The Thorn Birds (Chapter 66-70)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 66

“Well, Arne and I decided to work on Sundays for a while. Tomorrow we’re off to Ingham.”

“Which means poor Meggie won’t see you too often.”

“Meg understands. It won’t be for more than a couple of years, and we do have the summer layoff. Arne says he can get me work at the CSR in Sydney then, and I might take Meg with me.”

“Why do you have to work so hard, Luke?” asked Anne.

“Got to get the money together for my property out west, around Kynuna. Didn’t Meg mention it?”

“I’m afraid our Meggie’s not much good at personal talk. You tell us, Luke.”

The three listeners sat watching the play of expression on the tanned, strong face, the glitter of those very blue eyes; since he had come before breakfast Meggie hadn’t uttered a word to anyone. On and on he talked about the marvelous country Back of Beyond; the grass, the big grey brolga birds mincing delicately in the dust of Kynuna’s only road, the thousands upon thousands of flying kangaroos, the hot dry sun.

“And one day soon a big chunk of all that is going to be mine. Meg’s put a bit of money toward it, and at the pace we’re working it won’t take more than four or five years. Sooner, if I was content to have a poorer place, but knowing what I can earn cutting sugar, I’m tempted to cut a bit longer and get a really decent bit of land.” He leaned forward, big scarred hands around his teacup. “Do you know I nearly passed Arne’s tally the other day? Eleven tons I cut in one day!”

Luddie’s whistle was genuinely admiring, and they embarked upon a discussion of tallies. Meggie sipped her strong dark milkless tea. Oh, Luke! First it had been a couple of years, now it was four or five, and who knew how long it would be the next time he mentioned a period of years? Luke loved it, no one could mistake that. So would he give it up when the time came? Would he? For that matter, did she want to wait around to find out? The Muellers were very kind and she was far from overworked, but if she had to live without a husband, Drogheda was the best place. In the month of her stay at Himmelhoch she hadn’t felt really well for one single day; she didn’t want to eat, she suffered bouts of painful diarrhea, she seemed dogged by lethargy and couldn’t shake it off. Not used to feeling anything but tiptop well, the vague malaise frightened her.

After breakfast Luke helped her wash the dishes, then took her for a walk down to the nearest cane field, talking all the time about the sugar and what it was like to cut it, what a beaut life it was out in the open air, what a beaut lot of blokes they were in Arne’s gang, how different it was from shearing, and how much better.

They turned and walked up the hill again; Luke led her into the exquisitely cool cavern under the house, between the piles. Anne had made a conservatory out of it, stood pieces of terra-cotta pipe of differing lengths and girths upright, then filled them with soil and planted trailing, dangling things in them; orchids of every kind and color, ferns, exotic creepers and bushes. The ground was soft and redolent of wood chips; great wire baskets hung from the joists overhead, full of ferns or orchids or tuberoses; staghorns in bark nests grew on the piles; magnificent begonias in dozens of brilliant colors had been planted around the bases of the pipes. It was Meggie’s favorite retreat, the one thing of Himmelhoch’s she preferred to anything of Drogheda’s. For Drogheda could never hope to grow so much on one small spot; there just wasn’t enough moisture in the air.

“Isn’t this lovely, Luke? Do you think perhaps after a couple of years up here we might be able to rent a house for me to live in? I’m dying to try something like this for myself.”

“What on earth do you want to live alone in a house for? This isn’t Gilly, Meg; it’s the sort of place where a woman on her own isn’t safe. You’re much better off here, believe me. Aren’t you happy here?”

“I’m as happy as one can be in someone else’s home.”

“Look, Meg, you’ve just got to be content with what you have now until we move out west. We can’t spend money renting houses and having you live a life of leisure and still save. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Luke.”

He was so upset he didn’t do what he had intended to do when he led her under the house, namely kiss her. Instead he gave her a casual smack on the bottom which hurt a little too much to be casual, and set off down the road to the spot where he had left his bike propped against a tree. He had pedaled twenty miles to see her rather than spend money on a rail motor and a bus, which meant he had to pedal twenty miles back.

“The poor little soul!” said Anne to Luddie. “I could kill him!”

January came and went, the slackest month of the year for cane cutters, but there was no sign of Luke. He had murmured about taking Meggie to Sydney, but instead he went to Sydney with Arne and without her. Arne was a bachelor and had an aunt with a house in Rozelle, within walking distance (no tram fares; save money) of the CSR, the Colonial Sugar Refineries. Within those gargantuan concrete walls like a fortress on a hill, a cutter with connections could get work. Luke and Arne kept in trim stacking sugar bags, and swimming or surfing in their spare time.

Left in Dungloe with the Muellers, Meggie sweated her way through The Wet, as the monsoon season was called. The Dry lasted from March to November and in this part of the continent wasn’t exactly dry, but compared to The Wet it was heavenly. During The Wet the skies just opened and vomited water, not all day but in fits and starts; in between deluges the land steamed, great clouds of white vapor rising from the cane, the soil, the jungle, the mountains.

And as time went on Meggie longed for home more and more. North Queensland, she knew now, could never become home to her. For one thing, the climate didn’t suit her, perhaps because she had spent most of her life in dryness. And she hated the loneliness, the unfriendliness, the feeling of remorseless lethargy. She hated the prolific insect and reptile life which made each night an ordeal of giant toads, tarantulas, cockroaches, rats; nothing seemed to keep them out of the house, and she was terrified of them. They were so huge, so aggressive, so hungry. Most of all she hated the dunny, which was not only the local patois for toilet but the diminutive for Dungloe, much to the delight of the local populace, who punned on it perpetually. But a Dunny dunny left one’s stomach churning in revolt, for in this seething climate holes in the ground were out of the question because of typhoid and other enteric fevers. Instead of being a hole in the ground, a Dunny dunny was a tarred tin can which stank, and as it filled came alive with noisome maggots and worms. Once a week the can was removed and replaced with an empty one, but once a week wasn’t soon enough.

Meggie’s whole spirit rebelled against the casual local acceptance of such things as normal; a lifetime in North Queensland couldn’t reconcile her to them. Yet dismally she reflected that it probably would be a whole lifetime, or at least until Luke was too old to cut the sugar. Much as she longed for and dreamed of Drogheda, she was far too proud to admit to her family that her husband neglected her; sooner than admit that, she’d take the lifetime sentence, she told herself fiercely.

Months went by, then a year, and time crept toward the second year’s end. Only the constant kindness of the Muellers kept Meggie in residence at Himmelhoch, trying to resolve her dilemma. Had she written to ask Bob for the fare home he would have sent it by return telegram, but poor Meggie couldn’t face telling her family that Luke kept her without a penny in her purse. The day she did tell them was the day she would leave Luke, never to go back to him, and she hadn’t made up her mind yet to take such a step. Everything in her up-bringing conspired to prevent her leaving Luke: the sacredness of her marriage vows, the hope she might have a baby one day, the position Luke occupied as husband and master of her destiny. Then there were the things which sprang from her own nature: that stubborn, stiff-necked pride, and the niggling conviction that the situation was as much her fault as Luke’s. If there wasn’t something wrong with her, Luke might have behaved far differently.

She had seen him six times in the eighteen months of her exile, and often thought, quite unaware such a thing as homosexuality existed, that by rights Luke should have married Arne, because he certainly lived with Arne and much preferred his company. They had gone into full partnership and drifted up and down the thousand-mile coast following the sugar harvest, living, it seemed, only to work. When Luke did come to see her he didn’t attempt any kind of intimacy, just sat around for an hour or two yarning to Luddie and Anne, took his wife for a walk, gave her a friendly kiss, and was off again.

The three of them, Luddie, Anne and Meggie, spent all their spare time reading. Himmelhoch had a library far larger than Drogheda’s few shelves, more erudite and more salacious by far, and Meggie learned a great deal while she read.

One Sunday in June of 1936 Luke and Arne turned up together, very pleased with themselves. They had come, they said, to give Meggie a real treat, for they were taking her to a ceilidh.

Unlike the general tendency of ethnic groups in Australia to scatter and become purely Australian, the various nationalities in the North Queensland peninsula tended to preserve their traditions fiercely: the Chinese, the Italians, the Germans and the Scots-Irish, these four groups making up the bulk of the population. And when the Scots threw a ceilidh every Scot for miles attended.

Chapter 67

To Meggie’s astonishment, Luke and Arne were wearing kilts, looking, she thought when she got her breath back, absolutely magnificent. Nothing is more masculine on a masculine man than a kilt, for it swings with a long clean stride in a flurry of pleats behind and stays perfectly still in front, the sporran like a loin guard, and below the mid-knee hem strong fine legs in diamond checkered hose, buckled shoes. It was far too hot to wear the plaid and the jacket; they had contented themselves with white shirts open halfway down their chests, sleeves rolled up above their elbows.

“What’s a ceilidh anyway?” she asked as they set off.

“It’s Gaelic for a gathering, a shindig.”

“Why on earth are you wearing kilts?”

“We won’t be let in unless we are, and we’re well known at all the ceilidhs between Bris and Cairns.”

“Are you now? I imagine you must indeed go to quite a few, otherwise I can’t see Luke outlaying money for a kilt. Isn’t that so, Arne?”

“A man’s got to have some relaxation,” said Luke, a little defensively.

The ceilidh was being held in a barnlike shack falling to rack and ruin down in the midst of the mangrove swamps festering about the mouth of the Dungloe River. Oh, what a country this was for smells! Meggie thought in despair, her nose twitching to yet another indescribably disgusting aroma. Molasses, mildew, dunnies, and now mangroves. All the rotting effluvia of the seashore rolled into one smell.

Sure enough, every man arriving at the shed wore a kilt; as they went in and she looked around, Meggie understood how drab a peahen must feel when dazzled by the vivid gorgeousness of her mate. The women were overshadowed into near nonexistence, an impression which the later stages of the evening only sharpened.

Two pipers in the complex, light-blue-based Anderson tartan were standing on a rickety dais at one end of the hall, piping a cheerful reel in perfect synchrony, sandy hair on end, sweat running down ruddy faces.

A few couples were dancing, but most of the noisy activity seemed to be centered around a group of men who were passing out glasses of what was surely Scotch whiskey. Meggie found herself thrust into a corner with several other women, and was content to stay there watching, fascinated. Not one woman wore a clan tartan, for indeed no Scotswoman wears the kilt, only the plaid, and it was too hot to drape a great heavy piece of material around the shoulders. So the women wore their dowdy North Queensland cotton dresses; which stuttered into limp silence beside the men’s kilts. There was the blazing red and white of Clan Menzies, the cheery black and yellow of Clan MacLeod of Lewis, the windowpane blue and red checks of Clan Skene, the vivid complexity of Clan Ogilvy, the lovely red, grey and black of Clan MacPherson. Luke in Clan MacNeil, Arne in the Sassenach’s Jacobean tartan. Beautiful!

Luke and Arne were obviously well known and well liked. How often did they come without her, then? And what had possessed them to bring her tonight? She sighed, leaned against the wall. The other women were eyeing her curiously, especially the rings on her wedding finger; Luke and Arne were the objects of much feminine admiration, herself the object of much feminine envy. I wonder what they’d say if I told them the big dark one, who is my husband, has seen me precisely twice in the last eight months, and never sees me with the idea of getting into a bed? Look at the pair of them, the conceited Highland fops! And neither of them Scottish at all, just playacting because they know they look sensational in kilts and they like to be the center of attention. You magnificent pair of frauds! You’re too much in love with yourselves to want or need love from anyone else.

At midnight the women were relegated to standing around the walls; the pipers skirled into “Caber Feidh” and the serious dancing began. For the rest of her life, whenever she heard the sound of a piper Meggie was back in that shed. Even the swirl of a kilt could do it; there was that dreamlike merging of sound and sight, of life and brilliant vitality, which means a memory so piercing, so spellbinding, that it will never be lost.

Down went the crossed swords on the floor; two men in Clan MacDonald of Sleat kilts raised their arms above their heads, hands flicked over like ballet dancers, and very gravely, as if at the end the swords would be plunged into their breasts, began to pick their delicate way through, between, among the blades.

A high shrill scream ripped above the airy wavering of the pipes, the tune became “All the Blue Bonnets over the Border,” the sabers were scooped up, and every man in the room swung into the dance, arms linking and dissolving, kilts flaring. Reels, strathspeys, flings; they danced them all, feet on the board floor sending echoes among the rafters, buckles on shoes flashing, and every time the pattern changed someone would throw back his head, emit that shrill, ululating whoop, set off trains of cries from other exuberant throats. While the women watched, forgotten.

It was close to four in the morning when the ceilidh broke up; outside was not the astringent crispness of Blair Atholl or Skye but the torpor of a tropical night, a great heavy moon dragging itself along the spangled wastes of the heavens, and over it all the stinking miasma of mangroves. Yet as Arne drove them off in the wheezing old Ford, the last thing Meggie heard was the drifting dwindling lament “Flowers o’ the Forest,” bidding the revelers home. Home. Where was home?

“Well, did you enjoy that?” asked Luke.

“I would have enjoyed it more had I danced more,” she answered.

“What, at a ceilidh? Break it down, Meg! Only the men are supposed to dance, so we’re actually pretty good to you women, letting you dance at all.”

“It seems to me only men do a lot of things, and especially if they’re good things, enjoyable things.”

“Well, excuse me!” said Luke stiffly. “Here was I thinking you might like a bit of a change, which was why I brought you. I didn’t have to, you know! And if you’re not grateful I won’t bring you again.”

“You probably don’t have any intention of doing so, anyway,” said Meggie. “It isn’t good to admit me into your life. I learned a lot these past few hours, but I don’t think it’s what you intended to teach me. It’s getting harder to fool me, Luke. In fact, I’m fed up with you, with the life I’m leading, with everything!”

“Ssssh!” he hissed, scandalized. “We’re not alone!”

“Then come alone!” she snapped. “When do I ever get the chance to see you alone for more than a few minutes?”

Arne pulled up at the bottom of the Himmelhoch hill, grinning at Luke sympathetically. “Go on, mate,” he said. “Walk her up; I’ll wait here for you. No hurry.”

“I mean it, Luke!” Meggie said as soon as they were out of Arne’s hearing. “The worm’s turning, do you hear me? I know I promised to obey you, but you promised to love and cherish me, so we’re both liars! I want to go home to Drogheda!”

He thought of her two thousand pounds a year and of its ceasing to be put in his name.

“Oh, Meg!” he said helplessly. “Look, sweetheart, it won’t be forever, I promise! And this summer I’m going to take you to Sydney with me, word of an O’Neill! Arne’s aunt has a flat coming vacant in her house, and we can live there for three months, have a wonderful time! Bear with me another year or so in the cane, then we’ll buy our property and settle down, eh?”

The moon lit up his face; he looked sincere, upset, anxious, contrite. And very like Ralph de Bricassart.

Meggie relented, because she still wanted his babies. “All right,” she said. “Another year. But I’m holding you to that promise of Sydney, Luke, so remember!”

12

Once a month Meggie wrote a dutiful letter to Fee, Bob and the boys, full of descriptions of North Queensland, carefully humorous, never hinting of any differences between her and Luke. That pride again. As far as Drogheda knew, the Muellers were friends of Luke’s with whom she boarded because Luke traveled so much. Her genuine affection for the couple came through in every word she wrote about them, so no one on Drogheda worried. Except that it grieved them she never came home. Yet how could she tell them that she didn’t have the money to visit without also telling them how miserable her marriage to Luke O’Neill had become?

Occasionally she would nerve herself to insert a casual question about Bishop Ralph, and even less often Bob would remember to pass on the little he learned from Fee about the Bishop. Then came a letter full of him.

“He arrived out of the blue one day, Meggie,” Bob’s letter said, “looking a bit upset and down in the mouth. I must say he was floored not to find you here. He was spitting mad because we hadn’t told him about you and Luke, but when Mum said you’d got a bee in your bonnet about it and didn’t want us to tell him, he shut up and never said another word. But I thought he missed you more than he would any of the rest of us, and I suppose that’s quite natural because you spent more time with him than the rest of us, and I think he always thought of you as his little sister. He wandered around as if he couldn’t believe you wouldn’t pop up all of a sudden, poor chap. We didn’t have any pictures to show him either, and I never thought until he asked to see them that it was funny you never had any wedding pictures taken. He asked if you had any kids, and I said I didn’t think so. You don’t, do you, Meggie? How long is it now since you were married? Getting on for two years? Must be, because this is July. Time flies, eh? I hope you have some kids soon, because I think the Bishop would be pleased to hear of it. I offered to give him your address, but he said no. Said it wouldn’t be any use because he’s going to Athens, Greece, for a while with the archbishop he works for. Some Dago name four yards long, I never can remember it. Can you imagine, Meggie, they’re flying? ’Struth! Anyway, once he found out you weren’t on Drogheda to go round with him he didn’t stay long, just took a ride or two, said Mass for us every day, and went six days after he got here.”

Chapter 68

Meggie laid the letter down. He knew, he knew! At last he knew. What had he thought, how much had it grieved him? And why had he pushed her to do this? It hadn’t made things any better. She didn’t love Luke, she never would love Luke. He was nothing more than a substitute, a man who would give her children similar in type to those she might have had with Ralph de Bricassart. Oh, God, what a mess!

Archbishop di Contini-Verchese preferred to stay in a secular hotel than avail himself of the offered quarters in an Athens Orthodox palace. His mission was a very delicate one, of some moment; there were matters long overdue for discussion with the chief prelates of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Vatican having a fondness for Greek and Russian Orthodoxy that it couldn’t have for Protestantism. After all, the Orthodoxies were schisms, not heresies; their bishops, like Rome’s, extended back to Saint Peter in an unbroken line.

The Archbishop knew his appointment for this mission was a diplomatic testing, a stepping stone to greater things in Rome. Again his gift for languages had been a boon, for it was his fluent Greek which had tipped the balance in his favor. They had sent for him all the way to Australia, flown him out.

And it was unthinkable that he go without Bishop de Bricassart, for he had grown to rely upon that amazing man more and more with the passing of the years. A Mazarin, truly a Mazarin; His Grace admired Cardinal Mazarin far more than he did Cardinal Richelieu, so the comparison was high praise. Ralph was everything the Church liked in her high officials. His theology was conservative, so were his ethics; his brain was quick and subtle, his face gave away nothing of what went on behind it; and he had an exquisite knack of knowing just how to please those he was with, whether he liked them or loathed them, agreed with them or differed from them. A sycophant he was not, a diplomat he was. If he was repeatedly brought to the attention of those in the Vatican hierarchy, his rise to prominence would be certain. And that would please His Grace di Contini-Verchese, for he didn’t want to lose contact with His Lordship de Bricassart.

It was very hot, but Bishop Ralph didn’t mind the dry Athens air after Sydney’s humidity. Walking rapidly, as usual in boots, breeches and soutane, he strode up the rocky ramp to the Acropolis, through the frowning Propylon, past the Erechtheum, on up the incline with its slippery rough stones to the Parthenon, and down to the wall beyond.

There, with the wind ruffling his dark curls, a little grey about the ears now, he stood and looked across the white city to the bright hills and the clear, astonishing aquamarine of the Aegean Sea. Right below him was the Plaka with its rooftop cafés, its colonies of Bohemians, and to one side a great theater lapped up the rock. In the distance were Roman columns, Crusader forts and Venetian castles, but never a sign of the Turks. What amazing people, these Greeks. To hate the race who had ruled them for seven hundred years so much that once freed they hadn’t left a mosque or a minaret standing. And so ancient, so full of rich heritage. His Normans had been fur-clad barbarians when Pericles clothed the top of the rock in marble, and Rome had been a rude village.

Only now, eleven thousand miles away, was he able to think of Meggie without wanting to weep. Even so, the distant hills blurred for a moment before he brought his emotions under control. How could he possibly blame her, when he had told her to do it? He understood at once why she had been determined not to tell him; she didn’t want him to meet her new husband, or be a part of her new life. Of course in his mind he had assumed she would bring whomever she married to Gillanbone if not to Drogheda itself, that she would continue to live where he knew her to be safe, free from care and danger. But once he thought about it, he could see this was the last thing she would want. No, she had been bound to go away, and so long as she and this Luke O’Neill were together, she wouldn’t come back. Bob said they were saving to buy a property in Western Queensland, and that news had been the death knell. Meggie meant never to come back. As far as he was concerned, she intended to be dead.

But are you happy, Meggie? Is he good to you? Do you love him, this Luke O’Neill? What kind of man is he, that you turned from me to him? What was it about him, an ordinary stockman, that you liked better than Enoch Davies or Liam O’Rourke or Alastair Mac-Queen? Was it that I didn’t know him, that I could make no comparisons? Did you do it to torture me, Meggie, to pay me back? But why are there no children? What’s the matter with the man, that he roams up and down the state like a vagabond and puts you to live with friends? No wonder you have no child; he’s not with you long enough. Meggie, why? Why did you marry this Luke O’Neill?

Turning, he made his way down from the Acropolis, and walked the busy streets of Athens. In the open-air markets around Evripidou Street he lingered, fascinated by the people, the huge baskets of kalamari and fish reeking in the sun, the vegetables and tinsel slippers hung side by side; the women amused him, their unashamed and open cooing over him, a legacy of a culture basically very different from his puritanical own. Had their unabashed admiration been lustful (he could not think of a better word) it would have embarrassed him acutely, but he accepted it in the spirit intended, as an accolade for extraordinary physical beauty.

The hotel was on Omonia Square, very luxurious and expensive. Archbishop di Contini-Verchese was sitting in a chair by his balcony windows, quietly thinking; as Bishop Ralph came in he turned his head, smiling.

“In good time, Ralph. I would like to pray.”

“I thought everything was settled? Are there sudden complications, Your Grace?”

“Not of that kind. I had a letter from Cardinal Monteverdi today, expressing the wishes of the Holy Father.”

Bishop Ralph felt his shoulders tighten, a curious prickling of the skin around his ears. “Tell me.”

“As soon as the talks are over—and they are over—I am to proceed to Rome. There I am to be blessed with the biretta of a cardinal, and continue my work in Rome under the direct supervision of His Holiness.”

“Whereas I?”

“You will become Archbishop de Bricassart, and go back to Australia to fill my shoes as Papal Legate.”

The prickling skin around his ears flushed red hot; his head whirled, rocked. He, a non-Italian, to be honored with the Papal Legation! It was unheard of! Oh, depend on it, he would be Cardinal de Bricassart yet!

“Of course you will receive training and instruction in Rome first. That will take about six months, during which I will be with you to introduce you to those who are my friends. I want them to know you, because the time will come when I shall send for you, Ralph, to help me with my work in the Vatican.”

“Your Grace, I can’t thank you enough! It’s due to you, this great chance.”

“God grant I am sufficiently intelligent to see when a man is too able to leave in obscurity, Ralph! Now let us kneel and pray. God is very good.”

His rosary beads and missal were sitting on a table nearby; hand trembling, Bishop Ralph reached for the beads and knocked the missal to the floor. It fell open at the middle. The Archbishop, who was closer to it, picked it up and looked curiously at the brown, tissue-thin shape which had once been a rose.

“How extraordinary! Why do you keep this? Is it a memory of your home, or perhaps of your mother?” The eyes which saw through guile and dissimulation were looking straight at him, and there was no time to disguise his emotion, or his apprehension.

“No.” He grimaced. “I want no memories of my mother.”

“But it must have great meaning for you, that you store it so lovingly within the pages of the book most dear to you. Of what does it speak?”

“Of a love as pure as that I bear my God, Vittorio. It does the book nothing but honor.”

“That I deduced, because I know you. But the love, does it endanger your love for the Church?”

“No. It was for the Church I forsook her, that I always will forsake her. I’ve gone so far beyond her, and I can never go back again.”

“So at last I understand the sadness! Dear Ralph, it is not as bad as you think, truly it is not. You will live to do great good for many people, you will be loved by many people. And she, having the love which is contained in such an old, fragrant memory as this, will never want. Because you kept the love alongside the rose.”

“I don’t think she understands at all.”

“Oh, yes. If you have loved her thus, then she is woman enough to understand. Otherwise you would have forgotten her, and abandoned this relic long since.”

“There have been times when only hours on my knees have stopped me from leaving my post, going to her.”

The Archbishop eased himself out of his chair and came to kneel beside his friend, this beautiful man whom he loved as he had loved few things other than his God and his Church, which to him were indivisible.

“You will not leave, Ralph, and you know it well. You belong to the Church, you always have and you always will. The vocation for you is a true one. We shall pray now, and I shall add the Rose to my prayers for the rest of my life. Our Dear Lord sends us many griefs and much pain during our progress to eternal life. We must learn to bear it, I as much as you.”

Chapter 69

At the end of August Meggie got a letter from Luke to say he was in Townsville Hospital with Weil’s disease, but that he was in no danger and would be out soon.

“So it looks like we don’t have to wait until the end of the year for our holiday, Meg. I can’t go back to the cane until I’m one hundred percent fit, and the best way to make sure I am is to have a decent holiday. So I’ll be along in a week or so to pick you up. We’re going to Lake Eacham on the Atherton Tableland for a couple of weeks, until I’m well enough to go back to work.”

Meggie could hardly believe it, and didn’t know if she wanted to be with him or not, now that the opportunity presented itself. Though the pain of her mind had taken a lot longer to heal than the pain of her body, the memory of her honeymoon ordeal in the Dunny pub had been pushed from thought so long it had lost the power to terrify her, and from her reading she understood better now that much of it had been due to ignorance, her own and Luke’s. Oh, dear Lord, pray this holiday would mean a child! If she could only have a baby to love it would be so much easier. Anne wouldn’t mind a baby around, she’d love it. So would Luddie. They had told her so a hundred times, hoping Luke would come once for long enough to rectify his wife’s barren loveless existence.

When she told them what the letter said they were delighted, but privately skeptical.

“Sure as eggs is eggs that wretch will find some excuse to be off without her,” said Anne to Luddie.

Luke had borrowed a car from somewhere, and picked Meggie up early in the morning. He looked thin, wrinkled and yellow, as if he had been pickled. Shocked, Meggie gave him her case and climbed in beside him.

“What is Weil’s disease, Luke? You said you weren’t in any danger, but it looks to me as if you’ve been very sick indeed.”

“Oh, it’s just some sort of jaundice most cutters get sooner or later. The cane rats carry it, we pick it up through a cut or sore. I’m in good health, so I wasn’t too sick compared to some who get it. The quacks say I’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time.”

Climbing up through a great gorge filled with jungle, the road led inland, a river in full spate roaring and tumbling below, and at one spot a magnificent waterfall spilling to join it from somewhere up above, right athwart the road. They drove between the cliff and the angling water in a wet, glittering archway of fantastic light and shadow. And as they climbed the air grew cool, exquisitely fresh; Meggie had forgotten how good cool air made her feel. The jungle leaned across them, so impenetrable no one ever dared to enter it. The bulk of it was quite invisible under the weight of leafy vines lying sagging from treetop to treetop, continuous and endless, like a vast sheet of green velvet flung across the forest. Under the eaves Meggie caught glimpses of wonderful flowers and butterflies, cartwheeling webs with great elegant speckled spiders motionless at their hubs, fabulous fungi chewing at mossy trunks, birds with long trailing red or blond tails.

Lake Eacham lay on top of the tableland, idyllic in its unspoiled setting. Before night fell they strolled out onto the veranda of their boardinghouse to look across the still water. Meggie wanted to watch the enormous fruit bats called flying foxes wheel like precursors of doom in thousands down toward the places where they found their food. They were monstrous and repulsive, but singularly timid, entirely benign. To see them come across a molten sky in dark, pulsating sheets was awesome; Meggie never missed watching for them from the Himmelhoch veranda.

And it was heaven to sink into a soft cool bed, not have to lie still until one spot was sweat-saturated and then move carefully to a new spot, knowing the old one wouldn’t dry out anyway. Luke took a flat brown packet out of his case, picked a handful of small round objects out of it and laid them in a row on the bedside table.

Meggie reached out to take one, inspect it. “What on earth is it?” she asked curiously.

“A French letter.” He had forgotten his decision of two years ago, not to tell her he practiced contraception. “I put it on myself before I go inside you. Otherwise I might start a baby, and we can’t afford to do that until we get our place.” He was sitting naked on the side of the bed, and he was thin, ribs and hips protruding. But his blue eyes shone, he reached out to clasp her hand as it held the French letter. “Nearly there, Meg, nearly there! I reckon another five thousand pounds will buy us the best property to be had west of Charters Towers.”

“Then you’ve got it,” she said, her voice quite calm. “I can write to Bishop de Bricassart and ask him for a loan of the money. He won’t charge us interest.”

“You most certainly won’t!” he snapped. “Damn it, Meg, where’s your pride? We’ll work for what we have, not borrow! I’ve never owed anyone a penny in all my life, and I’m not going to start now.”

She scarcely heard him, glaring at him through a haze of brilliant red. In all her life she had never been so angry! Cheat, liar, egotist! How dared he do it to her, trick her out of a baby, try to make her believe he ever had any intention of becoming a grazier! He’d found his niche, with Arne Swenson and the sugar.

Concealing her rage so well it surprised her, she turned her attention back to the little rubber wheel in her hand. “Tell me about these French letter things. How do they stop me having a baby?”

He came to stand behind her, and contact of their bodies made her shiver; from excitement he thought, from disgust she knew.

“Don’t you know anything, Meg?”

“No,” she lied. Which was true about French letters, at any rate; she could not remember ever seeing a mention of them.

His hands played with her breasts, tickling. “Look, when I come I make this—I don’t know—stuff, and if I’m up inside you with nothing on, it stays there. When it stays there long enough or often enough, it makes a baby.”

So that was it! He wore the thing, like a skin on a sausage! Cheat!

Turning off the light, he drew her down onto the bed, and it wasn’t long before he was groping for his antibaby device; she heard him making the same sounds he had made in the Dunny pub bedroom, knowing now they meant he was pulling on the French letter. The cheat! But how to get around it?

Trying not to let him see how much he hurt her, she endured him. Why did it have to hurt so, if this was a natural thing?

“It’s no good, is it, Meg?” he asked afterward. “You must be awfully small for it to keep on hurting so much after the first time. Well, I won’t do it again. You don’t mind if I do it on your breast, do you?”

“Oh, what does it matter?” she asked wearily. “If you mean you’re not going to hurt me, all right!”

“You might be a bit more enthusiastic, Meg!”

“What for?”

But he was rising again; it was two years since he had had time or energy for this. Oh, it was nice to be with a woman, exciting and forbidden. He didn’t feel at all married to Meg; it wasn’t any different from getting a bit in the paddock behind the Kynuna pub, or having high-and-mighty Miss Carmichael against the shearing shed wall. Meggie had nice breasts, firm from all that riding, just the way he liked them, and he honestly preferred to get his pleasure at her breast, liking the sensation of unsheathed penis sandwiched between their bellies. French letters cut a man’s sensitivity a lot, but not to don one when he put himself inside her was asking for trouble.

Groping, he pulled at her buttocks and made her lie on top of him, then seized one nip**ple between his teeth, feeling the hidden point swell and harden on his tongue. A great contempt for him had taken possession of Meggie; what ridiculous creatures men were, grunting and sucking and straining for what they got out of it. He was becoming more excited, kneading her back and bottom, gulping away for all the world like a great overgrown kitten sneaked back to its mother. His hips began to move in a rhythmic, jerky fashion, and sprawled across him awkwardly because she was hating it too much to try helping him, she felt the tip of his unprotected penis slide between her legs.

Since she was not a participant in the act, her thoughts were her own. And it was then the idea came. As slowly and unobtrusively as she could, she maneuvered him until he was right at the most painful part of her; with a great indrawn breath to keep her courage up, she forced the penis in, teeth clenched. But though it did hurt, it didn’t hurt nearly as much. Minus its rubber sheath, his member was more slippery, easier to introduce and far easier to tolerate.

Luke’s eyes opened. He tried to push her away, but oh, God! It was unbelievable without the French letter; he had never been inside a woman bare, had never realized what a difference it made. He was so close, so excited he couldn’t bring himself to push her away hard enough, and in the end he put his arms round her, unable to keep up his breast activity. Though it wasn’t manly to cry out, he couldn’t prevent the noise leaving him, and afterward kissed her softly.

“Luke?”

“What?”

“Why can’t we do that every time? Then you wouldn’t have to put on a French letter.”

Chapter 70

“We shouldn’t have done it that time, Meg, let alone again. I was right in you when I came.”

She leaned over him, stroking his chest. “But don’t you see? I’m sitting up! It doesn’t stay there at all, it runs right out again! Oh, Luke, please! It’s so much nicer, it doesn’t hurt nearly as much. I’m sure it’s all right, because I can feel it running out. Please!”

What human being ever lived who could resist the repetition of perfect pleasure when offered so plausibly? Adam-like, Luke nodded, for at this stage he was far less informed than Meggie.

“I suppose there’s truth in what you say, and it’s much nicer for me when you’re not fighting it. All right, Meg, we’ll do it that way from now on.”

And in the darkness she smiled, content. For it had not all run out. The moment she felt him shrink out of her she had drawn up all the internal muscles into a knot, slid off him onto her back, stuck her crossed knees in the air casually and hung on to what she had with every ounce of determination in her. Oho, my fine gentleman, I’ll fix you yet! You wait and see, Luke O’Neill! I’ll get my baby if it kills me!

Away from the heat and humidity of the coastal plain Luke mended rapidly. Eating well, he began to put the weight he needed back again, and his skin faded from the sickly yellow to its usual brown. With the lure of an eager, responsive Meggie in his bed it wasn’t too difficult to persuade him to prolong the original two weeks into three, and then into four. But at the end of a month he rebelled.

“There’s no excuse, Meg. I’m as well as I’ve ever been. We’re sitting up here on top of the world like a king and queen, spending money. Arne needs me.”

“Won’t you reconsider, Luke? If you really wanted to, you could buy your station now.”

“Let’s hang on a bit longer the way we are, Meg.”

He wouldn’t admit it, of course, but the lure of the sugar was in his bones, the strange fascination some men have for utterly demanding labor. As long as his young man’s strength held up, Luke would remain faithful to the sugar. The only thing Meggie could hope for was to force him into changing his mind by giving him a child, an heir to the property out around Kynuna.

So she went back to Himmelhoch to wait and hope. Please, please, let there be a baby! A baby would solve everything, so please let there be a baby. And there was. When she told Anne and Luddie, they were overjoyed. Luddie especially turned out to be a treasure. He did the most exquisite smocking and embroidery, two crafts Meggie had never had time to master, so while he pushed a tiny needle through delicate fabric with his horny, magical hands, Meggie helped Anne get the nursery together.

The only trouble was the baby wasn’t sitting well, whether because of the heat or her unhappiness Meggie didn’t know. The morning sickness was all day, and persisted long after it should have stopped; in spite of her very slight weight gain she began to suffer badly from too much fluid in the tissues of her body, and her blood pressure went up to a point at which Doc Smith became apprehensive. At first he talked of hospital in Cairns for the remainder of her pregnancy, but after a long think about her husbandless, friendless situation he decided she would be better off with Luddie and Anne, who did care for her. For the last three weeks of her term, however, she must definitely go to Cairns.

“And try to get her husband to come and see her!” he roared to Luddie.

Meggie had written right away to tell Luke she was pregnant, full of the usual feminine conviction that once the not-wanted was an irrefutable fact, Luke would become wildly enthusiastic. His answering letter scotched any such delusions. He was furious. As far as he was concerned, becoming a father simply meant he would have two nonworking mouths to feed, instead of none. It was a bitter pill for Meggie to swallow, but swallow it she did; she had no choice. Now the coming child bound her to him as tightly as her pride.

But she felt ill, helpless, utterly unloved; even the baby didn’t love her, didn’t want to be conceived or born. She could feel it inside her, the weakly tiny creature’s feeble protests against growing into being. Had she been able to tolerate the two-thousand-mile rail journey home, she would have gone, but Doc Smith shook his head firmly. Get on a train for a week or more, even in broken stages, and that would be the end of the baby. Disappointed and unhappy though she was, Meggie wouldn’t consciously do anything to harm the baby. Yet as time went on her enthusiasm and her longing to have someone of her own to love withered in her; the incubus child hung heavier, more resentful.

Doc Smith talked of an earlier transfer to Cairns; he wasn’t sure Meggie could survive a birth in Dungloe, which had only a cottage infirmary. Her blood pressure was recalcitrant, the fluid kept mounting; he talked of toxemia and eclampsia, other long medical words which frightened Anne and Luddie into agreeing, much as they longed to see the baby born at Himmelhoch.

By the end of May there were only four weeks left to go, four weeks until Meggie could rid herself of this intolerable burden, this ungrateful child. She was learning to hate it, the very being she had wanted so much before discovering what trouble it would cause. Why had she assumed Luke would look forward to the baby once its existence was a reality? Nothing in his attitude or conduct since their marriage indicated he would.

Time she admitted it was a disaster, abandoned her silly pride and tried to salvage what she could from the ruins. They had married for all the wrong reasons: he for her money, she as an escape from Ralph de Bricassart while trying to retain Ralph de Bricassart. There had never been any pretense at love, and only love might have helped her and Luke to overcome the enormous difficulties their differing aims and desires created.

Oddly enough, she never seemed able to hate Luke, where she found herself hating Ralph de Bricassart more and more frequently. Yet when all was said and done, Ralph had been far kinder and fairer to her than Luke. Not once had he encouraged her to dream of him in any roles save priest and friend, for even on the two occasions when he had kissed her, she had begun the move herself.

Why be so angry with him, then? Why hate Ralph and not Luke? Blame her own fears and inadequacies, the huge, outraged resentment she felt because he had consistently rejected her when she loved and wanted him so much. And blame that stupid impulse which had led her to marry Luke O’Neill. A betrayal of her own self and Ralph. No matter if she could never have married him, slept with him, had his child. No matter if he didn’t want her, and he didn’t want her. The fact remained that he was who she wanted, and she ought never to have settled for less.

But knowing the wrongs couldn’t alter them. It was still Luke O’Neill she had married, Luke O’Neill’s child she was carrying. How could she be happy at the thought of Luke O’Neill’s child, when even he didn’t want it? Poor little thing. At least when it was born it would be its own piece of humanity, and could be loved as that. Only…What wouldn’t shé give, for Ralph de Bricassart’s child? The impossible, the never-to-be. He served an institution which insisted on having all of him, even that part of him she had no use for, his manhood. That Mother Church required from him as a sacrifice to her power as an institution, and thus wasted him, stamped his being out of being, made sure that when he stopped he would be stopped forever. Only one day she would have to pay for her greed. One day there wouldn’t be any more Ralph de Bricassarts, because they’d value their manhood enough to see that her demanding it of them was a useless sacrifice, having no meaning whatsoever….

Suddenly she stood up and waddled through to the living room, where Anne was sitting reading an underground copy of Norman Lindsay’s banned novel, Red-heap, very obviously enjoying every forbidden word.

“Anne, I think you’re going to get your wish.”

Anne looked up absently. “What, dear?”

“Phone Doc Smith. I’m going to have this wretched baby here and now.”

“Oh, my God! Get into the bedroom and lie down—not your bedroom, ours!”

Cursing the whims of fate and the determination of babies, Doc Smith hurried out from Dungloe in his battered car with the local midwife in the back an as much equipment as he could carry from his little cottage hospital. No use taking her there; he could do as much for her at Himmelhoch. But Cairns was where she ought to be.

“Have you let the husband know?” he asked as he pounded up the front steps, his midwife behind him.

“I sent a telegram. She’s in my room; I thought it would give you more space.”

Hobbling in their wake, Anne went into her bedroom. Meggie was lying on the bed, wide-eyed and giving no indication of pain except for an occasional spasm of her hands, a drawing-in of her body. She turned her head to smile at Anne, and Anne saw that the eyes were very frightened.

“I’m glad I never got to Cairns” she said. “My mother never went to hospital to have hers, and Daddy said once she had a terrible time with Hal. But she survived, and so will I. We’re hard to kill, we Cleary women.”

 

 

 

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