The Thorn Bird (Chapter 46-50)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 46

“Such incidents are regrettable, my dear Archbishop, but even we who are ordained the priests of Our Dear Lord are weak, all-too-human creatures. I find it in my heart to pity him deeply, and I shall pray tonight that he finds more strength in the future,” the visitor said.

His accent was distinctly foreign, his voice soft, with a hint of sibilance in its s’s. By nationality he was Italian, by title he was His Grace the Archbishop Papal Legate to the Australian Catholic Church, and by name he was Vittorio Scarbanza di Contini-Verchese. His was the delicate role of providing a link between the Australian hierarchy and the Vatican nerve center; which meant he was the most important priest in this section of the world.

Before being given this appointment he had of course hoped for the United States of America, but on thinking about it he decided Australia would do very nicely. If in population though not in area it was a much smaller country, it was also far more Catholic. Unlike the rest of the English-speaking world, it was no social comedown in Australia to be Catholic, no handicap to an aspiring politician or businessman or judge. And it was a rich country, it supported the Church well. No need to fear he would be forgotten by Rome while he was in Australia.

The Archbishop Papal Legate was also a very subtle man, and his eyes over the gold rim of his teacup were fixed not on Archbishop Cluny Dark but on Father Ralph de Bricassart, soon to become his own secretary. That Archbishop Dark liked the priest enormously was a well-known fact, but the Archbishop Papal Legate was wondering how well he was going to like such a man. They were all so big, these Irish-Australian priests, they towered far above him; he was so weary of forever having to tilt his head up to see their faces. Father de Bricassart’s manner to his present master was perfect: light, easy, respectful but man-to-man, full of humor. How would he adjust to working for a far different master? It was customary to appoint the Legatal secretary from the ranks of the Italian Church, but Father Ralph de Bricassart held great interest for the Vatican. Not only did he have the curious distinction of being personally rich (contrary to popular opinion, his superiors were not empowered to take his money from him, and he had not volunteered to hand it over), but he had single-handedly brought a great fortune into the Church. So the Vatican had decided that the Archbishop Papal Legate was to take Father de Bricassart as his secretary, to study the young man and find out exactly what he was like.

One day the Holy Father would have to reward the Australian Church with a cardinal’s biretta, but it would not be yet. Therefore it was up to him to study priests in Father de Bricassart’s age group, and of these Father de Bricassart was clearly the leading candidate. So be it. Let Father de Bricassart try his mettle against an Italian for a while. It might be interesting. But why couldn’t the man have been just a little smaller?

As he sipped his tea gratefully Father Ralph was unusually quiet. The Archbishop Papal Legate noticed that he ate a small sandwich triangle and eschewed the other delicacies, but drank four cups of tea thirstily, adding neither sugar nor milk. Well, that was what his report said; in his personal living habits the priest was remarkably abstemious, his only weakness being a good (and very fast) car.

“Your name is French, Father,” said the Archbishop Papal Legate softly, “but I understand you are an Irishman. How comes this phenomenon? Was your family French, then?”

Father Ralph shook his head, smiling. “It’s a Norman name, Your Grace, very old and honorable. I am a direct descendant of one Ranulf de Bricassart, who was a baron in the court of William the Conqueror. In 1066 he came to invade England with William, and one of his sons took English land. The family prospered under the Norman kings of England, and later on some of them crossed the Irish Sea during the time of Henry the Fourth, and settled within the Pale. When Henry the Eighth removed the English Church from Rome’s authority we kept the faith of William, which meant we felt we owed our first allegiance to Rome, not to London. But when Cromwell set up the Commonwealth we lost our lands and titles, and they were never restored to us. Charles had English favorites to reward with Irish land. It is not causeless, you know, the Irish hatred of the English.

“However, we descended to relative obscurity, still loyal to the Church, and to Rome. My older brother has a successful stud farm in County Meath, and hopes to breed a Derby or a Grand National winner. I am the second son, and it has always been a family tradition that the second son embrace the Church if he feels the wish for it. I’m very proud of my name and my lineage, you know. For fifteen hundred years there have been de Bricassarts.”

Ah, that was good! An old, aristocratic name and a perfect record of keeping the faith through emigrations and persecutions.

“And the Ralph?”

“A constriction of Ranulf, Your Grace.”

“I see.”

“I’m going to miss you greatly, Father,’ said Archbishop Cluny Dark, piling jam and whipped cream on half a scone and popping it whole into his mouth.

Father Ralph laughed at him. “You place me in a dilemma, Your Grace! Here I am seated between my old master and my new, and if I answer to please one, I must displease the other. But may I say I shall miss Your Grace, while looking forward to serving Your Grace?”

It was well said, a diplomat’s answer. Archbishop di Contini-Verchese began to think he might do well with such a secretary. But too good-looking by far, with those fine features, the striking coloring, the magnificent body.

Father Ralph lapsed back into silence, staring at the tea table without seeing it. He was seeing the young priest he had just disciplined, the look in those already tormented eyes as he realized they were not even going to let him say goodbye to his girl. Dear God, what if it had been him, and the girl Meggie? One could get away with it for a while if one was discreet; forever if one limited women to the yearly vacation away from the parish. But let a serious devotion to one woman enter the picture and they would inevitably find out.

There were times when only kneeling on the marble floor of the palace chapel until he was stiff with physical pain prevented him from catching the next train back to Gilly and Drogheda. He had told himself that he was simply the victim of loneliness, that he missed the human affection he had known on Drogheda. He told himself nothing had changed when he yielded to a passing weakness and kissed Meggie back; that his love for her was still located in realms of fancy and delight, that it had not passed into a different world which had a distracting, disturbing wholeness to it the earlier dreams had not. For he couldn’t admit anything had changed, and he kept Meggie in his mind as a little girl, shutting out any visions which might contradict this.

He had been wrong. The pain didn’t fade. It seemed to grow worse, and in a colder, uglier way. Before, his loneliness had been an impersonal thing, he had never been able to say to himself that the presence in his life of any one being could remedy it. But now loneliness had a name: Meggie. Meggie, Meggie, Meggie…

He came out of his reverie to find Archbishop di Contini-Verchese staring at him unwinkingly, and those large dark eyes were far more dangerously omniscient than the round vivid orbs of his present master. Far too intelligent to pretend there was nothing causing his brown study, Father Ralph gave his master-to-be as penetrating a look as he was receiving, then smiled faintly and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say: Every man has sadness in him, and it is no sin to remember a grief.

“Tell me, Father, has the sudden slump in economic affairs affected your charge?” the Italian prelate asked smoothly.

“So far we have nothing to worry about, Your Grace. Michar Limited isn’t easily affected by fluctuations in the market. I should imagine those whose fortunes are less carefully invested than Mrs. Carson’s are the ones who stand to lose the most. Of course the station Drogheda won’t do as well; the price of wool is falling. However, Mrs. Carson was too clever to sink her money into rural pursuits; she preferred the solidity of metal. Though to my mind this is an excellent time to buy land, not only stations in the country but houses and buildings in the major cities. Prices are ridiculously low, but they can’t remain low forever. I don’t see how we can lose on real estate in years to come if we buy now. The Depression will be over one day.”

“Quite,” said the Archbishop Papal Legate. So not only was Father de Bricassart something of a diplomat, he was also something of a businessman as well! Truly Rome had better keep her eye upon him.

9

But it was 1930, and Drogheda knew all about the Depression. Men were out of work all over Australia. Those who could stopped paying rent and tying themselves down to the futility of looking for work when there was none. Left to fend alone, wives and children lived in humpies on municipal land and queued for the dole; fathers and husbands had gone tramping. A man stowed his few essentials inside his blanket, tied it with thongs and slung it across his back before setting out on the track, hoping at least for handouts of food from the stations he crossed, if not employment. Humping a bluey through the Outback beat sleeping in the Sydney Domain.

The price of food was low, and Paddy stocked the Drogheda pantries and storehouses to overflowing. A man could always be sure of having his tuckerbag filled when he arrived on Drogheda. The strange thing was that the parade of drifters constantly changed; once full of a good hot meal and loaded with provisions for the track, they made no attempt to remain, but wandered on in search of only they knew what. Not every place was as hospitable or generous as Drogheda by any means, which only added to the puzzle of why men on the track seemed not to want to stay. Perhaps the weariness and the purposelessness of having no home, no place to go, made them continue to drift. Most managed to live, some died and if found were buried before the crows and pigs picked their bones clean. The Outback was a huge place, and lonely.

Chapter 47

But Stuart was permanently in residence again, and the shotgun was never far from the cookhouse door. Good stockmen were easy to come by, and Paddy had nine single men on his books in the old jackaroo barracks, so Stuart could be spared from the paddocks. Fee stopped keeping cash lying about, and had Stuart make a camouflaged cupboard for the safe behind the chapel altar. Few of the swaggies were bad men. Bad men preferred to stay in the cities and the big country towns, for life on the track was too pure, too lonely and scant of pickings for bad men. Yet no one blamed Paddy for not wanting to take chances with his women; Drogheda was a very famous name, and might conceivably attract what few undesirables there were on the track.

That winter brought bad storms, some dry, some wet, and the following spring and summer brought rain so heavy that Drogheda grass grew lusher and longer than ever.

Jims and Patsy were plowing through their correspondence lessons at Mrs. Smith’s kitchen table, and chattered now of what it would be like when it was time to go to Riverview, their boarding school. But Mrs. Smith would grow so sharp and sour at such talk that they learned not to speak of leaving Drogheda when she was within hearing distance.

The dry weather came back; the thigh-high grass dried out completely and baked to a silver crisp in a rainless summer. Inured by ten years of the black-soil plains to the hey-ho, up we go, hey-ho, down we go oscillations of drought and flood, the men shrugged and went about each day as if it were the only one that could ever matter. This was true; the main business was essentially to survive between one good year and the next, whenever it might be. No one could predict the rain. There was a man in Brisbane called Inigo Jones who wasn’t bad at long-range weather predictions, using a novel concept of sun spot activity, but out on the black-soil plains no one put much credence in what he had to say. Let Sydney and Melbourne brides petition him for forecasts; the black-soil plainsmen would stick with that old sensation in their bones.

In the winter of 1932 the dry storms came back, along with bitter cold, but the lush grass kept dust to a minimum and the flies weren’t as numerous as usual. No consolation to the freshly shorn sheep, which shivered miserably. Mrs. Dominic O’Rourke, who lived in a wooden house of no particular distinction, adored to entertain visitors from Sydney; one of the highlights of her tour program was paying a call at Drogheda homestead, to show her visitors that even out on the black-soil plains some people lived graciously. And the subject would always turn to those skinny, drowned-rat-looking sheep, left to face the winter minus the five- and six-inch-long fleeces they would have grown by the time summer heat arrived. But, as Paddy said gravely to one such visitor, it made for better wool. The wool was the thing, not the sheep. Not long after he made that statement a letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, demanding prompt parliamentary legislation to end what it called “grazier cruelty.” Poor Mrs. O’Rourke was horrified, but Paddy laughed until his sides ached.

“Just as well the silly bloke never saw a shearer rip up a sheep’s belly and sew it with a baling needle,” he comforted the embarrassed Mrs. O’Rourke. “It’s not worth getting upset about, Mrs. Dominic. Down in the city they don’t know how the other half lives, and they can afford the luxury of doting on their animals as if they were children. Out here it’s different. You’ll never see man, woman or child in need of help go ignored out here, yet in the city those same people who dote on their pets will completely ignore a cry of help from a human being.”

Fee looked up. “He’s right, Mrs. Dominic,” she said. “We all have contempt for whatever there’s too many of. Out here it’s sheep, but in the city it’s people.”

Only Paddy was far afield that day in August when the big storm broke. He got down from his horse, tied the animal securely to a tree and sat beneath a wilga to wait it out. Shivering in fear, his five dogs huddled together near him, while the sheep he had been intending to transfer to another paddock scattered into jumpy little groups trotting aimlessly in all directions. And it was a terrible storm, reserving the worst of its fury until the center of the maelstrom was directly overhead. Paddy stuffed his fingers in his ears, shut his eyes and prayed.

Not far from where he sat with the down-dropping wilga leaves clashing restlessly in the rising wind was a small collection of dead stumps and logs surrounded by tall grass. In the middle of the white, skeletal heap was one massive dead gum, its bare body soaring forty feet toward the night-black clouds, spindling at its top into a sharp, jagged point.

A blossoming blue fire so bright it seared his eyes through their closed lids made Paddy jump to his feet, only to be thrown down like a toy in the heave of a huge explosion. He lifted his face from the earth to see the final glory of the lightning bolt playing shimmering halos of glaring blue and purple all up and down the dead spear of gum tree; then, so quickly he hardly had time to understand what was happening, everything caught fire. The last drop of moisture had long since evaporated from the tissues of that decayed cluster, and the grass everywhere was long and dry as paper. Like some defiant answer of the earth to the sky, the giant tree shot a pillar of flame far beyond its tip, the logs and stumps around it went up at the same moment, and in a circle from around the center great sheets of fire swept in the swirling wind, round and round and round. Paddy had not even time to reach his horse.

The parched wilga caught and the gum resin at its tender heart exploded outward. There were solid walls of fire in every direction Paddy looked; the trees were burning fiercely and the grass beneath his feet was roaring into flames. He could hear his horse screaming and his heart went out to it; he could not leave the poor beast to die tied up and helpless. A dog howled, its howl changing to a shriek of agony almost human. For a moment it flared and danced, a living torch, then subsided into the blazing grass. More howls as the other dogs, fleeing, were enveloped by the racing fire, faster in the gale than anything on foot or wing. A streaming meteor scorched his hair as he stood for a millisecond debating which way was the best to get to his horse; he looked down to see a great cockatoo roasting at his feet.

Suddenly Paddy knew this was the end. There was no way out of the inferno for himself or his horse. Even as he thought it, a desiccated stringybark behind him shot flames in every direction, the gum in it exploding. The skin on Paddy’s arm shriveled and blackened, the hair of his head dimmed at last by something brighter. To die so is indescribable; for fire works its way from outside to in. The last things that go, finally cooked to the point of nonfunction, are brain and heart. His clothes on fire, Paddy capered screaming and screaming through the holocaust. And every awful cry was his wife’s name.

All the other men made it back to Drogheda homestead ahead of the storm, turned their mounts into the stockyard and headed for either the big house or the jackaroo barracks. In Fee’s brightly lit drawing room with a log fire roaring in the cream-and-pink marble fireplace the Cleary boys sat listening to the storm, not tempted these days to go outside and watch it. The beautiful pungent smell of burning eucalyptus wood in the grate and the heaped cakes and sandwiches on the afternoon tea trolley were too alluring. No one expected Paddy to make it in.

About four o’clock the clouds rolled away to the east, and everyone unconsciously breathed easier; somehow it was impossible to relax during a dry storm, even though every building on Drogheda was equipped with a lightning conductor. Jack and Bob got up and went outside to get a little fresh air, they said, but in reality to release pent breath.

“Look!” said Bob, pointing westward.

Above the trees that ringed the Home Paddock round, a great bronze pall of smoke was growing, its margins torn to tattered streamers in the high wind.

“God Jesus!” Jack cried, running inside to the telephone.

“Fire, fire!” he shouted into the receiver, while those still inside the room turned to gape at him, then ran outside to see. “Fire on Drogheda, and a big one!” Then he hung up; it was all he needed to say to the Gilly switch and to those along the line who habitually picked up when the first tinkle came. Though there had not been a big fire in the Gilly district since the Clearys had come to Drogheda, everyone knew the routine.

The boys scattered to get horses, and the stockmen were piling out of the jackaroo barracks, while Mrs. Smith unlocked one of the storehouses and doled out hessian bags by the dozen. The smoke was in the west and the wind was blowing from that direction, which meant the fire would be heading for the homestead. Fee took off her long skirt and put on a pair of Paddy’s pants, then ran with Meggie for the stables; every pair of hands capable of holding a bag would be needed.

In the cookhouse Mrs. Smith stoked up the range firebox and the maids began bringing down huge pots from their ceiling hooks.

“Just as well we killed a steer yesterday,” said the housekeeper. “Minnie, here’s the key to the liquor storehouse. You and Cat fetch all the beer and rum we’ve got, then start making damper bread while I carry on with the stew. And hurry, hurry!”

The horses, unsettled by the storm, had smelled smoke and were hard to saddle; Fee and Meggie backed the two trampling, restive thoroughbreds outside the stable into the yard to tackle them better. As Meggie wrestled with the chestnut mare two swaggies came pounding down the track from the Gilly road.
Chapter 48

“Fire, Missus, fire! Got a couple of spare horses? Give us a few bags.”

“Down that way to the stockyards. Dear God, I hope none of you are caught out there!” said Meggie, who didn’t know where her father was.

The two men grabbed hessian bags and water bags from Mrs. Smith; Bob and the men had been gone five minutes. The two swaggies followed, and last to leave, Fee and Meggie rode at a gallop down to the creek, across it and away toward the smoke.

Behind them Tom, the garden rouseabout, finished filling the big water truck from the bore-drain pump, then started the engine. Not that any amount of water short of a downpour from the sky would help put out a fire this big, but he would be needed to keep the bags damp, and the people wielding them. As he shoved the truck down into bottom gear to grind up the far creek bank he looked back for a moment at the empty head stockman’s house, the two vacant houses beyond it; there was the homestead’s soft underbelly, the only place where flammable things came close enough to the trees on the far side of the creek to catch. Old Tom looked westward, shook his head in sudden decision, and managed to get the truck back across the creek and up the near bank in reverse. They’d never stop that fire out in the paddocks; they’d return. On top of the gully and just beside the head stockman’s house, in which he had been camping, he attached the hose to the tank and began saturating the building, then passed beyond it to the two smaller dwellings, hosed them down. This was where he could help the most; keep those three homes so wet they’d never catch.

As Meggie rode beside Fee the ominous cloud in the west grew, and stronger and stronger on the wind came the smell of burning. It was growing dark; creatures fleeing from the west came thicker and thicker across the paddock, kangaroos and wild pigs, frightened sheep and cattle, emus and goannas, rabbits by the thousands. Bob was leaving the gates open, she noticed as she rode from Borehead into Billa-Billa; every paddock on Drogheda had a name. But sheep were so stupid they would blunder into a fence and stop three feet from an open gate, never see it.

The fire had gone ten miles when they reached it, and it was spreading laterally as well, along a front expanding with every second. As the long dry grass and the high wind took it leaping from timber stand to timber stand they sat their frightened, jobbing horses and looked into the west helplessly. No use trying to stop it here; an army couldn’t stop it here. They would have to go back to the homestead and defend that if they could. Already the front was five miles wide; if they didn’t push their weary mounts they too would be caught, and passed. Too bad for the sheep, too bad. But it couldn’t be helped.

Old Tom was still hosing the houses by the creek when they clattered through the thin blanket of water on the ford.

“Good bloke, Tom!” Bob shouted. “Keep it up until it gets too hot to stay, then get out in plenty of time, hear me? No rash heroism; you’re more important than some bits of wood and glass.”

The homestead grounds were full of cars, and more headlights were bouncing and glaring down the road from Gilly; a large group of men stood waiting for them as Bob turned into the horse yards.

“How big is it, Bob?” Martin King asked.

“Too big to fight, I think,” said Bob despairingly. “I reckon it’s about five miles wide and in this wind it’s traveling almost as fast as a horse can gallop. I don’t know if we can save the homestead, but I think Horry ought to get ready to defend his place. He’s going to get it next, because I don’t see how we can ever stop it.”

“Well, we’re overdue for a big fire. The last big one was in 1919. I’ll organize a party to go to Beel-Beel, but there are plenty of us and more coming. Gilly can put out close to five hundred men to fight a fire. Some of us will stay here to help. Thank God I’m west of Drogheda is all I can say.”

Bob grinned. “You’re a bloody comfort, Martin.”

Martin looked around. “Where’s your father, Bob?”

“West of the fire, like Bugela. He was out in Wilga mustering some ewes for the lambing, and Wilga’s at least five miles west of where the fire started, I reckon.”

“No other men you’re worried about?”

“Not today, thank heavens.”

In a way it was like being in a war, Meggie thought as she entered the house: a controlled speed, a concern for food and drink, the keeping up of one’s strength and courage. And the threat of imminent disaster. As more men arrived they went to join those already in the Home Paddock, cutting down the few trees that had sprung up close to the creek bank, and clearing away any overlong grass on the perimeter. Meggie remembered thinking when she first arrived on Drogheda how much prettier the Home Paddock might have been, for compared to the wealth of timber all around it, it was bare and bleak. Now she understood why. The Home Paddock was nothing less than a gigantic circular firebreak.

Everyone talked of the fires Gilly had seen in its seventy-odd years of existence. Curiously enough, fires were never a major threat during prolonged drought, because there wasn’t sufficient grass then to keep a fire going far. It was times like this, a year or two after heavy rain had made the grass grow so long and tinder-lush, that Gilly saw its big fires, the ones which sometimes burned out of control for hundreds of miles.

Martin King had taken charge of the three hundred men remaining to defend Drogheda. He was the senior grazier of the district, and had fought fires for fifty years.

“I’ve got 150,000 acres on Bugela,” he said, “and in 1905 I lost every sheep and every tree on the place. It took me fifteen years to recover, and I thought for a while I wouldn’t, because wool wasn’t fetching much in those days, nor was beef.”

The wind was still howling, the smell of burning was everywhere. Night had fallen, but the western sky was lit to unholy brilliance and lowering smoke was beginning to make them cough. Not long afterward they saw the first flames, vast tongues leaping and writhing a hundred feet into the smoke, and a roaring came to their ears like a huge crowd overexcited at a football game. The trees on the western side of the timber ringing the Home Paddock caught and went up in a solid sheet of fire; as Meggie watched petrified from the homestead veranda she could see little pygmy silhouettes of men outlined against them, jumping and cavorting like anguished souls in Hell.

“Meggie, will you get in here and stack those plates on the sideboard, girl! We’re not at a picnic, you know!” came her mother’s voice. She turned away reluctantly.

Two hours later the first relay of exhausted men staggered in to snatch food and drink, gather up their waning strength to go back and fight on. For this had the station women toiled, to make sure there was stew and damper bread, tea and rum and beer aplenty, even for three hundred men. In a fire, everyone did what he or she was best equipped to do, and that meant the women cooked to keep up the superior physical strength of the men. Case after case of liquor emptied and was replaced by new cases; black from soot and reeling with fatigue, the men stood to drink copiously and stuff huge chunks of damper into their mouths, gobble down a plateful of stew when it had cooled, gulp a last tumbler of rum, then out again to the fire.

In between trips to the cookhouse Meggie watches the fire, awed and terrified. In its way it had a beauty beyond the beauty of anything earthly, for it was thing of the skies, of suns so far away their light camp coldly, of God and the Devil. The front had galloped on eastward, they were completely surrounded now and Meggie could pick out details the undefined holocaust of the front did not permit. Now there were black and orange and red and white and yellow; a tall tree in black silhouette rimmed with an orange crust that simmered and glowered; red embers floating and pirouetting like frolicsome phantoms in the air above, yellow pulsations from the exhausted hearts of burned-out trees; a shower of spinning crimson sparks as a gum exploded; sudden licks of orange-and-white flames from something that had resisted until now, and finally yielded its being to the fire. Oh, yes, it was beautiful in the night; she would carry the memory of it all her life.

A sudden increase in the wind velocity sent all the women up the wistaria boughs onto the silver iron roof muffled in bags, for all the men were out in the Home Paddock. Armed with wet bags, their hands and knees scorched even through the bags they wore, they beat out embers on the frying roof, terrified the iron might give way under the coals, drop flaming pieces down into the wooden struts below. But the worst of the fire was ten miles eastward on Beel-Beel.

Drogheda homestead was only three miles from the eastern boundary of the property, it being closest to Gilly. Beel-Beel adjoined it, and beyond that farther east lay Narrengang. When the wind picked up from forty to sixty miles an hour the whole district knew nothing but rain could prevent the fire burning on for weeks, and laying waste to hundreds of square miles of prime land.

Through the worst of the blaze the houses by the creek had endured, with Tom like a man possessed filling his tank truck, hosing, filling again, hosing again. But the moment the wind increased the houses went up, and Tom retreated in the truck, weeping.

Chapter 49

“You’d better get down on your knees and thank God the wind didn’t pick up while the front was to the west of us,” said Martin King. “If it had, not only would the homestead have gone, but us as well. God Jesus, I hope they’re all right on Beel-Beel!”

Fee handed him a big glass of neat rum; he was not a young man, but he had fought as long as it was needed, and directed operations with a master’s touch.

“It’s silly,” she said to him, “but when it looked as if it all might go I kept thinking of the most peculiar things. I didn’t think of dying, or of the children, or of this beautiful house in ruins. All I could think of were my sewing basket, my half-done knitting, the box of odd buttons I’d been saving for years, my heart-shaped cake pans Frank made me years ago. How could I survive without them? All the little things, you know, the things which can’t be replaced, or bought in a shop.”

“That’s how most women think, as a matter of fact. Funny, isn’t it, how the mind reacts? I remember in 1905 my wife running back into the house while I yelled after her like a madman, just to get a tambour with a bit of fancywork on it.” He grinned. “But we got out in time, though we lost the house. When I built the new place, the first thing she did was finish the fancywork. It was one of those old-fashioned samplers, you know the sort I mean. And it said ‘Home Sweet Home.’” He put down the empty glass, shaking his head over the strangenes of women. “I must go. Gareth Davies is going to need us on Narrengang, and unless I miss my guess so will Angus on Rudna Hunish.”

Fee whitened. “Oh, Martin! So far away?”

“The word’s out, Fee. Booroo and Bourke are rallying.”

For three days more the fire rampaged eastward on a front that kept widening and widening, then came a sudden heavy fall of rain that lasted for nearly four days, and quenched every last coal. But it had gone over a hundred miles and laid a charred, blackened path twenty miles wide from midway out across Drogheda to the boundary of the last property in the Gillanbone district eastward, Rudna Hunish.

Until it began to rain no one expected to hear from Paddy, for they thought him safely on the far side of the burned zone, cut off from them by heat in the ground and the still-flaring trees. Had the fire not brought the telephone line down, Bob thought they would have got a call from Martin King, for it was logical that Paddy would strike westward for shelter at Bugela homestead. But when the rain had been falling for six hours and there was still no sign of him, they began to worry. For almost four days they had been assuring themselves continually that there was no reason to be anxious, that of course he was just cut off, and had decided to wait until he could head for his own home rather than go to Bugela.

“He ought to be in by now,” said Bob, pacing up and down the drawing room while the others watched; the irony of it was that the rain had brought a dank chill into the air, and once more a bright fire burned in the marble hearth.

“What do you think, Bob?” Jack asked.

“I think it’s high time we went looking for him. He might be hurt, or he might be on foot and facing a long walk home. His horse might have panicked and thrown him, he might be lying somewhere unable to walk. He had food for overnight, but nothing like enough for four days, though he won’t have passed out from starvation yet. Best not to create a fuss just now, so I won’t recall the men from Narrengang. But if we don’t find him by nightfall I’ll ride to Dominic’s and we’ll get the whole district out tomorrow. Lord, I wish those PMG blokes would get a move on with those phone lines!”

Fee was trembling, her eyes feverish, almost savage. “I’ll put on a pair of trousers,” she said. “I can’t bear to sit here waiting.”

“Mum, stay home!” Bob pleaded.

“If he’s hurt it might be anywhere, Bob, and he might be in any sort of condition. You sent the stockmen to Narrengang, and that leaves us mighty short for a search party. If I go paired with Meggie the two of us will be strong enough together to cope with whatever we find, but if Meggie goes on her own she’ll have to search with one of you, and that’s wasting her, not to mentione me.”

Bob gave in. “All right, then. You can have Meggie’s gelding; you rode it to the fire. Everyone take a rifle, and plenty of shells.”

They rode off across the creek and into the heart of that blasted landscape. Not a green or a brown thing was left anywhere, just a vast expanse of soggy black coals, incredibly still steaming after hours of rain. Every leaf of every tree was frizzled to a curling limp string, and where the grass had been they could see little black bundles here and there, sheep caught in the fire, or an occasional bigger mound which had been a steer or a pig. Their tears mingled with the rain on their faces.

Bob and Meggie headed the little procession, Jack and Hughie in the middle, Fee and Stuart bringing up the rear. For Fee and Stuart it was a peaceful progress; they drew comfort from being close together, not talking, each content in the company of the other. Sometimes the horses drew close or shied apart at the sight of some new horror, but it seemed not to affect the last pair of riders. The mud made the going slow and hard, but the charred, matted grass lay like a coir-rope rug on the soil to give the horses a foothold. And every few yards they expected to see Paddy appear over the far flat horizon, but time went on and he never did.

With sinking hearts they realized the fire had begun farther out than first imagined, in Wilga paddock. The storm clouds must have disguised the smoke until the fire had gone quite a long way. The borderland was astonishing. One side of a clearly drawn line was just black, glistening tar, while the other side was the land as they had always known it, fawn and blue and drear in the rain, but alive. Bob stopped and drew back to talk to everyone.

“Well, here’s where we start. I’m going due west from here; it’s the most likely direction and I’m the strongest. Has everyone got plenty of ammunition? Good. If you find anything, three shots in the air, and those who hear must answer with one shot each. Then wait. Whoever fired the three shots will fire three more five minutes later, and keep on firing three shots every five minutes. Those who hear, one shot in answer.

“Jack, you go south along the fire line. Hughie, you go southwest. I’m going west. Mum and Meggie, you go northwest. Stu, follow the fire line due north. And go slowly, everyone, please. The rain doesn’t make it any easier to see far, and there’s a lot of timber out here in places. Call often; he might not see you where he would hear you. But remember, no shots unless you find something, because he didn’t have a gun with him and if he should hear a shot and be out of voice range to answer, it would be dreadful for him.

“Good luck, and God bless.”

Like pilgrims at the final crossroads they straggled apart in the steady grey rain, getting farther and farther away from each other, smaller and smaller, until each disappeared along the appointed path.

Stuart had gone a bare half mile when he noticed that a stand of burned timber drew very close to the fire’s demarcation line. There was a little wilga as black and crinkled as a pickaninny’s mop, and the remains of a great stump standing close to the charred boundary. What he saw was Paddy’s horse, sprawled and fused into the trunk of a big gum, and two of Paddy’s dogs, little black stiff things with all four limbs poking up like sticks. He got down from his horse, boots sinking ankle deep in mud, and took his rifle from its saddle scabbard. His lips moved, praying, as he picked his slippery way across the sticky coals. Had it not been for the horse and the dogs he might have hoped for a swaggie or some down-and-out wayfarer caught, trapped. But Paddy was horsed and had five dogs with him; no one on the track rode a horse or had more than one dog. This was too far inside Drogheda land to think of drovers, or stockmen from Bugela to the west. Farther away were three more incinerated dogs; five altogether, five dogs. He knew he would not find a sixth, nor did he.

And not far from the horse, hidden as he approached by a log, was what had been a man. There could be no mistake. Glistening and shiny in the rain, the black thing lay on its back, and its back was arched like a great bow so that it bent upward in the middle and did not touch the ground except at the buttocks and shoulders. The arms were flung apart and curved at the elbows as if beseeching heaven, the fingers with the flesh dropping off them to reveal charred bones were clawing and grasping at nothing. The legs were splayed apart also but flexed at the knees, and the blob of a head looked up sightless, eyeless at the sky.

For a moment Stuart’s clear, all-seeing gaze rested on his father, and saw not the ruined shell but the man, as he had been in life. He pointed his rifle at the sky, fired a shot, reloaded, fired a second shot, reloaded, let off the third. Faintly in the distance he heard one answering report, then, farther off and very faintly, a second answer. It was then he remembered the closer shot would have come from his mother and sister. They were north-west, he was north. Without waiting the stipulated five minutes, he put another shell in the rifle breech, pointed the gun due south, and fired. A pause to reload, the second shot, reload, the third shot. He put the weapon back on the ground and stood looking south, his head cocked, listening. This time the first answer was from the west, Bob’s shot, the second from Jack or Hughie, and the third from his mother. He sighed in relief; he didn’t want the women reaching him first.

Chapter 50

Thus he didn’t see the great wild pig emerge from the trees to the north; he smelled it. As big as a cow, its massive bulk rolled and quivered on short, powerful legs as it drove its head down, raking at the burned wet ground. The shots had disturbed it, and it was in pain. The sparse black hair on one side of its body was singed off and the skin was redly raw; what Stuart smelled as he stared into the south was the delectable odor of bubbled pork skin, just as it is on a roasted joint fresh from the oven and crisp all over the slashed outer husk. Surprised out of the curiously peaceful sorrow he always seemed to have known, his head turned, even as he thought to himself that he must have been here before, that this sodden black place had been etched into some part of his brain on the day of his birth:

Stooping, he groped for the rifle, remembering it wasn’t loaded. The boar stood perfectly still, its little reddened eyes mad with pain, the great yellow tusks sharp and curving upward in a half circle. Stuart’s horse neighed, smelling the beast; the pig’s massive head swung to watch it, then lowered for the charge. While its attention was on the horse Stuart saw his only chance, bent quickly for the rifle and snapped the breech open, his other hand in his jacket pocket for a shell. All around the rain was dropping down, muffling other sounds in its own unchanging patter. But the pig heard the bolt slide back, and at the last moment changed the direction of its charge from the horse to Stuart. It was almost upon him when he got one shot off straight into the beast’s chest, without slowing it down. The tusks slewed up and sideways, and caught him in the groin. He fell, blood appearing like a faucet turned all the way on and saturating his clothes, spurting over the ground.

Turning awkwardly as it began to feel the bullet, the pig came back to gore him again, faltered, swayed, and tottered. The whole of that fifteen-hundred-pound bulk came down across him, and crushed his face into the tarry mud. For a moment his hands clawed at the ground on either side in a frantic, futile struggle to be free; this then was what he had always known, why he had never hoped or dreamed or planned, only sat and drunk of the living world so deeply there had not been time to grieve for his waiting fate. He thought: Mum, Mum! I can’t stay with you, Mum!, even as his heart burst within him.

“I wonder why Stu hasn’t fired again?” Meggie asked her mother as they trotted toward the sound of those two first triple volleys, not able to go any faster in the mud, and desperately anxious.

“I suppose he decided we’d heard,” Fee said. But in the back of her mind she was remembering Stuart’s face as they parted in different directions on the search, the way his hand had gone out to clasp hers, the way he had smiled at her. “We can’t be far away now,” she said, and pushed her mount into a clumsy, sliding canter.

But Jack had got there first, so had Bob, and they headed the women off as they came across the last of the living land toward the place where the bushfire had begun.

“Don’t go in, Mum,” said Bob as she dismounted.

Jack had gone to Meggie, and held her arms.

The two pairs of grey eyes turned, not so much in bewilderment or dread as in knowledge, as if they did not need to be told anything.

“Paddy?” asked Fee in a voice not like her own.

“Yes. And Stu.”

Neither of her sons could look at her.

“Stu? Stu! What do you mean, Stu? Oh, God, what is it, what’s happened? Not both of them—no!”

“Daddy got caught in the fire; he’s dead. Stu must have disturbed a boar, and it charged him. He shot it, but it fell on him as it was dying and smothered him. He’s dead too, Mum.”

Meggie screamed and struggled, trying to break free of Jack’s hands, but Fee stood between Bob’s grimy, bloody ones as if turned to stone, her eyes as glassy as a gazing-ball.

“It is too much,” she said at last, and looked up at Bob with the rain running down her face and her hair in straggling wisps around her neck like golden runnels. “Let me go to them, Bob. I am the wife of one and the mother of one. You can’t keep me away—you have no right to keep me away. Let me go to them.”

Meggie had quietened, and stood within Jack’s arms with her head on his shoulder. As Fee began to walk across the ruins with Bob’s arm around her waist, Meggie looked after them, but she made no move to follow. Hughie appeared out of the dimming rain; Jack nodded toward his mother and Bob.

“Go after them, Hughie, stay with them. Meggie and I are going back to Drogheda, to bring the dray.” He let Meggie go, and helped her onto the chestnut mare. “Come on, Meggie; it’s nearly dark. We can’t leave them out all night in this, and they won’t go until we get back.”

It was impossible to put the dray or anything else wheeled upon the mud; in the end Jack and old Tom chained a sheet of corrugated iron behind two draft horses, Tom leading the team on a stock horse while Jack rode ahead with the biggest lamp Drogheda possessed.

Meggie stayed at the homestead and sat in front of the drawing room fire while Mrs. Smith tried to persuade her to eat, tears running down her face to see the girl’s still, silent shock, the way she did not weep. At the sound of the front door knocker she turned and went to answer it, wondering who on earth had managed to get through the mud, and as always astonished at the speed with which news traveled the lonely miles between the far-flung homesteads.

Father Ralph was standing on the veranda, wet and muddy, in riding clothes and oilskins.

“May I come in, Mrs. Smith?”

“Oh, Father, Father!” she cried, and threw herself into his astounded arms. “How did you know?”

“Mrs. Cleary telegrammed me, a manager-to-owner courtesy I appreciated very much. I got leave to come from Archbishop di Contini-Verchese. What a mouthful! Would you believe I have to say it a hundred times a day? I flew up. The plane bogged as it landed and pitched on its nose, so I knew what the ground was like before I so much as stepped on it. Dear, beautiful Gilly! I left my suitcase with Father Watty at the presbytery and cadged a horse from the Imperial publican, who thought I was crazy and bet me a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label I’d never get through the mud. Oh, Mrs. Smith, don’t cry so! My dear, the world hasn’t come to an end because of a fire, no matter how big and nasty it was!” he said, smiling and patting her heaving shoulders. “Here am I doing my best to make light of it, and you’re just not doing your best to respond. Don’t cry so, please.”

“Then you don’t know,” she sobbed.

“What? Know what? What is it—what’s happened?”

“Mr. Cleary and Stuart are dead.”

His face drained of color; his hands pushed the housekeeper away. “Where’s Meggie?” he barked.

“In the drawing room. Mrs. Cleary’s still out in the paddock with the bodies. Jack and Tom have gone to bring them in. Oh, Father, sometimes in spite of my faith I can’t help thinking God is too cruell Why did He have to take both of them?”

But all Father Ralph had stayed to hear was where Meggie was; he had gone into the drawing room shedding his oilskins as he went, trailing muddy water behind him.

“Meggie!” he said, coming to her and kneeling at one side of her chair, taking her cold hands in his wet ones firmly.

She slipped from the chair and crawled into his arms, pillowed her head on his dripping shirt and closed her eyes, so happy in spite of her pain and grief that she never wanted the moment to end. He had come, it was a vindication of her power over him, she hadn’t failed.

“I’m wet, darling Meggie; you’ll get soaked,” he whispered, his cheek on her hair.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ve come.”

“Yes, I’ve come. I wanted to be sure you were safe, I had a feeling I was needed, I had to see for myself. Oh, Meggie, your father and Stu! How did it happen?”

“Daddy was caught in the fire, and Stu found him. He was killed by a boar; it fell on him after he shot it. Jack and Tom have gone out to bring them in.”

He said no more, but held her and rocked her as if she were a baby until the heat of the fire partially dried his shirt and hair and he felt some of the stiffness drain from her. Then he put his hand beneath her chin, tilted her head until she looked up at him, and without thinking kissed her. It was a confused impulse not rooted in desire, just something he instinctively offered when he saw what lay in the grey eyes. Something apart, a different kind of sacrament. Her arms slid up under his to meet across his back; he could not stop himself flinching, suppress the exclamation of pain.

She drew back a little. “What’s the matter?”

“I must have bruised my ribs when the plane came in. We bogged to the fuselage in good old Gilly mud, so it was a pretty rough landing. I wound up balanced on the back of the seat in front of me.”

“Here, let me see.”

Fingers steady, she unbuttoned the damp shirt and peeled it off his arms, pulled it free of his breeches. Under the surface of the smooth brown skin a purpling ugly patch extended from one side clear across to the other below the rib cage; her breath caught.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: