The Thorn Birds (Chapter 116-120)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 116

This time it wasn’t Dane waiting on the platform to meet Justine, as it had been every other time; he was in retreat. Instead, Rainer Moerling Hartheim prowled the dirty paving like some great animal. He didn’t greet her with a kiss, he never did; he just put an arm about her shoulders and squeezed.

“Rather like a bear,” said Justine.

“A bear?”

“I used to think when I first met you that you were some sort of missing link, but I’ve finally decided you’re more of a bear than a gorilla. It was an unkind comparison, the gorilla.”

“And bears are kind?”

“Well, perhaps they do one to death just as quickly, but they’re more cuddly.” She linked her arm through his and matched his stride, for she was almost as tall as he. “How’s Dane? Did you see him before he went into retreat? I could kill Clyde, not letting me go sooner.”

“Dane is as always.”

“You haven’t been leading him astray?”

“Me? Certainly not. You look very nice, Herzchen.”

“I’m on my very best behavior, and I bought out every couturier in London. Do you like my new short skirt? They call it the mini.”

“Walk ahead of me, and I’ll tell you.”

The hem of the full silk skirt was about midthigh; it swirled as she turned and came back to him. “What do you think, Rain? Is it scandalous? I noticed no one in Paris is wearing this length yet.”

“It proves a point, Herzchen—that with legs as good as yours, to wear a skirt one millimeter longer is scandalous. I’m sure the Romans will agree with me.”

“Which means my arse will be black and blue in an hour instead of a day. Damn them! Though do you know something, Rain?”

“What?”

“I’ve never been pinched by a priest. All these years I’ve been flipping in and out of the Vatican with nary a pinch to my credit. So I thought maybe if I wore a miniskirt, I might be the undoing of some poor prelate yet.”

“You might be my undoing.” He smiled.

“No, really? In orange? I thought you hated me in orange, when I’ve got orange hair.”

“It inflames the senses, such a busy color.”

“You’re teasing me,” she said, disgusted, climbing into his Mercedes limousine, which had a German pennant fluttering from its bonnet talisman. “When did you get the little flag?”

“When I got my new post in the government.”

“No wonder I rated a mention in the News of the World! Did you see it?”

“You know I never read rags, Justine.”

“Well, nor do I; someone showed it to me,” she said, then pitched her voice higher and endowed it with a shabby-genteel, fraightfully naice accent. “What up-and-coming carrot-topped Australian actress is cementing very cordial relations with what member of the West German cabinet?”

“They can’t be aware how long we’ve known each other,” he said tranquilly, stretching out his legs and making himself comfortable.

Justine ran her eyes over his clothes with approval; very casual, very Italian. He was rather in the European fashion swim himself, daring to wear one of the fishing-net shirts which enabled Italian males to demonstrate the hairiness of their chests.

“You should never wear a suit and collar and tie,” she said suddenly.

“No? Why not?”

“Machismo is definitely your style—you know, what you’ve got on now, the gold medallion and chain on the hairy chest. A suit makes you look as if your waistline is bulging, when it really isn’t at all.”

For a moment he gazed at her in surprise, then the expression in his eyes became alert, in what she called his “concentrated thinking look.” “A first,” he said.

“What’s a first?”

“In the seven years I’ve known you, you’ve never before commented upon my appearance except perhaps to disparage it.”

“Oh, dear, haven’t I?” she asked, looking a little ashamed. “Heavens, I’ve thought of it often enough, and never disparagingly.” For some reason she added hastily, “I mean, about things like the way you look in a suit.”

He didn’t answer, but he was smiling, as at a very pleasant thought.

That ride with Rainer seemed to be the last quiet thing to happen for days. Shortly after they returned from visiting Cardinal de Bricassart and Cardinal di Contini-Verchese, the limousine Rainer had hired deposited the Drogheda contingent at their hotel. Out of the corner of her eye Justine watched Rain’s reaction to her family, entirely uncles. Right until the moment her eyes didn’t find her mother’s face, Justine had been convinced she would change her mind, come to Rome. That she hadn’t was a cruel blow; Justine didn’t know whether she ached more on Dane’s behalf or on her own. But in the meantime here were the Unks, and she was undoubtedly their hostess.

Oh, they were so shy! Which one of them was which? The older they got, the more alike they looked. And in Rome they stuck out like—well, like Australian graziers on holiday in Rome. Each one was clad in the city-going uniform of affluent squatters: tan elastic-sided riding boots, neutral trousers, tan sports jackets of very heavy, fuzzy wool with side vents and plenty of leather patches, white shirts, knitted wool ties, flat-crowned grey hats with broad brims. No novelty on the streets of Sydney during Royal Easter Show time, but in a late Roman summer, extraordinary.

And I can say with double sincerity, thank God for Rain! How good he is with them. I wouldn’t have believed anyone could stimulate Patsy into speech, but he’s doing it, bless him. They’re talking away like old hens, and where did he get Australian beer for them? He likes them, and he’s interested, I suppose. Everything is grist to the mill of a German industrialist-politician, isn’t it? How can he stick to his faith, being what he is? An enigma, that’s what you are, Rainer Moerling Hartheim. Friend of popes and cardinals, friend of Justine O’Neill. Oh, if you weren’t so ugly I’d kiss you, I’m so terribly grateful. Lord, fancy being stuck in Rome with the Unks and no Rain! You are well named.

He was sitting back in his chair, listening while Bob told him about shearing, and having nothing better to do because he had so completely taken charge, Justine watched him curiously. Mostly she noticed everything physical about people immediately, but just occasionally that vigilance slipped and people stole up on her, carved a niche in her life without her having made that vital initial assessment. For if it wasn’t made, sometimes years would go by before they intruded into her thoughts again as strangers. Like now, watching Rain. That first meeting had been responsible, of course; surrounded by churchmen, awed, frightened, brazening it out. She had noticed only the obvious things: his powerful build, his hair, how dark he was. Then when he had taken her off to dinner the chance to rectify things had been lost, for he had forced an awareness of himself on her far beyond his physical attributes; she had been too interested in what the mouth was saying to look at the mouth.

He wasn’t really ugly at all, she decided now. He looked what he was, perhaps, a mixture of the best and the worst. Like a Roman emperor. No wonder he loved the city. It was his spiritual home. A broad face with high, wide cheekbones and a small yet aquiline nose. Thick black brows, straight instead of following the curve of the orbits. Very long, feminine black lashes and quite lovely dark eyes, mostly hooded to hide his thoughts. By far his most beautiful possession was his mouth, neither full nor thin-lipped, neither small nor large, but very well shaped, with a distinct cut to the boundaries of its lips and a peculiar firmness in the way he held it; as if perhaps were he to relax his hold upon it, it might give away secrets about what he was really like. Interesting, to take a face apart which was already so well known, yet not known at all.

She came out of her reverie to find him watching her watch him, which was like being stripped naked in front of a crowd armed with stones. For a moment his eyes held hers, wide open and alert, not exactly startled, rather arrested. Then he transferred his gaze calmly to Bob, and asked a pertinent question about boggis. Justine gave herself a mental shake, told herself not to go imagining things. But it was fascinating, suddenly to see a man who had been a friend for years as a possible lover. And not finding the thought at all repulsive.

There had been a number of successors to Arthur Lestrange, and she hadn’t wanted to laugh. Oh, I’ve come a long way since that memorable night. But I wonder have I actually progressed at all? It’s very nice to have a man, and the hell with what Dane said about it being the one man. I’m not going to make it one man, so I’m not going to sleep with Rain; oh, no. It would change too many things, and I’d lose my friend. I need my friend, I can’t afford to be without my friend. I shall keep him as I keep Dane, a male human being without any physical significance for me.

The church could hold twenty thousand people, so it wasn’t crowded. Nowhere in the world had so much time and thought and genius been put into the creation of a temple of God; it paled the pagan works of antiquity to insignificance. It did. So much love, so much sweat. Bramante’s basilica, Michelangelo’s dome, Bernini’s colonnade. A monument not only to God, but to Man. Deep under the confessio in a little stone room Saint Peter himself was buried; here the Emperor Charlemagne had been crowned. The echoes of old voices seemed to whisper among the pouring slivers of light, dead fingers polished the bronze rays behind the high altar and caressed the twisted bronze columns of the baldacchino.

Chapter 117

He was lying on the steps, face down, as though dead. What was he thinking? Was there a pain in him that had no right to be there, because his mother had not come? Cardinal Ralph looked through his tears, and knew there was no pain. Beforehand, yes; afterward, certainly. But now, no pain. Everything in him was projected into the moment, the miracle. No room in him for anything which was not God. It was his day of days, and nothing mattered save the task at hand, the vowing of his life and soul to God. He could probably do it, but how many others actually had? Not Cardinal Ralph, though he still remembered his own ordination as filled with holy wonder. With every part of him he had tried, yet something he had withheld.

Not so august as this, my ordination, but I live it again through him. And wonder what he truly is, that in spite of our fears for him he could have passed among us so many years and not made an unfriend, let alone a real enemy. He is loved by all, and he loves all. It never crosses his mind for an instant that this state of affairs is extraordinary. And yet, when he came to us first he was not so sure of himself; we have given him that, for which perhaps our existences are vindicated. There have been many priests made here, thousands upon thousands, yet for him there is something special. Oh, Meggie! Why wouldn’t you come to see the gift you’ve given Our Lord—the gift I could not, having given Him myself? And I suppose that’s it, how he can be here today free of pain. Because for today I’ve been empowered to take his pain to myself, free him from it. I weep his tears, I mourn in his place. And that is how it should be.

Later he turned his head, looked at the row of Drogheda people in alien dark suits. Bob, Jack, Hughie, Jims, Patsy. A vacant chair for Meggie, then Frank. Justine’s fiery hair dimmed under a black lace veil, the only female Cleary present. Rainer next to her. And then a lot of people he didn’t know, but who shared in today as fully as the Drogheda people did. Only today it was different, today it was special for him. Today he felt almost as if he, too, had had a son to give. He smiled, and sighed. How must Vittorio feel, bestowing Dane’s priesthood upon him?

Perhaps because he missed his mother’s presence so acutely, Justine was the first person Dane managed to take aside at the reception Cardinal Vittorio and Cardinal Ralph gave for him. In his black soutane with the high white collar he looked magnificent, she thought; only not like a priest at all. Like an actor playing a priest, until one looked into the eyes. And there it was, the inner light, that something which transformed him from a very good-looking man into one unique.

“Father O’Neill,” she said.

“I haven’t assimilated it yet, Jus.”

“That isn’t hard to understand. I’ve never felt quite the way I did in Saint Peter’s, so what it must have been like for you I can’t imagine.”

“Oh, I think you can, somewhere inside. If you truly couldn’t, you wouldn’t be such a fine actress. But with you, Jus, it comes from the unconscious; it doesn’t erupt into thought until you need to use it.”

They were sitting on a small couch in a far corner of the room, and no one came to disturb them.

After a while he said, “I’m so pleased Frank came,” looking to where Frank was talking with Rainer, more animation in his face than his niece and nephew had ever seen. “There’s an old Rumanian refugee priest I know,” Dane went on, “who has a way of saying, ‘Oh, the poor one!’ with such compassion in his voice…. I don’t know, somehow that’s what I always find myself saying about our Frank. And yet, Jus, why?”

But Justine ignored the gambit, went straight to the crux. “I could kill Mum!” she said through her teeth. “She had no right to do this to you!”

“Oh, Jus! I understand. You’ve got to try, too. If it had been done in malice or to get back at me I might be hurt, but you know her as well as I do, you know it’s neither of those. I’m going down to Drogheda soon. I’ll talk to her then, find out what’s the matter.”

“I suppose daughters are never as patient with their mothers as sons are.” She drew down the corners of her mouth ruefully, shrugged. “Maybe it’s just as well I’m too much of a loner ever to inflict myself on anyone in the mother role.”

The blue eyes were very kind, tender; Justine felt her hackles rising, thinking Dane pitied her.

“Why don’t you marry Rainer?” he asked suddenly.

Her jaw dropped, she gasped. “He’s never asked me,” she said feebly.

“Only because he thinks you’d say no. But it might be arranged.”

Without thinking, she grabbed him by the ear, as she used to do when they were children. “Don’t you dare, you dog-collared prawn! Not one word, do you hear? I don’t love Rain! He’s just a friend, and I want to keep it that way. If you so much as light a candle for it, I swear I’ll sit down, cross my eyes and put a curse on you, and you remember how that used to scare the living daylights out of you, don’t you?”

He threw back his head and laughed. “It wouldn’t work, Justine! My magic is stronger than yours these days. But there’s no need to get so worked up about it, you twit. I was wrong, that’s all. I assumed there was a case between you and Rain.”

“No, there isn’t. After seven years? Break it down, pigs might fly.” Pausing, she seemed to seek for words, then looked at him almost shyly. “Dane, I’m so happy for you. I think if Mum was here she’d feel the same. That’s all it needs, for her to see you now, like this. You wait, she’ll come around.”

Very gently he took her pointed face between his hands, smiling down at her with so much love that her own hands came up to clutch at his wrists, soak it in through every pore. As if all those childhood years were remembered, treasured.

Yet behind what she saw in his eyes on her behalf she sensed a shadowy doubt, only perhaps doubt was too strong a word; more like anxiety. Mostly he was sure Mum would understand eventually, but he was human, though all save he tended to forget the fact.

“Jus, will you do something for me?” he asked as he let her go.

“Anything,” she said, meaning it.

“I’ve got a sort of respite, to think about what I’m going to do. Two months. And I’m going to do the heavy thinking on a Drogheda horse after I’ve talked to Mum—somehow I feel I can’t sort anything out until after I’ve talked to her. But first, well…I’ve got to get up my courage to go home. So if you could manage it, come down to the Peloponnese with me for a couple of weeks, tick me off good and proper about being a coward until I get so sick of your voice I put myself on a plane to get away from it.” He smiled at her. “Besides, Jussy, I don’t want you to think I’m going to exclude you from my life absolutely, any more than I will Mum. You need your old conscience around occasionally.”

“Oh, Dane, of course I’ll go!”

“Good,” he said, then grinned, eyed her mischievously. “I really do need you, Jus. Having you bitching in my ear will be just like old times.”

“Uh-uh-uh! No obscenities, Father O’Neill!”

His arms went behind his head, he leaned back on the couch contentedly. “I am! Isn’t it marvelous? And maybe after I’ve seen Mum, I can concentrate on Our Lord. I think that’s where my inclinations lie, you know. Simply thinking about Our Lord.”

“You ought to have espoused an order, Dane.”

“I still can, and I probably will. I have a whole lifetime; there’s no hurry.”

Justine left the party with Rainer, and after she talked of going to Greece with Dane, he talked of going to his office in Bonn.

“About bloody time,” she said. “For a cabinet minister you don’t seem to do much work, do you? All the papers call you a playboy, fooling around with carrot-topped Australian actresses, you old dog, you.”

He shook his big fist at her. “I pay for my few pleasures in more ways than you’ll ever know.”

“Do you mind if we walk, Rain?”

“Not if you keep your shoes on.”

“I have to these days. Miniskirts have their disadvantages; the days of stockings one could peel off easily are over. They’ve invented a sheer version of theatrical tights, and one can’t shed those in public without causing the biggest furor since Lady Godiva. So unless I want to ruin a five-guinea pair of tights, I’m imprisoned in my shoes.”

“At least you improve my education in feminine garb, under as well as over,” he said mildly.

“Go on! I’ll bet you’ve got a dozen mistresses, and undress them all.”

“Only one, and like all good mistresses she waits for me in her negligee.”

“Do you know, I believe we’ve never discussed your sex life before? Fascinating! What’s she like?”

“Fair, fat, forty and flatulent.”

She stopped dead. “Oh, you’re kidding me,” she said slowly. “I can’t see you with a woman like that.”

Chapter 118

“Why not?”

“You’ve got too much taste.”

“Chacun à son goût, my dear. I’m nothing much to look at, myself—why should you assume I could charm a young and beautiful woman into being my mistress?”

“Because you could!” she said indignantly. “Oh, of course you could!”

“My money, you mean?”

“Not, not your money! You’re teasing me, you always do! Rainer Moerling Hartheim, you’re very well aware how attractive you are, otherwise you wouldn’t wear gold medallions and netting shirts. Looks aren’t everything—if they were, I’d still be wondering.”

“Your concern for me is touching, Herzchen.”

“Why is it that when I’m with you I feel as if I’m forever running to catch up with you, and I never do?” Her spurt of temper died; she stood looking at him uncertainly. “You’re not serious, are you?”

“Do you think I am?”

“No! You’re not conceited, but you do know how very attractive you are.”

“Whether I do or not isn’t important. The important thing is that you think I’m attractive.”

She was going to say: Of course I do; I was mentally trying you on as a lover not long ago, but then I decided it wouldn’t work, I’d rather keep on having you for my friend. Had he let her say it, he might have concluded his time hadn’t come, and acted differently. As it was, before she could shape the words he had her in his arms, and was kissing her. For at least sixty seconds she stood, dying, split open, smashed, the power in her screaming in wild elation to find a matching power. His mouth—it was beautiful! And his hair, incredibly thick, vital, something to seize in her fingers fiercely. Then he took her face between his hands and looked at her, smiling.

“I love you,” he said.

Her hands had gone up to his wrists, but not to enclose them gently, as with Dane; the nails bit in, scored down to meat savagely. She stepped back two paces and stood rubbing her arm across her mouth, eyes huge with fright, breasts heaving.

“It couldn’t work,” she panted. “It could never work, Rain!”

Off came the shoes; she bent to pick them up, then turned and ran, and within three seconds the soft quick pad of her feet had vanished.

Not that he had any intention of following her, though apparently she had thought he might. Both his wrists were bleeding, and they hurt. He pressed his handkerchief first to one and then to the other, shrugged, put the stained cloth away, and stood concentrating on the pain. After a while he unearthed his cigarette case, took out a cigarette, lit it, and began to walk slowly. No one passing by could have told from his face what he felt. Everything he wanted within his grasp, reached for, lost. Idiot girl. When would she grow up? To feel it, respond to it, and deny it.

But he was a gambler, of the win-a-few, lose-a-few kind. He had waited seven long years before trying his luck, feeling the change in her at this ordination time. Yet apparently he had moved too soon. Ah, well. There was always tomorrow—or knowing Justine, next year, the year after that. Certainly he wasn’t about to give up. If he watched her carefully, one day he’d get lucky.

The soundless laugh quivered in him; fair, fat, forty and flatulent. What had brought it to his lips he didn’t know, except that a long time ago his ex-wife had said it to him. The four F’s, describing the typical victim of gallstones. She had been a martyr to them, poor Annelise, even though she was dark, skinny, fifty and as well corked as a genie in a bottle. What am I thinking of Annelise for, now? My patient campaign of years turned into a rout, and I can do no better than poor Annelise. So, Fräulein Justine O’Neill! We shall see.

There were lights in the palace windows; he would go up for a few minutes, talk to Cardinal Ralph, who was looking old. Not well. Perhaps he ought to be persuaded into a medical examination. Rainer ached, but not for Justine; she was young, there was time. For Cardinal Ralph, who had seen his own son ordained, and not known it.

It was still early, so the hotel foyer was crowded. Shoes on, Justine crossed quickly to the stairs and ran up them, head bent. Then for some time her trembling hands couldn’t find the room key in her bag and she thought she would have to go down again, brave the throng about the desk. But it was there; she must have passed her fingers over it a dozen times.

Inside at last, she groped her way to the bed, sat down on its edge and let coherent thought gradually return. Telling herself she was revolted, horrified, disillusioned; all the while staring drearily at the wide rectangle of pale
light which was the night sky through the window, wanting to curse, wanting to weep. It could never be the same again, and that was a tragedy. The loss of the dearest friend. Betrayal.

Empty words, untrue; suddenly she knew very well what had frightened her so, made her flee from Rain as if he had attempted murder, not a kiss. The rightness of it! The feeling of coming home, when she didn’t want to come home any more than she wanted the liability of love. Home was frustration, so was love. Not only that, even if the admission was humiliating; she wasn’t sure she could love. If she was capable of it, surely once or twice her guard would have slipped; surely once or twice she would have experienced a pang of something more than tolerant affection for her infrequent lovers. It didn’t occur to her that she deliberately chose lovers who would never threaten her self-imposed detachment, so much a part of herself by now that she regarded it as completely natural. For the first time in her life she had no reference point to assist her. There was no time in the past she could take comfort from, no once-deep involvement, either for herself or for those shadowy lovers. Nor could the Drogheda people help, because she had always withheld herself from them, too.

She had had to run from Rain. To say yes, commit herself to him, and then have to watch him recoil when he found out the extent of her inadequacy? Unbearable! He would learn what she was really like, and the knowledge would kill his love for her. Unbearable to say yes, and end in being rebuffed for all time. Far better to do any rebuffing herself. That way at least pride would be satisfied, and Justine owned all her mother’s pride. Rain must never discover what she was like beneath all that brick flippancy.

He had fallen in love with the Justine he saw; she had not allowed him any opportunity to suspect the sea of doubts beneath. Those only Dane suspected—no, knew.

She bent forward to put her forehead against the cool bedside table, tears running down her face. That was why she loved Dane so, of course. Knowing what the real Justine was like, and still loving her. Blood helped, so did a lifetime of shared memories, problems, pains, joys. Whereas Rain was a stranger, not committed to her the way Dane was, or even the other members of her family. Nothing obliged him to love her.

She sniffled, wiped her palm around her face, shrugged her shoulders and began the difficult business of pushing her trouble back into some corner of her mind where it could lie peacefully, unremembered. She knew she could do it; she had spent all her life perfecting the technique. Only it meant ceaseless activity, continuous absorption in things outside herself. She reached over and switched on the bedside lamp.

One of the Unks must have delivered the letter to her room, for it was lying on the bedside table, a pale-blue air letter with Queen Elizabeth in its upper corner.

“Darling Justine,” wrote Clyde Daltinham-Roberts, “Come back to the fold, you’re needed! At once! There’s a part going begging in the new season’s repertoire, and a tiny little dicky-bird told me you just might want it. Desdemona, darling? With Marc Simpson as your Othello? Rehearsals for the principals start next week, if you’re interested.”

If she was interested! Desdemona! Desdemona in London! And with Marc Simpson as Othello! The opportunity of a lifetime. Her mood skyrocketed to a point where the scene with Rain lost significance, or rather assumed a different significance. Perhaps if she was very, very careful she might be able to keep Rain’s love; a highly acclaimed, successful actress was too busy to share much of her life with her lovers. It was worth a try. If he looked as if he were getting too close to the truth, she could always back off again. To keep Rain in her life, but especially this new Rain, she would be prepared to do anything save strip off the mask.

In the meantime, news like this deserved some sort of celebration. She didn’t feel up to facing Rain yet, but there were other people on hand to share her triumph. So she put on her shoes, walked down the corridor to the Unks’ communal sitting room, and when Patsy let her in she stood with arms spread wide, beaming.

“Break out the beer, I’m going to be Desdemona!” she announced in ringing tones.

For a moment no one answered, then Bob said warmly, “That’s nice, Justine.”

Her pleasure didn’t evaporate; instead it built up to an uncontrollable elation. Laughing, she flopped into a chair and stared at her uncles. What truly lovely men they were! Of course her news meant nothing to them! They didn’t have a clue who Desdemona was. If she had come to tell them she was getting married, Bob’s answer would have been much the same.

Chapter 119

Since the beginning of memory they had been a part of her life, and sadly she had dismissed them as contemptuously as she did everything about Drogheda. The Unks, a plurality having nothing to do with Justine O’Neill. Simply members of a conglomerate who drifted in and out of the homestead, smiled at her shyly, avoided her if it meant conversation. Not that they didn’t like her, she realized now; only that they sensed how foreign she was, and it made them uncomfortable. But in this Roman world which was alien to them and familiar to her, she was beginning to understand them better.

Feeling a glow of something for them which might have been called love, Justine stared from one creased, smiling face to the next. Bob, who was the life force of the unit, the Boss of Drogheda, but in such an unobtrusive way; Jack, who merely seemed to follow Bob around, or maybe it was just that they got along so well together; Hughie, who had a streak of mischief the other two did not, and yet so very like them; Jims and Patsy, the positive and negative sides of a self-sufficient whole; and poor quenched Frank, the only one who seemed plagued by fear and insecurity. All of them save Jims and Patsy were grizzled now, indeed Bob and Frank were white-haired, but they didn’t really look very different from the way she remembered them as a little girl.

“I don’t know whether I ought to give you a beer,” Bob said doubtfully, standing with a cold bottle of Swan in his hand.

The remark would have annoyed her intensely even half a day ago, but at the moment she was too happy to take offense.

“Look, love, I know it’s never occurred to you to offer me one through the course of our sessions with Rain, but honestly I’m a big girl now, and I can handle a beer. I promise it isn’t a sin.” She smiled.

“Where’s Rainer?” Jims asked, taking a full glass from Bob and handing it to her.

“I had a fight with him.”

“With Rainer?”

“Well, yes. But it was all my fault. I’m going to see him later and tell him I’m sorry.”

None of the Unks smoked. Though she had never asked for a beer before, on earlier occasions she had sat smoking defiantly while they talked with Rain; now it took more courage than she could command to produce her cigarettes, so she contented herself with the minor victory of the beer, dying to gulp it down thirstily but mindful of their dubious regard. Ladylike sips, Justine, even if you are dryer than a secondhand sermon.

“Rain’s a bonzer bloke,” said Hughie, eyes twinkling.

Startled, Justine suddenly realized why she had grown so much in importance in their thoughts: she had caught herself a man they’d like to have in the family. “Yes, he is rather,” she said shortly, and changed the subject. “It was a lovely day, wasn’t it?”

All the heads bobbed in unison, even Frank’s, but they didn’t seem to want to discuss it She could see how tired they were, yet she didn’t regret her impulse to visit them. It took a little while for near-atrophied senses and feelings to learn what their proper functions were, and the Unks were a good practice target. That was the trouble with being an island; one forgot there was anything going on beyond its shores.

“What’s Desdemona?” Frank asked from the shadows where he hid.

Justine launched into a vivid description, charmed by their horror when they learned she would be strangled once a night, and only remembered how tired they must be half an hour later when Patsy yawned.

“I must go,” she said, putting down her empty glass. She had not been offered a second beer; one was apparently the limit for ladies. “Thanks for listening to me blather.”

Much to Bob’s surprise and confusion, she kissed him good night; Jack edged away but was easily caught, while Hughie accepted the farewell with alacrity. Jims turned bright red, endured it dumbly. For Patsy, a hug as well as a kiss, because he was a little bit of an island himself. And for Frank no kiss at all, he averted his head; yet when she put her arms around him she could sense a faint echo of some intensity quite missing in the others. Poor Frank. Why was he like that?

Outside their door, she leaned for a moment against the wall. Rain loved her. But when she tried to phone his room the operator informed her he had checked out, returned to Bonn.

No matter. It might be better to wait until London to see him, anyway. A contrite apology via the mail, and an invitation to dinner next time he was in England. There were many things she didn’t know about Rain, but of one characteristic she had no doubt at all; he would come, because he hadn’t a grudging bone in his body. Since foreign affairs had become his forte, England was one of his most regular ports of call.

“You wait and see, my lad,” she said, staring into her mirror and seeing his face instead of her own. “I’m going to make England your most important foreign affair, or my name isn’t Justine O’Neill.”

It had not occurred to her that perhaps as far as Rain was concerned, her name was indeed the crux of the matter. Her patterns of behavior were set, and marriage was no part of them. That Rain might want to make her over into Justine Hartheim never even crossed her mind. She was too busy remembering the quality of his kiss, and dreaming of more.

There remained only the task of telling Dane she couldn’t go to Greece with him, but about this she was untroubled. Dane would understand, he always did. Only somehow she didn’t think she’d tell him all the reasons why she wasn’t able to go. Much as she loved her brother, she didn’t feel like listening to what would be one of his sternest homilies ever. He wanted her to marry Rain, so if she told him what her plans for Rain were, he’d cart her off to Greece with him if it meant forcible abduction. What Dane’s ears didn’t hear, his heart couldn’t grieve about.

“Dear Rain,” the note said. “Sorry I ran like a hairy goat the other night, can’t think what got into me. The hectic day and everything, I suppose. Please forgive me for behaving like an utter prawn. I’m ashamed of myself for making so much fuss about a trifle. And I daresay the day had got to you, too, words of love and all, I mean. So I tell you what—you forgive me, and I’ll forgive you. Let’s be friends, please. I can’t bear to be at outs with you. Next time you’re in London, come to dinner at my place and we’ll formally draft out a peace treaty.”

As usual it was signed plain “Justine.” No words even of affection; she never used them. Frowning, he studied the artlessly casual phrases as if he could see through them to what was really in her mind as she wrote. It was certainly an overture of friendship, but what else? Sighing, he was forced to admit probably very little. He had frightened her badly; that she wanted to retain his friendship spoke of how much he meant to her, but he very much doubted whether she understood exactly what she felt for him. After all, now she knew he loved her; if she had sorted herself out sufficiently to realize she loved him too, she would have come straight out with it in her letter. Yet why had she returned to London instead of going to Greece with Dane? He knew he shouldn’t hope it was because of him, but despite his misgivings, hope began to color his thoughts so cheerfully he buzzed his secretary. It was 10 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time, the best hour to find her at home.

“Get me Miss O’Neill’s London flat,” he instructed, and waited the intervening seconds with a frown pulling at the inner corners of his brows.

“Rain!” Justine said, apparently delighted. “Did you get my letter?”

“This minute.”

After a delicate pause she said. “And will you come to dinner soon?”

“I’m going to be in England this coming Friday and Saturday. Is the notice too short?”

“Not if Saturday evening is all right with you. I’m in rehearsal for Desdemona, so Friday’s out.”

“Desdemona?”

“That’s right, you don’t know! Clyde wrote to me in Rome and offered me the part. Marc Simpson as Othello, Clyde directing personally. Isn’t it wonderful? I came back to London on the first plane.”

He shielded his eyes with his hand, thankful his secretary was safely in her outer office, not sitting where she could see his face. “Justine, Herzchen, that’s marvelous news!” he managed to say enthusiastically. “I was wondering what brought you back to London.”

“Oh, Dane understood,” she said lightly, “and in a way I think he was quite glad to be alone. He had concocted a story about needing me to bitch at him to go home, but I think it was all more for his second reason, that he doesn’t want me to feel excluded from his life now he’s a priest.”

“Probably,” he agreed politely.

“Saturday evening, then,” she said. “Around six, then we can have a leisurely peace treaty session with the aid of a bottle or two, and I’ll feed you after we’ve reached a satisfactory compromise. All right?”

“Yes, of course. Goodbye, Herzchen.”

Contact was cut off abruptly by the sound of her receiver going down; he sat for a moment with his still in his hand, then shrugged and replaced it on its cradle. Damn Justine! She was beginning to come between him and his work.

Chapter 120

She continued to come between him and his work during the succeeding days, though it was doubtful if anyone suspected. And on Saturday evening a little after six he presented himself at her apartment, empty-handed as usual because she was a difficult person to bring gifts. She was indifferent to flowers, never ate candy and would have thrown a more expensive offering carelessly in some corner, then forgotten it. The only gifts Justine seemed to prize were those Dane had given her.

“Champagne before dinner?” he asked, looking at her in surprise.

“Well, I think the occasion calls for it, don’t you? It was our first-ever breaking of relations, and this is our first-ever reconciliation,” she answered plausibly, indicating a comfortable chair for him and settling herself on the tawny kangaroo-fur rug, lips parted as if she had already rehearsed replies to anything he might say next.

But conversation was beyond him, at least until he was better able to assess her mood, so he watched her in silence. Until he had kissed her it had been easy to keep himself partially aloof, but now, seeing her again for the first time since, he admitted that it was going to be a great deal harder in the future.

Probably even when she was a very old woman she would still retain something not quite fully mature about face and bearing; as though essential womanliness would always pass her by. That cool, self-centered, logical brain seemed to dominate her completely, yet for him she owned a fascination so potent he doubted if he would ever be able to replace her with any other woman. Never once had he questioned whether she was worth the long struggle. Possibly from a philosophical standpoint she wasn’t. Did it matter? She was a goal, an aspiration.

“You’re looking very nice tonight, Herzchen,” he said at last, tipping his champagne glass to her in a gesture half toast, half acknowledgment of an adversary.

A coal fire simmered unshielded in the small Victorian grate, but Justine didn’t seem to mind the heat, huddled close to it with her eyes fixed on him. Then she put her glass on the hearth with a ringing snap and sat forward, her arms linked about her knees, bare feet hidden by folds of densely black gown.

“I can’t stand beating around the bush,” she said. “Did you mean it, Rain?”

Suddenly relaxing deeply, he lay back in his chair. “Mean what?”

“What you said in Rome…That you loved me.”

“Is that what this is all about, Herzchen?”

She looked away, shrugged, looked back at him and nodded. “Well, of course.”

“But why bring it up again? You told me what you thought, and I had gathered tonight’s invitation wasn’t extended to bring up the past, only plan a future.”

“Oh, Rain! You’re acting as if I’m making a fuss! Even if I was, surely you can see why.”

“No, I can’t.” He put his glass down and bent forward to watch her more closely. “You gave me to understand most emphatically that you wanted no part of my love, and I had hoped you’d at least have the decency to refrain from discussing it.”

It had not occurred to her that this meeting, no matter what its outcome, would be so uncomfortable; after all, he had put himself in the position of a suppliant, and ought to be waiting humbly for her to reverse her decision. Instead he seemed to have turned the tables neatly. Here she was feeling like a naughty schoolgirl called upon to answer for some idiotic prank.

“Look, sport, you’re the one who changed the status quo, not me! I didn’t ask you to come tonight so I could beg forgiveness for having wounded the great Hartheim ego!”

“On the defensive, Justine?”

She wriggled impatiently. “Yes, dammit! How do you manage to do that to me, Rain? Oh, I wish just once you’d let me enjoy having the upper hand!”

“If I did, you’d throw me out like a smelly old rag,” he said, smiling.

“I can do that yet, mate!”

“Nonsense! If you haven’t done it by now you never will. You’ll go on seeing me because I keep you on the hop—you never know what to expect from me.”

“Is that why you said you loved me?” she asked painfully. “Was it only a ploy to keep me on the hop?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re a prize bastard!” she said through her teeth, and marched across the rug on her knees until she was close enough to give him the full benefit of her anger. “Say you love me again, you big Kraut prawn, and watch me spit in your eye!”

He was angry, too. “No, I’m not going to say it again! That isn’t why you asked me to come, is it? My feelings don’t concern you one bit, Justine. You asked me to come so you could experiment with your own feelings, and it didn’t enter your mind to consider whether that was being fair to me.”

Before she could move away he leaned forward, gripped her arms near the shoulders and clamped her body between his legs, holding her firmly. Her rage vanished at once; she flattened her palms on his thighs and lifted her face. But he didn’t kiss her. He let go of her arms and twisted to switch off the lamp behind him, then relaxed his hold on her and laid his head back against the chair, so that she wasn’t sure if he had dimmed the room down to glowing coals as the first move in his love-making, or simply to conceal his expression. Uncertain, afraid of outright rejection, she waited to be told what to do. She should have realized earlier that one didn’t tamper with people like Rain. They were as invincible as death. Why couldn’t she put her head on his lap and say: Rain, love me, I need you so much and I’m so sorry? Oh, surely if she could get him to make love to her some emotional key would turn and it would all come tumbling out, released….

Still withdrawn, remote, he let her take off his jacket and tie, but by the time she began to unbutton his shirt she knew it wasn’t going to work. The kind of instinctive erotic skills which could make the most mundane operation exciting were not in her repertoire. This was so important, and she was making an absolute mess of it. Her fingers faltered, her mouth puckered. She burst into tears.

“Oh, no! Herzchen, liebchen, don’t cry!” He pulled her onto his lap and turned her head into his shoulder, his arms around her. “I’m sorry, Herzchen, I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“Now you know,” she said between sobs. “I’m a miserable failure; I told you it wouldn’t work! Rain, I wanted so badly to keep you, but I knew it wouldn’t work if I let you see how awful I am!”

“No, of course it wouldn’t work. How could it? I wasn’t helping you, Herzchen.” He tugged at her hair to bring her face up to his, kissed her eyelids, her wet cheeks, the corners of her mouth. “It’s my fault, Herzchen, not yours. I was paying you back; I wanted to see how far you could go without encouragement. But I think I have mistaken your motives, nicht wahr?” His voice had grown thicker, more German. “And I say, if this is what you want you shall have it, but it shall be together.”

“Please, Rain, let’s call it off! I haven’t got what it takes. I’ll only disappoint you!”

“Oh, you’ve got it, Herzchen, I’ve seen it on the stage. How can you doubt yourself when you’re with me?”

Which was so right her tears dried.

“Kiss me the way you did in Rome,” she whispered. Only it wasn’t like the kiss in Rome at all. That had been something raw, startled, explosive; this was very languorous and deep, an opportunity to taste and smell and feel, settle by layers into voluptuous ease. Her fingers returned to the buttons, his went to the zipper of her dress, then he covered her hand with his and thrust it inside his shirt, across skin matted with fine soft hair. The sudden hardening of his mouth against her throat brought a helpless response so acute she felt faint, thought she was falling and found she had, flat on the silky rug with Rain looming above her. His shirt had come off, perhaps more, she couldn’t see, only the fire glancing off his shoulders spread over her, and the beautiful stern mouth. Determined to destroy its discipline for all time, she locked her fingers in his hair and made him kiss her again, harder, harder!

And the feel of him! Like coming home, recognizing every part of him with her lips and hands and body, yet fabulous and strange. While the world sank down to the minute width of the firelight lapping against darkness, she opened herself to what he wanted, and learned something he had kept entirely concealed for as long as she had known him; that he must have m**d l**ove to her in imagination a thousand times. Her own experience and newborn intuition told her so. She was completely disarmed. With any other man the intimacy and astonishing sensuality would have appalled her, but he forced her to see that these were things only she had the right to command. And command them she did. Until finally she cried for him to finish it, her arms about him so strongly she could feel the contours of his very bones.

The minutes wore away, wrapped in a sated peace. They had fallen into an identical rhythm of breathing, slow and easy, his head against her shoulder, her leg thrown across him. Gradually her rigid clasp on his back relaxed, became a dreamy, circular caress. He sighed, turned over and reversed the way they were lying, quite unconsciously inviting her to slide still deeper into the pleasure of being with him. She put her palm on his flank to feel the texture of his skin, slid her hand across warm muscle and cupped it around the soft, heavy mass in his groin. To feel the curiously alive, independent movements within it was a sensation quite new to her; her past lovers had never interested her sufficiently to want to prolong her sexual curiosity to this languid and undemanding aftermath. Yet suddenly it wasn’t languid and undemanding at all, but so enormously exciting she wanted him all over again.

 

 

 

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