ThevThorn Birds (Chapter 121-125)

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Chapter 121

Still she was taken unaware, knew a suffocated surprise when he slipped his arms across her back, took her head in his hands and held her close enough to see there was nothing controlled about his mouth, shaped now solely because of her, and for her. Tenderness and humility were literally born in her in that moment. It must have shown in her face, for he was gazing at her with eyes grown so bright she couldn’t bear them, and bent over to take his upper lip between her own. Thoughts and senses merged at last, but her cry was smothered soundless, an unuttered wail of gladness which shook her so deeply she lost awareness of everything beyond impulse, the mindless guidance of each urgent minute. The world achieved its ultimate contraction, turned in upon itself, and totally disappeared.

Rainer must have kept the fire going, for when gentle London daylight soaked through the folds of the curtains the room was still warm. This time when he moved Justine became conscious of it, and clutched his arm fearfully.

“Don’t go!”

“I’m not, Herzchen.” He twitched another pillow from the sofa, pushed it behind his head and shifted her closer in to his side, sighing softly. “All right?”

“Yes.”

“Are you cold?”

“No, but if you are we could go to bed.”

“After making love to you for hours on a fur rug? What a comedown! Even if your sheets are black silk.”

“They’re ordinary old white ones, cotton. This bit of Drogheda is all right, isn’t it?”

“Bit of Drogheda?”

“The rug! It’s made of Drogheda kangaroos,” she explained.

“Not nearly exotic or erotic enough. I’ll order you a tiger skin from India.”

“Reminds me of a poem I heard once:

Would you like to sin

With Elinor Glyn

On a tiger skin?

Or would you prefer

To err with her

On some other fur?

“Well, Herzchen, I must say it’s high time you bounced back! Between the demands of Eros and Morpheus, you haven’t been flippant in half a day.” He smiled.

“I don’t feel the need at the moment,” she said with an answering smile, settling his hand comfortably between her legs. “The tiger skin doggerel just popped out because it was too good to resist, but I haven’t got a single skeleton left to hide from you, so there’s not much point in flippancy, is there?” She sniffed, suddenly aware of a faint odor of stale fish drifting on the air. “Heavens, you didn’t get any dinner and now it’s time for breakfast! I can’t expect you to live on love!”

“Not if you expect such strenuous demonstrations of it, anyway.”

“Go on, you enjoyed every moment of it.”

“Indeed I did.” He sighed, stretched, yawned. “I wonder if you have any idea how happy I am.”

“Oh, I think so,” she said quietly.

He raised himself on one elbow to look at her. “Tell me, was Desdemona the only reason you came back to London?”

Grabbing his ear, she tweaked it painfully. “Now it’s my turn to pay you back for all those headmasterish questions! What do you think?”

He prized her fingers away easily, grinning. “If you don’t answer me, Herzchen, I’ll strangle you far more permanently than Marc does.”

“I came back to London to do Desdemona, but because of you. I haven’t been able to call my life my own since you kissed me in Rome, and well you know it. You’re a very intelligent man, Rainer Moerling Hartheim.”

“Intelligent enough to have known I wanted you for my wife almost the first moment I saw you,” he said.

She sat up quickly. “Wife?”

“Wife. If I’d wanted you for my mistress I’d have taken you years ago, and I could have. I know how your mind works; it would have been relatively easy. The only reason I didn’t was because I wanted you for my wife and I knew you weren’t ready to accept the idea of a husband.”

“I don’t know that I am now,” she said, digesting it.

He got to his feet, pulling her up to stand against him. “Well, you can put in a little practice by getting me some breakfast. If this was my house I’d do the honors, but in your kitchen you’re the cook.”

“I don’t mind getting your breakfast this morning, but theoretically to commit myself until the day I die?” She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s my cup of tea, Rain.”

It was the same Roman emperor’s face, and imperially unperturbed by threats of insurrection.
“Justine, this is not something to play with, nor am I someone to play with. There’s plenty of time. You have every reason to know I can be patient. But get it out of your head entirely that this can be settled in any way but marriage. I have no wish to be known as anyone less important to you than a husband.”

“I’m not giving up acting!” she said aggressively.

“Verfluchte Kiste, did I ask you to? Grow up, Justine! Anyone would think I was condemning you to a life sentence over a sink and stove! We’re not exactly on the breadline, you know. You can have as many servants as you want, nannies for the children, whatever else is necessary.”

“Erk!” said Justine, who hadn’t thought of children.

He threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, Herzchen, this is what’s known as the morning after with a vengeance! I’m a fool to bring up realities so soon, I know, but all you have to do at this stage is think about them. Though I give you fair warning—while you’re making your decision, remember that if I can’t have you for my wife, I don’t want you at all.”

She threw her arms around him, clinging fiercely. “Oh, Rain, don’t make it so hard!” she cried.

Alone, Dane drove his Lagonda up the Italian boot, past Perugia, Firenze, Bologna, Ferrara, Padova, better by-pass Venezia, spend the night in Trieste. It was one of his favorite cities, so he stayed on the Adriatic coast a further two days before heading up the mountain road to Ljubljana, another night in Zagreb. Down the great Sava River valley amid fields blue with chicory flowers to Beograd, thence to Nis, another night. Macedonia and Skopje, still in crumbling ruins from the earthquake two years before; and Tito-Veles the vacation city, quaintly Turkish with its mosques and minarets. All the way down Yugoslavia he had eaten frugally, too ashamed to sit with a great plate of meat in front of him when the people of the country contented themselves with bread.

The Greek border at Evzone, beyond it Thessalonika. The Italian papers had been full of the revolution brewing in Greece; standing in his hotel bedroom window watching the bobbing thousands of flaming torches moving restlessly in the darkness of a Thessalonika night, he was glad Justine had not come.

“Pap-an-dre-ou! Pap-an-dre-ou! Pap-an-dre-ou!” the crowds roared, chanting, milling among the torches until after midnight.

But revolution was a phenomenon of cities, of dense concentrations of people and poverty; the scarred countryside of Thessaly must still look as it had looked to Caesar’s legions, marching across the stubble-burned fields to Pompey at Pharsala. Shepherds slept in the shade of skin tents, storks stood one-legged in nests atop little old white buildings, and everywhere was a terrifying aridity. It reminded him, with its high clear sky, its brown treeless wastes, of Australia. And he breathed of it deeply, began to smile at the thought of going home. Mum would understand, when he talked to her.

Above Larisa he came onto the sea, stopped the car and got out. Homer’s wine-dark sea, a delicate clear aquamarine near the beaches, purple-stained like grapes as it stretched to the curving horizon. On a greensward far below him stood a tiny round pillared temple, very white in the sun, and on the rise of the hill behind him a frowning Crusader fortress endured. Greece, you are very beautiful, more beautiful than Italy, for all that I love Italy. But here is the cradle, forever.

Panting to be in Athens, he pushed on, gunned the red sports car up the switchbacks of the Domokos Pass and descended its other side into Boeotia, a stunning panorama of olive groves, rusty hillsides, mountains. Yet in spite of his haste he stopped to look at the oddly Hollywoodish monument to Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae. The stone said: “Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, in obedience to their command.” It struck a chord in him, almost seemed to be words he might have heard in a different context; he shivered and went on quickly.

In melted sun he paused for a while above Kamena Voura, swam in the clear water looking across the narrow strait to Euboea; there must the thousand ships have sailed from Aulis, on their way to Troy. It was a strong current, swirling seaward; they must not have had to ply their oars very hard. The ecstatic cooings and strokings of the ancient black-garbed crone in the bathhouse embarrassed him; he couldn’t get away from her fast enough. People never referred to his beauty to his face anymore, so most of the time he was able to forget it. Delaying only to buy a couple of huge, custard-filled cakes in the shop, he went on down the Attic coast and finally came to Athens as the sun was setting, gilding the great rock and its precious crown of pillars.

Chapter 122

But Athens was tense and vicious, and the open admiration of the women mortified him; Roman women were more sophisticated, subtle. There was a feeling in the crowds, pockets of rioting, grim determination on the part of the people to have Papandreou. No, Athens wasn’t herself; better to be elsewhere. He put the Lagonda in a garage and took the ferry to Crete.

And there at last, amid the olive groves, the wild thyme and the mountains, he found his peace. After a long bus ride with trussed chickens screeching and the all-pervasive reek of garlic in his nostrils, he found a tiny white-painted inn with an arched colonnade and three umbrellaed tables outside on the flagstones, gay Greek bags hanging festooned like lanterns. Pepper trees and Australian gum trees, planted from the new South Land in soil too arid for European trees. The gut roar of cicadas. Dust, swirling in red clouds.

At night he slept in a tiny cell-like room with shutters wide open, in the hush of dawn he celebrated a solitary Mass, during the day he walked. No one bothered him, he bothered no one. But as he passed the dark eyes of the peasants would follow him in slow amazement, and every face would crease deeper in a smile. It was hot, and so quiet, and very sleepy. Perfect peace. Day followed day, like beads slipping through a leathery Cretan hand.

Voicelessly he prayed, a feeling, an extension of what lay all through him, thoughts like beads, days like beads. Lord, I am truly Thine. For Thy many blessings I thank Thee. For the great Cardinal, his help, his deep friendship, his unfailing love. For Rome and the chance to be at Thy heart, to have lain prostrate before Thee in Thine own basilica, to have felt the rock of Thy Church within me. Thou hast blessed me above my worth; what can I do for Thee, to show my appreciation? I have not suffered enough. My life has been one long, absolute joy since I began in Thy service. I must suffer, and Thou Who suffered will know that. It is only through suffering that I may rise above myself, understand Thee better. For that is what this life is: the passage toward understanding Thy mystery. Plunge Thy spear into my breast, bury it there so deeply I am never able to withdraw it! Make me suffer…. For Thee I forsake all others, even my mother and my sister and the Cardinal. Thou alone art my pain, my joy. Abase me and I shall sing Thy beloved Name. Destroy me, and I shall rejoice. I love Thee. Only Thee…

He had come to the little beach where he liked to swim, a yellow crescent between beetling cliffs, and stood for a moment looking across the Mediterranean to what must be Libya, far below the dark horizon. Then he leaped lightly down the steps to the sand, kicked off his sneakers, picked them up, and trod through the softly yielding contours to the spot where he usually dropped shoes, shirt, outer shorts. Two young Englishmen talking in drawling Oxford accents lay like broiling lobsters not far away, and beyond them two women drowsily speaking in German. Dane glanced at the women and self-consciously hitched his swimsuit, aware they had stopped conversing and had sat up to pat their hair, smile at him.

“How goes it?” he asked the Englishmen, though in his mind he called them what all Australians call the English, Pommies. They seemed to be fixtures, since they were on the beach every day.

“Splendidly, old boy. Watch the current—it’s too strong for us. Storm out there somewhere.”

“Thanks.” Dane grinned, ran down to the innocently curling wavelets and dived cleanly into shallow water like the expert surfer he was.

Amazing, how deceptive calm water could be. The current was vicious, he could feel it tugging at his legs to draw him under, but he was too strong a swimmer to be worried by it. Head down, he slid smoothly through the water, reveling in the coolness, the freedom. When he paused and scanned the beach he saw the two German women pulling on their caps, running down laughing to the waves.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, he called to them in German to stay in shallow water because of the current. Laughing, they waved acknowledgment. He put his head down then, swam again, and thought he heard a cry. But he swam a little farther, then stopped to tread water in a spot where the undertow wasn’t so bad. There were cries; as he turned he saw the women struggling, their twisted faces screaming, one with her hands up, sinking. On the beach the two Englishmen had risen to their feet and were reluctantly approaching the water.

He flipped over onto his belly and flashed through the water, closer and closer. Panicked arms reached for him, clung to him, dragged him under; he managed to grip one woman around the waist long enough to stun her with a swift clip on the chin, then grabbed the other by the strap of her swimsuit, shoved his knee hard into her spine and winded her. Coughing, for he had swallowed water when he went under, he turned on his back and began towing his helpless burdens in.

The two Pommies were standing shoulder-deep, too frightened to venture any farther, for which Dane didn’t blame them in the least. His toes just touched the sand; he sighed in relief. Exhausted, he exerted a last superhuman effort and thrust the women to safety. Fast regaining their senses, they began screaming again, thrashing about wildly. Gasping, Dane managed a grin. He had done his bit; the Poms could take over now. While he rested, chest heaving, the current had sucked him out again, his feet no longer brushed the bottom even when he stretched them downward. It had been a close call. If he hadn’t been present they would certainly have drowned; the Poms hadn’t the strength or skill to save them. But, said a voice, they only wanted to swim so they could be near you; until they saw you they hadn’t any intention of going in. It was your fault they were in danger, your fault.

And as he floated easily a terrible pain blossomed in his chest, surely as a spear would feel, one long and red-hot shaft of screaming agony. He cried out, threw his arms up above his head, stiffening, muscles convulsed; but the pain grew worse, forced his arms down again, thrust his fists into his armpits, brought up his knees. My heart! I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying! My heart! I don’t want to die! Not yet, not before I’ve begun my work, not before I’ve had a chance to prove myself! Dear Lord, help me! I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!

The spasmed body stilled, relaxed; Dane turned onto his back, let his arms float wide and limp in spite of the pain. Wet-lashed, he stared up at the soaring vault of the sky. This is it; this is Thy spear, that I in my pride begged for not an hour ago. Give me the chance to suffer, I said, make me suffer. Now when it comes I resist, not capable of perfect love. Dearest Lord, Thy pain! I must accept it, I must not fight it, I must not fight Thy will. Thy hand is mighty and this is Thy pain, as Thou must have felt it on the Cross. My God, my God, I am Thine! If this is Thy will, so be it. Like a child I put myself into Thy infinite hand. Thou art too good to me. What have I done to deserve so much from Thee, and from the people who love me better than they love anyone else? Why hast Thou given me so much, when I am not worthy? The pain, the pain! Thou art so good to me. Let it not be long, I asked, and it has not been long. My suffering will be short, quickly over. Soon I shall see Thy face, but now, still in this life, I thank Thee. The pain! My dearest Lord, Thou art too good to me. I love Thee!

A huge tremor passed through the still, waiting body. His lips moved, murmured a Name, tried to smile. Then the pupils dilated, drove all the blue from his eyes forever. Safe on the beach at last, the two Englishmen dumped their weeping charges on the sand and stood looking for him. But the placid deep blue sea was empty, vast; the wavelets ran up rushing and retreated. Dane was gone.

Someone thought of the United States Air Force station nearby, and ran for help. Not thirty minutes after Dane had disappeared a helicopter took off, beat the air frantically and swooped in ever-increasing circles outward from the beach, searching. No one expected to see anything. Drowned men sank to the bottom and didn’t come up for days. An hour passed; then fifteen miles out to sea they sighted Dane floating peacefully on the bosom of the deep, arms outstretched, face turned up to the sky. For a moment they thought he was alive and cheered, but as the craft came low enough to throw the water into hissing foam, it was plain he was dead. The coordinates were given over the helicopter’s radio, a launch sped out, and three hours later returned.

Word had spread. The Cretans had loved to see him pass, loved to exchange a few shy words. Loved him, though they didn’t know him. They flocked down to the sea, women all in black like dowdy birds, men in old-fashioned baggy trousers, white shirts open at the collar and sleeves rolled up. And stood in silent groups, waiting.

When the launch came in a burly master sergeant sprang out onto the sand, turned back to receive a blanket-draped form into his arms. He marched a few feet up the beach beyond the water line, and with the help of another man laid his burden down. The blanket fell apart; there was a high, rustling whisper from the Cretans. They came crowding around, pressing crucifixes to weather-beaten lips, the women softly keening, a wordless ohhhhhhhh! that had almost a melody in it, mournful, patient, earthbound, female.

It was about five in the afternoon; the barred sun was sliding westward behind the frowning cliff, but was still high enough to light up the little dark cluster on the beach, the long, still form on the sand with its golden skin, its closed eyes whose lashes were spiky from drying salt, the faint smile on the blued lips. A stretcher was brought forward, then all together Cretans and American servicemen bore Dane away.

Chapter 123

Athens was in turmoil, rioting crowds overturning all order, but the USAF colonel got through to his superiors on a special frequency band, Dane’s blue Australian passport in his hand. It said, as such documents do, nothing about him. His profession was simply marked “Student,” and in the back under next of kin Justine’s name was listed, with her London address. Unconcerned by the legal meaning of the term, he had put her name because London was far closer to Rome than Drogheda. In his little room at the inn, the square black case which housed his priestly implements had not been opened; it waited with his suitcase for directions as to where it should be sent.

When the phone rang at nine in the morning Justine rolled over, opened a bleary eye and lay cursing it, vowing she would have the bloody thing disconnected. Because the rest of the world thought it only right and proper to commence whatever they did at nine in the morning, why did they assume the same of her?

But it rang, and rang, and rang. Maybe it was Rain; that thought tipped the balance toward consciousness, and Justine got up, slopped reeling out to the living room. The German parliament was in urgent session; she hadn’t seen Rain in a week and hadn’t been optimistic about her chances of seeing him for at least another week. But perhaps the crisis had resolved, and he was calling to tell her he was on his way over.

“Hello?”

“Miss Justine O’Neill?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“This is Australia House, in the Aldwych, you know?” The voice had an English inflection, gave a name she was too tired to hear because she was still assimilating the fact that the voice was not Rain’s.

“Okay, Australia House.” Yawning, she stood on one foot and scratched its top with the sole of the other.

“Do you have a brother, a Mr. Dane O’Neill?”

Justine’s eyes opened. “Yes, I do.”

“Is he at present in Greece, Miss O’Neill?”

Both feet settled into the rug, stood braced. “Yes, that’s right,” It did not occur to her to correct the voice, explain it was Father, not Mister.

“Miss O’Neill, I very much regret to say that it is my unfortunate duty to give you some bad news.”

“Bad news? Bad news? What is it? What’s the matter? What’s happened?”

“I regret to have to inform you that your brother, Mr. Dane O’Neill, was drowned yesterday in Crete, I understand in heroic circumstances, performing a sea rescue. However, you realize there is a revolution in Greece, and what information we have is sketchy and possibly not accurate.”

The phone stood on a table near the wall and Justine leaned against the solid support the wall offered. Her knees buckled, she began to slide very slowly downward, wound up in a curled heap on the floor. Not laughing and not crying, she made noises somewhere in between, audible gasps. Dane drowned. Gasp. Dane dead. Gasp. Crete, Dane, drowned. Gasp. Dead, dead.

“Miss O’Neill? Are you there, Miss O’Neill?” asked the voice insistently.

Dead. Drowned. My brother!

“Miss O’Neill, answer me!”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Oh, God, I’m here!”

“I understand you are his next of kin, therefore we must have your instructions as to what to do with the body. Miss O’Neill, are you there?”

“Yes, yes!”

“What do you want done with the body, Miss O’Neill?”

Body! He was a body, and they couldn’t even say his body, they had to say the body. Dane, my Dane. He is a body. “Next of kin?” she heard her voice asking, thin and faint, torn by those great gasps. “I’m not Dane’s next of kin. My mother is, I suppose.”

There was a pause. “This is very difficult, Miss O’Neill. If you’re not the next of kin, we’ve wasted valuable time.” The polite sympathy gave way to impatience. “You don’t seem to understand there’s a revolution going on in Greece and the accident happened in Crete, even more remote and hard to contact. Really! Communication with Athens is virtually impossible and we have been instructed to forward the next of kin’s personal wishes and instructions regarding the body immediately. Is your mother there? May I speak to her, please?”

“My mother’s not here. She’s in Australia.”

“Australia? Lord, this gets worse and worse! Now we’ll have to send a cable to Australia; more delays. If you are not the next of kin, Miss O’Neill, why did your brother’s passport say you were?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and found she had laughed.

“Give me your mother’s address in Australia; we’ll cable her at once. We have to know what to do with the body! By the time cables get back and forth, this will mean a twelve-hour delay, I hope you realize that. It’s going to be difficult enough without this mix-up.”

“Phone her, then. Don’t waste time with cables.”

“Our budget does not extend to international phone calls, Miss O’Neill,” said that stiff voice. “Now, will you please give me your mother’s name and address?”

“Mrs. Meggie O’Neill,” Justine recited, “Drogheda, Gillanbone, New South Wales, Australia.” She spelled out the unfamiliar names for him.

“Once again, Miss O’Neill, my deepest regrets.”

The receiver clicked, began the interminable burr of the dial tone. Justine sat on the floor and let it slip into her lap. There was a mistake, it would all sort itself out. Dane drowned, when he swam like a champion? No, it wasn’t true. But it is, Justine, you know it is, you didn’t go with him to protect him and he drowned. You were his protector from the time he was a baby and you should have been there. If you couldn’t save him, you should have been there to drown with him. And the only reason you didn’t go with him was because you wanted to be in London so you could get Rain to make love to you.

Thinking was so hard. Everything was so hard. Nothing seemed to work, not even her legs. She couldn’t get up, she would never get up again. There was no room in her mind for anyone but Dane, and her thoughts went in ever-diminishing circles around Dane. Until she thought of her mother, the Drogheda people. Oh, God. The news would come there, come to her, come to them. Mum didn’t even have the lovely last sight of his face in Rome. They’ll send the cable to the Gilly police, I suppose, and old Sergeant Ern will climb into his car and drive out all the miles to Drogheda, to tell my mother that her only son is dead. Not the right man for the job, and an almost-stranger. Mrs. O’Neill, my deepest, most heartfelt regrets, your son is dead. Perfunctory, courteous, empty words…. No! I can’t let them do that to her, not to her, she is my mother, too! Not that way, not the way I had to hear it.

She pulled the other part of the phone off the table onto her lap, put the receiver to her ear and dialed the operator.

“Switch? Trunks, please, international. Hello? I want to place an urgent call to Australia, Gillanbone one-two-one-two. And please, please hurry.”

Meggie answered the phone herself. It was late, Fee had gone to bed. These days she never felt like seeking her own bed early, she preferred to sit listening to the crickets and frogs, doze over a book, remember.

“Hello?”

“London calling, Mrs. O’Neill,” said Hazel in Gilly.

“Hello, Justine,” Meggie said, not perturbed. Jussy called, infrequently, to see how everything was.

“Mum? Is that you, Mum?”

“Yes, it’s Mum here,” said Meggie gently, sensing Justine’s distress.

“Oh, Mum! Oh, Mum!” There was what sounded like a gasp, or a sob. “Mum, Dane’s dead. Dane’s dead!”

A pit opened at her feet. Down and down and down it went, and had no bottom. Meggie slid into it, felt its lips close over her head, and understood that she would never come out again as long as she lived. What more could the gods do? She hadn’t known when she asked it. How could she have asked it, how could she not have known? Don’t tempt the gods, they love it. In not going to see him in this most beautiful moment of his life, share it with him, she had finally thought to make the payment. Dane would be free of it, and free of her. In not seeing the face which was dearer to her than all other faces, she would repay. The pit closed in, suffocating. Meggie stood there, and realized it was too late.

“Justine, my dearest, be calm,” said Meggie strongly, not a falter in her voice. “Calm yourself and tell me. Are you sure?”

“Australia House called me—they thought I was his next of kin. Some dreadful man who only wanted to know what I wanted done with the body. ‘The body,’ he kept calling Dane. As if he wasn’t entitled to it anymore, as if it was anyone’s.” Meggie heard her sob. “God! I suppose the poor man hated what he was doing. Oh, Mum, Dane’s dead!”

“How, Justine? Where? In Rome? Why hasn’t Ralph called me?”

Chapter 124

“No, not in Rome. The Cardinal probably doesn’t know anything about it. In Crete. The man said he was drowned, a sea rescue. He was on holiday, Mum, he asked me to go with him and I didn’t, I wanted to play Desdemona, I wanted to be with Rain. If I’d only been with him! If I had, it mightn’t have happened. Oh, God, what can I do?”

“Stop it, Justine,” said Meggie sternly. “No thinking like that, do you hear me? Dane would hate it, you know he would. Things happen, why we don’t know. The important thing now is that you’re all right, I haven’t lost both of you. You’re all I’ve got left now. Oh, Jussy, Jussy, it’s so far away! The world’s big, too big. Come home to Drogheda! I hate to think of you all alone.”

“No, I’ve got to work. Work is the only answer for me. If I don’t work, I’ll go mad. I don’t want people, I don’t want comfort. Oh, Mum!” She began to sob bitterly. “How are we going to live without him?”

How indeed? Was that living? God’s thou wert, unto God return. Dust to dust. Living’s for those of us who failed. Greedy God, gathering in the good ones, leaving the world to the rest of us, to rot.

“It isn’t for any of us to say how long we’ll live,” said Meggie. “Jussy, thank you so much for telling me yourself, for phoning.”

“I couldn’t bear to think of a stranger breaking the news, Mum. Not like that, from a stranger. What will you do? What can you do?”

With all her will Meggie tried to pour warmth and comfort across the miles to her devastated girl in London. Her son was dead, her daughter still lived. She must be made whole. If it was possible. In all her life Justine seemed only to have loved Dane. No one else, even herself.

“Dear Justine, don’t cry. Try not to grieve. He wouldn’t have wanted that, now would he? Come home, and forget. We’ll bring Dane home to Drogheda, too. At law he’s mine again, he doesn’t belong to the Church and they can’t stop me. I’ll phone Australia House right away, and the embassy in Athens if I can get through. He must come home! I’d hate to think of him lying somewhere far from Drogheda. Here is where he belongs, he’ll have to come home. Come with him, Justine.”

But Justine sat in a heap, shaking her head as if her mother could see. Come home? She could never come home again. If she had gone with Dane he wouldn’t be dead. Come home, and have to look at her mother’s face every day for the rest of her life? No, it didn’t bear thinking of.

“No, Mum,” she said, the tears rolling down her skin, hot like molten metal. Who on earth ever said people most moved don’t weep? They don’t know anything about it. “I shall stay here and work. I’ll come home with Dane, but then I’m going back. I can’t live on Drogheda.”

For three days they waited in a purposeless vacuum, Justine in London, Meggie and the family on Drogheda, stretching the official silence into tenuous hope. Oh, surely after so long it would turn out to be a mistake, surely if it was true they would have heard by now! Dane would come in Justine’s front door smiling, and say it was all a silly mistake. Greece was in revolt, all sorts of silly mistakes must have been made. Dane would come in the door and laugh the idea of his death to scorn, he’d stand there tall and strong and alive, and he’d laugh. Hope began to grow, and grew with every minute they waited. Treacherous, horrible hope. He wasn’t dead, no! Not drowned, not Dane who was a good enough swimmer to brave any kind of sea and live. So they waited, not acknowledging what had happened in the hope it would prove to be a mistake. Time later to notify people, let Rome know.

On the fourth morning Justine got the message. Like an old woman she picked up the receiver once more, and asked for Australia.

“Mum?”

“Justine?”

“Oh, Mum, they’ve buried him already; we can’t bring him home! What are we going to do? All they can say is that Crete is a big place, the name of the village isn’t known, by the time the cable arrived he’d already been spirited away somewhere and disposed of. He’s lying in an unmarked grave somewhere! I can’t get a visa for Greece, no one wants to help, it’s chaos. What are we going to do, Mum?”

“Meet me in Rome, Justine,” said Meggie.

Everyone save Anne Mueller was there around the phone, still in shock. The men seemed to have aged twenty years in three days, and Fee, shrunken birdlike, white and crabbed, drifted about the house saying over and over, “Why couldn’t it have been me? Why did they have to take him? I’m so old, so old! I wouldn’t have minded going, why did it have to be him? Why couldn’t it have been me? I’m so old!” Anne had collapsed, and Mrs. Smith, Minnie and Cat walked, slept tears.

Meggie stared at them silently as she put the phone down. This was Drogheda, all that was left. A little cluster of old men and old women, sterile and broken.

“Dane’s lost,” she said. “No one can find him; he’s been buried somewhere on Crete. It’s so far away! How could he rest so far from Drogheda? I’m going to Rome, to Ralph de Bricassart. If anyone can help us, he can.”

Cardinal de Bricassart’s secretary entered his room.

“Your Eminence, I’m sorry to disturb you, but a lady wishes to see you. I explained that there is a congress, that you are very busy and cannot see anyone, but she says she will sit in the vestibule until you have time for her.”

“Is she in trouble, Father?”

“Great trouble, Your Eminence, that much is easy to see. She said I was to tell you her name is Meggie O’Neill.” He gave it a lilting foreign pronunciation, so that it came out sounding like Meghee Onill.

Cardinal Ralph came to his feet, the color draining from his face to leave it as white as his hair.

“Your Eminence! Are you ill?”

“No, Father, I’m perfectly all right, thank you. Cancel my appointments until I notify you otherwise, and bring Mrs. O’Neill to me at once. We are not to be disturbed unless it is the Holy Father.”

The priest bowed, departed. O’Neill. Of coursel It was young Dane’s name, he should have remembered. Save that in the Cardinal’s palace everyone just said Dane. Ah, he had made a grave mistake, keeping her waiting. If Dane was His Eminence’s dearly loved nephew then Mrs. O’Neill was his dearly loved sister.

When Meggie came into the room Cardinal Ralph hardly knew her. It was thirteen years since he had last seen her; she was fifty-three and he was seventy-one. Both of them aged now, instead of only him. Her face hadn’t changed so much as settled, and into a mold unlike the one he had given her in his imagination. Substitute a trenchant incisiveness for sweetness, a touch of iron for softness; she resembled a vigorous, aging, willful martyr rather than the resigned, contemplative saint of his dreams. Her beauty was as striking as ever, her eyes still that clear silvery grey, but both had hardened, and the once vivid hair had faded to a drab beige, like Dane’s without the life. Most disconcerting of all, she wouldn’t look at him for long enough to satisfy his eager and loving curiosity.

Unable to greet this Meggie naturally, he stiffly indicated a chair. “Please sit down.”

“Thank you,” she said, equally stilted.

It was only when she was seated and he could gaze down upon her whole person that he noticed how visibly swollen her feet and ankles were.

“Meggie! Have you flown all the way through from Australia without breaking your journey? What’s the matter?”

“Yes, I did fly straight through,” she said. “For the past twenty-nine hours I’ve been sitting in planes between Gilly and Rome, with nothing to do except stare out the window at the clouds, and think.” Her voice was harsh, cold.

“What’s the matter?” he repeated impatiently, anxious and fearful.

She lifted her gaze from her feet and looked at him steadily.

There was something awful in her eyes; something so dark and chilling that the skin on the back of his neck crawled and automatically he put his hand up to stroke it.

“Dane is dead,” said Meggie.

His hand slipped, flopped like a rag doll’s into his scarlet lap as he sank into a chair. “Dead?” he asked slowly. “Dane dead?”

“Yes. He was drowned six days ago in Crete, rescuing some women from the sea.”

He leaned forward, put his hands over his face. “Dead?” she heard him say indistinctly. “Dane dead? My beautiful boy! He can’t be dead! Dane—he was the perfect priest—all that I couldn’t be. What I lacked he had.” His voice broke. “He always had it—that was what we all recognized—all of us who aren’t perfect priests. Dead? Oh, dear Lord!”

“Don’t bother about your dear Lord, Ralph,” said the stranger sitting opposite him. “You have more important things to do. I came to ask for your help—not to witness your grief. I’ve had all those hours in the air to go over the way I’d tell you this, all those hours just staring out the window at the clouds knowing Dane is dead. After that, your grief has no power to move me.”

Chapter 125

Yet when he lifted his face from his hands her dead cold heart bounded, twisted, leaped. It was Dane’s face, with a suffering written upon it that Dane would never live to feel. Oh, thank God! Thank God he’s dead, can never now go through what this man has, what I have. Better he’s dead than to suffer something like this.

“How can I help, Meggie?” he asked quietly, suppressing his own emotions to don the soul-deep guise of her spiritual counselor.

“Greece is in chaos. They’ve buried Dane somewhere on Crete, and I can’t find out where, when, why. Except I suppose that my instructions directing that he be flown home were endlessly delayed by the civil war, and Crete is hot like Australia. When no one claimed him, I suppose they thought he had no one, and buried him.” She leaned forward in her chair tensely. “I want my boy back, Ralph, I want him found and brought home to sleep where he belongs, on Drogheda. I promised Jims I’d keep him on Drogheda and I will, if I have to crawl on my hands and knees through every graveyard on Crete. No fancy Roman priest’s tomb for him, Ralph, not as long as I’m alive to put up a legal battle. He’s to come home.”

“No one is going to deny you that, Meggie,” he said gently. “It’s consecrated Catholic ground, which is all the Church asks. I too have requested that I be buried on Drogheda.”

“I can’t get through all the red tape,” she went on, as if he hadn’t spoken. “I can’t speak Greek, and I have no power or influence. So I came to you, to use yours. Get me back my son, Ralph!”

“Don’t worry, Meggie, we’ll get him back, though it may not be very quickly. The Left are in charge now, and they’re very anti-Catholic. However, I’m not without friends in Greece, so it will be done. Let me start the wheels in motion immediately, and don’t worry. He is a priest of the Holy Catholic Church, we’ll get him back.”

His hand had gone to the bell cord, but Meggie’s coldly fierce gaze stilled it.

“You don’t understand, Ralph. I don’t want wheels set in motion. I want my son back—not next week or next month, but now! You speak Greek, you can get visas for yourself and me, you’ll get results. I want you to come to Greece with me now, and help me get my son back.”

There was much in his eyes: tenderness, compassion, shock, grief. But they had become the priest’s eyes too, sane, logical, reasonable. “Meggie, I love your son as if he were my own, but I can’t leave Rome at the moment. I’m not a free agent—you above all others should know that. No matter how much I may feel for you, how much I may feel on my own account, I can’t leave Rome in the midst of a vital congress. I am the Holy Father’s aide.”

She reared back, stunned and outraged, then shook her head, half-smiling as if at the antics of some inanimate object beyond her power to influence; then she trembled, licked her lips, seemed to come to a decision and sat up straight and stiff. “Do you really love my son as if he were your own, Ralph?” she asked. “What would you do for a son of yours? Could you sit back then and say to his mother, No, I’m very sorry, I can’t possibly take the time off? Could you say that to the mother of your son?”

Dane’s eyes, yet not Dane’s eyes. Looking at her; bewildered, full of pain, helpless.

“I have no son,” he said, “but among the many, many things I learned from yours was that no matter how hard it is, my first and only allegiance is to Almighty God.”

“Dane was your son too,” said Meggie.

He stared at her blankly. “What?”

“I said, Dane was your son too. When I left Matlock Island I was pregnant. Dane was yours, not Luke O’Neill’s.”

“It—isn’t—true!”

“I never intended you to know, even now,” she said. “Would I lie to you?”

“To get Dane back? Yes,” he said faintly.

She got up, came to stand over him in the red brocade chair, took his thin, parchmentlike hand in hers, bent and kissed the ring, the breath of her voice misting its ruby to milky dullness. “By all that you hold holy, Ralph, I swear that Dane was your son. He was not and could not have been Luke’s By his death I swear it.”

There was a wail, the sound of a soul passing between the portals of Hell. Ralph de Bricassart fell forward out of the chair and wept, huddled on the crimson carpet in a scarlet pool like new blood, his face hidden in his folded arms, his hands clutching at his hair.

“Yes, cry!” said Meggie. “Cry, now that you know! It’s right that one of his parents be able to shed tears
for him. Cry, Ralph! For twenty-six years I had your son and you didn’t even know it, you couldn’t even see it. Couldn’t see that he was you all over again! When my mother took him from me at birth she knew, but you never did. Your hands, your feet, your face, your eyes, your body. Only the color of his hair was his own; all the rest was you. Do you understand now? When I sent him here to you, I said it in my letter. ‘What I stole, I give back.’ Remember? Only we both stole, Ralph. We stole what you had vowed to God, and we’ve both had to pay.”

She sat in her chair, implacable and unpitying, and watched the scarlet form in its agony on the floor. “I loved you, Ralph, but you were never mine. What I had of you, I was driven to steal. Dane was my part, all I could get from you. I vowed you’d never know, I vowed you’d never have the chance to take him away from me. And then he gave himself to you, of his own free will. The image of the perfect priest, he called you. What a laugh I had over that one! But not for anything would I have given you a weapon like knowing he was yours. Except for this. Except for this! For nothing less would I have told you. Though I don’t suppose it matters now. He doesn’t belong to either of us anymore. He belongs to God.”

 

Cardinal de Bricassart chartered a private plane in Athens; he, Meggie and Justine brought Dane home to Drogheda, the living sitting silently, the dead lying silently on a bier, requiring nothing of this earth any-more.

I have to say this Mass, this Requiem for my son. Bone of my bone, my son. Yes, Meggie, I believe you. Once I had my breath back I would even have believed you without that terrible oath you swore. Vittorio knew the minute he set eyes on the boy, and in my heart I, too, must have known. Your laugh behind the roses from the boy—but my eyes looking up at me, as they used to be in my innocence. Fee knew. Anne Mueller knew. But not we men. We weren’t fit to be told. For so you women think, and hug your mysteries, getting your backs on us for the slight God did you in not creating you in His Image. Vittorio knew, but it was the woman in him stilled his tongue. A masterly revenge.

Say it, Ralph de Bricassart, open your mouth, move your hands in the blessing, begin to chant the Latin for the soul of the departed. Who was your son. Whom you loved more than you loved his mother. Yes, more! For he was yourself all over again, in a more perfect mold.

“In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…”

The chapel was packed; they were all there who could be there. The Kings, the O’Rourkes, the Davieses, the Pughs, the MacQueens, the Gordons, the Carmichaels, the Hopetons. And the Clearys, the Drogheda people. Hope blighted, light gone. At the front in a great lead-lined casket, Father Dane O’Neill, covered in roses. Why were the roses always out when he came back to Drogheda? It was October, high spring. Or course they were out. The time was right.

“Sanctus…sanctus…sanctus…”

Be warned that the Holy of Holies is upon you. My Dane, my beautiful son. It is better so. I wouldn’t have wanted you to come to this, what I already am. Why I say this for you, I don’t know. You don’t need it, you never needed it. What I grope for, you knew by instinct. It isn’t you who is unhappy, it’s those of us here, left behind. Pity us, and when our times come, help us.

“Ite, Missa est…Requiescat in pace….”

Out across the lawn, down past the ghost gums, the roses, the pepper trees, to the cemetery. Sleep on, Dane, because only the good die young. Why do we mourn? You’re lucky, to have escaped this weary life so soon. Perhaps that’s what Hell is, a long term in earth-bound bondage. Perhaps we suffer our hells in living….

The day passed, the mourners departed, the Drogheda people crept about the house and avoided each other; Cardinal Ralph looked early at Meggie, and could not bear to look again. Justine left with Jean and Boy King to catch the afternoon plane for Sydney, the night plane for London. He never remembered hearing her husky bewitching voice, or seeing those odd pale eyes. From the time when she had met him and Meggie in Athens to the time when she went with Jean and Boy King she had been like a ghost, her camouflage pulled closely around her. Why hadn’t she called Rainer Hartheim, asked him to be with her? Surely she knew how much he loved her, how much he would want to be with her now? But the thought never stayed long enough in Cardinal Ralph’s tired mind to call Rainer himself, though he had wondered about it off and on since before leaving Rome. They were strange, the Drogheda people. They didn’t like company in grief; they preferred to be alone with their pain.

 

 

 

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