The Thorn Birds (Chapter 41-45)

The Thorn Birds 

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 41

“Fee?” asked Paddy anxiously.

“Whatever you decide, Paddy. I don’t care.”

“Meggie?”

“I don’t want her thirteen million pieces of silver,” Meggie said, her eyes fixed on Father Ralph.

Paddy turned to the lawyer. “Then that’s it, Harry. We don’t want to contest the will. Let the Church have Mary’s money, and welcome.”

Harry struck his hands together. “God damn it, I hate to see you cheated!”

“I thank my stars for Mary,” said Paddy gently. “If it wasn’t for her I’d still be trying to scrape a living in New Zealand.”

As they came out of the drawing room Paddy stopped Father Ralph and held out his hand, in full view of the fascinated mourners clustering in the dining room doorway.

“Father, please don’t think there are any hard feelings on our side. Mary was never swayed by another human being in all her life, priest or brother or husband. You take it from me, she did what she wanted to do. You were mighty good to her, and you’ve been mighty good to us. We’ll never forget it.”

The guilt. The burden. Almost Father Ralph did not move to take that gnarled stained hand, but the cardinal’s brain won; he gripped it feverishly and smiled, agonized.

“Thank you, Paddy. You may rest assured I’ll see you never want for a thing.”

Within the week he was gone, not having appeared on Drogheda again. He spent the few days packing his scant belongings, and touring every station in the district where there were Catholic families; save Drogheda.

Father Watkin Thomas, late of Wales, arrived to assume the duties of parish priest to the Gillanbone district, while Father Ralph de Bricassart became private secretary to Archbishop Cluny Dark. But his work load was light; he had two undersecretaries. For the most part he was occupied in discovering just what and how much Mary Carson had owned, and in gathering the reins of government together on behalf of the Church.

Three

1929–1932 Paddy

8

The new year came in with Angus MacQueen’s annual Hogmanay party on Rudna Hunish, and still the move to the big house had not been accomplished. It wasn’t something done overnight, between packing over seven years’ accumulation of everyday artifacts, and Fee’s declaration that the big house drawing room at least be finished first. No one was in the slightest hurry, though everyone was looking forward to it. In some respects the big house would prove no different: it lacked electricity and the flies populated it just as thickly. But in summer it was about twenty degrees cooler than outside, from the thickness of its stone walls and the ghost gums shading its roof. Also, the bathhouse was a true luxury, having hot water all winter from pipes which ran up the back of the vast fuel stove in the cookhouse next door, and every drop in its pipes was rain water. Though baths and showers had to be taken in this large structure with its ten separate cubicles, the big house and all the smaller houses were liberally endowed with indoor water-closet toilets, an unheard-of degree of opulence envious Gilly residents had been caught calling sybaritism. Aside from the Hotel Imperial, two pubs, the Catholic presbytery and the convent, the Gillanbone district survived on out-houses. Except Drogheda homestead, thanks to its enormous number of tanks and roofs to catch rain water. The rules were strict: no undue flushing, and plenty of sheep-dip disinfectant. But after holes in the ground, it was heaven.

Father Ralph had sent Paddy a check for five thousand pounds at the beginning of the preceding December, to be going on with, his letter said; Paddy handed it to Fee with a dazed exclamation.

“I doubt I’ve managed to earn this much in all my working days,” he said.

“What shall I do with it?” Fee asked, staring at it and then looking up t him, eyes blazing. “Money, Paddy! Money at last, do you realize it? Oh, I don’t care about Auntie Mary’s thirteen million pounds—there’s nothing real about so much. But this is real! What shall I do with it?”

“Spend it,” said Paddy simply. “A few new clothes for the children and yourself? And maybe there are things you’d like to buy for the big house? I can’t think of anything else we need.”

“Nor can I, isn’t it silly?” Up got Fee from the breakfast table, beckoning Meggie imperiously. “Come on, girl, we’re walking up to the big house to look at it.”

Though at that time three weeks had elapsed, since the frantic week following Mary Carson’s death, none of the Clearys had been near the big house. But now Fee’s visit more than made up for their previous reluctance. From one room to another she marched with Meggie, Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat in attendance, more animated than a bewildered Meggie had ever known her. She muttered to herself continually; this was dreadful, that was an absolute horror, was Mary color-blind, did she have no taste at all?

In the drawing room Fee paused longest, eyeing it expertly. Only the reception room exceeded it in size, for it was forty feet long and thirty wide, and had a fifteen-foot ceiling. It was a curious mixture of the best and the worst in its decoration, painted a uniform cream which had yellowed and did nothing to emphasize the magnificent moldings on the ceiling or the carved paneling on the walls. The enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that marched uninterruptedly for forty feet along the veranda side were heavily curtained in brown velvet, casting a deep gloom over the dingy brown chairs, two stunning malachite benches and two equally beautiful benches in Florentine marble, and a massive fireplace of cream marble veined in deep pink. On the polished teak floor three Aubusson carpets had been squared with geometrical precision, and a Waterford chandelier six feet long touched the ceiling, its chain bunched round it.

“You are to be commended, Mrs. Smith,” Fee pronounced. “It’s positively awful, but spotlessly clean. I shall give you something worth caring for. Those priceless benches without anything to set them off—it’s a shame! Since the day I saw this room, I’ve longed to make it into something every person who walks into it will admire, and yet comfortable enough to make every person who walks into it want to remain.”

Mary Carson’ desk was a Victorian hideousness; Fee walked to it and the phone which stood upon it, flicking its gloomy wood contemptuously. “My escritoire will do beautifully here,” she said. “I’m going to start with this room, and when it’s finished I’ll move up from the creek, not before. Then at least we’ll have one place where we can congregate without being depressed.” She sat down and plucked the receiver off its hook.

While her daughter and her servants stood in a small bewildered huddle, she proceeded to set Harry Gough in motion. Mark Foys would send fabric samples on the night mail; Nock & Kirbys would send paint samples; Grace Brothers would send wallpaper samples; these and other Sydney stores would send catalogues specially compiled for her, describing their lines of furnishings. Laughter in his voice, Harry guaranteed to produce a competent upholsterer and a team of painters capable of doing the meticulous work Fee demanded. Good for Mrs. Cleary! She was going to sweep Mary Carson right out of the house.

The phoning finished, everyone was directed to rip down the brown velvet curtains at once. Out they went onto the rubbish heap in an orgy of wastefulness Fee supervised personally, even putting the torch to them herself.

“We don’t need them,” she said, “and I’m not going to inflict them on the Gillanbone poor.”

“Yes, Mum,” said Meggie, paralyzed.

“We’re not going to have any curtains,” said Fee, not at all disturbed over a flagrant breach of the decorating customs of the time. “The veranda’s far too deep to let the sun come in directly, so why do we need curtains? I want this room to be seen.”

The materials arrived, so did the painters and the upholsterer; Meggie and Cat were sent up ladders to wash and polish the top windows while Mrs. Smith and Minnie coped with the bottom ones and Fee strode around watching everything with an eagle eye.

By the second week in January it was all done, and somehow of course the news leaked out on the party lines. Mrs. Cleary had made the Drogheda drawing room into a palace, and wouldn’t it be only the civil thing for Mrs. Hopeton to accompany Mrs. King and Mrs. O’Rourke on a welcome-to-the-big-house visit?

No one argued that the result of Fee’s efforts was absolute beauty. The cream Aubusson carpets with their faded bunches of pink and red roses and green leaves had been strewn rather haphazardly around the mirror-finished floor. Fresh cream paint covered the walls and the ceiling, every molding and carving pains-takingly picked out in gilt, but the huge oval-shaped flat spaces in the paneling had been papered with faded black silk bearing the same bunches of roses as the three carpets, like stilted Japanese paintings in cream and gilt surrounds. The Waterford chandelier had been lowered until its bottom pendant chimed a bare six and a half feet from the floor, every prism of its thousands polished to a flashing rainbow, and its great brass chain tethered to the wall instead of being bunched up. On spindly cream-and-gilt tables Waterford lamps stood next to Waterford ashtrays and Waterford vases stuffed with cream and pink roses; all the big comfortable chairs had been re-covered in cream watered silk and placed in small cozy groupings with large ottomans drawn up to each one invitingly; in one sunny corner stood the exquisite old spinet with an enormous vase of cream and pink roses on it. Above the fireplace hung the portrait of Fee’s grandmother in her pale pink crinoline, and facing her at the other end of the room was an even larger portrait of a youngish, red-haired Mary Carson, face like the youngish Queen Victoria, in a stiff black gown fashionably bustled.

Chapter 42

“All right,” said Fee, “now we can move up from the creek. I’ll do the other rooms at my leisure. Oh, isn’t it lovely to have money and a decent home to spend it on?”

About three days before they moved, so early in the morning the sun had not yet risen, the roosters in the fowl yard were cock-a-doodling joyously.

“Miserable wretches,” said Fee, wrapping old newspapers around her china. “I don’t know what they think they’ve done to crow about. Not an egg in the place for breakfast, and all the men at home until we finish moving. Meggie, you’ll have to go down to the chook yard for me; I’m busy.” She scanned a yellowed sheet of the Sydney Morning Herald, snorting over an advertisement for wasp-waisted stays. “I don’t know why Paddy insists we get all the newspapers; no one ever has time to read them. They just pile up too fast to burn in the stove. Look at this! It’s older than our tenancy of the house. Well, at least they’re handy for packing.”

It was nice to see her mother so cheerful, Meggie thought as she sped down the back steps and across the dusty yard. Though everyone was naturally looking forward to living in the big house, Mum seemed to hunger for it as if she could remember what living in a big house was like. How clever she was, what perfect taste she had! Things no one had ever realized before, because there had been neither time nor money to bring them out. Meggie hugged herself with excitement; Daddy had sent in to the Gilly jeweler and used some of the five thousand pounds to buy Mum a real pearl choker and real pearl earrings, only these had little diamonds in them as well. He was going to give them to her at their first dinner in the big house. Now that she had seen her mother’s face freed of its habitual dourness, she could hardly wait for the expression it would wear when she received her pearls. From Bob to the twins, the children were agog for that moment, because Daddy had shown them the big flat leather case, opened it to reveal the milky opalescent beads on their black velvet bed. Their mother’s blossoming happiness had affected them deeply; it was like seeing the start of a good drenching rain. Until now they had never quite understood how unhappy she must have been all the years they had known her.

The chook yard was huge, and held four roosters and upward of forty hens. At night they inhabited a tumble-down shed, its rigorously swept floor lined around the edges with straw-filled orange crates for laying, and its rear crossed by perches of various heights. But during the day the chooks strutted clucking around a large, wire-netted run. When Meggie opened the run gate and squeezed inside, the birds clustered about her greedily, thinking they would be fed, but since Meggie fed them in the evenings she laughed at their silly antics and stepped through them into the shed.

“Honestly, what a hopeless lot of chookies you are!” she lectured them severely as she poked in the nests. “Forty of you, and only fifteen eggs! Not enough for breakfast, let alone a cake. Well, I’m warning you here and now—if you don’t do something about it soon, the chopping block for the lot of you, and that applies to the lords of the coop as well as wives, so don’t spread your tails and ruffle up your necks as if I’m not including you, gentlemen!”

With the eggs held carefully in her apron, Meggie ran back to the kitchen, singing.

Fee was sitting in Paddy’s chair staring at a sheet of Smith’s Weekly, her face white, her lips moving. Inside Meggie could hear the men moving about, and the sounds of six-year-old Jims and Patsy laughing in their cot; they were never allowed up until after the men had gone.

“What’s the matter, Mum?” Meggie asked.

Fee didn’t answer, only sat staring in front of her with beads of sweat along her upper lip, eyes stilled to a desperately rational pain, as if within herself she was marshaling every resource she possessed not to scream.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Meggie called sharply, frightened.

The tone of her voice brought him out still fastening his flannel undershirt, with Bob, Jack, Hughie and Stu behind him. Meggie pointed wordlessly at her mother.

Paddy’s heart seemed to block his throat. He bent over Fee, his hand picking up one limp wrist. “What is it, dear?” he asked in tones more tender than any of his children had ever heard him use; yet somehow they knew they were the tones he used with her when they were not around to hear.

She seemed to recognize that special voice enough to emerge from her shocked trance, and the big grey eyes looked up into his face, so kind and worn, no longer young.

“Here,” she said, pointing at a small item of news toward the bottom of the page.

Stuart had gone to stand behind his mother, his hand lightly on her shoulder; before he started to read the article Paddy glanced up at his son, into the eyes so like Fee’s, and he nodded. What had roused him to jealousy in Frank could never do so in Stuart; as if their love for Fee bound them tightly together instead of separating them.

Paddy read out loud, slowly, his tone growing sadder and sadder. The little headline said: BOXER RECEIVES LIFE SENTENCE.

Francis Armstrong Cleary, aged 26, professional boxer, was convicted today in Goulburn District Court of the murder of Ronald Albert Cumming, aged 32, laborer, last July. The jury reached its verdict after only ten minutes’ deliberation, recommending the most severe punishment the court could mete out. It was, said Mr. Justice FitzHugh-Cunneally, a simple open-and-closed case. Cumming and Cleary had quarreled violently in the public bar of the Harbor Hotel on July 23rd. Later the same night Sergeant Tom Beardsmore of the Goulburn police, accompanied by two constables, was called to the Harbor Hotel by its proprietor, Mr. James Ogilvie. In the lane behind the hotel the police discovered Cleary kicking at the head of the insensible Cumming. His fists were bloodstained and bore tufts of Cumming’s hair. When arrested Cleary was drunk but lucid. He was charged with assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm, but the charge was amended to murder after Cumming died of brain injuries in the Goulburn District Hospital next day.

Mr. Arthur Whyte, K.C., entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but four medical witnesses for the Crown stated unequivocally that under the provisions of the M’Naghten rules Cleary could not be called insane. In addressing the jury,

Mr. Justice FitzHugh-Cunneally told them there was no question of guilt or innocence, the verdict was clearly guilty, but he requested them to take time considering their recommendation for either clemency or severity, as he would be guided by their opinion. When sentencing Cleary, Mr. Justice FitzHugh-Cunneally called his act “subhuman savagery,” and regretted that the drunken unpremeditated nature of the crime precluded hanging, as he regarded Cleary’s hands as a weapon quite as deadly as a gun or knife. Cleary was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, the sentence to be served in Goulburn Gaol, this institution being one designed for violently disposed prisoners. Asked if he had anything so say, Cleary answered, “Just don’t tell my mother.”

Paddy looked at the top of the page to see the date: December 6, 1925. “It happened over three years ago,” he said helplessly.

No one answered him or moved, for no one knew what to do; from the front of the house came the gleeful laughter of the twins, their high voices raised in chatter.

“‘Just—don’t—tell my mother,’” said Fee numbly. “And no one did! Oh, God! My poor, poor Frank!”

Paddy wiped the tears from his face with the back of his free hand, then squatted down in front of her, patting her lap gently.

“Fee dear, pack your things. We’ll go to him.”

She half-rose before sinking back, her eyes in her small white face starred and glistening as if dead, pupils huge and gold-filmed.

“I can’t go,” she said without a hint of agony, yet making everyone feel that the agony was there. “It would kill him to see me. Oh, Paddy, it would kill him! I know him so well—his pride, his ambition, his determination to be someone important. Let him bear the shame alone, it’s what he wants. You read it. ‘Just don’t tell my mother.’ We’ve got to help him keep his secret. What good will it do him or us to see him?”

Paddy was still weeping, but not for Frank; for the life which had gone from Fee’s face, for the dying in her eyes. A Jonah, that’s what the lad had always been; the bitter bringer of blight, forever standing between Fee and himself, the cause of her withdrawal from his heart and the hearts of his children. Every time it looked as if there might be happiness in store for Fee, Frank took it away. But Paddy’s love for her was as deep and impossible to eradicate as hers was for Frank; he could never use the lad as his whipping boy again, not after that night in the presbytery.

So he said, “Well, Fee, if you think it’s better not to attempt to get in touch with him, we won’t. Yet I’d like to know he was all right, that whatever can be done for him is being done. How about if I write to Father de Bricassart and ask him to look out for Frank?”

The eyes didn’t liven, but a faint pink stole into her cheeks. “Yes, Paddy, do that. Only make sure he knows not to tell Frank we found out. Perhaps it would ease Frank to think for certain that we don’t know.”

Chapter 43

Within a few days Fee regained most of her energy, and her interest in redecorating the big house kept her occupied. But her quietness became dour again, only less grim, encapsulated by an expressionless calm. It seemed she cared more for how the big house would eventually look than she did for her family’s welfare. Perhaps she assumed they could look after themselves spiritually, and that Mrs. Smith and the maids were there to look after them physically.

Yet the discovery of Frank’s plight had profoundly affected everyone. The older boys grieved deeply for their mother, spent sleepless nights remembering her face at that awful moment. They loved her, and her cheerfulness during the previous few weeks had given them a glimpse of her which was never to leave them, and was to inspire them with a passionate desire to bring it back again. If their father had been the pivot upon which their lives turned until then, from that moment on their mother was put alongside him. They began to treat her with a tender, absorbed care no amount of indifference on her part could banish. From Paddy to Stu the Cleary males conspired to make Fee’s life whatever she wanted, and they demanded adherence to this end from everyone. No one must ever harm her or hurt her again. And when Paddy presented her with the pearls she took them with a brief, expressionless word of thanks, no pleasure or interest in her perusal; but everyone was thinking how different her reaction would have been were it not for Frank.

Had the move to the big house not occurred, poor Meggie would have suffered a great deal more than she did, for without admitting her into full, exclusively male membership of the protect-Mum society (perhaps sensing that her participation was more grudging than theirs), her father and older brothers expected that Meggie should shoulder all the tasks Fee obviously found repugnant. As it turned out, Mrs. Smith and the maids shared the burden with Meggie. Chiefly repugnant to Fee was the care of her two youngest sons, but Mrs. Smith assumed full charge of Jims and Patsy with such ardor Meggie couldn’t feel sorry for her, instead in a way she felt glad that these two could at last belong entirely to the housekeeper. Meggie grieved for her mother, too, but by no means as wholeheartedly as the men, for her loyalties were sorely tried; the big vein of motherliness in her was deeply offended by Fee’s mounting indifference to Jims and Patsy. When I have my children, she would think to herself, I’m never going to love one of them more than the rest.

Living in the big house was certainly very different. At first it was strange to have a bedroom to oneself, and for the women, not to have to worry about any sort of household duty, inside or outside. Minnie, Cat and Mrs. Smith among them coped with everything from washing and ironing to cooking and cleaning, and were horrified by offers of help. In return for plenty of food and a small wage, an endless procession of swaggies were temporarily entered on the station books as rouseabouts, to chop the wood for the homestead fires, feed the fowls and pigs, do the milking, help old Tom take care of the lovely gardens, do all the heavy cleaning.

Paddy had been communicating with Father Ralph.

“The income from Mary’s estate comes to roughly four million pounds a year, thanks to the fact that Michar Limited is a privately owned company with most of its assets sunk in steel, ships and mining,” wrote Father Ralph. “So what I’ve assigned to you is a mere drop in the Carson bucket, and doesn’t even amount to one-tenth of Drogheda station profits in a year. Don’t worry about bad years, either. The Drogheda station account is so heavily in the black I can pay you out of its interest forever, if necessary. So what money comes to you is no more than you deserve, and doesn’t dent Michar Limited. It’s station money you’re getting, not company money. I require no more of you than to keep the station books up to date and honestly entered for the auditors.”

It was after he had this particular letter that Paddy held a conference in the beautiful drawing room on a night when everyone was at home. He sat with his steel-rimmed reading half-glasses perched on his Roman nose, in a big cream chair, his feet comfortably disposed on a matching ottoman, his pipe in a Waterford ashtray.

“How nice this is.” He smiled, looking around with pleasure. “I think we ought to give Mum a vote of thanks for it, don’t you, boys?”

There were murmurs of assent from the “boys”; Fee inclined her head from where she sat in what had been Mary Carson’s wing chair, re-covered now in cream watered silk. Meggie curled her feet around the ottoman she had chosen instead of a chair, and kept her eyes doggedly on the sock she was mending.

“Well, Father de Bricassart has sorted everything out and has been very generous,” Paddy continued. “He’s put seven thousand pounds in the bank in my name, and opened a savings account for everyone with two thousand pounds in each. I am to be paid four thousand pounds a year as the station manager, and Bob will be paid three thousand a year as the assistant manager. All the working boys—Jack, Hughie and Stu—will be paid two thousand a year, and the little boys are to get one thousand a year each until they’re old enough to decide what they want to do.

“When the little boys are grown up, the estate will guarantee each of them a yearly income equal to a full working member of Drogheda, even if they don’t want to work on Drogheda. When Jims and Patsy turn twelve, they’ll be sent to Riverview College in Sydney to board and be educated at the expense of the estate.

“Mum is to have two thousand pounds a year for herself, and so is Meggie. The household account will be kept at five thousand pounds, though why Father thinks we need so much to run a house, I don’t know. He says in case we want to make major alterations. I have his instructions as to how much Mrs. Smith, Minnie, Cat and Tom are to be paid, and I must say he’s generous. Other wages I decide on myself. But my first decision as manager is to put on at least six more stockmen, so Drogheda can be run as it should be. It’s too much for a handful.” That was the most he ever said about his sister’s management.

No one had ever heard of having so much money; they sat silent, trying to assimilate their good fortune.

“We’ll never spend the half of it, Paddy,” said Fee. “He hasn’t left us anything to spend it on.”

Paddy looked at her gently. “I know, Mum. But isn’t it nice to think we’ll never have to worry about money again?” He cleared his throat. “Now it seems to me that Mum and Meggie in particular are going to be at a bit of a loose end,” he went on. “I was never much good at figures, but Mum can add and subtract and divide and multiply like an arithmetic teacher. So Mum is going to be the Drogheda bookkeeper, instead of Harry Gough’s office. I never realized it, but Harry has employed one chap just to deal with Drogheda’s accounts, and at the moment he’s a man short, so he doesn’t mind passing it back to us at all. In fact, he was the one who suggested Mum might make a good bookkeeper. He’s going to send someone out from Gilly to teach you properly, Mum. It’s quite complicated, apparently. You’ve got to balance the ledgers, the cash books, the journals, record everything in the log book, and so on. Enough to keep you pretty busy, only it won’t take the starch out of you the way cooking and washing did, will it?”

It was on the tip of Meggi’s tongue to shout: What about me? I did just as much washing and cooking as Mum!

Fee was actually smiling, for the first time since the news about Frank. “I’ll enjoy the job, Paddy, really I will. It will make me feel like a part of Drogheda.”

“Bob is going to teach you how to drive the new Rolls, because you’re going to have to be the one to go into Gilly to the bank and see Harry.” Besides, it will do you good to know you can drive anywhere you want without depending on one of us being around. We’re too isolated out here. I’ve always meant to teach you girls how to drive, but there’s never been the time before. All right, Fee?”

“All right, Paddy,” she said happily.

“Now, Meggie, we’ve got to deal with you.”

Meggie laid her sock and needle down, looked up at her father in a mixture of inquiry and resentment, sure she knew what he was going to say: her mother would be busy with the books, so it would be her job to supervise the house and its environs.

“I’d hate to see you turn into an idle, snobby miss like some of the graziers’ daughters we know,” Paddy said with a smile which robbed his words of any contempt. “So I’m going to put you to work at a full-time job, too, wee Meggie. You’re going to look after the inside paddocks for us—Borehead, Creek, Carson, Winnemurra and North Tank. You’re also going to look after the Home Paddock. You’ll be responsible for the stock horses, which ones are working and which ones are being spelled. During musters and lambing we’ll all pitch in together, of course, but otherwise you’ll manage on your own, I reckon. Jack can teach you to work the dogs and use a stock whip. You’re a terrible tomboy still, so I thought you might like to work in the paddocks more than lie around the house,” he finished, smiling more broadly than ever.

Resentment and discontent had flown out the window while he talked; he was once more Daddy, who loved her and thought of her. What had been the matter with her, to doubt him so? She was so ashamed of herself she felt like jabbing the big darning needle into her leg, but she was too happy to contemplate self-infliction of pain for very long, and anyway, it was just an extravagant way of expressing her remorse.

Chapter 44

Her face shone. “Oh, Daddy, I’ll love it!”

“What about me, Daddy?” asked Stuart.

“The girls don’t need you around the house anymore, so you’ll be out in the paddocks again, Stu.”

“All right, Daddy.” He looked at Fee longingly, but said nothing.

Fee and Meggie learned to drive the new Rolls-Royce Mary Carson had taken delivery of a week before she died, and Meggie learned to work the dogs while Fee learned to keep the books.

If it hadn’t been for Father Ralph’s continued absence, Meggie for one would have been absolutely happy. This was what she had always longed to do: be out there in the paddocks astride a horse, doing stockman’s work. Yet the ache for Father Ralph was always there, too, the memory of his kiss something to be dreamed about, treasured, felt again a thousand times. However, memory wasn’t a patch on reality; try as she would, the actual sensation couldn’t be conjured up, only a shadow of it, like a thin sad cloud.

When he wrote to tell them about Frank, her hopes that he would use this as a pretext to visit them were abruptly shatttered. His description of the trip to see, Frank in Goulburn Gaol was carefully worded, stripped of the pain it had engendered, giving no hint of Frank’s steadily worsening psychosis. He had tried vainly to have Frank committed to Morisset asylum for the criminally insane, but no one had listened. So he simply passed on an idealistic image of a Frank resigned to paying for his sins to society, and in a passage heavily underlined told Paddy Frank had no idea they knew what had happened. It had come to his ears, he assured Frank, through Sydney newspapers, and he would make sure the family never knew. After being told this, Frank settled better, he said, and left it at that.

Paddy talked of selling Father Ralph’s chestnut mare. Meggie used the rangy black gelding she had ridden for pleasure as a stock horse, for it was lighter-mouthed and nicer in nature than the moody mares or mean geldings in the yards. Stock horses were intelligent, and rarely placid. Even a total absence of stallions didn’t make them very amiable animals.

“Oh, please, Daddy, I can ride the chestnut, too!” Meggie pleaded. “Think how awful it would be if after all his kindnesses to us, Father should come back to visit and discover we had sold his horse!”

Paddy stared at her thoughtfully. “Meggie, I don’t think Father will come back.”

“But he might! You never know!”

The eyes so like Fee’s were too much for him; he couldn’t bring himself to hurt her more than she was already hurt, poor little thing. “All right then, Meggie, we’ll keep the mare, but make sure you use both the mare and the gelding regularly, for I won’t have a fat horse on Drogheda, do you hear?”

Until then she hadn’t liked to use Father Ralph’s own mount, but after that she alternated to give both the animals in the stables a chance to work off their oats.

It was just as well Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat doted on the twins, for with Meggie out in the paddocks and Fee sitting for hours at her escritoire in the drawing room, the two little fellows had a wonderful time. They were into everything, but with such glee and constant good humor that no one could be angry with them for very long. At night in her little house Mrs. Smith, long converted to Catholicism, knelt to her prayers with such deep thankfulness in her heart she could scarcely contain it. Children of her own had never come to gladden her when Rob had been alive, and for years the big house had been childless, its occupants forbidden to mix with the inhabitants of the stockmen’s houses down by the creek. But when the Clearys came they were Mary Carson’s kin, and there were children at last. Especially now, with Jims and Patsy permanent residents of the big house.

It had been a dry winter, and the summer rains didn’t come. Knee-high and lush, the tawny grass dried out in the stark sun until even the inner core of each blade was crisp. To look across the paddocks required slitted eyes and a hat brim drawn far down on the forehead; the grass was mirror-silver, and little spiral whirlwinds sped busily among shimmering blue mirages, transferring dead leaves and fractured grass blades from one restless heap to another.

Oh, but it was dry! Even the trees were dry, the bark falling from them in stiff, crunchy ribbons. No danger yet of the sheep starving—the grass would last another year at least, maybe more—but no one liked to see everything so dry. There was always a good chance the rain would not come next year, or the year after. In a good year they got ten to fifteen inches, in a bad year less than five, perhaps close to none at all.

In spite of the heat and the flies, Meggie loved life out in the paddocks, walking the chestnut mare behind a bleating mob of sheep while the dogs lay flat on the ground, tongues lolling, deceptively inattentive. Let one sheep bolt out of the tightly packed cluster and the nearest dog would be away, a streak of vengeance, sharp teeth hungering to nip into a hapless heel.

Meggie rode ahead of her mob, a welcome relief after breathing their dust for several miles, and opened the paddock gate. She waited patiently while the dogs, reveling in this chance to show her what they could do, bit and goaded the sheep through. It was harder mustering and droving cattle, for they kicked or charged, often killing an unwary dog; that was when the human herdsman had to be ready to do his bit, use his whip, but the dogs loved the spice of danger working cattle. However, to drove cattle was not required of her; Paddy attended to that himself.

But the dogs never ceased to fascinate her; their intelligence was phenomenal. Most of the Drogheda dogs were kelpies, coated in rich brownish tan with creamy paws, chests and eyebrows, but there were Queensland blues too, larger, with blue-grey coats dappled in black, and all varieties of crossbreds between kelpie and blue. The bitches came in heat, were scientifically mated, increased and whelped; after weaning and growing, their pups were tried out in the paddocks, and if good were kept or sold, if no good shot.

Whistling her dogs to heel, Meggie shut the gate on the mob and turned the chestnut mare toward home. Nearby was a big stand of trees, stringybark and iron-bark and black box, an occasional wilga on its outskirts. She rode into its shade thankfully, and having now the leisure to look around, let her eyes roam in delight. The gums were full of budgies, skawking and whistling their parodies of songbirds; finches wheeled from branch to branch; two sulphur-crested cockatoos sat with their heads to one side watching her progress with twinkling eyes; willy-wagtails fossicked in the dirt for ants, their absurd rumps bobbing; crows carked eternally and mournfully. Theirs was the most obnoxious noise in the whole bush song repertoire, so devoid of joy, desolate and somehow soul-chilling, speaking of rotting flesh, of carrion and blowflies. To think of a crow singing like a bellbird was impossible; cry and function fitted perfectly.

Of course there were flies everywhere; Meggie wore a veil over her hat, but her bare arms were constantly plagued, and the chestnut mare’s tail never stopped swishing, its flesh never stopped shivering and creeping for a second. It amazed Meggie that even through the thickness of hide and hair, a horse could feel something as delicate and airy as a fly. They drank sweat, which was why they tormented horses and humans so, but humans never let them do what sheep did, so they used the sheep for a more intimate purpose, laying their eggs around the rump wool, or wherever the wool was damp and dirty.

The air was full of the noise of bees, and alive with brilliant quick dragonflies seeking out the bore drains, alive with exquisitely colored butterflies and day moths. Her horse turned over a piece of rotting log with a hoof; Meggie stared at its underside, her skin crawling. There were witchetty grubs, fat and white and loathsome, wood lice and slugs, huge centipedes and spiders. From burrows rabbits hopped and skittled, flashed back inside with white powder puffs up in the air, then turned to peer out, noses twitching. Farther on an echidna broke off its quest after ants, panicked at her approach. Burrowing so fast that its strong clawed feet were hidden in seconds, it began to disappear under a huge log. Its antics as it dug were amusing, the cruel spines lying flat all over its body to streamline its entry into the ground, earth flying in heaps.

She came out of the timber on the main track to the homestead. A sheet of dappled grey occupied its dust, galahs picking for insects or grubs, but as they heard her coming they took to the air en masse. It was like being inundated by a magenta-pink wave; breasts and underwings soared above her head, the grey turned magically to rich pink. If I had to leave Drogheda tomorrow, she thought, never again to come back, in my dreams I’d live Drogheda in a wash of pink galah undersides…. It must be getting very dry farther out; the kangas are coming in, more and more of them….

A great mob of kangaroos, maybe two thousand strong, was startled out of its placid grazing by the galahs and took off into the distance in long, graceful leaps which swallowed the leagues faster than any other animal save the emu. Horses couldn’t keep up with them.

In between these delightful bouts of nature-studying she thought of Ralph, as always. Privately Meggie had never catalogued what she felt for him as a schoolgirl crush, simply called it love, as they did in books. Her symptoms and feelings were no different from those of an Ethel M. Dell heroine. Nor did it seem fair that a barrier as artificial as his priesthood could stand between her and what she wanted of him, which was to have him as her husband. To live with him as Daddy did with Mum, in such harmony he would adore her the way Daddy did Mum. It had never seemed to Meggie that her mother did very much to earn her father’s adoration, yet worship her he did. So Ralph would soon see that to live with her was far better than living on his own; for it had not dawned upon her that Ralph’s priesthood was something he could not abandon under any circumstances. Yes, she knew it was forbidden to have a priest as husband or lover, but she had got into the habit of getting around it by stripping Ralph of his religious office. Her formal education in Catholicism had never advanced to discussions of the nature of priestly vows, and she was not herself in need of religion, so didn’t pursue it voluntarily. Obtaining no satisfaction from praying, Meggie obeyed the laws of the Church simply because not to do so meant burning in Hell throughout eternity.

Chapter 45

In her present daydream she rambled through the bliss of living with him and sleeping with him, as Daddy did with Mum. Then the thought of his nearness excited her, made her shift in the saddle restlessly; she translated it into a deluge of kisses, having no other criterion. Riding the paddocks hadn’t advanced her sexual education at all, for the mere sniff of a dog in the far distance drove all desire to mate out of any animal’s mind, and as on all stations, indiscriminate mating was not allowed. When the rams were sent among the ewes of a particular paddock, Meggie was dispatched elsewhere, and the sight of one dog humping another was simply the signal to flick the pair with her whip, stop their “playing.”

Perhaps no human being is equipped to judge which is worse; inchoate longing with its attendant restlessness and irritability, or specific desire with its willful drive to achieve the desire. Poor Meggie longed, quite what for she didn’t know, but the basic pull was there, and it dragged her inexorably in the direction of Ralph de Bricassart. So she dreamed of him, yearned for him, wanted him; and mourned, that in spite of his declared love for her she meant so little to him that he never came to see her.

Into the middle of her thoughts rode Paddy, heading for the homestead on the same course as she was; smiling, she reined in the chestnut mare and waited for him to catch up.

“What a nice surprise,” said Paddy, walking his old roan beside his daughter’s middle-aged mare.

“Yes, it is,” she said. “Is it dry farther out?”

“A bit worse than this, I think. Lord, I’ve never seen so many kangas! It must be bone dry out Milparinka way. Martin King was talking of a big shoot, but I don’t see how an army of machine guns could reduce the number of kangas by enough to see the difference.”

He was so nice, so thoughtful and forgiving and loving; and it was rarely that she ever had the chance to be with him without at least one of the boys in attendance. Before she could change her mind, Meggie asked the doubting question, the one which gnawed and preyed in spite of all her internal reassurances.

“Daddy, why doesn’t Father de Bricassart ever come to see us?”

“He’s busy, Meggie,” Paddy answered, but his voice had become wary.

“But even priests have holidays, don’t they? He used to love Drogheda so, I’m sure he’d want to spend his holidays here.”

“In one way priests have holidays, Meggie, but in another way they’re never off duty. For instance, every day of their lives they have to say Mass, even if quite alone. I think Father de Bricassart is a very wise man, and knows that it’s never possible to go back to a way of life that’s gone. For him, wee Meggie, Drogheda’s a bit of the past. If he came back, it wouldn’t give him the same sort of pleasure it used to.”

“You mean he’s forgotten us,” she said dully.

“No, not really. If he had, he wouldn’t write so often, or demand news about each of us.” He turned in his saddle, his blue eyes pitying. “I think it’s best that he doesn’t ever come back, so I don’t encourage him to think of it by inviting him.”

“Daddy!”

Paddy plunged into muddy waters doggedly. “Look, Meggie, it’s wrong for you to dream about a priest, and it’s time you understood that. You’ve kept your secret pretty well, I don’t think anyone else knows how you feel about him, but it’s to me your questions come, isn’t it? Not many, but enough. Now take it from me, you’ve got to stop, hear it? Father de Bricassart took holy vows I know he has absolutely no intention of breaking, and you’ve mistaken his fondness for you. He was a grown man when he met you, and you were a little girl. Well, that’s how he thinks of you, Meggie, to this very day.”

She didn’t answer, nor did her face change. Yes, he thought, she’s Fee’s daughter, all right.

After a while she said tautly, “But he could stop being a priest. It’s just that I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it.”

The shock on Paddy’s face was too genuine not to believe it, so Meggie found it more convincing than his words, vehement though they were.

“Meggie! Oh, good God, that’s the worst of this bush existence! You ought to be in school, my girl, and if Auntie Mary had died sooner I would have packed you off to Sydney in time to get at least a couple of years under your belt. But you’re too old, aren’t you? I wouldn’t have them laugh at you at your age, poor wee Meggie.” He continued more gently, spacing his words to give them a sharp, lucid cruelty, though it was not his intention to be cruel, only to dispel illusions once and for all. “Father de Bricassart is a priest, Meggie. He can never, never stop being a priest, understand that. The vows he took are sacred, too solemn to break. Once a man is a priest there can be no turning away, and his supervisors in the seminary make absolutely sure that he knows what he’s swearing before he does. A man who takes those vows knows beyond any doubt that once taken they can’t be broken, ever. Father de Bricassart took them, and he’ll never break them.” He sighed. “Now you know, Meggie, don’t you? From this moment you have no excuse to daydream about Father de Bricassart.”

They had come in from the front of the homestead, so the stables were closer than the stockyards; without a word, Meggie turned the chestnut mare toward the stables, and left her father to continue alone. For a while he kept turning around to look after her, but when she had disappeared inside the fence around the stables he dug his roan in the ribs and finished his ride at a canter, hating himself and the necessity of saying what he had. Damn the man-woman thing! It seemed to have a set of rules at variance with all others.

Father Ralph de Bricassart’s voice was very cold, yet it was warmer than his eyes, which never veered from the young priest’s pallid face as he spoke his stiff, measured words.

“You have not conducted yourself as Our Lord Jesus Christ demands His priests conduct themselves. I think you know it better than we who censure you could ever know it, but I must still censure you on behalf of your Archbishop, who stands to you not only as a fellow priest but as your superior. You owe him perfect obedience, and it is not your place to argue with his sentiments or his decisions.

“Do you really understand the disgrace you’ve brought on yourself, on your parish, and especially on the Church you purport to love more than any human being? Your vow of chastity was as solemn and binding as your other vows, and to break it is to sin grievously. You will never see the woman again, of course, but it behooves us to assist you in your struggles to overcome temptation. Therefore we have arranged that you leave immediately for duty in the parish of Darwin, in the Northern Territory. You will proceed to Brisbane tonight on the express train, and from there you will proceed, again by train, to Longreach. In Longreach you will board a Qantas plane for Darwin. Your belongings are being packed at this moment and will be on the express before it departs, so there is no need for you to return to your present parish.

“Now go to the chapel with Father John and pray. You will remain in the chapel until it is time to join the train. For your comfort and consolation, Father John will travel with you to Darwin. You are dismissed.”

They were wise and aware, the priests in administration; they would permit the sinner no opportunity to have further contact with the young girl he had taken as his mistress. It had become the scandal of his present parish, and very embarrassing. As for the girl—let her wait, and watch, and wonder. From now until he arrived in Darwin he would be watched by the excellent Father John, who had his orders, then after that every letter he sent from Darwin would be opened, and he would not be allowed to make any long-distance phone calls. She would never know where he had gone, and he would never be able to tell her. Nor would he be given any chance to take up with another girl. Darwin was a frontier town; women were almost nonexistent. His vows were absolute, he could never be released from them; if he was too weak to police himself, the Church must do it for him.

After he had watched the young priest and his appointed watchdog go from the room, Father Ralph got up from his desk and walked through to an inner chamber. Archbishop Cluny Dark was sitting in his customary chair, and at right angles to him another man in purple sash and skullcap sat quietly. The Archbishop was a big man, with a shock of beautiful white hair and intensely blue eyes; he was a vital sort of fellow, with a keen sense of humor and a great love of the table. His visitor was quite the antithesis; small and thin, a few sparse strands of black hair around his skullcap and beneath them an angular, ascetic face, a sallow skin with a heavy beard shadow, and large dark eyes. In age he might have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, but in actual fact he was thirty-nine, three years older than Father Ralph de Bricassart.

“Sit down, Father, have a cup of tea,” said the Archbishop heartily. “I was beginning to think we’d have to send for a fresh pot. Did you dismiss the young man with a suitable admonition to mend his conduct?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” said Father Ralph briefly, and seated himself in the third chair around the tea table, loaded with wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches, pink and white iced fairy cakes, hot buttered scones with crystal dishes of jam and whipped cream, a silver tea service and Aynsley china cups washed with a delicate coating of gold leaf.

 

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