in the vast drawing room and did not rise to greet her brother, but forced him to come to her as she sat in her wing chair.

“Well, Paddy,” she said pleasantly enough, looking past him fixedly to where Father Ralph stood with Meggie in his arms, and her little arms locked tightly about his neck. Mary Carson got up ponderously, without greeting Fee or the children.

“Let us hear Mass immediately,” she said. “I‘m sure Father de Bricassart is anxious to be on his way.”.

“Not at all, my dear Mary.” He laughed, blue eyes gleaming. “I shall say Mass, we’ll all have a good hot breakfast at your table, and then I’ve promised Meggie I’ll show her where she’s going to live.”

“Meggie,” said Mary Carson.

“Yes, this is Meggie. Which rather begins the introductions at the tail, doesn’t it? Let me begin at the head, Mary, please. This is Fiona.”

Mary Carson nodded curtly, and paid scant attention as Father Ralph ran through the boys; she was too busy watching the priest and Meggie.

4

The head stockman’s house stood on piles some thirty feet above a narrow gulch fringed with tall, straggling gum trees and many weeping willows. After the splendor of Drogheda homestead it was rather bare and utilitarian, but in its appurtenances it was not unlike the house they had left behind in New Zealand. Solid Victorian furniture filled the rooms to overflowing, smothered in fine red dust.

“You‘re lucky here, you have a bathroom,” Father Ralph said as he brought them up the plank steps to the front veranda; it was quite a climb, for the piles upon which the house was poised were fifteen feet high. “In case the creek runs a banker,” Father Ralph explained. “You‘re right on it here and I‘ve heard it can rise sixty feet in a night.”

They did indeed have a bathroom; an old tin bath and a chipped water heater stood in a walled-off alcove at the end of the back veranda. But, as the women found to their disgust, the lavatory was nothing more than a hole in the ground some two hundred yards away from the house, and it stank. After New Zealand, primitive.

“Whoever lived here wasn’t very clean,” Fee said as she ran her finger through the dust on the sideboard.

Father Ralph laughed. “You’ll fight a losing battle trying to get rid of that,” he said. “This is the Outback, and there are three things you’ll never defeat—the heat, the dust and the flies. No matter what you do, they’ll aways be with you.”

Fee looked at the priest. “You’re very good to us, Father.”

“And why not? You’re the only relatives of my very good friend, Mary Carson.”

She shrugged, unimpressed. “I’m not used to being on friendly terms with a priest. In New Zealand they kept themselves very much to themselves.”

“You’re not a Catholic, are you?”

“No, Paddy’s the Catholic. Naturally the children have been reared as Catholics, every last one of them, if that’s what’s worrying you.”

“It never occurred to me. Do you resent it?”

“I really don’t care one way or the other.”

“You didn’t convert?”

“I’m not a hypocrite, Father de Bricassart. I had lost faith in my own church, and I had no wish to espouse a different, equally meaningless creed.”

“I see.” He watched Meggie as she stood on the front veranda, peering up the track toward Drogheda big house. “She’s so pretty, your daughter. I have a fondness for titian hair, you know. Hers would have sent the artist running for his brushes. I’ve never seen exactly that color before. Is she your only daughter?”

“Yes. Boys run in both Paddy’s family and my own; girls are unusual.”

“Poor little thing,” he said obscurely.

After the crates arrived from Sydney and the house took on a more familiar look with its books, china, ornaments and the parlor filled with Fee’s furniture, things began to settle down. Paddy and the boys older than Stu were away most of the time with the two station hands Mary Carson had retained to teach them the many differences between sheep in northwest New South Wales and sheep in New Zealand. Fee, Meggie and Stu discovered the differences between running a house in New Zealand and living in the head stockman’s residence on Drogheda; there was a tacit understanding they would never disturb Mary Carson herself, but her housekeeper and her maids were just as eager to help the women as her station hands were to help the men.

Drogheda was, everyone learned, a world in itself, so cut off from civilization that after a while even Gillanbone became no more than a name with remote memories. Within the bounds of the great Home Paddock lay stables, a smithy, garages, innumerable sheds storing everything from feed to machinery, dog kennels and runs, a labyrinthine maze of stockyards, a mammoth shearing shed with the staggering number of twenty-six stands in it, and yet another jigsaw puzzle of yards behind it. There were fowl runs, pigpens, cow bails and a dairy, quarters for the twenty-six shearers, small shacks for the rouseabouts, two other, smaller, houses like their own for stockmen, a jackaroos’ barracks, a slaughter yard, and woodheaps.

All this sat in just about the middle of a treeless circle whose diameter measured three miles: the Home Paddock. Only at the point where the head stockman’s house lay did the conglomeration of buildings almost touch the forests beyond. However, there were many trees around the sheds, yards and animal runs, to provide welcome and necessary shade; mostly pepper trees, huge, hardy, dense and sleepily lovely. Beyond in the long grass of the Home Paddock, horses and milch cows grazed drowsily.

The deep gully beside the head stockman’s house had a shallow, sluggish stream of muddy water at its bottom. No one credited Father Ralph’s tale of its rising sixty feet overnight; it didn’t seem possible. Water from this creek was pumped up by hand to service the bathroom and kitchen, and it took the women a long time to get used to washing themselves, the dishes and the clothes in greenish-brown water. Six massive corrugated-iron tanks perched on wooden derricklike towers caught rain from the roof and provided them with drinking water, but they learned they must use it very sparingly, that it was never to be used for washing. For there was no guarantee as to when the next rains might come to fill the tanks up.

The sheep and cattle drank artesian water, not tapped from an easily accessible water table, but true artesian water brought from over three thousand feet below the surface. It gushed at boiling point from a pipe at what was called the borehead, and ran through tiny channels fringed with poisonously green grass to every paddock on the property. These channels were the bore drains, and the heavily sulphurated, mineral-laden water they contained was not fit for human consumption.

At first the distances staggered them; Drogheda had two hundred and fifty thousand acres. Its longest boundary stretched for eighty miles. The homestead was forty miles and twenty-seven gates away from Gillanbone, the only settlement of any kind closer than a hundred and six miles. The narrow eastern boundary was formed by the Barwon River, which was what the locals called this northern course of the Darling River, a great muddy thousand-mile stream that finally joined the Murray River and surged out into the southern ocean fifteen hundred miles away in South Australia. Gillan Creek, which ran in the gully beside the head stockman’s house, merged into the Barwon two miles beyond the Home Paddock.

Paddy and the boys loved it. Sometimes they spent days on end in the saddle, miles away from the homestead; camping at night under a sky so vast and filled with stars it seemed they were a part of God.

The grey-brown land swarmed with life. Kangaroos in flocks of thousands streamed leaping through the trees, taking fences in their stride, utterly lovely in their grace and freedom and numbers; emus built their nests in the middle of the grassy plain and stalked like giants about their territorial boundaries, taking fright at anything strange and running fleeter than horses away from their dark-green, football-sized eggs; termites built rusty towers like miniature skyscrapers; huge ants with a savage bite poured in rivers down mounded holes in the ground.

The bird life was so rich and varied there seemed no end to new kinds, and they lived not in ones and twos but in thousands upon thousands: tiny green-and-yellow parakeets Fee used to call lovebirds, but which the locals called budgerigars; scarlet-and-blue smallish parrots called rosellas; big pale-grey parrots with brilliant purplish-pink breasts, underwings and heads, called galahs; and the great pure white birds with cheeky yellow combs called sulphur-crested cockatoos. Exquisite tiny finches whirred and wheeled, so did sparrows and starlings, and the strong brown kingfishers called kookaburras laughed and chuckled gleefully or dived for snakes, their favorite food. They were well-nigh human, all these birds, and completely without fear, sitting in hundreds in the trees peering about with bright intelligent eyes, screaming, talking, laughing, imitating anything that produced a sound.

Chapter 19

Fearsome lizards five or six feet long pounded over the ground and leaped lithely for high tree branches, as at home off the earth as on it; they were goannas. And there were many other lizards, smaller but some no less frightening, adorned with horny triceratopean ruffs about their necks, or with swollen, bright-blue tongues. Of snakes the variety was almost endless, and the Clearys learned that the biggest and most dangerous-looking were often the most benign, while a stumpy little creature a foot long might be a death adder; carpet snakes, copper snakes, tree snakes, red-bellied black snakes, brown snakes, lethal tiger snakes.

And insects! Grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, bees, flies of all sizes and sorts, cicadas, gnats, dragonflies, giant moths and so many butterflies! The spiders were dreadful, huge hairy things with a leg span of inches, or deceptively small and deadly black things lurking in the lavatory; some lived in vast wheeling webs slung between trees, some rocked inside dense gossamer cradles hooked among grass blades, others dived into little holes in the ground complete with lids which shut after them.

Predators were there, too: wild pigs frightened of nothing, savage and flesh-eating, black hairy things the size of fully grown cows; dingoes, the wild native dogs which slunk close to the ground and blended into the grass; crows in hundreds carking desolately from the blasted white skeletons of dead trees; hawks and eagles, hovering motionless on the air currents.

From some of these the sheep and cattle had to be protected, especially when they dropped their young. The kangaroos and rabbits ate the precious grass; the pigs and dingoes ate lambs, calves and sick animals; the crows pecked out eyes. The Clearys had to learn to shoot, then carried rifles as they rode, sometimes to put a suffering beast out of its misery, sometimes to fell a boar or a dingo.

This, thought the boys exultantly, was life. Not one of them yearned for New Zealand; when the flies clustered like syrup in the corners of their eyes, up their noses, in their mouths and ears, they learned the Australian trick and hung corks bobbing from the ends of strings all around the brims of their hats. To prevent crawlies from getting up inside the legs of their baggy trousers they tied strips of kangaroo hide called bowyangs below their knees, giggling at the silly-sounding name, but awed by the necessity. New Zealand was tame compared to this; this was life.

Tied to the house and its immediate environs, the women found life much less to their liking, for they had not the leisure or the excuse to ride, nor did they have the stimulation of varying activities. It was just harder to do what women always did: cook, clean, wash, iron, care for babies. They battled the heat, the dust, the flies, the many steps, the muddy water, the nearly perennial absence of men to carry and chop wood, pump water, kill fowls. The heat especially was hard to bear, and it was as yet only early spring; even so, the thermometer out on the shady veranda reached a hundred degrees every day. Inside the kitchen with the range going, it was a hundred and twenty degrees.

Their many layers of clothing were close-fitting and designed for New Zealand, where inside the house it was almost always cool. Mary Carson, exercising gently by walking down to see her sister-in-law, looked at Fee’s high-necked, floor-length calico gown superciliously. She herself was clad in the new fashion, a cream silk dress coming only halfway down her calves, with loose elbow sleeves, no waist and a low décolletage.

“Really, Fiona, you’re hopelessly old-fashioned,” she said, glancing round the parlor with its fresh coat of cream paint, the Persian carpets and the spindly priceless furniture.

“I have no time to be anything else,” Fee said, curtly for her when acting as hostess.

“You’ll have more time now, with the men away so much and fewer meals to get. Raise your hems and stop wearing petticoats and stays, or you’ll die when summer comes. It can get fifteen to twenty degrees hotter than this, you know.” Her eyes dwelled on the portrait of the beautiful blond woman in her Empress Eugénie crinoline. “Who’s that?” she asked, pointing.

“My grandmother.”

“Oh, really? And the furniture, the carpets?”

“Mine, from my grandmother.”

“Oh, really? My dear Fiona, you’ve come down in the world, haven’t you?”

Fee never lost her temper, so she didn’t now, but her thin lips got thinner. “I don’t think so, Mary. I have a good man; you ought to know that.”

“But penniless. What was your maiden name?”

“Armstrong.”

“Oh, really? Not the Roderick Armstrong Armstrongs?”

“He’s my oldest brother. His namesake was my great-grandfather.”

Mary Carson rose, flapping her picture hat at the flies, which were not respecters of person. “Well, you’re better born than the Clearys are, even if I do say so myself. Did you love Paddy enough to give all that up?”

“My reasons for what I do,” said Fee levelly, “are my business, Mary, not yours. I do not discuss my husband, even with his sister.”

The lines on either side of Mary Carson’s nose got deeper, her eyes bulged slightly. “Hoity-toity!”

She did not come again, but Mrs. Smith, her housekeeper, came often, and repeated Mary Carson’s advice about their clothes.

“Look,” she said, “there’s a sewing machine in my quarters which I never use. I’ll have a couple of the rouseabouts carry it down. If I do need to use it, I’ll come down here.” Her eyes strayed to baby Hal, rolling on the floor gleefully. “I like to hear the sound of children, Mrs. Cleary.”

Once every six weeks the mail came by horse-drawn dray from Gillanbone; this was the only contact with the outside world. Drogheda possessed a Ford truck, another specially constructed Ford truck with a water tank on its tray, a model-T Ford car and a Rolls-Royce limousine, but no one ever seemed to use them to go into Gilly save Mary Carson infrequently. Forty miles was as far as the moon.

Bluey Williams had the mail contract for the district and took six weeks to cover his territory. His flat-topped dray with its ten-foot wheels was drawn by a magnificent team of twelve draft horses, and was loaded with all the things the outlying stations ordered. As well as the Royal Mail, he carried groceries, gasoline in forty-four-gallon drums, kerosene in square five-gallon cans, hay, bags of corn, calico bags of sugar and flour, wooden chests of tea, bags of potatoes, farm machinery, mail-order toys and clothes from Anthony Hordern’s in Sydney, plus anything else that had to be brought in from Gilly or Outside. Moving at the clipping rate of twenty miles a day, he was welcomed wherever he stopped, plied for news and weather far away, handed the scribbled scraps of paper carefully wrapped around money for goods he would purchase in Gilly, handed the laboriously written letters which went into the canvas sack marked “Royal GVR Mail.”

West of Gilly there were only two stations on the route, Drogheda closer in, Bugela farther out; beyond Bugela lay the territory that got mail only once every six months. Bluey’s dray swung in a great zigzagging are through all the stations southwest, west and northwest, then returned to Gilly before setting out eastward, a smaller journey because Booroo town took over sixty miles east. Sometimes he brought people sitting beside him on his unsheltered leather seat, visitors or hopefuls looking for work; sometimes he took people away, visitors or discontented stockmen or maids or rouseabouts, very occasionally a governess. The squatters owned cars to transport themselves, but those who worked for the squatters depended upon Bluey for transport as well as goods and letters.

After the bolts of cloth Fee had ordered came on the mail, she sat down at the donated sewing machine and began to make loose dresses in light cotton for herself and Meggie, light trousers and overalls for the men, smocks for Hal, curtains for the windows. There was no doubt it was cooler minus layers of underwear and tightly fitting outerwear.

Life was lonely for Meggie, only Stuart at the house among the boys. Jack and Hughie were off with their father learning to be stockmen—jackaroos, the young apprentices were called. Stuart wasn’t company the way Jack and Hughie used to be. He lived in a world all his own, a quiet little boy who preferred to sit for hours watching the behavior of a throng of ants than climb trees, whereas Meggie adored to climb trees and thought Australian gums were marvelous, of infinite variety and difficulty. Not that there was much time for tree-climbing, or ant-watching for that matter. Meggie and Stuart worked hard. They chopped and carried the wood, dug holes for refuse, tended the vegetable garden and looked after the fowls and pigs. They also learned how to kill snakes and spiders, though they never ceased to fear them.

The rainfall had been mediocrely good for several years; the creek was low but the tanks were about half full. The grass was still fairly good, but apparently nothing to its lush times.

“It will probably get worse,” said Mary Carson grimly.

But they were to know flood before they encountered a full-fledged drought. Halfway through January the country caught the southern edge of the northwest monsoons. Captious in the extreme, the great winds blew to suit themselves. Sometimes only the far northern tips of the continent felt their drenching summer rains, sometimes they traveled far down the Outback and gave the unhappy urbanites of Sydney a wet summer. That January the clouds stormed dark across the sky; torn into sodden shreds by the wind, and it began to rain; not a gentle downpour but a steady, roaring deluge which went on and on.

Chapter 20

They had been warned; Bluey Williams had turned up with his dray loaded high and twelve spare horses behind him, for he was moving fast to get through his rounds before the rains made further provisioning of the stations impossible.

“Monsoons are comin’,” he said, rolling a cigarette and indicating piles of extra groceries with his whip. “The Cooper an’ the Barcoo an’ the Diamantina are runnin’ real bankers an’ the Overflow is overflowin’. The whole Queenslan’ Outback’s two foot under water an’ them poor buggers is tryin’ to find a rise in the groun’ to put the sheep on.”

Suddenly there was a controlled panic; Paddy and the boys worked like madmen, moving the sheep out of the low-lying paddocks and as far away from the creek and the Barwon as they could. Father Ralph turned up, saddled his horse and set off with Frank and the best team of dogs for two uncleared paddocks alongside the Barwon, while Paddy and the two stockmen each took a boy in other directions.

Father Ralph was an excellent stockman himself. He rode a thoroughbred chestnut mare Mary Carson had given him, clad in faultlessly tailored buff jodhpurs, shiny tan knee boots, and a spotless white shirt with its sleeves rolled up his sinewy arms and its neck open to show his smooth brown chest. In baggy old grey twill trousers tied with bowyangs and a grey flannel undershirt, Frank felt like a poor relation. Which was what he was, he thought wryly, following the straight figure on the dainty mare through a stand of box and pine beyond the creek. He himself rode a hard-mouthed piebald stock horse, a mean-tempered beast with a will of its own and a ferocious hatred of other horses. The dogs were yelping and cavorting in excitement, fighting and snarling among themselves until parted with a flick from Father Ralph’s viciously wielded stock whip. It seemed there was nothing the man couldn’t do; he was familiar with the coded whistles setting the dogs to work, and plied his whip much better than Frank, still learning this exotic Australian art.

The big Queensland blue brute that led the dog pack took a slavish fancy to the priest and followed him without question, meaning Frank was very definitely the second-string man. Half of Frank didn’t mind; he alone among Paddy’s sons had not taken to life on Drogheda. He had wanted nothing more than to quit New Zealand, but not to come to this. He hated the ceaseless patrolling of the paddocks, the hard ground to sleep on most nights, the savage dogs which could not be treated as pets and were shot if they failed to do their work.

But the ride into the gathering clouds had an element of adventure to it; even the bending, cracking trees seemed to dance with an outlandish joy. Father Ralph worked like a man in the grip of some obsession, sooling the dogs after unsuspecting bands of sheep, sending the silly woolly things leaping and bleating in fright until the low shapes streaking through the grass got them packed tight and running. Only having the dogs enabled a small handful of men to operate a property the size of Drogheda; bred to work sheep or cattle, they were amazingly intelligent and needed very little direction.

By nightfall Father Ralph and the dogs, with Frank trying to do his inadequate best behind them, had cleared all the sheep out of one paddock, normally several days’ work. He unsaddled his mare near a clump of trees by the gate to the second paddock, talking optimistically of being able to get the stock out of it also before the rain started. The dogs were sprawled flat out in the grass, tongues lolling, the big Queensland blue fawning and cringing at Father Ralph’s feet. Frank dug a repulsive collection of kangaroo meat out of his saddlebag and flung it to the dogs, which fell on it snapping and biting at each other jealously.

“Bloody awful brutes,” he said. “They don’t behave like dogs; they’re just jackals.”

“I think these are probably a lot closer to what God intended dogs should be,” said Father Ralph mildly. “Alert, intelligent, aggressive and almost untamed. For myself, I prefer them to the house-pet species.” He smiled. “The cats, too. Haven’t you noticed them around the sheds? As wild and vicious as panthers; won’t let a human being near them. But they hunt magnificently, and call no man master or provider.”

He unearthed a cold piece of mutton and a packet of bread and butter from his saddlebag, carved a hunk from the mutton and handed the rest to Frank. Putting the bread and butter on a log between them, he sank his white teeth into the meat with evident enjoyment. Thirst was slaked from a canvas water bag, then cigarettes rolled.

A lone wilga tree stood nearby; Father Ralph indicated it with his cigarette.

“That’s the spot to sleep,” he said, unstrapping his blanket and picking up his saddle.

Frank followed him to the tree, commonly held the most beautiful in this part of Australia. Its leaves were dense and a pale lime green, its shape almost perfectly rounded. The foliage grew so close to the ground that sheep could reach it easily, the result being that every wilga bottom was mown as straight as a topiary hedge. If the rain began they would have more shelter under it than any other tree, for Australian trees were generally thinner of foliage than the trees of wetter lands.

“You’re not happy, Frank, are you?” Father Ralph asked, lying down with a sigh and rolling another smoke.

From his position a couple of feet away Frank turned to look at him suspiciously. “What’s happy?”

“At the moment, your father and brothers. But not you, not your mother, and not your sister. Don’t you like Australia?”

“Not this bit of it. I want to go to Sydney. I might have a chance there to make something of myself.”

“Sydney, eh? It’s a den of iniquity.” Father Ralph was smiling.

“I don’t care! Out here I’m stuck the same way I was in New Zealand; I can’t get away from him.”

“Him?”

But Frank had not meant to say it, and would say no more. He lay looking up at the leaves.

“How old are you, Frank?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Oh, yes! Have you ever been away from your people?”

“No.”

“Have you even been to a dance, had a girlfriend?”

“No.” Frank refused to give him his title.

“Then he’ll not hold you much longer.”

“He’ll hold me until I die.”

Father Ralph yawned, and composed himself for sleep. “Good night,” he said.

In the morning the clouds were lower, but the rain held off all day and they got the second paddock cleared. A slight ridge ran clear across Drogheda from northeast to southwest; it was in these paddocks the stock were concentrated, where they had higher ground to seek if the water rose above the escarpments of the creek and the Barwon.

The rain began almost on nightfall, as Frank and the priest hurried at a fast trot toward the creek ford below the head stockman’s house.

“No use worrying about blowing them now!” Father Ralph shouted. “Dig your heels in, lad, or you’ll drown in the mud!”

They were soaked within seconds, and so was the hard-baked ground. The fine, nonporous soil became a sea of mud, miring the horses to their hocks and setting them floundering. While the grass persisted they managed to press on, but near the creek where the earth had been trodden to bareness they had to dismount. Once relieved of their burdens, the horses had no trouble, but Frank found it impossible to keep his balance. It was worse than a skating rink. On hands and knees they crawled to the top of the creek bank, and slid down it like projectiles. The stone roadway, which was normally covered by a foot of lazy water, was under four feet of racing foam; Frank heard the priest laugh. Urged on by shouts and slaps from sodden hats, the horses managed to scramble up the far bank without mishap, but Frank and Father Ralph could not. Every time they tried, they slid back again. The priest had just suggested they climb a willow when Paddy, alerted by the appearance of riderless horses, came with a rope and hauled them out.

Smiling and shaking his head, Father Ralph refused Paddy’s offer of hospitality.

“I’m expected at the big house,” he said.

Mary Carson heard him calling before any of her staff did, for he had chosen to walk around to the front of the house, thinking it would be easier to reach his room.

“You’re not coming inside like that,” she said, standing on the veranda.

“Then be a dear, get me several towels and my case.”

Unembarrassed, she watched him peel off his shirt, boots and breeches, leaning against the half-open window into her drawing room as he toweled the worst of the mud off.

“You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen, Ralph de Bricassart,” she said. “Why is it so many priests are beautiful? The Irishness? They’re rather a handsome people, the Irish. Or is it that beautiful men find the priesthood a refuge from the consequences of their looks? I’ll bet the girls in Gilly just eat their hearts out over you.”

“I learned long ago not to take any notice of love-sick girls.” He laughed. “Any priest under fifty is a target for some of them, and a priest under thirty-five is usually a target for all of them. But it’s only the Protestant girls who openly try to seduce me.”

 

 

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