The Thorn Birds (Chapter 51-55)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
Chapter 51 (354)
“Oh, Ralph! You rode all the way from Gilly with this? How it must have hurt! Do you feel all right? No faintness? You might have ruptured something inside!”
“No, I’m fine, and I didn’t feel it, honestly. I was so anxious to get here, make sure you were all right, that I suppose I simply eliminated it from my mind. If I was bleeding internally I’d have known about it long before now, I expect. God, Meggie, don’t!”
Her head had gone down, she was delicately touching her lips to the bruise, her palms sliding up his chest to his shoulders with a deliberate sensuousness that staggered him. Fascinated, terrified, meaning to free himself at any cost, he pulled her head away; but somehow all he succeeded in doing was having her back in his arms, a snake coiled tightly about his will, strangling it. Pain was forgotten, Church was forgotten, God was forgotten. He found her mouth, forced it open hungrily, wanting more and more of her, not able to hold her close enough to assuage the ghastly drive growing in him. She gave him her neck, bared her shoulders where the skin was cool, smoother and glossier than satin; it was like drowning, sinking deeper and deeper, gasping and helpless. Mortality pressed down on him, a great weight crushing his soul, liberating the bitter dark wine of his senses in a sudden flood. He wanted to weep; the last of his desire trickled away under the burden of his mortality, and he wrenched her arms from about his wretched body, sat back on his heels with his head sunken forward, seeming to become utterly absorbed in watching his hands tremble on his knees. Meggie, what have you done to me, what might you do to me if I let you?
“Meggie, I love you, I always will. But I’m a priest, I can’t…. I just can’t!”
She got to her feet quickly, straightened her blouse, stood looking down at him and smiling a twisted smile which only threw the failed pain in her eyes into greater emphasis.
“It’s all right, Ralph. I’ll go and see if Mrs. Smith can get you something to eat, then I’ll bring you the horse liniment. It’s marvelous for bringing out a bruise; stops the soreness much better than kisses ever could, I daresay.”
“Is the phone working?” he managed to say.
“Yes. They strung a temporary line on the trees and reconnected us a couple of hours ago.”
But it was some minutes after she left him before he could compose himself sufficiently to seat himself at Fee’s escritoire.
“Give me trunks, please, switch. This is Father de Bricassart at Drogheda—Oh, hello, Doreen; still on the switch, I see. Nice to hear your voice, too. One never knows who switch is in Sydney; she’s just a bored voice. I want to put an urgent call through to His Grace the Archbishop Papal Legate in Sydney. His number is XX-2324. And while I’m waiting for Sydney, put me through to Bugela, Doreen.”
There was barely time to tell Martin King what had happened before Sydney was on the line, but one word to Bugela was enough. Gilly would know from him and the eavesdroppers on the party line, and those who wished to brave a ride through Gilly mud would be at the funerals.
“Your Grace? This is Father de Bricassart…. Yes, thank you, I arrived safely, but the plane’s bogged to its fuselage in mud and I’ll have to come back by train…. Mud, Your Grace, m-u-d mud! No, Your Grace, everything up here becomes impassable when it rains. I had to ride from Gillanbone to Drogheda on horseback; that’s the only way one can even try in rain…. That’s why I’m phoning, Your Grace. It was as well I came. I suppose I must have had some sort of premonition…. Yes, things are bad, very bad. Padraic Cleary and his son Stuart are dead, one burned to death in the fire, one smothered by a boar…. A b-o-a-r boar, Your Grace, a wild pig…. Yes, you’re right, one does speak a slightly bizarre English up here.”
All down the faint line he could hear gasps from the listeners, and grinned in spite of himself. One couldn’t yell into the phone that everybody must get off the line—it was the sole entertainment of a mass nature Gilly had to offer its contact-hungry citizens—but if they would only get off the line His Grace might stand a better chance of hearing. “With your permission, Your Grace, I’ll remain to conduct the funerals and make sure the widow and her surviving children are all right…. Yes, your Grace, thank you. I’ll return to Sydney as soon as I can.”
Switch was listening, too; he clicked the lever and spoke again immediately. “Doreen, put me back to Bugela, please.” He talked to Martin King for a few minutes, and decided since it was August and winter-cold to delay the funerals until the day after this coming day. Many people would want to attend in spite of the mud and be prepared to ride to get there, but it was slow and arduous work.
Meggie came back with the horse liniment, but made no offer to rub it on, just handed him the bottle silently. She informed him abruptly that Mrs. Smith was laying him a hot supper in the small dining room in an hour, so he would have time to bathe. He was uncomfortably aware that in some way Meggie thought he had failed her, but he didn’t know why she should think so, or on what basis she had judged him. She knew what he was; why was she angry?
In grey dawnlight the little cavalcade escorting the bodies reached the creek, and stopped. Though the water was still contained within its banks, the Gillan had become a river in full spate, running fast and thirty feet deep. Father Ralph swam his chestnut mare across to meet them, stole around his neck and the instruments of his calling in a saddlebag. While Fee, Bob, Jack, Hughie and Tom stood around, he stripped the canvas off the bodies and prepared to anoint them. After Mary Carson nothing could sicken him; yet he found nothing repugnant about Paddy and Stu. They were both black after their fashion, Paddy from the fire and Stu from suffocation, but the priest kissed them with love and respect.
For fifteen miles the rough sheet of iron had jarred and bounced over the ground behind the team of draft horses, scarring the mud with deep gouges which would still be visible years later, even in the grass of other seasons. But it seemed they could go no farther; the swirling creek would keep them on its far side, with Drogheda only a mile away. They stood staring at the tops of the ghost gums, clearly visible even in the rain.
“I have an idea,” said Bob, turning to Father Ralph. “Father, you’re the only one on a fresh horse; it will have to be you. Ours will only swim the creek once—they’ve got no more in them after the mud and the cold. Go back and find some empty forty-four-gallon drums, and seal their lids shut so they can’t possibly leak or slip off. Solder them if necessary. We’ll need twelve of them, ten if you can’t find more. Tie them together and bring them back across the creek. We’ll lash them under the iron and float it across like a barge.”
Father Ralph did as he was told without question; it was a better idea than any he had to offer. Dominic O’Rourke of Dibban-Dibban had ridden in with two of his sons; he was a neighbor and not far away as distances went. When Father Ralph explained what had to be done they set about it quickly, scouring the sheds for empty drums, tipping chaff and oats out of drums empty of petrol but in use for storage, searching for lids, soldering the lids to the drums if they were rust-free and looked likely to withstand the battering they would get in the water. The rain was still falling, falling. It wouldn’t stop for another two days.
“Dominic, I hate to ask it of you, but when these people come in they’re going to be half dead. We’ll have to hold the funerals tomorrow, and even if the Gilly undertaker could make the coffins in time, we’d never get them out through the mud. Can any of you have a go at making a couple of coffins? I only need one man to swim the creek with me.”
The O’Rourke sons nodded; they didn’t want to see what the fire had done to Paddy or the boar to Stuart.
“We’ll do it, Dad,” said Liam.
Dragging the drums behind their horses, Father Ralph and Dominic O’Rourke rode down to the creek and swam it.
“There’s one thing, Father!” shouted Dominic. “We don’t have to dig graves in this bloody mud! I used to think old Mary was putting on the dog a bit too much when she put a marble vault in her backyard for Michael, but right at this minute if she was here, I’d kiss her!”
“Too right!” yelled Father Ralph.
They lashed the drums under the sheet of iron, six on either side, tied the canvas shroud down firmly, and swam the exhausted draft horses across on the rope which would finally tow the raft. Dominic and Tom sat astride the great beasts, and at the top of the Drogheda-side bank paused, looking back, while those still marooned hooked up the makeshift barge, pushed it to the bank and shoved it in. The draft horses began walking, Tom and Dominic cooeeing shrilly as the raft began to float. It bobbed and wallowed badly, but it stayed afloat long enough to be hauled out safely; rather than waste time dismantling the pontoons, the two impromptu postilions urged their mounts up the track toward the big house, the sheet of iron sliding along on its drums better than it had without them.
There was a ramp up to great doors at the baling end of the shearing shed, so they put the raft and its burden in the huge empty building amid the reeks of tar, sweat, lanolin and dung. Muffled in oilskins, Minnie and Cat had come down from the big house to take first vigil, and knelt one on either side of the iron bier, rosary beads clicking, voices rising and falling in cadences too well known to need the effort of memory.
The house was filling up. Duncan Gordon had arrived from Each-Uisge, Gareth Davies from Narrengang, Horry Hopeton from Beel-Beel, Eden Carmichael from Barcoola. Old Angus MacQueen had flagged down one of the ambling local goods trains and ridden with the engine driver to Gilly, where he borrowed a horse from Harry Gough and rode out with him. He had covered over two hundred miles of mud, one way or another.
“I’m wiped out, Father,” Horry said to the priest later as the seven of them sat in the small dining room eating steak-and-kidney pie. “The fire went through me from one end to the other and left hardly a sheep alive or a tree green. Lucky the last few years have been good is all I can say. I can afford to restock, and if this rain keeps up the grass will come back real quick. But heaven help us from another disaster during the next ten years, Father, because I won’t have anything put aside to meet it.”
“Well, you’re smaller than me, Horry,” Gareth Davies said, cutting into Mrs. Smith’s meltingly light flaky pastry with evident enjoyment. Nothing in the line of disasters could depress a black-soil plainsman’s appetite for long; he needed his food to meet them. “I reckon I lost about half of my acreage, and maybe two-thirds of my sheep, worse luck. Father, we need your prayers.”
“Aye,” said old Angus. “I wasna sae hard hit as wee Horry and Garry, Father, but bad enough for a’ that. I lost sixty thoosand of ma acres, and half ma wee sheep. ’Tis times like this, Father, make me wish I hadna left Skye as a young laddie.”
Father Ralph smiled. “It’s a passing wish, Angus, you know that. You left Skye for the same reason I left Clunamara. It was too small for you.”
“Aye, nae doot. The heather doesna make sic a bonnie blaze as the gums, eh, Father?”
It would be a strange funeral, thought Father Ralph as he looked around; the only women would be Drogheda women, for all the visiting mourners were men. He had taken a huge dose of laudanum to Fee after Mrs. Smith had stripped her, dried her and put her into the big bed she had shared with Paddy, and when she refused to drink it, weeping hysterically, he had held her nose and tipped it ruthlessly down her throat. Funny, he hadn’t thought of Fee breaking down. It had worked quickly, for she hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours. Knowing she was sound asleep, he rested easier. Meggie he kept tabs on; she was out in the cookhouse at the moment helping Mrs. Smith prepare food. The boys were all in bed, so exhausted they could hardly manage to peel off their wet things before collapsing. When Minnie and Cat concluded their stint of the vigil custom demanded because the bodies lay in a deserted, unblessed place, Gareth Davies and his son Enoch were taking over; the others allotted hour-long spans among themselves as they talked and ate.
None of the young men had joined their elders in the dining room. They were all in the cookhouse ostensibly helping Mrs. Smith, but in reality so they could look at Meggie. When he realized this fact Father Ralph was both annoyed and relieved. Well, it was out of their ranks she must choose her husband, as she inevitably would. Enoch Davies was twenty-nine, a “black Welshman,” which meant he was black-haired and very dark-eyed, a handsome man; Liam O’Rourke was twenty-six, sandy-haired and blue-eyed, like his twenty-five-year-old brother Rory; Connor Carmichael was the spit of his sister, older at thirty-two, and very good-looking indeed, if a little arrogant; the pick of the bunch in Father Ralph’s estimation was old Angus’s grandson Alastair, the closest to Meggie in age at twenty-four and a sweet young man, with his grandfather’s beautiful blue Scots eyes and hair already gray, a family trait. Let her fall in love with one of them, marry him, have the children she wanted so badly. Oh, God, my God, if You will do that for me, I’ll gladly bear the pain of loving her, gladly….
No flowers smothered these coffins, and the vases all around the chapel were empty. What blossoms had survived the terrible heat of the fiery air two nights ago had succumbed to the rain, and laid themselves down against the mud like ruined butterflies. Not even a stalk of bottle brush, or an early rose. And everyone was tired, so tired. Those who had ridden the long miles in the mud to show their liking for Paddy were tired, those who had brought the bodies in were tired, those who had slaved to cook and clean were tired, Father Ralph was so tired he felt as if he moved in a dream, eyes sliding away from Fee’s pinched, hopeless face, Meggie’s expression of mingled sorrow and anger, the collective grief of that collective cluster Bob, Jack and Hughie….
He gave no eulogy; Martin King spoke briefly and movingly on behalf of those assembled, and the priest went on into the Requiem immediately. He had as a matter of course brought his chalice, his sacraments and a stole, for no priest stirred without them when he went offering comfort or aid, but he had no vestments with him, and the house possessed none. But old Angus had called in at the presbytery in Gilly on his way, and carried the black mourning garb of a Requiem Mass wrapped in an oilskin across his saddle. So he stood properly attired with the rain hissing against the windows, drumming on the iron roof two stories up.
Then out into it, the grieving rain, across the lawn all browned and scorched by heat, to the little white-railinged cemetery. This time there were pallbearers willing to shoulder the plain rectangular boxes, slipping and sliding in the mud, trying to see where they were going through the rain beating in their eyes. And the little bells on the Chinese cook’s grave tinkled drably: Hee Sing, Hee Sing, Hee Sing.
It got itself over and done with. The mourners departed on their horses, backs hunched inside their oilskins, some of them staring miserably at the prospect of ruin, others thanking God they had escaped death and the fire. And Father Ralph got his few things together, knowing he must go before he couldn’t go.
He went to see Fee, where she sat at the escritoire staring mutely down at her hands.
“Fee, will you be all right?” he asked, sitting where he could see her.
She turned toward him, so still and quenched within her soul that he was afraid, and closed his eyes.
“Yes, Father, I’ll be all right. I have the books to keep, and five sons left—six if you count Frank, only I don’t suppose we can count Frank, can we? Thank you for that, more than I can ever say. It’s such a comfort to me knowing your people are watching out for him, making his life a little easier. Oh, if I could see him, just once!”
She was like a lighthouse, he thought; flashes of grief every time her mind came round to that pitch of emotion which was too great to be contained. A huge flare, and then a long period of nothing.
“Fee, I want you to think about something.”
“Yes, what?” she was dark again.
“Are you listening to me?” he asked sharply, worried and suddenly more frightened than before.
For a long moment he thought she had retreated so far into herself even the harshness of his voice hadn’t penetrated, but up blazed the beacon again, and her lips parted. “My poor Paddy! My poor Stuart! My poor Frank!” she mourned, then got herself under that iron control once more, as if she was determined to elongate her periods of darkness until the light shone no more in her lifetime.
Her eyes roamed the room without seeming to recognize it. “Yes, Father, I’m listening,” she said.
“Fee, what about your daughter? Do you ever remember that you have a daughter?”
The grey eyes lifted to his face, dwelled on it almost pityingly. “Does any woman? What’s a daughter? Just a reminder of the pain, a younger version of oneself who will do all the things one has done, cry the same tears. No, Father. I try to forget I have a daughter—if I do think of her, it is as one of my sons. It’s her sons a mother remembers.”
“Do you cry tears, Fee? I’ve only seen them once.”
“You’ll never see them again, for I’ve finished with tears forever.” Her whole body quivered. “Do you know something, Father? Two days ago I discovered how much I love Paddy, but it was like all of my life—too late. Too late for him, too late for me. If you knew how I wanted the chance to take him in my arms, tell him I loved him! Oh, God, I hope no other human being ever has to feel my pain!”
He turned away from that suddenly ravaged face, to give it time to don its calm, and himself time to cope with understanding the enigma who was Fee.
He said, “No one else can ever feel your pain.”
One corner of her mouth lifted in a stern smile. “Yes. That’s a comfort, isn’t it? It may not be enviable, but my pain is mine.”
“Will you promise me something, Fee?”
“If you like.”
“Look after Meggie, don’t forget her. Make her go to the local dances, let her meet a few young men, encourage her to think of marriage and a home of her own. I saw all the young men eyeing her today. Give her the opportunity to meet them again under happier circumstances than these.”
“Whatever you say, Father.”
Sighing, he left her to the contemplation of her thin white hands.
Meggie walked with him to the stables, where the Imperial publican’s bay gelding had been stuffing itself on hay and bran and dwelling in some sort of equine heaven for two days. He flung the publican’s battered saddle on its back and bent to strap the surcingle and girth while Meggie leaned against a bale of straw and watched him.
“Father, look what I found,” she said as he finished and straightened. She held out her hand, in it one pale, pinkish-gray rose. “It’s the only one. I found it on a bush under the tank stands, at the back. I suppose it didn’t get the same heat in the fire, and it was sheltered from the rain. So I picked it for you. It’s something to remember me by.”
He took the half-open bloom from her, his hand not quite steady, and stood looking down at it. “Meggie, I need no reminder of you, not now, not ever. I carry you within me, you know that. There’s no way I could hide it from you, is there?”
“But sometimes there’s a reality about a keepsake,” she insisted. “You can take it out and look at it, and remember when you see it all the things you might forget otherwise. Please take it, Father.”
“My name is Ralph,” he said. He opened his little sacrament case and took out the big missal which was his own property, bound in costly mother-of-pearl. His dead father had given it to him at his ordination, thirteen long years ago. The pages fell open at a great thick white ribbon; he turned over several more, laid the rose down, and shut the book upon it. “Do you want a keepsake from me, Meggie, is that it?”
“I won’t give you one. I want you to forget me, I want you to look around your world and find some good kind man, marry him, have the babies you want so much. You’re a born mother. You mustn’t cling to me, it isn’t right. I can never leave the Church, and I’m going to be completely honest with you, for your own sake. I don’t want to leave the Church, because I don’t love you the way a husband will, do you understand? Forget me, Meggie!”
“Won’t you kiss me goodbye?”
For answer he pulled himself up on the publican’s bay and walked it to the door before putting on the publican’s old felt hat. His blue eyes flashed a moment, then the horse moved out into the rain and slithered reluctantly up the track toward Gilly. She did not attempt to follow him, but stayed in the gloom of the damp stable, breathing in the smells of horse dung and hay; it reminded her of the barn in New Zealand, and of Frank.
Thirty hours later Father Ralph walked into the Archbishop Papal Legate’s chamber, crossed the room to kiss his master’s ring, and flung himself wearily into a chair. It was only as he felt those lovely, omniscient eyes on him that he realized how peculiar he must look, why so many people had stared at him since he got off the train at Central. Without remembering the suitcase Father Watty Thomas was keeping for him at the presbytery, he had boarded the night mail with two minutes to spare and come six hundred miles in a cold train clad in shirt, breeches and boots, soaking wet, never noticing the chill. So he looked down at himself with a rueful smile, then across at the Archbishop.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace. So much has happened I didn’t think how odd I must look.”
“Don’t apologize, Ralph.” Unlike his predecessor, he preferred to call his secretary by his Christian name. “I think you look very romantic and dashing. Only a trifle too secular, don’t you agree?”
“Very definitely on the secular bit, anyway. As to the romantic and dashing, Your Grace, it’s just that you’re not used to seeing what is customary garb in Gillanbone.”
“My dear Ralph, if you took it into your head to don sackcloth and ashes, you’d manage to make yourself seem romantic and dashing! The riding habit suits you, though, it really does. Almost as well as a soutane, and don’t waste your breath telling me you aren’t very well aware it becomes you more than a priest’s black suit. You have a peculiar and a most attractive way of moving, and you have kept your fine figure; I think perhaps you always will. I also think that when I am recalled to Rome I shall take you with me. It will afford me great amusement to watch your effect on our short, fat Italian prelates. The beautiful sleek cat among the plump startled pigeons.”
Rome! Father Ralph sat up in his chair.
“Was it very bad, my Ralph?” the Archbishop went on, smoothing his beringed milky hand rhythmically across the silky back of his purring Abyssinian cat.
“Terrible, Your Grace.”
“These people, you have a great fondness for them.”
“And do you love all of them equally, or do you love some of them more than others?”
But Father Ralph was at least as wily as his master, and he had been with him now long enough to know how his mind worked. So he parried the smooth question with deceptive honesty, a trick he had discovered lulled His Grace’s suspicions at once. It never occurred to that subtle, devious mind that an outward display of frankness might be more mendacious than any evasion.
“I do love all of them, but as you say, some more than others. It’s the girl Meggie I love the most. I’ve always felt her my special responsibility, because the family is so son-oriented they forget she exists.”
“How old is this Meggie?”
“I’m not sure exactly. Oh, somewhere around twenty, I imagine. But I made her mother promise to lift her head out of her ledgers long enough to make sure the girl got to a few dances, met a few young men. She’s going to waste her life away stuck on Drogheda, which is a shame.”
He spoke nothing but the truth; the Archbishop’s ineffably sensitive nose sniffed it out at once. Though he was only three years his secretary’s senior, his career within the Church hadn’t suffered the checks Ralph’s had, and in many ways he felt immeasurably older than Ralph would ever be; the Vatican sapped one of some vital essence if one was exposed to it very early, and Ralph possessed that vital essence in abundance.
Relaxing his vigilance somewhat, he continued to watch his secretary and resumed his interesting game of working out precisely what made Father Ralph de Bricassart tick. At first he had been sure there would be a fleshly weakness, if not in one direction, in another. Those stunning good looks and the accompanying body must have made him the target of many desires, too much so to preserve innocence or unawareness. And as time went on he had found himself half right; the awareness was undoubtedly there, but with it he began to be convinced was a genuine innocence. So whatever Father Ralph burned for, it was not the flesh. He had thrown the priest together with skilled and quite irresistible homosexuals if one was a homosexual; no result. He had watched him with the most beautiful women in the land; no result. Not a flicker of interest or desire, even when he was not in the slightest aware he was under observation. For the Archbishop did not always do his own watching, and when he employed minions it was not through secretarial channels.
He had begun to think Father Ralph’s weaknesses were pride in being a priest, and ambition; both were facets of personality he understood, for he possessed them himself. The Church had places for ambitious men, as did all great and self-perpetuating institutions. Rumor had it that Father Ralph had cheated these Clearys he purported to love so much out of their rightful inheritance. If indeed he had, he was well worth hanging on to. And how those wonderful blue eyes had blazed when he mentioned Rome! Perhaps it was time he tried another gambit. He poked forward a conversational pawn lazily, but his eyes under hooded lids were very keen.
“I had news from the Vatican while you were away, Ralph,” he said, shifting the cat slightly. “My Sheba, you are selfish; you make my legs numb.”
“Oh?” Father Ralph was sinking down in his chair, and his eyes were having a hard time staying open.
“Yes, you may go to bed, but not before you have heard my news. A little while ago I sent a personal and private communication to the Holy Father, and an answer came back today from my friend Cardinal Monteverdi—I wonder if he is a descendant of the Renaissance musician? Why do I never remember to ask him when I see him? Oh, Sheba, must you insist upon digging in your claws when you are happy?”
“I’m listening, Your Grace, I haven’t fallen asleep yet,” said Father Ralph, smiling. “No wonder you like cats so much. You’re one yourself, playing with your prey for your own amusement.” He snapped his fingers. “Here, Sheba, leave him and come to me! He is unkind.”
The cat jumped down off the purple lap immediately, crossed the carpet and leaped delicately onto the priest’s knees, stood waving its tail and sniffing the strange smells of horses and mud, entranced. Father Ralph’s blue eyes smiled into the Archbishop’s brown ones, both half closed, both absolutely alert.
“How do you do that?” demanded the Archbishop. “A cat will never go to anyone, but Sheba goes to you as if you gave her caviar and valerian. Ingrate animal.”
“I’m waiting, Your Grace.”
“And you punish me for it, taking my cat from me. All right, you have won, I yield. Do you ever lose? An interesting question. You are to be congratulated, my dear Ralph. In future you will wear the miter and the cope, and be addressed as My Lord, Bishop de Bricassart.”
That brought the eyes wide open! he noted with glee. For once Father Ralph didn’t attempt to dissimulate, or conceal his true feelings. He just beamed.
It was amazing how quickly the land mended; within a week little green shoots of grass were poking out of the gluey morass, and within two months the roasted trees were coming into leaf. If the people were tough and resilient, it was because the land gave them no opportunity to be otherwise; those who were faint in heart or lacking a fanatical streak of endurance did not stay long in the Great Northwest. But it would be years before the scars faded. Many coats of bark would have to grow and fall to eucalyptoid tatters before the tree trunks became white or red or grey again, and a certain percentage of the timber would not regenerate at all, but remain dead and dark. And for years disintegrating skeletons would dew the plains, subsiding into the matting of time, gradually covered by dust and marching little hoofs. And straggling out across Drogheda to the west the sharp deep channels cut by the corners of a makeshift bier in the mud remained, were pointed out by wanderers who knew the story to more wanderers who did not, until the tale became a part of black-soil plains lore.
Drogheda lost perhaps a fifth of its acreage in the fire, and 25,000 sheep, a mere bagatelle to a station whose sheep tally in the recent good years lay in the neighborhood of 125,000. There was absolutely no point in railing at the malignity of fate, or the wrath of God, however those concerned might choose to regard a natural disaster. The only thing to do was cut the losses and begin again. In no case was it the first time, and in no case did anyone assume it would be the last.
But to see Drogheda’s homestead gardens bare and brown in spring hurt badly. Against drought they could survive thanks to Michael Carson’s water tanks, but in a fire nothing survived. Even the wistaria failed to bloom; when the flames came its tender clusters of buds were just forming, and shriveled. Roses were crisped, pansies were dead, stocks turned to sepia straw, fuchsias in shady spots withered past rejuvenation, babies’-breath smothered, sweet pea vines were sere and scentless. What had been bled from the water tanks during the fire was replaced by the heavy rain that followed hard on it, so everyone on Drogheda sacrificed a nebulous spare time to helping old Tom bring the gardens back.
Bob decided to keep on with Paddy’s policy of more hands to run Drogheda, and put on three more stockmen; Mary Carson’s policy had been to keep no permanent non-Cleary men on her books, preferring to hire extra hands at mustering, lambing and shearing time, but Paddy felt the men worked better knowing they had permanent jobs, and it didn’t make much difference in the long run. Most stockmen were chronically afflicted with itchy feet, and never stayed very long anywhere.
The new houses sitting farther back from the creek were inhabited by married men; old Tom had a neat new three-room cottage under a pepper tree behind the horse yards, and cackled with proprietary glee every time he entered it. Meggie continued to look after some of the inner paddocks, and her mother the books.
Fee had taken over Paddy’s task of communicating with Bishop Ralph, and being Fee failed to pass on any information save those items concerned with the running of the station. Meggie longed to snatch his letters, read them greedily, but Fee gave her no chance to do so, locking them in a steel box the moment she had digested their contents. With Paddy and Stu gone there was just no reaching Fee. As for Meggie, the minute Bishop Ralph had gone Fee forgot all about her promise. Meggie answered dance and party invitations with polite negatives; aware of it, Fee never remonstrated with her or told her she ought to go. Liam O’Rourke seized any opportunity to drive over; Enoch Davies phoned constantly, so did Connor Carmichael and Alastair MacQueen. But with each of them Meggie was pre-occupied, curt, to the point where they despaired of interesting her.
The summer was very wet, but not in spates protracted enough to cause flooding, only keeping the ground perpetually muddy and the thousand-mile Barwon-Darling flowing deep, wide and strong. When winter came sporadic rain continued; the flying brown sheets were made up of water, not dust. Thus the Depression march of foot-loose men along the track tapered off, for it was hell tramping through the black-soil plains in a wet season, and with cold added to damp, pneumonia raged among those not able to sleep under warm shelter.
Bob was worried, and began to talk of foot rot among the sheep if it kept up; merinos couldn’t take much moisture in the ground without developing diseased hoofs. The shearing had been almost impossible, for shearers would not touch soaked wool, and unless the mud dried before lambing many offspring would die in the sodden earth and the cold.
The phone jangled its two longs, one short for Drogheda; Fee answered and turned.
“Bob, the AML&F for you.”
“Hullo, Jimmy, Bob here…. Yeah, righto….
Oh, good! References all in order?…Righto, send him out to see me…. Righto, if he’s that good you can tell him he’s probably got the job, but I still want to see him for myself; don’t like pigs in pokes and don’t trust references…. Righto, thanks. Hooroo.”
Bob sat down again. “New stockman coming, a good bloke according to Jimmy. Been working out on the West Queensland plains around Longreach and Charleville. Was a drover, too. Good references and all aboveboard. Can sit anything with four legs and a tail, used to break horses. Was a shearer before that, gun shearer too, Jimmy says, over two fifty a day. That’s what makes me a bit suspicious. Why would a gun shearer want to work for stockman’s wages? Not too often a gun shearer will give up the boggi for a saddle. Be handy paddock-crutching, though, eh?”
With the passing of the years Bob’s accent grew more drawling and Australian but his sentences shorter in compensation. He was creeping up toward thirty, and much to Meggie’s disappointment showed no sign of being smitten with any of the eligible girls he met at the few festivities decency forced them to attend. For one thing he was painfully shy, and for another he seemed utterly wrapped in the land, apparently preferring to love it without distraction. Jack and Hughie grew more and more like him; indeed, they could have passed for triplets as they sat together on one of the hard marble benches, the closest to comfortable housebound relaxation they could get. They seemed actually to prefer camping out in the paddocks, and when sleeping at home stretched out on the floors of their bedrooms, frightened that beds might soften them. The sun, the wind and the dryness had weathered their fair, freckled skins to a sort of mottled mahogany, in which their blue eyes shone pale and tranquil, with the deep creases beside them speaking of gazing into far distances and silver-beige grass. It was almost impossible to tell what age they were, or which was the oldest and which the youngest. Each had Paddy’s Roman nose and kind homely face, but better bodies than Paddy’s, which had been stooped and arm-elongated from so many years shearing. They had developed the spare, easy beauty of horsemen instead. Yet for women and comfort and pleasure they did not pine.
“Is the new man married?” asked Fee, drawing neat lines with a ruler and a red-inked pen.
“Dunno, didn’t ask. Know tomorrow when he comes.”
“How is he getting here?”
“Jimmy’s driving him out; got to see about those old wethers in Tankstand.”
“Well, let’s hope he stays awhile. If he’s not married he’ll be off again in a few weeks, I suppose. Wretched people, stockmen,” said Fee.
Jims and Patsy were boarding at Riverview, vowing they wouldn’t stay at school a minute longer than the fourteen years of age which was legal. They burned for the day when they would be out in the paddocks with Bob, Jack and Hughie, when Drogheda could run on family again and the outsiders would be welcome to come and go as frequently as they pleased. Sharing the family passion for reading didn’t endear Riverview to them at all; a book could be carried in a saddlebag or a jacket pocket and read with far more pleasure in the noonday shade of a wilga than in a Jesuit classroom. It had been a hard transition for them, boarding school. The big-windowed classrooms, the spacious green playing fields, the wealth of gardens and facilities meant nothing to them, nor did Sydney with its museums, concert halls and art galleries. They chummed up with the sons of other graziers and spent their leisure hours longing for home, or boasting about the size and splendor of Drogheda to awed but believing ears; anyone west of Burren Junction had heard of mighty Drogheda.
Several weeks passed before Meggie saw the new stockman. His name had been duly entered in the books, Luke O’Neill, and he was already talked about in the big house far more than stockmen usually were. For one thing, he had refused to bunk in the jackaroos’ barracks but had taken up residence in the last empty house upon the creek. For another, he had introduced himself to Mrs. Smith, and was in that lady’s good books, though she didn’t usually care for stockmen. Meggie was quite curious about him long before she met him.
Since she kept the chestnut mare and the black gelding in the stables rather than the stockyards and was mostly obliged to start out later of a morning than the men, she would often go long periods of time without running into any of the hired people. But she finally met Luke O’Neill late one afternoon as the summer sun was flaring redly over the trees and the long shadows crept toward the gentle oblivion of night. She was coming back from Borehead to the ford across the creek, he was coming in from southeast and farther out, also on a course for the ford.
The sun was in his eyes, so she saw him before he saw her, and he was riding a big mean bay with a black mane and tail and black points; she knew the animal well because it was her job to rotate the work horses, and she had wondered why this particular beast was not so much in evidence these days. None of the men cared for it, never rode it if they could help. Apparently the new stockman didn’t mind it at all, which certainly indicated he could ride, for it was a notorious early-morning bucker and had a habit of snapping at its rider’s head the moment he dismounted.
It was hard to tell a man’s height when he was on horseback, for Australian stockmen used small English saddles minus the high cantle and horn of the American saddle, and rode with their knees bent, sitting very upright. The new man seemed tall, but sometimes height was all in the trunk, the legs disproportionately short, so Meggie reserved judgment. However, unlike most stockmen he preferred a white shirt and white moleskins to grey flannel and grey twill; somewhat of a dandy, she decided, amused. Good luck to him, if he didn’t mind the bother of so much washing and ironing.
“G’day, Missus!” he called as they converged, doffing his battered old grey felt hat and replacing it rakishly on the back of his head.
Laughing blue eyes looked at Meggie in undisguised admiration as she drew alongside.
“Well, you’re certainly not the Missus, so you’ve got to be the daughter,” he said. “I’m Luke O’Neill.”
Meggie muttered something but wouldn’t look at him again, so confused and angry she couldn’t think of any appropriately light conversation. Oh, it wasn’t fair! How dare someone else have eyes and face like Father Ralph! Not the way he looked at her: the mirth was something of his own and he had no love burning for her there; from the first moment of seeing Father Ralph kneeling in the dust of the Gilly station yard Meggie had seen love in his eyes. To look into his eyes and not see him! It was a cruel joke, a punishment.
Unaware of the thoughts his companion harbored, Luke O’Neill kept his wicked bay beside Meggie’s demure mare as they splashed through the creek, still running strong from so much rain. She was a beauty, all right! That hair! What was simply carrots on the male Clearys was something else again on this little sprig. If only she would look up, give him a better chance to see that face! Just then she did, with such a look on it that his brows came together, puzzled; not as if she hated him, exactly, but as if she was trying to see something and couldn’t, or had seen something and wished she hadn’t. Or whatever. It seemed to upset her, anyway. Luke was not used to being weighed in a feminine balance and found wanting. Caught naturally in a delicious trap of sunset-gold hair and soft eyes, his interest only fed on her displeasure and disappointment. Still she was watching him, pink mouth fallen slightly open, a silky dew of sweat on her upper lip and forehead because it was so hot, her reddish-gold brows arched in seeking wonderment.
He grinned to reveal Father Ralph’s big white teeth; yet it was not Father Ralph’s smile. “Do you know you look exactly like a baby, all oh! and ah!?”
She looked away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. You reminded me of someone, that’s all.”
“Stare all you like. It’s better than looking at the top of your head, pretty though that might be. Who do I remind you of?”
“No one important. It’s just strange, seeing someone familiar and yet terribly unfamiliar.”
“What’s your name, little Miss Cleary?”
“Meggie…It hasn’t got enough dignity, it doesn’t suit you a bit. I’d rather you were called something like Belinda or Madeline, but if Meggie’s the best you’ve got to offer, I’ll go for it. What’s the Meggie stand for—Margaret?”
“Ah, now that’s more like! I’ll call you Meghann.”
“No, you won’t!” she snapped. “I detest it!”
But he only laughed. “You’ve had too much of your own way, little Miss Meghann. If I want to call you Eustacia Sophronia Augusta, I will, you know.”
They had reached the stockyards; he slipped off his bay, aiming a punch at its snapping head which rocked it into submission, and stood, obviously waiting for her to offer him her hands so he could help her down. But she touched the chestnut mare with her heels and walked on up the track.
“Don’t you put the dainty lady with the common old stockmen?” he called after her.
“Certainly not!” she answered without turning.
Oh, it wasn’t fair! Even on his own two feet he was like Father Ralph; as tall, as broad in the shoulders and narrow in the hips, and with something of the same grace, though differently employed. Father Ralph moved like a dancer, Luke O’Neill like an athlete. His hair was as thick and black and curling, his eyes as blue, his nose as fine and straight, his mouth as well cut. And yet he was no more like Father Ralph than—than—than a ghost gum, so tall and pale and splendid, was like a blue gum, also tall and pale and splendid.
After that chance meeting Meggie kept her ears open for opinions and gossip about Luke O’Neill. Bob and the boys were pleased with his work and seemed to get along well with him; apparently he hadn’t a lazy bone in his body, according to Bob. Even Fee brought his name up in conversation one evening by remarking that he was a very handsome man.
“Does he remind you of anyone?” Meggie asked idly, flat on her stomach on the carpet reading a book.
Fee considered the question for a moment. “Well, I suppose he’s a bit like Father de Bricassart. The same build, the same coloring. But it isn’t a striking likeness; they’re too different as men.
“Meggie, I wish you’d sit in a chair like a lady to read! Just because you’re in jodhpurs you don’t have to forget modesty entirely.”
“Pooh!” said Meggie. “As if anyone notices!”
And so it went. There was a likeness, but the men behind the faces were so unalike only Meggie was plagued by it, for she was in love with one of them and resented finding the other attractive. In the kitchen she found he was a prime favorite, and also discovered how he could afford the luxury of wearing white shirts and white breeches into the paddocks; Mrs. Smith washed and ironed them for him, succumbing to his ready, beguiling charm.
“Och, what a fine Irishman he is and all!” Minnie sighed ecstatically.
“He’s an Australian,” said Meggie provocatively.
“Born here, maybe, Miss Meggie darlin’, but wit’ a name like O’Neill now, he’s as Irish as Paddy’s pigs, not meanin’ any disrespect to yer sainted father, Miss Meggie, may he rest in peace and sing wit’ the angels. Mr. Luke not Irish, and him wit’ that black hair, thim blue eyes? In the old days the O’Neills was the kings of Ireland.”
“I thought the O’Connors were,” said Meggie slyly.
Minnie’s round little eyes twinkled. “Ah, well now, Miss Meggie, ’twas a big country and all.”
“Go on! It’s about the size of Drogheda! And anyway, O’Neill is an Orange name; you can’t fool me.”
“It is that. But it’s a great Irish name and it existed before there were Orangemen ever thought of. It is a name from Ulster parts, so it’s logical there’d have to be a few of thim Orange, isn’t it now? But there was the O’Neill of Clandeboy and the O’Neill Mor back when, Miss Meggie darlin’.”
Meggie gave up the battle; Minnie had long since lost any militant Fenian tendencies she might once have possessed, and could pronounce the word “Orange” without having a stroke.
About a week later she ran into Luke O’Neill again, down by the creek. She suspected he had lain in wait for her, but she didn’t know what to do about it if he had.
“Good afternoon, Meghann.”
“Good afternoon,” said she, looking straight between the chestnut mare’s ears.
“There’s a woolshed ball at Braich y Pwll next Saturday night. Will you come with me?”
“Thank you for asking me, but I can’t dance. There wouldn’t be any point.”
“I’ll teach you how to dance in two flicks of a dead lamb’s tail, so that’s no obstacle. Since I’ll taking the squatter’s sister, do you think Bob might let me borrow the old Rolls, if not the new one?”
“I said I wouldn’t go!” she said, teeth clenched.
“You said you couldn’t dance, I said I’d teach you. You never said you wouldn’t go with me if you could dance, so I assumed it was the dancing you objected to, not me. Are you going to back out?”
Exasperated, she glared at him fiercely, but he only laughed at her.
“You’re spoiled rotten, young Meghann; it’s time you didn’t get all your own way.”
“I’m not spoiled!”
“Go on, tell me another! The only girl, all those brothers to run round after you, all this land and money, a posh house, servants? I know the Catholic Church owns it, but the Clearys aren’t short of a penny either.”