The Thorn Birds (Chapter 61-65)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
“Dear Lord, Luke, why didn’t you tell me earlier? Indeed and to goodness, it will take all of our energies to have you converted and baptized before the wedding!”
Luke stared at Father Watty, astonished. “Who said anything about converting, Father? I’m quite happy as I am being nothing, but if it worries you, write me down as a Calathumpian or a Holy Roller or whatever you like. But write me down a Catholic you will not.”
In vain they pleaded; Luke refused to entertain the idea of conversion for a moment. “I’ve got nothing against Catholicism or Eire, and I think the Catholics in Ulster are hard done by. But I’m Orange, and I’m not a turncoat. If I was a Catholic and you wanted me to convert to Methodism, I’d react the same. It’s being a turncoat I object to, not being a Catholic. So you’ll have to do without me in the flock, Father, and that’s that.”
“Then you can’t get married!”
“Why on earth not? If you don’t want to marry us, I can’t see why the Reverend up at the Church of England will object, or Harry Gough the J.P.”
Fee smiled sourly, remembering her contretemps with Paddy and a priest; she had won that encounter.
“But, Luke, I have to be married in church!” Meggie protested fearfully. “If I’m not, I’ll be living in sin!”
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, living in sin is a lot better than turning my coat inside out,” said Luke, who was sometimes a curious contradiction; much as he wanted Meggie’s money, a blind streak of stubbornness in him wouldn’t let him back down.
“Oh, stop all this silliness!” said Fee, not to Luke but to the priest. “Do what Paddy and I did and have an end to argument! Father Thomas can marry you in the presbytery if he doesn’t want to soil his church!”
Everyone stared at her, amazed, but it did the trick; Father Watkin gave in and agreed to marry them in the presbytery, though he refused to bless the ring.
Partial Church sanction left Meggie feeling she was sinning, but not badly enough to go to Hell, and ancient Annie the presbytery housekeeper did her best to make Father Watty’s study as churchlike as possible, with great vases of flowers and many brass candlesticks. But it was an uncomfortable ceremony, the very displeased priest making everyone feel he only went through with it to save himself the embarrassment of a secular wedding elsewhere. No Nuptial Mass, no blessings.
However, it was done. Meggie was Mrs. Luke O’Neill, on her way to North Queensland and a honeymoon somewhat delayed by the time it would take getting there. Luke refused to spend that Saturday night at the Imperial, for the branch-line train to Goondiwindi left only once a week, on Saturday night, to connect with the Goondiwindi—Brisbane mail train on Sunday. This would bring them to Bris on Monday in time to catch the Cairns express.
The Goondiwindi train was crowded. They had no privacy and sat up all night because it carried no sleeping cars. Hour after hour it trundled its erratic, grumpy way northeast, stopping interminably every time the engine driver felt like brewing a billy of tea for himself, or to let a mob of sheep wander along the rails, or to have a yarn with a drover.
“I wonder why they pronounce Goondiwindi Gundiwindi if they don’t want to spell it that way?” Meggie asked idly as they waited in the only place open in Goondiwindi on a Sunday, the awful institutional-green station waiting room with its hard black wooden benches. Poor Meggie, she was nervous and ill at ease.
“How do I know?” sighed Luke, who didn’t feel like talking and was starving into the bargain. Since it was Sunday they couldn’t even get a cup of tea; not until the Monday-morning breakfast stop on the Brisbane mail did they get an opportunity to fill their empty stomachs and slake their thirst. Then Brisbane, into South Bris station, the trek across the city to Roma Street Station and the Cairns train. Here Meggie discovered Luke had booked them two second-class upright seats.
“Luke, we’re not short of money!” she said, tired and exasperated. “If you forgot to go to the bank, I’ve got a hundred pounds Bob gave me here in my purse. Why didn’t you get us a first-class sleeping compartment?”
He stared down at her, astounded. “But it’s only three nights and three days to Dungloe! Why spend money on a sleeper when we’re both young, healthy and strong? Sitting up on a train for a while won’t kill you, Meghann! It’s about time you realized you’ve married a plain old workingman, not a bloody squatter!”
So Meggie slumped in the window seat Luke seized for her and rested her trembling chin on her hand to look out the window so Luke wouldn’t notice her tears. He had spoken to her as one speaks to an irresponsible child, and she was beginning to wonder if indeed this was how he regarded her. Rebellion began to stir, but it was very small and her fierce pride forbade the indignity of quarreling. Instead she told herself she was this man’s wife, but it was such a new thing he wasn’t used to it. Give him time. They would live together, she would cook his meals, mend his clothes, look after him, have his babies, be a good wife to him. Look how much Daddy had appreciated Mum, how much he had adored her. Give Luke time.
They were going to a town called Dungloe, only fifty miles short of Cairns, which was the far northern terminus of the line which ran all the way along the Queensland coast. Over a thousand miles of narrow three-foot-six-gauge rail, rocking and pitching back and forth, every seat in the compartment occupied, no chance to lie down or stretch out. Though it was far more densely settled countryside than Gilly, and far more colorful, she couldn’t summon up interest in it.
Her head ached, she could keep no food down and the heat was much, much worse than anything Gilly had ever cooked up. The lovely pink silk wedding dress was filthy from soot blowing in the windows, her skin was clammy with a sweat which wouldn’t evaporate, and what was more galling than any of her physical discomforts, she was close to hating Luke. Apparently not in the least tired or out of sorts because of the journey, he sat at his ease yarning with two men going to Cardwell. The only times he glanced in her direction he also got up, leaned across her so carelessly she shrank, and flung a rolled-up newspaper out the window to some event-hungry gang of tattered men beside the line with steel hammers in their hands, calling:
“Fettlers looking after the rails,” he explained as he sat down again the first time it happened.
And he seemed to assume she was quite as happy and comfortable as he was, that the coastal plain flying by was fascinating her. While she sat staring at it and not seeing it, hating it before she had so much as set foot on it.
At Cardwell the two men got off, and Luke went to the fish-and-chip shop across the road from the station to bring back a newspaper-wrapped bundle.
“They say Cardwell fish has to be tasted to be believed, Meghann love. The best fish in the world. Here, try some. It’s your first bit of genuine Bananaland food. I tell you, there’s no place like Queensland.”
Meggie glanced at the greasy pieces of batter-dipped fish, put her handkerchief to her mouth and bolted for the toilet. He was waiting in the corridor when she came out some time later, white and shaking.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?”
“I haven’t felt well since we left Goondiwindi.”
“Good Lord! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why didn’t you notice?”
“You looked all right to me.”
“How far is it now?” she asked, giving up.
“Three to six hours, give or take a bit. They don’t run to timetable up here too much. There’s plenty of room now those blokes are gone; lie down and put your tootsies in my lap.”
“Oh, don’t baby-talk me!” she snapped tartly. “It would have been a lot better if they’d got off two days ago in Bundaberg!”
“Come on now, Meghann, be a good sport! Nearly there. Only Tully and Innisfail, then Dungloe.”
It was late afternoon when they stepped off the train, Meggie clinging desperately to Luke’s arm, too proud to admit she wasn’t able to walk properly. He asked the stationmaster for the name of a workingmen’s hotel, picked up their cases and walked out onto the street, Meggie behind him weaving drunkenly.
“Only to the end of the block on the other side of the street,” he comforted. “The white two-storied joint.”
Though their room was small and filled to overflowing with great pieces of Victorian furniture, it looked like heaven to Meggie, collapsing on the edge of the double bed.
“Lie down for a while before dinner, love. I’m going out to find my landmarks,” he said, sauntering from the room looking as fresh and rested as he had on their wedding morning. That had been Saturday, and this was late Thursday afternoon; five days sitting up in crowded trains, choked by cigarette smoke and soot.
The bed was rocking monotonously in time to the clickety-click of steel wheels passing over rail joins, but Meggie turned her head into the pillow gratefully, and slept, and slept.
Someone had taken off her shoes and stockings, and covered her with a sheet; Meggie stirred, opened her eyes and looked around. Luke was sitting on the window ledge with one knee drawn up, smoking. Her movement made him turn to look at her, and he smiled.
“A nice bride you are! Here I am looking forward to my honeymoon and my wife conks out for nearly two days! I was a bit worried when I couldn’t wake you up, but the publican says it hits women like that, the trip up in the train and the humidity. He said just let you sleep it off. How do you feel now?”
She sat up stiffly, stretched her arms and yawned, “I feel much better, thank you. Oh, Luke! I know I’m young and strong, but I’m a woman! I can’t take the sort of physical punishment you can.”
He came to sit on the edge of the bed, rubbing her arm in a rather charming gesture of contrition. “I’m sorry, Meghann, I really am. I didn’t think of your being a woman. Not used to having a wife with me, that’s all. Are you hungry, darling?”
“Starved. Do you realize it’s almost a week since I’ve eaten?”
“Then why don’t you have a bath, put on a clean dress and come outside to look at Dungloe?”
There was a Chinese café next door to the hotel, where Luke led Meggie for her first-ever taste of Oriental food. She was so hungry anything would have tasted good, but this was superb. Nor did she care if it was made of rats’ tails and sharks’ fins and fowls’ bowels, as rumor had it in Gillanbone, which only possessed a café run by Greeks who served steak and chips. Luke had brown-bagged two quart bottles of beer from the hotel and insisted she drink a glass in spite of her dislike for beer.
“Go easy on the water at first,” he advised. “Beer won’t give you the trots.”
Then he took her arm and walked her around Dungloe proudly, as if he owned it. But then, Luke was born a Queenslander. What a place Dungloe was! It had a look and a character far removed from western towns. In size it was probably the same as Gilly, but instead of rambling forever down one main street. Dungloe was built in ordered square blocks, and all its shops and houses were painted white, not brown. Windows were vertical wooden transoms, presumably to catch the breeze, and wherever possible roofs had been dispensed with, like the movie theater, which had a screen, transomed walls and rows of ship’s canvas desk chairs, but no roof at all.
All around the edge of the town encroached a genuine jungle. Vines and creepers sprawled everywhere—up posts, across roofs, along walls. Trees sprouted casually in the middle of the road, or had houses built around them, or perhaps had grown up through the houses. It was impossible to tell which had come first, trees or human habitations, for the overwhelming impression was one of uncontrolled, hectic growth of vegetation. Coconut palms taller and straighter than the Drogheda ghost gums waved fronds against a deep, swimming blue sky; everywhere Meggie looked was a blaze of color. No brown-and-grey land, this. Every kind of tree seemed to be in flower—purple, orange, scarlet, pink, blue, white.
There were many Chinese in black silk trousers, tiny black-and-white shoes with white socks, white Mandarin-collared shirts, pigtails down their backs. Males and females looked so alike Meggie found it difficult to tell which were which. Almost the entire commerce of the town seemed to be in the hands of Chinese; a large department store, far more opulent than anything Gilly possessed, bore a Chinese name: AH WONG’S, said the sign.
All the houses were built on top of very high piles, like the old head stockman’s residence on Drogheda. This was to achieve maximum air circulation, Luke explained, and keep the termites from causing them to fall down a year after they were built. At the top of each pile was a tin plate with turned-down edges; termites couldn’t bend their bodies in the middle and thus couldn’t crawl over the tin parapet into the wood of the house itself. Of course they feasted on the piles, but when a pile rotted it was removed and replaced by a new one. Much easier and less expensive than putting up a new house. Most of the gardens seemed to be jungle, bamboo and palms, as if the inhabitants had given up trying to keep floral order.
The men and women shocked her. To go for dinner and a walk with Luke she had dressed as custom demanded in heeled shoes, silk stockings, satin slip, floating silk frock with belt and elbow sleeves. On her head was a big straw hat, on her hands were gloves. And what irritated her the most was an uncomfortable feeling from the way people stared that she was the one improperly dressed!
The men were bare-footed, bare-legged and mostly bare-chested, wearing nothing but drab khaki shorts; the few who covered their chests did so with athletic singlets, not shirts. The women were worse. A few wore skimpy cotton dresses clearly minus anything in the way of underwear, no stockings, sloppy sandals. But the majority wore short shorts, went bare-footed and shielded their breasts with indecent little sleeveless vests. Dungloe was a civilized town, not a beach. But here were its native white inhabitants strolling around in brazen undress; the Chinese were better clad.
There were bicycles everywhere, hundreds of them; a few cars, no horses at all. Yes, very different from Gilly. And it was hot, hot, hot. They passed a thermometer which incredibly said a mere ninety degrees; in Gilly at 115 degrees it seemed cooler than this. Meggie felt as if she moved through solid air which her body had to cut like wet, steamy butter, as if when she breathed her lungs filled with water.
“Luke, I can’t bear it! Please, can we go back?” she gasped after less than a mile.
“If you want. You’re feeling the humidity. It rarely gets below ninety percent, winter or summer, and the temperature rarely gets below eighty-five or above ninety-five. There’s not much of a seasonal variation, but in summer the monsoons send the humidity up to a hundred percent all the flaming time.”
“Summer rain, not winter?”
“All year round. The monsoons always come, and when they’re not blowing, the southeast trades are. They carry a lot of rain, too. Dungloe has an annual rainfall of between one and three hundred inches.”
Three hundred inches of rain a year! Poor Gilly ecstatic if it got a princely fifteen, while here as much as three hundred fell, two thousand miles from Gilly.
“Doesn’t it cool off at night?” Meggie asked as they reached the hotel; hot nights in Gilly were bearable compared to this steam bath.
“Not very much. You’ll get used to it.” He opened the door to their room and stood back for her to enter. “I’m going down to the bar for a beer, but I’ll be back in half an hour. That ought to give you enough time.”
Her eyes flew to his face, startled. “Yes, Luke.”
Dungloe was seventeen degrees south of the equator, so night fell like a thunderclap; one minute it seemed the sun was scarcely setting, and the next minute pitch-black darkness spread itself thick and warm like treacle. When Luke came back Meggie had switched off the light and was lying in the bed with the sheet pulled up to her chin. Laughing, he reached out and tugged it off her, threw it on the floor.
“It’s hot enough, love! We won’t need a sheet.”
She could hear him walking about, see his faint shadow shedding its clothes. “I put your pajamas on the dressing table,” she whispered.
“Pajamas? In weather like this? I know in Gilly they’d have a stroke at the thought of a man not wearing pajamas, but this is Dungloe! Are you really wearing a nightie?”
“Then take it off. The bloody thing will only be a nuisance anyway.”
Fumbling, Meggie managed to wriggle out of the lawn nightgown Mrs. Smith had embroidered so lovingly for her wedding night, thankful that it was too dark for him to see her. He was right; it was much cooler lying bare and letting the breeze from the wideopen transoms play over her thinly. But the thought of another hot body in the bed with her was depressing.
The springs creaked; Meggie felt damp skin touch her arm and jumped. He turned on his side, pulled her into his arms and kissed her. At first she lay passively, trying not to think of that wide-open mouth and its probing, indecent tongue, but then she began to struggle to be free, not wanting to be close in the heat, not wanting to be kissed, not wanting Luke. It wasn’t a bit like that night in the Rolls coming back from Rudna Hunish. She couldn’t seem to feel anything in him which thought of her, and some part of him was pushing insistently at her thighs while one hand, its nails squarely sharp, dug into her buttocks. Her fear blossomed into terror, she was overwhelmed in more than a physical way by his strength and determination, his lack of awareness of her. Suddenly he let her go, sat up and seemed to fumble with himself, snapping and pulling at something.
“Better be safe,” he gasped. “Lie on your back, it’s time. No, not like that! Open your legs, for God’s sake! Don’t you know anything?”
No, no, Luke, I don’t! she wanted to cry. This is horrible, obscene; whatever it is you’re doing to me can’t possibly be permitted by the laws of Church or men! He actually lay down on top of her, lifted his hips and poked at her with one hand, the other so firmly in her hair she didn’t dare move. Twitching and jumping at the alien thing between her legs, she tried to do as he wanted, spread her legs wider, but he was much broader than she was, and her groin muscles went into crampy spasm from the weight of him and the unaccustomed posture. Even through the darkening mists of fright and exhaustion she could sense the gathering of some mighty power; as he entered her a long high scream left her lips.
“Shut up!” he groaned, took his hand out of her hair and clamped it defensively over her mouth. “What do you want to do, make everyone in this bloody pub think I’m murdering you? Lie still and it won’t hurt any more than it has to! Lie still, lie still!”
She fought like one possessed to be rid of that ghastly, painful thing, but his weight pinned her down and his hand deadened her cries, the agony went on and on. Utterly dry because he hadn’t roused her, the even drier condom scraped and rasped her tissues as he worked himself in and out, faster and faster, the breath beginning to hiss between his teeth; then some change stilled him, made him shudder, swallow hard. The pain dulled to raw soreness and he mercifully rolled off her to lie on his back, gasping.
“It’ll be better for you the next time,” he managed to say. “The first time always hurts the woman.”
Then why didn’t you have the decency to tell me that beforehand? she wanted to snarl, but she hadn’t the energy to utter the words, she was too busy wanting to die. Not only because of the pain, but also from the discovery that she had possessed no identity for him, only been an instrument.
The second time hurt just as much, and the third; exasperated, expecting her discomfort (for so he deemed it) to disappear magically after the first time and thus not understanding why she continued to fight and cry out, Luke grew angry, turned his back on her and went to sleep. The tears slipped sideways from Meggie’s eyes into her hair; she lay on her back wishing for death, or else for her old life on Drogheda.
Was that what Father Ralph had meant years ago, when he had told her of the hidden passageway to do with having children? A nice way to find out what he meant. No wonder he had preferred not to explain it more clearly himself. Yet Luke had liked the activity well enough to do it three times in quick succession. Obviously it didn’t hurt him. And for that she found herself hating him, hating it.
Exhausted, so sore moving was agony, Meggie inched herself over onto her side with her back to Luke, and wept into the pillow. Sleep eluded her, though Luke slept so soundly her small timid movements never caused so much as a change in the pattern of his breathing. He was an economical sleeper and a quiet one, he neither snored nor flopped about, and she thought while waiting for the late dawn that if it had just been a matter of lying down together, she might have found him nice to be with. And the dawn came as quickly and joylessly as darkness had; it seemed strange not to hear roosters crowing, the other sounds of a rousing Drogheda with its sheep and horses and pigs and dogs.
Luke woke, and rolled over, she felt him kiss her on the shoulder and was so tired, so homesick that she forgot modesty, didn’t care about covering herself.
“Come on, Meghann, let’s have a look at you,” he commanded, his hand on her hip. “Turn over, like a good little girl.”
Nothing mattered this morning; Meggie turned over, wincing, and lay looking up at him dully. “I don’t like Meghann,” she said, the only form of protest she could manage. “I do wish you’d call me Meggie.”
“I don’t like Meggie. But if you really dislike Meghann so much, I’ll call you Meg.” His gaze roved her body dreamily. “What a nice shape you’ve got.” He touched one breast, pink nip**ple flat and unaroused. “Especially these.” Bunching the pillows into a heap, he lay back on them and smiled “Come on, Meg, kiss me. It’s your turn to make love to me, and maybe you’ll like that better, eh?”
I never want to kiss you again as long as I live, she thought, looking at the long, heavily muscled body, the mat of dark hair on the chest diving down the belly in a thin line and then flaring into a bush, out of which grew the deceptively small and innocent shoot which could cause so much pain. How hairy his legs were! Meggie had grown up with men who never removed a layer of their clothes in the presence of women, but open-necked shirts showed hairy chests in hot weather. They were all fair men, and not offensive to her; this dark man was alien, repulsive. Ralph had a head of hair just as dark, but well she remembered that smooth, hairless brown chest.
“Do as you’re told, Meg! Kiss me.”
Leaning over, she kissed him; he cupped her breasts in his palms and made her go on kissing him, took one of her hands and pushed it down to his groin. Startled, she took her unwilling mouth away from his to look at what lay under her hand, changing and growing.
“Oh, please, Luke, not again!” she cried. “Please, not again! Please, please!”
The blue eyes scanned her speculatively. “Hurts that much? All right, we’ll do something different, but for God’s sake try to be enthusiastic!”
Pulling her on top of him, he pushed her legs, apart, lifted her shoulders and attached himself to her breast, as he had done in the car the night she committed herself to marrying him. There only in body, Meggie endured it; at least he didn’t put himself inside her, so it didn’t hurt any more than simply moving did. What strange creatures men were, to go at this as if it was the most pleasurable thing in the world. It was disgusting, a mockery of love. Had it not been for her hope that it would culminate in a baby, Meggie would have refused flatly to have anything more to do with it.
“I’ve got you a job,” Luke said over breakfast in the hotel dining room.
“What? Before I’ve had a chance to make our home nice, Luke? Before we’ve even got a home?”
“There’s no point in our renting a house, Meg. I’m going to cut cane; it’s all arranged. The best gang of cutters in Queensland is a gang of Swedes, Poles and Irish led by a bloke called Arne Swenson, and while you were sleeping off the journey I went to see him. He’s a man short and he’s willing to give me a trial. That means I’ll be living in barracks with them. We cut six days a week, sunrise to sunset. Not only that, but we move around up and down the coast, wherever the next job takes us. How much I earn depends on how much sugar I cut, and if I’m good enough to cut with Arne’s gang I’ll be pulling in more than twenty quid a week. Twenty quid a week! Can you imagine that?”
“Are you trying to tell me we won’t be living togther, Luke?”
“We can’t, Meg! The men won’t have a woman in the barracks, and what’s the use of your living alone in a house? You may as well work, too; it’s all money toward our station.”
“But where will I live? What sort of work can I do? There’s no stock to drove up here.”
“No, more’s the pity. That’s why I’ve got you a live-in job, Meg. You’ll get free board, I won’t have the expense of keeping you. You’re going to work as a housemaid on Himmelhoch, Ludwig Mueller’s place. He’s the biggest cane cocky in the district and his wife’s an invalid, can’t manage the house on her own. I’ll take you there tomorrow morning.”
“But when will I see you, Luke?”
“On Sundays. Luddie understands you’re married; he doesn’t mind if you disappear on Sundays.”
“Well! You’ve certainly arranged things to your satisfaction, haven’t you?”
“I reckon. Oh, Meg, we’re going to be rich! We’ll work hard and save every penny, and it won’t be long before we can buy ourselves the best station in Western Queensland. There’s the fourteen thousand I’ve got in the Gilly bank, the two thousand a year more coming in there, and the thirteen hundred or more a year we can earn between us. It won’t be long, love, I promise. Grin and bear it for me, eh? Why be content with a rented house when the harder we work now means the sooner you’ll be looking around your own kitchen?”
“If it’s what you want.” She looked down at her purse. “Luke, did you take my hundred pounds?”
“I put it in the bank. You can’t carry money like that around, Meg.”
“But you took every bit of it! I don’t have a penny! What about spending money?”
“Why on earth do you want spending money? You’ll be out at Himmelhoch in the morning, and you can’t spend anything there. I’ll take care of the hotel bill. It’s time you realized you’ve married a workingman, Meg, that you’re not the pampered squatter’s daughter with money to burn. Mueller will pay your wages straight into my bank account, where they’ll stay along with mine. I’m not spending the money on myself, Meg, you know that. Neither of us is going to touch it, because it’s for our future, our station.”
“Yes, I understand. You’re very sensible, Luke. But what if I should have a baby?”
For a moment he was tempted to tell her the truth, that there would be no baby until the station was a reality, but something in her face made him decide not to.
“Well, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, eh? I’d rather we didn’t have one until we’ve got our station, so let’s just hope we don’t.”
No home, no money, no babies. No husband, for that matter. Meggie started to laugh. Luke joined her, his teacup lifted in a toast.
“Here’s to French letters,” he said.
In the morning they went out to Himmelhoch on the local bus, an old Ford with no glass in its windows and room for twelve people. Meggie was feeling better, for Luke had left her alone when she offered him a breast, and seemed to like it quite as well as that other awful thing. Much and all as she wanted babies, her courage had failed her. The first Sunday that she wasn’t sore at all, she told herself, she would be willing to try again. Perhaps there was a baby already on the way, and she needn’t bother with it ever again unless she wanted more. Eyes brighter, she looked around her with interest as the bus chugged out along the red dirt road.
It was breath-taking country, so different from Gilly; she had to admit there was a grandeur and beauty here Gilly quite lacked. Easy to see there was never a shortage of water. The soil was the color of freshly spilled blood, brilliant scarlet, and the cane in the fields not fallow was a perfect contrast to the soil: long bright-green blades waving fifteen or twenty feet above claret-colored stalks as thick as Luke’s arm. Nowhere in the world, raved Luke, did cane grow as tall or as rich in sugar; its yield was the highest known. That bright-red soil was over a hundred feet deep, and so stuffed with exactly the right nutrients the cane couldn’t help but be perfect, especially considering the rainfall. And nowhere else in the world was it cut by white men, at the white man’s driving, money-hungry pace.
“You look good on a soapbox, Luke,” said Meggie ironically.
He glanced sideways at her, suspiciously, but refrained from comment because the bus had stopped on the side of the road to let them off.
Himmelhoch was a large white house on top of a hill, surrounded by coconut palms, banana palms and beautiful smaller palms whose leaves splayed outward in great fans like the tails of peacocks. A grove of bamboo forty feet high cut the house off from the worst of the northwest monsoonal winds; even with its hill elevation it was still mounted on top of fifteen-foot piles.
Luke carried her case; Meggie toiled up the red road beside him, gasping, still in correct shoes and stockings, her hat wilting around her face. The cane baron himself wasn’t in, but his wife came onto the veranda as they mounted the steps, balancing herself between two sticks. She was smiling; looking at her dear kind face, Meggie felt better at once.
“Come in, come in!” she said in a strong Australian accent.
Expecting a German voice, Meggie was immeasurably cheered. Luke put her case down, shook hands when the lady took her right one off its stick, then pounded away down the steps in a hurry to catch the bus on its return journey. Arne Swenson was picking him up outside the pub at ten o’clock.
“What’s your first name, Mrs. O’Neill?”
“Oh, that’s nice. Mine is Anne, and I’d rather you called me Anne. It’s been so lonely up here since my girl left me a month ago, but it’s not easy to get good house help, so I’ve been battling on my own. There’s only Luddie and me to look after; we have no children. I hope you’re going to like living with us, Meggie.”
“I’m sure I will, Mrs. Mueller—Anne.”
“Let me show you to your room. Can you manage the case? I’m not much good at carrying things, I’m afraid.”
The room was austerely furnished, like the rest of the house, but it looked out on the only side of the house where the view was unimpeded by some sort of wind-break, and shared the same stretch of veranda as the living room, which seemed very bare to Meggie with its cane furniture and lack of fabric.
“It’s just too hot up here for velvet or chintz,” Anne explained. “We live with wicker, and as little on ourselves as decency allows. I’ll have to educate you, or you’ll die. You’re hopelessly overclothed.”
She herself was in a sleeveless, low-necked vest and a pair of short shorts, out of which her poor twisted legs poked doddering. In no time at all Meggie found herself similarly clad, loaned from Anne until Luke could be persuaded to buy her new clothes. It was humiliating to have to explain that she was allowed no money, but at least having to endure this attenuated her embarrassment over wearing so little.
“Well, you certainly decorate my shorts better than I do,” said Anne. She went on with her breezy lecture. “Luddie will bring you firewood; you’re not to cut your own or drag it up the steps. I wish we had electricity like the places closer in to Dunny, but the government is slower than a wet week. Maybe next year the line will reach as far as Himmelhoch, but until then it’s the awful old fuel stove, I’m afraid. But you wait, Meggie! The minute they give us power we’ll have an electric stove, electric lights and a refrigerator.”
“I’m used to doing without them.”
“Yes, but where you come from the heat is dry. This is far, far worse. I’m just frightened that your health will suffer. It often does in women who weren’t born and brought up here; something to do with the blood. We’re on the same latitude south as Bombay and Rangoon are north, you know; not fit country for man or beast unless born to it.” She smiled. “Oh, it’s nice having you already! You and I are going to have a wonderful time! Do you like reading? Luddie and I have a passion for it.”
Meggie’s face lit up. “Oh, yes!”
“Splendid! You’ll be too content to miss that big handsome husband of yours.”
Meggie didn’t answer. Miss Luke? Was he handsome? She thought that if she never saw him again she would be perfectly happy. Except that he was her husband, that the law said she had to make her life with him. She had gone into it with her eyes open; she had no one to blame save herself. And perhaps as the money came in and the station in Western Queensland became a reality, there would be time for Luke and her to live together, settle down, know each other, get along.
He wasn’t a bad man, or unlikable; it was just that he had been alone so long he didn’t know how to share himself with someone else. And he was a simple man, ruthlessly single of purpose, untormented. What he desired was a concrete thing, even if a dream; it was a positive reward which would surely come as the result of unremitting work, grinding sacrifice. For that one had to respect him. Not for a moment did she think he would use the money to give himself luxuries; he had meant what he said. It would stay in the bank.
The trouble was he didn’t have the time or the inclination to understand a woman, he didn’t seem to know a woman was different, needed things he didn’t need, as he needed things she didn’t. Well, it could be worse. He might have put her to work for someone far colder and less considerate than Anne Mueller. On top of this hill she wouldn’t come to any harm. But oh, it was so far from Drogheda!
That last thought came again after they finished touring the house, and stood together on the living room veranda looking out across Himmelhoch. The great fields of cane (one couldn’t call them paddocks, since they were small enough to encompass with the eyes) plumed lushly in the wind, a restlessly sparkling and polished-by-rain green, falling away in a long slope to the jungle-clad banks of a great river, wider by far than the Barwon. Beyond the river the cane lands rose again, squares of poisonous green interspersed with bloody fallow fields, until at the foot of a vast mountain the cultivation stopped, and the jungle took over. Behind the cone of mountain, farther away, other peaks reared and died purple into the distance. The sky was a richer, denser blue than Gilly skies, puffed with white billows of thick cloud, and the color of the whole was vivid, intense.
“That’s Mount Bartle Frere,” said Anne, pointing to the isolated peak. “Six thousand feet straight up out of a sea-level plain. They say it’s solid tin, but there’s no hope of mining it for the jungle.”
On the heavy, idle wind came a strong, sickening stench Meggie hadn’t stopped trying to get out of her nostrils since stepping off the train. Like decay, only not like decay; unbearably sweet, all-pervasive, a tangible presence which never seemed to diminish no matter how hard the breeze blew.
“What you can smell is molasses,” said Anne as she noticed Meggie’s flaring nose; she lit a tailor-made Ardath cigarette.
“I know. That’s why I smoke. But to a certain extent you get used to it, though unlike most smells it never quite disappears. Day in and day out, the molasses is always there.”
“What are the buildings on the river with the black chimney?”
“That’s the mill. It processes the cane into raw sugar. What’s left over, the dry remnants of the cane minus its sugar content, is called bagasse. Both raw sugar and bagasse are sent south to Sydney for further refining. Out of raw sugar they get molasses, treacle, golden syrup, brown sugar, white sugar and liquid glucose. The bagasse is made into fibrous building board like Masonite. Nothing is wasted, absolutely nothing. That’s why even in this Depression growing cane is still a very profitable business.”
Arne Swenson was six feet two inches tall, exactly Luke’s height, and just as handsome. His bare body was coated a dark golden brown by perpetual exposure to the sun, his thatch of bright yellow hair curled all over his head; the fine Swedish features were so like Luke’s in type that it was easy to see how much Norse blood had percolated into the veins of the Scots and Irish.
Luke had abandoned his moleskins and white shirt in favor of shorts. With Arne he climbed into an ancient, wheezing model-T utility truck and headed for where the gang was cutting out by Goondi. The second-hand bicycle he had bought lay in the utility’s tray along with his case, and he was dying to begin work.
The other men had been cutting since dawn and didn’t lift their heads when Arne appeared from the direction of the barracks, Luke in tow. The cutting uniform consisted of shorts, boots with thick woolen socks, and canvas hats. Eyes narrowing, Luke stared at the toiling men, who were a peculiar sight. Coal-black dirt covered them from head to foot, with sweat making bright pink streaks down chests, arms, backs.
“Soot and muck from the cane,” Arne explained. “We have to burn it before we can cut it.”
He bent down to pick up two instruments, gave one to Luke and kept one. “This is a cane knife,” he said, hefting his. “With this you cut the cane. Very easy if you know how.” He grinned, proceeding to demonstrate and making it look far easier than it probably was.
Luke looked at the deadly thing he gripped, which was not at all like a West Indian machete. It widened into a large triangle instead of tapering to a point, and had a wicked hook like a rooster’s spur at one of the two blade ends.
“A machete is too small for North Queensland cane,” Arne said, finished his demonstration. “This is the right toy, you’ll find. Keep it sharp, and good luck.”
Off he went to his own section, leaving Luke standing undecided for a moment. Then, shrugging, he started work. Within minutes he understood why they left it to slaves and to races not sophisticated enough to know there were easier ways to make a living; like shearing, he thought with wry humor. Bend, hack, straighten, clutch the unwieldy topheavy bunch securely, slide its length through the hands, whack off the leaves, drop it in a tidy heap, go to the next cluster of stems, bend, hack, straighten, hack, add it to the heap….
The cane was alive with vermin: rats, bandicoots, cockroaches, toads, spiders, snakes, wasps, flies and bees. Everything that could bite viciously or sting unbearably was well represented. For that reason the cutters burned the cane first, preferring the filth of working charred crops to the depredations of green, living cane. Even so they were stung, bitten and cut. If it hadn’t been for the boots Luke’s feet would have been worse off than his hands, but no cutter ever wore gloves. They slowed a man down, and time was money in this game. Besides, gloves were sissy.
At sundown Arne called a halt, and came to see how Luke had fared.
“Hey, mate not bad!” he shouted, thumping Luke on the back. “Five tons; not bad for a first day!”
It was not a long walk back to the barracks, but tropical night fell so suddenly it was dark as they arrived. Before going inside they collected naked in a communal shower, then, towels around their waists, they trooped into the barracks, where whichever cutter on cook duty that week had mountains of whatever was his specialty ready on the table. Today it was steak and potatoes, damper bread and jam roly-poly; the men fell on it and wolfed every last particle down, ravenous.
Two rows of iron pallets faced each other down either side of a long room made of corrugated iron; sighing and cursing the cane with an originality a bullocky might have envied, the men flopped naked on top of unbleached sheets, drew their mosquito nets down from the rings and within moments were asleep, vague shapes under gauzy tents.
Arne detained Luke. “Let me see your hands.” He inspected the bleeding cuts, the blisters, the stings. “Bluebag them first, then use this ointment. And if you take my advice you’ll rub coconut oil into them every night of your life. You’ve got big hands, so if your back can take it you’ll make a good cutter. In a week you’ll harden, you won’t be so sore.”
Every muscle in Luke’s splendid body had its own separate ache; he was conscious of nothing but a vast, crucifying pain. Hands wrapped and anointed, he stretched himself on his allotted bed, pulled down his mosquito net and closed his eyes on a world of little suffocating holes. Had he dreamed what he was in for he would never have wasted his essence on Meggie; she had become a withered, unwanted and unwelcome idea in the back of his mind, shelved. He knew he would never have anything for her while he cut the cane.
It took him the predicted week to harden, and attain the eight-ton-a-day minimum Arne demanded of his gang members. Then he settled down to becoming better than Arne. He wanted the biggest share of the money, maybe a partnership. But most of all he wanted to see that same look that came into every face for Arne directed at himself; Arne was something of a god, for he was the best cutter in Queensland, and that probably meant he was the best cutter in the world. When they went into a town on Saturday night the local men couldn’t buy Arne enough rums and beers, and the local women whirred about him like hummingbirds. There were many similarities between Arne and Luke. They were both vain and enjoyed evoking intense female admiration, but admiration was as far as it went. They had nothing to give to women; they gave it all to the cane.
For Luke the work had a beauty and a pain he seemed to have been waiting all his life to feel. To bend and straighten and bend in that ritual rhythm was to participate in some mystery beyond the scope of ordinary men. For, as watching Arne taught him, to do this superbly was to be a top member of the most elite band of workingmen in the world; he could bear himself with pride no matter where he was, knowing that almost every man he met would never last a day in a cane field. The King of England was no better than he, and the King of England would admire him if he knew him. He could look with pity and contempt on doctors, lawyers, pen-pushers, cockies. To cut sugar the money-hungry white man’s way—that was the greatest achievement.
He would sit on the edge of his cot feeling the ribbed, corded muscles of his arm swell, look at the horny, scarred palms of his hands, the tanned length of his beautifully structured legs, and smile. A man who could do this and not only survive but like it was a man. He wondered if the King of England could say as much.
It was four weeks before Meggie saw Luke. Each Sunday she powdered her sticky nose, put on a pretty silk dress—though she gave up the purgatory of slips and stockings—and waited for her husband, who never came. Anne and Luddie Mueller said nothing, just watched her animation fade as each Sunday darkened dramatically, like a curtain falling on a brilliantly lit, empty stage. It wasn’t that she wanted him, precisely; it was just that he was hers, or she was his, or however best it might be described. To imagine that he didn’t even think of her while she passed her days and weeks waiting with him in her thoughts all the time, to imagine that was to be filled with rage, frustration, bitterness, humiliation, sorrow. Much as she had loathed those two nights at the Dunny pub, at least then she had come first with him; now she found herself actually wishing she had bitten off her tongue sooner than cried out in pain. That was it, of course. Her suffering had made him tire of her, ruined his own pleasure. From anger at him, at his indifference to her pain, she passed to remorse, and ended in blaming it all on herself.
The fourth Sunday she didn’t bother dressing up, just padded around the kitchen bare-footed in shorts and vest, getting a hot breakfast for Luddie and Anne, who enjoyed this incongruity once a week. At the sound of footsteps on the back stairs she turned from bacon sizzling in the pan; for a moment she simply stared at the big, hairy fellow in the doorway. Luke? Was this Luke? He seemed made of rock, inhuman. But the effigy crossed the kitchen, gave her a smacking kiss and sat down at the table. She broke eggs into the pan and put on more bacon.
Anne Mueller came in, smiled civilly and inwardly fumed at him. Wretched man, what was he about, to leave his new wife neglected for so long?
“I’m glad to see you’ve remembered you have a wife,” she said. “Come out onto the veranda, sit with Luddie and me and we’ll all have breakfast. Luke, help Meggie carry the bacon and eggs. I can manage the toast rack in my teeth.”
Ludwig Mueller was Australian-born, but his German heritage was clearly on him: the beefy red complexion not able to cope with beer and sun combined, the square grey head, the pale-blue Baltic eyes. He and his wife liked Meggie very much, and counted themselves fortunate to have acquired her services. Especially was Luddie grateful, seeing how much happier Anne was since that goldy head had been glowing around the house.
“How’s the cutting, Luke?” he asked, shoveling eggs and bacon onto his plate.
“If I said I liked it, would you believe me?” Luke laughed, heaping his own plate.
Luddie’s shrewd eyes rested on the handsome face, and he nodded. “Oh, yes. You’ve got the right sort of temperament and the right sort of body, I think. It makes you feel better than other men, superior to them.” Caught in his heritage of cane fields, far from academia and with no chance of exchanging one for the other, Luddie was an ardent student of human nature; he read great fat tomes bound in Morocco leather with names on their spines like Freud and Jung, Huxley and Russell.
“I was beginning to think you were never going to come and see Meggie,” Anne said, spreading ghee on her toast with a brush; it was the only way they could have butter up here, but it was better than none.