The Thorn Birds (Chapter 26-30)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
“You really think that, Father?”
“I do. What happened tonight must go no further.”
“But what about Meggie? She heard it all.”
“Don’t worry about Meggie, I’ll take care of her. I don’t think she understood more of what went on than that you and Frank quarreled. I’ll make her see that with Frank gone, to tell her mother of the quarrel would only be an additional grief. Besides, I have a feeling Meggie doesn’t tell her mother much to begin with.” He got up. “Go to bed, Paddy. You’ve got to seem normal and dance attendance on Mary tomorrow, remember?”
Meggie was not asleep; she was lying with eyes wide in the dim light of the little lamp beside her bed. The priest sat down beside her and noticed her hair still in its braids. Carefully he untied the navy ribbons and pulled gently until the hair lay in a rippling, molten sheet across the pillow.
“Frank has gone away, Meggie,” he said.
“I know, Father.”
“Do you know why, darling?”
“He had a fight with Daddy.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go with Frank. He needs me.”
“You can’t, my Meggie.”
“Yes, I can. I was going to find him tonight, but my legs wouldn’t hold me up, and I don’t like the dark. But in the morning I’ll look for him.”
“No, Meggie, you mustn’t. You see, Frank’s got his own life to lead, and it’s time he went away. I know you don’t want him to go away, but he’s been wanting to go for a long time. You mustn’t be selfish; you’ve got to let him live his own life.” The monotony of repetition, he thought, keep on drumming it in. “When we grow up it’s natural and right for us to want a life away from the home we grew up in, and Frank is a grown man. He ought to have his own home now, his own wife and family. Do you see that, Meggie? The fight between your daddy and Frank was only a sign of Frank’s wanting to go. It didn’t happen because they don’t like each other. It happened because that’s the way a lot of young men leave home, it’s a sort of excuse. The fight was just an excuse for Frank to do what he’s been wanting to do for a long time, an excuse for Frank to leave. Do you understand that, my Meggie?”
Her eyes shifted to his face and rested there. They were so exhausted, so full of pain, so old. “I know,” she said. “I know. Frank wanted to go away when I was a little girl, and he didn’t go. Daddy brought him back and made him stay with us.”
“But this time Daddy isn’t going to bring him back, because Daddy can’t make him stay now. Frank has gone for good, Meggie. He isn’t coming back.”
“Won’t I ever see him again?”
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “I’d like to say of course you will, but no one can predict the future, Meggie, even priests.” He drew a breath. “You mustn’t tell Mum there was a fight, Meggie, do you hear me? It would upset her very much, and she isn’t well.”
“Because there’s going to be another baby?”
“What do you know about that?”
“Mum likes growing babies; she’s done it a lot. And she grows such nice babies, Father, even when she isn’t well. I’m going to grow one like Hal myself, then I won’t miss Frank so much, will I?”
“Parthenogenesis,” he said. “Good luck, Meggie. Only what if you don’t manage to grow one?”
“I’ve still got Hal,” she said sleepily, nestling down. Then she said, “Father, will you go away, too? Will you?”
“One day, Meggie. But not soon, I think, so don’t worry. I have a feeling I’m going to be stuck in Gilly for a long, long time,” answered the priest, his eyes bitter.
There was no help for it, Meggie had to come home. Fee could not manage without her, and the moment he was left alone at the convent in Gilly, Stuart went on a hunger strike, so he too came back to Drogheda.
It was August, and bitterly cold. Just a year since they had arrived in Australia; but this was a colder winter than last. The rain was absent and the air was so crisp it hurt the lungs. Up on the tops of the Great Divide three hundred miles to the east, snow lay thicker than in many years, but no rain had fallen west of Burren Junction since the monsoonal drenching of the previous summer. People in Gilly were speaking of another drought: it was overdue, it must come, perhaps this would be it.
When Meggie saw her mother, she felt as if an awful weight settled upon her being; maybe a leaving-behind of childhood, a presentiment of what it was to be a woman. Outwardly there was no change, aside from the big belly; but inwardly Fee had slowed down like a tired old clock, running time down and down until it was forever stilled. The briskness Meggie had never known absent from her mother had gone. She picked her feet up and put them down again as if she was no longer sure of the right way to do it, a sort of spiritual fumbling got into her gait; and there was no joy in her for the coming baby, not even the rigidly controlled content she had shown over Hal.
That little red-haired fellow was toddling all over the house, constantly into everything, but Fee made no attempt to discipline him, or even supervise his activities. She plodded in her self-perpetuating circle of stove, worktable and sink as if nothing else existed. So Meggie had no choice; she simply filled the vacuum in the child’s life and became his mother. It wasn’t any sacrifice, for she loved him dearly and found him a helpless, willing target for all the love she was beginning to want to lavish on some human creature. He cried for her, he spoke her name before all others, he lifted his arms to her to be picked up; it was so satisfying it filled her with joy. In spite of the drudgery, the knitting and mending and sewing, the washing, the ironing, the hens, all the other jobs she had to do, Meggie found her life very pleasant.
No one ever mentioned Frank, but every six weeks Fee would lift her head when she heard the mail call, and for a while be animated. Then Mrs. Smith would bring in their share of whatever had come, and when it contained no letter from Frank the small burst of painful interest would die.
There were two new lives in the house. Fee was delivered of twins, two more tiny red-haired Cleary boys, christened James and Patrick. The dearest little fellows, with their father’s sunny disposition and his sweetness of nature, they became common property immediately they were born, for beyond giving them milk Fee took no interest in them. Soon their names were shortened to Jims and Patsy; they were prime favorites with the women up at the big house, the two spinster maids and the widowed childless housekeeper, who were starved for the deliciousness of babies. It was made magically easy for Fee to forget them—they had three very eager mothers—and as time went on it became the accepted thing that they should spend most of their waking hours up at the big house. Meggie just didn’t have time to take them under her wing as well as managing Hal, who was extremely possessive. Not for him the awkward, unpracticed blandishments of Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat. Meggie was the loving nucleus of Hal’s world; he wanted no one but Meggie, he would have no one but Meggie.
Bluey Williams traded in his lovely draft horses and his massive dray for a truck and the mail came every four weeks instead of every six, but there was never a word from Frank. And gradually his memory slipped a little, as memories do, even those with so much love attached to them; as if there is an unconscious healing process within the mind which mends up in spite of our desperate determination never to forget. To Meggie, an aching fading of the way Frank had looked, a blurring of the beloved lineaments to some fuzzy, saintlike image no more related to the real Frank than a holy-picture Christ to what must have been the Man. And to Fee, from out of those silent depths in which she had stilled the evolution of her soul, a substitution.
It came about so unobtrusively that no one noticed. For Fee kept herself folded up with quietness, and a total undemonstrativeness; the substitution was an inner thing no one had time to see, except the new object of her love, who made no outward sign. It was a hidden, unspoken thing between them, something to buffer their loneliness.
Perhaps it was inevitable, for of all her children Stuart was the only one like her. At fourteen he was as big a mystery to his father and brothers as Frank had been, but unlike Frank he engendered no hostility, no irritation. He did as he was told without complaint, worked as hard as anyone and created absolutely no ripples in the pool of Cleary life. Though his hair was red he was the darkest of all the boys, more mahogany and his eyes were as clear as pale water in the shade, as if they reached all the way back in time to the very beginning, and saw everything as it really was. He was also the only one of Paddy’s sons who promised adult handsomeness, though privately Meggie thought her Hal would outshine him when it came his turn to grow up. No one ever knew what Stuart was thinking; like Fee, he spoke little and never aired an opinion. And he had a curious knack of being utterly still, as still within himself as he was in body, and to Meggie, closest to him in age, it seemed he could go somewhere no one else could ever follow. Father Ralph expressed it another way.
“That lad isn’t human!” he had exclaimed the day he dumped a hunger-striking Stuart back at Drogheda after he was left at the convent minus Meggie. “Did he say he wanted to go home? Did he say he missed Meggie? No! He just stopped eating and patiently waited for the reason why to sink into our thick skulls. Not once did he open his mouth to complain, and when I marched up to him and yelled did he want to go home, he simply smiled at me and nodded!”
But as time went on it was tacitly assumed that Stuart would not go out into the paddocks to work with Paddy and the other boys, even though in age he might have. Stu would remain on guard at the house, chop the wood, take care of the vegetable garden, do the milking—the huge number of duties the women had no time for with three babies in the house. It was prudent to have a man about the place, albeit a half-grown one; it gave proof of other men close by. For there were visitors—the clump of strange boots up the plank steps to the back veranda, a strange voice saying:
“Hullo, Missus, got a bit of tucker for a man?”
The Outback had swarms of them, swagmen humping their blueys from station to station, down from Queensland and up from Victoria, men who had lost their luck or were chary of holding a regular job, preferring to tramp on foot thousands of miles in search of only they knew what. Mostly they were decent fellows, who appeared, ate a huge meal, packed a bit of donated tea and sugar and flour in the folds of their blueys, then disappeared down the track headed for Barcoola or Narrengang, battered old billycans bouncing, skinny dogs belly down behind them. Australian itinerants rarely rode; they walked.
Occasionally a bad man would come, on the lookout for women whose men were away; with a view to robbery, not rape. Thus Fee kept a shotgun standing loaded in a corner of the kitchen where the babies couldn’t get to it, and made sure she was closer to it than her visitor until her expert eye assessed his character. After Stuart was officially allotted the house as his domain, Fee passed the shotgun to him gladly.
Not all the visitors were swaggies, though they were in the majority; there was the Watkins man in his old model-T, for instance. He carried everything from horse liniment to fragrant soap unlike the rock-hard stuff Fee made in the laundry copper from fat and caustic; he had lavender water and eau de cologne, powders and creams for sun-dried faces. There were certain things one never dreamed of buying from anyone but the Watkins man; like his ointment, better by far than any drugstore or prescription salve, capable of healing anything from a rent in the side of a work dog to an ulcer on a human shin. The women would crowd around in every kitchen he visited, waiting eagerly for him to pop open his big suitcase of wares.
And there were other salesmen, less regular patrollers of the back-blocks than the Watkins man but equally welcome, hawking everything from tailor-made cigarettes and fancy pipes to whole bolts of material, sometimes even luridly seductive underwear and lavishly beribboned stays. They were so starved, these women of the Outback, limited to maybe one or two trips a year into the nearest town, far from the brilliant shops of Sydney, far from fashions and feminine furbelows.
Life seemed mostly flies and dust. There had not been any rain in a long time, even a sprinkle to settle the dust and drown the flies; for the less rain, the more flies, the more dust.
Every ceiling was festooned with long, lazily spinning helixes of sticky flypaper, black with bodies within a day of being tacked up. Nothing could be left uncovered for a moment without becoming either an orgy or a graveyard for the flies, and tiny speckles of fly dirt dewed the furniture, the walls, the Gillanbone General Store calendar.
And oh, the dust! There was no getting away from it, that fine-grained brown powder which seeped into even tightly lidded containers, dulled freshly washed hair, made the skin gritty, lay in the folds of clothes and curtains, smeared a film across polished tables which resettled the moment it was whisked away. The floors were thick with it, from carelessly wiped boots and the hot dry wind drifting it through the open doors and windows; Fee was forced to roll up her Persian carpets in the parlor and have Stuart nail down linoleum she bought sight unseen from the store in Gilly.
The kitchen, which took most of the traffic from outside, was floored in teak planks bleached to the color of old bones by endless scrubbing with a wire brush and lye soap. Fee and Meggie would strew it with sawdust Stuart carefully collected from the woodheap, sprinkle the sawdust with precious particles of water and sweep the damp, pungent-fragrant mess away out of doors, down off the veranda onto the vegetable garden, there to decompose itself to humus.
But nothing kept the dust at bay for long, and after a while the creek dried up to a string of waterholes, so that there was no water to be pumped
up from it to kitchen or bathroom. Stuart took the tank truck out to the borehead and brought it back full, emptied it into one of the spare rain tanks, and the women had to get used to a different kind of horrible water on dishes and clothes and bodies, worse than muddy creek water. The rank, sulphur-smelling minerally stuff had to be wiped off dishes scrupulously, and made the hair dull and coarse, like straw. What little rain water they had was used strictly for drinking and cooking.
Father Ralph watched Meggie tenderly. She was brushing Patsy’s curly red head, Jims standing obediently but a little rockily waiting for his turn, both pairs of bright blue eyes turned up to her adoringly. Just like a tiny mother, she was. It had to be a thing born in them, he mused, that peculiar obsession women had for infants, else at her age she would have regarded it as a duty rather than pure pleasure, and been off to do something more alluring as fast as she could. Instead she was deliberately prolonging the process, crimping Patsy’s hair between her fingers to shape waves out of its unruliness. For a while the priest was charmed with her activity, then he whacked the side of his dusty boot with his crop and stared moodily off the veranda toward the big house, hidden by its ghost gums and vines, the profusion of station buildings and pepper trees which lay between its isolation and this hub of station life, the head stockman’s residence. What plot was she weaving, that old spider up there at the center of her vast web?
“Father, you’re not watching!” Meggie accused him.
“I’m sorry, Meggie. I was thinking.” He turned back to her as she finished with Jims; the three of them stood watching him expectantly until he bent and scooped the twins up, one on either hip. “Let’s go and see your Auntie Mary, shall we?”
Meggie followed him up the track carrying his crop and leading the chestnut mare; he toted the infants with easy familiarity and seemed not to mind, though it was almost a mile from the creek to the big house. At the cookhouse he relinquished the twins to an ecstatic Mrs. Smith and passed on up the walkway to the main house with Meggie by his side.
Mary Carson was sitting in her wing chair. She hardly ever moved from it these days; there was not the necessity any more with Paddy so capable of overseeing things. As Father Ralph came in holding Meggie’s hand, her malevolent gaze beat the child’s down; Father Ralph felt the increase in Meggie’s pulse rate and squeezed her wrist sympathetically. The little girl dropped her aunt a clumsy curtsy, murmuring an inaudible greeting.
“Go to the kitchen, girl, have your tea with Mrs. Smith,” said Mary Carson curtly.
“Why don’t you like her?” Father Ralph asked as he sank into the chair he had come to think of as his own.
“Because you do,” she answered.
“Oh, come now!” For once she made him feel at a loss. “She’s just a waif, Mary.”
“That’s not what you see in her, and you know it.”
The fine blue eyes rested on her sardonically; he was more at ease. “Do you think I tamper with children? I am, after all, a priest!”
“You’re a man first, Ralph de Bricassart! Being a priest makes you feel safe, that’s all.”
Startled, he laughed. Somehow he couldn’t fence with her today; it was as if she had found the chink in his armor, crept inside with her spider’s poison. And he was changing, growing older perhaps, becoming reconciled to obscurity in Gillanbone. The fires were dying; or was it that he burned now for other things?
“I am not a man,” he said. “I am a priest…. It’s the heat, maybe, the dust and the flies…. But I am not a man, Mary. I’m a priest.”
“Oh, Ralph, how you’ve changed!” she mocked. “Can this be Cardinal de Bricassart I hear?”
“It isn’t possible,” he said, a passing unhappiness in his eyes. “I don’t think I want it anymore.”
She began to laugh, rocking back and forth in her chair, watching him. “Don’t you, Ralph? Don’t you? Well, I’ll let you stew a little while longer, but your day of reckoning is coming, never doubt it. Not yet, not for two or three years, perhaps, but it will come. I’ll be like the Devil, and offer you—Enough said! But never doubt I’ll make you writhe. You’re the most fascinating man I’ve ever met. You throw your beauty in our teeth, contemptuous of our foolishness. But I’ll pin you to the wall on your own weakness, I’ll make you sell yourself like any painted whore. Do you doubt it?”
He leaned back, smiling. “I don’t doubt you’ll try. But I don’t think you know me as well as you think you do.”
“Do I not? Time will tell, Ralph, and only time. I’m old; I have nothing but time left to me.”
“And what do you think I have?” he asked. “Time, Mary, nothing but time. Time, and dust, The clouds heaped themselves in the sky, and Paddy began to hope for rain.
“Dry storms,” said Mary Carson. “We won’t get rain out of this. We won’t get any rain for a long time.”
If the Clearys thought they had seen the worst that Australia could offer in the way of climatic harshness, it was because they hadn’t yet experienced the dry storms of drought-dogged plains. Bereft of soothing dampness, the dryness of the earth and the air rubbed each other raw and crackling, an irritating friction which built up and up and up until it could end only in a gargantuan dissipation of accumulated energy. The sky dropped and darkened so much Fee had to light the lamps indoors; out in the stockyards the horses shivered and jumped at the slightest noise; the hens sought their perches and sank their heads into apprehensive breasts; the dogs fought and snarled; the tame pigs which rooted among the rubbish of the station dump burrowed their snouts into the dust and peered out of it with bright, skittish eyes. Brooding forces pent in the heavens struck fear into the bones of all living things, as the vast deep clouds swallowed the sun whole and prepared to spew solar fire over the earth.
Thunder came marching from far away with increasing tread, tiny flickers on the horizon cast soaring billows into sharp relief, crests of startling whiteness foamed and curled over midnight-blue depths. Then, with a roaring wind that sucked up the dust and flung it stinging in eyes and ears and mouths, came the cataclysm. No longer did they try to imagine the biblical wrath of God; they lived through it. No man could have kept himself from jumping when the thunder cracked—it exploded with the noise and fury of a disintegrating world—but after a while the assembled household grew so inured to it they crept out onto the veranda and stared across the creek at the far paddocks. Great forks of lightning stood ribbed in veins of fire all around the sky, dozens of bolts each and every moment; naphtha flashes in chains streaked across the clouds, in and out the billows in a fantastic hide-and-seek. Blasted trees alone in the grass reeked and smoked, and they understood at last why these lonely paddock sentinels were dead.
An eerie, unearthly glow seeped into the air, air which was no longer invisible but on fire from within, fluorescing pink and lilac and sulphur yellow, and smelling of some hauntingly sweet, elusive perfume quite beyond recognition. The trees shimmered, the red Cleary hair was haloed in tongues of fire, the hairs of their arms stood out stiffly. And all afternoon it went on, only slowly fading into the east to release them from its awesome spell at sunset, and they were excited, on edge, unappeased. Not a drop of rain had fallen. But it was like dying and coming back to life again, to have survived the atmospheric tantrum unscathed; it was all they could talk about for a week.
“We’ll get a lot more,” said Mary Carson, bored.
They did get a lot more. The second dry winter came in colder than they had thought it could get without snow; frost settled inches thick on the ground at night, and the dogs huddled shivering in their kennels, keeping warm by gorging on kangaroo meat and mounds of fat from the homestead’s slaughtered cattle. At least the weather meant beef and pork to eat instead of the eternal mutton. In the house they built great roaring fires, and the men were forced to come home when they could, for at night in the paddocks they froze. But the shearers when they arrived were in a mood for rejoicing; they could get through faster and sweat less. At each man’s stand in the great shed was a circle of flooring much lighter in color than the rest, the spot where fifty years of shearers had stood dripping their bleaching sweat into the wood of the board.
There was still grass from the flood long ago, but it was thinning ominously. Day after day the skies were overcast and the light dull, but it never rained. The wind howled sadly across the paddocks, spinning drifting brown sheets of dust before it like rain, tormenting the mind with images of water. So much like rain it looked, that raggedly blowing dust.
The children developed chilblains on their fingers, tried not to smile with cracked lips, had to peel their socks away from bleeding heels and shins. It was quite impossible to keep warm in the face of that bitter high wind, especially when the houses had been designed to catch every stray puff of air, not keep it out. Going to bed in icy bedrooms, getting up in icy bedrooms, waiting patiently for Mum to spare a little hot water from the great kettle on the hob
so that washing was not a teeth-chattering, painful ordeal.
One day small Hal started to cough and wheeze, and rapidly grew worse. Fee mixed up a gluey hot poultice of charcoal and spread it on his laboring little chest, but it seemed to give him no relief. At first she was not unduly worried, but as the day drew on he began to deteriorate so quickly she no longer had any idea what to do, and Meggie sat by his side wringing her hands, praying a wordless stream of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. When Paddy came in at six the child’s breathing was audible from the veranda, and his lips were blue.
Paddy set off at once for the big house and the telephone, but the doctor was forty miles away and out on another case. They ignited a pan of sulphur and held him over it in an attempt to make him cough up the membrane in his throat slowly choking him, but he could not manage to contract his rib cage enough to dislodge it. His color was growing a deeper blue, his respiration was convulsive. Meggie sat holding him and praying, her heart squeezed to a wedge of pain because the poor little fellow fought so for every breath. Of all the children, Hal was the dearest to her; she was his mother. Never before had she wished so desperately to be a grown-up mother, thinking that were she a woman like Fee, she would somehow have the power to heal him. Fee couldn’t heal him because Fee wasn’t his mother. Confused and terrified, she held the heaving little body close, trying to help Hal breathe.
It never occurred to her that he might die, even when Fee and Paddy sank to their knees by the bed and prayed, not knowing what else to do. At midnight Paddy pried Meggie’s arms from around the still child, and laid him down tenderly against the stack of pillows.
Meggie’s eyes flew open; she had half fallen to sleep, lulled because Hal had stopped struggling. “Oh, Daddy, he’s better!” she said.
Paddy shook his head; he seemed shriveled and old, the lamp picking up frosty bits in his hair, frosty bits in his week-long beard. “No, Meggie, Hal’s not better in the way you mean, but he’s at peace. He’s gone to God, he’s out of his pain.”
“Daddy means he’s dead,” said Fee tonelessly.
“Oh, Daddy, no! He can’t be dead!”
But the small creature in the pillowed nest was dead. Meggie knew it the moment she looked, though she had never seen death before. He looked like a doll, not a child. She got up and went out to the boys, sitting hunched in an uneasy vigil around the kitchen fire, with Mrs. Smith on a hard chair nearby keeping an eye on the tiny twins, whose cot had been moved into the kitchen for warmth.
“Hal just died,” said Meggie.
Stuart looked up from a distant reverie. “It’s better so,” he said. “Think of the peace.” He got to his feet as Fee came out of the hallway, and went to her without touching her. “Mum, you must be tired. Come and lie down; I’ll light a fire for you in your room. Come on now, lie down.”
Fee turned and followed him without a word. Bob got up and went out onto the veranda. The rest of the boys sat shuffling for a while and then joined him. Paddy hadn’t appeared at all. Without a word Mrs. Smith took the perambulator from its corner of the veranda and carefully put the sleeping Jims and Patsy into it. She looked across at Meggie, tears running down her face.
“Meggie, I’m going back to the big house, and I’m taking Jims and Patsy with me. I’ll be back in the morning, but it’s best if the babies stay with Minnie and Cat and me for a while. Tell your mother.”
Meggie sat down on a vacant chair and folded her hands in her lap. Oh, he was hers and he was dead! Little Hal, whom she had cared for and loved and mothered. The space in her mind he had occupied was not yet empty; she could still feel the warm weight of him against her chest. It was terrible to know the weight would never rest there again, where she had felt it for four long years. No, not a thing to cry over; tears were for Agnes, for wounds in the fragile sheath of self-esteem, and the childhood she had left behind forever. This was a burden she would have to carry until the end of her days, and continue in spite of it. The will to survive is very strong in some, not so strong in others. In Meggie it was as refined and tensile as a steel hawser.
Just so did Father Ralph find her when he came in with the doctor. She pointed silently to the hallway but made no effort to follow them. And it was a long time before the priest could finally do what he had wanted to do since Mary Carson phoned the presbytery; go to Meggie, be with her, give the poor little female outsider something from himself for her very own. He doubted that anyone else fully appreciated what Hal meant to her.
But it was a long time. There were the last rites to be administered, in case the soul had not yet left the body; and Fee to see, Paddy to see, practical advice to give. The doctor had gone, dejected but long used to the tragedies his far-flung practice made inevitable. From what they said, little he could have done anyway, so far from his hospital and his trained nursing staff. These people took their chances, they faced their demons and hung on. His death certificate would say “Croup.” It was a handy malady.
Eventually there was nothing left for Father Ralph to see to. Paddy had gone to Fee, Bob and the boys to the carpentry shed to make the little coffin. Stuart was on the floor in Fee’s bedroom, his pure profile so like her own silhouetted against the night sky outside the window; from where she lay on her pillow with Paddy’s hand in hers, Fee never left her contemplation of the dark shape huddled on the cold floor. It was five o’clock in the morning and the roosters were stirring drowsily, but it would be dark for a long time yet.
Purple stole around his neck because he had forgotten he was wearing it, Father Ralph bent to the kitchen fire and built it up from embers into a blaze, turned down the lamp on the table behind, and sat on a wooden bench opposite Meggie to watch her. She had grown, put on seven-league boots which threatened to leave him behind, outstripped; he felt his inadequacy then more keenly, watching her, than ever he had in a life filled with a gnawing, obsessive doubt of his courage. Only what was he afraid of? What did he think he couldn’t face if it came? He could be strong for other people, he didn’t fear other people; but within himself, expecting that nameless something to come sliding into consciousness when he least expected it, he knew fear. While Meggie, born eighteen years after him, was growing beyond him.
Not that she was a saint, or indeed anything more than most. Only that she never complained, that she had the gift—or was it the curse?—of acceptance. No matter what had gone or what might come, she confronted it and accepted it, stored it away to fuel the furnace of her being. What had taught her that? Could it be taught? Or was his idea of her a figment of his own fantasies? Did it really matter? Which was more important: what she truly was, or what he thought she was?
“Oh, Meggie,” he said helplessly.
She turned her gaze to him and out of her pain gave him a smile of absolute, overflowing love, nothing in it held back, the taboos and inhibitions of womanhood not yet a part of her world. To be so loved shook him, consumed him, made him wish to the God Whose existence he sometimes doubted that he was anyone in the universe but Ralph de Bricassart. Was this it, the unknown thing? Oh, God, why did he love her so? But as usual no one answered him; and Meggie sat still smiling at him.
At dawn Fee got up to make breakfast, Stuart helping her, then Mrs. Smith came back with Minnie and Cat, and the four women stood together by the stove talking in hushed monotones, bound in some league of grief neither Meggie nor the priest understood. After the meal Meggie went to line the little wooden box the boys had made, planed smooth and varnished. Silently Fee had given her a white satin evening gown long since gone to the hue of ivory with age, and she fitted strips of it to the hard contours of the box interior. While Father Ralph put a toweling padding in it she ran the pieces of satin into shape on the sewing machine, then together they fixed the lining in place with thumbtacks. And after that Fee dressed her baby in his best velvet suit, combed his hair and laid him in the soft nest which smelled of her, but not of Meggie, who had been his mother. Paddy closed down the lid, weeping; this was the first child he had lost.
For years the reception room at Drogheda had been in use as a chapel; an altar had been built at one end, and was draped in golden raiment Mary Carson had paid the nuns of St. Mary d’Urso a thousand pounds to embroider. Mrs. Smith had decked the room and the altar with winter flowers from Drogheda’s gardens, wallflowers and early stocks and late roses, masses of them like pink and rusty paintings magically finding the dimension of scent. In a laceless white alb and a black chasuble free of any ornamentation, Father Ralph said the Requiem Mass.
As with most of the great Outback stations, Drogheda buried its dead on its own land. The cemetery lay beyond the gardens by the willow-littered banks of the creek, bounded by a white-painted wrought-iron railing and green even in this dry time, for it was watered from the homestead tanks. Michael Carson and his baby son were entombed there in an imposing marble vault, a life-size angel on top of its pediment with sword drawn to guard their rest. But perhaps a dozen less pretentious plots ringed the mausoleum, marked only by plain white wooden crosses and white croquet hoops to define their neat boundaries, some of them bare even of a name: a shearer with no known relatives who had died in a barracks brawl; two or three swaggies whose last earthly calling place had been Drogheda; some sexless and totally anonymous bones found in one of the paddocks; Michael Carson’s
Chinese cook, over whose remains stood a quaint scarlet umbrella, whose sad small bells seemed perpetually to chime out the name Hee Sing, Hee Sing, Hee Sing; a drover whose cross said only TANKSTAND CHARLIE HE WAS A GOOD BLOKE; and more besides, some of them women. But such simplicity was not for Hal, the owner’s nephew; they stowed his homemade box on a shelf inside the vault and closed elaborate bronze doors upon it.
After a while everyone ceased to speak of Hal except in passing. Meggie’s sorrow she kept exclusively to herself; her pain had the unreasoning desolation peculiar to children, magnified and mysterious, yet her very youth buried it beneath everyday events, and diminished its importance. The boys were little affected save Bob, who had been old enough to be fond of his tiny brother. Paddy grieved deeply, but no one knew whether Fee grieved. It seemed she grew further and further away from husband and children, from all feeling. Because of this, Paddy was so grateful to Stu for the way he minded his mother, the grave tenderness with which he treated her. Only Paddy knew how Fee had looked the day he came back from Gilly without Frank. There had not been a flicker of emotion in those soft grey eyes, not hardening nor accusation, hate or sorrow. As if she had simply been waiting for the blow to fall like a condemned dog for the killing bullet, knowing her fate and powerless to avoid it.
“I knew he wouldn’t come back,” she said.
“Maybe he will, Fee, if you write to him quickly,” Paddy said.
She shook her head, but being Fee went into no explanations. Better that Frank made a new life for himself far from Drogheda and her. She knew her son well enough to be convinced that one word from her would bring him back, so she must not utter that word, ever. If the days were long and bitter with a sense of failure, she must bear it in silence. Paddy hadn’t been the man of her choice, but a better man than Paddy never lived. She was one of those people whose feelings are so intense they become unbearable, unlivable, and her lesson had been a harsh one. For almost twenty-five years she had been crushing emotion out of existence, and she was convinced that in the end persistence would succeed.
Life went on in the rhythmic, endless cycle of the land; the following summer the rains came, not monsoonal but a by-product of them, filling the creek and the tanks, succoring the thirsting grass roots, sponging away the stealthy dust. Almost weeping in joy, the men went about the business of the patterned seasons, secure in the knowledge they would not have to hand-feed the sheep. The grass had lasted just long enough, eked out by scrub-cutting from the more juicy trees; but it was not so on all the Gilly stations. How many stock a station carried depended entirely on the grazier running it. For its great size Drogheda was under-stocked, which meant the grass lasted just that much longer.
Lambing and the hectic weeks that followed it were busiest of all in the sheep calendar. Every lamb born had to be caught; its tail was ringed, its ear marked, and if it was a male not required for breeding it was also castrated. Filthy, abominable work which soaked them to the skin with blood, for there was only one way to wade through thousands upon thousands of male lambs in the short time available. The testicles were popped out between the fingers and bitten off, spat on the ground. Circled by tin bands incapable of expanding, the tails of male and female lambs alike gradually lost their vital bloody supply, swelled, withered and dropped off.
These were the finest wool sheep in the world, raised on a scale unheard of in any other country, and with a paucity of manpower. Everything was geared to the perfect production of perfect wool. There was crutching; around the sheep’s rear end the wool grew foul with excrement, fly-blown, black and lumped together in what were called dags. This area had to be kept shaven close, or crutched. It was a minor shearing job but one far less pleasing, stinking and fly-ridden, and it paid better rates. Then there was dipping: thousands upon thousands of bleating, leaping creatures were hounded and yanked through a maze of runs, in and out of the phenyl dips which rid them of ticks, pests and vermin. And drenching: the administration of medicine through huge syringes rammed down the throat, to rid the sheep of intestinal parasites.
For work with the sheep never, never ended; as one job finished it became time for another. They were mustered and graded, moved from one paddock to another, bred and unbred, shorn and crutched, dipped and drenched, slaughtered and shipped off to be sold. Drogheda carried about a thousand head of prime beef cattle as well as its sheep, but sheep were far more profitable, so in good times Drogheda carried about one sheep for every two acres of its land, or about 125,000 altogether. Being merinos, they were never sold for meat; at the end of a merino’s wool-producing years it was shipped off to become skins, lanolin, tallow and glue, useful only to the tanneries and the knackeries.
Thus it was that gradually the classics of Bush literature took on meaning. Reading had become more important than ever to the Clearys, isolated from the world on Drogheda; their only contact with it was through the magic written word. But there was no lending library close, as there had been in Wahine, no weekly trip into town for mail and newspapers and a fresh stack of library books, as there had been in Wahine. Father Ralph filled the breach by plundering the Gillanbone library, his own and the convent’s shelves, and found to his astonishment that before he was done he had organized a whole Bush circulating library via Bluey Williams and the mail truck. It was perpetually loaded with books—worn, thumbed volumes which traveled down the tracks between Drogheda and Bugela, Dibban-Dibban and Braich y Pwll, Cunnamutta and Each-Uisge, seized upon gratefully by minds starved for sustenance and escape. Treasured stories were always returned with great reluctance, but Father Ralph and the nuns kept a careful record of what books stayed longest where, then Father Ralph would order copies through the Gilly news agency and blandly charge them to Mary Carson as donations to the Holy Cross Bush Bibliophilic Society.
Those were the days when a book was lucky to contain a chaste kiss, when the senses were never titillated by erotic passages, so that the demarcation line between books meant for adults and those meant for older children was less strictly drawn, and there was no disgrace for a man of Paddy’s age to love best the books his children also adored: Dot and the Kangaroo, the Billabong series about Jim and Norah and Wally, Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s immortal We of the Never-Never. In the kitchen at night they would take turns to read the poems of Banjo Paterson and C. J. Dennis out loud, thrilling to the ride of “The Man from Snowy River,” or laughing with “The Sentimental Bloke” and his Doreen, or wiping away surreptitious tears shed for John O’Hara’s “Laughing Mary.”
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the
Lachlan years ago;
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the
letter to him,
Just on spec, addressed as follows, “Clancy, of
And an answer came directed in a writing
(And I think the same was written with a
thumb-nail dipped in tar);
’Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and
I will quote it:
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we
don’t know where he are.”
In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of
Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the
Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing Clancy rides
behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the
townsfolk never know.
And the bush has friends to meet him, and their
kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains
And at night the wondrous glory of the
“Clancy of the Overflow” was everyone’s favorite, “the Banjo” their favorite poet. Hoppity-go-kick doggerel, perhaps, but the poems had never been intended for the eyes of sophisticated savants; they were for the people, of the people, and more Australians of that day could recite them off by heart than knew the standard schoolroom pieces by Tennyson and Wordsworth, for their brand of hoppity-go-kick doggerel was written with England as inspiration. Crowds of daffodils and fields of asphodel meant nothing to the Clearys, living in a climate where neither could exist.
The Clearys understood the bush poets better than most, for the Overflow was their backyard, the traveling sheep a reality on the TSRs. There was an official Traveling Stock Route or TSR winding its way near the Barwon River, free crown land for the transference of living merchandise from one end of the eastern half of the continent to the other. In the old days drovers and their hungry, grass-ruining mobs of stock had not been welcome, and the bullockies a hated breed as they inched their mammoth teams of from twenty to eighty oxen through the middle of the squatters’ best grazing. Now, with official stock routes for the drovers and the bullockies vanished into legend, things were more amicable between vagabonds and stay-puts.
The occasional drovers were welcomed as they rode in for a beer and a talk, a home-cooked meal. Sometimes they brought women with them, driving battered old sulkies with galled ex-stock horses between the shafts, pots and billies and bottles banging and clanking in a fringe all around. These were the most cheerful or the most morose women in the Outback, drifting from Kynuna to the Paroo, from Goondiwindi to Gundagai, from the Katherine to the Curry. Strange women; they never knew a roof over their heads or the feel of a kapok mattress beneath their iron-hard spines. No man had bested them; they were as tough and enduring as the country which flowed under their restless feet. Wild as the birds in the sun-drenched trees, their children skulked shyly behind the sulky wheels or scuttled for the protection of the woodheap while their parents yarned over cups of tea, swapped tall stories and books, promised to pass on vague messages to Hoopiron Collins or Brumby Waters, and told the fantastic tale of the Pommy jackaroo on Gnarlunga. And somehow you could be sure these rootless wanderers had dug a grave, buried a child or a wife, a husband or a mate, under some never-to-be-forgotten coolibah on a stretch of the TSR which only looked the same to those who didn’t know how hearts could mark out as singular and special one tree in a wilderness of trees.
Meggie was ignorant even of the meaning of a phrase as hackneyed as “the facts of life,” for circumstances had conspired to block every avenue whereby she might have learned. Her father drew a rigid line between the males of the family and the females; subjects like breeding or mating were never discussed in front of the women, nor did the men ever appear in front of the women unless fully clothed. The kind of books that might have given her a clue never appeared on Drogheda, and she had no friends of her own age to contribute to her education. Her life was absolutely harnessed to the needs of the house, and around the house there were no sexual activities at all. The Home Paddock creatures were almost literally sterile. Mary Carson didn’t breed horses, she bought them from Martin King of Bugela, who did; unless one bred horses stallions were a nuisance, so Drogheda didn’t have any stallions. It did have a bull, a wild and savage beast whose pen was strictly out of bounds, and Meggie was so frightened of it she never went anywhere near it. The dogs were kept kenneled and chained, their mating a scientific, supervised exercise conducted under Paddy’s or Bob’s eagle eye, therefore also out of bounds. Nor was there time to watch the pigs, which Meggie hated and resented having to feed. In truth, there wasn’t time for Meggie to watch anyone beyond her two tiny brothers. And ignorance breeds ignorance; an unawakened body and mind sleep through events which awareness catalogues automatically.
Just before Meggie’s fifteenth birthday, as the summer heat was building up toward its stupefying peak, she noticed brown, streaky stains on her drawers. After a day or two they went away, but six weeks later they came back, and her shame turned to terror. The first time she had thought them signs of a dirty bottom, thus her mortification, but in their second appearance they became unmistakably blood. She had no idea where the blood was coming from, but assumed it was her bottom. The slow hemorrhage was gone three days later, and did not recur for over two months; her furtive washing of the drawers had gone unnoticed, for she did most of the laundry anyway. The next attack brought pain, the first non-bilious rigors of her life. And the bleeding was worse, far worse. She stole some of the twins’ discarded diapers and tried to bind herself under her drawers, terrified the blood would come through.
Death taking Hal had been like a tempestuous visit from something ghostly; but this strung-out cessation of her own being was terrifying. How could she possibly go to Fee or Paddy to break the news that she was dying from some disreputable, forbidden disease of the bottom? Only to Frank might she have poured out her torment, but Frank was so far away she didn’t know where to find him. She had listened to the women talk over their cups of tea of tumors and cancers, gruesome lingering deaths their friends or mothers or sisters had endured, and it seemed to Meggie sure to be some kind of growth eating her insides away, chewing silently up toward her frightened heart. Oh, she didn’t want to die!
Her ideas about the condition of death were vague; she wasn’t even clear on what her status would be in that incomprehensible other world. Religion to Meggie was a set of laws rather than a spiritual experience, it couldn’t help her at all. Words and phrases jostled piecemeal in her panicked consciousness, uttered by her parents, their friends, the nuns, priests in sermons, bad men in books threatening vengeance. There was no way she could come to terms with death; she lay night after night in a confused terror, trying to imagine if death was perpetual night, or an abyss of flames she had to jump over to reach the golden fields on the far side, or a sphere like the inside of a gigantic balloon full of soaring choirs and light attenuated through limitless stained-glass windows.