The Thorn Birds (Chapter 96-100)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
immediate postwar period, Cardinal de Bricassart helped thousands of displaced persons seek asylum in new countries, and was especially vigorous in aiding the Australian immigration program.
Though by birth he is an Irishman, and though it seems he will not exert his influence as Cardinal de Bricassart in Australia, we still feel that to a large extent Australia may rightly claim this remarkable man as her own.
Meggie handed the paper back to Fee, and smiled at her mother ruefully.
“One must congratulate him, as I said to the Herald reporter. They didn’t print that, did they? Though they printed your little eulogy almost verbatim, I see. What a barbed tongue you’ve got! At least I know where Justine gets it from. I wonder how many people will be smart enough to read between the lines of what you said?”
“He will, anyway, if he ever sees it.”
“I wonder does he remember us?” Meggie sighed.
“Undoubtedly. After all, he still finds time to administer Drogheda himself. Of course he remembers us, Meggie. How could he forget?”
“True, I had forgotten Drogheda. We’re right up there on top of the earnings, aren’t we? He must be very pleased. With our wool at a pound per pound in the auctions, the Drogheda wool check this year must have made even the gold mines look sick. Talk about Golden Fleece. Over four million pounds, just from shaving our baa-lambs.”
“Don’t be cynical, Meggie, it doesn’t suit you,” said Fee; her manner toward Meggie these days, though often mildly withering, was tempered with respect and affection. “We’ve done well enough, haven’t we? Don’t forget we get our money every year, good or bad. Didn’t he pay Bob a hundred thousand as a bonus, the rest of us fifty thousand each? If he threw us off Drogheda tomorrow we could afford to buy Bugela, even at today’s inflated land prices. And how much has he given your children? Thousands upon thousands. Be fair to him.”
“But my children don’t know it, and they’re not going to find out. Dane and Justine will grow up to think they must make their own ways in the world, without benefit of dear Ralph Raoul, Cardinal de Bricassart. Fancy his second name being Raoul! Very Norman, isn’t it?”
Fee got up, walked over to the fire and threw the front page of the Herald onto the flames. Ralph Raoul, Cardinal de Bricassart shuddered, winked at her, and then shriveled up.
“What will you do if he comes back, Meggie?”
Meggie sniffed. “Fat chance!”
“He might,” said Fee enigmatically.
He did, in December. Very quietly, without anyone knowing, driving an Aston Martin sports car all the way from Sydney himself. Not a word about his presence in Australia had reached the press, so no one on Drogheda had the remotest suspicion he was coming. When the car pulled in to the gravelly area at one side of the house there was no one about, and apparently no one had heard him arrive, for no one came out onto the veranda.
He had felt the miles from Gilly in every cell of his body, inhaled the odors of the bush, the sheep, the dry grass sparkling restlessly in the sun. Kangaroos and emus, galahs and goannas, millions of insects buzzing and flipping, ants marching across the road in treacly columns, fat pudgy sheep everywhere. He loved it so, for in one curious aspect it conformed to what he loved in all things; the passing years scarcely seemed to brush it.
Only the fly screening was different, but he noted with amusement that Fee hadn’t permitted the big house veranda facing the Gilly road to be enclosed like the rest, only the windows opening onto it. She was right, of course; a great expanse of mesh would have ruined the lines of that lovely Georgian facade. How long did ghost gums live? These must have been transplanted from the Dead Heart interior eighty years ago. The bougainvillaea in their high branches was one sliding mass of copper and purple.
It was already summer, two weeks left before Christmas, and the Drogheda roses were at their height. There were roses everywhere, pink and white and yellow, crimson like heart’s blood, scarlet like a cardinal’s soutane. In among the wistaria, green now, rambling roses drowsed pink and white, fell off the veranda roof, down the wire mesh, clung lovingly to the black shutters of the second story, stretched tendrils past them to the sky. The tank stands were quite smothered from sight now, so were the tanks themselves. And one color was everywhere among the roses, a pale pinkish-grey. Ashes of roses? Yes, that was the name of the color. Meggie must have planted them, it had to be Meggie.
He heard Meggie’s laugh, and stood motionless, quite terrified, then made his feet go in the direction of the sound, gone down to delicious giggling trills. Just the way she used to laugh when she was a little girl.
There it was! Over there, behind a great clump of pinkishgrey roses near a pepper tree. He pushed the clusters of blossoms aside with his hand, his mind reeling from their perfume, and that laugh.
But Meggie wasn’t there, only a boy squatting in the lush lawn, teasing a little pink pig which ran in idiotic rushes up to him, galloped off, sidled back. Unconscious of his audience, the boy threw his gleaming head back and laughed. Meggie’s laugh, from that unfamiliar throat. Without meaning to, Cardinal Ralph let the roses fall into place and stepped through them, heedless of the thorns. The boy, about twelve or fourteen years of age, just prepubescent, looked up, startled; the pig squealed, curled up its tail tightly and ran off.
Clad in an old pair of khaki shorts and nothing else, bare-footed, he was golden brown and silky-skinned, his slender, boyish body already hinting at later power in the breadth of the young square shoulders, the well-developed calf and thigh muscles, the flat belly and narrow hips. His hair was a little long and loosely curly, just the bleached color of Drogheda grass, his eyes through absurdly thick black lashes intensely blue. He looked like a very youthful escaped angel.
“Hello,” said the boy, smiling.
“Hello,” said Cardinal Ralph, finding it impossible to resist the charm of that smile. “Who are you?”
“I’m Dane O’Neill,” answered the boy. “Who are you?”
“My name is Ralph de Bricassart.”
Dane O’Neill. He was Meggie’s boy, then. She had not left Luke O’Neill after all, she had gone back to him, borne this beautiful lad who might have been his, had he not married the Church first. How old had he been when he married the Church? Not much older than this, not very much more mature. Had he waited, the boy might well have been his. What nonsense, Cardinal de Bricassart! If you hadn’t married the Church you would have remained in Ireland to breed horses and never known your fate at all, never known Drogheda or Meggie Cleary.
“May I help you?” asked the boy politely, getting to his feet with a supple grace Cardinal Ralph recognized, and thought of as Meggie’s.
“Is your father here, Dane?”
“My father?” The dark, finely etched brows knitted. “No, he’s not here. He’s never been here.”
“Oh, I see. Is your mother here, then?”
“She’s in Gilly, but she’ll be back soon. My Nanna is in the house, though. Would you like to see her? I can take you.” Eyes as blue as cornflowers stared at him, widened, narrowed. “Ralph de Bricassart. I’ve heard of you. Oh! Cardinal de Bricassart! Your Eminence, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Though he had abandoned his clerical regalia in favor of boots, breeches and a white shirt, the ruby ring was still on his finger, must never be withdrawn as long as he lived. Dane O’Neill knelt, took Cardinal Ralph’s slender hand in his own slender ones, and kissed the ring reverently.
“It’s all right, Dane. I’m not here as Cardinal de Bricassart. I’m here as a friend of your mother’s and your grandmother’s.”
“I’m sorry, Your Eminence, I ought to have recognized your name the minute I heard it. We say it often enough round here. Only you pronounce it a bit differently, and your Christian name threw me off. My mother will be very glad to see you, I know.”
“Dane, Dane, where are you?” called an impatient voice, very deep and entrancingly husky.
The hanging fronds of the pepper tree parted and a girl of about fifteen ducked out, straightened. He knew who she was immediately, from those astonishing eyes. Meggie’s daughter. Covered in freckles, sharp-faced, small-featured, disappointingly unlike Meggie.
“Oh, hello. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we had a visitor. I’m Justine O’Neill.”
“Jussy, this is Cardinal de Bricassart!” Dane said in a loud whisper. “Kiss his ring, quickly!”
The blind-looking eyes flashed scorn. “You’re a real prawn about religion, Dane,” she said without bothering to lower her voice. “Kissing a ring is unhygienic; I won’t do it. Besides, how do we know this is Cardinal de Bricassart? He looks like an old-fashioned grazier to me. You know, like Mr. Gordon.”
“He is, he is!” insisted Dane. “Please, Jussy, be good! Be good for me!”
“I’ll be good, but only for you. But I won’t kiss his ring, even for you. Disgusting. How do I know who kissed it last? They might have had a cold.”
“You don’t have to kiss my ring, Justine. I’m here on a holiday; I’m not being a cardinal at the moment.”
“That’s good, because I’ll tell you frankly, I’m an atheist,” said Meggie Cleary’s daughter calmly. “After four years at Kincoppal I think it’s all a load of utter codswallop.”
“That’s your privilege,” said Cardinal Ralph, trying desperately to look as dignified and serious as she did. “May I find your grandmother?”
“Of course. Do you need us?” Justine asked.
“No, thank you. I know my way.”
“Good.” She turned to her brother, still gaping up at the visitor. “Come on, Dane, help me. Come on!”
But though Justine tugged painfully at his arm, Dane stayed to watch Cardinal Ralph’s tall, straight figure disappear behind the roses.
“You really are a prawn, Dane. What’s so special about him?”
“He’s a cardinal!” said Dane. “Imagine that! A real live cardinal on Drogheda!”
“Cardinals,” said Justine, “are Princes of the Church. I suppose you’re right, it is rather extraordinary. But I don’t like him.”
Where else would Fee be, except at her desk? He stepped through the windows into the drawing room, but these days that necessitated opening a screen. She must have heard him, but kept on working, back bent, the lovely golden hair gone to silver. With difficulty he remembered she must be all of seventy-two years old.
“Hello, Fee,” he said.
When she raised her head he saw a change in her, of what precise nature he couldn’t be sure; the indifference was there, but so were several other things. As if she had mellowed and hardened simultaneously, become more human, yet human in a Mary Carson mold. God, these Drogheda matriarchs! Would it happen to Meggie, too, when her turn came?
“Hello, Ralph,” she said, as if he stepped through the windows every day. “How nice to see you.”
“Nice to see you, too.”
“I didn’t know you were in Australia.”
“No one does. I have a few weeks’ holiday.”
“You’re staying with us, I hope?”
“Where else?” His eyes roamed round the magnificent walls, rested on Mary Carson’s portrait. “You know, Fee, your taste is impeccable, unerring. This room rivals anything in the Vatican. Those black egg shapes with the roses are a stroke of genius.”
“Why, thank you! We try our humble best. Personally I prefer the dining room; I’ve done it again since you were here last. Pink and white and green. Sounds awful, but wait until you see it. Though why I try, I don’t know. It’s your house, isn’t it?”
“Not while there’s a Cleary alive, Fee,” he said quietly.
“How comforting. Well, you’ve certainly come up in the world since your Gilly days, haven’t you? Did you see the Herald article about your promotion?”
He winced. “I did. Your tongue’s sharpened, Fee.”
“Yes, and what’s more, I’m enjoying it. All those years I shut up and never said a thing! I didn’t know what I was missing.” She smiled. “Meggie’s in Gilly, but she’ll be back soon.”
Dane and Justine came through the windows.
“Nanna, may we ride down to the borehead?”
“You know the rules. No riding unless your mother gives her permission personally. I’m sorry, but they’re your mother’s orders. Where are your manners? Come and be introduced to our visitor.”
“I’ve already met them.”
“I’d have thought you’d be away at boarding school,” he said to Dane, smiling.
“Not in December, Your Eminence. We’re off for two months—the summer holidays.”
Too many years away; he had forgotten that southern hemisphere children would enjoy their long vacation during December and January.
“Are you going to be staying here long, Your Eminence?” Dane queried, still fascinated.
“His Eminence will be with us for as long as he can manage, Dane,” said his grandmother, “but I think he’s going to find it a little wearing to be addressed as Your Eminence all the time. What shall it be? Uncle Ralph?”
“Uncle!” exclaimed Justine. “You know ‘uncle’ is against the family rules, Nanna! Our uncles are just Bob, Jack, Hughie, Jims and Patsy. So that means he’s Ralph.”
“Don’t be so rude, Justine! What on earth’s the matter with your manners?” demanded Fee.
“No, Fee, it’s all right. I’d prefer that everyone call me plain Ralph, really,” the Cardinal said quickly. Why did she dislike him so, the odd mite?
“I couldn’t!” gasped Dane. “I couldn’t call you just Ralph!”
Cardinal Ralph crossed the room, took the bare shoulders between his hands and smiled down, his blue eyes very kind, and vivid in the room’s shadows. “Of course you can, Dane. It isn’t a sin.”
“Come on, Dane, let’s get back to the cubbyhouse,” Justine ordered.
Cardinal Ralph and his son turned toward Fee, looked at her together.
“Heaven help us!” said Fee. “Go on, Dane, go outside and play, will you?” She clapped her hands. “Buzz!”
The boy ran for his life, and Fee edged toward her books. Cardinal Ralph took pity on her and announced that he would go to the cookhouse. How little the place had changed! Still lamplit, obviously. Still redolent of beeswax and great vases of roses.
He stayed talking to Mrs. Smith and the maids for a long time. They had grown much older in the years since he had left, but somehow age suited them more than it did Fee. Happy. That’s what they were. Genuinely almost perfectly happy. Poor Fee, who wasn’t happy. It made him hungry to see Meggie, see if she was happy.
But when he left the cookhouse Meggie wasn’t back, so to fill in time he strolled through the grounds toward the creek. How peaceful the cemetery was; there were six bronze plaques on the mausoleum wall, just as there had been last time. He must see that he himself was buried here; he must remember to instruct them, when he returned to Rome. Near the mausoleum he noticed two new graves, old Tom, the garden rouseabout, and the wife of one of the stockmen, who had been on the payroll since 1946. Must be some sort of record. Mrs. Smith thought he was still with them because his wife lay here. The Chinese cook’s ancestral umbrella was quite faded from all the years of fierce sun, had dwindled from its original imperial red through the various shades he remembered to its present whitish-pink, almost ashes of roses. Meggie, Meggie. You went back to him after me, you bore him a son.
It was very hot; a little wind came, stirred the weeping willows along the creek, made the bells on the Chinese cook’s umbrella chime their mournful tinny tune: Hee Sing, Hee Sing, Hee Sing. Tankstand Charlie he was a good bloke. That had faded, too, was practically indecipherable. Well, it was fitting. Graveyards ought to sink back into the bosom of Mother Earth, lose their human cargo under a wash of time, until it all was gone and only the air remembered, sighing. He didn’t want to be buried in a Vatican crypt, among men like himself. Here, among people who had really lived.
Turning, his eyes caught the glaucous glance of the marble angel. He raised his hand, saluted it, looked across the grass toward the big house. And she was coming, Meggie. Slim, golden, in a pair of breeches and a white man’s shirt exactly like his own, a man’s grey felt hat on the back of her head, tan boots on her feet. Like a boy, like her son, who should have been his son. He was a man, but when he too lay here there would be nothing left living to mark the fact.
She came on, stepped over the white fence, came so close all he could see were her eyes, those grey, light-filled eyes which hadn’t lost their beauty or their hold over his heart. Her arms were around his neck, his fate again within his touch, it was as if he had never been away from her, that mouth alive under his, not a dream; so long wanted, so long. A different kind of sacrament, dark like the earth, having nothing to do with the sky.
“Meggie, Meggie,” he said, his face in her hair, her hat on the grass, his arms around her.
“It doesn’t seem to matter, does it? Nothing ever changes,” she said, eyes closed.
“No, nothing changes,” he said, believing it.
“This is Drogheda, Ralph. I warned you, on Drogheda you’re mine, not God’s.”
g“I know. I admit it. But I came.” He drew her down onto the grass. “Why, Meggie?”
“Why what?” Her hand was stroking his hair, whiter than Fee’s now, still thick, still beautiful.
“Why did you go back to Luke? Have his son?” he asked jealously.
Her soul looked out from behind its lucent grey windows and veiled its thoughts from him. “He forced me to,” she said blandly. “It was only once. But I had Dane, so I’m not sorry. Dane was worth everything I went through to get him.”
“I’m sorry, I had no right to ask. I gave you to Luke in the first place, didn’t I?”
“That’s true, you did.”
“He’s a wonderful boy. Does he look like Luke?”
She smiled secretly, plucked at the grass, laid her hand inside his shirt, against his chest. “Not really. Neither of my children looks very much like Luke, or me.”
“I love them because they’re yours.”
“You’re as sentimental as ever. Age suits you, Ralph. I knew it would, I hoped I’d have the chance to see it. Thirty years I’ve known you! It seems like thirty days.”
“Thirty years? As many as that?”
“I’m forty-one, my dear, so it must be.” She got to her feet. “I was officially sent to summon you inside. Mrs. Smith is laying on a splendid tea in your honor, and later on when it’s a bit cooler there’s to be roast leg of pork, with lots of crackling.”
He began to walk with her, slowly. “Your son laughs just like you, Meggie. His laugh was the first human noise I heard on Drogheda. I thought he was you; I went to find you and I discovered him instead.”
“So he was the first person you saw on Drogheda.”
“Why, yes, I suppose he was.”
“What did you think of him, Ralph?” she asked eagerly.
“I liked him. How could I not, when he’s your son? But I was attracted to him very strongly, far more so than to your daughter. She doesn’t like me, either.”
“Justine might be my child, but she’s a prize bitch. I’ve learned to swear in my old age, mostly thanks to Justine. And you, a little. And Luke, a little. And the war, a little. Funny how they all mount up.”
“You’ve changed a lot, Meggie.”
“Have I?” The soft, full mouth curved into a smile. “I don’t think so, really. It’s just the Great Northwest, wearing me down, stripping off the layers like Salome’s seven veils. Or like an onion, which is how Justine would rather put it. No poetry, that child. I’m the same old Meggie, Ralph, only more naked.”
“Ah, but you’ve changed, Ralph.”
“In what way, my Meggie?”
“As if the pedestal rocks with every passing breeze, and as if the view from up there is a disappointment.”
“It is.” He laughed soundlessly. “And to think I once had the temerity to say you weren’t anything out of the ordinary! I take it back. You’re the one woman, Meggie. The one!”
“I don’t know. Did I discover even Church idols have feet of clay? Did I sell myself for a mess of pottage? Am I grasping at nothing?” His brows drew togther, as if in pain. “And that’s it, perhaps, in a nutshell. I’m a mass of clichés. It’s an old, sour, petrified world, the Vatican world.”
“I was more real, but you could never see it.”
“There was nothing else I could do, truly! I knew where I should have gone, but I couldn’t. With you I might have been a better man, if less august. But I just couldn’t, Meggie. Oh, I wish I could make you see that!”
Her hand stole along his bare arm, tenderly. “Dear Ralph, I do see it. I know, I know…. Each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, it’s driven to. We can know what we do wrong even before we do it, but self-knowledge can’t affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it’s the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it.”
“That’s what I don’t understand. The pain.” He glanced down at her hand, so gently on his arm, hurting him so unbearably. “Why the pain, Meggie?”
“Ask God, Ralph,” said Meggie. “He’s the authority on pain, isn’t He? He made us what we are, He made the whole world. Therefore He made the pain, too.”
Bob, Jack, Hughie, Jims and Patsy were in for dinner, since it was Saturday night. Tomorrow Father Watty was due out to say Mass, but Bob called him and said no one would be there. A white lie, to preserve Cardinal Ralph’s anonymity. The five Cleary boys were more like Paddy than ever, older, slower in speech, as steadfast and enduring as the land. And how they loved Dane! Their eyes never seemed to leave him, even followed him from the room when he went to bed. It wasn’t hard to see they lived for the day when he would be old enough to join them in running Drogheda.
Cardinal Ralph had also discovered the reason for Justine’s enmity. Dane had taken a fancy to him, hung on his words, lingered near him; she was plain jealous.
After the children had gone upstairs, he looked at those who were left: the brothers, Meggie, Fee.
“Fee, leave your desk for a moment,” he said. “Come and sit here with us. I want to talk to all of you.”
She still carried herself well and hadn’t lost her figure, only slackened in the breasts, thickened very slightly in the waist; more a shaping due to old age than to an actual weight gain. Silently she seated herself in one of the big cream chairs opposite the Cardinal, with Meggie to one side, and the brothers on stone benches close by.
“It’s about Frank,” he said.
The name hung between them, resounding distantly.
“What about Frank?” asked Fee composedly.
Meggie laid her knitting down, looked at her mother, then at Cardinal Ralph. “Tell us, Ralph,” she said quickly, unable to bear her mother’s composure a moment longer.
“Frank has served almost thirty years in jail, do you realize that?” asked the Cardinal. “I know my people kept you informed as we arranged, but I had asked them not to distress you unduly. I honestly couldn’t see what good it could do Frank or yourselves to hear the harrowing details of his loneliness and despair, because there was nothing any of us might have done. I think Frank would have been released some years ago had he not gained a reputation for violence and instability during his early years in Goulburn Gaol. Even as late as the war, when some other prisoners were released into armed service, poor Frank was refused.”
Fee glanced up from her hands. “It’s his temper,” she said without emotion.
The Cardinal seemed to be having some difficulty in finding the right words; while he sought for them, the family watched him in mingled dread and hope, though it wasn’t Frank’s welfare they cared about.
“It must be puzzling you greatly why I came back to Australia after all these years,” Cardinal Ralph said finally, not looking at Meggie. “I haven’t always been mindful of your lives, and I know it. From the day I met you, I’ve thought of myself first, put myself first. And when the Holy Father rewarded my labors on behalf of the Church with a cardinal’s mantle, I asked myself if there was any service I could do the Cleary family which in some way would tell them how deeply I care.” He drew a breath, focused his gaze on Fee, not on Meggie. “I came back to Australia to see what I could do about Frank. Do you remember, Fee, that time I spoke to you after Paddy and Stu died? Twenty years ago, and I’ve never been able to forget the look in your eyes. So much energy and vitality, crushed.”
“Yes,” said Bob abruptly, his eyes riveted on his mother. “Yes, that’s it.”
“Frank is being paroled,” said the Cardinal. “It was the only thing I could do to show you that I do care.”
If he had expected a sudden, dazzling blaze of light from out of Fee’s long darkness, he would have been very disappointed; at first it was no more than a small flicker, and perhaps the toll of age would never really permit it to shine at full brightness. But in the eyes of Fee’s sons he saw its true magnitude, and knew a sense of his own purpose he hadn’t felt since that time during the war when he had talked to the young German soldier with the imposing name.
“Thank you,” said Fee.
“Will you welcome him back to Drogheda?” he asked the Cleary men.
“This is his home, it’s where he ought to be,” Bob answered elliptically.
Everyone nodded agreement save Fee, who seemed intent on some private vision.
“He isn’t the same Frank,” Cardinal Ralph went on gently. “I visited him in Goulburn Gaol to tell him the news before I came here, and I had to let him know everyone on Drogheda had always been aware what had happened to him. If I tell you that he didn’t take it hard, it might give you some idea of the change in him. He was simply…grateful. And so looking forward to seeing his family again, especially you, Fee.”
“When’s he being released?” Bob asked, clearing his throat, pleasure for his mother clearly warring with fear of what would happen when Frank returned.
“In a week or two. He’ll come up on the night mail. I wanted him to fly, but he said he preferred the train.”
“Patsy and I will meet him,” Jims offered eagerly, then his face fell. “Oh! We don’t know what he looks like!”
“No,” said Fee. “I’ll meet him myself. On my own. I’m not in my dotage yet; I can still drive to Gilly.”
“Mum’s right,” said Meggie firmly, forestalling a chorus of protests from her brothers. “Let Mum meet him on her own. She’s the one ought to see him first.”
“Well, I have work to do,” said Fee gruffly, getting up and moving toward her desk.
The five brothers rose as one man. “And I reckon it’s our bedtime,” said Bob, yawning elaborately. He smiled shyly at Cardinal Ralph. “It will be like old times, to have you saying Mass for us in the morning.”
Meggie folded her knitting, put it away, got up. “I’ll say good night, too, Ralph.”
“Good night, Meggie.” His eyes followed her as she went out of the room, then turned to Fee’s hunched back. “Good night, Fee.”
“I beg your pardon? Did you say something?”
“I said good night.”
“Oh! Good night, Ralph.”
He didn’t want to go upstairs so soon after Meggie. “I’m going for a walk before I turn in, I think. Do you know something, Fee?”
“No.” Her voice was absent.
“You don’t fool me for a minute.”
She snorted with laughter, an eerie sound. “Don’t I? I wonder about that.”
Late, and the stars. The southern stars, wheeling across the heavens. He had lost his hold upon them forever, though they were still there, too distant to warm, too remote to comfort. Closer to God, Who was a wisp between them. For a long time he stood looking up, listening to the wind in the trees, smiling.
Reluctant to be near Fee, he used the flight of stairs at the far end of the house; the lamp over her desk still burned and he could see her bent silhouette there, working. Poor Fee. How much she must dread going to bed, though perhaps when Frank came home it would be easier. Perhaps.
At the top of the stairs silence met him thickly; a crystal lamp on a narrow hall table shed a dim pool of light for the comfort of nocturnal wanderers, flickering as the night breeze billowed the curtains inward around the window next to it. He passed it by, his feet on the heavy carpeting making no sound.
Meggie’s door was wide open, more light welling through it; blocking the rays for a moment, he shut her door behind him and locked it. She had donned a loose wrapper and was sitting in a chair by the window looking out across the invisible Home Paddock, but her head turned to watch him walk to the bed, sit on its edge. Slowly she got up and came to him.
“Here, I’ll help you get your boots off. That’s the reason I never wear knee ones myself. I can’t get them off without a jack, and a jack ruins good boots.”
“Did you wear that color deliberately, Meggie?”
“Ashes of roses?” She smiled. “It’s always been my favorite color. It doesn’t clash with my hair.”
He put one foot on her backside while she pulled a boot off, then changed it for the bare foot.
“Were you so sure I’d come to you, Meggie?”
“I told you. On Drogheda you’re mine. Had you not come to me, I’d have gone to you, make no mistake.” She drew his shirt over his head, and for a moment her hand rested with luxurious sensitivity on his bare back, then she went across to the lamp and turned it out, while he draped his clothes over a chair back. He could hear her moving about, shedding her wrapper. And tomorrow morning I’ll say Mass. But that’s tomorrow morning, and the magic has long gone. There is still the night, and Meggie. I have wanted her. She, too, is a sacrament.
Dane was disappointed. “I thought you’d wear a red soutane!” he said.
“Sometimes I do, Dane, but only within the walls of the palace. Outside it, I wear a black soutane with a red sash, like this.”
“Do you really have a palace?”
“Is it full of chandeliers?”
“Yes, but so is Drogheda.”
“Oh, Drogheda!” said Dane in disgust. “I’ll bet ours are little ones compared to yours. I’d love to see your palace, and you in a red soutane.”
Cardinal Ralph smiled. “Who knows, Dane? Perhaps one day you will.”
The boy had a curious expression always at the back of his eyes; a distant look. When he turned during the Mass, Cardinal Ralph saw it reinforced, but he didn’t recognize it, only felt its familiarity. No man sees himself in a mirror as he really is, nor any woman.
Luddie and Anne Mueller were due in for Christmas, as indeed they were every year. The big house was full of light-hearted people, looking forward to the best Christmas in years; Minnie and Cat sang tunelessly as they worked, Mrs. Smith’s plump face was wreathed in smiles, Meggie relinquished Dane to Cardinal Ralph without comment, and Fee seemed much happier, less glued to her desk. The men seized upon any excuse to make it back in each night, for after a late dinner the drawing room buzzed with conversation, and Mrs. Smith had taken to preparing a bedtime supper snack of melted cheese on toast, hot buttered crumpets and raisin scones. Cardinal Ralph protested that so much good food would make him fat, but after three days of Drogheda air, Drogheda people and Drogheda food, he seemed to be shedding the rather gaunt, haggard look he had worn when he arrived.
The fourth day came in very hot. Cardinal Ralph had gone with Dane to bring in a mob of sheep, Justine sulked alone in the pepper tree, and Meggie lounged on a cushioned cane settee on the veranda. Her bones felt limp, glutted, and she was very happy. A woman can live without it quite well for years at a stretch, but it was nice, when it was the one man. When she was with Ralph every part of her came alive except that part which belonged to Dane; the trouble was, when she was with Dane every part of her came alive except that which belonged to Ralph. Only when both of them were present in her world simultaneously, as now, did she feel utterly complete. Well, it stood to reason. Dane was her son, but Ralph was her man.
Yet one thing marred her happiness; Ralph hadn’t seen. So her mouth remained closed upon her secret. If he couldn’t see it for himself, why should she tell him? What had he ever done, to earn the telling? That he could think for a moment she had gone back to Luke willingly was the last straw. He didn’t deserve to be told, if he could think that of her. Sometimes she felt Fee’s pale, ironic eyes upon her, and she would stare back, unperturbed. Fee understood, she really did. Understood the half-hate, the resentment, the desire to pay back the lonely years. Off chasing rainbows, that was Ralph de Bricassart; and why should she gift him with the most exquisite rainbow of all, his son? Let him be deprived. Let him suffer, never knowing he suffered.
The phone rang its Drogheda code; Meggie listened idly, then realizing her mother must be elsewhere, she got up reluctantly and went to answer it.
“Mrs. Fiona Cleary, please,” said a man’s voice.
When Meggie called her name, Fee returned to take the receiver.
“Fiona Cleary speaking,” she said, and as she stood listening the color faded gradually from her face, making it look as it had looked in the days after Paddy and Stu died; tiny and vulnerable. “Thank you,” she said, and hung up.
“What is it, Mum?”
“Frank’s been released. He’s coming up on the night mail this afternoon.” She looked at her watch. “I must leave soon; it’s after two.”
“Let me come with you,” Meggie offered, so filled with her own happiness she couldn’t bear to see her mother disappointed; she sensed that this meeting couldn’t be pure joy for Fee.
“No, Meggie, I’ll be all right. You take care of things here, and hold dinner until I get back.”
“Isn’t it wonderful, Mum? Frank’s coming home in time for Christmas!”
“Yes,” said Fee, “it is wonderful.”
No one traveled on the night mail these days if they could fly, so by the time it had huffed the six hundred miles from Sydney, dropping its mostly second-class passengers at this small town or that, few people were left to be disgorged in Gilly.
The stationmaster had a nodding acquaintance with Mrs. Cleary but would never have dreamed of engaging her in conversation, so he just watched her descend the wooden steps from the overhead footbridge, and left her alone to stand stiffly on the high platform. She was a stylish old girl, he thought; up-to-date dress and hat, high-heeled shoes, too. Good figure, not many lines on her face really for an old girl; just went to show what the easy life of a grazier could do for a woman.
So that on the surface Frank recognized his mother more quickly than she did him, though her heart knew him at once. He was fifty-two years old, and the years of his absence were those which had carried him from youth to middle age. The man who stood in the Gilly sunset was too thin, gaunt almost, very pale; his hair was cropped halfway up his head, he wore shapeless clothes which hung on a frame still hinting at power for all its small size, and his well-shaped hands were clamped on the brim of a grey felt hat. He wasn’t stooped or ill-looking, but he stood helplessly twisting that hat between his hands and seemed not to expect anyone to meet him, nor to know what next he ought to do.
Fee, controlled, walked briskly down the platform.
“Hello, Frank,” she said.
He lifted the eyes which used to flash and sparkle so, set now in the face of an aging man. Not Frank’s eyes at all. Exhausted, patient, intensely weary. But as they absorbed the sight of Fee an extraordinary expression came into them, wounded, utterly defenseless, filled with the appeal of a dying man.
“Oh, Frank!” she said, and took him in her arms, rocking his head on her shoulder. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she crooned, and softer still, “It’s all right!”
He sat slumped and silent in the car at first, but as the Rolls picked up speed and headed out of town he began to take an interest in his surroundings, and glanced out of the window.
“It looks exactly the same,” he whispered.
“I imagine it does. Time moves slowly out here.”
They crossed the rumbling wooden-planked bridge over the thin, muddy river lined with weeping willows, most of its bed exposed in a tangle of roots and gravel, pools lying in still brown patches, gum trees growing everywhere in the stony wastes.
“The Barwon,” he said. “I never thought I’d see it again.”
Behind them rose an enormous cloud of dust, in front of them the road sped straight as a perspective exercise across a great grassy plain devoid of trees.
“The road’s new, Mum?” He seemed desperate to find conversation, make the situation appear normal.
“Yes, they put it through from Gilly to Milparinka just after the war ended.”
“They might have sealed it with a bit of tar instead of leaving it the same old dirt.”
“What for? We’re used to eating dust out here, and think of the expense of making a bed strong enough to resist the mud. The new road is straight, they keep it well graded and it cut out thirteen of our twenty-seven gates. Only fourteen left between Gilly and the homestead, and just you wait and see what we’ve done to them, Frank. No more opening and closing gates.”
The Rolls ran up a ramp toward a steel gate which lifted lazily; the moment the car passed under it and got a few yards down the track, the gate lowered itself closed.
“Wonders never cease!” said Frank.
“We were the first station around here to install the automatic ramp gates—only between the Milparinka road and the homestead, of course. The paddock gates still have to be opened and closed by hand.”
“Well, I reckon the bloke that invented these gates must have opened and closed a lot in his time, eh?” Frank grinned; it was the first sign of amusement he had shown.
But then he fell silent, so his mother concentrated on her driving, unwilling to push him too quickly. When they passed under the last gate and entered the Home Paddock, he gasped.
“I’d forgotten how lovely it is,” he said.
“It’s home,” said Fee. “We’ve looked after it.”
She drove the Rolls down to the garages and then walked with him back to the big house, only this time he carried his case himself.
“Would you rather have a room in the big house, Frank, or a guesthouse all to yourself?” his mother asked.
“I’ll take a guesthouse, thanks.” The exhausted eyes rested on her face. “It will be nice to be able to get away from people,” he explained. That was the only reference he ever made to conditions in jail.
“I think it will be better for you,” she said, leading the way into her drawing room. “The big house is pretty full at the moment, what with the Cardinal here, Dane and Justine home, and Luddie and Anne Mueller arriving the day after tomorrow for Christmas.” She pulled the bell cord for tea and went quickly round the room lighting the kerosene lamps.
“Luddie and Anne Mueller?” he asked.
She stopped in the act of turning up a wick, looked at him. “It’s been a long time, Frank. The Muellers are friends of Meggie’s.” The lamp trimmed to her satisfaction, she sat down in her wing chair. “We’ll have dinner in an hour, but first we’ll have a cup of tea. I have to wash the dust of the road out of my mouth.”
Frank seated himself awkwardly on the edge of one of the cream silk ottomans, gazing at the room in awe. “It looks so different from the days of Auntie Mary.”
Fee smiled. “Well, I think so,” she said.
Then Meggie came in, and it was harder to assimilate the fact of Meggie grown into a mature woman than to see his mother old. As his sister hugged and kissed him he turned his face away, shrank inside his baggy coat and searched beyond her to his mother, who sat looking at him as if to say: It doesn’t matter, it will all seem normal soon, just give it time. A minute later, while he was still searching for something to say to this stranger, Meggie’s daughter came in; a tall, skinny young girl who sat down stiffly, her big hands pleating folds in her dress, her light eyes fixed first on one face, then on another. Meggie’s son entered with the Cardinal and went to sit on the floor beside his sister, a beautiful, calmly aloof boy.
“Frank, this is marvelous,” said Cardinal Ralph, shaking him by the hand, then turning to Fee with his left brow raised. “A cup of tea? Very good idea.”
The Cleary men came into the room together, and that was very hard, for they hadn’t forgiven him at all. Frank knew why; it was the way he had hurt their mother. But he didn’t know of anything to say which would make them understand any of it, nor could he tell them of the pain, the loneliness, or beg forgiveness. The only one who really mattered was his mother, and she had never thought there was anything to forgive.
It was the Cardinal who tried to hold the evening together, who led the conversation round the dinner table and then afterward back in the drawing room, chatting with diplomatic ease and making a special point of including Frank in the gathering.
“Bob, I’ve meant to ask you ever since I arrived—where are the rabbits?” the Cardinal asked. “I’ve seen millions of burrows, but nary a rabbit.”
“The rabbits are all dead,” Bob answered.
“That’s right, from something called myxomatosis. Between the rabbits and the drought years, Australia was just about finished as a primary producing nation by nineteen forty-seven. We were desperate,” said Bob, warming to his theme and grateful to have something to discuss which would exclude Frank.
At which point Frank unwittingly antagonized his next brother by saying, “I knew it was bad, but not as bad as all that.” He sat back, hoping he had pleased the Cardinal by contributing his mite to the discussion.
“Well, I’m not exaggerating, believe me!” said Bob tartly; how would Frank know?
“What happened?” the Cardinal asked quickly.
“The year before last the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization started an experimental program in Victoria, infecting rabbits with this virus thing they’d bred. I’m not sure what a virus is, except I think it’s a sort of germ. Anyway, they called theirs the myxomatosis virus. At first it didn’t seem to spread too well, though what bunnies caught it all died. But about a year after the experimental infection it began to spread like wildfire, they think mosquito-borne, but something to do with saffron thistle as well. And the bunnies have died in millions and millions ever since, it’s just wiped them out. You’ll sometimes see a few sickies around with huge lumps all over their faces, very ugly-looking things. But it’s a marvelous piece of work, Ralph, it really is. Nothing else can catch myxomatosis, even close relatives. So thanks to the blokes at the CSIRO, the rabbit plague is no more.”
Cardinal Ralph stared at Frank. “Do you realize what it is, Frank? Do you?”
Poor Frank shook his head, wishing everyone would let him retreat into anonymity.
“Mass-scale biological warfare. I wonder does the rest of the world know that right here in Australia between 1949 and 1952 a virus war was waged against a population of trillions upon trillions, and succeeded in obliterating it? Well! It’s feasible, isn’t it? Not simply yellow journalism at all, but scientific fact. They may as well bury their atom bombs and hydrogen bombs. I know it had to be done, it was absolutely necessary, and it’s probably the world’s most unsung major scientific achievement. But it’s terrifying, too.”
Dane had been following the conversation closely. “Biological warfare? I’ve never heard of it. What is it exactly, Ralph?”
“The words are new, Dane, but I’m a papal diplomat and the pity of it is that I must keep abreast of words like ‘biological warfare.’ In a nutshell, the term means myxomatosis. Breeding a germ capable of specifically killing and maiming only one kind of living being.”
Quite unself-consciously Dane made the Sign of the Cross, and leaned back against Ralph de Bricassart’s knees. “We had better pray, hadn’t we?”
The Cardinal looked down on his fair head, smiling.