The Thorn Birds ( Chapter 31-35)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
She grew very quiet, but in a manner quite different from Stuart’s peaceful, dreamy isolation; hers was the petrified freezing of an animal caught in the serpent’s basilisk stare. If she was spoken to suddenly she jumped, if the little ones cried for her she fussed over them in an agony of expiation for her neglect. And whenever she had a rare moment to herself she ran away, down to the cemetery and Hal, who was the only dead person she knew.
Everyone noticed the change in her, but accepted it as Meggie growing up without once asking themselves what growing up for Meggie entailed; she hid her distress too well. The old lessons had been well learned; her self-control was phenomenal and her pride formidable. No one must ever know what went on inside her, the façade must continue flawless to the end; from Fee to Frank to Stuart the examples were there, and she was of the same blood, it was a part of her nature and her heritage.
But as Father Ralph paid his frequent visits to Drogheda and the change in Meggie deepened from a pretty feminine metamorphosis to a quenching of all her vitality, his concern for her mushroomed into worry, and then into fear. A physical and spiritual wasting away was taking place beneath his very eyes; she was slipping away from them, and he couldn’t bear to see her become another Fee. The small pointed face was all eyes staring at some dreadful prospect, the milky opaque skin which never tanned or freckled was growing more translucent. If the process went on, he thought, she would one day disappear into her own eyes like a snake swallowing its tail, until she drifted through the universe as an almost invisible shaft of glassy grey light, seen only from the corner of the vision where shadows lurk and black things crawl down a white wall.
Well, he would find out if he had to wring it from her forcibly. Mary Carson was at her most demanding these days, jealous of every moment he spent down at the head stockman’s house; only the infinite patience of a subtle, devious man kept his rebellion against her possessiveness hidden from her. Even his alien pre-occupation with Meggie couldn’t always overcome his politic wisdom, the purring content he derived from watching his charm work on such a cantankerous, refractory subject as Mary Carson. While that long-dormant care for the welfare of a single other person champed and stamped up and down his mind, he acknowledged the existence of another entity dwelling side by side with it: the cat-cold cruelty of getting the better of, making a fool of a conceited, masterful woman. Oh, he’d always liked to do that! The old spider would never get the better of him.
Eventually he managed to shake free of Mary Carson and run Meggie to earth in the little graveyard under the shadow of the pallid, unwarlike avenging angel. She was staring up into its mawkishly placid face with shrinking fear written on her own, an exquisite contrast between the feeling and the unfeeling, he thought. But what was he doing here, chasing after her like a clucky old hen when it was really none of his business, when it ought to be her mother or her father to find out what was the matter? Only that they hadn’t seen anything wrong, that she didn’t matter to them the way she mattered to him. And that he was a priest, he must give comfort to the lonely or the despairing in spirit. He couldn’t bear to see her unhappy, yet he shrank from the way he was tying himself to her by an accumulation of events. He was making a whole arsenal of happenings and memories out of her, and he was afraid. His love for her and his priestly instinct to offer himself in any required spiritual capacity warred with an obsessive horror of becoming utterly necessary to someone human, and of having someone human become utterly necessary to himself.
As she heard him walk across the grass she turned to confront him, folding her hands in her lap and looking down at her feet. He sat near her, arms locked around his knees, the soutane in folds no more graceful than the easy length of the body inhabiting it. No sense beating around the bush, he decided; if she could, she would evade him.
“What’s the matter, Meggie?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Please, Father, please! I can’t tell you!”
“Oh, Meggie! Ye of little faith! You can tell me anything, anything under the sun. That’s what I’m here for, that’s why I’m a priest. I am Our Lord’s chosen representative here on earth, I listen on His behalf, I even forgive on His behalf. And, wee Meggie, there is nothing in God’s universe He and I cannot find it in our hearts to forgive. You must tell me what the matter is, my love, because if anyone can help you, I can. As long as I live I’ll try to help you, watch over you. If you like, a sort of guardian angel, better by far than that chunk of marble above your head.” He took a breath and leaned forward. “Meggie, if you love me, tell me!”
Her hands gripped one another. “Father, I’m dying! I’ve got cancer!”
First came a wild desire to laugh, a great surge of uproarious anticlimax; then he looked at the thin blue skin, the wasting of her little arms, and there came an awful longing to weep and cry, scream of its unfairness to the roof of heaven. No, Meggie wouldn’t imagine this out of nothing; there had to be a valid reason.
“How do you know, dear heart?”
It took her a long time to say it, and when she did he had to bend his head right down to her lips in an unconscious parody of the confessional pose, hand shielding his face from her eyes, finely modeled ear presented for the sullying.
“It’s six months, Father, since it started. I get the most awful pains in my tummy, but not like a bilious attack, and—oh, Father!—a lot of blood runs out of my bottom!”
His head reared back, something which had never happened inside the confessional; he stared down at her shamed bent head with so many emotions assaulting him that he could not marshal his wits. An absurd, delicious relief; an anger at Fee so great he wanted to kill her; awed admiration for such a little thing as her, to bear so much so well; and a ghastly, all-pervasive embarrassment.
He was as much a prisoner of the times as she was. The cheap girls in every town he had known from Dublin to Gillanbone would deliberately come into the confessional to whisper their fantasies to him as actual happenings, concerned with the only facet of him which interested them, his manhood, and not willing to admit it lay beyond their power to arouse it. They muttered of men violating every orifice, of illicit games with other girls, of lust and adultery, one or two of superior imagination even going so far as to detail sexual relations with a priest. And he would listen totally unmoved save for a sick contempt, for he had been through the rigors of the seminary and that particular lesson was an easy one for a man of his type. But the girls, never, never mentioned that secret activity which set them apart, demeaned them.
Try as he would, he could not prevent the scorching tide from diffusing up under his skin; Father Ralph de Bricassart sat with his face turned away behind his hand and writhed through the humiliation of his first blush.
But this wasn’t helping his Meggie. When he was sure the color had subsided he got to his feet, picked her up and sat her on a flat-topped marble pedestal, where her face and his were level.
“Meggie, look at me. No, look at me!”
She raised hunted eyes and saw that he was smiling; an immeasurable contentment filled her soul at once. He would not smile so if she were dying; she knew very well how much she meant to him, for he had never concealed it.
“Meggie, you’re not dying and you haven’t got cancer. It isn’t my place to tell you what’s the matter, but I think I had better. Your mother should have told you years ago, prepared you, and why she didn’t is beyond me.”
He looked up at the inscrutable marble angel above him and gave a peculiar, half-strangled laugh. “Dear Jesus! The things Thou givest me to do!” Then, to the waiting Meggie: “In years to come, as you grow older and learn more about the ways of the world, you might be tempted to remember today with embarrassment, even shame. But don’t remember today like that, Meggie. There’s absolutely nothing shameful or embarrassing about it. In this, as in everything I do, I am simply the instrument of Our Lord. It is my only function on this earth; I must admit no other. You were very frightened, you needed help, and Our Lord has sent you that help in my person. Remember that alone, Meggie. I am Our Lord’s priest, and I speak in His Name.
“You’re only doing what all women do, Meggie. Once a month for several days you’ll pass blood. It starts usually around twelve or thirteen years of age—how old are you, as much as that?”
“I’m fifteen, Father.”
“Fifteen? You?” He shook his head, only half believing her. “Well, if you say you are, I’ll have to take your word for it. In which case you’re later than most girls. But it continues every month until you’re about fifty, and in some women it’s as regular as the phases of the moon, in others it’s not so predictable. Some women have no pain with it, others suffer a lot of pain. No one knows why it’s so different from one woman to another. But to pass blood every month is a sign that you’re mature. Do you know what ‘mature’ means?”
“Of course, Father! I read! It means grown up.”
“All right, that will do. While ever the bleeding persists, you’re capable of having children. The bleeding is a part of the cycle of procreation. In the days before the Fall, it is said Eve didn’t menstruate. The proper name for it is menstruation, to menstruate. But when Adam and Eve fell, God punished the woman more than He did the man, because it was really her fault they fell. She tempted the man. Do you remember the words in your Bible history? ‘In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.’ What God meant was that for a woman everything having to do with children involves pain. Great joy, but also great pain. It is your lot, Meggie, and you must accept it.”
She didn’t know it, but just so would he have offered comfort and help to any of his parishioners, if with a less intense personal involvement; so very kindly, but never identifying himself with the trouble. And, perhaps not so oddly, thereby the comfort and help he offered was all the greater. As if he had gone beyond such small things, so they were bound to pass. It was not a conscious thing in him, either; no one who came to him for succor ever felt that he looked down on them, or blamed them for their weaknesses. Many priests left their people feeling guilty, worthless or bestial, but he never did. For he made them think that he, too, had his sorrows and his struggles; alien sorrows and incomprehensible struggles, perhaps, yet no less real. He neither knew nor could have been brought to understand that the larger part of his appeal and attraction lay not in his person, but in this aloof, almost godlike, very human something from his soul.
As far as Meggie was concerned, he talked to her the way Frank had talked to her: as if she were his equal. But he was older, wiser and far better educated than Frank, a more satisfactory confidant. And how beautiful his voice was, with its faint Irishness and pear-shaped Britishness. It took all the fear and anguish away. Yet she was young, full of curiosity, eager now to know all there was to know, and not troubled by the perplexing philosophies of those who constantly question not the who of themselves but the why. He was her friend, the cherished idol of her heart, the new sun in her firmament.
“Why shouldn’t you tell me, Father? Why did you say it ought to be Mum?”
“It’s a subject women keep very much to themselves. To mention menstruation or one’s period in front of men or boys just isn’t done, Meggie. It’s something strictly between women.”
He shook his head, and laughed. “To be honest, I really don’t know why. I even wish it weren’t so. But you must take my word for it that it is so. Never mention it to a soul except your mother, and don’t tell her you discussed it with me.”
“All right, Father, I won’t.”
It was damnably difficult, this being a mother; so many practical considerations to remember! “Meggie, you must go home and tell your mother you’ve been passing blood, and ask her to show you how to fix yourself up.”
“Mum does it, too?”
“All healthy women do. But when they’re expecting a baby they stop until after the baby is born. That’s how women tell they’re expecting babies.”
“Why do they stop when they’re expecting babies?”
“I don’t know, I really don’t. Sorry, Meggie.”
“Why does the blood come out of my bottom, Father?”
He glared up at the angel, which looked back at him serenely, not troubled by women’s troubles. Things were getting too sticky for Father Ralph. Amazing that she persisted when she was usually so reticent! Yet realizing he had become the source of her knowledge about everything she couldn’t find in books, he knew her too well to give her any hint of his embarrassment or discomfort. She would withdraw into herself and never ask him anything again.
So he answered patiently, “It doesn’t come out of your bottom, Meggie. There is a hidden passageway in front of your bottom, which has to do with children.”
“Oh! Where they get out, you mean,” she said. “I always wondered how they got out.”
He grinned, and lifted her down from her pedestal. “Now you know. Do you know what makes babies, Meggie?”
“Oh, yes,” she said importantly, glad she knew at least something. “You grow them, Father.”
“What causes them to start growing?”
“You wish them.”
“Who told you that?”
“No one. I worked it out for myself,” she said.
Father Ralph closed his eyes and told himself that he couldn’t possibly be called a coward for leaving matters where they stood. He could pity her, but he couldn’t help her any further. Enough was enough.
Mary Carson was going to be seventy-two years old, and she was planning the biggest party to be held on Drogheda in fifty years. Her birthday fell at the start of November, when it was hot but till bearable—at least for Gilly natives.
“Mark that, Mrs. Smith!” Minnie whispered. “Do ye mark that! November the t’urrd herself was born!”
“What are you on about now, Min?” the housekeeper asked. Minnie’s Celtic mysteriousness got on her own good steady English nerves.
“Why, and to be sure it means herself is a Scorpio woman, does it not? A Scorpio woman, now!”
“I haven’t got the slightest idea what you’re talking about, Min!”
“The wurrst sign a woman can find herself born into, Mrs. Smith darlin’. Och, they’re children of the Devil, so they are!” said Cat, round-eyed, blessing herself.
“Honestly, Minnie, you and Cat are the dizzy limit,” said Mrs. Smith, not a whit impressed.
But excitement was running high, and would run higher. The old spider in her wing chair at the exact center of her web issued a never-ending stream of orders; this was to be done, that was to be done, such and such was to be taken out of storage, or put into storage. The two Irish maids ran polishing silver and washing the best Haviland china, turning the chapel back into a reception room and readying its adjacent dining rooms.
Hindered rather than helped by the little Cleary boys, Stuart and a team of rouseabouts mowed and scythed the lawn, weeded the flower beds, sprinkled damp sawdust on the verandas to clear dust from between the Spanish tiles, and dry chalk on the reception room floor to make it fit for dancing. Clarence O’Toole’s band was coming all the way from Sydney, along with oysters and prawns, crabs and lobsters; several women from Gilly were being hired as temporary helpers. The whole district from Rudna Hunish to Inishmurray to Bugela to Narrengang was in a ferment.
As the marble hallways echoed to unaccustomed sounds of objects being moved and people shouting, Mary Carson shifted herself from her wing chair to her desk, drew a sheet of parchment forward, dipped her pen in the standish, and began to write. There was no hesitation, not so much as a pause to consider the positioning of a comma. For the last five years she had worked out every intricate phrase in her mind, until it was absolutely word perfect. It did not take her long to finish; there were two sheets of paper, the second one with a good quarter of it blank. But for a moment, the last sentence complete, she sat on in her chair. The roll-top desk stood alongside one of the big windows, so that by simply turning her head she could look out across the lawns. A laugh from outside made her do so, idly at first, then in stiffening rage. God damn him and his obsession!
Father Ralph had taught Meggie to ride; daughter of a country family, she had never sat astride a horse until the priest remedied the deficiency. For oddly enough, the daughters of poor country families did not often ride. Riding was a pastime for the rich young women of country and city alike. Oh, girls of Meggie’s background could drive buggies and teams of heavy horses, even tractors and sometimes cars, but rarely did they ride. It cost too much to mount a daughter.
Father Ralph had brought elastic-sided ankle boots and twill jodhpurs from Gilly and plumped them down on the Cleary kitchen table noisily. Paddy had looked up from his after-dinner book, mildly surprised.
“Well, what have you got there, Father?” he asked.
“Riding clothes for Meggie.”
“What?” bellowed Paddy’s voice.
“What?” squeaked Meggie’s.
“Riding clothes for Meggie. Honestly, Paddy, you’re a first-class idiot! Heir to the biggest, richest station in New South Wales, and you’ve never let your only daughter sit a horse! How do you think she’s going to take her place alongside Miss Carmichael, Miss Hopeton and Mrs. Anthony King, equestriennes all? Meggie’s got to learn to ride, sidesaddle as well as astride, do you hear? I realize you’re busy, so I’m going to teach Meggie myself, and you can like it or lump it. If it happens to interfere with her duties in the house, too bad. For a few hours each week Fee is just going to have to manage minus Meggie, and that’s that.”
One thing Paddy couldn’t do was argue with a priest; Meggie learned to ride forthwith. For years she had longed for the chance, had once timidly ventured to ask her father might she, but he had forgotten the next moment and she never asked again, thinking that was Daddy’s way of saying no. To learn under the aegis of Father Ralph cast her into a joy which she didn’t show, for by this time her adoration of Father Ralph had turned into an ardent, very girlish crush. Knowing it was quite impossible, she permitted herself the luxury of dreaming about him, of wondering what it would be like to be held in his arms, receive his kiss. Further than that her dreams couldn’t go, as she had no idea what came next, or even that anything came next. And if she knew it was wrong to dream so of a priest, there didn’t seem to be any way she could discipline herself into not doing it. The best she could manage was to make absolutely sure he had no idea of the unruly turn her thoughts had taken.
As Mary Carson watched through the drawing room window, Father Ralph and Meggie walked down from the stables, which were on the far side of the big house from the head stockman’s residence. The station men rode rawboned stock horses which had never seen the inside of a stable in all their lives, just shuffled around the yards when penned for duty, or frisked through the grass of the Home Paddock when being spelled. But there were stables on Drogheda, though only Father Ralph used them now. Mary Carson kept two thoroughbred hacks there for Father Ralph’s exclusive use; no rawboned stock horses for him. When he had asked her if Meggie might use his mounts also, she could not very well object. The girl was her niece, and he was right. She ought to be able to ride decently.
With every bitter bone in her swollen old body Mary Carson had wished she had been able to refuse, or else ride with them. But she could neither refuse nor hoist herself on a horse anymore. And it galled her to see them now, strolling across the lawn together, the man in his breeches and knee boots and white shirt as graceful as a dancer, the girl in her jodhpurs slim and boyishly beautiful. They radiated an easy friendship; for the millionth time Mary Carson wondered why no one save she deplored their close, almost intimate relationship. Paddy thought it wonderful, Fee—log that she was!—said nothing, as usual, while the boys treated them as brother and sister. Was it because she loved Ralph de Bricassart herself that she saw what no one else saw? Or did she imagine it, was there really nothing save the friendship of a man in his middle thirties for a girl not yet all the way into womanhood? Piffle! No man in his middle thirties, even Ralph de Bricassart, could fail to see the unfolding rose. Even Ralph de Bricassart? Hah! Especially Ralph de Bricassart! Nothing ever missed that man.
Her hands were trembling; the pen sprinkled dark-blue drops across the bottom of the paper. The gnarled finger plucked another sheet from a pigeonhole, dipped the pen in the standish again, and rewrote the words as surely as the first time. Then she heaved herself to her feet and moved her bulk to the door.
“Minnie! Minnie!” she called.
“Lord help us, it’s herself!” the maid said clearly from the reception room opposite. Her ageless freckled face came round the door. “And what might I be gettin’ for ye, Mrs. Carson darlin’?” she asked, wondering why the old woman had not rung the bell for Mrs. Smith, as was her wont.
“Go and find the fencer and Tom. Send them here to me at once.”
“Ought I not be reportin’ to Mrs. Smith furrst?”
“No! Just do as you’re told, girl!”
Tom, the garden rouseabout, was an old, wizened fellow who had been on the track with his bluey and his billy, and taken work for a while seventeen years ago; he had fallen in love with the Drogheda gardens and couldn’t bear to leave them. The fencer, a drifter like all his breed, had been pulled from the endless task of stringing taut wire between posts in the paddocks to repair the homestead’s white pickets for the party. Awed at the summons, they came within a few minutes and stood in work trousers, braces and flannel undershirts, hats screwed nervously in their hands.
“Can both of you write?” asked Mrs. Carson.
They nodded, swallowed.
“Good. I want you to watch me sign this piece of paper, then fix your own names and addresses just below my signature. Do you understand?”
“Make sure you sign the way you always do, and print your permanent addresses clearly. I don’t care if it’s a post office general delivery or what, so long as you can be reached through it.”
The two men watched her inscribe her name; it was the only time her writing was not compressed. Tom came forward, sputtered the pen across the paper painfully, then the fencer wrote “Chas. Hawkins” in large round letters, and a Sydney address. Mary Carson watched them closely; when they were done she gave each of them a dull red ten-pound note, and dismissed them with a harsh injunction to keep their mouths shut.
Meggie and the priest had long since disappeared. Mary Carson sat down at her desk heavily, drew another sheet of paper toward her, and began once more to write. This communication was not achieved with the ease and fluency of the last. Time and time again she stopped to think, then with lips drawn back in a humorless grin, she would continue. It seemed she had a lot to say, for her words were cramped, her lines very close together, and still she required a second sheet. At the end she read what she had put down, placed all the sheets together, folded them and slid them into an envelope, the back of which she sealed with red wax.
Only Paddy, Fee, Bob, Jack and Meggie were going to the party; Hughie and Stuart were deputed to mind the little ones, much to their secret relief. For once in her life Mary Carson had opened her wallet wide enough for the moths to fly out, for everyone had new clothes, the best Gilly could provide.
Paddy, Bob and Jack were immobilized behind starched shirt fronts, high collars and white bow ties, black tails, black trousers, white waistcoats. It was going to be a very formal affair, white tie and tails for the men, sweeping gowns for the women.
Fee’s dress was of crepe in a peculiarly rich shade of blue-grey, and suited her, falling to the floor in soft folds, low of neckline but tightly sleeved to the wrists, lavishly beaded, much in the style of Queen Mary. Like that imperious lady, she had her hair done high in back-sweeping puffs, and the Gilly store had produced an imitation pearl choker and earrings which would fool all but a close inspection. A magnificent ostrich-feather fan dyed the same color as her gown completed the ensemble, not so ostentatious as it appeared at first glance; the weather was unusually hot, and at seven in the evening it was still well over a hundred degrees.
When Fee and Paddy emerged from their room; the boys gaped. In all their lives they had never seen their parents so regally handsome, so foreign. Paddy looked his sixty-one years, but in such a distinguished way he might have been a statesman; whereas Fee seemed suddenly ten years younger than her forty-eight, beautiful, vital, magically smiling. Jims and Patsy burst into shrieking tears, refusing to look at Mum and Daddy until they reverted to normal, and in the flurry of consternation dignity was forgotten; Mum and Daddy behaved as they always did, and soon the twins were beaming in admiration.
But it was at Meggie everyone stared the longest. Perhaps remembering her own girlhood, and angered that all the other young ladies invited had ordered their gowns from Sydney, the Gilly dressmaker had put her heart into Meggie’s dress. It was sleeveless and had a low, draped neckline; Fee had been dubious, but Meggie had implored and the dressmaker assured her all the girls would be wearing the same sort of thing—did she want her daughter laughed at for being countrified and dowdy? So Fee had given in gracefully. Of crepe geor-gette, a heavy chiffon, the dress was only slightly fitted at the waist, but sashed around the hips with the same material. It was a dusky, pale pinkish grey, the color that in those days was called ashes of roses; between them the dressmaker and Meggie had embroidered the entire gown in tiny pink rosebuds. And Meggie had cut her hair in the closest way she could to the shingle creeping even through the ranks of Gilly girls. It curled far too much for fashion, of course, but it suited her better short than long.
Paddy opened his mouth to roar because she was not his little girl Meggie, but shut it again with the words unuttered; he had learned from that scene in the presbytery with Frank long ago. No, he couldn’t keep her a little girl forever; she was a young woman and shy of the amazing transformation her mirror had shown her. Why make it harder for the poor little beggar?
He extended his hand to her, smiling tenderly. “Oh, Meggie, you’re so lovely! Come on, I’m going to escort you myself, and Bob and Jack shall take your mother.”
She was just a month short of seventeen, and for the first time in his life Paddy felt really old. But she was the treasure of his heart; nothing should spoil her first grown-up party.
They walked to the homestead slowly, far too early for the first guests; they were to dine with Mary Carson and be on hand to receive with her. No one wanted dirty shoes, but a mile through Drogheda dust meant a pause in the cookhouse to polish shoes, brush dust from trouser bottoms and trailing hems.
Father Ralph was in his soutane as usual; no male evening fashion could have suited him half so well as that severely cut robe with its slightly flaring lines, the innumerable little black cloth buttons up its front from hem to collar, the purple-edged monsignor’s sash.
Mary Carson has chosen to wear white satin, white lace and white ostrich feathers. Fee stared at her stupidly, shocked out of her habitual indifference. It was so incongruously bridal, so grossly unsuitable—why on earth had she tricked herself out like a raddled old spinster playacting at being married? She had got very fat of late, which didn’t improve matters.
But Paddy seemed to see nothing amiss; he strode forward to take his sister’s hands, beaming. What a dear fellow he was, thought Father Ralph as he watched the little scene, half amused, half detached.
“Well, Mary! How fine you look! Like a young girl!”
In truth she looked almost exactly like that famous photograph of Queen Victoria taken not long before she died. The two heavy lines were there on either side of the masterful nose, the mulish mouth was set indomitably, the slightly protruding and glacial eyes fixed without blinking on Meggie. Father Ralph’s own beautiful eyes passed from niece to aunt, and back to niece again.
Mary Carson smiled at Paddy, and put her hand on his arm. “You may take me in to dinner, Padraic. Father de Bricassart will escort Fiona, and the boys must make do with Meghann between them.” Over her shoulder she looked back at Meggie. “Do you dance tonight, Meghann?”
“She’s too young, Mary, she’s not yet seventeen,” said Paddy quickly, remembering another parental shortcoming; none of his children had been taught to dance.
“What a pity,” said Mary Carson.
It was a splendid, sumptuous, brilliant, glorious party; at least, they were the adjectives most bandied about. Royal O’Mara was there from Inishmurray, two hundred miles away; he came the farthest with his wife, sons and lone daughter, though not by much. Gilly people thought little of traveling two hundred miles to a cricket match, let alone a party. Duncan Gordon, from Each-Uisge; no one had ever persuaded him to explain why he had called his station so far from the ocean the Scots Gaelic for a sea horse. Martin King, his wife, his son Anthony and Mrs. Anthony; he was Gilly’s senior squatter, since Mary Carson could not be so called, being a woman. Evan Pugh, from Braich y Pwll, which the district pronounced Brakeypull. Dominic O’Rourke from Dibban-Dibban, Horry Hopeton from Beel-Beel; and dozens more.
They were almost to the last family present Catholic, and few sported Anglo-Saxon names; there was about an equal distribution of Irish, Scottish and Welsh. No, they could not hope for home rule in the old country, nor, if Catholic in Scotland or Wales, for much sympathy from the Protestant indigenes. But here in the thousands of square miles around Gillanbone they were lords to thumb their noses at British lords, masters of all they surveyed; Drogheda, the biggest property, was greater in area than several European principalities. Monegasque princelings, Liechtensteinian dukes, beware! Mary Carson was greater. So they whirled in waltzes to the sleek Sydney band and stood back indulgently to watch their children dance the Charleston, ate the lobster patties and the chilled raw oysters, drank the fifteen-year-old French champagne and the twelve-year-old single-malt Scotch. If the truth were known, they would rather have eaten roast leg of lamb or corned beef, and much preferred to drink cheap, very potent Bundaberg rum or Grafton bitter from the barrel. But it was nice to know the better things of life were theirs for the asking.
Yes, there were lean years, many of them. The wool checks were carefully hoarded in the good years to guard against the depredations of the bad, for no one could predict the rain. But it was a good period, had been for some time, and there was little to spend the money on in Gilly. Oh, once born to the black soil plains of the Great Northwest there was no place on earth like it. They made no nostalgic pilgrimages back to the old country; it had done nothing for them save discriminate against them for their religious convictions, where Australia was too Catholic a country to discriminate. And the Great Northwest was home.
Besides, Mary Carson was footing the bill tonight. She could well afford it. Rumor said she was able to buy and sell the King of England. She had money in steel, money in silver-lead-zinc, money in copper and gold, money in a hundred different things, mostly the sort of things that literally and metaphorically made money. Drogheda had long since ceased to be the main source of her income; it was no more than a profitable hobby.
Father Ralph didn’t speak directly to Meggie during dinner, nor did he afterward; throughout the evening he studiously ignored her. Hurt, her eyes sought him wherever he was in the reception room. Aware of it, he ached to stop by her chair and explain to her that it would not do her reputation (or his) any good if he paid her more attention than he did, say, Miss Carmichael, Miss Gordon or Miss O’Mara. Like Meggie he didn’t dance, and like Meggie there were many eyes on him; they were easily the two most beautiful people in the room.
Half of him hated her appearance tonight, the short hair, the lovely dress, the dainty ashes-of-roses silk slippers with their two-inch heels; she was growing taller, developing a very feminine figure. And half of him was busy being terrifically proud of the fact that she shone all the other young ladies down. Miss Carmichael had the patrician features, but lacked the special glory of that red-gold hair; Miss King had exquisite blond tresses, but lacked the lissome body; Miss Mackail was stunning of body, but in the face very like a horse eating an apple through a wire-netting fence. Yet his overall reaction was one of disappointment, and an anguished wish to turn back the calendar. He didn’t want Meggie to grow up, he wanted the little girl he could treat as his treasured babe. On Paddy’s face he glimpsed an expression which mirrored his own thoughts, and smiled faintly. What bliss it would be if just once in his life he could show his feelings! But habit, training and discretion were too ingrained.
As the evening wore on the dancing grew more and more uninhibited, the liquor changed from champagne and whiskey to rum and beer, and proceedings settled down to something more like a woolshed ball. By two in the morning only a total absence of station hands and working girls could distinguish it from the usual entertainments of the Gilly district, which were strictly democratic.
Paddy and Fee were still in attendance, but promptly at midnight Bob and Jack left with Meggie. Neither Fee nor Paddy noticed; they were enjoying themselves. If their children couldn’t dance, they could, and did; with each other mostly, seeming to the watching Father Ralph suddenly much more attuned to each other, perhaps because the times they had an opportunity to relax and enjoy each other were rare. He never remembered seeing them without at least one child somewhere around, and thought it must be hard on the parents of large families, never able to snatch moments alone save in the bedroom, where they might excusably have other things than conversation on their minds. Paddy was always cheerful and jolly, but Fee tonight almost literally shone, and when Paddy went to beg a duty dance of some squatter’s wife, she didn’t lack eager partners; there were many much younger women wilting on chairs around the room who were not so sought after.
However, Father Ralph’s moments to observe the Cleary parents were limited. Feeling ten years younger once he saw Meggie leave the room, he became a great deal more animated and flabbergasted the Misses Hopeton, Mackail, Gordon and O’Mara by dancing—and extremely well—the Black Bottom with Miss Carmichael. But after that he gave every unattached girl in the room her turn, even poor homely Miss Pugh, and since by this time everyone was thoroughly relaxed and oozing goodwill, no one condemned the priest one bit. In fact, his zeal and kindness were much admired and commented upon. No one could say their daughter had not had an opportunity to dance with Father de Bricassart. Of course, had it not been a private party he could not have made a move toward the dance floor, but it was so nice to see such a fine man really enjoy himself for once.
At three o’clock Mary Carson rose to her feet and yawned. “No, don’t stop the festivities! If I’m tired—which I am—I can go to bed, which is what I’m going to do. But there’s plenty of food and drink, the band has been engaged to play as long as someone wants to dance, and a little noise will only speed me into my dreams. Father, would you help me up the stairs, please?”
Once outside the reception room she did not turn to the majestic staircase, but guided the priest to her drawing room, leaning heavily on his arm. Its door had been locked; she waited while he used the key she handed him, then preceded him inside.
“It was a good party, Mary,” he said.
“Don’t say that, my dear.”
“Why not? I’m tired of living, Ralph, and I’m going to stop.” Her hard eyes mocked. “Do you doubt me? For over seventy years I’ve done precisely what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, so if Death thinks he’s the one to choose the time of my going, he’s very much mistaken. I’ll die when I choose the time, and no suicide, either. It’s our will to live keeps us kicking, Ralph; it isn’t hard to stop if we really want to. I’m tired, and I want to stop. Very simple.”
He was tired, too; not of living, exactly, but of the endless façade, the climate, the lack of friends with common interests, himself. The room was only faintly lit by a tall kerosene lamp of priceless ruby glass, and it cast transparent crimson shadows on Mary Carson’s face, conjuring out of her intractable bones something more diabolical. His feet and back ached; it was a long time since he had danced so much, though he prided himself on keeping up with whatever was the latest fad. Thirty-five years of age, a country monsignor, and as a power in the Church? Finished before he had begun. Oh, the dreams of youth! And the carelessness of youth’s tongue, the hotness of youth’s temper. He had not been strong enough to meet the test. But he would never make that mistake again. Never, never…
He moved restlessly, sighed; what was the use? The chance would not come again. Time he faced that fact squarely, time he stopped hoping and dreaming.
“Do you remember my saying, Ralph, that I’d beat you, that I’d hoist you with your own petard?”
The dry old voice snapped him out of the reverie his weariness had induced. He looked across at Mary Carson and smiled.
“Dear Mary, I never forget anything you say. What I would have done without you these past seven years I don’t know. Your wit, your malice, your perception…”
“If I’d been younger I’d have got you in a different way, Ralph. You’ll never know how I’ve longed to throw thirty years of my life out the window. If the Devil had come to me and offered to buy my soul for the chance to be young again, I’d have sold it in a second, and not stupidly regretted the bargain like that old idiot Faust. But no Devil. I really can’t bring myself to believe in God or the Devil, you know. I’ve never seen a scrap of evidence to the effect they exist. Have you?”
“No. But belief doesn’t rest on proof of existence, Mary. It rests on faith, and faith is the touchstone of the Church. Without faith, there is nothing.”
“A very ephemeral tenet.”
“Perhaps. Faith’s born in a man or a woman, I think. For me it’s a constant struggle, I admit that, but I’ll never give up.”
“I would like to destroy you.”
His blue eyes laughed, greyed in the light. “Oh, my dear Mary! I know that.”
“But do you know why?”
A terrifying tenderness crept against him, almost inside him, except that he fought it fiercely. “I know why, Mary, and believe me, I’m sorry.”
“Besides your mother, how many women have loved you?”
“Did my mother love me, I wonder? She ended in hating me, anyway. Most women do. My name ought to have been Hippolytos.”
“Oh! That tells me a lot!”
“As to other women, I think only Meggie…But she’s a little girl. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say hundreds of women have wanted me, but loved me? I doubt it very much.”
“I have loved you,” she said pathetically.
“No, you haven’t. I’m the goad of your old age, that’s all. When you look at me I remind you of what you cannot do, because of age.”
“You’re wrong. I have loved you. God, how much! Do you think my years automatically preclude it? Well, Father de Bricassart, let me tell you something. Inside this stupid body I’m still young—I still feel, I still want, I still dream, I still kick up my heels and chafe at restrictions like my body. Old age is the bitterest vengeance our vengeful God inflicts upon us. Why doesn’t He age our minds as well?” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, her teeth showing sourly. “I shall go to Hell, of course. But before I do, I hope I get the chance to tell God what a mean, spiteful, pitiful apology of a God He is!”
“You were a widow too long. God gave you freedom of choice, Mary. You could have remarried. If you chose not to remarry and in consequence you’ve been intolerably lonely, it’s your own doing, not God’s.”
For a moment she said nothing, her hands gripping the chair arms hard; then she began to relax, and opened her eyes. They glittered in the lamplight redly, but not with tears; with something harder, more brilliant. He caught his breath, felt fear. She looked like a spider.
“Ralph, on my desk is an envelope. Would you bring it to me, please?”
Aching and afraid, he got up and went to her desk, lifted the letter, eyed it curiously. The face of it was blank, but the back had been properly sealed with red wax and her ram’s head seal with the big D. He brought it to her and held it out, but she waved him to his seat without taking it.
“It’s yours,” she said, and giggled. “The instrument of your fate, Ralph, that’s what it is. My last and most telling thrust in our long battle. What a pity I won’t be here to see what happens. But I know what will happen, because I know you, I know you much better than you think I do. Insufferable conceit! Inside that envelope lies the fate of your life and your soul. I must lose you to Meggie, but I’ve made sure she doesn’t get you, either.”
“Why do you hate Meggie so?”
“I told you once before. Because you love her.”
“Not in that way! She’s the child I can never have, the rose of my life. Meggie is an idea, Mary, an idea!”
But the old woman sneered. “I don’t want to talk about your precious Meggie! I shall never see you again, so I don’t want to waste my time with you talking about her. The letter. I want you to swear on your vows as a priest that you don’t open it until you’ve seen my dead body for yourself, but then that you open it immediately, before you bury me. Swear!”
“There’s no need to swear, Mary. I’ll do as you ask.”
“Swear to me or I’ll take it back!”
He shrugged. “All right, then. On my vows as a priest I swear it. Not to open the letter until I’ve seen you dead, and then to open it before you’re buried.”
“Mary, please don’t worry. This is a fancy of yours, no more. In the morning you’ll laugh at it.”
“I won’t see the morning. I’m going to die tonight; I’m not weak enough to wait on the pleasure of seeing you again. What an anticlimax! I’m going to bed now. Will you take me to the top of the stairs?”
He didn’t believe her, but he could see it served no purpose to argue, and she was not in the mood to be jollied out of it. Only God decided when one would die, unless, of the free will He had given, one took one’s own life. And she had said she wouldn’t do that. So he helped her pant up the stairs and at the top took her hands in his, bent to kiss them.
She pulled them away. “No, not tonight. On my mouth, Ralph! Kiss my mouth as if we were lovers!”
By the brilliant light of the chandelier, lit for the party with four hundred wax candles, she saw the disgust in his face, the instinctive recoil; she wanted to die then, wanted to die so badly she could not wait.
“Mary, I’m a priest! I can’t!”
She laughed shrilly, eerily. “Oh, Ralph, what a sham you are! Sham man, sham priest! And to think once you actually had the temerity to offer to make love to me! Were you so positive I’d refuse? How I wish I hadn’t! I’d give my soul to see you wriggle out of it if we could have that night back again! Sham, sham, sham! That’s all you are, Ralph! An impotent, useless sham! Impotent man and impotent priest! I don’t think you could get it up and keep it up for the Blessed Virgin herself! Have you ever managed to get it up, Father de Bricassart? Sham!”
Outside it was not yet dawn, or the lightening before it. Darkness lay soft, thick and very hot over Drogheda. The revels were becoming extremely noisy; if the homestead had possessed next-door neighbors the police would have been called long since. Someone was vomiting copiously and revoltingly on the veranda, and under a wispy bottle brush two indistinct forms were locked together. Father Ralph avoided the vomiter and the lovers, treading silently across the springy new-mown lawn with such torment in his mind he did not know or care where he was going. Only that he wanted to be away from her, the awful old spider who was convinced she was spinning her death cocoon on this exquisite night. At such an early hour the heat was not exhausting; there was a faint, heavy stirring in the air, and a stealing of languorous perfumes from boronia and roses, the heavenly stillness only tropical and subtropical latitudes can ever know. Oh, God, to be alive, to be really alive! To embrace the night, and living, and be free!
He stopped on the far side of the lawn and stood looking up at the sky, an instinctive aerial searching for God. Yes, up there somewhere, between the winking points of light so pure and unearthly; what was it about the night sky? That the blue lid of day was lifted, a man permitted glimpses of eternity? Nothing save witnessing the strewn vista of the stars could convince a man that timelessness and God existed.
She’s right, of course. A sham, a total sham. No priest, no man. Only someone who wishes he knew how to be either. No! Not either! Priest and man cannot coexist—to be a man is to be no priest. Why did I ever tangle my feet in her web? Her poison is strong, perhaps stronger than I guess. What’s in the letter? How like Mary to bait me! How much does she know, how much does she simply guess? What is there to know, or guess? Only futility, and loneliness. Doubt, pain. Always pain. Yet you’re wrong, Mary. I can get it up. It’s just that I don’t choose to, that I’ve spent years proving to myself it can be controlled, dominated, subjugated. For getting it up is the activity of a man, and I am a priest.
Someone was weeping in the cemetery. Meggie, of course. No one else would think of it. He picked up the skirts of his soutane and stepped over the wrought-iron railing, feeling it was inevitable that he had not yet done with Meggie on this night. If he confronted one of the women in his life, he must also deal with the other. His amused detachment was coming back; she could not disperse that for long, the old spider. The wicked old spider. God rot her, God rot her!
“Darling Meggie, don’t cry,” he said, sitting on the dew-wet grass beside her. “Here, I’ll bet you don’t have a decent handkerchief. Women never do. Take mine and dry your eyes like a good girl.’