The Thorn Birds (Chapter 21-25)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 21

“You never answer my questions outright, do you?” Straightening, she laid her palm on his chest and held it there. “You’re a sybarite, Ralph, you lie in the sun. Are you as brown all over?”

Smiling, he leaned his head forward, then laughed into her hair, his hands unbuttoning the cotton drawers; as they fell to the ground he kicked them away, standing like a Praxiteles statue while she toured all the way around him, taking her time and looking.

The last two days had exhilarated him, so did the sudden awareness that she was perhaps more vulnerable than he had imagined; but he knew her, and he felt quite safe in asking, “Do you want me to make love to you, Mary?”

She eyed his flaccid penis, snorting with laughter. “I wouldn’t dream of putting you to so much trouble! Do you need women, Ralph?”

His head reared back scornfully. “No!”


“They’re worse than women. No, I don’t need them.”

“How about yourself?”

“Least of all.”

“Interesting.” Pushing the window all the way up, she stepped through into the drawing room. “Ralph, Cardinal de Bricassart!” she mocked. But away from those discerning eyes of his she sagged back into her wing chair and clenched her fists, the gesture which rails against the inconsistencies of fate.

Naked, Father Ralph stepped off the veranda to stand on the barbered lawn with his arms raised above his head, eyes closed; he let the rain pour over him in warm, probing, spearing runnels, an exquisite sensation on bare skin. It was very dark. But he was still flaccid.

The creek broke its banks and the water crept higher up the piles of Paddy’s house, farther out across the Home Paddock toward the homestead itself.

“It will go down tomorrow,” said Mary Carson when Paddy went to report, worried.

As usual, she was right; over the next week the water ebbed and finally returned to its normal channels. The sun came out, the temperature zoomed to a hundred and fifteen in the shade, and the grass seemed to take wing for the sky, thigh-high and clean, bleached brilliant as gilt, hurting the eyes. Washed and dusted, the trees glittered, and the hordes of parrots came back from wherever they had gone while the rain fell to flash their rainbow bodies amid the timber, more loquacious than ever.

Father Ralph had returned to succor his neglected parishioners, serene in the knowledge his knuckles would not be rapped; under the pristine white shirt next to his heart resided a check for one thousand pounds. The bishop would be ecstatic.

The sheep were moved back to their normal pasture and the Clearys were forced to learn the Outback habit of siesta. They rose at five, got everything done before midday, then collapsed in twitching, sweating heaps until five in the afternoon. This applied both to the women at the house and the men in the paddocks. Chores which could not be done early were done after five, and the evening meal eaten after the sun had gone down at a table outside on the veranda. All the beds had been moved outside as well for the heat persisted through the night. It seemed as if the mercury had not gone below a century in weeks, day or night. Beef was a forgotten memory, only a sheep small enough to last without tainting until it was all eaten. Their palates longed for a change from the eternal round of baked mutton chops, mutton stew, shepherd’s pie made of minced mutton, curried mutton, roast leg of mutton, boiled pickled mutton, mutton casserole.

But at the beginning of February life changed abruptly for Meggie and Stuart. They were sent to the convent in Gillanbone to board, for there was no school closer. Hal, said Paddy, could learn by correspondence from Blackfriars School in Sydney when he was old enough, but in the meantime, since Meggie and Stuart were used to teachers, Mary Carson had generously offered to pay for their board and tuition at the Holy Cross convent. Besides, Fee was too busy with Hal to supervise correspondence lessons as well. It had been tacitly understood from the beginning that Jack and Hughie would go no further with their educations; Drogheda needed them on the land, and the land was what they wanted.

Meggie and Stuart found it a strange, peaceful existence at Holy Cross after their life on Drogheda, but especially after the Sacred Heart in Wahine. Father Ralph had subtly indicated to the nuns that this pair of children were his protégés, their aunt the richest woman in New South Wales. So Meggie’s shyness was transformed from a vice into a virtue, and Stuart’s odd isolation, his habit of staring for hours into illimitable distances, earned him the epithet “saintly.”

It was very peaceful indeed, for there were very few boarders; people of the district wealthy enough to send their offspring to boarding school invariably preferred Sydney. The convent smelled of polish and flowers, its dark high corridors awash with quietness and a tangible holiness. Voices were muted, life went on behind a black thin veil. No one caned them, no one shouted at them, and there was always Father Ralph.

He came to see them often, and had them to stay at the presbytery so regularly he decided to paint the bedroom Meggie used a delicate apple green, buy new curtains for the windows and a new quilt for the bed. Stuart continued to sleep in a room which had been cream and brown through two redecorations; it simply never occurred to Father Ralph to wonder if Stuart was happy. He was the afterthought who to avoid offense must also be invited.

Just why he was so fond of Meggie Father Ralph didn’t know, nor for that matter did he spend much time wondering about it. It had begun with pity that day in the dusty station yard when he had noticed her lagging behind; set apart from the rest of her family by virtue of her sex, he had shrewdly guessed. As to why Frank also moved on an outer perimeter, this did not intrigue him at all, nor did he feel moved to pity Frank. There was something in Frank which killed tender emotions: a dark heart, a spirit lacking inner light. But Meggie? She had moved him unbearably, and he didn’t really know why. There was the color of her hair, which pleased him; the color and form of her eyes, like her mother’s and therefore beautiful, but so much sweeter, more expressive; and her character, which he saw as the perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong. No rebel, Meggie; on the contrary. All her life she would obey, move within the boundaries of her female fate.

Yet none of it added up to the full total. Perhaps, had he looked more deeply into himself, he might have seen that what he felt for her was the curious result of time, and place, and person. No one thought of her as important, which meant there was a space in her life into which he could fit himself and be sure of her love; she was a child, and therefore no danger to his way of life or his priestly reputation; she was beautiful, and he enjoyed beauty; and, least acknowledged of all, she filled an empty space in his life which his God could not, for she had warmth and a human solidity. Because he could not embarrass her family by giving her gifts, he gave her as much of his company as he could, and spent time and thought on redecorating her room at the presbytery; not so much to see her pleasure as to create a fitting setting for his jewel. No pinchbeck for Meggie.

At the beginning of May the shearers arrived on Drogheda. Mary Carson was extraordinarily aware of how everything on Drogheda was done, from deploying the sheep to cracking a stock whip; she summoned Paddy to the big house some days before the shearers came, and without moving from her wing chair she told him precisely what to do down to the last little detail. Used to New Zealand shearing, Paddy had been staggered by the size of the shed, its twenty-six stands; now, after the interview with his sister, facts and figures warred inside his head. Not only would Drogheda sheep be shorn on Drogheda, but Bugela and Dibban-Dibban and Beel-Beel sheep as well. It meant a grueling amount of work for every soul on the place, male and female. Communal shearing was the custom and the stations sharing Drogheda’s shearing facilities would naturally pitch in to help, but the brunt of the incidental work inevitably fell on the shoulders of those on Drogheda.

Chapter 22

When Frank stepped into his mother’s kitchen she was standing beside the sink at a never-ending job, peeling potatoes.

“Mum, I’m home!” he said, joy in his voice.

As she swung around her belly showed, and his two weeks away lent his eyes added perception.

“Oh, God!” he said.

Her eyes lost their pleasure in seeing him, her face flooded with scarlet shame; she spread her hands over her ballooning apron as if they could hide what her clothes could not.

Frank was shaking. “The dirty old goat!”

“Frank, I can’t let you say things like that. You’re a man now, you ought to understand. This is no different from the way you came into the world yourself, and it deserves the same respect. It isn’t dirty. When you insult Daddy, you insult me.”

“He had no right! He should have left you alone!” Frank hissed, wiping a fleck of foam from the corner of his trembling mouth.

“It isn’t dirty,” she repeated wearily, and looked at him from her clear tired eyes as if she had suddenly decided to put shame behind her forever. “It’s not dirty, Frank, and nor is the act which created it.”

This time his face reddened. He could not continue to meet her gaze, so he turned and went through into the room he shard with Bob, Jack and Hughie. Its bare walls and little single beds mocked him, mocked him, the sterile and featureless look to it, the lack of a presence to warm it, a purpose to hallow it. And her face, her beautiful tired face with its prim halo of golden hair, all alight because of what she and that hairy old goat had done in the terrible heat of summer.

He could not get away from it, he could not get away from her, from the thoughs at the back of his mind, from the hungers natural to his age and manhood. Mostly he managed to push it all below consciousness, but when she flaunted tangible evidence of her lust before his eyes, threw her mysterious activity with that lecherous old beast in his very teeth…. How could he think of it, how could he consent to it, how could he bear it? He wanted to be able to think of her as totally holy, pure and untainted as the Blessed Mother, a being who was above such things though all her sisters throughout the world be guilty of it. To see her proving his concept of her wrong was the road to madness. It had become necessary to his sanity to imagine that she lay with that ugly old man in perfect chastity, to have a place to sleep, but that in the night they never turned toward each other, or touched. Oh, God!

A scraping clang made him look down, to find he had twisted the brass rail of the bed’s foot into an S.

“Why aren’t you Daddy?” he asked it.

“Frank,” said his mother from the doorway.

He looked up, black eyes glittering and wet like rained-upon coal. “I’ll end up killing him,” he said.

“If you do that, you’ll kill me,” said Fee, coming to sit upon the bed.

“No, I’d free you!” he countered wildly, hopefully.

“Frank, I can never be free, and I don’t want to be free. I wish I knew where your blindness comes from, but I don’t. It isn’t mine, nor is it your father’s. I know you’re not happy, but must you take it out on me, and on Daddy? Why do you insist upon making everything so hard? Why?” She looked down at her hands, looked up at him. “I don’t want to say this, but I think I have to. It’s time you found yourself a girl, Frank, got married and had a family of your own. There’s room on Drogheda. I’ve never been worried about the other boys in that respect; they don’t seem to have your nature at all. But you need a wife, Frank. If you had one, you wouldn’t have time to think about me.”

He had turned his back upon her, and wouldn’t turn around. For perhaps five minutes she sat on the bed hoping he would say something, then she sighed, got up and left.


After the shearers had gone and the district had settled into the semi-inertia of winter came the annual Gillanbone Show and Picnic Races. It was the most important event in the social calendar, and went on for two days. Fee didn’t feel well enough to go, so Paddy drove Mary Carson into town in her Rolls-Royce without his wife to support him or keep Mary’s tongue in its silent position. He had noticed that for some mysterious reason Fee’s very presence quelled his sister, put her at a disadvantage.

Everyone else was going. Under threat of death to behave themselves, the boys rode in with Beerbarrel Pete, Jim, Tom, Mrs. Smith and the maids in the truck, but Frank left early on his own in the model-T Ford. The adults of the party were all staying over for the second day’s race meeting; for reasons known best to herself, Mary Carson declined Father Ralph’s offer of accommodation at the presbytery, but urged Paddy to accept it for himself and Frank. Where the two stockmen and Tom, the garden rouseabout, stayed no one knew, but Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat had friends in Gilly who put them up.

It was ten in the morning when Paddy deposited his sister in the best room the Hotel Imperial had to offer; he made his way down to the bar and found Frank standing at it, a schooner of beer in his hand.

“Let me buy the next one, old man,” Paddy said genially to his son. “I’ve got to take Auntie Mary to the Picnic Races luncheon, and I need moral sustenance if I’m going to get through the ordeal without Mum.”

Habit and awe are harder to overcome than people realize until they actually try to circumvent the conduct of years; Frank found he could not do what he longed to do, he could not throw the contents of his glass in his father’s face, not in front of a bar crowd. So he downed what was left of his beer at a gulp, smiled a little sickly and said, “Sorry, Daddy, I’ve promised to meet some blokes down at the showground.”

“Well, off you go, then. But here, take this and spend it on yourself. Have a good time, and if you get drunk don’t let your mother find out.”

Frank stared at the crisp blue five-pound note in his hand, longing to tear it into shreds and fling them in Paddy’s face, but custom won again; he folded it, put it in his fob pocket and thanked his father. He couldn’t get out of the bar quickly enough.

In his best blue suit, waistcoat buttoned, gold watch secured by a gold Chain and a weight made from a nugget off the Lawrence goldfields, Paddy tugged at his celluloid collar and looked down the bar for a face he might recognize. He had not been into Gilly very often during the nine months since he arrived on Drogheda, but his position as Mary Carson’s brother and heir apparent meant that he had been treated very hospitably whenever he had been in town, and that his face was well remembered. Several men beamed at him, voices offered to shout him a beer, and he was soon in the middle of a comfortable little crowd; Frank was forgotten.

Meggie’s hair was braided these days, no nun being willing (in spite of Mary Carson’s money) to attend to its curling, and it lay in two thick cables over her shoulders, tied with navy-blue ribbons. Clad in the sober navy-blue uniform of a Holy Cross student, she was escorted across the lawn from the convent to the presbytery by a nun and handed over to Father Ralph’s housekeeper, who adored her.

“Och, it’s the wee bairn’s bonnie Hielan’ hair,” she explained to the priest once when he questioned her, amused; Annie wasn’t given to liking little girls, and had deplored the presbytery’s proximity to the school.

“Come now, Annie! Hair’s inanimate; you can’t like someone just because of the color of her hair” he said, to tease her.

“Ah, weel, she’s a puir wee lassie—skeggy, ye ken.”

He didn’t ken at all, but he didn’t ask her what “skeggy” meant, either, or pass any remarks about the fact that it rhymed with Meggie. Sometimes it was better not to know what Annie meant, or encourage her by paying much attention to what she said; she was, in her own parlance, fey, and if she pitied the child he didn’t want to be told it was because of her future rather than her past.

Frank arrived, still trembling from his encounter with his father in the bar, and at a loose end.

“Come on, Meggie, I’ll take you to the fair,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Why don’t I take you both?” Father Ralph asked, holding out his.

Sandwiched between the two men she worshipped, and hanging on to their hands for dear life, Meggie was in seventh heaven.

The Gillanbone showground lay on the banks of the Barwon River, next door to the racecourse. Though the floods were six months gone, the mud had not completely dried, and the eager feet of early comers had already pulped it to a mire. Beyond the stalls of sheep and cattle, pigs and goats, the prime and perfect live-stock competing for prizes, lay tents full of handicrafts and cooking. They gazed at stock, cakes, crocheted shawls, knitted baby clothes, embroidered tablecloths, cats and dogs and canaries.

On the far side of all this was the riding ring, where young equestrians and equestriennes cantered their bob-tailed hacks before judges who looked, it seemed to a giggling Meggie, rather like horses themselves. Lady riders in magnificent serge habits perched sidesaddle on tall horses, their top hats swathed with tantalizing wisps of veiling. How anyone so precariously mounted and hatted could stay unruffled upon a horse at anything faster than an amble was beyond Meggie’s imagination, until she saw one splendid creature take her prancing animal over a series of difficult jumps and finish as impeccable as before she started. Then the lady pricked her mount with an impatient spur and cantered across the soggy ground, reining to a halt in front of Meggie, Frank and Father Ralph to bar their progress. The leg in its polished black boot hooked round the saddle was unhooked, and the lady sat truly on the side of her saddle, her gloved hands extended imperiously.

Chapter 23

“Father! Be so kind as to help me dismount!”

He reached up to put his hands around her waist, her hands on his shoulders, and swung her lightly down; the moment her heels touched the ground he released her, took her mount’s reins in his hand and walked on, the lady beside him, matching his stride effortlessly.

“Will you win the Hunting, Miss Carmichael?” he asked in tones of utter indifference.

She pouted; she was young and very beautiful, and that curious impersonal quality of his piqued her. “I hope to win, but I can’t be sure. Miss Hopeton and Mrs. Anthony King both compete. However, I shall win the Dressage, so if I don’t win the Hunting I shan’t repine.”

She spoke with beautifully rounded vowels, and with the oddly stilted phraseology of a young lady so carefully reared and educated there was not a trace of warmth or idiom left to color her voice. As he spoke to her Father Ralph’s own speech became more pear-shaped, and quite lost its beguiling hint of Irishness; as if she brought back to him a time when he, too, had been like this. Meggie frowned, puzzled and affected by their light but guarded words, not knowing what the change in Father Ralph was, only knowing there was a change, and not one to her liking. She let go Frank’s hand, and indeed it had become difficult for them to continue walking abreast.

By the time they came to a wide puddle Frank had fallen behind them. Father Ralph’s eyes danced as he surveyed the water, almost a shallow pond; he turned to the child whose hand he had kept in his firmly, and bent down to her with a special tenderness the lady could not mistake, for it had been entirely lacking in his civil exchanges with her.

“I wear no cloak, darling Meggie, so I can’t be your Sir Walter Raleigh. I’m sure you’ll excuse me, my dear Miss Carmichael”—the reins were passed to the lady—“but I can’t permit my favorite girl to muddy her shoes, now can I?”

He picked Meggie up and tucked her easily against his hip, leaving Miss Carmichael to collect her heavy trailing skirts in one hand, the reins in her other, and splash her way across unaided. The sound of Frank’s hoot of laugher just behind them didn’t improve her temper; on the far side of the puddle she left them abruptly.

“I do believe she’d kill you if she could,” Frank said as Father Ralph put Meggie down. He was fascinated by this encounter and by Father Ralph’s deliberate cruelty. She had seemed to Frank so beautiful and so haughty that no man could gainsay her, even a priest, yet Father Ralph had wantonly set out to shatter her faith in herself, in that heady femininity she wielded like a weapon. As if the priest hated her and what she stood for, Frank thought, the world of women, an exquisite mystery he had never had the opportunity to plumb. Smarting from his mother’s words, he had wanted Miss Carmichael to notice him, the oldest son of Mary Carson’s heir, but she had not so much as deigned to admit he existed. All her attention had been focused on the priest, a being sexless and emasculated. Even if he was tall, dark and handsome.

“Don’t worry, she’ll be back for more of the same,” said Father Ralph cynically. “She’s rich, so next Sunday she’ll very ostentatiously put a ten-pound note in the plate.” He laughed at Frank’s expression. “I’m not so much older than you, my son, but in spite of my calling I’m a very worldly fellow. Don’t hold it against me; just put it down to experience.”

They had left the riding ring behind and entered the amusement part of the grounds. To Meggie and Frank alike it was enchantment. Father Ralph had given Meggie five whole shillings, and Frank had his five pounds; to own the price of admission to all those enticing booths was wonderful. Crowds thronged the area, children running everywhere, gazing wide-eyed at the luridly and somewhat inexpertly painted legends fronting tattered tents: The Fattest Lady in the World; Princess Houri the Snake Dancer (See Her Fan the Flames of a Cobra’s Rage!); The India Rubber Man; Goliath the World’s Strongest Man; Thetis the Mermaid. At each they paid their pennies and watched raptly, not noticing Thetis’s sadly tarnished scales or the toothless smile on the cobra.

At the far end, so big it required a whole side for itself, was a giant marquee with a high boardwalk along its front, a curtainlike frieze of painted figures stretching behind the entire length of the board bridge, menacing the crowd. A man with a megaphone in his hand was shouting to the gathering people.

“Here it is, gents, Jimmy Sharman’s famous boxing troupe! Eight of the world’s greatest prize fighters, and a purse to be won by any chap game to have a go!”

Women and girls were trickling out of the audience as fast as men and boys came from every direction to swell it, clustering thickly beneath the boardwalk. As solemnly as gladiators parading at the Circus Maximus, eight men filed onto the bridge and stood, bandaged hands on hips, legs apart, swaggering at the admiring oohs of the crowd. Meggie thought they were wearing underclothes, for they were clad in long black tights and vests with closely fitting grey trunks from waists to midthighs. On their chests, big white Roman capitals said JIMMY SHARMAN’S TROUPE. No two were the same size, some big, some small, some in between, but they were all of particularly fine physique. Chatting and laughing to each other in an offhand manner that suggested this was an everyday occurrence, they flexed their muscles and tried to pretend they weren’t enjoying strutting.

“Come on, chaps, who’ll take a glove?” the spruiker was braying. “Who wants to have a go? Take a glove, win a fiver!” he kept yelling between the booms of a bass drum.

“I will!” Frank shouted. “I will, I will!”

He shook off Father Ralph’s restraining hand as those around them in the throng who could see Frank’s diminutive size began to laugh and good-naturedly push him to the front.

But the spruiker was very serious as one of the troupe extended a friendly hand and pulled Frank up the ladder to stand at one side of the eight already on the bridge. “Don’t laugh, gents. He’s not very big but he is the first to volunteer! It isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, you know, it’s the size of the fight in the dog! Come on now, here’s this little bloke game to try—what about some of you big blokes, eh? Put on a glove and win a fiver, go the distance with one of Jimmy Sharman’s troupe!”

Gradually the ranks of the volunteers increased, the young men self-consciously clutching their hats and eyeing the professionals who stood, a band of elite beings, alongside them. Dying to stay and see what happened, Father Ralph reluctantly decided it was more than time he removed Meggie from the vicinity, so he picked her up and turned on his heel to leave. Meggie began to scream, and the farther away he got, the louder she screamed; people were beginning to look at them, and he was so well known it was very embarrassing, not to mention undignified.

“Now look, Meggie, I can’t take you in there! Your father would flay me alive, and rightly!”

“I want to stay with Frank, I want to stay with Frank!” she howled at the top of her voice, kicking and trying to bite.

“Oh, shit!” said Father Ralph.

Yielding to the inevitable, he dug into his pocket for the required coins and approached the open flap of the marquee, one eye cocked for any of the Cleary boys; but they were nowhere to be seen, so he presumed they were safely trying their luck with the horseshoes or gorging themselves on meat pies and ice cream.

“You can’t take her in there, Father!” the foreman said, shocked.

Father Ralph lifted his eyes heavenward. “If you’ll only tell me how we can get her away from here without the entire Gilly police force arresting us for molesting a child, I’ll gladly gol But her brother volunteered and she’s not about to leave her brother without a fight that will make your chaps look like amateurs!”

The foreman shrugged. “Well, Father, I can’t argue with you, can I? In you go, but keep her out of the way, for—ah—pity’s sake. No, no, Father, put your money back in your pocket; Jimmy wouldn’t like it.”

The tent seemed full of men and boys, milling around a central ring; Father Ralph found a place at the back of the crowd against the canvas wall, hanging on to Meggie for dear life. The air was foggy from tobacco smoke and redolent with sawdust they had thrown down to absorb the mud. Frank, gloves already on his hands, was the first challenger of the day.

Though it was unusual, it was not unknown for a man out of the crowd to last the distance against one of the professional boxers. Admittedly they weren’t the best in the world, but they did include some of the best in Australia. Put up against a flyweight because of his size, Frank knocked him out with the third punch he threw, and offered to fight someone else. By the time he was on his third professional the word had got around, and the tent was so jammed they could not fit another eager spectator inside.

He had hardly been touched by a glove, the few blows he had taken only provoking his ever-smoldering rage. He was wild-eyed, almost spitting in passion, each of his opponents wearing Paddy’s face, the yells and cheers of the crowd throbbing in his head like a vast single voice chanting Go! Go! Go! Oh, how he had ached for the chance to fight, denied him since coming to Drogheda! For to fight was the only way he knew of ridding himself of anger and pain, and as he landed the felling punch he thought the great dull voice in his ears changed its song, to Kill! Kill! Kill!

Chapter 24

Then they put him with one of the real champions, a lightweight under orders to keep Frank at a distance and find out if he could box as well as he could punch. Jimmy Sharman’s eyes were shining. He was always on the lookout for champions, and these little country shows had yielded several. The lightweight did as he was told, hard-pressed in spite of his superior reach, while Frank, so possessed by his hunger to kill that dancing, elusive figure he saw nothing else, went after him. He learned with every clinch and flurry of blows, one of those strange people who even in the midst of titanic rage still can think. And he lasted the distance, in spite of the punishment those expert fists had meted out; his eye was swelling, his brow and lip cut. But he had won twenty pounds, and the respect of every man present.

Meggie wriggled from Father Ralph’s slackened clasp and bolted from the tent before he could catch hold of her. When he found her outside she had been sick, and was trying to clean her splattered shoes with a tiny handkerchief. Silently he gave her his own, stroking her bright, sobbing head. The atmosphere inside had not agreed with his gorge either, and he wished the dignity of his calling permitted him the relief of releasing it in public.

“Do you want to wait for Frank, or would you rather we went now?”

“I’ll wait for Frank,” she whispered, leaning against his side, so grateful for his calmness and sympathy.

“I wonder why you tug so at my nonexistent heart?” he mused, deeming her too sick and miserable to listen but needing to voice his thoughts aloud, as do so many people who lead a solitary life. “You don’t remind me of my mother and I never had a sister, and I wish I knew what it was about you and your wretched family…. Have you had a hard life, my little Meggie?”

Frank came out of the tent, a piece of sticking plaster over his eye, dabbing at his torn lip. For the first time since Father Ralph had met him, he looked happy; the way most men did after what one knew was a good night in bed with a woman, thought the priest.

“What’s Meggie doing here?” he snarled, not quite down from the exaltation of the ring.

“Short of binding her hand and foot, not to mention gagging her, there was no way I could keep her out,” said Father Ralph tartly, not pleased at having to justify himself, but not sure Frank wouldn’t have a go at him, too. He wasn’t in the least afraid of Frank, but he was afraid of creating a scene in public. “She was frightened for you, Frank; she wanted to be near enough to you to see for herself that you were all right. Don’t be angry with her; she’s upset enough already.”

“Don’t you dare let Daddy know you were within a mile of this place,” Frank said to Meggie.

“Do you mind if we cut the rest of our tour short?” the priest asked. “I think we could all do with a rest and a cup of tea at the presbytery.” He pinched the tip of Meggie’s nose. “And you, young lady, could do with a good wash.”

Paddy had had a tormenting day with his sister, at her beck and call in a way Fee never demanded, helping her pick her fastidious, cross-patch way through the Gilly mud in imported guipure lace shoes, smiling and chatting with the people she greeted royally, standing by her side as she presented the emerald bracelet to the winner of the principal race, the Gillanbone Trophy. Why they had to spend all the prize money on a woman’s trinket instead of handing over a gold-plated cup and a nice bundle of cash was beyond him, for he did not understand the keenly amateur nature of the race meeting, the inference that the people who entered horses didn’t need vulgar money, instead could carelessly toss the winnings to the little woman. Horry Hopeton, whose bay gelding King Edward had won the emerald bracelet, already possessed a ruby, a diamond and a sapphire bracelet from other years; he had a wife and five daughters and said he couldn’t stop until he had won six bracelets.

Paddy’s starched shirt and celluloid collar chafed, the blue suit was too hot, and the exotic Sydney sea-food they had served with champagne at luncheon had not agreed with his mutton-inured digestion. And he had felt a fool, thought he looked a fool. Best though it was, his suit smacked of cheap tailoring and bucolic unfashionableness. They were not his kind of people, the bluff tweedy graziers, the lofty matrons, the toothy, horsy young women, the cream of what the Bulletin called “the squattocracy.” For they were doing their best to forget the days in the last century when they had squatted on the land and taken vast tracts of it for their own, had it tacitly acknowledged as their own with federation and the arrival of home rule. They had become the most envied group of people on the continent, ran their own political part, sent their children to exclusive Sydney schools, hobnobbed with the visiting Prince of Wales. He, plain Paddy Cleary, was a workingman. He had absolutely nothing in common with these colonial aristocrats, who reminded him of his wife’s family too much for comfort.

So when he came into the presbytery lounge to find Frank, Meggie and Father Ralph relaxed around the fire and looking as if they had spent a wonderful, carefree day, it irritated him. He had missed Fee’s genteel support unbearably and he still disliked his sister as much as he had back in his early childhood in Ireland. Then he noticed the sticking plaster over Frank’s eye, the swollen face; it was a heaven-sent excuse.

“And how do you think you’re going to face your mother looking like that?” he yelled. “Not a day out of my sight and you’re back at it again, picking fights with anyone who looks at you sideways!”

Startled, Father Ralph jumped to his feet with a soothing noise half-uttered; but Frank was quicker.

“I earned myself money with this!” he said very softly, pointing to the plaster. “Twenty pounds for a few minutes’ work, better wages than Auntie Mary pays you and me combined in a month! I knocked out three good boxers and lasted the distance with a lightweight champion in Jimmy Sharman’s tent this afternoon. And I earned myself twenty pounds. It may not fit in with your ideas of what I ought to do, but this afternoon I earned the respect of every man present!”

“A few tired, punch-drunk old has-beens at a country show, and you’re full of it? Grow up, Frank! I know you can’t grow any more in body, but you might make an effort for your mother’s sake to grow in mind!”

The whiteness of Frank’s face! Like bleached bones. It was the most terrible insult a man could offer him, and this was his father; he couldn’t strike back. His breathing started coming from the bottom of his chest with the effort of keeping his hands by his sides. “No has-beens, Daddy. You know who Jimmy Sharman is as well as I do. And Jimmy Sharman himself said I had a terrific future as a boxer; he wants to take me into his troupe and train me. And he wants to pay me! I may not grow any bigger, but I’m big enough to lick any man ever born—and that goes for you, too, you stinking old he-goat!”

The inference behind the epithet was not lost on Paddy; he went as white as his son. “Don’t you dare call me that!”

“What else are you? You’re disgusting, you’re worse than a ram in rut! Couldn’t you leave her alone, couldn’t you keep your hands off her?”

“No, no, no!” Meggie screamed. Father Ralph’s hands bit into her shoulders like claws and held her painfully against him. The tears poured down her face, she twisted to free herself frantically and vainly. “No, Daddy, no! Oh, Frank, please! Please, please!” she shrilled.

But the only one who heard her was Father Ralph. Frank and Paddy faced each other, the dislike and the fear, each for the other, admitted at last. The dam of mutual love for Fee was breached and the bitter rivalry for Fee acknowledged.

“I am her husband. It is by God’s grace we are blessed with our children,” said Paddy more calmly, fighting for control.

“You’re no better than a shitty old dog after any bitch you can stick your thing into!”

“And you’re no better than the shitty old dog who fathered you, whoever he was! Thank God I never had a hand in it!” shouted Paddy, and stopped. “Oh, dear Jesus!” His rage quit him like a howling wind, he sagged and shriveled and his hands plucked at his mouth as if to tear out the tongue which had uttered the unutterable. “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!”

The moment the words were out Father Ralph let go of Meggie and grabbed Frank. He had Frank’s right, arm twisted behind him, his own left arm around Frank’s neck, throttling him. And he was strong, the grip paralyzing; Frank fought to be free of him, then suddenly his resistance flagged and he shook his head in submission. Meggie had fallen to the floor and knelt there, weeping, her eyes going from her brother to her father in helpless, beseeching agony. She didn’t understand what had happened, but she knew it meant she couldn’t keep them both.

“You meant it,” Frank croaked. “I must always have known it! I must always have known it.” He tried to turn his head to Father Ralph. “Let me go, Father. I won’t touch him, so help me God I won’t.”

“So help you God? God rot your souls, both of you! If you’ve ruined the child I’ll kill you!” the priest roared, the only one angry now. “Do you realize I had to keep her here to listen to this, for fear if I took her away you’d kill each other while I was gone? I ought to have let you do it, you miserable, self-centered cretins!”

Chapter 25

“It’s all right, I’m going,” Frank said in a strange, empty voice. “I’m going to join Jimmy Sharman’s troupe, and I won’t be back.”

“You’ve got to come back!” Paddy whispered. “What can I tell your mother? You mean more to her than the rest of us put together. She’ll never forgive me!”

“Tell her I went to join Jimmy Sharman because I want to be someone. It’s the truth.”

“What I said—it wasn’t true, Frank.”

Frank’s alien black eyes flashed scornfully, the eyes the priest had wondered at the first time he saw them; what were grey-eyed Fee and blue-eyed Paddy doing with a black-eyed son? Father Ralph knew his Mendelian laws, and didn’t think even Fee’s greyness made it possible.

Frank picked up his hat and coat. “Oh, it was true! I must always have known it. The memories of Mum playing her spinet in a room you could never have owned! The feeling you hadn’t always been there, that you came after me. That she was mine first.” He laughed soundlessly. “And to think all these years I’ve blamed you for dragging her down, when it was me. It was me!”

“It was no one, Frank, no one!” the priest cried, trying to pull him back. “It’s a part of God’s great unfathomable plan; think of it like that!”

Frank shook off the detaining hand and walked to the door with his light, deadly, tiptoed gait. He was born to be a boxer, thought Father Ralph in some detached corner of his brain, that cardinal’s brain.

“God’s great unfathomable plan!” mocked the young man’s voice from the door. “You’re no better than a parrot when you act the priest, Father de Bricassart! I say God help you, because you’re the only one of us here who has no idea what he really is!”

Paddy was sitting in a chair, ashen, his shocked eyes on Meggie as she huddled on her knees by the fire, weeping and rocking herself back and forth. He got up to go to her, but Father Ralph pushed him roughly away.

“Leave her alone. You’ve done enough! There’s whiskey in the sideboard; take some. I’m going to put the child to bed, but I’ll be back to talk to you, so don’t go. Do you hear me, man?”

“I’ll be here, Father. Put her to bed.”

Upstairs in the charming apple-green bedroom the priest unbuttoned the little girl’s dress and chemise, made her sit on the edge of the bed so he could pull off her shoes and stockings. Her nightdress lay on the pillow where Annie had left it; he tugged it over her head and decently down before he removed her drawers. And all the while he talked to her about nothing, silly stories of buttons refusing to come undone, and shoes stubbornly staying tied, and ribbons that would not come off. It was impossible to tell if she heard him; with their unspoken tales of infant tragedies, of troubles and pains beyond her years, the eyes stared drearily past his shoulder.

“Now lie down, my darling girl, and try to go to sleep. I’ll be back in a little while to see you, so don’t worry, do you hear? We’ll talk about it then.”

“Is she all right?” asked Paddy as he came back into the lounge.

Father Ralph reached for the whiskey bottle standing on the sideboard, and poured a tumbler half full.

“I don’t honestly know. God in heaven, Paddy, I wish I knew which is an Irishman’s greater curse, the drink or the temper. What possessed you to say that? No, don’t even bother answering! The temper. It’s true, of course. I knew he wasn’t yours the moment I first saw him.”

“There’s not much misses you, is there?”

“I suppose not. However, it doesn’t take much more than very ordinary powers of observation to see when the various members of my parish are troubled, or in pain. And having seen, it is my duty to do what I can to help.”

“You’re very well liked in Gilly, Father.”

“For which no doubt I may thank my face and my figure,” said the priest bitterly, unable to make it sound as light as he had intended.

“Is that what you think? I can’t agree, Father. We like you because you’re a good pastor.”

“Well, I seem to be thoroughly embroiled in your troubles, at any rate,” said Father Ralph uncomfortably. “You’d best get it off your chest, man.”

Paddy stared into the fire, which he had built up to the proportions of a furnace while the priest was putting Meggie to bed, in an excess of remorse and frantic to be doing something. The empty glass in his hand shook in a series of rapid jerks; Father Ralph got up for the whiskey bottle and replenished it. After a long draft Paddy sighed, wiping the forgotten tears from his face.

“I don’t know who Frank’s father is. It happened before I met Fee. Her people are practically New Zealand’s first family socially, and her father had a big wheat-and-sheep property outside Ashburton in the South Island. Money was no object, and Fee was his only daughter. As I understand it, he’d planned her life for her—a trip to the old country, a debut at court, the right husband. She had never lifted a hand in the house, of course. They had maids and butlers and horses and big carriages; they lived like lords.

“I was the dairy hand, and sometimes I used to see Fee in the distance, walking with a little boy about eighteen months old. The next thing, old James Armstrong came to see me. His daughter, he said, had disgraced the family; she wasn’t married and she had a child. It had been hushed up, of course, but when they tried to get her away her grandmother made such a fuss they had no choice but to keep her on the place, in spite of the awkwardness. Now the grandmother was dying, there was nothing to stop them getting rid of Fee and her child. I was a single man, James said; if I’d marry her and guarantee to take her out of the South Island, they’d pay our traveling expenses and an additional five hundred pounds.

“Well, Father, it was a fortune to me, and I was tired of the single life. But I was always so shy I was never any good with the girls. It seemed like a good idea to me, and I honestly didn’t mind the child. The grandmother got wind of it and sent for me, even though she was very ill. She was a tartar in her day, I’ll bet, but a real lady. She told me a bit about Fee, but she didn’t say who the father was, and I didn’t like to ask. Anyway, she made me promise to be good to Fee —she knew they’d have Fee off the place the minute she was dead, so she had suggested to James that they find Fee a husband. I felt sorry for the poor old thing; she was terribly fond of Fee.

“Would you believe, Father, that the first time I was ever close enough to Fee to say hello to her was the day I married her?”

“Oh, I’d believe it,” the priest said under his breath. He looked at the liquid in his glass, then drained it and reached for the bottle, filling both glasses. “So you married a lady far above you, Paddy.”

“Yes. I was frightened to death of her at first. She was so beautiful in those days, Father, and so…out of it, if you know what I mean. As if she wasn’t even there, as if it was all happening to someone else.”

“She’s still beautiful, Paddy,” said Father Ralph gently. “I can see in Meggie what she must have been like before she began to age.”

“It hasn’t been an easy life for her, Father, but I don’t know what else I could have done. At least with me she was safe, and not abused. It took me two years to get up the courage to be—well, a real husband to her. I had to teach her to cook, to sweep a floor, wash and iron clothes. She didn’t know how.

“And never once in all the years we’ve been married, Father, has she ever complained, or laughed, or cried. It’s only in the most private part of our life together that she ever displays any feeling, and even then she never speaks. I hope she will, yet I don’t want her to, because I always have the idea if she did, it would be has name she’d say. Oh, I don’t mean she doesn’t like me, or our children. But I love her so much, and it just seems to me she hasn’t got that sort of feeling left in her. Except for Frank. I’ve always known she loved Frank more than the rest of us put together. She must have loved his father. But I don’t know a thing about the man, who he was, why she couldn’t marry him.”

Father Ralph looked down at his hands, blinking. “Oh, Paddy, what hell it is to be alive! Thank God I haven’t the courage to try more than the fringe of it.”

Paddy got up, rather unsteadily. “Well, I’ve done it now, Father, haven’t I? I’ve sent Frank away, and Fee will never forgive me.”

“You can’t tell her, Paddy. No, you mustn’t tell her, ever. Just tell her Frank ran away with the boxers and leave it at that. She knows how restless Frank’s been; she’ll believe you.”

“I couldn’t do that, Father!” Paddy was aghast.

“You’ve got to, Paddy. Hasn’t she known enough pain and misery? Don’t heap more on her head.” And to himself he thought: Who knows? Maybe she’ll learn to give the love she has for Frank to you at last, to you and the little thing upstairs.






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