The Thorn Birds (Chapter 71-75)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
It was hours later when the doctor joined Anne on the veranda.
“It’s a long, hard business for the little woman. First babies are rarely easy, but this one’s not lying well and she just drags on without getting anywhere. If she was in Cairns she could have a Caesarean, but that’s out of the question here. She’ll just have to push it out all by herself.”
“Is she conscious?”
“Oh, yes. Gallant little soul, doesn’t scream or complain. The best ones usually have the worst time of it in my opinion. Keeps asking me if Ralph’s here yet, and I have to tell her some lie about the Johnstone in flood. I thought her husband’s name was Luke?”
“Hmmm! Well, maybe that’s why she’s asking for this Ralph, whoever he is. Luke’s no comfort, is he?”
“Luke’s a bastard.”
Anne leaned forward, hands on the veranda railing. A taxi was coming from the Dunny road, and had turned off up the incline to Himmelhoch. Her excellent eyesight just discerned a black-haired man in the back, and she crowed with relief and joy.
“I don’t believe what I see, but I think Luke’s finally remembered he’s got a wife!”
“I’d best go back to her and leave you to cope with him, Anne. I won’t mention it to her, in case it isn’t him. If it is him, give him a cup of tea and save the hard stuff for later. He’s going to need it.”
The taxi drew up; to Anne’s surprise the driver got out and went to the back door to open it for his passenger. Joe Castiglione, who ran Dunny’s sole taxi, wasn’t usually given to such courtesies.
“Himmelhoch, Your Grace,” he said, bowing deeply.
A man in a long, flowing black soutane got out, a purple grosgrain sash about his waist. As he turned, Anne thought for a dazed moment that Luke O’Neill was playing some elaborate trick on her. Then she saw that this was a far different man, a good ten years older than Luke. My God! she thought as the graceful figure mounted her steps two at a time. He’s the handsomest chap I’ve ever seen! An archbishop, no less! What does a Catholic archbishop want with a pair of old Lutherans like Luddie and me?
“Mrs. Mueller?” he asked, smiling down at her with kind, aloof blue eyes. As if he had seen much he would give anything not to have seen, and had managed to stop feeling long ago.
“Yes, I’m Anne Mueller.”
“I’m Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart, His Holiness’s Legate in Australia. I understand you have a Mrs. Luke O’Neill staying with you?”
“Yes, sir.” Ralph? Ralph? Was this Ralph?
“I’m a very old friend of hers. I wonder if I might see her, please?”
“Well, I’m sure she’d be delighted, Archbishop”—no, that wasn’t right, one didn’t say Archbishop, one said Your Grace, like Joe Castiglione—“under more normal circumstances, but at the moment Meggie’s in labor, and having a very hard time.”
Then she saw that he hadn’t succeeded in stopping feeling at all, only disciplined it to a doglike abjection at the back of his thinking mind. His eyes were so blue she felt she drowned in them, and what she saw in them now made her wonder what Meggie was to him, and what he was to Meggie.
“I knew something was wrong! I’ve felt that something was wrong for a long time, but of late my worry’s become an obsession. I had to come and see for myself. Please, let me see her! If you wish for a reason, I am a priest.”
Anne had never intended to deny him. “Come along, Your Grace, through here, please.” And as she shuffled slowly between her two sticks she kept thinking: Is the house clean and tidy? Have I dusted? Did we remember to throw out that smelly old leg of lamb, or is it all through the place? What a time for a man as important as this one to come calling! Luddie, will you never get your fat arse off that tractor and come in? The boy should have found you hours ago!
He went past Doc Smith and the midwife as if they didn’t exist to drop on his knees beside the bed, his hand reaching for hers.
She dragged herself out of the ghastly dream into which she had sunk, past caring, and saw the beloved face close to hers, the strong black hair with two white wings in its darkness now, the fine aristocratic features a little more lined, more patient if possible, and the blue eyes looking into hers with love and longing. How had she ever confused Luke with him? There was no one like him, there never would be for her, and she had betrayed what she felt for him. Luke was the dark side of the mirror; Ralph was as splendid as the sun, and as remote. Oh, how beautiful to see him!
“Ralph, help me,” she said.
He kissed her hand passionately, then held it to his cheek. “Always, my Meggie, you know that.”
“Pray for me, and the baby. If anyone can save us, you can. You’re much closer to God than we are. No one wants us, no one has ever wanted us, even you.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” She closed her eyes and rolled her head upon the plllow, but the fingers in his gripped strongly, wouldn’t let him go.
Then Doc Smith touched him on the shoulder. “Your Grace, I think you ought to step outside now.”
“If her life is in danger, you’ll call me?”
“In a second.”
Luddie had finally come in from the cane, frantic because there was no one to be seen and he didn’t dare enter the bedroom.
“Anne, is she all right?” he asked as his wife came out with the Archbishop.
“So far. Doc won’t commit himself, but I think he’s got hope. Luddie, we have a visitor. This is Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart, an old friend of Meggie’s.”
Better versed than his wife, Luddie dropped on one knee and kissed the ring on the hand held out to him. “Sit down, Your Grace, talk to Anne. I’ll go and put a kettle on for some tea.”
“So you’re Ralph,” Anne said, propping her sticks against a bamboo table while the priest sat opposite her with the folds of his soutane falling about him, his glossy black riding boots clearly visible, for he had crossed his knees. It was an effeminate thing for a man to do, but he was a priest so it didn’t matter; yet there was something intensely masculine about him, crossed legs or no. He was probably not as old as she had first thought; in his very early forties, perhaps. What a waste of a magnificent man!
“Yes, I’m Ralph.”
“Ever since Meggie’s labor started she’s been asking for someone called Ralph. I must admit I was puzzled. I don’t ever remember her mentioning a Ralph before.”
“How do you know Meggie, Your Grace? For how long?”
The priest smiled wryly and clasped his thin, very beautiful hands together so they made a pointed church roof. “I’ve known Meggie since she was ten years old, only days off the boat from New Zealand. You might in all truth say that I’ve known Meggie through flood and fire and emotional famine, and through death, and life. All that we have to bear. Meggie is the mirror in which I’m forced to view my mortality.”
“You love her!” Anne’s tone was surprised.
“It’s a tragedy for both of you.”
“I had hoped only for me. Tell me about her, what’s happened to her since she married. It’s many years since I’ve seen her, but I haven’t been happy about her.”
“I’ll tell you, but only after you’ve told me about Meggie. Oh, I don’t mean personal things, only about what sort of life she led before she came to Dunny. We know absolutely nothing of her, Luddie and I, except that she used to live somewhere near Gillanbone. We’d like to know more, because we’re very fond of her. But she would never tell us a thing—pride, I think.”
Luddie carried in a tray loaded with tea and food, and sat down while the priest gave them an outline of Meggie’s life before she married Luke.
“I would never have guessed it in a million years! To think Luke O’Neill had the temerity to take her from all that and put her to work as a housemaid! And had the hide to stipulate that her wages be put in his bank-book! Do you know the poor little thing has never had a penny in her purse to spend on herself since she’s been here? I had Luddie give her a cash bonus last Christmas, but by then she needed so many things it was all spent in a day, and she’d never take more from us.”
“Don’t feel sorry for Meggie,” said Archbishop Ralph a little harshly. “I don’t think she feels sorry for herself, certainly not over lack of money. It’s brought little joy to her after all, has it? She knows where to go if she can’t do without it. I’d say Luke’s apparent indifference has hurt her far more than the lack of money. My poor Meggie!”
Between them Anne and Luddie filled in the outline of Meggie’s life, while Archbishop de Brioassart sat, his hands still steepled, his gaze on the lovely sweeping fan of a traveler’s palm outside. Not once did a muscle in his face move, or a change come into those detachedly beautiful eyes. He had learned much since being in the service of Vittorio Scarbanza, Cardinal di Contini-Verchese.
When the tale was done he sighed, and shifted his gaze to their anxious faces. “Well, it seems we must help her, since Luke will not. If Luke truly doesn’t want her, she’d be better off back on Drogheda. I know you don’t want to lose her, but for her sake try to persuade her to go home. I shall send you a check from Sydney for her, so she won’t have the embarrassment of asking her brother for money. Then when she gets home she can tell them what she likes.” He glanced toward the bedroom door and moved restlessly. “Dear God, let the child be born!”
But the child wasn’t born until nearly twenty-four hours later, and Meggie almost dead from exhaustion and pain. Doc Smith had given her copious doses of laudanum, that still being the best thing, in his old-fashioned opinion; she seemed to drift whirling through spiraling nightmares in which things from without and within ripped and tore, clawed and spat, howled and whined and roared. Sometimes Ralph’s face would come into focus for a small moment, then go again on a heaving tide of pain; but the memory of him persisted, and while he kept watch she knew neither she nor the baby would die.
Pausing, while the midwife coped alone, to snatch food and a stiff tot of rum and check that none of his other patients were inconsiderate enough to think of dying, Doc Smith listened to as much of the story as Anne and Luddie thought wise to tell him.
“You’re right, Anne,” he said. “All that riding is probably one of the reasons for her trouble now. When the sidesaddle went out it was a bad thing for women who must ride a lot. Astride develops the wrong muscles.”
“I’d heard that was an old wives’ tale,” said the Archbishop mildly.
Doc Smith looked at him maliciously. He wasn’t fond of Catholic priests, deemed them a sanctimonious lot of driveling fools.
“Think what you like,” he said. “But tell me, Your Grace, if it came down to a choice between Meggie’s life and the baby’s, what would your conscience advise?”
“The Church is adamant on that point, Doctor. No choice must ever be made. The child cannot be done to death to save the mother, nor the mother done to death to save the child.” He smiled back at Doc Smith just as maliciously. “But if it should come to that, Doctor, I won’t hesitiate to tell you to save Meggie, and the hell with the baby.”
Doc Smith gasped, laughed, and clapped him on the back. “Good for you! Rest easy, I won’t broadcast what you said. But so far the child’s alive, and I can’t see what good killing it is going to do.”
But Anne was thinking to herself: I wonder what your answer would have been if the child was yours, Archbishop?
About three hours later, as the afternoon sun was sliding sadly down the sky toward Mount Bartle Frere’s misty bulk, Doc Smith came out of the bedroom.
“Well, it’s over,” he said with some satisfaction. “Meggie’s got a long road ahead of her, but she’ll be all right, God willing. And the baby is a skinny, cranky, five-pound girl with a whopping great head and a temper to match the most poisonous red hair I’ve ever seen on a newborn baby. You could’t kill that little mite with an axe, and I know, because I nearly tried.”
Jubilant, Luddie broke out the bottle of champagne he had been saving, and the five of them stood with their glasses brimming; priest, doctor, midwife, farmer and cripple toasted the health and well-being of the mother and her screaming, crotchety baby. It was the first of June, the first day of the Australian winter.
A nurse had arrived to take over from the midwife, and would stay until Meggie was pronounced out of all danger. The doctor and the midwife left, while Anne, Luddie and the Archbishop went to see Meggie.
She looked so tiny and wasted in the double bed that Archbishop Ralph was obliged to store away another, separate pain in the back of his mind, to be taken out later, inspected and endured. Meggie, my torn and beaten Meggie…I shall love you always, but I cannot give you what Luke O’Neill did, however grudgingly.
The grizzling scrap of humanity responsible for all this lay in a wicker bassinet by the far wall, not a bit appreciative of their attention as they stood around her and peered down. She yelled her resentment, and kept on yelling. In the end the nurse lifted her, bassinet and all, and put her in the room designated as her nursery.
“There’s certainly nothing wrong with her lungs.” Archbishop Ralph smiled, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking Meggie’s pale hand.
“I don’t think she likes life much,” Meggie said with an answering smile. How much older he looked! As fit and supple as ever, but immeasurably older. She turned her head to Anne and Luddie, and held out her other hand. “My dear good friends! Whatever would I have done without you? Have we heard from Luke?”
“I got a telegram saying he was too busy to come, but wishing you good luck.”
“Big of him,” said Meggie.
Anne bent quickly to kiss her check. “We’ll leave you to talk with the Archbishop, dear. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” Leaning on Luddie, she crooked her finger at the nurse, who was gaping at the priest as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. “Come on, Nettie, have a cup of tea with us. His Grace will let you know if Meggie needs you.”
“What are you going to call your noisy daughter?” he asked as the door closed and they were alone.
“It’s a very good name, but why did you choose it?”
“I read it somewhere, and I liked it.”
“Don’t you want her, Meggie?”
Her face had shrunk, and seemed all eyes; they were soft and filled with a misty light, no hate but no love either. “I suppose I want her. Yes, I do want her. I schemed enough to get her. But while I was carrying her I couldn’t feel anything for her, except that she didn’t want me. I don’t think Justine will ever be mine, or Luke’s, or anyone’s. I think she’s always going to belong to herself.”
“I must go, Meggie,” he said gently.
Now the eyes grew harder, brighter: her mouth twisted into an unpleasant shape. “I expected that! Funny how the men in my life all scuttle off into the woodwork, isn’t it?”
He winced. “Don’t be bitter, Meggie. I can’t bear to leave thinking of you like this. No matter what’s happened to you in the past, you’ve always retained your sweetness and it’s the thing about you I find most endearing. Don’t change, don’t become hard because of this. I know it must be terrible to think that Luke didn’t care enough to come, but don’t change. You wouldn’t be my Meggie anymore.”
But still she looked at him half as if she hated him. “Oh, come off it, Ralph! I’m not your Meggie, I never was! You didn’t want me, you sent me to him, to Luke. What do you think I am, some sort of saint, or a nun? Well, I’m not! I’m an ordinary human being, and you’ve spoiled my life! All the years I’ve loved you, and wanted to forget you, but then I married a man I thought looked a little bit like you, and he doesn’t want me or need me either. Is it so much to ask of a man, to be needed and wanted by him?”
She began to sob, mastered it; there were fine lines of pain on her face that he had never seen before, and he knew they weren’t the kind that rest and returning health would smooth away.
“Luke’s not a bad man, or even an unlikable one,” she went on. “Just a man. You’re all the same, great big hairy moths bashing yourselves to pieces after a silly flame behind a glass so clear your eyes don’t see it. And if you do manage to blunder your way inside the glass to fly into the flame, you fall down burned and dead. While all the time out there in the cool night there’s food, and love, and baby moths to get. But do you see it, do you want it? No! It’s back after the flame again, beating yourselves senseless until you burn yourselves dead!”
He didn’t know what to say to her, for this was a side of her he had never seen. Had it always been there, or had she grown it out of her terrible trouble and abandonment? Meggie, saying things like this? He hardly heard what she said, he was so upset that she should say it, and so didn’t understand that it came from her loneliness, and her guilt.
“Do you remember the rose you gave me the night I left Drogheda?” he asked tenderly.
“Yes, I remember.” The life had gone out of her voice, the hard light out of her eyes. They stared at him now like a soul without hope, as expressionless and glassy as her mother’s.
“I have it still, in my missal. And every time I see a rose that color, I think of you. Meggie, I love you. You’re my rose, the most beautiful human image and thought in my life.”
Down went the corners of her mouth again, up shone that tense, glittering fierceness with the tang of hate in it. “An image, a thought! A human image and thought! Yes, that’s right, that’s all I am to you! You’re nothing but a romantic, dreaming fool, Ralph de Bricassart! You have no more idea of what life is all about than the moth I called you! No wonder you became a priest! You couldn’t live with the ordinariness of life if you were an ordinary man any more than ordinary man Luke does!
“You say you love me, but you have no idea what love is; you’re just mouthing words you’ve memorized because you think they sound good! What floors me is why you men haven’t managed to dispense with us women altogether, which is what you’d like to do, isn’t it? You should work out a way of marrying each other; you’d be divinely happy!”
“Meggie, don’t! Please don’t!”
“Oh, go away! I don’t want to look at you! And you’ve forgotten one thing about your precious roses, Ralph—they’ve got nasty, hooky thorns!”
He left the room without looking back.
Luke never bothered to answer the telegram informing him he was the proud father of a five-pound girl named Justine. Slowly Meggie got better, and the baby began to thrive. Perhaps if Meggie could have managed to feed her she might have developed more rapport with the scrawny, bad-tempered little thing, but she had absolutely no milk in the plenteous breasts Luke had so loved to suck. That’s an ironic justice, she thought. She dutifully changed and bottle-fed the red-faced, redheaded morsel just as custom dictated she should, waiting for the commencement of some wonderful, surging emotion. But it never came; she felt no desire to smother the tiny face with kisses, or bite the wee fingers, or do any of the thousand silly things mothers loved to do with babies. It didn’t feel like her baby, and it didn’t want or need her any more than she did it. It, it! Her, her! She couldn’t even remember to call it her.
Luddie and Anne never dreamed Meggie did not adore Justine, that she felt less for Justine than she had for any of her mother’s younger babies. Whenever Justine cried Meggie was right there to pick her up, croon to her, rock her, and never was a baby drier or more comfortable. The strange thing was that Justine didn’t seem to want to be picked up or crooned over; she quieted much faster if she was left alone.
As time went on she improved in looks. Her infant skin lost its redness, acquired that thin blue-veined transparency which goes so often with red hair, and her little arms and legs filled out to pleasing plumpness. The hair began to curl and thicken and to assume forever the same violent shade her grandfather Paddy had owned. Everyone waited anxiously to see what color her eyes would turn out to be, Luddie betting on her father’s blue, Anne on her mother’s grey, Meggie without an opinion. But Justine’s eyes were very definitely her own, and unnerving to say the least. At six weeks they began to change, and by the ninth week had gained their final color and form. No one had even seen anything like them. Around the outer rim of the iris was a very dark grey ring, but the iris itself was so pale it couldn’t be called either blue or grey; the closest description of the color was a sort of dark white. They were riveting, uncomfortable, inhuman eyes, rather blind-looking; but as time went on it was obvious Justine saw through them very well.
Though he didn’t mention it, Doc Smith had been worried by the size of her head when she was born, and kept a close watch on it for the first six months of her life; he had wondered, especially after seeing those strange eyes, if she didn’t perhaps have what he still called water on the brain, though the textbooks these days were calling it hydrocephalus. But it appeared Justine wasn’t suffering from any kind of cerebral dysfunction or malformation; she just had a very big head, and as she grew the rest of her more or less caught up to it.
Luke stayed away. Meggie had written to him repeatedly, but he neither answered nor came to see his child. In a way she was glad; she wouldn’t have known what to say to him, and she didn’t think he would be at all entranced with the odd little creature who was his daughter. Had Justine been a strapping big son he might have relented, but Meggie was fiercely glad she wasn’t. She was living proof the great Luke O’Neill wasn’t perfect, for if he was he would surely have sired nothing but sons.
The baby thrived better than Meggie did, recovered faster from the birth ordeal. By the time she was four months old she ceased to cry so much and began to amuse herself as she lay in her bassinet, fiddling and pinching at the rows of brightly colored beads strung within her reach. But she never smiled at anyone, even in the guise of gas pains.
The Wet came early, in October, and it was a very wet Wet. The humidity climbed to 100 percent and stayed there; every day for hours the rain roared and whipped about Himmelhoch, melting the scarlet soil, drenching the cane, filling the wide, deep Dungloe River but not overflowing it, for its course was so short the water got away into the sea quickly enough. While Justine lay in her bassinet contemplating her world through those strange eyes, Meggie sat dully watching Bartle Frere disappear behind a wall of dense rain, then reappear.
The sun would come out, writhing veils of steam issue from the ground, the wet cane shimmer and sparkle diamond prisms, and the river seem like a great gold snake. Then hanging right across the vault of the sky a double rainbow would materialize, perfect throughout its length on both bows, so rich in its coloring against the sullen dark-blue clouds that all save a North Queensland landscape would have been paled and diminished. Being North Queensland, nothing was washed out by its ethereal glow, and Meggie thought she knew why the Gillanbone countryside was so brown and grey; North Queensland had usurped its share of the palette as well.
One day at the beginning of December. Anne came out onto the veranda and sat down beside her, watching her. Oh, she was so thin, so lifeless! Even the lovely goldy hair had dulled.
“Meggie, I don’t know whether I’ve done the wrong thing, but I’ve done it anyway, and I want you at least to listen to me before you say no.”
Meggie turned from the rainbows, smiling. “You sound so solemn, Anne! What is it I must listen to?”
“Luddie and I are worried about you. You haven’t picked up properly since Justine was born, and now The Wet’s here you’re looking even worse. You’re not eating and you’re losing weight. I’ve never thought the climate here agreed with you, but as long as nothing happened to drag you down you managed to cope with it. Now we think you’re sick, and unless something’s done you’re going to get really ill.”
She drew a breath. “So a couple of weeks ago I wrote to a friend of mine in the tourist bureau, and booked you a holiday. And don’t start protesting about the expense; it won’t dent Luke’s resources or ours. The Archbishop sent us a very big check for you, and your brother sent us another one for you and the baby—I think he was hinting go home for a while—from everyone on Drogheda. And after we talked it over, Luddie and I decided the best thing we could do was spend some of it on a holiday for you. I don’t think going home to Drogheda is the right sort of holiday, though. What Luddie and I feel you need most is a thinking time. No Justine, no us, no Luke, no Drogheda. Have you ever been on your own, Meggie? It’s time you were. So we’ve booked you a cottage on Matlock Island for two months, from the beginning of January to the beginning of March. Luddie and I will look after Justine. You know she won’t come to any harm, but if we’re the slightest bit worried about her, you have our word we’ll notify you right away, and the island’s on the phone so it wouldn’t take long to fetch you back.”
The rainbows had gone, so had the sun; it was getting ready to rain again.
“Anne, if it hadn’t been for you and Luddie these past three years, I would have gone mad. You know that. Sometimes in the night I wake up wondering what would have happened to me had Luke put me with people less kind. You’ve cared for me more than Luke has.”
“Twaddle! If Luke had put you with unsympathetic people you would have gone back to Drogheda, and who knows? Maybe that might have been the best course.”
“No. It hasn’t been pleasant, this thing with Luke, but it was far better for me to stay and work it out.”
The rain was beginning to inch its way across the dimming cane blotting out everything behind its edge, like a grey cleaver.
“You’re right, I’m not well,” Meggie said. “I haven’t been well since Justine was conceived. I’ve tried to pull myself up, but I suppose one reaches a point where there isn’t the energy to do it. Oh, Anne, I’m so tired and discouraged! I’m not even a good mother to Justine, and I owe her that. I’m the one caused her to be; she didn’t ask for it. But mostly I’m discouraged because Luke won’t even give me a chance to make him happy. He won’t live with me or let me make a home for him; he doesn’t want our children. I don’t love him—I never did love him the way a woman ought to love the man she marries, and maybe he sensed it from the word go. Maybe if I had loved him, he would have acted differently. So how can I blame him? I’ve only myself to blame, I think.”
“It’s the Archbishop you love, isn’t it?”
“Oh, ever since I was a little girl! I was hard on him when he came. Poor Ralph! I had no right to say what I did to him, because he never encouraged me, you know. I hope he’s had time to understand that I was in pain, worn out, and terribly unhappy. All I could think was it ought by rights to be his child and it never would be, never could be. It isn’t fair! Protestant clergy can marry, why can’t Catholic? And don’t try to tell me ministers don’t care for their flocks the way priests do, because I won’t believe you. I’ve met heartless priests and wonderful ministers. But because of the celibacy of priests I’ve had to go away from Ralph, make my home and my life with someone else, have someone else’s baby. And do you know something, Anne? That’s as disgusting a sin as Ralph breaking his vows, or more so. I resent the Church’s implication that my loving Ralph or his loving me is wrong!”
“Go away for a while, Meggie. Rest and eat and sleep and stop fretting. Then maybe when you come back you can somehow persuade Luke to buy that station instead of talking about it. I know you don’t love him, but I think if he gave you half a chance you might be happy with him.”
The grey eyes were the same color as the rain falling in sheets all around the house; their voices had risen to shouting pitch to be audible above the incredible din on the iron roof.
“But that’s just it, Anne! When Luke and I went up to Atherton I realized at last that he’ll never leave the sugar while he’s got the strength to cut it. He loves the life, he really does. He loves being with men as strong and independent as he is himself; he loves roaming from one place to the other. He’s always been a wanderer, now I come to think of it. As for needing a woman for pleasure if nothing else, he’s too exhausted by the cane. And how can I put it? Luke is the kind of man who quite genuinely doesn’t care if he eats his food off a packing crate and sleeps on the floor. Don’t you see? One can’t appeal to him as to one who likes nice things, because he doesn’t. Sometimes I think he despises nice things, pretty things. They’re soft, they might make him soft. I have absolutely no enticements powerful enough to sway him from his present way of life.”
She glanced up impatiently at the veranda roof, as if tired of shouting. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to take the loneliness of having no home for the next ten or fifteen years, Anne, or however long it’s going to take Luke to wear himself out. It’s lovely here with you; I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful. But I want a home! I want Justine to have brothers and sisters, I want to dust my own furniture, I want to make curtains for my own windows, cook on my own stove for my own man. Oh, Anne! I’m just an ordinary sort of a woman; I’m not ambitious or intelligent or well educated, you know that. All I want is a husband, children, my own home. And a bit of love from someone!”
Anne got out her handkerchief, wiped her eyes and tried to laugh. “What a soppy pair we are! But I do understand, Meggie, really I do. I’ve been married to Luddie for ten years, the only truly happy ones of my life. I had infantile paralysis when I was five years old, and it left me like this. I was convinced no one would ever look at me. Nor did they, God knows. When I met Luddie I was thirty years old, teaching for a living. He was ten years younger than me, so I couldn’t take him seriously when he said he loved me and wanted to marry me. How terrible, Meggie, to ruin a very young man’s life! For five years I treated him to the worst display of downright nastiness you could imagine, but he always came back for more. So I married him, and I’ve been happy. Luddie says he is, but I’m not sure. He’s had to give up a lot, including children, and he looks older than I do these days, poor chap.”
“It’s the life, Anne, and the climate.”
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun; the sun came out, the rainbows waxed to full glory in the steamy sky, Mount Bartle Frere loomed lilac out of the scudding clouds.
Meggie spoke again. “I’ll go. I’m very grateful to you for thinking of it; it’s probably what I need. But are you sure Justine won’t be too much trouble?”
“Lord, no! Luddie’s got it all worked out. Anna Maria, who used to work for me before you came, has a younger sister, Annunziata, who wants to go nursing in Townsville. But she won’t be sixteen until March, and she finishes school in a few days. So while you’re away she’s going to come here. She’s an expert foster mother, too. There are hordes of babies in the Tesoriero clan.’
“Matlock Island. Where is it?”
“Just near Whitsunday Passage on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s very quiet and private, mostly a honeymoon resort, I suppose. You know the sort of thing—cottages instead of a central hotel. You won’t have to go to dinner in a crowded dining room, or be civil to a whole heap of people you’d rather not talk to at all. And at this time of year it’s just about deserted, because of the danger of summer cyclones. The Wet isn’t a problem, but no one ever seems to want to go to the Reef in summer. Probably because most of the people who go to the Reef come from Sydney or Melbourne, and summer down there is lovely without going away. In June and July and August the southerners have it booked out for three years ahead.”
On the last day of 1937 Meggie caught the train to Townsville. Though her holiday had scarcely begun, she already felt much better, for she had left the molasses reek of Dunny behind her. The biggest settlement in North Queensland, Townsville was a thriving town of several thousands living in white wooden houses atop stilts. A tight connection between train and boat left her with no time to explore, but in a way Meggie wasn’t sorry she had to rush to the wharf without a chance to think; after that ghastly voyage across the Tasman sixteen years ago she wasn’t looking forward to thirty-six hours in a ship much smaller than the Wahine.
But it was quite different, a whispering slide in glassy waters, and she was twenty-six, not ten. The air was between cyclones, the sea was exhausted; though it was only midday Meggie put her head down and slept dreamlessly until the steward woke her at six the next morning with a cup of tea and a plate of plain sweet biscuits.
Up on deck was a new Australia, different again. In a high clear sky, delicately colorless, a pink and pearly glow suffused slowly upward from the eastern rim of the ocean until the sun stood above the horizon and the light lost its neonatal redness, became day. The ship was slithering soundlessly through water which had no taint, so translucent over the side that one could look fathoms down to grottoes of purple and see the forms of vivid fish flashing by. In distant vistas the sea was a greenish-hued aquamarine, splotched with wine-dark stains where weed or coral covered the floor, and on all sides it seemed islands with palmy shores of brilliant white sand just grew out of it spontaneously like crystals in silica—jungle-clad and mountainous islands or flat, bushy islands not much higher than the water.
“The flat ones are the true coral islands,” explained a crewman. “If they’re ring-shaped and enclose a lagoon they’re called atolls, but if they’re just a lump of reef risen above the sea they’re called cays. The hilly islands are the tops of mountains, but they’re still surrounded by coral reefs, and they have lagoons.”
“Where’s Matlock Island?” Meggie asked.
He looked at her curiously; a lone woman going on holiday to a honeymoon island like Matlock was a contradiction in terms. “We’re sailing down Whitsunday Passage now, then we head out to the Pacific edge of the reef. Matlock’s ocean side is pounded by the big breakers that come in for a hundred miles off the deep Pacific like express trains, roaring so you can’t hear yourself think. Can you imagine riding the same wave for a hundred miles?” He sighed wistfully. “We’ll be at Matlock before sundown, madam.”
And an hour before sundown the little ship heaved its way through the backwash of the surf whose spume rose like a towering misty wall into the eastern sky. A jetty on spindling piles doddered literally half a mile out across the reef exposed by low tide, behind it a high, craggy coastline which didn’t fit in with Meggie’s expectations of tropical splendor. An elderly man stood waiting, helped her from ship to jetty, and took her cases from a crewman.
“How d’you do, Mrs. O’Neill,” he greeted her. “I’m Rob Walter. Hope your husband gets the chance to come after all. Not too much company on Matlock this time of year; it’s really a winter resort.”
They walked together down the uneasy planking, the exposed coral molten in the dying sun and the fearsome sea a reflected, tumultuous glory of crimson foam.
“Tide’s out, or you’d have had a rougher trip. See the mist in the east? That’s the edge of the Great Barrier Reef itself. Here on Matlock we hang onto it by the skin of our teeth; you’ll feel the island shaking all the time from the pounding out there.” He helped her into a car. “This is the windward side of Matlock—a bit wild and unwelcome looking, eh? But you wait until you see the leeward side, ah! Something like, it is.”
They hurtled with the careless speed natural to the only car on Matlock down a narrow road of crunchy coral bones, through palms and thick undergrowth with a tall hill rearing to one side, perhaps four miles across the island’s spine.
“Oh, how beautiful!” said Meggie.
They had emerged on another road which ran all around the looping sandy shores of the lagoon side, crescent-shaped and hollow. Far out was more white spray where the ocean broke in dazzling lace on the edges of the lagoon reef, but within the coral’s embrace the water was still and calm, a polished silver mirror tinged with bronze.
“Island’s four miles wide and eight long,” her guide explained. They drove past a straggling white building with a deep veranda and shoplike windows. “The general store,” he said with a proprietary flourish. “I live there with the Missus, and she’s not too happy about a lone woman coming here, I can tell you. Thinks I’ll be seduced was how she put it. Just as well the bureau said you wanted complete peace and quiet, because it soothed the Missus a bit when I put you in the farthest-out place we have. There’s not a soul in your direction; the only other couple here are on the other side. You can lark around without a stitch on—no one will see you. The Missus isn’t going to let me out of her sight while you’re here. When you need something, just pick up your phone and I’ll bring it out. No sense walking all the way in. And Missus or no, I’ll call in on you once a day at sunset, just to make sure you’re all right. Best that you’re in the house then—and wear a proper dress, in case the Missus comes along for the ride.”
A one-story structure with three rooms, the cottage had its own private curve of white beach between two prongs of the hill diving into the sea, and here the road ended. Inside it was very plain, but comfortable. The island generated its own power, so there was a little refrigerator, electric light, the promised phone, and even a wireless set. The toilet flushed, the bath had fresh water; more modern amenities than either Drogheda or Himmelhoch, Meggie thought in amusement. Easy to see most of the patrons were from Sydney or Melbourne, and so inured to civilization they couldn’t do without it.
Left alone while Rob sped back to his suspicious Missus, Meggie unpacked and surveyed her domain. The big double bed was a great deal more comfortable than her own nuptial couch had been. But then, this was a genuine honeymoon paradise and the one thing its clients would demand was a decent bed; the clients of the Dunny pub were usually too drunk to object to herniating springs. Both the refrigerator and the overhead cupboards were well stocked with food, and on the counter stood a great basket of bananas, passionfruit, pineapples and mangoes. No reason why she shouldn’t sleep well, and eat well.
For the first week Meggie seemed to do nothing but eat and sleep; she hadn’t realized how tired she was, nor that Dungloe’s climate was what had killed her appetite. In the beautiful bed she slept the moment she lay down, ten and twelve hours at a stretch, and food had an appeal it hadn’t possessed since Drogheda. She seemed to eat every minute she was awake, even carrying mangoes into the water with her. Truth to tell, that was the most logical place to eat mangoes other than a bathtub; they just ran juice. Since her tiny beach lay within the lagoon, the sea was mirror calm and quite free of currents, very shallow. All of which she loved, because she couldn’t swim a stroke. But in water so salty it seemed almost to hold her up, she began to experiment; when she could float for ten seconds at a time she was delighted. The sensation of being freed from the pull of the earth made her long to be able to move as easily as a fish.
So if she mourned her lack of company, it was only because she would have liked to have someone to teach her to swim. Other than that, being on her own was wonderful. How right Anne had been! All her life there had been people in the house. To have no one was such a relief, so utterly peaceful. She wasn’t lonely at all; she didn’t miss Anne or Luddie or Justine or Luke, and for the first time in three years she didn’t yearn for Drogheda. Old Rob never disturbed her solitude, just chugged far enough down the road each sunset to make sure her friendly wave from the veranda wasn’t a signal of distress, turned the car and puttered off again, his surprisingly pretty Missus grimly riding shotgun. Once he phoned her to say he was taking the other couple in residence out in his glass-bottomed boat, and would she like to come along?
It was like having a ticket of admission to a whole new planet, peering through the glass down into that teeming, exquisitely fragile world, where delicate forms were buoyed and bolstered by the loving intimacy of water. Live coral, she discovered, wasn’t garishly hued from dyes the way it was in the souvenir counter of the store. It was soft pink or beige or blue-grey, and around every knob and branch wavered a marvelous rainbow of color, like a visible aura. Great anemones twelve inches wide fluttered fringes of blue or red or orange or purple tentacles; white fluted clams as big as rocks beckoned unwary explorers to take a look inside with tantalizing glimpses of colorful, restless things through feathery lips; red lace fans swayed in water winds; bright-green ribbons of weed danced loose and drifting. Not one of the four in the boat would have been in the least surprised to see a mermaid: a gleam of polished breast, a twisting glitter of tail, lazily spinning clouds of hair, an alluring smile taunting the siren’s spell to sailors. But the fish! Like living jewels they darted in thousands upon thousands, round like Chinese lanterns, slender like bullets, raimented in colors which glowed with life and the light-splitting quality water imparts, some on fire with scales of gold and scarlet, some cool and silvery blue, some swimming rag bags gaudier than parrots. There were needle-nosed garfish pug-nosed toadfish, fanged barracuda, a cavernous-mawed grouper lurking half seen in a grotto, and once a sleek grey nurse shark which seemed to take forever to pass silently beneath them.
“But don’t worry,” said Rob. “We’re too far south here for sea wasps, so if anything on the Reef is going to kill you, it’s most likely to be a stonefish. Never go walking on the coral without your shoes.”
Yes, Meggie was glad she went. But she didn’t yearn to go again, or make friends with the couple Rob brought along. She immersed herself in the sea, and walked, and lay in the sun. Curiously enough, she didn’t even miss having books to read, for there always seemed to be something interesting to watch.
She had taken Rob’s advice and stopped wearing clothes. At first she had tended to behave like a rabbit catching whiffs of dingo on the breeze, bolting for cover if a twig cracked or a coconut fell like a cannonball from a palm. But after several days of patent solitude she really began to feel no one would come near her, that indeed it was as Rob said, a completely private domain. Shyness was wasted. And walking the tracks, lying in the sand, paddling in that warm salty water, she began to feel like an animal born and brought up in a cage, suddenly let loose in a gentle, sunny, spacious and welcoming world.
Away from Fee, her brothers, Luke, the unsparing, unthinking domination of her whole life, Meggie discovered pure leisure; a whole kaleidoscope of thought patterns wove and unwove novel designs in her mind. For the first time in her life she wasn’t keeping her conscious self absorbed in work thoughts of one description or another. Surprised, she realized that keeping physically busy is the most effective blockade against totally mental activity human beings can erect.
Years ago Father Ralph had asked her what she thought about, and she had answered: Daddy and Mum, Bob, Jack, Hughie, Stu, the little boys, Frank, Drogheda, the house, work, the rainfall. She hadn’t said him, but he was at the top of the list, always. Now add to those Justine, Luke, Luddie and Anne, the cane, homesickness, the rainfall. And always, of course, the lifesaving release she found in books. But it had all come and gone in such tangled, unrelated clumps and chains; no opportunity, no training to enable her to sit down quietly and think out who exactly was Meggie Cleary, Meggie O’Neill? What did she want? What did she think she was put on this earth for? She mourned the lack of training, for that was an omission no amount of time on her own could ever rectify. However, here was the time, the peace, the laziness of idle physical well-being; she could lie on the sand and try.
Well, there was Ralph. A wry, despairing laugh. Not a good place to start, but in a sense Ralph was like God; everything began and ended with him. Since the day he had knelt in the sunset dust of the Gilly station yard to take her between his hands, there had been Ralph, and though she never saw him again as long as she lived, it seemed likely that her last thought this side of the grave would be of him. How frightening, that one person could mean so much, so many things.
What had she said to Anne? That her wants and needs were quite ordinary—a husband, children, a home of her own. Someone to love. It didn’t seem much to ask; after all, most women had the lot. But how many of the women who had them were truly content? Meggie thought she would be, because for her they were so hard to come by.
Accept it, Meggie Cleary. Meggie O’Neill. The someone you want is Ralph de Bricassart, and you just can’t have him. Yet as a man he seems to have ruined you for anyone else. All right, then. Assume that a man and the someone to love can’t occur. It will have to be children to love, and the love you receive will have to come from those children. Which in turn means Luke, and Luke’s children.
Oh, dear God, dear God! No, not dear God! What’s God ever done for me, except deprive me of Ralph? We’re not too fond of each other, God and I. And do You know something, God? You don’t frighten me the way You used to. How much I feared You, Your punishment! All my life I’ve trodden the straight and narrow, from fear of You. And what’s it got me? Not one scrap more than if I’d broken every rule in Your book. You’re a fraud, God, a demon of fear. You treat us like children, dangling punishment. But You don’t frighten me anymore. Because it isn’t Ralph I ought to be hating, it’s You. It’s all Your fault, not poor Ralph’s. He’s just living in fear of You, the way I always have. That he could love You is something I can’t understand. I don’t see what there is about You to love.
Yet how can I stop loving a man who loves God? No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to do it. He’s the moon, and I’m crying for it. Well, you’ve just got to stop crying for it, Meggie O’Neill, that’s all there is to it. You’re going to have to content yourself with Luke, and Luke’s children. By hook or by crook you’re going to wean Luke from the wretched sugar, and live with him out where there aren’t even any trees. You’re going to tell the Gilly bank manager that your future income stays in your own name, and you’re going to use it to have the comforts and conveniences in your treeless home that Luke won’t think to provide for you. You’re going to use it to educate Luke’s children properly, and make sure they never want.