The Thorn Birds (Chapter 111-115)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 111

“Prawn! Why should I mind? If this was London I’d be inundating you with my friends, so why shouldn’t you? I’m glad you’re giving me a look-see at the blokes in the seminary, though it’s a bit unfair to me, isn’t it? Hands off the lot of them.”

She walked to the window, looked down at a shabby little square with two tired plane trees in its paved quadrangle, three tables strewn beneath them, and to one side a church of no particular architectural grace or beauty, covered in peeling stucco.

“Dane….”

“Yes?”

“I do understand, really I do.”

“Yes, I know.” His face lost its smile. “I wish Mum did, Jus.”

“Mum’s different. She feels you deserted her; she doesn’t realize you haven’t. Never mind about her. She’ll come round in time.”

“I hope so.” He laughed. “By the way, it isn’t the blokes from the seminary you’re going to meet today. I wouldn’t subject them or you to such temptation. It’s Cardinal de Bricassart. I know you don’t like him, but promise you’ll be good.”

Her eyes lit with peculiar witchery. “I promise! I’ll even kiss every ring that’s offered to me.”

“Oh, you remember! I was so mad at you that day, shaming me in front of him.”

“Well, since then I’ve kissed a lot of things less hygienic than a ring. There’s one horrible pimply youth in acting class with halitosis and decayed tonsils and a rotten stomach I had to kiss a total of twenty-nine times, and I can assure you, mate, that after him nothing’s impossible.” She patted her hair, turned from the mirror. “Have I got time to change?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. You look fine.”

“Who else is going to be there?”

The sun was too low to warm the ancient square, and the leprous patches on the plane tree trunks looked worn, sick. Justine shivered.

“Cardinal di Contini-Verchese will be there.”

She had heard that name, and opened her eyes wider. “Phew! You move in pretty exalted circles, don’t you?”

“Yes. I try to deserve it.”

“Does it mean some people make it hard on you in other areas of your life here, Dane?” she asked, shrewdly.

“No, not really. Who one knows isn’t important. I never think of it, so nor does anyone else.”

The room, the red men! Never in all her life had Justine been so conscious of the redundancy of women in the lives of some men as at that moment, walking into a world where women simply had no place except as humble nun servants. She was still in the olive-green linen suit she had put on outside Turin, rather crumpled from the train, and she advanced across the soft crimson carpet cursing Dane’s eagerness to be there, wishing she had insisted on donning something less travel-marked.

Cardinal de Bricassart was on his feet, smiling; what a handsome old man he was.

“My dear Justine,” he said, extending his ring with a wicked look which indicated he well remembered the last time, and searching her face for something she didn’t understand. “You don’t look at all like your mother.”

Down on one knee, kiss the ring, smile humbly, get up, smile less humbly. “No, I don’t, do I? I could have done with her beauty in my chosen profession, but on a stage I manage. Because it has nothing to do with what the face actually is, you know. It’s what you and your art can convince people the face is.”

A dry chuckle came from a chair; once more she trod to salute a ring on an aging wormy hand, but this time she looked up into dark eyes, and strangely in them saw love. Love for her, for someone he had never seen, could scarcely have heard mentioned. But it was there. She didn’t like Cardinal de Bricassart any more now than she had at fifteen, but she warmed to this old man.

“Sit down, my dear,” said Cardinal Vittorio, his hand indicating the chair next to him.

“Hello, pusskins,” said Justine, tickling the blue-grey cat in his scarlet lap. “She’s nice, isn’t she?”

“Indeed she is.”

“What’s her name?”

“Natasha.”

The door opened, but not to admit the tea trolley. A man, mercifully clad as a layman; one more red soutane, thought Justine, and I’ll bellow like a bull.

But he was no ordinary man, even if he was a layman. They probably had a little house rule in the Vatican, continued Justine’s unruly mind, which specifically barred ordinary men. Not exactly short, he was so powerfully built he seemed more stocky than he was, with massive shoulders and a huge chest, a big leonine head, long arms like a shearer. Ape-mannish, except that he exuded intelligence and moved with the gait of someone who would grasp whatever he wanted too quickly for the mind to follow. Grasp it and maybe crush it, but never aimlessly, thoughtlessly; with exquisite deliberation. He was dark, but his thick mane of hair was exactly the color of steel wool and of much the same consistency, could steel wool have been crimped into tiny, regular waves.

“Rainer, you come in good time,” said Cardinal Vittorio, indicating the chair on his other side, still speaking in English. “My dear,” he said, turning to Justine as the man finished kissing his ring and rose, “I would like you to meet a very good friend. Herr Rainer Moerling Hartheim. Rainer, this is Dane’s sister, Justine.”

He bowed, clicking his heels punctiliously, gave her a brief smile without warmth and sat down, just too far off to one side to see. Justine breathed a sigh of relief, especially when she saw that Dane had draped himself with the ease of habit on the floor beside Cardinal Ralph’s chair, right in her central vision. While she could see someone she knew and loved well, she would be all right. But the room and the red men and now this dark man were beginning to irritate her more than Dane’s presence calmed; she resented the way they shut her out. So she leaned to one side and tickled the cat again, aware that Cardinal Vittorio sensed and was amused by her reactions.

“Is she spayed?” asked Justine.

“Of course.”

“Of course! Though why you needed to bother I don’t know. Just being a permanent inhabitant of this place would be enough to neuter anyone’s ovaries.”

“On the contrary, my dear,” said Cardinal Vittorio, enjoying her hugely. “It is we men who have psychologically neutered ourselves.”

“I beg to differ, Your Eminence.”

“So our little world antagonizes you?”

“Well, let’s just say I feel a bit superfluous, Your Eminence. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

“I cannot blame you. I also doubt that you like to visit. But you will get used to us, for you must visit us often, please.”

Justine grinned. “I hate being on my best behavior,” she confided. “It brings out the absolute worst in me—I can feel Dane’s horrors from here without even looking at him.”

“I was wondering how long it was going to last,” said Dane, not at all put out. “Scratch Justine’s surface and you find a rebel. That’s why she’s such a nice sister for me to have. I’m not a rebel, but I do admire them.”

Herr Hartheim shifted his chair so that he could continue to keep her in his line of vision even when she straightened, stopped playing with the cat. At that moment the beautiful animal grew tired of the hand with an alien female scent, and without getting to its feet crawled delicately from red lap to grey, curling itself under Herr Hartheim’s strong square stroking hands, purring so loudly that everyone laughed.

“Excuse me for living,” said Justine, not proof against a good joke even when she was its victim.

“Her motor is as good as ever,” said Herr Hartheim, the amusement working fascinating changes in his face. His English was so good he hardly had an accent, but it had an American inflection; he rolled his r’s.

The tea came before everyone settled down again, and oddly enough it was Herr Hartheim who poured, handing Justine her cup with a much friendlier look than he had given her at introduction.

“In a British community,” he said to her, “afternoon tea is the most important refreshment of the day. Things happen over teacups, don’t they? I suppose because by its very nature it can be demanded and taken at almost any time between two and five-thirty, and talking is thirsty work.”

The next half hour seemed to prove his point, though Justine took no part in the congress. Talk veered from the Holy Father’s precarious health to the cold war and then the economic recession, all four men speaking and listening with an alertness Justine found absorbing, beginning to grope for the qualities they shared, even Dane, who was so strange, so much an unknown. He contributed actively, and it wasn’t lost upon her that the three older men listened to him with a curious humility, almost as if he awed them. His comments were neither uninformed nor naïve, but they were different, original, holy. Was it for his holiness they paid such serious attention to him? That he possessed it, and they didn’t? Was it truly a virtue they admired, yearned for themselves? Was it so rare? Three men so vastly different one from the other, yet far closer bound together than any of them were to Dane. How difficult it was to take Dane as seriously as they did! Not that in many ways he hadn’t acted as an older brother rather than a younger; not that she wasn’t aware of his wisdom, his intellect or his holiness. But until now he had been a part of her world. She had to get used to the fact that he wasn’t anymore.

Chapter 112

“If you wish to go straight to your devotions, Dane, I’ll see your sister back to her hotel,” commanded Herr Rainer Moerling Hartheim without consulting anyone’s wishes on the subject.

And so she found herself walking tongue-tied down the marble stairs in the company of that squat, powerful man. Outside in the yellow sheen of a Roman sunset he took her elbow and guided her into a black Mercedes limousine, its chauffeur standing to attention.

“Come, you don’t want to spend your first evening in Rome alone, and Dane is otherwise occupied,” he said, following her into the car. “You’re tired and bewildered, so it’s better you have company.”

“You don’t seem to be leaving me any choice, Herr Hartheim.”

“I would rather you called me Rainer.”

“You must be important, having a posh car and your own chauffeur.”

“I’ll be more important still when I’m chancellor of West Germany.”

Justine snorted. “I’m surprised you’re not already.”

“Impudent! I’m too young.”

“Are you?” She turned sideways to look at him more closely, discovering that his dark skin was unlined, youthful, that the deeply set eyes weren’t embedded in the fleshy surrounds of age.

“I’m heavy and I’m grey, but I’ve been grey since I was sixteen and heavy since I’ve had enough to eat. At the present moment I’m a mere thirty-one.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said, kicking her shoes off. “That’s still old to me—I’m sweet twenty-one.”

“You’re a monster,” he said, smiling.

“I suppose I must be. My mother says the same thing. Only I’m not sure what either of you means by monster, so you can give me your version, please.”

“Have you already got your mother’s version?”

“I’d embarrass the hell out of her if I asked.”

“Don’t you think you embarrass me?”

“I strongly suspect, Herr Hartheim, that you’re a monster, too, so I doubt if anything embarrasses you.”

“A monster,” he said again under his breath. “All right then, Miss O’Neill, I’ll try to define the term for you. Someone who terrifies others; rolls over the top of people; feels so strong only God can defeat; has no scruples and few morals.”

She chuckled. “It sounds like you, to me. And I have so too got morals and scruples. I’m Dane’s sister.”

“You don’t look a bit like him.”

“More’s the pity.”

“His face wouldn’t suit your personality.”

“You’re undoubtedly right, but with his face I might have developed a different personality.”

“Depending on which comes first, eh, the chicken or the egg? Put your shoes on; we’re going to walk.”

It was warm, and growing dark; but the lights were brilliant, there were crowds it seemed no matter where they walked, and the roads were jammed with shrieking motor scooters, tiny aggressive Fiats, Goggomobils looking like hordes of panicked frogs. Finally he halted in a small square, its cobbles worn to smoothness by the feet of many centuries, and guided Justine into a restaurant.

“Unless you’d prefer al fresco?” he asked.

“Provided you feed me, I don’t much care whether it’s inside, outside, or halfway between.”

“May I order for you?”

The pale eyes blinked a little wearily perhaps, but there was still fight in Justine. “I don’t know that I go for all that high-handed masterful-male business,” she said. “After all, how do you know what I fancy?”

“Sister Anna carries her banner,” he murmured. “Tell me what sort of food you like, then, and I’ll guarantee to please you. Fish? Veal?”

“A compromise? All right, I’ll meet you halfway, why not? I’ll have pâté, some scampi and a huge plate of saltimbocca, and after that I’ll have a cassata and a cappuccino coffee. Fiddle around with that if you can.”

“I ought to slap you,” he said, his good humor quite unruffled. He gave her order to the waiter exactly as she had stipulated it, but in rapid Italian.

“You said I don’t look a bit like Dane. Aren’t I like him in any way at all?” she asked a little pathetically over coffee, too hungry to have wasted time talking while there was food on the table.

He lit her cigarette, then his own, and leaned into the shadows to watch her quietly, thinking back to his first meeting with the boy months ago. Cardinal de Bricassart minus forty years of life; he had seen it immediately, and then had learned they were uncle and nephew, that the mother of the boy and the girl was Ralph de Bricassart’s sister.

“There is a likeness, yes,” he said. “Sometimes even of the face. Expressions far more than features. Around the eyes and the mouth, in the way you hold your eyes open and your mouths closed. Oddly enough, not likenesses you share with your uncle the Cardinal.”

“Uncle the Cardinal?” she repeated blankly.

“Cardinal de Bricassart. Isn’t he your uncle? Now, I’m sure I was told he was.”

“That old vulture? He’s no relation of ours, thank heavens. He used to be our parish priest years ago, a long time before I was born.”

She was very intelligent; but she was also very tired. Poor little girl—for that was what she was, a little girl. The ten years between them yawned like a hundred. To suspect would bring her world to ruins, and she was so valiant in defense of it. Probably she would refuse to see it, even if she were told outright. How to make it seem unimportant? Not labor the point, definitely not, but not drop it immediately, either.

“That accounts for it, then,” he said lightly.

“Accounts for what?”

“The fact that Dane’s likeness to the Cardinal is in general things—height, coloring, build.”

“Oh! My grandmother told me our father was rather like the Cardinal to look at,” said Justine comfortably.

“Haven’t you ever seen your father?”

“Not even a picture of him. He and Mum separated for good before Dane was born.” She beckoned the waiter. “I’d like another cappuccino, please.”

“Justine, you’re a savage! Let me order for you!”

“No, dammit, I won’t I’m perfectly capable of thinking for myself, and I don’t need some bloody man always to tell me what I want and when I want it, do you hear?”

“Scratch the surface and one finds a rebel; that was what Dane said.”

“He’s right. Oh, if you knew how I hate being petted and cosseted and fussed over! I like to act for myself, and I won’t be told what to do! I don’t ask for quarter, but I don’t give any, either.”

“I can see that,” he said dryly. “What made you so, Herzchen? Does it run in the family?”

“Does it? I honestly don’t know. There aren’t enough women to tell, I suppose. Only one per generation. Nanna, and Mum, and me. Heaps of men, though.”

“Except in your generation there are not heaps of men. Only Dane.”

“Due to the fact Mum left my father, I expect. She never seemed to get interested in anyone else. Pity, I think. Mum’s a real homebody; she would have liked a husband to fuss over.”

“Is she like you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“More importantly, do you like each other?”

“Mum and I?” She smiled without rancor, much as her mother would have done had someone asked her whether she liked her daughter. “I’m not sure if we like each other, but there is something there. Maybe it’s a simple biological bond; I don’t know.” Her eyes kindled. “I’ve always wanted her to talk to me the way she does to Dane, and wanted to get along with her the way Dane does. But either there’s something lacking in her, or something lacking in me. Me, I’d reckon. She’s a much finer person than I am.”

“I haven’t met her, so I can’t agree or disagree with your judgment. If it’s of any conceivable comfort to you, Herzchen, I like you exactly the way you are. No, I wouldn’t change a thing about you, even your ridiculous pugnacity.”

“Isn’t that nice of you? And after I insulted you, too. I’m not really like Dane, am I?”

“Dane isn’t like anyone else in the world.”

“You mean because he’s so not of this world?”

“I suppose so.” He leaned forward, out of the shadows into the weak light of the little candle in its Chianti bottle. “I am a Catholic, and my religion has been the one thing in my life which has never failed me, though I have failed it many times. I dislike speaking of Dane, because my heart tells me some things are better left undiscussed. Certainly you aren’t like him in your attitude to life, or God. Let’s leave it, all right?”

Chapter 113

She looked at him curiously. “All right, Rainer, if you want. I’ll make a pact with you—no matter what we discuss, it won’t be the nature of Dane, or religion.”

Much had happened to Rainer Moerling Hartheim since that meeting with Ralph de Bricassart in July 1943. A week afterward his regiment had been dispatched to the Eastern Front, where he spent the remainder of the war. Torn and rudderless, too young to have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth in its leisurely prewar days, he had faced the consequences of Hitler in feet of snow, without ammunition, the front line stretched so thin there was only one soldier for every hundred yards of it. And out of the war he carried two memories: that bitter campaign in bitter cold, and the face of Ralph de Bricassart. Horror and beauty, the Devil and God. Half crazed, half frozen, waiting defenseless for Khrushchev’s guerrillas to drop from low-flying planes parachuteless into the snowdrifts, he beat his breast and muttered prayers. But he didn’t know what he prayed for: bullets for his gun, escape from the Russians, his immortal soul, the man in the basilica, Germany, a lessening of grief.

In the spring of 1945 he had retreated back across Poland before the Russians, like his fellow soldiers with only one objective—to make it into British-or American-occupied Germany. For if the Russians caught him, he would be shot. He tore his papers into shreds and burned them, buried his two Iron Crosses, stole some clothes and presented himself to the British authorities on the Danish border. They shipped him to a camp for displaced persons in Belgium. There for a year he lived on the bread and gruel which was all the exhausted British could afford to feed the thousands upon thousands of people in their charge, waiting until the British realized their only course was release.

Twice officials of the camp had summoned him to present him with an ultimatum. There was a boat waiting in Ostend harbor loading immigrants for Australia. He would be given new papers and shipped to his new land free of charge, in return for which he would work for the Australian government for two years in whatever capacity they chose, after which his life would become entirely his own. Not slave labor; he would be paid the standard wage, of course. But on both occasions he managed to talk himself out of summary emigration. He had hated Hitler, not Germany, and he was not ashamed of being a German. Home meant Germany; it had occupied his dreams for over three years. The very thought of yet again being stranded in a country where no one spoke his language nor he theirs was anathema. So at the beginning of 1947 he found himself penniless on the streets of Aachen, ready to pick up the pieces of an existence he knew he wanted very badly.

He and his soul had survived, but not to go back to poverty and obscurity. For Rainer was more than a very ambitious man; he was also something of a genius. He went to work for Grundig, and studied the field which had fascinated him since he first got acquainted with radar: electronics. Ideas teemed in his brain, but he refused to sell them to Grundig for a millionth part of their value. Instead he gauged the market carefully, then married the widow of a man who had managed to keep a couple of small radio factories, and went into business for himself. That he was barely into his twenties didn’t matter. His mind was characteristic of a far older man, and the chaos of postwar Germany created opportunities for young men.

Since his wedding had been a civil one, the Church permitted him to divorce his wife; in 1951 he paid Annelise Hartheim exactly twice the current value of her first husband’s two factories, and did just that, divorced her. However, he didn’t remarry.

What had happened to the boy in the frozen terror of Russia did not produce a soulless caricature of a man; rather it arrested the growth of softness and sweetness in him, and threw into high relief other qualities he possessed—intelligence, ruthlessness, determination. A man who has nothing to lose has everything to gain, and a man without feelings cannot be hurt. Or so he told himself. In actual fact, he was curiously similar to the man he had met in Rome in 1943; like Ralph de Bricassart he understood he did wrong even as he did it. Not that his awareness of the evil in him stopped him for a second; only that he paid for his material advancement in pain and self-torment. To many people it might not have seemed worth the price he paid, but to him it was worth twice the suffering. One day he was going to run Germany and make it what he had dreamed, he was going to scotch the Aryan Lutheran ethic, shape a broader one. Because he couldn’t promise to cease sinning he had been refused absolution in the confessional several times, but somehow he and his religion muddled through in one piece, until accumulated money and power removed him so many layers beyond guilt he could present himself repentant, and be shriven.

In 1955, one of the richest and most powerful men in the new West Germany and a fresh face in its Bonn parliament, he went back to Rome. To seek out Cardinal de Bricassart, and show him the end result of his prayers. What he had imagined that meeting might be he could not afterward remember, for from beginning to end of it he was conscious of only one thing: that Ralph de Bricassart was disappointed in him. He had known why, he hadn’t needed to ask. But he hadn’t expected the Cardinal’s parting remark:

“I had prayed you would do better than I, for you were so young. No end is worth any means. But I suppose the seeds of our ruin are sown before our births.”

Back in his hotel room he had wept, but calmed after a while and thought: What’s past is done with; for the future I will be as he hoped. And sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he failed. But he tried. His friendship with the men in the Vatican became the most precious earthly thing in his life, and Rome became the place to which he fled when only their comfort seemed to stand between himself and despair. Comfort. Theirs was a strange kind. Not the laying on of hands, or soft words. Rather a balm from the soul, as if they understood his pain.

And he thought, as he walked the warm Roman night after depositing Justine in her pension, that he would never cease to be grateful to her. For as he had watched her cope with the ordeal of that afternoon interview, he had felt a stirring of tenderness. Bloody but unbowed, the little monster. She could match them every inch of the way; did they realize it? He felt, he decided, what he might have felt on behalf of a daughter he was proud of, only he had no daughter. So he had stolen her from Dane, carried her off to watch her aftermath reaction to that overpowering ecclesiasticism, and to the Dane she had never seen before; the Dane who was not and could not ever be a full-hearted part of her life.

The nicest thing about his personal God, he went on, was that He could forgive anything; He could forgive Justine her innate godlessness and himself the shutting down of his emotional powerhouse until such time as it was convenient to reopen it. Only for a while he had panicked, thinking he had lost the key forever. He smiled, threw away her cigarette. The key…. Well, sometimes keys had strange shapes. Perhaps it needed every kink in every curl of that red head to trip the tumblers; perhaps in a room of scarlet his God had handed him a scarlet key.

A fleeting day, over in a second. But on looking at his watch he saw it was still early, and knew the man who had so much power now that His Holiness lay near death would still be wakeful, sharing the nocturnal habits of his cat. Those dreadful hiccups filling the small room at Castel Gandolfo, twisting the thin, pale, ascetic face which had watched beneath the white crown for so many years; he was dying, and he was a great Pope. No matter what they said, he was a great Pope. If he had loved his Germans, if he still liked to hear German spoken around him, did it alter anything? Not for Rainer to judge that.

But for what Rainer needed to know at the moment, Castel Gandolfo was not the source. Up the marble stairs to the scarlet-and-crimson room, to talk to Vittorio Scarbanza, Cardinal di Contini-Verchese. Who might be the next Pope, or might not. For almost three years now he had watched those wise, loving dark eyes rest where they most liked to rest; yes, better to seek the answers from him than from Cardinal de Bricassart.

* * *

“I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but thank God we’re leaving for Drogheda,” said Justine, refusing to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain. “We were supposed to take a look at France and Spain; instead we’re still in Rome and I’m as unnecessary as a navel. Brothers!”

“Hmmm, so you deem navels unnecessary? Socrates was of the same opinion, I remember,” said Rainer.

“Socrates was? I don’t recollect that! Funny, I thought I’d read most of Plato, too.” She twisted to stare at him, thinking the casual clothes of a holiday-maker in Rome suited him far better than the sober attire he wore for Vatican audiences.

“He was absolutely convinced navels were unnecessary, as a matter of fact. So much so that to prove his point he unscrewed his own navel and threw it away.”

Her lips twitched. “And what happened?”

“His toga fell off.”

“Hook! Hook!” She giggled. “Anyway, they didn’t wear togas in Athens then. But I have a horrible feeling there’s a moral in your story.” Her face sobered. “Why do you bother with me, Rain?”

“Stubborn! I’ve told you before, my name is pronounced Ryner, not Rayner.”

Chapter 114

“Ah, but you don’t understand,” she said, looking thoughtfully at the twinkling streams of water, the dirty pool loaded with dirty coins. “Have you ever been to Australia?”

His shoulders shook, but he made no sound. “Twice I almost went, Herzchen, but I managed to avoid it.”

“Well, if you had gone you’d understand. You have a magical name to an Australian, when it’s pronounced my way. Rainer. Rain. Life in the desert.”

Startled, he dropped his cigarette. “Justine, you aren’t falling in love with me, are you?”

“What egotists men are! I hate to disappoint you, but no.” Then, as if to soften any unkindness in her words, she slipped her hand into his, squeezed. “It’s something much nicer.”

“What could be nicer than falling in love?”

“Almost anything, I think. I don’t want to need anyone like that, ever.”

“Perhaps you’re right. It’s certainly a crippling handicap, taken on too early. So what is much nicer?”

“Finding a friend.” Her hand rubbed his. “You are my friend, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Smiling, he threw a coin in the fountain. “There! I must have given it a thousand D-marks over the years, just for reassurance that I would continue to feel the warmth of the south. Sometimes in my nightmares I’m cold again.”

“You ought to feel the warmth of the real south,” said Justine. “A hundred and fifteen in the shade, if you can find any.”

“No wonder you don’t feel the heat.” He laughed the soundless laugh, as always; a hangover from the old days, when to laugh aloud might have tempted fate. “And the heat would account for the fact that you’re hard-boiled.”

“Your English is colloquial, but American. I would have thought you’d have learned English in some posh British university.”

“No. I began to learn it from Cockney or Scottish or Midlands tommies in a Belgian camp, and didn’t understand a word of it except when I spoke to the man who had taught it to me. One said ‘abaht,’ one said ‘aboot,’ one said ‘about,’ but they all meant ‘about.’ So when I got back to Germany I saw every motion picture I could, and bought the only records available in English, records made by American comedians. But I played them over and over again at home, until I spoke enough English to learn more.”

Her shoes were off, as usual; awed, he had watched her walk barefooted on pavements hot enough to fry an egg, and over stony places.

“Urchin! Put your shoes on.”

“I’m an Aussie; our feet are too broad to be comfortable in shoes. Comes of no really cold weather; we go barefoot whenever we can. I can walk across a paddock of bindy-eye burns and pick them out of my feet without feeling them,” she said proudly. “I could probably walk on hot coals.” Then abruptly she changed the subject. “Did you love your wife, Rain?”

“No.”

“Did she love you?”

“Yes. She had no other reason to marry me.”

“Poor thing! You used her, and you dropped her.”

“Does it disappoint you?”

“No, I don’t think so. I rather admire you for it, actually. But I do feel very sorry for her, and it makes me more determined than ever not to land in the same soup she did.”

“Admire me?” His tone was blank, astonished.

“Why not? I’m not looking for the things in you she undoubtedly did, now am I? I like you, you’re my friend. She loved you, you were her husband.”

“I think, Herzchen,” he said a little sadly, “that ambitious men are not very kind to their women.”

“That’s because they usually fall for utter doormats of women, the ‘Yes, dear, no, dear, three bags full, dear, and where would you like it put?’ sort. Hard cheese all round, I say. If I’d been your wife, I’d have told you to go pee up a rope, but I’ll bet she never did, did she?”

His lips quivered. “No, poor Annelise. She was the martyr kind, so her weapons were not nearly so direct or so deliciously expressed. I wish they made Australian films, so I knew your vernacular. The “Yes, dear’ bit I got, but I have no idea what hard cheese is.”

“Tough luck, sort of, but it’s more unsympathetic.” Her broad toes clung like strong fingers to the inside of the fountain wall, she teetered precariously backward and righted herself easily. “Well, you were kind to her in the end. You got rid of her. She’s far better off without you, though she probably doesn’t think so. Whereas I can keep you, because I’ll never let you get under my skin.”

“Hard-boiled. You really are, Justine. And how did you find out these things about me?”

“I asked Dane. Naturally, being Dane he just gave me the bare facts, but I deduced the rest.”

“From your enormous store of past experience, no doubt. What a fraud you are! They say you’re a very good actress, but I find that incredible. How do you manage to counterfeit emotions you can never have experienced? As a person you’re more emotionally backward than most fifteen-year-olds.”

She jumped down, sat on the wall and leaned to put her shoes on, wriggling her toes ruefully. “My feet are swollen, dammit.” There was no indication by a reaction of rage or indignation that she had even heard the last part of what he said. As if when aspersions or criticisms were leveled at her she simply switched off an internal hearing aid. How many there must have been. The miracle was that she didn’t hate Dane.

“That’s a hard question to answer,” she said. “I must be able to do it or I wouldn’t be so good, isn’t that right? But it’s like…a waiting. My life off the stage, I mean. I conserve myself, I can’t spend it offstage. We only have so much to give, don’t we? And up there I’m not myself, or perhaps more correctly I’m a succession of selves. We must all be a profound mixture of selves, don’t you think? To me, acting is first and foremost intellect, and only after that, emotion. The one liberates the other, and polishes it. There’s so much more to it than simply crying or screaming or producing a convincing laugh. It’s wonderful, you know. Thinking myself into another self, someone I might have been, had the circumstances been there. That’s the secret. Not becoming someone else, but incorporating the role into me as if she was myself. And so she becomes me.” As though her excitement was too great to bear in stillness, she jumped to her feet. “Imagine, Rain! In twenty years’ time I’ll be able to say to myself, I’ve committed murders, I’ve suicided, I’ve gone mad, I’ve saved men or ruined them. Oh! The possibilities are endless!”

“And they will all be you.” He rose, took her hand again. “Yes, you’re quite right, Justine. You can’t spend it offstage. In anyone else, I’d say you would in spite of that, but being you, I’m not so sure.”

18

If they applied themselves to it, the Drogheda people could imagine that Rome and London were no farther away than Sydney, and that the grown-up Dane and Justine were still children going to boarding school. Admittedly they couldn’t come home for all the shorter vacations of other days, but once a year they turned up for a month at least. Usually in August or September, and looking much as always. Very young. Did it matter whether they were fifteen and sixteen or twenty-two and twenty-three? And if the Drogheda people lived for that month in early spring, they most definitely never went round saying things like, Well, only a few weeks to go! or, Dear heaven, it’s not a month since they left! But around July everyone’s step became brisker, and permanent smiles settled on every face. From the cookhouse to the paddocks to the drawing room, treats and gifts were planned.

In the meantime there were letters. Mostly these reflected the personalities of their authors, but sometimes they contradicted. One would have thought, for instance, that Dane would be a meticulously regular correspondent and Justine a scrappy one. That Fee would never write at all. That the Cleary men would write twice a year. That Meggie would enrich the postal service with letters every day, at least to Dane. That Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat would send birthday and Christmas cards. That Anne Mueller would write often to Justine, never to Dane.

Dane’s intentions were good, and he did indeed write regularly. The only trouble was he forgot to post his efforts, with the result that two or three months would go by without a word, and then Drogheda would receive dozens on the same mail run. The loquacious Justine wrote lengthy missives which were pure stream-of-consciousness, rude enough to evoke blushes and clucks of alarm, and entirely fascinating. Meggie wrote once every two weeks only, to both her children. Though Justine never received letters from her grandmother, Dane did quite often. He also got word regularly from all his uncles, about the land and the sheep and the health of the Drogheda women, for they seemed to think it was their duty to assure him all was truly well at home. However, they didn’t extend this to Justine, who would have been flabbergasted by it anyway. For the rest, Mrs. Smith, Minnie, Cat and Anne Mueller, correspondence went as might be expected.

Chapter 115

It was lovely reading letters, and a burden writing them. That is, for all save Justine, who experienced twinges of exasperation because no one ever sent her the kind she desired—fat, wordy and frank. It was from Justine the Drogheda people got most of their information about Dane, for his letters never plunged his readers right into the middle of a scene. Whereas Justine’s did.

Rain flew into London today [she wrote once], and he was telling me he saw Dane in Rome last week. Well, he sees a lot more of Dane than of me, since Rome is at the top of his travel agenda and London is rock bottom. So I must confess Rain is one of the prime reasons why I meet Dane in Rome every year before we come home. Dane

likes coming to London, only I won’t let him if Rain is in Rome. Selfish. But you’ve no idea how I enjoy Rain. He’s one of the few people I know who gives me a run for my money, and I wish we met more often.

In one respect Rain’s luckier than I am. He gets to meet Dane’s fellow students where I don’t. I think Dane thinks I’m going to rape them on the spot. Or maybe he thinks they’ll rape me. Hah. Only happen if they saw me in my Charmian costume. It’s a stunner, people, it really is. Sort of up-to-date Theda Bara. Two little round bronze shields for the old tits, lots and lots of chains and what I reckon is a chastity belt—you’d need a pair of tin-cutters to get inside it, anyway. In a long black wig, tan body paint and my few scraps of metal I look a smasher.

…Where was I??? Oh, yes, Rain in Rome last week meeting Dane and his pals. They all went out on the tiles. Rain insists on paying, saves Dane embarrassment. It was some night. No women, natch, but everything else. Can you imagine

Dane,down on his knees in some seedy Roman bar saying “Fair daffodils, we haste to see thee weep so soon away” to a vase of daffodils? He tried for ten minutes to get the words of the quotation in their right order and couldn’t, then he gave up, put one of the daffodils between his teeth instead and did a dance. Can you ever imagine

Dane doing that? Rain says it’s harmless and necessary, all work and no play, etc. Women being out, the next best thing is a skinful of grog. Or so Rain insists. Don’t get the idea it happens often, it doesn’t, and I gather when it does Rain is the ringleader, so he’s along to watch out for them, the naive lot of raw prawns. But I did laugh to think of Dane’s halo slipping during the course of a flamenco dance with a daffodil.

It took Dane eight years in Rome to attain his priesthood, and at their beginning no one thought they could ever end. Yet those eight years used themselves up faster than any of the Drogheda people had imagined. Just what they thought he was going to do after he was ordained they didn’t know, except that they did assume he would return to Australia. Only Meggie and Justine suspected he would want to remain in Italy, and Meggie at any rate could lull her doubts with memories of his content when he came back each year to his home. He was an Australian, he would want to come home. With Justine it was different. No one dreamed she would come home for good. She was an actress; her career would founder in Australia. Where Dane’s career could be pursued with equal zeal anywhere at all.

Thus in the eighth year there were no plans as to what the children would do when they came for their annual holiday; instead the Drogheda people were planning their trip to Rome, to see Dane ordained a priest.

“We fizzled out,” said Meggie.

“I beg your pardon, dear?” asked Anne.

They were sitting in a warm corner of the veranda reading, but Meggie’s book had fallen neglected into her lap, and she was absently watching the antics of two willy-wagtails on the lawn. It had been a wet year; there were worms everywhere and the fattest, happiest birds anyone ever remembered. Bird songs filled the air from dawn to the last of dusk.

“I said we fizzled out,” repeated Meggie, crowlike. “A damp squib. All that promise! Whoever would have guessed it in 1921, when we arrived on Drogheda?”

“How do you mean?”

“A total of six sons, plus me. And a year later, two more sons. What would you think? Dozens of children, half a hundred grandchildren? So look at us now. Hal and Stu are dead, none of the ones left alive seem to have any intention of ever getting married, and I, the only one not entitled to pass on the name, have been the only one to give Drogheda its heirs. And even then the gods weren’t happy, were they? A son and a daughter. Several grandchildren at least, you might think. But what happens? My son embraces the priesthood and my daughter’s an old maid career woman. Another dead end for Drogheda.”

“I don’t see what’s so strange about it,” said Anne. “After all, what could you expect from the men? Stuck out here as shy as kangas, never meeting the girls they might have married. And with Jims and Patsy, the war to boot. Could you see Jims marrying when he knows Patsy can’t?
They’re far too fond of each other for that. And besides, the land’s demanding in a neutered way. It takes just about all they’ve got to give, because I don’t think they have a great deal. In a physical sense, I mean. Hasn’t it ever struck you, Meggie? Yours isn’t a very highly sexed family, to put it bluntly. And that goes for Dane and Justine, too. I mean, there are some people who compulsively hunt it like tomcats, but not your lot. Though perhaps Justine will marry. There’s this German chap Rainer; she seems terribly fond of him.”

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” said Meggie, in no mood to be comforted. “She seems terribly fond of him. Just that. After all, she’s known him for seven years. If she wanted to marry him, it would have happened ages ago.”

“Would it? I know Justine pretty well,” answered Anne truthfully, for she did; better than anyone else on Drogheda, including Meggie and Fee. “I think she’s terrified of committing herself to the kind of love marriage would entail, and I must say I admire Rainer. He seems to understand her very well. Oh, I don’t say he’s in love with her for sure, but if he is, at least he’s got the sense to wait until she’s ready to take the plunge.” She leaned forward, her book falling forgotten to the tiles. “Oh, will you listen to that bird? I’m sure even a nightingale couldn’t match it.” Then she said what she had been wanting to say for weeks. “Meggie, why won’t you go to Rome to see Dane ordained? Isn’t that peculiar? Dane—ordain.”

“I’m not going to Rome!” said Meggie between clenched teeth. “I shall never leave Drogheda again.”

“Meggie, don’t! You can’t disappoint him so! Go, please! If you don’t, Drogheda won’t have a single woman there, because you’re the only woman young enough to take the flight. But I tell you, if I thought for one minute my body would survive I’d be right on that plane.”

“Go to Rome and see Ralph de Bricassart smirking? I’d rather be dead!”

“Oh, Meggie, Meggie! Why must you take out your frustrations on him, and on your son? You said it once yourself—it’s your own fault. So beggar your pride, and go to Rome. Please!”

“It isn’t a question of pride.” She shivered. “Oh, Anne, I’m frightened to go! Because I don’t believe it, I just don’t! My flesh creeps when I think about it.”

“And what about the fact he mightn’t come home after he’s a priest? Did that ever occur to you? He won’t be given huge chunks of leave the way he was in the seminary, so if he decides to remain in Rome you may well have to take yourself there if you ever want to see him at all. Go to Rome, Meggie!”

“I can’t. If you knew how frightened I am! It’s not pride, or Ralph scoring one over on me, or any of the things I say it is to stop people asking me questions. Lord knows, I miss both my men so much I’d crawl on my knees to see them if I thought for a minute they wanted me. Oh, Dane would be glad to see me, but Ralph? He’s forgotten I ever existed. I’m frightened, I tell you. I know in my bones that if I go to Rome something will happen. So I’m not going.”

“What could happen, for pity’s sake?”

“I don’t know…. If I did, I’d have something to battle. A feeling, how can I battle a feeling? Because that’s all it is. A premonition. As if the gods are gathering.”

Anne laughed. “You’re becoming a real old woman, Meggie. Stop!”

“I can’t, I can’t! And I am an old woman.”

“Nonsense, you’re just in brisk middle age. Well and truly young enough to hop on that plane.”

“Oh, leave me alone!” said Meggie savagely, and picked up her book.

Occasionally a crowd with a purpose converges upon Rome. Not tourism, the voyeuristic sampling of past glories in present relics; not the filling in of a little slice of time between A and B, with Rome a point on the line between those two places. This is a crowd with a single uniting emotion; it bursts with pride, for it is coming to see its son, nephew, cousin, friend ordained a priest in the great basilica which is the most venerated church in the world. Its members put up in humble pensiones, luxury hotels, the homes of friends or relatives. But they are totally united, at peace with each other and with the world. They do the rounds dutifully; the Vatican Museum with the Sistine Chapel at its end like a prize for endurance; the Forum, the Colosseum, the Appian Way, the Spanish Steps, the greedy Trevi Fountain, the son et lumière. Waiting for the day, filling in time. They will be accorded the special privilege of a private audience with the Holy Father, and for them Rome will find nothing too good.

 

 

 

 

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