The Thorn Birds (Chapter 81-85)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
“You won’t want to have to tell Luke you’re leaving him when he’s worn out after the cane,” said Luddie delicately. “Much better if you catch him in a good mood, isn’t it? Best thing is, see him on a Saturday night or a Sunday after it’s been his week cooking. The grapevine says Luke’s the best cook on the cutting circuit—learned to cook when he was low man on the shearing totem pole, and shearers are much fussier eaters than cutters. Means cooking doesn’t upset him, you know. Probably finds it as easy as falling off a log. That’s the speed, then, Meggie. You slap the news on him when he’s feeling real good after a week in the barracks kitchen.”
It seemed to Meggie lately that she had gone a long way from blushing days; she looked at Luddie steadily without going the least bit pink.
“Could you find out which week Luke cooks, Luddie? Or is there any way I could find out, if you can’t?”
“Oh, she’s apples,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve got my branches on the old grapevine. I’ll find out.”
It was mid Saturday afternoon when Meggie checked into the Ingham pub that looked the most respectable. All North Queensland towns were famous for one thing: they had pubs on all four corners of every block. She put her small case in her room, then made her way back to the unlovely foyer to find a telephone. There was a Rugby League football team in town for a pre-season training match, and the corridors were full of half-naked, wholly drunk players who greeted her appearance with cheers and affectionate pats on the back and behind. By the time she got the use of the phone she was shaking with fright; everything about this venture seemed to be an ordeal. But through the din and the looming drunken faces she managed to call Braun’s, the farm where Luke’s gang was cutting, and ask that a message be relayed to him that his wife was in Ingham, wanting to see him. Seeing her fear, the publican walked back to her room with her, and waited until he heard her turn the key.
Meggie leaned against the door, limp with relief; if it meant she didn’t eat again until she was back in Dunny, she wasn’t venturing to the dining room. Luckily the publican had put her right next to the women’s bathroom, so she ought to be able to make that journey when necessary. The moment she thought her legs would hold her up she wobbled to the bed and sat on it, her head bowed, looking at her quivering hands.
All the way down she had thought about the best way of going about it, and everything in her cried, Quickly, quickly! Until coming to live at Himmelhoch she had never read a description of a seduction, and even now, armed with several such recountings, she wasn’t confident of her ability to go about one herself. But that was what she had to do, for she knew once she started to talk to Luke it would be all over. Her tongue itched to tell him what she really thought of him. But more than that, the desire to be back on Drogheda with Ralph’s baby made safe consumed her.
Shivering in the sultry sugary air she took off her clothes and lay down on the bed, eyes closed, willing herself not to think beyond the expediency of making Ralph’s baby safe.
The footballers didn’t worry Luke at all when he entered the pub alone at nine o’clock; by then most of them were insensible, and the few still on their feet were too far gone to notice anything farther away than their beer glasses.
Luddie had been exactly right; at the end of his week’s stint as cook Luke was rested, eager for a change and oozing goodwill. When Braun’s young son had brought Meggie’s message down to the barracks he was just washing the last of the supper dishes and planning to cycle into Ingham, join Arne and the blokes on their customary Saturday-night binge. The prospect of Meggie was a very agreeable alternative; ever since that holiday on the Atherton he had found himself wanting her occasionally in spite of his physical exhaustion. Only his horror of starting her off on the let’s-settle-down-in-our-own-home cry had kept him away from Himmelhoch whenever he was near Dunny. But now she had come to him, and he was not at all averse to a night in bed. So he finished the dishes in a hurry, and was lucky enough to be picked up by a truck after he had pedaled a scant half mile. But as he walked his bike the three blocks from where his ride had dropped him to the pub where Meggie was staying, some of his anticipation flattened. All the chemist shops were closed, and he didn’t have any French letters. He stopped, stared in a window full of moth-eaten, heat-stippled chocolates and dead blowflies, then shrugged. Well, he’d just have to take his chances. It would only be tonight, and if there was a baby, with any luck it would be a boy this time.
Meggie jumped nervously when she heard his knock, got off the bed and padded over to the door.
“Who is it?” she called.
“Luke,” came his voice.
She turned the key, opened the door a tiny way, and stepped behind it as Luke pushed it wider. The moment he was inside she slammed it shut, and stood looking at him. He looked at her; at the breasts which were bigger, rounder, more enticing than ever, the nip**ples no longer pale pink but a rich dark red from the baby. If he had been in need of stimuli they were more than adequate; he reached out to pick her up, and carried her to the bed.
By daylight she still hadn’t spoken a word, though her touch had welcomed him to a pitch of fevered want he had never before experienced. Now she lay moved away from him, and curiously divorced from him.
He stretched luxuriously, yawned, cleared his throat. “What brings you down to Ingham, Meg?” he asked.
Her head turned; she regarded him with wide, contemptuous eyes.
“Well, what brings you here?” he repeated, nettled.
No reply, only the same steady, stinging gaze, as if she couldn’t be bothered answering. Which was ridiculous, after the night.
Her lips opened; she smiled. “I came to tell you I’m going home to Drogheda,” she said.
For a moment he didn’t believe her, then he looked at her face more closely and saw she meant it, all right. “Why?” he asked.
“I told you what would happen if you didn’t take me to Sydney,” she said.
His astonishment was absolutely genuine. “But, Meg! That’s flaming eighteen months ago! And I gave you a holiday! Four bloody expensive weeks on the Atherton! I couldn’t afford to take you to Sydney on top of that!”
“You’ve been to Sydney twice since then, both times without me,” she said stubbornly. “I can understand the first time, since I was expecting Justine, but heaven knows I could have done with a holiday away from The Wet this last January.”
“What a skinflint you are, Luke,” she went on gently. “Twenty thousand pounds you’ve had from me, money that’s rightfully mine, and yet you begrudge the few measly pounds it would have cost you to take me to Sydney. You and your money! You make me sick.”
“I haven’t touched it,” he said feebly. “It’s there, every penny of it, and more besides.”
“Yes, that’s right. Sitting in the bank, where it always will. You haven’t any intention of spending it, have you? You want to adore it, like a golden calf. Admit it, Luke, you’re a miser. And what an unforgivable idiot you are into the bargain! To treat your wife and daughter the way you wouldn’t dream of treating a pair of dogs, to ignore their existences, let alone their needs! You complacent, conceited, self-centered bastard!”
White-faced, trembling, he searched for speech; to have Meg turn on him, especially after the night, was like being bitten to death by a butterfly. The injustice of her accusations appalled him, but there didn’t seem to be any way he could make her understand the purity of his motives. Womanlike, she saw only the obvious; she just couldn’t appreciate the grand design at back of it all.
So he said, “Oh, Meg!” in tones of bewilderment, despair, resignation. “I’ve never ill-treated you,” he added. “No, I definitely haven’t! There’s no one could say I was cruel to you. No one! You’ve had enough to eat, a roof over your head, you’ve been warm—”
“Oh, yes,” she interrupted. “That’s one thing I’ll grant you. I’ve never been warmer in my life.” She shook her head, laughed. “What’s the use? It’s like talking to a brick wall.”
“I might say the same!”
“By all means do,” said Meggie icily, getting off the bed and slipping on her panties. “I’m not going to divorce you,” she said. “I don’t want to marry again. If you want a divorce, you know where to find me. Technically speaking, I’m the one at fault, aren’t I? I’m deserting you—or at least that’s the way the courts in this country will see it. You and the judge can cry on each other’s shoulders about the perfidies and ingratitude of women.”
“I never deserted you,” he maintained.
“You can keep my twenty thousand pounds, Luke. But not another penny do you ever get from me. My future income I’m going to use to support Justine, and perhaps another child if I’m lucky.”
“So that’s it!” he said. “All you were after was another bloody baby, wasn’t it? That’s why you came down here—a swan song, a little present from me for you to take back to Drogheda with you! Another bloody baby, not me! It never was me, was it? To you I’m just a breeder! Christ, what a have!”
“That’s all most men are to most women,” she said maliciously. “You bring out the worst in me, Luke, in more ways than you’ll ever understand. Be of good cheer! I’ve earned you more money in the last three and a half years than the sugar has. If there is another child, it’s none of your concern. As of this minute I never want to see you again, not as long as I live.”
She was into her clothes. As she picked up her handbag and the little case by the door she turned back, her hand on the knob.
“Let me give you a little word of advice, Luke. In case you ever get yourself another woman, when you’re too old and too tired to give yourself to the cane any more. You can’t kiss for toffee. You open your mouth too wide, you swallow a woman whole like a python. Saliva’s fine, but not a deluge of it.” She wiped her hand viciously across her mouth. “You make me want to be sick! Luke O’Neill, the great I-am! You’re a nothing!”
After she had gone he sat on the edge of the bed staring at the closed door for a long while. Then he shrugged and started to dress. Not a long procedure, in North Queensland. Just a pair of shorts. If he hurried he could get a ride back to the barracks with Arne and the blokes. Good old Arne. Dear old mate. A man was a fool. Sex was one thing, but a man’s mates were quite another.
Not wanting anyone to know of her return, Meggie rode out to Drogheda on the mail truck with old Bluey Williams, Justine in a basket on the seat beside her. Bluey was delighted to see her and eager to know what she had been doing for the last four years, but as they neared the homestead he fell silent, divining her wish to come home in peace.
Back to brown and silver, back to dust, back to that wonderful purity and spareness North Queensland so lacked. No profligate growth here, no hastening of decay to make room for more; only a slow, wheeling inevitability like the constellations. Kangaroos, more than ever. Lovely little symmetrical wilgas, round and matronly, almost coy. Galahs, soaring in pink waves of undersides above the truck. Emus at full run. Rabbits, hopping out of the road with white powder puffs flashing cheekily. Bleached skeletons of dead trees in the grass. Mirages of timber stands on the far curving horizon as they came across the Dibban-Dibban plain, only the unsteady blue lines across their bases to indicate that the trees weren’t real. The sound she had so missed but never thought to miss, crows carking desolately. Misty brown veils of dust whipped along by the dry autumn wind like dirty rain. And the grass, the silver-beige grass of the Great Northwest, stretching to the sky like a benediction.
Drogheda, Drogheda! Ghost gums and sleepy giant pepper trees a-hum with bees. Stockyards and buttery yellow sandstone buildings, alien green lawn around the big house, autumn flowers in the garden, wallflowers and zinnias, asters and dahlias, marigolds and calendulas, chrysanthemums, roses, roses. The gravel of the backyard, Mrs. Smith standing gaping, then laughing, crying, Minnie and Cat running, old stringy arms like chains around her heart. For Drogheda was home, and here was her heart, for always.
Fee came out to see what all the fuss was about.
“Hello Mum. I’ve come home.”
The grey eyes didn’t change, but in the new growth of her soul Meggie understood. Mum was glad; she just didn’t know how to show it.
“Have you left Luke?” Fee asked, taking it for granted that Mrs. Smith and the maids were as entitled to know as she was herself.
“Yes. I shall never go back to him. He didn’t want a home, or his children, or me.”
“Yes. I’m going to have another baby.”
Oohs and aahs from the servants, and Fee speaking her judgment in that measured voice, gladness underneath.
“If he doesn’t want you, then you were right to come home. We can look after you here.”
Her old room, looking out across the Home Paddock, the gardens. And a room next door for Justine, the new baby when it came. Oh, it was so good to be home!
Bob was glad to see her, too. More and more like Paddy, he was becoming a little bent and sinewy as the sun baked his skin and his bones to dryness. He had the same gentle strength of character, but perhaps because he had never been the progenitor of a large family, he lacked Paddy’s fatherly mien. And he was like Fee, also. Quiet, self-contained, not one to air his feelings or opinions. He had to be into his middle thirties, Meggie thought in sudden surprise, and still he wasn’t married. Then Jack and Hughie came in, two duplicate Bobs without his authority, their shy smiles welcoming her home. That must be it, she reflected; they are so shy, it is the land, for the land doesn’t need articulateness or social graces. It needs only what they bring to it, voiceless love and wholehearted fealty.
The Cleary men were all home that night, to unload a truck of corn Jims and Patsy had picked up from the AML&F. in Gilly.
“I’ve never seen it so dry, Meggie,” Bob said. “No rain in two years, not a drop. And the bunnies are a bigger curse than the kangas; they’re eating more grass than sheep and kangas combined. We’re going to try to hand-feed, but you know what sheep are.”
Only too well did Meggie know what sheep were. Idiots, incapable of understanding even the rudiments of survival. What little brain the original animal had ever possessed was entirely bred out of these woolly aristocrats. Sheep wouldn’t eat anything but grass, or scrub cut from their natural environment. But there just weren’t enough hands to cut scrub to satisfy over a hundred thousand sheep.
“I take it you can use me?” she asked.
“Can we! You’ll free up a man’s hands for scrubcutting, Meggie, if you’ll ride the inside paddocks the way you used to.”
True as their word, the twins were home for good. At fourteen they quit Riverview forever, couldn’t head back to the black-oil plains quickly enough. Already they looked like juvenile Bobs, Jacks and Hughies, in what was gradually replacing the old-fashioned grey twill and flannel as the uniform of the Great Northwest grazier: white moleskin breeches, white shirt, a flat-crowned grey felt hat with a broad brim, and ankle-high elastic-sided riding boots with flat heels. Only the handful of half-caste aborigines who lived in Gilly’s shanty section aped the cowboys of the American West, in high-heeled fancy boots and ten-gallon Stetsons. To a black-soil plainsman such gear was a useless affectation, a part of a different culture. A man couldn’t walk through the scrub in high-heeled boots, and a man often had to walk through the scrub. And a ten-gallon Stetson was far too hot and heavy.
The chestnut mare and the black gelding were both dead; the stables were empty. Meggie insisted she was happy with a stock horse, but Bob went over to Martin King’s to buy her two of his part-thoroughbred hacks—a creamy mare with a black mane and tail, and a leggy chestnut gelding. For some reason the loss of the old chestnut mare hit Meggie harder than her actual parting from Ralph, a delayed reaction; as if in this the fact of his going was more clearly stated. But it was so good to be out in the paddocks again, to ride with the dogs, eat the dust of a bleating mob of sheep, watch the birds, the sky, the land.
It was terribly dry. Drogheda’s grass had always managed to outlast the droughts Meggie remembered, but this was different. The grass was patchy now; in between its tussocks the dark ground showed, cracked into a fine network of fissures gaping like parched mouths. For which mostly thank the rabbits. In the four years of her absence they had suddenly multiplied out of all reason, though she supposed they had been bad for many years before that. It was just that almost overnight their numbers had reached far beyond saturation point. They were everywhere, and they, too, ate the precious grass.
She learned to set rabbit traps, hating in a way to see the sweet little things mangled in steel teeth, but too much of a land person herself to flinch from doing what had to be done. To kill in the name of survival wasn’t cruelty.
“God rot the homesick Pommy who shipped the first rabbits out from England,” said Bob bitterly.
They were not native to Australia, and their sentimental importation had completely upset the ecological balance of the continent where sheep and cattle had not, these being scientifically grazed from the moment of their introduction. There was no natural Australian predator to control the rabbit numbers, and imported foxes didn’t thrive. Man must be an unnatural predator, but there were too few men, too many rabbits.
After Meggie grew too big to sit a horse, she spent her days in the homestead with Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat, sewing or knitting for the little thing squirming inside her. He (she always thought of it as he) was a part of her as Justine never had been; she suffered no sickness or depression, and looked forward eagerly to bearing him. Perhaps Justine was inadvertently responsible for some of this; now that the little pale-eyed thing was changing from a mindless baby to an extremely intelligent girl child, Meggie found herself fascinated with the process and the child. It was a long time since she had been indifferent to Justine, and she yearned to lavish love upon her daughter, hug her, kiss her, laugh with her. To be politely rebuffed was a shock, but that was what Justine did at every affectionate overture.
When Jims and Patsy left Riverview, Mrs. Smith had thought to get them back under her wing again, then came the disappointment of discovering they were away in the paddocks most of the time. So Mrs. Smith turned to little Justine, and found herself as firmly shut out as Meggie was. It seemed that Justine didn’t want to be hugged, kissed or made to laugh.
She walked and talked early, at nine months. Once upon her feet and in command of a very articulate tongue, she proceeded to go her own way and do precisely whatever she wanted. Not that she was either noisy or defiant; simply that she was made of very hard metal indeed. Meggie knew nothing about genes, but if she had she might have pondered upon the result of an intermingling of Cleary, Armstrong and O’Neill. It couldn’t fail to be powerful human soup.
But the most dismaying thing was Justine’s dogged refusal to smile or laugh. Every soul on Drogheda turned inside out performing antics to make her germinate a grin, without success. When it came to innate solemnity she outdid her grandmother.
On the first of October, when Justine was exactly sixteen months old, Meggie’s son was born on Drogheda. He was almost four weeks early and not expected; there were two or three sharp contractions, the water broke, and he was delivered by Mrs. Smith and Fee a few minutes after they rang for the doctor. Meggie had scarcely had time to dilate. The pain was minimal, the ordeal so quickly over it might hardly have been; in spite of the stitches she had to have because his entry into the world had been so precipitate, Meggie felt wonderful. Totally dry for Justine, her breasts were full to overflowing. No need for bottles or tins of Lactogen this time.
And he was so beautiful! Long and slender, with a quiff of flaxen hair atop his perfect little skull, and vivid blue eyes which gave no hint of changing later to some other color. How could they change? They were Ralph’s eyes, as he had Ralph’s hands, Ralph’s nose and mouth, even Ralph’s feet. Meggie was unprincipled enough to be very thankful Luke had been much the same build and coloring as Ralph, much the same in features. But the hands, the way the brows grew in, the downy widow’s peak, the shape of the fingers and toes; they were so much Ralph, so little Luke. Better hope no one remembered which man owned what.
“Have you decided on his name?” asked Fee; he seemed to fascinate her.
Meggie watched her as she stood holding him, and was grateful. Mum was going to love again; oh, maybe not the way she had loved Frank, but at least she would feel something.
“I’m going to call him Dane.”
“What a queer name! Why? Is it an O’Neill family name? I thought you were finished with the O’Neills?”
“It’s got nothing to do with Luke. This is his name, no one else’s. I hate family names; it’s like wishing a piece of someone different onto a new person. I called Justine Justine simply because I liked the name, and I’m calling Dane Dane for the same reason.
“Well, it does have a nice ring to it,” Fee admitted.
Meggie winced; her breasts were too full. “Better give him to me, Mum. Oh, I hope he’s hungry! And I hope old Blue remembers to bring that breast pump. Otherwise you’re going to have to drive into Gilly for it.”
He was hungry; he tugged at her so hard his gummy little mouth hurt. Looking down on him, the closed eyes with their dark, gold-tipped lashes, the feathery brows, the tiny working cheeks, Meggie loved him so much the love hurt her more than his sucking ever could.
He is enough; he has to be enough, I’ll not get any more. But by God, Ralph de Bricassart, by that God you love more than me, you’ll never know what I stole from you—and from Him. I’m never going to tell you about Dane. Oh, my baby! Shifting on the pillows to settle him more comfortably into the crook of her arm, to see more easily that perfect little face. My baby! You’re mine, and I’m never going to give you up to anyone else. Least of all to your father, who is a priest and can’t acknowledge you. Isn’t that wonderful?
The boat docked in Genoa at the beginning of April. Archbishop Ralph landed in an Italy bursting into full, Mediterranean spring, and caught a train to Rome. Had he requested it he could have been met, chauffeured in a Vatican car to Rome, but he dreaded to feel the Church close around him again; he wanted to put the moment off as long as he could. The Eternal City. It was truly that, he thought, staring out of the taxi windows at the campaniles and domes, and pigeon-strewn plazas, the ambitious fountains, the Roman columns with their bases buried deep in the centuries. Well, to him they were all superfluities. What mattered to him was the part of Rome called the Vatican, its sumptuous public rooms, its anything but sumptuous private rooms.
A black-and-cream-robed Dominican monk led him through high marble corridors, amid bronze and stone figures worthy of a museum, past great paintings in the styles of Giotto, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico. He was in the public rooms of a great cardinal, and no doubt the wealthy Contini-Verchese family had given much to enhance their august scion’s surroundings.
In a room of ivory and gold, rich with color from tapestries and pictures, French carpeted and furnished, everywhere touches of crimson, sat Vittorio Scarbanza, Cardinal di Contini-Verchese. The small smooth hand, its ruby ring glowing, was extended to him in welcome; glad to fix his eyes downward, Archbishop Ralph crossed the room, knelt, took the hand to kiss the ring. And laid his cheek against the hand, knowing he couldn’t lie, though he had meant to right up until the moment his lips touched that symbol of spiritual power, temporal authority.
Cardinal Vittorio put his other hand on the bent shoulder, nodding a dismissal to the monk, then as the door closed softly his hand went from shoulder to hair, rested in its dark thickness, smoothed it back tenderly from the half-averted forehead. It had changed; soon it would be no longer black, but the color of iron. The bent spine stiffened, the shoulders went back, and Archbishop Ralph looked directly up into his master’s face.
Ah, there had been a change! The mouth had drawn in, knew pain and was more vulnerable; the eyes, so beautiful in color and shape and setting, were yet completely different from the eyes he still remembered as if bodily they had never left him. Cardinal Vittorio had always had a fancy that the eyes of Jesus were blue, and like Ralph’s: calm, removed from what He saw and therefore able to encompass all, understand all. But perhaps it had been a mistaken fancy. How could one feel for humanity and suffer oneself without its showing in the eyes?
“Come, Ralph, sit down.”
“Your Eminence, I wish to confess.”
“Later, later! First we will talk, and in English. There are ears everywhere these days, but, thank our dear Jesus, not English-speaking ears. Sit down, Ralph, please. Oh, it is so good to see you! I have missed your wise counsel, your rationality, your perfect brand of companionship. They have not given me anyone I like half so well as you.”
He could feel his brain clicking into the formality already, feel the very thoughts in his mind take on more stilted phrasing; more than most people, Ralph de Bricassart knew how everything about one changed with one’s company, even one’s speech. Not for these ears the easy fluency of colloquial English. So he sat down not far away, and directly opposite the slight figure in its scarlet moiré, the color changing yet not changing, of a quality which made its edges fuse with the surroundings rather than stand out from them.
The desperate weariness he had known for weeks seemed to be easing a little from his shoulders; he wondered why he had dreaded this meeting so, when he had surely known in his heart he would be understood, forgiven. But that wasn’t it, not it at all. It was his own guilt at having failed, at being less than he had aspired to be, at disappointing a man who had been interested, tremendously kind, a true friend. His guilt at walking into this pure presence no longer pure himself.
“Ralph, we are priests, but we are something else before that; something we were before we became priests, and which we cannot escape in spite of our exclusiveness. We are men, with the weaknesses and failings of men. There is nothing you can tell me which could alter the impressions I formed of you during our years together, nothing you could tell me which will make me think less of you, or like you less. For many years I have known that you had escaped this realization of our intrinsic weakness, of our humanity, but I knew you must come to it, for we all do. Even the Holy Father, who is the most humble and human of us all.”
“I broke my vows, Your Eminence. That isn’t easily forgiven. It’s sacrilege.”
“Poverty you broke years ago, when you accepted the bequest of Mrs. Mary Carson. Which leaves chastity and obedience, does it not?”
“Then all three were broken, Your Eminence.”
“I wish you would call me Vittorio, as you used to! I am not shocked, Ralph, nor disappointed. It is as Our Lord Jesus Christ wills, and I think perhaps you had a great lesson to learn which could not be learned in any way less destructive. God is mysterious, His reasons beyond our poor comprehension. But I think what you did was not done lightly, your vows thrown away as having no value. I know you very well. I know you to be proud, very much in love with the idea of being a priest, very conscious of your exclusiveness. It is possible that you needed this particular lesson to reduce that pride, make you understand that you are first a man, and therefore not as exclusive as you think. Is it not so?”
“Yes. I lacked humility, and I believe in a way I aspired to be God Himself. I’ve sinned most grievously and inexcusably. I can’t forgive myself, so how can I hope for divine forgiveness?”
“The pride, Ralph, the pride! It is not your place to forgive, do you not understand that yet? Only God can forgive. Only God! And He will forgive if the sincere repentance is there. He has forgiven greater sins from far greater saints, you know, as well as from far greater villains. Do you think Prince Lucifer is not forgiven? He was forgiven in the very moment of his rebellion. His fate as ruler of Hell is his own, not God’s doing. Did he not say it? ‘Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven!’ For he could not overcome his pride, he could not bear to subjugate his will to the Will of Someone else, even though that Someone was God Himself. I do not want to see you make the same mistake, my dearest friend. Humility was the one quality you lacked, and it is the very quality which makes a great saint—or a great man. Until you can leave the matter of forgiveness to God, you will not have acquired true humility.”
The strong face twisted. “Yes, I know you’re right. I must accept what I am without question, only strive to be better without having pride in what I am. I repent, therefore I shall confess and await forgiveness. I do repent, bitterly.” He sighed; his eyes betrayed the conflict his measured words couldn’t, not in this room.
“And yet, Vittorio, in a way there was nothing else I could do. Either I ruined her, or I took the ruin upon myself. At the time there didn’t seem to be a choice, because I do love her. It wasn’t her fault that I’ve never wanted the love to extend to a physical plane. Her fate became more important than my own, you see. Until that moment I had always considered myself first, as more important than she, because I was a priest, and she was a lesser being. But I saw that I was responsible for what she is…. I should have let her go when she was a child, but I didn’t. I kept her in my heart and she knew it. If I had truly plucked her out she would have known that, too, and she would have become someone I couldn’t influence.” He smiled. “You see that I have much to repent. I tried a little creating of my own.”
“It was the Rose?”
The head went back; Archbishop Ralph looked at the elaborate ceiling with its gilded moldings and baroque Murano chandelier. “Could it have been anyone else? She’s my only attempt at creation.”
“And will she be all right, the Rose? Did you do her more harm by this than in denying her?”
“I don’t know, Vittorio. I wish I did! At the time it just seemed the only thing to do. I’m not gifted with Promethean foresight, and emotional involvement makes one a poor judge. Besides, it simply…happened! But I think perhaps she needed most what I gave her, the recognition of her identity as a woman. I don’t mean that she didn’t know she was a woman. I mean I didn’t know. If I had first met her as a woman it might have been different, but I knew her as a child for many years.”
“You sound rather priggish, Ralph, and not yet ready for forgiveness. It hurts, does it not? That you could have been human enough to yield to human weakness. Was it really done in such a spirit of noble self-sacrifice?”
Startled, he looked into the liquid dark eyes, saw himself reflected in them as two tiny manikins of insignificant proportion. “No,” he said. “I’m a man, and as a man I found a pleasure in her I didn’t dream existed. I didn’t know a woman felt like that, or could be the source of such profound joy. I wanted never to leave her, not only because of her body, but because I just loved to be with her—talk to her, not talk to her, eat the meals she cooked, smile at her, share her thoughts. I shall miss her as long as I live.”
There was something in the sallow ascetic visage which unaccountably reminded him of Meggie’s face in that moment of parting; the sight of a spiritual burden being taken up, the resoluteness of a character well able to go forward in spite of its loads, its griefs, its pain. What had he known, the red silk cardinal whose only human addiction seemed to be his languid Abyssinian cat?
“I can’t repent of what I had with her in that way,” Ralph went on when His Eminence didn’t speak. “I repent the breaking of vows as solemn and binding as my life. I can never again approach my priestly duties in the same light, with the same zeal. I repent that bitterly. But Meggie?” The look on his face when he uttered her name made Cardinal Vittorio turn away to do battle with his own thoughts.
“To repent of Meggie would be to murder her.” He passed his hand tiredly across his eyes. “I don’t know if that’s very clear, or even if it gets close to saying what I mean. I can’t for the life of me ever seem to express what I feel for Meggie adequately.” He leaned forward in his chair as the Cardinal turned back, and watched his twin images grow a little larger. Vittorio’s eyes were like mirrors; they threw back what they saw and didn’t permit one a glimpse of what went on behind them. Meggie’s eyes were exactly the opposite; they went down and down and down, all the way to her soul. “Meggie is a benediction,” he said. “She’s a holy thing to me, a different kind of sacrament.”
“Yes, I understand,” sighed the Cardinal. “It is well you feel so. In Our Lord’s eyes I think it will mitigate the great sin. For your own sake you had better confess to Father Giorgio, not to Father Guillermo. Father Giorgio will not misinterpret your feelings and your reasoning. He will see the truth. Father Guillermo is less perceptive, and might deem your true repentance debatable.” A faint smile crossed his thin mouth like a wispy shadow. “They, too, are men, my Ralph, those who hear the confessions of the great. Never forget it as long as you live. Only in their priesthood do they act as vessels containing God. In all else they are men. And the forgiveness they mete out comes from God, but the ears which listen and judge belong to men.”
There was a discreet knock on the door; Cardinal Vittorio sat silently and watched the tea tray being carried to a buhl table.
“You see, Ralph? Since my days in Australia I have become addicted to the afternoon tea habit. They make it quite well in my kitchen, though they used not to at first.” He held up his hand as Archbishop Ralph started to move toward the teapot. “Ah, no! I shall pour it myself. It amuses me to be ‘mother.’”
“I saw a great many black shirts in the streets of Genoa and Rome,” said Archbishop Ralph, watching Cardinal Vittorio pour.
“The special cohorts of Il Duce. We have a very difficult time ahead of us, my Ralph. The Holy Father is adamant that there be no fracture between the Church and the secular government of Italy, and he is right in this as in all things. No matter what happens, we must remain free to minister to all our children, even should a war mean our children will be divided, fighting each other in the name of a Catholic God. Wherever our hearts and our emotions might lie, we must endeavor always to keep the Church removed from political ideologies and international squabbles. I wanted you to come to me because I can trust your face not to give away what your brain is thinking no matter what your eyes might be seeing, and because you have the best diplomatic turn of mind I have ever encountered.”
Archbishop Ralph smiled ruefully. “You’ll further my career in spite of me, won’t you! I wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t met you?”
“Oh, you would have become Archbishop of Sydney, a nice post and an important one,” said His Eminence with a golden smile. “But the ways of our lives lie not in our hands. We met because it was meant to be, just as it is meant that we work together now for the Holy Father.”
“I can’t see success at the end of the road,” said Archbishop Ralph. “I think the result will be what the result of impartiality always is. No one will like us, and everyone will condemn us.”
“I know that, so does His Holiness. But we can do nothing else. And there is nothing to prevent our praying in private for the speedy downfall of Il Duce and Der Führer, is there?”
“Do you really think there will be war?”
“I cannot see any possibility of avoiding it.”
His Eminence’s cat stalked out of the sunny corner where it had been sleeping, and jumped upon the scarlet shimmering lap a little awkwardly, for it was old.
“Ah, Sheba! Say hello to your old friend Ralph, whom you used to prefer to me.”
The satanic yellow eyes regarded Archbishop Ralph haughtily, and closed. Both men laughed.
Drogheda had a wireless set. Progress had finally come to Gillanbone in the shape of an Australian Broadcasting Commission radio station, and at long last there was something to rival the party line for mass entertainment. The wireless itself was a rather ugly object in a walnut case which sat on a small exquisite cabinet in the drawing room, its car-battery power source hidden in the cupboard underneath.
Every morning Mrs. Smith, Fee and Meggie turned it on to listen to the Gillanbone district news and weather, and every evening Fee and Meggie turned it on to listen to the ABC national news. How strange it was to be instantaneously connected with Outside; to hear of floods, fires, rainfall in every part of the nation, an uneasy Europe, Australian politics, without benefit of Bluey Williams and his aged newspapers.
When the national news on Friday, September 1st, announced that Hitler had invaded Poland, only Fee and Meggie were home to hear it, and neither of them paid any attention. There had been speculation for months; besides, Europe was half a world away. Nothing to do with Drogheda, which was the center of the universe. But on Sunday, September 3rd all the men were in from the paddocks to hear Father Watty Thomas say Mass, and the men were interested in Europe. Neither Fee nor Meggie thought to tell them of Friday’s news, and Father Watty, who might have, left in a hurry for Narrengang.
As usual, the wireless set was switched on that evening for the national news. But instead of the crisp, absolutely Oxford tones of the announcer, there came the genteel, unmistakably Australian voice of the Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies.
“Fellow Australians. It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of the persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war….
“It may be taken that Hitler’s ambition is not to unite all the German people under one rule, but to bring under that rule as many countries as can be subdued by force. If this is to go on, there can be no security in Europe and no peace in the world…. There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands, there stand the people of the entire British world….
“Our staying power, and that of the Mother Country, will be best assisted by keeping our production going, continuing our avocations and business, maintaining employment, and with it, our strength. I know that in spite of the emotions we are feeling, Australia is ready to see it through.
“May God, in His mercy and compassion, grant that the world may soon be delivered from this agony.”
There was a long silence in the drawing room, broken by the megaphonal tones of a short-wave Neville Chamberlain speaking to the British people; Fee and Meggie looked at their men.
“If we count Frank, there are six of us,” said Bob into the silence. “All of us except Frank are on the land, which means they won’t want to let us serve. Of our present stockmen, I reckon six will want to go and two will want to stay.”
“I want to go!” said Jack, eyes shining.
“And me,” said Hughie eagerly.
“And us,” said Jims on behalf of himself and the inarticulate Patsy.
But they all looked at Bob, who was the boss.
“We’ve got to be sensible,’ he said. “Wool is a staple of war, and not only for clothes. It’s used as packing in ammunition and explosives, for all sorts of funny things we don’t hear of, I’m sure. Plus we have beef cattle for food, and the old wethers and ewes go for hides, glue, tallow, lanolin—all war staples.
“So we can’t go off and leave Drogheda to run itself, no matter what we might want to do. With a war on it’s going to be mighty hard to replace the stockmen we’re bound to lose. The drought’s in its third year, we’re scrub-cutting, and the bunnies are driving us silly. For the moment our job’s here on Drogheda; not very exciting compared to getting into action, but just as necessary. We’ll be doing our best bit here.”
The male faces had fallen, the female ones lightened.
“What if it goes on longer than old Pig Iron Bob thinks it will?” asked Hughie, giving the Prime Minister his national nickname.
Bob thought hard, his weatherbeaten visage full of frowning lines. “If things get worse and it goes on for a long time, then I reckon as long as we’ve got two stockmen we can spare two Clearys, but only if Meggie’s willing to get back into proper harness and work the inside paddocks. It would be awfully hard and in good times we wouldn’t stand a chance, but in this drought I reckon five men and Meggie working seven days a week could run Drogheda. Yet that’s asking a lot of Meggie, with two little babies.”
“If it has to be done, Bob, it has to be done,” said Meggie. “Mrs. Smith won’t mind doing her bit by taking charge of Justine and Dane. When you give the word that I’m needed to keep Drogheda up to full production, I’ll start riding the inside paddocks.”
“Then that’s us, the two who can be spared,” said Jims, smiling.
“No, it’s Hughie and I,” said Jack quickly.
“By rights it ought to be Jims and Patsy,” Bob said slowly. “You’re the youngest and least experienced as stockmen, where as soldiers we’d all be equally inexperienced. But you’re only sixteen now, chaps.”
“By the time things get worse we’ll be seventeen,” offered Jims. “We’ll look older than we are, so we won’t have any trouble enlisting if we’ve got a letter from you witnessed by Harry Gough.”
“Well, right at the moment no one is going. Let’s see if we can’t bring Drogheda up to higher production, even with the drought and the bunnies.”
Meggie left the room quietly, went upstairs to the nursery. Dane and Justine were asleep, each in a white-painted cot. She passed her daughter by, and stood over her son, looking down at him for a long time.
“Thank God you’re only a baby,” she said.
It was almost a year before the war intruded upon the little Drogheda universe, a year during which one by one the stockmen left, the rabbits continued to multiply, and Bob battled valiantly to keep the station books looking worthy of a wartime effort. But at the beginning of June 1940 came the news that the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from the European mainland at Dunkirk; volunteers for the second Australian Imperial Force poured in thousands into the recruiting centers, Jims and Patsy among them.
Four years of riding the paddocks in all weathers had passed the twins’ faces and bodies beyond youth, to that ageless calm of creases at the outer corners of the eyes, lines down the nose to the mouth. They presented their letters and were accepted without comment. Bushmen were popular. They could usually shoot well, knew the value of obeying an order, and they were tough.
Jims and Patsy had enlisted in Dubbo, but camp was to be Ingleburn, outside Sydney, so everyone saw them off on the night mail. Cormac Carmichael, Eden’s youngest son, was on the same train for the same reason, going to the same camp as it turned out. So the two families packed their boys comfortably into a first-class compartment and stood around awkwardly, aching to weep and kiss and have something warming to remember, but stifled by their peculiar British mistrust of demonstrativeness. The big C-36 steam locomotive howled mournfully, the stationmaster began blowing his whistle.
Meggie leaned over to peck her brothers on their cheeks self-consciously, then did the same to Cormac, who looked just like his oldest brother, Connor; Bob, Jack and Hughie wrung three different young hands; Mrs. Smith, weeping, was the only one who did the kissing and cuddling everyone was dying to do. Eden Carmichael, his wife and aging but still handsome daughter with him, went through the same formalities. Then everyone was outside on the Gilly platform, the train was jerking against its buffers and creeping forward.
“Goodbye, goodbye!” everyone called, and waved big white handkerchiefs until the train was a smoky streak in the shimmering sunset distance.
Together as they had requested, Jims and Patsy were gazetted to the raw, half-trained Ninth Australian Division and shipped to Egypt at the beginning of 1941, just in time to become a part of the rout at Benghazi. The newly arrived General Erwin Rommel had put his formidable weight on the Axis end of the seesaw and begun the first reversal of direction in the great cycling rushes back and forth across North Africa. And, while the rest of the British forces retreated ignominiously ahead of the new Afrika Korps back to Egypt, the Ninth Australian Division was detailed to occupy and hold Tobruk, an outpost in Axis-held territory. The only thing which made the plan feasible was that it was still accessible by sea and could be supplied as long as British ships could move in the Mediterranean. The Rats of Tobruk holed up for eight months, and saw action after action as Rommel threw everything he had at them from time to time, without managing to dislodge them.
“Do youse know why youse is here?” asked Private Col Stuart, licking the paper on his cigarette and rolling it shut lazily.
Sergeant Bob Malloy shifted his Digger hat far enough upward to see his questioner from under its brim. “Shit, no,” he said, grinning; it was an oft-asked query.
“Well, it’s better than whiting gaiters in the bloody glasshouse,” said Private Jims Cleary, pulling his twin brother’s shorts down a little so he could rest his head comfortably on soft warm belly.
“Yair, but in the glasshouse youse don’t keep getting shot at,” objected Col, flicking his dead match at a sunbathing lizard.
“I know this much, mate,” said Bob, rearranging his hat to shade his eyes. “I’d rather get shot at than die of fuckin’ boredom.”
They were comfortably disposed in a dry, gravelly dugout just opposite the mines and barbed wire which cut off the southwest corner of the perimeter; on the other side Rommel hung doggedly on to his single piece of the Tobruk territory. A big .50-caliber Browning machine gun shared the hole with them, cases of ammunition neatly beside it, but no one seemed very energetic or interested in the possibility of attack. Their rifles were propped against one wall, bayonets glittering in the brilliant Tobruk sun. Flies buzzed everywhere, but all four were Australian bushmen, so Tobruk and North Africa held no surprises in the way of heat, dust or flies.