The Thorn Birds (Chapter 86-90)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
“Just as well youse is twins, Jims,” said Col, throwing pebbles at the lizard, which didn’t seem disposed to move. “Youse look like a pair of poofters, all tied up together.”
“You’re just jealous.” Jims grinned, stroking Patsy’s belly. “Patsy’s the best pillow in Tobruk.”
“Yair, all right for you, but what about poor Patsy? Go on, Harpo, say something!” Bob teased.
Patsy’s white teeth appeared in a smile, but as usual he remained silent. Everyone had tried to get him to talk, but no one had ever succeeded beyond an essential yes or no; in consequence nearly everyone called him Harpo, after the voiceless Marx brother.
“Hear the news?” asked Col suddenly.
“The Seventh’s Matildas got plastered by the eighty-eights at Halfaya. Only gun in the desert big enough to wipe out a Matilda. Went through them big buggers of tanks like a dose of salts.”
“Oh, yeah, tell me another!” said Bob skeptically. “I’m a sergeant and I never heard a whisper, you’re a private and you know all about it. Well, mate, there’s just nothing Jerry’s got capable of wiping out a brigade of Matildas.”
“I was in Morshead’s tent on a message from the CO when I heard it come through on the wireless, and it is true,” Col maintained.
For a while no one spoke; it was necessary to every inhabitant of a beleaguered outpost like Tobruk that he believe implicitly his own side had sufficient military thrust to get him out. Col’s news wasn’t very welcome, more so because not one soldier in Tobruk held Rommel lightly. They had resisted his efforts to blow them out because they genuinely believed the Australian fighting man had no peer save a Gurkha, and if faith is nine-tenths of power, they had certainly proved themselves formidable.
“Bloody Poms,” said Jims. “What we need in North Africa is more Aussies.”
The chorus of agreement was interrupted by an explosion on the rim of the dugout which blew the lizard into nothing and sent the four soldiers diving for the machine gun and their rifles.
“Fuckin’ Dago grenade, all splinters and no punch,” Bob said with a sigh of relief. “If that was a Hitler special we’d be playing our harps for sure, and wouldn’t you like that, eh, Patsy?”
At the beginning of Operation Crusader the Ninth Australian Division was evacuated by sea to Cairo, after a weary, bloody siege which seemed to have accomplished nothing. However, while the Ninth had been holed up inside Tobruk, the steadily swelling ranks of British troops in North Africa had become the British Eighth Army, its new commander General Bernard Law Montgomery.
Fee wore a little silver brooch formed into the rising sun emblem of the AIF; suspended on two chains below it was a silver bar, on which she had two gold stars, one for each son under arms. It assured everyone she met that she, too, was Doing Her Bit for the Country. Because her husband was not a soldier, nor her son, Meggie wasn’t entitled to wear a brooch. A letter had come from Luke informing her that he would keep on cutting the sugar; he thought she would like to know in case she had been worried he might join up. There was no indication that he remembered a word of what she had said that morning in the Ingham pub. Laughing wearily and shaking her head, she had dropped the letter in Fee’s wastepaper basket, wondering as she did so if Fee worried about her sons under arms. What did she really think of the war? But Fee never said a word, though she wore her brooch every single day, all day.
Sometimes a letter would come from Egypt, falling into tatters when it was spread open because the censor’s scissors had filled it with neat rectangular holes, once the names of places or regiments. Reading these letters was largely a matter of piecing together much out of virtually nothing, but they served one purpose which cast all others into the shade: while ever they came, the boys were still alive.
There had been no rain. It was as if even the divine elements conspired to blight hope, for 1941 was the fifth year of a disastrous drought. Meggie, Bob, Jack, Hughie and Fee were desperate. The Drogheda bank account was rich enough to buy all the feed necessary to keep the sheep alive, but most of the sheep wouldn’t eat. Each mob had a natural leader, the Judas; only if they could persuade the Judas to eat did they stand a hope with the rest, but sometimes even the sight of a chewing Judas couldn’t impress the rest of the mob into emulating it.
So Drogheda, too, was seeing its share of bloodletting, and hating it. The grass was all gone, the ground a dark cracked waste lightened only by grey and dun-brown timber stands. They armed themselves with knives as well as rifles; when they saw an animal down someone would cut its throat to spare it a lingering death, eyeless from the crows. Bob put on more cattle and hand-fed them to keep up Drogheda’s war effort. There was no profit to be had in it with the price of feed, for the agrarian regions closer in were just as hard hit by lack of rain as the pastoral regions farther out. Crop returns were abysmally low. However, word had come from Rome that they were to do what they could regardless of the cost.
What Meggie hated most of all was the time she had to put in working the paddocks. Drogheda had managed to retain only one of its stockmen, and so far there were no replacements; Australia’s greatest shortage had always been manpower. So unless Bob noticed her irritability and fatigue, and gave her Sunday off, Meggie worked the paddocks seven days a week. However, if Bob gave her time off it meant he himself worked harder, so she tried not to let her distress show. It never occurred to her that she could simply refuse to ride as a stockman, plead her babies as an excuse. They were well cared for, and Bob needed her so much more than they did. She didn’t have the insight to understand her babies needed her, too; thinking of her longing to be with them as selfishness when they were so well cared for by loving and familiar hands. It was selfish, she told herself. Nor did she have the kind of confidence that might have told her that in her children’s eyes she was just as special as they were to her. So she rode the paddocks, and for weeks on end got to see her children only after they were in bed for the night.
Whenever Meggie looked at Dane her heart turned over. He was a beautiful child; even strangers on the streets of Gilly remarked on it when Fee took him into town. His habitual expression was a smiling one, his nature a curious combination of quietness and deep, sure happiness; he seemed to have grown into his identity and acquired his self-knowledge with none of the pain children usually experience, for he rarely made mistakes about people or things, and nothing ever exasperated or bewildered him. To his mother his likeness to Ralph was sometimes very frightening, but apparently no one else ever noticed. Ralph had been gone from Gilly for a long time, and though Dane had the same features, the same build, he had one great difference, which tended to cloud the issue. His hair wasn’t black like Ralph’s, it was a pale gold; not the color of wheat or sunset but the color of Drogheda grass, gold with silver and beige in it.
From the moment she set eyes on him, Justine adored her baby brother. Nothing was too good for Dane, nothing too much trouble to fetch or present in his honor. Once he began to walk she never left his side, for which Meggie was very grateful, worrying that Mrs. Smith and the maids were getting too old to keep a satisfactorily sharp eye on a small boy. On one of her rare Sundays off Meggie took her daughter onto her lap and spoke to her seriously about looking after Dane.
“I can’t be here at the homestead to look after him myself,” she said, “so it all depends on you, Justine. He’s your baby brother and you must always watch out for him, make sure he doesn’t get into danger or trouble.”
The light eyes were very intelligent, with none of the rather wandering attention span typical of a four-year-old. Justine nodded confidently. “Don’t worry, Mum,” she said briskly. “I’ll always look after him for you.”
“I wish I could myself,” Meggie sighed.
“I don’t,” said her daughter smugly. “I like having Dane all to myself. So don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to him.”
Meggie didn’t find the reassurance a comfort, though it was reassuring. This precocious little scrap was going to steal her son from her, and there was no way she could avert it. Back to the paddocks, while Justine staunchly guarded Dane. Ousted by her own daughter, who was a monster. Who on earth did she take after? Not Luke, not herself, not Fee.
At least these days she was smiling and laughing. She was four years old before she saw anything funny in anything, and that she ever did was probably due to Dane, who had laughed from babyhood. Because he laughed, so did she. Meggie’s children learned from each other all the time. But it was galling, knowing they could get on without their mother very well. By the time this wretched conflict is over, Meggie thought, he’ll be too old to feel what he should for me. He’s always going to be closer to Justine. Why is it that every time I think I’ve got my life under control, something happens? I didn’t ask for this war or this drought, but I’ve got them.
Perhaps it was as well Drogheda was having such a hard time of it. If things had been easier, Jack and Hughie would have been off to enlist in a second. As it was, they had no choice but to buckle down and salvage what they could out of the drought which would come to be called the Great Drought. Over a million square miles of crop- and stock-bearing land was affected, from southern Victoria to the waist-high Mitchell grasslands of the Northern Territory.
But the war rivaled the drought for attention. With the twins in North Africa, the homestead people followed that campaign with painful eagerness as it pushed and pulled back and forth across Libya. Their heritage was working class, so they were ardent Labor supporters and loathed the present government, Liberal by name but conservative by nature. When in August of 1941 Robert Gordon Menzies stepped down, admitting he couldn’t govern, they were jubilant, and when on October 3rd the Labor leader John Curtin was asked to form a government, it was the best news Drogheda had heard in years.
All through 1940 and 1941 unease about Japan had been growing, especially after Roosevelt and Churchill cut off her petroleum supplies. Europe was a long way away and Hitler would have to march his armies twelve thousand miles in order to invade Australia, but Japan was Asia, part of the Yellow Peril poised like a descending pendulum above Australia’s rich, empty, underpopulated pit. So no one in Australia was at all surprised when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; they had simply been waiting for it to come, somewhere. Suddenly the war was very close, and might even become their own backyard. There were no great oceans separating Australia from Japan, only big islands and little seas.
On Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong fell; but the Japs would never succeed in taking Singapore, everyone said, relieved. Then news came of Japanese landings in Malay and in the Philippines; the great naval base at the toe of the Malayan peninsula kept its huge, flat-trajectoried guns trained on the sea, its fleet at the ready. But on February 8th, 1942, the Japanese crossed the narrow Strait of Johore, landed on the north side of Singapore Island and came across to the city behind its impotent guns. Singapore fell without even a struggle.
And then great news! All the Australian troops in North Africa were to come home. Prime Minister Curtin rode the swells of Churchillian wrath undismayed, insisting that Australia had first call on Australian men. The Sixth and Seventh Australian Divisions embarked in Alexandria quickly; the Ninth, still recovering in Cairo from its battering at Tobruk, was to follow as soon as more ships could be provided. Fee smiled, Meggie was delirious with joy. Jims and Patsy were coming home.
Only they didn’t. While the North waited for its troopships the seesaw tipped again; the Eighth Army was in full retreat back from Benghazi. Prime Minister Churchill struck a bargain with Prime Minister Curtin. The Ninth Australian Division would remain in North Africa, in exchange for the shipment of an American division to defend Australia. Poor soldiers, shuttled around by decisions made in offices not even belonging to their own countries. Give a little here, take a little there.
But it was a hard jolt for Australia, to discover that the Mother Country was booting all her Far Eastern chicks out of the nest, even a poult as fat and promising as Australia.
On the night of October 23rd, 1942, it was very quiet in the desert. Patsy shifted slightly, found his brother in the darkness, and leaned like a small child right into the curve of his shoulder. Jims’s arm went around him and they sat together in companionable silence. Sergeant Bob Malloy nudged Private Col Stuart, grinned.
“Pair of poofs,” he said.
“Fuck you, too,” said Jims.
“Come on, Harpo, say something,” Col murmured. Patsy gave him an angelic smile only half seen in the darkness, opened his mouth and hooted an excellent imitation of Harpo Marx’s horn. Everyone for several yards hissed at Patsy to shut up; there was an all-quiet alert on.
“Christ, this waiting’s killing me,” Bob sighed.
Patsy spoken in a shout: “It’s the silence that’s killing me!”
“You fuckin’ side-show fraud, I’ll do the killing!” Col croaked hoarsely, reaching for his bayonet.
“For Crissake pipe down!” came the captain’s whisper. “Who’s the bloody idiot yelling?”
“Patsy,” chorused half a dozen voices.
The roar of laughter floated reassuringly across the minefields, died down in a stream of low-toned profanity from the captain. Sergeant Malloy glanced at his watch; the second hand was just sweeping up to 9:40 pip-emma.
Eight hundred and eighty-two British guns and howitzers spoke together. The heavens reeled, the ground lifted, expanded, could not settle, for the barrage went on and on without a second’s diminution in the mind-shattering volume of noise. It was no use plugging fingers in ears; the gargantuan booming came up through the earth and traveled inward to the brain via the bones. What the effect must have been on Rommel’s front the troops of the Ninth in their trenches could only imagine. Usually it was possible to pick out this type and size of artillery from that, but tonight their iron throats chorused in perfect harmony, and thundered on as the minutes passed.
The desert lit not with the light of day but with the fire of the sun itself; a vast billowing cloud of dust rose like coiling smoke thousands of feet, glowing with the flashes of exploding shells and mines, the leaping flames of massive concentrations of detonating casings, igniting payloads. Everything Montgomery had was aimed at the minefields—guns, howitzers, mortars. And everything Montgomery had was thrown as fast as the sweating artillery crews could throw it, slaves feeding the maws of their weapons like small frantic birds a huge cuckoo; gun casings grew hot, the time between recoil and reload shorter and shorter as the artillerymen got carried away on their own impetus. Madmen, maddened, they danced a stereotyped pattern of attendance on their fieldpieces.
It was beautiful, wonderful—the high point of an artilleryman’s life, which he lived and relived in his dreams, waking and sleeping, for the rest of his anti-climactic days. And yearned to have back again, those fifteen minutes with Montgomery’s guns.
Silence. Stilled, absolute silence, breaking like waves on distended eardrums; unbearable silence. Five minutes before ten, exactly. The Ninth got up and moved forward out of its trenches into no man’s land, fixing bayonets, feeling for ammunition clips, releasing safety catches, checking water bottles, iron rations, watches, tin hats, whether bootlaces were well tied, the location of those carrying the machine guns. It was easy to see, in the unholy glow of fires and red-hot sand melted into glass; but the dust pall hung between the Enemy and them, they were safe. For the moment. On the very edge of the minefields they halted, waited.
Ten pip-emma, on the dot. Sergeant Malloy put his whistle to his lips and blew a shrill blast up and down the company lines; the captain shouted his forward command. On a two-mile front the Ninth stepped off into the minefields and the guns began again behind them, bellowing. They could see where they were going as if it had been day, the howitzers trained on shortest range bursting shells not yards in front of them. Every three minutes the range lifted another hundred yards; advance those hundred yards praying it was only through antitank mines, or that the S-mines, the man mines, had been shelled out of existence by Montgomery’s guns. There were still Germans and Italians in the field, outposts of machine guns, 50-mm small artillery, mortars. Sometimes a man would step on an unexploded S-mine, have time to see it leap upward out of the sand before it blew him in half.
No time to think, no time to do anything save crab-scuttle in time to the guns, a hundred yards forward every three minutes, praying. Noise, light, dust, smoke, gut-watering terror. Minefields which had no end, two or three miles of them to the other side, and no going back. Sometimes in the tiny pauses between barrages came the distant, eerie skirl of a bagpipe on the roasting gritty air; on the left of the Ninth Australian, the Fifty-first Highlanders were trekking through the minefields with a piper to lead every company commander. To a Scot the sound of his piper drawing him into battle was the sweetest lure in the world, and to an Australian very friendly, comforting. But to a German or an Italian it was hackle-raising.
The battle went on for twelve days, and twelve days is a very long battle. The Ninth was lucky at first; its casualties were relatively light through the minefields and through those first days of continued advance into Rommel’s territory.
“You know, I’d rather be me and get shot at than be a sapper,” said Col Stuart, leaning on his shovel.
“I dunno, mate; I think they’ve got the best of it,” growled his sergeant. “Waiting behind the fuckin’ lines until we’ve done all the work, then out they toddle with their bloody minesweepers to clear nice little paths for the fuckin’ tanks.”
“It isn’t the tanks at fault, Bob; it’s the brass who deploy them,” Jims said, patting the earth down around the top of his section of their new trench with the flat of his spade. “Christ, though, I wish they’d decide to keep us in one place for a while! I’ve dug more dirt in the last five days than a bloody anteater.”
“Keep digging, mate,” said Bob unsympathetically.
“Hey, look!” cried Col, pointing skyward.
Eighteen RAF light bombers came down the valley in perfect flying-school formation, dropping their sticks of bombs among the Germans and Italians with deadly accuracy.
“Bloody beautiful,” said Sergeant Bob Malloy, his long neck tilting his head at the sky.
Three days later he was dead; a huge piece of shrapnel took off his arm and half his side in a fresh advance, but no one had time to stop except to pluck his whistle from what was left of his mouth. Men were going down now like flies, too tired to maintain the initial pitch of vigilance and swiftness; but what miserable barren ground they took they held on to, in the face of a bitter defense by the cream of a magnificent army. It had become to them all no more than a dumb, stubborn refusal to be defeated.
The Ninth held off Graf von Sponeck and Lungerhausen while the tanks broke out to the south, and finally Rommel was beaten. By November 8 he was trying to rally beyond the Egyptian border, and Montgomery was left in command of the entire field. A very important tactical victory, Second Alamein; Rommel had been forced to leave behind many of his tanks, guns and equipment. Operation Torch could commence its push eastward from Morocco and Algeria with more security. There was still plenty of fight in the Desert Fox, but a large part of his brush was on the ground at El Alamein. The biggest and most decisive battle of the North African theater had been fought, and Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein was its victor.
Second Alamein was the swan song of the Ninth Australian Division in North Africa. They were finally going home to contend with the Japanese, on the mainland of New Guinea. Since March of 1941 they had been more or less permanently in the front line, arriving poorly trained and equipped, but going home now with a reputation exceeded only by the Fourth Indian Division. And with the Ninth went Jims and Patsy, safe and whole.
Of course they were granted leave to go home to Drogheda. Bob drove into Gilly to collect them from the Goondiwindi train, for the Ninth was based in Brisbane and would depart after jungle training for New Guinea. When the Rolls swept round the drive all the women were out on the lawn waiting, Jack and Hughie hanging back a little but just as eager to see their young brothers. Every sheep left alive on Drogheda could drop dead if it so desired, but this was a holiday.
Even after the car stopped and they got out, no one moved. They looked so different. Two years in the desert had ruined their original uniforms; they were dressed in a new issue of jungle green, and looked like strangers. For one thing, they seemed to have grown inches, which indeed they had; the last two years of their development had occurred far from Drogheda, and had pushed them way above their older brothers. Not boys any more but men, though not men in the Bob-Jack-Hughie mold; hardship, battle euphoria and violent death had made something out of them Drogheda never could. The North African sun had dried and darkened them to rosy mahogany, peeled away every layer of childhood. Yes, it was possible to believe these two men in their simple uniforms, slouch hats pinned above their left ears with the badge of the AIF rising sun, had killed fellow men. It was in their eyes, blue as Paddy’s but sadder, without his gentleness.
“My boys, my boys!” cried Mrs. Smith, running to them, tears streaming down her face. No, it didn’t matter what they had done, how much they had changed; they were still her little babies she had changed; they were still her little babies she had washed, diapered, fed, whose tears she had dried, whose wounds she had kissed better. Only the wounds they harbored now were beyond her power to heal.
Then everyone was around them, British reserve broken down, laughing, crying, even poor Fee patting them on their backs, trying to smile. After Mrs. Smith there was Meggie to kiss, Minnie to kiss, Cat to kiss, Mum to hug bashfully, Jack and Hughie to wring by the hand speechlessly. The Drogheda people would never know what it was like to be home, they could never know how much this moment had been longed for, feared for.
And how the twins ate! Army tucker was never like this, they said, laughing. Pink and white fairy cakes, chocolate-soaked lamingtons rolled in coconut, steamed spotted dog pudding, pavlova dripping passionfruit and cream from Drogheda cows. Remembering their stomachs from earlier days, Mrs. Smith was convinced they’d be ill for a week, but as long as there was unlimited tea to wash it down, they didn’t seem to have any trouble with their digestions.
“A bit different from Wog bread, eh, Patsy?”
“What’s Wog mean?” asked Mrs. Smith.
“A Wog’s an Arab, but a Wop’s an Italian, right, Patsy?”
It was peculiar. They would talk, or at least Jims would talk, for hours about North Africa: the towns, the people, the food, the museum in Cairo, life on board a troopship, in rest camp. But no amount of questioning could elicit anything but vague, change-the-subject answers as to what the actual fighting had been like, what Gazala, Benghazi, Tobruk, El Alamein had been like. Later on after the war was over the women were to find this constantly; the men who had actually been in the thick of battle never opened their mouths about it, refused to join the ex-soldiers’ clubs and leagues, wanted nothing to do with institutions perpetuating the memory of war.
Drogheda held a party for them. Alastair MacQueen was in the Ninth as well and was home, so of course Rudna Hunish held a party. Dominic O’Rourke’s two youngest sons were in the Sixth in New Guinea, so even though they couldn’t be present, Dibban-Dibban held a party. Every property in the district with a son in uniform wanted to celebrate the safe return of the three Ninth boys. Women and girls flocked around them, but the Cleary returned heroes tried to escape at every opportunity, more scared than they had been on any field of war.
In fact, Jims and Patsy didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with women; it was to Bob, Jack and Hughie they clung. Late into the night after the women had gone to bed they sat talking to the brothers who had been forced to remain behind, opening their sore, scarred hearts. And they rode the paddocks of parched Drogheda, in its seventh year of the drought, glad to be in civvies.
Even so racked and tortured, to Jims and Patsy the land was ineffably lovely, the sheep comforting, the late roses in the garden a perfume of some heaven. And somehow they had to drink of it all so deeply they’d never again forget, for that first going away had been a careless one; they had had no idea what it would be like. When they left this time it would be with every moment hoarded to remember and treasure, and with Drogheda roses pressed into their wallets along with a few blades of scarce Drogheda grass. To Fee they were kind and pitying, but to Meggie, Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat they were loving, very tender. They had been the real mothers.
What delighted Meggie most was the way they loved Dane, played with him for hours, took him with them for rides, laughed with him, rolled him over and over on the lawn. Justine seemed to frighten them; but then, they were awkward with anyone female whom they didn’t know as well as they knew the older women. Besides which, poor Justine was furiously jealous of the way they monopolized Dane’s company, for it meant she had no one to play with.
“He’s a bonzer little bloke, Meggie,” said Jims to Meggie when she came out onto the veranda one day; he was sitting in a cane chair watching Patsy and Dane playing on the lawn.
“Yes, he is a little beauty, isn’t he?” She smiled, sitting where she could see her youngest brother. Her eyes were soft with pity; they had been her babies, too. “What’s the matter, Jims? Can’t you tell me?”
His eyes lifted to hers, wretched with some deep pain, but he shook his head as if not even tempted. “No, Meggie. It isn’t anything I could ever tell a woman.”
“What about when all this is over and you marry? Won’t you want to tell your wife?”
“Us marry? I don’t think so. War takes all that out of a man. We were itching to go, but we’re wiser now. If we married we’d have sons, and for what? See them grow up, get pushed off to do what we’ve done, see what we’ve seen?”
“Don’t, Jims, don’t!”
His gaze followed hers, to Dane chuckling in glee because Patsy was holding him upside down.
“Don’t ever let him leave Drogheda, Meggie. On Drogheda he can’t come to any harm,” said Jims.
Archbishop de Bricassart ran down the beautiful high corridor, heedless of the surprised faces turning to watch him; he burst into the Cardinal’s room and stopped short. His Eminence was entertaining Monsieur Papée, the Polish government-in-exile’s ambassador to the Holy See.
“Why, Ralph! What is it?”
“It’s happened, Vittorio. Mussolini has been overthrown.”
“Dear Jesus! The Holy Father, does he know?”
“I telephoned Castel Gandolfo myself, though the radio should have it any minute. A friend at German headquarters phoned me.”
“I do hope the Holy Father has his bags packed,” said Monsieur Papée with a faint, a very faint relish.
“If we disguised him as a Franciscan mendicant he might get out, not otherwise,” Archbishop Ralph snapped. “Kesselring has the city sealed tighter than a drum.”
“He wouldn’t go anyway,” said Cardinal Vittorio.
Monsieur Papée got up. “I must leave you, Your Eminence. I am the representative of a government which is Germany’s enemy. If His Holiness is not safe, nor am I. There are papers in my rooms I must attend to.”
Prim and precise, diplomat to his fingertips, he left the two priests alone.
“He was here to intercede for his persecuted people?”
“Yes. Poor man, he cares so much for them.”
“And don’t we?”
“Of course we do, Ralph! But the situation is more difficult than he knows.”
“The truth of the matter is he’s not believed.”
“Well, isn’t it the truth? The Holy Father spent his early years in Munich, he fell in love with the Germans and he still loves them, in spite of everything. If proof in the form of those poor wasted bodies was laid out in front of his eyes, he’d say it must be the Russians did it. Not his so-dear Germans, never a people as cultured and civilized as they are!”
“Ralph, you are not a member of the Society of Jesus, but you are here only because you have taken a personal oath of allegiance to the Holy Father. You have the hot blood of your Irish and Norman forebears, but I beg of you, be sensible! Since last September we have been only waiting for the axe to fall, praying Il Duce would remain to shelter us from German reprisal. Adolf Hitler has a curious streak of contradiction in his personality, for there are two things he knows to be his enemies yet wishes if at all possible to preserve: the British Empire and the Holy Catholic Church of Rome. But when pushed to it, he has done his level best to crush the British Empire. Do you think he would not crush us, too, if we push him to it? One word of denunciation from us as to what is happening in Poland and he will certainly crush us. And what earthly good do you think our denouncing that would achieve, my friend? We have no armies, no soldiers. Reprisal would be immediate, and the Holy Father would be sent to Berlin, which is what he fears. Do you not remember the puppet pope in Avignon all those centuries ago? Do you want our Pope a puppet in Berlin?”
“I’m sorry, Vittorio, I can’t see it that way. I say we must denounce Hitler, shout his barbarity from the rooftops! If he has us shot we’ll die martyrs, and that would be more effective still.”
“You are not usually obtuse, Ralph! He would not have us shot at all. He understands the impact of martyrdom just as well as we do. The Holy Father would be shipped to Berlin, and we would be shipped quietly to Poland. Poland, Ralph, Poland! Do you want to die in Poland of less use than you are now?”
Archbishop Ralph sat down, clenched his hands between his knees, stared rebelliously out the window at the doves soaring, golden in the setting sun, toward their cote. At forty-nine he was thinner than of yore, and was aging as splendidly as he did most things.
“Ralph, we are what we are. Men, but only as a secondary consideration. First we are priests.”
“That wasn’t how you listed our priorities when I came back from Australia, Vittorio.”
“I meant a different thing then, and you know it. You are being difficult. I mean now that we cannot think as men. We must think as priests, because that is the most important aspect of our lives. Whatever we may think or want to do as men, our allegiance is to the Church, and to no temporal power! Our loyalty lies only with the Holy Father! You vowed obedience, Ralph. Do you wish to break it again? The Holy Father is infallible in all matters affecting the welfare of God’s Church.”
“He’s wrong! His judgment’s biased. All of his energies are directed toward fighting Communism. He sees Germany as its greatest enemy, the only real factor preventing the westward spread of Communism. He wants Hitler to remain firmly in the German saddle, just as he was content to see Mussolini rule Italy.”
“Believe me, Ralph, there are things you do not know. He is the Pope, he is infallible! If you deny that, you deny your very faith.”
The door opened discreetly, but hastily.
“Your Eminence, Herr General Kesselring.”
Both prelates rose, their late differences smoothed from their faces, smiling.
“This is a great pleasure, Your Excellency. Won’t you sit down? Would you like tea?”
The conversation was conducted in German, since many of the senior members of the Vatican spoke it. The Holy Father was fond of speaking and listening to German.
“Thank you, Your Eminence, I would. Nowhere else in Rome does one get such superbly English tea.”
Cardinal Vittorio smiled guilelessly. “It is a habit I acquired while I was the Papal Legate in Australia, and which, for all my innate Italianness, I have not been able to break.”
“And you, Your Grace?”
“I’m an Irishman, Herr General. The Irish, too, are brought up on tea.”
General Albert Kesselring always responded to Archbishop de Bricassart as one man to another; after these slight, oily Italian prelates he was so refreshing, a man without subtlety or cunning, straightforward.
“As always, Your Grace, I am amazed at the purity of your German accent,” he complimented.
“I have an ear for languages, Herr General, which means it’s like all talents—not worth praising.”
“What may we do for Your Excellency?” asked the Cardinal sweetly.
“I presume you will have heard of the fate of II Duce by now?”
“Yes, Your Excellency, we have.”
“Then you will know in part why I came. To assure you that all is well, and to ask you if perhaps you would convey the message to those summering at Castel Gandolfo? I’m so busy at the moment it’s impossible for me to visit Castel Gandolfo myself.”
“The message will be conveyed. You are so busy?”
“Naturally. You must surely realize this is now an enemy country for us Germans?”
“This, Herr General? This is not Italian soil, and no man is an enemy here except those who are evil.”
“I beg your pardon, Your Eminence. Naturally I was referring to Italy, not to the Vatican. But in the matter of Italy I must act as my Führer commands. Italy will be occupied, and my troops, present until now as allies, will become policemen.”
Archbishop Ralph, sitting comfortably and looking as if he had never had an ideological struggle in his life, watched the visitor closely. Did he know what his Führer was doing in Poland? How could he not know?
Cardinal Vittorio arranged his face into an anxious look. “Dear General, not Rome herself, surely? Ah, no! Rome, with her history, her priceless artifacts? If you bring troops within her seven hills there will be strife, destruction. I beg of you, not that!”
General Kesselring looked uncomfortable. “I hope it won’t come to that, Your Eminence. But I took an oath also, I too am under orders. I must do as my Führer wishes.”
“You’ll try for us, Herr General? Please, you must! I was in Athens some years ago,” said Archbishop Ralph quickly, leaning forward, his eyes charmingly wide, a lock of white-sprinkled hair falling across his brow; he was well aware of his effect on the general, and used it without compunction. “Have you been in Athens, sir?”
“Yes, I have,” said the general dryly.
“Then I’m sure you know the story. How it took men of relatively modern times to destroy the buildings atop the Acropolis? Herr General, Rome stands as she always was, a monument to two thousand years of care, attention, love. Please, I beg of you! Don’t endanger Rome.”
The general stared at him in startled admiration; his uniform became him very well, but no better than the soutane with its touch of imperial purple became Archbishop Ralph. He, too, had the look of a soldier, a soldier’s sparely beautiful body, and the face of an angel. So must the Archangel Michael look; not a smooth young Renaissance boy but an aging perfect man, who had loved Lucifer, fought him, banished Adam and Eve, slain the serpent, stood at God’s right hand. Did he know how he looked? He was indeed a man to remember.
“I shall do my best, Your Grace, I promise you. To a certain extent the decision is mine, I admit it. I am, as you know, a civilized man. But you’re asking a lot. If I declare Rome an open city, it means I cannot blow up her bridges or convert her buildings into fortresses, and that might well be to Germany’s eventual disadvantage. What assurances do I have that Rome won’t repay me with treachery if I’m kind to her?”
Cardinal Vittorio pursed his lips and made kissing noises at his cat, an elegant Siamese nowadays; he smiled gently, and looked at the Archbishop. “Rome would never repay kindness with treachery, Herr General. I am sure when you do find the time to visit those summering at Castel Gandolfo that you will receive the same assurances. Here, Kheng-see, my sweetheart! Ah, what a lovely girl you are!” His hands pressed it down on his scarlet lap, caressed it.
“An unusual animal, Your Eminence.”
“An aristocrat, Herr General. Both the Archbishop and myself bear old and venerable names, but beside her lineage, ours are as nothing. Do you like her name? It is Chinese for silken flower. Apt, is it not?”
The tea had arrived, was being arranged; they were all quiet until the lay sister left the room.
“You won’t regret a decision to declare Rome an open city, Your Excellency,” said Archbishop Ralph to the new master of Italy with a melting smile. He turned to the Cardinal, charm falling away like a dropped cloak, not needed with this beloved man. “Your Eminence, do you intend to be ‘mother,’ or shall I do the honors?”
“ ‘Mother’?” asked General Kesselring blankly.
Cardinal di Contini-Verchese laughed. “It is our little joke, we celibate men. Whoever pours the tea is called ‘mother.’ An English saying, Herr General.”
That night Archbishop Ralph was tired, restless, on edge. He seemed to be doing nothing to help end this war, only dicker about the preservation of antiquities, and he had grown to loathe Vatican inertia passionately. Though he was conservative by nature, sometimes the snaillike caution of those occupying the highest Church positions irked him intolerably. Aside from the humble nuns and priests who acted as servants, it was weeks since he had spoken to an ordinary man, someone without a political, spiritual or military axe to grind. Even prayer seemed to come less easily to him these days, and God seemed light-years away, as if He had withdrawn to allow His human creatures full rein in destroying the world He had made for them. What he needed, he thought, was a stiff dose of Meggie and Fee, or a stiff dose of someone who wasn’t interested in the fate of the Vatican or of Rome.
His Grace walked down the private stairs into the great basilica of Saint Peter’s, whence his aimless progress had led him. Its doors were locked these days the moment darkness fell, a sign of the uneasy peace which lay over Rome more telling than the companies of grey-clad Germans moving through Roman streets. A faint, ghostly glow illuminated the yawning empty apse; his footsteps echoed hollowly on the stone floor as he walked, stopped and merged with the silence as he genuflected in front of the High Altar, began again. Then, between one foot’s noise of impact and the next, he heard a gasp. The flashlight in his hand sprang into life; he leveled his beam in the direction of the sound, not frightened so much as curious. This was his world; he could defend it secure from fear.
The beam played upon what had become in his eyes the most beautiful piece of sculpture in all creation: the Pietà of Michelangelo. Below the stilled stunned figures was another face, made not of marble but of flesh, all shadowed hollows and deathlike.
“Ciao,” said His Grace, smiling.
There was no answer, but he saw that the clothes were those of a German infantryman of lowest rank; his ordinary man! That he was a German didn’t matter.
“Wie geht’s?” he asked, still smiling.
A movement caused sweat on a wide, intellectual brow to flash suddenly out of the dimness.
“Du bist krank?” he asked then, wondering if the lad, for he was no more, was ill.
Came the voice, at last: “Nein.”
Archbishop Ralph laid his flashlight down on the floor and went forward, put his hand under the soldier’s chin and lifted it to look into the dark eyes, darker in the darkness.
“What’s the matter?” he asked in German, and laughed. “There!” he continued, still in German. “You don’t know it, but that’s been my main function in life—to ask people what’s the matter. And, let me tell you, it’s a question which has got me into a lot of trouble in my time.”
“I came to pray,” said the lad in a voice too deep for his age, with a heavy Bavarian accent.
“What happened, did you get locked in?”
“Yes, but that isn’t what the matter is.”
His grace picked up the flashlight. “Well, you can’t stay here all night, and I haven’t got a key to the doors. Come with me.” He began walking back toward the private stairs leading up to the papal palace, talking in a slow, soft voice. “I came to pray myself, as a matter of fact. Thanks to your High Command, it’s been a rather nasty day. That’s it, up here…. We’ll have to hope that the Holy Father’s staff don’t assume I’ve been arrested, but can see I’m doing the escorting, not you.”
After that they walked for ten more minutes in silence, through corridors, out into open courts and gardens, inside hallways, up steps; the young German did not seem anxious to leave his protector’s side, for he kept close. At last His Grace opened a door and led his waif into a small sitting room, sparsely and humbly furnished, switched on a lamp and closed the door.
They stood staring at each other, able to see. The German soldier saw a very tall man with a fine face and blue, discerning eyes; Archbishop Ralph saw a child tricked out in the garb which all of Europe found fearsome and awe-inspiring. A child; no more than sixteen years old, certainly. Of average height and youthfully thin, he had a frame promising later bulk and strength, and very long arms. His face had rather an Italianate cast, dark and patrician, extremely attractive; wide, dark brown eyes with long black lashes, a magnificent head of wavy black hair. There was nothing usual or ordinary about him after all, even if his role was an ordinary one; in spite of the fact that he had longed to talk to an average, ordinary man, His Grace was interested.
“Sit down,” he said to the boy, crossing to a chest and unearthing a bottle of Marsala wine. He poured some into two glasses, gave the boy one and took his own to a chair from which he could watch the fascinating countenance comfortably. “Are they reduced to drafting children to do their fighting?” he asked, crossing his legs.
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “I was in a children’s home, so I’d be taken early anyway.”
“What’s your name, lad?”
“Rainer Moerling Hartheim,” said the boy, rolling it out with great pride.
“A magnificent name,” said the priest gravely.
“It is, isn’t it? I chose it myself. They called me Rainer Schmidt at the home, but when I went into the army I changed it to the name I’ve always wanted.”
“You were an orphan?”
“The Sisters called me a love child.”
Archbishop Ralph tried not to smile; the boy had such dignity and self-possession, now he had lost his fear. Only what had frightened him? Not being found, or being locked in the basilica.
“Why were you so frightened, Rainer?”
The boy sipped his wine gingerly, looked up with a pleased expression. “Good, it’s sweet.” He made himself more comfortable. “I wanted to see Saint Peter’s because the Sisters always used to talk about it and show us pictures. So when they posted us to Rome I was glad. We got here this morning. The minute I could, I came.” He frowned. “But it wasn’t as I had expected. I thought I’d feel closer to Our Lord, being in His own Church. Instead it was only enormous and cold. I couldn’t feel Him.”
Archbishop Ralph smiled. “I know what you mean. But Saint Peter’s isn’t really a church, you know. Not in the sense most churches are. Saint Peter’s is the Church. It took me a long time to get used to it, I remember.”
“I wanted to pray for two things,” the boy said, nodding his head to indicate he had heard but that it wasn’t what he wished to hear.
“For the things which frighten you?”
“Yes. I thought being in Saint Peter’s might help.”
“What are the things which frighten you, Rainer?”
“That they’ll decide I’m a Jew, and that my regiment will be sent to Russia after all.”
“I see. No wonder you’re frightened. Is there indeed a possibility they’ll decide you’re a Jew?”
“Well, look at me!” said the boy simply. “When they were writing down my particulars they said they’d have to check. I don’t know if they can or not, but I suppose the Sisters might know more than they ever told me.”
“If they do, they’ll not pass it on,” said His Grace comfortingly. “They’ll know why they’re being asked.”
“Do you really think so? Oh, I hope so!”
“Does the thought of having Jewish blood disturb you?”
“What my blood is doesn’t matter,” said Rainer. “I was born a German, that’s the only important thing.”
“Only they don’t look at it like that, do they?”
“And Russia? There’s no need to worry about Russia now, surely. You’re in Rome, the opposite direction.”
“This morning I heard our commander saying we might be sent to Russia after all. It isn’t going well there.”
“You’re a child,” said Archbishop Ralph abruptly. “You ought to be in school.”