The Thorn Birds (Chapter 56-60)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 56

That was the big difference between them! she thought triumphantly; it had been eluding her since she met him. Father Ralph would never have fallen for outward trappings, but this man lacked his sensitivity; he had no inbuilt antennae to tell him what lay beneath the surface. He rode through life without an idea in his head about its complexity or its pain.

Flabbergasted, Bob handed over the keys to the new Rolls without a murmur; he had stared at Luke for a moment without speaking, then grinned.

“I never thought of Meggie going to a dance, but take her, Luke, and welcome! I daresay she’d like it, the poor little beggar. She never gets out much. We ought to think of taking her, but somehow we never do.”

“Why don’t you and Jack and Hughie come, too?” Luke asked, apparently not averse to company.

Bob shook his head, horrified. “No, thanks. We’re not too keen on dances.”

Meggie wore her ashes-of-roses dress, not having anything else to wear; it hadn’t occurred to her to use some of the stockpiling pounds Father Ralph put in the bank in her name to have dresses made for parties and balls. Until now she had managed to refuse invitations, for men like Enoch Davies and Alastair MacQueen were easy to discourage with a firm no. They didn’t have Luke O’Neill’s gall.

But as she stared at herself in the mirror she thought she just might go into Gilly next week when Mum made her usual trip, visit old Gert and have her make up a few new frocks.

For she hated wearing this dress; if she had owned one other even remotely suitable, it would have been off in a second. Other times, a different black-haired man; it was so tied up with love and dreams, tears and loneliness, that to wear it for such a one as Luke O’Neill seemed a desecration. She had grown used to hiding what she felt, to appearing always calm and outwardly happy. Self-control was growing around her thicker than bark on a tree, and sometimes in the night she would think of her mother, and shiver.

Would she end up like Mum, cut off from all feeling? Was this how it began for Mum back in the days when there was Frank’s father? And what on earth would Mum do, what would she say if she knew Meggie had learned the truth about Frank? Oh, that scene in the presbytery! It seemed like yesterday, Daddy and Frank facing each other, and Ralph holding her so hard he hurt. Shouting those awful things. Everything had fallen into place. Meggie thought she must always have known, once she did. She had grown up enough to realize there was more to getting babies than she used to think; some sort of physical contact absolutely forbidden between any but a married couple. What disgrace and humiliation poor Mum must have gone through over Frank. No wonder she was the way she was. If it happened to her, Meggie thought, she would want to die. In books only the lowest, cheapest girls had babies outside of marriage; yet Mum wasn’t cheap, could never have been cheap. With all her heart Meggie wished Mum could talk to her about it, or that she herself had the courage to bring up the subject. Perhaps in some small way she might have been able to help. But Mum wasn’t the sort of person one could approach, nor would Mum do the approaching. Meggie sighed at herself in the mirror, and hoped nothing like that ever happened to her.

Yet she was young; at times like this, staring at herself in the ashes-of-roses dress, she wanted to feel, wanted emotion to blow over her like a strong hot wind. She didn’t want to plod like a little automaton for the rest of her life, she wanted change and vitality and love. Love, and a husband, and babies. What was the use of hungering after a man she could never have? He didn’t want her, he never would want her. He said he loved her, but not as a husband would love her. Because he was married to the Church. Did all men do that, love some inanimate thing more than they could love a woman? No, surely not all men. The difficult ones, perhaps, the complex ones with their seas of doubts and objections, rationalities. But there had to be simpler men, men who could surely love a woman before all else. Men like Luke O’Neill, for instance.

“I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” said Luke as he started the Rolls.

Compliments were quite out of Meggie’s ken; she gave him a startled sidelong glance and said nothing.

“Isn’t this nice?” Luke asked, apparently not upset at her lack of enthusiasm. “Just turn a key and press a button on the dashboard and the car starts. No cranking a handle, no hoping the darned donk catches before a man’s exhausted. This is the life, Meghann, no doubt about it.”

“You won’t leave me alone, will you?” she asked.

“Good Lord, no! You’ve come with me, haven’t you? That means you’re mine all night long, and I don’t intend giving anyone else a chance.”

“How old are you, Luke?”
“Thirty. How old are you?”

“Almost twenty-three.”

“As much as that, eh? You look like a baby.”

“I’m not a baby.”

“Oho! Have you ever been in love, then?”

“Once.”

“Is that all? At twenty-three? Good Lord! I’d been in and out of love a dozen times by your age.”

“I daresay I might have been, too, but I meet very few people to fall in love with on Drogheda. You’re the first stockman I remember who said more than a shy hello.”

“Well, if you won’t go to dances because you can’t dance, you’re on the outside looking in right there, aren’t you? Never mind, we’ll fix that up in no time. By the end of the evening you’ll be dancing, and in a few weeks we’ll have you a champion.” He glanced at her quickly. “But you can’t tell me some of the squatters off other stations haven’t tried to get you to come to the odd dance with them. Stockmen I can understand, you’re a cut above the usual stockman’s inclinations, but some of the sheep cockies must have given you the glad eye.”

“If I’m a cut above stockmen, why did you ask me?” she parried.

“Oh, I’ve got all the cheek in the world.” He grinned. “Come on now, don’t change the subject. There must be a few blokes around Gilly who’ve asked.”

“A few,” she admitted. “But I’ve really never wanted to go. You pushed me into it.”

“Then the rest of them are sillier than pet snakes,” he said. “I know a good thing when I see it.”

She wasn’t too sure that she cared for the way he talked, but the trouble with Luke was that he was a hard man to put down.

Everyone came to a woolshed dance, from squatters’ sons and daughters to stockmen and their wives if any, maidservants, governesses, town dwellers of all ages and sexes. For instance, these were occasions when female schoolteachers got the opportunity to fraternize with the stock-and-station-agent apprentices, the bank johnnies and the real bushies off the stations.

The grand manners reserved for more formal affairs were not in evidence at all. Old Mickey O’Brien came out from Gilly to play the fiddle, and there was always someone on hand to man the piano accordion or the button accordion, taking turns to spell each other as Mickey’s accompanists while the old violinist sat on a barrel or a wool bale for hours playing without a rest, his pendulous lower lip drooling because he had no patience with swallowing; it interfered with his tempo.

But it was not the sort of dancing Meggie had seen at Mary Carson’s birthday party. This was energetic round-dancing: barn dances, jigs, polkas, quadrilles, reels, mazurkas, Sir Roger de Coverleys, with no more than a passing touching of the partner’s hands, or a wild swirling in rough arms. There was no sense of intimacy, no dreaminess. Everyone seemed to view the proceedings as a simple dissipation of frustrations; romantic intrigues were furthered better outside, well away from the noise and bustle.

Meggie soon discovered she was much envied her big handsome escort. He was the target of almost as many seductive or languishing looks as Father Ralph used to be, and more blatantly so. As Father Ralph used to be. Used to be. How terrible to have to think of him in the very remotest of all past tenses.

True to his word, Luke left her alone only so long as it took him to visit the Men’s. Enoch Davies and Liam O’Rourke were there, and eager to fill his place alongside her. He gave them no opportunity whatsoever, and Meggie herself seemed too dazed to understand that she was quite within her rights to accept invitations to dance from men other than her escort. Though she didn’t hear the comments, Luke did, secretly laughing. What a damned cheek the fellow had, an ordinary stockman, stealing her from under their noses! Disapproval meant nothing to Luke. They had had their chances; if they hadn’t made the most of them, hard luck.

The last dance was a waltz. Luke took Meggie’s hand and put his arm about her waist, drew her against him. He was an excellent dancer. To her surprise she found she didn’t need to do anything more than follow where he propelled her. And it was a most extraordinary sensation to be held so against a man, to feel the muscles of his chest and thighs, to absorb his body warmth. Her brief contacts with Father Ralph had been so intense she had not had time to perceive discrete things, and she had honestly thought that what she felt in his arms she would never feel in anyone else’s. Yet though this was quite different, it was exciting; her pulse rate had gone up, and she knew he sensed it by the way he turned her suddenly, gripped her more closely, put his cheek on her hair.

Chapter 57

As the Rolls purred home, making light of the bumpy track and sometimes no track at all, they didn’t speak very much. Braich y Pwll was seventy miles from Drogheda, across paddocks with never a house to be seen all the way, no lights of someone’s home, no intrusion of humanity. The ridge which cut across Drogheda was not more than a hundred feet higher than the rest of the land, but out on the black-soil plains to reach the crest of it was like being on top of an Alp to a Swiss. Luke stopped the car, got out and came round to open Meggie’s door. She stepped down beside him, trembling a little; was he going to spoil everything by trying to kiss her? It was so quiet, so far from anyone!

There was a decaying dogleg wooden fence wandering off to one side, and holding her elbow lightly to make sure she didn’t stumble in her frivolous shoes, Luke helped Meggie across the uneven ground, the rabbit holes. Gripping the fence tightly and looking out over the plains, she was speechless; first from terror, then, her panic dying as he made no move to touch her, from wonder.

Almost as clearly as the sun could, the moon’s still pale light picked out vast sweeping stretches of distance, the grass shimmering and rippling like a restless sigh, silver and white and grey. Leaves on trees sparkled suddenly like points of fire when the wind turned their glossy tops upward, and great yawning gulfs of shadows spread under timber stands as mysteriously as mouths of the underworld. Lifting her head, she tried to count the stars and could not; as delicate as drops of dew on a wheeling spider’s web the pinpoints flared, went out, flared, went out, in a rhythm as timeless as God. They seemed to hang over her like a net, so beautiful, so very silent, so watchful and searching of the soul, like jewel eyes of insects turned brilliant in a spotlight, blind as to expression and infinite as to seeing power. The only sounds were the wind hot in the grass, hissing trees, an occasional clank from the cooling Rolls, and a sleepy bird somewhere close complaining because they had broken its rest; the sole smell the fragrant, indefinable scent of the bush.

Luke turned his back on the night, pulled out his tobacco pouch and booklet of rice papers, and began to roll himself a cigarette.

“Were you born out here, Meghann?” he asked, rubbing the strands of leaf back and forth in his palm, lazily.

“No, I was born in New Zealand. We came to Drogheda thirteen years ago.”

He slipped the shaped tendrils into their paper sheath, twiddled it expertly between thumb and forefinger, then licked it shut, poked a few wisps back inside the tube with a match end, struck the match and lit up.

“You enjoyed yourself tonight, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes!”

“I’d like to take you to all the dances.”

“Thank you.”

He fell silent again, smoking quietly and looking back across the roof of the Rolls at the stand of timber where the irate bird still twittered querulously. When only a small remnant of the tube sputtered between his stained fingers he dropped it on the ground and screwed his boot heel viciously down upon it until he was sure it was out. No one kills a cigarette as dead as an Australian bushman.

Sighing, Meggie turned from the moon vista, and he helped her to the car. He was far too wise to kiss her at this early stage, because he intended to marry her if he could; let her want to be kissed, first.

But there were other dances, as the summer wore on and wore itself down in bloody, dusty splendor; gradually the homestead got used to the fact that Meggie had found herself a very good-looking boyfriend. Her brothers forbore to tease, for they loved her and liked him well enough. Luke O’Neill was the hardest worker they had ever employed; no better recommendation than that existed. At heart more working class than squatter class, it never occurred to the Cleary men to judge him by his lack of possessions. Fee, who might have weighed him in a more selective balance, didn’t care sufficiently to do so. Anyway, Luke’s calm assumption that he was different from your average stockman bore fruit; because of it, he was treated more like one of themselves.

It became his custom to call up the track at the big house when he was in at night and not out in the paddocks; after a while Bob declared it was silly for him to eat alone when there was plenty on the Cleary table, so he ate with them. After that it seemed rather senseless to send him a mile down the track to sleep when he was nice enough to want to stay talking to Meggie until late, so he was bidden to move into one of the small guesthouses out behind the big house.

By this time Meggie thought about him a great deal, and not as disparagingly as she had at first, always comparing him to Father Ralph. The old sore was healing. After a while she forgot that Father Ralph had smiled so with the same mouth, while Luke smiled thus, that Father Ralph’s vivid blue eyes had had a distant stillness to them while Luke’s glittered with restless passion. She was young and she had never quite got to savor love, if for a moment or two she had tasted it. She wanted to roll it round on her tongue, get the bouquet of it into her lungs, spin it dizzying to her brain. Father Ralph was Bishop Ralph; he would never, never come back to her. He had sold her for thirteen million pieces of silver, and it rankled. If he hadn’t used the phrase that night by the borehead she would not have wondered, but he had used it, and countless were the nights since when she had lain puzzling as to what he could possibly have meant.

And her hands itched with the feel of Luke’s back when he held her close in a dance; she was stirred by him, his touch, his crisp vitality. Oh, she never felt that dark liquid fire in her bones for him, she never thought that if she didn’t see him again she would wither and dry up, she never twitched and trembled because he looked at her. But she had grown to know men like Enoch Davies, Liam O’Rourke, Alastair MacQueen better as Luke squired her to more and more of the district affairs, and none of them moved her the way Luke O’Neill did. If they were tall enough to oblige her to look up, they would turn out not to have Luke’s eyes, or if they had the same sort of eyes, they wouldn’t have his hair. Something was always lacking which wasn’t lacking in Luke, though just what it was Luke possessed she didn’t know. Aside from the fact that he reminded her of Father Ralph, that is, and she refused to admit her attraction had no better basis than that.

They talked a lot, but always about general things; shearing, the land, the sheep, or what he wanted out of life, or perhaps about the places he had seen, or some political happening. He read an occasional book but he wasn’t an inveterate reader like Meggie, and try as she would, she couldn’t seem to persuade him to read this or that book simply because she had found it interesting. Nor did he lead the conversation into intellectual depths; most interesting and irritating of all, he never evinced any interest in her life, or asked her what she wanted from it. Sometimes she longed to talk about matters far closer to her heart than sheep or rain, but if she made a leading statement he was expert at deflecting her into more impersonal channels.

Luke O’Neill was clever, conceited, extremely hardworking and hungry to enrich himself. He had been born in a wattle-and-daub shanty exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn, outside the town of Longreach in Western Queensland. His father was the black sheep of a prosperous but unforgiving Irish family, his mother was the daughter of the German butcher in Winton; when she insisted on marrying Luke senior, she also was disowned. There were ten children in that humpy, none of whom possessed a pair of shoes—not that shoes mattered much in torrid Longreach. Luke senior, who shore for a living when he felt like it (but mostly all he felt like doing was drinking OP rum), died in a fire at the Blackall pub when young Luke was twelve years old. So as soon as he could Luke took himself off on the shearing circuit as a tar boy, slapping molten tar on jagged wounds if a shearer slipped and cut flesh as well as wool.

One thing Luke was never afraid of, and that was hard work; he thrived on it the way some men thrived on its opposite, whether because his father had been a barfly and a town joke or because he had inherited his German mother’s love of industry no one had ever bothered to find out.

As he grew older he graduated from tar boy to shed hand, running down the board catching the great heavy fleeces as they flew off the boggis in one piece billowing up like kites, and carrying them to the wool-rolling table to be skirted. From that he learned to skirt, picking the dirt-encrusted edges off the fleeces and transferring them to bins ready for the attention of the classer, who was shed aristocrat: the man who like a wine-taster or a perfume-tester cannot be trained unless he also has instinct for the job. And Luke didn’t have a classer’s instinct; either he turned to pressing or to shearing if he wanted to earn more money, which he certainly did. He had the strength to man the press, tamp down the graded fleeces into massive bales, but a gun shearer could make more money.

By now he was well known in Western Queensland as a good worker, so he had no trouble getting himself a learner’s pen. With grace, coordination, strength and endurance, all necessary and luckily present in Luke, a man could become a gun shearer. Soon Luke was shearing his two hundred-plus a day six days a week, a quid a hundred; and this with the narrow handpiece resembling a boggi lizard, hence its name. The big New Zealand handpieces with their wide, coarse combs and cutters were illegal in Australia, though they doubled a shearer’s tally.

Chapter 58

It was grueling work; bending from his height with a sheep clamped between his knees, sweeping his boggi in blows the length of the sheep’s body to free the wool in one piece and leave as few second cuts as possible, close enough to the loose kinky skin to please the shed boss, who would be down in a second on any shearer not conforming to his rigorous standards. He didn’t mind the heat and the sweat and the thirst which forced him to drink upward of three gallons of water a day, he didn’t even mind the tormenting hordes of flies, for he was born in fly country. Nor did he mind the sheep, which were mostly a shearer’s nightmare; cobblers, wets, overgrowns, snobs, dags, fly-strikes, they came in all varieties, and they were all merinos, which meant wool all the way down to their hoofs and noses, and a cobbled fragile skin which moved like slippery paper.

No, it wasn’t the work itself Luke minded, for the harder he worked the better he felt; what irked him were the noise, the being shut inside, the stench. No place on earth was quite the hell a shearing shed was. Se he decided he wanted to be the boss cocky, the man who strolled up and down the lines of stooping shearers to watch the fleeces he owned being stripped away by that smooth, flawless motion.

At the end of the floor in his cane-bottomed chair

Sits the boss of the board with his eyes everywhere.

That was what the old shearing song said, and that was who Luke O’Neill decided to be. The boss cocky, the head peanut, the grazier, the squatter. Not for him the perpetual stoop, the elongated arms of a lifelong shearer; he wanted the pleasure of working out in the open air while he watched the money roll in. Only the prospect of becoming a dreadnought shearer might have kept Luke inside a shed, one of the rare handful of men who managed to shear over three hundred merino sheep a day, all to standard, and using narrow boggis. They made fortunes on the side by betting. But unfortunately he was just a little too tall, those extra seconds bending and ducking mounted up to the difference between gun and dreadnought.

His mind turned within its limitations to another method of acquiring what he hungered for; at about this stage in his life he discovered how attractive he was to women. His first try had been in the guise of a stockman on Gnarlunga, as that station had an heir who was female, fairly young and fairly pretty. It had been sheer bad luck that in the end she preferred the Pommy jackaroo whose more bizarre exploits were becoming bush legend. From Gnarlunga he went to Bingelly and got a job breaking horses, his eye on the homestead where the aging and unattractive heiress lived with her widowed father. Poor Dot, he had so nearly won her; but in the end she had fallen in with her father’s wishes and married the spry sexagenarian who owned the neighboring property.

These two essays cost him over three years of his life, and he decided twenty months per heiress was far too long and boring. It would suit him better for a while to journey far and wide, continually on the move, until within this much larger sweep he found another likely prospect. Enjoying himself enormously, he began to drove the Western Queensland stock routes, down the Cooper and the Diamantina, the Barcoo and the Bulloo Overflow dwindling through the top corner of western New South Wales. He was thirty, and it was more than time he found the goose who would lay at least part of his golden egg.

Everyone had heard of Drogheda, but Luke’s ears pricked up when he discovered there was an only daughter. No hope she’d inherit, but perhaps they’d want to dower her with a modest 100,000 acres out around Kynuna or Winton. This was nice country around Gilly, but too cramped and forested for him. Luke yearned for the enormity of far western Queensland, where the grass stretched into infinity and trees were mostly something a man remembered as being vaguely eastward. Just the grass, on and on and on with no beginning and no end, where a man was lucky to graze one sheep for every ten acres he owned. Because sometimes there was no grass, just a flat desert of cracked, panting black soil. The grass, the sun, the heat and the flies; to each man his own kind of heaven, and this was Luke O’Neill’s.

He had prised the rest of the Drogheda story out of Jimmy Strong, the AML&F stock-and-station agent who drove him out that first day, and it had been a bitter blow to discover the Catholic Church owned Drogheda. However, he had learned how few and far between female heirs to properties were; when Jimmy Strong went on to say that the only daughter had a nice little cash sum of her own and many doting brothers, he decided to carry on as planned.

But though Luke had long decided his life’s objective lay in 100,000 acres out around Kynuna or Winton, and worked toward it with single-minded zeal, the truth was that at heart he loved hard cash far more than what it might eventually buy him; not the possession of land, nor its inherent power, but the prospect of stockpiling rows of neat figures in his bankbook, in his name. It had’t been Gnarlunga or Bingelly he had wanted so desperately, but their value in hard cash. A man who genuinely wanted to be the boss cocky would never have settled for landless Meggie Cleary. Nor would he have loved the physical act of working hard as did Luke O’Neill.

The dance at the Holy Cross hall in Gilly was the thirteenth dance Luke had taken Meggie to in as many weeks. How he discovered where they were and how he wangled some of the invitations Meggie was too naive to guess, but regularly on a Saturday he would ask Bob for the keys to the Rolls, and take her somewhere within 150 miles.

Tonight it was cold as she stood by a fence looking across a moonless landscape, and under her feet she could feel the crunch of frost. Winter was coming. Luke’s arm came around her and drew her in to his side.

“You’re cold,” he said. “I’d better get you home.”

“No, it’s all right now, I’m getting warm,” she answered breathlessly.

She felt a change in him, a change in the arm held loosely and impersonally across her back. But it was nice to lean against him, to feel the warmth radiating from his body, the different construction of his frame. Even through her cardigan she was conscious of his hand, moving now in small, caressing circles, a tentative and questioning massage. If at this stage she announced she was cold he would stop; if she said nothing, he would take it as tacit permission to proceed. She was young, she wanted so badly to savor love properly. This was the only man outside of Ralph who interested her, so why not see what his kisses were like? Only let them be different! Let them not be like Ralph’s kisses!

Taking her silence as acquiescence, Luke put his other hand on her shoulder, turned her to face him, and bent his head. Was that how a mouth really felt? Why, it was no more than a sort of pressure! What was she supposed to do to indicate liking? She moved her lips under his and at once wished she had not. The pushing down increased; he opened his mouth wide, forced her lips apart with his teeth and tongue, and ran the tongue around the inside of her mouth. Revolting. Why had it seemed so different when Ralph kissed her? She hadn’t been aware then of how wet and faintly nauseating it was; she hadn’t seemed to think at all, only open to him like a casket when the well-known hand touches a secret spring. What on earth was he doing? Why did her body jump so, cling to him when her mind wanted badly to pull away?

Luke had found the sensitive spot on her side, and kept his fingers on it to make her writhe; so far she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Breaking the kiss, he put his mouth hard against the side of her neck. She seemed to like that better, her hands came up around him and she gasped, but when he slid his lips down her throat at the same time as his hand attempted to push her dress off her shoulder, she gave him a sharp shove and stepped quickly away.

“That’s enough, Luke!”

The episode had disappointed her, half-repelled her. Luke was very aware of it as he helped her into the car and rolled a much-needed cigarette. He rather fancied himself as a lover, none of the girls so far had ever complained—but then they hadn’t been ladies like Meggie. Even Dot MacPherson, the Bingelly heiress, richer by far than Meggie, was as rough as bags, no posh Sydney boarding school and all that crap. In spite of his looks Luke was about on a par with the average rural workingman when it came to sexual experience; he knew little of the mechanics beyond what he liked himself, and he knew nothing of the theory. The numerous girls he had m**d l**ove to were nothing loath to assure him they liked it, but that meant he had to rely on a certain amount of personal information, not always honest, either. A girl went into any affair hoping for marriage when the man was as attractive and hardworking as Luke, so a girl was as likely as not to lie her head off to please him. And nothing pleased a man more than being told he was the best ever. Luke never dreamed how many men aside from himself had been fooled with that one.

Still thinking about old Dot, who had given in and done as her father wanted after he locked her in the shearers’ barracks for a week with a fly-blown carcass, Luke mentally shrugged his shoulders. Meggie was going to be a tough nut to crack and he couldn’t afford to frighten or disgust her. Fun and games would have to wait, that was all. He’d woo her the way she obviously wanted, flowers and attention and not too much slap-and-tickle.

For a while an uncomfortable silence reigned, then Meggie sighed and slumped back in her seat.

Chapter 59

“I’m sorry, Luke.”

“I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Oh, no, you didn’t offend me, truly! I suppose I’m not very used to it…. I was frightened, not offended.”

“Oh, Meghann!” He took one hand off the wheel and put it over her clasped ones. “Look, don’t worry about it. You’re a bit of a girl and I went too fast. Let’s forget it.”

“Yes, let’s she said.

“Didn’t he kiss you?” Luke asked curiously.

“Who?’

Was there fear in her voice? But why should there be fear in her voice? “You said you’d been in love once, so I thought you knew the ropes. I’m sorry, Meghann. I should have realized that stuck all the way out here in a family like yours, what you meant was you had a schoolgirl crush on some bloke who never noticed you.”

Yes, yes, yes! Let him think that! “You’re quite right, Luke; it was just a schoolgirl crush.”

Outside the house he drew her to him again and gave her a gentle, lingering kiss without any open-mouth tongue business. She didn’t respond exactly, but clearly she liked it; he went off to his guesthouse more satisfied that he hadn’t ruined his chances.

Meggie dragged herself to bed and lay looking up at the soft round halo the lamp cast on the ceiling. Well, one thing had been established: there was nothing in Luke’s kisses to remind her of Ralph’s. And once or twice toward the end she had felt a flicker of dismayed excitement, when he had dug his fingers into her side and when he had kissed her neck. No use equating Luke with Ralph, and she wasn’t sure anymore that she wanted to try. Better forget Ralph; he couldn’t be her husband. Luke could.

The second time Luke kissed her Meggie behaved quite differently. They had been to a wonderful party on Rudna Hunish, the limit of the territorial boundary Bob had drawn around their jaunts, and the evening had gone well from its beginning. Luke was in his best form, joking so much on the way out he kept her helpless with laughter, then warmly loving and attentive toward her all through the party. And Miss Carmichael had been so determined to take him away from her! Stepping in where Alastair MacQueen and Enoch Davies feared to go, she attached herself to them and flirted with Luke blatantly, forced him for the sake of good manners to ask her to dance. It was a formal affair, the dancing ballroom style, and the dance Luke gave Miss Carmichael was a slow waltz. But he had come back to Meggie immediately it was over and said nothing, only cast his eyes toward the ceiling in a way which left her in no doubt that to him Miss Carmichael was a bore. And she loved him for it; ever since the day the lady had interfered with her pleasure at the Gilly Show, Meggie had disliked her. She had never forgotten the way Father Ralph had ignored the lady to lift a small girl over a puddle; now tonight Luke showed himself in those same colors. Oh, bravo! Luke, you’re splendid!

It was a very long way home, and very cold. Luke had cajoled a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of champagne out of old Angus MacQueen, and when they were nearly two-thirds of the way home he stopped the car. Heaters in cars were extremely rare in Australia then as now, but the Rolls was equipped with a heater; that night it was very welcome, for the frost lay two inches thick on the ground.

“Oh, isn’t it nice to sit without a coat on a night like this?” Meggie smiled, taking the little silver collapsible cup of champagne Luke gave her, and biting into a ham sandwich.

“Yes, it is. You look so pretty tonight, Meghann.”

What was it about the color of her eyes? Grey wasn’t normally a color he cared for, too anemic, but looking at her grey eyes he could have sworn they held every color in the blue end of the spectrum, violet and indigo and the sky on a rich clear day, deep mossy green, a hint of tawny yellow. And they glowed like soft, half-opaque jewels, framed by those long curling lashes which glittered as if they had been dipped in gold. He reached out and delicately brushed his finger along the lashes of one eye, then solemnly looked down at its tip.

“Why, Luke! What’s the matter?”

“I couldn’t resist seeing for myself that you don’t have a pot of gold powder on your dressing table. Do you know you’re the only girl I’ve ever met with real gold on her eyelashes?”

“Oh!” She touched them herself, looked at her finger, laughed. “So I have! It doesn’t come off at all.” The champagne was tickling her nose and fizzing in her stomach; she felt wonderful.

“And real gold eyebrows that have the same shape as a church roof, and the most beautiful real gold hair…I always expect it to be hard like metal, yet it’s soft and fine like a baby’s…. And skin you must use gold powder on, it shines so…And the most beautiful mouth, just made for kissing…”.

She sat staring at him with that tender pink mouth slightly open, the way it had been on their first meeting; he reached out and took the empty cup from her.

“I think you need a little more champagne,” he said, filling it.

“I must admit this is nice, to stop and give ourselves a little break from the track. And thank you for thinking of asking Mr. MacQueen for the sandwiches and wine.”

The big Rolls engine ticked gently in the silence, warm air pouring almost soundlessly through the vents; two separate kinds of lulling noise. Luke unknotted his tie and pulled it off, opened his shirt collar. Their jackets were on the back seat, too warm for the car.

“Oh, that feels good! I don’t know who invented ties and then insisted a man was only properly dressed when he wore one, but if ever I meet him, I’ll strangle him with his own invention.”

He turned abruptly, lowered his face to hers, and seemed to catch the rounded curve of her lips exactly into his, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; though he didn’t hold her or touch her elsewhere she felt locked to him and let her head follow as he leaned back, drawing her forward onto his chest. His hands came up to clasp her head, the better to work at that dizzying, amazingly responsive mouth, drain it. Sighing, he abandoned himself to feeling nothing else, at home at last with those silky baby’s lips finally fitting his own. Her arm slid around his neck, quivering fingers sank into his hair, the palm of her other hand coming to rest on the smooth brown skin at the base of his throat. This time he didn’t hurry, though he had risen and hardened before giving her the second cup of champagne, just from looking at her. Not releasing her head, he kissed her cheeks, her closed eyes, the curving bones of the orbits beneath her brows, came back to her cheeks because they were so satiny, came back to her mouth because its infantile shape drove him mad, had driven him mad since the day he first saw her.

And there was her throat, the little hollow at its base, the skin of her shoulder so delicate and cool and dry…. Powerless to call a halt, almost beside himself with fear lest she should call a halt, he removed one hand from her head and plucked at the long row of buttons down the back of her dress, slid it off her obedient arms, then the straps of her loose satin slip. Face buried between her neck and shoulder, he passed the tips of his fingers down her bare back, feeling her startled little shivers, the sudden hard points to her breasts. He pushed his face lower in a blind, compulsive touch-search of one cold, cushioned surface, lips parted, pressing down, until they closed over taut ruched flesh. His tongue lingered for a dazed minute, then his hands clutched in agonized pleasure on her back and he sucked, nipped, kissed, sucked…. The old eternal impulse, his particular preference, and it never failed. It was so good, good, good, goooooood! He did not cry out, only shuddered for a wrenching, drenching moment, and swallowed in the depths of his throat.

Like a satiated nursling, he let the nip**ple pop out of his mouth, formed a kiss of boundless love and gratitude against the side of her breast, and lay utterly still except for the heaves of his breathing. He could feel her mouth in his hair, her hand down inside his shirt, and suddenly he seemed to recollect himself, opened his eyes. Briskly he sat up, pulled her slip straps up her arms, then her dress, and fastened all the buttons deftly.

“You’d better marry me, Meghann,” he said, eyes soft and laughing. “I don’t think your brothers would approve one little bit of what we just did.”

“Yes, I think I’d better too,” she agreed, lids lowered, a delicate flush in her cheeks.

“Let’s tell them tomorrow morning.”

“Why not? The sooner the better.”

“Next Saturday I’ll drive you into Gilly. We’ll see Father Thomas—I suppose you’d like a church wedding—arrange for the banns, and buy an engagement ring.”

“Thank you, Luke.”

Well, that was that. She had committed herself, there could be no turning back. In a few weeks or however long it took to call banns, she would marry Luke O’Neill. She would be…. Mrs. Luke O’Neill! How strange! Why did she say yes? Because he told me I must, he said I was to do it. But why? To remove him from danger? To protect himself, or me? Ralph de Bricassart, sometimes I think I hate you….

Chapter 60

The incident in the car had been startling and disturbing. Not a bit like that first time. So many beautiful, terrifying sensations. Oh, the touch of his hands! That electrifying tugging at her breast sending vast widening rings clear through her! And he did it right at the moment her conscience had reared its head, told the mindless thing she seemed to have become that he was taking off her clothes, that she must scream, slap him, run away. No longer lulled and half senseless from champagne, from warmth, from the discovery that it was delicious to be kissed when it was done right, his first great gulping taking-in of her breast had transfixed her, stilled common sense, conscience and all thought of flight. Her shoulders came up off his chest, her hips seemed to subside against him, her thighs and that unnamed region at their top rammed by his squeezing hands against a ridge of his body hard as a rock, and she had just wanted to stay like that for the rest of her days, shaken to her soul and yawning empty, wanting…. Wanting what? She didn’t know. In the moment at which he had put her away from him she hadn’t wanted to go, could even have flown at him like a savage. But it had set the seal on her hardening resolve to marry Luke O’Neill. Not to mention that she was convinced he had done to her the thing which made babies start.

No one was very surprised at the news, and no one dreamed of objecting. The only thing which did startle them was Meggie’s adamant refusal to write and tell Bishop Ralph, her almost hysterical rejection of Bob’s idea that they invite Bishop Ralph to Drogheda and have a big house wedding. No, no, no! She had screamed it at them; Meggie who never raised her voice. Apparently she was miffed that he had never come back to see them, maintaining that her marriage was her own business, that if he didn’t have the common decency to come to Drogheda for no reason, she was not going to furnish him with an obligation he could not refuse.

So Fee promised not to say a word in her letters; she seemed not to care one way or the other, nor did she seem interested in Meggie’s choice of a husband. Keeping the books of a station as large as Drogheda was a full-time job. Fee’s records would have served a historian with a perfect description of life on a sheep station, for they didn’t simply consist of figures and ledgers. Every movement of every mob of sheep was rigidly described, the changes of the seasons, the weather each day, even what Mrs. Smith served for dinner. The entry in the log book for Sunday, July 22, 1934, said: Sky clear, no cloud, temperature at dawn 34 degrees. No Mass today. Bob in, Jack out at Murrimbah with 2 stockmen, Hughie out at West Dam with 1 stockman, Beerbarrel droving 3-year wethers from Budgin to Winnemurra. Temperature high at 3 o’clock, 85 degrees. Barometer steady, 30.6 inches. Wind due west. Dinner menu corned beef, boiled potatoes, carrots and cabbage, then plum duff. Meghann Cleary is to marry Mr. Luke O’Neill, stockman, on Saturday August 25 at the Holy Cross Church, Gillanbone. Entered 9 o’clock evening, temperature 45 degrees, moon last quarter.

11

Luke bought Meggie a diamond engagement ring, modest but quite pretty, its twin quarter-carat stones set in a pair of platinum hearts. The banns were called for noon on Saturday, August 25th, in the Holy Cross Church. This would be followed by a family dinner at the Hotel Imperial, to which Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat were naturally invited, though Jims and Patsy had been left in Sydney after Meggie said firmly that she couldn’t see the point in bringing them six hundred miles to witness a ceremony they didn’t really understand. She had received their letters of congratulations; Jims’s long, rambling and childlike, Patsy’s consisting of three words, “Lots of luck.” They knew Luke, of course, having ridden the Drogheda paddocks with him during their vacations.

Mrs. Smith was grieved at Meggie’s insistence on as small an affair as possible; she had hoped to see the only girl married on Drogheda with flags flying and cymbals clashing, days of celebration. But Meggie was so against a fuss she even refused to wear bridal regalia; she would be married in a day dress and an ordinary hat, which could double afterwards as her traveling outfit.

“Darling, I’ve decided where to take you for our honeymoon,” Luke said, slipping into a chair opposite hers the Sunday after they had made their wedding plans.

“Where?”

“North Queensland. While you were at the dressmaker I got talking to some chaps in the Imperial bar, and they were telling me there’s money to be made up in cane country, if a man’s strong and not afraid of hard work.”

“But Luke, you already have a good job here!”

“A man doesn’t feel right, battening on his in-laws. I want to get us the money to buy a place out in Western Queensland, and I want it before I’m too old to work it. A man with no education finds it hard to get high-paying work in this Depression, but there’s a shortage of men in North Queensland, and the money’s at least ten times what I earn as a stockman on Drogheda.”

“Doing what?”

“Cutting sugar cane.”

“Cutting sugar cane? That’s coolie labor”

“No, you’re wrong. Coolies aren’t big enough to do it as well as the white cutters, and besides, you know as well as I do that Australian law forbids the importation of black or yellow men to do slave labor or work for wages lower than a white man’s, take the bread out of a white Australian’s mouth. There’s, a shortage of cutters and the money’s terrific. Not too many blokes are big enough or strong enough to cut cane. But I am. It won’t beat me!”

“Does this mean you’re thinking of making our home in North Queensland, Luke?”

“Yes.”

She stared past his shoulder through the great bank of windows at Drogheda: the ghost gums, the Home Paddock, the stretch of trees beyond. Not to live on Drogheda! To be somewhere Bishop Ralph could never find her, to live without ever seeing him again, to cleave to this stranger sitting facing her so irrevocably there could be no going back…. The grey eyes rested on Luke’s vivid, impatient face and grew more beautiful, but unmistakably sadder. He sensed it only; she had no tears there, her lids didn’t droop, or the corners of her mouth. But he wasn’t concerned with whatever sorrows Meggie owned, for he had no intention of letting her become so important to him she caused him worry on her behalf. Admittedly she was something of a bonus to a man who had tried to marry Dot MacPherson of Bingelly, but her physical desirability and tractable nature only increased Luke’s guard over his own heart. No woman, even one as sweet and beautiful as Meggie Cleary, was ever going to gain sufficient power over him to tell him what to do.

So, remaining true to himself, he plunged straight into the main thing on his mind. There were times when guile was necessary, but in this matter it wouldn’t serve him as well as bluntness.

“Meghann, I’m an old-fashioned man,” he said.

She stared at him, puzzled. “Are you?” she asked, her tone implying: Does it matter?

“Yes,” he said. “I believe that when a man and woman marry, all the woman’s property should become the man’s. The way a dowry did in the old days. I know you’ve got a bit of money, and I’m telling you now that when we marry you’re to sign it over to me. It’s only fair you know what’s in my mind while you’re still single, and able to decide whether you want to do it.”

It had never occurred to Meggie that she would retain her money; she had simply assumed when she married it would become Luke’s, not hers. All save the most educated and sophisticated Australian women were reared to think themselves more or less the chattels of their men, and this was especially true of Meggie. Daddy had always ruled Fee and his children, and since his death Fee had deferred to Bob as his successor. The man owned the money, the house, his wife and his children. Meggie had never questioned his right to do so.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know signing anything was necessary, Luke. I thought that what was mine automatically became yours when we married.”

“It used to be like that, but those stupid drongos in Canberra stopped it when they gave women the vote. I want everything to be fair and square between us, Meghann, so I’m telling you now how things are going to be.”

She laughed, “It’s all right, Luke, I don’t mind.”

She took it like a good old-fashioned wife; Dot wouldn’t have given in so readily. “How much have you got?” he asked.

“At the moment, fourteen thousand pounds. Every year I get two thousand more.”

He whistled. “Fourteen thousand pounds! Phew! That’s a lot of money, Meghann. Better to have me look after it for you. We can see the bank manager next week, and remind me to make sure everything coming in in the future gets put in my name, too. I’m not going to touch a penny of it, you know that. It’s to buy our station later on. For the next few years we’re both going to work hard, and save every penny we earn. All right?”

She nodded. “Yes, Luke.”

A simple oversight on Luke’s part nearly scotched the wedding in midplan. He was not a Catholic. When Father Watty found out he threw up his hands in horror.

 

 

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