The Thorn Birds (Chapter 126-130)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 126

Only Fee and Meggie sat with Cardinal Ralph in the drawing room after a dinner left uneaten. No one said a word; the ormolu clock on the marble mantel ticked thunderously, and Mary Carson’s painted eyes stared a mute challenge across the room to Fee’s grandmother. Fee and Meggie sat together on a cream sofa, shoulders lightly touching; Cardinal Ralph never remembered their being so close in the old days. But they said nothing, did not look at each other or at him.

He tried to see what it was he had done wrong. Too much wrong, that was the trouble. Pride, ambition, a certain unscrupulousness. And love for Meggie flowering among them. But the crowning glory of that love he had never known. What difference would it have made to know his son was his son? Was it possible to love the boy more than he had? Would he have pursued a different path if he had known about his son? Yes! cried his heart. No, sneered his brain.

He turned on himself bitterly. Fool! You ought to have known Meggie was incapable of going back to Luke. You ought to have known at once whose child Dane was. She was so proud of him! All she could get from you, that was what she said to you in Rome. Well, Meggie…. In him you got the best of it. Dear God, Ralph, how could you not have known he was yours? You ought to have realized it when he came to you a man grown, if not before. She was waiting for you to see it, dying for you to see it; if only you had, she would have gone on her knees to you. But you were blind. You didn’t want to see. Ralph Raoul, Cardinal de Bricassart, that was what you wanted; more than her, more than your son. More than your son!

The room had become filled with tiny cries, rustles, whispers; the clock was ticking in time with his heart. And then it wasn’t in time anymore. He had got out of step with it. Meggie and Fee were swimming to their feet, drifting with frightened faces in a watery insubstancial mist, saying things to him he couldn’t seem to hear.

“Aaaaaaah!” he cried, understanding.

He was hardly conscious of the pain, intent only on Meggie’s arms around him, the way his head sank against her. But he managed to turn until he could see her eyes, and looked at her. He tried to say, Forgive me, and saw she had forgiven him long ago. She knew she had got the best of it. Then he wanted to say something so perfect she would be eternally consoled, and realized that wasn’t necessary, either. Whatever she was, she could bear anything. Anything! So he closed his eyes and let himself feel, that last time, forgetfulness in Meggie.

Seven

1965–1969 Justine

19

Sitting at his Bonn desk with an early-morning cup of coffee, Rainer learned of Cardinal de Bricassart’s death from his newspaper. The political storm of the past few weeks was diminishing at last, so he had settled to enjoy his reading with the prospect of soon seeing Justine to color his mood, and unperturbed by her recent silence. That he deemed typical; she was far from ready yet to admit the extent of her commitment to him.

But the news of the Cardinal’s death drove all thought of Justine away. Ten minutes later he was behind the wheel of a Mercedes 280 SL, heading for the autobahn. The poor old man Vittorio would be so alone, and his burden was heavy at the best of times. Quicker to drive; by the time he fiddled around waiting for a flight, got to and from airports, he could be at the Vatican. And it was something positive to do, something he could control himself, always an important consideration to a man like him.

From Cardinal Vittorio he learned the whole story, too shocked at first to wonder why Justine hadn’t thought to contact him.

“He came to me and asked me, did I know Dane was his son?” the gentle voice said, while the gentle hands smoothed the blue-grey back of Natasha.

“And you said?”

“I said I had guessed. I could not tell him more. But oh, his face! His face! I wept.”

“It killed him, of course. The last time I saw him I thought he wasn’t well, but he laughed at my suggestion that he see a doctor.”

“It is as God wills. I think Ralph de Bricassart was one of the most tormented men I have ever known. In death he will find the peace he could not find here in this life.”

“The boy, Vittorio! A tragedy.”

“Do you think so? I like rather to think of it as beautiful. I cannot believe Dane found death anything but welcome, and it is not surprising that Our Dear Lord could not wait a moment longer to gather Dane unto Himself. I mourn, yes, not for the boy. For his mother, who must suffer so much! And for his sister, his uncles, his grandmother. No, I do not mourn for him. Father O’Neill lived in almost total purity of mind and spirit. What could death be for him but the entrance into everlasting life? For the rest of us, the passage is not so easy.”

From his hotel Rainer dispatched a cable to London which he couldn’t allow to convey his anger, hurt or disappointment. It merely said: MUST RETURN BONN BUT WILL BE IN LONDON WEEKEND STOP WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME QUERY ALL MY LOVE RAIN

On his desk in the office at Bonn were an express delivery letter from Justine, and a registered packet which his secretary informed him had come from Cardinal de Bricassart’s lawyers in Rome. He opened this first, to learn that under the terms of Ralph de Bricassart’s will he was to add another company to his already formidable list of directorships. Michar Limited. And Drogheda. Exasperated yet curiously touched, he understood that this was the Cardinal’s way of telling him that in the final weighing he had not been found wanting, that those prayers during the war years had borne fruit. Into Rainer’s hands he had delivered the future welfare of Meggie O’Neill and her people. Or so Rainer interpreted it, for the wording of the Cardinal’s will was quite impersonal. It could not dare be otherwise.

He threw the packet into the basket for general non-secret correspondence, immediate reply, and opened the letter from Justine. It began badly, without any kind of salutation.

Thank you for the cable. You’ve no idea how glad I am that we haven’t been in touch these last couple of weeks, because I would have hated to have you around. At the time all I could think when I thought of you was, thank God you didn’t know. You may find this hard to understand, but I don’t want you anywhere near me. There is nothing pretty about grief, Rain, nor any way your witnessing mine could alleviate it. Indeed, you might say this has proved to me how little I love you. If I did truly love you I’d turn to you instinctively, wouldn’t I? But I find myself turning away.

Therefore I would much rather that we call it quits for good and all, Rain. I have nothing to give you, and I want nothing from you. This has taught me how much people mean if they’re around for twenty-six years. I couldn’t bear ever to go through this again, and you said it yourself, remember? Marriage or nothing. Well, I elect nothing.

My mother tells me the old Cardinal died a few hours after I left Drogheda. Funny. Mum was quite cut up about his dying. Not that she said anything, but I know her. Beats me why she and Dane and you liked him so much. I never could, I thought he was too smarmy for words. An opinion I’m not prepared to change just because he’s dead.

And that’s it. All there is. I do mean what I say, Rain. Nothing is what I elect to have from you. Look after yourself.

She had signed it with the usual bold, black “Justine,” and it was written with the new felt-tipped pen she had hailed so gleefully when he gave it to her, as an instrument thick and dark and positive enough to satisfy her.

He didn’t fold the note and put it in his wallet, or burn it; he did what he did with all mail not requiring an answer—ran it through the electric shredder fixed to his wastebasket the minute he had finished reading it. Thinking to himself that Dane’s death had effectively put an end to Justine’s emotional awakening, and bitterly unhappy. It wasn’t fair. He had waited so long.

At the weekend he flew to London anyway but not to see her, though he did see her. On the stage, as the Moor’s beloved wife, Desdemona. Formidable. There was nothing he could do for her the stage couldn’t, not for a while. That’s my good girl! Pour it all out on the stage.

Only she couldn’t pour it all out on the stage, for she was too young to play Hecuba. The stage was simply the one place offering peace and forgetfulness. She could only tell herself: Time heals all wounds—while not believing it. Asking herself why it should go on hurting so. When Dane was alive she hadn’t really thought very much about him except when she was with him, and after they were grown up their time together had been limited, their vocations almost opposed. But his going had created a gap so huge she despaired of ever filling it.

The shock of having to pull herself up in the midst of a spontaneous reaction—I must remember to tell Dane about this, he’ll get such a kick out of it—that was what hurt the most. And because it kept on occurring so often, it prolonged the grief. Had the circumstances surrounding his death been less horrifying she might have recovered more quickly, but the nightmare events of those few days remained vivid. She missed him unbearably; her mind would return again and again to the incredible fact of Dane dead, Dane who would never come back.

Chapter 127

Then there was the conviction that she hadn’t helped him enough. Everyone save her seemed to think he was perfect, didn’t experience the troubles other men did, but Justine knew he had been plagued by doubts, had tormented himself with his own unworthiness, had wondered what people could see in him beyond the face and the body. Poor Dane, who never seemed to understand that people loved his goodness. Terrible to remember it was too late to help him now.

She also grieved for her mother. If his dying could do this to her, what must it have done to Mum? The thought made her want to run screaming and crying from memory, consciousness. The picture of the Unks in Rome for his ordination, puffing out their proud chests like pouter pigeons. That was the worst of all, visualizing the empty desolation of her mother and the other Drogheda people.

Be honest, Justine. Was this honestly the worst? Wasn’t there something far more disturbing? She couldn’t push the thought of Rain away, or what she felt as her betrayal of Dane. To gratify her own desires she had sent Dane to Greece alone, when to have gone with him might have meant life for him. There was no other way to see it. Dane had died because of her selfish absorption in Rain. Too late now to bring her brother back, but if in never seeing Rain again she could somehow atone, the hunger and the loneliness would be well worth it.

So the weeks went by, and then the months. A year, two years. Desdemona, Ophelia, Portia, Cleopatra. From the very beginning she flattered herself she behaved outwardly as if nothing had happened to ruin her world; she took exquisite care in speaking, laughing, relating to people quite normally. If there was a change, it was in that she was kinder than of yore, for people’s griefs tended to affect her as if they were her own. But, all told, she was the same outward Justine—flippant, exuberant, brash, detached, acerbic.

Twice she tried to go home to Drogheda on a visit, the second time even going so far as to pay for her plane ticket. Each time an enormously important lastminute reason why she couldn’t go cropped up, but she knew the real reason to be a combination of guilt and cowardice. She just wasn’t able to nerve herself to confront her mother; to do so meant the whole sorry tale would come out, probably in the midst of a noisy storm of grief she had so far managed to avoid. The Drogheda people, especially her mother, must continue to go about secure in their conviction that Justine at any rate was all right, that Justine had survived it relatively unscathed. So, better to stay away from Drogheda. Much better.

Meggie caught herself on a sigh, suppressed it. If her bones didn’t ache so much she might have saddled a horse and ridden, but today the mere thought of it was painful. Some other time, when her arthritis didn’t make its presence felt so cruelly.

She heard a car, the thump of the brass ram’s head on the front door, heard voices murmuring, her mother’s tones, footsteps. Not Justine, so what did it matter?

“Meggie,” said Fee from the veranda entrance, “we have a visitor. Could you come inside, please?”

The visitor was a distinguished-looking fellow in early middle age, though he might have been younger than he appeared. Very different from any man she had ever seen, except that he possessed the same sort of power and self-confidence Ralph used to have. Used to have. That most final of tenses, now truly final.

“Meggie, this is Mr. Rainer Hartheim,” said Fee, standing beside her chair.

“Oh!” exclaimed Meggie involuntarily, very surprised at the look of the Rain who had figured so largely in Justine’s letters from the old days. Then, remembering her manners, “Do sit down, Mr. Hartheim.”

He too was staring, startled. “You’re not a bit like Justine!” he said rather blankly.

“No, I’m not.” She sat down facing him.

“I’ll leave you alone with Mr. Hartheim, Meggie, as he says he wants to see you privately. When you’re ready for tea you might ring,” Fee commanded, and departed.

“You’re Justine’s German friend, of course,” said Meggie, at a loss.

He pulled out his cigarette case. “May I?”

“Please do.”

“Would you care for one, Mrs. O’Neill?”

“Thank you, no. I don’t smoke.” She smoothed her dress. “You’re a long way from home, Mr. Hartheim. Have you business in Australia?”

He smiled, wondering what she would say if she knew that he was, in effect, the master of Drogheda. But he had no intention of telling her, for he preferred all the Drogheda people to think their welfare lay in the completely impersonal hands of the gentleman he employed to act as his go-between.

“Please, Mrs. O’Neill, my name is Rainer,” he said, giving it the same pronunciation Justine did, while thinking wryly that this woman wouldn’t use it spontaneously for some time to come; she was not one to relax with strangers. “No, I don’t have any official business in Australia, but I do have a good reason for coming. I wanted to see you.”

“To see me?” she asked in surprise. As if to cover sudden confusion, she went immediately to a safer subject: “My brothers speak of you often. You were very kind to them while they were in Rome for Dane’s ordination.” She said Dane’s name without distress, as if she used it frequently. “I hope you can stay a few days, and see them.”

“I can, Mrs. O’Neill,” he answered easily.

For Meggie the interview was proving unexpectedly awkward; he was a stranger, he had announced that he had come twelve thousand miles simply to see her, and apparently he was in no hurry to enlighten her as to why. She thought she would end in liking him, but she found him slightly intimidating. Perhaps his kind of man had never come within her ken before, and this was why he threw her off-balance. A very novel conception of Justine entered her mind at that moment: her daughter could actually relate easily to men like Rainer Moerling Hartheim! She thought of Justine as a fellow woman at last.

Though aging and white-haired she was still very beautiful, he was thinking while she sat gazing at him politely; he was still surprised that she looked not at all like Justine, as Dane had so strongly resembled the Cardinal. How terribly lonely she must be! Yet he couldn’t feel sorry for her in the way he did for Justine; clearly, she had come to terms with herself.

“How is Justine?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since before Dane died.”

She didn’t display astonishment. “I haven’t seen her myself since Dane’s funeral,” she said, and sighed. “I’d hoped she would come home, but it begins to look as if she never will.”

He made a soothing noise which she didn’t seem to hear, for she went on speaking, but in a different voice, more to herself than to him.

“Drogheda is like a home for the aged these days,” she said. “We need young blood, and Justine’s is the only young blood left.”

Pity deserted him; he leaned forward quickly, eyes glittering. “You speak of her as if she is a chattel of Drogheda,” he said, his voice now harsh. “I serve you notice, Mrs. O’Neill, she is not!”

“What right have you to judge what Justine is or isn’t?” she asked angrily. “After all, you said yourself that you haven’t seen her since before Dane died, and that’s two years ago!”

“Yes, you’re right. It’s all of two years ago.” He spoke more gently, realizing afresh what her life must be like. “You bear it very well, Mrs. O’Neill.”

“Do I?” she asked, tightly trying to smile, her eyes never leaving his.

Suddenly he began to understand what the Cardinal must have seen in her to have loved her so much. It wasn’t in Justine, but then he himself was no Cardinal Ralph; he looked for different things.

“Yes, you bear it very well,” he repeated.

She caught the undertone at once, and flinched. “How do you know about Dane and Ralph?” she asked unsteadily.

“I guessed. Don’t worry, Mrs. O’Neill, nobody else did. I guessed because I knew the Cardinal long before I met Dane. In Rome everyone thought the Cardinal was your brother, Dane’s uncle, but Justine disillusioned me about that the first time I ever met her.”

“Justine? Not Justine!” Meggie cried.

He reached out to take her hand, beating frantically against her knee. “No, no, no, Mrs. O’Neill! Justine has absolutely no idea of it, and I pray she never will! Her slip was quite unintentional, believe me.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, I swear it.”

“Then in God’s Name why doesn’t she come home? Why won’t she come to see me? Why can’t she bring herself to look at my face?”

Not only her words but the agony in her voice told him what had tormented Justine’s mother about her absence these last two years. His own mission’s importance dwindled; now he had a new one, to allay Meggie’s fears.

“For that I am to blame,” he said firmly.

Chapter 128

“You?” asked Meggie, bewildered.

“Justine had planned to go to Greece with Dane, and she’s convinced that had she, he’d still be alive.”

“Nonsense!” said Meggie.

“Quite. But though we know it’s nonsense, Justine doesn’t. It’s up to you to make her see it.”

“Up to me? You don’t understand, Mr. Hartheim. Justine has never listened to me in all her life, and at this stage any influence I might once have had is completely gone. She doesn’t even want to see my face.”

Her tone was defeated but not abject. “I fell into the same trap my mother did,” she went on matter-of-factly. “Drogheda is my life…the house, the books…. Here I’m needed, there’s still some purpose in living. Here are people who rely on me. My children never did, you know. Never did.”

“That’s not true, Mrs. O’Neill. If it was, Justine could come home to you without a qualm. You underestimate the quality of the love she bears you. When I say I am to blame for what Justine is going through, I mean that she remained in London because of me, to be with me. But it is for you she suffers, not for me.”

Meggie stiffened. “She has no right to suffer for me! Let her suffer for herself if she must, but not for me. Never for me!”

“Then you believe me when I say she has no idea of Dane and the Cardinal?”

Her manner changed, as if he had reminded her there were other things at stake, and she was losing sight of them. “Yes,” she said, “I believe you.”

“I came to see you because Justine needs your help and cannot ask for it,” he announced. “You must convince her she needs to take up the threads of her life again—not a Drogheda life, but her own life, which has nothing to do with Drogheda.”

He leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and lit another cigarette. “Justine has donned some kind of hair shirt, but for all the wrong reasons. If anyone can make her see it, you can. Yet I warn you that if you choose to do so she will never come home, whereas if she goes on the way she is, she may well end up returning here permanently.

“The stage isn’t enough for someone like Justine,” he went on, “and the day is coming when she’s going to realize that. Then she’s going to opt for people—either her family and Drogheda, or me.” He smiled at her with deep understanding. “But people are not enough for Justine either, Mrs. O’Neill. If Justine chooses me, she can have the stage as well, and that bonus Drogheda cannot offer her.” Now he was gazing at her sternly, as if at an adversary. “I came to ask you to make sure she chooses me. It may seem cruel to say this, but I need her more than you possibly could.”

The starch was back in Meggie. “Drogheda isn’t such a bad choice,” she countered. “You speak as if it would be the end of her life, but it doesn’t mean that at all, you know. She could have the stage. This is a true community. Even if she married Boy King, as his grandfather and I have hoped for years, her children would be as well cared for in her absences as they would be were she married to you. This is her home! She knows and understands this kind of life. If she chose it, she’d certainly be very well aware what was involved. Can you say the same for the sort of life you’d offer her?”

“No,” he said stolidly. “But Justine thrives on surprises. On Drogheda she’d stagnate.”

“What you mean is, she’d be unhappy here.”

“No, not exactly. I have no doubt that if she elected to return here, married this Boy King—who is this Boy King, by the way?”

“The heir to a neighboring property, Bugela, and an old childhood friend who would like to be more than a friend. His grandfather wants the marriage for dynastic reasons; I want it because I think it’s what Justine needs.”

“I see. Well, if she returned here and married Boy King, she’d learn to be happy. But happiness is a relative state. I don’t think she would ever know the kind of satisfaction she would find with me. Because, Mrs. O’Neill, Justine loves me, not Boy King.”

“Then she’s got a very strange way of showing it,” said Meggie, pulling the bell rope for tea. “Besides, Mr. Hartheim, as I said earlier, I think you overestimate my influence with her. Justine has never taken a scrap of notice of anything I say, let alone want.”

“You’re nobody’s fool,” he answered. “You know you can do it if you want to. I can ask no more than that you think about what I’ve said. Take your time, there’s no hurry. I’m a patient man.”

Meggie smiled. “Then you’re a rarity,” she said.

He didn’t broach the subject again, nor did she. During the week of his stay he behaved like any other guest, though Meggie had a feeling he was trying to show her what kind of man he was. How much her brothers liked him was clear; from the moment word reached the paddocks of his arrival, they all came in and stayed in until he left for Germany.

Fee liked him, too; her eyes had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer keep the books, but she was far from senile. Mrs. Smith had died in her sleep the previous winter, not before her due time, and rather than inflict a new housekeeper on Minnie and Cat, both old but still hale, Fee had passed the books completely to Meggie and more or less filled Mrs. Smith’s place herself. It was Fee who first realized Rainer was a direct link with that part of Dane’s life no one on Drogheda had ever had opportunity to share, so she asked him to speak of it. He obliged gladly, having quickly noticed that none of the Drogheda people were at all reluctant to talk of Dane, and derived great pleasure from listening to new tales about him.

Behind her mask of politeness Meggie couldn’t get away from what Rain had told her, couldn’t stop dwelling on the choice he had offered her. She had long since given up hope of Justine’s return, only to have him almost guarantee it, admit too that Justine would be happy if she did return. Also, for one other thing she had to be intensely grateful to him: he had laid the ghost of her fear that somehow Justine had discovered the link between Dane and Ralph.

As for marriage to Rain, Meggie didn’t see what she could do to push Justine where apparently she had no desire to go. Or was it that she didn’t want to see? She had ended in liking Rain very much, but his happiness couldn’t possibly matter as much to her as the welfare of her daughter, of the Drogheda people, and of Drogheda itself. The crucial question was, how vital to Justine’s future happiness was Rain? In spite of his contention that Justine loved him, Meggie couldn’t remember her daughter ever saying anything which might indicate that Rain held the same sort of importance for her as Ralph had done for Meggie.

“I presume you will see Justine sooner or later,” Meggie said to Rain when she drove him to the airport. “When you do, I’d rather you didn’t mention this visit to Drogheda.”

“If you prefer,” he said. “I would only ask you to think about what I’ve said, and take your time.” But even as he made his request, he couldn’t help feeling that Meggie had reaped far more benefit from his visit than he had.

When the mid-April came that was two and a half years after Dane’s death, Justine experienced an overwhelming desire to see something that wasn’t rows of houses, too many sullen people. Suddenly on this beautiful day of soft spring air and chilly sun, urban London was intolerable. So she took a District Line train to Kew Gardens, pleased that it was a Tuesday and she would have the place almost to herself. Nor was she working that night, so it didn’t matter if she exhausted herself tramping the byways.

She knew the park well, of course. London was a joy to any Drogheda person, with its masses of formal flower beds, but Kew was in a class all its own. In the old days she used to haunt it from April to the end of October, for every month had a different floral display to offer.

Mid-April was her favorite time, the period of daffodils and azaleas and flowering trees. There was one spot she thought could lay some claim to being one of the world’s loveliest sights on a small, intimate scale, so she sat down on the damp ground, an audience of one, to drink it in. As far as the eye could see stretched a sheet of daffodils; in mid-distance the nodding yellow horde of bells flowed around a great flowering almond, its branches so heavy with white blooms they dipped downward in arching falls as perfect and still as a Japanese painting. Peace. It was so hard to come by.

And then, her head far back to memorize the absolute beauty of the laden almond amid its rippling golden sea, something far less beautiful intruded. Rainer Moerling Hartheim, of all people, threading his careful way through clumps of daffodils, his bulk shielded from the chilly breeze by the inevitable German leather coat, the sun glittering in his silvery hair.

“You’ll get a cold in your kidneys,” he said, taking off his coat and spreading it lining side up on the ground so they could sit on it.

“How did you find me here?” she asked, wriggling onto a brown satin corner.
Direct Link Doubt Abject Adversary Azalea

Chapter 129

“Mrs. Kelly told me you had gone to Kew. The rest was easy. I just walked until I found you.”

“I suppose you think I ought to be falling all over you in gladness, tra-la?”

“Are you?”

“Same old Rain, answering a question with a question. No, I’m not glad to see you. I thought I’d managed to make you crawl up a hollow log permanently.”

“It’s hard to keep a good man up a hollow log permanently. How are you?”

“I’m all right.”

“Have you licked your wounds enough?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s to be expected, I suppose. But I began to realize that once you had dismissed me you’d never again humble your pride to make the first move toward reconciliation. Whereas I, Herzchen, am wise enough to know that pride makes a very lonely bedfellow.”

“Don’t go getting any ideas about kicking it out to make room for yourself, Rain, because I’m warning you, I am not taking you on in that capacity.”

“I don’t want you in that capacity anymore.”

The promptness of his answer irritated her, but she adopted a relieved air and said, “Honestly?”

“If I did, do you think I could have borne to keep away from you so long? You were a passing fancy in that way, but I still think of you as a dear friend, and miss you as a dear friend.”

“Oh, Rain, so do I!”

“That’s good. Am I admitted as a friend, then?”

“Of course.”

He lay back on the coat and put his arms behind his head, smiling at her lazily. “How old are you, thirty? In those disgraceful clothes you look more like a scrubby schoolgirl. If you don’t need me in your life for any other reason, Justine, you certainly do as your personal arbiter of elegance.”

She laughed. “I admit when I thought you might pop up out of the woodwork I did take more interest in my appearance. If I’m thirty, though, you’re no spring chook yourself. You must be forty at least. Doesn’t seem like such a huge difference anymore, does it? You’ve lost weight. Are you all right, Rain?”

“I was never fat, only big, so sitting at a desk all the time has shrunk me, not made me expand.”

Sliding down and turning onto her stomach, she put her face close to his, smiling. “Oh, Rain, it’s so good to see you! No one else gives me a run for my money.”

“Poor Justine! And you have so much of it these days, don’t you?”

“Money?” She nodded. “Odd, that the Cardinal should have left all of his to me. Well, half to me and half to Dane, but of course I was Dane’s sole legatee.” Her face twisted in spite of herself. She ducked her head away and pretended to look at one daffodil in a sea of them until she could control her voice enough to say, “You know, Rain, I’d give my eyeteeth to learn just what the Cardinal was to my family. A friend, only that? More than that, in some mysterious way. But just what, I don’t know. I wish I did.”

“No, you don’t.” He got to his feet and extended his hand. “Come, Herzchen, I’ll buy you dinner anywhere you think there will be eyes to see that the breach between the carrot-topped Australian actress and the certain member of the German cabinet is healed. My reputation as a playboy has deteriorated since you threw me out.”

“You’ll have to watch it, my friend. They don’t call me a carrot-topped Australian actress any more—these days I’m that lush, gorgeous, titian-haired British actress, thanks to my immortal interpretation of Cleopatra. Don’t tell me you didn’t know the critics are calling me the most exotic Cleo in years?” She cocked her arms and hands into the pose of an Egyptian hieroglyph.

His eyes twinkled. “Exotic?” he asked doubtfully.

“Yes, exotic,” she said firmly.

Cardinal Vittorio was dead, so Rain didn’t go to Rome very much anymore. He came to London instead. At first Justine was so delighted she didn’t look any further than the friendship he offered, but as the months passed and he failed by word or look to mention their previous relationship, her mild indignation became something more disturbing. Not that she wanted a resumption of that other relationship, she told herself constantly; she had finished completely with that sort of thing, didn’t need or desire it anymore. Nor did she permit her mind to dwell on an image of Rain so successfully buried she remembered it only in traitorous dreams.

Those first few months after Dane died had been dreadful, resisting the longing to go to Rain, feel him with her in body and spirit, knowing full well he would be if she let him. But she could not allow this with his face overshadowed by Dane’s. It was right to dismiss him, right to battle to obliterate every last flicker of desire for him. And as time went on and it seemed he was going to stay out of her life permanently, her body settled into unaroused torpor, and her mind disciplined itself to forget.

But now Rain was back it was growing much harder. She itched to ask him whether he remembered that other relationship—how could he have forgotten it? Certainly for herself she had quite finished with such things, but it would have been gratifying to learn he hadn’t; that is, provided of course such things for him spelled Justine, and only Justine.

Pipe dreams. Rain didn’t have the mien of a man who was wasting away of unrequited love, mental or physical, and he never displayed the slightest wish to reopen that phase of their lives. He wanted her for a friend, enjoyed her as a friend. Excellent! It was what she wanted, too. Only…could he have forgotten? No, it wasn’t possible—but God damn him if he had!

The night Justine’s thought processes reached so far, her season’s role of Lady Macbeth had an interesting savagery quite alien to her usual interpretation. She didn’t sleep very well afterward, and the following morning brought a letter from her mother which filled her with vague unease.

Mum didn’t write often anymore, a symptom of the long separation which affected them both, and what letters there were were stilted, anemic. This was different, it contained a distant mutter of old age, an underlying weariness which poked up a word or two above the surface inanities like an iceberg. Justine didn’t like it. Old. Mum, old!

What was happening on Drogheda? Was Mum trying to conceal some serious trouble? Was Nanna ill? One of the Unks? God forbid, Mum herself? It was three years since she had seen any of them, and a lot could happen in three years, even if it wasn’t happening to Justine O’Neill. Because her own life was stagnant and dull, she ought not to assume everyone else’s was, too.

That night was Justine’s “off” night, with only one more performance of Macbeth to go. The daylight hours had dragged unbearably, and even the thought of dinner with Rain didn’t carry its usual anticipatory pleasure. Their friendship was useless, futile, static, she told herself as she scrambled into a dress exactly the orange he hated most. Conservative old fuddy-duddy! If Rain didn’t like her the way she was, he could lump her. Then, fluffing up the low bodice’s frills around her meager chest, she caught her own eyes in the mirror and laughed ruefully. Oh, what a tempest in a teacup! She was acting exactly like the kind of female she most despised. It was probably very simple. She was stale, she needed a rest. Thank God for the end of Lady M! But what was the matter with Mum?

Lately Rain was spending more and more time in London, and Justine marveled at the ease with which he commuted between Bonn and England. No doubt having a private plane helped, but it had to be exhausting.

“Why do you come to see me so often?” she asked out of the blue. “Every gossip columnist in Europe thinks it’s great, but I confess I sometimes wonder if you don’t simply use me as an excuse to visit London.”

“It’s true that I use you as a blind from time to time,” he admitted calmly. “As a matter of fact, you’ve been dust in certain eyes quite a lot. But it’s no hardship being with you, because I like being with you.” His dark eyes dwelled on her face thoughtfully. “You’re very quiet tonight, Herzchen. Is anything worrying you?”

“No, not really.” She toyed with her dessert and pushed it aside uneaten. “At least, only a silly little thing. Mum and I don’t write every week anymore—it’s so long since we’ve seen each other there’s nothing much to say—but today I had such a strange letter from her. Not typical at all.”

His heart sank; Meggie had indeed taken her time thinking about it, but instinct told him this was the commencement of her move, and that it was not in his favor. She was beginning her play to get her daughter back for Drogheda, perpetuate the dynasty.

He reached across the table to take Justine’s hand; she was looking, he thought, more beautiful with maturity, in spite of that ghastly dress. Tiny lines were beginning to give her ragamuffin face dignity, which it badly needed, and character, which the person behind had always owned in huge quantities. But how deep did her surface maturity go? That was the whole trouble with Justine; she didn’t even want to look.

Chapter 130

“Herzchen, your mother is lonely,” he said, burning his boats. If this was what Meggie wanted, how could he continue to think himself right and her wrong? Justine was her daughter; she must know her far better than he.

“Yes, perhaps,” said Justine with a frown, “but I can’t help feeling there’s something more at base of it. I mean, she must have been lonely for years, so why this sudden whatever it is? I can’t put my finger on it, Rain, and maybe that’s what worries me the most.”

“She’s growing older, which I think you tend to forget. It’s very possible things are beginning to prey upon her which she found easier to contend with in the past.” His eyes looked suddenly remote, as if the brain behind was concentrating very hard on something at variance with what he was saying. “Justine, three years ago she lost her only son. Do you think that pain grows less as time passes? I think it must grow worse. He is gone, and she must surely feel by now that you are gone, too. After all, you haven’t even been home to visit her.”

She shut her eyes. “I will, Rain, I will! I promise I will, and soon! You’re right, of course, but then you always are. I never thought I’d come to miss Drogheda, but lately I seem to be developing quite an affection for it. As if I am a part of it after all.”

He looked suddenly at his watch, smiled ruefully. “I’m very much afraid tonight is one of those occasions when I’ve used you, Herzchen. I hate to ask you to find your own way home, but in less than an hour I have to meet some very important gentlemen in a top-secret place, to which I must go in my own car, driven by the triple-A-security-clearanced Fritz.”

“Cloak and dagger!” she said gaily, concealing her hurt. “Now I know why those sudden taxis! I am to be entrusted to a cabby, but not the future of the Common Market, eh? Well, just to show you how little I need a taxi or your security-clearanced Fritz, I’m going to catch the tube home. It’s quite early.” His fingers lay rather limply around hers; she lifted his hand and held it against her cheek, then kissed it. “Oh, Rain, I don’t know what I’d do without you!”

He put the hand in his pocket, got to his feet, came round and pulled out her chair with his other hand. “I’m your friend,” he said. “That’s what friends are for, not to be done without.”

But once she parted from him, Justine went home in a very thoughtful mood, which turned rapidly into a depressed one. Tonight was the closest he had come to any kind of personal discussion, and the gist of it had been that he felt her mother was terribly lonely, growing old, and that she ought to go home. Visit, he had said; but she couldn’t help wondering if he had actually meant stay. Which rather indicated that whatever he felt for her in the past was well and truly of the past, and he had no wish to resurrect it.

It had never occurred to her before to wonder if he might regard her as a nuisance, a part of his past he would like to see buried in decent obscurity on some place like Drogheda; but maybe he did. In which case, why had he re-entered her life nine months ago? Because he felt sorry for her? Because he felt he owed her some kind of debt? Because he felt she needed some sort of push toward her mother, for Dane’s sake? He had been very fond of Dane, and who knew what they had talked about during those long visits to Rome when she hadn’t been present? Maybe Dane had asked him to keep an eye on her, and he was doing just that. Waited a decent interval to make sure she wouldn’t show him the door, then marched back into her life to fulfill some promise made to Dane. Yes, that was very likely the answer. Certainly he was no longer in love with her. Whatever attraction she had once possessed for him must have died long since; after all, she had treated him abominably. She had only herself to blame.

Upon the heels of which thought she wept miserably, succeeded in getting enough hold upon herself to tell herself not to be so stupid, twisted about and thumped her pillow in a fruitless quest after sleep, then lay defeated trying to read a script. After a few pages the words began traitorously to blur and swim together, and try as she would to use her old trick of bulldozing despair into some back corner of her mind, it ended in overwhelming her. Finally as the slovenly light of a late London dawn seeped through the windows she sat down at her desk, feeling the cold, hearing the distant growl of traffic, smelling the damp, tasting the sourness. Suddenly the idea of Drogheda seemed wonderful. Sweet pure air, a naturally broken silence. Peace.

She picked up one of her black felt-tipped pens and began a letter to her mother, her tears drying as she wrote.

I just hope you understand why I haven’t been home since Dane died [she said], but no matter
what you think about that, I know you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m going to rectify my omission permanently.

Yes, that’s right. I’m coming home for good, Mum. You were right—the time has come when I long for Drogheda. I’ve had my flutter, and I’ve discovered it doesn’t mean anything to me at all. What’s in it for me, trailing around a stage for the rest of my life? And what else is there here for me aside from the stage? I want something safe, permanent, enduring, so I’m coming home to Drogheda, which is all those things. No more empty dreams. Who knows? Maybe I’ll marry Boy King if he still wants me, finally do something worthwhile with my life, like having a tribe of little Northwest plainsmen. I’m tired, Mum, so tired I don’t know what I’m saying, and I wish I had the power to write what I’m feeling.

Well, I’ll struggle with it another time. Lady Macbeth is over and I hadn’t decided what to do with the coming season yet, so I won’t inconvenience anyone by deciding to bow out of acting. London is teeming with actresses. Clyde can replace me adequately in two seconds, but you can’t, can you? I’m sorry it’s taken me thirty-one years to realize that.

Had Rain not helped me it might have taken even longer, but he’s a most perceptive bloke. He’s never met you, yet he seems to understand you

better than I do. Still, they say the onlooker sees the game best. That’s certainly true of him. I’m fed up with him, always supervising my life from his Olympian heights. He seems to think he owes Dane some sort of debt or promise, and he’s forever making a nuisance of himself popping over to see me; only I’ve finally realized that

I’m

the nuisance. If I’m safely on Drogheda the debt or promise or whatever it was is canceled, isn’t it? He ought to be grateful for the plane trips I’ll save him, anyway.

As soon as I’ve got myself organized I’ll write again, tell you when to expect me. In the meantime, remember that in my strange way I do love you.

She signed her name without its usual flourish, more like the “Justine” which used to appear on the bottom of dutiful letters written from boarding school under the eagle eye of a censoring nun. Then she folded the sheets, put them in an airmail envelope and addressed it. On the way to the theater for the final performance of Macbeth she posted it.

She went straight ahead with her plans to quit England. Clyde was upset to the extent of a screaming temper tantrum which left her shaking, then overnight he turned completely about and gave in with huffy good grace. There was no difficulty at all in disposing of the lease to the mews flat for it was in a high-demand category; in fact, once the word leaked out people rang every five minutes until she took the phone off the hook. Mrs. Kelly, who had “done” for her since those far-off days when she had first come to London, plodded dolefully around amid a jungle of wood shavings and crates, bemoaning her fate and surreptitiously putting the phone back on its cradle in the hope someone would ring with the power to persuade Justine to change her mind.

In the midst of the turmoil, someone with that power did ring, only not to persuade her to change her mind; Rain didn’t even know she was going. He merely asked her to act as his hostess for a dinner party he was giving at his house on Park Lane.

“What do you mean, house on Park Lane?” Justine squeaked, astonished.

“Well, with growing British participation in the European Economic Community, I’m spending so much time in England that it’s become more practical for me to have some sort of local pied-à-terre, so I’ve leased a house on Park Lane,” he explained.

“Ye gods, Rain, you flaming secretive bastard! How long have you had it?”

“About a month.”

“And you let me go through that idiotic charade the other night and said nothing? God damn you!” She was so angry she couldn’t speak properly.

“I was going to tell you, but I got such a kick out of your thinking I was flying over all the time that I couldn’t resist pretending a bit longer,” he said with a laugh in his voice.

“I could kill you!” she ground from between her teeth, blinking away tears.

“No, Herzchen, please! Don’t be angry! Come and be my hostess, then you can inspect the premises to your heart’s content.”

“Suitably chaperoned by five million other guests, of course! What’s the matter, Rain, don’t you trust yourself alone with me? Or is it me you don’t trust. you u

 

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